Sunday 30 October 2016

A masterly fourth symphony shows James MacMillan at the peak of his compositional powers on a new release from Onyx Classics that is topped off with an impressive violin concerto performed by Vadim Repin with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles

Composer James MacMillan (b.1950) was born in Ayrshire, Scotland and studied at Edinburgh University before undertaking further studies with John Casken at Durham University. His music is influenced by both his Catholic faith and Scottish folk music. His compositions include opera and music theatre, orchestral, chamber, piano and sacred choral works.  

Of his orchestral works he has now written four symphonies, the last of which was premiered at last year’s BBC Proms by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

That premiere performance of Symphony No. 4 was recorded by the BBC and is now released by Onyx Classics coupled with a premiere studio recording of MacMillan’s Violin Concerto played by its dedicatee, Vadim Repin  with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra  under Donald Runnicles

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MacMillan’s Violin Concerto (2009) was written for violinist Vadim Repin and co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, the Zaterdagmatinee (Amsterdam), the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. The world première was given by Repin and the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev at the Barbican Centre on 12 May 2010.

In three movements, a series of incisive orchestral phrases open I. Dance, quickly joined by a frantic solo line as the music dances quickly forward through a longer melodic passage for the soloist. The orchestra soon drives ahead, the soloist adding some terrific, vibrant textures. There are more moments of introspection in the orchestra over which the soloist wistfully adds the theme before moving through passages of fast moving, virtuosic playing from the soloist, often rising high until weighty incisive phrases from the orchestra arrive. The soloist continues over a translucent orchestral background finding the most wonderful textures and colours, phenomenally well payed by Repin. Soon percussion and orchestra bring further strident chords before the violin leads to the coda that arrives on orchestral chords   

It is an oboe that brings the lovely melody over a gentle orchestral layer in the opening of II. Song around which other woodwind weave. The soloist soon enters with the most lovely little decorations, developing a quite lovely melody with fine harmonies and textures. The music develops through some more intense passages that reveal a darker element. Repin provides the most wonderful textures as he takes the solo part over an angry orchestral accompaniment. Midway there is a lovely passage where the soloist introduces a folksy theme over delicate, translucent orchestral accompaniment with the soloist finding so many colours and textures. The music soon re-discovers its intense, angry feel, brass sound out over the dramatic orchestra as the music arrives at a climax but the soloist brings back a poetic calm revealing the most lovely textures. Later a simple tune for piccolo arrives over a delicate orchestra to which the solo violin adds really lovely little decorations before tailing off to conclude this quite exquisite movement. 

III. Song and Dance opens with rhythmic vocal chanting of words ‘ Eins, zwei, drei, vier: Meine Mutter tanz mit mir’ (One, two, three, four: My mother is dancing with me) over a marching, hushed orchestral layer. The soloist joins as the orchestra rises and expands, weaving around the orchestral phrases. Again Repin is quite superb. The orchestra rises dramatically before the soloist and orchestra speed ahead, dancing around each other through a shimmering passage and into a crashing dramatic passage underlined by the sound of a piano. Soon the music suddenly finds a flowing melody, the soloist flowing around freely before brass join. The music seems poised between drama and a lighter quality. Pounding orchestral rhythms appear for both orchestra and soloist bringing a terrific virtuosity. Later the plainchant Dies Irae can be heard through the texture before all fall to a hush as a single voice speaks.  There is a further crashing outburst before the soloist brings a passionate cadenza that takes us through some stunningly played moments with finely done harmonics and dissonances.  The orchestra rejoins dramatically and with the soloist hammer the music forward to a decisive coda.  

This is an impressive, quite wonderful concerto played absolutely brilliantly here.

I managed to hear the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Symphony No. 4 (2014/15) at the 2015 Proms. This world premiere live recording of the event confirms just what a tremendous performance Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave.

The symphony opens with a hushed delicate, luminescent orchestra out of which brass bring a theme over a plodding bass layer. Textures broaden with a piano adding a rhythmic line, slowly creating some wonderful textures and ideas. The strings slowly rise in the background, finding a terrific layering of rhythms and ideas, a myriad of colours, textures and rhythms.  The strings bring a longer melodic, falling idea soon developing a swirl of textures, slowly rising in energy in this brilliant passage that is occasionally reminiscence of Tippett’s earlier string writing. Drum strokes suddenly herald a more rhythmic, forward pushing idea that brings with it dramatic clashes.

The music slowly quietens to a gentler section that is intruded into by the piano and various instrumental interruptions, all the while a solo violin weaves through the varying textures. There is an almost Ivesian overlay of disparate tunes as though in a dream. The brass rise out of the mixed textures, woodwind cry out and tubular bells sound. The brass appear again bringing a fanfare of ideas before drums beat a forward driving rhythm with the strings scurrying around behind. The music increases in energy as the piano brings rapid chords. The strings take the music into a rather quixotic passage before the orchestra strides confidently ahead with pounding drums. There is a rhythmic idea for strings before brass and drums thunder ahead reaching a terrific plateau for brass and strings, melodic and epic in feel. There is a passage of lovely string textures over the most wonderful orchestral tapestry of sound, again with a dreamlike quality.

