Monday, 13 December 2021

CD Reviews - December 2021

The wonderful Ferio Saxophone Quartet are back, this time joined by pianist Timothy End, with a new album entitled Evoke. They present us with three premiere arrangements by Iain Farrington for this combination, as well as a quintet by the Spanish composer Pedro Iturralde Ochoa (1929-2020). They begin with Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) Jazz Suite. In fact Iain Farrington has taken movements from two works, two from the Suite No. 1 for Jazz Orchestra, and five from the Suite for Variety Orchestra. The latter work was actually assembled not by Shostakovich himself from various of his film and ballet scores. Farrington includes the most well-known movement from the Variety suite, the Waltz No. 2. Used for the film The First Elechon, it has cropped up in many guises on TV and in adverts. With its relentless waltzing bassline beneath a captivating melody, scored for sax in the original, it is wonderfully captivating, and here it is given a subtly understated rendition with beautifully blended textures from the combined saxes. The opening March is a fun circus romp, followed by the quirkily playful Polka. The Waltz No. 1 swirls in a smooth, cabaret style, with the lower instruments kicking in seductively at one point. The Foxtrot begins with a rising stomp building up the tension before the sultry, bluesy melody takes over. In the Little Polka, the piano maintains a driving rhythmic bounce, with rapid rippling lines passed between the instruments. The Dance No. 1 (from The Gadfly) concludes the set in a virtuosic gallop evoking a busy Italian country market. The Suite is full of atmosphere and fun, and Farrington scores well for the four saxes and piano, bringing out the humour as well as the restraint of Shostakovich’s take on cabaret sultriness. Farrington’s own Animal Parade was originally for either organ or piano, but he recast six of the twelve original movements specifically for the Ferio Saxophone Quartet. Between the brief, brashly energetic Entrance and Exit, we have waddling Penguins, taking advantage of the humorous side of the sax, with slightly ungainly wiggles, and slides as they slip in and out of the water. Then comes a Barrel organ monkey in a circus style romp, followed by the Alley cats, with a bluesy, mysteriously sexy solo line for the alto sax. This is in stark contrast to the darkly lumbering Blue Whale, with the piano and lower instruments gliding ominously below. Once again in his arrangement of Bizet’s Carmen Suite, Farrington makes great use of the saxophone’s lyrical qualities to evoke the operatic characters, with the alto sax taking the lead in the Habanera over pulsing chords from the other instruments, and the baritone sax perfect for the Toreador’s Song. Yet despite the potential homogeneity of the four saxes (albeit with piano), Farrington manages to create contrasting textures, particularly in the Aragonaise, with rippling from piano and saxes in answer to the melody. The Habanera could take more play in the rhythms from the Ferios, but their gently swaying Seguidilla exudes Carmen’s joy in life’s pleasures. The final Gypsy Song is full of energy, and whilst the swirling build to its conclusion could take yet more abandon, the overall effect of this set is highly enjoyable. They finish their disc with Iturralde’s Memorias, which is a real gem. Iturralde was a saxophonist, clarinettist and composer, and this work was composed in his teens in the late 1940s. The piano gets things going in the short introduction, evoking a train speeding up and taking us on to the first destination, Lisboa, with a rising and falling melody full of nostalgia, contrasting with full passion from the full sax sections, answered with equal passion by the piano. In Casablanca, it is again the piano that leads off, and the players let rip here in this movement full of jazz, swing, boogie-woogie and ragtime. Alger restores to a slow nostalgic atmosphere, before the Retour to Spain at the end, with rich full textures created by all five instruments, and a flourish to finish. Once again, the Ferios have excelled in this imaginative and spirited programme, and Timothy End’s deft contribution, as well as Iain Farrington’s expertly idiomatic arrangements deserve equal praise here.

Various. 2021. Evoke. Ferio Saxophone Quartet, Timothy End. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 20140.

Once again, violinist Johannes Pramsohler has managed to present us with forgotten repertoire that is informative at the same time as being full of interest and enjoyment. Of course, his expertly virtuosic performance, along with equally impressive support from Gulrim Choï (cello) and Philippe Grisvard (harpsichord), is key to this ability to lift what could be a dry, academic exploration, into one of delight and enjoyment. And here, in the six Sonatas by Pieter Hellendaal (1721-1799), from a manuscript preserved in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and therefore known as the ‘Cambridge Sonatas’, we learn of a lesser-known violinist composer who arrived in England from Holland in the late Baroque period, settling in Cambridge in 1762 after time in London and Kings Lynn. He had studied in Italy under the great Tartini, and he brought with him to England much of that Italian technique, style and virtuosity which was in stark contrast to the prevailing chamber music based on the viol family that would have been more familiar to English ears. Having said that, Hellendaal as a composer was no revolutionary, and once establishing a position for himself in the relative musical backwater of Cambridge, he wasn’t pushing forward into the beginnings of the Classical style already taking hold in London. However, his works contain considerable invention, and in these Sonatas, there is significant detail of ornamentation and written-out cadenza passages that indicate his virtuosic technique and compositional abilities. Pramsohler has used some of these indications as a launching point for his own embellishments and ornamentation in the same style, particularly in the slow introductory movements that begin some of the Sonatas. There is also some variety in structure, with several of the Sonatas ending with unexpectedly slow or relaxed movements, with the faster, showier movements in the centre. There are numerous challenging fugues, with the violin taking on two voices, requiring some complex double-stopping. Occasionally these lengthy fugal movements lose a little direction, as Hellendaal gets a little lost in sequential harmonic patterns (eg. the second movement of Sonata No. 2), but they nevertheless demonstrate Hellendaal’s considerable skills both as a composer and violinist. There are some delightfully expressive movements too, such as the Affettuoso third movement of No. 2, with its falling line and echo effects, expressive ornamentation and delicate underpinning from the cello and harpsichord. On the quicker side, the sprightly middle movement of No. 3 is a good example of Hellendaal’s ability to make use of the cello to exchange interest with the violin, and as the virtuosic level increases, there is some wonderful rapid duetting from Pramsohler and Choï here. It therefore comes as a bit of a surprise when this Sonata concludes with a gentle Pastorale, with drone-like double-stopping and sweetly simple repeating melodic figures. Another fugue is the highlight in the middle of No. 4, and the cadenza here is full of delicate virtuosity, with Pramsohler taking the rising bird-like figure right to the limit of the fingerboard. This time, Hellendaal finishes with a rustic, folksy dance, with violin and cello exchanging the melody. Another rustic dance concludes No. 5, with more than a whiff of the hurdy-gurdy, and striking offbeat rhythms. However, once again here, Hellendaal gets a little lost in rising sequential progressions, which takes some of the impact away from the swirling ornamented scales and deftly articulated arpeggios. No. 6, which concludes the disc, has a mournful Andante affettuoso at its heart, and Pramsohler makes the arioso line sing. Some more unusual harmonies surface briefly in the central section, and the movement ends with some buzzing trill ornamentation. Here Hellendaal ends with a lively yet simple Gavotte. A most enjoyable collection, and as ever, performed with winning energy by Pramsohler and friends. 


