Friday, 2 December 2016

A wonderful opportunity to hear what the very first Festival Service of Nine Lessons and Carols might have sounded like from the Choir of Truro Cathedral under their Director, Christopher Gray on a highly recommended release from Regent

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is the Christmas Eve service held in King's College Chapel, Cambridge. The Festival was introduced in 1918 to bring a more imaginative approach to worship. It was first broadcast in 1928 and is now broadcast to millions of people around the world.

However, the origins of the Festival Service date back to 1880. The Diocese of Truro and the Isles of Scilly was formed on 15 December 1876 from the Archdeaconry of Cornwall in the Diocese of Exeter. The first bishop of this new diocese was Edward White Benson (1829-1896), later to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1878 the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that the choir of Truro Cathedral would sing a service of carols at 10.00 pm on Christmas Eve. Two years later, Bishop Benson devised a service with Nine Lessons for use on Christmas Eve 1880. This first service took place at 10.00 pm on Christmas Eve in a temporary wooden structure serving as the cathedral whilst a new cathedral was being built. Over 400 people attended this first service.

A new release from Regent Records brings together on CD and DVD a reconstruction of that first Festival Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, a documentary on its history and a recording of the 2014 service in Truro Cathedral.

Audio CD (59.23)
and DVD 5.0 and stereo (112'13)

The DVD starts with a recording of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Truro Cathedral on 23rd December 2014. This recording is impressive both sonically and visually. A very fine treble solo opens Once in Royal David’s City, an effect borrowed from King’s College’s own idea in later years. There is some impressive singing from the Choir of Truro Cathedral  under their Director of Music, Christopher Gray . The chosen readers reflect a more modern inclusiveness ranging from representatives of community organisations to clergy.

There is some impressive treble descant singing that rises over the choir and congregation as well as some very fine individual voices. There are many of the popular carols one would expect as well as the premiere of a new carol by Russell Pascoe, The Salutation Carol, which receives a particularly fine performance in every way.

The final carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, is as thrilling as any you will hear and the Festival concludes with a thrilling, incredibly fluent Toccata on Vom Himmel hoch by Garth Emundson played by Truro’s Assistant Director of Music, Luke Bond

A documentary about the history of the Service in Truro follows. Presented by conductor Jeremy Summerly, it is a wonderful and fascinating history of the Festival Service of Nine Lessons and Carols as well as Truro Cathedral – and much more.

A great deal of research has gone into both the documentary and the reconstruction of the First Festival Service. We are taken through the story of the 19th century carol revival, Bishop Benson’s new carol service and the reconstruction of the first Festival with all the research into the music as well as mentioning the Father Willis organ that came later in 1887 when the organist was George Robertson Sinclair who later found fame as ‘G.R.S’ in Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

The documentary follows the travel of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols via Canterbury, when Benson became Archbishop and then to Kings College in 1918 where its poignancy was felt after the appalling tragedy of the First World War. We are given a glimpse of all the care and thought that goes into the modern Festival Service in Truro that takes place each year on two nights, the 23rd and 24th of December.

Finally there is Truro Perspectives where three former Directors of Music, David Briggs, Andrew Nethsingha, and Robert Sharpe talk about their time at Truro Cathedral and the development of the choir in more recent years.

The CD brings us the reconstruction of the very first Festival Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1880 where we are transported back 136 years. The Service opens with a spoken Our Father and responses; the First Lesson read by Senior Chorister, James Lansdowne. Each reading is preceded by a brief Benediction and the readers are chosen, as did Bishop Benson, in hierarchical order from the most junior to most senior, originally the Bishop but here the Dean.

In the first carol, The Lord at first had Adam made, shows this choir’s fine blend of voices and there are nice touches where the reading reflects the following carol.

There are three pieces from Handel’s Messiah as well as favourite carols that are heard today before a terrific Hallelujah from Messiah leads to the Magnificat given in Anglican chant. After the blessing there is a fine voluntary, the first movement form Mendelssohn’s Sonata No.3 in A major from organist Luke Bond. 

Beautifully produced with a facsimile of the 1880 Nine Lessons and Carols order of service, this is a wonderful opportunity to hear what the very first Festival Service might have sounded like.  Truro should be proud of their history, tradition, choir and cathedral. Highly recommended. 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Praga Digital’s new release Shostakovich plays Shostakovich is an absolute gold mine of Shostakovich performances, remarkably well re-mastered and quite irresistible

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was first taught piano by his mother before entering the Leningrad Conservatory at the age of just 13. He soon became a very good pianist, improvising as well as playing at family gatherings. After the death of his father, he played in cinemas in order to supplement the family’s income.

From 1923 Shostakovich started to perform in public, playing his own works and those of the classical and romantic era. With ideas of becoming a concert pianist he was chosen to be one of the Soviet team to take part in the 1927 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Despite much preparation Shostakovich was not awarded a prize. The result was that Shostakovich lost his desire to become a concert pianist, concentrating instead on composition.

Nevertheless, Shostakovich continued to perform his own works until ill health prevented this. His last concert was in Gorky on 23rd February 1964 at a festival of his music arranged by the great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich and Boris Guzman, conductor of the Gorky Philharmonic Orchestra.

