Monday, 31 March 2014

Four fascinating symphonies by Vadim Salmanov in historic performances by Mravinsky on a new release from Melodiya

The Russian composer Vadim Nikolayevich Salmanov (1912- 1978) was born to a family of intellectuals in Saint Petersburg. As a child he was taught piano by his father and intended to study at the Leningrad Conservatory. However, the death of his father led to the necessity of finding work in a factory.

Salmanov, nevertheless, took lessons from composer Arseny Gladkovsky (1894-1945) and, in 1935, entered the Conservatory where he studied composition with Mikhail Gnesin (1883 -1957) and orchestration under Rimsky-Korsakov’s son-in-law, Shostakovich’s teacher, Maximilian Steinberg (1883-1946). After graduating, he worked as a composer until the onset of World War II, when he enlisted in the Soviet Army.

After the war, Salmanov’s compositions tended to reflect his wartime experiences. A string quartet came in 1945 followed by his first symphony in 1952 and a second quartet in 1958. Salmanov spent the rest of his life in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) teaching at the Leningrad Conservatory. His compositions include six string quartets, two violin concertos, works for chorus and orchestra, instrumental works and four symphonies.

The great, Russian conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky, performed all four of Salmanov’s symphonies with the Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Leningrad Philharmonic Society, the broadcast recordings of which feature on a new release from Melodiya (Μелодия)

MEL CD10 02119

Salmanov was already around forty years of age when he wrote Symphony No.1 in D minor (1952), dedicated to Mravinsky. The Largo has the harmonic sound of Prokofiev in the woodwind unison opening before a quieter motif curiously reminiscent of Haydn. After a repeat of the opening there are hushed strings. A trumpet enters, followed by an oboe gently taking up the theme. The orchestra tries to gain in strength arriving at a rhythmic melody that increases in tempo and drama. Soon a flowing melody arrives, underpinned by faster moving little motifs and rising to an impassioned climax. The music quietens with some lovely woodwind passages before passionate strings lead the music back to a more anguished section backed by percussion and timpani leading to an impassioned resolute conclusion.

Strings play with a slightly balletic feel as the Andante non troppo opens, before settling to a moderate, flowing string theme that is quite affecting in nature. The balletic theme returns and is shared around the woodwinds before being varied, first by the strings then the woodwind. The music gently flows forward. The strings are then backed by a side drum as the theme becomes increasingly agitated. When percussion lead the music on, it quickens, achieving a dramatic climax before falling to quieter, melancholy music for woodwind against quiet strings. The opening theme is repeated by pizzicato strings, quietly and slowly. Woodwind weave around this theme before the strings bring back a more flowing melody, occasionally quite impassioned. Repeated cymbal and drum crashes lead to a hauntingly hushed passage before woodwind and trumpet lead to a still close.

The Presto opens with a rhythmic theme, with short phrases before the strings thrust forward with horns then woodwind adding to the soaring nature of the music. The pace continues to quicken with brass and cymbals sounding out as the music hurtles forward. Eventually a slightly slower string led theme appears in which the brass join, raising it higher. After a slight pause there is a melancholy woodwind theme which is brightened when a piccolo, then cornet, plays a livelier variation that alternates with the strings before rising up, speeding, with brass joining, as the music gallops forward. There is a climax before the music becomes more laboured yet still inexorably pushing forward to its decisive, dynamic end.

There seems an obvious connection in this music to Salmanov’s wartime experiences. Whilst this symphony is not entirely memorable it has many attractive moments.

The live mono recording made in the large sounding acoustic of the Large Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic Society in 1957 is rather shrill and, perhaps, typical of the 1950’s Melodiya sound. Applause is kept in and there are occasional coughs from the audience. As would be expected from Mravinsky, this is a pretty dynamic performance.

Salmanov’s earlier orchestral works often bore specific titles such as Symphonic Picture ‘Forest’ (1948) and Poetic Pictures after Hans Christian Anderson (1955). Though the four movements of his Symphony No.2 in G major (1959) bear titles, there is no further specific explanation given.

A clarinet theme against strings opens Song of the Forest – Allegro moderato, quasi allegretto before other woodwind enter in a staccato motif. The strings soon take the opening theme forward rising up and becoming more animated. The little harmonic shifts are most attractive as the music moves along, with brass and woodwind joining and leading to a brief climax. The music quietens to a slow string melody before woodwind introduce the opening theme. There is a rhythmic nature to the music that makes it sound quite distinctive.

A cor anglais opens Call of Nature – Andante con estro poetico, a slow considered melody soon backed by a bassoon before the orchestra enters in this lovely melody. Woodwind try to raise the music to a more impassioned nature but it is not to be; it quietens, becoming ever more melancholy. A clarinet takes the theme over a hushed orchestra before a flute enters against lower strings as the theme is varied. Brass and other woodwind enter as the music gains in dynamics but soon falls as brass intone a sad motif. This is music full of melancholy. It rises up passionately on the strings with brass coming in over the top, reaching a pitch before quietening to just woodwind. Soon there is a stirring theme for string and brass moving the music forward. This is a fine moment, so Russian and often reminiscent of Shostakovich. A solo violin against hushed strings leads to the coda with pizzicato lower strings to end.

Rapid strings, anvil and percussion open At Sunset – Allegro molto e feroce in a wildly scurrying theme reminiscent of Prokofiev. There are whip cracks and the sound of the anvil as this music rushes on. However, it soon slows as a solo viola plays over low strings in a sombre melodic theme. There are strange shifting string harmonies as the solo violin continues its little theme that sways up and down, an unusual section underlined by brass and bassoon before other woodwind join in. A harp strums and a solo violin plays against strange, deep orchestral sounds. Pizzicato strings take over, with brass interjections, becoming increasingly fast as percussion join in. The music becomes intoxicatingly manic with wild brass leading the orchestra to a frantic coda.

…And the Forest Sings – Moderato con moto opens with forward flowing strings joined by brass in a rising and falling theme, often quite intense. The music soon quietens with woodwind weaving around chromatic strings. There are a number of brief climaxes before brass intone a melancholy tune. The strings return, flowing up and down, the brass join briefly but the strings alone continue in an impassioned section. Woodwind weave around the theme before the strings lead the way, with cymbal clashes, to a coda for the whole orchestra.

