Friday 31 January 2014

Three immensely enjoyable and brilliantly orchestrated works by Philip Spratley on a new release from Toccata Classics

It has long been the case that it is the independent record companies that tend to support neglected and lesser known composers, especially contemporary ones. Toccata Classics is one such company that has already done so much is this area. One particular contemporary composer that has benefited is Philip Spratley (b.1942) whose music for string orchestra they have already recorded.
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Now from Toccata Classics comes Volume Two of his orchestral works featuring his Symphony No.3, Cargoes: Suite for Orchestra after John Masefield and A Helpston Fantasia with the Siberian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Vasiliev!sso/c1guv
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Philip Spratley was born at Balderton, near Newark in Nottinghamshire and during his teenage years played the organ at Coddington Church. After taking a number of jobs, Spratley was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music) where he studied piano with George Hadjinikos and Thomas Pitfield for composition, also taking time to play the organ with Ronald Frost, chorus master of the Halle Orchestra. After taking up a post in Romford, Essex he later moved, with his wife, to Lincolnshire where he became an instrumental teacher and, for almost twenty years, Director of Music at Bourne Abbey.

Philip Spratley has his roots in English folksong and his compositions are strongly evocative of the countryside, though animated by a rhythmic vivacity. His compositions to date include an opera Rutterkin (1971, rev. 1994-95), a second opera The Three Strangers (1977, rev. 2002/07), a Choral Symphony (1983, rev. 1995 and 2005) three symphonies, An Autumn Symphony (2008/09), a violin concerto (1991, rev. 2002-2009), orchestral works including his third symphony (2009) and works for organ.

This new disc opens with Cargoes: Suite for Orchestra after John Masefield (2010-12). In three movements, the first Quinquereme: Allegretto – Allegro – Allegretto (Quinquereme is a Greek or Roman galley) has an atmospheric opening with high strings, piano and percussion and harp as a flowing melody slowly develops low in the orchestra. Spratley has a very distinctive style of orchestration with constantly shifting colours. The brass of the Siberian Symphony Orchestra has a distinctively Slavic sound. When the second subject arrives it is a dancing theme with a lovely oboe melody. The other woodwind join and the music pushes ahead with some sumptuous music. Eventually there is a still quiet section for percussion and descending strings, very effective, before bell chimes lead to a dynamic re-iteration of the big melody. Towards the end the still quiet music returns, leading to a close with upward ascending harp.

An epic sweep introduces the Stately Spanish Galleon: Andante - Alla sarabande – Andante with something of an epic feel before a trumpet heralds a rather melancholy theme. I love the way Spratley uses the piano to underpin the orchestra. Soon a solo viola enters before the orchestra takes up the theme leading to some lovely effective instrumental combinations. Spratley uses his orchestra in a very effective way, spreading the melody amongst many instruments. The music rises to a formidable climax with bass drum strokes to a coda that reiterates the opening epic stance.

The music leads straight into Dirty British Coaster: allegro a lively rumbustious movement full of scurrying orchestra and percussion before settling a little with many instruments of the orchestra having a say, including percussion. Again the piano underpins the rhythmic forward drive of this movement as it heads to a spectacularly dramatic coda.

This is an immensely enjoyable and brilliantly orchestrated work.

The rural poet John Clare (1793-1864) was also a talented fiddle player who made a book of collected fiddle tunes and folk songs thus making him something of a pioneer of the work later carried out by the English Folk Dance and Song Society

A Helpston Fantasia (2010), named after the village where Clare lived, draws on tunes collected by the poet. It is, in effect, a fantasia on English folk and moves through a number of moods, tunes and variations featuring a variety of different instruments creating a very atmospheric piece with, at least, one tune which many people will recognise before a lively dancing, string led, coda.

This is a beautifully crafted piece that deserves to have many performances. This recording is its first performance.

Spratley’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Sinfonia Pascale’ (2009) also receives its first performance in this recording. Its subtitle relates to Easter and the symphony draws its inspiration from both the Italian priest and architect Antonio Barluzzi (1884-1960) who was involved in the re-building of the Church of the Flagellation in Jerusalem where stain glass windows depict scenes from the Easter story and the South Lincolnshire priest St Guthlac of Crowland

A declamatory statement opens the Allegro tempestoso before leading to a visceral forward moving theme that includes the opening statement. This is music that knows where it is going with each little dynamic lull leading back to the thrusting theme. Eventually the second subject arrives and the music does quieten to a thoughtful passage, but tension is never far away in this unsettled music. Soon the music picks with the strings becoming more agitated but soon subsides as the music ripples along. The music tries to rise again but fails. Again Spratley’s orchestration is most skilfully done with various instruments being allowed to take the theme, never allowing an opportunity to pass to add colour and texture. Later the music rises to a dramatic climax, full of fury but is cut off by a tam–tam stroke. The music quietens as a saxophone enters with its distinctive tone but, eventually, it quickens and rises to rush to a resolute finish.

A plaintive flute opens the Nocturne: Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio before the orchestra joins in this gentle theme. The orchestra leads on with the flute continuing to add to the texture before other woodwind join in this sad, even despondent music. Eventually the music begins to rise and become more optimistic but little by little the music takes on a more wild, passionate nature before descending into an unsettled quieter section where various wind instruments ruminate on the theme, becoming more gloomy as the music progresses, the orchestra often pared down to a few instruments as the opening motif returns.

When the Chaconny: Maestoso – Poco Allegro arrives, the quiet and gloom is broken by the sudden impact of the finale, dynamic with brass fanfares and full of assurance. The music soon quietens to mysterious short phrases on the basses together with percussion but picks up a little as the orchestra joins with various woodwinds instruments having a say. Slowly the music rises confidently again, developing into a dancing rhythm before the basses try to overcome this by playing longer phrases but the dance cannot be stopped as confidence seems to overrule pessimism. The music presses ahead until bass tuba enters causing a slight pause but again the music pushes ahead, though this time with lighter textures. The saxophone makes another entry that precedes a quieter section with hushed strings and harps. Brass and timpani herald a picking up of the pace again as the rhythm becomes more rapid and scurrying and the music rises to a climax, pushing ahead inexorably to a tremendous, joyful coda.

