Monday, 17 October 2016

CD Reviews - October 2016

Clarinettist Michael Collins has been working his way through an excellent survey of British Clarinet repertoire in his series of discs of Sonatas, and now with a second disc of Clarinet Concertos.  Here he is not only soloist but also conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in four fascinating but pretty obscure works seldom performed.  He opens the disc with Movements for a Clarinet Concerto by Benjamin Britten.  This began life as an incomplete sketch for an opening concerto movement that Britten wrote in America with Benny Goodman in mind.  However, on his return to Britain, his manuscripts were impounded by customs, on suspicion that they might somehow contain coded information.  Goodman later got cold feet when the US entered the war, and Britten had moved his attention on to Peter Grimes, so the work was never completed.  In 1990, Colin Matthews (b.1946) orchestrated the sketch, and Collins premiered the resulting movement.  Then in 2007, Matthews took a two-piano work and an orchestral sketch by Britten, and orchestrated both to make a three-movement concerto, which Collins also premiered.  The result is a remarkably convincing work, with a striking opening flourish and spiky arpeggios for the clarinet in the first movement, a subtle and somewhat subdued central 'Elegiac Mazurka', followed by a lively finale, in which Matthews brings in the opening theme from the first movement to give the concerto a sense of cohesion.  Gerald Finzi's (1901-1956) Five Bagatelles, Op. 23a were originally for clarinet and piano, but were arranged for clarinet and string orchestra by Lawrence Ashmore (1928-2013) in 1989 as a companion piece for Finzi's well-known Clarinet Concerto (recorded by Collins on his first volume of British Concertos).  These are characterful, mostly lyrical pieces, with lots of very English pastoral melodies. Finzi's family had Italian and German Jewish roots, but he was born in London, and studied under Stanford. The Romance is particularly beautiful and breathes with a wistful idyllic air, and the final Fughetta is joyful and carefree.  Arnold Cooke (1906-2005) was born in Yorkshire, and studied with Paul Hindemith, before teaching in Manchester and then at Trinity College of Music in London until 1978.  His Concerto No. 1 contains lots of angular melodies that have a clear link to Hindemith, and the opening movement is full of spiky contrapuntal writing, the leaps and turns of which Collins negotiates with ease.  The central slow movement's lyrical melody ends with a repeated blackbird call, and there is a definite feel of flight and pastoral freedom here. The finale picks up the pace with a lively dancing clarinet theme supported by varied rhythmic interest in the orchestral writing.    Wales is represented here by the Concerto Op. 68 by William Mathias (1934-1992).  The Concerto is orchestrated for strings and a variety of percussion, which is used to great effect throughout.  The opening movement's 'Scotch snap' rhythms create a birdlike, pecking feel to the melody, enhanced with Matthias' use of percussion, with a slower central section enhanced by an eerie vibraphone.  The slow movement is more introspective, with a mysterious intensity throughout, ending with a cadenza for the clarinet, which, joined by rototoms, rushes straight into a somewhat frenzied, jazz-infused finale, giving little breathing space for the clarinet.  This is a disc packed with variety and interest, and Collins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra give faultless and enthusiastic performances of these fascinating works, making this worthy of high recommendation.

