Monthly Archives: May 2017

CD review: Ives Ensemble plays Laurence Crane

First published in the Guardian on 25 May, 2017

Laurence Crane: 6 Trios, 2 Solos and 1 Quintet
Ives Ensemble (RTF Classical)

Laurence Crane’s music does so much with so little. The gestures are frank and ambiguous, bemused and sincere, self-deprecating and alert, unadorned and unpretentious. Take 2011’s Piano Quintet, the central work on this lovely new disc from the Ives Ensemble. It starts as a lumpen waltz, as endearing as awkward dancers who don’t give a damn, then subsides into little phrases that tug repeatedly, now hopeful, now fretting. The means are simple but the impact is deep. In his booklet notes, Crane points out that this collection spans three decades.“What has changed in the intervening years?” he asks of his own creative evolution. The answer seems to be about scale and structure – longer movements, more complex ways of organising material – but the uncluttered courage of those early pieces is still there. It is all performed with a clean graciousness that sounds way easier than it is.

CD review: Trpčeski plays Prokofiev

First published in the Guardian on 25 May, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 1 & 3
RLPO/Petrenko/Trpčeski  (Onyx)

Prokofiev wrote his First Piano Concerto as a homework assignment for the St Petersburg Conservatory. (“Give him a good mark,” said the president of the judging panel, “but personally I can’t stand this music.”) A decade later he finished the Third and generally cheeriest of his five piano concertos. In the hands of Simon Trpčeski both really crackle: fiery articulation, brazen rhythms, an ability to navigate corners with a swagger that feels sturdy and nimble at once. The Macedonian pianist doesn’t go in for dark introspection – slow themes tend to be inquisitive rather than outright melancholy – and makes an exception to the rule that all Prokofiev should be laced with sarcasm and subversion. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra sounds seriously good under Vasily Petrenko – particularly in the proud sweep of the First Concerto’s main theme, the flashes of piquant wit in the extra track, Overture on Hebrew Themes.

CD review: Faure / Franck Violin Sonatas

First published in the Guardian on 25 May, 2017

Faure / Franck: Violin Sonatas
Papavrami/Goerner (Alpha)

Patriotic music isn’t all pomp and anthems. These febrile violin sonatas were designed to be explicitly, defiantly French. Gabriel Fauré and César Franck were members of the Société Nationale de Musique. They helped found the group in 1871 with the rousing motto Ars gallica and the aims of promoting a new kind of national style and, most important, of beating the Germans at their own symphonic and chamber music game. Pianist Nelson Goerner and violinist Tedi Papavrami clinch the muscular, urgent nature of the music as well as its sensitivity and flux; the rigour and classicism as well as the whimsy. It’s very much an equal partnership, with Goerner urging things on and Papavrami responding with generous, full-toned lyricism. The Franck sonata gets a particularly fine performance – intelligent, forthright playing from both musicians.

Interview: Greg Batsleer on Mahler 3

First published in The Herald on 24 May, 2017

What is it about Mahler and endings? Last week Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra closed their season with the composer’s Seventh Symphony: enigmatic, nocturnal, radical music that for Arnold Schoenberg signalled the twilight of romanticism and the dawn of the modern movement. Next week Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra bring their season to a finale with Mahler’s Third — the original mega symphony, over-abundant with visions of nature, love, death, the profane, the euphoric, the personal, the universal, the lot.

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Interview: Nicholas Mulroy on Monteverdi’s Madrigals

First published in the Herald on 17 May, 2017

“It doesn’t gloss over you. It burrows in deep.” Tenor Nicholas Mulroy is talking about Monteverdi’s madrigals — music he’ll be directing (and singing) with the Dunedin Consort in Aberdeen, Lerwick and Edinburgh this week, music that is four centuries old and still some of the most daring, technicolour and radically expressive vocal work ever written. Monteverdi compiled eight books of madrigals during his life and a ninth was published posthumously. They make for a diary of his own creative and philosophical awakening: the writing gets bolder and bolder, not just in the shock dissonances and the ultra-vivid way he deals with words, but in the essential form and function, how the voices work, how they sing together, what kind of fierce impact they make on his listeners.

