© Hans Van der Woerd
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)
© Hans Van der Woerd
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)
© Royal Northern Sinfonia
Frederick Delius (1862-1934): On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): The Lark Ascending
Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38, 'Spring'
© Royal Northern Sinfonia
|Royal Northern Sinfonia|
© Royal Northern Sinfonia
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. 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.
American composer-pianist Michael Brown takes the title of his latest recording, Noctuelles from the first movement of Maurice Ravel's (1875-1937) Mirrors, which he performs in full here. It is followed by the Second Improvisation (in variation form), Op. 47 by Russian composer-pianist, Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951).The five movements of Ravel's Miroirs were each dedicated to members of 'Les Apaches', a Parisian artist circle, including painter Paul Sordes and the poet Léon Paul Fargue. It was a line from Fargue that inspired that opening movement, Noctuelles (Night moths), and its shimmering, fluttering textures are mesmerising. Even its slower, more limpid central section, there are slight flutterings, and Brown's dexterity and sensitivity here is striking. In Oiseaux tristes, the rippling textures are more tentative and the atmosphere darker, to which again, Brown is sensitive. Une barque sur l'océan is watery and flowing, and Brown brings out the sea-sick swells and stormier moments as the movement develops. In contrast, Albarado del gracioso is an athletic, energetic dance, and Brown enjoys the jumpy, balletic rhythms, and with its devilish repeated notes and bravura finish, he gives us a virtuosic show, before the mysterious tolling bells and dark clashing harmonies of the final movement, La Vallée des Cloches. Turning to the Medtner, Brown writes about how his research on the piece led to the discovery of two previously unpublished variations, and he adds these here to the fifteen existing variations on the theme, which Medtner calls 'The Song of the Water Nymph', an allusion to Rusalka, Russian folklore's malevolent spirit. He also discovered that Medtner had various orderings for the variations, and so Brown has combined his own take with Medtner's possible orderings to present the set here. The theme is lyrical and watery, yet chromatically ambiguous, this contrast providing the germ for Medtner's variations, from the twisting dark harmonies of Meditation, and the chorale-like and least chromatic Incantation to the shifting harmonic sands of La cadenza, in which the melody is almost hidden amongst perpetual virtuosic activity. Yet there is lightness too, in the sprightly Elves, frisky Gnomes, and chattering Feathered Ones. None of the variations are longer than a couple of minutes or so, and the calmly dark In the Forest, with its overlapping pedalling, and the racing Wood-Goblin are gone in a flash. Brown manages to bring out these contrasting characters, whilst still managing to create a unifying sense of direction, leading to a beautifully contemplative Conclusion, the melody clear and a long-held chord and quiet sombre cadence to finish. Impressive throughout, Brown demonstrates incredible virtuosity, but more than this, great sensitivity to the detail and contrasts within this remarkably evocative music.The early music ensemble, Musica Poetica, directed by Oliver John Ruthven, took part in the Brighton Early Music Festival BREMF Live! scheme back in 2012. For their debut recording, they present a selection of music by the German composer, Franz Tunder (1614-1667). A new one for me, he was the father-in-law of Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), and there is a clear Lutheran line through him to the music of Bach, whilst at the same time elements of Italian influence - he may have studied with Girolamo Frescobaldi. And on their recording, Tunder Appreciated, Musica Poetica indeed add to their selection of works by Tunder pieces by both Frescobaldi and Buxtehude. From Tunder's seventeen extant vocal works, they have chosen here three works for solo voice and viols, and they end their disc with a wonderful choral cantata, Ein feste Burg, Tunder's arrangement of one of Martin Luther's most famous Reformation hymns. Opening with sinuous strings, Tunder creates a wonderful mixture of textures, with choral and solo lines mixed to great effect, and the ensemble achieve just the right balance of choral blend and individuality of line. For the other three Tunder works, three of the five singers on the recording are given a solo outing. First, soprano Lucy Knight performs Tunder's setting of Psalm 137, Am Wasserflüssen Babylon (By the Waters of Babylon), with a beautifully clear voice, delivering the text with precision over the richly textured accompaniment. Alto Collin Shay brings us Salve mi Jesu, steadily declamatory in tone, and then emphasising Tunder's word-painting of sighing and weeping with great sensitivity, and the stuttering ornamentation is impressively adept. Finally the bass, Christopher Webb gets a turn, in Da mihi Domine, a highlight of the recording for me. Webb's voice is rich yet agile, and he shifts between tender pleading and weighty declamation with ease. This piece also really summed up the musica poetica style (after which the ensemble named themselves), with this declamatory setting of text combined with expressive (and often radical for the time) musical shapes and figurations. Here, the accompaniment also shines through, with rocking melodies passed between instruments, and the two violins echoing the vocal lines beautifully. The two works from Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) are O mors illa, a short but beautiful duet for tenor (Peter Davoren) and bass, beautifully blended here, and accompanied delicately by Toby Carr on theorbo and Ruthven on organ, and Partite sopra Passacagli for solo organ, with its gently lilting introduction, running, winding lines and impressively fluid passacaglia. And the only time when all five singers and the full band come together are for Buxtehude's Ad Latus, from his Membra Jesu Nostri. A meditation on the crucifixion, this glorious work is full of invention and rich detail, and the dancing string introduction here has a real spark. The blend of the five voices is initially not always even, with a couple of voices dominating, although when the opening music returns, the balance seems to have settled. In the central sections, the touch is light, and one is left eager to hear their performance of the complete work. So, impressive performances here, and a great introduction to Tunder, of whom I hope to hear more.
