Friday, 21 December 2018

CD Reviews - December 2018

Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra are joined by James Ehnes for a taut performance of William Walton’s (1902-1983) Viola Concerto.  The Concerto was written for the pioneering viola player, Lionel Tertis in 1928/29, but Tertis rejected the work as too modern, so it was taken up for the first performance by Paul Hindemith.  Tertis later realised his mistake, and performed the work frequently, helping it become established as a major work in the instrument’s repertoire. Walton combines bluesy harmonies and jazzy rhythms in the opening movement with beautiful lyrical lines for the soloist, relished here by Ehnes, as well as typically spicy writing for woodwind and brass.  The central Scherzo has busy, quirky rhythms in a kind of off-kilter, swirling dance, and the finale launches with a humorous, bouncy melody from the bassoon, soon picked up by the soloist.  Towards the end of the movement, the solo viola is accompanied by a repeated bass clarinet pattern, and Ehnes is particularly sweet-toned here.  Gardner and the BBCSO are tight throughout, and Gardner manages particularly well the balance of Walton’s often weighty orchestration against the mellow solo instrument.  The Concerto is joined here by two much later works, firstly a late transcription by Walton (assisted by Malcolm Arnold) of his own String Quartet No. 2, as a Sonata for String Orchestra.  Walton revised some material, particularly in the first movement, and he frequently sets material for a solo quartet against full string orchestra, in the manner of a concerto grosso.  The first movement contains a rather Elgarian fugue, and the Presto which follows is fraught and somewhat impatient in mood, and Gardner brings out the detail whilst achieving an appropriately pushed tempo. The violas and cellos are particularly dark and brooding in the slow movement, and the finale has excitingly driven rhythmic energy throughout.  The disc the concludes with Walton’s Partita for Orchestra, a more overtly celebratory work, with its wallop of an opening for full orchestra, with a lot going on and some truly virtuosic demands placed on the orchestral players.  The central Pastorale Siciliana is more subdued, with a lilting, meandering duet for viola and oboe, followed by lots of solo writing for various instruments, and the playful Giga Burlesca is great fun. Gardner and the BBCSO are on top form, and the three pieces here, whilst all very much ‘Waltonian’ in their orchestral writing, show off well the often-underestimated range of mood in his work, from darkly brooding, through liltingly lyrical, to full-on extrovert fun.  

Walton, W. 2018. Violin Concerto, Partita for Orchestra, Sonata for String Orchestra. James Ehnes, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos CHSA 5210.

The London based amateur chamber choir Lumen, directed by Benjamin Thiele-Long, has released a fascinating disc of new unaccompanied choral works.  The recording is the result of a great project to create a platform for new composers of sacred and spiritual choral pieces.  Thiele-Long and the choir selected the composers via a successful kickstarter campaign, and as a result, they have recorded brand new pieces by twelve different composers.  The range of styles is impressive, yet all the works would be accessible for most good amateur choirs, so it provides a great opportunity for choirs who are looking for something new.  You can read more about the project and some of the composers on my blog, but the works on offer here range from the simple but effective harmonies of Sam Olivier’s ‘There is no dusk to be’, to the more challenging, surging chromatic lines and jazzy harmonies of Simon Whiteley’s ‘The Way of Life’.  Eastbourne-based composer Clive Whitburn’s ‘Who is my neighbour?’ puts biblical texts from Luke and Matthew up against data on migrant deaths, contrasting the pulsing, chanting statistics with a keening soprano line, somehow adding to the moral challenge through the simplicity of its melody.  And Joanna Gill’s ‘Safe in the arms of He’ is equally moving, in its touchingly intimate setting of a text written by parents on the death of their son from cancer.  The thirteen-strong choir show incredible versatility in tackling such a broad range of styles and moods, and despite some occasional tuning issues in a few of the more stretching pieces, they give committed and convincing performances throughout.  Inevitably with a range of new compositions such as this, one will be drawn to some more than others, but this is an impressive display of new choral composition talent, and I hope that other choirs will pick up many of the pieces. Do check out my blog for more on the pieces, with links to videos about the composers and their works.

