Monday 30 September 2013

Concertos by Jaakko Kuusisto and John Corigliano sit well together on a new release from BIS Records featuring superb playing from violinist Elina Vähälä with Jaakko Kuusisto and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra

A new release from BIS Record  is headed The Red Violin, the subtitle of John Corigliano’s (b.1938) Concerto for Violin and Orchestra that has achieved considerable popularity since its composition in 2003.

However, this attractive new release also includes two works by the violinist, conductor and composer, Jaakko Kuusisto (b.1974) , Leika for symphony orchestra, Op24 and his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op.28 which both precede the Corigliano on this disc. Violinist, Elina Vähälä  joins Jaakko Kuusisto and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra for the concerto performances.


Kuusisto studied the violin with Géza Szilvay and Tuomas Haapanen at the Sibelius Academy, and with Miriam Fried and Paul Biss at Indiana University. He has studied composition with Eero Hämeenniemi and David Dzubay.

Kuusisto won the Kuopio Violin Competition in 1989, and during the following years took top prizes in the Sibelius, Indianapolis and Carl Nielsen competitions. In 1997 he reached the finals in the Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels.

Jaakko Kuusisto was appointed concertmaster of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in 1999 and in 2002 he stepped in for Peter Schreier to conduct Schubert's Symphony No.3 when his conducting abilities were recognised. Following that he conducted the orchestra for several weeks a season in Lahti, and received professional tuition from Vänskä. His success has led to guest conducting invitations elsewhere, including performances with the Tapiola and Västeräs Sinfoniettas, the Finnish Radio Symphony, Helsinki Philharmonic, Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, and Savonlinna Festival Opera. In 2005 Jaakko Kuusisto took up the post of Principal Guest Conductor of the Oulu Symphony Orchestra and made his debut with the Trondheim Symphony and Tallinn Chamber Orchestras.

As a composer he has been increasingly active and his works have been performed at several concerts in Scandinavia, as well as in the UK and the United States. His Between Seasons suite has been recorded by the Helsinki Strings for the Finlandia label, and his children's opera ‘The Canine Kalevala' had outstanding success at Savonlinna in both 2004 and 2005.

Leika for symphony orchestra, Op.24 (2010), in one movement and lasting around eleven minutes, opens with an orchestral outburst before settling down, with woodwind swirls, to a quietly reflective section with delicate percussion. As the music slowly rises again there are some lovely sonorities from the orchestra. This is unashamedly tonal and melodic music full of attractive orchestral sounds with a gently flowing melody running through the whole work. There is a section where the harmonics become dissonant as the music becomes faster and more rhythmic but it soon quietens and slows to a waltz like rhythm that steadily builds to a climax, based on the main melodic theme, before quietening with a clarinet and harp to end.

As would be expected Jaakko Kuusisto and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra give a beautifully judged performance.

Kuusisto’s  Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op.28 (2011/12) opens unusually with a cadenza, at first tentative, but soon developing into music of considerable virtuosity, developing the material on which the movement, marked Moderato – attaca, is to be based. Eventually the orchestra suddenly joins in as the violin expresses a long breathed melody that weaves around the orchestra with some lovely dramatic passages for both solo violin and orchestra. The music continues in a rhapsodic outpouring of melody until a quiet section appears with some lovely harmonics from the solo violin. The music quietly builds again with a greater forward momentum and some lovely orchestration until it reaches a climax with some terrific playing from Elina Vähälä. There is a gentle and quiet lead up to a bravura coda.

The music leads straight into the second movement Lento with delicate percussion and woodwind creating a lovely atmosphere as though painting an image of some nature scene. As the violin enters again it weaves the melody around the woodwind theme, a theme that is presented in many orchestral guises. There are lovely little arpeggios on the violin before the orchestra starts to build to a more dramatic section responded to by the soloist, reaching a climax only to level off before building again. The clarinet joins the violin in a passionate section before the real climax is reached. The music quietens to a mysterious section with a little rising and falling motif in the orchestra and a beautifully hushed coda. Wood block taps and fast, rhythmic orchestral phrases are heard at the opening of the Molto allegro before the violin joins in a frantic, fast moving rhythmic theme. There is incisive playing from Vähälä before the second subject arrives, a flowing orchestral melody, to which the violin soon adds its sweetly flowing voice. When a lighter rhythmic section arrives it builds the tempo, leading to a return of the opening fast, rhythmic phrases and a spectacularly brilliant coda.

This is a terrific concerto, effectively written and distinctively orchestrated and is brilliantly played by its dedicatee Elina Vähälä.

The American composer, John Corigliano (b.1938) has now written over one hundred works.  He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the Grawemeyer Award, three Grammy Awards, and an Academy Award (“Oscar”) and his works have been performed and recorded by many of the most prominent orchestras, soloists, and chamber musicians in the world. Corigliano has taken traditional ideas such as the symphony or concerto and redefined them in a uniquely transparent style that combines elements of the post-war European avant garde as well as from the American tradition. Corigliano serves on the composition faculty at the Juilliard School of Music and holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York.

Corigliano has, to date, written three symphonies. His Symphony No. 1 (1991), commissioned by Meet the Composer for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was composer-in-residence, has been performed worldwide by over 150 orchestras and twice recorded. This symphony earned him the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. His Symphony No. 2, a rethinking and expansion of the surreal and virtuosic String Quartet (1995), was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2000 and earned him the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Music. His Symphony No. 3 Circus Maximus (2004) was commissioned by the University of Texas and has been recorded by Naxos.

Corigliano’s opera The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) succeeded brilliantly with both critics and audiences with triumphs in Chicago, Houston, and Hannover, Germany.

Additionally Corigliano has written eight concertos, including Conjurer: Concerto for percussion and string orchestra (2008) for Evelyn Glennie, and his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra: The Red Violin (2005), written for Joshua Bell.