Midway the music falls to a halt before rising with light rhythmic drums to drive ahead, rising to a peak on a gong stroke. The celeste quietly plays a theme around which the orchestra gently add texture. The brass gently sound a motif, that has a Scottish snap, over an orchestral layer that slowly and deliberately heaves itself forward. The music rises and quickly scurries forward. A tune appears in the cellos, surely the allusion to the Scottish composer, Robert Carver’s (c.1485 – c.1570) ten voice mass, Dum Sacrum mysterium that the composer tells us about. It adds a wonderfully nostalgic feel that fits perfectly, especially as it swirls into modern harmonies and textures.

The music moves into a sonorous string passage on the theme though there are further dramatic outbursts. In this wonderful, immensely satisfying section the melody feels as though it has been sought throughout the whole work. As the music continues there are moments of great beauty with MacMillan adding subtle colour with percussion. Eventually the brass solemnly join and the orchestra rises through some swirling passages before falling to drum and percussion clashes that speed up with brass to push ahead through glittering passages to a stunning coda that slowly fades.

The applause of the enthusiastic Prom audience is kept at the end. 

This is a masterly symphony showing James MacMillan at the peak of his compositional powers. Both the studio and live recording are superb and there are insightful booklet notes from the composer.

See also:

Saturday 29 October 2016

The vocal ensemble ORA brings a really different approach to a choral concert, delivering the most wonderful performances on a new release from Harmonia Mundi entitled Refuge from the Flames

The idea for the small choir, ORA grew out of the belief that we are entering a second Renaissance in choral composition. Part of this belief includes the commissioning of choral works from some of the world’s most exciting composers, works that reflect on Renaissance masterpieces.

Directed by Suzi Digby , ORA is a professional a cappella vocal ensemble that seeks to captivate audiences with the highest standards of musical excellence combined with a fresh and engaging approach to performance. ORA gathers together some of the UK’s leading ensemble singers. All of the singers within the group have performed with the leading professional choirs in Europe

ORA make use of professional Stage Directors and Designers to produce full productions rather than just traditional concerts. They have planned an ambitious programme of two recordings each year for their first five years with each album containing new commissions.

Following up on their enthusiastically received debut disc Upheld By Stillness, ORA’s latest release from Harmonia Mundi  is entitled Refuge from the Flames.

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Whatever one’s religious beliefs - or none - it is difficult to argue with Girolamo Savonarola’s (1452-1498) motto taken from Psalm 132 ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.’ Savonarola was a Dominican friar and preacher active in Renaissance Florence. Sadly he did not seem to inspire much unity as he was hanged as a heretic and his body burnt in the main square of Florence. It is around Girolamo Savonarola’s writings and music that this concert is based.

Savonarola wrote a meditation on Psalm 50 shortly before his death and we hear it here in the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (c.1582-1652). Rather than present what may have been an erroneous transcription of the work, ORA present Allegri’s original unadorned version before adding ornaments and finally reaching the better known ‘erroneous’ version. ORA shape this music quite beautifully delivering something of a revelation in the opening unadorned part. These fine singers bring many lovely individual moments and when the soprano does rise up high it is especially lovely, pure and clear, gliding in the acoustic.

Savonarola himself composed a number of works, three of which are heard here. Iesu, sommo conforto is a setting of one of his own meditations. It is a surprisingly distinctive setting, superbly handled with all its varying rhythms by the male voices of ORA. The trio of soprano, tenor and bass voices bring a very fine, intimate quality to Savonarola’s gently melancholy Alma, che si gentile before six male voices from ORA find a lovely gentle sway to his Che fai qui, core? with beautifully controlled dynamics and some lovely harmonies.

Luca Bettini (c.1489-1527), also a Dominican friar, was inspired by Savonarola. Here ORA sing his Ecce quam bonum (Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity) a text from Psalm 132 that is closely associated with Savonarola. This is a striking performance with solo soprano and tenor finding their way through Bettini’s little twists and turns with terrific agility, blending finely.

The French composer Philippe Verdelot (1480/85-c.1530/32) is generally considered to be the father of the Italian madrigal. The full choir bring a lovely texture and sonority to his setting of texts from Psalms 31 and 132, Letamini in Domino weaving the various strands beautifully to a lovely conclusion.

Savonarola’s writings inspired some of the greatest compositions of the 16th century such as William Byrd’s (c.153940-1623) setting of the Dominican’s words, Infelix ego. The choir allow this wonderful music to unfold so naturally, slowly allowing different textures to appear, varying dynamics, colouring this music quite beautifully. They weave some terrific passages, developing some quite wonderful textures with an ever developing flow.

Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (b.1977) has also set the text of Infelix ego in response to a commission from ORA. It opens quite magically, gliding quietly and gently forward until expanding and gaining in passion. Ešenvalds’ lovely vocal effects are exquisitely handled here, this choir bringing such very fine textures and colours to this fine piece. The piece moves through some absolutely exquisite moments, beautifully sung by this fine choir and out of which solo voices rise, gently and quietly, Ešenvalds bringing his unusual vocal ideas to point up the texts.

