Tuesday 29 October 2013

Brahms recordings to treasure from Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester on a new release from Decca

It is often said that Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) came late to the symphony, yet he wrestled with his first symphony from as early as 1862, taking some fourteen years to bring it to fruition in 1876. Thereafter three more symphonies came far more quickly, the second in 1877, the third in 1883 and the fourth in 1884/85.

Following on from his acclaimed Beethoven symphony cycle, Riccardo Chailly  www.riccardochailly.com  and the Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig  www.gewandhaus.de have turned their attention to Brahms. Decca  www.deccaclassics.com/gb have just released a handsome new set of the Brahms symphonies together with the Tragic Overture, Haydn Variations and Academic Festival Overture. Also included are 9 Liebeslieder-Walzer, 3 Hungarian Dances, two Intermezzo from his Opp.116 and 117, as well as the revised opening to the fourth symphony and the first performance version of the Andante of the first symphony making the three well filled discs something of a Brahms feast.

478 5344 - 3CD
Brahms’ Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op. 68 was first performed in Karlsruhe on 4th November, 1876 by the Großherzogliche Hofkapelle conducted by Otto Dessoff.

Chailly makes a purposeful start in the opening of the Un poco Sostenuto – Allegro with playing that is muscular, taut and flexible. He creates so much tension in the music. There is also great clarity, not only because of the fine recording, but from the way Chailly and the orchestra reveal the instrumental detail. It is remarkable the way he pushes the music forward yet allows the orchestration to be clearly revealed. His flexibility of tempi, moving from muscular playing to tender moments is superb.

A wonderful Andante Sostenuto, beautifully judged, allows the music to ebb and flow so naturally. The Gewandhausorchester are on glorious form producing some lovely sounds, with little brass details sounding through and some fine woodwind passages. There is a wonderfully fleet footed Un poco Allegretto e grazioso again with some lovely woodwind contributions. Brahms’ cross rhythms are so well handled and, at times, in this movement there is an enveloping mellowness to the Gewandhausorchester’s playing that is so appealing.

Well contained passion opens the Adagio – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio, with wonderfully taut playing before the Allegro arrives. There are some lovely, long drawn horn phrases with Chailly getting it so right as he draws the music along. The more moderately paced passages aren’t allowed to drag and soon Chailly whips the music up as it leads to the final climax before a terrific coda.

Of all the symphonies of Brahms, this is the one that underwent the most revision after that first performance. The major revisions took place just before publishing in 1877 when the entire second movement was restructured. Brahms destroyed the score and orchestral parts of the original version, however, an extra set of string parts held in the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna www.a-wgm.com  has enabled a reconstruction of the original Andante second movement which is included on Disc 3 of this set. Most listeners will soon notice the differences in this fascinating supplement to the first symphony performance.

Disc 1 continues with Brahms’ Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90 where Chailly again hits the perfect tempo for the opening of the Allegro con brio – Un poco Sostenuto. As the music quietens he extracts such lovely, detailed playing from the Gewandhausorchester with musical phrases that are so beautifully turned. There are terrifically powerful string sounds and some great rubato

The winds of the Gewandhausorchester play superbly in the opening of the Andante as do the strings, so sonorous. As the music progresses there is a lovely freedom to their playing, taut yet free and a lovely glowing coda. In the Poco allegretto the strings of the Gewandhausorchester again show their terrific sonority with Chailly pointing up the details in the wind section. The Allegro has a terrific opening, full of anticipation before the orchestra suddenly erupts, truly joyful and triumphant. The magical coda is finely done.

The second disc in this set brings Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.73 with rich flowing sounds from the Gewandhausorchester before the Allegro proper arrives. There are lovely pointed woodwind passages and more taut playing from this fine orchestra. The woodwind decoration is beautifully done and there are some lovely glowing passages. Chailly builds to some fine climaxes. It is wonderful how he keeps such a momentum whilst not glossing over the detail and poetry of the music.

What Chailly brings to what must be one of Brahms’ finest Adagios, is the ability to slowly allow the music to feel its way, creating a feeling of great anticipation. He can really whip up a storm, as in the central section, but can quickly move from taut drama to reflection so naturally. There are some magical moments in this movement and a great climax before the peaceful coda.

There is a lovely, almost relaxed, Allegretto grazioso (Quasi Andantino) with a rhythmic litheness is so appealing. Chailly has got Brahms’ precise tempo marking just right. Suddenly the Presto ma non assai arrives with superb articulation and precision, given a somewhat Mendelssohnian feel. The final movement brings a real Allegro con spirito. Chailly allows the quieter passages just enough room to breathe without losing momentum - quite wonderful. He also makes the most of Brahms’ string sonorities here, whilst keeping a light touch, as the music surges forward. And what a glorious coda – triumphant.

The Allegro non troppo of the Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98 opens with some lovely flowing string playing, slowly increasing in intensity with fine shaping of phrases. The quieter interludes help build the expectation, always purposeful, never flagging. There are so many little orchestral details that show through.

What a terrific Andante moderato there is, full of lovely sonorities in the gentle melody and some great, incisive playing at the central climax after which Chailly paces the slow down so well with another glowing coda. The Allegro giocoso shows the terrific ensemble from the Gewandhausorchester in this joyful and ebullient performance, full of energy, finely controlled.

How Chailly handles the tempi changes in the Allegro energico e passionato is remarkable, his control is wonderful, with the Gewandhausorchester playing with the flexibility and tautness of a small ensemble. Chailly really lets rip in this finale with superb playing, full of drama.

After completing the fourth symphony, Brahms added four bars of music as a prefix to the first movement Allegro, a typically Brahmsian wind chord that falls away into the opening music that we all know. Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester open this extract by playing the last few bars of the first movement followed by the alternative opening thus giving us a chance to compare the cadence that ends the movement that was reflected in the revised opening. Brahms was obviously not convinced about this new opening as it did not appear in the published edition.

It would be easy, after such wonderful performances of the symphonies, to overlook the works contained on the third disc of this set. As well as the original first performance version of the Andante to the first symphony there is a fine Tragic Overture, Op.81, full of drama, taut energy and fine detail and atmosphere, arguably one of the finest on disc; and a finely wrought Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80, to which Chailly brings real verve and some lovely brass timbres.

