Thursday, 21 September 2017

CD Reviews - September 2017

In 2015, saxophonist Huw Wiggin’s recital was the highlight of the Brighton Festival’s lunchtime concerts, and the following year he returned with the fellow members of the Ferio Saxophone Quartet to wow audiences once again.  So it’s great to see that they now have a recording contract with Chandos and have launched their debut commercial disc with a wonderful programme of original works for the saxophone quartet.  The centerpiece of the disc is a set of six Cíudades (Cities) by the Dutch saxophonist Willem van Merwijk, under his composing pen name of Guillermo Lago (b.1960).  They performed a selection of these at that Festival gig, and the persistent energy of Tokyo, the mournful, eastern inflections of Sarajevo, as well as the bustling Addis Ababa struck me as highly evocative then.  So it’s great to hear the other movements, such as the rhythmically driven Córdoba with its contrasting slow sections, and the Piazzolla-esque slow tango, Montevideo.  The quartet inhabits each of these cities, and communicates their evocative moods well.  They clearly like Lago’s music, as they have since commissioned another work, ‘The Wordsworth Poems’.  Lago’s writing is very atmospheric here too, and the quartet exploits some very quiet playing in the first movement, ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge’, to great effect.  The disc opens with an altogether more sedate affair, a delightful Grand Quatuor concertant by the Belgian composer Jean-Baptise Singelée (1812-1875), with great melodic invention, allowing each instrument to shine. This is followed by an elegant set of variations on a jaunty little theme, the Introduction et variations sur une ronde populaire by Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937).  This earlier, more Romantic repertoire allows the quartet to demonstrate their ability to create a beautifully unified, warm tone, as well as bring each instrument to the fore when required.  The recording is rounded off with a lively Hoe Down by Will Gregory (b.1959) (of Goldfrapp fame), showcasing the baritone sax amid the dancing rhythms.  Even if you don’t think you like the saxophone (although why wouldn’t you?), this deserves attention for the sheer variety of repertoire and the impressive talent of these four players.  Highly recommended.

Johannes Pramsohler and his Ensemble Diderot bring us more rare Baroque repertoire, this time by another forgotten Dresden composer, Giovanni Alberto Ristori (1692-1753).  They are joined by Argentinian soprano, María Savastano, and Spanish oboist Jon Olaberria.  The bulk of the disc is taken up by three cantatas, with libretti written by Bavarian princess Maria Antonia who joined the Dresden court in 1747 when she married her first cousin, the Crown Prince Friedrich Christian.  Ristori’s settings of these three monologues are lively and full of dramatic interest.  There is the familiar story of Dido, abandoned and in despair, as well as the tale of Lavinia (also from the Aeneid) who is promised in marriage to Aeneis, and so is forced to leave her fiancé Turno (who Aeneis then kills!). The final story is a simpler tale of Nice’s woes over her absent shepherd lover Tirsi – and here we have a happy ending, with Tirsi taking the shape of a solo oboe for a final love duet. Savastano has a powerful, dramatic voice, and she gives full vent to the heroines’ passions.  There are long passages of recitative, yet these are filled with emotional word-setting, underpinned with dramatic instrumental flourishes.  In ‘Didone abbandonata’, Dido is a much angrier, even defiant heroine than Purcell’s rather passive characterisation, and again, Savastano relishes the passion in Ristori’s writing. But the height of dramatic pace has to be Lavinia’s final aria from ‘Lavinia a Turno’, with wildly exciting, racing strings, and a tour de force for the soprano.  Savastano’s virtuosity is very impressive here, yet she also demonstrates a gentler side in the final duet of ‘Nice a Tirsi’.  Olaberria’s sensitive playing also sets us up nicely for the final work on the disc, a delightful Oboe Concerto.  The writing for the oboe is delicate yet intricate, and Olaberria makes this sound deceptively easy.  His graceful touch in the slow movement is also lightly matched by the strings, and the courtly finale rounds things off beautifully.  As ever, Pramsohler and the Ensemble play with precision and great energy, making this yet another successful addition to their growing catalogue celebrating unknown gems of the Baroque repertoire.

