Friday, 21 June 2019

Nonsuch Singers launch their new CD, Mass in Blue

18 June 2019
St Martin-in-the-Fields, London

Nonsuch Singers, conducted by Tom Bullard, joined by soprano Joanna Forbes L'Estrange and L'Estranges in the Night (John Turville (piano), Alexander L'Estrange (bass) and Felix Higginbottom (drums), performed the programme of their new recording, with a few added extras.  Conductor Tom Bullard has had a wide-ranging singing and conducting career to date, but notably sang with the Swingle Singers for eight years, the last four as Musical Director.  It is this background that has most clearly informed his work with Nonsuch Singers in not only the jazz-influenced Mass in Blue, but also in the range of close harmony settings and arrangements that formed the first half of their concert (the majority of which also appear on their CD).  When a predominantly classical, amateur choir moves into this territory, there are considerable possible dangers.  There can be nothing worse than hearing singers used to conventional rhythms, classical harmonies and being fixed to a score try to negotiate the freedom of swing and jazz settings.  However, it is a huge testament to the skill and enthusiasm of Nonsuch Singers, combined with Bullard's commitment and clearly expert direction, that at no point did they appear out of their comfort zone.  Close miked and performing a good number of the settings from memory, they performed the complex and challenging arrangements with ease.  

Ward Swingle's arrangement of the Gershwin classic Love Walked In was delivered with smooth ensemble and warm tones throughout, and their harmonic precision in All the things you are, another Swingle arrangement, was impressive, even if a few of the faster tempo pick-ups were not perfectly tidy.  A number of soloists emerged from the choral ranks in several of the pieces, and all performed with confidence, notably baritone David Whitlam and soprano Elena Anastopoulos, whose clear bell-like solo in Li'l Darlin' was particularly impressive.  They were also joined by soprano Joanna Forbes L'Estrange (another ex Swingle singer and musical director) in several numbers, such as the classic On a Clear Day and the moving How do you keep the music playing, an arrangement of a song by Michel Legrand who sadly recently passed away.  In the latter, Joanna Forbes L'Estrange's delivered the beautifully simple song over subtly controlled and soft-toned choral backing.  Forbes L'Estrange also performed a couple of solo pieces with the trio, including Ward Swingle's classic arrangement of Bach's Largo (from the Harpsichord Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056), which sadly feels somewhat dated, but was given a warm and expressive performance here.  In contrast, her own composition, 21st Century Woman, composed for International Women's Day 2019, and inspired by Oprah Winfrey's 2018 Golden Globes acceptance speech, had conviction and energy, backed predominantly by the female Nonsuch voices.  The track was released as a fundraiser for Her Future Coalition, a charity providing shelter, education and employment to girls in India who were victims of human trafficking and gender violence, and apparently it was the first recording session at Abbey Road Studios of a song which was written, conducted, sung, played, engineered, produced, mixed and mastered entirely by women (more about the single and how to buy it here).  They finished their first half with a rousing big band number, Back Bay Shuffle, followed by a lively encore, Chattanooga Choo Choo, in which Tom Bullard got to sing, backed by a close harmony quintet (including Joanna Forbes L'Estrange) and the full choir.  

The centrepiece of the recording, the Mass in Blue by Will Todd (b.1970), formed the second half of their concert.  Since its composition in 2003, the work has become very popular with choirs, and has already been recorded at least once previously.  Todd takes the Latin mass text into the world of jazz, with 12-bar blues rhythms, improvisatory melodies and layers of bluesy harmonies.  It is a predominantly upbeat affair, which at times feels slightly at odds with the text - the Kyrie is probably one of the most lively settings, and Miserere nobis in the Gloria is incongruously jolly.  But in its most exuberant moments, such as the lively Gloria and emphatically convincing Credo, which makes an unexpected return at the work's conclusion, it does have an infectious energy which is hard to resist.  The mass exists in versions for full jazz band, and string orchestra with jazz trio.  Here it was performed in a version for jazz trio, and L'Estranges in the Night complimented the choir's energy and enthusiasm well.  Pianist John Turville deserves particular mention for his gloriously laid back opening to the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei.  And Joanna Forbes L'Estrange added her beautifully souring soprano voice over the top of the choir in the Kyrie, as well as a warmly bluesy and improvisatory Agnus Dei.  

This was an evening of impressive performances from all, but special congratulations must go to Nonsuch Singers and Bullard for achieving the rare feat of pulling off the transition into the world of jazz and swing with such skill.  Their recording of the Mass in Blue and the majority of their first half programme is strong, and will I am sure do well.  They return to more conventional choral territory - Rachmaninov's Vespers - in July (details here), but I am sure they will continue to build on their varied and wide ranging repertoire.  I look forward to hearing them again soon!

Various. 2019. Will Todd: Mass in Blue. Joanna Forbes L'Estrange, Nonsuch Singers, Tom Bullard. Compact Disc. Convivium Records CR047.

Friday, 14 June 2019

CD Reviews - June 2019

Pianist Adam Swayne’s first solo recital recording, ‘(speak to me) – New music, New politics’ is a fascinating exploration of American music ranging from Gershwin to a world premiere recording of Amy Beth Kirsten's (b.1972) (speak to me), which gives the disc its title.  In his liner notes, Swayne explains that the programme explores the relationship between popular music and political inspirations, in politically traumatic times (he cites Brexit and Trump as examples of this).  His technique throughout this challenging programme is highly impressive, particularly in the Four North American Ballads by Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938).  Rzewski was inspired by folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, and the four movements are based on popular American work and protest songs. There is great contrast here, between the harshly aggressive repeated rhythms of ‘Which side are you on?’ and the deceptively lilting ‘Down by the riverside’, with its increasingly menacing chromatic harmonies, before its development into a kind of boogie-woogie Bach conclusion.  The final movement, ‘Winnsboro cotton mill blues’ is positively terrifying, and the deafening, relentless sound of the mill builds to a frenzy.  Its wheeling blues riffs subside into moments of lighter blues reverie, but the overall feel is one of total tension.  In Kirsten’s (speak to me), the pianist is required to vocalise incredibly rapidly along with the dazzling, skittish rhythms on the piano in the opening movement, ‘Deceit’ – Swayne is startlingly impressive here.  The text here is ‘gibberish’, but there is an overall narrative, drawing on the story of Juno being tricked by Echo, before realising and ultimately removing Echo’s power of speech, with the final, extended voiceless movement, ‘Longing’ wandering through material from the first two movements in a kind of musing on this idea of taking away speech, a clear allusion to censorship.  Swayne creates a disturbing, slightly stifled atmosphere with almost constant pedaling muddying the waters beneath the birdlike fragments at the top of the keyboard.  In Kevin Malone’s (b.1958) ‘The People Protesting Drum Out Bigly Covfefe’ (another world premiere recording), the pianist is asked to wear and throw pink ‘pussyhats’ during the performance.  The Pussyhat Project advances women’s rights using arts and education, and here, Malone has transcribed chants recorded at anti-Trump rallies as the basis for his material.  Again, the challenges for the pianist are multiple, with massive crashing chords as well as jazz rhythms and wide leaps using the full extent of the keyboard.  At the work’s conclusion, recordings of the actual chants emerge over the top of the piano. He tops and tails the disc with Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Preludes for Piano, and Morton Gould’s (1913-1996) brief Boogie Woogie Etude.  The former are full of energy, and Swayne communicates their infectious spirit, and the latter provides a lively and impressive finale piece. An impressive display of phenomenal technique from Swayne in some striking and highly thought-provoking repertoire.

Various. 2018. (speak to me) New Music, New Politics. Adam Swayne. Compact Disc. Coviello Classics COV 91818.

