Tuesday, 30 April 2013

An irresistible new release from Audite featuring the Trio Testore in recordings of Brahms complete Piano Trios that include the original version of his Op.8

Audite Records www.audite.de have just released a new recording of the complete Piano Trios by Brahms played by the Trio Testore www.trio-testore.de . I recently wrote of how Audite seem to have an uncanny knack of recording some of the best chamber music players in Europe. In view of this I came to this new release even more critically than usual, wondering if they can keep finding such top notch chamber ensembles.

The Trio Testore was founded in 2000 by three internationally established concert artists, pianist Hyun-Jung Kim-Schweiker, Violinist Franziska Pietsch and Cellist Hans-Christian Schweiker. The name of the trio comes from the fact that Franziska Pietsch and Hans-Christian Schweiker both play instruments made by the well-known Milanese luthier family Testore (the violin by Carlo Antonio, 1751 and the cello by Carlo Giuseppe, 1711).


It seems that Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) www.johannesbrahms.org may have written four Piano Trios. I say may because, in addition to his three numbered works in this medium, a Piano Trio in A major was discovered, in 1924, in a collection of manuscripts from the estate of a certain Dr Erich Preiger of Bonn. The title page was missing and the manuscript was not in Brahms’ hand but was believed by some to be stylistically by Brahms. An edition was published by Breitkopf and Hartel in 1938 but the original manuscript seems to have gone missing. If this were to be a genuine Brahms work it is thought to date to around 1856/7, postdating Brahms’ official Piano Trio No.1. There have been a number of recordings of this trio though always carefully documented as ‘attributed to Brahms’.

This new two disc set includes the original version of Brahms’ Piano Trio No.1 written in 1854. Given that in the final version, made in 1889, Brahms re-wrote almost everything except the Scherzo and the opening thematic groups of the other three movements, this version can reasonably be thought of as another completely different Piano Trio. Does this mean that Brahms actually wrote five Piano Trios? On the evidence so far available I think it best to assume that, including the new version of the First Piano Trio, Brahms actually wrote four.

The best known and most widely recorded version of the Piano Trio No.1 in B major, Op.8 is that of the revised 1889 version. In this recording pianist Hyun-Jung Kim-Schweiker introduces lovely mellow sounds to which the cello and later the violin join, the violin adding more emotional clout to this Allegro con brio. There is some really  incisive playing here, with fine dynamics as they work up to the dramatic moments, instinctively finding how to surprise one when the beautiful climaxes come, making the most of the youthful Brahms’ passion, albeit filtered through his later experienced ears.

The Scherzo. Allegro molto receives some lovely playing, full of momentum with fine textures from the strings.  The Trio Testore finds much mystery in the opening of the adagio. As the movement progresses and settles, the violin and cello produce a lovely blend of tone. Again these players know how to bring out the dynamics and passion in this piece, with some lovely limpid piano sounds from Kim-Schweiker as the movement draws to a close. The unsettled allegro receives a tremendously volatile performance in playing of great ensemble, dynamics and passion and with a superb coda.

The Allegro of Brahms’ Piano Trio No.2 in C major, Op.87 (1880-1882) is given a pretty stormy opening before it calms. In between the stormy thrust of this movement, there are some lovely string textures in the quieter passages. The opening theme of the Andante con moto is beautifully done with a lovely breadth. As the five variations progress, the last stretched to form a coda, Kim-Schweiker makes the most of the opportunity for some lovely playing. The light and breezy Scherzo. Presto, with its lovely trio section, receives a fine performance here, perfectly balanced with spot on ensemble. In the confident Finale. Allegro giocoso Brahms seems to brush away all the stormy uncertainty and the music flows quickly forward, with again some gloriously done string textures before the joyful coda.

The rarely recorded original 1854 version of the Piano Trio No.1 in B major, Op.8 lasts for around forty nine minutes against the revised version that lasts around thirty eight minutes. However, the length isn’t the only difference, as the only movement to remain in any way the same is the Scherzo. After revising this trio in 1889, Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann referring to the ‘wild’ character of this early version.

In the opening Allegro con brio it is strange to hear how immediately different the original version of this trio is, with the violin entering in a rather flamboyant manner. There is a somewhat awkward piano theme that stands out and the instruments are often allowed solo passages that make the work less homogenous. If anything this first movement is so sprawling that occasionally it tends to drag. No wonder that Brahms kept the Scherzo. Allegro molto as it is so full of rhythm and momentum.

The original Adagio is a less passionate, more fragmentary sounding movement with the strings quietly commenting on the piano theme. It does try occasionally to rise to a more passionate level but never quite seems to make it, falling back to end quietly.

The concluding Allegro opens with the same unsettled nature as the revised version and has much of the same passion, if less taut in structure. It receives some fine playing with much sensitivity in the quiet moments. The Trio Testore make a fine case for this version that, for all its faults, is a fascinating work to hear.

Brahms was in his full maturity when he wrote the Piano Trio No.3 in C minor, op.101 (1886). At less than half of the length of the original version of Op.8 this concise trio opens with a tremendously powerful allegro energico with a gloriously played second subject. The second movement may be marked presto non assai but it is nevertheless quiet and withdrawn with the strings muted throughout and pizzicato passages beautifully supporting the piano theme.

The strings open the andante grazioso before the piano enters alone in the same theme. Brahms for the most part keeps the instruments from playing together in this rhythmically alternating movement that allows the pianist to display some beautifully delicate playing. The violin and cello again blend wonderfully. The rhythm is pretty unpredictable in the restless allegro molto where the Trio Testore, with their wonderful dynamics, textures and ensemble are truly magnificent, bringing out all of Brahms’ turbulence.

Whilst reviewing this new release I referred back to a favourite recording by the Beaux Arts Piano Trio on Philips. In comparison to the Trio Testore, the Beaux Arts Trio sound restrained and classical in their approach. Their recording, whilst of the best quality for the time sounds slightly muted.

It is the Trio Testore that made me hear afresh the three main trios in performances where they play their hearts out. They have been given a sensationally good recording, so detailed and natural. With the Testores including a recording of the original version of Op.8 this new release is irresistible.

See also:  

Monday, 29 April 2013

Soloists are the crowning glory in this new release from Mirare featuring the Ricercar Consort directed by Philippe Pierlot in music by Matthias Weckmann

Matthias Weckman (c.1615-1674) was born in Thuringia, Germany, the son of a Lutheran pastor. At an early age he was received into the Electoral Chapel as a choirboy, receiving instruction from Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672). It was Schütz that recommended that Weckmann should receive instruction in organ playing and composition form Jacob Praetorius (1586–1651), to whom he was sent at the expense of Elector Johann Georg I. On his return to Dresden in 1636/7 he was appointed organist to the Electoral Chapel. A visit from King Christian IV of Denmark resulted in Weckmann being allowed to serve for a time as Capellmeister at the Danish court, only returning to Dresden in 1647. There is an account of a trial of skill which took place at Dresden between Weckmann and Johann Jakob Froberger (c.1616-1667), who parted from each other with expressions of mutual respect, Froberger declaring his competitor to be a real virtuoso.

In 1655 Weckmann was permitted to apply for the post of organist at the churches of St James and St Gertrude in Hamburg. With the exception of the occasional visit to Dresden he remained in Hamburg for the rest of his life, dying there in 1674.

Weckmann founded the Collegium Musicum, a music society that gave frequent performances of the best and newest native and foreign music and was the beginning of public concerts in Hamburg. None of Weckmann’s works were published in his own lifetime and only eight of his larger works for voice and instruments have survived many of which are now preserved in the Upsalla University Library.

Mirare www.mirare.fr have just released a new recording of instrumental and vocal works by Weckmann with the Ricercar Consort directed by Philippe Pierlot www.ricercarconsort.com. The instrumentalists of the Ricercar Consort are Sophie Gent, Tuomo Suni and Gabriel Grosbard (violons), Philippe Pierlot, Kaori Uemura and Rainer Zipperling (violes de gamba), Eduardo Egüez (theorbo) and Maud Gratton (organ). The soloists are Maria Keohane (soprano www.eliassonartists.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=37&Itemid=133&lang=en Carlos Mena (alto), Hans-Jörg Mammel (tenor) www.hansjoergmammel.de and Stephan Macleod (bass) www.sorekartists.com/Artist.aspx?id=15

MIR 204
Weckmann’s Concerto I. Weine nicht, Es hat überwunden. à 9 for three voices and six instruments has an instrumental opening before alto, Carlos Mena, enters on the words ‘Weine nicht es hat überwunden der Löwe, von Stamm Juda (Weep not the Lion of the Tribe of Juda the root of David has overcome). After an extended section for instruments, bass, Stephan Macleod, enters with light instrumental accompaniment. After a short instrumental passage the alto and tenor sing ‘Weine nicht’ (Weep not) a particularly beautiful setting. Tenor, Hans-Jörg Mammel, and alto, Carlos Mena and bass Stephan Macleod, introduce a more vibrant setting of the second verse ‘Das Lamm das erwürget ist (The Lamb that was slain). As the soloists weave around each other the music works its way to, not a massive amen, but a light textured and ornamented amen.

Concerto II. Zion spricht: Der Herr hat mich verlassen. à 8 for three voices and five instruments.

A slow theme for instruments opens this concerto before the soloists enter in an attractive ‘Zion spricht’ (Zion speaks). After a short instrumental section bass, Stephan Macleod, enters in ‘Kann auch eine leibliche Mutter ihres Kindleins vergessen’ (Can a mother of flesh forget her child) combining beautifully with the viols. Tenor, countertenor then bass then come together with a terrific blend of voices to bring this concerto to a close.

Weckmann’s grand organ Praembulum Primi toni a 5 that follows is played with clarity and style by Maude Gratton, making a fine interlude between the vocal works.

Concerto III. Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe. à 8 also has an instrumental opening before tenor, alto and bass enter weaving a tapestry of words on ‘Herr wenn ich nur dich habe’ (Lord if only I have you). Alto, Carlos Mena again shows himself to have a fine voice as does tenor, Hans-Jörg Mammel, when he joins at ‘Wenn mir’ in this slower section.  The three male voices continue to give terrific performances in ‘…so bist du doch, Gott…’ (…you remain God…).

Soprano, Maria Keohane, and organ open the Concerto IV. Wie liegt die Stadt so wüste. à 7 with a lovely ‘Wie liegt die Stadt so wüste’ (How desolate lies the city) a magical setting from Lamentations. Instruments herald bass, Stephan Macleod, in ‘Euch sage ich allen’ (I say to you all) another fine setting, so finely sung. When the soprano enters again in ‘Sie weinet des Nachts’ (She weeps in the night) with lovely ornamentation, it creates a lovely effect even more so when Stephan Macleod joins her. Maria Keohane has a beautifully pure tone in ‘Jerusalem …’ and with such perfect diction; Stephan Macleod is wonderful in the lovely ‘Man höret’s wohl.’.(One hears clearly). There is an unusual setting of ‘Ach Herr, siehe an meine  Elend’ (Alas Lord, behold my affliction) with soprano and bass before the work is brought to an end.

Weckmann’s three pieces for organ Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein (Rejoice my dear Christians) has a striking Primus Versus displaying the organ of Saint Amant-de-Boixe to fine effect, an attractive Secundus Versus Auff 2 Clavir with hints of Buxtehude and Tertius Versus with a simple descending motif that leads to some attractive and individual music. These pieces make one want to hear more of any organ music of Weckmann’s that exists.

