Wednesday, 23 December 2015

CD Reviews - December 2015

Pianist Barry Douglas’ fourth volume of Works for Solo Piano by Brahms (1833-1897) continues with his practice of mixing and matching more substantial works such as the Sonata No. 1 and two sets of Variations with selected shorter works from the later collections of Intermezzi and Fantasies.  It is interesting to hear these shorter pieces out of the context of the whole sets in which they were published – although there is nothing to suggest Brahms intended them to be performed as complete sets. So we hear here the beautiful C sharp minor Intermezzo from Op. 117, together with the E minor Intermezzo from Op. 119, three of the seven Fantasies Op. 76 and the first Ballade.  The great Sonata No. 1, Brahms’ Op.1 opens the disc, and the first book of the Variations on a Theme by Paganini (yes, that famous theme) ends the programme, with the Variations on a Theme by Schumann as the centrepiece. By doing this, Douglas cleverly contrasts power and weight in the larger scale pieces with intimacy and retrospection in the smaller pieces, thereby avoiding the cliched criticism of Brahms’ music being all too heavyweight.  It is also very effective placing the Sonata, his first published work alongside works from the very end of his career.  The Schumann variations are perhaps less well-known than the Paganini sets, but are another sign of the close relationship Brahms had with the Schumanns (he dedicated the set to Clara Schumann), and contain numerous references to both Clara and Robert. Douglas shows great power and command in the Sonata, particularly in its fiery and heroic finale, yet he also shows great subtetly in the two brooding minor-key late Intermezzi. The Variations allow him to demonstrate extremes of virtuosity, as well as moments of delicacy, particularly in the Schumann set. Once again, this is an impressive set, and Volume 5 is out too – highly recommended.

Brahms, J. 2015. Works for Solo Piano, Volume Four. Barry Douglas. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10857.

Solo repertoire for the oboe took along time to become established in the seventeenth century, due to the oboe being largely inaccessible to amateurs and also because of the entrepeneurial fashion for publishing music for as varied forces as possible. So pieces would be published as suitable for flute, viol, oboe and other instruments to maximise the audience, making it hard to identify when a composer was specifically writing for a particular instrument. It was therefore commonplace for works to be transposed and transcribed to suit different instruments, and many composers expected and sanctioned this. Marin Marais (1656-1728) is best known for his music for viols, yet he expressly suggested many works could be transposed to be made suitable for other instruments. With this in mind, Baroque oboe specialist Christopher Palameta has recorded six of Marais’ Suites, making suitable transpositions and adjustments for the oboe. He is joined by a continuo of Eric Tinkerhess (bass viol), Lisa Goode Crawford (harpsichord) and Romain Falik (Baroque guitar and theorbo). The rich, warm sound of Palameta’s oboe is matched beautifully with the depth of sound from the continuo instruments, so that one would never know they weren’t written for the oboe. Whilst the form of the six suites here is relatively formulaic, with a Prélude followed by four or five dance based movements, there is nevertheless great variety in Marais’ writing. The Sarabandes are dignified and stately, the Gigues are sprightly and the Préludes are suitably arresting. A few individual movements stand out too, such as the rustic Musettes in the G minor suite, and the Spanish inflections of the final ‘La Biscayenne’ of the E minor suite. Palameta makes a convincing case for this music on the oboe, and hopefully more recordings from him will follow soon.

Marais, M. 2014. Suites for Oboe. Christopher Palameta, Eric Tinkerhess, Romain Falik, Lisa Goode Crawford. Compact Disc. Audax Records. ADX 13702.

I recently reviewed a disc of choral and vocal music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, and have since been enjoying an earlier recording made of her chamber works.  The disc is called ‘The Glory Tree’, which is the one work here with voice, with a chamber ensemble accompaniment. Soprano Natalie Raybould, who sang on the vocal recording, performs Frances-Hoad’s settings of Old English poems with members of the Kreisler Ensemble. These are challenging pieces, with real extremes of dynamic, extending even to a scream which ends the final song. Yet there are also subtleties of writing here, with bell-like piano writing combined with woodwind ripples in the fourth song, and sombre string writing in the third. Elsewhere on the disc we have a angular, virtuosic solo violin piece, The Snow Woman (performed impressively by Natalia Lomeiko) and a richly intense, almost claustrophobic piece, Invocation, for solo cello with six tutti celli and double-bass, performed by Leonid Gorokhov and members of the Yehudi Menuhin School, where Frances-Hoad herself studied. With a darkly oppressive piano trio, Melancholia, inspired by paintings by Edvard Munch, a dream-like string trio, The Ogre Lover, and a quirky, jazzy solo piece, Bouleumata, for clarinet, this is a strong calling card showing off Frances-Hoad’s varied and imaginative writing for chamber forces. The disc opens with a wonderful work for oboe, cor anglais (both played here by the great Nicholas Daniel), string trio and piano called Memoria, inspired by Back’s Solo Cello Suite No. 2, and in memory of the oboist and cellist Sidney Sutcliffe who taught Frances-Hoad. After a tender opening to the Prelude, the textures build in complexity, and the fluidly interpreted Fugue which follows shows a strong sense of form and imaginative development of musical material. Together with the choral/vocal disc, this showcases a highly talented composer to be watched closely.

Frances-Hoad, C. 2011. The Glory Tree. Various artists. Compact Disc. Champs Hill Records CHRCD021.