There have been a number of recordings of Shostakovich playing his own works particularly his Preludes and Fugues Op.87. New to me are the broadcast recordings dating from 1955 and 1957 just issued by Praga Digitals on 2 CDs, re-mastered and edited, of Shostakovich playing both of his Piano Concertos along with From Jewish Folk Poetry and his Piano Quintet and Cello Sonata as well as some Preludes and Fugues.

PRD 250 365.66

There are many fine moments in the song cycle for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and piano, From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op.79 (1949) that opens the first CD. The composer brings a haunting quality to much of the Lament for a Dead Child with the soloists drawing out some disturbing harmonies, each individually very fine. The Thoughtful Mother and Aunt is rhythmically pointed with the composer finding a natural simplicity to which the soloists add a terrific character. Later there are moments of terrific passion in Before a long separation, pianist and soloists bringing a real emotional pull, finding so many subtleties. The composer adds a special touch to Song of Hardship, a real vibrancy.

The 1955 recording is remarkably good with much depth.

Shostakovich is soloist in his Piano Concerto No.2 in F major, Op.102 (1957) with Alexander Gauk and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, an irresistible partnership. The composer keeps a fast tempo to drive the music forward in the Allegro, a real urgency, full of verve. There is an Andante that really delivers on poetry and poise, never sentimental, allowing the music to keep a forward push, beautiful in its directness. Finally there is a rollicking Allegro showing the composer to be a formidable pianist. Gauk provides a phenomenal accompaniment in one of the liveliest and most impressive performances on record.

The recording is sometimes a little thin but is nevertheless impressive for a 1957 radio broadcast.

Shostakovich here provides a spontaneity in the Allegretto of his Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, Op.35 (1933) that doesn’t often appear on other recordings. There is a certain wildness, aided and abetted by a fine trumpeter in Josif Volovmk who brings a very Russian vibrato. The Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Samuil Samosud. Again in the Lento – attacca the composer brings much poetry through a directness of approach, slowly and impressively building the movement through some intensely dramatic bars with Volovmk’s trumpet adding much of a lament. After an often dark and dramatic Moderato – attacca, they spring into a light and fleet Allegro con brio with more scintillating playing from Shostakovich and, indeed, from Volovmk and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. All seem to be enjoying this rather burlesque finale immensely.

The recording here is most definitely thinner and reverberant but still more than acceptable. There is some audible audience noise.  

Father and son, Dmitri and the 15 year old student Maxim join forces for the Concertino for Two Pianos in A minor, Op. 94 (1954) with a quite lovely Adagio, beautifully paced, before a wonderfully fleet Allegretto. Both pianists provide some impressive playing, though one can hear the elder musician providing some of the most fluent and expansive, indeed virtuosic passages. This is a rarity in more ways than one and with a very good recording made in 1957 at the Moscow Conservatory whilst Maxim was still a student at the Central Music School.

To have the composer with the Beethoven Quartet playing the Piano Quintet in G major, Op.57 (1940) that opens Disc: 2 is quite special. Remarkably well recorded live in 1957 they bring a wonderful authenticity, a real depth and character to the Prelude: Lento. In the Fugue: Adagio they achieve moments of heart rending emotion. The Scherzo: Allegretto brings some stunningly intense, vibrant playing before an Intermezzo: Lento that has an inevitable forward movement, often touched with intense grief. They run gently into the Finale: Allegretto before gaining in urgency only to find the opening flow to run to the coda. This is a quite wonderful performance.

It is a great artist and friend who joins Shostakovich in the Cello Sonata in D minor, Op.40 (1934), Mstislav Rostropovich. Here we have another remarkably vivid recording made live on the same day as the Quintet. Both find an intuitive response in the Moderato, Rostropovich extracting a quite wonderful emotional pull, both bringing a natural freedom and spontaneity. They are quite stunning in the Moderato con moto driving this music forward through some intensely played bars.

Rostropovich builds a tremendous Largo, extracting so much intense feeling, with a terrific tone right across the spectrum, Shostakovich responding with an equal intensity. The composer brings a lovely light touch to the Allegretto to which the cellist responds with a terrific flair as the music soon hurtles ahead. Here are two of the finest figures from 20th century music bringing such panache and virtuosity.

Violinist, Dmitri Tsyganov arranged Shostakovich’s piano Preludes, Op.34 for violin and piano and here plays four of them with the composer, recorded in 1957. They are fascinating arrangements opening with No. 10 in C sharp minor where Tsyganov brings exquisite delicacy, timbres and textures with the composer adding a wonderfully subtle accompaniment. Both bring a fine vibrancy to No. 16 in B flat minor with wonderfully controlled dynamics. No. 15 in D-flat major finds Shostakovich taking a terrific piano line around the violin before No. 24 in D minor has a fine rhythmic phrasing, full of wit and sparkle.

It is good to have three of the Preludes and Fugues, Op.87 (1950-1) in such clear recordings with a great presence. The composer brings a wonderful sense of gentle nostalgia to the Prelude of No. 5 in D major, quite wonderful before rising in the Fugue through passages of fast moving fugal writing with a real freedom and spontaneity.  He brings such breadth and thoughtfulness in the Prelude of No. 23 in F major, running through an absolutely terrific Fugue, so gentle and poised yet with an underlying forward drive. No. 3 in G major brings great authority and strength in the Prelude before skipping with such ease and delight into the Fugue where he shows exceptional phrasing and control of individual lines. Absolutely terrific. 

