Saturday, 19 April 2014

A fine collection of piano works by Howard Blake receives terrific performances from Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy on a new release from Decca

Howard Blake (b. 1938) is best known for his music for the 1982 film The Snowman that includes the song Walking In The Air. Yet his compositions include concertos, oratorios, ballets, operas and many instrumental works.

Blake was born in London but grew up in Brighton, Sussex.  Whilst attending Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School for boys he sang lead parts in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and was recognised as a talented pianist. At the age of 18 years Blake won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music to study piano with Harold Craxton and composition with Howard Ferguson. Finding himself at odds with his contemporaries concerning musical style he virtually stopped composing, turning his attention to film.

On leaving the RAM he briefly worked as a film projectionist at the National Film Theatre before playing piano in pubs and clubs for a period of time. Working as a session musician on many recordings led his to work as an arranger and a composer, a role which gradually became his full-time occupation

Blake has written numerous film scores, including The Duellists with Sir Ridley Scott and David Puttnam, which gained the Special Jury Award at the Cannes Festival in 1977, A Month in the Country with Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth which gained him the British Film Institute Anthony Asquith Award for musical excellence in 1989, and, of course, The Snowman, which was nominated for an Oscar.

Blake’s concert works include a piano concerto commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra for the 30th birthday of Princess Diana in 1991, a violin concerto to celebrate the centenary of the City of Leeds in 1993, a cantata to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations in 1995 and the large-scale choral/orchestral work, Benedictus (1980).

More recent works include Lifecycle – Twenty four pieces for solo piano  (2003), Songs of Truth and Glory (2005), commissioned for the Three Choirs Festival, The Land of Counterpane (2007) a song-cycle to words by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Howard Blake is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and, in 1994, received the OBE for services to music.

A new release from Decca , entitled Walking in the Air, features piano works by Blake performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Vovka Ashkenazy . The works on this disc give an excellent view of Blake’s work ranging in date from 1955 to 2013.

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The title of this new release could, at first sight, be taken to indicate a collection of lightweight pieces. However, the composer of the music for The Snowman reveals himself to be a composer of substance in some terrific pieces played superbly by Ashkenazy.

What can one say about Blake’s music for The Snowman? Walking in the Air, Op.489u (1982) is a tune in a million and, as played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, has a beautiful richness of texture.

There are two further film related pieces on this disc, first Music Box (from The Changeling), Op. 489n (1979) that has so many distinctive Blake features, yet with an early 20th century quality and some lovely touches from Ashkenazy. Laura (from The Duellists), Op. 604 (1977) has some surprisingly dissonant intervals that make this a very attractive piece.

Written for Vladimir Ashkenazy, Prelude for Vova, Op.640 (2012) has similar features and, though relatively short, is a work of some substance that rises to a rousing climax with terrific playing from Ashkenazy.

Speech After Long Silence, Op.610 (2011) is a haunting piece that rises to a number of climaxes with some rather difficult, quite unusual passages. When the main theme re-appears it is a terrific moment.

Eight Character Pieces (1975) opens with a Prelude: Andantino that has Blake’s distinctive rising intervals that are instantly identifiable. This is a lovely little piece. Nocturne: Andantino sounds like a tribute to Chopin with its trills and certain intervals. For all that, it is a gorgeous piece, with Ashkenazy providing all that one could want. Impromptu: Cantabile has Ashkenazy showing his incomparable technique in playing of formidable delicacy and lightness of touch. Toccatina: Vivo, an even faster piece than the Impromptu, again shows Ashkenazy’s terrific technique in this little gem that, again, has hints of Chopin.

Mazurka: Tempo di mazurka is fascinating in that, through the mazurka rhythm, one can again hear Blake’s distinctive fingerprints, those rising intervals. Walking Song: Semplice is simple, direct, yet full of character and feeling whilst the slow Chaconne in D minor: Lento has strange intervals and harmonies that slowly build in strength to a climax with superb playing from Ashkenazy particularly in the later cascading, descending passage. The final piece, Scherzo in D major: Prestissimo, hurtles forward before a slow affecting melody that is soon replaced when the prestissimo again pulls us forward at breakneck speed to a coda that returns to the slow tune.

Vladimir Ashkenazy is joined by, Vovka Ashkenazy for the Dances for Two Pianos, Op.217a (1976). Parade: Allegro is a rollicking piece, full of fun, Slow Ragtime has a lovely gentle pulse, Jump: Allegro an attractive syncopated rhythm,

Medium Rock has a nostalgic theme, still with a rhythmic pulse and in Folk Ballad: Lento Blake develops a simple folksy theme into something more substantial.

Boogie, tempo giusto is, again, great fun, full of manic humour with these pianists on fine form and enjoying themselves, Jazz Waltz is a terrific little waltz with, as the title suggests, jazz inflections, the infectious Cha-cha is given a lovely rhythmic pulse whilst the Dances conclude with a madcap Galop.

Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy are absolutely brilliant in this work.

The Allegro of Sonata for two pianos, Op.130 (1971) has a rather strident opening before the lines of the two pianos quieten and open out. There are many dramatic moments with some fabulous playing of great accuracy from Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy as well as moments of intense, nervous energy. The Lento brings some beautiful dissonances as the two pianists make their way through this haunting landscape, rising to a number of peaks before ending quietly.

There are terrific rhythms in the Scherzando that rattles ahead with each player chasing the other. In the final Presto these pianists burst out in the opening with powerful playing before a gentler section appears that doesn’t last long. This is virtuosic music that requires players of the utmost virtuosity which is exactly what it gets here. A stunning conclusion to a work that will give a surprise to anyone expecting the Howard Blake of The Snowman.

The early Piano Fantasy, Op.1 (1955) has a quiet, tranquil English atmosphere that gives way to a lively, buoyant central section before descending into the tranquillity of the opening theme. This piece is beautifully realised by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Comparing this with Blake’s later work shows that his music has lost none of his early freshness and life.

Four Easy Pieces, Op.1b (1956) has a spiky little Moderato, a gentle Valse triste that has a beautiful nostalgic feel, and a lively Con moto before the melancholy Andantino. Ashkenazy takes such care, always drawing all he can from these simple little pieces

Romanza, Op.489o (originally Op.5f) (1963) Andante con moto is a flowing piece that rises to a lovely climax. It is a beautiful piece full of atmosphere.

Haiku for Yu-Chee, Op.567 (2006) brings a halting little theme showing how Blake can draw so much from so little.

This fine collection of piano works concludes with Parting, Op.650a (2013), a brief, sad, haunting piece.

I do hope that the popularity of The Snowman will not have the opposite effect of discouraging serious collectors from trying this worthwhile and attractive disc. There are some extremely fine works here that receive terrific performances.

The recording made at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England is first class and there are excellent booklet notes by the composer. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Voices of Exile, a fine choral work from Richard Blackford, in a first rate performance from the Bach Choir, New London Children’s Choir and Philharmonia Orchestra directed by David Hill with soloists Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Gregory Kunde and Gerald Finley on a new release from Nimbus

Back in November 2012 I was particularly impressed by a new release from Nimbus of works by Richard Blackford (b.1954) , his Mirror of Perfection and Choral Anthems.

Now from Nimbus comes another of Blackford’s choral works, Voices of Exile. It was back in 1992 that Blackford recorded a 15-year-old refugee girl, Kamla, in the Kalighat slum area of Calcutta. Her village had been destroyed by drought and she, like hundreds of thousands, lived on Calcutta’s streets. When her family left her village they had to walk for days and consequently could take none of their few possessions. All she could bring with her, she said, were her songs, a link with her village, her past and her culture. 

It was not until 2001that Blackford was able to incorporate Kamla’s song into Voices of Exile which also sets words from a variety of sources. David Hill directs the Bach Choir, New London Children’s Choir  and Philharmonia Orchestra  with soloists Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano) , Gregory Kunde (tenor)  and Gerald Finley (baritone)

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Prelude (Tenor Solo and Chorus) is a setting of Poetry after Auschwitz by Tony Harrison. Two drum taps, an echo of timpani and a solo violin playing an astringent theme leads to the solo tenor, Gregory Kunde, in the poignant words,

Redeeming fire melts only wax redeeming fire meant to invoke
the souls from Auschwitz chimney stacks their destiny of smoke

Eventually Kunde is accompanied firstly by the solo violin, then the orchestra in this dramatic theme. When the choir enters, the tenor rises up in passion before descending to just the tenor and solo violin to end.

PART I Memories of Home 

Bengal (Chorus with tape) sets a Bengali folksong in the recording of Kamla Chaudhuri as well as words by Taslima Nasrin from Bangladesh. Kamla sings the opening before chorus enters followed by a spoken text with choral background ‘A year has passed and I am one year older, but the new year has brought no hope of freedom…’ Towards the end, the text is spoken in a variety of overlaid languages.

Tibet (Baritone Solo and Children’s Choir) sets the poem Memories of Tibet by Gergyi Tsering Gonpo and opens with light textures from a variety of percussion before a syncopated orchestral theme. The New London Children’s Choir takes over from Baritone, Gerald Finley who returns later, adding something of an operatic quality in the way he pushes the drama forward.

Zaire (Chorus) sets Kin the Beautiful by Mabiala Molu, in strongly rhythmic music in some somewhat reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein. There is some fine choral singing from the Bach Choir with a strong climax at the end and running straight into a cry from the Somali singer, Osman Dugleh that opens Part II.

PART II Journeys 

Somalia (Tenor Solo with tape). Osman Dugleh’s cry leads into the tenor solo part with a hushed orchestra and rumbling drums as Gregory Kunde sings the words of ‘Fleeing’ by Abdirahman Mirreh, a particularly poignant moment, both musically and textually. Blackford does a remarkable job in making his orchestra leave traces of world music within the texture.

Tibet (Baritone Solo) brings more verses by Gergyi Tsering GonpoCrossing the Frontier.’ It is a recording of Gonpo’s gentle voice that is accompanied by the orchestra before baritone, Gerald Finley, joins in this flowing, affecting melody. Blackford’s setting of the words, ‘How can I slip away like this,’ somehow brings to mind Michael Tippett’s of ‘A Child of Our Time.’

Austria – Passacaglia (Chorus and Children’s Chorus) returns us to Europe and Nazi Austria with a setting of ‘It has happened’ by Erich Fried. Returning to Nazi persecution again suddenly jolts us into the tragically timeless nature of persecution and exile. There is some fine part writing that weaves the chorus and children’s chorus in the words, ‘It has happened and it goes on happening.’