Symphony No.2 is a considerable advance on the first and is a remarkably attractive and interesting work. It receives a terrific performance from Mravinsky who obviously believed in the work.

The live mono recording is a little smoother, less grainy. Applause is again left in.

Salmanov had moved on even further with his Symphony No.3 in A minor (1963), a work that encompasses a twelve tone theme in the first movement, Mesto. Trumpets open before other brass enter. The music falls with deep brass before being joined by the strings in an anxious theme that slowly quickens. Woodwind add their sound, weaving around the theme before a rapid, staccato orchestral motif emerges that leads the music on more dynamically, the strings rising upwards. Percussion join before the music quietens with quiet woodwind and brass phrases. A clarinet leads a rising and falling melody before strings take over. There is a hovering string theme, reminiscent of Prokofiev, before the orchestra scurries ahead, rising to a pitch with xylophone, percussion and bass drum in a dramatic section. Eventually the music drops to a quiet flute melody as quiet strings brood, a cor anglais takes up the theme as the movement ends peacefully and eloquently.

A bassoon opens the Andante before strings enter in a mournful melody taken over by a flute and strings. A clarinet then plays the theme leading to a section for hushed woodwind over low strings. The strings make a sudden outburst in this music that is full of contained emotion. Woodwind then sound out, passionately before the music gently flows, with woodwind and strings woven around the theme as the movement winds its way to a hushed coda.

The Allegro vivace opens with a rollicking orchestral theme underpinned by timpani and percussion before brass enter to join the fast moving theme that is shared around the orchestra. The music gallops along full of energy with just an occasional slackening of pace where a twelve tone motif can be detected. Soon there is an odd section for percussion and muted trumpet that adds a rather Latin American rhythm. The music quietens with celeste and castanets before the strings, in a scurrying motif, that leads the music to a galloping coda.

The Andante non troppo opens on low strings, reminiscent again of Shostakovich, before rising to upper strings. Muted brass enter before the strings return with the theme. Woodwind take the theme before the strings become more agitated. The music is shared around between the calmer woodwind and the agitated strings before a cor anglais enters in a rather tragic theme picked up by the woodwind. Soon the music becomes more dynamic and anxious with a heavier orchestral weight, but eventually drops to a hush as muted brass then woodwind take the theme. Timpani slowly and quietly sound a rhythm as a muted trumpet joins. Tubular bells quietly appear before a bass clarinet and strings lead to the hushed conclusion.  

It is true that there are still influences from Prokofiev and Shostakovich but this is a wholly original work that has many fine elements. Mravinsky gives a terrific performance with a live, 1964, mono broadcast recording that is more than acceptable, not at all shrill or lacking detail. There is occasional coughing and other audience noise and the final applause is kept in.

Like his first symphony, Salmanov’s Symphony No.4 in B minor for grand symphony orchestra (1976) is in three movements. The first movement, Moderato, opens with a hesitant string melody before woodwind enter in the plaintive theme. The brass and woodwind bring a lovely chordal theme before the strings return becoming more passionate with a lovely counterpoint in the basses. The plaintive theme is shared around sections of the orchestra and various individual instruments. Trumpets suddenly introduce a fanfare motif before the music drops to a brief, rich orchestral passage before woodwind and brass again appear against quiet strings in lovely moment. Brass sound out again before faster moving strings take over in a dynamic section that eventually leads to quiet passage for woodwind. However, the strings take off again, swirling upwards, a trumpet calls out as the weighty orchestra moves the music along. As the orchestra quietens woodwind quietly play a plaintive theme, soon joined by a tuba. The strings then lead the way ahead rising and falling in drama and dynamics until a brass ensemble appears that, with the strings, provide a heartrending theme, full of emotion. More woodwind and string combinations lead to a quiet end.

Trumpets with side drums open Marciale a lively movement that is full of fun, quite the antithesis of the first movement. The music often becomes quite dissonantly wild with some brilliantly playing from the Leningrad orchestra under Mravinsky. The music is full of outbursts from the brass and woodwind as the music rattles along, becoming a little more emphatic and serious. The strings often have the feel of Shostakovich at his wildest moments. Eventually a quieter, slower middle section with tubular bell chimes, woodwind and brass arrives, another distinctive moment. The strings suddenly interrupt before leading the music back to its original frenzied manner as the mood lightens once more.

The Andante opens gently with hushed percussion and strings before a cor anglais enters in a lovely theme, another memorable moment. A solo violin enters and duets with the cor anglais over a pulsating orchestra. The orchestra takes over with numerous woodwind details before the orchestra rises up and a trumpet cries out leading to a faster, dramatic section. As the drama increases Shostakovich is again called to mind. The music drops as the cor anglais enters before quietly and gently moving forward with an exquisite flute melody. The orchestra remains quiet and rather gloomy with woodwind sharing the theme until, eventually, the mood lightens and the lovely melody leads to a settled coda.

I really took to this symphony, a work that is full of depth in its outer movements and full of distinctive touches despite other influences.

The live broadcast, stereo recording, from 1977, is a little thin but otherwise clear and detailed. Again there is some audience noise but the applause is edited out.

I am really glad to have made the acquaintance of these fascinating symphonies. They are well worth hearing, especially the later symphonies. This is a nicely produced set with informative notes. Lovers of Russian music will not want to miss this release.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The latest recording on BIS from Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in the Allan Pettersson Project features a superb performance of the Ninth Symphony

In October 2013 the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, in conjunction with BIS Records, announced the Allan Pettersson Project 2013-2018

Over the years, the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra has recorded and performed a number of Allan Pettersson’s compositions. Together with BIS Records, the orchestra has made four recordings with conductor Leif Segerstam and, in 2011, a collaboration with conductor Christian , who completed Allan Pettersson’s unfinished first symphony, began. This collaboration has, so far, resulted in three recordings.

