Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Iowa Ensemble is a group of very fine musicians who give tremendously satisfying performances of the Complete Music for Winds and Piano by Poulenc on a new release from MSR Classics

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) www.poulenc.fr expressed a particular fondness for wind instruments; something which is clearly shown by the number of works written for wind in various forms across his lifetime.

Indeed, his seven works for wind instruments and piano that are included on a new release from MSR Classics www.msrcd.com date from between 1926 and 1962, just a year before he died.

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The Complete Music for Winds and Piano features the Iowa Ensemble that brings together a distinguished collection of musicians all members of the School of Music faculty of the University of Iowa. Its members are bassoonist Benjamin Coelho http://music.uiowa.edu/people/benjamin-coelho , flautist Nicole Esposito http://neflute.com , pianist Alan Huckleberry http://music.uiowa.edu/people/alan-huckleberry , clarinetist Maurita Murphy Marx http://music.uiowa.edu/people/maurita-murphy-marx , horn player Kristin Thelander http://music.uiowa.edu/people/kristin-thelander and oboist, the late Mark Weiger http://clas.uiowa.edu/faculty/mark-weiger

This new release opens with one of Poulenc’s later works, the Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1962) dedicated to Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). In the Elégie (Paisiblement) the oboe opens with a four note motif before the piano joins to develop the theme. It is a most appealing theme to which Mark Weiger provides just the right tone and timbre. Pianist, Alan Huckleberry provides excellent support. As the music develops, it becomes increasingly forceful whilst alternating with quieter moments before the opening returns with the coda bringing a quizzical conclusion.

The Scherzo (Très animé) finds the piano introducing a fast and furious theme soon picked up by the oboe. There is some brilliant interplay between these two artists with, midway, a slow, reflective melody appearing. As the music rushes buoyantly to the coda there is some particularly fine playing from Huckleberry.

There is a calm, gentle piano opening Déploration (Très calme) which the oboe then develops, slowly increasing in strength, with Weiger providing a lovely firm tone as well as moments of exquisite cool beauty.

The Sonata for Flute and Piano (1957) is dedicated to the well-known patron of music, Elizabeth Sprague-Coolidge (1864-1953). The Allegretto malincolico has a light and jaunty ear-catching theme with Nicole Esposito’s tone blending beautifully with the piano of Alan Huckleberry. There is a fine, rather Debussyian, middle section.

The following Cantilena brings a lovely little melody, superbly played here by Esposito who, with Huckleberry, finds just the right tempo, allowing a forward flow with just a gently pull to help it along. There are some exquisite little flute flourishes.

There is pinpoint accuracy from both these players in the Presto giocoso, tremendous articulation and fluency from Esposito especially in the terrific finale.

The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1962) dates from the same summer as the Sonata for Oboe and Piano and is dedicated to the memory of the Swiss composer, Arthur Honegger (1892-1955). The work was premiered after the composer’s death by no less than Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein.

As the Allegro tristamente opens, the clarinet of Maurita Murphy Marx enters over a spare piano accompaniment with a jazz like display of flourishes before settling to a fast flowing melody. Marx brings a fine tone and fluency, showing a real affinity for Poulenc’s writing with some terrific decorations and flourishes. There are moments of more relaxed, longer lines, beautifully played with a fine tone and some wonderfully controlled dynamics before the coda that is full of good humour.

The Romanza brings forth a passionate theme to which these two artists bring so much. They have a fine understanding for the sudden passionate turns delivering some lovely moments.

The playful theme of the Allegro con fuoco hurtles off with many little details finely brought out by these two players. There are some lovely moments from the clarinet before the terrific coda.

The Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano (1926) was dedicated to Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). Alan Huckleberry brings a fine broad piano opening to the Presto to which the bassoon of Benjamin Coelho joins with a great little tune. The oboe of Mark Weiger joins bringing a very fine blend of timbres before the music speeds with rather a baroque feel, though Poulenc can’t resist his humorous touches. These players have spot on ensemble.  

The Andante brings a really fine flowing with these players weaving some lovely sounds. They show a fine sensibility for this music and build to a wonderful central peak in this very fine performance.

There is a lovely, rhythmically buoyant Rondo; quite playful, something picked up on by these players who bring real enthusiasm to their beautifully sprung playing.

Poulenc’s Sextet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, French Horn and Piano (1939) is dedicated to the one time curator of the Louvre, Georges Salles (1889-1966). There is a terrific opening flourish to the Allegro vivace with more jazz like phrases. As the music moves ahead there is a terrific blending and weaving of sounds from these players who obviously glean great enjoyment from playing together. The combination of instruments brings some lovely sonorities. There is a short solo for bassoon and later a slower, gentler section to which these players bring lovely textures.  There is a wonderful moment as the music builds when the horn can be heard over the other instruments, indeed there are a myriad of little moments for each instrument to shine – and shine they do – they dazzle.

The second movement, Divertissement has a lovely, relaxed flow as each instrument slowly adds to the theme before picking up the pace in another of Poulenc’s playful ideas with some very fine little harmonies between instruments.

There are staccato rhythms as the Finale opens, leading to a more relaxed, flowing sequence with each instrument providing moments of fine musicianship as they appear from the texture, before building to a very fine coda.

Nicole Esposito returns to join Alan Huckleberry for the brief Villanelle for Piccolo and Piano (1934) taken from a collection of works by a number of composers called Pipeaux and dedicated to another patron of music, Louise B. M. Dyer (1884-1962). She brings a lovely sway to which the piano joins in this lovely, simple little tune to which these players respond wonderfully.
 
