Thursday 30 June 2016

I find it hard to imagine any listener not getting caught up in the thrall of Robin Walker’s orchestral works on a new release from Toccata Classics

Robin Walker (b.1953) was a chorister at York Minster before studying with David Lumsdaine (b.1931) at Durham University. He went on to study at Oxford University and the Royal College of Music, before becoming Lecturer in Music at Manchester University.

Walker writes music which acknowledges nature as the paramount creative force, working in a tradition which passes through Beethoven, Brahms, Elgar, Sibelius, Tippett and Birtwistle. 

Toccata Classics has just released a very fine recording featuring a selection of Robin Walker’s orchestral music with the Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra  conducted by Alexander Walker

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Great Rock is Dead: Funeral March (2007) was in the composer’s words ‘a desire to resolve the grief occasioned by my father’s death in 2005.’ It opens quietly with timpani before finding a solemn forward movement, soon building in the brass and woodwind a more anguished feel. The brass add a heavy layer to the music as it heaves itself up through passages of great drama with so many strands shifting through the orchestra. Soon there is a quiet moment as the music falls to a hush out of which new beginnings flourish throughout the orchestra, less heavy, more transparent. Many fine fascinating ideas appear out of the orchestral texture before the music builds again through a section of great grandeur pointed up by timpani, offset by a fine theme for woodwind and brass before heading to the coda where hints of the coda of Sibelius’ fifth symphony appear.

Odysseus on Ogygia: Prelude (2011) is taken from an opera that occupied the composer for a decade up to 2005. It opens with a lone harp motif to which a flute joins in a gentle solitary theme. More woodwind join, finding a rocking motion as well as occasional dissonances as the music develops. Debussian woodwind flourishes appear before the music rises dynamically, horns adding colour, to a grand peak before falling back to a calm section beneath which brass and timpani retain a restrained intensity. There are further outbursts in the brass before the harp re-appears with its gentle motif together with flute and hushed strings as the coda arrives.

The Stone King: Symphonic Poem (2005) marked Walker’s return to abstract orchestral music after his work on Odysseus on Ogygia. The scenario involves tragic loss and consequent infirmity before restitution through confession and self-interrogation.

The orchestra leap in with brass and timpani, full of drama and anger as the music positively boils with barely restrained energy. It slowly heaves itself up, very Sibelian in feel, rising to a glorious climax, full of fine colours and textures in the orchestra, with biting brass interventions. Soon the music simmers more quietly in the brass and woodwind.  The tension slackens for a gentler, flowing passage, slowly and subtly finding its impetus again. The strings take the lead, pulling the music up inexorably with a hint of Walton in the brass before trombones and horns lead the music on to growls from the lower brass. Muted brass shoot out to lighten the mood before a euphonium leads the music forward bringing its own distinctive colour and character to this striking music, over a simmering orchestra. The brass, again, shoot out in a faster, lighter motif but the heavier laden music takes us to the solemn coda that ends on string chords. This is a fabulous work.

Begun in 1987, The Stone Maker: Symphonic Poem (1995) represents the composer’s desire to ‘make something of magnitude’ that he had never attempted before.

A lone pizzicato string chord opens with brass immediately joining to add a melancholy chord. The whole orchestra brings a deeper resonance as the music slowly hauls itself forward with higher brass appearing over the orchestra and deep brass growls. The music slowly gains in dynamics with an orchestra laden with drama and angst. Woodwind sound through adding colour and texture, as do percussion.  The music subtly finds a rhythm in the brass as the music moves ahead before finding a quieter moment with a rhythmic pulse before swirling strings are heard in the background behind intoning brass. There are some magically shimmering moments here in this rather static passage before timpani herald a move forward dramatically as many sections of the orchestra contribute to the texture and colour. There is a momentary slower section where percussion bring almost the sound of a ticking clock but the music soon moves forward again.

There is another gentler, slower passage for woodwind with subtle dissonances before percussion add more colour, texture and rhythm. Longer woodwind and string passages alternate as a contrast, the latter taking the music through a mysterious section with longer phrases before percussion re-appear in a rhythmic theme. The orchestra continues to heave its way forward, full of colour and wild textures, rising in brilliance in the brass. Woodwind join adding a lovely texture as the music subtly reduces in drama though still bubbling under the surface. Brass try to bubble up as a strident, angular variation of the theme emerges with percussion adding to the angularity of the music. The woodwind subtly change the nature of the theme to which brass add colour before the music begins to rise again with timpani adding weight. It eases back with a woodwind passage before the orchestra continues its unstoppable forward momentum, deep brass rasping and woodwind heard over the orchestra. High brass sound out the theme over a pulsating orchestra, growing in strength and power with timpani and percussion adding a terrific sound as the music drives ever more powerfully forward.  Towards the end the music falls back to a hushed orchestra, a harp is heard together with gentle brass sonorities and some beautifully formed textures and sonorities. Brass intone above the gentler orchestral layer as the coda arrives. There is a subtle gentle rhythmic string motif before brass finally sound out, but the gentler orchestra move to a gentle end.

This is a sprawling yet totally engrossing work. Walker seems to have thrown all his experience at the time of its composition into this work which is of symphonic proportions. This is a remarkable work.

Whilst hints of other composers occasionally appear they cannot easily be recognised such has this composer assimilated them. I find it hard to imagine any listener not getting caught up in the thrall of these works that are full of fire and drama and, in the case of the three later works, beautifully constructed. 

The Novaya Rossiya Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Walker brings terrific performances and they are finely recorded in Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company Kultura, Moscow. There are excellent booklet notes that take the form of an interview with Robin Walker and notes on the music by the composer.  

Wednesday 29 June 2016

Christophorus Records release a terrific disc of sacred Russian music featuring the Moscow Patriarch Choir recorded in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow

After the October Revolution in 1917, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in schools.
Thousands of churches and monasteries were taken over by the government and either destroyed or converted to secular use.

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was originally built over 40 years during the 19th century. The original church was the scene of the 1882 world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. It was destroyed in 1931 on the order of Stalin. Its demolition was intended to make way for a Palace of the Soviets to house the country's legislature, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Construction started in 1937 but was halted in 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Its steel frame was taken down the following year and the Palace never built. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Cathedral was rebuilt, replicating the original with extraordinary accuracy.

The Moscow Patriarch Choir of Christ the Saviour Cathedral have recorded for Christophorus Records  sacred choral works by Alexander Alexandrov, Nikolai Golovanov, Alexander Nikolsky, Pavel Chesnokov and Alexander Kastalsky representing a period of Russian history that saw great upheaval which had a profound effect on the lives and careers of these composers. Entitled Hidden Music of the Russian Church the Moscow Patriarch Choir is conducted by Ilya Tolkachev.

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Alexander Alexandrov (1883-1946) famously wrote the music for the national anthem of the Soviet Union. A former chorister in Kazan Cathedral and composer of sacred music, he seemed to find no difficulty transforming himself into a Soviet composer, even gaining favour with Stalin.

His Bless the Lord, O My Soul (First Antiphon from the Divine Liturgy) has a beautiful gentle flow with lovely textures from this fine cathedral choir, rising to moments of great power and ecstasy. In Thy Kingdom Remember Us, O Lord (Third Antiphon from the Divine Liturgy) rises from a hushed opening with this composer finding some lovely intervals and harmonies out of which tenor, Sergey Godin, rises with a lovely, very Russian voice. This is a tremendous piece that passionately rises ever upwards.

