Recording of the Month
Julia Wolfe: Fire in my mouth
Chorus Conductor: Donald Nally | Assistant Conductor: Kevin Vondrak
Young People's Chorus of New York City
Chorus Conductor: Francisco J. Núñez
New York Philharmonic
Conductor: Jaap van Zweden
Recorded live at David Geffen Hall, New York City, on January 24, 2019
Released on August 30, 2019 by Decca Gold
Julia Wolfe's Fire in my mouth is one of 2019's most memorable recordings; Donnacha Dennehy's The Hunger, a meditation on the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century, leaves an indelible impression; Derek Bermel's Migrations is a grand celebration of one of America's great living composers at the top of his game.
What makes a new piece of music important? There are many reasons, certainly, but three prime ingredients usually involve: how it breaks new stylistic or technical ground; speaks to the moment in some fundamental, significant way; and, lastly, that it's just good music. Julia Wolfe's Fire in my mouth, a four-movement cantata for women's chorus, children's choir, and orchestra, checks all those boxes.
Wolfe's score takes the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as its point of departure. 146 workers, most of them Eastern European immigrants to the United States died in that blaze in lower Manhattan more than a century ago. Fire in my mouth doesn't tell each of their stories. Instead, it seeks to paint a broader picture of the plight of immigrants and laborers, past and present, in this country, as well as the continuing work to improve social, working, and living conditions for the least of those among us.
That's a tall order, yes, but Wolfe's a no-nonsense composer. Her musical language is rooted in Minimalism as well as the energy of the best of rock and popular music of the '60s, '70s, and '80s. And it pairs remarkably well with the work's texts, all of which are culled from primary sources.
The first movement, "Immigration", evokes a trans-Atlantic crossing, with widely spaced orchestral sonorities and shimmering, responsive choral writing. In the second, "Factory", the orchestra conjures a mechanistic din, after which a Yiddish lament is paired with a ribald tarantella. "Protest", the third movement, commemorates the efforts of early-20th-century labor activists like Clara Lemlich, while the concluding "Fire" sets the reminiscences of survivors and ends with a recitation of all the victims' names.
So how do those three points from above play out in Fire in my mouth?
Well, even if Wolfe doesn't reinvent herself, stylistically, here, the cumulative effect of her writing in Fire in my mouth is visceral. This is music that grabs you by the collar and commands your attention with its emotional directness and gestural flexibility (like the brilliantly inventive orchestral factory section of the second movement). It speaks to the day with its timeless themes of hope, suffering, perseverance, and tragedy. And, as music, it manages to be both aesthetically honest and totally approachable. In a word, Fire in my mouth is contemporary music that demands to be heard.
Its debut recording, featuring the New York Philharmonic (NYPO), Young People's Chorus of New York City, and The Crossing, leaves nothing to be desired. The Philharmonic hasn't played much Wolfe (Fire in my mouth is only the second big piece of hers they've ever performed), but they dig into this score with complete assurance and command. The vocal element – 146 voices strong – is glowingly precise in balance, diction, and tone. Jaap van Zweden presides over it all with a sure hand, demonstrating his excellence as a purveyor of new music and proving he's a worthy successor to Alan Gilbert in this department as the NYPO's new director.
The bottom line: Fire in my mouth's January premiere was one of the year's most significant. This recording is one of 2019's most memorable. Don't miss it.
Source: Jonathan Blumhofer (artsfuse.org)
Franz Schubert: Winterreise, Op.89 D.911
Ian Bostridge, tenor
Thomas Adès, piano
Recorded live at the Wigmore Hall, London, in September 2018
Released on August 23, 2019, by Pentatone
When I came back from a press-conference earlier this year with the news that Ian Bostridge was to record Schubert's three great song-cycles for Pentatone, I met with a chorus of "Again?", "Already?", and "Why?". It's barely a decade since the idiosyncratic British tenor completed the trilogy on Warner Classics, where Leif Ove Andsnes accompanied him on a "Winter's Journey" of such pathos and chilly beauty that the recording (released in 2004) quickly became my own personal benchmark for the work.
In a sense, though, it was inevitable that Bostridge would return to Winterreise in different company, as many of his predecessors have done (Fischer-Dieskau, for instance, recorded the work with nearly a dozen pianists); as he muses towards the end of his 2015 book Winter's Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, the idea of "endless repetition" is hardwired into the cycle itself in that the final song sees the protagonist tentatively approaching a new accompanist with whom to repeat the whole sorry saga. Bostridge's companion for this second journey is of course a far more distinguished and respected musician than the destitute old busker of Wilhelm Müller's bleak final poem – the composer, conductor and pianist Thomas Adès, for whom he created the role of Caliban in The Tempest, and indeed there's something of Shakespeare's apparently monstrous outsider in the character they bring to life together here.
So what fresh insights has Bostridge uncovered in the intervening years? Short answer: plenty. One of the remarkable things about this new reading is just how much of the extensive scholarly work which both he and Adès have undertaken translates readily into sound: Bostridge, for instance, spends much of the early chapters of Anatomy of an Obsession exploring the idea of the protagonist as unreliable narrator, and whilst this may sound unduly academic on paper it comes across loud and clear on the recording. From the outset this wanderer is perceptibly less simpatico, more disingenuous than his earlier incarnation: instead of a greenhorn experiencing heartbreak for the first time, the impression is of an older, embittered man who's spent years re-playing this story in his head and occasionally tweaking it to garner sympathy from his imagined audience. Throughout, there's the sense of re-opening old wounds rather than smarting from recent ones, though the pain is if anything more immediate; it helps that the voice itself is rougher round the edges than it was in 2004, and that Bostridge takes more overt expressive risks these days, though there's still some hypnotically beautiful singing in songs like Das Wirthaus and an eerily elongated Die Krähe (taken almost twice as slow as on the recording with Andsnes).
Adès, too, has done much homework on the various editions of the score, and his playing has such clarity that every detail registers: staccatos where we’re used to hearing slurs, dynamic shifts in slightly different places, and appoggiaturas which are usually glossed over all make their presence felt, as do the unsettling cross-rhythms as the post-van rattles its way into town more unsteadily than on most recordings. Much of the overall magic derives from Adès's willingness to play straight man to Bostridge's more Expressionist protagonist: if the singer flirts with Sprechstimme in places (perhaps inspired by his performances of Hans Zender's "composed interpretation" of the piece several years ago), Adès's playing put me in mind of András Schiff's recent Schubert recordings, and some of the colours he draws from the Wigmore's Steinway sound for all the world like they emanate from a Brodmann or Érard. As with Bostridge's endlessly illuminating, enriching book on the subject, the balance between pointing up the work's strange modernity and engaging with its historical context is immaculately judged, and much of the beauty of the interpretation stems from the contrast between the two.
The biggest surprise, though, comes at the beginning of the final song: instead of the bare open fifth which usually announces the presence of the ghostly hurdy-gurdy man, we get a jarringly dissonant chord which I've never come across before on disc or in print. The effect is profoundly uncanny, and I'd love to know its provenance...