Somalia – Fugue (Chorus) takes its text from ‘Time’ by Abdirahman Mirreh, running straight into a terrific fugue.


With Chile (Mezzo-soprano Solo) there is an orchestral opening with thunder effects before Maria Eugenia Bravo Calderara reads from her own poem, ‘Private Soldier’. Catherine Wyn-Rogers enters for the first time in a finely sung part that moves around dramatically with the orchestra and soloist becoming increasingly passionate up to the words, ’But I know what you are called. Human…’ There is a poignant coda with solo violin.

Nigeria (Tenor and Baritone Soli) opens with a quiet drum roll and a descending woodwind theme before the soloists join, first Gregory Kunde, then Gerald Finley, in a text on genocide. The text quotes from the words of Blake’s Jerusalem ‘I will not cease from Mental Fight…’ with Blackford drawing on Parry’s setting before a fine dramatic orchestral climax.

Turkey (Chorus). An a cappella chorus brings a setting of The Embrace by Oktay Rifat to end Part III with some first rate choral singing.


Strange percussion sounds open the rhythmic Bosnia (Baritone Solo) a setting of ‘Neither here nor there’ by Himzo Skoropan, before the soloist enters. Whilst the first two verses seem to take a less intense tone, the second two are given more drama and tension, with braying orchestral interruptions.

Macedonia (Chorus with tape) features a folksong sung by Tanya Czarovska. Her recorded voice opens this section alone before spoken text is then overlaid. Soon the chorus enter, quietly behind the soloist and spoken text in this inspired section.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers opens Algeria (Mezzo-soprano Solo) in the text,’ I remember you standing at the balcony waving…’ Blackford’s writing of the orchestral part is masterly as the mezzo soprano sings a descending motif.

PART V Freedom

Greece (Chorus) sets an extract from ‘Exile and Return’ by Yannis Ritsos for chorus and orchestra. Rhythmic drums precede the entry of the chorus who, when they arrive display some fine singing in Blackford’s terrific part writing. 

With Kurdistan (Mezzo-soprano and Tenor Soli), a setting of ‘My Wish’ by Mohammed Khaki, Catherine Wyn-Rogers takes the lovely melody of, ’In my dreams I come to your tent…’ before the tenor joins and the orchestra lifts the music to an even higher level. There are some lovely textures of voice and orchestra in the coda.

Angola (Mezzo-soprano, Tenor, Baritone Soli, Chorus and Children’s Chorus) brings together all the forces in a setting of Antonio Joaquim Marques’ ‘Daughter of the Desert.’ The orchestra picks up the pace before baritone, Gerald Finley enters in this superbly written piece. Finley is soon joined by mezzo, Catherine Wyn-Rogers then tenor, Gregory Kunde before finally the two chorus in an uplifting section that’s ends quietly.

Epilogue (Tenor Solo) brings us full circle to another setting of a poem by Tony Harrison, ‘Poem’ with hushed orchestra, tenor and solo viola before overlaid texts are recited. It is a solo violin with the quiet thunder of timpani that leads to the coda where the timpani make a last dramatic roll.

This is a fine choral work that deserves to be heard often. The tragedy that underlies Voices of Exile is, if anything, more prevalent in the world today that ever, making this such an apposite work. One of the additional benefits of this work is to introduce us to poets that, perhaps would not normally be widely heard, encouraging us to explore further.

David Hill and his forces provide a first rate performance and the recording from the Abbey Road Studios, London in 2005 is excellent. The taped passages are remarkably well integrated into the music.

There are informative booklet notes by the composer and full English texts. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A wonderful tribute to Claudio Abbado on Audite with Schubert, Beethoven and Wagner from the Lucerne Festival

A new release from Audite serves two purposes. As part of their ongoing Lucerne Festival series, these live recordings of Schubert, Beethoven and Wagner serve also to remind us of the superb musicianship of the late Claudio Abbado (1933-2014).


Thankfully Abbado left us a large heritage of recordings to remind us of his huge achievement. To add to this there will, no doubt, be more live recordings issued that will add to our appreciation of this great conductor, such as this present release.

These Lucerne Festival recordings date from 1978 and 1988. The performance of Schubert’s Symphony No.8 (7) in B minor, D.759 ‘Unfinished’ with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra took place in the Kunsthaus, Lucerne on 5th September 1978.

There is a pensive opening to the Allegro moderato, taken at a moderate pace. When the main theme appears it too is taken at a surprisingly sedate pace, yet with a lovely flow. The dramatic outbursts are beautifully handled with Abbado bringing out a depth in Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ that is often missing in some blandly beautiful performances. The repeat of the opening adds a dark mysteriousness, with tragic overtones. Abbado brings so much drama, atmosphere and occasional darkness to this work. The Vienna Philharmonic is as fine as one would expect, delivering all that Abbado requires of them.

Abbado lightens the mood for the Andante con moto though he keeps a heavy tread. There is a magically conceived central section, slow and withdrawn, yet lightly textured. There are weighty outbursts, Beethovenian in character as well as some lovely wind passages. The second subject is full of a care and insight that reveals so many facets with a beautiful coda that is sensitively and exquisitely done.

