Reflections on classical music, recordings and performances
Monday, 11 May 2020
CD Reviews - May 2020
Brazilian pianist Clélia Iruzun has been joined by the Coull Quartet for a wonderful selection of ‘Treasures from the New World’ – chamber music by American composer Amy Beach (1867-1944) and Brazilian composers Henrique Oswald (1852-1931) and Marlos Nobre (b.1939). Amy Beach was an accomplished pianist, but curtailed her highly successful performing career at the request of her husband, who preferred that she concentrate only on composition. His death in 1910 allowed her to resume performing as well as composing. Her Piano Quintet dates from 1908, and is dramatic and richly Romantic. There is a clear debt to Brahms, and she even quotes from the finale of his Piano Quintet in the first movement. But there is a distinctive sound too, with dark harmonies contrasting with rhapsodic writing for the piano. The piano is centre stage in the lush, passionate central slow movement, whereas the finale has a forward drive from the opening, although once again there are dark clouds here too. Iruzun plays with suitable passion and the strings match with rich-toned energy. Henrique Oswald left Brazil to study in Italy, and stayed there for 30 years, but returned to teach in Brazil for the rest of his life. His Piano Quintet, from 1895, has a mixture of European influences, with Brahms again showing through, as well as a more French tinge, reminiscent of Fauré. The opening movement has instant propulsion, with a busy piano part alongside lyrical string writing. The Scherzo that follows is equally busy, with running, trilling figures throughout. The slow movement is much more introspective than Beach’s, with somewhat repressed darkness, and a gently lyrical central section, and the finale is emphatically decisive. Again, Iruzun and the quartet play with passion, but also bring out the more inward mood of this contrasting work. A short piece follows by contemporary Brazilian composer Marlos Nobre (b.1939), Poema XI, with its sombre swirling melody performed here with elegant warmth. Iruzun is joined by the quartet’s lead violinist, Roger Coull to end the disc with Amy Beach’s Romance for violin and piano, Op. 23 – a beautifully heartfelt miniature, with a touching simplicity, concluding this highly enjoyable programme.
A couple of years ago I had the privilege to take part in a project with contemporary local composers, commissioned by New Music Brighton to write works drawing on or inspired by traditional folk songs, for a combination of classical and folk musicians. Brighton-based Barry Mills (b.1949) was one of the composers, and went on to record the work from that project – you can find it on his CD Interbeing Volume 6 (Claudio Records CC6044-2). Barry kindly also sent me a copy of another of his CDs, entitled Elan Valley, after the orchestral work that opens the disc. This is an atmospheric, pastoral evocation of the Welsh landscape, drawing on a Welsh folksong at its heart. The orchestration is highly effective, with shimmering, watery strings and gentle harp and woodwind writing. The orchestra here, the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronsky, bring out the detail with great warmth here. They also excel in the other orchestral work here, ‘Evening Rain – Sunset’, composed for the Sussex Symphony Orchestra’s 20thanniversary in 2013. Insistent repeated rising phrases build through the first half of the piece, before a calmer second section, with overlapping chords and
successive use of the sections of the orchestra, leading to a highly atmospheric conclusion. There are three Concertos on this disc, one for Mandolin, one for Guitar and one for Mandolin and Guitar together. Mills obviously has an affinity for both instruments, and he makes good use of their melodic, rhythmic and subtle textural qualities. The double concerto is performed here by Daniel Ahlert (mandolin) and Birgit Schwab (guitar), for whom it was composed, and in its four movements, Mills contrasts the lightness of touch of the soloists with relatively simple orchestral textures, to avoid drowning out the two quiet solo instruments. The first movement has a persistent, running rhythm over built up string chords, whilst in the second movement the soloists take it in turns with solo passages, supported by the orchestra more in the background here. The ‘piercing wind’ whistles through the third movement, with racing scale passages, and the gentler final movement uses repeated rising and descending patterns passed around the orchestra and soloists. The Guitar Concerto, titled ‘The Travels of Turlough O’Carolan’, places Mills’ arrangements of folk melodies by Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) alongside his own musical episodes evoking wind, sea, rivers, mountains and night. So sometimes the guitar (here played by Sam Brown) has the folk tune, sometimes it accompanies and in the fifth of the six movements, Under the Stars, it is totally unaccompanied. This gives Brown the chance to show a great range of the instrument’s abilities, and he is particularly impressive in that solo movement, with its harmonics and subtle strumming effects. Folksong appears again in the Mandolin Concerto, this time an Irish folk song, ‘My Singing Bird’, and evocations of bird song are abundant here, as well as shimmering strings and dark whole tone scales.