Thursday, 20 November 2014

A new release from Sony features Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in performances of Bach that are superb, technically and musically

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields was founded by Sir Neville Marriner in 1958. Their current Musical Director is violinist Joshua Bell. Whilst their focus is the Classical era they embrace other periods including contemporary music. They are able to perform as a large chamber orchestra as well as a small chamber group.

Musical Director, Joshua Bell received his first violin at the age of four later studying with Josef Gingold before his debut at the age of 14 with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His Carnegie Hall debut, an Avery Fisher Career Grant and a notable recording contract further secured his career. Equally at home as a soloist, chamber musician, recording artist and orchestra leader. In 2015 he will undertake a European tour with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

An exclusive Sony Classical artist, he has made a number of critically acclaimed recordings and has been Grammy-nominated. His previous release, with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, of the Beethoven 4th and 7th symphonies went straight to number 1 in the Billboard charts. Bell performs on the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius violin and uses a late 18th century French bow by François Tourte.

Now Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields bring us, on a new release from Sony Classical , Bach’s two solo violin concertos coupled with a number of Bach arrangements.

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There is a tremendously lively and incisive opening to the Allegro of the Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, BWV 1041 from Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Both Bell and his players bring some terrifically taut playing, wonderful ensemble and a real sense of joy in this real Allegro with some beautifully turned phrases. The Andante has a rich, gentle opening to which Bell brings a lovely tone as he weaves the melody around the orchestral accompaniment with the subtle harpsichord continuo. Bell’s fine sonorities blend well over the lovely lower strings of the Academy. The concluding Allegro assai is full of bounce and verve with some terrific little decorations and the Academy is on fine form. These players seem to understand each other perfectly and play as of one mind. Bell’s playing is truly phenomenal, so agile and beautifully phrased.

Bell brings short, incisive phrases to the opening of the Allegro of the Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV 1042 as he and his players launch into this movement with superb control of dynamics and taut ensemble. Bell has such a sure touch with all Bach’s little twists and turns with beautifully turned ends to phrases. Later Bell and the Academy bring some lovely harmonies. There is such deft playing in the quieter passages in this intoxicatingly played movement.

As Bell joins the Academy in the Adagio he brings an almost improvisatory feel, focusing a new light on this music. This is an exquisitely played movement with some lovely passages for the Academy with the harpsichord continuo again gently appearing. There is a spectacularly fine Allegro assai, full of energy, buoyancy and tautness with Bell surprising with his terrifically shaped little twists and turns and some fine harmonies.

Julian Milone’s orchestration of Felix Mendelssohn’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne from Partita in D minor, BWV 1004 works especially well with Mendelssohn’s fleshing out of the harmonies for violin and piano nicely realised. Bell weaves some wonderful lines with the Academy in this tremendous example of Bach’s invention. Bell balances the contrapuntal with moments of fine, gentle sonorities. There are some extremely fine, light textures and intricate playing where Bell is really unbeatable as he weaves the double stopped lines. Bell brings a beautiful singing quality to the higher passages. This is superb, technically and musically.

Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields give a beautifully turned Air from Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 with just the right rhythmic pulse from the orchestra and making an attractive extra item.

With Bach’s Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006 arranged by Robert Schumann and orchestrated by Julian Milone, Bell brings his neat, incisive, taut playing to this well-orchestrated version.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields has its roots in being led from the violin; something which Joshua Bell does so naturally. It is in the face of such musicality that the issue of period instruments and playing practice becomes a non-event. They are very finely recorded at Air Studios, London, England and there are interesting personal booklet notes on Bach from Joshua Bell.

I will return to these performances again and again.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Very fine playing from Samuel Seidenberg and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sebastian Weigle in horn concertos by Franz and Richard Strauss on a new release from Pan Classics

Franz Joseph Strauss (1822-1905) was a virtuoso horn player as well as an accomplished performer on the guitar, clarinet and viola. He was principal horn player of the Bavarian Court Opera for more than 40 years and a teacher at the Royal School of Music, Munich. He is best known as the father of the composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) but in his prime the conductor, Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) called Franz Strauss ‘the Joachim of the horn.’

