Thursday, 18 May 2017

CD Reviews - May 2017

For his second volume of Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) works for solo piano, pianist Barry Douglas pairs the first set of Four Impromptus, D899, with the Piano Sonata in A major, D959.  The Sonata was the second of a final three sonatas Schubert finished just weeks before his death aged just 31, and the Impromptus come from the year before this.  The four Impromptus come first on the disc, and each have a different character, although they all share Schubert’s use of rapid figuration to decorate his lyrical melodies.  The first is perhaps the most dramatic, and here Douglas’ use of rubato (pulling about of the rhythms from bar to bar) unsettles the momentum.  However, his light fluidity in the second and the smooth melodic line over the rippling accompaniment in the most well-known third are impressive, and the fourth’s delicately cascading arperggios appear effortless.  The Sonata, like its companions from that final set, is a large scale, four-movement work, coming in at over forty minutes.  The opening movement has heft and energy, full of invention, yet despite its relatively conventional structure, Schubert pulls us up short with a surprisingly subdued conclusion.  This sets us up nicely for the darkly lilting slow movement that follows – but once again, just as we’re settling to this, Schubert cuts things short and there follows an incredibly wild and turbulent middle section, before the lilting boatsong returns, adorned to give added pathos.  Douglas combines sensitivity in the outer sections with virtuosic display in the middle, although both are somewhat restrained, giving this a suitably introspective feel. The Scherzo that follows wipes away the tears with a sprightly dance, and here Douglas gives us much-needed brightness and lightness of touch.  For the finale, Schubert reworked a movement from an earlier sonata, but its infectiously lyrical rondo theme proves a perfect fit here, with Schubert supplying almost constantly flowing triplet rhythms throughout.  At the end, Schubert brings proceedings to a halt with brief fragments of the theme, followed by a brief rapid coda, and a final hint of the opening chords from the first movement, and Douglas draws this impressive second volume to a convincing conclusion.  

Italian-born violinist Augustin Hadelich and Korean pianist Joyce Yang have been playing together since 2010, and clearly have a strong musical partnership, on the evidence of this, their first recital recording together.  They begin with André Previn’s (b. 1929) Tango, Song and Dance, a piece written for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in 1997, before her subsequent marriage to (and later divorce from) Previn in 2002.  A sweet, central Song is bookended with a crowd-pleasing Tango and a jazzy Dance, and Hadelich and Lang have great fun with this.  They follow this with Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Sonata No. 1, Op.105, a turbulent and emotive work, and both players perform here with passion and drive.  Apparently when performing live, they lead straight from the Schumann into the Tre Pezzi, Op.14e by György Kurtág (b.1926), which come next on this disc, and provide a striking contrast.  The three short pieces are pared down and very stark compared to the flurry of action and intensity of Schumann’s finale, and of course in a completely different soundworld.  Hadelich and Yang deliver these miniatures with an almost claustrophobic intensity, such that the expansive outpouring of the Sonata by César Franck (1822-1890) comes as a great relief.  This is a very cleverly constructed programme, and also demonstrates these performers’ extensive range.  Their Franck is lush and full of depth, with Yang particularly excelling in the demands of the piano writing here, and Hadelich produces a consistently warm and rich tone well suited to this highly passionate work.  Overall, these are highly engaging performances in an imaginative and intelligent recital programme – highly recommended.

Bass-baritone Gerald Finley is joined by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner for ‘In the Stream of Life’, a disc of songs by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Most were orchestrated relatively recently, partly prompted by the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2015.  The title of the disc comes from Einojuhani Rautavaara’s (1928-2016) orchestrated set of seven of Sibelius’ songs, and the theme of water runs throughout most of the songs on the recording.  Finley himself requested the arrangements from Rautavaara, and is clearly very much at home here.  He sings with precision and great dramatic communication, yet his rich voice also brings a moving melancholy to songs such as På veranden vid havet (On the Veranda by the Sea), one of the few here orchestrated by Sibelius himself.  In Rautavaara’s set, the orchestration captures Sibelius’ spirit, with watery strings in the folksy tale Älven och snigeln (The River and the Snail), and the mysterious, otherworldy and homoerotic Näcken (The Water Spirit).  One of the composer’s few originally composed orchestral songs, Koskenlaskijan mosiamet (The Rapids-rider’s Brides) is another watery tale, with Finley again convincingly communicating another fateful love being overpowered by nature.  In addition, Gardner commands attention with a taut reading of Sibelius’ wonderfully impressionistic sea-picture, The Oceanides, and we are also treated to Sibelius’ beautifully orchestrated tone poem, Pohjola’s Daughter, drawing on one of his favourite inspirations in a tale from the epic Kalevala.  A short but pleasing Romance for string orchestra is the other orchestral piece on offer here.  Gardner elicits great depth of tone combined with subtle agility from the Bergen players, making this a striking recording all round.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

