Thursday 31 January 2013

A deeply moving work by Mieczyslaw Weinberg in a new release from Naxos

After much neglect Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s (1919 - 1996) time now seems to have come.  In June 2012 I spoke of Weinberg - The forgotten composer but in November 2012 I was able to review Murray McLachlan’s fine performances of the complete Weinberg piano sonatas on Divine Art Recordings

Given that the Olympia recordings of some of Weinberg’s symphonies are no longer available (unless second-hand copies can be found), it was good when Chandos  started their series of recordings of these works. These have been slow to arrive so it is even more welcome that Naxos have also started issuing recordings of the symphonies and, so far, without duplication. Naxos has already recorded Weinberg’s Violin Concerto and the complete works for solo cello.

The symphonies already issued are Symphony No.6 coupled with the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes and Symphony No.19 coupled with The Banners of Peace both with the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducting by their Principal Guest Conductor, Vladimir Lande.
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Now from Naxos comes Weinberg’s large choral Symphony No 8 ‘Polish Flowers’ with that fine conductor who has done many great recordings for Naxos, Antoni Wit, conducting the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. 
It is appropriate that a Polish conductor, orchestra and choir should perform this work given its strong connection to Weinberg’s Polish roots in this wonderful setting of the poems of the Polish poet, Julian Tuwim (1894-1953)

Weinberg’s eighth symphony is a remarkable work, indeed, one of his finest. The first movement, Gust of Spring, opens with percussion and low strings giving a pensive even brooding atmosphere before the female voices of the choir enter. The brooding sounds remain all through this movement until the strings bring in a haunting melody and a solo clarinet leads to Children of Baluty, full of dancing rhythms with the female voices singing above pizzicato strings and woodwind. Eventually tenor, Rafal Bartmiński, joins with a slower and more pensive tune.  The female voices and tenor eventually come together combining both themes. Whilst there is some of the spikiness of Shostakovich it is wholly original in overall concept.

In front of the Old Hut is introduced by a solo trumpet followed by woodwind before the tenor enters in a somewhat yearning song, full of nostalgia with mournful woodwind accompaniment. There are some lovely woodwind phrases here. Rafal Bartmiński has a fine voice that suits this music well. The music soon becomes more passionate with woodwind and brass interjections. Unaccompanied voices bring this movement to a quiet conclusion. Strange string sounds lead into There was an Orchard before the men’s voices of the choir, followed by soprano, Magdalena Dobrowolska, join bringing a pure, innocent, almost childlike sound to her singing. Alto, Ewa Marciniec, then joins bringing a lovely distinctive sound, before both sing together with a slightly astringent string background, a very distinctive Weinberg sound. Slowly the chorus enters to end the movement.

A plaintive flute opens Elderberry before the tenor sings of the hope of springtime. The chorus enters, chanting, before rising to a passionate climax with orchestra, leading to one of the works most inspired and beautiful moments. The tenor sings out over percussion then brass intone the conclusion. Percussion and brass open Lesson, a fast movement, before the full chorus enters. It has a frantic feel combined with dancing rhythms with much percussion and exhilarating singing from the marvellous Warsaw Philharmonic Choir. The choir hushes with tuba sounds and percussion in a mysterious section with woodwind trills before the return of the louder theme for an extended orchestral passage full of Weinberg’s distinctive orchestral touches. The chorus returns with cries from parts of the choir before the orchestra takes over, before dying away with brass and percussion to somewhat chilled, quiet end.

Warsaw Dogs opens with percussion and piano chords. The chorus enters against this strange sound in impassioned music that builds in violence and anger. The opening chords are re-iterated forcefully before a sudden stillness brings an impassioned tenor. Men’s voices chant quietly with brass and side-drum before a final orchestral outburst end this movement. Mother opens with shimmering strings before a wordless choir quietly enters. The tenor joins in a moving section, a lament over a mother’s death, another wonderful part of this symphony. A solo horn makes brief occasional appearances adding to the mournful quality. Weinberg bares his heart in moving music after which woodwind, timpani and celeste bring this movement to a still end.

Justice opens forcefully with full unaccompanied chorus, just reinforced occasionally with strings and brass. There are quiet moments from the choir that give contrast. The choir’s female voices then enter against low strings and woodwind before the rest of the choir slowly joins in a quieter more restrained section. A brief choral and orchestral outburst leads to The Vistula flows where the tenor sings with female voices quietly in the background before being taken over by a quiet orchestra accompaniment. Hope seems to be tentative as the tenor sings quietly and reflectively. The chorus enters against the strings, gently raising the positive feel of the music, though harmonically the choir is still reflective. The tenor again enters against an orchestral accompaniment in a more impassioned voice.

There is a quietly mysterious orchestral section, with solo flute, before the choir quietly joins, slowly but surely, developing in force and passion towards the great climax of this work in a slowly rising, colossal passage for choir and orchestra with striking percussion sounds. This subsides as the choir and orchestra fall back seemingly losing their impetus. The opening theme returns before woodwind lead the orchestra to a finely poised but generally optimistic coda.

This is a wonderful, deeply moving work that seems to grow in stature with each hearing. Antoni Wit conducts a terrific performance, full of passion and understanding. The Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra is on fine form as is the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir. Soloists Rafal Bartmiński (tenor), Magdalena Dobrowolska (soprano) and Ewa Marciniec (alto) are all excellent.

