Reflections on classical music, recordings and performances
Thursday, 25 October 2018
CD Reviews - October 2018
Canadian conductor Peter Oundjianis 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 composerJohn 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 Bavouzethas 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.