Wednesday, 10 January 2018

CD Reviews - January 2018

If you have any interest in song, particularly English song, then I cannot recommend this disc highly enough – and if you don’t think you like English song, give it a go anyway, I’m sure you will be converted.  Baritone Roderick Williams beautiful honeyed tones, accompanied expertly by pianist Susie Allan, communicate this repertoire in a way I’ve rarely heard it before.  George Butterworth’s (1885-1916) ‘Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad’ that open the disc are achingly moving, not least with the added poignancy of Butterworth’s death in the First World War aged 31, just five years after composing the songs.  Williams’ heartfelt sadness in ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’ is almost unbearable, and his characterisation of the ghostly apparition and his old friend in ‘Is my team ploughing’ is deeply affecting.  I have to confess to shedding several tears when I heard them perform this at the CD’s launch, and the recording is no less affecting.  There’s so much here – twenty-eight songs in total – that it’s hard to single things out.  Ireland (1879-1962), Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Britten (1913-1976) are all represented here, but also Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) – another casualty of the war, his already fragile mental health never recovered, and he ended his days in a mental hospital.  His setting of ‘Sleep’ by John Fletcher that ends the disc again has added significance perhaps, with its plea for peace and joy through sleep.  There are lighter moments too, with Gurney’s jolly Captain Stratton’s Fancy’, and Peter Warlock’s (1894-1930) brief ‘Jillian of Berry’, and Williams relishes the chance to let loose.  And two songs from the only living composer represented, Ian Venables (b.1955), confirm the art of English song is still alive and well – his fleeting expression of a butterfly in flight, ‘Flying Crooked’ is a delightful miniature, and Williams enjoys the melodic twists and turns, with delicate support from Allan.  Vaughan Williams’ ‘Silent Noon’ and Britten’s ‘The Salley Gardens’ receive particularly touching renditions from Williams – I could rave about every song on this disc, there are truly no fillers here, but space restricts me to urging you to seek this recording out.

Various. 2017. Celebrating English Song. Roderick Williams, Susie Allan. Compact Disc. Somm SOMMCD 0177. 

French harpsichordist Philippe Grisvard has taken part in many recordings, including several with Audax Records’ founder, Johannes Pramsohler, and his Ensemble Diderot.  But the latest Audax recording, a wonderful collection of works for keyboard by Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759), is Grisvard’s solo recording debut.  Whilst the Suites are the most well-known and established of Handel’s keyboard works, Grisvard has also included a number of rarities, and a few pieces by lesser-known contemporaries.  This is a wise move, as it offers the listener much needed variety on a solo instrumental recording.  A particular gem is the arrangement by William Babell (1690-1723) of ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Handel’s opera, Rinaldo – Babell’s arrangement of the opera’s overture is also here – in which Grisvard really makes the instrument sing out the aria’s familiar tune.  In his informative notes, Grisvard speculates as to whether these were arrangements by the English composer, or possibly even transcriptions of performances by Handel himself – the bell-like Prelude Presto from Babell that opens the disc certainly sounds like an improvised introduction to such a performance.  The Suite No. 2 has an almost mournful opening Adagio, and the E minor Suite has a delicate, graceful Sarabande.  As well as showing his virtuosic command in the showier movements (such as the E minor Suite’s final Gigue), it is in these subtler moments that Grisvard communicates most directly with poise and grace.  A lively if a little formulaic Capriccio by Wilhelm Zachow (1663-1712), Handel’s teacher, a brief Prelude from contemporary Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), and a pleasing Toccata by Johann Krieger (1649-1725) serve to further demonstrate the imaginative superiority of Handel’s compositions, and the wonderful Chaconne in G major here includes variations from several versions of the work, making it the most substantial piece on offer, and Grisvard clearly enjoys the virtuosic challenges, building through the increasingly complex variations to an impressive conclusion.  This is a delightfully varied and impressively commanding debut from Grisvard.

Various. 2017. Handel: Works for Keyboard. Philippe Grisvard. Compact Disc. Audax Records. ADX 13709.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica, his seventh symphony, has its origins in the composer’s music for the film Scott of the Antarctic in 1948.  The symphony followed in 1951, and it makes use of a wordless soprano soloist (Mari Eriksmoen here) and a female chorus, also worldless (the singers here drawn from the Bergen Philharmonic Choir and the Edvard Grieg Kor) – hauntingly ethereal here, without being overly intrusive.  But the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, under Sir Andrew Davis are the stars here, with some breathtakingly taut and controlled playing, perfectly capturing the desolation and desperation of Scott’s ill-fated expedition.  There is a real sense of the expanse of the landscape, and impending doom, and the crashing entry of the organ at the end of the third movement is truly terrifying.  Vaughan Williams wrote his Four Last Songs, settings of poems by Ursula, his second wife and longtime muse, shortly after their marriage in 1953 (although their love affair had begun in 1938).  The songs were orchestrated by Anthony Payne (b.1936) in 2013, and were premiered at the Proms by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, but here they receive their premiere recording by a male voice, none other than baritone Roderick Williams.  Payne’s sensitive scoring, and Williams’ aforementioned rich tones, bring these brief romantic gems to life.  The disc is finished off with Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Two Pianos.  This started life as a Concerto for Piano, but his piano part proved overly challenging, and the suggestion of a version for two pianos followed.  Pianist Joseph Cooper (1912-2001) was charged with the arrangement, but Vaughan Williams changed the ending and added a new cadenza.  It opens with crashing, percussive explosions from the pianos, setting up a lively, energetic Toccata.  The central Romanza is more lyrical and romantic, with some subtle writing for woodwind, and the final Fugue and Finale, separated by a cadenza, return to the opening’s lively extrovert style.  Canadian pianists Hélène Mercier and Louis Lortie add great muscular attack and bite to the outer movements, as well as bringing sensitivity, lush lyricism and subtlety to the Romanza.  Once again, Davis and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra provide sumptuous orchestral textures in support. 

Vaughan Williams, R. 2017. Sinfonia Antartica, Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Four Last Songs. Louis Lortie, Hélène Mercier, Roderick Williams, Mari Eriksmoen, Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos CHSA 5186.

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