Disc of the Day: Something meaty, Sir? What have you? Violin Concertos by Jean Sibelius and Thomas Ades, performed by German violinist Augustin Hadelich and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Hannu Lintu. Sounds very filling. Quite light though, Sir, really. Ades' 2005 work, also called Concentric Circles, has three movements, a long one inside two short allegros. Themes and motifs revolve and recur, often like the movements, inside each other. The most attractive is the third, Rounds, with its pumping soft percussion and vermiform solo line, at first chromatic, then simple as a playground chant. Not all the instruments keep up and the music slows, I think, involuntarily. The outer movements set at a very high tessitura, the first movement, Rings, in particular like circling birds soaring above the stave. Hadelich plays these extreme pitches with exciting rich tone scything the stratosphere. The long slow middle, Paths, begins with a chord like the start of the Bach solo violin Chaconne. The general motion is from low to high in lurches impelled by sudden flagellations, a gritty imploring of rising emotional intensity until the repeating violin sees off the other instruments, its battery still pulsing energy when others have long since ceased.
Monday, 10 March 2014
Disc of the Day: German cellist Alban Gerhardt with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin playing three cello concerti by Hans Pfitzner. Strauss' conctemporary and enthusiast for National Socialism? The same. These are rich, warm, melodic works that express well-being and innocence in his age. What age? Germany in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The Op52 Cello Concerto dates from 1943 but its spirit is so happy, humorous and carefree that one can only start to rethink what it was like back then. The longest work on the disc though, the posthumously published A minor concerto, is a student work from the 1880s. It has a theme with a Sibelian hiccup stated in the opening bars. The hiccup pervades the work, identifying the theme even where the counterpoint is thickest. Gerhardt has a sad soliloquy soon after the start on arpeggios soaring to head-swimming high notes and beyond. The second of two movements takes shape in layers of orchestral sound supporting Gerhardt's Romantic solo line and an arching theme first passed round the orchestra for inspection. Sibelius rears up a second time in the tremolandi for both soloist and orchestral strings, shivering with the drama of the piece. The Op52 A minor Concerto gives even less away of turmoil or destruction. An Elgarian theme insinuates itself into each movement. The first is in an easy swinging three and features an exquisitely witty cadenza duet with the clarinet. The second movement nicht zu schnell tempts speeding but Gerhardt resists by concentrating on the joy of the work. Was he trying to keep spirits up? That the idea? Who knows? But as time lessens the impact of those troubled years, so music like Pfitzner's will come increasingly to the fore, expressing the everyday mundanities free of the excitement of heightened passions, dwelling on small-minded concerns and no less valid in the overall picture for all that.
Sunday, 9 March 2014
Disc of the Day: As it's Lent, Sir, the men only choir Tenebrae's disc of the Tallis Lamentations parts I and II is appropriate. Any good? Fine balance, clear diction, perfect intonation. Yes. They differentiate the sections by speed and dynamics, slowing for the Yerusalem passage with David Alsop's pleading, steel-bright alto answered movingly by the homophonic chanting of the tenors and basses. They look rather sinister on the cover. Who are they? A professional vocal sextet, Sir, founded by ex-King's Singer Nigel Short in their image although they don't sing so much of the doo-wop light repertoire. The Lamentations lasts only about twenty minutes. What else is there? John Sheppard's In manus tuas but otherwise nothing but plainchant, I'm afraid, Sir. One always feels a little short-changed when choirs do that. I'm not saying it's not beautiful, or even that Tenebrae do not perform it with an almost immaculate ensemble, just that the greatness of Western music is in harmony, the skill of composing and performing in the blend of musical elements. You mean when you've heard one plainsong, you've heard them all? Not exactly, as plainchant has great melodies - they start with Pange Lingua - but that's the general idea.
Friday, 7 March 2014
Disc of the Day: Birtwistle. Cor, you're brave. Well, it was tough going, but rewarding in the end. BBC Singers and Nash Ensemble under Nicholas Kok. Also I happened to notice among the tracks Lullaby (2006), a piece 'premiered by the trebles of Southwark Cathedral Choir in November', but not just them. The altos Alan, Neil, Amiel and I, sang the lower part. You sang in the premiere? Precisely, Sir. I remember it well. The sun shone on the Eucharist-with-Christening, I think for the child of Birtwistle's nephew and he'd written a two-part lullaby, O my deir hert, for us. He came to the rehearsal. 'Can it be softer?' he asked in his gruff way. Try to make the demisemiquavers more throwaway,' he suggested. 'Oh and a little faster.' Not always easy to know what a composer wants without asking him. Exactly, Sir. Especially with such modern anchorless harmonies. How do the Beeb do? Not as well as us. The speed's less than a lullaby's rocking and the sopranos' hemidemisemis could be more disposable. Dynamics? There have been more effective inducements to sleep. I buttonholed Birtwistle after the service and he signed my copy, so Southwark's Cantoris Alto II a hundred years from now will be privileged to sing from an autographed score. What of the rest of the disc? Moth Requiem for three harps, alto flute and chorus was premiered last year at the Proms and this re-ignites the beauty of harp strings gently flapped into life by the moth caught beneath the piano lid, a flutter-tongued flute and singers enjoying the detached syllables of the Latin moth names as if they were phrases in the mass. Also Three Latin Motets from the Last Supper. Isn't 'Latin motet' tautologous? A motet doesn't have to be in Latin but it tends to get used that way.