Two worthwhile shorter pieces, beautifully played, are included, the Intermezzo, Op. 116 No.4 (Adagio) with a lovely Brahmsian lilt and a warmly glowing account of the Intermezzo, Op.117 No.1 (Andante) both orchestrated by Paul Klengel (1854-1935)

Brahms’ Variations of a Theme of Joseph Haydn, op.56a (Variations on St. Antoni Chorale) highlight Chailly’s ability to move so naturally from one tempo to another as he does between the variations of this work. The Gewandhausorchester follow every nuance and turn with Chailly breathing life into the music.

There is a lovely interlude with eight of the Op.52 and one of the Op.65 Liebeslieder-Walzer in Brahms’ own orchestration, nicely shaped, some full of gentle charm and others, at times, bringing a darker depth as well as some terrific energy. It is Brahms’ own orchestration of three of his Hungarian Dances that conclude this magnificent set, superbly played, taut and full of panache.

This, in my view, is the finest Brahms symphony cycle to arrive for many years and must become a top recommendation. This generously filled set is superbly recorded in the Gewandhaus, Leipzig.

The three discs are contained in a bound CD size book with excellent booklet notes and illustrations that include photographs of the autograph full score of the first page of the fourth symphony and the last page of the first movement of that work, showing the revised opening.
These are recordings to treasure. 

Sunday 27 October 2013

Surrey Opera’s fine new production of George Lloyd’s Iernin is a triumph

I was fortunate to have been present at Surrey Opera’s www.surreyopera.org production of George Lloyd’s opera Iernin www.georgelloyd.com   at the theatre of Trinity School www.trinity-school.org , Croydon, Surrey, England on Friday 25th October 2013.  

It was the Cornish landscape that truly inspired the 21 year old George Lloyd’s first opera Iernin. Not staged since its première in 1934 and its London run in 1935, George Lloyd's Iernin, based on a Celtic legend inspired by the Nine Maidens stone circle near Penzance, tells the story of a maiden turned to stone by puritanical priests, only to reawaken hundreds of years later and ensnare the heart of a betrothed Cornish nobleman. This is set against the backdrop of a soon to be occupied Cornwall and the struggle of its leader and people to retain their independence from the Saxon overlords

At the time the Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph reported ‘Scenes of great dramatic intensity and moments of lyricism are embodied in the Cornish grand opera, Iernin which was produced for the first time at the Pavilion, Penzance on Monday night.’ The Times music critic, Frank Howes, was present at the first performance and it was his glowing review that enabled it to be transferred to the Lyceum, London where it achieved great success.

The Surrey Opera production has had three performances in Croydon before transferring to St. John’s Hall, Penzance, Cornwall for two more performances on 1st and 2nd November 2013, effectively taking the opera home.

Jonathan Butcher www.operatalent.com/Safe/People/JonathanButcher59975833.asp?persona=98  conducted the chorus and orchestra of Surrey Opera together with a strong cast consisting of Catherine Rogers (Iernin), Edward Hughes (Gerent), Felicity Buckland (Cunaide), Håkan Vramsmo (Edyrn), James Harrison (Bedwyr), Jon Openshaw (Priest), James Schouten (huntsman), Robert Trainer (Saxon thane), Tim Baldwin (old man) and Georgina Perry (little girl).

Producer, Alexander Hargreaves www.stagejobspro.com/uk/view.php?uid=468773 , has seen in the libretto of this opera more than simply a love story but selflessness and love of an ideal, drawing on connections with the composer’s own Second World War experiences. Certainly if one reads the libretto in this context one can see that the librettist, the composer’s father, William Lloyd, must surely have had his own First World War experiences in mind.

Even though the composer may not have had twentieth century dress in mind for his opera set in the 10th century, he would, I know, have approved of the simple but effective stage sets. In Catherine Rogers this production had a first rate Iernin, an extremely taxing role to which she brought her fine voice.

Alexander Hargreaves’ direction provided many fine moments, though, when the huntsmen appear on stage, it was perhaps rather too busy with the chorus too centre stage. I was also not entirely convinced by the modern dress version of the Saxon Thane when he appears early in Act 2. However, these were small matters in this fine production. The orchestra and chorus were first rate in the huntsman scene with a fine horn solo from the principal horn.

There were many musical highlights including a wonderful first Act duet from Edward Hughes (Gerent) and Håkan Vramsmo (Edyrn) as well as Gerent’s following aria ‘Long years ago’. Both these singers showed fine voices as well as great dramatic presence.

The spoken dialogue in Act 2, Scene 1 was particularly effective with Tim Baldwin as the old man, holding this section together brilliantly. In Scene 2 Jon Openshaw made a fine priest, full of presence and stature, also having to sing offstage for an indisposed James Harrison (Bedwyr) who, nevertheless acted his role on stage.

Catherine Rogers brought tremendous strength to her final aria ‘Hear me, thou Shining Power’, finely building the drama in a piece that is by turns affectingly beautiful and dramatic. How she sustained the power and sensitivity was remarkable in this taxing aria. In the transition to the orchestral storm sequence there was some very fine string playing.

Act 3 brought a terrific duet from Catherine Rogers and Edward Hughes with some more fine playing from the orchestra as well as the trio from Felicity Buckland (Cunaide), Edward Hughes (Gerent) and Catherine Rogers (Iernin), so wonderfully done.

Felicity Buckland was a fine Cunaide particularly in the Act 2 ‘What if I have their love’ one of the great arias that she has in this opera and, perhaps the greatest aria in the whole work when, towards the end of the final Act, she sings ‘The spell is passed.’ Into this final scene Director, Alexander Hargreaves, brings soldiers in twentieth century uniforms. Iernin, now returned to her form as a stone, is finally revealed as a war memorial and Gerent as an injured soldier. Whilst not what the composer would have expected, Cunaide had already prepared us for this moment when, in her preceding aria she sang ‘Who willingly gave their breath that you and yours might be free’. I found this scene almost unbearably poignant.

In some ways this production risked the usual controversy over the use of modern dress yet the effect when the end of the final Act arrived surely justified this view. There can be no doubt in all other respects that this production was musically a triumph.

If you are able to get to Penzance for the final two performances you will be assured of a memorable evening.

If you are unable to make the journey then the complete opera conducted by the composer can be obtained from Albany Records UK www.georgelloyd.com/index.php/2012-10-29-20-23-41/recording-catalogue/items/view/troy121-122-123

Thursday 24 October 2013

Those looking for a fine performance of Elgar’s Violin Sonata with an unusual yet extremely rewarding coupling should look to a new recording from Nimbus Alliance that includes two fine Violin Sonatas by Philip Sawyers

Philip Sawyers http://philipsawyers.co.uk was born in London in 1951 and attended Dartington College of Arts in Devon, studying violin with Colin Sauer and composition with Helen Glatz, herself a pupil of Vaughan Williams and Bartok. He later studied at the Guildhall School of Music in London with Joan Spencer and Max Rostal (violin), and received compositional guidance from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra.

