Saturday, 21 September 2019

CD Reviews - September 2019

Violinist Tasmin Little is joined by pianist John Lenehan for a glorious programme of works by Amy Beach (1867-1944), Clara Schumann (1819-1896) and Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944). They open with Beach’s wonderful Sonata, Op. 34. Beach was an accomplished pianist, debuting at the age of seven, but curtailed her highly successful performing career at the request of her husband, who preferred that she concentrate only on composition.  Her Sonata is full of lyricism and great virtuosity in the violin part, but, understandably given her pianism, the piano part is no slouch. Little and Lenehan clearly relish the beauty of Beach’s lush writing, as well as enjoying the virtuosity and playfulness, particularly in the quixotic Scherzo. There is as ever a warmth in Little’s tone that is ideally suited to this expansive music, and the flourish they both bring to the fiery finale is glorious. Clara Schumann was another piano virtuoso, but interestingly she had the opposite experience to Beach, her composing more or less coming to an end following her marriage.  Her Three Romances, Op. 22 were her final chamber composition, and these three short movements are full of rich melodic invention, with rippling piano accompaniments, particularly in the lightly playful third Romance. Dame Ethel Smyth was active in the woman’s suffrage movement, and her composition career was relatively successful (Clara Schumann was in fact one of her greatest supporters), although she faced much prejudice, her music being either deemed ‘too masculine’ or ‘too feminine’, depending on whether it was dramatic, rhythmic and powerful, or lyrical and melodic. In fact her Sonata Op. 7 contains both, with a dancing Scherzo and a beautiful, lilting slow movement, flanked by a richly inventive Allegro moderato, and a fabulously unapologetic Finale. Little and Lenehan perform with pace throughout, never allowing the more lyrical moments to become over indulgent, yet the pianissimo conclusion to the slow movement has beautiful delicacy. The finale is full of spirit, yet there is subtlety in Smyth’s writing here, so this is not just a throwaway finish. Little and Lenehan respect this with great attention to detail, but do allow proceedings to build to thrilling finish. To close the disc, we’re treated to two more short works by Beach, firstly a beautifully expressive Romance, Op. 23, with its heart definitely on its sleeve, followed by Invocation, Op. 55, equally romantic, but a little more introspective. Both receive heartfelt performances from Little and Lenehan here. With Little announcing her retirement from live performance earlier this year, her vast recording output becomes all the more precious, and this is definitely one to treasure.

During his tenure as composer in residence for the Bournemouth Symphony OrchestraStephen McNeff (b.1951) wrote a number of works for the orchestra, and for Kokoro, the orchestra’s new music ensemble. He has also written music for Ensemble 10/10, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s contemporary music ensemble. A selection of these works has been recorded by Kokoro, and their disc opens with Counting (Two), scored for an ensemble of solo wind, strings, piano and percussion. The rhythms are spiky and insistent, and there is a constant sense of energy in the fragments of virtuosic material passed between instruments. The central movement has a different feel, inspired by ‘an altogether different sort of ordered counting’, following a visit by McNeff to a war cemetery in Italy, and it opens and closes with a mournful, repetitive lament. Growing intensity builds to an outburst from the horn, before the lament returns. The rushing third movement brushes the sadness aside, concluding the work with a procession of winding material and persistent percussion. The Four Van Gogh Chalks are for a smaller ensemble, and open with a thoughtful, atmospheric impression, Mademoiselle Gachet at the Piano, with high violin, tinkling percussion and rippling piano and wind. Venus in a Top Hat is a quirky, slightly frenzied scherzo, and L’Écorché is darkly atmospheric. The collection ends with Couple Dancing, although their dancing is unsettlingly off-kilter, and ultimately collapses into nothing, the couple presumably exhausted from their efforts. The four pieces form a great miniature suite, performed here with great energy and precision by the Kokoro players. Next on the disc comes Strip Jack Naked, a vehicle for mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg. McNeff has written a considerable amount for opera and music theatre, and this is described as a ‘burlesque tragedy’ and a ‘contemporary comic opera’. The story, told in a libretto by comedy actor and writer Vicki Pepperdine, basically tells of a woman waking on her birthday and realising that people don’t like the way she now looks – so she embarks on a drastic course of cosmetic surgery, which goes horribly wrong with dark consequences. Lixenberg delivers the highly challenging mix of virtuosic singing, cutting speech and ‘Sprechstimme’ with startling command. The full work was performed on stage in 2007, and McNeff has produced a Song Suite, containing most of the songs, for this recording. The small instrumental ensemble adds moments of jazzy counterpoint and percussive emphasis, with some occasional chilling sound effects too, and despite obviously being a stage piece, this works remarkably well on disc, a testament to McNeff and Lixenberg’s impressive ability to communicate the chilling story. The final work here is Lux, for octet. McNeff explores light, how it changes and shifts, through eight sections that follow without break. The music has a spooky, ephemeral feel, fleeting and hard to pin down, like shifting shafts of light, and the faster sections have a strong sense of energy, assisted once again by driving percussion rhythms. The Kokoro players perform all this music with impressive virtuosity and clarity, and the rather dry recorded sound actually helps articulate McNeff’s complex writing, making this a fascinating exploration of his striking music.

