Sunday 27 November 2016

Praga Digital’s new release Shostakovich plays Shostakovich is an absolute gold mine of Shostakovich performances, remarkably well re-mastered and quite irresistible

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was first taught piano by his mother before entering the Leningrad Conservatory at the age of just 13. He soon became a very good pianist, improvising as well as playing at family gatherings. After the death of his father, he played in cinemas in order to supplement the family’s income.

From 1923 Shostakovich started to perform in public, playing his own works and those of the classical and romantic era. With ideas of becoming a concert pianist he was chosen to be one of the Soviet team to take part in the 1927 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Despite much preparation Shostakovich was not awarded a prize. The result was that Shostakovich lost his desire to become a concert pianist, concentrating instead on composition.

Nevertheless, Shostakovich continued to perform his own works until ill health prevented this. His last concert was in Gorky on 23rd February 1964 at a festival of his music arranged by the great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich and Boris Guzman, conductor of the Gorky Philharmonic Orchestra.

There have been a number of recordings of Shostakovich playing his own works particularly his Preludes and Fugues Op.87. New to me are the broadcast recordings dating from 1955 and 1957 just issued by Praga Digitals on 2 CDs, re-mastered and edited, of Shostakovich playing both of his Piano Concertos along with From Jewish Folk Poetry and his Piano Quintet and Cello Sonata as well as some Preludes and Fugues.

PRD 250 365.66

There are many fine moments in the song cycle for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and piano, From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op.79 (1949) that opens the first CD. The composer brings a haunting quality to much of the Lament for a Dead Child with the soloists drawing out some disturbing harmonies, each individually very fine. The Thoughtful Mother and Aunt is rhythmically pointed with the composer finding a natural simplicity to which the soloists add a terrific character. Later there are moments of terrific passion in Before a long separation, pianist and soloists bringing a real emotional pull, finding so many subtleties. The composer adds a special touch to Song of Hardship, a real vibrancy.

The 1955 recording is remarkably good with much depth.

Shostakovich is soloist in his Piano Concerto No.2 in F major, Op.102 (1957) with Alexander Gauk and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, an irresistible partnership. The composer keeps a fast tempo to drive the music forward in the Allegro, a real urgency, full of verve. There is an Andante that really delivers on poetry and poise, never sentimental, allowing the music to keep a forward push, beautiful in its directness. Finally there is a rollicking Allegro showing the composer to be a formidable pianist. Gauk provides a phenomenal accompaniment in one of the liveliest and most impressive performances on record.

The recording is sometimes a little thin but is nevertheless impressive for a 1957 radio broadcast.

Shostakovich here provides a spontaneity in the Allegretto of his Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, Op.35 (1933) that doesn’t often appear on other recordings. There is a certain wildness, aided and abetted by a fine trumpeter in Josif Volovmk who brings a very Russian vibrato. The Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Samuil Samosud. Again in the Lento – attacca the composer brings much poetry through a directness of approach, slowly and impressively building the movement through some intensely dramatic bars with Volovmk’s trumpet adding much of a lament. After an often dark and dramatic Moderato – attacca, they spring into a light and fleet Allegro con brio with more scintillating playing from Shostakovich and, indeed, from Volovmk and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. All seem to be enjoying this rather burlesque finale immensely.

The recording here is most definitely thinner and reverberant but still more than acceptable. There is some audible audience noise.  

Father and son, Dmitri and the 15 year old student Maxim join forces for the Concertino for Two Pianos in A minor, Op. 94 (1954) with a quite lovely Adagio, beautifully paced, before a wonderfully fleet Allegretto. Both pianists provide some impressive playing, though one can hear the elder musician providing some of the most fluent and expansive, indeed virtuosic passages. This is a rarity in more ways than one and with a very good recording made in 1957 at the Moscow Conservatory whilst Maxim was still a student at the Central Music School.

To have the composer with the Beethoven Quartet playing the Piano Quintet in G major, Op.57 (1940) that opens Disc: 2 is quite special. Remarkably well recorded live in 1957 they bring a wonderful authenticity, a real depth and character to the Prelude: Lento. In the Fugue: Adagio they achieve moments of heart rending emotion. The Scherzo: Allegretto brings some stunningly intense, vibrant playing before an Intermezzo: Lento that has an inevitable forward movement, often touched with intense grief. They run gently into the Finale: Allegretto before gaining in urgency only to find the opening flow to run to the coda. This is a quite wonderful performance.

It is a great artist and friend who joins Shostakovich in the Cello Sonata in D minor, Op.40 (1934), Mstislav Rostropovich. Here we have another remarkably vivid recording made live on the same day as the Quintet. Both find an intuitive response in the Moderato, Rostropovich extracting a quite wonderful emotional pull, both bringing a natural freedom and spontaneity. They are quite stunning in the Moderato con moto driving this music forward through some intensely played bars.

Rostropovich builds a tremendous Largo, extracting so much intense feeling, with a terrific tone right across the spectrum, Shostakovich responding with an equal intensity. The composer brings a lovely light touch to the Allegretto to which the cellist responds with a terrific flair as the music soon hurtles ahead. Here are two of the finest figures from 20th century music bringing such panache and virtuosity.

Violinist, Dmitri Tsyganov arranged Shostakovich’s piano Preludes, Op.34 for violin and piano and here plays four of them with the composer, recorded in 1957. They are fascinating arrangements opening with No. 10 in C sharp minor where Tsyganov brings exquisite delicacy, timbres and textures with the composer adding a wonderfully subtle accompaniment. Both bring a fine vibrancy to No. 16 in B flat minor with wonderfully controlled dynamics. No. 15 in D-flat major finds Shostakovich taking a terrific piano line around the violin before No. 24 in D minor has a fine rhythmic phrasing, full of wit and sparkle.

It is good to have three of the Preludes and Fugues, Op.87 (1950-1) in such clear recordings with a great presence. The composer brings a wonderful sense of gentle nostalgia to the Prelude of No. 5 in D major, quite wonderful before rising in the Fugue through passages of fast moving fugal writing with a real freedom and spontaneity.  He brings such breadth and thoughtfulness in the Prelude of No. 23 in F major, running through an absolutely terrific Fugue, so gentle and poised yet with an underlying forward drive. No. 3 in G major brings great authority and strength in the Prelude before skipping with such ease and delight into the Fugue where he shows exceptional phrasing and control of individual lines. Absolutely terrific. 

This new release is an absolute gold mine of Shostakovich performances, remarkably well re-mastered and quite irresistible. It is not clear from the booklet if these are stereo recordings. The cover of the booklet has the banner ‘Genuine Stereo Lab’ suggesting that they are. They certainly have a depth and breadth that sounds to me like stereo. There are useful booklet notes but no texts for the Op.79 song cycle.

Thursday 24 November 2016

An exceptionally fine disc in every way from Ensemble Gilles Binchois, setting Heinrich Isaac’s Missa Virgo Prudentissima within an imagined Florentine celebration on a new release from Evidence Classics

Next year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the composer, Heinrich Isaac (c.1450-1517). Though born in Flanders he travelled south, through Innsbruck, to Italy where he served the Medicis in Florence. He sang in the cathedral and is thought to have taught the children of Lorenzo de' Medici ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’ (1449-1492). Later he worked in Vienna, Torgau and Konstanz, becoming court composer to the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian 1 (1459-1519).

From 1514 he was in Florence where he held both a Medici pension and a diplomatic post under Maximilian. His compositions include a large number of Mass settings as well as motets and secular songs.

Evidence Classics have just released a new recording with Ensemble Gilles Binchois directed by Dominique Vellard of Heinrich Isaac’s six voice Missa Virgo Prudentissima.  


The programme of this recording imagines a Florentine celebration, possibly during a visit of Pope Leo X, with Isaac’s Mass Ordinary integrated with plainchant used at the Florentine cathedral where Isaac worked as a singer. At either end there is a motet from Isaac’s posthumous collection of Mass Propers, the Choralis constantinus.

Female voices introduce the Introit for the Assumption, Gaudeamus omnes in domino soon joined by the rest of Ensemble Gilles Binchois in this mellifluous, beautifully harmonised piece. This choir providing some really lovely textures and sonorities, beautifully shaped. A fine solo tenor voice chants Exaltata es sancta Dei genitrix before a quite beautiful overlay of Virgo prudentissima over the text of the Introit.

This choir bring so much to the Plainchant Introït: Salve sancta parens with a finely chosen use of individual voices and various parts of the choir. They bring a real strength and impact. This is impressively sung plainchant with some terrific harmonies.

Female voices open the Kyrie of Missa Virgo Prudentissima before it is beautifully woven throughout the choir, so distinctive. Again the use of sections of the choir is wonderfully done, blending and weaving the most wonderful harmonies.
The Gloria develops and blossoms through some quite lovely harmonies and textures to a lovely conclusion. The purity of individual voices is very fine.  
There is a Plainchant Graduel: Benedicta et venerabilis es where the male voices of the choir bring a lovely directness with, centrally, a solo tenor voice adding an extra passion. Female voices bring the Plainchant: Alleluia. Post partum, quite exquisitely done as they weave the musical lines, with lovely phrasing and pacing.

Male voices return for the Plainchant: Alleluia virga Jesse with further very fine solo voices adding to the variety before male voices of the choir lead to the conclusion. A solo tenor delivers the brief plainchant Plainchant Lecture: Sequentia Sancti Evangelii Secundum Lucam

The Credo of Missa Virgo Prudentissima rises through the various sections of the choir, slowly adding sonorities and textures with this choir finding a lovely rubato, a freedom that achieves a natural spontaneity.  There are some very fine individual vocal contributions with the music developing through some terrific passages, full of the most beautiful harmonies, rich in texture.

Male voices of the choir bring the Plainchant Offertoire: Ave Maria weaving some very fine lines, wonderfully phrased before a lone tenor provides a firm and beautifully clear Plainchant: Preface.

Female and male voices weave around each other in a terrific Sanctus from the Missa Virgo Prudentissima, developing some lovely harmonies and textures with, again, the choir bringing particularly lovely contributions from various sections of the choir. They weave a lovely tapestry of choral sound, constantly shifting textures and harmonies with some especially lovely rich tones in the Benedictus.
In the Agnus Dei of Missa Virgo Prudentissima Ensemble Gilles Binchois achieve a particularly fine quality, gently flowing, full of the most wonderful textures and sonorities as it unfolds and with a very fine section for female voices mid-way.
This celebration concludes with the Communion Plainchant et polyphonie à quatre voix: Beata Viscera before soon expanding beautifully through the finest polyphony. Later a tenor brings back the plainchant to which the choir join before rising in a quite beautiful polyphonic conclusion. 

This is an exceptionally fine disc in every way, vividly recorded at Couvent Saint Marc à Gueberschwihr, France. There are useful booklet notes together with full Latin texts and French and English translations.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Benjamin Schmid with the Oulu Symphony Orchestra under Johannes Gustavsson provide first rate performances of two very fine violin concertos by Finnish composers, Einar Englund and Uuno Klami on a new release from Ondine

A new release from Ondine  brings together the violin concertos of two important Finnish composers, Einar Englund and Uuno Klami with violinist Benjamin Schmid and the Oulu Symphony Orchestra conducted by their chief conductor, Johannes Gustavsson .

Einar Englund (1916-1999) studied with Selim Palmgren (1878-1951) and Bengt Carlsson (1890-1953) at the Helsinki Academy and with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. He also spent some time studying in Russia where he was influenced by Prokofiev and Shostakovich. His compositions range across ballet, orchestral works of which his seven symphonies have been recorded by Ondine, concertos, chamber music, piano works and film scores.

Uuno Klami (1900-1961) studied with Erkki Melartin (1875-1937) at the Helsinki College of Music, with Ravel in Paris and with Arthur Willner (1881-1959) in Vienna. His compositions include vocal and choral as well as orchestral works including two symphonies, a number of orchestral suites, two piano concertos and the violin concerto heard here.

ODE 1278-2

Einar Englund (1916-1999) wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1981) in response to a commission from the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras. Much of its composition was undertaken at Ljugarn on the island of Gotland during the summer of 1981 where the peaceful environment greatly influenced the concerto.

The opening Allegro moderato rises suddenly in the orchestra with a bright and spacious theme before the soloist enters bringing chords that are full of fine textures. The music soon picks up a rhythm as it is developed by the soloist, moving forward in the orchestra, pointed up by timpani. A slower, quieter episode arrives where the celeste is heard, the soloist joining in a gentle, rather mournful theme. Benjamin Schmid and conductor, Johannes Gustavsson never allow the music to flag, pushing forward through some beautifully orchestrated passages. The rhythmic quality occasionally re-appears as soloist and orchestra weave the theme through a fine tapestry of ideas, later increasing in drama and passion before the soloist brings some beautiful textures over a quietly held orchestral line in the lower strings. This leads to a cadenza when the soloist slowly works over the material, this soloist finding many subtleties.  The orchestra take over alone with a hushed, quite beautiful passage to which the soloist adds the most exquisite ideas. The woodwind join before the music rises through a more dynamic passage only to quieten and slow through before a gentle coda.

The orchestra introduce a spirited Moderato theme that reveals an underlying sadness as it falls back. There is a combined tension and thoughtfulness as the soloist quietly enters to develop the theme over a hushed orchestral backdrop, working through a long breathed stream of development, much in the vein of a passacaglia, with woodwind adding some atmospheric touches. A little rhythmic motif in the orchestra adds to the tension before soloist and orchestra rise in passion, weaving some impressive passages for soloist and orchestra. Later the music lightens but soon finds its more sombre nature.  A rather magical hushed line for the soloist appears over a quiet orchestra to bring about the coda.  

The Finale: Allegro molto bursts out in the orchestra with the soloist quickly joining in the lively theme. The theme is soon shared by brilliant woodwind, orchestra and soloist pushing ahead through vibrant bars, shedding the atmosphere of the moderato. Later a cadenza suddenly arrives with the soloist bringing some terrific textures and harmonies before the orchestra returns to drive the music to a vibrant coda.

