Monday, 15 October 2018

Mané Galoyan steals the show in a Traviata for our age

Noel Bouley & Emanuele D'Aguanno, © Robert Workman

Glyndebourne Tour 2018

Christoph Alstaedt (Conductor)
Tom Cairns (Director)
James Hurley (Revival Director)
Hildegard Bechtler (Set & Costume Designer)

Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra
Glyndebourne Chorus

Nico Darmanin & Chorus, © Robert Workman
Mané Galoyan (Violetta Valéry)
Emma Kerr (Flora Bervoix)
John Mackenzie-Lavansch (Marchese D'Obigny)
Nicholas Folwell (Baron Douphol)
Donald Thomson (Doctor Grenvil)
Nico Darmanin (Gastone)
Emanuele D'Aguanno (Alfredo Germont)
Claire Barnett-Jones (Annina)
Daniel Mullaney (Giuseppe)
Noel Bouley (Giorgio Germont)
Romanas Kudriašovas (Messenger)
Joseph Padfield (Flora's Servant)

Friday 12 October 2018

Glyndebourne, East Sussex

Verdi: La Traviata
(Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave)
Sung in Italian with English supertitles

Act 2, Scene 2, © Robert Workman
'The darkness and sparseness of the design strips away much of what normally distances us from the personal, making this appropriately more uncomfortable than the run of the mill Traviatas'

'Galoyan gave us an emotionally intense and touchingly fragile Violetta'.

Galoyan & D'Aguanno: 'their final duet (was) genuinely touching'.

Noel Bouley: 'his rich baritone was authoritative and highly convincing'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

CD Reviews - September 2018

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton have recorded a wonderful selection of songs, covering 120 years of composers associated with the Royal College of Music, as teachers, students or both.  I heard them perform much of this repertoire in a lunchtime BBC Prom in August, and it was one of my concert highlights of the year so far (read my review here).  The title of the CD, ‘Come to Me in My Dreams’, comes from Frank Bridge’s (1879-1983) beautifully rhapsodic setting of Matthew Arnold’s text, with its bluesy piano opening, passionate swells and dramatic break on ‘truth’.  But the disc opens with a total gem, a touching miniature, ‘The Lost Nightingale’ by Muriel Herbert (1897-1984).  This is a stunning collection, by any standards, but what makes it exceptional is the strong sense of communication and commitment to the texts. From the tender sadness and dislocated syncopation of voice and piano in Ivor Gurney’s (1890-1937) ‘Thou didst delight my eyes’, to the tolling bells and beating heart of the repeated note in Arthur Somervell’s (1863-1937) ‘Into my heart an air that kills’, Connolly always delivers the texts with intensity and passion, without ever becoming mannered in delivery. Her soft, honeyed tone and delicate articulation of ‘drips, drips, drips’ in Stanford’s (1852-1924) ‘A soft day’ is particularly striking. In addition to Connolly’s phenomenal expressiveness and control, Middleton’s playing also deserves equal credit. His rippling watery accompaniment to Parry’s (1848-1918) ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’ is a perfect example of the subtlety of his touch throughout. In addition to Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) set ‘A Charm of Lullabies’, we have ‘A Sweet Lullaby’ and ‘Somnus, the humble god’, two songs written for the set, but rejected by Britten, discovered by Connolly in the Britten-Pears Library, so world premiere recordings here. ‘A Sweet Lullaby’ combines a simple lilting rhythm with an undercurrent of unsettling harmonies, and the urgency of the darker undertone increases, such that the final wail leaves the ‘lullaby’ far from calm. ‘Somnus, the humble god’ is also dark, with its rumbling, rocking piano part and a final stanza likening sleep to death. Many songs here will be unfamiliar to many, but there are some real treasures here.  Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ (1889-1960) ‘Sailing Homeward’ has a great dramatic arc in its two short minutes, and E. J. Moeran’s (1894-1940) ‘Twilight’ is full of achingly pastoral sadness and loss.  Rebecca Clarke’s (1886-1979) ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ is beautifully lyrical and Romantic, and Connolly’s smooth line is matched by soft textures from Middleton.  Michael Tippett’s (1905-1998) 'Songs for Ariel' are highly atmospheric, and Connolly relishes the drama and quirkiness of Tippett’s settings here. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s (b.1960) ‘Farewell’, written for Connolly, concludes the disc, with Turnage exploiting Connolly’s full range to convey the passion and directness of Stevie Smith’s text. Connolly sounds distraught, almost crazed, delivering the line ‘I loved you best’, contrasted with a beautifully relaxed, bell-like tone in the final ‘ding dongs’, against the high tinkling piano. A wonderful collection of English song, highly recommended.

