Thursday, 28 November 2013

Trio Wanderer give one of the finest performances on disc of Piano Trios by Arensky and Tchaikovsky on a new release from Harmonia Mundi

The Wanderer Trio, whose name represents an inner journey, closely linking them to Schubert and German Romanticism, and a journey of openness and curiosity that explores music ranging from Haydn to contemporary scores, celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2012.

All the members of the Wanderer Trio, Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian (violin), Raphaël Pidoux (cello) and Vincent Coq (piano), graduated from the National Music Conservatory of Paris and have studied with grand masters such as Jean-Claude Pennetier, Jean Hubeau, and Menahem Pressler of the Beaux-Arts Trio and the Amadeus Quartet. They won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich in 1988 and the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition in the USA in 1990. From 1988 to 1990, they took master classes in chamber music at the Festival of La Roque d'Anthéron.

The Trio has performed on the most prestigious music stages including Berlin's Philharmonic, Paris' Théâtre des Champs Elysées, London's Wigmore Hall, Milan's Teatro alla Scala, Barcelona's Palau de la Musica, Washington's Library of Congress, Rio de Janeiro's Teatro Municipal, Tokyo's Kioi Hall, Zürich's Tonhalle and Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. They have also performed at major festivals such as Edinburgh, Montreux, Feldkirch, Schleswig Holstein, Rheingau Musiksommmer, Colmar, La Roque d'Anthéron, the Folles Journées de Nantes, Granada, Stresa, Osaka and three times at Salzburg festival.

Harmonia Mundi  have released nine previous recordings by the Wanderer Trio covering such composers as Chausson, Ravel, Haydn, Shostakovich, Copland, Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn, Smetana, Schubert, Brahms, Hummel, Beethoven, Liszt and Messiaen.

Their recordings have been awarded several prizes including Choc du Monde de la Musique, Fanfare's Want List, Critic's Choice of Gramophone, CD of the Month by the BBC Music Magazine, Empfehlung, CDs des Monat Fono Forum, Diapason d'Or of the Year, Midem International Classical Music Award. 

The Trio Wanderer's 2013-2014 engagements include performances at Paris' Théâtre des Champs Elysées (Beethoven Triple concerto) and Paris' Opéra Comique (Beethoven complete Piano Trios), London's Wigmore Hall, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, la Roque d'Anthéron Festival, Bath Festival, as well as concerts in Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Japan, Brazil, Canada and USA.

It was, therefore with great expectation that I approached their new release from Harmonia Mundi that features the piano trios of Arensky and Tchaikovsky.

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Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906) Piano Trio No.1 in D minor, Op.32 was written in memory of the cellist, composer and teacher, Karl Yulyevich Davydov (1838–1889), and published in 1894. Though his compositions include two symphonies, concertos for both piano and violin, and two string quartets as well as operas, choral works and piano works, it is his first piano trio that seems to receive the most attention.

The opening Allegro moderato has some lovely broad lines as it unfolds with some passionate string playing from the Wanderer Trio. Arensky’s main melody is a wonderful theme with especially fine, fluent piano playing. The Trio Wanderer make it obvious why this is the most performed of all Arensky’s works, the way they find so much drama and passion in the music. Their playing is so crisp with terrific ensemble yet each player retaining so much individual character.

There is pinpoint precision in the opening of the Scherzo. Allegro molto and a beautiful trio section, showing just how well these players blend. A lovely cello theme opens the Elegia. Adagio before the other players join with more first rate playing. In the rising melody over a rippling piano accompaniment the Trio are exquisite with lovely sonorities as the movement progresses.

The Finale. Allegro non troppo brings tremendous string playing over a wonderful piano part with such drama, passion and drive. The gentle trio section is full of introspective beauty before a terrific coda.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) also wrote his Piano Trio in A minor, Op.50 following the death of a colleague, in this case his friend, the pianist, conductor and composer, Nikolay Grigoryevich Rubinstein (1835-1881). It was premiered at the Moscow Conservatory in 1882.

What a glorious opening the Pezzo elegiac. Moderato assai has, so rich and flowing in this Trio’s hands, one of Tchaikovsky’s most inspired themes. There is a lovely tenderness in the central section and some exquisite hushed beauty. This Trio bring a sense of authority and command as well as some tremendously dynamic playing.

In the Tema con Variationi. Andante con moto Tchaikovsky presents his theme simply on the piano before all the players subject it to eleven variations. There are many fine moments in this performance such as Variation II where there is some lovely string playing, full of panache, Variation IV with its lovely broad melody for strings, so richly played and the tiny Variation V that receives some especially fine playing from the Trio’s pianist.

There is a lovely finesse shown in the valse Variation No.VI, more terrific playing from the Wanderers pianist in Variation VII, Variation VIII that starts with a fugue for piano before strings enter building up a fine momentum and Variation IX where there is an exquisitely played violin melody over a rippling piano accompaniment before the cello takes up the violin theme.

The Variazione Finale e Coda. Allegro risoluto e con fuoco – Andante con moto leads off with great panache and continues to build to a tremendously passionate climax as the opening theme returns to give such a feeling of completion and overall form before the grief laden coda.

Trio Wanderer really throw themselves into this great trio in what is surely one of the finest performances on disc.

They receive an excellent recording and there are informative booklet notes.



Monday, 25 November 2013

Daniel Harding and the London Symphony Orchestra give a sensitive performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s immensely impressive new orchestral work, Speranza, on a new release from LSO Live

Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960) was born in Britain and studied with Oliver Knussen,  John Lambert and Gunther Schuller. With the encouragement of Hans Werner Henze, he wrote his first opera for the Munich Biennale festival, Greek, which received a triumphant premiere in 1988. The many ensuing productions worldwide established Turnage's international reputation. The important works that followed, Three Screaming Popes, Kai, Momentum and Drowned Out, came from a four-year period as Composer in Association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle, from 1989 to 1993.

