Monday, 22 September 2014

One of the most desirable Bach keyboard discs for a long time from Igor Levit on a new release from Sony Classical

Igor Levit displayed superb musicianship in his performances of Beethoven’s five last piano sonatas on his debut release for Sony Classical which I reviewed back in January this year.

Since then these terrific performances were voted runner up in the Instrumental category of this year’s Gramophone Awards

Now from Sony we have a 2 CD set of Igor Levit playing Bach’s Partitas BWV 825-830.

The Praeludium of Partita No. 1 in B-Flat Major, BWV 825 is beautifully paced with Levit’s lovely phrases allowing Bach’s superb invention to unfold. In the Allemande there is a fine flow, with a tremendous clarity that seems wholly natural as the contrapuntal lines appear with a joyful rhythmic quality. Already one can sense this is very fine Bach.

In the Corrente it is Levit’s handling of Bach’s rhythmic quality that, again, comes through; lithe, light, bouncing yet always achieving a remarkable clarity, yet with an intoxicating forward momentum. Levit brings his thoughtfulness and poetry to the Sarabande with such fine presentation of Bach’s ideas. He shapes and develops the music brilliantly.

The beautifully pointed up Menuet I & II are terrific with a lovely ebb and flow before the sparkling Gigue, crisp, lively and full of charm with, again, such fine touch and phrasing. The depth and concentration Levit brings is exceptional.

There is such a well-controlled Sinfonia to open Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826 with subtle shadings and Levit’s exquisite phrasing and forward drive in the later stages where one can’t help but be entranced. The Allemande flows with a lovely cantabile before the Courante where Levit lays out the varying phrases so finely, keeping the overall flow. The Sarabande follows the Courante so well, slow and exceptionally well phrased. There is a beautifully light and buoyant Rondeaux with a fine ending that leads so well into the concluding Capriccio that receives a spellbinding performance here, second to none, a real joy.  

There is more lovely phrasing and shaping to the Ouverture of Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828 with pinpoint clarity of textures and line. The gorgeously limpid Allemande really embraces Bach’s ever flowing invention, superbly realised by Levit.

The Courante has vibrant, beautifully sprung phrases before the Aria where Levit finely draws the musical lines. There is lovely shaping and phrasing of the Sarabande with this pianist maintaining a natural forward movement. There is some terrific, delicately phrased playing in the Menuet, with nicely nuanced phrases and, in the Gigue terrific panache as Levit hurtles to the coda.

The second disc opens with Partita No. 3 in A Minor, BWV 827 where the Fantasia has a lovely sense of freedom and flow, something that equally applies to the Allemande with Levit’s finely held musical lines. The Courante moves forward with a sense of urgency before the thoughtful and beguiling Sarabande.

The Burlesca is full of energy and momentum with Levit’s fine touch and articulation shown to great effect. In the Scherzo the music moves forward with even more stunning forward drive before the Gigue that brings an equally fine forward flow, with an unstoppable nature.

The Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829 brings beautifully precise and articulate playing before the Praeambulum that pulls one in immediately. There is a gently flowing Allemande and a brilliant Courante before Levit brings more of his thoughtful sensitivity to the Sarabande with some exquisite playing.

The Tempo di Minuetto is light, gossamer in texture, absolutely superb. Levit’s subtle rubato is to the fore in the crisp, beautifully phrased Passepied before the concluding Gigue arrives with a subtle ebb and flow as Levit quickly moves the music to its conclusion with an unstoppable forward momentum.

There are some beautiful moments as the Toccata of Partita No. 6 in E Minor, BWV 830 makes its way through to a particularly fine conclusion. Levit brings all his delicacy and subtlety and exemplary phrasing to the Allemande with a freedom too.

The Corrente has a terrific flow, with some lovely little flourishes before the beautiful simplicity of the Air. The Sarabande has a lovely natural flow and freedom to which the Tempo di Gavotta makes a lovely contrast with Levit’s terrific sprung rhythms and lovely little details. This pianist brings a fine conclusion to these works with the final Gigue, bringing all his exceptional skills as a Bach interpreter.

I could use every superlative to praise Levit whose new recording must be one of the most desirable Bach keyboard discs for a long time. His playing is so refined, rhythmically secure, with lovely phrasing and an ability to realise the structure of the music so well – all attributes that I remarked upon when reviewing his Beethoven.

There are, of course, those who do not like their Bach played on a modern piano, preferring harpsichord performances. This would be a tremendous pity given the exceptional musicality of these readings.

Levit is finely recorded and there are interesting and informative booklet notes.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Finely re-mastered digital albums from Flint Juventino Beppe show his great breadth of ideas and creativity

Three of composer Flint Juventino Beppe’s previous recordings have recently been premastered and re-released as digital only albums available from iTunes and CD baby as well as via the composer’s own The FJB Fingerprint

By including all three digital albums in one review, I had intended to be fairly brief but, such are the attractions of the works recorded here, I make no apology for providing a much longer blog than usual.

The first of these recordings is entitled Seasons of Life and features a number of Beppe’s chamber and solo piano works.

Beppe’s Violin Sonata No.1, op.50 has a brilliantly vibrant, rhythmic opening for piano to the first movement, soon joined by the violin that then works out the material. This is a terrific movement with a gentler, quieter, limpid central section that reveals some lovely ideas before the piano brings the return of the opening tempo.

