CD Reviews

CD review: Messiaen’s Quatuor plus…

First published in the Guardian on 14 April, 2017

Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time etc
Krakauer/ Haimovitz/Crow/ Burleson/ Socalled (Pentatone)

Cellist Matt Haimovitz and clarinettist David Krakauer met at a klezmer gathering in Canada and discovered a shared intrigue in Henri Akoka — the Algerian-born Sephardic Jewish clarinettist who premiered Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at a WW2 prisoner of war camp. In a tribute project called Akoka, they frame Messiaen’s masterpiece with improvisations and a woeful electronic remix by Montreal “beat architect” Socalled (bits of the Quartet layered up with archive radio broadcasts, hip hop rhythms and Sephardic cantorial singing). The multi-faith angle could be interesting — Messiaen’s technicolour catholicism dominates most readings of the Quartet, so a klezmer-style vibrato in the solo clarinet movement, for example, is a valid perspective. And the performance of the Quartet proper is generally classy, especially the immensely expressive and gentle playing of violinist Jonathan Crow. But the add-ons are dire, and doubly so given they segue straight in and out of the Messiaen leaving no room for escape.

CD review: Pintscher does New York

First published in the Guardian on 14 April, 2017

New York
Ensemble Intercontemporain/ Pintscher (Alpha)

What does New York sound like? This double-disc collection charts the city’s past century of modern classical music, taking in composers born there (Carter, Feldman, Reich) and composers who made it their home (Varese and Cage plus recent works by David Fulmer and Sean Shepherd). Matthias Pintsher is himself a German composer/conductor who lives in New York and flits across the Atlantic to direct the illustrious Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain; the performances he gets from them are virtuosic, rich, detailed, sober. I yearned for a bit more romp in the shrieks and rituals of Varese’s Integrales from 1925; more ensemble clatter in Elliott Carter’s Clarinet Concerto (the solo part is tackled superbly by Jerome Comte). Inevitably a seven-piece survey will have big repertoire gaps — conspicuously missing is the cheery and too-popular-for-Pintscher brand of post-minimalism championed by the Bang on the Can collective. Depressing, too, to see yet another music history narrative told without a single woman’s voice in the mix.

CD review: Javier Perianes plays Schubert

First published in the Guardian on 13 April, 2017

Schubert: Piano Sonatas D.960 & D.664
Javier Perianes (Harmonia Mundi)

Javier Perianes revealed to the Guardian that his most memorable ever live concert experience was hearing the great Romanian pianist Radu Lupu playing Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major D 960. He said he would “never forget that emotion from the very first to the very last note”. Now he has recorded that same sonata — Schubert’s last — and made his own very personal account of its huge emotional scope. With Perianes the touch is always warm and the edges are never harsh: the hymn-like opening is whispered and tender, the exploratory passages are wide-eyed and the song-like melodies really sing. He doesn’t get the glimpses of rage and terror that some performances do, but instead gives us sensitivity and unguarded rapture. He pairs D 960 with the blithe A-major sonata D 664 and now brings space and weight to music that some pass off as slight. It’s generous playing.

CD reviews: Peter Donohoe plays Shostakovich

First published in the Guardian on 30 March, 2017

Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues
Peter Donohoe (Signum)

Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues pay tribute to JS Bach, but are they parodies? Sometimes they sound it. Peter Donohoe doesn’t think so. Even where Shostakovich’s music is often mined for sarcasm or doublespeak or coded messages, Donohoe treats these piano miniatures with utmost sincerity. His new recording of the complete set isn’t introspective or showy; it isn’t overly reverent or sensationalist. Above all his playing is frank, sometimes to the point of plainness. The A-major fugue could be beguiling — he describes a ‘naive wonderment’ in his booklet notes — but he goes at it staunchly. The biting black comedy of the prelude that follows delivered straight. Elsewhere, though, there is immense dignity and power in Donohoe’s directness. He summons thunderous storm clouds in the D-minor fugue then makes the arpeggios of the D-major Prelude as sparkling as a stream, and the most questioning moments — the three cadences at the end of the F-minor prelude, for example — are thoughtful and poignant.

CD review: Kate Whitley’s I Am I Say

First published in the Guardian on 30 March, 2017

Kate Whitley: I Am I Say
Multi-Story Orchestra/Stark etc (NMC)

Kate Whitley co-founded the Multi-Story Orchestra in a car park in Peckham with several intentions, chief among them getting an audience closer to the music they were hearing and far away from ingrained listening habits of the concert hall. A similar drive seems to underpin the unpretentious, appealingly vigorous and visceral music she writes. This debut portrait album showcases Whitley, who is not yet 30, as a lush harmonist, an orchestrator who handles instruments boldly — the Viola Concerto flings about from rapt quiet passages to thronging strings — and a melodist who isn’t afraid of big rhapsodic elegies. The performances are direct and excellent: Rolf Hind is full of conviction in the now bruising, now effervescent Five Piano Pieces; Eloisa-Fleur Thom and Asher Zaccardelli are all glint and shimmer in the Duo for Violin and Viola; Shiry Rashkovsky charges fearlessly through the Viola Concerto’s squalls. In the title piece for orchestra, school choirs and soloists, Whitley takes up the noble tradition of writing rousing, robust music for children that takes its young performers seriously.

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.