Saturday, 25 April 2015

This is a very fine choral disc from Harmonia Mundi with the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and the Dmitiri Ensemble under director Graham Ross that will bring enjoyment not just at Ascensiontide and Pentecost but throughout the year

As we head towards Ascension Day and Pentecost Sunday in the Christian calendar there is a timely release of a new recording from Harmonia Mundi  featuring the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge  and the Dmitiri Ensemble  under director Graham Ross

Entitled Ascendit Deus:  Music for Ascensiontide and Pentecost it covers mainly 20th composers, including no less than five World Premiere recordings.

HMU 907623
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge opens with an early work, Peter Philips’ (c.1560-1638) Ascendit Deus where they bring a fine layering of vocal sounds in this bright and joyful piece.

The trumpets of the Dmitri Ensemble open Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) O Clap Your Hands adding to the textures at selected moments as does the organ as the choir sound out in Vaughan Williams’ gloriously uplifting motet.

Patrick Gowers’ (b.1936) name can be seen on numerous film and television credits. Here his Viri Galilaei, orchestrated by Graham Ross, receives its world premiere recording. It has an effective opening for brass as the voices gently sing the text, creating a wonderfully otherworldly atmosphere. Here, particularly, the choir bring some fine blending of voices with noted contributions from tenor Laurence Booth-Clibborn and bass Elliot Fitzgerald as well as organists Matthew Jorysz and Peter Harrison. They build to a fine central climax in this distinctive setting beautifully sung, with a lovely final alleluia.

Brett Dean’s (b. 1961) Was it a voice? (Music for Ascension Day) is another world premiere recording. It has a beautiful opening as a shifting blend of voices slowly rises with fine dissonances bringing a dream like quality. The choir arrive at a strikingly lovely section as their voices chime out the word ‘Solace’ before building further. The lovely coda is given much care and sensitivity.  

The third world premiere recording given here is Nico Muhly’s (b.1981) Let All the World in Every Corner Sing where the cello of Ben Michaels opens along with organist of Peter Harrison. When the choir enter they weave a fine sound along with passages for cello and an underlying organ support.  Muhly creates some fine moments, expertly handled here.

Organist Matthew Jorysz brings a majesty to the opening of Gerald Finzi’s (1901-1956) God is gone up before the choir enter, raising this fine setting ever more magnificently with some very fine contributions from individual sections of the choir.

Charles Villiers Stanford’s ((1852-1924) Coelos ascendit hodie has a joyful celebratory feel, perfectly caught by this choir before we come to the Credo from
Frank Martin’s (1890-1974) Messe There are some very fine individual contributions from sections of the choir in this still undervalued work, full of much depth and beauty. This choir achieves a beautifully refined sound, responding so well to Martin’s sudden outburst at ‘Crucifixus’ as well as bringing tremendous vocal textures to ‘Et resurrexit’.

Graham Ross (b. 1985) has a world premiere recording of his own Ascendo ad Patrem meum opening with a high saxophone motif that slowly develops, bringing an unusual flavour. When the choir enter they bring a gentle, beautifully controlled sound, along with a mournful, bluesy saxophone accompaniment. Anthony Brown’s solo sax passages are terrifically done. A very fine work.

The organ rises up before the choir enter in Judith Weir’s (b. 1954) Ascending into heaven, full of unusual ideas for the voices with rising and descending organ runs and a contrasting vocal line that also begins to ascend. There are fine moments for tenor Christopher Loyn, baritone Hugo Popplewell and mezzo-sopranos Eleanor Warner and Abigail Gostick with some really fine weaving of vocal and organ lines.

Jonathan Harvey’s (1939-2012) Come, Holy Ghost is a most beautiful setting, a fine tribute to this composer who died in 2012. This choir bring the most lovely textures with some very fine individual moments from the soloists Caroline Meinhardt (sop), Christopher Loyn (tenor) and Hugo Popplewell (baritone).

The brief Pinsesalme by Edvard Grieg (1843-1934) receives a very fine performance, quite beautiful.  

One of the finest of Edward Elgar’s  (1857-1934) melodies is his setting of The Spirit of the Lord is upon me from his great oratorio The Apostles.  This lovely piece opens on the organ as it states the lovely theme. When the choir enter they bring a hushed, magical quality, restrained, rising centrally before a lovely coda as the opening is repeated.

The final work on this disc is another world premiere recording, Giles Swayne’s (b. 1946) God is gone up (A Song for the Ascension). There are some dynamic organ phrases in the opening before the choir enter to repeat ‘He is gone.’  As the work progresses the choir weave around the organ, slowly increasing in tempo and becoming more animated, working brilliantly through some complex passages before a gentler coda.

