Friday 28 December 2012

The best of 2012

I try to only include in my blog those recordings or concerts that are in some way recommendable or memorable or that include unusual repertoire. This makes it more difficult to choose those that stand out particularly. However, running through the year from February, some events and recordings do stand out.

In February there was the Armonico Consort performing works by Striggio, Tallis, Brumel and Ockegham in Malvern in performances that had not only technical purity, but also a great warmth and humanity.

In April came one of Ondine’s finest issues of the year with the music of that great senior figure in Finnish music, Einojuhani Rautavaara, with recordings of his Cello Concerto No.2 and his Percussion Concerto ‘Incantations’ brilliantly performed by Colin Currie, Truls Mørk and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under John Strogärds.
April also brought a new release from Nimbus Alliance  of Chopin’s complete Waltzes and Impromptus with quite remarkable playing from Vladimir Feltsman, an artist that has received far too little attention. These are wonderful performances bringing an extraordinary poetry as well as freedom and spontaneity.

Audite seem to have an uncanny knack of finding superb artists, particularly chamber ensembles, with their 2012 releases bringing The Swiss Piano Trio’s sparkling performances of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trios full of poetry and virtuosity and the Mandelring Quartet in Mendelssohn’s Op 12 and Op. 13 String Quartets coupled with the early unnumbered E flat major quartet in performances that provide all the passion and lyricism that one could ask for and must go straight to the top of anyone’s list for these works.
Nimbus Alliance brought us, in May, what must be the finest performances ever recorded of Brahms’ wonderful late pieces, the two Clarinet Sonatas Op.120. These performances, from Emma Johnson, have everything you could wish for, with playing of supreme mastery, at turns sensitive and poetic, following every nuance and dynamic.

South Korean born Sinae Lee, a pianist who is not afraid to take risks, recorded all of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage for a new release in July on the RCS (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) label distributed by Nimbus Alliance in magnificent performances that should be heard by all Lisztians, such is their immediacy and spontaneity.
Benjamin Grosvenor gave a tremendous performance of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor at this year’s Proms. Never barnstorming, this was a performance that had subtlety with wonderfully fleet and nimble playing. A tremendous young artist.

In September Deutsche Grammophon  gave us superb playing from Pierre Laurent Aimard in Debussy’s complete Preludes where the pianist brought great authority to these works and from the start showed superb control of dynamics and tempi.

The same month also brought deeply probing and distinguished performances from Leif Ove Andsnes in Beethoven’s Piano Concertos 1 and 3 on Sony Classical and left me waiting with anticipation for the next issue in Andsnes’ Beethoven series.
This year I discovered a uniquely interesting composer on a new release from Audite Records, the German composer Moritz Eggert, whose wonderful Tetragrammaton for string orchestra (2009) could easily take its place in the repertoire of works for string orchestra.

An October release of truly great performances came from Paul Lewis, a natural Schubertian, with the Piano Sonata No.16 in A minor D.845 coupled with the Wandererfantasie D.760, Four Impromptus D.935, Six Moments Musicaux D.780 and the Allegretto D.915. This was the latest release in his magnificent series of Schubert recordings for Harmonia Mundi .

I was in Malvern again in November for a memorable concert from that superb artist Marc-André Hamelin that included Bach, Fauré, Ravel and Liszt’s B minor Piano Sonata in performances to treasure. This was one of those occasions that will live in my memory.

Of the books that came my way in April was The John Ireland Companion, edited by that great champion of British music, Lewis Foreman. This is a magnificent achievement, pulling together a colossal amount of material on Ireland. Published by Boydell Press this was a book that English music lovers will want.

Finally a Very Happy New Year to all my followers, the artists that have provided so much wonderful music this year and the companies that have provided review copies.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio from the BBC Singers and St James’ Baroque

Who could fail to be uplifted by Bach’s Christmas Oratorio especially in a performance as fine as last night’s at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London when St James’ Baroque and the BBC Singers were directed by David Hill.

Parts 1, 2 and 3 were performed along with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.4 placed after Part 1. There was some bold exciting playing from St James’ Baroque with lovely orchestral textures. The period band was appropriately small giving transparency to the sound.

The BBC Singers were on fine form with singing full of joy. Tenor, Ben Johnson, made an ideal Evangelist and soprano, Sarah Fox, had a lovely sweet tone. It took bass, Stephan Loges a little while to warm up, not showing the flexibility needed in the aria Groβer Herr, o starker König (Great Lord and Mighty King) but he soon settled and the duet Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen (Lord Thy Compassion, Thy Mercy, with Sarah Fox, was lovely with both voices blending well.

For me the highlight of the evening came from countertenor, David Allsopp, in the aria Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieβe der Ruh (Sleep, my dearest, enjoy Thy rest), sung with great feeling, he had a lovely tone, flexibility and fine control in the long drawn phrases,. In the chorales the BBC Singers were magnificent – who could tire of the chorale Wie soll ich dich empfangen (How shall I receive Thee).

Bach fourth Brandenburg Concerto was light and crisp with some terrific playing from the various parts of the orchestra such as the solo violinist and recorder players. St James’ Baroque had a lovely earthy quality to their playing, full of character.

All in all it was a wonderful evening of music making and a fitting last opportunity for me to post a blog before Christmas.

Season's Greetings

to all of my followers

Friday 21 December 2012

Wonderful performances of works by Edison Denisov and Ekaterina Kouprovskaia-Denisova from Harmonia Mundi

Edison Vasilievich Denisov  (1929-1996) has perhaps not been as widely known in the West as some of his contemporaries such as Alfred Schnittke 1934-1998) or Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931). #edisondenisov

Born in Tomsk, Siberia, his father was an engineer and his mother a doctor. At first he studied mathematics but, after receiving encouragement from Shostakovich he enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory. After graduation in 1959, he began to teach musical analysis and orchestration.

