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)


Wednesday, 23 June 2021

CD Reviews - June 2021

The Doric String Quartet are on their fourth volume of the String Quartets of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), a cycle they began way back in 2014. Here, they play the six Op. 33 Quartets, nicknamed the ‘Russian quartets’, after their dedication to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia. As ever, the Doric’s performances are impeccable, and they are alive to the energy and fun in Haydn’s writing throughout. The Scherzo of No. 1 has real bite, accentuating the contrast with the seemingly light and delicate Andante that follows, and the finale is taken at a breathtaking lick without any loss of accuracy or detail. No. 2’s Scherzo has a real bounce, the first violinist Alex Redington enjoys the somewhat vulgar slides in the rustic Trio, and the Finale’s ‘joke’ (giving this quartet its nickname) ending is delightfully judged. They give No. 3’s strange Scherzo a dark, veiled tone which works incredibly well, and its Adagio is especially sweet by contrast, all swept away by the rustic dancing Rondo. They exploit the lyrical in No. 4’s Largo, and there’s another blisteringly quick Finale here. Redington makes No. 5’s aria-like Largo sing, and they all make great play of Haydn’s two/three confusions in the Scherzo, before the lightly dancing Allegretto finale, topped off with its crazily fast Presto coda. No. 6’s Andante gets a particularly tender reading here, and its finale is gently understated. The Dorics are clearly alive to the variety here, and not afraid to push tempi in the interest of keeping proceedings alive and vibrant, and they add another strong volume here to their survey.

Haydn, F. J. 2020. Haydn String Quartets, Op. 33 (Volume 4). Doric String Quartet. Compact Discs (2). Chandos CHAN 20129.

The Paris based label Audax Records, established by violinist and director Johannes Pramsohler, continues to go from strength to strength, with 25 releases, many award-winning under their belt in just eight years. The latest release moves forward a little from the label’s general focus on the Baroque, with the Mariani Klavierquartett beginning a cycle pairing the Piano Quartets of Brahms (1833-1897) with those of a lesser-known composer, Friedrich Gernsheim (1839-1916). The two composers were friends, and Gernsheim was a particular champion of Brahms’ German Requiem, conducting the work on a number of occasions. Even though Gernshiem’s composing career began before Brahms’, he is often dismissed as being heavily influenced by his friend, and his work and reputation suffered from a subsequent ban in Nazi Germany owing to his Jewish heritage. The Mariani quartet’s recording project began in January 2020, but was of course immediately curtailed by the pandemic, so it is great that they have been able to return and complete this first volume, with a spirited and lively performance of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1, Op, 25. Their opening movement draws the listener in immediately from the piano’s opening melody onwards. In the second movement, the cello propels things with constant quavers, whilst the violin and viola converse with the piano. The Mariani cellist, Peter-Philipp Staemmler keeps things moving without allowing his perpetual motion to get in the way of the other players’ conversations. The third movement is a masterpiece of Brahms’ lyricism and harmonic invention, and it is in secure hands here in this warmly sensitive performance, with some particularly warmly rippling playing from pianist Gerhard Vielhaber, and a vibrantly contrasting central section played with great spirit by all. The finale, ‘Rondo alla Zingarese’, with its typical Brahmsian take on Hungarian rhythms and melodies is taken at a great pace, with incredibly impressive virtuosity on display from all here, but once again, pianist Vielhaber deserves particular mention for his effortless dexterity throughout. Gernsheim’s Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 20 opens with a gloriously rich and flowing movement, and the Mariani players produce appropriately warm tones throughout. Gernsheim’s melodies flow effortlessly, and the full-on dramatic climaxes are powerfully delivered here, yet the Marianis also bring out the moments of delicate detail too. The second slow movement is a beautiful example of Gernsheim’s heartfelt lyricism, and like the slow movement of the Brahms, the Marianis play with deep assurance and sensitivity. The closing Rondo is lively and again packed with melodic ideas, as well as a dancing rhythmic pace. Here it has playful delicacy and energy, allowing for the contrast between the lighter, smaller scale moments and the high-spirited peaks to shine, building to a glorious finish. This is a highly impressive first volume, with assured Brahms coupled with illuminating Gernsheim, and I look forward to hearing more.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Sunny Dvořák and passionate Brahms from Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans Van der Woerd

Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)

Saturday 17 April 2021
Reviewed from online stream Friday 21 May 2021 (available until 30 May here)

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904): Serenade for Winds, Cello & Double Bass in D minor, Op. 44

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98

'Fluid dexterity and evident enjoyment'.

'Nézet-Séguin took the finale at a great lick, and the articulation from the wind players was impressive yet never laboured, maintaining a sense of playful fun throughout'.

'Nézet-Séguin still maintained an element of lightness in the driving hemiolas, even as the movement soared to its mighty conclusion'

'A Brahms 4 with passion and drama, yet never settling for sheer weight of delivery over expression and attention to detail'.

'This performance showcased a conductor and orchestra at the top of their game'. 

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Monday, 17 May 2021

Oboe chamber gems from Adrian Wilson and Ensemble 360 in Sheffield

Tim Horton (piano)

Friday 14 May, 1pm
Live-streamed performance
Crucible Studio, Sheffield

Edwin York Bowen (1884-1961): Sonata for Oboe and Piano, Op. 85

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956): Interlude for Oboe and String Quartet in A minor, Op. 21

Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Oboe Quintet

Adrian Wilson
© Andy Brown
'Adrian Wilson’s bright yet supple tones were matched by warmth from Tim Horton on the piano'.

'Wilson’s wailing cadenza-like passage was answered with ... impassioned playing from the strings'.
'A warm yet suitably introspective performance'.

'The spirit was infectious, with Wilson keeping them on the straight and narrow of the jig with precise articulation'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Monday, 10 May 2021

CD Review - May 2021

John Mayer (1929-2004) was born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to an Anglo-Indian father and Tamil mother. He moved to London in 1952 with a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, and worked as a violinist and composer, then co-founded the Indo-Jazz Fusions quintet in the sixties, before teaching at Birmingham Conservatoire, where he established the BMus in Indian Music. His son, Jonathan Mayer (b.1975) started on the violin, but then from the age of 16 he trained as a sitar player, and he now composes and performs. On this disc, there are works composed by father and son, two each, and Jonathan performs sitar on his own compositions, as well as playing tanpura (like a fretless sitar, providing a harmonic drone) on his father’s Violin Concerto No. 2, from 1978. The violinist here is Sasha Rozhdestvensky, and he shows phenomenal technical dexterity, particularly in the perpetual motion and breathless energy of the concerto’s second movement. The opening movement, Alap, has a pulsing orchestral background, out of which the violin emerges in winding chromatic lines, up and down. The tanpura shimmers in the background of the third movement Raga, and its improvisatory cadenza for the violin is full of birdlike fluttering. The fourth movement has dark brass and sparse woodwind chords, with lyrical moments in the violin’s response, before the final movement Gat drives with jagged rhythms to an insistent conclusion. John Mayer’s other composition here is the Concerto for the Instruments of an Orchestra, from 1975. Across its four movements, Mayer often pits orchestral sections – strings, woodwind, percussion against each other in conversation, occasionally bringing them together. The music is quite episodic, and occasionally lacks continuity, but there are imaginative effects, such as the lively coda of the first movement, and the racing strings Scherzo and spiky woodwind Trio of the third movement. The second movement is the strongest, with its drone background and the winding melody emerging from the strings, before the woodwind take over, and a solo cello and cor anglais conclude with a heartfelt lament. Jonathan Mayer’s Sitar Concerto No. 2 begins with an extended solo for the instrument, with initial unison string responses developing into a more rhythmic, almost jazzy section. The central cadenza is hypnotic, and is followed by a surging orchestral response. The second movement focuses on repeated patterns, initially a four-note figure on the sitar, with thrumming strings beneath, whereas the third movement has a driving 7 beat rhythm in a kind of offbeat march, with a whiff of Hans Zimmer’s film music. It is the most western harmonically, and the sitar gets livelier and more elaborate as the movement builds, although the ultimate conclusion is inconclusive. Jonathan Mayer’s other work here, the single movement Pranam, begins with the sitar alone, with the orchestra joining as the sitar settles into a melodic pattern. The tabla joins (here played by Shahbaz Hussain), and rhythmic interest in the orchestra grows. Mayer builds layers of texture in the orchestra, then after a hiatus, the sitar is left keening above dark, low strings, before the violins emerge with a winding upward line. Once again, the tabla helps drive the momentum, and faster rhythmic patterns crescendo, almost burying the sitar, the woodblock adding further driving repetition to an ending reminiscent of John Adams. Debashish Chaudhuri conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in strong performances of these fascinating works.

Various. 2020. John Mayer/Jonathan Mayer - Concertos. Sasha Rozhdestvensky, Jonathan Mayer, Shahbaz Hussain, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Debashish Chaudhuri. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR88.

(An edited version of this review first appeared in Scene, May 2021)


Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Spring has Sprung: a taste of live concerts to come from Paul McCreesh and the RNS

Paul McCreesh (conductor)

7.30pm Friday 30 April 2021
Streamed live at

Sage One, Gateshead

Frederick Delius (1862-1934): On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring

Thea Musgrave (b.1928) (arr. by Martyn Brabbins (b.1959)): Green

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): The Lark Ascending

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38, 'Spring'

Maria Włoszczowska
© Royal Northern Sinfonia
'The clarinet’s cuckoo was not overstated, emerging naturally from the textures, and the string sound was warm without excess weight'.

'From a glassy, atmospheric opening to the frenzied intense climax, the RNS string players were in their element, with strong solo work and powerful contrasts between the lyrical and the harsher effects'.

Vaughan Williams:
'Włoszczowska’s playing ... was easy and relaxed, and the winding figures rising to the first high melodic statement were natural and effortless, with a singing, pure tone at the top'.

Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Royal Northern Sinfonia
'The Finale was the strongest movement here, with dancing energy, (and) precise articulation and detail from the strings'.

