Monday, 12 October 2020

Brighton Early Music Festival - ‘BREMF@home – across the Earth’


For obvious reasons, there will sadly be no live concerts to attend in this year’s Brighton Early Music Festival. However, undeterred, BREMF are presenting a series of events online instead. 
Events will be premiered at a fixed date and time on YouTube and will remain online for a week. Although the events will be freely available, BREMF are requesting that viewers make a donation in place of buying concert tickets in the normal way via their website. This is crucial, as most of their regular funders have diverted funds to emergency aid during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Events run from Friday 23 October to Sunday 1 November

Spiritato!

Pocket Sinfonia will perform classics by Mendelssohn and Beethoven, adapted for chamber proportions, with animation and film of the natural world. Meanwhile, Spiritato! take the music of Heinrich Biber, and use puppets made from recycled materials to present Birds, Bugs and other Beasts – a Musical Menagerie

Piers Adams (credit: Emma Bailey)

A fifteenth-century barn and the pastoral Sussex landscape are the setting for Ensemble Augelletti’s Arcadian Wilderness, with music by Handel, Corelli, Geminiani and others, whilst James Duncan from Sussex Wildlife Trust is joined by Piers Adams on recorders for Bird Charmer, a talk with music on the song birds of Sussex. 


Joglaresa (credit: Andrew Mason)
Father and son Dirk and Adam Campbell play new and traditional music on a variety of instruments from Africa and Asia in Connections, while Joglaresa introduce us to medieval songs of protest in Rebellion!, including songs challenging corrupt leaders, religion and even sexual norms. Continuing the Sussex theme, Musicke in the Ayre will perform Sweet Ayres of Arcadia, set in the house and gardens of St Mary’s House, Bramber, in the Sussex Downs. 

Despite not being able to audition new ensembles for their prestigious BREMF Live! scheme this year, previous ensembles will be showcased with past and new footage of their musical activities. 

And as ever, the festival will end with a celebration – The Four Faces of Gaia. Four regions of the earth (Africa, India, the Middle East and Europe) and the four elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water) combine in a celebration through traditional and early music and dance. 

For more information, dates and times, and details of how to donate, go to bremf.org.uk.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

CD Reviews - October 2020

French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet released his set of complete Piano Sonatas by Beethoven (1770-1827) back in 2017, and it still remains the go to edition for me. So it’s great to see him now turn his attention to the five Piano Concertos. Spread across a three-disc set, he throws in a performance of the Quintet for Piano and Winds, for which he is joined by players from the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, who play alongside him in the concertos. Beethoven’s five concertos span well over twenty years of his career, and sketches exist at either end of concertos from as early as 1783 and as late as 1815. Here the five completed concertos are placed in order of their composition, so No. 2 in B flat major comes first, as it was actually composed back in 1787, before No. 1 in C major (1795). No. 2 is clearly Mozartian in many ways, but already here we have Beethoven’s stamp on the genre, with dramatic contrast of emphatic statements followed by delicate responses in the slow movement, and constant playing with the sense of downbeat and upbeat in the joyful Rondo. No. 1 has the same sense of rhythmic confusion in its Rondo too, and here Beethoven makes wonderful use of the clarinet in conversation with the piano in the slow movement. There is sprightly energy from the Swedish Chamber Orchestra throughout, and Bavouzet positively fizzes in the rippling runs, and attacks the finales with a great sense of fun. On the other hand, his delicacy of touch in the slow movements is delightful, and this comes to the fore again in No. 3 in C minor. The Swedish wind players are also prominent here, and their conversational exchanges with Bavouzet are subtle and poised. In the faster movements, Bavouzet’s tempi are always brisk, but never feel rushed, his fast runs always fluid and effortless. No. 4 in G major moves things onto another level, with a much broader sense of architecture, from its prayerful opening, right through to the galloping finale. Again, the slow movement is conversational, this time between just strings and the piano, with Bavouzet and the Swedish players creating a moment of intimacy amidst the grandeur of the outer movements. No. 5 in E flat major (the ‘Emperor’, although the origin of this nickname is unclear – it definitely wasn't specifically linked to Napoleon, as famously the Eroica Symphony was initially) is again on a grand scale, and there is a real sense of opening out here, with more expansive playing from both Bavouzet and the orchestra. The outer movements have great panache, particularly in the joyfully ebullient finale. The central slow movement is understated, and Bavouzet avoids over-sentimentalising proceedings – although I could have tolerated a little more indulgence here. But this is a minor point of taste – overall, this is an impressive collection, and I’ll definitely be returning to this frequently, alongside Bavouzet’s Sonata set. The bonus Quintet is a treat – a young work from Beethoven, giving greater prominence to the clarinet than to the other wind instruments (oboe, bassoon and horn), but packed full of joyful melodic material. The Swedish players here play alongside Bavouzet with great style, creating a pleasing palate-cleanser to round off the three-disc set.

Beethoven, L.v. 2020. Beethoven - the Piano Concertos. Jean Efflam-Bavouzet, Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Discs (3). Chandos CHSA 5273.