Hellendaal, P. 2020. 'Cambridge Sonatas'. Johannes Pramsohler, Gulrim Choï, Philippe Grisvard. Compact Disc. Audax Records. ADX 13720. 

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in Scene, December 2021) 


Thursday, 25 November 2021

CD Reviews - November 2021

Irish composer Dave Flynn (b.1977) works across genres, including classical, Irish folk, jazz and rock, and is a guitarist too, again performing in many different styles. His album Irish Minimalism explores his particular take on a composition style largely associated with American composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass. He maintains that some of the key features of minimalism – repetition, driving rhythms, gradual incremental changes over time and relatively simple harmonic movement – all fit well in an Irish traditional musical context. Two quartets – the ConTempo Quartet and the IMO Quartet – perform four of his works here, and they are joined in two works by Mick O’Brien on uilleann pipes, as well as singer and narrator Breanndán Begley for the final work on the disc, Stories from the Old World. Two String Quartets, The Cranning and The Keening are played by the ConTempo Quartet. The Cranning has an arrestingly jagged opening, and complex dancing cross-rhythms abound. There is a stuttering reel-like section, with slides over the repeating jagged rhythms. The second movement, Slide, creates a drone effect with quiet chords building up and gently sliding from one to another, reminiscent of the pipes to come in other works here. The third movement combines Donegal dance music with Afro-Cuban and Malian rhythms, with infectious repetition, leading straight into the final movement, ‘Cran’, with its repeating figure appearing with a harsh edge on lower instruments, contrasted with a frenzied dancing version from the violins. The rhythmic pulse is gradually slowed by long drawn-out droning chords, which eventually win out over the rhythmic figure, with the instruments finally arriving at a calm unison note to end. The Keening, as the name would suggest, is more anguished, with its mysterious, murmuring opening, glassy string sounds and cello slides, all building through hypnotic keening to distressed, screeching high violins. Following a keening dirge with the first violin lamenting over droning slow-moving chords, the final movement, Cry, again uses very high pitches, with Eastern European inflections in the melodic lines, before dying away to nothing. The Cutting was originally planned as Flynn’s String Quartet No. 4, but with the addition of the uilleann pipes, it has become his Quintet No. 1 (here played by the IMO Quartet, with Mick O’Brien). Alongside the quartets this addition makes perfect sense, building on his use of drones, lilting lines and twisting and turning melodic catches. In the gently throbbing opening movement, the pipes shift from providing a drone to taking on the melodic lead over gently throbbing strings, then in the second, calmer movement, the pipes respond almost impatiently to the strings rising and falling figures at a quicker pace. The final movement begins with the pipes lilting over rocking strings before they launch into a final reel with infectious cross-rhythmic patterns. The final work here, Stories from the Old World, presents the stories in Begley’s soft and warm local Kerry Gaelic dialect (translations provided in the notes), mostly recited over simple and light accompaniment with occasional pizzicato or glassy interjections. The stories once told, the musicians take over with lively jigs and winding figures from the pipes. The tales come from Peig Sayers (1873-1958), described as ‘one of the greatest woman storytellers’ of the Gaelic Revival. They are evocative and full of bawdy humour (the second story is entitled ‘It it was with a fart I won her…’), and Begley somehow brings out this humour as well as a sense of poignancy, despite the fact that I don’t understand the language. This is particularly moving as he shifts into song in ‘The Piper and the Woman of the Tavern’, his gently lilting voice accompanied by lightly skittering pizzicato strings in the background. After the final tale, ‘The Old Hags’, the pace picks up for a lively dance, with driving minimalist repetition to finish. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating collection of works, effectively demonstrating the remarkable closeness of two seemingly unrelated musical traditions.

