Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir under their Music Director, Grete Pedersen achieve the most wonderful results on their new disc for BIS of works by Nørgård, Lachenmann, Janson, Saariaho and Xenakis, taking choral singing to a new level

The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir was established in 1950 by the Norwegian Soloists’ Society with the aim of becoming an elite ensemble for performing choral music to the highest possible standard. The choir’s first conductor was Knut Nystedt, who led the ensemble for forty years. Since 1990 the choir has sung under the leadership of the internationally acclaimed Grete Pedersen, undertaking a great number of concerts in Scandinavia, the USA and Asia as well as recordings.

The members of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir are professionally trained, hand-picked singers, all of whom are potential soloists. The choir maintains a youthful profile, receptive to and willing to perform newly written works, while at the same time performing core classical works from the Nordic and international choral repertoire.

The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir have made a number of recordings for BIS Records of which their latest is entitled As Dreams featuring works by Per Nørgård, Helmut Lachenmann, Alfred Janson, Kaija Saariaho and Iannis Xenakis that reflect the idea of night and dreams. They are joined on this new release by the Oslo Sinfonietta.

BIS - 2139

Drømmesange (Dream Songs) (1981) for mixed choir and percussion ad lib by the Danish composer, Per Nørgård (b.1932) has its origins in a song written for a radio play by Danish author Finn Methling who adapted the text from a Chinese original. It described a boy’s dream about his future self. This new work presents the same dream in three ways.  

A solo soprano sings over a beautifully blended wordless choral layer in the evocative Utopia. Nørgård brings some lovely touches, beautiful harmonies and attractive little details. A drum joins to add a rhythm behind the choir, bringing a rather timeless feel. The music picks up a greater rhythm in Ambiguous, driving forward until a drum alone continues, slowly falling. The music picks up as the choir re-joins with changes in the rhythm as the drum leads to Nightmare, gaining in intensity as the choir bring some pretty earthy, rhythmic moments until rising to a violent tam-tam stroke. The opening slow and atmospheric choral idea returns with hushed tam-tam colouring the music. Bells sound before the choir leads quietly and gently forward, rising through some terrific bars, with a variety of percussion to the coda.

Helmut Lachenmann (b.1935) was born in Stuttgart and was the first private student of Luigi Nono (1924-1990). His Consolation II (Wessobrunner Gebet) (Wessobrunner Prayer) (1968) for 16 voices (mixed choir) is based on fragments of language taken from the oldest existing Christian text in German.

The choir bring some unusual vocal sounds as the music opens, chirps, hisses, screeches and shouts, yet combining to make an atmospheric whole, rising and falling as the text is sung and declaimed through a variety of passages. This remarkable work shows just how fine and flexible this choir is. They travel through a very hushed section where one can just perceive the vocal sounds bringing a rather ghostly atmosphere. Often the choir is used orchestrally with individual singers weaving their sounds. They rise through a section with shrill whistles and exclamations before arriving at another hushed section with the most amazing, strange vocal utterances.  

The Norwegian pianist and composer, Alfred Janson (b.1937) sets a text from Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) Also sprach Zarathustra for his Nocturne (1967) for double choir, 2 cellos, harp and 2 percussionists.

The female voices of the Norwegian Soloists' Choir slowly and gently enter with quite lovely harmonies to which the two cellos soon add subtle and wiry textures, combining the string textures with the choir and harp, with percussion colouring the texture. They rise through some quite ethereal moments, through which the text eventually runs, before building in strength, drums adding to the drama. Very soon the music quietens. There are cymbal strokes as the music finds a lovely ebb and flow, beautifully coloured by percussion with the choir providing the most lovely textures and harmonies. The music builds to a pitch with a series of vocal and percussion outbursts before the cellos and harp appear through the vocal texture as we are taken to a hushed coda.

This is a quite wonderful work.

The Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho (b.1952) takes a text by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) to contrast light and dark as a trance like interplay between past and present in Überzeugung (Conviction) (2001) for three female voices, crotale, violin and cello. In this brief work the violin brings chords over a pizzicato cello before the three female voices enter combining with the violin to produce some lovely, melancholy ideas before gently finding the coda.  

Per Nørgård’s Singe die Gärten, mein Herz, die du nicht kennst (Sing, my heart, of the gardens you do not know) (1974) for eight part choir and eight instruments, is an independent part of his Symphony No.3 (1972-75) and sets Sonnet 21 from the second part of Rainer Maria Rilke’s (1875-1926) Sonnets to Orpheus.

The instruments sound out as the choir brings the text, rising through some especially fine passages before continuing the little vocal declamations within the expanding choral line. There are some lovely harmonic shifts as well as so many lovely instrumental details, with this choir rising through some terrific passages. They provide a gentle pulse as the music rises and falls with the instrumentalists and choir finding some very fine harmonies, achieving the most wonderfully subtle effects. Later a solo female voice rises out of the texture before the music moves through the most lovely instrumental textures, with the choir, to a spectacularly fine coda.

This is a strikingly beautiful setting.

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) fled his native Greece and became a naturalised French citizen. His Nuits (Nights) (1967-68) for 12 mixed voices or mixed choir was dedicated to political prisoners and creates a landscape of strange sounds from lost languages such as Assyrian and Sumerian.

