Wednesday, 31 July 2013

CD Reviews - August 2013

Pianist Peter Donohoe has begun a cycle of Prokofiev’s (1891-1953) Piano Sonatas with the first five, out of a total of nine.  They range from an early student work, unashamedly romantic in the style of Tchaikovsky, through to the fifth, a rather introspective and refelective work, and the only one of the nine to be composed outside Russia.  Whilst the Sonatas 6-8, his ‘War Sonatas’, are widely considered to be his greatest piano works, these first five show a remarkable journey from the early romantic work through to the lively challenges posed by the Fourth Sonata, and the strange expressive harmonic world of the Fifth Sonata.  Donohoe recorded the ‘War Sonatas' no fewer than 23 years ago, to great acclaim at the time.  Now he has returned, this time to record the full set.  He is a great British pianist, with a remarkably sensitive approach to even the most virtuosic of repertoire, and this combination makes this recording particularly enjoyable.  Prokofiev certainly needs virtuosic command, but the expressive side of his music, most notable here in the slow movement of the Fourth Sonata, is often given less careful attention.  Donohoe brings this first volume to a subtle and enigmatic close with the final movement of Fifth Sonata’s surprisingly quiet conclusion – almost as if in anticipation of the next volume to follow soon.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet continues his survey of Haydn’s (1732-1809) Piano Sonatas, with Volume 5 once again containing 6 sonatas spread across the composer’s output, with the earliest, No. 15 from 1760, through to Nos. 54-56 from 1784.  No. 12 is also here, although its authenticity as a genuine Haydn sonata is under considerable doubt – but whoever composed it, it probably originated even earlier in 1755.  However you look at it, though, this disc once again shows the extraordinary range and constant flow of invention that Haydn demonstrated over such a long period.  Highlights here for me are the lively finale of No. 37, a dance-like minuet and trio of variations, the startling harmonic jump in the finale of No. 54, and the strangely unsettling and destabiliising rhythmns of No. 56.  Once again, Bavouzet demonstrates incredible precision and command, at the same time as bringing this music alive with a sense of fun and enjoyment throughout. 

Clarinettist Michael Collins is back with Volume 2 of British Clarinet Sonatas, once again joined by Michael McHale on the piano.  Here are five works, ranging from 1949 to 2010.  The earliest is Arthur Benjamin’s (1893-1960) Le Tombeau de Ravel, a ‘tombeau’ (memorial tribute) in itself to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.  This sequence of miniature waltz time sections ends with a wonderful climax reminding one of Ravel’s La Valse.  Sir Malcom Arnold (1921-2006) is perhaps finally gaining the status he deserves, after a lifetime of battling against being seen as a ‘light’ film composer.  His Sonatina is not a hugely substantial work, but contains delightful jazz infusions, a beautifully lyrical slow movement, and a wildly virtuosic finale.  Edward Gregson (b.1945) has written five Tributes to particular composers (including Poulenc and Bartók), composed for specific clarinettists, including Emma Johnson, and Collins himself.  The other works here are Arnold Cooke’s (1906-2006) Sonata, a substantial four movement work with influences of Hindemith evident, with whom Cooke studied, and finally, a delightful Sonatina by Joseph Horovitz (b. 1926), full of lyricism and bouncy syncopation.  Collins, ably accompanied by McHale, is the ideal advocate for works that sadly seldom receive an airing.

Violinist Arabella Steinbacher has combined an old favourite, the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Max Bruch (1838-1920), with Erich Korngold’s (1897-1957) Violin Concerto, and the Poème for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson (1855-1899).  These are all full-on romantic works, and a whole disc of such music could be rather overpowering, were it not for the fact that Steinbacher takes a cleaner, more measured approach than one might expect.  That is not to say that she is at all reticent in her playing – on the contrary, in the slow movement of the Korngold, for example, she extracts every ounce of romantic lyricism, with a beautifully singing tone throughout.  It’s just that somehow she saves the high romanticism for the ‘right’ moments, rather than wallowing throughout.  Interestingly, if you listen to just one of the works here (perhaps the Bruch in particular), you might be left wanting more, but listening to the disc as a whole the end result is just right – satisfying without feeling like you’ve over-indulged on too much dessert. The Orquestra Gulbenkian, conducted by Lawrence Foster, provide tasteful and solid support.

Finally, more piano, this time Brahms, from Irish pianist Barry Douglas.  He’s on the second volume of Works for Solo Piano by Brahms, with three of the Ballades, three Intermezzi, a Rhapsody and the Sonata No. 3.  He is taking the approach of splitting and mixing up Brahms’ sets, creating interesting programmes as a result.  I have to say I am so used to hearing the Intermezzi in their respective sets, that it takes a little getting used to hearing them separated in this way.  However, once I got used to not hearing what I expected on the next track, I actually really enjoyed the juxtopositions here – particularly the sense of building towards the great Sonata at the end of the disc.  Douglas plays with great sensitivity, and avoids a heaviness that can creep in with Brahms at his most dramatic.  In fact this whole disc builds beautifully to the heart-stopping Rückblick before the joyous chorale-like closing finale of the Sonata.  The sign of a great pianist is being able to say something new with familiar repertoire, without resorting to distorting interpretations, and that is what Douglas achieves here.

Brahms, J. 2013. Works for Solo Piano, Volume Two. Barry Douglas. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10757.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, August 2013).