I reviewed pianist Adam Swayne’s first solo recording back in 2019, and was impressed then by his phenomenal technique but also his thought-provoking choice of repertoire, drawing on contemporary American music speaking to politically traumatic times. He’s back, and this time with even more challenging repertoire, both technically and emotionally. Entitled 9/11:20 Memorials on the twentieth anniversary of September 11th, he delves into how art, and particularly music, can attempt to commemorate such a traumatic event. In Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s insightful liner notes, he explores how memorial artworks have shifted from directly figurative statues to more abstract and contemplative expressions, thereby more open to individual interpretation and responses. Perhaps music is already better disposed to this kind of expression, as it would be hard to depict literally in music the reality of the events of 9/11. In Karen Walwyn’s Reflections on 9/11, she explicitly avoids the attacks themselves, focussing on impressions of the late summer morning before the attacks, followed by movements confronting different emotions following the event. Swayne selects two of the seven movements here. Anguish begins relatively sparsely, but gradually becomes denser in texture, although its richness cannot disguise the sense of trauma. Burial is equally traumatic, but perhaps more inward looking, and it ends with some kind of sense of acceptance. American composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was a pioneer of twentieth century piano music, particularly in terms of extended techniques such as using the forearm to play clusters of notes at once, used in The Tides of Manaunaun to colossal and dramatic effect, and in his Aeolian Harp, the practice of strumming or plucking the strings inside the piano. Fabric initially feels more conventional, but its fiendish rhythmic juxtaposition of five, six, eight and nine beats to the bar are like rich layers of fabric sliding against each other. Swayne makes this seem effortless and smooth, and the Aeolian Harp is mysterious and ethereal. So whilst the three pieces included here are not commemorative in theme, their inclusion makes sense in terms of their influence on the American contemporary piano tradition, and on several of the other works here. Kevin Malone’s (b.1958) Sudden Memorials is the most substantial work, at over half an hour across two movements. He has written other works commemorating 9/11, but this was inspired by a visit to the temporary memorial at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, close to the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93. On a section of wire fence, visitors attached objects of remembrance in a spontaneous way. In this piece, Malone includes all kinds of musical quotations from mass musical culture – there’s a high school basketball song, bits of jazz, boogie, gospel, hints of Debussy and Chopin, hymn tunes and even birdsong. These emerge from amongst crashing, highly virtuosic and resonant material, contrasting the simplicity of the memorial objects with the enormity of the event itself. It’s a visceral work, and Swayne’s performance here is totally captivating. Not an easy listen, it nevertheless grabs, even demands your attention throughout. Following the Malone, Swayne treats us to a remarkably tender and moving rendition of Scott Joplin’s Solace. This is Joplin in an unusually reflective mood, and its melancholic nostalgia fits very well following Malone’s work, full of musical references and remembrances. The collection concludes with David Del Tredici’s (b.1937) Missing Towers, which confronts the tragedy by focussing on the emptiness left by the towers’ collapse. A two-part canon circles, and a ringing pulse, together with falling melodies create a remarkably moving memorial, finishing with the pianist plucking strings in the keyboard, ‘a further expression of vanished glory’ according to Del Tredici. Once again, Swayne dazzles throughout with his technique, but more importantly given the subject matter, the programme is thoughtful and striking, and his performances transparently moving and respectful.

Monday, 25 October 2021

CD Reviews - October 2021

The Duo Brüggen-Plank are the German pianist Henrike Brüggen, and the Austrian violinist, Marie Radauer-Plank. For their first recording with Audax, they have decided to place the last of Beethoven’s violin sonatas – the Sonata No. 10, Op. 96 – alongside a Sonata in the same key, Op. 5, composed by Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek (1791-1825). Twenty one years younger than Beethoven, Voříšek was one of the main candidates seen as successor in Vienna to the older man, although he actually died two years earlier than him at just 34 years old. Both works were dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria (1788-1831), a great musical patron, and piano pupil of Beethoven, and the Duo also include a Sonata by him here too. The Beethoven Sonata is beautifully calm, yet no less challenging for that. The first movement is full of delicate conversation between the two instruments, and here, Radauer-Plank’s sweet tone is matched by beautifully warm and smooth runs in the piano part. Brüggen then gently opens the second movement with its hymn-like idea, with the violin joining in with a rocking countermelody. The instruments remain at rhythmic odds, and Radauer-Plank’s liquid playing is balanced well, with Brüggen avoiding getting bogged down by the thick textures. The brief Scherzo dances by, before the final set of variations on a cheerful theme. Here again, the Duo balance the textures well, with material passing back and forth between the instruments. In the fifth variation, the violin has throbbing chords over which the piano’s rhapsody is as if improvised, and Brüggen achieves this sense well, soon matched by Radauer-Plank as they swap roles. The Voříšek Sonata is very different in atmosphere, right from its mysterious, dramatic opening leading into a totally contrasting galloping Allegro. The movement is bright and melodically inventive, and Radauer-Plank is particularly sweet at the top of the range. An energetic, scampering Scherzo follows, with sudden halts and interesting rhythms. With hints of humour in the playful slow-up at the end of the middle section, the delicate, quiet conclusion is unexpected, swept away by final emphatic chords. The slow movement is somewhat unsettling, with low, gently pulsing rumbles from the piano, over which the lyrical violin melody rises serenely. The finale is perhaps where Voříšek’s weaker invention shows up the most – less melodically inventive, with expected harmonies on the whole – yet it brings proceedings to a fun conclusion overall. The Archduke’s Sonata again has a dark, turbulent opening, soon swept away by a virtuosic, ebullient Allegro, with a rippling piano part. There’s not a huge amount of imaginative development here, yet the Duo make the most here of the rapid exchange of ideas between the instruments. The slow movement that follows, however, is expressive and heartfelt, with freer invention and harmonies that rock back and forth. Brüggen’s piano textures are warm and rich here, and the Duo find a perfect nostalgic sweetness. The Minuet and its two Trios is playful if not particularly revolutionary, but the finale is great fun, with flourishes of fantasia-like piano episodes between returns of the punchy theme. The Duo set off at a pace, and play with great drive and energy, with some blistering playing from both in the final gallop. Ultimately, neither of these works can compete with Beethoven’s ethereal calmness, but they have much to offer nonetheless, especially given these highly engaging performances. 

Various. 2021. Sonatas for Violin and Piano - Beethoven, Voříšek, Archduke Rudolph of Austria. Duo Brüggen-Plank. Compact Disc. Audax Records ADX 13727.

The wonderful Doric String Quartet have joined forces with oboist Nicholas Daniel for a glorious collection of British Oboe Quintets. They open with Arnold Bax’s (1883-1953) Quintet. Like most of the works here, this was written for the great oboist Leon Goossens. After a warm string opening, the oboe launches into a winding, sensuous melodic line, and immediately the warmth and incredible smoothness of Daniel’s tone is apparent. After a more urgent central section, some magical muted string playing from the Dorics restores calm. The middle movement’s quiet, folk-like melody emerges on the violin over rich harmonies. The oboe eventually enters, darkly improvisatory, and with uneasy string textures, Daniel’s effortless birdlike melismatic lines soar. A joyful jig concludes proceedings, with oboe and violin taking turns, and the pizzicato strings having great fun here. The harmonies get darker and more unsettled, however, and calm is never quite convincingly restored, despite the flourish to finish. Next comes Gerald Finzi’s (1901-1956) single movement Interlude. This for me is the highlight here – Daniel and the Dorics capture perfectly Finzi’s darkly introspective and nostalgic mood, right from the atmospheric string opening. As with much of Finzi’s instrumental music, there is an expressiveness that occasionally breaks the surface with full passion, but the lid always goes back on, and the players judge this perfectly here, allowing the music to ebb and flow. The final pulsing bars under the high sustained violin are enchanting. For somewhat lighter relief, they follow this with Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) Six Studies in English Folksong, originally for cello and piano, but here in Robert Stanton’s 1983 arrangement for cor anglais and string quartet. All using original folksong tunes, they allow Daniel to shine on the mellow cor anglais, and by and large, the strings play a supporting role. Aside from the last of the set, they are all quite leisurely, with Vaughan Williams’ trademark strolling rhythms. Daniel plays with an open simplicity, allowing the tunes to speak for themselves, before they all then play with the final spiky jig, before even that dies away to nothing. Then to Arthur Bliss’ (1891-1975) Oboe Quintet. An intriguingly mysterious violin duet sets the tone for a darkly uneasy opening movement. After an intense, faster central section, jittery violin textures and the winding inflections of the oboe add to the sense of unease. In the slow movement, Daniel’s long sustained oboe lines are incredibly even, all the more impressive given the slithery string chords shifting beneath. Tremolo strings then increase the intensity as the harmonies darken, and following a folksy interruption with strumming cello, peace returns for a quiet ending. The finale by contrast has immediate driving string energy, and the oboe picks up the pecking, virtuosic material as they lead into the jig – Connelly’s Jig to be specific. The playful dance is dovetailed with the darker opening energy, and the Dorics give an edge to their string playing as things get wilder, almost chaotic. After a brief quieter section with pizzicato strings and fragments of melody passed around, there is a frenetic coda to finish, topped by a spiky flourish from the oboe. The disc concludes with two arrangements by Eric Fenby for Goossens of Two Interludes from Frederick Delius’ (1862-1934) final (and unsuccessful) opera, Fennimore and Gerda. Here, Daniel is privileged to play Goossens own instrument, and the tone here is noticeably different, with a warm quavering vibrato and open resonance. Both Interludes are gentle and expressive, with Daniel again demonstrating those lyrically expressive long lines, particularly in the serene second Interlude. All in all, this is a very special recording of some glorious music, and Daniel and the Doric String Quartet excel throughout.

Various. 2021. British Oboe Quintets. Nicholas Daniel, Doric String Quartet. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 20226.

Russian violinist Dmitry Smirnov has paired Bartók’s (1881-1945) Sonata for Solo Violin with Bach’s Partita No. 2 for his debut recording with First Hand Records. He has performed both works together live, interspersing the movements, but here they appear separately – although of course you could experiment with playing the tracks in a different order. There is a kind of logic to this – it’s hard for any solo violin sonata not to have some heritage line back to Bach, and Bartók’s opening movement, written in the style of a chaconne, although not strictly following its form, links with the final great Chaconne of Bach’s Partita. Bartók composed his Sonata for Yehudi Menuhin in 1944, and of course it is highly virtuosic, with fiendish scale passages, use of harmonics and rapid trilling. Smirnov is darkly evocative in the opening movement, with great dynamic contrasts, and an eerily quiet slither towards the movement’s conclusion. Dynamics are key in the second movement’s spiky fugue, and Smirnov expertly brings out the contrast between the different fugal lines. He then deftly winds the spooky melody of the third movement through the full range of the instrument, ending with wasp-like trilling, leading to the buzzing idea of the finale. This is contrasted with a more playful idea, and Smirnov changes the mood well for this, leading to the slightly incongruous solidly tonal conclusion. Smirnov’s Bach took me a little while to get used to, however. It is quick, especially the final Chaconne, and while you can’t argue with the incredible virtuosity he demonstrates, occasionally these rapid tempi lead to a tendency for elements to feel a little throwaway. The Sarabande, for example, has a lightness which misses a certain gravitas. However, his tone is smoothly resonant, and he brings out the melody from amongst the multiple stopped chords here. The overall approach is light, even playful, as in his delicate ornamentation in the Allemande. Again, he brings that lightness to the final mammoth Chaconne. As a result, it doesn’t have the profundity of some performances, and yet the mesmerizing arpeggios and whirlwind runs are highly impressive, and it is a refreshing contrast to many weightier interpretations out there. He then concludes his disc with a Sonata for Solo Violin by the Swiss composer Hansheinz Schneeberger (1926-2019), with whom Smirnov studied in his final years. Schneeberger was a highly successful violinist, and he premiered Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 1, as well as recording Bach’s Solo Sonatas & Partitas. So there is a clear line here, and one can hear the influence of both composers in his Sonata here. Following a cadenza-like emphatic opening, the highly virtuosic material winds and twists, with some highly lyrical moments too – Smirnov’s tone here is beautifully sweet. Throughout the work, chromatic ideas slide, defying harmonic clarity, and yet there are also occasional flashes of diatonic brilliance, particularly in the central Allegro. The final movement’s constant movement is given a flowing energy by Smirnov, and he judges well the increasing pauses in motion towards the end, as if the whole thing is winding down, to the final major cadence. An effective work, performed here with great precision and virtuosity, bringing Smirnov’s display to a strong conclusion.

