Monday 30 December 2013

On the 450th anniversary of his birth, songs by John Dowland feature strongly on a new Nimbus Alliance release of Elizabethan and Jacobean music

A new release from Nimbus Alliance , entitled Time Stands Still brings together music from that golden age of song, the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Featuring Simon Ponsford  (countertenor) and David Ponsford  (virginals and organ) it includes songs and instrumental works by William Byrd (1540-1623), Thomas Campion (c.1567-1620), John Dowland (1563-1626), Thomas Ford (d.1648), Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), Robert Johnson (c.1583-1633), Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and Philip Rosseter (1567/8-1623).
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Some purists may question the use of virginals and organ given that, normally, 16th century songs would have had a simple lute accompaniment. Indeed, John Dowland left nothing in keyboard form, yet the boundaries between lute repertoire and that of the domestic keyboard instruments by the 17th century were not particularly fixed with contemporaries making arrangements of other composer’s works.

The other issue that might very well worry some is that the organ used, a very fine instrument by the organ builders Goetze and Gwynn Ltd , in the Church of St John the Baptist, Marldon, Devon, based on two 18th century organs, uses Thomas Young’s tuning system from the late 18th/early 19th century. Given the paucity of completely original organs of the period, combined with 17th century contemporary attitudes concerning arrangements, it does not seem inappropriate to perform these works in such a form. With the remarkably fine results on this recording such potential issues do not present any problem for me.

William Byrd’s Prelude opens this disc with David Ponsford drawing some particularly fine sounds from the virginals, a copy of a Flemish instrument dating from 1645, made in 1979 by the frim of John Feldberg  and recently restored.

The songs of John Dowland appropriately feature strongly on this disc, given that he was one of the greatest composers of song in that era and that the 450th anniversary of his birth falls this year. Two of his songs feature next with Simon Ponsford showing much character in his voice in Can she excuse my wrongs? with steady pitch and just a little vibrato at certain parts of his range. He has such a well-controlled upper register and this performance is so full of dynamism.  He gives us a lovely Time stands still with long drawn pure tones and a sensitive accompaniment from David Ponsford (virginals).

Philip Rosseter is represented by his song Shall I come if I swim? which again highlights Simon Ponsford’s characterful presentation as well as some lovely phrasing. David Ponsford changes to the organ for Byrd’s wonderful Fantasia in C in a first class performance full of flow, with beautiful phrasing and excellent choice of registration.

David Ponsford continues with the organ, accompanying Simon Ponsford in Dowland’s I saw my lady weep with Ponsford handling Dowland’s tricky word setting so well before Dowland’s lively Wilt thou, unkind, thus reave me? Returning to the virginals, David Ponsford is supremely accomplished in Byrd’s Rowland, or Lord Willoughby’s Welcome home, beautifully done. Thomas Campion’s lovely hymn like Never weather beaten sail is a great success, finely sung with such purity of voice as, indeed, is the only unattributed piece in this recital, Miserere, my Maker, with Simon Ponsford’s wonderful high notes capturing the gently sorrowful nature of this piece.

Orlando Gibbons’ Fantasy in A minor receives a fine performance from David Ponsford at the organ, allowing the music to rise and flourish without over embellishing – a grand simplicity.

Robert Johnson is represented here by three songs Where the bee sucks, nicely done with varying rhythms, Full fathom five, a song that brings the best from Simon Ponsford with long pure lines in this, another beautifully simple setting and Come, heavy sleep where this countertenor shows his pure beauty of voice with a natural character that gives such a Jacobean period sound to his voice. Time does indeed stand still.

Perhaps Byrd’s best known instrumental piece The woods so wild is played by David Ponsford (virginals) with a lovely rhythmic bounce and wonderful articulation.

Dowland returns again with two more songs, In darkness let me dwell where David Ponsford sets the opening scene before Simon Ponsford enters in this well known, typically Elizabethan melancholic song. Here Simon Ponsford has power, purity, fine articulation and such natural feel for the words. Were every thought an eye showing a great flexibility.

Thomas Tomkins is represented by A sad pavane for these distracted times, written in 1649, only days after the execution of King Charles I. David Ponsford playing the virginals draws so much from his instrument, a range of textures that is remarkable for such a small instrument of limited compass. Thomas Ford is a composer that I am unfamiliar with, but his Since first I saw your face is an attractive song, full of life, particularly in this performance.

Dowland returns again with Flow my tears, perhaps the most famous of Dowland’s tunes that he also used in his instrumental work Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares and encapsulates so much of the fashionable Elizabethan melancholy. These two artists keep the music flowing ahead without dallying in a performance of directness and pathos. Dowland is in a happier mood with Fine knacks for ladies where Simon Ponsford shows the fun of this setting.

More fine playing from David Ponsford in Byrd’s Ut re mi fa sol la with such fine phrasing in this lovely little piece.

Dowland returns for the two final pieces on this disc, Awake, sweet love, with some fine singing from Simon Ponsford in this fast flowing piece, nicely phrased and Now, O now I needs must part, a suitable work to end this recital with Dowland returning to his melancholy mood and both artists pacing this just right with fine singing and sensitive accompaniment.

These artists are given a lovely recording from the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Marldon, Devon and there are informative booklet notes by David Ponsford with full English texts.

Saturday 28 December 2013

Matthew Taylor – a retrospective review of symphony and chamber music recordings from this fine composer

Regular followers will remember how impressed I was with Matthew Taylor’s Second Symphony and Viola Concerto which I reviewed last July (2013).

Since then, courtesy of Toccata Classics, I have been able to acquaint myself with a number of his chamber works that I found equally impressive. This led me to acquire the Dutton recording of Taylor’s Symphony No.1 ‘Sinfonia Brevis’, Horn Concerto and Symphony No.3.

Although these recording were issued between 2005 and 2013, given their quality it is worth reviewing them retrospectively.

Matthew Taylor was born in London in 1964 and attended the Junior Royal Academy of Music. He studied composition with Robin Holloway at Queens' College, Cambridge and later at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and at the Royal Academy of Music, London.  Taylor furthered his composition studies with Robert Simpson and David Matthews. As a conductor he trained with Vilem Tausky and with Leonard Bernstein at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik festival.

On their 2005 release, Toccata Classics featured Taylor’s Piano Trio, op.17, Third String Quartet, op.18 and Conflict and Consolation, Op.19 performed by The Lowbury Piano Trio, The Schidlof Quartet and Members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra  conducted by Martyn Brabbins 

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Matthew Taylor’s Piano Trio, op.17 (1993-94) was commissioned by the Lowbury Piano Trio and first performed on 8th April 1995 at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham. Consisting of three movements and influenced by Beethoven, it has a dissonant opening to the Grave – Allegro pesante before the music falls to a quiet passage. Soon the Allegro pesante arrives with a strident piano against often equally strident strings. As the movement develops, the quieter passage returns only to be disturbed by violent and stormy writing before ending on a ruminative, uncertain note. The Theme and Variations: Adagio molto opens quietly and darkly and, as it develops, becomes anguished and laboured with little hints of Tippett. Eventually a quiet but lively motif on the strings, responded to by the piano, appears before the music rises, becoming quite intense and animated. When the music quietens it is the solo piano that takes the melody before the strings join. There is lovely interplay between strings and piano as the music heads to the coda of this intensely moody movement. The Finale: Allegro opens quietly with strange little motifs that slowly develop. There is an underlying feeling of tension and some wonderful string textures. The coda is truly haunting in its emotional austerity.

The performance by the Lowbury Piano Trio is truly first rate.

Taylor’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 18 was first performed in Norwich in September 1995 and was commissioned by the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. It is dedicated to the Schidlof Quartet who have performed it regularly. It has a vibrant opening Allegro vigoroso with those dissonances still there. There is a playfulness to some of the motifs with the music rising to a little climax before playfully moving ahead to its repeated chordal end. The chords that end the first movement seem to be echoed briefly at the start of the Poco allegretto e misterioso. There are some captivating sonorities for the players, wonderfully played by the Schidloff Quartet. The misterioso marking is exactly what is provided in this strangely withdrawn music. The Vivace sheds any such contemplative thoughts as it scurries along. There are little swirling string motifs that again recall Tippett but this is distinctively Taylor’s own idiom. The music quietens to delicate phrases but the tempo is never less than forward moving though the coda is strangely quixotic.

The Schidlof Quartet does a wonderful job with some intensely dynamic and often sensitive playing.

Conflict and Consolation, Op. 19 – A Symphonic Drama for Brass, Timpani and Percussion, was commissioned by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra , a body that has done much for British music over many years. In its revised version it was first performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London in 1996. Conflict provides a raucous opening with brass, drums and timpani that soon drops to muted brass in a reflective passage. Various brass instruments, along with percussion, in a variety of motifs allow the music to be developed before the music builds back up as though the music is heading for a climactic coda, full of percussion and timpani in a solo section for percussion, a tremendous moment that, nevertheless, ends quietly. The members of the BBCSO percussion deserve much praise.

Muted brass quietly opens Consolation as the music slowly builds to little brass outbursts. A solo trumpet takes up the slow theme over the brass ensemble, with gentle percussion sounds, the brass of the BBCSO providing some lovely sonorities. Martin Brabbins draws great tension from his players as the music moves forward to successive peaks before the music quietens, with deep sounds of the tuba and delicate percussion as it moves towards the coda where the tuba is left alone.

All the recordings on this disc are excellent and there are first rate booklet notes by the composer.

Early this year (2013) Toccata Classics issued another recording of chamber works by Matthew Taylor, his String Quartets No’s 5, 6 and 7, performed by the Dante String Quartet , the Allegri String Quartet and the Salieri String Quartet respectively. 

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Taylor’s String Quartet No.5, Op 35 (2007/08) was commissioned by the Presteigne Festival of Music, an annual event that takes place just over the Herefordshire border into Wales not far from where I live, an event that does much to promote contemporary music. The composer states that, for many years, he had been attracted to the idea of writing a continuous work which begins with fast, volatile music and becomes progressively calmer as it evolves. The Allegro furioso opens with violent dissonances concealing a definite melody, but soon settles to a quiet rising and falling motif. The music quietly hints at the faster theme that eventually returns and throughout there is a strong sense of forward flow.

The end of the first movement flows straight into the Fuga: Largamente, intensivo that continues passionately with its fugal theme creating a bright surging motion that subsides with the players working over the theme. The music rises up with quietly, gently, swaying music, quite transparent until the last movement arrives, again without a break. In the Lullaby: Adagio the gently swaying nature of the music is retained with rocking of a gentle lullaby. Often the musical texture is spare and transparent yet still retaining warmth. There are hints of passion momentarily before the music fades into silence.

This terrific quartet has a natural organic progression and flow through its three movements and received an excellent performance from the Dante Quartet.