The recording from Warsaw Philharmonic Hall is excellent.  There are informative notes from Richard Whitehouse but, unfortunately no texts included. However, the Polish texts will be available on the Naxos website and I have found individual translations of the poems on line.  I do hope that Antoni Wit will be recording more of Weinberg's music for Naxos.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

A chance to hear Denis Kozhukhin play Prokofiev live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Following on from my recent blog
where I gave an enthusiastic welcome to Denis Kozhukhin’s new recording of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonatas No.6 in A, Op.82, No.7 in B flat Op.83 and No.8 in B flat, Op.84 on the Onyx label, I am pleased to see that he will be performing all three of these works at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 12th May 2013 .

Denis Kozhukhin is currently undertaking an extensive tour, taking in such places as Tokyo, Bratislava, Humlebaek (Denmark), Liverpool (where he will perform Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto), Eindhoven, Rome, Milan and Berlin. All of these dates, and more, can be found at

Monday 28 January 2013

Highly recommended Audite release of Piano Trios by Clara and Robert Schumann from the Swiss Piano Trio

I wonder just how much more music Clara Schumann (1819-1896) would have written had she not married Robert Schumann (1810-1856). As it stands her output numbers twenty three works, including a piano concerto, works for violin and piano, songs, solo piano works and the Piano Trio in G minor Op.17 written in 1846. The piano trio was much praised by the critics of the time, in stark contrast to the reaction to her husband’s piano trios.

I enjoyed immensely the Swiss Piano Trio’s recording of Mendelssohn’s piano trios Op.49 and Op.66 issued by Audite last year and their new release from Audite of Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G minor Op.17 coupled with Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op.88 and Piano Trio No.3 in G minor Op.110 is no less fine.

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A lovely lyrical outpouring opens the allegro moderato of Clara Schumann’s G minor Piano Trio with piano phrases that recall Robert Schumann, particularly his Piano Concerto. The Swiss Piano Trio are at turns sensitive, passionate, richly melodic, forcefully compelling. Their playing always has such terrific ensemble and precision, with them alive to every nuance, making this trio sound a wonderful piece.

The scherzo opens with, to my ears, a slightly Scottish inflection and is in the style of a minuet whilst in the initially relaxed andante the piano opens before the violin enters in a beautifully conceived melody which both violin and cello continue. The strings of the Swiss Piano Trio, Angela Golubeva (violin) and Sébastian Singer (cello) have a lovely timbre and there is some great playing from their pianist, Martin Lucas when the music becomes more animated. In the allegretto again the piano plays a quite dominant role in this wonderful theme. The trio raise this fairly straightforward music by bringing out so much passion and drama. The latter stages of the finale are almost Brahmsian in their passion and Clara Schumann shows that she had a considerable compositional talent.

April 1842 marked an outpouring of music from Robert Schumann. By the end of July he had written three String Quartets Op. 41 No’s 1 – 3, and in October he had written the Piano Quintet Op.44. Soon after he wrote the Fantasiestücke Op.88 (revised in 1850). Of the Fantasiestücke Schumann noted that ‘…they seemed to please players and listeners alike, in particular Mendelssohn.’

The Fantasiestücke opens with a short, attractive Romanze with the Swiss Piano Trio providing a lovely atmospheric sound, full of warmth. The second movement humoreske is played with great precision and panache with a lovely light-hearted feel. Given that the piano provides so much of the dominant theme (it could almost be an arrangement of a piano piece), it is essential that the string players provide texture and interest as they certainly do plentifully here. In the wistful duet Langsam und mit Ausdruck there is some exquisite playing as the tune is passed around the three instrumentalists.  The finale Im Marsch – Tempo is played with striking precision in the rapidly fleeting moments of this movement.

Written in the year 1851, which also brought that autumn his rescored Symphony in D (published as No.4), are two violin sonatas, the A minor Op.105 and the D minor Op.121, the overtures to Schiller’s Braut von Messina Op.100, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Op.128 and Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea, two secular cantatas, Der Rose Pilgerfahrt Op.112 and Der Königssohn Op. 116, and the Piano Trio No.3 in G minor Op.110.

In the stormy opening, bewegt, doch nicht zu rasch, of the Piano Trio No.3 the Swiss Piano Trio provide great variety where, despite a new theme occurring part way through, the music has the same basic rhythm. There is such passionate playing that brings out Schumann’s emotional intentions, something that is often lost in this music. In the restrained slow movement ziemlich langsam,  this trio draws so much from the music, particularly in the stormy central section where there is some terrific playing, full of fire. The third movement rasch is a scherzo, with a beautiful middle section, that is full of vigour and changing rhythms brilliantly played by the Swiss Piano Trio. The final movement, kraftig, mit humor, pulls together the preceding movements. There is some lovely playing from Martin Lucas and string playing of superb precision and character from Angela Golubeva and Sébastian Singer. This is a fiendishly difficult movement that finds the Swiss Piano Trio in superb form, pulling together all the changes that occur.

With a first rate recording and excellent notes, this new release is highly recommended.

The Swiss Piano Trio have already recorded Schumann’s Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.63 and Piano Trio No.2 in F major Op.80.

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I haven’t yet heard the earlier Schumann disc but on the evidence of this new release they are performances that should not be missed.









Sunday 27 January 2013

Simon Trpčeski with Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at Malvern

Living on the borders of Herefordshire and Shropshire, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is very much my local band. Over the last three decades the CBSO has been incredibly lucky or perhaps incredibly canny in their choice of Music Directors. Sir Simon Rattle, following his appointment as Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser, later Music Director, in 1980 (aged only 25) developed the CBSO into the world class orchestra it is today. He was also the driving force behind the building of Symphony Hall, Birmingham that opened in 1991 and is now the home of the CBSO.