Various. 2021. Bartók, J. S. Bach, Schneeberger. Dmitry Smirnov. First Hand Records. FHR117.


(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in Scene, October 2021)


Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Strong cast lifts Wake-Walker's constrained staging in Glyndebourne Tour's Fidelio

Ben Glassberg (conductor)
Anna Jones (designer)
Peter Mumford (lighting designer)
Adam Young, FRAY Studio (projection designer)

Gavan Ring (Jaquino)
Carrie-Ann Williams (Marzelline)
Dingle Yandell (Don Pizarro)
Robert Lewis (First Prisoner)
Tom Mole (Second Prisoner)
Adam Smith (Florestan)
Jonathan Lemalu (Don Fernando)

Saturday 16 October 2021

Glyndebourne, East Sussex

Dorothea Herbert (Leonore) & the Glyndebourne Chorus
© Richard Hubert Smith
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Fidelio
(libretto by Joseph von Sonnleithner, revised by Stephan von Breuning and Georg Friedrich Treitschke)
(new spoken text in this production conceived by Frederic Wake-Walker, written in collaboration with Peter Cant and Gertrude Thoma. Leonore's poem written by Zoë Palmer)

Adam Smith (Florestan)
© Richard Hubert Smith

'Beethoven’s canonic quartet is surely one of the highlights of Act 1, and it certainly did not disappoint here musically, with well-balanced and blended singing from all four singers'. 

'Leonore and Florestan ... finally get the opportunity to engage in Act 2, and Dorothea Herbert and Adam Smith make the most of this, with the most moving singing of the show'.

'Smith’s opening piano high G was incredibly controlled, yet he was not afraid to use the strain of projecting Beethoven’s high tessitura above the orchestra to great effect'.

'Ben Glassberg and the orchestra’s attention to detail was strong, and they avoided the very real possibility in Beethoven’s scoring of drowning out the singers'.

'Wake-Walker’s staging, without the dialogue, leads to a lot of static, ‘stand and deliver’ singing from the key characters, relying on the video projections onto the outside of the cage for interest'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Friday, 10 September 2021

CD Reviews - September 2021

Norwegian lutenist Jadran Duncumb is on his third recording for Audax, this time performing works for the lute by J S Bach (1685-1750). There is debate about the original instrument Bach intended the works for, with question marks about a kind of gut-strung harpsichord called the Lautenwerk. Nevertheless, despite the lute not being Bach’s instrument, he did specify lute for some works, and arranged his own works (such as a Cello Suite and a movement from a Violin Sonata) for the instrument. In all there are six works in Bach’s output, and Duncumb has recorded four here. First, a word about the recorded sound. The lute is naturally a quiet instrument, and it can struggle to make itself heard outside a generous acoustic. Recordings also try to avoid the extraneous sounds of fret contact and string plucking. Duncumb has consciously gone against this, opting for a full, close recording which allows for the instrument’s true character to come to the fore, grit and all. That’s not to say there isn’t delicacy and lightness in his playing here, but he also produces a broader range of dynamics and a richer, fruitier sound than often heard on the instrument. The Suite in G minor opens the disc, this being Bach’s arrangement of his Cello Suite No. 5. It opens with a stately Prelude, followed by a gracious Allemande, and a gently swinging Courante. The Sarabande has a kind of sparse drama, and the second of the two Gavottes is beautifully fluid here in the running lines. The final Gigue is highly virtuosic, with its snappy rhythm and circling lines, taking the instrument to the extremes of register, and Duncumb makes his instrument sparkle with energy here. The brief Prelude in C minor will be familiar to pianists, as it was later written down in keyboard notation, and adopted as a keyboard work in the 19th century. Its perpetual motion of arpeggios is actually ideally suited to the lute, and Duncumb expertly brings out the underlying harmonically shifting line from within the constant movement. The Fugue in G minor, another arrangement by Bach, this time from the Violin Sonata No. 1, is taken at a pace here by Duncumb, with impressive clarity in the fugal lines, ringing bass notes and an impressive flourish at its climax. The remainder of the disc is given over to the Partita in C minor (one of the works that may or may not have been composed for the mysterious Lautenwerk). Its opening Fantasia, with its falling bass line and swirling melodic line above is immediately captivating in Duncumb’s hands here. The Fuga to follow has incredibly clear voice leading in the flowing lines, and he maintains momentum despite its monumental proportions with a constant sense of direction and dynamic ebb and flow. In contrast, the Sarabande opens with a quiet air of mystery, yet Duncumb allows the emerging line to sing, with a beautifully silky chromatic scale near to the end. After a gently dancing Giga with effortless ornaments, he launches straight into the Double with smoothly running motion, a ringing tone throughout, creating a peel of bells in the cascades of falling lines, and building to a full-bodied conclusion. These are highly impressive performances, amply demonstrating that the lute is definitely not a shy wallflower in the right hands.

Bach, J. S. 2021. J. S. Bach Works for lute. Jadran Duncumb. Compact Disc. Audax Records. ADX 13728.

