Sunday, 31 August 2014

Wedded Bliss

The Vienna Symphony began around 1900 with the intention of providing classics and new music to audiences of workers and was distinct from the Vienna Phil which was the opera house orchestra. The Symphony's new conductor is Philippe Jordan who has expressed his intention of maintaining the orchestra's historic character. His first CD is a recording of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique, which has been released to coincide with the start of his first official season. There is the freshness of a new relationship in their sound, he shaping alert speeds and voluptuous swells, they, eager to please, producing distinct timbral colours. Together they effect a pianissimo almost too quiet for common or garden CD players, creeping in at the start, seeming almost to disappear in the development before the the sudden fortissimo whack of a new episode startles the unwary. The brass is regal and resonant and regal. Volcanic emotions surge through the orchestra's playing. The five-four second movement swirls with creamy, languid string tone as if it were a Vienna New Year ball they were playing at, and the allegro has cheeky, pneumatic bounce as if the entire ensemble were off on a jaunt together (just as they are every summer when they become the opera orchestra at Bregenz. The tragic finale grips with story-telling intensity and one can quite understand, Jordan's desire to re-do the standard repertoire. The marriage is off to a good start.


Friday, 29 August 2014

Haprsichordist plays own kit

Norwegian harpsichordist Ketil Haugsand, currently professor of that instrument at Cologne, produces a hard, buzzing, resonant tone from the Flemish type double manual keyboard which he built himself in 1971. In the mid-range he produces a palpable electronic burr, the bass throbbing heavily and the treble pinging without too much panicky percussion. Despite the close mikes, there is relatively little mechanical clatter. Melody lines are mostly clear. The contents of the double CD are Rameau's entire output for harpsichord solo in five books, the Premier Livre, Pieces de Clavecin, Nouvelles Suites, Pieces de Clavecin en concert and La Dauphine, a timely production in a major anniversary year for the composer, 250 years since his death in 1764. Nonetheless, there is a certain monotony in the relentless succession of short pieces and one longs for the catchy familiarity of Tambourin and the haunting originality of Les Sauvages, which was inspired by the dancing of American Indian chiefs in Paris during the 1720s to pay homage to King Louis XV.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Bux Fizz

When JS Bach walked off in a huff from Arnstadt and didn't stop until he got to Luebeck in October 1705 at the age of twenty, he did so in search of the music on this disc. Ton Koopman and his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir perform music which Buxtehude wrote for his annual Advent series of Abendmusiken concerts, consisting here of six German and four Latin religious texts accompanied by strings plus lute and / or chamber organ. The Latin settings are more passionate than the German, Pange Lingua consisting of delicious dissonances and expressive recitative followed by sensuous dance. Was mich auf dieser Welt betruebt, on the other hand, employs a charming, four-square, major key tune in satisfyingly neat harmony. Sopranos Feuersinger and Wohlgemuth sing a beautifully balanced duet, each with matching pure straight tone in Salve Jesu, sprung seemingly from the soft twang of Mike Fentross' lute.    

Monday, 25 August 2014

Dance Trance

Benjamin Grosvenor's latest Decca CD Dances reflects on the music through which he first announced his genius. His piano teacher mother gave her eight-year-old fifth son a Chopin waltz and couldn't believe the speed and maturity with which he learnt and played it. There are waltzes by Ravel, Scriabin, Granados, Gounod-Liszt and Schulz-Evler-Strauss on the CD, each with an infectious feel for the rhythmic nuances of the three-time swirl, not to mention an entire suite of dances by JS Bach in the seven tracks of Partita No4 in D BWV828. He's a naturally beautiful Bach player, shaping each movement with courtly elegance and a feel for the eight-bar-phrase as a choreographic turn. He ends with Morton Gould's Boogie-Woogie Etude which he played as an encore at his National Youth Orchestra prom two years ago, touching the piquant jazz chords with light fingers. Gould's title suggests crude thumping, but Grosvenor plays the party-piece with the same refinement as he gives to Bach, which is not to diminish the latter, but to claim he knows no other way of playing.

 

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Cross Seen Not Heard

The pianist Ben Grosvenor tells me Cesar Franck's Prelude Chorale et Fugue has a cruciform theme so I check the score on IMSLP and it does, sort of. The cross shape on the page is not so obvious on the air-waves, however, as is clear from Paul Crossley's twenty-year-old version. You'd think if anyone were aware of a cross it would be Crossley but he makes no mention of it in his note. Stunning performance, of course. Grosvenor talks of the apotheosis when the chorale returns in the finale, not as the fugue theme, but as a glorious resolution after travail, and Crossley seems to share a similar concept. 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Brothers in Arms

Disc of the Day: The most exciting of these three cello sonatas from the 1940s is Ernest Moeran's in A minor. The Watkins brothers cellist Paul and pianist Huw drive its pulsating movements with unanimous urgency towards its denouement in the finale's broad-shouldered molto allargando. The piano bass announces the work in riffs of minor thirds and flattened sevenths, modal turns which jazz and rock musicians also adopted in their different ways. The cello interjects with short phrases which eventually become a passionate soliloquy. The piano introduces a slow dark march in swaying bass steps, at once inexorable and of uncertain destination. The adagio settles a simple two-part tune of deep solemnity, the phrases answering each other in the dialogue form which pervades the work. The finale tests the players' reaction to fast syncopated rhythms and their togetherness over the fleeing quavers. Moeran's inspiration was the cellist Kathleen Coetmore-Jones, known as Peers Coetmore, whom he married in 1945, just as he finished the Sonata. The sonata propsered - the composer thought it was his finest work - but the marriage, although affectionate, foundered on his propensity for drink which helped obliterate his experiences on the Western Front in World War I. The other sonatas are by Edmund Rubbra in G minor from 1946 and Alan Rawsthorne in C from 1948. Both look back through their own lyricism to a pre-war drawing room era, and, though both have passion and contrast, they lack the compelling appeal of the Moeran.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Mendelssohn Goes Dutch

Disc of the Day: The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra under conductor Jan Villem de Vriend succeeds in finding the drama and wit in Mendelssohn's symphonies. In Symphony No1 Op11, the turbulent passions are almost too immediate, with De Vriend straight into the thick of the baton play from a standing start - no prelude: the brass pumping,strings panting, and resonant timps pounding straight away. It's a text book symphony, putting nineteenth century power to pre-Beethoven classical form with a repeated exposition and Minuet for Scherzo. The wit comes in the Trio's darkly magical section of eerie wind chords punctuated by the timpanist whose part is more than merely rhythmic. The finale sharpens Mendelssohn's comedic lightness in the lengthy pizzicato passages for tutti strings accompanying the lyrical clarinet, joined by flute for the repeat. A headier stimulant is the final fugue which the Dutch play with sinuous lines which are worth waiting for.

Symphony No3 The Scottish is traditionally Romantic, as its first impetus was the composer's visit to Holyrood Castle and Chapel in Edinburgh, aged 19, when he was gripped by the tour guide's story of the murder of the Italian courtier Rizzio by Mary Queen of Scots' jealous husband. The opening bitter chords foretell a tragedy, evoking the cold brutality associated with Macbeth. De Vriend captures this in chilling tension, but pricks the bubble in the second movement Scherzo when the jaunty clarinet dances what sounds like Mendelssohn trying to recall a Scottish-style melody from the distance of his Leipzig study years later when he came to compose the whole symphony. De Vriend plumbs the depths of sadness in the Adagio, which is Mendelssohn at his least self-conscious and therefore genuine.   


