Saturday, 2 August 2014

CD Reviews - August 2014

Viola player Barbara Buntrock and pianist Daniel Heide have released an intriguing set of three works, all composed in 1919.  First, the Sonata by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), for which the composer won joint first prize in the Sprague Coolidge competition, sharing the position with Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), whose Suite for Viola and Piano is also here.  They are separated on the disc by the Sonata, Op. 11 No. 4 by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963).  The Clarke Sonata is a beautiful piece, unusual in that its emotional heart is a slow third movement.  There are elements of Vaughan Williams and Debussy here, but Clarke definitely has a voice of her own.  Sadly she left her studies at the Royal College of Music due to an inappropriate proposal from a professor and being thrown out by her father, and struggled to get her music taken seriously, even having to use a male pseudonym at times.  When she won the competition, rumours spread that her piece was actually by Bloch, as it couldn’t possibly have been composed by a woman.  She more or less stopped composing in the fifties after her marriage, but left a fine body of chamber, vocal and choral works which is gradually gaining the recognition it deserves (Check out the Rebecca Clarke Society for more).  The Hindemith Sonata by comparison is a darker work - there are still the late Romantic touches here, as well as hints of Debussy, but Hindemith’s drier, complex harmonic language is emerging too. The final work on this disc is the Suite by Bloch.  Unlike many of his works which draw on Jewish traditional music, Bloch’s main influence here is Java and the Far East.  Over these three works, all composed in the same year, there is a huge range of styles and soundworlds, which Buntrock and Heide capture well.  Buntrock produces beautiful warmth in the Clarke, a greater edge to her sound in the Hindemith, and brings out the ethereal exoticism in the Bloch, with Heide providing strong accompaniment throughout. Highly recommended.

Next, live performances from the Ensemble Epomeo, and members of the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Kenneth Woods.  First, the Ensemble Epomeo (with which Kenneth Woods plays the cello) and friends perform Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’) by Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) in its original string sextet version.  Schönberg later orchestrated the work, and it became one of his most performed works.  Unlike his later music, it is tonal, although highly chromatic, with a late Romantic stamp, and a strong Wagnerian flavour.  The orchestral version is extremely lush, but the sextet version, whilst obviously pared down in texture, actually has a greater intensity.  The poem by Dehmel which inspired the work is about a woman who walks with her lover in a moonlit forest, and confesses she is pregnant by another man.  Her lover ultimately forgives her and the intensity of their love and the beauty of the moonlight brings them together.  In this live recording, there are some occasional background noises, and in fact noises from the players themselves at time, with some rather heavy breathing in places.  However, they capture the build of intensity in the music, and one can sense that this must have been a captivating performance to experience live.  Despite the relative containment of the sextet version, the climaxes could take more passion, but otherwise this is an exciting performance.  The disc continues with another chamber version of a work better known as an orchestral piece.  Brahms (1833-1897) originally scored his Serenade Op. 11 for wind and string octet, then expanded it to a nonet, before fully orchestrating it in the version known today.  Brahms destroyed the original chamber version, but Alan Boustead reconstructed it, and here it is performed by members of the Orchestra of the Swan.  Another enjoyable live performance, combining sensitivity and warmth in the Adagio, spirit and fun in the second Scherzo, with a rousing gypsy-infused Finale.  The wind players in particular stand out for me in this lively recording.

Montreal based group VivaVoce, conducted by Peter Schubert have recorded motets based around Scenes from the Gospels, by composers including Josquin, Palestrina and Gombert.  As an ensemble, they produce a very clear, pure and even sound, which is perhaps less resonant than the fuller sounds of English ensembles we are more used to, such as The Sixteen and The Tallis Scholars.  They aim for a beauty of overall sound, I think, rather than inflecting the music with significant expression.  This works better for me in the more rhythmically interesting pieces, such as Domine, si tu es by Nicolas Gombert (1495-c.1560), or In illo tempore stabant by Adrian Willaert (c.1490-1592), but the longer, soaring lines of Palestrina’s (1525-1594) In diebus illis left me wanting more depth to the sound.  However, there is great variety in their programme, and a composer new to me was Michele Pesenti, or Michael of Verona (c.1470-c.1524), whose Tulerunt Dominum meum contains some beautiful word painting, taking the sopranos souring upwards on the word ‘spes’ (‘hope’), before bringing us back down to earth at the end.  To win a copy of this CD, email me at - draw at end of August (UK only).

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, August 2014)

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