Since then Turnage has been Composer in Association at English National Opera and the first Associate Composer for the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Turnage’s music, which is often forthright and confrontational, has absorbed jazz elements into a contemporary classical style, a style which, nevertheless, is capable of expressing deep tenderness, especially emotions associated with loss.

In 2002, Sir Simon Rattle conducted Blood on the Floor at one of his first concerts as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, his trumpet concerto From the Wreckage was written for soloist Hakan Hardenberger, who brought it to the 2005 Proms after its Helsinki premiere and his first violin concerto, Mambo, Blues and Tarantella written for Christian Teztlaff and the LPO with Vladimir Jurowski and premiered at the South Bank Centre in September 2008, with subsequent performances in Stockholm and Toronto from the co-commissioning partners, while his viola concerto, On Opened Ground was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra for Yuri Bashmet.

Turnage was also appointed Mead Composer in Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2006 until 2010 for whom he wrote two new works, From All Sides and Chicago Remains.

A new cello concerto for Paul Watkins received its premiere in 2012 while, in spring 2013, Turnage was featured composer with the London Symphony Orchestra, for whom he wrote a new work Speranza.

It is the substantial orchestral work, Speranza, that is featured on a new SACD release from LSO Live coupled with From the Wreckage and performed by Daniel Harding and the London Symphony Orchestra with trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger

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From the Wreckage (2005) was written for Håkan Hardenberger and is in a single movement that reveals a journey, through inner struggle, from a state of darkness into one of light. It is percussion that opens the piece before a trumpet enters in a motif that moves around rapidly.  Soon the full orchestra joins in a sonorous theme that has a weight in the lower sounds of the orchestra, underpinned by the lower strings and timpani. When the solo trumpet re-joins, it takes up the melody before leading to a passage with hovering  strings and trumpet playing a freely moving theme. The percussion again appear, adding a slow rhythmic momentum –with woodwind adding to the texture. As the music develops and becomes more animated, the trumpet attains an even more jazz like fee,l such that it often sounds improvised.

Eventually a violent peak arrives with percussion and a frantic motif for the solo trumpet. The music eventually falls back as the trumpet continues its way, weaving around, until another peak arrives where the soloist is merged with other brass and woodwind, until the music truly quietens and broadens out. The trumpet retains an anguished feel as it moves to a section for trumpet over the quiet hum of the orchestra. Delicate percussion harmonies underlie the soloist before a last burst of drums and the music fades.

The performance is superb with Håkan Hardenberger showing such freedom, virtuosity and sheer musicality.

This new disc features a live recording of the World Premiere of Speranza (2012) made at the Barbican, London on 7th February 2013. Commissioned by the LSO, it explores the concept of hope with each of the four movements given the name of ‘Hope’ in a different language.

In Amal, the Arabic word for hope, the orchestra opens with a five note motif that seems to act as a call to attention before the music proceeds, full of drama, before falling to a woodwind passage with a gently plucked harp. Other woodwind enter to take up the theme and occasionally a drum stroke points up the drama. Turnage weaves a wonderful tapestry of orchestral sounds that renew the drama as the theme is moved along. Crying strings call out as though gently pleading, before brass join the woodwind in a more passionate cry as the five note motif is heard. Eventually the orchestra is led by insistent drumming as if to push it forward. It reaches a final climax before reducing to a hushed passage for woodwind and harp. The music doesn’t seem to arrive at a conclusion – more a resigned gentle hope.

Dramatic drum bursts point up the orchestra as Hoffen, the German word for hope,  opens. The plaintive sound of the duduk (a traditional Armenian double reeded woodwind instrument) enters before drum rolls intervene again but the duduk re-enters with its plaintive melody. The orchestra then steps slowly forward as the music tries to tentatively grow. Brass and woodwind, in a gloriously written harmony, plead and drum strokes sound as the music hovers for a moment. There is a gentle, soothing orchestral melody that follows with lovely little woodwind sounds.  Turnage’s writing for wind is superb. The music reaches a small climax before trumpets intone a theme and the orchestra continues its way with a somewhat laden, melancholy air. Occasionally there are menacing drum strokes before, as the coda is reached, the plaintive duduk returns.

Dóchas, Gaelic for hope, opens with the sound of expectant brass before the lower orchestra, complete with piano, join in a fast moving syncopated rhythm. The way Turnage uses clarinets to add to the texture is lovely. The music continues in this intense, confident manner before drums and brass increase the drama. The music eventually quietens to a more ruminative section before taking off again with wild drums, raucous brass and woodwind. As the music drops to a quiet brass passage, still with the syncopated rhythm, it is taken over by woodwind. As it starts building to a fast dancing motif, as though leading to a whirlwind of a dance, the music suddenly ends.

The final message of hope is in Hebrew, Tikvah and opens quietly with percussion and a little string ensemble in this still passage. A soprano saxophone then plays a lovely theme, surely echoing the sadness and hope of centuries. The opening theme returns before the woodwind take up the plaintive melody. The orchestra weaves a beautiful tapestry of individual instrumental sounds as this wonderful melody moves forward, often with a slightly eastern inflection. Eventually the cimbalon joins the texture in a slightly more pleading moment. These little outbursts re-occur throughout the gentle melody and are very moving. A swirling orchestra leads to a climax with a heavily laden orchestra giving a powerful lament or cry before dropping to the little string ensemble, before the music gently continues its way to the hushed coda.

This is an immensely impressive work that I would not like to be without.  Guy Dammann, in his excellent booklet note, refers to Speranza being Turnage’s most ambitious and symphonic composition for orchestra to date. I believe it to be one of his finest.

Daniel Harding and the marvellous London Symphony Orchestra give an impressively sensitive performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s fine orchestral work

The recording is first rate.