This new release is an absolute gold mine of Shostakovich performances, remarkably well re-mastered and quite irresistible. It is not clear from the booklet if these are stereo recordings. The cover of the booklet has the banner ‘Genuine Stereo Lab’ suggesting that they are. They certainly have a depth and breadth that sounds to me like stereo. There are useful booklet notes but no texts for the Op.79 song cycle.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

An exceptionally fine disc in every way from Ensemble Gilles Binchois, setting Heinrich Isaac’s Missa Virgo Prudentissima within an imagined Florentine celebration on a new release from Evidence Classics

Next year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the composer, Heinrich Isaac (c.1450-1517). Though born in Flanders he travelled south, through Innsbruck, to Italy where he served the Medicis in Florence. He sang in the cathedral and is thought to have taught the children of Lorenzo de' Medici ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’ (1449-1492). Later he worked in Vienna, Torgau and Konstanz, becoming court composer to the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian 1 (1459-1519).

From 1514 he was in Florence where he held both a Medici pension and a diplomatic post under Maximilian. His compositions include a large number of Mass settings as well as motets and secular songs.

Evidence Classics have just released a new recording with Ensemble Gilles Binchois directed by Dominique Vellard of Heinrich Isaac’s six voice Missa Virgo Prudentissima.  


The programme of this recording imagines a Florentine celebration, possibly during a visit of Pope Leo X, with Isaac’s Mass Ordinary integrated with plainchant used at the Florentine cathedral where Isaac worked as a singer. At either end there is a motet from Isaac’s posthumous collection of Mass Propers, the Choralis constantinus.

Female voices introduce the Introit for the Assumption, Gaudeamus omnes in domino soon joined by the rest of Ensemble Gilles Binchois in this mellifluous, beautifully harmonised piece. This choir providing some really lovely textures and sonorities, beautifully shaped. A fine solo tenor voice chants Exaltata es sancta Dei genitrix before a quite beautiful overlay of Virgo prudentissima over the text of the Introit.

This choir bring so much to the Plainchant Introït: Salve sancta parens with a finely chosen use of individual voices and various parts of the choir. They bring a real strength and impact. This is impressively sung plainchant with some terrific harmonies.

Female voices open the Kyrie of Missa Virgo Prudentissima before it is beautifully woven throughout the choir, so distinctive. Again the use of sections of the choir is wonderfully done, blending and weaving the most wonderful harmonies.
The Gloria develops and blossoms through some quite lovely harmonies and textures to a lovely conclusion. The purity of individual voices is very fine.  
There is a Plainchant Graduel: Benedicta et venerabilis es where the male voices of the choir bring a lovely directness with, centrally, a solo tenor voice adding an extra passion. Female voices bring the Plainchant: Alleluia. Post partum, quite exquisitely done as they weave the musical lines, with lovely phrasing and pacing.

Male voices return for the Plainchant: Alleluia virga Jesse with further very fine solo voices adding to the variety before male voices of the choir lead to the conclusion. A solo tenor delivers the brief plainchant Plainchant Lecture: Sequentia Sancti Evangelii Secundum Lucam

The Credo of Missa Virgo Prudentissima rises through the various sections of the choir, slowly adding sonorities and textures with this choir finding a lovely rubato, a freedom that achieves a natural spontaneity.  There are some very fine individual vocal contributions with the music developing through some terrific passages, full of the most beautiful harmonies, rich in texture.

Male voices of the choir bring the Plainchant Offertoire: Ave Maria weaving some very fine lines, wonderfully phrased before a lone tenor provides a firm and beautifully clear Plainchant: Preface.

Female and male voices weave around each other in a terrific Sanctus from the Missa Virgo Prudentissima, developing some lovely harmonies and textures with, again, the choir bringing particularly lovely contributions from various sections of the choir. They weave a lovely tapestry of choral sound, constantly shifting textures and harmonies with some especially lovely rich tones in the Benedictus.
In the Agnus Dei of Missa Virgo Prudentissima Ensemble Gilles Binchois achieve a particularly fine quality, gently flowing, full of the most wonderful textures and sonorities as it unfolds and with a very fine section for female voices mid-way.
This celebration concludes with the Communion Plainchant et polyphonie à quatre voix: Beata Viscera before soon expanding beautifully through the finest polyphony. Later a tenor brings back the plainchant to which the choir join before rising in a quite beautiful polyphonic conclusion. 

This is an exceptionally fine disc in every way, vividly recorded at Couvent Saint Marc à Gueberschwihr, France. There are useful booklet notes together with full Latin texts and French and English translations.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Benjamin Schmid with the Oulu Symphony Orchestra under Johannes Gustavsson provide first rate performances of two very fine violin concertos by Finnish composers, Einar Englund and Uuno Klami on a new release from Ondine

A new release from Ondine  brings together the violin concertos of two important Finnish composers, Einar Englund and Uuno Klami with violinist Benjamin Schmid and the Oulu Symphony Orchestra conducted by their chief conductor, Johannes Gustavsson .