The original version of Uuno Klami’s (1900-1961) Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1943/1954) was written during the Second World War and premiered at a concert of the composer’s compositions in Helsinki in the October of 1943. Perhaps his most well-known work, the Kalevala Suite was performed at the same concert, though this work too had been subjected to revision as well as a new scherzo.

The Allegro molto moderato of the violin concerto opens in the orchestra with a pensive theme to which the soloist soon adds anxious chords. The music pushes ahead with a rather laboured effect before suddenly finding a forward flow. The soloist soon provides some fast and furious passages before slowing again to the rather laboured idea. It soon flourishes ahead as the soloist rhapsodises over the orchestra. An oboe and strings take the theme, bringing a more romantic feel with the soloist weaving around the oboe and orchestra, spinning some exquisite moments. Midway there is a more dynamic passage, with a rhythmic pulse before the soloist adds some faster passages over a more static orchestra. The more romantic, nostalgic idea returns with the soloist flowing around a weightier orchestra where the brass are heard before finding more energy to lead to a rhythmic passage for soloist and orchestra. Towards the end the soloist and woodwind speed in a fast, light section to a fleet coda.

Woodwind bring a gentle, light textured opening to the Adagio ma non troppo soon taken by the strings. A harp adds a hushed, delicate, rhythmic pulse before the soloist enters with a lovely melody that is shadowed by the orchestra. This is a quite wonderful section with the soloist slowly adding textures and sonorities as the melody expands and develops. This soloist develops and shapes the solo part wonderfully, soon finding an achingly poignant edge. The music alternates with a rhythmic idea with both soloist and orchestra finding some lovely harmonies and textures. Later there is a particularly lovely moment when the soloist rises above the horns, full of the most beautiful ideas before finding an exquisite coda.

The orchestra bring a riotous opening with brass to the Allegro giocoso before the violin enters developing the lively, repeated theme. There is a fine dialogue between muted brass and the solo violin before finding a real light-hearted buoyant, forward drive. Benjamin Schmid adds some terrific flourishes, finding a rhythmic buoyancy, through some rather original ideas as woodwind, soloist and strings develop the theme. The brass eventually re-introduce the riotous idea from the opening before the music heads to a light-hearted, buoyant coda.  

Benjamin Schmid with the Oulu Symphony Orchestra under Johannes Gustavsson provide first rate performances of these two very fine concertos. I found the Klami concerto to be a particularly attractive work. They receive an excellent recording made at the Madetoja Hall, Oulu, Finland and there are excellent booklet notes. 

Monday 21 November 2016

Carol Leone uses three Donison-Steinbuhler Standard keyboards for her recital on MSR Classics entitled Change of Keys – One Piano, Three Keyboards creating a disc that is fascinating and a particularly fine recital in its own right

It has been suggested that the size of Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) slender hands and their huge span were due to a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome . However, the composer, Arnold Bax (1883-1953) had to make cuts to his Symphonic Variations due to the fact that the pianist Harriet Cohen could not manage more than an octave in each hand. Therein lies the basic problem of the standard piano keyboard - one size needs to fit all.

Looking to address this problem, a chance meeting between the owner of a family textile business, David Steinbuhler and the music director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Christopher Donison in 1991 led to the manufacture of the 7/8 size Donison-Steinbuhler Standard keyboard.

During this meeting Donison had shown Steinbuhler the 7/8 keyboard he had installed in his concert grand piano with an octave equal to a 7th on the conventional keyboard. While studying music at the University of Victoria he had realized that his small hand size was preventing him from mastering much of the great piano repertoire which had led him, in the late 1970s, to have the keyboard built. Donison explained how a whole new world had been opened to him when he first got the keyboard and that this had inspired the concept of creating a second standard. 

Steinbuhler had been developing products in his family owned textile business so told Donison that he would try to build small keyboards with the idea of calling the new proposed keyboard size the Donison-Steinbuhler Standard. Hence the DS Standard® was born.   

With no preconceived ideas about how to build keyboards, Steinbuhler started tinkering and by the summer of 1994, using a computer driven router, he and a co-worker built the first keyboard which they installed in Steinbuhler’s mother’s Steinway upright. Linda Gould, an acquaintance of Donison’s, flew from Victoria, British Columbia to try it. She had given up her dream of becoming a concert artist because of the pain she had experienced when playing. Her first reaction on trying the new keyboard was how easy it was to play.

Using a grant, Donison and Steinbuhler provided five universities with keyboards, receiving much media attention. They also added a size in the middle, the Universal, which they called a 15/16 keyboard. At an early stage a keyboard made for a Steinway C was rejected by a prestigious piano rebuilder in New York City on the grounds that it was not suitable for professional use due to the springy nature of the highly angled keys in the bass section. This led to the development of techniques to measure key strength and the brace which proved to completely eliminate the problem.

Of course there was much more development particularly after displaying their work at Piano Technician Guild conventions where they received valuable scrutiny, feedback and training. Several sized Steinway B keyboards were made right down to a very small one with an overall width of 38 inches, demonstrating that very small keyboards can be built that do not suffer from any loss of power, touch, or response.

This work eventually allowed them to establish a keyboard size suitable for small children called the DS5.1™ and, lastly, designating the size for the conventional keyboard as DS6.5™ they had four sizes which taken together now constitutes The Donison-Steinbuhler Standard or the DS Standard® .

More can be read about the DS Standard® keyboards by visiting their website to which I am grateful for the information given in this review.

So how do these new keyboards sound? Pianist Carol Leone  has made a recording entitled Change of Keys – One Piano, Three Keyboards for MSR Classics  taking us on a journey from Haydn to Bartók through three keyboards on one Steinway D piano.

MS 1616

Carol Leone uses a conventional 6.50 inch octave keyboard for Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) Piano Sonata in C major, Hob XVI:50 (1794). She brings a nice, crisply phrased opening to the Allegro, moving through passages of fine fluency with a great clarity that is enhanced by the fine recording. She shapes the music so well, finding many little nuances that lift the music. She brings a lovely breadth as the Adagio unfolds, beautifully phrased, revealing much poetry. There is more of that exceptional clarity of line, this pianist extracting so much fine texture and tone from the instrument. The Allegro molto is finely phrased and paced, running through the faster passages with a great fluency, bringing a sense of real enjoyment as she skips through this terrific movement.

Carol Leone changes to the DS6.0® 6.00 inch octave keyboard for Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) Piano Sonata No.30 in E major, Op.109 (1820) bringing a lovely opening to the Vivace ma non Troppo, so fluent and flexible, beautifully shaped, before slowly developing the music through some very fine textures. I thought that I could detect a particular firmness or security of touch but perhaps this was just my imagination. Certainly Leone brings a wonderful delicacy and clarity to many passages, a real thoughtfulness. There is great flexibility and control in the Prestissimo with this pianist revealing lightning reflexes through some particularly fluent passages. The Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo has a beautifully poised opening with a real restraint before moving into some finely controlled faster bars, again bringing lovely clarity. She subtly allows the music to increase in breadth before rising through the most wonderful passage of passionate dynamic invention to a quiet, poetic coda.