Corigliano’s Concerto for violin and orchestra ‘The Red Violin’ (2003) arose out of The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra, a work that drew on his music for the film The Red Violin. The composer added three more movements to follow the Chaconne that became the first movement of the concerto. This first movement opens quietly in the orchestra in a slowly rising theme, tentative at first, until the violin enters with a rising motif, with a quiet delicate orchestral accompaniment. Slowly the violin melody finds its way and becomes increasingly passionate as the music drives forward. Suddenly the orchestra develops a faster section to which the violin joins in a kind of galloping rhythm. This leads to music of great thrust and momentum before a virtuosic working out of the material by the violin.  A sudden scurry in the orchestra collapses the music to a quiet and gentle flute theme against a hushed orchestra. The violin joins this hushed melody in a magical moment. Soon there is a more dramatic section with orchestral outbursts but the violin’s melody continues until there is a cadenza for solo violin. Pizzicato chords from the soloist lead to a grand dramatic flourish to end.

The Pianissimo Scherzo opens with strange, rapid little phrases from the solo violin with quicksilver orchestral accompaniment. A piano is heard amongst the orchestral strings in a snapping rhythm before rapid violin phrases appear again. Strange violin timbres and brittle orchestral sounds continue until the movement ends on a little violin flourish. A rich orchestral melody opens the Andante Flautando before the violin enters in this gentle swaying melody. There is a gorgeous violin melody for the solo violinist who adds little double stopped phrases as the music gently progresses and leads into the Accelerando Finale with the solo violin playing some histrionic phrases before the rapidly increasing motif speeds up to a frenetic pace, often competing with the orchestra. Soon a melody appears, romantic and flowing but the music speeds up frantically, reaching a pitch before a solo passage, with many violinistic effects becoming increasingly rhythmic; the basses of the orchestra giving a sound much like that of a locomotive moving off. This leads to an orchestral outpouring with the solo violin rising above in a frenetic coda.

This is an attractive work superbly played by Elina Vähälä whose beautiful tone, as well as remarkable virtuosity, comes through clearly. Again there is excellent playing from Jaakko Kuusisto and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

These three works sit very well together making this an enticing release for those attracted to this music. There is an excellent recording by BIS from the Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland and informative notes by both composers.

See also:


Thursday 26 September 2013

Terrific performances of string quartets by Krzysztof Meyer from the Wieniawski String Quartet on a new release from Naxos

Krzysztof Meyer (b.1943) was born in Kraków, Poland and as a boy he played piano and organ, studying composition with Stanisław Wiechowicz in 1954. He graduated from the Chopin Music High School in Krakow before studying composition with Krzysztof Penderecki at the Music Academy. Between 1964 and 1968 he studied in France for several months of the year with Nadia Boulanger and in Warsaw he became a private pupil of Witold Lutosławski.

Meyer was a professor of music theory at the Krakow Music Academy from 1975 until 1987 and, from 1987 to his retirement in 2008, was professor of composition at the Music Academy in Cologne. He was President of the Polish Composers’ Union from 1985 until 1989 and is a member of the Free Academy of the Arts in Mannheim. Meyer knew Dmitri Shostakovich personally and wrote a biography about the composer.

Krzysztof Meyer’s musical roots are in East European neoclassicism, though in the 1960’s he was fascinated with the avant-garde not only as a composer, but as a member of "MW2 Ensemble", with whom he performed experimental pieces, typical for the sixties, in Poland and in some West European countries.

He is firmly convinced that the time has come again to think about a new kind of melodic and harmonic language. The melodic primordial cell as the germ for the formal design of the individual work is characteristic of his music.

His works to date include operas, vocal works, seven symphonies, numerous concertos, chamber music including thirteen string quartets and works for solo instruments.

His Symphony No. 1 was his first work to be performed, in 1964, in Kraków. In 1965, while still a student, he made his debut at the ‘Warsaw Autumn’, as the youngest composer in the Festival’s history with his String Quartet No. 1.

It is his String Quartet No. 1, Op.8 (1963) that together with his String Quartets No’s 2, 3 and 4 have been issued on a new release from Naxos with the Wieniawski String Quartet


Meyer’s String Quartet No.1, Op.8 (1963) is very much the kind of work that one would expect of a Polish composer from the 1960’s that was interested in the avant-garde. The opening Tesi (Thesis) has curious pizzicato phrases and bow taps before, slowly, little motifs appear across the strings. Before long a rhythmic fast passage descends to slow sonorous chords before the movement develops through a series of wild passages. A glissando passage from the lower strings leads to a quieter ruminative conclusion.  Antitesi (antithesis) has little outbursts that populate this second movement to which a melody tries to join but the outbursts continue over a bass harmony. The third and final movement, Sintesi (summary) opens with an undulating theme on the cello before all the players enter playing glissando.  Outbursts occur, at first vying with one another then combining to form a more blended sound. The music resumes a frantic sound before falling to tentative phrases exquisitely played by the Wieniawski Quartet, with such fine detail. Richer chords lead to the coda.

Meyer’s String Quartet No.2, op.23 (1969) is in one movement and opens with sudden chords from all players before the material is developed into a densely layered theme. The opening chords are repeated before the densely layered theme returns. The music then fragments into individual pizzicato and col legno phrases before quietening to a tentative passage with more pizzicato and harmonics. The music broadens, though still a little tentative, before developing into a dense passage of string textures becoming quite intense and full of angst. This dissipates into a passage reminiscent of the opening phrases. Eventually there arrives a long held note with little outbursts before a lovely melody appears quite unexpectedly. It tries to trip itself up but nevertheless continues. Eventually it does fragment but slowly turns into a quiet harmony to end.

There is some terrific playing from the Wieniawski Quartet, great precision, ensemble and dynamics.

String Quartet No.3, Op.27 (1971) has its three movements simply marked I, II and III. I. opens with a sudden pizzicato outburst, by now making one assume that this is a hallmark of Meyer’s style. However, this is soon dispelled by an outpouring of fast, forward moving, swirling strings before quietening to a slower passage that seems to have an underlying melody hovering behind it. There are, again, pizzicato interruptions before a more flowing theme but the pizzicato can’t be held back and returns in an intricate motif. The contrast between the more flowing theme and the pizzicato continues before a sonorous string passage arrives, underlined by a cello played pizzicato in its lower register. The fast moving swirling theme returns before harmonic phrases quietly appear at the end.