Finally, in brief, another great recording from Edward Gardner, recently announced as new Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Here he is with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, performing three Symphonies by Schubert (1797-1828), Nos. 3, 5 and 8, the ‘Unfinished’. Gardner’s Schubert is quick-paced but never rushed, and there is a lightness of touch throughout. No. 3 has charm and Haydn-esque spirit, with a blistering finale. No. 5 is more Mozartian, and here Gardner infuses the ‘little’ symphony, scored for smaller orchestra, with grace and elegance, particularly in the slow movement, yet he gives the rather straightforward Menuetto a much needed edge, and the finale rattles by in a whirl of energy. No. 8 starts whisperingly quietly, and the woodwind melody emerges out of nothing. This is a fine performance, expertly paced, never feeling rushed, but equally never wallowing in Schubert’s tempting lyrical melodies, thereby preserving the crucial arc of momentum many performances lose, and the impact of the development section’s dramatic outburst is consequently all the more effective. The seemingly calm second movement has always a sense of underlying tension, which bubbles to the surface in the second theme, over a gently pulsing off-beat rhythm, which then bursts out in a full-on tutti explosion. The contrasts here are the key, and Gardner’s dynamic range is impressive. A great opening volume, I look forward to more.  

Uplifting Romantic giants from Ax, Rattle and the LSO

Emanuel Ax, Sir Simon Rattle
& the LSO
© Kevin Leighton
Emanuel Ax (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor) 

Wednesday 18 September .302019, 7pm

Barbican Hall, London

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 No. 1

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943): Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

Emanuel Ax
© Kevin Leighton
'Ax and Rattle ensured that the balance between piano and orchestra were always controlled'.

'The warm, silky sound of Tim Hugh’s solo cello, combined with Ax’s delicacy ... made for an exquisite slow movement'.

'Rattle never allowed the surges of romantic passion here to get too carried away ... so that the impact of the brief passionate climax when it finally arrived was all the more powerful'.

'Rattle and the LSO, along with Ax, succeeded here in making an evening of such weighty masterpieces feel airy, uncluttered and suitably uplifting, a true pleasure to experience'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

A fitting tribute to Knussen in the Knussen Chamber Orchestra's Proms debut - Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 8

Ryan Wigglesworth
© Benjamin Ealovega

Knussen Chamber Orchestra
Ryan Wigglesworth (piano, conductor)

Monday 9 September, 1pm

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 8
Cadogan Hall, London

Oliver Knussen (1952-2018): ... upon one note - Fantasia after Purcell

Sir Harrison Birtwistle (b.1934): Fantasia upon all the notes

Freya Waley-Cohen (b.1989): Naiad

Knussen: Study for 'Metamorphosis'

Hans Abrahamsen (b.1983): Herbstlied

Alastair Putt (b.1983): Halazuni

Knussen: Songs without Voices

'A Copland-esque woodwind duet emerges, over glassy violin harmonics ... bringing this highly atmospheric piece to a quiet, contemplative conclusion'.

'Davies performed here with understated engagement, concluding with impressive control on the final sustained high notes'.