Commissioned by the Friends of the Little Missenden Festival and the RVW Trust, the String Quartet No. 6, Op. 36 (2006/08) was first performed in its entirety at the 2008 Little Missenden Festival. The opening Guibiloso has a joyful, rhythmically surging theme before the viola introduces a broader melody. This material is developed before a glissando passage leads to the Romanza: Andante moderato that continues quietly and gently before subtly rising and falling in intensity.  The music rises to a peak of passion before slowly falling back with lovely rich deep cello chords to end quietly. There is always an upward pull to the music in this glorious movement. The low, rich notes of the cello are continued into the Andante moderato from out of which a sustained passage for the cello grows before being shared individually on the different instruments of the quartet in this lovely slow movement ending high on harmonics. The Finale: Bacchanale – Con spirito e riotoso opens suddenly and full of energy and forward momentum, building on the material from the second movement. Even the energetic rhythm seems to connect to the rise and fall of the opening of the second movement. After a re-statement of the opening theme the work ends suddenly.

This is a magnificent quartet that rewards with repeated listening. The Allegris couldn’t be better, serving the composer so well.

Matthew Taylor’s String Quartet No.7, Op.37 (2008/09) was first performed by the artists on this disc, the Salieri String Quartet at the Conservatory, Barbican Centre, London in 2009. The year of completion for this work marked the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death and Mendelssohn’s birth, the string quartets of whom have, the composer tells us, made a lasting impact on his own thinking.

The Allegretto comodo opens with a strange little theme before building in complexity. Soon the opening idea returns and continues to develop before the music builds again in a swirling complex theme until quietening at the end. The Scherzo: Allegretto scorrevole provides quicksilver, fleeting music that develops, slightly manic and fast moving before falling back to quiet, skittish music before hurtling to an end. There is a slow, quiet and beautiful rising theme that opens the Adagio – Allegretto grazioso – Adagio - Allegretto grazioso with lovely rich, warm playing and some odd little tonal shifts. The music eventually lightens when the music seems to become rather more static before increasing in intensity and passion. In the later stages of the movement the music falls back to the opening motif before the allegretto theme re-appears, leading straight into the Finale: Animato ma misterioso where the music builds from strange hovering strings to a fuller sound, transparent, yet with a richness of texture. There is some lovely writing for strings, so well played by the Salieri Quartet. The music rises to a slight climax but soon eases off as the theme just dances along, restrained yet full of energy until it finally fragments.

These wonderful quartets are given first rate performances by the respective players. The recordings are first class and there are excellent booklet notes by the composer.

The Dutton Laboratories recording, featuring the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by the composer with Richard Watkins (horn) , opens with Matthew Taylor’s Symphony No.1 ‘Sinfonia Brevis, Op.2 (1985).  

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The composer was initially inspired after studying Haydn’s ‘Sturm und Drung’ (‘Storm and Stress’) symphonies. Commissioned and first performed by the Purcell Orchestra in 1985, the Molto moderato opens with a little burst of energy that is repeated before resuming the broader melody. There are lovely transparent textures and bursts of energy hinted at as the movement progresses, providing a forward momentum before quietly leading into the Pesante, with low strings hinting at the second movement theme where the music picks up the momentum whilst keeping a regular rhythmic pulse. There is the energy and overall impetus of Carl Nielson and Robert Simpson but with Taylor’s own stamp on every page. The music slows as the Poco meno commences with Taylor’s distinctive brass sounds that form a contrast to the flowing melody for strings and woodwind. When the fourth movement,Animato, arrives the rhythm gains extra pulse in the strings as this transparently scored movement progresses. Taylor’s orchestration is terrific with the theme passed around various sections of the orchestra and a gentle pulse that rises and falls. There is some terrific taut playing from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and, as the music flows over into the Poco e poco Rallentando Al Fin, it suddenly quietens with various instruments taking the theme until ending on the basses.

What a terrific symphony this is, especially given that it is an Op.2, written when the composer was just twenty one years of age.

Taylor’s Horn Concerto, op.23 (1999 rev. 2004) was written for the horn player on this recording, Richard Watkins and commissioned by the 1999 Ryedale Festival. It is in two parts with two movements in each part. Part One: Allegro Vigoroso opens with a striking horn motif before the orchestra joins between the horn motifs. Eventually a leisurely passage arrives with deep notes from the lower horn register. The orchestra leads to a flowing horn melody before arriving at a jaunty tune interrupted by the flowing orchestra. The music increases in intensity with lovely upward horn flourishes. Second movement of Part 1 is a Scherzo with Trio marked Scherzo – Vivace – Trio – Scherzo. A skittish string section with muted horn opens before the trio section, which has a mellow horn theme over a mainly string background. Eventually the scherzo returns with pizzicato basses, muted horn before a sudden horn outburst ends the movement.

Strings suddenly open the first movement of Part Two: Lento, Grave – Andante Grazioso – Lento, Grave before the horn enters much slower and relaxed, mournful even. The strings again leap up before imitating the horn theme that re-appears. After another upward leap from the strings, the horn continues its way as the andante arrives, the horn weaving a slow melody. It is the horn that suddenly leaps to open the return of the Lento, Grave before softening to continue its flow against a still orchestra. The Finale is marked Fuga: Homage to Max Reger – Allegro Vigoroso. Strings open playfully before the horn joins in the melody, becoming more strident from its quiet, mellow opening. The music builds to a climax for horn and orchestra, reaching a peak at the opening of the Allegro Vigoroso where horn and strings rise to repeated phrases before simply ending.