For me this performance was nothing short of revelatory. The live analogue recording is nicely done and the applause is edited out.

Abbado returned to the Kunsthaus, Lucerne on 25th August 1988 for the two other works on this disc, though this time conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op.36 has some beautiful pacing in the Adagio molto brooding and with plenty of weight before the Allegro con brio arrives which really dashes ahead, with Abbado drawing some pretty taut playing, full of spirit and with beautifully controlled dynamics. 

The Larghetto is beautifully shaped with fine clarity and great poise from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe before a lithe, rhythmically buoyant Scherzo. Allegro – Trio where the woodwind passages sound through the lovely chamber textures nicely.

Abbado hurtles straight into the Allegro molto with some terrifically turned phrases. There is a lovely sense of flow, with fine passages from the COE’s strings and Beethoven’s lovely woodwind finely pointed up. Their phrasing is superb whilst Abbado has them responding to every little dramatic twist and turn.

The recording is generally very fine though not with the widest and most detailed of soundstages. There is some audience noise but applause is edited out.

Finally we have Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll where, in the opening, Abbado keeps up the tempo by just the right degree, revealing lovely elements of this work. Abbado draws some exquisite rubato from the orchestra as well as some lovely slower passages with the COE’s horns occasionally adding a lovely touch. Abbado brings out some lovely details and, later, the orchestra’s wind section makes a glorious sound. How Abbado handles all the little surges of passion is remarkable and the coda is truly wonderful.

This is a Siegfried Idyll that should be heard. Again the applause is edited out.

This is a wonderful tribute to a much missed musician as well as an example of the treasures that the Lucerne Festival and Audite have in store.

Michael Haefliger, Executive and Artistic Director of the Lucerne Festival, provides a fitting tribute in the booklet notes together with a short essay ‘Claudio Abbado and Lucerne – a homage’  by Peter Hagmann.

See also:




Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Cameo Classics bring us fine works by Kenneth Leighton and Ruth Gipps performed by Angela Brownridge with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Laus

Cameo Classics are doing a great service to British music with their British Composers Premiere Collection that has, so far, featured composers such as Lillian Elkington (1901-1969), Dorothy Howell (1898-1982), Cyril Scott (1879-1970), Josef Holbrook (1878-1958), Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935), Arthur Somervell (1863-1937), Maurice Blower (1894-1982), Robin Milford (1903-1959), Frederick Kelly (1881-1916) and Walter Gaze Cooper (1895-1981).

The latest release in this series features works by Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) and Ruth Gipps (1921-1999). Angela Brownridge  joins the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Laus  in piano concertos by both these composers as well as two attractive works for solo piano by Gipps.

Kenneth Leighton has already been well served by Chandos Records who have recorded his solo piano music, some of his choral music and three volumes of his orchestral works including his Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 57 'Concerto estivo' (1969).

This new disc includes the first of his three piano concertos. Leighton was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire and was a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral. He attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School where he performed at school assemblies and concerts, while also composing settings of poetry for voice and piano and solo piano pieces. While still at school he obtained the Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music (LRAM) in piano performance. As a university student at Queen's College, Oxford, on a Hastings Scholarship to study Classics, he continued to study music, tutored by the composer Bernard Rose. At Oxford he came to the attention of Gerald Finzi, an early supporter and friend, who performed some of his works including his Symphony for Strings Op.3. He gained the support of Vaughan Williams who attended some of his performances in London. After gaining a BA in Classics in 1950, and a BMus in 1951, he was awarded a Mendelssohn Scholarship, which enabled him to study with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome.

On his return from Italy, he taught at the Royal Marine School of Music in Deal and held a Gregory Fellowship in music at the University of Leeds. In 1956 he was appointed lecturer in music at the University of Edinburgh. Following a period as Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford University from 1968 to 1970, Leighton returned to Edinburgh as Reid Professor of Music, where he remained until his death. 

Leighton’s Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.11 dates from 1950, the year he graduated from Oxford. The first movement has a lively start for piano and orchestra, full of life and momentum with the piano and orchestra sharing the vibrant theme. It rises in romantic, virtuoso music, complete with massive descending scales right up to the end.

Brass opens the second movement before the full orchestra enters with the soloist playing chords in this rather serious, gloomy theme. Slowly the piano reiterates its chords with more definition before moving into a real tune, still with an underlying insistent feel. A melancholy flute melody is picked up by the clarinet before the piano enters with large chords as the orchestra moves the music passionately forward.  Eventually the music reaches a peak before falling back. The piano plays a florid passage as the music heads to the coda which, after a quiet cymbal clash, arrives peacefully.

The soloist opens the finale before the orchestra joins in this decisively played music, the piano providing a rhythmic theme with more virtuosic passages. There are cascading orchestral passages before the music quietens with attractive woodwind passages. As the movement progresses there is a terrific interplay between soloist and orchestra before a cadenza that is full of demanding writing, superbly handled by Angela Brownridge. A fugal theme appears for the piano, picked up by the orchestra that leads to the coda concluding on a rising scale for piano.

Michael Laus draws enthusiastic playing from the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra though their string section can often sound rather thin. Angela Brownridge is an excellent soloist in this repertoire. The recording, made in the Manuel Theatre, Valletta, Malta is rather dry and boxy.

