Sunday 30 November 2014

Oleg Caetani draws taut playing from the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana revealing the best of Gounod’s symphonies on a new release form CPO

Charles Gounod (1818-1893)  was born in Paris and studied privately with Antoine Reicha (1770-1836) before attending the Paris Conservatoire where his teachers were Fromental Halevy (1799-1862) (counterpoint) and Jean-François Le Seuer (1760-1837)  (composition). In 1839 he visited Rome after winning the Prix de Rome where he was much influenced by 16th century polyphonic music. On his return to Paris he took a post as a church organist and even considered joining the priesthood.

In 1855 came his popular Messe solennelle de Ste Cécile followed by seven operas, the first two failures. It is his opera Faust (1859) that he is most remembered for. In 1870 he took refuge in England from the Franco-Prussian War where he stayed for some four years becoming the first conductor of the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society, also writing oratorios for Birmingham.

Gounod’s two completed attempts at symphonies date from 1855. The Allegretto and Scherzo of his Symphony No.1 in D major was first performed in February 1855 by Jules Pasdeloup and the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in 1855, the complete work being performed by François Seghers with his Société Sainte-Cécile orchestra that same year receiving an even more enthusiastic reception.

April 1855 saw the first performance of the Larghetto of his Symphony No. 2 in E flat major, the complete work being performed in February 1856.

These two symphonies have been brought together with the fragments of a projected Symphony No.3 in C major sketched out around 1890-92. They are performed on this new release from CPO by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana  conducted by Oleg Caetani

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There is a dynamic opening to the Allegro molto of Gounod’s Symphony No.1 in D major before the orchestra immediately rushes forward in this light textured movement, good natured with occasional little orchestral outbursts to jog the listener’s attention. The Allegretto moderato has a gentle, nicely sprung rhythm with a rather Mendelssohnian melody and certainly just as lightly scored. Caetani and his players find much lovely detail.

There is a nicely poised Scherzo. Non troppo presto – Trio with an attractive rhythmic buoyancy and a lovely trio section featuring the woodwind. The music gains a real forward flow from the strings and often has a Haydnesque feel with its peasant dance rhythm. There is a slow, flowing opening to the Finale Adagio – Allegro Vivace that soon rises before leading into the allegro with many lovely twists and turns, again beautifully scored and full of energy.  

Oleg Caetani and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana find much interest in this rather lightweight though thoroughly attractive work.

The Symphony No. 2 in E flat major (1855) opens with a dramatically pointed up Adagio that gives way to a rather earnest Allegro agitato that does have many lighter moments. Again Caetani and his orchestra bring out every dynamic and detail in a movement that certainly has more gravitas than Gounod’s first venture into symphonic form. He brings a number of very attractive instrumental ideas and overall a very fine forward thrust to the music. The Larghetto (non troppo) has a gentle flowing opening as the music slowly spreads out soon revealing a fine tune, a glowing melody with lovely individual woodwind contributions. Centrally there is a rather playful passage making this a particularly attractive movement.

Scherzo. Allegro molto – Trio brings more attractive ideas and a surging string theme offset by woodwind before the music pushes; Mendelssohnian but really rather attractive with a lovely, gentle yet rhythmic, trio section. A nimble, fast moving Finale. Allegro, leggiero assai theme pushes forward, soon increasing in dynamics with some lovely quiet, fluent writing, full of good humour though in danger of flagging a little towards the coda.

The fragments of Symphony No.3 in C major receive their first recording here, with firstly an Andante molto maestoso – Moderato, slow and rather serious before rising up dramatically and leading into a decisive theme that moves ahead confidently with hints of Beethoven before frustratingly ending suddenly, Gounod having put down his pen. A gentle flowing Andante follows with some lovely details from the woodwind before heading to its subdued coda.

This is a tantalising glimpse of what the older Gounod might have achieved in symphonic form.

Oleg Caetani draws taut playing from the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana revealing the best of these scores. The second symphony is the one I am most likely to return to though both are full of attractive ideas and beautifully scored.

Caetani and his orchestra receive a first rate recording and there are informative booklet notes.

Saturday 29 November 2014

First rate performances from Marianna Bednarska and the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henrik Vagn Christensen of Anders Koppel’s four marimba concertos on a new release from Dacapo

The son of the composer and pianist Herman D. Koppel (1908-98), Anders Koppel (b.1947) was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and was a co-founder of the rock group Savage Rose. From 1976 to 2012 he was a member of the trio Bazaar. He also plays in the trio Koppel-Andersen-Koppel which includes his son, saxophone player Benjamin Koppel.

Koppel has composed music for eight ballets for the New Danish Dance Theatre and music for more than 150 films, 50 theatrical plays and three musicals. He has also composed more than 90 works for classical ensembles, chamber music and 20 concertos, among them two saxophone concertos and four marimba concertos.

It is the four marimba concertos that are features on a new release from Dacapo Records with marimba player Marianna Bednarska and the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henrik Vagn Christensen . This new release includes no less than three world premiere recordings.

The Concerto No. 1 for Marimba and Orchestra (1995) was written for the final of the International Percussion Competition in Luxembourg. The marimba opens the Allegro with a rhythmic theme taken up by the orchestra, quickly finding a jaunty stance. The opening marimba theme is repeated then varied with the orchestra, a very catchy tune that really sticks in the listener’s mind. There is a terrific little cadenza before the music heads to the coda.

