On record – CBSO / Edward Gardner – Mendelssohn in Birmingham Vol.5: Overtures (Chandos)

Mendelssohn
Trumpet Overture Op.101 (1825)
Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)****
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op.27 (1828)**
The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Op.26 (1830)*
The Fair Melusine, Op. 32 (1834)
Overture to St. Paul Op.36 (1836)
Ruy Blas Overture Op.95 (1839)***
Overture to Athalie Op.74 (1844)
Lorenda Ramou (piano)

Chandos CHSA5235 [74’53”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Jonathan Cooper and ****Robert Gilmour

Recorded *20-21 October 2013; **15 and ***16 February 2014; ****13-14 July 2015; 10-11 July 2018 at Town Hall, Birmingham

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

For the fifth release in Chandos’s series Mendelssohn in Birmingham, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its onetime guest conductor Edward Gardner further traverse the orchestral output of a composer who was not averse to snatching mediocrity from the jaws of greatness.

What’s the music like?

It should be pointed out only a part of this release consists of new material. The Hebrides, Ruy Blas and Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage first appeared in harness with Symphonies nos.4 and 5, nos.1 and 3, and no.2 respectively; while A Midsummer Night’s Dream was coupled with a selection of the incidental music for Shakespeare’s play as well as the Violin Concerto. Those who have been acquiring this series may thus feel a little short-changed, which perhaps makes purchasing those previously unreleased items as individual downloads the best option.

Proceeding chronologically, the Trumpet Overture reinforced Mendelssohn’s precocity in the wake of his Octet for strings – its breezily incisive manner, opened-out expressively by ominous asides, a viable template for future generations on which to hone their aspirations. Few could have hoped to match A Midsummer Night’s Dream as to prodigality of invention or technical resource, not least in terms of its redefining the orchestra near the outset of the Romantic era. A more prolix structure, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage yet merits revival through the limpid eloquence of its introduction and surging impetus of its Allegro towards a rousing peroration. That said, it cannot compare with The Hebrides in terms of an evocation sustained via formal sleight of hand and emotional clarity as remain breath-taking to this day.

Into the 1830s, The Fair Melusine still remains engaging for those subtly tangible images of watery domains (proto-Wagnerian, though the connection is easily overstated) and headlong fate through a vivid if increasingly impersonal idiom. Such impersonality had all but taken hold by the time of the oratorio St Paul, its overture breathing an aura of unforced piety and ‘natural order’ increased by the fugal interplay at its centre then almost apologetic fervency near its close. Mendelssohn rather grudgingly supplied incidental music for Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas, but the overture retains its drama and melodic appeal up to the surging coda. Would that Athalie conveyed comparable conviction, but this overture to Jean Racine’s play yields little more then technical proficiency as its composer strives gainfully for inspiration.

Does it all work?

On a technical level, absolutely. Mendelssohn was a master of his craft whose abundant early promise was only intermittently fulfilled by his later music. Tackling these overtures in order of composition (rather than that of this disc) tends to reinforce such an observation, which is not to deny the sheer technical command of even those lesser pieces or of the conviction that Gardner and his players have invested into this programme overall. Save for just a couple of overly headlong climaxes, there is little to fault here in terms of either playing or recording.

Is it recommended?

Yes, with the proviso detailed above. Bayan Northcott’s estimable booklet note mentions the overture to cantata The First Walpurgis Night as being inseparable from its main work, which makes a CBSO recording of this ‘dark horse’ among Mendelssohn works the more desirable.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Chandos website

On record – Lorenda Ramou – From Berlin to Athens: Skalkottas Piano Works (BIS)

Skalkottas
Griechische Suite A/K79a (1924)
(Suite) A/K79b (1924)
Sonatina A/K75b (1927)
15 kleine Variationen A/K75c (1927)
Suites – no.2 A/K72 (1940); no.3 A/K73 (1941); no.4 A/K74 (1941)
The Gnomes A/K110 (1939)

Lorenda Ramou (piano)

BISBIS 2364SACD [87’43’’]

Producer & Engineer Christian Starke

Recorded October and November 2017 at Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Between 1998 and 2008 BIS undertook a ground-breaking series devoted to Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949), and this new release features almost all the music for solo piano that was still to be collated. The result is a fascinating journey through one facet of this fascinating composer.

