Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Excellent performances of three of Havergal Brian’s extremely rewarding symphonies from Alexander Walker and the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra on a new release form Naxos

In March 2012 I welcomed a new release from Dutton Vocalion of William Havergal Brian’s (1876-1972)  Symphonies 10 and 30, coupled with his Concerto for Orchestra and English Suite No.3 played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

Dutton Vocalion followed up that release with a recording of Brian’s Symphony No. 13 coupled with the Violin Concerto, Tinkers Wedding: Comedy Overture and English Suite No.4.

Of Brian’s thirty two symphonies there are still a number yet to be recorded. As I noted in that March 2012 blog, Lyrita Recorded Edition made a start back in 1975 by recording No’s. 6 and 16. EMI  later recorded 7, 8, 9 and 31 and, in 1988, Hyperion recorded No.3, but it was Naxos  that made the first real attempt at recording all of the symphonies.

So far Naxos have recorded Symphonies No.1 ‘The Gothic’ (8.557418/19), No.2 (8.570506), No.4 and 12 (8.570308), No’s. 11 and 15 (8.572014), No’s. 17 and 32 (8.572020) and No’s. 20 and 25 (8.572641).

Naxos has now released Brian’s Symphonies No. 22, 23 and 24 coupled with the English Suite No.1, with the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Walker . This new release avoids duplication of any of the symphonies. The fact that all these recent releases avoid duplication is something for which we must be grateful to both Dutton and Naxos. This means that it is now possible to obtain recordings of 24 of the 32 symphonies (though the EMI recordings are currently unavailable but obtainable second-hand through Amazon).

Written between December 1964 and August 1965 Symphonies No. 22, 23 and 24 are closely linked, having as they do something of a martial sound to them.

The first movement of Symphony No.22 ‘Symphonia Brevis (1964/65), marked Maestoso e ritmico, opens with a dramatic outburst complete with bass drums and the orchestra in full flow, in this typically Brian flowing and shifting melody. The music eventually settles, briefly, on a quieter nostalgic theme but soon takes off again with music that ranges from quiet, delicate passages to faster flowing passages, ending with massive orchestral sounds. The Tempo di Marcia e ritmico opens quietly and tentatively, slowly moving forward with heavy bass brass and percussion, slowly growing louder.

There is an orchestral transparency despite the amount going on in the orchestra. The music quietens with a central passage for solo violin and orchestra, before an outburst for full orchestra, reminiscent of the opening of the work. All suddenly quietens, becoming soft and still before the coda arrives with outbursts from the orchestra heralded by timpani strokes.

The moderato of Brian’s Symphony No.23 (1965) opens with timpani before the orchestra builds, with percussion, in music that is quite wild. Eventually the music slows and quietens before a return of the louder percussive orchestra. This movement is volatile throughout, with quieter flowing melodies with delicate harp and percussion, swirling woodwind and a solo violin with cello creating a sense of mystery. Yet the full orchestra soon returns, with more percussion and, after another quiet section, soon builds, with a battery of percussion and brass, suddenly cut off to give a quiet end, though the percussion still quietly make themselves known. 

In the Adagio non troppo ma pesante the orchestra enters in full flow with string basses underlining the rhythm. This upward motif continues with another battery of percussion before levelling off with a softer string melody. There is a lovely section for flute and woodwind and solo violin with pizzicato strings. A plaintive oboe appears against a bassoon and orchestra before the music tries to build again but quietens, though the tension is still there as though the march will break out again,  which it does, slowly pushing forward underlined by percussion. The music again quietens but soon gains in momentum and decibels as the orchestra once again rises with percussion to a grand climax.

Whilst Symphonies 22 and 23 both have two movements, Symphony No.24 in D major (1965), though longer than its predecessors, is in one movement marked Allegro – Allegro – Maestoso e marcato molto – Adagio. Timpani open the work before the orchestra enters, again in full flight. There is a sudden halt before a quieter section, a flowing theme based on the opening. The music soon picks up, again with percussion, before quietening suddenly in a calmer flowing theme. Throughout there is an alternation of dynamic music with quieter gentle music, at times in extended passages. Halfway through, a particularly gentle passage leads to a section for bassoon with various brass and woodwind instruments before the rest of the orchestra joins with delicate percussion. The orchestra again grows louder in a fanfare like motif before slowly falling to the low brass. The final adagio brings a quiet, wistful, reflective orchestral section that gently flows, giving a sense of resolution. Some of Brian’s most beautiful music leads on towards the coda, with the orchestra rising for a forthright ending.

Following the three symphonies on this disc is Brian’s English Suite No.1, Op.12 (1905/06). In six movements, the first, Characteristic March, opens with martial sounds before woodwind take over in an attractive little march. This eventually develops into a more flowing march section. The martial feel of the opening theme combines with the broader flowing march in a slightly varied version, as the music builds, leading to a grand climax.

Woodwind open the second movement before strings bring a flow in this slightly syncopated Waltz. Brass play over a clarinet before the full orchestra develops variations on the waltz theme. Always there is that syncopated feel projecting the music forward. A quieter, more flowing section follows with a lovely woodwind melody. Whilst the music again quickens, it soon slows to bring a quiet transition to the next movement.

Under the Beech Tree gently flows on, stretching the previous theme to an expansive melody that rises several times to gentle climaxes. There is a delicate central section with percussion sounds before the music rises slowly in waves, only to end quietly.

Interlude is an elusive movement opening with percussion, harp and strings before a flute motif brings an unusual section with various instruments joining in. The opening sounds return leading to a sudden end, with a little flourish.

Brass intone the opening of Hymn, before a string middle section that pulls the music upwards, emotionally, before dropping to a brass motif to bring a solemn end. See if you can spot the elusion to a theme from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony.