Ruth Gipps was born in Bexhill-on-Sea, England and was something of a child prodigy, performing her first composition at the age of eight. Gipps studied music theory, composition, piano, and oboe at the Royal College of Music where her teachers were Leon Goosens, Tobias Matthay, Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

She was thirty three when an earlier hand injury ended her performance career, causing her to concentrate on conducting and composition. A major point in her compositional career was her Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, first performed in 1946, which showed the beginnings of her mature style. She went on to write five symphonies in total as well as two piano concertos, a large amount of chamber music, choral works, vocal works and piano music.

She founded the London Repertoire Orchestra in 1955 as an opportunity for young professional musicians to become exposed to a wide range of music, and the Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961, a professional ensemble which included a work by a living composer in each of its programs. She held faculty posts at Trinity College, London, the Royal College of Music and, finally, Kingston Polytechnic.

There is a leisurely, nostalgic opening theme Ruth Gipps’ Theme and Variations for Piano, Op.57a which is soon given over to a series of richly imaginative variations that have a freshness that is wholly appealing. There is a hint of John Ireland at times before the beautiful, gentle, reflective coda.

There is occasionally a French feel to Ruth Gipp’ Opalescence, Op.72 that has a rippling, undulating melody that develops into moments that are quiet florid before returning to the rather simpler nature of the opening and ending gently.

Again Angela Brownridge proves to be a first rate advocate of this music. The recordings of these two solo works were made in the Fairfield Hall, Croydon, England and are full of clarity and fine piano tone.

Ruth Gipps’s Piano Concerto, Op.34 comes from the era of her Second Symphony, a fine work that has been recorded by Douglas Bostock and the Munich Symphony Orchestra for Classico.  I found her concerto to be equally fine with a first movement that opens with a broad orchestral theme, full of passion and momentum. The music quietens for the piano to enter playing the theme, full of romantic ardour. Gipps’ use of the orchestra is very attractive with a freshness and expansiveness that is instantly appealing. This first movement, almost as long as the two succeeding movements, presents the material in various guises, sometimes gentle and more reflective before rising to a climax. There is a gentle woodwind theme before a virtuoso passage for piano as well as light and faster sections for piano and orchestra.  Angela Brownridge is terrific in this freely virtuosic work that retains its rather windswept nature right up to the decisive coda.

A clarinet opens the second movement, soon joined by the orchestra in a gentle, rather pastoral theme. The piano enters to mull over the theme before being joined by the orchestra. This is beautifully atmospheric, nostalgic music that later becomes more animated, calming for the exquisite coda.

A trumpet announces the piano theme for the finale, a fast, rolling theme. The orchestra enters as this folksy theme moves forward with a rapid piano part. The music soon slows a little but picks up in a jaunty rhythmic theme, again with an appealing freshness that leads to the coda.

I found this to be a very appealing concerto brilliantly played by Brownridge. Whilst the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra is not in the top league of orchestras they play their hearts out for their conductor, Michael Laus. The recording is, again, a little dry.

We should be enormously grateful that Cameo Classics have brought us these fine works. There is a well illustrated booklet with informative notes by Angela Brownridge. Oddly there are no tempo markings shown for either concerto. 

Monday, 14 April 2014

Leif Ove Andsnes provides wonderful insights as he continues his Beethoven Journey for Sony Classical with recordings of the Second and Fourth Piano Concertos

Leif Ove Andsnes  continues his Beethoven Journey for Sony Classical  with recordings of the Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major and Piano Concerto No.4 in G major again with the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra

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This pianist’s first volume in this series, featuring Beethoven’s Piano Concertos 1 and 3, appeared in the Autumn of 2012. They were deeply probing, distinguished performances, ones which the more you listen to them, the more the subtle details and depth of feeling you hear.

I was keenly awaiting this second volume that was due to appear in the Autumn of 2013. Andsnes has been taking these works on tour before tacking them into the studio. However, the tour and recording were delayed due to that best of reasons, the birth of Leif Ove Andsnes’ twins.

I am glad to report that the twins are doing well and we now have volume two of Andsnes Beethoven Journey.

The Allegro con brio of Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.2 in B flat major, Op.19 opens with some lovely neat, crisp playing from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. There is a tautness as they negotiate every corner with precision, though I couldn’t help feeling that they seem freer in their playing than in volume one. There are some lovely, crisp woodwind punctuations and, when Andsnes enters there is a lovely forward flow with so many lovely little details. Just as in his performance of the C major concerto there is a distinctively Mozartian feel. This pianist also conveys the feel of an adventure as he leads us through Beethoven’s creation. There are lovely light, delicate phrases but, for all the thoughtful touches, the music is never allowed to drag. In fact quite the opposite as Andsnes really rolls the music forward at times. The cadenza (Beethoven) is a marvel in itself with Andsnes revealing all the various layers of musical thread.

There are fine sonorities from the orchestra in the opening the Adagio and, when Andsnes enters, there is a feeling of subdued tension –with soloist and orchestra having a chamber like precision. I love the way Andsnes handles the tempo –at ease certainly but without losing forward momentum. This artist finds so many little nuances and details, with a gorgeously played coda.

