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.  

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