This is a really fine and enjoyable concerto, finely played by Richard Watkins.

Matthew Taylor’s Symphony No.3, Op.33 (2003-05) is also in two parts but this time just two movements, though with much varying tempi. Part One is marked Severo – Andante semplice – Animato – Vivace ma sempre agitato – Molto severo – Lamentoso – Mephisto Allegretto misterioso. It is the horns that make an upward flourish along with the orchestra, as though a warning before the mysterious flowing orchestra that follows. The woodwind head up a flowing, gentle section, a lovely melody with an upward pull before the strings then take the lead in an anxious swirl of sound, reminiscent of Tippett. The music falls to a quieter section with horn and timpani outbursts before low strings and a clarinet lead to the Andante semplice.   There is always an underlying pulse, a feeling of impending drama. A repeated clarinet motif leads to an increasingly dynamic section with horns sounding over the strings of the orchestra. After a series of climaxes the music seems to glide forward over a plateau. Brass and timpani interrupt before more relentless surges of sound, alternating with quieter playful passages, builds to a climax before dropping to a serene section for woodwind and strings. The Lamentoso arrives with a gentle swaying theme before a quizzical moment with timpani quietly sounding leads into the section marked Mephisto Allegretto misterioso where muted brass have a jazzy theme taken up by woodwind. The music has a swagger that bounces along and Taylor’s use of woodwind is terrific.

Part Two, marked Finale: L’istesso tempo poco e poco stringendo – Alllegro molto – Adagio molto – Lamentoso – Allegro Molto, arrives without much attention, merely allowing the theme a less rhythmic feel and recalling previous themes. Slowly the music increases in speed as it scurries ahead with frequent outbursts before arriving at a flowing section for strings and brass. The music becomes more agitated as the Mephisto swagger seems to slowly invade and eventually succeeds before falling into the Adagio molto – Lamentoso where the Lamentoso theme of the first part is heard. When the Allegro Molto arrives, strings push the music ahead increasingly faster recalling the opening section of the symphony. Timpani seem to hold the swaggering rhythm but they soon slow as the music ends on a note of questioning triumph.

This is a very fine symphony brilliantly performed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the composer. The recording made at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London is excellent. Again Matthew Taylor provides excellent booklet notes.

Monday 23 December 2013

An award winning Violin Concerto heads up a new release from BIS Records featuring works by Australian composer, Brett Dean

Australian composer Brett Dean was born in 1961 in Brisbane and began playing the violin at the age of eight, later studying viola with Elizabeth Morgan and John Curro at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. In 1984 he travelled to Germany on an Australia Council grant where he studied with the violist Wolfram Christ, becoming a permanent member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1985, a post he occupied for 15 years.

Brett Dean began composing in 1988, initially working on film, radio and improvisatory projects and went on to establish himself as a composer through works such as his Clarinet ConcertoAriel’s Music’ (1995), which won an award from the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers, a Piano Quintet ‘Voices of Angels’ (1996) and ‘Twelve Angry Men’ for 12 cellos (1996). His most widely-known work is ‘Carlo’ for strings, sampler and tape (1997), inspired by the music of Carlo Gesualdo.

Other scores have been commissioned by major ensembles including the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Modern, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Cologne Philharmonic Orchestras. Dean returned to Australia in 2000, since when his Song Cycle ‘Winter Songs’ won the 2001 Paul Lowin composition Prize. He was invited to be Composer in Residence for the Cheltenham Festival in 2003, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra during 2003-2004. It was the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra that performed his ‘Moments of Bliss’ which was awarded 'Best Composition' at the 2005 Australian Classical Music Awards. His Viola Concerto was premiered that year by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London with Dean as soloist.

In 2006, he was appointed as Artistic Director of the Australian National Academy of Music and, in 2011, was awarded the Queensland Conservatorium Alumnus of the Year at the inaugural Arts, Education and Law Alumni Awards. Brett Dean’s compositions include an opera and a ballet, choral and vocal music, orchestral works, concertos and chamber music. The works of Brett Dean have attracted considerable attention, not only having been championed by conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, but also through recordings with labels such as ABC Classics and BIS Records.

It is BIS Records that have recently issued a recording of Brett Dean’s award winning Violin ConcertoThe Lost Art of Letter Writing’ together with Testament for 12 violas and Vexations and Devotions for choir, children’s choir, large orchestra and electronics. These works, on a generously filled 86 minute disc, are performed by the concerto’s dedicatee, Frank Peter Zimmermann with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Nott (Violin Concerto), the BBC Symphony Orchestra (viola section) conducted by Martyn Brabbins  (Testament) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus  Gondwana Voices conducted by David Robertson (Vexations and Devotions).

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The Lost Art of Letter Writing – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2006, rev. 2007), winner of the 2009 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, was commissioned by the Cologne Philharmonie and the Stockholm Philharmonic for violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, to whom the work is dedicated.

The concerto is related to the composer’s feeling that, in this digital age, we are losing touch with the tactile element of written communication. Each movement is prefaced by an excerpt from a 19th Century letter ranging from a private love-letter to a public manifesto.