To end this work there is a boisterous Carnival, again with a slightly Dvorakian feel at the beginning, but soon developing  with faster passages and some odd variations, some lively, some gently melodic, including God Save the King.  There is a riotous coda.

Every symphony on this well recorded disc is extremely rewarding and the performances from Alexander Walker and the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra are excellent. I hope that it will not be too long before my long held goal of having every one of Havergal Brian’s distinctive symphonies on disc is achieved.

Monday, 27 May 2013

A very fine Telemann Lukas Passion from the Kolner Akademie directed by Michael Alexander Willens on CPO

Georg Philipp Telemann 1681-1767) had the misfortune to be a close contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) thus ensuring that he would always be overshadowed by the great man. Certainly his name is well known, but I wonder how many of the huge number of his compositions are known to most people.

Telemann wrote in just about every genre of music, over thirty operas, numerous cantatas, oratorios, orchestral suites, concertos and chamber music. In addition to this, Telemann also wrote a number of Passions.

By the time Telemann arrived in Hamburg in 1721 as Kantor of the Johanneum Lateinschule and musical director of the city's five largest churches, succeeding Joachim Gerstenbüttel (1647-1721), he had written a number of oratorios. Hamburg already had a tradition of passion oratorios that had grown from the tradition of having a musically set passion as part of the religious services during Lent. During the early years of the enlightenment, Hamburg was at the forefront of the secularisation of church music.  There had been an opera in Hamburg since 1678 with the texts of operas based heavily on religious subjects.

Telemann wrote a number of Passion Oratorios intended for use in religious services. However, another type of Passion developed in the form of the Oratorio Passion, strongly influenced by the opera and was a dramatized telling of particular moments of the Passion story. As Music Director of Hamburg, he had performed his Passion Oratorios in secular venues as public concerts with an admission fee; it only being later possible to perform them during religious services. However, Telemann’s Lukas Passion of 1728 was performed several times that year between the churches of Hamburg.

I have not come across many recordings of Telemann’s Lukas Passion so a new release from CPO is especially welcome. It is a live recording from the Magdeburger Telemann Festlage  on 17th March 2012 with the Kolner Akademie  directed by Michael Alexander Willens  and soloists Wolfgang Klose (tenor) , Marcus Ullmann (tenor) , Christian Hilz (baritone) , Raimonds Spogis (baritone), Thilo Dahlmann (  and Aisha Tummler (soprano)
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Using texts from the Gospel according to St Luke, as well as texts from the Old Testament, the St Luke Passion is divided into five sections or divisions. Each of these five divisions is made up of a Preparation, with suitable texts from the old testament, The Religious Application, with appropriate words by Matthaus Arnold Wilkens (1691–1745), and the Division, with texts from St Luke’s Gospel.

Vorbereitung zur ersten Abteilung: (Preparations for the First Division)

Der verkaufte Joseph (Who Sold Joseph) has a moderately paced Recitativo with the Kolner Akademie showing some fine playing. Raimonds Spogis has a fine, rich, characterful voice, ideal in this repertoire and brings a variety of feeling to the text. A lovely vibrant aria Allgegenwärt’ger ger Hort der Deinen follows with beautifully transparent, slightly French sounding orchestral writing, especially in the performance.

In Die gläubige Anwendung  (The Religious Application), again the Recitativo is never allowed to become bland, with tenor, Marcus Ullmann giving the music much feeling. In the beautifully written Aria Laß, Erlöser, deine Treue meiner Treue Zunder sein, Ullmann has a lovely tone though not showing the flexibility that he soon gains as the performance proceeds.

In the Recitativo that opens the Erste Abteilung (First Division) tenor, Wolfgang Klose, sings as the Evangelist, a demanding role in this work. He has a high tenor voice, most attractive in this dramatic Recitativo with Baritone, Christian Hilz, later joining in the role of Jesus, with his rich voice. Of the various Recitativos and Chorales there is an especially fine Recitativo where Jesus, the Evangelist and Peter (Marcus Ullmann) are simply accompanied by an organ with the Chorus of Disciples making interjections and the fine choir of the Kolner Akademie sing a brief Choral, Treib, Herr, von mir und verhüte.

Vorbereitung zur zweiten Abteilung: (Preparation for the Second Division)

With Der von Zedekia geschlagene Micha (Micah Struck by Zedekiah) there is an orchestral opening with some lovely instrumental sounds before a powerful Thilo Dahlmann enters as Zedekiah in this distinctive Recitativo, followed by Raimonds Spogis as Micah. The lovely instrumental sounds continue with another great Aria Israel und Juda zeuge from Raimonds Spogis.

Die gläubige Anwendung (The Religious Application) opens with a light textured Recitativo from Marcus Ullmann with, again, fine instrumental transparency. Sei stille, wallendes Gemüte, with tenor Marcus Ullmann, is another lovely aria, a little more Bachian in its opening with some lovely singing, flexible and refined.

Zweite Abteilung (Second Division). After an opening text sung by the Evangelist, Wolfgang Klose, the singing alternates with Peter (Marcus Ullmann), A Maid (Aisha Tummler – sop) and A Soldier (Raimonds Spogis - bar) in a dialogue around Peter’s denial. After the Evangelist sings of the Cock crowing, the chorus of soldiers sings ‘Prophesy, who is it that hit you?’ There is a Recitativo for Evangelist, Jesus and Chorus of Elders, Chief Priests and Scribes and with some effective choral writing in ‘Then you are the Son of God?’ and a final Recitativo for the Evangelist, Jesus and chorus of Elders, Chief Priests and Scribes, effectively done.

