Friday 24 October 2014

Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Symphony No.5 for Big Band, Electric Guitar and Symphony Orchestra is a tremendous achievement, pulling so many sounds together seamlessly on a new release from Ondine

Estonian composer, Erkki-Sven Tüür (b.1959) studied flute and percussion at the Tallinn Music School and composition with Jaan Rääts at the Tallinn Academy of Music as well as privately with Lepo Sumera. From 1979 to 1984 he headed the rock group In Spe, later leaving to concentrate on composition. Tüür’s compositions to date include an opera, Wallenberg, Opera (2001); choral and vocal works; eight symphonies; a number of concertos; chamber music and works for organ and piano.

In 2011, Ondine released a recording of Tüür’s choral works, Awakening (Ärkamine) (2011) and The Wanderer’s Evening Song (Rändaja õhtulaul) (2001) and his Insula deserta for string orchestra (1989) with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Sinfonietta Riga conducted by Daniel Reuss. (ODE 1183-2), winning a Gramophone 'Editor's Choice'

Now from Ondine comes a release of Tüür’s large scale Symphony No.5 for Big Band, Electric Guitar and Symphony Orchestra (2004) coupled with his Prophecy for Accordion and Orchestra (2007). Here the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra  join with the Umo Jazz Orchestra conducted by Olari Elts together with electric guitarist, Nguyên Lê (Symphony No.5) and accordionist, Mika Väyrynen (Prophecy).

ODE 1234-2

Tüür’s Symphony No.5 was premiered by the SWR Big Band, SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Olari Elts with Martin Scales (guitar), on 1st February 2005 at the Stuttgart Theaterhaus as part of the Eclat New Music Festival who commissioned the work.

It is in four movements, the first of which opens with a long held note from the brass with wavering decorations. The band is soon joined by the symphony orchestra in a melodious descending motif. The held note is repeated and, again, the orchestra joins as a trumpet brings staccato notes, slowly becoming wilder as the brass descend to deep orchestral phrases. Soon the band returns, pointed up by drums before the band and orchestra alternate with staccato outbursts from the band.

There are fine textures and swirls of orchestral sound punctuated by brass interventions. The way Tüür dovetails the band with the orchestra seems so natural. There are lovely brass textures and motifs including a saxophone. Later Nguyên Lê’s electric guitar can be heard providing its distinctive sound to the florid, swirling textures of the band and orchestra. Throughout there are bursts of energy that seem incapable of being restrained before we go straight into the Movement II.

The electric guitar enters with a full throated sound though, for all its rock music associations, within the context of this work, it sounds strangely symphonic and, often, rather Eastern in style whilst underlaid with a consistent layer of orchestral sound. Nguyên Lê certainly makes a terrific presence as he improvises this section. Soon the music quietens to hushed orchestral strings to which woodwind and delicate percussion join. Here we are back in the purely symphonic classical world where little surges of music alternate with a hushed flowing theme. The music becomes slower yet louder as the forward swirling flow increases, high on the strings with continuous little bursts of woodwind and brass, becoming increasingly tense. Eventually the music slows and falls to a deep string resonance followed by hushed murmuring strings. A flute enters as do other woodwind in a drooping motif beautifully realised, a beautiful little moment as the music fades quietly into Movement III.

In the opening the band quietly but rhythmically enter before rising up in a dance passage complete with plucked jazz style double bass. The music leads ahead with jazz trumpet against the rhythmic theme from the band, complete with drum kit, bass and jazzy accompaniment. This music really swings with a brief drum solo before the symphony orchestra can be heard joining with the band that continues punctuating the orchestra as the music moves quickly forward. There is an insistently beaten out motif from the band with raucous saxophone joined by the electric guitar in a loud frenetic, absolutely terrific section. Tüür brilliantly brings all these elements together. Somehow it just works.

The music swirls around until moving into Movement IV where the music  drops away to woodwind arabesques that slowly descend with the orchestra playing a little woodwind theme with upward flourishes. Percussion join, adding a rhythmic touch as sections of the band take over in a slightly syncopated motif. The orchestral strings join in the fun; rising in dynamics as the electric guitar joins, bringing a tremendous beat and a pretty dynamic overall sound from orchestra, band, percussion and electric guitar with an insistent forward motion sweeping all aside. Slowly the guitarist improvises some terrific passages over the violent accompaniment, rising ever more in volume and complexity until a peak is reached and the music slowly fades away. From the hush arises strange string sounds and a woodwind theme as the music gently and mysteriously moves forward to the hushed coda.

This symphony is a tremendous achievement pulling all these sounds together seamlessly.

Prophecy for Accordion and Orchestra (2007) was commissioned by theTurku Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestre de Bretagne and premiered on 11th October 2007at the Turku Concert Hall, Finland by Mika Väyrynen (accordion) with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Olari Elts

Prophecy opens with a sudden chord from the accordion of Mika Väyrynen over a string base that is held, slowly rising louder. When the Väyrynen re-enters it is over a flute motif to which the accordion playfully joins in some beautifully written music. The way the accordion is allowed to blend its textures with strings and woodwind is so subtle that occasionally one has to listen attentively to hear where the accordion joins and leaves the orchestral textures. The music has a rising and falling, surging quality, full of little outbursts with lots of bubbling little phrases reflected by the accordion. Later the music becomes more rhythmic as the accordion pushes ahead with the theme, the accordion and orchestra becoming more dynamic with an offset rhythm.

There are some terrific textures and colours and, indeed, rhythms as the music progresses. Eventually the music opens out in a quieter passage where the accordion plays a playful and gentle little theme over the hushed orchestra before arriving at a short cadenza. Little motifs from individual orchestral instruments follow as the music descends into the lowest register for the accordion where, ruminating against woodwind swirls, it slowly rises, the accordion theme becoming ever more florid. The music falls to a hush with a rhythmic beat for percussion before the accordion takes up a faster beat, rising with drums as the tempo continues to increase with the return of the syncopated rhythm. The accordion plays a fast and frantic theme as the music rushes to the dynamic end.