Pan Classics have released a new recording of Franz Strauss’ Horn Concerto in C minor, Op.8 coupled with his son, Richard Strauss’ two horn concertos played by Samuel Seidenberg (horn) and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sebastian Weigle

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Franz Strauss’ immense ability as a virtuoso horn player is shown by the demands put on the soloist in his own Horn Concerto in C minor, Op.8 (1865). The Allegro opens with an attractive theme for the orchestra, perhaps a little four square but appealing nevertheless. Horn player, Samuel Seidenberg brings a lovely mellow tone with a fine range of textures. There are some terrific dynamic passages for the horn before we are led into the flowing Andante with a lovely gentle orchestral rubato beautifully done by Weigle and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Seidenberg brings out all of his lovely tone in this attractive music. The Tempo primo builds from the orchestral opening to a richly flowing movement, ably orchestrated and with some pretty tricky horn passages brilliantly brought off by Seidenberg with lovely rasping ends to the notes.

This is not a great work but an enjoyable opener for the Richard Strauss works, especially as finely played here.

Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No.1 in E flat major, op.11 (1882/83) was written when the composer was just 18 years of age and, as such, is no more a great work than his father’s but is attractive and provides a great vehicle for these fine players. The Allegro has orchestral opening statement that is followed by a horn motif taken up by the orchestra. When he returns, Seidenberg brings a beautifully smooth, refined tone. There are some really fine dynamic moments for the horn with terrific textures. The lovely chamber like middle section is beautifully balanced with the horn player showing a natural sensitivity. Seidenberg is terrific in the intricate passages before leading to the mellow Andante with both soloist and orchestra providing some lovely sounds, anticipating the mature Strauss. There is some fine control of horn dynamics and more lovely sonorities. Weigle and his Frankfurt players provide some fine moments in the purely orchestral passages.

After the orchestral lead in, Seidenberg really races ahead in the Allegro showing his tremendous agility. There are many subtleties in the gentler passages from both soloist and orchestra who manage to provide a gentle glow before a terrific coda.

Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No.2 in E flat major comes from the end of his career. The story of its conception is well known; in 1945 an American soldier was invited to visit Strauss’ villa in Garmisch. He was John de Lancie, principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He asked Strauss for an oboe work which became a concerto completed later the same year.

The Allegro, for all its autumnal flavour, seems to recall in its opening, his first oboe concerto, but soon develops its mature, mellifluous nature so well captured by Seidenberg. Here we have a freer flow, a wonderful confidence, with Weigle and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra bringing out so many fine details. There is a gentle playfulness apparent as Seidenberg’s plays around the Straussian sweep of the orchestra before concluding in nostalgic calm.

The Andante con moto is exquisitely played with some beautifully mellifluous playing from Seidenberg whose horn blends beautifully with the orchestra. The Frankfurt players are really on the ball picking up on the tempo change before the lovely quiet coda.

The Rondo – Allegro molto brings a fine light touch to the horn part responded to so well by the orchestra. There are lovely light textures as we are led through Strauss’ little rhythmic variations with a playfulness mixed with a gentle flow before a very fine coda.

Samuel Seidenberg is a very fine horn player indeed and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sebastian Weigle are wonderfully responsive. These players bring some fine qualities to these works on a disc that will bring much pleasure. They are well recorded in the hr-Sendesaal, Frankfurt, Germany and there are informative booklet notes.

Monday, 17 November 2014

A riveting World Premiere recording of Messiaen’s La Fauvette passerinette heads a superbly played collection of 20th century piano music from Peter Hill on a new release from the award winning Delphian label

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was one of the towering figures of 20th century music. He forged a unique style of composition that drew on his Catholic faith, birdsong and Eastern influences, often using modes of limited transposition

Now from Gramophone label of the year, Delphian Records comes the tantalising prospect of a recently discovered work by Messiaen. In 2012, pianist Peter Hill was working on Messiaen’s sketches when he came across several pages of manuscript that appeared to be a fully completed work for piano. There is, Peter Hill tells us in his excellent booklet notes, a note in the margin dating the composition to August 1961 whilst he was staying at Petichet in the French Alps. The realisation of the piece by Hill required deciphering of the composer’s pencil manuscript and some work on the fragmentary middle section.

Peter Hill now includes the premiere performance of the re-discovered piece, La Fauvette Passerinette (The subalpine warbler) in a recital of other works by Messiaen and a diverse range of composers such as Ravel, Stockhausen, George Benjamin, Henri Dutilleux, Toru Takemitsu and Peter Sculthorpe.


