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.
|Joglaresa (credit: Andrew Mason)|
|Joglaresa (credit: Andrew Mason)|
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.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. 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.
© Nick Rutter
|Isata & Sheku Kanneh-Mason|
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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.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.