Thursday, 15 December 2016

CD Reviews - December 2016

The Australian Chamber Orchestra are renowned for their lively and exciting live performances, and under their director and lead violinist, Richard Tognetti, they have released a live recording of performances of Mozart’s final three Symphonies, Nos. 39-41, given in Sydney in 2015.  As with all good live recordings, this retains a real sense of energy, and leave you wishing you’d been there.  Tognetti takes the fast movements at a great lick, particularly the finale of No. 39, which has such spark, yet without compromising precision and detail.  Quick tempi in Mozart can sometimes feel too frenetic and breathless, but there is always just enough sense of control here.  The darker moods are also given great presence, particularly in the slow movement of No. 40.  And the still shocking harmonic gear changes in the finale are given enough drama without being overly aggressive.  No. 41’s slow movement is treated with sensitive care and attention, and the finale’s dazzling combination of no fewer than five themes is suitably jubilant. These are impressive Mozart recordings by any account, but with the added spice of their live energy, this makes them worthy of high praise indeed.

I’ve received two recordings this month featuring Irish pianist Michael McHale.  First of these is in fact a showcase album for fellow Irishman, the percussionist Alex Petcu.  This is a real calling-card selection, with a great variety of styles, as well as a range of percussion instruments.  McHale joins him for Piazonore by Alexej Gerassimez, a short piece for vibraphone and piano, loosely based on Piazzolla’s Libertango theme.  This has great drive, and Gerassimez (another percussionist) blends the piano and vibraphone well.  The Arabesque No. 1 by Debussy also receives a sensitive vibraphone treatment, and then the instrument becomes ethereal and haunting when bowed in Elliot Cole’s Postlude No. 8.  There’s plenty for the marimba too, including some tasteful Bach, and the delightful ‘A Little Prayer’ by the great Evelyn Glennie, here exploiting the instrument’s resonance to create a remarkably sustained sound.  Petcu also performs Steve Reich’s challenging marimba duet, Nagoya Marimbas (with himself!), at a mesmerizing speed.  He is joined by violinist Ioana Petcu-Colan in two pieces, both with folk influences. ‘Yerkinkn Ampel A’ is an arrangement of an Armenian folk song, and the Fugue from Prelude and Fugue by Sam Perkin has Andean influences.  Once again, Petcu blends well with his partner, and Petcu-Colan’s sweet tone complements the marimba timbre effectively. A range of drums and other pitched and non-pitched instruments also feature on the disc, which makes for a highly engaging and interesting programme.

The second disc has Michael McHale centre stage, performing two Irish Piano Concertos, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Courtney Lewis.  Firstly, he performs the Piano Concerto No. 3 by John Field (1782-1837), the Dublin-born pianist composer who is credited with the ‘invention’ of the Nocturne as a genre piece. The concerto has just two movements, but apparently Field would often insert one of his nocturnes in as a middle movement in performance, and here, McHale himself has arranged the Nocturne No. 2 for piano and orchestra, and it does act as a convincing central movement alongside the Concerto. McHale gives a strong performance, showing particular sensitivity in the fantasia-like section of the opening movement, and relishes the virtuosic display of the final movement.  For the other concerto here, we jump forward to the present day, with Philip Hammond’s (b.1951) Piano Concerto, written for McHale, and premiered by him just last year.  Hammond describes his style here as ‘retro-romanticism’, clearly drawing on the Romantic tradition of the virtuoso concerto.  It is a striking yet accessible work, with a particularly haunting slow middle movement, with relentless rising scales creating intensity and tension, which then explodes into the rapid driving finale. McHale’s energetic virtuosity is ably supported by great precision from the orchestra and Lewis.

