Thursday, 10 April 2014

Perfect Marriage

Disc of the Day: Composer Thomas Larcher presents a disc of music written by him for his own instrument, the piano. The first item Smart Dust sounds like a cousin of a John Cage Construction piece, the piano strings muted with gaffer tape and bits of rubber, the rhythms whirring like clockwork. One's ears prick up. No tired conventional piano sound here. Next Larcher removes most of the impediments and plays the piano works Poems and What Becomes. The first contains brief echoes of pieces he played as a pianist. The opener Sad Yellow Whale mimics Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals. MUI1 references Bartok. Twelve Years Old is an amazingly mature composition of dissonance and rhythm which Larcher wrote when was that age. The seven movements of What Becomes are more substantial. Scherzo consists of heavy chord crashes and no lightness, the joke hammered home. Fission roars like amplified funk in snappy dark runs with unexpected mid-range 'prepared' tones remaining from the earlier piece. A Padmore Cycle was written for the tenor Marl Padmore who sings the eleven settings of short poems by Hans Aschenwald and Alois Hotsching here. The first Ich schreibe heute durch, I write all day, lasts as long as it takes to say, or rather declaim loudly like a statement of intent. In the second Almauftrieb, Transhumance, Padmore plucks notes from an arpeggio but is slightly flat to the piano when it enters. He whispers Hart am Herz like the breeze and sings Ferdl, Freddy, about an acrobat being foolhardy on a bridge, as if it were bland reportage. Aschenwald democratises language by dispensing with capitals. Larcher composes without cadences. Hotsching maintains conventional upper case nouns and Padmore responds with greater passion. The marriage with Larcher's pithy, original music is surely destined to be a long one.    

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Ikonic Tavener

Disc of the Day: Tavener's Ikon of Light disc, a re-release of recordings from 1981 and 1984, presents Sir John as many will remember him. This is well before the Engish-speaking world discovered the word icon and made everything 'iconic'. Tavener was an original force, dismissed in some quarters for his religious eccentricities and simplistic musical language, but adored by many for the absolute beauty of his works such as The Lamb, a setting of William Blake's poem, and Funeral Ikos, from the Orthodox liturgy in a haunting translation by Isabel Hapgood. Both are included here. The solemn repetitiveness of Tavener's spare dissonance coupled with words describing the physical state of the body at the moment of death - 'and the tongue then burneth fiercely and the parched throat is inflamed..' - managed to convey both the banal reality and the holy transcendence into another state . The Ikon of Light is in a palindromic five movements, the central Mystic Prayer to the Holy Spirit lasting twenty minutes and based on the Tavener formula of a simple serene melody repeated severally like a religious mantra by different voices. Here each part in turn sings the descent from G to C in four different octaves, the basses rather gruff as they plumb the ledger lines but filling out fruitily on the bottom C. Choir names are familiar - Padmore, Daniels, Birchall Chance, Dunkley - and the dazzling sound they make in Phos, Light, Dhoxa, Glory, and the beefy Trisagion radiates the confidence and excitement of what were still relatively new sounds. The disc brings back memories for those who were around and singing Tavener's music for the first time and introduces those who weren't to a music whose beauty is clarifying with age.          

Friday, 4 April 2014

Rarified Air

Disc of the Day I: Ukrainian-British violist Maxim Rysanov plays three of the Bach Cello Suites on his instrument. The new pitch encourages slightly faster speeds than the cello usually manages so that it sounds a little like the comedian who has sniffed nitrous oxide from a party balloon. The serious weight of the cello has evaporated and all is levity and sylph-like movement. Rysanov's tone is unexpectedly sweet for a viola but the depth of his feeling is apparent in every bow-stroke.

Disc of the Day II: In the Easter holidays, many head for the Alps, but Daniel Harding conducts the Saito Kinen Orchestra in Strauss' Alpine Symphony instead. In fact, Strauss' vision is not of snowscapes, but walking country, summer not winter. The sound is buoyant and high-spirited. Here is the fine clear air that Rysanov summoned above. Harding's walk has a spring in its step, its colours are as diverse as Alpine vegetation and, like an experienced walker, there is no rush, everything unfolds naturally. The waterfall cascades joyously and the cowbells clang with homecoming warmth.   

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Interrupted Flow

Disc of the Day: Released last month, Hyperion's disc of Arensky's two piano trios performed by the Leonore Piano Trio still doesn't quite do justice to the composer's talent. Arensky composed the first in D minor in 1894 in memory of Russia's leading cellist Karl Davidov, who had died five years earlier. The Leonores overindulge Arensky's sense of grief which must by then have waned and consequently spoil the smooth flow of the work. This is particularly true of the central Elegia when Benjamin Nabarro's violin distends every bar with an affected sob in the beautiful songlike tune. Arensky caters for this in the melody's dotted rhythm so extra rubato is unnecessary - none is asked for in the score - and here it halts the current frustratingly and monotonously. Similar touches upset the continuity of the first movement. One respects the desire in performers to phrase and interpret, but they should beware of obscuring basic musical essentials. It is partly this misguided Romantic affectation which did for these comfortable drawing room works in the twentieth century, making them sound stuffy and dated. Arensky was no gloom-monger, but a bon viveur, who drank heavily, gambled and probably smoked so his death from tuberculosis in 1905 when he was only 44 was no more surprising than it was tragic. His hero was Tchaikovsky with whom he shares a fondness for melody. Performers should no more warp one composer's sense of dancing rhythmic vitality than they do the other's.  

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Mozart Secretary Vindicated

Disc of the Day: The Dunedin Consort's Mozart Requiem in a reconstruction of its original 1793 premiere, out this week, is one to match their outstanding, award-winning disc of Handel's Messiah from a decade ago. Terrific soloists headed by soprano Joanne Lunn sing with refreshingly straight Early Music tone. They double as chorus singers which has the effect of bringing the rank-and-file up to their high standard so that we are rewarded with precise timekeeping, agile, articulate ensemble runs and clear diction in Germanic Latin with a hard g in exurget and qui rendered as 'kfee'. Contrasts are never wishy-washy; the men's anger and the women's serenity in the Confutatis are vividly coloured. The energetic double fugue at Cum Sanctis is a worthy Mozartian tribute to Bach. The offbeats in the opening never plod but are light and set the entire performance up for buoyancy. The Lacrimosa is especially beautiful, the choir's soft entries touchingly dramatic. Butt sets quick speeds, his Andante at Hostias more than walking pace, but thrillingly carried off for all that. He drives the tempi with no let-up or rallentandi in either Dies Irae or Domine Jesu and generates a rare stateliness in the Sanctus. This alone marks this recording out from those others which tend, even unwittingly, to slacken the tension when Mozart is no longer the composer. The focus of the performers is not on regret that the secretary Suessmayr had completed the work, but the atmosphere of the first performance when who composed what was the last thing on anybody's mind. Butt imbues the Sanctus and Osanna with brass power and a flowing line.

Composer Bares All

Nimrod Borenstein
I meet the composer Nimrod Borenstein in the café of South Kensington’s Institut francais, the venue of the It’s All About Piano festival this weekend 4-6 April 2014 in which he is giving a talk entitled Inside a Composer’s Mind. I tell him I expect a composer’s mind to be full of notes in different timbres and pitches.
              ‘It’s exactly what you say,’ he confirms, ‘although the ability to hear notes is also training. I can command what I want to hear. You can train yourself to hear sixteen instruments simultaneously. Composing, like any art, is then about deciding what.’ 
               Borenstein is a fluent and engaging talker, full of ideas which tumble forth in attractive, slightly eccentric Franglais. He was born in Tel Aviv, but grew up in Paris. ‘I’ve given lots of talks like this,’ he says, clearly stimulated by the forthcoming event. ‘I try not to go too abstract as that gets complicated, like discussing belief in God. I don’t, but I can see that for others it is something special just as I can see that composing is something from the soul. To me it is practical. This talk is related to the first performance of my piece Reminiscences of Chilldhood which Pascal Amoyel is giving after the talk.’ 
               Borenstein’s first teacher was his father, Alec, a painter. He looks young in his picture and I tell Nimrod I cannot tell whether it is a brother or a father. ‘Oh he will love you!’ he exclaims. ‘My father was my best teacher. You can be much closer to an artist from another discipline. The problem of creating something on the white page, or canvas is that of creating interest over a long time. It’s about structure and contrast. I don’t like to talk about technique so much. That is for minor artists. Technique is something you have to learn at the conservatoire. You learn counterpoint and harmony. Composing got nothing to do with that. For me it is all about creating contrast.’
               I ask Borenstein when he started composing. ‘When I was six,’ he says. One of my first pieces was for a girl flautist because I was in love with her.’
              'At six?!' I say, impressed.
              ‘Maybe a bit older, but I am French!’ Borenstein laughs. ‘It was a good piece.’
              I ask if it was judged. ‘No. But it was played.’
              Borenstein came to London as a student at the Royal College of Music. He spoke no English because he had learnt Russian at school, a subject his mother chose for him after realising that if she insisted he study an obscure subject he would be entitled to a better standard of state school. Nonetheless he has titled the piece Reminiscences in English. I ask if this is because his audience is mainly English and he demurs. ‘I  am played all over the world,’ he says. This is true. His Shell Adagio, premiered by Ashkenazy has been played on every continent. ‘Ashkenazy defined for me what it is to be a composer. He quoted Shostakovich who said composing was a curse. You have to do it. It’s difficult to cvreate, but if you don’t then you’re really, really unhappy.’
              ‘When I was 10, I read Dostoyevsky and wanted to be a monk, not for any religion, but just for the purity of the idea. I was attracted to the feeling of living without any compromise and I’ve never done any sort of compromise. I learned the violin and was certain I would be both. At 13 I met Barenboim and he said, “Boy, you’ve got to choose; it’s not possible”, so I did eventually.’
             I ask if these are the reminiscences that are going to appear in Reminiscences. Borenstein tells me they are general, a reflection on what it was like to be a child, on childlikeness. ‘I wrote it for a friend of my wife who has a nursery. She wanted to put a piece of mine on her website so I wrote for her the first piece Lucilla’s Beehive, a three and a half-minute piece of naivety and magic. ’

Friday, 28 March 2014

Important New Composer

Disc of the Day: One senses the arrival of an important new talent in Karl Fiorini. These two violin concertos are works of extraordinary power and momentum. The second in particular, a single movement of at least half a dozen tempo changes in 25 minutes, has the drive and narrative purpose of a truly exciting book whose ending you both dread and long for. The phases gather and the wonder is how he will end. How much more inventive can he be? It features a solo line played with almost divine purpose by Marta Magdalena Lelek, carved and smoothed which starts with a cadenza of compelling melody, crept up on by an orchestra which threatens to consume the soloist as she rises ever higher to escape drowning. She is relieved when the timps establish a slow toiling rhythm, with an oboe on the each downbeat calling like a cornkrake. Clusters of exotically combined instruments whip themselves twoards frenzy. The ominous tread continues until the ground breaks up and percussion instruments reassemble themselves in tentative combinations, eventually latching onto a pulse with most clearly discernible subdivisions. A slow section begins around 10 minutes in,  moody with glowing chords, interesting timbrally as harmonically. They open into a sunlight consonance at thirteen minutes and a most beautiful and lengthy sequence for the soloist's harmonics. The final section changes time like Stravinsky and includes a cadenza of birdlike wit. Firorini comes from Malta and is 35 years old. This gripping CD should mark a turning [oint in his career.     

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Never Trust a Beard

Pottering in my library overlooking the valley of roses where we live, I come upon a 1994 paperback called The Best of Q Magazine's Who the Hell? interviews, which I haven't seen for a few years. The thirty interviewees include Sir Jimmy Saville, William Roache, Gary Glitter, Freddie Starr and Rolf Harris. David Mellor, the former Minister of Fun is also there although he had already been undone by his sex scandal. Mellor had been caught in his Chelsea kit with Antonia da Sancha whom I interviewed for the Evening Standard, having first obtained access to her through her agent Max Clifford. 'What links them all?' asks the Foreword and explains. They are all celebrities vain enough to want to be interviewed for a column which dislikes them and wants only to ask them who the hell they think they are. How perspicacious.

