Thursday, 13 July 2017

CD Reviews - July 2017

The first volume of conductor Rumon Gamba’s latest recording project of British Tone Poems, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is a promising start.  The disc opens with ‘Spring’, a Symphonic Rhapsody, by Frederic Austin (1872-1952).  This is a lush, filmic work, sounding perhaps more summery than spring-like, but nevertheless infectiously positive in outlook.  William Alwyn’s (1905-1985) brief ‘Blackdown - Tone Poem from the Surrey Hills’ follows, and is subtler in its pastoral hues, despite being written when he was just twenty-one.  Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946) drew on a poem by Shelley for his tone poem, ‘The Witch of Atlas’, a work full of atmosphere and delicate orchestration and frequent solo passages, detail which Gamba & the BBC NOW bring out beautifully. Troubled composer and poet Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) ended his days in a mental hospital, destroyed by his experiences in the First World War.  Philip Lancaster and Ian Venables have worked on his sketches for ‘A Gloucestershire Rhapsody’, creating a performable work, darker and more wistful in tone, and it is given a sensitive and touching performance here. Henry Balfour Gardiner’s (1877-1950) ‘A Berkshire Idyll’ also contains darker moments within its ostensibly sunny outer frame, and definite tinges of Debussy and Delius, and again there are plenty of opportunities for individual members and sections of the orchestra to shine, which they certainly do here. The disc concludes with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) early sea-inspired work, ‘The Solent’, with its hints of his Sea Symphony to come.  Even in this early work, it sits in another league of invention, with some particularly haunting quiet string writing. Whilst all these works sit in a relatively limited and harmonically safe soundworld (to our ears now), what stands out is the imaginative and varied orchestration and use of colour to illuminate these quintessentially English landscape portraits.  With richly warm and delicate performances from Gamba and the orchestra, this is a great start to what will surely prove to be a fascinating series.

I first heard viola player Timothy Ridout perform in the Brighton Festival with the Teyber Trio in 2015.  This year he was back at the festival, this time with pianist John Reid, and he gave a commanding performance.  For his debut recording, he has recorded, together with pianist Ke Ma, the complete works for viola by Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881).  Vieuxtemps was a violin virtuoso hailed at his debut as ‘the next Paganini’.  Yet he also frequently played the viola, and wrote a number of works for the instrument, all of which are here.  Only two movements exist of an unfinished second Viola Sonata, although they amount to nearly twenty-five minutes alone, and make for a striking opening to the disc here.  The opening Allegro is full of melodic invention, and the playful Scherzo that follows is a delight, to which Ridout gives great character.  A transcription by the composer of a movement from Félicien David’s Le Désert, entitled ‘La Nuit’, follows, a sweet, salon piece, exploiting the viola’s rich tone.  Next an Etude, with its perpetual flow of rapid semiquavers for the viola supported by delicate chords from the piano. The first Viola Sonata opens with a beautiful lyrical tune in the viola’s lower register before launching into an energetic allegro. The equally lyrical central Barcarolle is followed by an animated finale, in which there is more of an exchange between the piano and viola, giving Ma the chance to join Ridout in the foreground a bit more.  The only work for solo viola here is the short Capriccio, in which Vieuxtemps underpins a lyrical melody with spread chords, building to a highly virtuosic conclusion, and Ridout’s command here is impressive. Once again, it is a lyrical melody that’s central to the yearning Elégie, perhaps the most passionate piece on the disc, and Ridout is highly engaging here.  The disc closes with a perfect encore piece, Souvenir d’Amérique, a set of variations on Yankee Doodle, full of dazzling virtuosic display, and once again Ridout is in complete command of its demands.  This is an impressive debut recording by any standards, and also great to hear lesser-known repertoire for the Cinderella of the string family.

Finally, an intriguing release from harpsichordist Catalina Vicens, inspired by the opportunity given to her to perform on what is possibly the oldest playable harpsichord in existence.  Made in Naples in around 1525, the instrument has been restored in South Dakota by John Koster.  While deciding on repertoire to perform on the instrument, Vicens was inspired by the instrument’s possible history, old maps of Naples and writings from the time, as well as her own musings, and as a result she has written a short story to accompany the disc, titled Il Cembalo di Partenope (‘Partenope’s Harpsichord’ – Queen Partenope was the founder of Naples).  It is an atmospheric and dreamlike tale, I think best experienced in the free download audio book (available here) read by Vicens herself, accompanied with music from the CD.  The music itself is by a range of composers from the early part of the 16th century, starting with Antonio Valente’s (fl.1564-1580) publication of harpsichord works in 1576 and working backwards.  There’s a surprising variety here, although apart from the opening Fantasia del primo by Valente, they are mostly fleeting miniatures.  The dance-like movements, such as Valente’s Gagliarda napolitana, and the lively Calata ala spagnola by Joan Ambrosio Dalza (fl. 1508) add bursts of energy amongst the more reflective love songs and poetic numbers.  There is Italian and Spanish music, and music written for the lute and the voice too.  The harpsichord has a bright tone, and Vicens plays with great delicacy and poise, making this a delightful collection, aside from the added depth of the instrument’s history and Vicens’ atmospheric accompanying tale.  All in all, a fascinating and absorbing project, beautifully performed and presented.

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

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