In February, Brighton Early Music Festival presented an online concert by Oliver Webber, violinist and director of the Monteverdi String Band, with organist and harpsichordist, Steven Devine. Con Arte e Maestria – ‘with art and mastery’ – refers to the practice of virtuoso violin ornamentation from the dawn of the Italian Baroque, and Webber and Devine have now released a CD of the same name. There is a lot of technical detail behind the complexities of ornamentation practice, and Webber’s CD notes are highly instructive, but for our purposes here, Webber demonstrates the ways in which virtuoso violinists of the late sixteenth century took existing pieces of music – madrigals, songs, etc – and ornamented them in striking and virtuosic ways, adding florid runs, repeated notes, trills and more to take an often simple melody to new heights. Different violinists had their own systems and styles – Girolamo dalla Casa (d.1601) used systematic divisions of the beat into rapid runs, whereas Riccardi Rognoni (c.1550-c.1620) favoured upward leaps followed by a downward scale, for example. Webber showcases five main approaches of different composers here, and then he takes their techniques and practices to create his own ornamentations of works such as Palestrina’s (c.1525-1594) madrigal Deh hor foss’io col vago della luna, and Antonio Mortaro’s (fl.1587-1610) Canzona ‘La Malvezza’. There is tremendous urgency in the rapid ornamentation of the Palestrina, and in the Mortaro, the violin adds increasingly nervy interjections over the steady progress of the organ. There is incredible variety here, with a beautiful singing style from Webber over Devine’s softly sombre organ in Cipriano de Rore’s (c.1515-1565) Anchor che col partire (ornaments by Rognoni), and highwire violin snippets of ornamentation in de Rore’s Signor mio caro (ornaments by Webber here), this time with Devine on harpsichord. There are solo violin Ricercatas from Giovanni Bassano (c.1561-1617), and from Webber himself (after Bassano’s style), demonstrating his virtuosic and improvisatory command of the instrument to dazzling effect – the Ricercata on ‘Vestiva i colli’ by Aurelio Virgiliano (fl.c.1600) is particularly mesmerizing. Devine has his moments too, with a beautifully delicate and courtly Canzon francese prima from Ascanio Mayone (c.1565-1627) on harpsichord, a darker Toccata by Michelangelo Rossi (c.1601-1656), and a dramatic fanfare-like organ Intonazione by Andrea Gabrieli (c.1532-1585). This is a stunning, well-constructed programme that will reward repeated listening, whether you want to get to the bottom of the technicalities of Italian Baroque ornamentation, or whether you want to simply relish the virtuosity of these performers in this glorious repertoire. 

Various. 2021. Con arte e maestria - Virtuoso violin ornamentation from the dawn of the Italian Baroque. Monteverdi String Band In Focus - Oliver Webber, Steven Devine. Compact Disc. Resonus Classics. RES10282.

Pianist Roman Rabinovich is on his second volume of Haydn Piano Sonatas. I missed the first, but on the basis of this two CD volume, I’ll definitely be seeking it out. The nine Sonatas on offer in this volume range across most of the fifty year spread of his 62 sonatas – depending on numbering, and allowing for a few of dubious origin. Rabinovich’s approach is full-bodied, and he is not averse to using pedalling to good effect, such as in the expressive Adagio of No. 13, its beautiful melody played out over softly pedaled repeated chords. Yet he also alert to the bright playfulness so typical of Haydn, such as in the outer movements of No. 50, and the jolly opening Allegro and the brilliantly virtuosic finale of No. 13. Meanwhile, the Bachian winding lines and steady bass line of No. 46’s Allegretto trot along amiably, and Rabinovich is particularly expressive and lyrical in No. 33’s slow movement. The Rondo of No. 35 is full of fun, with a spring in its step, with occasional slight lifts adding to the playfulness. No. 58, the latest Sonata here, from 1789, has an improvisatory quality in its opening movement, with Rabinovich taking the opportunity to show us some virtuosic flourishes, before the second movement’s rattling dash of a Rondo. Very enjoyable yet intelligent performances here, well worth exploration.

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

A joy to behold: Evgeny Kissin on a roll at the Salzburg Festival

Saturday 14 August 2021
Reviewed from online stream Saturday 28 August 2021
(available at Arte here)

Alban Berg (1885-1935): Piano Sonata No. 1


Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007): Dance, Op. 5 No. 3

                                                    Five Pieces for Piano, Op. 2


George Gershwin (1898-1937): Three Preludes


Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849): Nocturne in B major, Op. 62 No. 1

                                                Impromptu No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 29

                                                Impromptu No. 2 in F sharp major, Op. 36

                                                Impromptu No. 3 in G flat major, Op. 51

                                                Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20

                                                Polonaise in A flat major, ‘Heroic’, Op. 53



Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): ‘Duetto’, Songs Without Words Op. 38 No. 6

Evgeny Kissin (b.1971): Dodecaphonic Tango, from Four Piano Pieces, Op. 1

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849): Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31

Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Suite bergamasque, L.75 No. 3, ‘Claire de lune’

Evgeny Kissin
© Salzburg Festival/Marco Borelli
'The beaming smiles when he takes a bow – and his multiple encores – let you know that, despite the concentration, he is having a great time, and we are part of that'.

'Over one and three quarter hours playing is a feat of memory at the very least, but to maintain momentum, energy and concentration, taking a rapt audience with him all the way is something extraordinary'

'It was the intensity of his playing that captivated; the whirlwind of dark energy and thrashing chords in the Scherzo no. 1and the ringing pedalling and virtuosic final section of the second Impromptu were breathtaking'.

'After all the dramatic intensity, he ended with a masterstroke, with the calm stillness of Debussy’s Clair de lune'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Music for Rooftops by Clive Whitburn - World Premiere

Clive Whitburn's new work, Music for Rooftops will be premiered this Saturday 28 August 2021, 7pm, with Onyx Brass performing on the terrace, balcony and rooftop of the Congress Theatre and Welcome Building in Eastbourne.