In 1973, Sawyers joined the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden, whilst also freelancing with other orchestras and chamber groups including the London Symphony Orchestra, the English National Opera Orchestra and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. He also undertook teaching and coaching, including violin coach for the Kent County Youth Orchestra.

In 1997, he left the ROH, and undertook a year of postgraduate study at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. Alongside composing, Sawyers now works as a freelance violinist, teacher, adjudicator and examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

His compositions include Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet (1969), Four Poems for Flute and String Orchestra (1971), Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass (1972), Three Shropshire Songs (2006) and, more recently an Octet, an orchestral work Gale of Life, two symphonies and a Concertante for Violin, Piano, and String Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance www.wyastone.co.uk/catalogsearch/result/?q=sawyers have already recorded the Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass, Gale of Life and the Symphony No.1 released in 2010 (NI6129)

Now Nimbus Allliance www.wyastone.co.uk have released Sawyers’ two violin sonatas coupled with Elgar’s late Violin Sonata all performed by the Steinberg Duo www.steinbergduo.com  with Louisa Stonehill (violin) and Nicholas Burns (piano).

NI 6240

Philip Sawyer’s Violin Sonata No.1 (1969) is an early work that nevertheless shows considerable compositional skills. The Allegro opens with what appears to be a gentle melody but almost immediately turns into a passionate theme with some fine playing from Louisa Stonehill as she weaves a lovely theme around the piano, at times quiet and melancholy, them stridently passionate in this fine movement, so tonally free yet melodic.

There is a haunting feel to the Andante with its dark melody occasionally rising to a stormier nature. One can hear in this movement the dark textures that show that it had its roots in a work for viola. The violin develops an increasingly passionate line against the piano until quietening as it runs straight into the energetic Allegro scherzando. Occasional quiet passages with pizzicato violin give way to the ongoing energetic nature of this attractive movement, brilliantly played by both these artists.

This was an exceptionally fine achievement for the 18 year old composer and which sits well against the other works on this disc.

Dating from some forty two years after the first sonata and written for the Steinberg Duo, Philip Sawyer’s Violin Sonata No.2 (2011) has a remarkably similar language, but the Allegro that opens this mature work has less of an overtly emotional feel, full of life and energy. There are some reflective passages, but this movement has predominantly more certainty, forcing ahead confidently. Again this duo provides some really fine playing, full of flair, with fine ensemble and colouring of textures. As the music suddenly recovers from a quiet pause, it drives forward to the conclusion.

Emotion is certainly not lacking in the beautiful Andante which has a wistful melody that permeates the whole movement, with some lovely writing for the violin and piano, richly brought out in this performance. True to Sawyers’ musical language, the movement occasionally rises from wistful to passionate before returning to its origins. Louisa Stonehill provides some fine textures, gently coaxing subtle colours from her instrument. Equally fine is the contribution from Nicholas Burns who finds so much in the quiet moments.

A little rising motif opens the Allegro finale that casts aside the melancholy of the Andante. There are many subtleties, nevertheless, in this movement, beautifully played by the duo. In some of the faster passages Sawyer presents his players with some technical challenges, resulting in some terrific playing. The theme from the Andante returns before the coda.

For all its use of twelve tone writing, this work does not sound at all lacking in melody, let alone structural cohesion, showing just how fine and entrancing such a work can be.

Both of Philip Sawyers’ Sonatas sit well with Elgar’s autumnal work, the Violin Sonata in E minor, Op.82 (1918). The Steinberg Duo throw themselves into the Allegro with real gusto and terrific use of rubato. As the music slows there is a lovely broadening out, so well highlighted by these players. It is their ability to show the intense passion and feeling set against quieter, subtler nuances that mark out this performance, revealing so many new facets to the Elgar. What fine playing there is as the music leads to the movement’s conclusion.

Such perfectly turned inflections in the Romance: Andante show a wistfully playful nature I hadn’t really heard in this work before. The Steinberg Duo, at times, have the listener teetering on the edge of melancholy and joy. When they arrive at the rich re-statement of the theme, what wonderful playing there is, so sonorous and they provide a wistfully, delicate little conclusion to the movement.

This duo takes us so naturally into the moderately paced opening to the Allegro non troppo, slowly building the dynamics and tempo. Soon the echoes of the second movement appear, yet Elgar seems to fight against the melancholy and thoughtfulness, with these players  pointing up so finely the conflict of emotions before pushing the music ahead with some lovely playing, never missing any of the subtleties of emotional content. And as the music slowly turns from quietly wistful to a stronger, more resolute character, there is some truly fine playing.

Those looking for a fine performance of the Elgar with an unusual yet extremely rewarding coupling should look to this new recording. The recording made at The Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta, Canada is excellent.

Monday 21 October 2013

A fascinating and rewarding release of romantic chamber music performed by the Trio Anima Mundi on a new release from Divine Art

The Australian based Trio Anima Mundi www.trioanimamundi.com was founded in 2008 and has since become a regular part of Melbourne's chamber music life with their annual themed subscription concerts series that bring an eclectic mix of repertoire from the great masters to little-known works. The Trio's members are Kenji Fujimura (piano), Rochelle Ughetti (violin), Miranda Brockman (cello).

One can only be impressed at the variety of works in their repertoire that encompasses works from the great classics to contemporary and includes composers as diverse as Bach, Haydn, Mozart,Beethoven and Brahms, through Bernstein, Copland,  Debussy, Turina and Walton to Elfrida Andrée and Arno Babajanian.

To this we must add the names of William Hurlstone, Miriam Hyde, Max d'Ollone and Dag Wirén whose works for piano trio appear on Trio Anima Mundi’s debut recording entitled Romantic Piano Trios, just released by Divine Art Recordings www.divine-art.co.uk . This new disc has something of an international flavour with composers from Britain, Australia, France and Sweden.

A near contemporary of Vaughan Williams, William Hurlstone (1876-1906) www.cph.rcm.ac.uk/Virtual%20Exhibitions/Hurlstone/Hurlstone%20Intro.htm  was one of the great losses to British music, dying at a young age. He studied under Stanford at the Royal College of Music and went on to become their youngest Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint.  His compositions include a piano concerto, orchestral works and a number of chamber works including his Piano Trio in G major, written in 1905, and which  appears on this new recording.