Savonarola’s motto Ecce quam bonum is found in the Franco-Flemish composer Jean Richafort’s (c.1480-c.1547) O quam dulcis. The choirs find a lovely dynamic ebb and flow in this lovely setting, weaving lovely harmonies and textures.  

ORA bring a lovely gentle flow to Tristitia obsedit me, mango a setting of a meditation by Savonarola by the French composer Claude Le Jeune (c.1528/30-1600) with the most exquisite textures and colours, rising through some very fine moments, bringing a lovely clarity.

The text of Ecce quomodo moritur was used by Savonarola’s followers in their devotions to the friar. Here ORA sing an anonymous setting of the text, bringing a fine dignified forward flow, with some exquisitely sensitive touches.

The Franco-Flemish Jacobus Clemens non Papa c.1510/15-c.1555/56) combined the texts of Tristitia and Infelix ego in his Tristitia obsedit me, amici with this choir bringing some lovely individual vocal lines that are wonderfully overlaid and finding some quite beautiful sonorities.

This new release rounds off perfectly with James MacMillan’s (b.1959)  Miserere that appears out of a hushed opening, slowly and gently rising through glorious passages, ORA bringing the most wonderful control, harmonies, sonorities and depth of feeling. This wonderful setting moves through some strikingly beautiful harmonies with moments of great passion and of haunting beauty, reflecting moments from Allegri’s own setting with the upper voices finding an exquisite purity. 

This is a really different approach to such a concert with ORA delivering the most wonderful performances. There is a lovely warmth to the recording though not at the expense of clarity and detail. There are excellent booklet notes with full texts and translations in French, English and German.

Thursday 20 October 2016

A stunning new release from Dacapo of orchestral works by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, including two world premiere recordings, performed by Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Danish composer, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (1932-2016)  was born in Copenhagen, the son of the sculptor Jørgen Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (1895-1966). He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, with Finn Høffding, Svend Westergaard, Bjørn Hjelmborg, and Vagn Holmboe.

His early influences were Nielsen, Bartók and Stravinsky. Though he later looked at serialism, he soon rejected it, instead becoming a leading figure within the new simplicity movement. Within this stylistic framework Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s repeated ideas often lead to violent clashes as well as moments of static beauty.

His orchestral works include such pieces as Mester Jakob (1964), Tricolore I-IV (1966-69), Symphony, Antiphony (1978), a concerto for timpani Triptychon (1985), Concerto Grosso for string quartet and orchestra (1990), Cello Concerto (1996), a Violin Concerto (2002) and the piano concerto Plateaux pour Piano et Orchestre (2005) as well as fourteen string quartets.

Gudmundsen-Holmgreen died on 26 June 2016.

Dacapo Records have just issued an important release of three of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s orchestral works played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra  conducted by Thomas Dausgaard and including no less than two World Premiere Recordings.


The first of the world premiere recordings is Mirror II (1973) for orchestra; that began life as a work for violin and electronics. In six movements, Movement I opens with mysterious hushed orchestral sounds over a quietly pounding beat. Slowly various instrumental textures and sounds are added before a quiet melodic idea arrives. The music slides gently upwards before a plucked string is repeated over high strings. The orchestra gently expands with bright, ringing percussion and brass with woodwind adding colour and texture, all over a gentle, quiet melancholy orchestral backdrop. A clarinet weaves a theme along with a doleful cor-anglais as various individual instruments add little ideas before the coda is reached. We move straight into Movement II where a violin brings a folksy theme over brass in a fast moving passage, developing through ever changing textures as the theme is constantly repeated throughout the orchestra, becoming ever more complex.
The music changes to spiky rhythmic intervals as Movement III arrives. These rhythmic intervals again are developed through a myriad of ideas and textures with various instruments having a say before moving into Movement IV where the music broadens with heavy metallic percussion and thundering drums as the strings take the melodic line. Brass come in over the top in descending phrases in music that is full of insistent strength as it pushes forward. This music of great weight and power creates a terrific excitement.
Movement V brings repeated striking percussion to which the brass respond with raucous outburst that show the influence of Stravinsky. A tuba tries to take the theme forward but the percussion persist in their chopping rhythms with brass outbursts that take us into Movement VI where a lone violin arrives to bring a plaintive melody. The percussion still persist with the incisive rhythm but the violin also persists with its melody.  Soon the brass seems to agree and brings less combative ideas. More strings fill out the violin melody as the music finds more freedom, sliding round whilst percussion and brass persist. Slowly and subtly the music reduces in dynamics until brass and sliding strings lead us forward. Still the percussion and brass have a final say before the strings slide us into the quiet coda.

This is a highly individual yet quite beautiful and entrancing work.

Symphony, Antiphony (1977) for orchestra opens with the short Symphony with percussion and piano bringing a series of chords that move around freely. Soon the orchestra joins to take up the idea adding a little to the tempo and developing the idea. A drum adds a beat as the music pushes quickly forward, full of terrific colour and textural ideas to a climax before falling to a hush.
Antiphony – I opens with a fast moving yet quiet rhythmic idea for a solo violin. This folksy, repeated little idea gives way to a sudden outburst of the theme from the whole orchestra. The music is full of glowing colours and textures as it develops with, later, a rather oriental idea for vibraphone over which raucous dissonant brass break out.  Underneath it al,l the strings push forward the original motif, all making for a chaotic yet brilliantly conceived passage. It is the raucous brass that takes us into Antiphony II where many instruments contribute dissonant ideas, developing a strange, rather playful quality, a bassoon brings a rich underlay, percussion add colour and a piano is heard tinkling. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen finds some lovely little moments here. A celeste joins as the music grows quieter and slower, this composer generating a lovely melody that briefly appears through the texture before the solo violin re-appears to bring about a hushed coda.  
A piano brings a ragtime theme for Antiphony III with percussion adding to the texture as do brass before moving quickly into Antiphony IV where the orchestra with prominent brass take the melody into a repeated, swirling idea. It is varied through moments for drums and brass, finding a terrific energy as it pounds forward. There are passages of increasing power and raucousness, reminding one of the music of the 1920’s style mécanique, before collapsing to allow the piano to re-join. Yet still there are raucous orchestral interruptions before a strident conclusion out of which the solo piano appears to take the gentle rather tentative Antiphony V forward.

The lone piano expands the theme, a rather affecting idea after all the noise and energy that came before. Hushed strings join before leading into Antiphony VI which arrives with the strings of the orchestra taking the melody forward, bringing some beautiful passages. This composer brings his own personal slant by adding string slides and occasional outbursts from the percussion. There are many fine textural ideas.  The music moves through moments of exquisite detail and atmosphere, a myriad of little details, before slowly finding a hushed coda – yet with a final intrusion from the percussion.  

Incontri (2010, rev. 2011-12) for orchestra also receives its world premiere recording here in the form of a live recording from the 2012 BBC Proms. There is a swish of percussion before the woodwind take the music ahead with a gentle rhythmic theme. The music rises in drama as the theme is repeated and slowly developed, weaving some fine textures and colours and broadening through some terrific ideas. There are varying rhythmic patterns with the strings bringing a repeated rhythmic idea. Later the music gains a heavier tread as brass intone a repeated motif over heavy basses. The music becomes jazzier in style with a virtuoso passage for drums. This piece is spread around the orchestra much like a concerto for orchestra. Individual strings weave some fine moments before a gentle section over hushed static strings. There are overlaid themes as the music rises to move forward powerfully, often wildly, but eventually finding a hushed coda.

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was a distinctive voice. These performances from Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Symphony Orchestra could not be bettered. The recordings are all tip top and there are excellent booklet notes from Andrew Mellor.

This is a stunning new release from Dacapo.

See also:

Tuesday 18 October 2016

With their new Josquin disc for Gimell, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars show that they remain at the top of their game

Was Josquin des Prés’ (c.1440-1521) Missa Di Dadi (The Dice Mass) the first example of aleatoric music? Certainly several movements of his Mass setting have the tenor parts prefaced with a pair of dice.

Peter Phillips  discusses the possible meanings of the dice as well as the attribution of these two settings in his interesting booklet notes for The Tallis Scholars’  new disc for Gimell  that couples the Missa Di Dadi with his Missa Une Mousse De Biscaye.

The Kyrie and opening section of the Gloria from the Missa Di Dadi can be seen on YouTube via the following link.


In the Kyrie of the Missa Di dadi, based on a chanson by Robert Morton ‘N’ray je jamais mieux’, the Tallis Scholars move from a gentle opening through richer textures as the Kyrie I develops, creating some wonderful sonorities before a Christe where female voices weave around the male voices in some beautifully controlled singing. They find a slightly faster tempo in the Kyrie II to move quickly to the conclusion.

From the solo plainchant statement of the Gloria in excelsis Deo the Tallis Scholars weave some quite lovely textures, with individual voices adding fine moments, through a finely shaped Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, a subtly nuanced Domine Fili unigenite and a gently flowing Domine Deus, Agnus Dei with the most perfect harmonies before arriving at a slower, more contemplative, finely woven Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere with varying rhythms toward the end.

They find a lovely pace in the Credo in unum Deum as voices join to develop the most wonderful harmonies, always with richly drawn textures, this choir negotiating Josquin’s twists and turns beautifully. There is a wonderfully developed Crucifixus where there are some very fine individual contributions, again finding terrific textures and building some wonderful passages.

This fine choir brings a lovely flow to the Sanctus providing a richness to Pleni sunt caeli and a fine strength and momentum to Hosanna I with the most wonderful weaving voices. There is the most lovely weaving of textures from the male voices in the Benedictus before finding a light textured Hosanna II.

There is a melancholy, flowing Agnus Dei I where this choir find the loveliest of harmonies, quite glorious. There is an Agnus Dei II that brings a real sound of antiquity in the wonderful vocal sounds before we are taken into an equally exquisite Agnus Dei III where the choir blend the finest harmonies and textures.

The Missa Une mousse de Biscaye, is based on a secular tune The Lass from Biscay. There is a lovely restraint to the opening of Kyrie I before it gently expands through a Christe that weaves around beautifully, proving fine textures and later rising in richness before a Kyrie II that brings glowing harmonies.

