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)