Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Superb performances of chamber and vocal works by David Lumsdaine and Nicola LeFanu on a highly recommendable release from Metier

A new release from Metier  brings chamber and vocal works by David Lumsdaine  and Nicola LeFanu all performed by members of the chamber ensemble, Gemini  directed by Ian Mitchell with soprano Sarah Leonard and pianist Aleksander Szram

msv 28565

David Lumsdaine (b. 1931) was born in Australia and studied at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music before moving to England. In London he studied composition with Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy of Music. After taking a position as lecturer at Durham University he went on to become a senior lecturer at King's College London. In 1979 he married the composer Nicola LeFanu. David Lumsdaine’s compositions range across choral, vocal, orchestral, ballet, instrumental and chamber music.  

Nicola LeFanu (b. 1947) was born in England, the daughter of William LeFanu and the composer Elizabeth Maconchy. She studied at Oxford, the Royal College of Music and, as a Harkness Fellow, at Harvard. From 1994 to 2008 she was Professor of Music at the University of York and has taught composition at Kings' College London. She has also directed Morley College Music Theatre. LeFanu has Honorary Doctorates from the Universities of Durham, Aberdeen and Open University and is an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s College Oxford. She is also a Fellow of the Royal College of Music and a Fellow of Trinity College London. In 2015 she was awarded the Elgar bursary, which carries a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society for BBC Symphony Orchestra. Nicola LeFanu’s compositions include operas and music theatre, choral, vocal, orchestral, chamber and instrumental music.

Nicola LeFanu’s Invisible Places in 16 continuous sections, for clarinet and string quartet, is in sixteen small movements that play continuously. The composer tells us that the starting point for this work was Italo Calvino’s (1923-1985) Invisible Cities, offering a model of how to create a continuous narrative through tiny, discontinuous ideas. But it is Calvino’s book, The Great Khan that senses the nightmare of our ‘brave new world.’ Damaris Wollen and the Brindisi String Quartet gave the first performance in 1986.

The clarinet brings a questioning motif, developed by the strings through some lovely ideas and textures, the clarinet adding some fine colours and tones. We are taken through a subtly faster section, an atmospheric movement for clarinet where the soloist achieves some terrific sounds before the strings bring a slow and thoughtful section, interrupted by more abrasive moments.

Pizzicato phrases hurtle by before the clarinet joins. There are hesitant string chords with clarinet phrases bubble forth between gentler, flowing moments. Midway the music finds a spaciousness as the clarinet appears over string chords, swirling and soaring, often becoming shrill. The strings hurtle aggressively forward before finding a gentler nature. There are repeated pizzicato chords out of which a melody arises with the clarinet bringing a high long note out of which develops some bird like phrases as the theme is taken through some brilliantly lithe passages.

Stronger string chords are followed by atmospheric harmonies, the opening idea re-occurs bringing more passion. The clarinet is heard as the strummed string chords are played. There are more passionate pizzicato phrases before a gentler, fast moving idea for strings and clarinet that darts around quickly with outbursts. The clarinet and strings weave some lovely moments before the strings bring strident, pounding chords. The strings dart around, joined by clarinet until slowing into the final section to find a quite beautiful coda.

This is a work that takes the listener on a tremendous journey, packing so much in its sixteen minutes.

David Lumsdaine’s fire in leaf and grass for soprano and clarinet was composed in 1991and takes a text by Denise Levertov. It was written for a Gemini concert, on the occasion of the composer’s 60th birthday, at St. John’s, Smith Square, London, UK. Soprano, Sarah Leonard alone brings the first line, ‘The fire in leaf and grass’ before being joined by the clarinet of Ian Mitchell with a plangent line that soon becomes more animated. Sarah Leonard brings a beautifully shaped, superbly animated performance with the clarinet adding colour and descriptive ideas, bringing a real sense of a snatched moment in time.

Sarah Leonard and Ian Mitchell are joined by cellist, Sophie Harris for Nicola LeFanu’s Trio II: Song for Peter that takes texts by Emily Dickinson, Anton Chekhov, Ted Hughes and Sara Teasdale in order to, in the composer’s words ‘give different perspectives to perennial thoughts about time and mortality.’

Sarah Leonard bursts out with a series of declaimed ‘Ah’s’ showing her great vocal strength and agility in this taxing part. The clarinet slowly and gently joins as the soprano continues with the text with almost sprechgesang delivery. The cello joins as the vocal line becomes more melodic, all three developing some terrific passion. LeFanu uses the clarinet and cello alone to bring moments of intense feeling, a sense of isolation and loss. When the soprano rejoins she adds even more desolate feeling. Both instrumentalists bring a terrific dialogue in their solo passages. There is a particularly intense passage at the words ‘Like rain it sounded…’ with a technical accuracy and mastery from these three performers that is remarkable. The setting moves through more passages of great intensity, passages of deeper richness for the instrumentalists over which the soprano rises bringing more tremendous vocal control. There are some superb instrumental details as we move through moments of gently intense emotion before rising in agitation at the words ‘No more shall white cranes wake and cry’ before the soprano brings the sense of loss to an end.

All three performers are quite superb in this hauntingly intense work.