The state prevented him from teaching composition for 30 years but he nevertheless gathered around him a following of younger students in order to study new music from both Russia and abroad, his work having a vital influence on modern Soviet music.

He was influenced by French music, the Second Viennese School, and the post-war avant-garde of Boulez and Stockhausen. In 1964 he wrote a stridently modernist chamber cantata The Sun of the Incas. There followed Three pieces for piano four hands (1967) and a String Trio (1969), but it was only in 1970, when Denisov wrote Peinture for orchestra, that he felt he had found his own musical language.

This led to a large number of scores, including a lyrical Flute Concerto (1975) for Aurèle Nicolet, a Violin Concerto (1977) for Gidon Kremer, a Concerto for Flute and Oboe (1979) for Nicolet and Heinz Holliger, Tod ist ein langer Schlaf for cello and strings(1982), and the Requiem (1980), which Denisov himself considered one of his most successful achievements.

Denisov wrote several song-cycles for voice and piano, including Your Sweet Face (after Pushkin - 1980) and On the Snowy Bonfire (after Blok - 1981), in which he revived the 19th century song-traditions of Glinka and Mussorgsky, albeit in his own unique way. Despite ill health, he continued to compose prolifically in his last years, completing a second symphony only months before his death in Paris in1996.

A new release from Harmonia Mundi makes an excellent introduction to Denisov’s music with his Chamber Symphony No.1 (1982), his song cycle Au plus haut des cieux (1986) and his Chamber Symphony No.2 (1994) giving a good cross section of his work. Also on this new CD is the song cycle Cinq romances d’Anna Akhmatova (1988) written by Denisov’s wife Ekaterina Kouprovskaia-Denisova orchestrated by Edison Denisov.

The Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain  is directed by Daniel Kawka with the soprano Briggite Peyré

HMC 905268
Edison’s Chamber Symphony No.1 has much of the influence of Schoenberg yet with a distinctive touch.  There are attractive contributions from the piano, clarinet and other individual instruments all heard with the upmost clarity. Denisov creates interesting harmonies and there is always a sense of forward momentum maintained. At times the music approaches tonal but then seems to drift away into Denisov’s own particular take on atonality.

Woodwind dominate the opening of the second movement in a scurrying theme based, according to the booklet notes by Ekaterina Kouprovskaia, on the idea of shifting clusters. There is some terrific playing here with some brilliant ensemble in this tricky music. Occasionally the rapid woodwind passages reminded me of Rautavaara, though this music is quiet a distance from the late melodic style of that composer.

Drama greets the finale movement with the piano again to the fore. A solo cello and vibraphone add to the texture. At times one is reminded a little of Messiaen. The music develops into a quiet dialogue for woodwind and vibraphone leading to a coda where the music suddenly fades away.  It is obvious that Denisov put much care into creating the subtle sounds here, which are brilliantly performed by the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain.

The song cycle Au Plus Haut des Cieux is a setting of texts by Georges Bataille around the theme of death. Five fleetingly elusive instrumental intermezzi divide the songs. The soprano, Brigette Peyré, gives a spell binding performance of real intensity. She blends extremely well with the instrumental ensemble in these wonderful settings of these texts. Torche éteinte is a particularly powerful setting with the soprano accompanied by cor anglais, as is Dieu with bells and hushed ensemble making for a quite haunting atmosphere.

There is such passion and control from Brigette Peyré in Ma prison with wonderful instrumental timbres. The last song, Sous le soleil, the longest at nearly four minutes, with Peyré superb in the soaring passages, is a wonderful setting surely showing Denisov as a master of song.

Ekaterina Kouprovskaia-Denisova ‘s Cinq Romances d’Anna Akhmatova are beautiful settings of poems by the Russian writer Anna Akhmatova, sensitively  orchestrated by Edison Denisov for small ensemble. There is mystery, passion and drama here with the settings pointing up the emotions of the original poems. Once again these are terrific performances.

Denisov’s Chamber Symphony No.2 comes from near the end of his life but it is nevertheless full of energy and invention. Consisting of one movement, this work is shorter than the first chamber symphony.  It opens with a riot of instruments before settling down to a quieter section but with occasional outbursts from various instruments. Untuned percussion features heavily. Though the music does settle to a degree it always feels as if an eruption is ready to break out from the scurrying music – as it often does. It is this tension and the underlying rhythms that drive the music. Later on a solo flute provides some respite though the music is still rhythmically unsettled. After this quieter section, the music grows with unturned percussion leading to frantic music and a tremendously violent end.

Listeners new to Denisov will probably find that his first Chamber Symphony is an easier work to digest than the second Chamber Symphony. I cannot see anyone not finding both the song cycles attractive. Sadly the texts provided are only in Russian and French but the notes by Ekaterina Kouprovskaia are excellent. With wonderful performances and a first rate recording this disc is ideal for those who would like to get to know Edison Denisov’s often exquisite music.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Unusual Italian repertoire from Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma on Naxos

Such was the dominance of opera in 19th century Italy that any composer who wanted to write instrumental music was almost certainly going to have difficulties. This was the fate of composers such as Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909) and Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914).

Sgambati was born in Rome, the son of an Italian father and English mother. Educated in the ancient town of Trevi in the region of Umbria, he gained early experience as a singer and conductor whilst also writing church music.

In 1860 he settled in Rome where he worked hard to gain an acceptance of German music, then little known in Italy. Remarkably, Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 (The Eroica) did not have a single performance in Italy until 1867.  He was supported in his endeavours by Liszt, who was at that time in Rome.

