Sunday 30 June 2013

Works for string sextet by Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg work exceptionally well together, especially when performed as wonderfully as the Emerson Quartet and Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr for Sony Classical

Whether or not Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)  and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) share a similar audience is rather a moot point. At first sight it would seem that there is no common ground between these composers despite their overlapping dates. By the time Tchaikovsky died at the young age of 53, Schoenberg was 19 years of age.

Had Tchaikovsky lived into his 70’s he would have easily made the 20th century though, no doubt, his compositional style would not have changed greatly. Schoenberg, of course, went on to abandon tonality and develop the twelve-tone technique.

Tchaikovsky, who was far more orientated towards Western music rather than the Russian nationalist school, could, of course, be pretty passionate in his music to a degree that, in the hands of the right performers, his music can sometimes sit well with Schoenberg’s early works that were still linked to late Romanticism.

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence in D minor, Op.70 for String Sextet, written between 1887 and 1890, was first performed in St Petersburg in 1892 whereas

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4, for string sextet was composed, in just three weeks, in 1899 and premiered in Vienna in March 1902. So it can be seen that, composition wise, the works are only separated by around nine years.

The juxtaposition of these two works is something that the Emerson Quartet  together with colleagues Paul Neubauer (viola) and Colin Carr (cello) have adopted for their new recording for Sony Classical entitled Journeys.


Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, some of which was written in that city, very much represents a journey, the composer’s journey to Italy. It is a passionate opening that this ensemble brings to the allegro con spirito of this work with nicely taut playing and some real power from the cellos. There is a real sweep and panache in this performance with the Emersons and colleagues showing such real passion and commitment in climaxes with great contrast between the sunny interludes and the passionate sections.

Such is the sonority in the opening of the Adagio cantabile e con moto that this could almost be a small string orchestra. It is beautifully played with so much interplay and conversation between instruments. There is a terrific fast central section and a terrific climax towards the coda that nevertheless ends quietly.

The very Slavic sounding Allegretto moderato sails along beautifully before gaining in passion with some terrifically fine playing, so crisp and precise. The lovely fleeting trio section scurries past and imperceptibly joins the main tune before a superb coda.

The dancing Allegro vivace also has a lovely Russian sounding theme with some lovely flowing and intertwining playing from the Emersons and their colleagues. As the movement progresses to a fugal section the Emersons are brilliant with wonderful ensemble and, when the beautifully sunny first subject returns, this ensemble brings such vibrancy.

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht represents a journey of a different nature, that of a couple walking through a wood on a moonlit night. The girl tells her lover that she had conceived a child by another man. The man replies that the glory of the night and the warmth that exists between them will transfigure the child and make it his own.

There is a superbly done dark, mysterious opening to this performance of Verklärte Nacht, rising through strange harmonies to reveal the main theme. The pacing and dynamics are beautifully done, especially where the stings try to billow up but are cut off. It is in the ensemble’s subtle following of the changes in dynamics and tempi that marks out this performance. When the work reaches its tipping point there is a lovely cello melody, so finely and passionately played by the ensemble. When the music quietens to a hush this is a magical moment, with such lovely little nuances. The coda depicting, according to the composer, ‘the miracles of nature that have changed this night of tragedy into a transfigured night’ is brilliantly done and so beautifully depicts the moonlit night and nature.

These two pieces work exceptionally well together, especially when performed as wonderfully as this by the Emerson Quartet and their colleagues, Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr. I would have, perhaps, preferred a little more air around the players but this is, nevertheless, a fine recording.

Thursday 27 June 2013

A new book by Mai Kawabata, from Boydell Press, that looks at the myth surrounding Paganini in a volume that is both informative and entertaining

A brief search on the internet for references to Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840)  brings up a variety of accounts of the man, as a composer and principal violin virtuoso of the 19th century, a popular idol who inspired the Romantic mystique of the virtuoso, or the most celebrated violin virtuoso of his time, who left his mark as one of the pillars of modern violin technique to references to reports from a ‘half crazed’ listener that for some days he had seen the Devil helping the violinist.

So what of the myth surrounding Paganini and of the man behind all the hype? A new publication from Boydell Press  entitled Paganini - The ‘Demonic’ Virtuoso by Mai Kawabata investigates the legend of the man.

Boydell Press
Hardback - ISBN: 9781843837565
First Published: 20 June 2013
Pages: 303
Size: 23.4 x 15.6

Mai Kawabata  is a Lecturer in Music at the University of East Anglia and a professional violinist. Her main research interests are violin virtuosity, the history of musical performance, music and narrative, the cultural history of instruments, and subjectivity in performance.  She has also published articles on the image of violin virtuosi as symbols of military power, on the quality of narration projected by the violin in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and on the viola's 'anti-virtuosic' role in Berlioz's Harold in Italy. She has presented her research at international conferences, the American Musicological Society, and the Institute of Musical Research. She is a contributor to the Hamburg Hochschule's MUGI project and is at present researching the history of violinist genealogies.

One only has to look at the chapter heading Hypererotiscm and Violence to see that Mai Kawabata has written a book that looks at all aspects of the cult surrounding Paganini. But there is much more besides, with Kawabata looking at Paganini’s violin technique, musical ethos and his place in a wider cultural context.

She has gathered together a huge amount of information from an impressive number of sources to produce a volume that gives a great insight into what exactly was behind the self promotion, reputation and, indeed, cult surrounding Paganini

Chapter 1: Introduction does more than briefly set out the intentions of the book, it looks at the violinist’s technique, deducing the likely span of his left hand, considers what techniques were actually used in Paganini’s virtuosity through analysing the Caprices, as well as looking at the ‘Paganini Cult’.

