Friday 28 February 2014

New performances of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s six Hamburg Symphonies engagingly played by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Wolfram Christ

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is often called the father of the symphony and it was certainly he that took the symphony from its modest proportions to the great four movement works that were later achieved. 

However, it was Giovanni Battista Sammartini (c.1700-1775) who was among the first to write what might be termed concert symphonies, moving away from their origins as overtures. Composers as diverse as Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), Gaetano Pugnani (1731-1798), Matthias Georg Monn (1717-1750), Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777), Florian Leopold Gassmann (1729-1774, Carlo d’Ordonez (1734-1786), Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813) and Michael Haydn (1737-1806) all contributed in their time to the genre; some of whose symphonies approached the classical sonata form techniques.

At Mannheim there were new developments in orchestral style particularly by the striking use of dynamics. It was Johann Stamitz (1717-1757), Franz Xaver Richter, Carl Stamitz (1745-1801), Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809) and Ignaz Fränzl (1736-1811), that influenced the development of the symphony in the mid to late 18th century.

Two of Bach’s sons, Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) also took to the form, J.C. Bach writing over 40 symphonies.

Although he composed much of his music for the keyboard, Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote some 20 symphonies of which his six Hamburg Symphonies feature on a new release from Hänssler Classic performed by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra  conducted by their principal guest conductor Wolfram Christ  

CD 98.637

Founded by Karl Münchinger in 1945, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra plays on modern instruments, but pays due regard to authentic performing style. Since the days of Münchinger the orchestra has been conducted by some of the leading conductors such as Trevor Pinnock, Helmuth Rilling, Frans Brüggen and Vaclav Neumann. Since 2006, Michael Hofstetter has been the orchestra’s principal conductor.

In March 1768, leaving his post of harpsichordist to the Prussian King Frederick and already established as Europe’s most famous keyboard player, Carl Philipp Emanuel, took up his new position as Kantor and Music Director in Hamburg.

Among the musical visitors was Gottfried van Swieten, Austrian ambassador to the Prussian Court for whom the composer, 1773, wrote his six Hamburg Symphonies, Wq.182 for string orchestra. van Swieten was responsible for these works being performed in Vienna where they later became a source of inspiration to Mozart.

Sinfonie in G major, Wq.182 No.1 (H.657) has many Haydnesque turns and dynamics in the Allegro di molto with crisp, lively playing from this small band. The fortepiano continuo may not be to everyone’s taste though there is much historical evidence for its use in late 18th century orchestral music. Haydn was certainly known to direct his symphonies from the fortepiano when in London. The Poco adagio has nicely pointed up rhythms and is full of surprises. This orchestra have very much absorbed period practice in terms of tempi and vibrato which, with just eighteen players, makes a nicely transparent texture. The symphony concludes with a lithe and buoyant Presto.

CPE Bach again throws himself straight into the Allegro di molto of the Sinfonie in B flat major, Wq.182 No.2 (H.658) with playing of great verve, with fine control of dynamics in this music, full of invention and surprise. Bach certainly wanted to keep his audience’s attention. The Poco adagio brings another fine slow movement where the theme us underlined by pizzicato basses. There is more, fine playing from the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in the playful Presto, full of little twists and turns and where the fortepiano, to my ears, merely adds to the enjoyment of the performance.

Sinfonie in C major, Wq.182 No.3 (H.659) opens with a direct, swirling, rising and falling theme in the Allegro assai before which there are more twists and turns to keep the listener on their toes. There is a terrific transition into the Adagio, a sad melody that, nevertheless, has occasional dramatic moments. An attractive, lightly rhythmic Allegretto concludes this work, where sections of the orchestra seems to answer each other creating an attractive effect.

A really fine and intricate theme opens the Allegro ma non troppo of the Sinfonie in A major, Wq.182 No.4 (H.660), one of Emanuel Bach’s most attractive ideas. The Largo ed innocentemente has some lovely long drawn phrases with the Stuttgart players on fine form before the vibrant Allegro assai sweeps all aside.  

The Allegretto of the Sinfonie in B minor, Wq.182 No.5 (H.661) brings more of Emanuel Bach’s fine invention and varying dynamics, well caught by these players. An affectingly fine Larghetto, beautifully played by this orchestra, has some lovely string sonorities with the Presto providing more fine playing with incisive string phrasing.

The Allegro di molto of the Sinfonie in E major, Wq.182 No.6 (H.662) is another energetic allegro which receives crisp decisive playing with some terrific ensemble. There is a lovely flowing Poco andante, where the players give more lovely sonorities and an Allegro spiritoso where there is firm, rich playing in the incisive rhythms to bring this disc to an end.

The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra are obviously in good hands with Wolfram Christ providing such lithe and exhilarating performances that bring many rewards.

Those who must have period instrument performances may look towards recordings such as those from Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert on Deutsche Grammophon. However, these new performances on modern instruments so engagingly played will appeal to many.

The recorded acoustic occasionally seems a little hollow but there is ample detail. There are informative booklet notes.

Coincidentally, CPE Bach is BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week from next Monday (3rd March 2014 to 6th March 2014)


Wednesday 26 February 2014

Buchbinder and the VPO give magnetic performances in a live Beethoven concerto cycle recorded by Sony

The Vienna Philharmonic  regularly holds subscription concerts on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. In May 2011 two unusual concerts were held on a consecutive Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning with cameras and microphones placed to record the special event.

Rudolf Buchbinder  was to direct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from the keyboard in all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos, playing the Second, Third and Fourth on the Saturday and the First and Fifth on the Sunday.

There would be no opportunity to repeat these works or correct any mistakes on the recording.

The results of this event have now been issued by Sony Classical  on a 3 CD set.
Rudolf Buchbinder and the Vienna Philharmonic have worked together many times before and he has toured these works extensively, something which shows to a great degree in the recordings of these two remarkable concerts.

That Buchbinder is a master Beethoven pianist is not in doubt given that he has already recorded an award winning Beethoven sonata cycle for Sony. So how would these live performances measure up?

The opening Allegro con brio of the Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, Op.15 starts with some fine phrasing as well as lovely dynamic playing from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Buchbinder’s direction. There are some lovingly shaped orchestral phrases as well as some beautiful woodwind allowed to show through. When the piano enters there are light textures, clarity and a Mozartian sense of forward flow. There is a great fluidity in Buchbinder’s playing showing the simple beauty of a Beethovenian scale. The cadenza is quite formidable.

There is a finely wrought Largo with a lovely orchestral rubato and Buchbinder extracting so much intricate detail from the piano part. He brings a sense of tension to the music that’s so Beethovenian, with playing of real strength and poetry.

The rollicking Rondo. Allegro scherzando finale gets off to a terrific start with both Buchbinder and the VPO really throwing themselves into the music. Buchbinder’s accuracy is spot on and he seems to be enjoying every minute. The second subject is beautifully dovetailed with the orchestra and there is such a feeling of spontaneity that would be difficult to achieve in a studio. This is totally infectious playing from all concerned.

Coming to the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op.19, in the Allegro con brio, Buchbinder achieves fine ensemble from the VPO with terrific dynamics alive to every little nuance. Buchbinder, when he enters, is crisp, lithe and so thoroughly musical, relishing Beethoven’s many pianistic beauties, all the little phrases. He has such a sense of assurance and those little tensions that appear are wonderful. In the cadenza Buchbinder is particularly fine, with some lovely flowing lines.

There is a gorgeous, almost Brahmsian opening to the Adagio from the VPO. Buchbinder paces his entry especially well, allowing the music to unfold so naturally, with a fine sense of line and detail with pianist and orchestra perfectly attuned to each other. Both soloist and orchestra are supremely poetic in the hushed coda.

With the beautifully taut Rondo. Molto allegro Buchbinder’s fluency and drive are impressive as is the way he phrases more intricate moments with subtle restraint and so much fine spontaneity – quite thrilling.

What a fine opening there is from the VPO in the Allegro con brio of the Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37, drawing lovely taut, dynamic playing, full of anticipation. Buchbinder brings a full Beethovenian weight when he enters, direct even confrontational, yet so fluid, constantly making subtle little changes. Again it is remarkable how Buchbinder and the VPO are so at one. For all of this pianist’s sense of authority in this work, he still brings a sense of discovery and, yes, spontaneity. In the quieter moments there is playing of such sensitivity, finesse and understanding. The cadenza is beautifully done, fluid, thoughtful and dynamic, quite masterly. And how he builds the tension in the coda is equally impressive.

The poetic Largo is beautifully conceived with the VPO, when they enter, creating a lovely flow with a gentle rubato. Buchbinder provides some absolutely gorgeous playing and, towards the end, those lovely little ascending notes are exquisite, yet so full of feeling.

The Rondo – Allegro shoots off with more spontaneous playing from Buchbinder, a real joy. Given that this performance could not be patched or redone, Buchbinder shows a complete lack of inhibition. There are some lovely passages from the VPO woodwind section as well as some lovely little orchestral touches generally.  Buchbinder has a lovely touch, with his left and right hand lines weaving around each other brilliantly before the thunderous VPO timpani lead to the runaway coda.

Quiet, restrained opening piano chords open the Allegro moderato of the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op.58 before the wonderful VPO enter to build on the theme, drawing out all the individual orchestral lines. Buchbinder’s subtle graduating of dynamics when he enters is wonderful. He has such a strong left hand with some wonderful left hand lower phrases. Throughout, the VPO strings provide such a fine sound yet, as the movement progressed I realised, for all the size of the orchestra, how chamber like Buchbinder and the VPO seemed. Buchbinder’s pacing and phrasing is just so right and there is such a remarkable fluency and clarity as the movement progresses with a fine rubato, so subtly used. The cadenza is rhythmically quite enthralling and quite individual with some stunning playing and that fine left hand adding so much.

Buchbinder’s sensitive opening to the Andante con moto is offset by the VPO’s dramatic, clipped phrases in this magically conceived movement that builds the tension perfectly before the Rondo Vivace where the VPO enter quietly and Buchbinder joins gently before the dynamics increase. There are some lovely silken scales from this pianist and he throws himself into the music in the faster passages. The cadenza is again distinctive in its phrasing, giving a feeling of spontaneity before a terrifically robust coda.

What a fine opening to the Allegro of the Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major, Op.73 ‘Emperor’, the glorious VPO with Buchbinder full of power, clarity and fluency, building from quieter moments, full of tension, to full blown Beethovenian drama. The VPO are terrific in the little woodwind ensembles with Buchbinder adding so much poetry and suspense as he keeps the tempi back whilst playing individual little phrases, and those terrific descending piano scales are quite superb. Buchbinder’s firm left hand shows through again and there are so many individual touches. There is a terrific lead up to the short solo passage where the intimate sound of the piano is suddenly, magically contrasted with the music that surrounds it.

The beautiful strings of the VPO glide us into the Adagio un poco mosso where, when the piano enters, it is pure balm. The way Buchbinder paces this movement recalls Beethoven’s Mozartian roots. There are more lovely sounds from the VPO and the transition into the Rondo. Allegro man non troppo is perfectly done.