Disc of the Day: Troubling indeed is the story of Duke Bluebeard's Castle which tells of a young girl's curiosity to know the truth about the castle-owner. What are all those locked doors? Why is there so much blood? What lies behind his power and wealth? This 2011 performance of Bartok's score is sure to become a classic with Sir John Tomlinson's echoing dungeon of a bass, Michelle DeYoung's wondering, yearning soprano and actress Juliet Stevenson's Gothic narration, whispering the last phrases of the bedtime story prologue like a Victorian ghost. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia with a calculated baton, tightening the tension, measuring the accelerandi, suppressing the instrumental flow to a psychological undercurrent, which seeps through the vocal surface of tentative questioning. Tommo's Duke seems as unwilling to explore his own psyche as his new wife is determined to. Felis-ze? Are you frightened? he continually asks, fearing her answer in his querulous tone as the music sinks ever lower into the oubliette of his soul. DeYoung's Judith seems as unable to tear herself away from the course she is set on as the held notes burning through the score like lasers. Does she grow to knowledge? Is her octave leap enlightenment? The only answers are in Bartok's music, shaped here into a language that is instantly understood, but impossible to put into words. The hour passes like a single breath.  

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Familiar Contempt

Disc of the Day: Kent Nagano conducts his own Orchrchestre Symphonique de Montreal in a routine live performance of Beethoven's First and Seventh Symphonies from two days in March 2013 in their beautiful new home, the Maison Symphonique. The clean acoustic brings the bass through without too much reverberation while the top is gentle on the piccolo. The orchestral sound has little sense of urgency or bite though, and there is scant evidence that either players or conductor are keen to find anything new to say in these classic works. They give comfortable performances only,  neither challenging nor compelling. Even the first chords of No1 lack the gleaming precision of the finely tuned engine raring to go. It is as if in playing them they suddenly find the notes over-familiar and regress into dull automatic playing. Some subtle dynamic shadings suggest the performance is not entirely un-thought-out but the lukewarm applause speaks volumes. The ovation after the Seventh is more heartfelt but by then the players are into the purposeful stride they should have assumed from the outset. Even the great Allegretto is short of the toil and tension that would lift its sublime simplicity off the page, though its genius probably reminds them why they play Beethoven as they perk up for the last two movements and generate some fire. Familiarity is the curse of the great work and will one day put an end even to Beethoven. Better not hasten it or be the one to nail the coffin shut.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Two Springs

Disc of the Day: One hears the first cuckoo... Not one but two Schumann Spring Symphonies hove into earshot. Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan versus Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Woods wins it. One needs express no surprise when the committed outfit with its own conductor beats the prestige youngsters under the rising star jet-setter.  The Woods performance is tighter, rhythmically crisper, richer in contrasts, more characterful and always closer to the composer's wishes. Nezet-Seguin twice decelerates where no tempo change is marked - the first movement's second subject (where Woods marks the contrast not by speed but stark, clear-blue-water contrast between the wind legato and the string agitato) and, more deliberately, the bowed unisons after the skittish pizzicato in the finale. It ruins the momentum. Woods carries on through precipitously, which is clearly what Schumann intends. Woods is slower in the slow movement but anticipates the chords with unified crescendi. He is half a minute quicker in the Scherzo and quite Beethovenian in the string scales where the European conglomerate sounds plodding and lacks the bass throb in the same scales. The solos - the paused horn call, the flute cadenza - show the European mettle but one expects that as these are the cream of instrumentalists skimmed off, but the sense of ensembles within the ensemble in the Stratford On Avon orchestra, with Woods' woodwind even achieving comic tone together, is more important ultimately than fine solos. Golden the daffodils in Shakespeare's birthplace.