The Allegro moderato opens with a real romantic waltz that soon gives way to a faster section with rhythmic piano phrases over the strings. The music alternates between the slower theme and the romantic waltz theme with much fine invention. It is lovely the way Hurlstone shares the themes around the instruments. The piano opens the Andante before the strings join in a melancholy little melody. This attractive movement is so well written for the various instruments with some lovely harmonies and timbres so well brought out by the Trio Anima Mundi. There is a lightly dancing scherzo, Molto vivace, full of life with a beautiful trio section before the Allegro comodo that has an attractive theme that permeates the whole movement and a second subject that has the nature of a Scottish Air. The movement rushes to the coda with a fine flourish.

There is playing of much warmth and understanding from the Trio Anima Mundi.

The Australian composer Miriam Hyde (1913-2005) http://australiancomposers.com.au/composers/miriamhyde.html  wrote over 150 compositions including orchestral works, instrumental works, songs and piano works.  She won an AMEB (Australian Music Examinations Board) scholarship at the age of twelve to the Elder Conservatorium, Adelaide as a pupil of William Silver, who remained her tutor until 1931. She later won the Elder Overseas Scholarship that enabled her to study at the Royal College of Music, London with Arthur Benjamin and Gordon Jacob.

As a concert pianist she performed with conductors such as Sir Malcolm Sargent, Constant Lambert, Georg Schnéevoigt, Sir Bernard Heinze and Geoffrey Simon. She was also a published poet and wrote an autobiography. Given that 2013 is her centenary year, it is good to have a recording of her Fantasy Trio, Op.26 for violin, cello and piano, written in 1933.

It is a romantic work, reflecting her preference for such a style. Though such a piece would have found itself out of fashion in 1933, this no longer matters given the passage of time. In one movement, it opens purposefully with a lovely flowing melody before slowing to a more thoughtful section. There is some lovely invention here, attractively shared by the instruments.  There is no lack of drama and interest in its nine minutes. Halfway through the music again slows to a beautiful interlude, before the music returns to the opening theme that leads to the coda.

Maximilien-Paul-Marie-Félix d'Ollone (1875-1959) was born in Besançon, France and studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Alexandre Lavignac, Jules Massenet, André Gedalge and Charles Lenepveu, winning the Prix de Rome in 1897. His works encompass opera and ballet as well as the Trio for piano, violin and cello in A minor included on this disc.

An anxious sounding, forward thrusting theme announces the Allegro ma non troppo e ben deciso but this soon gives way to a slower theme, a very attractive rising and falling motif with some lovely rippling passages from the piano. Though dating from 1920, this trio shows that d’Ollone was obviously a romantic at heart. The Trio Anima gives such taut, expressive playing. After more forward driving music there is a tranquil reflective section before a decisive coda. The piano opens the darker, melancholy Adagio before a wistful string melody appears. Halfway through there is a lovely passage for piano before a string melody above a rippling piano motif that weaves its way to a subdued conclusion.

The Scherzo: Allegro brings some terrifically fine playing from the Trio Anima, with fine ensemble and dynamics in this light rhythmic opening. Soon a slow section arrives with a tentative theme before the two themes combine as the music tries to move forward. The light rhythmic theme soon takes over to end this movement.

An unsettled theme opens the Finale: Presto, rushing forward with some particularly fine playing from Kenji Fujimura as the music hurtles on, swaying to and fro as it does. Halfway through the strings bring a slightly more restrained feel but the piano drives the music forward to end this Trio.

Dag Wirén (1905-1986) www.gehrmans.se/en/composers/wiren_dag achieved a certain fame in the UK when the final Marcia movement of his Serenade for String Orchestra Op.11 was used as the theme tune to the BBC arts programme Monitor. He was born into a musical family in the region of Bergslagen and studied composition at the State Academy of Music in Stockholm before continuing his studies in Paris, where he was greatly influenced by neo classicism, Les Six and Stravinsky. Other influences were Nielsen and Sibelius. His compositions include a number of ballets, choral works, songs, five symphonies, concertos, instrumental works and chamber works of which the Piano Trio No.1, Op.6 (1932) features here.

A seemingly unstoppable Allegro surges forward in music that surprisingly sounds more advanced than the other works on this disc. Soon a second subject appears, slower and more thoughtful, even sombre in nature. Rippling piano scales lift the music back to the original theme where there is some terrific playing from the Trio Anima, with superb ensemble. The second subject returns, with an almost Slavic flavour before the music rushes to the end. When the Adagio arrives it feels as though the music has picked up on the sombre nature of the second subject of the first movement with music of dark strength with an inexorable feel to it as it develops passionately. This is a great piece.

The brief Fughetta is light and rhythmic, showing, again, the fine accomplishment of this Trio. The piano picks out a quiet theme against pizzicato strings in the opening of the Alla Passacaglia. This quickly leads into a mournful melody before a rhythmic motif from the piano heralds a faster section that develops its contrapuntal theme with some difficult individual string passages. The music slowly develops through a series of variants before a scintillating coda.

This is a fascinating and rewarding disc with excellent playing from the Trio Anima Mundi. The recording from the Music Auditorium, Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University, Melbourne is excellent. There are informative booklet notes by the trio’s pianist, Kenji Fujimura.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Some extremely fine Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert from pianist Sarah Beth Briggs on the Semaphore label

Pianist Sarah Beth Briggs www.sarahbethbriggs.co.uk  was a pupil of the late Denis Matthews. She gained a Hindemith Scholarship to study chamber music in Switzerland with the violist, Bruno Giuranna, and remained in Lausanne for further studies with Chilean pianist Edith Fischer. Her professional career was launched at the age of eleven when she became, what was at the time, the youngest-ever finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year. Four years later she gained international recognition as joint winner of the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg.

She has performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Hallé Orchestra, London Mozart Players, London Philharmonic Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, Manchester Camerata, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, and Northern Sinfonia. She has been the featured soloist at major British venues including Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, London’s South Bank auditoria, and the Barbican Centre and has performed in Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy and the USA. She gave the World Premiere of Britten’s Three Character Pieces.