Postscript: Pentatone's UK distributor, RSK, very kindly contacted Thomas Adès to answer my final question shortly after the article was published: his answer is reproduced below.
"What I think Schubert is trying to notate with that appoggiatura at the start of Der Leiermann is the ‘tuning up’ effect that you might get with a hurdy-gurdy, as the drone scoops up to the note. It is supposed to suggest instability and ‘poor’ intonation, a ‘poor’ quality of instrumental sound. I found that playing the grace note virtually (though not quite) simultaneously with the downbeat, and releasing it gradually into the fifth, obtains the closest illusion of this effect that a piano can achieve."
Source: Katherine Cooper (prestomusic.com)
[Bostridge's] voice was superb – the warm penumbra he had when younger is gone, but that is a gain, as out of it has come polished steel. — New York Classical Review
[Adès] has outgrown his status as the wunderkind of a vibrant British scene and become one of the most imposing figures in contemporary music. — The New Yorker
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.4 in G major
Sofia Fomina, soprano
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski
Recorded live at Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall, London, on October 12, 2016
Released on July 19, 2019, by London Philharmonic Orchestra Ltd
A Mahler Fourth as insightful and as individual as we have come to expect from this source. How rarely we hear the opening bars of the symphony delivered precisely as Mahler instructs: Bedächtig. Nicht eilen ("Deliberate. Don't hurry"), the sleigh bells gently out of kilter at the ritardando, a Viennese decorum holding court in Mahler's rarefied nature world.
And yet the eternal child within him is always present, primed to rebel (cue the E flat clarinet) in those quickenings of pulse, those raucous scamperings. Texturally, harmonically and in terms of characterisation (never over-egged), Jurowski achieves a wondrous clarity and transparency. There are eye-popping pizzicatos and subito switches in dynamics designed to catch us off-guard.
The sour note introduced by Death, the Fiddler in the second movement is unapologetically grating and in all the woodwind interjections – not least the spiky clarinet – it's a case of who can shout loudest. Contrasting with all this is that glorious glissando-swathed transformation at the end of the Trio. Indeed, Jurowski's way with all Mahler's portamento has an unaffected spontaneity about it. All credit to the London Philharmonic strings. These things can sound so "dutiful".
As in Adám Fischer's Düsseldorf account, I love the through-phrased fluency and intimacy of the slow movement (never more redolent of the introduction to the Quartet "Mir its so wunderbar" from Beethoven's Fidelio), which eschews the kind of overwrought, over-extended rubatos that sometimes afflict it. It's the way in which Jurowski's phrasing always relates to sonority, the LPO strings intense and "present" from top to bottom – those great sighing, plunging glissandos in the basses especially telling. Even the great "Heaven's Gate" moment is delivered as a sudden fleeting (and glorious) vision, without pomposity or unearned grandiosity. Everything in proportion, in context.
Heavenly life finds approval in the bright and vibrant sound of soprano Sofia Fomina, whose rapid vibrato and lively awareness of the text's high-jinks all ring true. I personally crave more "spin" and floatation in the repeated refrain – but her character certainly chimes with Jurowski's very "immediate" view of the piece, where the close-ups are plentiful and revealing.
Source: Edward Seckerson (gramophone.co.uk)
While Vladimir Jurowski isn't recognized as a Mahler specialist, having recorded only three of the symphonies over the course of a decade, his recording of the Symphony No.4 in G major may at least indicate an abiding interest in the composer's work, promising more recordings to come. Previously, Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra recorded Mahler's Symphony No.2 in C minor, "Resurrection", and the Symphony No.1 in D major, released in 2011 and 2013 respectively, and even though these recordings have pleased Jurowski's fans, they didn't raise wider expectations for a great Mahler cycle. This 2016 performance of the Fourth, released on LPO in 2019, is a bit like its predecessors, perhaps too relaxed and subdued to signify deep passions, while the gemütlich interpretation over-emphasizes the symphony's cheerfulness at the expense of its melancholy and macabre aspects. Add to this the shallow sound of the live recording in London's Southbank Centre Royal Festival Hall, and it might seem that this presentation is a bit underwhelming and of little interest to Mahler devotees. Yet for its low-key approach, this performance is consistent and unobtrusively controlled within its own modest parameters, and neither Jurowski nor the London Philharmonic Orchestra overdo Mahler's eccentricities, so this is as straightforward a reading of the Fourth as one is likely to find.
Source: Blair Sanderson (allmusic.com)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23 | Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
Haochen Zhang, piano
Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Dima Slobodeniouk
Recorded January 2018 (Tchaikovsky) & March 2018 (Prokofiev) at the Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
Released on July 5, 2019, by BIS
This is not an obvious concerto coupling; but in fact there are at least three others, two of them quite recent: Rana and Pappano (Warner Classics, 12/15), Gerstein and Gaffigan (Myrios, 2/15); from the past, there is Joselson and Ormandy (Sony). Even so, do we really need another Tchaikovsky First Concerto on disc with no fewer than 447 available on different current CDs? Well, the answer in this instance is an enthusiastic "yes".
Haochen Zhang won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn a decade ago. He has yet to make it as a headliner internationally but listening to his way with this old warhorse left me in no doubt that here is an artist of rare talent. Listen to the way he handles the opening pages – those chords above the stave on the third beat with their top F naturals, E flats and A flats ring out emphatically, those that follow are extravagantly arpeggiated, and his phrasing of the solo and cadenza before the return of the opening theme is not just (the usual) empty bravura but thoughtfully shaped as though part of a conversation. In short, Zhang tells the introduction in such a way that you cannot wait to hear the rest of the story. Even if you instinctively shy away from yet another Tchaikovsky First, I think this performance will come as a refreshing surprise. The fast passagework in the central movement and the finale is thrillingly light and swift, and it is only a slight lack of weight in the final pages that, for me, falls short.
The Prokofiev, which precedes it, will do nothing to lessen the growing popularity of this extraordinary work. Again, it is Zhang's articulation and phrasing, precision and power that merit the highest praise. The Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Dimo Slobodeniouk provide spirited support and offer formidable competition even to the incredible Yuja Wang / Gustavo Dudamel live performance in Caracas (DG, 2/14) – just listen to the way Zhang and Slobodeniouk present the peroration of the first movement. Spine-tingling. And all credit to BIS producer Marion Schwebel and engineer Christian Starke for the vivid sound picture. Like many of BIS's recent releases, the disc's sleeve is made of material from sustainable forest management, soy ink, eco-friendly glue and water-based varnish, and is easy to recycle: no plastic is used. Other labels take note. Another tick. In fact, full marks all round.
Source: Jeremy Nicholas (gramophone.co.uk)
In a new, pristine recording from BIS, pianist Haochen Zhang takes a big step in his career, presenting on record Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and Prokofiev's Second. For Zhang, it is his first studio recording of a concerto; previously, after winning the top spot at the prestigious Van Cliburn competition in 2009, he had only recorded a set of intimate solo works, also for BIS. The album showcases many strengths of both soloist and orchestra, but also shows that they still have room to grow.