Soprano, Evgeniya Tschishikova opens We Hymn Thee (Fragment of the Eucharistic Canon from the Divine Liturgy) to lead the choir forward, bringing some terrific high notes, weaving around the choir before it ends on vocalised bass voices. Soprano, Irina Taraburina rises over a gentle choral line in the quite exquisite The Lord's Prayer (Our Father) (Hymn from the Divine Liturgy) with a wonderful arch of choral sound over which the soloist glides, often becoming quite passionate. Praise the Name of the Lord (A major) (Hymn from the All-Night Vigil) opens with female voices, soon joined by the male voices who alternate with the text before bringing fine sonorities and weaving a lovely choral tapestry, really soaring at times, filling the large acoustic of the Cathedral.

With Praise the Name of the Lord (D minor) (Hymn from the All-Night Vigil) the choir brings lovely, moderately flowing sonorous texture and harmonies, this choir following all the dynamic shaping of the music beautifully, all layers of voices sounding through the texture. From My Youth (Gradual Antiphon from the All-Night Vigil) is a quieter, gentler, yet moderately flowing work, beautifully written with lovely part writing. This choir finds great sensitivity and there are moments where a little chant is heard.

Nikolai Golovanov (1891-1953) was accepted into the Synodal Academy in Moscow at the age of nine and later taught there. Composing sacred choral works, he did not ingratiate himself with the Soviet authorities, with Stalin describing him as ‘an anti-Soviet phenomenon.’ He later pursued a career as a conductor giving a number of premiere performances, among them, in May 1924, Nikolai Myaskovsky's (1881-1950) Sixth Symphony.

He Who Closed the Abyss (Kontakion of the Great Saturday from the Midnight Office, Passion Week) rises magically out of the shadows with wonderfully rich, deep colours and harmonies, the deep Russian basses often heard to great effect.  

There is a quiet, beautifully blended opening to the Cherubic Hymn (arr. for mixed choir by M. Kotogarov) (Monastery Chant from the Divine Liturgy) this choir using the acoustic to fine effect with basses murmuring under the main body of the choir. There is a gentle rising and falling theme before lifting up in a more stirring, buoyant section midway and finding a beautifully controlled quiet coda.

Alexander Nikolsky (1874-1943) was the son of a Russian Orthodox priest and sang in church choirs from childhood. He was active as a teacher of choral music, music theory, counterpoint, and musical ethnography in a number of educational institutions in Moscow, including the Moscow Synodal School of Church Singing and the Moscow Conservatory as well as the author of numerous articles on choral and church music.  

Female voices gently rise in a most lovely theme to open O Gladsome Light (Vesperal Hymn from the All-Night Vigil), soon joined by the other voices, slowly gaining in strength until filling the space wonderfully, finding a terrific glow. There is a quiet moment with an undulating theme before the choir sounds out powerfully and confidently, alternating with the quieter idea until the coda.  

We Hymn Thee (Fragment of the Eucharistic Canon from the Divine Liturgy) rises out of the lower voices, full of rich colours and textures and much wonderful atmosphere before rising up to the heights magnificently. It leads through some wonderful passages before falling to the depths. A quite stunning work.

By the age of thirty Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944) had completed nearly four hundred sacred choral works, but all of this came to a halt at the time of the Russian revolution. To overcome the problem of the ban on the composition of sacred music he composed an additional hundred secular works and conducted secular choirs such as the Moscow Academy Choir and the Bolshoi Theatre Choir.

Cherubic Hymn (from the Divine Liturgy) opens gently, quietly and beautifully with a lovely flow before rising magnificently with wonderfully controlled dynamics, the choir finding every last beauty of this work. They burst out joyfully before the coda to conclude this quite wonderful work.

Rich textures open It Is Meet and Right to Bless You, O Theotokos (Hymn to the Theotokos from the Divine Liturgy) with this choir finding a lovely flow and a subtle forward pulse, rising later in passion before a hushed end.

Alexander Kastalsky (1856-1926) taught piano at the Moscow Synodal School and became assistant precentor of the Moscow Synodal Choir. He became director of both until the school was dissolved and merged with the choral faculty of the Conservatory. The choir was forced to move from sacred to folk repertory for which he wrote over 130 works and established himself as an important composer of the neo-Russian style with an influence on choral composers such as Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), Viktor Kalinnikov (1870-1927), Alexander Grechaninov (1864-1956) and Pavel Chesnokov.

A lone tenor, Sergey Godin opens St Simeon's Prayer (Hymn from the All-Night Vigil) soon joined by the choir as the tenor continues over them in this lovely undulating, very Russian work, bringing some especially fine choral textures before falling to the basses to conclude.

The choir rise up joyously in the opening of Let God Arise (Paschal Hymn, Eastern Orthodox Resurrection Service) with some lovely use of the acoustic from sections of the choir, rising and falling through some stunning passages to find an upward rising, unresolved coda.

This is a terrific disc of sacred Russian music that deserves to be heard. The engineers have captured the large acoustic of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour whilst retaining a warmth of sound and detail. The Moscow Patriarch Choir are first rate and have this music is in their blood. 

There are excellent booklet notes with translations in English and German. There are beautiful colour photographs of the new cathedral dome and the cathedral in the snow as well as a photograph of the destruction, in 1931, of the old cathedral.

Monday 27 June 2016

Playing that is a joy as the Cypress String Quartet completes their Beethoven cycle for Avie

The Cypress String Quartet has just completed their cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets for Avie Records with a 2 CD recording of the Early String Quartets, Op. 18.  For the past several seasons, the Cypress Quartet has immersed itself in performing Beethoven on tours throughout the United States and Europe as well as recording all 16 works plus the Große Fuge. The completion of their Beethoven cycle is a fitting celebration of the Bay Area-based ensemble’s 20th anniversary as well as their farewell season.


Beethoven found the composition of his first string quartets difficult, writing of the first edition of his Op.18 No.1 to his friend, Karl Amenda to whom it was dedicated, in 1801 ’Be sure not to pass on your quartet to anyone else, because I have substantially altered it. For only now have I learnt to write quartets properly…’  Op.18 No.2 was also extensively revised and it is considered possible by some scholars that an earlier version of No.3 once existed.

The Cypress String Quartet brings a beautifully judged opening to the Allegro con brio of the String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, No. 1 with fine phrasing and tempi, developing through some lovely sonorities and textures, finely paced, rising to some lovely little peaks. The Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato holds a really fine emotional tension, this Quartet finding many quite lovely poetic moments. The music is beautifully shaped, at times bringing a real power and fire.

In the Scherzo. Allegro molto they find a tautness and buoyancy and some wit before an Allegro that is full of lovely, often playful ideas, terrifically brought out by this quartet with some lovely interplay between players.

The opening of the Allegro of String Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18, No. 2 shows this quartet at their finest, always shaping, moulding and phrasing to perfection, finding a light touch. The Adagio cantabile is really most beautiful, with a sizzling central Allegro, these players drawing some lovely sonorities in the longer phrases toward the coda.

The Scherzo. Allegro brings a fine dialogue between players as it moves quickly forward, finely shaped before the Allegro molto, quasi presto where they build some terrific passages finely offset by lighter moments with beautifully controlled dynamics and phrasing.

The Cypresses find a lovely rhythmic tempo in the Allegro con brio of String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat major, Op. 18, No. 6, with lovely textures, full of life and energy with some fine little details and some really rich and vibrant passages, quite brilliantly done. These players find a quite lovely melancholy in the Adagio ma non troppo with beautifully shaped little dynamic lifts.