This choir rises through some wonderfully woven vocal lines in the Gloria in excelsis Deo through a brief though beautifully blended Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere before rising in the Qui sedes ad dexterem Patris to flow with glorious harmonies to the final Amen.

This choir finds just the right tempo in the Credo in unum Deum, slowly moving the music forward as it develops in richness of textures, finding a slower breadth in the Et iterum venturus est before moving ahead through some very fine weaving of voices.

There is a gentle opening to the Sanctus with the choir soon moving through a constantly shifting Pleni sunt caeli to a Hosanna I that moves quickly forward with this choir showing tremendous flexibility and fluency in the ever changing intervals. The Benedictus re-discovers the gentler flowing quality before a Hosanna II that moves more quickly with a fine blend of voices.

The choir rises in the Agnus Dei I, slowly blending some lovely textures and sonorities through a finely shaped Agnus Dei II to a glowing Agnus Dei III.

After 43 years Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars remain at the top of their game. They bring such lovely control, pacing, harmonies and textures. There is an especially fine recording from the chapel of Merton College, Oxford together with excellent notes from Peter Phillips as well as full Latin texts and English translations.

This is a very fine addition to the Tallis Scholars’ remarkable catalogue

See also: 

Sunday 16 October 2016

A new recording from Oberlin Music is a fine tribute to Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera whose centenary falls this year

The Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) was born in Buenos Aires and studied at the National Conservatory. It was his ballet score, Panambí (1940) that established his early reputation. Although appointed to the National Conservatory staff in 1941 he attended a series of Aaron Copland’s courses at Tanglewood, USA. After this he divided his time between Argentina and abroad, eventually settling in Geneva, Switzerland where he died.

Ginastera compositions range across opera, vocal and choral works, ballet, orchestral works including concertos, chamber and instrumental works, piano and organ pieces as well as film music.

To celebrate Ginastera’s centenary Oberlin Music have released a new recording that brings a selection of the composer’s works that give a real flavour of his compositional output.

Entitled Ginastera: One Hundred the Oberlin Orchestra conducted by Raphael Jiménez with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis  perform the Harp Concerto, violinist Gil Shaham and pianist Orli Shaham  play Pampeana No. 1, guitarist Jason Vieaux  brings us the Sonata for Guitar and Orli Shaham the early Danzas argentinas.

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Raphael Jiménez and the Oberlin Orchestra bring a sparkling, vibrant opening to the Allegro giusto of Ginastera’s Harp Concerto, Op. 25 (1956 rev. 1968) with harpist, Yolanda Kondonassis adding some terrific flourishes. She introduces the slower theme beautifully with some exceptionally finely nuanced, quieter passages. Jiménez’s forces are finely balanced allowing great detail and the soloist to emerge clearly. They soon find a rhythmic pulse, bounding forward through passages of intricate beauty from the soloist around which the orchestra weave a piquant accompaniment with a great atmosphere before the hushed coda.

In the Molto moderato the orchestra open with a deep, mournful melody which slowly weaves and expands. Here are Ginastera’s forward looking harmonies. There are little bird-like motifs from a flute before the soloist joins to bring a slower, gentle theme. Kondonassis brings fine sensitivity and phrasing, developing the music wonderfully. The orchestra creates a restrained tension with some ethereal harp arpeggios from the soloist, often finding a haunting quality.

A series of rising chords from the harp announce the Liberamente capriccioso – Vivace, soon developing through some impressive solo passages from Kondonassis, full of fine musicianship, sensitively probing this music and revealing so much. Beautifully, she exposes every detail, moving through some more dramatic phrases as the orchestra joins to drive ahead with percussion in the Vivace that brings rhythmic, dancing, a very Latin American feel. This soloist finds a terrific, fluent, sparkling panache whilst Jiménez and the orchestra provide a pulsating rhythmic energy, through some vibrant passages to the coda.

The recording is close and warm but allows much detail to emerge. 

Gil and Orli Shaham bring a wonderfully atmospheric performance of Pampeana No. 1, Op. 16 (1947) with the violinist weaving some terrific phrases around the piano, these two bringing a real surety of touch, conjuring some finely idiomatic sounds. Gil Shaham develops some fine textures with some atmospheric, sultry moments from pianist Orli Shaham. They bring a tremendous spirit and drama to the music with vibrant spectacularly virtuosic playing from both in the faster passages. There are some terrific dissonances before the music rushes to a terrific coda.

This performance is a real joy.

Jason Vieaux brings a sultry, strummed opening to Esordio of the Sonata for Guitar, Op.47 (1976) developing through some fine passages with lovely harmonies. Resonant taps on the guitar increase in intensity as the music brings intervals and harmonies that move far from the opening chords.  

There is a quicksilver Scherzo that bounds ahead, brilliantly played here, hurtling in all directions through Ginastera’s wide ranging intervals. There are more taps on the guitar as well as strange little plucked effects. This soloist brilliantly finds so many, colours, textures and effects with, often a great tautness to his phrases as they spring ahead.  

Ginastera’s intervals and harmonies are revealed quite wonderfully in the third movement Canto, Vieaux finding such exquisitely controlled playing with finely controlled tempi.  