Zhang possesses a virtuosic technique (his winning repertoire in the 2009 Van Cliburn competition included Petrushka and Gaspard de la Nuit), and here both concertos give him ample opportunity to showcase it. In two striking segments of the Prokofiev, Zhang uses his mastery to profess an interpretation of the concerto that few can credibly attempt: cold, futurist minimalism. This is not Steve Reich's minimalism. It is a minimization of romantic gestures and of warm colors. The first of those two segments is the "Moto-Perpetuo" scherzo. Zhang's playing is simply unforgiving. A second such segment comes at the opening of the concerto's finale; Zhang here is, simply put, vicious, and the results are chilling.
There are, however, moments where this version of the Prokofiev is less effective. In the opening, marked "Narrante", the phrases and rubatti are jolted and overly calculated. It feels like a glossy, new paint job of an old story, rather than a completely novel "narration". That movement's cadenza is tense and indeed "colossal" where Prokofiev indicates it, but it could have been even more prodigious, with proper space for the music to breathe within and between phrases. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Yundi Li both give more convincing (if traditionally late-Romantic) accounts of the opening and the cadenza.
In the Tchaikovsky, Zhang again gives a technically thrilling, if occasionally emotionally removed performance. Comparisons with other stand-out, recent recordings of the piece are instructive. For instance, at the main, dotted-rhythm theme of the first movement, Zhang's playing is polished and incisive but lacks color compared with, say, Beatrice Rana. When Rana plays this theme, there are three distinct colors: the dance-like phrase, the warmer major-third "commentaries" (as Barenboim might call them), and the upper-register flourishes. The colors are created by changing front and back-end articulations, and with very subtle modulations of the pulse. Zhang's playing is cooler, with the slightest shifting of a pulse. Throughout the first movement, this leaves the performance more emotionally detached than one might expect for Tchaikovsky.
A similar comparison could be made in the Andantino, this time to Denis Kozhukin's recent version of the concerto. Kozhukin uses a whole array of sounds in this movement, starting off straight and present, transitioning to a lighter, fluid touch when he accompanies the celli, oboe, and clarinet. Zhang remains monochromatic throughout the opening, wielding a particularly pointy staccato. Tchaikovsky does indeed indicate "Sempre Staccato" when the soloist accompanies the orchestra, but Kozhukin's staccato is perfectly convincing while managing to be warm as well.
It is in the Tchaikovsky's up-tempo sections, the prestissimo section of the Andantino and the concerto's finale, that Zhang's abilities shine. He plays with momentum, at once graceful and forceful, and his reading of the rondo is quite astounding. The recurring theme is spritely and engaging, if one can put aside the disorienting rhythmic stereotypy. The second theme flows wonderfully, and the final moments are exciting, leaving one generally in awe.
Source: Jonah Pearl (theclassicreview.com)
Danish String Quartet:
Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violin
Frederik Øland, violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello
Recorded May 2017, Reitstadel Neumakt, Germany
Released on September 13, 2019, by ECM
The Danish String Quartet's Grammy-nominated Prism project links Bach fugues, late Beethoven quartets and works by modern masters. In volume two of the series, Bach's Fugue in Bb minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier (in the arrangement by Viennese composer Emanuel Aloys Förster) is brought together with Beethoven's String Quartet Op.130 and Alfred Schnittke's String Quartet No.3 (composed in 1983). As the quartet explains, "A beam of music is split through Beethoven's prism. The important thing to us is that these connections be experienced widely. We hope the listener will join us in the wonder of thee beams of music that travel all the way from Bach through Beethoven to our own times". Recorded in historic Reitstadel Neumarkt and produced by Manfred Eicher, the album is issued as the Danish String Quartet embarks on a tour with dates on both sides of the Atlantic, climaxing with a run of Prism concerts on the West Coast of the U.S. The Quartet plays the full Prism cycle at La Jolla Music Society over five concerts in late November.
This release by the Danish String Quartet is part of a five-album series titled "Prism", each of which will apparently include three works: an arrangement of a Bach fugue for string quartet, one of Beethoven's five late quartets, and a 20th century work that somehow lies in the shadow of both, or, to use the quartet's own words, "a beam of music is split through Beethoven's prism". In this case, the program is unusually coherent, with the String Quartet No.3 of Alfred Schnittke engaging itself directly with the Beethoven String Quartet No.13 in B flat major, Op.130, and Grosse Fuge, Op.133, here played as the finale of the String Quartet No.13 as Beethoven originally conceived the work. Logically, the Beethoven should go in the middle, but after you hear the Danish String Quartet's blistering performance of the String Quartet No.13, you'll agree that it would be an impossible act to follow. The group gets just how radical this quartet was, especially with the Grosse Fuge in place, as sharp contrasts grow throughout the work and explode in the unthinkably intense fugue. The quartet takes the first movements of the six-movement work very rapidly, with the lighter melodic passages seeming like passing thoughts, takes a deep pause with the Cavatina slow movement, and then plunges into the fugue at top power. They are aided by magnificent engineering work from ECM, working on the Reitstadel Neumarkt, a riding stadium with famed acoustics. The Schnittke quartet is a fascinating work in itself, quoting the Beethoven extensively and exploring its sharp contrasts (sample the Agitato middle movement). One awaits the rest of the Danish String Quartet's series breathlessly, but it's possible that this volume, with a Beethoven performance for the ages, will tower over the rest. A bonus is a set of notes by the great Paul Griffiths, writing mostly for ECM these days.
Source: James Manheim (allmusic.com)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Symphony in F sharp, Op.40 – Theme and Variations, Op.42 – Straussiana
Sinfonia of London
Conductor: John Wilson
Recorded 14-16 January 2019 at the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London
Released on August 30, 2019, by Chandos
Rumours have been circling for a while of a hush-hush project from John Wilson; of a new super-orchestra hand-picked from the cream of the UK's orchestral players. Now here it is: a radiant new recording of Korngold's orchestral music with an all-new Sinfonia of London, led by Andrew Haveron.
And? Well, for starters, put aside any expectation of the Technicolor studio sound that Wilson draws from his other orchestra (the one that carries his name). Wilson has always been clear that he's interested primarily in the appropriate colour for any given repertoire, and for this Austrian-American exile symphony he evokes a great post-war US orchestra – the weighty, satin string tone, the skyscraping brass and questioning woodwinds that you might find on a 1950s Chicago or Philadelphia disc, though Chandos captures a much mellower general ambience.
And then Wilson runs with it, in one of the most athletic performances of this symphony on record – closer in spirit to Kempe than Previn, but considerably faster than either (even without Kempe's cuts). Rhythms are springy and purposeful; the great Adagio really strives, as well as sings, and I've rarely heard it probe deeper. Every phrase speaks; textures are translucent and detailed (even at the dizzying speed of the Scherzo), and the string sound glows from within, with portamento very much at the service of expression. Wilson clearly sees Korngold's Symphony (rightly) as part of the Viennese classical tradition.