This is a considerable work, unashamedly tonal yes, but expertly done. There is some terrific playing from the Siberian Symphony Orchestra under Dmitry Vasiliev.

The recording has fine depth and detail and there are excellent notes by composer.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Recorder player Héloïse Gaillard provides excellent performances of Telemann’s 12 Fantaisies pour Flûte seule sans basse on a new release from AgOgique

The French record company AgOgique have just released a recording of 12 Fantaisies pour Flûte seule sans basse (12 Fantasies without basso continuo) by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) played by Héloïse Gaillard


I must admit to not having heard Gaillard’s name before but she is an outstanding musician who has performed with such notable period ensembles such as Le Concert Spirituel , Les Talens Lyriques , Le Concert d’Astrée and Les Arts Florissants playing both oboe and recorder.

On this new disc, she plays a selection of recorders, tenor, alto, soprano and sopranino made by Bruno Reinhard  and Francesco Livighi in order to bring a variety of sounds and textures to the music.

The exact date of publication of these Fantasies is not known. The catalogue of Telemann’s works (Telemann-Werke-Verzeichnis) lists these works as TWV40:002-013, dating them from around 1732/1733, but it is now believed they may have been published in 1727/28. My book on Telemann by Richard Petzoldt doesn’t help as, understandably given the modest size of a book, Telemann’s vast output takes some covering.

Héloïse Gaillard orders the works differently to their numbering, providing a satisfying recital. The Alla francese that opens Fantaisie No.7 in D major has some unusual textures as the music jumps around.  Gaillard draws some lovely timbres from her tenor recorder before the music moves to an attractive dancing theme with some first rate playing, before returning to the opening tempo. This Fantasy concludes with a terrific little Presto.

The first of the two movements of the Fantaisie No.3 in D minor is marked Largo – Vivace – Largo - Vivace. After the brief slow opening, the Vivace lightly dances around before the Largo returns with lovely upward swoops leading to a return of the Vivaceto conclude. A flowing Allegro with little decorative notes leads this Fantasie to a conclusion. Gaillard shows terrific articulation with her Reinhard alto recorder.

The Fantaisie No.12 in G minor also adopts a slow, fast, slow structure this time with Grave – Allegro – Grave – Allegro – Dolce – Allegro. In the opening, brief, Grave, Gaillard’s soprano recorder brings lovely textures. The allegros are jolly and vibrant with a flowing Dolce before the final Allegro that dances to a close.

With the Fantaisie No.9 in G major Gaillard changes back to the alto recorder for the Affetuoso, a slow section that brings out so much of the instrument’s woody timbre. This is a lovely movement with terrific breath control over these long drawn phrases. The Allegro brings some lovely rhythms that dance freely around. The Grave acts more as a link between the Allegro and concluding Vivace, a movement that has a syncopated rhythm in a melody reminiscent of Bach.

The tenor recorder is played in the Fantaisie No.8 in E minor, the Largo of which moves around over the range in a very flowing piece. Spirituoso is a fast moving movement based on a three note rising motif that appears throughout. A rhythmically swaying Allegro brings to an end this delightful Fantaisie, terrifically played by Gaillard.

Fantaisie No. 10 in A minor opens with A tempo giusto, a fast flowing section with beautifully controlled playing of the alto recorder. Some of Telemann’s shorter movements are really attractive such as the delightful Presto, full of life and invention. With the Moderato, Telemann brings more delights with a lovely flowing rhythm.

The tenor recorder brings an underlying warmth to the Dolce of the Fantaisie No.6 in D minor. The Allegro has an intricate rhythm that demands much from the player before the fast flowing Spirituoso that is no less a test of technique and musicianship, brilliantly played by Gaillard.

Much of the Fantaisie No. 2 in D minor is again curiously reminiscent of Bach. The opening Grave suggests the theme of Bach’s Musical Offering but is carefully woven by Telemann. There is a lovely bouncing Vivace before the Adagio with a theme that again seems familiar yet is given an unusual rhythmic slant. The final Allegro again brings to mind a Bachian theme. It is given a florid treatment that makes it most attractive.

In the Vivace – Adagio of the Fantaisie No.1 in A major there is a slow working out of the theme before a staccato dancing version arrives. The Adagio is unusual having long drawn phrases interspersed with rapid decorations. Here more than in any of the other Fantasies Telemann looks to have been experimenting with ideas. Finally there is a lovely rising and falling Allegro that flows along with lovely playing from Gaillard using the tenor recorder.

Fantaisie No.5 in C major brings Telemann’s favoured fast, slow, fast structure for the opening movement marked Presto – Largo – Presto – Dolce. The bright sound of the soprano recorder works so well in the rapid passages and long drawn phrases. Short, punctuated phrases adorn the second movement, Allegro, joyfully played by this artist. The lively, final Allegro has something of the feel of a sea shanty.

Returning to the alto recorder for the Fantaisie No.4 in E flat major, the Andante has an appealing melody, rather stately in character before a fast flowing, slightly punctuated Allegro, again showing Gaillard’s superb articulation. The Presto is a lovely piece with little upward flourishes, so well phrased by Gaillard

The sopranino recorder arrives for the Fantaisie No.11 in B flat major with an Allegro full of short staccato phrases and an Adagio – Vivace that has a florid, flowing opening before another shanty like theme appears. There is a terrific little Allegro that dashes ahead, full of intricate figuration, with a lovely little chirrup to end. What a great way to end this attractive collection.

Héloïse Gaillard, who provides the booklet notes, is well recorded in l’Eglise Saint Pierre du Tronchet, France. There are full details and illustrations of the instruments.