Einar Englund (1916-1999) studied with Selim Palmgren (1878-1951) and Bengt Carlsson (1890-1953) at the Helsinki Academy and with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. He also spent some time studying in Russia where he was influenced by Prokofiev and Shostakovich. His compositions range across ballet, orchestral works of which his seven symphonies have been recorded by Ondine, concertos, chamber music, piano works and film scores.

Uuno Klami (1900-1961) studied with Erkki Melartin (1875-1937) at the Helsinki College of Music, with Ravel in Paris and with Arthur Willner (1881-1959) in Vienna. His compositions include vocal and choral as well as orchestral works including two symphonies, a number of orchestral suites, two piano concertos and the violin concerto heard here.

ODE 1278-2

Einar Englund (1916-1999) wrote his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1981) in response to a commission from the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras. Much of its composition was undertaken at Ljugarn on the island of Gotland during the summer of 1981 where the peaceful environment greatly influenced the concerto.

The opening Allegro moderato rises suddenly in the orchestra with a bright and spacious theme before the soloist enters bringing chords that are full of fine textures. The music soon picks up a rhythm as it is developed by the soloist, moving forward in the orchestra, pointed up by timpani. A slower, quieter episode arrives where the celeste is heard, the soloist joining in a gentle, rather mournful theme. Benjamin Schmid and conductor, Johannes Gustavsson never allow the music to flag, pushing forward through some beautifully orchestrated passages. The rhythmic quality occasionally re-appears as soloist and orchestra weave the theme through a fine tapestry of ideas, later increasing in drama and passion before the soloist brings some beautiful textures over a quietly held orchestral line in the lower strings. This leads to a cadenza when the soloist slowly works over the material, this soloist finding many subtleties.  The orchestra take over alone with a hushed, quite beautiful passage to which the soloist adds the most exquisite ideas. The woodwind join before the music rises through a more dynamic passage only to quieten and slow through before a gentle coda.

The orchestra introduce a spirited Moderato theme that reveals an underlying sadness as it falls back. There is a combined tension and thoughtfulness as the soloist quietly enters to develop the theme over a hushed orchestral backdrop, working through a long breathed stream of development, much in the vein of a passacaglia, with woodwind adding some atmospheric touches. A little rhythmic motif in the orchestra adds to the tension before soloist and orchestra rise in passion, weaving some impressive passages for soloist and orchestra. Later the music lightens but soon finds its more sombre nature.  A rather magical hushed line for the soloist appears over a quiet orchestra to bring about the coda.  

The Finale: Allegro molto bursts out in the orchestra with the soloist quickly joining in the lively theme. The theme is soon shared by brilliant woodwind, orchestra and soloist pushing ahead through vibrant bars, shedding the atmosphere of the moderato. Later a cadenza suddenly arrives with the soloist bringing some terrific textures and harmonies before the orchestra returns to drive the music to a vibrant coda.

The original version of Uuno Klami’s (1900-1961) Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1943/1954) was written during the Second World War and premiered at a concert of the composer’s compositions in Helsinki in the October of 1943. Perhaps his most well-known work, the Kalevala Suite was performed at the same concert, though this work too had been subjected to revision as well as a new scherzo.

The Allegro molto moderato of the violin concerto opens in the orchestra with a pensive theme to which the soloist soon adds anxious chords. The music pushes ahead with a rather laboured effect before suddenly finding a forward flow. The soloist soon provides some fast and furious passages before slowing again to the rather laboured idea. It soon flourishes ahead as the soloist rhapsodises over the orchestra. An oboe and strings take the theme, bringing a more romantic feel with the soloist weaving around the oboe and orchestra, spinning some exquisite moments. Midway there is a more dynamic passage, with a rhythmic pulse before the soloist adds some faster passages over a more static orchestra. The more romantic, nostalgic idea returns with the soloist flowing around a weightier orchestra where the brass are heard before finding more energy to lead to a rhythmic passage for soloist and orchestra. Towards the end the soloist and woodwind speed in a fast, light section to a fleet coda.

Woodwind bring a gentle, light textured opening to the Adagio ma non troppo soon taken by the strings. A harp adds a hushed, delicate, rhythmic pulse before the soloist enters with a lovely melody that is shadowed by the orchestra. This is a quite wonderful section with the soloist slowly adding textures and sonorities as the melody expands and develops. This soloist develops and shapes the solo part wonderfully, soon finding an achingly poignant edge. The music alternates with a rhythmic idea with both soloist and orchestra finding some lovely harmonies and textures. Later there is a particularly lovely moment when the soloist rises above the horns, full of the most beautiful ideas before finding an exquisite coda.

The orchestra bring a riotous opening with brass to the Allegro giocoso before the violin enters developing the lively, repeated theme. There is a fine dialogue between muted brass and the solo violin before finding a real light-hearted buoyant, forward drive. Benjamin Schmid adds some terrific flourishes, finding a rhythmic buoyancy, through some rather original ideas as woodwind, soloist and strings develop the theme. The brass eventually re-introduce the riotous idea from the opening before the music heads to a light-hearted, buoyant coda.  