In 1975, David Lumsdaine composed his solo piano piece, Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’, a meditation on the final chorus from the St. Matthew Passion. He returned to this work in 1978 when Gemini asked him to compose a work for them, extending it into Mandala 3 for piano, flute, clarinet, viola and cello, a work that lasts some forty minutes. The Sanskrit word Mandala is difficult to define but in general refers to a spiritual and ritual symbol. Here pianist, Aleksander Szram is joined by Gemini members, Ileana Ruhemann (flute/alto flute), Catriona Scott (clarinet), Caroline Balding (viola) and Sophie Harris (cello) with conductor Ian Mitchell (Chinese gong).

In three parts I chorale brings a transcription of the original chorus in the style of a classical quintet that flows beautifully, Lumsdaine’s instrumentation adding some lovely lines and textures before suddenly stopping as we go into II sonata where the theme tries to move ahead hesitantly.

A Chinese gong is heard as the music finds a more emotional edge, slowly making its way forward through some quite beautiful yet unusual harmonies and ideas. There are flutter tongue flute phrases and pizzicato cello yet the piano tries to bring Bach’s theme through the texture. The gong is heard again as the instrumentalists weave some wonderful harmonies and sounds before rising through a terrific passage with a loud gong stroke. Lumsdaine creates some remarkable ideas as again the piano brings the Bach theme but is overtaken by the others. The instrumentalists blend in some passionate moments where one can hear a Bachian presence only to find a gentle end with a gong stroke before dissolving into the opening of the piano piece, Ruhe sanfte to bring the final and longest section, III fantasia.

The piano appears with a gong stroke, slowly and gently moving ahead, growing ever quieter before rising again to take the theme forward, developing some very fine sonorities. The strings quietly and slowly enter as the piano takes the theme ahead through a series of variations, a hesitant piano part against pizzicato viola, flowing through richer textures and broadly spaced phrases. There are anguished moments where pianist, Aleksander Szram brings some impressive moments. Often there is an eastern meditative quality yet punctuated by more dynamic and fragmented passages. Later the other instrumentalists are quietly heard around the piano before sudden faster flights of fancy occur. This pianist brings some beautifully fluent touches with the other instrumentalists bringing lovely gentle sonorities and textures around the piano. There are some particularly impressive broad piano phrases and Bach appears momentarily. There are further moments where Gemini add wonderful harmonies and sonorities over fine piano phrases that grow in stature and complexity and, indeed, dynamics. After a peak, Bach’s lovely theme emerges behind disjointed piano lines causing a harmonic clash. The piano grows louder as if to squash the Bach theme, hammering out the notes, but Bach continues regardless, the piano is silenced and the other instruments are left to gently work around the theme. The piano re-joins as all move through strange, gentle harmonies until a hushed end is reached on a final piano chord.

This is a remarkable, tantalising piece full of wonderful ideas.

All of the performances are superb; the recording is excellent as are the notes from the composers that include full English texts within a nicely illustrated booklet all of which makes this new release highly recommendable.

See also:

Sunday, 19 March 2017

With a world premiere of Pierre de Manchicourt’s Missa Reges terrae, the Choir of St. Luke in the Fields captivates the ear at every moment on their new recording for MSR Classics

Pierre de Manchicourt (c.1510-1564) is not a name that is likely to be familiar to those outside of early music circles. A new release that is likely to change this comes from MSR Classics featuring the Choir of St. Luke in the Fields, New York City directed by David Shuler

MS 1632

Manchicourt was a distinctive Franco-Flemish composer born in Béthune, then in the French speaking part of Flanders, now northern France. After serving as a choirboy at Arras Cathedral he went on to become choirmaster at Tours and Tournai cathedrals before, in 1559, becoming master of Philip II’s Flemish chapel in Madrid. He was the composer of many masses, motets and Parisian chansons.

This new recording opens with Manchicourt’s motet, Reges terrae (The kings of the Earth) which moves through the female voices across the choir to form a fine tapestry, maintaining some lovely subtle rubato before coming together beautifully at the end.

Of particular interest here is the world premiere recording of Manchicourt’s Missa Reges terrae considered to have been written during the composer’s employment by Philip II. The Kyrie has a luminous opening from the female voices of Choir of St. Luke in the Fields before all join for a quite wonderful weaving of choral lines. Manchicourt brings some finely conceived layering of vocal textures, captivating the ear at every moment with so many fine harmonies and sonorities. We are taken straight into the Gloria with a fine tenor bringing the opening words Gloria in Excelcis Deo after which so many of the choir’s individual voices can be heard blending and weaving a glorious musical tapestry. They colour and lift the texts beautifully bringing some impressive moments, finding a little surge in tempo at the conclusion.

A tenor opens the Credo before Manchicourt brings some particularly fine luminous textures, so finely revealed by this choir. The ear can follow all the vocal lines such is the clarity of this choir and, indeed, the recording. There is a finely shaped Crucifixus; indeed there are so many finely shaped phrases throughout as well as some lovely textures and sonorities as the Amen is reached. The Sanctus rises beautifully after the Credo, achieving some quite lovely sonorities as this fine section moves mellifluously forward. There is a beautifully woven Benedictus from the female voices with the whole choir rising through the Hosanna. The male voices lead the second Benedictus before rising through a glorious, faster Hosanna. The Agnus Dei brings a wonderful weaving and a fine blend of these very fine voices.