Vorbereitung zur dritten Abteilung: (Preparation for the Third Division)

In Der von seinem Sohne und Volke verfolgte David (David Pursued by his Son and People) David (Raimonds Spogis) sings a characterful Recitativo  Ah, woe, how many there are that hate me and a terrific Aria Yes, yes, in vain my enemies rage, lively, vibrant, wonderfully sung, full of feeling and agility. There is more attractive instrumental writing.

Die gläubige Anwendung  (The Religious Application) brings some attractive singing from tenor, Marcus Ullmann, full of feeling in the Recitativo followed by a fine Arioso with a lovely orchestral contribution.

The Dritte Abteilung (Third Division) brings the Evangelist in a lovely bouncing, lively Recitativo on the words …took him before Pilate followed by a chorus of the Jews. In the Recitativo the Evangelist is joined by Pilate, a strong and firm Thilo Dahlmann with a chorus of Chief Priests and Jesus in an inspired little piece. There is a fast and furious chorale, a Chorus of the People singing Away with this one…. Further Recitativo is followed by a most unusual chorus Crucify Him with repeated phrases. A Chorale ends this division, a mournful, beautiful setting of Oh, you wondrous counsel.

The second disc of this set opens with the Vorbereitung zur vieren Abteilung: (Preparation for the Fourth Division)

Der sterbende Simson (The Dying Samson) has a joyful instrumental opening before the Chorus of Philistines enter with Rejoice and shout for joy… Raimonds Spogis as Samson enters in a measured You, God of grace, turn!  There is a joyful Chorus of Philistines before Samson returns with a measured You, God of revenge, take revenge for me. In the following Recitativo. Raimonds Spogis shows that he has such a fine voice, full of character and strength.

Die gläubige Anwendung  (The Religious Application) Marcus Ullmann opens this part with the Recitativo before the triumphant Aria Triumph, triumph, the edifice of the enemies crashes down.

The Recitativo of the Vierte Abteilung (Fourth Division) returns us to the passion with the Evangelist singing…they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene …and placed the cross on him… Here Wolfgang Klose is flexible and firm with some fine instrumental writing. There is a lovely slow Arioso from Jesus and the Evangelist, with Christian Hilz providing a fine You daughters of Jerusalem and a superb Recitativo Father! Forgive them, for they know not what they do. There is a particularly fine Recitativo with the Evangelist, Jesus and Evildoers in a dialogue that combines Wolfgang Klose, Christian Hilz, Raimonds Spogis and Thilo Dahlmann in this sensitive setting. The short but affecting Arioso has a beautifully controlled contribution from Wolfgang Klose. A sombre Chorale beautifully sung and Recitativo from the Evangelist and Centurion close this division.

Vorbereitung zur fünften Abteilung: (Preparation for the Fifth Division)

Der versenkte Jonas (The Sunken Jonah) brings a vibrant instrumental opening before Marcus Ullmann enters as Jonah in this almost Vivaldian Recitativo. The Recitativo of Die gläubige Anwendung  (The Religious Application) brings baritone Raimonds Spogis in rich, fine sounds, full of power as he is also in the Aria Thus the tempest is opposed.

The Funfte Abteilung (Fifth Division) commences with a Recitativo from the Evangelist before another lovely Choral God thus takes care… After a further Recitativo from the Evangelist we arrive at the Concluding Aria So rest, crucified love, from all persecution and pain, something of a highlight with lovely instrumentation and blending of voices in this mellow aria. A relatively brief but fine chorale At last he has been delivered ends this fine Passion.

This is an extremely attractive work with many wonderful moments. The excellent recording is live, though you wouldn’t know it. No applause is included. There are excellent notes and full texts and translations.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Exceptional performances by James Turnbull of English works for oboe on a recent release from Champs Hill Records

James Turnbull is one of Britain’s most accomplished oboists. He began studying the oboe at the age of seven with the teachers Irene Pragnell, Melanie Ragge , Celia Nicklin , Tess Miller  and Chris Cowie . After gaining a First Class degree in music from Christ Church, Oxford University, he continued his oboe studies at the Royal Academy of Music and under Nicholas Daniel at Trossingen Musikhochschule in Germany, where he was awarded First Class for both his Artist and Soloist Diplomas.

Gramophone Magazine described his first recital disc, Fierce Tears, as ‘a notable debut’ and Classical Music selected it as their Editor’s Choice Recording. Turnbull has performed frequently throughout the UK and Europe and has appeared as a soloist in live radio broadcasts and at festivals including the Oxford Chamber Music Festival, Swaledale Festival, King’s Lynn Festival and Cambridge Summer Music. In 2010, he performed his debut recital at the Wigmore Hall as a Maisie Lewis award winner from the Worshipful Company of Musicians.

Turnbull is deeply committed to expanding the oboe repertoire. Composers including Patrick Hawes , Thomas Hewitt Jones and Norbert Froehlich  have written for him. He has also worked closely with Michael Berkeley , John Casken, John Woolrich , Thea Musgrave  and Tansy Davies  on their compositions for oboe. Turnbull has a keen interest in researching lost repertoire and bringing to new audiences works which have been rarely performed. 

Turnbull is dedicated to broadening the appeal of the oboe and encouraging young people to learn the instrument. This has led to his launching a project called ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Oboe’ with an accompanying website  He is frequently invited to give masterclasses, workshops, and lectures about the oboe. James Turnbull plays a Lorée Royal Oboe and Cor Anglais.

Two of the above composers, Michael Berkeley and John Casken, appear on a new disc by James Turnbull, entitled The English Oboe, which also features works by Edmund Rubbra, Edward Longstaff, Thomas Attwood Walmisley, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. From Champs Hill Records , this recent release also features Libby Burgess (piano) , Matthew Featherstone (flute)  and Dan Shilladay (viola).  


