Sunday 31 March 2013

Passionate playing from Matthew Barley on a new release from Signum Classics that includes Britten’s Third Cello Suite

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) first met the brilliant Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) in 1960. The cellist was visiting Britain with the composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and was due to give the first British performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall. Britten accepted an invitation to sit in the Russian composer’s box. The opening item on the programme was Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.  At the end of the concert Shostakovich introduced Britten to Rostropovich who, there and then, asked Britten for something for the cello. This was to be the Sonata in C for Cello and Piano Op.65.

Britten went on to write his Cello Symphony Op.68 and three unaccompanied Cello Suites Opp. 72, 80 and 87 for Rostropovich, as well as a set of cadenzas for Haydn’s C major Cello Concerto.  All of these were premiered at Aldeburgh except for the Cello Symphony, which had its first performance whilst Britten was visiting Moscow.

Benjamin Britten’s centenary year has brought an interesting new release from Signum Classics entitled Around Britten featuring cellist Matthew Barley performing Britten’s Third Suite for Cello together with arrangements for cello of other works by Britten, as well as works by Gavin Bryars and John Tavener


From the beginning of the Introduzione: Lento of Britten’s Third Suite for Cello Op.87, with the first pizzicato notes and passionate melody, Matthew Barley makes it obvious that he is going to bring every last ounce of feeling to this work. Barley produces some lovely sonorities and the feeling of anticipation in the opening section is palpable. What a release when the Marcia: allegro arrives and the emotion is, at last, partially released. In the canto: con moto, when the music settles to a mournful song, Barley is marvellous, so sensitive to the music. The barcerola: lento, with the feel of Bach, has some lovely rich sounds whilst the dialogo: allegretto, with its strummed pizzicato phrases suddenly let go in the passionate interruptions.

There is a gloriously played andante espressivo as the cello opens out in a lovely outpouring of feeling and a wonderful Recitativo: Fantastico with Barley producing so many lovely effects. After a frenetic Moto perpetou: Presto, in the searching, wonderfully passionate, Passacaglia: lento solenne, Barley extracts every last ounce of feeling and emotion yet still allows the music to speak so naturally, every little nuance bringing forth something new. This leads naturally into the Mournful Song where even this little piece provides such feeling. Autumn flits by naturally into the Street song before the final Depart in Peace, with the Saints brings darkly telling phrases from Matthew Barley before the melody is repeated wistfully in the upper register both combining to lead into the final hushed coda.

This is a really terrific performance of this work, full of passion and understanding.

Britten’s own arrangements of Greensleeves and Salley Gardens are performed in Matthew Barley’s own arrangement for cello, in multi-tracked performance recorded at Barley’s home studio. Both receive affecting performances, with Salley Gardens particularly so.

Gavin Bryars’ (b. 1943) Tre Laude Dolce were written in 2007 and are based on religious songs from 13th century Cortona in Tuscany, Italy. There is a lovely opening laude dolce that has an ancient feel, providing some lovely cello sounds in this telling performance. The second laude dolce brings a lightened, yet thoughtful mood full of long drawn, double stopped phrases from the soloist, rising in passion at times. The third and last of the tre laude dolce opens slowly and cautiously before a lonely melody appears. There are pizzicato notes that slowly propel the melody and, later, there appears a wistful sound to the music as pizzicato ascending notes lead to the end.

Since She Whom I Loved is another Matthew Barley arrangement, this time of a song from Britten’s Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Another multi-tracked, this is a lovely piece.

Sir John Tavener (b.1944) is represented on this disc by two works Threnos and Chant. Both commemorate the death of friends, Threnos having a Greek liturgical and folk significance, the Threnos of the Mother of God being sung on Good Friday and the Threnos of Mourning chanted over the deceased in the house of a close friend. Threnos is a quiet and gently shifting piece, contemplative, with Barley providing some concentrated and touching playing and Chant is a wistful little piece made slightly Eastern in flavour by Barley’s slides on the strings, made according to the composer’s wishes.

Another Matthew Barley arrangement for solo cello, is Concord, the Second Choral Dance from Britten’s opera Gloriana, with the stately theme full of feeling.

Matthew Barley’s Improvisation is exactly that. Whilst recording many of these works in Canterbury Cathedral around 2.30am on a summer night, Barley asked the recording engineers to leave the recording running whilst he improvised. Here is the lovely result, at turns wistful, passionate and thoughtful, displaying many aspects of the cello, sometimes rich sonorities, pizzicato or harmonics. It is heartening to see that the art of improvisation is so alive and well within classical music.

Britten’s arrangement of the traditional song Oliver Cromwell receives another multi-tracked arrangement from Matthew Barley, full of fun over its mere forty nine seconds.

Whilst some collectors will want Rostropovich’s performances of the cello suites or, indeed, a recording that gives all three suites on a single disc, this attractive recital should not be missed by those who admire fine cello playing and are looking for something different. The Canterbury Cathedral recording is excellent showing no signs of the large acoustic.

Friday 29 March 2013

An exciting World Premiere Recording of Pergolesi’s Septem Verba a Christo from Harmonia Mundi

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (or Pergolese) (1710-1736) was born in Jesi, near Ancona, Italy. The original name of the family appears to have been Draghi but, according to custom, those members that settled at Jesi were known as Pergolesi or Pergola, a town of which they were natives. He signed his name both as Pergolese and as Pergolesi. He studied music there under a local musician, Francesco Santini, before going to Naples where he studied under Gaetano Greco (c.1657- c.1728) and Francesco Feo (1691-1761). He spent most of his short life working for aristocratic patrons like the Prince of Stigliano and the Duke of Maddaloni.

Pergolesi was one of the most important early composers of opera buffa (comic opera). He also wrote sacred music, including a Mass in F and his Magnificat in C major and instrumental music, including a violin sonata and a violin concerto. It is his Stabat Mater (1736), however, which is his best known sacred work. Pergolesi died at the age of 26 in Pozzuoli, apparently from tuberculosis.

