Wednesday 30 April 2014

Excellent performances from Lü Jia and the Macau Orchestra in works by Chinese composer, Xiaogang Ye, on a new release from Naxos

Xiaogang Ye (b.1955) is regarded as one of the leading contemporary Chinese composers. He studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in China and, after graduation, he was appointed Resident Composer and Lecturer at the Central Conservatory of Music in China. He later studied at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester in New York. His teachers have been Minxin Du, Samuel Adler, Joseph Schwantner, Louis Andriessen and Alexander Goehr. Since 1993, Ye divides his time between Beijing and Exton, Pennsylvania.

Ye’s oeuvre comprises symphonic works, chamber music for various instruments and stage works, as well as film music. He has received numerous prizes and awards, among others the 1982 Alexander Tcherepnin prize, the 1986 Japan Dance Star Ballet prize, and awards from the Urban Council of Hong Kong (1987-94), the Taiwan Symphony Orchestra (1992), the China Cultural Promotion Society (1993), the Li Foundation, San Francisco (1994) and the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra (1996). He was a fellow of the Metropolitan Life Foundation and the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts in 1996, and of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 2012.

In August 2008, Ye's piano concerto Starry Sky was premiered, by Lang Lang, during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Accompanied by dance and light shows the live broadcast was watched by three billion people worldwide.

A new release from Naxos features the Macau Youth Choir and Macau Orchestra conducted by Lü Jia with Shi Yijie (tenor)  and Liu Mingyan (mezzo-soprano) in two works by Xiaogang Ye, His ballet suite The Macau Bride and Four Poems of Lingnan

The ballet, The Macau Bride, was commissioned by the Cultural Institute of the Macau SAR Government and premiered in 2001. It is based on a 17th century story set in Macau and Portugal in which a Chinese sailor and a Portuguese captain’s daughter fall in love. The Ballet Suite, Op. 34 (2001) is drawn from both the original ballet and two published suites.

A harp flourish then pizzicato strings opens Return to Sea before a vibraphone plays a light and jolly tune against the pizzicato orchestra. The tune is then shared between the vibraphone and other percussion before being taken up by the woodwind. The music rises to a peak before a trumpet enters and the theme is shared around orchestra. The music rises to a final climax to end, full of confidence.

What sounds very much like a Chinese bamboo flute opens Blessings and Devotion. before a gentle orchestral theme joins. A wordless choir soon adds its texture and atmosphere to this melody with a Chinese lilt. Soon the orchestral sound is even more Chinese in style with string sounds that resemble the erhu or Chinese viollion in this most attractive section. First Encounter brings a scurrying string theme with harp and descending woodwind phrases as well as some lovely woodwind flourishes.

A plaintive oboe opens The First Glance, the theme of which is taken by a flute before being developed into a rich romantic theme for the whole orchestra. The flute returns with a horn before the orchestral melody moves forward. A second subject leads with flute and oboe to the coda.

A pulsing rhythm underlines a string melody for Barra Docks. The Chinese sounding flute again enters as the tempo increases and the theme is taken forward with percussion adding a light texture. Unusual pizzicato sounds emerge before the music builds with the music dancing forward and the sound of the Chinese flute entering before the end.

In Gentle Moments, a theme for flute and hushed orchestra is soon taken up by the oboe in this rather French sounding opening. The full orchestra soon joins before horns rise upwards. The Chinese flute enters in a lovely theme before a piano takes the slow theme soon joined by a flute and oboe. Eventually the music raises the theme to a rich romantic tune, somewhat filmic but none the worse for that. The Chinese flute returns before the piano and flute both lead on, with the full orchestra returning in the rich romantic theme that becomes increasingly passionate. The flute returns to lead the music to a quiet end. This is a direct, yet hugely enjoyable section. 

A jaunty oboe theme with pizzicato strings opens Maria do Mar before the theme is shared around the orchestra. Soon there is a slow, longer breathed section, for flute, then oboe, then a mixture of wind instruments. The full orchestra leads to a richer version of the melody before a solo violin makes an appearance. The jaunty theme returns with a slightly Prokovievian feel.

Unbending Loyalty opens with a harp before the mezzo-soprano, Liu Mingyan, enters adding her wordless vocalising with a gentle orchestral accompaniment. Soon a flute plays a melody over harp arpeggios before the solo violin joins in this rising and falling theme and a flute announces the return of Liu Mingyan’s lovely voice.

Pulsating strings, soon joined by an oboe, open The Captain’s Mansion before the rest of orchestra join in this pulsating, forward moving theme. Brass add texture and rhythm as a glockenspiel and various instruments of the orchestra share in this rhythmically pulsating theme before the orchestra rises as the theme moves on in a rather intoxicating section that draws the listener on before its sudden end.

Wedding Reception brings the whole orchestra with percussion in a return to the more Chinese flavour before strings herald the return of the voiceless choir in a melody that has definite Chinese inflections. Soon the orchestra leads the music on in another romantic theme, slowly rising up before a climax with drums and percussion.

Those who wish for more demanding music, of greater depth, will perhaps not respond to this music. However, for all its lighter nature this is music that has a natural beauty, finely orchestrated. 

The Macau Youth Choir and Macau Orchestra conducted by Lü Jia provide fine performances whilst mezzo-soprano, Liu Mingyan, is in excellent voice.

Four Poems of Lingnan, Op. 62 (2011) was commissioned by the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Macau and the Macau Orchestra and sets poems by a number of poets from early dynasties on the subject of Lingnan, a region of Southern China.

Bidding Farewell to a Friend to the South of the Five Ridges brings a gentle orchestral opening with flute before tenor, Shi Yijie enters. There are gentle dissonances here and a lovely orchestral backdrop to the tenor’s fine voice. This setting that opens on the words, ‘The overlapping mountains of old Jiaozhou’, is full of drama and poetry with a dynamic orchestral ending.

Fluttering woodwind lead into the faster moving The Best for Huizhou,a buoyant setting evoking the opening words, ‘Under the Luofu Mountain all seasons are spring’, where Shi Yijie brings a melodic freshness to the music. Again, subtle little dissonances intrude as the melody flows quickly forward.