The Elegy for French Horn and Piano (1957) is dedicated to the memory of the great British horn player, Dennis Brain and was first performed by the composer with Neill Sanders in a BBC radio broadcast in 1958. The horn opens before the piano joins, at which point bringing raucous phrases. The piano then leads with a motif before there are more strident phrases from both players. The music then moves forward with a melancholy theme to which it adds occasional intense, dynamic moments. Kristin Thelander and Alan Huckleberry prove very fine advocates for this haunting and unusual Elegy with Thelander providing some terrific timbres and textures. There is a lovely broad and eloquent passage from pianist and strange harmonies before a horn cry as the coda arrives.

The Iowa Ensemble is a group of very fine musicians who give tremendously satisfying performances of these wonderful works.

They are very well recorded at Clapp Recital Hall, University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA. There are excellent booklet notes from Carla Colletti.


The ensemble have dedicated the recordings on this new release to the memory of their oboist colleague, Mark Weiger (1959-2008).

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Raphael Wallfisch and Raphael Terroni bring passion, fire and poetry to Kenneth Leighton’s complete chamber works for cello on a release from Naxos

Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) was born in Wakefield, England. He was a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral and while still at school he obtained the Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music (LRAM) in piano performance. He went on to study classics and music at Oxford University before travelling to Italy to study with Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003). Gerald Finzi was an early supporter and friend who performed some of his music with his Newbury String players. He later held posts at Oxford and Edinburgh Universities.

His compositions span most genres including opera, choral, vocal, orchestral, instrumental and piano works.

Raphael Wallfisch www.raphaelwallfisch.com  and the late Raphael Terroni’s recording of Leighton’s Complete Chamber Works for Cello for the BMS label has now been released by Naxos www.naxos.com

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Leighton has been reasonably well served with recordings in recent years but there is still much of his music that deserves to be heard. It is good to have all of his chamber works for cello collected together on one disc, particularly when as well performed as here.

The Partita for Cello & Piano, Op. 35 (1959) is in three movements. Elegy opens with a sudden motif for piano before the cello immediately joins in a passionate theme, the piano all the while adding drama. Raphael Wallfisch brings great passion and depth to this music. It quietens to a gentle passage where the cello provides a gentle but no less passionate theme before rising again with passionate playing from both these fine artists. Pizzicato cello and staccato piano chords lead to a hushed coda.

The Scherzo rises naturally out of the preceding Elegy, soon becoming frenetic with some very fine playing from Wallfisch and Terroni in this fast moving movement. There are some terrific passages giving equal prominence to both players, becoming ever more frenetic and passionate.

The theme of the final movement, Theme & Variations brings a simple motif that is developed.  Not a very clearly defined theme, it has dissonances and subtle harmonies and harmonics out of which Leighton develops Variation 1, Allegro inquieto, just as elusive as the theme itself. Variation 2, Ostinato brings back the passion with a deeply felt cello part and strong, broad piano contribution before turning to moments of pizzicato and quieter details.

Variation 3, March soon develops with a rather fast, frantic march full of drama and angst as it moves quickly forward with some exceptionally fine playing from both these players before tumbling into Variation 4, Appassionato an anxious passage for cello over a rippling piano motif.

Variation 5, Waltz brings staccato piano chords over which the cello weaves a variation, before the piano takes the theme against pizzicato cello, again building in passion before the gentle Variation 6, Chorale where the piano opens with a gentle, spacious little falling theme to which the cello adds a sad, melancholy melody. The cello rises to a high pitch before the piano brings back the gentle descending motif to which the cello joins, gentle, quiet and mournful, before fading gently into silence.

This is an unusual, very appealing work given a very fine performance by these artists.

Leighton’s Elegy for Cello & Piano, Op. 5 (1949) was written whilst he was still at Oxford and studying music with Bernard Rose (1916-1996). The piano opens with repeated chords to which the cello adds a rich, deeply felt theme. The music develops becoming more passionate before soon arriving at a lovely melody, more relaxed and shared by both players. It develops through more anguished passages with Leighton finding a particularly English sound world. Wallfisch’s tone is wonderful as he extracts some very fine moments of deep feeling. Terroni brings a terrific piano part, sometimes gentle, often firm and passionate, always poetic, before a lovely, quiet coda.

This is a more substantial work than the title and length indicate. It receives a wonderful performance here.

The Sonata for solo Cello, Op. 52 (1967) was written whilst Leighton was Reader in Music at the University of Edinburgh and was first performed by Joan Dickson at a National Gallery of Scotland lunch tine concert.

In three movements, Lament & Pizzicato opens with a deeply felt lament, beautifully judged by Wallfisch, bringing out every little moment of feeling. As it progresses, little strums are added whilst the melody becomes ever more desperate with Wallfisch digging deep. Pizzicato passages then take over developing the theme further. There is some terrific playing, a real test of a cellist’s pizzicato technique and musicianship. Bowed phrases return and alternate before the passionate earlier theme, before the music slowly dies away as we are led into the second movement.

Toccata & Cradle Song has a fast moving Toccata where Wallfisch displays more of his dazzling technique moving through some virtuosic passages before slowing for the wistful Cradle Song bringing some fine double stopped textures before falling almost to a hush. The music suddenly takes off again, though quietly, to move to the strange little coda.

Flourish, Chaconne & Coda opens with a spirited, finely done Flourish before it moves into the Chaconne where Wallfisch develops some really fine passages with constantly changing ideas, expertly revealed here. The music rises in passion as the coda is reached but ends quietly.

This sonata is full of fine ideas. It is an impressive work played just as impressively by Raphael Wallfisch.