With the second movement, the piano introduces a thoughtful slow theme that speeds as the violin joins in a rather quixotic theme with varying rhythms brilliantly played by Håvard Daae Rognli (violin) and Wolfgang Plagge (piano)  

It is the violin that opens the last movement immediately joined by the piano in a whimsical theme that slowly becomes more insistent in the violin part with the piano providing chords against which the violinist plays and weaves his theme before, eventually speeding to the coda. This is a terrific piece full of Beppe’s distinctive rhythms.

With High Mountains of Music, Op.8, Tom Ottar Andreassen (flute)  joins Wolfgang Plagge (piano) for this two movement work that opens with Polar Nights, both players bringing a dreamy, languid quality to the theme that slowly rises upwards.  After continuing to rise and fall, the music becomes more animated as develops with some lovely arabesques for flute.

Northern Lights brings more flute arabesques weaving around the piano before increasing in tempo, halfway, with a more florid passage, full of lovely colours and textures.

People of Blue Dimension, op.4a for piano solo, features again Wolfgang Plagge and opens with Waltz of the Queen, a slow theme that gently strolls along, with lovely little decorations around a gentle waltz rhythm. Absent Brain has a rapidly descending motif that rushes ahead ending in quite an animated way. Nudification is a slow section with some nicely harmonised piano phrases before Unsteady Course, with its insistent theme, rushes forward with tumbling, descending scales and a rocking, unsteady left hand accompaniment.

A floridly harmonised Intermezzo has a slow waltz tempo that gently wanders along with some fine decorations before the strident Persecution Mania hammers out a rhythmic, bouncing theme that could, if allowed, easily become a moto perpetuum. Crushing the Giant has a frantic theme with crashing left hand chords its relaxed conclusion. Finally there is Resignation that has a lovely relaxed opening that precedes a more frantic section with cascading scales and florid piano writing, before returning to the relaxed nature of the opening.

There is some exceptionally fine playing from Wolfgang Plagge here who continues with Cookery book of Kornåld, Op.7, a four movement piece opening with the huge chords of Furious Meat, full of strength and power. A three note motif, with accompaniment high in the register, opens Siamese Cabbage, leading to a more insistent faster theme for right hand as the left holds the three note motif. Later a longer theme arrives as Plagge keeps a descending theme in his left hand that ends with the three note motif.

Born to be Popcorn has a bubbling, vibrant opening followed by calmer phrases that are repeated and interspersed before the rapidly running theme of Running Fish Cake arrives, to which the left hand adds a slightly broader motif before chords bring the coda.

The Flute Sonata No.1, Op.40 is in three movements commencing with a Moderato that opens with a lovely piano theme before the flute joins weaving its melody around the piano in this particularly fine movement that has a real forward momentum. The flute brings a rising motif to the opening of the Adagio before the piano joins and the theme develops. The piano leads forward with the flute adding a melody. The Presto brings some particularly fine flute playing as this movement hurtles off. It slows a little, with lovely flute motifs before continuing to move quickly ahead, flowing around with many attractive and rhythmically varying ideas before the sparkling coda.

There is terrific playing from Tom Ottar Andreassen and Wolfgang Plagge in this gem of a sonata.  

Wolfgang Plagge is the soloist for Seasons of Life, Op.2 a four movement work opening with Life in Development introduced by a rippling theme with a firmer left hand motif that brings a stability to the music. It develops with some lovely moments finely played with some extremely unusual and attractive ideas. Life in Prosperity moves ahead frantically and forcefully with some fine, vibrant playing. There is a slightly more subdued central section before thoughtfulness is cast aside to rush to the coda.

Life in Desperation brings a rather off-balanced rhythm creating a feeling of instability and desolation before rising in forcefulness and discord to end quietly. There is a degree of desperation in the desolate Life in Coldness with a central section that brings a warming of sound before the strident conclusion. More fine playing from Wolfgang Plagge who is joined again by Tom Ottar Andreassen for Parting, Op.20b.

A fast flowing flute and piano theme opens the first movement, soon slowing before regaining tempo. The music alternates between faster and slower and often hesitant passages with many little features, rapid piano phrases, slides and lovely flute textures. The piano opens the second movement, gently and quietly, before the flute enters with a gentle, wistful melody against a rocking piano theme.  The flute varies the melody, as does the piano, whilst keeping the rocking theme. This is simply a gorgeous movement – and what a fine, lovely coda. A fine theme for piano opens the concluding movement before the flute plays a two note figure that is developed against a repeated piano theme until the hushed coda.

There isn’t a work here that failed to keep my attention, indeed, so much of this music I found to be especially attractive. Beppe is well served by all of these fine artists.

The second of these re-issued recordings is entitled About My Grandfather and brings two of Flint Juventino Beppe’s piano concertos along with orchestral works, featuring pianist, Joachim Knoph  with Ari Rasilainen and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra

Beppe’s Piano Concerto No.2 ‘Urge’, Op.44 follows the conventional three movement format and opens with See. There is a delicate, rippling piano opening with a woodwind led orchestra. The music rises up in the orchestra as the piano continues to develop the theme. Whilst the orchestra occasionally brings more dynamic moments there remains a delicacy to the piano part. The second movement, Catch, has the orchestra introducing a flowing theme pointed up by pizzicato strings and with textures enhanced by various wind instruments. When the piano enters it brings a broader version of the orchestral theme. There is a particularly beautiful second subject featuring horns before the music rises to a climax before the quiet, atmospheric coda. The concluding movement, Push, certainly does push ahead, immediately, with piano and orchestra, determined and dynamic and with Beppe’s distinctive rapid piano phrases and a terrific forward orchestral flow.

This is a highly individual, yet hugely engaging work full of breadth, poetry and an inner depth. The piano is never used for mere virtuosic effect, though Joachim Knoph brings some powerful moments. Ari Rasilainen and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra provide terrific support.

The Piano Concerto No.3 ‘Monster’, Op.45, also in three movements, brings a different nature with the first movement, Beyond, opening with a light-hearted wandering theme for piano picked up by the orchestra. There is a jazzy element to the music that is punctuated by intricate little passages and phrases, yet overall this movement moves ahead with a swagger. Among brings a calm flowing theme for piano and orchestra with subtle little rhythmic pauses. The music slows, centrally, to a more thoughtful passage for orchestra with the piano joining this slower, darker version of the theme before leading to a particularly fine melodic section with constantly shifting harmonies that takes us to the coda. Inside opens forcefully for piano and orchestra before falling, only to build again dramatically, with timpani strokes. There are some terrific orchestral moments for wind showing Beppe’s fine skills as an orchestrator. The piano moves ahead with surges of orchestral sound, and some terrific playing from Joachim Knoph before the incisive coda.

This concerto provides some fine moments of playfulness, poetry and drama.

The four movement orchestral work, About my Grandfather, Op.37, opens with Timeless Legend where low pizzicato strings support a broader melody that flows forward confidently, pointed up occasionally by timpani. There are passages with beautifully written woodwind parts as well as subtly shifting harmonies throughout.

Horns and woodwind open Warm by Heart in a rather questioning motif before a gentle theme appears, full of warmth led by an oboe, then clarinet, in this brilliantly orchestrated piece. Running laps of Eternity is a gently rhythmic piece with a theme that is shared around the orchestra, very fleet of foot with some lovely subtly blended swirls of sound. Pizzicato basses underscore Not really Gone, a flowing movement where the woodwind keep different rhythms. For all its surface simplicity, the rhythmic aspects of this piece are remarkably finely written.

Heart Op.27 No.5 is a gorgeous little piece, full of wonderful little orchestral details and an insistent chime of bells, quiet in the background and quite haunting at times.

The final re-release takes us to another aspect of Flint Juventino Beppe’s compositional techniques, that of electro acoustic. Entitled Pictures before an Exhibition there are eight works commencing with the title work, Pictures before an Exhibition, Op.30.

With Pictures before an Exhibition, Op.30, commissioned for Ragnhild Monsen’s main exhibition at Festspillene, Bergen in 1997, Beppe creates some intoxicatingly appealing electronic sounds that are subtly integrated into a strange, melodic sound world, slowly leading through a number of striking ideas at a leisurely pace.

Trust is the theme of The Deal, Op.19 which soon develops a rich flowing theme, beautifully harmonised by many little electronic sounds, each in their own way captivating. Lovely textures appear later as well as rhythmic elements.

Moods from Røros, Op.31, drawing on the atmosphere of the town on of that name, returns us to a more thoughtful mood with a theme that is developed through a number of sections, each varying in texture and mood, often rhythmically emphatic.

Sounds of water appear in Inner Seas, Op.16, over which an orchestral sounding electronic theme is drawn. These inner seas are those of the mind that absorb the impressions of the world around us. Jazz like motifs appear as well as a myriad of textural ideas.

I stepped on a UFO, Op.23, an eventful stroll, also has a jazz related feel as it saunters along with an electronic sound very much like a vibraphone and which keeps the rhythm as many other sounds swirl and move around.

The composer is watched by the world in Eyes in the Air, Op.48 a piece which brings a faster pace and, throughout its length, goes through a number of phases, organ like sonorities, fuller orchestral like sounds, rhythmic contrasts and wild electronic sounds as well as a hauntingly strange section.

The composer remarks that as long as there is life there will be Death Dripping (Op.25) a work that opens with a little rising motif that could easily be a bird call before other sounds intrude as the music moves through many different sections with the rising motif linking the music together. Towards the end, children’s voices appear against the repeated rising motif before the music fades.

Life Giggling, Op.49 is a rhythmic and engaging piece that moves quickly forward with many frenzied themes weaving through, often shooting off suddenly and with a certain nonchalance between the frenzied activity.

This recording reveals another aspect of this fine composer, showing his great breadth of ideas and creativity.

There is much here from this distinctive composer that will reward listeners. The original recordings were first rate; the excellent re-mastering has revealed just how good these recordings are.