I first came across lutenist Jadran Duncumb on his recording last year with violinist Johannes Pramsohler.  He now has his first solo recording out, focusing on Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750), who also featured on that previous CD, and Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783).  Weiss was one of the most important composers of music for the lute, and was renowned for his technical ability on the instrument.  Hasse wrote a great deal of lute music for Weiss, who performed as a soloist with the Dresden orchestra, where Hasse was Kapellmeister.  Here, Duncumb performs two of Hasse’s Sonatas, although both of these have been transcribed from their original settings for harpsichord.  The Sonata in A major, dedicated to the daughter of Friedrich August II of Saxony, is a delightful two movement piece, and Duncumb has added back some of the detail in the sprightly Allegro that was removed in the original transcription. The Sonata in D minor by Weiss is an altogether more substantial work of Bach-like proportions, in six movements, and from its opening stately Allemande, through to the graceful Sarabande, and the fluid Allegro that ends the work, Duncumb makes this sound totally natural. In his notes, he argues that lutenist Weiss’ writing for the instrument comes alive in a way that Bach’s doesn’t quite, and in Duncumb’s hands this is certainly the case.  There is a lively energy and fluidity in his playing that never sounds difficult or awkward. He also includes a short but harmonically daring Prelude, and a joyous Passacaglia from Weiss to close the disc. Before that, another Sonata from Hasse, with some delightfully delicate Baroque sequences in its opening Allegro, and dancing Presto to finish. The recording is close and resonant, which does mean that one hears the occasional scraping of frets, but the ears soon get used to this, and the pay-off is a richness of tone that makes this a highly engaging debut solo recording from Duncumb. 

Barry Douglas (piano) combines Schubert’s (1797-1828) posthumous Piano Sonata D958 with the Six Moments Musicaux for the third volume of his collection of the composer’s works for solo piano.  He finishes off this volume with two of Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert songs.  The Piano Sonata in C minor, D958 is the first of Schubert’s final three sonatas, written in the final months of his life.  It clearly has its roots in Beethoven, particularly in its dramatic, emphatic opening, but Schubert’s voice quickly emerges, especially in the beautifully poignant Adagio. Douglas delivers the required power and weight in the opening movement, and generally his approach emphasises the dramatic. However, his Adagio has delicacy and sensitive expression, if not going for quite the sense of transcendence here that say, Uchida, achieves.  His finale is powerfully agile, however, culminating in a thunderously emphatic conclusion. The Moments Musicaux are a set of character pieces, varying in style and from the brief, dancing third to the more substantial angst-ridden sixth. There are folk touches here and there, but ultimately, these are intimate ‘moments’, and Douglas gives them individual voices, from the delicate poise of No. 1 to the thundering insistence of No. 5. He ends this volume with two of Liszt’s transcriptions for piano of Schubert songs.  ‘Sei mir gegrüßt’ preserves the beautiful melodic line, but Liszt’s deft variation shifts the melody from the top to the middle of the texture, and resists the temptation to be overly virtuosic. ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ does something similar, but Liszt adds beautifully pianistic textures, adding a new dimension to the song’s watery theme.  Another strong volume in Douglas’ ongoing Schubert cycle.