Alleluia Pascha Nostrum, Op. 85 (1981) for cello and piano was premiered by Raphael Wallfisch and Richard Markham at a BBC concert in Manchester in 1982. Deep resonant cello chords open before slowly developing. When the piano enters it lightly points up the theme of the cello, now in the higher register. The piano develops little rippling phrases with much fine poetry displayed by these two artists. The music slowly moves ahead with its exquisite, melancholy theme before finding a lighter passage as the music grows faster with pizzicato cello phrases around piano accompaniment. It increases in passion before falling to a quiet, slow passage where the piano picks out the theme, the cello joining as both gently take the theme forward. Again the music rises in passion to the upper reaches of the cello before picking up the earlier pace as it rushes forward. The piano falls away as the cello slows to a gentle melody with the piano returning to provide gentle accompaniment as they quietly move to the hushed coda.

This is an impressive work, full of passion, fire and poetry, especially as played here by these two fine artists.

It is good to have this fine recording from Raphael Wallfisch and Raphael Terroni back in the catalogue. They receive a first rate recording from The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK and there are informative booklet notes.

See also: http://theclassicalreviewer.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/excellent-performances-of-string.html

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

An outstanding release from Mirare of piano works by Paul Dukas played by Hervé Billaut to celebrate Dukas’ 150th Anniversary

The French composer Paul Dukas (1865-1935) was not particularly prolific, his intense self-criticism restricting the number of works he allowed to be published. His fame rests on a single orchestral work L’Apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) (1897).

Of his piano works there are just seven, four of which French pianist Hervé Billaut http://hervebillaut.com has chosen to record for Mirare www.mirare.fr to celebrate Dukas’ 150th Anniversary.

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Hervé Billaut graduated from the Conservatory of Paris at the age of sixteen with the highest distinctions, gaining numerous awards including the Grand Prize at the prestigious Long -Thibaud Piano Competition in 1983.

Since then, he has performed all over the world, playing at the Theatre des Champs Elysées, the Salle Pleyel in Paris or the Teàtro Real in Madrid as well as in Latin America or in the Far East. He has worked with the Orchestre National de France, the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic and the Quebec Symphony Orchestra and played under such conductors as John Eliot Gardiner and Yehudi Menuhin.

This new disc for Mirare opens with Dukas’ La plainte, au loin, du faune… (The distant lament of the faun…) It was written in 1920, two years after the death of Debussy as a tribute to his late friend. It opens with a repeated note around which the music develops. It is a hauntingly beautiful piece which Hervé Billaut shapes quite magically. He has a crystalline clarity to his touch with exquisite phrasing. One can just detect hints of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

The Sonate en mi bémol mineur (Sonata in E-flat minor) that dates from 1899–1900 is a substantial work lasting around forty three minutes.

Modérément vite has a fast, forward moving theme to which Billaut brings a real sense of urgency. It slows to a more meditative section but then the music begins to billow up again, this pianist providing a great feeling of drama and tension as he heads to passages of passion and fire with some remarkably fine, virtuosic passages, before quietening in the passages that lead to the resigned coda. In four movements Calme, un peu lent, très soutenu opens quietly and gently with some lovely little harmonic touches. The music slowly finds its way around the diffuse theme with Billaut revealing so many of Dukas’ fine ideas. He brings finely controlled dynamics. All is beautifully phrased, quite exquisite in its gentle, yet heartfelt emotion. This is an impressively shaped movement with a peaceful coda. Dukas develops his material impressively in a sonata that really deserves to be heard in the concert hall

The Vivement, avec légèreté lifts one out of one’s seat with a dynamic, forceful opening that then fairly rattles ahead with Billaut providing some impressively fine playing, impeccable phrasing with a tremendously light and agile touch, bringing out so many fine little details within the tempestuous texture. There is a lovely, thoughtful beautifully laid out, slower central section before the opening tempo returns to dash forwards before slowing for the lovely coda.

Resolute chords also open the third movement Très lent – Animé before developing and slowly revealing the theme, often stormy and passionate. Billaut’s wonderful phrasing and clarity help to reveal the many wonders in this movement. At times one can sense Liszt (of the B minor sonata) behind certain passages as this music moves through moments of varying tempi and demanding writing. Dukas packs so much into this thirteen minute movement. Here is a dazzling display of pianism yet Billaut never misses any moments of subtle beauty or expressiveness. There is a brief quieter and slower respite that quickly leads to the coda.  

Two years after the sonata, Dukas wrote the substantial Variations, Interlude et Finale sur un thème de Rameau. It takes the penultimate piece from Rameau’s Suite in D from the second book of harpsichord works. It opens with a Menuet et Variations de l à XI (minuet and eleven variations). There is a lovely little minuet that soon moves through a series of fine variations, at turns gentle and flowing, dramatic and forceful, harmonically forward looking, fast and light, even a rather gloomy, dark variation where the theme is hardly recognisable. Billaut’s lovely attention to phrasing and dynamics and, indeed, colours brings some beautifully rewarding results before we are taken straight into the Interlude where the theme is slowly ruminated on, building as it develops and running into the Finale, a buoyant and jaunty variation. There is a moment of more relaxed crystalline purity centrally before the music heads toward the coda that, nevertheless, slows before the resolute final chords.

Prelude élégiaque (sur le nom de Haydn) (Elegiac prelude on the name of Haydn) is built around the musical notation representing the letters of Haydn’s name. It opens quietly as Dukas spells out Haydn’s name with Billaut bringing a quiet dignity to the music, a stateliness tinged with nostalgic charm. There are some lovely free, fluent passages as Dukas develops the music around the opening notes but, overall, it is a contemplative work, from which this pianist draws many lovely moments before the gentle conclusion.