This is a very fine choral disc that will bring enjoyment not just at Ascensiontide and Pentecost but throughout the year. The recordings from three different venues all add a spaciousness and breadth with producer and engineer, John Rutter, knowing just what to achieve with a choral sound. There is a beautifully produced booklet that includes colour photographs of various pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows.

There are full texts and translations with excellent notes from Graham Ross. 

First class performances from Ben Palmer and the Orchestra of St Paul’s of transcriptions of string quartets by Elgar, Malcolm Arnold and Robert Simpson

It is certainly not a new idea to transcribe string quartets for string orchestra, the most famous example being that of Rudolf Barshai’s transcriptions of a number of Shostakovich’s quartets now known as Chamber Symphonies.

A new release from Somm Recordings  brings together arrangements by David Matthews  of string quartets by Elgar and Malcolm Arnold as well as Robert Simpson’s own arrangement of the Allegro Deciso from his String Quartet No.3.

All are played by the Orchestra of St Paul’s  conducted by Ben Palmer

Somm Céleste Series SOMMCD 0145

The Orchestra of St Paul’s under Ben Palmer bring some fine sonorities to the opening of the Allegro Moderato of Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) String Quartet arranged for strings by David Matthews. Palmer manages to bring many subtleties in dynamics and texture, missing nothing of Elgar’s wistfulness. The size of the orchestra, listed as just 16 players, goes far in enabling a great flexibility of playing.

The Piacevole (Poco Andante) brings beautifully light textured playing, with the highest degree of sensitivity with fine hushed moments of strange, otherworldly beauty, perhaps more so than in the original.  These players build to moments of fine power and expressiveness before the most exquisite of codas.

There is a fine rhythmic spring to the Finale - Allegro Molto with playing of tremendous agility and spirit, great dynamic control and phrasing, before racing to a coda that, in this performance, recalls the Introduction and Allegro for strings.

All Elgarians will surely wish to hear this effective arrangement, brilliantly played.

The opening of the Allegro of Sonata for Strings arranged by David Matthews after the String Quartet No.2 by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) positively glows. Matthews cleverly highlights the individual string lines in some most effective passages. This is an arrangement that brings out this music’s strange unsettled nature, highlighting more than ever the violent dissonances as the movement progresses.  

The Maestoso Con Molto Rubato - Allegro Vivace opens with a striking double stopped solo for violin, drawing some fine emotion before an Irish jig appears (Arnold lived in Ireland at this time). The orchestra brings rich, broader textures with some fabulous string playing, the lower strings providing some terrific underpinning of the rhythm and texture. A slowly shifting string theme casts a gloomy shadow in the Andante, the pathos and tragedy increasing as the movement progresses. There are moments of intense sadness and introspection. At times Arnold surely anticipates his Ninth Symphony. Later there are some very fine rich lower chords as the music pours out its emotional heart before dying away at the end.

There is a surprisingly light and sunny opening to the Allegretto – Vivace – Lento the more so in this arrangement. There is more fine string playing here, reducing to moments of withdrawn beauty. The Vivace brings fine incisive playing, full of energy and intensity, pointing up the underlying turmoil of this music, rising in intensity before leading into the lento with lovely string sonorities.

Robert Simpson’s (1921-1997) own arrangement of the Allegro Deciso from his String Quartet No.3 brings a sunny texture, though full of drive and energy, something that features in much of Simpson’s music. The music rises up more and more before bringing a distant, quieter, yet still energised quality. The St Paul’s orchestra bring some fine, sensitive sonorities together with lovely hushed moments as they build this extraordinarily fine piece, continually propelled forward with such fine playing right to the decisive coda.

If this doesn’t encourage listeners to seek out Simpson’s quartets then I don’t know what will.

I found the Arnold and Simpson arrangements particularly fine and the performances are absolutely first class. The recording made at St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow, London, England is excellent as are the booklet notes from Ben Palmer. 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Flautist Kenneth Smith and pianist Paul Rhodes appear on a very fine release from Divine Art with some of the finest performances of works for flute and piano I have heard

Divine Art Records  have just released a 2 CD set of British works for flute and piano entitled From the British Isles featuring flautist Kenneth Smith  and pianist Paul Rhodes

The cover alone will be enough to attract the interest of casual browsers but this new set contains many fine works, some by composers that are rarely recorded, all in very fine performances indeed.


The recordings on this new set were made at three different venues between 1989 and 2007 and all provide excellent sound.