The second movement, II, follows on in much the same vein, with a theme that is always seemingly combating pizzicato phrases in constantly changing sounds and textures.  Movement III opens with a vibrant unison outpouring with a real sense of forward momentum and direction. There is more densely packed music to follow, with various instruments providing their own little details and motifs. A repeated pizzicato phrase in unison heralds a series of motifs, slowly increasing in volume, as though rising from below. Eventually a mournful theme slowly arises, surely the finest moment in this quartet that continues to the end, seeming to achieve a kind of resolution.

There is an impassioned opening Preludio interrotto to String Quartet No.4, Op.33 (1974) before Meyer’s favoured pizzicato interrupts. This tension between the impassioned theme and pizzicato playing continues until a tentative passage is introduced, opening on the cello and leading to a richer section, growing in intensity in a tremendously dramatic passage that pulls the listener along before falling to a quieter version of the same theme then fragmenting to nothing. The opening densely rich music suddenly reappears to end the movement.

The second movement, Ostinato, opens with a single pizzicato chord before a little motif is plucked in the sparest of gestures. Fuller pizzicato chords interrupt in this ruminating opening with some first rate playing from the Wieniawski Quartet. Longer bowed phrases appear against pizzicato notes leading to a broad melody, still with little pizzicato interruptions. Quicker, more incisive phrases appear against the insistent pizzicato notes, becoming increasingly insistent and passionate, at times reminiscent of Bartok. Gradually the music quietens to a deep ruminative melody to end. Pizzicato from the cello opens the third movement, Elegia e conclusion, contrasting with pizzicato on the other strings. The cello then plays a bowed melody, full of passion and feeling against little pizzicato notes. The melody builds across the quartet in a mournful outpouring that is very beautiful but eventually the music falls to spare pizzicato notes. Towards the end there is an impassioned outburst for full quartet before the music grows sparer and fades out in the highest registers of the strings.

Whilst retaining a distinctive style, Meyer is shown to have progressed some distance between his first and fourth quartets. If any composers come to mind as influences it must be those of the Second Viennese School and Bartok yet Meyer has a distinctive voice. The Wieniawski String Quartet give terrific performances of these works and the recording is first rate with excellent booklet notes.

Whilst the earlier quartets are fascinating works, it is the fourth quartet that makes me want to investigate the later quartets already issued on three individual Naxos CDs.


Tuesday 24 September 2013

Plácido Domingo makes a fine tribute to Verdi 200 with a collection of baritone arias on a new release from Sony Classical

Plácido Domingo  is surely one of the finest opera singers of all time with a repertoire encompassing 140 stage roles in operas that range from Mozart to Verdi, Berlioz to Puccini, and Wagner to Ginastera He is also a respected conductor and, as former General Director of Washington National Opera General Director of Los Angeles Opera , a major force as an opera administrator.

Having achieved so much as a tenor he has recently added the title baritone roles of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and Rigoletto to his list of achievements. During the 2009-10 season, he appeared as Boccanegra at the Berlin Staatsoper, La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, and Madrid’s Teatro Real, and in September 2010 he took the role of Rigoletto in a live telecast from Mantua, Italy, the city in which the opera’s story takes place.

In 1990, Domingo and his colleagues José Carreras and the late Luciano Pavarotti formed the Three Tenors, which performed with enormous success all over the world. Domingo has made over 100 recordings of complete operas, compilations of arias and duets and crossover discs.

Born in Madrid in 1941, Plácido Domingo was taken to Mexico at the age of eight where he attended Mexico City’s Conservatory of Music, studying piano and conducting.  Discovering that he had vocal talents, he later took singing lessons, making his debut, at the age of eighteen, in a small role at Mexico’s National Opera. He spent three seasons with the Israel National Opera in Tel Aviv, where he sang 280 performances of twelve different roles, before launching his major international career in 1965.

1965, Domingo made his New York debut as Pinkerton in Madam Butterfly at the New York City Opera. His official debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York occurred on 28 September 1968 when he substituted for Franco Corelli, in Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur singing with Renata Tebaldi. His Vienna State Opera debut came in 1967, his debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1968, both La Scala and San Francisco Opera in 1969, the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company in 1970 and at Covent Garden in 1971.

In 2011, Domingo celebrated not only his 70th birthday but also his 50th anniversary as a singer of leading roles and the 40th anniversary of his Covent Garden debut. His energy and enthusiasm remain undimmed.

Plácido Domingo has now recorded an album of Verdi’s baritone arias just released by Sony Classical . This new recording entitled Verdi includes arias from Macbeth, Rigoletto, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Ernani, Il Trovatore, Don Carlo and La Forza del Destino. 

As the world celebrates Verdi’s 200th birthday this year, Domingo’s pays homage to the composer with this new recording. Domingo says, ‘Verdi is a wellspring of great music, and every lyric singer is grateful to him. For me 2013 must be a special celebration and an act of thanksgiving and love toward Giuseppe Verdi.’

Domingo sees Verdi’s baritone parts as a challenge for any singer, not only in terms of mastering the music saying, ‘Verdi experienced so much pain, so many blows of fate – all of which he put into his operas, and especially into the baritone parts. Singing this, you feel as if you are living through it all yourself. Suffering in public on the stage. Not always an easy process.’

Straightaway in the aria Perfidi! All’anglo contro me v’unite! from Macbeth one is hit by the remarkable richness of Plácido Domingo’s voice, so finely controlled. He seems to have grown naturally into the baritone range.

In Rigoletto Domingo’s artistry continually shows through as in Pari siamo! Io la lingua where he shows so many mixed emotions and, indeed, vocal power. What a fine Rigoletto he makes, with a terrific Si, la mia figlia!

