Tuesday, 30 September 2014

David Hill’s new recording of Herbert Howells’ Stabat Mater for Naxos is a very fine achievement with surging power and emotion and moments of exquisite hushed beauty

The English composer, Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire. http://herberthowellssociety.weebly.com He was the son of a painter, decorator, plumber and builder and the Howells family lived over a shop used for the family business.

Showing great musical promise from an early age, Howells became an articled pupil of Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, subsequently winning a scholarship to study composition with Stanford at the Royal College of Music, where he later returned to teach for nearly sixty years.

Much of his music after the death, from polio, of his nine-year old son Michael in 1935 was affected by his profound sense of loss, in particular his great choral work Hymnus Paradisi. His compositions include choral, orchestral, chamber organ and piano works as well as a considerable number of anthems, motets and services for the Anglican Church.

Of his choral works, Hymnus Paradisi must be acknowledged as his masterpiece; however, his Missa Sabrinensis and Stabat Mater are large scale works of considerable achievement and, indeed, beauty.

Gennady Rozhdestvensky made pioneering recordings of both the Missa Sabrinensis and Stabat Mater for Chandos. Now from Naxos www.naxos.com comes a new recording of the Stabat Mater with David Hill www.rayfieldallied.com/artists/david-hill conducting the Bach Choir www.thebachchoir.org.uk and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra www.bsolive.com with tenor, Benjamin Hulett www.benjaminhulett.com . This new release is coupled with two other Howells’ works, his Te Deum and Sine nomine with soprano Alison Hill http://alisonhill.org.uk  joining Hill and his forces.

This new recording is equally welcome in that it includes some tempo corrections made by Howells. Andrew Burns’ excellent booklet notes tell us that, a month before this recording, David Hill was visiting Rhode Island where he met George Kent, a friend of Sir David Willcocks, who showed him a vocal score of the Stabat Mater with corrections over almost every page. These corrections have been incorporated into this new performance.

Howells’ Stabat Mater (1959-65), another direct musical response to the death of his son, was first performed by Robert Tear, the Bach Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Willcocks on the 22nd November 1965. It is dedicated to ‘The Bach Choir and in affectionate memory of Ralph Vaughan Williams’. How appropriate then it is that the Bach Choir finally have had the opportunity to record this work under their current Musical Director.

A theme from Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi echoes through moments of the gentle opening of the Stabat mater dolorosa before David Hill slowly builds drama and passion in the orchestra. When the choir suddenly interjects with the words Stabat Mater dolorosa, Hill brings a colossal impact that is then allowed to surge and fall, bringing out all of Howells’ glowing, passionate emotion.

The dark, ominous opening of Cujus animam gementem is picked up by the male voices with Hill allowing Howells’ fine development to grow naturally with lovely harmonic shifts and surges of ecstasy. Soon tenor, Benjamin Hulett sounds through the orchestra and choir at the words O quam tristis et afflicta (O how sad and afflicted) with his fine, strong clear tenor voice.

Choir and orchestra leap out in Quis est homo, full of anguish and intense fervour on the words Who is the man that would not weep, with the Bach Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on really fine form, the orchestra particularly so in the lovely orchestral central section where Hill holds a terrific hushed tension as the choir enters on Vidit suum dulcem Natum.

The orchestral opening of Eia, Mater is beautifully shaped before Benjamin Hulett enters, supremely fine with the words Eia Mater, fons amoris. He cries out Fac ut ardeat cor meum (Grant that my heart may burn) full of powerful expression.

Sancta Mater brings edge of the seat tension as the music opens, the choir weaving around, full of intensity, with fine dramatic support from the Bournemouth players. It is in the quiet moments such as the hushed orchestral section towards the end that Hill‘s mastery of orchestral shaping is at its most profound. Soon the tenor enters again, bringing such drama and tension.

Choir and orchestra move forward with restraint in Fac ut portem Christi mortem (Let me bear Christ’s death); bells chime quietly as the hushed, restrained drama unfolds. The music builds in dynamics before the tenor comes in over the choir and orchestra, searingly on the words In flammatus et accentus (Lest I burn in flames). A supreme high point superbly handled here. The music tapers beautifully to a solo tenor part Face me cruce for the subdued coda.