First up this month, a great new disc of works by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). Piazzolla brought the music of the ‘Nuevo tango’ to concert platforms, and is responsible for its wider exposure outside Argentina. HIs music has been performed in many guises, and here, Italian saxophonist Marco Albonetti plays a selection of his works along with the Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana. Most of the works here are arranged and orchestrated by Albonetti, and his sensitive interpretations demonstrate how well the saxophone (mostly the soprano instrument) is suited to taking the role of the bandonéon (a kind of concertina, and Piazzolla’s own instrument). Piazzolla used a musical motif for ‘Diablo’ (as well as one for ‘Angel’) in numerous pieces, and the title track, Romance del Diablo is sensuous and intimate, with the devil definitely in seduction mode here. Albonetti plays with aching melancholy, and the orchestral playing is sumptuous throughout. Spread across the disc are Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), in which several soloists from the orchestra get the chance to shine (Cesare Carretta (violin), Alessandra Gelfini (piano), and Virgilio Monti (double-bass)). There are some great percussive effects in Autumn, and dark, sensuous rumblings in Winter, along with virtuosic interludes from the piano and sax. There’s more virtuosity in Spring, as well as driving rhythms, and the duet between sax and double-bass gets wilder and wilder at the conclusion. Summer is lively, with pulsing pizzicato strings beneath the sax solo, before the sliding double-bass builds the tempo, to a final scream from the sax to finish. For Años de Soledad (Years of Solitude), Albonetti ups the melancholic ante by switching to the baritone sax, and the warm tones, contrasted with the jabbing orchestral tango rhythm, make this a highlight of the disc for me. Two of Piazzolla’s most well-known works are here too. Oblivion is preceded with a solo sax improvisation over a pulsing double-bass heartbeat, before the slow, melancholic milonga tune takes over, with evocative inflections in the melodic line from Albonetti. The disc ends with Libertango, and once this gets going, the sax repeats its hypnotic, twisting motif over the piano and bass stamping out the tango rhythm. I’ve heard interpretations with greater abandon here, but Albonetti and the players are certainly captivating to listen to. Reinterpretations of Piazzolla can sometimes be a little clinical in trying to replicate a particular sound and style – not so here, as Albonetti has clearly fully absorbed this music, making for a disc full of life and romance.The American Lysander Piano Trio mark their tenth anniversary with a collection of premieres of works they have commissioned and collaborated on with living American composers. There are works here from six composers, and the opening work, Around the Cauldron by Gilad Cohen (b.1980) has seven short movements depicting scenes inspired by the three witches in Macbeth. Cohen particularly exploits the high registers of the three instruments for ‘witchy’ effect, and there’s lots of twisting and turning, with the violin and cello lines often colliding. Hand-stopped piano strings evoke an electric bass, and there’s lots of glassy string effects too. Reinaldo Moya’s (b.1984) Ghostwritten Variations take inspiration from fictional composers from four novels, including Mann’s Doctor Faustus, imagining what those composers might sound like. Moya makes great use of turbulent perpetual motion, as well as reverberation effects from repeated, pulsing chords. In the final variation, from Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Memory of Whiteness, the ghostly high piano ripples against glassy sustained string chords are particularly striking, as are the tolling, low piano ‘bells’ towards the end. For Jennifer Higdon’s (b.2013) Love Sweet, the trio are joined by soprano Sarah Shafer for a set of five songs following the trajectory of a relationship from birth to death. Shafer has a bright, incisive tone, and expresses the changing moods well here, from the sprightly opening ‘Apology’, through the ominous, even disturbing atmosphere of ‘Absence’ (with insistent knocking from stopped piano strings), the elegiac and intense ‘A Gift’ with its strange chromatic harmonies, to the painful end in ‘A Fixed Idea’, with more stopped piano strings, lurking low and torturing in their repetition. They return to Shakespeare for Sofia Belimova’s (b.2000) Titania and Her Suite, and in this delightful miniature, the piano ripples and the violin delicately tweets like a bird. A wild dance builds, with all three players bumping into each other rhythmically, and the