Mai Kawabata’s Introduction goes on to explain how she has drawn on evidence from two primary sources, firstly the scores of Paganini’s compositions and secondly historical and biographical documents including reviews, caricatures, treatises and letters from Paganini’s own time.

Chapter 2: ‘Demonic’ Violinist, Magical Violinist takes the reader through the construction of the whole mystification process from Paganini’s seemingly inhuman violinistic abilities, apparently indicating his soullessness, and the suggestion that he had exchanged his humanity for virtuoso powers in some kind of Faustian pact, the early power of the press to describe and depict him as Mephistopheles, to the expectations of his audiences, all set within an era that encompassed the popularity of Goethe’s Faust, post enlightenment secularism and a breakdown of sexual taboos.

Chapter 3: Hypererotiscm and Violence, the author examines how the demonic and erotic supposedly overlapped in figurations of virtuoso violin performance. We are told that Paganini’s biographers agree that the famous violinist had an unusually developed libido that was reflected in terms of his pleasure, recreation and conquest. Quite how this affected his playing is another matter given that Kawabata acknowledges that musicologists have given such hypereroticism little attention.

Yet it seems that the affect of such hypereroticism is not far fetched at all given that at the Court of Lucca, between 1801 and 1805, Paganini went so far as to mimic the sighs and moans of erotic arousal when he improvised a ‘dialogue’ between Adonis and Venus. Kawabata goes into much evidence based detail which I will not ruin by describing more fully here.

Chapter 4: Sovereignty, Domination and Conquest looks at Paganini’s quest for personal glory and all that it could bring by way of social and material advantages. This is fully understandable given his rise from poverty as the son of a dock worker in Genoa. He soon progressed from court violinist at Lucca to becoming a freelance violinist travelling throughout Italy then the whole of Europe. Paganini later said,’ When I became my own master, I enjoyed life in rich, full draughts’ a comment that speaks volumes.

Chapter 5:  Paganini’s Legacies explores the legacy of Paganini on later violin performance and cultural history though excluding any examination of the numerous variations on his now famous Caprice No.24. Amongst a number of other virtuoso violinists, there is an engraving of a rather refined and staid looking Isaac Collins ‘the English Paganini’ (1797-1871), a far remove from some of the manic images of Paganini. Paganini’s Misconstrued Legacy of Technique Fetishisation looks at how, by the end of the 19th century, many critics saw the instrumental technique of imitators of Paganini as superficial, vainglorious and aesthetically bankrupt and how performers moved from a display of their own works to the interpretation of works by others.

The Epilogue: Paganinian Mythology covers post Paganini Italian violin virtuosos from Filippo Romagnoli (1822-1884) to the 20th century’s own Salvatore Accardo. The section on Paganini’s ‘Secret Red Book’ , something that acquired a talismanic mystique thought to contain the secrets of the violinist’s technique and even details of his love affairs, is revealed but you will have to buy the book to find out its contents.

The fascinating Appendix: Paganiniana in the British Press (1840-1900) alone takes up around 40% of the book. It covers a huge array of documentation from British Press articles, fiction, verse and even a ‘true story’ about Paganini’s false teeth.

The book includes an extremely large bibliography that includes everything from newspapers and periodicals to primary sources and secondary literature, select recordings, films inspired by Paganini and useful websites. There are black and white illustrations, musical examples and tables as well as a full index.

This new book looks at a popular subject in the most scholarly way, drawing on a vast amount of material in order to produce a volume that is both informative and entertaining.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Two highly recommended re-releases of chansons and motets by Janequin and Poulenc on Harmonia Mundi’s HM Gold label

Harmonia Mundi  have recently re-released a number of recordings on their HM Gold label of which I have selected two that reflect the wide range of music covered, Clément Janequin (c.1485-1558) and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).

Le Chant des Oyseaulx features Ensemble Clément Janequin in chansons by Clément Janequin. Ensemble Clément Janequin was founded in Paris in 1978, and performs sacred and secular vocal music of the Renaissance, from Josquin to Monteverdi. Their recordings for Harmonia mundi include Les cris de Paris, Le chant des oyseaulx, Fricassée parisienne and La chasse. 

HMG 501099

Janequin, born in Châtellerault, France, was a ‘clerc’ in Bordeaux and held a number of prebends there. He was briefly Master of Choirboys at Auch Cathedral before, in 1534, becoming Maître de Chapelle at Angers Cathedral. Around 1549 he settled in Paris where he became Chanter Ordinaire du Roi and, later, Compositeur Ordinaire du Roi. Janequin wrote over 250 chansons and 150 psalm settings and chansons spirituelles as well as two masses and one motet. Pieces such as Le chant des oiseaux, L’alouette, La chasse, Les Cris de Paris and La bataille are filled with onomatopoeic effects such as fanfares, birdsong and street cries. Often his music is harmonically static, depending on rhythmic invention for its effect.

Le chant des oyseaulx (Birdsong) (1528) is one of the works included on this re-release and that gives the disc its title, with Ensemble Clément Janequin bringing a lively fervour with some wonderful weaving of voices and some fabulously intricate bird like vocal imitations. Toutes les nuictz (Every night) (1547) is a gentle, sonorous chanson that shows off the Ensemble’s beautiful blending of voices in this melancholy piece. The livelier J’atens le temps (I pass the time) (1540) is equally well blended, joined by a lute, quietly and subtly accompanying the voices.

There is a beautifully pointed Il estoit une fillette (There was a maiden) (1540) and a beautifully sung Chanson de Janequin (1540) followed by Pièce pour luth de Guillaume Morlaye d’après Janequin (1552), a lute solo, finely played by Claude Debôves. The lively Ung jour Colin (One day Colin) (1536) is so well controlled with a lovely quiet interlude before O doulx regard (Oh sweet look) (1548) an beautiful song, exquisitely sung.  Le chant de l’alouette (The song of the lark) (1528) brings again bird like vocal sounds, wonderfully characterised by the Ensemble Clément Janequin.  The performance of this chanson is a very fine achievement.

The lovely pastoral Quand contrement verras (When will you see) (1549) is followed by Hellas mon Dieu (Alas my God) (1545) where the Ensemble is really lovely in this rather penitential song, pleading for an end to distress. With Ma peine n’est pas grande (My pain is not great) (1545) we are very much back in the secular world in this lively song where each voice shows through. O mal d’aymer (Oh love’s woe) (1544) is another of Janequin’s exquisite songs so beautifully sung whilst Herbes et fleurs (Herbs and flowers) 1555) has some particularly fine part writing. L’aveuglé Dieu (God does not see) (Pièce pour luth d’Albert de Rippe d’après Janequin) (1552) is another fine lute solo from Claude Debôves who accompanies the Ensemble in A ce joly moys de may (In the merry month of May) (1543), a lovely evocation of May. Assouvy suis (I am surfeited) (1529) a surprisingly gentle piece on the words ‘I am surfeited, but I do not cease desiring’ is beautifully done. A lovely performance.

Quelqu’un me disoit l’aultre jour (Someone told me the other day) (1550) brings such fine blending of voices in yet another lovely song before a jolly M’y levay ung matin (I rose up one fine morning) (1529). M’amye a eu de Dieu (My love has God’s gift) (1540) has some more great part writing with some of the more tricky passages brilliantly done and the final chanson Le chant du rossignol (The song of the nightingale) (1537) again brings vocal bird imitations in this terrific final song.

This small ensemble comprising Dominique Visse (countertenor), Michel Laplénie (tenor), Philippe Cantor (baritone), Antoine Sicot (bass) and Claude Debôves (lute) are absolutely terrific. With an excellent recording, full texts and translations and excellent notes this re-release is thoroughly recommended.

The disc of works by Francis Poulenc features sacred and secular unaccompanied choral works with the RIAS Kammerchoir directed by Daniel Reuss  and Marcus Creed. The RIAS Chamber Choir is one of the world's leading professional choirs comprising some thirty five professionally trained singers. The ensemble was founded in 1948 as a choir of Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) but continues to this day performing with the radio orchestras and choirs GmbH Berlin. Their Chief conductor since 2007 is Hans-Christoph Rademann.

HMG 508394.95

Poulenc’s Sept Chansons pour choeur mixte was written in 1936 and set poems by Paul Éluard and Guillaume Apollinaire . In La blanche neige (The white snow) the RIAS Choir under Daniel Reuss are precise and flexible with a lovely range of voices sounding through in this lovely setting of Apollinaire.  A peine défigurée (Hardly disfigured) is a beautiful setting where Poulenc varies the tempo and feeling to great effect. Female voices soar over passages sung by the rest of choir in Par une nuit nouvelle (A new night) as Poulenc packs so much into this little song. Tous les droits (Every right) has an ecstatic opening and effective use of individual sections of the choir who are fabulous in this piece. Belle et ressemblante (Beautiful resemblance) is beautifully sung, following every  inflection and nuance and Marie is a lively chanson that alternates between shorter phrases and a longer breathed flowing melody with a striking and lovely ending.

An outburst from the choir opens Luire (Shine) on the words ‘.Terre irréprochablement cultivée…’ (impeccably cultivated land) After a quiet section the choir bursts out again with some great singing.  

Settings of texts by Eluard feature again in Poulenc’s Un soir de neige ( A snowy Evening), petite cantata sur un texte de Paul Eluard (1944) Pure female voices open Le feu (Fire), a lovely setting where the blending of voices is terrific. This is a superb performance. The lovely Un loup (A wolf) is sung with great sensitivity with the female voices spot on. What superb singing there is in Derniers instants (Last moments), blended, sonorous and controlled, whilst the simple little chanson Du dehors (From outside) is so affectively written and superbly sung.

Poulenc’s Figure Humaine (Human Figure) Cantate sur un texte de Paul Eluard (1943) provides the title piece for this collection.  Male voices open Bientôt (Shortly) a lovely setting of Éluard, the RIAS choir following every change of mood that Poulenc requires. In Le rôle des femmes (The Role of Women), female voices suitably open with some terrific part writing for the whole choir when they appear.

A quiet, gentle Aussi bas que le silence (As low as silence) shows Poulenc the master composer of vocal music before Patience rises from a quiet  beginning to become quiet forceful, before falling back, all within just four lines of verse in this fine setting. Première marche – La voix d’un autre (First step - the voice of another) is brilliantly done, really bouncing along.

Un loup (A wolf) is another setting of the poem used by Poulenc in Un soir de neige, an exquisite song perfectly sung. Un feu sans tache (Unblemished fire) has a kind of syncopated rhythm with the choir not putting a foot wrong. There is a quiet and sensitive middle section that sounds so French. Finally there is Liberté, so distinctive a piece subtly enhancing the texts with a constantly shifting mood.

Quatre petites prières de sainte François d’Assise (Four little prayers of St. Francis of Assisi)  (1948) opens with I Salut, Dame Sainte, restrained, yet passionate with rich sounds from the RIAS choir’s male singers and quite beautiful.  II Tout puissant, très saint (Almighty, Most Holy) is a fervent prayer, yet Poulenc always varies the emotion with quiet moments. Seignieur, je vous en prie (Lord, please) has some lovely vocal textures and the final setting is O mes très chers frères (O my dear Brothers) where a solo tenor opens before the choir enters in this lovely piece. These are exquisite settings, exquisitely sung.