Whilst there are many recordings of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, many of his other works are less well known. In the case of his Septem verba a Christo (Seven words from Christ) it wasn’t until 1936 that, following the discovery by Bertha Antonia Wallner of a complete set of manuscript parts made in the monastery of Metten in 1760, that it was discovered that the work must be, as it indicated on the flyleaf, an early work by Sig. Pergolese attributed to Pergolesi.

Yet still no edition was produced. In the absence of an original manuscript in Pegolesi’s hand, it was not until 2009, when Reinhard Fehling discovered anonymous performing materials at Kremsmünster Abbey in Lower Austria, that a direct connection with the origins of the work could be established. After the assembling of all the manuscripts, extensive comparisons were made that tend to corroborate the works authenticity. Septem verba is now published by Breitkopf and Härtel .

This has led to an exciting World Premiere Recording from Harmonia Mundi of Septem verba a Christo performed by Akademie Für Alte Musik, Berlin  directed by René Jacobs with soloists Sophie Karthäuser (soprano), Christophe Dumaux (countertenor), Julien Behr (tenor) and Konstantin Wolff (bass).,,

HMC 902155

Septem verba forms a cycle of seven cantatas, each consisting of two arias. The first is sung by Jesus on the Cross and the second by the anima (or soul). The part of Jesus is sung by the bass, except in the second cantata when the part is taken by the tenor. It can only be speculated on as to why the tenor is used instead of the bass in the second verbum. René Jacobs, in his excellent booklet notes suggests that, perhaps, it symbolises the opening of heaven, given that the text includes ‘In a single instant He rose to Heaven.’

Verbum I: Pater, dimitte illis: non enim sciunt qui facium (Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do).

In the recitativo Huc, o delecti filii (Come hither my dear sons) and aria En doceo diligere (Behold, I teach you to love), Konstantin Wolff (bass) has a lovely rich yet extremely flexible voice, bringing just the right amount of emotion to the text. René Jacobs and his excellent instrumental ensemble point up the phrases beautifully. Christophe Dumaux (countertenor) (the soul) joins for the aria Quod iubes, magne Domine (What you command, almighty Lord). He has a rich voice with just sufficient vibrato to add texture. This is a lovely aria, beautifully sung.

Verbum II: Amen dico tibi: hodie mecum eris in Paradiso (Verily I say unto thee, Today thou shalt be with me in paradise).

Julien Behr (tenor) joins for the one occasion that he takes the part of Jesus in the recitative Venite, currite (Come, hurry) and aria Latronem hunc aspicite. (Behold this thief). Behr’s voice is just right in this music, controlled, full voiced and flexible. He brings a really Italian sound to the music. Sophie Karthäuser (soprano) has a lovely voice as she sings the aria Ah! Peccatoris supplicis, (Ah, Lord, remember the sinner who entreats you) bringing passion and feeling in her ardent singing.

Verbum III: Mulier ecce filius tuus (Woman, behold thy son!)

Again Konstantin Wolff (bass) shows terrific control, depth and feeling in the recitativo Quo me, amore? (Where, Love) and the aria Dilecta Genitrix (Beloved Mother) bringing so much to the text.  Sophie Karthäuser provides some lovely, long drawn, vocal lines in the recitativo Servator optime (O, matchless Saviour) and in Quod iubes, Domine (What you command, Lord) such flexibility in this lovely aria. The Akademie Für Alte Musik, and, in particular the horns, make a lovely contribution to this aria. As the music slows in the central section, there is such deep pathos in this beautiful piece.

Verbum IV: Deus meus, deus meus, ut quid dereliquisti me? (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?)

The instrumentalists bring a feeling of uncertainly as Konstantin Wolff sings the aria Huc oculos, (Turn hither, your eyes) the tension building at the words Dolentum contemplamini (Look upon one who suffers).  There is a lovely opening from the lute before the other instrumentalists join and Christophe Dumaux (countertenor) sings the aria Afflicte, derelicte, dum Jesu (O Afflicted, O forsaken Jesus) so full of emotion.

Verbum V: Sitio (I thirst).

The aria O vos omnes, qui transitis (All you that pass by) is so well written in the way it illuminates the text. Konstantin Wolff reflects this very much in his singing, with some lovely touches from Akademie Für Alte Musik. Non nectar, non vinum, non undas (It is not for nectar, wine or water) brings the return of tenor Julien Behr in this faster aria to which he brings just the right amount of forward drive, beautifully controlled with some terrific singing at the word Celerrime (Most swiftly).

Verbum VI: Consummatum est (It is finished).

At the words It is finished Konstantin Wolff shows so much bereft feeling as does he in the aria Huc advolate, mortales (Hasten hither, mortals) The aria Sic consummasti omnia (thus you have accomplished all) brings more optimism until a sudden point of anguish at the words Sed heu (But alas) when Sophie Karthäuser shows how to bring such feeling to the words.

Verbum VII: Pater, in manus tuas commendo spritum meum (Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit).

Konstantin Wolff brings a really intimate sound to the recitativo Quotquot coram cruce statis (All of you who stand at the foot of the cross) beautifully supported by the instrumentalists. In the aria In tuum, Pater, gremium (Into your bosom, O Father) the horns of the Akademie Für Alte Musik sound through as the bass sings Into your bosom, O Father.’  Julien Behr sings the final aria Quid ultra peto vivere (Why should I seek to live any longer) providing a lovely contrast between the varying tempi before the final cantata ends quietly.

This important new release is to be welcomed enthusiastically. It is exceptionally well recorded and has first rate notes by René Jacobs. There are notes from the publisher, Breitkopf and Härtel, giving the history of the discovery and attribution of the work as well as full texts and translations.

Thursday 28 March 2013

Excellent performances of neglected works by Schulhoff, Ullmann and Tausky in Gramola’s series

The Second World War brought some appalling difficulties for European composers. Whilst many, such as Hindemith, left their country, some, like Richard Strauss, controversially, stayed. Others tried to continue their work but were either banned or lost their lives in concentration camps.

Many of these composers suffered the final indignity of their works becoming unknown to the general public. Austria was the home of many of Hitler’s most important musical victims who still await re-discovery. is a centre for research into such composers and exists in order to try to redress the imbalance and restore important composers to their rightful place in musical history.

A new release from Gramola brings us works by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) and Vilem Tausky (1910-2004).