The result is both gripping and sincerely moving; and the two short, sad sweet late works that follow the symphony – written by Korngold for amateur orchestras – receive the same whole-hearted commitment and loving care for colour and style. Stirring, thought-provoking and superbly played, this disc is a tonic. Let's hope it's not a one-off.
Source: Richard Bratby (gramophone.co.uk)
However valuable John Wilson's back catalogue, this August 30 Chandos issue might just prove to be his most substantial recording achievement to date. It is by my reckoning the tenth commercial release of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's once-neglected Symphony (Werner Andreas Albert set down the same three works for CPO) but it is indubitably ahead of the pack, setting new standards in several respects. The identity of individual players is not divulged, save that of the leader, the estimable Andrew Haveron, his presence confirming that the hand-picked band will indeed include veterans of the John Wilson Orchestra. Now into its third incarnation, the Sinfonia of London re-emerges as a session orchestra to rank with Charles Gerhardt's National Philharmonic. It helps too that the Chandos sound team has found an ideal acoustic for the music-making, ample yet transparent. DG's channelling of All Hallows, Gospel Oak for André Previn's 1996 recording of the Symphony was more about endorsing deep-pile opulence.
Wilson's own interpretative angle is not always predictable. The makeweights first. Composed in 1953 to a commission from the American School Orchestras Association, these modest scores have surely never been prepared to so exalted a standard. The oddly affecting Theme and Variations is given the upscale "Hollywood" treatment, its slower sections delivered with the intense string vibrato and lavish expressivity associated with studio virtuosos rather than student ensembles. While Korngold presumably felt the need to simplify his idiom so as not to fox younger players, Wilson reveals the widest range of moods in its seven Variations, a sort of pocket digest of the composer's world in what is indeed "a deft, beautifully structured piece" as Brendan G. Carroll's note suggests. If Straussiana is not much more than a Johann Strauss II medley, it is at least delivered with singular panache.
In the Symphony itself, placed first in physical format, Wilson adopts a leaner, meaner approach, insisting on the abstract nature of a concert work whose appropriation of cinematic material is perhaps neither here nor there. The first movement though brisk is probably the most "central" in its pacing, albeit with a uniquely crisp and detailed take on salient details, nothing taken for granted, woodwind solos always carefully placed, the timpani-writing never so audible nor so in tune.
The most controversial part of the reading is likely to be the Scherzo, slightly pruned on Rudolf Kempe's ground-breaking 1972 LP. Here, Wilson still undercuts Kempe's total timing by virtue of adopting a basic tempo far fleeter than that of any rival. The argument now recalls the "maliciousness" of the corresponding movement of Walton's First Symphony never merely jogging along. Its glorious horn-led second theme, so potently realised by Previn's LSO, has to be slightly muted here lest it sap the impetus of the whole. The spectral Trio remains to provide the real contrast.
At 13'40 I am not sure the slow movement quite plumbs the depths – Pedro Halffter (Warner, Spain) goes so far as to break the seventeen-minute barrier – but there are none of the ensemble problems that arise (even for Previn) when its quasi-Mahlerian writing loses momentum. The Finale, almost always Korngold's dodgiest movement, is kept on a comparably tight rein so that the references to earlier material seem more logical than discursive.
The incidentals are glorious but above all Wilson never lets the music sprawl. Is it too much to hope that he will now tackle the Symphonic Serenade, Opus 39? The best of Korngold's late works, it's the one still, perplexingly, neglected by most record companies. Meanwhile, should the Symphony become as ubiquitous as the Violin Concerto, I suspect Wilson's radical reappraisal will have played a significant part.
Source: David Gutman (classicalsource.com)
Johannes Brahms: Violin Sonatas
Alina Ibragimova, violin
Cédric Tiberghien, piano
Recorded 9-11 May 2018 at Henry Wood Hall, London
Released on August 30, 2019, by Hyperion Records
When this is released on August 30, Hyperion has a total winner on its hands. Brahms, Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien are perfectly cast; these are mesmerising performances wonderfully well recorded by Simon Eadon (Andrew Keener producing) – with intimacy, clarity, faithful dynamics and spot-on balance – after all, these are Sonatas for Violin and Piano, and these artists are such a charismatic partnership; their give and take is palpable, their devotion to the music deep and dedicated, and their insights illuminating.
Take the opening movement of the G major Sonata, at once gorgeous and eloquent. The duo's moderate tempo and shapely phrasing are, frankly, perfect, so too their gradations of volume and their ability to know when one instrument has the limelight without overshadowing the other – the frisson generated is spine-tingling and haunting, even more so in those passages when the depth of Brahms's soul is revealed as something beyond words. The piano introduces the second movement, Tiberghien richly expressive, Ibragimova then confiding and songful; and the Finale is sculpted to a nicety, bowed and touched gently.
It's a similar story for the remaining seven movements (Opus 108 claiming four of them). Whether individually or indivisibly – Ibragimova sporting a wide range of tone, as intense as she is tender, Tiberghien waxing poetically yet not afraid to be demonstrative – the remaining two Sonatas continue on the same exalted level in terms of the music-making itself (and all three works are inspired anyway), persuasively judged all-through, not least the changes of tempo in the central movement of the A major piece; the Vivace sections really dance. How expressive the beginning of the D minor; how "naked" both musicians' subsequent and emotional fortissimo – yet such an outburst is made to belong. By contrast, the Adagio is poignancy itself, and its successors are completely characterised.
Had it been included, one can only imagine the fire and turns of phrase this combo would have brought to the Scherzo that Brahms contributed to the FAE Sonata (although the Finale of Opus 108 is in a similar mould). With there being room for the Scherzo and also the Clara Schumann, then the latter's (first) Romance should not be thought "instead of"; and, anyway, it's a charming miniature played with sweet affection.
Source: Colin Anderson (classicalsource.com)
August 26, 2019. In this week's Classical Album of the Week, Russian-British violinist Alina Ibragimova continues her long-standing musical collaboration with French pianist Cédric Tiberghien in a new recording including Brahms' Violin Sonatas and one of Clara Schumann's Three Romances.
Ibragimova and Tiberghien met in 2005 as part of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme and began concertizing together in 2007. This duo has covered a lot of ground in the last decade, having recorded and toured the repertoire by Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Ravel, Vierne, Janáček and Szymanowski.
In 2018, they performed the Brahms program heard on this new album in a recital at London's Wigmore Hall. Warmly received, that performance was followed just a year later with the release of this new album – right on the heels of their March release of the Vierne and Franck sonatas.
Ibragimova's bundling of the Brahms and the Clara Schumann selections may well be musically motivated – these 19th-century works not surprisingly share a similar soundscape and musical vocabulary. What also binds these together are themes of friendship, song, and summertime.
Brahms' first Violin Sonata in G major is believed to have been written with his friend, violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, in mind. It was composed alongside Brahms' Violin Concerto in the summer of 1878 while at Wörthersee Lake in southern Austria.
The second violin sonata was written "in anticipation of a beloved lady friend", contralto Hermine Spies, who was also the dedicatee for some of Brahms' beloved songs and who had visited Brahms during the summer of 1886 at a resort near Switzerland's picturesque Lake Thun. Both this and the first sonata are rooted in melodic ideas that originated in the songs he set to poems by his friend, Klaus Groth.