When Rattle left the CBSO in 1998 it was thought that he would be an impossible act to follow yet in their new Music Director, Sakari Oramo, the orchestra continued to do great things. The same thoughts probably reoccurred in 2008 when Andris Nelsons took over as Music Director but yet again their choice was quite brilliant.

Whilst I try to get to Symphony Hall as often as possible, last night Andris Nelsons brought the CBSO to Malvern Theatres in a programme of Glinka, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. The acoustic of the relatively small Forum Theatre is a little on the dry side but Andris Nelsons managed to balance the orchestra exceptionally well with the strings never dominating and the individual sections clearly heard.

After a beautifully taut performance of Glinka’s overture Ruslan and Ludmila, Simon Trpčeski joined the orchestra for a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor. It is often said that Chopin didn’t know how to orchestrate yet even before the piano entered, Nelsons showed just what could be brought out in the orchestral sound. Trpčeski’s way with the concerto was highly personal yet what wonderful things he found in the work. In the slow passages he would introduce a theme simply as though improvising before showing what could be developed from it. In other passages his playing was so fluid, showing what a great Chopin player he is. Trpčeski and Nelsons seemed wholly in tune with both finding so much joy in the music.

There is no doubt about Tchaikovsky’s ability to orchestrate and in his Symphony No.3 in D ‘The Polish’ Nelsons showed that the CBSO was on great form with a beautifully paced introduzione e allegro and a light crisp allegro moderato. Throughout there were many lovely details especially from the woodwind. The third movement andante elegiac was allowed to flow, rise and fall giving full reign to Tchaikovsky’s melodic creation. The fleet, brilliant scherzo was followed by an exhilarating allegro con fuoco finale that confirmed Nelsons’ overall architectural feel for the work, closing what was a terrific performance.

I must get back to Symphony Hall soon to hear more from this great orchestra and their brilliant Music Director.

Friday 25 January 2013

The formidably gifted pianist Denis Kozhukhin gives phenomenal performances of Prokofiev sonatas on his debut recording from Onyx Classics

Following the revolution Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953) left Russia in 1918, travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast and eventually making his way via Honolulu to San Francisco. Prokofiev had not in any sense emigrated and had, indeed, obtained a visa to travel from the Soviet authorities. He returned for a tour of Russia in 1927 and 1932 and, even after his return in 1933, he continued to travel abroad until 1938, when the Soviet authorities made this impossible.

Prokofiev’s first piano sonata was written between 1907and 1909, the second piano sonata in 1912, the third and fourth piano sonatas in 1917 and the fifth in 1923. From this it will be seen that, of his nine completed piano sonatas, only the fifth was written whilst living outside of Russia. The ninth sonata was written in 1947. There are only fragments of the tenth piano sonata which Prokofiev was working on before his death and which he gave the opus number 137. He designated the opus number 138 to a planned eleventh piano sonata.

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.6 in A Op.82, Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat Op.83 and Piano Sonata No.8 in B flat Op.84 written in the years 1939-1940, 1939-1942 and 1939-1944 respectively, are often called the War Sonatas even though the sixth completely predates the Soviet Union’s entry into the war.  Denis Kozhukhin, winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, First Prize at the Vendome Prize in Lisbon in 2009 , and 3rd Prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2006, has recorded them on a debut disc for Onyx Classics

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From the sixth sonata’s opening allegro moderato, Denis Kozhukhin shows great fire and commanding assurance. In the quieter, slower passages there is a freedom and thoughtfulness to his playing with immaculate phrasing. His playing never sounds rushed, letting the music unfold naturally. The spiky allegretto opens at a lovely pace and as it progresses, I just love the rhythmic phrases in the left hand, where there is a richness of tone. It is beautiful how he blends the central trio section imperceptibly into the whole. Marked tempo di valzer lentissimo, the third movement is a slow waltz that just saunters along, yet with Kozhukhin one always feels the threat of something more sinister emerging. In the final vivace, Kozhukhin shows such a formidable technique that the rapid passages seem so simple that he could coast over them – but he doesn’t as there is spirit and panache galore. He draws out every nuance and as the opening theme from the first movement returns tentatively Kozhukhin never loses sight of his overall vision. When the opening theme fully returns in the coda, it is very satisfying.

Prokofiev’s seventh sonata gains so much from Denis Kozhukhin’s attention to the small details, thoughtfully brought out, and combined with his overall architectural vision. You are always sure where he is taking you, such is his phrasing and sense of structure. Kozhukhin creates a perfect form through the allegro inquieto – poco meno – andantino, building the tension carefully and slowly, in playing of tremendous power and control. Kozhukhin’s careful pacing of the andante caloroso creates a false sense of security before the music grows and becomes more animated. Again there is a sense of assurance from Kozhukhin, fully in command of the music. There is a brilliant finale with playing that fully lives up to the marking precipitato. What a powerful build-up of tension and power in formidable playing that still shows his full command.

The eighth sonata’s opening andante dolce is full of breadth and space with tempi and phrasing allowing every line in the music to emerge and grow naturally. Here Kozhukhin brings out the strange wonder in this movement, but still allows the music to just take off when needed. There are so many lovely and brilliant touches here. The andante sognando is a lovely melody, so typical of Prokofiev, with changeable and volatile moments, played with such fire. The final vivace has sparkling playing, full of wonderful animated passages, superb rhythms and lovely flowing passages. This is a superb ending to a phenomenal performance.