Edmund Rubbra’s (1901-1986) Sonata in C for oboe and piano, Op.100 was written in 1958 for Evelyn Rothwell and first performed by her on 17th October that year at the Arts Council Drawing Room, London. In the plaintive opening Con moto, with little trills for piano and oboe, there is a lovely ebb and flow to the playing of James Turnbull and pianist Libby Burgess, so sensitive to the varying moods that underlie this piece. The glorious Elegy receives a really fine performance with Libby Burgess providing a lovely accompaniment, bringing out the upbeat nature of the piano part that gives this movement such a feeling of being pulled in two directions. In the Presto Turnbull and Burgess both provide some brilliant playing to bring this lovely work to an end.

Edward Longstaff, Assistant Director of Music at the Purcell School wrote Aegeus for oboe and piano in 1996. It is inspired by the story of Aegeus sitting on the cliffs above the sea, waiting vainly for Theseus to return from slaying the Minotaur. The piano opens this work with a fragmented motif before the oboe enters in a melody based on the opening motif. James Turnbull provides some impressive sounds, drawing various timbres from his oboe that, throughout, represents King Aegeus in his lonely vigil. Later the oboe plays a motif reminiscent of the piano opening and, as the work progresses, the tension increases, hope and despair seem to pull the music either way. There are anguished sounds from the oboe and crashing piano chords before the work ends quietly.

Thomas Attwood Walmisley (1814-1856) was born in London and later became organist at Trinity College, Cambridge and, simultaneously, organist for the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge. His best known work is his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in D minor. On this disc we have his Sonatina No.1 for oboe and piano. This is a gentle piece, with a lovely flowing melody and a rippling piano part. It rises to no great heights or depths but contains some very attractive melodies. These artists manage to bring out all of the gentle feeling in this work.

John Caskin (b.1949) was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire and read Music at the University of Birmingham, studying Composition under John Joubert and Peter Dickinson. He later studied in Poland with Andrzej Dobrowolski at the Academy of Music in Warsaw during which time he formed a close association and friendship with Witold Lutosławski. He has written many works in most genres and is represented here by his strangely named Amethyst Deceiver for solo oboe (2009). Amethyst Deceiver’s are tiny purple mushrooms, an idea that led to Caskin imagining a mysterious woodland where they grow.

This World Premiere recording opens with strange little slides on the oboe with some intricate staccato notes jumping around. James Turnbull again draws some exquisite sounds from his oboe. The piece becomes more melodic as it progresses, still with some pointed little phrases, jazzy at times, with an impish feel. There is a gentler middle section before soon returning to the opening tempo and ending quietly. Turnbull gives a terrific performance, virtuosic in its intricate manner.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)  is represented by a rare work -   Terzetto for flute, oboe and viola written in 1925. The opening Allegretto has some quite original sounds created by Holst’s use of polytonality, written in three keys simultaneously. It is written with Holst’s typically cool sound and with the three instruments sounding quite terse at times, yet still very melodic. The cello enters followed by the flute, then the oboe in a dancing Un poco vivace. There is a slow middle section that gently meanders along before the dance returns to rollick forward. The music slows again before the dance theme returns. JamesTurnbull, Matthew Featherstone (flute) and Dan Shilladay (viola) give an exceptional performance of this little known gem.

Michael Berkeley (b.1948) is well known as a composer and broadcaster. His   Three Moods for Unaccompanied Oboe were originally written for Janet Craxton who gave their first performance in 1978.  What a lovely work Michael Berkeley’s Three Moods is. The opening movement marked Very free. Moderato has a lovely melody, with upward and downward scales. There are staccato phrases and gentle arabesques based on the opening three note motif, all brilliantly played by Turnbull. The section movement, Fairly free. Andante, weaves some fine textures in this a modern take on a pastoral sound. The final Giocoso tests the oboist in music that is, by turns, intricate, slowly melodic and fast and taxing. It blends so well with the other movements to make a fine conclusion.  

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)  wrote his Six Studies in English Folksong in 1926 originally for cello and piano.  It was later arrange for various instruments and in this recording for cor anglais and piano (1926)

What more can be said about Vaughan Williams’ beautiful Six Studies in English Folksong other than that this arrangement by Robert Stanton brings out even more of the composer’s poignant, timeless folk influenced beauty. James Turnbull is superb, creating something more than usually evocative and Libby Burgess adds so much with her fine playing. I’ve fallen in love with this work all over again.

These are wonderful performances of a variety of English works. The recording made in the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, England is crystal clear.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

An impressive Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a cycle from Naxos that looks on track to be one of the finest yet recorded

Recording a complete cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies that beats all comers is always going to be an elusive aim. My own preference until now has been for Kondrashin’s fabulous complete cycle on Melodiya with surprisingly good sound from these 1960’s and 1970’s Soviet recordings. There are, of course, a number of more modern cycles of the symphonies but they have been variable.

There is still a gap for a modern set of the complete symphonies that excels in all of the symphonies in first rate recordings, something which the Russian conductor, Vasily Petrenko aims to fill. So far Petrenko’s performances, recorded by Naxos , have been impressive with excellent recorded sound. Naxos has just released the eighth disc in their eleven CD cycle of the symphonies with the Symphony No.7 “Leningrad”, Opus 60 (1941).

Petrenko hasn’t had the advantage that conductors such as Mravinsky, Kondrashin or Barshai have had of having working with the composer but this hasn’t always been an assurance of a great performance. Naxos’ seemingly inspired choice of Ladislav Slovák, who had met Shostakovich at rehearsals during a stay at Leningrad, where he studied under the great Russian conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, for their first complete cycle of the symphonies, mainly disappointed.

Shostakovich’s Seventh has often come in for adverse criticism, mainly due to the repeated march theme of the first movement, a theme caricatured by Bartok in his Concerto for Orchestra. Yet Shostakovich was intensely moved by the circumstances of the work’s creation. When Nazi Germany attacked Russia in June 1941, the composer was in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) . During the ensuing siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich worked feverishly on the new symphony saying ‘The music surged out of me, I could not hold it back.’ He rejected all proposals of a move to Moscow, wishing to remain in his native city to the end. It was only when ordered to leave, at the end of September 1941, that he reluctantly did so, having already written three of the four movements of the symphony.

Shortly after arriving in Moscow, Shostakovich spoke to his biographer, David Rabinovich, about some of the emotions that he had experienced in beleaguered Leningrad. From this conversation it became clear what it was that inspired him to write much of this colossal work in so short a time. Speaking of his own determination to stay, he spoke of a friend who was to have left by the last train. He had said goodbye to his friends and took a last look at his beloved city before boarding the train. However, at the first small station in the suburbs he got out and walked back into the city despite the hunger, cold and potential death that awaited him.

Much has been written about the meaning behind Shostakovich’s symphonies. The composer related to Solomon Volkov, in the early 1970s, that ‘the majority of my symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone, not even their relatives. It happened to many of my friends…’

Of the Seventh, Shostakovich related to Volkov ‘…war was all around. I had to be with the people, I wanted to create the image of our country at war, capture it in music…I have heard a lot of nonsense about the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies…’ He went on to say that the Seventh was about the ‘Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off.’

Vasily Petrenko delivers a beautifully paced opening to the Allegretto, quite direct in approach, just as some of the great Russian interpreters of the past have been. But it is to the ensuing quiet, slow section that Petrenko brings much poetry, restrained and wistful. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are on top form with some lovely sounds from the principal flute before the entry of the hushed pizzicato strings and side drum that announce the impending advance of evil forces.

Many who consider this part of the first movement banal will, perhaps, think again on hearing Petrenko’s superbly judged, finely balanced working out of Shostakovich’s theme. At times he delivers little conversations between the instruments to great effect. Whilst there is an unstoppable inevitability as the music builds, many details are nevertheless highlighted. It must be remembered that the theme lasts only just over twelve minutes out of the twenty eight that this performance of the first movement takes before it collapses in on itself in a terrific climax. Petrenko judges this climax and the ensuing intense calm perfectly.

The pensive moderato (poco allegretto) receives a nicely pointed opening before the plaintive oboe enters, Petrenko extracting so much subtle feeling from the orchestra. The central faster section has some lively, taut playing with Petrenko still keeping a rein on the tempo so that, when the music subsides, the slower tempo dovetails in beautifully. What sensitivity there is when the bassoon quietly enters against a hushed flute and harp.

In the Adagio, the opening woodwind and harp sound almost anguished in this performance. There is a spontaneous feeling from Petrenko at times, as he moves forward the string melody that follows. As the music falls, he obtains some exquisitely hushed sounds. The flutes are superb in the next section leading to an extended string section, surely one of Shostakovich’s loveliest melodies. The climax is terrific as it builds and, when it subsides, the elegiac viola melody is beautifully done.

Petrenko handles the quiet and pensive opening of the Allegro non troppo so well, full of subtleties. As the music slowly gains momentum there is lovely crisp playing from RLPO, particularly the strings. The whole ensemble of the RLPO is so tight. Again, when the music slows, Petrenko draws some superb playing, gentle, anguished and superbly hushed. As the music builds to a terrific final climax, there is such a feeling of completion and inevitability to this fine performance.

This is an impressive performance. The recording is excellent with full and open sound from Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. With only the fourth, thirteenth and fourteenth symphonies still to be recorded, this cycle looks on track to be one of the finest yet recorded.

Monday, 20 May 2013

A well recorded CD from LSO Live that is a tribute to both the composers featured and the Panufnik Young Composers Scheme

It is one thing investigating new music by established contemporary composers but what about those who have yet to make a name for themselves. This is where the London Symphony Orchestra Panufnik Young Composers Scheme is so invaluable . Generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust, it was devised by the LSO in association with Lady Panufnik in memory of her late husband, the composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik

The LSO Discovery Panufnik Young Composers Scheme, begun in 2005, is an exciting initiative offering six emerging composers, each year, the opportunity to write for a world-class symphony orchestra. Under the guidance of renowned composer Colin Matthews, the scheme enables composers to experiment over time and develop their orchestral writing skills whilst they form collaborative musical relationships with LSO players as well as witnessing their specially composed pieces put under the microscope by the LSO and François-Xavier Roth in a public workshop rehearsal.

In addition, each year the Panufnik Young Composers Scheme offers one composer the chance to write a larger-scale commission for a main-stage Barbican concert and to hear it rehearsed by the LSO well in advance of its première, giving them valuable time to refine and rework these pieces prior to public exposure.

LSO Live has just released a new recording featuring the work of ten emerging composers from across the first five years of the LSO Panufnik Scheme. François-Xavier Roth  conducts the London Symphony Orchestra on this new disc, recorded in LSO St Luke's , that will enable the LSO to share and promote the composers' music world-wide.

‘Incentive’ by Andrew McCormick (b.1978) is a lively rhythmic piece full of momentum and extremely well orchestrated. There are quieter moments, though the rhythm of the piece still lurks. This is an enjoyable and hugely listenable piece with just a hint of Stravinsky as the work progresses.

Christian Mason’s (b.1984)  ‘…from bursting suns escaping’ opens with a gentle burst of sound and continues with little bursts that seem to gently propel the music forward, sometimes scurrying as it goes. There is some very attractive orchestral writing with the music having the effect of sounding as through the music is expanding then contracting before just fading away at the end.