Benjamin Schmid with the Oulu Symphony Orchestra under Johannes Gustavsson provide first rate performances of these two very fine concertos. I found the Klami concerto to be a particularly attractive work. They receive an excellent recording made at the Madetoja Hall, Oulu, Finland and there are excellent booklet notes. 

Monday, 21 November 2016

Carol Leone uses three Donison-Steinbuhler Standard keyboards for her recital on MSR Classics entitled Change of Keys – One Piano, Three Keyboards creating a disc that is fascinating and a particularly fine recital in its own right

It has been suggested that the size of Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) slender hands and their huge span were due to a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome . However, the composer, Arnold Bax (1883-1953) had to make cuts to his Symphonic Variations due to the fact that the pianist Harriet Cohen could not manage more than an octave in each hand. Therein lies the basic problem of the standard piano keyboard - one size needs to fit all.

Looking to address this problem, a chance meeting between the owner of a family textile business, David Steinbuhler and the music director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Christopher Donison in 1991 led to the manufacture of the 7/8 size Donison-Steinbuhler Standard keyboard.

During this meeting Donison had shown Steinbuhler the 7/8 keyboard he had installed in his concert grand piano with an octave equal to a 7th on the conventional keyboard. While studying music at the University of Victoria he had realized that his small hand size was preventing him from mastering much of the great piano repertoire which had led him, in the late 1970s, to have the keyboard built. Donison explained how a whole new world had been opened to him when he first got the keyboard and that this had inspired the concept of creating a second standard. 

Steinbuhler had been developing products in his family owned textile business so told Donison that he would try to build small keyboards with the idea of calling the new proposed keyboard size the Donison-Steinbuhler Standard. Hence the DS Standard® was born.   

With no preconceived ideas about how to build keyboards, Steinbuhler started tinkering and by the summer of 1994, using a computer driven router, he and a co-worker built the first keyboard which they installed in Steinbuhler’s mother’s Steinway upright. Linda Gould, an acquaintance of Donison’s, flew from Victoria, British Columbia to try it. She had given up her dream of becoming a concert artist because of the pain she had experienced when playing. Her first reaction on trying the new keyboard was how easy it was to play.

Using a grant, Donison and Steinbuhler provided five universities with keyboards, receiving much media attention. They also added a size in the middle, the Universal, which they called a 15/16 keyboard. At an early stage a keyboard made for a Steinway C was rejected by a prestigious piano rebuilder in New York City on the grounds that it was not suitable for professional use due to the springy nature of the highly angled keys in the bass section. This led to the development of techniques to measure key strength and the brace which proved to completely eliminate the problem.

Of course there was much more development particularly after displaying their work at Piano Technician Guild conventions where they received valuable scrutiny, feedback and training. Several sized Steinway B keyboards were made right down to a very small one with an overall width of 38 inches, demonstrating that very small keyboards can be built that do not suffer from any loss of power, touch, or response.

This work eventually allowed them to establish a keyboard size suitable for small children called the DS5.1™ and, lastly, designating the size for the conventional keyboard as DS6.5™ they had four sizes which taken together now constitutes The Donison-Steinbuhler Standard or the DS Standard® .

More can be read about the DS Standard® keyboards by visiting their website to which I am grateful for the information given in this review.

So how do these new keyboards sound? Pianist Carol Leone  has made a recording entitled Change of Keys – One Piano, Three Keyboards for MSR Classics  taking us on a journey from Haydn to Bartók through three keyboards on one Steinway D piano.

MS 1616

Carol Leone uses a conventional 6.50 inch octave keyboard for Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) Piano Sonata in C major, Hob XVI:50 (1794). She brings a nice, crisply phrased opening to the Allegro, moving through passages of fine fluency with a great clarity that is enhanced by the fine recording. She shapes the music so well, finding many little nuances that lift the music. She brings a lovely breadth as the Adagio unfolds, beautifully phrased, revealing much poetry. There is more of that exceptional clarity of line, this pianist extracting so much fine texture and tone from the instrument. The Allegro molto is finely phrased and paced, running through the faster passages with a great fluency, bringing a sense of real enjoyment as she skips through this terrific movement.

Carol Leone changes to the DS6.0® 6.00 inch octave keyboard for Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) Piano Sonata No.30 in E major, Op.109 (1820) bringing a lovely opening to the Vivace ma non Troppo, so fluent and flexible, beautifully shaped, before slowly developing the music through some very fine textures. I thought that I could detect a particular firmness or security of touch but perhaps this was just my imagination. Certainly Leone brings a wonderful delicacy and clarity to many passages, a real thoughtfulness. There is great flexibility and control in the Prestissimo with this pianist revealing lightning reflexes through some particularly fluent passages. The Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo has a beautifully poised opening with a real restraint before moving into some finely controlled faster bars, again bringing lovely clarity. She subtly allows the music to increase in breadth before rising through the most wonderful passage of passionate dynamic invention to a quiet, poetic coda.

For Frédéric Chopin’s (1810-1849): Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23 (1831) Leone uses the DS5.5® 5.54 inch octave keyboard. She provides some exquisitely delicate, light toned phrases with a lovely fluency, thoughtfully phrased and paced. She rises through some finely textured passages bringing a real freedom to her phrasing; the often exquisite touch that she delivers is surely in part due to the size of keyboard.