Peter Hill is no stranger to the piano works of Messiaen having worked with the composer between 1986 and 1991 while recording the complete piano works for Unicorn Kanchana. Hill cleverly divides his recital into five sections, Prelude, Étude, Birds and Landscapes, Memorial and Postlude.

The section headed Prelude opens with Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Oiseaux tristes No2 from Miroirs (1904-5). Hill, right from the beginning, opens out this music, connecting it with later developments. It is his phrasing and crystalline touch that add so much, assisted by the very clear and detailed recording. This is a beautifully laid out performance.

Olivier Messiaen features next in an early work, La Colombe No.1 from Huit Préludes (1928/9) where we hear this composer’s distinctive harmonies though still owing a debt to earlier French composers such as Ravel. It is exquisitely played as is Messiaen’s Pièce pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas (1935) with its firm, decisive chords, beautiful phrasing and fine dynamics.

We move into the next section, Étude with more Messiaen, his Île de feu 1 No.1 from Quatre Études de rythme (1949-50). There are dense rhythmic chords in the opening of this more advanced piece, with Hill bringing his fine understanding and musicianship to Messiaen’s varying rhythms and challenging writing.

We then move on to Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) with his Klavierstück VII (1954). Many people fight shy of this composer yet Hill clearly shows the links that can be made as he carefully phrases and paces this rather engaging piece. It could tend to sound rather fragmented were it not for Hill’s ability to reveal the overall structure so well. There is much of Ravel’s and Messiaen’s ear for tiny details and sonorities in Stockhausen’s writing.

Stockhausen’s Klavierstück VIII (1954) sits very well with Klavierstück VII not surprising given that it was the composer’s intension for the works to be played together. Here we have a more dynamic piece leaping from gentle to more incisive phrases as though something greater is trying to break out.

With Julian Anderson’s (b.1967) Etude No.1 from Etudes for piano (1995- ) we return to a more linear flow yet not without some demanding writing brilliantly done by Hill.

George Benjamin’s (b.1960) studied with Messiaen. His Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm No.1 from Three Studies for solo piano (1982-5) has a tentative opening that gently leads into a lovely little theme which slowly develops. There is a little of Messiaen here but Benjamin very much shows his own individuality in this terrific work that grows in strength as it progresses. There are some fine rhythmic structures brilliantly handled by Hill. The piece develops through some strikingly brilliant dynamic passages as well as some beautifully delicate bars in a formidable performance by Hill.

We next come to Birds and Landscapes where we return to Messiaen with his La Traquet stapazin No.4 (Book 2) from Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-8) where Hill provides an exquisitely structured performance, perfectly judged, bringing out all of the composer’s sudden dynamic contrasts and rhythms and the most lovely quieter moments. Hill displays a rare spontaneity and, indeed, authority.

Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) studied with Messiaen’s harmony teacher, Jean Gallon. His D’ombre et de silence No.1 from Trois Préludes (1973-88) brings lovely harmonies and sonorities in this fine performance from Hill.

It is sad that Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014) died on 8th August this year, too recently for the booklet notes of this disc to reflect the fact. Stars from Night Pieces (1972-3) follows perfectly with rippling chords and a fine breadth that evokes a night sky over the vast Australian outback within its short duration.

Douglas Young’s (b.1947) River from Dreamlandscapes, Book 2 (1977-85) also seems like a natural progression with darker chords in the opening that are repeated before gently opening out and flowing forward, finding many little tributaries to divert the ear. Part way through there is a dynamic, incisive section with strong chords that soon fade to the earlier gentler sounds. It is expertly played here by Hill.

We now come to the Premiere Recording of Olivier Messiaen’s La Fauvette passerinette (1961). Here Messiaen does not use the landscape and time of day to construct this work as he did in his earlier birdsong inspired works. This substantial piece was set to mark a new development using just the birdsongs. But the composer does give a written preface describing the scene. It opens with a lovely flow as Messiaen’s distinctive intervals are heard as the fauvette passerinettes Subalpine warbler) sing a duet before the music introduces other birds, the Sardinian warbler, a flock of spotted cuckoos and the Orphean warbler. The passerinettes return again as they do in the coda but not before the other birds have their say. Hill’s ability to reproduce Messiaen’s rhythms and phrasing is superb. This is an absolutely riveting performance.

