Friday, 12 February 2016

CD Reviews - February 2016

Two great French pianists, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and François-Frédéric Guy, have teamed up to record three great piano transcriptions, all premiered in 1913.  The most well-known work here is Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) radical Le Sacre de Printemps (The Rite of Spring), which famously caused a near-riot at its first performance in Paris.  The composer himself transcribed it quickly for piano with four hands, and following the work’s initial run of performances, it would have been in this transcribed version that people would have known the work, as the full version wasn’t performed again until after the First World War.  Inevitably there are losses of texture and detail when such a visceral orchestral work is transcribed, but there is also a metallic, mechanistic drive that is gained here, which adds a different flavour of early twentieth century modernism. The inflections of the wailing bassoon theme at the opening are obviously not possible, but the pounding rhythms have an additional sense of relentlessness, and at times their clinical precision is even more scary than in the orchestral version. They open the disc with Zoltán Kocsis’ transcription for two pianos of Béla Bartók’s (1881-1945) Two Pictures.  This is a work with rich Debussian harmonies and extensive use of glassy whole-tone scales, particularly in the opening movement, ‘In Full Flower’.  The atmospheric thick chordal textures build to an intense climax, with rippling whole-tone scales given extra sonority on the pianos. The following ‘Village Dance’ is jerky and spiky, and full of eastern melodic inflections and folk dance rhythms, which at times remind one of the incesant drumming in Le Sacre de Printemps (although Bartók’s work was composed first). The centrepiece of this disc is Debussy’s (1862-1918) Jeux, in a new transcription for two pianos by Bavouzet. This ballet score, for Diaghilev, and danced by Nijinsky, is about three young tennis players, one man and two women, who are all attracted to each other.  Bavouzet makes use of trills to get over the problem of sustaining lines, and somehow this adds to a sense of the fragile, tremulous emotions of supressed passion and jealousy. There is also flirty humour here, although some of the score’s characterisation, particularly the wind instruments, is missing. However, the clean piano detail brings a certain transparency, and both pianists play with great delicacy and precision. The twists and turns build in a swirling waltz to a climactic three-way kiss, before the dancers disappear into the night.

Readers of a certain age may remember the original TV adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and from that, a haunting Nunc Dimittis (by Geoffrey Burgon) sung by a boy treble.  Well, that treble, Paul Phoenix, became a successful tenor, singing with the The King Singers for 17 years.  He is now focussing on his solo career, as well as working with singers and choral groups around the world.  He released a short album before Christmas, and although some of the tracks have a definite Christmas theme, I thought it still worthwhile to highlight it here, as it provides a good insight into the range of this versatile singer. That Nunc Dimittis opens the disc, obviously now with tenor voice, and immediately Phoenix’s warm, even tone is evidenced here. It is followed by a Pie Jesu setting by John Brunning (well known as a Classic FM presenter for many years), allowing Phoenix to show off his clear higher registers with some double tracked vocals, against some rich (if a little predictable) harp and string orchestrations. The first Christmas track, Child of the Stable’s Secret Birth, by Thomas Hewitt Jones, wears its heart on its sleeve, and reminded me of the work of Howard Goodall.  Phoenix is joined here by soprano Andrea Haines, whose crystal voice adds interest to the straightforward tune.  For my favourite track on the album, Phoenix is joined by the a cappella quintet, Apollo5 for MLK, Bob Chilcott’s arrangement of the U2 lullaby in honour of Martin Luther King, which The King Singers have sung for many years.  Here, the blend between Phoenix and Apollo5 is perfect, and they enjoy the rich harmonies.  This is followed by another a capella piece with Apollo5, the traditional Russian folksong, Oh You Wide Steppe, arranged by Alexander Levine. Phoenix again demonstrates a bell-like, pure upper register, and the rich choral textures are built up and layered as the song develops. Apollo5 are let loose on their own in a beautiful arrangement by Barnaby Smith of the Coventry Carol, and the disc ends with another unashamedly Christmassy Hewitt Jones number, On Christmas Night.  For me, the strongest works here are the Nunc Dimittis and the a capella numbers, and I look forward to hearing more solo work from Phoenix.  Definitely worth a listen, even if it’s no longer Christmas!

Brothers Paul Watkins (cello) and Huw Watkins (piano) continue their exploration of lesser known works with their fourth volume of British Works for Cello and Piano.  We have here a Partita by Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988), Constants by Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983), and Sonatas by Alun Hoddinott (1929-2008) and Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012). Leighton’s Partita beings with an Elegy, which has a winding, angular theme which is exchanged between the cello and piano, who largely operate independently here.  It is followed by an energetic, syncopated Scherzo, and then comes a set of Theme and Variations, longer than the two previous movements together, and here the piano comes more to the fore, with ringing sonorities, particularly in the fourth variation.  Lutyens’ Constants is less immediately accessible, and Lutyens used her own form of notation to indicate lengths of nots, and cues between the instruments.  She creates a mysterious sound-world here, which is very striking, and requires some particularly delicate and very quiet playing from the cello. It ends with some wailing two-note cries from the cello, which was an apparent reference to the sudden death of her husband Edward.  Welsh composer Hoddinott’s Sonata (his second for the instruments) begins with almost simplistic writing, the cello often in conversation with the piano playing open octaves. There is great use of melodic line for the cello in the slow movement, and the finale brings back early music, and the conversational style of the opening movement. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Sonata is my favourite of the works on offer here.  There is a fluidity to his bouncy, mercurial opening movement, and the muted cello in the second movement brings lighter textures, before the Bartók-like scherzo and the virtuosic final set of variations. Cellist and pianist demonstrate strong command throughout, and Paul Watkins’ variety of tone is impressive.

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

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