Chanson à boire (Drinking Song) (1922) sets anonymous texts in this lively drinking song with some great vocal effects, so well done .

The second disc in this set is conducted by Marcus Creed and opens with Poulenc’s

Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence (Four Motets for a time of penance) (1938/39). Timor et tremor (Fear and Trembling) is a more ecclesiastical sounding piece, restrained yet never static, always moving, ebbing and flowing.  Vinea mea electa (Cast out my vines) is such a fine setting, beautifully sung with the music constantly moving and changing. Tenebrae factae sunt (Darkness) starts low with chant like singing in this striking piece, with dissonances that must be one of Poulenc’s finest sacred settings. The RIAS choir do it proud. Tristis est anima mea (My soul is sorrowful) has a lovely opening for soprano before the music speeds up. A wonderful motet, beautifully sung.

There is a rather lighter feel to Exultate Deo (1941) which seems like a work that led the way to later models and the flowing Salve Regina (1941) brings us back to a more restrained world in this lovely motet.

Quatre Motets pour en temps de Noël. (Four motets for Christmas) (1952) opens with O magnum mysterium, (O great sacred mystery) another lovely motet followed by Quem vidistis pastores dicite (what have you seen, shepherds, speak!) with lovely dynamics from the choir in this fine setting that rises to a central climax before falling to a more restrained ending. A beautifully constructed Videntes stellam (seeing the star) gives this choir the opportunity to show so much and a joyful Hodie Christus natus est (today, Christ is born) ends this otherwise fairly restrained set of motets. I must mention the excellent diction as well as the choir’s tremendous agility.

The last work of this set is Poulenc’s Messe en sol Majeur (Mass in G Major) (1939) with an ebullient Kyrie. The choir has a lovely upper range, never strident. Poulenc’s Messe contains what must be one of the most original Glorias ever written, exquisitely and sensitively sung. In the Sanctus there is some lovely, lithe singing with the RIAS choir dealing with Poulenc’s little inflections so well. In the lovely Benedictus there is some beautiful singing as the RIAS choir slowly build the power in this music. The soprano solo opening to the Agnus Dei is beautifully done by Stephanie Möller with the RIAS choir’s exquisite singing bringing a lovely end to this mass as the solo soprano enters again.

The recordings from 2004 and 1995 respectively are first rate. There are excellent notes but sadly the texts are only in French and Latin. This beautifully sung disc is highly recommended. 

Monday 24 June 2013

Orchestral works by Giorgio Ghedini in performances by Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica Roma on a new release from Naxos

Giorgio Federico Ghedini (1892-1965) was born in Cuneo, Italy in 1892. He studied organ, piano and composition in Turin, before graduating in composition in Bologna under Marco Enrico Bossi (1861-1925) in 1911. He worked as conductor for a certain time before devoting himself to teaching.

After teaching composition in Turin and Parma he became director of the Milan Conservatory from 1951 to 1962. His pupils included Claudio Abbado, Luciano Berio, Guido Cantelli, Niccolò Castiglioni, Carlo Pinelli, and Fiorenzo Carpi.

Most of Ghedini’s published works date from after the late 1920s and are often inspired by music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, but combined with a very personal language. He wrote a large number of chamber, vocal and choral works as well as a number of operas, including a one-act opera based on Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd first performed in 1949, two years before Benjamin Britten’s opera on the same subject.

Ghedini also wrote some fine orchestral works including concertos and the three works included on a new release from Naxos , Architetture - Concerto for Orchestra, Contrappunti and Marinaresca e baccanale.

Francesco La Vecchia  and the Orchestra Sinfonia di Roma  have recorded these works as part of their ongoing series of recordings of 19th and 20th century Italian composers.

Architetture (Architectures) – Concerto for Orchestra, the work that propelled Ghedini to the forefront of Italian music, dates from 1939-40 and certainly shows some of the influence of Stravinsky. The piano is dominant from the outset in this freely tonal piece. After a jaunty bouncing theme with woodwind and piano, there is a repetitive motif in a busy string passage before the brass enters in a bold fanfare like section. There are thunderous timpani and drum passages and some string intervals that even recall the sound of the American outdoors yet there is still an Italian voice here as though recalling Italy’s past. As the music progresses there are repeated piano chords over a static orchestra in an attractive extended section full of atmosphere.

Eventually a stabbing motif appears after which the woodwind enter to repeat and vary the phrase. This leads to a kind of brass chorale as the music does finally arrive at a kind of resolution.  The nature of Ghedini’s structure seems to preclude a sense of forward momentum or inevitability but the phrases and motifs and repetitions do hold the attention as does his rather singular orchestration.

Contrappunti (Counterpoints) for string trio and orchestra was written between 1960 and 1961 and gives an equal partnership between the string trio of violin, viola and cello and the orchestra.

In three movements, the Molto moderato e marcato opens with some intense string sonorities from the string trio before being joined by the strings of the orchestra. This is interrupted by a jagged motif before the music progresses by way of full string sounds to a fragmented section with stabbing phrases from the brass. Woodwind adds to the mix as this music scurries around with more of a sense of direction than Architetture does. A series of upward rising phrases for various parts of the orchestra are thrown around. The string trio appears but soon gives way to the full orchestra which continues with the opening theme, the music growing faster. The music slows and quietens before another upward string motif leads to rich string chords with the trio again being heard.

The Andante misterioso opens with a solo cello playing rich dark notes, eventually opening out, with the trio emerging, before the orchestra enters in this dark, strange music. As the music moves forward a plangent clarinet appears against the strings playing a dotted rhythm in this tragically beautiful section. The trio players weave around each other before the strings soar higher and higher to end.

The lively opening Allegro vivo has a rising motif for the orchestra before a lightly dancing string orchestra scurries around. Eventually the string motif is thrown around the orchestra, overlaid with a fuller orchestral sound. Rich strings propel the music forward to its energetic finale complete with timpani and percussion.

The Molto sostenuto e ampio of Marinaresca e baccanale (Sea Piece and Bacchanale) (1933) rises from the depths with the orchestra providing a terrific swell. This is wild nature music that owes little to any predecessor. Static, motionless music adds to the tension as the elemental sea glides by. Brass interject as the music heaves around with percussion adding colour. This is extremely evocative music with, occasionally, the sound of Sibelius in the pizzicato strings. As it works towards a climax the music falls back in a wonderfully atmospheric section, very beautiful, as the strings sway to and fro. Slowly the music calms as woodwind and brass draw this magnificent seascape to a close, building to a peak to lead into the Baccanale: Presto where there are rushing strings before brass lead the orchestra in this wild music. There is a quiet woodwind phrase before repeated brass phrases and striding strings, as though threatening. The theme moves around the orchestra but it is cut off as wild strings and the brass rise up leading to the coda.

Ghedini is certainly an interesting orchestrator with his distinctive layering of sounds.

This new disc is worth getting for the terrific seascape in Marinaresca e baccanale alone but I am certainly glad to have heard all of these pieces.

Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica Roma do a terrific job with these interesting works which are well recorded in the OSR Studios, Rome and the Auditorium di Via Conciliazione, Rome. There are very informative booklet notes.

See also: 

Friday 21 June 2013

Surely one of the best performances yet recorded of Monteverdi’s L‘Orfeo with the Taverner Consort and Players directed by Andrew Parrott on a new release from Avie Records

The whole idea of opera was quite new when, in 1607, Claudio Monteverdi wrote L’Orfeo - Favola in Musica  (Orpheo - A Musical Fable). It can now be seen as probably the first great opera to be written. Alessandro Striggio the Younger

(c. 1573-1630), Mantuan Court Chancellor and son of the composer Alessandro Striggio (c.1536/1537-1592), provided the libretto based on the story of Orpheus, who descends into the underworld to retrieve the dead Eurydice, fails to do so, but is comforted and taken up to heaven by Apollo.

The first performance took place before members of the academy, probably in the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua  Whilst the soloists were probably all local virtuosos, it is known that at least one singer was brought from Florence. Such was the triumph of the first performance that the Duke of Mantua ordered another performance less than a week later.

Avie Records  have just released a new recording of L’Orfeo with the Taverner Consort and Players directed by Andrew Parrott
and a fine line up of soloists including Charles Daniels (tenor)  as Orpheus and Faye Newton (soprano) as Eurydice.

The opera consists of a prologue and five acts. A grand instrumental toccata precedes the Prologue where David Hurley (countertenor)  sings the role of the allegorical figure, Music (La Musica). He has a terrific countertenor voice, secure and pure, yet with a rich timbre providing pure beauty with the often spare accompaniment of the chitarrone. 

In Act I Simon Wall (tenor) takes the role of one of the shepherds (Pastore 2) in In questo lieto e fortunate giorno (On this happy and fortunate day) where he is excellent in all the little inflections and ornamentations. The members of the Taverner Consort that make up the chorus are also excellent in the chorus Vieni Imeneo, deh vieni. Anna Dennis (soprano)  Ninfa is excellent, pure yet characterful.

The chorus re-appear in the Balleto – Lasciate I monti (Leave your mountains) with some terrific interplay of voices in this fast and lively piece – great fun. Rodrigo del Pozo (high tenor) has an attractive voice in Ma tu gentil cantor s’a tuoi lamenti gia festi lagrimar queste champagne (But you noble singer, if at your lamenting you once did make these fields to weep).

In Rosa del Ciel, vita del Mondo (Rose of Heaven, life of the World) Orpheus (Orfeo) makes his entrance with Charles Daniels (tenor) bringing an assurance and strength as well as an Italianate sound. Faye Newton (soprano) has a lovely voice as Eurydice. Gareth Morrell (tenor) takes the role of the third shepherd (Pastore 3) in Ma s’il nostro gioir  dal Ciel deriva (But if our joy from Heaven derives) bringing yet another fine tenor voice that handles the subtle decorations so well. The concluding Ritornello – Alcun non sia brings two of the shepherds and Anna Dennis as Ninfa who beautifully weave their voices around each other.

Act II opens with the Sinfonia before Charles Daniels sings Ecco pur ch’a voi ritorno (Soon now how I return to you) with some lovely accompaniment from the Taverner Players. As the shepherds sing of the beautiful countryside where Pan, god of shepherds was sometimes overheard in sorrow, there are lovely instrumental Ritornello parts for various instruments, first little violins, then ordinary violins and finally recorders, beautifully done. In Vi recorda o boschi ombrosi Charles Daniels again shows how excellent a voice he has for Orpheus, creating such a feeling of Italian pastoral atmosphere.  The Messenger (Messaggiera) brings the lovely voice of Emily van Evera (soprano)  as she sings Ahi caso acerbo, ahi fato empio e crudele (Ahi, bitter chance, ahi, wicked and cruel fate) wonderfully done with a very attractive dialogue with the shepherds. Emily van Evera is also excellent in her emotional In un fiorito prato (In a flowery meadow) showing such fine control.

When Orpheus sings Tu se’morta mia vita, ed io respire? (You are dead, my life, and do I still breathe?) Charles Daniels brings a surprising degree of emotion to this piece. The chorus bring some lovely singing to Ahi caso acerbo (Ahi, bitter chance) with various vocal parts sounding out distinctively. When Emily van Evera enters as the messenger in Ma io ch’in questa lingua ho portato il coltello (But I, who in this tongue carried the knife) she is terrific, very dramatic.  

Act II ends with two shepherds singing Chi ne consola ahi lassi?(Who shall console us, ahi, alas?) The shepherd’s voices blend so well and the Taverner Players in the preceding Sinfonia are on top form in the mournful music. This is a lovely ending.

The brass opening of Act III Sinfonia giving such a glorious period sound, very evocative. Orpheus sings Speranza unico bene (Hope, sole blessing) as the fine, strong voice of Hope, sung by Clare Wilkinson (mezzo -soprano) , appears, with the words Lasciate ogni speranza o voi ch’entrate (Abandon all hope, all you who enter)

Curtis Streetman (bass) is a suitably frightening Charon (Caronte) as he sings O tu ch’innanzi morte a queste rive temerario te n’vieni (O you, who to these banks ahead of death most rashly come) with a lovely low range and accompanied by a regal.

Whilst Orpheus appeals with the words Possente Spirto e formidabil Nume (Powerful Spirit) and fearsome Divinity) the ritornello sound as though from afar, two violins, then two cornets and finally a most attractive double harp. This is a particularly tragic part of the opera and quite affecting. As Charon continues in Ben mi lusinga alquanto (There is a certain allurement) Curtis Streetman gives a terrific characterisation and superb little decorations.

Ahi sventurato amante provides Charles Daniels with another terrific part as Orpheo cries out Ahi unfortunate love. The final Sinfonia of Act III has striking brass dominating the opening before the Chorus of the Spirits of the Underworld sing Nulla impresa per buom (No enterprise is tried by man in vain) a glorious end to Act III Final Sinfonia.

At the beginning of Act IV Emily Van Evera (soprano) returns this time as Proserpine where she pleads with Pluto with her youthful voice in Signor quell’infelice (Lord, that unhappy man) finely sung. Pluto, sung by Christopher Purves (bass) , has the same regal accompaniment as Charon and proves to be a strong and powerful Pluto in Benché severo & immutabil fato contrasti amata sposa (Although a harsh and immutable fate opposes your desires).

There is a moment of intense drama as Orfeo sees Eurydice and sings O dolcissimi lumi ( Oh sweetest eyes, I now see you) followed by one of the most poignant of moments, so exquisitely sung by Faye Newton (Eurydice), Clare Wilkinson (A Spirit) and Charles Daniels (Orpheus). A Sinfonia intones a sorrowful tune before the Chorus of Spirits end this Act.

After an opening Ritornello, Orpheus sings Act V Questi I campi di Tracia, e questo e il loco dove passommi il core (These are the fields of Thrace, this is the place where my heart was pierced), Charles Daniels providing more superb singing, full of feeling, so Italianate in this extended despairing lament. Simon Wall provides the echo to Orpheus’ voice, an effect apparently popular at the time. Here it works brilliantly.

Guy Pelc (baritone)  as Apollo descends to aid Orpheus. His is another strong voice in Perchè a lo sdegno & al dolor in preda (Why thus gripped by scorn and grief). As Orpheus and Appolo ascend to Heaven they sing Saliam cantando al Cielo (Let us go singing up to Heaven) a terrific combination of voices beautifully decorated.

The chorus sing Vanne Orfeo felice a pieno (Go, Orpheus, full of happiness) in this lively section with fine instrumental playing.  Moresca is a lively dance full of joy and life to end this wonderful opera.

This must surely be one of the best performances yet recorded of Monteverdi’s masterpiece. The recording, made in the church of St Michael and All Angels, Summerstown, Oxford, is pretty much ideal, allowing one to imagine sitting in on an intimate performance. There are excellent booklet notes by Hugh Griffith and Andrew Parrott and a libretto in both the original Italian and English.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

A highly recommendable new recording of violin concertos by Britten and Shostakovich from James Ehnes on a new release from Onyx Classics

James Ehnes was born in 1976 in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada. He began violin studies at the age of four, and at age nine became a protégé of the noted Canadian violinist Francis Chaplin. He later studied with Sally Thomas at the Meadowmount School of Music before studying at The Juilliard School.

He has won numerous awards and prizes, including the first-ever Ivan Galamian Memorial Award, the Canada Council for the Arts’ Virginia Parker Prize, and a 2005 Avery Fisher Career Grant. In October 2005, James was honoured by Brandon University with a Doctor of Music degree (honoris causa) and in July 2007 he became the youngest person ever elected as a Fellow to the Royal Society of Canada. On July 1st 2010, the Governor General of Canada appointed James a Member of the Order of Canada.

James Ehnes has already recorded the Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Barber, Walton and Korngold concertos for Onyx as well as Paganini’s 24 Caprices. His Elgar concerto disc won the Gramophone Concerto Award 2008.

Now Ehnes turns his attention to Britten’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto in a new release from Onyx Classics with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirill Karabits .

ONYX 4113

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)  got to know Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)  through his friendship with the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich . This was not until the 1960’s so it is strange that one hears occasional hints of Shostakovich in this early work by Britten.

Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra provide a poetic opening before a sweet toned Ehnes enters in the Moderato con moto of Britten’s Violin Concerto, Op.15.  In the second subject, Ehnes never loses his beauty of tone whilst delivering a more cutting edge. As the music develops, Ehnes is lovely in the quiet delicate passages. The BSO under Karabits provide first rate accompaniment in the rather Shostakovich sounding Vivace second movement. Ehnes is on top form making light of all the technical difficulties in a really dynamic performance. The cadenza is marvellously done, Ehnes bringing out all the various violinistic effects to great effect. In the Passacaglia: Andante lento (Un poco meno mosso), Ehnes, Karabits and the BSO build the music brilliantly. The moody interludes have a wonderfully strong atmosphere. The loose structure is well held together so that, when the big tune arrives it sounds natural, as though all that preceded it has come together. There is some great orchestral playing here and, when Ehnes joins after the climax, what a lovely tone he has. In the coda, Ehnes provides some superb sounds with those lovely harmonics.

Surely Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77 is one of his greatest works. There is a rich dark orchestral opening to the Nocturne: Moderato before Ehnes enters, full of emotional tension in this brooding music.  Ehnes draws lots of little subtleties from the music with some beautifully hushed moments from both violin and orchestra. This movement is terrifically well paced as the music builds with the brooding atmosphere never far away.  There is a bubbly but almost grotesque opening to the Scherzo: Allegro  with the orchestra, particularly, adding to this feel. Ehnes is superb in this pretty challenging movement as it builds to its gypsy rhythms with never any let up for the soloist. Shostakovich’s wonderful Passacaglia: Andante third movement is so well played by the BSO under Karabits, an enormous outpouring of feeling, grief even, and superbly handled by Ehnes.

As if any further proof was needed of Ehnes’ technique, here is a further evidence of what a superb violinist he is in this extended cadenza. It is no obvious showpiece, but there is a display of great musicianship and technique. There is a fabulously played Burleque: Allegro con brio – Presto Allegro – Presto that for all its unstoppable momentum and breathtaking virtuosity is perfectly paced.

Though this new release cannot replace the legendary Oistrakh it is up there with the best currently available. With a recording from the Lighthouse, Poole, that is stunningly vivid, and with excellent booklet notes by Malcolm MacDonald, this new release is highly recommended.

See also: 

Sunday 16 June 2013

Some Beethoven to treasure as The Allegri Quartet celebrate their 60th anniversary with the first issue of a new Beethoven quartet cycle for Vivat Music

The legendary Allegri Quartet celebrate their 60th anniversary this year. Britain’s oldest chamber group, the Allegri Quartet was founded in 1953 by Eli Goren, William Pleeth, Patrick Ireland and James Barton.

Successive generations have sustained the Quartet over six decades, the current members being Ofer Falk and Rafael Todes (violins), Dorothea Vogel (viola) and Vanessa Lucas-Smith (cello). Over the decades the Allegris have worked with composers such as Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Elizabeth Maconchy, John Woolrich, Anthony Payne, James MacMillan, Matthew Taylor and Alec Roth. The Allegris have premièred more than 60 works since 1964, including specially commissioned pieces.

The Quartet has collaborating with other artists including such illustrious names as Jack Brymer, Clifford Curzon, Dame Thea King, John Ogden and Gervase de Peyer. Their numerous international festival appearances have included Aldeburgh, Edinburgh, Prague Spring, Berlin, Hong Kong, and Stavanger.

The anniversary celebrations will include complete Beethoven cycles in Switzerland and in the UK, two World Premieres of quartets by Alec Roth, for the Salisbury International Festival and Malvern Club and a host of celebration concerts throughout the UK.

Vivat Music will release this week a new Beethoven quartet cycle with the Allegri Quartet. This new release will feature the String Quartets Op.18 No’s 3, 4 and 5.

Beethoven began work on his Op.18 quartets in 1798 but, due to extensive preparation and revisions, they were not ready for publication until 1801. The order of composition appears, from Beethoven’s sketchbooks, to have been No.3 in D major, No.1 in F major, No.2 in G major, No.5 in A major and No.6 in B flat. No.4 in C minor is difficult to place given that there are no sketches for it in any extant sketch books, but some Beethoven scholars believe that it may date to earlier than the other five of the set.

The Allegris open the Allegro ma non tanto of the Quartet in C minor, Op.18 No.4 with a remarkable care and crispness.  They bring a classical feel to this quartet together with some lovely singing string tones, full of passion when required.

There is an exquisitely played Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto with more of the Allegri’s finesse and care and some lovely little dynamics and a beautifully taut Menuetto: Allegro, so joyful with a lovely, shimmering trio section. When the first subject reappears the contrast is lovely. In the Allegretto,  the Allegris loosen their grip and really bite into the music, with some terrific sounds and  a lovely rubato. There is terrific interplay between players and, when the coda is reached you realise how well the Allegris have paced this performance.

What a beautiful opening there is to the Allegro of the Quartet in D major, Op.18 No. 3 with lovely sonorities and fine dynamics. These players seem to enjoy playing together as they weave around each other. There are some lovely, long drawn phrases and wonderful dynamic playing at the climaxes, full of lovely timbres. The Andante con moto brings such superb playing. The Allegris have so much finesse in the quiet moments, yet the rich textures they bring as they move along reveal a power that so affectively contrasts. After a lithe little allegro, with fabulous phrasing and ensemble, there is a sunny Presto with superb playing, full of energy, yet observing every little nuance and turn, bringing such life to the music. There is terrific playing as the music dashes towards the coda with a real lightness of touch.

