Wednesday 27 February 2013

Exceptionally fine performances from Ensemble MidtVest in the second volume of Dacapo’s Holmboe chamber music series

Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) was born in Horsens in east-central Jutland, Denmark of parents that were amateur musicians. He gained admission to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen partly due to the recommendation of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) . His entrance work was a String Quartet as was his graduation piece in 1929.

At the Conservatory, his teachers were Knud Jeppesen (1892-1974) (music theory) and Finn Høffding (1899-1997) (composition). In 1930 Holmboe travelled to Berlin and studied briefly with Ernst Toch (1887-1964). It was in Berlin that he met the Romanian pianist Meta May Graf whom he would later marry. Holmboe stayed in Romania in 1933/34 studying Balkan folk music which became an important influence on his music. Holmboe and Meta May married there in 1933. His interest in Bartok came from his travels and studies in the Balkans and he later made further studies into Arabic Musical Culture.

Chamber music was an important part of Holmboe’s compositional output, his first important composition being the Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 (1935). Holmboe’s Second Symphony received First Prize in the Royal Danish Orchestra’s Scandinavian Competition in 1939. In addition to bringing Holmboe’s name to a wider audience it enabled him to buy land in Ramløse, about 30 miles from Copenhagen where he and Meta May built a house.

From 1940 to 1949 Holmboe taught at the Institute for the Blind in Copenhagen and in 1947 became a music reviewer for Politiken, a Copenhagen daily newspaper. From 1950 he was a teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen, becoming a professor there in 1955. From the late 1940’s Holmboe developed his compositional method of metamorphosis, a system based on the progress of development that transforms one matter into another.

Holmboe’s numbered works total about 370, including 13 symphonies, three chamber symphonies, four symphonies for strings, 20 string quartets, numerous concertos, one opera, and preludes for chamber orchestra, as well as choral and other music. His last work, the 21st string quartet, Quartetto sereno, was completed by his pupil, the composer Per Nørgård .

BIS Records have already made recordings of all of Holmboe’s symphonies with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes. Last year Dacapo Records issued a fine recording of the three Chamber Symphonies with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds.

Now from Dacapo comes the second volume of Holmboe’s chamber music featuring the Ensemble MidtVest. Such is the exceptionally fine playing of this ensemble it is right that I should list the names of all of the members who are Matthew Jones (violin), Sanna Ripatti (viola), Jonathan Slaatto (cello), Martin Qvist Hansen (piano), Charlotte Norholt (flute), Peter Kirstein (oboe), Tommaso Lonquich (clarinet), Neil Page (horn) and Stefan Kasper (bassoon).

Eco Op.186 (1991) Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano opens with the clarinet and cello in a passionate theme in this allegro liberamente. The piano then enters alone before soon being joined by the clarinet and cello in a forward moving section that eventually slows and becomes rather nostalgic. The music again becomes passionate leading to an extended solo piano passage. When the clarinet and cello join, they seemingly feed off each other in what Holmboe calls ‘echo’.  A lovely mournful little andante con moto follows which, as it progresses, becomes more animated in a rather anxious way with the piano maintaining the mournful feel. The andante finale opens like a fresh spring morning, full of brightness. The cello joins and adds a little more gravitas but the clarinet is always leading the music up. A short, quiet piano interlude gives way to a bright ending with emphatic chords on the piano.

The andante tranquillo of Aspects Op.72 (1957) for Wind Quintet has much of an outdoors feel to it. There is nostalgia and some lovely sonority from these players. The clarinet introduces a livelier theme, full of life and movement, before the solo horn heralds a quiet section with nicely pointed up contributions from the other instrumentalists.  The andante con moto opens on the clarinet before the other instruments join in with a beautifully woven tapestry of instrumental sounds. There is some gorgeous music in this movement.

Short stabbing phrases open the andante inquieto in a faster movement, playful and full of fun, delightfully written. A short lento, opening with the clarinet, is full of quiet calm, with lovely sonorities, leading to the allegro giocoso where the bassoon enters alone on low notes, before quickly leaping upwards to be joined by the other instruments in another playful movement, with the instruments beautifully dovetailed. This is a delightful work, beautifully written and played.

The opening Praeludio: Tempo giusto of the Sonata for Violoncello solo op.101 (1968/69) brings some fine playing from Jonathan Slaatto in this slightly ruminative movement with the cello working out the opening theme. The Fugare: Allegro giusto is a lively movement full of sprung rhythms, double stopping and some lovely harmonic effects, ending on a single plucked note. The Introduzione: Adagio – Finale: Allegro giocoso opens with natural harmonics high up on the cello before alternating with a richer string sound, occasionally reminiscent of Shostakovich. There are some lovely sounds from the cellist here with pizzicato playing and a rich lower register in a passionate performance from Slaatto.

Holmboe’s Quartetto Medico Op.70 (1956) for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano was written for four amateur musician doctors. It shows Holmboe’s more humorous side – you’ve only got to look at the tempo markings. The first two movements represent the contrast between healthy and feverish. The Andante medicamento gently opens with a lovely flowing melody, very tranquil before the short Allegro quasi febrile brings some gently unsettled, animated music. Intermedico I: Andante senza pianisticitis  is a long flowing fugal melody with some especially fine playing and Intermedico II: (sans marais): Poco largamente opens with the piano in a serious melody for solo piano. (Sans marais means ‘without marsh’, one of the doctors being Dr. Mose, mose being Danish for marsh, so obviously Dr Mose was not the pianist when first performed). The final Allegro con frangula (frangula is a laxative) has an appropriately fast flowing melody with rapid piano notes accompanied by a woodwind melody.

