Wednesday, 28 October 2020

My favourite CDs of 2020

This has been a distinctly different year in many ways, including the kind of CD recordings that have come my way. But, as perhaps a selection that could provide stocking-fillers for Christmas and won’t be too difficult to send by post even when you can’t see people, here are the ones that most caught my interest.


Debussy: Sonata for cello and piano; Sonata for flute, viola and harp; Sonata for violin and piano; Debussy-Orledge: Toomai des Eléphants, Petite Valse, A Night in the House of Usher.

Pixels Ensemble (Jonathan Aasgaard, cello, Ian Buckle, piano, Fiona Fulton, flute, Vicci Wardman viola, Hugh Webb, harp, Sophie Rosa, violin. Rubicon Classics D 1063.

This was the pick of the bunch and came quite late in the year – by personal bike delivery from Ian Buckle! It was well worth the wait. All three sonatas were written during the First World War (Debussy died in 1918) when it must have seemed that civilisation was falling apart and no one knew what the future held – a parallel with our own situation now, perhaps. The ageing, and, by the time of the Violin Sonata, dying Debussy injected an ethereal combination of sorrow and joy into them, and in the case of the Sonata for flute, viola and piano, he engenders a mellow, melancholic and valedictory feeling. All three are very virtuosic, subtle and demanding, and these performances are superb, capturing their fleeting beauties, nostalgia and hope. The Violin Sonata comes across as full of life – quite something from a dying man. As ‘bonus tracks’, as I suppose they would be called in another context, Ian Buckle plays three pieces realised by Robert Orledge from Debussy fragments – the last one a kind of fantasy based on his spooky one-act opera The Fall of the House of Usher, which is a premiere recording.


Various composers: Songs for Sir John – a Tribute to Sir John Manduell. Lesley-Jane Rogers, soprano, John Turner, recorder, Richard Simpson, oboe, Benedict Holland, violin, Susie Mészáros, viola, Nicholas Trygstad, cello, Richard Baker, narrator, Laura Robinson, recorder, Keith Swallow, piano. Divine Art DDA 25210.

John Turner curated this collection of new compositions in memory of Sir John Manduell, the founding principal (among many other distinctions) of the Royal Northern College of Music. The initial brief, I guess, was to write a setting of something by Yeats, a favourite poet of Sir John, and to employ one or more of recorder, oboe, violin, viola and cello as well as the voice; and in the event some of the contributors modified it to admit of instrumental-only contributions, a setting of Joyce, a new combination of Three Duets for two recorders (by Lennox Berkeley, collated by Michael Berkeley) and Four Nursery Rhymes by Thomas Pitfield, set for narrator, recorder and piano by Robin Walker. My favourites are Sonnet, a lovely, Purcellian-ground-like setting of ‘When you are old and grey …’ by Elis Pehkonen, Sally Beamish’s Yeats Interlude (seven-and-a-half minutes of interesting motifs, fascinatingly developed), David Matthews’ clearly articulated and contrasting Two Yeats Songs (‘Lullaby’ and ‘Sweet Dancer’), Kevin Malone’s melodic and thoughtful Zuzu’s Petals, Gary Carpenter’s mellow harmonies in This Great Purple Butterfly, and the concise and charming setting of The Cat and the Moon by Jeremy Pike.


Debussy: Piano suites (Images, book 1; Children’s Corner; Suite Bergamasque; Images, book 2; Six épigraphes antiques). Olga Stezhko, piano. Palermo Classica 019180.

Olga Stezhko’s recital for Manchester Mid-day Concerts Society was the last performance I reviewed before lockdown set in. It’s remained vividly in my mind: the subtlety, sensitivity and imagination of her playing mark her out as a supremely communicative and important pianist of today’s younger generation. This is her second CD (after her debut album of Scriabin and Busoni won rave reviews), and it demonstrates all those qualities in a lovely all-Debussy programme. Yes, more Debussy, but from an earlier time than the collection mentioned above and in many ways full of the serenity we often associate with his piano music (and of course Clair de Lune is there, in the Suite bergamasque). But in her hands there’s much more than that: every piece has such vividness in it that you are constantly surprised and delighted. Olga has written some insightful sleeve notes herself, in which she points out (among other things) that Debussy’s titles are meant to be evocative, rather than picture-descriptive … and that sense comes out in her playing, too, especially in Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, in the second book of Images (which is employed to give a title to the album as a whole), and in the superb rendering of Poissons d’or, which follows it. There’s no technical information about the piano or recording equipment used, but the sound that’s been captured (mostly in Palermo, Italy) is amazing and beautiful.


There’s also a two-CD set of short pieces for wind instruments by Robin Stevens, called Prevailing Winds, which features Sarah Miller, flutes, John Bradbury, clarinet, Richard Simpson, oboe, Helen Peller, bassoon, Lindsey Stoker, horn, John Turner, recorders, David Jones and Janet Simpson, piano, and the composer variously as cellist, guitarist and pianist (Divine Art DDA 25194, I most enjoyed his pieces in Scottish folk style (Reflections on a Scottish Theme for solo oboe, Jig for descant recorder and guitar, and Berceuse for flute and guitar).


Saturday, 29 February 2020

Review of Olga Stezhko's recital 28th February 2020

The Mid-day Concerts welcomed Belarus-born Olga Stezhko for a 40-minute recital of French piano music from the first third of the 20th century. She’s made that her speciality, and her sense of atmosphere and delicacy in Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc are an asset to the music in each case. She achieves most when she’s playing gently: every note has its weight and value precisely expressed, there are telling gaps in the sound tapestry as she weaves it, and even when she turns up the power there can be a kind of nostalgia in her playing – humour, too.

Her programme began with Book 2 of Debussy’s Images. ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ created a light wash of tone, with clear highlights but still a sense of shape and direction; ‘Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut’ saw a fuller sound emerge, but that, likewise, vanished magically in a fade-away ending; and ‘Poissons d’or’ was dazzling and subtle at the same time.

Poulenc’s Trois Pièces pour Piano were a serendipity: ‘Pastorale’ almost similar to the Debussy in its mystery and esoteric harmonic effects, while in ‘Hymne’ she evoked a finely controlled sense of the unexpected. The final ‘Toccata’, by contrast, was an invigorating – and still controlled – workout.

She played nos. 2, 4 and 5 of Ravel’s Miroirs in a way that, for all its beauties, was bewitching. The birds of ‘Oiseaux tristes’ were definitely sad, ‘Alborado del gracioso’ was springy, fun and yet with a touch of longing, and ‘La vallée des cloches’ had a series of deep sighs in its phrasing.

It was an individual, technically accomplished and seriously felt response to music in which harmonic colour and impressionistic mood-painting count more than anything.

Olga Stezhko c Chris Pasipanodya

Friday, 21 February 2020

Review of Hallé concert 20th February 2020

It takes a big pianistic personality to make Rachmaninov’s second concerto sound fresh and different, but Boris Giltburg has that personality – and the ability to go with it.

His playing of it with Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé was arresting from the very first note – the bass played as a kind of clear grace-note to the first chord, with the formula repeated, at varying speed, on almost every subsequent one in that crescendo sequence – which made it all sound quite menacing.

That was followed by an emphatically ponderous way (at first) with the first theme that may have surprised even the accompanying orchestra a little. But that’s the way Boris likes it: deep and soulful in the big themes and dazzlingly brilliant in the helter-skelters. It sounds very Russian (he’s Israeli but born in Moscow) and perhaps a bit flash – but Russian music needs that element, too. Gloomy, beautiful and stunning all at the same time.

The Hallé’s wind principals made some superb contributions in their solos – Sergio Castelló López’ clarinet in particular at this stage, and in the second movement Amy Yule’s flute also: it was here that the tempo flowed much more smoothly and built feeling less hysterically. The orchestral details were beautifully articulated under Sir Mark’s direction, and with the violins, led by Eva Thórarinsdóttir, evoking expression and sustaining the mood to the very end.