A slow gentle melody opens Bidding Farewell to Li Meizhou before the tenor sings a gentle plaintive setting with some sensitive, poetic orchestral passages with exquisite woodwind sounds. Shi Yijie is terrific, particularly in the coda, showing fine control.

Brass open Ascending the Zhenhai Tower at Chongyang Day, before orchestral flourishes introduce the tenor. There are swirling orchestral sounds between the sung texts. This tenor has a powerful voice, rising to the climaxes magnificently and beautifully controlled in the final poetic conclusion.

If the ballet suite is a lighter, romantic work, then the settings of poems are deeper and more adventurous in their language. Lü Jia and the Macau Orchestra provide excellent accompaniments to tenor, Shi Yijie’s, fine voice.

With excellent performances and a fine recording, this new release will appeal to many. There are informative booklet notes and full English translations of the Chinese texts. More information about some of the instruments used would have been useful.

Monday 28 April 2014

Beautifully crafted works for string orchestra by Barbara Harbach on a release from MSR Records

A disc that has recently come my way is of Music for Strings by Barbara Harbach featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra  conducted by David Angus  from MSR Classics

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MSR Records have already issued a number of recordings of Harbach’s music covering orchestral works, chamber works, organ music and vocal music. This current release is volume 7 in this series.

Barbara Harbach, professor of music at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has a large catalogue of works, including symphonies, operas, works for string orchestra, musicals, works for chamber ensembles, film scores, modern ballets, pieces for organ, harpsichord and piano, choral anthems and many arrangements for brass and organ of various Baroque works. She is also involved in the research, editing, publication and recording of manuscripts of eighteenth-century keyboard composers, as well as historical and contemporary women composers.

In June, 2009, her musical, Booth! was premiered at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City where it won a competition at the Tisch School of the Arts. O Pioneers! – An American Opera was premiered, in October, 2009, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

Harbach has toured extensively as both concert organist and harpsichordist throughout the United States and Canada, and overseas in Bosnia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Romania, Serbia and Russian Siberia.

Harbach holds academic degrees from Pennsylvania State University (B.A.), Yale University (M.M.A.), Musikhochschule (Konzertdiplom) in Frankfurt, Germany, and the Eastman School of Music (D.M.A.). In 2002, she received an honorary doctorate in music, Honoris Causa, from Wilmington College, Ohio for her lifetime achievement as a composer, performer, editor and publisher.

Barbara Harbach initiated Women in the Arts-St. Louis, a celebration of the achievements of women creators for which she was the recipient of the Arts Education Award from the Missouri Arts Council, the Missouri Citizen for the Arts Award, the Yellow Rose Award from the Zonta International Club of St. Louis and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, College of Fine Arts and Communication, Faculty Excellence Award. In 2007 she was awarded the Hellenic Spirit Foundation Award and, in 2011, she was awarded the Grand Center Visionary Award for ‘Successful Working Artist,’ the Argus Foundation Award, and the YWCA Leader of Distinction Award in the Arts.

The first work on this disc is Harbach’s three movement Sinfonietta (2010). The strings descend from heights in the opening of Hommage, a movement dedicated to all lost love and loved ones. This is a melody that has depth and sadness, with some rich sonorities in the basses as the music swirls forward with lovely string sounds. The music quietens to a hush before gently moving on to a rhythmic section pointed up by pizzicato violins before opening out in the flowing melody of the opening. Harbach certainly knows how to use strings to great effect.

Jeu Jeu takes a theme from Harbach’s opera O Pioneers and is a lively, rhythmically buoyant movement that has a fine transparency with, again, the basses pointing up the music.  Soon there is section that recalls the melancholy thoughtfulness of the opening movement before the music returns to the rhythmic nature of the opening. Pastiche opens with a fresh, joyous, syncopated theme that eventually bounces forward full of life.

This is a terrific piece that should take its place alongside some of the great works for string orchestra from the past.

In Memoriam: Turn Round, O My Soul (2010) is a eulogy and elegy for All Souls Day opening on the lower strings before the rest of the orchestra join in this lovely, flowing theme, full of deep feeling. Harbach keeps the music moving, as though not wishing to dwell too long on such painful memories. The music rises to a central passionate climax only to end gently.

Freedom Suite (2010) is inspired by the life of Harriet and Dred Scott, slaves who sued for their freedom in 1847. It is also in three movements with the first, Harriet Scott – A Strong Woman opening with rustic dance rhythms. Although this theme is based on a spiritual, the strings do hint at a repeated ‘ho down’ tune but with much subtlety in this attractive section. Another spiritual arrives in the slow section, a more nostalgic passage with a melody for the cellos. The dance rhythms return leading to the coda where the two themes are overlaid.

Eliza and Lizzie – Let My People Go has a magnificent opening high in the strings before a flowing melody, punctuated by a bass pulse arrives. This leads to another hushed section before another fine melody with individual instruments weaving throughout the string orchestra. Another hushed section appears before the main melody joins, bringing a strong sense of yearning.

The music rapidly rises up to open Freedom – At Last before a fugal section arrives with some terrific writing for strings where, underneath, the melody of another spiritual can be heard. A timeless sounding slower theme arrives but soon the theme of the opening returns for the coda.

This is another terrific piece so well crafted.

Two Songs from the Sacred Harp (2010) has two movements, The Morning Trumpet where the orchestra announces the theme before it is taken into a more flowing version decorated by a solo viola, then violin before being subjected to a fugue and Chester where swirling strings lead to a theme that enters low in the strings. The upper strings continue to swirl over the bass theme before the various sections of the string orchestra each enter, with the theme, in another fugue. The movement concludes with the return of the opening.

The three movement Demarest Suite (2009/10) was commissioned by the Northern Valley Regional High Scholl in Demarest, New Jersey. The suite opens with Echoes of Our Youth with a rhythmic pulse in the lower strings before the rest of the orchestra enter, flowing forward in a fine melody. Soon a less confident variation intrudes before returning to the opening theme, though still subjected to hesitant moments as well as confidence swirling sections before leading to a confident coda.

With Remember the Ladies Tango a moderately paced tango rhythm soon becomes more flowing, though with the rhythmic pulse remaining. There is often a slight Mediterranean flavour to this music.

Joyous Day places a string quintet within the double string orchestra. This movement sparkles right from the opening with a dance rhythm that allows the music to move forward.

An upward rising motif opens Nights in Timisoara (2010) with the orchestra soaring before settling to a quieter, slower moving melody, full of feeling. Soon a dance rhythm appears with pizzicato violins in a tango rhythm around which the orchestra moves. The music slowly builds before falling to allow another dance rhythm that is played in fugue. The opening rising motifs return to lead quickly to the conclusion on a pizzicato note.

Lilia Polka (2009) is great fun in this arrangement of a Polka by Kate Chopin (1850-1904) so deftly arranged by Barbara Harbach.

David Angus and the strings of the London Philharmonic Orchestra give terrific performances of these works. Barbara Harbach is revealed here as a fine composer whose beautifully crafted works will give endless enjoyment.

The recording, from the Henry Wood Hall, London is first rate and there are excellent booklet notes. 

Sunday 27 April 2014

A new recording from Orfeo with Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan and Til Eulenspiegel sweeps the board

There is no shortage of fine recordings of the tone poems of Richard Strauss (1864-1949). So how does a new recording from Orfeo  with Andris Nelsons  and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra  featuring Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan and Til Eulenspiegel fare?

Well quite frankly it sweeps the board with performances and recordings that are quite exceptional.

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The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has been extremely lucky in its choice of conductor with, of course, Sir Simon Rattle directing them for many years, before Sakari Oramo took over followed by Andris Nelsons in 2007.

Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30 (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is subtitled Tondichtung frei nach Friedrich Nietzsche fur großes Orchester or Freely after Friedrich Nietzsche for large orchestra and was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical novel of the same name.

The famous opening of the Introduktion has all the drama and impact one could want, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra timpani giving it all they’ve got and the Symphony Hall organ sounding brilliantly through. Von den Hinterweltlern (Of the backworldsmen) is not rushed, allowing all the fine string textures to emerge. The music receives an enormous breadth and detail with Strauss’ little orchestral details showing through. Each little change of tempo and feel is expertly done in Van der großen Sehnsucht (Of the great longing), with the organ taking its rightful part in this finely balanced recording. The surges in dynamics and tempo sound so right.

Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of the joys and passions) has all the forward, unstoppable quality needed, a terrific swirl of orchestral sound that is quite irresistible. The woodwind of the CBSO are terrific in Das Grablied (The funeral song) with a fine contribution from the leader of the CBSO (who is not credited but is presumably Laurence Jackson). The rich, low basses are terrific in Von der Wissenschaft (Of science) enhanced by the fine acoustic of Symphony Hall and this fine recording, as the orchestra slowly heaves itself up from the depths, so finely judged by Nelsons, before leaping into the upper strings, is full of life with some terrific woodwind passages.

When the opening theme returns thunderously in Der Genesende (The Convalescent) it is a wonderful moment. All Strauss’ tapestry of wind sounds, later on in this section, are done with such virtuosity and clarity with every detail sounding through. Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song) brings more fine playing from the leader as Nelsons brings a lovely light touch, full of Viennese charm. I don’t think I’ve heard this played with such dash and flair for a long time. There is a lovely passage for oboe and solo violin  before the fine strings of the CBSO lead on in a beautifully done culmination for orchestra, magnificently done and quite thrilling and leading to a lovely Das Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer), so sensitively done as the music drops to its hushed coda.

Don Juan, Op.20 has a glorious opening full of energy with Nelsons never holding back, hurtling forward. Lovely sonorities appear and, again, the leader provides some lovely solo playing before the second subject, a glorious romantic theme. There is terrific weight to the orchestra in the surges of orchestral drama and some lovely wind passages. Nelsons controls the dynamics beautifully with some fine hushed orchestral playing. The horns triumphantly announce the main theme before dashing forward to a glorious climax with the CBSO full of swagger, bringing out all of Strauss’ richly orchestrated melody leading to the hushed death of the Don.

From the lilting opening of Til Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28, this is a brilliantly taut performance showing the fine ensemble of the CBSO in Nelsons’ hands. There are some terrific instrumental flourishes in the sudden outburst a few minutes into the piece and, later, some extremely fine solo playing from the leader. Nelsons brings a drama to this tone poem that points up so much, especially in this superb recording. How Nelsons quickly turns the music into a jolly tune then suddenly back to a thoughtful, quiet section is superbly judged. There is spectacularly fine playing from the CBSO as the work progresses with so many fine points before Til also meets his end with a terrific final flourish.

What more can I say? This is as fine a release for Strauss’ 150th anniversary as any you’ll likely to hear. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is an orchestra at the top of its form. As I have already mentioned the recording from Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England is spectacularly good and there are informative booklet notes.

Don’t miss this terrific disc.

Friday 25 April 2014

Extremely fine performances of symphonies by Johann Nepomuk David from Johannes Wildner and the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien on a new release from CPO

The Austrian composer, Johann Nepomuk David (1895-1977), studied at St Florian near Linz before going on to study with Joseph Marx at the Vienna Academy. He worked as a school teacher, organist and choirmaster before teaching at the conservatories in Leipzig, Salzburg then Stuttgart.

Most of his early compositions were lost or destroyed. His later works are influenced by Paul Hindemith and Max Reger and, later, incorporated serial techniques. His compositions include Das Choralwerk, twenty one volumes of organ music, two violin concertos and eight symphonies, two of which are features on a new release from CPO

Johannes Wildner  conducts the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien in performances of Symphony No.1 in A minor and Symphony No.6. Johannes Wildner is well known for his numerous recordings for a number of record companies including symphonic works by Joseph Marx also with the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, on CPO. 
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Pizzicato strings open the Allegro moderato of David’s Symphony No.1 in A minor, Op.18 (1936/37) before a woodwind melody soon appears, giving way to a more expansive version of the theme. There are certain Hindemithian overtones but this is distinctive music that knows where it is going. Soon the music slows and quietens with pizzicato strings appearing.  The music takes off again in the strings in this forward moving theme where there are some attractive woodwind moments. This music has a terrific forward pulse and some lovely orchestral sonorities. The music eventually rises to a dynamic climax full of contrapuntal textures. A lovely woodwind passage with pizzicato strings leads to the settled coda.

A rhythmic plod opens the Andante Sostenuto, a serious theme that gives way to a more flowing woodwind section, a rather plaintive melody. Soon the brass join the pizzicato strings adding a pulse. Again there are lovely woodwind parts in this movement which soon becomes more passionate. However, the plodding tempo returns before the sound of a wind ensemble appears and the strings pick up on the theme. David has an attractive way of shifting the melody around the orchestra. Eventually the music rises up passionately again, predominantly in the strings before the pizzicato strings return, almost funereal, leading to the end.

A light and airy string theme opens the Allegro assai with attractive woodwind decoration and still that intense contrapuntal texture. A slow broad central section arrives before the fast music of the opening returns more emphatically to conclude.

The orchestra rushes straight into the string textures of Allegro con brio with more lovely woodwind motifs before the themes are woven in terrific contrapuntal music. David uses all the sections of the orchestra in his weaving of musical lines before leading through an impressive layering of sounds to arrive at a formidably strong coda.

This is a distinctive and engrossing work that is well worth repeated hearing.

A burst of orchestra opens the Allegro of Symphony No.6, Op.46 (1954/66), the orchestra moving quickly forward before slowing to a quieter reflective passage. The music soon rises up again full of outward flow, music of excitement, joy and energy and a great outpouring of interwoven ideas. The movement eventually reaches a peak to conclude.

A rather sad melody opens the Adagio with beautiful shifting harmonies and a lovely passage for flute. The music then rises up with a sudden string outpouring before brass enter, then various woodwind as the theme is shared around the orchestra. Eventually the music quietens to a lovely woodwind melody with strings before trumpets rise up. However, the music again drops to a gentle hushed section for shimmering strings, a gorgeous moment where David provides some extremely attractive blends of instrumental sound. Pizzicato strings and a flute melody lead the music towards its gentle, hushed coda.

In the unusual Wiener Walzer, a note from woodwind and side drum open the movement before strings enter in a flowing theme, still pointed up by the side drum. The music rises up and develops rhythmically into a veiled waltz rhythm heard through a tapestry of instrumental sounds before descending to a strange passage for woodwind and strings. The waltz theme appears again, as if in a dream, but the music rises up with the waltz theme all but hidden in the dynamic orchestral texture. Later a xylophone heralds a strange, dramatic section as the orchestra builds to a climax, suddenly cut off to allow for a quiet wind section to bring about the coda.

The Allegro opens with a strong, forward thrusting orchestra rising to a joyous outpouring before moderating, with woodwind weaving around the theme. A xylophone lightens the texture and David, again, weaves such a fine orchestral tapestry, often full of drama and momentum. Eventually the music drops to a melancholy brass chorale, to which woodwind eventually add a most attractive sound in this lovely section. A gong sounds as the wind ensemble carries on forward before the music suddenly takes off with the whole orchestra, including xylophone, leading to a resolute coda.

Through much of this symphony, David creates a terrific blend of woven instrumental sounds. This is music that is full of life, ideas, textures and contrapuntal ingenuity.

Performance from Johannes Wildner and the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien conducted are extremely fine. There is an excellent recording from the Grosser Sendesaal, ORF Funkhaus and booklet notes with musical examples.

Those who are attracted to the music of Hindemith will certainly enjoy these works but, in the way that Johann David takes his music further in a way that is forward looking yet still retaining a melodic core, there is a wider interest.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

A highly desirable recording of accompanied keyboard sonatas by John Garth from Gary Cooper and the Avison Ensemble from Divine Art

John Garth (1721-1810) was baptised in the parish church of Witton-le-Wear in County Durham, England. His first post was as organist at St. Edmund’s Church in Sedgfield, later becoming organist to the Bishop of Durham at his official residence at Auckland Castle. He made the acquaintance of another prominent composer from the North East of England, Charles Avison with whom he was to later organise concerts in Durham.

His compositions include Cello Concertos, Op.1, Organ Voluntaries, Op.3 and five sets of accompanied keyboard sonatas of which the Op.2 and Op.4 sets have been recorded by Divine Art Recordings

Fortepianist and harpsichordist, Gary Cooper  joins the Avison Ensemble  on this new 2 CD release. Divine Art have already released an acclaimed recording of Garth’s six cello concertos (DDA 25059) as well as a number of recordings of the music of Charles Avison featuring the Avison Ensemble. I already know just how good this ensemble is and have a number of their Avison recordings on my shelves.

The members of the Avison Ensemble for these performances consist of Pavlo Beznosiuk and Caroline Balding (violins) and Richard Tunnicliffe (cello).
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First on this new set are the six sonatas, Op.2, published in 1768, each of which are in two movements. In the Sonata in G major, Op.2 No.1 it is immediately apparent what a fine sound these four players make in Garth’s lively Allegro with its winning tune. There are lovely harpsichord flourishes around the superb string textures. There is a joyful Rondeau: Allegro with a lovely forward flow and a fine central section with lovely interplay between strings and harpsichord.

For the Sonata in F major, Op.2 No.2 Gary Cooper moves to the fortepiano. There is a fine balance between fortepiano and strings in this nicely textured Allegro that has a more delicate texture and some terrific playing from Gary Cooper. The Presto has some fine long lines with these players providing a terrific blend of textures. Gary Cooper is so fluent in the fortepiano part.

Cooper returns to the harpsichord for Sonata in C minor, Op.2 No.3 in which the Allegro has an appealing melody, nicely pointed up by the harpsichord in the opening. Indeed there is something of an equal partnership in this movement with the harpsichord providing much of the accompaniment. The Tempo di minuetto has a lovely rhythmic flow with some very attractive moments for the harpsichord, but it is the strings that provide the lovely textures.

Gary Cooper plays the organ for Sonata in E flat major, Op.2 No.4 where in the Allegro moderato the strings again dominate in the opening before the organ takes the prominent role. The organ has a suitably small sound that fits well with the ensemble. Again Garth provides another memorable tune. The short Rondeau: Presto is full of life and good humour.

Garth’s writing for harpsichord is most attractive providing transparency and fine textures. In the Allegro of Sonata in A major, Op.2 No.5 Gary Cooper is terrific with superb articulation and a great sense of phrasing. Nobody could fail to be entranced by this music which has some fine interplay between strings and harpsichord. There is lovely string playing in the lilting Tempo di minuetto that has a lovely flow and rhythm.

For the final sonata of this set, Sonata in E major, Op.2 No.6, Cooper returns to the fortepiano. There is another attractive rising and falling theme in the Moderato with some lovely moments for fortepiano. A sparkling Presto with some really fine playing from these artists and some particularly florid passages for fortepiano ends this piece.

There is much variety in the Op.2 sonatas with Garth’s memorable themes a particularly attractive feature.

The six sonatas Op.4, from around 1772, are also in a two movement form. Sonata in C major, Op.4 No.1 has another fine opening, an Allegro, though this time with a little more thoughtfulness in its forward movement. Again the sounds these players provide are terrific with vibrant harpsichord and the full, yet transparent, combination of two violins and cello. There are some lovely passages for harpsichord, brilliantly played by Cooper. The Vivace has a nice swagger to it, a lovely spring in its rhythms.

Sonata in E minor, Op.4 No.2 brings Gary Cooper back to the fortepiano with a terrific Allegro that hurtles along with an infectious rhythmic melody. These players are so full of vitality not to mention superb musicianship. The Tempo di minuetto is another of Garth’s fine movements in this form.

The Allegro moderato of Sonata in B flat major, Op.4 No.3 has a lovely, well sprung theme with these players providing a terrific rhythmic quality before the leisurely, flowing Tempo di minuetto with some particularly beautiful, quieter passages where the harpsichord gently shows and combines with the strings.

Returning to the harpsichord, Gary Cooper hurtles off in the Allegro assai of Sonata in D major, Op.4 No.4 whilst there is buoyant playing from the strings in this infectious movement. The lovely Tempo di gavotta: Allegro has a simple yet very attractive tune with these players weaving wonders around the music.

Sonata in E flat major, Op.4 No.5 opens with a lovely, fresh Allegro with the harpsichord and strings responding to each other in the attractive theme. Again there are some fine solo passages for harpsichord, fabulously played. The second movement is a fast moving Spiritoso that receives equally fine playing from these artists.

Gary Cooper turns to the organ for this final sonata of this set, Sonata in G minor, Op.4 No.6 a work that has as much attraction as some of Handel’s organ concertos.

There is a breadth and freshness to the Allegro that is wholly appealing in another of Garth’s fine melodies and a distinctive beautifully turned Rondeau: Allegro that makes for a fine conclusion to this first rate release.

I notice that I have use the word infectious a number of times in this review but that is the only word to describe these performances. The playing of Gary Cooper and the Avison Ensemble has so much verve and life in sonatas that are full of fine tunes that stick in the mind long after listening to them.

The recording, from the fine acoustic of St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire, England, is excellent and there are interesting notes giving the background to John Garth and the music making in his home area of Durham.

This is a highly desirable issue that will give endless enjoyment.

Monday 21 April 2014

An extremely attractive and entertaining disc of contemporary works for recorder and guitar receive very fine playing from Duo Oldrup/Lauridsen

It is always exciting to hear music from composers that one has not previously heard of. A new disc from Gateway Music features five separate composers, of which I am only familiar with one, Vagn Holmboe. The others, Ole Buck, Christos Farmakis, Frode Barth and Hermann Rechberger, whilst new to me, certainly provide some attractive and fascinating music.
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This disc features the recorder and guitar partnership of Christina Lauridsen and Peter Oldrup who perform under the name of Duo Oldrup/Lauridsen

Danish composer Ole Buck (b.1945)   studied the piano from the age of twelve and achieved a breakthrough at the age of twenty, with Calligraphy for soprano and chamber orchestra. He later studied in Aarhus, producing such works as Fioriture (1965) for flute and piano and Punctuations (1968) for orchestra. Buck's Summertrio (1968) for flute, guitar and cello indicated a new direction for Danish music, often termed the 'new simplicity'. More recently his compositions have included Microcosm (1992) for string quartet, Rivers and Mountains (1994) for orchestra and Flower Ornament Music (2002) for chamber group.

It is his Petite Suite (1994) that features on this release. Part I has a lovely little figuration for descant recorder around the quieter guitar part. Whilst there is often a dissonance to the music, it is always melodic with some lovely variations of the theme before a brilliant coda.

Part II is based on a rising and falling, often repeated motif that is attractive in its simplicity, with a central section that has rapid, alternating solo passages before a particularly attractive coda.

Part III is full of varying rhythms with some attractive drooping phrases for recorder and some delightful writing for both instruments.

This is a delightful little work that receives a lovely performance from these two fine artists.

Christos Farmakis (b.1981) was born in Greece and studied music theory and harmony in Thessaloniki and counterpoint and fugue in Athens. Since 2007 he has lived in Copenhagen, where he studied composition with Hans Abrahamsen, Bent Sørensen, Niels Rosing-Schow and electroacoustic composition with Hans Peter Stubbe Teglbjærg, at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

Farmakis’ work for bass recorder and guitar is entitled “9” (2008 rev. 2012) and opens on a repeated note from the guitar and is developed as the bass recorder enters with its distinctive character fully brought out in this composer’s writing. Slowly the guitar provides more expansive chords as the recorder rises to its upper range in playing of some virtuosity becoming, at times, quite agitated. Eventually the music falls to a quieter section, again with Lauridsen providing some fine sounds using a variety of techniques. There is much sensitive playing from Oldrup in this atmospheric music, full of lovely sounds.

