On record: Clare Hammond – Robert Saxton: Piano Music (Toccata Classics)

Saxton Piano Music

Clare Hammond

Saxton
Hortus Musicae, Books One (2013) and Two (2015)
Chacony for the Left Hand (1988)
Sonata (1981)
Lullaby for Rosa (2016)

Toccata Classics TOCC0458 [55’44”]

Producer / EngineerMichael Ponder
Recorded21 & 22 August 2017 at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Oxford

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A disc collating most of the solo piano output by Robert Saxton (b1953) in performances by Clare Hammond, who has championed his work over recent years and is the dedicatee of two books of shorter pieces comprising Saxton’s most significant music for this instrument so far.

What’s the music like?

Saxton came of age as a composer during the early 1980s, with such pieces as the Sonata for Piano. This was completed in 1981, the centenary of Bartók’s birth and the pivoting of whose mature piano music between stasis and dynamism is evident in the present work’s methodical unfolding towards a coruscating climax; rounded off by a limpid if by no means valedictory chorale. Hammond has the measure of this compact yet eventful piece, not least its unforced and resourceful tonal follow-through as subsequently became a hallmark of Saxton’s thinking.

Such is audible in the Chacony for Piano Left Hand composed in 1988 for Leon Fleischer. Its antecedents in archetypal examples by Purcell and Bach are never hard to detect, but Saxton ‘personalizes’ this form through a tonal framework that facilitates its evolution as a sequence of interrelated variations – as defined harmonically as it is seamless texturally. Concerning the latter aspect, Saxton notes that he was at pains to ensure his music sounded as though written for two hands – a quality that is audibly to the fore in Hammond’s admirably fluent reading.

Both these pieces have been previously recorded, but the two volumes of Hortus Musicae are new to disc and evince piano writing no less idiomatic and arguably more personal than before. The inspiration is that of a ‘musical garden’ in all its allegorical and metaphysical implications, with the five pieces which comprise the First Book (2013) embodying this in ingenious ways – not least the stealthy (Andrew Marvell-inspired) floral clock of Hortus Temporis, or synthesis of formal precision and expressive eloquence in Hortus Infinitatis.

The seven pieces of the Second Book (2015) are even more diverse and contrasted in and between themselves. Here, too, the inspiration is often more concrete – hence the invoking of fondly remembered music in Beech Bank (á la recherche)…, or deft play on meanings which motivates the heady course of Hortus Animae Alis Fugacis; a concluding piece in every sense. The fact these 12 pieces outline a circular tonal trajectory makes further books unlikely, but Saxton will hopefully find a means of extending the sequence up to 24 pieces.

Does it all work?

Indeed. Saxton has long been a composer able to fuse serial and tonal elements without the results seeming at all contrived or inhibited. The two books of Hortus Musicae abound in evocative and arresting musical imagery which Hammond conveys as convincingly as she realizes the not inconsiderable technical challenges. The disc is rounded off by Lullaby for Rosa (2016), a minute-long ‘welcome gift’ for this pianist’s daughter and a further instance of how deftly Saxton integrates technical ingenuity within a context of limpid wistfulness.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The piano sound is spacious in balance as well as realistic in tone, while the composer contributes an entertaining booklet note that takes in an overview of his ancestry and formative years. Hopefully there will be further releases of his music from this source.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the Toccata Classics website, or listen in full on Spotify below:

On record: Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann – Rodney Newton: Orchestral Music Vol.1 (Toccata)

Newton Orchestral Music, Volume One – Symphony no.1; Symphony no.4 ‘Distant Nebulae’

Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann

Newton
Symphony no.1 (1969)
Symphony no.4 (1975)
Distant Nebulae (1979)

Toccata Classics TOCC0459 [70’29”]

Producer/Engineer Albert Moraleda
Recorded September 18-22 at Sala Beethoven, Sala de Ensayos de Carranque, Málaga

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The ever-enterprising Toccata Classics begins another series, devoted to the orchestral output of Rodney Newton (b1945) who, best known for his brass band and film music, has been no less active in the concert domain, with 14 symphonies to date and numerous other pieces.

What’s the music like?

We begin at the start of this symphonic output, with the Symphony no.1 that Newton completed in 1969. He suggests Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams as primary influences, though that of Malcolm Arnold (then the leading British symphonist of the younger generation) is also detectable in the livelier episodes of the opening movement and a finale alternating between jazzy incisiveness and high-flown eloquence. Best, though, is the central Lento – its serenity increasingly undermined by more troubled elements on the way to a radiant close. Had this symphony appeared a decade or so before, it might well have found favour at a Cheltenham Festival of the period; heard today, its wide-eyed naivety – in terms of expression while not technique – appears more a resolute statement of intent for where its composer was headed.

One instance is the Symphony no.4 of 1975, its more forward-looking idiom underpinned by an adept recourse to serial technique and a continuous variation at its most resourceful in the opening Metamorphosis whose seamless and cumulative momentum readily confirms   a symphonist of conviction. There follows an Elegy of overt if not unrelieved sombreness, then a Scherzo malevolo dominated by suitably strident material and climaxing in a ‘break’ for kit-percussion such as leads into the finale. This Passacaglia, Variations and Epilogue builds stealthily, with increasing allusions to earlier ideas, to a powerful culmination whose impact resonates throughout the raptly inward concluding bars. Had Sir Charles Groves been able to secure its premiere, Newton’s symphonic profile would surely have been far greater.

The disc is rounded off by Distant Nebulae (1979), which received two semi-professional performances before this recording. Although inspired by the ‘cosmic landscape’ of Ives’s The Unanswered Question, its interplay of chorale-like melody and modal harmony suggests more Copland and even Barber; the music evoking that ‘’gentle meditation on the night sky and the mysteries of the universe’’, of which the composer speaks, in suitably pensive terms. Just maybe this could be Newton’s means of finding favour with a non-specialist audience?

Does it all work?

Very largely. That the First Symphony is a ‘starting out’ piece does not lesson its undoubted appeal, and it clearly commended itself to the Málaga Philharmonic players who render it with relish. The Fourth presents tougher challenges which are not entirely surmounted here (notably in the extensive outer movements), but this is not to question the commitment of these musicians – presided over by the dependable Paul Mann, whose service to present-day British symphonism (at least as represented by Toccata Classics!) could hardly be gainsaid.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is spacious and well-focussed (if just a touch overbearing at climaxes), while Newton contributes an informative and personable booklet note. As with Steve Elcock and Matthew Taylor, one looks forward to further symphonic odysseys from this source.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the Toccata Classics website, or listen in full on Spotify below:

On record: Norrköping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg – Pettersson: Symphonies 5 & 7 (BIS)

Pettersson Symphonies nos.5 and 7

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg

Pettersson
Symphony no.5 (1960-62)
Symphony no.7 (1966-67)*

BIS 2240 [82’48”]

Producers Martin Nagorni and *Hans Kipfer
Engineers Jeffrey Ginn and *Stephan Reh
Recorded *January and June and 2017 at Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

BIS’s cycle of the Allan Pettersson symphonies, by the Norrköping Symphony and Christian Lindberg, nears completion with this coupling of the Fifth and Seventh – two works of almost equal duration, though wholly different in terms of formal continuity and expressive content.

What’s the music like?

The Fifth Symphony occupies a pivotal role in Pettersson’s output. Whereas its air of ominous detachment recalls that of its two predecessors, the music’s unfolding as lengthy episodes of relative stasis and dynamism more directly resembles the symphonies of the 1960s on which this composer’s wider reputation still rests. Lindberg assuredly has the measure of its opening paragraph, with its sombrely fateful manner, then invests what is a discursive though highly focussed process of exposition, development and reprise with cumulative momentum through to an extended coda where the initial mood is revisited from an audibly more restive vantage. Easy to underestimate within context, the Fifth has latterly emerged among the most finely achieved of Pettersson’s symphonic cycle and this recording accordingly does it full justice.

