On record: Michael Brown – Noctuelles: Ravel & Medtner (First Hand Records)

Michael Brown (piano)

Ravel  Miroirs (1904-5)
Medtner Second improvisation (in variation form) Op.47 (1925)

First Hand Records FHR78 [61’49”]
Producers Adam Golka, Roman Rabinovich
Engineers Monte Nickles, Jim Ruberto

Recorded 2-10 January 2019 at Olivier Music Barn, Tippet Rise Arts Centre, Fishtail MT

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Michael Brown follows his earlier disc for First Hand Records (Beethoven and Mendelssohn on FHR67) with this coupling of Ravel’s most extensive solo piano work and Medtner’s most extended such piece outside of his sonatas; here featuring two recently discovered variations.

What’s the music like?

While the term ‘post-impressionism’ had not then been applied in a musical context, Ravel’s Miroirs effectively inaugurates this through five pieces that evoke the essence of the image in question rather than merely attempting its depiction. Other pianists may have rendered these evocations more acutely, but few have approached so highly contrasted a sequence with such evident concern for formal and expressive unity.

Hence the overall seamlessness with which the fugitive activity of Noctuelles is followed by the wistful poise of Oiseaux tristes; itself proceeded by those glistening textures and kaleidoscopic timbral interplay of Une barque sur l’océan, then the stark juxtaposition (vividly delineated here) between high-jinx and eruptive unease of Alborada del gracioso. Nor is La vallée des cloches the slight anti-climax it can often seem, Brown judiciously setting the scene for that stately modal theme as is among the composer’s most potent inspirations. An interpretation leaving one more than usually aware that the audacity of Ravel’s musical thinking is made more so by its pointed understatement.

One cannot imagine that Medtner had much regard for this music – but, fortunately, he almost always proved more flexible in his accommodation with past and present as composer than as writer. Never more so than with his Second Improvisation, written after he had left the Soviet Union for uncertain exile in Paris then London – its subtitle ‘in variation form’ indicating the fusing of precision and fluidity that gives this work its substance and its fascination. Brown’s perceptive reading is made more so by his inclusion of two previously unpublished variations which he tracked down to the National Library of Canada: thus, the elaborate passagework of La Cadenza (placed between variations four and five) and the coursing rhetoric of Pesante (placed between variations 11 and 12) which, between them, open out the emotional scope of what is already a design as unpredictable as it is engrossing. Certainly, the trajectory between the initial Theme and eventual Conclusion exudes a freedom from inhibition that Medtner here achieves almost despite himself and which Brown is demonstrably intent on conveying.

Does it all work?

Yes, given Brown teases out those musical connections between composers whose aesthetic outlook differed greatly (Medtner forthright in condemning most of his contemporaries). The account of Miroirs can certainly hold its own in what is now a crowded field (one featuring such as Beatrice Rana on Warner and Steven Osborne on Hyperion), whereas in the Second Improvisation the main competition comes from Hamish Milne (CRD) and Geoffrey Tozer (Chandos), neither of who include the additional two variations that Brown interpolates here.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The acoustic of the Olivier Music Barn is ideal for piano music of this intricacy and subtlety, while Brown’s booklet notes are succinctly informative. A welcome release by one of the Tippet Rise triumvirate who have become notable contributors to First Hand Records.

Listen and Buy

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the First Hand Records website. Meanwhile you can listen to Noctuelles on Spotify:

On record: Simon Callaghan: The Open Window – Sir George Dyson: Complete Music for Piano (Somm Recordings)

Simon Callaghan (piano) *Clíodna Shanahan (piano)

Dyson
Concerto Leggiero (1951)*
The Open Window (1919)
Primrose Mount (1928)
Bach’s Birthday (1929)
Untitled Piano Piece (1890)
Six Lyrics (1920)
My Birthday (1924)
Twelve Easy Pieces (1952)
Prelude and Ballet (1925)
Epigrams (1920)
Three Wartime Epigrams (1920)
Four Twilight Preludes (1920)

Somm Recordings SOMMCD0622-2 [101’58”]
Producer Siva Oke
Engineer Paul Arden-Taylor

Recorded 17-18 January 2020 The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

As the cover suggests, this double album gives us the complete music for piano of Sir George Dyson, including five world premiere recordings ranging from the first piece the composer wrote at the age of seven to a two-piano version of Concerto Leggero, a substantial three-movement work for piano and orchestra completed in 1951.

Paul Spicer, the composer’s biographer, contributes a wonderful booklet note telling the story of Dyson’s life and highlighting the importance of the house piano, brought by Dyson’s parents to encourage his obvious gift for musical in the midst of an impoverished upbringing. It is rather moving to read of the composer’s progression through these years, the piano by his side at every turn.

What’s the music like?

The album is beautifully programmed, taking the biggest piece first. The Concerto Leggiero has many harmonic sleights and twists and turns, especially through its first movement, to which Simon Callaghan and Clíodna Shanahan are alive. This is in complete contrast to the early Dyson piano pieces, which are little nuggets you might expect to encounter in early piano learning – but which have an emotional substance ensuring they last well beyond that sphere.

The Open Window itself is charming, with a softly undulating Field and Wood the first of its eight short movements. Dyson’s descriptions are often little picture postcards, such as the restless description of Swallows, but they frequently have an emotive core, found most poignantly in the closing Evensong. In the same way this short suite was written for young pianists to develop their prowess, the Six Lyrics offer the same opportunity through their melodic cells.

Dyson’s very first Untitled Piano Piece is also included, the seven-year old composer offering a bold attempt lasting just under a minute. At the other end of the scale the Epigrams are slightly shady but intense pockets of emotion, each one somehow finding the uncertainty of post-First World War Britain. The Four Twilight Preludes are disarmingly simple, too, elusive portraits that hang in the air and on occasion call Debussy’s music for children to mind. These small but meaningful pieces show the composer’s ability to bring emotion from what on the outside appears to be simple material.

Bach’s Birthday, meanwhile, shows the composer’s skill at working tight compositional procedures into his music. He uses fugues here in music of remarkable density and expression.

Does it all work?

Yes – because Simon Callaghan proves a very sympathetic interpreter, and the programming gives exactly the right balance of light and shade. Given with affection, it is a charming set of music that works as a pleasant background but is more substantial when listened to closely. Dyson is a composer who, in these piano pieces, packs a lot of meaning into short duration. The experience becomes even more rewarding when enjoyed with Paul Spicer’s commentary.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Open Window fills a notable gap in the British piano music archive, and its support from the Sir George Dyson Trust has secured the completion of an important release. It tells us much more about a composer revered primarily for his choral and orchestral music, illustrating the intimacy he could find in his work. It also serves as a timely reminder of the rich tradition of keyboard music on these shores throughout the 20th century.

For further information on this release, visit the Somm Recordings website

On record – Matthew Schellhorn plays Howells: Piano Music Vol.1 (Naxos)

Matthew Schellhorn (piano) Herbert Howells Phantasy (1917) Harlequin Dancing (1918) My Lord Harewood’s Galliard (1949) Finzi: His Rest (1956) Summer Idyls (1911) Siciliana (1958) Pavane and Galliard (1964) Petrus Suite (1967-73) Naxos 8.571382 [65’52”] Producers Rachel Smith< Engineer Ben Connellan Recorded 19-21 August 2019 at The Menuhin Hall, Stoke D’Abernon Written by Richard Whitehouse What’s the story? Naxos continues its coverage of Herbert Howells with this initial instalment (presumably one more to follow) of his piano music, all pieces being previously unrecorded and authoritatively rendered by Matthew Schellhorn in what is a notable addition to the composer’s discography. What’s the music like? Long before his death (at the age of 90), Howells’s reputation rested firmly on his output of choral and organ works. Only quite recently has his considerable earlier output of orchestral and chamber music received serious re-evaluation, so revealing one whose distinct change of outlook in his early forties came about as much through cultural as personal reasons. Modest in scope and dimension, his piano music features no extended or career-defining works, yet its technical poise and always idiomatic feel for this instrument makes for a rewarding listen. The present selection interleaves miniatures and cyclical works in chronological order. As to the former, Phantasy finds the recently graduated composer assured in his handling of those impressionist aspects derived from Debussy and Ravel, while Harlequin Dreaming inhabits a world of Satie-esque whimsy and nonchalance as a reminder that Howells was then close friends with Bliss. Moving on to the Renaissance-inspired piano pieces of his later years, My Lord Harewood’s Galliard fuses its recherche manner with engaging harmonic astringency, whereas Finzi: His Rest is a pensively ambivalent in-memoriam to a younger colleague. The Siciliana is a languorous if non-indulgent take on the characteristic dance rhythm, while the Pavane and Galliard juxtaposes the confessional and combative with stark emotional acuity. The suites come from either end of Howells’s career, with all that implies for a half-century timespan. Summer Idyls [sic] formed a part of his portfolio for the Royal College of Music; its stylistic indebtedness to the mid- and late Romantics – not least Rachmaninov – would soon be left behind, but the appeal in these evocations of rural environs no doubt familiar from his childhood endures. Pick of the seven is the wistful rumination of ‘Near Midnight’, with the central ‘Minuet Sine Nomine’ similarly dominating the Petrus Suite in its limpid refinement. Otherwise, the seven pieces evince a sinewy counterpoint and tensile linearity    as are audibly a product of Howells’s late style, yet the origin of several in sketches made decades before confirms an overriding consistency of approach heightened by experience. Does it all work? Yes, allowing that Howells never sought to suffuse this music with the degree of emotional intensity reserved, at least in his maturity, for the larger choral works. Yet his quintessential expression is arguably to be found in those many shorter choral or organ pieces intended for liturgical purpose; in which case, the expressive focus and restraint of what is recorded here is its own justification. It could hardly have a more persuasive advocate than Schellhorn, who credits the late Stephen Cleobury for introducing him to the extent of Howells’s piano music. Is it recommended? Indeed. The closely unduly defined sound is ideal for piano music of this kind, and Jonathan Clinch’s annotations (along with a reminiscence by the pianist) are succinct and informative. The follow-up volume, mainly of better-known music, will doubtless prove just as rewarding. Listen & Buy
You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Naxos website

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