In the Adagio the marimba picks out a lovely melody over a quiet orchestral background. A solo violin joins, blending exquisitely with the marimba and orchestra before gently moving into a lovely flowing melody. There are some beautifully sensitive phrases for marimba retaining a slightly playful quality.

The Andante really dances forward with a lively theme for marimba with a fine orchestral accompaniment before rising to a more dynamic passage. The music continues through some very fine fast passages for marimba superbly played. Halfway through there is an extended cadenza that picks up the main theme and subjects it to some terrific variations before leading to the lively coda.

This is a really captivating concerto in the lighter vein.

The Allegro ma non Troppo of the Concerto No. 2 for Marimba and String Orchestra (2000) opens with a repeated note from the marimba, like a pulse or ticking sound before the orchestra join and the music is varied. The ticking motif still occasionally peeks through and is never far away. This is an ingenious idea representing the relentless tick-tock of time. The ticking theme speeds up by grouping two notes on the marimba and repeating them before moving through some fine flourishes for the soloist, brilliantly played.  The string writing fits so well around the marimba and has many fine moments in its own right. The cadenza arrives before moving quickly to the coda, full of rhythmic sweep with that ticking appearing again and leading straight into the L’istesso tempo with the marimba picking out a theme over a swaying orchestral accompaniment.

This is a movement full of strange yet very attractive ideas with some very fine playing from Marianna Bednarska and some really fine string playing from the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra under Henrik Vagn Christensen before rising to lead into A tempo where scurrying strings lead on before the marimba joins to take up the theme as both soloist and orchestra rush forward. There are some terrific scales on the marimba and a cadenza, with some brilliant playing from Bednarska, full of sensitivity and colour before leading to a lovely little coda.

Written for the Austrian marimba virtuoso Martin Grubinger and given its first performance by the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz Concerto No. 3 ‘Linzer’ for Marimba and Orchestra (2002 rev. 2003) used a late Romantic style orchestra.

In the Andante the marimba introduces a theme that sounds as though it is ready to break out into a full blown romantic tune. It is joined by the orchestra as the music sweeps ahead, the marimba causing the music to pause as the rhythmic theme is played. The music develops to a number of peaks with a cadenza, full of subtleties with little themes appearing before the orchestra rejoins and the music gently moves ahead, flowing into the second movement Meno mosso.

This movement has a flowing orchestral theme, surely the one that has been hinted at from the beginning. The marimba enters as the orchestra picks up on the rhythmic theme and proceeds at a leisurely walking pace. The cello section accompany then brass as the marimba plays a theme around the romantic melody. The music becomes more dramatic and dynamic with some fine passages for marimba, timpani then sound a dramatic orchestral passage before the marimba rejoins to lead the orchestra forward at its leisurely pace, rising dynamically before leading into the final movement, A tempo.

In this movement there are staccato phrases from the orchestra and some wonderfully fluent playing from the soloist with some terrific jazzy moments, full of energy and punch with, variously, timpani and bass drum beating out the rhythm. When the cadenza arrives there is some very fine playing, with lovely sonorities and colours before suddenly taking off to the grand coda.

Concerto No. 4 ‘In Memory of Things Transient’ for Marimba and Orchestra (2006) was commissioned by Wiener Mozartjahr 2006 and is dedicated to Martin Grubinger. It was given its premiere by him at the Musikverein in Vienna as part of the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. The title refers to an ancient marble stone discovered in a clearing of a Swedish forest by the composer and his wife.

There is an orchestral opening to the Moderato with a sudden flourish before bringing a fast but quiet rhythmic pulse to which the marimba joins. The orchestration here is brilliantly done as it flows softly around the soloist who picks out a counterpoint as well as some lovely scales and flourishes.

The Adagio brings a sudden dramatic halt to the flow before the orchestra leads, with the marimba, the music forward in a lovely section with sudden flourishes from the marimba. Towards the end an organ is heard behind the gently played marimba theme leading into the Adagio with the timpani and orchestra bringing a lovely melody, at first underpinned by ‘sliding’ timpani, a quite magical passage out of which a sudden little dramatic outburst appear. There are lovely dissonances for the marimba with an atmosphere, textures, harmonies and colours that are remarkable.

We are led seamlessly into the fourth movement A tempo (l’istesso tempo) where the drama of the same theme picks up, becoming more violent. There is a short cadenza before the organ brings a jolly little tune for the Allegro with orchestra and marimba joining in, full of good humour and fun with percussion bringing an added touch.

We are taken straight into the Meno mosso, peasant – Allegro appassionato which brings more dynamic, rhythmic music with spectacularly fine playing from Marianna Bednarska above the raucous orchestral accompaniment. But it is the insistent marimba theme that drives the music forward before the organ alone plays a gentle tune to which the marimba adds little ‘drips’ of sound. The orchestra joins to add a more dynamic contribution as we are led quite forcefully into another Adagio rising up ever more dramatically. Once the music drops back, the organ is heard momentarily before a gentle marimba theme takes us into the final Allegro – meno mosso, pesante where the music lightly and gently dances forward, the marimba skipping over the orchestral accompaniment. A quotation from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.11 is heard before a sudden outburst brings the conclusion.

The Concerto No. 4 is a spectacularly fine piece, receiving here a first rate performance from Marianna Bednarska and the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henrik Vagn Christensen, as do all of these works

P.S. to a Concerto (1995) for marimba solo, composed after the first performance of his Concerto No.1 for Marimba and Orchestra, makes a fine encore. An attractive little theme is varied to considerable effect as the soloist brings some very fine moments.

