Monday, 21 December 2020

CD Review - Over the Rainbow

Just time before Christmas to add a late review of a lovely disc I received from Convivium Records. Over the Rainbow is a collection of songs and duets performed by brother and sister BBC2 Young Chorister finalists from 2019, Will James and Kate James. There's a great variety of repertoire here, from Britten's Corpus Christi Carol, sung with purity of tone by Kate, and a surprisingly haunting rendition of Sleep by Ivor Gurney, with Will adding edge in the lower registers of his treble voice, through to effective arrangements by George Arthur of the Robbie Williams classic, Angels, and the title track, Over the Rainbow. In the latter, the arrangement has the blended voices colliding beautifully, and there's poignancy in the added cello (from Sarah Butcher). Angels again effectively matches the two voices, creating a rippling duet over a lilting piano accompaniment - played as throughout the disc by Malcolm Archer. In these lighter numbers, Will and Kate might have relaxed their
impeccable chorister diction, but these are nevertheless enjoyable renditions. George Arthur's arrangements of Simple Gifts and Were you there? also make great use of weaving and twisting the two blended voices together, and in Were you there?, he makes great use of the overlapping, clashing parts, as well as using echoes as the voices tumble over each other, and the piano tolls out the bells in the final verse. Will brings a mournful tone, and a little more expression to Dowland's Flow, my tears, and Katehe Turtle Dove, in Vaughan Williams arrangement, has more depth of tone too, with a suitably folk simplicity. There's lots more here - sixteen tracks in all - and this is a 

highly impressive collection from two clearly talented young singers. Definitely worth checking out - perhaps a last minute Christmas present, if you get in quick!

Various. 2020. Over the Rainbow. Will James, Kate James, Sarah Butcher, Malcolm Archer. Compact Disc. Convivium Records CR059.

Friday, 11 December 2020

CD Reviews - December 2020

I’ve been following the work of composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980) for a number of years now, and it was a great delight to explore her latest disc of recordings of some of her chamber works, entitled ‘The Whole Earth Dances’. The title belongs to a work commissioned by The Schubert Ensemble, and in fact this recording was their last as a group before they disbanded in 2018. Inspired by the simple experiences of walking in her local park, but also by the importance of taking notice of nature in a time when it under such threat, it is a single expansive movement for the same musical forces as Schubert’s Trout Quintet (piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass). Full of long sustained string chords, with delicate piano commentary in places, the movement alternates between lively, spiky ‘thistles’ and gentler, unfurling ‘ferns’ (references to two Ted Hughes poems that also influenced here). And there is hope in the positively consonant, sudden C major ending. There’s so much on this disc, nine works in all, for varied chamber forces, and many different performers, it’s hard to do justice here to all of this. Cloud Movements for clarinet, violin and piano again makes use of slow-moving chords to evoke drifting clouds, but there’s also lyricism here, particularly in the central movement. Flanking that central movement are two dancing canons, the first in three parts, and the faster moving second in four parts, increasing the rhythmic complexity, creating unsettling cross-rhythms as the clouds pass and partially obscure one another. Two works for cello and piano follow. Songs and Dances is full of passion and lyricism for the cello in particular, but also there are strangely moth-like high, glassy flutterings, and a surprising folk-like dancing melody in the central movement. There are brief moments of peace, but the final lament is dominated by heartfelt anguish, and ends in nothingness. This leads beautifully into The Prophecy, where that sense of anguish is taken to a new level. Frances-Hoad was influenced here by quotes from people experience schizophrenia, and there is definitely a sense of mental struggle here. Again, the piece begins out of nothing, almost inaudible initially, and the strange slides from the cello build to a terrifying world, full of quotes of the Dies Irae chant. The cello emerges at one point with a higher, more lyrical melody, but the insistent piano doesn’t give up, with the Dies Irae almost screaming through at one point. This is an incredibly virtuosic piece for both players, and Rebecca Gilliver (cello) and Sophia Rahman (piano) give an outstanding performance. Towards the end, the cello cries out with a strange vibrating screech, and then a kind of unsettling calm is reached at the end, with occasional stabs from the piano punctuation an exhausted cello solo.Then for something completely different - Game On, a work for piano and Commodore 64 computer. In this, Frances-Hoad takes sounds from a 1987 puzzle game, X0R, and uses these to create a fascinating soundworld, exploring game theory, robots taking over the world, and ultimately, destruction of humanity - so not a cheery piece! In the first movement, Nash, we’re in the world of game theory, and a sense of uneasy equilibrium, where the piano matches and works around the incessant computer sounds, with nobody really getting anywhere as a result. In Robots will Rule the World, we enter the soundworld of Dr Who (the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), the theremin and ondes martenots, with weird lasers and ‘vaporising’ sounds - what starts out as maybe a conversation between piano and computer definitely becomes a battle - and the title gives the clue as to who wins. In the final Lament, the minimalist repeating patterns of the computer contrast with the melody that emerges on the piano, and then gradually the computer patterns stutter, jam and stick - like an irregular heartbeat, or ultimately the sound of flatlining - so who’s died, the robots or us? There is a chilling sense of panic here, despite the slightly comic origins of a 1980s gaming computer. 
Three more works round off the collection. First, a lop-sided, quirkily accented Mazurka for violin and piano. Then comes Medea for solo flute, a dramatic monologue of long sustained notes and pauses, interrupted by moments of impassioned activity full of flutters and trills, evoking Medea’s battle between emotion and decision. Finally, a work for string quartet, My Day in Hell, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The complex organisation of numbers of circles and groups in that work dominates Frances-Hoad’s calculations of structure, rhythm and even melody, and the angular melodic material, downward slides and richly dissonant chords definitely create a sense of being trapped in circles within circles. 
I’m always struck in Frances-Hoad’s music by how, despite some common devices, such as the contrast between slow, long chords and spikier rhythmic movement, with great use of pregnant pauses, the atmospheres evoked are incredibly varied and individual to each piece. I’ve focussed on the music itself here, but all the performers deserve praise here - there is some challenging music, and all the players do great justice to Frances-Hoad’s fascinating and often virtuosic demands.