Saturday, 23 November 2013

Four American works for string quartet receive extremely fine playing from the Cypress String Quartet on a new release from Avie Records

The San Francisco based Cypress String Quartet has been praised by Gramophone for its ‘artistry of uncommon insight and cohesion.’  Formed in 1996 its members are Cecily Ward and Tom Stone (violins), Ethan Filner (viola) and Jennifer Kloetzel (cello).

During the last two years, the Cypress String Quartet has added three new recordings to its ten-album discography, the complete three-CD set of Beethoven’s Late Quartets, which was named Best Classical CD of 2012 by the Dallas Morning News, an all-Dvořák disc from Avie Records featuring Cypresses, (the work from which the ensemble draws its name) and the String Quartet in G, Op. 106.

Most recently a new disc issued by Avie Records entitled The American Album features works for string quartet by Dvořák, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Kevin Puts and Samuel Barber.

The Quartet created a signature sound built up from the bottom register of the quartet and layered like a pyramid, with a resulting sound that is clear and transparent, allowing the texture of the music to be heard immediately. The Cypress String Quartet’s instruments include violins by Antonio Stradivari (1681) and Carlos Bergonzi (1733), a viola by Vittorio Bellarosa (1947), and a cello by Hieronymus Amati II (1701).

Antonin Dvořák’s (1841-1904) String Quartet No.12 in F, Op.96 ‘American’ was written during the composer’s stay in America, when in 1893, he joined the large Czech community living in Spillville, Iowa. Whilst staying there he was able to experience Native American music when a party of Native American Indians came to the town. There has been endless debate as to whether or not such native themes were incorporated into Dvořák’s music. What is certain is that he was influenced by his surroundings and noted down the song of a bird that he heard, a scarlet tanager, which he introduced into his F major quartet.

In this recording there is a lovely, bright opening to the Allegro man non troppo, with taut playing, following every nuance of the music. This Quartet has transparent and brilliant timbre that brings out an earthiness to the music, full of folksy charm in the quieter theme that alternates. Their ensemble is spot on. The Lento brings a fine rhythmic momentum with this quartet providing a lovely ebb and flow. This same strong rhythmic quality applies to this their playing of the Molto vivace where they bring out the changing dynamics to great effect, as well as some lovely quiet harmonies. There is a joyful Vivace ma no troppo finale with a lovely second subject, played with real feeling and emotional intensity before the music fairly gallops to its end.

This is a fine performance of this much recorded quartet, one that reveals so many facets of the music.

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) is best known for works such as The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan, written in 1917. Such was his reputation then that it was Pierre Monteux and the Boston Symphony Orchestra that first performed that work. Perhaps his long term reputation may have been enhanced had he not died at the early age of 35 years. The Lento e mesto of Griffes’ Two Sketches based on Indian Themes opens on a pizzicato note that leads to the melancholy melody, apparently of native American origin. The Cypress String Quartet slowly builds the music as it shifts amongst the instruments. There is some extremely fine playing from the quartet, which brings out all the pathos of this Farewell Song of Chippewa Indians. There is some beautifully sensitive playing here and, as the music develops, it shifts some distance from the simplicity of the opening theme but is, nevertheless, a beautifully realised piece.

The second of these sketches, Allegro giocoso, opens with the chant like repetition of a dance motif. Oddly, part way through, the music becomes reminiscent of Dvorak’s great quartet, whether a coincidence, a similar native influence or a direct Dvořákian influence is impossible to tell. There is more fine playing from this quartet as the music works its way to its furious coda.

Pulitzer Prize winning composer, Kevin Puts (b.1972) has an impressive list of compositions including many orchestral works, compositions for wind ensemble, numerous chamber works and solo instrumental pieces. (See also:

Puts’ Lento Assai was commissioned for the Cypress String Quartet and first performed by them at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C. in 2009. The composer was asked to respond to Mendelssohn’s A minor quartet, Op.13 and Beethoven’s quartet in F major, Op, 135. This fine work, lasting just under 13 minutes has a quiet, gentle opening across the strings with gently shifting harmonies beautifully realised by the Cypress Quartet. Soon one recognises a familiar tune, that of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Op.135 quartet. The material is developed, growing slowly more animated and passionate, before eventually falling back to reveal the Op.135 theme in a gloriously rich version of it. The Cypress String Quartet provides some inspired playing. The work eventually descends into the tranquillity of the opening. This is an especially beautiful work, exquisitely played by this quartet.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) had early success with such works as Dover Beach for voice and string quartet, Op. 3 (1931), The School for Scandal Overture, Op. 5 (1931) and his First Symphony in One Movement, Op. 9 (1936), but it is the slow movement of his String Quartet in B minor, Op.11 that he is most remembered by.

There is a lively, crisp opening to the first movement, Molto allegro e appassionato, with the Cypress String Quartet providing some terrific ensemble and some full and rich playing in the second subject melody, a melody that links surprisingly well with the other works on this disc. With the Molto adagio Barber’s famous theme is revealed, one that has been subjected to a number of versions by the composer and which has become something of an anthem for solemn American occasions. Played with an agreeable directness, this Quartet allows the music to speak for itself with no hyping up of emotion, just an eloquent outpouring of melodic invention. Barber’s original string quartet textures also bring a clarity to the harmonies that is very appealing. The Cypress String Quartet reveals many little subtle details in this finely recorded performance. The Molto allegro (come prima) – Presto gives full reign to this Cypress Quartet’s fine ensemble and crisp delivery. The glorious little central section is richly played before they arrive at a decisive coda.

These four pieces sit especially well together and represent at least one way the line of development the ‘American’ quartet has taken.

The recording is excellent, revealing every detail and there are informative booklet notes.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Ivana Gavrić is a fine advocate for the piano works of Grieg on a recent release from Champs Hill Records

Ivana Gavrić's debut disc for Champs Hill Records  In the mists won her BBC Music Magazine’s Newcomer of the Year 2011 for ‘playing of an altogether extraordinary calibre’. Her second disc, From the street, received enthusiastic reviews with BBC Music Magazine who wrote of her ‘hypnotically compelling’ playing.

