Thursday, 23 April 2020

CD Reviews - March & April 2020

Michael Butten presents a delightful selection of music by John Dowland (1563-1626), the master English composer of lute music and songs. Butten uses well the richer, warmer tones of the classical guitar, whilst still preserving the simplicity of the original instrument’s lighter style, and avoiding too much weighty expression. His Pavan is a good example of this – Butten plays with a simple soulfulness, all the more touching for its restraint. The Fantasies and Fancies, of which there are six here, allow for more display of virtuosity, yet Butten keeps a lid on this, never allowing them to be become overly showy. The delightful galliard,‘Can She Excuse?’ has a joyful bounce, whereas his ‘Forlorn Hope Fancy’ has a desolate, insular intimacy. The lute can bring a greater sense of fragility, but Butten’s guitar compensates with a steady warmth of tone and cleanness of line throughout. The rapid-fire passage at the end of the ‘Tremolo’ Fancy is so unexpected and unlike anything else in Dowland’s music, and Butten relishes the challenge of its brief virtuosic spotlight. Order is restored in the stately and mournful ‘Loth to Depart’, although this too develops into an expressively intricate gem. There are lighter moments, such as the short and sweet jig, ‘Mrs Winter’s Jump' and the humorous 'Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe’, delivered with lightness and subtle with by Butten. The wonderfully chromatic fantasia, ‘Farewell’, that concludes Butten’s selection allows him to demonstrate further his control and skill, at the same time as bringing out the depths of expression in this fabulous music. For Dowland played on guitar, you can’t go far wrong with this.

The brothers Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759) and Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703-1771), whilst largely forgotten today were well known in their respective fields during their lifetimes. The younger brother, Carl Heinrich, was closely associated with Frederick the Great of Prussia and his court, as well as being an accomplished tenor and opera composer, achieving fame as Berlin’s Opera Kapellmeister. Johann Gottlieb on the other hand was a virtuoso violinist, and studied with Pisendel and Tartini, working as Frederick’s chamber musician, as well as leading Berlin’s Opera orchestra. But the Portuguese Early Music group, Ludovice EnsembleJoana Amorim on traverso (Baroque flute) and Fernando Miguel Jalôto on harpsichord – draw attention away from their grander compositions. In a 2 disc set, ‘Del Signor Graun’, the offer a selection from the vast number of Trio Sonatas that the pair composed. A trio sonata consists of two melodic lines along with a continuo accompaniment – but confusingly, one of the melodic lines can be taken by the continuo player (described as ‘obbligato’), resulting in effect in a duet. So here we have six such sonatas, with one melodic line on flute, and the harpsichord taking the second melodic line as well as providing the accompaniment. The brothers wrote around 130 trio sonatas between them, although it is hard to be sure which brother wrote many of them, with ambiguous ascriptions such as ‘Graun’ or ‘Signr. Graun’. Nevertheless, these are delightful pieces, showing a great deal of invention, and nicely transitioning the late Baroque into early Classical styles. Nearly all in three movements, the formula is generally a slow, stately opening movement, ending with an improvisatory passage followed by two faster movements, the finale often a 3-time dance-like movement. Amorim and Jalôto match their melodic lines well, taking over from each other in the frequent exchanges of ideas, as well as enjoying the moments when the two parts align more in a duet. There are beautiful moments of more Bachian counterpoint in the additional slow movement of No. 56, whilst delicate trilling features in the sprightly Allegretto of No. 110. The players give the gentle slow movements graceful poise, and inject welcome energy into the faster movements, such as No. 56’s Allegro. There are no fireworks here, but plenty of subtle delicacy and invention, making for a highly enjoyable listen. 

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was active in the woman’s suffrage movement, and her composition career was very successful (Clara Schumann was in fact one of her greatest supporters), although she faced much prejudice during her life, her music being either deemed ‘too masculine’ or ‘too feminine’, depending on whether it was dramatic, rhythmic and powerful, or lyrical and melodic. However, she achieved success with a number of larger scale works – but her smaller-scale repertoire, including a significant number of songs, is largely unknown. Lucy Stevens (contralto), along with pianist Elizabeth Marcus, aims to put that right with a collection of Songs and Ballads, including two sets from early in her career and two from much later. The Op. 3 ‘Lieder und Balladen’ are recorded for the first time here in Smyth’s own English translation, written in pencil on the original manuscript. Smyth had settled in Leipzig to study, and it was there she became known to Clara Schumann, as well as Brahms, Dvořák and Grieg. Apparently, when composer George Henschel presented a couple of Smyth’s songs to Brahms, he wouldn't believe they were hers, stating that Henschel himself must have composed them – it just wasn’t conceivable that a ‘young lady’ had composed them! The Op. 3 set combine images of nature with themes of lost love, and range from the tender ‘On the Hill’, through darker sadness and grief in ‘It changes what we’re seeing’, to the folksy story-telling of ‘Fair Rohtraut’. Stevens’ contralto voice is bright and pure, and she excels in the more tender, gentle moments of Smyth’s lyrical writing. The Op. 4 set of Lieder features themes of motherhood (Smyth dedicated the set to her own mother) and sleep, even nightmares. Stevens brings out the sense of struggle in ‘Night Thoughts’, and Marcus enjoys the most harmonically adventurous accompaniment of the set in ‘Midday Rest’. Shifting forward some thirty years brings us to the wonderful Four Songs for voice and chamber orchestra, here recorded with the Berkeley Ensemble, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez. Martinez was the first woman to conduct a BBC Prom (shockingly as late as 1984), and conducted an historic performance of Smyth’s opera The Wreckers at the Proms in 1994. The songs are scored for single strings, flute, harp and percussion, and Smyth’s orchestration here is exquisite. The harp/flute combination figures highly, but she adds sensuously lyrical strings and accents of imaginative percussion, such as tambourine in ‘The Dance’ and a drum in the dramatic ‘Anacreontic Ode’. Debussy described the set as ‘tout à fait remarquables’. Stevens’ bright tone is clear as a bell, although occasionally a little more variety of tone would bring out the contrasts, such as the gentle sadness of Chrysilla. Finally, Three Songs, from 1913, pick up on Smyth’s commitment to and involvement with the suffragette movement. She met (and fell in love with) Emmeline Pankhurst, and the second of these songs, Possession, is dedicated to her. The words are by the suffragette writer Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, as is the text of the final song, On the Road: A Marching Tune, dedicated to Emmeline’s daughter, Christabel. Possession picks up on ideas of captivity – Smyth was herself imprisoned for two months for throwing a stone through a cabinet minister’s window. The relentless march of the third song builds to an emphatically triumphant climax, with a quotation from Smyth’s own The March of the Women, which became the Women’s Social and Political Union’s official anthem. Stevens communicates the passion of these songs, and the final battle cry has a powerful impact.