Female voices sound out violently, soon joined by the male voices, alternating before they weave their sounds. The choir create a rising and falling texture of stunning brilliance with declamatory passages. This choir responds to this exacting music with terrific skill, soaring through some wonderful passages. There are some exceptional vocal effects as they move through passages of stunning vocal agility and fine textures before arriving at a hushed coda on rich vocal textures, with a final declamation.

This is an often exacting, but spectacularly original work sung to perfection by this outstanding choir.

Kaija Saariaho’s Nuits, adieux (1991/96) for mixed choir and four soloists consists of two series of passages, ‘nights’ and ‘farewells’ drawing on novels by Jacques Roubaud (b.1932) and Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850).

The choir opens gently, soon overlaid by a female soloist. There are vocal murmurings as the music progresses, creating a terrific atmosphere. A solo female voice speaks the text, though verging on sprechgesang. The voices gently weave a rising and falling choral line with detailed little vocal sounds, almost gentle sighs in this quite wonderful evocation of night. The music rises through a passage of greater intensity before a tenor solo takes the text over choral background. Breathing sounds grow increasingly intense before gasps, vocal whoops and screams bring a dramatic sequence, perhaps the terrifying aspect of night. A bass takes the text slowly forward over a languid choral backdrop where there are some especially fine harmonies before finding a gentle hushed coda.

There is much beauty here, often clothed in the most adventurous harmonies and vocal ideas. The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir under their Music Director, Grete Pedersen achieve the most wonderful results, taking choral singing to a new level. 

They receive a tip top recording from the Ris Kirke, Norway. There are excellent booklet notes by Erling Sandmo from which I have been grateful to quote as well as full texts and English translations. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Lively, idiomatic performances of Rodrigo’s Chamber Music with Violin on a new release from Naxos

The Spanish composer, Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999) was born in Sagunto, Valencia and lost most of his sight at the age of three after contracting diphtheria.  He began to study piano and violin at the age of eight before going on to study music under Francisco Antich in Valencia and under Paul Dukas (1865-1935) at the École Normale de Musique in Paris.

His first published compositions date from 1940 and in 1943 he received Spain's National Prize for Orchestra for Cinco piezas infantiles (Five Children's Pieces). From 1947 Rodrigo was a professor of music history, holding the Manuel de Falla Chair of Music in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, at Complutense University of Madrid.

His most famous work, the Concierto de Aranjuez, was composed in 1939 in Paris for the guitarist Regino Sainz de la Maza. Of his other works, that ranged across orchestral, wind ensemble, concertos, chamber, instrumental, vocal and choral, none achieved the popular success of the Concierto de Aranjuez.  

Rodrigo was awarded Spain's highest award for composition, the Premio Nacional de Música and was given the hereditary title of Marqués de los Jardines de Aranjuez by King Juan Carlos I. He received the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award and was named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. Joaquín Rodrigo and his wife Victoria are buried in the cemetery at Aranjuez.

Naxos have already issued a large number of recordings of Rodrigo’s music in their Spanish Classics series. Now comes a new release featuring the composer’s Chamber Music with Violin performed by violinist Eva León www.evaLeó , pianist Olga Vinokur  and guitarist Virginia Luque


Sonata pimpante for violin and piano (1965) was written for the composer’s son-in-law Agustin León Ara and was premiered in Brussels in 1966. In three movements it opens with a sparkling Allegro, full of spirited rhythmic bounce before the piano leads into a slower melody with an Iberian flavour. Eva León and Olga Vinokur weave some lovely moments before the music picks up again. Later the atmospheric slower melody returns to lead us through some very fine development passages before picking up again to find a lively coda.

In the Adagio - Allegro vivace - Adagio the piano introduces a lovely rippling theme to which the violin adds a melody, drawing some lovely harmonies before developing through some more intensely Iberian sounds. The music picks up vigorously in the striding Allegro vivace, full of incisive rhythmic chords before the piano brings a real gravitas and weight as the Adagio returns, the violin adding fine textures and harmonies, finding a sweet, gentle coda.

The Allegro molto brings one of Rodrigo’s typically riotous allegros, full of energy and dissonant harmonies with these two players throwing much spirit and life into the music with a real sense of abandon in the later stages.

The Set Cançons valencianes (Seven Valencian Songs) for violin and piano (1982) were also dedicated to Agustin León Ara and performed by him with the pianist Jose Tordesillas the same year. The piano gently picks out the theme of the lovely little No. 1. Allegretto, and is soon joined by the violin as this sad little melody moves forward. The violin brings a rich melody over piano chords in No. 2. Andante moderato, adding some lovely Sephardic inflections. No. 3. Allegro finds Rodrigo’s more obvious rhythmic style as the violin brings chords over a staccato piano line in this simple yet charmingly effective piece.