Ivana Gavrić, named Gramophone’s One to Watch and BBC Music Magazine’s Rising Star, has performed on the major concert platforms in the UK including The Wigmore Hall, Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall, as well as across Europe, in Canada, Japan and Russia.

As a chamber musician, she has performed with violinist Maxim Vengerov in 2007 as part of Live Music Now, the outreach scheme established by the late Lord Menuhin. She has partnered colleagues on the concert platform in festivals in the UK and Europe, taken part in the IMS Prussia Cove Open Chamber Music Sessions and is an alumna of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. Outside the concert hall she is featured playing Chopin and Beethoven in BBC2’s adaptation of The Line of Beauty, and Bach in Anthony Minghella’s film Breaking and Entering.

Born into a musical family in Sarajevo, Ivana was initially taught by her mother. On moving to the UK, she studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Junior Department; University of Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. Her teachers have included Niel Immelman, Peter Bithell and James Gibb, as well as further study with musicians such as Menahem Pressler, Ferenc Rados, Dmitry Bashkirov, Boris Berman, Stephen Kovacevich and Leif Ove Andsnes.

Champs Hill Records have recently released Ivana Gavrić's third disc featuring Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907)  Ballade in G minor, a selection of Lyric Pieces and Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances) and his Piano Sonata in E minor.


Grieg wrote his Ballade in G minor, Op.24 during the winter of 1875-76, around the time he was also completing his incidental music for Peer Gynt. The opening, descending theme receives just the right amount of firmness to lift the music from being too gentle, too introverted. Elsewhere Ivana Gavrić provides a lovely ebb and flow to the music and some extremely fine playing in the more dynamic passages. She has a lovely fluency and purity of tone that is quite beguiling and which reveals all the different moods of this attractive piece.

Ivana Gavrić gives us a selection of six of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces from his Op.38, Op.43, Op.54 and Op.65 collections. Butterfly, Op.43 No.1 is played with a lovely lightness of touch and a gentle, subtle rubato. With Waltz, Op.38 No.7 Gavrić extracts so much feeling from this simple waltz and Little Bird, Op.43 No.4 reveals this pianist’s exquisite touch, beautifully done. Gavrić plays with such restraint in Notturno, Op.54 No.4 that it is elevated to a minor gem whilst her directness of approach in Peasant’s Song, Op.65 No.2 brings so much to the folksy little tune. Finally we have perhaps the best known of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, the Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, Op.65 No.6 played with such a delightfully buoyant touch that this is a performance to treasure. This has much of the feel of a live performance.

Grieg’s Slåtter, Op.72 (Norwegian Peasant Dances) date from 1902, Slåtter being Norwegian for Tunes. Here we have four drawn from that collection, opening with No.14, Tussebrurefœra på Vossevangen (The Goblin’s Bridal Procession), where this pianist gives us some lovely, pure sprung rhythms; again revealing her fine touch – so beautifully controlled and nuanced providing delicacy with power. No.4, Haugelåt halling (Halling from the Hills) follows where Gavrić again shows her affinity with this composer with playing that reveals such character. In the odd little No.17, Kivlemöyerne Gangar (The Girls of Kivledal Folk Dance), Gavrić’s clarity and fine touch reveals all the little twists and turns of this piece and No.2, John Vaestafae’s Springdans (John Vaestafae’s Dance), shows how wonderfully this pianist handles all the little rhythmic variations.

The Piano Sonata in E minor, Op.7, from 1865, has a lovely flowing, rippling opening to the Allegro moderato. As the bolder phrases arrive, Gavrić displays such fluency and power in her playing. She brings a sense of nostalgia to Grieg’s lovely Andante molto before broadening out, beautifully, in the middle.

A richness, with clarity fills the Alla Menuetto, ma poco più lento, with lovely delicate playing in the central, so finely paced. Whilst this movement never seems to sit well in this work, this performance ties it in far better than one could ever expect. The Finale:  Molto allegro is full of tremendous playing, such fine dynamics, again clarity and great panache.

How apt is was to conclude this fine disc with Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s – Lyric Piece Contemplation (Lyric Piece in Homage to Grieg) written on four bars taken from the slow movement of Grieg’s Sonata and given a wonderfully free treatment that nevertheless retains the essence of Grieg in this sensitive performance.

Ivana Gavrić is a fine advocate for the works of Grieg and this new release will bring much pleasure to listeners.

The nicely produced CD booklet, with notes by Daniel Jaffa and a forward from the pianist herself, tells us that she visited Grieg’s composing hut at his home in Troldhaugen outside Bergen. There are interesting booklet photographs taken near Grieg’s home as well as interesting photographs of a Hardanger fiddle, an interesting Norwegian folk instrument, on which the Slåtter would originally have been performed and for which Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981) wrote two concertos which have been recorded by BIS Records

Ivana Gavrić has a number of UK engagements coming up including Wigmore Hall, London at 1pm on 28th November 2013. For further details please see her website

Monday, 18 November 2013

Naxos gathers together Hindemith’s ‘Piano Concertos’ in fine performances from Idil Biret and the Yale Symphony Orchestra conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada

The 50th anniversary of the death of Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) is bringing a number of new releases. Back in August (2013), I reviewed a very fine new release of works for violin from BIS.

Now from Naxos a new two CD release, entitled The Complete Piano Concertos, gathers together all Hindemith’s concerted works for piano and various instrumental combinations. Included are his Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps, Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments) for Piano and Strings, Piano Music with Orchestra (Piano Left Hand), Chamber Music for Piano, Quartet and Brass and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

This new set features that fine pianist, Idil Biret, with the Yale Symphony Orchestra conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada Born in Ankara, Idil Biret started to play the piano at the age of three and later studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Nadia Boulanger. She was a pupil of Alfred Cortot and a lifelong disciple of Wilhelm Kempff. She embarked on her career as a soloist at the age of sixteen appearing with major orchestras in the principal music centres of the world like Boston Symphony, Leningrad Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus, London Symphony, Warsaw Philharmonic in collaboration with conductors of greatest distinction such as Erich Leinsdorf, Pierre Monteux, Hermann Scherchen, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Kazimierz Kord, Antoni Wit.