This is the best Prokofiev playing I have heard for a long time. I look forward to hearing much more from this formidably gifted pianist. The recording engineer/producer, Preben Iwan, also deserves a mention as this is one of the best piano recordings I have heard, allowing the full rich detail of the piano to be heard.






Tuesday 22 January 2013

Murray McLachlan is a tremendous advocate for the music of Ronald Stevenson in a new release from Divine Art.

I first heard the music of Ronald Stevenson (b.1928) from recordings issued on the Altarus label a couple of decades ago. Ronald Stevenson  was born in Blackburn, Lancashire of Scottish and Welsh ancestry. He studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music and later at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome. From 1962 to 1965 he taught composition and piano in the University of Cape Town. He was a visiting Professor at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1985 and also performed and gave seminars at the Julliard School, New York. Stevenson is a Fellow of the Royal Manchester College of Music.

Ronald Stevenson is a prolific composer having written orchestral works, concertos, choral music, chamber music, song cycles and a large number of works for piano. Many of his works for piano take the form of transcriptions, arrangements or variations on themes of other composers. Indeed Stevenson’s longest work is his Passacaglia on DSCH, the personal musical motto of Shostakovich. Stevenson has never made a distinction between transcription and original composition, perhaps following on from the practice of composers such as Bach.

A new release from Divine Art Recordings  gives an excellent view of Stevenson’s art, showing the vast scope of his piano transcriptions, variations and arrangements. Murray McLachlan   has recorded a large number of these works on this 3 CD set recorded between October 2009 and April 2010 at the Royal Northern College of Music. 

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The first CD opens with a transcription of Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod BWV 478 that builds in complexity, in a transcription fully worthy of Busoni, on whose birthday it was written. Stevenson’s Prelude and Chorale (an Easter offering) that follows is a cool and restrained Busoni inspired andante.

The five pieces that make up volume one of L’Art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano are transcriptions of songs. Coleridge-Taylor’s Elëanore, provides a light attractive theme blending surprisingly well with Maud V White’s So we’ll go no more a-roving which gains immensely from Stephenson’s gentle phrasing and colour, shown to great effect by Murray McLachlan. Meyerbeer’s Plus blanche que la plus blanche hermine opens simply, played by the left hand only for several bars, before the transcription opens out with a number of playful touches. Rachmaninov would have appreciated Stevenson’s transcription of his lovely song In the silent night, a beautiful creation in its own right. Stevenson transforms Frank Bridge’s Go not, happy day into a real show piece to end this set.

In L’Art nouveau du chant appliqué au piano Volume 2 Ivor Novello’s Fly home little heart is so arranged as to sound so much more, with its arpeggios and rich sonorities. Ronald Stevenson manages to present We’ll gather lilacs in such a wonderfully decorated guise as to give it a completely new feeling, with the main tune only appearing halfway through. Coleridge-Taylor’s Demande et response is a delicate, waltz like, piece as is Sigmund Romberg’s song Will you remember, which makes for a quiet conclusion to volume two.

Stevenson’s Scottish Ballade No.1 (Lord Randal) presents the tune in a series of somewhat dissonant variations and Fugue on a fragment of Chopin is based on Chopin’s F sharp minor Ballade, with the Chopin theme weaving through the fugal texture. As it rises to a climatic conclusion, there is some terrific playing from Murray McLachlan.

The six pieces that form Pénsées sur des Préludes de Chopin combine various preludes with remarkable results. These are no Godowski like virtuosic pieces but works of some emotional depth, lightened in the andantino of No.3 and, in No.4, presented in a distorted way by playing each hand in major and minor keys. No.5 allegro is the one really virtuosic piece here in a terrific arrangement that combines two preludes played in E flat minor and G minor that even pulls in the Marche Funèbre from Chopin’s B flat minor sonata.

Variations-Study on a Chopin Waltz is an early work that is based on Chopin’s C sharp minor Waltz Op Posth. and showing Stevenson’s early talent for finding variations. If you’ve ever heard a tune that reminds you of another piece just listen to how Stevenson combines Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee and Chopin’s A minor Etude Op.10 No.2 in Etudette d’après Korsakov et Chopin. What a tour-de-force from Stevenson, magnificently realised by Murray McLachlan.

With the Three contrapuntal studies on Chopin Waltzes Godowski does come to mind in these terrific studies, with No.1 for right hand only, No.2 for left hand only and No.3 an incredible ‘double waltz’ combining both together. There is phenomenal playing here, with phrasing that, in this difficult piece, is amazing. There is no doubt of Murray McLachlan’s superb technique.

The second disc in this set commences with Le festin d’Alkan: Concerto for solo piano ‘Petit concert en forme d’études pour piano seul à Peter Hick. The first movement is a Free composition, a phenomenal piece that requires great technical ability. It is full of dissonances, forward momentum and frighteningly difficult passages for the pianist. The second movement is titled Free transcription and draws on Alkan’s Barcarolle Op.65 No.6 and is no less challenging. The central trio section brings in quotes from Scarlatti and Paganini before the Barcarolle returns in a different guise, at first quiet dark sounding. Finally there are Free multiple variations, a fearsomely complex movement that concludes with a Schubertian quotation from Death and the Maiden. This is a quite stunning performance from McLachlan, technically accomplished, controlled, full of bravura yet sensitive to the music’s details.

Sonata No.1 in G minor is an arrangement of Ysaÿe’s first unaccompanied violin sonata with a sonorous yet dissonant variation in the opening preludio, and a lovely fugato, where Stevenson’s debt to Bach through Ysaÿe, Busoni and Godowski is evident, yet so original. The allegretto poco scherzoso is a lighter piece, a perfect contrast to the fugue, whilst the lively finale con brio allegro, with an almost dance rhythm concludes the first sonata. And did I hear a quote from Rachmaninov’s famous C sharp minor prelude glinting through?

The first movement of Sonata No.2, obsession, opens with a quotation of the Dies Irae which continues to be merged into the texture, as is Bach’s E major Partita which Ysaÿe quoted in his sonata. Malinconia is a quiet little movement where the Dies Irae again intrudes as it does in Dances des ombres and the unsettled Les furies. At times it is difficult to know which is Ysaÿe, Stephenson, Bach or the Dies Irae such are they entwined. Murray McLachlan fully does justice to this work in playing that is impeccably accomplished.

Norse elegy was written in memory of Percy Grainger’s surgeon’s wife, Ella Nygaard, using a musical monogram on the name Ella (E-A-A-A) and is a really telling elegy, marked con passion repressa, quoting the opening of Grieg’s Piano Concerto and eloquently played by McLachlan. Finally there is Canonic Caprice on ‘The Bat’. This may only be 4½ minutes long but it packs in so much around the well-known tune by Moritz Rosenthal. This is a technically demanding piece wonderfully played to round off CD2.

The third disc opens with the Fantasy for mechanical organ, an arrangement by Stevenson for two hands of Busoni’s two piano arrangement of Mozart’s original work.  At first it sounds more like Bach, with a wonderful fugue, before proceeding into the thoughtful andante con variazioni. The Romanze from Piano Concerto in D minor K.466 (Mozart) is a straightforward arrangement for solo piano that cleverly hints at the orchestral part with some added ornamentation whilst Melody on a ground by Glazunov, a brief poco lento,  draws on Glazunov’s Poème Improvisation. Ricordanza di San Romerio is another short but affecting piece evoking plainchant apparently inspired by the monastery of St Romerio in Switzerland.

Purcell arrives in the form of Three Grounds, a transcription of Purcell themes including the Ode to St Cecelia. This is poised, elegant music, with an underlying contrapuntal line, elegantly played by McLachlan. Purcell appears again in the Toccata where he seems to meet Bach in a simply wonderful ‘free transcription’ brilliantly played. Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s New Scotch Tune are, indeed, jazzy variations that have a distinctive American feel in their bluesy melodic style which, as it progresses, could almost be Gershwin.

Hornpipe is based on Purcell’s 6th Suite for Harpsichord and, at times, has a nostalgic charm. We are told that The Queen’s Dolour (A Farewell) was later arranged for guitar. This is evoked with a quiet little melody, sensitively played by McLachlan. Two Music Portraits are two miniatures for children Valse Charlot and Valse Garbo intended as musical ‘cigarette cards’ of film stars. Three Elizabethan pieces after John Bull date from 1950 when Stevenson was only 22 years of age. There is a beautiful pavane, a stately galliard that midway builds in strength and a lively and quite fiendish jig (The Kings Hunt) played with a real sense of abandon by McLachlan.

I have written far more than I normally would in a review but, such is the interest in this set, I could not have done the music justice by omitting any of the works here.

Murray McLachlan is a tremendous advocate for these pieces and provides detailed notes. The recordings are clear and detailed. This new release should appeal to all lovers of fine piano music and, indeed, music lovers in general, where they will find much to enjoy.

See also:

Friday 18 January 2013

Harmonia Mundi’s Musique d’abord series - great performances of 20th Century masterworks from Isabelle Faust and exceptional singing from the Huelgas-Ensemble in Richafort’s Requiem

Harmonia Mundi has just released ten more recordings in their budget priced Musique d’abord series. These new releases cover a wide range of music including Beethoven, Britten, Rossini, Wolf, Schumann, Le Jeune and Strauss. The discs are attractively presented in a three-fold cardboard cover with the CD’s themselves made to look like mini vinyl LP’s all in black with a centre label

I have selected two of these recordings that show the breadth of music covered in this series.  On the first of these discs, Jean Richafort’s Requiem (in memoriam Josquin Despréz) is coupled with six of his motets all sung by Huelgas-Ensemble directed by Paul Van 

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Little is known about the Flemish composer Jean Richafort (c.1480-c.1547). His name first appears in 1519 when a motet of his appears in a collection. He is believed to have been a pupil of Josquin Despréz. Between 1543 and 1547 he is known to have been choirmaster of the church of St Gilles, Bruges.

Right from the start of the Introite it is apparent that this Requiem is something special – both in terms of the music and the choir. There is a beautiful richness, with deep basses, pure trebles and a wonderfully homogenous sound throughout. The pacing of this music is ideal and in the following Kyrie there is a beautiful layering of voices. The Graduale develops from a single alto voice as the rest of the voices slowly join with the trebles more prominent. There is a lovely ebb and flow as the music rises and falls. The Offertorium opens with the upper voices and, even when the full choir joins, there is a greater forward momentum. And what a wonderful Sanctus, richly flowing with a lovely Benedictus. The gentle Agnus Dei, is perfectly sung with wonderful control and beautiful blending of voices. An affecting Communio ends this beautiful Requiem.

The opening motet, Laetamini in Domino, is an attractive work full of lovely touches and wonderfully performed. With Sufficiebat nobis paupertas returns the richness that was apparent in the Requiem with, again that beautiful richness and blending of voices. The Salve Regina is another richly varied work that shows off all the sections of the choir whilst the beautiful motet Ne vous chaille mon cueur weaves a lovely sound.  The motet Tru tru trut avant, which strikes a completely different note from the other motets on this disc, is a lively drinking song sung in canon with some terrific singing. Finally there is Il n’est si douce vie is a light textured motet for upper voices only.

If anyone was like me and missed this exceptional CD first time around then do not hesitate now. The singing on this disc is absolutely wonderful and I found myself returning to the Requiem over and over again.

The excellent recording was made in the in the large acoustic of Eglise Saint Sylvain a Saint-Sauvant, Saintonge, in 2000. There are useful notes by the choir’s director Paul Van Nevel but no texts. 
The other disc that I have selected is of works for violin and piano by Jánaček, Szymanowski and Lutosławski played by the wonderful Isabelle Faust (violin) and Ewa Kupiec (piano) .

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Leoš Eugen Jánaček (1854-1928) wrote his Sonata for Violin and Piano in 1913, though he continued to revise it up until 1921. He actually wrote two previous violin sonatas in 1880, which have been lost. Being a late musical developer, the sonata falls into Jánaček’s middle period and has links to his opera Kátà Kabanová, written between 1919-1921.

The sonata has a striking opening, con moto, where Isabelle Faust and Ewa Kupiec launch straight into the music with a passion. A rhapsodic theme soon emerges but is interrupted by Jánaček’s usual hesitant and biting sounds, thrillingly and sensitively played by Faust and Kupiec.  The ballada opens with a rather French sound with some beautiful hushed moments played magically by Isabelle Faust.  The allegretto returns to sounds typical of Jánaček, short clipped phrases before a central melody, the opening theme returning at the end. The final movement is an adagio, though it has fierce interruptions with Isabelle Faust drawing some wonderful timbres from her violin, whilst giving a passionate melody in the more flowing passages. There is tremendous precision from Isabelle Faust and Ewa Kupiec.

With the works Mythes, Métopes and Songs of the Fairy Princess the Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), reached his full maturity as a composer. Myths for violin and piano Op.30, was written in 1915 and the three pieces that form this work draw their inspiration from classical Greece.

La Fontaine d'Aréthuse is impressionistic, scented music, full of atmosphere where Ewa Kupiec provides a lovely rippling piano sound full of Debussian beauty, whilst Isabelle Faust gives a strong, authoritative reading, finely played with such control of the varying dynamics. This is superb artistry. The wistful Narcisse, entrancingly played, evokes the lake of the story, where Narcissus, son of Cephisus, lived only until he saw his reflection in a pool, dying of self-love and turned into a flower. Ravel occasionally seems to permeate the sound world. There is a fast flowing Dryades and Pan, played with sparkling style, that ends this work. The lovely, quiet, solo passage for violin that occurs part way through is superbly played by Faust.

The Partita for Violin and Piano by the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), was written in 1984 during the composer’s period of late composition that also saw his Third and Fourth Symphonies (1983 and 1992) and his Piano Concerto (1987).

The opening allegro giusto is played with much swagger and style, particularly the sliding violin notes. There are some wonderful hushed moments and moments full of energy tremendously played by Isabelle Faust.  Ad libitum has an elusive section that opens this movement before a richer melody for violin enters. The largo is a darkly troubled movement requiring a high degree of insight and sensitivity, provided here in spadefuls. Even the little bird like calls on the violin don’t raise the atmosphere above unsettling. The movement rises to a passionate climax with the violin soaring over chords on the piano. What a tremendous partnership I thought when I heard this.  A short ad libitum with short tentative phrases for both violin and piano leads to a frantic presto with repeated phrases alternating between violin and piano, and a central slow section full of strange harmonics on the violin before a tumultuous coda that suddenly cuts the music off.

This is one of Lutosławski’s great late works, full of melody, spiky rhythms and magical sounds brilliantly played by both Isabelle Faust and Ewa Kupiec.

Lutosławski’s short piece for violin and piano, Subito, was written in 1991. Isabelle Faust fairly throws herself into the opening passages. A slightly mournful theme follows before the more caustic phrases alternate. This great little miniature is superbly played.

If you are looking for some great performances of these 20th Century masterworks then look no further. The playing here is tremendous and the recording, made in 2002 at the Teldex Studio in Berlin, is excellent.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

An opportunity to get inside opera at Opera Coast

In recent times there has been a lot of attention given to encouraging people to take up singing.  BBCTV programmes such as Gareth Malone’s BAFTA winning The Choir have drawn together people of all ages and backgrounds in order to show them the enjoyment of singing in a

Gareth Malone’s musical interests are wide, including opera and he has previously co-presented an open-air relay in London's Trafalgar Square of Verdi's Don Carlo with Deborah Bull for the Royal Opera House.

There is still a need for an event that gives both professionals and amateurs the opportunity, not only to sing in opera, but to learn more about the production of opera. This is where an event like OperaCoast  is invaluable.

Held in the new performing arts centre, the Birley Centre, in the heart of Eastbourne on the south coast of East Sussex, England, this event is for singers passionate about operatic music. OperaCoast gives a privileged hands-on experience of operatic singing with a weekend operatic workshop that takes place in the height of summer.

Following a successful launch of OperaCoast in 2012, this year’s event will take place during the weekend of 19th - 21st July 2013.

Participants will be led by acclaimed professional music and theatrical directors with experience of working with major opera houses. Working around scenes from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, there will be an opportunity to explore the psychology of opera, different approaches to the characters, various ensembles, the connections between words and music and much more.