Erwin Schulhoff was born in Prague into a family of Jewish-German origin. Dvořák, who was never very enthusiastic about child prodigies, encouraged the ten year old Schulhoff's earliest musical studies at the Prague Conservatory. Schulhoff later studied with Claude Debussy 1862-1918), Max Reger (1873-1916), Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), and Willi Thern (1847-1911). He won the Mendelssohn Prize twice and, after the First World War, lived in Germany until returning to Prague in 1923 where he taught at the conservatory.
In the 1930s, Schulhoff’s work was blacklisted as "degenerate" by the Nazi regime and, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, he had to resort to performing under a pseudonym. In 1941, the Soviet Union approved his petition for citizenship, but he was arrested and imprisoned before he could leave Czechoslovakia. Schulhoff was deported to the Würzburg concentration camp, near Weißenburg, Bavaria where he died from tuberculosis on 18 August 1942.

Schulhoff’s early works show the influence of Debussy, Scriabin, and Richard Strauss but during his later, Dadaist phase, he composed a number of pieces with absurdist elements. His works include choral and vocal works, eight symphonies, orchestral works, concertos, chamber works, instrumental works and works for piano.

Schulhoff’s Double Concerto for Flute, Piano and String Orchestra with Two Horns Op.63 was written in 1927. The soloists are Ulrike Anton (flute) and Russell Ryan (piano) with the strings of the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by David Parry.

The concerto has a striking opening for strings, in full flow, in the allegro moderato before the piano and flute enter in a light and airy theme. The music slows but soon takes off again with intricate patterns for piano and flute. Eventually the strings play the opening theme, full of forward momentum and energy. As the strings quieten the piano and flute return. A quieter section follows with the piano and flute combining together before they start off again in the lively tune. A passage for solo piano leads into a languid melody with the flute that speeds up to a livelier pace. Eventually the orchestra returns to join in the same theme only to take over from the soloists until the end.

The strings enter in a nostalgic theme for the andante. The piano then enters alone before the flute joins in the theme. Eventually the strings enter alone before the piano and flute join to further develop the theme. As the movement draws to a close the piano, flute and strings lead to a gentle conclusion with a single chord on piano.

Pizzicato strings open the allegro con spirito (rondo) with, almost immediately, the piano and flute entering in a slightly repetitious theme. The orchestra soon takes over the theme before the soloists enter, more animated. There is some lovely flute playing from Ulrike Anton in this section and some delightful playing from Russell Ryan. A slower, languid trio section for flute and piano has some lovely descending phrases. The orchestra joins in the melody before taking over the theme. The flute and piano return to take over in a livelier section before the orchestra re-joins, leading to the coda.

The two soloists, Ulrike Anton (flute) and Russell Ryan (piano) are both persuasive advocates for this attractive work and the strings of the English Chamber Orchestra under Parry are on top form .

Viktor Ullmann was born in Teschen, now Cieszyn, Poland, an Austrian of Jewish descent. In 1909, the Ullmann family moved to Vienna, where Viktor Ullmann studied music theory with Josef Polnauer. After the First World War he studied to be a lawyer like his father, whilst still continuing as a student of piano under Edward Steuermann (1892-1964), a student of Schoenberg. He then continued his musical education under the guidance of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) who in turn recommended him to Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942)  who, in 1920, appointed him repetiteur at the German Theatre in Prague.

Ullmann subsequently became musical director at Usti nad Labem (Aussig) but left his post after a year. After the Nazi’s came to power he returned to Prague where he studied composition with Alois Haba (1893-1973). In 1942 he was transported to Theresienstadt where he was soon given the task of co-organising with the Czech composer Hans Krasa (1899-1944), the so called 'permitted ' leisure activities within the ghetto. Here he produced some of the works for which he is best remembered. Ullmann died in Auschwitz-Birkenau on 18 October 1944.

His compositions up until 1942 include choral and vocal works, orchestral works including a piano concerto, chamber works and instrumental works. After his transportation to Theresienstadt his compositions included songs, his fifth, sixth and seventh piano sonatas, a third string quartet and Die Weise der Liebe und des Todes. (The Manner of Love and Death), a setting of Rilke for spoken voice and orchestra or piano.

Ullmann’s Chamber Symphony Op.46a is an arrangement for string orchestra, by Kenneth Woods, of the String Quartet No.3, Op.46, that he wrote in 1943 whilst at Theresienstadt. This alone brings a certain frisson to the work yet the opening allegro moderato has a somewhat pastoral feel, which soon develops more passionately before returning to the opening mood. It rises again, passionately, but then develops into a wistful section with cascading strings before falling to a quiet ruminative ending that goes straight into the Presto. Scherzo and trio.

Here the music changes with incisive outbursts from the violins, to which the lower strings reply before settling to a modified version of the opening theme. The outbursts and replies occur again as the movement progresses and the theme is developed, giving a wonderful demonstration of the virtuoso ECO strings. The trio opens on solo cello which is then joined by the orchestra in a lovely rich melody that leads to the Largo.

This is a thoughtful, introspective, sometimes desolate largo and, such is the tonality that one can’t tell if the music is rising or falling, lightening or darkening. It seems to be struggling with itself. In the firm opening of the Rondo-Finale the music fairly gallops along until slowing slightly in a no less compelling theme. The opening theme returns, only this time it broadens out for the coda.

The performance of this compelling work, from David Parry and the English Chamber Orchestra strings, is excellent.

Schulhoff’s Sonata for flute and piano Op.61 was composed in 1927, just before the Double Concerto for Flute, Piano and String Orchestra. The allegro moderato opens with a flowing theme from the piano, soon joined by flute. A slower section follows that is rather thoughtful with some lovely passages for flute. The opening tempo returns with a lovely flowing piano part, with the flute taking the main tune. The music soars to a short climax before falling to a quiet, meditative section. The livelier theme returns and speeds up with some lovely timbres from the flute. The music soon slows again with the flute playing a lovely theme to end.