The choir bring a terrific precision as the various voices join in the opening of the motet, Caro mea (My flesh) with fine textures and some particularly rich lower sonorities over which the other voices weave some lovely lines. This choir achieve some lovely subtle rises and falls before beefing up the music with Manchicourt’s distinctive change to triple metre to propel the music to its conclusion.

Ne Reminiscaris (Remember not) is an absolute gem, slowly emerging through some quite lovely passages before expanding through the choir, full of pathos, beautifully paced, with some absolutely exquisite moments, sung to perfection here.

The choir find some especially lovely harmonies in the motet, Vidi Speciosum (I saw the fair one), again with a fine ebb and flow. The layering of vocal lines allows each section of this fine choir to shine through with some beautifully nuanced singing before taking up a triple metre to speed to another fine conclusion.   
The Choir of St. Luke in the Fields concludes their disc with a joyful Regina Caeli (Queen of Heaven) setting a fine pace as the music moves quickly forward with some lovely weaving of vocal lines. 

With a world premiere and the Choir of St. Luke in the Fields providing such fine results, this is a must for all early music buffs and surely everyone who enjoys choral music. The choir receive a top notch recording from the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City and there are excellent notes from John Bradley who also prepared the performing editions used here. There are full Latin and English texts provided. 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Pianist, Irina Chukovskaya provides an impressive recital for Melodiya of works by Shostakovich that are all too rarely heard

A new release from Melodiya features the distinguished pianist, Irina Chukovskaya in works by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).

MEL CD 10 02455

Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan into a family of musicians, Irina Chukovskaya began her studies at the age of six with the legendary piano teacher, Tamara Popovich in Central Music School at Tashkent Conservatory. She went on to study at the Central Music School in Moscow, the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory and at Rutgers University, USA.

Chukovskaya went on to become a prize winner at the International Frederic
Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw before establishing herself as an outstanding performer of modern piano music. The great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich described her playing as ‘remarkable for its virtuosity, sound musicianship, and true artistry.’ She has performed in major venues throughout Russia, Poland, Italy, Israel, South Korea, Greece, Hungary and Taiwan as well as the United States and Canada. In 1989 she moved to the USA where she performed in over half of the fifty states. In 1997 she returned to Russia where she continued her concert activities and embarked upon a teaching career, first at the Moscow Conservatory, then as professor in the piano department of the Gnesins Russian Academy of Music. She has given master-classes in the USA, South Korea, France, Montenegro, Serbia and Greece. In 2010 Ms. Chukovskaya was awarded by the Russian Government with the title ‘Distinguished Service to the Arts of Russia’.

Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B minor, Op. 61 was written in 1943. The first two movements were completed on 18th February in Kuibyshev, where he had been evacuated at the time of the Siege of Leningrad. The third movement was completed whilst at Arkhangelskoye near Moscow on 17th March the same year. Shostakovich himself gave the first performance in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on 6th June 1943.  

Irina Chukovskaya brings a fast, fluent touch to the Allegretto delivering a terrific forward drive, beautifully phrased, rising through some quite wonderful dynamic passages with moments of articulation, finely controlled and shaped.

She shapes the emerging theme of the Largo beautifully, finding her way through the subtly developing passages quite wonderfully. The central slow staccato section is brilliantly realised. Chukovskaya creates a mesmerisingly intense atmosphere, finding darker passages as the movement continues. She paces the music perfectly with some exquisitely limpid, slow moving passages before the central staccato idea is hinted as the coda is reached.

The Moderato opens gently as a theme is introduced and developed, soon gaining more of a flow with constantly shifting harmonies. The music is finely controlled as it very slowly gains in tempo, moving through some very fine harmonies. Soon a broader, more expansive section is reached, beautifully realised by this pianist. She brings a wonderful touch and agility to the fast and intricate passages, developing some moments of intense feeling before slowing and quietening momentarily only to speed through a wonderfully fluent section before finding a settled coda.

This pianist delivers a quite wonderful performance that only goes to reinforce how undervalued this work is.

By the time Shostakovich composed his 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932–1933) he had already written three symphonies, two ballets and two operas. There is a lovely breadth to No. 1 in C major with Chukovskaya finding a lovely rhythmic lift for No. 2 in A minor with great fluency and buoyancy, a lovely touch. No. 3 in G major reveals a directness, a lovely simplicity, beautifully phrased with a fiery interruption before the quiet coda. In No. 4 in E minor this pianist finds all the subtleties of rhythm and phrasing before a sparkling No. 5 in D major that brings terrific dexterity. In No. 6 in B minor she reveals some fine harmonies and dissonances in this lively prelude.

This pianist achieves a lovely poise and restraint in No. 7 in A major before bringing her lovely touch to No. 8 in F-sharp minor, rhythmic and wonderfully free flowing. There is a fast moving, fluent No. 9 in E major to which she brings terrific buoyancy before the gentle flow of No. 10 in C-sharp minor, quite lovely, with subtle little rhythmic interruptions.  No. 11 in B major - No.12 in G-sharp minor is projected as a rather scatty, fast and furious piece to which she brings a terrific fluency and forward drive with such an even touch.