'The repeating arabesque decoration is highly effective, as are the cascading, overlapping lines and the strangely keening horn and bassoon over flute flutters'.

'An impressive Proms debut from the Knussen Chamber Orchestra in a challenging range of contemporary chamber music, and a fitting tribute to Knussen himself'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Monday, 2 September 2019

'Dreaming and Singing' from fine Music Makers in a watery themed Prom - Prom 53

Sir Andrew Davis
© BBC/Chris Chrisodoulou
Stacey Tappan (soprano)
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Anthony Gregory (tenor)

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)

Thursday 29 August 2019, 7pm

BBC Prom 53

Royal Albert Hall, London

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Hugh Wood (b.1932): Scenes from Comus

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934): The Music Makers, Op. 69

Dame Sarah Connolly & the BBCSO
© BBC/Chris Chrisodoulou
Vaughan Williams:
A 'richly warm and affectionate reading of this well-loved piece'.

'Davis was positively swinging with the offbeats and frequent beat changes'.

The BBC Symphony Chorus 'delivered the text with excellent precision, and flawless tuning throughout.

Connolly 'gave an impassioned and commanding performance here. ... her final lines ... brought a tear to many an eye'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

CD Reviews - August 2019

Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has turned his attention to the piano music of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), and he presents first the Grande Sonate No. 3, which was a revised version of Schumann’s earlier Concert sans orchestre.  As both names suggest, this is a grand statement, right from the opening flourish of the first movement, which unleashes an almost unruly cascade of ideas. The second movement Scherzo with its running scales and slightly uncertain rhythmic pulse leads to a set of variations on an Andantino de Clara Wieck, and this work stems from the period when Clara’s father was keeping the couple apart.  The variations not only play with the theme but its four part structure, and the result has a much more rhapsodic feel than a conventional set of theme and variations.  The capricious finale bursts through, full of drama, and propelled forward to the very end. Bavouzet somehow makes sense of the somewhat rambling form, bringing together into a coherent arc the disparate ideas, without allowing any of the frequent dramatic outbursts to upset the overall trajectory.  In the Faschingsschwank aus Wien that follow, a five movement collection of festive, or carnival scenes, Bavouzet is at times playful and joyous, particularly in the opening movement’s succession of dances, with the mischievous inclusion of bars of La Marseillaise, banned in Vienna at the time of composition, and at other times accentuating the intimate and passionate, in the Romanze and Intermezzo respectively.  His finale is suitably exuberant and euphoric.  The Drei Fantasiestücke are darker and more disturbed, with surging C minor waves in the first, and the outwardly hefty march of the third disguising its more wistful centre.  Similiarly, the central fantasy surrounds a darkly elusive section with seemingly song-like calm.  Bavouzet is alert to these contrasts throughout.  Finally, the Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn), which again combine an introspection and sadness, as in the opening hymn-like movement, with more confident, assertive and at times extremely agitated music, such as in the cascading fourth movement.  But a sense of calm, albeit with deep sadness, is arrived at eventually in the ‘Amen’ cadence at the conclusion of the final movement.  Again, Bavouzet is sensitive to the inherent contradictions here, and never allows Schumann’s more bombastic moments to be over-stated – the sadness and beauty is never far beneath the surface here.  A great Schumann programme, and hopefully there’s more to come.

Young Canadian cellist Cameron Crozman, having studied at the Conservatoire de Paris, has understandably chosen an all-French line up for his first recording.  He is joined by pianist Philip Chiu, and the two substantial works on offer here are the Sonatas for Cello and Piano by Poulenc (1899-1963) and Debussy (1862-1918). Poulenc’s Sonata, despite being sketched when the composer was demobbed in 1940 and completed just after the end of the war, it is a characteristically quirky piece, full of Poulenc’s sprightly wit. Crozman contrasts the playfulness of the first movement with the more lyrical, songlike second movement (the Cavatine that gives the disc its title) with a slightly shrill tone for the former and a richer, warmer sound for the latter.  In the Cavatine, the lyrical melody is preceded by a chorale-like piano introduction, played with warmth here by Chiu.  The scherzo-like Ballabile that follows is full of spirit, and Crozman dances through the movement with a light touch, leading to the sprightly finale. The Debussy Sonata is a different animal altogether.  Whilst it too has moments of wit, it is a weightier affair, with  heavy piano opening leading to a improvisatory cello display, and the mysterious, mostly pizzicato Sérenade, with low piano rumblings, that follows is somewhat unsettling.  The Spanish-tinged finale lifts the mood somewhat, but it still has an emphatic insistence that hints at darker emotions, unlike the Poulenc perhaps showing its time of composition, just before the First World War, more transparently. Crozman and Chiu’s reading brings out the darkness in Debussy’s harmonies and textures, yet Crozman is also totally on top of the considerable technical challenges here, with tricky harmonics, left-hand pizzicato and flautando bowing (over the fingerboard) that produces a fluty, glassy timbre.  Placing these two substantial works first in his programme means that the Koechlin (1867-1950) Chansons bretonnes that follow inevitably feel slight by comparison, but that does these modal-infused miniatures an injustice.  In the early 1930s, Koechlin wrote a collection of 20 short pieces inspired by Breton folksongs, Crozman has selected six here. They have mournful, simple melodies on the whole, allowing Crozman to show off a warmly lyrical tone, particularly in the sombre lament, ‘Notre-Dame du Folgoat’, yet he maintains a lightness of touch in ‘Iannik Skolan’.  This selection is followed by a set of Variations de concert by Jean Françaix (1912-1997) from 1950, with a bouncy, offbeat theme receiving a variety of treatments, with rapid gallops and a whirling waltz contrasting with a lilting, lyrical rendition, and a pizzicato variation with pecking piano accompaniment, all building to a whirling presto finish.  A great showpiece, and Crozman delivers its technical demands with ease. Somewhat unexpected as a finale to the disc is the movement for cello and piano from Messiaen’s (1908-1992) Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Quartet for the end of Time), composed and premiered (with Messiaen on the piano) in a concentration camp in 1941. Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus has a longing, desperate cello melody playing out over pulsing, insistent piano chords, and Crozman’s plaintive tone, over Chiu’s soft yet ever present chords, dying away peacefully to nothing at the end makes for a poignant end to this impressive survey of varied French music for cello. 

And now for a great chamber music recording, taken from a live performance at Turner Sims, University of Southampton in 2017, when clarinetist Emma Johnson was joined by the Carducci String Quartet, Chris West (double bass), Philip Gibbon (bassoon) and Peter Francombe (horn). The centrepiece of their programme was Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20, a relatively early work, and a great success at its first performance in 1800.  It is a work clearly modelled on the Mozartian Serenades or Divertimenti, but Beethoven, of course, develops the genre, not least in his chosen septet scoring. On the whole, the clarinet and/or first violin take the leading roles, but he also makes frequent less obvious groupings from within the seven instruments at his disposal, so there is plenty for all players to get their teeth into.  Johnson et al’s performance here is lively and spirited throughout, and given this is a live recording, there are remarkably few unclean moments. In general the balance is good, although when Beethoven unusually puts the double bass, horn and bassoon altogether at the end of the first movement, the sound is a little muddy.  Johnson is beautifully lyrical in the Adagio, answered with equal warmth by Matthew Denton (violin).  Francombe on horn in the star of the Scherzo, with its jumping, hopping rhythms, and Emma Denton on cello gets her star moment in the lyrical, lilting Trio.  The sound gets a little rustic in the lively final Presto, which might be polished up in a studio recording, but admirably communicates the spirit of the live performance.  They precede the Septet with an Introduction, Theme and Variations for clarinet and string quartet, attributed to Carl Maria von Weber, but in fact now thought to be by Joseph Küffner (1776-1856).  This is a beautifully summery work, with a bright joyful theme for the clarinet over a rippling, light string accompaniment.  The variations ratchet up the virtuosity for the clarinet, and the pace quickens for the final dash to the conclusion.  Johnson is bright and agile throughout here.  They end with two ‘bonbons’ – Johnson’s own arrangements for all eight players of Frülinsstimmen and Perpetuum Mobile, by Johann Strauss II. The former is a piece of fun, the waltz tunes performed with warmth and gusto, and then Johnson’s arrangement of the latter passes the interest around the players, including delightful exchanges between the clarinet and bassoon, and then violin and double bass.  A crowdpleasing conclusion to their concert, no doubt, and to this delightful disc too.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, August 2019)

The Amatis Piano Trio celebrate Clara Schumann with warmth and delicacy - Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 6

Amatis Piano Trio
© Allard Photo

Amatis Piano Trio:
Lea Hausmann (violin)
Samuel Shepherd (cello)
Mengjie Han (piano)

Monday 26 August, 1pm

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 6
Cadogan Hall, London

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): 
Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70

Clara Schumann (1819-1896): 
Three Romances, Op. 22
Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 17

R Schumann:
'They began the Adagio with a brave pianissimo, the cello slowly warming into a sweet tone, matched by soft warmth from the piano'.

C Schumann:
Three Romances:
'Haussmann (violin) played here with a soft tone ... with well-judged dynamic phrasing throughout'.

Piano Trio:
'The close communication between the three players was evident'.

'The trio had great fun with the finale, with its folk-like playfulness'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Martyn Brabbins celebrates his 60th in style - Prom 35

Composers of
Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B.
with Martyn Brabbins
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Nadine Benjamin (soprano)
Idunnu Münch (mezzo-soprano)
William Morgan (tenor)
David Ireland (bass-baritone)

BBC Singers
ENO Chorus
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Tuesday 13 August 2019, 7pm

BBC Prom 35

Royal Albert Hall, London

Martyn Brabbins
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Various: Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B. (world premiere)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Serenade to Music

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54

Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Variations on an Original Theme ('Enigma'), Op. 36

Pictures Within:
'A fun celebration ... in which Brabbins and the BBC SSO players clearly took great delight'.

'The set could well stand as a concert companion for the Elgar in the future'.

Vaughan Williams:
'The choral forces produced a beautifully warm blend, and their pianissimo first entry was highly effective'.

'A taut performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations ... with no great surprises, ... just warmly and affectionately presented as they should be'.

Martyn Brabbins
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Mozart Requiem trumps the War of the Romantics for energy and drama - BBC Prom 26

Natalie Stutzmann, BBC NOW
© Chris Christodoulou

Fatma Said (soprano)
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
Sunnyboy Dladla (tenor)
David Shipley (bass)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
BBC National Chorus of Wales
Natalie Stutzmann (conductor)

Wednesday 7 August 2019, 7pm

BBC Prom 26

Royal Albert Hall, London

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Tragic Overture, Op. 81

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Tristan und Isolde, Prelude & Liebestod (orchestral version)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), compl. Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766-1803) and others: Requiem in D minor, K626
Fatma Said, Kathryn Rudge, Sunnyboy Dladla,
David Shipley, BBC National Chorus of Wales
© Chris Christodoulou 

'Stutzmann’s approach highlighted (the) differences, with a strong sense of control in the Brahms, and a slow build to a very expansive climax in the Wagner'.

'The absolute star by far of the evening, however, was the BBC National Chorus of Wales (five stars for them!)'.

BBC National Chorus of Wales:
'They performed with conviction, impeccable tuning and precision throughout'.

'The chorus impressed with their stamina and full-on energy to the final chord'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Impressive and inspiring Anglo-American cooperation - BBC Prom 6

Edward Gardner
© Chris Christodoulou

James Ehnes (violin)
Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and The Juilliard School
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Monday 22 July, 7.30 pm

BBC Prom 6

Royal Albert Hall, London

Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b.1977): Metacosmos (UK premiere)

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Violin Concerto, Op. 15

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Andante, from Sonata in A minor for solo violin, BWV1003

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): The Rite of Spring

Oliver Knussen (1952-2018): Flourish with Fireworks, Op. 22

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Edward Gardner
& the Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music
The Julliard School
© Chris Christodoulou
'A remarkable piece, showing such command of large orchestral forces ... unsettlingly moving'.

'Ehnes held the Royal Albert Hall rapt ... he delivered the preceding Scherzo with flourish and a dancing step'.

'Gardner marshalled forces for the final onslaught and elicited a wild, terrifying final sacrificial dance from the massed orchestral forces'.

'The combined student forces demonstrated considerable virtuosic command to conclude an impressive night’s performance'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.