Thursday, 23 February 2017

CD Reviews - February 2017


Countertenor Iestyn Davies is joined by the early music ensemble Arcangelo, directed by Jonathan Cohen, for a showcase recording of solo alto Cantatas by J S Bach (1685-1750).  These cantatas are the perfect vehicle to demonstrate Davies’ pure, even tone and Arcangelo’s range, from subtle continuo to full ensemble, always maintaining chamber intimacy.  The first cantata on the disc, BWV170 ‘Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust’, opens with a beautifully warm aria, with long notes expertly sustained by Davies underpinned by a slow descending bassline and a intertwining oboe line. Davies’ recitatives are suitably dramatic, within an overall contained aesthetic, with great attention given to the text. The closing aria here has an energetic pace, with some impressive organ playing.  Cantata BWV54, ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’ is shorter, with just two arias and a central recitative, but the building repeated chords and suspensions of the opening aria is a highlight of the disc, with Davies delivering an even line over the pulsing accompaniment.  The descending chromatic line of the second aria takes Davies into a lower register, yet there is no audible ‘gear change’, and the overall effect is as smooth as the instruments on the same fugue theme.  Sandwiched between the alto cantatas, Arcangelo give lively performances of Sinfonias from two other cantatas, BWV52 and 174.  Here, Bach reworked movements from his Brandenburg Concertos – with BWV52, he adds hunting horns, oboes and bassoon to the third Concerto’s opening movement, whereas BWV174 comes from the first Concerto.  Arcangelo are spirited and energetic, and these provide a welcome lift amidst the more contemplative mood of the solo cantatas.  The final Cantata, BWV82, ‘Ich habe genug’, was originally for bass, and then Bach rewrote it for soprano, with a flute replacing the solo oboe, before producing a version for alto.  Here, the combination of warm oboe tones from Katharina Spreckelsen with the smooth, steady line of Davies in the opening aria is incredibly moving, and the central lullaby with its lilting accompaniment is equally touching.  An impressive and highly moving recording.


Violinist Tasmin Little joins pianist Piers Lane for their second volume of British Violin Sonatas.  The meat of the disc is John Ireland’s (1879-1962) wonderful Sonata No. 1.  With it’s turbulent opening movement, a beautifully song-like central Romance, and a folksy Rondo to finish, this is a striking work, despite being less popular than Ireland’s Sonata No. 2 which followed some seven years later.  Little is lyrical and sensitive in the touching Romance, and Lane rises to the challenges of Ireland’s weighty writing for the piano in the first movement, without allowing it to overpower the violin.  Sir Arthur Bliss’ (1891-1975) early single movement Sonata is by contrast rather over dramatic and a little over-emphatic.  It was part of a fuller Sonata that he was working on when his brother Kennard was killed in the First World War, and he abandoned the work, never completing it.  The Sonata by Frank Bridge (1879-1941) that opens the disc is another incomplete work, with the second movement completed by Paul Hindmarsh.  The opening is surprisingly brash for Bridge, but it settles down into a more recognisable style, with intriguingly unusual harmonies, and in the second movement, a galloping central scherzo surrounded by a beautifully subdued and lyrical slow section, and a subtle coda (composed by Hindmarsh, but drawing on ideas from the first movement, as Bridge would surely have done himself).  A Romance and Pastorale from Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), both with wandering modal themes, and more than a hint of The Lark Ascending in the Romance, are beautifully performed here, with Little in particular enjoying Vaughan Williams’ meandering, rising lines for the violin.  The disc ends with a brief piece by William Lloyd Webber (1914-1982) (father of Andrew & Julian), ‘The Gardens at Eastwell’, his final composition.  It is a pleasant enough miniature, with a captivating tune, but rather inconsequential when compared with the other works on the disc.  The highlight of the disc is their compelling performance of the Ireland, but overall this is a stimulating survey of some lesser-known yet striking British chamber works.   

Various. 2016. British Violin Sonatas, Volume Two. Tasmin Little, Piers Lane. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10899. 

I recently reconnected with an old school friend, pianist Adrian Lord, discovering he has just released a recording of his own Twelve Romances for Piano, entitled Journey.  As the name would suggest, this is a very personal set of solo piano pieces, some inspired by significant places, such as childhood holidays in the Peak District, and travels in Scotland.  The album was recorded in the stunning setting of a studio at Crear in Western Scotland, overlooking the Paps of Jura.  This is a highly enjoyable and atmospheric short set of miniatures, with a common thread of rhythmic momentum and interest over simple harmonic progressions.  The result is often very effective and engaging.  There are clear references to family roots in the Lancashire mills, with spinning rhythms in ‘Blaize’ and ‘Revolutions’, and a similar sense of perpetual motion in the hypnotic opening ‘Prelude’.  The pieces are united by their use of repetition and arpeggiated patterns, yet variety is achieved in imaginative use of dynamics, such as in the fiery sections of ‘Wildfire’, and the moving concluding ‘Time to Remember’, written in memory of his recently deceased mother.  Adrian performs this personal collection with conviction, and the quasi-improvisatory nature of his compositions makes for very engaging listen. 


(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, February 2017)

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