‘Flëotan’ by Charlie Piper (b.1982) starts with a Japanese feel, with percussion and woodwind, before it develops into a fuller orchestral sound. The music quietens part way through with some lovely orchestral sounds, though the threat of an eruption in the orchestra never seems far away. The music eventually returns to the opening rhythm, unstable in its nature until it suddenly ends.

There is a quiet opening to ‘Sakura’ by Eloise Nancie Gynn (b.1985)  with a flute playing against some atmospheric hazy orchestral sounds, quite intoxicating. The music grows stronger, with shimmering orchestral sounds and woodwind. It becomes more agitated before a central section that has a gentle orchestral theme with fluttering flute sounds. This piece is quite superbly written. Towards the end the music simply disappears. A lovely piece.

Edward Nesbitt’s (b.1886) . ‘Parallels’ consists of two movements. Parallels I opens with short stabbing phrases before the music begins to dance around with some intricate orchestral writing. Percussion play a significant part as the music grows louder, with brass, before quietening with a last orchestral outburst at the end. Parallels II has a quiet opening, with woodwind, in some lovely textures. The brass return with the outbursts from the first movement before the percussion leads the music on with piano, brass and woodwind. Various instruments make little stabbing interjections before the music quietens, with flute and hushed orchestra, in a lovely little melody. The interjections re-appear as the music grows louder, leading to the coda.

‘Rude awakening’ by Jason Yarde (b.1970) opens with gentle percussion and woodwind leading to a lovely, quiet melody which is repeated before being developed and expanded. There is a livelier section with percussion that becomes quite riotous at times but the melody still underlays this rhythmic music as it builds to a climax.

Martin Suckling’s (b.1981) ‘Fanfare for a Newborn Child’ has scurrying strings and percussion to open the work. There is a quiet section with solo violin, percussion and orchestra and, later, woodblocks join the orchestra in a light textured section before the woodwind provide some flourishes that provide something of fanfare to end the work.

The strings slowly try to emerge from the basses in the opening of Christopher Mayo’s (b.1980) ‘Therma’. The brass helps to pull the music along, which becomes more rhythmic as it gains momentum. The low notes remain as the upper orchestra moves along towards the conclusion of this skilfully written work that provides so much from such little material.

‘Sudden Squall, Sudden Shadow’ by Elizabeth Winters (b.1979)  brings sudden rapid woodwind to introduce the work, very much invoking a sudden squall. Various instruments, including percussion, rapidly scurry around. Eventually the music tries to calm, but there is a final outburst at the end.

A flowing melody with brass and strings opens ‘Halo’ by Vlad Maistorovici (b.1985) , full of atmosphere. The brass increase in dominance as the movement gently flows until it increases in complexity and tempo. The brass make an outburst and a gong sounds, whilst there are ruminations in lower strings and the gong sounds again. The music fades before bells introduce a mysterious orchestral sound with slides on strings. The brass, eventually, lead the orchestra upwards again with the sound of bells and percussion, becoming more animated with interjections from woodwind and brass. There is a wonderful swirl of sounds until the music quietens with chimes bringing the piece to an end.

There is not a work on this disc that I would not wish to hear again. Some of the composers I will certainly be looking out for again. François-Xavier Roth and the LSO do these young composers proud on this well recorded CD that is a tribute to both the composers featured and the Panufnik Young Composers Scheme.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio La Passion de Simone, full of passion, beauty and evocative orchestral and electronic sounds on a new release from Ondine

Back in April 2012 I asked the question ‘why does Finland continue to produce so many fine composers?’
In that blog I only gave Kaija Saariaho (b.1952) a brief mention but on the evidence of a fine new recording of her La Passion de Simone she is a major figure in Finnish music.  

Kaija Saariaho had a musical childhood, playing several instruments. In addition to her musical studies, she studied art at the Fine Arts School of Helsinki. However, she soon decided to concentrate on music, studying at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki  where she was taught composition by Paavo Heininen (b. 1938) . Later, in Darmstadt and then Fribourg she studied with Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943) and Klaus Huber (b. 1924)

Saariaho’s compositions during the 1980’s were characterised by her sensual, descriptive and lyrical writing with subtly unfolding transformations. Her search for new timbres led her to study new techniques in instrumental as well as the computer realm. For this purpose she spent some time at Ircam and it is these studies that have constituted an important element of her compositions.

Her international notoriety was confirmed with works such as Verblendungen for orchestra and tape (1982-84), Lichtbogen for chamber ensemble and live-electronics (1985-86), and Nymphéa (1987) a commission from the Lincoln Centre for the Kronos Quartet. Since the1990s, her music has become more expressive, often faster in its melodic fluctuations with stronger rhythmical elements. What has remained central to her compositional style are timbre and colours.

Saariaho’s principle works include a violin concerto, Graal théâtre, written for Gidon Kremer in 1995; two works dedicated to Dawn Upshaw,  Château de l’âme premiered at the Salzbourg Festival in 1996; Lonh, a cycle of melodies for soprano and electronics premiered at the Wien Modern Festival in 1996; Oltra mar for orchestra and mixed choir, premiered in 1999 by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; a flute concerto, Aile du songe,  composed for Camilla Hoitenga (2001); Nymphea Reflexion for string orchestra, dedicated to Christoph Eschenbach (2001); Orion for the Cleveland Orchestra (2002); and Quatre Instants, for soprano, piano/orchestra, for Karita Mattila, premiered in April 2003.

Her first opera, L’Amour de loin, with a libretto by Amin Maalouf and staging by Peter Sellars, was a great success at its premiere at the Salzbourg Festival in 2000, and won the Grawemeyer Composition Award in 2003. Her second opera, Adriana Mater, on an original libretto by Amin Maalouf, was also staged by Peter Sellars, at Opéra Bastille in March 2006.