The short Scherzo. Allegro giocoso has a lively animated theme that is most attractive and delightfully played by both artists. The Aria. Andante has a long breathed melody for flute with a simple accompaniment from the piano. This is such a beautiful creation, beautifully played, full of sensitivity and poise. The Rondo-Finale. Allegro molto gajo is a great little movement that skips along, full of fun. Ulrike Anton (flute) and Russell Ryan (piano) give a terrific performance of this delightful work.

Vilem Tausky survived the war, dying in London in 2004 and will be fondly remembered by older followers for his regular contributions, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, to Friday Night is Music Night on the BBC Light Programme (now BBC Radio 2). Vilém Tauský was from a musical family, his Viennese mother had sung Mozart at the Vienna State Opera under Gustav Mahler, and her cousin was the operetta composer Leo Fall. Tauský studied with Leoš Janáček and later became a repetiteur at the Brno Opera. The rise of the Nazis forced him to move to France. He later volunteered for service with the Free Czech Army and eventually reached the Britain after the fall of France. He was later awarded a Czech Military Cross, followed by the Czech Order of Merit.

From 1945 to 1949, Tauský was musical director of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and, from 1951 to 1956, was music director of Welsh National Opera. He was principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra from 1956 to 1966 and regularly appeared with this orchestra on the BBC Light Programme's (now BBC Radio 2) long-running weekly show Friday Night is Music Night. Between 1966 and 1992, he was the director of opera and head of the conducting course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Tauský was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Tauský's compositions include a Sinfonietta for orchestra, a Ballade for cello and piano, the Fantasia da Burlesca for violin and orchestra, an oboe concerto (written for Evelyn Rothwell), a harmonica concerto (for Tommy Reilly), a Serenade for Strings and Coventry: A Meditation for Strings.

It is Tauský's Coventry – Meditation for String Orchestra that is included on this disc. Written in 1941, it reflects the horror of the destruction of that city the previous year and is an impassioned mediation with some gloriously rich string passages set against quieter, more meditative sections. There is a lovely hushed middle section, with the glorious sound of the ECO strings. The music could easily have been by an English composer, with at times some of the string sonorities reminding me of those of Vaughan Williams’ in his Tallis Fantasia. This is a lovely piece, really worth hearing.

We return to Erwin Schulhoff for the last work on this disc, his Three Pieces for String Orchestra Op.6, written in 1910 when the composer was only 16 years of age. This short Grieg inspired piece has an Elegie im Stile Edward Griegs. Allegretto, a dancing theme in a beautifully poised performance, with just a hint of Grieg, a delightful and rather rustic sounding Menuetto im alten Stil. Tempo di Menuetto menuetto and Pipa tanzt, an attractive allegro moderato, so simply constructed yet so effective.

These are excellent performances by all concerned. Though recorded at quiet a high level, the recording is exceptionally fine and clear. This worthwhile release brings some attractive works from composers who certainly deserve a higher profile than they currently have.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Penderecki’s beautiful and powerful Piano Concerto and his equally attractive Flute Concerto on a new release from Naxos

‘I think I have always written very personal music. I have never concerned myself with what was just fashionable…’ So said Krzystof Penderecki (b. 1933) in 1993. Penderecki became very much a part of the musical avant-garde in the 1960s with such works as Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) and his first opera The Devils of Loudon (1968/69) but, from his First Violin Concerto (1976-77, revised 1987), he made, in his own words, what was a ‘synthesis’ of his earlier more radical style with traditional forms. Focusing on two melodic intervals, the semitone and the triton, this shift in musical style brought criticism from many quarters.

The son of a lawyer, Penderecki was born in Debica, in south eastern Poland. He studied composition with Artur Malewski and Stanislas Wiechowicz (1893-1963) at the Krakow Academy of Music where, in 1958, he was appointed as a professor. It was his Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) that brought him world-wide fame but it was his St. Luke Passion (1963–66) that was central to his work, combining as it does intense expressive force with archaic elements alluding to Bach.

Penderecki has, to date, written four operas, eight symphonies (the sixth of which is still incomplete), many choral works including a Stabat Mater, a Polish Requiem, and, of course, the St Luke Passion, numerous orchestral works, chamber works including two string quartets, instrumental works and concertos for violin (two), viola, cello (two), flute, clarinet, horn and piano

Naxos have just released a new recording of his large scale Piano Concerto ‘Resurrection’ (2001/02 revised 2007) and his Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (1992) with Barry Douglas (piano), Lukasz Dlugosz (flute) and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit

Penderecki’s Piano Concerto ‘Resurrection’ is a colossal work in ten movements played without a break. The opening allegro molto sosentuto has an incisive theme on the lower strings that is soon joined by percussion before the piano enters, echoing the theme. The full orchestra joins in an energetic theme with piano, the orchestra making swirls in a descending motif. The music begins to ease but still there are occasional outbursts. The momentum increases again, leading to a climax, with runs up the piano, until the music suddenly quietens into the adagio with dark sounds in the orchestra and a solo cor anglais, beautiful but stark. When the piano enters again it is in a simple upward motif with the orchestra reflecting on the theme. There are some lovely piano phrases as this movement progresses. A kind of trio section emerges, light and gentle, before the more animated allegro arrives.

Percussion becomes more dominant in the allegro moderato molto third movement, with muted brass and woodwind, leading to the adagio, full of delicate piano arabesques. The allegretto capriccioso brings shrill outbursts from the orchestra with the piano playing a rapid theme as the music bounces forward, full of action. The sixth movement, marked grave, opens with a short piano solo before the full orchestra enters in massive short bursts. A hushed section follows where the piano gently plays over the theme. The orchestra is hushed, but, as it joins the piano theme, it grows more animated, with tubular bells, before a kind of brass chorale is heard with dissonant piano chords. There is another short section for solo piano before the orchestra enters, followed by the piano, in a lovely melody before leading to a loud climax which is cut short as the allegro sostenuto molto appears.