Last year I reviewed a delightful recording from Flaugissimo Duo, who I first came across when they were part of the Brighton Early Music Festival’s BREMF Live! Scheme. Now, one half of the duo, guitarist Johan Löfving has recorded Fandango!, a collection of music for solo guitar from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the six-stringed guitar flourished in the salons and concert halls of Paris and Vienna. So the works on offer here vary from the Viennese classicism of Mauro Guiliani’s (1781-1829) Sonata Brillante, with its playful Beethoven- or Hummel-esque pianistic style, and lyrical melodies, to the more explicitly Spanish influenced Fandango Variado by Dionisio Aguado (1784-1849), with its swirling dance rhythms and strumming flourishes. Interestingly, the guitar’s lack of ability to sustain notes creates interesting pregnant pauses in the slow movement of the Giuliani, but Löfving’s gentle vibrato manages to still make the melodies sing here. French composer, Napoléon Coste’s (1805-1883) Soirées d’Auteuil is unashamedly romantic, full of operatic melodies, virtuosic runs and cascading arpeggios, and Löfving has great fun here. A sense of decorum is restored in the brief Étude from the great composer and teacher, Fernando Sor (1778-1839). Löfving’s touch here is delicate and expressive, bringing out the duetting melodic lines with great sensitivity. Giulio Regondi (1822-1872) spent most of his adult life in the UK, and his relatively recently discovered Introduction et Caprice, following its chorale-like opening, is full of dancing virtuosity, another chance for Löfving to demonstrate the fluidity of his playing. To close the disc, he is joined by the Consone Quartet, current BBC New Generation Artists, for a performance of Luigi Boccherini’s (1743-1804) Quintet No. 4. This opens with a warm Pastorale, full of birdlike violin twiddles and musette-droning lower strings. The sound here is somewhat muted, and the rippling guitar part is understated, with only a brief moment of emphasis towards the movement’s conclusion. The strings sound more insistent in the second movement, but again, perhaps with an aim to achieve the right balance with the quieter guitar, the overall sound is subdued, although energy picks up with rustic dancing and a joyful, trilling close to the movement. The final movement, after a dramatic introduction and guitar solo, launches into a spirited and lively Fandango, and here the performance takes flight, with playful, almost laughing figuration from the first violin, and cheeky sliding gestures from all the string players. To add to the joyful sense of occasion, Nanako Aramaki joins in with castanets, and the energy rises to a spirited conclusion with lots of string tremolo and guitar strumming. A fun end to a very enjoyable disc, full of refreshing and sprightly-performed repertoire. 

 

Various. 2020. Fandango! Music for Solo Guitar and String Quartet. Johan Löfving, Consone Quartet, Nanako Aramaki. Compact Disc. Resonus RES10260.


The Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble (pianists Natalie Tsaldarakis and Panayotis Archontides) and composers Hugh Shrapnel (b.1947) and John Lewis (b.1947) were completely unknown to me, so their new disc, Elements of London, combining movements from two collections by the composers, was a total voyage of discovery. Lewis’ pieces (Elements) are all inspired and named after chemical elements, whilst Shrapnel’s (London) are all associated with people, places and even politics of South London – hence the combined title of the disc – and they are mixed together to form an overall programme. Despite their differing inspirations, the pieces fit together remarkably well, with influences of minimalism, jazz and blues cropping up throughout. Lewis makes use of insistent rhythmic repeated chords in Niobium, and minimalist influence is most evident in Mercury and Phosphorus. Yet there are Latin-infused rhythms in Chlorine, and hints of Shostakovich in the gently romping Cerium. Shrapnel’s pieces are more overtly expressive, such as the atmospheric Ladywell Station (surely quoting Misty) with its background train whistles, and the plaintive, lamenting In Memoriam Jane Clouson. Dad’s Army even makes an appearance in Hunt Hunt, a defiant political piece dedicated to the Save the Lewisham Hospital Campaign. The pieces have been sensibly curated here, with energy and drive contrasting with more lyrical and atmospheric movements. Few pieces are longer than five minutes, yet they are surprisingly effective in capturing a mood or energy. Tsaldarakis and Archontides have clearly developed a strong affinity for this music, and a close relationship with the two composers, and their performances are strong throughout, contrasting well the thicker chordal textures with bright melodies (often in bell-like octaves), and enjoying the jazz-infused melodies. A very enjoyable discovery.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Warmth and pleasure in music-making from Michael Collins and LMP friends

Michael Collins
© Nick Rutter
  Michael Collins (clarinet)
  Members of the London Mozart Players
  Simon Blendis (violin)
  Jennifer Godson (violin)
  Judith Busbridge (viola)
  Sebastian Comberti (cello)

  Thursday 1 October, 7pm

  (reviewed from online stream)

  ★

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826): Clarinet Quintet in B flat major, Op. 34

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581

Michael Collins & the London Mozart Players
© Nick Rutter
Weber:
'There was some especially sensitive pianissimo moments from the players in the operatically dramatic slow movement'.

Collins' 'virtuosic command was without doubt, but also the variety of tone was impressive, from the bright upper reaches right down to the rich depths'.

Mozart:
'A beautifully warm performance, with close communication from all and evident joy on Collins’ face'.

'The finale was a joy from beginning to end, and Judith Busbridge’s viola solo in the slow minor variation was heartfelt, with a gorgeously rich tone'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Spirited Mendelssohn without frills from the English Chamber Orchestra

© English Chamber Orchestra
  
  Members of the English Chamber 
  Orchestra

  Stephanie Gonley (violin)

  David Juritz (violin)

  Michael Gurevich (violin)

  Katerina Nazarova (violin)

  Roger Chase (viola)

  Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola)

  Lionel Handy (cello)

  Jonathan Ayling (cello)




Sunday 27 September, 4pm


Beckenham Place Mansion, London

(reviewed from online stream)



Alexander Borodin (1833-1887): String Sextet in D minor


Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Octet in E flat major, Op. 20


'A spirited performance of Mendelssohn’s joyous Octet, with an appetiser of Borodin’s incomplete String Sextet'.