A hushed orchestra opens Christe, cum sit hinc exire with lovely little orchestral details. Soon the choir joins to lead the music on, inexorably, slowly growing in drama, passion and ecstasy with the Bach Choir again showing their supreme skills as the music soars and swirls. When Benjamin Hulett enters above the choir and orchestra it is another wonderful moment with some extremely fine singing.  The choir, orchestra and soloist lead to the coda where the tenor returns to the opening text Stabat mater dolorosa, again weaving around the choir as bells chime gently and the hushed orchestra concludes.

The overall timing of this performance is three minutes faster than Rozhdestvensky’s but it is not merely a case of speed. The tempi of this performance vary with Cujus animam gementem around two minutes faster and Christe, cum sit hinc exire over two minutes slower. Here, slower passages receive greater care allowing little details to emerge.

This new recording is a very fine achievement with a greater surging power and emotion yet with moments of exquisite hushed beauty. This will never be a choral society favourite due to the taxing choral writing that, alone, would mitigate against that. To have this fine new performance in first rate sound from the Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK will allow many new admirers to enjoy this wonderful work.

Howells’ earlier Te Deum (1944/77) leaps off the page dramatically full of the joy needed to offset the tension and drama of the Stabat Mater. Still there is Howells’ unique ecstatic outpouring and his brilliant, yet complex, choral writing, this time in orchestral guise. Again the Bach Choir are on terrific form, full of power and with a beautifully blended sound, observing every dynamic. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra certainly adds much in this orchestral version. I have the original version of this work, for choir and organ, from St Paul’s Cathedral with Christopher Dearnley (organ) and John Scott on Hyperion which is also very fine. There is something that makes Howells lift a setting beyond the ordinary, to higher levels, something this performance brings out fully in Hill’s terrific performance.

The even earlier Sine nomine (1922) opens with tenor, Benjamin Hulett against a swaying orchestral backdrop before soprano, Alison Hill, joins in the wordless vocalise. For all the influences, Vaughan Williams amongst them, there is still Howells’ own voice appearing through. Hill keeps up a fine pace throughout the central orchestral section with more terrific playing form the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra before the exquisite coda arrives. The two soloists are especially fine.

Again the recording lets every little detail shine through. The booklet notes are excellent and there are full texts and English translations.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Danish String Quartet give terrific performances of their own arrangements of Nordic folk tunes, on a new release from Dacapo, recorded at the Kirsten Kjaer Museum, Denmark

Dacapo Records www.dacapo-records.dk have recently released a recording by the Danish String Quartet http://danishquartet.com of arrangement by them of traditional Nordic folk tunes entitled Wood Works.

The Danish String Quartet, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and Frederik Øland (violins), Asbjørn Nørgaard (viola) and Frederik Schøyen Sjölin (cello), was founded in 2001 when the members were still students.

In their booklet notes the Danish Quartet tell us that they have borrowed and arranged some of their favourite Nordic folk tunes and let the music flow through the wooden instruments of the string quartet.

They visit the Faroe islands and the Danish island of Fanø for Ye Honest Bridal Couple/Sønderho Bridal Trilogy – Part I in which they provide some lovely harmonies in the hushed, beautifully evocative opening that develops through some exquisite passages with the Danish String Quartet bringing the most lovely sonorities. The music moves into a little dance rhythm, halfway, as we move into the Sønderho Bridal Trilogy with music that is absolutely beguiling.

Denmark provides Sekstur from Vendsyssel/The Peat Dance which opens with a syncopated rhythmic theme, nicely harmonised by the Quartet. It has an intoxicatingly unstoppable feel and, surely, some Scottish or Orkney connections. There is some terrific incisive, rhythmic playing with these artists right inside the folk element. For the Peat Dance we move into an even faster folk dance that is really intense.

Vigstamo was a small farm in the Gudbrand valley in Norway and Vigstamoin the name of the man who lived there. Pizzicato cello opens this tune with the other players lightly drawing their bows over their strings. A real tune emerges still with a vibrating pull on the texture in this attractive, slowly moving piece.

Waltz after Lasse in Lyby was a simple little waltz played by a travelling fiddler called Lasse who lived in Lyby in Sweden. The Quartet opens on harmonics before a wistful melody flows, beautifully and infectiously with lovely textures and harmonies from these players.

Ribers is a Danish tune, a polka full of fine string textures that soon leads into another unstoppable, forward driving piece. These players seem so natural in their ability to really throw themselves into this music. There is a terrific coda.

We return to the island of Fanø for Sønderho Bridal Trilogy – Part II an insistent yet gentle tune full of many little beauties. The entertainingly named, Five Sheep, Four Goats is a Danish tune discovered by one of the Quartet members, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. It’s a terrific folk tune with a central slow section that brings a jazzy flugelhorn contribution over long held string chords, rising in richness and density.  

O Fredrik, O Fredrik written by a Swedish childhood friend of the Quartet’s cellist, Frederik Schøyen Sjölin opens with a hushed motif that darts around until developed into a syncopated theme, dancing forward, becoming quite free and jazz like.

The calm, flowing Ack Värmeland, du sköna has something of Grieg in its flavour, though it is in fact a Swedish folk song, full of lovely melody, sensitive textures and details and extremely finely played. This is a particularly lovely piece.

Pairing a Danish polsk with a tune by the Danish sailor and fiddler, Rasmus Strom, Easter Sunday has an appealing tune with something of a Scotch snap to its rhythm which develops and richens with some lovely moments before moving into Polsk after Rasmus Storm that has a faster rhythm pointed up by pizzicato cello and moves through some lovely harmonisation.

Lovely string sonorities open Jässpodspolska, a polska from Sweden that develops with some gorgeous string sonorities in another particularly attractive piece.

Old Reinlender from Sønndala came to Norway from the Rhineland. It has a curious opening with short string phrases over which a longer folk melody is played before building into a rumbustious dance theme, full of rhythmic bounce and sliding phrases. A hugely entertaining piece, brilliantly played.

We make our final visit to the Danish island of Fanø with Sønderho Bridal Trilogy – Part III, this time arranged by Nikolaj Busk, where, after a slow hesitant opening a lovely little tune is slowly revealed making an atmospheric conclusion to this disc.

The Danish String Quartet gives terrific performances of these lovely arrangements. They receive an extremely fine recording made at the Kirsten Kjaer Museum www.kkmuseum.dk John’s Hall, Denmark and there are informative notes by the Danish String Quartet.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

A new release featuring a Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments and a Suite for Harpsichord on a new release, shows Howard Hersh as a composer that we need to hear more of

The American composer, Howard Hersh (b.1940) www.howardhersh.net  studied piano in Los Angeles and composition at Stanford University. He has been the recipient of grants and awards from organizations that include Meet the Composer, the American Symphony Orchestra League, ASCAP, the American Composers Forum, the Puffin Foundation, and the Rex Foundation.  Hersh’s works have been performed at venues that range from the Tanglewood Festival to Grace Cathedral, from European concert halls to the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Hersh was recently awarded an Irvine Fellowship in the international multi-disciplinary, Sally and Don Lucas Artists Residency Program at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California where, as the focus of his residency, he will compose a children’s opera, Zazzi and the Trees of Omburo.

Together with his composition work, he has founded and directed many new music groups, including the San Francisco Conservatory New Music Ensemble, and served as Music Director of KPFA-FM.

Howard Hersh has recently released a new CD entitled Angels and Watermarks featuring his Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments, his Suite for Harpsichord ‘Angels and Watermarks’ and ‘Dream’ for solo piano. Pianist and harpsichordist, Brenda Tom http://pmacadem.com/Our_Teachers.html is joined in the concerto by Laurie Camphouse (flute and piccolo), Rob Bailis (clarinet and bass clarinet), Eric Brewer (trumpet), Steve Suminski (trombone) Patti Niemi (percussion), Liana Berube and Philip Brezina (violins), Ying Ying Ho (viola), Ellen Sanders (cello) and Richard Worn (string bass) directed by Barbara Day Turner www.sjco.org/SJCO/Staff.html


Hersh’s Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments (2008) is in three movements.