There will be auditions for principal roles but anyone with some experience of singing and the ability to learn music independently is welcome to join the chorus. What makes this event even more attractive is that you don’t even have to be a singer to get involved. Non-singing partners and friends are invited to go along for the weekend as observers and then come along and watch the performance, making OperaCoast effectively an operatic holiday.

The Music Director of Opera Coast is Gregory Rose who has a wide international experience of orchestral, operatic and choral conducting. He is Music Director of the Jupiter Orchestra, Jupiter Singers and Singcircle, and has conducted the London Philharmonic, St Petersburg Symphony, Finnish Radio Symphony and the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestras, and orchestras and ensembles throughout Eastern and Western Europe. He has appeared in festivals throughout Europe, including two BBC Promenade concerts and has made recordings for Chandos, Hyperion, Wergo, Continuum, Naxos, Da Capo and October Music.

The Director of Opera Coast will be Susannah Waters who for twelve years worked as an opera singer, performing principal roles in many of the world’s leading opera houses, including the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera, New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera Festival, LA Opera, Seattle Opera, Theatre du Chatelet, and Royal Swedish Opera. In 2002, she left singing to become a writer and stage director. Her first music theatre piece, the regina monologues, was commissioned by the Covent Garden Festival in 2001.

The pianist for Opera Coast will be Nigel Foster  who is an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music. Nigel enjoys a busy schedule performing on the concert platform, playing for singers including Sergei Leiferkus, the late Philip Langridge, Sarah Walker, Yvonne Kenny, Roderick Williams, Louise Winter, Ian Partridge, Neil Jenkins, James Gilchrist, Jeremy Huw Williams, Katherine Broderick, Stephan Loges, Stephen Varcoe and Jane Manning, and instrumentalists including violinist Madeleine Mitchell. He has performed at major UK and has made a number of recordings.

OperaCoast also holds a midseason concert in association with Eastbourne Festival. OperaCoast Interlude is intended to bring opera to the local people and to involve them in an intimate conversation about the important things in life. This year OperaCoast Interlude will be held at the Birley Centre on Saturday 6th April.


Sunday 13 January 2013

Complete Duets with Cello - Glière rarities from Naxos

The reputation of Reinhold Moritzevich Glière (1875-1956) has not fared well over the years. It is thought by many that the quality of his music fell dramatically after the Russian revolution due to his having complied with diktats of the Soviet authorities.

This is probably not an accurate assessment given that his work could be very uneven during his earlier years. You only have to compare his First and Second Symphonies, written 1900 and 1908 respectively, with his Symphony No. 3 ‘Ilya Muromets’, from 1911, to see how variable his works could be.

The fact that his Hymn to a Great City was played over the loudspeakers at one of Leningrad’s railway stations (Testimony – The Memoirs of Shostakovich as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov – Hamish Hamilton 1979) also furthers the view that Glière was a bland composer very much under the control of the Soviet authorities. Yet, at his best, Glière produced some very fine works, his third symphony being amongst them.

A new release from Naxos gives us the complete duets with cello featuring Glière’s Eight Duets for Violin and Cello Op.39, his Ballade for Cello and Piano Op.4, the Ten Duets for Two Cellos Op.53 and Twelve Album Leaves for Cello and Piano Op.51. The artists on this new disc are Martin Rummel and Alexander Hülshoff (cellos), Friedemann Eichhorn (violin) and Till Alexander Körber (piano).

It must be said that none of these works plumbs the depths of emotion but that is no reason why this music, some of it very attractive, should not provide enjoyment.
The Eight Duets for Violin and Cello Op.39 are played alternately by the cellists Martin Rummel and Alexander Hülshoff with the violinist Friedemann Eichhorn.

They open with an attractive prelude: andante followed by a gavotte that dances along nicely with an often rustic feel. The Cradle Song is a rocking tranquillo that oddly has quite astringent textures for the cello. There is a canzonetta with an attractive theme, though the cello part is often rather bland and repetitive, and an intermezzo with a light, attractive melody. The impromptu is a more interesting piece as Alexander Hülshoff and Friedemann Eichhorn have more to do, with each playing a kind of counterpoint to each other. The scherzo has plenty of lively rhythmic bounce and is a great little piece whilst the final étude is a hectic allegro molto where the performers give it everything they’ve got in a scintillating performance.

All three performers certainly give these pieces plenty of verve and enthusiasm, making the best of what is probably not one of Glière’s finest pieces.

The short Ballade for Cello and Piano Op. 4 borders on being a salon piece, such is its overall feel. Here it receives an enthusiastic performance from Martin Rummel and Till Alexander Körber that makes the most of its more animated passages.

Rather more enjoyable is Glière’s Ten Duets for Two Cellos Op.53 opening with a comodo (literally – a convenient pace) with some lovely interweaving of the two cellos around each other, followed by a brilliantly played leggiero, a piece that could easily come to grief in less skilled hands given the rapid close harmonies between the two cellos. There is a lyrical Con Moto, a lightly sprung vivace, showing how well these two cellist play together and an andante, a melancholy piece, with the strings of the two cellos blending as one instrument, making for a wonderful sound.

In the energico, Martin Rummel and Alexander Hülshoff play as though echoing each other and there is an attractive central melody. The animato again has the two soloists weaving around each other beautifully whilst the giacoso calls for more incisiveness that both cellists seem to enjoy immensely. The andantino is a rather odd piece that is nevertheless quiet attractive, with the second seeming to just buzz along with a little tune for the first cello. The concluding capriccio is a delightful little piece to round off this set, with the cellos dancing around each other.

