Sunday, 14 December 2014

Authoritative performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor and Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque No. 1 from Trio Testore on a new release from Audite

In April 2013 I reviewed a terrific new recording made by Trio Testore of Brahms’ complete Piano Trios on a release from Audite
Now Audite have just released a new recording from Trio Testore of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor coupled with Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque No 1


The Trio Testore was founded in 2000 by three internationally established concert artists, pianist Hyun-Jung Kim-Schweiker, Violinist Franziska Pietsch and Cellist Hans-Christian Schweiker. The name of the trio comes from the fact that Franziska Pietsch and Hans-Christian Schweiker both play instruments made by the well-known Milanese luthier family Testore (the violin by Carlo Antonio, 1751 and the cello by Carlo Giuseppe, 1711).

Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor is an early work written in 1892 coming just after his first piano concerto and in the same year as his opera Aleko and famous Prelude in C sharp minor. It took him only a few days to write and was performed soon after by the composer with violinist David Kreyn and cellist Anatoly Brandukov. It is in a single movement marked Lento lugubre – più vivo.

As the strings open Trio Testore create a lovely, almost other worldly sound to which the piano adds the rather Brahmsian melody, beautifully paced and soon increasing in passion. There is some lovely playing as cello then the viola takes the melody against a fine piano accompaniment. There are bursts of emotion with the music at times rising to an intense passion finely revealed by this trio who provide fine string textures and some glorious piano passages. They deliver terrific ensemble whilst maintaining a wholly spontaneous feel.  

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op.50, completed in 1882, is dedicated ‘à la mémoire d’un grand artiste’ (to the memory of a great artist). The great artist in question was the pianist, conductor, composer and director of the Moscow Conservatory Nikolai Rubinstein (1835-1881) who had died the previous March and, despite his devastating criticism of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto continued to support Tchaikovsky, conducting many premiere performances of his works.

The Piano Trio is in two movements, the first, Pezzo elegiac is marked Moderato assai – Allegro giusto – Adagio con duolo – Allegro giusto. Trio Testore bring the same emotional sensibility together with a fine breadth and a lovely rubato. They display some terrific interplay rising to moments of fine passion conjuring up a real stormy sequence before the Adagio con duolo where they reveal a wistful, gentle beautifully shaped section and some exquisitely hushed moments full of restrained emotion before allowing the storm to subside for the lovely coda.

In the second movement Tema con Variazioni the piano sets out gently the simple, very Russian theme, recalling a folk song that was lodged in Tchaikovsky’s memory from a picnic taken with Rubinstein nine years earlier where the theme had been heard. The whole Trio join for the first variation with a spontaneity that sounds as though they have been caught improvising. There are some lovely little nuances from the Trio, beautifully shaped to which they bring a nice rhythmic lift. There are some beautifully fleet moments from pianist Hyun-Jung Kim-Schweiker and beautifully delicate sprung pizzicato passages. Variation six, Tempo di Valse, has a lovely light playfulness. Their great ensemble is shown particularly in the Fuga with this Trio really seeming to enjoy themselves.  In the Andante flebile the fluent rippling of the pianist is joined by the violin of Franziska Pietsch in a lovely variation full of introspection with cellist Hans-Christian Schweiker taking the theme before it is shared. The Mazurka receives a lovely lift from Hyun-Jung Kim-Schweiker in some terrific passages with the changes of tempi and rhythm superbly done. The strings return before variation eleven brings a gently bubbling flow.

Trio Testore bring a confident opening to Variazioni Finale e Coda pushing forward with great panache in the Allegro risoluto, finely controlled each time the pressure is eased.  There is some real edge of the seat playing here that is absolutely terrific before reaching a peak and moving into the Andante con moto with terrific piano chords over passionate strings and the theme from the opening re-appearing.  There is playing of great weight and authority from the Trio before we arrive at the resigned coda.

This is as fine a performance of the Tchaikovsky Trio that you’ll ever find with these players putting their hearts and souls into the music. The engineers provide a fine recording in the acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany the venue for so many fine recordings. There are informative notes.

Pianist Tien Hsieh gives a first rate Beethoven C minor Piano Sonata, op.111 combined with Bach and Beethoven transcriptions that are full of wonder and fantasy on a new release from MSR Classics

Pianist Tien Hsieh was born in Taiwan of Chinese parents immigrating to the United States when she was nine years old. She began her musical training with her mother, Sylvia Hsieh. She was a full scholarship student at University of Houston where she received her Bachelor of Music degree, studying with Abbey Simon and Ruth Tomfohrde and was awarded a scholarship to study at the Manhattan School of Music where she received the prestigious Roy M. Rubinstein Award, a Bettingen Corporation Grant and the Professional Studies Diploma and Master of Music degree under the tutelage of Dr Marc Silverman. As a full scholarship student at the St. Louis Conservatory of Music she studied under the guidance of Jane Allen and Carol Tafoya.

Tien Hsieh was a prize winner at the Los Angeles International Liszt Competition and has since performed at the Liszt Museum in Budapest, Hungary, in solo recitals and chamber music in China and Germany. Throughout the USA she has appeared as soloist with the Spokane Symphony at The Festival at Sandpoint, Redlands Symphony at Redlands Bowl, Oregon Mozart Players, Manhattan Philharmonia and Houston Civic Orchestra.  Her musical collaborations include performances with Czech Republic’s Graffe Quartet, with the Schumann Piano Quintet, Sacramento Ballet, Manhattan Symphony Orchestra, UC Davis Symphony Orchestra and State Street Ballet.

More recently she has given solo recitals throughout California, Alaska, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon.  Of her first volume in her series Mostly Transcriptions released on the Titanic label , the American Record Guide said, ‘The effect is that Liszt himself was sitting in my living room…Hsieh plays with grace and energy.  She has a keen ear for the music’s architecture, and makes the piano sing in every register.’  

Volume 2 of her Mostly Transcriptions series has just been released by MSR Classics and features works by Bach and Beethoven transcribed by Busoni, Liszt and Siloti.  
MS 1531

Tien Hsieh opens her recital with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532 transcribed Busoni. The Prelude brings a formidably powerful opening. Hsieh shows very fine phrasing and great dynamic contrasts, though just occasionally I felt she could be a little too direct. She delivers a particularly fine fugue with a lightness of touch and a fine flow, nicely phrased with a lovely spontaneity, as well as some of those formidable dynamic passages.

With Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte, Op.98 (To the Distant Beloved) she gives a performance full of wonder and fantasy, handling the changes of rhythm and mood seamlessly with a beautiful poise and lightness of touch and, again, some fine dynamic passages.

Returning to Bach with Liszt’s transcription of the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, Hsieh builds the Prelude wonderfully from its relatively simple beginnings to passages of tremendous power and fluency with a fine breadth of playing. This really is fine Bach. There is a beautifully light and flowing Fugue revealing all of Bach’s contrapuntal lines with Hsieh bringing all her power to the more dynamic passages.

Tien Hsieh is particularly impressive in the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata No.5 in F minor, BWV 1018 as transcribed by Alexander Siloti to which she brings a sense of withheld strength, a finely controlled emotion. This is quite exquisite playing.  

Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 is beautifully done, nicely paced and beautifully shaped.

The final work on this disc is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111. There is a finely controlled Maestoso before the Allegro con brio ed appassionato arrives where Hsieh brings much thought and sense of structure, never allowing the tempo to run away yet with great forward flow. This is beautifully phrased playing with a clarity of line combined with a feeling of spontaneity.  The slower, quieter passages are full of care before leading to a finely expressed coda.

With the Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile Hsieh really comes into her own bringing all her sensitivity, thought and care, moving seamlessly through the changes of rhythm and tempo with light, restrained playing and lovely control of dynamics.  There is some especially fine playing in the faster passages, so fluent with fine clarity as well as moments of fine tension and exquisite sensitivity. Later this pianist brings some beautifully fluent passages full of strong dynamics before leading to a lovely, beautifully set out coda.

This is a first rate Beethoven Op.111. I would like to hear more from this fine pianist. She receives an excellent recording made at Blue Wave Productions, Vancouver, Canada and there are informative booklet notes.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Erudition continue their impressive series of eBooks, entitled Masterpieces of Music, with Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1in D minor, Op. 15

Erudition’s first two eBooks in their series are entitled Masterpieces of Music featured Bach's Mass in B minor and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 Eroica. (reviewed September 2014:

These eBook guides are produced in partnership with the record company Harmonia Mundi and combine the latest scholarship with multimedia content and interactive functionality in a way that will enhance the listener’s appreciation and understanding of some of the world greatest pieces of classical music.

The publications are available in a range of formats suitable for viewing via different devices and platforms i.e. a web-based version for laptops and tablets, Apple iBooks and Amazon Kindle. 