Borodin:

'A warm performance'.


Mendelssohn:

'Mendelssohn's proto-Midsummer Night's Dream Scherzo had a light touch, taken at an energetic lick'.


'The group’s enthusiasm was evident, building to the movement’s glorious climax and a joyous flourish to finish'.


Read my full review on Bachtrack here.



Monday, 21 September 2020

'The waiting is long...': The Sixteen provide welcome Music for Reflection in difficult times

The Sixteen
Harry Christophers (conductor)


7pm, Saturday 19 September 2020
(reviewed from online stream)



Felice Anerio (c.1560-1614): Litaniae Beatissimae Virginis Mariae

Argo Pärt (b.1935): The Deer’s Cry

T S Eliot (1888-1965): Here let us stand, from Murder in the Cathedral

Josquin des Prez (c.1450/1455-152): O Virgo prudentissima

Arvo Pärt (b.1935): Da pacem Domine

T S Eliot (1888-1965): Does the bird sing in the south?, from Murder in the Cathedral

John Sheppard (c.1515-1558): Libera nos I

Josquin des Prez (c.1450/1455-1521): Pater noster, Ave Maria

Argo Pärt (b.1935): Morning Star

T S Eliot (1888-1965): We praise thee, O God, from Murder in the Cathedral

Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611): Litaniae Beatae Mariae

Encore: 

William Byrd (1543-1623): Mass for Four Voices, Agnus Dei 


Pärt:

'Christophers judged the pace of Pärt’s pieces well ... and the rich lower voices provided firm grounding throughout'.


Shepard:

'The emotional highpoint, with its low bass cantus firmus underpinning the glorious soaring and falling sopranos'.


Byrd:

'Beautifully performed here by a solo quartet, this was a perfect, intimate and reflective conclusion'.


Read my full review on Bachtrack here.



Monday, 14 September 2020

Moving intimacy in Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason’s impressive Chamber Prom - BBC Proms 2020 Live

Isata & Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou
  Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello) 


  8pm, Friday 11 September, 2020, BBC4
  (first broadcast Sunday 6 September
  2020, BBC Radio 3, 
  recorded Thursday 27 August 2020)


  ★


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102 No. 1
Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Cello Sonata, Op. 6
Frank Bridge (1879-1941): Mélodie
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943): Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19

© BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Beethoven:
'The Kanneh-Masons enjoyed the conversational exchanges in the two movement’s slow openings, whilst giving the fast sections that follow in both cases great energy and momentum'.

Barber:
'The exquisite mixture of sunlight and sadness was as transparent in his facial expression as in the passion of both performers’ rendering of Barber’s late Romantic outpourings'.

Bridge:
'Sheku and Isata remained in total sync, right to the perfectly timed finish'.

Rachmaninov:
'The sibling closeness shone through, and despite those two huge ‘solo’ parts, they played as one'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

CD Reviews - September 2020

Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) studied with Stanford and then Parry at the Royal College of Music, where he subsequently became a professor. He composed some orchestral and choral works, the latter of which achieved some success during his lifetime, but he is now chiefly known for his impact on the development of English art song, following on from his teachers. Baritone Roderick Williams, joined by his regular pianist partner Susie Allan, has recorded two of Somervell’s most significant song cycles, Maud and A Shropshire Lad, settings of Tennyson and A E Housman respectively. It’s hard to avoid comparing the settings of poems from A Shropshire Lad with those of other composers, notably Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Gurney and Butterworth – but to be fair, Somervell was there first, setting ten of the 63 poems from A E Housman’s collection less than ten years after they were first published. His settings are on the whole more straightforward than some of the later composers, and in the liner notes, Williams discusses Somervell’s lack of focus on any subtext in the poems, taking the texts largely on face value. As such, they give a faithfully atmospheric reading of a young man, moving through early heartbreak and loss, ultimately finding redemption in heading off to fight and ‘die in glory’. The ‘Loveliest of trees’, when the 20 year-old man wistfully reflects that he has ‘only’ fifty years of his threescore years and ten ahead of him, followed by the youthful sentimentality of ‘When I was one-and-twenty’, before a darker bitterness of lost love creeps in in ‘There pass the careless people’. There are hints of darkness in amongst the church bells tolling in ‘In summertime on Bredon’, as the man’s young wife dies, and in his rather self-centred bitterness he admonishes her for leaving and not waiting for him, and the return to the major key for the final verse is not entirely convincing. So it’s off to war, and there is little hint of the premonitions of horrors to come we find in other settings, particularly Butterworth’s, with Somervell perhaps taking rather literally the suggestion to ‘Think no more, lad, laugh, be jolly’ – after all, ‘ ‘tis only thinking lays lads underground’. There is a moment of fragility in the penultimate ‘Into my heart an air that kills’, as the singer wavers on a single repeated note as the piano recalls the opening song. But ‘The lads in their hundreds’, that in other hands is so poignant, here leaves one slightly uncomfortable, the unexpected modulation at the end of the third verse, and the knowledge that the men will not return, swept away with the final verse’s heroic blaze of glory. Williams is true to his word, and delivers the cycle with a clear and unfussy approach, allowing Somervell’s approach to the text to speak for itself without any overdramatic sentimentality. Whilst I’m left a little underwhelmed by Somervell’s settings here, the same cannot be said of his Tennyson saga, Maud. A much more dramatic tale, full of unspoken mental torment and disturbing emotions, Somervell’s setting here is much more expressive and full of interest, without straying too far into Victorian melodrama. We’re taken from the protagonist’s father’s suicide, through his growing love, infatuation and obsession for Maud, climaxing in a duel, in which our ‘hero’ kills her brother, and then wracked with torment, is driven mad, before (once again) finding some sort of redemption in going to war, hoping for reunion with Maud in death. Also striking here is the complexity of the piano accompaniments, with Schumannesque rippling textures, ringing bells, funeral marching and echoes of the church organ. Allan is impressive throughout, and Williams once again delivers the narrative with clarity, here bringing out the greater range of dramatic expression. The darker undercurrents are brought out here too – the growing obsession in ‘Maud has a garden’ surely borders on stalking, and Williams’ intensity of delivery, over the watery expressive accompaniment, is quite disturbing. There is fragility in the world-weariness of the final song, ‘My life has crept so long’, and it is left to the piano to introduce a more heroic style, the singer almost dragged along unwillingly to the final conclusion. Two other short songs are added to the programme here. ‘A Kingdom by the Sea’, a setting of Poe, has a touching, almost childlike simplicity in its lilting rhythm, another tale of lost love, with Williams placing the high ‘tomb’ with impressive delicacy. And the ‘Shepherd’s Cradle Song’, with its similarly simple lilt, gains interest from the piano part weaving beneath the pastoral melody. Whilst this disc might not convince us that Somervell is an unfairly forgotten genius, the Maud cycle alone, and Williams and Allan’s strong performances throughout make this well worth exploration.

Somervell, Sir A. 2020. A Shropshire Lad, Maud. Roderick Williams, Susie Allan. Compact Disc. Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0615. 

 

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) is one of those composers with a completely individual voice, yet it is hard to pin down exactly what makes this so. It is perhaps the slightly incongruous mixture of French cabaret, with elements of the sacred choral traditions, with some gorgeous chromatic harmonies thrown in. So it is always a pleasure to find new recordings of his music, especially including works I’ve not come across before. Pianist Eva-Maria May has been recording his piano music, and kicking off her second collection of chamber music, she is joined by cellist Martin Rummel for the Suite française d’après Claude Gervaise. Gervaise was a French Renaissance composer, and this suite was originally an orchestral suite, which Poulenc revised for cello and piano. It is a straightforward collection of dance inspired movements, alternating fast and slow, with Poulenc’s characteristic take on an ‘ancient’ style. There are beautifully lyrical lines for the cello in the slower movements particularly, and the resonant recording and Rummel’s rich tone give these extra warmth. Poulenc throws in some typical harmonic piquancy in the harmonic clashes between the cello line and the piano, particularly in the slow Pavane, and the swirling repetitive figures in the bright concluding Carillon are highly effective. They follow this with a transcription by cellist Maurice Gendron of Sérénade, from Poulenc’s song cycle, Chansons gaillardes, with its gently lilting sicilienne rhythm and beautifully lyrical melody. Next comes music for the stage – music to go with a play by Jean Anouilh, the comedy L’invitation au château. This forms in effect another Suite, for violin (Corinna Desch), clarinet (Andreas Schablas) and piano. The music is great fun, with swirling waltzes, balletic and circus-like capers, the odd polka and tango thrown in, as well as snippets of a Chopin-esque mazurka. Nothing lasts for more than a minute or two, and without the context of the play, it’s difficult in places to make sense of the transitions, but mixture of cabaret, nostalgia, comedic antics and swirling waltzes is hard to resist. All three players here relish the lyrical melodies, balletic leaps and luscious harmonies. Flautist Ahran Kim joins for two pieces – firstly a solo, Un jouer de flute berce les ruines, the manuscript of which was only discovered in 1997. Again, the reverberant recording adds to Kim’s smooth sound in this brief but beautiful, twisting and turning melody. She follows this with another brief piece, this time an introspective, intimate work for piccolo and piano, Villanelle, with a similarly simply lilting melody, initially matched by a single piano line, then with rippling harmonies added. For the remainder of the disc, May is joined by baritone Damien Gastl, firstly for two short songs, La souris and Nuage, and then the cycle La Travail du Peintre. The two miniatures first both have that distinctive shifting chromatic accompaniment, particularly in Nuage, where it is picked up in the melody too. Gastl has a distinctive tone, and he conveys the text with precision and conviction. The cycle that follows characterises artists, including Picasso, Chagall, Klee and Miró, drawing on surrealist poetry by Paul Éluard. Picasso is proud and declamatory, Chagall quirky and quixotic, and Braque has a lyrical, swirling melody. Gastl is sweet at the top of his range, and he meets the challenges of the leaping vocal line in Klee well. Some of the chromaticisms in the middle range are occasionally a little unclear (in Picasso for example), but the mysterious Miró and weighty Villon (with highly effective bell-ringing piano from May) are strongly evocative. Overall, a fascinating and impressively performed collection of some lesser known Poulenc here.

Poulenc, F. 2020. Chamber Music Vol. 2. Damien Gastl, Ahran Kim, Andreas Schablas, Corinna Desch, Martin Rummel, Eva-Maria May. Compact Disc. Paladino Music PMR 0068.


