Wednesday, 6 December 2017

CD Reviews - December 2017

For violinist Johannes Pramsohler’s latest disc he is joined by lutenist Jadran Duncumb for a fascinating pairing of music by J S Bach (1658-1750) and his contemporary Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750).  Weiss was one of the most important composers of music for the lute, and was renowned for his technical ability on the instrument.  So to put a Suite for lute by Weiss alongside Bach’s Partita No. 2 for violin is an interesting enough proposition.  But the main inspiration here is the Suite in A major for violin and obbligato lute, BWV1025.  In a fascinating essay the two performers discuss this work’s unclear history – is it simply an arrangement by Bach of a lute suite by Weiss, or was it in fact a work of some kind of collaboration?  Weiss certainly visited the Bach household, and the two are reported to have competed in improvisation challenges.  Whatever the work’s origins, in the form played here by Pramsohler & Duncumb the two instruments and their idiomatic styles are beautifully combined.  The recording brings the lute forward, balancing the quieter instrument against the more prominent violin – I’d be interested to hear how they manage this in live performance, but here it works well.  The Suite balances grace and poise in the opening Fantasia and stately central Entrée against livelier dancing movements such as the Rondeau and Menuett.  Both players are impressive in the Courante, building from a delicate opening to some racing runs for the violin in particular.  Following this, both players get the chance to shine individually.  First, Duncumb performs a lute Suite by Weiss, opening with a strikingly dramatic Allemande, Duncumb bringing out the dark, mellow tones of the lower registers.  The Courante ripples wonderfully, and Duncumb brings out the flowing melodic line expertly in the dancing Bourrée.  To close the disc, it’s Pramsohler’s turn, with a highly impressive performance of Bach’s Partita No. 2.  The recording acoustic is open, and Pramsohler exploits this, allowing the harmonies and lines to sing out – no scratching or digging here.  So often the rhythmic line is disturbed by Bach’s fiendish multiple stoppings or string crossing leaps, but not here.  He takes the Giga at a phenomenal pace, yet no detail is lost, and the monumental Ciaconna that finishes the Partita has a steady, consistent momentum that adds to its sublime sense of timelessness.  This is an impressive recording by two exceptional performers – highly recommended.

Nordic Voices are a six-voice a cappella group from Norway who perform a broad repertoire from plainsong through to newly commissioned works.  Their previous recording for Chaconne back in 2009 including some music by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), and now they return with a full disc of works by Victoria for six voices.  They produce a full, warm yet crystal clear and blended sound throughout, with particularly rich lower voices, evident in the opening motet, ‘Quem vidistis, pastores’, when there is often a split in Victoria’s writing between the higher and lower voices.  In ‘Salve Regina’, there are some beautiful exchanges between different voices, and the singers clearly enjoy the interchanges here.  ‘Vadam et circuibo civitatem’ that concludes the disc is particularly tender, and this reflects their overall approach.  Very occasionally I’d like to hear a little more definition to individual parts, yet there is a warmth and intensity to their sound that is highly engaging.  The resurrection motet, ‘Ardens est cor meum’ is given a bit more energetic drive, and there is some smooth and sonorous plainchant from the lower voices in ‘Vexilla Regis’.  Definitely an ensemble to look out for if they visit the UK.

I reviewed the earlier volumes of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, (read my review of Volume 2 here) and now all three volumes have been combined in a 9 CD box set – perhaps a treat for Christmas?  It’s rare that a complete cycle satisfies individual tastes across the whole 32 sonatas, but I have to say there is little here that I’d want different.  The depth of his interpretations of the later works, particularly No. 29, the ‘Hammerklavier’ is especially striking, and where I felt his ‘Moonlight’ was not dark or wild enough, that’s certainly not the case here.  And No. 32, one of Beethoven’s final statements on the instrument has that perfect combination of wild passion in the opening movement, contrasted with the profound transcendence of the final Arietta.  Standout highlights from earlier volumes must be the freshness of his ‘Pathétique’ and a towering ‘Waldstein’.  Bavouzet is clearly at the height of his game, recording and performing to a remarkable schedule, and this cycle will surely stand as a benchmark for some time to come.

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