Both Marianna Bednarska (marimba) and the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henrik Vagn Christensen deserve the upmost praise for these fine performances. They receive an excellent recording from Symfonien, Aalborg, Denmark and there are detailed booklet notes.

Thursday 27 November 2014

A highly recommendable release from Naxos of two World Premiere recordings of Gerald Finzi and Ivor Gurney as well as a superb performance of Vaughan Williams’ An Oxford Elegy performed by the City of London Choir and London Mozart Players conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton with baritone Roderick Williams and speaker Jeremy Irons

Vaughan Williams wrote his suite for viola, chorus and orchestra, Flos Campi (Flowers of the Field) in 1926 with the memories of the First World War fresh in his memory.

A new release from Naxos is entitled Flowers of the Field and brings works by composers, including Vaughan Williams, who were all affected by the carnage of the First World War. This new recording includes two world premieres and features the City of London Choir and London Mozart Players conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton  with Roderick Williams (baritone)  and Jeremy Irons (speaker).

George Butterworth (1885-1916) was a promising young composer who, as his dates poignantly show, was cut down in the war.  A Shropshire Lad – Rhapsody for Orchestra gives a fine inkling as to what we may have expected from him. Vaughan William’s wrote to Holst from the front that ‘I sometimes dread coming back to normal life with so many gaps – especially of course George Butterworth…’

Hilary Davan Wetton draws some beautifully sensitive playing from the London Mozart Players in this most affecting work, finding just the right degree of passion as the music rises up from its hushed opening. Wetton, at times, brings a magnificent breadth to the music often finding moments of orchestral detail that could be overlooked.

A major find here is the youthful work by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) his Requiem da Camera for orchestra, chorus and baritone (edited and completed by Christian Alexander) written in 1923-24 and dedicated to the memory of ‘EBF’ Finzi’s teacher and mentor, Ernest Farrar (1885-1918) who was killed right at the end of the war. A setting of poems by John Masefield, Thomas Hardy and Wilfrid Wilson Gibson it opens with an orchestral Prelude, a shifting orchestral motif that soon steadies into a firm rich melody that has many mature Finzi traits. There are moments of great passion and, towards the end, an orchestral phrase that seems to echo a trumpet call.

The City of London Choir join for How still this quiet cornfield is tonight a telling soliloquy for the countryside of England on the brink of war. As the choir rise up they bring some lovely moments, full of passion with soprano Natasha Harbinson and tenor David Bagnall making a brief appearance to point up Masefield’s text.

Only a man harrowing clods brings baritone, Roderick Williams, in this Hardy setting, beautifully orchestrated. Williams uses his fine rich baritone voice to elevate this setting to one of great feeling and sensitivity particularly in the last verse on the words ‘War’s annals will cloud into night ere their story die.’

We who are left, a setting of a poem by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, has a plodding orchestral opening to which choir soon join with a lovely weaving of vocal lines, slowly moving ahead, rising in intensity as it does. Soprano, Emily Tidbury joins for ‘A bird among the rain wet lilac sings – But we, how shall we turn to little things’  to which the choir responds ‘We who are left, how shall we look again happily on the sun or feel the rain.’’ The orchestra evokes the feel of a trumpet call for the quiet coda.

This is a substantial work of much beauty for which we should thank Christian Alexander for his work realising the score and, indeed, these artists for providing such a fine performance.

The composer and poet, Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was already suffering from mental problems before he enlisted in the 5th Gloucester Reserve Battalion. He was wounded then gassed at Passchendale before being invalided back to England. He did resume his studies at the Royal College of Music but his mental state deteriorated eventually leading to his spending the last fifteen years of his life in a mental institution.

The Trumpet (1921) (edited and orchestrated by Philip Lancaster) for chorus and orchestra was written while Gurney was still able to compose and forms part of his Edward Thomas cycle Lights Out. The work opens with an almost ceremonial feel as the choir and orchestra sound out in ‘Rise up, rise up ….’. Yet immediately the text reveals the true feelings of the music ‘…as the trumpet blowing scatters the dreams of men.’ For all the occasional weaker moments, there is a strength and passion with Gurney’s chorus singing out loudly and passionately ‘Scatter it, scatter it.’ before the final ‘Arise, arise.’

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) seemed to be looking back some thirty years to his own war experiences and, more particularly the loss of friends including George Butterworth, when he wrote An Oxford Elegy (1947-49) a setting of Matthew Arnold.

For all the distance of time this music is no less profound as a gentle orchestral opening reveals an aching nostalgia. The choir gently enter singing ‘Go for they call you, shepherd from the hill’ in some of Vaughan Williams’ most inspired writing, creating a rather unworldly atmosphere. The choir and orchestra rise up but drop back as the speaker, Jeremy Irons enters on ‘Go, shepherd and untie the wattled cotes’ proving an absolutely superb narrator, subtly following the texts, finding a new inflection for each word. The choir enter bringing a lovely gentle flow to ‘Here will we sit and wait’ evoking, musically, memories of the composer’s Serenade to Music. When the choir and orchestra support the speaker the balance is nicely done.

It is truly memorable as Irons gets to the words ‘And the eye travels down to Oxford’s towers’ and ‘Come, let me read the off-read tale again, the story of that Oxford scholar poor.’ Vaughan Williams’ use of orchestra, choir and speaker is masterly as, indeed, is this performance. One would need a heart of steel not to respond to this beautiful and poignant performance of this great work. Jeremy Irons rises to the dramatic passages magnificently, bringing out the palpable sense of loss in ‘They are gone and thou art gone as well.’