Buchbinder gives a terrific rhythmic bounce to his playing when the Rondo arrives, playing of joy and spontaneity with the feel of electricity running through it. The VPO really let themselves go and play their hearts out for Buchbinder right up to the coda.

Buchbinder is fully able to give virtuoso moments but he draws the listener more subtly by all the little insights and spontaneous inflections he gives. It is not merely tempo and volume that holds the listener; it is the sheer magnetism even in the quieter, poetic moments.

The live recording from Musikverein, Großer Saal is extremely good. The enthusiastic applause kept in but there is very little audience noise between movements. There are interesting booklet notes.

Our thanks must go to Sony for bringing us these special performances.

Even if you are not a fan of live recordings do give this set a try – I’m sure you’ll be thrilled. Available on line for less than £14.00 it deserves a place amongst whatever other recordings of these timeless works are on collector’s shelves.

Sunday 23 February 2014

Marek Štilec and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra provide fine performances of Zdenĕk Fibich’s still somewhat neglected and appealing second symphony on a new release from Naxos

Zdenĕk Fibich (1850-1900) studied in Prague and at the Leipzig Conservatory as well as privately under Jadassohn. He spent periods in Paris and Mannheim before taking a post as a choir trainer in Vilnius. In 1875 he returned to Prague, working at the Provisional Theatre until becoming choirmaster of the Russian Orthodox Church.

After three years he gave up this post and, from 1881, worked exclusively as a composer and private teacher. His reputation as a 19th century Czech composer is second only to that of Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) and Fibich’s near contemporary, Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904).

Fibich was very prolific; his compositions including choral works, vocal works, seven operas, incidental music for the theatre, orchestral works including three symphonies, chamber works and works for piano.

Fibich’s symphonies have already been recorded on Chandos by Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Naxos  have already released Fibich’s First Symphony (8.572985) with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec

Now comes Symphony No.2 coupled with two very attractive works, At Twilight – Idyll  for Orchestra and Selanka – Idyll in B flat major for Clarinet and Orchestra with the same forces as well as clarinetist, Irvin Venyš

Fibich’s works are far less Czech in flavour, the composer having been influenced far more by the German tradition. Nevertheless, the Allegro moderato of his Symphony No.2 in E flat major, op.38 (1892-93) does open with a little Dvořákian brass motif within the orchestra. The music also has certain rhythmic elements and a sweeping forward flow that recall Dvořák. The music soon builds to a climax, before falling back for the arrival of the second subject. The music works up to a number of climaxes with the rhythmically flowing main theme re-occurring before heading to the coda where both themes seem to achieve a resolution.

The Adagio is a beautiful movement that opens with a broad melody, not particularly Czech in nature, before a rhythmic idea arrives to contrast with the broad melody.  The opening theme returns as the music reaches a short climax as does the rhythmic theme towards the coda that, nevertheless, ends in calm.

A repeated three note rising motif for trumpet opens the Scherzo: Presto as the orchestra is pointed up by pizzicato strings. More than anywhere else in this work the German influence comes to the fore. An emphatic passage rhythmically raises the dynamics before a country dance like tune is introduced highlighting the Germanic influences in this trio section. Timpani sound as the strings, then a bassoon herald a return of the faster opening theme. The trumpet sounds its opening rising notes as the music gains momentum as it dashes to the coda with some lovely interplay from the woodwind.

The opening of the Finale – Allegro energico hurtles forward with more of a Czech feel before soon slowing to a more thoughtful section. The music again livens up in the terrific melody, so full of Bohemian flavour. At times it sounds as though Fibich is weaving Germanic and Czech themes, so bound up are both elements. When the slow theme again returns there is a lovely woodwind passage. The livelier theme returns, full of energy, though this time broken up by slower, gentler passages before broadening and developing with some lovely slower passages, quite atmospheric in nature. The music eventually builds to a broad, grand climax before drawing together all the various stands to end in a grand coda, with a sudden repeat to catch the unwary.

This stands as a fine work in its own right, with a directness that is very appealing, but it is also important in the understanding of the development of Czech music.

At Twilight – Idyll for Orchestra, Op.39 (1893) rises from pondering basses as the orchestra fully joins in a wistful melody. As this melody is developed, Fibich seems to find full vent for his Czech melodic streak, perhaps because he did not have to worry about symphonic restraints. Soon the music changes to a livelier theme, light with pointed woodwind playfully dancing around the strings. Cellos, then flute arrive in an expectant motif, taken up by the full orchestra, leading the music back to the opening theme. A full blown romantic version of the theme follows with flute and harp bringing a lighter, sprightly feel, full of nature before the return of the romantic string led theme - so Czech. Later cellos and flute appear in an unusual but very effective passage, perhaps depicting birds. The full orchestra takes over as the flute continues its chirrups. There is a brief lull before the romantic melody returns. Cymbal stokes sound as the orchestra gently falls, the lower orchestral sound of the opening returning as the gentle coda arrives.

There is no doubt that this is a gorgeous work that really deserves to be heard.

Clarinetist Irvin Venyš joins the Czech National Symphony Orchestra for Fibich’s Selanka – Idyll in B flat major for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op.16 (1879). The orchestra opens the work but is soon joined by the clarinet in a lovely flowing, gentle melody that has more of a Czech wistfulness, with the clarinet often playing more of a concertante role, adding colour and texture to the orchestral pallet. Venyš provides a lovely weaving of sounds around the orchestra in this most attractive work. After a brief climax the music returns to its gentle nature to end.

