Thursday, 19 December 2019

My favourite CDs of 2019

Here are a few CD recordings that came my way this year – a totally personal selection but all really well worth a listen:

Ethel Smyth: Fête Galante; Liza Lehmann: The Happy Prince. Soloists, Lontano Ensemble, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez, and Felicity Lott with Valerie Langfield (Retrospect Opera RO007)

Retrospect Opera are doing remarkable things in recording neglected British works. Here they offer a quality performance of Smyth’s ‘Dance-Dream’, Fête Galante, which is really a one-act opera designed to be performed with dancing. But it works well in sound only: it’s an evocation of the world of commedia dell’arte, with its unhappy Pierrot a loser in love, but telling a story where (like Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci) real jealousy and passion take over from simulation, with fatal effects. The sleeve notes and packaging are exemplary, telling us everything needful about the work and its background in 1923. Smyth’s talent for musical pastiche is richly evident in the opening numbers, where she revives the ‘galant’ style of the early classical period with a small vocal and orchestral ensemble, but the genius of the piece is in the way her harmonic palette changes as her story moves to real deception, betrayal and tragedy, becoming near-Wagnerian, albeit still in miniature: the ending brings a return to pastiche and artificiality, but this time with tragic irony. Among the gifted solo singers, Felix Kemp and Alessandro Fisher are well contrasted, fine tenors, and the whole is thoughtfully directed by Odaline de la Martinez. To fill the disc, there’s a lovely reading by Dame Felicity Lott of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince in the version set as melodrama by Liza Lehmann, with Valerie Langfield playing the piano accompaniment beautifully. You can get the recording by going to

Mozart: Piano concerto no. 20 K466, piano concerto no. 21 K467, Overture to Don Giovanni. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with Manchester Camerata, conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy (Chandos CHAN 20083)

The project to record all Mozart’s piano concertos in Manchester, with Bavouzet, the Camerata and Gábor Takács-Nagy, has been fascinating to watch unfold. It began with some recordings pairing concerti with Mozart’s Divertimenti, but now, with the Stoller Hall at Chetham’s as the regular venue, is turning to his opera overtures as foils to the maturer piano masterpieces. It’s been a wonderful experience to witness succesive concerts as two amazingly gifted artists collaborate, and I’ve reviewed a number as they’ve happened. As the recordings come out on Chandos, this happens to be one that I didn’t get to hear live, and it’s something to treasure. The Yamaha piano, big toned enough in the hall, is balanced down here to remind us that Mozart’s pianos were not all-conquering thunder-beasts, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s playing of these two highly-popular works is a joy. Concerto no. 20, one of just two he wrote in a minor key, features Beethoven’s cadenzas for it – you can see why he valued it – and no. 21, with the much loved ‘Elvira Madigan’ slow movement, is here played by Bavouzet in conscious tribute to Friedrich Gulda’s interpretation (subtly varying rubato in the melody over a perfectly regular triplet background) and with Gulda’s own elegant cadenzas.

Arnold Cooke: Piano trio, piano quartet, piano quintet. The Pleyel Ensemble (Mike Purton Recording Services MPR105)

Arnold Cooke was a Yorkshireman born in 1906, living almost to the age of 99, and a prolific composer through seven decades. Though much of his teaching was done at Trinity College of Music in London, he initially taught at the Royal Manchester College and the RNCM is where his archive lies. In these world premiere recordings, the Pleyel Ensemble (Harvey Davies, Benedict Holland, Sarah Ewins, Susie Mészáros and Heather Bills) continue the task of recording some of its highlight works. And they offer an interesting sidelight on the oeuvre of 20th-century music, as Cooke absorbed a variety of styles including those of Brahms and Hindemith and, to some extent, Shostakovich, and was renowned as a craftsman composer of the highest order. Where his music takes flight and sings is in his slow movements, each of which in the works on this disc is harmonically warm and gloriously melodic. The names of the Pleyel Ensemble’s members will be familiar to many who follow music in Manchester and elsewhere, and the playing is superb. The CD has been produced by Harvey Davies as part-contribution to a PhD: the sleeve notes unfortunately contain an apparent reprint of a biographical note on Cooke written for a previous recording, referring to ‘the present two violin and piano sonatas’, plus a mis-spelling of John Ogdon’s surname.

Christoph Maria Wagner: remiX. Ruth Weber, soprano, E-MEX Ensemble, Christoph Maria Wagner, piano and conductor, Carter Williams, electronics (Coviello Classics COV91728)

Christoph Wagner – no relation to the Richard dynasty – is the charming and talented German composer who provided lovely orchestral versions of two piano works by Charles Hallé for the concert by the Hallé Orchestra here celebrating its founder’s 200th birthday in April this year. He wrote them originally for the orchestra in Hallé’s birthplace, Hagen, where he was composer-in-residence a few years ago. Their elegant reminiscences of the soundworlds of Mendelssohn and Beethoven, however, were very different from the kind of writing Christoph normally likes to do, though the common factor is his skill in pastiche and re-styling from both past and present. The major pieces here are a set of Deutsche Volkslieder for soprano and large ensemble – idiosyncratic treatments of original folk rhymes – and his remiX V of Scriabin, done in techno style for piano, live electronics and prerecorded loops. He also gives the treatment to Beethoven’s fifth symphony first movement and other archetypal pieces, including Mozart’s Sonata facile ma non troppo done in the style of John Cage: I liked that a lot, as it’s really just having fun with others’ seriousness.