On record: Stephen Wilkinson – A Celebration of Conductor and Composer (Prima Facie)

stephen-wilkinson

William Byrd Singers, *BBC Northern Singers / Stephen Wilkinson

Dickinson Late Afternoon in November (1975)*

Ellis Sequentia in tempore Natali Sancti (1965)

McCabe Siberia; Visions (both 1983).

Traditional (arr. Wilkinson) Four Choruses from Grass Roots (2003); Betjeman’s Bells (2012)

Wilkinson That Time of Year (1976)

Prima Facie PFCD147 [60’55”] English texts included

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The always enterprising label Prima Facie releases an album to celebrate the centenary of the conductor and composer Stephen Wilkinson (b1919), whose many decades of work with both the BBC Northern Singers and the William Byrd Choir is appropriately commemorated here.

What’s the music like?

The selection begins with Peter Dickinson’s Late Afternoon in November, a setting of a poem he himself wrote and one whose distanced, often desolate imagery inspires music in which the underlying slowness of pulse and stark emphasis placed on certain words or phrases yields an anguished tone rare in the composer’s output. This performance by the BBC Northern Singers was indeed the world premiere and emphasizes Wilkinson’s assured direction of a demanding piece, the commitment in whose realization hardly something that could be taken for granted.

The remainder is sung by the William Byrd Singers, of whom Wilkinson was the director for almost 40 years. It duly makes the most of Visions, John McCabe‘s elaborate and often eight-part setting of a poem by James Clarence Mangan whose ranging across mellifluous vocalise and visceral chant is conveyed accurately and with not a little sensitivity. If that of the same poet’s Siberia encourages a more direct and (understandably) plangent response, the overall textural variety in this four-part chorus is felicitously judged throughout what is another responsive reading.

For many years a senior producer for BBC Radio in Manchester, David Ellis is also a notable composer, witness his resourceful and often imaginative response to the traditional sequence for Christmas time Sequentia in tempore Natali Sancti. In its astute alternation between full choir and solo voices, it makes for an admirable foil to the straightforward approach adopted by Wilkinson in That Time of Year – a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXIII that enfolds its autumnal musings within a sound-world that is monochrome while luminous in character.

The programme is interspersed with Wilkinson’s arrangements of four folksongs taken from his collection Grass Roots – being Welsh, English, Irish and Scottish respectively. Thus, the ruminative As I walked out is followed by the gentle eloquence of Rowing down the Tide, the winsome melancholy of The Lark in the Clear Air, before the steadily accumulating vivacity of The Piper o’ Dundee. Also included here is the charming Betjeman’s Bells, three settings of texts by the Poet Laureate whose music was ingeniously derived from traditional sources.

Does it all work?

As an overall sequence, very much so. While none of these pieces makes use of the extended techniques encountered in much post-war choral music, they are rarely easy technically and the care in preparing these performances (including several world premieres) is evident from every bar. A pity that full recording details have not been included, though the quality of the remastering means that few, if any, allowances need be made for presumed older recordings. The booklet notes place each of these pieces within a meaningful as well as relevant context.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. That Wilkinson is still active as composer, and reader for his daughter’s early-music ensemble Courtiers of Grace, is itself gratifying. This archival release goes much of the way towards explaining why his presence on the English choral scene has been a beneficent one.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Prima Facie Records website, and for more on Stephen Wilkinson click here

On record – Livia Teodorescu-Ciocănea: Le rouge et le noir (Romanian National Opera / Răsven Cernat) (Toccata Classics)


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Teodorescu-Ciocănea
Le rouge et le noir (1999-2000)

Mihaela Stanciu (soprano), Romeo Cornelius (countertenor), Chorus and Orchestra of Romanian National Opera / Răsven Cernat

Toccata Classics TOCC0595 [75’25”] Synopsis included

Producers Florentina Herghelegiu, Erika Nemescu
Engineer Alexandru Părlea

Recorded 11-15 June 2000 at studios of Romanian Radio Broadcasting Corporation, Bucharest

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics here continues its coverage of Livia Teodorescu-Ciocănea (b1959) with the ballet Le rouge et le noir, whose frequently lurid scenario allows her orchestral prowess and range of invention full rein – making for a musical experience cohesive almost despite itself.

What’s the music like?

Alongside a distinguished academic career (her PhD in composition was undertaken at the University of Huddersfield), Teodorescu-Ciocănea has amassed a sizable output that ranges across all the main genres. Her music has been compared to that of Horaţiu Rădulescu and Ştefan Niculescu in its usage of ‘spectral’ elements, but its expressive character is arguably closet to that of Pascal Bentoiu with its pivoting around post-romantic and modernist traits. Appropriate, then, for a ballet score complementing its subject-matter in no uncertain terms.