Frances-Hoad, Cheryl. 2020. The Whole Earth Dances. Various. Compact Disc. Champs Hill Records CHRCD152.

Joël Marosi (cello) and Esther Walker (piano) have brought together on one disc all the works for cello and piano composed by brother and sister, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847). This amounts to two Sonatas, a set of Variations Concertante, and a couple of miniatures from Felix, and two single movement works from Fanny. Many of the pieces were written with their cellist younger brother, Paul. Felix’s first Sonata has a real youthful urgency in the opening movement, with slight yearning in the second subject. Walker manages to produce a bright tone despite the driving repeated chords and thick textures of the piano part, and Marosi brings out that yearning as well as a virtuosic display to finish. He really gets the chance to sing out in the second movement’s lyrical central section, and the sense of rapid drive returns in the finale, with more turbulent sections, and a dramatic climax with flourishes particularly for the piano. Both players here produce the requisite drama, but also manage the piece’s quiet ending, with delicate lyricism from the cello over a gently rippling piano. The Song without Words that follows is warm and lyrical, with a delicate piano part, and Marosi delivers this with a heartfelt simplicity, and an understated sense of urgency in the central section. The single movement Assai tranquillo, possibly incomplete, has a pleasing melody passed from cello to piano, with the cello then weaving in and out of the piano’s presentation of the tune. The Variations concertantes draw on a humble, hymn-like tune, and encompass eight variations, sharing out the virtuosic moments between instruments reasonably equally, if anything favouring the pianist. The two players here exploit their moments well, and bring out effectively the more dramatic moments, such as in the seventh’s declamatory cadenza-like statement, although there could be a little more tempo differentiation between the faster
variations. Turning to sister Fanny, we then have a Fantasia, with a beautifully romantic melody presented fist on the piano, with the cello emerging from a low accompaniment to take over the melody. There is plenty of opportunity for Marosi to sing here, particularly in the slower arioso section. The quiet ending might suggest this is somewhat slight, but the melodic invention and use of repeated chords in the accompaniment are very pleasing. Similarly, in her Capriccio, lyrical melodies are passed between the instruments, with the piano leading off on a faster central section, with emphatic fanfare-like statements from the cello. Once again, the movement winds down to a quiet finish. We return to Felix for the remainder of the recording, with his Sonata No. 2. The two players bound into the opening movement, with its striding cello theme and joyful energy and drive throughout. The piano introduces the second movement’s hesitant melody, repeated pizzicato by the cello, with delicately ringing grace notes from Marosi here. The piano is in charge of the slow movement to begin with, with an arpeggiated chorale, given rich tone here by Walker. The cello joins with a lyrical melody on top, and gradually takes over direction of proceedings, with the piano receding into the background, before stealing back the lyrical melody at the end. The piano launches the finale, with an immediately racing, virtuosic delivery. The cello occasionally takes over the virtuosic runs, but the piano is in charge here. Walker and Marosi never let up with the driving rhythmic energy, right to the dramatic explosive climax, before the dynamics drop down leaving quiet, rippling exchanges to end the piece.