First we have the Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 121 by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006). There is a lovely little flourish from the flute in the opening of the Allegro with the piano setting a dramatic contrast. Throughout, these two fine artists bring out all of Arnold’s quixotic yet dramatic flair. In the Andantino Paul Rhodes leads with a leisurely melody for piano, soon picked up by Kenneth Smith whose tone draws much feeling from Arnold’s bittersweet writing. There is some fine rhythmically varied playing in the Maestoso con molto ritmico that these two players build to fine effect with some absolutely terrific playing from Smith; a superb fluency before a brilliant coda.

This is a quite irresistible performance.

The music of Granville Bantock (1868-1946) has become better known in recent years due to a number of recordings made by Hyperion Records. He is represented here by his Pagan Poem published in 1930. It is a reflective little piece that grows in animation providing many opportunities for these players to show their superb technique whilst revealing the many lovely facets of this piece.

Peter Lamb (1925-2013) had a busy career, both as a composer and music administrator, initially working for two international record companies before an appointment as Deputy Manager of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. He helped to establish the Bournemouth Sinfonietta and for ten years he was Head of Music at Peter Symonds' College in Winchester, later lecturing at the University of Southampton.

The Con moto of his Sonatina for Flute and Piano (1973) has a forward driving thrust, freely melodic in nature, with a more languid section midway. Kenneth Smith draws some really fine legato lines in the Andante, Paul Rhodes adding a breadth to the music in this particularly lovely movement. These artists work so well together. There is a fine interplay in the Con brio as this final movement rushes ahead full of fine invention.

Cyril Scott (1879-1970) is another composer who has benefited from recordings of his music. His The Ecstatic Shepherd is an intoxicating little piece for solo flute given here a finely controlled performance that reveals every little nuance of this very attractive work.

The Romanza of Kenneth Leighton’s (1929-1988) Serenade in C Major, Op. 19a (1949) opens with rippling piano phrases before being immediately joined by the flute in a melody that is fresh and beautifully flowing. This is a gorgeous, mellifluous performance. The Scherzo darts around, full of charm and life with some terrific articulation from Smith and spot on ensemble between these players. Rhodes provides some wonderfully nimble phrases. Finally we are led into the Pastorale where there is a flowing outpouring of pastoral beauty.

Next we are taken to a much earlier composer, John Ranish (1692/3-1777) whose Flute Sonata in B Minor, Op. 2, No. 3 was published in 1744. It sits very well with the other works on these discs with a lovely Adagio that has very attractive flute decorations, a nimble and lively Allegro that has a lovely lightness of texture with an irresistible melody and a terrific Giga to conclude. Beautifully played.

Richard Rodney Bennett’s (1936-2012) Summer Music was published in 1983 and opens with Summer Music: Allegro Tranquillo where we are returned to the pastoral feel of the finale of Leighton’s Serenade with more fine interplay between these artists as the attractive melody weaves its way forward. There is a lovely, gently moving Siesta: Lento e dolce to which this flautist brings a lovely warmth and
Games: Vivo a rhythmically buoyant movement, full of lightness and fun, these two artists bringing fine ensemble and a sense of enjoyment, giving the feel of a live performance.

Disc 2 opens with William Matthias’ (1934-1992) Sonatina for Flute and Piano. There is a really lively Allegro that receives some absolutely terrific playing from both these artists, terrific articulation from Kenneth Smith. The contrasting Andante cantabile brings a beautifully flowing melody, very much the core of this work, with some exquisite flute passages and pianism of the utmost sensitivity. There is phenomenally accurate playing in the final Allegro Vivace with terrific phrasing as this rhythmically difficult movement hurtles ahead.

Eugene Goosens (1896-1952) is known more for his conducting than composing which is a great pity. There was a very fine 3 CD release of his orchestral works conducted by Vernon Handley on the ABC Classics label a few years ago that is worthwhile seeking out. His Persian Idylls, Op. 17: No. 1. The Breath of Ney (1918) is arranged here for flute and piano by Paul Rhodes. It brings an immediate atmosphere as the flute rises up suddenly out of the opening piano motif with some lovely, languid piano phrases as the flute weaves it way forward, Smith producing some very fine sounds.

The Moderato of Peter Lamb’s Sonata for Flute and Piano (1988) soon picks up a rhythmic pulse that alternates with the opening flowing line, beautifully realised here with terrific breath control from Kenneth Smith. The lovely, flowing Aria – Adagio brings something of a timeless feel with rhythmic variations of the theme that bring a little more drama. The Allegro is brilliantly played with superb ensemble and with a brief gentler interlude.

Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946) has gained some attention through recordings of his songs and chamber music. Here his Suite for Flute and Piano (c.1935) has a gentle, beautifully shaped Allegro moderato and an Andante amabile e placido that has a lovely simplicity with these fine artists bringing fine care and sensibility, finding every little inflection. There is a beautifully sprung Allegro poco scherzando, superbly played by both, before an Adagio non troppo; quasi-improvisata that flows beautifully and freely with Smith drawing some very fine phrases and textures. The work concludes with a playfully vibrant Allegro molto - quasi presto given spot on precision and a lovely flourish to end.

Howard Blake (b.1938) will never be able to escape his fame as the composer of the song ‘Walking in the Air’ for the 1982 film The Snowman. It revealed him as a particularly fine melodist but has tended to overshadow his other compositions. His Elegy has an equally melodic nature rising up with a fine flute theme with some fine piano passages. Indeed, this is something of a melodic gem beautifully played here with this fine flautist weaving a terrific line as the piece progresses through moments of haunting beauty.

Edwin York Bowen (1888-1961) is yet another British composer who has had to rely on recordings for his posthumous reputationThis 1992 recording of his Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 120 (1946) was a premiere recording. Lovely flute arabesques gently open the Allegro non Troppo with a fine piano accompaniment. There is a forward moving melodic invention as the movement develops, not without occasional hints of Debussy. These artists give a beautifully controlled performance as the music ebbs and flows. The Andante piacevole brings some beautifully mellow sounds as the music gently flows its way forward, these players finding much variety of tone. There is some very fine precision in the fast moving Allegro con fuoco with Kenneth Smith and Paul Rhodes again revealing their intuitive partnership.

This is a very fine set indeed with some of the finest performances of works for flute and piano I have heard. The booklet and presentation are up to Divine Art’s usual high standards with first rate notes from Kenneth Smith and Paul Rhodes. If the repertoire appeals, do not hesitate in acquiring this fine set.

See also: 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Mikhail Kuzmin’s vocal and choral writing brings intensity, poetry and passion that is very appealing on a new release from Naxos

One is more likely to find the name Mikhail Alexeevich Kuzmin (1872-1936) in a dictionary of literature than of music. Born in Yaroslavl, Russia, he grew up in St. Petersburg and studied music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Ill health brought an end to his musical studies.

Some biographical accounts tend to give the incorrect image of Kuzmin largely giving up music in favour of writing yet he wrote a large amount of music, mainly small scale vocal works. His principle collections of verse are Aleksandriyskiye pensi (1906), Seti (1908), Osenniye ozyora (1912), Glinyanyve Golubki (1914) and Paraboly (1922).

Yuri Serov and the Karelia State Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra  have recorded some of Kuzmin’s incidental music for stage plays as well as some sacred songs for voice and orchestra on a new release from Naxos

Serov and his orchestra are joined on this disc by mezzo-soprano, Mila Shkirtil and
the Petrozavodsk State University Male Choir.

Kuzmin wrote the music for the play The Society of Honoured Bell Ringers by Evegeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) in 1925. First produced at the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg, it concerns the fun loving Irishman O’Kelly who comes into conflict with a member of the virtuous group known as the The Society of Honoured Bell Ringers.

The Introduction: Adagio (Act I) opens with a mellifluous orchestral theme with an organ adding to the mellow texture. This fine noble melody rises up with a melody that sticks in the mind. A brass fanfare opens Interlude: Con moto before the strings join, then timpani, as the music moves ahead with determination. The timpani and percussion continue to underpin the music. The strings bring more flowing passages as do woodwind but, nevertheless, the marshal rhythm dominates.

The organ alone plays the section entitled Appearance. Adagio which takes the melody from the introduction. Introduction (Act III) brings a wind ensemble in a simple attractive melody. A buoyant theme leads the Interlude: Allegro (Act III) forward, rhythmic and lively, with a central flowing section where a piano adds to the texture and colour of the music. The opening, rather direct, jolly theme returns to lead to the end of this section.  

In the Interlude: Moderato (Act IV) the orchestra is quickly joined by the organ. Another instrument joins which initially I thought to be a trombone but turns out to be a bass trumpet. As the melody moves forward, the bass trumpet adds a really distinctive flavour, before the music suddenly ends. The Final March: Allegretto takes off decisively but is not long enough to develop.

Mikhail Lermontov’s (1814-1841) drama Masquerade inspired a number of composers to write operas and incidental music including Anton Rubinstein, Glazunov and Khachaturian. Kuzmin’s music came in 1911 of which four excerpts are given here. There is a lively, light textured Polka that has no pretentions to depth yet is attractive on its own terms. The strings introduce a lovely melody for Nina's Romance before mezzo-soprano Mila Shkirtil joins, adding a lovely Russian flavour in this fine romantic setting.