The violin adds a gentle, wistful melody to a flowing piano line in No. 4. Andante moderato e molto cantabile, developing some fine harmonies between instruments with two lovely little passages for piano. No. 5. Andantino brings an attractive rhythmic pulse as it gently flows forward, with some lovely little decorations from both instrumentalists. The violin alone introduces the slow melody of No. 6. Andante religioso with fine harmonies before the piano takes the theme. Both weave some slow stately harmonies before a hushed coda. The piano springs into life with the lively theme of No. 7. Tempo di bolero (Moderato) and is soon joined by the violin. All the while a sprung rhythm is maintained in this very Spanish piece.

Capriccio, ‘Ofrenda a Sarasate’ for solo violin (1944) was written at the request of Radio Madrid to commemorate the centenary of the great violinist Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908) and represents Rodrigo’s only piece for solo violin.

Eva León pushes quickly ahead in a fast moving theme that travels through some virtuosic bars. Brief pauses separate the ideas as they progress, this violinist bringing much sparkle and bravura, with fine harmonies and textures, developing some terrific passages.

The Serenata al alba del día (Serenade to the Dawn) for violin and guitar (1982) was dedicated to the Czech guitarist and composer Jiří Knobloch (1931-2012) but premeired in Los Angeles in 1983 by Agustin León Ara and Pepe Romero. In two movements, the guitar brings a really lovely theme in I. Andante moderato with some fine dissonant harmonies that spice up this piece, soon joined by the violin as more of a flow is achieved. In II. Allegro the guitar brings firm chords, responded to by the violin in this short, rhythmic piece, full of Rodrigo’s fingerprints.

Dos Esbozos (Two Sketches) for violin and piano (1923) are dedicated to the violinist and composer Abelardo Mus (1907-1983). The piano introduces a gentle idea in the opening of No. 1. La enamorada junto al peqeuño surtidor: Andantino (The Young Girl in Love beside the Little Fountain) to which the violin adds a flowing melody, moving through some quite lovely passages with the piano adding a trickling line over which the violin melody flows. No. 2. Pequeña ronda: Allegro (A little round) takes off quickly in a rhythmic theme with the violin developing a melody over an often dissonant piano line.   

Dedicated to the Spanish violinist Josefina Salvador (1920-2006), Rumaniana for violin and piano (1943) is based on Rumanian dance tunes. A slowly developed theme, full of Rumanian inflections, runs through some high passages for violin, exquisitely played here. There is a quiet, slow, atmospheric passage before the music picks up in a fast driving section before slowing toward the sudden coda. 

These are lively, idiomatic performances that bring a further view of this composer. They are rather closely recorded but the ear soon adjusts. There are informative booklet notes from Rodrigo’s biographer Graham Wade.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Anthony Goldstone 1944 - 2017

It is with great sadness that I have to report that one of Britain’s finest pianists, Anthony Goldstone, passed away peacefully on 2nd January.

This fine pianist built a formidable career both as a solo artist and, with his wife Caroline Clemmow, as part of one of this country’s finest piano duos. My wife, Deborah and I were privileged to count Tony and Caroline as friends for over twenty years after meeting Caroline at our local music festival. Our association with Albany Records led to Tony and Caroline making a number of recordings for that company. Both later recorded for Divine Art and Albion Records before culminating with their superb recording on Albion of the two piano versions of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia and Fifth Symphony, a remarkably apt work for what turned out to be their swansong together.

The New York Times described him as ‘a man whose nature was designed with pianos in mind’ and Die Presse of Vienna as ‘a musician with a sense of the grand manner, long lines unfolding without interruption, strongly hewn rhythms, warmth, a touch displaying the qualities of colour and cantabile, in addition to possessing a sure technique and real strength… astonishingly profound spiritual penetration.’

Anthony Goldstone was born in Liverpool and studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music (later the Royal Northern College of Music) where his piano professor was Derrick Wyndham. The RMCM was to later honour him with a Fellowship. He went on to study in London with Maria Curcio, one of Schnabel’s greatest pupils, making him a sixth-generation pupil of Beethoven.

International prizes in Munich and Vienna followed as well as a Gulbenkian Fellowship which launched a busy schedule of recitals and concertos taking him across Europe and to North and South America, Asia, Africa and Australasia. There were prestigious festival invitations and many broadcasts as well as numerous London appearances including Promenade Concerts, notably the Last Night, after which Benjamin Britten wrote to him saying, ‘Thank you most sincerely for that brilliant performance of my Diversions. I wish I could have been at the Royal Albert Hall to join in the cheers.’

Tony Goldstone has always regarded the classics and romantics as being at the heart of his repertoire recording an acclaimed series of CDs devoted to the major solo works of Schubert. His series of recordings for Divine Art have ranged from Beethoven and Mozart to 20th century British composers all with new completions and rarities, as well as transcriptions from ballet and opera. His interest in rarities led to a series of recordings of works by Rebikov, Lyapunov, Arensky and Glière.

Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow formed their piano duo in 1984 making numerous recordings, broadcasts and concert appearances, receiving wide praise from public and critics alike. Their acclaimed seven-CD cycle of the complete original four-hand music of Schubert, including works not found in the collected edition, is probably a world first. Tony Goldstone’s completions and realisations of several works by Schubert and Mozart were greeted with enthusiasm by musicologists and listeners alike.