Kommet heer zu mir alle die ihr Mühselig und beladen seÿdt. à 6 (Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened) The instrumentalists of the Ricercar Consort open Kommet heer zu mir in an extended introduction before bass, Stephan Macleod, enters in a rich voiced ‘Kommet her zu mir’.(Come to me) After another instrumental section Stephan Macleod sings ‘lernet von mir, dennich bin sanftmutig’ (learn from me, for I am gentle) in an equally pleading voice.

Wenn de Herr die Gefangenen zu Zion for 4 voices and five instruments

Alto, Carlos Mena, opens in this fine work, in a pure toned ‘Wenn der Herr die Gefangenen (When the Lord will return). As soprano, Maria Keohane, joins, then bass, Stephan Macleod, and tenor, Hans-Jörg Mammel, they again weave some lovely sounds. Maria Keohane leads the other soloists into a joyful ‘Dann wird unser Mund voll Lachens’ (Then our mouth will be filled with laughter) and Stephan Macleod opens in ‘Herr, wende unser Gefängnis’ (Lord transform our captivity) before the others soloists join. There is an instrumental opening before the soloists enter with a particularly attractive and individual setting of the words ‘Die mit Thränen säen’ (They that sow in tears).

In the Magnificat Secundi Toni, Primus Versus a 5 proves to be another quite individual piece. There is a gentle Secundus Versus a 4 Auff 2 Clavir and a steady paced Tertius Versus a 5 before the lively final Quartus Versus a 6. These are some lovely little organ works beautifully played by Maude Gratton.

With the fine Ricercar Consort, the soloists are the crowning glory of this new release. The recording is excellent and there are informative notes as well as full texts and translations.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

A world première of a lost early work by Debussy in period instrument performances from Les Siècles conducted by François-Xavier Roth released by Musicales Actes Sud

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) wrote his Première Suite d’Orchestre sometime during the years 1882-1884 whilst still a student at the Conservatoire de Paris. Most books don’t even list this early work that appears in manuscript both for piano duet and for orchestra. Indeed it seems that this work did not appear in any list until François Lesure included it in his catalogue of 1977 where it is catalogued as L50, Suite for orchestra (piano reduction) (1883).

The manuscripts for these two versions of the work appear to have travelled considerably, first being sold in New York, then acquired by another collector before being deposited in the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York www.themorgan.org/home.asp . The piano duet version was published by Durand in Paris in 2008 but the orchestral version lacked the orchestral score of the third movement, Rêve.

Composer Philippe Manoury www.philippemanoury.com undertook the orchestration of the third movement and on 2nd February 2012 the whole work was performed at the Cité de la Musique à Paris by François-Xavier Roth conducting Les Siècles as part of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth.

It is this première performance of Debussy’s Première Suite d’Orchestre that was recorded by Musicales Actes Sud www.actes-sud.fr/rayon/arts/musique and is now released on CD together with a live performance of Debussy’s La Mer.


ISBN 314-9-02802-332-9

Les Siècles was founded in 2003 by the conductor François-Xavier Roth www.francoisxavierroth.com and performs contrasting programmes on modern and period instruments as appropriate, often within the same concert. Roth has given concerts with Les Siècles in France, Italy, Germany, England and Japan. They were awarded a Diapason Découverte for their CD on the Mirare label of music by Bizet and Chabrier and on the orchestra's own label Les Siècles Live http://lessiecleslive.wordpress.com/les-siecles-live , they have released works by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Martin Matalon, Stravinsky and Liszt.

Debussy’s Premiere Suite d’Orchestre opens with Fête, a lively, rhythmic, piece with a flowing second subject. It is effectively orchestrated though there is no distinctive Debussy sound here as he looks more to his contemporaries of the late 19th century.  Ballet is a less conventional piece, full of attractive ideas and a little scent of the East. Rêve, orchestrated by Philippe Manoury, has more of the mature Debussy sound that we expect to hear, though that might be due to the orchestration more than the actual musical invention.  There is a quiet luscious melody, certainly very French and full of atmosphere. Cortège et Bacchanale is attractive and full of ideas and some lovely brass sounds from the old 19th instruments.

François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles recorded La Mer (1903-05) live at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa-Cecilia, Rome www.santacecilia.it/en in April 2012. This is a very characterful performance. De l’aube à midi sur la mer, has a lovely ebb and flow, played with a fine sensitivity that brings out many of Debussy’s little orchestral details. Francois-Xavier Roth is wonderful In the way he holds the tension so that, when the final climax bursts out, it is magnificent, a great surge of the sea. There are some great shimmering string sounds in Jeux de vagues, superbly played. Roth and his orchestra are wonderful in the way that they handle all the changes in this movement. The harp that can be heard towards the end is an early Erard, though no date is given.  Dialogue du vent et de la mer receives a wonderful reading, full of drama yet with some exquisitely quite moments, particularly when the flute and oboe play over hushed strings.

The effect of using period instruments from the late 19th and early 20th century is not as obvious as when much earlier instruments are used for music of the baroque or classical era. However, as caught in these live recordings, these old instruments certainly give a lovely sound, full of character.

It is fascinating to hear Debussy’s very early work and the performance of La Mer is excellent in its own right. There is a well-illustrated and informative booklet with informative notes and pictures of some of the period instruments.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A special performance from Guy Johnston and idiomatic playing from the Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta in a new release of works by Moeran on Naxos

I am lucky enough to live near Kington in Herefordshire, one of the areas of countryside that is associated with the British composer Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950).

E. J. Moeran, known to his friends as Jack, was born in Heston, Middlesex, the son of a vicar of Irish descent and a mother from Norfolk. In 1905 Moeran’s father was appointed priest in charge to the joint parishes of Salhouse with Wroxham www.salhousevillage.org.uk  in Norfolk, later moving to Bacton on the Norfolk coast http://bactonandedingthorpe.co.uk/. Moeran was educated at Uppingham School where his teacher was Robert Sterndale Bennett (1880–1963), the grandson of the composer Sir William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875).

