Wednesday 31 August 2016

CD Reviews - September 2016

In their second volume of Haydn String Quartets, the Doric String Quartet turn their attention to the six Op. 76 quartets.  It was in fact the last full set Haydn composed, and what is most striking is the variety contained within these six gems of the repertoire.  As is now expected from this excellent young quartet, the Doric’s performances are commanding and striking – there is no going through the motions here.  They exploit the energy and extremes in Haydn’s writing to the full, and the expressions of light bursting through in the opening movement the fourth, ‘Sonnenaufgang’ (‘Sunrise’) quartet are revelatory.  In fact, their performance of this fourth quartet is perhaps the standout for me from the set, with an intensely expressive slow movement, and rustic drones in the Trio of the third movement, and a delightful dancing finale, with its sudden accelerating dash to the finishing line.  The second quartet in the set has the nickname of the ‘Fifths’, because of the falling fifths motif of the opening movement, but it is in the harsh Minuet, with the two violins in perfect canon with the viola and cello, then drone-like major/minor chords of its Trio, that the Dorics push the darkness inherent in Haydn’s writing which is often overlooked in more comfortably ‘rustic’ performances.  The variations on the ‘Kaiserlied’, which gives the third quartet it’s nickname of the ‘Kaiser’ ('Emperor’), are given a delicate, almost reverent approach, in contrast to sudden ‘bagpipe’ interlude in the first movement, and the stormy unexpected minor key of the finale.  This encapsulates the Doric’s exploitation of Haydn’s extremes of dynamics and contrasting moods, and this makes these highly arresting performances.  The folksy dash of the finale to the fifth quartet, for example, is taken at a cracking lick, and Alex Reddington’s first violin deserves particular mention for his athletic precision here.   The Chandos sound is first class as ever, making this a recording that grabs the attention from beginning to end.

I first came across the Irish pianist Michael McHale through his work accompanying the clarinetist Michael Collins, and then I very much enjoyed his solo release, ‘The Irish Piano’ (my review here), which mixed composers such as John Field, Arnold Bax and Samuel Barber with traditional music, including some of his own arrangements.  For his current disc, he has joined forces with the Irish record label Ergodos, run by two contemporary composers, Garrett Sholdice and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, interspersing Schubert’s first set of Four Impromptus, D899 with three contemporary works written as companion interludes.  Schubert produced two sets of four Impromptus, all composed in the year before his death at age 31.  They are intimate works, and as is often the case with Schubert, their relatively simple structure belies the depth of emotion and moments of profundity that he achieves in these short pieces. McHale’s Impromptus are respectful and expressive, and he plays with delicacy and precision. The singing legato melody over the rippling accompaniment in No. 3 is particularly beautifully executed, and No. 4 is taken at a healthily brisk tempo, although conversely he takes No. 1 at a slightly leisurely pace, which loses some of the impact of its more passionate moments.  Simon O’Connor’s ‘Self portrait’ picks up on rhythmic elements and motifs from the first Impromptu, and in a stop-start kind of way creates a contemplative atmosphere in keeping with the Schubert, although perhaps without the outbursts of controlled passion that are always close to the surface in the Impromptus.  In ‘Was du mir warst’, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly draws inspiration from a letter written by Schubert in his final days, and this has a nostalgic, wistful feel to it.  It is an improvisatory piece, again very much creating an atmosphere and a mood, rather than having a clear direction.  The final interlude is by Garrett Sholdice, and is titled ‘The dreams flow down, too’, which is a reference to Schubert’s song ‘Nacht und Traüme’, from which Sholdice also quotes.  This has a definite dream-like quality, and in its darkly mysterious, heavily pedaled harmonies, it hints at disturbed dreams, if not actual nightmares.  All three of these contemporary works are highly effective in their own ways, and sit alongside the Impromptus remarkably well.  Whilst none stray very far from contemplative, atmospheric mood-writing, they certainly pick up on the nocturnal nature of the Impromptus, if perhaps not equalling Schubert’s emotional complexity of Schubert.  McHale performs the pieces convincingly and with incredible subtlety of touch, particularly in the eerily quiet conclusion to Sholdice’s piece.  A fascinating glimpse into the work of three contemporary composers, and strong performances of these and the Schubert Impromptus from McHale.

Beethoven’s ten Sonatas for piano and violin are almost all early works – only Op. 96 comes from his middle period.  So we don’t see the full stylistic progression that we see in the piano sonatas, or symphonies, for example.  However, they are nonetheless all significant works in the violin/piano repertoire, and violinist Tasmin Little and pianist Martin Roscoe’s full set recording is a welcome addition to a somewhat crowded field.  They have performed together extensively, and their affinity is clear throughout these warm renditions.  In the earliest works, the three Op. 12 Sonatas, Little’s tone could be stylistically a little lighter, but she and Roscoe characterise the slow movement variations with enjoyable subtlety, and her warm tone comes into its own with Op. 23 and beyond.  The opening of Op. 30 No. 2 has great drama from both the piano and violin entries, and this serves as a good reminder that these are definitely works for two equal instruments, not solo violin works with piano ‘backing’.  This is where the strength of Little and Roscoe’s equal partnership stands them in good stead – one never feels Little is taking over too much of the limelight, and the two performers respond to each other instinctively.  The galloping opening movement of Op. 23, and the glorious Op. 24, ‘Spring Sonata’ are perfect examples, with the exchange of the latter’s opening melody between violin and piano deftly matched. Their Op. 47, the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata (named after its dedication to the famous violinist), is spirited and sensitive at the same time, with a heartfelt opening exchange between the Bach-like solo violin passages and the answering darker piano harmonies, and a bouncing finale.  This is a strong collection from two excellent performers, highly recommended.

Beethoven, L. v. 2016. Complete Sonatas for Piano and Violin. Martin Roscoe, Tasmin Little. Compact Discs (3). Chandos CHAN 10888(3).

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

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