Friday, 26 July 2019

CD Reviews - July 2019

Edward Elgar's The Music Makers has received a frankly stunning reading from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Andrew Davis, with Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano).  From the orchestra's opening introduction, with its Enigma theme quotation, to the sequence of dramatic choruses delivered with excellent precision and clear diction, the combined BBC forces here are exemplary, and Davis manages the rapid tour through extremes of dynamics with rhythmic energy and drive.  Setting the Ode by Arthur O'Shaughnessy in its entirety, Elgar draws on a great deal of self quotation, including The Dream of Gerontius, the Sea Pictures, both his Symphonies and the Violin Concerto, as well as the Enigma Variations. Yet it is a work of remarkable coherency and feeling, and Connolly's heartfelt passion, backed by the full sound of the chorus, whips us along with the emotionally charged (if rather self-indulgent) text.  This is an excellent recording, with full dynamic range, rich orchestral textures and fine singing from soloist and chorus. The Spirit of England is setting of three poems by Laurence Binyon, written between 1915 & 1917. Composed for soprano or tenor soloist, chorus and orchestra, it is often performed with two soloists, and this is in fact the first recording with a tenor (Andrew Staples) taking all three sections.  This is Elgar in more ostensibly patriotic mode, and Staples' suitably declamatory delivery is supported by the incisive chorus in the opening 'The Fourth of August' (the date of declaration of war on Germany).  There are tender moments, but this is full-on Elgar, yet Davis never allows the weighty orchestration to totally overpower proceedings.  'To Women' has more stillness in its dark colours, and here Staples is allowed to show a greater dynamic range, in some particularly tender moments.  The final setting, 'For the Fallen', contains considerable variety in Elgar's detailed setting of the text, with dark irony in its almost jaunty march rhythms.  Once again, the chorus excels in its precision and diction throughout, and great tenderness when Staples joins them for the repetitions of 'We will remember them'.  Overall as a work, The Spirit of England has perhaps not travelled through the years as well as The Music Makers, but this is an excellent recording from all concerned. 

Ibrahim Aziz is a viola da gamba player from Malaysia, now living in London. He has recorded a fascinating programme, Risonanze, exploring what he sees as the particular resonances of the instrument, a member of the viol family and a fretted cousin of the cello, although with perhaps a darker tone and less power of projection.  He starts with a transcription of the Cello Suite No. 2 by J S Bach, and immediately we hear the difference - perhaps a less consistently warm tone, but a definite ringing, enhanced by a highly resonant recording. Aziz makes his instrument sing, particularly in the final dancing Gigue.  He follows this with 'Suite Estiu', by the Spanish composer, Carlos Martínez Gil (b.1959).  Estiu, an anagram of suite, also means summer in Catalan, and the five movements here correspond to the five senses, and the composer's recollections of the sensations of summers spent in northern Spain.  We begin in the sound world of Bach, but slowly, use of pizzicato, more jagged rhythms, or slightly unexpected harmonies in the rocking 'Roces' (meaning 'brushing lightly) take us in a subtly different direction, ultimately feeling like meditations on the earlier soundworld.  Next, Three unaccompanied pieces by composer and virtuoso gamba player, Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787).  The first is a beautifully rippling study, 'Arpeggio', and Aziz maintains a beautifully steady flow throughout its shifting harmonies.  A somewhat gentle 'Allegro' is followed by softly singing 'Adagio', and here again Aziz brings out a beautifully resonant tone.  Rebecca Rowe (b.1970), herself a viola gamba player, wrote 'Journeying' for Aziz in 2018.  Rowe uses resonant, spread chords, and there's a moody, almost eastern flavour to the brief snatches of melodic line, and Aziz performs this with assurance. The remainder of the disc is given over to the Sonata No. 5 by Johann Schenck (1660-1712).  We're back in Bach territory, although as a gamba player, Schenck’s set of seven movements, a suite in all but name, perhaps better captures the idiomatic resonance of the instrument that Aziz refers to. Aziz definitely achieves his aim of demonstrating the resonant qualities of his instrument, as well as his own considerable talent.

Flauguissimo Duo, Yu-Wei Hu (flute) and Johan Löfving (guitar) are alumni of Brighton Early Music Festival's BREMF Live! scheme, so will be familiar to some, and they specialise in historically-informed performance of 18th and 19th century music.  Music for the two instruments flourished in the salon culture of the time, and their debut recording takes inspiration from the fashion of taking tunes popular in the opera houses into domestic settings.  So the centrepiece of this disc entitled 'A Salon Opera' is their own arrangement of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck's (1714-1787) opera, Orfeo ed Euridice.  Hu is allowed to shine in the opera's beautifully lyrical flute solo, and her breath control in its long sustained lines is impressive.  However, the Cantabile from virtuoso violinist-composer Paganini (1782-1840) is their delightful opener, allowing the duo to establish their delicate, sophisticated soundworld.  The recording is close, which suits the intimacy of the instruments and the repertoire.  Marginally less successful for me are the arrangements of three Schubert songs. Whilst it is certainly authentic to include such arrangements in a recreation of a domestic music-making gathering, it is hard not to miss the nuance of Schubert's expert setting of text. The arrangements here can't be faulted, and Hu's lyrical line is matched nicely by Löfving's deft accompaniment, with a suitably emphatic central section in Frühlingstraum from Winterreise, but it is hard to capture the full emotional contrast of love and loss inherent in Müller's text.  An die Nachtigall and Heidenröslein fair better, with their lighter melodies subtly ornamented by the flute.  Francesca Molino's (1768/75-1847) Notturno is a delight, with a particularly operatic Rondo, in which Hu enjoys the operatic coloratura to the full.  Fernando Sor's (1778-1839) Introduction and Variations on a Theme of Mozart, Op. 9 for guitar takes it's theme from Mozart's The Magic Flute, and after a dramatic introduction, the theme is presented in increasingly virtuosic variations, and here Löfving plays with great delicacy and bright tone.  After the Gluck, a dramatic Tarantelle for guitar by Johann Mertz (1806-1856) provides some welcome edge and rhythmic energy in an otherwise mostly lyrical programme, performed here with humour and bite.  They conclude with the Grande Serenade by Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829), with a graceful opening theme and variations movement, allowing both instruments to shine in turn.  Following a dainty minuet and slightly livelier trio, then a jaunty march, is an operatic 'Brillante' finale. Overall, a pleasing collection, performed with style.

Various. 2019. A Salon Opera. Flauguissimo Duo. Compact Disc. Resonus Classics. RES10233.

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

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