Hamburg, 1854 refers to one of classical music’s great secret romances, that between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. The violin enters over a hazy, shifting orchestral sound. Slowly the music becomes more animated as the orchestral accompaniment becomes more clear and transparent. Tempo changes abound as the theme rapidly moves forward with varying orchestral textures. A Brahmsian theme briefly appears from the texture leading to a slower, quiet section; but soon the music speeds up with some remarkably fine playing from Frank Peter Zimmermann. At times there are some magical violin sounds as well as a fantastical rising and falling section for violin. So much is going on in this engrossing music that it reveals more with each hearing. Brahms makes another appearance towards the end.

The Hague, 1882 takes its cue from a line from a letter of Vincent van Gogh, reflecting upon the eternal beauty of nature as being a constant in his otherwise troubled and unstable life. The orchestra rises from a hushed beginning as the violin joins, creating lovely textures and harmonies against the orchestra. Eventually the music becomes more dramatic and passionate, working out of the theme before a climax for orchestra is reached. The soloist re-joins as the music calms in a melodically beautiful section that is quite magical. The soloist and orchestra weave lovely sounds as the music gently works its way to a resigned conclusion.

Vienna, 1886 is taken from a song cycle by Brett Dean entitled Wolf-Lieder. It is a setting of an excerpt from one of Hugo Wolf’s letters to a close personal friend, again an outpouring from a life of affliction. A falling motif for orchestra opens the movement before the soloist joins, lifting the music up. A flute passage adds to the unsettled nature of the orchestral accompaniment, the violin having a tense, pleading nature and, despite a softer moment as the movement progresses, it ends on an anxious, tense note.

Jerilderie, 1879 takes as its theme the famous Jerilderie Letter of the Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly who wrote this letter in the small rural town of Jerilderie in 1879 as a public manifesto in order to articulate his pleas of innocence and desire for justice for both his family and other poor Irish settlers.

The movement opens with frantic chords from the solo violin with an agitated orchestral accompaniment that soon gives way to a less intense passage. The frantic music soon re-appears and builds to a peak before the intense theme returns. Later strange, rather disjointed harmonies appear for the soloist, as though indicating a manic edge to the character. The music rises to another climax before a passage for solo violin over strange, quiet orchestral harmonies, where the violin plays the frantic theme over the quieter more static orchestra. This rather schizophrenic music, violent, pleading, angry and manic leads to another climax before arriving at a violent coda.

Testament for 12 violas (2002) was written for Dean’s former colleagues from the Berlin Philharmonic’s viola section and was inspired by the idea of Beethoven’s famous Heiligenstadt Testament and the sound of the composer’s quill as he wrote, quietly, feverishly and manically on sheets of parchment.

Quietly scurrying sounds open the piece, becoming more agitated and flying in different directions as the music progresses. The music soon quietens with odd little phrases from a solo viola against the rest of the ensemble that provide quieter scurrying sounds. Slowly the music achieves a more long breathed melody but falls back to quiet ruminations. Strange sounds continue until firming up with a clearer motif, rising and falling from the diffuse background, as the familiar sound of a Beethovenian theme arises from the mists, a glimpse of the String Quartet, Op.59 No.1 ‘Rasumovsky’, but the mists move in as we are returned to the opening atmosphere. Suddenly the music erupts into violent chords and, even after it calms, the music pushes ahead, often with the feel of a known melody trying to emerge. As the music develops there is a quiet background of violas with more strident violas playing over the top, often pizzicato. Eventually the strident chords push the music forward until they scurry in a downward motif before quietening. The insistent motif is still there up until the sudden end.

Vexations and Devotions for SATB choir, children’s choir, large orchestra and electronics (2005) was commissioned by the UWA Perth International Arts Festival, West Australian Symphony Orchestra, BBC Proms and Wesfarmers.

The composer writes that ‘A significant factor common to these varied vexatious tendencies…was to be found in the erosion of a sense of organic language…(the) contexts reveal a significant gap between the words used and the meanings behind them.’

The first movement, Watching Others, sets a text by the Australian poet, Dorothy Porter (1954-2008) concerning the quiet, contemporary despair and loneliness of watching others on television. A piano together with the lower section of the orchestra and chattering voices are merged at the opening of this work before shouts from the chorus. The orchestra develops a forward moving theme that darts around as the choir sings a setting of the text, becoming more dynamic. Quieter passages are interrupted by scurrying music, full of nervous energy before, eventually, the smooth blended sound of the choir enters on the words ‘The loneliness, the loneliness.’ Dean creates a remarkable tapestry of colours and textures from the orchestra as the choir and children’s choir continue, rising in intensity until falling back into chattering voices as the music descends to the coda.

Bell and Anti-Bell concerns the alienating nature of modern communication systems. Here the electronically reproduced voice of an automated answering service stands as the symbol of our furthering estrangement from one another. The movement opens with shimmering, scurrying strings and a myriad of percussion. After the full orchestra leads to a climax with tam-tam, the music quietens with strange sounds emerging from the gloom, bell sounds imitating a telephone ring. The orchestra re-joins before a recorded voice enters, narrating the words ‘We are sorry, all our lines are busy at present.’ This bizarre yet highly effective idea continues as the electronic recorded telephone messages alternate with the ringing of a bell with occasional orchestral contributions. Soon the choirs appear over the recorded voice with the words ‘Sweet secret peace, real and right and true…’

The music becomes quite powerful at as the choir becomes more impassioned before being suddenly cut off by the recorded words ‘Thank you for waiting…please keep holding and do not give up hope. Your holding is important to us. Holding is important to all of us.’ There are scurrying strings with the chorus singing against the recorded text before the orchestra plays insistent discords. The last few texts are chanted by the children’s choir with clapping of hands before the choir and orchestra lead to the coda that suddenly drops to a hushed orchestra.