Idil Biret has received the Lili Boulanger memorial Award in Boston, the Harriet Cohen / Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal in London, the Polish Cavalry Cross, the Adelaide Ristori Prize in Italy, the French Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite and the State Artist distinction in Turkey. Her Boulez recording received the Golden Diapason of the year award in France in 1995 and the complete Chopin recordings have received a Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin award in Poland the same year. In 2007 the President Lech Kaczsnky decorated Biret with the highest order of Poland, Cross of the Order of Merit (Krzyzem Kawalerskim Ordera Zaslugi) for her contribution to Polish culture through her recordings and performances of Chopin’s music.

Hindemith’s Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Two Harps, Op.49 (1930) was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and premiered by Emma Lubbecke-Job with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in October 1930. In four movements, the first, Ruhig gehende Viertel, opens on the low brass in a melancholy melody before the piano enters in a somewhat dissonant theme. Soon the piano dominates, with occasional solo passages as it picks its way forward, as though merely playing a counterpoint to the main melody that always returns in the brass. The piano’s theme occasionally becomes quite dissonantly insistent. Lebhaft opens with the piano in a lively fugal theme, rising in rhythmic intensity to a toccata like passage before the brass enter in playful dialogue with the piano. Idil Biret and the brass of the Yale Symphony Orchestra are terrific in this intricate music. When a brass fanfare arrives it leads to the coda.

The piano opens the Sehr ruhig: Variationen in a limpid melody with harp accompaniment making an unusual combination. The harps play a little phrase responded to by the piano as the dialogue between the two continues. The movement continues in this oddly atmospheric manner with Olivia Coates, Chelsea Lane and Idil Biret providing some really sensitive playing, the piano blending its brittle, tinkling notes beautifully with the harps. The finale Mäßig schnell, kraftvoll has the brass open with an optimistic theme before the piano enters to take up a variation of the theme. A great forward momentum is provided by the piano before the harps join to add to the texture. As the music builds it becomes increasingly contrapuntal until quietening with a languid feel as the piano and brass slowly move forward. The harps return to accompany the piano to lead to a quiet coda with a chordal brass conclusion.

Predominantly a twelve tone composition, I found this a remarkably enjoyable work.

Better known is Hindemith’s Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments) for Piano and Strings (1940), a work that takes as its basis the early medical theory of the four humours. In five sections, the theme and four variations, the orchestra opens Thema: Moderato – Allegro assai – Moderato by presenting the theme, a swaying melody, before the piano enters in the Allegro assai, a rather spiky rhythmic version of the theme, reminiscent of Bartok, very percussive. A solo violin signals the arrival of the Moderato third section, a Siciliano. Soon the piano enters, again playing a brittle, rhythmic motif. Eventually the orchestra takes over in a flowing melody with an underlying rhythmic pulse.

The piano tentatively opens Variation I: Melancholisch: Langsam – Presto – Langsamer Marsch., before a muted violin joins slowly and agonisingly pulling the music forward in this the Melancholic variation, so chamber like. Muted strings arrive to press the music forward in the Presto section that, when the piano re-joins, becomes an oddly flowing march – perhaps a funeral march. Variation II: Sanguinisch: Walzer opens with the piano and orchestra playing a lilting, rhythmic waltz tempo, the Sanguine variation that varies in tempo and rhythm with a faster central section. At times the piano adds a playful touch against the flowing orchestral part before speeding to an end.

The strings open Variation III: Phlegmatisch: Moderato – Allegretto – Allegretto scherzando, the Phlegmatic variation, before the piano enters in a rather rhythmically plodding motif which tries to open out though the strings seem to hold it back. Halfway through a jogging pace arrives gently moving along before the quietly end. Variation IV: Cholerisch: Vivace – Appassionato – Maestoso opens with rapid strings and a virtuosic piano motif in this, the Choleric variation. The music quietens to a gentler piano motif before rising again, a passage for pizzicato strings leading to a sudden pause. A broader orchestral passage opens, soon joined by the piano, with Biret playing massive chords and scales that leads to a passage where both piano and orchestra move inexorably forward to the end.

There is some simply stunning playing here from Idil Biret, a pianist that never fails to impress.

The second disc in this set opens with the Piano Music with Orchestra (for Piano Left Hand), Op.29 (1923) another of the works that many composers wrote for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during the First World War. It was also another work that the pianist didn’t like and was never performed by him. It seems that the work languished until after his death, when found amongst his papers by his wife.

In four movements, played without a break, piano and orchestra open the Einleitung: Maßige schnelle Halbe with a lively and rather riotously dissonant theme, particularly when the brass joins. The piano part again has much of Bartok’s percussiveness. One can understand Hindemith’s title given that the piano part, though with a certain dominance, is very much combined within the structure of the overall writing. Plodding pizzicato basses open Sehr lebhafte Halbe with an oboe melody, before the piano enters working around the theme in this rather melancholy music.

In the third movement, Trio: Basso ostinato: Langsam(e) Vierte, as the music develops it becomes a little more anxious and complex. A flute joins later to lead the music into a slower plodding section with the pizzicato basses returning. Percussion and bold orchestral sounds open the Finale: Bewegte Halbe before the piano joins in this fast flowing music with quite an intricate piano part so well played by Idil Biret. Percussion then flute join in the merriment as the pace of the music increases with Shostakovichian woodwind sounds. There is a wild contribution from the solo violin playing a rising and falling motif as the music becomes percussive and dramatic, leading up to the coda with bold piano chords before a sudden end.