Movement I has a dynamic opening for piano which slows to a florid passage, tonally free but full of melodic invention. The music develops through a number of variations, with detailed working over of the material before rising to a peak when the instrumental ensemble joins. There is just a little of the feel of Stravinsky in the use of this ensemble, yet with a thoroughly American spaciousness. Hersh’s often playful use of his instrumental palette is wholly engaging, with Barbara Day Turner drawing some fine details from her ensemble. Hersh’s fine instrumental textures are really appealing. Eventually there is a solo piano section that brings a melancholy feel with some fine fluent playing from Brenda Tom. The instrumental ensemble soon re-joins before the music becomes frenetic, the percussion driving the music along leading to the opening spacious theme before the faster dynamic coda.

Movement II has a rapidly rising and falling two note motif for the ensemble before the piano enters with a descending motif taken up by the ensemble as the theme is weaved around. Soon the music quietens with the two note motif for piano as the music slowly moves ahead. Hersh’s invention as the music weaves around the instruments and piano is very fine. Later the music gathers pace before slowing with delicate little accompaniment to the piano but soon flows forward to the coda.

Xylophone and piano open Movement III and are soon joined by the other instruments in a spiky, insistent theme. More of a flow develops with the piano keeping the insistent rhythm to which the ensemble now joins. The music develops for piano through some complex textures before the main theme appears insistently. There is some extremely fine musical invention as the piano and ensemble weave the theme. Eventually there is a dramatic virtuoso piano section superbly played by Brenda Tom as the music is worked out in a cadenza. The instrumental ensemble re-join before the music moves quickly to the coda that ends on a piano phrase.

Brenda Tom is a fluent and accomplished soloist. The instrumental ensemble directed by Barbara Day Turner is exceptionally fine.

The title of Angels and Watermarks, Suite for Harpsichord (2004) comes from a story by Henry Miller in which he continually alters a painting until he discovers an angel, his watermark that was waiting to be revealed.

It is in five movements opening with Before (Angels) that has a baroque sounding theme with a modern harmonic slant. Brenda Tom beautifully spaces the delicate phrases as the music progresses, bringing terrific dexterity to her playing. Soon the music takes on something of a ‘swing’ but slows as the baroque style theme returns. The theme is developed before its gentle, thoughtful end.

Flying Lessons brings a frenetic, repeated motif, rushing all over the manuals with such terrific playing from Tom. There are tremendous textures lower on the manuals, with terrific textures and rhythms.

The gentle Little Angel Dreams has the harpsichord providing sounds almost that of a lute or guitar, such are the short phrases, as one can hear a lullaby tune emerging. The tempo picks up as the theme is varied. There are lovely dissonances as the music slows, becoming somewhat jazzy when the music picks up again before the opening statement returns for the coda.

Touch brings rapid scales up the keyboard, followed by a descending motif that is then floridly worked out. There is more tremendous playing from Brenda Tom. At one point the music becomes bluesy, before being taken through more baroque like passages, a broad florid passage, before a fast and furious coda.

There is a slow, baroque sounding theme to the final movement, After (Watermarks), that picks its way to a quiet conclusion.

As I have already made clear, Brenda Tom provides some terrific playing in this fine work.

Dream (2003/2012) was begun in 2003 whilst the composer was exploring ways of incorporating tonal harmony. Originally part of a larger work, Hersh completed this piano version in 2012.

The piece opens thoughtfully with a two note motif that slowly develops before broadening, whilst retaining its gentle, rather Debussian nature. The theme is subjected to many different textures and harmonies, finely revealed by Brenda Tom, before falling to a hushed coda.

On the evidence of this disc we need to hear more of Howard Hersh.

The recordings of the Concerto and Suite for Harpsichord, from Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, California, are rather closely miked causing some instrumental sounds to be prominent but overall there is excellent detail albeit with a slight lack of warmth. The close recording of the Suite for Harpsichord suits the solo harpsichord far more.

The recording of Dream, made at the Opus Studios, Berkeley, California, is good whilst being just a little boxy.

There are brief but helpful notes from the composer.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Katarzyna Musiał shows that she is a pianist to watch with her new recital from Meridian Records

The Polish-Canadian pianist, Katarzyna Musiał www.pianist.pl was First Prize winner at the 2011 Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition (New York) as well as a prize winner at the Krzysztof Penderecki International Competition of Contemporary Chamber Music (Cracow) and the Kay Meek Competition (Vancouver). She has also been a recipient of the Alban Berg Prize for outstanding merit (Vienna) and the Philip Cohen Award for outstanding performance musicianship (Montreal).