The Path to Your Door looks at the contemporary business mission statement, with its ‘lofty, bloated words, largely signifying nothing but a striving for financial reward, if not outright greed.’ Woodwind open in a tranquil melody, with the vibraphone adding a mystic quality as the choir quietly enters in this other worldly music. A little upward rising motif appears as timpani beat a pulse. The choir then enters at with the words ‘We envision to assertively pursue world class and high yield solutions…’ The choir continue singing this banal, meaningless text, just as though the words actually mean something important. The music rises to a climax before the children’s choir take up the words ‘The path to your door is the path within…’ signalling a meaningful message that contrasts with the banal words of corporate jargon. Gentle orchestral sounds lead to a quiet coda with occasional, gentle little outbursts from the orchestra.

Perhaps, at times, this is more theatre than a concert experience yet it is an extremely effective piece, often powerful and brilliantly orchestrated. All these performances are well recorded at their different venues. There are full texts and English translations as well as informative booklet notes.

Thursday 19 December 2013

With three World Premiere Recordings, all Britten enthusiasts and lovers of British music will want this finely played new release from Naxos

Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) centenary year has brought forth many fine new recordings but a new release from Naxos  gives us no less than three premiere recordings. It must be said straightaway that all of the premiered works are less than five minutes long and date, as do most of the works on the disc, from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

The new release is entitled Reflections, a title drawn from two of the works on the works included, Relections, for Viola and Piano (1930) and Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland for Viola and Piano, Op.48 (1950). The performers here are Matthew Jones (violin/viola) and Annabel Thwaite (piano)


It is Britten’s Suite for Violin and Piano, Op.6 from1934/35 that opens this disc with an Introduction: Andante maestoso where strident phrases from the violin, before the piano joins, in this opening statement, before leading to the March: Allegro alla Marcia, a whimsical little motif for violin and piano, interrupted by sudden dissonant chords on the violin and staccato piano chords. The Moto perpetuo: Allegro molto e con fuoco has an insistent violin motif over a dancing piano motif which receives some terrific playing from Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite in this often astringent section. Annabel Thwaite picks out a melody of the Lullaby: Lento tranquillo as Matthew Jones’ violin gently appears with the melody proper, an exquisite little theme, exquisitely played. The piano has the theme halfway through against held violin chords. A lively bouncing waltz theme, Waltz: Alla valse – Vivace e rubato, concludes with the theme varying throughout often becoming quite wild.

Reflection, for Viola and Piano (1930) marked, Andante ma con moto, has a quiet, moody opening for the piano before the viola’s dark tones enter in this work, originally merely titled Piece for Viola and Piano. Its apt title, Reflection, was only given to it when published. It rises to a passionate, anguished central section before quietening to a hushed coda. This is an extremely fine early work.

Marked Andante – rubato e pigro, Reveille: Concert Study for Violin and Piano (1937) opens quietly on the piano before the violin joins weaving an often drooping melody over the carefully insistent piano accompaniment. Slowly the violinist develops the strange melodic line with odd violinistic effects, terrifically played by Matthew Jones. The violin suddenly leaps up in a frantic rush to end the piece.

With Elegy, for unaccompanied Viola (1930) Matthew Jones produces some fine sounds as the piano develops from its quiet Poco lento opening and becomes more passionate. There are also some exquisitely poetic moments in this fine work, so brilliantly played by Matthew Jones.

The first of the premiere recordings comes with Two Pieces for Violin and Piano written in 1931 when the composer was 18 years of age. The Moon: Andante comodo has a lovely flowing melody for violin and piano which slowly unfolds, quite melancholy and reflective. Going Down Hill on a Bicycle (A Boy’s Song): Allegro giocoso is a riotously inventive piece that receives some terrific playing from this duo.

Another premiere recording is the Etude, for Solo Viola and dates from 1929, when Britten was just fifteen years of age. Marked Allegro e molto vivace it provides quite a work out for the violinist. Though it is often quite an academic sounding piece it, nevertheless, is fascinating to hear and brilliantly played by Matthew Jones.

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was Britten’s teacher and for many years seemed to be doomed to be remembered for nothing else. He was a very fine composer whose works have received a greater exposure in recent decades, mainly from recordings.  Probably Bridge’s best known orchestral work is There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook which is performed here in Britten’s effective arrangement for viola and piano made in 1932, the viola having just the melancholic quality for this piece, a version I will return to, especially as so finely played here.

Valse in B minor, for Violin and Piano (1925) is the third of the premiere recordings on this disc and was sketched out when Britten was only 10 years old and arranged for violin and piano two years later. It brings a certain childlike charm, with some of the writing sounding as though it was somewhat falteringly worked out. These players do not dress it up but allow it to speak for itself, on its own terms.

Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland for Viola and Piano, Op.48 (1950) takes us to the other end of Britten’s compositional life. He originally wrote Lachrymae, for viola and piano in 1950 but towards the end of his life he arranged it for viola and small string orchestra as Op. 48a. It is subtitled ‘Reflections on a song of Dowland, and, indeed, the earlier composer remains pretty well veiled until toward the end of the work. There is some beautifully sensitive playing here as Britten weaves around Dowland’s theme as well as some impressively accomplished playing from Matthew Jones and Annabel Thwaite. It is a lovely moment when Dowland’s theme finally is revealed towards the end.

All Britten enthusiasts and lovers of British music will want this finely played new disc. The recording, made at Wyastone Hall, Monmouthshire, is very detailed and there are excellent booklet notes from Matthew Jones.

See also: 




Monday 16 December 2013

Fine performances from Manfred Cordes and the Weser-Renaissance Bremen in Christmas motets by Cristóbal de Morales on a new release from CPO

Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500-1553) was born in Seville, an area with a rich musical heritage. It is believed that he studied under maestro de capilla, Pedro Fernandez de Castilleja. His education extended to classical literature.

His first professional appointment was as maestro de capilla of Avila in 1526, before moving to Plasencia two years later. He was temporarily suspended after overstaying a leave of absence in Seville, later resigning in 1531.  It is believed that Morales travelled to Naples, but the first documented appointment was as a singer in the papal choir in Rome where he stayed for a decade.

His music spread throughout Europe, probably due to the opportunity he had performing before visiting dignitaries. His earliest dated composition is the six part motet Jubilate Deo omnis terra, written for the peace celebrations at Nice in June 1538. His first printed works appeared in 1539, the same year that he travelled to Loreto, accompanying the pope. In 1540 he took a leave of absence to visit Spain but was back in Rome in 1541. Although the remaining period of his time in Rome saw wide publication of his works, his health started to decline with a number of absences from the choir due to illness.

Morales left Rome in 1545 and is believed to have returned to Seville. Certainly the composer Guerrero wrote that he studied with Morales when he was eighteen years of age, which would place Morales in Seville in 1545. It is known that he was appointed maestro de capilla of Toledo Cathedral later that year. By 1547 a combination of illness and debt forced him to resign his post at Toledo and return to Andalusia where he became maestro de capilla to the Duke of Arcos at Marchena. 1551 saw Morales’ appointment as maestro de capilla of Málaga Cathedral. Problems over discipline with the choir led to reprimands and Morales’ application for the again vacant post of maestro de capilla at Toledo. This was not to be as later, in 1553, he died.

Morales’ compositions include a large number of mass settings, magnificats and lamentations, motets and secular vocal works.

It is some of his Christmas motets that have been recorded by Weser-Renaissance Bremen directed by Manfred Cordes on a new release from CPO . Weser-Renaissance Bremen were founded in 1993 by Manfred Cordes and has gone on to become a regular guest at leading European early music festivals.

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Morales’ motet O magnum mysterium à 4 is surely one of the finest examples of 16th century Spanish polyphony, beautifully realised here by Weser-Renaissance.  The acoustic of the Stiftskirche Bassum  is very suitable for catching the mystic quality of the music, with the voices so well balanced, the lower voices supporting the upper ranges beautifully. Manfred Cordes keeps a fine ebb and flow in this finely nuanced performance.

Missus est Gabriel Angelus à 4 brings some rich blends of vocal sounds in Morales’ lovely overlaid textures – a lovely motet. There are some fine individual voices as the motet Ecce, virgo concipiet à 4 progresses, with Morales achieving a transparency that reveals the individual beauty of each vocal line. There is some pretty powerful and wonderfully controlled singing here.

The gentle, sorrowful motet Veni, Domine et noli tardare à 6 builds lovely textures revealing Morales as a real master of polyphony and his Ave Maria, gratia plena à 5 shows how he could always find new ways to build the textures from a seemingly simple opening.

A bright, transparent optimism pervades Puer natus est nobis à 3, dominance being given to the upper voices in this beautifully inspiring motet with its lovely repeated alleluias. Pastores dicite, quidnam vidistis? à 4 brings more terrific weaving of vocal textures with the lovely diskant voice of Alex Potter often leading. Exultata est Sancat Dei Genitrix à 4 is a slower, more reflective motet that gently and slowly builds in polyphonic textures with such a natural melodic flow from these singers.

Salve Regina à 5 is, as would be expected, one of the longer pieces on this new disc. Weser-Renaissance show firm, rich voices and great clarity of line. They are perfectly paced with Manfred Cordes allowing subtle little forward surges to give impetus to the music. There is a lovely central section where the voices weave repeated lines. Sancta et immaculata virginitas à 4 is another of Morales’ fine motets with a gentle rising and falling opening and Manfred Cordes achieving remarkably fine control of these voices.

There is such a distinctive way in which Morales opens the motet Ave regina coelorum à 5 before weaving his textures with some lovely upper voices, something which is also found in Candida virginitas à 4.

The brief Salva nos, stella maris à 5 seems to encapsulate so much of Morales’ beautiful clear textures – a lovely little motet.

The longest work on this recording is Cum natus esset Iesus à 5, full of momentum, joy and some terrific textures. There is such a full, bright sound from this choir but always clarity as well as some lovely rich deep notes. This motet is enough to lift any spirits.

Given such fine performances and a terrific recording with informative booklet notes, full text and translations this is a highly recommendable release.

If you want a Christmas CD, something that stands out from the usual seasonal offerings, then get a copy of this new release to enjoy now or at any time of the year.

This also gives me a good opportunity to wish Seasons’ Greetings to all of my followers and to all the Record Companies and Publishers that have supported me during 2013.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Attractive, fascinating works by Enescu, brilliantly played by Hannu Lintu with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir

The Romanian composer George Enescu (1881-1955) was born in Liveni-Vîrnav, a village in North-eastern Romania the son of an estate bailiff and a teacher. His first violin lessons were from a Roma musician, followed by regular violin classes in Botosani. At the age of seven, he commenced his studies at the Vienna Music Conservatory, receiving lessons from Josef Hellmesberger the concert-master of the Vienna Philharmonic and studying harmony with Robert Fuchs and counterpoint with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs.

After his graduation from the Vienna Conservatory, Enescu continued his studies at the Conservatoire de Paris, attending composition classes with Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré, while learning counterpoint with André Gédalge. His fellow students were, among others, Maurice Ravel and Charles Koechlin.

1898 saw the first performance in Paris of Enescu’s Op.1 Poème Roumain (Romanian Poem) at the Concerts Colonne achieving a considerable success. Later that year he made his first public appearance as a conductor, performing that same work at the Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest. It was about this time that Enescu started out on his outstanding career as violinist, one that would lead to him travelling through Europe and America.

Enescu graduated from the Conservatoire de Paris in 1899 and became a member of the examining jury at the Conservatoire de Paris in 1904, composing several works for use as examination pieces. As one of Europe's most famous musicians he was instrumental in the founding of the Romanian Opera in Bucharest and established a series of concerts in order to bring the international repertoire before the Romanian public.

Despite the turmoil of the First World War, Enescu started sketches for his opera Oedipe and in 1917 founded a philharmonic orchestra employing both local musicians and refugees. In 1920 he became the first president of the newly founded Society of Romanian Composers.

It was in 1927 that Enescu began to teach perhaps his most famous student, Yehudi Menuhin. In 1928 he was giving violin classes at the École Normale de Musique in Paris as well as at Harvard University in Boston, USA. In 1929 he was elected corresponding member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts de l'Institut de France and in 1933 a member of the Romanian Academy. 1936 saw the first performance of Enescu's opera Oedipe at the Grand Opéra Paris, conducted by Philippe Gaubert with him, later that year, being conferred the title of a Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur in France.

In 1946, Enescu left Romania for a tour of the USA, seen very much as a protest against the new communist regime. In 1948, Enescu started delivering courses at the Mannes School of Music in New York. From 1952 until 1954 he gave Master classes in violin interpretation in Bryanstone, USA and Sienna, Italy. Enescu died in 1955 in his suite at the hotel Atala in Paris and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Enescu’s compositions include his opera Oedipe, choral works, songs, chamber works including two string quartets, piano works and orchestral works including five symphonies, the third of which is featured on a new release from Ondine coupled with his Ouverture de Concert, Op.32. Hannu Lintu conducts the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir

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The overture that opens this new disc has the full title Ouverture de Concert sur des thèmes dans le caractère populaire roumain, Op.32. Dating from 1948, it opens very much with the sound of folk song, similar to that of Bartok though, of course, this is Enescu drawing on Romanian folk tunes. A more flowing melody with an Eastern inflection soon arrives before the opening theme returns and is developed, becoming more animated. When a slower, quieter flute theme is heard, it gradually grows in the orchestra as Enescu subjects the theme to much variety moving from quiet and thoughtful to powerful and dramatic. Enescu has a colourful use of the orchestra that can suddenly inject a lovely character to the music.

Enescu’s sumptuously scored Symphony No.3, Op.21 was completed in 1918 but revised in 1921. The opening Moderato, un poco maestoso slowly works its way up from a quiet start until a sudden break occurs, when a more animated section commences. Slowly the music subdues as it heads to the second subject, a rhythmically lilting theme that often becomes quite romantic in feel. These themes are developed with some remarkable layering of sound. At one point hints of Mahler appear and, later, there are almost chamber sized proportions to the orchestral sound. The music eventually becomes more thoughtful before romantic swoops of strings lead to a more animated section that soon quietens before the brass enter to end positively.

The Vivace, ma non troppo brings light textured and quicksilver playing from Hannu Lintu and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra with some lovely subtleties in the orchestral treatment of the theme. For all its lightness of touch and upbeat tempo there is a troubled nature to the music, with quieter passages that seem withdrawn and other worldly, with fleeting little motifs drifting by quietly. Around halfway, a turning point arrives, not so much a climax as a peak, with the sound of the anvil, drums and other percussion pointing up the anguish of the section. Brass intone as the music keeps moving forward in rising waves, often with quite Mahlerian string and woodwind sounds. Eventually the music falls to a quiet woodwind motif before rising massively to the true climax. As the music once more quietens, there is a lovely little woodwind passage before the strings move the music on, until a mysterious little section ends the movement.

String chords, immediately followed by brass, open the Lento, ma non troppo before a melody is tentatively hinted at across the orchestra. Soon the violins present the melody, a beautiful one, which is shared around the orchestra. There is an insistent harp motif before the wordless chorus enters and the orchestra becomes richer and more romantic. The music quietens as the choir re-appear briefly before the orchestra becomes more agitated with little outbursts. The choir re-enter reaching upwards with the music becoming more and more passionate. Each time the orchestra and choir become more passionate. Eventually the sound of tinkling bells signals another section for a voluptuous orchestra and choir surging and swirling forwards. The tinkling bells reappear with chiming tubular bells as, quietly, an organ joins before the music rises again with the scented sounds of the orchestra and chorus. The orchestra alone leads to a languorous, settled coda with just a rumble of timpani, pizzicato strings and a final chord on deep bass strings.

These are attractive, fascinating works brilliantly played by Hannu Lintu with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. There are moments that could be in danger of becoming schmaltzy in other hands, but Lintu successfully manages to avoid this.

The recording made in the Tampere Hall, Finland is first rate and there are informative booklet notes.