For Frédéric Chopin’s (1810-1849): Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23 (1831) Leone uses the DS5.5® 5.54 inch octave keyboard. She provides some exquisitely delicate, light toned phrases with a lovely fluency, thoughtfully phrased and paced. She rises through some finely textured passages bringing a real freedom to her phrasing; the often exquisite touch that she delivers is surely in part due to the size of keyboard.

Carol Leone continues the rest of her recital using the DS5.5® 5.54 inch octave keyboard with Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Liebeslied: ‘Widmung’, S.566 (1848) arranged by Franz Liszt (1811-1886). It is beautifully shaped, rising and falling through the lovely melody, with a lovely poetic second subject before rising in passion with this pianist bringing a real authority.

She really gets inside Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) L’Isle Joyeuse, L.106 (1904) bringing a lovely freedom and fluency with many subtle little moments that are so revealing. Again there is a tremendous clarity of texture with Leone beautifully integrating all the little rhythmic moments, finding all the quickly changing moods before a wonderful coda.

Motoric rhythms open the Allegro moderato of Béla Bartók’s (1881-1945) Piano Sonata, BB 88, SZ.80 (1926), this pianist bringing such a variety of dynamics and textures, a freedom and panache through Bartók’s terrific harmonies and intervals with some finely sprung rhythms before speeding to a terrific coda. The Sostenuto e pesante has some very fine dissonant harmonies before the music picks its way slowly through some beautifully nuanced passages. Leone shapes and paces this music so well, building through some incisive, powerful chords before quietening to lead to a sudden conclusion. She pushes the Allegro molto ahead with a real sense of freedom and spontaneity, providing some terrific dissonances, always with a tremendous clarity. There are some terrifically fluent phrases before the music starts to build in power to a sudden dissonant coda.  

The whole concept of this disc is fascinating and the result is a particularly fine recital in its own right. It is quite revealing when one looks at photographs in the booklet of the fingering for each of the keyboards for the same chord. There are fascinating booklet notes concerning various keyboard sizes as well as notes about the composers and their music. The very fine recording adds considerably to the merits of this disc. 

Sunday 20 November 2016

Another winner from François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles with a new release of works by Ligeti on Les Siècles Live - Musicales Actes Sud

Formed in the summer of 2003 by François-Xavier Roth , Les Siècles comprises outstanding young players drawn from the finest French ensembles. Roth’s founding ambition was for his orchestra to offer a new approach, not only to repertoire but also to the nature of the concert form.

With a vast period instrument collection at its disposal, spanning the baroque, classical, romantic and modern eras, the orchestra’s repertoire is notably wide in range. Les Siècles is one of a small number of ensembles to employ period and modern instruments, playing each repertoire on appropriate instruments.

François-Xavier Roth and the musicians of Les Siècles have given well over 200 performances in France alone, including regular performances in Paris and appearances at leading festivals throughout France. Internationally they have performed in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, London, Germany, Portugal, Italy and Japan.

Their recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird has received critical acclaim in the international press resulting in a number of awards. In partnership with Musicales Actes Sud they have recently created their own record label Les Siècles Live with which they have recorded works by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Dubois, Liszt and Debussy.

Their latest release on the Les Siècles Live label is of works by György Ligeti, his Six Bagatelles and Dix pour quintette à vents, both for wind quintet, and his Kammerkonzert for orchestra.

György Ligeti (1923-2006) was born in the Romanian city of Tirnăveni. He studied at the Budapest Academy with Ödön Farkas (1851-1912), Sándor Veress (1907-1992) and Pál Járdányi (1920-1966), later teaching there. His compositions at that time reflected the influence of Bartók and Kodály though he did write some more adventurous pieces. In 1956 he left Hungary for Vienna before working at the electronic music studio in Cologne. His first work to reach international prominence was Atmospheres (1961) that used slowly changing orchestral clusters.

This led to teaching appointments, first in Stockholm then in Stanford and Hamburg.
Ligeti developed the idea of making texture as much of a driving force in musical architecture as pitch or rhythm, developing what he called a micro-polyphony of densely compiled musical lines, making the listener more aware of an ever-changing amorphous cloud of sound than the movement of individual instruments or voices. His compositions encompass opera, orchestral works, chamber and instrumental music and choral works.

For their new release Les Siècles have taken both chamber and orchestral works from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to provide a good cross section of his music.

Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles (1953) for wind quintet were commissioned by the Jeney Wind Quintet and is an arrangement of his Musica ricerata for piano.

The first of the bagatelles, Allegro con spirito brings a lively, jolly little theme that swirls along with a terrific little coda. For the Rubato. Lamentoso the oboe brings a lovely melody around which the other instrumentalists weave, soon sharing and then combining to play the theme, expertly written and played here. The music builds through some fine harmonies and textures, very individual yet wholly approachable. The Allegro grazioso brings a spiky little theme for clarinet and bassoon around which the others join to develop a great little bagatelle.

The quartet sounds out a chord to introduce the Presto ruvido before developing a rhythmic, rather syncopated theme, running through some fine variations in its short length.  The Adagio. Mesto (In Memoriam Béla Bartók) opens solemnly before the flute appears with a slow melody. The flute is interrupted by an outburst that leads to a more vibrant passage before the music finds a quieter stance to gently find its way to the coda, with some lovely little woodwind ideas. The clarinet and bassoon lead with a fast moving theme in the opening of the concluding Molto vivace. Capriccioso. The rest of the quintet joins to weave a lively final section that, nevertheless, concludes with a quizzical motif.

The orchestra of Les Siècles come together for Ligeti’s Kammerkonzert (1970). It was first performed at the 1970 Berlin Festival and explores the idea of micropolyphonia, a multitude of polyphonic activity.

Corrente (Fließend), pour Maedi Wood opens with some terrific textures and harmonies from François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles. This is recognisably the same composer as in 1953 yet with a more highly developed style. It develops through some wonderful, subtly changing textures with a high held note appearing in the orchestra, out of which the lower orchestra brings solemn chords that flourish through a more dynamic section. It then reaches a dramatic pitch before finding a quieter coda.

In four movements, it opens with Calmo Sostenuto, pour Traude Cerha where a theme slowly emerges from a held orchestral chord. It is wonderful how Ligeti allows his music to expand gently and to subtly blossom, with so many little orchestral details emerging, especially in this fine performance. The music throughout seems to gently simmer and bubble. Soon brass sound through briefly and stridently before the music descends again into the deep calm. However, a more sustained outburst arrives from the woodwind which brings a brightly lit swirl of sound that slowly descends through the strings before fading in the coda.

Movimento preciso e meccanico, pour Friedrich Cerha brings a bubbling idea for woodwind to which pizzicato strings and piano join. Ligeti soon develops some effective, slowly changing orchestral harmonies and textures before the theme gains a more rhythmic, aggressive stance. The music develops again from a quiet interlude to bring strident, shrill, pulsating chords that move into pizzicato chords before a single note announces the coda.

In the concluding Presto, pour Walter Schmieding the orchestra bubbles quietly before a motif rises up in the strings to lead into a brighter textured section. A myriad of orchestral murmurings are heard as the music moves rapidly forward, the piano joining in a particularly vibrant and transparent passage. The piano appears again in the depths of a jostling orchestral motif before rising in the strings with discords to find a transparent and vibrant coda.

The wind quintet of Les Siècles return for Dix pour quintette à vents (1968). It was written after Ligeti became an Austrian citizen and was first performed by its dedicatees, the soloists of the Stockholm Philharmonic in 1969 in Malmö, Sweden.

The architecture of the work is based on the alternation of its ten movements and miniature concertos. The Molto sostenuto e calmo opens with a sonorous chord from the quintet, out of which individual instrumental lines and textures are developed, slowly and quietly bringing some quite lovely harmonies. Soon various instruments sound out on single notes, developing as they join, with some striking harmonies to conclude.  

The Prestissimo minaccioso e burlesco brings punctuated notes from the quintet that lead to a rapid swirl of ideas, suddenly stopping and starting before a bright toned coda. The Lento develops slow, long breathed harmonies and textures around which a pulsating theme is heard. The quintet weaves a fast flowing tapestry of brightly coloured ideas in the Prestissimo leggiero e virtuoso before staccato ideas quickly circle each other in the fleeting Presto staccatissimo e leggiero.

Lo stesso. Presto staccatissimo e leggiero has equally vibrant, fast moving ideas that flutter around before a more decisive section leads to a hushed coda. Short and sharp staccato phrases appear for the Vivo, energico, increasing in dynamics and impact before weaving a tapestry of brightly textured sounds.

The Allegro con delicatezza brings a rocking motif of quietly formed ideas that slowly develop through changing ideas before a more sonorous, long held coda. A shrill clarinet note opens the Sostenuto, stridente with an insistent repeated idea to which the others join to subtly expand the theme only to lead to a sudden conclusion. The bassoon leads the quintet forward in a rather humorous Presto bizzaro that jumps around before ending on a single bassoon note. 

This is another winner from François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles. They receive tip top live recordings from la Chapelle St Martin Du Mejan, Arles, Frnce and la Cité de la Musique et de la Dansela, Soissons, France.  There are excellent booklet notes from François-Xavier Roth as well as some effective photography in the booklet.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Italian pianist Alfonso Soldano makes a valuable addition to Divine Art’s fine Russian Piano Music Series with a new release of piano works by Sergei Bortkiewicz

Only five years younger than Sergei Rachmaninov composer and pianist, Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952) was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine to a Polish noble family, spending most of his childhood on the nearby family estate of Artemivka. He studied with Anatoly Lyadov and Karl von Arek at the Conservatory in Saint Petersburg before traveling to Leipzig, where he became a student of Franz Liszt pupils, Alfred Reisenauer and Salomon Jadassohn. After completing his studies he returned to Ukraine where he married, before settling in Berlin.

Concert tours regularly took him around Europe but at the outbreak of World War I he was forced to leave Germany and returned to Kharkiv, where he taught and gave concerts. The Russian Revolution forced the composer and his family to flee the family estate at Artëmovka for Constantinople where, with the help of the court pianist to the Sultan, Ilen Ilegey, Bortkiewicz began to give concerts and started teaching again. They eventually moved to Austria settling in Baden before moving to Vienna where he was to remain for the next five years and where in 1925 he and his family finally obtained Austrian citizenship.

World War II brought further privations but he continued to teach and continue composition. In 1945 Bortkiewicz was appointed director of a master class at the Vienna City Conservatory, which helped to give the composer some of the financial security he sought. His 75th birthday was celebrated by a concert in the Musikverein in Vienna.

Bortkiewicz’s works include an opera, Die Akrobaten, Op. 50 and a ballet Arabische Nächte, Op. 37 together with two symphonies, other orchestral works, concertos including three for piano and orchestra, chamber works and a large number of works for piano.

It is a selection of Bortkiewicz’s works for piano that feature on Vol. 12 of Divine Art’s  Russian Piano Music Series played by Italian pianist Alfonso Soldano

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The works on this new disc range across Bortkiewicz’s compositional life commencing here with his Lyrica Nova, Op. 59 (1940) published by Universal Edition in Vienna. The Con moto affettuoso brings a lovely melody, full of wistful feeling with Alfonso Soldano providing fluent playing, lovely rolling chords together with moments of fine delicacy. The Andantino opens with a gentle descending theme before travelling through bars of quietly flowing melody, later rising in strength before a gentle coda. The following Andantino brings a sense of nostalgia in its finely shaped melody with Soldano finding every little detail before a lovely coda. The shorter Con slancio brings a more forceful nature with a directness of utterance to close this set.
The Etude in D flat major, Op. 15: No. 8 (1911) was dedicated to one of his teachers, the German pianist and composer Alfred Reisenauer (1863-1907). It is beautifully phrased and shaped by this pianist with some lovely trickling phrases that appear, revealing the influence of Chopin, rising through some more dramatic moments where the music comes closer to early Scriabin before falling to a quiet coda.

Bortkiewicz’s Nocturne No.1 from Trois Morceaux, Op. 24 (1922) was dedicated to Natalie Chaponitsch, the wife of the Yugoslavian ambassador in Istanbul. It is another piece that draws on the influence of early Scriabin, beautifully shaped and exquisitely delicate, with lovely shifting harmonies, quite beautifully played here. 

Esquisses de Crimée, Op.8 (1908) dedicated to Madame Julie Kharine reveals the composer’s study with Liszt’s pupil, Reisenauer. No. 1. Les rochers d'Outche-Coche opens slowly and darkly before developing through passages of strength and power. The darker opening re-appears overlaid with rippling right hand decorations. The music develops in strength again through passages of increasing virtuosity, reminiscent at times of Liszt with Soldano bringing his impressive technique providing fluency and clarity. No. 2. Caprices de la mer develops through some constantly shifting phrases that evoke the movement of the sea before speeding through a faster passage of fleeting ideas. The music finds its former rolling flow before speeding to the coda.

No. 3. Les promenades des d'Aloupka: Idylle orientale brings a rhythmic idea that is developed through some fine passages that evoke an Eastern feel with moments of great vibrancy before a quiet coda. No. 4. Les promenades des d'Aloupka:Chaos opens with broad phrases as it moves quickly forward, soon finding a staccato section revealing a Bach like fugue that is soon varied. The opening returns to lead us quickly to the coda where the fugal theme makes a re-appearance.

Next Alfonso Soldano plays Three Preludes, first the Prelude, Op. 13: No. 5 (1910) where he reveals a gentle, poised theme that is subtly developed through some exquisite bars, slowly gaining strength before finding a gentle coda. Prelude, Op. 40: No. 4 (1931) has some lovely shifting harmonies that bring a Scriabinesque beauty, exquisitely played. There is a warmth to the opening of the Prelude, Op. 66: No. 3 (1946) that rises subtly. There is a constantly heard left hand rhythmic line before the music rises more forcefully only to fall back again. The music develops through some of this composer’s finest ideas, though with Scriabin still lurking in the background at times, to a quiet gentle coda.

The Piano Sonata No. 2 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 60 (1942) was dedicated to the Austrian art historian, Hans Ankwicz-Kleehoven (1883-1962) and first performed by the composer in the Brahms Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna. In four movements the Allegro ma non troppo opens with a stormy, passionate theme. There is a certain Russianness running through the music, even with hints of Rachmaninov.  The music moves through quieter moments as it develops with ever changing rhythms and tempi that suggest the influence of Medtner. This pianist brings a fine fluency and coherence to the music before the opening theme returns in the coda. A faltering staccato march opens the Allegretto, soon developing through a more flowing passage. There are further firm staccato passages as the movement builds in power before the sprung dance rhythm of a polonaise, appears. The music develops through some impressive ideas with moments of great delicacy and fluidity before the opening march returns to take the music forcefully to the end.

The Andante misericordioso opens with a funereal series of chords out of which emerges a lovely melody that lightens the mood before moving through passages of great sensitivity and feeling as the music slows to a series of tentative gentle chords as the theme is ruminated on.  The mood lightens again as the earlier melody returns. However, the darker nature is brought back as the coda arrives. A brief, fluent Agitato concludes this sonata with a buoyant dance like central section before the passionate theme of the first movement is heard and the music moves quickly to a resolute coda.

This is a particularly attractive sonata in all its varying moods.

This is a valuable addition to this fine series, well recorded at the Concert Hall of the European Arts Academy ‘Aldo Ciccolini, Trani, Italy. There are excellent booklet notes and photographs.

See also:

Friday 11 November 2016

Another fine release from Stephen Darlington and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford in Avie’s valuable series of Music from the Eton Choirbook that includes two world premiere recordings

So far in their survey of Music from the Eton Choirbook  Stephen Darlington and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford have brought us works by John Browne, William Cornysh, Richard Davy, Richard Fawkyner, John Hampton, Walter Lambe, Edmund Turges and Robert Wylkynson.

Twenty five composers’ names appear in the Eton Choirbook with the finest and most prominent being John Browne, Walter Lambe, Richard Davy, William Cornysh, Robert Wylkynson and Robert Fayrfax. Others have only one or two works credited and, indeed, are only known due to their inclusion in this wonderful collection.

Volume 4 of this series from Avie Records adds such names as William Horwood and William, Monk of Stratford to sit alongside two settings of the Salve Regina by John Brown, one of which is a world premiere recording.

John Browne (fl. C.1490) is one of the more prominent composers whose music appears in the Eton Choirbook with his music featuring on each one of the discs in this series so far. Here we have two settings by him of the Salve Regina opening with Salve Regina I a 5 which develops some very fine textures and rather adventurous harmonies splendidly revealed by this fine choir, slowly blossoming as the choristers join. This choir find a lovely, naturally developing flow, negotiating Browne’s twists and turns so well. Every time the choir rises out of the more contemplative passages they deliver a spectacularly fine sound with some very fine individual voices. Around the midway point there is a particularly fine moment for bass and treble as they gently weave around each other with the choir developing the most lovely harmonies and textures toward the end.

John Browne’s Salve Regina II a 5 receives its world premiere recording here. From the opening baritone voice to which a tenor joins there is some wonderful singing here. The choir join to take the music forward with various sections of the choir weaving some wonderful moments. Again individual voices bring so many lovely moments, conjuring the most lovely variety of sonorities and expanding through rich choral textures. Stephen Darlington never pushes or rushes the music, allowing a natural unfolding, often mesmerising flow out of which varying textures appear, wonderfully shaped. Browne surely rates amongst the finest of his period, at least the equal of his contemporary, William Cornysh.

Another world premiere recording on this disc is William Horwood’s (c.1430-1484): Gaude flore virginali. Horwood’s Christian name is not recorded in the Eton Choirbook but is almost certainly the William Horwood who was a vicar choral in Lincoln in 1476 and choirmaster there from 1477 to 1484. Gaude flore virginali is introduced by the choristers who soon blend with the rest of the choir in a gentle, rather wistful passage. As the music rises, this choir reveals some thrilling textures and finely controlled dynamics. There are lovely moments as the choristers blend around alto voices before the choir rises in a lovely richness of texture with individual voices weaving some very fine moments.

Magnificat a 4 is the only surviving work of William Stratford (William, Monk of Stratford) (fl. late 15th – early 16th century). It is often the least known figures who come down over the centuries which fascinates us the most. Nothing is known about this composer except that he is described in the Eton Choirbook as monachus Stratfordiae indicating that he was probably a monk of the Cistercian abbey of Stratford-atte-Bowe in what is now East London. His Magnificat opens with a plainchant statement of Magnificat anima mea dominum before the whole choir takes the music ahead bringing some fine textures, varied through the careful use of various voices, individual choir members providing some fine moments. This choir find a lovely natural rise and fall, finely handling the varying rhythms. The closely written counterpoint, a challenge for any choir, is spectacularly well done here. There is more plainchant for Et misericordia from which wonderful textures and harmonies rise to great effect. After another plainchant statement from the choir of the text Deposuit potentus de sede, individual voices blend the most lovely sequence, mellifluous, finely shaped, with lovely harmonies. The rich lower voices of the choir add some quite lovely textures. After the plainchant for Suscepit Israel puerum suum the music increases in power through very fine passages to a plainchant Gloria before the choir gently blends to lead, with increasing strength, to the concluding Amen.

This is another fine issue in this valuable series. The recording from the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford, produced by Jeremy Summerly, is first class, giving great depth and detail. There are excellent booklet notes together with Latin texts and English translations.

See also: 

Monday 7 November 2016

Superb performances from Martin Outram and Julian Rolton of works for viola and piano on a new release from Nimbus, beautifully captured in a fine recording

In my recent review of a new release from Naxos of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s (1852-1924) impressive Stabat Mater I noted that, whilst professor at the Royal College of Music in London, his pupils included such illustrious names as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, John Ireland, Arthur Bliss and Herbert Howells. The list of his pupils is, of course, much longer, Stanford having taught more composers of a later generation than any other person.

A new disc from Nimbus entitled The Stanford Legacy draws on this aspect of Stanford with violist Martin Outram  and pianist Julian Rolton playing works by Stanford and two of his pupils, John Ireland  and Rebecca Clarke

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Of the works performed here only Rebecca Clarke’s sonata was actually written for viola and piano. Stanford’s own Sonata in F major for Clarinet and Piano Op.129 (1911) was arranged for Viola and Piano by Henry Waldo Warner (1874-1945) a member of the London String Quartet, in 1919 with the composer’s approval.

Martin Outram brings a fine warm melody over a quite lovely fluid piano accompaniment from Julian Rolton in the Allegro moderato, developing through some lovely passages with many varied ideas. The viola in many ways adds a greater emotional edge, these two players weaving some tremendous passages, which are full of passion and  reveal Stanford’s fine melody in all its beauty.

The second movement, Caoine: Adagio (quasi Fantasia) rises with passion before gently moving forward with lovely viola phrases over a more florid piano line. The music rises again with the opening passion before eventually finding a gentle flowing melody for both soloists. This duo weaves some lovely moments of exquisite beauty before bringing a moment of increased passion before the lovely coda.

The Allegretto grazioso brings a fine viola melody over a skittish piano line before the staccato piano phrases are briefly given to the viola. Both players soon move quickly forward bringing a lightness of touch to many parts of this music as well as some terrific more intense passages before a settled coda.

Born in Harrow, Middlesex, England Rebecca Clarke (1887-1979) was a viola player and as a composer wrote much chamber, choral and vocal music. She later settled in New York City, marrying composer and pianist James Friskin in 1944. Her Sonata for Viola and Piano (1919) is also in three movements with the theme of the opening Impetuoso announced vibrantly before it is weaved through some stormy, billowing passages, Outram and Roltan delivering some terrific playing. Soon there is a slow, ruminative passage out of which the melody gently moves forward. Both players reveal some lovely details, exquisite little phrases, drawing some wonderfully hushed textures before picking up in tempo to sway passionately forward with a lovely rubato from the duo.

There are some lovely vibrant, fast phrases for these players in the fleeting phrases of the Vivace. Outram finds some terrific textures and sonorities from his instrument over a wonderfully fluent piano accompaniment. Stronger, vibrant phrases push the music forward before a slower, gentler moment that precedes the fast delicate phrases of the coda.

Julian Rolton slowly picks out a theme for the Adagio before the viola of Martin Outram joins to lead with a longer drawn melodic line over a lovely broad accompaniment. The music slowly increases in passion. There is an exquisite calm, hushed moment with this duo finding a lovely rise and fall, beautifully controlled, nuanced phrasing before rising again through billowing passages with Outram delivering some edgier viola phrases. Later there is gentle, thoughtful passage for piano to which the viola joins with hushed phrases before running through a fiercely passionate section. Towards the end there is a wistful passage showing how Rebecca Clarke knew so well her instrument’s ability to deliver such feeling.  

This is a rather seductive performance of this terrific work.

Martin Outram and Julian Rolton conclude with Outram’s own arrangement for Viola and Piano of John Ireland’s Sonata No.1 in D minor for Violin and Piano. Written in 1908/09 this sonata won the Cobbett competition out of 134 entrants.

There is a real sense of purpose and forward movement as the Allegro leggiadro opens, Rolton bringing some wonderfully fluent moments around Outram’s viola, finding all the little rhythmic changes and tempo surges. The music rises through some passionate, wonderfully phrased bars with superb control of dynamics, finding a constant restlessness.

In the Romance: In tempo sostenuto quasi adagio this duo reveals a quite beautiful movement, introduced by the piano. The viola joins to take the lovely melody forward, finding moments of sudden drama. Midway there is a particularly lovely passage where the viola takes the theme over rippling piano phrases before building some terrific string textures as the music rises. Often these players find an exquisite feeling of melancholy.

The energetic, fast moving Rondo: Allegro sciolto assai brings some terrific phrasing and ensemble from these two. Soon there is a passage of less energetic flow but they soon find energy, hurtling off again. There are moments where the piano brings a lovely rippling calm over which Outram takes the theme before moving quickly forward to a vibrant coda.

There is no doubt that this arrangement of Ireland’s sonata works impressively well. 
These are superb performances, beautifully captured in a fine recording. There are excellent notes from Martin Outram.

Saturday 5 November 2016

Trio Koch delivers wonderful performances that are full of spirit and energy on their new release for Etcetera Records of works for two violins and piano by Moszkowski, Milhaud and Martinů

Trio Koch is a family trio consisting of father, daughter and son Philippe (violin), Laurence (violin) and Jean-Philippe Koch (piano) who explore the little-played repertoire of trio pieces for two violins and piano covering all periods from Bach to Shostakovich and Berio. They have performed in many countries including France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Japan

Their new release for Etcetera Records brings together works for two violins and piano by Moszkowski, Milhaud and Martinů

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A trailer for this release and three videos are available at the following links:

Music Videos

Prussian born Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925) wrote his Suite in G minor for two violins and piano, Op.71 in 1903 whilst living in Paris where he had moved to in 1897. As a teacher in Paris his students included Vlado Perlemuter, Thomas Beecham, Josef Hofmann, Wanda Landowska, and Gaby Casadesus.

Trio Koch bring a fiery, energetic opening to the Allegro energico before pushing ahead with a really fine forward rolling flow, the strings finding every dynamic and subtle variation of tempi with some lovely incisive playing revealing some fine string textures. The Allegro moderato has a lovely gentle opening that soon develops through some lovely weaving of violin lines over a constantly varying piano part before reaching the coda with pizzicato strings. This is a movement on the lighter side but full of lovely ideas.

The piano opens the slow, deeply felt Lento assai with these players keeping a fine forward flow as this lovely melody unfolds, never allowing the music to descend into sentimentality. The Molto vivace brings a terrific rhythmic fizz full of life and energy, perhaps the most individual movement of the whole work. The two violins swirl around over a buoyant piano accompaniment with an attractive slower trio section in which the two violins add some lovely textures and harmonies before hurtling to the coda

This is an attractive work that never outstays its welcome, particularly in such a fine performance as this.

Darius Milhaud’s (1892-1974) Sonata for two violins and piano, Op.15 dates from 1914. Having been rejected for army service due to ill health, the composer had returned to his native Aix-en-Provence to stay with his parents.

The strings conjure some lovely textures in the opening theme of the Animé, echoed by the piano. Trio Koch brings a lovely lightness of texture as the happy theme develops, adding firmer string textures and piano phrases through more incisive passages. There are exquisite little violin textures and a slow section where the theme is taken through a more thoughtful variation, these players bringing some quite lovely moments. The music picks up through an energetic, incisive passage before finding a gentle, slower coda.

These three players conjure a quite wonderful Modéré, gently shaping this glorious music to perfection. They find a rare beauty, finding subtle increases in tempo and dynamics. The music falls back to an exquisite moment where one violin weaves the melody over the other, holding shimmering textures. Soon, the piano takes the theme over both shimmering violins. Milhaud creates some quite wonderful ideas and textures, brilliantly revealed by this trio. Later there are beautifully limpid piano phrases that underscore the violin lines.

The trio brings much energy and vibrancy to the Très vif, developing through some fast moving passages with terrific ensemble. Later there is a slower, quieter more ruminative section before the music finds a lighter texture to move ahead with these players weaving some lovely harmonies before the music seemingly runs out of energy as it leads to a quiet, slow coda.

Here is a trio of much beauty and fine ideas wonderfully revealed by Trio Koch.

Bohuslav Martinů’s (1890-1959) Sonatina for two violins and piano, H.198 was written in 1930 whilst he was living in Paris. It is one of two such works, the other being his Sonata for Two Violins and Piano, H. 213 (1932 Paris).