The Rondo. Molto allegro dances forward full of energy, with Andsnes’ playing so fleet and buoyant, the perfect foil for the concentrated Adagio. The little conversations between piano and orchestra as the movement progresses are superb and there are some exquisite touches in the coda.

Too much has been written about the alleged extra musical ideas behind Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.4 in G major, Op. 58. Andsnes avoids over emphasising the drama, particularly in the middle, Andante con moto, movement. There is a perfectly judged opening for piano in the Allegro moderato to which the orchestra responds so well. The tension subtly increases in the orchestra with many little inflections before Andsnes enters again, beautifully paced, with a lovely ebb and flow. This is such thoughtful playing yet often a gently unstoppable flow. There are some exquisite slower, quieter passages and a real sense of re-discovery with nothing taken for granted. Andsnes has a superb touch, bringing out so many colours and nuances. Occasionally a sense of playfulness emerges in his playing. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra is on top form and, as Andsnes builds the drama in the piano part, they add to the emotional pull with playing of subtle tension. The cadenza is pushed along at a good pace with such fine poetic slower moments that seem so right – Beethoven at his best. Andsnes’ playing is full of fluency and, towards the coda, a feeling of freedom and spontaneity.

In the Andante con moto Andsnes draws more, taut phrasing from the orchestra to complement the more flowing piano part. Nowhere does Andsnes overdo the drama. This is no Orpheus taming the beasts but something far more subtle, with an occasional sense of darkness.

There is a chamber like tautness to the Rondo. Vivace with Andsnes then hurtling ahead with some terrific playing. Both pianist and orchestra follow every little shading and tempo change. At times there is a great rhythmic pull with some terrific dynamics from the orchestra. Again it is the sense of new discovery draws the listener. Andsnes takes a taut, steady lead up to the coda that, nevertheless, is not lacking in fire and drama.

This is a really distinctive fourth with so many aspects of Beethoven’s genius revealed for us to hear.

Andsnes’ approach, that of living with these works and taking them into concert before recording them appears to be paying huge dividends, with this pianist giving us wonderful insights into these ever fascinating works.

This cycle is set to be a top contender with the first two volumes deserving a place on every music lover’s shelf. With excellent recording and informative notes, including a short note from the soloist, this new release is hugely recommendable.

I look forward to the final instalment of this concerto cycle with great anticipation and, of course, send good wishes to his new family members.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra are terrific advocates of works by Flint Juventino Beppe that are full of subtle, distinctive ideas

Flint Juventino Beppe (formerly known as Fred Jonny Berg) started creating music in his childhood with songs, instrumental works, electronic music and orchestral works. Having no political preferences, Beppe has nevertheless always felt powerful liberalistic undertones valuing an individual freedom that permeates all his art, dreaming of a world without religions and violating politics.

To date, Beppe's catalogue of compositions numbers around 200 works, many of which are commissions, and include works for piano, flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, double bass, string orchestra and orchestral works, including flute concertos, piano concertos and symphonic poems. Beppe has also written ballet music, electro acoustic works, film soundtracks and songs.

Beppe's works have been performed around the world including the USA (The Kennedy Center), Russia, England (St. John's, Smith Square), Finland and Japan. He has collaborated with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, Emily Beynon, Mark van de Wiel, Sir James Galway, Ralph Rousseau, Leonard Slatkin and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Beppe is also a scriptwriter, director and producer for an on-going art film production labelled Symbiophonies™. Flint Juventino Beppe works are published by The FJB Fingerprint™.

Flute Mystery (2L), featuring Vladimir Ashkenazy  and the composer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra , was Grammy nominated in 2010 but thoroughly deserves a belated review on this blog.

SACD and Blu-Ray Disc

Flute Mystery, Op. 66b features that fine flautist, Emily Beynon together with the equally fine harpist Catherine Beynon  and opens with a plaintive melody for flute and harp before the orchestra arrives to give a lightly rhythmic support. As the music broadens there is still an underlying pulse in the orchestra with some lovely little details for flute and harp as well as some lovely sweeps of orchestral sound that Beppe subtly varies to great effect. There is a gently glowing middle section that holds the music in a kind of shimmering stasis before the music picks up and rushes forward. There is some particularly fine articulation from Emily Beynon in the joyful flute part before the music quietens with some lovely harmonic shifts in the strings as the flute gently leads the music forward, joined by the harp, before a final section that heralds a soft gentle coda.

Whilst this is instantly attractive, melodic music, if one looks under the surface one finds so much more. There are many attractive depths to this atmospheric music.

The Beynons are excellent as is the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Flint Juventino Beppe conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in the next three works. Timpani open the Warning Zero, Op.54b before brass and woodwind enter with very much the sound of a wind band. A side drum adds a warning sound as the music slowly increases in dynamics in a kind of loose march rhythm. Soon there is a sudden break when a second subject appears leading to a less intense theme that, nevertheless rises in drama. As the music grows increasingly dramatic a battery of drums adds to the dynamics in a section where I was reminded of the Icelandic composer Jon Leifs. Later a jollier, lighter orchestral section arrives with the wind section still featuring heavily. There are many attractive, individual ideas not least when the saxophone enters. Towards the end the music builds massively with that barrage of drums leading to a stunning coda.

I doubt that any listener will not find this an attractive and ear catching piece, full of interest and drama.

