Saturday 31 May 2014

Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen give superb performances of works for cello and piano by Martinů, Sibelius and Mustonen, full of emotion and drama and, of course, fine musicianship on this new release from BIS

Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) was born in Polička, a small town in Bohemia near the Moravian border. He was the son of a shoemaker, who was also the town fire watchman which necessitated the family living in the tower of St. Jakob (St James) Church (now a museum). During his life he progressed from this unusual home to studying at the Prague Conservatory before returning to Polička. After the First World War, Martinů composed a patriotic cantata Česká rapsodie (Czech Rapsody), which was premiered to great acclaim in 1919. As a violinist, he toured Europe with the National Theatre Orchestra, and, in 1920, became a full member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Martinů studied composition with Josef Suk but, wishing to widen his musical influences, he went to Paris in 1923, where he studied with Albert Roussel.

As the German army marched on Paris early in the Second World War, Martinů fled to America where he composed a great deal and taught at the Mannes College of Music, Yale University and the Berkshire Music Centre (Tanglewood). His first five symphonies were written between 1942 and 1946. In 1953, Martinů left the United States for France and settled in Nice, returning in 1955. In 1956, he took up an appointment as composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. He died at a clinic in Liestal, Switzerland, on August 28, 1959.

Martinů was an extremely prolific composer but it is his six symphonies that are probably the best known of his works but his concertos, including those for cello, viola, violin, oboe and five for the piano, The Epic of Gilgamesh (1955) and his chamber music are well worth getting to know.

Those fine musicians, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen have recently recorded all three of Martinů’s Cello Sonatas which they have coupled with Sibelius’ Malinconia  and Mustonen’s own cello sonata making a very attractive collection on this new release form BIS Records

BIS - 2042

The Poco allegro of Martinů’s Sonata No.1 for cello and piano, H.277 (1939) opens with the piano, full of rhythmic instability, before the cello joins in the theme. There is a richness combined with intense passion from Steven Isserlis and, throughout, a feeling of turbulence and passion reflecting the events in his home country at that time. Both the parts for cello and piano are extremely taxing and played with consummate brilliance by both these fine artists with no let up until the end.

The Lento has a hesitant opening as the piano works out a theme, rising up and broadening before the cello enters, quickly rising to a lovely melody. Soon the music becomes more agitated and complex in texture before quietening with Isserlis drawing exquisite sounds from his cello. There is a central second subject with pizzicato cello and an expansive piano theme before the cello takes the theme to the gentle coda.

There is an aggressive opening to the Allegro con brio, for piano and cello as the music moves forward in an unstoppable fashion. Soon, a slower melody arrives which has an attractive rhythmic lilt but the music cannot maintain this relative calm, soon increasing in tempo. There are more, quieter passages but overall it is frenetic energy that drives this movement. Isserlis and Mustonen bring out all the extremes of emotion in this troubled work with some superb playing before the tremendous coda.

Olli Mustonen (b.1967) combines his role of pianist equally with that of composer and conductor. That he should be a successful composer should not be surprising given that he studied composition with Einojuhani Rautavaara.

His compositions include works for orchestra, concertos and works for soloist and orchestra, works for solo instruments, vocal and choral works and chamber works such as his Sonata for cello and piano (2006) that receives its world premiere recording here.

The first movement opens with a chord from the piano which is quickly followed by an anguished theme from the cello, repeated several times as the cello works out the theme. This music has a haunting quality. It soon rises up passionately with the piano providing a subtle counterpoint but soon returns to its quieter anguished nature. Later the cello provides a hovering base for a piano motif in which the cello momentarily joins before the hushed end.

The second movement, Andantino, opens with the piano playing an innocent sounding theme that is taken up by a more passionate cello, revealing this to be a movement full of yearning emotion. Soon the music takes off frenetically before slowing, again with some dissonant harmonies between cello and piano. After taking off again, full of emotion and passion, the music falls to a section that has the cello ruminating in its lower register. A rising theme for cello leads to a beautifully hushed coda with pizzicato cello. A fast rhythmic section opens Precipitato and continues in a frenzied manner, full of terrific playing from Isserlis and Mustonen who show absolutely amazing ensemble.

In the final movement the piano opens in a lovely theme soon joined by the cello that, again, adds a more passionate sound. There is a leisurely feel to this music under laid by a slightly nostalgic vein. Later the music rises up passionately to a climax with Isserlis drawing so much intense feeling from the music. As the intensity falls, the piano brings the music back but it is the cello that leads to a dramatic, fast and frenzied coda.

This is a striking work that will immediately appeal to listeners for its drama and emotional strength. It is finely played by these two fine artists.

Martinů’s Sonata No.2 for cello and piano, H.286 (1941) was written after his arrival in the USA and reflects, to some extent, a more optimistic outlook.

The piano opens the Allegro with a theme that darts around before the cello joins. Again there is terrific playing from both these two players, who respond to Martinů’s every twist and turn. Soon there is a quieter section that brings some exquisite playing in this more thoughtful passage. But nothing can hold back the infectious energy of this music as it soon takes off again. There are passages where the tautness of Isserlis and Mustonen’s ensemble is astonishing.