This is an outstanding release. The Dukas sonata is, in particular, a very impressive work played with authority and great accomplishment by Hervé Billaut.


The excellent recording was made in the Church of Le Château de Rochebonne, Rhône, France where Billaut is Artistic Director of the festival, Les Rendez-Vous de Rochebonne www.rdv-rochebonne.fr that he founded with friends. There are informative booklet notes 

Alissa Firsova brings a freshness to Rachmaninov that is quite beguiling on her debut disc for VIVAT

The account of Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) departure from his native Russia on 23rd December 1917 is rather poignant. Ostensibly in order to undertake a concert tour he had managed to obtain the necessary documents to enable him and his family to leave the revolution torn country. He and his family were seen off at Petrograd railway station by the composer’s best friend, Nikolai Struve (1875-1920). Rachmaninov’s other great friend, the opera singer Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) sent a note together with a package of caviar and homemade bread. The sound of gunfire could be heard in the distance.

At the crossing of the Finnish border the customs inspector who checked their luggage apparently only showed interest in the children’s schoolbooks before wishing the composer good luck on his concert tour. The road from the Finnish to the Swedish border was undertaken by open sledge from which they could see the sparks from the train disappearing in the distance. It was after midnight before they caught the train to Stockholm where they spent Christmas Eve in their hotel room. Luckily Nikolai Struve joined his family in Denmark where a rented house was soon found for the émigré family. Rachmaninov was never to return to the country of his birth, a loss that he never recovered from.

Luckily some émigrés feel the loss of their country a little less intensely. Pianist and composer, Alissa Firsova tells us in her interesting booklet note accompanying her debut recording that her family’s nostalgia for Russia did not affect them so deeply, England becoming their true home. 

This new release from Vivat www.vivatmusic.com is appropriately entitled Russian Émigrés and features piano works by Rachmaninov from before and after his exile from his native country coupled with works by her parents Elena Firsova and Dmitri Smirnov as well as by Alissa Firsova herself.

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On this her debut disc, Alissa Firsova plays Rachmaninov’s original 1913 version of his Piano Sonata No. 2 Op. 36. She brings a slightly quieter opening to the Allegro Agitato, creating a brief sense of anticipation before the cascading bars that follow. Firsova carefully builds some tremendous passages, offset with some very fine quieter moments. It is her beautiful phrasing and flexible tempi and, indeed, fine rubato that lend so much to this music bringing a freshness that is quite beguiling. By choosing the original version, the music gains a more organic development with room to breathe. Half way through, those descending bell-like phrases have a real Russian flavour. There are many lovely details, such limpid, delicate, quieter phrases and the run up to the coda is beautifully done.

This pianist gives us a lovely slow Non Allegro to which she brings a haunting quality. Though Firsova takes this section slower than many, it works beautifully, revealing many lovely details. She builds the music wonderfully towards the middle with some fine fluent passages.  Firsova’s way of pacing and building this movement is terrific, the more passionate passages gaining so much from the surrounding calm.

The gentle introduction to the L'istesso Tempo - Allegro Molto soon gives way to playing of stormy virtuosity, again wonderfully paced, allowing the music to develop naturally. There are moments of tranquillity and beautifully detailed calm with this pianist shading and colouring phrases exquisitely before the music rises dramatically with some wonderfully transparent textures. Firsova brings a stunningly virtuosic coda, displaying a wonderful touch.

Whatever Rachmaninov’s reasons for making cuts, I cannot help always wishing that pianists would play the original version more often. Here Alissa Firsova does so in a wholly refreshing way.

Born in Leningrad composer Elena Firsova (b. 1950) http://homepage.ntlworld.com/dmitrismirnov/Elena_Firsova.html studied music in Moscow with Alexander Pirumov, Yuri Kholopov and Nikolai Rakov and established contact of a crucial musical importance with composers Edison Denisov and Philip Herschkowitz, a pupil of Anton von Webern. In August 1972 she married the composer Dmitri Smirnov. In 1979, along with Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, she was blacklisted at the Sixth Congress of the Union of Soviet Composers. Since 1979 she has had many performances in Europe and the USA and received many commissions including the BBC Proms.

Elena Firsova’s For Alissa, Op. 102 is obviously a very personal piece where she slowly reveals a gentle theme which Alissa Firsova, using her fine touch and phrasing, develops through a variety of passages from gentle and limpid through livelier and more florid moments, an intensely stormy passage as well as a hushed ponderous section where a line in the bass is overlaid with a theme for the right hand, before we are led to the coda.

This is a most attractive work that always holds the attention.

Dmitri Smirnov (b. 1948) http://homepage.ntlworld.com/dmitrismirnov was born in Minsk into a family of opera singers. He entered the Moscow Conservatoire in 1967 studying with Nikolai Sidelnikov, Edison Denisov, and Yury Kholopov as well as Webern's pupil Philip Herschkowitz. Since 1991, Smirnov and his wife, Elena Firsova have been resident in England. Here they have shared the position of Composer-in-Residence at Cambridge University (St John's College), spent a year at Dartington (1992) and were Visiting Professors at Keele University. In 1998 Smirnov and his family settled in St Albans, near London. Since 2003 he has taught at Goldsmiths College of Music in London.  His compositions have been played by many international conductors and orchestras.

Dmitri Smirnov’s Sonata No. 6 ‘Blake Sonata’ Op. 157 is in two movements, opening with a Lento, a set of variations on William Blake’s name using a musical alphabet or encryption code created by the composer. It begins with a hushed motif gently picked out before deep chords appear under the delicate motif as the music becomes agitated. The violent chords fall away to allow the gentler theme to continue, developing through some fine passages with this pianist providing some lovely clarity of phrasing. The music builds in tempo with lower chords bringing back a stormy nature before progressing through a gentle passage with a sorrowful emotional edge. There are some lovely free flowing gentler passages, rising to the top of the keyboard before moving slowly and quietly to the coda.

Rachmaninov can almost be heard in the opening bars of the second movement, Capriccioso before it develops through some fast and dramatic passages. Lighter, faster passages alternate and tussle with the dramatic music with, throughout, Alissa Firsova bringing exceptionally fine clarity, phrasing, subtlety of colour and texture. There are more reflective moments before the music rises with clashing bell-like phrases but it is the quieter, gentler music that leads to the coda.

This is an impressive sonata which deserves repeated listening.

Rachmaninov wrote his Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42 whilst staying in Clairefontaine, France. Firsova manages to bring a rather desolate, melancholy feel to the opening Andante.  As the textures become fuller there is a warming that brings a lovely contrast. As she takes us through these variations, she brings passages of terrific clarity, finely sprung rhythmical phrases and often a lovely delicate touch as well as moments of powerful incisiveness. Her phrasing is superb, illuminating so much of this music. As she progresses through these variations, there are moments of withdrawn melancholy as well as a terrific assurance in the broader, more confident passages.

Firsova gives us a lovely nostalgic Intermezzo before leading to a simple, yet heartrending, variation managed with a simple directness. Later there are moments of fine tautness before she takes us back to Rachmaninov’s exquisite nostalgia before the final statement of the theme.

Again this pianist brings a freshness to her performance with pacing and phrasing that reveals much.

Alissa Firsova (b. 1986) www.alissafirsova.com is a composer in her own right. After winning the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer competition in 2001 she received numerous commissions including a Bach transcription for the 2010 Proms and performed by Andrew Litton and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra live on BBC 2 and BBC Radio 3. Her music has also been performed and toured by Imogen Cooper, Henning Kraggerud, Dante Quartet, Netherlands Blazer Ensemble, Seattle Chamber Players, Philharmonia Soloists, Northwest Sinfonietta and Britten Sinfonia. She was recently invited to Verbier Festival as a composer-in-residence and future commissions include an orchestral piece for Bergen Philharmonic.

As a pianist, Alissa gave her Wigmore Hall and Proms debuts in 2009 and has appeared in Dartington, Cheltenham, Presteigne, Messiaen at Southbank, Fuerstensaal Classix and Seattle festivals. She has enjoyed collaborations with distinguished artists such as Stephen Kovacevich, Stephen Isserlis and the Dante Quartet. Alissa recently completed the postgraduate conducting course at the Royal Academy of Music under Colin Metters where she also had the opportunity to work with Martyn Brabbins, Jac van Steen and Mark Shanahan. She founded her own Meladina Ensemble in 2010 for the 60th Birthday celebration of her mother Elena Firsova's music. In January 2012 she expanded this into the Meladina Symphony Orchestra for a concert in Duke's Hall, where she directed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 from the keyboard and conducted Mahler's 4th Symphony as well as her own clarinet concerto.

Alissa Firsova’s Lune Rouge, Op. 13 was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival in 2005 for Imogen Cooper and is based on her own initials and those of her parents. It opens with a gentle tinkling phrase to which the left hand slowly adds to the theme. Soon a fuller texture arrives, a glorious moment as the tinkling right hand motif continues and this lovely theme moves forward, becoming ever more florid with lovely harmonies. Later lower chords combine before the music falls back with the tinkling phrases now over a gentle left hand that picks out the theme. But it is the right hand motif that gently concludes.

This is a quite lovely work.


Here is a musician that has the measure of Rachmaninov, so much so that she is able to bring a refreshing approach. The other works on this disc show clearly what a gifted family this is. The recording is tip top and there are excellent booklet notes from the pianist. As usual with VIVAT, the presentation is first rate. 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Fragments for a second piano concerto by Grieg are coupled with a world premiere of Helge Evju’s piano concerto based on those fragments as well as a performance of the Grieg/Grainger edition of the A minor concerto on a new release from Grand Piano

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) never managed to write his projected Second Piano Concerto in B minor leaving only small fragments of ideas, since published by the Oslo Grieg Society. These fragments lasting around two and a half minutes have been recorded by pianist Carl Petersson http://carlpetersson.com on a new disc from Grand Piano http://naxosdirect.co.uk/labels/grand-piano-3330 .

Petersson also plays Helge Evju’s (b.1942) Piano Concerto in B minor based on Grieg’s B minor Concerto fragments as well as the famous A minor Concerto in Percy Grainger’s edition and two of Grieg’s songs arranged for solo piano by Evju. All in all, this proves to be a fascinating musical experience. For the concertos, Petersson is joined by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra www.rozhlas.cz/socr/portal  conducted by Kerry Stratton www.facebook.com/kerry.stratton1

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Grainger first met Grieg in London in 1906 when he was invited to spend the summer of 1907 at the composer’s villa Troldhaugen near Bergen in Norway. Grainger was due to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto at the Leeds Festival that year and, therefore, spent some time going over the score with the composer making small emendations to the solo part. It is this revision by Grieg and Grainger that is performed here.

The Allegro moderato of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 (Revised by P. Grainger) has, from the opening timpani through the opening piano bars, a great incisiveness. There is light, crisp orchestral phrasing, a lovely transparency and fine detail. Carl Petersson brings a spontaneity to his playing with Kerry Stratton and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra providing some lovely rather leisurely orchestral passages. There is a beautifully done cadenza, fluid with a terrific power before a fiery conclusion.  