In the Quartet in A major, Op.18 No.5, the Allegris bring some lovely rhythmic playing in the unusual phrasing of the allegro. They have a real bounce to their playing. There is a lovely classical poise from the Allegris in the Menuetto with a trio section that brings an earthier feel, somewhat Haydnesque.  The beautiful Andante cantabile receives such a sensitive, beautifully drawn opening with the Allegris bringing an almost playful character to some of the variations. They seem in their element extracting all the little details and changes that these variations bring. In the beautifully paced Allegro they really move the music on, with some terrific playing that brings this quartet to a close.

There is some Beethoven playing here to treasure. Whilst the playing of the Allegri Quartet has so much finesse they are never lacking power and emotion.

They are given a first rate recording in the intimate acoustic of The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, England that brings out every texture from these fine artists. 

Thursday 13 June 2013

Rare performances from Jacqueline du Pré and Bruno Leonardo Gelber on a historic release from Audite

Whilst the name of the great British cellist Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987) is known to everyone who has at least a passing interest in classical music, the name Bruno Leonardo Gelber (b. 1941) will be less known. I remember hearing this Argentinian pianist some years ago in a Chopin Piano Concerto and remember being completely bowled over by his playing.

Little needs to be said about the career of Jacqueline Du Pré . She was born in Oxford, England, studied under the cellist William Pleeth, participated in a Pablo Casals masterclass and undertook short-term studies with Paul Tortelier in Paris. Du Pré made her Wigmore Hall debut in March 1961, at age 16, playing sonatas by Handel, Brahms, Debussy and de Falla, and a solo cello suite by Bach. Her concerto début was on 21st March 1962 at the Royal Festival Hall playing the Elgar Cello Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Rudolf Schwarz. Her brilliant career was tragically cut short, in the early 1970’s, by the onset of multiple sclerosis. Du Pré died in London on 19th October 1987 at the age of just 42.

Bruno Leonardo Gelber was born in Buenos Aires, of Austrian and French-Italian parents. His father was a violinist and his mother a pianist. He made his first public appearance at age five and later studied with Vincenzo Scaramuzza. At the age of fifteen he played the Schumann Concerto under Lorin Maazel. He later studied with Marguerite Long in Paris and went on to win 3rd Prize in the Long-Thibaud Competition. Gelber has played under the direction of conductors such as Ferdinand Leitner, Klaus Tennstedt, Eric Leinsdorf, Kurt Masur, Sergiu Celibidache, Sir Colin Davis, Charles Dutoit, Bernard Haitink, Lorin Maazel, Mstislav Rostropovich, Riccardo Chailly, Christophe Eschenbach and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Both of these fine artists are brought together on a new release from Audite who are celebrating their own 40th anniversary this year. Audite have continued to issue historic recordings using original master tapes. On this disc we have Du Pré playing the Schumann Cello Concerto coupled with Gelber playing the Brahms First Piano Concerto. Both are accompanied by the Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin conducted by the young Gerd Albrecht (b.1935).


Both of these recordings were made on the same day, live in Berlin. Although the recordings are both mono and have a slightly hollow sound, they come up extremely well and, such is the acoustic, the lack of stereo is hardly noticeable. A special point of interest in the Schumann is that Du Pré adds a third movement cadenza, something not included in her 1968 EMI recording.

Right from the start of the Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129 you just know that this is something special, with Du Pré drawing so much emotion from the music. But it is not just emotional pull that dominates; it is Du Pré’s sheer technique and bravura that stands out. There is nicely taut and attentive orchestral accompaniment from Albrecht and the Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin, seemingly at one with every nuance from Du Pré. Those lovely deep cello notes struck by Du Pre are terrific. The music just sings magnificently and, of course Du Pre’s tone is wonderful. The second movement Langsam is gorgeously done where all of Du Pré’s sonority is matched by Albrecht and his orchestra and in the finale, Sehr lebhaft, Du Pré seems even more to throw her all into the music. The dovetailing of cello and orchestra is brilliantly done.  The substantial cadenza just before the coda is superbly played.

Being something of an admirer of the Bulgarian born pianist, Alexis Weissenberg  (1929-2012) I have always placed his performance of  Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15 with Guilini and the London Symphony Orchestra as the finest currently available. It was with this in mind that I was keen to hear Gelber.

Gerd Albrecht opens with a granite-like maestoso, carefully paced, letting it unfold naturally, like a brooding beast waiting to be unleashed. When Bruno Leonardo Gelber enters there is a lovely flow and swell to the music before it soon builds in some magnificently craggy playing. When it subsides, Gelber is curiously clipped in his phrasing but this only serves to create more tension. There is poetry galore and times when Gelber really lets the music flow forward almost falling over itself. When, halfway through, the opening theme is re-stated, those chords are tremendous, such power and a formidable technique.  Albrecht works so well with Gelber, with some lovely orchestral touches. At times Gelber rivals Weisenberg in his colossal reading.  Albrecht works wonders in the adagio drawing some lovely playing form the RSO, Berlin, such lovely phrasing. Gelber creates a beautiful flow, pushing ahead just enough to create a pull on the music. In this movement, more than anywhere else, Gelber shows his sensitivity and control, with playing of subtlety and poetry. Such is the intensity that he never loses focus and always takes you along with him. In the Rondo allegro, Gelber nicely points up the music with some rhythmically clipped phrasing, building to some fearsomely dramatic playing. The coda is terrific.

The 22 year old Gelber certainly had a formidable technique with such freedom and fluency. There is audience noise between the movements of the Brahms and the final applause is kept in. Whether this performance can dislodge Weisenberg I’m not sure. It certainly runs him close.

Audite have done a great service in making these performances available. No admirer of these artists will want to miss these great performances.