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) is a greatly underestimated French composer, and it is a real surprise that his music, which is often lively and full of humour, is not more often heard in the concert hall.  He didn’t restrict himself to any particular prevailing style, and the variety of his output can be seen in this disc of his orchestral works from the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Neeme Järvi.  The rich impressionism of the opening movement of Escales… (‘Rome-Palerme’) stands in great contrast to his eastern influenced use of a solo oboe in ‘Tunis-Nefta’, and again to the Spanish heat of ‘Valence’.  Ibert’s Divertissement is perhaps his best-known work, with its wit and circus-like brass vulgarity and crazy police whistles.  Järvi and the orchestra have fun here, but take a slightly ironic approach, rather than fully letting go to its excesses.  Other gems here include another atmospheric oboe solo in Féerique, alongside the full-on Hollywood-esque celebration of Ouverture de fête.  The Suite symphonique ‘Paris’ is another compilation of incidental music, with Ibert deftly shifting action from the original South American location of a play by Romain, to the busy metropolis of Paris, and Järvi and the OSR bring out all the detail in Ibert’s lush and imaginative orchestration.  If you don’t know his music, then Ibert is definitely worth exploring – and this is the perfect place to start.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, December 2016)

Sunday, 27 November 2016

BREMF Consort of Voices - Advent and Christmas from renaissance Spain

Seasonal music by Morales, Guerrero and Victoria

Find some peace and tranquillity at the start of the Christmas season with an early evening concert of music for Advent and Christmas from renaissance Spain.

Victoria’s glorious double choir motet setting the Seasonal antiphon Alma redemptoris mater, also forms the basis for his mass of the same name. The mass movements will be interspersed with music by the two other leading composers of the 16th century, Morales and Guerrero.

Mulled wine and chilled cava will be available, along with a selection of seasonal treats including mince pies and Spanish polvorones!

Tickets £12 (£10 concession) here.

6pm, Saturday 3rd December

Credit: Robert Piwko/BREMF

Friday, 25 November 2016

Bartók with bite from Zimmermann; intense but restrained Shostakovich from Valčuha and the Philharmonia

© Harald Hoffmann/Hänssler Classic

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Juraj Valčuha (conductor)

Philharmonia Orchestra

Thursday 24 November, 2016

Royal Festival Hall, London

Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2, Sz 112

Rachmaninov: Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5 (trans. Ernst Schliephake)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65

'Zimmermann showed exceptional command of the challenging and somewhat relentless demands that Bartók poses'.

'Zimmermann’s performance was energetic and full of bite, and he was constantly alive to the exchanges between the solo part and the orchestra'.

'Attention to detail and strong solo work from a number of the orchestra’s principals lifted the intensity of their performance'.

'Valčuha led the orchestra successfully through the extended journey of terror ..., if perhaps holding back on the extreme moments of violence'.

Read my full review on Backtrack here.

Friday, 4 November 2016

CD Reviews - November 2016

The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, are now on their sixth disc of Masses by Josquin des Prés (c.1440-1521).  There are question marks over the authenticity of both the masses on this current disc, the Missa Di dadi (The Dice Mass) and the Missa Une mousse de Biscaye, although Phillips argues Josquin’s case well in his detailed notes.  The reason for the inclusion of dice at various points in the score of the MIssa Di Dadi is uncertain, with some connection between the numbers on the dice and the note lengths of the cantus firmus, but not entirely consistent.  The appearance of something so secular seems unusual, but gambling was very popular in Milan at the time, where Josquin wrote the mass – was this Josquin’s joke, or a nod to a wealthy patron?  The composition uses a  ‘cantus firmus’ – a tune often drawn from other sources (on this occasion a chanson by Robert Morton) around which composition is based – and this is placed in the tenor part, at different speeds (hence the dice connection). The Missa Une mousse de Biscaye draws on a secular song, with French and Basque text, and the title means ‘A lass from Biscay’.  So two examples of Josquin taking secular material as the basis for his Mass settings, the latter potentially Josquin’s earliest setting.  Both the masses here are in just four parts, and The Tallis Scholars are pared down to just eight voices, with some sections being sung by solo voices.  As ever, the blended sound is pure and even, but the simpler structure of just four parts, and a maximum of eight singers makes for a plainer, clearer sound than sometimes their larger forces produce.  These are beautiful performances, and highlights include the Crucifixus in the Missa Di dadi, with its low, falling sequential lines at ‘simul adoratur’, building to an emphatic Amen.  This is followed by a gloriously reverent Sanctus.  In the Missa Une mousse de Biscaye, there is more rhythmic motion, and the melody is passed around the parts, creating a more fluid feel.  The settings are lower, without high soaring soprano lines, and the combined voices here create a beautifully rich blend.  Highly recommended. 