No. 13 in F-sharp major brings lovely dissonant phrases as the rhythmic piece progresses. No. 14 in E-flat minor brings a darker complexion, this pianist finding much depth, atmosphere and, at times, passion. No. 15 in D-flat major is probably one of the better known Op.34 preludes, sparkling and buoyant with a never ending forward movement. No. 16 in B-flat minor brings a rhythmic, spiky march theme, nicely phrased before a gently swaying No. 17 in A-flat major, this pianist finding many lovely nuances.  Chukovskaya brings real life and freshness to No. 18 in F minor.

No. 19 in E-flat major has a lovely rocking flow, this pianist finding a lovely breadth before a forceful, rollicking No. 20 in C minor, full of dynamism and terrific strength. She provides some lovely rhythmic phrasing for No. 21 in B-flat major and teases out much beauty. A thoughtful No. 22 in G minor. No. 23 in F major brings a fine rhythmic flow with bell like right hand phrases over a rolling left hand before No. 24 in D minor brings a robust rhythmic buoyancy, with not a little humour to conclude.

This is a strikingly fine performance.

By the time of his Aphorisms, Op. 13, Ten Pieces for Piano (1927) Shostakovich had written, not only his First Symphony (1924/25), but a number of smaller orchestral works and chamber works and was soon to write his first opera, The Nose (1927/28).

Aphorisms opens with a rather tentative little Recitative played with moments of sparkle and wit as is the Serenade that seamlessly continues out of the opening piece. Nocturne moves around quickly through some spiky and quickly changing ideas, the composer seemingly trying out ideas, hardly a nocturne at all. Elegy brings a darker flow with deeper chords in the left hand underpinning a more flowing theme. Staccato phrases introduce the Marche funebre before left hand phrases create dissonances.

A strident Etude moves quickly forward gaining in strength and dynamics and leading straight into Dance of Death where staccato, dynamic phrases receive some terrific playing from this pianist, dancing forward with tremendous energy. There is a faltering Canon, finely phrased before Legend brings a steady flow with a rising and falling theme out of which Chukovskaya draws some lovely moments, with fine harmonies before it reaches a sombre coda. The concluding Lullaby has a fine sense of freedom, wonderfully phrased as it flows forward, later bringing lovely delicate phrases. 

This is an impressive recital of works by Shostakovich that are all too rarely heard. Irina Chukovskaya receives an excellent recording and there are useful booklet notes in Russian and English.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

A new release from Naxos brings some wonderful chamber works by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies in performances that could not be bettered

Naxos have done much for the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) , not only through their reissue of recordings from the Collins Classics catalogue but with their commissioning of the ten Naxos Quartets premiered and recorded by the Maggini Quartet.

A new release from Naxos continues this work with premiere recordings of chamber works mainly from the composer’s later years, Sonata for Violin Alone, Dances from The Two Fiddlers, Sonata for Violin and Piano and Piano Trio: A Voyage to Fair Isle.


Sonata for Violin Alone (2013) is one of Max’s last works; first performed at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale in Venice by its dedicatee the violinist Duccio Ceccanti who gives here the World Premiere Recording.

In a single movement the sonata opens with intense chords that are woven through some wonderful sonorities, through exquisitely turned phrases from Duccio Ceccanti. There are some quite lovely little high notes that suddenly contrast against more dynamic phrases before the music finds a faster rhythmic section before continuing its more leisurely forward moving development. Ceccanti provides some very fine harmonies, sonorities and timbres in this quite wonderful outpouring of musical invention. After fading to silence midway, the music suddenly picks up in an intense, faster section with this violinist providing the most wonderful playing. Soon a gentler forward flow is found with further fine sonorities still punctuated by intense, dynamic phrases. Eventually there is a faster rhythmic dancing passage with a terrific forward drive. There are more quite lovely gentler phrases before the music achieves a lovely, gentle flow with glorious harmonies to lead to a beautifully spun coda that rises high in the violin’s register before a final chord.

This is a quite wonderful work from this great composer’s final years, brilliantly played by its dedicatee. The recording is clear and vibrant despite being recorded in a large acoustic.

Duccio Ceccanti is joined by pianist Matteo Fossi for Dances from The Two Fiddlers (version for violin and piano) (1978/88) in another World Premiere Recording. The dances are taken from Max’s opera The Two Fiddlers which was first performed at Kirkwall, Orkney in June 1978. This arrangement by the composer for violin and piano was premiered by György Pauk and Peter Frankl in 1988. The violin opens with a tentative idea that very quickly develops into a Scottish style dance to which the piano joins. The music is developed through some terrific variations, finding a slower tempo, with a Scottish snap, through a staccato section, slowly gaining in richer textures. Later there is a faster rhythmic Scottish dance for violin against which the piano brings discordant phrases, creating a great texture. Pizzicato violin phrases lead to a lovely variation of the Scottish theme, with some terrific little details before the piano takes the theme over which the violin adds lovely sonorities before taking quickly off to a vibrant conclusion.

Duccio Ceccanti and pianist Bruno Canino give the World Premiere Recording of the Sonata for Violin and Piano (2008).  Italian architecture loomed large in Max’s musical inspiration and here, in the composer’s words he ‘traces an imaginary traffic free walk across Rome…from Borromini’s Chiesa Nuova… to the Gianicolo, from where one has a breath-taking view over the whole city.’  

