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)

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