See also:

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Don’t miss Nicola Benedetti’s new release from Decca, Homecoming; A Scottish Fantasy, for wherever you live the pull of Nicola Benedetti’s Scottish homeland will be strong

Nicola Benedetti learnt to play the violin at the age of four, became the leader of the National Children's Orchestra of Great Britain at the age of eight, passed the eight grades of musical examinations by the age of nine, began to study at the Yehudi Menuhin School for young musicians at the age of 10, at the age of 15 began studying privately with Maciej Rakowski (b.1951), in 2004 won the BBC Young Musician of the Year at the age of 16, soon signing with Universal Music Group,  played at the Last Night of the Proms in 2012, appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours and, to date, has received five honorary degrees.

Nicola Benedetti is one of the most sought after violinists of her generation and is in much demand with major orchestras and conductors across the globe. She has played with many of the best orchestras in the world under some of the finest conductors. Her recordings for Decca (Universal Music) have received acclaim winning Best Female Artist at both 2012 and 2013 Classical BRIT Awards.

Her most recent recording, Homecoming; A Scottish Fantasy, has recently been released by Decca  and includes Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy together with works by James Scott Turner and Phil Cunningham (b.1960). For this she is joined by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rory Macdonald and the folk musicians, singer, Julie Fowlis , Éamon Doorley, Tony Byrne , Phil Cunningham , Ewen Vernal , Duncan Chisholm , James MacIntosh  and Aly Bain

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Rory Macdonald brings a gravitas to the orchestral opening of the Adagio cantabile of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy to which Nicola Benedetti adds a sweet, poignant tone as she enters. Macdonald draws much orchestral beauty from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. There is some lovely crisp playing from Benedetti in the Scherzo – Allegro; Adagio with such fine flourishes and some beautiful slower passages that are beautifully shaped by this violinist.

There is a reflective transition into the Andante Sostenuto with Benedetti bringing out more poetry than I’ve heard in this work before. McDonald brings some beautiful orchestral playing to support Benedetti’s exquisite tone. Benedetti brings some fine sonorities to the Finale (Allegro guerriero) as she weaves around the orchestra, showing her fabulous technique to the full.

Nicola Benedetti and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Rory Macdonald continue with the Ae Fond Kiss, a glorious traditional Scottish air that receives an equally fine and poetic performance, blending so well after the Bruch. Benedetti gives a solo performance in the Auld Lang Syne Variations (Traditional) drawing more very fine textures from her instrument, full of Scottish pathos. Rory Macdonald and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra return for My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose (Traditional) providing more beautiful moments.

Nicola Benedetti is joined by the folk instrumentalists Éamon Doorley, Tony Byrne, Phil Cunningham and Ewen Vernal for James Scott Skinner’s The Hurricane, a fine Scottish reel showing how this violinist can really play a stomping good tune, quite infectious. There is a lovely Scottish lilt to the Banks Hornpipe (Traditional) before the piece works its way to a lively conclusion.

Nicola Benedetti and Phil Cunningham come together for Cunningham’s Aberlady that has the feel of a Scottish lament, a most beautiful piece.

For Bothan a bh' aig Fionnghuala (Traditional) Nicola Benedetti and her fine team of players, Éamon Doorley, Tony Byrne, Phil Cunningham, Ewen Vernal, Duncan Chisholm, James MacIntosh with singer Julie Fowlis, whose vocal dexterity in this Gaelic song with a drone of instruments is terrific. Soon Benedetti enters as the pace quickens even more into a reel.

Phil Cunningham: The Gentle Light That Wakes Me brings the violin and piano of Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham to join Nicola Benedetti in another fine melody where the two violinists eventually weave the melody around each other. The traditional, Coisich a Rùin (Walk My Beloved) brings together Nicola Benedetti, Phil Cunningham, Ewen Vernal, Éamon Doorley, Tony Byrne  and singer Julie Fowlis, with some beautifully atmospheric instrumental accompaniment and Benedetti’s violin shining through as it weaves fine textures. Julie Fowlis is an exceptionally fine Scottish folk singer.

Nicola Benedetti ends with the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond (Traditional) where, as the tune slowly rises, pointed up by drum gentle taps, she develops the melody over the orchestral accompaniment of the BBCSSO. There is a lively dance rhythm in the central section with some terrific playing from Benedetti before a return to the slower melody of the opening.

Nicola Benedetti has chosen some very fine pieces to celebrate her homeland as well as some especially fine musicians.

Nowhere does one think of classical, folk or traditional, merely fine music making in these attractive, foot tapping and, often, poignant pieces. My downloaded recording is excellent.

Don’t miss this disc - wherever you live the pull of Nicola Benedetti’s Scottish homeland will be strong.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Barbara Harbach is again shown to be an impressive composer on a new release from MSR Classics featuring David Angus and the London Philharmonic Orchestra

MSR Classics has just released Volume 9 in its series of recordings of the music of Barbara Harbach . This new release is the second volume of this composer’s Orchestral Music entitled Symphonies, Soundings and Celebrations.

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Barbara Harbach has a large catalogue of works, including symphonies, operas, works for string orchestra, musicals, works for chamber ensembles, film scores, modern ballets, pieces for organ, harpsichord and piano, choral anthems and many arrangements for brass and organ of various Baroque works.