Much more so than BIS’s earlier recording, Moshe Atzmon directing the Malmö Symphony in a cohesive though emotionally underpowered reading, whose playing and recording are no match for this newcomer. Understandable BIS should have re-recorded it, but less expected is this new account of the Seventh, which the Norrköping SO has previously tackled with Leif Segerstam. Powerfully propelled during its earlier stages, this nevertheless yields to Lindberg in the formal control such as the latter brings to the overtly sectional stages of its latter half.

Half a century on from its premiere and the Seventh Symphony remains the best known of Pettersson’s cycle (though it seems never to have received a public performance in the UK). This is essentially a work of two halves and Lindberg brings palpable impetus to its former half, building remorselessly over a baleful trombone motif to a seismic climax from where the music retreats in stark defeat. If what ensues is too episodic to sustain a true symphonic trajectory, this latter half features a sustained threnody and wistful coda which are among this composer’s most affecting utterances and the Norrköping players leave nothing to be desired. What a pity that, having brought this piece to Vienna’s Musikverein, orchestra and conductor were not able to have taken it on to London, where it would surely have been well received.

Does it all work?

Indeed, not given the persuasiveness of these accounts. The BIS recordings are comfortably surpassed, and though Alun Francis (with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony) offers a more demonstrative take on the Fifth, while Gerd Albrecht (with the Hamburg Philharmonic State – both on CPO) more assiduously underlines those emotional peaks of the Seventh, both the greater refinement of the playing and definition of the SACD sound tips the scales in favour of this new disc. As a way into Pettersson’s symphonic cycle, it could scarcely be bettered.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Annotations (once again courtesy of Per-Henning Olsson) are succinct and informative, and this series only lacks the choral Twelfth Symphony to reach completion – though before that, the symphonically conceived Second Violin Concerto is due for release.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the BIS website, or listen in full on Spotify below:

On record: Magdalena Kozená, Christian Gerhaher, LSO / Sir Simon Rattle – Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (LSO Live)

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

Magdalena KozenáChristian Gerhaher, Gerald Finley, Bernarda FinkFranz-Josef Selig, Joshua BloomElias Madlër, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO0790 (three SACDs and one Blu-ray, 160’46”)
Producer James Mallinson Engineers Jonathan Stokes, James Hutchinson
Dates Live performances at Barbican Hall, London on January 9th and 10th, 2016

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra release their first opera collaboration on the LSO’s label. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a work Rattle has conducted often (including London and Salzburg), and the present account confirms his identity with this most elusive of operas.

What’s the music like?

Premiered in 1902 after a genesis of almost a decade, Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s only completed opera and his treatment of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama is a high point of musical impressionism. This recording is derived from two performances at Barbican Hall, shorn of Peter Sellars’ ‘platform staging’ but its partial re-seating of the orchestra evident in numerous instances of balance. The result is to emphasize dramatic extremes, though without necessitating extremes of tempo in what is otherwise a finely integrated reading of real poise.

The cast is a strong one, and such reservations as there are centre on the title-roles. A model of clarity and lucidity, Christian Gerhaher is arguably too self-contained to convey fully the emotional eloquence of a figure whose actions can seem almost involuntary. No less secure technically, Magdalena Kožená is elegant if at times rather generalized in her assumption – rendering the notes with unerring accuracy yet not always conveying the inner radiance of one whose presence should be disconcerting through its very intangibility and equivocation.

Gerald Finley’s is among the finest recorded Golaud – conveying his moroseness and anxiety with palpable conviction though retaining a vital degree of empathy, while Franz-Josef Selig makes of Arkel a nobler and more substantial figure than is too often the case. Bernarda Fink brings warmth and pathos to the (too?) brief role of Geneviève, with Joshua Bloom shining in his cameos as the Doctor and Shepherd, but Elias Mädler is a little too mature in timbre to be ideal for Yniold – his exchanges with Golaud a heart-rending instance of innocence corrupted.

The London Symphony Chorus acquits itself admirably during its brief contribution, with the LSO playing as well as it has done for its new Music Director in terms of fastidiousness and subtlety; climactic peaks thereby feeling the more acute for their rarity. Compared to that of his Royal Opera staging, Rattle’s conducting is freer and less inhibited – touching on a wide expressive range without sacrificing attention to detail. Each of these five acts is shaped with scrupulous regard to the action at hand while being responsive to the emergent overall drama.

Does it all work?

Indeed, for all that Pelléas et Mélisande already has an extensive and impressive discography. Roger Desormière’s 1942 recording (Warner) remains the interpretative benchmark – while, among the more recent accounts, Claudio Abbado (DG), Bernard Haitink (Naïve) and Pierre Boulez’s DVD (DG) all have serious claims on the listener. Presentation over three SACDs and one Blu-ray, with the booklet containing a succinct introduction, synopsis and bilingual libretto, is unexceptionally fine – as also the sound, if with little sense of a tangible acoustic.

Is it recommended?

Yes, though the absence of a visual component on the Blu-ray might be thought something of a missed opportunity. Something LSO Live might like to reconsider before issuing Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, the next Rattle/Sellars/LSO project which is due in the coming months.

You can read more about this release at the LSO Live website, or you can listen on Spotify below:

On record: Lars Anders Tomter, Aarhus Symphony Orchestra – Poul Ruders: Viola Concerto & Handel Variations (Dacapo)

Ruders Viola Concerto; Handel Variations

Lars Anders Tomter (viola); Aarhus Symphony Orchestra / Marc Soustrot (Viola Concerto), Andreas Delfs (Handel Variations)

Ruders
Viola Concerto
Handel Variations

Dacapo 8.226149 [65’53”]
Producers Preben Iwan, John Frandsen
Engineers Preben Iwan, Henrik Winther Hansen
Recorded 
December 11/12 2015 (Viola Concerto) and March 18-20 2017 (Handel Variations) at Symphonic Hall, Musikhuset, Aarhus

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Two sizable orchestral works from Poul Ruders (b1949), long among the most prolific of contemporary composers. In their very different ways they attest to a continuing musical evolution as inclusive as it is unpredictable, while never less than fascinating.

What’s the music like?

Not previously recorded, the Viola Concerto was composed during 1993-4 and premiered at the 1994 Proms. Although the lukewarm reception was ostensibly because of Yuri Bashmet’s less than committed rendering of the solo part (an early indication of his increasingly cavalier attitude in live performance), Ruders harboured doubts as to the success of the work itself and opted for a thorough revision in 2013. This involved scaling back the central movement, so it now forms an intensifying interlude between a first movement which unfolds as a continuous polyphonic texture, then a finale that elaborates on earlier material before coming full-circle in a pensive yet by no means tranquil coda. The favourable impression this piece now makes is also owing to Lars Anders Tomter’s assured handling of a solo part the more testing for its understated character, notably the cadenzas that alter the course of the latter two movements.

By contrast, the Handel Variations is Ruders at his most sardonic and even demonic. Written in 2009 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, this substantial 39-minute piece takes its cue from the Bourrée of Handel’s Water Music Suite no.1. The composer relates he had initially intended to write 74 variations on this briefest and most unassuming of themes (one for each year that Handel had lived), but the process of putting it ‘through the wringer’ proved so involving it took 90 variations before this had been played out. The result is among the most quixotic of Ruders’ latter-day works, as it runs the gamut of expressive possibilities while securing continuity by the follow-through of these variations. They also seem to merge into cohesive sub-groups, on their way to a climactic sequence whose affirmation is undercut by the lengthy final sequence which forms a conclusion of decidedly deadpan humour. Such fatalism is itself offset by the always inventive virtuosity of what might plausibly be heard as a large-scale ‘concerto for orchestra’.

Does it all work?

Almost certainly. If momentary doubts persist as to the overall focus of the Viola Concerto, these will likely prove illusory now that this piece has received the sympathetic rendering it needed, while the Handel Variations gives us the essence of an always arresting composer.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The playing of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra is well attuned to the very different emotional compass of both pieces and is idiomatically directed by conductors of whom it would be good to hear more in the UK. Stephen Johnson provides the informative if occasionally glib booklet notes.

You can read more about this release at the Dacapo website, while for more on Ruders himself, visit his website here