A fine Waltz follows, eloquently orchestrated with fine moments for the woodwind before the Final Chorus when the Petrozavodsk State University Male Choir join for ‘Give them peace Holy God’; a fine, yet melancholy setting.

The sections for mezzo-soprano and chorus in the music for Masquerade indicate that Kuzmin is at his best when setting the human voice. This impression is reinforced in his Sacred Songs for Voice and Orchestra (1901-03) a setting of words by the composer.

Descent Of The Virgin Into Hell brings mezzo-soprano Mila Shkirtil in a lovely setting that builds beautifully with some fine orchestration that adds so much to the character and atmosphere of this music. This mezzo provides some fine, passionate moments and much poetry. The music rises in drama in the orchestra before falling to a lovely vocal section to end quietly.  

The Old Man and The Lion is full of intensity and deep feeling from this mezzo where, towards the coda, she and the orchestra find a lovely sadness. Mila Shkirtil brings some lovely timbres to Doomsday again full of intense feeling with the orchestra building in drama and rising to a tremendous, passionate peak before the quiet coda.

These are fine songs, full of Russian flavour finely sung by Mila Shkirtil.

Ernst Toller (1893-1939) was a German dramatist with communist beliefs whose plays were very popular in the Soviet Union. Kuzmin wrote his incidental music for the play Hinkemann the German in 1923. The play concerns the difficulties experienced by the injured soldier, Hinkemann, returning from the First World War. Toller himself was wounded and invalided out of the Great War in 1916; an experience he, no doubt, drew on.

Introduction and Soldiers' Chorus opens with a fanfare before the orchestra develops the theme rising to a peak before falling to a halt. The Petrozavodsk State University Male Choir then enters in a rather direct chorus before alternating with the orchestra and drums before leading to the end.

The Pastoral has a gentle swaying theme over which woodwind play before the Interlude – Waltz rises in energy and spirit in a peasant style dance rhythm. A more flowing melody is heard but it soon gives way to a heavily accented waltz.

The same theme is taken by various instruments in the Introduction (Act II) though here it is light and nicely pointed. Country Dance brings a light and airy variation on the theme for piano and woodwind, soon joined by the rest of the orchestra and a heavily accented, rhythmic, slow and steady Procession with some later little dissonances that are quite unexpected.  

A piano underpins the rhythm in Tango but, nevertheless, has a fine forward flow before the Final March arrives with a direct and simple march rhythm that could act as a ‘toy soldier’ march.

Mikhail Alexeevich Kuzmin is an intriguing composer. His incidental music is in a lighter vein though attractive for all its simplicity. His vocal and choral writing is quite another thing, at times bringing intensity, poetry and passion that is very appealing.

Lovers of Russian music will surely wish to explore this new disc. The Karelia State Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Yuri Serov provide fine performances with only the occasional intonation problems in the lower strings revealing them to be not a top class orchestra.

They are nicely recorded and there are informative booklet notes as well as full texts and English translations.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

A very fine violin concerto and a terrific orchestral work by Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund feature on a new release from BIS with violinist Pekka Kuusisto and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu

Sebastian Fagerlund (b.1972) studied composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki under the guidance of Erkki Jokinen. He attended composition masterclasses led by Michael Jarrel, Magnus Lindberg and Ivan Fedele.

He now lives in Helsinki where he works as a freelance composer creating music that has been described as ‘flowing, fast-moving and rich in sound… with a highly virtuosic instrumental feel… creating musical dramas in which powerful expression is combined with intensity and communicativeness.’

Fagerlund’s compositions include an opera, Döbeln (2008–2009), vocal and choral works as well as orchestral, chamber and instrumental works. In November 2013 the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the UK première of Fagerlund’s Guitar Concerto, recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Afternoon on 3.

In 2011, Fagerlund was awarded Finland's most renowned music prize, the Teosto Prize, for his orchestral work Ignite. The same year Ignite was also selected as a recommended work at the International Rostrum of Composers 2011 in Vienna.

Recent orchestral works include a Violin Concerto for violinist Pekka Kuusisto commissioned by the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and premièred in 2012; and a Concerto for Guitar and Symphony Orchestra commissioned by The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, première in 2013. Since 2013 Fagerlund has been artistic director of the RUSK Chamber Music Festival in Jakobstad, Finland.

A new release from BIS Records  features two of the works mentioned above, his Violin Concerto and Ignite for orchestra. Pekka Kuusisto  is the soloist with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu

The Violin Concerto ‘Darkness in Light’ (2012) is in three movements played without a break. The title refers to the narrative style of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami (b.1949) which mixes reality with the surreal. Timpani thunder in the distance as the first movement, Energico opens, the orchestra slowly rising full of energy. When the soloist enters the orchestra is reduced to a lighter accompaniment with occasional outbursts underpinned by timpani. The violin rapidly develops the music through staccato lightly bowed phrases and many intricate, fast moving passages with beautifully scored instrumental details. The music rises to a number of little peaks before arriving at a sudden outburst before falling back. There are passages of subtle virtuosity from Pekka Kuusisto as well as a lovely static passage where the violin hovers over a constantly shifting quiet orchestra.

Part way through, the music rises through some beautifully coloured orchestral passages, always with a sense of movement before falling through an exquisitely hushed passage with the violin hovering over the orchestra. The music develops some fine textures before leading through a cadenza full of fine timbres and colours. This leads to a finely hushed moment when the soloist produces pizzicato and other shifting patterns with more hushed violin phrases that use many individual techniques to provide strange little sounds, before percussion gently signal the return of the orchestra, leading the listener into the second movement.

In the opening of the Lento intenso the orchestra is underpinned by timpani as it falls to a hush, ruminating gently before the violin slowly enters in one of the finest of many lovely moments in this concerto; quite magical. A repeated descending orchestral theme is set against a slowly winding violin melody before the music slowly rises in the orchestra, with timpani, full of drama and power. The music falls back as the violin enters, working a subtle little motif against the hushed orchestra, slowly leading upwards in little figurations that grow bolder and increase in volume to lead into Bruscamente where the violin sets off at a pace against a dynamic orchestra, full of light textured passages with an attractive rhythm in the staccato phrases from the orchestra over which the solo violin weaves its theme. The music rapidly scrambles forward increasing in dynamics as the orchestra builds to a pitch, falling again as the soloist is heard in a kind of accompanied cadenza.  There is a short rise in the orchestra’s dynamics before the music fades to a quiet end.

This is a very fine concerto indeed full of invention, colour and energy. It receives a terrific performance from Pekka Kuusisto with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu.

Ignite for orchestra (2010) is in four sections each divided by a short interlude and is built in a structure that circles around a central point that is embodied in the opening eruptions.

Brass dominate the sudden outburst of fast and furious music that opens the Presto, furioso. Fagerlund creates a terrific weaving of orchestral textures before suddenly reducing to a quieter section with scurrying woodwind rising and falling over a gentle orchestral motif. Timpani lead the orchestra up as it again finds momentum and dynamics. There are passages of wonderfully woven sounds with outbursts before a quiet coda that takes us into the Interlude I. Espressivo with a gently rising and falling orchestra over which individual instruments bring outbursts before moving into the next section.

Energico, molto ritmico opens with a rather syncopated rhythm and scurrying strings before a longer breathed passage where the strings lead over the rhythm of the brass and woodwind. Timpani join as the motoric rhythm now pushes forward with great energy. There are moments of quieter, spiky rhythms as well as many fine individual instrumental moments. The music builds in intensity until a chime is heard to bring a hushed variant of the fast moving theme as we arrive at another of Fagerlund’s magical moments. The strings then rise, pointed up by brass and little woodwind motifs in a quite beautiful passage. Timpani continue to beat as the music leads inexorably forward, before falling to a hush as we are led into Interlude II. Espressivo where a bassoon plays a theme over hushed timpani beats with little woodwind motifs that take us into the third and longest section.

Timpani beats can be heard for a short while as the Lento misterioso, molto calmo arrives, before hushed strings lead forward albeit with a rather static theme out of which rises a clarinet. The music lightens with further woodwind passages before the hushed opening theme re-appears. Little orchestral surges gently appear as do brass and woodwind passages, adding some lovely colour to the music. The music continually returns to the opening hushed theme, though developing new colours and textures. Slowly the music rises as though trying to haul itself up. Low brass ruminates in a distinctive passage before the woodwind weave a lovely theme. The strings rise in a faster motif but the brooding hush is maintained as we move into Interlude III. Intenso where brass scurry around, percussion lighten the texture with woodwind joining before we move into  the final section.

Brass, woodwind and timpani, thundering out full of energy, introduce Esaltato. There are rasping brass phrases before pizzicato lower strings underpin a forward moving theme over which woodwind and brass weave a theme. When the music falls to a hush, deep timpani rolls can be heard along with the lower strings. Soon the music rises, full of energy, scurrying forward with woodwind arabesques, just a little reminiscent of Rautavaara, in another terrific section before we are led to the dynamic coda.

This is a really terrific orchestral work brilliantly played here by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hannu Lintu.

Here is a composer well worth exploring. Both of these works are accessible in the best possible sense, full of interest, beauty and energy. They receive an excellent recording from the Helsinki Music Centre, Finland and there are excellent booklet notes.

I will be exploring more of this composer’s music. 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Some superb performances from Joel Fan on a new release on Reference Recordings entitled Dances for Piano and Orchestra

Pianist Joel Fan was born in New York City and began early musical studies at the Juilliard School, earning an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a Master of Music degree in piano performance from the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University. He also attended the Tanglewood Music Center and the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival.

Fan is a prize winner of several international competitions, including the Busoni International Piano Competition in Italy. He was also the winner of the Kosciuzko Foundation’s Chopin Prize, and named a Presidential Scholar by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. Fan studied with the composer Leon Kirchner and the pianist Leon Fleisher.

As a concerto soloist, Fan has performed over forty different concertos with orchestras worldwide, including the New York Philharmonic, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, the Odessa Philharmonic, Singapore Symphony, and London Sinfonietta, with conductors such as David Zinman, Zubin Mehta, Alan Gilbert, and David Robertson.

As a recitalist Joel Fan has appeared at numerous venues ranging from the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, Jordan Hall in Boston, Calgary Celebrity Series, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

Joel Fan is also recognized for his work with cellist Yo-Yo Ma as a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, appearing at Carnegie Hall and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., and on the television programmes Good Morning America and Late Night with David Letterman. Fan has also collaborated with numerous leading ensembles, including the Shanghai Quartet, Orion Quartet, Imani Winds, and A Far Cry chamber orchestra.

Fan’s latest recording, for Reference Recordings , is called Dances for Piano and Orchestra and features works by Pierné, Ricardo Castro Herrera, Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Weber/ Liszt, Gottschalk/Kay and Charles Wakefield Cadman. Fan is joined by the Northwest Sinfonietta conducted by Christophe Chagnard

Some superbly laid out chords open Gabriel Pierné’s (1863-1937) Fantaisie-ballet, Op. 6 showing, immediately, Joel Fan’s fine technique. He brings a great breadth and assurance before the orchestra enter to take the music forward. The later, more buoyant, section is finely played by the Northwest Sinfonietta with some beautifully light textured playing from Fan as well as moments of terrific élan.  

Mexican concert pianist and composer Ricardo Castro Herrera’s (1864-1907) Vals Capricho, Op. 1 brings an opportunity for Joel Fan to display his lovely touch in this wonderfully written waltz that slowly builds in dynamics with some fine clashes of cymbals and orchestral outbursts. There are some fine, fluent, downward scales, often rather Chopinesque, before a grand finale.

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849) Rondo on Cracovian Themes, Op. 14 ‘Krakowiak’ opens with some beautifully conceived orchestral playing from Christophe Chagnard and the Northwest Sinfonietta with Fan bringing a sultry sounding piano part. When the tempo and dynamics suddenly take off, this pianist is terrific, displaying playing of such fine articulation, rhythmic awareness, fine phrasing and light, delicate touch; quite superb. There are further fine orchestral moments with some particularly fine woodwind passages clearly heard in this fine recording. This pianist reveals passages of fine breadth and sweep, showing a great subtlety and fine rubato. A terrific performance.  

Camille Saint-Saëns’ (1835-1921) Valse Caprice in A flat major, Op. 76 highlights something that runs through all of Joel Fan’s playing, that of a lightness of touch, rhythmic buoyancy and a sense of enjoyment and panache. He and the orchestra build some lovely passages as the music progresses, a terrific performance with a fine coda.

The orchestral detail in the opening of the Polonaise brillante, Op.72 by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) arranged by Franz Liszt (1811-1886) is quite remarkable, the orchestra under their Music Director, Christophe Chagnard, bringing some very fine playing.  Joel Fan enters with real panache, negotiating Liszt’s take on Weber brilliantly. This is a thoroughly engaging and, indeed, entertaining performance, Fan bringing such a sense of fun to many passages. There are fine orchestral textures with both Fan and the orchestra revealing so many fine details before a terrific coda.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s (1829-1869) Grande tarantelle, Op. 67 is orchestrated here by Hershy Kay (1919-1981). The orchestra take off with the light hearted theme, full of ebullience with Fan carried along with them, providing a beautifully delicate, light touch and bringing an engaging and thoroughly captivating performance full of unstoppable forward momentum.

Charles Wakefield Cadman’s (1881-1946) Dark Dancers of the Mardi Gras (Fantasy for Orchestra and Piano) receives a very fine opening from the orchestra with the piano forming part of the orchestral texture. There is much rhythmic interest before the music moves off with some fine use of percussion orchestration. As the music progresses there is often the feel of Gershwin. This is a fine performance from all concerned with very fine playing from Joel Fan, particularly towards the end in the more sustained piano section.

This is a terrific new release with, in my download, a detailed recording full of depth, space and detail.

Monday, 13 April 2015

MSR Classics release Volume 4 of James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey with performances that cannot be praised too highly

I have been following James Brawn’s cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas with great enthusiasm. He seems so naturally attuned to these great works, combining fine musicianship with a superb technique that produces Beethoven playing of the highest order. has just released the fourth volume of James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey with sonatas spanning the years 1798 to 1814.

MS 1468

James Brawn opens with the Piano Sonata No.9 in E major, Op.14 No.1 (1798-99) bringing a beautifully lightly sprung Allegro, exquisitely shaped, so thoughtfully done with little surges of tempo so well judged, the music beautifully developed. The Allegretto & Maggiore has a lovely rhythmic sway with a particularly fine trio section, a lovely contrast with its gentle flow perfectly caught here. Brawn brings all his fine sensibility as we are led back to the opening theme. The Rondo (Allegro comodo) brings some extremely fine, fluent playing, building finely in dynamics with some terrific moments as the movement progresses, this pianist revealing so many lovely facets between the stormier passages.

With the Allegro of the Piano Sonata No.15 in D major, Op.28 (1801) ‘Pastorale’ this pianist displays a fine control of tempi and dynamics, finely phrased with a lovely restraint. Brawn builds some lovely, quietly dramatic phrases, holding back before letting go with passages of great power bringing so much assurance, authority and restraint. Brawn provides lovely gently rhythmic phrases to the Andante over which he lays Beethoven’s melody, revealing this to be a quite extraordinary movement. There is a skittish little middle section, playful yet with little outbursts, before developing a fine flow with the rhythmic pulse still lurking underneath. How much Beethoven packs into this movement, wonderfully revealed by this artist.

The Scherzo (Allegro vivace) & Trio has a really terrific opening with such a lovely touch from Brawn, beautifully crisp, with such fine clarity of phrasing combined with moments of terrific forward flow. The Rondo (Allegro ma non troppo) - Più allegro quasi Presto has a really lovely rhythmic theme, so reminiscent of the pastoral Beethoven. James Brawn shows his fine touch as he builds passages of terrific dynamic grandeur with some lovely limpid little phrases, finely fluent before positively bounding to the coda with some fabulous playing.

This is an absolutely terrific performance.

There is a lovely thoughtful opening to the Adagio cantabile of the Piano Sonata No.24 in F sharp major, Op.78 (1809) ‘À Thérèse’ before this pianist gently moves the music forward with such a delicate light touch, exquisitely phrased with fine control and rubato subtly increasing in power and passion in the Allegro ma non Troppo that follows with Brawn constantly varying the tempi and dynamics to such fine effect. This pianist shows how he can move quickly from thoughtful moments to dynamic passages with ease.  He leaps into the Allegro vivace with a fine forward thrust, always finely controlled before some beautifully intricate passages, to which he brings a crystalline clarity.

The Presto alla tedesca of Piano Sonata No.25 in G major, Op.79 (1809) opens joyously, Brawn bringing a terrific fast flowing outpouring of invention showing his fine articulation and touch, revelling in Beethoven’s fast moving development. This is beautifully controlled playing with fine rubato, lovely phrasing. A real joy. The Andante brings a fine gentle flow, Brawn providing exquisite fluidity with many moments of fine poetic poise and depth. There is a Vivace with crisply pointed dynamic passages showing more of this pianist’s fine phrasing and control.

This is another particularly fine performance.

James Brawn brings a forthright edge to the more dynamic opening phrases of the Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck of Piano Sonata No.27 in E minor, op.90 (1814) with moments of gentle fluent flow, such poetry contrasting with the passages of dynamic power. Brawn finds all of Beethoven’s changes of mood. The second movement Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorzutragen flows beautifully, a fine melody with Brawn subtly bringing out many little variations of tempo and dynamics showing his ability to coax every nuance from this music. There is a terrific outpouring of melodic invention in a wonderfully conceived performance, beautifully controlled, wonderfully done.

I really cannot praise these performances too highly. This new cycle is set to become one of the finest in many years. I was so engrossed in these performances that I initially did not give a thought to the sound quality, surely a testament to the naturalness of the recording which is top notch. There are first rate notes from James Brawn and Linda Marianiello.

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