Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Tallis Scholars - 40th Anniversary

This month I want to highlight some rather special artists who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year – The Tallis Scholars, founded in 1973 by conductor Peter Phillips.  They are launching their celebratory world tour with a concert at St Paul’s Cathedral on 7 March – if you can make it, I recommend you do not miss this one.  They will be performed loved works such as Tallis’ 40-part motet Spem in Alium, and Allegri’s Misere, as well as premieres of works by Gabriel Jackson, Eric Whitacre, and the London premiere of Robin Walker’s I have thee by the hand, O man, a 40-part homage to Tallis’ piece.  I’ll be there, and a review will follow.  They’ve also released a great 2-CD volume called ‘Renaissance Radio’, including highlights of recordings from their vast back catalogue.  And they’ve put together a great programme.  There’s lots of Tallis, obviously, and Palestrina, Victoria and Sheppard are here too.  They kick off the first disc with Allegri’s MIsere – but perhaps not as you know it.  The version we are familiar with, so the story goes, is based on Mozart’s transcription of the ornaments as performed in the Sistene Chapel in Rome.  After many years of performing the work, with over 300 concert performances under her belt, soprano Deborah Roberts (yes, our own Co-Director of Brighton Early Music Festival) added her own startling and striking embellishments, providing a wonderful twist to an old favourite.  It’s hard to pick out favourites from this collection of 47 tracks – but apart from the Allegri, I’d have to include Mouton’s beautiful Salva nos, Domine (you can find a review of their full Mouton CD here), Brumel’s Agnus Dei II from his amazing ‘Earthquake Mass’, and Cornysh’s Ave Maria for men’s voices from the Eton Choirbook.  The recordings span 26 years, and the roll call of singers runs to 60 plus, including many singers who have gone on since to solo careers (such as Mark Padmore, Charles Daniels and Michael Chance).  If this wonderful ensemble is new to you, I highly recommend you start with this CD, get to the St Paul’s concert if you can, and then explore their massive back catalogue of wonderful recordings of Renassiance music and more.

Various. Rennaisance Radio. The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips. 2013. Compact Disc (2). Gimell. CDGIM 212.

(An edited version of this review will also appear in GScene magazine, March 2013)

CD Reviews - February 2013

The Doric String Quartet have quickly established themselves in a relatively crowded field of young quartets, and their recordings have won awards and high acclaim.  Their latest disc is no exception, despite the fact they have chosen to record two of the most well-known Schubert quartets, the two known as ‘Rosamunde’ (No. 13 in A minor) and ‘Death and the Maiden’ (No. 14 in D minor).  Both works were composed towards the end of Schubert’s life, when the syphilis that would kill him had taken hold.  Both the names of these quartets refer to the slow movements – the main melody of the ‘Rosamunde’ quartet comes from Schubert’s incidental music for a play of the same name, and the theme for the variations in ‘Death and the Maiden’ comes from his song setting of Der Tod und das Mädchen by Matthias Claudius.  Both quartets combine incredibly dark, almost painful music with moments of lyrical beauty and grace – the intensity of the outer movements of No.14 verges at times on violence.  The Dorics perhaps emphasis the darkness more than the light, with their sparse use of vibrato and accurate use of the full range of dynamics.  Yet they are still able to produce moments of lightness and beauty when required – it’s just that the sense of tragedy and foreboding is never far away, which surely is the intrinsic power of this music.  Even the light melody of the ‘Rosamunde’ tune in No. 13, almost trite in its simplicity, acquires a mystery as it rises to a brief climax before subsiding once more into calm.  Yet the dark heart of No. 14, the Death and the Maiden variations, is where the Dorics show their total mastery of this music.  The relentless rhythm of the tune, taken here at a more pressing tempo allows every player to shine in turn, but cellist John Myerscough stands out in the fifth variation, before the music returns with painful inevitability to the simple theme in the coda.  You can hear the Doric String Quartet play this quartet in Lewes at the Nicholas Yonge Society (Friday 22 February) – not to be missed!

Schubert, F. String Quartets, 'Rosamunde' and 'Der Tod und das Mädchen'. Doric String Quartet. 2012. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10737.

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor was just 11 when he won the keyboard final of Young Musician of the Year in 2004 (losing in the final to violinist Nicola Benedetti).  He became the youngest pianist to play at the First Night of the Proms in 2011, making his debut there with Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto, to great acclaim, and recently he won two Gramophone awards (Best Instrumentalist and Best Young Artist).  I’ve been listening to his 2011 CD of Chopin, Liszt and Ravel, and I have to say this is one performer who deserves the hyperbolic reviews he has been receiving lately.  The disc includes Chopin’s four Scherzos, alternated with three of the Nocturnes.  The disc ends with Ravel’s enormously challenging Gaspard de la nuit, and in the middle are three short works from Liszt – two transcriptions of Polish songs by Chopin, and Liszt’s own Nocturne, ‘En rêve’.  His virtuosity in these challenging works is without question, but what impresses even more is the maturity of interpretation.  From the wild first Scherzo at the start of the disc, through Liszt’s surprisingly introspective ‘En rêve’, to the technical nightmare of Scarbo, Gaspard de la nuit’s notoriously difficult final movement, Grosvenor’s playing is captivating and inspiring.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is back with more Haydn (1732-1809).  His 4th volume of Haydn’s Piano Sonatas brings us three Sonatas (Nos. 30, 38 & 40) and a set of Variations in F minor.   The well-known Variations were composed in 1793, so towards the end of the composer’s life, and he perhaps jokingly subtitled the work ‘Un piccolo Divertimento’ – this is fact a substantial piece, certainly not a lightweight novelty.  This is actually a double set of variations, with two musical episodes, each varied twice.  As with previous discs in the series, Bavouzet demonstrates his authoritative immersion in this music, through his informative performance notes, but also in his sensitive and appropriate use of ornamentation and decoration.  He brings out Haydn’s humour, particularly in Sonata No. 30’s opening movement, as well as the joy and spirit of the more well-known No. 38’s closing Finale.  No. 40 is somewhat shorter, with just two movements, but no less interesting, with particularly clever use of canon in the second Menuet movement.  Once again, Bavouzet is a joy to listen to, and the intermittent arrival of the volumes from this series is always something to look forward to – roll on Volume 5!

The fact most often stated about Czech composer and violinist Josef Suk (1874-1935) is that he was a pupil of, and married the daughter of Dvořák – talk about being overshadowed!  Yet despite this, his music is well worth exploration, and he produced some fine chamber and orchestral works – his Serenade for Strings is perhaps one of his best known pieces.  Czech conductor, Jirí Bêlohlávek, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, have recorded two of his orchestral works and a glorious new disc, which can be highly recommended.  The first work on the disc, ‘A Summer’s Tale’, is a beautiful evocation of summer and nature, and is a real discovery for me.  The orchestration is striking, and the use of hazy, shimmering strings, and bright and perky wind playing creates a fascinating soundworld which deserves greater recognition.  The Intermezzo, with its representation of blind musicians playing a mournful tune, oblivious of the sunshine around them, is particularly striking and evocative. The other work here, ‘Prague’, was composed shortly after the tragic loss of first his father-in-law Dvořák, to whom he was very close, and then soon just two months later, the death of his beloved wife, Dvořák’s daughter Otilka.  The work makes use of a love theme that he used in an earlier work composed just before his marriage to Otilka, and a Hussite chorale tune, and the work climaxes with the two themes combining triumphantly.  Both works receive performances full of life and the BBC Symphony Orchestra rise to the challenge of the many solo opportunities that the works also present.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene magazine, February 2013)