Monday, 3 December 2012

CD Reviews - December

American choral composer René Clausen (b.1953) is perhaps less well-known here than Lauredsen, or the ubiquitous Whitacre, but in fact has a substantial catalogue of choral works, and the latest disc from the Kansas City Chorale, under the direction of Charles Bruffy, entitled 'Life and Breath' is a great showcase for his work.  Many of the texts set will be familiar - compare Lauredsen's O magnum mysterium, or Tavener's The Tyger and The Lamb, for example.  Yet this added to the interest of this collection for me.  Whilst Clausen's settings don't necessarily improve on these well-known settings, they do offer a refreshing different take.   The Lamb in particular has a striking luminosity, combined with gentle tenderness.  Here, as in nearly all the pieces on the disc, Clausen adds a soprano solo, all taken from the choir members, all highly competent.  Sarah Tannehill deserves special mention for her bell-like solo in the Credo of the Mass for Double Choir, the most substantial work, which forms the centrepiece of the programme.  There is more harmonic interest here, and the shifting dissonances in the Kyrie provide significant challenge for the singers, which they certainly meet.  The obligatory use of tone clusters is here, but Clausen makes good use of rhythmic interest, and his word-setting is strong.  His interweaving of the well-known Lutheran chorale O Sacred Head, Now Wounded into his other double choir work here, O vos omnes, is also highly effective.  An enjoyable disc, and a choral composer deserving of the exposure and expert advocacy given here by the excellent Kansas City Chorale.
Mikhail Pletnev has nearly reached the end of his second recorded cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Russian National Orchestra on SACD with Pentatone.  With just the Third to come, I've been listening to the somewhat less popular Symphony No. 2, the 'Little Russian', so called because of its use of Ukranian folk tunes.  It perhaps doesn't have the intensity or drama of the later symphonies, but there is considerable interest in his use and variation of the folk melodies, possibly at the expense of overall structure.  This performance is tight, with some exemplary wind and brass playing in particular.  The original score was composed in 1872, but Tchaikovsky revised the work, changing the first movement and making cuts to the finale, as well as reorchestrating the scherzo.  It is the revised version that is most often performed, but Pletnev also includes the original first movement here as well as the revised.  Strangely, given the disc's short playing time of just over 48 minutes, the original finale is not included.  However, hearing both first movements, one can see why Tchaikovsky made the changes, although a few interesting ideas were lost in the process.  Nevertheless, this is pretty much a faultless performance, and the quality of the recording is spot on.

Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilyich. Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17. Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev. 2012. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Pentatone PTC 5186 382.

The Russian National Orchestra return for another Pentatone SACD recording, this time under Vasily Petrenko (also Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra), to perform the two Violin Concertos by Prokofiev, with the German violinist, Arabella Steinbacher.  Steinbacher produces a beautifully rich tone, and the RNO are once again on fine form.  Prokofiev's two concertos are a wonderful combination of full-blooded romanticism and his ability to spike this with a edge of quirky rhythmic sarcasm.  Steinbacher has the measure of this match – she plays with real lyricism (particularly noticeable in the second concerto’s slow movement), yet explodes with energy when Prokofiev calls for it.  The second’s Finale feels particularly sparky and perfectly on the edge of almost bacchanalian chaos.  Steinbacher finishes off the disc with Prokofiev’s Sonata for Solo Violin.  This piece was actually intended to be played in unison by a group of violins – this is rooted in the pedagogic tradition in Russia where students would learn to play in unison groups.  It is perhaps not the most virtuosic of sonatas for the instrument, but it requires subtle attention if it is not to sound like an academic study.  Steinbacher achieves this, and the middle movement Theme and variations are particularly delicately performed.  A delightful close to a successful recording.

Prokofiev, Sergei. The Two Violin Concertos, Sonata for Violin Solo. Arabella Steinbacher, Russian National Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko. 2012. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Pentatone PTC 5186 395. 

William Byrd's (c.1540-1623) 'Great Service' may have been written for the fortieth anniversary of Elizabeth I's accession to the throne - so perhaps a recording is fitting in this jubilee year.  And Musica Contexta have decided to perform the work set within an idea a liturgical setting in the Chapel Royal, where it may or may not have been performed - this means including motets, anthems and psalm settings, and separating the mass movements out into Matins, Communion and Evensong.  They have also introduced instruments to accompany the singers in various sections - these are the forces of the excellent English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble.  Their further nod to 'authenticity' is their use of historically informed Elizabethan vowel pronunciation.  As worthy as the dedication to such academic accuracy is, such projects can sometimes collapse under the weight of such detail, and there are times where the seriousness of their endeavours obscures the joy of the actual music for me.  However, the overall standard of performance is strong, and the addition of two interludes for organ played by Steven Devine are an added bonus.  A well-executed project, certainly, to which one might return occasionally, but possibly not a performance for regular listening.  