The music suddenly finds a terrific rhythmic swing in the Finale, this soloist absolutely superb as he develops through some stunning passages, rhythmic taps adding to the panache and flamboyance of the music right up to the terrific coda.

Ginastera’s earlier three Danzas argentinas, Op. 2 (1937) open with No. 1. Danza del viejo boyero where Orli Shaham brings a fine rhythmic spring, moving quickly through passages of terrific dynamic control and shaping to a fine coda. No. 2. Danza de la moza donosa finds a languid quality not too distant from Satie, especially in the dissonant harmonies. Again Shaham brings exquisite control, teasing out every detail, rising in strength before finding a gentle conclusion on a rising motif.  The fast and furious No. 3. Danza del gaucho matrero finds Shaham providing a real rhythmic panache, through some rollicking jazz like passages mixed with an Argentinian flavour in a terrific swirl of textures.

This is a terrific performance from this soloist. 

This new recording is a fine tribute to Ginastera. The recordings in the solo and chamber works are particularly fine and there is an interesting essay on Ginastera and his music from James O’Leary, Frederick R. Selch Assistant Professor of Music at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Ohio, USA

Thursday 13 October 2016

The Latvian Radio Choir under their director, Sigvards Kļava bring performances of works by Arvo Pärt of tremendous beauty, accuracy and understanding on a new release from Ondine

The Latvian Radio Choir is a full time professional choir that was founded in 1940.  The choir is a seven-time recipient of the Great Music award of the Latvian government and have collaborated with such well-known names as Stephen Layton, Tönu Kaljuste, Lars Ulrik Mortensen and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Under their Chief Conductor, Sigvards Kļava  the choir has made a number of highly praised recordings for Ondine the latest of which features music by Arvo Pärt (b.1935) entitled Da Pacem Domine.

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Triodion (1998) was commissioned by Lancing College, Sussex, England to celebrate their 150th anniversary and must have sounded as wonderful in the large acoustic of their chapel as it does here. In five parts it opens with an ethereal, pure toned Introduction opening for high female voices before quickly moving into Ode I where male voices sing over droned background, bringing exquisite sonorities. There are some quite wonderful harmonies with the music rising in strength midway on the words ‘For which cause we cry aloud unto thee with thanksgiving.’ They fall back to a hush as ‘O Jesus the Son of God, have mercy upon us.’ is slowly chanted before we glide into a luminous Ode II.

There are lovely textures with the music increasing in power, beautifully phrased and paced within this acoustic, Sigvards Kļava allowing reverberation of the voices to die before falling to a chant of ‘O Most Holy Birth giver of God, save us.’ Ode III opens with the female voices rising up, immediately joined by male voices before falling to a slow, quiet undulating passage. The music rises and falls a number of times with the female voices finding a great purity before gently arriving at a rising and falling repeated motif to end peacefully. A solo soprano opens Coda before the choir joins to add a quiet, sonorous final ‘Amen.’

Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen (1988/91) is set in German reflecting his residence in Germany at the time. It was composed for the RIAS Chamber Choir, Berlin and comprises seven antiphons to be sung on each of the seven evenings before Christmas Eve. Pärt finds the most lovely luminous textures in I O Weisheit (O Wisdom) with the choir delivering the most perfect realisation of this lovely piece, a simple recurring theme with subtly developed harmonies. The male voices lay down a wordless layer or drone in II O Adonai over which rich deep voices slowly take the text, again developing some lovely harmonies. With III O Sproß aus Isais Wurzel (O Scion of Isaiah’s Line) female voices rise across the choir in some of Pärt’s finest dissonances creating some quite lovely effects before rising dramatically into IV O Schlüssel Davids (O David’s Key), full of great strength, filling the acoustic, again beautifully phrased and paced. A wonderful section. The choir move gently and quietly into the lovely V O Morgenstern (O Morning Star) blending some lovely harmonies to arrive at a quiet, glowing coda. The choir finds a faster moving rhythmic VI O König aller Völker (King of All Nations) where voices are layered and built as the music slowly increases in dynamics to a sudden halt.  A soft, quiet and gentle VII O Immanuel slowly expands through some lovely textures, growing in strength, arriving at some dramatic statements before finding a quiet end.  

Nunc dimittis (2001) was written for and first performed by the Choir of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland as part of the Edinburgh Festival. A male voiced drone slowly expands throughout the choir through some exquisite bars with the words of the Nunc dimittis slowly appearing. This exquisite setting brings some lovely blending of textures out of which a soprano voice emerges, rising through some stunning passages before falling back to find a quieter conclusion.

Dopo la vittoria (After the victory) (1996/98) finds a lighter, more buoyant feel as it dances rhythmically forward before finding some extended slower, more sonorous passages. The choir shape this music beautifully as it moves through vibrant passages with the choir sounding out wonderfully. There are glorious, luminous passages where female voices sound above the choir before the opening vibrancy returns at the end. 

Virgencita (2012) was inspired by the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe and was premiered by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in León, Mexico. Female voices open slowly and gently with the male voices taking over before the whole choir rises in this lovely setting. The piece progresses through some lovely harmonies and textures with this choir showing such sensitivity in the gentle phrases and sonorities before moving through some glowing powerful passages to a hushed end.