The piano gives the feeling of a tense solemnity in the opening of the Largo. As the cello joins it is clear that, for all Martinů’s bravado in the first movement, his thoughts cannot be kept from the events of his homeland with the music developing quite passionately. Centrally there is a passage for solo piano, heralded by a descending motif, before the cello joins in the angst filled drama with the piano providing an accompaniment that resembles a tolling bell. Eventually the music descends to a gentle hushed presentation of the opening melody as the music slowly leads to the coda.

With the Allegro commodo, Martinů sweeps aside all the dismal thoughts in a movement that has a fast rhythmic base to the music. There is more, fine playing from both cellist and pianist as they share the theme, responding brilliantly to each other. Towards the end there is a cello cadenza before the music races to the coda.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Malinconia, op.20 for cello and piano (1900) following the death of his infant daughter, Kirsti during a typhus epidemic. It is one of only two works that the composer wrote for cello and piano, the other being his Fantasia from around 1889. Malinconia was also originally called Fantasia.

There is some glorious playing from Steven Isserlis in the opening solo of Malinconia, with his lovely tone drawing all the dark, tragic feeling from the music. Mustonen is terrific in the florid piano sections that follow. This is a remarkable piece that allows both players to demonstrate their formidable techniques whilst drawing out the intense passion that imbues this work. Neither holds back in allowing the intense emotion through, as well as putting their phenomenal techniques to the test. It is only toward the end that the music allows a gentle respite, but only briefly as the piano leads both players to more passionate playing before a subdued but intense coda.

Martinů’s Sonata No.3 for cello and piano, H.340 (1952) dates from the year that he took US citizenship. The Poco andante – Moderato opens with the piano in an optimistic theme before the cello joins. There is a lightness here, even optimism, as the music moves forward. There is a section for solo piano before a slower section for cello where the piano, nevertheless, keeps a lively rhythm. This is music full of changeability of tempo and rhythm with some broader passages typical of Martinů before the coda.

The piano opens with pizzicato cello as the Andante slowly and tentatively emerges becoming quite animated as it progresses. Soon a slower melody appears, drawing the music into a more thoughtful mood but soon developing in intensity before quietening in a particularly lovely section that leads to a quiet conclusion.

There is a buoyant, rhythmic piano opening to the Allegro (ma non Presto) soon joined by the cello as the music bounces forward. There is a lovely solo piano passage before the cello re-joins leading with ever more energy to the triumphant coda.

Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen give superb performances of these works, full of emotion and drama and, of course, fine musicianship.

The recording, from Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, is well up to BIS’ high standards and there are excellent booklet notes by Steven Isserlis.

Friday 30 May 2014

James Brawn’s latest recording for MSR Classics is building towards a Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle to reckon with

Following my enthusiastic review of James Brawn’s first two discs in his Beethoven Odyssey series, MSR Classics have now released Volume 3. On this new disc Brawn gives us Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.2 in A major, op.2 No.2, Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31 No.2 ‘The Tempest’ and Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op.81a ‘Les Adieux’

MS 1467

What makes a great Beethoven interpreter? That’s very difficult to define but James Brawn has all the elusive qualities needed. In all of his Beethoven recordings to date he has shown a fine technique, wonderful control of dynamics, beautiful phrasing, pacing and sense of structure and a fine rubato. Most of all it is his sheer musicianship that shines through.

The Allegro vivace of Piano Sonata No.2 in A major, op.2 No.2 opens with lovely crisp phrases with Brawn showing a playfulness in his approach. His playing is so fluid with moments of terrific forward motion, though always aware of the overall structure. There is a directness of utterance that is entirely beguiling with Brawn grabbing the listener’s ear and carrying him along.

In the Largo appassionato this pianist draws much poetry from this seemingly straightforward largo with such care and thought given to the phrasing and bringing a sense of re-discovery to this early sonata. He controls the tempo and dynamics to perfection.

What a lovely Scherzo the third movement is, light and beautifully textured with a terrific Trio section that flows from the scherzo so well. The Rondo (Grazioso) opens thoughtfully with Brawn drawing so many fine details from the music, showing this to be possibly the finest movement of this sonata. He allows the music to unfold so naturally. There are some fine dynamics as the movement progresses and some more beautifully fluent playing.

Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31 No.2 ‘The Tempest’ has a gloriously done opening in the first movement Largo – Allegro (largo) before the faster theme appears. It is how Brawn phrases this music so perfectly that adds so much. The allegro is given playing of bravura but never allowed to run away with itself, yet allowing all of Beethoven’s volatility to be revealed. There is such exquisite poetry in the hushed episodes that contrast so well with the volatile passages. This movement is full of surprise and expectation as he moves from hushed poetry to the more dynamic passages.

Brawn connects the quiet opening of the Adagio with the opening of the first movement as the chord unfolds. It is again Brawn’s superb phrasing that holds the tension and interest of the Adagio, a distinctive movement. He again reveals aspects of Beethoven’s creation that I have not heard before. This is a wonderfully conceived movement that hardly pauses before leading straight into the Allegretto where Brawn lightly moves off at a fine pace with some lovely control of rubato. His dynamics are superbly done in this forward moving music. There is no lack of intensity in the more dynamic moments with playing of considerable power.  