(Read more about the background to the Lumen de Lumine project here.  And read more about other music by Clive Whitburn here).

Various. 2018. Lumen de Lumine. Lumen Chamber Choir, Benjamin Thiele-Long. Compact Disc. Convivium Records CR046.

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

Monday, 3 December 2018

O Magnum Mysterium - The Baroque Collective Singers with the Lewes Festival of Song

The Baroque Collective Singers

The Baroque Collective Singers are performing in a Christmas fundraiser concert to support the Lewes Festival of Song at St. Anne’s Church, Lewes on Friday December 14th at 8pm.

John Hancorn

Following their successful festival finale last July, The Baroque Collective Singers are once again conducted by their Director, John Hancorn.  They will be performing 'O Magnum Mysterium', a candlelit, radiant seasonal programme of familiar and unfamiliar music, with some beautiful carols for the audience to join in. The programme includes highly contrasting settings of O Magnum Mysterium by Victoria, Poulenc and Ola Gjeilo.  There will be music by contemporary composers such as James MacMillan, Judith Weir and Ed Hughes, as well as works by Holst, Britten and Tavener.  

Guest cellist Sebastian Comberti and pianist and festival director Nancy Cooley will be playing too.  Tickets are £15 (under 16s £7.50) with proceeds going towards a new piano for the festival. Mulled wine and refreshments by donation. Get tickets here.

Sebastian Comberti
Nancy Cooley

Friday, 30 November 2018

CD Review - November 2018

Composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s (b.1980) strength in imaginatively setting words to music shows no sign of slowing. Magic Lantern Tales, which gives her new disc its title, is a setting of poems by Ian McMillan, which were in turn responses to interviews and documentary photography by Ian Beesley.  Beesley was Artist in Residence at a psychiatric hospital, and his interviews with elderly people document stories of love, loss and in particular, the impact of the First World War.  McMillan’s poetry, and Frances-Hoad’s expressive settings, capture the poignancy and intimacy of these tales, as well as their humour and human drama.  Tenor Nicky Spence, who premiered the cycle, sings with full-toned immediacy of communication, from the folk-like idiom, almost troubadour style of the opening ‘Marching through Time’,to the romantically poignant narrative of ‘Lily Maynard’, and the loss of her love in the Somme. Frances-Hoad cranks up the tension here, with ever-richer harmonies, and even gunfire from the piano (played here by Sholto Kynoch) as events take a tragic turn.  Even the bouncy ‘Ballad of Harry Holmes’, with elements of music hall and even drinking song, has moments of pause for bird song effects, but here again, the story telling is key, and Spence is captivating throughout.  The sadness of ‘Mabel Walsh’, with its insistent, pecking piano part under a long, lugubrious lyrical vocal line is followed by the opening song’s return, and throughout the cycle are references and allusions to music associated with the First World War period, such as Butterworth’s ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’, and songs such as ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and ‘Pack up your Troubles’.  The Thought Machine sets ten children’s poems by Kate Wakeling, and the contrast of tone could not be more different, yet story-telling remains central.  Soprano Sophie Daneman and baritone Mark Stone, with Kynoch again on piano, share the task of portraying the silvery, ethereal atmosphere of the New Moon, the motoring rhythm of a mysterious Machine (with added egg shakers played by the singers!), and the strange, leaping extremes of voice and piano in the Telescope.  Humour and rollicking fairytales are here too, with great comic timing in Skig the Warrior and Thief, and some fabulously fun word-painting in Rita the Pirate.  Contrasting yet again, in Scenes from Autistic Bedtime, both parent and autistic child are given voice, with Edward Nieland (treble) as the boy and Natalie Raybould (soprano) as the mother, with cello, vibraphone and piano accompaniment.  There’s much repetition of text and musical motifs, and the frailty of the boy’s anxiety, as well as the tiredness and frustration of the mother are expressed skillfully by both singers.  The text (by Stuart Murray, himself a parent of two autistic boys) and Frances-Hoad’s music capture wonderfully the conflict of intimate and at times playful experiences of boy and mother, with moments of clear distress for both, particularly in the last of the three scenes.  Space does not allow me to do justice to the other material here, including two sensuously jazzy and dreamy solo piano miniatures played expressively by Kynoch, the wonderfully sombre Lament sung by Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), with low bell tolling on piano from Alisdair Hogarth, and the Britten-esque intoning in the trio for soprano, mezzo-soprano and countertenor (Verity Wingate, Sinéad O’Kelly and Collin Shay, with Hogarth again on piano), Invoke Now the Angels, with its dazzling outburst on the words ‘extraordinary angels’.  The same three singers, this time unaccompanied, deliver a beautiful close blend for A Song Incomplete, Frances-Hoad’s short Aristotle setting, written for her own wedding.  Finally, Love Bytes, for soprano (Wingate), baritone (Philip Smith), vibraphone (Beth Higham-Edwards), cello (Anna Menzies), conducted by George Jackson, is a mini-opera, a modern tale of a virtual romance that is perhaps doomed before it starts.  Frances-Hoad combines elements of almost musical theatre style with imaginative instrumentation, once again showing her knack for authentic communication of contemporary situations and emotions.  A highly impressive collection, striking in its sheer variety, emotional impact and communicative expression.