Héloïse Gaillard is a first rate recorder player who provides excellent performances that allows us to hear another aspect of Telemann’s huge output.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

A period instrument L’Apprenti sorcier together with lesser known works by Dukas on a new release from Musicales Actes Sud featuring François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles

Paul Abraham Dukas’ (1865-1935) compositional output was relatively small and there is even less that has been recorded. His published works include his opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue, (1899–1907), a Symphony in C (1895–96), L'apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer's Apprentice), for orchestra (1897), Polyeucte, overture for orchestra (1891), a ballet La Péri, (poème dansé) (1911/12), Villanelle, for horn and piano (1906), works for voice and piano and half a dozen piano works. His early unpublished works roughly equal the number of published works whilst there are around ten destroyed or projected works including a second symphony. Sadly it is only L'apprenti sorcier that Dukas seems to have been remembered for.

Les Siècles  under their conductor François-Xavier Roth  have already made a number of recordings for Musicales Actes Sud of repertoire that includes Berlioz, Dubois, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Stravinsky. Their last release, that brought us Debussy’s La Mer and the première performance of Debussy’s early work, Première Suite d’Orchestre, was reviewed by me back in April 2013

Les Siècles was founded in 2003 by François-Xavier Roth and performs contrasting programmes on modern and period instruments as appropriate, often within the same concert.

Hearing these works played on instruments of the period, dating from the late 19th and early 20th century, was fascinating and made this release one of the most enjoyable of the year.

This time François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles turn their attention to Dukas with, not only L'apprenti sorcier but a far less known published work the Overture Polyeucte and the early unpublished Cantata Velléda.


L’Apprenti sorcier, scherzo d’après une ballade de Goethe (1897) opens with some beautifully transparent textures as the main theme is hinted at. Such is the clarity and tempo that hints of Debussy are allowed to glow through. This clarity continues when the lively main theme makes its two brief initial entries with the period brass adds a ripeness to the timbre as the galloping main theme arrives. The instruments add subtle colourings to the music and François-Xavier Roth elicits playing of great panache from Les Siècles, with great bounce and vivacity, swirling strings and terrific ensemble. There are some wonderful woodwind sounds such as the ripe contrabassoon just after halfway through. As the music becomes more riotous there are marvellous sounds from the orchestra in this extremely fine live recording from Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. There is an atmospheric coda with pin point clarity of texture.

Velléda, cantata pour soprano, ténor, basse et orchestre sur un texte de Fernand Beissier (1888) has a prelude and three scenes and  tells the story of a doomed love affair between Eudore, A Roman and the Gaul druidess, Velléda who is eventually driven to suicide by her father, Ségenax. The opening Prelude provides some intoxicatingly atmospheric orchestral sounds showing what a fine orchestrator Dukas was, even at this early stage. There are some gloriously French sounds in this prelude, superbly played by Les Siècles.

Scène 1. A l’heure ou les grands bois dormiront, (At a time when the great woods sleep) brings tenor Julien Dran in excellent voice, showing fine strength and feeling in the part of Eudore. He has a fine operatic voice used to great effect. Les Siècles really whip up a storm before the tempestuous passage for tenor with the words Mais qu’entends – je? La foudre gronde. (But hear, the thunder rumbles). Soprano Chantal Santon joins as Velléda for Je suis la fee aux ailes d’or’ (I am the fairy with golden wings). She has a very musical voice with an attractive tone but with a rather wide vibrato.

Scene 2. ‘Velléda? Ah! Velléda!’ is a fine dramatic scene for both tenor and soprano with a particularly fine soprano aria Est ce le ciel qui s’ouvre en ce moment? (Is that the sky that opens now?)

Scene 3. Velléda! Dieux puissants! (Velleda! Powerful gods!) brings the beautifully rich bass/baritone of Jean-Manuel Candenot as Ségenax providing more drama before rising to a fine sequence for all the soloists before Tu sais quell est l’arrete de notre loi severe (You know the severe judgment of our law). There is a beautiful aria for Velléda Je ferai mon devoir (I will do my duty) showing Dukas’ melodic gift. After Velléda sings here touching Adieu Pardonne, o cher amant (Forgive farewell, o dear lover) and Eudore responds with Morte! Elle est morte! Terre et cieux (Dead! She is dead! Heaven and earth). It is Segenax that has the last word with Elle a venge l’honneur, la patri et les dieux (She avenged the honour, heritage and the gods) as the orchestra ends the work dramatically.

This early work has much fine lyrical and dramatic writing to commend it and is given a fine performance here.

Dukas’ Polyeucte, ouverture pour la tragédie de Corneille (1891) concerns Polyeucte a Christian convert who would rather die a martyr than renounce his new faith. His wife, Pauline, pleads with him, and the Roman soldier Severus attempts to save him, both to no avail.

The overture opens with deep mournful, rich, romantic string textures before working its way through a number of dramatic sequences, quite Wagnerian at times. Though, stylistically, some way from L’Apprenti sorcier, this is a beautifully constructed orchestral piece, full of drama and colour, with some lovely harmonic shifts.  Roth draws great dramatic sweeps from his orchestra and there are some lovely woodwind sounds from these turn of the century instruments.

The changed venue for the recording, L’abbaye de l’Epau, France continues to provide clarity of texture.

This is a most attractive release with a terrific L’Apprenti sorcier, a sumptuous Polyeucte and a fascinating and dramatic Velléda.

As with other recordings by this team the recordings are live. There is no obvious audience noise and applause is excluded. The booklet notes are excellent and well-illustrated but there are only French texts.

I look forward to more recordings from François-Xavier Roth and his wonderful Les Siècles.