Their latest publication in this series features Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op. 15. Again authored by the writer, editor and critic Matthew Rye, this new eBook will enable readers to uncover the inner workings of and troubled history behind Brahms’s great masterpiece.
File Size: 4191kb
Publisher: Erudition 27 Oct 2014
Language: English
The layout of these eBooks is, usefully, the same for each publication with a facsimile colour front cover followed by an Introduction to the series, Information about the author, and a Table of Contents that enables one to easily access a particular section of the book. This is followed by a User’s guide including an online helpline. The publishers have gone to great lengths to make this eBook intuitive but, as an additional guide, there is a section explaining the Features of the publication including audio playback, links to supplementary articles, enhanced timelines and walkthrough features as well as an interactive extracts from the score.

In his background information Matthew Rye places Brahms and his concerto in a historical context quoting Donald Tovey on an unexpected chord in the first movement ‘One of the grandest surprises in music since Beethoven.’ As with the previous eBooks in this series there are numerous illustrations.

There is a timeline of Brahms’ life, together with an interactive enhanced version as well as a separate section on Brahms and the Schumanns. The Story Behind Brahms’ first piano concerto covers the work’s tortuous compositional history culminating in a section The concerto finds its true form and Performance and reception. Further sections include Brahms and the piano and A piano concerto apart – what makes it different that also places Brahms’ concerto within a chronological list of other 19th century concertos from Beethoven’s third (1800) to Rachmaninov’s first (1891). There is a work timeline that goes into some depth placing the concerto in its historical context.

Walk Through takes us straight into a detailed analysis of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1in D minor with piano and fully orchestrated excerpts to accompany single stave or short score musical examples. Divided into each of the three movements the analysis includes diagrams of the musical structure.

There are numerous links throughout to the glossary of musical terms. Nowhere is Matthew Rye’s musical analysis dry, always holding the listener’s attention using headings such as An elemental beginning, Spinning the yarn and A subtle arrival to draw the reader into explanations of the various aspects of Brahms’ musical construction.

Resources include Supplementary Articles that contain two articles, Brahms’ melodies and a Thematic table both of which continue the use of musical examples together with musical extracts. Further listening gives selected recordings which, again, can be bought on line by clicking a link and there are details of Further reading and Web Resources.

There is the full Glossary of musical terms that can be accessed specifically throughout the book. There are so many little features that can be accessed that it is quite possible that I may have missed some in this review.

The fully orchestrated excerpts used throughout this book are from Harmonia Mundi’s recording featuring pianist Cédric Tiberghien with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bĕlohlávek

As the Masterpieces of Music series of eBooks progresses I continue to be very impressed. As I have stated in my previous review these books are suitable for the ordinary music lover as well as music students and, indeed, anyone who wishes to gain an extra depth of knowledge of these works of genius. Above all they are a joy to use and bring great fun to learning more about these wonderful works.

Friday, 12 December 2014

There’s nothing like an English Cathedral or Collegiate Choir at Christmas and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford under their Director, Stephen Darlington are one of the finest with their new recording for Nimbus of sacred Christmas works from the 16th to the 20th century

As Christmas approaches I am reviewing just one new release of Christmas Music, from Nimbus , by one of our finest choirs the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford under their Director, Stephen Darlington

What is particularly attractive about this new disc is that it avoids the usual selection of Christmas carols and, instead, brings us some of the finest sacred Christmas choral works from the 16th to the 20th century.

This new disc opens with William Byrd’s (1543-1623) A solis ortus cardine (The sun rises) a plainsong hymn which transports us back over 400 years with the Christ Church Cathedral Choir providing some lovely individual voices in the various passages, building in texture and power before  the end.  

The Welsh composer William Mathias ((1934-1992) wrote much choral music, his Ave Rex – A Carol Sequence, Op.45 being one of the longer pieces on this disc.

Ave Rex (Hail King) opens with an organ flourish before the choristers sing a repeated Ave, Ave.  The adult voices and organ continue in this thoroughly contemporary yet strikingly attractive setting before all the choir come together blending beautifully in Mathias’ harmonies.

The choir rise up beautifully in the joyful Alleluya A new work is come on hand with many little subtleties and some terrific weaving and overlaying of texts. The choristers open There is no rose of such virtue against a hushed organ chord before the adult voices take over. After the choristers return the whole choir then leads on with a beautiful flow and texture, so exquisitely gentle. The music rises up passionately before calming with a solo treble and choir leading to a very fine coda.

Staccato organ chords open Sir Christèmas before the choir sound out in this joyful concluding section. There is a central organ section before the choir rejoin bringing some exceptionally fine, powerful singing.

We go right back to the 16th century with John Taverner’s (1490-1545) Mater Christi sanctissima (Mother of Christ most holy). How this choir seem to excel in such diverse repertoire. Here they bring a transparency and brilliance to this fine piece, an antiphon on which the composer built his Mass of the same name; some absolutely splendid weaving of contrapuntal lines before rising to a final amen.

This recording continues with three more pieces by William Byrd, firstly his Hodie Christus natus est (Christ is born today), a fast flowing celebratory motet with this choir in full flow. Byrd’s O magnum misterium (Oh Great mystery) is a more measured setting, as befits the text, with some beautifully controlled singing. Puer natus est nobis (For is born to us) brings more of Byrd’s weaving of contrapuntal lines superbly handled by this choir.

John Sheppard (c.1515-c.1559) is still much undervalued yet he surely deserves to be recognised as one of the finest of 16th century English composers.  Here his Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria (Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice Mary) provides a substantial example of just how fine he was. Stephen Darlington paces the choir perfectly with Sheppard’s rather melancholic setting sounding so fine. There is a lovely restraint in the slower, reflective passages and beautifully soaring passages elsewhere, bringing out Sheppard’s little harmonies and with some fine individual groups of voices.

Returning to the 20th century we come to Francis Poulenc (1889-1963). He wrote many very fine choral works of which Salve Regina (Hail Queen) is a fine example with this choir finding much beauty in the composer’s lovely harmonies.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s (c. 1525-1594) Magnificat (Sexti Toni à 6) is built on a plainchant melody that opens this work. Soon Palestrina’s genius suddenly allows the music to soar and what a sound the choir produces. They are magnificent. in this fine work with some lovely individual contributions including a fine treble. This is a particularly fine performance full of power, control, lovely weaving of musical lines and a glorious Amen.

The Portuguese composer João Rodrigues Esteves (1700–1751) is not a name that will be known to many. He has a link to Palestrina in that he studied in Rome with Ottavio Pitoni (1657-1743) a disciple of Palestrina and the writer of some 3,000 masses, psalms and hymns in the contrapuntal style of the earlier composer.

Esteves’ Beata Dei Genitrix (Mother of God) has a lovely swaying gait to it before it pushes ahead rhythmically. There is an odd little middle section for a smaller group of voices before the choir all join to lead to the coda.

Verbum caro factum est (The Word became flesh) has a gentle opening before Esteves pushes the music forward, again with a central section for a small group of soloists, very finely sung here. The choir rejoin and move forward but Esteves includes another section for the small vocal group before the choir lead to the fine coda.

There’s nothing like an English Cathedral or Collegiate Choir at Christmas and here is one of the finest we have. There are informative notes by Stephen Darlington but no texts. With singing as fine as this it hardly matters. This should be at the top of your Christmas music list.

See also:


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

De Profundis is a terrific new Naxos release of sacred choral works by Pizzetti, Malipiero, Allegri, MacMillan and Puccini beautifully sung by The Vasari Singers under their Director Jeremy Backhouse

Founded in 1980, the Vasari Singers are one of the UK’s leading chamber choirs. Their Music Director, Jeremy Backhouse has worked with the Guildford Philharmonic Choir (now the Vivace Chorus), the Salisbury Community Choir, the BBC Singers, the Philharmonia Chorus, the London Choral Society and the Festival Chorus.

The Vasari Singers have been described by the The Times newspaper as ‘passionate and precise’ and by Gramophone Magazine as ‘a consistently outstanding choir…one of the most accomplished small choral groups of our time.’

The choir performs regularly in most of London’s major concert venues and has taken part in numerous commercial concerts and festivals, including the BBC Proms. They have an extensive critically acclaimed discography with their world premiere recording of the Gabriel Jackson Requiem reaching number five in the specialist classical charts.

The Vasari Singers are acclaimed for their versatility, performing choral music from a wide range of styles and eras, from the Renaissance to contemporary. This is something that is reflected on their new release from Naxos entitled De Profundis with works by Pizzetti, Malipiero, Allegri, MacMillan and Puccini.


Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) was born in Rome and studied at the Parma Conservatory before teaching in Florence, Milan and finally at the Academia di St Cecilia in Rome. In addition to operas, orchestral, chamber and instrumental works he wrote many choral works including the two featured on this disc.

The first of Pizzetti’s works on this disc is De Profundis (1937) which has a wonderful opening as the voices of the Vasari Singers slowly build the textures providing a fine rubato. Pizzetti layers the music especially well with a lovely passage where the female voices come in over the male voices, rising to a fine peak before falling back for the gentle coda.

Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1873) was born in Venice where he studied at the Licei Musicali before continuing his studies in Bologna. His study of the works of Monteverdi and the influence of Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring he heard in Paris, remained influences on his music. His compositions covered most genres from opera through to piano music.

On this new disc we can hear the World Premiere recording of his De Profundis (1937). The work opens with deep pedal notes from the organ before a viola melody appears. Baritone, Matthew Wood is really fine when he enters in this melancholy setting. There are some especially lovely passages for viola and organ but it is the fine singing of Wood that makes this performance. The music rises centrally before, with deep organ, bass drum and viola the somewhat dark coda is reached.

Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) is mainly known for the one work performed on this disc, his Miserere. Just as well-known is the story of Mozart writing down the work from memory whilst hearing it performed in Rome whilst visiting with his father, thus breaking the monopoly that the Vatican held on performances. Allegri was a singer and composer at the cathedrals of Fermo and Tivoli before becoming maestro di cappella of Spirito in Sassia, Rome as well as a singer in the Papal Choir.

Here the Vasari Singers bring a beautifully blended tone to the Miserere, beautifully poised with the female and tenor voices providing some lovely sections. Both Jocelyn Somerville and Susan Waton (sopranos) are credited in this work. Certainly the soprano taking the spectacularly difficult treble part, as it soars high up, is terrific. This is a very fine performance where subsequent passages are decorated and varied as indeed it is thought would have been the practice in Allegri’s time. The small group of singers that also includes Elizabeth Atkinson (alto) and Keith Long (bass) provide some beautifully decorated passages. The choir as a whole bring a very fine, mellow blend of voices that often have a mesmerising effect.

James MacMillan (b.1959) was born in Ayrshire, Scotland and studied at Edinburgh University before undertaking further studies with John Casken at Durham University. His music is influenced by both his Catholic faith and Scottish folk music. Amongst his many compositions including opera, orchestral, chamber and piano works, sacred choral works hold a prominent place.

The Vasari Singers fine textures are particularly revealed in their performance of his Miserere (2009) with some very fine little rhythmic inflections and fine handling of MacMillan’s harmonies. When the music suddenly breaks out of its withdrawn calm there is singing of biting precision, the male voices showing fine incisive qualities.  There are moments that are reminiscent of Allegri’s Miserere, the work intended to be a 21st century take on the setting of this penitential psalm. The music eventually rises suddenly for whole choir with moments of intense stasis over which the voices of Julia Smith (soprano), Julia Ridout (alto), Paul Robertson (tenor) and Matt Bernstein (bass) intone. The music rises finally for the whole choir in a moment of intense feeling before leading to the gentle coda. What a fine setting this is, receiving here a really lovely performance.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) is, of course, known as an operatic composer. He wrote a number of sacred choral works earlier in his career but his Requiem, written to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Verdi’s death, dates from 1905. As with Malipiero’s De Profundis, it is written for choir, viola and organ. It rises slowly and gently with a fine melody before the viola enters full of restrained emotion. The music soon rises more passionately but falls back as the viola adds an anxious feel. The choir, viola and organ lead to the sad coda with a simple amen and final organ chord.

The other work on this disc by Pizzetti is his Messa di Requiem (1922) a work given a higher profile with an award winning Hyperion recording by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral under James O’Donnell coupled with Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir.

The male voices open the Requiem before the female voices join, as this lovely setting moves forward. Jeremy Backhouse draws from his Singers a natural forward flow with little surges finely brought out. The Vasari Singers weave some lovely vocal textures and, towards the end some beautifully luminous singing.

The Dies Irae has a gentler opening yet with a nervous tension, this choir bringing a fine control with some beautifully woven musical lines. The music soon rises with singing of stunning brilliance and power. The old plainchant appears openly in a lovely passage.  Lower and upper voices overlaid, rich lower textures and pure upper voices in a gloriously held section as we are led into the lovely coda.

There is a luminous opening to the Sanctus before it gains in richness. There is first rate singing here with so many textures emerging before rising to a central peak. At the end there is a very fine Hosanna in excelsis.

There is a gentle yet often soaring Agnus Dei with these voices providing a terrific blend of textures and a superb, deeply felt coda. The Libera me slowly rises to some powerful writing with some exceptionally fine choral work as the choir gently lead to the conclusion with some lovely rises in passion before the end.

