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.
Elgar, E. 2017. Symphony No. 1, Introduction and Allegro. Doric String Quartet, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos CHSA 5181.
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.
Various. 2017. Franck, Szymanowski, Fauré: Works for Violin and Piano. Tasmin Little, Piers Lane. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10940.
(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, June 2017)