Thursday, 22 June 2017

Summer, Song and Strawberries - The Baroque Collective Singers

Baroque Collective Singers
John Hancorn, director

Sunday 2 July, 6.30pm
St Michael's Church, 158 High Street, Lewes BN7 1XU

The Baroque Collective Singers perform a cappella music for a summer evening, including Tudor madrigals - Wilbye's plangent 'Draw On, Sweet Night', neglected genius Weelkes's 'Hark all ye lovely saints' and, for light relief and some 'fa la las', John Bennet's 'All Creatures Now' - and French and English part songs.

The programme also features stunning choral music by Eric Whitacre, Britten, Janequin and Hindemith - plus prosecco and strawberries!

Details on Facebook here.

Tickets here.

The Baroque Collective Singers

John Hancorn

Monday, 19 June 2017

CD Reviews - June 2017

Last year, I had the great fortune to perform Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in the Brighton Festival with Brighton Festival Chorus.  It was evident then that conductor Edward Gardner has expert command of Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) music, so I was very much looking forward to his new recording of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1.  An added bonus is Elgar’s often overlooked Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra, a piece I remember fondly from youth orchestra days (a very long time ago!), and on this disc, the BBC Symphony Orchestra are joined by the Doric String Quartet.  Like many others before him, Elgar waited a long time before composing his first symphony, perhaps feeling the weight of expectation, and the great symphonists that had gone before. Yet when it finally came, in his 50th year, it proved to be a huge success, described by Hans Richter as 'the greatest symphony of modern times', and it was performed nearly one hundred times in the first year alone. The orchestration is rich and lavish, yet Elgar uses great contrasts in texture too. The opening noble theme sets us off perhaps expecting Elgar in Pomp and Circumstance mode, but the restless Allegro shocks the listener out of any nostalgic pomp very quickly. Gardner takes a balanced approach here, not allowing the noble opening to get bogged down, and giving the Allegro the right degree of turbulent energy, eliciting some particularly bright brass playing from the BBCSO players.  The second movement is also turbulent, and here again Gardner injects drive and energy. The beautiful Adagio that follows without a break, and masterfully transforms the theme from the previous movement, prompted a standing ovation at the first performance, and here it is given a particularly touching reading.  The final movement has incredibly full string textures, with the string sections subdivided several times, and the triumphant return of the opening noble theme with a blaze of trumpets gives a rousing finish.  Gardner keeps his powder dry, and holds the tension, so that when we finally arrive at the triumphant conclusion it has the powerful impact that Elgar surely intended.  In the Introduction and Allegro, Elgar plays with the contrast between the intimate forces of the string quartet and the larger, richer sounds of the full strings.  Gardner points out the detail in Elgar’s writing, with incisive playing from the Doric String Quartet, and precise ensemble from the full strings, particularly in the Allegro’s angular fugal writing.  This is a taut reading of the work, emphasising detail over emotional impact, perhaps, but highly engaging nonetheless, leaving me wanting more Elgar from Gardner very soon.

Last year I reviewed a couple of discs of Alex McCartney playing lute music.  Now he has released a recording performing on the lute’s very big brother, the wonderful theorbo.  Often used as part of an accompanying ‘basso continuo’ section, it’s great to hear it placed centre-stage as a solo instrument.  Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (c.1580-1651) was a virtuoso lute and theorbo performer, as well as composer, and McCartney has recorded here a selection of pieces from his 3rd and 4th books of works for the latter instrument.  They consist of predominantly Toccatas and Preludes, the former (which translates as ‘Touched’) giving the title to McCartney’s CD.  The Preludes are brief, barely a minute each, and the Toccatas are also slight.  But they nevertheless contain some fascinating and downright quirky harmonies and unexpected clashes.  With the rich, deep tones of the theorbo, and some rippling and cascading runs, deftly articulated here by McCartney, this is a delightful programme.  There are one or two more substantial movements, such as a Gagliarda, with wonderful falling chains of clashing suspensions, and a pleasing Passacaglia, but two of the shorter movements stuck out for me – the bell-like ‘Capona’, and the Spanish inflections of ‘Canarios’, for which McCartney managed a tastefully subtle dying repeat at the end.  Another enjoyable disc – notably recorded and produced by McCartney himself on his on micro record label, Veterum Musica – and a great chance to hear the theorbo up close.