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CD review: Mala punica

First published in the Guardian on 11 May, 2017

James Weeks: Mala Punica, Walled Garden
Exaudi/Hortus Ensemble/Weeks (Winter & Winter)

This is a seductive thing: lush, finespun music by James Weeks performed by his peerless vocal ensemble EXAUDI and the excellent instrumentalists of the Netherlands-based Hortus Ensemble — artfully recorded, too, by the Winter & Winter label. Mala punica (the name means pomegranate) is a set of eight pieces based on the Egyptian and Mesopotamian love poems of the Song of Songs. Walled Garden comprises three pieces for strings and flute trios that weave around the voices to create the image of an enclosed aural garden where beautiful sounds can grow. Weeks hones in on horticultural imagery in the texts so we get vine tendrils and flowers waving in the breeze, all treated with a close, gentle sensuality that shimmers and beguiles but never gets lurid. There’s a refinement and definition to the writing that sounds just right in EXAUDI’s chiselled-but-definitely-not-chaste delivery.

CD review: Brahms string sextets

First published in the Guardian on 11 May, 2017

Brahms: String Sextets
Mandelring Quartet/Glassl/Schmidt (Audite)

Brahms held off writing string quartets in his 20s: maybe he was nervous to touch the venerated form that Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven had all made their own. He would get there eventually, but first he turned his hand to the ultra rich and gutsy textures of the string sextet — standard quartet plus extra cello and viola. A recent recording of both sextets fronted by the Capucon brothers went for litheness and brilliance; this account from Germany’s long-standing Mandelring Quartet with violist Roland Glassl and cellist Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt is more august, more hefty, with stately tempos and broad, well-fed textures. It’s fine ensemble work, no doubt, but an autumnal sound for such youthful music, and to my taste it overdoes the gloop and solemnity. If you’re of the school of thought that all Brahms is essentially melancholy and thwarted desire then it might be for you.

CD review: Simone Lamsma plays Shostakovich & Gubaidulina

First published in the Guardian on 11 May, 2017

Shostakovich/Gubaidulina: Violin Concertos
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Lamsma/Gaffigan/Leeuw (Challenge)

Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma pairs concertos by Shostakovich and Sofia Gubaidulina, composers who both earned disfavour from the Soviet regime, who both use the solo violin to articulate deeply personal tenderness and torment. Lamsma is a terrific player with a beautiful, resilient sound, but at times that beauty is her handicap: she doesn’t do ugly or grim, which makes her interpretations of this dark music feel like a gloss. In Shostakovich’s First Concerto — composed in the late 1940s, laced with venom, suffused in angst — she’s not insistent enough in the tugging theme of the Passacaglia. In Gubaidulina’s In Tempus Praesens — an even darker work, if that’s possible; at one point the orchestra effectively crucifies the violinist with violent stabs — she holds her own defiantly, but again, the delivery is unfailingly gleaming. The orchestra sounds broad and a little unfocused conducted by James Gaffigan in the Shostakovich and by Reinbert de Leeuw in a live performance of the Gubaidulina, page-turns and all.

St Cecilia’s of the Cowgate

First published in The Herald on 10 May, 2017

Here’s a heckelphone (an oversized oboe); here’s an alto fagotto (a tiny bassoon). Here’s a guitar from 1650s Venice made of a thousand small pieces of wood glued together like a parquet floor. Here’s a weird looking flat-bellied violin like the ones Henry VIII imported from Italy. Over here are instruments from Burma, from 14th century Iceland, from Mexico and Uganda, a Yamaha DX7 — think 1980s synth pop — and a wall of saxophones made by Mr Sax himself. Over there is a complete 1920s jazz band, the likes of which would have played upstairs when St Cecilia’s was a dance hall.

I’m in the new gallery space at St Cecilia’s, which opens to the public tomorrow after a £6.5 million redevelopment that brings Edinburgh University’s collection of historic instruments under one roof for the first time. There is a unique joy in wandering around an instrument museum like this. The weird and wonderful old marvels, the outlandish serpents, the ancient clarinets, the unidentifiable prototypes and precursors of instruments we nowadays take for granted. Downstairs the building houses two galleries: one arranged taxonomically, the other thematically into ritual, classical, popular and folk instruments. Upstairs are the keyboard instruments and the gem of a concert hall itself.

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Interview: Linda Catlin Smith

First published in The Herald on 3 May, 2017

Subtle music is having a moment. Maybe it’s not surprising: a quiet revolution of slow, careful, inconclusive sounds that speak, or whisper, against the noise and dogma of the times. “Maybe people are wanting work that allows you space to just be with it,” suggests Linda Catlin Smith, a Toronto-based composer whose calm, clear music features at this weekend’s Tectonics festival in Glasgow.

Catlin Smith is part of what she calls a “lineage” of composers who spend their lives writing delicate abstract scores. A double album of her work was released recently as part of a major study on Canadian composers by the Sheffield-based contemporary music label Another Timbre. It’s a series that doesn’t so much try to define a Canadian school, and certainly doesn’t bother with any cliches about wildernesses or frontier mentalities, as link together composers who share a “similar art pad”.

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