Wednesday, 11 February 2015

CD Reviews - February 2015

Clare Hammond is a fearless pianist, specialising in virtuosic repertoire from the 20th and 21st centuries, often championing the work of contemporary composers and premiering their work.  She performed in a stunning lunchtime recital at the 2013 Brighton Festival.  Her latest CD is ‘Étude’.  It includes 26 études, a form which began as study exercises for pianists to develop a particular aspect of technique, but largely through the efforts of Chopin and other pianist-composers after him, has become an art form in itself, with composers exploring the outer limits of technique and pushing the pianist to new extremes of virtuosity.  The disc begins with three from a set of twelve ‘Études d’exécution transcendante’ by Russian composer Sergei Lyapunov (1859-1924).  This set was dedicated to Liszt, and completed the cycle which Liszt had begun of studies in all the 24 major & minor keys.  Though whilst Liszt was clearly a major influence, this is undoubtedly music from the late Romantic Russian nationalistic school.  With surging rivers (‘Térek’), an atmospheric ‘Nuit d’été’ and an full-on raging ‘Tempête’, the three chosen here give Hammond a perfect opportunity to set the scene for some barnstorming playing.  The six Piano Études which follow are from South Korean composer Unsuk Chin (b.1961).  Often thinner in texture, yet no doubt more technically demanding, these pieces manage to convey remarkable energy and imagination within the potentially restrictive demands of studies based on repetition or scales, and are probably the most pianistically challenging works on the disc.  Hammond seems to relish the challenges set, yet also manages to find a sensitive touch in the delicate moments amid the fireworks.  Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s (1882-1937) set of 12 Studies live in the same soundworld in many ways as Debussy’s études, composed just one year earlier than Szymanowski’s (in 1915).  These are short pieces, all under two minutes long, and Szymanowski does well to create a specific mood in such a short space of time, although there is perhaps less variety across the different études here, with the consistently bitonal harmonies creating an other-worldy feel throughout.  The disc ends with Ukranian pianist/composer, Nikolai Kapustin’s (b.1937) Five Études in Different Intervals, providing the perfect closing sequence for this astonishing disc.  Kapustin combines classical and jazz styles in a unique way, and here he takes a seemingly restrictive concept, a specific interval for each study, as a starting point for five exuberant and joyous confections, once again fiendishly challenging. 

The Six Concerti Armonici for strings and basso continuo were first published in 1740, but without an ascribed composer.  There have been many theories, and the most popular choice for many years was Pergolesi.  But the mystery was solved in 1980 by the Dutch musicologist, who found a manuscript of the concerti with a preface by Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer (1692-1766).  A renowned Dutch diplomat, he was also admired for his compositions.  The Innovation Chamber Ensemble consists of principal string players from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under the artistic direction of Richard Jenkinson, and they certainly show how much they enjoy this change of repertoire with stylish and spirited playing throughout.  This are not early instrument expert performances, but they play sensitively, and it is only perhaps in the slow movements where occasionally the sound is a little heavy for my liking.  However, these are beautiful concerti and contain great variety and invention, giving the Innovation Chamber Ensemble plenty of scope for varying tone and dynamics, which they do well.  Predominantly in the Italian style, they are nevertheless far from formulaic works, and many of the faster movements practically fizz with energy.

Harpsichordist Steven Devine performs regularly with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and London Baroque, and has performed on numerous occasions in events in the Brighton Early MusicFestival.  His Goldberg Variations recording won much deserved phrase, and he follows this with a further disc of J S Bach, including the ‘Italian’ Concerto and ‘French’ Overture, both from the second part of his ‘Clavier-Übung’.  But Devine starts his disc with the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903.  Right from the word go, it is clear that this is full-blooded harpsichord playing, and and recorded sound from Chandos is appropriately warm and upfront.  It is refreshing to hear the harpsichord played with command and intent, and not in an overly sensitive and precious way, which is sadly often the case.  I like the rhythmic drive he gives, not allowing the rapid ornamentation in the Fantasia to upset a strong sense of pulse.  This is equally evident in the Aria variata which follows – a theme with 10 variations ‘in the Italian manner’.  The Fantasia in C minor, BWV 906 comes next, and again precision and rhythmic integrity is paramount here. Although the form of the ‘Italian’ Concerto which follows is clearly based on the concerti with orchestra, of Vivaldi, Bach takes this and uses dynamic contrast and varying textures to create a virtuoso concerto for the solo instrument.  Once again the opening movement has drive and energy, but in the central slow movement, Devine shows that he can also make the instrument sing, allowing the beautiful aria solo line to breathe, before the crashing Presto sweeps aside contemplation.  The ‘French’ Overture closes the disc, and opens with a long Ouverture movement which is a phenomenal construction in itself.  Here Devine’s programming makes perfect sense, with this great work offering the opportunity for him to bring together his strong virile approach with a lighter touch in the faster dance movements such as the Passpieds and Bourées, as well as giving us a touching Sarabande.  The closing Écho is given suitable panache, and he clearly enjoys the echo effects to their full – a joyful end to a stunning recording.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, February 2015)

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