Thursday, 7 July 2016

CD Reviews - July 2016

Ensemble Diderot, lead by Johannes Pramsohler, have completed a project begun by the great Reinhard Goebel with Musica Antiqua Köln (who disbanded in 2007). Goebel & MAK recorded six of Johann Friedrich Meister’s (c1638-1697) twelve Trio Sonatas, ‘Il Giardino del piacere’ as their final enterprise, and Goebel himself asked Pramsohler and the Ensemble Diderot to record the final six.  All the Sonatas have multiple, relatively short movements, based on dance forms, but Meister was one of the first, if not the first German composer to take the prevailing style of Lully and others and move the music away from the ‘danceable’ forms to what became Ars combinatoria. So the French and Italian styles were developed and combined, creating a more intellectual ‘art music’. So whilst the Gigue in this ninth sonata has a real bounce, played by the Ensemble Diderot with lively spirit, it is no longer obviously a simple dance. The Corrente of the twelfth sonata has real rhythmic spice, with accented offbeats, and the Allemanda of the same piece has striking upbeats, all creating great interest and once again moving the form away from the expected. The Ensemble Diderot vary the textures too, with the harpsichord dropping out of the Sarabanda in the twelfth, leaving the cello to provide a walking bass line.  On the other hand, the harpsichord provides delicate touches to the seventh sonata’s Sarabanda, and the violins stylishly emphasise the offbeats in the first sonata’s Sarabanda, demonstrating the variety Meister creates in a seemingly homogenous choice of structure. The third sonata contains a beautiful Adagio, with the cello starting each phrase with long held notes over which the violins and harpsichord weave plangent cries – here cellist Gulrim Choi maintains a perfectly even, semplice sound for the others to work off. The Fuga movements are often brief, but allow for great interplay between the two violins, particularly noticeable in the seventh sonata. These are exquisite sonatas, and from the performances here, it was easy to see how much the players have taken this music to heart.

Sergei Prokofiev’s (1891-1953) three Piano Sonatas, Nos. 6, 7 and 8 were completed between 1940 and 1944, although he had begun work in 1939, and they are perhaps understandably collectively known as the ‘War Sonatas’ (although when he composed the first of these, the Soviet Union were still to enter the war).  Prokofiev didn’t necessarily conceive them to be performed as a trilogy, but there are clear links between them, both in specific detail such as the ‘fate’ motif which crops up in all three, but also in emotional depth and content, and world events of the time are never far from one’s mind when hearing them.  There is a consistent mood of conflict here, never fully resolved, with moments of highly disturbing tension.  Even in the more romantic calm of the 8th Sonata, fate is still present, although perhaps there is a hint of happier thoughts, given that Prokofiev dedicated this sonata to Mira Mendelssohn, for who he left his first wife and family in 1939.  Peter Donohoe gives the slow movement in particular of this sonata full lyricism and weighty emotion.  In total contrast, his finale of the 7th Sonata is truly exciting and he gives the incessant repeated notes real energy and drive.  Yet it is in the 6th Sonata’s slow movement that Donohoe achieves the most disturbing combination of moments of surface lyricism over dark, ominous harmonies, before showing total command in the relentless toccata-like finale.  There is a darkness throughout these works that is sometimes lost in performances that focus purely on the virtuosic demands – of which there are many – and Donohoe is able to fully exploit the complex undercurrents of these great works. Donohoe recorded the 7th Sonata a staggering 33 years ago, and then again with the other two War Sonatas in 1991, and these performances were acclaimed at the time.  So he has clearly lived with these sonatas for a long time, and having recorded the other six sonatas in two previous volumes, it is perhaps significant that he has saved the War Sonatas for last in this highly authoritative complete cycle.

Violinist Tasmin Little has brought three little known works for violin and orchestra by English composers to her latest recording with Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic.  First comes the lyrical Concerto, Op. 80 by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912).  Born in London to a male medical student from Sierra Leone and an English woman, he trained as a violinist and composer from an early age at the Royal College of Music, but in his latter years became successful in the US, where he was rather dubiously dubbed ‘the black Mahler’ on account of his impressive conducting.  His most successful work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, was for many years a staple of British choral societies, yet little of the rest of his music is regularly performed today.  His first version of his Violin Concerto used a number of African-American melodies and spirituals, with a finale based on ‘Yankee Doodle’.  However, he changed his mind, completely rewriting the work using his own melodic material instead. A Dvořák-esque flavour remains, à la New World Symphony, but the touchingly lyrical slow movement has real inspiration. The finale is full of joy and spirit, and Little enjoys the syncopation and use of the violin’s upper reaches here.  Frederick Delius (1862-1934) composed his Suite for Violin and Orchestra in Paris around 1888, and its four movements have a beautiful simplicity in their individual characters.  An opening lyrical Pastorale is followed by a dancing Intermezzo. The song-like Élégie contains some lush brass writing, but this is basically a chance for the violin to sing in an unashamedly romantic fashion – and Little exploits this to the full.  The Finale has a rather conventional feel, with less of an individual Delius voice, but is not without interest. Finally, we have a Concerto from Haydn Wood (1882-1959).  Yorkshire born, he grew up on the Isle of Man, but like Coleridge-Taylor, studied the violin from an early age at the RCM, also studying composition with Stanford. Perhaps more famous for writing songs (eg. Roses of Picardy), musical comedies and light orchestral music, he nevertheless produced a small number of larger scale works, of which the Violin Concerto is one.  This is warm, romantic music, without any edge – yet with moments of deft touch in orchestration, such as the use of harp in the opening movement, and the exquisite horn solo at the beginning of the slow movement leading to the violin’s first entry.  Little is supported throughout by warm and sensitive playing from the BBC Philharmonic, Davis keeping tempi moving to avoid overindulgence.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment