Tuesday, 14 April 2015

CD Reviews - April 2015

The Tallis Scholars have recorded their first CD of contemporary music since their famous recording of music by Sir John Tavener back in 1984 (my review of its recent release is here), unless you count their single track download of the piece they commissioned from Eric Whitacre to celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2013 (and a review of that here too).  However, they have performed works by contemporary composers frequently in concert, and their Director Peter Phillips sees a close link between the music of Arvo Pärt (b.1935) and the renaissance polyphony repertoire with which The Tallis Scholars are mostly associated.  So, as a tribute to Pärt in his 80th year, they have released an album of his music.  It’s entitled Tintinnabuli, which is Pärt’s own composition technique, formed after he experienced a block in composing in the early 1970s.  He had been composing in the neo-classical style, and then using serialism, but reached a compositional dead end, as well as getting into trouble with the Soviet authorities.  He turned to early, particularly medieval music for inspiration, and his new style combined simple meditative harmonies with the clustered overtones bells make when struck. The Tallis Scholars have recorded eight of Pärt’s most significant a capella works here, the most well known being his setting of the Magnificat, which they precede on the disc with his Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen ('Seven Magnificat Antiphons'). The Tallis Scholars’ pure sound is well suited to this music, and the sopranos in particular produce an appropriately ringing sound. Most of the works here were written for larger choral forces, but The Tallis Scholars bring an intensity which means that the sudden fortissimi perhaps don’t create the wall of sound we might expect, but still achieve a sense of power – the climax of the Magnificat is a case in point.  Rhythmic interest is rare in Pärt, with the sixth Magnificat-Antiphon, and the curiosity of ‘Which Was the Son of…’ stand out. In the latter piece, a daring setting of the genealogy of Christ, so basically just a list of names, Pärt actually achieves considerable interest in varying the textures and The Tallis Scholars relish the slightly tongue-in-cheek fun – Pärt was mildly mocking the Icelandic way of organizing family names (the work was commissioned by the City of Reykjavík). There are some delightfully simple textual settings here, such as I Am the True Vine, and The Woman with the Alabaster Box.  As well as the bell-like quality of the perfectly blended sopranos, the basses also deserve mention for their rich tone and anchoring drones.  A stunning release, and a fitting 80th birthday present. You can watch The Tallis Scholars in a video about the recording below:

Violinist James Ehnes has reached his third volume of chamber works for violin by Béla Bartók (1881-1945), and this disk is dominated by the set of Forty-four Duos for Two Violins, for which he is joined by fellow violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti.  The Duos appeared in four books, and were intended for students of the instrument to play either with their teacher or with fellow students (I remember attempting a few with my own teacher many years ago!).  They draw on a whole range of folk traditions, as one would expect from Bartók, but they also make extensive use of canon between the two violins, as well as bitonal harmonies and unexpected dissonances to shake up their seeming simplicity.  Rarely longer than a minute each, these spiky miniatures make for a surprisingly rewarding listen, as the folk melodies fly by one after the other. My highlights include ‘Wedding Song’ and ‘Pillow Dance’ from Book 1, the ‘Soldier’s Song’ from Book 2, the ‘Dance from Máramos’ from Book 3, and the slightly more substantial ‘Prelude and Canon’ which opens Book 4 – but you will certainly find your own favourites here. The two violinists are perfectly blended, to the extent that you will be hard pressed to know who is playing which line.  The disc begins however with Contrasts, a trio for violin, clarinet and piano, and for this Ehnes is joined by Michael Collins on clarinet, and Andrew Armstrong on piano.  The work was requested by Bartók’s compatriot, violinist Joseph Szigeti, who wanted a work to perform with Benny Goodman (and who recorded the work with the composer in 1940).  Bartók swaps around our preconceptions of the instruments here, often giving the jazzier lines to the violin, and the folk melodies to the clarinet, especially in the opening ‘Recruiting Dance’ movement. Again in the last movement he marries complex Bulgarian folk rhythms with jazz. The middle movement ‘Relaxation’ has a strange otherworldly feel, not least because of the unusual retuning of the strings of the violin required. Collins excels in his virtuosic cadenza in the first movement, and Ehnes responds with equal élan to his cadenza in the finale, ‘Fast Dance’.  In between, Ehnes and Armstrong perform the Sonatina, which is actually a transcription by Gertler of an original solo piano work.  Bartók used melodies here that he had recorded from Romanian village fiddlers, so the transcription by the young 18-year-old student was entirely appropriate, and Bartók gave his approval.  In its three short movements, he crams in five different folk tunes, including ‘Bagpipes’ and a ‘Bear Dance’.  A great disc of endlessly fascinating music, excellently performed by Ehnes and friends.

Bartók, B. 2014. Chamber Works for Violin, Volume 3. James Ehnes, Michael Collins, Amy Schwartz Moretti, Andrew Armstrong. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN10820.

Chinese pianist Xiayin Wang has recorded three American Piano Concertos with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Peter Oundjian.  George Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Concerto in F major will probably be the best-known work here, but the disc begins with the Concerto, Op. 38 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981).  The short two-movement Concerto by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) follows, and they finish with the Gershwin.  There is a thread of jazz influence throughout all three works, although in very different ways. The Barber Concerto is the latest work here, composed in 1962, and it is in the last movement especially, in 5/8 time, that jazz rhythms come to the fore.  It is an incredibly challenging work for the pianist, and Wang is completely on top of its demands.  The central movement has a typically sad extended lyrical melody, whereas the first movement is more confidently strident.  Wang and the RSNO under Oundjian judge these contrasts well, and this was definitely the highlight of the disc for me.  I have to confess to not being a fan of Copland, and I find his attempts at jazz unconvincing, and reviewers of his Concerto’s première felt much the same.  He’s at his best when he sticks to his French influenced post-impressionism (ironically considered distinctively American).  Anyway, his short two movement Concerto has a bluesy first movement, followed without break by a ‘snappy number’, as Copland referred to it. His attempts at humour here, with its swaggering, almost drunken feel I’m afraid just don’t work for me, and the competent performance from Wang and the RSNO doesn’t convince otherwise.  The Gershwin Concerto, composed one year earlier than Copland’s in 1925, is so much more successful – it is what it is, a joyous exploration of jazz, blues and dance.  Occasionally Wang could perhaps relax into the idiom a little more, although in the slow movement there is more of a sense of style.  Overall, it’s the Barber – both the work and the performance – that wins out on this disc.

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

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