Sarah Beth Briggs has also performed as pianist in several acclaimed chamber groups including Trio Melzi  www.zen67439.zen.co.uk/_SarahBethBriggs/pages/main_fr_direct_ens_melzi.htm     which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2010. As a chamber musician, she has featured on BBC2 and Radio 3. In addition to her chamber music coaching and tuition at York University she has given master classes throughout the UK and in the USA. Her concerto performances have led to appearances in many countries, engagements with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and a series of concerts at San Francisco’s Midsummer Mozart Festival.

Sarah Beth Briggs’ recordings for Semaphore include a disc of Beethoven, Brahms, Britten and Rawsthorne; Haydn, Mozart, Bartok, Brahms and Chopin; and Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart.

A new release from Semaphore features Sarah Beth Briggs performing Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor, K475, Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor, Op.13 ‘Pathetique’ and Schubert’s Sonata in B flat Major, D960.


From the sense of anticipation in the opening Adagio of Mozart Fantasy in C minor, Sarah Beth Briggs develops a beautifully paced development. There is a fine purity of sound to her playing, yet later, as the Allegro arrives, she so naturally brings fluid dramatic playing. Her poise in the quieter sections really points up the more passionate passages and there is a real sense of overall form.

Sarah Beth Briggs follows on naturally in Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata taking the quiet, Grave opening quickly into the drama of Beethoven, obviously sensing connections. With the arrival of the Allegro di molto e con brio we hear Briggs’ terrific rhythmic bounce, fine articulation and ability to drive this music forward without any sense of being hurried. Again the sense of anticipation she develops in the quieter, more meditative moments, is thrilling, her control of tempi adding so much interest to the music.

In the lovely flowing Adagio cantabile this pianist brings out all the delicate subtleties and, for all the calm, one can sense an underlying tension. She knows just how to phrase the music to great effect. She opens with a fairly understated Rondo: Allegro before developing this music with playing of great fluency and articulation, building to some terrific playing. Sarah Beth Briggs gives such refined playing that always retains clarity and poise.

It is Briggs’ fine control and sense of overall architectural form that marks out her playing of Schubert’s last great Piano Sonata in B flat Major D960. There is, right from the start of the Molto Moderato, a feeling of great things about to happen. As she builds up the development, her persuasive expression and control add to the drama and sense of expectation. The four repeated notes that appear, surely influenced by Beethoven, are almost threatening in their intensity. She has the full measure of the scope of Schubert’s great creation with such fine dynamics and phrasing. How she colours some of the quieter little phrases is rather magical.

This pianist brings a terrific atmosphere to the opening of the Andante Sostenuto, quiet haunting in character, until it becomes more expansive. There is some lovely playing after the opening tempo returns later on, leading to the tranquil coda. The Scherzo. Allegro Vivace con delicatezza brings relief from the intensity of the Andante with some very fine playing, such a lovely touch, so light, sprung and nimble, a joy to listen to, so exquisitely done.

The Allegro ma non troppo is no less joyful with Sarah Beth Briggs providing playing that is full of rhythmic panache as well as reflecting every contour of the music. There is no lack of drama in the more passionate sections where Briggs really throws herself into it with playing of great thrust and impetuosity.

This is an extremely fine CD with a particularly fine Schubert performance. There is a nicely produced booklet with notes by Sarah Beth Briggs. The recording made at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, the venue for so many fine recordings, is excellent.

Friday 18 October 2013

Superb string playing, terrific saxophone improvisations and brilliant violin playing come together on a new Divine Art release of compositions and arrangements of Purcell and Bach by Uwe Steinmetz

Saxophonist and composer Uwe Steinmetz (b.1975) www.u-musik.us/live https://twitter.com/uwesteinmetz was born in Bremervörde, Germany. He started to play flute in a local brass band at the age of seven, and soon after began composing German folk tunes and theatre music for his school. He later changed to the saxophone, participating in numerous master classes and workshops, and composing for school ensembles. He was a member of the regional and national youth jazz orchestras and toured throughout Europe and the United States.

Steinmetz continued his musical education in Berlin and Bern with Gebhard Ullman and Frank Sikora, followed by studies at The NewEngland Conservatory of Music in Boston where he worked with Ben Schwendener, George Russell and Jerry Bergonzi. He holds degrees in jazz composition, and saxophone performance as well as a certificate from George Russell for advanced studies in his Lydian Chromatic Concept, authorizing him to teach all aspects of Russell’s unique music theory, which shaped modern jazz in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Steinmetz lives and works as a freelance musician in Berlin and has performed his own music on four continents and in more than thirty countries as well as recording around a dozen CDs. His Kantata„ God is Now für Jazz nonett, Choir and 3000 singers in 4 Groups took place at the closing ceremony of the International Choir Festival in Greifswald, GER on August 26th 2012.

Steinmetz has been a recipient of numerous grants and prizes, including the 2000 Theodor Fontane Award from the Stifterverbandder Deutschen Wissenschaft, first prize at the 2001 European Jazz Competition in Getxo, Spain, the ‘Jazz In’ prize awarded by Lower Saxony in 2005/2006, and grants for his compositions and other artistic work from the ministries of culture in Hanover and Berlin.

In addition to his teaching, Steinmetz has given saxophone master classes and music theory workshops in high schools and conservatories in both Germany and the US. He has served as a juror for youth jazz competitions in Germany and has served as an assistant music teacher at the Kodaikanal International School in Tamil Nadu, South India, where he also studied fundamentals of South Indian (carnatic) music. He has been on the faculty at the Conservatory of Music in Rostock, Germany, since 2008.  

Steinmetz’s compositions include works for choir, string quartet and jazz ensemble, organ, guitar, saxophone and jazz orchestra. Since 2002 he has worked with the London based Fitzwilliam String Quartet who appear with him on a new release of his works from Divine Art Recordings www.divine-art.co.uk  also featuring violinist Mads Tolling. http://madstolling.com

dda 25112

The title of this new CD Absolutely! is from the first work on the disc Absolutely! – Suite for String Quartet, Saxophone and Violin Solo (2008) a musical meditation on purity, unselfishness, honesty and love. Written in five movements it opens with Prelude where the quartet and solo violin are soon joined by the saxophone in a strikingly unusual sound. The music has the feel of being at least partly improvised, particularly in the saxophone flourishes, yet there is a firm structure here. There is a passage where the solo violin really swings in a terrific, jazz inspired section accompanied by the quartet complete with pizzicato cello acting in the form of a jazz double bass. The saxophone re-joins before a spiky rhythm ensues allowing some terrific playing from saxophone and violin.