Memorial brings Tristan Murail’s (b.1947): Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire… (in memoriam Olivier Messiaen) (1992) with crystalline bell like sonorities beautifully phrased by Hill with some especially fine dynamics overlaid with florid figurations. No collection of 20th century piano music of this nature would be complete without Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) whose Rain Tree Sketch II (1992) brings all of his refinement and ear for the tiniest detail. Likewise, Peter Hill’s fine musician’s ear for detail reveals every little subtlety and nuance.

Finely with the section headed Postlude we return to Messiaen and his Morceau de lecture à vue (1934) a gentler, thoughtful early work finely played by Hill and which nicely rounds off this superb recital.

This superb recital should not be missed and not just because of the exciting new Messiaen work. All of the other works on this disc receive superb performances from Peter Hill. The recording made in the Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh, Scotland is first class. There are excellent, very full notes from Peter Hill.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Riccardo Muti is a conductor at the top of his game with his live recording of a selection from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra newly released by CSO Resound

The ballet Romeo and Juliet (1935/36) is probably one of Sergei Prokofiev’s most popular works mainly due to the suites that the composer drew from the score.  Suites No.1, Op.64a and No.2, Op.64b came in 1936 followed in 1946 by Suite No.3, Op.101.

Riccardo Muti on his live recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, made in October 2013 and just released by CSO Resound, chose a selection from these suites that works exceptionally well.

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Montagues and Capulets has an overpowering opening with its series of orchestral outbursts. The intervening hushed passages receive some beautifully sensitive playing. When the theme proper arrives, Muti means business with strong rhythms, incisive playing and the very fine Chicago Symphony Orchestra bringing all their weight to the music giving it an unstoppable quality. In the central section, Muti brings out the most exquisite woodwind motifs with the Chicago strings showing a lovely sheen. There are some very fine individual instrumental contributions too.

A beautifully fleet Juliet the Young Girl punctuated by some lovely moments, which the orchestra take, up revealing Prokofiev’s wonderful gift for melody and romance. I love the way Muti varies the tempi so naturally, so freely before, towards the end, there is a tranquil moment with more lovely woodwind moments.

The Chicago strings bring a lovely quality to Prokofiev’s shifting harmonies in Madrigal with Muti revealing many subtleties in this score.

Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra bring a real sense of occasion to the Minuet pointing up Prokofiev’s spiky rhythms and showing a real sense of spectacle. There is a lovely atmospheric middle section and a brilliantly done coda.

With Masks Muti and the orchestra again display a remarkable understanding of Prokofiev’s metronomic rhythms, finely introduced on the side drum before some lovely wistful little woodwind phrases.

There is a softly glowing opening to Romeo and Juliet with gossamer strings and perfectly paced dynamic interruptions before the big tune is allowed its head, showing the Chicago SO’s fabulous string section to the full. As Muti builds the music it becomes spine-tinglingly impressive with this conductor allowing a fine breadth to develop as the Chicago brass intone over the orchestra before a beautifully drawn, hushed coda.

Death of Tybalt brings a tremendous contrast as Muti revels in Prokofiev’s dissonant harmonies and violent orchestral cross rhythms with absolutely superb playing from the orchestra. They thunder out the drumbeats before the staccato rhythms arrive, brass braying wildly.

There is an exquisitely done Friar Laurence with the orchestra gently weaving the instrumental textures as well as a lovely, mellow bassoon solo.

Romeo and Juliet before Parting brings a hushed, expectant opening before developing a fuller string sound. Muti draws such beautifully sensitive playing from the orchestra. The horns and woodwind enter bringing a passion, a surge of emotion, perfectly set off by the strings, subtly increasing the power and emotion before an outburst that is powerful and stirring, leading to the finely judged, hushed coda.

The Chicago strings tear at the heart in the opening of Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb where Muti maintains a feeling of palpable grief as the music becomes increasingly laden with heavy emotion. Towards the end they bring some tremendous dynamic timpani strokes before the hushed coda.

Here is a conductor at the top of his game with a first rate live recording from the Orchestra Hall, Chicago. This disc might be just short of 49 minutes in duration but what a 49 minutes!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

A Musician Divided: André Tchaikowsky in his own words, published by Toccata Press, is a book that should appeal to a wide audience, not just those specifically interested in André Tchaikowsky the pianist but for the wider insights given into a musician and his times

EuroArts have just released a recording of André Tchaikowsky’s opera The Merchant of Venice. Written between 1968 and 1982 it was not premiered until 18th July 2013 when it was produced at the Bregenz Festpiele, Austria with the Prague Philharmonic Choir and Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erik Nielsen with stage direction by Keith Warner.

Critical comment following the premiere spoke of the opera as ‘…complex and impressively crafted…’ and ‘darkly lyrical…marvellously responsive to (the) libretto and Shakespeare’s moods.’

How timely then that I should receive for review, from Toccata Press, a book concerning André Tchaikowsky’s (1935-1982) entitled A Musician Divided: André Tchaikowsky’s in his own words.

ISBN: 978-0-907689-88-1
Hardback 434 pages
Size: 16x24cm
Published: November 2013
Illustrations: 72
Edited by Anastasia Belina-Johnson and with a forward by David Pountney, who prepared the first performance of the Merchant of Venice, this book in large part covers Tchaikowsky’s diaries from 1974-1982. Many will remember him first and foremost as a very fine pianist but it was composition that was his calling. The title of this volume A Musician Divided is, on face value, a comment on a pianist torn between performing and composing. But there were many more aspects to this artist’s divided life, a Pole in exile, a man who felt isolated and suffered from depression, a Jew that suffered during the Nazi era and as a homosexual in a largely intolerant society.

The book is in four parts, the first giving a Biographical Outline of Tchaikowsky by Anastasia Belina-Johnson. One of the first things that we learn is that he was born Robert Andrej Krauthammer, his name being changed for his protection as a Jew during one of the most difficult times in Warsaw. There is detailed information about his early life, including his hiding from the Nazis, through his post war time at the State Music Conservatoire and his early compositions.

During his preparation for the 1955 Chopin Competition when practising Chopin’s F minor piano concerto he was criticised for his playing of a particularly difficult passage by Fou Ts’ong’s teacher, a particularly eminent professor to whom he responded by saying ‘It’s only because you can’t play it, you are jealous.’

It becomes clear that by the time of his first US tour in 1957, Tchaikowsky was showing even more behavioural problems with outbursts, shocking behaviour and a disregard for social norms. Yet this was offset by accounts of how ‘very sweet’ he was, very kind and very decent.

This biographical section covers his travels and concertising including his first visit to England, his attitude to performance, friends, neurosis, his continuing conflict between performing and composition, an abandoned biography, a short selection of letters   and, of course his last illness and death at the early age of 46.                                                         

There is a final twist that many people may already know of: that of his will that left his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company ‘for use in theatrical performances’, as indeed it was in 2008 when it was used in a production of Hamlet. 

One of the very useful aspects of this book is the use of footnotes at the bottom of page rather than in an appendix at the back of the book making it a joy to read.

Part II: Testimony, 1947 is an account of his experience of the Warsaw Ghetto given orally in 1947 by the 12 year old boy for the Jewish Historical Institute for the purpose of recording the experiences of a Jew who had endured those times. It is all the more poignant for its childlike objectivity.

We then come to the main content of the book, Part III: Diaries, 1974-82. Right from the opening one finds sympathy with Tchaikowsky as he writes ‘Shall I really start a diary? going on to say ‘And will it make me even more of a loner?’

The diary opens with his travel to Perth and an account of a homosexual relationship. Personal relationships abound along with every day matters and concerts. We gain an insight into his tastes in literature with Samuel Becket getting short shrift. Signs of his mental struggles appear with references to his use of Tuinal and Valium as well as Transcendental Meditation.

There are his reactions to a perceived bad performance and, amidst all this his ongoing composition of his opera The Merchant of Venice. Personalities appear including Stefan Askenase, with whom he studied, Vladimir Horowitz, Isaac Stern, David Kossoff, Radu Lupu and Uri Segal as well as Tamas Vasari and Peter Frankl.
Many world locations appear in his diaries as well as his ongoing struggles as a pianist         and problems with nerves giving a real insight into a performer’s point of view and the pressures of concertising.

At one point during 1976 we find Tchaikowsky ‘…in such a state, weeping, sobbing, shaking…I was not considering suicide, just desperate to talk to someone…’ The following year he says ‘I had always been an outcast…even after the war, I had been physically bullied for being a Jew.’

In 1980 we have his experience of visiting Jerusalem when he states ‘…here I’ve found myself in a land where everyone is different.’ That year he met his estranged father for the first time since 1948 and describes the difficult meeting. His father was to outlive him by a year.