Again there is a lovely lightness of touch in the Scherzo. Allegro, wonderfully phrased as it fairly darts along with such terrific precision. They bring many subtleties to the opening of the La malinconia. Adagio with some fine rich sonorities before moving into a wonderfully fluent and agile Allegretto quasi allegro allegretto.

The second disc in this set opens with the String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 18, No. 3. This quartet really draws the listener in from the start of the Allegro with their lovely shaping and phrasing. There are beautifully sprung phrases with a fluidity and delicacy that is quite lovely. They provide beautiful tones and textures before building some fine dynamic passages.  They bring a lovely sonorous flow to the opening of the Andante con moto before revealing some lovely detailed moments. They later find a lovely rhythmic pulse in this wonderfully shaped movement.

The Cypress String Quartet brings a real freedom to the rhythmic sway of the Allegro, a lovely ebb and flow with a central section that arrives so naturally.  They conclude this quartet with a sparkling Presto full of buoyancy and energy, finely controlled with many lovely details.

The Allegro ma non tanto of the String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4 brings a nervous energy with some beautifully rich chords. These players bring a real urgency and tremendous guts to their playing with terrific dynamic contrasts, picked up vividly by this recording. They bring a light textured opening to the Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto that builds beautifully, finely shaped and controlled, through some quite exquisite passages.

The Menuetto. Allegretto has buoyant, rhythmic forward flow, finely controlled and phrased with some wonderfully dynamic moments contrasting with fast, fleet, shimmering quieter phrases in the trio section. There is a wonderfully fleet Allegro. Prestissimo, finely controlled and shaped, full of energy.

The Cypresses find a lovely overall rhythmic sweep to the Allegro of the String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18, No. 5 whilst observing all the little dynamic contrasts, finding many lovely details, full of energy and sparkle. There is beautiful phrasing as the Menuetto moves forward with a fine flow, a lovely delicacy, exposing many fine textures.

There is a lovely sad flow with some exquisite textures as these players weave the Andante Cantabile - Con variazioni ahead through some beautifully shaped variations, finding so many lovely moments. The Allegro dashes ahead, full of varied dynamics with some fine crisp phrasing later. Again their control and lightness of touch is impressive. There are some terrific dynamic surges, full of controlled energy.

This gem of a set is a very terrific way to complete The Cypress String Quartet’s Beethoven cycle. Their playing is a joy, drawing the listener in from the start. Their control and lightness of touch is impressive, always shaping, moulding and phrasing the music to perfection.

The recording, produced by the Cypress’ first violinist, Cecily Ward, is very fine, intimate yet with a fine acoustic around the players. There are useful booklet notes.

I haven’t heard the previous issues in this cycle – perhaps it’s time I did.

See also: 

Sunday 26 June 2016

An exceptionally fine disc from Signum Classics of choral works by Bernard Hughes that are innovative, melodic and always engaging

British composer Bernard Hughes (b.1974) studied Music at St Catherine’s College, Oxford before going on to Goldsmiths College, London to study composition under Peter Dickinson and privately with Param Vir. He was awarded a PhD in Composition from Royal Holloway College, London, studying with Philip Cashian. Bernard Hughes is Composer-in-Residence at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London.

Bernard Hughes’s music has been broadcast on Radio 3 and King FM in Seattle, and he has appeared as a conductor on the Channel 4 series Howard Goodall’s Twentieth Century Greats. Bernard writes regularly in the new music periodical Tempo and for theartsdesk cultural review website.

He has been commissioned by the BBC Singers, the Crouch End Festival Chorus, W11 Opera in London and the pianist Jakob Fichert receiving performances at the Huddersfield, Spitalfields and Bangor New Music Festivals and at venues including Coventry Cathedral and Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

Recent commissions include a new work for the Seattle Pro Music choir and All Across this Jumbl’d Earth for the Three Choirs Festival, both in 2012. A new piece for the experimental vocal trio Juice was premiered at the National Portrait Gallery in 2014 and Salve Regina, for the Crouch End Festival Chorus.

Bernard Hughes’s music has been performed at major venues in Britain and abroad and received a number of broadcasts on BBC Radio 3. He was runner-up at the 2009 British Composer Awards for the choral work The Death of Balder, commissioned and performed by the BBC Singers.

The BBC Singers have recorded The Death of Balder for Signum Classics on a new release that brings together a number of choral works by Bernard Hughes entitled I Am The Song. The BBC Singers  are conducted by Paul Brough


The Two Choral Fanfares were composed in 2010 and 2011 and are intended as short concert openers, setting poems by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) and Charles Causley (1917-2003). The BBC Singers bring terrific energy to Everyone Sang, weaving some fine textures in this very effective and uplifting setting in which the choir vocalise as the work finds its gentle coda. I Am the Song, the title work of this disc, is equally buoyant, this time with a rhythmic pulse to which this choir bring some fine subtleties, weaving some very fine choral sounds.  

Three Swans opens with The Bereaved Swan, a lovely setting of a text by English poet and novelist, Stevie Smith (1902-1971) where Hughes provides the BBC Singers with some exquisite harmonies that rise gently, out of which appears a solo soprano voice.

The words of The Silver Swan are taken from a madrigal by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). It rises up with more power, these singers again finding many subtleties in their finely controlled phrasing and dynamics, later bringing a terrific falling and rising section that brings a sudden end.

Riddle takes its text from 10th century The Exeter Book, also known as the Codex Exoniensis, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Hushed chanting is soon overlaid by a firmer choral line with lovely subtly shifting harmonies. Later there are some choral surges with this choir bringing real strength, finding all of Hughes’ lovely little details before a wonderfully controlled hushed coda.

The winter It Is past was written in 2014 and is a setting of a short poem by Robert Burns (1759-1796) reflecting on the passing of the seasons. Female voices introduce this piece, bringing a lovely atmosphere, showing how this composer can create an immediate sense of place and time. Male voices join to repeat the opening before weaving around each other. It is the female voices alone that take the music to its lovely hushed end.

The Death of Balder is based on a Norse myth re-told by the distinguished novelist and scholar Kevin Crossley-Holland . In two acts with a prologue and interlude, it has a prominent part for narrator. The individual members of the BBC Singers that feature in solo roles are Elizabeth Poole (soprano, Frigg), Olivia Robinson (soprano, Thokk), Rebecca Lodge (mezzo-soprano, Hel), Cherith Milburn-Fryer (alto, Old Woman), Edward Goater (tenor, Balder), Stephen Jeffes (tenor, Hermod), Robert Johnston (tenor, Hod), Charles Gibbs (bass, Narrator) and Edward Price (bass, Loki).

The work opens with a short spoken Prologue over which bass Charles Gibbs says ‘Hail to the speaker and to him who listens’ followed by a descending sung choral section that leads into the first act.

The narrator continues his narration in Act One over a hushed choral layer. Soon the chorus take a lovely flowing theme with the words ‘Fire swore an oath. Water swore an oath.’ The narrator continues over the choir through some finely characterised passages for individual singers and rising in power for Loki’s ‘I am Loki Sly, subtle sorcerer …’ Hughes’ idiom here is more advanced yet always holding a melodic line, however unusual the characterisations. The part of the Old Woman taken by alto Cherith Milburn-Fryer is particularly remarkable bringing out much character. There is some really finely shaped singing, rising chorally before the narrator returns for ‘Frigg looked around but the old woman was gone…’ 

The choir weave some very fine moments around the individual voices creating a fine atmosphere in ‘Eyes on fire. Body on fire. Evil was in him.’ as they chant in hushed voices. On the death of Balder the choir bring a wonderfully conceived contrast, a wordless crying of grief, superbly done by the BBC Singers, reaching moments of extreme emotion. Soprano Elizabeth Poole as Frigg unfolds a very fine ‘Does anyone here…? Will anyone…?’ superbly controlled, finding so many subtleties. Tenor Stephen Jeffes as Hermod rises magnificently in ‘I will …I am Hermod, son of Odin’ before the narrator takes us on into the Interlude where the mourning gods and goddesses bring a lovely gentle flowing line, a sensitively done funeral scene.