Lutenist Alex McCartney follows up his debut album, which I reviewed in January 2016 with 'Elizabeth's Lutes', a disc of lute music from the time of Elizabeth I.  She was a keen lute player herself, and also employed many musicians in her court.  McCartney has put together a nicely varied programme, all recorded in a highly resonant acoustic, which actually suits this music well, adding warmth and depth to the tone.  However, he opens the disc with a delightful piece, Susanne un jour, by the Franco-Flemish composer, Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594), who has no real connection to Elizabeth. Nevertheless, de Lassus was world famous and would surely have influenced musicians and composers of the time, and despite not specifically writing for the lute as far as we know, this lute arrangement was made by a contemporary in England.  There are a number of works here by Daniel Bacheler (c.1574-c.1610), who was 'Lutenist and Groome of her Majestie's Privie Chamber'.  His Monsieur's Allemande is the most substantial, with great opportunities for McCartney to demonstrate his command of the instrument in its variations.  He also plays two of Anthony Holborne's (c.1545-1602) rich Pavanes, and his touching Last Will and Testament.  Holborne was probably an usher at Elizabeth's court, and was not employed as a musician, despite composing much lute, cittern and bandora music in his lifetime.  Alfonso Ferrabosco's (1543-1588) Miserere is a little more ornate, with a delicacy and lightness, which McCartney brings out well here.  John Dowland's (1563-1626) career in England suffered from his early conversion to Catholicism, and he spent some time employed as a lutenist in Denmark, only finally being employed by the English court after Elizabeth's death. His Fancy included here begins quite starkly but soon gathers pace, building in virtuosity.  William Byrd's (c.1540-1623) keyboard Pavane Bray was arranged by Francis Cutting (c.1550-c.1596), and McCartney manages its contrapuntal lines evenly. This is a highly enjoyable disc, warmly recorded and expertly performed throughout.

Edward Gardner is on the third volume of Leoš Janáček’s (1854-1928) orchestral works with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, and the main work here is one of his finest non-operatic works, the wonderful Glagolitic Mass.  Glagolitic refers to the script, an early version of Cyrillic, in which the Old Church Slavonic Mass was originally written.  This is an incredibly challenging choral work, and here Gardner has massed together four choirs, the Bergen Philharmonic Choir being enhanced by the Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm, the Edvard Grieg Kor and the Bergen Cathedral Choir. They opt for the revised edition, which includes changes made by Janáček during rehearsals for its premiere.  There are arguments for both – were those changes due to inadequacies of the Brno premiere forces, or were they changes that Janáček really wanted in the light of hearing the work being performed?  The upshot is that the earlier version has more raw edges, but also a more ‘dangerous’ energy.  However, the revised version is more often performed, and here it receives a highly energetic and incisive performance.  The choral forces are solid, with clear diction and well-blended tone, particularly impressive in the wildly joyful Svet (Sanctus).  The solo line-up is also strong, particularly soprano Sara Jakubiak and tenor StuartSkelton. Thomas Trotter’s wild organ solo is incredibly powerful, followed by a gloriously brassy Intrada to close the work. This is a strong performance, with great depth of recorded sound from Chandos.  I miss hearing the Intrada at the opening as well as at the end – but of course on CD, that’s easily rectified.  The disc also contains a moody Adagio, more overtly romantic than his later works, but nonetheless enjoyable.  Zdrávas Maria (Hail Mary) is for Soprano, chorus, violin and organ, and it receives a touchingly sensitive reading here from Sara Jakubiak and two of the choirs.  The final work is a setting of The Lord’s Prayer, Otče Náš, again for chorus and organ, but now with Tenor solo and harp.  Stuart Skelton and the choral forces give a passionate reading of this attractive setting.  However, none of the additional works can compete with the drama of the Glagolitic Mass and the powerful performance it receives here.

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

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Virtuosic command and intimate focus from Benjamin Grosvenor

International Piano Series, Southbank Centre

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

4 October 2016

St John's Smith Square, London

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

'A fierce intensity of concentration and precision'.

'Grosvenor combined his obvious command of the virtuosic demands with the ability to draw the audience into the moments of intimacy, showing great delicacy and subtlety'.

'What made this a stunning finale from Grosvenor was his attention to the structure and melodic content, never allowing the virtuosic showmanship to overpower'.

'An impressive demonstration of Grosvenor’s intelligent programming, virtuosic command and developing stylistic range'.

Mozart: Piano Sonata in B flat major, 'Linz', K333

Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor ('Funeral march'), Op.35 

Scriabin: Piano Sonata no. 2 'Sonata-Fantasy' in G sharp minor, Op.19

Granados: Goyescas, No. 1 Los Requiebros & No. 2 El fandango de candil

Liszt: Rhapsodie Espagnole, S 254

Moszkowski: Étude de Virtuosité in A flat major, Op.72 no. 11