Friday, 7 August 2015

CD Reviews August 2015

Definitely my recording of the year so far - Baroque violinist Johannes Pramsohler’s third recording on his own label, Audax Records.  He is once again joined by Philippe Grisvard on harpsichord for a programme titled ‘Bach & Entourage’, music by J S Bach (1685-1750) and the circle of violin composers who gathered around him in early 18th century Germany.  This included the great violinist and composer, Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755), Bach’s pupil, copyist and friend Johann Ludwig Krebs (1713-1780), and Bach’s eldest son’s violin teacher, Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703-1771) (you clearly had to be called Johann to be anyone!).  Well, so far, so straightforward – except here we have a Sonata (BWV1024) attributed to Bach, but possibly by Pisendel, and an anonymous Sonata in A major, probably by Bach.  The former has a wonderfully ornamented opening movement, and Pramsohler sets out his store with a beautiful clarity of tone, tastefully underpinned with sound accompaniment from Grisvard. The lively Presto that follows is full of energy, before both players relax into an exquisitely relaxed slow movement, before dancing through the finale.   The Bach Sonata that follows consists of five short movements, including a touching central slow movement, and a challenging final fugal movement, with some fiendish string crossing which Pramsohler makes sound effortless.  The mood changes completely next, with a Sonata for solo violin by Pisendel. Of course one immediately thinks of the Bach solo Sonatas & Partitas, particularly in the highly ornamented opening slow movement.  The Giga finale is followed with variations, which add difficulty on difficulty, with some highly stretching double stopping – again, Pramsohler manages to incorporate this in a way that maintains the line throughout. Sonatas by Krebs & Graun then follow – both premiere recordings.  They perhaps sound slightly more formulaic than the Bach and Pisendel works, but are nonetheless charming. The Krebs 
Sonata has a striking slow introductory movement, and the Graun Sonata’s finale concludes with real fireworks for the violin, allow the harpsichord is also allowed to shine here too.  They end the disc with an early Fugue by Bach, which gives both players the opportunity to end in style.  Despite the potentially narrow soundworld of the programme’s construct, Pramsohler has really managed to showcase the fascinating variety on offer, and this disc definitely rewards repeated listening.

Pianist Cordelia Williams won the piano final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition back in 2006, and she has now established herself as a talented recital and concert performer.  Following a successful debut Schubert CD, for her second recording she has chosen an all Schumann programme, including his masterpiece, the Fantasie in C, Op. 17.  Before this, she plays the two books of Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, and then rounds off the disc with the lesser known Geistervariationen, his final composition for the piano.  This short set of variations was completed the day after his failed suicide attempt, before entering the asylum where he ended his days.  The simple, choral-like theme is given five variations, and the theme remains transparent throughout, the rhythmic accompaniment and texture being the focus of variation.  Given the work’s history, it is hard not to feel a sense of impending tragedy here, and Williams’ performance is suitably straightforward yet reverent. The Fantasie contains quotations from Beethoven's song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, as well as Schumann's oft-used coded references to his wife, Clara. Williams is in total control here of the wilder reaches of Schumann’s demands here – perhaps occasionally almost too in control?  However, she plays the melancholic moments of longing highly sensitively without being overindulgent.  The strangely titled Davidbündlertänze relate to Schumann's unfinished novel, Davidsbund, in which two characters, Florestan and Eusebius, fight to uphold the cause of 'high art'.  Schumann saw these two characters as his own alter egos, Florestan being outgoing and assertive, and Eusebius more introverted and introspective.  The eighteen short pieces, split into two books, are marked F or E (or sometimes both) to indicate their underlying character.  Williams shows real passion for this music, and her command of the challenges set by Schumann is impressive.  Occasionally I would like a little more intensity of expression in the introspective, 'Eusebius' moments. Overall, these are strong performances, but, particularly in an all Schumann programme, a greater range between the extremes of ‘on the edge’, almost out of control wildness and slightly claustrophophic introversion is needed.

Edward Gardner is definitely on a roll, with yet another cracker of a recording out on SACD.  He and the BBC Symphony Orchestra are joined by cellist Paul Watkins for William Walton's Cello Concerto.  The mighty Symphony No. 2 follows this, and it is preceded by a lesser known late work, the Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten.  The Improvisations are based on a theme from Britten's Piano Concerto, and Britten gave Walton his approval for the work. Despite the relative calm and comfort of Walton's later years settled on the Italian island of Ischia, his later music is often complex, with dark undertones. Walton's imaginative orchestration skills are in evidence, and the BBCSO are on fine form here.  The theme is first heard on the clarinet, and it is played with mysterious delicacy by the BBCSO clarinettist here.  The Cello Concerto follows, and Paul Watkins’ performance is outstanding, not least in the demanding two solo variations in the long finale.  Although less regularly performed than his vioin & viola concertos, Walton actually considered it better than them.  It has a range of moods, but is often quite dark, and Watkins’ tone here is appropriately deep and mellow, although he can also be fleet of foot when required, as in the middle scherzo movement. The Symphony is given a taut, flawless performance, one with real bite.  The orchestra required is large, and as ever with Walton, there is plenty for the large brass section to get their teeth into. The dark menacing slow movement again draws on Walton's unique orchestration, with glassy strings and inspired use of the celesta and harps.  In the finale's Passacaglia, Walton experimented with the techniques of serialism, even though the harmonic language is still essentially tonal, with a final Presto emphatically in the major.  Another benchmark Walton disc therefore from Gardner, to go with his recording of the first Symphony and the Violin Concerto – check that out too.

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