Thursday, 6 March 2014
Disc of the Day: Cripes, what happened there? It's all right, Sir, we have been cleared of a terms of service felony. Is that serious? Don't think so. We were removed from the internet universe for a period of 24 hours which meant we had a night off. What did we do exactly? As far as I could make out, Sir, we were pretending to be spam. Spam spam wonderful spam? Don't start, Sir. In fact, now that I remember, I was just in the middle of posting the Tallis CD sleeve on the left when it all went dark and kept me up till after midnight. You've put it there now though. Yes. Nice map, don't you think? It dates from 1550. There seems to be a a large chunk of North Wales missing and Scotland looks ready to stab Ireland in the back with the Mull of Kintyre. Is that the Mull of Kintyre Rule? Very mischievous today, Sir.
Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Disc of the Day: As it's Ash Wednesday, Sir, I thought you might like this, the Cardinall's Musick singing Tallis. What Tallis? Well, the Missa Puer Natus. The Boy is Born mass? Isn't that a Christmas piece? Okay, it's a bit out of season, but a fabulous sound whatever the date. There's no Kyrie - it wasn't done back in the 1550s, so the Gloria begins after a bright intonation. The basses are murky and rather indistinct, the baritone's cantus firmus line, comprising the plainsong Puer Natus at slow speed, a dark fuzz rather than a brightly lit path. Tallis may not have performed it at this pitch. Quite, although if it were much higher, the sopranos would go through the ceiling. The opening sounds like Spem in Alium, a feeling one gets with each movement as they all begin with same slow unfolding sequence. They share the same head motif, you mean? Precisely, Sir. The upper parts have great clarity, their character coming through in solos that stick out, like the tenor's English cadence at the end of the first section. Tenors and basses begin the Qui tollis, a bass showing great fruitiness on an exposed low note. These low voices begin to growl as the pace quickens with a Tallis joke on altissimus, highest, sung by the lowest voice. The Sanctus is slow and indulgent, a tenor giving too much explosive attack. The vowels sound chewed. The two Osannas are different, the second one, darker, more rhythmically intense. Carwood conducts with freedom and flexibility, making the Agnus Dei the most expressive of all. Am I right in thinking there were Spaniards involved? It's not proven, Sir, but yes, it is supposed to have been composed for a joint performance with the bearded sopranos in the Spanish chapel royal who had travelled to London for the marriage of King Philip to Mary in 1554. Her pregnancy was announced - a child is born! - with the future Catholicity of England assured, but nothing came of it and Mary died four years later not having seen her husband since the wedding visit. The disc opens with two plainsong settings which is one too many. The first has the tune we associate with Pentecost which makes the whole thing sound a little schizophrenic. Anyway, Sir, welcome to Lent. What are you going to give up? Listening to you. Joking.
Tuesday, 4 March 2014
Disc of the Day: Good journey? Canadian baritone Gerald Finley singing Schubert's Winter's Journey with Julius Drake at the keys, you mean Sir? Yes Winterreise. Good. Bleak. Comfortless. Perhaps slightly too full-voiced at the start in Gute Nacht where the cycle wants a little coldness, a little alienation for the stranger. Finley's plenipotential vocal chords sometimes struggle to produce the thinness required for a melancholy concert work away from the opera house, but he achieves real forlorn grief at Gefrorne Traenen, frozen tears. He drips with sadness at Dr Lindenbaum, the linden tree and bitter horror at Der Greise Kopf, the old man's head. A sense of theatrical self-pity takes Finley closer to the grease-paint, but real or not, the poet's decline into madness is complete by the chilling unreason of Die Nebensonnen, the mock suns. The last song Der Leiermann, the barrel-organist, is bleak warning of the end that awaits one never satisfied in love as Finely's hollow tone expresses nothing more than the deepest regret. His partner, Julius Drake, turns the barrel-organ handle handle with the sweet repetitiveness that substitutes for argument in the mentally ill. The machine is well worn and his touch is like silk on the keys throughout the cycle but here at the end in particular and earlier in Erstarrung, numbness, when the first hint of permanent damage ton the poet's psyche is apparent. He pings like a counter-bell in Gefrorne Traenen, gallops like a racing pule in Die Post and imitates a scrawny farmyard cock in Die Kraehe. So worth having then? Anything with Finley in is an asset, Sir, his recalcitrant concert persona notwithstanding.