Purity opens with some unusual dissonances from the whole ensemble before falling to a more thoughtful mode taken up by the solo violin and quartet. There is some fine playing here, as well as strange cries from the solo violin. The saxophone weaves above the other players in some spectacularly difficult displays of virtuosity before calming a little as the sax and violin form a kind of duet playing above the quartet. The movement ends a long note that fades.

The saxophone opens with jazz flourishes above the string quartet, who set a rhythmic pace in Honesty. The sax and violin eventually join in a short duet, the violin taking over with quartet accompaniment. This particularly bluesy movement has great freedom and breath giving all the musicians the opportunity to really take off.

Unselfishness brings some unusual sounds provided by the orkon-flute (see below) Soon the quartet presents a slow, plodding theme before the orkon-flute and solo violin join in. This soon develops into the drone of a Raga on which it is based. Eventually a jazzy duet between flute and solo violin arrives before the quartet re-joins with rich, chordal playing. The violin then plays a jazzy theme around the quartet before the drone like sounds return.

A slightly syncopated slow theme for strings opens Love, around which the solo violin weaves a bluesy line. When the saxophone enters, the music rises up to a pitch before slackening as the solo violin joins. The syncopated theme reappears and, as the sax reappears, duetting with the violin over the syncopated quartet, it leads to the coda.

There is some superb playing from Uwe Steinmetz (saxophone), Mads Tolling (violin) and the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. www.fitzwilliamquartet.org

Steinmetz’s Chaconne for Steve Lacy for soprano saxophone and solo instrument or voice  (2011) opens with a modern take on the traditional chaconne. The saxophone joins to add the jazz element alongside the violin. This is an incredible success, combining jazz and a classical chaconne all brilliantly played by both Steinmetz and Tolling, especially as they reach a falling motif together, reminiscent of a baroque concerto.

Steinmetz’s arrangement of Purcell’s Fantasia No.7 for four viols, Z.738 (1680) opens fairly conventionally on the strings (this work adapts easily for a string quartet) before the singular sound of the saxophone joins – yet it sounds quite in keeping, as though time has been compressed and Purcell has used the instrument and jazz style quite naturally. This is a triumph from these fine musicians.

Steinmetz’s own Fantasia No.1 ‘Epiphany’ for string quartet and soprano saxophone (2009) follows, a work of some accomplishment that sits naturally within the arrangements of Purcell’s Fantasias. It is more conventionally jazz based, the quartet, nevertheless, providing a modern take on the Fantasia with the saxophone of Steinmetz combining brilliantly with the Fitzwilliam Quartet.

Purcell returns in another of Steinmetz arrangements, this time of his Fantasia No.11 for four viols, Z.742 (1680) and what an arrangement it is with the quartet providing the line over which the saxophone has an almost baroque feel, as though replacing a piccolo trumpet. This is another fabulous performance with Steinmetz providing some terrific jazz improvisations over the Purcellian sounds of the Fitzwilliam Quartet.

Finally we come to Bach as filtered through the imaginations of Fitzwilliam violinist, Lucy Russell and Uwe Steinmetz. Bach’s Chaconne from his Violin Partita No.2, BWV 1004 (1720) opens with some fine playing from the Fitzwilliam Quartet before Steinmetz enters, at first only adding occasionally light touches, before developing a more elaborate improvised counterpoint to the Fitzwilliam’s occasionally swirling strings. There is more superb string playing and inventive sax improvisations from Steinmetz with both blending wonderfully.

What would Bach have thought of this arrangement? We have no way of knowing but I have a sneaking suspicion he would have loved it.

Well recorded with excellent notes from Uwe Steinmetz, Fitzwilliam violist, Alan George and Divine Art’s own Stephen Sutton, this is a disc that all open minded classical and jazz lovers should investigate.

An orkon-flute is basically a modified soprano recorder moulded in plastic with metal reinforcement rings and fitted with a simplified Boehm system key work. For more information go to: www.recorderhomepage.net/cgi-bin/db.cgi?db=omakers&uid=default&view_records=1&Record=*&nh=21

See also:


Wednesday 16 October 2013

Stuart Isacoff’s fascinating book A Natural History of the Piano now available in paperback from Souvenir Press

In November 2012 I reviewed a fascinating book by Stuart Isacoff entitled A Natural History of the Piano. Souvenir Press http://www.souvenirpress.co.uk/2013/08/a-natural-history-of-the-piano/ have now published a paperback edition of this informative and entertaining book that explores the history and evolution of the piano and how its sound provides the basis for emotional expression and individual style.

ISBN - 9780285642379

Such is the breadth of this volume that it covers musicians from Mozart to Modern Jazz, pulling together such great names as Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Rachmaninov and Horowitz.

There are chapters on how the piano developed as well as a chapter on the shaping of the piano’s sounds, pedal technique, tuning and temperament and pianists’ playing styles. Even the influence of film, radio and television on the piano is covered.

For a full review please see:

Obtainable from Amazon:

Monday 14 October 2013

Volume Two of Nimbus Records’ survey of Hans von Bulow’s piano works reveals some attractive pieces, brilliantly played by Mark Anderson

Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) www.buelow-wettbewerb-meiningen.de is best known to many people as a conductor, but he was also a virtuoso pianist and composer. Born in Dresden, he studied with Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann and Ignaz Moscheles. He met Liszt in Leipzig, where his parents had sent him to study law, but it was attending the premiere of Wagner’s Lohengrin that finally made him decide to make a career in music.

Bülow studied piano in Leipzig with the famous teacher Louis Plaidy. During the autumn of 1850, he followed Richard Wagner to Zurich and became a student of Franz Liszt in Weimar. He became a piano teacher at Stern Conservatory as well as giving private lessons to Cosima Liszt, whom he married in 1857. Notoriously tactless, Bülow alienated many musicians with whom he worked but at the same time he was beginning to win renown for his ability to conduct new and complex works without a score.

As a pianist he was the first to perform the complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas, which he did from memory. In 1857 he gave the first public performance of Liszt's great Piano Sonata in B minor, in Berlin.

In 1864, at the invitation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, he became Hofkapellmeister at the Munich court. Despite his wife having two children by Wagner, Bülow continued to support the composer, conducting the premieres of Tristan und Isolde (10th June 1865) and Die Meistersänger von Nürnberg (21st June 1868). In 1867 he became director of the newly reopened Königliche Musikschule in Munich remaining there until 1869. Cosima eventually left him for Wagner, divorcing him in 1870.