Marek Štilec and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, which celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year, provide fine performances of this still somewhat neglected and appealing music. I found myself unable to get some of the tunes out of my head after listening to this disc. They receive a full and clear recording and there are informative booklet notes.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Tom Poster’s debut recital for Champs Hill Records is a sheer joy

Tom Poster won First Prize at the Scottish International Piano Competition 2007, the Ensemble Prize at the Honens International Piano Competition 2009, and the keyboard sections of the Royal Over-Seas League and BBC Young Musician of the Year Competitions in 2000.

Born in 1981, he studied with Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he held a Postgraduate Fellowship, and at King’s College, Cambridge, where he gained a Double First in Music.

Since his London concerto debut at the age of 13, Poster has appeared in a wide-ranging concerto repertoire of over 30 major works, including Beethoven with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, Brahms and Ligeti with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Robin Ticciati, Chopin with the European Union Chamber Orchestra, Grieg with the Hallé at Bridgewater Hall and the China National Symphony in Beijing, John Ireland with the State Capella Philharmonic in St Petersburg, Rachmaninov with the BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal Tortelier and BBC Scottish Symphony/James Loughran, Schumann with the Atlantic Classical Orchestra in Florida, Beethoven Triple with Southbank Sinfonia/Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Scott Bradley’s Cat Concerto with Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon.

Poster features regularly on BBC Radio 3 as soloist and chamber musician, and appeared in both capacities at the BBC Proms in 2008, 2009 and 2011. He has appeared as guest expert in BBC Four’s coverage of the Leeds International Piano Competition.

He has already made a number of chamber music recordings with such artists as Jennifer Pike, Doric String Quartet and the Aronowitz Ensemble on such labels as Chandos and Sonimage.

Tom Poster’s debut recital for Champs Hill Records entitled In Dance and Song, has just been released and covers a wide range of repertoire from Gluck to Gershwin by way of Schubert, Ravel and Bartok.

It is with Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice, in its transcription by Giovanni Sgambati, that Poster opens this recital providing fine clarity with silken, limpid playing in Gluck’s melting theme, so sensitively phrased. An absolute delight.

Poster follows this with three pieces from Grieg’s Slåtter– Norwegian Peasant Dances, Op72 with, again, his clarity and fine phrasing being applied to Bridal March from Telemark, rising to the more dynamic passages with a natural energy and power. Poster builds The Goblin’s Bridal Procession at Vossevangen nicely with some beautiful little trills in this fine performance. The phrasing in Prillar from the Parish of Os shows how he is inside Grieg’s rhythms with a sensitively judged coda.

With Bartok’s Three Folksongs from the Csík District, BB 45B Poster goes straight into Bartok’s style of piano writing with his beautiful pacing, phrasing and clarity, drawing so much from Rubato, as he does in L’istesso tempo, showing these to be miniature gems. I love the way he draws back slightly, to such great effect. Finally in these three pieces there is a sparkling Poco vivo, a delight, direct yet with subtle little inflections.

Schubert ‘s Impromptu in G flat major, D.899 No.3 has an intimacy that is often lacking, surely this is a quality that Schubert would have approved of. Poster holds the delicate ebb and flow beautifully, drawing some lovely colours from his instrument.

This pianist has a distinct approach to Chopin whose Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat major, Op.61 receives a beautifully shaped performance that brings something of an epic stance This more direct and volatile approach opens up new aspects of the music. It is not at all without its poetic moments such as halfway through where these is a kind of powerful hushed restraint. In the fiery section towards the end, Poster shows what a fine technique he has.

Poster gives us three pieces by Kurtag from Jatekok (Games), bringing his sense of poetry to Hommage à Farkas Ferenc (2): Scraps of a colinda melody – faintly recollected with a bell like clarity, superb phrasing and pacing. Quite exquisite. Hommage à Farkas Ferenc (3): Evocation of Petrushka is superbly done with some fine percussion effects in this miniature. The extremely brief Hommage à Nancy Sinatra also has a fine touch to end these pieces.

It is Poster’s disarming directness that brings so much to Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante Défunte, letting the music speak for itself, which it does to great effect. Again there is a subtlety in his poetic moments, so much more affective for this. It is lovely the way he allows the phrases to unfold. He has a beautiful touch that can, again, be heard in Ravel’s Ondine (from Gaspard de la Nuit), lovely rippling phrases with subtle colourings as well as lovely broad sweeps of sound as the work develops. An absolute joy.

As if we were not already aware of his versatility, Poster shows that he excels in his Schumann too, with Two Songs. Widmung has a lovely rubato and such a singing quality. His light touch shows again in the central section that is quite stunning.  Frühlingsnacht, with its odd little halting, staccato phrases and rhythms, is beautifully done.

If there was any doubt as to Poster’s virtuosic strain, then this performance of Stravinsky’s La Semaine Grasse (from Petrushka) will prove his credentials. This is a tremendous performance, shifting between Stravinsky’s varying moods and tempi with ease. There is virtuosity, poetry, sensitivity, sheer panache, with this pianist alive to every little twist and turn. Poster’s superb control of dynamics and overall structure makes this a formidable achievement.

Gershwin’s Someone to watch over me (from Oh, Kay!), in an effective transcription by Tom  Poster, proves to be the perfect ‘encore’ with Poster’s silken, beautifully phrased playing.

It is impressive how Poster moves from composer to composer with consummate ease. Poster seems to draw the listener into his concept of how these pieces should be played. This recital is a sheer joy.

The recording is clear and with plenty of space around the piano and  there are informative booklet notes by Tom Poster.

Champs Hill, can we please hear more from Tom Poster?