Sextet Op.114 (1956) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola and cello is a terrific work with an andante that opens on the strings with a slow introduction before the bassoon enters. Soon a faster section appears very much in the neo-classical mould, with woodwind and strings weaving around each other. The andante cantabile provides an atmospheric movement, remote sounding, almost taking one into the reaches of an orchestral movement such does Holmboe use his instruments so effectively. It builds to a slightly anguished central section before falling back with the bassoon and clarinet for a quiet ending for all instruments. The allegro molto opens with short sharp notes from the strings before the woodwind playfully scurry around. There is wonderful playing from all the instrumentalists in music that is sometimes quite intricate.

These accomplished musicians give performances that are hardly likely to be bettered. With an excellent recording and informative notes this new release can be enthusiastically recommended.

Monday 25 February 2013

Works by Edwin Roxburgh and Michael Finnissy showcase the new Howarth-Redgate oboe and the recently developed Lupophon on a new release from Metier

Whilst we tend to think of classical musical instruments as remaining unchanged in the modern age, during previous centuries instruments were developed in order to improve their sound, fingering or to make the playing of new music easier.

With the demands of some contemporary music, it should not really come as a surprise that oboist, Christopher Redgate, has been working with the oboe maker, Howarth of London, on the redesign of some of the key-work of the oboe. The aim has been to develop an oboe which is specifically designed for the performance of contemporary repertoire. A significant number of contemporary compositional practices challenge the current design of the key-work as, indeed, they do the performers. This is particularly the case when used in complex passages, or at difficult speeds.

The aims of Redgate’s work have been to make some of these technical problems easier through the development of key-work which is specifically adapted to the challenges and to open up the instrument to a range of new sonic and technical possibilities.  The kind of compositional practices that he has been addressing include the use of microtones, the use of the altissimo range (top G and above) and the use of multiphonics. For more information on his work go to

Metier have just released Volume One of a series of recordings of New Music for Oboe. This new disc features the new Howarth-Redgate oboe played by Christopher Redgate, with Stephen Robbings (piano) and Michael Finnissy (piano). On this disc Redgate also plays the rarely heard Lupophon, a bass oboe.


Edwin Roxburgh (b.1937) has written a new work specifically for Christopher Regdate to demonstrate the abilities of the new instrument. Roxburgh’s new work, The Well-Tempered Oboe, certainly gives an amazing demonstration of what the new oboe can achieve. Each movement is based on a Bach title and is written to give the pianist an equally virtuosic role.

Opening in the extreme high register, the music is astringent at times but there are amazing textures and colours. The first movement, Aeolian Prelude, sets out in a manner that looks as though it intends to shock yet develops with some intriguing and attractive sounds as the oboe and piano weave around each other. Triadic Arioso has strange dissonant microtonal harmonies against a piano motif, leading to a somewhat plaintive melody before alternating with the dissonant microtones. Towards the end there are unusual timbres quietly set against the piano.

The third movement, Chromatic Fantasia, has almost bell like notes on the piano with the oboe playing complementary phrases. This meditative opening section, with the oboe creating sounds, at times melodic, around piano chords still requires exceptional virtuosity from both performers. The juxtaposition of astringency against melody is quiet affecting. There is later a more rapid section before the return of the meditative theme. There is a virtuoso ‘Multiphonic Toccata’ which concludes this work with some phenomenal playing. There is also tremendous playing from Stephen Robbings with the oboe dancing over rapid piano phrases. Occasionally, a mellower sound from the oboe breaks through but the listener is always kept their toes. There is a cadenza for the solo oboe that demonstrates Redgate’s terrific skill, if such a demonstration is still needed after such a performance. There are amazing sounds in this challenging, but rewarding work.

Michael Finnissy (b.1946) composed his Âwâz-e Niyâz for oboe/lupophon and piano in 2012. Âwâz-e Niyâz means ‘Songs from Mysterious Necessity (or Prayerfulness) and was inspired by the Vocal Radif of Traditional Iranian Music which brings together material from improvised song performances.

The Lupophon is a recently developed bass oboe with a range that goes down to a low F at the bottom of the bass clef. This instrument is still comparatively rare but has created an interest amongst composers who are interested in writing for the instrument. For more information go to

Written in one continuous movement Âwâz-e Niyâz opens with a definite Persian or eastern influence on the lupophon against a fragmented piano counterpoint. There are some lovely deep sonorities in this evocative music. There is an extended passage for piano on the fragmented counterpoint phrases. The Howarth-Redgate oboe enters echoing the piano theme, repetitive overall, yet varied by the sonorities of the oboe.

Based on improvised song performances, this music has the feel of such a composition. A new theme enters, more dramatically, with chords on the piano against cries from the lupophon and oboe using the upper and lower registers of each instrument to great effect, becoming almost ghostly with strange echoes between instruments.

Menacing sounds re-appear as the music gets louder until eventually the Persian influenced sounds appear again as the music slowly winds its way forward. The music climbs in pitch on the oboe showing the amazing versatility of this new instrument. The exotic Persian sounds return again with the lupophone and oboe, as the music continues to weaves its way forward. Dissonances appear before the lupophon enters with the piano meandering around in lovely phrases following the lupophon downwards.

After some lovely short, quiet, slow phrases from the lupophon, the piano takes the lead in a delicate solo passage where the pianist provides an extended melody, against which the lupophon and oboe add occasional mournful phrases. The control in this passage is quite mesmerising continuing as it does over a long span until, with trills on the oboe, a lighter mood is introduced, though still quiet and slow. Again the mournful sound of the oboe’s upper reaches re-appears, with great concentration and sensitivity from both instrumentalists.

Eventually the music brightens with a plaintive but lively melody for the oboe over notes picked out on the piano in a kind of spare counterpoint. There is an outburst on both instruments as the lupophon gives loud astringent sounds over low, loud chords on the piano. This stormy music, with fierce runs up the lower keyboard and astringent cries and outbursts from the lupophon and oboe, continues to the end, with the instruments making a variety of cries in an amazing section, full of drama. The end comes suddenly with a final outburst.