Carol Leone continues the rest of her recital using the DS5.5® 5.54 inch octave keyboard with Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Liebeslied: ‘Widmung’, S.566 (1848) arranged by Franz Liszt (1811-1886). It is beautifully shaped, rising and falling through the lovely melody, with a lovely poetic second subject before rising in passion with this pianist bringing a real authority.

She really gets inside Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) L’Isle Joyeuse, L.106 (1904) bringing a lovely freedom and fluency with many subtle little moments that are so revealing. Again there is a tremendous clarity of texture with Leone beautifully integrating all the little rhythmic moments, finding all the quickly changing moods before a wonderful coda.

Motoric rhythms open the Allegro moderato of Béla Bartók’s (1881-1945) Piano Sonata, BB 88, SZ.80 (1926), this pianist bringing such a variety of dynamics and textures, a freedom and panache through Bartók’s terrific harmonies and intervals with some finely sprung rhythms before speeding to a terrific coda. The Sostenuto e pesante has some very fine dissonant harmonies before the music picks its way slowly through some beautifully nuanced passages. Leone shapes and paces this music so well, building through some incisive, powerful chords before quietening to lead to a sudden conclusion. She pushes the Allegro molto ahead with a real sense of freedom and spontaneity, providing some terrific dissonances, always with a tremendous clarity. There are some terrifically fluent phrases before the music starts to build in power to a sudden dissonant coda.  

The whole concept of this disc is fascinating and the result is a particularly fine recital in its own right. It is quite revealing when one looks at photographs in the booklet of the fingering for each of the keyboards for the same chord. There are fascinating booklet notes concerning various keyboard sizes as well as notes about the composers and their music. The very fine recording adds considerably to the merits of this disc. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Another winner from François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles with a new release of works by Ligeti on Les Siècles Live - Musicales Actes Sud

Formed in the summer of 2003 by François-Xavier Roth , Les Siècles comprises outstanding young players drawn from the finest French ensembles. Roth’s founding ambition was for his orchestra to offer a new approach, not only to repertoire but also to the nature of the concert form.

With a vast period instrument collection at its disposal, spanning the baroque, classical, romantic and modern eras, the orchestra’s repertoire is notably wide in range. Les Siècles is one of a small number of ensembles to employ period and modern instruments, playing each repertoire on appropriate instruments.

François-Xavier Roth and the musicians of Les Siècles have given well over 200 performances in France alone, including regular performances in Paris and appearances at leading festivals throughout France. Internationally they have performed in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, London, Germany, Portugal, Italy and Japan.

Their recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird has received critical acclaim in the international press resulting in a number of awards. In partnership with Musicales Actes Sud they have recently created their own record label Les Siècles Live with which they have recorded works by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Dubois, Liszt and Debussy.

Their latest release on the Les Siècles Live label is of works by György Ligeti, his Six Bagatelles and Dix pour quintette à vents, both for wind quintet, and his Kammerkonzert for orchestra.

György Ligeti (1923-2006) was born in the Romanian city of Tirnăveni. He studied at the Budapest Academy with Ödön Farkas (1851-1912), Sándor Veress (1907-1992) and Pál Járdányi (1920-1966), later teaching there. His compositions at that time reflected the influence of Bartók and Kodály though he did write some more adventurous pieces. In 1956 he left Hungary for Vienna before working at the electronic music studio in Cologne. His first work to reach international prominence was Atmospheres (1961) that used slowly changing orchestral clusters.

This led to teaching appointments, first in Stockholm then in Stanford and Hamburg.
Ligeti developed the idea of making texture as much of a driving force in musical architecture as pitch or rhythm, developing what he called a micro-polyphony of densely compiled musical lines, making the listener more aware of an ever-changing amorphous cloud of sound than the movement of individual instruments or voices. His compositions encompass opera, orchestral works, chamber and instrumental music and choral works.

For their new release Les Siècles have taken both chamber and orchestral works from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to provide a good cross section of his music.

Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles (1953) for wind quintet were commissioned by the Jeney Wind Quintet and is an arrangement of his Musica ricerata for piano.

The first of the bagatelles, Allegro con spirito brings a lively, jolly little theme that swirls along with a terrific little coda. For the Rubato. Lamentoso the oboe brings a lovely melody around which the other instrumentalists weave, soon sharing and then combining to play the theme, expertly written and played here. The music builds through some fine harmonies and textures, very individual yet wholly approachable. The Allegro grazioso brings a spiky little theme for clarinet and bassoon around which the others join to develop a great little bagatelle.

The quartet sounds out a chord to introduce the Presto ruvido before developing a rhythmic, rather syncopated theme, running through some fine variations in its short length.  The Adagio. Mesto (In Memoriam Béla Bartók) opens solemnly before the flute appears with a slow melody. The flute is interrupted by an outburst that leads to a more vibrant passage before the music finds a quieter stance to gently find its way to the coda, with some lovely little woodwind ideas. The clarinet and bassoon lead with a fast moving theme in the opening of the concluding Molto vivace. Capriccioso. The rest of the quintet joins to weave a lively final section that, nevertheless, concludes with a quizzical motif.