That 1886 stay in the Swiss resort is also thought to be the setting in which Brahms composed his third sonata, even though it was not published until a few years later. This work was dedicated to a close friend, Hans von Bülow – a conductor with whom Brahms enjoyed a warm, lively correspondence.
Bülow championed Brahms to such an extent that not only did he conduct many of Brahms' compositions, he also coined the phrase "the three B's – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms", elevating him to the loftiest heights in this adage that has persisted all the way into the 21st century.
Another friend of Brahms' made a mark on this third sonata – pianist and composer Elisabeth von Herzogenberg. She received a copy of the manuscript and subsequently provided notes to Brahms – a few of which he took on board and incorporated into the final movement.
The album's last work, one of the Three Romances by Clara Schumann, was also composed in the summertime – more than 20 years earlier than Brahms' three violin sonatas. Like Brahms, she was a friend of Joseph Joachim, and the two performed her Romances frequently on tour after the premiere in 1855.
With the 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann's birth just around the corner, this performance by Ibragimova and Tiberghien offers a great teaser for what's to come in September when we mark that bicentenary with a deep dive into her work.
Source: Heather McDougall (wrti.org)
Iberia y Francia – Maurice Ravel, Manuel de Falla, Claude Debussy, Isaac Albéniz, Federico Mompou
Imogen Cooper, piano
Recorded 25-28 March 2019, Concert Hall, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, England
Released on August 30, 2019, by Chandos
Imogen Cooper has been travelling and she'd like us to come along. For an artist whose name is frequently associated with Schubert and Schumann, it is worth remembering that Cooper spent her formative years at the Paris Conservatoire and is just about as steeped in French culture as it is possible for a non-native to be. Appropriately enough, her invitation au voyage in this case is Ravel's Pavane in a performance of insouciant simplicity, guileless and wistfully serene. Any stragglers are beckoned aboard in the morning light with an animated "Alborada del gracioso", less hard-edged than is customary, filled with dancing, rich colours and rhetorical flair. Falla's homage to Debussy straddles the Pyrenees, tapas whetting the appetite for dishes further south.
But first we'll linger a while with Debussy himself, who never made more than a day trip into Spain. Debussy's imagined Iberia, fed by the Parisian evocations of Massenet, Bizet and Charbrier and, more directly, by his friends Albéniz and Falla, stokes our anticipation. Listening to "La soirée dans Grenade", "La puerta del vino", "La sérénade interrompue" and, later in the programme, L' isle joyeuse, it is difficult to imagine Debussy-playing more personal, suggestive or voluptuous. Cooper has lived with this music long and well. Tempting as it might be to declare these thoroughly individual interpretations the highlight of the album, Albéniz is yet to come.
When an artist seems to reign supreme in a particular repertory, as indeed Alicia de Laroccha did in Albéniz for most of my lifetime, alternative points of view can strike as pedestrian. Not here: Cooper gives us an Albéniz entirely her own, all the more vivid perhaps for its vantage from the outside looking in. Piquant, understated, with a sultry heat that smoulders rather than bursting into flame, these are compelling performances informed by the palette of Goya and undergirded with an inerrantly zesty rhythmic élan. An evening stroll through the Arab Quarter of Granada in "El Albaicín" feels a little dangerous and very sexy. The clattering castanets and strumming guitars of "El puerto" gradually give way to the approaching Corpus Christi procession in Seville, teeming with the faithful and a religious fervour only a few degrees from madness. In these selections from Iberia, as well as in "Rumores de la caleta" from the earlier Recuerdos de viaje, for every secret divulged, others remain mysteries. Cooling transition on the return voyage is entrusted to the subtleties of Mompou, whose mother, we recall, was French.
For some bottom-line terrific piano playing and programming that inflames the imagination, I suggest you set your internal default to luxe, calme et volupté and prepare for departure. A wonderful journey awaits.
Source: Patrick Rucker (gramophone.co.uk)
Mariam Batsashvili, piano
Recorded February 2019, Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin-Dahlem, and March 2019, BBC Maida Vale Studio 1, London
Released on August 30, 2019, by Warner Classics
Probably the most attractive part of Mariam Batsashvili's latest offering is the Liszt Six Polish Songs after Chopin. These arrangements are a true meeting of minds – between the (hypothetical) folk originals, Chopin's discreet musical embodiments of them and Liszt's typically flamboyant maximalisations of Chopin. The Georgian-born pianist leaves nothing to be desired in the generous warmth of her interpretations.
The balancing set of six Consolations is likewise sensitive and refined throughout. Some phrases could, admittedly, be more daringly shaped. At no point did the playing make me hold my breath. But there is much to be said for the honest sensitivity and singing tone brought to bear here.
Rather less successful, I feel, are the five Études that complete the disc. Not that Batsashvili is technically embarrassed by any of their demands, and not that she isn't able to illuminate them with some personal touches. But there are many alternative recordings with a greater wow factor, and the particular choice of pieces doesn't strike me as in any way revelatory.
Reviewing her disc of transcriptions a while back (Cobra, 2/17), I mentioned that Batsashvili deserved a better recorded environment. This she has certainly been given by Warner Classics, and despite my reservations it's clear that she has much to offer as a recording artist.
Source: David Fanning (gramophone.co.uk)
Sándor Veress: String Trio | Béla Bartók: Piano Quintet in C major
Vilde Frang, violin
Barnabás Kelemen, violin
Lawrence Power, viola
Nicolas Altstaedt, cello
Alexander Lonquich, piano
Recorded July 2017, at Pfarrkirche Lockenhaus, Austria (Veress), and August 2018, at Jar kirke, Bærum, Norway (Bartók)
Released on August 30, 2019, by Alpha Classics
If you pan back to 1954 in search of the year's finest music, Vaughan Williams's Tuba Concerto and Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra are among the best-known highlights. But what about Sándor Veress's only String Trio? It flirts with atonality much as Alban Berg did, except that, whereas Berg echoed Mahlerian expressionism, with Veress experimentation encircles Hungarian folk music. Even the Trio's slow-fast binary form recalls the rhapsodies of Liszt and Bartók, though music near the start of the second section recalls the firefly Scherzo from Prokofiev's Third Symphony (here Frang and her colleagues really do play up the resemblance – whether consciously or not I couldn't tell you).
The level of invention is startling throughout, with the players being instructed to rap on the bodies of the instruments with their knuckles. The principal rhythmic "riff" appears in various guises, bowed, plucked and drummed. But what's most amazing is the work's high level of concentration: although a mere 20 minutes in length, by the time you're through with it you feel as if you've experienced an entire Mahler symphony. So much is said, so many varied sounds shared between three. The only work I can think of that has a similar effect is by Veress's principal creative guide, Bartók, his Third Quartet. I'd say with some degree of confidence that this Trio approaches that same level of attainment, vying with Schoenberg's Trio in its profound effect, while Vilde Frang, Lawrence Power and Nicolas Altstaedt grant it a superb performance, the best I've yet heard in fact.