Byrd, William. The Great Service in the Chapel Royal. Musica Contexta, Steven Devine, The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, Simon Ravens. 2012. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 0789.

(These reviews first appeared in GScene magazine)

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

A Renaissance Christmas Vespers

Missing Brighton Early Music Festival?  Can't wait until October 2013?

Well, come along then on Sunday 16 December, 7.30pm, to a special Christmas concert performed by BREMF Consort of Voices, fresh from our performances of the Florentine Intermedi and music by Gabrieli in this year's BREMF.

The concert will include music by Victoria, Josquin, Praetorius, Rore, Palestrina, Lassus and yes, Gabrieli again!  The music will be interspersed with chant, perfect in the candlelit setting of St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton.

So do come along - tickets are only £12 (£10 for concessions) - a perfect moment of calm amid the Christmas rush! 

Tickets from

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

CD Reviews - November

Flautist Emily Beynon has joined forces with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Bramwell Tovey, to record an interesting selection of British flute concertos.  The disc opens with Jonathan Dove’s (b.1959) The Magic Flute Dances, composed for Beynon.  Dove has taken motifs from Mozart’s opera and woven them into a pleasing set of dances, which go far beyond the obvious ‘flute’ connection, with some fascinating effects of orchestration.  William Alwyn’s (1905-1985) Concerto for Flute and Eight Wind Instruments, arranged by John McCabe (b.1939) for flute and orchestra comes next.  This is more immediately virtuosic for the soloist, perhaps understandable given that Alwyn was an orchestral flautist before turning to composition.  A slight ‘cheat’ next, with French composer Francis Poulenc’s (1899-1963) Flute Sonata, arranged for flute and orchestra by Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989), whose own Flute Concerto closes the disc.  These are both great works that deserve greater exposure, and Beynon does them justice, with a bright and engaging sound throughout.

Various. British Flute Concertos. Emily Beynon, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Bramwell Tovey. 2012. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10718.

The great violinist Ruggiero Ricci died in August, aged 94.  Born to Italian parents in California, he made his debut at Carnegie Hall aged 11.  Often referred to as the ‘Paganini of the 20th Century’, he was the first to record the complete Paganini Caprices in their original form.  This month I’ve been listening to a two CD set of Virtuoso Violin Concertos, with the Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Khachaturian concertos, along with Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, Saint-Saëns’ Havanaise, and various other works.  The recordings date from 1959-1961, yet sound remarkably fresh.  There is a slight thinness to the sound, but my ears soon atuned to this – and the pay-off is hearing a romantic virtuoso at the height of his abilities.  Sadly, he carried on recording long after his technique had begun to wane.  But returning to these recordings, his true talent shines out.  His style, and the orchestral playing (from the LSO and LPO, under conductors including Sir Malcolm Sargent and Piero Gamba), are from a different age, but there can be no doubting he was truly a great violinist.  

Various. Virtuoso Violin Concertos. Ruggiero Ricci, London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Øivin Fjeldstad, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Piero Gamba, Anatole Fistoulari. 2010. Compact Disc (2). Decca Eloquence DECCA 480 2083.

Every cellist must feel obliged to record the Elgar Cello Concerto at some point, yet it must be hard to know how to say something new, with such an iconic piece.  However, Paul Watkins has entered the fray, along with great Elgarian Sir Andrew Davis, and the BBC Philharmonic.  Having performed the work live on many occasions, he manages to make this recording feel fresh and immediate, and Davis and he produce touching sadness without ever wallowing.    The disc also contains the full set of ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ Marches, and Davis and the BBC Philharmonic avoid the overblown excesses of many ‘Last Night’ performances, yet bring out the inherent joy in these pieces.  The Elegy is also sensitively performed, emotion barely contained here.  The final piece here is the Introduction and Allegro for solo quartet and string orchestra, and this also receives an outstanding performance.  Overall, a strong offering, with perfect recording sound throughout. 
Armenian pianist Nareh Argamanyan has relased a CD of Rachmaninov, with the Morceaux de Fantasie, the Etudes Tableaux, and the Corelli Variations.  These are well-known show pieces, yet Rachmaninov also demands a great understanding of emotion and lyricism, if they are not to become overblown and sentimental.  Argamanyan is clearly committed to communicating this emotion, as is evident in the interview with her on the bonus DVD (which also contains performances of part of the Corelli Variations, and the great C sharp minor Prelude).  Yet on the whole, she manages to not allow this expression of emotion to become over-indulgent.  These are all fiendishly difficult pieces, yet with playing as confident as this, you are not made overly aware of this.  A whole disc of Rachmaninov can make you feel a bit bloated, but Argamanyan maintains enough interest and lightness of touch to avoid this – in fact, the final (and longest) work on this disc, the Corelli Variations, held my interest the most. 
Rachmaninov, Sergei. Morceaux de Fantasie, etc. Nareh Argamanyan. 2012. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc and Digital Versatile Disc. Pentatone PTC 5186 399.

(These reviews first appeared in GScene magazine)