CD Reviews

CD Review: Jonathan Dove’s In Damascus

First published in the Guardian on 8 June, 2017

Jonathan Dove: In Damascus etc
Sacconi Quartet/Padmore/Owen (Signum)

“My heart is a black lump of coal,” writes Syrian poet Ali Safar. “My heart is a full stop on a page.” This is an excerpt, translated by Anne-Marie McManus, of Safar’s A Black Cloud in a Leaden White Sky, or Death by Stabs of Sorrow, which details personal responses to the Syrian war and provides the text of Jonathan Dove’s In Damascus for tenor and string quartet. The beauty of the piece is its restraint. It doesn’t sensationalise, doesn’t get maudlin, doesn’t moralise or politicise. The words are direct and the music respects that. The performance does, too: clear, focused playing from the Sacconi Quartet and lucid, unswerving narrative from tenor Mark Padmore. The rest of the disc is lighter but always with that trademark Dove economy: the Sacconis sound relaxed and bubbly in the 2001 quartet Out of Time and pianist Charles Owen joins for the Piano Quintet, intense and light-filled.

CD review: Aldeburgh’s Strauss Metamorphosen

First published in the Guardian on 8 June, 2017

Strauss: Metamorphosen, Serenade Op 7, Symphony for Winds
Aldeburgh Strings/Aldeburgh Winds (Linn)

Metamorphosen makes me seasick in the wrong hands. Written by an 85-year-old Strauss in the months after World War Two, the relentless swell and tug of the grief-thick harmonies need players who see past the next wave and steer a course through half an hour of stormy waters. And it really is up to every single player – Strauss wrote 23 solo string parts rather than clumping instruments together, and that makes the skill and judgement of the young Aldeburgh Strings led by Markus Daunert doubly impressive. Their sound is lithe and rich, their trajectory isn’t thrown off course at every squall but they coalesce into broad, gutsy gestures when they want to. It’s a sophisticated performance. Strauss’s late wind ensemble pieces get similarly intelligent treatment from Aldeburgh Winds under oboist Nicholas Daniel: charismatic individual voices, sturdy group textures and a lot of thought and care shaping every phrase.

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.

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.

CD review: Minkowski’s John Passion

First published in the Guardian on 27 April, 2017

St John Passion
Les Musiciens du Louvre/Minkowski (Erato)

Conductor Marc Minkowski describes Bach’s John Passion as “the most violent, vivid and dramatic score” of the early 18th century, so it’s not surprising that violence and drama is what we get from his excellent Grenoble-based period band Les Musiciens du Louvre. This passion is brutal from the start — bass notes in the opening chorus are full of threat, a contrabassoon added for extra thud — but it’s also punctuated with sudden and very devastating gentleness. Try one of the silky chorales or an aria like Mein teurer Heiland to see what I mean. The eight-voice ensemble singing is terrific, now vicious, now officious, now keening, and although the vocal soloists aren’t always dazzling (I found Lothar Odinius’s Evangelist a bit cloying, the soprano voices a little shrill) there’s great poise in the alto and bass numbers. That contrabassoon is back for the final chorus, underpinning the exhausted grief with a grim inevitability. It’s an intense, full-throttle account.

CD review: Staier & Melnikov play Schubert

First published in the Guardian on 27 April, 2017

Schubert: Fantasie in F Minor etc
Staier/Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi)

Schubert played piano duets in living rooms, with friends, for friends. To me it feels a bit weird seeing these pieces on big stages under concert lights, so I love a recording that takes them back to living room vibe. Andreas Staier and Alexander Melnikov play a nut-warm, sweet-voiced fortepiano modelled after the kind of instrument Schubert would have known (for the cognoscenti: it’s a Graf copy by Christopher Clarke). They open with the magnum opus of duet repertoire, the F Minor Fantasie D.940, but it’s not the moody, broody thing it tends to be on modern Steinways. The sound is more intimate, more spruce; high notes have a pearliness that make the melodies really ping, and whichever pianist is playing the upper part (I’m guessing Staier — something about those flourishes) adds dainty ornaments that make the whole thing feel partly improvised. The disc also includes bits and bobs like the gracious Rondo D.951, the Variations D.813 and the 6 Grand Marches D.819.