Sunday, 19 October 2014

Perfect Ensemble

Disc of the Day: The perfect ensemble of young husband and wife team, Adam Javorkai and  Clara Biermasz, cello and piano respectively, is rare. Their dialogue is especially sparky and intimate in the Grieg where successive sequences elicit subtly changing turns of phrase and the finale has a real sense of the ecstatic gallop. They have a light touch in the Brahms where so many duos interpret the bearded wonder heavily. The allegro non troppo has story-telling momentum, the quasi menuetto a charming insouciance and the fugal finale stern yet speedy authority. Audiences at this summer's Musique Cordiale Festival in Provence were fully in agreement that they had heard an exceptional partnership.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

Baltic Baroque

Disc of the Day: I spend a few days during September on the Ostsee, Germany's stretch of Baltic Sea coast, so it is a surprise to receive a disc of that name shortly after returning. Trondheim Barokk, an excellent period instrument group, play music by Thiele, Verdanck and Bertouch, all of them Baroque composers active in the Hanseatic League towns along the coast, Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund and Greifswald during the 17th and early 18th century. The music is the confident product of wealthy communities, instrumental works of cultured splendour, vocal sequences thanking God for his bounty. Three singers, soprano Ingeborg Dalheim, mezzo Marianne Beate Kielland and bass Njal Sparbo, take turns with pure vibrato-free voices to to deliver their pious solemnities. Dalheim's direct and focused tone is particularly appealing. Is it my imagination, or does she really seem to have lungs full of sea air. I long to return.


Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Countertenorism Charge

The latest countertenor to excite crowds is Argentinian Franco Fagioli who sings at the Wigmore Hall on 20 September with a programme which is largely the content of this new Naive CD, the arias of Nicola Porpora. Fagioli's voice is hard and smokey, not the usual effete half-voice of the previous altos. Porpora composed works for his fellow Neapolitan, the castrato Farinelli, which singers have only recently decided are possible. Fagioli sings them with easy concentration, esepcially Alto Giove from Polifemowhich has the stillness of heaven in its long pure notes. He sings Se tu la reggi with the proud innocence of the start of an opera. His voice has a smooth transition from chest to head voice, or from natural to falsetto. He has a natural legato and a passionate sense of phrase. He sings the sacred Christmas cantata Distillavi o cieli, drop down ye heavens, with pleading piety and an intensity not often associated with church music. The other tracks are all operatic, though none too full of show-off gymnastics, Fagioli's preference clearly being for the lyrical and gently persuasive.         

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.