This is a tremendous performance of an extremely effective work for accordion and orchestra.

Erkki-Sven Tüür is such a technically assured composer with an ear for combining subtle textures as well as the big gesture. The performances could not be bettered and they receive an excellent recording that coped perfectly with all the combined sounds thrown at it.

The booklet notes take the form of a discussion between the composer and conductor.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Cellist Anja Lechner and pianist François Couturier come together with a striking and unusual album of arrangements of works by George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, Komitas Vardapet, Federico Mompou and Couturier himself on a recent release from ECM

After a decade of shared work in the Tarkovsky Quartet and an ongoing alliance in the Pergolesi Project, with singer Maria Pia De Vito, German cellist Anja Lechner has teamed up with French pianist François Couturier to form a new duo.

The different backgrounds of these players bring mutually beneficial interests and experiences. Lechner is a classical soloist with an interest in improvisation whereas Couturier is a jazz musician travelling ever further from jazz.

Together they have recorded a new disc for ECM New Series entitled Moderato cantabile where they present their own arrangements of works by three fascinating composers that are, to a greater or lesser extent, on the margins of music history,  the Russian spiritual teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff , Armenian priest, composer, music ethnologist and musicologist, Soghomon Soghomonian, more usually known as Komitas Vardapet (Vardapet meaning ‘priest’) and the Spanish composer and pianist Federico Mompou (1893-1987). 
ECM New Series 2367

Each was influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by folk traditions, religious music and philosophy; their music lending itself very well to arrangements such as those by these two artists.

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866-1949) was an influential spiritual teacher who taught that for most humans it is possible to transcend to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. As a composer he collaborated with the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann and was influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgical music.

Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935) was an Armenian priest, composer, choir leader, singer, music ethnologist, teacher and musicologist regarded by many as the founder of modern Armenian classical music. Educated at the Echmiadzin Seminary, he became a monk, later travelling to Berlin where he studied music at the Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm University.  

The disc opens with Gurdjieff’s Sayyid chant and dance No. 3/Hymn No. 7 where François Couturier brings a low rippling theme to which the cellist adds a deeply felt melody that has a rather Eastern or ethnic flavour. The melody is then shared between the two players with Anja Lechner showing a real feeling for this music with Couturier adding a fine sensibility.  Centrally there is some fine playing from Couturier, full of freedom and spontaneity, something that can be said equally of Lechner.

Francois Couturier’s own piece Voyage opens with a repeated, descending motif for piano before the cello gently enters with a complimentary theme that slowly develops, full of passion, soon with added little decorations over the repeated piano motif. Later the piano takes the theme shifting around freely, almost jazz like, with a little pizzicato cello accompaniment before both players lead to a quiet coda. This is an attractive, affecting little piece.

The piano opens Komitas Vardapet’s Chinar es with a repeated rhythmic motif to which the cello joins, elaborating the theme as does the piano. The piano soon leads into a more flowing variation joined by the cello. This is simply constructed music, often oddly minimalist in tendency, though with a greater variety of decoration. These artists certainly draw much variety and improvisatory freedom from the music. There are Eastern European ethnic influences. Later the music slows and becomes more meditative.  

Federico Mompou’s Canción y danza VI has a languorous opening for piano with Couturier bringing his lovely freedom of approach. His jazz influences are all here but never distracting from Mompou’s basic idea. Lechner joins in the slow languid melody, adding an emotional pull before the music suddenly speeds with a rhythmic passage that dances along with these two artists showing their close musical affinity.

Slow piano chords open Mompou’s  Música Callada XXVIII/Impresiones intimas 1 from which a melody slowly develops taken up by Lechner who adds little decorations. There is some fine playing from this cellist as she freely works around the theme over a beautifully simple piano accompaniment. Eventually the piano slowly takes the theme forward, again with a lovely freedom, a sad, melancholy feel to which the cello adds when it re-joins before leading to a sudden end. This is a lovely piece.

Francois Couturier is again represented by his Soleil rouge that has a rhythmic opening for cello and piano with the music dancing along in a syncopated rhythm with some very fine playing from these artists. Soon the music slows to a languid passage that sounds as though it is freely improvised, with unusual phrases and odd dissonances, almost serial in feel as the piano moves ahead over a repeated cello motif that slowly fades.

Francois Couturier’s Papillons opens with strange little string phrases and taps on the cello, slowly joined by the piano. Here is a strange sound world, a long way from jazz. There are harmonics and strange bowed sounds before the piano slowly gives forth a slow melancholy theme again with a freely improvisatory feel as the piano theme is developed. The music does eventually pick up a jazz influence bringing a quite striking blend of classical modernism and jazz. Later the cello picks up the theme and, accompanied by the piano, leads confidently on leading to a confident coda, all strange harmonies left behind.

I was most attracted to this work and its unusual blend of styles.

The piano opens Gurdjieff’s Hymn No.8/Night procession with a slow flowing melody to which the cello joins giving the theme a little lift. The piano leads through a passage of florid writing before the cello slowly announces a darker ruminative section, full of anguish and atmosphere. There are some beautifully played, rich, long drawn cello phrases over an insistent piano rhythm before the cello weaves some lovely phrases over the insistent piano theme. Eventually the piano takes the theme but it is the cello that slowly leads the music to its subdued coda.

With Gurdjieff/Mompou’s Hymn No. 11/Fetes lointaines a resonating, rich cello theme opens before the piano joins with some lovely, often dissonant chords, sounding very much like an improvisation on an Eastern theme. These two fine artists provide some very fine sounds. Eventually the pace suddenly picks up but soon slackens with some lovely string effects before speeding with an insistent theme to the coda.

Mompou’s Impresiones intimas VIII: Secreto opens with a swaying pizzicato cello theme soon joined by the piano in a sultry Latin style melody. Soon the cello moves forward with the melody, later taken by the piano with pizzicato accompaniment. Then the cello returns with the theme over the insistent piano accompaniment varying the melody with a rather Eastern feel before becoming more subdued. The insistent piano theme leads to the close.

ECM must be congratulated for bringing these fine arrangements of music by such marginalised composers as George I. Gurdjieff and Komitas Vardapet to our attention. Moderato cantabile is a striking and unusual album, recorded in the rich acoustics of the Lugano studio. In my download the sound quality was excellent.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Very fine performances indeed from Cuarteto Casals on a new release from Harmonia Mundi featuring three of Mozart’s Haydn Quartets

Cuarteto Casals was founded in 1997 at the Escuela Reina Sofía in Madrid. Since winning First Prizes at the London and Brahms-Hamburg competitions, Cuarteto Casals has been a repeated guest at the world’s most prestigious concert halls including Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall, Musikverein Vienna, Philharmonie Cologne, Cité de la Musique Paris, Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg, Concertgebouw Amsterdam and the Philharmonie in Berlin, among many others throughout Europe, North America and Japan.

The Quartet has compiled a substantial discography for Harmonia Mundi including repertoire ranging from lesser known Spanish composers Arriaga and Toldrá to Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Brahms, through to Bartok, Kurtag and Ligeti.

Their latest release from Harmonia Mundi features three of the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn, String Quartet No. 14 in G major, K.387, String Quartet No. 16 in E flat major, K.428 and String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K.465.
HMC 902186

It was his friendship with Haydn and the latter’s publication of his Op.33 quartets that almost certainly led to Mozart’s undertaking the writing of the six quartets dedicated to the older composer. They did not come easily or quickly, dating from December 1782 to January 1785, indeed, he spoke of them as ‘the fruit of a long and laborious effort’. On this recording we have the first of the set, in G major and last, in C major framing the third in E flat major.

The Allegro vivace assai of String Quartet No. 14 in G major, K.387 (1782) is nicely shaped and phrased, often with a gentle buoyancy. The Cuarteto Casals show fine observations of dynamics bringing a classical charm and style to this music, yet with moments of spontaneity in the way they draw certain phrases.

There is a lovely sweep to the Menuetto. Allegro, again with nicely observed dynamics, followed by some terrific incisive playing in the Trio section. This movement is beautifully done with such a light touch in the coda.

In his excellent booklet note Andreas Friesenhagen tells us that the tempo marking for this movement, Allegro, is unusual in that it differs from the Allegretto customary in Minuets. This is interesting given that my sources show that all of the Menuetto movements in these three quartets are shown, in their autograph scores, as Menuetto. Allegro and only became shown as Menuetto. Allegretto in the First Edition published by Artaria in 1785. Either way the Casals certainly bring much lithe playing to these movements.

The Quartet brings some lovely sonorities to the Andante cantabile with the theme shared around the players and with a lovely melody for the first violin, richly delivered here. There are some exquisitely hushed passages rising to some lovely unison playing with, again, a lovely rubato.

The Molto allegro takes off gently with playing of the upmost delicacy before soon gaining in dynamics as this Quartet push ahead, full of lightness and joy with some very fine playing in the fugal passages, such a light and sparkling touch and a beautifully handled coda.

The Allegro non Troppo of String Quartet No. 16 in E flat major, K.428/421b has a gentle, mellow opening from the Casals before the music increases in dynamics. This Quartet handles the changes in dynamics, the little bursts of energy, so well together with some beautifully long drawn phrases.

There are some lovely long drawn phrases in the Andante con moto that reveal the many beauties of this movement. There is a natural flow with lovely dynamics, a natural rise and fall, with many lovely subtle touches in the hushed moments.

There are some terrific, crisp phrases in the rhythmic Menuetto. Allegro with such fine transparency and clarity, before a beautifully heartfelt Trio section showing what a lovely Minuet and Trio this is. There is so much fine playing from this Quartet whose lovely touch brings so much to the music, observing every nuance.

There is some fine interplay between these artists in the Allegro Vivace, full of charm and joy and with a very fine and beautifully judged coda.

A lovely opening with Mozart’s strangely dissonant Adagio of String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K.465 ‘Dissonance’ the only reason for the subtitle. Mozart is really pushing the bounds in this last of his Haydn Quartets. Cuarteto Casals bring a light touch as the Allegro arrives, soon given a richer edge. There are some fine passages, rich in texture and full of terrific articulation in the faster, more intricate passages.

Mozart’s exquisite Andante cantabile allows the Casals to bring all their sensitivity to every little nuance with a lovely warmth and some beautifully hushed passages.

There is a lightly sprung Menuetto. Allegro with lovely textures in the more dynamic moments with the Casals nicely contrasting the dynamics. The livelier Trio section seems to acquire a more intense edge nicely brought out by this Quartet giving a rather anxious feeling before the Minuetto returns to lead to the coda.

The Allegro molto speeds ahead with more felicitous playing from the Casals, fine dynamics, crisp incisive playing as well as a lightness and transparency that highlights many little details.

These are very fine performances indeed, with playing that is dynamic, transparent, and crisp whilst always finding the poetic moments.

They are finely recorded at the Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany though I detected a very brief moment of mushy noise just before the Quartet open the first track on the disc. This in no way affects the recording and does not reoccur.

There are excellent booklet notes and the playing time is a very generous  82 minutes.

I do hope that the Cuarteto Casals will give us the three remaining Haydn quartets which one expects they will.  

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Given the spectacular nature of Adriana Hölsky’s sound world, many contemporary music enthusiasts will be rewarded by a new release from Wergo of works that feature the organ

Music educator, composer and pianist Adriana Hölsky (b. 1953) was born in Romania where she studied piano with Olga Rosca-Berdan at the music school in Bucharest and, later alongside her piano studies, composition with Ştefan Niculescu at the Bucharest Music Conservatory.

Following her move to Germany in 1976, she continued her studies at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart, studying composition with Milko Kelemen and chamber music with Günter Louegk. She regularly attended the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music and, in 1980, received a teaching position at the State University of Music and Performing Arts Stuttgart. Between 1997 and 2000, Hölszky was professor of composition at the Rostock University of Music and Theatre and since 2000 she has been professor of composition at the Mozarteum University of Salzburg. Since 2002 she has been a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. She has been the recipient of numerous prizes including most recently the Bach Prize of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (2003).

In addition to a number of works for the stage, Hölsky’s compositions include choral and vocal works, orchestral and chamber works, instrumental works and works for percussion.

A new release from Wergo entitled Wie ein glasernes meer, mit feuer gemischt…(What looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire…) brings together three significant works that feature the organ. …und ich sah wie ein gläsernes Meer, mit Feuer gemischt… for solo organ, Efeu und Lichtfeld for violin and organ and …und wieder Dunkel I for percussion and organ.

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Organist Dominik Susteck has made contemporary music something of a speciality working with students to whom he devoted numerous projects with compositions by György Ligeti, Kurt Schwitters, John Cage and Terry Riley. Susteck has played numerous first performances of works by Erik Janson, Luis Antunes Pena, Stefan Froleyks, Peter Köszeghy, Timo Ruttkamp and Joana Wozny.  As a composer and organist Susteck has received many awards and, since 2007, has been the composer and organist at St. Peter Art Centre, Cologne. For Wergo  he has already recorded organ works by Stockhausen's, Ligeti and Rihm. 

A high metallic motif over a pedal underlay opens …und ich sah wie ein gläsernes Meer, mit Feuer gemischt… (…and I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire…) for organ (1996/97). Soon there is an organ outburst followed by a series of sudden phrases and outbursts. There is a steely quality to much of the writing as shafts of sound or fire, interact with glacial chords. Susteck is a fine soloist, managing all of this work’s unpredictable moments with panache. Later the organ fairly roars with life, interspersed by a little staccato motif. There are some terrific dissonances and slurred phrases. Hölsky creates an amazing tapestry of sounds, often hardly sounding like an organ, otherworldly, angular, complex in structure and rhythms, creating so many colours and textures before dancing to an overpowering coda.

This is an amazing work that vividly creates what the composer describes as ‘…vivid pictures of light and colour alternate with calm and mysterious moments…’

Efeu und Lichtfeld (Ivy and Field of Light) for violin and organ (2008) is said by the composer to be a poetic metaphor for ‘the restrained yet lively simultaneity of these two very different instruments’.

Violinist Sabine Akiko Ahrendt  joins Dominik Susteck, opening with rapid, shrill violin bowing that adds even more to Hölsky’s organ textures. The music is often percussive, often shrilly bowed with sudden pin point notes and chords from the violin punctuating this sound world. The organ provides a background out of which it too sends sudden sounds, often with pulsating, longer held notes that strangely compliment the violin figurations. Ahrendt draws a tremendously raw sound as the work ends.

One feels that, despite little forward momentum, a tremendous journey has been completed. This work is brilliantly played. With both instruments very well balanced.

Percussionist, Jens Brülls ,  joins Dominik Susteck for …und wieder Dunkel I (…and again Darkness I) for percussion and organ (1985/90). Again I am grateful for the composer’s comment that each movement of this work is ‘associated with a fragment from Gottried Benn’s poem ‘Ein Wort’ – the composition can also be understood as a musical realisation of the patterns of movement in the poem as a whole’. The text of the poem is given in the CD booklet.

The first movement, …ein Wort (…a word) opens with an animated organ motif soon joined by a variety of drums giving a wealth of texture to the organ that provides a staccato motif in a variety of textures. Both percussion and organ seem to have their own musical line yet strangely complement each other. At times it sounds as though the drums are trying to conquer the organ as it continues its unstoppable phrases. Both seem to run out of steam at the end.

Movement II, …ein Glanz (…a glow) brings a mysterious, pulsating organ over which percussion rumble before the music slowly heaves itself up with unearthly sounds. Hölsky creates what in many ways is closer to that of an electronic sound world, so unlike conventional instrumental sounds are these. This is quite remarkable music showing that Hölsky has a very fine ear for colour and texture. As the organ pulsates louder the percussion counter with louder rolls of tam-tam before the music fades to the end.

Rhythmic percussion opens the third movement, …ein Flug, ein Feuer, ein Flammenwurf, ein Sternenstrich… (…a flight, a fire, a burst of flames, a steak of stars…) to which the organ adds loud chords. Organ bursts occur against colossal drum rolls with further thundering deep pedal notes against lighter percussion creating squalls of sound. As the coda arrives, individual percussion instruments allow the music to gently and delicately fade.

Finally we come to Movement IV …und wieder Dunkel, ungeheuer, im Ieeren Raum um Welt und ich. (…and again darkness, awesome, in the empty space around the world, and I) that brings a broad spacious, cavernous atmosphere with the organ providing an underlying surface over which a multitude of percussion sounds appear. This is otherworldly music again. There are arpeggios on organ against rhythmic percussion, pulsating organ sounds and much detail going on, brilliantly captured by these artists before the music fades at the end.

This is a strangely captivating work that creates the most remarkable sounds from both organ and percussion.

Lovers of contemporary organ music will want to have this disc but, given the spectacular nature of Hölsky’s sound world, many contemporary music enthusiasts will be just as rewarded by this new release.

The performances are spectacularly fine and the recording is absolutely first rate. There are excellent booklet notes. Whilst the playing time is just over 44 minutes in duration, the spectacular content more than compensates, in fact one feels that nothing could really follow.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Audite’s fourth volume in their edition of The Complete Symphonic Works of Edvard Grieg is another fine release that leaves this series set to become a real winner

Audite’s excellent series of The Complete Symphonic Works of Edvard Grieg has been winning awards galore. Volume I brought us the Symphonic Dances Op. 64; Peer Gynt Suite No.1 Op. 46 & No.2 Op. 55 and Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak and received a number of accolades including Gramophone magazine’s Editor’s Choice.

Volume II gave us the Two Elegiac Melodies Op. 34; From Holberg’s Time Op. 40, Two Melodies Op. 53 and Two Nordic Melodies Op. 63 being chosen as RBB Kulturradio CD of the Week and receiving a top rating from

Volume III featured the Concert Overture 'In Autumn', Op. 11; Lyric Suite, Op. 54; Klokkeklang, Op. 54, No. 6; Old Norwegian Melody with Variations, Op. 51 and Three Orchestral Pieces from ‘Sigurd Jorsalfar’, Op. 56 bringing more awards including a Gramophone Choice. I was particularly enthusiastic about this, the first volume that I reviewed in this series finding it to be ‘the finest Grieg disc to be issued for a long time’

Audite continue their five CD Complete Edition of The Symphonic Works of Grieg with Volume IV featuring this composer’s early Symphony in C minor and his popular Piano Concerto in A minor.

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As with all of this series the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln  is conducted by Eivind Aadland joined on this disc by pianist Herbert Schuch

There have been a number of recordings of Grieg’s Symphony in C minor, EG 119 in recent years despite Grieg having withdrawn the work. There is a purposeful opening to the Allegro molto before the main theme appears, with Eivind Aadland and the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln teasing out hints of Grieg’s later, mature style in the gentler passages. Whilst it is true that much of this symphony has the influence of Schumann and Gade, Grieg does bring a distinctive voice already, if not fully mature. These players do a tremendous job keeping the movement from flagging and highlighting the attractive moments.

They bring a lovely quality to the tranquil Adagio espressivo, a lovely, gentle ebb and flow allowing Grieg’s already fine orchestration to emerge. There is a nicely sprung Allegro energico offset by a spirited second subject before the opening tempo returns, all given a nice rhythmic lift before the lively coda.

More than anywhere else in this symphony it is the Allegro molto vivace that is so Schumannesque. It has a fine forward flow with some attractive ideas with these artists bringing out the best in the music by fine phrasing, rubato and attention to details. There are little hints of the mature Grieg in the quieter moments towards the coda.

Whilst this symphony lacks Grieg’s later, atmospheric sense of place and style, it is, nevertheless, an attractive work particularly when finely played as here.

One of the difficulties that can often arise with complete editions is when the series arrives at an extremely popular work that has been recorded many times. With Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16 there is no such difficulty with Herbert Schuch giving us very distinctive performance.

Following on from the Symphony in C minor one notices, immediately, what a difference four years had made; with Grieg’s Piano Concerto showing clearly his recognisable style beautifully wrought by these players. They bring nicely rounded phrasing and a measured tempo to the Allegro molto moderato. Herbert Schuch, after a strong opening, brings a lovely breadth to his playing, revealing this to be just as much the poetic Grieg. This approach makes the surges into the more virtuosic passages have more impact. Schuch brings some terrific changes of tempi that really lift the music with some sprightly little rhythmic touches. This pianist also brings poetry to the cadenza ,remarkably so, with some very fine touches as he builds to the more technically challenging part with formidable playing marked by fine touch and phrasing before the brilliant coda.

Schuch and the WDR Sinfonieorchester really shine in the Adagio. A lovely orchestral opening sets the scene for Schuch’s poetic entry. There are some exquisitely gentle passages, with this pianist picking out lovely little phrases and details. Schuch and the orchestra let the brakes off for the opening of the Allegro moderato molto e marcato, always beautifully controlled and with a lovely transition to the slow central section.  There is some beautiful rubato from this pianist, with delicate filigree passages and some spectacularly fine playing as the movement moves toward the coda.

Altogether this is another fine addition to Audite’s ongoing complete symphonic cycle. The recording from Köln Philharmonie is excellent and there are informative booklet notes. This series is set to become a real winner.

Saturday 18 October 2014

A new release from BIS shows that, with such colours and textures and sheer brilliance of writing, John Pickard’s Gaia Symphony for brass band and percussion is a tremendous achievement

John Pickard (b.1963) began composing at an early age going on to read for a B.Mus. degree at the University of Wales, Bangor, where his composition teacher was William Mathias. He later studied with Louis Andriessen at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Netherlands on a Dutch Ministry of Culture Scholarship. He is currently Professor of Composition and Applied Musicology at the University of Bristol.

Pickard’s compositions to date include choral, orchestral, chamber, instrumental, vocal works as well as a number of works for brass, in particular the two works for brass band featured on a new release from BIS Records , Eden and Symphony No.4 ‘Gaia Symphony’.

BIS - 2061

Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag brass and percussion ensemble are based in Lindås, Norway. They are probably the best known brass band in Norway having won the Norwegian Brass Band Championships fifteen times. Here they are directed on this disc by the Swedish conductor, Andreas Hanson. Hanson is one of Scandinavia’s most established conductors having conducted all of the finest Swedish orchestras such as Kungliga Filharmoniska Orkestern in Stockholm, Sveriges Radio Symfoniorkester, Malmö Symfonirorkester as well as conducting opera and ballet at, among others, Kungliga Operan in Stockholm. He has been engaged as a guest conductor in Russia, Great Britain, Poland and Lithuania. In 2000 he made his debut in London at a Proms-concert.

In 2005 John Pickard was commissioned to compose the test piece for the finals of the 2005 National Brass Band Championship, held at the Royal Albert Hall, London. This piece, Eden for brass band (2005), has since been performed all over the world and is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest works written for brass band. Pickard tells us in his excellent booklet note that the work is prefaced by the final lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is in three linked sections, the first representing Adam, Eve and the serpent; the second, an interpretation of the Eden story as a modern metaphor for the havoc inflicted on the world and the third a lament.

The work opens with the instruments of Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag slowly joining against the tinkle of a bell, giving very much the feel of dawn.  Rich deep lower brass add a richness as the music gently moves forward in short surges. Pickard’s use of his instruments is skilfully done, beautifully orchestrated. The music moves from rich sounds to passages of great luminosity. Soon there are courser, rasping, agitated, sounds with a trombone leading the ensemble. Drums beat out as the music becomes increasingly dramatic with further percussion joining as the music drives forward, full of energy. Later a trombone takes on a jazzy feel as the music is driven along, achieving a tremendous pitch with playing of supreme virtuosity. Eventually a tolling bell introduces a slow section full of regret and sorrow. The rich, lower brass enter as the music seems to gain a reflective air before building again in dynamics as the coda is reached, surely giving a sign of hope. The work concludes on a settled final loud flourish.

This is a beautifully structured piece, full of fine orchestration and colourful ideas.

The sixty five minute Symphony No.4, ‘Gaia Symphony’ for brass band and percussion (1991-2003), was first heard in its complete version at the 2005 Cheltenham Music Festival. Gaia was the Greek goddess of the earth. Wildfire and Men of Stone were the result of earlier individual commissions. Tsunami and Aurora followed, later connected by three short movements entitled Windows to form the symphony. The Windows are openings in the continuous brass sonorities to offer a glimpse of another sound world built of percussion.

Tsunami has a forceful opening followed by a steady beating rhythm from the timpani over which the band slowly build a theme. Soon a more animated section arrives with the music dancing around against percussion, full of syncopated, dramatic music. The music quietens momentarily but soon picks up to a violent forward thrusting pace before falling to a longer sustained hushed section. Cymbals appear to give the sound of water as individual instruments quietly join with a stillness and tension as a drum beats quietly. Eventually the drum beat speeds up and becomes more dominant as the music regains its dynamic, violent nature, going through a number of surges, growing in strength to lead into Window 1 (Water – Fire) where drums and percussion hammer out a primeval rhythm that shows the ensemble’s percussion section to be first rate.

We are led straight into Wildfire where staccato brass outbursts are interspersed by longer held passages. A side drum drives the music forward with brass outbursts before more of a forward momentum is gained with some extremely fine playing from this band. Soon a quieter, slower section arrives but the music slowly builds again with increased rhythm and dynamics and some particularly fine orchestration.  There are quieter moments, full of increasing tension, as the music pushes forward to the colossal coda that ends with strange tapping sounds from the percussion as we are led into Window 2 (Fire – Air) where repeated tapping leads to the entry of drums that take over in a faster rhythm before a variety of percussion instruments have their say, bringing a variety of textures. Eventually the music falls to a tolling bell with tinkling bells adding to the texture as we are led into the next movement.

Aurora brings a peaceful passage with mellow brass as higher instruments emerge from the background bringing a sense of light. There is a lovely rising and falling passage and some gloriously written hushed passages, beautifully played. Timpani then point up a rhythm, leading the ensemble to a faster pace and rising to a series of climaxes, finely pointed up by surges of percussion. Eventually the music falls with a return of the mellow brass of the opening, becoming quieter in the magical coda and leading into Window 3 (Air – Earth) where a drum taps a short motif before a bell chimes and a vibraphone subtly joins. The music rises in dynamics a little in this strangest and most inventive of sections.

The final movement, Men of Stone is in four linked sections. It rises quickly to an outburst in the opening of Avebury (Autumn, morning) before a lone cornet plays a lovely melody. Soon there is another surge from the full ensemble before building, with lovely little brass decorations, to the final climax and speeding into Castlerigg (Winter, afternoon) a rhythmic, dynamic section with violent drums, full of fierce energy that falls, falteringly to Barclodiad y Gawres (Spring, evening) a lovely section, a complete contrast to Castlerigg with some glorious moments, full of exquisite colours and textures as a spring evening is depicted. The music rises in passion before quietly leading into a rhythmic drumming passage, with snarling brass, as Stonehenge (Summer, night/dawn) appears, full of primeval violence. The music falls with a sense of menace still remaining before an outburst followed by surges of brass lead to the dynamic coda.

This symphony is a tremendous achievement both by composer and the band. At times one forgets that one is listening to a brass band such are the colours and textures and sheer brilliance of Pickard’s writing.

As for the performances, they are absolutely first rate. To call this band amateur seems inappropriate such are their skills. The recording is well up to BIS’ high standards, allowing every little detail and texture to emerge. There are informative booklet notes from the composer. By including the related work, Eden, BIS have given us a very generous 81 minute disc.

Friday 17 October 2014

Performances ranking amongst the very best, as Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra complete their Beethoven Journey for Sony with the Emperor Concerto and Choral Fantasy

The Beethoven Journey has taken Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra through the first and third concertos, recorded in the Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague on 22nd and 23rd May 2012, through concertos two and four recorded at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, England on 22nd and 23rd November 2013 to their final destination - the latest release from Sony Classical.

And what a journey it’s been. With the first two issues I used terms such as ‘deeply probing and distinguished performances’, ‘subtle details and depth of feeling’, ‘provides wonderful insights’ and ‘hugely recommendable’.

Andsnes has not rushed into these recordings, taking them into concert and absorbing the music before committing them to disc.

Now to the final release from Sony Classical of Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major, Op.73 ‘Emperor’ and the Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C minor, Op.80 ‘Choral Fantasy’. 


The Allegro of Piano Concerto No.5 opens with a strength and assurance from both soloist and orchestra with Andsnes providing fine delicate phrasing. The orchestra moves ahead decisively, full of authority and with beautifully wrought quieter passages. When Andsnes enters again he provides clear, beautiful phrases, observing every dynamic. The orchestral textures are extremely fine showing how much Andsnes has worked with this orchestra. Andsnes moves through some wonderfully well sprung, dynamic, fast flowing passages with such élan. This is musicianship of a particularly high order.  Centrally Andsnes brings a light-heartedness before the climactic chords for piano against the orchestra. Andsnes’ fluency and touch are superb. There is a superb little cadenza that is sensitively carried through to the huge scales that follow.