Violinist Tasmin Little and pianist Piers Lane have been performing together for many years, and they follow on from highly successful recordings of Schubert, Strauss and two discs of British violin sonatas with their new disc.  They combine several works by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) with César Franck’s (1822-1890) highly dramatic and romantic Sonata, with Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) Romance thrown in for good measure.  Franck’s Sonata has a deceptively delicate opening, and Lane and Little are particularly sensitive to this intimate start. The turbulent Allegro that comes next is given great passion, followed by the emotionally operatic third movement, with touchingly sweet tones from Little especially.  In the spring-like canon that opens the finale, Little matches Lane’s delicate touch, and they follow this movement’s trajectory into the light, with a bright, summery flourish to finish.  We move into late summer/autumn with Fauré’s nostalgic Romance, which allows Little the freedom to demonstrate her singing tone in its delicate lyricism.  Szymanowski’s Sonata has comparable passion to Franck’s, and it follows a similar cyclical structure.  It is full of youthful exuberance, yet he can do intimate simplicity too, as demonstrated in the gentle, almost prayerful piano opening to the second movement, contrasted with a playful central section with jaunty pizzicato from the violin, and the finale has an infectious driving energy.  Szymanowski’s Romance is also passionate, although the temperature drops for an intimate central section with wandering harmonies, before the passion returns for its conclusion.  The Notturno e Tarantella that ends the disc comes from just 11 years after the Sonata, yet we’re into new territory here, with the mysterious, glassy rumblings and dramatic outbursts of the Notturno followed by a highly virtuosic, wild and swirling Tarantella to finish, with Little adopting a suitably harsher sound to add bite to their expert reading.  Another strong set of performances to add to Little & Lane’s already substantial portfolio of recordings together.

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

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Brighton Festival 2017

Monday, 5 June 2017

Stimulating programming and powerful performances from Lawrence Power, the Philharmonia and Gustavo Gimeno

Gustavo Gimeno (© Marco Borggreve)

Gustavo Gimeno (conductor)
Lawrence Power (viola)

Philharmonia Orchestra

Thursday 1 June 2017

Royal Festival Hall, London

Ligeti: Concerto Românesc

Salonen: Pentatonic Etude for Solo Viola

Bartók: Viola Concerto, Sz 120

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major, 'Titan'

Ligeti: 'Gimeno elicited energy and spark from the Philharmonia players, as well as many commanding solos'.

Salonen: 'Power communicated with great conviction, proving a strong advocate for this striking miniature'.

Bartók: 'Power maintained the level of intensity (...) communicating constantly with Gimeno and the orchestral players'.

Mahler: A 'tightly controlled performance, with moments of great delicacy as well as power'.

Read my full review on Backtrack here.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Three Monteverdi 'Epics' - Les Talens Lyriques come to Brighton Festival

Christophe Rousset (© Eric Larrayadieu)

Christophe Rousset

Singers from Dutch National Opera

Sunday 21 May 2017

Il ballo delle Ingrate
Lamento d'Arianna
Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda

Soprano Ginette Puylaert: 'Puylaert’s style was more suited to Monteverdi’s music, and it allowed her greater flexibility for the complexity of rhythms and text delivery'.

Les Talens Lyriques: 'The strings were particularly energetic and perky in the dance rhythms of Il ballo delle ingrate, and they relished the battle sounds of striking swords and horses’ hooves in Combattimento'.

Christophe Rousset: 'Rousset directed with clarity and precision from the keyboards'.

'A performance with many strengths, not least from Rousset and the players of Les Talens Lyriques, and it is great to see these works performed here in Brighton'.

Read my full review on Backtrack here.

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.

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