It’s a tall order to cover issues such as child refugees, disability and war in a cantata for children, commissioned for the young singers of The National Children’s Choir of Great Britain, in a way that speaks without coming across as superficial or over-worthy. But Cecilia McDowall’s (b.1951) cantata, Everyday Wonders: The Girl from Aleppo, is in fact highly effective and moving, given strength by the truth of the remarkable story it tells in its five short movements. Nujeen Mustafa, a Kurdish teenager with cerebral palsy, left Aleppo and travelled, in her wheelchair, with her sister, some 3500 miles to Germany, where she found refuge. Her story is told in her biography, co-authored by Christina Lamb, and Kevin Crossley-Holland has drawn on this to summarise her story in the cantata’s libretto. The young singers, directed by Dan Ludford-Thomas, are joined by violinist Harriet Mackenzie and pianist Claire Dunham. There is a musical mix of eastern infused harmonies and melodies, particularly in the improvisatory violin part that opens the work, and simpler, tonal hymnal choral setting, as well as use of some more percussive effects. The work moves from the initial flight from a war-torn Aleppo, with ‘thousands milling at the border’ in the second movement, with effective whispering and chanting repetition, stamping and clapping effects, and shushing sea spray as they make the journey across water (surprisingly rather gently swaying water here – one might have expected harsher conditions, but this isn’t clear from the text). One could easily be cynical about the sweet welcome of the German policeman when they finally arrive safely, greeted with ‘Wilkommen! Welcome to Germany!’, but this is a powerful moment, with the piano briefly quoting Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and the final movement’s depiction of Nujeen’s new life in safety and full of hope is very touching. This must have been a wonderful experience for the young singers here, and they perform with clear diction throughout, with tuning only a minor issue in some of the chorale sections, and a few impressive keening soprano solos going unmentioned. Mackenzie’s atmospheric playing throughout, along with the rocking energy and pace of Dunham’s piano accompaniment provide a strong framework for the singers. A powerful reminder of the power of music to involve young people and communicate strong messages – in these strange times, I only hope the opportunity for young people to get involved in such projects will return soon. 

McDowall, C. 2019. The Girl from Aleppo. The National Children's Choir of Great Britain, Harriet Mackenzie, Claire Dunham, Dan Ludford-Thomas. Compact Disc. Convivium Records. CR054.


(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, September 2020)

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

CD Reviews - August 2020

Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901) is chiefly known today as a cellist, and his Twelve Caprices Op. 25 for solo cello are a staple of the cello repertoire. However, he was steeped in operatic orchestral playing from a very early age, employed from the age of eight under the supervision of his father Antonio who led the local orchestra. Donizetti was a close neighbour and family friend, and the young Alfredo was exposed to the world of opera from the beginning, so it’s natural that when he embarked on his solo touring career in his early twenties, he took with him Fantasies that drew on well-known operatic melodies to show off his virtuosic flair. In their second volume of these Operatic Fantasies, cellist Adrian Bradbury and pianist Oliver Davies (who sadly passed away on 2 July 2020) give us four Fantasies based on operas by Donizetti, as well as ‘Rimembranze del Trovatore’ from Verdi’s opera, and the Capriccio sur des Airs de Balfe, which uses three hit numbers from operas by Michael William Balfe (1808-1870). As one would expect from the source repertoire, all of the Fantasies accentuate the dramatic as well as the lyricism of the melodies, and the cello’s singing tone is ideal for this. So in the Introduction et Variations sur un thème de Lucia di Lammermoor, the theme is taken from the opera’s climactic dramatic final aria, and after an introduction of his own invention, Piatti takes us through increasingly virtuosic variations, always exploiting the anguish and grief of the original aria. Bradbury tackles the virtuosic demands with panache, and brings out that sense of anguish in plaintive tones. The Rondò sulla Favorita, from Donizetti’s La Favorite, quotes from five beautifully lyrical numbers from the opera, and the Souvenir de l’opera Linda di Chamounix is similarly packed full of great melodies. In the days before recordings, these delightful showpieces would have delighted audiences and provided a great boost for popularising the great opera hits of the day. The Parafrasi sulla Barcarola del Marino Faliero takes the virtuosity to new heights with dazzling scale passages, ringing harmonics and expeditions to the very limit of the top string. Bradbury’s technique is equally dazzling, yet however showy the pyrotechnics get, he always returns to a simple, warm tone for the lyrical melodies. Turning to Verdi’s Trovatore, we get five numbers from the opera, and here, the piano has a little more to do, sometimes ‘singing’ the aria beneath the cello’s filigree decoration. The Capriccio sur des airs de Balfe finishes the disc, drawing on three joyously lyrical arias from Balfe’s operas.  Bradbury and Davies worked together extensively in exploring and in some places reconstructing some of this repertoire, with Davies preparing piano reductions from original orchestral scores, and Bradbury completing a cadenza, and this close study and working relationship shows in their performances. I somehow missed the first volume of these delightful Operatic Fantasies, and will definitely be seeking that out. In these strange times, these beautiful melodies, decorated with such virtuosic abandon and performed so effortlessly, provide the perfect balm. 


Back in July 2017, I reviewed a fascinating recording by Catalina Vicens, inspired by performing on what was possibly the oldest harpsichord, dating from the 16thcentury.  For her latest recording, Organic Creatures, she takes us back even further, into the 12th, 13thand 14thcenturies, performing this time on organs from that period, some original and some reproductions, including the Van Eyck organ, an organ reconstructed based on the painting ‘The Ghent Altarpiece’ by Jan Van Eyck (1432). The music on this two-disc set is a mixture of repertoire from those early centuries, including music by Hildegard of Bingen, Pérotin, Dunstaple and Isaac, as well as many anonymous works. These are interspersed by compositions by Vicens herself, as well as contemporary composers including Ivan Moody and Olli Virtaperko.  She is also joined on some tracks by fellow organists Cristophe Deslignes and Jankees Braaksma, to particularly striking effect in the lightly swinging Presul nostril temporis, an anonymous 13thcentury piece. The soundworld here is fascinating, with the breathy sound of bellows and occasional surprising twists and bends, creating an unexpected range from such early instruments. With forty tracks spread over the two discs, there isn’t space here for commentary on every piece, and the booklet notes, whilst beautifully designed, provide little information on the music, much of which will be unfamiliar to all but the most hardened medievalists. Heinrich Issac’s (c.1450-1517) stately Si dormiero and Pérotin’s (fl.c.1200) twisting and turning Organum: Alleluia are delightful, but it is perhaps some of the anonymous works here that are the most intriguing. These range from the highly virtuosic and more substantial 14thcentury gem, Chominciamento di gioia which forms the centrepiece of the first disc, to the weirdly spooky Audi, pontus; audi, tellus, and the persistent drone and dying bellows of Unicornus captivator, both also 14thcentury. Vicens’ own pieces complement the programme well, as if almost improvisatory comments on the instruments and the other works. Her Creation (or the nation of creatures) is the most striking, with its vibrating harmonic clashes and ethereal whistling. Of the other contemporary pieces, Carson Cooman’s (b.1982) dancing Nova Cantiga: Rondeau is very effective, as is Olli Virtaperko’s (b.1973) touching Lamento of Ananias. Ivan Moody’s (b.1964) Inperaytriz de la ciutat joyosa is an interesting enough improvisatory exploration, whereas Prach Boondiskulchok’s (b.1985) strangely titled Squonk Diptych is more inventive, and it’s second part Chacona, with its unraveling rhythms, knocks and squeaks is the piece that stretches the bounds of the instrument most. There is a lot here to take in, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend listening to the two full discs back to back, but this is an expertly performed and conceived project, well worth exploration. 

Various. 2020. Organic Creatures: Medieval Organs Composed - Decomposed - Recomposed. Catalina Vicens. Compact Discs (2). Consouling Sounds. SOUL0139.


Classical repertoire on the saxophone is not everyone’s cup of tea, but personally I love its lyrical potential and rounded tone. Hearing familiar repertoire on an unexpected instrument can add something refreshing, so I was looking forward to exploring saxophonist Gerard McChrystal’s new collection, Solas (the Gaelic word for light). Even more unusually, perhaps, he is accompanied throughout by the organ, played by Christian Wilson, which adds another dimension to the soundworld. And furthermore, most of the repertoire here is performed on the lesser heard (at least in a solo context) sopranino and soprano saxophones, with the alto sax making an appearance for just two numbers at the end of the disc. The disc opens with a Sonata No. 1 by Leonardi Vinci (1690-1730), originally for flute, but here McChrystal’s high trumpety sopranino sax, setting proceedings off with a bright and energetic flair. The Adagio from Haydn’s String Quartet No. 1 follows, with a reverent opening on the organ, followed by the melody ringing out on the rich soprano sax, and McChrystal’s tone here is touchingly warm. The Sonata No. 6 by Nicolas Chédeville (1705-1782) is from a set of six, ‘Il pastor fido’, sneakily passed off by Chédeville as being by Vivaldi, only unmasked as untrue in 1990. Nevertheless, the sonata is a delightful Baroque miniature, originally for recorder, and is played here on the sopranino sax, again with that bright, trumpet-like sound. From there, we enter the world of Handel, and the glorious Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (Eternal Source of Light Divine), originally for voice and trumpet, here a duet for sopranino and soprano sax (both played by McChrystal), creating a beautifully blended sound as the two instruments take the languid melody over from one another. There’s more Handel to come, with the sensuous aria, ‘Cara sposa, amante cara, dove sei?’ from Rinaldo, and a Violin Sonata in G minor. The aria is given to the sopranino, which McChrystal makes sing with plaintive passion, whilst the soprano sax takes the Sonata, and its more mellow tone suits this beautifully, with McChrystal tastefully ornamenting Handel’s simple lines, particularly in the Adagio. There are two more contemporary works here, firstly Green, from Darkness into Light, by Barbara Thompson (b.1944), originally composed for sax quartet, and then A Brief Story of Peter Abelard by James Whitbourn (b.1963). Green opens with gently lilting spread organ chords, before the soprano sax enters with a beautifully melismatic line souring over the top, twisting and turning. Whitbourn’s piece is a set of variations on a hymn tune by the 11thcentury medieval philosopher, poet and musician, Peter Abelard, with more rhythmic energy and varied interplay between the organ and soprano sax. The disc concludes with the arrival of the darker alto saxophone, after the bright tones of the higher instruments. Firstly, the Choral phrygien by French composer Jehan Alain (1911-1940), a contemporary of Messaien sadly lost at an early age in the Second World War. Dark and sombre, McChrystal’s alto sax here is mournful and full of soul, setting up the mood well for the final piece, Purcell’s When I am laid in earth from Dido and Aeneas, to which the melancholic tone of the alto sax is beautifully suited. In terms of programming, some of the brighter pieces might have served better as a conclusion, but nevertheless, this is a great selection, and in particular, as a showcase for the higher members of the sax family, this is to be highly recommended.  


(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, August 2020)

Monday, 13 July 2020

CD Reviews - June & July 2020

Richard Strauss’ (1864-1949) Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 (Alpine Symphony) is a fabulous piece of extended tone poem writing, rather than a conventional symphony.  It requires a huge orchestra, including wind and thunder machines, cowbells, and the heckelphone (a member of the oboe family, similar to a cor anglais).  Yet it’s not just an overblown orchestral romp – there is some beautifully subtle music here too, and Strauss captures the drama and danger of the mountains, as well as the sheer beauty and simplicity of an alpine meadow, from sunrise to sunset. Vasily Petrenko with the Oslo Philharmonic is a revelation here in the third of their Strauss recordings – all the detail of this phenomenal journey is there, but there is always a sense of direction and forward momentum. The big, brassy moments are powerful, but never overblown, yet there is some beautifully delicate solo string playing, wandering by the stream in the forest, and the arrival at the summit is lushly climactic. In the ‘Vision’ that follows, Petrenko steers a steady path through the meandering harmonic instability, and the storm is dramatic and suitably scary, before a warm sunset and subdued sink into the night. Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic follow this masterpiece with a passionate reading of Strauss’ earlier tone poems, Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (Death and Transfiguration). The music depicts a dying artist reflecting back over his life, before reaching ultimate transfiguration in heaven. A consistent theme in Strauss’ tone poems is that idea of our hero defeated in the here and now, but somehow attaining victory, here in a final blaze of C major. Again, Petrenko is alert to detail here, but also the essential trajectory of Strauss’ story-telling arc. Highly recommended.

Strauss, R. 2020. Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 & Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24. Oslo Philharmonic, Vasily Petrenko. Compact Disc. Lawo Classics LWC1192.

I reviewed Ibrahim Aziz’s solo viola da gamba album last year (here), and he’s now back, joined by harpsichordist Masumi Yamamoto in a recording of works for the two instruments by Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759). Here we have a mixture of his works transcribed by Handel himself, and also by Aziz from Sonatas originally for violin, and a keyboard Suite, as well as one Sonata attributed to Handel, but possibly by Johann Kress (1685-1728). But no matter, Aziz owns them for the viola da gamba with a beautifully warm tone and delicate ornamentation. The balance between Aziz and Yamamoto on harpsichord is well-judged, and despite some weighty double-stopping in the Allegro of the G major Sonata, for example, the light harpsichord is never overpowered. The Largo of this same Sonata is a beautiful gem, and Aziz makes his instrument ring with great energy in the final virtuosic Allegro. Aziz includes a stately Prélude in the French style from a Suite by Sainte-Colombe le Fils (c.1660-1720?), once again showing off his resonant tone and agility. Yamamoto follows with Handel’s Suite No. 4 for harpsichord, playing with vigour and precision in the opening Fuga, a flowing energy in the central Courante, and a joyful bounce to the final Gigue. Another transcription by Aziz next, a Prelude from one of Handel’s keyboard Suites, making particular use of the lower reaches of the instrument, again with that ringing, rich tone. The duo are reunited for the remainder of the disc, in another Aziz transcription of a keyboard Suite, and a final Sonata. The Suite concludes in a striking Chaconne, allowing both players to demonstrate their virtuosity. The Sonata, for Viola da Gamba and Obbligato Harpsichord puts the right hand of the harpsichord together with the viola da gamba in a melodic duet, particularly impressive in the two Allegros, giving the disc a suitably energetic and virtuosic conclusion. This is a delightful collection, and the two players’ commitment to and command of this repertoire shine throughout. 

Handel, G. F. 2020. Works for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord. Ibrahim Aziz, Masumi Yamamoto. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR91.

Cellist Rohan de Saram is now 81, although this disc was recorded back in 2012, when he was a mere 73 years old. Born in Sheffield to Sri Lankan parents, de Saram studied with Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966), as well as Cassadó’s teacher, Pablo Casals (1876-1973), and this heritage goes right through this recital, with transcriptions from both of them, as well as the disc’s title piece, Requiebros, by Cassadó himself, played here with clear passion and affection. Cassadó’s transcription of Granados’ Intermezzo from his opera Goyescas is another delightful gem, again played with gentle warmth. There are some old favourites here, such as Saint-Saëns’ Le cygne from Le carnaval des animaux, and Casals’ transcription of Fauré’s exquisite song, Après un rêve, both beautifully performed with touching simplicity. Yet de Saram’s commitment to performing contemporary works is also reflected, with premiere recordings of Chasse au moment by Oliver Frick (b.1973), and Toshio Hosokawa’s (b.1955) Lied III. The former is a mercurial attempt to capture a sequence of fleeting moments, and is highly atmospheric and evocative. Hosokawa aims to make a connection between the lieder of Schubert and his own musical traditions, and the result contrasts sustained, almost lyrical moments for the cello with sudden angular interjections by both cello and piano, made equally effective here by both players – de Saram is accompanied effortlessly throughout the disc by pianist Junko Yamamoto. Manuel de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole originated as a suite for violin and piano, and six of the seven original movements were arranged by Maurice Maréchal for cello and piano. The piano accompaniment often mimics the guitar, and the themes emanate from different areas in Spain, from the Murcian El paño moruno, through the beautiful Andalusian lullaby, Nana, to the rhythmic character of Jota, from Aragon. Similarly, later in the collection, we have Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102, and here the folk-style influence is seen in the unusual rhythmic structures. In both sets, de Saram enjoys the rhythmic interest, whilst bringing out the folk melodies with a warm singing tone. Ravel’s Piece en forme de habanera is another popular encore piece, with its Cuban infused rhythms, and Saints-Saëns’ Allegro appassionata, Op. 43 that ends the disc also allows for a greater show of brilliance. This is a recital of exemplary performances, made all the more fascinating given the history and connections to some of the great traditions of twentieth century cello playing.

Various. 2020. Requiebros. Rohan de Saram, Junko Yamamoto. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR97.

Russian-born pianist Elisaveta Blumina moved to Germany in her teens, and whilst (as she points out in the notes for her latest double CD release) young pianists in Russia are often schooled in Austrian and German classical repertoire, she feels very much that Russian and Soviet music is ‘in her blood’. So this collection explores that heritage, beginning with Scriabin’s Five Preludes, Op. 16. These beautifully colourful miniatures (whilst probably not a synesthete himself, he was very much influenced by the concept, making strong associations between keys and specific colours, for example) show the influence of Chopin, but with hints of Scriabin’s stretching use of harmony. Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives that follow are equally fleeting miniatures, yet Blumina captures the individual moods wonderfully, even though none last for more than two minutes – she treats us to six here out of the complete set of twenty. Blumina has championed the revival of the music of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), a Polish-Jewish composer who fled the Nazis and spent the rest of his life in the Soviet Union. Here we have just two short Fugues, dedicated to Ludmila Berlinskaya, and the story goes that Weinberg wrote them for Ludmila who had forgotten to prepare two fugues for her homework at the Conservatory – she handed them in, but received very bad marks for them, perhaps because of their quirky yet subtle individuality, combined with some serious ‘rule-breaking’! The remainder of the first disc is given over to Griogori Frid’s (1915-2012) Hungarian Album, Op. 54. These are delightful character pieces, capturing evocative scenes such as The Amusement Park, an Evening at the River, At the Zoo, and a walk In the Forest. The longest here, at four and a half minutes, is a watery flowing Broad Danube, in great contrast to the bouncy Excursion outdoors with Hungarian Friends. These are not virtuosic pieces, but they require delicacy and intimate touch, as well as that ability once again to distil a mood in just a few moments, all of which Blumina excels at here. The second, shorter disc consists of twenty-two out of Giya Kancheli’s (1935-2019) 33 Miniatures for piano. The CD was recorded in 2018 when Kancheli was still alive, and Blumina discussed the pieces with him, particularly his original very slow tempi for some of the pieces. She clearly has a great affection for these warmly sentimental fragments drawn from the Georgian composer’s film music, and this is their first recording. They stand in stark contrast to the more incisive, angular music of the first disc, a welcome addition here, and overall, this collection of fleeting backward glances to Blumina’s homeland is a varied tribute to the power of the miniature to move and capture a mood or emotion in a moment.

Various. 2019. Memories from home. Elisaveta Blumina. Compact Discs (2). Deutschlandradio/Dreyer Gaido CD 21120.

Violinist Clare Howick joins pianist Simon Callaghan for a survey of British Violin Sonatas, and there are a surprising number to choose from – Tasmin Little recently released her third volume of them. Howick and Callaghan open with William Walton’s (1902-1983) Sonata, which consists of two substantial movements, essentially lyrical in style, despite the twelve-tone phrase in the second movement's theme.  The variations then give both players extended virtuosic and improvisatory passages on their own and together, and Howick immediately demonstrates a great range, with lyrical lines contrasting forensic precision in the more angular moments in the variations. This is followed by the Sonatina by William Alwyn (1905-1985). An earlier work (from c.1933) than Walton’s, Alwyn rejected the work later in his life, yet it is delightfully proportioned and melodically inventive, flowing effortlessly from its rippling opening, through the darkly lilting central Adagio, to the energetically bouncy finale. Again, Howick plays with warmth and lyricism, and both players use the full range of dynamics to great effect. Howick & Callaghan give premiere recordings here of three miniatures by Gordon Jacob (1895-1984), his sinuous Elegy, playfully virtuosic Caprice and delicate Little Dancer – all great programme fillers or encore pieces. Kenneth Leighton’s (1929-1988) Sonata No. 1 launches straight into a rich sound world with thick, swirling textures, particularly in its weighty piano part, played with command by Callaghan here, yet never overwhelming Howick’s rich tones. The slow movement’s beautiful chorale-like piano opening combines with an intensely nostalgic melodic line, and the emphatic finale nevertheless concludes with light hint of the chorale-like material. Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971) wrote Pierrette: Valse Caprice as a wedding present in 1934 for his first wife, violinist Jessie Hinchliffe, and it has a light and joyful feel, played here with great tenderness. Lennox Berkeley’s Elegy and Toccata, Op. 33 Nos 2 & 3 were written for violinist Frederick Grinke (as was No. 1 from the set, variations for solo violin, not recorded here). The Elegy is tender and expressive, whilst the Toccata has an infectious drive from beginning to end. This disc amply demonstrates a huge variety of styles and textures, beyond the expected limits of forty or so years of British composition, and Howick and Callaghan deserve credit for this well thought out programme, elegantly performed throughout.

Various. 2020. British Violin Sonatas. Clare Howick, Simon Callaghan. Compact Disc. Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0610.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, June & July 2020)