In Renato’s aria Alzati! Là tuo figlio (Un ballo in maschera) he characterises the part so well, carefully balanced between anger and pathos. There is a lovely performance of Di Provenza il mar, il suol from La Traviata with more fine control.

Simon Boccanegra is a role that Domingo has taken to his heart and this shows so much in Abbasso le Spade where he is joined by Angel Joy Blue (soprano), Aquiles Machado (tenor), Fernando Piqueras (baritone), Bonifaci Carrilo (bass) and Gianluca Buratto (bass) who reach some fine climaxes, with Domingo providing all the richness, power and character, showing his fine artistry. What a superb Boccanegra he makes, with terrific drama and subtlety in Ecco la spada and some fine orchestral accompaniment from Pablo Heras-Casado and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana.

È questo il loco? (Ernani) shows the range of his voice and the simple opening of Oh, de’ verd’anni miei (Ernani) again demonstrates Domingo’s superb vocal technique with powerful, long held notes - effortless.

From Il trovatore Domingo gives us a fine dialogue with Gianluca Buratto (bass) in Tutto è deserto, with Il balen del suo sorriso, so many little inflections and feelings and a brilliantly done Per me, ora fatale with Domingo in fine voice.

There is a fine Don Carlo from Aquiles Machado (tenor) providing the perfect foil to Domingo’s Rodrigo in Son io, mio Carlo. Per me giunto è il di supremo is beautifully done, rich and flowing and in Che parli tu di morte? Domingo’s vocal agility and power are combined. But it’s the tremendous characterisation and emotional presence that marks out Domingo as so fine.

Finally from La forza del destino there is Morir! Tremenda cosa, beautifully controlled, full of drama, rich and varied in vocal texture, a beautifully nuanced Urna fatale del mio destino and a very fine  E s’altra prova rinvenir potessi?...Egli è salvo! Gioia immensa to make a rousing finale to this first rate disc.

This is more than just another disc of arias from Verdi’s operas, including as it does some terrific extracts that set Domingo alongside other fine artists giving a more theatrical feel than usual.

Having heard Plácido Domingo’s Simon Boccanegra from the New York Met in 2010 I approached this disc with great anticipation. Whilst he is in terrific voice revealing textures and timbres that are truly superb, it is his fine artistry, the characterisation of each role that impresses so much. Well recorded, it includes full texts and English translations as well as colour photos of Domingo in various roles.

This is a fine tribute to Verdi 200 from one of the world’s finest artists who shows that he is able to continue to develop his voice.

Sunday 22 September 2013

The Escher String Quartet bring out the many varying colours and textures in Zemlinsky’s third and fourth quartets on a very fine release from Naxos

Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was born in Vienna to a family with very mixed ancestry. Zemlinsky's grandfather was from Hungary and married an Austrian woman, both from Roman Catholic families.  Zemlinsky’s father, Adolf, was brought up in the Catholic faith but his mother, born in Sarajevo had both Jewish and Muslim parents. Zemlinsky’s entire family converted to the religion of his grandfather, Judaism, and Zemlinsky was born and brought up Jewish.

Zemlinsky studied the piano from a young age and played the organ at his synagogue during holidays. He attended the Vienna Conservatory from 1884 studying piano with Anton Door, theory with Robert Fuchs and composition with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs and Anton Bruckner.

Zemlinsky became a close friend of Arnold Schoenberg, the later marrying Zemlinsky’s sister. It was Zemlinsky that gave Schoenberg lessons in counterpoint.

His reputation as a composer was further helped when Gustav Mahler conducted the premiere of his opera Es war einmal (Once Upon a Time) at the Hofoper in 1900. In 1900, Zemlinsky met and fell in love with Alma Schindler, one of his composition students, who later went on to marry Gustav Mahler.

In 1899 Zemlinsky secured the post of Kapellmeister at Vienna's Carltheater and, later, in 1906, was appointed first Kapellmeister of the new Vienna Volksoper. From 1911 to 1927, he was conductor at Deutsches Landestheater in Prague, premiering Schoenberg's Erwartung in 1924 before moving to Berlin, where he taught and worked under Otto Klemperer as a conductor at the Kroll Opera.

The rise of the Nazi Party led to his fleeing to Vienna where he concentrated on composition. In 1938 he moved to the United States, settling in New York City where he remained neglected and virtually unknown until his death in 1942.   After his death, Schoenberg said, ‘I always firmly believed that he was a great composer and I still believe this. It is possible that his time will come sooner than we think’.

Zemlinsky's compositions are recognized as bridging the gap between late Romanticism and twentieth century modernist styles. His works include eight operas, choral works, works for voice and orchestra including his well-known Lyric Symphony, songs, orchestral works including two numbered symphonies, chamber works including four string quartets and piano works.

It is Zemlinsky’s quartets that feature on a new release from Naxos with the Escher String Quartet whose members are Adam Barnett-Hart (violin), Wu Jie (violin), Pierre Lapointe (viola) and Dane Johansen (cello).

The quartet takes its name from Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) and draws inspiration from the artist’s method of interplay between individual components working together to form a whole. Founded in 2005 and championed by the Emerson String Quartet, the Escher Quartet have achieved considerable success becoming BBC New Generation Artists for 2010-2012. Having completed a three-year residency as artists of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s “CMS Two” programme, the ensemble has already performed at prestigious venues and festivals around the world. They have been, at the invitation of Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman, they have been quartet-in-residence at each artist's summer festival and have collaborated with artists such as Andrés Diaz, Lawrence Dutton, Kurt Elling, David Finckel, Leon Fleisher, Vadim Gluzman, Benjamin Grosvenor, Wu Han, Gary Hoffman, Joseph Kalichstein, David Shifrin, Joseph Silverstein, and Pinchas Zukerman. In August 2012 the Quartet gave their BBC Proms debut, performing Hugh Wood’s 4th String Quartet.

Zemlinsky’s string quartets range across his life and compositional style. String Quartet No. 1 in A major, Op. 4 dates from 1896, his String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15 from 1913–15, his String Quartet No. 3, Op. 19 from 1924 and his last quartet, the String Quartet No. 4 (Suite), Op. 25 from 1936.