The narrator takes us into the underworld for Act Two where Hermod tries to negotiate with Hel for Baldr’s return. The choir are magnificent in the wild and strange ‘Ah! Help me! Save me! Pity me!’ before a remarkably done ‘Who…? you…want…here?’ from Hel from mezzo-soprano Rebecca Lodge. The subsequent choral writing for the character of Hel is terrific. There is a beautiful section for choir ‘Weep for Balder’ but Thokk, sung by soprano Olivia Robinson, believed to be Hel in disguise, has no concern for Balder’s fate ‘I will weep no tears for Balder…’ The precision between choir and narrator is truly remarkable. There is a strong ‘Hail to those who listen’ from the narrator that leads to a sustained ‘Ah’ from the choir at the end.

This is a remarkable and significant work that deserves to be heard. The BBC Singers and particularly the individual voices that are featured are tremendous.

The BBC Singers bring a mellifluous harmony to anyone lived in a pretty how town (2011) before adding little dynamic emphases in this finely shaped performance of a setting of a text by the poet E. E. Cummings (1894-1962). Soloists rise out of the opening through some very fine passages that gain in strength.

Revelation Window commissioned by the Seattle based choir The Esoterics in 2010 takes as its inspiration the 1995 stained glass window of the same name in Manchester Cathedral. It uses a wordless text where syllables reflect the words ‘light, ‘colour’ and ‘revelation.’ Revelation Window is arguably the most remarkable and finely written piece on this disc. The choir bring some stunningly brilliant weaving of the wordless text, rising through some finely glowing passages, this choir bringing much subtlety to the varied dynamics. There are subtly shifting harmonies, textures and colours and later a passage where the points of light are seemingly pointed up before rising upwards to an exhilarating coda. A terrific work.

A Medieval Bestiary (2011) explores man’s relationship with animals and takes its text from a 13th century bestiary in the Bodleian library, Oxford. Again there are soloists drawn from the BBC Singers, Olivia Robinson (soprano), Elizabeth Poole (soprano), Margaret Cameron (mezzo-soprano), Stephen Jeffes (tenor), Simon Grant (bass) and Edward Price (bass).In ten sections A Medieval Bestiary opens with a Prologue where the BBC Singers sound out wonderfully in ‘Beasts of the Land …’ Tenor Stephen Jeffes in ‘Adam being the first man, gave to all living beings a name…’ is very fine, around which the choir sing. There is some remarkable choral writing as the names of the beasts are listed, rising to a pitch of swirling choral sound.

The Beasts of the Land brings a spoken section around which the choir keep a hushed wordless line as the spoken animal descriptions are woven effectively.  

The Panther is introduced by a quiet, gentle reflection on the world ‘Panther’ before male voices join to lead forward arriving at some very fine passages for mixed choir to which, later, a soprano brings a lovely line around the choir.

A soprano opens First Sermon before the choir bring a lovely contribution, gently rising and falling with tenors of the choir taking a separate line.

There is an equally gentle choral opening to The Beasts of the Water. Again Hughes shows how well he can evoke a particular quality, here beneath the sea as a female narrator describes the scene over the choral background.

With The Whale deep male voices slowly emerge before the mezzo Margaret Cameron rises in this remarkably fine section. The music rises to create the immensity of the creature with, later, a more dramatic passage on the words ‘Hungry, the warden of the ocean…’ The way Hughes lets female voices blossom out of the lower male textures is very fine before a very evocative coda.

Mezzo-soprano, Margaret Cameron introduces the Second Sermon ‘So you, O man, the eyes of whose heart are darkened…’ before the choir takes the text gently ahead.

In The Beasts of the Air the choir bring passages of changing dynamics and tempi as they soar around creating a feeling of space and freedom.

The Phoenix has a gentle, flowing opening, almost a languid beauty before tenor, Stephen Jeffes appears with ‘When the scorching sun/Looks across the world …’ before finding more drama and energy. The music falls for a soprano to sing ‘In time its corpse grows cold …’ rising slowly again for chorus with ‘In the ashes of the pyre…’ rising to a terrific overlay of choral textures to the coda.

Third Sermon a soprano weaves and soars around a chanting chorus in the most effective final part – before a tenor join sings ‘O man, make your …’ over a hushed held note for choir – and a soprano rises in the coda

This is an exceptionally fine disc. Bernard Hughes’ choral writing is innovative, melodic and always engaging.  He could not have finer advocates for his choral music. I haven’t heard the BBC Singers in finer voice than they are here. 

They receive a first rate recording from the BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London, England and excellent booklet notes from the composer as well as full English texts (except for anyone lived in a pretty how town due to copyright restrictions). 

Saturday 25 June 2016

A piano concerto and a selection of solo piano works by Stanford superbly played by Benjamin Frith for Champs Hill Records

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) was born in Dublin, Ireland into a well-off and highly musical family. He was educated at Cambridge where he was appointed organist of Trinity College.  He continued his musical education with Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) in Leipzig and Kiel in Berlin. He succeeded George MacFarren 1813-1887) as Professor of Music at Cambridge and taught at the Royal College of Music, later Director.

He counted among his pupils some of the great names in early 20th century British music including Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Frank Bridge and Arthur Bliss.

Stanford was prolific as a composer writing operas, choral works including a very fine Requiem and much music for the Anglican Church, seven symphonies, numerous concertos, six Irish Rhapsodies, songs, chamber music and works for organ and piano. His numbered works total 194.

Champs Hill Records have just released a new recording of Stanford’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor together with a number of works for solo piano with pianist Benjamin Frith and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales  conducted by Andrew Gourlay


Stanford wrote his Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.126 in 1911 at the time of a visit to England of the Russian pianist and composer, Rachmaninov. Indeed, there are moments in Stanford’s concerto that recall a degree of Russianness. The new concerto was tried out at the Royal College of Music in September 1911 but, despite interest from Moritz Rosenthal and Willem Mengelberg was not premiered until 1915 when, through the efforts of Horatio Parker it was included in the Norfolk Music Festival, Connecticut, USA played by Harold Bauer with Arthur Mees conducting. Stanford and his wife could not be present. They had booked to travel to the US on the Lusitania on 15th May but the ship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland on 7th May. 

The Allegro moderato bursts forth, full of energy, horns rising over the piano arpeggios through some rather Brahmsian passages with Benjamin Frith providing such wonderfully assured playing, weaving effortlessly around the orchestral accompaniment. Soon there is a particularly lovely quieter, stiller moment, beautifully shaped by Frith and the orchestra. For all the Germanic influences Stanford reveals his own voice. There are some decisive, more powerful moments as well as a lovely moment for cello and woodwind over a rippling piano motif which the piano takes forward with the woodwind, weaving a lovely melody. Frith draws out so much beauty from these quieter passages aided by a quite lovely orchestral accompaniment. The music rises through some fine, sturdier passages which for all their fine flow have an underlying tautness. Later there is another gorgeous moment of great poetry before pianist and orchestra rise through some quite thrilling bars that lead to the coda.