The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997) and Tribute to Caesar (1997) were written as companion pieces for the 350th anniversary of the Karlstad Diocese in Sweden, both works taking a text from the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Female voices gently open The Woman with the Alabaster Box, soon joined by the rest of the choir, before finding a greater strength. There is a high point when the male voices sing over a wordless female drone before leading to a rich, hushed conclusion.   Male voices slowly and gently take Tribute to Caesar forward, the whole choir joining to find some haunting moments before rising in power only to fall back. Pärt’s use of the various sections of the choir is inspired.  

The disc’s title work, Da pacem Domine (2004/06) was commissioned by conductor Jordi Savall for a peace concert in Barcelona, Spain. The choir brings some lovely harmonies and phrasing, revealing some quite wonderful, distinctive ideas from Pärt as the music proceeds in little pulses of vocal power, building in strength before the lovely coda.

The Latvian Radio Choir under their director, Sigvards Klava is absolutely first class, bringing performance of tremendous beauty, accuracy and understanding. The recording made in St. John’s Church (Sv. Jāņa baznīca), Riga, Latvia, is superb. There are informative booklet notes together with full texts and English translations.

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Sunday 9 October 2016

Prima Facie bring a most rewarding release of works by British composers Kenneth Hesketh and Richard Causton performed by the Continuum Ensemble with soprano Mary Bevan, violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and pianist Alexander Szram

A new release from Prima Facie Records features the Continuum Ensemble with conductor and pianist, Philip Headlam with soprano Mary Bevan , violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen  and pianist Aleksander Szram in works by British composers Kenneth Hesketh and Richard Causton entitled A Land So Luminous.


Kenneth Hesketh (b.1968) was born in Liverpool, England and began composing whilst a chorister at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, completing his first work for orchestra at the age of thirteen. He studied at the Royal College of Music, London with Edwin Roxburgh, Joseph Horovitz and Simon Bainbridge and attended Tanglewood in 1995 as the Leonard Bernstein Fellow where he studied with Henri Dutilleux. After completing a Master's degree in Composition at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA, a series of awards followed; the Shakespeare Prize scholarship from the Toepfer Foundation, Hamburg, an award from the Liverpool Foundation for Sport and the Arts and the Constant and Kit Lambert Fellowship at the Royal College of Music.

Hesketh’s compositions range across opera, dance, orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal and solo as well as music for wind and brass bands. He has worked with leading ensembles and orchestras in Europe, the USA, and the Far East and has received many commissions.  He has worked with conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Vasilly Sinaisky, Vasily Petrenko, Susanna Malkki, Ludovic Morlot, Pascal Rophé and Oliver Knussen and soloists such as Nicholas Daniel, Sarah Leonard, Rodney Clarke, Christopher Redgate, Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Clare Hammond.

Kenneth Hesketh is professor of composition and orchestration at the Royal College of Music, honorary professor at Liverpool University and active as a guest lecturer and visiting professor.

Richard Causton (b.1971) studied at the University of York, the Royal College of Music and the Scuola Civica in Milan. He has worked with ensembles such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sinfonieorchester Basel, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken, London Sinfonietta, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Britten Sinfonia and the Nash Ensemble. In addition to composition, Causton writes and lectures on Italian contemporary music and regularly broadcasts for Italian radio (RAI Radio 3).

Recent works include Twenty-Seven Heavens for orchestra, commissioned as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad and premièred at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under the direction of Gianandrea Noseda, as well as solo pieces for pianist Piotr Anderszewski and cellist Anssi Karttunen. He is currently working on a large-scale orchestral work for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Causton is currently Reader in Composition at the University of Cambridge.

Kenneth Hesketh’s A Land So Luminous (2003/09) for violin and piano opens this disc and takes its title from the 17th century philosopher-poet, Cyrano de Bergerac and his writings that conjure up imaginative worlds. A sudden shrill outburst from the violin of Tasmin Waley-Cohen appears over high staccato phrases from pianist Alexsander Szra. The music is subtly developed, the violin adding more texture as the piano expands the theme, creating a transparency and luminosity of texture. Soon the violin brings a repeated insistent idea over piano decorations before developing through some delicate light textured passages. These players find so many little details with their tremendously accomplished playing. The music later slows with the violin drawing long textures over a languid piano accompaniment. There are some beautifully delicate phrases with Waley-Cohen finding so many exquisite textures and colours through this extended quiet section. The music slowly increases in tempo to rush forward through a quicksilver passage with tremendous virtuosity from these artists. There are passages of shimmering light until a hushed coda where a high violin note is sounded over a deep piano chord.

