Wednesday, 12 April 2017

CD Reviews - April 2017

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was born just one year before fellow pianist-composer, Rachmaninov, with whom he also studied at the Moscow Conservatory.  Of course Rachmaninov outlived Scriabin by many years, but also Scriabin’s music quickly went in a much more dissonant and individual direction than the ostensibly more accessible and tonal music of his contemporary.  Scriabin was fascinated by synesthesia (where people ‘see’ sounds as colours, for example).  Whilst it is unlikely that he was actually synesthetic himself, it had a strong influence on his harmonic theory, together with a fascination with mysticism and theosophy.  Consequently, his music can be hard to make immediate sense of, but then as his ten Piano Sonatas demonstrate, once you join his soundworld, there is much to reward your attention.  Peter Donohoe remarkably performs all ten sonatas in a single concert (well over two hours of music).  There is a lot to be said for hearing all ten in sequence, as they amply demonstrate the composer’s progression through the 21 years of their composition, and the building complexity of his style draws you in.  In the first four sonatas, he alternated between a four-movement structure and his more favoured two-movement form of a slow/fast combination.  From the fifth sonata onwards, he used a single movement, although often still following that slow/fast pattern.  The first sonata was written when he was 20, when he had damaged his right hand from over-practising virtuosic works, and thought it was the end of his performing career.  It is moody and dark, with a funeral march as its finale, already looking forward from its Chopinesque roots.  A freer second sonata, inspired by his first sight of the sea in Latvia, is followed by the deeper, soul-searching third, with its chromatic lines and turbulent mood.  The Wagnerian harmonies of the fourth are almost jazz-like and improvisatory in places, and the fifth has an incredibly passionate climax, with hammering chords.  By the sixth sonata, conventional tonality is almost gone, and the mysterious harmonies are deeply unsettling – even Scriabin found it ‘frightening’ and wouldn’t play it in public.  The ‘White Mass’ nickname of the seventh builds on the combination of weighty textures, contrasted with extensive use of rippling trills.  The eighth is more anxious than overtly turbulent, which Donohoe brings out well, with some almost skittish, impetuous passages, before disappearing away to nothing. The ninth, ‘Black Mass’, is full of ‘satanic’ tri-tones and chromatic scales, whereas the final sonata, which he described as his ‘sonata of insects’, is full of light and radiance.  This two-disc set is rounded off by one of Scriabin’s last works from the year before his death.  ‘Vers la Flamme’ is his representation of rising heat, growing from nothing to brilliance, with the heat of the sun eventually destroying the world.  So, a mammoth range here, and Donohoe takes us on a wild journey through these highly individual works.  The weight of his playing, particularly in the rapturous seventh, as well as his anxious filigree in the eighth, and the full-on romantic flourishes of the fourth and fifth amply demonstrate his phenomenal range.  The virtuosic command on show here is almost forgotten as the depth of his performances of these dark and complex works engulfs you. 

German mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger, together with pianist Alfredo Perl, has recorded three of Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) most well-known song cycles.  Most of the songs present here are better known in their orchestrated versions, so it is good to hear them in this form.  One might assume the piano versions came first, but in fact some were written after the orchestrated versions.  Here we have the Rückert-Lieder, the Kindertotenlieder (also with texts by Friedrich Rückert), and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’).  Romberger has a rich mezzo voice, well suited for Mahler, and can regularly be heard in performances of the symphonies, appearing several times at the Proms.  Her full tones are demonstrated in ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ from the Rückert-Lieder, yet in the first of this set, ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, his private piece for Alma and the only one he didn’t orchestrate himself, the tender lifts to the high notes have great poise.  Romberger gives a heartfelt performance of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, although perhaps a little over controlled for this desperate plea.  The ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’ have strong links with the first symphony, the rustic ‘Ging heut morgen…’ and the melancholic ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ both appearing there.  However, it is in the third song here, ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’, that Romberger gives full vent, with wild anguish and high drama.  In the heartfelt Kindertotenlieder, which draw on some of the 428 poems Rückert wrote following the death of his two children, Romberger again shows great control in the rising lines of ‘Nun seh’ ich wohl’, and pianist Perl has the opportunity to shine in the first song of the cycle.  Overall, this is a commanding set, and Romberger and Perl present a strong argument for these pared down versions of Mahler’s finest songs.

The Doric String Quartet has released their second CD of String Quartets by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).  Following on from the success of the first, they remain in the later reaches of Schubert’s string quartet output, pairing the wonderful ‘Quartettsatz’, D703, a single movement of his projected but unfinished twelfth quartet, with his final String Quartet in G major, D887.  In the Quartettsatz, the Dorics open with glassy determination, giving this miniature masterpiece great clarity and energy.  The final String Quartet in contrast comes it at over fifty minutes, and is a mighty challenge.  Again, the Dorics attack this with high energy, intensity and precision throughout.  There is high drama here, and despite the G major key, Schubert shifts between major and minor right at the start, highlighting the conflicting moods that run throughout the work.  The Dorics give the frequent tremolandi an edge of anxiety, and the slow movement is dark and mournful.  It is only in the Trio of the Scherzo that follows that there is any sense of calm, and the players relish the successive duet writing here.  But the finale dashes all this to one side, and in its relentless race to the finish, the players never lose attention to detail, whilst maintaining impressive intensity and energy to the last.  Catch them in the Brighton Festival, playing Haydn, Brahms & Adams (26 May).

Schubert, F. 2017. String Quartet in G major, String Quartet in C minor 'Quartettsatz'. 

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, April 2017)