Frith brings some memorable moments to the Adagio Molto - Piu mosso, opening with lovely little ripping phrases as the theme is gently revealed. There is a wistful orchestral accompaniment before the music rises subtly in dynamics. An oboe joins the ripping piano theme and, as the melody flows gently forward, there are occasionally Brahmsian intervals that Stanford seems to have unconsciously absorbed and made his own. A trumpet is heard over a hushed passage for piano and orchestra before gaining in forward movement in the orchestra, the piano providing lovely decorations. Occasionally there is a Russianness that, to me, recalled Rachmaninov or, indeed, Medtner. The rippling chords rise up before falling and leading to the coda which is especially fine.

Frith and the orchestra leap into action in the Allegro molto, soon moving ahead quickly in a crisp staccato theme for piano. Here, there are hints of Stanford’s Irish roots with some very fine slower passages before regaining a fast flow through some terrific rising and falling scales for piano. The second subject returns with all its Irish flavour before gathering pace to rush with terrific fluency to a rigorous coda.

Benjamin Frith, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Andrew Gourlay, moulds the music wonderfully, keeping a taut reign where necessary, finding all the poetic moments.

The Concerto has a first rate recording at the BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales.

Important to this new release are the works for solo piano that haven’t received much attention from record companies.

The three Dante Rhapsodies, Op.92 were written for Percy Grainger who, as a pianist, much impressed Stanford. Grainger gave the premiere of No’s 2 and 3 at the Bechstein Hall, London (now Wigmore Hall) in February 1905 and performed the whole set the following month.

No. 1 'Francesca' opens gently and thoughtfully, Frith gently shaping the fine theme before building through rolling phrases. This pianist is quite captivating in the way he shapes and moulds this piece revealing a Lisztian breadth. There are passages of sustained restraint and poetry before slowly lightening in mood through delicate passages, exquisitely drawn. The music rises through more dramatic moments with an almost Schumannesque sense of fantasy before falling to a darker hue and a sad little coda that, nevertheless, ends on firm chords.

No. 2 'Beatrice' opens with a gentle forward flow, rising subtly through bars of more intense emotion, beautifully controlled here. Frith’s phrasing and attention to dynamics, the lovely ebb and flow, is wonderfully done. The music leads through some wonderfully conceived passages, again with all the fancy of Schumann and revealing Stanford’s gift for rhapsodic invention. Later the music rises powerfully through a most dramatic section before some lovely light and fleet passages in the lead up to the hushed coda.

No. 3 'Capaneo' moves forward with a strongly characterised theme, running through passages of varying nature, with a fast and fleet variation alternating with a broader theme, somewhat Brahmsian in feel. This pianist reveals a wonderful ebb and flow, wonderfully taut. Eventually the opening returns to be quickly varied before rushing forward to the lovely coda.

Stanford’s Six Characteristic Pieces, Op.132 come from 1912, a year in which the composer produced very little in the way of new works. Benjamin Frith chooses two of these pieces opening with the quite beautiful No. 3 – Study that rises from a delicate opening through firmer yet equally attractive passages with the fine melody running over the more intricate line. This is a lovely work, beautifully played. No. 4 – Roundel (In Memorium, R. Sch. June 8.1911), in memory of Robert Schumann,  opens with a questioning little theme before quickly and gently moving forward, full of melancholy and nostalgia, rising centrally in drama and emotion before gently moving to the hushed coda where there is a sense of resignation.

Five Caprices, Op.136 date from 1913. Frith has chosen to play No. 5 - Tempo di valse for this recording, opening with a lovely little motif that quickly rolls into a waltz theme, full of lovely, often more dramatic moments with a contrasting central section. There is some terrific fluency form Frith, as well as rhythmic vibrancy.

There are some fine moments in these very attractive pieces played superbly by Benjamin Frith. The recording, made at The Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, England, is tip top. There are excellent booklet notes. 

Surely Benjamin Frith is the ideal pianist for Stanford. Is it too much to hope for more - perhaps a complete disc of Stanford’s solo piano music?

Friday 24 June 2016

BIS brings recordings of violin concertos by Henrik Hellstenius and Ørjan Matre, two very fine Norwegian composers who have both developed their own distinctive ways of creating works that are full of the finest textures, harmonies and colours and at times much emotional impact

A new release from BIS Records features violin concertos by two Norwegian composers, Henrik Hellstenius and Ørjan Matre performed by violinist Peter Herresthal with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rolf Gupta

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Henrik Hellstenius (b.1963) studied musicology at the University of Oslo and later composition with Lasse Thoresen at the Norwegian State Academy in Oslo. He later went on to study with Gérard Grisey at the Conservatoire Superieure in Paris as well as computer-supported composition at IRCAM in Paris.

Hellstenius´ output encompasses a large range of works: chamber music, orchestral works, opera, electroacoustic music and music for theatre, film and ballet. His music is frequently performed in concerts and festivals around Europe. His compositions explore sound, rhythm, and movement yet with an emotional force. He is professor of composition at the Norwegian State Academy of Music in Oslo.

Ørjan Matre (b.1979) was born in Bergen and studied composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music with Bjørn Kruse, Lasse Thoresen, Olav Anton Thommessen and Henrik Hellstenius. He has become a distinct voice in Norwegian music, receiving many commissions from leading performers, ensembles and orchestras. The recent years have included premieres at Ultima Festival, Warsaw Autumn, Sound Scotland, Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik and Darmstadt Ferienkurse.

He has written works for a variety of ensembles, from chamber music to full symphony orchestra. For all his use of new techniques one can still hear elements of tradition in Matre’s music.

This new release opens with an orchestral work by Henrik Hellstenius, his Like Objects in a Dark Room for orchestra (2007, rev. 2014). The composer writes that ‘I had this image of composing sound objects that really have the presence of physical objects…my image was a merry-go-round, with the different objects circling around at different speeds.’

The work opens tentatively with snare drums taps against a hushed orchestral idea. Soon there are sudden little outbursts as the drum taps continue, strings bring scurrying phrases with brass interventions. A shunting sound appears before a piano is heard in a fast moving, short lived motif. The music bubbles up in certain passages, Hellstenius finding surprises at every turn. There are more percussion sounds added to the side drum before the brass rise up. There are a myriad of bubbling orchestral ideas that emerge before the shunting sounds are heard more clearly. The music moves ahead through passages of wild images in the orchestra before falling to a quieter passage with a side drum rhythm in the coda.

Hellstenius’ In Memoriam (Violin Concerto No. 2) for violin solo, string orchestra and percussion (2012, rev. 2013) is dedicated to his father and arose out of a close creative relationship with violinist, Peter Herresthal the soloist on this disc. Reflecting his father’s Alzheimer’s disease, the composer writes ‘the way the world blurs and becomes less present…is a kind of model for the piece…and, of course, there is a lament from my side…’

Strings open high up with astringent little phrases before soloist Peter Herresthal joins to continue the phrases. Hellstenius brings some remarkable, delicate little phrases out of which dissonant chords appear. There are hushed, deep timpani rolls as the soloist develops the music along with the strings of the orchestra in some beautifully formed delicate harmonies. This soloist brings a tremendous clarity to the fine textures with percussion adding colour and texture. Soon there is a remarkable section for soloist, with fast staccato notes over descending percussion that leads forward quickly in a sparkling passage. Later there is a sturdy orchestral theme, stepping forward over which the soloist brings a faster, anxious line. There is some spectacularly fine playing from soloist here, finding every little detail, colour and texture with the orchestra and percussion dovetailing wonderfully. There are some lovely harmonies as the theme is developed, becoming ever more passionate as well as moments of reflection as the soloist slowly works out ideas over a hushed orchestra.