The Adagio also brings some fine orchestral playing in the opening with lovely individual instrumental details. Petersson’s lovely silken, fluid playing in this movement is really rather fine.

Petersson brings his feeling of spontaneity to the Allegro marcato pushing ahead with abandon to great effect. There are some particularly fine dramatic passages as well as lovely poetic moments finely played by both soloist and orchestra. It is Petersson’s free, fluid, spontaneous approach that brings so much to this performance, pointing up so many details before leading to a grandiose coda where there is some pretty virtuosic playing.

This is a particularly revealing performance with some very fine moments.

As a prelude to Helge Evju’s Piano Concerto based on Grieg’s sketches for his Piano Concerto in B Minor, EG 120 Carl Petersson plays the small fragments sadly lasting only around two and a half minutes. Whilst perhaps not quite as tantalising as the purported sketches for Sibelius’ Eighth Symphony, these fragments certainly make one wonder how Grieg might have used them. Some certainly have a distinctive flow though, no doubt, Grieg would have developed them to something much greater.

The opening Moderato tranquillo of Helge Evju: Piano Concerto in B Minor (On Fragments by E. Grieg) has a very Nordic orchestral sound. The piano soon joins, leading to a fine melody with overtones of Grieg appearing. The faster, skittish passages for piano recall Grieg’s A minor concerto though there is not the same tautness of construction. The Scherzo brings a buoyant, rhythmically jaunty theme with a cadenza that slowly picks over the ideas as though more of a trio section, before gently and slowly leading into the Adagio. Here there is a wistful melody which, as it develops, brings some lovely passages.

The fourth movement is a Cadenza that opens with robust chords from this pianist before developing through some finely intricate phrases with some of the rhythmic episodes recalling Grieg.  The Finale pushes us headlong into another rhythmic theme before arriving at a broad romantic melody. There is a terrific coda.

Evju refers to this concerto as ‘a piece of whimsy’. It is, in fact, an attractive way of using Grieg’s fragments within a concerto context that many will enjoy immensely. Petersson gives a terrific performance.

As an added extra this pianist concludes this disc with two of Helge Evju’s transcriptions for piano of songs by Grieg. There is a very effective transcription of With a Water Lily from 6 Songs, Op. 25 that reveals itself as a fine little piece, almost Rachmaninovian at times. A Dream from 6 Songs, Op. 48 has a lovely flow, finely revealed by Petersson. It moves through some very fine passages, quite virtuosic and brilliantly played here.

I cannot imagine any Grieg enthusiast not wanting to hear this fascinating disc finely recorded and with first rate performances from all concerned.


The recording brings a fine amount of detail in a natural acoustic. There are excellent booklet notes.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Boris Pigovat’s Holocaust Requiem proves to be a magnificent work of depth and high emotion in a new performance on Naxos by violist Anna Serova with the Croation Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicola Guerini

Boris Pigovat (b.1953) www.pigovat.com was born in Odessa in the USSR where he studied at the Gnessin Music Institute (Academia of Music) in Moscow. In1988 he won the special distinction diploma  at  the  International  Composers’ Competition   in Budapest  for his composition Musica dolorosa No. 2 for Trombone Quartet

He immigrated to Israel in 1990 where, in 1995, he was awarded the Prize of ACUM (Israeli ASCAP) for his composition Holocaust Requiem. In 2000 he was awarded the prize of Prime Minister of State of Israel and, in 2002, received his Ph.D. degree from Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

Many of his works have been performed throughout the world.  His composition Massada was performed at ISCM World music days 2000 festival in Luxembourg and at WASBE 2003 Conference in Jonkoping, Sweden.  His symphonic picture Wind of Yemen was performed at the Asian Music Festival 2003 in Tokyo and at WASBE 2009 Conference in Cincinnati (USA). Three of his pieces, Prayer, Song of the Sea and Voices of Jerusalem, were performed in New York’s Carnegie Hall.  His work Music of Sorrow and Hope (2011) was commissioned and premiered by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta at the IPO's 75th Anniversary Festival.

The world premiere of the Holocaust Requiem for Viola & Symphony Orchestra   took place at the Memorial evening dedicated to the Babiy Yar tragedy in Kiev, Ukraine in October 2001. In 2008 this work was performed in Wellington, New Zealand at the Concert of Remembrance 70th Anniversary of Kristallnacht 

His work Poem of Dawn for Viola & Symphony Orchestra was premiered by Anna Serova and Zagreb-HRT Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicola Guerini at Il Settembre dell'Accademia 2013, Teatro Filarmonico di Verona.      

It is the Holocaust Requiem and Poem of Dawn that have been recorded by Nicola Guerini www.nicolaguerini.com  and the Croation Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra http://glazba.hrt.hr/194659/croatian-radiotelevision-symphony-orchestra  with violist Anna Serova www.annaserova.com for Naxos. The recording of Poem of Dawn is a world premiere recording.

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Boris Pigovat decided against his original idea of having a soloist, chorus, speaker, and orchestra in his Holocaust Requiem (1994-95) preferring to allow a simplicity and directness with a solo viola providing a ‘human voice.’

Requiem aeternam unfolds beautifully with clarinet and low strings before rising through the strings. This is an impressive opening. The viola enters taking the theme, soloist Anna Serova bringing a lovely tone and fine timbres. The orchestra re-join adding a darkness and uncertainty. A harp gently supports the viola theme before fuller strings enter, the viola bringing some most eloquent moments, the human voice of this tragic music. The music moves through moments of hushed calm before the tempo picks up, pointed up by piano and percussion. The viola becomes agitated as the orchestra leads to a full, rich dramatic passage with anguished phrases from the viola. The orchestra reaches a peak with impassioned phrases before timpani strokes herald the solo viola in a quieter passage. The orchestra re-joins to bring the tragic feel of the opening.

