Fieldwave vol 2 ★★★★☆ “There is music in the air, music is all around us,” said Edward Elgar.“The world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require.” The musicians who work in the area known as sound-art or environmental music have taken Elgar’s dictum to heart in the most literal way.They listen intently to the music “in the air,” i.e.the sounds you hear in the street, or in a park at dawn, or by a running stream, and record the bits that sound most interesting or haunting.Later in the studio they contrive a modest artistic frame for the recordings.They might overlay one bird-song upon another, or electronically mould the sounds in some way, or even discreetly slide in some recordings of a more conventionally musical nature
Thirteen of these sound-artists – some Japanese, some British – appear on the latest release from nonclassical, the enterprising promoter that takes the more experimental forms of new music into clubs and abandoned factories and also acts as a record label.The focus is on Japan, and the album is infused with that reverence for the natural world, seen as something humble and everyday, that is such a key aspect of the Japanese aesthetic.We hear a lot of running water, water falling on metal or wood, wind through trees, distant bird-song, but these things are not set apart from the human world.
That nearly always makes an appearance, but it never feels like an intrusion.The snatches of conversation, childrens’ games, electronic beepings and sounds of passing trains blend beautifully with the plashing of water and other sounds that might be part of the landscape, or something made in the studio.The brief touches of musical notes – a few gentle washes of piano here, an electronic hum there – are always very discreet, and only the addition of a percussive groove to one track sounded a touch facile.
All the tracks are delightful, but my favourite is the one Matt Eric Hart conjured from sounds recorded around Mount Haguro, a holy mountain which is full of shrines to half-forgotten deities.You hear water, the sound of footsteps, wind in the trees and suddenly the most extraordinary haunting cry.
It’s probably one of the ascetic devotees of the Shugendo religion who live on the mountain blowing a horogai , a conch-shell trumpet blown to aid meditation.But to my English ears it sounded thrillingly like Tennyson’s “horns of Elfland faintly blowing”.It’s a burst of something rich and strange, which comes as a shock amidst so much quietly ordinary beauty.
Fieldwave vol 2 is available from nonclassical.co.uk and major streaming platforms
The Mahler Players: Matthew King – Richard Wagner in Venice: A Symphony, & Wagner – Siegfried Idyll ★★★★☆ When Richard Wagner died in Venice in February 1883 his life-work was so perfectly complete there seemed nothing left for him to do.
In fact in his last few months he was as restlessly creative as ever, and among his numerous sketches were ideas for a symphony.This is surprising because earlier in life Wagner had insisted that music really needed the addition of words and drama if it was to rise to its full potential.Now it seems he was ready to work on the most severe and “purely musical” genre of all.
However, working out what exactly Wagner had in mind isn’t easy.In one letter he says he wants “symphonic dialogues” with melodies and counter-melodies “speaking to one another”.That implies dramatic contrast but in another letter he says that one should avoid drama entirely and just “spin a melody until it can be spun no more”.
Alongside these ambiguous thoughts are some actual musical sketches consisting of a few melodies, some fragmentary, some more extensive, some with accompanying harmonies, some without.There is absolutely no music in a fully worked-out form, and no indication which of these bits and pieces belong together in the same piece.
So making a “conjectural completion” of the symphony that Wagner might have composed, as Anthony Payne famously did 20 years ago with the sketches for Elgar’s Third Symphony, is simply out of the question.
The sketches might have stayed mute for ever, but now the English composer Matthew King has brought them to life in a 20-movement single movement symphony which he describes as a piece of “speculative musical archeology”.By this he means a newly composed piece of his own which is rooted in Wagner’s own musical idiom, and uses many of the surviving fragments as the basic musical material.
For sheer chutzpah King’s symphony is impressive, but the result is also truly uncanny in the way it transports us into an authentically Wagnerian world.The basic sound and mood is close to Wagner’s much-loved serenade “Siegfried Idyll”, which also appears on this CD, but is more ambitious in scope.
You can discern the outline of a slow movement and fast Scherzo movement within the 20-minute span, and we hear echoes of Wagner’s other operas, including Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal.At one point even the piece Franz Liszt composed on hearing the news of Wagner’s death floats into the music like a ghost.
What is most remarkable is the way King evokes the endless “spun melody” Wagner dreamed of, but also conjures a real sense of symphonic drama.We hear tantalising scraps of melody at the beginning which only later take full shape, and in the middle there’s even an astonishing moment which anticipates the hyper-romantic world of the young Arnold Schoenberg.The only thing it lacks is that streak of vulgarity which allowed Wagner to go “too far” and intoxicate his listeners.But the music has a wonderful twilight melancholy, and is beautifully performed by the Scottish Highlands-based Mahler Players.Anyone who loves Wagner’s music – and even those who don’t – should find it fascinating.
Available only from mahlerplayers.co.uk
Dudok Quartet & Lilli Maijala: Brahms – The String Quartets, String Quintet No 2 ★★★★☆ “I’m always true to you darling, in my fashion.” That saucy line from the well-known Cole Porter song could the motto of every classical performer who ever lived.
The thing they all adore and claim to be true to is what the composer wanted, as shown by the notes on the page.And yet they all sound so very different.Who can say which of them are being genuinely true to the composer, and which are being true to the composer only “in their fashion”?
When the “period performance movement” came along it seemed as if there could actually be an answer to that question.It was the performers who had done their research, immersed themselves in historical evidence of the performance style of the time, and—most importantly—kitted themselves out with the right antique instrument.It’s an attitude that percolated into the classical mainstream.
Even now, half a century after the movement was born, making a claim to be “authentic” is still a way for performers to draw attention to themselves.
The latest group to go down this route is the superb Dudok string quartet from Amsterdam.For their new doible-CD set of all three string quartets plus the late string quintet by Johannes Brahms they’ve replaced the modern wire strings on their instruments with the old-fashioned kind made from cat-gut.And they’ve tried to back to an old style of playing that would have been current in the late 19 th -century, more flexible in tempo and with a delicious way of sliding between important notes in the melody.
The results are wonderful, though frankly it’s not because of the cat-gut strings.It’s true the sound is less massive, and more transparent, and the big statuesque chordal moments don’t have such a sharp edge as normal.But that’s more to do with the intelligence of the playing than the technology.
The little melodic slides are done with such telling reticence, in a way that’s never sentimental.The numerous tempo fluctuations are often momentary, as in the little linking passages in the 1 st movement of the A minor quartet, beautifully played by the quartet’s leader Judith van Driel.Sometimes they’re more thorough-going, especially in the second string quintet, a relaxed radiant work which Brahms intended to be his last.In the first movement there’s an entire section in a slightly slower tempo, which suits the more reflective melody at that point.And yet somehow the feeling that the movement is one basic tempo throughout isn’t compromised.
In all these recordings are a marvel, revealing the intricate detail of these pieces with lovely clarity.
Brahms – The String Quartets, String Quintet No 2 is released by Rubicon
Soloists and Orchestra & Chorus of Bavarian Radio: Messiaen – La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ; Poemes pour Mi & Chronochromie If classical music is something you like to have on while doing the ironing, you should pass this particular release by.It’s not just that the music is full of huge apocalyptic sounds of brass, massed choirs and deafening gongs, which will absolutely seize your attention no matter how low you turn the volume.It’s the emotional climate, which is as strange and riveting as anything in music.
The 3-CD set is dominated by Olivier Messiaen’s 14-movement meditation on the moment when Christ’s divine nature was revealed on a mountain-top to his disciples, an event described in three of the Gospels.The composer, who died in 1992 at the age of 83, was a life-long Catholic of a very mystical kind, and devoted his whole life to creating visions of the hereafter.Even if you came across this piece by accident and understood nothing of the Latin text, you would know that something dazzling and terrifying was being evoked.
Messiaen’s Transfiguration needs a superbly drilled choir able to sing his angular modernist recreations of church plainchant with perfect precision, an orchestra of heroic fortitude which can sustain his vast deafening chorales, and a conductor who can hold the musical tension across huge tracts of time.This new recording has all three.
The conductor Kent Nagano studied with Messiaen as a young man, and there’s no-one on the planet who understands this music better than he – unless it’s the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who also studied with the Master, and who plays the dazzling piano part with a kind of furious monumentality.
But it’s not all deafening chorales and glittering shards of “heavenly” light.There are moments of tender ecstasy which the players catch beautifully, and on the third CD there’s the early set of songs for soprano and orchestra, Poèmes pour Mi (1937), which strikes a very different note.The soloist Jenny Daviet is tremendous, capturing the strange blend of eroticism and Catholic mysticism in the words which were written by Messiaen himself in a style very influenced by French surrealist poetry of that time.Finally comes “Chronochromie” (meaning roughly The Colour of Time) a dazzling multi-movement amalgamation of two of Messiaen’s great passions: bird-song, and the exploration of vastly complex patterns of rhythms.
The penultimate movement, a pile-up of 18 different bird-songs all singing in different rhythms simultaneously prompted boos and cat-calls at its 1960 premiere.Here it sounds as pellucid and mysterious as the dawn chorus.
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ; Poemes pour Mi & Chronochromie is released by BR-Klassik
Sol & Pat “Sol & Pat” are cellist Sol Gabetta and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja.It’s a brilliant pairing, as they are the young(ish) female superstars of their respective instruments, and already have a reputation for performances of blazing individuality.Argentinian-born Gabetta is the more commanding of the two.
I’ve heard her play the Dvorak concerto with an immense tone that easily dominated the orchestra behind her.Moldovan-born Kopatchinskaja, who once earned her living playing folk-fiddle on the streets of Vienna, is more elfin and wayward, given to slipping in a passage of Balkan-flavoured improvisation where you least expect it.
One hopes the combination will be like apples and cheese, i.e.even more flavoursome in combination than when sampled separately.It’s a hope slyly encouraged by the CD cover.Gabetta’s look is smiling but determined, while Kaputchinskaja looks heavenward in a way some might find charmingly kooky.
But they’re both in sober black to show this is a serious enterprise, and in fact the meeting of musical minds seems total, with a wonderful combination of discipline and freedom.
Even so, an 80-minute CD combining Baroque and contemporary music with two 20 th -century classics at its core might seem a tough proposition.The cello-and-violin duo is an austere medium lacking the mellifluous fullness of a full string quartet – which is exactly why Ravel chose to write a sonata for the combination.It forced him to go back to music’s essentials in melodic line and counterpoint, after years of revelling in the diaphanously rich sonorities of the orchestra.There’s nothing austere in this performance, which is expressively rich but also full of varied colours.In fact, the variety of tone and colour across the disc is its most surprising and enjoyable aspect, from the glistening, almost electronic sounds of Marcin Markowicz’s Interlude to the stamping folksiness of Dhipli Zyia by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis.
The performances of the Baroque pieces charm in a different way, as they bring a new colour to a familiar idiom.The Tambourine by Jean-Marie Leclair has a startling Balkan wildness, and the closing G major Prelude by Bach is as light as thistledown.At the opposite pole is the massive grandeur of the Duo by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, which this recording confirms is easily the masterpiece of the medium.
Altogether this new CD is a delight, and suggests that “Sol & Pat” is destined to become one of classical music’s most sellable brands.
Sol & Pat is released by Alpha
Igor Levit: On DSCH ★★★★☆ When it comes to burning sincerity and vaulting ambition, there probably isn’t a pianist on the planet to touch Russian-born, German-domiciled pianist Igor Levit .During the lockdown, when other musicians did a few online concerts to keep their hand in and possibly earn a few quid, Levit broadcast fifty.The one on April 29th he dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau concentration camp (Levit is notably outspoken about antisemitism), a gesture mentioned the following Autumn in the citation to the Order of Merit awarded to him by the President of the German Federal Republic.
As for his musical tastes, only the loftiest and grandest masterpieces will do, preferably penned by tormented geniuses with a troubled relationship to the world: Beethoven, Busoni, Frederick Rzewski.Now comes an album which scales yet another huge cloudy peak of the pianist’s repertoire, penned by another troubled figure: the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Dimitri Shostakovich.That fills two CDs comfortably, and for most pianists would be a big enough task.But Levit always likes to go further, and here adds on a third CD a huge 80-minute homage to Shostakovich, the Passacaglia on DSCH composed in 1962 by reclusive English composer Ronald Stevenson.The title refers to the first four letters of Shostakovich’s name in its German form, which translated into musical notes yields a gnomic little four-note tag that Shostakovich himself often used in his own music.
Burning sincerity and vaulting ambition: Igor Levit Credit : Felix Broede It must be said that Levit’s performance of the Preludes and Fugues is an utter marvel, which actually surpasses in majesty the one by the composer’s preferred interpreter, the Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva.Levit encompasses the vast range of moods in the cycle, from the pearly innocence of the 1st Fugue to the brittle sarcasm of the 11th prelude and its diamond-hard fugue, to the rhapsodic waywardness of the 16th fugue.
Levit has an unerring control of the shape of each piece, revealed starkly in the 13th fugue which rises from tiny beginnings to become monumental.But the sound is never hard, and this is one sign of the underlying marvel of this recording.Whatever the surface mood of the piece there is always the same special colour in the piano sound, and a persistent grave sadness, like the overall tinta or tone that unites all the disparate parts of a Renaissance painting.
As for Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH, words fail me.Not even Levit’s magisterial performance can redeem this shameless piece of empty rhetoric, which dresses up its innumerable, interminable movements with pompous titles like “Pars Prima” and “Adagissimo Barocco”, and harps on the DSCH motif with truly obsessive persistence.Exhausting length and ostentatious grandiosity are no guarantee of real musical substance – rather the reverse in fact.Wonderful artist though he is, Levit sometimes seems to forget that.But it doesn’t matter.The CD is easily worth the purchase price for the Shostakovich alone, and you can always use the Stevenson as a beer-mat.
On DSCH is released by Sony
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra: Massenet – Thaïs ★★★☆☆ Anyone with a passing interest in classical music will have heard the Meditation from Massenet’s Thaïs, that luscious and rapturous violin melody you just sink into as into a favourite armchair.
But not many are aware that the Meditation actually has a key dramatic role in Massenet’s most disturbing opera.It comes at the point where the austere monk Athanaël has left his Egyptian monastery to travel to Alexandria, that wicked city of pagan delights, where years before he almost fell for the charms of the courtesan Thaïs.Now he’s obsessed with converting her to Christianity, and in a huge duet torments her with visions of heavenly bliss, mixed with some hell-fire, which she can win if she gives up everything and turns to God.
The Meditation marks her conversion, which works out well for Thaïs – she takes up residence in an Egyptian convent, where she goes in ecstatic anticipation of redemption.But it’s a disaster for Athanaël.
He realises too late that it was a very earthly love for Thaïs that actually drove him to seek her out, and is in despair.Massenet’s music laces this tale with a nice irony, showing us that the monk was deluding himself from the beginning.But Peter Konwitschny, the director of this production, doesn’t do gentle irony, and doesn’t want to be kind to Athanaël.For him this is a straightforward tale of a woman suffering at the hands of a patriarchal society, and Athanaël is a straightforward abuser, who rapes Thaïs even while trying to convert her.Alexandria is a place of drug-fuelled parties, and Thaïs’s “protector” Nicias an oligarch in a white suit.In his determination to drive the drama on to its conclusion, Konwitschny cuts much of the third act, so the scene where Athanaël returns to his monastery and is tormented by erotic visions of Thaïs is cut entirely.
So no consoling sultriness here.
It’s as if for every soft curve Massenet offers us in the music (and they are indeed soft in this performance, with the Viennese radio orchestra, conducted by Leo Hussain, on great form), Konwitschny opposes a hard steely edge on stage.The performances are certainly strong.America soprano Nicole Chevalier may not have the creamy beauty of Renée Fleming, the role’s most distinguished interpreter of recent times, but she has a commanding presence.Josef Wagner as Athanaël is a true monster of hypocrisy, with a voice that bullies rather than persuades, and it’s hard to feel any sympathy for him at the end.The piece certainly gains in brutal intensity, but loses the little touches of teasing humour that enliven Massenet’s original, and save it from being just another piece of titillating late-romantic orientalism.At the end, Thaïs disappears underground at the moment of death rather than rising to heaven, a piece of symbolism that left me puzzled – as did the curious angel’s wings that all the characters sported, black for Athanaël, red for Thaïs.
This is very much a production for the times: forceful, shocking and dour, done by a director who seems to be as suspicious of erotic allure as the deluded monk in the opera.
Thaïs is released on DVD by Unitel
Mary Bevan, Fleur Barron, Nicky Spence, William Thomas (voices) and Dylan Perez, Joseph Middleton (piano): Brahms – Liebeslieder Op 52 & 65 In his liner notes for this new recording of Brahms’s two sets of domestic “parlour songs” for voices and piano the author says their mood is “predominantly graceful and tender, revealing Brahms at his most benign without ever resorting to cheap sentimentality.” Does that mean they’re not sentimental, or that they have a kind of sentimentality which isn’t cheap? It’s a distinction the many people who despise these songs don’t trouble to make – for them there’s no such thing as “good” sentimentality.Feeling is either sincerely meant or it isn’t.So these songs are simply beyond the pale.
One of the good things about this recording from four top-rank young British singers is that it undermines that neat distinction.In O die Frauen is a misty-eyed song in praise of women (“if it were not for women I would have become a monk” says the text).
Tenor Nicky Spence and bass William Thomas lace it with a touch of self-pity, as if they’ve been hard done to by the fairer sex at some point in their lives, but they still love them anyway.Is that real feeling or sentimentality? In the song Weiche Gräser (Soft Grass) the text is a bit of fluff about how nice it is to lie on the grass with one’s sweetheart.But the weave of the four voices is so perfectly done, the melody phrased with such grace and just a hint of self-mockery that it’s hard not to be moved by it.It helps that the four voices are so interestingly varied, the ringing clear soprano of Mary Bevan and full-blooded bass of William Thomas contrasted with the more emotionally fraught sound of mezzo Fleur Barron and the lyrical grace of tenor Nicky Spence in between.
Clear ringing soprano: Mary Bevan Credit : Victoria Cadisch Now and then the prevailing feeling of nostalgia and bliss is upset by something darker.Soprano Mary Bevan seems really distressed in the seventh song from the first set, about how her one-time lover no longer even glances at her.And in the song about the dark forest (Schwarze Wald) from the second set the four singers and the two excellent pianists create a real storm of tragic emotion.
Having said that, a constant diet of mostly tender little miniatures in swaying waltz rhythm could become cloying, so between the two sets of Liebeslieder each singer contributes two of Brahms’s full-length, serious songs.
These strike a much deeper note, especially Auf dem Kirchhofe (In the Churchyard) where bass William Thomas strikes a hugely tragic note.But when we arrive at the second set of Liebeslieder, there’s no jolt; the songs belong to the same emotional world.This wonderful CD is a reminder that the line between sentimentality and real feeling isn’t a line at all.It’s a grey area of many subtle shades, where we actually spend most of our lives.
Brahms – Liebeslieder Op 52 & 65 is released by Resonus
English Northern Sinfonia & Royal Ballet Sinfonia, cond.David Lloyd-Jones: Lord Berners – The Triumph of Neptune ★★★★☆ The gentlemanly amateur is a despised figure these days, but as this deliciously witty and life-affirming CD reminds us, not all gentleman amateurs are amateurish.One of the things that makes this CD so enjoyable – along with its sheer high spirits – is that there isn’t a note out of place.
Lord Berners’s music is as perfectly made as his tailoring.No less a figure than Stravinsky described Berners as the most talented British composer of his generation
That’s quite an accolade for a man for a man whose musical education consisted of going to the premieres of all the most up-do-date modernists of his youth, hanging out with them at glittering parties, and studying their scores.After an early career as a diplomat Berners retired to his estates to become a full-time country squire and part-time composer, painter, novelist and memoirist.He was a determinedly eccentric man who built the last traditional tower folly in England – you can see it when you drive past his estate near Faringdon in Oxfordshire – and he had the aesthete’s desire to make reality conform to art.If his mood was pink he would order the birds on his estate to be sprayed pink, and serve salmon at lunch.
Berners’s biggest successes were in the ballet.He was one of only two British composers commissioned by Diaghilev, and the result, The Triumph of Neptune of 1926, featured Georges Balanchine in his last danced role.
The story is the kind of melange of classical references and exciting modernisms that was fashionable at the time.It concerns a magic telescope on London Bridge through which you can see Fairyland.A journalist and sailor decide to make the journey by bus and have all kinds of jolly adventures on the way.
As with the second act of the Nutcracker, the scenario is basically an excuse for the composer to write a string of character pieces.There are Scottish dances, two hornpipes, a Polka, a Dance of the Fairy Princess and numerous others, all perfect little three-minute miniatures which in this performance emerge with the right weightless brilliance – though the recording is a bit distant.Here and there you hear mildly impressionistic Debussy-isms, and a naïve quality which comes within hailing distance of Satie but no closer.As Berners said, the music is “as variegated as a Christmas tree… and not in the least modern.”
He needed to give that assurance as his earlier works were decidedly modern, as is shown by the other ballet score on this CD, which is as close in its recorded sound as the previous one was distant – but just as persuasively performed.Berners composed L’Uomo dai Baffi (The Man with a Moustache) for a puppet theatre in Rome, where he was working at the British Embassy – clearly his duties can’t have been very onerous.
The piece sounds startling astringent and angular after the spun sugar of The Triumph of Neptune, and the opening movement Strada d’oro (Street of Gold) is out-and-out atonal.There’s expressionist nocturnal menace à la Schoenberg and appropriately puppet-like repeating patterns à la Stravinsky, but Berners’s light touch never deserts him.
In its own crepuscular, occasionally mock-sinister way the piece is just as charming as the later ballet.
To round off an already generous disc Lloyd-Jones conducts performances of the 1941 Polka, featured in the Ealing Comedy Champagne Charlie, and the Trois Valses Bourgeoises from 1919, which pay tongue-in-cheek homages to various waltz composers of the past above all Richard Strauss.Stravinsky played through the original four-handed piano versions with the composer, and said one of them had “the most impudent four bars in all music.” I’ve tried to spot them, but it’s a hopeless task.Berners’s music is one long impudence, which is what makes it so enjoyable.
Lord Berners – The Triumph of Neptune is released by Naxos
Jan Lisiecki: Frédéric Chopin – Complete Nocturnes ★★★☆☆ 26-year-old Canadian Jan Lisiecki has it all; blonde poetical good-looks, an amazingly prodigious talent that enabled him to play his first concerto date at the age of 13, and a sonorous name signalling his Polish ancestry, not a trivial matter in a pianist best-known for playing Chopin.And – last but not least – a contract with what is still the swankiest record label, DG.
His new complete recording of all of Chopin’s published Nocturnes, plus the three posthumous ones, shows the secret of his appeal.The playing has a pearly immaculate quality, with everything in perfect balance.
His grasp of that essential rhythmic flexibility known as rubato (meaning literally “stolen”) is deliciously assured and relaxed.Lisiecki has an ideally clear touch in those many moments where the right hand has two melodic lines in a caressing intertwined duet, as in the final bars of the famous 8th Nocturne.The vaguely oriental-sounding closing section of the late 17th Nocturne is a feast of half-clear, half-cloudy sonorities.It’s all unimpeachably lovely, and the mood of dreamy reflectiveness is rarely disturbed.
The album cover of Jan Lisiecki’s Frédéric Chopin: Complete Nocturnes You might say this is exactly right for a genre that is all about moonlit melancholy and reflectiveness.
But there needs to be some rhythmic and emotional vitality too, and here Lisiecki often seems lacking.The early 6th Nocturne is just too regretfully slow, and in the dance of the “pastorale” section of the 12th Nocturne the peasants seem to be asleep on their feet.And the hugely tragic 13th Nocturne is a let-down, completely lacking the noble, suffering grandeur the piece needs.
These pieces may be called Nocturnes, but Chopin was no respecter of genre boundaries – that’s one of the things that makes him so interesting.Lisiecki seems determined to keep the music strictly within those boundaries.The result is that although there’s much to warm to in this recording, there’s much to be frustrated by too.
Frédéric Chopin – Complete Nocturnes is released by DG
Opera de Lyon: Offenbach – Barbe-bleu ★★★★☆ Barbe-bleu or Bluebeard may not be one of the best-known of Jacques Offenbach’s operettas, but it has all the ingredients that make the familiar masterpieces such as la Vie Parisienne and La Grand Duchesse du Gérolstein such a joy: a complicated farcical plot full of surprises, a touch of satire to add a barb to the jokes, and plenty of hummable, foot-tapping tunes, the whole thing whizzing along at such speed you’re too busy keeping up to think of criticising (especially on this DVD recording, with the excellent Michele Spotti conducting).
The story of Bluebeard seems an unlikely source for such innocent fun.The grim French medieval tale of an aristocrat who is a serial murderer of wives is best known in the operatic world through Bartók’s luridly expressionist one-act opera.In that version the latest wife suffers the fate of all the others; in Offenbach’s version the new wife Boulotte, chosen by lottery from a bunch of country girls, outwits Bluebeard with the help of all the previous wives who turn out to not be dead after all.This story is cleverly entangled with another one about a King Bobèche who rescues his once-banished daughter and tries to marry her off to a prince.The ceremony is interrupted by Bluebeard, who as soon as he sets eyes on the bride-to-be decides it’s time bump off his new country-girl wife and trade up to a princess.
Laurent Pelly’s production updates the medieval setting to the present, so the fawning courtiers at Bobèche’s court become fawning besuited bureaucrats, and the country girls and lads are proper agricultural workers with rusty tractors in the background.
Most of the cast find the right light touch for the repartee; the only jarring note comes from Christophe Mortagne who over-eggs the pudding as the fatuously vain King Bobèche.Yann Beuron as Bluebeard is amusingly off-hand about his murderous intentions and negotiates Offenbach’s rapid-fire high tenor part very elegantly.
But it’s Héloïse Mas as the wily and lusty Boulotte who steals the show, bringing musical and human warmth into a genre that can sometimes seem brittle and artificial.
Offenbach – Barbe-bleu is released by Opus Arte
Nicola Benedetti: Baroque If you’re a virtuoso violinist well-known for your mastery of Tchaikovsky and Brahms concertos it takes some nerve to venture into the Baroque violin.It belongs to a different world, peopled with “scholar-performers” who’ve read the treatises on how to perform in the right style and will cheerfully entertain you for an hour on the differences between 17th and 18th century violins or German and French bows.You’ll need to kit yourself out with a Baroque violin with a lighter construction and old-fashioned cat-gut strings, and even more importantly you’ll need a Baroque bow, which has a convex rather than a concave curve and is just right for the dancing and tenderly pliant sound needed for the music.And you’ll need a sharp stylistic awareness if you’re not to raise eyebrows amongst the “early music” fans.
Benedetti is keenly aware of all this, and in her liner notes to this new album she tells us how she put herself humbly back to school.She found a mentor in the shape of Andrea Marcon, harpsichordist and founder of the Venice Baroque Orchestra.She couldn’t have found a better one, as Marcon is no stickler for “authenticity”.
For him the score should be a spur to imagination and invention, rather than something to be tamely followed.In Baroque times music was thought of as a kind of rhetoric without words, so the violinist has to make the violin “speak” as if it were a personage in an opera, pleading or cajoling or defying.At other times it might summon up an occasion like a grand entrance or a solemn procession.And in between it might be thrillingly virtuoso, with ribbons of scales and arpeggios shooting up to the top of the violin’s range.
Riveting rhythms: Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti This new CD shows Benedetti has learned the lesson well.It contains four Italian Baroque violin concertos, one by Francesco Geminiani and three by Vivaldi, plus one fragmentary concerto by Vivaldi, a very beautiful slow movement over a repeating bass which brings the CD to a serene close.Her Benedetti Baroque Orchestra includes some faces familiar from well-known “period” orchestras such as violinist Matthew Truscott and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, as well as one or two unexpected ones like Nikita Naumov, the witty and agile principal bass player of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Often one’s ear is drawn to the spirited and imaginative little touches from the orchestra, and as a result Benedetti feels very much primus inter pares – which is surely what she would have wanted.She herself plays wonderfully, with numerous imaginative touches such as the plaintive improvised embellishments she adds to the slow movement of Vivaldi’s B minor concerto.
Even more riveting is the rhythmic impetuousness she brings to the virtuoso passages, where she almost gets ahead of the pulse, but not quite.It’s altogether a terrific album, which shows that the accusations of repetitiveness regularly flung at Vivaldi and other Italian Baroque composers are misplaced.The written notes are just the beginning.As the old song has it, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”
Nicola Benedetti: Baroque is released by Decca.
Garrick Ohlsson: Brahms – Sonatas Nos 1 & 2, Two Rhapsodies, Op 79 ★★★★☆ In 1853 when the 19-year old Johannes Brahms called on the most fêted musical couple in Germany, Robert and Clara Schumann, and played them some of his latest pieces, the pair were mightily impressed (and Clara perhaps a bit smitten).Schumann described him as a “young eagle” and said the sonatas were like “veiled symphonies”.We’re not sure if the two sonatas on this CD were among them – Brahms was a very self-critical composer and destroyed many of his early pieces – but the description is apt.
They are huge in scope, and massively difficult to play.
None of the technical demands cause the smallest difficulty for American pianist Garrick Ohlsson.It’s now more than half a century since he won the Chopin Piano Competition, but the startlingly fast tempo of the beginning of the 2nd Sonata and the way he flings off the cascades of octaves could make you think you were listening to a 20-year-old.
But the dominant impression is of seasoned wisdom.Ohlsson’s tempos are measured, and never metronomically regular.He knows just how to reveal the lyrical warmth of the second melody in the sonata-form movements by pulling back the tempo a notch, but he does it so naturally it feels like a change of feeling rather a change of speed.And the numerous repeating sections are tellingly different the second time around, in a way that feels more like a subtle intensification than an overt attempt to be different.
Ohlsson has a wonderful feeling for Brahms’s very special sound-world, which runs from craggy monumental force to the soft-edged mystery that emerges here and there, especially in the beautiful middle section of the second of the two Rhapsodies.Here and there I could have wished for a more generously pedalled sound, as in the Scherzo of the 1st Sonata, which seemed a touch dry.But on the whole Ohlsson’s decisions about this and every other interpretative issue are spot on.He catches the cloudy grandeur of the music, without sacrificing the clarity that makes the grandeur comprehensible.
Brahms – Sonatas 1 & 2, Two Rhapsodies, Op 79 is released by Hyperion
Théotime Langlois de Swarte and William Christie: Générations – Senaillés & Leclair, Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord For anyone who likes to drive gently through La France profonde , admiring each chateau as it appears on the horizon or at the bend of a river, this CD would make the perfect road music.
It consists of deliciously aristocratic sonatas for violin and harpsichord by two early 18th-century French composers, Jean-Marie Leclair and Jean-Baptiste Senaillé.They were not among the giant names of the French Baroque but were clearly gifted.
Both were hugely admired violinists, and one of them, Leclair, was equally famous as a ballet-master – not a surprising combination in a country where every musical genre apart from church music was shaped by dance steps.
You can hear those graceful steps in much of the music on this CD, though interestingly not all of them are French steps.In the early 18th-century Italian music was becoming fashionable, and in these sonatas you find the vigorous Italian Giga rubbing shoulders with the high-stepping French gavotte, the mournfully slow Sarabande, and a grave opening Prelude.
So there’s plenty of variety of tone and feeling for these two performers to get their teeth into.And what performers they are.Harpsichordist William Christie, creator of the famed Baroque group Les Arts Florissants, is the doyen of French Baroque performers (for once that overused word seems exactly right).
The splendidly named violinist Théotime Langlois de Swarte is half a century younger than Christie, but they seem absolute equals in their understanding of these two composers’ styles, which at first seem very similar in their courtly refinement but turn out to be subtly different.
Leclair’s music is more purely graceful, while Senaillé sometimes strikes a more solemn moving tone, as in the tremendous Prelude to his G minor sonata.De Swarte adds just a faint tremor of vibrato to his pliant tone, and both players bring a lovely rhythmic flexibility to the music.My favourite moment comes at the end of the Gavotte in Senaillé’s C major sonata, where Christie changes the harpsichord sound to a softer lute stop, then de Swarte changes to plucked notes, and both fade gently to the end.It’s as if the dancer gives a bow, before disappearing.
Générations – Senaillés & Leclair, Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord is released by Harmonia Mundi
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus: Zemlinsky – Es War Einmal ★★★★☆ Alexander Zemlinsky was one of those musicians who seemed destined for greatness but eventually sank almost without trace.He was close friends with two other hugely gifted Austrian Jews; Gustav Mahler, who actually conducted the world premiere of Es War Einmal (Once Upon a Time) in 1901 in Vienna, and Arnold Schoenberg, the great bogey-man of modern music who married Zemlinsky’s sister.
He even had a brief affair with Alma Mahler , one of the great femmes fatales of the era, and actually survived with his sanity intact.
Unlike Schoenberg, Zemlinsky never abandoned the rich late-romantic language he was nurtured in.
This almost too-sweet fairy-tale opera about a haughty Princess who is humbled by a Prince disguised as a gypsy shows how infatuated with Wagner the 27-year-old Zemlinsky must have been.Part of the enjoyment of this opera for confirmed Wagner-ites is spotting the similarities with the Master’s works.The Prince and Princess are clearly a domesticated version of Tristan and Isolde.Kaspar, the jovial chum of the Prince is modelled on Tristan’s trusty knight Kurwenal.The Princess’s retinue of maidservants sound amazingly like the Rhine-maidens from Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs.And so on.
You might ask: if we can enjoy the real Wagner, why bother with a pale imitation? Because despite the borrowings the opera has a very special charm of its own, and unlike Wagner’s vast epics it zips along at a cracking pace.And at times, such as the scene where the Princess is transfixed by the Prince’s magic powers (this must be the only opera which boasts a talking kettle) Zemlinsky conjures a highly original harmonic language which is very far from Wagner.
This all-Danish recording from 1987 has been remastered and comes up fresh and bright.Both Eva Johanssen as the Princess and Kurt Westi as the Prince have the useful ability to turn on a sixpence from fairy-tale lightness to Wagnerian ardour.Conductor Hans Graf conjures sounds of sumptuous sweetness from the Danish orchestra and chorus.It’s a delicious piece of escapism, ideal for whiling away a rainy winter’s afternoon.
Zemlinsky – Es War Einmal is released by Capriccio
Leif Ove Andsnes and Mahler Chamber Orchestra: MM 1785 – Mozart Momentum ★★★★☆ You might think that after more than a century of recording history every way of repackaging the works of classical music’s signature prodigy has been tried.Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has come up with a new one: a focus on a single year.
This double-album focuses on 1785, and another one is promised for 1786.The idea could run and run as the periwigged genius didn’t die until in 1791 – and the previous years weren’t half bad either.
1785 was certainly a wonderful year.Mozart had kicked off the chains of court servitude in Salzburg and taken up a freelance career in Vienna.He joined a Masonic Lodge and wrote an awesomely impressive funeral piece for two of its departed members.He launched the genre of the piano quartet with a stormy masterpiece.He composed a Fantasia for solo piano that is so strange and lonely that it seems to come from the other side of the grave.And he composed three masterly piano concertos, which are brilliant, pathetic, stormy and tragic by turns.
This new recording does the music proud.Andsnes joins his long-time sparring partners the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and the results are as masterly and finished and perfect as the music itself.
The orchestral playing is gloriously fine-grained and detailed.
One savours the introductions to the concertos and the gorgeous, solemn grandeur of the Masonic Funeral Music the way one savours a really good wine.And whenever Andsnes and an orchestral player have a call-and-response game with a graceful or pathetic phrase the feeling of total understanding between them is a joy in itself.
Andsnes respects Mozart’s scores, but he also knows that to be genuinely stylish he has to go beyond them.He embellishes the music with graceful roulades and improvises lead-ins from one section to another which are models of stylistic awareness.
Just sometimes the sheer perfection seemed a tad po-faced.I wished Andsnes would let himself go a bit, break the odd rule, give a sense of joie de vivre threatening to break the music’s polished surface – as Mozart surely did.
But if you cherish the idea of Mozart as celestial perfection, then this could be the recording for you.
MM 1785 – Mozart Momentum is released by Sony Classical
Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen: Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5,6 and 7 ★★★★☆ The stormy, blood-and-thunder aspect of Beethoven is only one side of him, and actually quite a small one.People who really love his music often prefer those earlier pieces which seem just as poised and elegant as Mozart, but where the canvas is excitingly enlarged.
You can feel the unruly energy of the man in those sudden explosive chords and off-beat accents, but the music hasn’t yet burst its classical bonds.
The massive accents melt into perfectly turned phrases.
The three violin sonatas by Beethoven on this CD show this on-the-cusp style of the young composer to perfection.That makes them quite challenging to perform, because the players need to catch the way the music pushes against classical decorum, even while being decorous.The two performers on this new recording achieve that wonderfully.Violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann mostly has a seraphically pure tone but here and there, as in the hammered repeated notes in the Scherzo of sonata no 7, it comes close to being rough – without quite crossing the line.
Precise and glittering playing: Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen This means Beethoven’s way of gathering up the energy of a piece into a thrillingly extended ending comes over superbly well, especially in that same stormy seventh sonata.Something else the two players have in common is a way of making strings of short notes as precise and glittery as pearls on a string, which they put to good use in the elfin variation movement in the 6 th sonata.In the slow movement of the famous 5th “Spring” sonata Zimmermann curls the melody with delicious slowness, and when pianist Martin Helmchen takes it over he gives plenty of time to the new decorative frills Beethoven drapes over the dreamy tune.
So in many ways the performances are superb, but they’re not top of my list.
Helmchen is too sparing of the pedal, which means his tone is sometimes antiseptically dry, and Zimmermann makes those accents very sharp.
Overall their performances feel like sharp-edged photographs of the pieces, which some will like, but I prefer an oil painting with some interestingly blurred edges.
Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5,6 and 7 is released by BIS
The English Concert: Handel – Rodelinda ★★★★☆ When the revival of Handel’s operas began a century ago it was his smash hit from 1725 Rodelinda that led the way.And no wonder because it refutes at a stroke the idea that the lofty noble personages who people Handel’s operas could never win our sympathy.Yes, the storyline is not especially plausible, and everyone is royal or noble or a trusted (but possibly treacherous) advisor.But they are complicated human beings, pulled this way and that by conflicting loyalties.
Three of the male roles are scheming for power, while the one who actually has it is thought to be dead, and is waiting for the moment to reappear.His wife Rodelinda, unaware that he is still alive, has to yield to power to protect her son, a move which her husband – observing from the wings – misinterprets as betrayal.Eventually the prickings of conscience win over ambition, and virtue triumphs.
The strength of this new recording is the way these turbulent feelings course through every aria and every bit of sung dialogue.Lucy Crowe as Rodelinda strikes a pure vocal sound for the role, not especially characterful but always with a queenly dignity even when in the grip of angry defiance or grief or adoration.
Iestyn Davies as her husband Bertarido is equally strong.The famous aria where he looks forward to taking revenge absolutely burns with energy.The other roles are just as vividly portrayed, especially Joshua Ellicott as Grimoalda.His sung monologue where he wrestles with his conscience before falling into an exhausted sleep is the most moving moment in the whole piece.
Underlying all this is the shaping musical intelligence of conductor Harry Bickett and the wonderful playing of the English Concert.The dungeon scene is especially fine, where the dark palette and constant surges and pauses really bring the drama to life.Other recordings of this great opera perhaps have more vocal bite and personality in the central roles – the 1984 version with Joan Sutherland and Samuel Ramey comes to mind – but this one has the best balance of musical and dramatic values.
Handel – Rodelinda is released by Linn Records
Athens State Symphony Orchestra: Nikos Skalkottas – 12 Greek Dances, The Sea, Suite no 1 ★★★★☆ / ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra: Walter Braunfels – Divertimento, Ariel’s Song, Serenade in Eb ★★★★☆ The story of musical life in the mid-20th century is littered with composers who were just as talented as the familiar names of that period but somehow disappeared from view.
Sometimes the vanishing was brutally abrupt, when composers were liquidated by fascist regimes.For others it was more a slow fading away, caused by being culturally or stylistically out of place or out of fashion.
The two composers celebrated on these new releases fall into the latter category.The Greek Nikos Skalkottas studied in Berlin in the early 1930s with that great modernist bogeyman Schoenberg.Back in Athens he earned his living as an orchestral violinist, while composing a fascinating body of works that even now is hardly known outside Greece.Much of it is in the fearsomely complex “12-note” technique of his teacher, which did not go down well in Greece, but alongside it is a body of music inspired by Greek folk-song and dance that is much more approachable.
Both kinds are represented on an excellent CD recorded by the Athens State Symphony Orchestra – the same orchestra for which Skalkottas played – conducted by Stefanos Tsialis.The movement titles of the Suite no 1 (Theme and Variations, March, Siciliano) suggest the angular neo-classicism of his teacher’s Suite, but the edgy nervous rhythms are a world away from the Viennese master.
More immediately appealing but just as characterful are the wonderful Greek Dances which are masterpieces of their kind, worthy to stand beside Bartok’s folk-song arrangements, and the ballet score The Sea.
If Skalkottas suffered from being too modern, the German-Jewish composer Walter Braunfels suffered from not being modern enough.His music has the same kind of sumptuous, backward looking romanticism as Richard Strauss, and in the 1920s Braunfels was Strauss’s main rival as an opera composer in Germany.After 1933 his music was more-or-less banned by the Nazis, and then after the war Braunfels was sidelined again.His style now seemed out of place in the severe modernist atmosphere of post-war Germany.Fortunately he’s now being rediscovered.The three pieces on the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra’s new disc (conducted by Gregor Bühl) show a tender romanticism, less sumptuous than Strauss and more innocently radiant, a quality these performances reveal beautifully.
Nikos Skalkottas – 12 Greek Dances, The Sea, Suite no 1 is released by Naxos
Walter Braunfels – Divertimento, Ariel’s Song, Serenade in Eb is released by Capriccio
La Scala Milan: Giordano – Andrea Chénier ★★★☆☆ One of the many Italian opera composers who laboured under Puccini’s shadow is Umberto Giordano, whose first hit Andrea Chénier, premiered at La Scala Milan in 1896, leads a strange half-life in the world’s opera houses.
It’s not neglected but it’s not popular either, probably because the opera can’t decide what it’s trying to be.Much of the time it’s a conventional operatic love story, with the poet Chénier and the one-time servant and now French Revolutionary Carlo Gérard vying for the favours of Maddalena de Coigny.
But sometimes it tries to be a serious drama about the French Revolution, and the agonies of conscience it brings on in those like Gérard who are forced to do its dirty work.It’s a favourite of Riccardo Chailly, the music director of La Scala Milan, and he brought the piece home in a new production in 2017 with the husband-and-wife team of Yusif Eyvazof and Anna Netrebko in the title roles of Chenier and his aristocratic lover de Coigny.
In many ways it’s impressive.Director Mario Martone tries to emphasise the opera’s political side with largely naturalistic, period settings, emphasising the grey grimness of revolutionary Paris in the later acts.As for the principal singers, rumour has it the notoriously cruel La Scala audience was all set to boo Eyvazof off the stage.
But as the DVD shows he won them over, with good reason.He has a thrilling tenor voice with a remarkable range of expressive colours.
Luca Salsi is forceful if a tad unsubtle as Gérard, the various minor roles are generally strong, the La Scala chorus is in fabulous voice, and the orchestra under Chailly plays Giordano’s very taxing score superbly well.
As for Netrebko, the star at the centre of it all, her singing is certainly impressive but in a strangely unnatural way, as if she’s striving to make her voice as dark and sepulchral as possible.In all it’s a gorgeous night in at the opera, full of spectacle, which never quite touches the depths – though that may be the fault of the piece as much as the performance.
Andrea Chénier is released on DVD by C Major
London Symphony Orchestra: Vaughan Williams Symphonies 4 & 6 ★★★★☆ Mention the name Antonio Pappano and most music-lovers will picture the passionate devotee of Italian opera enthusing about the art-form on television, or urging the orchestra of the Royal Opera House to be just that bit more intense.They might be surprised to find him grappling with two bleak, bitingly modernist symphonies by Ralph Vaughan Williams.But Pappano has always had a passion for symphonic music in general, and these works in particular.He tells us that “For years, I’d had my heart set on conducting the Fourth; its bewildering audacity knocked me off my feet when I first heard it.”
Now he’s recorded this and the Sixth on a single CD, which is an unusual pairing.Most conductors opt for the radiant and serene Fifth Symphony as a counterweight to either Four or Six, and frankly that works better than putting two such bleak works side-by-side.
One can only take so much terror and anxiety.
Conjuring a rich, fine-grained sound: conductor Antonio Pappano Credit : Lara Cappelli Still it has to be said these are wonderful recordings, partly because Pappano conjures such a rich, fine-grained sound from the orchestra.Both works are very heavily scored and sometimes the thick impasto of sound can become oppressive in itself.Here the layers of angular counterpoint stand out in really sharp relief.
Though the symphonies are similar in their overall sense of hectic conflict their trajectories are very different.The Fourth ends with a despairing shriek and a crash as if tension has been wound up too far; the Sixth fades away in shell-shocked bleakness.
The journeys leading to those destinations are full of surprising twists, particularly in the Sixth where a mood of rollicking energy is countered by a dark chorale, as if more than one dark power has been unleashed.Pappano makes all these moods maximally vivid without compromising the onward momentum; only in the Finale of the Fourth does the slow episode, so full of foreboding, seem to linger too long.Overall these are fine performances of two pieces which make them seem absolutely contemporary.
Vaughan Williams Symphonies 4 & 6 is released by LSO Live
Samantha Ege: Fantasie Nègre – The Piano Music of Florence Price ★★★★☆ Among the many African-American composers now entering classical music’s mainstream, few are more fascinating that Florence Price, born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887.Viewed from one angle she belongs in the line of early 20th-century virtuoso composer-pianists.
She studied piano and organ at the New England Conservatory, and her piano music has that easy fluency and sumptuous harmonic language of composers like Rachmaninov, though with a particular flavour of its own.Viewed another way she is a great cross-cultural synthesiser, a composer who found a convincing way to bring African, American and European high-romantic and modernist elements together.
It’s an astonishing achievement, much of which could have been lost had a huge stash of Price’s unpublished works not been found in 2009 in an abandoned house in Illinois.
A number of scholars and performers are now intent on bringing that legacy to life.One of them is Samantha Ege, a researcher at Oxford University and the performer on this CD.It includes four of Price’s big-boned impassioned Fantasies from the 1920s and 30s, one of which Ege had to reconstruct from scattered manuscript pages found in that Illinois house.Intermingled with these are half-a-dozen shorter, delicately impressionistic pieces.
Virtuoso transformations: pianist Samantha Ege The opening E minor Fantasie is typical in the way a grand introduction leads to a melody of stoic modal simplicity, in this case the spiritual “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.” It undergoes all kinds of virtuoso transformations and yet emerges with its immense sad dignity not just intact but actually magnified, a sure sign of Prices’s tact as well as skill.Ege is adept at revealing the contours of the melody underneath the profusion of Price’s rich harmonies, and moulds the beautifully judged transitions between sections with a sure hand.
She’s equally fine in the “picture postcard” pieces dating from the last few years of Price’s life.
This recording is a fine introduction to Florence Price’s music, but is only a glimpse of a life’s-work we’ve barely begun to appreciate.
Fantasie Nègre: The Piano Music of Florence Price is released by Lorelt
Alessio Pianelli: A Sicilian Traveller ★★★★☆ The Traveller of this delightful album is the Sicilian born-and-bred cellist Alessio Pianelli, a Fellow of the prestigious Borletti-Buitoni Awards scheme for talented young musicians.The award provided the wherewithal to make this recording, in which Pianello makes a musical tour through the folk traditions of Balkan and near Eastern countries before ending in his own beloved native island.
In the liner notes Pianelli reminds us Sicily has been constantly invaded by settlers who left traces of their culture behind, but he isn’t pedantic about historical accuracy – in fact only the three Greek folk-songs arranged by the reclusive and still-undiscovered Greek modernist Nikos Skalkottas could plausibly claim a connection with Sicily.The real thread linking them is Pianelli’s own curiosity and taste, which is clearly good because he’s unearthed some real folk gems, all arranged by notable composers from their respective countries.
Delightful: Sicilian cellist Alessio Pianello The most familiar things on the disc are the seven Romanian folk dances originally collected and arranged by Béla Bartók.They are wonderful, but much more intriguing are the seven Miniatures by Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze, the five folk-songs arranged by the Armemian priest Komitas, who almost lost his life during the Armenian genocide, and those three Greek folk-songs.
Standing somewhat to one side are Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Negro Melodies, which remind one irresistibly of Dvořák.
To record these songs Pianelli first of all re-arranged them for solo cello and the Rome-based Avos string orchestra.It’s an immense labour of love which Pianelli has carried out with great tact as well as musical imagination.
The deep tragedy of the Armenian songs, the lighter charm of the Georgian melodies, and the eccentric, tangy quality of the Greek pieces all shine through, thanks to Pianelli’s playing which is changeable as quicksilver and mournful as a folk balladeer.At the end Pianelli returns home, playing his own witty variations on a Sicilian melody.
It’s a fine end to a disc that glows with Mediterranean and Near Eastern heat, and if we really can’t get away to the sun this summer it will bring some comfort.
A Sicilian Traveller is released by Rubicon
LSO, Simon Rattle, Renaud Capuçon, and Stephen Hough: Elgar Violin Concerto / Violin Sonata ★★★★☆ Intimacy and grandeur seem the least likely bedfellows, but it’s precisely that unlikely conjunction that gives Elgar’s music its unique flavour.So often in his music a huge public utterance girded with brass and military rhythms seems to melt away before our very ears, and we suddenly find ourselves in a twilight landscape of regret and nostalgia.
In no work is that special quality more hauntingly evident than the Violin Concerto.Elgar composed it in 1910 in response to a request from the American virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, who was determined to have a concerto from the man he said was the greatest living composer.Elgar responded with a concerto on the same heroic scale as Brahms’s, full of vaunting virtuoso passages where the violinist has to dominate the orchestra.
But unlike Brahms’s it has a cadenza which instead of being a moment of heroic display is a tender rumination on previously heard ideas, accompanied by thrumming plucked chords which – in this performance at least – sound like the quiet rustling of nature on a summer afternoon.
Quicksilver spirit: French violinist Renaud Capuçon Credit : Paul Marc Mitchell French violinist Renaud Capuçon turns out to be an ideal soloist for this very English work.
He catches the music’s quicksilver spirit, the way at one moment it’s gathering pace and intensity towards a high point, the next hesitating in small, shy phrases, or pulling back by degrees towards a moment of radiant calm, like a patch of sunlight in a forest.Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra are every bit as sensitive and labile, and the subtle weave of Elgar’s orchestration takes on a lovely glow.If I don’t place it right at the top of available recordings of the concerto that’s because it feels a touch too spacious and meditative, missing that eager, impetuous quality that the recent recording by James Ehnes and the Philharmonia Orchestra catches so well.
About the recording of the sonata in which Capuçon is partnered by pianist Stephen Hough I have no such reservations.The dialogue between pianist and violin is beautifully clear, and the balance between tender soliloquy and grandiloquence feels exactly right.
Elgar Violin Concerto / Violin Sonata is released by Erato
Clare Hammond: Variations ★★★★☆ Some pianists charm and caress you with subtle shadings and half-tones, some seize you by the scruff with steely-fingered decisiveness.
Clare Hammond is definitely one of the latter sort.
Her latest album, an exploration of the art of variation – i.e.ringing ever-more elaborate changes on a pattern or melody announced at the beginning – certainly shows off that aspect of her talent.It avoids the familiar masters of the genre like Beethoven and Schumann, focusing instead on 20th and 21st-century pieces.
Among them is the Variations by Aaron Copland, a piece that will instantly disabuse anyone of the idea that Copland was just a purveyor of cheerful, all-American folksiness.
Its pitiless, hard-edged abstraction made it a favourite of Leonard Bernstein, who took a mischievous delight in emptying the room at swanky Manhattan parties by playing it at full volume.Hammond makes it seem as huge and steely as the Brooklyn Bridge, but without resorting to sheer force.She balances the sonorities carefully, so we can hear the original idea gleaming through all the dissonant barbed-wire Copland erects around it.
Steely-fingered decisiveness: pianist Clare Hammond Credit : Julie Kim The same combination of power and dramatic sweep with careful attention to detail can be heard in the other pieces.In the craggy, immense Chaconne by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina she allows no respite from the drama, which builds in waves of rising and falling tension to the final dénoument.She softens the sinews of Hindemith’s severe 1936 Variations with subtle tempo variations, and brings a nice sense of cat-like stealth to Birtwistle’s Variations on the Golden Mountain.
Not everything is hard and monumental.John Adams’s I Still Play has a diffident waltz-like charm.And the Variations on a Polish Theme by Karol Szymanowski is as far from Copland as you could imagine.
The piece is in his most impressionist, sensuous vein, and Hammond responds with a delicate but still firmly shaped touch, and a deft use of pedal that reveals the bones under all the luxurious flesh.It may not be a masterpiece but Hammond keeps us enthralled to the last bar.
Variations is released by BIS
Insula Orchestra: The Freischütz Project ★★☆☆☆ Der Freischütz (“The Freeshooter”) was one of the smash operatic hits of the 19th century.Carl Maria von Weber’s dark tale of a hunter who makes with a pact with the devil so he can win a shooting competition and win the head forester’s daughter was the spark that lit the German Romantic revolution in opera.
Wagner was electrified by it, and said that without Der Freischütz he would never have become a composer.
By the end of the 19th century the opera’s naïve supernatural trappings, such as the chorus of gibbering spirits gathered in a forest clearing at midnight, were starting to seem creaky.In the early 21st century there are other reasons to be embarrassed by Der Freischütz, especially the heartily patriarchal culture of back-slapping hunters and docile womenfolk.
The Freischütz Project: the 2019 production used projections of forest scenes Credit : Julien Benhamou But never fear.
This combined CD/DVD offers a French production from 2019 which couldn’t possibly embarrass anyone.The name is a giveaway: “The Freischütz Project”.
It suggests this opera can’t simply be presented, it must be given a makeover to make it palatable to modern tastes.Some aspects of the makeover are actually welcome.The Insula Orchestra uses “period” instruments appropriate to the early 19th century, so the biting horns and twilight gloom of Weber’s orchestration seem unusually vivid.The performances, especially Johanni van Oostrum as the faithful Agathe are strong.
Other aspects of the makeover are simply annoying.Both the CD and the DVD offer only highlights of the opera, so neither gives a complete narrative.The charming bridal chorus sung by Agathe’s bridesmaids which is the opera’s most famous number is actually omitted, presumably because it was felt to be reprehensibly patriarchal.
The production takes place on an austere bare stage, without even a hint of the opera’s German-forest setting – apart from the inevitable use of back-projection to give us literal forest-scenes, which as always with back-projections absolutely fails to stimulate the imagination.If you really want to feel the thrill of Weber’s opera, put on the CD of the classic recording conducted by Erich Kleiber in 1955, sit back and close your eyes.It’s the only “Freischütz Project” you’ll ever need.
The Freischütz Project is released by Erato
The Z.E.N.Trio: Burning Through the Cold ★★★★☆ The charmingly fresh-faced young Z.E.N.
piano trio is made up of an American violinist, a Chinese pianist and an Armenian cellist, who came together in 2015 when they were members of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artist scheme.Their name is nothing to do with Buddhism, it’s simply a neat acronym of the first letters of their first names, and there’s nothing meditative about their new CD, a collection of four Russian pieces centred around Shostakovich’s great E minor Trio of 1944.
It’s hard to overstate the tragic depth of this piece, which was inspired by the early death of Shostakovich’s great friend the musicologist and polymath Ivan Sollertinsky but was also overshadowed by the war.In the Finale there’s a tune of unmistakeably Jewish character which is hammered out in a frenzy, a musical image of despair which some say was inspired by the revelation that SS guards made Jewish prisoners dance next to their own graves.
Sure to go far: The Z.E.N.Trio The combination of bleak ghostly lament and savage parody leads many trios to exaggerate the extremes, but that isn’t The Z.E.N.
Trio’s way.They prefer a more traditionally musical approach, allowing space for those subtle variations in tempo and expressive mouldings of phrases which a performance pitched at a constant scream of maximum intensity can’t manage.On the whole tempos are faster than average, which makes the narrative of the Finale where all the previous movements pass by like a dream easier to grasp.Their performance is no less moving than more overtly tragic performances, and its only drawback is that here and there the pianist Zhang Zuo seems underpowered.
Alongside Shostakovich’s trio are two pieces, both beautifully played, which show a very different side of Soviet music.
Arno Babadjanian’s piano trio of 1952 harks back to turn-of-the-century Russian romanticism, while the famous Sabre Dance from another Armenian composer, Aram Khachturian, is in the picturesque exotic vein of Soviet ballet.Next to these Rachmaninov’s gorgeously melancholic Vocalise of 1915, which rounds off the disc, doesn’t seem at all out of place.It’s an impressive release for a Trio which will surely go far.
Burning Through the Cold is released by Deutsche Grammophon
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, cond.Andris Nelsons: Bruckner – Symphonies 2 & 8; Wagner – Prelude to Act 1 of Die Meistersinger Some maestri of the podium can make do with directing just one of the world’s great orchestras.
That’s not enough for the electrifying Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons.He’s chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestras and Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestras, and is now busy recording all fifteen symphonies of Shostakovich with the first, and all nine of Bruckner’s with the second.One hardly dares imagine the Air Miles he’s clocked up in the process.
Some have made unflattering comparisons between the white-hot energy of the Shostakovich recordings and a certain over-relaxed quality of the Bruckner cycle.That’s certainly not my impression.
The Bruckner recordings are among the best around, and this new one, a double-CD set of an early and late symphony along with the Prelude to Wagner’s Meistersinger, is stunning.
Stunning: Andris Nelsons conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra Credit : Jens Gerber/DG Bruckner’s early Second Symphony has all the hall-marks of the mature composer – lilting Viennese lyricism, spacious hymn-like melodies, and huge craggy pile-ups of brass fanfares and wheeling violin patterns suggestive of vast spaces.But the vision isn’t yet quite in focus.
The patterns are often too four-square, and the big sections are set off so emphatically from each other that the music’s flow can easily become clogged.Not in this performance, where Nelsons seizes on every opportunity to relax the tempo or push it forward, which softens the edges of those granite-like blocks.
And because the playing is so delicately shaded Bruckner’s rich rhythmic tangles in the second movement, where all the string parts move at a different speed, register with maximum clarity.
In the much better-known and greater Eighth Symphony this rhythmic flexibility allows Nelsons to take some risks.“Solemnly, not dragging” is how Bruckner marks the second movement, and though Nelsons’s tempo is immensely slow the music never loses momentum.“Solemnly, not fast” is the marking in the Finale, but Nelsons actually takes it at a tremendous urgent pace, and by cleverly maintaining the urgency until the end – while making room for lovely lyrical digressions – he makes more sense of this huge puzzling movement than many performances I’ve heard.Wagner’s Meistersinger Prelude, like everything else on the disc, has a spacious glowing sound, with much fine-grained detail.In every way this recording is a winner.
Bruckner – Symphonies 2 & 8; Wagner – Prelude to Act 1 of Die Meistersinger is released by Deutsche Grammophon
London Haydn Quartet: Haydn Six Quartets Op 76 ★★★★☆ Aristocrat or bumpkin? Joseph Haydn seems to be both at once, which is a large part of his appeal.
His music effortlessly straddles the class divide, just as it straddles any number of other opposites: high and low, serious and comic, transcendent and everyday.
However this new recording of his radiant, wise and often mysterious set of six quartets Op 76 leans heavily towards the aristocratic.The excellent liner notes by Richard Wigmore talk constantly about the “rustic energy” of these pieces, particularly the dance movements which on the page can seem almost uncouth.But never on these recordings.
Those minuets sidle into being with insinuating gracefulness, as if we’re in an aristocratic ballroom.
It’s the same story in the spacious opening movements, the rapt hymn-like slow movements, and the helter-skelter finales.Everything sounds super-refined, partly because the players perform on 18th-century instruments, which make a lighter, more dancing sound.But this quartet sounds very different to other so-called “period quartets”.They tend to emphasise Haydn’s nervous energy and broad-brush humour.The London Haydn Quartet give those balanced phrases and sudden pauses a very different, tenderly expressive quality.
To achieve this the players make a much smoother sound.
Not once do you hear the cheerful “bouncing bow” effect, which other period-instrument quartets use all the time.The players sometimes make a surprisingly romantic expressive droop or slide between notes, but it’s applied so fleetingly I wondered whether I was imagining it, and had to rewind the recording and re-listen just to be sure.It’s the same with vibrato, that expressive trembling quality which some period-instrument quartets banish altogether.