Now the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, BIS Records and Christian Lindberg together take this project a step further. They will record a further seven of Allan Pettersson’s symphonies, combined with concerts. This project will be completed in 2018 with a CD-box, which will contain all the symphonies of Allan Pettersson. This also includes the unfinished and until now unrecorded No 17, which will be completed by Christian Lindberg as well. Additionally, the box contains three documentary films about Allan Pettersson.

At a press launch Christian Lindberg said, ’I am extremely happy and grateful that the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, which is such a serious and fantastic orchestra, is willing to invest in this project. I hope it will raise public interest in the symphonist Allan Pettersson and his great music.’

CEO and Artistic Director of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Karin Veres said, ‘We are very proud that we in this way can document the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson’s music and spread his work around the world.’

Gustav Allan Pettersson (1911-1980) was born at the manor of Granhammar in Västra Ryd parish in the province of Uppland, but grew up in poor circumstances in Stockholm, where he resided during his whole life.  One of four children born to a violent, alcoholic blacksmith father and a pious mother, he said of himself, ‘I wasn't born under a piano, I didn't spend my childhood with my father, the composer... no, I learnt how to work white-hot iron with the smith's hammer. My father was a smith who may have said no to God, but not to alcohol. My mother was a pious woman who sang and played with her four children.’ Initially self-taught as a violinist, he later studied violin, viola, counterpoint and harmony at the Stockholm Royal Conservatory of Music.

At the beginning of the Second World War he was studying the viola in Paris but, returning to Sweden he worked as a violist in the Stockholm Concert Society Orchestra, whilst continuing to study composition with Karl-Birger Blomdahl and Otto Olsson. Pettersson’s twenty-four Barefoot Songs (1943–45) and Concerto for Violin and String Quartet (1949) date from this period.

In 1951, he went to Paris to study composition, with René Leibowitz and Arthur Honegger. It was then that he composed the first of his seventeen symphonies, which, left unfinished, has recently been recorded in a performing version prepared by conductor Christian Lindberg. Pettersson returned to Sweden in 1953, the year that he was first diagnosed as suffering from polyarthritis. By the time of his fifth symphony, completed in 1962, his mobility and health had considerably deteriorated.

Pettersson’s greatest success came a few years later with his Seventh Symphony (1966–67), which has also received more recordings than his other works. The conductor Antal Doráti made premiere recordings of several of Petterson's symphonies and contributed to his rise to fame during the seventies. Whilst he was hospitalized for nine months, during 1970, he wrote his Tenth Symphony (1972). His Eleventh Symphony (1973) also seems to have been started during that period.

In addition to his seventeen symphonies, the last of which was also left incomplete, Pettersson wrote two Violin Concertos (1949 and 1977/78), a Viola Concerto (1979), three Concertos for String Orchestra (1949/50, 1956 and 1956/57), a cantata Vox Humana (1974), Seven Sonatas for two Violins (1951), Lamento for Piano (1945) and his Twenty Four Barefoot Songs (1943-45) from which he drew many ideas for his symphonies.

Whilst many of Pettersson’s works have been recorded, including a complete symphony cycle by CPO, I find it amazing that one of the greatest Swedish composers of all time and certainly one of the greatest symphonists of the 20th century should be so little known. The Allan Pettersson Project 2013-2018 is an exciting project that will bring all of the composer’s symphonies together in one box set, including the uncompleted Symphony No.17, as well as three documentaries.

The individual releases will take place between 2013 and 2018, when the whole cycle will be issued in a box set.

The latest BIS release in this project, with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and Christian Lindberg, is Pettersson’s Symphony No.9 (1970)


This is a colossal, one movement, seventy minute work that opens quietly with an ascending motif with strings quietly moving around.  A descending motif follows with a feeling of great anticipation as the various orchestral sections weave around each other. There is an insistent pulse behind this ever changing music which soon achieves a slight climax as the music becomes more agitated. As the music relaxes and quietens a little, there is a repeated descending motif but it does not last, increasing again in volume and tension before changing to a rapidly rising and falling motif for violins that eventually rises up with cymbal clash. Woodwind has a prominent role within the orchestral tapestry – and it is exactly that, a finely woven tapestry, one of Pettersson’s wonders. A descending motif is heard through the orchestral sound, played variously by brass and woodwind. Soon the music quietens as the orchestra scurries around with, again, a little rising five note motif. There is a static moment with a repeated string motif behind a weaving of woodwind and lower strings.

It is the woodwind that lead the music on in an insistent descending motif to a curious passage where violins and woodwind play over a hushed, percussion led scurrying background, repeated consistently as side drum drives it forward, slowly becoming faster and more frantic. Brass join in the scurry until a kind of plateau is reached, no less frantic and impassioned. The music threatens to quieten but carries on, with brass sounding out above insistent, repeated violin phrases. A xylophone is heard amongst the orchestral colour and complexity before a peak with a cymbal crash leads to a quietening at last. Yet the strings still hint at anguish.

A steady marching section arrives with upper strings and woodwind weaving around above. It soon becomes more relaxed and mellow as little woodwind motifs are woven into the orchestral tapestry. Christian Lindberg allows this section to be more of an oasis of peace than in Alun Francis’ CPO version. The repetitive nature of this section is relieved by so many little orchestral variations woven in. However, slowly the music again builds in tension and dynamics as the theme is repeated before collapsing into a quiet section where strings play around with little woodwind themes, quieter yet still animated. The orchestra again builds, with brass entering, developing a richer but more agitated feel. Strings pound out an insistent theme against the brass before dropping to another quiet moment for strings.  The brass occasionally appear in the background, a little roll of timpani sounds and a quiet side drum accompanies the strings before becoming more insistent as the music grows increasingly anguished. A longer flowing orchestral melody is reached, intense and very melancholy before the brass point up the tension.

Yet again the music calms and quietens for a flute to introduce a gentle melody that leads into a more insistent version with repeated descending woodwind phrases. Again this is where Lindberg scores in his reaching out for oases of calm, where they can be found. A flute overarches a beautiful melody for strings which is taken up by the oboe and a hushed orchestra.  A rhythmic, insistent pulse tries to pull the music along but fails, the music hovers and the flute is heard again as are the other woodwind.