I really rather enjoyed these pieces and was particularly struck as to how Glière sometimes creates such a full, almost orchestral, sound from the strings of the two cellos, an aspect of the music very much brought out by these cellists.

Finally on this disc are the Twelve Album Leaves for Cello and Piano Op.51played by Martin Rummel (cello) and Till Alexander Körber (piano). These pieces really sing, having the character of songs without words.

The piano introduces the con moto which again sounds as though it is going to be salon music but, with the entry of the cello in a richly melodic theme, this work takes off with an impassioned theme played with great feeling by Martin Rummel. The following comodo continues much in the same vein though less passionately. There is an andantino, a slightly wistful piece with some lovely cello sounds in the lower register then a short andante con moto leading to an andantino poco animato, a lighter piece that nevertheless rises to a climax perhaps justifying the animato marking. The allegretto has a slight eastern influence with a folk music feel infusing the piece.

The allegretto ma non troppo is nicely expansive and is followed by a piece marked affanato. I don’t mind admitting that I haven’t previously come across such a tempo marking but discover that it means 'breathless' and it is, indeed, a fast moving piece that shows some terrific playing from both performers. The cantabile is a lovely singing piece whilst the con tristezza has an attractive dance like theme. The penultimate andante is a lovely tune, again sounding very folk influenced and the final animato is a stirring, rippling, turbulent piece with just a hint of Rachmaninov briefly infusing the piano part.

Both pianist and cellist play wonderfully in what, for me, is the most attractive work on this disc.

The recording sounds quite closely miked and I would have preferred a little more air around the performers. This tends to make the string sound slightly congested in some climaxes but not to the extent of spoiling one’s enjoyment of the music.

Friday 11 January 2013

A cello tone to relish from Christian Poltéra in a new Barber release from BIS

BIS CD 1827

I first heard the cellist, Christian Poltéra on a BIS Records release back in 2007 performing the Frank Martin Cello Concerto along with the Ballade for Cello and Piano (BIS CD 1637).
This was an impressive disc so I was pleased when the opportunity came to hear a new release from BIS of the Barber Cello Concerto, Cello Sonata and Adagio for strings with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton with Kathryn Stott (piano)
Many people know of Samuel Barber (1910-1981) because of one single work, his Adagio for strings. Whilst his output was relatively modest (his numbered works total 48) he wrote two symphonies, a number of orchestral works, a concerto each for violin, cello and piano, three operas, songs, chamber music, piano music and works for organ.

Barber’s Cello Concerto Op.22, dates from 1945 and was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the cellist Raya Garbousova. Such was the collaboration between composer and performer, Garbousova later recalled that it was one of the most creative and happiest times of her life.

Right from the beginning, Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra bring a freshness and clarity to the music. As the cello enters, Christian Poltéra’s lyrical tone is most beguiling, rich yet not dense. He is incisive in the passages where it is required and is particularly telling in the quiet moments. The cello and orchestra are beautifully balanced. In the first movement cadenza, Poltéra displays all his various strengths, richly melodic, crisp and clear, with lovely intonation in the upper range. Andrew Litton draws a really idiomatic sound from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. And what playing at the end of the first movement - simply breathtaking.

The wistful andante sostenuto unfolds with a beautifully controlled flow, every nuance caught, thus bringing out more than usual of the music’s inner feeling without ever being sentimental. The music can often flag in the final molto allegro but here Christian Poltéra finds every opportunity to lift the work, providing a wonderful array of timbres to add to the interest, spinning some lovely sounds on the cello. A wonderful dialogue ensues between cello and orchestra and, towards the coda, there is some particularly brilliant playing from this cellist. In the hands of a superb artist such as this, the concerto is elevated beyond a merely attractive lyrical work to something that sounds more like a masterwork.

Christian Poltéra and Kathryn Stott make a fine partnership in Barber’s early cello sonata. The sonata dates from 1932 and was partly written whilst staying in Italy with the composer Menotti. In this performance the pacing is excellent as the music settles on the lovely main theme showing that, even at the age of twenty two, Barber knew how to write a great tune. There is sensitive playing in the quiet passages where both artists seem to know instinctively what the other is doing. There is a wonderful control of dynamics.

The adagio is unusual in that it is interrupted midway by a fleeting, lively presto before returning to the original tempo. In the presto, both players are superb and, in the return of the adagio, Christian Poltéra brings some powerful playing allowing one just to relish his gorgeous cello tone. In the allegro appassionato, Christian Poltéra and Kathryn Stott provide all the fire and virtuosity you could wish for, bringing this attractive sonata to a fine close. There isn’t a routine moment in this performance.

Who doesn’t know Barber’s Adagio for strings. From its original form as part of his string quartet, Barber made a string orchestra arrangement for Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with whom it received its first performance in a radio broadcast in 1938. He later arranged it for organ, clarinet choir and woodwind choir as well as a setting of the Agnus Dei for choir.

Andrew Litton brings poise to this music that often eludes other conductors who like to bring out every last drop of emotion. Here the music holds back, rises, falls and then pushes forward in a direct way that is all the more telling for its reticence. The strings of the Bergen Philharmonic have a transparency that helps the music a lot.

The recordings on this disc, from the Grieghallen, Bergen (Adagio and Concerto) and the former Academy of Music, Nybrokajen, Stockholm (Sonata) are excellent. I look forward to further releases from this cellist.