Schubert, F. 2018. Works for Solo Piano, Volume 3. Barry Douglas. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10990.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, September 2018)

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Something special in the air: Rattle and the LSO in energetic Sibelius 5

© Mark Allan/Barbican

Janine Jansen (violin)

Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

London Symphony Orchestra

Wednesday 19 September, 2018

Barbican Hall, London

Janáček: Sinfonietta, Op. 60

Szymanowski: Violin Concerto No.1 Op. 35

Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82

'A fine example of live performance in every sense, and it was evident that ... the orchestra was having a ball'. 

'Janine Jansen, from the violin’s first solo entry, was in command of this tricky piece', with 'impressive focus and intensity of tone'.

'Rattle and the LSO ... gave this a freshness and energetic spirit such that one was made to listen anew throughout'.

'A highly exciting whirlwind of a rendition'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

CD Reviews - August 2018

I’ve seen Huw Wiggin (saxophone) perform solo and with the Ferio Saxophone Quartet in the Brighton Festival, and have always found him to be a highly engaging and entertaining performer, constantly expanding perceptions of what the saxophone can do.  The sax is often pigeonholed in jazz territory, but with his debut solo album, Wiggin aims to show that the instrument has much wider expressive possibilities, and he focuses on classical repertoire, much of which was composed before the saxophone was even invented in the mid 19thcentury. Consequently, most of the works are performed in arrangement, some by pianist John Lenehan, who accompanies Wiggin here.  One can only assume that some of the other arrangements are by Wiggin, but they are uncredited, so may be from existing arrangements for other instruments. However, Wiggin makes a strong case for the diverse range of works on offer here, presented broadly speaking in chronological order, from Alessandro Marcello’s (1673-1747) Oboe Concerto right through to Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu’s (b.1953) ‘Sing, Bird’ from 1991. Marcello’s Concerto, possibly known better in Bach’s keyboard arrangement, works surprisingly well here, and Wiggin is able to show off with some intricate ornamentation – not particularly authentic, perhaps, but effective nonetheless.  Two arrangements of Schubert songs, ‘Du bist die Ruh’ and ‘Die Forelle’, follow.  The former works well, with its straightforward, touching melody given a simple, unaffected touch by Wiggin.  The latter I was less convinced by, the slightly four-square nature of the well-known tune sitting less comfortably with the instrument.  Lenehan’s arrangement of the Air from Grieg’s (1843-1907) Holberg Suite works very well, however, and Wiggin spins the expressive line beautifully here.  Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Swan from Carnival of the Animals never fails to delight, and the saxophone replaces the cello well, adding extra warmth to the beautiful, familiar melody.  For two arrangements of short piano works by Debussy (1862-1918), an Arabesque and the popular ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’, Wiggin is joined by Oliver Wass on the harp. The cascading harp arpeggios combine with the simple melody given to the sax in the Arabesque, and The Girl with the Flaxen Hair is given a similar treatment, with Wiggin producing a long, liquid line over the harp’s subtle accompaniment.  The 7 Canciones populares españolas (7 popular Spanish songs) by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) are beautifully atmospheric, and combine lively dance rhythms with eastern infused lyrical melodies, such as in the dark-toned Nana.  The piano writing here is not without challenges too, particularly in the final driving Polo, and Lenehan provides incisive support for Wiggin’s passionate, lyrical lines. They move to France for Paule Maurice’s (1910-1967) Tableaux de Provence.  This and Yoshimatsu’s piece are the only pieces here actually composed for the saxophone, although the Tableaux were originally conceived for sax and orchestra.  Like the de Falla, they combine atmospheric picture-painting with livelier dance-like rhythms, and again, give Wiggin the opportunity to show off the expressive range of the instrument, and Wiggin and Lenehan both relish the set’s joyful conclusion, ‘Lou cabridan’.  Two arrangements by Lenehan of well-know works by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) follow, the complex Fugata followed by the darkly mournful Oblivion, and Wiggin’s sensuous performance here makes this track the standout moment for me. Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumble-Bee is an ever-popular and fun showpiece, and Wiggin has the opportunity to show off his impressive technical virtuosity here.  Closing the disc, Yoshimatsu’s ‘Sing, Bird’ exploits the saxophone’s ability to bend notes and ‘fly’ up and down its registers in a bird-like fashion, with the piano part providing a rippling support.  Wiggin’s delicate articulation, particularly in the piece’s quiet conclusion, is mesmerising.  This is an impressive collection, definitely achieving Wiggin’s aim of showing the saxophone has a lot more to offer outside its traditional jazz/pop pigeonhole.

Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra have followed up their well-received recording of Elgar’s (1857-1934) Symphony No. 1 with his Symphony No. 2, Op. 63, premiered in 1911 just three years after the great success of the first Symphony.  For this recording, as with the first, Gardner has paired the symphony with one of Elgar’s great works for string orchestra, this time the Serenade for Strings, Op. 20.  After the instant success of his first Symphony, the response to Elgar’s second was more of a slow burn.  Ostensibly dedicated to the late King Edward VII, it is in fact more personally inspired, Elgar saying ‘I have written out my soul’ in the work, along with the Violin Concerto and The Music Makers.  The mammoth opening movement is dominated by a passionate but stately theme, known as the ‘Spirit of Delight’ (a reference to Shelley).  Gardner and the BBCSO give this weight without ever getting bogged down, and the contrast between this and the more complex, reflective passages are all the more striking here.  The funereal second movement also has passion, but again Gardner keeps this under control, bringing out the poignancy of Elgar’s personal lament.  The short Rondo has fitful pace here, and Gardner and the BBCSO players present the finale’s complex fugal passage with taut precision.  As with all his Elgar recordings to date, Gardner never overindulges, but this is never dry or without passion either.  The Symphony is paired here with a warm reading of the youthfully charming Serenade for Strings.  Its three short movements combine lyricism and expression with gently rocking rhythms, and Gardner and the BBCSO strings give us a particularly tender slow movement here.  Another fine Elgar recording from Gardner, highly recommended.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, August 2018)

Endings and beginnings: choral classics and a new commission from BBC Singers and Oramo - Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 6

© Benjamin Ealovega

BBC Singers
Sakari Oramo

Monday 20 August 2018

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 6

Cadogan Hall, London

Frank Bridge: Music, when soft voices die

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Rest

Gustav Holst: Nunc dimittis

Laura Mvula: Love Like a Lion

Hubert Parry: Songs of Farewell -
1. My soul, there is a country
2. I know my soul hath power to know all things
3. Never weather-beaten sail
4. There is an old belief
5. At the sound earth's imagined corners
6. Lord, let me know mine end

'Oramo conducted with big gestures, shaping the dynamics and flow of the text with confidence'.

'Mvula draws on a variety of styles, yet combining them in a skilfully coherent way'.

'More choral compositions from Mvula must surely follow'.

'The BBC Singers agility in the winding lines and frantic entries was impressive'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Blissful daydreams on a hot afternoon: lullabies and dreams from Connolly and Middleton - Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 4

© Jan Capinski

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)

Monday 6 August, 2018
Cadogan Hall, London

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924): A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster, Op. 140 - 'A soft day'
Hubert Parry (1848-1918): English Lyrics, Set 4 - 'Weep you no more, sad fountains'
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): The House of Life - 'Love-Sight'
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937): Thou didst delight my eyes
Arthur Somervell (1863-1937): A Shropshire Lad - 'Into my heart an air that kills'
Frank Bridge (1879-1941): Come to me in my dreams
Herbert Howells (1892-1983): Goddess of Night
Frank Bridge: Journey's End
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): A Sweet Lullaby
Benjamin Britten: Somnus, the humble god
Gustav Holst (1874-1934): Twelve Humbert Wolfe Songs, Op. 48 - 'Journey's End'
Benjamin Britten: A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41
Lisa Illean (b.1983): Sleeplessness ... Sails
Mark-Anthony Turnage (b.1960): Farewell

'Connolly and Middleton held the audience’s interest ... through a strong sense of communication and commitment to the texts'.