From 1878 to 1880 Bülow was Hofkapellmeister in Hanover but was forced to leave after fighting with a tenor in a performance of Lohengrin. In 1880, he was employed as director of the Meiningen Hofkapelle, building up the orchestra to a position whereby they achieved international acclaim with tours throughout Europe. Noted for his interpretation of the works of Beethoven, he was one of the earliest European musicians to tour the United States. It was during his time with the Meiningen Hofkapelle that he met Richard Strauss in Berlin. Though he was not initially impressed by the composer he later used his influence to enable Strauss to obtain his first regular employment as a conductor.

From the 1880s Bülow developed a close collaboration and friendship with Johannes Brahms. He also championed the music of Tchaikovsky and was the soloist in the world premiere of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor in Boston in 1875, apparently having more enthusiasm for the new concerto than the original dedicatee, Nicholas Rubinstein.

In the late 1880s he settled in Hamburg, but continued to tour, both as a conductor and pianist. From around 1890 his mental and physical health began to fail causing him to seek a warmer climate in Egypt. Bülow died in in Cairo, just ten months after his last concert performance.

Nimbus Records www.wyastone.co.uk/all-labels/nimbus.html have just released volume two in their series of recordings of piano works by Hans von Bülow played by Mark Anderson www.markandersonpianist.com

NI 5907

With Bülow’s Mazurka – Fantasie, Op.13 and its rather gentle opening and leisurely pace, I struggled to find any clearly identifiable influences. It has a rather lightweight quality until, as it develops, it becomes more dynamic. Mark Anderson does his best to bring out every little dynamic in his fine performance but the music does tend to flag at times. Nevertheless, there is some terrific playing when, towards the coda, Bülow finally pulls out the stops.

To my ears Elfenjagd, Op.14 (Impromptu) is a far more attractive work with some lovely subtleties and a much tighter construction. There is some brilliantly fleet playing from Anderson in this piece that has hints of Schumann and Mendelssohn.

The Mazurka – Impromptu, Op.4 is another attractive piece, full of fun, with a lovely rhythmic poise. Invitation à la Polka is very much in the same mould and so obviously written by a virtuoso pianist, such is some of the writing, particularly in the bravura coda.

There is a thoughtful opening to the Chant Polonaise (alla Mazurka), Op.12 before the gentle lilt of the Mazurka appears. There are more impassioned moments and some wonderfully fluid playing from Anderson, as well as a brilliant conclusion.

I was particularly attracted to Bulow’s Trois Valse caracteristique, Op.18, with a beautifully written Valse de ‘L’Ingeru’ that wouldn’t disgrace a major composer, a more dynamic Valse du ‘Jaloux’ nicely pointed up by Anderson and Valse du ‘Glorieux’ that has a memorable theme and a lovely forward flow, beautifully developed. I very much enjoyed these waltzes that are full of invention and well worth hearing, particularly when so well played as here.

The final work on this disc is Königsmarsch, Op.28 which, after opening with bell like chords, develops in the grand manner before settling to a more moderate pace with a distinctive four note motif. There is an attractive central section before the four note motif returns, with Lisztian falling phrases and the return of the opening in the coda. Though this would probably make a good encore piece, the music is somewhat obvious at times.

Well recorded at Wyaston Leys and with excellent booklet notes by Paul Conway, this is a fascinating release that explores the byways of 19th century German music through one of the most famous conductors of the time. Though there are no undiscovered gems here, many of the pieces are most attractive and brilliantly played by Mark Anderson.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Paul McCreesh and his team provide one of the finest of modern performances of Britten’s War Requiem on a new release from Signum Records

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) www.brittenpears.org was approached as early as 1958 to write a work for the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral www.coventrycathedral.org.uk built to replace the old Cathedral destroyed during the Second World War. When he was commissioned, in 1960, to write a large scale choral work for this event, he appears to have been annoyed that the clergy of the Cathedral seemed to want to avoid paying him a fee, writing,’…they must be prepared to pay for it, just as they have had to pay the workmen to build the Cathedral.

Nevertheless, by early 1961 composition had begun on what was to be the War Requiem, with Britten contacting Galina Vishnevskaya www.opera-centre.ru/vishnevskaya and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau www.mwolf.de/start.html with a view to them taking two of the three solo parts in the Cathedral premiere. Peter Pears was, of course, to take the tenor role thus bringing together artists from the Soviet Union, Germany and Britain representing the three countries that suffered most during the war.

Britten had, since the death of Ghandi in 1948, wanted to write some kind of Requiem in his memory and it may be that these ideas were resurrected when the idea of the new choral work arose. There was also a personal element to the new work dedicated, as it was, in loving memory of Roger Burney, Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve; Piers Dunkerley, Captain, Royal Marines; David Gill, Ordinary seaman, Royal Navy and Michael Halliday, Lieutenant, Royal New Zealand Volunteer Reserve.

Clearly expressing Britten’s pacifist beliefs, the War Requiem sets the words of the Latin requiem mass alongside the poetry of Wilfred Owen www.wilfredowen.org.uk/home . Writing from Greece, where he completed the orchestral score, Britten wrote, I was completely absorbed in this piece as really never before.’ Given that the War Requiem is arguably one of Britten’s finest works it is surely no surprised that Britten put so much into this work.

The rehearsals for the Requiem were not without problems. Britten found the acoustic of the new Cathedral to be appalling, the builders were still working on the site and the Cathedral authorities not helpful. It was also quickly realised that it would be impossible for Britten to conduct both the main orchestra and the required chamber orchestra in the space available. In the event it was decided that Meredith Davies would conduct the main orchestra whilst Britten would conduct the chamber orchestra.

To add to Britten’s problems, Galina Vishnevskaya was unable to perform due to problems with the Soviet authorities. Heather Harper took her place, though in the subsequent Decca recording Galina Vishnevskaya was able to take part.

The premiere of the War Requiem took place at Coventry Cathedral, on the evening of 30th May 1962. The start was delayed due to problems getting the audience into the Cathedral.

In addition to Britten’s own Decca recording with his preferred soloists, Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, there have been a good number of other recordings. One of my own favourites is from the late Richard Hickox with the soloists Heather Harper, Philip Langridge and John Shirley-Quirk (Chandos). However, there have been recordings issued with conductors such as Kurt Masur (LPO), Gianandrea Noseda (LSO Live), John Eliot Gardiner (DG), Simon Rattle (EMI), Martyn Brabbins (Naxos), Maris Jansons (BR Klassik), Karel Ancerl (Supraphon) and Seiji Ozawa (Decca), to name but a few.

A new recording of the War Requiem from Signum Records www.signumrecords.com brings a lavishly produced issue featuring Paul McCreesh with his Gabrieli Consort and Players http://gabrieli.com together with soloists Susan Gritton (soprano)  www.askonasholt.co.uk/artists/singers/soprano/susan-gritton , John Mark Ainsley (tenor) www.askonasholt.co.uk/artists/singers/tenor/john-mark-ainsley and Christopher Maltman (baritone) http://christophermaltman.moonfruit.com . They are joined by the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir  www.filharmonia.wroclaw.pl/en/crew/showNews/20 , the Gabrieli Young Singers Scheme and the Treble’s of the Choir of New College, Oxford www.newcollegechoir.com . This two CD set comes in a CD sized hardback book with, in addition to notes about the music by Professor Mervyn Cooke and full texts and translations,  memories of the first performance of the Requiem by a diverse range of people. Throughout the book there are numerous black and white photographs of Britten, the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral, and First World War images.

This new recording is taken from three performances at the Watford Colosseum, Birmingham Town Hall and the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford between January and March 2013.

Britten’s War Requiem is in six parts, Requiem Aeternum, Dies Irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Libera Me.

As the chorus opens the Requiem Aeternum is as though they are rising from the depths before building magnificently only to fall back to the lovely Te Decet Hymnus, with the fine sounds of the boys’ choir. As the Requiem Aeternum tries to reassert itself the choir slowly tries to rise again until tenor, John Mark Ainsley, enters with What passing bells. As with so many of Britten’s works, one always associates this role with Peter Pears, such is the writing so directed to his voice. Here John Mark Ainsley is in fine voice, keeping a balance between providing a vocally anguished edge to his voice and melodiousness. With the Kyrie Eleison we are returned to the hushed world of mourning with the choir beautifully and affectingly controlled.

Trumpets herald the Dies irae in a moment of deep anticipation before the choir enters, slowly building in strength, before the return of the trumpets. Chorus re-enters building up even more before timpani and brass arrive in a tremendous section so fully realised here. The choir are terrific as the pitch builds up. Surely this is one of the great moments in music. This choir is so well disciplined and controlled.

Christopher Maltman gives so much feeling to Wilfred Owen’s verses in Bugles Sang, with a fine instrumental accompaniment and always an underlying tension. It builds to an anguished pitch, absolutely terrific. In the Liber Scriptus soprano Susan Gritton sings the part written for Galina Vishnevskaya, with a suitably firm edge to her voice but never shrill, quite superb, so finely controlled and balanced against the choir. Out there we walked brings baritone and tenor in a fiendishly difficult duet to pull off, yet that is exactly what John Mark Ainsley and Christopher Maltman do to great effect, judging the bitter dialogue so well. As the brass ensemble leads magnificently into the Recordare this is another beautiful and affecting high point, with this choir singing superbly.

The Confutatis has the choir showing remarkable ensemble, building to a terrific climax and leading straight into Be slowly lifted up, where Christopher Maltman is in terrific voice, full, rich, powerful and anguished. The chorus builds even more on the baritone’s power when the Dies Irae returns with increased urgency, until slowly losing energy as the music moves into the Lacrimosa with Susan Gritton giving a superbly emotional performance. Move him into the sun brings the return of John Mark Ainsley, so poetic in this Owen setting, so finely controlled and agile, feeling the words so well. How Britten skilfully dovetails the Lacrimosa with Owen’s poetry is remarkable. The Pie Jesu follows on from the anguished voice of Ainsley in the most affecting way with a beautifully hushed ending from the chorus.

The Offertorium opens with Domine Jesu Christe and the choristers of New College, Oxford sounding wonderful in the large acoustic. Sed Signifier Sanctus Michael brings the main chorus, raising the spirits in a firm, animated section, with terrific support from the orchestra until breaking into So Abram rose, with another fine dialogue between tenor and baritone, hideously and powerfully expressive at first then in a beautifully fine blend of voices, as God stops Abram from killing his son with the words ‘…lay not thy hand upon the lad.’

Again Britten dovetails the So Abram with the Hostius e preces with stunning effect. These performers are spectacularly good and, as the soloists fade against the boys choir there is more fine singing from the choir in the Quam olim Abrahae.

With the Sanctus, bells herald the soprano in a difficult passage superbly managed by Susan Gritton and the percussionist Adrien Perruchon. The choir grow slowly louder, until the Sanctus fully arrives in another of the great moments in this work, magnificently done by these forces and recorded to overwhelming effect in the large acoustic. Susan Gritton is particularly fine in the Benedictus and the return of the Sanctus is phenomenally stirring – another Britten triumph. After the blast brings baritone Christopher Maltman, very fine and extracting great atmosphere and feeling from the texts.

One ever hangs has John Mark Ainsley juxtaposing Wilfred Owen’s verses with the choral Agnus Dei. Who could not be touched by this?

The Libera Me rises out of dark orchestral sounds as the chorus intone the Libera Me, as though wearily moving forward. Slowly the music quickens and rises to a pitch with the words Libera Me, Domine  (Deliver me, O Lord). An anguished Susan Gritton enters before the chorus returns in a big climax for soprano and choir that collapses into It seemed that out of the battle I escaped, another superb moment so well realised here.  This dialogue for tenor and baritone is one of this works most poignant moments. Against a hushed and spare orchestral accompaniment Ainsley sings ‘It seemed like out of battle I escaped’ especially well sung at the words ‘And no guns thumped…’.

Britten’s use of individual woodwind instruments adds an extra emotional pull and when he enters, Maltman brings superb feeling to the text and, as he reaches the words ‘I am the enemy you killed my friend’, it is a heart stopping moment. Let us sleep now comes as a release from the tension, as the tenor and baritone are joined by the boys’ choir singing the In Paradisum. The chorus enters and the orchestra weaves around the ensemble, soon the soprano joins, soaring above the choir and orchestra as before a beautifully hushed Requiescant in pace.

This new recording is a considerable achievement for all those involved. Paul McCreesh manages these large forces brilliantly to bring us a terrific performance.

Britten’s own Decca performance will always be special and I would not want to be without Richard Hickox’s fine version, but this new release, with excellent sound and first rate presentation, ranks as one of the finest of modern performances.