What’s the music like?

As Lorenda Ramou indicates, this recital divides into three parts.

The first of these comprises music written in Berlin during Skalkottas’s study there, including the composer’s two earliest surviving works. Greek Suite is a quirkily appealing amalgam of neo-classical and traditional stylisms with distinct jazz overtones in its closing movement. The ‘Suite’ (its title can only be conjectured as the first two pages of music are missing) develops these influences on a larger scale, not least the scintillating Shimmy tempo finale. Come the Sonatina and Skalkottas’s language has evolved apace – hence the expressively detached Siciliano, then restive finale with its ominous coda; an upbeat to the masterly 15 Little Variations on a Beethoven-inspired theme that finds a natural climax in its laconic recollection following a subdued apotheosis.

The next three pieces were all written in Athens during Skalkottas’s ‘inner exile’ after being repatriated. Ramou’s implication that the Second, Third and Fourth Suites (the earlier First Suite was recorded by Nikolaos Samaltanos on BIS1133/4) form an extended sequence that fuses this composer’s preoccupation with ‘classical’ and popular’ formal archetypes in his mature post-tonal language. Highlights include the angular virtuosity of no.2’s Rapsodie, the inexorable motion of no.3’s Marcia funebre, and the oblique wistfulness of no.4’s Serenade. Performable (also listenable to) separately or as a 30-minute continuum, these confirm Skalkottas’s mastery of a medium about which he often felt equivocal yet to which he contributed some of the most thought-provoking music from the mid-twentieth century.

Also written in Athens, The Gnomes was intended to accompany a Christmas dance-show but rhythmic difficulty led Skalkottas to orchestrate a selection of miniatures by other composers under an identical title (recorded by the Caput Ensemble on BIS1364). Relocated in 2015, the present piece unfolds in two parts of six and three items – the former as tensile and impulsive as the latter – notably an Intermezzo (Chorale) – are hieratic and evocative. What the scenario depicted is unclear, though the presence of a Greek carol rather suggests something seasonal.

Does it all work?

To varying degrees according to when the music was written. The Variations and three Suites can rank with the finest Skalkottas compositions, while the early pieces and The Gnomes are fascinating subsidiary items. Nothing here should be without interest for discerning pianists.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Ramou is a perceptive guide throughout, even if certain of the more extrovert pieces could evince greater panache. Among the previously recorded works, those from Samaltanos (BIS) of the Sonatina and Variations are coupled with the 16 Melodies, with those by Steffen Schleiermacher (MDG) and Lefki Katanou-Lindahl (Caprice) of Third and Fourth Suites part of miscellaneous recitals. At nearly 88 minutes, this is among the longest discs yet issued, but the range and depth of the SACD sound is wholly commensurate with BIS’s usual standards.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the BIS website

On record – Salviucci: Serenade, Chamber Symphony & String Quartet (Naxos)

Salviucci
Cinque Pezzi (1930)*
Pensiero nostalgico (1931)*
String Quartet in C major (1932)*
Salmo di David (1933)*/***
Sinfonia da camera (1933)**
Serenata (1937)**

***Sabina von Walther (soprano); Ensemble Überbrettl / Pierpaolo Maurizzi (piano)
***Latin text and English/Italian translation.

Naxos 8.574049 [83’05”]

Producer Giovanna Salviucci Marini
Engineer Tommaso Tacchi

Recorded *23-25 July 2017 at Sala dei Concerti di Palazzo Chigi Saracini, Sienna and **4-7 October 2018 at Teatro degli Atti, Rimini

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos continues its inestimable series devoted to Italian music of the twentieth century with this disc of mainly first recordings by Giovanni Salviucci (1907-1937) – a largely forgotten composer, whom his contemporary Goffredo Petrassi once referred to as ‘‘the best of us all’.

What’s the music like?

Although his composing career lasted barely a decade, Salviucci left several notable works across most major genres. Of those pieces included here, earliest is the Five Pieces for violin and piano – appealing if expressively unvaried music, from which only the lively Alla Festa hints at his later rhythmic ingenuity. Each of them, though, would make an attractive encore; as too would Nostalgic Thought for cello and piano, or Psalm of David for soprano and piano – verse from Psalm 61 with its roots in a modality also drawing on French and Italian sources.

Just before this latter piece, Salviucci achieved something of a breakthrough with his String Quartet. The fast-slow-fast trajectory may yield no obvious surprises, but beneath the intently contrapuntal surface of its outer movements is a quixotic handling of tonality that offsets any risk of predictability. The highlight (in every sense) is the slow movement, an Adagio whose suffused eloquence and finely wrought rhetoric transcend Salviucci’s earlier music. That the piece is unpublished is something this excellent recording should go some way to remedying.

The other two pieces have previously been recorded, which hardly makes them familiar. Its scoring for 17 instruments suggests that the Chamber Symphony may have been conceived with knowledge of Schoenberg’s eponymous work, even though Salviucci’s approach to the balance between wind and strings is less combative and more pragmatic. Outer movements combine rhythmic incisiveness with a harmonic lambency redolent of Vaughan Williams, while the heartfelt Adagio and piquant scherzo confirm an ongoing process of maturation.

A process culminating in the Serenade that was Salviucci’s last completed work. Scored for nine instruments, its textural clarity and harmonic astringency suggest increasing familiarity with the composer’s inter-war contemporaries (Italian and otherwise), and if the lively outer movements are almost too succinct for their motivic ingenuity fully to register, the Canzona elides between soloistic and ensemble writing with deft mastery. The Venice premiere, four days after Salviucci’s death, must surely have rendered the loss of such potential more acute.

Does it all work?

For the most part. Salviucci’s earlier music may be notable more for fluency of technique, but the composer’s idiom evolved apace over his few remaining years, so that one is left only too aware of what he might have gone on to achieve in the very different cultural climate of post-war Italy.

The performances by the excellent Ensemble Überbrettl leave little to chance, with Pierpaolo Maurizzi as astute in direction as he is a pianist. Sound is just a little confined in the chamber works, while Giordano Montecchi’s notes provide a valuable biographical overview.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Salviucci was already a composer to reckon with, and this generous selection makes an ideal introduction to his music. Hopefully Naxos will now turn to the handful of orchestral works that he completed: in the meantime, the present release should be acquired forthwith.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Naxos website

Happy National Album Day…

Last year saw a very successful first run for National Album Day, where we were all encouraged to listen to our favourite album in full at 3.33pm. (I listened to Radiator by the Super Furry Animals in case you ask!)

The sequel is already here today – the year of Don’t Skip. This is to encourage us back to the idea of listening to a single body of work from one musical source rather than a playlist, and to lengthen our attention spans as we do so.

This return to album-playing first principals, warts and all, may well mean taking in some of those puzzling instrumental interludes or hidden tracks (especially if you like progressive rock like I do!) but equally it will offer the chance to marvel at those tracks buried in albums that were quite clearly singles in waiting.

For lovers of classical music, National Album Day should also be heartily encouraged. The classical album might be more of a movable feast than its pop counterpart, but the same principles apply, and Arcana has decided to humbly offer up a few favourites that fit the album format.

One successful way to produce a classical album is to focus in on the music of a particular country. Even better, you can follow the brief of Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra, focusing on a particular composer in exile or relocated from home. This example is a thoroughly engrossing look at Stravinsky’s time in America. With brilliantly played pieces short and long, serious and humorous, it is an album to which I return often:

English music fits perfectly into this way of thinking too. Recently the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Rumon Gamba have been looking at the world of British Tone Poems for Chandos – and the recently-released second volume is a gem, with works from diverse sources such as Dorothy Howell, Vaughan Williams and John Foulds:

Another point of departure is the inspiration of a particular artist. On this disc from BIS featuring works inspired by the clarinettist Benny Goodman, Martin Fröst revels in the delights of music by Copland, Hindemith and Malcolm Arnold:

Alternatively if you are a classical performer, you can go for works written for your own performance. The great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was one of the first artists to carry this one through – and this 1975 combination of concertos for cello and orchestra by Dutilleux and Lutoslawski is a winner:

If you are a singer, you can bring the words into play. Language or poetry can form the inspiration for a record, as it does with this wonderful collection from Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg. La Bonne Chanson was the first record of song I bought, and it stays with me today:

It is interesting to see how newer classical artists have approached the format. Sheku Kanneh-Mason offered something for everyone on Inspiration, his first release, catering for both the newcomer to the cello or the established listener. Either will surely enjoy the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, but also his arrangement of Bob Marley‘s No Woman No Cry:

Finally I offer up two of my own favourite classical albums, both from the ECM label – which celebrates its 50th anniversary next month. The first is composer-themed, an introduction to the haunting sound world of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in definitive performances, including a magical version of Fratres for twelve cellos:

The second is led by organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, and includes a dazzling account of Dance IV by Philip Glass, the culmination of an album including works by Pärt and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Listen and be enthralled:

All that remains is for me to wish you a happy National Album Day, whatever you end up listening to – and if you do, please share them below!

Ben Hogwood

In concert – Borodin Quartet: Tchaikovsky & Arensky at the Wigmore Hall

Borodin Quartet [(Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)]

Wigmore Hall
Wednesday 9 October

Tchaikovsky String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11 (1871)
Arensky String Quartet no.2 in A minor Op.35 (1894)
Tchaikovsky arr. Dubinsky Album for the Young Op.39 (1878)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit Simon van Boxtel

The Borodin String Quartet have an unparalleled history in performing Russian string quartets, and the first of their three date mini-residency at the Wigmore Hall found them sitting firmly on home ground.

It could be said that the history of the Russian string quartet begins with Tchaikovsky, whose String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11 began the programme. This contains his first ‘hit’, the second movement Andante cantabile which even now is a firm favourite in its string orchestra arrangement. Heard in proper context here, the understated emotion of Tchaikovsky’s solemn notes made an even stronger impact, especially when performed with due reverence.

The Borodin Quartet belong firmly to the old school of quartet playing, sitting still and straight-faced as they play, but as the evening unwound so too did their apparently stern countenance. The straight approach worked with this piece however, as an elegant first movement introduction gained weight and resolve, and the Scherzo third movement showed a rustic, outdoor quality. The final movement, capping a piece that doffs its cap to Mozart and Mendelssohn, was aware of the influence of both composers but showed off the uniquely Russian edge.

Anton Arensky’s String Quartet no.2 in A minor was written in homage to the recently departed Tchaikovsky in 1894. Replacing one of the violins with a second cello, the still underappreciated Arensky darkened the colours of the quartet, which has a distinctive if rather lopsided three movement structure. The outer movements take time for religious contemplation, while the inner and most substantial movement of the three spends time with developing a theme written by Tchaikovsky.

This Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky is itself more popular in a string orchestra arrangement, but as with the older composer’s Andante cantabile it is more effective in context, a great example of how to keep the potentially stale variations format fresh and inventive. This was a superb performance, the Borodin Quartet – through necessity reverting to two violins rather than two cellos – gravely intoning the main subject of the outer movements where time seemed to stand still. The Variations were brilliantly characterised and flew off the page, the ensemble speaking as one – and the final pages emphatically threw off the sadness of the chant-influenced passages, looking forward to more optimistic times ahead.

For the second half the Borodin Quartet turned to their one-time leader Rostislav Dubinsky, and his arrangement for them of Tchaikovsky’s piano cycle Album for the Young. Comprising 24 short pieces for children, it is packed full of dances, character pieces and portraits. Initially the thought was that this would be overindulgent and too whimsical, but as the set unfolded so did Tchaikovsky’s charm and Dubinsky’s invention.

Here was the composer who would eventually write so skilfully for younger ears in The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, channelled through the medium of an arranger who was able to send up some of the pieces with clever pizzicato or harmonics. This was where the Borodin Quartet let themselves go more, sending up The Toy Soldiers’ March beautifully, then indulging in colourful accounts of the French, German, Italian and Neapolitan Songs. The scurrying Baba Yaga was a treat, while the last two numbers, The Organ-Grinder’s Song and At Church were curiously ghostly, sending the young audience to what might have been a troubled sleep.

No such troubles here though, as we finished with an encore from Borodin himself, the Serenata alla Spagnola. It was led off decisively by the pizzicato of cellist Vladimir Balshin before its main tune, given affectionately by viola player Igor Naidin. It was a fitting way to end a charming and moving concert.

Further listening

You can hear recorded versions of the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including the Borodin Quartet‘s recording of the Tchaikovsky String Quartet no.1 and Rostislav Dubinsky‘s own Borodin Trio in the Album for the Young: