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

On record: Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald – Shostakovich: The Gadfly, The Counterplan (Naxos Film Music Classics)

Shostakovich The Gadfly, The Counterplan Bachchor MainzDeutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald

Shostakovich
The Gadfly, Op.97 (1955) – complete original score (ed. Fitz-Gerald)
The Counterplan, Op. 33 (1932) – excerpts

Bachchor Mainz, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald

Naxos Film Music Classics 8.573747 [61’46”]
Producer Roland Kistner Engineers Bernd Nothnagel, Karl Haffner
Dates March 21st-24th, 2017 in Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Mark Fitz-Gerald continues his pioneering series of Shostakovich film scores in their original orchestration with this disc of the composer’s music for The Gadfly, coupled with pieces that never made it to the final cut and excerpts from the most successful of his earlier film-scores.

What’s the music like?

Unlike that on the previous discs in this Naxos series (scores to New Babylon on 8.572824/5, Alone on 8.573747 and Girlfriends on 8.572138), the music for The Gadfly was very much a mainstream project for a composer struggling to find focus in the post-Stalin era. Alexander Faintzimmer’s adaptation of Ethel Voynich’s novel, essentially a romantic politicization of the Risorgimento among the mid-19th century Italian states, was a success with both Soviet officialdom and the public; while the 12-movemnet suite, as adapted by Lev Atovmian, has long been the most widely heard of Shostakovich’s film-derived scores. The present ‘urtext’ version was prepared and edited by Fitz-Gerald in conjunction with DSCH publishing house in Moscow and Paris (and has been published as Volume 138 of the New Complete Edition).

Despite its 29 individual cues averaging under two minutes, this sequence is (surprisingly?) cohesive in formal and expressive follow-through. Framed by the surging ‘Overture’ (track 1) and rhetorical ‘Finale (29), it follows the scenario closely. The famous ‘Romance’ is divided between the tracks ‘Youth’ and its reprise (4/25), with eloquent violin playing from Nikolaus Boewer, and its middle section is located elsewhere. Further highlights include the evocative ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (15) derived from Bach’s Mass in B minor, the infectious ‘Contredanse’ and ‘Galop’ for strings (19/20), and effervescent ‘Bazar’ (22) which became the well-known ‘Public Holiday’. Many of the other tracks are predominantly sombre or introspective, though the understated effectiveness of Shostakovich’s instrumentation offsets any risk of uniformity.

Also included are two organ cues excluded from the final score – including ‘Ave Maria’ (31), an ingenious reworking of a parody mass by Renaissance composer Antoine de Févin as was replaced by the Bach. The disc is completed by three excerpts from The Counterplan – made to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, whose intermingling of personal relationships with construction in Leningrad is best remembered for its ‘Song of the Counterplan’. This emerges towards the close (34) to round-off these excerpts in fine style.

Does it all work?

Indeed. Fitz-Gerald secures a lively response from his Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie forces, with the various guitar and mandolin solos idiomatically taken, while Elke Voelker’s organ contributions are recorded with necessary ambient space. Those who know The Gadfly from the suite will find these frequently stripped-down orchestrations of the original film-score an unexpected pleasure. The sound is unexceptionally fine (volume levels in louder items can sound a touch manipulated), while John Riley’s booklet notes are detailed and informative.

Is it recommended?

Yes. This is a welcome act of restoration for film-music almost entirely known in a version approved though not undertaken by the composer. Hopefully this series will be continued – a recording of the complete score for The Counterplan would be a worthwhile next instalment.

You can read more about this release on the Naxos website, while for more on Mark Fitz-Gerald, visit his

On record: Eve Daniell, Roderick Williams & Simon Lepper – John Pickard: Songs (Toccata)

John Pickard Songs Eve Daniell (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Simon Lepper (piano)

Pickard
The Borders of Sleep
Binyon Songs
The Phoenix

Toccata Classics TOCC0413 [61’01’’] English texts included
Producer/Engineer Michael Ponder
Recorded January 7th and 8th 2017 at St George’s, Bristol

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc of music by John Pickard (b1963) from Toccata Classics, this time focussing on his output for voice and piano which to date comprises just three works, though these are no less personal than his more extensive contributions to the orchestral and chamber genres.

What’s the music like?