With the Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op.81a ‘Les Adieux’ a finely judged Adagio leads into a very fine Allegro with Brawn’s musicianship providing just the right degree of forward flow with fine dynamics. He finds all the little details in the more intricate passages, often lost on many pianists. Again his phrasing is superb.

Brawn brings a rather withdrawn quality to the opening of the Andante espressivo as he slowly allows the music to move ahead with such poetic playing and some wonderfully controlled dynamic passages before running straight into the Vivacissimamente (Das Wiedersehen/Le Retour) bringing such a sudden contrast. Here is playing of terrific strength, fluidity, control and dynamics as well as delicacy aplenty provided by Brawn’s terrific touch, before a terrific coda.

James Brawn’s Beethoven is really rather special, allying fine musicianship with a superb technique that produces Beethoven playing of the highest order.

Beautifully recorded by Jeremy Hayes and Ben Connellan at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England and with excellent notes by Linda Marianiello and James Brawn, this is looking to be a Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle to reckon with.

See also:


Thursday 22 May 2014

I cannot imagine finer performances of Cage’s works for Two Keyboards than these from the Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo on a new release from Naxos

American composer John Milton Cage Jr. (1912-1992) ran the risk of never being taken seriously again when he wrote his 1952 composition 4′33″. This work that contains no actual ‘performed’ or ‘deliberate’ sounds is often taken as being merely silence. However, whatever one’s own opinion on the concept of the work, Cage was making a serious point, that there’s no such thing as ‘silence’ but rather there are sounds all around us, including the sounds around the audience during performance.

It is the use of sounds produced by two pianos within moments of silence that is an important aspect of Mine for Two, one of two works, by Cage, on a new release from Naxos . Volume 2 in the series John Cage - Works for Two Keyboards features the Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo Xenia Pestova  and Pascal Meyer who also play Cage’s Three Dances.


Music for Two (1984/87) was based on an idea from earlier in his career, that of creating a collection of pieces that could be performed by a variety of instruments in any combination. In the case of ‘Music for …’ Cage eventually wrote seventeen instrumental parts thus allowing a wide variety of ensembles including the two piano version performed here. In order to make the various parts work together Cage provided precise stopwatch timing in his score whilst allowing considerable flexibility between the stopwatch timings.

Music for Two opens with wiry piano sounds produced by bowing the piano strings whilst the other piano picks out a motif of fragmented intervals. These two juxtaposing sounds are repeated until a shrill bowed sound appears. The two pianists then share the fragmented motif until there is a short period of silence. One piano enters with a short motif before strange wiry, razor like sounds appear from the other piano, soon taken up by the other pianist. There is another period of silence before deep resonant sounds appear with isolated fragmentary notes from the other pianist that are then expanded on before being shared by both pianists who seem to respond to each other. Soon the music becomes bolder, more dramatic before a brief silence.  The music continues as before until whistling, rasping textures appear; quite spectacular in their own individual way. The fragmented intervals re-appear before another silence.  The music continues with short, sharp, edgy string sounds interrupted by short pauses. The fragmented intervals continue juxtaposed with the edgier string sounds before becoming more rich and resonant.  Deep resonant sounds appear together with pauses set against the bolder piano notes. Occasionally there are quiet streaks of resonant sound against more of the conventionally played piano motif. It is Cage’s use of space around his sounds that is one of the unique features here.

A little rising and falling motif is heard to which the resonant phrases are set, soon taken up by both pianos before one returns to a fragmented piano motif, becoming more dramatic at times. Soon there are high pitched bowed sounds from one piano. It is interesting how Cage uses each piano to create contrast and space. Both pianists rise to a more dramatic section in the conventionally played fragmented motif. Here Cage seems to make a resonant sound shoot as though from the note of one piano to the other. Shrill and deep resonant sounds arrive, together with pauses. At times quite ethereal sounds are created before the music grows more animated and dynamic. The fragmented intervals are interrupted by strange resonant string sounds that are repeated with pauses, rising in pitch before being joined by deeper resonant sounds. It is the seemingly fragmented phrases that continue before the higher, resonant sound leads to the coda.

I have used the word fragmented a number of times in relation to this music but there is a structure here in the way that the sounds and pauses are grouped.

These are masterly performances of this demanding music. This is not music for the faint hearted but if one is interested in the kind of effects created by Cage then this is certainly a fascinating work.

The much earlier work, Three Dances for prepared piano (1945), is a different matter altogether and raises in my mind the question as to who really invented the concept of minimalism. Certainly there are elements of minimalism in the way that Cage uses repetition in this work. Written for prepared piano, the first movement commences with a rhythmic ‘drumming’ sounds with a peculiarly hollow sound from both pianists in a spectacular opening, quite unlike any other piano music. Varying textures create the illusion of a percussion ensemble.

Slow rhythmic ‘drumming’ opens the second movement, shifting across the sound stage, pointed up by odd little resonant hoots. There are shifts and hesitations in the rhythm and later on a pause with bell like textures before the music moves ahead often becoming quiet resonant. Surely Gamelan music was an influence.

With the third and final movement, the pace picks up with more ‘drumming’ sounds but constantly interspersed by many other textures. Occasionally there are lulls with quieter, rhythmic motifs. This music becomes quite intoxicating in its repetition and rhythmic onward drive, often becoming quite insistent before the sudden end.

