On record: Emilie Mayer: Symphony no.4, Piano Concerto, String Quartet etc

**Ewa Kupiec, ****Yang Tai (pianos) ***Klenke Quartett; */**Neubrandenburger Philharmonie / *Stefan Malzew, **Sebastian Tewinkel

Mayer
Symphony no.4 in B minor (1851)*
Piano Concerto in B flat major (1850) **
String Quartet no.9 in G minor***
Piano Sonata in D minor (c1860-70)****
Tonwellen-Valse in C****
Marcia in A****

Capriccio C5339 [129’39”]

Recorded December 2017

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Capriccio reissues its two discs devoted to the music of Emilie Mayer (1812-1883), a notable figure in German mid-romanticism who came through early upheavals to establish herself as a composer whose considerable output was heard throughout Western and Central Europe.

What’s the music like?

Very much of its time, which is not to suggest intrinsic lack of quality or stylistic anonymity. This is immediately evident from Symphony no.4, fourth of her eight symphonies, premiered in Berlin on 16th March 1851, whose tempestuous opening Allegro is the more impressive for its subtlety of sonata design, then an Adagio which likewise brings to mind Berwald (could Mayer have been at the disastrous Stockholm premiere of his Symphonie serieuse in 1843?); followed by an alternately incisive and lilting scherzo, then a finale whose brevity round off the work in unequivocal fashion.

The Piano Concerto feels relatively uneventful in its expressive range, though the deft interplay of soloist and orchestra is never less than pleasurable – Ewa Kupiec rendering it with a dexterity and poise that bring to mind the concertos of Hummel or Field.

The ninth and last of Mayer’s string quartets is unquestionably the highlight on the other disc. Its seriousness of intent is confirmed by the dedication to her father, who took his own life in 1840, and made tangible with the sombre opening Allegro (anticipatory of Brahms‘s Op. 51 quartets) then a speculative and agitated scherzo. The Adagio brings a degree of consolation, before the finale delivers an unforgiving resolution akin to Mendelssohn’s F minor quartet.

Less well integrated formally, the Piano Sonata is most successful in the vaunting energy of its outer movements, whose considerable virtuosity points to Mayer’s own pianistic abilities – equally in the gracefully alluring Tonwellen Waltz and the engaging March that round off this programme. The Klenke Quartet and Yang Tai prove sympathetic advocates throughout.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Mayer is hardly the only female composer to have been wholly forgotten after her death, but she is assuredly among the finest – not least in her ability to fashion large-scale designs of a formal focus and a cumulative emotional impact in advance of most among her contemporaries. In the two orchestral pieces, the Neubrandenburg Philharmonic – under the respective direction of Stefan Malzew and Sebastian Tewinkel – leaves little to be desired, nor do warmly spacious sound and succinct if (for the most part) informative booklet notes.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Last year saw the spotlight falling on many female composers (and artistic figures in general) whose significance is essentially historical. Mayer is an undoubted exception, however, and it is to be hoped more of her music will soon be recorded and performed.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about the Mayer release on the Capriccio website

On record: Soloists, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin / Gabriel Bebeşelea – Enescu: Strigoii

*Rodica Vica (soprano); *Tiberius Simu (tenor); *Bogdan Baciu (baritone); *Alin Anca (bass); Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin / Gabriel Bebeşelea

Enescu
Strigoii* (1916)
Pastorale-fantaisie (1899)

Capriccio C5340 [55’53”]

Producer Jens Schünemann
Engineers Eckehard Stoffregen, Susanne Beyer

Recorded December 11-14 5-6 2017 at RBB Sendesaal, Berlin

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Capriccio issues the first recording of a major discovery by George Enescu. Strigoii (Ghosts) sets the epic ballad by Mihai Eminescu, Romania’s national poet whose words the composer utilized in two major works (the other, his Fifth Symphony, also remained tantalizingly unfinished)

What’s the music like?

The period between his Second and Third Symphonies (1914-16) saw Enescu writing several major works utterly different from each other. To these can now be added Strigoii, composed at the end of 1916 and left as a detailed draft that was unknown until the 1970s, when Cornel Tăranu realized a version for voices and piano. This duly served as basis for the orchestration by Sabin Păuţa, adhering closely to the draft’s indications and resulting in a substantial piece such as extends the scope of Enescu’s creativity at a crucial point in his compositional career.

How to categorize Strigoii? This release describes it as an oratorio, though the absence of any chorus makes it more akin to a scenic cantata. Eminescu’s text offers numerous opportunities for theatrical treatment, but these are seldom taken – hence the restraint and inwardness that characterizes this work overall. The 45-minute whole falls into three parts which portray the coming together of the ill-fated lovers, redolent of Edgar Allan Poe in its aura of existential doom though with an acceptance of the inevitable as overrides its frequently lurid incidents.

Of the four vocalists, Tiberius Simu and Bogdan Baciu make the most of their minor roles as Arald and the Magus, while Rodica Vica brings lilting eloquence to that of the Queen. By far the most significant is the Narrator, and here Alin Anca excels in his handling of a part whose deploying of a highly personal ‘Sprechgesang’ acts as a thread of continuity over a score most notable for sustaining atmosphere through motivic and textural means; qualities such as Păuţa (who should now consider orchestrating the Op.19 Gregh songs) emphasizes in full measure.

The Pastorale-fantaisie is a delightful makeweight. Premiered in Paris in the wake of Enescu’s ‘breakthrough’ with Poème roumain, it sank without trace then went unheard until relocated by the present conductor and afforded its second hearing after 118 years. Drawing equally on Saint-Saëns and Franck, its eliding of the winsome and ominous is audibly that of the teenage composer whose Symphony in E flat from the previous year would surely have consolidated his reputation had it been performed at this time – pathos and elegance alluringly intertwined.

Does it all work?

Yes. Gabriel Bebeşelea has the (very different) measure of each work, securing a disciplined and committed response from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and marking him out as a conductor to watch (he has a concert with the Royal Philharmonic at Cadogan Hall on May 1st). The sound has spaciousness with no lack of detail, while there are detailed notes on both pieces, but it could have been made clearer that verses 22-27 of the Eminescu poem were not set by Enescu. The English translation is idiomatic for all its smattering of grammatical errors.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The Enescu discography is the richer for the inclusion of Strigoii, the last major work from Enescu’s maturity to be rescued from the limbo of incompleteness. Hopefully Bebeşelea will go on to record more music by this composer – he clearly has an innate feel for the idiom.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Capriccio website, and more on the conductor Gabriel Bebeşelea here. Details of his concert at the Cadogan Hall with the Royal Philharmonic ORchestra on 1 May are on the venue’s website

On record: ENO Chorus & Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Havergal Brian: The Vision of Cleopatra (Epoch)

Claudia Boyle (soprano); Angharad Lyddon (mezzo); Claudia Huckle (contralto); Peter Auty (tenor) (all soloists in The Vision of Cleopatra), Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins

Havergal Brian
The Vision of Cleopatra (1907)
For Valour (1904, rev 1906)
Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme (1907)
Two Poems (1912)

Dutton Epoch CDLX 7348 [73’37”]

Producer Alexander Van Ingen
Engineers Dexter Newman, Dillon Gallagher

Recorded July 5-6 2017 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, London
Recorded in association with the Havergal Brian Society

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Martyn Brabbins continues his series of Havergal Brian recordings for Dutton with a notable first – the ‘tragic poem’ The Vision of Cleopatra that is its composer’s largest surviving work from his earlier years, but which went unperformed for 105 years until its revival in Bristol.

What’s the music like?

Premiered at the 1909 Southport Festival, The Vision of Cleopatra enjoyed a passing success but received no further performances. Loss of the orchestral score and parts in the Blitz made revival impossible until 2014, when John Pickard (who writes the informative booklet note) made a new orchestration. The outcome is audacious in the context of British music from this period, taking on board possibilities opened-up by Richard Strauss in his controversial opera Salomé – unheard in the UK until 1910, but whose innovations Brian likely absorbed from the score.

Whatever else (and for all that Gerald Cumberland’s tepid libretto might suggest otherwise), Cleopatra is no anodyne Edwardian morality. After the Slave Dance which functions as a lively overture, the cantata proceeds as a sequence of nominally symphonic movements – a speculative dialogue between two of the queen’s retainers, then an increasingly fervent duet between Cleopatra and Antony followed by an expansive aria for the former; separated by a speculative choral interlude and concluded with a Funeral March of plangent immediacy.