During this time he wrote a quartet, two piano quintets, an octet, and the overture Cola di Rienzo (1866). In the same year as his overture, Sgambati conducted Liszt's Dante Symphony, and, travelling to Munich with Liszt, heard Richard Wagner's music for the first time. His first collection of songs was published in1870 and his Symphony No.1 in D major Op.16 was played at the Palazzo del Quirinale on 28th March 1881.

Sgambatio wrote his Piano Concerto in G minor Op.15 in 1878/80 which he performed during his first visit to England in 1882. His Symphony No. 2 in E flat was written in 1883/85 and his Sinfonia epitalamio was given at the Philharmonic during his second visit to England, in 1891. Sgambati’s largest work, the Messa da Requiem, Op. 38 (1895/1901), was performed in Rome 1901.

Naxos have just issued a recording of his Overture: Cola di Rienzo and Symphony No.1 in D major Op.16 performed by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia.

Sgambati’s Overture: Cola di Rienzo was inspired by the dramatic poem Cola di Rienzo written by the Italian dramatist Pietro Cossa (1830–1880). It was the same historical figure that inspired Wagner’s opera Rienzi, der Letze der Tribunen (last of the Roman Tribunes).

It is a richly varied work, full of interest with a wonderfully transparent orchestration. A slow, quiet, melody opens the overture before woodwind join in, hesitantly playing triplets which are then taken up by the strings as the music grows louder and more decisive. The opening melody returns several times during the course of the overture. The music quickens and so emboldened flows along with a great forward momentum. There are brass interjections, passages for woodwind and muted trumpets before a quiet section with a rich string melody.

A brief passionate climax precedes the return of a variant of the opening theme. The music rises again with woodwind against strings leading to a dramatic section before falling back again with brass playing over the strings. A lighter sounding theme is introduced by a harp leading to music for strings and woodwind that has a balletic feel before building again to a climax. The music falls again before low brass intone a melancholy theme. The brass rises louder intoning the same theme. Clarinets and rippling strings enter with a lovely variant of the original melody in a glorious coda.

Sgambati’s Symphony No.1 in D major Op.16 is a substantial work in five movements, lasting around 43 minutes. The allegro vivace non troppo opens lightly with an attractive flowing melody which is then developed. Such is the variety of treatment by the composer that the ear never becomes jaded. The music is constantly changing with new ideas, variants, instrumental colours and rhythms. During the course of the development we hear attractive variants for clarinet and cellos, then flute and oboe, and then bassoons with the lowers strings. There are occasionally hints of Schumann.

The second movement andante mesto opens on cellos and basses before a slightly Mendelssohnian tune on the woodwind and strings is heard. There is a rising motif, then a section featuring a solo flute before the music eventually broadens out with a great sense of Wagnerian freedom. The opening theme eventually returns on the oboe to end the movement.

There then follows a scherzo: presto full of invention with again that same clarity of orchestration combined with some lovely rhythmic bounce. The music is constantly changing and full of ideas.

The serenata is a lovely creation, opening on the violins, before more strings appear with a hesitant theme. Woodwind and brass quietly enter whilst the violins continue to play a more flowing melody against the hesitant string theme.  Eventually the music becomes more expansive in a theme that, oddly, reminded me of the first movement of Edmund Rubbra’s Fourth Symphony written some 60 years later. Later the woodwind and brass join, quietly weaving around the melody. It is the beautiful textures that Sgambati achieves that mark this movement out.

The finale allegro rushes ahead full of purpose yet still with beautifully orchestral detail that is constantly changing the opening motif. A quiet interlude introduces a slower section before the music starts to build again arriving at a broad flowing melody that leads to the wonderfully vibrant coda.

Whilst there is a Germanic undertone to the music there is also a distinctive freshness and breadth to this music that is very appealing. The performances by Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia are excellent as is the recording. Let’s hope that Naxos will give us Sgambati’s Second Symphony.

Friday 14 December 2012

Music for Two Organs: The Viennese Habsburg Court of the 17th Century – a new Audite release with outstanding performances from David Blunden and Johannes Strobl.

After the extinction of the Luxembourg dynasty in 1438 the court orchestra was taken over by the Habsburgs and by the time of the ‘Musikkaiser´ (musical emperors)  Ferdinand III, Leopold I, Joseph I and Karl VI, music flourished.

This new release brings a selection of organ music from composers such as Giovanni Priuli, Giovanni Valentini, Wolfgang Ebner, Johann Jakob Froberger, Alessandro Poglietti and Kaiser Leopold I himself.

SACD 92.653
The venue is appropriate, being the Benedictine Abbey Church of Muri in the Swiss Canton of Aargau. The Abbey was founded by a Habsburg ancestor, Radbot, Count of Habsburg (c. 985 – 1045). In the Cloister are some of the finest examples of Swiss Renaissance glass painting, some of which are reproduced on the booklet and tray insert of this beautifully produced CD. Here also is the Habsburg crypt containing the hearts of the last rulers of the Austrian Monarchy, Emperor Charles I and Empress Zita of Bourbon-Parma and the hearts of other members of the Habsburg family. The bodies of the couple's sons Randolph and Felix are also buried here.

The Abbey Church has an octagonal basilica with four galleries, one at each corner apparently built for musical purposes. The two well preserved and beautifully restored organs, the Evangelienorgel and the Epistelorgel, built by the well-known organ builders Joseph and Victor Ferdinand Bossart in 1743 are also most appropriate.

The very fine organists are David Blunden and Johannes Strobl.
who are joined by the Choralschola der Capella Murensis for three of the works given here. The Australian organist, harpsichordist and pianist, David Blunden, now lives in Basel. He has a busy career as a soloist, ensemble musician and accompanist performing at major festivals, theatres and churches throughout Europe.

