Monday, 29 December 2014

CD Reviews, December 2014

I have to start this review by saying that the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 is my all-time favourite chamber work.  So settling down to a performance by the excellent Brodsky Quartet together with clarinettist of the moment, Michael Collins, promised much.  But first, they opened with the second String Quartet.  Brahms composed just three String Quartets, and he was forty before he published the first two, Op. 51.  Much has been written about the shadow of Beethoven that stunted Brahms’ confidence, and the string quartet genre it was also the vast body of work from the other string quartet giants, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, that must have been intimidating for any composer following so soon after.  In fact the Op. 51 pair were received well, if not overly enthusiastically at the time, but the ever self-critical Brahms wasn’t entirely happy with them.  Interestingly, he seemed to favour the expanded resources of quintets and sextets, which perhaps gave him more scope for his often richer, thicker harmonic writing.  However, the second String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51 No. 2 is on the whole, a lighter, more lyrical affair, although darkness lurks in the thoughtful slow movement, and in the weighty yet lively Hungarian dance influenced finale.  The Brodskys give a fine performance here, nothing remarkable, but giving due weight where required, and a lighter touch, for example, in the alternating Allegretto Vivace section of the third movement.  However, there is definitely a feeling of this being a curtain raiser for the main event, the Clarinet Quintet.  This dates from the Indian summer of Brahms’ compositional output, after he had said he would compose no more.  A number of key works stem from this period, including three other chamber works including the clarinet, all inspired by the playing of clarinettist Richard Mühlfield.  The Clarinet Quintet is a masterpiece of nostalgia, sadness and at times, exquisite beauty.  This is a more laid-back performance from Collins and the Brodskys than some – their take emphasises the introspection and reflection, and less so the dramatic outbursts of frustration, even anger that are there in the music.  Their tempi throughout are relaxed, which is a noticeable Brodsky characteristic. So I missed the full extent of this passion, particularly in the turbulent second movement.  However, Collins’ warm, honeyed tone is perfect for the sense late summer turning to autumn, matched by the rich, full-bodied string playing from the quartet. The poignant return of the music from the first movement is played with great sensitivity and pathos. So overall, a fine performance, but not quite hitting all the right buttons for me.

Back in February I reviewed a disc of Franco-Flemish renaissance music sung by the all male Italian ensemble Odhecaton, and their latest disc tackles the strange and wonderful world of Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613).  He is almost more famous for having murdered his wife (who was also his first cousin) and her lover, than for his unusual and strikingly chromatic music, so it’s always good to see new recordings of his music.  As with their previous disc, the soundworld is different from what we are used to from many English early music ensembles.  On this disc the singers are joined in some pieces by instrumentalists and the viol group Ensemble Mare Nostrum, and the blend of sounds is extraordinary, to the extent that at times, separating the sound of the counter-tenors from the cornett is not always easy.  This mix of textures, as well as the insertion of several short organ pieces, makes for a varied programme.  The works on this disc come from Gesualdo’s first book of Sacrae Cantiones, and there isn’t space here to go into detail about all the pieces here.  Highlights include the weird falling harmonies in Deus, refugium et virtus, and the subtle mix of singers and instruments in Tribulationem et dolorem and Dignare me laudare te. But if you want to discover more about Gesualdo’s music, this is a great place to start.

Violinist Jennifer Pike has carved out a great career already, having been the youngest winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year back in 2002, aged just twelve.  In her performance here of one of the last great Romantic concertos, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 47 by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), she demonstrates incredible musical maturity, combined with an effortless virtuosity.  There isn’t a flicker of difficulty as she negotiates the challenges of cadenza passages in the first movement, and the fiendish octaves and harmonics of the finale are rock solid.  The only cost of such effortless command of the technical difficulties is that we occasionally lose an edge of danger, important in such a passionate work.  The passion rises in the slow movement however, and she is supported by some beautiful playing from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, especially from the wind section.  Sir Andrew Davis and the orchestra then fill out the disc with a selection of orchestral works by Sibelius, some better known than others.  The most substantial is the enjoyable Karelia Suite, rooted in Finnish folk music from the region bordering Russia, and Sibelius’ strong belief in the freedom of Finland from Russian rule.  Davis and the orchestra give a rousing performance, and their Finlandia is also strong, with rich and stirring orchestral tones.  The highlight, however, is their performance of one movement from Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite (a shame we couldn’t have all four), The Swan of Tuonela.  The conversation between solo cor anglais and cello, over muted divided strings, is one of Sibelius’ most inspired creation, and the soloists here (Hege Sellevåg, cor anglais, and Jonathan Aasgaard, cello) make a fine job of it.  The popular Valse triste is accompanied by the less well-known Valse lyrique and Andante festivo, all receiving strong performances. 

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

Thought-provoking, violent and percussive: Bavouzet's Bartók, Ravel and Beethoven

© Benjamin Ealovega
Jean Efflam-Bavouzet played Beethoven's Piano Sonatas No. 22 in F major, Op. 54 and No. 23 in F minor, 'Appassionata', Op. 57, followed by Le Livre de Jeb by Bruno Mantovani.  In the second half of his recital, he played Ravel's Miroirs, and the Piano Sontata Sz80 by Bartók.  For an encore, he played the Étude de Concert, Op. 13, by Gabriel Pierné.

Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 16 December 2014.

'Tonight’s recital demonstrated ... his commanding presence as a performer, as well as a highly intelligent approach to programming, creating thought-provoking connections between composers and their compositions'.

'One of those performances that leaves you slightly shell-shocked and not sure what just happened – but in a good way!'

Read my full review here.