Friday, 10 June 2016

CD Reviews - June 2016

Last month I reviewed Canadian pianists Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier in a great recording of Rachmaninov – this time it’s music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).  Poulenc is one of those composers whose music is so distinctive that it could be by nobody else.  There is a certain combination of quirkiness and wit, but combined with such imaginative use of harmony, and he often sneaks in sudden moments of heartfelt beauty that creep up and surprise you.  The Piano Concerto from 1949 was composed as a showcase for a tour in America, with a tongue in cheek reworking of ‘Way down upon the Swanee river’ in the finale, and it is certainly great fun and somewhat light in spirit. Yet even here, there is subtlety in the understated slow movement, to which Lortie and the BBC Philharmonic, under Edward Gardner, are certainly wise.  In the Aubade, a ‘Concerto choréographique’ the balance is perhaps the other way around – there are lighter moments, and his spirited style makes appearances, yet the music is altogether more dramatic, despite the sparse scoring for just the piano and 18 instruments. The story of the huntress Diana and her doomed love is told through sparse and often harsh orchestration, but the final dénouement is highly sensitive and affecting. Here Lortie and the BBC Philharmonic players perform with great ensemble and precision, perhaps focusing on the harsher side of Poulenc’s writing.  In the Concerto for Two Pianos, the combination of Poulenc as slightly crazy joker with a more introverted, emotional soul is perhaps at its most extreme.  In the first movement we go from madcap film chase music straight into a heartfelt, highly romantic central section. Lortie and Mercier capture these mood changes well, and support from Gardner and the orchestra is at all times spot on.  The Balinese gamelan effect from the two pianists at the end of this movement is enchanting, the theme anticipating the riot that is the finale. But before that comes a seemingly simple Mozartian movement that gradually morphs into something darker and slightly twisted.  Lortie and Mercier don’t overstate this and allow the music to flow towards its dramatic peak before falling back to the Mozartian conclusion, now somehow underpinned with a sadder atmosphere.  The finale is action packed, full of great tunes, and all concerned have great fun here, particularly when the gamelan theme appears transformed for the climactic conclusion.  The disc is rounded off with three works for just the pianists, firstly the Sonata for Piano Four Hands, and then two short pieces for two pianos.  Poulenc wrote the Sonata aged 19, although he revised it some twenty years later.  Its pleasantly simple ‘Naïf’ central movement is sandwiched between two energetic and spiky movements.  The late Élégie is altogether more romantic and lush, a memorial to a close friend, Marie-Blanche de Polignac, who died the year before.  Finally, L’Embarquement pour Cythère, at just over two minutes is a jolly waltz and a perfect encore piece, delicately and expertly performed by Lortie & Mercier here to round off a great collection of performances of such individual music – if you don’t know Poulenc, this is a great place to start.

Composer Kenneth Hesketh (b.1968) was born in Liverpool, and has a strong established career, composing music in many genres, including opera, orchestral and vocal music.  He also trained as a pianist and percussionist, and pianist Clare Hammond, for whom he wrote the central work on her new disc of his music, points out that this is apparent in his writing for the instrument.  The disc opens with a literary inspired short work, Through Magic Casements, and draws on Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.  It has a dreamlike quality, with the nightingale singing from the upper reaches of the keyboard with increasing feverishness.  Horae (Pro Clara) (‘Breviary for Clare’), the most substantial work here, is a sequence of twelve short pieces, together forming a breviary, or book of hours. Hesketh employs a startling array of sonic techniques, using the extremes of the keyboard (notably in No. 8) and pushing the pianist to incredibly virtuosic displays.  He creates ghostly soundworlds (such as in No. 1), and has the ability of shifting from evoking the ‘tiniest humming bird’ (No. 2), to creating disturbing, anxious moods (No. 6).  In No. 8 he explores ‘intertwining chime clocks’ which gradually become out of sync, once again unsettling the listener.  This also includes moments where the pianist has to pluck and brush the strings inside the piano.  No. 10 has a darkly relentless sense of movement, ‘like an evening full of the linnet’s wings’ (a reference to a Yeats poem). Hammond seems fearless in achieving the requirements of these incredibly challenging pieces.  Despite also being somewhat challenging for the listener, when taken as a whole, this set is highly effective and offers a wide range of effects and moods.  Notte Oscura is a piano transcription of an interlude from Hesketh’s opera ‘The Overcoat’, after Nikolai Gogol, and very effectively conjures up the vast icy landscape and a sense of menace to come. The Three Japanese Miniatures that complete the disc again push the bounds of technical limits for the pianist.  They are in fact fragments from a larger puppet ballet in progress, and one can immediately imagine the images of sprites and daemons conjured up here, bringing the disc to an imaginative close.  If you want to hear fearless virtuosity from an expert pianist, in music that pushes the boundaries of what you might expect from the instrument, then this is highly recommended.

Hesketh, K. 2016. Horae (pro Clara), etc. Clare Hammond. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. BIS Records, BIS-2193.

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

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