Memorable rival recordings include members of the Merel Quartet (Cybèle Records), which, though well played, isn't on quite on the same level, while Ensemble Equilibres (Hungaroton) underline the work's Bartókian roots. Neither threatens the supremacy of Frang et al, though it's useful to know that both are programmed in the context of other chamber works by Veress.
Bartók's Piano Quintet, a product of 1903 and an altogether more modest affair, summons Brahms and Strauss as obvious influences. The composer was in his early twenties when he wrote the work but a couple of decades later, when he performed it as part of a programme including more characteristic pieces, Bartók was incensed by audience members who rated the Quintet highest of all. He even hurled the score to the ground in disgust and was thought to have destroyed it, though fortunately for us the Quintet, an enjoyable piece by any standards, survived his anger. At times the brooding Adagio suggests Bluebeard's shadow before giving way to the temperamental finale, which accelerates gypsy-style (the principal theme harbours a sure reference to Brahms' Zigeunerlieder), and surveying numerous expressive techniques and tempo changes, including a trim fughetta. Barnabás Kelemen and friends keep the camp fires alight with playing that is both intense and dynamic, whereas the slower music has a dreamily rhapsodising quality about it.
Runners-up on CD include Jenő Jandó with the Kodály Quartet (Naxos, 10/95), a good performance though nowhere near as vivid or fiery as the performance under review. Nor does Hungaroton's worthy recording with Csilla Szabó and the Tatrai Quartet prove a formidable contender. So I think it fair to say that Kelemen, Frang, Katalin Kokas, Altstaedt and Alexander Lonquich sell this lovable product of youthful creative excess more securely than any of their predecessors on disc, certainly any that I have encountered. But what makes this CD unmissable is the Veress Trio, a masterpiece and a performance to match. I’ve already pencilled it in as a potential contender for next year's Gramophone Awards. The annotation is excellent, including a fine essay on the Trio by Sándor's son Claudio, also a composer.
Source: Rob Cowan (gramophone.co.uk)
Edvard Grieg: Lyric Pieces | Felix Mendelssohn: Lieder ohne Worte
Denis Kozhukhin, piano
Recorded November 2018, at at the Muziekcentrum van de Omroep (Music Broadcast Center) (Studio 5), Hilversum, Netherlands
Released on June 28, 2019, by Pentatone
Once in a while a piano recording comes along that really plucks at the heart-strings. Denis Kozhukhin's compilation of miniatures by Mendelssohn and Grieg is one such. First prize-winner at the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition and third prize-winner in 2006 at Leeds, the Russian has already proved – most memorably in his concerto debut recording of Grieg and Tchaikovsky (5/16) – that he has the ability to illuminate familiar, over-played pieces with his imaginative musicality. Now, in deceptively straightforward repertoire, we get a subtler but if anything even more delicious taste of his creative and poetic pianism.
As Harriet Smith has put it, if listened to en bloc, there can be a danger of aural toothache with Mendelssohn's Songs without Words, even when delivered by the finest hands. Well, either I have developed a terribly sweet tooth or else Kozhukhin is even finer than his rivals, because I only wish he had recorded the whole lot, so that I could savour them all in one continuous binge. Kozhukhin has converted even a slight Mendelssohn-sceptic like me (in particular when it comes to these miniatures) not just to yield to them as a listener but to want to take them straight to the piano and play them through. He brings to the table a perfect balance between spontaneity and control, teamed with infinite variety of touch and timbre. Every phrase is imbued with sensitivity and luminous beauty. Even when the textures are apparently similar (as, say, in the first two items on the disc), he succeeds in placing each piece in its own unique expressive world and sonic landscape.
I don't think I've ever heard so much Schubert in Mendelssohn's Songs. In the dreamiest numbers, such as the famous "Venetianisches Gondellied", Kozhukhin keeps a more natural momentum even than, say, Javier Perianes (subject of HS's glowing review: Harmonia Mundi, 12/14), avoiding sentimentality but without ever compromising the mood of reverie. Unlike Perahia (Sony Classical, 3/00) – few finer hands than his, you would think – Kozhukhin doesn't rush in the interests of agitation. Compare his haunting take on Op.30 No.2, where every Schubertian turn is savoured and every phrase allowed to be sung through. And if Barenboim's enthralling account of this Song (DG) seems to come straight out of the feverish world of "Erlkönig", Kozhukhin's has the subtler allure and fatalism of the first of Schubert's late Three Pieces, D.946.
It's not just the interpretations but also Kozhukhin's choice of Songs that is exquisite. It's as though he has devised an overall narrative – a secret neo-Schubertian song-cycle, perhaps. How profoundly touching, for instance, to place the wandering and nostalgic Op.67 No.2 right after the funeral-march Op.62 No.3. And with the brilliant "Spinnerlied" and finally the deceptively naive "Kinderstück", Kozhukhin as it were adds three dots to the finality of death: death as our "wedding with eternity" (who would have thought that these simple, intimate pieces could evoke the most profound of Rumi's mystic odes?). Every choice of timbre, tempo and agogic inflection seems to point up the dramatic and musical connections that hold the entire selection of Songs together.
Kozhukhin's pick of Grieg's Lyric Pieces is equally inspired. Again we have not just a randomly varied assembly of pieces but an over-arching story. Kozhukhin is responsive not only to the Griegian sound world but also to the individual character of each piece, giving due place to fantasy and a touch of the fairy-tale. Even at third or fourth hearing, new expressive turns and visionary interpretative choices emerge. Listen out for the fractional delays in the dancelike numbers, for example, and see if they don't bring a smile to your face. Andsnes (EMI/Warner, 4/02) makes for an interesting comparison here, in that the Norwegian has a somehow more solid, more central conception of this repertoire, but not necessarily a more riveting one. Take, for instance, the Waltz, Op.12 No.2, where Kozhukhin is the more unpredictably capricious. These are performances worthy of a place on the shelves beside the classic Gilels (DG). From the "once upon a time" opening of the "Arietta" to the subtly rhetorical "Elegy", with its constant questioning intonations, to the almost frenzied jubilation of "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen", this is an extraordinary journey, made all the more enjoyable by top-class recording quality and Nigel Simeone's delightful booklet essay.
