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)