There is an incisive, vibrant opening to the Allegro with this trio giving very fine attention to all the little rhythmic variations, shaping the music so well. There is a more flowing passage before the opening returns to take us to a beautifully tailored coda. The Andante brings some very fine harmonies and textures for strings with a lovely piano part that works around the strings. The two violins weave some lovely textures over insistent piano chords, through moments of more melancholic feel before developing richer string textures over the insistent piano before leading to a lovely coda. 

There is a vibrant, fast moving Allegretto where these three players seem to find much pleasure racing around each other, showing terrific accuracy and intuitive ensemble with a terrific spring to their playing. The Poco allegro takes off with energy, these players weaving some terrific, insistent phrases, always keeping a fine buoyancy – and of course that fine rhythmic spring.

This is a work that is full of terrific ideas, brilliantly realised by this trio.

Trio Koch delivers wonderful performances that are full of spirit and energy as well as moments of much sensitivity. They certainly convinced me of the merits of these three works. 

They receive an excellent recording and there are useful booklet notes.

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Kenneth Hamilton makes an impressive start to his cycle of recordings of the piano works of Ronald Stevenson for Prima Facie Records

The British composer, Ronald Stevenson , who died on 28th March last year, was very much a pianist-composer in the tradition of Franz Liszt and Ferruccio Busoni.

Born in 1928 in Blackburn, Lancashire, England of Scottish and Welsh he was keenly aware of his Celtic heritage. He studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music and later at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome. In 1966 he was awarded the Harriet Cohen International Music Award and in the same year received a Living Artist’s Award from the Scottish Arts Council. He moved to Scotland in the mid-1950s living with his family in a cottage in West Linton near Edinburgh.

Stevenson later went on to become a Fellow of the Royal Manchester College of Music as well as visiting Professor at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1985. He also performed and gave seminars at the Julliard School, New York in 1987 and made repeated visits in the 1980s to the Universities of Melbourne and Western Australia.

Stevenson was Vice-President of the Workers’ Music Association, a Patron of the Artsong Collective and of the European Piano Teachers’ Association, a member of the Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain and of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, a Doctor honoris causa of the Universities of Aberdeen, Dundee and Stirling and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

Of his vast output of compositions and transcriptions his 80-minute Passacaglia on DSCH for solo piano, based on the German transliteration of Shostakovich’s name, became his best-known composition. He presented the score to the Russian composer at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival.

His output also included a violin concerto for Yehudi Menuhin, a cello concerto in memory of Jacqueline du Pré and music based on the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid. He studied the indigenous music of South Africa, performed with Peter Pears and corresponded with Percy Grainger and Gerda Busoni, the composer’s widow.

A number of record companies have taken up his music over past years, particularly his works for piano.

Prima Facie Records have just issued volume 1 of a projected cycle of Stevenson’s piano music performed by Kenneth Hamilton , a release that features three premiere recordings.


Stevenson’s Peter Grimes Fantasy (1971) takes themes from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The music moves through some dark passages as Stevenson conjures his own take on this operatic masterpiece, finding moments of broader rippling clarity and developing some lovely dissonances. Throughout, familiar themes appear through Stevenson’s textures creating a terrific, dramatic whole. Kenneth Hamilton is quite magnificent bringing quieter moments of austere beauty with an underlying tension.

Three Scottish Ballads (1973) open with Lord Randal, bringing a firm broad melody with some fine harmonies as the traditional tune emerges. Hamilton shapes this music wonderfully right up to the poetic coda. The Dowie Dens O' Yarrow opens gently, presenting a lovely tune with a definite Scottish snap, developing slowly and gently through some atmospheric passages before finding a more confident forward moving idea to lead to a hushed conclusion. Newhaven Fishwife’s Cry has a finely phrased opening before the music moves forward through some very fine rhythmic passages, full of Scottish flavour, to a sparkling coda.

Stevenson’s Beltane Bonfire (1990) takes its inspiration from the ancient Beltane or Mayday festival when cattle were driven through fiery hoops as a form of ritual purification. In this piece the composer conjures some atmospheric ideas with plucked strings imitating the Celtic harp. The piece opens with some energetic, sprung phrases before moving quickly forward with many rhythmic changes. A fine melody emerges through the tense, unstable harmonies before, midway, finding a simplicity as the theme moves forward with less drama. Later fierce chords arrive but soon a lighter vein appears before the faster coda.

Stevenson was a friend of the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), living only a short distance from him. The composer’s Heroic Song for Hugh MacDiarmid (1967) was written for the poet’s 75th birthday. Staccato phrases bring the theme before bold chords and dissonances are heard. Soon there is a more flowing variation of the melody before thunderous bars arrive as the music hurtles through some virtuosic passages, played here quite magnificently by Hamilton. Sparkling phrases appear momentarily before a slower passages where the melody is revealed fully. Hamilton finds so much poetry in the later stages before the staccato phrases re-appear to conclude.

The Symphonic Elegy for Liszt (1986) was written for the centenary of Liszt’s death with many allusions to that great pianist-composer’s music. The Elegy opens with a quizzical theme before finding a greater flow with many musical lines overlaid, creating a rich texture. This fiendishly difficult piece is played with such apparent ease and musicianship by Hamilton as he negotiates the most complex passages, worthy of Liszt in his most virtuosic pieces. The music develops some absolutely wonderful passages with Lisztian phrases emerging before a gentle coda.

Chorale and Fugue in Reverse on Themes of Robert and Clara Schumann receives its first recording here. It brings a dark mournful opening as the chorale slowly develops with some haunting harmonies.  There are some terrific moments as the Fugue arrives before falling to a quiet conclusion. Here is Stevenson’s ‘reverse’ fugue commencing with intensity before slowly easing to the coda.   

The Three Elizabethan Pieces after John Bull (1950) open with a stately, flowing Pavan that develops through some fine variations with rich textures and more intense drama. There are some lovely gentler moments in this gorgeous piece before the music speeds through some faster passages before the stately flow returns. The Galliard brings an equally dignified flow that is soon weaved through some lovely passages before finding more florid moments. Jig - The King's Hunt is billed as a first recording of the revised version. There are some fine rhythms as this music dances quickly and fluently ahead, developing some terrific passages with Hamilton providing some wonderfully buoyant playing.

Kenneth Hamilton includes a beautifully fluent and transparent performance, full of delicacy, of Rachmaninov’s own piano work, Lilacs as a connection with Stevenson’s arrangement of Ivor Novello’s We'll Gather Lilacs in which the former incorporates a figuration from Rachmaninov’s piece. Here is revealed Stevenson’s genius for creating something more than the original source with Hamilton bringing a fine subtlety.

The final premiere recording and concluding work on this disc is Tauberiana  where Stevenson has created a wonderful transcription of Richard Tauber’s song My Heart and I where he develops the theme out of lovely harmonies, finding such variety of ideas before a waltz appears with this pianist bringing a lovely lilt.

Throughout this disc one marvels at Stevenson’s creative genius, particularly in performances as fine as these. The recording from the School of Music, Cardiff University, Wales is excellent and there are useful booklet notes from Kenneth Hamilton. 

This is an impressive start to this project.