The Brodsky Quartet have returned with their second recording of Brahms with Chandos, this time pairing the String Quartet, Op. 51 No. 1 with the great Piano Quintet, Op. 34, for which they are joined by the Ukrainian pianist Natacha Kudritskaya.  Much has been written about how Brahms struggled to follow on from Beethoven in particular in relation to his symphonic output, but similar self-doubt applied to his writing for the string quartet, and it took him until 1873, aged 40 to publish his first two, the Op. 51 set.  He only composed one more string quartet, favouring instead other chamber genres such as quintets and sextets, of which the Piano Quintet is certainly up there as one of his chamber masterpieces.  The String Quartet, Op. 51 No. 1 is, however, a fine work, with Brahms in his tragic, C minor mode.  The second movement Romanze is particularly beautiful, and the Brodsky Quartet excels here with their warm tone.  Their outer movements could have more dramatic edge and drive, but they never fail to produce a beautiful sound, and their blend is flawless.  The Piano Quintet is mammoth, and began life as a string quintet, and then as a sonata for two pianos, before he settled on its final scoring.  The first movement is full of weighty turbulence, building right from the bare unison opening to its dramatic conclusion.  The slow movement is mostly calm, with occasional undercurrents of disturbed cross rhythms disturbing the stability.  The unsettling mood continues in the Scherzo, and the Finale’s anxious slow opening develops into a dramatically passionate conclusion.  Once again, the Brodskys produce a wonderfully blended sound, and the balance with Kudritskaya is sensitive, although I would have liked a little more power from the piano at times.  Overall, these are strong performances, full of warmth and body.  

Baroque violin specialist Johannes Pramsohler returns with his Ensemble Diderot with another great discovery, the Trio Sonatas of one Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (c.1711-1772).  The French composer was a highly renowned composer in his day, although not generally remembered today.  His Trio Sonatas, Op. 2 are beautiful examples of the genre, with an artful combination of the French and Italian styles of the time.  Each in four movements, there are graceful opening adagios, lively fugues, followed by graceful slow movements, topped off with lively rapid finales.  The instrumentation is of particular interest here.  Pramsohler argues convincingly that Mondonville specially intended that some of the second violin parts could be played by a flute, keeping these parts free of double stops and placing them generally higher than the first violin part.  However, he only did this is some of the sonatas, not all, so the argument is that Mondonville wasn’t just taking the common pragmatic and economic line to expand his market, but actually specifically thought about the scoring for flute in some of the sonatas.  To this end, The Ensemble Diderot plays Sonatas 3 and 5 with violin (Pramsohler) and flute (Kristen Huebner), and the rest with two violins, Roldán Bernabé taking the second violin part.  The ‘third’ part of the trio, the continuo is provided by cellist Gulrim Choi and Philippe Grisvard on harpsichord.  These are delightful sonatas, and despite Mondonville’s slight over fondness for long chains of sequential writing, there is nevertheless much variety in the relatively constrained structure.  So, for example, the fugue of No. 4 is spiky and angular, whereas the fugue in No. 2 has a much more of a focus on running lines passed between the two violin parts.  And in the finales, he contrasts a running, racing presto in No. 1 with a dancing allegro in three to close No. 2.  As ever, the Ensemble Diderot play with great precision and energy, and the blending of the two violin parts weaving in and out of each other is particularly impressive.  The change to flute and violin provides a welcome change of texture, and Huebner is suitably sprightly to match Pramsohler in the opening duet allegro to No. 5.  But the absolute highlight for me is the very first movement of No. 1, with wonderfully delicate trilling passed back and forth between the two violins, Pramsohler and Bernabé playing with exquisite perfection here.  This world premiere recording is a welcome addition to the Ensemble Diderot’s impressive and growing catalogue.