There is a beautifully paced orchestral opening Adagio un poco moto, with just the right amount of forward push. Andsnes brings a similar forward urge to his playing, with very fine purity of tone and exquisite phrasing. It is Andsnes’ subtle, almost imperceptible changes of tempo and dynamics that bring such a mesmerising effect.

The Rondo. Allegro brings taut, rhythmically well sprung playing that fairly bounces ahead, full of joy. Andsnes and his players seem to really throw themselves into the music with magnificent results. This pianist’s pure tone comes through in the quieter passages with a delicacy that is extremely fine. The coda is simply terrific.

Just as in the previous releases, Leif Ove Andsnes has brought a subtlety and depth to this concerto revealing its many moods and depths.

The Prague Philharmonic Choir join Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra for Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. The Adagio opens with some fine, broad piano chords before falling to the intricate little phrases that Andsnes works up so well. There are phrases that recall the Fifth concerto with Andsnes bringing much to the attractions of the piano part of this work, showing that, for all its oddities, there is much inventiveness and entertainment.

After the orchestra enters for the Finale the piano joins with its sprightly motif before the music takes off, full of wit and charm highlighted by Andsnes’ amazing ensemble with the orchestra. The finale of the ninth symphony is foreshadowed before some terrific, dynamic playing. Andsnes also brings much sensitivity to this rather extrovert work, showing a subtlety that could easily be lost and, indeed, often is. There is spontaneity galore in the sudden piano flourishes before the chorus enters and some tremendous playing as the chorus and orchestra head forward with Andsnes achieving a fine balance of his forces right up to the coda.

These performers tend to make the Choral Fantasy sound greater than really it is with a direct spontaneity coupled with fine sensitivity. All in all this is a very fine performance. 

Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra have topped off a considerable cycle with a real winner. There is something in these performances that just lifts the music. It all sounds just so right.

These are performances to live with and, surely must rank alongside the very best committed to disc. The recording made at the Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague on 20th and 21st May 2014 is excellent. There are informative booklet notes.

See also: 

Wednesday 15 October 2014

As fine a collection of piano trio performances you could wish for from the Petrof Piano Trio on a new release from Nimbus of works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn

The Petrof Piano Trio was created in 2009 by Wihan Quartet violinist, Jan Schulmeister. The members, that also include Martina Schulmeisterová (piano) and Kamil Žvak (cello), are renowned chamber-music players and bring to the ensemble over thirty years’ experience of concert activity.

In the same year as it was formed, the ensemble became the Resident Trio of the Petrof Piano Company. Since 2011 they have been the Resident Trio at the International Chamber Music Course in Zábřeh na Moravě in the Czech Republic.

The Trio gave the world premiere of Janáček ́s “Kreutzer ́s Sonata”, arranged for the Trio by the leading Czech musicologist, Miloš Štědroňat, at the international music festival in Kroměříž in September 2014.

Following the Trio’s last CD release for Nimbus Alliance , with trios by Mendelssohn, Bruch and Lalo, they have now released a recording on that label of Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor coupled with three arrangements of Mendelssohn: Songs without Words.

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The Petrof Piano Trio grab the listener’s attention straight away in the Allegro con brio of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D minor ‘Ghost’ Op.70, No.1 with playing that is taut, dynamic and urgent. They are fully alive to every dynamic and nuance.

The Petrof’s lyrical, poetic side, that was glimpsed in the Allegro, is fully revealed in the Largo assai ed espressivo where the Trio draw much fine expression. There is a beautiful balance between piano and strings in some exquisitely hushed passages, rising to moments of intense passion. It is terrific how they slowly build the emotions before easing back.

The Presto brings a lively dialogue between the players with moments of fine, incisive playing. This Trio show some terrific ensemble before the decisive coda.

This is a particularly fine ‘Ghost’ Trio displaying layers of emotion often not revealed.

With the Pezzo elegiac of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op.50 the Petrof’s open beautifully with a broad, rolling sweep before the lovely main theme emerges. There is a lovely building in dynamics with all of Tchaikovsky’s intricate writing showing through. The music rises in great passion with these players drawing out the many moods. Centrally there is an exquisite section as the main theme is slowly, gently and passionately revealed in its lovely variation, quite beautifully played before rising to a direct and passionate sequence, beautifully controlled as it falls back to the lovely coda.

There is a gloriously played opening to the Tema con Variazioni from Martina Schulmeisterová, beautifully phrased and poised before the gently rolling theme appears and is taken through its twelve variations. There are some lovely passages from string players, Jan Schulmeister and Kamil Žvak, often full of intense emotion and really bringing the music alive. In the rhythmic sections these players provide some fine playing, responding so well to each other. As we are led into the Variazioni Finale e Coda these players really throw themselves into the fast and furious passages, bringing joy before slowing for the massive coda where they bring great power to the restated theme before the quiet coda.

The Petrof Piano Trio conclude this recording with three arrangements of Mendelssohn: Songs without Words by Jakub Kowalewski (b.1977), acting as attractive encores. There is a lovely rocking motion to the attractive arrangement Allegro con anima, op.62 No. 4 with opening and closing pizzicato strings, a simple yet attractive arrangement of Un poco agitato, ma andante, Op.101 No.4 with the strings taking the melody and the well known Andante con moto, Op.19 No.1 with the violin and cello sharing the melody over a piano accompaniment with a lovely sweep and flow.

This is as fine a collection of piano trio performances you could wish for. The recording from the Sound Studio HAMU, Prague is first rate and there are informative notes from the trio’s violinist Jan Schulmeister.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Excellent performances from harpsichordist, Terence Charlston in works by Bach, Handel and music by composers of their youth on a new release from Divine Art entitled The Harmonious Thuringian

Thuringia is a federal state of Germany set right at the heart of Germany with beautiful countryside and cities and a great history and culture. It is an area with strong links to Goethe, Schiller, Liszt, Wagner, Gropius and Feininger as well as Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) who was born in Eisenach.