Van Holmboe (1909-1996) was, of course, one of Denmark’s most distinguished 20th century composers. His music is no stranger to the recording studio but I hadn’t heard his Canto e Danza (1992) before. The first part, Canción de siege opens with a sultry melody for guitar with Oldrup drawing some lovely textures from his instrument. The recorder soon joins adding to the Iberian feel of this piece, apparently inspired by a Spanish harvest song. Both players bring a delicacy to the music in many of the passages. There is a faster central section full of fine dexterous playing from both artists and a final slow variation that again conjures lovely images.

The second of the two pieces is Danza, a lively dance with a melancholy middle section that provides some lovely little flourishes for the recorder before leading to a livelier coda.

Norwegian composer, Frode Barth (b.1968) is widely recognized for his contributions to jazz, contemporary and popular music, performing as guitarist with musicians that have included Oscar Peterson. Barth is a graduate of the Music program at Foss videregående skole and completed the instrumental teaching course at the Barratt Due Institute of Music.

He is now active as a guitarist, composer, educator and producer, and has collaborated with a wide range of musicians, and contributed to and released a number of albums, visited festivals in Norway and around the World, and participated in a number of TV and radio programmes.

The Cure (1992) is in three movements. Both instruments enter in a rhythmically varying melody in Towards the Cure, a very attractive piece to which both performers bring much beauty. Soon the music grows faster with some terrific rhythmic playing before the opening tempo returns to conclude.

Thermal Waters brings more fiercely rhythmic playing from the guitar as the recorder plays a lively theme to which the guitar eventually adds a counterpoint. There is a short solo passage for recorder before many varying rhythmic variations. The heavy strumming from the guitar leads to the coda.

There is a sultry feel to Those who Live in Autumn, with a lovely melody for the recorder and an attractive line for the guitar. There are some fine effects for the guitar as the movement progresses and some terrific ensemble from these two players. This duo brings so much to these pieces, with lovely textures, colour and rhythmic flair.

Barth shows in this work that he has a gift for melody that is combined with terrific rhythms.

Finnish composer, Hermann Rechberger (b.1947) was born in Linz , Austria. He studied graphic art and guitar playing in Linz, before continuing his guitar studies in Zurich and Brussels . He studied composition with Aulis Sallinen at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki as well as electronic music, guitar and oboe. Rechberger has since studied Arab rhythms, for which he wrote the book The Rhythm in Arabian Music in 2003, and djembe playing and African rhythms.

Rechberger has composed five operas and more than 200 works for choir, orchestra, and chamber music ensembles.  His works have won numerous national and international awards.

Rechberger's Eyktime (1990) - In honour of Jacob van Eyck is a tribute to the blind recorder player and composer, Jacob van Eyck (c.1590-1657). The guitar opens with a strong chord and an intricate motif before the recorder joins in an attractive theme full of little trills and outbursts as the piece gains momentum. This is extremely virtuosic music giving both players much to do and drawing on many techniques, full of attractive ideas wonderfully realised by these two players. There is a short solo section for the recorder before the guitar re- joins, Lauridsen drawing some amazing textures in this passage. For all the challenges of this piece these players seem to have enormous fun – they certainly come across as full of life and fun. There are also some fine melodic moments before the music arrives at a fast section with some terrific, rather wild playing from the recorder against a repeated motif for the guitar. But it is the recorder that gets the final say.

There is never a dull moment in this piece.

This is an extremely attractive and entertaining disc with very fine playing from Duo Oldrup/Lauridsen. It is very nicely recorded at the Studio Hall of the Royal Danish Academy of Music with an ideal balance between the two instruments. There are useful booklet notes.

Saturday 19 April 2014

A fine collection of piano works by Howard Blake receives terrific performances from Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy on a new release from Decca

Howard Blake (b. 1938) is best known for his music for the 1982 film The Snowman that includes the song Walking In The Air. Yet his compositions include concertos, oratorios, ballets, operas and many instrumental works.

Blake was born in London but grew up in Brighton, Sussex.  Whilst attending Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School for boys he sang lead parts in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and was recognised as a talented pianist. At the age of 18 years Blake won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music to study piano with Harold Craxton and composition with Howard Ferguson. Finding himself at odds with his contemporaries concerning musical style he virtually stopped composing, turning his attention to film.

On leaving the RAM he briefly worked as a film projectionist at the National Film Theatre before playing piano in pubs and clubs for a period of time. Working as a session musician on many recordings led his to work as an arranger and a composer, a role which gradually became his full-time occupation

Blake has written numerous film scores, including The Duellists with Sir Ridley Scott and David Puttnam, which gained the Special Jury Award at the Cannes Festival in 1977, A Month in the Country with Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth which gained him the British Film Institute Anthony Asquith Award for musical excellence in 1989, and, of course, The Snowman, which was nominated for an Oscar.

Blake’s concert works include a piano concerto commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra for the 30th birthday of Princess Diana in 1991, a violin concerto to celebrate the centenary of the City of Leeds in 1993, a cantata to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations in 1995 and the large-scale choral/orchestral work, Benedictus (1980).

More recent works include Lifecycle – Twenty four pieces for solo piano  (2003), Songs of Truth and Glory (2005), commissioned for the Three Choirs Festival, The Land of Counterpane (2007) a song-cycle to words by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Howard Blake is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and, in 1994, received the OBE for services to music.

A new release from Decca , entitled Walking in the Air, features piano works by Blake performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Vovka Ashkenazy . The works on this disc give an excellent view of Blake’s work ranging in date from 1955 to 2013.

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The title of this new release could, at first sight, be taken to indicate a collection of lightweight pieces. However, the composer of the music for The Snowman reveals himself to be a composer of substance in some terrific pieces played superbly by Ashkenazy.

