Monday, 9 June 2014

CD Reviews - June 2014

Clarinetist Michael Collins continues in his partnership with pianist Michael McHale, bringing us the music of eight composers, spanning nearly one hundred years.  Some are lighter in character – the Canzonetta by Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937), the earliest work here, is a pretty, delightful piece, and the Solo de concours by Henri Rabaud (1873-1949), a conservatoire test piece, manages to squeeze a slow dance between a rhapsodic opening section and a highly virtuosic quick-fire close, all in under six minutes.  Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie was also a conservatoire test piece, but is an altogether more weighty affair.  He later made a version for clarinet and orchestra, and it is somewhat reminiscent of his earlier Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, for flute and orchestra, with the same sense of languid lyricism and dreamlike fantasy.  The latest work here is Time Pieces by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010).  Its four movements each focus on a different characteristic of the clarinet, such as the soft, lyrical tones required in the slow movement, quirky folk style in the third, and lively jazz rhythms in the final movement.  Bohuslav Martinů’s (1890-1959) Sonatina is full of complex rhythmic devices, as well as hints of Czech folkdance, and its finale is a joyous celebration, testing the clarinet’s flexibility to its limits, with wild leaps and real bravado. Jazz is here too, as it is in Leonard Bernstein’s (1918-1990) Sonata, his first published piece, and Collins and McHale bring to life its Hindemith-influenced cerebral first movement, the warmer more songlike writing of the second movement, and the jazz style of the finale.  As ever, Collins’ command of the technical requirements is faultless – as is McHale’s command of the often equally demanding accompaniments (particularly in the Martinů).  A great survey of music perhaps otherwise only known by clarinetists.
Baroque violinist Johannes Pramsohler has carved out an innovative and successful career in a very short time, and has now even launched his own music label, Audax Records, to produce his and other recordings.  I first came across him when he led the International Baroque Players in a concert with Emma Kirkby (when I sang with BREMF Consort of Voices in choruses from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas), and was blown away by the energy and life in the performance from Pramsohler and the young players.  His first recital disc on his own label is of a varied range of Sonatas for violin and basso continuo, and he is joined by Philippe Grisvard on harpsichord. They begin with Corelli (1653-1713), and the first Sonata from his highly influential Op. 5 set from 1700.  The opening of this Sonata demands attention with its declamatory opening, and Pramsohler sets the tone immediately for what proves to be a remarkably engaging recital.  Again, there is incredible energy here, making this sound like a live recital.  However, it is the Telemann (1681-1767) Sonata which follows that was real revelation for me.  I have always found Telemann somehow lacking in something, and rather pedestrian, but here again there is great spirit in Pramsohler and Grisvard’s approach, which really brings the music alive.  Yet that is not to say that the performers lack sensitivity or subtlety – the opening movement of the Telemann has such poise and grace, which makes the contrast with the lively Vivace that follows all the more delightful.  Ornamentation throughout is elaborate yet tasteful, and this is underpinned throughout by sure-footed accompaniment from the harpsichord.  Jean-Marie Leclair’s (1697-1764) Sonata was a delightful discovery for me here too.  Again there is grace and beauty in the opening Andante, contrasted with the joy of the final Giga.  Handel (1685-1759) is represented here in the Sonata in D major, and singers of Handel’s oratorios will recognise some of the music here from Solomon and Jeptha.  The recital ends with Sonata ‘La Follia’ – a set of variations on the popular theme, but not Corelli’s famous set.  This time, we have the lesser known Giovanni Albicastro’s (c.1660-c.1730) set, and this provides both players with a great way to shine and round off this excellent programme in style.  My only (very minor) quibble with this otherwise exemplary release is the lack of detail in the notes on the repertoire itself, as some of these works are less well-known – but there is a very interesting article on the tradition of the violin recital by Reinhard Goebel.  I await more recordings of this calibre from Pramsohler with anticipation.

Various. 2014. Corelli, Telemann, Leclair, Handel, Albicastro. Johannes Pramsohler, Philippe Grisvard. Compact Disc. Audax ADX13700.

The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, have reissued their landmark recording of Ikon of Light by Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) who died last year.  The recording is exactly 30 years old, and the work was commissioned by The Tallis Scholars, and premiered by them at the Cheltenham Festival that year.  Two other works on the disc were also premiered by The Tallis Scholars – Funeral Ikos, and the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete.  The final piece here is one of Tavener’s most well-known short choral works, The Lamb, and it is conducted here by the composer himself.  In Ikon of Light, the singers are joined by members of the Chilingrian String Quartet (minus a violin) for a seven movement work of over forty minutes.  From the perspective of looking back over Tavener’s career, many of his trademarks are here – dramatic use of silence juxtaposed with loud, thick choral chords, his use of exact contrary motion and palindrome to create unusual dissonance, and his immersion in the Orthodox Church and its texts.  His use of the string trio is mostly to provide distant, rather ethereal textures, which the strident choral chords interrupt – although they do get an interlude by themselves in the long middle movement (which accounts for nearly half the piece).  Being used to hearing The Tallis Scholars in early repertoire on the whole, and in precise, polished recordings, it is actually refreshing to hear them with a slightly rougher, hard-edged sound, totally appropriate in this repertoire, and still with pinpoint tuning and accuracy throughout.  The other substantial work, the Great Canon, uses just twelve singers, with a bass cantor part sung very commandingly by Jeremy White.  Again, Tavener’s use of repetition to create a timeless, meditative atmosphere is in evidence, although I suspect this atmosphere would be better created by a live performance than on disc.  The performances of the two better known, shorter works here are strong, and the Alleluia setting that Tavener used frequently in his music is particularly effective here in Funeral Ikos.  The Lamb has been recorded so often and by so many now, but this historic performance with Tavener conducting is still a significant landmark.  The Tallis Scholars will be performing Ikon of Light, along with the première of Requiem Fragments, written just before the composer’s death, in the BBC Proms on Monday 4 August.

Tavener, J. 2014. Ikon of Light. The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips. (Release). Compact Disc. Gimell GIMSE 404.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, June 2014)

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