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.        

Friday, 11 July 2014

Radiant Darkness

Disc of the Day: The East Side Oktett comprises musicians from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra who combine their radiant clarity of tone with a symphonic sensibility necessary for Schubert's six-movement, hour-long 1824 octet for five string and three wind players. Each episode has distinct character from the feathery adagio of night-time whispers - delicious sweet nothings from the clarinet - to the mighty finale's allegro with its take-home tune and combative argument from every player. One hears each convincing point of view in the eight-way conversation and senses the warm evening and the summer garden scents in the work's provenance as an outdoor serenade.
                            Mario Wiegand's single-movement Dunkle Lichter (Dark Lights), composed for this CD, on the other hand melds the eight brilliant voices into a single piquant stew of sound. It shares only a night-time ambience with the Schubert. The instrumental tones swim with the dizziness induced by bright neon against the dark. A swarm of strings high and vibrant is mixed with passing flickering tremolandi and ethereal harmonics on clarinet and horn. One becomes aware of a creative mind ambitious to mix sonic colours into compelling new shades.      

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Musical Cheers

An exhilarating evening of laughter and tears comes my way under the title Great British Musicals in the presence of The Novello Singers with pianist Ross Leadbeater and compere Nicholas Parsons at the St James Theatre, near London's Victoria Station. The ten-strong chorus, girls in black cocktail dresses, men in dinner suits, descend from high stools to perform with West End irony but opera house classical finesse a medley of four Gilbert and Sullivan numbers (Pirates and Pinafore). It is enlightening to contextualise the Victorian pair as forerunners of the musical rather than pastiche opera. The camp comedy is understated in innocent looks and getsures but the funnier for that in 'Sailors always welcome ladies..' The diction, even at speed, is as clear as if there are subtitles, the soft alliteration of 'a fly's footfall' is, well, distinctly heard. They refresh lyrics heard for years by the same singer in deadening familiarity like Tommy Steele singing the wedding photographer's song 'Hold it flash bang whallop what a picture' from Half a Sixpence which is here a hilarious tour de force, the ludicrous comedy of the lines matched by the slickest choreography. Movements are elegant, never hammed, and perfectly together. There is a seductive symmetry in the rhythmic swaying at the start of the second half. Solo numbers are just as strong. Noel Gay's Leaning on the Lamppost comes across as genuinely romantic and a world away from the simpleton delivery of George Formby. Parsons, in velvet smoking jacket, takes us through the decades, the war years yearning, post-war times frivolous, supplying own anecdotes from his encounters with Ivor Novello, Noel Coward and others. The 'West End leading man' John Robyns enters to sing in an easy tenor, smiling through his top notes and oozing sophisticated charm, in Leslie Bricusse's 'Pure Imagination' from Willy Wonka and 'If I ruled the world' from Pickwick. I am unable to prevent my eyes welling up the female guest Louise Dearman's emotional accounts of Lloyd Webber's 'Don't Cry for Me' from Evita and 'Memory' from Cats as these are no longer items of musicological interest but items of actual experience in my own past. The show is a winner, the company impressive and the pianist a discreet genius. It's much too good to finish after the current brief run.            

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Harry Sums it up

Disc of the Day: Hear Roderick Williams sing Birtwistle's strange unsingable tunes in Bogenstrich - Meditations on Rilke, forcing sense into a melodic line which accepts it reluctantly. This results in a fascinating beauty which seems somehow appropriate to the yearning emptiness accompanying the national team's failure to identify the missing ingredient. The extraordinary long note Williams delivers on gespannt, tensed,  is like the tightening strings which the bow-stroke of the title unites. The baritone saves his finest rich, hollow tone for Birtwistle's low note word-painting on Tiefen, depths and his most aching expression for his soul rising above his respondent's.   

Vive la Revolution

A concert calling itself Choral Revolution took place in the City of London Festival on Saturday (28 June 2014). It featured the girl-choirs of three cathedrals - Southwark, Guildford and St Albans in black, terra cotta and white cassocks respectively which looked like the bands of the new revolutionary flag as they stood in rows on the altar space beneath the tower at Southwark. Although the exact nature of the revolution was not made explicit, the inference was that in the choir world at least, the glass ceiling has been shattered into shards. Girls are the new boys. I'm not too sure of the wisdom of St Albans girls wearing white (St Albans boys wear red) as the laundry bills must be excessive and I know for a fact that girl choristers are never as demure as they look, my own daughter being one, indeed, even a revolutionary herself with the hosting Southwark contingent. I declare an interest. The sound of the fifty females was rich in tone and pure in focus. There was no warble. They sang Langlais' Tu es petrus, a fierce work, with a blazing organ introduction which inspired a robust,  thrilling sound to Southwark's Stephen Disley's rock-steady beat. He handed over to Guildford's Katherine Dienes-Williams' for Faure's Messe basse pour voix de femmes which the choirs  sang with a fluid, long-breathed line, a well-tuned, full-toned, red-bowed soloist and a slight blip at the beginning of the Sanctus. The fact that Faure had composed it for women set the precedent for the world premiere of Judith Bingham's a capella Les Saintes Maries de la Mer as it is also written specifically for girl choristers. They sang the stark fanfare-like story-teller's opening with cold, listen-with-mother command and negotiated the awkward diminished fifths and colourful, unresolving dissonances of Bingham's imagination with unfailing confidence. The text is a poem by Elizabeth Cook on the legend of three women in a boat who land on the French riviera and spread the gospel. The choirs dispersed as trumpeter Anne McEneny (her gender too was specified) played three solo pieces with organ, a cold lip momentarily spoiling the Telemann, but plaintive expressivity making a masterpiece of the Hohvaness. She had really been hired to play the obbligato part in the last two choral items, Mark Blatchly's For the Fallen and Kenneth Leighton's Easter Sequence. St Albans conductor Tom Winpenny shaped sorrowing bugle-call lines in the war memorial work and infused each syncopated Leighton alleluia with an easy jazz appeal. The revolutionaries sang eagerly throughout and gave a well-deserved encore in Geoffrey Burgon's Nunc Dimittis, the trumpet forlorn across the battlesfield, the voices clear, cool and remarkably fresh at the end of the interval-less concert.      

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Multi-Story Story

London's newest concert venue is the multi-storey car park in Peckham. I drive to Level 6 and leave the car in a bay. On Level 7 the Multi-Story Orchestra is beginning its rehearsal for tomorrow night's, Friday 20th June, when the programme includes Sibelius' 5th Symphony and the world premiere of Alive by Kate Whitley, founder of the orchestra. She is a graduate of King's Cambridge and took her idea of the carpark concert space to the council there. It turned out that there was a clause in the lease stating that the carpark was not to be used for concerts. Peckham was not so choosy about its carpak customers and already had a very successful open air bar on Level 8 which fits very neatly with the Level 7 auditorium. The acoustic favours the brass, the hard concrete surfaces funneling the sound without reverberation. Conductor Christopher Stark restrains the trombones urge to master their surroundings and Whitley's work takes shape, the string semiquavers articulate, the syncopations softened. 'It disappears like someone dying,' he says, an appropriate, if macabre, image for a Peckham garage. The parking lot shoot-out is a crime drama staple. The summer heat is robbed of its oppressiveness by a cooling breeze through the open walls. The views are magnificent. The bar upstairs has an up-to-date panorama plaque: the Shard, the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie and the Razor are labelled. The next door empty warehouse has turned its roof space into a cinema, the rooftopfilmclub.com. I recall from my Scripture lessons at school that the Arab lands were where people slept on the roof. Peckham is the new Palestine.