What can one say about Blake’s music for The Snowman? Walking in the Air, Op.489u (1982) is a tune in a million and, as played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, has a beautiful richness of texture.

There are two further film related pieces on this disc, first Music Box (from The Changeling), Op. 489n (1979) that has so many distinctive Blake features, yet with an early 20th century quality and some lovely touches from Ashkenazy. Laura (from The Duellists), Op. 604 (1977) has some surprisingly dissonant intervals that make this a very attractive piece.

Written for Vladimir Ashkenazy, Prelude for Vova, Op.640 (2012) has similar features and, though relatively short, is a work of some substance that rises to a rousing climax with terrific playing from Ashkenazy.

Speech After Long Silence, Op.610 (2011) is a haunting piece that rises to a number of climaxes with some rather difficult, quite unusual passages. When the main theme re-appears it is a terrific moment.

Eight Character Pieces (1975) opens with a Prelude: Andantino that has Blake’s distinctive rising intervals that are instantly identifiable. This is a lovely little piece. Nocturne: Andantino sounds like a tribute to Chopin with its trills and certain intervals. For all that, it is a gorgeous piece, with Ashkenazy providing all that one could want. Impromptu: Cantabile has Ashkenazy showing his incomparable technique in playing of formidable delicacy and lightness of touch. Toccatina: Vivo, an even faster piece than the Impromptu, again shows Ashkenazy’s terrific technique in this little gem that, again, has hints of Chopin.

Mazurka: Tempo di mazurka is fascinating in that, through the mazurka rhythm, one can again hear Blake’s distinctive fingerprints, those rising intervals. Walking Song: Semplice is simple, direct, yet full of character and feeling whilst the slow Chaconne in D minor: Lento has strange intervals and harmonies that slowly build in strength to a climax with superb playing from Ashkenazy particularly in the later cascading, descending passage. The final piece, Scherzo in D major: Prestissimo, hurtles forward before a slow affecting melody that is soon replaced when the prestissimo again pulls us forward at breakneck speed to a coda that returns to the slow tune.

Vladimir Ashkenazy is joined by, Vovka Ashkenazy for the Dances for Two Pianos, Op.217a (1976). Parade: Allegro is a rollicking piece, full of fun, Slow Ragtime has a lovely gentle pulse, Jump: Allegro an attractive syncopated rhythm,

Medium Rock has a nostalgic theme, still with a rhythmic pulse and in Folk Ballad: Lento Blake develops a simple folksy theme into something more substantial.

Boogie, tempo giusto is, again, great fun, full of manic humour with these pianists on fine form and enjoying themselves, Jazz Waltz is a terrific little waltz with, as the title suggests, jazz inflections, the infectious Cha-cha is given a lovely rhythmic pulse whilst the Dances conclude with a madcap Galop.

Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy are absolutely brilliant in this work.

The Allegro of Sonata for two pianos, Op.130 (1971) has a rather strident opening before the lines of the two pianos quieten and open out. There are many dramatic moments with some fabulous playing of great accuracy from Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy as well as moments of intense, nervous energy. The Lento brings some beautiful dissonances as the two pianists make their way through this haunting landscape, rising to a number of peaks before ending quietly.

There are terrific rhythms in the Scherzando that rattles ahead with each player chasing the other. In the final Presto these pianists burst out in the opening with powerful playing before a gentler section appears that doesn’t last long. This is virtuosic music that requires players of the utmost virtuosity which is exactly what it gets here. A stunning conclusion to a work that will give a surprise to anyone expecting the Howard Blake of The Snowman.

The early Piano Fantasy, Op.1 (1955) has a quiet, tranquil English atmosphere that gives way to a lively, buoyant central section before descending into the tranquillity of the opening theme. This piece is beautifully realised by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Comparing this with Blake’s later work shows that his music has lost none of his early freshness and life.

Four Easy Pieces, Op.1b (1956) has a spiky little Moderato, a gentle Valse triste that has a beautiful nostalgic feel, and a lively Con moto before the melancholy Andantino. Ashkenazy takes such care, always drawing all he can from these simple little pieces

Romanza, Op.489o (originally Op.5f) (1963) Andante con moto is a flowing piece that rises to a lovely climax. It is a beautiful piece full of atmosphere.

Haiku for Yu-Chee, Op.567 (2006) brings a halting little theme showing how Blake can draw so much from so little.

This fine collection of piano works concludes with Parting, Op.650a (2013), a brief, sad, haunting piece.

I do hope that the popularity of The Snowman will not have the opposite effect of discouraging serious collectors from trying this worthwhile and attractive disc. There are some extremely fine works here that receive terrific performances.

The recording made at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England is first class and there are excellent booklet notes by the composer. 

Thursday 17 April 2014

Voices of Exile, a fine choral work from Richard Blackford, in a first rate performance from the Bach Choir, New London Children’s Choir and Philharmonia Orchestra directed by David Hill with soloists Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Gregory Kunde and Gerald Finley on a new release from Nimbus

Back in November 2012 I was particularly impressed by a new release from Nimbus of works by Richard Blackford (b.1954) , his Mirror of Perfection and Choral Anthems.

Now from Nimbus comes another of Blackford’s choral works, Voices of Exile. It was back in 1992 that Blackford recorded a 15-year-old refugee girl, Kamla, in the Kalighat slum area of Calcutta. Her village had been destroyed by drought and she, like hundreds of thousands, lived on Calcutta’s streets. When her family left her village they had to walk for days and consequently could take none of their few possessions. All she could bring with her, she said, were her songs, a link with her village, her past and her culture. 

It was not until 2001that Blackford was able to incorporate Kamla’s song into Voices of Exile which also sets words from a variety of sources. David Hill directs the Bach Choir, New London Children’s Choir  and Philharmonia Orchestra  with soloists Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano) , Gregory Kunde (tenor)  and Gerald Finley (baritone)

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Prelude (Tenor Solo and Chorus) is a setting of Poetry after Auschwitz by Tony Harrison. Two drum taps, an echo of timpani and a solo violin playing an astringent theme leads to the solo tenor, Gregory Kunde, in the poignant words,

Redeeming fire melts only wax redeeming fire meant to invoke
the souls from Auschwitz chimney stacks their destiny of smoke

Eventually Kunde is accompanied firstly by the solo violin, then the orchestra in this dramatic theme. When the choir enters, the tenor rises up in passion before descending to just the tenor and solo violin to end.