Cleopatra may have fazed its first-night performers, but there is nothing at all tentative about this first recording. Claudia Boyle is sympathetic as Iris and Angharad Lyddon even more so as Charmion, while Peter Auty provides a not unduly histrionic showing as Antony. Although not ideally alluring in the title-role, Claudia Huckle brings eloquence to her climactic aria and throughout fulfils Brian’s exacting requirements. The Chorus of English National Opera sings with real lustre, and Brabbins secures a committed response from the ENO Orchestra.

The concert overture For Valour and Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme had already been recorded (on Naxos), but Brabbins’ teasing out of formal subtlety from expressive panache in the former and binding the latter’s (purposely) unbalanced variations into a cohesive if unwieldy whole ensures a decisive advantage. Setting contrasted poems by Robert Herrick, Two Poems receives its first professional recording: the wan plaintiveness of Requiem for the Rose then sardonic humour of The Hag make for a jarring duality redolent of Bartók’s Two Portraits Op.5.

Does it all work?

For the most part, yes. Uneven in continuity and inspiration, The Vision of Cleopatra contains the most audacious and prophetic music Brian wrote before his opera The Tigers; this account does it justice, even if the highly reverberant ambience entails a marginal lack of immediacy – notably a rather backwardly balanced chorus in its decisive contribution during Cleopatra’s aria. The orchestral playing leaves little to be desired – reinforcing gains in consistency instilled by Brabbins since he became the Music Director of English National Opera two seasons ago.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Vision of Cleopatra is unlikely to receive regular performance (its demands putting it beyond reach of most choral societies), making this account more valuable for conveying its measure. Perhaps Pickard might follow it up with an orchestration of Brian’s Psalm 137?

You can read more about this release on the Epoch website, or read about The Vision of Cleopatra itself on the Havergal Brian Society website.

On record: The Waldegrave Ensemble – Matthew Taylor: Chamber Music Vol.3 – Music for Winds (Toccata)

Taylor Chamber Music, Volume Three: Music for Winds

The Waldegrave Ensemble and friends

Introduction and Capriccio op.7 (1990)
Trio in memoriam VH op.21 (1997/2018)
Serenata Trionfale op.34 (2005)
Wind Quintet op.51 (2014-15)
Skål! (2004)

Toccata Classics TOCC0486 [54’16”]

Producer/Engineer Michael Whight
Recorded July 20-21 at Trinity United Reformed Church, Wimbledon; Trio recorded March 3 2018 at St Barnabas, Mitcham

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc from Toccata Classics of Matthew Taylor (b. 1964) focussing on his not inconsiderable output for wind ensemble, played by musicians who have worked with this composer on numerous occasions and have a sure understanding of his unmistakable idiom.

What’s the music like?

Most substantial in actual content are the two pieces for wind octet. Among Taylor’s earliest acknowledged works, Introduction and Capriccio comprises an opening section that exudes an ominous expectancy, duly offset by the main section which, with its vaunting motion and ever more demonstrative exchanges, provides a succinct yet eventful showcase for what is still a largely untried medium. Any stylistic uncertainty has been ironed out by the time of Serenata Trionfale, a companion piece to Nielsen’s Serenata in vano and proffering a rather different scenario from its deadpan stoicism. Formally Taylor’s work unfolds in deceptively Classical fashion from the alluring harmonies and unforced motion of its initial Andante, via the impetuous exchanges (not a little Tippett-like) of its scherzo then the more nuanced and often speculative dialogue of its intermezzo, to a finale whose bewitching introduction from offstage oboe is succeeded by a Presto which drives forward to its suitably uproarious close – the taciturn protagonist having in this instance been purposefully and successfully wooed.

Mention of Nielsen is a reminder his Wind Quintet remains unequalled in this genre. Taylor plays oblique tribute to in with Skål!, a jeux d’esprit that coincidentally offers a masterclass in how to fit the maximum allusions to Nielsen’s six symphonies into a minimal time-span (that to the First Symphony might well take some spotting). Only recently has Taylor essayed a Wind Quintet, and here the underlying model is not Nielsen but Malcolm Arnold. Its seven short movements play continuously – beginning with a lively Preludio festivo then taking in a skittish Hornpipe and Pensive Waltz with more than a hint of wistfulness; followed by a teasing Habanera and energetic Tarantella, before a Pastorale evinces the most searching and soulful music prior to an Epilogue which brings the whole work infectiously full circle.

That leaves the Trio in memoriam VH for flute, violin and cello, a typically individual tribute to the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-96). The opening movements are both marked Allegretto, with the elegant interplay and often reticent expression of the former (pointedly marked ‘innocente’) finding potent contrast in the playful manner of its successor; the work closing with a Moderato whose plangent musing draws on timbral shadings of real poise and finesse. Taylor’s commemoration results in the deepest and most eloquent music on this disc.

Does it all work?

Yes. Taylor has an instinctive feel for wind instruments (not surprising given he played the oboe during his formative years), evident throughout those works featured here – idiomatic and innovative despite (or even because of?) the absence of ‘advanced’ playing techniques.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Performances by the Waldegrave Ensemble and associated musicians do full justice to this music’s distinctive qualities, abetted by a recording that affords clarity without undue closeness of perspective. Taylor himself provides the informative and amusing booklet notes.

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

Matthew Taylor’s composer website can be found here, while for more on the Waldegrave Ensemble click here

On record: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Hyperion)

Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony no.1 in B flat minor) (1903-09)
Darest thou now, O soul (1925)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following his impressive take on A London Symphony (given in the 1918 version), Martyn Brabbins here continues his Vaughan Williams cycle with its predecessor A Sea Symphony, coupled with a choral setting which reinforces the composer’s adherence to Walt Whitman.

What’s the music like?

Now that most of the numerous orchestral pieces Vaughan Williams wrote at the turn of the 20th century have been recorded, the context for the present work is far clearer than hitherto. Yet it still took six years before A Sea Symphony was completed; during which time, both its actual concept and his musical aesthetic underwent radical change. The premiere in Leeds on 12th October 1910 may have overshadowed by that of the Tallis Fantasia just a month before, but the larger work likewise confirmed VW’s arrival as a leading composer of his generation.

While not an overly long work (lasting around 67 minutes), A Sea Symphony feels expansive as compared to Vaughan Williams’s later such works and benefits from a formally focussed approach. This it receives from Brabbins, who controls the first movement securely from its magisterial opening, through its eventful if prolix ‘development’ then on to a rapt conclusion. The ensuing nocturne is less problematic and Brabbins duly points up the contrast between its fervent climax and pensive introspection on either side. He secures a rousing response in the scherzo, with its unabashed echoes of Elgar and Parry, then steers a convincing course across the expansive finale – whether in its cumulative earlier stages, its eloquent central vocal duet or the closing stages with their stark juxtaposing of bracing peroration and ethereal postlude.

Throughout this recording, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is responsive and committed, while the singing of the BBC Symphony Chorus leaves nothing to be desired in terms of tonal finesse and rhythmic articulation. The two soloists are less consistent. Marcus Farnsworth lacks presence during the combative baritone contribution to the first movement, though his stoic musing in its successor is far more persuasive. A soprano with the requisite mezzo range, Elisabeth Llewellyn yet evinces a vibrato in her higher register that can prove distracting, but this is less of a problem in the finale – she and Farnsworth exuding warmth and ardency in its lyrical central duet, while bringing poise without indulgence towards its close as vocal phrases stretch out in parallel to the expanse of that ‘journey’ being evoked.

Does it all work?

Yes, notwithstanding those reservations noted above. Brabbins adopts a firm though flexible approach which is demonstrably in the lineage of Sir Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley. Both orchestral playing and choral singing are first rate (in advance of that for Andrew Davis in the BBC’s first VW cycle a quarter-century ago), and there is once again an enterprising coupling. Darest though now, O soul finds Vaughan Williams briefly revisiting a Whitman text he set 18 years before in Toward the Unknown Region, reduced to a hymnal setting for unison chorus and strings.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound finds an ideal balance between spaciousness and definition, with probing notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. If Brabbins’s Sea Symphony is slightly less fine than his London Symphony, it is a consistent follow-up in what looks set to be impressive VW cycle.

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read more about Martyn Brabbins here