Kaija Saariaho’s vast oratorio, La Passion de Simone, was a commission from the Wien Festival, the Los Angeles Philharmonic , the Barbican  and Lincoln Centres . The text of this work, by Amin Maalouf , concerns the life and works of the philosopher Simone Weil . It was premiered in November 2006 in Vienna, flowed by London, Helsinki, Stockholm and New York.

It is Ondine that have just released this new recording made in the Helsinki Music Centre, Finland with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Tapiola Chamber Choir  conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen  with Dawn Upshaw (soprano) and Dominique Blanc (reader).

ODE 1217-5

La Passion de Simone  -  Chemin musical en quinze stations (Musical path in fifteen stations) echoes the Stations of the Cross marking Jesus’ progress to Calvary. The events in Simone Weil’s life are viewed through the eyes of an imaginary sister and throughout the orchestra combines with electronic sounds whilst also having an important part for spoken voice or ‘reader’.

The oratorio opens with a gloriously atmospheric Premiere Station with a lovely orchestration combined with electronic sounds perfectly blended. Soprano Dawn Upshaw enters on the words ‘Simone, grande soeur’ (Simone, my elder sister) with the constantly shifting orchestral part providing a wonderful support.  Dawn Upshaw is, as usual, terrific. This station ends with words quietly spoken by Dominique Blanc making an effective conclusion.

Chorus and orchestra open Deuxième Station before the soprano enters in this faster section, still full of sensuous orchestral writing. The drama is very well maintained with never a bland moment. Troisième Station has a quiet opening before a sudden outburst from the orchestra. The soprano enters but orchestral outbursts still occur. The reader appears with the short phrase ‘To hold one’s attention towards…’ Drooping sounds in the orchestra lead to a section for soprano before an orchestral outburst. The orchestra quietens before the reader re-enters in a magical moment speaking the words ‘To know how to listen to silence.’

The Quatrième Station has a short orchestral opening before the soprano enters, still with some magical orchestral sounds. Dawn Upshaw is outstanding, so effortlessly conveying the feeling of the text. She is always musical, even when giving so much emotion to the text. There is a further orchestral section towards the end, full of anguished outbursts. Cinquième Station lightens the atmosphere somewhat with a bright unaccompanied chorus before the soprano and percussion enter in this movement that evokes mechanical and industrial sounds linked to Simone Weil’s time whilst experiencing work in a factory.

Powerful industrial sounds from the orchestra continue in the Sixième Station with the chorus soon joining. When the reader enters it is against a hovering static orchestra. Again the orchestra bursts out, joined by the chorus, before the reader returns with the static, atmospheric orchestral and electronic sounds. There is an underlying, colossal, orchestral menace.

Septième Station opens with a cor anglais against a quiet orchestra before the soprano enters accompanied by the cor anglais in this strikingly stark section, relieved only by occasional orchestral contributions along with the chorus. Dawn Upshaw again shows how terrific she is in this taxing music. There is a gentle opening to Huitième Station with lovely orchestral sounds before the soprano sings alone above the reader’s voice leading to an extended orchestral section flowing along in a gorgeously atmospheric melody, so skilfully written.

Neuvième Station has a brighter orchestral opening before the soprano enters with the words ‘One should know how to love God for Himself.’ The chorus interjects with the same words before the soprano continues as the music becomes more animated. It calms when chorus re-enters but, when she returns, the soprano becomes more passionate. There is a section for chorus and orchestra before the soprano re-enters over the choir in a sumptuous section, full of passion. The orchestra rises, with dominant brass, before the music drops as it moves into the Dixième Station with gentle tambourine sounds against the orchestra. The chorus and reader quietly intone before the soprano joins the orchestra in this luscious music full of hazy sounds. There is another section for orchestra, chorus and reader in a hushed moment after which the soprano returns starkly against the orchestra with forbidding sounds as she sings ‘Alone standing in the middle of darkness’ The reader quietly ends this station as the orchestra fades in this very effective moment.

The soprano and a solo flute open the Onzième Station before the whole orchestra joins. Again there are parts for soprano and reader in this dramatic piece. There is a strident outburst with percussion when the soprano re-joins. Eventually the reader re-enters in a haunting section with the words ‘Fear of Death. The foundation of slavery.’  There are orchestral outbursts and an increasingly dramatic soprano part, wonderfully sung and full of passion before the orchestra leads to the Douzième Station where the fine Tapiola Chamber Choir have a more dominant role. The reader again speaks with static orchestral sounds before a plaintive orchestral section leads to a minor outburst, with brass, before being joined by the chorus over a less strident, often sumptuous, orchestra.

The Treizième Station opens with delicate orchestral sounds with bells before the soprano sings ‘Slowly, you gave up the ghost, my little sister Simone’ The chorus intersperses with the repeated words ‘At the age of thirty four in a hospital in England.’  The orchestra remains pensive, with shifting harmonies. The reader returns at the end with a haunting theme from the orchestra.

There is an orchestral opening to the Quatorzième Station before the soprano enters against atmospheric orchestra sounds, with percussion, as the music slowly moves along. The reader becomes increasingly emotional when she speaks of ‘Every evil aroused in the world.’ There are strange darting sounds from the strings before the soprano and orchestra slowly lead us on in this funereal station.

The Ultime Station opens with an orchestral outburst full of nervous energy before first the soprano, then chorus, then speaker take their parts in hauntingly unsettling music. The soprano becomes more agitated. There are haunting orchestral sounds before the soprano again returns, and the orchestra heaves its way forward. The soprano sings ‘Your grace was liberated from the gravity of the world…’ as the orchestra leads to a hushed coda.