Musiał has since performed as a concerto soloist, recitalist and chamber musician throughout North America, Europe and Asia. More recently she made her Carnegie Hall debut and performed at the Vancouver Olympic Games, International Beethoven Festival (Chicago), Tempietto Festival Musicale della Nazioni (Rome) and Music in the Mountains Festival (California). Other major engagements have included a seven-city tour of China in spring 2013, as well as concerto performances with the New York Camerata, Chicago Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, Toronto Sinfonietta, Orchestre Symphonique de L’Isle, McGill Chamber Orchestra and Bielsko Chamber Orchestra, with which she opened the International Bach Festival (Poland).

Her new CD for Meridian Records www.meridian-records.co.uk  has just been released entitled Come Dance with Me, featuring works by such diverse composers as Ginastera, Turina, Messiaen, Ernesto Lecuona, Andre Mathieu, Zygmunt Stojowski, Gershwin, Górecki and Mompou.

CDE 84621

Katarzyna Musiał opens her recital with Alberto Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas, Op.2. There are some fine sprung rhythms to Danza del Viejo boyero, nicely phrased with lovely dynamics. The sultry Danza de la moza donosa is beautifully paced, well-shaped and phrased, drawing many beauties from this piece. The fiendishly difficult Danza del gaucho matrero shows this pianist’s fine technique as she combines panache, virtuosity and clarity within the complex textures and harmonies. This is a dazzling achievement.

With Joaquin Turina’s Danzas Gitanas, Op.55 she brings so many varied textures and colours to the rhythms of Zambra that adds so much to this dance. Danza de la seducción allows this pianist to display much fine poetry to this atmospheric piece, drawing out many subtleties with a Debussyian sensibility. Again it is Musiał’s sensitivity and poetry that reveals the many lovely aspects of Danza ritual with lovely phrasing and delicacy. Generalife receives a light touch, with rippling, sprung phrases. There is such panache and feely expressive playing in Sacro-monte, with Musiał drawing an enormous palette of colours from her piano.

It is two early works by Olivier Messiaen that Musiał plays next, commencing with his Prélude No.1 ‘La Colombe’  to which Musiał’s fluent touch brings much beauty as well as revealing a certain affinity to Turina, not to mention Debussy. There are some lovely textures here. Prélude No.8 ‘Un reflet dans le vent’ brings beautifully fluent, lucid playing that draws the listener in. Messiaen’s magical harmonies, already pointing the way ahead, are superbly handled.

Ernesto Lecuona’s  (1895-1963) La Comparsa has a distinctive rhythm showing all this pianist’s fine phrasing and rhythmic sensibility before the gentle coda.  Malagueña builds through some scintillating passages for the pianist over the main theme with Musiał’s superb colouring adding so much.

Andre Mathieu (1929-1968) is represented by his Prélude No.5 ‘Prélude romantique where Musiał draws many subtleties from this harmonically free prelude, revealing it to be an extremely attractive piece.

Katarzyna Musiał brings three pieces by her largely forgotten fellow countryman Zygmunt Stojowski 1887-1946), Vision de danse, Op.24 No.4, a terrific little piece that has dance rhythms which are much developed in its short duration, Intermezzo-Mazurka, Op.15 No.2, another attractive piece which this pianist lifts with her light rhythmic touch and Mazurka fantastique, Op.28 No.1 that gives the mazurka a 20th century slant and, in Musiał’s hands, a broad flowing breadth.

George Gershwin’s Prelude No.3 ‘Spanish Prelude’ follows, a piece that fits so well after the Stojowski’s and, indeed, within the whole recital. This pianist brings terrific flair, with fine touch and phrasing.

Henryk Górecki: Four preludes, Op.1 work very well as an integral cycle opening with Molto agitato with its clashing harmonies, bold strident phrases all superbly handled here. The gentle Lento-recitativo has dissonance and occasional dramatic moments before the lively, light footed Allegro scherzando, played with a lovely free touch and a playful little coda. Musiał’s fine phrasing clarifies the complex harmonies and finely coloured textures of the concluding Molto allegro quasi presto.  