There are lovely colours that appear out of the orchestral texture as the soloist slowly moves forward developing the theme through some terrific passages. There is a thunderously dramatic section for orchestra that gives way to a haunting violin line over a deep mournful orchestral layer. Bells chime in the hush as the soloist brings an exquisite passage before the music is gently and delicately developed over a very spare hushed background. Here the composer has created a quite haunting atmosphere as the soloist weaves ahead with the orchestra, laden with heavy emotion and becoming increasingly anxious. The music becomes laden with weight and emotion in the orchestra as the soloist brings an anguished, astringent solo line before sailing up to the heights over the slightest orchestral accompaniment to find the hushed coda.

Ørjan Matre has also worked closely with Peter Herresthal whilst writing his Violin Concerto (version for solo violin and orchestra) (2014).

In two movements, the orchestra launches straight into a forward moving, vibrant opening of Movement I. The soloist soon joins to bring a slower, calmer, longer line in a lovely theme that is overlaid by gentle orchestral textures and colours. Soon the orchestra brings a darker, more intense idea with deep timpani strokes, percussion adding much texture and colour, out of which the soloist brings a rather melancholy little theme that is developed with some really fine harmonies over an exquisitely textured orchestral backdrop. Matre creates moments of great luminosity contrasted with fuller orchestral passages. The soloist develops some lovely phrases over a delicate orchestral accompaniment before a rhythmic theme arrives but soon the music slows to its former tempo. There are richer orchestral phrases over which an oboe appears before the soloist enters to move ahead through more fine passages of luminescent orchestral textures over which the soloist weaves a lovely line.

Eventually there is a faster, more dramatic section for soloist and orchestra pointed up by drums with some very fine fast moving phrases from the soloist. The orchestra rises in a passage of greater drama, bringing some very individual orchestral sonorities and colours before the soloist enters again, high up on a sustained note as delicate orchestral textures are heard with hushed timpani rolls. Slowly the music works towards a hushed, atmospheric coda, full of the most lovely textures.

The soloist and orchestra bring transparent textures as Movement II opens, soon gaining in tempo as the theme is developed with an underlying rhythmic motif slowly becoming more apparent. The music increases in drama before the soloist weaves his line through a more intense orchestral accompaniment. The way that this soloist weaves in and out of the orchestral texture is really quite wonderful. Later there is a slower, more relaxed section with the soloist developing fast, delicate phrases, through a faster and more urgent passage with a fine development of orchestral colours and textures before quietening in the coda.

The disc concludes with an orchestral work by Matre, his PreSage for orchestra (2013, rev. 2015). It was written as an orchestral opening piece for a concert by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra that featured Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and uses an idea from that work as a basis for the new piece.

It opens quietly and slowly with gossamer textures, slowly developing the most lovely delicate, shimmering textures and soon rising through the most finely orchestrated passages, full of fine details. It finds a forward pulse through which orchestral ideas bubble up. Matre’s use of the orchestra is terrific, subtly conjuring the most lovely phrases. Drums join as the music gains in drama and intensity through passages of dynamic power with varied instrumental ideas that bring the feel of a concerto for orchestra with a myriad of orchestral ideas before the orchestra subsides into a less dramatic vein. The music still finds moments of more drama before falling to a hushed coda, ending on a drum tap.

Here are two very fine composers who have both developed their own distinctive ways of creating works that are full of the finest textures, harmonies and colours and at times much emotional impact. These are works that bring fresh rewards with repeated listening. 

The performances are first rate and the SACD recordings from the Stavanger Concert Hall, Norway are up to BIS’ finest standards. There are excellent booklet notes.

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Strikingly original and often quite beautiful choral works by Latvian composer, Ēriks Ešenvalds on a new disc from Ondine featuring Sinfonietta Rīga, the Latvian Radio Choir and soloists conducted by Sigvards Kļava

Latvian composer, Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) was born in Riga in 1977 and studied at the Latvian Baptist Theological Seminary before obtaining his Masters degree in composition from the Latvian Academy of Music under the tutelage of Selga Mence. From 2002-2011 he was a member of the State Choir Latvija. In 2011 he was awarded the two-year position of Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge University, UK.

Ēriks Ešenvalds has won multiple awards for his work, including the Latvian Great Music Prize (2005 & 2007). The International Rostrum of Composers awarded him first prize in 2006 for The Legend of the Walled-in Woman, he was made a laureate of the Copyright Award in 2006 and was The Year's New-Composer Discovery of the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2010, the same year he was nominated for the British Composer Award. In 2011 the Kamēr Youth Choir's CD O Salutaris featuring choral music exclusively by Ēriks Ešenvalds won the Latvian Music Records Award as the best academic music album of the year. In 2014 the State Choir Latvija's CD At the Foot of the Sky featuring choral music exclusively by Ēriks Ešenvalds won the Latvian Music Records Award.

Ēriks Ešenvalds’ compositions have been premiered by ensembles including the Britten Sinfonia, the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, the Holst Singers and Imogen Heap, Polyphony, the Choir of Merton College Oxford, the Latvian Radio Choir, the State Choir Latvija, the Kamēr Youth Choir, Sinfonietta Rīga, the Bavarian Radio Choir, the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra, the Netherlands National Children's Choir, the Swedish Art Vocal Ensemble, Salt Lake Vocal Artists, Temple University Philadelphia, The Crossing, Portland State University Chamber Choir, the Choir of the West at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, and The University of Louisville Cardinal Singers, and The University of Mississippi Concert Singers. In 2007 the Latvian National Opera staged his first opera Joseph is a Fruitful Bough.

Ondine have just released a recording of Ešenvalds’ St Luke Passion coupled with three other choral works, A Drop in the Ocean, The First Tears and Litany of the Heavens with Sinfonietta Rīga , the Latvian Radio Choir  and soloists conducted by Sigvards Kļava

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Having already written Passion and Resurrection, an oratorio for soprano, mixed choir and string orchestra, in 2005, it was the conductor on this recording, Sigvards Kļava, that suggested to Ēriks Ešenvalds’ that he should write the Passion according to St Luke (2014).

On this recording of the Passion Sigvards Kļava, the Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Riga are joined by soloists Ieva Parša (mezzo-soprano), Jānis Kurševs (tenor) and Daumants Kalniņš (baritone). 

A roll of timpani dramatically takes us into Espressivo with an outburst of ‘Crucify Him, They All cried’ from the chorus and orchestra before tenor, Jānis Kurševs calls ‘Why…’ all the while Ešenvalds maintains a terrific sense of drama and impending catastrophe. Kurševs brings a fine sense of anguish with the chorus reaching a plateau before falling away for a wonderful woodwind passage we run into Misterioso a quiet, rather static section where mezzo Ieva Parša introduces the words ‘Behold the timber of the cross is a carpenter's work’ a beautifully flowing form of recitative underlaid by the choir with the soloist keeping a beautifully woven line with lovely little decorations.

We are taken straight into a gently rhythmic third section, also titled Espressivo where baritone Daumants Kalniņš sings ‘And there followed him a great company of people’ with the choir chanting a staccato line behind, slowly but inexorably rising in drama to a violent outburst with timpani.