This is a very fine performance in every way, quite superb and one which I have listened to a number of times already.

This is a highly recommendable release with two important World Premiere recordings as well as a superb performance of An Oxford Elegy together making a fine evocation of an England that would soon be lost forever. These performers receive a very fine recording from the team of Andrew Walton (producer) and Mike Clements (engineer) made at London’s Henry Wood Hall, UK.

There are excellent booklet notes and full English texts. 

Tuesday 25 November 2014

A new release from OUR Recordings of six of Corelli’s opus 5 sonatas in performances by Michala Petri and Mahan Esfahani that are an absolute delight

Arcangelo Corelli’s (1653-1713) twelve sonatas for violin and harpsichord, Op. 5 were published in Rome in 1700 and dedicated to the Electress Sophie Charlotte of Brandenburg. The first six of these sonatas are sonatas da Chiesa (church sonata) and the second six sonatas da camera (chamber sonata).

Renowned recorder player Michala Petri  joins with the critically acclaimed harpsichordist, Mahan Esfahani  to perform an 18th century transcription for recorder and harpsichord of the last six of Corelli’s Op.5 sonatas on a new recording from OUR Recordings


In fact these artists do not keep rigidly to the edition published by London publisher, John Walsh but, where appropriate follow Corelli’s 1700 version as well as adding their own spontaneity. The name John Walsh will of course be familiar as the publisher of many of Handel’s works.

Michala Petri and Mahan Esfahani open with the Sonata in G minor, Op. 5, No. 12, 'La Follia', perhaps Corelli’s most famous piece. This receives a particularly lovely performance, opening with Petri’s pure toned recorder around which Esfahani provides some lovely fluent decorative chords, before leading to some wonderfully fast passages where both players show their considerable dexterity. Their tempi are spot on with some beautifully languid slow passages that perfectly offset the more dynamic moments. A terrific performance.

The Preludio – Vivace of Sonata in G minor, Op.5 No.7 opens joyfully, these players adding a lovely dancing flow and sparkle before the Corrente – Allegro which moves forward at a fine pace with some very fine intricate playing from both Petri and Esfahani. These two artists provide terrific ensemble. Petri’s tone and shaping of notes is impressive as is her incredible fluency. There is a spacious, beautifully laid out Sarabande – Largo before the final Giga – Allegro, a lively buoyant movement that moves along with a tremendous rhythmic bounce. This is exceptionally fine playing.

There is a really fine opening to the Sonata in C major, Op. 5 No.9 a Preludio - Largo with Petri’s lovely tone providing a flowing melody over Esfahani’s florid beautifully decorative accompaniment with lovely shaping of phrases. There follows another rhythmically buoyant movement, the Giga – Allegro an absolute joy before the Adagio where Esfahani’s beautifully laid out accompaniment provides the perfect foil to Petri’s beautifully decorated playing.  Petri and Esfahani really move forward in the concluding Tempo di Gavotta – Allegro with terrific ensemble, fluency and agility, playing of the highest calibre.

With the Preludio - Adagio of Sonata in G major, Op.5 No. 11 the tempo is perfectly judged, with Petri’s longer phrases leading over Esfahani’s nicely paced harpsichord accompaniment to perfection. The Allegro is a joy with Petri’s well pointed phrases and Esfahani’s wonderful accompaniment. There is another short linking Adagio with beautifully decorated passages before the light and joyful Vivace. The Gavotta - Allegro reveals more of these artists fine affinity with great ensemble and understanding

Petri and Esfahani bring a lovely long breathed flow to the Preludio - Largo of the Sonata in G minor, Op.5 No.8, Petri providing a lovely tone. There is a beautifully light and fluent  Allemanda – Allegro and a gently flowing  Sarabanda - Largo that moves forward so naturally before the concluding Giga - Allegro which has a lovely spring in its step as well as more fine interplay between these soloists.

These two fine players conclude with the Sonata in G major, op.5 No.10 where in the Preludio - Adagio harpsichordist, Mahan Esfahani again sets off Michala Petri’s lovely fluent playing so well. The Allemanda - Allegro trots along at a lovely pace before the beautifully done Sarabanda - Largo with these artists keeping a slow tempo and bringing out every little detail. A brief buoyant Gavotta - Allegro precedes the final Giga - Allegro giving a terrific conclusion, full of life and buoyancy, to these sonatas.

These players make an absolutely terrific duo in transcriptions that seem to fall so naturally to these instruments. The very fine recording from Garnisonskirken, Copenhagen, Denmark gives a nice acoustic around the players whilst retaining detail and clarity. There are informative notes from Mahan Esfahani in the nicely illustrated booklet. There is a small error on the booklet and rear of the case that gives the C major sonata No. 9 as being Op.7 where, of course it is Op.5. This is a small matter on a release that is an absolute delight.

Philippe Quint’s lovely flexible tempi that allow Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto to breathe revealing more beauties than many of the rival performances on this new release from Avanticlassic

Philippe Quint (violin) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and studied at Moscow's Special Music School for the Gifted with Russian violinist Andrei Korsakov, making his orchestral debut at the age of nine. After emigrating to the United States in 1991, he earned both Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the Juilliard School, graduating in 1998.

Quint has performed around the world, appearing with London Philharmonic, Berlin Komische Oper Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Nordwestdeutsche Symphoniker and the Cape Town Philharmonic. His recordings have received critical acclaim, winning several awards.

His latest recording for Avanticlassic features the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra  conducted by Martin Panteleev in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and violist, Lily Francis  and cellists, Claudio Bohórquez  and Nicholas Altstaedt  in Arensky’s String Quartet No.2 in A minor.


Of particular interest on this disc is the inclusion of Leopold Auer’s version of the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35. Tchaikovsky intended the first performance of the concerto to be given by the renowned violinist Leopold Auer. It did not appeal to him and this, combined with the great technical difficulties caused him to refuse. The premiere eventually took place two years later in Vienna with the solo part taken by Adolph Brodsky with Hans Richter conducting.

Auer did eventually take up the work but stated ‘I … found it necessary, for purely technical reasons, to make some slight alterations in the passages of the solo part. This delicate and difficult task I subsequently undertook and re-edited the violin solo part; and it is this edition which has been played by me and also by my pupils, up to the present day.’

There is a nicely rounded opening to the Allegro moderato from the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Martin Panteleev. When Philippe Quint enters he draws some lovely tones and with his flexible tempi he follows every detail, never rushing his fences. When he slows the tempo, he brings some exquisite playing, characterful and with fine sonorities. It is this less rushed approach that brings a lovely breadth to this much loved concerto. I have not heard the Sofia Philharmonic for a while. Here they provide spot on support proving themselves to be a fine orchestra with terrific ensemble and taut playing. They slowly build to moments of great bite and drama. There is a sensitive and finely done cadenza, quite superb with Quint bringing a freedom and playfulness. As the movement leads on, Quint draws many varying textures from his instrument before a very fine coda.

The Canzonetta. Andante brings much fine playing from the winds of the Sofia Philharmonic with Quint spinning the lovely theme around the orchestra with some lovely rich, broad violin phrases before the Finale. Allegro vivacissimo where he displays all the virtuosity you could wish for, yet always tempered with fine musicianship, every note always exquisitely shaped. There is terrific ensemble between soloist and orchestra and more very fine woodwind moments. In the rapid passages Quint has such a beautifully light touch to his bow, quite superb as he leads us to the coda.

The fourth track on this new release is the version by Leopold Auer of the Finale. Quint grew up playing the Auer version as did many great violinists of the past. Here it is as finely played as the original version giving us an opportunity to directly compare the two versions and perhaps choose.

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906) greatly admired and was influenced by Tchaikovsky, indeed, his String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 (1894), for violin, viola and two cellos written the year after the great composer’s death, is dedicated to his memory. Straightaway at the beginning of the Moderato, Arensky’s decision to drop the second violin in favour of an extra cello shows the effect he wished to bring in this subdued, hauntingly beautiful movement. The music soon picks up in mood, though remains wistful and even angry at times. These players bring a freedom and spontaneity to their playing which adds so much to the passion of this performance before we are led to the subdued coda.

The second movement, Variations sur Tchaikovski, receives a lovely flowing performance with these players responding beautifully to each other as they take us through variations that are by turns agitated and gentle and even occasionally quite Tchaikovskian in flavour with lovely string sonorities before the lovely coda.

The Andante Sostenuto opens with deep, mournful unison sonorities before launching into a fast and buoyant theme. The hushed, sombre nature of the music returns but again takes off with some especially fine playing from these musicians as they rush to the coda.

Arensky’s Quartet is revealed to be a work of some substance, passion and beauty by these fine artists.

Surely this is one of the finest Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto recordings to arrive for quite a while. It is Quint’s lovely flexible tempi that allow this music to breathe revealing more beauties than many of the rival performances. Coupled with a superb performance of the Arensky Quartet and with Auer’s third movement revision as a bonus this new release can be thoroughly recommended. The recorded sound in my download was excellent.

Monday 24 November 2014

Excellent performances from violinist Zina Schiff and pianist Cameron Grant of works by Eric Zeisl, Aaron Copland, Ernest Bloch and Robert Dauber on a new release from MSR Records

Violinist Zina Schiff and pianist Cameron Grant are two distinguished musicians that have made a number of highly regarded recordings together for MSR Records. Now from that duo comes a new release on MSR Records of works by Jewish composers, Aaron Copland, Eric Zeisl, Ernest Bloch and Robert Dauber.

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Eric Zeisl (1905-1959) was born in Vienna and studied at the Vienna State Academy from the age of fourteen. It was only two years later that a set of songs by him were published.  Despite his promise as one of Austria's brightest young talents, he was forced in 1938 to flee to Paris before travelling on the USA. Zeisl achieved recognition in his adopted land but sadly in 1959, at the age of 53, he suffered a heart attack and died.

Apart from his work on a number of well-known films his compositions include a piano concerto, cello concerto (for Gregor Piatigorsky), four ballets, numerous choral and chamber works, and half of an unfinished opera written shortly before his death.

The first work on this new disc by Eric Zeisl is Menuchim’s Song (1939). A short piece, it has an impassioned opening for the violin over a firm piano accompaniment before the theme is varied with a rather Jewish feel, finely played by Zina Schiff and Cameron Grant. A really lovely piece.

Aaron Copland’s (1900-1990) was working on a score for a film called The North Star when he found time to write his Violin Sonata (1942-43).

The Andante semplice has a deliberate, repeated piano motif that is varied by the violin as these two players slowly take the theme forward through variants, speeding and developing with some phenomenally fine playing revealing some lovely little Coplandesque motifs. The piano slowly picks out a theme in the lovely Lento soon joined by the violin with Schiff and Grant finding a natural flow and revealing all of Copland’s exquisite creation. These players bring a fine sense of rhythm and phrasing to Copland’s tricky Allegretto giusto, Schiff providing some lovely timbres and exquisite shaped phrasing. Both players find much joy in this music with some terrific ensemble before the tension is released for the quiet coda where Schiff brings some lovely violin textures.