Hoad, F. 2018. Magic Lantern Tales. Various. Compact Disc. Champs Hill Records CHRDC146.

(Edited versions of this review first appeared in GScene, November 2018)

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Lumen de Lumine - New choral music from the Lumen Chamber Choir

Recently I spoke to Benjamin Thiele-Long, Director of the London-based Lumen Chamber Choir, about their innovative project to record a whole disc of new sacred and spiritual choral music.  Thiele-Long spoke about the inspiration that came to him on a visit to Iceland, seeing the Northern Lights for the first time.  He compared his emotional reaction to when he first heard Howell's Collegium Regale, and this led him to think about how to create new opportunities for choral music to move and excite audiences.  In Iceland, he experienced a genuine enthusiasm for new music, and this was something he wanted to encourage back home. 

The idea for a project with the Lumen Chamber Choir was thus formed.  This was in essence to create a platform that composers of choral music wouldn't otherwise have, and to expand the repertoire of new music available to choirs of all abilities.  They decided to launch a crowdfunding initiative, which proved successful, and approached various record labels to support the project.  Thiele-Long says that Convivium Records were immediately supportive of the project, and instrumental in bringing the recording to fruition.

The composers were found through recommendation, friends and some already associated with the choir as singers or former singers, as well as a successful social media campaign - Thiele-Long's 'day job' PR background coming in handy here.  They ended up with a good number of composers interested, and the selection process that followed, including the aim for a balance of styles, and demographic backgrounds, helped them reduce the chosen number of composers down to the final line-up.  The end result is a collection of music from 12 different composers, with a very broad range of styles.  

You will be able to read my review of the final disc here soon, but for now, do have a look at the above videos in which Thiele-Long talks more about this exciting project.  There are also more videos giving background on the composers and their works - I've included a couple of these below.

You can get hold of the disc here.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Vote 100: Celebrating Women Composers

Saturday 17 November, 7.30pm, St George's Church, Brighton
Vote 100: Celebrating Women Composers marks the centenary of some women gaining the vote. A specially commissioned new work - ‘Lead On’ - by Lucy Pankhurst, a relative of leading suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, will be performed and music by a diverse range of women composers, with Caroline Lucas MP as a key speaker.
Artists include soprano Polina Shepherdvocal/instrumental group HEARD Collective, choir Women of Note, guitarist Brian Ashworth, flautist Rebecca Griffiths and pianists Evgenia Startseva and Yuri Paterson-Olenich plus multi-pianist ensemble the Zongora Piano Group and the Appel Trio. 
Featured composers include Norah Blaney, Rebecca Clarke, Avril Coleridge-Taylor, Lilian ElkingtonShena Fraser, Augusta Holmès, Ethel Smyth plus present-day composers Litha Efthymiou, Cecilia McDowall and Master of the Queen's Music, Judith Weir.