The Adagio opens with an intensely dramatic hush as the mezzo brings a Jewish flavour to ‘Shema Yisrael’ creating the effect of an intense lament. The orchestra hold a wonderfully hushed drama as soloist and orchestra weave the most wonderfully evocative ideas. Later the choir join to raise the temperature as they rise in drama, vocalising with the mezzo and rising to a peak.

Another section marked Espressivo arrives with percussion taps as though we can hear nails being hit. Tenor, Jānis Kurševs enters with a desperate plea ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ The mezzo joins for the recitative before the female voices of the choir bring ‘If thou be Christ, save thyself and us’ in an ethereal manner over high static strings. This alternates with the recitative for mezzo in a strikingly wonderful section. ‘Verily I say unto thee’ is sung by the tenor who rises over the choir and orchestra dramatically before settling gently into ‘Today thou shalt be with me in paradise …’ a particularly wonderful moment with Jewish inflections from the choir that take over.

Part VI is marked  = 56 with mezzo and baritone weaving a lovely section on ‘ And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.’ Again the music is full of Jewish inflections, rising in drama for the baritone as they argue over the raiments in a wonderfully characterised section, finding a rather maniacal feel. They build over the choir and orchestra to a peak of intensity before soloist walks away with a final shout.

Percussion provide a jumble of sounds evoking bustle and chaos for Part VII  = 69 before the mezzo and baritone enter dramatically with ‘And the soldiers mocked him, offering him vinegar’ still with percussion adding a disturbing background. The bustle falls away for the mezzo to sing ‘But as they sailed, he fell asleep…’ over a beautifully flowing choral layer with a repeated harp motif as accompaniment. The music builds suddenly for ‘Master we perish…’ a passage of great flowing breadth for chorus and orchestra, dropping suddenly for the baritone to sing ‘Then he arose and rebuked the wind and the raging water…’

The final section, Cantabile rises gently on hushed strings and harp motif where the choir distantly sing  ‘Does that lamp still burn in my Father's house’ out of which the tenor rises to continue, wonderfully controlled as the music surges forward and recedes, Jānis Kurševs showing his strong voice. There is a sudden timpani stroke followed by a hush before mezzo, Ieva Parša enters over static choir and orchestra with ‘Can you hear the One who is calling…’ , a quite lovely moment leaving the mezzo alone as she reaches ‘the One who is love?’

This is a strikingly original and exceptionally beautiful Passion quite wonderfully performed.

A Drop in the Ocean (2006) was commissioned by the Rīga Youth Choir Kamēr and first performed by them at the IV World Choir Games (Xiamen, China in 2006.

For mixed choir the work opens with the sounds of wind before alto, Līga Paegle joins to chant the Pater Noster. Soprano, Ieva Ezeriete joins to bring the Prayer of St Francis, ‘Lord, make be a channel of your peace.’ The choir join to bring a drone like layer of hushed murmurings of the words ‘sadness, darkness, doubt, injury, error, discord, despair, hatred’  as soloists continue the Pater Noster and Prayer of St Francis creating a terrific feeling of mystery. Later the chorus rise out of the hushed murmurings to arrive at a climax with ‘I may bring light’ soaring forward with some fine dissonances.  There is some quite special choral writing here, brilliantly sung by the Latvian Radio Choir. The soloists are heard through the choir before the soprano leads with a song of the Sisters of the Calcutta Mission of Mother Teresa ‘Jesus, You are my God…’ There are some beautifully shaped phrases for soprano and choir before leading gently to an exquisitely controlled, hushed coda where the opening sounds can be heard.

The First Tears (2014) for mixed choir, drum, campanelli, jaw harps and recorder is based on an Inuit folk tale. The Latvian Radio Choir opens alone with a repeated ‘…it was Raven…’ followed by a repeated ‘…who created…’ then ‘…the world…’ slowly expanding as they repeat the text. Individual voices continue with ‘One day, Raven was out on the water in his kayak …’ bringing richer choral sounds before rising in power in a lovely swirl of sound at the words ‘It wasn’t an island at all, but an enormous whale.’ There are female voices over a sustained male voice layer in ‘Raven followed the light and went further inside the whale...’ again increasing in power and tempo. A recorder enters bringing a folk style melody with lovely little inflections over a choral backdrop. The chorus sound out over jaw harps in ‘Raven followed the light …’ weaving alternative male and female voices through some wonderful choral passages. Later there is a fine moment when the choir hum the melody over delicate, hushed percussion sounds. The music rises in drama to a fine dissonance that drops at the words ‘The girl then stopped dancing…’ through some remarkable fine choral writing to a peak on the words ‘The Raven flew higher and higher…’ before dropping quiet. The recorder returns to lead through a lovely passage for choir and delicate percussion, rising to more moments of drama before jaw harps add their strange sounds, as the recorder glides over a hushed chorus, creating a most unusual, quite beautifully hushed coda.

This is an atmospheric and quite wonderful evocation of the tale.

Litany of the Heavens (2011) is for mixed choir, water tuned glasses, chamber orchestra and tape. A characterful solo male voice opens, a recording of an old Kyrie eleison chant made at a Catholic church in Latvia. The choir rise over the chant creating a fine effect, gently pointed up by harp. The music moves ahead with the most lovely choral sonorities and beautifully controlled dynamics. There are some gorgeous choral and orchestral harmonies and sonorities as the music slowly moves forward with a lovely ebb and flow. The chant is heard again before chorus rise up to achieve a tremendous climax for choir and orchestra that soon finds a lovely glow. Later there is a quiet, gentle passage with exquisitely delicate ringing sounds over a lovely orchestral backdrop before moving through further wonderful climaxes to a most distinctive orchestral passage as the solo taped voice is heard again, chanting before fading into the coda.

This is a most remarkable and beautiful work.

This is a composer I want to hear more of. The works on this disc are strikingly original and often quite beautiful. The performances are excellent as are the recordings from St. John’s Church (Sv. Jana baznica), Riga, Latvia. 

There are informative booklet notes together with full texts and, where necessary, English translations.

Monday 20 June 2016

A new release from Prima Facie Records of piano and chamber works by Douglas Finch reveals a composer who has developed his own distinctive language with impressive results, creating landscapes that are elusive yet intensely enveloping

The Canadian pianist and composer, Douglas Finch was born in Winnipeg and had his initial musical training with his mother and later Winnifred Sim and Jean Broadfoot. He continued at the University of Western Ontario with William Aide and then at the Juilliard School in New York with Beveridge Webster. After winning a Silver Medal at the Queen Elisabeth International Competition in Brussels in 1978, he began to perform extensively throughout Canada. He also devoted much of his time to composition, with a number of his works being broadcast on CBC Radio.

In 1993 Finch settled in London, UK and soon afterwards co-founded The Continuum Ensemble with conductor Philip Headlam, premiering over 40 new works and recording for Avie and NMC. He has been artistic director of several acclaimed events in London, including In the MOMENT, a festival of dance and music at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

As a composer, he has written works for piano, chamber ensemble, orchestra and theatre as well as the soundtracks for four feature-length films by British director Jon Sanders. He is known for his innovative and imaginative approach to performance and for helping to revive the lost art of classical improvisation in concert.

Douglas Finch is Professor of Piano and Composition at Trinity Laban, and a regular guest teacher at Chetham’s School of Music as well as Chetham’s International Piano Summer School in Manchester.

A new release from Prima Facie Records features pianist Aleksander Szram , flautist Lisa Nelsen , violinists Toby Tramaseur and Mieko Kanno  and cellist Caroline Szram  in piano and chamber works by Douglas Finch entitled Inner Landscapes.


