Reflections on classical music, recordings and performances
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.