Frederic Mompou’s Canción y danza No.1 brings a leisurely pace, revealing a lovely theme with this pianist’s phrasing and rhythmic playing bringing this piece alive. How Musiał shapes and colours the phrases of Canción y danza No.6, gently taking us through this languid, sultry music. When the music gains in tempo in the last section, it is Iberian panache.

To conclude this disc we return to Ginastera, his Suite de Danzas Criollas. Adagietto pianissimo, a lovely, languid piece, is finely judged. The fiery Allegro rustico is full of intoxicating rhythms and in the Allegretto cantabile Musiał provides a lovely unending melodic flow. Calmo e poetico is full of atmosphere with its strange, slow dance rhythm played with such sensitive understanding. The stronger rhythms of the concluding Scherzando-Coda: Presto ed energico provide a brilliant, dynamic end to this fine recital.

There is no doubt that Katarzyna Musiał is a pianist to watch, her choice of composers making a very satisfying recital. The recording overall is very good though there is a slightly hollow sound to the acoustic of the recording venue, the church of St. Edward the Confessor, London, England.

There are excellent booklet notes by the pianist.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Bach's Mass in B minor and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 Eroica, the first two eBooks a new series called Masterpieces of Music, from Erudition in partnership with Harmonia Mundi, are a joy to use bringing great fun to learning more about the works of the great composers

Despite the increasing popularity of downloads for classical recordings I have, until now, not seen any real advance in the technology used for eBooks. It’s true that there are a large number of traditional books that are merely available in their original format as eBooks but where is the real innovation using such technology.

Eruditions www.eruditiondigital.co.uk publishes eBooks covering a wide range of subjects but of particular interest for classical music lovers is a new range entitled Masterpieces of Music. These eBook guides are produced in partnership with the record company Harmonia Mundi www.harmoniamundi.com 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. 

The first two publications in this series are Bach's Mass in B minor and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 Eroica.

The author of these two eBooks is Matthew Rye who studied music at Magdalen College, Oxford, and has spent his career in music journalism as a writer, editor and critic. He has written numerous programme and CD booklet notes, was a reviewer for the Daily Telegraph for thirteen years and the BBC Music Magazine for over 15 years, and has also written for Independent, Sunday Times, Musical Times, The Wagner Journal and other publications. He contributed to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd edition), The Rough Guide to Classical Music, The Blackwell History of Music in Britain and was general editor of 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die (Cassell Illustrated, 2007). He is currently reviews editor of The Strad.

There are aspects of a conventional book with a facsimile colour front cover followed by an Introduction to the series, Information about the author, and a Table of contents that enabled 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 this publication including audio playback, links to supplementary articles, enhanced timelines and walkthrough features as well as the interactive score.

The first eBook in this series that I looked at was Bach’s B minor Mass.

147 pages
Right from the Introduction Matthew Rye provokes thoughts that are very pertinent to this great work such as ‘Why did the composer, a stalwart Lutheran, create a work for the Roman Catholic liturgy?’ Scattered throughout are entertaining and interesting featured quotes from individuals such as Michael Torke, Sir Thomas Beecham, Bach himself and his contemporaries.

There is a Profile of the composer with links that take the reader to maps showing the location of the cities mentioned.  The Composer Timeline has links and a map showing Bach’s travels together with a link to an online Interactive Timeline that adds detail, maps and photos by way of the user touching a relevant entry on the timeline.

The Story Behind the Mass is in five sections, an Introduction (that explains the B minor Mass origins in a Sanctus for Christmas, 1724), Mass Appeal: A note of Terminology, Protestantism and Catholicism in Saxony in Bach’s time (that gives the probable reason for Bach writing a Catholic Mass – the Elector of Saxony was a staunch Catholic), No Laughing Matter – the Parody Mass and a Work Timeline. Terminology is well covered by links to the Glossary though they don’t take one directly to the specific entry. The Work Timeline includes photographs that, on my Kindle Fire HD were of excellent definition. There is a link that takes the reader to an online interactive Bach Mass Timeline with the same features as the general interactive Timeline.

Walk Through gives a brief guide to the sections of the Mass with online audio excerpts from the relevant section. The performers aren’t credited as far as I could ascertain but, given that this is a joint venture with Harmonia Mundi, I presume the excerpts to be from Philippe Herreweghe’s recording with the Collegium Vocale Gent and La Chapelle Royale.

There then follows a detailed analysis of each section of the Mass with musical examples in short score and online musical audio examples played on an organ. The main sections of the Mass have links to the interactive online orchestral and choral excerpts. Due to the online access to these audio excerpts, they cannot be listened to whilst following the short score but, given that the excerpts are only four or five bars long, this is hardly a problem.

One of the useful aspects of the way the excepts are often done is that, for example, a fugal section of the Kyrie is set out in short score then an organ excerpt of each line is played before hearing the top line, second line and bass played together. Throughout the analysis of the Mass, the text is shown in Latin and English.  The online Enhanced Interactive Score of Kyrie I allows the user to link audio extracts to the score.

The section entitled Resources includes the Glossary, Interactive Timelines and such other features as the Credo Exposition in Detail and the Interactive Musical Score – Kyrie I and II in detail that are accessible throughout the book via links. However, it also includes Supplementary Articles on Form and Structure, Ancient and Modern and Symbols musical and spiritual as well as Further information about tempo (inc. German terminology), Further Reading (inc. web resources) and Further Listening showing a number of B minor Mass recordings that can be bought by touching the link.

Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 ‘Eroica’ follows a similar format.
125 pages
Background places the Eroica in its historical context with more featured quotes from individuals such as Ferdinand Ries, Mozart, Toscanini, Beethoven and contemporary critics. There is a Composer Profile and a Timeline of Beethoven’s Life which is followed, as with the Bach B minor Mass eBook, with a link to an online enhanced Interactive Timeline. Once more the definition of the illustrations is excellent.

The Story Behind the Eroica places the third symphony in its context, the so called Heiligenstadt Testament, where Beethoven poured out his intense feelings concerning not only his deafness but how he felt misunderstood, his revolutionary leanings and initial admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte as well as first performances of the Eroica and their reception. With Shock of the new, Matthew Rye, looks in more detail at how Beethoven achieved such an advance in musical composition. There are links to Supplementary Articles on Beethoven and Napoleon, Beethoven and Prometheus, Beethoven’s developmental tricks and Thematic unity.

Beethoven’s Orchestra looks at the instruments, size and layout of Beethoven’s orchestra. There is a Work Timeline and an online enhanced Interactive Timeline that works in the same manner as the B minor Mass eBook.

Walk Through takes us straight into a detailed analysis of the Eroica with orchestral excerpts and piano excerpts to accompany single stave or short score musical examples. Here again I am guessing that the orchestral excerpts are from Andrew Manze’s Harmonia Mundi recording with the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra.

The Enhanced Interactive Score of the Development Section is particularly impressive in the way that audio extracts can be linked to the score with additional written explanation. Also impressive is the way that the structure and development of the first movement is explained in real depth with excellent diagrams.

Resources includes Further listening with selected recordings which, again, can be bought on line by clicking a link, Further reading (that I’m glad to see includes my treasured Beethoven: the Music and the Life by Lewis Lockwood) and Web Resources. Supplementary Articles places together the articles mentioned above that can be accessed by links.

There is an Index of Musical examples which brings together all of the orchestral excerpts and a Glossary and Appendix to which the various links throughout the eBook have allowed access.

There are so many little features that can be accessed that I hope that I have included them all in this review.

These two eBooks bode extremely well for the whole series. There is nothing dry or overly academic about Rye’s analysis of the works. 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. 

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 www.igorlevit.com 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 www.gramophone.co.uk

Now from Sony www.sonymasterworks.com 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 http://fjbfingerprint.com 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) https://twitter.com/hrognli and Wolfgang Plagge (piano) http://wolfgangplagge.classicalmgt.com  

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) www.barrattdue.no/nor/hoyskole/larere/tom_ottar_andreassen  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 www.joachimknoph.com  with Ari Rasilainen www.rbartists.at/en/dirigenten_dtl.php?id=484&TACookie=ne2d2825tg0ebm8tqb46pnekk7 and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra http://kork.no

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: