Friday, 22 January 2016

CD Reviews - January 2016

Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra’s second volume of orchestral music by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) contains the rhapsody, Taras Bulba, based on a collection of tales by Gogol. The first movement’s romantic cor anglais solo is contrasted with some typically acerbic brass writing, and the death march to the scaffold in the middle movement ending in a crazy dance and a wild high clarinet death cry is highly imaginative. Warlike triumphant brass, organ and bells conclude the finale of one of Janáček’s most popular orchestral works. The short single-movement Violin Concerto, ‘The Wandering of a Little Soul’, contains music the composer later used in his overture for From the House of the Dead, and has been rescued as a concerto from incomplete drafts. Violinist James Ehnes performs this rhapsodic work – full of interesting ideas, but perhaps better seen as an early working out of material better exploited elsewhere. The Danube is a symphony with solo soprano (Susanna Andersson here), again completed by Miloš Štědroň and Leoš Faltus. It contains some incredibly striking and arresting music, not least in the virtuosic vocalise for soprano in the third movement. The Ballad of Blaník is poetic and expressive, with Good Friday singing evoked by clarinets and violas, and a march for peace with bright trumpets. Jealousy, a brief overture originally intended for his opera Jenufa, is suitably violent and intense. The Fiddler’s Child, a ballad for orchestra features the orchestra’s leader, Melina Mandozzi in a typically macabre folk tale, with divided violas representing the poor villagers, and the oboe the sick child. Imaginative music from a unique composer, all expertly performed here.

Janáček, L. 2015. Orchestral Works, Volume 2. Susanna Andersson, James Ehnes, Melina Mandozzi, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos CHSA 5156.

A full disc of lute music, especially all by one composer, René Mésangeau (c.1567-1648), is a risk. However, I have been very much enjoying such a disc which I came across by lutenist Alex McCartney, who has worked with artists such as Emma Kirkby amongst others. Mésangeau was reportedly the finest lutenist of his day, and the works he wrote were considered highly influential on the instrument’s repertoire. McCartney has recorded three of his Suites, each beginning with expressive Préludes, followed by a selection of dance-based movements, such as Allemandes, Courantes and Sarabandes. These different dances have their various characters, although nothing ever gets going in terms of tempi, the Courantes coming closest to any more rapid movement. However, once you relax into the courtly soundworld, the stylish ornamentation and subdued tones of the instrument win you over. Like the guitar, it is a difficult instrument to hear live in recital as it is relatively quiet, so it comes over well on a recording, although here I would say the recorded sound is a little boomy at times. However, this is an enjoyable disc and worth exploration for anyone interested in the instrument – or guitar lovers who want to try something different too.

Mésangeau, R. 2014. Mésangeau's Experiments. Alex McCartney. Compact Disc. Veteran Musica. 

The fact that the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Rumon Gamba, are on their sixth volume of orchestral music by French composer Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931) is evidence of the size of his catalogue, yet very few works are regularly performed today. D’Indy studied under César Franck, and taught many composers, including Satie, Albéniz and even Cole Porter. He focussed more on the German symphonic tradition than French contemporaries such as Debussy, Ravel and Fauré, which perhaps explains why he suffered from a perception of being conservative. Yet his music has a wealth of unusual ideas, interesting orchestration and a strong sense of musical drama. This sixth volume begins with a cycle of three overtures, which together form a substantial symphonic work, Wallenstein, based on a poetic drama by Schiller. The first overture, which focusses on the triumphant Imperial army, is full of Wagnerian triumphalism, and the romantically tragic second overture has some beautiful orchestration, making good use of soulful clarinets and a mournful oboe solo. The final part of the trilogy, ‘La Mort de Wallenstein’, has a mysterious sequences of harmonies supposedly linked to Wallenstein’s belief in astrology, and despite a dramatic brass dominated conclusion, it ends with wind and harps in astral peace. The other substantial work here couldn’t be more different. The Suite dans le style ancien, was actually unusually scored for string quartet, two flutes and a trumpet, but here is played with full strings. I would say that whilst the trumpet fares well out of this, there are times when the fuller strings obscure the flute writing a little. It uses traditional dance forms that d’Indy would have been familiar with as an editor of early music, and it combines a strong sense of the traditions of forms such as the Sarabande and Menuet with imaginatively modern ideas of rhythm and harmony. The Entrée is particularly balletic, and the finale Ronde française contains a highly inventive double fugue. The three other short works on the disc here include a delightful, if not particularly profound work for cello and orchestra, the lyrical Lied, played here with a beautifully warm tone by Bryndis Halla Gylfadóttir. Throughout, Gamba and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra play with strong attention to detail and convincing warmth.

d'Indy, V. 2015. Orchestral Works, Volume 6. Bryndis Halla Gylfadóttir, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Rumon Gamba. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos CHSA 5157.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, January 2016)

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