The Austrian born, Johannes Strobl, is the Director of Music of the Catholic parish of Muri where he oversees the historical organs of the church of the former Benedictine monastery and is Artistic Director of a distinguished concert series. As well as teaching Improvisation and Liturgical Organ playing at the Hochschule Luzern-Musik, his musical activities as soloist and ensemble player have taken him to many European countries as well as Israel, Japan, the US, Brazil and Argentina.

This disc groups the featured works under the appropriate reign for each composer starting with that of Ferdinand II and the composers Giovanni Priuli (c.1575-1626) and Giovanni Valentini (1582/3-1649).

Priuli’s rousing Civitas beata Ierusalem a 8, that opens this CD gives us immediately the magnificent sound of the two organs placed at opposing sides of the Abbey Church.  Valentini’s Conzon a 6 opens with the Epistelorgel before the Evangelienorgel replies, then two organs alternate as though having conversation, the polyphonic effect of which is quite stunning.

Priuli’s Canzone seconde a 8 that follows is a lovely work beautifully played by David Blunden and Johannes Strobl. Valentini is again featured with another Conzon where the two organs complement each other wonderfully in the way that the registrations are carefully chosen making for some terrific sounds from each side of the Abbey Church.

Priuli is again represented with O Quam dulcis a 8 which shows off the subtle blending of these two organs. How the organists manage in a venue that, whilst not in any way sounding over reverberant, must nevertheless cause time delays, is amazing.

In the Ostersequenz (Easter Sequence)Victimae paschali laudes, the Choralschola der Cappella Murensis join the two organs, providing a double choir placed in the galleries around the church. It is at times like this that I wish I had surround sound which on this recording must make for a wonderful experience. Even in stereo the sound is remarkably effective. During this sequence, there is a Praembula for solo organ from David Blunden.

From the Ferdinand III era comes the composers Wolfgang Ebner (1611/12-1665) and Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667).

Ebner is represented by a great little Toccata in G and attractive Partite sopra l’Aria Favorite, a set of extended variations full of life and interest. Froberger is one of the better known composers featured on this disc with his Toccata da sonarsi alla levatione, in a beautiful performance by Johannes Strobl playing the Epistelorgel and the attractive Capriccio played by David Blunden on the Evangelienorgel.

The sound opens out for the Pfingstsequenz (Pentecost Sequence), where the Choralschola der Cappella Murensis again join the two organists in Veni Sancte Spritus, with David Blunden again providing a solo performance of the Praeambula.

Finally there is music from the Court of Leopold I with music from Kaiser Leopold I himself, Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-1693), Alessandro Poglietti (c.1600-1683) and Franz Matthias Techelmann (c.1649-1714)

The novelty here must be the two works by Kaiser Leopold I. His Allemanda, Aria and Canario is a simple, straightforward work. Johann Caspar Kerll is again a name that many people will know and his Capriccio sopra il cucu is terrific fun with its imitation of the cuckoo, especially as it speeds up during the course of the work with some wonderful playing from Johannes Strobl.

Poglietti’s unusual Conzon uber das Hennen und Hannen Geschrey follows naturally after the Kerll with its light and rhythmic sounds brilliantly played by David Blunden on the Evangelienorgel. Capriccio uber das Hennen Geschrey receives a lovely performance by Johannes Strobl and the concluding Daβ Hannen Geschray that provides another solo from David Blunden.

Kerll is again represented by his lively little Fuga: Clamor grillorum campestrium in a great performance by Johannes Strobl. The second appearance for Leopold I is his Aria, Gavotte and Sarabanda, a work that shows a little more substance than the pieces featured earlier. Techelmann proves to be a composer of some accomplishment on the evidence of his Ricercar in C played by David Blunden.

The Marianische Antiphon Salve Regina concludes this terrific CD with the Choralschola der Cappella Murensis again joining the two organs in a performance full of atmosphere.

As I have already made clear, the performances are outstanding, with David Blunden and Johannes Strobl showing great musicality in the way they make the two organs blend, as well as in their individual organ solos. The excellent Choralschola der Cappella Murensis remind us of the use of Gregorian chant in the liturgy.

With an excellent recording, excellent booklet notes by Johannes Strobl and full organ specifications and registrations, this new release receives an enthusiastic recommendation.


Tuesday 11 December 2012

Naxos complete their Ferdinand Ries piano concerto series with more magnificent playing from Christopher Hinterhuber

Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) is probably better known for his association with Beethoven than as a composer. Yet Ries wrote seven symphonies, a violin concerto, eight piano concertos, seven other works for piano and orchestra, as well as oratorios, chamber and piano music.

Ries came from a distinguished family of musicians. His grandfather, Johann Ries (1723-1784), was Court trumpeter to the Elector of Cologne in Bonn and later violinist in the Capelle. His aunt, Anna Maria, was a singer who married Ferdinand Drewer, a violinist in the court band. His father, Franz Anton, was born in Bonn in 1755 and was a child prodigy, having been taught the violin by Johann Peter Salomon (who brought Haydn to London in the 1790s) and played in the court band from the age of only eleven. In 1779 he made his way to Vienna where Beethoven became a friend and pupil. Franz Anton gave great support to the Beethoven family during difficult times, especially after the death of Beethoven’s mother.

His son, Ferdinand Ries, was born in Bonn in November 1784 and was taught piano and violin by his father. He lost an eye in childhood due to smallpox. In 1801 he went to Munich to further his studies and, later that year, he travelled to Vienna with a letter from his father to Beethoven, who gave him much financial and practical support. Ries stayed in Vienna for three years, studying composition with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger.