Monday 27 January 2014

The Mandelring Quartet’s third volume of their cycle of the complete string chamber music of Mendelssohn for Audite shows them on track to become one of the finest surveys yet recorded

The first two volumes of the Mandelring Quartet’s cycle of the complete string chamber music of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) for Audite have been a resounding success in performances that brought vibrancy, sparkle and perfect ensemble, giving every indication that this could be one of the finest cycles of the Mendelssohn quartets to have been committed to disc.

Volume III of this survey brings us the String Quartet in E flat major, Op.44, No.3 together with posthumously published Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op.81 and the Octet in E flat major, Op.20 where the Mandelrings are joined by the Quartetto di Cremona who have already brought us Volume I of their complete Beethoven Quartet cycle for Audite in performances of fluency, sparkle and passion.
Expectations then were very high when I came to listen to Volume III of this cycle.

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Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat major, Op.44, No.3 dates from 1838. Rhythmically reminiscent of Beethoven’s Quartet in C, Op.59, No.3, the Allegro vivace receives a lovely crisp opening, demonstrating again, the Mandelrings taut precision. There is such spirited playing here with the music often hurtling ahead. In the hushed moments the Mandelrings show tremendous dexterity and control, quite beautiful playing, bringing so much joy to the music. It is terrific how these players respond to each other. There are some lovely textures and colouring of phrases as the movement heads towards the coda.

The Scherzo. Assai leggiero vivace receives such a light touch as it dashes along, at times bringing a hushed tension to the music. This is beautifully worked out playing, with this Quartet pulling every nuance from Mendelssohn’s exquisite textures.

The Mandelrings bring a lovely flow to the Adagio non troppo, always allowing the music to move ahead, as though not wishing to dwell on a deeper emotion. Surely this is what Mendelssohn intended by his marking non troppo. It certainly brings, in many ways, a greater depth to the music. The Mandelrings use of vibrato is so sensitively chosen.

The composer, E J Moeran, once told a young composer that, when writing for string quartet, one should remember that one is not just writing for four instruments but sixteen strings. Mendelssohn demonstrates this so well in the Molto allegro con fuoco, with the Mandelrings bringing out every line of the texture. There is terrific phrasing and some lovely flourishes as this movement rushes forward with spontaneity combined with a fine control in the slower, quieter moments. There is a beautifully controlled section before the music heads to the spirited coda with some very fine playing indeed.  

The Mandelrings really know how to lift this music off the page.

Mendelssohn left two movements of an incomplete string quartet which, along with a Cappricio in E minor (1843) and a Fugue in E flat major (1827), were published posthumously as Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op.81. The Mandelring Quartet gives us the two movements from the incomplete quartet with No.1 Tema con Variazioni. Andante Sostenuto, with its gentle opening theme followed by a set of variations, with the Mandelrings bringing out a feeling of a constantly changing emotional state, with, nevertheless, a quiet, restrained end. In No.2 Scherzo. Allegro leggiero, this Quartet hold a little in reserve, bringing a slightly wistful nature as the music moves to its jaunty little coda, so beautifully done.

There is no shortage of fine recordings of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E flat major, Op.20. Bringing two such fine String Quartets together certainly raises one’s expectations.

Whilst Louis Spohr in his double quartets often used his players antiphonally, Mendelssohn largely used his forces in an orchestral way. Certainly, in this performance, these players bring an almost orchestral weight and depth to their playing in the  Allegro moderato ma con fuoco. They provide a lovely rich, silken texture to the opening before building wonderfully to each little climax. There is a lovely quiet section part way through where these players achieve such finely hushed playing and some lovely textures, at other times pointing up the many little dynamics.

With the Andante the Mandelrings and Cremonas bring a feeling of exquisite restraint, picking up the moments of passion in the outbursts. Again there are lovely textures and some superb colouring in the quieter moments of this lovely andante.

A lightness of touch from these players and a sensitive control of dynamics make this Scherzo follow naturally out of the rather mysterious andante, still keeping some of the withdrawn mystery. These players do not hold back in the Presto where they show taut, dynamic playing with more lovely textures as they slowly but surely build up the drama as the music hurtles to its coda.

The competition is bound to increase with a recording that includes not only quartets but also the Octet. There are certainly many fine alternative performances of the Octet. However, this series is still on track to become one of the finest surveys yet recorded.

The recordings for the String Quartet and Two Pieces for String Quartet are first rate.  Perhaps the Octet recording doesn’t show up so much transparency of textural lines but there is a fine sense of depth that still makes this a very good recording.

I look forward to the final instalment in this series which will bring us Mendelssohn’s two string quintets where the Mandelring Quartet will be joined by violist Gunter Teuffel.

Saturday 25 January 2014

Ballet suites by Kara Karayev attractively scored and full of engaging ideas in excellent performances from Dmitry Yablonsky and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on a new Naxos release

The Azerbaijani  composer Kara Karayev (also spelled Gara Garayev) (1918-1982) was born in Baku to a father who was a Professor of Medicine and a mother, who was among the first graduates of the Baku-based school of the Russian Music Society. At the age of eight he entered the junior music school at the Azerbaijan State Conservatoire, now the Baku Music Academy and later attended the Azerbaijan State Conservatoire. Among his teachers were Georgi Sharoyev, Leonid Rudolf, and the Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948). In 1937, Garayev joined the Union of Composers of Azerbaijan SSR.

1938 saw Karayev’s first composition, a cantata The Song of the Heart to a poem by Rasul Rza (1910–1981). It was performed the same year, in the presence of Stalin, in Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. In 1938, Garayev moved to Moscow State Conservatoire, where he became a student and a good friend of Dmitri Shostakovich.

In 1941 Garayev returned to Baku to teach at Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Society. 1945 saw his opera The Motherland (‘Vətən’) which was awarded the Stalin Prize. Another Stalin Prize came in 1948, for his symphonic poem Leyli and Majnun.  Upon the death of Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948), Garayev became the Chair of the Union of Composers of Azerbaijan SSR and the rector of Azerbaijan State Conservatoire.. In 1948 Karayev became the head of the Music Department at the Azerbaijan Architecture and Art Institute. In June 1961, Karayev and Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007) were the only two Soviet composers who attended the first International Los Angeles Music Festival held at UCLA, Franz Waxman conducting the Festival Symphony Orchestra with a suite from Karayev's Path of Thunder.

Karayev suffered from heart disease, which prevented him from attending his own 60th jubilee celebration held in Baku, where he was awarded the title of the Hero of Socialist Labour. Karayev spent the last five years of his life in Moscow, away from his beloved Baku. He died on 13th May 1982, in Moscow, at the age of 64. His body was flown to Baku and buried at the Alley of Honour.

Whilst having a love of the music of Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Karayev was strongly drawn to Albanian, Vietnamese, Turkish, Bulgarian, Spanish, African and Arabic folklore and music.

Karayev’s compositions include operas, cantatas, ballets, symphonic and chamber pieces, piano music and songs.

A new release from Naxos features two of Karayev’s suites from his ballet scores, The Seven Beauties and The Path of Thunder with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra  conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky



It was in 1953, that Karayev's Seven Beauties ballet was staged at the Azerbaijani Theatre of Opera and Ballet. Based on Nizami Ganjavi's (1141-1209) poem, Seven Beauties (Yeddi gözəl), it was the first Azerbaijani ballet and opened a new chapter in the history of classical music of Azerbaijan. Karayev's only other ballet, Path of Thunder (İldırımlı yollarla) was staged in 1958. It was inspired by the novel by South African writer, Peter Abrahams (b.1919) and dedicated to the racial conflicts in South Africa.

The Seven Beauties – Ballet Suite (1953), based on the legend of Shah Bachram Gur and his seven wives who lived in seven pavilions, is in five sections, the first being a Waltz that has a rhythmic opening introduced by the piano. The music soon quietens before the grand waltz enters, in many ways reminiscent of Khachaturian in its bold, bright textures, if not in orchestration which is more subtle. There is a moderate, flowing central section, again rhythmically like Khachaturian.

A horn solo marks out the lovely opening of the Adagio, a wistful movement where, part way through, the waltz rhythm gently and quietly shows itself momentarily. There are some lovely touches throughout. The third section is entitled The Dance of The Clowns and opens at a moderate tempo, building to a more dynamic and lively piece before ending quietly.

The fourth section The Seven Portraits has an Introduction that opens quietly and atmospherically, with eastern arabesques from the woodwind before running through a variety of moods including the sultry Indian Beauty, a lively Byzantine Beauty, with the flavour of an eastern dance, The Khorezmian Beauty, full of dance like, rhythmic bounce, a flowing Slavonic Beauty that varies rhythmically as it progresses with a distinctive Slavic feel, The Maghrebian Beauty with a lush melody and gentle rhythmic lilt that, again, hints at Khachaturian in its little touches, The Chinese Beauty that has a pizzicato opening with oriental intervals that dashes along in a light-hearted manner before the arrival of the final wife, The Most Beautiful of The Beauties that brings the most extended of melodies, a long breathed melody with gentle little woodwind arabesques. The music builds in drama becoming rich and passionate with a lovely oboe passage.

The ballet suite ends with The Procession which brings together the rhythms and textures of the composer’s native Azerbaijan in a colourful finale.

The Path of Thunder ballet concerns the story of two ill-fated South African lovers of different races. The Ballet Suite No.2 (1958) draws seven sections from the ballet with General Dance building inexorably from a quiet opening, with piano and woodwind, into another colourful piece of ballet music. The Dance of The Girls with Guitars is introduced by an oboe melody, with harps representing the sound of guitars in this sultry, gently rhythmic piece that does, nevertheless, rise to a climax centrally.  Karayev manages to introduce some attractive moments to lift the music.  

Percussion open in the rhythmic Dance of the Black Community, a section dominated by woodwind and percussion with a distinctive section of piccolo and percussion and later flute, a repetitive rhythm punctuated by tremendous outbursts and subtle orchestral colouring. Night in the Stilleveld has oboes and cor anglais playing over hushed strings in another sultry piece, evocatively orchestrated by Karayev as it builds in strength before fading to the end. Rippling harps open Scene and Duet, with gentle woodwind and ‘drips’ of sound from the orchestra evoking dawn. Soon a gentle waltz arrives before the music slows and quietens. There is a duet for violin and cello portraying the two lovers as the music develops a passionate string melody that builds to a climax. The music quietens before a resounding coda.

A lovely Lullaby is introduced by the strings before woodwind and harp enter in a very attractive section. The finale, The Path of Thunder, opens with threatening piano chords underscoring the orchestra. The music slowly builds in drama and dynamics as it marches to its coda.

This may be lighter fare but it is attractively scored and full of engaging ideas. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky gives excellent performances that bring out all the colour the music.

The recording is excellent and there are informative booklet notes.

Thursday 23 January 2014

Three exceptionally fine chamber works by Michael Berkeley, John McCabe and Adrian Williams in superb performances by the Carducci Quartet on a new release from Signum Classics

A new release from Signum Classics entitled Into the Ravine features the Carducci String Quartet  and Nicholas Daniel (oboe)  in chamber works by three British composers, Michael Berkeley, John McCabe and Adrian Williams.

Michael Berkeley (b.1948), the eldest son of the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley and a godson of Benjamin Britten, after being a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, was educated at The Oratory School in Oxfordshire before studying composition, singing and piano at the Royal Academy of Music, later studying with Richard Rodney Bennett.  In 1979 he was appointed Associate Composer to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, then became Artistic Director of the Cheltenham Music Festival from 1995 to 2004 and Composer-in-Association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from 2000 until 2009. He is also Visiting Professor in Composition at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. Michael Berkley is also known as a television and radio broadcaster and presents BBC Radio 3's ‘Private Passions.’ His works include opera, choral works, orchestral works, concertos, instrumental works and piano works.

While writing his Oboe Quintet, ‘Into the Ravine’ (2012), Michael Berkeley had in mind the paintings of John Craxton and Mark Rothko and the way in which paint can vibrate as colours collide. It was co-commissioned by the 2012 Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts. The work opens with a plaintive theme for the oboe with pizzicato phrases from the strings. The strings alternate, commenting on the melody before they provide little rushes of tempo to push the music forward as it becomes more intense. There is much fine detail amongst the elegiac theme. Soon there develops insistent rhythmic motif before the music rises to an intense pitch. As the music loses its intensity, falling back to a quieter, thoughtful nature, there is some exceptionally beautiful and effective writing. The music builds in intensity again leading to staccato phrases before dropping to quiet elegiac music, often quite bittersweet in feel. Eventually an intensive peak is reached with searing strings before calming and again regaining its intensity.  Finally, all becomes tranquil in the glorious coda where an upward motif for the oboe suddenly ends the work.

This is a wonderful, intensely passionate work superbly played by these musicians.

John McCabe (b. 1939) was born in Huyton, Liverpool, in 1939 and trained as a musician at Manchester University and the Royal Manchester College of Music (now Northern College of Music) He was a piano pupil of Gordon Green and a composition student with Thomas B Pitfield.  After his time at the RMCM, he attended the Munich Hochschule für Musik, where he heard the music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, before spending three years as resident pianist at University College, Cardiff. McCabe’s First Violin Concerto was performed in 1959 by the Halle Orchestra and soloist Martin Milner and two years later Maurice Handford conducted the Variations on a Theme of Hartmann. This led to the Hallé commissioning a symphony which Sir John Barbirolli conducted at the Cheltenham Festival of 1966. Although fully in touch with the major trends of 20th century music, including jazz, McCabe was not drawn to the avant-garde.

John McCabe – String Quartet No.7, ‘Summer Eves’ (2012) was also commissioned by the Presteigne Festival. The lyrical opening theme of the Allegro sanguine is full of a sense of anticipation, alternated with a forward drive and, occasionally, some incisive, strident chords that add grit to the music. The Scherzo – Giocoso opens with a fairly gentle, rhythmic motif. There is a lovely lightening of texture in this appealing little scherzo. The brief Perpetuum Mobile – Wild und rasch is a frantic, wild movement played with terrific agility by these fine artists. Odd little harmonies and gritty, incisive textures appear before the movement falls away to end. Repeated unison chords open the darker Adagio. The music seems agitated and uncertain, at times laboured as it slowly moves towards a more settled and tranquil coda - in the composers own words ‘a gentle summer sky at dusk’. The Finale – Allegro moderato e flessibile flows beautifully forward, interrupted by a more dynamic upward rising motif. The music becomes more rhythmic and almost dance-like halfway through. The forward flow eventually continues becoming more animated before a quiet, gentle coda.

This is another beautifully written work, with the Carducci Quartet giving a terrific performance.

Adrian Williams (b. 1956)  was born in Hertfordshire and showed precocious talent at the piano as a young child.  He began composing at the age of eleven, later studying composition and piano at the Royal College of Music where his teachers included Bernard Stevens, Alan Ridout and John Lill. During his RCM studies Williams’ first mature orchestral work, the Symphonic Studies, was conducted by the RCM director Sir David Willcocks. During a period as Composer in Residence at Charterhouse School, his music underwent a stylistic reassessment resulting in a tougher harmonic language that, although more adventurous in its range and scope, retained an underlying melodic vein that has always remained central to his music.
During the eighties a move to the Welsh Borders saw Williams find his spiritual home, along with the peace of mind and creative impetus for many of his most vital works including the cantata after Louis MacNeice, Not Yet Born, Images of a Mind for cello and piano, the Cantata after Alun Lewis, The Ways of Going, and Dies Irae.  It was during his early years in the Welsh borders that Williams became the founding light of the Presteigne Festival. He has also built a successful career in music for film and television. Williams' recent scores, including Maelienydd (2008) for Chamber Orchestra, the Cello Concerto (2009) and the String Quartet no 4, premiered at the 2009 Presteigne Festival, exhibit a deeply felt emotional core, conjuring with the atmosphere and wild, open spaces of the composer's Welsh Borderland.  

It is Adrian Williams’ String Quartet No.4, first performed at the 2009 Presteigne Festival, which is recorded here. The cello opens the first movement Moderato flessibile, vivace with some rich, deep sounds before other players quickly enter in a passionate and forceful opening. There are sharp interjections before the music quietens to a more lyrical section. A hushed section suddenly leads into the vivace where there is some particularly fine playing from the Carducci Quartet with sensitively controlled dynamics. The music rushes forward only to be momentarily quietened by the gentler theme before rising up to rush to the end. The Lento e calmo opens quietly and thoughtfully. The upper strings try to raise the spirits and eventually succeed as a flowing melody, quiet haunting, develops in a glorious section, with a wistful theme for the first violin.
This is a wonderfully evocative creation inspired by Welsh borderland that, living where I do, I also know so well. There is some inspired playing from the Carducci String Quartet in this superb movement. We are awakened from our reverie by the Allegro moderato, allegro molto that, nevertheless, arises naturally after the Lento, slowly gaining in tempo and animation. The Lento theme returns with all its haunting feel, yet underlined by the edginess of the allegro which, when it returns, echoes the first movement passionate theme before a decisive coda.

Anyone who has walked the hills of the Welsh border country will feel they know this music. This is a strikingly beautiful and evocative quartet, superbly played by the Carducci Quartet.

The recording, made in St Michael’s Church, Summertown, Oxford is first rate as are the booklet notes by the composers.

This is a highly desirable disc that I will return to again and again.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Claudio Abbado dies at the age of 80

Claudio Abbado (1933-2014) 

The death has been announced of the great Italian maestro Claudio Abbado at the age of 80.

