Saturday, 29 February 2020

CD Reviews - January & February 2020

Pianist Ivana Gavrić’s new disc begins with a sprightly performance of Haydn’s Piano Concerto No. 11, in which she is joined by the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Karin Hendrickson. Her opening Vivace is full of energy, and the central slow movement has delightful grace and a sensitive touch. In both movements, Gavrić uses fitting cadenzas composed by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, one drawing on a Bosnian theme – more of that later. The finale is lively, and Gavrić plays with great poise and wit. Gavrić was inspired by the possibility that the concerto’s finale might have been based on a Bosnian folk melody. The melody’s origins may in fact be less authentic than we might hope, but nevertheless this led Gavrić to approach friend and collaborator Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980) to write a piano concerto using a Bosnian folk song as one of its themes, this time definitely an authentic tune, the unofficial anthem of Sarajevo (where Gavrić was born), Kad ja pođoh na Bentbašu’ (a rendition of which concludes the disc).  But first, Gavrić includes six French pieces written in 1909 to mark the 100th anniversary of Haydn’s death, as well as Frances-Hoad’s Stolen Rhythm, written using the motif of Haydn’s name a further 100 years later, in 2009. Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) Hommage à Haydn is beautifully rich, essentially a short set of variations, whereas Paul Dukas’ (1865-1935) Prelude élégiaque is sensuously liquid, and Gavrić’s touch is delicate and warm in both, and in the brief but delightful Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) which follows. Frances-Hoad’s sparky Stolen Rhythm follows, and although again brief, it has an energetic drive, exploiting the extremes of the keyboard in its continuous rhythmic pulse. Gavrić returns to the French set, with Vincent d’Indy’s (1851-1931) relatively straightforward Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn followed by Reynaldo Hahn’s (1874-1947) Thème varié sur le nom de Haydn, a typically deft miniature, and Charles-Marie Widor’s (1844-1937) lively Fugue sur le nom d’Haydn to finish the set. Gavrić brings out the varied character of these pieces with great attention to detail, and the placing of Frances-Hoad’s contribution in the middle of the set creates a great set up for ‘Between the Skies, the River and the Hills’, a three movement piano concerto by Frances-Hoad. Frances-Hoad draws on inspiration from the Haydn Concerto, the aforementioned folk tune, and the Nobel Prize-winning historical novel The Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andrić. The opening movement has great swirls of watery running scales from the piano under slow moving, lumbering strings and slippery woodwind, creating a very striking atmosphere from the outset. The pace quickens, as the floodwaters rise, before the sun breaks through at the end. The central scherzando has great quirky energy, with more than a whiff of Shostakovich in its dancing forward propulsion. The slow finale presents that Bosnian theme in moving simplicity, passed around the orchestra, with the piano’s interjections building in intensity and urgency, ending with an impassioned candenza, performed with incredible intensity here by Gavrić. The Bosnian theme’s poignant simplicity brings this beautifully constructed programme to a suitably sensitive conclusion. Highly recommended.

 

The most substantial work on a new release of works by British composer Howard Skempton (b.1947) is Man and Bat, a setting of a poem by D. H. Lawrence. Here, baritone Roderick Williams is joined by members of Ensemble 360, who feature throughout the recording. For this work, piano, string quartet and double bass provide a whirling, lilting background to the intriguing text about a man’s lengthy battle with a trapped bat. Skempton achieves a sense of insistent fluttering in the largely incessant rhythmic accompaniment, and Williams communicates the drama and understated dark humour of the text with great intensity. The collection includes another setting of a Lawrence poem, this time for tenor, within a three-movement cycle, The Moon is Flashing. The first two brief movements set poems by Skempton himself and Chris Newman, as introductions to the more substantial Lawrence poem, Snake. Originally written for full orchestra, Skempton has arranged the work for chamber ensemble, with Ensemble 360 providing clarinet, violin, cello and piano, along with tenor James Gilchrist. The titular opening movement is subtle and sensuous, whilst A Day in 3 Wipes that follows has a musical theatre flavour as Gilchrist communicates its contemporary story with directness. Snake meanwhile has dark menace, and Gilchrist shows considerable command of the depth of his range, which Skempton exploits to great effect. This is preceded by Skempton’s Piano Concerto, in a version for piano and string quartet. Set over five short movements, there is a stillness and ethereal atmosphere in the opening two, followed by a gently bouncing central movement. Ethereal mystery returns for the fourth movement, before a lightly jazzy finale. Pianist Tim Horton plays with lightness of touch and is matched with clarity of ensemble from the string quartet. The string quartet is joined by flute, clarinet and harp for the final work on the recording, Eternity’s Sunrise. Here calmness reigns, bringing the collection to a serene conclusion. If Skempton is new to you, this is a great place to start, and the performances from Williams, Gilchrist and Ensemble 360 could not provide a better advert for his atmospheric, accessible and consistently inventive music.


(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, January & February 2020)

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