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) wrote Abodah (1928) after hearing the young Yehudi Menuhin play in San Francisco. Based on a Yom Kippur melody it opens with a piano passage before the violin joins, with Schiff providing a lovely violin tone in this fine melody full of Jewish inflections to which these artists bring much fine sensibility.

The main work by Eric Zeisl on this disc is his Violin Sonata ‘Brandeis’ (1949-50), dedicated to the composer Alexander Tansman.

A decisive piano opening takes the listener’s attention in the Grave/allegretto before the violin enters weaving around the opening motif before taking up a dialogue with the piano. Soon the music takes off in a rhythmic theme, having something of the nature of a diabolical dance. The music slows in a languid section that slowly moves ahead with a degree of passion. A spiky staccato theme arrives leading to incisive repeated violin and piano phrases that slowly open out to violin flourishes. The piano reintroduces a rhythmic theme to take the music forward before slowing to a free flowing section. The music then picks up again before an incisive coda.

With the Andante religioso the piano introduces a beautiful slow, melancholy Jewish melody over which the violin flows. Schiff brings some lovely passionate phrases, a lovely rise and fall, brilliantly accompanied by Grant. These two really have the measure of this music.

The Rondo opens with a lively theme for the piano to which the violin joins in this lively, rhythmic movement. Again, the music is full of Jewish inflections. There is a lovely trio section and some tremendous incisive phrases as the music moves inexorably forward to its coda. There is some breathtaking playing in this fine performance.

The German composer Robert Dauber (1922-1945) is represented by his only surviving work, his Serenata (1942). He died in Dachau concentration camp at the age of just twenty three.

His Serenata has an unexpectedly light feel given the circumstances under which the composer must have been living. It is full of attractive rhythms and received some exquisite playing from both these artists with silken piano chords and a lovely violin tone.

All the performances on this disc are excellent. Zina Schiff and Cameron Grant are nicely recorded with a lovely sense of space in Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. There are informative booklet notes.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Very fine works by David Ellis show an inner strength and vitality on a very welcome new release from Divine Art

David Ellis (b.1933) was born in Liverpool, England and studied at the Liverpool Institute before going on to the Royal Manchester College of Music where his fellow students included Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Elgar Howarth, Alexander Goehr and John Ogdon.

It was whilst studying at the Royal Manchester College of Music that his compositions first received attention with performances and commissions and awards including the Royal Philharmonic Prize, the Royal College of Music Patrons' Award, the Theodore Holland Award, the Royal Manchester Institution Silver Medal, the Ricordi Prize and a Gulbenkian Award.

From 1964 he worked as a music producer at the BBC, later becoming Head of Music, BBC North only leaving to take up the post of Artistic Director and Composer-in-Residence to the Northern Chamber Orchestra. He later moved to Portugal working with the Orquestra Sinfonica Portuguesa in Lisbon as Assistant to the Director of Music and Chief Conductor, Alvaro Cassuto.

Ellis returned to the UK in order to devote himself exclusively to composition. His compositions have been performed in the U.K and have been played and broadcast in Canada, the U.S.A., Israel, Portugal, Denmark, Brazil, Australia, China, and throughout Europe. His sizeable output includes choral and vocal works, orchestral works including concertos and three symphonies, instrumental and chamber works, works for brass band and piano works.

Divine Art Recordings  have now brought together a number of recordings of David Ellis’ music on a new release entitled Concert Music.

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Vale Royal Suite for string orchestra, Op.77 was written for Richard Howarth and the Vale Royal Orchestra and first performed by them on 17 May 2009. Here Richard Howarth conducts the Manchester Sinfonia . The work is in five movements commencing with A leisurely morning that opens in the basses before a fine melody rises up through the orchestra bringing many fine sonorities as the music freely weaves its way. Pizzicato strings open Afternoon activity, a lovely vibrant movement where a fine melody flows over the rhythmic pizzicato theme.

Early evening rest brings a solo violin theme that flows over a more hesitant orchestral accompaniment with a melancholy feel. A midnight waltz has a dark opening with rich deep sounds in the bass before the music lightens and finds its waltz rhythm that is much varied.

Tomorrow’s sunrise has a hushed, still opening with some exquisite playing from the strings of the Manchester Sinfonia that slowly rise in dynamics as well as emotional thrust. Towards the end the solo violin intones a lovely theme before the music sinks to a hushed coda.

This is heart-warming music beautifully played.

Diversions, Op.39 for chamber orchestra (1974) was commissioned by the Warrington New Town Development Corporation in North West England. The Northern Chamber Orchestra is conducted by Nicholas Ward  in this performance. 

Diversions opens with a steady, slow beat in the orchestra over which a theme winds its way, shared by various sections of the orchestra, slowly building in strength. Soon a sprightly wind theme is heard leading to a more animated section. David Ellis’ use of the orchestra is extremely skilful as the music moves quickly ahead, many sections of the orchestra having their say. Later the music slows with a punctuated counterpoint to a more flowing theme. There are many little surges of energy as well as fine wind passages before the music heads to its decisive coda.

This is a particularly fine work. This is a very fine performance as one would expect from this fine chamber orchestra under their accomplished conductor.

Concert Music for strings, op.24 (1959) was first performed in 1972 in a radio broadcast by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Bryden Thomson. Here it is performed by the Manchester Sinfonia under Richard Howarth.