Monday, 3 March 2014
Disc of the Day: Suddenly I'm a purist. You don't say. I am, Sir. I thought I was an accommodating liberal but I realise while it's all very well for us to adulterate Monteverdi, Purcell is too close to home, too personal, too sacrosanct. Who's been messing with England's Orpheus? It's the group L'Arpeggiata, Sir, of whom I am an avowed fan for the mesmerising drive of their period instrument, jazz-inflected ground basses and the brilliant virtuosity of their play. The album Music for a While carries the subtitle 'Improvisations on Henry Purcell', so we cannot say we were not warned, but nothing prepares us for what follows. They make the opener Twas Within a Furlong, sound like a 1950s skiffle band hit which is certainly cheeky, but it's a rough old song anyway. The next is Music for a While over a pizzicato double bass ostinato with a jazz piano, brush-drumming and Stranger on the Shore clarinet. When counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky enters, to our relief only the bass remains with a few sketched in chords from the keyboard. The playing is extraordinary and Jaroussky's ornamentation delicious but it is so far removed from authentic practice that one involuntary cries, no! they can't! at each new outrage. Strike the Viol brings forward a hard skin Arabic drum - a great sound in its way, but in a birthday ode for Queen Mary? Here clarinettist Gianluigi Trovesi is at his sleaziest in blues scale improvisations totally out-of-keeping with correct procedure. In Wondrous Machine they dispense with Purcell's happiest ground bass and accompany the extraordinary singing of Vincenzo Capezzuto with clicking and whirring percussion, blues guitar and piano. Admittedly the extremes are committed away from the verses which retain a modicum of sobriety but the reaction can't have been less when Jacques Loussier played Bach. Now we know what the Germans felt. Insult upon injury. One has to admire the chutzpah of Christina Pluhar bringing these interpretations to the home of Purcell. Expect riots when she plays the Wigmore Hall with this programme in May. This is so far removed from Purcell that it's really a different music.
Sunday, 2 March 2014
Disc of the Day: Fancy getting stuck on Milos. I think it was more that I didn't get much from the record. I was trying to feel something, but nothing came. The picture put me off - the leather biker jacket, the stubble. Too posed. Music's an aural medium and tends to be a bit of an amateur when it has an image it wants to use. Still, leave them to their corniness. The last sentence of yesterday's review went a bit haywire. Falling asleep over a diary, you write gobbledy-gook. Sometimes, you write gobbledy-gook when you're not falling asleep. I asked for that. How about the Bach Lutheran Masses for March? The Sixteen's new disc, out on 3 March? Yes. Lutheran Mass sounds contradictory to me. Well, Luther didn't outlaw the mass, he just celebrated less often and it was no longer the main service. Because the purpose was different, he felt justified in using music from the cantatas, making them 'parody' masses. By the Gloria of the Mass in G, the choir is into its accustomed Bach stride, the pace steady but with momentum, the choral runs articulate, the fugues fun. Disappointment arrives with the end of the movement - always a good sign. Terrific soloists step forward. Soprano Julia Doyle ought to be better known than she is. She has beautiful tone with the tension of a coiled spring. Her ornaments are delicate in her solo aria Qui tollis in the Mass in A. Soprano Grace Davison and alto William Purefoy deliver an exquisite duet in the Domine deus of the Mass in G. Alto Robin Blaze gets the title aria of the Cantata Gott ist unser Schild and delivers it with easy brilliance and the clearest diction. Baritone Eamonn Dougan is conductor Harry Christophers' deputy conductor but here his gentle voice is what's required. As always though with the Sixteen it's the choral sound which is fundamental and here it's as versatile as ever, judiciously balanced, flexible in the runs, powerful in the Nun Danket chorale of the cantata and above all joyful in execution.
Saturday, 1 March 2014
Disc of the Day: Milos' Aranjuez is just too predictable. How do you mean? Predictable repertoire. Having a top guitarist play Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez is like getting a minstrel to perform Greensleeves. One suspects either the label or the management has come up with it. It has to be done, and is done but it lacks heart when it comes to it. Predictable in the way he performs, perfunctory, as if performing an obligation. What about the other Rodrigo piece Fantasia para un gentilhombre? Yes, not so well known and played with fresh vigour. The orchestra's a little too sumptuous sometimes and the contrast between full scale orchestra and timid soloist is somewhat clunky. Rodrigo expands the dances composed by Gaspar Sanz to orchestral size which is rather more than they deserve. Times are not good for seventeenth composers of guitar music.