Thursday, 24 July 2014

Benedetti Stays Home

Disc of the Day: Why could Decca not decided between Nicola Benedetti's two title names? Homecoming? Or A Scottish Fantasy? Both suggests homecoming is the fantasy. Perhaps that's what they mean.  Neither Ewan MacGregor nor Billly Connolly could be bothered to make it home for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, beaming at the suckers who'd paid for tickets from their giant screen. If the legends reject Scotland, what can they expect of anyone else? Benedetti plays Bruch's A Scottish Fantasy with a solemn singing tone after the funereal introduction. She has a more wistful sound in the second subject over a harp burbling like a mountain stream. She spars playfully with the flute in the second movement. The third movement andante sostenuto has a melody with a Scotch whiff in the reversed dotted rhythm in the theme, a so-called 'Scotch snap'. The last movement sounds more sea shantyish than Scottish. Benedetti plays the haunting tune Ae fond kiss, but it is spoiled by its slushy Romanticised accompaniment. We like the folk melodies raw as they in the Dean Brig or Banks Hornpipe. Benedetti's technique in Hurricane Set suggests she was brought up on this style of fiddle playing although one hears faster fingers in the pubs, bars and festival animals. Great singing from the fgolk vocalist Julie Fowlis on Mouth Music.     

Monday, 21 July 2014

Dedicatees Outplayed

Disc of the Day: Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne lack the rawness of the original dedicatees David Oistrakh and Lev Oborin in Prokofiev's two Violin Sonatas, but they play with more fluency, elegance of phrasing and character. In No1 in F minor Op80 begin in 1938 but not finished until after No2 in 1946, Ibragimova's violin arrives stealthily shrouded in mystery with the pressing pulse of the inexorable outworking of fate. Osborne's piano echoes her theme with more depth, the leaping fifth emphatic that will become the emblem of the work. Their sounds meld and their unison passage is tuned with the exactitude of a single mind. The fluttering pizzicato is more diaphonous than Oistrakh's on his 1946 recording, the pianissimo more tantalising. Ibragimova contrasts the brusqueness of the allegro brusco second movement with an extreme lyricism, while Osborne pounds the keys in anxious aggression. The 6/8 andante courses as gently as soft running water while the equal partners in the allegrissimo finale fire off jagged rhythms and exclamatory statements while reminding the attentive listener of earlier movements.

No2, Op94 in D of 1943, is a transcription of a sonata for flute but sounds perfectly suited to the violin. The playful, opening melody skips lightly over the strings and keys, though a little staccato anxiety creeps in at the exploratory development, Ibragimova's fingers pirouetting a rich vibrato over Osborne's chromatic piano. Both are skittish in the 3/8 Scherzo, swinging and roaring as the compulsive light-heartedness hits its stride. In the andante they are a little stiff at the bluesy minor thirds as the composer, enamoured of jazz, fumbles for the wispy nature of the foreign form. The finale is a robust march, full of fun in the stomping quavers and toytown crushed notes. The pair run through scales in thirds like flighty dancers and the work ends in exuberance and delight.        

The disc is a highlight among Prokofiev recordings. The Five Melodies Op35, are short, sweet fillers focused on the fiddle's expressive line, its eerie harmony in No1 and jangling drama in No3. The pair of performers make an excellent partnership which is sure to yield many recordings. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Czech Out

Disc of the Day: The conductor Lorin Maazel, who died at the weekend, was frequently associated with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra which now brings out a slick recording of Dvorak's Eighth Symphony. I mention the connection only by way of introduction as it's not he but Music Director, Manfred Honeck, who conducts and writes the programme notes for Reference Recordings. The string tone gleams like a new motor, the flute sings with nightingale clarity and the trumpet has golden zip launching the finale. Honeck encourages the soloists to play with easy rubato and for the most part they oblige tastefully. I dislike the strings' portamento though in the allegretto which Honeck claims is authentically Slavic. This may be so, but it's rather ugly and very old-fashioned. It's like giving hand signals from the  sleek new auto. It's a shame as it spoils the smoothness of the couples across the parquet in the delicious swirling waltz. Honeck captures the homesick melancholy of the first movement and the daintiness of the dancing downward scales in the second so it's only the third which is an aberration.
                          Track 5 is Janacek's twenty minute Jenufa Suite, the 1904 opera in microcosm, which Honeck conducts with a storyteller's urgency. The xylophone patters out the pulse which races towards the tragedy of the murdered babe beneath the ice in waves of gloriously overwhelming volume.