The String Quartet No.3, Op.19 (1924) comes from a later period of composition when the composer developed a new style of irregular rhythms and astringent harmonies that are apparent in this work. The opening Allegretto: Gemächlich, innig bewegt is sweet toned but soon interrupted by an outburst. A rising and falling motif provides the material for this movement full of varying moods, tonally free yet retaining a melodic core. At times the playing becomes quietly reflective at others rhythmic and lively. The Escher String Quartet doesn’t miss any of this, responding to every turn in playing that is very fine. The second movement,Thema mit Variationen. Geheimnisvoll bewegt, nich zu schnell – Variationen 1 – VII is in the form of a theme and seven variations. A little leaping motif opens the movement with playful effects, pizzicato and natural harmonics. Zemlinsky’s writing is very transparent and full of quirky ideas, yet always keeping a unity.

The Romanze: Sehr mässige Achtel, Andante Sostenuto opens with rich dark colours before the first violin weaves a melody over the low dark, brooding strings of the other players. The mood lightens a little as the movement progresses but returns to the opening dark colours in the coda. The lively Burleske: Sehr lebhaft, Allegro moderato sweeps away the darkness of the preceding movement with crisp vibrant playing from the Escher Quartet. They bring out all of the playfulness before building to a richer contrapuntal passage, soon dispelled when the playful theme reappears, leading to the coda.

Whilst Zemlinsky had moved away from the romanticism of his earlier works this music is nevertheless still very dramatic with moments of intense lyricism especially as played here.

The String Quartet No. 4 ‘Suite’, Op25 (1936), was written after the death of Zemlinsky’s friend and colleague, the composer Alban Berg, and was one of the last significant works written by the composer. In six movements, the Präludium: Poco adagio opens with subdued unison strings before a little melody emerges. The music builds to a more dramatic section before falling back to a quiet, gentle, melody with pizzicato accompaniment from the cello. The movement ends quietly on a chord. The Burleske: Vivace brings an unsettled theme with a forward driving rhythm. There are occasional lyrical moments but the overall drive always returns with terrific playing and fine ensemble from the Eschers. A tender theme opens the Adagietto: Adagio, quietly and gently played before, slowly, the music grows in intensity. Any tenderness or attempt at an Elegy for Berg is constantly avoided and the movement ends quietly.

The Intermezzo: Allegretto brings some extremely fine playing from this quartet, with such finely controlled playing in this constantly changing movement that ends on a pizzicato note. A sad, yearning theme for cello opens the fifth movement marked Barcarole (Thema mit Variationen): Poco adagio. As the others players join there is a more flowing melody that, nevertheless, sometimes hesitates. There are little emotional outbursts that occur but the overall feel is of intense grieving, perhaps, at last, this is the elegy for Berg. Later a flowing melody allows some release but the music soon builds in drama before suddenly leading into the Finale – Doppelfuge: Allegro molto energico, a frantic fugal finale where the Escher Quartet show more terrific ensemble, with crisp yet flexible playing. There is a terrific moment later as music speeds up even more as it rushes to the end. Wonderfully played.

Zwei Sätze (Two movements) (1927) date from the years between the third and fourth quartets though it is not known for what purpose they were intended.

No.1. Introduction: Andante con moto – Vivace opens with a gentle theme with the cello hinting at a faster theme which eventually arrives for the whole quartet in the form of the Vivace. Again the Escher String Quartet provides some spot on playing, so crisp and dynamic. The gentle theme reappears from time to time, though speeded up by the faster theme, which drags it forward. Later the music is allowed to slow but soon hurtles forward again to a decisive coda. No.2. Adagio, misterioso – Tempo di minuet has a low sonorous opening before the music tries to rise up in a melancholy melody. Soon a pizzicato note is struck to signal a faster section, full of drama. The music alternates between the opening sonorous and more dramatic themes before ending quietly. We may not know for what this movement was intended but it is a wonderful piece.

The Escher String Quartet bring a tautness to their playing, holding together the structure so well. They bring out many varying colours and textures together with great sensitivity and panache. This is a very fine release.

The recording is first class, revealing every little detail.



Saturday 21 September 2013

The string quartet, META4, with Anna Laakso (piano) and Marko Myöhänen (electronics) bring some superb chamber music by Kaija Saariaho on a new release from Ondine

I was extremely taken by Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio La Passion de Simone which I reviewed in May 2013

Born in 1952, she is now one of Finland’s finest composers with a long list of fine compositions behind her, including a violin concerto Graal théâtre, written for Gidon Kremer in 1995; two works dedicated to Dawn Upshaw,  Château de l’âme premiered at the Salzbourg Festival in 1996; Lonh, a cycle of melodies for soprano and electronics premiered at the Wien Modern Festival in 1996; Oltra mar for orchestra and mixed choir, premiered in 1999 by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; a flute concerto, Aile du songe,  composed for Camilla Hoitenga (2001); Nymphea Reflexion for string orchestra, dedicated to Christoph Eschenbach (2001); Orion for the Cleveland Orchestra (2002); and Quatre Instants, for soprano, piano/orchestra, for Karita Mattila, premiered in April 2003.

Many of her orchestral works, including some mentioned above, are available from Ondine (ODE 1113-2Q) in a four disc set which is really worthwhile acquiring.

She has been no less active with her chamber compositions, an aspect of her work that is now covered by a new release from Ondine tantalisingly listed as Volume 1. This new disc features the string quartet META4 whose players are Antti Tikkanen (violin), Minna Pensola (violin), Atte Kilpeläinen (viola) and Tomas Djupsjöbacka (cello)
ODE 1222-2

Meta4 was founded in 2001 and is one of Finland's most successful string quartets, winning first prize at the International Shostakovich String Quartet Competition in Moscow in 2004 launching their international career. 

They went on to win the Joseph Haydn Chamber Music Competition in Vienna in 2007 before receiving the Ministry of Finland Award in recognition of their international success. Meta4 was also a BBC New Generation artist for 2008-2010. Meta4 performs actively throughout the world, and has appeared at such venues as the Wiener Konzerthaus, King's Place and Wigmore Hall, London, the Auditorio Nacional, Madrid, Cité de la Musique, Paris and Stockholms Konserthus and Shanghai . Since 2008 Meta4 has been quartet in residence at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival. In 2012 their recording of Shostakovich String Quartets 3, 4 and 7 for Hänssler was voted Record of the Year by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE as well as being awarded the Emma prize as Classical Album of the Year.

Also performing on this release are Anna Laakso (piano) and Marko Myöhänen (electronics). Anna Laakso  has worked with John Storgårds and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra as well as performing at several Finnish music festivals and European venues. She is the founder and artistic director of the chamber music festival Valoa Kamariin in Rovaniemi, Finland

Saariaho’s Tocar for violin and piano was written in 2010 and was commissioned by the International Sibelius Violin Competition as a compulsory piece for the intermediate round. In this work, Saariaho looked at how the two instruments, played with different techniques, could touch each other. Tocar is Spanish for ‘to touch’ or ‘to play’.

Shifting violin phrases with sparse piano chords open this work with microtones adding to the expressiveness of the piece. Slowly the melody develops and richens as the piano provides a more solid accompaniment. The music becomes more dramatic as the piano part becomes more florid but quietens toward the end with some lovely hushed trills from the violin Saariaho has created here a work that combines passionate melody with music that stretches instrumental technique.

Minna Pensola and Anna Laakso are first rate in this music.

The two movement Vent nocturne for viola and electronics (2006) came about after the composer read a bilingual edition of the poetry of George Trakli where the German and French were printed side by side.

I Sombres miroires is based on the symmetrical idea suggested by the title, Dark Mirrors.  Hovering viola sounds open this work before the entry of subtle electronic sounds, as though breathing. The viola develops the material more by way of changing the textures and drama. After arpeggios from the viola, there is a static viola line with a gently resonant electronic sound – as though water on shingle. Eventually the music becomes more agitated with dramatic viola playing with an increasingly powerful electronic accompaniment, at times simulating the sound of drums.

When the music quietens, with gentler arpeggios on viola, the electronic sounds are like a gentle wind. Towards the end of the movement the music fades out but quietly returns with a final viola phrase to lead straight into the second movement, II Soupirs de l’obscur where a sighing viola plays against quietly delicate electronics creating a sound of wind and brushed cymbals. The viola becomes more anguished, playing lovely melodic phrases against a haunting electronic accompaniment. There are drooping phrases from the viola in a spellbinding moment so wonderfully realised by Atte Kilpeläinen. As the viola slowly weaves its oddly hypnotic phrases the electronic sounds subtly alter. Kilpeläinen is terrific in the double stopped drooping phrases and, indeed, throughout. The music just fades away at the end.

Calices for violin and piano was commissioned in 2009 by the Funacion Albeniz (Albeniz Foundation) for the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia (Queen Sofia School of Music) in Madrid. Re-interpreting material form her earlier violin concerto Graal théâtre, Saariaho produced a three movement work, Calices (Chalices).

At the beginning of Calices I the piano picks out notes as the violin enters, hovering around a theme with some pizzicato notes. Soon the music grows increasingly fiery, though still static in nature. The piano introduces rippling phrases as the violin increases in drama with some pretty virtuosic playing from Antti Tikkanen who extracts some wonderful sounds from his instrument, at times delicate then violently dramatic. The piano part is superbly played by Anna Laakso.

Calices II opens with long dramatic notes from the violin with a sparse piano accompaniment. Soon the violin plays dramatic gritty chords that interrupt the quiet phrases. Occasionally the piano provides a sudden louder flourish but overall this is a quieter movement. The piano opens Calices III with bold descending chords as the violin enters playing more gritty textures that continually descend into quieter contrasts. There is more fine playing from both artists and, towards the end, the music quietens as the two instruments seem to find a balance.

Spins and Spells for cello solo (1997) is another competition piece, this time written for the Rostropovich Cello Competition in Paris. It uses a tuning method known as scordatura, popular amongst some baroque composers and which involves tuning two of the strings of the instrument down, a method that Saariaho has used to create new sonorities and harmonics.

This short work allows the cellist to explore so many facets of cello tone and technique. A glowing melody soon emerges but is quickly submerged into curious little phrases and sounds. More agitated phrases occur only to fall to quieter reflective passages. The upper and lower reaches of the instrument are explored, superbly played by Tomas Djupsjöbacka, who takes every opportunity to explore the possibilities of his instrument creating some wonderful sounds. There are lovely delicate harmonics that hardly sound like a cello so finely created are they as the works fades to a hushed coda.

Saariaho’s Nocturne for violin solo was written for a concert in 1994 in memory of the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski who had died that year. Saariaho was working on her violin concerto Graal théâtre at the time and again drew on some of the material for this short work.

A long held note develops quietly with fine textures before a mournful theme arrives. This is repeated before the violin develops the theme in a more robust fashion with arpeggios weaving a lovely texture as the violin becomes more astringent. The music quietens with alternate pizzicato notes and shimmering chords that still have an astringent, brittle sound until the music just fades. Minna Pensola gives a fabulous performance of this strangely compelling piece.

The players of META4 come together for Nymphea for string quartet and live electronics (1987), a work that extends the boundaries of what a string quartet can achieve. The title of this work alludes to the Water Lilies of the impressionist painter Claude Monet but rather than merely conjure up images of Monet’s paintings, the composer has looked at the symmetry of the structure and contrasts in the lily ponds.

It is the longest work on this disc and opens with strange electronic sounds with the strings slowly sounding through, working over a theme before creating a dissonant harmony against the electronics in a haunting passage. The music becomes more dynamic and so blended are the quartet and electronics that they tend to merge, creating some unusually fine sounds. The forward momentum is sustained by the constantly, though subtly, shifting and changing harmonics, textures and colours. This is truly a wonderful achievement from this quartet who, with Marko Myöhänen weaving some beautiful live electronic sounds. Eventually there is a rapid descending passage for the strings, quite stunning and, again, terrifically blended with the live electronic music.