There are rapid piano phrases interspersed with percussion before the lower strings enter in short, insistent phrases, followed by the upper strings, woodwind and brass, steadily driving forward in Prokofiev like rhythms. This builds to a tremendously powerful climax with a fiendishly difficult part for the piano, phenomenally played by Barry Douglas, ever more driving ahead into the andante maestoso. The music peaks in an enormous climax with cascading piano phrases until percussion loudly sounds an end and the music falls hushed with the piano playing quietly over dark orchestral sounds. A brief cadenza leads to a magisterial, loud climax for full orchestra with the piano playing vast chords over the top, leading to the arrival of a huge array of percussion before the allegro molto sostenuto. There are insistent piano phrases before the orchestra enters with the piano playing the Prokofiev like phrases. Eventually all quietens as the final movement opens with heavy sounding orchestra that heaves along behind the cascading chords of the piano. The music settles to a repeat of the beautiful melody heard earlier. Suddenly the orchestra bursts out, joined by the piano in ascending scales before a wonderful climax ensues, leading to a resolute ending.

This is a wonderful concerto full of beauty, power and forward momentum. Barry Douglas is absolutely phenomenal, giving the work a tremendous performance, as does the Warsaw Philharmonic under Antoni Wit. Surely this is one of Penderecki’s finest works.

After the Piano Concerto, Penderecki’s Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra is the absolute antithesis. The andante opens with a playful little clarinet solo before the other woodwind join in a flurry of playing. The flute enters in a solo passage before the orchestra enters, echoing the theme. After the orchestra develops the material the flute again enters in another solo passage with some lovely flights of fancy. Eventually drums accompany the flute melody before strings join with the flute in a descending motif dropping to the lower strings before the flute then ascends again with the orchestra leading straight into the second movement più animato, signalled by a solo trumpet.

The trumpet is soon joined by the orchestra in this lighter section before the flute joins in as the theme is bounced around. The sound darkens a little in the orchestra, before the flute re-appears briefly, the orchestra then working over the material leading to the andante where the flute re-joins to re-iterate a descending motif with orchestra. This sad, mournful descending theme is passed around the woodwind. Suddenly the flute and orchestra sound out as the music becomes more agitated but soon the music drops back to the mournful sound, fading until the allegro con brio opens with insistent drum stokes and short phrases from the orchestra.

The music settles as the flute enters with some lovely tongued sounds with the percussion still providing texture. This leads to the appearance of a solo clarinet soon joined by the flute. Scurrying orchestral and flute phrases lead to a cadenza for the flute. The fifth movement vivo leads straight from the cadenza, to a dialogue between flute, percussion and orchestra. There is some terrific flute playing here from Lukasz Dlugosz. Soon the music quietens with a lovely flute melody before the cor anglais joins with flute and orchestra in a strikingly beautiful melody full of haunting emotion; surely one of Penderecki’s most beautiful creations. Finally, tubular bells sound for the last orchestral chord to end.

This is a very attractive work with many very beautiful passages. The performance from Lukasz Dlugosz, with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Antoni Wit, is wonderful. The recordings made at Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw are first rate and, with excellent notes from Richard Whitehouse, this new release is highly recommended.

Sunday 24 March 2013

Audite’s first release in a new cycle of Beethoven String Quartets from the Quartetto di Cremona in performances of fluency, sparkle and passion

Audite Records seem to have an uncanny knack of recording some of the best chamber music players in Europe. In April 2012 I reviewed the wonderful Swiss Piano Trio’s recording of Mendelssohn’s Op.49 and Op.66 piano trios then, in January this year, came their terrific recording of Clara Schumann’s Op.17 Piano Trio coupled with coupled with Robert Schumann’s Op.110 Piano Trio and Fantasiestücke Op.88.

In July 2012 came the Mandelring Quartet’s first volume of their projected complete Mendelssohn chamber music for strings, followed in January this year by volume two. Such are the performances that both of these recordings look set to make this the Mendelssohn quartet cycle to have.

Now Audite have signed up the Quartetto di Cremona to record the complete Beethoven String Quartets. This will be no mean undertaking given the competition already out there. Nevertheless, on the evidence of the first release in this series, the Quartetto di Cremona look set to bring much to this new project.

Audite 92.680
The Quartetto di Cremona formed in 2000 at the Stauffer Academy in Cremona and continued their studies with Hatto Beyerle. In 2005 the Quartetto di Cremona received a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship.

Building on their early successes, the Quartetto di Cremona has played to critical acclaim at the most important venues and festivals in Europe including numerous performances at the Wigmore Hall, London. The Quartetto di Cremona has toured extensively in Australia and performed at the renowned Perth International Art Festival Australia. In the USA, they recently won the eleventh Web Concert Hall Competition. The Quartet was nominated "Artist in Residence" at the Societa' del Quartetto of Milan and will be involved in various projects culminating in 2014 for the 150th anniversary of the Societa' del Quartetto when they will perform the complete cycle of the Beethoven quartets.

Recent and forthcoming tours include engagements in the USA, Japan, Mexico and China and in Europe the Quartetto di Cremona will tour the UK, Italy, Scandinavia, Germany, and make a debut tour of Austria. Their debut recording for Decca encompassed the complete string quartets by Fabio Vacchi, released in April 2011.

The first release in this projected cycle gives us the String Quartets Op.18, No.6, Op.95 and Op.135.

In the allegro con brio of the String Quartet in B flat major, Op.18, No.6, the Cremonas bring light and vibrant playing, with plenty of verve and, at times, gritty playing. There are some beautifully phrased passages where they bring a special something to this Haydnesque work. The adagio brings some really expressive playing and it is lovely the way the individual players respond to each other. Towards the middle there is some lovely hushed playing and, before the reprise, the sharp little fortissimo is beautifully done. The Cremonas playing, in the syncopated scherzo, is full of passion, with ensemble spot on. These players are so alive to the music. They fairly throw themselves into some passages in some stunning playing. When the finale arrives moving between adagio, allegretto quasi allegretto and prestisimmo, the Cremonas play off the varied moods beautifully. When the movement finally settles on the allegretto they have a lovely bounce to their playing. The fiery prestissimo sounds so inevitable. 

There is a really fiery start, with plenty of grit in the allegro con brio of the String Quartet in F minor, op.95. The Cremonas handle the emotional changes superbly. The allegretto ma non troppo slow movement opens a feeling of great anticipation with some lovely quiet string sounds as the movement develops. As ever more complex harmonies are added, these players bring some lovely sonorities, particularly in the final fugal passage. In the Scherzo the quartet are magnificent, with playing of such spirit, precision and understanding. The trio section brings out again their lyrical nature with playing of sensitivity and some lovely interplay. After the short larghetto introduction that leads to the allegretto agitato, the Cremonas lovely textures again appear. The playing is so full of feeling and their terrific ensemble is again apparent. The Cremonas dynamics have such an elastic feel and the odd little coda runs away delightfully.