In his booklet notes, Pickard speaks of the difficulty in finding the right words for music thus intended. His works featuring baritone evince due discernment in those poets he has set. Not least the Binyon Songs – five settings of Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), the ubiquity of whose For the Fallen has detracted from a large and varied corpus. The present sequence is nothing if not representative – conveying abused benevolence in Nature, re-emergence in Sowing Seed and hectic transition in Autumn Song. The warm confessional of When all the world is hidden (a likely counterpart to Mahler’s Liebst du um Schönheit?) makes for a telling foil to the relatively expansive The Burning of the Leaves, affording closure through its insight into the immutable process of decay and renewal – an apotheosis as probing as it is profound.

Whereas the Binyon songs are a loosely related sequence, The Borders of Sleep is a song-cycle in formal intent and expressive scope. Here the texts are by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), considered a ‘wat poet’ (he died at Arras) though one whose poetry tends toward the speculative and even oblique. These concerns are pursued across the course of nine songs – taking in such as the sombre monotony of The Mill-Water, black irony of The Gallows and impermanence of Rain. The final settings comprise a fitting culmination: the mood of Last Poem, made concrete by its alternate title The sorrow of true love, transmuted into the fatalistic calm of Lights Out whose initial line also provides the title of this work and whose intimation of transcendence through the release of sleep affords its own benediction.

In contrast, the earliest piece here sets the earliest text, The Phoenix freely adapted from R. K. Gordon’s translation of a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem found in the Exeter Book. In fining down the expansive original (677 lines), Pickard has created a scena for soprano and piano where the evocation of this mythical bird’s demise and rebirth becomes metaphor for change and renewal; hence aligning it with the more recent poets featured here then, by extension, the underlying concerns to be found in even the most abstract among Pickard’s compositions.

Does it all work?

Very much so – not least when the performances are so attuned to the spirit and sensibility of Pickard’s music. A stalwart of English-song repertoire, Roderick Williams invests the Binyon and Thomas settings with unsparing emotional acuity, and if Eve Daniell experiences passing difficulty with pitching and intonation, her command of high-flown rhetoric in The Phoenix leaves no doubt as to her identity with this piece. Simon Lepper’s accompaniment is of the highest order, while recorded sound judges balance between voice and piano to perfection.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and Pickard will hopefully add to his output for voice and piano in due course. In the meantime, acquire this disc and check out the composer’s orchestrations of his Binyon songs (also performed by Williams) on the English Music Records’ anthology Now Comes Beauty.

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website, while for more on John Pickard, you can visit his website here

On screen: Barbara Hannigan, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Stravinsky: Rite of Spring; Berg: Wozzeck Fragments; Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre (LSO Live)

Webern Six Pieces op.6 (1909/28)
Berg Three Fragments from Wozzeck, op. 7 (1923)
Ligeti arr. Howarth Mysteries of the Macabre (1992)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (1913)

Barbara Hannigan (soprano – Berg & Ligeti), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO3028 [84’58’’] One DVD and one Blu-ray disc

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from its all-French programme (LSO3038), LSO Live here releases a further concert by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle on DVD and Blu-ray – once again a co-production with the digital channel Mezzo and in association with ARTE France.

What’s the music like?

Rattle has long been an advocate of Webern’s Six Pieces and made a fine recording of it in his Birmingham days. This LSO account is notable for its scrupulous attention to dynamics and tonal shading, even if such fastidiousness minimizes any real spontaneity in this elusive music. A case in point is the rather effortful climax to the explosive second piece, while the ‘funeral march’ fourth lacks underlying momentum on the way to its powerful though hardly unnerving culmination. Elsewhere, this music’s subdued introspection is tellingly conveyed.

The Three Fragments which Berg drew from Wozzeck follows on naturally. Focussing on the character of Marie enabled the composer to bring together three of this opera’s highlights for concert use, and Barbara Hannigan brings a probing characterization to the lullaby from Act One then the bible-reading scene from Act Three. She captures the naivety of the child at the close of the third fragment, before which the LSO comes into its own in a powerful while not unduly vehement interlude prior to the final scene – Rattle steering them through unerringly.

Hannigan returns in rather different guise for Mysteries of the Macabre that Elgar Howarth arranged from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. This present-day staple of the coloratura repertoire lends itself to all manner of parody and if Hannigan’s juvenile delinquent might be felt inappropriate for a chief of secret police, her vocal contribution is uninhibited in its virtuosity. Rattle and his orchestra enter-into the music’s anarchic accordingly, the former’s joke at the expense of Nigel Farage seeming all too ironic in the light of subsequent events.

Rattle’s association with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring goes back to the outset of his career and hearing this account is a reminder of his prowess in music the LSO has itself played many times. Yet for all the consummate technical skill, there is a nagging sense of conductor and orchestra going through the motions to ultimately predictable effect (indeed, the performance from Peter Eötvös with the LSO later that season generated much more genuine excitement and sense of purpose). Easy to admire, there is little here to make one assess this work afresh.

Does it all work?

Absolutely in terms of a programme both cohesive and provocative. Things are more mixed in term of performances – with those of the Berg and (musically at least) the Ligeti as good as one is ever likely to hear, that of the Webern just a little too micro-managed overall and the Stravinsky a reminder that superb playing and expert conducting do not necessarily make for a gripping interpretation.

As an indication of Rattle’s association with the orchestra of which he subsequently became Music Director, there is much here that is enjoyable and engrossing

Is it recommended?

Yes, in terms of a concert to which one might wish to return on repeated occasions. Sound and vision leave little to be desired in either format, though post-production means that there is little sense of the orchestra performing in a tangible acoustic – Barbican Hall or otherwise.

For more information on this release, visit the LSO Live website

On record: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Sir Michael Tippett: Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 (Hyperion)

Tippett Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Tippett
Symphony no.1 (1944-5)
Symphony no.2 (1956-7)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A new recording of Michael Tippett’s symphonies, following on from those by Colin DavisGeorg Solti (Decca, 1968-81) and Richard Hickox (Chandos, 1992-4) was sorely needed, and with his prowess in British music Martyn Brabbins would seem well placed to provide it.

Having begun his cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies, Brabbins now embarks on those of Tippett, whose reputation seems to be on the ascent given the inevitable decline after his death in 1998. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra may not have had a close association with this music, though the fact each of these recordings was preceded by a live performance at least ensure what is heard here are those interpretations intended by Brabbins rather than merely a run-through that comprises studio takes methodically assembled in post-production.

What’s the music like?

In the First Symphony, informed by the tragedies of war and personal loss, Brabbins handles the initial Allegro’s bracing polyphonic discourse with assurance – less unyielding than Colin Davis if not quite evincing the forward resolve of Richard Hickox. The exposition’s motivic elements are precisely individuated then vividly contrasted in the development, though there could have been greater intensity during the reprise before it reaches stasis in the coda. The Adagio is the highlight here, a passacaglia afforded focus by the expressive contrasts of its variations and cohesion by their near-symmetrical trajectory. Slower then either of his rivals, Brabbins secures greater momentum so that the sombre augmentation of the theme caps this sombre movement overall. The scherzo’s outer sections have the right rhythmic buoyancy, even if its songful trio is a little reticent, and while the twin subjects of the finale’s double-fugue are well delineated, the transition into the reprise lacks impetus; the climactic ‘stretto’ less potent than its disintegration in the coda, though this is likely what Tippett intended.

This remains a frequently impressive account, with that of the more wide-ranging Second Symphony only marginally less so. Its opening Allegro is the finest on disc – more flexible than Davis and less stolid than Hickox, while generating kinetic energy in the development and truly Beethovenian coda. If the Adagio feels less convincing, this is not through lack of insight on Brabbins’s part or finesse on that of the BBCSSO but rather a sense that the ideas in its mosaic-like construction are being juxtaposed without admitting that greater eloquence Hickox finds at a slower tempo and Tippett himself (NMC) conveys to rapturous effect. The scherzo is disappointing as, for all the wealth of detail uncovered, the underlying tempo is too staid for momentum to accrue so the climax feels less Dionysian than merely incisive. Some might also consider the finale too steady, yet Brabbins succeeds more than those before him in knitting the four parts of this fantasia-like sequence into an organic process of continuous variation through to a coda as brings the work forcefully but never overbearingly full-circle.

Does it all work?

Most of the time. As recorded in Glasgow’s City Halls, the orchestral sound has clarity and lustre well in advance of those earlier readings, even if the acerbities of Tippett’s scoring can seem a little too well-blended (the balance of trumpets in the outer movements of the Second Symphony being a case in point), hence a relatively high playback level is preferable. Oliver Soden’s annotations are informed and informative, though not free of occasional tautologies or affectations that one hopes will not feature in his forthcoming biography of the composer.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Whatever their difficulties in execution, the intrinsic musical qualities of Tippett’s symphonies cannot be doubted and this first instalment augurs well for the rest of the cycle. Nos. 3 and 4, as well as the early Symphony in B flat, are due from Hyperion later this year.

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