The music on this disc is challenging with the striking microtones of the Well-Tempered Oboe and the repetitions of Awaz-e Niyaz. However, concentrated listening brings immense rewards with intriguing and unusual sounds many of which are very beautiful.  Christopher Redgate’s playing is simple spectacular

The recording is excellent and there are informative notes on the instruments and the musicians by Christopher Redgate, as well as individual notes on the music by Edwin Roxburgh and Michael Finnissy.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Performances of great authority from Emanuel Ax, on a new release from Sony Classical, of Variations by Beethoven, Haydn and Schumann

From time to time one is reminded of an artist who is sometimes taken for granted such is his musical achievement over the years. New artists appear showing great promise but, when a long established performer makes a new recording of great authority and musicianship, one is jolted into recognising again the stature of such an artist.

Such is the case with a new recording for Sony Classical  by Emanuel Ax Here Ax has recorded Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue for piano in E flat major Op.35, Haydn’s Variations in F minor Hob.XVII:6 (Andante con variazioni) and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes Op.13. Emanuel Ax has said that ‘we’re so centered on the sonata style. What’s nice sometimes is to look at other ways to deal with structure, other ways to deal with expression’ and indeed he does so, brilliantly.

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Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue for Piano in E flat major Op.35, written in 1802, are usually known as the ‘Eroica’ Variations due to their foreshadowing the finale of the Eroica Symphony. In fact they actually use material from earlier works, the finale of the Twelve Contradances and the finale of his Prometheus ballet music. Beethoven actually asked his publisher to put a reference to Prometheus on the title page of the score but he failed to do so. In view of this, the variations could reasonably be called the Prometheus Variations. Consisting of an Introduction, Fifteen Variations and Fugue (Finale) this magnificent work is a culmination of Beethoven’s early sets of variations.

From the opening chord, Emanuel Ax shows that he is his own man, giving a gently thoughtful yet spontaneous presentation of the theme, before the full allegretto vivace, Eroica (or rather Prometheus) theme. There are so many lovely features in this performance, such as the lovely rolling first variation played with a nonchalant air, yet with such fine pianism, superb fluency in variation two, lovely touches in the fleeting fourth variation, an improvisatory fifth that could easily be Beethoven trying out his ideas. There is imagination and mastery throughout variation seven; a lovely expansive eighth variation has all the poetry and feeling that you could want.

The tenth variation has the fantasy and wonder beautifully captured, variation eleven is full of stately poise and crystalline purity, variation twelve always has control yet keeps spontaneity and there is terrific playing in the thirteenth variation, with all its dissonances. Spontaneity is present in the fourteenth variation which allows a feeling of nostalgia in this slow variation. Ax runs variation fourteen perfectly into the next and final variation that is so full of poetry and poise. He draws so much from the music that one forgets that this is another variation as it takes on such a personal form of its own.

It is easy to forget that Beethoven could bring so much to the fugal form. One has only to listen to the wonderful final fugue of his Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat major, Op.110 to hear what he could do or indeed the final great fugue of these variations.  Ax leads so naturally into the fugue, seemingly pulling all the variations together in playing of supreme mastery in this fugue based on the base line of the theme. Throughout one can glimpse the ‘Eroica’ theme in this breathtakingly played conclusion to this great work.

Haydn’s Variations in F minor Hob.XVII:6 (Andante con variazioni), written in 1793 is a perfect work to follow Beethoven’s magnificent Variations and Fugue. Haydn’s little variations in F minor are thought to have been intended to be the first movement of a larger work. Ax shows his affinity in the quiet thoughtful moments as this lovely work slowly develops. In Ax’s hands these variations are nothing less than a gem. There is such fluidity, with the later descending passage wonderfully done. Ax brings such a sense of fantasy to this work.

Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes Op.13 were written in 1834 and based on a theme written by a certain Baron von Fricken. Dedicated to the English composer William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875), performances of these Etudes can cause confusion for listeners given that they appear in many different versions. Before publication in 1837, five of the pieces were removed by Schumann and six new ones substituted, whilst the rest were modified. In 1852 a further revision removed two further pieces that were not considered to relate very strongly to the theme. Just to add to the confusion, in 1862, Brahms reinstated these two pieces and added the five original pieces for the 1873 critical edition. On this recording Emanuel Ax gives us the Theme, followed by Etudes 1 ,2, 3, 4 and 5, Variations 4 and 5, Etudes 6, 7 and 8, Variation 2 and Etudes 9, 10, 11 and 12.

Ax presents the theme with wonderful spontaneity. The first Etude is full of imagination and there is a full, expansive second etude with so much colour and fine rubato in this emotionally mixed piece. This is great playing by any standards. Ax just slips straight into the lovely little third etude, with fleet fingered, delicate, sensitive playing. There is such a well managed change of mood from the fourth Etude, with a strident march rhythm, to the rhythm of the fifth Etude.

Variation four brings gentle, almost Chopinesque lilting phrases played to perfection by Ax with such a feeling of spontaneity. Variation five has some exquisite sounds conjured up by Ax in this limpid, again Chopinesque etude. There is some fabulous playing in Etude six, with its rapid mood swings, leading to the seventh Etude with the upward phrases showing Ax’s wonderful keyboard technique. After a superb eighth Etude, in Variation two Ax brings out so many lovely sonorities showing that there is so much more to the piece in the hands of such a fine musician, with such wonder and poetry.

Etude nine passes by so quickly and subtly before fading away to the Tenth Etude full of wonderful playing in this allegro con energia. The eleventh Etude is exquisitely shaped and coloured, building to a slight climax and gently relaxing again - wonderfully done. The final Etude, number twelve, has such a typically Schumannesque theme, an allegro brillante, to end this work. Ax combines sparkling playing with such thoughtfulness, with so many little wonders that this etude could stand alone with all its emotional and rhythmic variety.

I cannot recommend this disc too highly. Emanuel Ax brings so many wonderful things to these works yet for all his authority he retains such energy and spontaneity. The recording made at the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, is excellent.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

The Classical Reviewer blog celebrates its first anniversary



When the Classical Reviewer blog was launched in February 2012 its stated aim was for ‘a new classical review blog that aims to be both informative and thought provoking’.

From the outset I also wanted to look at the best in classical music. There are many websites and journals that are prepared to severely criticise poor performances or recordings. This is perfectly valid but I also felt that there should be a place for highlighting all that is best in classical music, whether it is a great recorded performance, unusual repertoire, contemporary works or a particularly fine live concert. There has also been the occasional opportunity to review interesting new music books.

Links are always provided to other relevant and interesting websites. I also send copies of all my blogs to the artists and contemporary composers involved – after all they are the most important people without whom there would be no such marvellous music making.

The Classical Reviewer blog has grown in just one year to have over 1000 Twitter followers and has, to date received over 10,000 page views. The average number of page views now exceeds 2000 per month.

I have been supported in this by many record companies and publishers including the following:

Avie Records, Boydell Press, Divine Art (Divine Art and Metier), Harmonia Mundi (Harmonia Mundi, Audite, Piano Classics and Signum Classics), Nimbus Alliance (Nimbus, BMS Records, EM Records, Red Priest Records), Select Distribution (Naxos, BIS, CPO, Dacapo and Ondine), Sony Classical, Souvenir Press, Toccata Classics and Universal Classical (Decca, Deutsche Grammophon).

My thanks go to all of the companies above that have supplied and continue to supply review copies. Most of all I thank my followers for supporting The Classical Reviewer blog.

My intention for the future is that The Classical Reviewer will widen to include reviews of releases from even more record companies, review more music book publications and continue to explore contemporary music and unusual music from the past as well as the best performances of the great classics, all within an interesting blog format.


Monday 18 February 2013

Strongly recommended performances of music by Madetoja from John Storgårds and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on Ondine

Leevi Antti Madetoja (1887-1947) was from the generation of Finnish composers after Sibelius. Born in Oulu, in the region of Northern Ostrobothnia, in Finland, he was the son of Antti Madetoja and Anna Hyttinen. His father travelled to the United States to find work, but died of tuberculosis, having never seen his son. Madetoja studied under Sibelius in Helsinki from 1906 to 1910 before travelling to Paris for further study with Vincent D’Indy. In 1911 he visited Vienna and Berlin before, in 1913, marrying the writer Hilja Onerva Lehtinen. From 1912 to 1914, he conducted the orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society and from 1914 to 1916 was conductor of the Viipuri Orchestra, where he was also director of the orchestra school.

Madetoja’s stylistic features were formed at an early age and changed little during his lifetime. During further extensive stays in France he was drawn by the Classical approach of Vincent D’Indy rather than the Impressionism of Debussy. His music was influenced by the traditional music of his home region, Ostrobothnia.

His early tone poem Kullervo (1913) is full of expression and atmosphere but it is his three symphonies that make up the core of Madetoja’s output. The First Symphony in F major dates from 1916 and is the shortest of the three. The Second Symphony in E flat major (1918), written during the Finnish Civil war, is full of grandeur. Whilst he didn’t fight in the Finnish Civil War, Madetoja was deeply affected by the events, including the death of his brother, Yrjö, who was killed in action.

Many consider that his Third Symphony in A major, partly written in France in 1926, is his masterpiece. A more restrained work, it has an orchestration that is influenced by his French surroundings. Important in his output are his two operas Pohjalaisia (The Ostrobothnian’s) (1923) and Juha (1934).

In the 1930’s, a suitcase containing the score of his fourth symphony was stolen from him at a railway station; and never recovered. Madetoja did not try to reconstruct the symphony and, in his last years, wrote little. However, he was planning a violin concerto when he died, aged only 60. In addition to his two operas and three symphonies, Madetoja wrote a number of orchestral works, songs, choral works and chamber works.

Followers of my blog will know of my enthusiasm for both earlier and contemporary composers. I have already explored the music of Madetoja by way of the recordings made by Finlandia and reissued in a Warner Classics Ultima two CD set. These recordings include the three symphonies and, whilst the performance of the Second Symphony, with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paavo Rautio, is very good, there is a newcomer that is very fine indeed.

This new release is from Ondine and has a performance of Madetoja’s Symphony No.2 in E flat major Op.35 with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds coupled with the early Kullervo Op.15 and Elegy Op.4/1.

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The first work on this new disc is Madetoja’s Kullervo that opens with a brass and orchestral outburst before dropping to distant horn calls prior to the main melodic theme being introduced, predominantly for strings. Brass interruptions add a sense of foreboding to what is mainly a broad romantic sweep. Soon there is a brass and woodwind passage before building to a brief climax. As the music quietens there is a solo clarinet motif with the timpani quietly in the background. The timpani lead into further development of the opening horn motif that increases in drama.

Swirls of strings show the influence of Sibelius before the music rises to another climax, after which the clarinet and oboe take the melody as a duet, the oboe taking the melody as the orchestra enters. The flute has a dominant role with the orchestra as the music quietens to a brooding passage. The music rises again with brass giving full support over the orchestra, driving it along. There is a section where the momentum falters before rushing headlong towards the end, then tailing off to a quiet moment before a rich orchestral sound takes us into a repeat of the quiet theme to end. This is a work that deserves a place in the repertoire.

Madetoja’s Symphony No.2 in E flat major Op.35 has a first movement allegro moderato opening with a gentle flowing melody pointed up by short woodwind phrases and pizzicato basses. There is a brief climax, after which the music is developed. There are many beautiful, quiet woodwind moments and as the tension builds towards a climax with deep brass, the music rises with all the brass together with cymbals, until falling back on a plaintive oboe tune. This is developed by the woodwind.

There is another orchestral climax before falling back with the return of the gently flowing opening melody. The music increases in drama but again drops back to a rhythmic variation of the original theme. There is a brief climax before the music quietens with woodwind varying the opening theme. The music then opens out with strings, leading straight into the second movement andante with a solo cor anglais, whose theme is taken up eventually by a horn but as the orchestra enters, the mood is lightened. However, the timpani and oboes interrupt. There are numerous woodwind passages between the orchestral sections and, in particular, a beautiful moment where woodwind and horns are set against the orchestra The horns then pull the music forward, rising in drama to the first real climax of this movement. There is beautiful orchestration where Madetoja uses the brass and woodwind so imaginatively. The music falls back to pizzicato strings and woodwind then rises to a static passage that is somewhat Sibelian. Horns sound as the orchestra continues to be static. Bassoon and oboe take over as the strings move tentatively forward with woodwind keeping the melody. Slowly the music rises as if towards a dramatic climax but drops back with a cor anglais solo leading to a quiet brooding coda. This is a superb movement full of wonder and beauty.

The third movement, allegro non troppo, has a dynamic opening with full orchestra, brass and percussion with scurrying rhythms, the strings whipping up a storm, with woodwind swirling around. Eventually a marching rhythm enters pushing forward, strings scurry upwards, brass making a dominant contribution. The music backs off before a full climax, yet still tries to push forward. A real battle seems to be taking place with stabbing brass, more scurrying strings, before the March returns quietly, slowly growing louder. A lot is going on behind the marching strings in the woodwind and brass. With cymbal clashes, an inevitable sounding climax is finally reached with horns overlaying the orchestra in a terrific coda that trails off with quiet oboes against strings leading straight into the andantino finale with a slow, quiet string passage under laid with brass. Plaintive woodwind take over against pizzicato low strings before eventually the strings take over as the music broadens to a beautiful conclusion, mellow and resigned, leading to a little climax before ending quietly with flute trills.

Madetoja’s Elegy Op.4/1 was written in 1909, but later became part of his four-movement Sinfoninen sarja (Symphonic Suite) of 1910, hence the opus number. The Elegy, his first orchestral work, opens with a quiet, gently nuanced theme. Though a short work, it gains from its varying rhythmic pulse. The piece builds through a small climax to return to the gentle rhythm of the opening. The orchestration may not be as interesting as in his later works but nevertheless this is an attractive little work.

These are wonderful performances from John Storgårds and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra of music that is undeservedly neglected. The recording from the Helsinki Music Centre is excellent. Strongly recommended.

See also:




Saturday 16 February 2013

A new recording from Naxos of Bottesini’s attractive Requiem

Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) was a celebrated virtuoso double bass player, as well as conductor and composer. Born at Crema in Lombardy, he was the son of an able musician and clarinet player, sang in the chapel choir and displayed an early talent for music. At the age of eleven, an application was made for him to study at the Conservatorio in Milan. The only place available was to study double bass thus settling the young musician’s choice of instrument.

Bottesini’s teachers were Rossi for double bass and Basilio Basili and Nicola Vaccaj for harmony and composition. On leaving the Conservatorio he travelled with his fellow student, Signor Arditi (a violinist), eventually visiting America before obtaining a lucrative post as principal double bass in the orchestra in Havana, Cuba, a post that he kept for a number of years. It was here that his opera Christophe Colombe was first produced. He visited England in 1849, gaining a great reputation as a double bass player. Interestingly he played a three stringed instrument, somewhat smaller than a standard double bass, preferring this for its sonority.

From 1855 to 1857 Bottesini was conductor of the Italian opera in Paris and from 1861 to 1863 was director of the Italian opera in Cairo, being Verdi’s choice of conductor for the first performance of Aida. In 1871 he conducted a season at the Lyceum in London. In addition to many works for his own instrument, he also wrote fourteen operas, chamber works including eleven string quartets, a Messa di Requiem and an oratorio The Garden of Olivet, performed for the first time at the Norwich Festival. Bottesini died in Parma.

Bottesini’s Messa di Requiem was composed in 1877 after the death of his brother Luigi. It was first performed, in an adapted version, in the Capuchin chapel in Cairo, the first complete performance being at Turin’s Teatro Regio in 1880.

Naxos have just released a new recording of the Messa di Requiem performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with the Joyful Company of Singers conducted by Thomas Martin, himself a double bass player and instrument maker , and the soloists Marta Matheu (soprano), Gemma Coma-Alabert (mezzo-soprano), Agustin Prunell-Friend (tenor) and Enric Martinez-Castignani (baritone) . Although this new release is not billed as a premiere recording, I can find no other recordings currently available.
Bottesini’s opening Introit and Kyrie: Requiem aeternam, an adagio, immediately draws one in. As the four soloists join together the music rises to a brief Verdian climax before the flowing music continues, the soloists blending well with each other. There is another brief climax before the soprano and mezzo-soprano join followed by the tenor and baritone. There is a grander climax with choir and a fanfare from the brass. This is a fine requiem aeternam, with some glorious climaxes; and The Joyful Company of Singers on fine form. The four soloists continue before the choir joins and brings this section to a stirring, uplifting conclusion.

There is a slightly Mendelssohnian Dies irae with choir and orchestra, an allegro full of drama and imaginatively scored, with lovely descending woodwind above the orchestra. Perhaps the choral writing tends towards the ordinary at times but this is never less than attractive writing.  In the lovely Quid sum miser, Agustín Prunell-Friend doesn’t always sound very strong in this recording yet, in his upper register, his voice can be lovely.

Quaerens me, for choir and orchestra alone, is a very attractive setting, stirring, vibrant and full of life. In the Ingemisco I couldn’t help hearing Mendelssohn again in the orchestration. Bass, Enric Martinez-Castignani has a firm and attractive voice in this lovely andante that has attractive orchestral touches. In the Confutatis the choir opens with the orchestra in a sprung rhythm marked moderato. The four soloists appear in the central section before the choir and orchestra conclude.