Movement I brings a rising melody underpinned by pizzicato basses, before easing back to a quiet flowing section. However, the music soon rises up again full of energy with some very fine incisive string playing before easing back in the coda.

Movement II opens with incisive playing before more flowing melody appears. Soon a quiet, slower theme appears giving a chamber quality to the music before rising in dynamics and moving to the coda.  

Movement III is a slow, thoughtful movement with some beautifully free tonal harmonies. There are increases in drama during the work, the second rising to more of a pitch before suddenly sinking to a hush in a particularly lovely moment. A final rise in drama occurs before a solo cello appears and the orchestra leads to the hushed coda.  

Movement IV moves forward fluently swirling, rising and falling with a lovely ebb and flow adding to the drama in this bright and breezy conclusion, expertly written for strings

There is nothing lightweight about this music. It has an inner strength and vitality, well brought out by Richard Howarth and the Manchester Sinfonia.

Celebration was commissioned by Sir John Manduell for the Royal Northern College of Music as part of a 1980’s initiative involving an 18th century sized classical orchestra for post graduate student players. It was first performed at the orchestra’s inaugural concert conducted by Michel Brandt and later recorded by the BBC with Sir Edward Downes conducting the RNCM Sinfonia. It is this recording that is featured here.

Celebration opens with the woodwind leading a rising theme before the music falls and slows only for it to pick up again in a dramatic, weighty passage. The music soon speeds up in a lithe, faster section that really skips along. Brass points up the music before arriving at a short, quiet pause. The music then surges ahead with occasional little quiet moments. Centrally there is a fine passage when the theme is slowly built to a passionate crescendo before falling just as slowly with quiet timpani joining as the strings gently swirl around. Soon the music rises again, skipping along before eventually rising in dynamics to a terrific peak. The music falls again before leading to a dynamic coda.

There is always an interest and depth to Ellis’ compositions and no less here in this fine performance.

September Threnody, Op.91 for string orchestra (2011) was premiered on 9 March 2013 by the Northern Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Ward.

A solo violin with a wistful melody opens Movement I immediately joined by the orchestra revealing some lovely harmonies, gently played. The music slowly builds in weight and volume before falling back to a quiet end. Movement II has an animated theme that moves with agility, underpinned by the lower strings before a hushed coda.

Movement III has a purposeful opening as the music quickly and gently moves ahead before picking up in dynamics with some beautifully free flowing, rich string sounds. The opening quieter music returns before rising up for the coda. The lower strings of the orchestra open Movement IV before the music rises through the orchestra with a lovely, heartfelt theme before a gentle conclusion.

This is finely constructed music full of captivating ideas expertly orchestrated and, indeed, performed.

16 Solus, for string orchestra Op.37 was commissioned by BBC Radio Manchester and first performed in 1973 at the Royal Northern College of Music with the Manchester Camerata conducted by Frank Cliff. It is that performance that is included here.

The music rises slowly through the orchestra, building in dynamics before a quiet and gentle theme is introduced. The music slowly rises in dynamics again with a rather insistent quality soon becoming more incisive with some terrific string passages. There are strange string sounds out of which sudden flourishes appear before fast and furious strings lead the music on before fading to a hushed coda.

The 1973 recording is showing its age a little giving a rather veiled quality, though perfectly acceptable. The performance, however, is excellent.

This is a very enjoyable disc of music from a composer whose music should be more widely recorded. The recordings overall are extremely good and there are excellent booklet notes by the composer.

Friday 21 November 2014

Avie release Volume 3 in their series of Music from The Eton Choirbook showing the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford under their Director, Stephen Darlington to be one of our finest choirs

The Eton Choirbook  is a richly illuminated manuscript collection of English sacred music composed during the late fifteenth century. It was one of very few collections of Latin liturgical music to survive the Reformation, and hence is an important source.

The Choirbook was compiled between c.1500 and c.1505 for use at Eton College. Originally there was a total of ninety three separate compositions, however only sixty four remain either complete or in part. Some of the twenty five composers are known only because of their inclusion in the Eton Choirbook.

This rich source of sacred music has been the subject of a series of recordings by the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford  under their Director of Music, Stephen Darlington  from Avie Records . The latest release, entitled Courts of Heaven is the third volume in this valuable series.


This new release features works by John Hampton, Edmund Turges, Richard Fawkyner, John Browne and Robert Wylkynson.

John Hampton’s (b c.1455, d. after 1520) Salve regina a 5 brings some beautifully rich sounds above which the trebles soar, the composer providing many distinctive phrases. The treble solo, Binath Philomin, a pure yet characterful voice shows some fine interplay with the bass soloist. When the whole choir returns, the effect is impressive. There are many individual solo contributions that deserve praise. This is a choir that can rival many of the specialist period choirs and show this Salve regina to be a very fine work indeed. There is a beautiful ebb and flow creating a glorious sound.

There is a forthright, richly blended opening to Edmund Turges’ (b. c. 1450) Gaude flore virginali a 4 before some very fine, accurate singing from a smaller ensemble of voices, weaving a terrific sound. Turges calls on some intricate, exceptionally difficult passages which this choir performs magnificently. There is a rich, subdued quality to much of the writing as well as many intricate extended passages for smaller groups of voices. When the music does take off, Turges achieves a lovely rich flow of invention with lovely harmonies.