She has been the recipient of the Arts Education Award from the Missouri Arts Council, the Missouri Citizen for the Arts Award, the Yellow Rose Award from the Zonta International Club of St. Louis and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, College of Fine Arts and Communication, Faculty Excellence Award. In 2007 she was awarded the Hellenic Spirit Foundation Award and, in 2011, she was awarded the Grand Center Visionary Award for ‘Successful Working Artist,’ the Argus Foundation Award, and the YWCA Leader of Distinction Award in the Arts.

Further biographical information on this composer can be found in my review of Volume 7 in this series, Music for Strings  and, indeed, on the composer’s own website

The works on this new CD are all billed as World Premiere Recordings and are again performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Angus

Night Soundings for Orchestra was commissioned by Thomas F. George and is in three movements. There is a dynamic opening to Cloak of Darkness but the music soon settles to an oboe led theme. The dynamic outburst re-occurs before the gentler theme is taken forward by various wind instruments. The dynamic outbursts continue to periodically interrupt the music, keeping the tense overtone of this movement.

Woodwind dominate Notturno, weaving a mysterious tapestry of night sounds in this imaginatively orchestrated movement. Part way through, the strings bring a lighter, flowing nature before the woodwind return weaving some beautiful textures leading to the hushed coda.

As the title infers Midnight Tango has a tango rhythm led by a solo trumpet that appears out of the opening. Soon the music flows forward with just a gentle underlying pulse of the tango rhythm. Later a little ensemble of strings appears as the tango picks up with brass bringing a real Latin feel.

This is a most attractive piece idiomatically played by David Angus and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Gateway Festival Symphony was commissioned by St. Louis’ Gateway Festival Orchestra for their 50th Jubilee in 2013.

Confluencity depicts the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and grows upwards from a small motif to provide a dynamic opening. The xylophone keeps a rhythm over which the orchestra rides, with woodwind arabesques. Soon a more flowing theme arrives with gentle brass overlaid as the two themes merge and overlay as the movement progresses. Eventually a faster rhythm develops as the music bubbles up to a climax before flowing forward and speeding to a decisive coda.

Sunset: St. Louis, inspired by a poem by the St. Louis poet Sara Teasdale, opens quietly, though pensively, before a rhythmic theme commences a tango. The theme is passed around the orchestra before a slowly rising and falling motif appears around which the tango then moves. This is an especially lovely movement, expertly orchestrated.

Solo trumpet announces the opening of After Forever, as the pensive nature becomes even more obvious. This movement is related to the struggle of Dred and Harriet Scott, slaves who unsuccessfully sued for their freedom, an event that deepened tensions between the northern and southern U.S. states. Soon the tension eases, as the music flows and builds in richness. Little surges of drama and passion alternate with the flowing music. Eventually a little rhythmic melody arrives, pointed up by quiet percussion. The trumpet returns to call a note of caution before the music leads to the more settled coda.

This is another approachable and highly attractive work.

A State Divided – A Missouri Symphony also takes the theme of the divided politics of the northern and southern U.S. states with Missouri’s involvement in the Civil War.

Missouri Compromise – a slave state has an expansive opening though with a hint of melancholy that eventually leads to a section with a folksy rhythmic snap. A side drum enters to reinforce the rhythmic elements of the music but the predominant feeling remains expansive and calm. A tune runs through this work that sounds very much like a traditional American song.

Skirmish at Island Mound – African-American regiment brings low strings and a flute to open this quietly pensive music which rises up with a lighter theme shared around the wind instruments. The music slowly builds, rhythmically, between wind instruments in surely another traditional tune. Eventually the music quietens, the flute returns, before the music moves forward with confidence to the coda.

A trumpet and side drum herald the opening of The Battle of Westport – the battle that saved Missouri before a swirling orchestral theme joins, thrusting the music ahead in a marching rhythm around the tune ‘Mourning Glory’. Harbach’s distinctive orchestration brings some terrific moments as this movement progresses. There is a slower central section with side drums before the music leads decisively to the coda.

Jubilee Symphony was commissioned by the University of Missouri-St. Louis for their 50th Jubilee in 2013 and was premiered in October that year.

The first movement, Bellerive takes its title from the historic Bellerive Country Club that became the site of the new university. The music springs into life as an insistent motif appears for the trumpet. This theme is developed around the orchestra building and developing many variants on the theme, becoming more light-hearted with something of a traditional jig before leading to a final fugal section.

Mirth Day Fiesta draws on a day of celebration unique to the university that showcases cultures and ethnicities.  A xylophone opens the movement with low brass, soon joined by a flute and the rest of the orchestra as the music opens out into a lovely melody. Soon there is a change to a lively dance rhythm followed by varying rhythmic versions with pizzicato lower strings pointing up the music. The xylophone gently returns as the music quietens and flows forward with brass leading ahead before woodwind join for the rhythmic coda.

Tritons Ascending refers to the mythological mascot of the university. There is a gentle, hushed opening to which woodwind soon add little motifs before developing into a texture of woven sounds that flow forward, building in depth to the coda.

Barbara Harbach is an impressive composer who has a depth of expression underneath the surface attractions of her music.

