Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Rory Macdonald's LPO debut: confident, intelligent and commanding

© Benjamin Ealovega
Rory Macdonald had his debut concert conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Brighton on Saturday.  They performed Humperdinck's Prelude to Hansel and Gretel, and were then joined by pianist Lambis Vassiliadis for Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21.  For an encore, Vassiliadis played Liszt's Réminiscences de Norma, S394.  The concert ended with Dvořák's Symphony no. 8 in G major, Op.88.

Brighton Dome, Saturday 17 January 2015.

'fine orchestral playing and an intelligent performance in particular of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony'

'a strong and arresting performance, receiving a deservedly warm reception from the Brighton audience'.

Read my full review here.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

CD Reviews - January 2015

I have reviewed a number of discs to come out of the Heimbach Festival, and they have always proved to be enjoyable live performances from great chamber musicians.  The latest disc of Dvořák and Shostakovich is no exception. The disc begins with Dvořák’s great ‘Dumky’ Piano Trio, with Artistic Director of the festival, Lars Vogt (who joins the Royal Northern Sinfonia as Music Director in 2015) on piano, and Christian Tetzlaff and Tanja Tetzlaff on violin and cello respectively.  The Dumka is a Ukranian dance, with the characteristic of shifting between slow melancholy and lively exuberance, and Dvořák uses this principle throughout this six-movement trio.  The performance here is very touching in the slow sections, with real sensitivity particular from Tanja Tetzlaff on the cello.  The boisterous sections once or twice become a little overblown acoustically (particularly in the second movement), understandable in the context of a live performance.  However, this is a lively and enjoyable performance of a colourful piece, full of emotional contrasts.  The disc continues with a selection of six pieces from Dvořák’s Zypressen for String Quartet.  The performers here are Alissa Margulis, Byol Kang (violins), Tatjana Masurenko (viola) and Gustav Rivinius (cello).  Dvořák arranged 12 of the cycle of 18 songs he had written to express the unrequited passion he had for Josephina Cermáková (whose sister he ended up marrying), and six of them are performed here.  No. 2 has definite echoes of Dvořák’s American String Quartet, and No. 11 has a delightfully bouncy rhythm, which the performers here enjoy to the full. This might be the ‘filler’ here, but it was in fact the performance I enjoyed the most.  Dmitri Shostkovich’s (1906-1975) Piano Trio No. 1 dates from 1923, and was a student work, dedicated to his beloved at the time, Tanya Gilvenko.  It is a rather rambling single movement work, but contains music of great passion.  Shostakovich’s father had died the year before, and he was forced to work as a cinema pianist to support his mother and sister.  Perhaps this experience, and the need to switch the emotions of the music quickly to suit a film dramatically, goes someway to explain the sudden changes of mood in the Trio.  Highly Romantic, passionate music gives sudden way to stormy, urgent passages with particularly virtuosic and turbulent writing for the piano.  The performers here, Aaron Pilsan (piano), Alissa Margulis (violin) and Marie-Elisabeth Hecker (cello) give an especially ardent performance, and the energy of their live performance hides the somewhat disjointed nature of this youthful work.

George Onslow (1794-1835) is one of that strange band of composers who were incredibly successful in their day, and whose music has more or less disappeared without trace in terms of contemporary performance and recording.  Born to an English aristocratic father and French mother, he was known at the time by many as ‘the French Beethoven’.  He stood out at the time, as in post-revolutionary France, the only really popular genre was opera – ‘pure’ instrumental music was much more a German tradition, and Onslow’s music is clearly in the tradition of Beethoven, Spohr and Schubert.  Onslow composed a vast amount of chamber music, as well as four symphonies and four operas.  But after his death, his music suffered from being seen as too conventional – and good old Wagner didn’t help, branding some of his music as ‘trivial’.  Yet, whilst there isn’t perhaps the depth and transcendence of some Beethoven or Schubert, say, his music has real interest, and no less than Schumann said that only Onslow and Mendelssohn approached Beethoven’s mastery of the string quartet.  The Trio Portici from Belgium have recorded a pleasing selection of Onslow’s smaller scale chamber works, beginning with the Piano Trio, Op. 14 No. 2.  The Trio is perhaps the most obviously Beethovenian work here, with the spiky, off-beat rhythms of its Minuetto vivace, and the emphatic feel of its two confident outer movements.  The individual voice of the composer is strongest in the slow movement, variations on an ‘Air populaire des montagnes d’Auvergne’, combining French folk roots with Germanic classicism and early Romantic idioms.  This is followed by a delightful Duo for Piano & Violin, Op. 15.  The work opens with a heartfelt and slightly mysterious slow introduction, leading into an energetic display for both players in the brisk first movement.  After a fun Minuet, a pleasing set of variations on ‘Au clair de la lune’ forms the slow movement, before a sprightly finale.  They finish with the Sonata for Piano & Cello, Op. 16. No. 1.  After another lively opening movement, this work’s core is the touching and lyrical, very Schubertian central slow movement.  It finishes off with a bouncy yet tightly constructed contrapuntal exchange of one main idea between the two instruments.  The Duo and the Sonata are in fact world première recordings, and the Trio Portici give confident performances throughout.  This seldom heard music could not ask for stronger advocates.

Pianist Peter Donohoe has released his second volume of Prokofiev Piano Sonatas.  After the first five in Volume 1, he has jumped to the final Sonata, missing out for now the three emotionally heavy ‘War Sonatas’ (although he has previously recorded these in 1991).  Following the ‘War Sonatas’, Prokofiev returned to a certain extent to a more outwardly straightforward style for his final completed work for the piano, the Sonata No. 9, although this apparent simplicity is deceptive, with increasingly complex contrapuntal writing growing from relatively small scale ideas.  Donohoe achieves the perfect balance of introspective reflection with the sudden occasional bursts of controlled drama, particularly in the wry final movement.  The brief fragment of the incomplete Sonata No. 10, with just under one minute of emphatic, confident music, manages to show that Prokofiev still had much to say in his music right at the end of his life.  The Sonata for Cello & Piano, Op. 119, was written for and first performed by Rostropovich and Richter in 1950.  Here, Donohoe is joined by cellist RaphaelWallfisch.  The opening movement is by far the most substantial part of the work, almost as long as the other two movements combined, and it carries the serious weight of content, after which the lighter short middle movement, which has Prokofiev’s trademark sardonic wit, with a more lyrical central section.  The finale starts off lightly, but gains in grandeur and on the build to the climax, the writing for both players becomes more and more dramatic, before a reference to the opening cello theme from the first movement brings things to a virtuosic close.  Wallfisch and Donohoe play together with evident mutual respect and close communication, and Wallfisch produces a beautifully warm tone when needed (for example in the extended lyrical section of the first movement), as well as humour, and a more angular, spiky sound for the final movement.  Prokofiev’s two Sonatinas, Op. 54, appear slight, particularly in comparison to the the Piano Concertos 4 & 5 which he composed either side of them.  Yet these introverted miniatures, concise almost to the point of terseness, are in fact extraordinary in their development of key relationships and expression within three brief movements each, both Sonatinas lasting around just nine minutes each.  I am not sure if Donohoe plans to revisit the ‘War Sonatas' for a final volume, but these two volumes have proved to be a real delight.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, January 2015)