The opening of Pastorale, Op.32 No.1 has a warmth to it with a trumpet adding an attractive, almost Mediterranean dissonant harmony. There is a great breadth and openness, very much giving an outdoors feel to the music.

Vicino alla Montagna, Op.58b opens with the orchestra in full flow, in this terrifically well orchestrated work, taking its sweeping theme and adding so many variations and detailed touches. When the happy, rhythmic second subject appears it features a terrific, jazzy clarinet theme later shared by other woodwind. After increasing in tempo the music slows with a trumpet playing the theme which is taken up by flute before rising through the orchestra with increasing power and drama to a decisive coda.

There is no doubt that Beppe really knows how to use an orchestra. This is a terrific piece that shows so much of Beppe’s fine orchestration as well as his inventive ideas.

The final work on this disc is the Flute Concerto No.1, Op.70 again featuring flautist, Emily Beynon with Vladimir Ashkenazy returning to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra. The first movement, Memento, opens in the depths of the orchestra before quickly rising up. The flute enters with little trills with the orchestra leading forward in a really lovely melody in which the flute joins. There are exquisite hushed strings with harp before the flute and orchestra take the melody gently forward. When the second subject appears, heralded by a trumpet, there is a slightly anxious feel. There are some lovely textures from Emily Beynon as the music increases in drama and passion before the quieter coda that runs into the second movement.

The solo flute takes up the opening of Reminiscence, weaving lovely sounds in the attractive little theme. The orchestra joins, quietly with the flute rising over it in what is, by any standards, a beautiful melody. The orchestra plays a repeated, often dramatic, tremolo passage before the flute re-joins with the melody, the strings eventually returning with the tremolo chords.

Rushing strings open Obituary before the flute arrives with a chirpy little theme that competes with the strings. Soon the flute plays the theme with hushed orchestra but becomes more agitated towards the end.

Awakening brings a hushed opening for orchestra creating the feel of a veiled northern landscape. A bell chimes before the flute enters, tentatively, with little fluttering phrases, creating a gorgeous texture. The music rises up to a peak before quietening with the flute playing against a more dramatic orchestra. Emily Beynon provides lovely textures and colours here. A melancholic orchestral melody leads on with the flute providing more lovely textures as the music falls into quiet.

Again, Ashkenazy is a terrific advocate of this music, drawing out so many of the fine features of this concerto.

There is no doubt that Beppe is a fine composer and brilliant orchestrator, full of subtle, distinctive ideas.

These are superb recordings issued in a two disc set that gives the choice of CD/SACD or Blue ray-disc. The booklet is excellent, with many illustrations including colour plans of the orchestral layout and informative notes.

The sequel Remote Galaxy (2L), which I hope to review soon, features conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emily Beynon, Mark van de Wiel, Ralph Rousseau and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Extremely fine performances of works for two pianos and percussion by Hungarian composer, Peter Eötvös, from the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo, Schlagquartett Koln and Paulo Alvares on a new release from Wergo

The Hungarian composer, conductor and teacher Peter Eötvös was born in Transylvania in 1944. He studied composition at the Budapest Academy of Music and conducting at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. Between 1968 and 1976 he performed regularly with the Stockhausen Ensemble and, from 1971 to 1979, he collaborated with the electronic music studio of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne. In 1978, at the invitation of Pierre Boulez, he conducted the inaugural concert of IRCAM in Paris, and was subsequently named musical director of the Ensemble InterContemporain, a post he held until 1991.

From 1985-1988 he was Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and has held posts with numerous orchestras such as the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the National Philharmonic Orchestra (Budapest), the Radio Chamber Orchestra of Hilversum, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Radio Symphony Orchestra in Vienna. He has also worked with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonia, Wiener Philharmoniker, Cleveland Orchestra and NHK Orchestra Tokyo.

He has long been considered one of the most significant and influential personalities on the music scene as both an internationally recognized conductor and a composer of successful operas, orchestral works and concertos, written for well-known artists from all over the world.

He has taught at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne and Karlsruhe and gives regular master classes and seminars throughout Europe. He established his International Eötvös Institute in 1991 and the Eötvös Contemporary Music Foundation in 2004 in Budapest for young composers and conductors.

Wergo  have just released recordings of three important works by Eötvös, Sonata per Sei, Psalm 151 and Kosmos. These works that date from as early as 1961 through to 2006 give an excellent cross section of his work.

WER 6784 2

The GrauSchumacher Piano Duo (Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher) are joined by the members of the Schlagquartett Koln  and Paulo Alvares (Sampler-Keyboard)  for Sonata per sei for two pianos, three percussionists and sampler keyboard (2006). Eötvös has twice re-arranged an earlier piano concerto written for the 125th anniversary of Bela Bartok’s birth in 2006, once as a concerto for two pianos and orchestra and in the present form of a Sonata per sei (for six – players). The sampler keyboard not only extends the sounds of the pianos and percussion but alters these sounds.
The first movement is marked Crotchet = 86 where drums open in a light, rhythmically varying motif before the pianos enter in a rising theme. Other percussion instruments sound in the background as the sampler keyboard gives a broader texture to the sound. The music increases in tempo with the pianos augmented by the harmonies of the sampler keyboard. The piano parts become more complex with, eventually, some rather Bartókian intervals before the drums lead to a slowing of the tempo.