The three movements that make up Cautionary Tales (2002) were arranged for violin, clarinet and piano from the larger piece for ensemble, Netsuke. A sudden outburst from the instruments brings a fast moving idea to open I. Der Struwwelpeter, with pinpoint precision from members of the Continuum Ensemble clarinetist Marie Lloyd, violinist Marcus Barcham-Stevens and pianist Douglas Finch in this brilliantly conceived piece full of sudden staccato phrases, the instruments weaving some terrific passages before a slower passage beautifully woven.   
With II. Le Petit Prince et la Rose the clarinet brings a little theme over the piano to which the violin joins. Here, there are echoes of Messiaen, Hesketh conjuring some atmospheric, quite beautiful ideas as he brings forth lovely sonorities and textures from the instruments. The music slowly rises in dynamics before some mesmerising harmonies take us to a hushed coda.

The clarinet sounds out shrilly over piano phrases to intruduce III. Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher before the trio continue to weave some quite amazing textures that move around wildly, always varying the tones and textures with some lovely ideas for clarinet and violin over a piano line.

IMMH (2012) for cello is a short imagined shamanic ritual dedicated to the memory of Michael Harrison, former director of Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge . Cellist, Joseph Spooner opens with some rich, deep cello chords followed by rhythmic taps on the body of his cello before moving ahead with a variety of sounds and textures, slowly developing some increasingly passionate bowed textures. Vocal effects combine with string textures to create some strange effects, always with a developing passion and some especially effective strummed passages. Some wonderful, delicately drawn high phrases appear before the coda.

This is a remarkably fine piece.

Philip Headlam conducts the Continuum Ensemble in Netsuke (2001 rev. 2004) described as a collection of short, colourful musical tableaux creating an aural picture book. Netsuke are finely detailed tiny sculpted toggles made of ivory horn or wood, formerly worn in Japan to suspend articles from the sash of a kimono.

The Continuum Ensemble sound out suddenly in the opening of I. Statue - Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher, before hurtling forward through some fine harmonies and textures, bringing a real transparency to this piece, showing some wonderful accuracy. Soon there is a slower passage where some lovely little phrases are heard before picking up the pace to weave a terrific tapestry of sound. Later they find some lovely woodwind moments before speeding through some fine bars only to arrive at a lovely little, quiet coda.

II. La Rose has a quiet opening as the ensemble slowly bring some lovely ideas, delicately phrased and full of atmosphere, slowly rising as the woodwind weave a terrific harmony and texture of sounds all underlined by a rippling piano line. The music quietens again to bring a hushed, quite exquisite coda.

Piano, percussion and bassoon combine to bring a lovely quality to the opening of III. Statue II - The Owl before rising through the ensemble with shimmering strings and some flute passages that dart around. The music moves through luminous textures creating another fine atmosphere before the bassoon brings a lovely theme around which various instruments of the ensemble sparkle and weave an increasingly excitable texture before a gentler coda.

Richard Causton’s Threnody (1991) for soprano, two clarinets and piano sets a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva (1892-1941). A clarinet slowly opens over which the second clarinet brings its own long held phrases.  Soon soprano, Mary Bevan, enters bringing her beautifully pure tone that blends wonderfully with the clarinets. They continue over a slow, languid piano line, this soprano bringing much feeling, conjuring a haunting atmosphere. These artists beautifully shape the music as clarinets and soprano blend and weave some lovely textures.

This is a really impressive work, brilliantly performed.

The Continuum Ensemble return for Causton’s Rituals of Hunting and Blooding (2000 rev. 2002). In two movements, the work enacts the drama between hunters and the hunted. Movement I brings some wild and frenzied phrases for the Continuum Ensemble over a variety of percussion. A clarinet brings a repeated idea before some fine, distinctive textures are developed by the ensemble. A trumpet takes the theme over drums as it pounds and dances forward creating a sense of ritual. The music develops through varying rhythms with a group of brass instruments taking the rhythmic theme to a sudden collapse on a drum stroke.

Movement II brings a plaintive, wistful theme for flute and brass over strings. A solo violin takes the theme alone, joined by other strings in this melancholy melody. It rises a little in dynamics but keeps its melancholy feel. As the music continues to rise, it moves through some lovely textures with the celeste appearing until a piano chord brings a subtle drama at the end.

There is a hidden melody in Non Mi Comporto Male (1993) for piano that is only revealed gradually. The piece develops out of two opening phrases through some expansive passages that bring a real freedom. It moves through jazz inspired ideas that surely give a hint as to the type of theme hidden. There are slower, quieter variations as well as a vibrant rhythmic passage before bringing together fragmented ideas to reveal the well-known tune by Fats Waller.

Sleep (2006) for flute was inspired by the first stanza of a poem from the Mythistorema cycle by the Greek poet George Seferis (1900-1971). Here flautist, Lisa Nelsen, brings a beautifully textured opening, her lovely tone finding so many fine moments with great agility and impulsive passion before the quiet coda.

There are some lovely phrases from Douglas Finch as Night Piece (2014) for piano opens. Causton brings a terrific atmosphere with this pianist finding many lovely moments. Here again Causton has disguised a well-known theme that tries to emerge over high tinkling piano phrases. One feels as though walking in a dream landscape and, even when Mozart’s theme emerges, the atmosphere is as though through a dream.

We must thank Prima Facie for this most rewarding and enjoyable release. The performances are first class and the recordings made at Blackheath Halls and RCM Studies, London UK are excellent. There are excellent notes together with the English text for Threnody.

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