The piano opens with a phrase to which the violin joins, a rather melancholy theme that is soon overtaken by more violent discordant piano phrases. The leisurely pace continues for both players with little dissonances appearing for piano, Ceccanti and Canino bringing some finely shaped phrases. Soon a fast and furious section tumbles forward with complex rhythms and harmonies. The violin brings a longer melody against a disruptive piano idea before moving through some exquisite moments set against more aggressive piano phrases. There are some wonderful moments where both soloists bring the most distinctive ideas, harmonies and intervals, drawing some fine, dark colours. Occasionally the music is almost schizophrenic in its wild outbursts. Later there is a brief solo passage for violin of cadenza like virtuosity, soon slowing as piano and violin lead through a melancholy slow section.  A leisurely tune appears for piano with the violin soon joining in this lovely moment. However it is soon broken up as the theme becomes disjointed. It recovers to a slow, sad flow with sudden little dancing phrases appearing. The music moves through a further slow passage with quite lovely harmonies before finding a more dramatic, aggressive stance. The music rushes forward through swirling phrases with a gentle hushed violin chord at the end.

Piano Trio: A Voyage to Fair Isle (2002) received its first performance, with the Grieg Piano Trio, in Kongsberg, Norway in 2003 and is inspired by a trip to Fair Isle for the first ever music festival held there. Again in one movement, it is performed here by pianist Matteo Fossi, violinist Duccio Ceccanti and cellist Vittorio Ceccanti .

The cello brings a long held note around which the violin weaves harmonies as the music slowly moves ahead as though through the mists. A deeper cello is joined by fragmented phrases from the piano, creating a terrific atmosphere. The violin and piano move gently forward, soon joined by the deep tones of the cello, adding a weight and depth. It is wonderful how one can hear the melody subtly appearing through the musical texture. Suddenly the music finds a vibrant, energetic rhythmic propulsion before the violin brings lovely harmonies. The piano alone brings a gentle passage to which the violin joins before a fast and furious section in this ever changing land and seascape. Later a rhythmic dancing theme appears for violin which is developed, before the cello adds a slow melancholy idea. The piano joins through passages of deeply melancholic atmosphere with the violin bringing lovely harmonies. The solo cello takes the sad melody through some fine harmonies before the violin provides harmonies over a pizzicato cello. All three pick up the pace through terrific passages as they head to a frantic dancing rhythm before a hushed coda.

This new release brings some wonderful chamber works in performances that could not be bettered. The last three works receive excellent recordings in warmer acoustics. There are informative booklet notes. 

I do hope that Naxos follow up this terrific release with even more of Maxwell Davies’ music. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

With the finest of soloists and authoritative performances from Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a new Naxos release of Bernstein’s Symphonies Nos. 1 ‘Jeremiah and No.2 ‘The Age of Anxiety’ is highly recommended

Composer, conductor and pianist, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts and studied at Harvard and the Curtis Institute before going on to become a protégé of the conductor Sergei Koussevitzky (1874-1951).

He came to prominence in 1944 after stepping up to conduct when Bruno Walter (1876-1962) fell ill, going on to become Musial Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958. As a composer he wrote for Broadway including the musicals Candide and West Side Story. His classical works included an opera, orchestral and choral works and chamber and instrumental music.

Marin Alsop was a pupil of Leonard Bernstein and, therefore, is uniquely qualified when performing her teacher’s works which she has done to acclaim on a series of recordings for Naxos Following on from her excellent recording of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Kaddish’ she now returns with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for a recording of Symphonies Nos. 1 ‘Jeremiah and No.2 ‘The Age of Anxiety.’


Symphony No. 1, ‘Jeremiah’ (1942) was written for a competition organised by the New England Conservatory. Though Bernstein didn’t win the prize the conductor Fritz Reiner arranged for the composer to conduct his new symphony in Pittsburgh. It went on to win the Music Critic’s Circle Award for 1943-44.

The symphony grew out of a setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. It is in three movements with the first, Prophecy receiving a finely judged opening from Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conjuring a sense of longing. The music rises through some beautifully expansive passages, wonderfully paced, allowing all of Bernstein’s details to emerge in the quieter moments. The music rises again, more intensely, bringing much passion before arriving at a terrific climax and tailing away in the wonderfully hushed coda.

We are taken straight into the jaunty opening of Profanation, Alsop providing some very fine contrasting passages as the rhythmic theme moves ahead, through some brilliantly dynamic passages, shot through with so many fine touches. This conductor draws some really incisive and taut playing from the Baltimore Symphony. The orchestra really let rip in the later thundering passages before some terrific, fast woodwind passages, indeed the whole orchestra show their brilliant panache and virtuosity right up to the decisive coda.

Mezzo-soprano, Jennifer Johnson Cano  joins for Lamentation where the Hebrew text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah bring moments of great melancholy set against sudden dramatic passages, this mezzo and orchestra finding a deep feeling and passion. There are lovely, hushed orchestral moments around which the mezzo winds some exquisite sounds. Later the orchestra rises through a dramatic section before a passage of great beauty from the orchestra. Alsop shapes this music quite wonderfully. The mezzo and orchestra bring greater passion, rising to a dramatic peak before falling to a small string ensemble, Bernstein handling his forces, large or small, quite wonderfully. The music slowly moves forward before finding a degree of serenity in the quite coda.

Marin Alsop, her players and Jennifer Johnson Cano give a performance that really convinces, highlighting a sense of cohesion and organic growth within this very fine symphony.

Bernstein read W. H. Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety in 1947 and commenced writing a symphony, Symphony No. 2, ‘The Age of Anxiety’ (1949, rev. 1965), inspired by this book length psychological poem where four protagonists find some comfort in sharing their distress. It is in two parts, the first with a Prologue and fourteen variations that are divided into The Seven Ages and The Seven Stages. Part Two consists of three sections, The Dirge, The Masque and The Epilogue. It has a prominent part for piano taken here by the distinguished French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet .

The Prologue: Lento moderato of Part I emerges out of silence with a lovely theme for two clarinets that develops through some very finely nuanced passages with the basses slowly adding a sense of caution.

The Seven Ages opens with Variation 1: L'istesso tempo where the piano of Jean-Yves Thibaudet alone enters gently, bringing a sense of melancholy and reflection. A descending harp motif heralds an increase in tempo and dynamics as the piano and orchestra move forward with more animation in through passages of varying emotional content with soloist and orchestra bringing a sense of continuity to all the diverse variations, Alsop pointing up Bernstein’s lovely tapestry of instrumental sonorities. There is a faster, light fleet section with a terrific rapport between soloist and orchestra as well as sudden mood changes before arriving at the final Variation 7: L'istesso tempo, a wonderfully blended slow, sad woodwind passage that is exquisitely done and out of which a limpid, descending piano motif appears, beautifully combining with a rising woodwind idea.
The Seven Stages opens with Variation 8: Molto moderato, ma movendo where the orchestra brings a heavily laden theme which the piano then takes, both bringing fine harmonies before moving through a lively and rhythmic variations with some wonderful playing from Thibaudet. The penultimate L'istesso tempo brings a dramatic passage of terrific impact before scurrying to a terrific conclusion with
Variation 14: L'istesso tempo (poco più vivace).

Thibaudet opens The Dirge: Largo of Part II with a rising motif which woodwind take up. The strings add some lovely sonorities, with terrific instrumental harmonies. Soon the theme is slowly hammered out with great passion and anger. The piano brings some finely shaped passages and it is the piano that brings the slow, quiet coda as we move into The Masque: Extremely fast in which Thibaudet brings some absolutely terrific jazz style passages along with an ensemble of bass, timpani and percussion, the music drawn from material from On the Town, with terrific panache.  There is a terrific outburst as the music goes into The Epilogue: L'istesso tempo where a pianino (small upright piano) is heard to great effect. The strings bring an intensely passionate moment out of which woodwind deliver a plaintive theme. The piano enters, slowly and subtly adding strength with some beautifully controlled playing from Thibaudet. The orchestra rises magnificently before further fine solo piano passages, full of strength and breadth. Eventually the orchestra lead gently and beautifully forward before a powerful climax with a kind of resolution.

Marin Alsop, the BSO and Thibaudet pull this sprawling work together exceptionally well, revealing some quite wonderful moments.

With the finest of soloists and authoritative performances from Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this new release is highly recommended. They receive a vivid, transparent recording from The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland, USA and there are informative booklet notes with full texts for Symphony No.2 in Hebrew and English.

See also: 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Performances to lift the spirits from violist Herbert Kefer and Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg on a new release from Nimbus of works for viola and orchestra by Telemann, Weber, Andreas Baksa and Bruch

Nimbus  have just released a recording by violist, Herbert Kefer with Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg conducted by Martin Kerschbaum of works for viola and orchestra that span the 18th to 21st centuries by Telemann, Weber, Andreas Baksa and Bruch.

NI 5961
Herbert Kefer (b. 1960) was born in Eisenerz, Austria and received his first musical education on the violin. He went on to study with Prof.Karl Frischenschlager in Leoben and with Prof.Karl Stierhof at the University of Music in Vienna.

In 1980, together with 3 colleagues, he founded the Artis-Quartet, spending a year in Cincinnati, Ohio with the LaSalle-Quartet. There followed an international career including concerts at all well-known festivals  such as the Salzburger Festspiele, the Schubertiade Feldkirch, the Wiener Festwochen and the Casals Festival. With the Artis-Quartet he made around 30 CDs some of which received the Grand Prix du Disque or the Diapason d´Or. In 1991 Herbert Kefer was appointed to the Viola class at the University of Music in Graz/Institution Oberschuetzen. He is in demand as a soloist as well as a sought after partner for chamber music performances. From 2005-2010 he was director of the Weinklang-Festival.

Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg bring a nicely laid out opening to the Largo of Georg Philipp Telemann’s (1681-1767) Concerto in G minor for viola and string orchestra with the harpsichord continuo gently sounding through. When he joins, Herbert Kefer brings a quite beautiful tone with the orchestra and soloist dovetailing beautifully in the little rising motif, very finely shaped. They provide a lively, buoyant Allegro with some crisply phrased playing, Kefer handling all the twists and turns wonderfully, retaining a lovely rich tone before a beautifully turned Andante where soloist and orchestra demonstrate a great rapport, the soloist adding subtle expression. In the Presto Kefer brings viola playing of the highest order with both soloist and orchestra providing a terrific rhythmic lift. This fine violist negotiates the fast phrases with a terrific panache and still with that lovely tone.

A performance to lift the spirits.