There is fine playing from David Angus and the London Philharmonic Orchestra who receive an excellent recording engineered by Mike Hatch at the Henry Wood Hall, London, England. There are excellent booklet notes.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Mary Dullea’s new recording from Metier, realising Eric Craven’s fascinating and often captivating sonatas, is a very fine achievement

I have sought in vain for comprehensive biographical information about British composer, Eric Craven. Indeed it is only recently that his music has come to a wider public through the encouragement of pianist Mary Dullea and the recording company, Metier (a division of Divine Art Recordings) together with their associate, the publishers, Brandon Music . It appears that he taught music and mathematics in secondary schools in his home town of Manchester and has composed music since his teens.

On his blog site, the composer gives no biographical information but, more importantly, does explain his method of composition, stating that over the last fifteen years or so he has become increasingly focused on developing an experimental compositional technique which he refers to as Non-Prescriptive. Essentially this means a method of writing music which permits the performer to determine some or most of the musical parameters which normally constitute the bricks and mortar of a piece of music. Furthermore, the performer may opt to alter these parameters, the consequences of which result in the particular piece being open to any number of different interpretations. The performer thus becomes involved in the compositional process and, as a consequence, the historical relationship of the composer, the performer and the performance are realigned.

He goes on to state that his Non-Prescriptive technique allows him to give to his music a freedom of interpretation by not fixing or dictating any performance or outcome. There is a Lower Order of Non-Prescription where several parameters, pitch, rhythm and duration of the notes are given. The performer decides upon such omitted parameters as tempo, dynamics, phrasing, pedalling and the articulation of the notes. Then there is the Higher Order of Non-Prescription where only the pitch is given and this pitch is not fixed, it can be played at any octave above or below the given pitch. The pitches may be played in any order or repeated or omitted. They may be grouped together vertically to form chords or clusters. The realisation of the music can commence and end at any point on the score. This results in the duration of the piece being controlled and determined by the performer.

Metier has already issued a recording of Craven’s Set for piano realised and performed by Mary Dullea (MSV 28525). Now they have released a 2 CD collection of three of his piano sonatas, again realised and performed by Mary Dullea.

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Given the degree of input from Mary Dullea in realising these sonatas, it is only right that I should give some biographical information about her.

A native of Ireland, she studied at The Royal College of Music, London, with Yonty Solomon and holds a MMus in Contemporary Music Studies from Goldsmiths University of London and a PhD in Performance from The University of Ulster

As a soloist and chamber musician, she has performed internationally at venues such as London’s Wigmore Hall, Casa da Musica (Porto), Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre, Phillips Collection Washington D.C., Symphony Space New York City, Palazzo Albrizzi Venice (Italy), Johannesburg Music Society and National Concert Hall Dublin.  She has appeared at many Festivals throughout the world and has broadcast frequently. She has recorded for record labels such as NMC, Delphian Records, Altarus, Col Legno, MNR, Naxos, Convivium and Lorelt, as well as Divine Art.

A sought-after interpreter of new music, she has commissioned and premiered works from composers as varied as Michael Finnissy, Johannes Maria Staud, Michael Nyman, Donnacha Dennehy and Gerald Barry. Mary Dullea is the Director of Performance at The University of Sheffield and is also on the teaching staff of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Craven’s Piano Sonata No. 7 is constructed as an arch with the fast outer movements sharing the same material based on the musical interval of a fifth. In this work Craven uses Low-order Non Prescription.

The first movement opens with some fine rhythmic playing as the music moves around tonally, seemingly not rooted other than by the phrasing that gives the music form.  A single high note opens the second movement, followed by broader motifs interspersed by high fragmentary notes. Subtle use of pedal allows the dying notes to sound beneath the slowly developing theme. Craven’s use of the piano has a percussive nature, just offset by longer phrases. There is some especially fine playing from Mary Dullea. Eventually the music develops into some richer, fuller sounds as the music becomes more dramatic though ending suddenly, the notes dying away.

The third movement opens with an oddly attractive, somewhat fragmented theme that develops some particularly fine moments with, at times, a playful nature to the skipping notes. The fourth movement brings limpid notes that are scattered around with strumming of the piano strings. The keyboard motif is interspersed by the gentle sounds of strummed and plucked strings. Slowly the keyboard phrases become more dynamic, though always returning to their gentler nature. There is a great delicacy to Craven’s writing before the music drops away to little fragments that end the movement.

The fifth and final movement brings some fuller, richer sounds before the music takes off in a more decisive theme which, like the first movement, moves around tonally and creates a sense of completion to the whole sonata, showing how much Craven retains a real sense of form within which to hold his creation. The music moves decisively forward to the coda.

There are moments in this sonata that some listeners might find challenging, but overall this is an enormously interesting work, full of fine moments, played brilliantly by Mary Dullea realising Craven’s ideas to remarkable effect.

Piano Sonata No. 9 retains an arch like sonata structure but brings more lyricism. The middle of the three movements uses Craven’s High-order Non prescriptive technique.

The first movement opens with an attractive theme that appears to have its roots in British music of an earlier era, though here given a modern free-flowing twist with harmonies of a more European outlook. This sixteen minute movement develops through some quite beautiful ideas, wonderfully realised by Mary Dullea. Craven’s endless outpouring of melodic ideas is really quite beguiling. Centrally, there is a particularly lovely section with bell like tones sensitively played by Dullea.

The second movement introduces a more skittish theme, underlaid by lower chords as the music dances around somewhat playfully. The deeper, firmer chords offset the lighter feel, eventually becoming more aggressive and taking the music into a dramatic passage. The music eventually falls back as it makes its way to the coda but, however, the violence returns leading to a spectacularly virtuosic and stormy coda.