I cannot imagine a finer performance of this dynamic, intoxicating work.

These performers are finely recorded at the Espace Devouverte, Philharmonie, Luxembourg and there are informative booklet notes.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Hideko Udagawa and Boris Berezovsky in music for violin and piano by Khachaturian, with beguiling melodic ideas to unashamedly revel in, on a new disc from Nimbus

Aram Il’yich Khachaturian (1903-1978) was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. The son of an Armenian bookbinder, he first studied medicine, receiving his musical education fairly late. First studying cello and composition at the Gnessin Musical Institute, from 1929 to 1937 he attended the Moscow Conservatory, studying under Nicolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950). The Armenian music and culture of his childhood greatly influenced his music.

His name became known to a wider public with his piano concerto (1936) and Violin Concerto (1940). Of his three colourful ballets the best known are Gayaneh (1939–41) and Spartacus (1950–54). In addition to his ballets and concertos, he wrote three symphonies, vocal and instrumental works, works for brass band, piano works, incidental music, film scores and chamber works.

He became a close friend of Shostakovich who later recounted an amusing story of the occasion when both composers took part in a national competition, in 1943, to compose a new National Anthem. Stalin ordered that the two composers write an Anthem together, a difficult job given that the two were so different in musical style and given Khachaturian’s enthusiasm for eating and drinking before ever getting down to any work. They managed to patch together an anthem but didn’t win.

It is both Khachaturian’s ebullience and Armenian folk influences that feature in a new recording of works for violin and piano from Nimbus Performed by Hideko Udagawa (violin) and Boris Berezovsky (piano) they offer a tantalising glimpse of what the young composer was writing during his Conservatory years as well as providing arrangements of popular works from his maturity.

A number of the works performed on this new release are world premiere recordings.

Song Poem (1929) was dedicated ‘in honour of the Ashugs’ or itinerant bands that plays in the Caucasus. A piano flourish opens the piece before the violin joins in an attractive melody tinged with the flavour of Khachaturian’s native Armenia. There is some lovely writing for the piano and violin, particularly in the quieter, later stages, beautifully handled by Hideko Udagawa and Boris Berezovsky.

Dance No.1 (1925) receives its world premiere recording here and proves to be a memorable piece with a jaunty theme full of lovely pianistic and violinistic touches in this lovely performance.

Another world premiere recording is Elegy (1925). Originally written for cello, in this arrangement it is the piano that opens with a gentle motif before the violin develops the theme, full of lovely inflections with some beautifully hushed playing from Berezovsky. Udagawa draws much pathos from the violin part.

Dance (1926) brings more Caucasian sounding melody with a lively rhythmic dance theme brilliantly played by Udagawa and Berezovsky. There is a sultry central section, beautifully realised, where hints of the violin concerto are heard. There are some pretty virtuosic moments before the lovely coda.

Khachaturian’s Sonata for violin and piano (1932), perhaps the most substantial work here, receives its world premiere recording.

Rather strident piano discords open the first movement Lent. Rubato ed espressivo. before the violin provides a flowing melody, the piano retaining a somewhat more astringent edge, before eventually giving in to the melody. Nevertheless, there remains some dissonance between the violin and piano in this passionate movement. There is a short cadenza before a slower section for piano where, when the violin re-joins, is full of hints of Khachaturian’s violin concerto in its inflections and intervals.

The much longer Allegro ma non troppo finds both players launching straight into the direct and forceful theme. As the movement progresses the theme is subjected to much virtuosic variation with some beautiful textures from Udagawa as well as a fine section for piano. The music leads through some flowing, languid passages as well as some pretty challenging writing for both violin and piano. It has, at times, a rather unstoppable feel as the music keeps its forward momentum. Eventually there is a more extended cadenza brilliantly played by Udagawa. When the piano re-joins there is no let up for the violinist as both have some pretty demanding parts to negotiate right up to the coda.

Udagawa and Berezovsky provide a terrific premiere recording of this interesting and attractive early work that provides many indications as to what was to come.

Following on from these early works are a number of arrangements of pieces from his ballet suites and the incidental music Masquerade (1940). This performance of Nocturne from Masquerade receives a world premiere recording with some very fine playing in this effective arrangement.

Whatever one’s view of the Sabre Dance from Khachaturian’s ballet, Gayaneh (1942), no one can say that the composer didn’t have a gift for memorable tunes.  In this arrangement these players throw themselves into it, with Udagawa providing some terrific violinistic effects. Some of the colour of the orchestration is, of course, lost but this is great fun all the same with Berezovsky often providing a terrific counterpoint to Udagawa’s vibrant playing.

The ballet contains a feast of lovely exotic melodies including Ayesha’s Dance, a slow lilting dance where, in this arrangement, the violin part is particularly full of virtuosic writing. There is an exquisitely played coda.

The rhythmic Nuneh Variation, with this arrangement billed as another world premiere recording, has a folk style tune that receives terrific playing from Udagawa.

Finely there is a typically Khachaturian style Lullaby so beautifully played by these two artists. Again it is remarkable how Khachaturian could summon up so many simple, yet lovely melodies. The piece gains in power and passion midway before the hushed coda.