Mendelssohn, F. & F. 2020. Complete Works for Cello and Piano. Joël Marosi, Esther Walker. Compact Disc. First Hand Records. FHR81.

In Louis Lortie’s sixth volume of Chopin works, 
we have the Hommage à Mozart Op. 2, the two Op. 40 Polonaises and the Fantasie Op. 49, interspersed with sixteen of the Mazurkas. Lortie’s Mazurkas are full of character, with great attention to articulation and dynamics. From the Op. 6 set, he gives the first a wonderful halting lilt, and its falling chromatic progressions have a silky darkness. The folk-like drones and eastern-infused melodic inflections in the second are seductively accentuated by Lortie’s rubato. The third and fourth are brief gems, the former with its light droning and lively theme, and the latter with its fleeting off-kilter accents, all of which Lortie brings out well. A second set of four, Op. 24 follow, with a lyrical, more waltz-like affair to begin with, contrasting beautifully with the stomping off-beat rhythms of the second. The third has pauses in almost every phrase, and Lortie shapes and times these with delicate poise, as he does the chromatic clashes and dramatic swirls of the last of the set. The Hommage à Mozart opens with a lengthy rhapsodic introduction, with hints of Mozart’s theme, ‘Là ci darem la mano’, and Lortie delivers this with suitable grandeur and virtuosic command. The theme is then finally presented more straightforwardly, followed by a brilliant set of variations, with increasingly extreme demands on the pianist’s virtuosity. Lortie dashes this off with impressive ease, and then exploits the dark drama of the operatic Adagio variation to the full, with an electric Alla Polacca to finish. Back to Mazurkas next, and the
Louis Lortie
© Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Op. 67 set. The simple dance of the first is followed by the touching, nostalgic second – again Lortie demonstrating wonderfully his ability to achieve such contrasting moods with subtle dynamic inflections and halting rubato. That nostalgic mood continues in the third, a gently swirling dance, and the darkly expressive fourth. The two Polonaises, Op. 40, especially the first, the ‘Military’, are by nature emphatic and weighty, but this can be easily overdone in the first, rendering it a shouty affairs. Here, Lortie certainly provides weight, but with precise articulation and full use of the range of dynamics he avoids the bombast. The second is full of brooding darkness, and Lortie brings this out, as well as the wistful melancholy of the lyrical central section. A final set of Mazurkas, the Op. 41 with the first drawing invention from just a few notes, and the second evoking strumming guitars in its opening chords. The third is simple and graceful, whereas the final Mazurka of the set is the most substantial and dramatic. Once again, Lortie captures the extraordinary variety of moods like a chameleon. The Op. 49 Fantasie concludes the disc, with its funereal march launching an explosion of improvisatory explorations. Lortie is definitely let loose here, although despite the extremes of virtuosity, that sense of subtle changing moods is never lost.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, December 2020)

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Refreshing Beethoven from Benedetti, Kuusisto and the Philharmonia

Pekka Kuusisto (conductor)

7.30pm, Monday 30 November (streamed online)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): 
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

Violin Concerto:
Benedetti ‘certainly paid close attention to detail, whilst never getting bogged down ... , always maintaining a refreshing lightness of touch, and a sense of the overall picture’. 

‘Her tone was open, feathery and almost breathy, certainly never weighty or cloying’.

‘The oboe ‘cadenzas’ ... in the finale were great fun, and gave a light frisson to proceedings, all part of a bright and fresh overall performance’.  

Pekka Kuusisto & the Philharmonia
© Camilla Greenwell 
Symphony No. 2:
‘Ensemble was tight, with precision in the playing, and strong attention to dynamics throughout‘.

‘Highlights included ... a gracefully shaped second movement, with a light swagger to its lilting dance section’.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.