On record – Manuel Barrueco, José Staneck, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero – Villa-Lobos: Guitar & Harmonica Concertos (Naxos)

Manuel Barrueco (guitar), José Staneck (harmonica), São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero

Heitor Villa-Lobos
Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra (1951)
Sexteto Místico (1917-55)
Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra (1955)
Quinteto Instrumental (1957)

Sexteto Místico: Cláudia Nascimento (flute), Layla Köhler (oboe), Douglas Braga (alto saxophone), Fábio Zanon (guitar), Rogério Zaghi (celesta), Suélem Sampaio (harp)
Quinteto Instrumental: Cláudia Nascimento (flute), Adrian Petrutiu (violin), Ederson Fernandes (viola), Adriana Holtz (cello), Suélem Sampaio (harp)

Naxos 8.574018 [60’04”]

Producer and Engineer Ulrich Schneider

Recorded 30-31 July (Guitar Concerto), 2-4 August 2017 (Harmonica Concerto), 29 April 2018 (Sexteto & Quintet), 2017 Sala São Paulo, Brazil

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Naxos make a significant addition to their series The Music of Brazil with works from the country’s favourite classical music son, Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos’ instrument was the guitar, and it takes centre stage for the much-loved Concerto, complemented by its cousin for harmonica and orchestra. Two chamber-sized pieces for six and five instrumentalists respectively complete an attractive line-up.

What’s the music like?

Warm and sunny – a perfect counterpart to the gloomy late mornings and early evenings of December!

The Guitar Concerto is especially good, a compact design with the small orchestra complementing the guitar perfectly. The piece has an easy going nature from the beginning but that doesn’t mean it’s insubstantial, as the wistful second theme proves. The slow movement is elegant but also keenly felt, with a thoughtful yet virtuosic cadenza that leads straight into the finale, which is crisp and incisive.

It is still unusual to hear the combination of harmonica and orchestra in a classical context, and the instrument’s piercing tone won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, no matter how good the performance. That said, Villa-Lobos, who wrote the Harmonica Concerto for the skilled American harmonica player John Sebastian, gives the main instrument plenty of good tunes and soulful inflections.

The small-scale works accompanying the concertos are both attractive too. The Sexteto Místico appears to have had a chequered history. Begun in 1917, when composers were exploring alternative sonorities in their chamber music, it was not published until final completion in 1955. It paints attractive colours of pastel shades, the addition of guitar and celesta giving it an exotic air, especially in the unison passages. Meanwhile the bigger Quinteto Instrumental feels more classical in its instrumentation and musical language, again using consonant harmonies that radiate sunshine. With a warm sonic picture the recorded sound is ideal.

Does it all work?

Much of it does. The Guitar Concerto receives an ideal performance that feels wholly authentic with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra’s accompaniment. Their dialogue with Manuel Barrueco is beautifully observed and lovingly phrased under Giancarlo Guerrero‘s direction, and Barrueco gives an excellent account of a justly popular work.

José Staneck is on brilliant form in the Harmonica Concerto, with impressive virtuosity complemented by lyricism, but even that and a sensitive orchestral accompaniment do not quite win me over on the work. It could just be a case of unfamiliarity with the harmonica in this context though, so don’t let that put you off!

The sextet and quintet are ideal, sunlight streaming in on these affectionate accounts that capture the fluid writing for harp, guitar and celesta round the edges.

Is it recommended?

Yes. It’s great to see Villa-Lobos programmed in this way, and the disc has great warmth and hence enormous appeal. Barrueco’s version of the Guitar Concerto is a great modern complement to those made by John Williams, Julian Bream and Narciso Yepes, and the couplings show off the composer’s versatility and invention.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Naxos website here

On record – Nash Ensemble – Julian Anderson: Poetry Nearing Silence (NMC)

Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins

Julian Anderson
Ring Dance (1987) Benjamin Nabarro, Michael Gurevich (violins)
The Bearded Lady (1994) Richard Hosford (clarinet), Ian Brown (piano)
The Colour of Pomegranates (1994) Philippa Davies (alto flute), Ian Brown (piano)
Prayer (2009) Lawrence Power (viola)
Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) Benjamin Nabarro (violin, triangle), Michael Gurevich (violin, triangle), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)
Another Prayer (2012) Benjamin Nabarro (viola)
Van Gogh Blue (2015) Ian Brown (piano), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Marie Lloyd (clarinet, bass clarinet), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)

Producer and Engineer David Lefeber
Digital Editing Susanne Stanzeleit

Recorded 1-3 April 2019 at Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, Kent

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Back in 2007 NMC released a disc called Book of Hours, a highly enjoyable compendium of the work of Julian Anderson, where smaller-scale music rubbed shoulders with ambitious works like the Symphony and the Book of Hours itself, which combined an ensemble and electronics to fascinating effect.