The landscapes on this new disc range across Canada, Germany, North Wales and New York yet reveal an inner landscape of solitude, mourning and spiritual longing. Finch draws on the paintings of the Canadian artist, Emily Carr whose works often bring a feeling of ‘loneliness and quiet rapture.’

Ruins (1984) is for flute, violin and piano and is a collection of five short pieces written whilst the composer was staying in Brussels and Cologne, the title reflecting the idea that these fragmentary pieces are, in the composer’s words ‘like ruins of grander and more expansive thoughts’. Gently flowing opens with a wavering theme for flute, violin and piano before the motif is gently developed through some very fine textures, these players sensitively finding many lovely moments. The piano of Aleksander Szram opens Calm, deeply and thoughtfully with  flautist Lisa Nelsen joining immediately followed by the violin of Mieko Kanno to take the music forward with sudden little outbursts from the violin, then piano, creating an intensity and foreboding which the flute tries to lighten at the end.

The piano suddenly enters with a loud chord to introduce Quick march, followed by a rhythmic staccato theme as the trio takes the music forward, the piano holding the staccato rhythm over which the violin and flute play, later quietening for a short gentle coda. Slow march brings slow, spaced chords from the piano with a repeated note from the violin. The flute enters over violin chords, bringing a subtly dissonant theme before rising up. The piano chords alone return for the coda.

Gently flowing brings a richer, slow and fluid undulating theme for all three players interrupted by an agitated phrase before slowly and gently moving forward again. Soon the undulating theme returns with the flute and violin weaving a fine texture over the piano. There are some exquisitely shaped passages before the piano brings repeated chords. The flow resumes but the piano chords again interrupt.  The violin and flute become increasingly anxious before a hushed conclusion.

These are distinctive miniatures that catch some lovely moments.

The idea for piano work, Lyric (1984) came to the composer during an autumn evening walk near Leaf Rapids, Northern Manitoba. A rising chord opens before a theme is slowly and thoughtfully revealed in the right hand over deeper chords. The theme is slowly developed in both hands with broader gentle chords appearing, soon finding a haunting atmosphere. The music moves through some lovely passages with occasional dissonant phrases and more dynamic rippling phrases to a faster moving passage that evokes the sound of trickling water. Aleksander Szram finds much delicacy and moments of contrasting drama before slowing to a hushed moment. There are sudden loud ripples but it is a series of gentle phrases that follow before the music finds its peaceful conclusion. This is a really evocative work.

Finch describes his approach to phrasing, development and form as neo-romantic in Fantasy on a Russian Folksong (1989). Although based on a Russian folk song this work, for violin, cello and piano was inspired by the landscape near Pwllheli in North Wales. The strings weave a rising and falling dissonant motif to which the piano adds its own stabilising line before developing through some impressive passages. Violinist Toby Tramaseur, cellist Caroline Szram and pianist Aleksander Szram weave some terrific lines and textures with gentler moments and later the strings weave lovely individual lines around the piano. These players find many little details that add so much. Later there is a passage that brings a great hushed intensity, rising later only to fall back as the music is thoughtfully worked through. A gentle, quietly repeated chord from all the players preludes another rise through a lovely passage of fine string textures and a florid piano passage as the fast final section arrives, bringing an intense forward moving variation, music of determined strength before a sudden end.

It is remarkable how much Finch has managed to develop out of the material of a simple folk song theme, finding so much variety, feeling and atmosphere.

Summer (1993) for cello and piano was inspired by North Wales and the Welsh poet Daffyd ap Gwilym . It brings a lovely contrast, a slow deeply felt melody that is slowly subjected to rather more dissonant textures before finding a peace to conclude. It is wonderfully performed by cellist Caroline Szram and pianist Aleksander Szram.

There are three piano works on this disc that bear the title Choral, originally inspired when the composer was listening to César Franck’s (1822-1890) Three Chorales for Organ. A two note motif opens Chorale I (2003) soon developing through firm, thoughtful chords. The two note motif appears again higher up and refracted through a dissonance before moving through delicate phrases to find a slow, reflective coda.

This piece is a quite exquisite jewel that receives a lovely performance from Aleksander Szram.

Landscape III (1998) for violin and piano is the third of a series of musical landscapes which the composer tells us are ‘pre-occupied by aspects of proportion, colour and layering meant to produce a kind of inner architectural ‘domain’ for the listener. There is a tentative pizzicato motif from the violin of Mieko Kanno, soon joined by pianist Aleksander Szram to develop the motif through some long drawn phrases. There are so many little details and textures as well as outbursts that bring a stridency, illuminating this landscape as striking images appear. There is a delicate pizzicato moment before gently we move forward through passages of exquisite detail. Later there is a striking outburst with gritty textures from both soloists with dissonances to disturb the landscape as passages of intense anguish appear. Eventually there are hushed harmonics from the violin over a gentle piano line before the violin finds pizzicato and lightly bowed phrases as the piano follows a gentle and delicate line. There are further dramatic outbursts but it is the hushed delicate phrases that end.

This is a quite stunning landscape full of contrasts.

The Ucluelet Peninsula is on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada and means ‘people of the safe harbour’ in the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) language. Ucluelet (Landscape IV) (2000) for piano opens with the pianist laying out a slow, quiet, gentle theme, slowly gaining in strength as it slowly moves forward, developing all the time. Some very fine phrases, intervals and harmonies are subtly developed. Midway the music reduces to a hush as the theme is very slowly continued. There are some lovely spacious phrases and intervals that feel and sound atonal in character. Later the music suddenly develops a more forceful stance whilst keeping a fine rippling feel. Finch creates some complex intervals, textures and phrases before the music falls quieter again to find a hushed, delicate coda.

Chorale II (2013) opens quietly with a right hand theme over lower left hand chords. Finch achieves the most attractive harmonies and dissonances, slowly developed through a momentary more forceful passage to a gentle, hushed coda. These chorales prove to be impressive forms for Finch’s fine invention.

Lamentations (2001, rev. 2007) for alto flute violin and piano expands on a melody used in a theatre piece by the composer, Transplant, where the chorus lament the bringing out of bodies after a fictional shooting.

The combination of Lisa Nelsen’s alto flute and Mieko Kanno’s violin make a lovely texture and colour over which Aleksander Szram’s piano notes appear as they weave ahead. The piano takes the theme over the flute and violin with Finch, again creating a lovely atmosphere with little droops and so many details. The theme rises up through the flute joined by violin, then piano in this ascending theme. There are the most exquisite dissonances before the music grows steadily more dynamic and intense. Soon there is a plaintive little flute passage along with so many lovely little moments. Later the piano brings a rather ominous, low plodding passage to lead the music inexorably upward in dynamics. The flute and violin draw some very fine textures and harmonies moving through a strikingly beautiful passage with a slow, repeated, meandering piano motif over longer drawn phrases for violin and flute to the quiet coda.

This is another impressive work finely performed.

Chorale III (2013) brings a deep rippling theme in the bass, quickly overlaid by chords that increase in strength. Soon lighter, dissonant chords appear with bell like declamatory phrasing before falling back to reclaim the opening rippling motif underlaid by deep resonant bass chords. Firm chords take us to the coda where the notes are allowed to fade to silence. Aleksander Szram reveals this chorale to be a work of real depth.

Douglas Finch is a composer who has developed his own distinctive language that brings impressive results, creating landscapes that are elusive yet intensely enveloping. 

The performances are all first rate and the recordings from the Blackheath Concert Halls, London are excellent. There are excellent booklet notes from the composer as well as colour photographs of a painting by Emily Carr.