After his return to Bonn he later travelled to Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Paris, before returning to Vienna in 1808. His reputation as a pianist was growing and, after an abortive attempt to gain the position of Capellmeister to the King of Westphalia, Ries travelled to Cassel, where he played at the Court to much acclaim.

With still no offer of a post, Ries travelled again, this time to Hamburg, Copenhagen and Stockholm where he arrived in 1810. He eventually made his way to St Petersburg. After further travels as far as Riga and Kiev, he made his way to England where he found his father’s friend, Salomon, whose introductions helped him to quickly gain access to the musical life in London.

Ries remained in London until 1824. He had accumulated a substantial fortune, married and had made a great reputation. On his return to his homeland with his wife he purchased a property near his home town. In 1830 he moved to Frankfurt where he involved himself in the Lower Rhine festivals. He died on 13th January 1838 after a short illness.

Naxos Records have just completed their series of five CDs covering the entire fourteen surviving works for piano and orchestra. Volume 5 again features Christopher Hinterhuber (piano) and the conductor, Uwe Grodd this time conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

With its extended opening for orchestra before the piano enters, Ries’ Piano Concerto in E flat Op.42 (1808) is in a much more Beethovenian style than some of the previous concertos I have heard in this series though still looking forward to Chopin and even Schumann to a degree. This allegro con brio is full of invention and wonderful pianistic effects, with an attractive cadenza.

The larghetto opens with a solo clarinet against pizzicato strings before opening out to the full orchestra with the entry of the piano bringing some delicate writing with lovely interplay with the orchestra.  A brief solo passage for piano leads directly to the rondo allegro where there is terrific freedom of invention with witty piano writing, full of joy with many playful flourishes and a characterful contribution from the horns. There is a wonderful central theme that gives contrast to the movement. Christopher Hinterhuber has all the technique, fluency and musicianship to make these works really come to life.

The Introduction et Rondeau brilliant Op.144 from 1825, written after his retirement from the London concert scene, opens with a dramatic, serious theme before the piano introduces a new idea in an altogether more relaxed manner. There are some brief dramatic outbursts but overall this is thoughtful music to which Hinterhuber brings much poetry. The rondeau introduces a livelier theme with a beautifully light touch from the pianist. This is a wonderfully inventive piece.

The Piano Concerto in G minor Op.177 (1832/3) is Ries’ last piano concerto. It opens with a weighty theme, beautifully orchestrated, before the piano enters. This concerto seems to have an altogether more serious feel with some terrific writing for the piano, brilliantly played by Hinterhuber. Oddly for such a late work, there are still hints of Beethoven in some of the scales and trills. There is a tautness and sense of dramatic purpose here, not to mention some pretty virtuosic playing.

The larghetto brings some lovely woodwind writing along with a tranquil piano part that often sounds improvised, with the piano writing somewhat anticipating Chopin. The movement rises to a couple of brief climaxes with some fine playing from Hinterhuber before a quiet ending.

A lively rondo allegretto follows with grand flourishes for piano against an orchestra that features more lovely woodwind writing. Hinterhuber plays all of this magnificently, superbly supported by Uwe Grodd and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.  

I have enjoyed this series of recordings immensely and this final volume is a worthy conclusion to the whole series. 

Sunday 9 December 2012

Jonathan Harvey 1939 – 2012

The composer Jonathan Harvey has died at the age of 73 years. Born in Warwickshire, he was a chorister at St Michael's College, Tenbury and a music scholar at St John's College, Cambridge. Jonathan Harvey also gained doctorates from the universities of Glasgow and Cambridge and studied privately with Erwin Stein and Hans Keller. A Harkness Fellow at Princeton from 1969 to 1970, where he studied with Milton Babbitt, he was later invited by Pierre Boulez to work at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris.

Brought up very much in the Anglican Church tradition, Harvey’s musical influences nevertheless included Schoenberg, Berg, Messiaen and Britten and Stockhausen. His early compositions did not feature any electronic elements, however, his time at IRCAM resulted in eight such compositions, including the celebrated tape piece Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, Bhakti for ensemble and electronics, and the String Quartet No.4, with live electronics.

His other compositions include three other string quartets, numerous chamber works, Madonna of Winter and Spring for orchestra, synthesizer and electronics (1986), Timepieces: I, II and III (1987),a cello concerto (1990), Tranquil Abiding for chamber orchestra (1998), White as Jasmine Soprano and large orchestra (1999), Body Mandala for orchestra (2006), Wagner Dream, opera (2007) and Weltethos for speaker, choir, children's chorus and orchestra (2011), commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker .

Harvey’s large-scale cantata Mothers shall not Cry (2000) was written for the BBC Proms Millennium and his church opera Passion and Resurrection (l981) was the subject of a BBC television film, and has received seventeen subsequent performances. His opera Inquest of Love, commissioned by ENO, was premiered by Mark Elder in 1993. Speakings, a joint commission with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, IRCAM and Radio France, was the culmination of his residency (2005-08) with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Jonathan Harvey received honorary doctorates from the universities of Southampton, Sussex, Bristol, Birmingham and Huddersfield and was a Member of Academia Europaea.  In 1993 he was awarded the Britten Award for composition and in 2007 the Giga-Hertz Prize for a lifetime's work in electronic music. Harvey published two books, in 1999, on inspiration and spirituality respectively.

Jonathan Harvey was Professor of Music at Sussex University between 1977 and 1993, when he became Honorary Professor. He was Professor of Music at Stanford University between 1995 and 2000, was an Honorary Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge and was a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin in 2009.

There have been many recordings made of his music from NMC Recordings , Hyperion Records , Nimbus Alliance , and Sargasso  to name just a few.
See also:

Friday 7 December 2012

Some outstanding performances in Decca’s 4 CD Le Sacre du Printemps centenary box set.