In her introductory essay, the composer describes Stendhal’s novel upon which this ballet is based as a ‘‘powerful and romantic one’’; which might almost be thought euphemisms for a scenario in which histrionics are emphasized to the point of – and even beyond – overkill. All is revealed in her track-by-track synopsis, but maybe this is a score best tackled – at least on first hearing – minus the distractions of Stendhal’s narrative with its cumbersome symbolism or mostly unsympathetic protagonists; one that culminates in a disingenuously tragic outcome.

Appreciating this ballet ‘in the abstract’ is facilitated, moreover, by the theatrical immediacy of its music. Structured in three acts, framed by a prologue and epilogue, it draws the listener through the story with no inherent longueurs (the ballet initially lasted for around 95 minutes, which Teodorescu-Ciocănea has reduced to its present 75 through withdrawing the numbers ‘‘that seemed to me redundant or transitional’’). Highlights are the second half of Act Two’s first scene – a propulsive passacaglia set in the mayor’s house; the subsequent scene, with its plangent and evocative love-duet set at Vergy; the brief while potent Passion Tango in Act Three’s second scene; and the Epilogue which brings about the denouement with a fervour and a dramatic inexorability that comprehensively transcends the narrative which inspired it.

Does it all work?

For the most part, yes. Listeners might well be advised to tackle the music straight off, rather than study the scenario beforehand. In the (understandable) absence of the visual component, this is a piece best evaluated on its own terms; without the cringing element of melodrama as derived from Stendhal, yet another of those ‘classics’ novels which has rightly been relegated to an academic footnote in history. The present performance surely presents this work to best advantage – vocalists Mihaela Stanciu and Romeo Cornelius eloquent in their contributions, and Răsven Cernat securing a visceral response from the forces of Romanian National Opera. The track-listing gives immediate access to each scene in the three acts, while Joel Crotty’s biographical outline is invaluable given the almost complete absence of material in English.

Is it recommended?

Yes, in the hope Toccata will go on to release examples of Teodorescu-Ciocănea’s orchestral and choral music – not least the oratorio Poppy Fields, her ‘in memoriam’ for those who fell in the First World War and on a scale as was largely ignored by major composers in the UK.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording. To read more about Toccata’s exploration of Teodorescu-Ciocănea’s piano music, click here

On record: Meriel & Peter Dickinson: An Erik Satie Entertainment (Heritage Records)

satie-dickinson

Meriel Dickinson (mezzo-soprano / reader), Peter Dickinson (piano / reader)

Heritage Records HTGCD171 [68’09”] French texts included
Producer Antony Hodgson
Engineer Tony Faulkner

Recorded 6 October 1975 at All Saints’ Church, Petersham (Unicorn LP only) Remastered by Peter Newble

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Heritage label continues its worthwhile excavation of overlooked ‘deep catalogue’ with this selection of Erik Satie’s piano pieces, songs and prose as performed by Meriel and Peter Dickinson, whose recitals were a notable fixture of the UK music-scene over several decades.

What’s the music like?

After the lively and rumbustious march Le Piccadilly (1904), Trois melodies (1887) show the composer’s poignant take on domestic song-writing from the period. The haunting Deuxième Gnossienne (1893) is followed by the hieratic plangency of Hymne: ‘Salut Drapeau!’ (1891), while the Deuxième Pièce froide (1897) anticipates the quirky humour to come. Tendrement (1902) ranks among Satie’s most disarming songs, as does the amiable Proudre d’or (1900/1) within his piano music. Two winsome songs from incidental music for the play Geneviève de Brabant (1899/1900) precede two piano pieces – the mystically aloof Première Gymnopédie (1888) and the demurely anarchic Vexations (1893) – which, between them, outline the extent of Satie’s creative thinking. Similarly, the gently facetious humour of Trois melodies (1916) affords pointed contrast with the introspective mystery of the early Chanson (1887) then the considered evocation which is Chanson medieval (1906); further reminders that demarcation between this composer’s seemingly serious and humorous sides cannot be taken as absolute.

An undoubted bonus of the added live material is the Dickinsons’ readings from Satie’s own writings. Thus, there is Peter’s deadpan rendering of Satie’s Self-Portrait as provided for his publisher, its barbed whimsy duly complemented by brief piano interludes from his comedy Le Piège de Méduse (1913), while those gnomic expressions that are Quatres petites melodies (1920) inhabit similarly elliptical domain. Peter reads from the composer’s fanciful outline of his ‘routine for living’ in A Musician’s Diary, while Meriel tells of his ironic attitude towards Beethoven in Satie’s Fakes; between them, she sings the compact confessionals that are Trois Poèmes d’amour (1914). The gnomic song-cycle Ludions (1923), among Satie’s final works, makes a suitably telling foil to Peter’s reading of the archetypal Satie text In Praise of Critics. The selection concludes with a brace of songs – the blithely sardonic La Diva de l’Empire (1904) then the quintessentially Satie confection Je te veux (1897), its deftest interplay of charm and guile with a knowing sentimentality evidently to the pleasure of those listening.

Does it all work?

Very much so, given that Meriel and Peter are so attuned to the facets of Satie’s inimitable genius. At the time of this LP and its attendant recitals, its sheer extent had still to be fully assessed, which does not lessen the significance of the Dickinsons’ efforts (as with Satie’s younger contemporary and English counterpart Lord Berners) in championing this music at the highest artistic level. Both the transfer of the original Unicorn disc and the live extracts (mono) have been capably done – revealing few, if any, limitations in the source-material.

Is it recommended?

It is, not least as an informed and appealing introduction to this music by artists for whom its advocacy was clearly a labour of love. A pity that English translations of the song-texts were not included, though these are mostly accessible online, and their omission is a minor caveat.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Heritage Records website, and for more on Meriel and Peter Dickinson click here

On record – Mihalovici: Piano Music (Matthew Rubinstein) (Toccata Classics)

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Mihalovici
Sonatine, Op. 11 (1922-3). Quatre Caprices, Op. 29 (1928). Ricercari, Op. 46 (1941). Quatre Pastorales, Op. 46 (1950). Sonate, Op. 90 (1964). Passacaille (pour la main gauche), Op. 105 (1975)

Matthew Rubinstein (piano)

Toccata Classics TOCC0376 [73’52”]

Producer Boris Hofmann
Engineer Henri Thaon

Recorded 5 & 6 June, 30 & 31 July 2018 at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics turns to the Romanian émigré Marcel Mihalovici (1898-1985) whose music has been poorly served by recording but whose works for piano, most often premiered by his wife Monique Haas, affords (in this selection) a representative overview of his sizable output.

What’s the music like?

Among the shorter pieces, the Sonatine typifies the neo-classical objectivity of the composer’s earlier music with the nimble fluidity of its outer movements framing an Andante of winsome delicacy. More testing pianistically, the Quatre Caprices recall Mihalovici’s slightly younger (and similarly Paris-based) contemporary Alexander Tcherepnin in their oblique poise along with that stealthily accumulating energy made manifest in the motoric Allegro – its ‘furioso’ marking subtly underlined here – though not before an Andantino of ruminative elegance. If the Quatre Pastorales strikes a deeper note, this is likely through the deft folk inflections as are manifest across the alternate whimsy and exuberance of these miniatures – culminating with a final Allegro reminiscent of Enescu in its ringing sonorities and cascading harmonies.

A breakthrough in several respects, Ricercari proceeds less as a set of variations than of free variants on a discursive theme whose indebtedness to a passacaglia – not merely for its tempo – is explored intensively during what follows. Surprisingly, perhaps, most of the ‘variations’ are rapid or at least flowing in manner – the propulsive ninth of these heading into a fugue as revisits the theme with renewed impetus in a gradual accumulation of energy; culminating in a notably equivocal restatement of the theme, itself making way for the tenuous final gesture.

The latter two works come from Mihalovici’s high maturity – the Sonate outwardly evoking Classical precepts with its clearly defined three movements. Less so the opening Allegretto’s nonchalant overriding of expected formal divisions, the central Lento’s freewheeling play on gesture and phrase (with its tangible recourse to the ‘doina’ crucial to Romanian traditional music), then the final Allegro’s capricious yet purposeful unfolding towards a conclusion of no mean agility in which the composer’s pianism is at its most combative and declamatory.

The left-hand Passacaille is a fair definition of ‘late masterpiece’, its gnomic theme made the basis of 18 variations whose diversity of motion and consistent brevity belie the formal focus with which the composer builds towards the lengthier closing brace. Hence the 17th with its plaintive demeanour and probing introspection, then the 18th – a ‘quasi una cadenza’ – that steers a determined course through to its unexpectedly stark close: mastery of means allied to that of technique in this undoubted enhancement of a distinctive if often intractable medium.

Does it all work?

It does, not least because Mihalovici is clearly a master at combining different stylistic facets that are more than the sum of their influences. Matthew Rubinstein evidently appreciates this with interpretations of methodical attention to detail, allied to playing of undoubted panache.

Is it recommended?

It is, given that only two pieces had been earlier recorded with only Ricercari easily available. Spaciously defined sound from the fabled Jesus-Christus-Kirche, and detailed notes by Lukas Näf. Hopefully, recordings of Mihalovici’s orchestral and chamber music will prove feasible.

Listen

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You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording.

On record – Early Stereo Recordings Vol.4: Albéniz, Bizet, Kodály & Ravel (First Hand)

early-stereo-recordings-4

Philharmonia Orchestra / Eugene Goossens (a), Guido Cantelli (d); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vittorio Gui (b) Paul Kletzki (c), Eugene Goossens (e)

Albéniz (orch. Arbós) Iberia – excerpts (1905-09, orch. c1928) (a)
Bizet Petite Suite (1871, orch. 1880) (b)
Kodály Dances of Galánta (1933) (c)
Ravel Daphnis et Chloé Suite no.2 (1909-12): Danse générale (d); Boléro (1928) (e)

First Hand Records FHR79 [78’21”]

Producers David Bicknell (a), Lawrance Collingwood (b,d,e), unknown (c)
Engineers Christopher Parker (a-d), Robert Gooch (e)

Recorded 12 July 1955 (b), 18 September 1957 (e) at Abbey Road Studios, London; 15 February (a), 24 March (c) and 28 May 1956 (d) at Kingsway Hall, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records continues its exploration of pioneering stereo recordings from the EMI archives with this collection of orchestral works, mainly from the earlier decades of the 20th century, as demonstrates the success of various HMV producers and engineers in harnessing the potential of stereophonic sound to the playing of what, in the 1950s, were the two finest London orchestras – the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic, working with conductors in music with which they were not necessarily associated over the greater part of their careers.

What are the performances like?

Starting with an incisive yet expressively deadpan take on Ravel’s Danse générale, all that survives in stereo of Guido Cantelli’s recording of the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé, the selection proceeds to excerpts from Albéniz’s piano cycle Iberia, orchestrated by Enrique Arbós. Seldom encountered in concert nowadays, these five pieces (all of the First, plus one each from the Second and Third Books) constitute a worthwhile suite in themselves. Eugene Goossens duly underlines his prowess in earlier 20th-century music with performances that bring out the evocative poise of Evacación, then alternate fervour and piety of El Corpus en Sevilla, before the capricious charm of Triana and capering energy of El Puerto; the cumulative emotional charge of El Albaicin closing this sequence with unfailing panache.

Goossens is hardly less persuasive in Ravel’s Boléro – at this time, not quite the ubiquitous showpiece it became – the inexorably accumulating momentum ideally served by his refusal to rush its devastatingly effective trajectory; the final stage largely taking care of itself when allowed to emerge inevitably. A further worthwhile revival is that of Bizet’s Petite Suite, five miniatures drawn from his earlier cycle for piano duet Jeux d’enfants and given with winning deftness by Vittorio Gui – demonstrably in his element when the sessions for his re-recording of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro finished ahead of schedule. Kodály’s Dances of Galánta has itself returned to favour in recent years, but few accounts are ever likely to match that of Paul Kletzki in his steering this ever more animated sequence through to its breathless conclusion.

Do they all work?

Pretty much, allowing for occasional lapses in ensemble that are notably few given the hectic schedule these London orchestras pursued at this time. Remastering has been deftly handled by Ian Jones – Albéniz and Bizet being transferred from HMV Stereosonic tapes, respectively by Giampaolo Zeccara and Ted Kendall (the latter’s 1997 set of Mahler ‘first recordings’ for Conifer is fondly remembered). There are extensive background notes from David Patmore, along with observations by Peter Bromley, whose tenacity has made possible this FHR series.

Are they recommended?

Indeed, not least given the interest of the actual music and the relative unfamiliarity of most of the recordings. The rapid standardization of the listening experience through the medium of streaming has made such releases as this more valuable by (hopefully) making potential listeners aware of just what became possible with the greater recourse to the stereophonic process, as of those numerous triumphs (among not a few failings) which resulted given the right combination of technology and musicality. Further instalments are keenly anticipated.

Listen & Buy

 

You can get more information on the disc at the First Hand website, where you can also find information on the first, second and third volumes in the series