Richard Fawkyner’s (fl. 1480) Gaude virgo salute a 5 brings a lighter sound, more transparent, soon giving way to an exquisite blend of solo treble and small group of adult voices. This treble really is terrific as are the small vocal ensemble. Whilst Fawkyner also engages in some lovely intricate passages there is a lighter quality than that of Turges. When the music rises up the choir provides some truly magnificent sounds. Treble, Binath Philomin has many taxing moments throughout as well as a very fine solo with one of the basses. This is a particularly fine work with a lovely extended Amen beautifully sung, overflowing with lovely harmonies and textures.

John Browne (fl c.1490) is probably the best known composer on this disc and has the largest number of works in the Choirbook. O mater venerabilis a 5 has a richly blended opening before a smaller group, first alto and tenors, followed by bass) lead on. When the full choir join they bring a beautifully blended sound, all sections of the choir clearly heard. Stephen Darlington knows just how to get his choir to reveal the many subtleties of this music. Again some lovely solo contributions and some very fine sonorities from the smaller group of voices.

The choir opens Robert Wylkynson’s (b. cc. 1475-80, d.1515 or later) Salve regina a 5 before the choristers come in over the top in a lovely opening to this setting with some lovely little upward phrases. The choir’s rich voiced soloists come together at ‘exaudi preces’ Treble, Binath Philomin again provides a fine solo with the other soloists weaving some very fine sounds. When the whole choir re-enters, what a fine sound they make, a glorious tapestry of sound. There is an extended solo for treble and bass as well as some finely intricate passages for the adult soloists before the fine conclusion for the whole choir.

How fortunate for Avie to have this fine choir amongst their artists and how lucky for us to be able to enjoy such fine music in such glorious performances.

The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford under their Director, Stephen Darlington is surely one of our finest choirs, be it cathedral, collegiate or specialist.

As the booklet does not give individual track credits I can only list the other fine soloists, Edward McMullan (alto), Benjamin Durrant and Tim Hawken (tenors) and William Gaunt, Michael Hickman and David Le Prevost (basses).

The recording made in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, the venue for so many fine choral recordings, is first rate. There are excellent booklet notes as well as full Latin texts with English translations.

Thursday 20 November 2014

A new release from Sony features Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in performances of Bach that are superb, technically and musically

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields was founded by Sir Neville Marriner in 1958. Their current Musical Director is violinist Joshua Bell. Whilst their focus is the Classical era they embrace other periods including contemporary music. They are able to perform as a large chamber orchestra as well as a small chamber group.

Musical Director, Joshua Bell received his first violin at the age of four later studying with Josef Gingold before his debut at the age of 14 with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His Carnegie Hall debut, an Avery Fisher Career Grant and a notable recording contract further secured his career. Equally at home as a soloist, chamber musician, recording artist and orchestra leader. In 2015 he will undertake a European tour with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

An exclusive Sony Classical artist, he has made a number of critically acclaimed recordings and has been Grammy-nominated. His previous release, with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, of the Beethoven 4th and 7th symphonies went straight to number 1 in the Billboard charts. Bell performs on the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius violin and uses a late 18th century French bow by François Tourte.

Now Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields bring us, on a new release from Sony Classical , Bach’s two solo violin concertos coupled with a number of Bach arrangements.

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There is a tremendously lively and incisive opening to the Allegro of the Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, BWV 1041 from Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Both Bell and his players bring some terrifically taut playing, wonderful ensemble and a real sense of joy in this real Allegro with some beautifully turned phrases. The Andante has a rich, gentle opening to which Bell brings a lovely tone as he weaves the melody around the orchestral accompaniment with the subtle harpsichord continuo. Bell’s fine sonorities blend well over the lovely lower strings of the Academy. The concluding Allegro assai is full of bounce and verve with some terrific little decorations and the Academy is on fine form. These players seem to understand each other perfectly and play as of one mind. Bell’s playing is truly phenomenal, so agile and beautifully phrased.

Bell brings short, incisive phrases to the opening of the Allegro of the Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV 1042 as he and his players launch into this movement with superb control of dynamics and taut ensemble. Bell has such a sure touch with all Bach’s little twists and turns with beautifully turned ends to phrases. Later Bell and the Academy bring some lovely harmonies. There is such deft playing in the quieter passages in this intoxicatingly played movement.

As Bell joins the Academy in the Adagio he brings an almost improvisatory feel, focusing a new light on this music. This is an exquisitely played movement with some lovely passages for the Academy with the harpsichord continuo again gently appearing. There is a spectacularly fine Allegro assai, full of energy, buoyancy and tautness with Bell surprising with his terrifically shaped little twists and turns and some fine harmonies.

Julian Milone’s orchestration of Felix Mendelssohn’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne from Partita in D minor, BWV 1004 works especially well with Mendelssohn’s fleshing out of the harmonies for violin and piano nicely realised. Bell weaves some wonderful lines with the Academy in this tremendous example of Bach’s invention. Bell balances the contrapuntal with moments of fine, gentle sonorities. There are some extremely fine, light textures and intricate playing where Bell is really unbeatable as he weaves the double stopped lines. Bell brings a beautiful singing quality to the higher passages. This is superb, technically and musically.

Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields give a beautifully turned Air from Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 with just the right rhythmic pulse from the orchestra and making an attractive extra item.

With Bach’s Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006 arranged by Robert Schumann and orchestrated by Julian Milone, Bell brings his neat, incisive, taut playing to this well-orchestrated version.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields has its roots in being led from the violin; something which Joshua Bell does so naturally. It is in the face of such musicality that the issue of period instruments and playing practice becomes a non-event. They are very finely recorded at Air Studios, London, England and there are interesting personal booklet notes on Bach from Joshua Bell.

I will return to these performances again and again.