There is no shortage of classical works that have been described as seminal but, regardless of the claims of others, surely such a term must be applied to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring).

Next year, 2013, will see the centenary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. It was premiered at the new Theatre des Champs-Elysées on 29th May 1913 as part of a programme that included Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose and the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor.

Performed by Serge Diaghilev’s famous Ballet Russe, the choreography was by the great Vaslav Nijinsky and the costumes were designed by Nicholas Roerich. The conductor was the young Pierre Monteux who had, two years previously conducted the premiere of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. As most people will know, the first performance quickly descended into a near riot. It was not only the music that caused a protest but when the curtain rose parts of the audience considered the costumes and choreography to be laughable, one commentator describing the scene on stage as ‘... group of knock kneed and long braided Lolitas jumping up and down…’.

The problem was not helped by the fact that the standing room in the new theatre, occupied by a younger audience who supported all that was new and fashionable, was placed between the boxes and the stalls. This led to violent arguments between different factions, with accounts of people being pounded on the head by people sitting behind them and, in one instance, a well to do elderly woman standing up with her tiara askew, crying that in all her years she had never been so insulted. Whether this was by others in the audience or by the performance we do not know.

Such was the din that the dancers had difficultly hearing the music. When Stravinsky left the auditorium in disgust he found Nijinsky standing on a chair shouting numbers to his dancers in an attempt to keep them together.

Stravinsky later claimed that he had never expected such a reception to the new work. He went on to recall that, after the performance, whilst taking an evening walk, Diaghilev merely said, ’Just what I wanted.’ Nevertheless, at subsequent concert performances, Stravinsky’s ‘Rite’ was acclaimed as a masterpiece and its influence has been felt ever since.

To mark next year’s centenary, Decca have released a 4 CD box set containing no less than six performances of Le Sacre du Printemps drawn from Universal Music’s Decca and Deutsche Grammophon catalogue.

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4 CDs
The earliest performance here is from Pierre Monteux himself in a recording with the Orchestre de la Société des concerts du Conservatoire, made in the Salle Wagram, Paris in November, 1956. Paradoxically there is a somewhat old fashioned feel to the playing. Many little details of the orchestration are brought out in a detailed, if slightly boxy, early stereo recording. Whilst perhaps not the most dynamic of performances, there is a naturalness to Monteux’s direction that gives an air of spontaneity even if contrasts aren’t as wide as some other performances. There is no lack of drama here either, with some gutsy playing all round. The controlled raucousness of the brass stands out as do some lovely mellow woodwind sounds. It is good to hear a performance from the man who directed the première of the work.

From May 1981 we have Antal Dorati conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the United Artists Auditorium, Detroit. Here we have superb recording, supremely detailed. There are biting strings and superb woodwind passages. Dorati doesn’t hang around, with tempo driven pretty fast when needed. In the quieter moments Dorati adopts a slower tempo bringing out all the poetry sometimes missed. He knows how to slowly build the tension in stages throughout the work. The lead up to the Sacrificial Dance is beautifully paced, culminating in a tremendous climax. Overall this is probably one of the finest Rites ever recorded.

Ricardo Chailly recorded Le Sacre in 1985 with The Cleveland Orchestra in the Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, Ohio. There is a crisp, lighter weight to the playing. The recording is good, though not as vivid as Dorati’s. This is a superbly played, civilised performance with phenomenal orchestral control and ensemble. The strings and brass are beautifully played, but not riotous, raucous or in any way wild. This is a very enjoyable performance, if a little too polished, though it does build to a fine climax.

One might reasonably have expected a pretty cerebral performance of the Le Sacre from such a conductor as Pierre Boulez when he recorded it in 1991 with The Cleveland Orchestra in the same venue as Chailly. Yet Boulez knows how to build the excitement and tension well before climaxes. He also pushes the orchestra even more than Chailly, yet retains the same precision, with the orchestra really on their toes. There is unexpectedly thoughtful and mysterious playing in Cercles mystérieux des adolescents and, as Boulez proceeds towards the climax there is some biting playing. The climax is steady but ruthless.

I already knew Valery Gergiev’s 1999 performance with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra recorded at the Festspielhaus, Baden Baden, a recording that is full and detailed. There are some wonderfully distinctive woodwind timbres from the Mariinsky orchestra. The more dramatic dynamics contrasts build up tremendously with some really fiery moments as the work progresses. The sudden violent outbursts that erupt, such as in Rondes printanières and Cortège du sage, are tremendous. In the Introduction to Le Sacrifice, Gergiev creates some wonderful orchestral textures. He certainly makes the most of dynamic contrasts and there is a longer than usual pause before the final bars.

The latest recording in this set is from 2006 with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra from the Disney Hall, Los Angeles. The recording here is good in many ways with plenty of detail but spoilt somewhat by a slight boominess in the bass. There is polished playing from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in this well-paced performance.  Perhaps at times the performance is a little too precise and neat. Where the climaxes come they sound a little contrived. But it does build to a pretty good climax.

I found listening to these six performances of Le Sacre du Printemps over two days an engrossing and enjoyable task. There are some fine performances here and a couple of great ones.

So which was my preferred recording from the set? That accolade must go to Antal Dorati who provides everything you could want in a performance with great sound to match. I wouldn’t want to be without Pierre Monteux’s version that gives insights that link us to the first performance conducted by him nearly 100 years ago. Gergiev’s dramatic performance is one I would not wish to be without as is Pierre Boulez’ fine performance which brings so much biting tension. That isn’t to say that the remaining performances here are in any way below par, it is simply that there are four outstanding performances that stand head and shoulders over them.

The fourth disc in this set is an audio documentary about Le Sacre du Printemps, narrated by Jon Tolansky, giving a fascinating insight into the work; its history, music, choreography and performance, with extracts from Gergiev’s recording and contributions from many artists including Dame Marie Rambert, who danced at the original performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, Dame Monica Mason, who danced in the 1962 Royal Ballet production of the work and went on to become Director of the Royal Ballet, conductors Sir Colin Davis and Valery Gergiev, Deborah Bull, who danced in a reconstructed performing version of Le Sacre at Rome opera in 2001 and later became Creative Director at the Royal Ballet and Bernard Keeffe who worked with Stravinsky.

Decca have done a great service bringing all these performances together for the centenary. If you haven’t already got these recordings then snap them up now in a box that will bring much enjoyment.

If this set isn’t enough for you then you may be tempted with Decca’s other centenary set of 20 CDs featuring all 38 recordings from the catalogue of Decca,

Deutsche Grammophon and Philips, from 1946 to 2010. There are performances from Van Beinum, Ansermet, Fricsay, Dorati, Karajan, Colin Davis, Mehta, Tilson Thomas, Haitink, Solti, Rattle, Ozawa, Dutoit and Bernstein to name but a few. There is also a piano duet version of Le Sacre du Printemps from Vladimir Ashkenazy and Andrei Gavrilov.


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20 CDs
Go to the Decca website for further details 

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Rare Vaughan Williams from Martin Yates and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Dutton Epoch

In recent times there have been a number of interesting releases from various record companies of early works by Vaughan Williams. By early I mean those works that preceded such well-known works as the Norfolk Rhapsody No.1 (1905) and In the Fen Country (1905).

Amongst the early works recorded, have been Willow-Wood for Baritone and Orchestra (1903) from Naxos (8.557798), The Garden of Proserpine for soprano, chorus and orchestra (1899) from Albion Records (ALBCD012) and Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra (1902) from Somm (SOMMCD246).

Now from Dutton Epoch we have two more early works, his Bucolic Suite from 1900 and Serenade in A minor from 1898, coupled with two late works, Folk Songs of the Four Seasons (1949) and Dark Pastoral for Cello and Orchestra (1942/43). This is a very attractive issue featuring the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates, with Guy Johnston (cello).

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Vaughan Williams wrote his Folk Song of the Four Seasons in 1949 for the women’s voices of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. Roy Douglas, the man who did much to help Vaughan Williams by making fair copies of his appallingly untidy scores as well as replacing, to some extent, Gustav Holst as a sounding board, made a five movement orchestral suite from the work.

To the Ploughboy and May Song opens with a lively tune but also has some lovely quiet moments whereas To the Green Meadow and an Acre of Land has a wonderful rhythmic swing to it, full of panache. The Sprig of Thyme and the Lark in the Morning must be one of Vaughan Williams’ loveliest folk song arrangements with a gently flowing melody. So too is The Cuckoo, a lovely andante sostenuto. The last movement, Wassail Song and Children’s Christmas Song brings this attractive group of settings to an end and includes a Christmas tune most people will recognise. All is beautifully played by Martin Yates and the RSNO.

Vaughan Williams’ Bucolic Suite (or Pastoral Suite), written in 1900 and revised in 1901 was first performed at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens in March 1902 conducted by Dan Godfrey, where Holst also had the first performance of his early Cotswold Symphony that same year. The Bucolic Suite opens with strings playing chords that sound like village fiddlers playing. This leads to a lively dance-like allegro. There is an attractive andante that follows where there are just occasional hints of his later folk music style. It is in the third movement intermezzo’s central section that we can hear the sound of the mature Vaughan Williams. Either side the music does tend to sound as though it is influenced by Dvorak. The finale rushes ahead with a lyrical central section that features a solo horn, oboe and bassoon before a lively end.

What a tragedy that Vaughan Williams didn’t complete the Cello Concerto that he was working on in 1942/43. All that he left was a first movement that was in an advanced stage and an unfinished slow movement. Mercifully David Matthews has made a completion and orchestration of this slow movement lasting just under eleven minutes entitled Dark Pastoral for Cello and Orchestra. What a lovely creation it is with the cello weaving a beautiful flowing melody against an orchestration that sounds like pure Vaughan Williams. The coda is quite magical and Guy Johnston proves a fine advocate in the cello part.

The earliest work on this disc is Vaughan Williams’ Serenade in A minor from 1898, also first performed in April 1901 at Bournemouth by Dan Godfrey. By this time the composer had left the Royal College of Music and, on 9th October 1897, married his first wife, Adeline Fisher. Interestingly it was the Rev. W.J. Spooner, of Spoonerism fame, that married them. They honeymooned in Berlin, where Vaughan Williams also studied with Max Bruch. Vaughan Williams must have been keen to get his wife away from her rather close knit and stifling family, though they did have to join Adeline’s family in San Remo for Christmas, Vaughan Williams going for walks alone as his wife seemed to prefer her family’s company.

Adeline was the fifth of eleven children of Mr and Mrs Herbert Fisher of Brockenhurst in Hampshire. Herbert Fisher was the son of a canon of Salisbury Cathedral and one of his great uncles was Archdeacon Fisher, a friend and patron of the artist Constable and who can be seen in one of Constable’s paintings of Salisbury Cathedral.  It was whilst in Berlin that Vaughan Williams worked on the Serenade in A minor.