The music suddenly rises up in a number of brass led surges with a feeling of reaching out as it pushes toward more anguished music that thrusts forward with, again, that side drum marking the tempo. Soon the strings bring a longer breathed melody, a brief moment of relief before the music moves on again with scurrying strings falling and rising before arriving at a static moment high in the strings with woodwind interjecting. The brass have their say against deep double basses. I love the way Lindberg so beautifully dovetails all the constantly changing themes, tempos and dynamics. As the music quietly pulses along, with side drum quietly keeping the forward rhythmic momentum, it starts to build again reaching another of Pettersson’s many climaxes where anguished strings, drums and percussion appear. Though the music drops to a quieter section, soon the music resumes its inexorable anguished forward drive.

A pause occurs with the strings sounding like the ticking of a clock, rapidly beating around which the orchestra plays. The brass lead to a quieter, melancholy passage but the strings and percussion again push the music on, this time even more fiercely. Low strings, percussion and drums lead to the later stages of this work with Pettersson thundering out a slower, forward moving section, almost funereal in its steady beat. In Lindberg’s performance this is almost unbearably poignant. The strings revive the music from its plodding rhythm but become all the more anguished. Violins with quiet cymbal strokes lead to the coda with the hushed orchestra seemingly finding a temporary peace. 

By the end of this amazing symphony one feels as though one has gone through a great emotional experience. There is so much going on in this symphony that each repeated hearing reveals some new, otherwise unnoticed detail.

Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra do a superb job, revealing so much of this work’s anguish and desperately sought peace.

Whilst the symphony is played without a break, BIS conveniently give nine tracks to the recording in order that the listener can find his way through the work.

BIS also generously include an 81 minute documentary DVD about Pettersson made in the 1970s and featuring much footage and interviews of the composer. It is a fascinating documentary that will add much to our understanding of Pettersson the man.

With BIS’ superb recording from the Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden and first rate booklet notes this new recording and DVD deserves a wide audience.

Forthcoming releases in the Allan Pettersson project will be as follows:

Symphonies 4 & 16, conducted by Lindberg in concert in autumn 2013, then recorded in 2014.
Symphony 13, conducted by Lindberg in concert in autumn 2014, then recorded in 2015.
Symphony 12, ‘The dead in the square’, conducted by Lindberg in concert in autumn 2015, then recorded in 2016.
Symphony 14, conducted by Lindberg in concert in autumn 2016, then recorded in 2017.
Symphonies 7 & 17, conducted by Lindberg in concert in autumn 2017, then recorded in 2018.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Performances of Schubert from Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra on a new release from BIS

To my mind there is always a place for a fine new recording of Schubert Symphonies despite the rather crowded catalogue, particularly when the performances are as fine as those from Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra . This new release from BIS Records generously gives us Symphonies 3, 4 and 5 on a disc lasting nearly 81 minutes.

BIS - 1786 SACD

Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra are not lacking in weight in the opening of the Adagio maestoso – Allegro con brio of Symphony No. 3 in D major, D.200, yet there is soon evidence of a lighter, transparent sound with limited vibrato. When the allegro arrives, Dausgaard and the orchestra are so fleet footed as the music rushes ahead, yet with a terrific bass weight. These players give this their all, with terrific ensemble and some fine individual orchestral sections, particularly the brass and woodwind. The Allegretto brings a fine contrast, nicely paced, crisp and detailed showing the finest of Schubert’s lighter side. There is a beautifully shaped middle section. There is a really rumbustious Menuetto. Vivace with some lovely woodwind details and a nicely flowing, dancing trio section; finely shaped. The Presto vivace hurtles away, full of lithe energy showing what a great team Dausgaard and his Swedish players are, giving such an energetic, joyful performance.

The Swedish Chamber Orchestra surely must be one of the finest chamber orchestras around. I don’t think I’ve heard the third played with so much litheness, drama and sheer bravura for a long time.

Symphony No. 4 in C minor, ‘Tragic’. D.417 opens with a weighty Adagio molto with something less dynamic about it, a dark side with some fine orchestral rubato from the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Again the restrained use of vibrato brings a period feel with their fine rubato tending to lend a menace to the music. When the Allegro vivace arrives, it is full of nervous energy. The orchestral transparency is terrific though there is no shortage of weight in the basses, pointed up by the timpani. As the movement develops, Schubert can’t seem to avoid gaining in optimism, the music becoming less tense. The Andante flows beautifully with a lovely rhythmic second subject, so sensitively played, with beautifully turned phrases and subtle orchestral shading.

There is a lovely rhythmic bounce in the little Menuetto. Allegro vivace, brilliantly pointed up by the timpani and with a lovely little trio section, beautifully done. How Dausgaard and his orchestra move from Menuetto to the trio section and back again is superbly done. The Allegro brings a beautifully smooth, flowing before the tempo increases and the music lightly dances quickly along with some terrific phrasing. Dausgaard and his orchestra pull the listener along at every stage in playing of such energy, flair and finesse.

The Allegro of Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D.485 moves swiftly along with Dausgaard bringing out all the little Schubertian qualities, avoiding any idea that somehow this is Mozartian piece. This is very much pure Schubert. The SCO do wonders with the fast flowing tempo. There are beautiful woodwind phrases and quieter moments that slowly flow, but primarily Dausgaard keeps the tempo up to great effect. In the lovely Andante con moto, where the music is never allowed to drag, there are more beautifully turned phrases as well as some nicely crisp, dynamic moments.

The Menuetto. Allegro molto is really superbly done, so rhythmically alive and fast flowing with a pacing of the trio section that works so well. A fast flowing Allegro vivace is full of superb dynamics with the SCO providing such a superb weight for such a small band. The lighter second subject is delightfully done, soft, flowing and mellow with this orchestra giving such lovely sounds as well as some fine dynamic outpourings.

These are performances that provide so many facets of Schubert’s genius. The recording from BIS does much to enhance these performances. There are informative booklet notes.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

First rate performances of orchestral works by Panufnik in the latest instalment of CPO’s symphonic works cycle

CPO are doing a great service to the memory of the composer Andrzej Panufnik whose centenary falls this year. Volume 7 of their cycle of symphonic works by the composer has just been released featuring Sinfonia di Sfere (Symphony No.5), the Bassoon Concerto, Love Song and the orchestral impression, Landscape.

Łukasz Borowicz conducted the Konzerthausorchestrer Berlin and Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra,Orkiestra  with bassoonist, Michael von Schönermark and mezzo-soprano, Sarah van der Kemp


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Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) was born in Warsaw on 24th September 1914, Panufnik started to compose at the age of nine. He graduated from the Warsaw Conservatoire with Distinction in both composition and conducting. He studied conducting with Felix Weingartner at the Vienna Academy before studying French Impressionist composers with Philippe Gaubert in Paris. Just before the outbreak of World War II, Panufnik returned to Warsaw where, despite the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, he conducted illegal concerts and composed patriotic resistance songs.  During the war he lost most of his close relatives, as well as every note of music he had composed in his first thirty years.

In 1945 Panufnik was appointed chief conductor of the Kraków Philharmonic Orchestra, having to seek out orchestral players scattered all over Poland.  In 1946 he was similarly asked to restore the Warsaw Philharmonic. In the early post-war years, he began to reconstruct his lost works, but eventually kept only three restored works, his Five Polish Peasant Songs, the Piano Trio, Op.1 and Tragic Overture. Established as the father of the Polish avant-garde, he won international admiration and honours in his own country. 

By 1948, Panufnik’s situation changed dramatically. As Poland’s leading composer, greatly respected throughout Europe, he was under intense pressure from the requirement to conform to Soviet Realism.  Many of his compositions were condemned as ‘western, bourgeois, decadent.’  In 1949, the centenary of Chopin’s death, he was elected Vice-President of the Music Council of UNESCO but was never allowed to attend any ceremonies or concerts. Creatively stifled by restrictions and political pressures, he ceased to be able to compose. 

In 1954 he escaped from Poland settling in England. His music was banned in Poland for the following 23 years. From 1957 to 1959 he served as Chief Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, his last official position before deciding to dedicate his life entirely to composition. He took British nationality in 1961. Even in England, life was not always easy for him. His compositions were independent from the current fashion. He remained true to his own aesthetic of constantly seeking new forms and a perfect balance between intellect and emotion, heart and mind.

However, in 1963 Panufnik won the coveted Monaco composition prize for his still most widely loved and admired work, Sinfonia Sacra. By the 1970’s Panufnik, though still shy of publicity, was very much part of British musical life and his music was performed by most of Britain’s leading orchestras, with performances at the BBC Proms and at many London Symphony Orchestra concerts.

Though, by 1977, Panufnik’s works were beginning to be performed at Warsaw Autumn Festival, he still refused to return to Poland while the Communists were still in power. In 1990, after the fall of Communism he made a momentous return to the city of his birth for the performance of eleven of his works at the Festival. He received a knighthood in 1991 and a posthumous Order of Polonia Restituta from Lech Wałęsa, President of Poland.

It is Panufnik’s Sinfonia di Sfere (1974-75) (Symphony of Spheres) (Symphony No.5) that opens this disc. In one movement, it is an abstract work with a structure influenced by the beauty and mystery of geometry. The Poco andante opens with woodwind, soon joined by the strings with brass soon appearing over a constantly shifting orchestral sound. As the music calms a little there is still a feeling of shifting harmonies. The music surges then falls again before a trombone appears with rhythmic percussion quietly moving along in the background. The music falls lower and lower with a piano joining the percussion until the Poco allegro arrives.

This brings a rhythmically scurrying orchestra with drums sounding in a light footed section with little darting phrases. The tempo returns to Poco andante as the piano leads in, with the orchestra soon following, in a heavy, slow moving theme low in the orchestra, only lightened by the higher piano notes. Deep brass enter whilst there is still the feeling of a distant movement from the piano and pizzicato strings that shift the music along. Higher strings enter, shifting around as a section with a terrific feeling of spaciousness, ever reaching distances, develops.

The music suddenly drops from the soaring strings into the Andante (più lento) section, a darker, more mysterious part, again pointed up by the piano. Lower strings continue to shift around and little woodwind motifs gently sound with percussion occasionally adding a sudden input. The orchestra slowly grows more intense before arriving at a fast moving section with a mixture of percussion, brass and piano that soon shifts to a rhythmically dancing theme for percussion, brass and piano. As the music continues to speed up, a trumpet joins in over the increasingly jazzy theme. Violins introduce a broad shifting theme that eventually slows before a gentle little woodwind theme that slowly moves forward interrupted twice by a drum outburst. There are timpani rolls, together with piano but it is the lower strings that eventually fade into the molto allegro where solo drums create a violent, dramatic passage before the violins return, quietly shifting around, with the strings becoming increasingly agitated.

Deep piano chords lead into the Molto andante section with the pianist’s right hand playing a rippling motif. A brass ensemble enters, mournfully, drums have a say before the strings play the theme, shared with the woodwind. Drums still, quietly, try to hold a faster pulse before the strings take over with little piano trills as the music slowly increases in passion, tempo and dynamics, Panufnik showing a masterly use of rhythm, textures, colours and dynamics. The music slowly quietens and slows to a string ensemble. The drums try to increase the tempo and dynamics but the music quietens to just a piano motif that leads into the final Molto allegro section full of energy with pulsating drums and agitated strings. There is a brief respite when the woodwind enter against the violent drums before a dramatic coda led by the drumming.

There is often an underlying instability, a restlessness of shifting themes and harmonies yet Panufnik’s symphonic thought is consistently apparent in this fine work. The Konzerthausorchestrer Berlin give an extremely fine performance under Łukasz Borowicz’s direction.

Drums feature in the opening of the Bassoon Concerto (1985), a Prologo, with a plodding rhythm where they and the percussion are soon joined by the bassoon in a marching theme. Dramatic lower strings add to the drama as the bassoon marches on before violins lighten the mood and lead into Recitative I with a long held high bassoon note, repeated, then varied in a plaintive theme before the woodwind quietly join in this meditative movement. This is a lovely movement with some very fine playing from bassoonist, Michael von Schönermark. Slowly the music rises to a more animated end leading into Recitative II where the bassoon alone adds staccato notes with sudden violin interruptions in this unusual section, finely played by this soloist

Aria brings a flowing theme from the bassoon with gentle woodwind accompaniment before the orchestra joins to lend a dark accompaniment to the bassoon’s beautiful theme, quiet haunting and very memorable. As Panufnik develops the theme there are strident strings and, later, a gloomy plod from the pizzicato strings that only adds to the dark melancholy of the music. Eventually dramatic staccato strings interrupt but the bassoon adds a less anxious feel, the orchestra now hushed against deep pizzicato strings. The bassoon re-enters to continue the theme but the dramatic strings re-enter. When a solo passage for bassoon arrives it is animated but, nevertheless melancholy, sounding like a heartfelt cry. The bassoon slowly quietens before strings join, quietly and with the bassoon, continue the sad, slow theme – a tragic, poignant moment of quiet heart rending beauty. There is a beautiful coda when woodwinds intermingle in the theme. Written in the final years of the Cold War and the murder of the Polish priest, Father Jerzy Popieluszko, there is, in Panufnik’s own words, an ‘echo’ of these events in this concerto

The brief Epilogo brings a sudden violence that, after the Aria, shakes the listener with staccato strings. Even when the bassoon enters it is with a short, sharp motif that does, nevertheless, begin to flow though quite rapidly before ending on lighter, more optimistic note. Again the Konzerthausorchestrer Berlin is first rate.

Love Song, a setting of words by 16th century writer, Sir Philip Sidney, did not appear in the arrangement for string orchestra played here, until just before the composer’s death in 1991. It has a lovely swaying melody for harp and strings to which mezzo-soprano, Sarah van der Kemp brings a nice timbre, adding fine feeling as the song rises emotionally, following the gentle sway of the orchestra in this lovely setting. The strings of the Konzerthausorchestrer are excellent.

Landscape (1962 rev. 1965) (for String Orchestra) opens with shimmering, hushed strings before the music firms up in this slow moving, atmospheric landscape of sound where harmonies constantly shift adding a rather misty, atmospheric feel. The music builds in intensity before a sudden drop that allows the music to end peacefully, fading to silence. Łukasz Borowicz conducts the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra for this last work in an extremely atmospheric performance.

There is some exceptionally fine music on this new disc, an excellent addition to this series. The performances by the Konzerthausorchestrer Berlin and the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Likasz Borowicz are first rate and there are excellent booklet notes. There is no text to Love Song which is sung in English.

Monday, 24 March 2014

James Brawn gives us one of the finest recital discs I have heard for a long time from MSR Classics

I recently reviewed the first two releases of James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey, a survey of Beethoven’s piano Sonatas which I found to be outstanding performances.

I’m pleased to have the opportunity to review a recent recital disc by this fine pianist, also from MSR Classics featuring works by Bach, Liszt, Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov.
MS 1501

This disc opens with a tremendous performance of Bach’s Chaconne from the Violin Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV 1004 arranged by Busoni. Brawn’s distinctive phrasing in the opening has a lovely considered quality with beautifully controlled dynamics and pacing, allowing the music to slowly unfold. Brawn brings so many varying touches in playing that are truly gripping from start to finish. There is a terrific rhythmic section, impressive scales as well as sensitive and thoughtful moments in this wonderfully structured performance. Brawn has a fabulous technique but above all he is a superb musician.

James Brawn goes straight into Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1, S.514 ‘The Dance in the Village Inn’ with gusto. There are fine rhythmic qualities and some beautifully delicate playing between the bravura episodes.  Brawn quietly builds the music in the less fiery passages whilst making the work appear to have more depth than I have ever heard. There is a truly great coda.

This pianist brings us an affecting performance of Liszt’s Consolation No.3 in D flat major, S.172, with Brawn’s lovely silken touch and a gentle ebb and flow, beautifully controlled. A gem of a performance.

Brawn brings many of these qualities to Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition. The opening Promenade has lovely chords underlying a directness of presentation whilst Gnomus shows Brawn drawing a vivid picture. Promenade returns with this pianist giving one of the most sensitive of performances before The Old Castle, with a subtle underlying rocking motif as Brawn plays the troubadour’s song, so atmospheric with this pianist’s nuanced and subtle rubato that gently grips the listener. When Promenade again returns, there is a terrific piano tone as Brawn sounds out the bold chords of the theme. Tuileries brings more fine phrasing, showing how Brawn brings exquisite care to even this little section.  The massive chords of Bydlo are subtly offset by carefully controlled gentler chords that brings so much more to this piece, calculating the steady rise and fall brilliantly. Promenade brings out all of Mussorgsky’s subtle tonal variations before a terrific, slightly manic depiction Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, showing more of Brawn’s fine playing.

With Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle, Brawn characterises these two portraits – a rich and poor Jew – perfectly, showing that, instead of using Pictures merely as a demonstration of piano technique, Brawn has used them as little portraits or tone poems. Promenade brings the same control and directness of the opening with Brawn’s subtle care in varying the dynamics throughout. Limoges – The Market Place has a wonderful ‘chattering’ feel to it, perfectly depicting the market atmosphere, whilst Catacombs brings a quite alarming sense of atmosphere. Con mortuis in lingua mortua gives little relief in this haunting performance. It is rare to find a pianist that can create such an atmosphere with such subtle means. We are shaken into life with Baba Yaga – the Hut of Fowl’s Legs, spectacularly played before The Great Gate of Kiev that has all the stately grandeur required. One can almost hear the ringing of massive iron bells. There is a rather haunting passage before the bells peal aloud. Another quieter section has beautifully overlaid passages that quietly peal before the bells ring out loudly again. This is another fine performance from James Brawn.

Brawn opens Rachmaninov’s Prelude in B minor, Op.32 No.10 with a quiet, direct, melancholy feeling, a directness of approach that Rachmaninov would surely have approved of. He then proceeds to slowly build the drama with formidable playing and a coda that is pure magic.

The subtly shifting harmonies of Bach’s Prelude in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 846 are a delight. What a wonderful end to this terrific recital.

This must be one of the finest recital discs I have heard for a long time. It is worth having for the superb Bach Chaconne alone – but then there are so many other fine things on this recording.

With an excellent recording from Potton Hall, Suffolk, England from the expert team of Jeremy Hayes and Ben Connelan this new release is highly recommended.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

On a new release from Nimbus, Elizabeth Wallfisch and David Breitman bring a freshness to Beethoven’s violin sonatas that is entirely beguiling

Violinist, Elizabeth Wallfisch is one of the most prominent musicians in the field of 17th, 18th and 19th century music. She has been Guest Director/Leader of many of the world’s orchestras including Tafelmusik Canada, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Philharmonia Baroque, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Carmel Bach Festival.

Indeed, one has only to look in the booklets of numerous recordings for her name to appear. Her repertoire is vast and her discography extensive. In 2007 and 2013 Elizabeth Wallfisch was Music Director of National Music Camp Australia and is currently Artistic Director of The Wallfisch Band, an international period instrument orchestra that gives talented younger players the opportunity to play alongside experienced players at the peak of their profession.

Elizabeth Wallfisch’s is part of a family of musicians. Indeed her grandfather was the renowned conductor, Albert Coates. She is married to cellist Raphael Wallfisch and their children, Benjamin Wallfisch, Simon Wallfisch and Joanna Wallfisch are all outstanding musicians.

Born in Australia, she came to London to study, making her home there ever since.

Fortepianist and pianist, David Breitman is no less accomplished both in the field of period and modern performance. He has collaborated with baritone, Sanford Sylvan for many years, undertaking hundreds of recitals and making a number of recordings, ranging from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin to The Glass Hammer, a major song cycle by Cuban-American composer, Jorge Martin. Breitman has also recorded Mozart’s sonatas for violin and piano, on period instruments, with Jean-François Rivest for Analekta. He is one of seven fortepianists on a 10 CD recording of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas on Claves as well as having recorded the Beethoven cello sonatas with another fine period instrument musician, Jaap ter Linden.

He is Director of the Historical Performance Program at Oberlin Conservatory where he teaches fortepiano and clavichord as well as courses in performance practice.

Both Elizabeth Wallfisch and David Breitman have come together on a new 2 CD release from Nimbus  featuring Beethoven’s violin sonatas. This set is volume one of a projected complete cycle of these works by these artists.

NI 6245/6

Elizabeth Wallfisch plays a violin by Ekkard Seidl (1997), a copy of Guarnerius del Gésu and uses a bow by James Dodd dating from around the 1780’s.

David Breitman will be using three different fortepianos during this cycle but on volume one he plays a five octave fortepiano by the eminent maker Paul McNulty , a copy of an Anton Walter instrument of 1792. This instrument, as heard on these recordings, has a clarity combined with a rather more full bodied lower register.

The sonatas on these discs are taken in chronological order, enabling us to follow Beethoven’s development during these earlier years.

In the Allegro con brio of Sonata No.1 in D major, Op.12 No.1 one is immediately struck by the more intimate sound that these period instruments bring, with Elizabeth Wallfisch providing a crystal clear yet sweetly singing tone.  David Breitman provides crisply drawn phrasing and ensemble is absolutely superb. This duo brings a lightness of touch combined with moments of real poetry. There is a beautifully paced Tema con variazioni (Andante con moto) with lovely little forward surges that bring a playfulness to the music. There is some exquisite playing here from both artists and not a little passion in certain of the variations. The joyful Rondo (Allegro) has the atmosphere of two fine artists enjoying themselves. Both seem to enjoy responding to each other with some lovely crisp playing with Wallfisch, often adding a melancholy vein before the end.

The feeling of joy and exuberance is carried into the brilliant Allegro vivace of Sonata No.2 in A major, Op.12 No.2 with, again, these two players responding so well to each other. One cannot help but get swept up in Beethoven’s creative impulse. Towards the end there are some lovely little conversations between the two instruments. In the Andante più tosto allegretto, for the first time in these sonatas, Beethoven allows a greater depth to appear, with the violin of Wallfisch crying out from the bleak sound world of Breitman’s fortepiano. These players bring a subtle rhythmic sway to the Allegro piacevole, again responding to each other so well. There is some especially fine playing in this movement with some lovely, sensitive details exquisitely brought out by both players.

The opening of the Allegro con spirito of Sonata in E flat major, Op.12 No.3 brings some impressive fortepiano playing from Breitman with Wallfisch giving a lovely singing tone to Beethoven’s fine melody. This is a more ambitious movement with many more challenges for the players. Indeed, a contemporary commentator described these sonatas generally as ‘heavily laden with unusual difficulties.’

Often there is real Beethovenian power and thrust from the players as well as some lovely phrasing.

The opening of the Adagio con molt’espressione is beautifully done, again with an intimate feel. These players lead the listener so sensitively through the lovely development of this fine movement, arguably one of Beethoven’s finest early slow movements. There are passionate outbursts from violin and fortepiano towards the end perhaps indicating Beethoven’s troubled nature even at this comparatively early age. The lively Rondo (Allegro molto) brings more, lovely phrasing and spot on precision from these two players, as well as an infectious flow.

Wallfisch and Breitman bring a breath of fresh air to the Presto of Sonata No.4 in A minor, Op.23 with more fine interplay between these artists as well as plenty of brio and rhythmic thrust. In the Andante scherzoso, più allegretto these players bring out all the wit of Beethoven’s writing in this unusual yet strangely captivating movement. The lively Allegro Molto has moments where these players bring such finesse and lovely little details before a taut, musical flow leads to some fabulously fast moving passages brilliantly played.

The Allegro of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op.24 ‘Spring’ brings a beautifully lyrical outflowing, with Wallfisch and Breitman sharing the lovely melody. These artists bring out all the lively dynamics of the music as well as providing many poetical moments. This is fine music making. What fine sounds there are in the Adagio molto espressivo, lovely colours and hushed timbres from Wallfisch’s instrument with Breitman providing a delightful flow of accompaniment. Molto espressivo this certainly is and with such poetry.

The brief Scherzo (Allegro molto) is crisp and lithe before the Rondo (Allegro ma non troppo) that has such expressive playing. Wallfisch really soars at times in a terrific outflowing of musical invention, superbly realised.

Elizabeth Wallfisch and David Breitman bring a freshness to these sonatas that is entirely beguiling and, as such, make a valuable addition to the catalogue. I will certainly be looking forward to hearing more in this cycle.

They receive an excellent recording that places the performers right in one’s room. The documentation is first rate with photographs of the fortepianos to be used in this series, instrumental details and notes by both performers. 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

A new release from Deutsche Grammophon/Mercury Classics featuring guitarist Miloš Karadaglić with the LPO under Yannick Nézet-Séguin in works by Rodrigo and de Falla is an absolute joy

The guitarist Miloš Karadaglić was born in Montenegro in 1983 and first started playing the guitar at the age of eight. At the age of seventeen he moved to London to take up a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music. He continues to live in London where he is a passionate supporter of music education, acting as a Patron of the Mayor of London Fund for Young Musicians and the charity Awards for Young Musicians.  He uses D'Addario J 46 strings and plays a 2007 Greg Smallman guitar, kindly lent to him by Paul and Jenny Gillham.

Miloš came to international attention in 2011 with his debut album The Guitar (Mediterráneo) which, in the space of just a few months, topped classical charts around the world, became an internationally bestselling sensation and earned Miloš Gramophone’s prestigious Young Artist of the Year Award.

2012/13 was the breakthrough year on the concert stage for Miloš with sold-out debut performances and tours around the world. The 2013 - 2014 season will take Miloš throughout Europe, America and the Middle East, in recitals and concerto performances, as well as appearances at prestigious festivals such as Cheltenham (UK), Ravinia (USA), Gstaad (Switzerland), Rheingau and Mecklenberg Vorpommern (Germany).

As an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon recording artist, Miloš Karadaglić released his second album Latino (Pasión) in 2012 and went on to receive both Classic Brit (UK) and Echo Klassik (Germany) awards.

Latino proved so successful that it was subsequently re-released as Latino GOLD featuring 30 minutes of newly recorded tracks from a wealth of Latin American inspired music. Meanwhile Miloš: Heartstrings, a documentary filmed throughout 2012 and which charts the guitarist’s story to date, has been released on DVD and aired on numerous TV stations.

His new Deutsche Grammophon/Mercury Classics release, Aranjuez, has just been released and features Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez and Fantasia para un Gentilhombre with Yannick Nézet-Séguin  and the London Philharmonic Orchestra

0289 481 0652 3 CD DDD GH
0289 481 0921 0 Blu-Ray Audio GH

There is a fine, strong opening from Miloš in the Allegro con spirito of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, full of Mediterranean warmth. The London Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin gives beautifully idiomatic support. Miloš provides a lovely tone, much delicacy and a wide range of timbres and colours. The way he moves rapidly between relaxed and sultry to stronger vibrant playing is quite wonderful. There is a lovely depth to the orchestral playing, with some beautifully played woodwind phrases and a sunlit transparency of sound, helped enormously by Deutsche Grammophon’s excellent recording from Abbey Road Studios, London.

There is a captivating directness to the opening of the Adagio. The balance of guitar and orchestra is splendidly done, though Rodrigo’s masterly writing for these forces overcomes many of the inherent problems of setting an acoustic instrument within an orchestra. Miloš has a fine feel for the subtle little nuances, conjuring deep resonances, beautiful vibrato, so many colours and textures from his instrument. He gives a brilliantly paced cadenza that has some superb little details, exquisitely done. Towards the coda Miloš delivers a really natural emotion, never overdone. The quiet, ascending chords over a hushed orchestra that end the adagio are exquisite.

There is an elegance to Miloš’ playing in the Allegro gentile with nicely pointed up orchestral details from the LPO, as well as a lightness of touch from both orchestra and soloist in this movement. These artists seem to subtly build a momentum right up to Rodrigo’s beautiful little ending.

For all the popularity and over exposure of this concerto, this remains a terrific work. Of course, Rodrigo’s close friend Pepe Romero on Philips will always be an essential choice for me but this new recoding goes right up there with the best.

Moving to Manuel de Falla, Miloš provides some lovely rich strong chords in the often dark Homenaje pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy. His beautiful vibrato just sings – quite superb. This is captivating playing. A flamboyant strummed opening sets the scene for de Falla’s Danza del Molinero (El Sombrero de Tres Picos) with powerful playing of the flamenco rhythms, bringing this music vividly to life.

Miloš plays the strange, haunting opening of Rodrigo’s Invocación y danza perfectly, before the rhythmic theme appears. Rodrigo’s dissonances are so appealing with Miloš bringing out every line and all the subtle rhythm and colours of this intoxicating piece. The central dancing section is a lovely yet thoughtful contrast with many fine details. As the music becomes faster, Miloš’ remarkable technique is shown to the full before a beautifully realised hushed coda.

Finely we have Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un gentilhombre with the winning theme of the opening Villano y Ricercare, probably the loveliest opening movement of any of Rodrigo’s guitar concertos. There is often chamber like contribution from Nézet-Séguin and the London Philharmonic and some really fine, thoughtful, beautifully nuanced playing from Miloš. The LPO are on glorious form when the big tune from the opening returns.

There is another exquisite melody in the second movement Españoleta y Fanfare de la Caballería de Nápoles, gently played by Miloš who has a winning way of presenting a theme so thoughtfully, yet directly, quite disarming. The LPO are on top form again with some particularly fine string playing. Miloš reveals so much in each little variation of this movement, bringing the music alive with so many nuances, colours and textures, creating so many little sound worlds in this, the longest movement.

The LPO under Nézet-Séguin adds so much to the final movement, Canario. Miloš is terrific in all the little detailed touches. The cadenza displays more superb playing before a coda full of panache.

This new disc is an absolute joy. The excellent recording has a nice depth and is finely balanced.

Miloš will be touring the UK this year appearing at Perth (31st May), Malvern (6th June), Bristol (11th June), Wigmore Hall, London (13th June) and High Bradfield (21st June). I certainly hope to be able to get to the Malvern concert.