Tony’s death has deprived my wife and me of a great friend and the music world of an exceptional musician.
Bruce Reader   The Classical Reviewer

Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Pécs Symphony Orchestra under Nicholas Pasquet provide spirited, idiomatic performances of Hungarian composer László Lajtha’s Symphony No.2 and Variations, Op. 44 on a re-release from Naxos

Naxos recorded the nine symphonies of the Hungarian composer László Lajtha on its sister label Marco Polo in the 1990s. Now they have begun the process of re-issuing these works on the Naxos label commencing with Symphony No.1 coupled with Suite pour orchestre (8.573643) and now the release of Symphony No.2 coupled with the substantial Variations, Op. 44 with the Pécs Symphony Orchestra (recently renamed as Pannon Philharmonic Orchestra)  conducted by Nicholas Pasquet


László Lajtha (1892-1963) was born in Budapest and studied with Victor von Herzfeld (1856-1919) at the Budapest Academy. He was later associated with Bartok and Kodály in their folk song collecting and taught at the National Conservatory. He travelled widely and was known internationally for his folk music research. After the Second World War, Lajtha was appointed Director of Music for Hungarian Radio, director of the Museum of Ethnography and of the Budapest National Conservatory. His symphonic piece In Memoriam was the first new work to be premiered in Budapest when concerts could be given there again. In 1947 to 1948 Lajtha spent a year in London, having been asked by the film director Georg Höllering to compose music for his film of T. S. Eliot's verse drama Murder in the Cathedral. On his return to Hungary he lost all of his official positions due to political reasons. In 1951 he was awarded the Kossuth Prize for his activities in folk-music research and was the only Hungarian composer since Liszt to be elected a corresponding member of the French Académie de Beaux-Arts.

His compositions include an operetta, ten string quartets, three ballets, choral and vocal music and the nine symphonies.

Lajtha’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 27 was written in 1938 and reflected his experiences in the First World War as well as anticipating the coming violence and horror of the coming war. It was not published or performed in his lifetime. It was first performed by the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Jancsovics in 1988. In three movements the movement has dramatic opening orchestral chords with a tam-tam stroke before the dramatic theme heaves itself along, weighty and intense. Soon there is a quieter section where a piano and pizzicato strings underline the theme, coloured by percussion, brass and woodwind.  Moments of tremendous atmosphere develop where Lajtha’s Hungarian roots are more apparent. There is a wistful passage for strings as well as moments of shimmering strings out of which the piano and woodwind weave some lovely phrases. Later timpani beat out dramatically as do other percussion as the music rises. Woodwind and brass continue to colour the music in a passage of great beauty before moving quickly ahead with the most dramatic weaving of orchestral ideas. Eventually the woodwind weave a quieter, hauntingly atmospheric passage before the decisive coda.

Movement II Molto vivace e leggiero opens with a light textured orchestral idea that moves along in a light footed manner weaving some very fine ideas. Often there is a sense of joy, at other times a heavier, more dramatic tread. Often the music finds forward moving dance rhythms. Woodwind appear through the orchestral texture bringing a very Hungarian flavour with the music fairly bubbling along at times. A solo violin brings a jolly little tune, again Hungarian in flavour before a myriad of instruments appear through the texture. The music calms towards the end before finding a cheerful little coda.

Two heavy chords from the orchestra open Movement III before the strings take the theme forward, again with various instruments weaving through the orchestral tapestry, a piano heard underneath. Soon the opening chords are reflected in a dramatic, heavy orchestral outburst as the music gains in drama again, often with a sense of foreboding. Later there is a haunting moment where a solo violin brings a folksy tune over a steady orchestral layer, taken up by woodwind. The piano leads a faster passage where the orchestra surges ahead, full of anxiety before arriving at an insistent forward moving passage. Horns come in over the orchestra as the music finds a climax, from which it suddenly falls back. The solo violin appears over a hushed orchestra, with other strings and woodwind soon weaving a very distinctive section before timpani thunder and the decisive coda rams home.

This is a work that is full of incident and colour with some lovely themes, subtly shot through with Hungarian character.

The full title of the Variations, Op. 44 is Eleven Variations for Orchestra on a Simple Theme, 'Temptations' and dates from 1947 to 1948. Begun in Budapest, it is one of the works that Lajtha completed whilst staying in London in 1948 when writing the music for Georg Höllering’s film Murder in the Cathedral, from which the composer drew his material.

Pizzicato basses are soon overlaid by a string theme, interrupted by brass before woodwind bring a lovely theme. The music soon finds a steady tread through which individual instruments appear, rising in passion before finding a more tranquil passage. The music suddenly picks up a fast rhythmic forward movement, dancing through some wonderfully orchestrated passages, through sections of lively, buoyant music as the orchestra darts around, bringing a seamless flow of ideas. There is an especially effective passage for strings with a solo violin, full of passion with moments of constantly shifting development. Later a flute brings a variation over hushed orchestra with a gentle side drum. Brass rise to stride forward before the orchestra continues with the confident, forward striding variation.

There is a moment of gentle luminescence where bells gently sound, over woodwind which the strings take forward. The music soon regains a buoyancy to bounce forward before arriving at a sudden moment of passion, a slow outpouring from the strings which leads into a lovely cor-anglais sequence that is shared by the woodwind. This extended variation for cor-anglais is really very fine. It is taken by the strings as a harp is heard before rising forcefully. Midway there is a fast scurrying string passage, before a small ensemble of strings players weaves a particularly fine variation, full of fine textures and much feeling. The orchestra pics up in a lively variation with brass and drums with an atmospheric little passage flitting by before the music strides ahead with a xylophone appearing, adding to the marching rhythm with anxious woodwind phrases. The music surges with varying ideas before picking up to lead to a terrific, dynamic coda.

Lajtha shows remarkable powers of invention in this constant outpouring of orchestral ideas.

These works have an important place in our understanding of Hungarian music in the early 20th century. Bartok thought highly of him, holding the opinion that, apart from Kodály and Lajtha, Hungary ‘had no valuable composers.’ The Pécs Symphony Orchestra under Nicholas Pasquet provides spirited, idiomatic performances. 

The recordings are a little reverberant but otherwise clear and detailed and there are informative booklet notes.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony provide performances that catch so much of Debussy’s atmosphere and colour in live SACD recordings of great weight, detail and presence on a new release from SFS Media

Michael Tilson Thomas’ latest live recording for the San Francisco Symphony’s own record label, SFS Media brings together works by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) recorded live at three different concerts during 2013 and 2014 at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall.


This new disc opens with Debussy’s Images pour orchestre, L.122. The composer had already completed his Images pour le piano I (1901-05) and Images pour le piano II (1907) before his long awaited orchestral Images which he worked on between 1905 and 1912. Iberia was conducted by Gabriel Pierné in February 1910 and Rondes de printemps by Debussy the following month. The premiere of the complete work was conducted by Debussy in January 1913.

Michael Tilson Thomas creates a palpable sense of mystery and atmosphere right from the opening bars of No. 1 Gigues shaping some fine passages, subtly achieving a rhythmic pulse. He keeps a wonderfully fluid tempo, achieving a really French quality in Debussy’s lovely harmonies. This is a wonderfully atmospheric performance.

There is some very characterful playing from the San Francisco Symphony in Par les rues et par les chemins of No. 2 Ibéria particularly in the brass. They find a terrific rhythm around which Debussy’s harmonies flow. The orchestra’s strings really are quite wonderful, beautifully caught here. They move through some beautifully scented passages, revealing so much of Debussy’s orchestration.  Again Tilson Thomas catches the atmosphere perfectly in Les parfums de la nuit, shaping the music wonderfully, weaving so many colours and textures whilst finding Debussy’s constantly shifting harmonies. They bring a beautifully flexible tempo right through to the atmospheric end. The San Francisco Symphony runs straight into a beautifully judged conclusion of Le matin d'un jour de fête where this conductor shapes the slowly emerging theme exquisitely. The San Francisco Symphony’s leader and principal clarinet provide some especially fine moments as do the whole woodwind section. This orchestra is quite brilliant in this ever changing scene.

There is a beautifully shimmering opening to No. 3 Rondes de printemps before weaving a brilliant tapestry of orchestral sounds. The San Francisco Symphony provides some terrific moments with a real sense of spontaneity from so many individual members of the orchestra, later achieving a terrific forward sweep.

It was for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes that Debussy wrote what was to be his last orchestral work, Jeux, (poèm dansé) L.126. The premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris on 15th May 1913, with Pierre Monteux conducting, was a box office failure. The composer spent the performance in the concierge’s office smoking a cigarette, angry and unable to understand Nijinsky’s choreography.
The San Francisco Symphony bring a beautifully textured opening, soon developing some playful moments before moving through some delightfully animated passages, with Tilson Thomas always keeping an ear for colour, texture and sonorities. There are some wonderfully quicksilver passages showing this orchestra’s tremendous flexibility and ensemble, with this conductor finding much atmosphere, shaping this music so well. There is a moment where the San Francisco Symphony strings show their particularly fine, brilliant texture and later there is some very fine weaving of woodwind around the solo violin. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra capture the fleeting moments in this piece quite brilliantly as well as bringing passages of tremendous vibrancy and brilliance.

La Plus que lente, L.121 is another late work that started life as a piano work written in 1910. Debussy’s travels took him to Budapest where he discovered gypsy style café ensembles, a sound that influenced this work. It was on the insistence of his publisher that the composer finally orchestrated the work. Strings open, soon joined by the distinctive sound of the cimbalom . A waltz appears where, at times, Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony bring a sultry inflection. They finely shape this music with some beautifully controlled tempi and dynamics, finding many subtleties. Later the cimbalom is heard through some lovely orchestral textures before a particularly fine, beautifully hushed coda.

These are performances that catch so much of Debussy’s atmosphere and colour. The live SACD recordings have great weight, detail and presence and there are notes from Michael Tilson Thomas and Michael Steinberg. Something of a winner. 