Incisive chords from the higher strings open the Dies irae in a rising motif soon joined by the whole orchestra as brass churn out the Dies Irae with drum strokes and timpani. All quietens to a wistful passage as the viola joins with a quiet, rather tentative motif before becoming increasingly anguished as the orchestra rises ever upward, the Dies Irae plainchant is still hinted at. The music adopts a rhythmic stance with percussion before dropping to a slow hesitant passage. There are some fine moments from the viola in this strident anguished music.

Soon the orchestra hammers out the theme before leading on with a tormented, anguished viola part. The orchestra heads insistently forward occasionally falling back only to rise ever more violently forward. This is music of some violence and impact. The piano joins with percussion to lead the music ahead with an almost manic stance. There are discordant phrases as the music reaches a pitch. Timpani sound out over the orchestra as the pitch is held by high strings and brass. Low strings then chunter forward until falling into silence, leaving just a piccolo with a lovely little motif to quietly end with hushed rustling strings.

A gong sounds to herald a discordant Lacrimosa with a repeated motif from the viola, like a cry of anguish. There is some simply outstanding playing from Anna Serova in this extended, cadenza like passage. Timpani sound but the solo viola continues, though now mournful and quieter. As the viola slowly leads on timpani quietly and gently accompany. There is a crash of gongs that brings a momentary rise in passion but the viola continues quietly as the gong and cymbal crashes die away. The strings now enter with a most affecting melody, slow, quiet and reserved and gently holding a melancholy reserve.

A lone trombone brings the Lux aeterna. The orchestra soon join keeping the melancholy atmosphere. There is a gentle rise in passion but the restrained feel is still maintained. The viola eventually joins and tries to add a degree of passion, picked up by the orchestra. However the music soon drops to a hush. There are further attempts to rise in passion but the melancholy calm is held. Later there is a particularly beautiful passage as well as a lovely flute solo. The viola leads to a hushed section with celeste before entering upon a quiet and gentle solo passage, joined by the orchestra as the coda arrives.

This is a magnificent work of depth and high emotion that is immensely rewarding.

Poem of Dawn (2010) was written for and dedicated to the violist Anna Serova. The celeste opens with a little motif before strings and viola enter, the viola bringing a fine melody. Together with the orchestra a fine flowing, undulating melody is developed, Serova bringing a lovely rich tone. There are hushed harmonics from the viola before the music picks up in dynamics with moments of fine instrumental detail, especially for woodwind and brass, woven into the orchestration. There are some particularly beautiful moments when the sound billows up in the orchestra in this unashamedly romantic score.  Eventually the music reaches a fine romantic climax in the orchestra as dawn arrives. The viola returns as the music falls back in a beautifully orchestrated, hushed passage. As the music slowly moves forward, there is some particularly fine writing for the viola before a beautifully hushed coda with celeste, viola and orchestra.  

Pigovat is a remarkably fine orchestrator. Poem of Dawn makes a fine contrast to the melancholy, passion and tragedy of the Requiem. Nevertheless it is the very fine Holocaust Requiem that I will return to most often. Anna Serova proves to be a first class soloist with the Croatian Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra under Nicola Guerini turning in first class performances.


The recording is excellent and there are authoritative and informative booklet notes from the composer.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort and Players give us as performance of Handel’s L ‘Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato to be reckoned with on a new Winged Lion release

George Frideric Handel’s English Ode, L‘Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, HWV 55 was composed between 19th January and 4th February 1740 during a severe winter that had caused the cancellation of a revival of his Masque Acis and Galatea.  The text is taken from Milton’s two odes L’Allegro and Il Penseroso arranged by Charles Jennens (1700-1773) who also provided his own third part, Il Moderato.

There are no characters in L ‘Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. The characters are personifications of emotional states and as such are sung by different soloists. Indeed the choice of soloist has varied in later editions.

For his new recording for Winged Lion www.wingedlionrecords.com  released by Signum Classics www.signumrecords.com Paul McCreesh www.paul-mccreesh.com  with his Gabrieli Consort and Players www.gabrieli.com  has gone back to the original version as premiered on 27th February 1740. The soloists on this new release are Gillian Webster (soprano) www.gielgudacademy.co.uk/gillian-webster.html , Jeremy Ovenden (tenor) www.jeremyovenden.com , Laurence Kilsby (treble), Peter Harvey (baritone) www.peterharvey.com  and Ashley Riches (bass) www.hazardchase.co.uk/artists/ashley-riches . The organist is William Whitehead www.william-whitehead.com

2CD
SIGCD 392
Paul McCreesh prefaces L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato with Handel’s
Concerto Grosso No. 1 in G Major, Op. 6, HWV 319 as, indeed, the composer would have done. The sparer textures of the Gabrielli Players bring some particularly fine sounds, often lithe and full of clarity. This is a particularly fine performance that makes an ideal introduction to the main work. An absolute delight.

Part I of L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato opens with tenor Jeremy Ovenden, bringing a fine characterisation to the recitative Hence! loathed melancholy using his fine voice to find a variety of timbres. Soprano Gillian Webster shows her lovely, articulate voice in the brief recitative Hence! vain deluding Joys.

What a delight treble Laurence Kilsby is as he sings the Air Come, thou goddess, fair and free, in terrific voice with plenty of strength, spot on phrasing and control. Gillian Webster returns showing exquisite control in the Air Come rather, goddess, sage and holy holding a perfect line whilst the Gabrieli Players provide some lovely sonorities.

