On record: Kyung Wha Chung – Bach: Sonatas & Partitas (Warner Classics)

Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV1001-1006

Kyung Wha Chung (violin)

Summary

After 15 years out of the recording studio and a similar absence from concert halls in the West, Kyung Wha Chung begins a new chapter of a career dating back almost five decades with this first integral take on the Sonatas and Partitas for violin by Johann Sebastian Bach.

What’s the music like?

Written around 1720, when Bach was attached to the court of Anhalt-Köthen (a period giving rise to the many of his most important orchestral and instrumental works), these Sonatas and Partitas are to the violin what The Well-Tempered Clavier is to the keyboard.

They set a level of compositional and artistic achievement seldom equalled in almost three centuries. The alternation between forms enables Bach to pursue a clear-cut while never inflexible trajectory, with the formal clarity of the sonatas thrown into purposeful relief by the more diverse yet no less integrated layout of the partitas. Allied to this is an expressive range which extends from the poise and vigour of those movements adhering to dance measures, to the cumulative power of those appropriating more abstract models in proto-symphonic terms.

Recorded around the time of her 68th birthday, these accounts confirm that time spent out of the limelight has been to the benefit of Chung’s interpretative insight and conviction. No-one who comes to these pieces for the first time could doubt the intensity of her commitment, and while her playing betrays occasional signs of tentativeness or imprecision, there is never any sense of her technique being inadequate for this music (as, for instance, was that of Mstislav Rostropovich when he recorded Bach’s Cello Suites towards the end of his seventh decade).

Nor is there any doubt that these recordings are suited to the concentrated listening necessary for taking in this music at a single, two-and-a-quarter-hour sitting. Those who might wish to sample individual movements should head to the wistful Siciliana from the First Sonata, the incisive Corrente of the First Partita, the winsome Andante from the Second Sonata, or the nonchalant Gavotte en rondeau of the Third Partita. These interpretations are at their best in the two most imposing works: hence the Second Partita, its closing Ciaccona rendered with implacable momentum; and the Third Sonata, its imposing Fuga rendered with unflagging energy. Comparison with Chung’s 1973 recordings (Decca) confirms that any falling-off of technique is more than outweighed by the sheer intellectual control here evinced throughout.

Does it all work?

Yes, inasmuch that Chung’s approach is always commensurate to the stature of the music at hand. Music which, of course, can take a variety of interpretations – though the present set is notable for the skill with which Chung navigates between the poles of authenticity and that more subjective approach often associated with earlier generations.

The point remains that she secures a cohesion and consistency across all six of these endlessly diverse pieces as is achieved by precious few exponents, and this can be felt to override all other considerations.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The two discs are logically presented as a chronological sequence, with succinctly informative booklet notes from Julian Haylock and a brief statement of intent from Chung. Among recent accounts, hers needs to be heard for its formal rigour and expressive insight.

Richard Whitehouse

Listen here on Spotify:

On record: Balam – Numbers (Balam / CD Baby)

Balam: Numbers (Balam / CD Baby)

Summary

Acoustic Alchemy keyboardist Fred White continues his side-project Balham with this disc of mainly solo piano pieces. Numbers confirms his creative versatility as well as a keyboard fluency second to none among those musicians currently active on the ‘smooth jazz’ circuit.

What’s the music like?

Less varied than its Balhm predecessor, on which White demonstrated his very real skills as a multi-instrumentalist across a sequence of tracks that featured brass and vocals.

Numbers instead focuses almost entirely on solo piano, over nine pieces whose numbered titles have deliberately been listed in a random sequence to encourage the listener to experience them in varying order.

Although the mood of these pieces is almost entirely muted and introspective, White evinces real command of touch so that timbre and texture never become monotonous. The exception to all of this is Four (track five on the disc), on which White’s piano has been supplemented by soprano saxophone (Jeff Kashiwa, no less), electric guitar, violin, cello and wordless vocals in music whose kaleidoscopic elements feel as enticing as they are hypnotic.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that this relative uniformity in no sense equals drabness. Certainly those who retain a liking for classic ambient piano albums such as the Brian Eno and Harold Budd collaboration Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror will respond to what is on offer here, and rest assured that White’s preference for keeping things austere is a world away from the prettified mood music of Einaudi and his ilk. A pity, even so, that the more questing approach as found on Four was not pursued more extensively: hopefully this might be the case on ‘Balam 3’?

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Fred White is a keyboardist of wide-ranging skill and subtlety, who can only be commended for pursuing his music to regions far removed from that of his regular band. Obtain the disc via his Facebook, Soundcloud or web-page entries and then enjoy the music!

Richard Whitehouse

For more information on Balam head to their Facebook page or Soundcloud. Meanwhile you can listen to Numbers on Spotify below:

On record: Bing & Ruth – No Home Of The Mind (4AD)

Summary

Bing & Ruth is actually an ensemble of five, headed by the New York composer David Moore. They deal in largely ambient music, communicated in this instance through an intriguing mixture of two pianos, two upright basses and electronics.

No Home of the Mind is designed to be experienced as a single session of meditation. Its tracks link closely together and move from stillness to energetic movement.

What’s the music like?

While a lot of the music is designed for meditative listening, there are pockets of intense energy in Bing & Ruth’s music. Take the start of Starwood Choker, for example, which opens the album in a striking manner. As it begins the listener effectively jumps from a waterfall, the opening notes suddenly tumbling downhill, a torrent of music driven by the rippling piano but supported by drones from the basses. Then for As Much As Possible the momentum stills, pausing for thought, but with long, held notes remaining low in the background. The basses rumble low in the mix, with soft piano notes.

Soon it becomes clear the album is conceived as a single piece of music, and it runs for nearly an hour. Some of the chord progressions Moore has written have a heart stopping beauty, so while there is no melody as such, tracks like The How Of It Sped can become greatly moving with a single change of harmonic focus.

There is mystery and darkness around the edges, particularly in the deep swell of Is Drop, where the basses begin right in the depths, the music starting to collect more energy as it sweeps upwards. The tumbling piano form appears again on Form Takes Gentle before the ebb and flow returns us to a slow tempo with swirling textures at To All It. This moves seamlessly into Flat Line / Peak Color, which reaches towards the end in powerful harmonic progressions.

Does it all work?

No Home Of The Mind is a very effective and thoroughly immersive piece of music, and works really well on headphones. From first hand experience I can tell you it is especially good at taking the heat out of potentially stressful commuting situations!

Moore varies his textures subtly but effectively, so that the tumbling piano motif becomes a real thrill when it appears, while the response of relative calm is rather beautiful and almost timeless. The colours of the ensemble are beautifully rendered, the fuzzy textures enhancing the listener’s dream like state. The reds, greens and yellows of the cover are an accurate reflection of how Bing & Ruth cast a spell on their listeners.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Bing & Ruth make music that is almost completely weightless at times, but which becomes earthbound with the deep, resonant double basses. A real beauty on headphones to take the weight off your troubles!

Ben Hogwood

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On record: Víkingur Ólafsson – Philip Glass: Piano Works (Deutsche Grammophon)

Summary

Deutsche Grammophon have taken the opportunity to celebrate Philip Glass’s 80th birthday with their new signing, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. He has already performed the piano etudes with the composer himself, and has recognised the depth of invention and emotion that sits beneath the surface of what initially seems to be repetitive, mechanical music.

‘My approach to each of the etudes is to enable the listener to create his or her own personal space of reflection’, he says in the DG press release – and we will get more of his thoughts in an interview given to Arcana shortly.

What’s the music like?

Ólafsson is true to his word. The Etudes – even in Glass’s own performances – can seem a bit dry and difficult to approach. Not so with Ólafsson, whose incredible control means he can play with unexpected grace, using the pieces as reflections but also catching the nuances of Glass’s rhythmic writing. The quality of the DG recording helps here too.

The contours of the Opening piece are caressed and beautifully phrased, proving to be much more emotive than if played straight, as Glass so often is. In No.5 he is slow and lost in thought, and in no.14 too, but by contrast the Etude no.9 is quite punchy. Etude no.15 has a powerful surge in D major before adopting a dance-like profile, while the nervous energy of No.3 puts the performance more on edge.

Quite how Ólafsson plays the repetitive notes of the Etude no.6 is a complete mystery! His performance of no.2 brings both sides of Glass together, beginning in sombre and reflective mood but building to something pretty substantial. Here he is joined by a string quartet, an arrangement by Christian Badzura that proves effective at breaking up the sound of the solo piano and introducing some more colours to the mix.

Does it all work?

Yes, thanks to Ólafsson’s sensitivity and Glass’s awareness of the different colours the piano can offer him. Much of the music here is typical Glass, arpeggiated and with subtle but lasting twists to the harmonies – and it works really well in this context.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. So much so that this is probably the best album we are likely to encounter in Glass’s 80th birthday year.

Ben Hogwood

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On record: Amy Dickson – Glass (Sony Classical)

Summary

Amy Dickson has a long-held affinity with the music of Philip Glass, and made her first recording of the composer’s music back in 2008, with a fiendishly difficult arrangement of his Violin Concerto. For this album she adds an equally challenging arrangement of the Violin Sonata, as well as two shorter pieces from Glass’s score for The Hours, arranged by her husband Jamie. Glass sanctioned the arrangements himself – a rare occurrence, and one that illustrates his high opinion of Dickson’s playing.

To play these pieces Dickson has developed a revolutionary tactic of circular breathing (which she describes in her interview with Arcana here). This enables her to deliver the long, repeated phrases that Glass writes without taking a pause.

What’s the music like?

Busy! There is plenty of energy throughout Glass’s writing, especially in the first movement of the arranged Violin Sonata, as well as the faster passages of the Concerto. In the Sonata Dickson and pianist Catherine Milledge dovetail their phrases with really impressive clarity, and largely take away the more mechanical aspects of the music. The agile finger work and incredible breath control from the saxophonist enables her to meet Glass’s challenge of long, arcing phrases.

This music can be heard in two ways – the ear can focus in on the busy movement of the inside parts, or can just as easily pan out to the slower moving harmonies, the phrases operating in bigger blocks.

The most affecting music is actually heard in the shorter pieces arranged from The Hours, and the more restrained passages of the Sonata, whose central movement has a relatively forlorn mood.

Does it all work?

Yes, particularly in the concerto where the extra colours of the orchestra add a greater range of colours and shades to Glass’s music. At times the textures of saxophone and piano can render some of the faster music in the Sonata a little dry, but Dickson’s warm and mellow sound ensures these are short lived.

Dickson plays with passion and feeling, which brings the more calculated music to life. Pianist Catherine Milledge deserves immense credit for her dexterity with some crowded piano parts!

Is it recommended?

Yes, in the main. The music of the Sonata can get a bit too busy for some tastes, but essentially it makes a nice contrast to the already well loved concerto.

Ben Hogwood

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