This is a glorious work, full of passion, beauty and evocative orchestral and electronic sounds. It is in no way derivative. It is notable that I did not think of any other composer when listening to it. Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Tapiola Chamber Choir could not be better. Dawn Upshaw gives a terrific performance. A special mention should be given to the ‘reader’, Dominique Blanc, whose performance adds so much to this recording.

The recording, made after a live concert performance, is really excellent. The booklet has excellent notes together with texts and translations. I shall be seeking out more music from this inspired composer.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

A very attractive collection of songs and anthems by Peter Lea-Cox on Divine Art

The English organist and composer Peter Lea-Cox  studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London before becoming, from 1967 to 1972, Assistant Music Master at Oundle School, Northamptonshire. From 1973 to 1986 he was on the staff of the Royal Academy of Music where he taught choral conducting, sight singing and harmony.  From 1973 to 1986, he was Director of Music at St. Jude-on-the-Hill Church in Hampstead Garden Suburb in London and has served as organist at St. Mary-at-Hill Church in the City of London  From 1987 to 2004 Lea-Cox served as Director of Music at the Lutheran Church of St. Anne & St. Agnes in the City of London .

Lea-Cox is an accomplished recitalist who has given organ concerts in Britain, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the United States.  He made his twenty fourth organ recital tour of Denmark in 2011.  In 2011 he made his eighteenth musical tour to the United States and, earlier that year, was guest director of the De Swaen Barokensemble performing Bach Cantatas and other works at the Oude Lutherse Kerk in Amsterdam .  He has given organ recitals at Westminster Abbey  and St. Paul’s Cathedral in as well as Washington’s National Cathedral .

He has also performed with the Lecosaldi Ensemble at Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral .  In October 2004, he gave the twenty seventh annual recital in the distinguished Paul D. Wickre Memorial Concert Series at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Silver Spring, Maryland .  He has broadcast on Britain’s Radio Three as well as making recordings of organ and instrumental music. Lea-Cox conducts the Camden Chamber Choir and other choral societies as well as serving as a tutor at the annual Oxford Baroque Week    

He has composed many vocal and instrumental works as well as compositions for organ.  He uses the pseudonym “Lecosaldi” when composing in the baroque style of Handel and Telemann and uses “Lea-Cox” when composing in a contemporary idiom.

Divine Art Recordings have just released a new recording of songs and anthems by Peter Lea-Cox performed by the soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers and pianist Jennie-Helen Moston. 


Peter Lea-Cox’s Six Songs of Gerald Manley Hopkins opens with Hurrahing in Harvest, with a lovely flourish on the piano and a very spring like feel, very much in the English tradition of song writing, with an attractive slow central section. Spring is a very attractive setting, whilst Pied Beauty is an extremely striking setting of verses that must have been a challenge to set. Thee, God, I come from, to thee go is a hymn like setting that has an Elizabethan and even a Vaughan Williams feel. As Kingfishers catch fire is an evocative setting and the final song in this set The Windhover returns to a faster tempo with a lovely piano part from Jennie-Helen Moston. Lesley-Jane Rogers has a lovely pure voice but does seem rather strained in the upper register.

This is a quintessentially English song cycle which gains so much from the thoughtful and effective piano writing. These songs deserve to be included in English song recitals.

Noël Nouvelet is the first in this collection of Eight Seasonal Anthems, a terrific Easter anthem that deserves to be in constant use. Again the piano part is so effective. Lesley-Jane Rogers is particularly beautiful in the quieter second verse. Behold, the Herald’s voice is calling opens with repeated, gentle chords sensitively played. Here Rogers is most effective in this lovely Advent piece. Crown Him, Lord of Lords is a rousing Ascension anthem and God’s Word is our great heritage is for Reformationtide, a timelessly English piece.  A beautifully peaceful Baptised into your Name, most Holy is so fine in its simplicity. Saviour, when in dust to you is a Lenten anthem, somewhat melancholy, in another fine setting that rises up in the middle. Come before the Saviour’s table has a lovely simplicity, more a song than anthem in feel, but lovely nevertheless and again with some lovely piano phrases. Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn is an uplifting Christmas anthem to end this collection of anthems.

Jennie-Helen Moston plays a short piano work by Peter Lea-Cox entitled Cathedral at night which is a quiet, effective, atmospheric piece.

Finally on this disc are eight Collected Songs commencing with Let the Season lift your spirit, a setting of verses by Katherine Foyle, a song that highlights Lea-Cox’s ability to vary the music to create the exact feeling for the words. The Clod and the Pebble is a setting of Blake, beautifully done, again with such an effective piano part. The same applies to Lea-Cox’s setting of T S Eliot, Winter Prelude that completely conjures up the feel of winter. Afterwards is an accomplished Hardy setting with such feeling and sensitivity for the words, whilst Sailing to Byzantium, a setting of W B Yeats, has a jaunty, even jazzy opening before moving to a more thoughtful tempo. Interestingly, in verse four, Lea-Cox almost hints at the Londonderry Air, no doubt touching on Yeats’ Irishness. Like the touch of rain, a setting of Edward Thomas, is exquisite with a lovely piano part. Garlic and Sapphires is another setting of T S Eliot, again showing such sensitivity to the text.  Baby Sleeping ends this attractive collection and is a lullaby on the Christmas story, a really charming song.

This is a very attractive collection of songs and anthems that deserve to be included in the repertoire. As usual from Divine Art, the booklet is beautifully produced with notes by Lesley-Jane Rogers and Peter Lea-Cox together with full texts. The recording is excellent. Though I have certain reservations about certain aspects of Lesley-Jane Rogers’ voice on this recording, her singing is often really lovely in the quieter and more gentle passages. I do urge all those interested in English song and church anthems to hear this disc.