The finale was every bit as impactful as the opening, with surging momentum and seriously scary pace by the end. Boris Giltburg (who undertook the assignment of this concert at short notice in place of Alexander Gavrylyuk) has built a big reputation playing Rachmaninov, and this performance showed why. His approach is never routine and presses the expressive power of the music to its limit – something his audience appreciated and loved.

They also surely appreciated the serene equilibrium and rhythmical alertness of Sir Mark’s reading of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin in its four contrasted movements. The smaller than full string body gave it crispness as well as a rich sound, the oboe (Stéphane Rancourt) and cor anglais (Thomas Davey) solos were eloquent, and there was a lovely burst of deep feeling from the strings in the Menuet reprise, while the final Rigaudon was both bouncy and poised.

Full forces were on parade for Prokoviev’s Symphony no. 7. It’s an ambiguous piece – superficially straightforward and tuneful, but with little touches of foreboding and unease (perhaps the most a good Soviet citizen felt he could say while Stalin was still alive). But the opening has a tinge of Shostakovich’s starkness, and the film-score-ish writing that follows is upended by spiky jollity. Even the ‘circus’ music of the last movement, though fun, comes near to irony, and the solemnity that ensues sounds almost like sarcasm. Sir Mark and his players made the orchestral sound glitter, but were always alert to the sombre tones also in the mix.

Sir Mark Elder

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert 1st February 2020

At first sight, putting Myaskovsky’s sixth symphony into a programme immediately following the Hallé’s performance of Beethoven’s ninth might seem an inspired comparison. Both have four long movements, and in both cases the last is a choral one.

But in Myaskovsky’s the choral part is actually optional – putting words to the tune of an Orthodox chant that could stand on its own if necessary – whereas you could hardly say that the words are optional in Beethoven’s case.

I was glad that Vassily Sinaisky presented the 1923 symphony, though, because it’s a work with a voice all its own. Epic, in the post-Mahlerian tradition of being a journey that crosses many territories, it also seems, subtly, to speak to the Russian nation’s soul in the way that many of Shostakovich’s symphonies did.

Maybe Myaskovsky was defying political orthodoxy in one way, because it’s not the conventional darkness-to-light symphony that was routinely expected in his time: there’s a Dies Irae in the final movement, and the chant is a funerary one, after all, despite the previously dominating themes of jollity, using songs of revolutionary fervor. But on the other hand he gets quotations from the death of Boris Godunov and the end of Tchaikovsky’s sixth into his first movement, not his last, and right at the end there is a clear impression of serenity.

At least there was in Sinaisky’s interpretation, which was as rich and many-layered as the work itself. Its slow movement contained some seriously beautiful playing from the wind soloists of the Philharmonic, as the strings, led by Yuri Torchinsky, were soulful in their expression also.

Soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 2 was Liza Ferschtman – not Tasmin Little, as originally planned, but what a superb substitute. She responded to the varying emotions of the piece with both dreaminess and fierce attack, dispatching the mid-work cadenza with panache, and playing the long lyrical interludes of the second part gorgeously, matched by some purple tutti passages from the orchestra near the end.

She followed this display with another of technical skill in the service of beauty: Ysaÿe’s solo sonata no. 5, first movement.

The concert opened with Rimsky-Korsakov’s music: two scenes from The Golden Cockerel ballet. It was an attractive appetizer, with the familiar Wedding Procession tune built up to effectively and then rumbustiously played, at least in intent.

Vassily Sinaisky

Friday, 31 January 2020

Review of Hallé concert 30th January 2020

When this last concert of January was first planned by the Hallé and their partners in our Manchester Beethovenfest (probably around two years ago), it can hardly have occurred to anyone that the strains of the Ode to Joy setting in the Choral Symphony would be heard on the eve of the day we left the European Union.

Some in the audience were aware of it last night, though, and it was hard to tell whether the standing ovation which greeted the end of the piece was purely in tribute to a great performance (though it was) or also in memoriam of an era of shared European identity.

It was good to see a sell-out concert at the Bridgewater Hall again, anyway, and to hear the ‘Manchester roar’ that Charles Hallé used to be familiar with, again arising from the assembled throng. Members of the Association of British Orchestras – whose presence helped to fill those seats – on their annual conference, did at least get a sample of what we do best.

Sir Mark Elder mixed some slightly less familiar Beethoven in with the box office draws for this programme: the Elegischer Gesang, performed by the Hallé Youth Choir (with members of the RNCM Chamber Choir) and strings of the orchestra, being one serendipity. They brought lovely mellow tone to this most mellow of farewells.

The Hallé Choir gave us the final Angels’ Chorus from Christ on the Mount of Olives, too. The whole oratorio is coming on 9th April, so it was a trailer – sung with such dramatic levels of contrast that the vocal lines were down to whispers at times, but an appetizer without doubt.

Drama is what Sir Mark does superbly well, as the opening Leonore no. 3 overture demonstrated. Its initial bars were distant and mysterious, with palpably unnerving stresses; its first main theme thrilling in its optimistic energy; the scene of the distant trumpet calls well caught in its hymn-like confidence combined with jittery unease. And in the later section we heard a sparky solo from the Hallé’s new principal flute, Amy Yule – her colleagues the leaders of oboe and bassoon were to shine alongside her equally in the Ruins of Athens overture later.

The Ninth Symphony is one Sir Mark has conducted on a number of big occasions in the past with the Hallé. This was one of the best, as its tantalizing sense of anticipation – grim and anxious in the first movement, busy and cheerful in the second, serene and exalted in the third – led to a finale that was multi-faceted and heartfelt. The four soloists (Elizabeth Atherton, Sarah Castle, David Butt Philip and Neal Davies) were placed behind the orchestra just in front of the chorus, which lent their voices a kind of aural halo, and the playing of the Hallé Orchestra, led by Zoe Beyers, had all the contrasts of crispness and sweetness Sir Mark evokes from his players so well. Yes, it was a great performance.

Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert 18th January 2020

I doubt there were many listeners for whom the really memorable thing in Saturday’s BBC Philharmonic concert was not The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams’ exquisite little tone poem of English open-air tranquillity.

That its violin solo was played with a kind of pristine purity by Jennifer Pike was part of the joy of it. A lark, after all, just sings: it doesn’t do ‘expression’ or Romantic emotion. And yet the warmth of tone from her D string was a wonder in itself – and the others equally beautiful.

But the piece itself simply grabs you with a few phrases that keep coming again and again: not literal birdsong, but like birdsong in their guileless repetition.

Anna Clyne’s Night Ferry, an English creator’s work around 100 years newer (written in 2012) and already promoted to the BBC’s Ten Pieces orchestral pantheon, shares that characteristic. She’s brilliant at repetitive units (ostinati, I guess) that give you something immediate to recognize and hang on to in the welter of sounds that make up her score. And there’s plenty of information as to what it’s about – she writes of poems describing a voyage at sea (a raging one, at the outset, it seems), and she made a collage picture to describe the same sort of experience of mood swings as she’s illustrating in  her music (a copy for everyone supplied with their programme booklet).

‘Gewaltig viel Noten’, as Josef II once said of another composer’s work. Under Ben Gernon’s direction the Philharmonic worked conscientiously through what was also, to some extent, designed to be a demonstration piece for large orchestra.

Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique was an interesting contrast. It’s also written for a big orchestra to play, and also tells a story – one of the first works that sounds as if it’s written for the theatre but is actually a concert piece. And it’s also trying to uncover aspects of unhappy mental experience. It goes without saying that it was played with vigour and enormous impact, though perhaps there could have been room for some more subtlety in balancing the brass, string and wind cohorts along the way.

Jennifer Pike (picture: Tom Bangbala) and the BBC Philharmonic