The orchestra of Les Siècles come together for Ligeti’s Kammerkonzert (1970). It was first performed at the 1970 Berlin Festival and explores the idea of micropolyphonia, a multitude of polyphonic activity.

Corrente (Fließend), pour Maedi Wood opens with some terrific textures and harmonies from François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles. This is recognisably the same composer as in 1953 yet with a more highly developed style. It develops through some wonderful, subtly changing textures with a high held note appearing in the orchestra, out of which the lower orchestra brings solemn chords that flourish through a more dynamic section. It then reaches a dramatic pitch before finding a quieter coda.

In four movements, it opens with Calmo Sostenuto, pour Traude Cerha where a theme slowly emerges from a held orchestral chord. It is wonderful how Ligeti allows his music to expand gently and to subtly blossom, with so many little orchestral details emerging, especially in this fine performance. The music throughout seems to gently simmer and bubble. Soon brass sound through briefly and stridently before the music descends again into the deep calm. However, a more sustained outburst arrives from the woodwind which brings a brightly lit swirl of sound that slowly descends through the strings before fading in the coda.

Movimento preciso e meccanico, pour Friedrich Cerha brings a bubbling idea for woodwind to which pizzicato strings and piano join. Ligeti soon develops some effective, slowly changing orchestral harmonies and textures before the theme gains a more rhythmic, aggressive stance. The music develops again from a quiet interlude to bring strident, shrill, pulsating chords that move into pizzicato chords before a single note announces the coda.

In the concluding Presto, pour Walter Schmieding the orchestra bubbles quietly before a motif rises up in the strings to lead into a brighter textured section. A myriad of orchestral murmurings are heard as the music moves rapidly forward, the piano joining in a particularly vibrant and transparent passage. The piano appears again in the depths of a jostling orchestral motif before rising in the strings with discords to find a transparent and vibrant coda.

The wind quintet of Les Siècles return for Dix pour quintette à vents (1968). It was written after Ligeti became an Austrian citizen and was first performed by its dedicatees, the soloists of the Stockholm Philharmonic in 1969 in Malmö, Sweden.

The architecture of the work is based on the alternation of its ten movements and miniature concertos. The Molto sostenuto e calmo opens with a sonorous chord from the quintet, out of which individual instrumental lines and textures are developed, slowly and quietly bringing some quite lovely harmonies. Soon various instruments sound out on single notes, developing as they join, with some striking harmonies to conclude.  

The Prestissimo minaccioso e burlesco brings punctuated notes from the quintet that lead to a rapid swirl of ideas, suddenly stopping and starting before a bright toned coda. The Lento develops slow, long breathed harmonies and textures around which a pulsating theme is heard. The quintet weaves a fast flowing tapestry of brightly coloured ideas in the Prestissimo leggiero e virtuoso before staccato ideas quickly circle each other in the fleeting Presto staccatissimo e leggiero.

Lo stesso. Presto staccatissimo e leggiero has equally vibrant, fast moving ideas that flutter around before a more decisive section leads to a hushed coda. Short and sharp staccato phrases appear for the Vivo, energico, increasing in dynamics and impact before weaving a tapestry of brightly textured sounds.

The Allegro con delicatezza brings a rocking motif of quietly formed ideas that slowly develop through changing ideas before a more sonorous, long held coda. A shrill clarinet note opens the Sostenuto, stridente with an insistent repeated idea to which the others join to subtly expand the theme only to lead to a sudden conclusion. The bassoon leads the quintet forward in a rather humorous Presto bizzaro that jumps around before ending on a single bassoon note. 

This is another winner from François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles. They receive tip top live recordings from la Chapelle St Martin Du Mejan, Arles, Frnce and la Cité de la Musique et de la Dansela, Soissons, France.  There are excellent booklet notes from François-Xavier Roth as well as some effective photography in the booklet.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Italian pianist Alfonso Soldano makes a valuable addition to Divine Art’s fine Russian Piano Music Series with a new release of piano works by Sergei Bortkiewicz

Only five years younger than Sergei Rachmaninov composer and pianist, Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952) was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine to a Polish noble family, spending most of his childhood on the nearby family estate of Artemivka. He studied with Anatoly Lyadov and Karl von Arek at the Conservatory in Saint Petersburg before traveling to Leipzig, where he became a student of Franz Liszt pupils, Alfred Reisenauer and Salomon Jadassohn. After completing his studies he returned to Ukraine where he married, before settling in Berlin.

Concert tours regularly took him around Europe but at the outbreak of World War I he was forced to leave Germany and returned to Kharkiv, where he taught and gave concerts. The Russian Revolution forced the composer and his family to flee the family estate at Artëmovka for Constantinople where, with the help of the court pianist to the Sultan, Ilen Ilegey, Bortkiewicz began to give concerts and started teaching again. They eventually moved to Austria settling in Baden before moving to Vienna where he was to remain for the next five years and where in 1925 he and his family finally obtained Austrian citizenship.

World War II brought further privations but he continued to teach and continue composition. In 1945 Bortkiewicz was appointed director of a master class at the Vienna City Conservatory, which helped to give the composer some of the financial security he sought. His 75th birthday was celebrated by a concert in the Musikverein in Vienna.

Bortkiewicz’s works include an opera, Die Akrobaten, Op. 50 and a ballet Arabische Nächte, Op. 37 together with two symphonies, other orchestral works, concertos including three for piano and orchestra, chamber works and a large number of works for piano.

It is a selection of Bortkiewicz’s works for piano that feature on Vol. 12 of Divine Art’s  Russian Piano Music Series played by Italian pianist Alfonso Soldano

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The works on this new disc range across Bortkiewicz’s compositional life commencing here with his Lyrica Nova, Op. 59 (1940) published by Universal Edition in Vienna. The Con moto affettuoso brings a lovely melody, full of wistful feeling with Alfonso Soldano providing fluent playing, lovely rolling chords together with moments of fine delicacy. The Andantino opens with a gentle descending theme before travelling through bars of quietly flowing melody, later rising in strength before a gentle coda. The following Andantino brings a sense of nostalgia in its finely shaped melody with Soldano finding every little detail before a lovely coda. The shorter Con slancio brings a more forceful nature with a directness of utterance to close this set.
The Etude in D flat major, Op. 15: No. 8 (1911) was dedicated to one of his teachers, the German pianist and composer Alfred Reisenauer (1863-1907). It is beautifully phrased and shaped by this pianist with some lovely trickling phrases that appear, revealing the influence of Chopin, rising through some more dramatic moments where the music comes closer to early Scriabin before falling to a quiet coda.

Bortkiewicz’s Nocturne No.1 from Trois Morceaux, Op. 24 (1922) was dedicated to Natalie Chaponitsch, the wife of the Yugoslavian ambassador in Istanbul. It is another piece that draws on the influence of early Scriabin, beautifully shaped and exquisitely delicate, with lovely shifting harmonies, quite beautifully played here. 

Esquisses de Crimée, Op.8 (1908) dedicated to Madame Julie Kharine reveals the composer’s study with Liszt’s pupil, Reisenauer. No. 1. Les rochers d'Outche-Coche opens slowly and darkly before developing through passages of strength and power. The darker opening re-appears overlaid with rippling right hand decorations. The music develops in strength again through passages of increasing virtuosity, reminiscent at times of Liszt with Soldano bringing his impressive technique providing fluency and clarity. No. 2. Caprices de la mer develops through some constantly shifting phrases that evoke the movement of the sea before speeding through a faster passage of fleeting ideas. The music finds its former rolling flow before speeding to the coda.

No. 3. Les promenades des d'Aloupka: Idylle orientale brings a rhythmic idea that is developed through some fine passages that evoke an Eastern feel with moments of great vibrancy before a quiet coda. No. 4. Les promenades des d'Aloupka:Chaos opens with broad phrases as it moves quickly forward, soon finding a staccato section revealing a Bach like fugue that is soon varied. The opening returns to lead us quickly to the coda where the fugal theme makes a re-appearance.

Next Alfonso Soldano plays Three Preludes, first the Prelude, Op. 13: No. 5 (1910) where he reveals a gentle, poised theme that is subtly developed through some exquisite bars, slowly gaining strength before finding a gentle coda. Prelude, Op. 40: No. 4 (1931) has some lovely shifting harmonies that bring a Scriabinesque beauty, exquisitely played. There is a warmth to the opening of the Prelude, Op. 66: No. 3 (1946) that rises subtly. There is a constantly heard left hand rhythmic line before the music rises more forcefully only to fall back again. The music develops through some of this composer’s finest ideas, though with Scriabin still lurking in the background at times, to a quiet gentle coda.

The Piano Sonata No. 2 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 60 (1942) was dedicated to the Austrian art historian, Hans Ankwicz-Kleehoven (1883-1962) and first performed by the composer in the Brahms Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna. In four movements the Allegro ma non troppo opens with a stormy, passionate theme. There is a certain Russianness running through the music, even with hints of Rachmaninov.  The music moves through quieter moments as it develops with ever changing rhythms and tempi that suggest the influence of Medtner. This pianist brings a fine fluency and coherence to the music before the opening theme returns in the coda. A faltering staccato march opens the Allegretto, soon developing through a more flowing passage. There are further firm staccato passages as the movement builds in power before the sprung dance rhythm of a polonaise, appears. The music develops through some impressive ideas with moments of great delicacy and fluidity before the opening march returns to take the music forcefully to the end.

The Andante misericordioso opens with a funereal series of chords out of which emerges a lovely melody that lightens the mood before moving through passages of great sensitivity and feeling as the music slows to a series of tentative gentle chords as the theme is ruminated on.  The mood lightens again as the earlier melody returns. However, the darker nature is brought back as the coda arrives. A brief, fluent Agitato concludes this sonata with a buoyant dance like central section before the passionate theme of the first movement is heard and the music moves quickly to a resolute coda.

This is a particularly attractive sonata in all its varying moods.

This is a valuable addition to this fine series, well recorded at the Concert Hall of the European Arts Academy ‘Aldo Ciccolini, Trani, Italy. There are excellent booklet notes and photographs.

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