The second movement, Minim = 69, brings a rapid rising and falling motif for the pianos open broken up by sudden rhythmic changes. Suddenly percussion and sampler keyboard enter as the tempo re-gains its momentum reaching a momentary climax before slowing, with a variety of percussion sounds that perfectly compliment the piano parts. A unison motif for pianos appears very reminiscent of Bartók before speeding on with the sampler keyboard adding a depth and texture, as do the multitude of percussion effects.

The marking Minim = 69 brings the third movement where strident pianos are crossed by sudden shafts of sound from the sampler keyboard. There are passages where there is some terrific interplay between the two pianos. The music slows towards the end, with the return of shafts of sound from the sampler keyboard.

The fourth movement, Bartók überquert den Ozean, brings a gentle piano opening with occasional sharper, percussive notes, deep bass sounds from the drums as well as depth added by the sampler keyboard. As the music moves forward, the sampler keyboard becomes increasingly dominant in a strangely intoxicating, dissonant passage. The music falls to a hushed passage for sampler keyboard before the pianos enter in sultry phrases pointed up by percussion and overlaid by the sampler keyboard. An insistent climax is eventually reached before quietening to lead to the end. This is a particularly engrossing movement that draws one in.

The sonata ends with Crotchet = 112. The pianos open this final movement with a very jazzy theme that leaps around, with drums and other percussion accompanying. There are sudden inputs for the sampler keyboard that helps drive this music on with the pace never letting up right until the end.

Regardless of the occasional debt to Bartok, this is highly original music that is often wild and remarkably intoxicating. One cannot help being drawn along by the underlying momentum or, indeed, the often magical atmosphere that is conjured up.

Eötvös’ Psalm 151 in memoriam Frank Zappa for four percussionists (1993) can actually be played by one or four percussionists. Its structure is an invocation followed by alternating verses or refrains which the composer calls ‘a ritual.’ It arose out of Eötvös’ grief and anger following the death of Frank Zappa (1940-1993), a composer he greatly admired. The instruments, seven tubular bells, two plate bells and two nipple gongs are laid out in a circle with a large drum in the middle. The percussionist plays the verses on the large drum using a variety of techniques including fingernails, mallets, sticks, wooden switches or brushes. For the refrain the percussionist goes around the circle playing, always in the same sequence, tubular bells, plate bells and nipple gongs.

Gongs open Psalm 151 before the central drum produces beats and switching noises. Tubular bells chime and gongs reply before the large drum beats a rhythm that varies in tempo and rhythm as though communicating with the other instruments. Gongs and bells chime, the combination of sounds providing an attractive harmony of sounds that rises and falls, speeds and slows. Eötvös creates a wide variety of textures, timbres and colours here as he varies the percussion instruments and the way that they are played. When the drum enters again it provides unusual pulsating sounds before a tribal beat appears, the pulsating sounds still occurring. When the bells and gongs return, slowly at first, they again provide a variety of sounds. When the large drum re-appears half way through, it is more violently yet still with some unusual sounds that always hold the ear. The drum slowly quietens before tinkling bells and gongs appear, growing more decisive with much more of their decaying resonance allowed to sound. The large drum enters again, often quite violently and accompanied by the tinkling, rattling sounds of the percussion. Towards the end tinkling bells and gongs re-appear gently then more stridently, with a variety of playing techniques before the large drum enters leading quietly to the coda.

Such is the variety of instruments and techniques used the composer always keeps the interest of the listener particularly in a performance as fine as this from the Schlagquartett Koln.

Kosmos for two pianos (1961 rev. 1999) took its name from Bartok’s large piano cycle Mikrokosmos. It is the first of Eötvös’ works to reveal his love of Bartok’s music. Also reflected in this work is the pioneering space flight by Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin that took place that year.

Kosmos brings a percussive outburst as the pianos open with an insistent motif, a rapidly repeated chord, before quietening to allow one piano to reveal a little rising motif. Soon the pianos sound out an irregular rhythmic idea, but soon revert to the opening motif before combining both motifs. The music falls to a quiet passage where the themes are gently worked over before becoming more dynamic in playing of some strength. After fading into silence the music quietly appears again but halts before a gentler theme is played in an exquisite moment. As the music rises up becoming louder, the influence of Bartók can be heard. There is a rising and falling motif for both pianos, often descending into the bass and little scattered phrases that re-appear. All the time, one is aware, often unconsciously, of a structure clearly holding this seemingly fragmented music together. Eventually a repeated figure, reminiscent of the opening chords, is developed on both pianos with occasional outbursts on the upper keyboard as the music becomes increasingly agitated. A swirling motif is heard, and then a little tune tries to appear but fades to nothing before the pianos pick out a theme, gently and quietly, then more quickly. There is some lovely interplay between these two pianists creating a fine texture. The music becomes increasingly hushed before the pianos bring back a gentle version of the repeated chord from the opening in a satisfying coda that concludes on just two notes.

This is a distinctive work that shows how Bartok’s percussive piano style can be developed further, though in a thoroughly individual way.

These pianists do a terrific job drawing out all the subtleties and colours in extremely fine performances of this extraordinary work. The recordings made between 2002 and 2010 are first class and there are excellent booklet notes.