Friday, 18 September 2015

CD Reviews - September 2015

I recently had the pleasure to experience a première of an amazing work by Cheryl Frances-Hoad performed by The Cardinall’s Musick in the BBC Proms (review here). On the back of this, I’ve been listening to a CD of her vocal and choral works, called You Promised me Everything.  The title comes from her work for soprano, piano 4 hands and cello, You Promised me Everything Last Night, which explores, in repeating this phrase over and over, its many inflections and interpretations, charting perhaps rather depressingly a trajectory from joyous ecstasy to ultimate bitter desperation and sadness. The inflections are expertly characterised with a stunning performance from soprano Natalie Raybould, over a largely simple and somewhat bleak accompaniment.  The disc opens with Frances-Hoad’s response to Schumann’s song cycle, ‘Frauenliebe und Leben’ (Women’s Lives and Loves), which is, although a Romantic masterpiece, perhaps stuck in a male 19th century perspective on female emotions. So Frances-Hoad brings this up to date (while still drawing on elements of harmony or figuration from Schumann’s songs) in a cycle of eight songs, ‘One Life Stand’, setting poems by the poet and crime-writer Sophie Hannah.  As with Schumann’s cycle, the songs cover a range of emotions, but additionally here there is humour, in the dilemma of ‘should I, shouldn’t I phone him’ in ‘The Pros and Cons’, and especially in the mocking of male attitudes to pregnancy and childbirth in ‘Ante-Natal’. Yet Frances-Hoad also captures the depths of emotion, in the beautiful yet anguished lyricism of ‘Tide to Land’, with disturbing undertones in the harmony belying the vocal emphatic climax, and in the moments of cold shock and loss captured by ‘In the Chill’. Throughout, Frances-Hoad uses the texts imaginatively, whether vocally (for example the somewhat comedic yet barely suppressed anger and bitterness expressed in ‘Rubbish at Adultery’), or in the piano writing (such as the departing train in ‘Brief Encounter’). A brave thing to try and ‘update’ Schumann – but this is a highly successful cycle, and mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnston, who inspired the cycle, inhabits the spectrum of emotions here with great expertise. The piano accompaniment is at times highly challenging, yet Joseph Middleton performs this with apparent ease.  Johnston also performs the other major work that ends this disc, this time accompanied by Alisdair Hogarth in a setting of the Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘Beowulf’.  Highly ambitious, this is almost a mini-opera in itself, with barely a break for the singer in roughly half an hour of dramatic narrative. Yet Frances-Hoad achieves surprising variety, with passages of largely recitative over chordal underpinning from the piano contrasted with racing rhythms to portray moments of action, and great word-painting for the serpent and the dragon at the climax. The closing moments of wailing grief for Beowulf’s funeral pyre are heartbreakingly bleak. A live performance would offer greater communication between singer and listener, harder to achieve on CD, but nonetheless this is an impressively individual piece of dramatic vocal writing. ‘Don’t’ 
was dedicated to soprano Jane Manning for her 70th birthday, and wittily sets marriage advice from the 1913 book ‘Don’t’s for Wives’, comically accompanied by the extremes of piccolo and bass clarinet. Jane Manning performs here with great gusto and aplomb. There are three choral pieces on the disc, all performed confidently by the Gonville & Caius College Choir, directed by Geoffrey Webber. They include a seemingly straightforward yet moving setting of ‘There is No Rose’, which avoids the saccharine of so many other modern Xmas settings – all the more impressive given that she composed it aged 14!  Her Psalm 1 setting contrasts stability, underpinned by the organ, with some wild, violent setting, with leaping intervals, and then ends with a striking effect of the organ literally dying away, with the instruction to switch of the blower, creating a bizarre effect of deflation. Her 21-part setting of the Nunc Dimittis is highly challenging, with a particularly high-wire part for 1st soprano, including numerous top Ds, ably sung here by Rose Wilson-Haffenden.  Overall, this disc demonstrates an incredibly wide variety of styles and moods, from humour to real depths of human emotion, and shows that Frances-Hoad is a composer of broad-ranging talent.