Khachaturian’s last ballet, Spartacus (1954), has an equal number of memorable tunes, not least of which re-appears in the Grand Adagio. Before that we have the lively Dance of Aegina with some lovely little rhythmic snaps, again brilliantly played.

The piano introduces the well-known theme of the Grand Adagio before the violin enters to reveal it in its full glory. These two players push the melody forward without any undue emphasis of emotion and keeping a tempo that retained its ballet roots. Once again the benefit of Khachaturian’s colourful orchestration is missed but these fine players make the music seem natural for these forces. Berezovsky provides terrific playing in the dynamic piano section before the music builds to its peroration, eventually dropping to the quiet coda with such fine playing from both artists.

Both of these arrangements for violin and piano receive their world premiere recordings.

This is very much a partnership of equals with Udagawa and Berezovsky bringing out so much from this music. Such beguiling melodic ideas make for a disc to unashamedly revel in.

They receive a close but finely detailed recording from The Recital Hall, The Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, USA.

There are excellent booklet notes by Daniel Jaffé.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

A notable debut for Italian winner of the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition, Federico Colli, in works by Beethoven, Scriabin and Mussorgsky on a new release from Champs Hill Records

Federico Colli was certainly a worthy winner of the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition in a final that must have been the closest for a long time. He gave a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto that had a wonderfully sprung lightness and an underlying tension that brought out a real Beethovenian feel. His was a performance that was beautifully poised and shaped. 

Of course, in order to form a complete judgment, one has to hear all the preliminary rounds of which I was only able to hear extracts from the recital rounds of the six finalists. Amongst his recital round pieces Colli gave a performance of Scriabin’s Tenth Sonata that brought out the strange rhythms but, perhaps because I did not hear this in the hall, it seemed that much of the colour did not emerge. Certainly this was a very individual view of the sonata.

Federico Colli’s debut recording for Champs Hill Records also features Scriabin’s Tenth Sonata along with Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata and Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition.

Colli brings a light, thoughtful touch to the opening of the Allegro assai of Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op.57 ‘Appassionata’ contrasting the drama that follows exceptionally well. This is a finely paced performance, with Colli, nevertheless, showing a sudden fire in his playing when the music demands it. He certainly holds the attention with playing of great contrasts and, indeed, of great power. There are moments of beautiful restraint and tension with some lovely delicate playing, Colli showing his fine touch.

He keeps the tension for the Andante con moto, slowly and subtly moving through each variation, following every mood.

The Allegro ma non troppo – Presto is finely controlled, full of stormy passion and with a lovely rubato. In the brief quiet, middle section this pianist takes the opportunity to provide much poetry before leading back to the stormy nature of this music. Again there is playing of much power in such well thought out, controlled playing. Yet Colli doesn’t hold back as he heads for the coda where there is a terrific display of virtuosity as he hurtles to the end.

After hearing his Leeds performance, I particularly wanted to hear what Federico Colli would make of Scriabin’s Sonata No.10, Op.70. He brings the same fine sense of control that he shows in his Beethoven to this, one of Scriabin’s most advanced creations, holding the structure together well and responding to Scriabin’s sudden impulses with flair and understanding. He displays an often silken touch and, as the sonata progresses, he again shows how to give an underlying tension. Colli often brings a feeling of instability to the music and, as he builds to the passionate climax, he reveals how advanced some of Scriabin’s ideas were.

This is a very fine performance that, again, gives a very individual view of this work. Champs Hill’s fine recording allows us to hear all of Colli’s superb colouring.

Mussorgsky’s much recorded Pictures at an Exhibition is a work that gives pianists a surprisingly large number of opportunities to bring a distinctive touch.

The opening Promenade in Colli’s hands is clear and direct, leading beautifully into The Gnome, with phrasing and rhythm that accentuate Mussorgsky’s phrases. Again Colli seems to highlight the radical elements of Mussorgsky’s creation. After a gentler, more thoughtful return of the Promenade theme Colli gives a rather pensive opening to The Old Castle bringing a withdrawn quality and a haunting atmosphere. The short return of the Promenade, faster and bolder, is followed by a light and playful The Tuileries before The Ox Cart where Colli’s direct approach in the bold, rhythmic chords certainly brings some impressive sounds, if a little lacking in depth.

A delicate, withdrawn Promenade theme leads to the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks which here is full of life with delicate, vibrant playing, extremely well done. There is a crisp rhythmic opening to Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle before the melancholic theme that follows, with nicely controlled dynamics and fine phrasing, bringing out much of the emotional edge to this music. After the final return of the Promenade theme Colli brings out the atmosphere of a chattering, busy market in The Marketplace at Limoges in this brilliantly played section.

With The Catacombs (Sepulchrum romanum) Colli’s phrasing adds much to the depth that he brings to this music, a feeling of weight and desolation whereas in Con mortuis in lingua mortua he provides a detached calm. When The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga) arrives, the old witch has all the terror you could want with playing of great bravura as well as quiet control in the central section. The Great Gate of Kiev brings some lovely rich chords, fine bell like passages as well as a lovely melancholy middle section with beautifully limpid playing. As the main theme returns, Colli provides some massive chords, very Russian in character.