Kefer’s fine tone is to the fore in the beautifully shaped Andante of Carl Maria von Weber’s (1786-1826) Andante and Rondo Ungarese, Op.35 for viola and orchestra, the soloist adding lovely little rhythmic pointing, weaving some lovely passages with the orchestra. Here the viola really sings. The Rondo Ungarese is rhythmically sprung, full of good humour and Hungarian flavour. The soloist brings a playfulness to so many moments, finding some lovely timbres and maintaining a fine tone across the viola’s range.

Andreas Baksa (1950-2016) was born in Romania and studied with Bartok before later moving to the West. His Viola Pannonica for viola and string orchestra is a late work, commissioned by and premiered at the Weinklang Festival in May 2010.

The Allegro moderato opens earnestly in the orchestra, with a very Hungarian flavour to which the soloist soon adds some particularly fine textures before the music falls back to become quieter and slower. The music leaps up again with Kefer and the orchestra weaving some terrific ideas, string orchestra and soloist blending and weaving the music brilliantly with a lovely forward rhythmic drive. Later a broader, more flowing melody arrives, quite beautiful, to which the viola adds some lovely decorations. There are some wonderfully rich, mahogany phrases from the viola before picking up slowly to find the earlier rhythmic drive.

The music quietens to lead into the Andante where soloist and orchestra bring a quite affecting melody. There are some lovely textures and harmonies between soloist and orchestra and some fine rich timbres from the soloist before a brief solo passage for viola. Soon the viola and orchestra move gently forward, interrupted by occasional orchestral outbursts, with the soloist finding a momentary faster flow. There are moments of increased passion, beautifully done by this soloist before a sudden waltz is announced by the orchestra to which the viola joins, both providing a rhythmically buoyant lift. There is a brief fast and furious section before calm returns with lovely harmonies from the viola over shimmering strings in a particularly lovely moment. The music moves through some gypsy style Hungarian flourishes where Kefer delivers some quite wonderful playing before strange harmonies appear leading to an exquisite coda.

We are taken into a fast moving Allegro vivace, full of tremendous harmonies and textures, darting through a variety of ideas, full of Hungarian rhythms. This soloist often brings terrific, free and spontaneous touches, dancing through some tremendous passages with both soloist and orchestra providing brilliant playing with razor sharp phrasing.  There are moments of gentler repose as well as varying rhythmic ideas before a brief solo passage. The music soon takes off,  quickly heading to a terrific buoyant coda.

This is a sprawling yet highly attractive work. Whilst there are times, especially in the Allegro moderato, where Bartok is an obvious influence, this is a wholly engaging work, full of invention and colour.

Max Bruch’s (1838-1920) Romanze in F major, Op.85 for viola and orchestra makes a lovely conclusion to this disc with both orchestra and soloist bringing much beauty. Kefer provides an exquisite tone that adds so much to this finely paced performance that allow Bruch’s distinctive themes and harmonies to breathe. The music rises through some very fine passages where, as in all the works on this disc, Kefer lifts them and brings them alive. A real joy.

The recording is excellent with a real presence and there are useful booklet notes, mainly concerning Andreas Baksa, from the soloist.

A video of Andreas Baksa’s Viola Pannonica for viola and string orchestra can be seen on Youtube at the following link:

Friday, 17 February 2017

A much welcome release of Daniel Jones’ Symphonies 1 and 10 from Lyrita, first fruit of a new licensing agreement with the BBC which will see Symphonies 2, 3, 5, 11 and 12 appear during 2017/18 all with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson

The Welsh composer, (1912-1993) was born in Pembroke to a father, Jenkyn Jones, who was a composer and a mother who was a singer. Against this background the young Jones developed quickly, writing several piano sonatas by the age of nine.  

Whilst attending Bishop Gore School in Swansea he established a close friendship with the poet Dylan Thomas. He went on to study English literature at Swansea University, leaving in 1935 to study music at the Royal Academy of Music in London where his teachers included Sir Henry Wood and Harry Farjeon. It was his winning the Mendelssohn Scholarship that allowed him to study in Czechoslovakia, France, the Netherlands and Germany. In the period leading up to World War II he composed his first large-scale orchestral works, Symphonic Prologue and Five Pieces for Orchestra.  

During the War he served as a captain in the Intelligence Corps at Bletchley Park using his linguistic abilities as a cryptographer and a decoder of Russian, Romanian and Japanese texts.

After the war Jones wrote his First Symphony (1947). Thereafter most of his compositions were written to commission with requests from the Festival of Britain, the Swansea Festival, the Royal National Eisteddfod, the BBC, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Llandaff Festival. Between 1945 and 1985 he composed his series of twelve symphonies; each centred on one semi-tone of the chromatic scale. In 1992 came his unnumbered Symphony in Memoriam John Fussell (effectively his 13th symphony). Jones’ compositions also include concertos, eight string quartets, four cantatas, an oratorio and two operas.

In the 1030s Jones devised his own compositional system of Complex Metres or alternating metrical patterns, involving irregular time signatures. He gave Purcell as a leading influence, as well as Berlioz, Elgar and Janáček and Haydn.

Daniel Jones was awarded an OBE in 1968. He died in Swansea in 1993.