CD Reviews - April 2017

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was born just one year before fellow pianist-composer, Rachmaninov, with whom he also studied at the Moscow Conservatory.  Of course Rachmaninov outlived Scriabin by many years, but also Scriabin’s music quickly went in a much more dissonant and individual direction than the ostensibly more accessible and tonal music of his contemporary.  Scriabin was fascinated by synesthesia (where people ‘see’ sounds as colours, for example).  Whilst it is unlikely that he was actually synesthetic himself, it had a strong influence on his harmonic theory, together with a fascination with mysticism and theosophy.  Consequently, his music can be hard to make immediate sense of, but then as his ten Piano Sonatas demonstrate, once you join his soundworld, there is much to reward your attention.  Peter Donohoe remarkably performs all ten sonatas in a single concert (well over two hours of music).  There is a lot to be said for hearing all ten in sequence, as they amply demonstrate the composer’s progression through the 21 years of their composition, and the building complexity of his style draws you in.  In the first four sonatas, he alternated between a four-movement structure and his more favoured two-movement form of a slow/fast combination.  From the fifth sonata onwards, he used a single movement, although often still following that slow/fast pattern.  The first sonata was written when he was 20, when he had damaged his right hand from over-practising virtuosic works, and thought it was the end of his performing career.  It is moody and dark, with a funeral march as its finale, already looking forward from its Chopinesque roots.  A freer second sonata, inspired by his first sight of the sea in Latvia, is followed by the deeper, soul-searching third, with its chromatic lines and turbulent mood.  The Wagnerian harmonies of the fourth are almost jazz-like and improvisatory in places, and the fifth has an incredibly passionate climax, with hammering chords.  By the sixth sonata, conventional tonality is almost gone, and the mysterious harmonies are deeply unsettling – even Scriabin found it ‘frightening’ and wouldn’t play it in public.  The ‘White Mass’ nickname of the seventh builds on the combination of weighty textures, contrasted with extensive use of rippling trills.  The eighth is more anxious than overtly turbulent, which Donohoe brings out well, with some almost skittish, impetuous passages, before disappearing away to nothing. The ninth, ‘Black Mass’, is full of ‘satanic’ tri-tones and chromatic scales, whereas the final sonata, which he described as his ‘sonata of insects’, is full of light and radiance.  This two-disc set is rounded off by one of Scriabin’s last works from the year before his death.  ‘Vers la Flamme’ is his representation of rising heat, growing from nothing to brilliance, with the heat of the sun eventually destroying the world.  So, a mammoth range here, and Donohoe takes us on a wild journey through these highly individual works.  The weight of his playing, particularly in the rapturous seventh, as well as his anxious filigree in the eighth, and the full-on romantic flourishes of the fourth and fifth amply demonstrate his phenomenal range.  The virtuosic command on show here is almost forgotten as the depth of his performances of these dark and complex works engulfs you. 

German mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger, together with pianist Alfredo Perl, has recorded three of Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) most well-known song cycles.  Most of the songs present here are better known in their orchestrated versions, so it is good to hear them in this form.  One might assume the piano versions came first, but in fact some were written after the orchestrated versions.  Here we have the Rückert-Lieder, the Kindertotenlieder (also with texts by Friedrich Rückert), and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’).  Romberger has a rich mezzo voice, well suited for Mahler, and can regularly be heard in performances of the symphonies, appearing several times at the Proms.  Her full tones are demonstrated in ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ from the Rückert-Lieder, yet in the first of this set, ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, his private piece for Alma and the only one he didn’t orchestrate himself, the tender lifts to the high notes have great poise.  Romberger gives a heartfelt performance of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, although perhaps a little over controlled for this desperate plea.  The ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’ have strong links with the first symphony, the rustic ‘Ging heut morgen…’ and the melancholic ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ both appearing there.  However, it is in the third song here, ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’, that Romberger gives full vent, with wild anguish and high drama.  In the heartfelt Kindertotenlieder, which draw on some of the 428 poems Rückert wrote following the death of his two children, Romberger again shows great control in the rising lines of ‘Nun seh’ ich wohl’, and pianist Perl has the opportunity to shine in the first song of the cycle.  Overall, this is a commanding set, and Romberger and Perl present a strong argument for these pared down versions of Mahler’s finest songs.

The Doric String Quartet has released their second CD of String Quartets by Franz Schubert (1797-1828).  Following on from the success of the first, they remain in the later reaches of Schubert’s string quartet output, pairing the wonderful ‘Quartettsatz’, D703, a single movement of his projected but unfinished twelfth quartet, with his final String Quartet in G major, D887.  In the Quartettsatz, the Dorics open with glassy determination, giving this miniature masterpiece great clarity and energy.  The final String Quartet in contrast comes it at over fifty minutes, and is a mighty challenge.  Again, the Dorics attack this with high energy, intensity and precision throughout.  There is high drama here, and despite the G major key, Schubert shifts between major and minor right at the start, highlighting the conflicting moods that run throughout the work.  The Dorics give the frequent tremolandi an edge of anxiety, and the slow movement is dark and mournful.  It is only in the Trio of the Scherzo that follows that there is any sense of calm, and the players relish the successive duet writing here.  But the finale dashes all this to one side, and in its relentless race to the finish, the players never lose attention to detail, whilst maintaining impressive intensity and energy to the last.  Catch them in the Brighton Festival, playing Haydn, Brahms & Adams (26 May).

Schubert, F. 2017. String Quartet in G major, String Quartet in C minor 'Quartettsatz'. 

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, April 2017)