'Norah Blaney (right) and her partner Gwen Farrar first met in 1917, entertaining troops in a concert party. Gwen played the cello and Norah was a classically trained pianist who had also studied composition at the Royal College of Music. Several of the songs she wrote were published while she was still in her teens and 'Are You There Mr Bear?' is still in print over 100 years later.

Norah and Gwen appeared in the 1921 Royal Command Performance at the London Hippodrome. They went on to star in revues at the Vaudeville, Prince of Wales and Savoy Theatres, becoming household names in 1924 for their recording of 'It Ain't Gonna Rain No More'. They lived together as lovers in a house in the King's Road Chelsea, where they entertained Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, Radclyffe Hall, Dolly Wilde (Oscar's niece) and the lesbian action hero Joe Carstairs, to name just a few'.  
(with thanks to Alison Child).

Alison Child is currently writing a biography of Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar, Tell Me I'm Forgiven (with cover design by Andrew Kay) which will be available in the Autumn of 2019.

Book tickets here.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Brighton Early Music Festival, 26 October - 11 November 2018

This year’s festival celebrates the richness of 700 years of music from Europe, and looks at Britain’s long and often tempestuous relationship with the rest of the Continent from medieval times onwards. Concerts draw on the important alliances, wars, trade, migrations, revolutions and dissolutions, as a result drawing parallels to some of the current challenges we face (a slight understatement!) in terms of our relationship with the rest of Europe.  Despite the increasing challenges of funding such a festival, Artistic Director Deborah Roberts once again promises us a typically varied and innovative range of concerts, workshops and events.  

Sollazzo Ensemble
The festival the kicks off with the Sollazzo Ensemble exploring La Contenance Angloise, an early English cultural export and musical fashion which took Europe by storm in the 15thcentury (Friday 26).  Then soprano Elin Manahan Thomas is joined by Elizabeth Kenny on lute & chitarrone for ‘Game of Thrones’, including music by Dowland, Tallis, Carissimi and others, reflecting the political machinations of the time (Saturday 27). The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble meanwhile focus on the influence of the Venetian wind-playing Bassano family, who brought their unrivalled skills to 16th century London (Saturday 27).

Spanish group Resonet are joined by the BREMF Community Choir to bring the music from the Lewes Breviary to life, and show how a European network of monastaries shared and influenced music across the continent (Sunday 28).  

Canto Fiorito & Musica Antiqua Salzburg
The Consone Quartet and Flauguissimo Ensemble take us to Scandinavia for a slice of classical and traditional music from the north (Friday 2 November), whilst Canto Fiorita from Lithuania and Musica Antiqua Salzburg bring us music from across the Hanseatic League, a proto-EU of 11 countries in Northern Europe from the 13th-17thcenturies (Sunday 4 November).

A highlight of every BREMF is the BREMF Live! Showcase, and this year promises to be no different, with performances from five emerging ensembles supported by the festival (Saturday 3 November), including medieval vocal ensemble Voice, early baroque group Dramma per Musica, and classical ensemble Pocket Sinfonia.

Fieri Consort
Lux Musicae London will be performing music by John Dowland and others from the court of Christian IV in Denmark (Sunday 4 November), and the Fieri Consort are in the year 1588, considering what might have happened if the wind had not changed, and the Spanish Armada had succeeded in invading Britain – at the same time as the first Italian madrigal anthology with English texts crossed the Alps, a cultural conquest that made madrigal singing the height of fashion across Europe (Friday 9 November).  

Once again, BREMF are also offering us the chance to see rarely performed early opera, and this year we get not one but two, with a double bill of Il Ballo delle Ingrate by Monteverdi, and Venus and Adonis by John Blow.  With a great cast of young soloists, and the Monteverdi String Band, Thomas Guthrie directs productions combining music and dance (6-8 November).