The third movement retains a little of the nature of the middle movement but with more of the flow of the first movement, neither of which seems to be able to dominate, creating a tension and contrast. When the more flowing, melodic elements appear, they bring a warmth and assurance.

This is a particularly fine work played with great empathy and understanding.

The second disc in this set is devoted to just one work, the single movement Piano Sonata No 8. This work uses Middle-order Non- Prescription methods. Scott McLaughlin, in his essential booklet note, tells us that Craven’s notation in this sonata presents the player with snippets of music, presented as singular objects on the page separated by whitespace. These snippets or events are written in low-order notation with only pitches and rhythms given, but allow the freedom to vary or ignore that which is allowed with high-order notation.

As the design of the work is intended to be open ended, the duration will, of course, vary. Here Mary Dullea realises this sonata as a work lasting around 48 minutes.

A hesitant little motif built on two notes opens this work and is developed with, occasionally, elements of Messiaen. Soon the music broadens a little whilst becoming more dynamic. It moves forward in little surges as a melodic idea emerges, still broken up by little motifs in the right hand. The music becomes more skittish and descends into the depths of the keyboard before moving forward a little more melodically. The surges of melodic and fragmented staccato ideas continue with many intensely impressive still, quiet moments, beautifully realised by this pianist.

Eventually the music grows a little passionate but falls back leading to more staccato phrases. More dynamic deeper chords are sounded in music that, in the most tantalising way, holds one in its thrall, often waiting to see how it will develop, when certain motifs and themes will reappear. Towards the middle of the work, a rolling, vibrant melodic theme appears, growing faster before quietening and becoming more thoughtful, with some lovely harmonies. As the sonata moves forward, there are lovely chords that slowly become discordant.

The music continues to juxtapose the melodic with the shorter staccato phrases before arriving at some more attractive chords that resonate and overlay, showing more of Craven’s fine ear for sonority. Indeed, it is often the sustained resonance of dying chords that adds so much to the texture of many fine passages in this work. The repeated chords reappear, more gently this time, adding a magical simplicity before the staccato phrases return to dominate.  Towards the end the longer melodic phrases peer through again, but it is the broken staccato phrases that lead slowly to what might have been an open ended coda, except we are given a little spread chord that adds a conclusion.

This performance is an extremely fine creative achievement for both Craven and Dullea.

Indeed, all of these performances are a very fine achievement by Mary Dullea, realising these fascinating and often captivating works that have moments of real beauty.

The recording made at the Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales is excellent. Scott McLaughlin’s booklet notes are an essential addition to this release giving, as they do, detailed information concerning the music and its construction, interspersed with comments by the composer.

For those new to Eric Craven’s music, as many will be, I would recommend listening to his very fine Sonata No.9 first.

Friday, 12 September 2014

This new release from BIS is a terrific addition to the catalogue of recordings of works by Sofia Gubaidulina, one of contemporary music’s most individual voices

Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931)  is now one of Russia’s most distinguished composers. Born in Chistopol, a small town in the Soviet Republic of Tatar, her family moved to Kazan where she attended the Kazan Conservatory in 1954, before moving to the Moscow Conservatory, where she studied as a post-graduate student of Vissarion Shebalin (1902-1963).

It was as a film composer that she made her living during the Communist years, whilst leaving part of every year for her own compositions.  She was early attracted to the modernist enthusiasms of her contemporaries. A period of experimentation led to works such as the Concerto for bassoon and low instruments (1975), The Hour of the Soul (1976, rev.1988), and ground-breaking pieces such as De Profundis (1978).

From the late 1970s, religious elements became more obvious in Gubaidulina’s work with pieces such as the piano concerto, Introitus (1978), the violin concerto, Offertorium (1980, rev.1986), and Seven Words for cello, accordion and string orchestra (1982). Many of her religious works are on a large scale, including a cello concerto inspired by a poem about the Last Judgement, And: The Festivities at their Height (1993), Alleluia (1990), for chorus and orchestra, a Concerto for Cello and Chorus and the Passion according to St. John (2000). Much of Gubaidulina’s more recent work also reflects her fascination with ancient principles of proportion such as the Golden Section.

Since 1992, Gubaidulina has lived in Hamburg, Germany. She is a member of the musical academies in Frankfurt, Hamburg and the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.

BIS Records have just released a recording of Gubaidulina’s works for various instruments and in particular the guitar.

Entitled Repentance, after the title of the first work on this disc, for cello, three guitars and double bass, it also includes Serenade for solo guitar, a Piano Sonata and Sotto Voce for viola, double bass and two guitars performed by Jacob Kellermann, Lucas Brar and Franz Halász , (guitars) Hariolf Schlichtig (viola) , Wen-Sinn Yang (cello), Philipp Stubenrauch, (double bass)  and Débora Halász (piano)


Repentance for cello, 3 guitars and double bass was written in 2008 in response to a commission from the San Francisco Symphony of which members gave the first performance in San Francisco in 2009.