As I publish my last review before Christmas, I would like to take the opportunity to send Seasons’ Greetings to all of my followers and to all the Record Companies, Publishers and Music PR Companies that have supported The Classical Reviewer during 2016.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Divine Art’s two valuable releases show Vyacheslav Artyomov as a distinctive and important voice in Russian music

Vyacheslav Artyomov (b.1940)  was born in Moscow and first studied physics at the University of Moscow before transferring to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory where he studied composition with Nikolai Sidelnikov (1930-1992).  He was an editor at the Moscow publishers Musyka for several years and, along with the composers Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931) and Viktor Suslin (1942-2012), founded the improvisation group Astreya. Since 1979 he has been a freelance composer, with principal works including his acclaimed Requiem, the tetralogy Symphony of the Way and The Morning Star Arises dedicated to the London Symphony Orchestra.

Divine Art Recordings have just released two important discs, available separately, of orchestral works by Vyacheslav Artyomov. The first (dda 25143) includes Symphony - On the Threshold of a Bright World, Ave Atque Vale for solo percussion and orchestra and Hymn – Ave, Crux Alba all with the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia  conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy  

The second disc (dda 25144) brings us Symphony - Gentle Emanation with the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Teodor Currentzis  and Tristia II – Fantasy for Piano and orchestra with pianist Philip Kopachevsky, reader Mikhail Phillipov and the Russian National Orchestra under Vladimir Ponkin

dda 25143

Symphony - On the Threshold of a Bright World (1990 rev. 2002) in 18 continuous episodes is the second part of Artyomov’s tetralogy Symphony of the Way and in the words of the composer ‘has also become a reflection of life in Russia and the dramatic events that continue to take place there.’

It grows out of the deep basses, gently coloured by percussion and higher strings before brass enter brightening the atmosphere. Yet still the deep basses pervade as the music develops through some impressively constructed passages, full of tremendous strength and heft. There are luminous orchestral colours, glowing textures, rising to peaks with cymbal and timpani crashes. Sudden string surges appear before the music finds a subtly faster flow with a lighter orchestral texture out of which woodwind decorations are heard. Later the pace slackens as the woodwind dance amongst the strings. Artyomov creates some distinctive colours with imaginative use of percussion to add to a bubbling texture, developing through some spectacularly fine passages, teeming with ideas, building again in strength to a terrific climax where there are hints of Scriabin. Midway there is another luminescent passage pointed up by piano with a myriad of instrumental ideas heard emerging from the tapestry of sound created by this composer.

Again the music rises in power before falling through a wonderful passage of great delicacy. The darker, deep orchestral sounds re-appear against an anxious plodding motif, rising inexorably, coloured by percussion through a tremendous sustained peak in the twelfth episode before falling quieter with piano over a hushed string layer. However, the passion and power cannot easily be contained and rises again before brass bring a rather sad theme. All breaks out again in a heavy unison orchestral passage. There is a quieter yet pensive moment full of lovely luminosity in the percussion and strings as well as further eruptions and lovely string passages. The music moves through the most exquisite passage for flute, solo violin and strings before lower strings emerge, rising through the orchestra to a more optimistic, strong conclusion to this impressive journey.

Taken from a solo percussion piece, Ave Atque Vale (1997) for percussion and orchestra in 9 continuous episodes, the composer here is concerned with the gradual coming together of disparate elements. Percussionist, Rostislav Shataevsky opens quietly with high strings in a tentative idea. There is a sudden drum stroke before string passages are punctuated by sudden percussion sounds. Soon the percussion develop more aggressively but ease for a passage of delicate beauty. There are swirling string ideas, this music finding an ebb and flow around the percussion colours and textures. The music rises up through a glowing section before finding a rhythmic beat to stride forward. Shrill eruptions appear before quietening through some magical moments. Toward the end there are twitterings and woodwind arabesques that weave a strange passage before a strange, eerie conclusion.

Ave, Crux Alba (1994 rev. 2012) - Hymn of the Order of St. John arose out of a meeting at the Vatican between Artyomov and Pope John Paul II. The pontiff drew the composer’s attention to the Order of St. John Hymn which Artyomov later set to music himself. The Hymn brings a lovely theme for wind to which strings join to expand romantically as the Helikon Theatre Choir enter, rising to a terrific conclusion, very Russian in feel.

This first disc is vividly recorded at the Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, Russia and there are excellent booklet notes from Robert Matthew Walker, author of The Music of Vyacheslav Artyomov.

dda 25144

The second disc opens with Symphony - Gentle Emanation (1991 rev. 2008) in 28 continuous episodes, the third part of Artyomov’s tetralogy, Symphony of the Way. The twenty eight continuous episodes are divided into three movements or sections each of which present the facets of one soul in its aspiration to overcome challenges or obstacles. Here the Russian National Orchestra is conducted by Teodor Currentzis.

Section I - episodes (1) – (9) A sudden drum stroke opens this work after which all we hear is a hushed string line. There is a pause before another drum stroke but now the string motif expands and increases in volume. There are further drum strokes as the strings gain in strength and animation, developing the theme. There are more of Artyomov’s masterly translucent textures out of which individual instrumental motifs appear, always with a sense of forward motion. Soon the brass add rather Scriabinesque touches as the music moves ahead in surges, finding a greater intensity before reaching some broad, expansive climaxes. Occasionally there are some almost humorous little touches; even an eastern style melody appears. The drum beats re-appear during a hushed section creating a wonderful atmosphere. Artyomov shapes and develops some wonderful ideas in this constantly changing tapestry. When the brass rise again in another climax they bring a terrific effect before falling in an exquisitely gentle, hushed section with solo violin and piccolo and piano lead into Section II.

Section II (10) – (17) brings a fast and furious, shimmering string section, underpinned by the lower orchestra. There are some terrific effects as percussion gently bring an idea over quietly rushing strings. There is a further outburst before a hushed section where strange twitterings are heard, evoking an otherworldly landscape of birds and creatures. The music builds through some terrific passages to a section where strings swirl over a dramatic orchestra before the orchestra falls as strings bring a nervous twittering, shimmering motif full of tension.

Section III (18) – (28) Episode eighteen arrives on a hushed rising motif for celeste to which tubular bells and a vibraphone join, a quite magical moment as we are held in a kind of stasis out of which staccato brass gently appear. The music becomes more angular, more instruments adding little staccato bursts. Later a drooping string motif appears amongst the staccato phrases, a piano adds staccato phrases before the orchestra rises to a cacophonous climax, surely the climax of the whole work. The orchestra dies away to a hush as a solo violin leads forward quickly over a hushed string layer. Muted brass quietly join as the music flows gently and mysteriously forward before chimes re-appear and there is a sudden brass uprising. But it is not sufficient to disrupt the gentle coda as the music fades to nothing.

Tristia II (1998 rev. 2011) – Fantasy for piano and orchestra in 11 continuous episodes was written to mark the 60th birthday of Vladimir Ashkenazy and includes a spoken poem in prose and a prayer by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852). The Russian National Orchestra is conducted by Vladimir Ponkin with Philip Kopachevsky (piano) and Mikhail Phillipov (reader).

The music emerges out of the silence on strings, a long held note which slowly expands in this quite lovely opening into which the softly spoken voice of Mikhail Phillipov joins with the poem by Gogol appealing to his angel-guardian. The orchestral strings blend quite wonderfully around the speaker’s increasingly passionate delivery. The ebb and flow of the speaker’s delivery seems to find its own musical form. Strings take us with a gentle piano motif from Philip Kopachevsky into the second episode where the orchestra develops the theme around the piano. Luminescent textures appear, the music often shimmering and glowing as it rises and falls, finding moments that are so typical of this composer.  Later there is a glorious orchestral surge around which the piano soloist adds his line, moving through passages of exquisite textures. There are lovely swirling passages before a vibrant outburst from the orchestra, highlighted by brass. A quite lovely passage follows, hushed and atmospheric with the piano adding delicacy and texture before the speaker enters gently with a prayer to God for help in creating further works, but ends on a rising brass motif over hushed strings in a quite wonderful moment.

There is a first class recording from the Mosfilm Studios and more excellent booklet notes from Robert Matthew Walker. 

Vyacheslav Artyomov is a distinctive and important voice in Russian music. These impressive symphonies are like momentous journeys, full of incident and emotion and the most wonderful ideas. The performances are all that you could wish for making these two discs valuable releases.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Top notch performances from Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra highlight some very fine contemporary South American composers on a new release from Harmonia Mundi

Whilst figures from the 20th century such as Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) and Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) are well known, less is heard of other South American composers, particularly contemporary ones, something which Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra seek to address on their new release from Harmonia Mundi

HMU 907670

South American Discoveries brings together orchestral works from composers from Peru, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia.

A Brazilian citizen, Jorge Villavicencio Grossman (b.1973) was born in Lima, Peru and is now a resident of the United States. Initially trained as a violinist, his work consists of solo, chamber, orchestral, vocal, choral and electroacoustic music. Wayra (2011) brings a great urgency with a forward driving, scurrying opening, full of sudden rising motifs from the woodwind and pounding rhythms. Woodwind and strings scurry around through the textures before a gentler central section full of finely orchestrated detail. This is a highly approachable, impressive piece.

Colombian composer Víctor Agudelo (b.1979) studied at the Escuela de Música Colombo-Venezolana and then at the Colegio de Música de Medellín. He has written symphonic, choral and band works as well as instrumental works. El Sombrerón (2009) rises in the basses with a rhythm provided by the wood block before expanding through the orchestra with tubular bell chimes, building in power. Soon the music slides back to a hesitant section over which strings bring a slow melody. Bells chime again and timpani pound as the music heaves itself up through passages of restrained power. The hesitant theme is heard again on low pizzicato strings before a more transparent and luminous section appears with a myriad of instrumental detail. The music quickly heads forward with a rhythmic pulse before a particularly lovely passage for hushed strings interspersed by brass phrases. The wood block eventually brings a regular beat with a tune from a whistle and a bell chime as the music falls to a silence at the end.

Chilean composer, Sebastián Vergara (b.1978) studied at the Instituto Profesional Escuela Moderna de Música and the Facultad de Artes at Universidad de Chile. His compositions include music for film, video art and documentaries as well as concert music for symphony orchestra, string orchestra, chamber ensembles and works for mixed media. As a performer he has recorded several metal rock albums. His Mecánica for 20 strings (2005) leaps in with a Latin rhythm underscored by a pounding rhythmic layer before reducing to a rather static section where the theme is slowly developed, again finding a rhythmic repeated idea. Whilst in the minimalist mould this work constantly finds subtle changes. Higher strings appear over the repeated rhythmic motif before a quieter section appears with delicate pizzicato phrases echoing the rhythmic motif around which lower strings weave. Broader string phrases appear as the rhythmic pattern increases in strength before losing power to end on a sudden pizzicato chord.

A short video of the rehearsal of this work by Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra can be seen on the composer’s website

Born in Loja, Ecuador, Diego Luzuriaga (b.1955) studied at the Quito National Conservatory and Ecuador Central University, then at the Paris Ecole Normale and later at Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University in New York. In Ecuador, he was involved in the studying, performing, and recording of native Andean folk music and Latin American music. In the earlier stages of his career he was known for his concert pieces influenced by European spectral music. More recently he has turned for his inspiration to the rhythmic and modal musical traditions of the Andes, often combining the two approaches. A regular pounding drum opens Responsorio (2000) soon overlaid by a double bass theme. A cymbal is heard as the theme is shared around the orchestra, very much with a South American flavour. The music increases in strength before a piccolo brings a jaunty theme that is woven with other instruments, still with the rhythmic drum line. There is an inexorable slow, forward drive with sudden fleeting pizzicato phrases appearing as it moves through some attractive variations. The piccolo appears again to weave with other woodwind before the music picks up in strength to pound forward to end on a last drum stroke.

Diego Vega (b.1968) studied at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia with Guillermo Gaviria and Radostina Petkova, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music with Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon and Joel Hoffman and at Cornell University with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra. A sudden orchestral chord with tubular bell stroke opens Música Muisca (2009) immediately followed by a gentle atmospheric theme for whole orchestra. The music develops quietly with further tubular bell chimes before a rhythmic passage with xylophone leads forward. Cellos take the theme over a rhythmic pizzicato motif that leads to a slow, melancholy section for flute around which the orchestra weaves before rising to lead to the coda with stabbing phrases and a final drum stroke.

Sebastián Errázuriz (b.1975) was born in Santiago, Chile and began his musical career as a teenager, in the Projazz Academy, studying guitar and harmony as well as participating in choirs. His professional education in composition started in the Instituto Profesional Escuela Moderna de Música. Later he went on to earn a Master of Arts Degree from Universidad de Chile. La Caravana (2003) opens with a steady rhythm in the basses which is varied as the brass join. A longer breathed theme is soon heard as the music develops. Raucous brass slides are responded to by sliding strings as the music gains in strength over which the longer melody flows. Later the music quietens to a hush as a rhythmic string pulse is heard, soon leading to an atmospheric string passage out of which individual instruments arise, bringing a rather entrancing idea. A trumpet plays a plaintive theme over pizzicato strings before the music speeds in a fast moving, rhythmic passage to a decisive coda.

Although born in Bolivia Agustín  Fernández (b.1958) now lives in the UK. He studied composition with Alberto Villalpando in La Paz, with Takeshi Iida and Akira Ifukube in Japan and Douglas Young in England. In three movements, Una música escondida (2004) Preludio con vaticinios opens with a mysterious string theme through which a piano adds gentle phrases, soon finding a faster jaunty tempo with attractive dissonances in the piano part. Pizzicato strings join before the gentler idea returns. There are moments of faster impetus later with a sudden little peak preceding the quiet coda. A rising theme for piano and orchestra opens Nana con despedida, running through a gentle string passage around which the piano picks out the theme, quite beautifully conceived. The music slowly develops an emotional edge in the string melody, growing in passion only to fall to a quieter passage for strings before a gentle coda. In the Final con campanas the piano leads the orchestra before strings and piano take the theme. This leads to a faster idea as the piano and higher strings play over a fast moving, rhythmic, hushed pizzicato background through some terrific passages as the music reaches a peak. All fall back to a hush as a cello enters, the music continuing with piano to find a sudden quiet coda.

Antonio Gervasoni (b.1973) studied piano with pianists Elke Brunke and Teresa Quesada from his homeland of Peru. He later took master classes with Russian composer Vladislav Uspensky (1937–2004), a former student of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), who encouraged him to dedicate himself to music composition. After finishing a career in computing sciences, he was admitted at the National Conservatory of Music of Peru where he studied with Peruvian composer José Sosaya. In 2007, he received the Fellowship Diploma in Composition from the London College of Music. Icarus (2003) opens quietly and slowly with a variety of instruments flowing through the orchestra. Soon a rhythmic idea gently appears but is cut off by a more flowing theme. A solo violin brings a little theme which is woven by the woodwind before a scurrying motif is heard in the lower orchestra. This flourishes into little peaks but falls back as a long held note is heard, leading to a burst of scurrying orchestral ideas, a myriad of sounds including a xylophone that allow the music to move quickly ahead, gaining a rhythm as the music dances forward to a riotous coda.

With top notch performances from Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and an excellent recording from the NRK Store Studio, Oslo, Norway this is a highly recommended way to discover some very fine contemporary South American composers. There are useful booklet notes.

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