Friday 29 August 2014

Anyone that has an interest in British music should not hesitate to acquire this new release from Nimbus featuring Philip Sawyers’ Symphony No.2 and Cello Concerto with the Orchestra of the Swan conducted by Kenneth Woods

Philip Sawyers (b. 1951) was born in London and studied violin with Colin Sauer, and composition with Helen Glatz at Dartington College of Arts in Devon. At the Guildhall School of Music in London, he studied violin with Joan Spencer and Max Rostal and received guidance in compositional from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra.

In 1973, Sawyers joined the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden, during which time he also freelanced with other orchestras and chamber groups including the London Symphony Orchestra, the English National Opera Orchestra and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as well as West End theatre orchestras and in film, pop, and light music sessions.  He was also violin coach for the Kent County Youth Orchestra and a visiting teacher at various educational establishments.

In 1997, he left the ROH, and undertook a year of postgraduate study at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. Alongside composing, Sawyers now works as a freelance violinist, teacher and adjudicator.

Philip Sawyers’ works have been performed and broadcast around the world and include two symphonies, concertos, chamber works, songs and instrumental works.

Nimbus Alliance  have already recorded Sawyers’ two violin sonatas (NI 6240) and his Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass, The Gale of Life and Symphony No.1 (NI 6129)

The latest release of Sawyers’ music from Nimbus features his Symphony No.2 coupled with his Cello concerto and Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings with the Orchestra of the Swan  conducted by Kenneth Woods

NI 6281

Sawyers’ Cello Concerto (2010) was commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival, England and written for cellist Maja Bogdanovic , the soloist on this recording. The opening Allegro commences with the cello and orchestra in a mellifluous, flowing melody that immediately sticks in the mind. The music soon becomes increasingly passionate but, when the music drops away again there are some lovely varied textures for the cello. The music picks up more rapidly and somewhat anxiously before again falling to a quieter section, pointed up by short, rapid phrases for cello. Eventually a more impassioned orchestral passage arrives that sweeps ahead, leading to sharp staccato phrases when the cello joins for the cadenza. When the orchestra rejoins, it manages to quell the agitated cello to lead it into the gentle melody of the opening.

Higher strings open the Adagio, soon joined by horns, then oboe, as the lovely falling melody is revealed. The cello enters taking up the melody, briefly taken by a horn before continuing with a soft and gentle string accompaniment. The cello slowly works up a passionate edge to the music with the various instrumental sections adding individual textural touches. Soon the music suddenly becomes more dramatic with an orchestral passage brass. The cello joins in this dramatic section leading the way before quietening and becoming more reflective, the cello taking the melody against a melancholy orchestral accompaniment. Nevertheless, the cello leads the impassioned music back before dropping to a beautifully hushed coda.

The concerto concludes with a lively Allegro where the cello seems to have a dialogue with the orchestra before the orchestra take over. The cello returns as the music falls quieter but no less agitated. Soon a more flowing melody arrives for cello and orchestra but it is interrupted by little rhythmic motifs. The music rises up to become more lively with the orchestra forcing the pace ahead but the cello returns with moments of introspection. However, overall the mood is vibrant with broad sweeps of orchestral sound before, with the cello, it rushes ahead to the coda.

There is terrific playing from cellist, Maja Bogdanovic as well as the Orchestra of the San under Kenneth Woods.

Symphony No.2 (2008) was an earlier commission from the Sydenham International Music Festival and is in a single movement though falling into four sections. Timpani and brass dominate the opening, full of forward thrust and dynamism. The music soon drops to a hushed section where various woodwind and brass quietly intrude into the orchestral texture before slowly rising up though now less dramatic, despite occasional sudden brass interjections. Gentler passages alternate with more dramatic outbursts with this orchestra providing taut, dynamic playing.

Soon there is a section that is a riot of orchestral colour and instrumental sound with Sawyer adding so many fine orchestral touches such as little brass interjections that pop up and disappear. A quiet mysterious passage of swirling orchestral textures arrives, one of the finest moments in this work. A group of woodwind instruments appear before rich strings take over, pulling the music up as the woodwind combine with the strings. Later, as the woodwind appear again, the music falls back as a solo violin weaves around the orchestra. There are a number of dramatic rises and swirls from the orchestra, full of thrust and energy, set against quieter sections before a final dramatic rise of the orchestra, with timpani, pushing forward to the resolute coda.

This is a very fine symphony that rewards repeated listening such are the little details easily missed at first hearing.

Concertante for Violin, piano and Strings (2006) was commissioned by the Czech violinist, Tomas Tulacek, in order to add to the number of works for this unusual combination of instruments. Here the Orchestra of the Swan is joined by the Steinberg Duo, Louisa Stonehill (violin) and Nicholas Burns (piano) Deep piano chords along with an insistent orchestra motif open this work. The violin soon enters, before being joined by the piano in a lighter theme that contrasts with the more aggressive opening theme when it returns. A gentler section for violin and piano arrives that soon becomes more and more agitated, moving between quieter and agitated louder passages. Eventually the violin introduces a slow thoughtful passage taken up by piano over hushed strings. This wistful melody continues, shared between the violin and piano over a hushed orchestra before slowly rising up with some terrific rising and falling phrases for violin and piano. As the work progresses the music introduces the lighter theme from earlier in the work but soon the music is whipped up again as the two soloists and orchestra drive the music forward. Towards the end the music quietens a little but nothing can stop the music rushing to its coda.

This is a particularly unusual and very attractive work. The two fine soloists, Louisa Stonehill and Nicholas Burns provide spectacularly fine performances ably supported by the strings of the Orchestra of the Swan.

The Orchestra of the Swan under Kenneth Woods do a terrific job with all these works as do the soloists, cellist Maja Bogdanovic and the Steinberg Duo, Louisa Stonehill and Nicholas Burns. Extremely well recorded at the Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon, England and there are excellent booklet notes from Kenneth Woods.

Anyone that has an interest in British music should not hesitate to acquire this new release. After my enthusiastic review of Sawyer’s two violin sonatas (see: ) I intend to seek out the previous Nimbus recording of Sawyers’ orchestral works (NI 6129) 

Monday 25 August 2014

The St. Cecilia Choir of Girls, Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut new recording of Music from Lent to Easter deserves to be heard especially given the fine choice of works on this new release from MSR Classics

To many the St. Cecilia Choir of Girls, Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut  will be unknown. Perhaps the repertoire, on a new disc from MSR Classics, of Music from Lent to Easter will not necessarily attract much attention.

This would be an enormous shame as this choir is of such a standard that they are a match for many English collegiate choirs. The repertoire on this new disc is very well chosen ranging from plainchant and Pergolesi through to Stanford, Peter Hurford and Philip Moore.

MS 1426

The St. Cecilia Choir of Girls under their Director of Music, Jamie Hitel , serves as the principal choir for the 9.15am service at Christ Church each Sunday. The choir consists of girls from 3rd grade through high school seniors. The St. Cecilia Choir of Girls visited England for twelve days in July 2010, singing services in Exeter Cathedral and St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. Girl and boy choristers combined for a highly successful tour of England in the summer of 2012, where they spent a week singing services at York Minster and Coventry Cathedral. 

Their new CD entitled A Thing most Beautiful is divided into two halves, Lent and Passiontide and Easter.

The music for Lent and Passiontide opens with John Ireland’s Ex ore innocentium opened by soloist Gabriella Hitela who displays a lovely pure voiced sound, catching something of the timbre of a boy treble, especially the upper notes. As the choir enter, they too have an especially fine tone, very Anglican in sound in this lovely performance.

In César Franck’s Panis Angelicus it is lovely the way Jamie Hitel draws subtle little dynamics and textures from the choir – exquisitely done. Plainsong can leave voices terribly exposed but with the Plainsong Lent Prose this choir have a consistently accurate and appealing quality.

By the Waters of Babylon by Colin Mawby (b.1936) is a very fine work, slowly building from a gentle opening and rising, midway, full of passion. There is some particularly fine singing as the music falls to the gentle coda.

Peter Hurford (b.1930) will be known to most people as one of the finest organists of his generation. Here his Litany to the Holy Spirit brings an attractive directness of utterance and a timeless quality to the writing. This fine choir bring some lovely touches.

Soloist, Victoria Hoffmeister opens the Plainsong Pange Lingua responded to by the choir with the Christ Church acoustic adding much to the attraction of this performance, so finely judged.

Next the St. Cecilia Choir of Girls sing the first section of Giovanni Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Organist, Alistair Reid provides some lovely playing as he sets the rhythm and pace before the choir flows forward in a confident, beautifully layered performance with Reid adding further lovely touches.

Charles Villiers Stanford’s A Song of Hope proves to be a powerful piece, with a full organ contribution and some glorious vocal passages with well controlled dynamics from the choir.

Soloist, Madeline Wolf, opens Malcolm Archer’s (b.1952) My song is love unknown. She has a lovely voice with some fine lower textures. When the choir join they bring out all the varying textures of this fine setting with a lovely conclusion.

The music for Easter begins with the Plainsong Victimae Paschali with lovely contributions from the two soloists, Katherine Meurer and Madeleine Hitel.

Handel is represented here by his  If God be for us, a fine choice from Messiah in which both organist and choir bring a suitably Handelian flavour with some lovely long held notes and phrases and some finely done intricate passages.

Thomas Foster’s (b. 1938) Lift your voice, rejoicing, Mary opens with Victoria Hoffmeister (flute) accompanied by the organ before the choir gently lead on in this rather fine piece where the flute makes a natural and fitting addition to the texture with its pastoral in feel.

There is an exceptionally fine performance of Purcell’s Sound the trumpet with long held notes and some lovely overlaying of voices.

Christ Church’s Visiting Artist, Philip Moore (b.1943)  provides a particularly individual and attractive setting Come, thou fount of every blessing with a beautiful melody, very finely sung by this choir and developing in texture in the final verse. This is a very fine work indeed.

Richard Wyton (flute) adds a fine texture to J. S. Bach’s Ich folge dir gleichfalls bringing a delicacy that combines well with these lovely transparent voices.  Claude Means (1912-1999) was Organist and Choirmaster at Christ Church, Greenwich from 1934 to 1972) His gentle Savior, like a shepherd, lead us receives a perfectly paced and moulded performance. It is a lovely little work.

The music of Philip Moore returns to conclude this disc with his Jubilate Deo. After a brief organ opening this choir bring a joy and lightness in a very fine performance of this brilliantly written piece; so uplifting.

This fine choir deserve to be heard especially in the fine choice of works on this disc. They receive sensitive support from organist Alistair Reid and are finely recorded in the sympathetic acoustic of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut.

There are notes on the music set alongside composer information and full texts and English translations.

There are biographical notes on Director of Music, Jamie Hitel, organist Alistair Reid and Visiting Artist, Philip Moore. The individual choir members are credited but I would have liked more information about this fine choir.

Saturday 23 August 2014

Another terrific disc from La Serenissima who provide so much energy, precision and vibrancy in a concert of works by Vivaldi, Pisendel, Montanari and Albinoni from Avie

The British early music ensemble La Serenissima was founded in 1994 by violinist Adrian Chandler and takes its name from La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia (The Most Serene Republic of Venice) The ensemble specializes in the music of Venetian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi and his contemporaries.

Since the release of their first recording for Avie Records in 2003, La Serenissima has received two Gramophone Award nominations, for Volumes 1 & 2 of The Rise of the Northern Italian Violin Concerto: 1690-1740 and a Gramophone Award for Best Baroque Instrumental CD in 2010 for Vivaldi: The French Connection. The follow up CD, Vivaldi: The French Connection 2 was nominated for a Gramophone award in 2012.

I greeted their dazzling Vivaldi release, A Tale of Two Seasons, in August 2013, with enthusiasm. 

Their debut release for Avie, entitled Per Monsieur Pisendel, featured works by Johann Georg Pisendel, Tomaso Albinoni and a number of the Suonata à Solo facto per Monsieur Pisendel by Vivaldi.

La Serenissima’s latest release from Avie Records goes back to that original disc and is entitled Per Monsieur Pisendel 2 and features more of the Suonata à Solo facto dedicated to Pisendel, a virtuoso violinist as well as composer, together with works by Antonio Montanari, Tomaso Albinoni and Pisendel.  


The instrumentalists on this recording are Adrian Chandler (violin), Gareth Deats (cello), Thomas Dunford (theorbo), Robert Howarth (harpsichord and organ).

Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678–1741) Suonata à Solo facto per Monsieur Pisendel in A, RV 29 was one of a number inscribed to his pupil, Johann Georg Pisendel. La Serenissima create some lovely textures in the Andante that is taken at a leisurely pace allowing the music to unfold beautifully with a subtle rhythmic lilt. This ensemble manages a fine clarity of texture in the fast and furious Allegro, with terrific ensemble. The Largo has a typically beautiful Vivaldian melody woven between the instruments to lovely effect. The little Presto is full of energy and joy with a terrific rhythmic bounce.

Johann Georg Pisendel’s (1687-1755) Sonata for Violin and Continuo in C minor opens with a melancholy Adagio prolubite that precedes a hesitating Andante as though forming a prelude to the remaining movements. The Allegro brings some attractive twists and turns as the melody moves forward, full of invention and finely played by La Serenissima with some pithy, incisive playing. There is a beautifully relaxed Largo, sensitively played, that gently sways in its forward motion before the Allegro, a terrific movement, again full of fine invention with this ensemble providing some extremely fine playing, attending to every nuance and detail with superb textures in some of the more intense chords.

This is a particularly fine and attractive sonata.

Pisendel also studied with Antonio Montanari (1676 – 1737) in Rome and it is his Sonata for violin and continuo in D Minor that follows. It has a sweet sounding Adagio where Montanari weaves some particularly fine textures, beautifully revealed by La Serenissima. The robust Allegro has some powerfully produced textures from these players. The second Adagio brings a lovely melody with some fine string decorations beautifully played by Adrian Chandler. Finally there is a Giga senza basso (without basso continuo), with a rhythmic dancing, solo violin melody that is most attractive and finely played by Adrian Chandler.

Tomaso Albinoni (1671 – 1751) needs no introduction except to say that he also dedicated a sonata to Pisendel (included on Volume I of Per Monsieur Pisendel AV0018) His Sonata for violin and continuo in B flat brings a lively flowing Allemande: Larghetto, full of little rhythmic details, with terrific playing from  La Serenissima. The Corrente: Allegro has a lovely spring to its rhythm, drawing the music forward and allowing these players to weave some terrific sounds. The light and breezy Gavotta: Allegro shows La Serenissima providing more fine transparency of textures, every instrument sounding through. The Sarabanda: Allegro has a more gentle dancing rhythm in this short concluding movement.

The other work by Johann Georg Pisendel is his Sonata for Violin in A Minor where, in the opening Grave, Adrian Chandler provides some fine flourishes as he weaves the music in this solo sonata. The Allegro brings more fine invention with Chandler providing some superb playing in the varying rhythms and changing dynamics. There are even more intricate rhythms and textural challenges in the Giga – Variazione, the longest movement of this sonata superbly realised by Chandler.

This is a terrific sonata that finds Chandler on great form.

Finely we return to Antonio Vivaldi and another sonata dedicated to Pisendel, his Suonata à Solo facto per Monsieur Pisendel in F, RV 19. The Andante brings a lovely contrast as the ensemble returns with such mellifluous textures in this gentle movement, pointed up by lovely instrumental details. There is a lively, rhythmic Giga, full of propulsion and fine textures with some terrific, robust playing from La Serenissima. After a lovely, leisurely Largo, these players provide fine detail in the intricate rhythms of the Allegro. When the final Allegro con Variazione arrives it has a leisurely opening before the Allegro proper appears and runs through a series of fine variations with terrific playing, getting faster as it proceeds, to conclude this disc.

This is another terrific disc from La Serenissima who provide so much energy, precision and vibrancy in a concert of works that reveals the attractions of composers that aren’t normally given much exposure.

These fine instrumentalists receive an excellent recording from the Hospital of St Cross, Winchester, England. There are informative booklet notes from Adrian Chandler. Full details of the instruments used are given.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

In tonight’s BBC Prom Daniel Barenboim displayed his superb ear for orchestral colour with the West–Eastern Divan players proving, once again, just what a fine orchestra they are.

Tonight’s BBC Prom (20th August 2014) brought back Daniel Barenboim and the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra for a program of Mozart, Adler, Roustom and Ravel. Perhaps more than ever it is good to see these Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians joining together to give us such a fine concert.

After a taut, urgent performance of Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra gave us the first of two commissions by the orchestra, Israeli composer, Ayal Adler’s Resonating Sounds receiving its UK Premiere. There was a shimmering, resonating orchestral opening statement that soon gave way to quieter, more fragmented pockets of sound, interrupted by occasional surges of dynamic sound. There were many lovely details that combined, produced a strange overlay of textures and themes. Occasionally there were moments that didn’t perhaps hold together as well structurally but overall this was a beautifully orchestrated piece that produced some fine ideas.

Syrian composer, Kareem Roustom’s Ramal, also a UK Premiere, is based on pre-Islamic Arabic poetic meters used in classical Arabic poetry and had a forthright opening that soon gave way to a quieter, insistent theme full of forward motion, lightened by Roustom’s fine orchestration. There were moments of deep reflection beautifully orchestrated with some lovely woodwind moments as well as a lovely, haunting passage for strings. Before the coda there were some iridescent orchestral sounds before the music began to build dramatically, before the quiet coda.

This was a fine work from a composer of which we need to hear more. Daniel Barenboim and the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra provided a very fine performance of both works.

The second half of the Prom brought four works by Ravel, with a beautifully controlled opening to Rapsodie espagnole out of which flowed some lovely orchestral flourishes. This was not merely just a showpiece of a performance but one that was full of atmosphere and many fine details. The rhythms of Malagueña flowed naturally from the opening section with a beautifully languid, rhythmically subtle Habanera before building naturally in the dance rhythms of Feria with luscious orchestral flourishes and very fine string sonorities.

Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso followed with subtlety again being the watchword, despite the more boisterous moments. There was a languid atmosphere and some especially fine instrumental contributions in this spacious performance.

There was an exquisite performance of Pavane pour une infante défunte where Barenboim kept up the tempo but without the music ever seeming rushed, with so many lovely moments revealed by the orchestra.

The last work was Ravel’s Boléro, a work that is very little more than an exercise in orchestration. However, in the right hands it can take on the appearance of much more than that, particularly when played in the context of the other Ravel works performed tonight. Individual section principals were certainly given the opportunity to display their fine talents. This performance had a directness that allowed the music to speak for itself which, together with the sheer beauty of this orchestra’s playing, lifted the music.

Throughout, Barenboim displayed his superb ear for orchestral colour and the West–Eastern Divan players proved, once again, just what a fine orchestra they are.

However, the Prommers were not going to leave it there. Barenboim returned no less than four times to gives short pieces from Bizet’s Carmen bringing a rousing end to the evening’s music.

A new release of choral works by Robert Kyr from soprano, Esteli Gomez and baritone, David Farwig with Conspirare and the Victoria Bach Festival Orchestra conducted by Craig Hella Johnson on Harmonia Mundi

American composer, Robert Kyr graduated from Yale University in 1974, continuing his studies at the Royal College of Music, London and at Dartington Summer School where he studied with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Kyr returned to America to complete his M.A at the University of Pennsylvania, studying with George Rochberg and George Crumb. In 1989, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he studied with Donald Martino and Earl Kim.

Since then Kyr's music has been performed widely around the world and has been commissioned by numerous ensembles, including Chanticleer (San Francisco), Cappella Romana (Portland), Cantus (Minneapolis), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, New England Philharmonic, Oregon Symphony, Yale Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Chamber Symphony, New West Symphony (Los Angeles), Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, Harvard Glee Club, Radcliffe Choral Society, Yale Camerata, Oregon Repertory Singers, Cappella Nova (Scotland), Revalia (Estonia), Putni (Latvia), Moscow State Chamber Choir (Russia), Ensemble Project Ars Nova, Back Bay Chorale (Boston), and San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. 

To date Kyr has composed twelve symphonies, three chamber symphonies, three violin concertos, and numerous works for vocal ensemble including many large-scale works - A Time for Life (An Environmental Oratorio, 2007); The Passion according to Four Evangelists (1995); and three choral symphonies—From Creation Unfolding (No. 8, 1998), The Spirit of Time (No. 9, 2000), and Ah Nagasaki: Ashes into Light (No. 10, 2005).

Kyr has held teaching positions in composition and theory at Yale University, UCLA, Hartt School of Music, and Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen, Aspen Music School, and the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Currently Kyr is a professor of composition and theory at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, and chair of the composition department. 

A new release from Harmonia Mundi features two of Kyr’s major choral works, The Cloud of Unknowing and Songs of the Soul, together with a short unaccompanied choral work, The Singer’s Ode.

HMU 807577
Grammy-nominated conductor, Craig Hella Johnson directs Conspirare and the Victoria Bach Festival Orchestra with soloists soprano, Esteli Gomez and baritone, David Farwig

There is a lovely, mellifluous choral texture from Conspirare in this fine unaccompanied setting of Kyr’s own text, The Singer’s Ode (2012).  The music rises to a short climax before its gentle, quiet coda where the choir hold the final note until it fades.

The Cloud of Unknowing (2013) is a more substantial work, in two parts. This oratorio sets texts by St. Teresa of Avila, sung in 16th century Castilian Spanish; Psalms 42 and 136, sung in Latin and an anonymous 14th century text on contemplation, from which the work draws its title, sung in English. It explores the relationship between human and divine love.

Part I: Songs of the Night opens with Unknowing (anon. 14th c.), baritone David Farwig entering over strings before Esteli Gomez joins in this imaginatively written piece with beautifully written textures for the choir when they add there fine sound. There is an orchestral conclusion as the strings quietly fade. Esteli Gomez opens Fearing (St. Teresa of Avila) with the orchestra providing little string pizzicato decorations as well as a lovely solo violin contribution. Soon David Farwig enters to duet with Gomez. Both these soloists have very fine musical voices that blend especially well together.

Forgetting (anon. 14th c.) follows straight on, with the choir singing gently over hushed tremolo strings as this section gently rises. What a fine choir this is. The final piece in Part I, Longing (Psalm 42), is beautifully restrained. The choral sound richens and tries to rise a little, but continues to gently undulate with again Kyr’s fine choral textures subtly supported by the orchestra. Eventually the choir reach a pinnacle of vocal expressiveness with some lovely harmonies and finely sensitive singing before quietly fading away.

The two soloists come together again in Waiting (St. Teresa of Avila) the first section of Part II: Songs of Dawn with the orchestra providing a lovely pulse as they move ahead in this fine setting. The choir joins and there is, at the end, a solo violin passage that leads straight into Thinking (anon. 14th c.), where the choir take over, with orchestral accompaniment, the baritone voices conversing with the soprano voices in a finely written section. Kyr eventually overlays the voices, to brilliant effect.

The soloists return to duet again in Beseeching (St. Teresa of Avila) another lovely setting, full of Mediterranean warmth and some particularly fine singing from the two soloists. The choir enters with an orchestral bass ground in Piercing (anon. 14th c.), the strings providing a dramatic edge. The choir gains in intensity and tempo, concluding on a climax.

We move straight into Surrendering (St. Teresa of Avila) with a pure voice Esteli Gomez singing ‘Nada te turbe’ (Let nothing upset you) before David Farwig enters over strings passage singing the next line, nada te espante (Let nothing startle you) before they combine in this most beautiful section. Later the choir enters adding a lovely choral layer to this section before taking the lead. We are taken rapidly into Enduring (Psalm 136) a fast, rhythmic section where the soloists and choir alternate and overlay in a series of verses and responses, reaching a kind of ecstasy in the coda.

The cantata, Songs of the Soul (2011) traces the journey of the soul from being earthbound and despairing to a state of transcendence and joy. The odd numbered movements are for chorus and strings and set various biblical texts, whilst the even numbered movements are for soprano, baritone and strings and are settings of Noche oscura (Dark Night) a mystical poem by St. John of the Cross.

A deep resonant choir rises up slowly in the Latin setting from Psalm 69 and Jonah, Descending: From the Abyss, with some beautiful choral writing. Kyr’s part writing is superbly done with lovely harmonies and textures. The music rises in an appeal of increasing desperation, before quietening again with Craig Hella Johnson shaping the choir beautifully. The music descends to the depths towards the end before rising up again with such a lovely layering of textures. It falls, again, to the depths, to end on a deep rich note.

Baritone, David Farwig, is first heard in Venturing: On a Dark Night, a setting of St. John of the Cross, against an anguished small string ensemble Farwig sings superbly with fine vocal textures as he weaves around. Towards the end soprano, Esteli Gomez enters, vocalising and creating a haunting atmosphere, right up to the end, a beautiful moment where she beautifully and gently rises up.

Choir and string orchestra appear as Hoping: Toward Dawn, a setting of Psalm 130 slowly and gently rises up. The music soon becomes dramatic but drops to a hush before the choir moves slowly forward again. It rises up again, centrally, before gently leading to the conclusion with some especially fine individual choral sections leading to a hushed end with sopranos singing over basses.

Strings and baritone open Transforming: Beloved into Lover in this heartfelt setting of St John of the Cross with brilliantly done string textures. Esteli Gomez enters for second verse and combines with Farwig for the third and last verse weaving some fine lines.

The mellifluous sounds of this fine choir return for Arising: A Time for Song (St. John of the Cross) with Johnson achieving some lovely little nuances in gentle rocking motion before this section slowly rises in intensity to the end.

Uniting: Leaving My Cares (St John of the Cross) opens with Gomez bringing a lovely crystalline purity to this exquisite setting, accompanied by the barest string ensemble. Farwig joins to vocalise this time adding an intoxicatingly lovely sound, before joining in the text of the last verse. There is such a lovely hushed coda as the strings bring about the end.

Choir opens gently in Transcending: And Love Remains, a setting from Corinthians, with Kyr again layering his vocal forces to perfection. The music slowly rises and falls whilst overall becoming more passionate as the soul reaches a transcendent state on a long held choral note.

This is a particularly fine choral work that deserves to become popular.

This is an impressive disc all round with some of the finest contemporary choral music around. The performances are superb. The recording from Texas A and M University-Corpus Christi Performing Arts Center, Corpus Christi, Texas is excellent and there are excellent booklet notes from Robert Kyr as well as full texts and translations in a beautifully produced booklet. 

Sunday 17 August 2014

Songs by Jake Heggie that follow in the great tradition of American song though with a more modern twist on a new release from Naxos

American composer Jack Heggie (b.1961) is well known for his successful operas such as Moby-Dick, Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers, To Hell and Back, and Out of Darkness that have been produced extensively on five continents. However, he has also composed choral, orchestral and chamber works as well as more than 250 songs.

Heggie is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and has been a guest artist at Boston University, Bucknell, Cornell, SUNY Fredonia, UNT College of Music, USC Thornton School of Music, University of Colorado, University of Oregon, and Vanderbilt University. He has also been a resident artist at summer festivals such as SongFest at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, Washington State, the Steans Institute at Ravinia, Illinois and VISI (Vancouver International Song Institute).

It is Heggie’s songs that feature on a new release from Naxos entitled Connections: Three Song Cycles with soprano, Regina Zona and pianist, Kathleen Tagg


The first set of songs on this disc are the five that make up Natural Selection (1997), a setting of poems by the San Francisco Bay writer, Gini Savage, that trace a young woman’s search for identity.

Creation opens with an insistent piano motif. When soprano, Regina Zona enters she has a fine, extremely musical voice though with a somewhat wide vibrato in this very evocative song.

After a piano flourish that opens Animal Passion, the soprano enters in this lively setting with a tango rhythm. There is some particularly attractive piano writing. Regina Zona is really terrific in this song, one that really suits her voice. She gives much passion in the last line.

Zona does a tremendous job with Alas! Alack! another faster song that again suits her voice so well. This is an amusing text which the soprano picks up so well. With Indian Summer – Blue Zona catches the bluesy opening brilliantly and revels in the transitions between  jazz rhythms and the slower, bluesy style as does pianist Kathleen Tagg.

Joy Alone (Connection) returns us to a tender, flowing song though not one that allows the soloist any respite with many changes in tempo and some difficult intervals. There are some glorious passages in the latter part of this song.

With Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999) Heggie attempts to give a voice to Shakespeare’s Ophelia, setting three texts by American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) and one of his own.

Piano flourishes open Ophelia’s Song before Regina Zona enters in this setting of Heggie’s own text, very effective with a distinct American feel. Moving to the St. Vincent Millay settings Women Have Loved Before Zona displays her flexibility as the music surges around, full of vocal power and control. There is so much variety of feeling in these songs, particularly this one.

Not in a Silver Casket has a lovely, gently undulating melody to which Zona brings a heartfelt feeling with fine accompaniment from Tagg. This is a particularly fine song.

There is a beautifully limpid piano introduction to Spring where, again, Heggie uses unusual rhythmic changes and varying tempi to create a curiously attractive setting. Zona brings all of her passion and feeling to this song before the hushed end.

Eve-Song (1996), a setting of texts by Philip Little (b.1950), offers a modern perspective on the biblical Eve. My Name opens gently as the soprano, Regina Zona vocalises with the piano before the words ‘Eve, Eve…’ subtly appear. There is fine, sensitive playing from Kathleen Tagg as well as beautifully shaped singing from Zona, whose lower textures are particularly fine. The song rises in drama with Heggie’s constant changes of rhythm, before the dissonant, quiet conclusion.

An undulating piano theme opens Even in this gentle setting. Regina Zona is lovely in her restrained beautiful, sensitive singing. Good is more upbeat with a syncopated piano rhythm well handled by Zona with fine control and understanding of the text.  

Heggie’s way with rhythm works extremely well again in Listen, a setting that creates a kind of sensuousness around the words ‘My entire body ripples up and down…’  Snake introduces more jazz rhythms where Zola is in her element, handling the rhythms with real style and panache in this well conceived setting of the words ‘…Sweet, sour, salty, bitter. And the taste of air, Of rottenness.’

Woe to Man receives an outpouring of feeling in the opening before the mood suddenly lightens with the style of an old fashioned music hall song. But the ‘woe’ doesn’t entirely disappear despite the rather lighter end. The Wound is a lullaby concerning birth, beautifully sung with finely sensitive accompaniment. To end this cycle we have perhaps the finest song, The Farm, a gentle song as Eve, in her old age, tries to remember Eden. This is a poignant conclusion to this cycle and this disc.

All lovers of song should acquire this disc, particularly those attracted to American song. These settings follow in the great tradition of American song such as Copland and Barber though with a more modern twist.

The recording is very good and there are first rate, informative booklet notes by Kathleen Tagg, Regina Zona and Jack Heggie. There are full English texts.

Friday 15 August 2014

Terrific new performances of Schumann’s second and third symphonies from Heinz Holliger and the WDR Sinfonieorchester, Köln on Volume II of Audite’s complete symphonic works series

Heinz Holliger continues his survey of the symphonic works of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) for Audite with Symphony No.2 in C major and Symphony No.3 in E flat major again with the WDR Sinfonieorchester , Köln 

I was particularly enthusiastic about Holliger’s first volume in this series (see and this new issue is no less fine.

Holliger uses an orchestra of the size that Schumann would have expected when early performances took place in Leipzig and Dusseldorf. In particular the string sections are smaller than modern orchestras. This certainly has a significant effect on the clarity of sound.

Those who have acquired the first volume in this series will be aware that the numbering of Schumann’s symphonies is very misleading. Symphony No.2 dates from 1845/46 and Symphony No.3 from 1850, effectively making them the last two to be written.

The Sostenuto assai that opens Symphony No.2 in C major, Op.61, one of Schumann’s fine melodies, is nicely paced and mellow, a kind of calm before the Allegro. There are finely turned phrases from Heinz Holliger and the WDR Sinfonieorchester, Köln as well as a lightness of touch as the Allegro ma non troppo arrives, with Holliger gradually building the orchestral weight. There is some nice pointing up of staccato phrases; indeed, it is Holliger’s fine phrasing and orchestral rubato that makes this performance so special. This is music full of vigour. There is a weight to the orchestra but without any density of textures. Holliger seems to have a thoroughly fresh conception of this symphony. The WDR Sinfonieorchester have a terrific tautness of ensemble as well as some really fine instrumental contributions. Holliger certainly whips up a terrific coda.

The WDR’s strings are on fine form in this almost Mendelssohnian Scherzo. Allegro vivace, fleet of foot with Holliger expertly guiding his forces around every twist and turn. There are two beautifully shaped Trio sections that flow so well.

In the Adagio espressivo, Holliger gives an emphasis to the orchestral rubato thus pointing up the expressivo marking. He brings out many details of the orchestration, often glossed over. The slowly rising theme is allowed a lovely natural flow yet the transparent textures make it sound fresh and new. When the rhythmic theme is overlaid by the flowing, rising theme it is beautifully done. When the rising theme appears a second time it receives added passion, a beautiful touch.

The orchestra brings a fine weight to the Allegro molto vivace, again with fine clarity of texture revealing Schumann’s attractive orchestration as the theme is shared around the orchestra. There is an appealing slow section part way through, beautifully shaped, with some very fine orchestral playing before the affirmative coda.

The Lebhaft of Symphony No.3 in E flat major, Op.97 ‘Rhenish’ leaps of the page full of confidence. Such is the clarity of performance and recording, I don’t think I’ve ever heard some of the orchestral detail so clearly before. Indeed, this is occasionally disconcerting as one now clearly hears the line of the music crossing over. Holliger keeps up the drama with carefully controlled dynamic contrasts which, together with the taut orchestral playing, lifts this movement. There is a fine horn contribution as indeed, there is from all the brass in this movement. Holliger and his players bring such vibrancy to this music.

The Scherzo. Sehr mäßig has a lovely forward pulse with contrasting, almost balletic, interludes such is the lightness of touch, with a real sense of freedom towards the coda. These players bring much character to the third movement, Nicht schnell, with lovely shaping and attention to dynamics. Again so many fine details emerge.

Gravity arrives in Feierlich with some lovely harmonies from the WDR Orchestra, particularly the woodwind and trombones. The way Holliger builds these sonorities, pointed up by the timpani is very fine, subtly bringing out the drama. The brass chorales are beautifully done, set against a lovely, quiet orchestral contrast. Holliger shapes the orchestral sonorities so well. This is terrific playing. A light-hearted Lebhaft moves off at a fine pace. Again it is remarkable how Holliger and his players carefully build the structure leading to the joyful coda.

These terrific new performances are full of so many fine things and should provide an ideal choice of recording for these works. The recordings made in the Philharmonie, Köln are absolutely first class and add so much to the clarity of detail.

With excellent booklet notes this new release must receive the strongest recommendation.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Dmitry Vasilyev and the Siberian Symphony Orchestra bring an important addition to the Weinberg discography with a recording of Symphony No.21 on a new release from Toccata Classics

The revival of interest in the music by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) continues apace with another new release from Toccata Classics of his Symphony No.21 coupled with his earlier Polish Tunes.


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Weinberg wrote 26 symphonies in all, four chamber symphonies and twenty two designated symphonies, though the last, No.22 is left in a draft short score. This new release features the Siberian Symphony Orchestra!sso/c1guv  under their Principal Conductor, Dmitry Vasilyev . This is an important release given that this last completed, full scale symphony is a major score lasting some fifty three minutes complete with wordless soprano in the last section.

However, first on this new disc is a work from 1950, his Polish Tunes, Op.47, No.2. Premiered by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, it was conducted by Karl Eliasberg, the conductor who famously performed Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in Leningrad during the siege in 1942. However, this is a much lighter work, the Adagio of which opens with a mournful tune for wind instruments before the Allegro arrives, a jollier theme that slows for a clarinet solo before leading into the Andantino with a plodding melody for oboe over pizzicato strings. Soon a broader tune arrives which leads to a halting melody for woodwind and strings before a lovely little coda.

The Allegro has a sprightly theme for woodwind that is taken forward by the strings with brass and woodwind interventions as the music gallops ahead. A kind of fanfare opens the Allegro moderato before a strong dance theme with emphatic rhythm. There is a lovely little trio section before the music dances, happily forward and, though a quieter section follows, there is a riotous coda.

This is an attractive work, light in feel but full of good humour.

Weinberg’s Symphony No.21, Op.152, Kaddish, composed between 1989 and 1991, is another matter, a deeply serious paean to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto and dedicated to them.

In a single movement, though in six clearly defined sections, it is subtitled Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead. A broad, melancholy string theme, underpinned by timpani, opens the extended Largo.  Soon a solo viola theme is heard against a hushed orchestra, surely a lament for the dead. The orchestra then rises up passionately before percussive piano chords are sounded, followed by a brass chorale. Later the music falls to a solo clarinet playing a sad theme over a hushed orchestra that leads to a passage for woodwind. Sonorous strings appear before a drum announces a solo piano soon joined by a solo viola. Brass intone a theme before the strings lead quietly on. Suddenly the ear is caught by the piano again but this time it is playing a quote from Chopin’s First Ballade, just briefly before the hushed strings lead to the coda where the music seems to effect some resolution as the celeste plays a rising motif taken up by a clarinet.

The rising motif is reflected in the more dynamic opening of the Allegro molto where woodwind scurry around before the rising theme is varied around the orchestra, unsettling and full of anxiety and agitation. Soon the brass bring a weight and grandeur and, occasionally, the sound world of Shostakovich appears in this agitated music. There are agitated sweeps of strings punctuated by woodwind, becoming more dramatic and louder in the coda.

A drum sounds dramatically to open the Largo with the agitated nature of the music retained as the brass sounds an anxious theme. But suddenly the music drops to a hush with a quiet flute melody soon taken by the brass. Then a double bass brings a little tune before various instruments add odd little touches. The solo double bass returns but brass come in over the top. Soon the sound of a Jewish klezmer ensemble is heard in the winds and lower strings before we are led to the Presto section, an orchestral gallop that opens manically, with the music flying forward. The music slows for a more contemplative section with a short violin solo and woodwind passage before melancholy strings lead to the Andantino.

A xylophone plays a little tune over a static orchestra soon taken by pizzicato violin. A bass clarinet joins before the pizzicato violin and xylophone respond to each other. A broader, reflective orchestra section follows, punctuated by brass then woodwind before rising with agitated strings soaring upwards, soon joined by the weight of the whole orchestra in a tremendous outpouring of emotion.

A final outburst leads into the Lento with piano chords hammered out, cymbal clashes with other percussion and a cry of passion from the strings. There is a repeated outburst of chiming percussion, punctuated by string cries before falling to a hushed woodwind passage with clarinet solo. The lower strings join followed by soprano Veronika Bartenyeva in her wordless part, intoning a melancholy melody against hushed static strings, again joined by a clarinet. This is a haunting moment that sends a chill through one. The solo piano returns unexpectedly with another brief Chopin Ballade quotation before a little string ensemble appears in a quiet, falling motif. A harmonium quietly playing a rising and falling motif is heard, ghostly in its strange theme. A melancholy clarinet enters before the soprano returns more passionately and the music leaps up dramatically. Timpani sound and there are agitated strings before the music falls to just a flute and hushed strings as the coda arrives with no cheer.

This is an important addition to the Weinberg discography. Dmitry Vasilyev and the Siberian Symphony Orchestra do a tremendous job. The recording has a little string edge but overall is good and detailed and there are excellent notes from David Fanning.

If you have the slightest interest in Russian music of the 20th century then this disc is a must.

See also:

Monday 11 August 2014

Orchestral works by Bryce Dessner and Jonny Greenwood that complement each other very well on a new release from Deutsche Grammophon featuring André de Ridder with the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra

New York based composer and guitarist Bryce Dessner (b. 1976) is well known as a member of the Grammy Award-nominated band The National. However, he is widely respected as a composer, working with some of the world’s most creative and respected musicians. He has a master's degree in music from Yale University.

Influenced by composers such as Morton Feldman and Steve Reich, his compositions include Music for Wood and Strings commissioned by Carnegie Hall, three String Quartets for the Kronos Quartet (including Tenebre commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and the Barbican Centre), Lachrimae for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Scottish Ensemble, and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, St. Carolyn by the Sea for the American Composers Orchestra and Muziekcentrum Eindhoven and Raphael, commissioned by the Kitchen and American Composers Forum through a grant from the Jermone Foundation, 2007.

English composer, guitarist and keyboardist, Jonny Greenwood (b. 1971) is best known as a member of the rock band Radiohead but started out as a viola player. The multi-talented Greenwood also plays harmonica, glockenspiel, Ondes Martenot, banjo and drums, as well as working with computer-generated sounds and sampling. He is also a computer programmer writing the music software used by Radiohead.

His classical works include Smear for two ondes martenots and ensemble, Popcorn Superhet Receiver for string orchestra, Doghouse for string trio and large orchestra and 48 Responses to Polymorphia for 48 strings.

Sections of the score for Popcorn Superhet Receiver were later worked into his soundtrack for the Oscar-winning Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood (2007). The soundtrack itself was, controversially, declared ineligible for an Oscar as ‘the majority of the music was not composed specifically for the film.’  However, Greenwood went on to be awarded Best Film Score at the 2007 Evening Standard British Film Awards, and Critics’ Choice Award for Best Composer by the Broadcast Film Critics Association of the USA.

Deutsche Grammophon has recently released a new recording with the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by André de Ridder  of Bryce Dessner’s St. Carolyn by the Sea, Lachrimae and Raphael coupled with Jonny Greenwood’s Suite from his film score There Will Be Blood.

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Bryce Dessner’s St Carolyn by the Sea for electric guitars and orchestra is based on an episode from Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur that deals with a writer’s mental and physical deterioration culminating in his nervous breakdown and brings all Kerouac’s surreal hallucinations into his musical soundscape.

The music seems to appear from out of nowhere with a long held, string chord to which points of sound are added by various instruments. The strings become more dynamic with rapid bowing before a cello joins. The sound of two electric guitars, played here by Bryce Dessner and his brother, Aaron Dessner , are heard strumming as this intoxicatingly attractive theme moves forward. The two guitars become more prominent acquiring a rather Iberian flavour with the strings adding to the texture. The music rises to a number of little climaxes with some lovely textures from the orchestra. Eventually the main theme becomes more insistent, with repetitions, though always varied in texture. Percussion is often used to good effect as, indeed, are all of the sections of the orchestra providing subtle colouring of the orchestral texture. Occasionally Latin rhythms appear and, later, some attractive electric guitar effects to add to the atmosphere with the music leading to a suddenly assertive coda.

This is an often dramatic and always very effective score that provides much attractive music.

Dessner had played John Dowland’s (1563 -1626) Lachrimae at school and based his own Lachrimae for string orchestra on that work, with Benjamin Britten’s Dowland inspired Lachrymae and Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings in his mind.

Strange string murmurings open this work out of which a melody slowly and quietly tries to emerge. The strange string sounds continue and become more dynamic but eventually fall back meditatively. The strings eventually take on a repetitive nature around which the higher strings provide a more melodic thread. Later the strings become agitated before the repetitive motif returns. Towards the end the music stops on a sudden flourish before the return of the opening murmurings on strings as the work fades to end.

This is a most effective and unusual work.

Raphael for mixed large ensemble was constructed around a drone from a harmonium and has, in the composer’s words, ‘a lot in common with some early minimalist pieces.’

The work opens on a held chord or drone from the harmonium to which other instruments of the orchestra slowly join, creating some lovely textures, so finely wrought and showing Dessner’s fine ear for colours and textures. Out of this drone the orchestra give the feel of slowly moving toward one. Little points of sound are added before a guitar, played here by the composer, moves towards a melody, broadly laid out. There are some gorgeous, rich textures that emerge as the piece develops; minimalist in nature, but always catching the ear with their fine colouring. Soon one becomes aware that the music is rising up dramatically, inexorably. There are many instrumental sounds, percussive, intoning and swirling, creating a spectacle of sonic display. Half way through the music drops as the harmonium can be heard. Two electric guitars join in a repeated motif before strings join to add to the texture. Eventually the music rises up dramatically, forcing its way forward before suddenly dropping as the harmonium plays a little tune to which a cornet joins as does a solo cello leading to a gentle string led orchestral melody and a glorious coda to this piece.

The 2007 film, There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is a story of family, religion, hatred, oil and madness, focusing on a turn-of-the-century prospector during Southern California's oil boom. Jonny Greenwood has created a six movement orchestral Suite from ‘There Will Be Blood.’

Open spaces provides deep, rich string chords that rise up in swathes of sound, with little trails of sound breaking away. This is music that breathes open spaces though with a slightly menacing undertow.  It is beautifully orchestrated with woodwind subtly adding to the texture and colour. Staccato strings bring a decisive sound to Future Markets lightened by pizzicato passages before the strings provide a sweeping melody. The music drops to a gentle melody leading to the end. Strings move forward with a sweeping melody in HW/Hope of New Fields soon hushed before pulsing forward again in this beautiful section.

Sliding strings sounds slowly emerge in the opening of Henry Plainview out of which a string melody appears. The cellos try to hold the melody over the swirling, sliding strings before all drops to a hush. A sudden dart of sound from the strings pulls the orchestra up, swaying back and forth before a final surge leads to a fading coda.

Rhythmic and pizzicato strings open Proven Lands in a determined fashion. A theme develops that works its way around the rhythmic motif. There is some terrific playing here in this spectacularly fine piece of string writing. A gentle calm arrives with Oil, a movement that rises in drama, occasionally, but overall there is a warmth and resignation to this music.

This suite sits together well as a separate work with some exceptionally fine string writing.

Conductor André de Ridder likes to programme these two composer together and one can easily see why as they complement each other very well. Greenwood perhaps provides greater form and melody whereas Dessner gives us fine textures and colours in a more minimalist framework.

The Copenhagen Philharmonic conducted by André de Ridder provide first rate performances, with notable contributions form Bryce and Aaron Dessner, and are finely recorded at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Concert Hall, Copenhagen

There are informative booklet notes.