Federico Colli brings many fine, individual touches to Mussorgsky’s much loved work.

With a very fine recording from the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, England and informative booklet notes this is a notable debut for this fine pianist.

For reviews of the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition click on the following links:


Sunday 18 May 2014

The BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014 is the 17 year old pianist Martin James Bartlett

This evening saw the finale of the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014 with the three finalists, Elliot Gaston-Ross (percussion), Sophie Westbrooke (recorder) and Martin James Bartlett (piano).

Elliot Gaston-Ross, aged 15 years, chose to play David Heath’s African Sunrise/Manhatten Rave, written for Evelyn Glennie, where he showed an ability to blend his marimba beautifully with the orchestra with much feeling of expression. Occasionally, in the opening, I felt that he did not reveal a sufficient variety of colours but he showed a particularly fine sense of rhythm handling all the rhythmic changes superbly with fine subtlety of dynamics.  There was terrific precision in the second part where he moved seamlessly between the various percussion instruments in this frenetic piece, really throwing himself into his performance with great spontaneity.

Sophie Westbrooke, aged 15 years, played an arrangement for chamber ensemble by David Knotts, of Gordon Jacob’s Suite for Recorder and Strings. Quite why this arrangement was chosen I do not know but it certainly worked well particularly in this strong performance. This young artist displayed a lovely tone and produced some fine timbres and colours. In the opening she did seem occasionally short breathed but later her control was superb with some beautiful long held phrases. In the more animated sections of this work she displayed some exceptionally fine articulation with subtle little details brought out. There was faultless cadenza and some spectacularly vibrant playing in the final section where she changed to the sopranino recorder.

Martin James Bartlett, aged 17 years, seemed naturally attuned to his choice of work, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini displaying a light touch in the opening but soon revealing that he is an immensely assured musician who allowed much freedom to his playing. There was some lovely crisp articulation and playing of superb strength. This was a particularly individual performance of great character. It is difficult enough for any artist to bring something fresh to this popular work but this young pianist did so spectacularly, showing himself to already be a fully rounded artist.

Kirill Karabits and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave terrific support to these fine young musicians.

The BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014 was indeed, Martin James Bartlett who must surely have a fine career ahead of him. Congratulations must be given to all the finalists who no doubt will go on to achieve fine careers.

Saturday 17 May 2014

A new release from Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra in works by Flint Juventino Beppe, in performances that show their belief in these fine works

In reviewing the music of Flint Juventino Beppe (b.1973) in April this year, I discovered a fine composer and brilliant orchestrator, full of subtle, distinctive ideas .

On the most recent release of music by this composer on the 2L label entitled Remote Galaxy, I found works that, if anything, are even finer.

Blu-Ray Disc

The Philharmonia Orchestra is again conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy with Ralph Rouseau (viola da gamba) , Mark van de Wiel (clarinet) and Emily Beynon (flute) . This new release is available as a Blu-ray disc, on vinyl LP and as an MP3/FLAC download.

The work that gives the title to this disc is Remote Galaxy, Op.81 a journey in sound, time and space, contemplating the immensity of the galaxy and the time taken for the light to reach us. It features the unusual sound of the glass harmonica as well as the viola da gamba.

Remote Galaxy opens with repeated bell chimes before strings, then harp appear as the music slowly rises to a pitch. Pizzicato strings introduce a slower section before the sound of a viola da gamba enters, the orchestra playing a sumptuous melody. There is a very distinctive composer at work here with a style that can soon be recognised. The music falls quieter with pizzicato strings in a moment so typical of the magic that Beppe can bring to such passages. It soon takes off again in a livelier section where the viola da gamba again appears. There is a great feeling of depth, space and movement in this music, as well as an underlying drama. There are moments of great beauty such as a string passage where the bells appear again and an attractive section for woodwind before percussion enter to firm up the rhythm. Towards the middle of the work there is a hushed section where the glass harmonica, then viola da gamba, appears as the music is held in a kind of stasis, quite separate from the openness of the other music. The viola da gamba eventually introduces a plodding theme before the music rises up with darting string passages After another hushed section the sumptuous melody, from earlier in the piece, returns in the orchestra. As the music moves forward it becomes more thoughtful, leading the listener through a variety of moods and feelings before rumblings in the depths of the orchestra bring us to a darker moment. Slowly we are lifted to a lighter, more ethereal level as the music reaches the coda where the viola da gamba and bells re-appear before the music speeds ahead, with side drum, to a sudden end.

I believe this to be one of Beppe’s finest works to date.

Distant Words, op.43b is in two movements. Typhoon at Heart opens with the strings before the clarinet of Mark van de Wiel enters in a lively, buoyant theme. Although the clarinet takes on a dominant role, it often acts as part of the ensemble. The music, as it continues, is full of attractive ideas, sometimes playful, sometimes a little melancholy. The clarinet part is often quite virtuosic, reaching the extremes of its register in this fine performance. Overall this is a movement full of fun and fine ideas for both the clarinet and the orchestra. The strings of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy are on top form.