Source: Michelle Assay (gramophone.co.uk)
Reinhold Glière: String Octet in D Major, Op.5 | Reynaldo Hahn: Piano Quintet in F sharp minor | Dmitri Shostakovich: Two Pieces for String Octet, Op.11
(Glière:) Byol Kang, Yura Lee, Gergana Gergova, Florian Donderer, violins – Hanna Weinmeister, Timothy Ridout, violas – Tanja Tetzlaff, Alban Gerhardt, cellos
(Hahn:) Artur Pizarro, piano – Anna Reszniak, Elisabeth Kufferath, violins – Yura Lee, viola – Gustav Rivinius, cello
(Shostakovich:) Florian Donderer, Byol Kang, Yura Lee, Gergana Gergova, violins – Tatjana Masurenko, Hanna Weinmeister, violas – Alban Gerhardt, Tanja Tetzlaff, cellos
Recorded Live June 19, 2018 (Glière), June 24, 2018 (Hahn), and June 19, 2018 (Shostakovich), at Heimbach hydroelectric power plant, Germany
Released on September 6, 2019, by Avi
Of all the major Russian composers, Reinhold Glière is one of the least well known in the West. His life spanned a vast period from the Czar's reign to Soviet dictatorship, and he made it through the Stalin era relatively intact by mostly avoiding conflict without losing face. Such dilemmas were to haunt the lives of Glière's pupil Prokofiev, and especially that of his colleague Shostakovich, 30 years younger, but they were not yet current in 1900, when 20-year-old Glière, still a student, injected all of his youthful verve into composing his String Octet in D major, Op.5. The work soon gained immense popularity in Russia, where, still today, Glière's Octet is sometimes even held in higher esteem than the likewise youthful and fresh String Octet by Mendelssohn. In the words of musicologist Leonid Sabaneyev, "the octet, a fine work, proves that Glière was eminently capable of dealing with large chamber music ensembles. It surprises the listener with its full-bodied timbre and Glière's masterful treatment of the string instruments. The melodies are convincing on all fronts, displaying emotional intensity, sonorous opulence and noble harmonies". The work sets in with a warm, full-blooded Allegro moderato. Both the energetic, optimistic main theme and the tranquil, melodious second theme have an unmistakably Russian color. The second movement, also an Allegro, is an elegant intermezzo with a heartfelt Russian melody in the middle section. A gentle, melodious theme holds sway in the slow movement, Andante. The finale features two contrasting themes that are treated with such profusion that the sonority attains almost orchestral proportions. — Pedro Obiera
Reynaldo Hahn was a fellow student of Maurice Ravel at Paris Conservatoire. He was born in Caracas, to where his father, a Hamburg businessman, had moved. His mother was from Venezuela. Hahn studied composition with several professors including opera composer Jules Massenet. He was in close contact with the Paris art scene and later became a close friend – intermittently also the companion – of author Marcel Proust. Reynaldo Hahn gained considerable renown with his song cycles, operettas, and ballets. He also wrote excellent piano pieces, and worked as a conductor and music critic. After having fled Paris in 1940 because of his Jewish descent, he returned to the French capital after the war and became the director of Paris Opéra until his death. Hahn's Piano Quintet in F sharp minor (1922) is a rhapsodic work in the lineage of French Late Romanticism. The first movement effortlessly keeps a series of expansive, passionately overflowing melodies in constant flow, only held back by certain lyrical passages. Likewise drenched in minor mode, the gloomy, mournful middle movement entrusts its initial songlike melody to the cello, while the piano provides a pulsating accompaniment. Light briefly shines upon the scene in a brief episode in major, suggesting a memory of happier days. The finale begins in a graceful, playful rococo mood; it introduces new themes while also bundling previous ones together to form an elaborate conclusion. This quintet was one of Hahn's most often-performed works during his lifetime, but it only appeared on CD for the first time in the year 2000, in a recording by Alexandre Tharaud and the Parisii Quartet. "Where has this music been hiding for half a century?" wondered Jed Distler in Classics Today. — Matthias Corvin
Whereas Shostakovich's well-known 8th String Quartet and 2nd Piano Trio both bear the traces of inner anguish in the face of global and personal tragedies, the Two Pieces for String Octet, Op.11 let us look back upon the beginning of an outstanding musical career that was nevertheless vershadowed by harsh difficulties. These two pieces with the headings Prélude and Scherzo are from the period when Shostakovich was still a student in Saint Petersburg. It was a time of great material hardship, yet filled with hope: Shostakovich obtained his diploma with flying colors. At that point in time he did not yet have to deal with the Stalinist doctrinal intransigence that would make his life as an artist so difficult later on. Shostakovich concentrated on rigorous studies, and he felt protected within his small circle of friends. One of them was the young poet Vladimir Kurchavov, who died an untimely death from typhus. Shostakovich dedicated the first movement, an elegiac Adagio, to his late friend: this music already prefigures some of the impressive "funeral dirges" he would write in his symphonies. The Scherzo likewise shows that Shostakovich had found his own voice as a composer very early on. The maniacal, frantic movement with its farcical contortions was to serve as a true breeding ground for the bizarre, rapid scherzos he would later feature in his orchestral works as a secret satirical weapon against Stalin. The two elements of mourning and the grotesque are fundamental features that would pervade Shostakovich's entire oeuvre, and they are already clearly present in this ingenious piece written when he was still a student. — Pedro Obiera
Source: CD Booklet
Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem
Christiane Karg, soprano
Matthias Goerne, baritone
Swedish Radio Choir (Chorus master: Marc Korovitch)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Daniel Harding
Recorded October 2018, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, SwedenReleased on September 6, 2019, by Harmonia mundi
When Johannes Brahms composed Ein deutsches Requiem, he chose not to set the established Latin text of the Missa pro defunctis, which had been used by composers from Ockeghem to Berlioz, and selected instead verses from Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible. This marked a shift of emphasis from the Last Judgment and the pains of Hell evoked in the Dies Irae, Domine Jesu Christe, and Libera Me texts to a more humanistic approach of consolation and spiritual ease, more in accordance with Brahms' private agnosticism. To this end, Daniel Harding's interpretation of the score is about as gentle and comforting as could be wished, and the performance by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Choir conveys genuine expressions of solace and tenderness. Of course, the funereal tread of "Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras" still has the power to strike awe into listeners' hearts, though Harding's measured reading is perhaps less shattering than, say, John Eliot Gardiner's legendary recording with the Monteverdi Choir on Decca. Even so, with compelling solos from soprano Christiane Karg and baritone Matthias Goerne, a warm accompaniment from the orchestra, and exceptional choral singing throughout, this performance will appeal strongly to listeners who prefer a traditional take on Ein deutsches Requiem.
Source: Blair Sanderson (allmusic.com)
Gerald Finzi: Choral Works
The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge
Alexander Hamilton, Asher Oliver, organ
Conductor: Stephen Layton
Recorded in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, on 9-11 July 2017 (unaccompanied works) and in Hereford Cathedral on 2-5 July 2018
Released on August 2, 2019, by Hyperion Records
What a beautifully crafted disc this is – not just in its quality (and it really is Trinity at their absolute best) but also in its shape and programming. An all-Finzi recital sounds straightforward enough; but in opening with the Magnificat and closing with the monumental anthem Lo, the full, final sacrifice, Stephen Layton transforms it from a collage into a cycle. We move from birth to death, Incarnation to Crucifixion, from the anticipation of the Annunciation to the fulfilment of the Eucharist.
The composer's secular music is also carefully folded into this sacred narrative. The fragility and brush-away slightness of Finzi's Robert Bridges settings and the part-song "White-flowering days" come into their own here – portraits of a world already receding into the distance, the Calvary Cross rising up in the foreground.