Saxony is a federal state of Germany, bordering Thuringia and also having a great natural beauty, a rich historical and cultural landscape and particularly linked to George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) who was born in Halle.

Combine music from the early years of these two composers with music they may have heard in their youth; add a copy, by David Evans, of a lovely old Thuringian harpsichord dating from c. 1715 and you have the basis for a very interesting recital.

This is exactly what harpsichordist, Terence Charlston  has done on a new release from Divine Art Recordings entitled The Harmonious Thuringian.

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David Evans’ instrument is a single manual harpsichord, a 2010 copy of an anonymous Thuringian harpsichord c. 1715 in the Eisenach Bachhaus, Eisenach, Germany . This new CD gives full details of compass, pitch and temperament of this fine instrument.

Terence Charlston is an early keyboard player, chamber musician, choral and orchestral director, teacher and academic researcher. As a harpsichord and organ soloist he has toured worldwide. His repertoire spans music from the 16th century to the present day, reflecting an interest in keyboard music of all types and styles.

He was a member of London Baroque from 1995 until 2007 and is a member of the ensemble, Florilegium as well as being a member of The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments.

Charlston has performed on a large number of recordings playing harpsichord, organ, virginals, clavichord and fortepiano. He founded the Department of Historical Performance at the Royal Academy of Music in 1995 and in September 2007 he was invited to join the staff of the Royal College of Music, London as professor of harpsichord. He is International Visiting Tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

Terence Charlston opens this new recording with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata in E minor, BWV 914 (c. 1706-1710) written around the time he would have been in either Arnstadt, Mühlhausen or Weimar, all Thuringian towns. Charlston brings a beautifully phrased flow to the opening of Toccata followed by some finely structured passages in the second half. In the Fugue he pushes forward with the musical lines very finely drawn.

We move from Bach to a contemporary, Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (1656-1746) sometime Kapellmeister to Ludwig Wilhelm of Baden and represented here by his Suite VIII in G major. The Prelude has some beautifully florid passages with exceptionally fine playing from Charlston and a lovely, finely detailed Chaconne with, again, this player allowing the lines to clearly flow.

Louis Marchand (1669-1732) was a French Baroque organist, harpsichordist, and composer some of whose organ works were lauded as classics of the French organ school and may well have been heard by Bach and Handel. Deep resonant sounds are drawn from this fine harpsichord as his Prelude in D minor unfolds; a really attractive piece that moves around considerably as the theme is worked out.

Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725) is represented here by his Passacaglia in D minor. Krieger was the elder brother of Johann Krieger featured below, both being musicians from a Nuremberg family. His Passacaglia opens with a series of slow chords before developing. Charlston is a sensitive musician who knows just how to extract beautiful sounds from such a piece. The piece has an affecting, simple rising and falling theme that is, nevertheless, developed in an attractive and skilful manner with some unusual, repeated phrases towards the end, as well as some beautifully florid passages.

We return to the great Bach with his Fantasia in G minor, BWV 917. In many ways a quintessentially Bachian piece it receives a really fine performance with a great flow and clarity of line.

With Johann Krieger’s (1651-1735) Ich dich hab ich gehoffet Herr the different musical lines could prove problematic in some hands but not here, where Charlston beautifully contrasts the two lines as the music is developed.

Christian Ritter (1645/1650-1717) is believed to have been a pupil of Christoph Bernhard in Dresden. He is thought to have later been Kammerorganist in Halle in 1666 before, later, moving to Sweden. His Allemande in descessum Caroli xi Regis sveciae is very attractive, nicely developed, unfolding naturally for all its intricacies.

Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) was the eldest son of Heinrich Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach's great uncle. Born at Arnstadt, he was organist at Eisenach and later a member of the court chamber orchestra there. His Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV Anh.177 has a Prelude as fine as any by J. S. Bach, with richly decorated passages finely played by Charlston. There follows a beautifully paced Fugue, revealing its fine invention as it is allowed to unfold.

The fast Fugue in C minor that follows, full of attractive invention during its short duration, is an anonymous work attributed to Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), another composer born in Nuremberg, brilliantly played by Charlston.

The Italian composer, Tarquino Merula’s (1594/95-1665) organ works would have been in general circulation during the 17th century.  His Capriccio Cromatico Capriccio…perle semi tuoni opens on a rising scale which the left hand continues under a right hand motif. This is then developed with Charlston’s fine musical clarity and sensitivity.

Johann Sebastian Bach is again represented by the Prelude from his Prelude and Fugue in A major, BWV 896 (c.1709). This tiny little piece receives an exquisite performance.

Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1663-1712) was born in Halle, going on to be Kantor and organist of Halle's Market Church, the church where Handel was baptised. He was Handel’s teacher in Halle. Charlston gives Zachow’s  Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland a stature that perhaps wouldn’t normally emerge in the way he develops the ideas, thus adding a degree of depth.

Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) was, like Handel, a Saxony born composer. Charlston produces unusual timbres from his harpsichord in the Prelude, a really unusual piece where a single theme is simply worked out.

Finally we come to George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) with his Suite No.5 in E minor, HWV 430 from his Eight Suites de Pieces HWV 426-433 (1720). Though Handel was in London by 1710, leaving Halle in 1703 and Hamburg in 1706 to travel to Italy, these works were surely assembled for publication from works written earlier.

Charlston brings a fine breadth and spaciousness to the Prelude with a terrific display of virtuosity in the florid coda. There is a flowing Allemande with Charlston bringing out all the intricacies of this piece. The Courante has a lovely ebb and flow, with finely played little details before the Air and Variations, better known as ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. For all its popularity it is a fine piece and gets a terrific performance here.

There are some extremely interesting and attractive works on this new disc from composers probably not heard of by most listeners. David Evans’ fine instrument adds much to Terence Charlston’s excellent performances. The CD booklet is up to Divine Art’s usual high standards with colour photographs, including one of the instrument, excellent notes by Terence Charlston together with details of the harpsichord including pitch and temperament.