What Idil Biret does so well is to hold the overall musical form together regardless of its often fragmented nature. There is some terrific playing from Biret in the taxing left hand writing and some very fine playing from the Yale Symphony Orchestra.

Chamber Music No.2 for Piano, Quartet and Brass, Op.36, No.1 (1924) was written for the conductor, Hermann Scherchen but first performed by the Frankfurter Museumsgesellschaft under Clemens Krauss in October 1924. In four movements, a fast piano theme opens Sehr lebhafte Achtel , over a held string note before all the instruments join.  There is more terrific playing from Idil Biret, capturing, again, Hindemith’s percussive piano writing in the wonderfully forward moving piano part.

The second movement, Sehr langsame Achtel, brings a quieter, more melodic instrumental opening, full of tragic feeling. When the piano enters it is in a motif that acts as a kind of counterpoint to the broader, flowing instrumental flow, so effective, particularly as played by Idil Biret who manages to bring so much drama and passion to this endlessly flowing and subtly developing movement often pared down to chamber proportions. A sudden instrumental outburst leads to a more vigorous section and a passage for solo piano before the instruments return for the coda.

The brief, lighthearted, sometimes raucous Kleines Potpourri has some of the feel of Stravinsky and the lively but brief Finale has a terrific rhythmic bounce and some first rate playing from Biret who has such a fine touch, sense of overall form and dynamics. The brass become dominant as the music progresses and rises, with the piano part seemingly unstoppable, so full of momentum as Idil Biret pushes the music forward intoxicatingly before a brisk instrumental coda.

The first concerto proper arrives in the form of the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1945) written towards the end of the Second World War for the Puerto Rican pianist, Jesús Maria Sanromá who premiered the work with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell.

The first movement, Maßig schnell, has an orchestral opening with a lovely woodwind contribution in a typically free flowing Hindemithian melody. The piano enters with the woodwind still prominent in this ever developing movement. Textural interest is added by the brass phrases that appear. The music rises to a climax with brass and woodwind and timpani before the cadenza. Biret really has the measure of Hindemith’s sound world, handling all of the often fragmented sounding phrases so naturally.  The extraordinarily virtuoso passages are easily accomplished. A lovely light dancing section for flute, piano and orchestra appears as Hindemith weaves a lovely tapestry of instrumental sounds through his score.

Hovering strings and quiet percussion sounds and woodwind patterns open the haunting Langsam. When the piano enters it has the woodwind hovering around it, making little patterns and motifs. The music then starts to rise and develop, with a richer orchestral accompaniment as the piano weaves its way forward building to some terrifically massive chords from Biret. The final movement Medley ‘Tre Fontane’ initially sounds dark but as soon as the piano enters, the mood is lightened. As the piano develops the theme it is, nevertheless, thoughtful in nature. As the music works its way through the various sections of this movement, marked Canzona, March, Valse lente, Caprice and Tre Fontane, the music is at turns fast and furious with woodwind, brass and percussion, sad flowing with a solo piano section, rhythmic, bouncing and lively, fast and dancing with an archaic flavour before a frantic, wild coda.

It is good to have these works gathered in one collection especially as played by Idil Biret and the fine Yale Symphony Orchestra under Toshiyuki Shimada.  They receive a clear recording though, occasionally, the piano can sound a little hollow. There are informative booklet notes.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Performances that couldn’t be bettered from Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra with violinist, Benjamin Schmid, on a new Ligeti disc from Ondine

The composer György Sándor Ligeti (1923-2006)  was born in Transylvania, Romania, the son of Hungarian-Jewish parents. He studied at the Conservatory in Klausenburg, Romania with Ferenc Farkas and at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest with Sándor Veress, Pál Járdányi and Lajos Bárdos. Following the failure of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, he left his native country for both political and artistic reasons.

For a while he worked freelance at the West German Radio studio for electronic music in Cologne before undertaking a study of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel and Pierre Boulez. In the 1960s, Ligeti was associate professor at the Summer School for Contemporary Music in Darmstadt and guest professor at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm.  He became Professor of Composition at the Hamburg Musikhochschulein in 1973.

It was whilst working in the Cologne recording studio in 1958 that Ligeti caused a sensation with his electronic composition Artikulation (1958). Works that followed, such as Apparitions (1958-59) and Atmosphères (1961) brought him fame throughout the music world. In these works from the late 1950s and 1960s, the concept of an extremely densely interwoven voice structure was increasingly contrasted with static tonal-spatial compositions. Ligeti’s full-length stage work Le Grand Macabre was composed between 1974 and 1977 (revised version 1996) and was based on a fable by Michel de Ghelderode.

In the 1980s and 1990s, in such works as Etudes pour piano, complex polyrhythmic compositional techniques come to the fore. During the same period, Ligeti was working on the solo concertos for Piano and Orchestra (1985-88), Violin and Orchestra (1990/92) and the Hamburg Concerto for horn und chamber orchestra (1998/99

Ligeti was the recipient of many awards and prizes including Commandeur dans l'Ordre National des Arts et Lettres, Prix de composition musicale de la Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco (both in 1988), the Music Prize from the Balzan Foundation (1991), the Ernst-von-Siemens  Music Prize (1993), the UNESCO-IMC Music Prize (1996), honorary membership  in the Rumanian Academy (1997) and nomination as Associé étranger der Académie des Beaux Arts (1998), the Sibelius Prize from the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation (2000), the Kyoto Prize for Art and Science (2001), the Medal for Art and Science from the Senate of the City of Hamburg (2003), the Theodor W. Adorno Prize from the City of Frankfurt (2003) and the Polar Music Prize from the Royal Music Academy of Sweden (2004).

György Ligeti died in Vienna on 12 June 2006.