The Lacrymosa is a flexible, flowing adagio with the soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone with orchestra. As a vocal ensemble these four voices work well. There is a faster central section for choir and orchestra.  After an orchestral introduction to the Offertory: Domini Jesu, the soprano, Marta Mathéu, joins. She has a firm, attractive voice, flexible, with a lovely upper register in this nicely paced andantino.

In the Sanctus and Benedictus, the short sanctus, an allegro, opens with orchestra and trumpets full of grandeur. This section, for choir and orchestra, is full of display and, dare I say without invoking too much of Verdi’s influence, theatre. There is a rather pastoral sounding benedictus with the four soloists and orchestra in a gently flowing andantino con moto. The Agnus Dei has an attractive orchestral opening before the soprano and mezzo enter. Marta Matheu and Gemma Coma-Alabert blend well in this andante.

Choir and orchestra slowly speed up to a dramatic little climax in the Requeim aeternam before speeding off in music that is nevertheless marked grave, prior to the music again building to a climax. Female voices alone open the Libera me before the full choir join. These forces alternate until the orchestra joins followed by a solo mezzo-soprano with orchestra. Gemma Coma-Alabert has quite a wide vibrato but provides some beautifully characterful singing in this lovely well-judged setting.

The earlier dies irae then re-appears in dies illa, again slightly Mendelssohnian in character but full of brilliance and gusto with cymbals crashing. The four soloists enter in a quieter section before the choir return to speed up the former theme. Tension is built by quieter sections as the music swirls to a triumphant conclusion with upward orchestral motifs.

I have to say that I enjoyed this Requiem immensely with the imaginative orchestration ensuring that there is never a tedious moment. The recording made at the Henry Wood Hall, London is excellent. There are full Latin texts and translations.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Songs by Per Nørgård in an excellent new release from Dacapo

The Danish composer Per Nørgård (b.1932) was born in Gentofte, Denmark. His father, born into a working class family in Esbjerg, started as an apprentice shop assistant, later opening a drapers' in Copenhagen. Per Nørgård studied with Vagn Holmboe at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, and subsequently with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. His early influences were Sibelius, Nielsen and Vagn Holmboe.

In the 1960s, Nørgård began exploring the modernist techniques of central Europe, eventually developing a serial compositional system based on the "infinity series". The infinity series is a series of numbers, therefore has to be called a serial technique, but Nørgård uses it to create a melodic line, but not at the same time to control rhythmical and dynamic aspects as used in Central European serialism.

He used this method in his Second and Third Symphonies and other works of the late 1960s and 1970s. It was his interest in the Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli    that inspired many of Nørgård's works, including the 4th symphony, the opera Det Guddommelige Tivoli and Papalagi for solo guitar.

Nørgård has composed works in most genres including six operas, two ballets, eight symphonies and other pieces for orchestra, several concertos, choral and vocal works, many chamber works including ten string quartets and several solo instrumental works. Nørgård’s eighth symphony was premiered on 19 September 2012 in the Helsinki Music Centre, Finland, by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds.

Dacapo Records have just released a new recording of songs by Nørgård with the  mezzo soprano, Helene Gjerris  and an instrumental ensemble directed by Casper Schreiber comprising of Ulla Miilmann (flute), Johannes Søe Hansen (violin), Lotte Wallevik (viola) Toke Møldrup (cello), Jesper Lutzhøft (guitar), Tine Rehling (harp) Anne Marie Abildskov (piano) and Gert Sørensen (percussion).

The first settings are Two recitatives Op.16 (1955-56) for alto with obbligato solo cello settings of verses by Par Lagerkvist. Jag lyssnar till vinden (I listen to the wind) opens with the solo cello in a plangent melody. When alto, Helene Gjerris enters the raw atmosphere has already been established. She has a really fine melodic voice so this chilled song never sounds astringent. The cello and alto are hushed in Gammal Genius (Old Genius) where occasionally Gjerris verges on sprechgesang. These two settings are wonderful in their austere brilliance.

Nørgård sets Ranier Maria Rilke in his Entwichlunger (1986) two songs for alto, flute, guitar, percussion and cello.  In Kindheit (Childhood) the alto sings alone before a brief rumble of timpani points up the words ‘Still we recall them – maybe in a rain shower’. The other instruments enter at the words ‘then we lived lives like theirs’. This is a bleak, lonely setting of Rilke. The instrumental ensemble accompanies Gjerris from the beginning in Die Genesende (The convalescent). The precision of the instrumental ensemble is terrific in this wistful, sad setting. Helene Gjerris gives an amazing performance and there are so many little points made by instruments and voice.

Plutonian Ode (1980-84) a recitative and aria for soprano and cello is quite a different proposition. A setting of words by Allen Ginsberg, it is described as a threnody to plutonium with all its possibilities for destruction yet set against the human spirit with its ability to create ‘connections and meaning’. It is an intensely angry work in three parts. The first Recitation (Introduction) is spoken by Gjerris as is Recitation right up to the words ‘…blast of Disillusion?’ when she breaks into song after becoming increasingly vehement. From here until the end of this part, Gjerris moves in and out of song until at ‘Sophia’s reflection glittering thoughtful galaxies’ the song receives some exquisite singing. The final line is nevertheless spoken. When the cello enters in Aria, Toke Møldrup makes some particularly fine sounds. The words are rapid, sung with increasing passion and anger, almost too much to take. At the final words ‘oh doomed plutonium’ Gjerris’ voice is hushed.

This setting makes for a tough and unsettling experience but there can be no doubt of the integrity, passion and anger of this work.

Nørgård’s Trois Chansons de L’Amour Le Poésie (1967) arrangées pour voix d’alto et flûte en sol commences with Le sommeil (Sleep) which makes for an inspired song setting to follow the rigours of Plutonian Ode. There is a suitably drifting, ethereal feel to the song. The halting, faltering Les corbeaux (The Raven) is a masterly setting evoking ravens scouring the countryside, whilst La Terre (The Earth) is more passionate with a subtle flute accompaniment that adds just the right amount of colour and emphasis to the sung words, a setting of Paul Éluard.