Deep pizzicato descending notes from the double bass, open this piece and are reflected by the guitars before leading to a cello melody, picked up by the guitars. The cello weaves around before more resonant guitar phrases appear, punctuated by a low double bass motif. Soon more incisive guitar chords introduce a passionate cello part that becomes more thoughtful as the cello develops the theme against strummed guitars. The guitars are allowed to expand on the theme, becoming quite florid whilst the cello interrupts passionately. Deep, ruminating double bass sounds appear with the guitar theme picked out. The music rises up with many little guitar effects and intricate cello motifs. These guitar effects include slides, use of plectrum and rubber balls falling on guitar strings, all adding their unusual effect.

The double bass leads the way as the music rises up with the cello taking a stridently passionate nature, as do the guitars. There is a pause as the guitars quietly strum with the cello adding a plangent melody that leads to a short working out of the material. The guitars gently re-enter, subtly raising the drama as the cello enters again in the rising theme, becoming intensely passionate with dynamic, strummed guitars. Eventually a rather manic sound emanates from the ensemble, high in pitch, slowly underpinned by the double bass that introduces a rapidly bowed motif.

A gentler guitar motif pulls the double bass back, quietening before the cello enters to add a sonorous, rich, deep theme that rises higher with harmonics as a repeated motif for guitars is picked out. The cello wavers its way lower, fading to silence, leaving a single guitar chord to end.

This is an entrancing, highly original work full of attractive ideas and melodies. The performers here, Jacob Kellermann, Lucas Brar and Franz Halász, (guitars), Wen-Sinn Yang (cello) and Philipp Stubenrauch, (double bass) are superb.

Serenade for solo guitar is a much earlier work dating from the early 1960’s and commissioned by the Moscow publisher Muzyka. Franz Halász is the soloist in this tonally free yet entirely melodious work that must be a real gift for guitarists in the way it combines traditional elements with more advanced ideas.  Halász provides a really fine performance.

Another work from the 1960’s is the Piano Sonata (1965) performed here by Débora Halász. It is dedicated to Henrietta Mirvis and given its Moscow premier in 1967 by Maria Gambryan.

It is the strummed piano string chord that opens the Allegro of this work that stands out as much as the virtuosic piano theme that follows, full of hints of jazz in its varying rhythms. Soon the music quietens to a plucked motif, alternated with a keyboard motif. This develops into a staccato repeated left hand rhythmic motif, against which the right hand creates a jazz like theme, though with its lack of a tonal base, it is beyond conventional jazz. The music moves through a myriad of ideas on this theme, seamlessly, with Débora Halász providing a very fine performance. Eventually the music quietens with wiry plucked strings occasionally sounding as a four note motif slowly leads to the coda, the music rising higher and fading.

In comparison with the Adagio, the first movement is more conventional. A scrape of string sounds opens this movement before the piano keyboard introduces a theme interspersed by more strummed strings. The keyboard motif tries to develop, continuing to slowly work out a theme, now higher on the keyboard and offset by intermittent lower chords. More strummed chords appear before deep keyboard chords are sounded, the music having become dark and somewhat menacing. The music rises up dramatically with strange wiry string sounds. A little motif higher up the keyboard sets a lighter contrast before the gentler coda.

A syncopated Allegretto brings a lightening of mood, though still with a formidable forward energy, superbly caught by this pianist and leading to a spectacularly dynamic coda.

This is a most imaginatively conceived sonata with moments of supreme virtuosity brilliantly handled by Débora Halász.

Sotto Voce brings us back to a similar grouping of instruments as Repentance, this time for viola, double bass and 2 guitars. Written at the request of double bass player, Alexander Suslin, a close friend of the composer, it was premiered in Passau in 2010 by Suslin, with Vladimir Bochkovsky (viola) and Pavel Khlopovsky and Yvonne Zehne (guitars). Sotto Voce receives its world premiere recording here by Jacob Kellermann and Lucas Brar (guitars), Hariolf Schlichtig (viola) and Philipp Stubenrauch, (double bass).

Hushed string sounds emerge against plucked notes, before the viola and double bass rise up with a melodic idea. The two guitars provide a contrasting line as the viola slides downwards. Soon the melody returns for viola and double bass, leading to variants. The viola slides downwards again as a little motif is plucked before the guitars and pizzicato viola launch a new idea through which a longer viola melody appears, supported by double bass – a beautiful section.

Soon a rhythmic section for guitars arrives with taps on the sound board and strange sliding, string sounds. The viola commences a solo theme soon joined by languid guitars and the double bass adding its deep resonance. More strange sliding strings appear as the guitars continue the melodic theme, joined by viola and double bass. Eventually the music speeds and becomes a little passionate with sliding string notes for guitars before the viola slowly rises up. There are more strange sliding strings before the double bass and guitars lead forward more quickly to a rhythmic section.

As the work progresses it becomes more passionate with string slides, then firm chords from all the players. There are more rapid bowed sounds with slides before a momentary pause that introduces a decisive theme for viola, double bass and guitars. There is a dramatic section before the coda is reached with little plucked and harmonic sounds that fade away.

This is a fascinating work that receives a terrific performance from these fine players.

This new release is a terrific addition to the catalogue of recordings of works by Sofia Gubaidulina, one of contemporary music’s most individual voices.

The recording made at Studio 2 of Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, Germany is excellent as are the booklet notes.

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