result is a beautifully light and wispy confection. William David Cooper (b.1986) turns to Psalm 137 for An den Wassern zu Babel, with the cello introducing the falling, expressive lament. Cooper exploits the lyrical potential of the string instruments here, and as the music develops, there are some highly dramatic sweeps, with a sense of frenzy building through the fifth of the variations here, and the music then drives through the final variation to an almost violent conclusion. Jakub Ciupinski’s (b.1981) The Black Mirror concludes the disc, with some incredibly evocative and effective writing. He creates a ‘seagull’ effect with glissandi (slides) on harmonics, and there are hints of Pärt in the rising and falling lines beneath shifting harmonies. As the intensity builds, the ‘seagulls’ swoop around piano chords, then the strings wind around in repeating, minimalist patterns, leading to a dramatic final bell-like section. The Lysander Piano Trio demonstrate exceptional virtuosic and expressive talent across this diverse selection of styles, thus creating an excellent showcase for all six composers, and their 10thanniversary – Happy Birthday!And finally, off to Latvia, via Canada. Tālivaldis Ķeniņš (1919-2008) left Latvia following Soviet occupation after World War Two, emigrating to Canada in 1951. Prior to going to Canada, he lived and studied in Paris. He composed eight symphonies and twelve concertos, as well chamber, piano and choral works. Despite being one of Canada’s most performed composers, few works have been recorded. So the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Poga, are rectifying that, with a disc of three works, his Violin Concerto, his Concerto for Five Percussionists and Orchestra, and the single movement orchestral piece, Beatae voces tenebrae. His music combines a certain romanticism with the neoclassicism of his French training, and it is a fascinating mix of lean, often angular counterpoint with lyrically striking melody. In the Violin Concerto, performed here impressively and with conviction by Latvian violinist Eva Bindere, the spiky, virtuosic lines, over often sparse and brittle orchestral accompaniment contrast with expressive falling and rising lines in the slow movement. Ķeniņš makes sparse use of woodwind, but there is a ghostly bassoon solo, and the brass and percussion are used to ominous effect in the Scherzo. An extended cadenza begins the finale, with an essentially lyrical if highly chromatic line ornamented with trills and leaps, and percussion and racing strings herald a race to the finish. The Concerto for Five Percussionists and Orchestra, performed here by members of Perpetuum Ritmico, is highly dramatic, as one would expect. A live performance would carry the added benefit of the visual, as a dazzling array of percussion instruments are made use of here (not all of which I could identify aurally). In the dramatic opening movement, there are crashes and knocks from cymbals, woodblock and gong, as well as queasy tuning slides on the timpani. In the first slow movement, tuned percussion is used to great atmospheric effect, with muted trumpets and another mournful bassoon solo. After a brief faster section, the train slows down into a second slow movement, with muted strings lamenting and constant knocking and rattling in the background. The final movement returns to high drama, with crashing drums, sliding drums and even a siren for a wild finish. To conclude the disc, Beatae voces tenebrae is a mixture of serene calm and anguish of grief – it was written after the sudden death of two close friends, but also possibly commemorated the 100thbirthday of his mother, as well as ‘deported loved ones’, victims of the occupation. He draws extensively on the four-note B-A-C-H motif, as well as works by Bach, such as the downward movement in the Crucifixus of the B minor Mass. There are also references to Liszt and Beethoven, as well as the harp’s perpetual motion from In Paradisum from Fauré’s Requiem. From a low, rumbling opening and an initial slow rhythmic pace, Ķeniņš gradually builds tension, with moments of true anguish from the strings, and some strange effects from the horns. The Fauré effect at the end brings calm, although the percussion continues to knock away disconcertingly in the background, before the harp rises into nothingness at the end. A fascinating window into a new composer for me, and one I will definitely want to explore further.
'This was as joyful a Trout, without any unnecessary outstanding features, as one would want – nothing to get in the way of heartfelt delight in Schubert’s invention and the joy of chamber musicians making music together'.
Read my full review on Bachtrack here.
© London Symphony Orchestra