He may have given us concertos and anthems, cantatas and chamber music but Finzi is, above all, a song composer. Trinity and Layton never let you forget that in performances in which 30 voices sing as one, where collective statements become private, lyric utterances. There's a lightness to the unisons (a recurring Finzi gesture) and an organic, blossoming quality to the counterpoint that gives these choral works a first-person immediacy. Which makes it all the more startling when the congregation does burst in, reminding us where we are.
You have to hear the filmy, rhapsodic lightness of the Henry Vaughan setting "Welcome sweet and sacred feast" to really startle at the arresting opening of "God is gone up" (where the choir are joined by Trinity Brass, led by no less than David Blackadder on trumpet) – a trick Layton plays again by cutting from the brilliance of the lithe, ecstatic "Wherefore tonight so full of care" into the sober, muttered darkness of Lo, the full, final sacrifice.
Finzi's Magnificat famously lacks either a Gloria or an answering Nunc dimittis. Rather than use Holst's familiar setting of the latter, Layton instead gives us David Bednall's graceful 2016 setting. It's a work with too much of its own voice for straight pastiche, but which is absolutely steeped in Finzi's language – an affectionate, serious musical homage that takes the composer as a jumping-off point for its own lovely invention. Along with the beautiful cover art – an image of Gloucester Cathedral's Finzi Memorial Window – and excellent booklet notes by Francis Pott, it's just another bonus from this outstanding release.
Source: Alexandra Coghlan (gramophone.co.uk)
John Williams: Across the Stars
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
The Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles
Conductor: John Williams
Recorded April 2019, Sony Pictures Studios, Culver City, CaliforniaReleased on August 30 by Deutsche Grammophon
"Across the Stars" stems from the collaboration of musical celebrities Anne-Sophie Mutter and film composer John Williams. The exact origins of the collaboration are unclear (Williams writes that Mutter is "not someone you say no to") but what has finally emerged is a set of short concert pieces for solo violin and orchestra, all arrangements of Williams' film music. The album is passionately constructed and fun to listen to. To be cynical for a moment, this can be seen as a set of novelties that lacks a coherent emotional arc. But on balance, it's an exciting anthology of William's musical themes, infused with new colors and recorded by the best of the best. The cynical element disappears when one considers the tracks in smaller sets, so this review will give each set its due separately.
The album opens with three tracks that essentially comprise a concertino – two Star Wars themes, Rey and Yoda, and the iconic "Hedwig's Theme" from Harry Potter. In Rey's theme, Mutter is immediately tasked with soloistic challenges that Williams has clearly enjoyed dreaming up: imitating the earthy sound of the flute's low register for the opening "showdown" motif; multi-octave arpeggios and double-stops with trills on one of the strings; then imitating horn calls in thirds. Mutter effortlessly switches between colors and techniques, and the movement is one of the catchiest on the album. If you squint, it makes a great sonata-form. The concertino's slow movement would be the Yoda theme, whose lyric melody (from Strauss) and contrasting woodwind section (from Tchaikovsky) together make an effective andante cantabile. Unfortunately, the arrangement in this movement is less adept than on most others. Williams transposes the theme from C to G, most likely to let Mutter use her low G string and play the theme in the octave it was written; yet she starts in the violin's second octave and rises to its third, never playing the theme in the tenor range, where it is most transcendent. The underlying accompaniment has also shifted from steady quarters and eighth notes to tremolo and off-beats, depriving Yoda of some of his stateliness. Still, the movement works as a Romantic interlude. The finale is indeed "Harry Potter meets Paganini", as the pair describe it, with Williams again gleefully challenging Mutter to sextuplet runs, pizzicato arpeggios, an extended, fully-diminished cadenza, and a finale, again after Tchaikovsky. The result approaches theme and variations, in which case a harmonics-based variation would have been nice, to take full advantage of the violin's potential. Nonetheless, after the final chord, this listener did have to pause for a breath, and to acknowledge the awesomeness of a Star Wars and Harry Potter concerto.
"Across the Stars", the love theme for Anakin and Padmé and probably the most iconic Star Wars theme on the album, loses some of its emotional power as a solo. The tension between the threat of the impending war and the depth of the duo's romance, embodied in the soundtrack by foreboding low brass against full-throated tutti renditions of the love motif, disappears to allow Mutter more soloistic discretion in the love sections; the war motif is downgraded to the role of transitional material.
The middle section of the album is quite enjoyable, with three upbeat numbers that show both Williams and Mutter at their best. The "Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles" is also at its best on these tracks. "Donnybrook Fair" (from "Far and Away") is a fun romp through the English Isles that proves Williams can write tutti moments without upstaging the soloist. The orchestra provides color changes on a dime and woodwind solos with the right touches of sarcasm. Despite a challenging violin part, Mutter's sense of humor comes through as well, with exaggerated gestures and articulation and teasing chromatic lines. This is her and Williams' virtuosity on full display – it takes a strong composer to write music that is at once powerful and playful, and a technical expert to perform it. "Night Journeys" (from "Dracula") is a tense showpiece that borrows ideas from Shostakovich and lets Mutter show her dramatic side. The orchestra also sounds great on this track, but the music is better suited to a full symphonic concert hall, and the recording compresses its range of colors. In "The Duel" ("The Adventures of Tintin"), Mutter parries back and forth with the orchestra, trading glissando swipes with the celli, and playing her part as if twirling her sword to intimidate her adversary. She also handles 32nd-note runs with stunningly precise bow bounces, as if to demonstrate her superior agility. The cadenza lacks a real show-stopping moment, but the track is nonetheless superb.
The album closes with the main theme from "Schindler's List", which was scored for violin and orchestra to begin with. It is a fitting closer, emotional and cathartic, but there are better recordings of it available, either on the soundtrack itself with soloist Itzhak Perlman, or Renaud Capuçon's rendition with the Brussels Philharmonic. Mutter's playing is a bit overwrought; each note often inhabits a totally different world than the previous one, with different speeds or colors of vibrato, or seemingly randomly-placed glissandi. The overall effect makes the melody lose the smooth, legato quality that makes it so haunting in the other versions.
This album will surely appeal to fans of Williams' music, especially those who can picture the movies in their mind while the music plays. To have new versions of old standards is always a treat. To classical fans, and followers of Mutter, it may have slightly less to offer, but few of the more exciting tracks will sneak into their rotation of frequently played pieces. Recommended listening for sure.
Jonah Pearl (theclassicreview.com)
The albums were chosen by the owner and blog editor of "Faces of Classical Music", Alexandros Arvanitakis.
The best new classical albums: January 2020
The best new classical albums: December 2019
The best new classical albums: November 2019
The best new classical albums: October 2019
The best new classical albums: August 2019
The best new classical albums: July 2019
The best new classical albums: June 2019
The best new classical albums: May 2019
The best new classical albums: April 2019
The best new classical albums: March 2019
The best new classical albums: February 2019
The best new classical albums: January 2019
The Faces of Classical Music Choose the 20 Best Albums of 2019
The Faces of Classical Music Choose the 20 Best Albums of 2018
Julia Wolfe: Fire in my mouth – The Crossing, Young People's Chorus of New York City, New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden (Audio video)
Anne-Sophie Mutter on John Williams