Later there is more superb playing as the music becomes quite violent before calming to an ethereal passage full of strange colours and harmonies. Electronic breathing sounds appear together with quietly muttering human voices. The invention and ever changing sounds in this work are a wonder. Though the music fades to nothing it slowly emerges again with odd drooping sounds from the quartet against quiet still sounds from the electronics. The string harmonies are quite astounding as they make their leisurely way along with these other worldly electronic sounds. There is another more dynamic section with upward and downward phrases brilliantly played by this quartet. Lightening quick outbursts lead into more violent sounds that again fall to the depths with strange electronic sounds from which emerges a lone violin melody against strange harmonies. Human voices again appear as the music fades away.

This is a beautifully recorded disc with some superb chamber music from this fine composer. The excellent booklet notes are by that authority on Finnish music, Kimmo Korhonen.

See also: 

Wednesday 18 September 2013

A finely orchestrated symphony, full of invention and a highly attractive piano sonata by Marcel Tyberg feature on a new release from Naxos

Back in March 2013 I reviewed a release in Gramola’s series featuring works by Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann and Vilem Tausky, the two former of which lost their lives in concentration camps but all of whom were neglected due to their works being banned by the Nazi regime.

Through a series of recordings with Naxos , JoAnn Falletta  and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra are promoting the music of another composer who suffered at the hands of Nazi persecution, the Austrian composer, Marcel Tyberg. A composer, conductor and organist, Marcel Tyberg (1893-1944) was born into a musical family in Vienna. His father was a violinist and his mother a pianist and colleague of Artur Schnabel. Little seems to be known of Tyberg’s formal musical training.

Through his family’s friendship with the renowned violinist Jan Kubelik, Marcel Tyberg became a lifelong friend of Jan’s son, the conductor Rafael Kubelik. In 1927, following the death of his father, Tyberg moved with his mother to the Croatian town of Abbazia (Opatija), then part of Italy. Here he taught harmony, played the organ in various churches, conducted, and under the pseudonym "Till Bergmar" composed popular dance music.

Tyberg's Piano Sonata No. 1 (1920) and his Symphony No. 1 (1924) both date from his time in Vienna but his Symphony No. 2 was premiered by Rafael Kubelik with the Czech Philharmonic in the early 1930s. Tyberg's Symphony No. 3 was completed just before his detention and given to his friend, Milan Mihich, in order to save it from the war.

When the Nazis occupied northern Italy, it was revealed that one of Tyberg’s great grandfathers had been Jewish. Despite this rather remote Jewish connection, Tyberg was arrested and deported to the death camps of San Sabba and Auschwitz. It was long believed that he had died in transit, but the date of his death was recorded in Auschwitz as 31 December 1944.

JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra have already recorded Tyberg’s Symphony No. 3 together with his Piano Trio played by Michael Ludwig (violin), Roman Mekinulov (cello) and Ya-Fei Chuang (piano).

This new release from Naxos features Tyberg’s Second Symphony, again with JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Second Piano Sonata played Fabio Bidini

The Symphony No.2 in F minor (1929) opens with an Allegro appassionato that has a pulsating, galloping rhythmic opening. This develops into a lively, open theme before being subjected to a variety of moods, sometimes ponderous and dark then dramatic. Although it is not without a certain Dvořákian character and certainly looks back to the 19th century, it is a very attractive, engaging movement.

In the Adagio: Langsam – Andante con moto there is a thoughtful, wistful Adagio:Langsam still with an underlying rhythmic plodding pulse. The Andante con moto brings a more romantic sweep to the music, still at times held back by the plodding underlying rhythm. The music builds to a short climax before falling back to a rather Brahmsian quieter section, before another short climax that leads to a tranquil coda with solo violin adding a sweet toned contribution.

Horns answer the rest of the orchestra in the opening of the Scherzo: Allegro vivace con spirit before timpani rolls introduce a lively, rhythmic melody, somewhat reminiscent of Mendelssohn in the more flowing passages. The music builds to a rustic dance, again with overtones of Dvořák, before the trio section introduces a lighter, rhythmic, country dance that is alternated with a more flowing version of it. When the scherzo returns, Tyberg’s attractive orchestration throws the theme all around the various parts of the orchestra before leading to a rumbustious climax and a sudden end.

The Preludium und Fuge: Adagio molto – Allegro assai opens slowly in the cellos before the gently swaying theme is taken up across the strings. If Tyberg looks to the 19th century models for the first three movements, then the fourth uses a baroque idea of Preludium und Fugue creating a noble adagio. When the allegro assai fugue arrives, it is brilliantly played by JoAnn Falleta and the Buffalo Philharmonic . Horn calls sound out as the music grows. Eventually a terrific fugue is played by the strings with the horns still sounding out. The full orchestra rises to a broader section with muted brass and woodwind throwing the fugue theme around. As the music heads to the coda, tam tam and full orchestra deliver a glorious coda with brass fanfares.

This symphony may hark back to the 19th century but it is an attractive work, finely orchestrated and full of invention. The recording from the Kleinhaus Music Room, Buffalo, New York, USA is excellent.

Tyberg’s Piano Sonata No.2 in F sharp minor (1934) opens boldly with dramatic chords in a very unsettled Allegro con fuoco before being subjected to a number of variations. There is some fine playing from Fabio Bidini. The Adagio, non troppo ma sempre maestoso introduces a languid theme, quiet and withdrawn, with some delicacy and sensitive playing. At times there is a gentle rocking melody but the music soon rises to a series of climaxes where there is rich piano writing before a quiet coda. This is a beautiful movement with Bidini drawing on all the subtle shifts and dynamics.