Violinist Tasmin Little has teamed up with pianist Piers Lane to record all of Schubert’s works for the instruments, and they are also joined by cellist Tim Hugh for the bonus addition of the Sonata for Piano and Arpeggione (or cello), and finally an Adagio for all three instruments.  The three early violin Sonatas, composed when Schubert was just 19 (although we have to remember he therefore had just 12 more years of composing, before his premature death at age 31) are light works, subtitled as ‘Sonatinas’ by Diabelli when they were published, perhaps in indication of their relatively small scale.  These are not juvenile works, however, and although the first movement of the first sonata is clearly based around Mozart’s E minor Sonata, many aspects of Schubert’s mature style are also here.  These are real chamber works, in that the violin and piano are very much in equal partnership, and Little and Lane are sensitive to this.  As ever, Little produces a warm tone throughout, and Lane has a lightness of touch when needed, as well as energy and intensity in some of Schubert’s darker writing. The fourth Sonata, from just under two years after the first group, already shows Schubert’s rapid development, and increases the level of virtuosity required from the violinist in particular. The Rondeau brillant which opens the second disc, composed just two years before his death, is much more virtuosic again, and gives Little a chance to flex her muscles. The Fantasie was the last work Schubert wrote for the combination, composed the year before his early death, and from the very opening feels emotionally from a totally different place. The ‘fantasy’ form allows him more flexibility, although there is still a clear structure, and both instruments are given the chance to shine individually and together. The tender pianissimo playing from both in the Andante opening (which returns towards the end of the work) is very touching, and the central variations on one of his own song themes, first presented on the piano is Schubert at his most sublime.  The arpeggione was a short-lived instrument, a kind of hybrid cello-guitar, with six strings tuned like a guitar but played with a bow, and Schubert’s Sonata is really the only notable work for the instrument to survive, most often now played in a transcription for the cello. Tim Hugh’s warm, relaxed tone brings some welcome respite after the intensity of the Fantasie, and then the three join to close the disc in the very slow, exquisite single movement Adagio.  Another very late work, this was possibly intended as a slow movement for a full piano trio, but as with so many other of Schubert’s incomplete works, it is almost even more sublime for its fragility, without outer movements to diminish its intensity.  Overall, the violin sonatas are perhaps not amongst Schubert’s greatest works, but the playing here has such energy and life that these minor works are lifted beyond their lightness, and the later works, particularly the Fantasie, are works of exquisite beauty, and the trajectory of the programming, right through to the late Adagio, at all times performed with such sensitivity and expertise, makes this an outstanding collection.

The Cuarteto SolTango are a German group, comprising Rocco Heins (bandoneón), Karel Bredenhorst (cello), Sophie Heinrich (violin) and Martin Klett (piano), and they specialise in authentic tango music.  The new wave of tango music has perhaps been most famously brought to new audiences through the compositions of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), and they include a number of his compositions on their new disc, Cristal.  However, there are tangos here by a whole range of presumably Argentinian composers from the twentieth century, and a couple still alive today.  Sadly the CD notes give very little information on the composers or the individual works here (although there are some interesting notes on the history of tango music and its origins), so it’s best to just go with the flow here, and enjoy. Right from the opening flourish of the title track, ‘Cristal’, through the jagged rhythms of ‘La cicatriz’ (‘the scar’), the wonderfully spiky ‘Olivero’, the joyful, waltzy ‘Paisaje’, and the wistfully lyrical ‘Poema’, to the dramatic ‘Alma de bohemio’ (‘Bohemian soul’), the Cuarteto SolTango take us on a wonderful journey through the rich world of tango. The five Piazzolla works are striking in their relative complexity by comparison, however, with the sophisticated ‘Verano porteño’ (‘Summer in Buenos Aires’) and the mysterious ‘Homenaje a Córdoba’ (‘Tribute to Cordoba’) standing out. Beautifully sultry, this is a must for a late summer evening’s listening.

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

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