Whilst Chandos recorded Jones’ Complete String Quartets with the Delme String Quartet in 1996 (CHAN 9535), his symphonies have fared less well. Lyrita released recordings of his Sixth and Ninth Symphonies in 1996 (SRCD326) and the Fourth, Seventh and Eight Symphonies on CD in 2007 (SRCD329). Since then nothing has appeared.

Now the good news is that Lyrita have entered into an agreement with the BBC to issue BBC broadcast recordings of Symphonies Nos 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 11 and 12 with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson for release in 2017/18. The first fruit of this new licensing agreement is the release of Daniel Jones’ Symphonies 1 and 10.

SRCD 358

Daniel Jones began his Symphony No.1 (1947) in 1944, whilst still serving in the army. The complete work was premiered at the 1949 Swansea Festival by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. Scored for large orchestra it is in the usual four movements.

Allegro moderato opens with tentative phrases from the lower orchestra before rising through the orchestra as the theme is developed. There are some lovely, sudden woodwind flourishes with the music growing more dramatic as brass sound out. The music moves through passages of passionate forward flow as it develops subtly. Soon there is a lovely passage for oboe and other woodwind, a reflective moment before whipping up greater passion and drama to a terrific climax. There is a fine working out of the material of the opening motif with some particularly fleet string counterpoint as the development continues before slowly bringing a more gentle and settled statement of the opening motif to close.

Movement II does not have a tempo marking but is effectively the slow movement where deep bass intone as the strings bring a rich slow, passionate theme. Soon the music drops back to ruminate in the basses before heaving itself through passages of desolate beauty, first in the woodwind then for strings, growing in power yet with the brass still bringing a deep gloom. An oboe appears over pulsating strings in a plaintive theme, taken by the orchestra. An insistent rhythmic section appears before a bassoon quietly takes the theme over gently pulsating strings. The music develops through a variety of instrumental combinations, beautifully woven, slowly gaining in strength again as brass join. Later there is a quieter, rather melancholy section that builds in passion but again fades away into a quieter sadness. The music builds again with dominant brass to a peak where the theme is boldly, dramatically and insistently stated before falling to a quiet coda on an unresolved chord.

The Scherzo. Allegro moderato has a rather lighter, buoyant theme that dances ahead with little flute flourishes before slowly becoming more incisive as the rhythmic theme moves forward. The music develops through a variety of ideas, always with a light air with further lovely woodwind moments. There is a central trio section with a more flowing theme for strings, punctuated by brass and woodwind before the opening theme returns to dance to the decisive coda.

The basses open the Finale. Allegro, soon joined by woodwind in a slow, quite lovely theme, that gains more of a forward flow. The strings bring back a slower, more thoughtful section through which individual strings weave before rising on a trumpet call only to return to the slow string theme, albeit with a little more passion. The music suddenly finds a faster, rhythmically bouncing theme to move forward with some terrific orchestral details as woodwind, pizzicato strings and brass have their moment. Later the basses bring a slow section through which woodwind appear, slowly gaining in tempo and dynamics as the music moves through some terrific rapid, razor sharp string phrases. Eventually the music slows again for a passionate string melody, slowly moving forward, beautifully shaped, through shifting harmonies before bouncing ahead again, gaining in energy with brass and woodwind to a sudden declamatory coda.

Whilst not as concise as Jones’ later symphonies this is, nevertheless, a very fine first symphony. Given how welcome this recording is it seems almost churlish to mention that the stereo recording is rather grainy and lacks focus but is perfectly acceptable.

We jump forward nearly 35 years to the Symphony No.10 (1981) commissioned by the Llandaff Festival of Music and premiered by the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Groves that year.

Though much more concise it is, nevertheless, in four movements. A bell chimes before the orchestra and then sounds out dramatically in a series of impassioned outcries to introduce Solenne. The music falls back to a quieter passage yet still with an underlying tension. There is a further bell chime that heralds a passage of shifting, tense development. Here the symphonic argument is much more taut, yet with all of Jones’ distinctive orchestral detail. There are further dramatic outcries as the music sweeps forward. A brief quieter passage precedes a searingly dramatic coda.

A side drum and timpani announce a fast moving, rather syncopated theme in the Minacciando that thrusts ahead full of drama and confidence, building in waves to a forthright end.  

Serioso brings pizzicato basses that are responded to by the other lower strings. Brass join as the music rises with the strings bringing a fine melody that has a melancholy edge. A flute joins and other woodwind, bringing some lovely harmonies and sonorities.  Percussion add brilliance and colour as the music rises further, developing with a great weight through which individual instruments appear. Midway there is a moment of quiet stillness before the music rises again only to fall and rise in a passionate string passage. Pizzicato strings return, with the brass to lead to the coda where the music loses its force to end quietly.

In the concluding Agitato percussion point up the opening as the orchestra surges forward in waves. Pizzicato strings lighten the texture briefly but soon the music again thunders dramatically forward. There are bell chimes before brass and timpani sound out. The woodwind add phrases before a dynamic, resolute coda.

This is a terrific symphony, not a note too long, full of wonderful ideas and orchestration. I am pleased to say that the recording is in every way superior, vivid, detailed and better balanced.

That very fine conductor the late Brydon Thomson really had the measure of these symphonies. There are very useful booklet notes. 

Thank you Lyrita and the BBC – I await the next instalment with anticipation.