Friday 21 February 2014

Kalevi Aho’s Fifteenth Symphony together with Minea (Concertante Music for Orchestra) and Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra in first rate performances on a new release from BIS

Surely Kalevi Aho (b. 1949)   must be one of the greatest living symphonists of our time.

I heard the premiere of his 15th Symphony at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, England, in March 2001 and was greatly impressed. Now from BIS Records  comes a recording of the fifteenth symphony together with Aho’s Minea (Concertante Music for Orchestra) and Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra.

This new release features the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä  (Minea), Jaakko Kuusisto (double bass concerto) and Dima Slobodeniouk (Symphony) with the double bass player Eero Munter


BIS 1866

Minea (Concertante Music for Orchestra) (2008) was written for the Minnesota Orchestra to highlight all members of the orchestra in a work that could be used as an opening work at tour concerts and first performed in Minneapolis under their then music director Osmo Vänskä.

Minea opens with ringing brass and woodwind overlaying a hushed side drum before the fuller sonorities emerge with the wind ensemble weaving an eastern sounding melody. As the music progresses the wind motif becomes ever more florid though often quietening in the process. The music eventually begins to quicken and becomes increasingly dramatic with massive drum strokes before leading to a quieter section with ruminating in the basses and quietly thundering drums. The music builds dramatically, but yet again falls back to a quiet section with a distinctive two note motif so typical of Aho. Slow rhythmic drumming is joined by the contrabassoon, as the woodwind bring a fascinating texture of sounds with so many details being woven into the music in this magical section. As the music continues, the orchestra plays a flowing melody around the insistent rhythm, slowly and steadily building in power until it reaches a peak with stabbing orchestral phrases. When the music quietens, there are frantic, scurrying strings decorated by woodwind that eventually lead the strings on to an even faster section with the percussion re-entering as the music recklessly dashes headlong to a tremendous coda for full orchestra.

This is a terrific work that should find a place in concert programs. The Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä give a first rate performance.

Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra (2005) was premiered by the soloist on this disc, Eero Munter, with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in 2005. It is in five movements played without a break.

The Moderato, Passionato opens with woodwind and strings in a scurrying motif that leads upwards. The solo double bass enters providing a bass line under the orchestra that enters and leaves. As the double bass continues to ruminate, the various sections of the orchestra intersperse, adding their voice. Soon the double bass moves to its highest register as the orchestra continues to sporadically have its say, but eventually returns to its darker, lower notes. However, it is the orchestra that leads into Cadenza I (Pizzicato) where the double bass plays only pizzicato with Eero Munter extracting some intoxicatingly atmospheric sounds from his instrument, showing himself to be a virtuoso, in this tremendously challenging but superbly written movement that has so many subtleties of colour and texture.

Presto – Tranquillo – Presto brings motoric strings together with flurries of woodwind in light and transparent music. When the double bass appears it hardly notices, blending in with the orchestra into the highest registers, superbly done by Munter. The opening motif, motoric strings and woodwind flourishes, re-appear more violently before a slower section where the double bass growls against a dark orchestral accompaniment in a melancholy slow melody. Eventually the motoric strings arrive again with woodwind, brass and percussion in a dramatic section where, eventually, the music seems to collapse in on itself before going straight into Misterisoso (Cadenza II) with delicate percussion and short orchestral chords as the double bass provides strange harmonies and plucked lower notes.

Slowly a simple little tune for double bass is intoned but never develops, merely continuing with delicate harmonic slides before fading away into Andante – Allegro ritmico where a lovely woodwind melody is soon joined by the double bass. The theme develops, becoming more complex, as the various parts of the orchestra add little variations. Slowly the music rises to a climax for orchestra before dropping away to allow the soloist to be heard beneath the woodwind. In the stillness, the soloist knocks rhythmically on his instrument, accompanied by percussion, as the sound of the bullroarer arrives and the music fades to a hushed coda.

Aho’s writing is inspired and technically brilliant, as is Munter’s playing. It is Aho’s ear for colour and texture, beautifully brought out by Jaakko Kuusist and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra that gives us such a fine concerto.

Symphony No.15 (2009-10) was a joint commission from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, receiving its first performance in Manchester, England when Juanjo Mena conducted the BBC Philharmonic. Here Russian conductor, Dima Slobodeniouk conducts the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

Nebbia opens with shifting string harmonies interspersed by the tinkling of bells and high pitched percussion. Soon the celeste adds its bright sounds before woodwind enter, conjuring up an icy landscape through the mists that give the movement its title. A brass motif appears as the mists try to clear, then a rapid clarinet motif is soon joined by other woodwind. The strings still swirl as though penetrated by light before brass enter over the strings providing a firmer sound that is interspersed by the rapid woodwind motif. There is a terrific moment as drums and percussion enter to point up the sound as it hurtles forward. The music eventually quietens as an oboe enters together with gentle harp flourishes in a glorious passage, intensely atmospheric that leads to Musica bizzarra with a repeated ascending theme for woodwind and celeste. Woodwind and brass enter then various hand drums (bongos, congas, darbuka and djembe) as the rhythmic nature of the music increases, slowly gaining in tempo and dynamics. Occasionally the music calms a little but the momentum is always maintained, building to quite muscular, intense climaxes until eventually the music calms, the hecklephone adds its distinctive sound joins and the movement ends peacefully.

