Reflections on classical music, recordings and performances
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 Rózsaand viola da gamba player Jonathan Reesfor 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. 5by 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 Suiteby 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 Suiteby 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 Suitefor 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 Sonataby 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 rossignolby 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 violinistHideko Udagawajoined 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 Spagnuolain 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 McGilland flautist Demarre McGillto 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 Risehas 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 – Paradeby 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’sVocalise,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 Sonatinais 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.
Ensemble Libro Primoare Baroque violinist Sabine Stofferand 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 Toccatashave 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 Dominusby Heinrich Biber (1644-1704), which opens with a rich drone from the ensemble (with Philippe Grisvardon 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 Coloradoprojecting 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.
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 Bais 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.