Wednesday, 10 January 2018

CD Reviews - January 2018

If you have any interest in song, particularly English song, then I cannot recommend this disc highly enough – and if you don’t think you like English song, give it a go anyway, I’m sure you will be converted.  Baritone Roderick Williams beautiful honeyed tones, accompanied expertly by pianist Susie Allan, communicate this repertoire in a way I’ve rarely heard it before.  George Butterworth’s (1885-1916) ‘Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad’ that open the disc are achingly moving, not least with the added poignancy of Butterworth’s death in the First World War aged 31, just five years after composing the songs.  Williams’ heartfelt sadness in ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’ is almost unbearable, and his characterisation of the ghostly apparition and his old friend in ‘Is my team ploughing’ is deeply affecting.  I have to confess to shedding several tears when I heard them perform this at the CD’s launch, and the recording is no less affecting.  There’s so much here – twenty-eight songs in total – that it’s hard to single things out.  Ireland (1879-1962), Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Britten (1913-1976) are all represented here, but also Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) – another casualty of the war, his already fragile mental health never recovered, and he ended his days in a mental hospital.  His setting of ‘Sleep’ by John Fletcher that ends the disc again has added significance perhaps, with its plea for peace and joy through sleep.  There are lighter moments too, with Gurney’s jolly Captain Stratton’s Fancy’, and Peter Warlock’s (1894-1930) brief ‘Jillian of Berry’, and Williams relishes the chance to let loose.  And two songs from the only living composer represented, Ian Venables (b.1955), confirm the art of English song is still alive and well – his fleeting expression of a butterfly in flight, ‘Flying Crooked’ is a delightful miniature, and Williams enjoys the melodic twists and turns, with delicate support from Allan.  Vaughan Williams’ ‘Silent Noon’ and Britten’s ‘The Salley Gardens’ receive particularly touching renditions from Williams – I could rave about every song on this disc, there are truly no fillers here, but space restricts me to urging you to seek this recording out.

Various. 2017. Celebrating English Song. Roderick Williams, Susie Allan. Compact Disc. Somm SOMMCD 0177. 

French harpsichordist Philippe Grisvard has taken part in many recordings, including several with Audax Records’ founder, Johannes Pramsohler, and his Ensemble Diderot.  But the latest Audax recording, a wonderful collection of works for keyboard by Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759), is Grisvard’s solo recording debut.  Whilst the Suites are the most well-known and established of Handel’s keyboard works, Grisvard has also included a number of rarities, and a few pieces by lesser-known contemporaries.  This is a wise move, as it offers the listener much needed variety on a solo instrumental recording.  A particular gem is the arrangement by William Babell (1690-1723) of ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Handel’s opera, Rinaldo – Babell’s arrangement of the opera’s overture is also here – in which Grisvard really makes the instrument sing out the aria’s familiar tune.  In his informative notes, Grisvard speculates as to whether these were arrangements by the English composer, or possibly even transcriptions of performances by Handel himself – the bell-like Prelude Presto from Babell that opens the disc certainly sounds like an improvised introduction to such a performance.  The Suite No. 2 has an almost mournful opening Adagio, and the E minor Suite has a delicate, graceful Sarabande.  As well as showing his virtuosic command in the showier movements (such as the E minor Suite’s final Gigue), it is in these subtler moments that Grisvard communicates most directly with poise and grace.  A lively if a little formulaic Capriccio by Wilhelm Zachow (1663-1712), Handel’s teacher, a brief Prelude from contemporary Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), and a pleasing Toccata by Johann Krieger (1649-1725) serve to further demonstrate the imaginative superiority of Handel’s compositions, and the wonderful Chaconne in G major here includes variations from several versions of the work, making it the most substantial piece on offer, and Grisvard clearly enjoys the virtuosic challenges, building through the increasingly complex variations to an impressive conclusion.  This is a delightfully varied and impressively commanding debut from Grisvard.

Various. 2017. Handel: Works for Keyboard. Philippe Grisvard. Compact Disc. Audax Records. ADX 13709.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica, his seventh symphony, has its origins in the composer’s music for the film Scott of the Antarctic in 1948.  The symphony followed in 1951, and it makes use of a wordless soprano soloist (Mari Eriksmoen here) and a female chorus, also worldless (the singers here drawn from the Bergen Philharmonic Choir and the Edvard Grieg Kor) – hauntingly ethereal here, without being overly intrusive.  But the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, under Sir Andrew Davis are the stars here, with some breathtakingly taut and controlled playing, perfectly capturing the desolation and desperation of Scott’s ill-fated expedition.  There is a real sense of the expanse of the landscape, and impending doom, and the crashing entry of the organ at the end of the third movement is truly terrifying.  Vaughan Williams wrote his Four Last Songs, settings of poems by Ursula, his second wife and longtime muse, shortly after their marriage in 1953 (although their love affair had begun in 1938).  The songs were orchestrated by Anthony Payne (b.1936) in 2013, and were premiered at the Proms by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, but here they receive their premiere recording by a male voice, none other than baritone Roderick Williams.  Payne’s sensitive scoring, and Williams’ aforementioned rich tones, bring these brief romantic gems to life.  The disc is finished off with Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Two Pianos.  This started life as a Concerto for Piano, but his piano part proved overly challenging, and the suggestion of a version for two pianos followed.  Pianist Joseph Cooper (1912-2001) was charged with the arrangement, but Vaughan Williams changed the ending and added a new cadenza.  It opens with crashing, percussive explosions from the pianos, setting up a lively, energetic Toccata.  The central Romanza is more lyrical and romantic, with some subtle writing for woodwind, and the final Fugue and Finale, separated by a cadenza, return to the opening’s lively extrovert style.  Canadian pianists Hélène Mercier and Louis Lortie add great muscular attack and bite to the outer movements, as well as bringing sensitivity, lush lyricism and subtlety to the Romanza.  Once again, Davis and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra provide sumptuous orchestral textures in support. 

Vaughan Williams, R. 2017. Sinfonia Antartica, Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Four Last Songs. Louis Lortie, Hélène Mercier, Roderick Williams, Mari Eriksmoen, Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos CHSA 5186.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, January 2018)

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

CD Reviews - December 2017

For violinist Johannes Pramsohler’s latest disc he is joined by lutenist Jadran Duncumb for a fascinating pairing of music by J S Bach (1658-1750) and his contemporary Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750).  Weiss was one of the most important composers of music for the lute, and was renowned for his technical ability on the instrument.  So to put a Suite for lute by Weiss alongside Bach’s Partita No. 2 for violin is an interesting enough proposition.  But the main inspiration here is the Suite in A major for violin and obbligato lute, BWV1025.  In a fascinating essay the two performers discuss this work’s unclear history – is it simply an arrangement by Bach of a lute suite by Weiss, or was it in fact a work of some kind of collaboration?  Weiss certainly visited the Bach household, and the two are reported to have competed in improvisation challenges.  Whatever the work’s origins, in the form played here by Pramsohler & Duncumb the two instruments and their idiomatic styles are beautifully combined.  The recording brings the lute forward, balancing the quieter instrument against the more prominent violin – I’d be interested to hear how they manage this in live performance, but here it works well.  The Suite balances grace and poise in the opening Fantasia and stately central Entrée against livelier dancing movements such as the Rondeau and Menuett.  Both players are impressive in the Courante, building from a delicate opening to some racing runs for the violin in particular.  Following this, both players get the chance to shine individually.  First, Duncumb performs a lute Suite by Weiss, opening with a strikingly dramatic Allemande, Duncumb bringing out the dark, mellow tones of the lower registers.  The Courante ripples wonderfully, and Duncumb brings out the flowing melodic line expertly in the dancing Bourrée.  To close the disc, it’s Pramsohler’s turn, with a highly impressive performance of Bach’s Partita No. 2.  The recording acoustic is open, and Pramsohler exploits this, allowing the harmonies and lines to sing out – no scratching or digging here.  So often the rhythmic line is disturbed by Bach’s fiendish multiple stoppings or string crossing leaps, but not here.  He takes the Giga at a phenomenal pace, yet no detail is lost, and the monumental Ciaconna that finishes the Partita has a steady, consistent momentum that adds to its sublime sense of timelessness.  This is an impressive recording by two exceptional performers – highly recommended.

Nordic Voices are a six-voice a cappella group from Norway who perform a broad repertoire from plainsong through to newly commissioned works.  Their previous recording for Chaconne back in 2009 including some music by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), and now they return with a full disc of works by Victoria for six voices.  They produce a full, warm yet crystal clear and blended sound throughout, with particularly rich lower voices, evident in the opening motet, ‘Quem vidistis, pastores’, when there is often a split in Victoria’s writing between the higher and lower voices.  In ‘Salve Regina’, there are some beautiful exchanges between different voices, and the singers clearly enjoy the interchanges here.  ‘Vadam et circuibo civitatem’ that concludes the disc is particularly tender, and this reflects their overall approach.  Very occasionally I’d like to hear a little more definition to individual parts, yet there is a warmth and intensity to their sound that is highly engaging.  The resurrection motet, ‘Ardens est cor meum’ is given a bit more energetic drive, and there is some smooth and sonorous plainchant from the lower voices in ‘Vexilla Regis’.  Definitely an ensemble to look out for if they visit the UK.

I reviewed the earlier volumes of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, (read my review of Volume 2 here) and now all three volumes have been combined in a 9 CD box set – perhaps a treat for Christmas?  It’s rare that a complete cycle satisfies individual tastes across the whole 32 sonatas, but I have to say there is little here that I’d want different.  The depth of his interpretations of the later works, particularly No. 29, the ‘Hammerklavier’ is especially striking, and where I felt his ‘Moonlight’ was not dark or wild enough, that’s certainly not the case here.  And No. 32, one of Beethoven’s final statements on the instrument has that perfect combination of wild passion in the opening movement, contrasted with the profound transcendence of the final Arietta.  Standout highlights from earlier volumes must be the freshness of his ‘Pathétique’ and a towering ‘Waldstein’.  Bavouzet is clearly at the height of his game, recording and performing to a remarkable schedule, and this cycle will surely stand as a benchmark for some time to come.

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

Monday, 13 November 2017

CD Reviews - November 2017

The latest release in Chandos’ ‘Music in Exile’ series features chamber works by the Polish-born composer Szymon Laks (1901-1983).  Born in Warsaw, he settled in Paris in his twenties, but was interned and later sent to Auschwitz following the Nazi occupation of France.  There he survived by auditioning as an orchestral musician and then working as a music copyist to avoid the hard labour.  He conducted the Auschwitz orchestra, but in a post-war autobiography wrote about how music was used by the Nazis as an instrument of control, and to indulge the officers’ pretensions.  He survived the war and returned to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life.  Yet he rarely expressed the trauma of these times in his music, which is often melodious, jazzy and highly engaging. The Canadian ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory, Toronto) perform here in works for a wide variety of musical forces.  The String Quartet No. 4 of 1962 has a jazzy, quirky feel in its opening movement, a smooth, but darkly eerie central slow movement, and a driving rhythmic finale.  Another quartet follows, but this time a Divertimento for the unusual combination of violin, clarinet, bassoon and piano (it also exists in another version for flute, violin, cello and piano).  Its opening movement is relaxed and expansive, yet still with that quirkiness.  Here the slow movement is mournful, mysterious and wandering, and it is played with beautifully understated tenderness.  The work ends with a twisting, turning dance, given great energy here. The only pre-war work here is a Sonatina for piano from 1927.  It has the same wandering, jazzy harmonies of his later works, with a clear French influence.  Pianist David Louie executes the sliding chromatic harmonies smoothly, and enlivens the skittering scherzino and the wild, swirling dance that finishes the work.  The Concertino for oboe, clarinet and bassoon is more complex and technically challenging, making great use of the three contrasting instruments.  The three players rise to its challenges here, with very precise nagging, bird-like trills in the finale giving this great character.   The Passacaille, in the version for clarinet and piano once again has that meandering, walking pace, with a mournful slow clarinet melody over and almost chorale-like piano.  It builds to a central climax with heavy piano chords and the clarinet reinforcing the melody on top, before a slow decline, finally settling on a major chord to finish.  The most substantial work, the Quintet for piano and strings on Popular Polish Themes, closes the disc.  Another rearrangement from a different work (his String Quartet No. 3), this is a lively and invigorating piece, full of swirling dances, mazurkas and rustic folk melodies, but those jazzy, bluesy harmonies are here too, particularly in the second slow movement.  The stamping dance of the third movement, with quirky pizzicato strings is great fun, surrounding a central delicate mazurka.  The beautifully simple folk melody of the finale, led by the viola, is contrasted with a second more rustic tune, with drone-like underpinning, making a lively conclusion to this enjoyable piece.  The ARC Ensemble players excel here in this fascinating and varied selection of works, well worth exploration.

Richard Tognetti directs the Australian Chamber Orchestra from the violin, and on this live concert disc, they perform selections from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, and Tognetti’s own arrangement for string orchestra of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130, with the famous Grosse Fuge as the final movement.  Bach’s The Art of Fugue had no indication of his intentions in terms of performing forces, and it is unclear whether it was purely an academic, educational exercise.  However, it is unlikely he would ever have envisaged a full chamber orchestra, complete with oboes and horns, and even the voices of the ACO players who discretely join in in the fourth Contrapunctus.  This effect might have worked in live performance, but on disc it is rather too gimmicky to survive repeated listening.  Nevertheless, the fugal lines are presented with great precision, and the overall sound is straightforwardly clear, if rather bass-heavy in places.  Their Beethoven had more to offer, although here there were still balance issues for me, with the bass line dominating in the first movement particularly.  They certainly produce a hefty sound, which worked for some of the time, but their Mahlerian Cavatina, whilst moving, lacked the aching fragility of Beethoven’s original.  The Grosse Fuge had brutal attack, and here the control and energy of the ACO really paid off.   All in all, this is one of those live discs that one possibly had to be there to fully make sense of, but Tognetti and the ACO are to be commended for never playing it safe. 

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