(These reviews first appeared in GScene, December 2015)

Monday, 7 December 2015

Powerful Prokofiev and Scriabin from the Philharmonia and Salonen

© Clive Barda

Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor)

Lang Lang (piano)

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, excerpts
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26
Scriabin: La poème de l'extase, Op. 54

Thursday 3 December 2015

'The violent conclusion was truly frightening, with Salonen delivering maximum venom'.

'More than a curtain-raiser, this was a powerful performance, whetting the appetite for more Prokofiev to come'.

'A performance with moments of excitement marred by a lack of focus or a sense of partnership between pianist and orchestra'.

'Salonen and the Philharmonia players maintained a wonderful level of delicacy'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Baroque Collective Singers - Christmas Celebration

Tickets here.
More on Facebook here.


Messe de Minuit pour Noël - Marc-Antoine Charpentier
INTERVAL - mulled wine and mince pies
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree - Elizabeth Poston
Christmas Hath Darkness - Ed Hughes
In the bleak midwinter - Harold Darke
O Radiant Dawn - James MacMillan 
Wallands CP School Choir:
Away in a Manger - Alan Woods
Calypso Carol - Michael Perry
Somewhere in my Memory - John Williams 
Good King Wenceslas - Reginald Jacques - audience carol 
O Little One Sweet - Trad arr J S Bach
Hymn to the Virgin - Benjamin Britten
Ding Dong Merrily on High - Charles Wood 
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear - Arthur Sullivan - audience carol

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

O magnum myseterium - In dulci jubilo!

Deborah Roberts - Director

Music for advent and Christmas by 
Victoria, Palestrina, Praetorius, Walter and Paminger

Saturday 5 December, 6pm

St Paul's Church, West Street, Brighton

Mince pies, mulled wine and fizz!

Tickets £12 (£10 concession) from here.

On Facebook here.

Monday, 16 November 2015

CD Reviews - November 2015

The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, have followed up their acclaimed 2013 release of music by John Taverner (c1490-1545) with a recording of his massive Missa Corona Spinea. Taverner was a huge influence on English composers who followed, including Tallis and Byrd, yet remarkably little is known about his life, and details about his compositions and musical appointments really only account for less than ten years of his life from 1524 to about 1530.  Yet eight masses and a number of motets and antiphons remain, and the importance of this composer in the development of English music cannot be overstated. His command of texture and form, combined with the ability to create a sense of serenity and clarity in his melodic lines is amply demonstrated in the Missa Corona Spinea.  Unlike in his other great work Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, where the virtuosity required across the six parts is more or less equal, in the Missa Corona Spinea, it is the trebles (the top soprano line) who are the stars. Right from the opening bars they are soaring on top B flats, and stay up there pretty much throughout. Not only that, but there are two significant ‘gimell’ sections – this is where one part splits into two separate lines. So here, the two trebles (Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth on amazing form) have incredibly intricate solo lines which weave in and out of each other, underpinned by a bass line. For the second gimell, Taverner complicates matters even more by splitting the mean voice (the next voice down) too, making this a double gimell.  The resulting virtuosic intricacy is amazing, and as ever, The Tallis Scholars relish this challenge, with the trebles in particular producing effortless, crystal clear lines above the rich sonorities of the lower voices.  Taverner further accentuates the soaring top line by scoring two bass parts at the bottom, adding to the richness of the fuller choral sections.  It is not known exactly what occasion Taverner composed this amazing work for, but there is speculation that none other than Cardinal Wolsey may have commissioned it, with Henry VIII possibly present at the first performance.  The scale of this single work, at nearly 48 minutes long, is immense, but it rewards concentrated listening. You can’t help being transported by those ringing top notes and the intensity of Taverner’s complex writing. The Tallis Scholars complete the disc with Taverner’s two settings of the Easter responsary Dum transisset Sabbatum. The first of these is better known, but it is great to hear them side-by-side. Despite using the same tenor chant line, they demonstrate the composer’s skill at producing strikingly different settings within the same construct.  The text describes the women arriving at Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday morning, and Taverner creates a sense of awe and wonder in both settings. A worthy end to another top-notch recording from The Tallis Scholars.

Cellist Pieter Wispelwey has been joined by pianist Paolo Giacometti for the first disc in a projected six disc cycle in which he plans to record all of Schubert and Brahms’ chamber duos – predominantly composed for other instruments than the cello. Why, you might ask? Well, as he argues, some works, such as Brahms’ Clarinet Sonatas, are regularly performed on other instruments – Brahms himself published versions of these for viola. And the famed ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata, usually performed on the cello, was, as discussed with Tasmin Little’s recent Schubert disc, composed for a now defunct guitar/cello hybrid. So why now explore these works with the different sonorities of the cello? Well on the basis of this opening disc, I would tentatively agree – although I think this works better with some works than others. The Fantasie that opens the disc, a late work composed by Schubert for violin and piano, combines virtuosity with some incredibly touching moments. The cello is not quite lithe enough for the most virtuosic moments here, and Wispelwey’s tone in the higher registers is more brittle than a violin produces. However, Wispelwey and Giacometti have great fun with the piece, and they bring a fresh angle to the work as a result.  The second of the aforementioned Clarinet Sonatas by Brahms fares better, with the instrument’s natural lyricism suiting Brahms’ beautifully smooth lines well – although again here when taken to the higher reaches of the instrument, the tone becomes a little dry.  The early Schubert Sonata works well, and Wispelwey and Giacometti bring out its light, engaging spirit well. Wispelwey separates the three duos with two movements from Solo Cello Suites by Max Reger (1873-1916) – highly Romantic works, despite their obvious nod to Bach, and convincingly performed here.

(These reviews first appeared in GScene, November 2015)