Three Love songs (1963-65 rev. 2010) for mezzo-soprano, flute, percussion, harp, piano, violin, viola and cello starts with the larger instrumental ensemble directed by Casper Schreiber in a setting of words by Arthur Rimbaud.  In L’étoile a pleuré rose (The Star has wept Pink) the flute again has an important role in accompanying the alto in this finely drawn setting. Helene Gjerris sings sensitively, bringing out every little aspect of this setting. Again there is such imaginative instrumental writing. The climaxes are truly stunning with the alto’s range and flexibility truly impressive. After an instrumental opening Gjerris enters in a stirring Wie soll ich meine Seele halten (How shall I keep my soul) with some lovely flute decorations. With Opfer (Sacrifice) Nørgård manages to make the listener feel slightly off balance with his writing thereby creating a strange atmosphere, concluding ominously.

Day and Night (1982) are two short songs for low voice and piano with cello (ad lib) and are settings of Ted Hughes and William Shakespeare. A Kill is a spiky piece with Nørgård allowing sprechgesang to seep out of the fragmentary writing where the words fragment across phrases. Silver-sweet Sound is a brief setting of Shakespeare with inspired cello and piano accompaniment.

The combination of flute and strings provides a fine setting of verse by Jess Ornsbo, Solen Så Jeg (I Saw the Sun) (1953 rev. 2010), against which Helene Gjerris sings ‘I saw the sun, thought nothing was any longer mind, human. After us no one comes.’

Sånger Från Aftonland (Songs from Evening Land) Op.17 (1956) for alto, flute, violin, viola, cello and harp has a beautiful instrumental opening to Part I again showing Nørgård’s ear for fine instrumental sounds. As Helene Gjerris enters the setting of Allt är så fjärran idag (Everything is so strangely far away today) we are already far into the atmosphere of this lovely song. She nevertheless adds the final texture, blending beautifully with the instruments, full of expressiveness. This song is a gem. Du människa som står vid stranden av mig (Oh human, you who stand upon my shore) is another exquisite setting with an instrumental opening with harp flourishes before the alto enters. There are so many little textures to add to the atmosphere. In Det är om aftonen man bryter upp (It is at evening that we depart) Per Nørgård again manages such a perfect setting, every little instrumental touch adds to the alto’s superb voice.

Part II of Sånger Från Aftonland has a dominant cello part in the instrumental Preludio that effectively divides Parts I and II. It is an impassioned section displaying some of the best of Nørgård’s instrumental writing.  A livelier Nu är det sommarmorgon (Now it is summer morning) raises the mood with delicate harp phrases adding to the instrumental accompaniment. Gjerris slows at the words ‘Far off are cold stars, far off is boundless space’ becoming slightly thoughtful but she concludes with more warmth. There is a wistful, searching feel to the opening of Tacka vill jag (I will thank) before the alto joins with the words ‘I will thank the flowers and the clouds.’ This is a gorgeously lovely setting with the alto voice so much part of the whole, Gjerris singing with such conviction and understanding.

Part III of Sånger Från Aftonland consists of just one song, the return of Det är om aftonen man bryter upp (It is at evening that we depart) giving fine a balance between melancholy and wonder in the final part of this beautiful song cycle.

Schlafen Gehen, Schmerz Und Not (Off to Sleep, pain and Trouble) (2012) for vocals and percussion is an arrangement of an earlier work, Abendlied, from 1980. Helene Gjerris has her voice dubbed to sing the four parts of  this work, which has the ‘voices’ and percussion strangely distant and giving an ethereal conclusion to this remarkable collection of songs.

Helene Gjerris sings with great control, flexibility and perception. These are remarkable settings, most are very beautiful; just the Plutonian Ode is taxing in its passion and anger. The songs are finely recorded and there are interesting notes on the composer and the music, as well as full texts and translations. This is an excellent new release.

Monday 11 February 2013

Audite is voted Label of the Year at International Classical Music Awards

Audite  have been voted Label of the Year by the jury at the International Classical Music Awards (ICMA) . Audite also won the Baroque/Vocal category for their recording Polychoral Splendour, featuring music by Giovanni Gabrieli and Heinrich Schütz spectacularly recorded from the four galleries in the Abbey Church of Muri, Switzerland by Cappella Murensis  and the ensemble Les Cornets .

The artists featured on this CD, Les Cornets Noirs, will perform at a Gala Concert at the Auditorium during the evening of the awards ceremony along with another Audite artist, clarinettist Laura Ruiz Ferreres who has recorded Brahms Complete Chamber Music for Clarinet (audite. 91.662).

The Awards Ceremony will be taking place this year in Milan, Italy, on 18th March when Audite and other winners will receive their ICMA Trophies. The orchestra for the evening Gala Concert will be the Orchestra LaVerdi, conducted by Principal Conductor John Axelrod. Through the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the concert will be available to radio stations all over the world.

The ICMA are the successors of the MIDEM Classical Awards and the only independent, international awards for classical music. Altogether nine Audite productions were nominated for the ICMA 2013; among them the new productions with the Mandelring Quartet, the Swiss Piano Trio, American clarinettist Arthur Campbell and violinist Judith Ingolffson, and the historic releases Otto Klemperer: The RIAS Bach Cantatas Project and the Second Viennese School Project.

I have enthusiastically reviewed many of these nominated recordings including the Mandelring Quartet’s on-going Mendelssohn complete Chamber Music for Strings, The Swiss Piano Trio’s recordings of Mendelssohn Piano Trios and Piano Trios by Robert & Clara Schumann, and the historic recordings of the Second Viennese School Project.

Sunday 10 February 2013

The Band of Instruments perform The Four Seasons by Vivaldi’s fellow countryman, Giovanni Antonio Guido

Little is known about the Italian composer and violinist Giovanni Antonio Guido (c.1675-c.1728). My old set of Groves doesn’t have an entry for Guido or Antonio, the alternative that Guido was thought to sometimes use. He was probably born in Genoa and from 1683 he studied violin at the conservatory in Naples.