Norfolk proved to be a strong influence on the young Moeran who later collected folk songs in the area. Moeran’s time as a student at the Royal College of Music studying piano and composition with Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 -1924) www.thestanfordsociety.org  was cut short at the outbreak of the First World War when he enlisted as a motor-cycle despatch rider in the Sixth Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. In 1915 he was commissioned as Second Lieutenant attached to the West Yorkshire Regiment and sent to the Western Front where he received severe head injuries leaving shell particles that could never be removed.

After the war Moeran returned for a few months to Uppingham School as a music teacher but soon returned to the Royal College of Music to resume his composition studies, this time with John Ireland (1879-1962).

By the mid-1920s, Moeran had become close friends with Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) (1894-1930) www.peterwarlock.org, living for some years in Eynsford, Kent www.eynsfordpc.kentparishes.gov.uk  where, with others, they became notorious for their frequent drunken escapades. This proved disastrous for Moeran who, for the rest of his life, had alcohol problems. After Heseltine’s death in 1930, he began spending much of his time in Kenmare, County Kerry http://kenmare.eu, another area that was to have a profound effect on his music.

Moeran’s father retired from Bacton and took a house called Gravel Hill in the Herefordshire border town of Kington www.kington.org.uk . It was to be another area that would have a strong influence on him. Moeran’s brother, Graham, also became a vicar, like his father and grandfather before him and was appointed to Leominster and later Ledbury, both in Herefordshire. In 1945, Moeran made an ill-advised and unsuccessful marriage to the cellist Peers Coetmore.

A late developer as a composer, his output is not large but he wrote some choral works, songs, chamber music and orchestral works including a fine Violin Concerto (1942), a wonderful Symphony in G minor ((1934-37) and a Cello Concerto (1945)

It was the countryside of County Kerry that influenced Moeran’s Cello Concerto. He wrote to his wife, from Kenmare, on 20th October 1943 ‘…if you will trust me to try and work out for you this Concerto, you can cut your engagements for a time and come down to Kington. We could walk together on Hergest Ridge and Bradnor and work out tunes. But I am bound to say that they will be Kerry inspired ones.’

Peers Coetmore recorded the Concerto with Adrian Boult and the London Symphony Orchestra for Lyrita Recorded Edition www.lyrita.co.uk long after she had ceased to give public performances. Whilst she is obviously past her prime, the recording does have a real character to it and is of obvious historical interest. In 1986 Raphael Wallfisch recorded the work for Chandos Records www.chandos.net with Norman del Mar and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta in a fine performance that has stood the test of time.

It is Moeran’s Cello Concerto that is the main work on a new release from Naxos www.naxos.com featuring Guy Johnston (cello) www.guy-johnston.com  with the Ulster Orchestra www.ulsterorchestra.com  conducted by JoAnn Falletta www.joannfalletta.com . Also featured is Moeran’s Serenade in G in its original eight movement version and two shorter works, Lonely Waters and Whythorne’s Shadow.



The Cello Concerto (1945) opens with a beautifully rich tone from Guy Johnston in Moeran’s winning theme that runs right through this movement (Moderato). He provides some wonderful phrasing, full of that distinctive Irish nostalgia. The fast section has a lovely breezy outdoor feeling so much demanded by the composer. There is further development of the main theme before the orchestra is really allowed to have its head. The opening motif re-appears leading to a darkened coda.  After the orchestral introduction to the Adagio there is a very special moment as the cello enters, with its lyrical theme, in a different key. What a glorious adagio this is, played so beautifully and sensitively by Guy Johnston. The slowly unwinding melody is expertly done, allowing the rhapsodic sounds to unfold so naturally. Johnston extracts so many lovely timbres and colours from his instrument. A finely played cadenza leads to the Allegretto with a melody that sounds like an Irish folk tune but appears to be Moeran’s own creation. In the beautiful episode half way through, there is some intensely lovely playing and, as the movement progresses, Johnston and JoAnn Falletta bring a stillness that is most affecting. There is a short solo passage that leads to a faster section with that Irish sounding tune appearing again before the end.

There is something special in the way Johnston plays this concerto. It’s difficult to nail down precisely. It is more than just his sensitivity and tone. It is something more indefinable.

Moeran’s Serenade in G (1948), his last completed orchestral work, is a much lighter piece with two of the movements, Minuet and Rigadoon, taken from an earlier Suite: Farrago (1932). It was first performed at a 1948 Promenade concert conducted by Basil Cameron in its eight movement form. For some reason it was published without the Intermezzo and Forlana. It is performed on this new recording in its original eight movement form.

The opening Prologue has the feel of an ancient English melody, somewhat reminiscent of Warlock in his Capriol Suite. The lovely Air for strings is a simple tune full of Englishness and the changeable intermezzo moves from a lighter opening mood to a darker side. There is a lively Gallop, full of brass,  a gentle Minuet again full of English nostalgia,  with an oboe taking the main melody, Rigadoon, that sounds much as though taken from an old English song (Moeran had the knack of doing this with original material) and  the longer Forlana with a wistful tune and a gently forward momentum, beautifully scored. The Epilogue opens with a rather martial sound with side drum before taking us taking us full circle to the Prologue melody. JoAnn Falleta has full command of Moeran’s idiom.

A London business man, Lionel Hill, was laid up in hospital in 1943 when he heard, on the radio, a particularly beautiful piece of music, which was, in his words, .’…shot through with the rare magic of Delius, but with a language of its own…and dying away with a voice appearing to call across some lonely expanse of water…’

This was Lonely Waters (c.1931) and it led to a close friendship with the composer recorded in Hill’s book Lonely Waters – the diary of a friendship with E J Moeran (published by Thames in 1985 – no longer in print). It is one of those little gems of British music, this time based on a Norfolk folk song that Moeran said was ‘…still frequently to be heard on Saturday nights at certain inns in the Broads district of East Norfolk…’

Most recordings of this work use the alternative ending where the soprano voice is replaced by a cor anglais – effective enough in its own way. This new recording has soprano Rebekah Coffey joining towards the end, as the orchestra dies away, with the words

So I’ll do down to some lonely waters,
Go down where no one they shall me find,
Where the pretty little small birds do change their voices,
And every moment blow blustering wild.

There is an added poignancy to these words. On 1st December 1950, during a violent storm, Moeran fell from the pier at Kenmare. He had died from a massive heart attack aged only 55 years.

Whythorne’s Shadow (c.1931) is usually coupled with Lonely Waters, even though they are quite different in nature. They were published as Two Pieces for Small Orchestra. Based on Elizabethan composer Thomas Whythorne’s madrigal As thy shadow itself apply’th it is a lovely dance tune that rolls into a looser pastoral melody.

This is a lovely disc with very idiomatic playing from the Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. The recording is good and if you are not familiar with Moeran’s Cello Concerto then I urge followers to get to know it. Lonely Waters, with the rare opportunity to hear it with the soprano ending, is not to be missed.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Valentina Lisitsa more than lives up to expectations with her complete Rachmaninov concertos on Decca

I first heard Valentina Lisitsa www.valentinalisitsa.com play when listening to the car radio. It was her incredibly fluid playing in the brief extract from Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto www.rachmaninoff.org that grabbed my attention making me want to find out who it was that was playing.

It was only when I received a review copy of her Decca recording of all four of Rachmaninov’s Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody and read the booklet notes, that the full story of Lisitsa’s struggle to find an audience came clear. On these new recordings made at the Abbey Road Studios, London, Lisitsa is joined by the London Symphony Orchestra http://lso.co.uk conducted by Michael Francis www.cami.com/?webid=2013 .

478 4890

Having been attracted to her playing from that brief radio clip, it was with an unbiased state of mind that I approached the full recording of the Third Concerto and, indeed, the other concertos on these discs.

Some critics, as was to be expected, have been suspicious of her ‘sudden’ rise to fame and the ensuing Decca contract, speaking of her superficial playing. Surely a pianist who became popular due to YouTube must be suspect. The general public can’t possibly be trusted to tell if a pianist is any good. Well, on the evidence of these new discs, from Decca, they can.

Valentina Lisitsa was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1973 and began playing the piano at the age of three, performing her first solo recital a year later. She gained a place at the Lysenko Music School for Gifted Children and later studied at the Kiev Conservatory  www.knmau.com.ua under Ludmilla Tsvierko. In 1991 she won the first prize in The Murray Dranoff Two Piano Competition http://dranoff2piano.org  together with Alexei Kuznetsoff.

In 1991 she moved to the USA with her piano duo partner and future husband, Alexei Kuznetsov where she undertook further study. In 2001 Lisitsa decided to start a solo career but apparently due to problems with her agent her career stalled.

Lisitsa decided to use YouTube www.youtube.com/watch?v=bccU-vvIsNg to show her pianistic talents to a wider public. The YouTube videos went viral, leading to her now having well over 50,000 followers around the world making her one of the most watched classical musicians on the Web. She has performed in venues around the world, including Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, and the Musikverein. In May 2010, Valentina Lisitsa performed the Dutch premiere of Rachmaninoff’s “New 5th” Concerto (an arrangement of the second symphony) in her debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and in August 2011 made her debut with the Orchestra Sinfonica Brasileira under Lorin Maazel.

Valentina Lisitsa has recorded three independently-released DVDs, including her best-selling set of Chopin’s 24 Etudes.  Her recording of Charles Ives’ four violin sonatas, made with Hilary Hahn, was released in October 2011. Valentina Lisitsa will appear at the BBC Proms in London on Saturday 31 August 2013 www.bbc.co.uk/proms .

So what of Valentina Lisitsa’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30 of which I had heard such a small excerpt? In the opening Allegro ma non tento Lisitsa adopts a faster tempo than many, indeed closer to Rachmaninov’s own no nonsense approach. When the piano commences its intricate passage work, Lisitsa’s technique is very impressive. There is clarity to her playing with absolutely no smudging of phrases. Michael Francis provides an equally brisk pace in the orchestral passages. Yet there are some very special poetic moments as well as massively impressive chords. And, of course, there is that lovely fluency that I had heard on the radio. The cadenza is quite formidably played.

In the Intermezzo. Adagio, Michael Francis achieves some lovely orchestral sounds in the opening, with a lovely rubato, reminiscent of Ormandy in Rachmaninov’s own recording of 1939/40. When Lisitsa enters there is superb clarity and, as the music progresses, some terrifically bold phrases. There is that beautiful rippling left hand again in some lovely passages and, at the halfway restatement of the main theme, such a feeling of spontaneity. In the Finale (Alla breve) it is again the clarity, phrasing and fluidity of Lisitsa’s playing that enables the music to never seem rushed, despite the tempo. There are some terrific passages of extraordinary brilliance in this finale and exquisite delicacy in places. The coda is full of breadth and bravura.

Rachmaninov’s early Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1 was one of the scores that he took with him on leaving Russia, which he was in the process of revising. It has a sparkling opening Vivace with, again, Lisitsa giving playing that is clear and agile with a lovely rhythmic bounce. Francis’ accompaniment is quite beautifully done, seeming almost to have a subtle portamento in some of the playing. There are scintillating passages but much poetry as well and a phenomenal cadenza brilliantly done.

There is a beautifully balanced andante with so many thoughtful touches before the Allegro vivace which receives a really joyous performance as well as a limpid trio section full of spontaneous sounding phrases.

The Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18 is not an easy work to approach with all its filmic associations as well as many past performances. However, the Moderato opens with some full blooded playing as the piano and orchestra push ahead, never overly dwelling on sentiment. Again Lisitsa’s clarity and beautiful touch stand out as does the poetry she brings to the slower passages, with some lovely moments. There is a beautifully paced Adagio sostenuto, full of subtle rubato. So finely controlled is Litsitsa’s playing and, indeed, Michael Francis’ direction that the music is never allowed to become bombastic even as the music begins to build towards the middle of the movement. The coda is simply lovely.

Lisitsa shows her formidable technique in the opening of the Allegro scherzando with both soloist and orchestra carefully controlling the emotional content in a movement that, in some hands, could easily become saccharine. As the movement progresses, the conductor and soloist appear to work so well together (despite only meeting on the day of the recording). Towards the end, her lovely touch and phrasing are again very evident and she is not afraid to go for a big bold coda.

The greatly underestimated Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op.40 is always difficult to bring off but Lisitsa and Francis seem to bring something very special to this work. In the Allegro vivace, after the opening statement, there are some lovely little phrases in the wistful sections, with Lisitsa making the most of the improvisatory nature of the slower passages. So engrossed was I, that I forgot for a while that I was supposed to be writing about the performance. Lisitsa, more than any other pianist, brings out the strange combination of romanticism and hints of a more modern idiom refracted through Rachmaninov’s nostalgia. There are some lovely woodwind phrases in Francis’ lovely accompaniment.

Lisitsa highlights so much of the strange hesitancy in the oddly dark largo showing the autumnal nature of the work, so much so, that when there is a stormy outburst it is made to sound all the more shocking. This is a remarkable performance of this movement and, as it broadens in its romantic feel towards the end, it seems like only a reminiscence.  The Allegro vivace is made to shake the gloom and introspection of the largo away, though the reminiscences still appear in some of the quieter piano passages. Michael Francis and the orchestra draw out some strangely beautiful sounds, full of distant emotion before the music builds, with fabulous playing from Lisitsa, as the coda arrives. These artists make something rather special of this concerto.

In the opening of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 there is some beautifully pointed playing. There are many fine moments in this performance but just listen to variations four and five to hear Lisitsa’s clarity of phrasing or the glorious variation number seven with its quote of the Dies Irae with a wonderful orchestral contribution. Variation twelve is particularly beautifully done, with limpid playing and the soloist and orchestra working so well together. Lisitsa’s playing is truly scintillating in variation fifteen, so fine and clear and, when the famous eighteenth variation arrives, she keeps a fine balance of emotion. There is a lovely orchestral rubato and a terrific climax in this wonderful inversion of Paganini’s theme. As the formidably played variation twenty two runs through variation twenty three into the scintillating last variation we arrive at Rachmaninov’s lovely throw away ending.

By now you may have realised that I am extremely impressed with these performances. Decca have done Valentina Lisitsa proud with a truly fine recording that allows all the orchestral details to imerge.

I would very much like to hear more from this artist and look forward to what Decca will encourage her to record next.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Works by Liszt, Dohńanyi and Kodály fabulously played by Raphael Wallfisch and John York on a new release from Nimbus

In September 2012 I reviewed a recording on Nimbus by Raphael Wallfisch www.raphaelwallfisch.com  and John York http://yorkpiano.co.uk/cds.html of Cello Sonatas by Delius and Grieg.  I noted what a wonderful partnership Wallfisch and York make, instinctively weaving the sound around each other in wonderfully nuanced performances www.raphaelwallfisch.com/duo.html .

Again from Nimbus www.wyastone.co.uk/all-labels/nimbus/nimbus-alliance.html comes a two CD release from these two fine musicians featuring works by Liszt, Dohńanyi and Kodály. 
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 didn’t even realise that Franz Liszt (1811-1886)  www.lisztsoc.org.uk had written specific music for cello and piano so this new release came as a particularly welcome surprise. Liszt’s Premiere Élegié S.130 (1874) was written in memory of Marie Moukhanoff-Kalergis (1822-1874) who had been his patron. After anguished opening phrases for both cello and piano the music settles to a gently elegiac melody, though becoming more passionate part way through.  Zweite elegie S.131 (1877) is constructed from the simplest material yet Liszt creates such a lovely work. There is an attractive piano part for John York and some passionate playing from Raphael Wallfisch, as well as some sensitive, hushed moments, exquisitely played.
Liszt’s Romance oubliée S.132 (1880) is taken from an earlier song and reworked both as a piano piece and for cello and piano. The cello alone opens in a little ascending motif before being joined by the piano to develop the theme. There is a simple but effective section that rises to a short climax to be followed by a passage for solo cello before quietening. There is some beautifully intimate playing as the work draws to a close.

La lugubre gondola S.134 (1882-85) was written as a piano piece whilst Liszt was staying with Wagner at the Villa Vendramin in Venice. This desolate work, inspired by the sight of funeral godolas, seems to anticipate the death of the ailing Wagner in 1883. In this version for cello and piano, a three note motif for piano opens the piece before the cello joins to work out the theme. This three note motif is repeated on the piano with the cello joining in, twice more before the theme is broadened, as both players move the music forward, slowly, in a gentle rocking rhythm in this substantial, elegiac piece, full of shifting tonality.

Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth S.382 (c.1883) is also developed from an earlier song and opens with a tolling piano before the cello joins in a reflective evocation of the Benedictine Abbey on the island of Nonnenwerth where Liszt stayed with Countess Marie d’Agoult (1805-1876), one of Liszt’s early loves. Liszt seems to be looking back wistfully and nostalgically. Both players find so much in this piece – sensitivity, passion and melancholy. Liszt’s Consolations – Six Pensées poétiques S.172 (1844-49) were transcribed for cello and piano from the original piano works by the Belgium cellist, Jules de Swert (1843-1891) much to the approval of the composer. There is a lovely little andante con moto with a great little melody followed by Stern. Quasi adagio, in which Raphael Wallfisch reveals some lovely sounds from his cello. The mood brightens in the gentle third piece, Un poco più moto, where Wallfisch and York show the remarkable musical rapport they have with each other. The Lento placido receives an exquisite performance from these players, whilst the sunny Andantino leads to straight into the final Allegretto sempre cantabile, a perfectly conceived performance, with rich toned playing from Wallfisch and lovely full playing from York.

O du mein holder Abendstern (Recitativ and Romance from Wagner’s Tannhäuser) was reconstructed by Leslie Howard from fragments of this earlier arrangement by Liszt of one of the most beautiful of Wagner’s arias played beautifully by this duo.

Erńo Dohńanyi (1877-1960) is probably best known for his Variations on a Nursery Tune (Variationen über ein Kinderlied) for piano and orchestra, Op. 25 (1914) yet he wrote so much more including operas, choral works, three symphonies including the early unnumbered Symphony in F, two violin concertos, two piano concertos, orchestral works including his Ruralia Hungarica, Op. 32b (1924), chamber works and piano works including the original version of Ruralia Hungarica, Op. 32a (1923).

Dohńanyi’s Sonata in B flat major Op.8 (1899) is an early work which, in the opening Allegro, ma no troppo, has a quiet introduction for both players before the allegro appears in a passionately written melody. There is terrific playing from Wallfisch and York in this virtuosic piece. What a fine duo they are in this full blooded romantic allegro, full of fire and rhythm. This is a Brahmsian work, particularly in the piano part. A fleet of foot Scherzo. Vivace Assai with rapid cello bowing and a scintillating piano part simply dashes along, almost Mendelssohnian in its lightness and character, until the trio section which becomes more serious. The relatively short Adagio non troppo brings a lovely melody with, yet again, a Brahmsian piano part, leading straight into the Teme con Variazioni, the later variations being taken from themes from earlier movements.

Wallfisch and York play this Sonata marvellously ensuring that, despite its derivations, it is an immensely enjoyable work.

Dohńanyi made a number of arrangements of his original piano version of Ruralia Hungarica including this one for cello and piano and numbered as Op.32d (1924). Marked Andante rubato, alla zingaresca, this is a beautiful melody affectingly played by these artists.

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) www.iks.hu tends to be remembered mainly for the orchestral suite from his opera Háry János (1926), his Variations on a Hungarian Folksong Fölszállott a páva (The Peacock) (1939), usually just referred to as the Peacock Variations and his Psalmus Hungaricus, Op. 13 (1923). Yet he also wrote much else including one other opera Székelyfonó (The Spinning Room), choral works, orchestral works including a Concerto for Orchestra (1939–1940) and a Symphony (1930s–1961) and chamber and instrumental works of which his two movement Sonata Op.4 (1909-10) for cello and piano is recorded here.

The Fantasia. Adagio di molto opens with a rich theme on the lower register of the cello before the piano slowly enters. After ruminating on this material, a folk like theme appears, very Hungarian. There are some virtuosic passages for both players before the music quietens and slows for a hushed end. The allegro con spirito-molto adagio has a lightly sprung theme that soon gathers pace with some wonderful touches for the cello and piano. Wallfisch and York are terrific in this rapidly changing movement with sudden outbursts.

The Sonatina (1921-22) is taken from the projected third movement of Kodály’s Sonata Op.4. Marked Lento-Tempo principile, there are some lovely passages for the piano, beautifully played by John York, before the cello joins in a theme that has much of an outdoors feeling. There are some lovely cello timbres before a wistful melody appears that develops to a more passionate theme.

Kodály’s Adagio (1910) has a long flowing melody for cello with the piano providing a gentle underlying layer. The music has a dignity that seems to keep it from becoming emotional. It is the piano that often lifts this work, providing a beautiful accompaniment to the cello line.

These are some very fine works fabulously played by Raphael Wallfisch and John York. The recording from Nimbus’ Wyastone Leys venue in Monmouth is clear and detailed and there are excellent notes by John York. I hope we soon have more from this terrific duo.

Friday, 19 April 2013

David Matthews’ Piano Concerto and Piano Sonata from Toccata Classics brilliantly played by Laura Mikkola

David Matthews (b.1943) www.david-matthews.co.uk  was born in London but it wasn’t until 1959 that a recording that he heard of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, sparked a desire to compose, leading to a symphony of his own. It was not until he was twenty five that he produced a work that satisfied him sufficiently to be his Op.1, his Three Orchestral Songs (1968-1971). He read classics at Nottingham University and later studied composition with Anthony Milner. Matthews was also helped by the advice and encouragement of Nicholas Maw www.boosey.com/composer/Nicholas+Maw . For three years he worked as an assistant to Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgwww.brittenpears.org . He has largely avoided teaching, but has done much editorial work and orchestration of film music.

David Matthews, along with his composer brother Colin, collaborated with Deryck Cooke on orchestrating the final version of his 'performing version' of Mahler's Tenth Symphony. Matthews has also written articles and reviews for various music journals as well as books on Britten and Tippett, a composer he very much admires. To date Matthews’ output includes seven symphonies, a number of concertos including two for violin and one for piano, numerous orchestral works, chamber works including twelve string quartets, three piano trios, two string trios and piano music. Dutton Vocalion www.duttonvocalion.co.uk has recorded five of the symphonies on two CDs with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Martyn Brabbins and Jac van Steen.

Toccata Classics www.toccataclassics.com  have also recorded two volumes of Matthews’ String Quartets,
as well as a new disc featuring his Piano Concerto , Op.111, Piano Sonata, Op.47, Variations for Piano, Op.72, together with two other shorter piano works.


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David Matthews’ Piano Concerto Op.111 (2009) opens with a slightly bluesy theme, marked Con moto moderato, that is developed by the piano with a shifting orchestral background. It immediately captures the attention and keeps it. There is a terrific central, spiky theme and a lovely atmospheric coda. The second movement marked Tango: Tempo di tango energico is a wonderfully effective fast and flowing piece, with the piano more obviously taking the tango rhythm with some wonderful playing from Laura Mikkola. A nocturnal sounding Elegy: Largo e mesto is a wonderful creation, full of elusive atmosphere with, at times, a pretty taxing part for the pianist.

The Allegro con spirito opens with string chords before the piano settles to a gentle melody leading to a livelier section before upward phrases suddenly end the work.

I love this concerto. Laura Mikkola and the Orchestra Nova under George Vass couldn’t be better. www.lauramikkola.net/ www.georgevass.co.uk

A hesitant rhythm opens the Piano Sonata Op.47 (1989) before the piano suddenly bursts out in this Allegro molto e ritmico. There is a return to the opening motif which is expanded. There are some great dissonances and piano chords as this movement progresses before building to a stormy climax then quietening as it flows straight into the lovely slow second movement Andante, a movement that sounds somewhat improvisatory. Laura Mikkola provides some beautifully limpid playing before the jazzy Allegro that has some terrific clipped piano phrases. The short clipped phrases continue but the music soon builds to a longer breathed and complex climax. There is stunning playing from Mikkola. A series of chords, becoming slowly quieter, end the work.

Variations for Piano, op.72 (1997) is a theme and twenty four Variations based on a short melody, three chords and a descending motif rounded off by a rising one. Matthews draws such a variety of ideas from this little theme. Particularly attractive are the Vivace e leggiero that has a lovely flowing mood, a Con molto anima where the music fairly tumbles over itself, the Slow blues, a masterclass in variation writing that is followed by a scintillating Allegretto con precision, a lovely, lazy blues theme and a gentle Andantino semplice to conclude, all brilliantly played by Laura Mikkola.

Two Dionysis Dithyrambs Op.94 (2007 and 2004) take their title from Nietzsche’s Dionysos-Dithyramben. No.1 is inspired by ‘Die Sonne Sinkt’ (The Sun Sinks) from his third Dionysos-Dithyramb that reflects on the sea and sky. Marked With steady, calm movement this is a beautifully flowing piece with some lovely flourishes. No.2 marked Esultante, reflects on Nietzsche’s final days as he descended into madness. This is another terrific piece, with powerful dissonances, full of ardour, making a perfect companion to the first. A virtuoso piece with more, great playing from Laura Mikkola.

The final piece, One to Tango Op.51d (1990 arr. 1993), is an arrangement of the fourth movement of Matthews’ Fourth Symphony. Its offbeat rhythms make an effective solo piano piece to end.

The recording made in the Pamoja Hall at Sevenoaks School, Kent, England is excellent as are the notes by the composer. This is a fine new release that should be heard by all and not just those that are interested in British music.

See also:

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Sir Philip Ledger - A Musician’s Legacy – a fitting tribute to a fine musician on a new release from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

During the years 1957 to 1982 the music at Kings College, Cambridge  www.kings.cam.ac.uk was in the hands of two inspirational Directors of Music, Sir David Wilcocks (1957-1974) and Sir Philip Ledger (1974-1982) www.sirphilipledger.com .

Sir Philip Stevens Ledger, CBE (1937-2012) was born in Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, England in 1937 and educated at King's College, Cambridge. His appointment as master of the music at Chelmsford Cathedral in 1961 made him the youngest cathedral organist in the country. In 1965 he took up the directorate of music at the University of East Anglia, where he was also dean of the School of Fine Arts and Music.  In 1968 he became an artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival and conducted at the Snape Maltings on many occasions, including the opening concert after its rebuilding.

Whilst Sir Philip was director of music at King's College, Cambridge from 1974 to 1982, he directed the Choir of King’s College in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, made many recordings and took the choir to the United States, Australia, and Japan for the first time. In 1982, Sir Philip took the difficult decision to leave Kings College when offered the post of Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, which he held from 1982-2001. Sir Philip subsequently appeared as a conductor throughout the United Kingdom, North America, and Asia.

Whilst well known as a choral director, conductor and organist, it is less well known that he was also an accomplished pianist, accompanying Robert Tear on a fine EMI recording of Britten song cycles.

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) www.rcs.ac.uk (distributed through Nimbus) www.wyastone.co.uk/sir-philip-ledger-a-musicians-legacy.html have just released a recording of Elgar’s Piano Quintet and Dvorak’s Second Piano Quintet, highlighting Sir Philip Ledger’s skills as a pianist, performed by Sir Philip and the Alberni Quartet live at the Matt Thomson Concert Hall at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 2001.

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In the Moderato – allegro of the Elgar Piano Quintet, Op.84, Philip Ledger and the Alberni Quartet bring a beautifully wistful opening with a second subject full of Elgar’s other worldliness. These players bring out so much of the hesitancy and uncertainty of mood in this late work and, at times, considerable fire. There is some great ensemble playing in this live recording. What a glorious adagio we get from Ledger and the Albernis, with a lovely ebb and flow, and so much sensitivity and passion. In the Andante – allegro there is some superb playing from Philip Ledger and the Quartet, who bring out more of the drama and feeling than many a much praised ensemble on other recordings. The coda is terrific with Sir Philip providing some magnificent playing as do the Alberni Quartet.

What this recording lacks in ultimate finesse it gains so much in spontaneity. This performance has a special quality to it, full of atmosphere and passion.

Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No.2 in A major, Op.81 gets some really spirited playing in the Allegro, ma non tanto with Philip Ledger showing his excellent keyboard technique.  In the lovely Dumka: Andante con moto there is some beautifully fluid and sensitive playing from Ledger with some earthy Bohemian sounds from the Alberni Quartet. Ledger and the Albernis seem to have great fun in the Scherzo (Furiant): molto vivace, playing for all they’re worth and, in the finely paced Finale: allegro, Sir Philip and the Albernis are completely at one in a fine conclusion to this quintet.

The live recordings are good with very little audience noise. The applause at the end of each work is retained on the recording. This is a wonderful tribute to a remarkably fine musician.