Max Reger (1873-1916) has been receiving a bit more attention of late, following the 100th anniversary of his death last year.  Unlike the prevailing direction of early twentieth century Germanic music towards the atonality and serialism of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg et al), Reger admired and very much followed in the footsteps of Brahms, and this is most evident in his three Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano.  In fact, it is said that hearing a private performance of Brahms’ F minor Clarinet Sonata in 1900 led him to state there and then that he would compose two sonatas for the instrument, which he proceeded to do in a matter of months.  He wrote one more Clarinet Sonata in 1908, and all three have been recorded here by clarinetist Michael Collins, with Michael McHale on piano.  They begin with the later work, the Sonata Op. 107, a weighty work at just over half an hour (the earlier Sonatas coming in at about twenty minutes each).  It is full of Reger’s characteristic rich, wandering harmonies, and like late Brahms, he exploits the dark lyricism of the clarinet to great effect.  He ends with a sunnier, playful if slightly rambling finale, although this concludes in a slower, more reflective mood.  The Sonata Op. 49 No. 1 has a turbulent, rather agitated opening movement, and both Collins and McHale give this great passion.  The strange harmonies of the slow movement’s opening bars are followed by some beautiful rhapsodic playing from McHale in particular, with Collins sailing lyrically over the top. Turbulence is never far from the surface, and although Reger never quite finds the moments of sublime beauty that his idol Brahms achieved, this is nevertheless fine chamber music that deserves greater exposure.  The Sonata Op. 49 No. 2 has another extensive first movement, followed by a bright, fleet-footed scherzo, delivered here with dazzling panache, again with McHale having the most virtuosic part to play. Throughout, Collins and McHale bring out the melodic and harmonic interest, never allowing Reger’s slightly rambling style to lose direction. 

Reger, M. 2017. Clarinet Sonatas. Michael Collins, Michael McHale. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10970.

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

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Brighton Early Music Festival 2017 Opera Appeal

BREMF 2017 Opera Appeal
Brighton Early Music Festival 2017 explores the origins of many of our best-loved classical music forms from the sonata to the oratorio.  How did they come into being?  When did they develop? Who were the composers, musicians and entrepreneurs who pioneered them?  And of course, no exploration of classical music and its roots would be complete without the inclusion of arguably the pinnacle of all the classical forms – opera.  They are staging two operas in Brighton this autumn which ‘bookend’ the early period of operatic development: Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) was one of the earliest operas, while Rameau’s opera Pygmalion (1748) stands right at the other end of the baroque era by which time opera had already become a staple. 

Pygmalion is being developed by Ensemble Molière, who will be familiar to BREMF audiences from their performances on their Early Music Live! scheme as well as last year’s Medicine and Mortality concert (you can read a review here).  French baroque music is something of a speciality for this ensemble, and they’ll be combining their sparkling and stylish playing with singers Josh Cooter, Roberta Diamond and Angela Hicks, and dancer Rosalie Wahlfrid who portrays L’Amour.  Emerging director Karolina Sofulak is bringing Pygmalion to the stage, with an animated film by Kate Anderson which provides the scenery and replaces traditional surtitles with simplified texts.  Pygmalion receives three performances at Sallis Benney Theatre, University of Brighton on Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th October. 

Meanwhile Orfeo will be directed by Thomas Guthrie, with a cast of specially auditioned young soloists headed by tenor Rory Carver.  The music will be beautifully played by the team who brought you La liberazione di Ruggiero at BREMF 2015 – the Monteverdi String Band and The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, with musical direction by Deborah Roberts. Orfeo takes place at The Old Market in Hove, with performances on Wednesday 8th, Saturday 11th and Sunday 12th November. 

A video for the project includes music from both operas, and footage from BREMF's 2015 opera La liberazione di Ruggiero:

How can you help?
Because of all the different elements involved, opera is an expensive artform to present.  It’s not just the sets, props and costumes (although they do add to the budget, even if the sets are mainly film-based), but also the fact that with so many different things to bring together, opera rehearsal periods need to be much longer than rehearsals for concert performances.  So for a small organisation such as BREMF, with no regular guaranteed funding, putting on one opera is a stretch, let alone two.  

You can support by donating here.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Audacious and captivating Schubert from Alice Neary & the Elias String Quartet - Proms at Cadogan Hall, PCM 8

Elias String Quartet
© Benjamin Ealovega
BBC Proms at ... Cadogan Hall, PCM8

Alice Neary (cello)
Elias String Quartet
Robin Ireland (viola)

Petroc Trelawny (presenter)

Monday 4 September

Cadogan Hall, London

Schubert: String Quintet in C major, D956

Alice Neary
'An expansive and audacious performance of the quintet, achieving a huge range of expression, from miniscule, fragile pianissimos, right through to full-blooded, even aggressive fortes'.

'Sara Bitlloch’s expressive but delicate first violin line, and Alice Neary’s precise pizzicato placing underneath perfectly sandwiched the slow harmonic tempo of the inner parts, creating that contradiction of movement and stasis at the same time'.

'A captivating and moving performance of a work that should never feel just safely beautiful'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