Orchestral works from across Ligeti’s compositional life have been gathered together on a new release from Ondine with violinist, Benjamin Schmid , and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu
ODE 1213-2

Lontano (1967) is a largely micropolyphonic work, a technique that is best described as having polyphonic musical texture which consists of many lines of dense canons, moving at different tempos or rhythms, thus resulting in vertical tone clusters. This work opens with a long held note before other woodwind join as the music slowly broadens and moves around in this endlessly fascinating and atmospheric opening. This strange music is quite beautiful, especially in the sensitive performance given by Hannu Lintu and his Finnish players. Shimmering strings rise and fall with brass and woodwind, high up in their register adding an ethereal solidity. When the tuba, double bassoon and contrabass clarinet join, they give an amazingly deep sound, entering from the depths and slowly growling as they try to rise up.

Gentle sounds high up in the orchestra make a brief appearance as the deeper sounds hover around, until being allowed to rise, blending with the upper wind instrument sounds. The strings swirl and shift as the music reaches a plateau before falling away at a point where there are some lovely brass textures. Eventually a hushed section is reached with shimmering strings before a long held wind passage arises from the hushed texture.  When the wind instruments rise up beautifully above the low hovering strings, reinforced by high shimmering strings, it precedes a magical moment when the music suddenly drops to a hush as the music leads to a quiet, deep still with the sounds of something shifting in the depths.

In 1967 this would probably have been challenging. Now, within the context of history, it is revealed as a work of quiet power and beauty.

The next work on this disc, Ligeti’s Violin Concerto (1989-1993), jumps forward in time by over 20 years. The composer creates, in this work, some strange sonorities by use of the ceramic flute and natural horns as well as requiring two of the accompanying string instruments, a violin and viola to be tuned a quarter tone flatter than the soloist and other strings of the orchestra. In five movements, the first, Praeludium, starts with an insistent motif on the strings that soon gives way to a shifting, rising and falling microtonal motif with sharp interruptions from the solo violin, as a complex pattern emerges. Eventually the violin plays a constantly shifting theme that dances around rapidly until it reduces to a quixotic theme with trumpet before the violin ruminates on the theme. The dancing motif returns before the music falls away to end.

In the second movement, Aria, Hoquetus, Choral, the solo violin enters in a lovely flowing melody, soon joined by a viola. The woodwind enter to accompany the solo violin followed by natural horns playing a dissonant counterpoint. The distinctive sound of the ceramic flute appears whilst the solo violin plays pizzicato before settling on a rather skittish theme around the slower sound of the ceramic flute. The solo violin provides some intense textures to contrast with the horns, then with the ceramic flute there is a dramatically dissonant sound with pizzicato orchestral strings adding to the dissonance. Eventually the music drops to quiet wind sounds as the dissonance falls away and the melodic solo violin returns that, nevertheless, quietly recalls the dissonant chords. A flute plays a quiet, gentle, swaying melody to conclude the movement.

The Intermezzo brings the solo violin entering high up over quietly rising and falling strings of the orchestra, developing a melody to which various brass and woodwind instruments add their contribution, all adding disparate motifs. Strangely, all of these sounds slowly combine as the solo violin continues its way forward with the opening melody, until rising to a climax together with brass bringing the music to a sudden end.

The Passacaglia opens quietly on woodwind but soon a hushed theme, high on the solo violin surreptitiously enters, other instruments enter as the music very slowly broadens and becomes more distinct. Yet still the solo violin keeps to its quiet high melody until a little outburst occurs and the solo violin takes on a more dominant and strident role with bold chords. Percussion enter as the solo violin provides more animated phrases, though there is an atmospheric, haunting underlying sound from the woodwind as the solo violin weaves ahead. These woodwind instruments continue to play slow phrases whilst the solo violin pushes ahead in a difficult, dissonant but highly effective passage until the timpani signal a brief climax leading to the coda.

A repeated solo violin motif opens Appassionato, against dissonant woodwind before the violin soon adopts aggressive staccato chords. The brass join in as the music has a descending motif, somewhat jazz like in tempo and rhythm. The solo violin enters again in a fast and furious section with the solo violin playing around a dancing woodwind figure before an orchestral outburst leads to the re-entry of a quiet, more subdued solo violin theme. This is soon fragmented with the orchestra and solo violin returning to a fast moving passage followed by a cadenza, more conventional in nature, before drums signal a sudden coda.

Benjamin Schmid is fabulous in this extremely taxing work, superbly accurate, sensitive and showing complete command in the complex music.

Atmospheres (1961) takes us back to Ligeti’s earlier phase of composition and opens with densely laden orchestral sounds from the bass before various instruments of the orchestra emerge from the mists to reach a more transparent shimmering texture. The music recedes but small orchestral motifs quietly emerge, slowly rising and becoming louder with strange ethereal sounds. Suddenly the music drops to growling basses only to give way to quiet swirling orchestral sounds. These swirling strings provide a short outburst as do the more intense sounds of the brass. Hushed murmurings from the strings, woodwind and brass appear before growls from the brass return, quietly this time, and the music disappears into nothing.

San Francisco Polyphony (1974) opens with swirling orchestral sounds with many orchestral instruments playing their own motifs and rhythms yet with an overall cohesion. At times, this work has the feel of a concerto for orchestra, such is the diversity of orchestral sounds. Soon there is a quiet, held orchestral passage, with something of an organ like sonority, out of which brass motifs emerge. Suddenly violent strings appear over the long held orchestral sound, followed by the woodwind quietly playing a rising motif over the orchestra. Eventually a richer melodic passage appears for full orchestra around which brass, woodwind and others swirl as the music appears to reach a climax but drops back. A bass drum sounds, a moment of great tension and anticipation as the quietly hovering orchestra seems to be about to erupt, yet it only slowly rises with scurrying orchestral sounds. There is a crash from the tam tam before the orchestra quietens. The music swirls to a number of climatic moments with chattering orchestral instrumental sounds before a final climax.