Baroque music arranged for saxophone quartet? Well this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who have heard the Ferio Saxophone Quartet, or member Huw Wiggin’s solo performances at the Brighton Festival in recent years, will know that they are highly talented and communicative performers, and with this second disc for the quartet, they make a convincing case for their arrangements of Purcell, Bach, Handel, Corelli, as well as an earlier interloper, with Byrd’s Pavan and Gigue.  The majority of the arrangements were made by Iain Farrington (b.1977) especially for the Ferio Saxophone Quartet, and have therefore been recorded here for the first time.  A lot of the repertoire will be very familiar – movements from Handel’s Water Music, Preludes and Fugues and a Brandenburg Concerto from Bach, and Purcell’s Rondeau (used by Britten in his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra).  In a way, perhaps because some of these ‘tunes’ are so familiar, it is actually refreshing to hear them presented in such a different way – this applies especially to Bach’s Air (somewhat destroyed for those of us of a certain age by a cigar advert). Inevitably, the saxophones’ mellow tones tends to create a homogenously smooth texture, but here particularly, Wiggins’ lyricism on the top melodic line is highly seductive.  They give a little more edge to point their lines in the fugues of two arrangements of Preludes and Fugues from Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier, although again, there is an overall blended texture that tends to obscure the angular nature of Bach’s fugue melodies, particularly in the lower instruments.  Their Badinerie from Bach’s Suite No. 2 is full of energy and joy, and here their rhythmic incision is refreshing.  For Sheep may safely graze (from Bach’s Cantata BWV208), we return to smooth, lyrical textures, but here the contrast between the tenor line and the lilting soprano and alto duet on top is enchanting.  Their Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 fizzes along nicely, and the closing Allegro has an exhilarating bounce.  Handel’s Sarabande and three movements from his ‘Water Music’ follow.  The Sarabande is suitably mournful and stately, whilst the Hornpipe and Bourée are brassy and bright, and the aforementioned Pavan and Gigue from Byrd that follows is sensitively light.  The Adagio from Corelli’s Concerto grosso, Op. 6 No. 8 is sandwiched between another Bach Fugue, and Bach’s Italian Concerto to close the disc.  The Corelli again demonstrates the players’ abilities to make lines sing, with some beautifully sustained tone, contrasting well with the brief articulated central Adagio. The Italian Concerto to finish once again has energy and a lightness of touch, and the tenor line in the central Andante is mellow and lyrical, leading to a joyous Presto.  Whilst there is perhaps not as much stylistic variety on offer here as on their first disc, I was nevertheless won over by their warmth of sound, ability to communicate, and flawless ensemble throughout.

Various. 2018. Revive - Baroque arrangements for Saxophone Quartet. Ferio Saxophone Quartet. Compact Disc. Chandos Records CHAN 10999.

(Edited versions of the above reviews first appeared in GScene, June 2019)

The Surrey based chamber choir Excelsis, conducted by Robert Lewis has been joined by the London Mozart Players for a disc of sacred choral works by Clive Osgood.  The six movement Dixit Dominus that opens the disc has some rich string writing, with a particularly plaintive solo violin part in 'Virgam virtutis'.  Osgood effectively mixes relatively straightforward, lyrical settings with moments of more active rhythmic interest, such as in the lively 'Dominus a dextris'. The Exclesis singers make a strong sound, and their diction is always clear and precise, with solid tuning and smooth ensemble. They could perhaps be more nimble in the cascading lines of the closing movement, 'De torrente', but otherwise their command is assured.  Excelsis are joined by soprano Rebecca Moon for several of the works, including a highly effective setting of Beatus Vir, in which rich choral textures underpin Moon's souring lyrical line.  The more austere Hymn to the Word adds horns and harp to the orchestral accompaniment, contrasting fuller orchestral textures with passages of assured unaccompanied singing, and the work blossoms to a warm, more settled conclusion. The Peace of God, included in both settings for choir and piano, and choir and orchestra, is indeed peaceful, and the singers enjoy the smooth lines and warm harmonies, with tinges of the modern American styles of Lauridsen or Whitacre.  Brightest and Best on the other hand, with the choir joined again by Moon and the unnamed pianist, is more in Rutter territory, with its lilting triple-time rhythmic flow.  Miserere floats a high soprano solo line above the choral textures, with brief sections of chant delivered well here by the tenors.  Rejoice in the Lord Alway that concludes the programme is appropriately joyful, with brightness in its quirky addition of a solo oboe, and the singers and Lewis clearly enjoy the unpredictably offbeat rhythms.  Whilst a whole disc of choral works by a single composer does provide a good overview of their output, the downside is that there is a certain homogeneity of soundworld here, which is essentially lyrical, tonal and homophonic, with no major harmonic surprises, and seldom use of more polyphonic writing. However, many of the pieces here could be, and I am sure will be easily embraced by choirs of all abilities who are looking for new repertoire.  