Celeste and glockenspiel open Interludio in a delicate, mysterious mood underlaid by lower strings. The movement adds the sounds and textures of the bell tree, marimba and crotales as the music continues with sudden loud orchestral outbursts. A brass motif briefly enters, then the string sonorities from the first movement before rapid strings and brass interrupt the calm. Low strings, percussion and celeste lead into Musica strana where a swaying motif for woodwind, a lightly, subtly dancing theme, is soon joined by the strings. Brass and woodwind arrive over rhythmic percussion before the strings, then brass lead the orchestra on in increasingly dynamic music. A saxophone is heard as the music calms a little in a pulsating string theme. The music rises again and one can hear the sound of an Arabian tambourine before the music develops through quieter little passages first for woodwind, then flute. The music soon rises, building again in drama, in a boisterous central climax.

Many more orchestral details are developed in this constantly changing movement, brilliantly orchestrated, before it builds again and the music starts to rush headlong to its wild, breathless coda, just punctuated by woodwind motifs before the final outburst.

This is another fine symphony from this master composer, full of invention, wonderful colours and textures and, of course, rhythmic power.

Dima Slobodeniouk and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra are on top form and the recording is up to BIS’ usual high standards. There are excellent booklet notes by the composer.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Piano works of real depth and substance by Marcus Blunt, finely played by Murray McLachlan on a release from Divine Art’s Diversions label

Marcus Blunt (b. 1947) was born in Birmingham and from around the age of nine had piano lessons from his father whilst making his first attempts at composition.  He went on to study composition at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth before settling in Derby as a teacher of woodwind instruments. In 1990 he moved to Scotland where the Dumfries Music Club appointed him as their Hon. Composer-in-Residence.

In July 2002 he was a featured composer at the Victoria International Arts Festival, Gozo (Malta), in 2004 he was commissioned to write a Fanfare to open the Dumfries & Galloway Silver Arts Festival and in 2009 his Two Serenades for violin, clarinet, cello & piano were chosen for inclusion in the London Schubert Players’ EU-funded Invitation to Composers project, with performances in Edinburgh, Paris and Namsos, Norway.

Marcus Blunt’s compositions include choral works, orchestral works including two symphonies, chamber works, works for brass, instrumental works and piano works and have been performed internationally by artists such as the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, the Joachim Piano Trio, and Kathryn Stott.

Divine Art Recordings have just released, on their Diversions label, a recording of Marcus Blunt’s piano music played by Murray McLachlan , previously issued by Dunelm Records in 2006 and which includes his three piano sonatas.


The Life Force (Sonata No.3) (1988 rev. 1994) has a tonally free flowing opening that leads to a slightly more tentative section as the music subtly develops in this attractive seven minute sonata. The sonata builds to an intense, flowing climax towards the end, with music of some virtuosity before sudden spread chords conclude the work.

This is a beautifully constructed sonata that is immensely enjoyable.

Seven Preludes (1967-79) commence with Passacaglia which works up from a simple theme through a slow build-up of contrapuntal layers back to its opening simplicity. Theme has a broad motif repeated, rising upward before the Variation (Jiglet) provides a lighter, dancing variation of the theme. Homage to Scarlatti has a freedom within Scarlatti’s model that is most appealing, a really enchanting piece as it dances around. Homage to Scriabin I has a gently swaying melody that is developed around a left hand melody and is something of a little gem. Homage to Scriabin II brings us to Scriabin’s later more mystic style, soon building in drama and clashing chords. A short but very evocative piece. ‘Adieu’ is a rather unsettled farewell that acts as a dramatic coda to the set.

A visit to Iona inspired the Iona Prelude (1982) and the following Iona Caprice (1982). A rising motif opens the Prelude, which is repeated in various guises in this elusive but appealing piece. The Caprice is a more florid miniature that ends abruptly.

Sonata No.2 (1977 / 1998 rev 2006) opens with Elegy where slow chords move the music steadily forward as a motif for right hand weaves around the chords. The music becomes more hesitating and darker with hints of John Ireland in his more mystic moments. It begins to rise up slowly, becoming more impassioned before quietening and becoming more peaceful to end. A halting little motif opens the Scherzo that eventually becomes freer, though the opening motif keeps re-appearing and, indeed, re-appears at the end. Fantasia has a slightly dancing quality that is soon over shadowed as the music becomes sadder. The dancing theme re-appears intermittently but is always overshadowed by music of a more serious vein. There are Scriabinesque bold intervals as the music rises in passion. The dancing theme appears again before a decisive coda.

This is another fine sonata brilliantly played by Murray McLachlan.

The Three Nocturnes were written between 1987 and 2001. Malta Nocturne seems to use similar intervals as the Fantasia of the preceding sonata, perhaps a Blunt trademark. This is a particularly lovely little piece, so sensitively played by Murray McLachen. The gentle November Nocturne, a birthday gift for a friend, based on the musical letter derived from his name, grows in strength before its quiet coda. Likewise, the Nocturne on the name FRAnk BAyFoRD, a slightly more extended piece, was a sixtieth birthday present for a friend, which grows organically from the note sequence that uses the conventional note letters as well as the Tonic Sol-Fa names (e.g. R = Ray).

Marcus Blunt’s Sonata No.1 (1972 / 2006) is in two movements, a Fantasia (Allegro), a fast and forward flowing with the composer’s distinctive intervals before falling to a quiet end on three repeated chords and Variations (Adagio), which seems to rise out of the Allegro and uses all twelve notes of the scale creating a sense of mystery and uncertainty before moving through a range of emotions and musical motifs including repeated, insistent chords that add drama and intensity,  lovely flowing, rippling passages that lighten the mood as well as virtuoso chords before quieting darkly with low chords at the end.

This is a work of real depth and substance, beautifully constructed and given a fine performance by Murray McLachlan.