The Prelude is a beautifully scored and impressive movement full of confidence and invention. The dance like Scherzo has some of Vaughan Williams’ mature style in places, though not so much in the second subject. This later style also peers through in the Intermezzo and Trio. The beautiful Romance is probably the finest part of this work, opening with a lovely tune on the clarinet which is soon taken over by the orchestra. There is a beautiful section with oboe imitating bird song and interplaying with a glorious tune from the orchestra. The movement rises to a wonderful central climax. The Finale has a marching tune with lyrical sections where woodwind interweave. As the movement progresses it becomes a little bland (perhaps this is due to the alterations to the coda that Stanford apparently wanted) but if Vaughan Williams could produce a work with so many good things as this at the age of 26 years then his talent was certainly shining through.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Martin Yates does a wonderful job with these works in fine recordings. A must for lovers of Vaughan Williams and British music generally.

Friday 30 November 2012

Highly recommendable re-release of important works by Arvo Pärt on Deutsche Grammophon

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)  has tended to be thought of as simply a minimalist composer. Whilst, in his later works, his music can be loosely described as such, this is, nevertheless, a somewhat simplistic view. Up until the 1970’s Arvo Pärt’s music was variously influenced by neo-classical styles, the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók and twelve-tone technique and serialism.

After a period of studying plainsong, Gregorian chant, and Renaissance polyphony, in 1977, came Fratres, one of the first works in his radically new tintinnabuli style, from the Latin tintinnabulum meaning bells or a group of bells. The same year brought Tabula Rasa – or Clean Slate – a work reflecting his transition to this new style with its simple harmonies and often single unadorned notes, or triads.

To call Pärt’s music minimalistic is to ignore the very personal style that underlies this composition.

As part of Deutsche Grammophon’s  new 20C series of re-issues of 20th century music, that includes such composers as Schoenberg, Mahler, Weill, Bartok, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Boulez, Ligeti and Torke, comes an enticing recording of three major works by Arvo Pärt.

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The two works mentioned above, Fratres and Tabula Rasa, are coupled with his Third Symphony from 1971. The performances from his fellow countryman, Neeme Järvi, with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the violinists Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony, the percussionist Roger Carlsson and Erik Risberg (prepared piano) couldn’t be better.
From its fiery, dramatic, opening with the solo violin playing rapid arpeggios, Fratres, for violin, string orchestra and percussion, holds the attention immediately. The string orchestra enters, holding a bass drone in the background as the solo violin plays figures over a broader string melody. Pizzicato interruptions are reinforced by the distinctive use of claves. There are outbursts of fiery playing before the return of the pizzicato strings and claves, followed by the return of the melodic figurations over the orchestra. Dramatic and quieter reflective moments alternate. Yes, there is repetition but this is never simply minimalistic music, but by turns, music that is dramatic and still, at times clearly derived from plainchant. The solo violin reaches its highest register against quiet strings to close the work with the string orchestra and claves having the final quiet say.

Tabula Rasa is a double concerto for two violins, string orchestra and prepared piano that adds a gong like sound to the music. In two movements, the opening theme, marked Ludus. Con moto, is repeated several times with a quiet interlude between where the prepared piano adds its evocative sound. This develops to a section where the solo violins and prepared piano play a short tune. Each time the two violins reappear after a quiet section, the music develops and grows as does each interlude. The lively sections become richer and the prepared piano adds a more resonant touch. The music reaches a pitch with loud hammering sounds from the prepared piano and agitated strings. There is a long held note from the orchestra that ends the first movement.

The second movement of Tabula Rasa, marked Silentium. Senza moto, demonstrates Pärt’s development towards his own distinctive minimalism. There is a steady opening beat with strings and solo violins and occasional gong like sounds from the prepared piano giving the music a somewhat ecclesiastical feel. There is a slow, long drawn development but overall this is music that evokes stillness and lack of movement. The prepared piano makes only occasional but important additions, breaking the stillness and repetition with wonderfully atmospheric sounds. The writing for the two violins is strikingly effective.  The music rises ever higher on the two violins before the prepared piano seems to bring them back on course and they descend, leaving the work to end on the low strings.

The slightly earlier Symphony No.3 is a wonderful work full of interest. The first movement, marked simply as crochet = 66 – crochet = 104 – attacca, opens with a solo clarinet but fills out with more woodwind before orchestra joins in the melancholy theme. Very soon bells sound a cautious note. There are more brass and woodwind passages before the music really takes off in an expansive theme. Brass and strings arrive before the strings power this stirring movement forward. The music returns to a quieter theme but still with a forward momentum. Pärt’s countryman, Eduard Tubin is very much recalled in this music. Brass interjections and percussion lead the music upwards before ending on the brass.

Marked minim = 54 – 56 Piu mosso – attacca, the second movement opens with a theme on low strings, in sombre mood, before it is taken up by woodwind and strings. A solitary bell sounds quietly but insistently then the string melody rises with an intense yearning feel. Part way through, the low strings and brass richly intone the theme, adding gravitas. A solo piccolo, vibraphone and celeste pick out a little tune before, after a pause, the strings quietly enter sounding melancholy again. A solo trumpet picks up the tune with other brass slowly joining in. After another pause, rich strings, timpani and bells enter in a short, dark theme before a lone timpanist makes a repeated insistent toll before speeding up to a series of rapid rolls over a quiet orchestral sound. This fades out as though the storm has passed.

The final movement, marked minim = 60 - alla breve, begins with strings quietly playing the earlier theme. There are a series of interruptions from a lively theme on woodwind and brass. Low strings ruminate before the brass follows by woodwind enter, gradually rising from the lower register pulling the strings up. The music becomes more dynamic and restless. The music rises to a climax, rich in orchestral sounds, with percussion. There are many thoughtful touches on percussion and woodwind as the music works its way forward again in a quiet string melody. The theme is given to various brass instruments before a trombone joins against low strings. Briefly a flute joins in before the music broadens and increases in volume to sound out the theme loudly before being cut off.

I cannot recommend this release too highly, containing as it does, three of Pärt’s most important and attractive works in beautifully recorded performances.