Reflections on classical music, recordings and performances
Saturday, 21 September 2019
CD Reviews - September 2019
Violinist Tasmin Littleis joined by pianistJohn Lenehanfor a glorious programme of works byAmy Beach (1867-1944), Clara Schumann (1819-1896) andDame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944).They open with Beach’s wonderfulSonata, 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.HerThree 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 herSonata 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 expressiveRomance, Op. 23, with its heart definitely on its sleeve, followed byInvocation, 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 Orchestra, Stephen 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’Écorchéis 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 Symphoniesby Schubert (1797-1828), Nos. 3, 5and 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.