Finely recorded in the excellent acoustic of Tonbridge School Chapel, Tonbridge, Kent, England, with excellent documentation and with full texts and English translations what more could one want. This is a terrific disc.

Monday, 8 December 2014

A new release from Lyrita entitled British Cello Concertos features works by John Joubert, Robert Simpson and Christopher Wright superbly performed by Raphael Wallfisch and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by William Boughton

Founded by Richard Itter (1928-2014) a businessman and record collector, Lyrita Recorded Edition first began releasing LPs in October 1959 by mail order subscription. Specializing in the works of British composers the first records were of piano music by such composers as Arnold Bax, Gordon Jacob, E.J. Moeran and Michael Tippett.

In time the success of these recordings enabled the catalogue to be expanded into orchestral and symphonic works including composers neglected at the time such as William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold, Havergal Brian, Frank Bridge, Arnold Cooke, Gerald Finzi, John Foulds, George Lloyd, Edmund Rubbra, Humphrey Searle and Cyril Rootham.

In 1990 Lyrita began issuing CDs featuring a small selection of their back catalogue, a few newly recorded items, and recordings licensed from other sources. It wasn’t until 2006 that Wyastone Estate Ltd (proprietors of Nimbus Records) reached an agreement with Richard Itter to distribute the company's entire catalogue over an 18-month period.

Sadly Richard Itter died in March this year but his legacy has been safeguarded by the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust set up by him in 2012 which with its ongoing license with Wyastone Estate ensured that Lyrita recordings will continue to be released.

The most recent new release from Lyrita is entitled British Cello Concertos and features works by John Joubert, Robert Simpson and Christopher Wright played by cellist Raphael Wallfisch  with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales  conducted by William Boughton 

SRCD 344
John Joubert (b.1927) was born in Cape Town, South Africa but studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England. He has since taught at the universities of Hull and Birmingham. His compositions include operas, orchestral and chamber works together with sacred and secular choral music.

Raphael Wallfisch opens the Poco lento – poco più mosso of Joubert’s Concerto in Two Movements for Cello and Chamber Orchestra, op.171 (2012) with a rapidly bowed theme before the orchestra enters. The cello again plays a solo passage of some virtuosity before falling to a hush as the orchestra re-enters with more pizzicato phrases from the cello, accompanied by the orchestra that plays a flowing melancholy melody. Soon the cello picks up the theme proper, bringing a passion with Raphael Wallfisch’s distinctive tone that reveals so much of the emotion of the music. The music rises centrally to an intense and forward moving passage to which the cello joins for some pretty angst filled passages. The music falls to a gentler passage for cello and orchestra, beautifully written orchestral passages against which the cello ruminates. An orchestral passage gently leads to a cello solo over orchestral strings that rise up in the coda before gently falling to end.

With the Lento – Allegro Vivace the soloist again opens with a cadenza like passage that always retains a rather thoughtful air. When the orchestra enters, it joins in a more frantic variant that the cello has reached with both cello and orchestra now pushing forward, a rapidly bowed theme insistently reoccurring between more flowing passages. The music becomes increasingly anxious and passionate before falling to a brief cello solo to which two violins and a viola form a quartet joining in a rapid theme. Later another solo cello passage arrives superbly played by Wallfisch. The orchestra re-joins as the music rapidly moves forward in an almost dance like passage, with the rapidly bowed theme still there at times, rising in tension before leading to the insistent end.

This is certainly a remarkably fine work that I will return to often.

Robert Simpson (1921-1997) was born in Leamington, England and was a pupil of Herbert Howells before studying at Durham University for his Bachelor of Music and Doctorate of Music. He was for many years a BBC producer.  He wrote a number of books and articles on Nielsen, Bruckner, Beethoven and Sibelius.  Simpson is probably best known for his eleven symphonies and fifteen string quartets, a significant contribution to the genres. However, his compositions include a piano concerto, a flute concerto, a violin concerto and a cello concerto.

It is Simpson’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1991), his last orchestral work that is included on this disc. The orchestra present an immediately recognisable Simpson theme in the Introduction full of expectancy and restrained energy, slowly building in strength until running into the first of a series of eleven Variations where the soloist joins, becoming rather restrained against a light textured orchestra. There are many individual instrumental details from the orchestra as Wallfisch takes the theme through some attractive variations with orchestral interactions, the cello weaving some strangely beautiful sounds.  The 4th Variation brings a gentler passage with the cello providing an intensely melancholic melody, the strings of the orchestra often adding a tension. Slowly the music becomes more agitated, the orchestra rising in a dramatic sequence before settling to go into Variation 5 where the cello plays a lightly sprung theme over a quiet orchestra. There are sudden little forward bursts of energy from the cello, at one point threatening to run out of energy but soon regaining power and moving quickly forward. Wallfisch holds the often difficult balance between restraint and power beautifully as does William Boughton and the BBC National orchestra of Wales.

Some of Simpson’s finest music is here as the soloist works through the variations with an orchestral outburst that allows some of the pent up energy to be released before the cello holds a long held note between outbursts from the orchestra and gently leading into the 9th Variation a wonderful moment as the cello slowly introduces a quiet melody over an exquisite orchestral backdrop with a lovely woodwind contribution. There is still a rich, restrained feeling of power, mainly in the orchestra. The cello and orchestra try to rise but return to a wistful little passage. The cello plays broader more strident cello phrases before ruminating alone on the material. A hushed orchestra enters to take the cellist gently and quietly forward, another exquisite section. Simpson’s dovetailing of orchestral detail and cello is impressive. Eventually the orchestra tries to rise up again but the cello retains its slow gentle theme. The orchestra tries again but gives up and returns to its hushed nature which, with a wistful cello theme, continues until it just fades to nothing.

This is a wonderful late work from Robert Simpson, curiously restrained it seems to allow the cello to overcome the composers natural desire to allow powerful forces to erupt. It is superbly performed by Wallfisch and the BBC NOW under Boughton.

Christopher Wright (b.1954) was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, England, and studied composition with Richard Arnell and later with Stanley Glasser, Alan Bullard & Nicholas Sackman. He has since been active as a trombonist, pianist, choral conductor/trainer and composer. His compositions include choral, vocal, orchestral, chamber and instrumental works as well as works for brass and wind band.

Wright’s Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (2011) is dedicated to Raphael Wallfisch and was written following the summer riots of 2011in England. Two main elements are featured in the work, Battle and Lament. It is played without a break opening with an Allegretto furioso e sardonicamente where the orchestra provide a theme that rises and soon moves quickly forward, full of drama before the cello enters equally dramatically. Soon the cello introduces a broader melody against curious little orchestral outbursts. There is a sweeping orchestral passage before the cello plays a deeper melody. Tubular bell chimes are heard, slowly leading to a passage with a rapid cello motif over a hushed atmospheric orchestra. The tubular bell chimes are heard again as we are led into the Poco lento with some wonderfully scored moments.

There are delicate orchestral sounds and a rich, deep cello theme to which the orchestra soon joins. The cello leads into a rather more quixotic motif against a hushed orchestra, the cello at one moment passionate then suddenly dancing around.  Eventually the cello pays some lovely harmonics over the orchestra, bells are heard again and we are led into the final Allegro giusto – Andante Tranquillo.

The orchestra soon picks up dramatically joined by the cello in a rather frantic section with some beautifully rich phrases and rhythmic moments for cello. Soon the orchestra alone falls to a quieter impressively scored passage. The cello joins the theme leading to a lovely solo passage, exquisitely played before the orchestra leap in, full of energy yet suddenly changing to a gossamer accompaniment to the cello’s quieter theme. There is some remarkably fine playing from Wallfisch here before muted brass and tubular bells gently appear as the music ends in a hush.

This is a remarkably fine concerto that works as absolute music regardless of the ideas behind it.

Lyrita should be congratulated on bringing these fine works to disc in such first rate performances. The recording is excellent and there are informative booklet notes.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

A new release from Avie Records brings a really fine collection of works from composers that experienced, in varying degrees, the turbulent post war years, in first rate performances from Ensemble Epomeo

The string trio Ensemble Epomeo were founded in 2008 at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival, Italy. Its members are Diane Pascal (violin), David Yang (viola) and Kenneth Woods (cello).

Ensemble Epomeo soon established themselves internationally with tours taking them to Italy, the UK and the USA, broadcasts on New England Public Radio and WKCR Columbia University in New York and appearances at leading festivals including the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival (USA), Two Rivers Festival (England), and Scotia Festival (Canada) as well as being appointed Ensemble-in Residence at St. Thomas University (Canada).

Ensemble Epomeo released their debut recording for Avie Records in 2012 featuring the complete string trios of Hans Gál and Hans Krása which received critical acclaim including Critic’s Choice from Gramophone Magazine.

Their latest release from Avie Records  brings together works by Alfred Schnittke, Mieczysław Weinberg, György Kurtág and Krzysztof Penderecki all born over a period of just fifteen years and all affected by the events of the Second World War. 

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote his String Trio in1985. The Moderato opens with a melancholy, dissonant theme before developing moments of intense passion Ensemble Epomeo really bite into the more anguished phrases often with the strings thrusting forward with frenetic energy.  Occasionally the music reveals an almost classical style with a lovely little passage that is soon attacked by an outburst of ferocity. There are anguished dissonances that are exceptionally realised by this trio. An insistent falling passage arrives just before the little classical theme again peers through and the music slowly fades.

The Adagio picks up on the descending theme and inverts it as the movement gently and quietly develops. A ghostly motif is shared around the trio and quietly decorated with some striking unison chords. Soon the violin holds a note under which the viola and cello intone a darker theme. A hushed wistful theme appears, offset by a passionate motif that bursts out fervently but the mournful, dissonant theme returns between outbursts with a slow melancholy tune appearing a number of times before the music fades at the end.

A few weeks after the premiere, Schnittke suffered his first stroke.

This is music that really tears at the soul, particularly in this performance.

Mieczysław Weinberg’s (1919-1996) String Trio dates from 1950. The Allegro con moto rises up gently in an attractive little theme on the cello with occasional pizzicato accompaniment, developing and slowly becoming more passionate. The music moves through some very fine passages, building each time as it becomes more and more dramatic, the gentler theme always retuning. The music develops a rather Jewish lilt before winding to a hushed coda.

The Andante opens with a gentle flowing theme that is expanded as it is shared around the trio in a kind of fugue, with these players weaving a lovely melancholy tapestry. There are moments of exquisite sensitivity in the little hushed sequence where some ghostly harmonies appear before leading to a beautifully hushed coda.

A rhythmic theme opens the Moderato assai with a steady and rather grotesque dance.  A wistful tune is then weaved around it on the viola, becoming more and more dynamic and insistent. Harmonics are played by the violin over the theme on viola and insistent cello motif before the players push ahead, full of heavy pathos, to a coda that feels as though the music just runs out of energy.

Weinberg was arrested by the KGB shortly after completing this work. It was only Stalin’s death and the intervention of Shostakovich that saved him. This is a strangely unsettling, yet very fine work.

György Kurtág’s (b.1926) Signs, games, and messages, written between 1989 and 2005 can be played in any order. Here Ensemble Epomeo have selected seven of the pieces starting with Virág az ember that emerges from silence, hesitatingly before little notes appear. The dramatic Perpetuum mobile follows where Kurtag plays with the perfect fifth and thirds through a tremendous and highly absorbing sequence.

The trio play dissonant harmonies in Ligatura Y before the music grows faster with astringent dissonances and outbursts. Jelek VI bursts out full of drama with sudden string chords ending suddenly. Sliding strings create odd sound world in Virág - Zsigmondy Dénesnek with ghostly echoes of sounds rising and fading at the end.

Hommage à Ránki György has pizzicato opening as a rhythmic waltz theme is developed that oddly throws up memories of Weinberg’s string trio, before just fading. Hommage à J.S.B opens high in register as the violin and viola weave a theme over a pizzicato cello before slowly falling and weaving around before just coming to a halt.

These are strange little sound bites of the composer’s moods and receive a very fine performance here.

Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933) began his compositional career as an arch modernist with works such as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. In later years he has adopted a more conventional style yet still retains elements of his early dramatic, even violent nature. His String Trio dates from 1990-91 and has, in the composers own words, ‘the language of …late Bartok.’

The Allegro molto opens with a violent insistent motif before quickly changing to a mournful viola theme. The number three is important here with three outbursts and three cadenzas one each for the players. The cello cadenza has a three note motif that is rather skittish. After the second outburst there is a forceful virtuosic violin cadenza before a melancholy viola cadenza. The music is shared around with harmonics and a theme that darts around between the players. Eventually the music becomes more restrained with a flowing melody rising in angst before the cello holds a high note as the violin and viola play with the three note motif.

The second and final movement, Vivace starts with an insistent theme that is worked around the players, rising at times with strident chords but with moments of quieter yet equally insistent music.  These players weave some tremendous sounds with the music soon becoming dynamic and insistent before quietening. But the opening theme slowly returns before the decisive coda.

This is a work full of drama and vital ideas finely realised by this trio.

This new release is a really fine collection of works from composers that experienced in varying degrees the turbulent post war years. Ensemble Epomeo provide first rate performances and are given an excellent recording, very detailed. There are excellent booklet notes from the Ensemble’s cellist Kenneth Woods.