Friday, 8 April 2016

CD Reviews April 2016

Clarinettist Emma Johnson was joined by friends for a performance of Schubert’s wonderful Octet in F major, D803 back in October 2014 in Southampton, and a recording of that live performance has just been released.  Johnson is joined by the Carducci Quartet, Chris West (double bass), Philip Gibbon (bassoon) and Michael Thompson (horn).  The Octet is one of Schubert’s most popular chamber works, and rightly so, with so much invention and variety packed into its six movements.  It contains real joy and humour, such as in the variations of the fourth movement and the boisterous finale.  Yet there are also some typically Schubertian sublime moments, particularly in the slow second movement, with its beautiful opening clarinet tune, accompanied by just the lower strings, until the first violin, and then later the bassoon joins in with the tune.  This is a highly engaging performance, with delicacy and lightness of touch from all players.  The tempi are relaxed – a little more pace in the scherzo third movement would have added more energy – but not indulgent.  There is deft articulation throughout, particularly from the clarinet and bassoon in that slow movement.  Emma Johnson, joined by Gibbon & Thompson rounds off the disc with a short Concert Trio for clarinet, bassoon and horn by Swedish contemporary of Schubert, Bernhard Crusell (1775-1838).  This can hardly match the Schubert, and feels a little bit of a let down following the Octet (it might have been better placed as an appetiser on the disc), but it is an enjoyable concert piece, and in its four short movements it gives each instrument the opportunity to shine. There is some beautifully smooth playing from Thompson on the horn here, and Gibbon tackles some complex accompanying passages for the bassoon with ease. Overall, the clarinet takes centre stage most of all – Crusell was an accomplished clarinettist after all. A true mark of a live recording is that it makes you wish you’d been there, and Johnson and her friends certainly achieve that here.

Various. 2016. Emma Johnson & Friends - Schubert Octet D803, Crucell Concert Trio. Emma Johnson, Michael Thompson, Philip Gibbon, The Carducci Quartet, Chris West. Compact Disc. Somm Céleste Series SOMMCD 0156.

It’s five years now since I reviewed a disc of orchestral works by French composer Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937).  More recordings (though sadly few concert performances) of his works have appeared since then, but it’s great to see the same forces from that last recording – the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena, and pianist Jean-Efllam Bavouzet – reunited for more.  Interestingly, the disc is split into three sections in effect – first come two purely orchestral works, then three works for piano and orchestra, and then the disc is topped off with two solo piano works. The orchestral works which open are the latest and weightest offerings.  The three movement Paysages franciscains, Op.43 is an atmostpheric and contemplative impression of a convent garden and the plain of Assisi, with nature and peaceful evening moods abounding. The emergence of a plainsong hymn from the mist in the final movement is particularly striking.  The second orchestral work, Les Cathédrales, is more sombre in mood, written in 1915 and evoking a French soldier in the trenches contemplating the devastated landscape and the endless days and endless mourning ahead of him. Whilst the work perhaps lacks overall direction, the twisted fragments of the Marseillaise, the growing urgency and the poignant quiet ending with tolling bell and bass drum are highly affecting. Mena and the BBC Philharmonic are on particularly impressive form in these two works, with precision and sensitive expression from all sections.  Jean-Efflam Bavouzet takes great delight in the Scherzo-Caprice, Op. 25 which breaks the sombre mood with its opening flourish.  Thicker, more expansive orchestral textures take hold, but are interrupted by the swirling balletic waltz each time it returns. The Poème symphonique, Op. 37 has definite influences of Franck, with its simple chordal piano chorale, and the long drawn out melodic lines.  A final fanfare heralds the closing piano flourishes. The dramatic piano opening of the Fantaisie-Ballet, Op. 6, for which no known scenario exists, is contrasted by a quirky central section introduced by the woodwind, and the dialogue between piano and orchestra is more conversational here. The episodic nature of the music builds to a lively finish, and a sudden emphatic conclusion.  These are enjoyable concert works, but without the hints of profundity that the later orchestral works suggest. A delicately subtle Nocturne with touches of Fauré, and a Lisztian tour de force Étude de concert round of this enjoyable disc. Bavouzet is a great advocate for Pierné’s piano music, but on this occasion it is the BBC Philharmonic and Mena who deserve the greatest praise.

Pierné, G. 2015. Orchestral Works, Vol. 2. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10871.

There’s not enough space here to go into great detail about the Complete Symphonies of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), again with the BBC Philharmonic, this time with Finnish conductor John Storgårds. Suffice to say, this is an impressive cycle, showing Storgårds' command of all six symphonies, and once again demonstrating that the BBC Philharmonic are on great form.  The BBC Philharmonic, along with the Hallé of course, were my first exposure to the joys of orchestral music, growing up in Manchester, and in my mind they are often the best of the BBC orchestral stable.  Storgård’s tempi are steady on the whole, but particularly effective in the third symphony, ‘Sinfonia expansiva’, and the defiant and most often performed fourth, ‘The Inextinguishable’.  Nielsen’s use of percussion as a threatening force, here and also to devastating effect in the Symphony No. 5, is visceral, and Storgårds encourages real aggression from the BBC Phil percussion players. If you don’t know Nielsen’s symphonies, you should, and this collection is the perfect place to start.

Nielsen, C. 2015. Complete Symphonies. BBC Philharmonic, John Storgårds. Compact Discs (3). Chandos CHAN 10859(3).

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

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