Finally on this disc we come to Beethoven’s last String Quartet in F major, Op.135. In the allegretto there is a lovely little questioning opening. The Cremonas bring such beautiful little phrases to this constantly changing movement, with the players taking advantage of every little phrase and nuance, at times sunny, then anxious and questioning, finding every little subtlety. The scherzo, vivace has a lovely bouncing, syncopated rhythm played with fluency, precision and sparkle, full of passion and joy. From the start of the lento assai e cantante tranquillo glorious textures emerge with these players subtlely adding layers of emotional depth as the variations ensue. This is a quite beautiful movement. The questioning of the first movement is reflected in the opening of the finale, grave, ma non troppo tratto – allegro with the question taken in the bass register and the upper strings replying quietly. The allegro section has some nicely incisive playing and, when the grave returns, the Cremonas excel themselves in playing of power and depth and, as we are led to the allegro again, the recapitulation is fresh and confident.

It is the individual voices of these players that are so beautiful as well as the way that they interact so naturally. Listening to the CD layer, they are extremely well recorded with every instrument well balanced in a wide soundstage.

I look forward immensely to the next instalment of this cycle.

See also: 

Friday 22 March 2013

Lisa Hardy’s meticulously researched, yet immensely readable book on The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 is published in paperback by Boydell Press

In recent years there has been a resurgent of interest in neglected British piano music mainly through recordings. Nevertheless, this is still an area that has needed further insight which is where Lisa Hardy’s excellent volume The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 is immensely useful.

Boydell Press
ISBN 978-1-84383-798-5

First published by Boydell Press in 2001, it has recently been published in paperback with a fully updated discography.

There is an excellent introduction: The English Musical Renaissance that gives the background to piano music in England in the early 19th century, from the influences of such figures as Clementi, Dussek and Cramer, to John Field, George Frederick Pinto, Cipriani Potter and Samuel Wesley. The role of the piano in British life is explored in terms of both the concert hall and the home.

The main body of the book is divided into six chapters. The Piano Sonatas 1870-1890 covers William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875), whose friendships included Mendelssohn and Schumann, George Alexander Macfarren (1813-1887), C Hubert H Parry (1848-1918), Charles V Stanford (1852-1924), Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) and Edward German (1862-1936). Their contributions to the genre are discussed with many musical examples. Not only didn’t I know of Ethel Smyth’s three piano sonatas, but the discography has tracked down a 1992/3 recording of them on the obscure Classic Production Osnabruck label, played by Liana Serbescu.

Piano Sonatas 1890-1910 looks at the Piano Sonatas by Algernon Ashton (1859-1937), John McEwen (1868-1948), William Yeates Hurlstone (1876-1906), Benjamin Dale (1885-1943), York Bowen (1884-1961), Dorothy Howell (1898-1982), Leo Livens (c.1896-c.1961) and Cyril Scott (1879-1970), whose first piano sonata not only has musical examples but has a full and detailed list of changes made to the work by the composer. Within this chapter a brief section is devoted to the two London music institutions, the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. Their influence on British music during the period 1890 to 1910 is discussed with a brief mention of the most significant teaching staff.

The next chapter covers the piano sonatas by Arnold Bax (1883-1953), discussing his four sonatas with a summary of the main themes of the second sonata as well as musical comparisons with Scriabin’s seventh sonata, John Ireland (1879-1962), William Baines (1899-1922), Alan Bush (1900-1995) and even Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) whose contribution to the British piano sonata was twelve very early sonatas all written before 1928.

There is a chapter dedicated to the piano sonatas by Kaikhosru Sorabji (1892-1988) and Frank Bridge (1879-1941) in order to compare the influence of Scriabin on their musical language, something I had not considered in relation to Bridge. Again there are numerous musical examples, not just of the sonatas but of other related works, and a detailed analysis of the melodic motifs in Sorabji’s first sonata.

The African-American Influence looks at the influence of spirituals, blues, ragtime, dance music and jazz by comparing Constant Lambert’s(1905-1951) music and, in particular, his sole sonata of 1928/9 and the music of Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998) whose four piano sonatas cover a period of nearly fifty years, from 1936-1984.

Observations Drawn from Selected Sonatas 1930-1945 concentrates on composers such as Joseph Holbrooke (1878-1958), Howard Ferguson (1908-1999), Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), Antony Hopkins (b.1921), whose third sonata and rondo from his second sonata have recently been released by Divine Art Records, Arnold Cooke (1906-2005) and Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-1990).

Hardy very much puts these composers and their sonatas within the wider context of European music, pulling together influences from a wide range of sources.

Appendix 1 includes transcriptions of interviews, by the author, with Alan Bush, Geoffrey Bush, Howard Ferguson, Alan Frank, Antony Hopkins and Sir Michael Tippett, all undertaken in 1993.

There is a Catalogue of Piano Sonatas 1870-1945, a very inclusive discography, a list of other recordings referred to in the text, a large comprehensive bibliography and index and list of musical examples and acknowledgments. Given the rarity of public performances of so many of the works featured in this engrossing book, it is of great interest to see just how many of these sonatas have been recorded.

Lisa Hardy’s book, full of a huge amount of meticulous research, is an enormous achievement .This book will be of great interest to both professional musicians and the general music loving public. Whilst it deals in depth with many of the works featured, it is also immensely readable. I shall be returning to this book again and again.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Mesmerising performances of works from the lute book of Lady Margaret Wemyss from Music and Media

A new release from Music and Media entitled Lady Maggie’s Lilt, features Martin Eastwell playing music from the Lute Book of Lady Margaret Wemyss.
But who exactly was this Lady? Lady Margaret Wemyss (1630-c.1649) was the third of the eleven children of David, second Earl of Wemyss (1610-1679) and his first wife Anna Balfour, daughter of Robert, Lord Burley. Her name is particularly known for the Lute Book that was discovered in the 1980s amongst the Sutherland family’s papers. This book is now on loan to the National Library of Scotland.
Lady Margaret was born in Scotland at Falkland, the residence of Lord Burley, on 24th September 1630 and died around 1648. Margaret probably lived for the first part of her life at the Chapel of Wemyss, a manor near Wemyss Castle, in Fife, Scotland and from 1639 at Wemyss Castle itself, where her parents moved after the death of the first Earl.
Margaret's older sister Jean’s (1629-1717) second husband was George Gordon, Lord Strathnaver, afterwards fourteenth Earl of Sutherland.  Lady Margaret Wemyss's songbook probably came into the possession of the Sutherland family through this sister. Jean appears to have also been a lutenist and at the bottom of a piece of solo lute music, Margaret has written, ‘all the Lesons behind this are learned out of my sisteres book’. Jean's account book of 1650-54 lists musical instruments such as lutes and virginals.
The second folio of the book contains the inscription ‘A booke Containing some pleasant ayres of Two, Three or fowre voices Collected out of diverse Authors Begunne june 5 1643 Mris Margaret Weemys.’ The book seems to have been started as a collection of songs, containing seventeen English lute songs by Thomas Campion (1567-1620) and Thomas Morley (c.1557/58-1602). The book continues with eight poems and a further nineteen poems at the end of the book. Some of the poems are by well-known Scottish and English poets but some are anonymous and possibly by Margaret herself.
The book also contains ninety one solo pieces for lute, some of which are native Scottish tunes but there is also a substantial number that are of French origin. Margaret is believed to have copied these works herself but such is the poor notation that they pose serious problems for the performer. Other sources have been used to correct the notation but others have required serious editorial intervention.
Martin Eastwell studied the lute with Diana Poulton, and with Jakob Lindberg at the Royal College of Music. His first solo recording, The Royal Lute, appeared in 1991, and he has since played on recordings for BIS, EMI, Thames Television and numerous other companies. In recent years he has performed as a continuo player with many of the country's leading early music groups and orchestras, including The Taverner Players, the English Baroque Soloists, the Scottish Early Music Consort, and Red Campion. In 2001 he formed his own ensemble, Lyra which has performed widely throughout the UK, and also performs regularly with the mezzo soprano Deborah Catterall.
The disc opens with a captivating The day dawes in the morning played with such finesse and lovely phrasing. Sinkapace has some lovely runs over a stately theme in this very attractive piece, terrifically played. Other highlights are the strange Almond Goutier with its odd phrases (attributed to the French composer and lutenist, Jaques Gaultier (c.1600-1652)), an attractive Current Lysabelle (attributed to Charles de Lespine (fl. c.1610)) with rich harmonies, a bold General Lesly’s Goodnight, a great piece with lovely sounds from the lute, and the quietly attractive Lady Binnis Lilt. Tom of Bedlam is a great piece, full of life with strong playing and terrific rhythms. The Spanish Pavin has a flowing melody with nicely pointed playing, a lovely dancing Arie Curant, so infectious, as is the playing and Almond Goutier (again attributed to Jaques Gaultier) with beautiful sonorities from the lute in this attractive piece.
I have to mention another piece, Almond Goutier (Old Gaultier’s Nightingale –attributed to Ennemond  Gaultier (c.1575-1651)), an atmospheric piece full of quiet charm with some lovely phrases from the lute, a gloriously played, if brief sarabande (attributed to the French singer, lutenist and composer Francois de Chancy (1600-1656)) and a faltering love song I Never Knew I Loved Thee with a decidedly Scottish folk music feel – quite captivating. Ruthven’s Lilt is lovely, a little gem and the concluding The Flowers of the Forest, a beautiful Scottish Ballade not from the Wemyss Lute Book but from the earlier Rowallen Lute Book. It is a lament for the dead at the Battle of Flodden Field amongst whose number was Lady Margaret’s ancestor, Sir David Wemyss.
Martin Eastwell has added Preludes of his own to seven of the groups of pieces on this disc. This seems to have been the practice in the 17th century though none appear in the Wemyss Lute Book. These little preludes are so simple yet so right, seeming to pick out the essence of other works.
There are so many finely played pieces on this disc that it has been difficult to pick out those that are particularly attractive. Martin Eastwell plays all these works with such style, panache and sensitivity.
A handful of these pieces have been recorded by Jakob Lindberg on a BIS CD of Lute Music from Scotland and France that pulls together extracts from a number of lute books. Lindberg is a first rate lutenist but for all the merits of his disc this new one, containing as it does forty five pieces from the Lute Book of Lady Margaret Wemyss is a must for all enthusiasts of the lute.
Martin Eastwell is a mesmerising lutenist who brings out every little nuance and detail from these often elusive works. The recording is excellent and the notes, that include details of the instruments, are extremely informative.
Interestingly Martin Eastwell will be performing live at The Moot Hall, Hexham, Northumberland on 19th May 2013, Holywell Music Room, Oxford on 16th June 2013 and Burgh House, Hampstead on 7th July 2013 

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Naxos releases World Premiere Recordings of attractive works by Ivan Karabits, in performances that are authoritative and commanding

Most people will be aware of the name Kirill Karabits as the young, dynamic, Ukrainian Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Few people, I suspect, will have heard of his father, the composer and conductor Ivan Fedorovych Karabits (1945- 2002).

He was born in Yalta, in southern Ukraine, and graduated from the Kiev Conservatory in 1971 having studied with Boris Lyatoshinsky (1895-1968) and Myroslav Skoryk (b.1938). He conducted the Dance Ensemble of the Kiev Military District and the Kiev Camerata, taught at the Kiev Conservatory and was a People's Artist of Ukraine.

Ivan Karabits’ music followed the tradition of Mahler and Shostakovich as well as that of Ukrainian folk music. His works include three symphonies, three piano concertos, three concertos for orchestra, chamber music, piano works and vocal works, as well as film music. He died in Kiev, aged 57.
A new release from Naxos features Ivan Karabits’ three concertos for orchestra together with two short works by his fellow countryman Valentin Silvestrov  with Kirill Karabits conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Karabits’ Concerto for Orchestra No. 1 (1980-81) is in two movements and opens with a grand maestoso for full orchestra with tubular bells sounding out. The music falls quieter as the theme is shared between various parts of the orchestra, first woodwind, followed by strings and then brass adding to the texture. After some lovely woodwind arabesques, the music rises to a romantic sounding orchestral passage, interspersed with brass and percussion that leads to a climax, cut off to harp and celeste. Violins quietly give an impassioned theme with tubular bells adding atmosphere, before the strings quietly speed up as the music leads into the second movement presto.

The music becomes more frantic as woodwind and brass enter in a riotous section, followed by a rising woodwind motif signalling a quiet interlude. As the orchestra moves along quickly, there are some louder outbursts, percussion playing an important role. There are rapidly changing moods as music quietens to a lovely flute and harp passage with strings and woodwind arabesques, somewhat reminiscent of Rautavaara.  The music moves to a livelier section with timpani and rapidly moving strings and brass with great forward momentum. Bells peel as the music slows slightly with brass interjections before a section for drums and brass with orchestra leads forward to what seems to be a loud conclusion, before suddenly falling to a hush with the music petering out quietly.

The allegro of the three movement Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 (1986) opens excitingly with the orchestra in full flight before subsiding to strings, scurrying ahead in this frantic music, pointed up by xylophone.  The music slows to a longer breathed section where strings, shift around tonally. Before long the opening tempo returns complete with xylophone. When the music slows again it becomes more light-hearted, moving around the orchestra in attractive little phrases. Again the opening tempo returns, scurrying along, before a brief, rather romantic section with woodwind and strings. The opening tempo returns yet again before the movement ends quietly.

The andante molto expressivo opens with bells and side drums leading quickly into a crash of percussion. As the tumult dies, a rippling harp plays against a lovely little tune on the piccolo, with a solo cello occasionally joining in. Then a harpsichord strums some chords whilst a clarinet plays a melody, the orchestra then joining in this slow, gently flowing, beautiful melody. A harpsichord and bass clarinet intone the tune before strings signal a more agitated section, with side drums that leads to the last movement moderato that begins with an orchestral outburst.

The music soon quietens with rapid piano notes against a little flute motif before violins and pizzicato lower strings enter. The strings come together in a more expressive theme leading to full orchestra as the tune is given to different instruments in a section full of action.  Timpani herald a light hearted passage for harpsichord, celeste, then flute, before a jazzy violin makes an appearance. The harpsichord returns with brass featuring prominently before the xylophone and timpani enter. There is even clapping from orchestra members as drums are played. The theme is thrown around the orchestra until quietening with strings and xylophone. Drums lead to a hushed section before a last outburst of the main theme. This is a thoroughly entertaining and at times beautiful piece.

In his Concerto for Orchestra No. 3 (1989) Karabits returns to the two movement format of his first concerto with a largo rubato opening with what must be the unique sound of ‘little bells woven into tresses of hair’, something conceived by the composer with help from the then thirteen year old Kirill, and symbolising ‘the voices that we hear from the past.’ Eventually a horn joins with a little tune before a cello enters. All is hushed with strange noises appearing, including natural harmonics on the upper strings and a rustling sound made by the brass players blowing into their instruments without any pitch.  When the strings enter there is a rich, if slightly tragic sound, moving the music forward as full orchestra and timpani appear. As the orchestra quietens there is a lovely clarinet solo. There are so many things going on in this amazing, constantly changing music. When a romantic melody emerges it rises to a climax before the haunting sound of the flexatone sounds out, followed by timpani leading to the second movement.

The allegro commences quietly at first but almost immediately a melody on strings emerges with woodwind and timpani interspersions, before the full orchestra in a dramatic section. Eventually the music drops to a brass passage with tubular bells joining in. As the orchestra leads on there are sections for woodwind, before brass, and strings join. Percussion have a prominent role as the orchestra slowly shifts along followed by a passage for brass and timpani as the music becomes increasingly agitated. As the music peaks and subsides, there is a brass motif against the orchestra. The music quietens with the hushed sound of the little bells again. The piano enters alone except for hushed bells in a rhapsodic theme. As the lower strings enter, tubular bells chime, the rustling sound from the brass players enters and there are humming voices as a flute plays a folksy little tune in a feeling of utmost sadness. A solo violin enters in this magical moment that just fades with upward piano phrases.

Valentin Vasylyovych Silvestrov (b. 1937) was born in Kiev, Ukraine.  Silvestrov began private music lessons at age of fifteen and later studied piano at the Kiev Evening Music School from 1955 to 1958. From 1958–1964 he studied composition under Boris Lyatoshinsky (1895-1968) and harmony and counterpoint under Levko Revutsky (1889-1977) at the Kiev Conservatory.

His works to date include eight symphonies, works for violin and orchestra and piano and orchestra, chamber works including two string quartets and vocal works. After his early avant-garde style of composition he later discovered a style comparable to western "post-modernism."

After the early death of his friend Ivan Karabits, Silvestrov borrowed the sketches Karabits had made for a work that would have set the texts of the eighteenth century philosopher Grigory Skovorda (1722-1794). From this he wrote Elegy (2002) using his own and Karabits’ ideas. It is dedicated to Karabits’ widow, the musicologist Marianna Kopystia.

The work is introduced with a hesitant string motif, full of sorrow and melancholy. The music hints at a sad theme but seems only to be able deliver short phrases that nevertheless are very affecting, perhaps because of their very reticence.

Silvestrov’s Abschiedsserenade 2003 for string orchestra is dedicated to the memory of Ivan Karabits and was first performed on 3rd October 2003. In two movements, the adagio opens with a descending phrase that is then developed. Again there is a reticence here, as if unable to fully express such deep feelings. The second movement marked moderato, follows without a break with a lovely melody that, at last, is able to appear, a wistful little tune with harp accompaniment and a pulse that is reminiscent of adagietto from Mahler’s fifth symphony.

The works on this new disc, three of which are billed as World Premiere Recordings, are extremely attractive in performances that, as you would expect, are authoritative and commanding. The recording from the Lighthouse, Poole is excellent as are Andrew Burns’ notes.