The son of a violinist and composer, he studied piano, composition, and conducting at the Milan Conservatory. He went on to study conducting with Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music and, in 1958, won the international Serge Koussevitsky Competition for conductors at the Tanglewood Music Festival, the result of which led to a number of operatic conducting engagements in Italy.

In 1963 he won the Dimitri Mitropoulos Prize for conductors, allowing him to work for five months with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Abbado made his debut at La Scala in his hometown of Milan in 1960 and served as its music director from 1968 to 1986.

He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time in 1965 in a concert at the Salzburg Festival and became its principal conductor in 1971. He served as music director and conductor for the Vienna State Opera from 1986 to 1991

In 1965, Abbado made his British debut with the Halle Orchestra, followed in 1966 by his London Symphony Orchestra debut. He continued to conduct on a regular basis with the LSO becoming its principal conductor from 1979 to 1988. From 1982 to 1986 he was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In 1989, the Berlin Philharmonic elected Abbado as its chief conductor to succeed Herbert von Karajan, a post he held until 2002.  He very much enjoyed working with young musicians conducting the European Union Youth Orchestra and Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. He also established the Orchestra Mozart and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

Abbado was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2000. After recovery he formed the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003 and served as music director of the Orchestra Mozart in Bologna, Italy. In September 2007, Abbado cancelled his future conducting engagements on the advice of his doctors but two months later he resumed conducting with an engagement in Bologna.

In August 2013 the President of Italy appointed him Senator for Life, Italy’s highest cultural award.

Claudio Abbado died in Bologna on 20 January 2014.

Daniel Barenboim said in a statement,"We have lost one of the greatest musicians of the last fifty years and one of the very few to have a close connection with the spirit of music in all its various forms."

Sunday 19 January 2014

Works for recorder, harpsichord and percussion by Axel Borup-Jørgensen on an attractive release from OUR Recordings

Axel Borup-Jørgensen (1924-2012) was born in Denmark but grew up in Sweden. He studied piano at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and orchestration with Poul Schierbeck and Jorgen Jersild. He was one of the first Danish composers to attend Darmstadt school, but he has never composed serial music.

Axel Borup-Jørgensen's music is characterized by his Swedish upbringing, and among his works feature Swedish poetry and the Swedish landscape. His large output of compositions includes music for orchestra, chamber music, songs with piano and other instruments. Prominent amongst his works are compositions for percussion and guitar. Axel Borup-Jørgensen was a seminal figure in contemporary Danish musical life and the recipient of a number of the country’s most distinguished awards, including the Carl Nielsen Prize and the Wilhelm Hansen Prize. 

He considered himself a self-taught composer; while being thoroughly ‘modern’ in outlook; his music is organic, expressionist, always embracing the sheer sensual beauty of the musical tone.

A new release from OUR Recordings presents Borup-Jørgensen’s complete works for recorder; a chronicle of a thirty year relationship that began when his daughter, Elisabet Selin became Michala Petri’s first and only private student. This recording is unique in that the artists featured, Michala Petri  and Elisabet  Selin (recorders), Ingrid Myrhoj (harpsichord) and Gert Mortensen (percussion) are those for whom these works were originally composed, their interpretations, therefore being both personal and authoritative.


Drum rolls open Periphrasis, Op.156 (1977, rev. 1993-94) for recorder and percussion behind which the low sound of a recorder hovers. Other percussion adds to the texture before the recorder plays a staccato theme that jumps around, high in the register. As the recorder dances around the percussion, various textures and colours are created. Despite the outwardly fragmented sounds, the recorder maintains an underlying melodic line that is most attractive. Later the music slows in a delicate passage with quiet thoughtful phrases leading to a hushed end. Overall this is a real musical achievement, wonderfully played by for Michala Petri and Gert Mortensen.

Nachtstuck, Op. 118:1 (1987) for tenor recorder opens with what sounds like light drum taps but which are actually recorder sounds made by an unusual technique. The recorder tentatively introduces a theme, quiet and mournful, with little upward phrases and more, odd breathing effects from the recorder that sound like snare drum.  More textures are drawn from the recorder in this challenging example of recorder technique brilliantly realised by Elisabet Selin. Louder phrases appear, darting around before strange dissonant multitones conjure up a nightmarish nocturnal atmosphere as the music slowly find its way to a quiet coda.

Architraves, Op.83 (1977) for sopranino recorder solo brings a joyful motif that dances around. Axel Borup-Jørgensen has a way of creating a kind of lyricism from seemingly abstract, even fragmented ideas. Michala Petri is terrific here, with fine precision in the sharp staccato notes that often seem to imitate bird sounds. A terrific work.

There is a vibrant opening for recorder and harpsichord in Zwiegespräch, Op. 131 (1988-89) for sopranino recorder and harpsichord with Borup-Jørgensen again drawing a lyrical line from fragmented motifs and varied intervals. It is strange how well these instruments sound together, taking our perception of them as baroque instruments and creating a modern language for them. Both have a kind of dialogue, the harpsichord with short, clipped phrases and the recorder more melodic and flowing. There is much fine playing from Elisabet Selin and Ingrid Myrhøj.

Bird song again appears in Birds Concert, Op.91:9 (1995) for descant recorder solo, but it is longer drawn phrases that open the work, before little bird like motifs appear. The longer phrases return but are slowly overtaken by the bird trills in this wonderfully effective piece so well played by Michala Petri, for whom it was written.

Elisabet Selin and Ingrid Myrhøj return for the Fantasia, Op.75 (1975, rev. 1986-88) for sopranino recorder and harpsichord. The sopranino recorder maintains a melodic line over the fragmented chords of the harpsichord and, as the work progresses, the harpsichord develops intricate, ever changing sounds whilst the recorder continues its melodic flow with some wonderfully fluent playing from Selin. Towards the end, the recorder holds an incredibly long note against the harpsichord before weaving its way to the coda.