The violin concerto has many fine moments but it is the pure orchestral works from the 1960s and 1970s that I found really engrossing and often very beautiful. These performances from Hannu Lintu and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra couldn’t be bettered.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Hansgeorg Schmeiser and Matteo Fossi are on fine form in their entertaining and rewarding collection of works for flute and piano by Mozart, Beethoven, Donizetti and Schubert on a new release from Nimbus Records

A new release from Nimbus Records gathers together some real rarities in the form of works for flute and piano by Mozart, Beethoven, Donizetti and Schubert. None of these works are premiere recordings but gathered together they make an attractive disc. The artists performing here are Flautist Hansgeorg Schmeiser and pianist Matteo Fossi

NI 5912

Hansgeorg Schmeiser began his musical studies with Gottfried Hechtl at the Musikhochschule of his home town of Graz. He then continued his studies with Alain Marion in Paris and with Wolfgang Schulz at the Musikhochschule Vienna, where he gained his diploma with distinction in 1982. He attended further master-classes with Aurele Nicolet, Alain Marion and Karl-Heinz Zoeller. He is a multiple prizewinner of the Austrian Jeunesse competitions and, in 1982 he was appointed principal flautist of the orchestra of the Vienna Volksoper.

He is professor at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst (formerly the Musikhochschule Vienna). He is artistic director of the master-classes of the Neuberger Kulturtage and also directs the International Academy for Flute in Fiss (Tyrol). Schmeiser is a regular guest at the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as well as being a long-term member of the Wiener Kammerorchester, of the ensemble die Reihe and of the Ensemble des 20.Jahrhunderts. Schmeiser plays a 24ct. gold flute made by the Japanese flute-maker Muramatsu.

Matteo Fossi  was born in Florence in 1978. He began his musical studies at the Scuola di Musica di Fiesole at the age of eight and he graduated with distinction at Conservatorio di Ferrara in 1999. Afterwards he has been working with Maria Tipo and Pietro de Maria at the Scuola di Musica di Fiesole,with Maurizio Pollini at the Accademia Chigiana, and with Pier Narciso Masi at the Scuola di Musica di Sesto Fiorentino.

Fossi has been awarded prizes in several international and national solo and chamber music competitions since the age of thirteen. His repertoire as a soloist ranges from Bach to Schnittke and Stockhausen. He has always been attracted by chamber music, the earliest outcome of this interest being Quartetto Klimt, a piano quartet established in 1995 that was soon to become one of the most active and acclaimed chamber music groups of this kind in Italy. Fossi has performed in all the most important musical seasons in Italy and abroad, in important theatres and festivals in Germany, France, England, Spain, Poland, Switzerland, the United States, Brazil and South Korea

The first impression that I drew from listening to Mozart’s Sonata in F major, K.376 (1781), originally written as a Violin Sonata, was how dominant the piano part sounds when coupled with the flute. Nevertheless, the flute has an attractive part with Hansgeorg Schmeiser displaying some lovely fluid playing. Matteo Fossi certainly brings some fine playing to the piano part. In the Andante the flute does take much of the melodic line, yet still the piano has an equal role in this lovely little movement, which is given a languid feel by this fine duo. Both performers have an opportunity to share the attractive theme of the Rondo. Allegretto grazioso finale with its typically Mozartian theme.

This is the first time that I have heard Beethoven’s Serenade in D major, Op.41 1803) in its flute and piano version by Franz X. Kleinheinz (1772-1832), a pupil of Beethoven’s old teacher Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736-1809). The flute has more of a dominant role here and in the Entrata. Allegro this duo show just what a fine work it is, in this version, with such finely pointed and rhythmic playing. The flowing Tempo ordinario d’un Menuetto – Trio I and II sees both players playing off Beethoven’s themes against each other before a lovely, rumbustious piano section. This is an endlessly entertaining movement with this duo on fine form.

These two players show great precision in the dancing Allegro molto before the Andante con Variazioni (I-III) brings another of Beethoven’s lovely themes subjected to a series of variations. There is a galloping Allegro scherzando e vivace, brilliantly played by this duo, never overblowing it; and a lovely central section. The oddly attractive, faltering Adagio is exquisitely played before the Allegro vivace e disinvolto receives a brilliantly rollicking display from this duo to conclude.

Donizetti, best known, of course, for his operas, is represented here by his Sonata for Flute and piano (c.1819). It is in one movement with the Largo opening with a serious piano motif taken up by the flute before a flowing melody arrives. The Allegro section has a rhythmic piano part and a fast flowing flute melody that forms much of this work. Though there is a slower second subject that returns more than once.

Whilst this is not a great work it certainly is great fun, especially as played by Schmeiser and Fossi.

Schubert’s Introduction and Variations on ‘Trockne Blumen’ from Die schone Müllerein, D.802 (1824), as its title suggests, takes its theme from his song Trockne Blumen (Faded Flowers) part of his famous song cycle Die schone Müllerein, completed in 1823. The work opens with a dark Introduction. Andante that wells up from the depths, becoming wistful as it does. Schubert’s theme ‘Trockne Blumen’ Andantino is presented first by the piano before the flute joins in this fairly slow section. The theme is subjected to a variety of variations that give this duo the opportunity to show so much of their fine playing. First there is a fast flowing melody that increases in virtuosity, then a strident piano enters with the flute playing above it. The third variation is gently melodic before the next variation brings a fast rippling piano part with the flute adding a gentler motif. Variation five gives the flute a virtuoso role running a fast motif over a longer drawn piano line. The penultimate variation is light and rhythmic and the piece concludes with a final variation Allegro, a March rhythm that works its way from strident and firm through a gentler section to a resolute coda. This is a thoroughly enjoyable work finely played by these two artists.

This is an attractive release that many will find most entertaining and rewarding. It is well recorded at Nimbus’ Wyastone Leys venue in Monmouth, UK and there are informative notes by Calum MacDonald.