From 1702 he was in Paris at the service of the Duke of Orleans, where he remained until at least 1728. There is an account of a concert performed at Fontainebleau in front of the English Queen Anne in November 1703, where Guido is referred to as an excellent violinist in the service of the Duke of Orleans, a supporter of Italian music.

Through his connection with the Duchess du Maine Sceaux, a favourite of Louis XIV, Guido gained the attention of the King. In1707 he was granted a privilège général enabling him to publish his works. That year a collection of six motets was printed in Paris and, a few years later, two sonatas for two violins and basso continuo were published. From 1714 to 1724 he took part in concerts organized in the home of the financier P. Crozat. These evenings were attended by writers, artists, musicians, as well as members of the aristocracy, including the Duke of Orleans. Among these was Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who painted some of those present at the concerts including Guido whose portrait dated, Paris Sept. 30. 1720, is now in the Louvre, Paris.

There is no known information about Guido after 1728 and the place and date of his death is unknown. Guido had greater fame as a violinist than as a composer, but in his compositions he was able to combine the Italian style with the French.

It is not known when Guido wrote his four concerti Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) but they were certainly very popular in France.

Divine Art Recordings have just released a new disc of Guido’s Le Quattro Stagioni played by the Band of Instruments directed by Roger Hamilton with Caroline Balding (violin) Interestingly, this new release has a reproduction of Watteau’s portrait of Guido in the CD booklet.

The five movement Concerto No.1 Le printemps (Spring) opens with a movement marked Le temps vole: Presto – La nuit: Adagio e piano – Chant des coucous: presto. It begins very much in the Italian style, with rapid bowing in the opening presto. There are some rich bass textures in the adagio of this movement and with the second allegro we have sunny Italian string sounds.

Marked Les ruiseaux Andante-Adagio – Les oiseaux: Adagio the second movement is introduced by solo harpsichord in a beautifully decorated passage taken up by the strings that has much of a French feel to it. In the andante, one could imagine dancers at the French court.  Air de trompette: Allegro is a lively movement with incisive playing and bowing from Caroline Balding. This is a lovely rhythmic movement with great playing. The fourth movement, Muzette: Tendrement, a little muzette has some lovely timbres and in the final movement, Danse de bergers: allegro there is a lovely bouncing allegro to conclude this concerto.

The Italian style is certainly here in this work but with subtle French inflections. This band of six players is absolutely top notch.

Concerto No.2 L’esté (Summer) is in ten movements starting with L’air s’enflame: Spiritoso – Zephire disparoit: Adagio e piano – Chant des coucous: Presto which has a varied and lively spiritoso, a short Adagio e piano and a presto, bright and joyful with lovely playing. The second section marked Vole a notre secour a Ceres adorable: adagio has a wistful adagio somewhat reminiscent of Corelli and the Descente de Ceres: Spiritoso has some terrific interplay of strings in the spiritoso – a lovely movement.

Danse des moissoneurs Allegro - Allegro has a bass drone below a lively string tune. There is great invention here with even a Scottish feel. The largo has a beautiful working out of a simple little descending motif before the six movement Dance des faunes:  Allegro, a crisp allegro with great ensemble throughout.

Menuet des nimfes is a slow menuet, full of charm and grace, with a lovely tune, full of feeling and sensitivity. A short preludio introduces the ninth movement Serenade: L’amant respectueux: Allegro. Here the Italian influence shows again. There are slow sections that alternate and lovely little figurations on the violin. The final movement marked Un violant orage: Prestissimo has a fiery final prestissimo almost outdoing Vivaldi in its panache.

The Concerto No.3  L’Automne (Autumn) returns to the five movement format and opens with Celebrons le retour de l’automne: Allegro assai – Les cris et ris des baccantes: Allegro assai. Autumn really comes in with the brisk flowing allegro assai with a lovely little rising counter melody. The second allegro assai is full of invention, beautifully done where strings answer the solo violin.

A moderately paced, light and varied second movement allegro shows the variety in this music, but never rushed. Sommeil: Adagio e piano – presto – adagio has a finely wrought adagio with some lovely playing and a short presto central section.

The fifth movement Allegro has some lovely phrasing from the violins as they follow one another in this attractive movement before the final La Chasse: allegro – Fuite ducerf: presto – Mort du cerf: adagio – prestissimo – allegro. La chasse has a slow galloping rhythm which soon gives way to a faster trot in the presto. A chill arrives in the adagio which slowly begins to move forward until the prestissimo banishes the cold and leads back to the opening allegro theme.

Concerto No.4 L’hiver (Winter), again in five movements, opens with La saison des frimats: Largo – Le Cruel Aquillon nous declare la guerre: Prestissimo where winter creeps in with a tentative largo in short string phrases (and do I detect the tune to twinkle, twinkle little star?), before the prestissimo arrives, full of energy, blowing aside everything.  Prenez soin de vos jours: Adagio is a slightly mournful adagio and the third movement Marche des guerriers: Vivace is a sprightly piece with a bounce to the rhythm that seems to give a warmth and a glow.

Les riantes fêtes: allegro is an expansive, lively allegro full of instrumental weavings followed by the last movement Laissons gronder les vents – Brannissons la tristesse: Prestissimo a joyful prestissimo that concludes this concerto with a richness of sound that belies the size of this little band. There are two lovely, almost Handelian, sections, the last forming the coda.

Whether Guido has his own voice is difficult to say without hearing more of his music. He certainly knew how to write attractive music, full of invention and lovely sonorities. There are apparent influences of other composers but they are more generalised than specific.

If anyone is tired of Vivaldi’s Four Season, and I suspect many will be, then this new disc provides a refreshing alternative with thrilling playing. The recording made in New College, Oxford, is first rate.