The second movement, Healed by Red Wind, leads with a gentler, forward flowing theme. When Mark van de Wiel enters, it is with a thoughtful melody set against pizzicato strings, a theme that is developed by both clarinet and orchestra. Again there are themes that are so distinctive of Beppe with some glorious melodies, superbly played by van de Wiel and the Philharmonia.

This is a terrific work that deserves to be taken up by clarinetists and orchestras.

Lost in September, Op.17 is an earlier work that takes as its theme the subject of loss, and, in particular, the loss of a dog. Timpani open this work before the brass join and the orchestra takes the melody forward, full of anguish.  Soon the music takes a more optimistic turn with woodwind dominant in the orchestration. Pizzicato strings and timpani soon pick up the pace leading to an outburst. The equilibrium returns as woodwind and brass weave a lovely tapestry of melodic sounds. The orchestra takes the melody slowly forward with some lovely sonorities. There are livelier moments, full of playfulness, surely suggesting happier times, before the slower, thoughtful sounds return. Timpani and brass bring back a tense, desolate feel before the slower theme returns, more dramatically with cymbal clashes leading to a resolute coda.

This is yet another fine work from Beppe.

Beppe provides a booklet note himself concerning Tightrope walking beneath heaven, Op.32 No.8. In this note the composer, who has Asperger’s and Tourette’s syndrome, describes how one day equals a lifetime with not an hour passing without his brain working at full speed as well as the euphoria and despair that he feels. This places a whole new understanding of the title of this work. Written in 1993 it both reflects the challenges of the tightrope walker as well as the composer’s own daily challenges.

The work opens with woodwind flourishes before a harp, then pizzicato strings, enter in a flowing, jaunty theme. Soon the music takes a quieter, dramatic turn, pointed up by a clarinet swirl. The music slowly edges forward with drums keeping the rhythm, in this brilliantly orchestrated piece. The clarinet returns to introduce a quiet, reflective section, before wood wind and harp herald the return of the opening jaunty theme that leads to the coda.

Lasting just under four minutes, this is a terrific little piece.

The disc that I reviewed in April, Flute Mystery, featured Beppe’s first flute concerto. The final work on this disc is his Flute Concerto No.2, Op.80 a darker and exceptionally unusual work. Wolfgang Plagge, in his booklet note, suggests that here we have the composer struggling with his demons, a description that seems perfectly valid. As with the first flute concerto, it is dedicated to flautist, Emily Beynon, the soloist on this recording.

The first movement, Alarm, rises out of timpani rolls before the organ sounds a motif. The flute enters making a great contrast as the timpani and orchestra re-appear in another dramatic passage. The woodwind then weave around the solo flute but are soon taken over by the dramatic orchestral sounds that return, complete with timpani and anvil as the music heaves up again. The plaintive flute re-appears before a jauntier second subject arrives to take the music forward, with the flute combining with the orchestra. There is a slower passage for flute and strings that soon moves forward, more quickly, in a flowing section with some distinctive orchestral touches. There are many rises and falls in drama before the dramatic coda.

A harp and orchestra open Deepest Woods before soon being joined by the flute in this gentle, flowing melody that is, nevertheless, often interrupted by more dramatic moments. Soon there is a lovely section for solo flute with some terrific playing from Emily Beynon. The timpani quietly enter to join the solo flute in a most original section before the orchestra re-joins leading to a more dramatic passage. When the music eases back, the timpani still point up the music but soon the pace quickens with some fine playing from Beynon. The harp enters as the music returns to the opening melody, soon becoming more tense before the quiet coda.

The organ opens Escaping Time Power with two dramatic chords before the flute momentarily enters. There are more chords from the organ with orchestral outbursts, again contrasting dramatically with the solo flute. The music quietens with gentle percussion but there are more outbursts underpinned by the organ. An organ motif with percussion and timpani appears several times in this brilliantly conceived passage. A xylophone appears, joined by the flute in a fine melody before cymbals quietly sound and the orchestra re-joins as the flute plays staccato notes. The organ returns dramatically before the flute makes a brief appearance as both organ and orchestra lead to the dramatic coda.

The solo flute opens Mrala with a dramatic orchestra immediately taking over and timpani pointing up the drama. Soon the solo flute re-appears in a striking motif where Beynon plays rapid staccato notes interspersed with flourishes. The music moves to a more flowing theme for flute and orchestra but the brass enter raucously. The flute holds the calm, soon accompanied by the organ but there are several brass and organ outbursts while the flute and orchestra try to keep the calm between these eruptions. Eventually the orchestra pushes forward, dramatically and dynamically, with some superb orchestration, before a sudden end.

This is a stunningly unusual flute concerto full of poetry, drama and intense feelings. As with the other works on this fine disc, it is brilliantly played by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy. Emily Beynon is a superb soloist.

This is a terrific disc that I will return to often. The recorded sound is remarkably fine and there excellent booklet notes by Wolfgang Plagge and the composer. Indeed, the booklet is beautifully produced with many colour photographs and details descriptions and diagrams of orchestral placing and recording techniques.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

This final instalment of the Mandelring Quartet’s Mendelssohn series for Audite makes a worthy conclusion to a cycle that must shoot to the top of any recommendation

A new release from Audite features the Mandelring Quartet completing their survey of Mendelssohn’s Complete Chamber Music for Strings where they are joined by Gunter Teuffel (viola)  in performances of the two String Quintets and Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op.81.