'“Spring in full bloom” ..., with bright brass and an emphatic finish'.   

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Friday, 9 April 2021

CD Reviews - April 2021

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) originally composed Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’) for string sextet, but he later orchestrated the work, and it has become one of his most performed works.  Unlike his later music, it is tonal, although highly chromatic, with a late Romantic stamp, and a strong Wagnerian flavour. The poem by Dehmel which inspired the work is about a woman who walks with her lover in a moonlit forest, and confesses she is pregnant by another man.  Her lover ultimately forgives her, and the intensity of their love and the beauty of the moonlight brings them together.  On this latest recording, Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra have cleverly explored some lesser-known works from the same period, notably Oskar Fried’s (1871-1941) setting of Verklärte Nacht, Op. 9, for mezzo-soprano, tenor and orchestra (with Christine Rice and Stuart Skelton the soloists here). Fried’s setting is lush and atmospheric, with warm narrative duets contrasting with more emotionally charged solos from both characters. Rice and Skelton are beautifully matched, and Skelton shimmers at the top of his range on ‘Glanz’ (glow). It is perhaps a little more obvious than Schoenberg’s intense instrumental interpretation, which here receives a wonderfully mysterious and atmospheric reading, contrasting the full weight of strings at the climactic moment, with an incredibly light touch for the lilting night music and glassy solos. The disc begins with another surprise – Fieber (Fever) by Franz Lehár (1870-1948), for tenor and orchestra. This is a highly episodic piece – perhaps understandable when expressing the delirium of an injured soldier in hospital, flitting between calling for the nurse, thinking of his girlfriend, remembering battle and even an image of his mother, before finally succumbing to death. Skelton is bold and emphatic, yet also captures the sense of confusion and anguish here. We get fragments of romantic waltzes, and even a snippet of the Radetzky March, all lusciously orchestrated. Skelton returns in the four Lieder des Abschieds, Op. 14 (Songs of Farewell) by Erich Korngold (1897-1957). Full of yearning, with texts including ‘Sterbelied’ (Upon Dying), a German translation of a Christina Rossetti poem, the songs employ frequent yearning vocal leaps, and Skelton’s placing is impeccably tender. The second song is more urgent and dramatic, whilst the third and fourth have more of a gentle rocking feel. Korngold’s orchestration is rich and sumptuous, and here as throughout, Gardner and the BBCSO are on top form.  

Various, 2021. Verklärte Nacht: Schoenberg, Fried, Lehar, Korngold. Christine Rice, Stuart Skelton, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos. CHSA 5243.

Greek-born pianist Alexandra Papastefanou studied in Moscow, Budapest and the US, and has had lesson from Alfred Brendel. She has performed all of Bach’s keyboard works, and to date, her recordings have also focussed on Bach, as well as her own compositions. Now she turns to Robert Schumann (1810-1856), and in a two disc set, she covers all the works for piano written in 1839. The following year, 1940, is known as his ‘Year of Song’, in which he wrote over 160 vocal works, including 135 solo songs. It was also the year he finally married Clara, after the extended and embittered battles with her father. Whilst not as prolific a year, 1839 did generate a considerable number of works for the piano, and in many ways, they reflect the turbulent time of that year before he was finally able to marry the love of his life. Papastefanou has coined the term ‘Year of Piano’ for her survey of this output. Papastefanou plays with clarity and avoids overindulgence in the more romantic, expressive passages. So the Humoreske, Op. 20 is suitably boisterous and playful to begin with, yet the stuttering rhythms of the second section have a subtle unease, followed by darker, expressive then tender and lilting third and fourth sections. Schumann said when writing this ‘I have been sitting at the piano, composing and writing, laughing and crying all at once’, and there are certainly a lot of moods to capture here. The same might be said of the 4 Nachstücke, Op. 23, with a slightly pacy, agitated funeral procession, and swirling, darkly turbulent night revelry. Papastefanou takes some freedom with the tempi in the Arabeske, Op. 18, yet could perhaps take a little more time in the expressive recitative-like moments, but the rippling repeating rhythms have a real flow. The Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26 (Carnival Jest from Vienna), is fascinating, with its embedded reference to the Marseillaise, at that time banned in Vienna, and lively dances, rippling textures and central sad Romanze. Again, Schumann’s moods change from moment to moment, yet Papastefanou makes sense of these transitions, making coherent sense of the contrasts. The 3 Romanzen, Op. 28 are darker than one might expect from the title, and a sense of anxiety pervades. The middle Romanze has moments of calm, but the third is jumpy and mercurial. There are a number of shorter pieces filling out this two disc collection, some part of larger collections published later, but here for the year of their composition. They merit their inclusion, however, and the dark smouldering Praeludium from Bunte Blätter, Op. 99 and the delicately dancing Phantasiestück from Albumblätter, Op. 124 are given sensitive readings here. A fascinating collection of lesser-performed works here, and Papastefanou performs throughout with virtuosic command and sensitivity to the constantly changing moods. 

Schumann, R. 2021. Schumann 1839: Year of Piano. Alexandra Papastefanou. Compact Discs (2). First Hand Records. FHR 112.

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