The Scherzo: Allegro vivace, sempre assai energico opens full of lively bouncing rhythms with dynamics expertly controlled by Bidini. There is a lovely subdued central section before the return of the opening theme. A series of bell like chords open the Finale: Sostenuto e maestoso – Allegro non troppo ma sempre con passion before a melody that sounds familiar in that it resembles the main theme from the Vivace of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor Op.1, though obviously just a coincidence. It is also rather Schumannesque in places and, after a series of variations, leads to a strong coda.

The sonata, which is well recorded, is a highly attractive work that I am likely to return to often. There are informative booklet notes.

Saturday 14 September 2013

An extremely rewarding release of works for cello by William Sweeney on a new release from Delphian Records

William Sweeney (b.1950) was born in Glasgow and studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama with W.T. Clucas and Frank Spedding and then at the Royal Academy of Music with Alan Hacker and Harrison Birtwistle.

He went on to teach woodwind instruments, and then composition at the University of Glasgow. An early influence was the European avant-garde, particularly Karlheinz Stockhausen, though he returned to tonal composition in the mid-1970s. His work is strongly influenced by traditional Gaelic music and jazz.

His works range from opera, choral music, and songs to orchestral pieces, concertante works, chamber music, electronic and multimedia pieces. He has received commissions from such organisations as the BBC, Paragon Ensemble, St Magnus Festival, Musica Nova, Cappella Nova, Mayfest, the STUC, Glasgow University, RSAMD, Moving Music Theatre, McNaughten Concerts, Theatre Cryptic, The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the Jim Henson Organisation.

In 2005, Sweeney won a prestigious Creative Scotland Award, for which he created Schemes, Blues and Dreams (premièred in June 2007), a collaboration with blues artist Fraser Speirs and with technical advice from Dr Nick Fells.  String Quartet No.3 (2004) was recorded by the Edinburgh Quartet and is issued on the Delphian label.

In 2010, a new edition of a ninety minute musical setting of Hugh MacDiarmid’s epic poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle was toured around Scotland to great critical acclaim. 

Granted a residency at the Kone Foundation’s Saari Manor in Finland, he completed a large-scale Sonata for Cello and Piano which was premièred in Scotland by the Finnish Cellist Erkki Lahesma and pianist Fali Pavri and then in Turku, Finland by Robert Irvine and Fali Pavri.

It is this Cello Sonata that has been recorded on a new release from Delphian Records along with two other works, The Tree o’Licht for two cellos and The Poet Tells of his Fame for cello and electronics

DCD 34113
This new release features the cellists Robert Irvine and Erkki Lahesmaa and the pianist Fali Pavri

The Tree o’Licht for two cellos (2008) was commissioned by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama for its cello-themed Stringfest in March 2008 and is dedicated to the composer’s mother.

The work opens with a distinctively Scottish feel, beautifully created by the two cellos, drawing one in immediately with its entrancing atmosphere. Sweeney tells us that the inspiration came from ancient freely weaving Gaelic psalm singing. As the music progresses the cellos weaves a melody around each other. There are dissonant chords as the music becomes more agitated with some lovely timbres from the two cellists. As one cello soars to the upper reaches, the playing is superb. The music becomes increasingly virtuosic as it becomes even more dramatic. Birds are evoked flying high in a section that represents, according to the composer, the entrancing nocturnal birdsong emanating from ‘the tree o’licht’ – a description from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem ‘By Wauchopeside’.  Strumming chords signal the slow return of the quiet opening melody, though the work still ends on a slightly dissonant harmony.

It was a poem by Jorge Luis Borges that inspired Sweeney’s The Poet Tells of his Fame for cello and electronics (2003). The excellent booklet notes by Edward McGuire, a composer himself, tell us that at an early stage of the composition of this piece, cello sound samples were pre-recorded for playback as the soloist performed in the studio. These pre-recorded sounds were modified by the use of filters. The soloist, in this performance, Robert Irvine, had three types of musical material, Melodies, Ostinati and Textures with the freedom to play them in any order thus making this an aleatoric work.

Astringent chords from the cello with electronic harmonies open this work with Robert Irvine weaving around the electronic accompaniment as though improvising. His cello really sings as the drama increases with some terrific playing. Occasionally there are sounds heard of a disembodied cello. It is astonishing the sounds, timbres and colours that Irvine manages to extract from his instrument. Whilst the overall arch of this music has a static quality, such is the drama and activity that takes place during its progress, the attention is always kept. Towards the coda there is a magical moment as the electronic sounds become quiet and delicate and the cello quietly plays the theme.

It is something of a tour de force for the cellist and engineer in creating this amazing performance.

Written for Erkii Lahesmaa and Robert Irvine, the two movement Sonata for Cello and piano (2010) was given a dual première, by Lahesmaa in Scotland and by Robert Irvine in Finland with Fali Pavri accompanying at both performances.
The cello opens alone, ruminating on a theme, before the piano joins in a florid accompaniment. The music moves forward with a repeated motif for both cello and piano as they work the material around each other. A long held note on the cello precedes a change of tempo as the music becomes more passionate then thoughtful with a lovely, long drawn melody against which the piano plays shorter chords. Midway a dramatic section arrives with massive piano chords before the cellist announces a cadenza like passage with pizzicato notes. As the music becomes faster and more agitated, it leads to a slightly quizzical coda.

In the second movement the cello opens with a rich theme slowly worked out with lovely playing from Irvine.  Eventually the piano joins for a few short notes before the cello continues its way working out the material. Later the piano enters again, this time slowly helping to work out the theme for a few bars before the cello takes over alone. Around halfway through the movement, the piano suddenly enters and turns the music into a more flowing theme. There follows an argument between the piano and cello with the cello providing sudden outbursts until both the piano and cello join in a more violent and passionate section. When the music slows to a meditative section there is some glorious playing from Irvine, with a lovely, sensitive contribution from Pavri. The music develops into a gloriously passionate melody reminiscent of the fifth movement of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps before leading to a hushed coda. This is a substantial, beautiful and engrossing sonata. 

The ample acoustic in the recording of the sonata does have the effect of slightly distancing the piano but, nevertheless, it is still a fine recording.

This is an extremely rewarding release of works that are often quite beautiful and affecting.