With the Air Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee Jeremy Ovenden deals with Handel’s difficult vocal part, with its rhythmic phrasing, superbly. The Gabrieli Consort, when they join, are spot on with their phrasing and ensemble. This tenor brings such great variety to the Air Come and trip it as you go.

Gillian Webster draws some lovely longer, slow phrases in the recitative Come, pensive nun, devout and pure along with the Gabrieli Players shaping this so well. The soprano’s higher notes are well shaped and controlled in the beautifully paced Air Come, but keep thy wonted state. When the choir enter they do so with such a lovely mellow sound

Both tenor and treble bring us the recitative Hence loathed Melancholy before
Treble Laurence Kilsby sings Mirth, admit me of thy crew. After beautifully done instrumental introduction, this fine treble shows remarkable power, pitch and, indeed, understanding of the characterisation of this piece.

Gillian Webster displays a lovely slow recitative First, and chief, on golden wing. It is finely laid out with lovely long lines before a beautiful pastoral introduction to the Air Sweet bird, that shuns't the noise of folly where the Gabrieli’s flautist, Katy Bircher, provides particularly lovely trills. When the soprano enters she has a lovely dialogue with the flute. The blend of vocal and instrumental is superb, a real highlight.

The recitative If I give thee honour due introduces bass, Ashley Riches who brings drama to the part as well as to the Air Mirth, admit me of thy crew with the natural horn of Richard Bayliss providing a terrific opening.  The Air Oft on a plat of rising ground also has notable instrumental moments with Gillian Webster providing an exquisite performance.  

Jeremy Ovenden tenor returns for the recitative If I give thee honour due leading to the  Air Let me wander, not unseen a lovely setting with a gentle sway, beautifully caught here by both tenor and players.

The Air & Chorus Or let the merry bells ring round is something of a triumph, full of joy, rhythmic buoyancy and a remarkable flexibility from Ovenden, with jingling bells adding to the gaiety before the chorus enter to take us to a glorious conclusion of Part I.

Paul McCreesh choses Handel’s Concerto Grosso No. 3 in E Minor, Op. 6, HWV 321 to precede Part II. This is another buoyant and beautifully textured concerto, these players on fine form with some great Handelian moments.

Part II commences with the recitative Hence, vain deluding Joys where Gillian Webster is very fine, beautifully controlled before she sings the Air But O! sad virgin, that thy power. There is some superb instrumental playing before and during this lovely Air. The first CD concludes with a gentle sad recitative Thus, Night, oft see me in thy pale career in a lovely performance from Gillian Webster.

Moving to the second CD Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players bring the Chorus Populous cities please me then with bass Ashley Riches and the brass of the Gabrieli Players adding a dramatic edge. There is a lovely flowing central choral section. Tenor Jeremy Ovenden brings the Air There let Hymen oft appear with lovely fleet playing from the Gabrieli Players, a lightness of texture and sung with great panache.

Gillian Webster shows just how beautiful recitative can be in Me, when the sun begins to fling before the Air Hide me from day's garish eye which is simply glorious.

Jeremy Ovenden’s performance of the Air I'll to the well-trod stage anon is full of character with a sense of great humour before the remarkable treble Laurence Kilsby returns for the Air And ever against eating cares with lovely sonorities from the Gabrieli Players. This treble shows such assured singing – spectacularly fine.

Trumpets sound out magnificently to bring a terrific Air & Chorus These delights if thou canst give with some brilliant flexible singing from tenor Jeremy Ovenden and the Gabrieli Consort full and incisive. Soprano Gillian Webster gives a lovely recitative But let my due feet never fail before the Chorus There let the pealing organ blow with the Gabrieli Consort, a prominent part for organ and lovely part for soprano.

Part II concludes with the Chorus These pleasures, Melancholy, give with a lovely layering of choral textures.

To precede Part III we have Handel’s Organ Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 7, HWV 306 which unlike the continuo organ in the main work is played by William Whitehead on the organ of Deptford parish church, London, England. This 2004 William Drake organ recreates an organ of 1745, retaining some of the case and pipes. It provides some glorious timbres and textures that, combined with the sounds of the Gabrieli Players, are quite gorgeous. One can quite imagine Handel playing at the early performances.  

The recitative Hence! boast not, ye profane opens Part III where baritone Peter Harvey joins showing an especially attractive voice with lovely textures. He continues with the recitative Come, with native lustre shine showing great flexibility and some fine feeling before the Gabrieli Consort join to lead the music on in this lovely Chorus. Gillian Webster is impressive in the Air Come, with gentle hand restrain showing such a light and flexible touch.

Jeremy Ovenden gives a dramatically turned recitative No more short life they then will spend before, with the Gabrieli Players, building the Air Each action will derive new grace very finely.

There follows a most lovely Duet from Jeremy Ovenden and Gillian Webster As steals the morn upon the night with beautiful instrumental sonorities and these two soloists blending perfectly, weaving lovely strands. Here surely is a foretaste of Handel’s soon to be written Messiah. It is the Gabrieli Consort and Players  that rise up with the organ for the final Chorus Thy pleasure, Moderation, give bringing a fine conclusion.

This is a performance to be reckoned with, one that is not easily going to be matched. The soloists are excellent as is the choral and instrumental playing.

The first class recording from three different venues is generally seamlessly engineered except perhaps for a slightly noticeable larger acoustic sound from Deptford parish church.


The book that the CDs are contained within is beautifully presented with excellent and very full notes. There are full English texts.