On this recording it’s certainly there, but so subtly done I often couldn’t tell whether I was hearing vibrato or not.And in almost every bar the players pull the tempo back, or push it forward, or make the tiniest hesitation to emphasise an emphatic chord.
Some listeners may miss the foot-stamping, peasant aspect of Haydn, and I did myself – for a while.But the mysterious, intimate side of these pieces burned more brightly, which more than made up for the loss.
Haydn Six Quartets Op 76 is released by Hyperion
Donizetti – Pietro il Grande, Donizetti Festival 2019 ★★★☆☆ / Opera Rara: Donizetti – Il Paria For most of the 172 years since his death, the great master of Italian early romantic opera Gaetano Donizetti was known only for a handful of masterpieces.Most of his 65 operas seemed condemned to permanent oblivion.
But in recent decades many of these have been rescued, and some have turned out to be near masterpieces, almost on a par with the ones we know and love such as L’Elisir d’Amore and Lucia di Lammermoor.
It’s fair to say Pietro il Grande (“Peter the Great”), a comic opera unveiled in Venice in 1820 when the composer was only 23, is not one of them.But as this DVD of the 2019 Donizetti Festival production reveals, it’s not negligible either.The master of lusciously ornate vocal melody we know from the mature operas is already fully formed, though the young Donizetti hadn’t yet found his wonderfully delicate touch as an orchestrator (and the rough-edged orchestral playing doesn’t show it off to best advantage).But the overall Rossini-pastiche style of the opera is brilliantly done, and includes one “patter” duet that will leave you humming the tune for days.
The story is every bit as silly as you’d expect.
The Tsar and his wife are travelling incognito in search of his wife’s lost brother, and they pitch up in a village where a young carpenter is in love with a local belle who is pursued by a venal money-lender.Of course the carpenter turns out to be the long-lost brother, and before the inevitable happy ending there are plenty of comic imbroglios.The directing team from Ondadurto Teatro decided that a Russian-Suprematist-style production would be just the ticket for an opera set in Tsarist times, because after all the Tsar was very forward-looking.It’s one of those mad ideas that only an opera director would think of, and the costumes, which make everyone look like animated Suprematist paintings with a topping of 19th-century pomp, are eye-wateringly bad.
But at least their riotous colourfulness is amusing, and the performances are equally over-the-top.Roberto de Candia as the Tsar is a weak link, but the light soprano of Nina Solodovnikova as the belle Annetta is charming.Marco Filippo Romano as the corrupt and lascivious magistrate is a treat, and there are nice cameos from Tommaso Barea as the money-lender and Stefano Gentili as the Notary.
Pietro il Grande, performed at the 2019 Donizetti Festival Credit : Gianfranco Rota / Fondazione Teatro Donizetti/Naxos The other new Donizetti release is on an altogether different level.Premiered nine years after Pietro il Grande, Il Paria (“The Pariah”) is a tragedy about the horrors of racial and religious bigotry set in ancient India.
A priestess of Brahma is in love with a military hero, who unfortunately turns out to be the son of a Pariah.The truth is revealed at the end, and priestess, hero and the outcast father all die together, at the hand of the enraged Brahmin priests – but not before the Pariah prophesises that their laws “will be destroyed by the people of a later age”, a remarkably modern-sounding sentiment.By now Donizetti is leaving the Rossinian tradition behind and moving towards the more dramatic, continuous style of Verdi.The clash between the iron laws of duty and romantic ardour is a very Verdian theme, and there are some astonishing anticipations of Verdi’s dramatic use of harmony and colourful orchestration.
So it’s a superior piece, but the care and attention to detail lavished on the recording lifts it still higher.Opera Rara is dedicated to rescuing little-known romantic operas from oblivion, and for this recording they’ve actually gone to the trouble of commissioning a new error-free edition of the music from leading Italian opera scholars.The soloists have been chosen with equal care.Donizetti wrote one of his most perilously high and athletic tenor parts for the hero Idamore, and you have to marvel at the way René Barbera tackles this high-wire act.Marko Mimica is superb as the unflinchingly vicious high priest Akebare, and Misha Kiria as Idamore’s father Zarete seems at first to be equally iron and unbending, though eventually he’s touched with a redeeming humanity.
Soaring over them all, literally and metaphorically, is the tenderly flexible soprano of Albina Shagimuratova.She melts the heart of the listener as the high priestess Neala, but not alas the fiercely patriarchal culture around her.Helping the vocal soloists to shine is the intelligent and tautly disciplined playing from the Britten Sinfonia under Mark Elder, and the ardent singing of the Opera Rara Chorus.In all it’s a marvel; let’s hope it encourages an enterprising opera company to bring the piece to the stage.
Pietro il Grande is released on DVD by Dynamic; Il Paria is released on CD on the Opera Rara label
Thibaut Roussel: Le Coucher du Roi ★★★★☆ Musical celebrations at Versailles in the reign of Louis XIV were normally on a grand scale, as befitted the most powerful monarch in Europe.
But by the end of his life Louis was getting weary of the pompous ceremonial which surrounded every aspect of his life.Le Grand Coucher – the Grand Going to Bed – was giving way to the Petit Coucher, a less onerously formal affair.
Thanks to a particularly assiduous court musician named Philidor, the archives at Versailles contain a treasury of small-scale, intimate music which he copied out for these bed-time musical entertainments.Many of them are arrangements of pieces which began life on a much bigger scale somewhere else, as a ballet or dramatic scene.Using this archive, French lutenist Thibaut Roussel has gathered together a group of ten excellent young players and two singers to create an imaginary Petit Coucher on an evening in early 1713.
To appreciate the seductive flavour of this disc it’s probably best until wait until bed-time, and have a hot toddy to hand.That will help you savour the strange, melancholy atmosphere of this music, designed for rooms with heavy curtains and tapestries where the sun rarely penetrates.The procession of grave pieces for the deep bass lute, beautifully played by Roussel, are interwoven with equally grave Plaintes (laments) or Preludes for a bigger but still intimate group of flutes, violin, bass viols and harpsichord.
Regal style: the royal bedroom in the Grand Apartments of the King, at the Palace of Versailles Credit : Alamy Every now and then there’s a welcome injection of energy from a suite of dances, but it doesn’t last.
Mingled in with the instrumental pieces are four vocal numbers, including an amorous duet for Cleopatra and Mark Anthony sung with a perfect sense of style by mezzo-soprano Danaé Monnié and baritone Marc Mauillon (though Monnié’s vocal sound is much more tender and winning).Along with the CD there’s a DVD of the group performing in the beautiful Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, which is a treat in itself.It can’t be denied there’s a certain sameness of mood, but the mood is so extraordinary and the sounds so delicious you won’t mind.
Le Coucher du Roi is out now on the Chateau de Versailles Spectacles label
Erich Höbart, Alexander Rudin, Aapo Häkkinen: Schubert – Arpeggione Sonata and Piano Trio No 2 ★★★★☆ “Heavenly length” is a description often applied to Schubert’s generous musical forms, which roam through distant harmonies with leisurely ease as if the music has all the time in the world.It’s a phrase that’s apt for the two chamber pieces on a new recording released by Naxos, especially the late Piano Trio, which despite its slender forces is a big beast: the final movement is over 20 minutes long.
In some performances that luxurious length, combined with the assertive, thick piano texture, can weigh heavy on the ear.
That never happens in these new recordings, partly because the players perform on old instruments appropriate to the period.The Arpeggione sonata was originally written for a bowed guitar, a newly-invented instrument which enjoyed a brief vogue in Schubert’s Vienna and was later dubbed “arpeggione”.
We normally hear it on the cello, but here Alexander Rudin performs it on an arpeggione, which is a revelation.It has a winningly transparent sound, and Schubert’s frequent ascents to the high register which can sound strenuous on a cello seem easy and natural on this instrument.Rudin’s accompanist Aapo Häkkinen plays on an early 19 th -century piano that’s exactly right for the music.The delightful silvery slenderness of the fortepiano’s sound means the balance problems that often afflict this piece and the Trio simply melt away.
However just as you shouldn’t blame the tools when a workman does a bad job, you shouldn’t praise them either when things turn out superbly.Aapo Häkkinen is simply a wonderful musician, who would surely sound great on a pub honky-tonk piano.He has a charming way of softening the edges of Schubert’s score with an almost improvisatory freedom, often rolling chords that most pianists play “straight”.
Alexander Rudin and violinist Erich Höbart make a sound that’s robust without ever being heavy, and all three together infuse the music with a subtle rhythmic freedom, so Schubert’s frequent repetitions never sound exactly the same.“Heavenly length,” indeed.
Schubert – Arpeggione Sonata and Piano Trio No 2, performed by Erich Höbart (violin), Alexander Rudin (arpeggione, cello) and Aapo Häkkinen (fortepiano), is out now from Naxos
Which classical CDs and DVDs would you add to our list? Tell us in the comments section below Related Topics Classical Music Appreciation with Ivan Hewett.