Poetry Nearing Silence is to all intents and purposes a follow-up release to that Gramophone Award winner, and features the Nash Ensemble and their members in short works by Anderson. They range from solo instrumental pieces to suites for ensemble, written from 1987 to 2015.

What’s the music like?

Concentrated, effective and stimulating. It is great to have such variety within a disc the listener can either dip into or experience in full. Either approach brings dividends.

Ring Dance, for two violins, opens the collection with the instruction that it should ‘be played with unimaginable joy!’ The open string drones with which the piece starts give a penetrating sound, and this approach is consistent with the piece. The instruction with some of the bowing is often to dig in hard near the strings, which gives an extra scratchy timbre. The sound is also striking when the open strings shift up a fifth, accentuating the positive if not always obviously joyful.

The Bearded Lady is next, receiving a tour de force account from clarinetist Richard Hosford and pianist Ian Brown. After the bold opening it becomes more lyrical if still high in its register, defiant yet mournful in its regret at how characters such as the bearded lady – in this case, Baba the Turk from Auden’s The Rake’s Progress – have been portrayed on stage. The uncompromising notes from the piano at the end speak plenty here.

It is surprising not more composers write for alto flute, for the instrument has a really appealing sonority. Anderson writes enchantingly on his nocturne The Colour of Pomegranates, aided by a richly coloured performance from Philippa Davies and Ian Brown, which builds to the sound of tolling bells on the piano and sharper, bird like squawks from the flute. This piece sounds a lot further East than England – and indeed is named after an Armenian film.

Another change of sound brings in the husky viola of Lawrence Power for Prayer, a more recent piece in which Anderson enjoys writing for the instrument he learned briefly in his teens. Here is a reminder that the instrument has a much bigger range than composers often use, grainy in its lower register but with a penetrating line higher up where Anderson capitalises for his melodic material. You might expect Prayer to be a contemplation but this one lets its thoughts unravel and regroup.

After four pieces bringing forward solo instruments, the disc moves to the ensemble number that gave its name. Poetry Nearing Silence is for seven players and runs through eight short movements, where Anderson reacts to the unusual drawings and words therein of Tom Phillips. The crisp chords that open Muse in Rocks or Pebbles or Clouds or Foliage are immediately appealing for their watery colours, and the suite continues to deliver keen illustrations of its subject matter. Anderson writes dreamy lines through Know Vienna, while the intriguing buzzing of a ratchet, played by the second violin, adds mystery to the bigger ensemble number My Future as the Star in a Film of My Room. As the suite progresses Anderson makes keen use of his resources in concentrated, expressive music that charms and impresses in equal measure. Shrill clarinet and gritty strings make notable colours, yet when the piece collapses as the bell tolls in Tall Rain Rattled Over Paris, the music subsides into silence. A dramatic piece well worth returning to.

Another Prayer returns us to solo instruments, this time for violin. It is around the same length as its viola counterpart heard earlier on, and shares some melodic material. It shares its restlessness too, forthright from the start and buzzing with nervous energy. Benjamin Nabarro rises to its challenges comfortably, but also creates a rarefied atmosphere with the harmonics of the central section.

Finally the most substantial piece, Van Gogh Blue, based on the painter’s letters that relish ‘the sheer stuff of which his own art is made’. This is the most obviously expressive piece of the collection, with clarinet-rich sonorities and expansive piano teamed to immediate effect in L’Aube, soleil naissant. Second movement Les Vignobles invokes the dance, while Les Alpilles teems with activity and life, the painter seemingly writing faster than his pen will allow. The clarinets dominate here. Eygalieres is a heat haze, with lovely colours emanating from the suspended chords of the ensemble, expanded by the piano. They create fuzzy yet bright sound worlds. Finally la nuit, peindre les étoiles is more playful, pizzicato violin and clarinet often in cahoots. There is a bigger scope to this movement, the recording playing effectively with perspective as some of the group sound detached and distant, almost bickering in the room next door.  The sparring, completed over solemn piano notes, completes an eventful and compelling piece.

Does it all work?

Yes. It is well worth giving the disc several airings so the works make themselves clear. It will be apparent that Julian Anderson is capable of writing concentrated music that sticks, and that he is incredibly versatile in his writing either for alto flute, viola or even the ratchet. Martyn Brabbins conducts superb accounts of the ensemble pieces, technically fault free in the way the Nash Ensemble tend to be – but also finding the sensitive centre of Van Gogh Blue in the beautifully voiced Eygalieres.

Is it recommended?

Yes, very much so. While Anderson’s orchestral works have rightly enjoyed good exposure of late, the chamber music has tended to drift under the radar. What it needed was a collection like this to push it into the spotlight.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from Poetry Nearing Silence and to purchase a copy at the Presto website here

In concert – Martin Fröst & Roland Pöntinen at Wigmore Hall

Martin Fröst (clarinet), Roland Pöntinen (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 December 2019

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A concert that was relatively short on music but extremely high on musicianship and virtuosity. Martin Fröst is one of the finest clarinettists at work today, and fellow-Swede Roland Pöntinen, with whom he has enjoyed a musical partnership for 25 years, is an extremely highly respected pianist either in a solo capacity or here as a chamber music ally. Both delighted their young Wigmore Hall audience – yes, that can be a thing at this venue’s concerts! – who were on their feet at the end.

The two gave us ‘French Beauties and Swedish Beasts’, a concert based on their first disc for BIS made 25 years ago. The beauties were first, in the shape of Debussy and Poulenc. The former’s Première rapsodie was written as a competition piece for the Paris Conservatoire, and later orchestrated in a form revealing its stylistic parallels with the composer’s ballet Jeux. There was a balletic feel to this interpretation too, Fröst’s languorous tone complemented by the stop-start rhythms of Pöntinen’s piano part. Initially the music was happy to indulge in its warm, lush surroundings but gradually it grew more agitated until Fröst’s final, bluesy solo.

Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata, a late work, is dedicated to the composer Arthur Honegger and received its first performance in the hands of no less a duo than Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. It is difficult to imagine a better account than here, with Fröst’s tone in the quieter and reflective passages simply sublime, layered with emotion. This was complemented by a sparky finale, where the music flew out of the gate like a horse let into an open field. The performers finished each other’s musical sentences in a performance of wit, charm and sensitivity.

The first of the ‘Swedish Beasts’ followed, a piece from Anders Hillborg written for the partnership before his breakthrough work, the Clarinet Concerto which Fröst recorded some seven years later. This was a piece of two extremes, flitting between reflective slow phrases and sharp retorts where the clarinet used the outer limits of its register. It was effective and a concentrated piece showing off Fröst’s technical prowess.

The second Swedish Beast was much more benign, but Roland Pöntinen’s own Mercury Dream showed an affinity with the blues. Nocturnal New York seemed to be its focus, especially in the easily paced piano introduction and postlude, but when Fröst joined the music became more animated.

Prior to that the pianist (above) gave us two substantial chunks from Ravel’s Miroirs. His account of Une barque sur l’océan was highly pictorial, and his Alborada del gracioso had swagger, even if some of the initial phrases were clipped. Pöntinen has not yet recorded Ravel and it would be interesting to set alongside his many BIS recordings of earlier music.

The partnership finished with Chausson’s Andante and Allegro, a discovery from the composer’s Bayreuth period in his mid-twenties, before Wagner’s spell exerted itself on his music. This was an enjoyable piece, full of melodic grace in the flowing Andante before turning slightly darker for the passionate Allegro.

We had two superb encores from the duo, playing pieces Fröst has previously given with orchestra. BrahmsHungarian Dance no.1 in G minor surged forward passionately, while Göran Fröst, the clarinettist’s brother, contributed the hugely entertaining Klezmer Dance no.2, full of good tunes and musical banter between clarinet and piano. Given the technical expertise on show, the standing ovation that followed was inevitable.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music:

Debussy Première rapsodie (1909-10)
Poulenc Clarinet Sonata (1962)
Hillborg Tampere Raw (1991)
Ravel Miroirs: Une barque sur l’océan; Alborada del gracioso (1904-5)
Pöntinen Mercury Dream (1994)
Chausson Andante and Allegro (1881)

Encores
Brahms Hungarian Dance no.1 in G minor ()
Göran Fröst Klezmer Dance no.2

Further listening

You can hear the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

You can hear the album French Beauties and Swedish Beasts in its entirety on Spotify below. Alongside the items from this concert it includes the rather wonderful Saint-Saëns Clarinet Sonata:

Meanwhile Anders Hillborg’s Clarinet Concerto Peacock Tales’ written for Fröst, can be heard in its premiere recording here:

On record – Devonté Hynes: Queen & Slim: Original Motion Picture Score (Domino)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

It has been quite a year for Devonté Hynes. While keeping his Blood Orange pop persona very much in the foreground through touring and the new Angel’s Pulse mixtape, he has really furthered his ambitions to be a composer of soundtrack and ultimately classical material. The latter projects have borne fruit with the Third Coast Percussion Ensemble, but the soundtrack ventures have also progressed with this, his second soundtrack commission after Palo Alto, completed for Gia Coppola in 2013.

Directed by Melina Matsoukas to a script from Lena Waithe, Queen & Slim has been well-received, a romantic drama with an undoubtedly tragic overtone. Without giving away too much of the plot, that is the loose blueprint from which Hynes’ score evolves.

What’s the music like?

With 20 tracks spread over little more than 36 minutes, it is perhaps inevitable that Queen & Slim feels a little fragmented at times. Yet as Hynes has already shown us in his pop music that he is capable of setting a scene with very little padding to his structures, and so it proves here.

Kids may be just over a minute but even in that time it shows a tender heart to its string scoring. This cuts to the rather more sombre piano of Hair, but here too Hynes expands the sound with a doleful saxophone. Opening then shows his ease with analogue or digital sources, teasing out threat-ridden music with little more than dissonant drones and a bass drum.

Of the more substantial numbers on the soundtrack most stick in the memory. A Couple Deer has a lovely calming sonority, while Love Theme makes much from little material, not greatly substantial but hitting the right emotional spot.

Slim Calls Home spreads out its perspective to big reverberation but then Uncle’s House reintroduces the ominous drums of Opening, which Get Upstairs and Start The Car take a step further. Hynes has a distinctive way of pointing his strings and the textures bode ill rather than good.

Sneak Out is perhaps the most distinctive and unnerving track of all, and at four minutes has time to develop. It begins with rough tremolos from solo string instruments that provide eerie outlines rather than solid shapes, the uneasy atmosphere not helped by the introduction of a wavering bass line.

A resolution is ultimately found, but despite its initially consonant chords the music of Arrival is bittersweet, with booming percussion and string-based dissonances returning to cloud the picture. The closing track Kissed All Your Scars remains affected by this but provides more respite.

Some of the snippets of music are little more than descriptive postcards in the style of Max Richter, forming briefly sketched portraits but unable to say much more than that in half a minute. They do still show Hynes’ deft way with scoring, however.

Does it all work?

Yes, largely. Some of the promising material is frustratingly short but necessarily so, meaning the listener has to deal with occasionally being sold short when enjoyable scenes or moods move on abruptly.

With that taken in to account, Hynes sets his scenes with very little fuss and plenty of flair. As an orchestrator he is of the ‘less is more’ approach, which gives him plenty of room for manoeuvre.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If you are following Hynes’ work on all fronts then this will be essential listening, and it serves as an exciting pointer to show where he might go next. His is one of the most inquisitive minds in music currently, and the ease with which he moves across genres is rare indeed. It will be interesting to see if he moves on to bigger structures in the future.

Stream

Buy

You can purchase this release from the Domino website

A Silent Night for Trentemøller

It’s the time of year for seasonal covers…and also the time of year for the same old Christmas songs to be wheeled out of hibernation for us to go slowly mad to!

Every year though there are thankfully new additions to the canon and new versions of the old classics to enjoy. On that note, here is something a little different from Trentemøller, whose year has already been considerably starry thanks to the release of his Obsidian album back in October.

He confesses to having wanted to cover a Christmas classic for years – and with this version of Silent Night he goes as far as to add a nugget from the family photo album. Listen and enjoy!

By way of a reminder, Obverse is one of the albums of the year and is sure to feature in Arcana’s round up next week. If you enjoyed Silent Night then you’ll certainly like this, which you can stream on his Bandcamp site below:

Obverse by Trentemøller