Friday 12 August 2016

CD Reviews - August 2016

Having recorded four volumes of British Works for cello and piano, the brothers Paul Watkins and Huw Watkins (cello and piano respectively) have turned their attention to American works for the same forces. Their disc includes works by five American composers (incidentally, three of whom were gay), and the works span forty or so years of the twentieth century.  The earliest work is by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), his Sonata Op. 6.  Barber composed the work after playing Beethoven & Brahms’ cello sonatas in Italy with Domenico Menotti, the brother of Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber’s subsequent life partner.  It is a strongly romantic work, with clear influence of Brahms, and perhaps without the individuality of his mature output.  However, Barber cuts through the lush lyricism of the Adagio with a central scherzo-like Presto, and the Watkins brothers handle this contrast expertly.  Similarly, the impassioned finale is controlled with frequent tempo changes, which can threaten the work’s coherency, but not so here.  Next up are Three Meditations by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), arranged by the composer from his monumental and highly controversial Mass from 1971, a musical theatre piece which intersperses settings of Latin mass movements with contrasting sections in English, drawing on several choirs, a rock band and a marching band.  Not particularly well received at the time, it still divides opinion on whether its mash-up of genres works or not.  Even in these three short Meditations, Bernstein combines earnest, almost yearning writing, and glassy harmonics for the cello in the first, spiky chromaticisms drawing on a theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Sypmphony in the second, with an unexectedly bouncy, folk dance (with Huw Watkins adding bongos rather than Bernstein’s instructions for using the piano lid for percussive effect) in the final Meditation.  A somewhat bizarre mixture of styles, Paul and Huw nevertheless make a convincing case for the work, particularly in the complex second Meditation.  Elliott Carter (1908-2012) was an incredibly prolific composer, particularly in his latter years, before his death at the age of 103.  His Sonata for Cello and Piano dates from 1948, and marks a shift in Carter’s output from a more popular neoclassicism to the beginnings of his exploration of what he called ‘temporal modulation’, where the relationship of pulse lengths become a key structural element of composition.  Once again here, the Watkins duo navigate this with expert precision, and their commanding performance here is the stand out moment of the disc.  Huw then gets a rest as Paul performs George Crumb’s (b.1929) Sonata for Solo Cello.  Composed in 1955, he dedicated the work to his mother, an accomplished cellist.  Drawing on baroque traditions in its Fantasia and Toccata outer movements, there are also strong influences of Bartók evident here.  Paul Watkins is particularly impressive in the rapid Toccata, with its almost perpetual motion throughout.  The brothers join for the final piece, the Waltz and Celebration from Aaron Copland’s (1900-1990) Billy the Kid, arranged by the composer for cello and piano.  I am not a fan of Copland in his faux-folksy mode, and after the intensity and complexity of some of the other works on the disc, these two short, rather light movements feel a little out of place, but they receive articulate and sensitive attention here.  Overall, very strong performances, and a fascinating survey of such varied composers, despite being broad contemporaries.

A few years ago I reviewed an excellent disc of mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin singing works written for her by Stephen McNeff (b.1951), and she has returned to disc with a collection exploring the theme of female ‘madness’, entitled ‘Notes from the Asylum’.  McNeff’s and McCaldin’s working relationship has continued, and in 2013 McNeff wrote his opera in six songs for mezzo-soprano and piano, Vivienne, which McCaldin performed with pianist Libby Burgess.  The work explores the life of Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who married T. S. Eliot in 1915.  The relationship was difficult to say the least, and after Eliot decided on a separation, effectively then shunning her from his life, Vivienne’s mental and physical health finally led to her brother having her committed to an asylum in 1938, where she remained until her death in 1947, never visited by Eliot. McNeff’s six songs, using texts by Andy Rashleigh, move from Vivienne in the asylum remembering her life before her relationship with Eliot, through the turbulence of their relationship, as well as her affair with Bertrand Russell, leaving Vivienne at the end imagining Eliot visiting her and coming back to her.  McNeff writes strikingly nostalgic music, perfectly evoking a sense of the time, particularly in the spoken lines of Bertie, à la Walton’s Façade.  Yet there is a highly individual voice here too, particularly in the sense of disintegration McNeff creates in the final song, Belladonna, as the voice is left increasingly alone.  As is often the case when performers have premiered a work of this nature, McCaldin has clearly inhabited the world of Vivienne, and her performance communicates a strong sense of truth and honesty, throughout the highly virtuosic demands put on her, with real extremes of range and dynamics.  A real tour de forceVivienne actually closes the disc, and before this McCaldin moves through a good three centuries of repertoire exploring her theme and how composers, mostly but not quite all male, have portrayed in their music women with perceived madness.  Useful sleeve notes by Paul Conway discuss the prurient 17th century obsession with mental illness, and how this was reflected in the popularity of the Restoration ‘mad’ songs, of which Purcell’s ‘Mad Bess’ is a prime example, describing ‘poor senseless Bess’, presumably as a result of lost or unrequited love.  Here, it is performed in the arrangement made by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), which adds a harder edge to the song, and McCaldin matches this accompaniment with a fuller sound than might be expected in Purcell.  Two sets of songs by Brahms (1833-1897) and Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) (who also ended his life in an asylum) are preceeded by a brief song by Harriet Abrams (1758-1821), ‘Crazy Jane’, a rather quaint setting of a text more anguished than the music might suggest, once again reflecting the image of a woman driven mad by the falseness of men.  Brahms’ Ophelia Lieder draw on texts from Ophelia’s ‘mad scene’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and despite their brevity, Brahms packs an emotional punch, particularly in the final song of the set, ‘Und kommt er nicht mehr züruck?’ (‘And will he not come again?’).  Wolf set many poems by Eduard Mörike, and here McCaldin sings five, all sung from the perspective of an Ophelia-like character, Agnes.  The harmonic language is denser and more dramatic here than the Brahms songs, with strong touches of Wagner.  McCaldin’s full tone is well suited to these affecting songs, and the emotional climax of ‘Wo find ich Trost’ (‘Where shall I find comfort?’) is particularly powerful.  Jumping forward to 1971, McCaldin and Burgess are joined by clarinettist Catriona Scott for American composer Ned Rorem’s (b.1923) Ariel, Five Poems of Sylvia Plath. These are highly virtuosic settings, for all three perfomers, which capture the sense of anger and turbulence of the poetry, written shortly before her suicide at the age of 30.  The Hanging Man has a particularly challenging cadenza for clarinet, and Lady Lazarus pushes the bounds of technique for the singer, ending ‘with a loud gasp’. This is a powerful disc, and McCaldin demonstrates the wide range and adaptability of her voice across such a broad range of repertoire, but it is in Vivienne that her dramatic abililties are most impressively in evidence.  Libby Burgess (piano) also deserves praise, showing great command throughout the wide-ranging repertoire. 

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

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