'Connolly, in her Proms recital debut, and Middleton delivered their programme with assurance and conviction throughout'.

'Connolly always delivered the text with intensity and passion, without ever becoming mannered in delivery'.

'His rippling watery accompaniment to Parry’s Weep you no more, sad fountains, and the beautifully placed delicacy of the opening to Vaughan Williams’ Love-Sight are just two small examples of the subtlety of his touch throughout'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here

Friday, 3 August 2018

Strong Proms debut from Otto Tausk - BBC Prom 24

© Marco Borggreve

Daniel Müller-Schott (cello)
Otto Tausk (conductor)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Wednesday 1 August, 7pm

BBC Prom 24

Royal Albert Hall, London

Ethel Smyth: The Wreckers - On the Cliffs of Cornwall (Prelude to Act 2)

Antonín Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104

Ernest Bloch: From Jewish Life, Prayer

Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

'Tausk and the BBCNOW gave us an assured and atmospheric reading'.

'Müller-Schott’s singing tone was a delight, and he and Tausk took time to allow things to breathe'.

'Müller-Schott’s warm, singing tone shone out and captivated a silent audience'.

'An impressively detailed performance of this crazy tour de force for the orchestra, and a strong Proms debut for Tausk'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Ancient Rituals and New Tales: Tawadros challenges perceptions of the Oud - Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 3

© Daniel Sponiar

Joseph Tawadros (Oud)

Monday 30 July, 2018
Cadogan Hall, London

Joseph Tawadros (b.1983):
Taqasim Kord

Jessica Wells (b.1974):
Rhapsody for Solo Oud

Joseph Tawadros:
Permission to Evaporate
Gare de l'Est
Give or Take
Forbidden Fruit

Bluegrass Nikriz

Joseph Tawadros:
'He manages to gently challenge expectations of image, accent and culture'.

'The encore ... raised the energy levels with its new heights of virtuosity, lightening fingerwork and rhythmic strumming seamlessly switching between and blending bluegrass and Arabic music'.

'A perfect conclusion to a performance that was all about challenging perceptions – of culture, identity and, of course, the oud itself'. 

Jessica Wells:
'Her new piece, Rhapsody for Oud, was indeed rhapsodic, with fleeting moments of effect strung together in a loose but engaging way'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Monday, 30 July 2018

CD Reviews - June & July 2018

I have reviewed a couple of discs in the past of lute/theorbo player Alex McCartney.  Now he is joined (playing theorbo and Baroque guitar here) by recorder player László Rózsa and viola da gamba player Jonathan Rees for a very pleasing collection of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century works by to me mostly unknown French composers, all of whom were moving away from the dominant French style set by Lully to a freer Italian-influenced style.  They begin with the delightful Suite No. 5 by Pierre Danican Philidor (1681-1731), with its tender, melancholic slow movements including a particularly beautiful Sarabande, contrasting with the more urgent quicker movements.  The blend between the three instruments is perfectly judged, and in the final Gigue, Rózsa enjoys the more virtuosic, dancing lines given to the recorder.  A solo Suite by M. de Sainte-Colombe (c.1640-1700) for the viola da gamba follows, and Rees performs this stylish work with great presence and intensity.  It has a strange, slightly stop-start feel, with bursts of more rapid figuration broken up by frequent pauses and breaks. This style prevails throughout its five short movements, which means one feels it never quite gets going as a whole, but nevertheless Rees’ warm tone and command of its demands are highly persuasive.  A Suite by Jacques Martin Hotteterre (1673-1763) next, with its graceful six movements preceded by a solo prelude added by Rózsa.  Here, there is more rhythmic and virtuosic interest in the livelier movements, and the dancing final Gigue is dashed off with energy and panache.  McCartney has a solo spot next, with a Suite for the theorbo by Robert de Visée (c.1655-1732/33).  This has wonderful melodic lines, which McCartney articulates over the harmonies with great precision, making this a particular highlight of the disc.  All three return with a Sonata by Charles Buterne (c.1710-c.1760), and its short central Italian-style Allegro allows for a great virtuosic show from Rózsa.  The disc is concluded with two nightingale-inspired pieces.  The birdlike ornamentation of the recorder is delicate and tender in Le rossignol-en-amour by François Couperin (1668-1733), and McCartney’s gentle introduction on the guitar to Pourquoy, doux rossignol by Jean-Baptiste de Bousset (1662-1725) sets up a beautifully bitter-sweet conclusion to this delightful collection.  