Work continued on The Merchant of Venice, completed on 21st September 1980, but 1981 reveals the onset of physical health problems. There is a piano run through of The Merchant of Venice but, despite the support of David Pountney, English National Opera refused to produce the opera. 1982 brings more health problems whilst performing in Germany but his concerts continue with his last diary entry on 29th April 1982, in Salzburg. He died at 6.45am on Saturday 26th June 1982.

Part IV:  André Tchaikowsky as Composer – A survey takes an in depth look at Tchaikowsky opera, the Merchant of Venice, as well as covering his other works. The World Premiere performance of The Merchant of Venice, now released by EuroArts, is covered with reviews of the production.

There are two appendices, Appendix 1: Recordings of André Tchaikowsky’s Music and Appendix 2: Tchaikowsky’s recorded performances: A chronology. There is both an index of André Tchaikowsky’s Compositions and a general index.

A bonus with this book is a CD, featuring an amateur recording of a private concert given in Currie Hall, University of Western Australia, Perth on 2nd June 1975 when Tchaikowsky was Artist in Residence there. Between performing Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy and Chopin, Tchaikowsky talks and jokes with his enthusiastic students. Despite the upright piano and less than perfect recording quality, this is a treasurable memento of just one of many such occasions.

The book is very well illustrated with numerous black and white photos, facsimiles of scores, documents, letters and diary first page entries. It should appeal to a wide audience, not just those specifically interested in André Tchaikowsky the pianist but for the wider insights into a musician and his times.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Alamire and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble directed by David Skinner show what treasures there are in the Spy’s Choirbook, a collection of motets held in the British Library featured on a new release from Obsidian Records

One of the many musical treasures in the British Library is a beautifully illuminated choir book catalogued as Royal MS 8.g.vii. Yet it is the contents as well as the history of this magnificent volume that is of even more interest.

The choir book was devised and assembled in the finest scriptorium of all of Europe in the early sixteenth century, the workshop of Petrus Alamire (c. 1470-1536). Alamire (also known as Peter van den Hoven) was also a noted musician and composer in his own right as well as being a merchant, mining engineer, diplomat and spy. Between 1515 and 1518 a number of letters survive which show that Alamire acted as a spy for Henry VIII against Richard de la Pole, last member of the House of York who openly sought claim to the English throne. Pole in turn, hired Alamire as a counter-spy against Henry VIII.

The title of a new release from Obsidian Records, featuring all thirty four of the motets contained in this choir book, is entertainingly and somewhat accurately called The Spy’s Choirbook. The composers contained in the book represent some in Europe from the early sixteenth century such as Heinrich Isaac, Pierre de la Rue and Josquin Desprez. Most of the works have not been performed in modern times, and this is the first recording dedicated to this most interesting of musical manuscripts from the Alamire scriptorium.


The motets are performed by the choir, Alamire with the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble directed by David Skinner . Alamire was founded in 2005 by David Skinner, Rob MacDonald and Steven Harrold. Since then they have performed throughout Europe and the USA. They record exclusively for Obsidian Records, receiving Gramophone Record of the Month for their CD of the complete motets of the Cantiones Sacrae (1575) of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd

The Spy’s Choirbook opens with Jean Mouton’s (c.1459-1522) Celeste beneficium, an uplifting motet which Alamire take at a fine, flowing pace, the choir’s voices blending and overlaying beautifully. Antoine de Févin’s (c.1470-1511/12) Adiutorium nostrum follows perfectly, with a slower flow, these voices providing a mellifluous sound nicely supported by the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble who are never intrusive. David Skinner allows a spaciousness that lets the music unfold naturally.

The following Nesciens mater is by an anonymous composer and has a darker tone. It is a fine piece whoever the composer was and is given a richly warm performance by this fine choir. Pierre de la Rue’s (c.1452-1518) Ave regina caelorum really takes off with Skinner allowing the choir a beautiful flexibility of tempo with some marvellous part writing.

Descendi in hortum meum that follows is attributed to Josquin Desprez (c.1450-1521) a composer that always delights the ear and particularly so in this fine performance using the acoustic of the Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle to fine effect in the polyphonic lines. There is more from Févin with his Sancta trinitas unus Deus. For those unfamiliar with Févin this is a fine example, full of individual touches finely brought out here.

