CD Reviews

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.

CD review: Natalie Clein plays Bloch, Dallapiccola & Ligeti

First published in the Guardian on 3 February, 2017

Bloch/ Dallapiccola/ Ligeti: Cello Suites
Natalie Clein (Hyperion)

The lone cello has played gateway to many a composer’s soul. Bach and Britten, most famously. Ernest Bloch wrote his three solo cello suites in the 1950s, near the end of his life, and they are fleeting and strange. Performed by Natalie Clein, their small scale is poignant — melancholy little vignettes, intimate and tender, as though she’s playing on her own while flitting through troubled memories in her mind. She builds a programme with two other thrawn and candid post-war pieces: Dallapiccola’s Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio (1945) — muscular, disturbed — and Ligeti’s two-movement Sonata (1948-53), which contains one of the most unguardedly beautiful melodies he ever wrote. Clein is full of conviction in all of it, with fearless attack and haunting quiet passages.

CD review: Olav Anton Thommessen’s The Hermaphrodite

First published in the Guardian on 3 February, 2017

Thommessen: The Hermaphrodite
Oslo Sinfonietta/Eggen (Aurora)

Olav Anton Thommessen (b. 1946) is something of an elder statesman of Norwegian contemporary music, with a prolific back catalogue and august institutional connections. He also has a pedigree in early experimentalism — fellow composer Nigel Osborne remembers how “Olav played the cello and something that looked like a meat cleaver, which he would beat the floor with like an angry troll.” Thommessen’s ballet-opera The Hermaphrodite dates from the 1970s and uses texts by DH Lawrence, Isidore Ducasse and early Christian gnostic gospels. It deals in matters of love, lust and sexuality and all feels wonderfully of its time — intense swooping vocals, strung-out instrumentals, ritualistic percussion, a mash-up of baroque opera, expressionist melodrama and heavily stylised Japanese Noh theatre. As a period piece it’s great fun, and this performance from the Oslo Sinfonietta under Christian Eggen is impressive — committed and energetic, with ultra-focused playing, vivid drama in the pacing and spacing (the recording sounds in 3D), elastic singing and some virtuosic heavy breathing from soprano Eir Inderhaug and the rest of the cast.

CD review: Eva-Maria Houben’s Livres d’Heures

First published in the Guardian on 19 January, 2017

Eva-Maria Houben: Livres d’Heures
Houben/ Feilen/Carlson/ Kumper (Wandelweiser)

Eva-Maria Houben (b. 1955) is a German composer/organist who epitomises the Wandelweiser aesthetic of sparseness, slowness, unwavering quiet, fastidious calm. “Music may exist ‘between’,”she writes. “In my music you will find sounds which seem to avoid the decision: appearing or disappearing?” She sets up situations as much as anything, lingering after a note has been struck in that space where anything might just happen. And because nothing does happen — the next note sounds as insistently serene as the previous — there’s a creeping tension, like someone holding a feather a millimetre from your nose for an indeterminate amount of time. Houben’s Livres d’Heures is named after the medieval Christian devotional books and is delivered with exemplary control on this recording. The first book features tubular bells in warm unison with Houben’s piano; the second book inhabits the fragile upper harmonics of two violins; the third, a whispered panoply of bow scrapes and pizzicatos, spins off into the tantalising realm of Hector Berlioz’s marvellous instruction ‘presque rien’.

CD review: Peter Maxwell Davies late chamber music

First published in the Guardian on 19 January, 2017

Maxwell Davies: Chamber music
Canino/Ceccanti/Fossi/Ceccanti (Naxos)

Rome and Fair Isle, not an obvious pairing, were both inspirations behind late-period Maxwell Davies chamber music. His Piano Trio (2002) invokes Shetland tunes, rough waters and jagged cliffscapes. The Sonata for Violin and Piano (2008) imagines a walk through Rome with menacing dark alleys and sudden epiphanies. In both the music roams and spirals. The violinist on this recording is the fantastically ardent Duccio Ceccanti, with his cellist brother Vittorio, fond of big gestures, and the pianists Bruno Canino and Matteo Fossi. The disc opens with the Sonata for Violin Alone (2013), which Ceccanti plays with a deeply personal conviction and untethered flair hard to imagine from anyone else. Recorded in a massively resonant town hall in Perugia, the single 20-minute elegy feels improvisatory, austere, questioning, resolute. As a palette cleanser we get the Dances from The Two Fiddlers — hackneyed folk pastiches from Maxwell Davies’s 1970s children’s opera that sound utterly kitsch in Ceccanti’s fulsome vibrato and assiduous Scotch snaps.

CD review: Nuria Rial sings Sacred Duets

First published in the Guardian on 19 January, 2017

Sacred Duets
Nuria Rial/Valer Sabadus/Basel Chamber Orchestra (Sony)

Nuria Rial is a Catalan baroque soprano whom I wish we heard more of in the UK. Her voice is pristine, gracious, featherweight; she shapes her lines with an understated finesse that sounds as natural as the wind. All of which comes across beautifully on this disc, and yet the overall impact is a little underwhelming. She teams up with countertenor Valer Sabadus — also nimble and elegant but a less distinctive voice especially in his lower range — for duets and arias from Italian oratorios 1670-1770 including gems by Porpora, Lotti, Torelli, Gabrielli and Alessandro Scarlatti. The duos sound sumptuous, a gorgeous vocal blend, but for the most part the singers treat the material as non-declamatory and reflective rather than dramatic. It all starts to sound lukewarm, and the polished Basel orchestra doesn’t help — no urgency, no grit, no swing, deadly polite.