On record – Joly Braga Santos: Chamber Music Volume Two (Toccata Classics)

Joly Braga Santos
Piano Quartet Op.28 (1957)
Suite de Danças Op.63 (1984)
Piano Trio Op.64 (1985)
Adagio e Scherzino (1956)
Suite para intrumentos de metal (1985)

Piano Quartet, Piano Trio: Jill Lawson (piano), Eliot Lawson (violin), Natalia Tchitch (viola), Catherine Strynckx (cello)
Suite of Dances: Jill Lawson (piano), Ricardo Lobes (oboe), Natalia Tchitch (viola), Adriano Aguiar (double bass)
Adagio e scherzino: Nuno Ivo Cruz (flute), Ricardo Lopes (oboe), António Saiote (clarinet), Paulo Guerreiro (horn), Carolino Carreira (bassoon)
Suite for brass: Jorge Almeida, António Quítalo, Pedro Monteiro (trumpets), Paulo Guerreiro (horn), Jarrett Butler, Vitor Faria (trombones), Ilídio Massacote (tuba)

Toccata Classics TOCC0428 [71’20”]

Producers Brian MacKay, Romain Zémiri
Engineer Romain Zémiri

Recorded 5-8 December 2017, 6-8 June 2018 at Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon, Portugal

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics issues the second instalment devoted to the chamber output of Joly Braga Santos (1924-88), one which ranges widely in terms of its instrumental media and features one of the undoubted high points from over the Portuguese composer’s extensive catalogue.

What’s the music like?

To describe three of these pieces as ‘occasional’ is not to deny their musical attraction. The Suite of Dances makes the most of its unlikely combination of oboe, viola, double bass and piano – the astringent harmonies of its Prelũdio commuted into more plaintive expression by the Sarabanda, before the Tarantella rounds off the sequence with heady insouciance. In its follow-through of wistful song then whimsical dance, the Adagio and Scherzino is an unassuming gift to the repertoire for woodwind quintet that all such ensembles should seize upon. Although a combination of horn, three trumpets, two trombones and tuba might prove awkward, the Suite for Brass is no less diverting – whether in the soulful pathos of its initial Moderato, incisive fanfares of its central Allegro or insinuating resolve of its final Andante.

Highly appealing as these all are, the remaining works more completely affirm Braga Santos as a composer of substance. Cast in a single movement lasting almost 15 minutes, the Piano Quartet unfolds as the interplay between tensile and rhapsodic main themes such that neither mode of expression ever quite gets the upper hand. Moreover, the writing for the four players is of an integrated ensemble with any solo expression secondary to that of the collective; not least in the final pages as the music regains its initial impetus on the way to a forthright close.

Undoubtedly the main achievement here, the Piano Trio can rank alongside the Third String Quartet (included on the previous volume) among Braga Santos’s finest achievements. The opening Largo elides between distanced and ominous expression, its unforced synthesis of modal and non-tonal facets accorded greater resolve by the ensuing Allegro with its tensely intertwined strings and repeated-note piano writing that, between them, reach an impetuous climax. More than twice the length of its predecessors, the closing Lento is also one of this composer’s most potent inspirations – the sheer remoteness of its initial gestures underlying the speculative discourse which follows, and while the later stages afford greater emotional variety, the destination of this music towards its ethereal final repose can never be doubted.

Does it all work?

It does, allowing for the fact that some of the pieces here are modest in scope but written most felicitously as to the ensemble required. The performances of the main two pieces –    by violinist Eliot Lawson, cellist Catherine Strynckx, pianist Jill Lawson and (in the Piano Quartet) violist Natalia Tchitch – make a strong case for these works to form part of their respective repertoire. The other items mainly feature woodwind and brass players from the leading Portuguese orchestras and bring similar combinations of insight and commitment.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound avoids that slightly out-of-focus perspective of the first volume, even if breaks between works could have been lengthier. The booklet has an affectionate memoir by Santos’s pupil Alexandre Delgado, with detailed notes on each work by Bernardo Mariano.

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You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording. For our review of volume one in this series, click here

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.

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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: Django Django: Glowing In The Dark (Because)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Over the course of three albums, Django Django have shown themselves to be a remarkably fluid musical group. Staying clear of genre labels and pigeon holes, they simply make the music that feels right to them in the moment – and Glowing In The Dark, their fourth long player, is no exception.

What’s the music like?

With lean textures, danceable beats and quickly moving basslines, Django Django have made an album of urgency and craft, but with a few surprises along the way too, which befits the way they work.

It is easy to get swept up in the rush of Spirals, a heady opening track with a fluid bassline. It establishes the positive mood with dazzling keyboards, jangly guitars and a catchy chorus – all elements that are kept up with Right The Wrongs.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s guest appearance on Waking Up will raise a good many eyebrows, but for good reason as the combination works perfectly. Here and elsewhere it is the drums and bass that provide a really strong basis for the music, while the vocals reach back through the 1970s and 1960s for their source material.

There is a slight dip in form towards the end, but Hold Fast and Asking For More ensure the album ends on a high.

Does it all work?

Glowing In The Dark may lose a bit of its brightness towards the end, where the melodies are not quite so strong as they were at the beginning, but other than that it is a very strong album, with regular bursts of inspiration and some really catchy choruses and hooklines.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If you enjoyed the last album Marble Skies then you’ll warm to the winding paths of this one, added to the instinctive feel it has throughout. A record made by friends with a common love of instinctive pop music that pays homage to their record collections but keeps their own identity strong too.

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You can purchase Glowing In The Dark at the Piccadilly Records website here

 

On Record: Minotaur Shock: Qi (Bytes)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

David Edwards returns under his Minotaur Shock pseudonym with Qi, a six-part suite recorded on an Electron Digitone synthesizer. The idea of recording an extended set of pieces on a single piece of equipment seems to be catching on during lockdown, providing inspiration for a number of bedroom-based musicians, yours truly included!

What’s the music like?

Enjoyably instinctive. Edwards was very reluctant to go back to the tracks once recorded, delivering each in one or at most two takes. It means that the music-making is very much ‘in the moment’, and ensures the cells of melody that Minotaur Shock works with are kept fresh in their development.

As Qi unfolds it becomes clear that Edwards actually has an embarrassment of ideas, many of them flavoured with late 1980s and early 1990s techno and all of them linking together beautifully. The mood is friendly but on occasion heavier grooves punch in, so that tracks like Qat and QCD impress with their inventive breakbeats. The latter floats in on the wind like a set of chimes before some nice crossrhythms set up an unexpected but rather stately chorale.

Qui, the first track, shows how substantial these structures can become, leading to a swirling snowstorm of a loop where the keyboard carries all before it. Qis, the glittering closing section, and Qua are largely without percussion, but still have a natural rhythmic momentum.

Does it all work?

Yes. Edwards keeps things moving, nothing outstays its welcome, and the rich well of melodic inspiration continually pushes out new ideas.

Is it recommended?

Heartily. Minotaur Shock is very much on form here, with a warm-hearted half hour of electronic invention to enjoy.

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On record: New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Charles Groves – Havergal Brian: In Memoriam & Gothic Symphony Part 1 (Heritage Records)

New Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Charles Groves

Brian
In Memoriam (1910)
Symphony no.1 in D minor, The Gothic (1919-27) – Part One

Heritage Records HTGCD172 [59’31”]
Producer Robert Simpson

Recorded 10 October 1976 in live performances at Royal Albert Hall, London, UK. Released by arrangement with BBC Studios, with funding from the Havergal Brian Society

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Heritage label renews its archival coverage of Havergal Brian with this disc of works given at the last concert of those centenary events in 1976, including what is still the only professional account of Part One from the Gothic Symphony heard separately, as sanctioned by the composer.

What’s the music like?

Following three concerts at Alexandra Palace, this final one took place at the Royal Albert Hall. even if a planned performance of the Gothic had to be shelved through financial considerations, a second half featuring Berlioz’s arrangement of La Marseillaise and his Symphonie funèbre et triomphale was no easy option. At the helm was Charles Groves who, having recently given the Ninth Symphony at the Proms, proves a Brian interpreter of real perception. Such is evident in his account of the tone poem In Memoriam, among the best of its composer’s earlier works and unheard for almost 55 years. Whether prompted by thoughts as to the end of an era, or by more personal considerations (its initial title having been ‘Homage to an Artist’), the trajectory of its three continuous ‘scenes’ from impulsive vehemence, via searching contemplation, to sustained affirmation is a striking one made more so through the finesse of Brian’s tonal thinking and his resourceful scoring. These are qualities to the fore with Groves’s interpretation, as convincingly shaped as it is eloquently rendered, and most likely the finest that this work has so far received.

If the performance of Part One of the Gothic Symphony is not quite as good, it more than makes the case for this to be heard as an autonomous entity. Tempi are slightly more measured overall than those of Sir Adrian Boult (Testament) or Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion) in their live readings at the same venue, but this enables Groves to wrest unity from the three movements – not least by bringing those extremes of motion and mood of the Allegro into closest accord, while ensuring a cumulative momentum across the whole. The Lento has all the necessary ‘expressiveness and solemnity’, and at a speed flexible enough to contain its volatile progress towards a powerfully rhetorical climax then a lingering postlude. The Vivace more than fulfils its function as a finale: Groves is mindful to integrate the increasingly disjunct scherzo-and-trio episodes, then keeps a firm hold on its explosive central outburst and surreally imagined ‘night flight’, on the way to a peroration of a grandeur intensified by its tonal audacity and afforded pathos in its limpid coda. That the rather bemused applause has not been retained is maybe of no consequence in context.

Does it all work?

Yes, given Brian always did things his way so that his music often pivots between the visionary and the reckless, yet one where he is almost always justified. Certainly, Groves’s In Memoriam is preferable to the well-paced if technically limited account by Geoffrey Heald-Smith with the City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra (Cameo Classics), as also the capably played if most often stop-go approach of Adrian Leaper and the National Symphony of Ireland (Naxos). There is no other version of the Gothic’s Part One, in which Groves’s trenchant advocacy vindicates the decision.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The (unnamed) remastering engineer has done an admirable job of enhancing the BBC sound, not least in minimizing the bronchial audience contribution on that autumn evening now almost 45 years ago, and John Pickard’s booklet notes are a model of reasoned enthusiasm.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Heritage Records website. Heritage also offer a recording of Brian’s first opera The Tigers here, and the first commercial recordings of the composer’s music here