CD Reviews

CD review: Duch/Tilbury/Davies play Cardew

FIrst published in the Guardian on 16 March, 2017

Cardew: Works 1960-70
Duch/Tilbury/Davies (+3DB)

In October 1981, the composer/Maoist activist Cornelius Cardew was chucked out of the House of Commons gallery for shouting, during a speech by Enoch Powell, “this house stinks of racism”. He was killed in a hit-and-run two months later; who knows what mischief he would be making in our alarming times, but his music and its social message feel as pertinent as ever. Pianist John Tilbury worked with him a lot and wrote an astute 1000-page biography — nobody plays Cardew with more wit and empathy. Now Tilbury, harpist Rhodri Davies and bassist Michael Francis Duch have added a second disc to their excellent Cardew album Works 1960-1970 comprising seven exploratory Schooltime Compositions. These pieces from 1967 were designed to rouse feelings of collective action and learning— they’re more about process than product but this recording has both, delivered with abundant imagination and care.

CD review: The Soldier’s Tale with Birtwistle & Benjamin

First published in the Guardian on 16 March, 2017

Stravinsky: The Soldier’s Tale
Royal Academy of Music Soloists/Knussen (Linn)

There’s an American tradition of asking venerable composers to take the speaking roles in Stravinsky’s 1918 Faustian music-theatre fable The Soldier’s Tale. Babbitt and Carter did it as nonagenarians; Copland played Narrator to the Devils of John Cage and Virgil Thomson. The custom is honoured here with Oliver Knussen conducting Harrison Birtwistle as a superbly laconic Soldier — it sounds as though he couldn’t care less when his luck is down; the despondency is glorious — and George Benjamin as a deliciously supercilious Devil. The contrast is bizarre and joyous, perhaps tinged with a darker message akin to Yeats’s The Second Coming. Harriet Walter narrates adeptly; the playing Royal Academy’s Manson Ensemble is taught, fearless, detailed. In typical Knussen programming, the rest of the disc is a web of composers commemorating each other in tender miniatures, including the tributes for Stravinsky by Peter Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle.

CD review: Linda Catlin Smith’s Drifter

First published in the Guardian on 16 March, 2017

Linda Catlin Smith: Drifter
Apartment House/Bozzini Quartet (Another Timbre)

“The experiment is always about whether something will hold,” says Toronto-based composer Linda Catlin Smith, whose music tests how sounds can be longer or shorter, thicker or thinner, higher or lower, more distant or more intimate. The results are poised and thoughtful, never forced or extreme. Often the music is soft but tactile — Catlin Smith lets us sit with the texture of the sounds, like feeling fabric between the fingers. This album of chamber music from the past two decades follows last year’s Dirt Road, also on Another Timbre, and is part of the label’s terrific focus on Canadian composers. It features Montreal’s Bozzini Quartet playing the lilting Gondola, the Turner-inspired Folkstone and the Piano Quintet with Philip Thomas in graceful form; members of the ensemble Apartment House bring lonely beauty to Cantelina for viola and vibraphone and to the lissom title track for piano and guitar.

CD review: Howell/Beach/Chaminade piano concertos

First published in the Guardian on 2 March, 2017

Howell/Beach/Chaminade: piano concertos
Danny Driver/BBCSSO/Miller

When Amy Beach (1867-1944) was a child in New England, her mother banned her from playing the piano in public until she turned 16. Strict Calvinism didn’t smile on girl prodigies. When she married at 18, her husband allowed her a concert per year, so instead she composed. Her Piano Concerto has the heft and torrent of music that needs to be written and Danny Driver plays it with clarity and steel, absolutely unsentimental but flecked through with empathy. The second movement might have revealed some more delicate orchestral shimmer — it sounds here like a chastely buttoned Ravel — but the sturdy weft Rebecca Miller gets from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra generally suits Beach’s broad-stitch writing. This release (volume 70 of Hyperion’s whopping Romantic Piano Concerto series) is timed for International Women’s Day and also includes Dorothy Howell’s D Minor Concerto, a gracious throwback written in 1923, and the Concertstuck by Cecile Chaminade. Ambroise Thomas liked her music: “this is not a woman who composes,” he declared, “but a composer who is a woman.”

CD review: Buxton Orr songs

First published in the Guardian on 2 March, 2017

Buxton Orr: Songs
Spence/Burnside/Edinburgh Quartet (Delphian)

The influence of Buxton Orr, born in Glasgow in 1924, lives on mainly via generations of students — he taught composition theory by making his pupils improvise and founded the Guildhall New Music Ensemble in 1975. But what of his own music? He was a diligent, tuneful, unobtrusively original composer. He’s worth hearing. Nicky Spence is the first singer to record a full disc of his songs and it’s a revelation. Imagine a gentler, quirkier Britten with dabblings in 12-tone technique and old Scots poems set to generous vocal lines and off-piste instrumentation (duo for tenor and double bass?). It helps that these performances are so good. Pianist Iain Burnside and his colleagues bring out all the care and wit in the instrumental writing: swaggering clarinet lines (Jordan Black) and limpid strings (members of the Edinburgh Quartet) in the song cycle Canzona; boisterous conviction from bassist Nikita Naumov in the caustic Ten Types of Hospital Visitor. Spence himself sounds terrific throughout — nimble, direct, deftly playful and expressive with the text.

CD review: Grazyna Bacewicz chamber music

First published in the Guardian on 2 March, 2017

Bacewicz: chamber music
Diana Ambache etc (Ambache)

Polish composer/violinit Grazyna Bacewicz summed up her music as “aggressive and at the same time lyrical.” She was right — try the 1949 Quartet for Four Violins as proof, with its fearless dashes from bruising dance to sparse elegy and back again. The piece is tactile and gritty; it was meant for teaching but never in a dry way. A handful of decent recordings in recent years have bolstered an interest in Bacewicz’s feisty music and this disc led by pianist Diana Ambache fills in more chamber music gaps. There’s the eerie Trio for Oboe, Harp and Percussion and the brilliantly dense, scurrying Quartet for Four Cellos. All the other works in the programme (folk dances, a theme and variations) show evidence of what a spirited violinist Bacewicz was herself. The sound of the recording has a homemade grain to it but the playing is top-notch, with violin duties shared out between David Juritz, Victoria Sayles, Richard Milone and Charlotte Scott and Diana Ambache unshakable at the piano.

CD review: Beethoven from James Ehnes & Andrew Armstrong

First published in the Guardian on 16 February, 2017

Beethoven: Violin Sonatas nos 6 & 9
Ehnes/Armstrong (Hyperion)

Violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong play together with that intuitive spark and easy suppleness that only old friends really can. In the past they’ve done excellent things with Franck and Strauss, with Debussy, Elgar and Respighi; now they turn to Beethoven with the same combination of light touch and searing focus. There’s a clarity of ideas that means they never have to overstate — take the initial phrase of the Kreutzer sonata, the impeccably eloquent way the radiant opening chord clouds over so quickly and so decisively. Flashes of white heat in that first movement subside into a graceful reading of the Sixth sonata, full of featherweight diction. For some listeners the sound won’t be brawny or volatile enough for mid-period Beethoven, but it would be wrong to mistake cleanliness for lack of emotional depth. The simple, conversational generosity of this duo speaks volumes.

CD review: Byrd/Britten choral music

First published in the Guardian on 16 February, 2017

Byrd/Britten: Choral music
Choir of Jesus College Cambridge/Williams (Signum)

William Byrd was a Catholic in the service of an Anglican monarch; Benjamin Britten was a gay pacifist in wartime England. It never hurts to remember how many of the artists we end up deifying faced some sort of bigotry in their day. This album presents Byrd and Britten as a pair of outsiders, alternating works by both in a programme that illuminates but doesn’t force the parallels. Conductor Mark Williams opens with a Byrd anthem (O Lord, make they servant, Elizabeth our Queen) and closes with Britten’s youthful Te Deum. In between we get a considered performance of Britten’s Missa Brevis and Byrd’s sublimely introspective Quomodo cantibimus. 350 years separate their careers but Byrd’s scraping harmonies often sound no older than Britten’s. The singing of Jesus College isn’t always sharply defined but it is warm and breathy, topped by excellent boy choristers and best in stately slow pieces like Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus.

CD review: Cedric Tiberghien’s Bartok

First published in the Guardian on 16 February, 2017

Bartok: Piano Sonata, Sonatina, Sonata for two pianos & percussion etc.
Cédric Tiberghien (Hyperion)

Cédric Tiberghien’s Bartok series has been an ear-opener of expressive and sharp-witted performances that clinch the music’s essence in original terms. The French pianist has saved some of Bartok’s most straight-out tuneful material for last: this final instalment includes the Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District (melodies Bartok learned in August 1907 from a Transylvanian flute player), the Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Tunes and the slight, blithe Sonatina. He balances these with the fiery Études and the motoring Sonata — and in all of it, the angular as well as the earthy, he has a way of making rhythms sound stretchy, precise and personal. He’s joined by fellow pianist François-Frédéric Guy and percussionists Colin Currie and Sam Walton for the astoundingly inventive Sonata for two pianos and percussion from 1926 — a jostling, gracious and generally deft performance to round off the disc.

CD review: Momo Kodama plays Debussy & Hosokawa etudes

First published in the Guardian on 3 February, 2017

Debussy/Hosokawa: Etudes
Momo Kodama (ECM)

Debussy looked east for inspiration, enthralled by Javanese gamelans and Japanese woodcuts. Toshio Hosokawa, born in Hiroshima in 1955, writes wispy music rooted in the Western tradition. Pianist Momo Kodama grew up in Osaka and studied in Paris; her first ECM album paired Takemitsu with Ravel and Messiaen. You can guess where this is going: a programme that alternates piano studies by Debussy and Hosokawa, intended to illuminate the cross-cultural influences of music written a hundred years apart. The album is called Point and Line after one of the Hosokawa studies, but that name also hints at the cool definition of Kodama’s playing. Her touch is immaculate and diligent, neatly flamboyant in the Debussy and reassuringly robust in the Hosokawa. She writes that both composers are “between meditation and virtuoso development, between light and shade, between large gestures and minimalist refinement” — and it’s those places in between that make her interpretations interesting.