CD Reviews - August 2017

Early music ensemble Collegium Musicum 90, directed from the violin by Simon Standage present ‘Maestro Corelli’s Violins’, with music by three violinist-composers who worked with Corelli.  So no music by Corelli here in fact, but instead some fabulously vibrant and energetic music from these lesser-known composers following in his footsteps.  Regular readers might recognise Antonio Montanari (1676-1737) from a recording I reviewed of his Concertos performed by Johannes Pramsohler and the Ensemble Diderot (more from them next month). The two recordings share two of the Op. 1 ConcertosNos. 6 and 7, and Collegium Musicum 90 also perform No. 2.  It’s great to hear this wonderful music on disc again so soon, and to have the chance to hear two slightly different takes on some of Montanari’s music.  Standage’s approach is a little more full-blooded, emphasising the energy of these works, perhaps in keeping with the rest of his disc’s programme, whereas Pramsohler brings out more of the subtlety in the solo writing – but both relish the mystery in the striking slow movement of No. 6.  Sadly, little else of Montanari’s music has survived, but it’s great to have two such excellent exponents championing what we do have.  Standage’s disc opens with a fabulously energetic and lively Concerto (Op. 7 No. 11) by Giuseppe Valentini (1681-1753).  Its six movements include a stately Largo, a driven Allegro with typical Corelli-esque rapid violin figuration, and a lively jig to finish.  Standage drives this with great spirit and fun, although the central Grave sections feel a tad aggressive.  The two Concertos by Giovanni Mossi (c.1680-1742), from his Op. 4 set of 12, are real gems, full of inventive use of interplay between the solo instruments – no fewer than four violins and a cello in No. 12, with four further violins and no viola in the accompanying ‘ripieno’, creating an unusual and complex texture.  Here, the bright sound and infectious energy from the Collegium players is a delight.  Overall, this is a joyous disc, giving great insight into music beyond Corelli from 18th century Rome.  Highly recommended.

Another period instrument ensemble, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, has ventured into later territory for their CD, ‘The Romantics’.  For these live recordings they are joined as Guest Director by violinist Shunske Sato, who is also the soloist in Niccolò Paganini’s (1782-1840) Violin Concerto No. 4 which ends the disc.  But they open with a warm and energetic performance of Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907) Holberg Suite – subtitled a ‘Suite in the Olden Style’.  It is suite of dance movements, in the Baroque style, yet Grieg’s Romantic sensibility shines through in the rich writing for strings – Grieg said it the string orchestra for this should ideally be sixty players.  As is often the way when period instrument groups move into later repertoire, they bring a welcome incision and attention to detail.  Sato also introduces more Romantic stylistic approaches into the mix, such as extensive portamento (slides), particularly in the Air, where it is a little overdone.  However, it is full of life, as is the String Symphony No. 3 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) that follows.  Remarkably, Mendelssohn wrote twelve string symphonies between the age of 12 and 14.  Produced when he was having composition lessons from Carl Friedrich Zelter, they nevertheless only precede works of genius such as the String Octet by a couple of years, so Mendelssohn clearly learned fast and honed his skills of melodic invention, harmony and counterpoint in these delightful pieces.  A bit like the Grieg, these look backwards to Baroque style, sounding quite Handelian.  And again, a performance from a period instrument outfit brings out these roots in the music, and the ABO play with great precision and poise.  The finale of their concert is the Paganini Concerto, with the ABO Artistic Director, Paul Dyer now conducting.  Paganini composed six Concertos, which he performed himself, and the scores were not published until after his death.  They are of course showpieces for his phenomenal technique, and the orchestra is there pretty much as backing accompaniment.  Sato is highly impressive here, and seems to breeze through the technical demands that Paganini throws at him, particularly in the crazy Rondo galante that finishes proceedings.  The melodramatic funereal slow movement is wonderfully over the top, and Sato milks the sobbing solo part for all it’s worth.  This is all about the soloist, and Sato certainly does not disappoint.  A fun conclusion to a highly entertaining programme.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is on his sixth volume of Piano Sonatas by Franz Joseph Haydn (1731-1809) – given that he wrote roughly 60, there’s still some way to go! Here we have another five, none of which are particularly well known or regularly performed.  Yet as ever, Bavouzet brings his dedication and insight, making this another enjoyable collection.  Numbering of Haydn’s sonatas is problematic, with two numbering systems and uncertainty about the provenance of a few – I’ll stick with the more recent Landon system.  Bavouzet begins with No. 11, with its bright, crisp opening movement, and touching slow movement.  He combines energy and clarity in the former with delicacy and a beautifully singing tone in the latter.  This sets the pattern for the whole disc, with that combination of crisp clarity and sensitivity shining through.  No. 43 that follows has the same brightness and energy, but with greater virtuosity, which Bavouzet makes sound effortless, particularly the hand-crossing show of the final Presto.  As with other volumes in the series, Bavouzet exploits ornamentation and decoration in the repeats with exquisite taste, managing to add interest without it ever feeling intrusive.  Nos. 34, 35 and 36 make up the rest of this volume – although again, the numbering is deceptive here, as the chronological order is far from clear.  There is even some uncertainty that No. 35 is actually by Haydn, although the argument in his favour is strong.  Regardless of such doubts, it is a joyful and playful sonata, and Bavouzet exploits the humour here to great effect.   No. 34 has a beautiful central slow movement, followed by a clever Minuet with variations, and No. 36 that finishes the disc has a poised Adagio, ending with a lively PrestoBavouzet is a delight throughout, and despite being one volume in an extended project, he raises this way above a catalogue exercise.

Haydn, F. J. 2017. Piano Sonatas, Volume 6. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10942. 

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