BREMF Consort of Voices
Two powerful concerts will conclude this year’s festival.  First, in Reformation Remainers, the BREMF Consort of Voices, directed by Deborah Roberts, perform music by Taverner, Tallis and Byrd, drawing parallels between the fierce divide brought about by the English Reformation (the break with Rome), and Brexit (the break with Brussels) (Saturday 10 November).  And finally, Peace in Europe, a concert for Armistice Day will include music by Handel, Zelenka and Purcell, performed by the BREMF Players and Singers, directed by John Hancorn (Sunday 11 November).

For venues, times and tickets, visit BREMF.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

CD Reviews - October 2018

Canadian conductor Peter Oundjian is moving on from a successful period at the helm of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and one of his final projects with them has been to record two works by American composer John Adams (b.1947).  The first is a curious piece, Absolute Jest, for string quartet and orchestra, and the RSNO are joined by the Doric String Quartet.  The work was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony to mark their centenary, and the only previous recording to date is by them.  Adams draws extensively, and very playfully, on music by Beethoven – you can play a bit of ‘spot the tune’, with material here from Symphonies 8 and 9, as well as the late string quartets.  The quartet rises and falls out of the overall texture, and as ever, the Dorics play with sharp precision and energy – in concert performance, the quartet is amplified to balance against the orchestral sound. There is a typically Adams-esque driving energy throughout, and it’s a great ride. The final wild prestissimo comes to a sudden halt, leaving a strange combination of cowbells, piano and harp hanging in the air, like a lost fortepiano echoing from the past.  The main work on this disc, however, is Naive and Sentimental Music.  The title is a reference to Schiller, and Adams is exploring the contrast between a simple and straightforward artistic response, and a more emotional reflection and expression.  There are lots of Adams’ signature devices here, and there was much that reminded me of his great choral work, Harmonium.  The first movement begins simply, almost relaxed, but a slow accelerando gradual builds the tension, with the straightforward melody ranging over increasingly insistent rhythms.  The movement builds to an exhausting frenzy, with thunderous percussion. The second movement, ‘Mother of the Man’, has a lilting, if occasionally rhythmically off-kilter feel, and the ‘sentimental’ here is the moving solo for steel-stringed guitar (played sensitively by Sean Shibe), coupled with a mournful bassoon solo.  The final movement, ‘Chain to the Rhythm’ starts like a quiet ‘Wild Nights’ (from Harmonium), and as the title suggests, is a tour de force of complex rhythms, which Oundjean and the RSNO navigate with impressive precision.  Adams also makes great use of percussion, with a central quieter passage evoking the gamelan.  The crashing brass and percussion conclusion comes somewhat suddenly, and it’s all over, but this is an infectious piece, and the performance here is striking and full of energy.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has reached the seventh volume of his collection of the Piano Sonatas of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).  Here there are five more sonatas, although the questions of authenticity rise once again with a few of these.  The earliest here, Sonata No. 8, appeared in publication alongside four other sonatas, all supposedly by Pleyel, so whether this was from Haydn’s hand is uncertain.  It’s a simple, not particularly profound piece, with an energetically stately opening Allegro, a graceful Minuet and a rhythmically jumpy Presto to finish. Bavouzet plays with his usual bright articulation, with some rattling arpeggios in the Allegro.  The Sonata No. 46, although also relatively concise, has more interest, with running semiquavers contrasting with a stately triple time.  The second movement is more unusual, sounding like a Bach three part invention, but with a Haydn twist.  The finale has a lively theme that shifts in and out of major and minor, and Haydn varies the theme with increasingly dramatic virtuosity.  The highlight of Sonata No. 13 is the rhapsodic, fantasia-like Adagio, and Bavouzet makes it sing like an extended aria.  Sonata No. 57 is the fake here – the second two movements are transcriptions from Sonata No. 19, and the first movement is almost definitely not by Haydn, although it is not insubstantial, with winding lines like a two part invention, and some delicate octave work.  The disc closes with Sonata No. 58, with a delicately expressive and improvisatory Andante followed by a lively virtuosic Presto to finish.  Bavouzet enjoys the expansive expression of the former, and dashes off the latter with spirited energy.

Haydn, F. J. 2018. Piano Sonatas, Volume 7. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10998.

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

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)