On record – Skempton: Man and Bat, Piano Concerto & The Moon is Flashing (First Hand Records)

Howard Skempton
Eternity’s Sunrise (2003)
The Moon is Flashing (2007, arr. 2018)
Piano Concerto (2015, arr. 2018)
Man and Bat (2017)

James Gilchrist (tenor, The Moon is Flashing); Roderick Williams (baritone, Man and Bat); Tim Horton (piano, Piano Concerto); Ensemble 360

First Hand Records FHR90 [70’25”]

English texts included
Producer Tim Oldham
Engineer Phil Rowlands

Recorded 20 July 2019 at Upper Chapel, Sheffield (Man and Bat), 5-7 February 2019 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London (others)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A welcome addition to the recorded representation of Howard Skempton (b1947), including two pieces specially arranged by the composer for reduced forces and also two pieces written specifically for ensemble, all performed by artists closely associated with Skempton’s music.

What’s the music like?

Vocal writing has been a mainstay of Skempton’s in over recent years, the two largest pieces here setting poems by D.H. Lawrence. The term ‘setting’ is used advisedly, given Skempton’s approach is not one of expressive interpretation; rather one in which those individual words articulate a vocal line which, in its turn, articulates the instrumental writing so as to provide context.

Such is the premise on which Man and Bat operates – Lawrence’s highly descriptive, indeed discursive poem treated as a formal framework around which the ensemble unfolds a dialogue of constantly varying (not necessarily developing) motifs and phrases as provide an aural equivalent to what is being described. A not dissimilar approach is pursued in Snake, but here the musical treatment is audibly more static as befits a poem centred upon thought rather than action. This provides the concluding stage in a triptych preceded by a setting of Chris Newman’s self-deprecating A Day in 3 Wipes then, before it, the quizzical humour of Skempton’s own The Moon is Flashing which affords this diverse cycle its overall title.

The other two pieces are both instrumental, while being highly differentiated in themselves. Skempton has used generic titles only sparingly, his Piano Concerto predictable only in its avoidance of obvious models or precursors – the five movements (each lasting between two and four minutes) amounting to a series of vignettes in which the soloist variously combines with the ensemble, here a string quartet rather than string orchestra as originally conceived. Its title might suggest a natural piece with which to open, but Eternity’s Sunrise also makes for a persuasive rounding-off – a perfectly proportioned entity which amounts to a sequence of variations on an undulating theme apposite to the lines from William Blake that provided inspiration. Once again, Skempton’s writing is affecting through its sheer self-effacement.

Does it all work?

Very much so. From an output dominated by miniatures for the piano or accordion (his own instrument), Skempton has amassed a sizable and ever more varied catalogue from which the present release offers a judicious selection. It helps when the performances are so responsive to those qualities of emotional restraint and attention to detail that define the essence of this music. Roderick Williams and James Gilchrist can be relied upon for unforced insight, as too can the underrated pianist Tim Horton and the grouping of soloists which is Ensemble 360.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Skempton now enjoys a substantial discography which features a number of releases devoted to his music (most notably those on the NMC label), to which should now be added this latest from the always enterprising First Hand Records. The sound has all the focus and detail necessary with this composer, whose succinctly informative notes on each piece are complemented by anecdotal observations from each of the soloists. Those who are new to Skempton will find this an ideal way into his compositional ethos, where little is as it seems.

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

On record – Shostakovich: The Bedbug; Love and Hate (Naxos)

Shostakovich
The Bedbug Op.19 – complete incidental music (1929)
Love and Hate Op.38 – complete film-score (1935)

Mannheim Opera Chorus / Dani Juris; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald

Naxos 8.574100 [58’54”]

Russian transliterations and English translations included
Producer Roland Kistner
Engineer Bernd Nothnagel

Recorded 18-21 February 2019 at Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, Germany

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos continues its ground-breaking traversal of the film and theatre music by Shostakovich with this coupling of scores long unheard as originally conceived, thanks in part to the work of Mark Fitz-Gerald in having reconstructed these from extant sketches and soundtracks.

What’s the music like?

Shostakovich’s earliest theatre score was for The Bedbug, a scatological comedy by the ill-fated Vladimir Mayakovsky whose two parts were set in the then-present and 50 years later in 1979. The main items include several astringent dance numbers audibly akin to Stravinsky and Weill, while others were recycled for later dramatic projects (most notably the Wedding Scene [track 6] which soon became the Overture to Erwin Dressel’s opera Armer Columbus), with resourceful usage of such instruments as saxophone, mandolin and musical-saw. An air of sardonic detachment pervades this music which doubtless contributed to the production’s brief theatrical run and its subsequent oblivion, but the confidence and panache with which Shostakovich acquits himself can hardly be gainsaid. Although the parodying of such Soviet archetypes as firemen and pioneers soon became taboo in a Soviet Union beholden to Stalin, the experience gained served the composer well in subsequent ballets and revues, so making the present score a significant harbinger for what was to follow over the ensuing five years.

That said, it is the score for Love and Hate that leaves the stronger impression here. Directed by Albert Gendelshtein, this one of several films resulting from Soviet-German cooperation in the interwar period and which ceased in 1937 when the gulf between Stalin’s and Hitler’s ‘socialism’ became unbridgeable. In its quirkily compelling amalgam of post-expressionist and socio-realist elements, this film is more than mere historical curio – as Shostakovich’s music makes plain in an expressive directness evident from the outset. Most notable in this respect is the song How Long Will My Heart Ache and Moan?, initially allotted to mezzo and female chorus [track 19], and a series of searchingly descriptive pieces as culminates in the surging intensity of The Funeral [track 33]. It is at such junctures that the more elegiac aspect of the Fifth Symphony (two years hence) comes into focus, making one regret that no suite was previously compiled. Maybe this will now prove possible given the score’s timely availability, so enabling a vital link in its composer’s evolution to be properly appreciated.

Does it all work?

Yes, not least owing to the insight of Fitz-Gerald’s realizations with regard to those missing or fragmentary sections – where he captures the Shostakovich spirit in full measure – as also to the commitment of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz in realizing the often wilful while always arresting nature of the composer’s inspirations. Forward but not unduly immediate sound, with extensive annotations by Fitz-Gerald, musicologist Gerard McBurney and Soviet cinema authority John Leman Riley, further enhance the attractions of this release.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and it is to be hoped Fitz-Gerald will be continuing his exploration of this one facet of Shostakovich’s output as is still inadequately covered in terms of publication or recording. Several of the composer film and theatre scores from the 1930s still await such rehabilitation.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Naxos website, with an article on the recording here

On screen: Goldschmidt: Beatrice Cenci

Goldschmidt Beatrice Cenci (1949/50)

Prague Philharmonic Chorus; Wiener Symphoniker / Johannes Debus

C Major Blu-ray 751504 [107’] 1080i / 16:9. PCM Stereo / DTS-HD MA 5.1.

Sung in German with English, Japanese and Korean subtitles. Regions A, B and C Video Director: Felix Breisach.

Recorded live at Bregenz Festival on 18th July 2018

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The first DVD release for the opera Beatrice Cenci by Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-96), in a production at the Bregenz Festival in 2018 – continuing the lineage of stage-works by once forgotten and suppressed composers to have been presented at this event over recent years.

What’s the opera like?

Finished midway through the last century, Beatrice Cenci might have been expected to revive its composer’s career two decades after reaching its peak with the premiere of his first opera Der gewaltige Hanrei and 17 years after he fled Germany. A Covent Garden staging failed to materialize and it stayed unheard until a concert performance in 1988, with a full production six years later. Drawing on the 1819 verse-drama by Shelley, librettist Martin Esslin created a succinct and cohesive text where tension rarely lets up over the opera’s 105-minute duration.

Musically things are a little more ambiguous. Goldshmidt’s intention was to revive the art of bel canto and Beatrice Cenci indeed focuses attention on vocal writing to a degree unusual in post-Wagnerian opera. That said, melodies per se are in relatively short supply across a work that, for all it drama and immediacy, is arresting rather than memorable in content. Musically the idiom is still rooted in the ‘neue sachlichkeit’ found in the stage-works of Hindemith and Weill 25 years earlier, such that genuine emotion feels reined-in even at dramatic highpoints.

Johannes Erath‘s staging further exacerbates this impression, its lurid tone and over-wrought action suggestive of a gothic overkill that Goldschmidt was surely anxious to avoid. Katrin Connan‘s sub-expressionist sets, Katharina Tasch‘s faux-Renaissance costumes (redolent of Peter Greenaway during his 1980s heyday) and Bernd Purkrabek‘s lighting with its extremes of darkness and light further ensure the outcome has an exaggerated, even two-dimensional quality which leaves little room for subtlety or finesse in delineating character and incident.

Does it all work?

Only in part, but this is hardly the fault of the singers – among whom, Gal James comes into her own as the cruelly mistreated Beatrice with her soliloquy in the final act, with Dshamilja Kaiser eloquent as her step-mother Lucrezia and Christina Bock no less sympathetic as her weak half-brother Bernardo. Christoph Pohl is almost too suave to convey the sheer evil of her father Francesco, while Per Bach Nissen treads a fine line between humour and caricature as the cardinal Camillo, and Michael Laurenz brings purpose to the vacillating prelate Orsino.

The Prague Philharmonic Chorus is heard to impressive effect in those banquet and execution scenes that bring the outer acts to their climax, with Johannes Debus securing a trenchant and committed response from the Vienna Symphony players.

Understandable that the production should have been given in the composer’s own translation of the original libretto, yet this in itself tends to underline the sardonic and darkly comic aspects which, whether in accord with Esslin’s absurdist convictions, inevitably militate against Goldschmidt’s expressive priorities.

Is it recommended?

Yes, in that Beatrice Cenci is a significant and (given its historical context) valiant attempt to renew certain dramatic qualities at a premium in opera of that era. This Bregenz production makes for compulsive viewing, if rather less in the way of affective or empathetic listening.

Further information can be found at the <a href=”http:/www.cmajor-entertainment.com”>C major</a> website

Live review – CBSO / Riccardo Minasi: Haydn & Mozart

Oliver Janes (clarinet), Nikolaj Henriques (bassoon), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Minasi (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 27 November 2019

Haydn Symphony no.88 in G major (1787)
Richard Strauss Duet-Concertino (1946)
Beethoven Coriolan Overture (1806)
Mozart Symphony no.39 in E flat major K543 (1788)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing concert for a dank November evening. This was a slightly stripped back version of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with their guest conductor Riccardo Minasi overseeing energetic accounts of Haydn and Mozart, a high octane Beethoven overture and a youthful take on the music of an elderly Richard Strauss.

The Haydn first, in the form of a strongly characterised account of his Symphony no.88, premiered in Paris in 1787. We still take Haydn’s astonishing output of 104 published symphonies for granted, for while they make effective concert openers they are full of invention, wit, and – especially in this case – drama.

After a poised first movement, Minasi lovingly shaping the phrases with tasteful rubato, the second movement Largo was laid bare as a strongly emotive utterance with dark twists and turns, interventions from brass and timpani sounding powerful warning notes. By contrast the Minuet was a light hearted dance, its trio section employing bagpipe-like drone effects that anticipate the Brahms Serenades. Minasi and the players clearly love this music, and their effervescence carried over into the finale, the conductor dancing on the podium as upper and lower strings egged each other on.

Richard Strauss was looking intently at the Classical period when he wrote his penultimate orchestral work at the age of 83. The Duett-Concertino is an unusual piece, bringing forward clarinet and bassoon soloists to shine in front of a decorative chamber orchestra. This is recognisably late music in its assured and economical treatment of form, and in some unexpectedly spicy harmonic twists, but the soloists captured its ‘Indian summer’ profile.

Oliver Janes and Nikolaj Henriques were superb, plucked from the orchestra and fully enjoying their moment in the spotlight in front of their colleagues, who responded with rustic string accompaniment and beautifully rendered harp (Katherine Thomas). Janes’ clarinet tone was delightful, with Henriques’ bassoon cajoling and prompting in response. Both came into their own with some dazzling acrobatics in the finale. The light hearted approach spilled over into a brilliantly designed encore, a selection of Mozart themes arranged for the two solo instruments to often comic effect.

The second half began with high theatre, an account of Beethoven‘s Coriolan overture that crackled with atmosphere and descriptive content. The opening chords bore the effect of powerful slamming doors, such was the crisp ensemble, and as the overture gradually opened up so did a vivid response to Heinrich von Collin’s tale. As the story unfolded there was no doubt on its tragic ending, and here Minasi’s management of the quiet string dynamics looked forward to equivalent drama in the first movement of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony.

Even in the context of this concert the best was saved for last in an account of Mozart‘s Symphony no.39 that positively fizzed with good spirits. When he composed the piece in 1788 Mozart was writing without commission, a relative rarity for him, and this was the first of three symphonic works that were to redefine the form, effectively preparing the way for Beethoven and Schubert.

The atmosphere crackled in a fulsome introduction to the first movement, which took on a waltz-like form, Minasi’s prowess as an opera conductor clear for all to see through his dramatic instincts and more tasteful rubato. The slow movement was perfectly judged, initially and deceptively straightforward but with stern interventions from the woodwind. These highlighted the lyricism of the main subject, once again beautifully phrased. A warmly coloured Minuet followed before the finale sprang out of the traps, violins easily handling the considerable demands placed on them in rushing scales and rapid string crossing. Minasi was if anything even more energetic than he had been at the start of the concert, prompting the wonderful syncopations and interplay of Mozart’s inspiration which were brought right to the front.

So good was this concert it was a shame when we entered the closing bars of the symphony, but we did so with great positivity, Mozart – and Minasi – inspiring us through their wonderful craft.

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, made up of some leading recordings of the works played.

Switched On – Pop Ambient 2020 (Kompakt)

What’s the story?

Wolfgang Voigt has every right to be proud as one of the flagship series of the Kompakt label, Pop Ambient, reaches its 20th edition. Cologne’s finest label refuses to rest on its laurels, mind, delivering a set of old and new music, best enjoyed horizontally.

What’s the music like?

Blissful. Kompakt have not been doing this sort of compilation for 20 years without reward – they know the quick routes to peace of body and mind, as made possible in music.

There is a pleasing mix of familiar and relatively new names here. In the former camp sit Thomas Fehlmann and the bubbling textures of Liebesperlen, Raumschmiere‘s brooding Notre-Dame and two Andrew Thomas contributions, Song 9 and Sleep Fall.

Into the latter group come the easy paced guitar instrumental from Urquell, who also contributes Alles Bleibt Anders. On a similar plain is Gen Pop‘s Iron Woman and early Kompakt contributor Klimek‘s All The Little Horses, though the same producer’s Requiem For A Butterfly offers darker, widescreen strings. For even deeper ambience Yui Onodera offers the incredibly calming Cromo 4, while Joachim Spieth is even more immersive on Meteor.

The ambience deepens still further through the thick, soothing blanket of Markus Guentner‘s Clade.

Does it all work?

Yes. The ebb and flow of the tracks is ideally judged, and the high ratio of exclusives and new tracks make the 20th edition of this series as collectable as ever.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. Pop Ambient has a reassuringly regular place in the calendar of down tempo music, and this is it’s best collection for some time. On a personal level, with the world experiencing such stress and change at present, this is just the sort of music required to counteract it!

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