Various. 2017. Rondeau Mélancolique. László Rózsa, Jonathan Rees, Alex McCartney. Compact Disc. Veterum Musica VM017.

Jumping forwards a couple of centuries, we now explore the world of some forgotten Russian chamber music, with violinist Hideko Udagawa joined by pianist Alexander Panfilov.  This recording is the first released outside Russia by the St Petersburg label Northern Flowers, and is a collection of works for the violin in the Russian Romantic tradition.  Despite the influence of what is known as the Russian school of violin playing, much of this repertoire is forgotten, and Udagawa, who learnt with Nathan Milstein and follows in that line of Russian romantic tradition, clearly wants us to reconsider these works.  There are works by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), through to Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936), so spanning just less than one hundred years of Russian music.  The disc contains a number of premieres, including the world premiere of César Cui’s (1835-1918) Alla Spagnuola in the composer’s version for violin and piano. Glinka’s incomplete also receives its first recording here for violin and piano.  This is in fact a delightful piece, despite being such an early composition, and the second movement in particular contains some beautifully lyrical melodies. Udagawa’s performances here are full of vigour and passion, although the recorded sound is a little on the thin side at times, with more depth of tone needed in places.  These are not the most profound compositions, focusing mostly on melody and with few harmonic surprises.  Glinka’s pleasing Mazurka, and Cui’s lively Alla Spagnuola are cases in point, the latter in particular clearly a technical showpiece for the violin more than anything else.  But Udagawa also convinces in the lighter pieces, such as Anton Rubinstein’s (1829-1894) Romance, and Glazunov’s Méditation.  The one piece that rose above the others for me was by the composer I am least familiar with – Viktor Kossenko (1896-1938). His Two Pieces, Dreams and Impromptu, once again combine lyricism with virtuosic display, but have greater individuality and invention than some of the other works here, with rich harmonies and rippling piano accompaniment.  So despite not being totally won over by all the repertoire here, these are strong and authoritative performances throughout.

Various. 2018. Russian Romantics. Hideko Udagawa, Alexander Panfilov. Compact Disc. Northern Flowers. NF/PMA 99130.

Pianist Michael McHale, most familiar to listeners in this country for his numerous recordings accompanying clarinetist Michael Collins, has joined two American brothers, clarinetist Anthony McGill and flautist Demarre McGill to form the McGill/McHale Trio, and their first recording includes a variety of works from the last twenty or so years.  The centrepiece of their recording is a six-movement suite, Portraits of Langston, by Valerie Coleman (b. 1970)each movement a contemplation on different poems by Langston Hughes, an innovator of jazz poetry and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in 1920s New York.  The poems, with themes ranging from Helen Keller, to Parisian cabaret and nightlife, and a Harlem summer night, have common links in their messages of strength, power and defiance.  Before each movement, the poems are read here by actor Mahershala Ali, creating highly atmospheric worlds echoed in each short miniature for the trio.  The fight in the Montmartre nightclub in ‘Le Grand Duc Mambo’ is cleverly captured by the duelling flute and clarinet, and the Debussian piano writing under lyrical lines exchanged between the wind instruments in ‘In Time of Silver Rain’ creates an atmosphere of calm and tranquility.  Chris Rogerson’s (b.1988) A Fish Will Rise has an American folk-inspired feel, reminiscent of Copland, but also an insistent rhythmic energy that might hint towards John Adams.  It is a very effective piece, allowing for some lyricism from the wind players in the central section, as well as more edgy, angular rhythms in the outer sections. Even more driven is the breathless, virtuosic Techno – Parade by French composer Guillaume Connesson (b.1970), and here all three players demonstrate impressive technical command, as well as tight and precise ensemble.  McHale’s arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, beautifully and sensitively performed here, feels slightly out of place in this programme, but perhaps provides a brief respite between two highly energetic, rhythmically driven works.  Paul Schoenfield’s (b.1947) three movement Sonatina is great fun, subverting jazzy dance rhythms such as the Charlston and Rag, and is once again highly demanding technically.  The trio ends their disc with two more subdued works, a contemplative piece by Philip Hammond (b.1951)The Lamentation of Owen O’Neil, and then McHale’s own arrangement of the Irish traditional song The Lark in the Clear Air.  Both allow for the players to demonstrate their abilities to convey their long lines with warmth and simplicity, making for a calming conclusion to a programme full of contrasts.  

Various. 2017. Portraits: Works for Flute, Clarinet and Piano. McGill/McHale Trio. Compact Disc. Cedilla Records. CDR 90000 172.

Ensemble Libro Primo are Baroque violinist Sabine Stoffer and theorbo player Alex McCartney.  Here, the two players have recorded a varied set of works in the Stylus Phantasticus style of the 17thcentury.  This is a freer, more improvisatory style emphasises greater virtuosity and contrasts in pace, rhythm and harmony than more formal Baroque structures allow for.  So here we have a highly expressive Passage Rotto for solo violin by Nicola Matteis (c.1670-c.1713) and a delightful Sonata, ‘La Cesta’ by Giovanni Pandolfi Mealli (c.1630-c.1669), in which the violin decorates singing lines over a running bass line on the theorbo.  The disc opens with a Sonata by Giovanni Viviani (1638-c.1693), with a gloriously mysterious opening Sinfonie, and then again making use of a ground bass to underpin the violin’s freer explorations.  They end the disc with the fourth of Heinrich Biber’s (1644-1704) Mystery Sonatas.  Once again, Biber uses a repeated bass pattern, but the variety of variation in both violin and continuo parts here sets him apart, and Stoffer and McCartney combine touching simplicity with full-on virtuosity, McCartney strumming syncopated rhythms like a guitarist at the works core climax.  The sleeve notes are a little on the sparse side, with no mention of the selection of solo pieces for theorbo by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (c.1580-1651), perhaps because McCartney included all of these on his solo CD of Kapsberger’s works (reviewed in June of last year).  The Toccatas have some interesting harmonies, and the Gagliarda stands out here, with its cascading, scrunchy suspensions.  In the rest of the programme, Stoffer shows herself to be an accomplished performer and interpreter, relishing the virtuosic demands, and McCartney moves seamlessly between an accompanying role and more foreground duetting as the music requires.  An impressive debut disc for the ensemble, with surely more to follow.

Various. 2018. Fantasia Incantata. Ensemble Libro Primo. Veterum Musica VM018.

For Johannes Pramsohler’s latest disc with his Ensemble Diderot, we are in Eisenach in Germany, still somewhere around the latter half of the 17thcentury, exploring a selection of Cantatas, all combining voice with virtuosic parts for solo violin.  For most of the works here, he is joined by Argentinian bass Nahuel Di Pierro.  They open with Nisi Dominus by Heinrich Biber (1644-1704), which opens with a rich drone from the ensemble (with Philippe Grisvard on organ), then a highly virtuosic, declamatory statement from the bass, immediately matched by the solo violin.  Then, some rippling string crossing on the violin, effortlessly executed by Pramsohler, contrasts with a powerful bass melody.  Di Pierro has a resonant, deeply rich voice, which complements the decorative violin lines beautifully.  There are two works here by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) (first cousin once removed of J S), both gentler and more tenderly expressive.  In ‘Wie bist du denn’, Di Pierro demonstrates his command of the lower register, as the line sinks incredibly low on ‘Abgrund’ (abyss).  In ‘Ach dass ich Wassers genug hätte’, an equally moving, mournful lament, the solo line is taken by soprano Andrea Hill.  Hill presents a different side to her voice in the bright, joyful ‘Christ ist erstanden’ by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706).  Here, the verses are separated by showy violin cadenza-like passages, and then Hill and Pramsohler both get the chance to show off in improvisatory fashion, occasionally duetting in thirds, or imitating each other.  The other Pachelbel work here, ‘Ach Herr, wie ist meiner Feinde so viel’, requires more straightforward story-telling, and Di Pierro communicates the text clearly as the violin embellishes around him.  ‘Mein Hertz ist bereit’ by Nicolaus Bruhns (1665-1697) has a showy, pulsing, almost stuttering violin part, coupled with a simple bass melody, essentially a joyful song of praise. Di Pierro is to be commended for his articulation of the repeated swift tongue-twister, ‘Früh will ich aufwachen’. At the centre of the disc is ‘Ich will in aller Not’ by Daniel Eberlin (1647-c.1715), with the nimble Spanish tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado projecting the text with precision, whilst Pramsohler interweaves an expressive, dancing line.  And the disc ends with another joyful flourish by Biber, ‘Laetatus sum’, with Di Pierro joined by bass Christopher Purves. Their rich tones are well matched and blended in the lilting dance-like music, and the violin flourishes in the Gloria lead to a completely glorious Amen.  Highly recommended.

Various. 2018. German Cantatas with Solo Violin. Nahuel Di Pierro, Johannes Pramsohler, Andrea Hill, Jorge Navarro Colorado, Christopher Purves, Ensemble Diderot. Compact Disc. Audax Records. ADX 13715.

Something a bit different now – a collaboration between Catrin Finch, Welsh classically trained harpist and composer, and Seckou Keita, a kora player from Senegal.  The kora is a West African instrument, a little like a cross between a harp and lute – or even theorbo!  Finch and Keita’s performance was one of the unexpected highlights of this year’s Brighton Festival for me, and they performed mostly tracks from their second CD together, called Soar. The weaving, rippling effect of the two instruments combined is often hypnotic, but there’s drive and energetic propulsion too.  Several tracks build from simple beginnings – Yama Ba is a case in point, with its lilting opening, gradually building with swinging cross-rhythms to a mesmerizing climax.   Their take on Bach’s Goldberg Variations – Bach to Baïsso – will not be to purists’ liking, but I found it fascinating.  A relatively faithful rendition of the Aria is followed by much more loosely inspired reflections, combined with a Baïsso, one of the oldest types of tune for the kora, apparently only played by musicians of certain standing within the community, and often used to communicate wisdom.  The overall effect is enchanting.  This is followed by a darker piece, 1677, which marks the date the French took over the port of Gorée, which became one of the most notorious slave-dealing posts in all Africa. It has a lilting feel of boats on the waves, but the harmonies have a darker undercurrent.  When they performed this live, Finch and Keita concluded with a long exchange of ever increasingly virtuosic, and even comic flourishes. Occasional moments of Keita’s rich voice, backed by Finch add interest to some tracks, but ultimately, it is the combination of instruments that delights the most.  

Various. 2018. Soar. Catrin Finch, Seckou Keita. Compact Disc. bendigedig. BEND12.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, June & July 2018)