The mellow sound of the treble recorder comes as a contrast in Pergolato, Op.183 (2011) for treble recorder solo with Michala Petri playing a mellifluous melody. There are no unusual recorder techniques here, the recorder really sings in Petri’s hands. Repeated melodic phrases do not outstay their welcome as the music flows to its gentle coda.

Birdsong again seems to immerse itself into Notenbüchlein, Op.82 (1977-79) for descant recorder solo. It is hard not to become immersed oneself in this attractive music where Borup-Jørgensen’s playful little bird trills are so lovely. A beautifully written piece, exquisitely played by Elisabet Selin.

This attractive and worthwhile release is an excellent memorial to Axel Borup-Jørgensen and his exploration of the recorder. Well recorded on various dates and at various venues, there are informative booklet notes by the composer and Jens Brincker. 

Saturday 18 January 2014

Works for wind ensemble by Philip Glass and Mohammed Fairouz in terrific performances from the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble on a new release from Naxos

Philip Glass (b.1937)  grew up in Baltimore, USA and studied at the University of Chicago, the Juilliard School and in Aspen with Darius Milhaud., He later moved to Europe, where he studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger and worked closely with the sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar. When he returned to New York, in 1967, he formed the Philip Glass Ensemble.

Although the new musical style that Glass was evolving was labelled as minimalism, Glass never liked the term and preferred to speak of himself as a composer of ‘music with repetitive structures.’ He has now composed more than twenty operas, eight symphonies, two piano concertos and concertos for violin, piano, timpani, and saxophone quartet and orchestra, soundtracks to films, string quartets and works for solo piano and organ. Glass presents lectures, workshops, and solo keyboard performances around the world, and continues to appear regularly with the Philip Glass Ensemble.

Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, written in 2000/01, has been recorded in a transcription by Mark Lortz on a new release from Naxos , coupled with Mohammed Fairouz’s 2012 composition, his Symphony No.4 In the Shadow of No Towers both played by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble directed by Paul W. Popiel  
Mohammed Fairouz (b.1985) a resident of New York City, studied at the Curtis Institute and New England Conservatory and composition under György Ligeti, Gunther Schuller, and Richard Danielpour. His compositions, that incorporate Middle-Eastern modes into Western structures, include four symphonies, an opera, fourteen song cycles, ensemble works, chamber and solo pieces, choral settings, and electronic music.

Fairouz has received many commissions for works including from the Detroit and Alabama Symphony Orchestras, the Borromeo Quartet, Imani Winds, the New Juilliard Ensemble and Cantus Vocal Ensemble. He was chosen by the BBC to be a featured artist for the television series Collaboration Culture.

The University of Kansas Wind Ensemble is joined by timpanists Ji Hye Jung and Gwendolyn Burgett in Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra.

Movement 1 opens full of life, with pounding drums and vibrant, rhythmic playing from the wind ensemble. As the music settles it reveals varying wind harmonies and subtleties that help to lift the music from its simple structure. Rhythmically the music certainly pulls the listener along.

Movement 2 has a rather sombre tone as quietly sounding timpani are slowly joined by various wind instruments as this movement beats a slow rhythmic beat against a delicate wind theme. Slowly the ensemble grows in power as sections of the winds weave around the insistent rhythm before descending to a hushed coda.

Cadenzas allows some spectacularly fine playing from both soloists with a percussion contribution that includes xylophone and tom toms. This is a surprisingly engrossing section with many subtle sounds that leads straight into Movement 3 with almost tribal timpani strokes before the wind ensemble enters adding a rather playful feel. Rhythmic variations add to the interest as well as virtuoso nature of the cadenzas.

This is a most enjoyable work, in places good fun. It is finely played by these artists.

Mohammed Fairouz’s Symphony No.4 In the Shadow of No Towers (2012) takes its inspiration from a comic book by Art Spiegelman that captures the horror and reactions to the tragedy of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. Written for wind ensemble, the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble is joined in this recording by trumpeter, Janis Porietis .

The New Normal opens quietly, drawing lovely sonorities from the wind ensemble with some quite unusual sounds. Suddenly a huge outburst changes the nature of the music – the horror of 9/11 – a rising motif with clashing chords. The music quietens a little, in a kind of quick funeral march before the opening theme returns but is interrupted by the violent second theme. A quiet, sinister section appears with a plaintive trumpet over the sonorities of the ensemble that continues until the end.

Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist is scored for timpani, two sets of chimes, bass drum, harp, piano double bass and suspended cymbals that are scratched by coins to create the strange, quiet opening. The chimes enter as do piano, harp and double bass in this haunting music, a landscape of bleak destruction. The music descends to the depths with piano and double bass in their lowest register along with strange percussion sounds. The bells continue to chime occasionally as if in memoriam. Eventually the music reduces to cymbals before harp picks out a theme. Slowly the music growls in the bass with piano and double bass before there is almost silence as cymbals quietly sound to end.

One Nation Under Two Flags comes as a shock as the wind ensemble loudly play a marching theme backed by xylophone in this almost caustic take on patriotic march themes with the music moving into a swing version of a march. Dissonant interruptions try to break up the rhythm before the music fragments into variations of the theme before returning to the lively, brash march to end.

Wood blocks give the rhythm of a ticking of a clock in Anniversaries before the rich sound of the wind instruments enter with a slow melancholy theme. The metronome marking for this movement is precisely quarter note (crotchet) = 60 making this final movement 9’ 11’’ long exactly. The ensemble weaves a sonorous, melancholy theme around the ever ticking wood blocks as lower wind instruments add deep mournful sonorities. Fairouz varies the textures as the movement progresses and grows inexorably louder, with xylophone and cymbal clashes joining as the music leads to a sudden end.

This impressive symphony receives a terrific performance by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble.

The recording quality is excellent and there are informative booklet notes by Paul R. Laird, Professor of Musicology at the University of Kansas.