When I reviewed the first three volumes of this survey I felt sure that this series was on track to become one of the finest yet recorded. There is nothing in this fourth and final volume to change my mind.

Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No.1 in A major, Op.18 was composed in 1826, but the original second movement, a minuet, was eventually replaced by a slow intermezzo, composed in memory of a friend.

There is taut playing with fine textures as the Allegro con moto moves quickly forward. The Mandelrings with Gunter Teuffel have plenty of passion and grit to their playing together with finely judged dynamics & tempi. There are some lovely, lithe hushed passages that are absolutely enchanting as the movement progresses with these artists drawing out all the lines of texture with some exquisite details revealed.

Despite the lovely, mellow flow of Intermezzo. Andante Sostenuto, these players point up every little nuance to winning effect. Every instrument is allowed to reveal its musical line, no doubt enhanced by the fine recording. The beautiful central section receives superb, mellifluous playing from these artists.

They bring crisp, lithe playing right from the opening of the Scherzo. Allegro di molto, providing the feel of tremendous energy, controlled, but full of forward thrust, revealing the remarkably original nature of the young Mendelssohn’s ideas.

These players’ fine control of dynamics is again shown in the Allegro vivace, combined with a freshness and joy. Mendelssohn’s contrapuntal layering of strings gets a terrific outpouring here.

The String Quintet No.2 in B flat major, Op.87 came towards the later end of Mendelssohn’s life, in 1845 whilst he was taking a rest from his conducting duties and was staying in the spa town of Bad Soden am Taunus.

The Mandelrings and Gunter Teuffel hurtle into the opening of the Allegro vivace with wonderful drive and precision. They vary the textures, bright in the more dynamic passages, mellow in the quieter moments. There is a joyous unstoppable quality yet no detail is missed, with sensitively played hushed passages. There is tremendous vibrancy to their playing and how they build the layers of increasingly faster tempi and dynamics is glorious.

In the Andante scherzando they bring lovely, light and airy textures, drawing the ear into every little detail right up to the little pizzicato coda.

The funeral plod of the Adagio e lento is soon replaced by a lighter quality, the transition of which is so finely done by these players. They bring much passion to this heartfelt music, really plumbing its depths. Again there are superbly controlled dynamics. I love how these players subtly let the light in, to occasionally lift the mood. The gentle coda is wonderfully hushed.

There is a really dynamic opening to the Allegro molto vivace with these five players throwing off any gloom and rushing forward with playing of brilliance and panache. There is terrific ensemble in this breathtakingly vivacious allegro and such taut control of dynamics, with a terrific coda.

These are exceptionally fine performances of the two String Quintets.

The Mandelring Quartet completes this final volume with Nos 3 and 4 of the Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op.81. The first two of this opus were included in volume 3 of this series.

The Mandelrings bring an attractive singing tone to the rocking rhythm of No.3 -Capriccio in E minor. Andante con moto – Allegro fugato, assai vivace before the Allegro fugato arrives with more taut playing and great ensemble in this intoxicating piece, full of underlying energy just waiting to burst out.

With No.4 - Fugue in E flat major. A tempo ordinario it is exquisite how the Mandelrings slowly allow this piece to unfold with the various layers slowly varying with so many subtleties brought out, showing the sensitivity that this Quartet can bring to this music. A wonderful example of what Mendelssohn could achieve so finely played.

The performances of the Quintets cannot fail to win new enthusiasts for these wonderful works. They receive a first rate recording and there are excellent booklet notes. This final instalment in this Mendelssohn series makes a worthy conclusion to a cycle that must shoot to the top of any recommendation.

See also:


Monday 12 May 2014

The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq visits the USA

In August of 2014, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq visits the U.S. for the first time. Dubbed ‘the world's bravest orchestra’, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq was founded in 2009 by 17-year-old Zuhal Sultan , a pianist in Baghdad. Now consisting of 44 young musicians from across the country they have overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers to make music together.

Despite the lack of infrastructure and shortage of music teachers, musicians throughout Iraq have been recruited and auditioned each year via YouTube . In this short time, against all odds, the orchestra has gone from strength to strength.

Each year, the young Iraqi musicians gather for an annual summer camp culminating in a concert. During this three-week event they receive their only musical instruction for the year from carefully selected international tutors.

To date, the orchestra has been invited to perform at the Beethovenfest in Bonn, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and Grand Théâtre de Provence in France. These hugely successful concerts, attended by ambassadors, dignitaries and concert-goes alike, have been met with media approval and earned the orchestra well-deserved standing ovations.

This summer, the NYOI joins the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra for three weeks of study in Illinois, followed by performances in Elgin, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Collaboration with players and tutors of the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra, performing to American audiences and telling stories through music, is NYOI's effort to reach out to young Americans and share cultures.

Led by Music Director Paul MacAlindin , NYOI will perform Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, and two new works – one by Arab composer Amir ElSaffar and another by Kurdish composer Abdullah Jamal Sagirma.

The Classical Reviewer is pleased to support the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by featuring their forthcoming US tour.

For more information about the NYOI please go to: