On record: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Sir Michael Tippett: Symphonies nos. 3 & 4; Symphony in B flat (Hyperion)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Michael Tippett
Symphony no.3 (1970-2)
Symphony no.4 (1976-7)
Symphony in B flat major (1932-3)

Rachel Nicholls (soprano, Symphony no.3), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Hyperion CDA68231/2 [two discs, 120’40”]

Producer Andrew Keener
Engineer Simon Eadon
Recorded 3-5 February 2018 at City Halls, Glasgow

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra follow their release of Sir Michael Tippett’s first two symphonies (reviewed here on Arcana) with his succeeding two such pieces, along with a first recording for the Symphony in B flat originally intended to be his ‘Opus 1’.

What’s the music like?

Commenced in the wake of Beethoven’s bicentenary, the Symphony no.3 is Tippett’s most ambitious in concept – its four movements falling into two parts such as interrogate without abandoning the formal archetype. Brabbins emphasizes its initial contrast between stasis and dynamism, in the process highlighting unexpected detail, though without the visceral impact of Sir Colin Davis (Decca) or Richard Hickox (Chandos). The Lento is night-music of profound inwardness tellingly realized here, albeit eschewing the ultimate intensity at the climax of the central string threnody. The scherzo that launches Part Two again predicates clarity ahead of impetus: the ensuing blues numbers – respectively soulful, capricious and plaintive – seem a little low-key, but this is no fault of Rachel Nicholls; her singing more accurate than Heather Harper (Davis) and far more insightful than Faye Robinson (Hickox) here or in that extended scena where Tippett confronts then embraces the Beethovenian tenet of compassion. Brabbins rightly ensures its final antagonism between discord and pathos is left hanging in the balance.

Although yet to regain its former eminence, the Symphony no.4 is still the most frequently heard of this cycle and here brings out the most in Brabbins’s Tippettian instincts. Expansive without becoming sluggish and considered without being turgid, it sustains the expressive arc of this single-movement design with no mean conviction – not least in the eruptive climax at its centre which forms this work’s formal and emotional fulcrum, emphasizing its centrifugal rather than centripetal trajectory (unlike Sibelius Seven, to which the present work is often if erroneously compared). Closer in its unforced momentum to Tippett’s account (NMC) than that by Georg Solti (Decca) who premiered it, Brabbins never undersells the music’s forceful persona for all that its introspective qualities are primary. One aspect of this ostensible ‘birth to death’ piece he realizes more convincingly than any predecessor is the human breathing at key moments in its progress – achieved by the subtle deployment of recent technology so the closing bars, in particular, convey an evanescing of life which the composer surely intended.

It is a fair jolt stylistically to go from here into the Symphony in B flat. This latter had at least three hearings and was several-times revised until being discarded in 1944. Received wisdom suggests a reliance on Sibelius but though its formal processes are overtly Sibelian, its sound is much less so if not yet that of Tippett. The first movement is an eventful yet gauche sonata design – its themes intensified in a fusion of development and reprise then framed by a limpid introduction that returns sombrely at the close. What follows is less a slow movement than an intermezzo in which modal and chromatic elements alternate to ambiguous effect, then a final rondo of pronounced folk inflection that builds toward an apotheosis whose hopeful optimism speaks touchingly of the ‘confidence of youth’. Brabbins finds a committed response in music where lambent harmonies and tricky if untypical rhythms go some way to offsetting any lack of melodic profile. Whatever else, the composer’s trustees were right to sanction revival of a piece that offers fascinating insight into Tippett’s creativity before it began falling into place.

Does it all work?

As on the previous release, Brabbins secures excellent playing from the BBCSSO that does not always render Tippett’s exacting rhythms with quite the clarity or impetus required. Not that this undermines too seriously the idiomatic feel of these readings, abetted by the depth and perspective of the recorded sound. At its best (during parts of the Third and most of the Fourth Symphonies), it would certainly be first choice for those coming to the pieces afresh; still, the door remains open for a Tippett cycle that gets to the heart of this inspiring music.

Is it recommended?

Yes, but for the Third Symphony seek out a live 1976 account by Raymond Leppard and the BBC Symphony, with Josephine Barstow a magisterial soprano (BBC Classics). Notes are by Oliver Soden, whose Tippett biography has recently been published (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

You can read more about this release on the Hyperion website, while for more on Sir Michael Tippett, visit the Tippett foundation. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra can be found here, while more on Martyn Brabbins can be found here

On record: CBSO / Edward Gardner – Schubert: Symphonies Vol.1 – nos. 3, 5 & 8 (Chandos)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Schubert
Symphony no.3 in D major D200 (1815)
Symphony no.5 in B flat major D485 (1816)
Symphony no.8 in B minor D759 ‘Unfinished’ (1822)

Chandos CHSA5234 [74’11”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Jonathan Cooper
Recorded 9-10 July 2018 at Town Hall, Birmingham

What’s the story?