La Rue is again represented by his Vexilla Regis - Passio Domini nostril. Here we return to a slower, broadly paced motet in an especially fine performance with a lovely flow of musical lines. Josquin’s Fama malum has an apt text ‘Rumour, an evil than which no other is more swift…’ given the compiler’s occupation and is another delight as these voices weave a lovely tapestry of sound.

La Rue’s Quis dabit pacem: Doleo super te is a restrained, exquisite lament showing la Rue at his finest, with Skinner allowing a lovely freedom of flow. Two more anonymous motets follow, a particularly attractive O Domine Iesu Christe - Et sanctissima mater tua with some fine rich sonorities and a richly restrained Maxsimilla Christo amabilis with some lovely moments.

Franciscus Strus’ (fl.1500) Sancta Maria succurre miseris - O werder mondt has some lovely parts for the upper voices in this light textured motet with the sonorities of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble providing subtle support.

There is a very fine Sancta et immaculata virginitas,  again by an anonymous composer before Josquin’s Missus est Gabriel angelus with this choir providing a very fine blend of voices as they weave Josquin’s lovely tapestry of sounds.

Three more anonymous works follow, the motet Dulcissima virgo Maria where we can only wonder who was the creator of this fine work, quite beautifully sung by Alamire, a richly blended Tolca purche es - Salve regina with fine contribution from the Ensemble who blend so well with the choir and O sancta Maria virgo virginum where the Ensemble open with lovely textures in this instrumental piece, beautifully played by these fine musicians.

Pierrequin de Therache (c.1470-1528) is not a name that I’m familiar with but his Verbum bonum et soave shows him to be an accomplished composer with a distinctive style sharing the vocal lines around the choir to fine effect before building to a lovely Amen.

Two more anonymous works conclude the first CD of this set, another instrumental piece Recordamini quomodo praedixit filium with individual instruments of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble providing some lovely sounds, so evocative of the age, sounds that no modern instruments can ever replicate and O beatissime Domine Iesu Christe - Fac me de tua gratia a slowly paced motet with some lovely vocal lines. This is a work of some substance – by whom we can only wonder.

The second disc opens with the anonymous Ave Sanctissima Maria, a gorgeously harmonised motet with the rich basses of Alamire bringing fine sonorities across their range. This is another terrific find. Mouton’s Ecce Maria genuit nobis has a terrific opening with some lovely overlaying of voices.

The anonymous Congratulamini mihi omnes again brings The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble with these musicians providing superb instrumental sounds in this beautifully contrapuntal piece.  Févin’s Egregie Christi martir Christophore - Ecce enim has a lovely clarity of texture pointed up by the Ensemble with this choir bringing a fine subtle rubato to this lovely work.

Two more anonymous pieces follow with the Ensemble laying out the musical lines for Alma redemptoris mater so well, allowing the fine sounds of each instrument to add something special to the music before the choir bring a setting of Dulces exuviae, as fine a setting as any on this disc, with a beautifully chosen tempi so fitting before following with four more settings of the text Dulces exuviae.

Alexander Agricola’s (c.1446-1506) Dulces exuviae is a slightly sombre setting, showing this choir’s wonderful control to perfection, with Skinner knowing just how to let the music subtly surge. With Josquin’s Dulces exuviae they allow his fine setting to gently unfold revealing all its beauty, with an exquisite coda.

Mouton lays down a lovely harmony in the opening of his Dulces exuviae to which he adds as the motet proceeds. Johannes Ghiselin’s (fl. 1500) is another name that flits through history (fl. 1500) yet his Dulces exuviae dum fata deusque is a richly rewarding setting.

The following setting of Absalon, fili mi has been attributed to Josquin or La Rue. Whoever the composer, this is a fine and, indeed, distinctive setting of this mournful text. The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble then bring us the anonymous Iesus autem transiens, a rousing piece that raises the spirits after the subdued Absalon, fili mi.

Heinrich Isaac continues the uplifting feel with his Anima mea - Invenerunt - Filiae Ierusalem with a lovely weaving of voices in this terrific motet before we finally have another motet attributed to Josquin, Tribulatio et angustia invenerunt me, a very fine piece where the choir are wonderfully supported by the ensemble in this final motet of the choir book, a work that couldn’t make a finer conclusion if David Skinner had chosen the piece himself.

There are many well-known names here, many less so and quite a few anonymous pieces to tempt the palette. These excellent performances show what treasures there are in the Spy’s Choirbook. These artists are given a very fine recording from the lovely acoustic of the Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, Sussex, England and there are excellent notes from David Skinner as well as full Latin texts with English translations. If you are drawn to this repertoire do not miss this set.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Peter Vukmirovic Stevens’ August Ruins is one of the finest pieces for unaccompanied cello to come along in a long time on a new download from Navona Records

Peter Vukmirovic Stevens is a composer, pianist and multimedia artist. He began studying piano at the age of six and began composing not long afterwards. He is the grandson of opera singer Olga Vukmirovic, who lived and performed in Dubrovnik and Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia. He is a former student of American composer Bern Herbolsheimer (b. 1948), Samuel Jones in Seattle, Washington and Bodhan Bubak in Prague, Czech Republic.

Stevens is co-founder of the Seattle Pianist Collective and currently serves as the Artistic Director. In 2013 he was awarded an Artist Residency at Jack Straw Arts to complete his next album for solo viola, Feral Icons, with violist Mara Gearman. In 2012 his Symphony No. 1, was performed by the Port Angeles Symphony Orchestra with Adam Stern conducting.

Stevens describes his approach to composing as always searching to strip away the unnecessary and extraneous to reveal simplicity. His compositions include orchestral, chamber, instrumental, choral, piano and electronic works.

A recent release from Navona Records  features a large scale work by Stevens for unaccompanied cello entitled August Ruins. Available only as a download, August Ruins is in five parts and is a reflection by the composer on modern times.


The work is performed here by cellist, Paige Stockley , who performs regularly with the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra and the Auburn and Tacoma Symphony Orchestras and has played with orchestras around the world. She is the founder of the St. Helens String Quartet.

The first part of August Ruins for solo cello (2010-2012) takes August Ruins as its title and opens with rich double and multi stopped chords out of which a melody appears. Cellist, Paige Stockley, adeptly handles the changes from upper to lower register whilst providing beautifully rich timbres that contrast with higher, more passionate phrases. Some of the lower passages have a rich, mahogany warmth as the theme is varied before drawing to a close. This is music of deeply felt emotion.

Tempus edax rerum (Time, the Devourer of All Things) has a more resolute opening that gives way to a hesitancy before pushing forward again with some beautifully expressive playing from Stockley. The music slows as the theme is ruminated on, with some tremendously written phrases that deliver some enthralling textures and colours from the cello. Soon the music becomes increasingly agitated before some very fine string effects add to the texture. The cellist moves higher in the register slowly building a melancholic appealing passage with lovely phrasing that adds to the emotional pull of this music. Eventually there is a pause before the music moves forward in hesitant phrases, slowly drawing out a heartfelt melody before rapid, tremolo harmonics lead to a sudden end.

There is a slow, mournful opening to Etude for Raising the Dead with rich textures very finely played by Stockley. There are more fine textures as the music is developed, with higher phrases full of emotional angst set against deeper, richer phrases. There are some particularly complex, deep phrases superbly handled by Stockley before the tempo increases with a feeling of anxiety, soon returning to the opening rich phrases before speeding to the sudden coda.

Versatile Hammers develops a theme from deep in the bass, growing out of the depths with some terrific double stopping and fine textures. There are subtle little harmonic shifts in the texture. Soon the music speeds to a rapidly bowed passage before settling back to a more restrained nature. The music briefly rises to a lighter, section that raises the spirits but returns to the richer textures of earlier. Eventually the tempo increases again, becoming more anxious with subtle little changes always holding the ear, before a sudden coda.

The final section, Thunder, Perfect Mind, slowly develops from a little undulating theme before developing through some finely built harmonies. There are occasional little pauses before the music moves forward again, eventually rising up in a fine passage beautifully played by Stockley. Soon the music becomes increasingly passionate, with Stockley managing to pull every little nuance from the score, particularly in the little insistent bowings where she shows extreme care of dynamics and textures. Towards the end, the music slows to a finely drawn phrase allowing this fine work to end on a note of resolution.

This is one of the finest pieces for unaccompanied cello to come along in a long time. Stockley is an impressive soloist drawing much from Stevens’ score. Stevens couldn’t have a better advocate. She receives a clear and detailed live recording that allows the listener to hear every texture and nuance.  My download has applause left in on two of the tracks.