Friday, 7 June 2019

Sparkling 'Music of the Spheres' full of cosmic energy from Kuusisto, Collon and Aurora Orchestra

Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon
© Nick Rutter

Pekka Kuusisto (violin)
Aurora Orchestra
Nicholas Collon (conductor)
Samuel West (narrator)
Sam Swallow (singer, piano)

Wednesday 5 June, 2019

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Max Richter: Journey Song (CP1919)
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2 'Razumovsky' (Molto adagio)
Thomas Adès: Violin Concerto, 'Concentric Paths'
Nico Muhly: Material in E flat, from Drones and Violin Part 1
Mozart: Symphony no. 41 in C major, K551 'Jupiter'
David Bowie: Life on Mars

Pekka Kuusisto, Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon
© Nick Rutter
'The orchestra showed impressive command and ensemble, no mean feat with relatively little clear rhythmic pulse, in the dark and from memory!'

'Kuusisto is a striking presence and a soloist who clearly relishes in a collaborative process with other musicians'.

'The communication between the players, released from the confines of chairs and music stands, was so evident'.
'I’m not sure I want to see it performed any other way for some time to come'.

'Endless column inches are written on regular basis about how to keep audiences engaged and bring new punters into the concert hall: the Aurora Orchestra are just getting on with making it happen, and long may they continue'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon
© Nick Rutter

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Lewes Chamber Music Festival 6-8 June 2019

The Lewes Chamber Music Festival enters its 8th year, running from Thursday 6 to Saturday 8 June 2019.  
The festival was founded by violinist Beatrice Philips, who continues in the role of Artistic Director.  This year, the festival presents 'Fauré and Friends', with music by Fauré of course, but also Ravel, Leckeu, Français, Debussy, Bizet and Saint-Saëns, with Beethoven, Mozart, Messiaen and Bartók too.
In seven concerts spread over the three days, a great lineup of artists perform some masterpieces of the chamber repertoire, such as Fauré's Piano Quintet No. 1 and Mozart's Clarinet Quintet (Friday 7, 6pm), and Bartók's String Quartet No. 6 (Saturday 8, 7.30pm).  But there are also plenty of lesser known gems on the programme too, such as the Piano Quartet by Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu, who died tragically aged just 24 (Friday 7, 6pm).  There's a lighter lunchtime programme of short works, including The Swan from Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals, and Bizet's Jeux d'enfants for four hands (Friday 7, 12.30pm), and a Saturday morning coffee concert including Debussy, Beethoven and a String Trio by Jean Françaix (Saturday 8, 11am).
Venues: St John sub Castro Church, Lewes (except Saturday's coffee concert, which is at All Saints Centre, Lewes).
Tickets and more information here
Violin: Tim Crawford, Katharine Gowers, Venetia Jollands, Beatrice Philips, Maria Włoszczcowska 
Viola: James Boyd, Adam Newman, Hannah Shaw 
Cello: Vashti Hunter, Tim Posner, Hannah Sloane 
Piano: Alasdair Beatson, Bengt Forsberg 
Clarinet: Matt Hunt 
Flute: Adam Walker 
Harp: Hugh Webb 
Soprano: Raphaela Papadakis