On record – Philip Sawyers: Symphony no.4 & Hommage to Kandinsky (BBC NOW / Woods)

Philip Sawyers
Symphony no.4 (2018)
Hommage to Kandinsky (2014)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Kenneth Woods

Nimbus Alliance NI6405 [64’32”]

Producer Simon Fox-Gál
Engineers Simon Smith, Mike Cox

Recorded 15 & 16 January 2020 at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Nimbus continues its coverage of Philip Sawyers (b1951) with this release of his most recent symphony, heard alongside a major symphonic poem written some years earlier, in what are impressively assured readings by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Kenneth Woods.

What’s the music like?

The emergence of Sawyers as a major symphonist of his generation has been among the more significant aspects of latter-day British music. From the overtly demonstrative First Symphony (2004), via the highly concentrated Second (2008) to the decidedly equivocal Third (2015), is to encounter a composer intent on expanding his idiom incrementally and without any fear of repeating himself. Hence the Fourth Symphony, whose three movements might be felt to take on the (unintentional) model of Bruckner’s Ninth from a distinctly contemporary perspective.

Such is immediately clear from the opening Moderato whose tonal ambivalence underpins an emotional restlessness set in motion by those granitic brass chords at the outset. Formally this is Sawyers’ most individual sonata design to date, its accrued tension duly carrying over into a scherzo with passing elements of intermezzo rather than an actual trio as ensures maximum continuity. There follows an extended Adagio of tangible weight and no little profundity, its focus ensured through a long-term transition from D minor to D accomplished as seamlessly as its incorporation of motifs from earlier in the score. Sawyers says that after this ‘‘there was nothing more to say’’, reinforced by a sustained apotheosis which resolves those chords from the outset with a finality only viable for a composer in command of his musical components.

Little that Sawyers writes is without symphonic potential, as is evident from his Hommage to Kandinsky. Scored for large forces and lasting almost 30 minutes, its subtitle A Symphonic Poem for Orchestra indicates this is no mere evoking of the Russian-born artist’s canvasses – though one aspect of his Composition IV has been transmuted into musical terms towards the start. Structurally the piece unfolds through alternating passages of relative stasis and motion, and if slower sections predominate as it progresses, there is never a risk of expressive inertia owing to the deftness with which existing motifs take on greater intensity while timbral and textural aspects are enriched accordingly. This latter aspect is crystallized at the close when an emphatic chordal cluster gradually dies down, to leave only the purest of C major tones.

Does it all work?

Yes, not least when this release judiciously combines two of Sawyers’ most distinctive and absorbing pieces. Never a composer who could be accused of favouring the easy option, his large-scale organization is, in both instances, as fascinating as it is resourceful. It helps when Kenneth Woods, who premiered Sawyers’ previous two symphonies (the Third as the initial commission of his 21st Century Symphony Project), is unstinting in his advocacy – securing playing of verve and finesse from the BBC NOW in the spacious ambience of Hoddinott Hall.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The annotations deftly interlace Woods’ descriptive commentary with Sawyers’ own analytical observations, and the booklet cover is graced by artwork from Philip Groom. It will be fascinating to hear just where Sawyers goes from here on his eventful symphonic odyssey.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Read

You can discover more about this release at the Wyastone website, and more about Philip Sawyers by heading to his own website

On record – Gustavo Díaz-Jerez: Maghek – Seven Symphonic Poems About The Canary Islands (Signum Classics)

Cristo Barrios (clarinet), Ricardo Descalzo (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Eduardo Portal

Gustavo Díaz-Jerez
Maghek: Ymarxa, Ayssuragan, Guanapay, Chigaday, Azaenegue, Erbane & Aranfaybo

Signum ClassicsSIGCD 612 [two discs, 137’50”]

Producer Matt Dilley
Engineers Mike Hatch, Tony Lewington

Recorded 17-20 November 2019 at Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Signum Classics issues of its most ambitious releases in Seven Symphonic Poems about the Canary Islands by the Tenerifan-born Gustavo Díaz-Jerez (b1970), a substantial undertaking such as ought to secure this acclaimed composer and pianist greater international prominence.

What’s the music like?

Although Smetana blazed the trail with Ma vlast, his cycle inspired by Bohemian legend and places, few recent composers have attempted such a sequence of interrelated movements – a notable exception being Pascal Dusapin with his Seven Solos for orchestra (1992-2009). This precedent may be significant as, though its subtitle implies something of a ‘suite touristique’, Maghek is the work of one respected for his research into the spectral and physical properties of sound. Not that Díaz-Jerez’s music is rarefied or academic; running parallel to its technical ingenuity is an involvement with Canarian history and topography as evident from the titles of each piece. This does not make for something naively illustrative or pictorial, but it does ensure an evocative dimension is manifest at every stage of a long and absorbing traversal.

It is not clear from Díaz-Jerez’s detailed and insightful booklet notes that the order in which these pieces are heard is the only intended sequence, and whether other permutations may be possible or even desirable. That they were premiered (and presumably can still be performed) individually rather suggests the latter, which itself adds a further layer of fascination to music already awash with mystery and intrigue. A reminder, too, that the image of the Canaries as a choice destination for holidaymakers seeking sun, sea and sand is far from the whole picture.

As presented, the cycle begins in Tenerife with its myriad gradations of light and shade, then to La Palma which unfolds as a concertante piece for clarinet and orchestra in which the latter gradually and ominously assumes dominance. By contrast, Lanzarote is represented by a full-blown piano concerto, a sometimes equable and at other times confrontational means through which to evoke interplay of natural and human elements. The forbidding terrain of La Gomera engenders music of textural intricacy and timbral finesse, then Gran Canaria brings something of a culmination with its cumulative interplay between relative stasis and dynamism toward a visceral climax. Fuerteventura imaginatively explores cultural contrasts and conflicts wrought across time, then El Hierro makes for an understated and even teasingly inconclusive ending.

Does it all work?

Yes, whatever the order in which these pieces are heard. Díaz-Jerez is clearly an orchestrator of ingenuity and resourcefulness, who understands how to realize the potential of his sizable forces, yet this would count for little were his sense of formal evolution not so sure-footed. The playing of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra leaves nothing to be desired under the expert guidance of Eduardo Portal, while both clarinetist Cristo Barrios and pianist Ricardo Decalzo seem fully attuned to music whose technical demands are confidently surmounted.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound has a clarity and lustre which presents this music in the best possible light, while the composer’s annotations shed valuable light on the semantic derivations behind each piece. Do investigate this release, then try Díaz-Jerez’s piano cycle Mataludios (IBS182018).

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Read

You can discover more about this release at the Signum Classics website, and at a special dedicated website for the project here

On record – Adès Conducts Adès: Piano Concerto & Totentanz (Deutsche Grammophon)

Kirill Gerstein (piano), Christianne Stotijn (mezzo), Mark Stone (baritone), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Adès

Thomas Adès
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018)
Totentanz (2013)

Deutsche Grammophon 4837998 [55’58”]

Producer Nick Squire
Engineer Joel Watts

Live performances, recorded November 2016 (Totentanz) & March 2019 (Piano Concerto) at Symphony Hall, Boston

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Thomas Adès has latterly been enjoying a productive association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They appear here in two recent and pointedly contrasted pieces which, between them, make for a viable overview of a compositional ethos as absorbing as it is frustrating.

What’s the music like?

From the outset Adès evidently had in mind a ‘proper’ piano concerto, and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is precisely that: three movements, of virtually equal length, unfolding along archetypal designs – sonata, ternary and rondo forms – even if their angle of approach is not what it might have been. The first movement abounds in jazzy inferences, albeit with a more relaxed ‘second subject’ to provide a modicum of contrast, while the central Andante is overlaid with intriguing symmetries that offset what might otherwise seem unremarkable material. The final Allegro duly renews the animated dialogue between soloist and orchestra in what could be termed an equable meeting between Gershwin and Ligeti, with Prokofiev putting-in an unexpected appearance toward the decisive and effervescent close. This is not the radical departure from Adès’s previous concertante pieces as might be supposed, though neither is this merely a triumph of concept over content. Whether it manages to revitalize a genre which has had precious few additions during the past half-century remains to be seen.

Certainly, the Concerto makes a telling foil to Totentanz. This is a setting of an anonymous 15th-century commentary to a frieze (destroyed in wartime) where Death visits a succession of those representing the medieval social strata and their responses thereof. Despite utilising male and female voices, it is not a song-cycle so much as a dramatic scena in which loss is considered in the context of a ‘dance of death’ that motivates the greater discourse. Each of those visited is allotted a specific musical expression, though the initial call-and-response is gradually blurred as vocal parts are overlaid in an intensifying activity towards the seismic orchestral culmination.

Characterisation of the remaining protagonists risk losing focus, yet there could be no mistaking the plaintive sensuousness of the encounter with the Maiden or the disarming naïveté of that with the Child as the music wends a weary Mahlerian way to its close. Each encounter is interpretable from different and even competing perspectives which extend the range of expression, while making it ambivalent to the point of disingenuousness.

Does it all work?

Yes, given that both performances meet the challenges of each work head on. Kirill Gerstein sounds unfazed in this world premiere of the Concerto, aligning himself to the orchestra with well-nigh perfect synchronization. The composer secures a truly virtuosic response from the Boston Symphony here and in Totentanz, during which Christianne Stotijn brings a decidedly fraught pathos while Mark Stone responds with burnished intensity. Adès has been lucky in the exponents of his music throughout his career and both these occasions were no exception.

Is it recommended?

It is – not least because these works, markedly different in themselves, suggest a continued desire to bring the flippant and the earnest into unlikely though productive accord. Whether they constitute a surrender to, or a critique of, the zeitgeist remains part of their fascination.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

On record – Oberton String Octet – Slavic Soul (ARS Produktion)

Oberton String Octet [Jevgēnijs Čepoveckis, Veronika Brecelj, Andrii Uhrak and Alberto Stiffoni (violins), Serhii Zhuravlov and Hanga Fehér (violas) Floris Fortin and Dorottya Standi (cellos)]

Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet Op.11 (1924/5)
Afanasyev Double Quartet in D major ‘Housewarming ‘(1872)
Glière String Octet in D major Op.5 (1902)

Ars ProduktionARS38305 [59’26”]

Producer Anette Schumacher
Engineer Daniel Comploi

Recorded 19-21 December 2019, Florentinersaal, University of Arts, Graz

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The debut release from this ‘purpose built’ string ensemble which intends to encompass the repertoire for octet and double quartet, examples of both being featured here together with music by a composer whose ‘enfant terrible’ phase proved as reckless as it was short-lived.

What’s the music like?

Long since a footnote in musical history, Nikolay Afanasyev (1821-98) became a pioneer in Russian opera and chamber music, likely composing this Double Quartet for the inauguration of the St Petersburg Society for Chamber Music. Taking his cue from those four pieces with which Spohr had intended to launch a new medium, it follows an outwardly classical format while being permeated by aspects of Russian folk music. Best are an animated Scherzo with its stately trio, then an Andante of suffused pathos. Both outer movements betray a degree of formal uncertainty, a reminder that Afanasyev (as with Glinka before him) was essentially an autodidact, yet their energy and charm override such failings. Certainly, the Oberton sounds captivated by the qualities of this ‘Housewarming’ which it is (rightly) intent on championing.

Whereas Afanasyev writes for four parts, Glière writes for eight voices in his Octet. One of several works for string ensembles from the outset of his career, this follows audibly in the lineage of Mendelssohn with its emphasis on intensive dialogue and textural richness, even if both its formal layout and tempo indications indicate knowledge of his Russian forebear. Here, too, the middle movements – the second poised between scherzo and intermezzo, and the third an eloquent ‘song without words’ – are highlights, though the initial Allegro yields telling understatement while the finale builds a cumulative momentum that carries all before it. The Oberton are unfailingly alive to its contrapuntal energy and often orchestral sonority, adding another piece to the roster of Octets such as marked their composers ‘coming of age’.

As curtain-raiser, Shostakovich’s Two Pieces duly launches the programme in unequivocal fashion. Written either side of his seminal First Symphony, the ‘Prelude’ fairly abounds in volatile emotion while the ‘Scherzo’ evinces a coursing energy and caustic dissonance that points unerringly to those works immediately following it. What a pity the intended fugue never progressed beyond the sketch stage, though the work as stands remains testament to the ‘confidence of youth’ and the Oberton’s charged reading assuredly takes no prisoners.

Does it all work?

As a programme, undoubtedly. The repertoire for string octet and double string quartet is a select yet significant one, and the Oberton is evidently on a mission to convey this in both performance and recording. Hopefully, this release will be the start of a project as could do worse than to couple each double quartet by Spohr with those octets of Mendelssohn, Gade, Svendsen and Enescu. Moreover, the logistics involved in bringing together eight musicians based around Western and Central Europe will hopefully not limit their live music-making.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The SACD sound has exemplary definition if almost too great an immediacy in more demonstrative passages, while the booklet notes are succinctly informative. Strongly recommended, with the hope further releases from this ensemble will not be long in coming.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Read

You can read more about the Oberton String Quartet at their website

On record – Han Chen plays Thomas Adès: Piano Works (Naxos)

Han Chen (piano)

Thomas Adès
Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (2009)
Still Sorrowing (1992)
Darknesse Visible (1992)
Blanca Variations (2015)
Traced Overhead (1996)
Three Mazurkas (2009)
Souvenir (2018)

Naxos 8.574109 [69’43”]

Producer Han Chen
Engineer Ryan Streber

Recorded 5-7 April 2019, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Taiwanese-born and American-based pianist Han Chen releases his third album for Naxos, bringing together almost all the works for solo piano by Thomas Adès (b1971) in readings that depart – sometimes markedly – from earlier practice and are the more impressive for it.

What’s the music like?

Adès’s piano music falls into three well defined phases. Premiered at the London recital that launched his wider career, Still Sorrowing draws on Dowland in a sustained rumination with ingenious use of the keyboard (is Blue-Tack still being used to dampen the middle register?). Darknesse Visible is more directly a Dowland paraphrase, its pianism highly demonstrative in its range of textures and dynamics. An early culmination is marked by Traced Overhead – its three (progressively longer) sections heading from the spiralling upward motion of Sursum, via the animation of Aetheria, to the gradual ascent of Chori whose heightened eloquence is fatefully undermined by its plunging descent near the close. Understandable that Adès then eschewed the piano medium (and largely avoided public performance) for more than a decade.

His return came from a typically unexpected angle. Among the most significant operas this past quarter-century, Powder Her Face might not have obvious pianistic potential, but Adès proved otherwise with a Concert Paraphrase which realigns several musical highlights into a four-part sequence given continuity by the ingenuity with which underlying dance measures merge into and out of each other. Those for whom its theatricality is all may be nonplussed, yet the essentially tragic essence behind the opera’s glittering façade is conveyed even more keenly through such abstract terms. No less ingenious, the Three Mazurkas refashion a genre most associated with Chopin and Szymanowski into music that recalls the études of Ligeti in their technical finesse and those expressive slights of hand capricious and affecting by turns.

Equally modest in their formal dimensions, the most recent two pieces could hardly be more contrasted in content. A test-piece for the 2016 Clara Haskill Competition, Blanca Variations takes a brief piece from Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel as basis for a study in highly intricate and dextrous pianism. Taken from his score for the film Colette, where it provides a haunting backdrop to the end-credits, Souvenir emerges as a discreet if potent homage to the tradition of French piano music through its slow waltz motion where inference becomes all.

Does it all work?

Yes, even though there are occasions when Adès’s consummate technique risks becoming its own justification. All credit, then to Han Chen (already with excellent releases of Liszt and Rubenstein on Naxos) for ensuring that surface allure is always at the service of an engaged and engaging musical expression. Most of these works have been recorded by the composer, several by numerous other pianists, but Chen clearly has an approach which enables him to render the music very much his own way – extending and enriching its potential accordingly.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Sound has clarity and definition without seeming clinical, and there are informative booklet notes by Paul Conway. One recent short piece (Berceuse from The Exterminating Angel) has not been included, but it hardly detracts from the qualities of this release overall.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Naxos website

Read

For further information on Thomas Adès visit the composer’s website