Saturday, 9 December 2017

CDs of my year: a personal selection

Here’s a personal set of CD reviews for Christmas – maybe these could help solve your present problems …

Wagner: Parsifal (soloists, Hallé Orchestra, Royal Opera Chorus, Hallé Youth Choir, Trinity Boys Choir, conducted by Sir Mark Elder: Hallé HLD 7539 , 2CDs)
This is a BBC recording of the complete Parsifal given by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé at the London Proms last year, issued on the Hallé label as a 70th birthday present for Sir Mark in June this year. It sounds remarkably well, considering the Royal Albert Hall was the ‘studio’, and the performance itself is superb in every respect. Personally I find the work something of an acquired taste, but it’s clear that Si Mark has acquired it, and he sustains the atmosphere of rapt contemplation throughout (he calls it a ‘one-shirt work’ in contrast to the other Wagner music dramas for which at least two shirts’ worth of perspiration is needed). If you can handle hearing all those Dresden Amens (a Lead-Kindly-Leitmotif, if ever there was one), then this is for you, too.

Vaughan Williams: Symphonies nos. 4 and 6 (Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder: Hallé HLL 7547)
Sir Mark and the Halle have already recorded VW’s symphonies 1, 2, 5 and 8 to considerable acclaim, and this is an equally notable document. The works are each in their own way ‘war’ symphonies, the fourth dissonantly angry and full of foreboding (though with beautiful melody, too), the sixth seen by many as post-war reaction to the horror of Hiroshima, with its long, almost featureless and eery finale. Sir Mark always brings freshness and clarity to his music, and this is no exception.

Scriabin: Symphony no. 2; Piano concerto (Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Gerstein, conducted by Vasily Petrenko: LAWO Classics  LWC1139)
Scriabin’s earlier works are being championed by Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic, and offer a few surprises to the listener who (like most of us) does not know them as regular concert repertoire. They’re closer in style to the high Romantic vein of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov than Scriabin’s most visionary, later music, which makes them a rewarding experience in the hands of such a great-sounding orchestra as this and its highly gifted conductor – also music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. On the other hand, they’re somewhat uneven, the major example of this being the finale of the second symphony, where after a seriously discursive first two movements (like a vast slow introduction and allegro), a beautiful Andante and a lively scherzo, descends into mere vainglorious posturing where something much weightier is needed. But well worth hearing for the beauties along the way. 

‘Suites and Fantasies’, various composers (Joo Yeon Sir, violin, Irina Andrievsky, piano: Rubicon RCD1003)
As debut discs by solo violinists go, this is an exceptionally rewarding and entertaining one. Joo Yeon Sir’s technique is fabulous, and she is recorded by Andrew Keener and produced by Matthew Cosgrove – both signs of superb quality. She and Irina Andrievsky play the charming pastiche (or is it?) Suite in Old Style by Schnittke, Falla’s Suite Popular Española, Britten’s youthfully spiky Suite for Violin and Piano op. 3, Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit, and Frolov’s Concert Fantasy on themes from ‘Porgy and Bess’ – what’s not to like? Highly recommended.

‘The Silver Stars at Play’, contemporary Christmas carols (Kantos Chamber Choir, directed by Elspeth Slorach: Prima Facie PFCD075)
A great idea to fill a CD with new, or mainly new, settings of Christmas music, sung by Kantos, the choir of emerging professional singers of the north west, conducted by their director Elspeth Slorach. There are many little gems here (though, as with any collection of such a kind, the quality of the material varies), among them Paul Ayres’ Hodie Christus natus est, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s This Time is born a Child, Andrew Cusworth’s Of a Rose, Peter Maxwell Davies’ Child of the Manger, Andrew Mayes’ Christmas Music and Mark Hewitt’s Silent Night setting – and the title piece, by Colin Hand.

Adam Gorb: Dancing in the Ghetto and other works (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic 10/10 Ensemble, conducted by Clark Rundell; Royal Northern College of Music Wind Ensemble, conducted by Mark Heron and Timothy Reynish; Manchester Camerata, conducted by Mark Heron: Prima Facie PFCD047)
This collection of recent works for large ensembles by the Royal Northern College of Music’s head of the school of composition – whose highly crafted writing I always find stimulating and usually very enjoyable – has two pieces with the kind of over-the-top, klezmer-influenced, knees-up dance rhythms he’s so good at (Dancing in the Ghetto and Weimar), along with his Symphony no. 1 in C, which is light-hearted, a little bit referential and enormous fun, and Serenade for Spring, which does exactly what it says on the tin. The last piece, Love Transforming, is a long, slow, deeply felt single movement written for Timothy Reynish’s 75th birthday concert and a very different kind of music, but equally intense. I was there for the concert when it was unveiled, and though the recording cannot capture the spatial effects it creates alongside exploring fascinating timbres, I’ll stick to my verdict then that it is ‘both evocative and a model of how to write clearly and imaginatively for unusual textures’.

Anthony Gilbert: ‘Travelling with Time’, recent music on historical themes (various performers: Prima Facie PFCD041)
A collection of pieces written over the past 30 years by Adam Gorb’s predecessor at the RNCM, Anthony Gilbert, this links them together by imagining a journey through history from the 9th century to the 20th, with music for voice, instruments, cello, piano, string quartet and string orchestra. The stand-out for me is Another Dream Carousel, an evocation of Viennese life prior to the Nazis’ horrors – I admired the Northern Chamber Orchestra’s playing of this when it was new in 2000 and it’s good to have it on this disc.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Hallé’s Messiah: review

The Hallé’s annual performance of Messiah has a venerable tradition. Begun by Charles Hallé in December 1858, it’s been the subject of interpretations by some of its great permanent conductors and for many years an exercise in the grand effects of massed choral singing beloved of our forebears. Barbirolli, theatrically, used to have his choir shout the last ‘Hallelujah!’ of the allegro tempo as loud as they could – that certainly made you jump!

This year’s conductor, John Butt, is from a different stable. His award-winning recordings of great choral works of the baroque period, Messiah among them, are usually made with very small forces and represent, as closely as scholarship can define, the original details of a particular performance.

Someone once said that if you want to imitate the performance conditions Handel faced, you should stage the smallest orchestra you think you can get away with, and then make sure that they outnumber the chorus. But there’s no chance of that in a Hallé performance in the big space of the Bridgewater Hall (which was virtually sold out on Saturday) – so what we had was historically informed, rather than historically authentic.

It was a brilliant success in practice. John Butt performed the work without cuts, and brought a sense of the lively, dancing rhythms of much of Handel’s music, a near-operatic pace, as the units of the first part (in particular) unfold like scenes on a stage, and a good ear for dramatic effect, which Handel’s instincts provide and which can be leveraged well enough in an enlarged setting such as this without deserting the sound qualities of the original instrumentation (the chattering oboes duplicating the violin lines are always really effective).

He didn’t completely buy into Barbirolli’s idea that the chorus should begin ‘Glory to God’ sotto voce, to fulfil the ‘da lontano’ marking and make the angels glide into our foreground as if on the wing, but he had their accompanying trumpets up on high, sounding from the very heavens.

And for the final chorus he threw modesty to the winds and had Christopher Stokes open up the resources of the Marcussen organ (instead of a chamber instrument) for once, to accompany the choral peroration – a spine-tingling moment.

His soloists were a gifted quartet: outstanding among them the tenor Thomas Walker, who brought the arresting style of baroque opera to his recitatives and was outstanding in the Passion music, and Mhairi Lawson, who beamed like an angel, with the glow of telling the Gospel story as if we’d never heard it before. They, and mezzo Anna Stéphany and baritone Robert Davies, were perfectly on-message with baroque embellishments and shakes – although I noticed that ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ was closer to the Victorian preference for effect through simplicity, and none the worse for it.

The Hallé Choir sang with consistent precision and excellent attack, particularly in ‘O Thou that tellest’, ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs’ and, of course, ‘Hallelujah!’ – well worth standing for. Tradition has its place, and there is still a thrill in seeing an entire house acknowledge the presence of the King of Kings.

(The historical note in the printed programme needs some adjustment, particularly if it’s to be used again any time. Charles Hallé’s first Messiah in Manchester was in December 1858, when he began a ‘Manchester Choral Society’ series – with his new orchestra and alongside his other concerts – that continued until 1861. The only reason the oratorio doesn’t feature in the collected programmes of his orchestral concerts until later is that, although there was a ‘repetition’ added to the latter in March 1859, subsequently the Choral Society series included the work in December 1859 and December 1860: only when the two series were amalgamated in 1861 does the December Messiah appear as part of the ‘new look’ season. Look at the concert records and contemporary newspapers and it’s all there. And Sims Reeves, the great Victorian soloist, was a tenor.)