PART I Memories of Home 

Bengal (Chorus with tape) sets a Bengali folksong in the recording of Kamla Chaudhuri as well as words by Taslima Nasrin from Bangladesh. Kamla sings the opening before chorus enters followed by a spoken text with choral background ‘A year has passed and I am one year older, but the new year has brought no hope of freedom…’ Towards the end, the text is spoken in a variety of overlaid languages.

Tibet (Baritone Solo and Children’s Choir) sets the poem Memories of Tibet by Gergyi Tsering Gonpo and opens with light textures from a variety of percussion before a syncopated orchestral theme. The New London Children’s Choir takes over from Baritone, Gerald Finley who returns later, adding something of an operatic quality in the way he pushes the drama forward.

Zaire (Chorus) sets Kin the Beautiful by Mabiala Molu, in strongly rhythmic music in some somewhat reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein. There is some fine choral singing from the Bach Choir with a strong climax at the end and running straight into a cry from the Somali singer, Osman Dugleh that opens Part II.

PART II Journeys 

Somalia (Tenor Solo with tape). Osman Dugleh’s cry leads into the tenor solo part with a hushed orchestra and rumbling drums as Gregory Kunde sings the words of ‘Fleeing’ by Abdirahman Mirreh, a particularly poignant moment, both musically and textually. Blackford does a remarkable job in making his orchestra leave traces of world music within the texture.

Tibet (Baritone Solo) brings more verses by Gergyi Tsering GonpoCrossing the Frontier.’ It is a recording of Gonpo’s gentle voice that is accompanied by the orchestra before baritone, Gerald Finley, joins in this flowing, affecting melody. Blackford’s setting of the words, ‘How can I slip away like this,’ somehow brings to mind Michael Tippett’s of ‘A Child of Our Time.’

Austria – Passacaglia (Chorus and Children’s Chorus) returns us to Europe and Nazi Austria with a setting of ‘It has happened’ by Erich Fried. Returning to Nazi persecution again suddenly jolts us into the tragically timeless nature of persecution and exile. There is some fine part writing that weaves the chorus and children’s chorus in the words, ‘It has happened and it goes on happening.’

Somalia – Fugue (Chorus) takes its text from ‘Time’ by Abdirahman Mirreh, running straight into a terrific fugue.


With Chile (Mezzo-soprano Solo) there is an orchestral opening with thunder effects before Maria Eugenia Bravo Calderara reads from her own poem, ‘Private Soldier’. Catherine Wyn-Rogers enters for the first time in a finely sung part that moves around dramatically with the orchestra and soloist becoming increasingly passionate up to the words, ’But I know what you are called. Human…’ There is a poignant coda with solo violin.

Nigeria (Tenor and Baritone Soli) opens with a quiet drum roll and a descending woodwind theme before the soloists join, first Gregory Kunde, then Gerald Finley, in a text on genocide. The text quotes from the words of Blake’s Jerusalem ‘I will not cease from Mental Fight…’ with Blackford drawing on Parry’s setting before a fine dramatic orchestral climax.

Turkey (Chorus). An a cappella chorus brings a setting of The Embrace by Oktay Rifat to end Part III with some first rate choral singing.


Strange percussion sounds open the rhythmic Bosnia (Baritone Solo) a setting of ‘Neither here nor there’ by Himzo Skoropan, before the soloist enters. Whilst the first two verses seem to take a less intense tone, the second two are given more drama and tension, with braying orchestral interruptions.

Macedonia (Chorus with tape) features a folksong sung by Tanya Czarovska. Her recorded voice opens this section alone before spoken text is then overlaid. Soon the chorus enter, quietly behind the soloist and spoken text in this inspired section.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers opens Algeria (Mezzo-soprano Solo) in the text,’ I remember you standing at the balcony waving…’ Blackford’s writing of the orchestral part is masterly as the mezzo soprano sings a descending motif.

PART V Freedom

Greece (Chorus) sets an extract from ‘Exile and Return’ by Yannis Ritsos for chorus and orchestra. Rhythmic drums precede the entry of the chorus who, when they arrive display some fine singing in Blackford’s terrific part writing. 

With Kurdistan (Mezzo-soprano and Tenor Soli), a setting of ‘My Wish’ by Mohammed Khaki, Catherine Wyn-Rogers takes the lovely melody of, ’In my dreams I come to your tent…’ before the tenor joins and the orchestra lifts the music to an even higher level. There are some lovely textures of voice and orchestra in the coda.

Angola (Mezzo-soprano, Tenor, Baritone Soli, Chorus and Children’s Chorus) brings together all the forces in a setting of Antonio Joaquim Marques’ ‘Daughter of the Desert.’ The orchestra picks up the pace before baritone, Gerald Finley enters in this superbly written piece. Finley is soon joined by mezzo, Catherine Wyn-Rogers then tenor, Gregory Kunde before finally the two chorus in an uplifting section that’s ends quietly.

Epilogue (Tenor Solo) brings us full circle to another setting of a poem by Tony Harrison, ‘Poem’ with hushed orchestra, tenor and solo viola before overlaid texts are recited. It is a solo violin with the quiet thunder of timpani that leads to the coda where the timpani make a last dramatic roll.

This is a fine choral work that deserves to be heard often. The tragedy that underlies Voices of Exile is, if anything, more prevalent in the world today that ever, making this such an apposite work. One of the additional benefits of this work is to introduce us to poets that, perhaps would not normally be widely heard, encouraging us to explore further.

David Hill and his forces provide a first rate performance and the recording from the Abbey Road Studios, London in 2005 is excellent. The taped passages are remarkably well integrated into the music.

There are informative booklet notes by the composer and full English texts.