In the first half of the concert, Onyx Brass will also perform music by Bach, Shostakovich, Malcolm Arnold, Charlotte Harding and more.

Tickets and more info here.

You can read more about Clive and his song cycle Messages from the Sea here.

CD Reviews - August 2021

When a new recording of J S Bach’s (1685-1750) Goldberg Variations comes along, it’s always interesting to hear what the performer makes of this iconic work, and it’s particularly intriguing to have two recordings come along at the same time. But when one is performed on the harpsichord (as Bach composed the work) and the other on the piano, the comparison gets even more fascinating. Of course there are some that would immediately dismiss a performance on a modern piano, but that would be a pity. There isn’t space here to go over all the arguments – would Bach have used the piano had it existed in his day? How does a pianist get around the use of two manuals (essentially two keyboards on the same instrument) which Bach sometimes uses to make different lines play the same note and cross each other? How much expression in terms of dynamics and pedalling is appropriate for a piano performance, given that these are not possible on the original instrument? Suffice to say, this masterpiece stands up to great variety of interpretation, and hearing different keyboard players’ solutions to its challenges only serves to reveal its greatness.
A word about the structure here – following an opening Aria, there are then 30 Variations. Every third variation is a canon (a round), although the interval between the canon’s starting notes increases each time, and then in between are virtuosic study-like variations, as well as character variations, such as a French Ouverture, a Giga and a Fughetta. I reviewed Greek-born pianist Alexandra Papastefanou’s all Schumann disc very favourably back in April, although she also has two previous discs of Bach in her catalogue. Harpsichord Malcolm Archer is new to me, although he has a strong career as a conductor, organist and harpsichordist, as well as composing, particularly choral works. Archer’s instrument, built in 2000 by Alan Gotto is a copy of a 1728 instrument by Christian Zell, who in turn was a pupil of Mietke, a maker that Bach would have known well (he may even have owned one himself). The sound is bright and ringing, with a lightness suited to the rapid articulation required here. Bach’s markings of tempo are sparse, so there is plenty of scope for different approaches here – for example, Archer’s Variation 25 (marked Adagio) is just under four and a half minutes long, whereas Papastefanou takes almost twice as much time over this minor sarabande. Yet both approaches work – Archer gives this a stark solemnity, whereas Papastefanou’s take is more overtly expressive. Archer’s take, however, is not actually as quick as the timing would suggest – here, as elsewhere, he omits some repeats of sections, so his complete recording comes in at nearly 15 minutes shorter than Papastefanou’s. So in fact, Papastefanou’s more virtuosic variations, such as the jangling 28th Variation, are sprightlier. If I were to choose my ideal Goldberg recordings, it would be Mahan Esfahani on harpsichord, and Andras Schiff on piano, but there is always space to hear new takes on this, and both recordings here have much to commend. Archer brings delicacy, precision and lightness of touch, whilst Papastefanou gives us a more expressive approach, with skillfully smooth lines, and some blistering virtuosity in her faster moments.

Bach, J. S. 2021. Goldberg Variations. Alexandra Papastefanou. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR110.

Bach, J. S. 2021. Goldberg Variations. Malcolm Archer. Compact Disc. Convivium Records CR064.

On their second recording, ‘Stolen Music’, the Linos Piano Trio have taken some iconic early 20th Century orchestral works and transformed them for their own chamber forces – and why not? They have arranged three of the works themselves, French gems by Debussy, Ravel and Dukas. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is full of colour and the hazy intoxication of a sleepy afternoon, and whilst Pan’s flute is missing here, the trio make great use of silky lines from violinist Konrad Elias-Trostmann, as well as the high registers of the cello, from Vladimir Waltham. Prach Boondiskulchok on piano fleshes out Debussy’s rich harmonies remarkably with warm tone and delicate placement. Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is another very well-known atmospheric work, full of orchestral drama and colour. Their piano trio version here obviously can’t replicate the full scale and range of textures, but with clever use of glassy strings and
Konrad Elias-Trostmann (violin)
pizzicato, as well as frenzied piano moments, the relentless march towards disaster is effectively conjured up, with a truly wild climax. Ravel’s La Valse has a similar feeling of looming disaster, here with the seemingly formal waltz slowly spiralling out of control, even tipping over the edge into decadent chaos. In their arrangement, the Linos players burst the piano trio free of the formal salon into wild abandon – the variety of textures and effects they generate from the three instruments here is impressive, and they almost achieve the sense of impending seasickness generated by the orchestral surges at the conclusion. The other work here is Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, here in a transcription by Eduard Steuermann from 1932. Steuermann studied composition with Schoenberg, and premiered his Piano Concerto. Back in April I
Prach Boondiskulchok (piano)
reviewed the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Edward Gardner’s recording of the orchestral version of this psychological drama, in which a woman walks with her lover in a moonlit forest, and confesses she is pregnant by another man. The original version was for string sextet, so the piano trio format is not so far away, with the piano part doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of the rich harmonies. The lyrical higher registers of the cello are used to match the passionate outbursts from the violin, and the piano is a constant driving force of dramatic energy. Through their expert and sensitive arrangements of the French works, as well as their deeply expressive rendition of the Schoenberg, the Linos Piano Trio communicate deep understanding of and commitment to
Vladimir Waltham (cello)
these passionate works, bringing a freshness to these familiar works. I look forward to these players stealing more repertoire if these arrangements and performances are anything to go by.

Various. 2021. Stolen Music. Linos Piano Trio. Compact Disc. Avi Music 8553035.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in Scene, August 2021)



Friday, 30 July 2021

CD Reviews - July 2021

Johannes Pramsohler and his Ensemble Diderot have excelled themselves with their new recording of Sonatas for Three Violins. Pramsohler is joined by fellow violinists Roldán Bernabé and Simone Pirri, together with Gulrim Choï on cello and Philippe Grisvard on harpsichord and organ. The works included here cover most of the 17th century, with a few nudging into the early 18th. Whilst a few of the composers are familiar, many were new to me, such as Giovanni Battista Buonamente (1595-1642), whose beautiful Sonata seconda has the three violins taking over one after the other, picking up the pace with each section, building the intensity and level of ornamentation until the virtuosic canonic conclusion, and final emphatic thud from the organ. Another revelation was Johann Sommer’s (1570-1627) Der 8. Psalm, and its developing embellishment of a mournful chorale melody, with cascading violins imitating each other and dancing over the top of the sombre chorale chords. From more familiar composers, we have Henry Purcell’s (1658/9-1695) Three Parts upon a Ground and Pavane, with sighing violins, running scales and a brief solo harpsichord moment in the former, and darker, twisting harmonies reminiscent of moments from Dido & Aeneas in the latter. And Johann Pachelbel’s (1653-1706) ever familiar Canon, and the Gigue which often gets missed out, receives a blisteringly fast, and positively electric rendition here. The Canon flows like I’ve never heard it before, and all three violinists are clearly enjoying the highly virtuosic, rapid decoration at this speed. Also, the Gigue makes so much more sense, dancing away from the Canon’s bright tempo. Giovanni Gabrieli’s (c1555-1612) Sonata XXI is bright and brassy, and the contrast between the low pitch of the organ and the three high, ornamented violins, with stuttering and pulsing repeated notes rises to a glorious climax. The only work here for just the three violins, Johann Joseph Fux’s (c1660-1741) Sonata, is also an absolute gem, with the close harmony of the violins creating intertwined suspensions and clashes, with some wonderful fugues, all the more complex because of the closeness of the three voices. The players’ precision and dexterity are particularly impressive here. There’s a lightly graceful Sonata from Giovanni Battista Fontana (1571-1630), a brightly virtuosic Sonata from Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709), and a confident and stately Sonata from Louis-Antoine Dornel (1685-1765), with several striking fugues. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s (1620-1680) offering presents a beautiful melody, with a bouncing faster section full of circling progressions. Thomas Baltzar’s (c1631-1663) Pavane is delicate and serene, and Carolus Hacquart’s (c1640-a1686) Sonata decima follows its grand opening with a fugue led off by the harpsichord, and concludes with a joyfully skipping dance. This is a truly joyful disc, with frankly stunning performances by the three violinists and continuo players, and an inspired selection of music showcasing the attraction for well-known and unfamiliar composers of writing for three violins. Highly recommended. 

Various. 2021. Sonatas for three violins. Ensemble Diderot, Johannes Pramsohler. Compact Disc. Audax Records ADX 13729.

Last year I reviewed a recording of piano works by American composer, John Carbon (b.1951), then unknown to me, and I commented at the time that I wanted to seek out more of his music. Low and behold, Convivium Records have come up with a two CD survey of his orchestral works, titled Inner Voices, after his 1992 three movement work which forms the centrepiece of the first disc. Carbon opens the work confidently with Tigers, although the mood quickly shifts into mystery, with brassy slides and a rather lumbering, menacing gait. Phantom comes next, with more mystery, lots of clanging percussion and brass outbursts. There’s a jazzy, Gershwinesque violin solo here too. Nightride ends the work, with quiet moments of shimmering expectation, constantly punctured by scary outbursts, and timps and snare drum dominate the clattering conclusion. There is a great variety in this collection, including three concertos, for violin, piano and double bass (the latter entitled Endangered Species). As with his piano works, Carbon creates atmospheres and images well in miniature. His suite of 14 sketches, Rasgos, inspired by Goya’s sketches in the Prado Museum in Madrid, for violin and chamber orchestra are particularly successful. Mostly just a minute or so long, these pieces are highly evocative and varied, and Carbon makes great use of the solo violin, as well as a wide range of other instruments to create different textures and atmospheres. The harp often provides mystery, and brass instruments inject drama and urgency. He pairs the solo violin with the oboe for a lament, and with the flute and clarinet for a sultrier texture. His Ghost Town Sketches are similarly brief snapshots, and once again here there is a surprising variety of textures, with the solo clarinet here paired with viola, piano, and sliding string harmonics to create that variety. The larger scale works tend to focus more on drama and tension, and Carbon makes use of full orchestral textures, with often harsh instrumentation for intensity and impact. However, when he allows more lyricism into the music, such as in the uneasy calm of the Violin Concerto’s central movement, there is real sensitivity too. Here, the yearning violin solo is beautifully underpinned by string harmonics at the end of the movement. And in the single movement Piano Concerto, the central rhapsodic section, whilst still highly virtuosic, allows for some almost Romantic pianism to shine through. And somewhat surprisingly, it is in Endangered Species that the solo double bass is the most lyrical, really capturing the sense of yearning of a creature in peril. The performances here are all highly committed and virtuosic, from both soloists and orchestras, including the Warsaw National Philharmonic, the Prague Radio Symphony, and the Concordia Orchestra, with Marin Alsop conducting the latter. Claire Chan as soloist in Rasgos deserves particular mention, as does William Koseluk in the Piano Concerto, but overall, this is an excellent survey of Carbon’s varied output.

Carbon, J. 2020. Inner Voices. Richard Fredrickson, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Kirk Trevor, William Koseluk, Prague Radio Symphony, Vladimír Válek, Peter Zakovsky, Warsaw National Philharmonic, Gerhardt Zimmerman, Robert Black, Claire Chan, The Concordia Orchestra, Marin Alsop, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. Compact Discs (2). Convivium Records CR058.


(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in Scene, July 2021)