Having already tackled the Mendelssohn symphonies (and with a further instalment featuring the overtures imminent), Edward Gardner and the City of Birmingham Symphony now turn to those by Schubert in what promises to be a notable addition to the orchestra’s discography

What’s the music like?

Even with advances made (primarily through the work of Brian Newbould) in recent decades, Schubert’s cycle still tends to fall into two categories – the half-dozen mainly of his teenage years, with overt influences from Haydn, Mozart and earlier Beethoven, then the Unfinished and Great symphonies, in which the composer forges a decisive new path at the outset of the Romantic era. Whether this survey also takes in any of those fragmentary pieces that came in-between, or the drafted ‘Tenth Symphony’ from Schubert’s final weeks, remains to be seen.

This release commences with the Third Symphony, most succinct of the earlier works in its thematic economy and formal concision. Gardner catches well the anticipatory nature of the slow introduction, then steers a secure course through the main Allegro’s alternation of pert woodwind melody with lithe tuttis. More intermezzo than scherzo, the Allegretto is as deftly characterized as the ensuing Menuetto is bracingly despatched. Gardner also minimises that sense of the final Presto as unfolding in ever-decreasing circles prior to its effervescent coda.

The Fifth Symphony is the highpoint of those from Schubert’s formative years – not least in the Mozartian poise of its opening Allegro, with the CBSO woodwind at their most felicitous. Gardner’s relatively swift tempo for the Andante might lessen its inherent charm but enables him to emphasize the searching modulations into its more restive episodes – after which, the Menuetto is more explicit in its G minor incisiveness. Nor is there any lack of impetus as the final Allegro pursues a witty while also suave course through to its almost peremptory close.

From here to the intensely introspective start of the Eighth Symphony (the ‘Unfinished’) is to enter a whole new expressive epoch. The CBSO strings are at their sonorous best in the initial Allegro, here with due emphasis on its ‘moderato’ marking and accruing considerable intensity in its anguished development then fatalistic coda. The Andante complements it in almost every respect, with Gardner ensuring that the hymnal eloquence and anxious musing of its contrasting sections achieve formal and expressive parity ultimately set in relief by the coda’s radiant benediction.

Does it all work?

Yes – thanks not least to some unerringly alert and sensitive playing, together with SACD sound whose clarity and overall perspective admirably reflects that of the refurbished Town Hall acoustic. Interpretively, Gardner occupies a fruitful middle-ground between the tensile rhetoric of Jonathan Nott (Tudor) and agile incisiveness of Thomas Dausgaard (BIS), hitherto the most consistent among recent Schubert traversals and ‘authentic’ through their conveying of this music’s essence without falling prey to merely fatuous notions of stylistic authenticity.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. An additional enhancement is the insights of Bayan Northcott, whose booklet notes will hopefully grace future instalments in a series whose second volume is keenly awaited. Perhaps Gardner and the CBSO might also consider the Berwald symphonies at some point?

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Chandos website

On record: Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons – William Wordsworth: Orchestral Music Vol.1 (Toccata Classics)

Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

William Wordsworth
Symphony no.4 in E flat major Op.54 (1953)
Symphony no.8 Op.117 ‘Pax Hominibus’ (1986)
Divertimento in D major Op.58 (1954)
Variations on a Scottish Theme Op.72 (1962)

Toccata Classics TOCC0480 [80’38”]
Producer Normunds Slāva
Engineer Jánis Straume
Recorded 8-12 January 2018 at Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics embarks on a series devoted to the orchestral output of William Wordsworth (1908-88), his reputation doubtless affected by his music satisfying neither the criteria of post -war modernism nor that easy accommodation with earlier eras as favoured by traditionalists.

What’s the music like?

While he found a measure of success in the decade after the Second World War, Wordsworth had few performances in his later years with only a handful of works recorded. That began to change when Lyrita issued studio accounts of the Second and Third Symphonies (SRCD.207) in 1990, followed by broadcast performances of the First and Fifth in 2016 (REAM.121). The present disc thus fills several more gaps in his discography, not least two further symphonies in what must be hoped will eventually see the complete cycle being commercially available.

Dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli, who had assiduously championed its predecessor, the Fourth Symphony is a tautly conceived single movement – its slow introduction providing the salient material for the sonata design which follows. Although themes are relatively clearly defined, the evolutionary process blurs expected formal divisions so that the piece unfolds seamlessly for all its disjunct contrasts. The developmental episode is made more disquieting through its underlying march-rhythm, then the reprise transforms what had gone before by expressively heightening these themes on the way to a culmination whose decisiveness is permeated with that fatalism which informed so much of this composer’s music. Praised by Neville Cardus among others, it stands as an ideal entry-point into Wordsworth’s symphonic writing overall.

Also featured here are two slighter but not insubstantial pieces. Indeed, the Divertimento has distinct symphonic connotations – witness the purposeful unfolding of its Overture towards a heightened recall of its initial gesture, the wistful Air with its plaintive woodwind writing and crepuscular harmonies, then the lively Gigue whose ideas are kept in perpetual motion up to a rumbustious close. Lighter in tone, Variations on a Scottish Theme finds Wordsworth at his most approachable; the mid-nineteenth century tune The Hundred Pipers (attributed to Carolina Oliphant) made the subject of nine variations whose brevity (only the fifth lasts near two minutes) is complemented by its deftness and charm. Conceived with ‘school’ musicians in mind, this is a piece such as ought to find favour with young and amateur musicians today.

The Eighth Symphony is another matter entirely. Wordsworth’s final work, its subtitle ‘Pax Hominibus’ indicates his lifelong pacifist convictions though any relation to musical content is oblique at best. The first of its two movements proceeds ruminatively, with much recourse to solo lines and spare textures, creating formal and expressive expectations that its successor feels intent on denying. This opens with a strangely dislocated crescendo and continues with an elegiac passage, diaphanously scored, before a literal reprise of what has been heard before then a recall of the first movement’s main theme, prior to a calmly eloquent conclusion. The composer left an alternative ending – rightly included here as a repeat of the movement, for all that its insistence on jarring defiance feels at odds with the mood of this work as a whole.

Does it all work?

Yes. Wordsworth may not be a difficult composer to assimilate, though his music does not reveal its essence easily or without some effort. That said, there is an underlying logic and cohesion to his formal processes which is as tangible as it is satisfying, with the emotional depth that emerges is similarly undeniable. It helps when the playing of the Latvian-based Liepāja Symphony Orchestra sounds so attuned to its reticent idiom, with John Gibbons clearly having thought about this music so that its measure might more fully be conveyed.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound has clarity and focus, while Paul Conway’s annotations are detailed and probing. Hopefully the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies will follow, with major works such as the wartime oratorio Dies Domini – praised by Vaughan Williams and still unperformed.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website

On record: Jeremy Dale Roberts – Chamber and Instrumental Music (Toccata Classics)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Sheppard Skaerved (violin), Roderick Chadwick (piano) Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skaerved & Mihailo Trandafilovski (violins), Morgan Goff (viola),  Neil Heyde (cello) with Bridget MacRae (cello)

Jeremy Dale Roberts
Capriccio for violin and piano (1965)
Tombeau for piano (1966-69)
String Quintet (2012/14)

Toccata Classics TOCC0487 [78’24’’]
Producer Peter Sheppard Skaerved
Engineer Jonathan Haskell
Recorded 17-18 December 2014 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead (String Quintet), 3 July 2014 (Capriccio) and 22 February 2017 (Tombeau) at St Michael’s, Highgate, London

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics further sets the pace by releasing this disc of music by Jeremy Dale Roberts (1934-2017), whose distinguished academic career (for over three decades at Royal College of Music, latterly as Head of Composition) likely obscured his achievements as a composer.

What’s the music like?

Over more than half a century, Dale Roberts created a catalogue whose diversity is out of all proportion to its modesty (some 40 works). The present disc is the third devoted to his music, following releases on the NMC and Lorelt labels; the latter also featuring Capriccio for violin and piano. This 12-minute piece is dedicated to Howard Ferguson, whose technical finesse it emulates for all that its stylistic profile is appreciably wider – evoking Stravinsky and Bartók as it builds to an assaultive climax before subsiding into the subdued while sombre postlude.

As Roderick Chadwick infers in his booklet note, Tombeau was for Dale Roberts his defining work in terms both of encapsulating where his music had reached at that point and in making possible what came after. Unfolding continuously over 30 minutes, its central elegy is framed by a volatile sequence of studies and variations (Chadwick understandably eschews analysis, even if a diagrammatic outline would have helped in elucidating the intricate overall design). Stylistically, too, the piece ranges widely across the pianistic spectrum from Schumann, via Szymanowski, to Messiaen – with the eventual outcome as personal as it is hard-won. A pity dedicatee Stephen Kovacevich never recorded a piece undoubtedly at the forefront of post-war piano music (British or otherwise), but Chadwick’s identification with the score is total.

The largest work here was also its composer’s swansong. Despite its seemingly abstract title, the String Quintet embodies a densely allusive and multi-layered narrative inspired by Marina Tsvetaeva and Edvard Munch while being given focus by Virginia Woolf, though this is not to suggest the piece is other than an intrinsically musical statement. The viola often assumes an almost concertante role during those three movements which make up the first part, then is largely absent from its successor – a lengthy meditation for violins and cellos whose recall of earlier ideas is riven by silence prior to a culmination capped by the viola’s ghostly offstage re-emergence. A singular experience, then, and a singular work which repays intensive study – from a composer who’s not taking the easy path was never vindicated more fully than here.

Does it all work?

Indeed. To say that Dale Roberts is a connoisseur’s composer should not imply his music is hermetic or obscure; rather it assumes the listener’s commitment and goodwill in the process of assessing the piece at hand. Each of these recordings benefited from the composer’s active participation during the recording sessions. Peter Sheppard Skaerved is at his imperious best, whether in partnership with Chadwick or as part of an augmented Kreutzer Quartet; while his and Chadwick’s booklet notes deftly combine musical discussion with personal recollection.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely. This is now the best point of entry into Dale Roberts’s output, and one hopes for more issues from Toccata. In particular, the Cello Concerto Deathwatch (perhaps coupled with the still-unperformed orchestral cycle Arbor Vitae) cries out for commercial release.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website, and about the composer Jeremy Dale Roberts at his website

On record: Acoustic Alchemy: 33 1/3 (Absolute)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acoustic Alchemy are Greg Carmichael (nylon guitar), Miles Gilderdale (acoustic and electric guitars), Fred White (keyboards), Gary Grainger (electric bass), Greg Grainger (drums)

OnSide Records CDONSIDE03 [40’39”]

Recorded 28-30 April 2016, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk

Produced by Greg Carmichael and Miles Gilderdale

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Acoustic Alchemy returns with 33 1/3 – the 17th studio album of its 38-year history and the seventh since Miles Gilderdale joined Greg Carmichael to give this band an electrified edge. All the expected ingredients are in place, though with a few tweaks to their familiar sound.

What’s the music like?

Certainly, there could be no better statement of intent than East of Babylon, a hard-hitting fusion of driving rock with Eastern overtones and a dash of funk that already ranks as an AA classic. If later tracks head into more expected territory, this brings no lessening of purpose – hence the equable interplay of Carmen’s Man, then the poetic evocation of The Swallow’s Tale with its pensive acoustic intro from Carmichael and soulful sax break by Jeff Kashiwa. 33 1/3 itself is replete with deft chord changes and a soaring electric solo from Gilderdale.

There is more than a touch of melancholy to the limpid profile of Winter’s End, while the slow-burning vibe of A Little Closer brings the rhythm section of Greg and Gary Grainger elegantly into focus – not to mention nimble piano work from Fred White. Discreet contrast is provided by Blues for Mr. Mu, its swinging gait and nonchalant guitar interplay abetted by cunning syncopation. The Girl With A Plan is a further highlight in its intricate guitar patterns, against a tensile rhythmic backing that AA has made its own over all these years.

The final tracks make an unlikely though welcome detour into the medium of acoustic guitar. The Allemande (from the Lute Suite in E minor BWV996) is a flowing study in two-part counterpoint, while the Prelude in D minor (transposed from that in C minor, BWV999) is typically Bach in its delicately arpeggiated melody and methodical accompaniment. A solo version of The Wind of Change (originally recorded for the AArt album) then provides a limpid showcase for Carmichael as well as an unexpectedly ruminative close to this album.

Does it all work?

Yes – for all that the album is among the shortest of the band’s career, this is undoubtedly a case of quality winning out over quantity. The only proviso is that the acoustic transcriptions feel as though ‘added on’ to the eight tracks preceding them and might have been even more effective were the Bach placed at the centre (they can, of course, easily be reprogrammed).

Not that these latter tracks are at all redundant: indeed, an album of Bach’s Inventions and sundry two-part pieces from Carmichael and Gilderdale would be an enticing proposition.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Sound has clarity and punch, while the digipack presentation is economical and stylish as befits the CD’s supposed ‘twilight’ era. 33 1/3 might not be a radical departure for Acoustic Alchemy, yet it does confirm this band’s relevance well into the 21st century.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about Acoustic Alchemy on their website