Prelude on a fugue theme by J S Bach (2000) was taken from Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D major BWV 874 and written as a tribute to Bach in his 250th Anniversary year. It is tiny but very effectively done in the way Blunt works around the theme.
Finally we come to Three Fantasies (1992/2001/2006) all derived from the musical letters of the respective names. The first, Fantasy on SCRiABin has a wonderfully flowing theme that is created from the note sequence and oddly reminiscent of Scriabin. It is played with terrific sensitivity and a lovely touch with delicate shadings. It is a striking work that took second place in the Purcell Composition Prize in 1995.

The Fantasy on the name GABRiEL FAURÉ is another fine, flowing work on that, nevertheless, has an underlying strength. It was written for that fine pianist, Kathryn Stott who is something of a specialist in Fauré’s piano music.

The last of these fantasies is a Fantasy on the name MURRAy MCLaCHLan written for Murray McLachlan for this recording. It is a fine piece that weaves a lovely tapestry around the underlying musical note sequence, building to a dramatic coda with some fine playing from McLachlan.

Blunt is extremely lucky in his pianist Murray McLachen who does so much to bring out all the beauties and attractions of these works. The recording is excellent and there are booklet notes by the composer.

Monday 17 February 2014

Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma give excellent performances of attractive orchestral works by Alfredo Catalani on a new release from Naxos

Naxos  are doing much to raise the profile of lesser known Italian composers with their 19th/20th Century Italian Classics series with composers as diverse as Franco Alfano,  Alfredo Casella, Franco Ferrara, Giorgio Federico Ghedini, Luigi Mancinelli, Saverio Mercadante, Goffredo Petrassi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Nino Rota, Giovanni Sgambati, and Camillo Togni.

Alfredo Catalani (1854-1893, who is the subject of a new release from Naxos, is probably best remembered for his operas Loreley (1890) and La Wally (1892), though even those works will not be familiar to many people. Born in Lucca, Italy, Catalani studied at the Conservatory of Milan under Antonio Bazzini (1818-1897). He had support from Toscanini but his premature death from tuberculosis cut short his career.

As well as opera, Catalani wrote a number of orchestral works of which five appear on this new disc, including two world premiere recordings. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma  is conducted by their Artistic and Musical Director, Francesco La Vecchia , who have been responsible for many of the performances in this series.

The first work on this new disc is the Symphonic Poem, Ero e Leandro (Hero and Leander) (1884) based on the Greek myth of Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite,  who dwelt in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Dardanelles, and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait.  Hero lights a lamp at the top of her tower to guide Leander’s way but after making love to her he is eventually drowned. This work was first performed at La Scala in 1885.

The symphonic poem opens with repeated orchestral chords before woodwind and brass appear in a rising and falling sea motif that is developed by the rest of the orchestra. There is a transparency of texture reminiscent of Mendelssohn as, slowly the music develops becoming powerful and even violent before subsiding with a lovely woodwind passage. There are hints of Wagner but Catalani seems to have forged his own style out of many varied influences. Eventually the music comes to a sudden halt before there is a horn call and timpani strokes indicating the death of Leander and the orchestra quietly moves on, soon becoming enlivened and building to a stormy vivacissimo section that leads to the emphatic coda with pizzicato strings to end.

Catalani’s short Scherzo (1878) was first performed in Paris in 1878. Strings open this happy, light and transparent work, full of varying rhythms that are most attractive.

The even shorter Andantino (1871?) is opened by an oboe, soon followed by a flute in this distinctive work that shows, despite the Wagnerian tonal pallet of Ero e Leandro, how far from the weightier German orchestra he was. There are light and transparent textures with a lovely, flowing melody. The work builds to a climax midway and in the coda there are some lovely orchestral textures woven by Francesco La Vecchia and his orchestra.

Contemplazione (1878) was also performed in Paris and opens with a lovely flowing melody for strings with a subtle pulse added by the double basses. The way Catalani shares the theme around the orchestra adds so much colour and texture. Part way through, the music builds in passion and drama before falling back to the restrained nature of its opening. This is a beautifully structured work.

Il Mattino ‘Sinfonia romantica’ (1874) is one of three symphonic works by Catalani. At just under fifteen minutes, Catalani’s single movement symphony has larger ambitions than the preceding works on this disc. Opening with hushed strings, oboes and clarinets enter as a swaying theme gradually gains momentum. The orchestra develops the theme over the tremolando violins but, before long, a livelier section arrives, more positive in feel. There is a little rising motif that leads to a quieter section but soon, aided by brass, the music grows more dynamic before falling to a broader melodic idea. As the work progresses, Mendelssohn is again brought to mind in the writing for strings. There are a number of little climaxes punctuated by attractive orchestral detail before the music finally builds to a sustained climax over tremolando strings leading to the coda where two pizzicato notes conclude the work.

Francesco Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma are excellent and do much to add to the attractions of this disc, which is nicely recorded at the OSR Studios in Rome. There are excellent booklet notes making this an interesting and attractive release well worth exploring.

Saturday 15 February 2014

Tenebrae, under their director Nigel Short, are magnificent in Russian choral works on a new release from Signum Classics

Artistic Director of Tenebrae , Nigel Short, began his musical life as a chorister at Solihull Parish Church going on to study singing and piano at the Royal College of Music in London. He was a member of The Tallis Scholars, Westminster Abbey and Cathedral choirs and The King’s Consort before going on to concentrate on work as a soloist in Oratorio and Opera. He sang many roles in opera productions all over Europe and for ENO and Opera North in the UK. In 1993, Short joined the world-renowned vocal ensemble the King’s Singers. Whilst touring the world with them he began to seriously consider the possibility of starting up a new choral group which would combine a larger force of singers with movement around the performance venue as well as considerations of lighting, ambience, time and space. It would not only mean that the singers were more physically involved in the performance but also that the audiences could become caught up in the experience.

Thanks to like-minded musicians, singers and friends, Tenebrae was formed in 2001. Since then, Tenebrae have performed in many of the world’s most prestigious music festivals, in USA, Bermuda, Spain, Switzerland, France, Germany and the UK.

Nigel Short has conducted several of the world’s finest orchestras alongside Tenebrae both in concert and in recordings including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra and, in Baroque repertoire, the English Concert. He has also made recordings for EMI Classics, Warner Classics, Decca Records, LSO Live and Signum Records.

It is Signum Records  that have just released Russian Treasures, a recording by Tenebrae of Russian Church music by a range of composers. Tenebrae have already recorded Rachmaninov’s Vespers for Signum (SIGCD054) back in 2005 so they are well versed in such repertoire.

Bene Arte

This new disc opens with Alexander Gretchaninov’s (1864-1956) Nïne silï nebesnïya (Now the powers of Heaven) from his Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Nikolai Danilin, conductor of the Moscow Synodal Choir may have commented, before the first performance of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, that ‘Russian basses are as rare as asparagus at Christmas, but Tenebrae have no such problems and start with some pretty impressive deep bass voices before rising up through the choir in this impressive piece.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) features heavily on this disc and rightly so. Here we have his Nïne otpushchayeshï  (Lord, now lettest Thou) from his Vespers or, more correctly, All Night Vigil. Nicholas Madden (tenor) soars out of the choir as this lovely setting moves forward and gathers into some fine textures. This gem was a piece that Rachmaninov wanted played at his own funeral. Tenebrae seem very much inside the Russian and, in particular, Rachmaninov’s idiom with some beautiful low bass notes at the end.

The little known conductor and composer, Nikolay Golovanov (1891-1953), one time conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, wrote his Cherubic Hymn Heruvimskaya pesn as his Op.1 No.1. It is an attractive piece that has a gentle flow, beautifully realised by this choir.

More Rachmaninov comes in the form of his Priidite, poklonimsia  again from his All Night Vigil where the joyful Russian sounding voices exclaim Come let us worship with superb control and balance of these fine voices.

Rachmaninov’s Heruvimskaya pesn (Cherubic Hymn) is from his earlier Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. The sopranos open with an angelic sounding Let us who represent the Cherubim. Throughout, there is a well-balanced weaving of the voices, including those lovely basses, in this most appropriate of acoustics, the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London. When the choir sound out halfway through they are magnificent, as is the superb ending.

Also from Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is a gentle, rich, powerfully written setting of Tebe poyem (We hymn Thee) with Tenebrae providing simply gorgeous vocal textures and a beautifully sensitively and meltingly emotional core.

Golovanov’s  Slava Ottsu (Yedinorodnï) (Glory to the Father (Only begotten)) has a similarly gentle, beguiling texture, with the same lovely flow as his Cherubic Hymn. Nigel Short draws lovely sounds from his choir, with a terrific central climax.

Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944) was a choral conductor and teacher who composed prolifically for choir and is represented on this disc by three works, firstly Svete tihiy (Gladsome light) where the sopranos dominate, sounding so well in this acoustic, in this short but affecting piece, beautifully sung. The second work by Chesnokov is his Tebe poyem (We hymn Thee) from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom where, this time, deep basses create a rich dark opening, full of Russian atmosphere before the choir unfolds gentle textures in a work that shows this composer to be a gifted choral writer.

Viktor Kalinnikov (1870-1927) was the younger brother of the better-known composer Vasily Kalinnikov (1866–1901). He, again, seems to have been prolific as a choral composer and on this disc is represented by just one work, his Svete tihiy (Gladsome Light) a pretty direct and straightforward setting, but none the less attractive for it.

Rachmaninov returns with Bogoroditse Devfo (Rejoice, O Virgin (Ave Maria)) from his All Night Vigil, a glorious, restrained, gently rising and falling setting before his Blazhen muzh (Blessed is the man) again from his All Night Vigil with a lovely opening for sopranos and tenors before the whole choir join with a lovely blend of voices, so finely paced and balanced – a wonderful performance of this, the most extended piece on this disc.

The beautifully written Otche nash (Our Father) from Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, where the composer uses typical Russian chant, beautifully and gently overlaying the voices in a performance that could not be bettered.

The third and final work by Chesnokov is his Heruvimskaya pesn (Cherubic Hymn) a gentle piece tending to favour the upper voices. Golovanov’s Otche nash (Our Father) brings the richness of the whole choir to great effect, a kind of restrained strength, gloriously done.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) has just one work performed here, a curious choice, his Legend (The Crown of Roses) from his Sixteen Songs for Children Op.54 sung in the English adaptation for unaccompanied choir that he made for a performance in New York. It comes as something of a surprise after the atmospheric textures of the preceding works but is finely sung by this choir.

Nikolay Kedrov (1871-1940), formerly an operatic baritone, went on to compose liturgical music including the piece performed here, Otche nash (Our Father), a work that shows how simplicity can be very effective with his gentle, richly textured setting. A lovely work.

To end this recording we have Rachmaninov’s Vzbrannoy voyevode (To Thee, O Victorious Leader) again from his All Night Vigil, a joyous conclusion, wonderfully sung.

Nigel Short has selected works that make a fine contrast for this terrific disc. 

The recording is excellent and there are full texts and English translations, as well as excellent notes by David Nice. All in all, a most recommendable disc.