Clarinettist Dimitri Ashkenazy is joined by friends Robin Sharp and Mechthild Karkow (violins), Jennifer Anschel (viola) and Gundula Leitner (cello) for a recording of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. It is one of the works of Brahms’ Indian summer of composition, after he had decided to stop composing, but had fallen in love with the clarinet, inspired by Richard Mühlfield of the Meiningen Court Orchestra. It is a masterpiece of nostalgia, sadness and exquisite beauty. Ashkenazy and friends choose sound tempi, and the finale is definitely con moto – not always the case. This is a warm rendition, and Askenazy’s tone is tender and rounded, matched with strong ensemble from the string players. There is passion in the turbulent second movement here, however, with appropriate shrillness at the high end. The return of the first movement’s theme at the end of the finale is particularly touching and sensitive. Lebanese composer Houtaf Khoury’s (b.1967) quintet, Gardens of Love, was written for Joan Enric Lluna and the Brodsky Quartet in 2009. It is a contemplative piece, opening with a beautifully lyrical melody for the clarinet, backed with simple, gentle strings. The harmonies occasionally darken, and then proceedings halt on quiet string chords, as the clarinet’s ornamented lines become more insistent. Intensity builds, and there are moments where the string players break through briefly, but the clarinet essentially takes centre stage here in this highly effective single movement work. 

A highlight of the 2018 Brighton Festival was Cuckmere: A Portrait, Cesca Eaton’s film depicting a year in the life of the River Cuckmere and Haven with live score by Ed Hughes (b.1968), performed by the Orchestra of Sound and Light. The recording of that performance has now been released as part of Time, Space and Change, bringing together three works by Hughes spread over nearly 30 years of his career. Hughes is Professor of Composition at the University of Sussex, and has a wide-ranging repertoire of compositions to his name, including music for silent films by Sergei Eisenstein and Yasujiro Ozu, opera, orchestral and chamber works. Eaton’s film of the river Cuckmere is incredibly beautiful and even moving, as it pans in and out from the journey down the river’s course to the close up detail of the flora and fauna along the way. Hughes captures this in music that equally contrasts fine detail (stuttering shivers in Winter, and birdlike ripples in Spring, for example), with an overall relentless trajectory, using running scales, and gently chugging rhythms in Autumn, leading through to the final rhythmic energy of Summer, with rapid movement over a slowly rising bass line leading to a satisfying arrival at the conclusion. Having seen the film performance, the images of the beautiful landscape remain in my mind, and Hughes’ music brings them straight back in this incredibly effective piece. You can see the video with the music here. Media Vita comes from much earlier in Hughes’ composition career (1991), but was also performed first at the Brighton Festival. A piano trio, it is performed here by members of the New Music Players, founded by Hughes in 1990. The harmonic language here is dense and Hughes launches straight into motion, with intense, independently moving lines from the three instruments shifting and clashing. There is a sense of urgency, even frenzy, and an uneasy shifting of sands as the piano winds chromatically beneath slowly moving string lines. The inspiration here was the motet of the same name by John Sheppard (1515-1558), and that influence of English fifteenth and sixteenth century composers is picked up once again in the larger scale Sinfonia (2018). Here, the six movements variously draw on English folk song, as well as works by Cooke, Dunstaple, Tallis and Gibbons. Elements of the sources are used in highly imaginative ways, such as the basic chromaticisms of Cooke’s motet Stella Celi Extirpavit spaced out in time, and the diatonic harmonies of Dunstaple’s Veni Sancte Spiritus surrounded by swirling chromatic movement. There’s even a hint of car horns blaring through the urban landscape in the bouncing rhythms of In Nomine. In these six short movements, Hughes creates a fascinating soundworld with hints of earlier musical traditions within a complex tapestry of modern orchestral colours. The New Music Players, under Nicholas Smith, bring this to life with great precision and energy. 

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, March & April 2020)