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

Under The Surface – Havergal Brian: Symphonies 8, 21 & 26 (Naxos)

Havergal Brian: Symphonies Nos. 8, 21 & 26 – New Russia State Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Walker

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos’s Havergal Brian cycle, begun a quarter-century ago on the Marco Polo label, reaches an important milestone with a disc that features the composer’s only previously unrecorded symphony, alongside notable such works from his middle- and late- periods.

What’s the music like?

The premiere recording is that of the Twenty-Sixth Symphony, written as Brian approached his 90th birthday and among his most concentrated – for all that the overall mood is one of relative good humour. Of its three allegros, the first is a boisterous sonata design that cannily elides development and reprise, while its successor is a lively intermezzo with unexpectedly aggressive trios then a pointedly understated ending which leads directly into the finale – an off-kilter rondo whose more ambivalent episodes make possible a coda whose decisiveness is more than a little fractious. Unheard since two performances in its composer’s centenary year, the piece yields unexpected subtleties – Alexander Walker drawing a tensile response from his New Russia State Orchestra forces in this lesser while not unappealing addition to the Brian canon.

The significance of the Eighth Symphony has never been in doubt. If not the first of Brian’s one-movement such works, it is the first in which this composer grappled with the potential of symphonic continuity in earnest. Compared to Sir Charles Groves’s 1977 recording (EMI/ Warner), Walker opts for less strongly characterized individual sections in favour of greater underlying cohesion – the piece thus emerging as more than the sum of its already fascinating parts. A further plus is the definition accorded harp and piano, their contribution being crucial to the motivic evolution of music whose mystical qualities are offset by elements of sardonic humour and fraught eloquence. Nor are the enigmatic final bars undersold, though the quiet concluding dissonance as horn and trombones collide might have evinced greater presence.

By comparison, the Twenty-First Symphony tended to be heard as Brian’s marking time prior to embarking on a new and more challenging phase. This, at least, was always the feeling of Eric Pinkett’s pioneering 1972 account with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra (Unicorn/Heritage), though such equable classicism has little place in Walker’s conception – the charged opening Allegro, its gawky introduction transformed into a surging coda, being a case in point. The Adagio emerges as one of its composer’s most searching, its increasingly wracked expression barely held in check, then the Vivace’s nimble scherzo with two livelier trios makes way for a finale whose muscular variations build inexorably toward an apotheosis the more powerful for its relative succinctness in what is an unequivocal statement of intent.

Does it all work?

Indeed. This is a major appraisal of three contrasting Brian symphonies, grippingly conveyed by an orchestra which now sounds audibly at ease with this composer’s recalcitrant idiom.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least when the recorded sound is arguably the best yet secured from this source, and John Pickard’s booklet notes offer a wealth of informed observation. Incidentally, the Eighth Symphony has not been performed since a 1971 broadcast and never given in concert. Maybe Alexander Walker would like to take the plunge as this piece approaches its 70th anniversary?

For more information on this release, you can visit the Naxos website. For more information on the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra click here, and for the conductor Alexander Walker’s website click here

On Record: Håkan Hardenberger – Dean: Dramatis Personae; Francesconi: Hard Pace (BIS)

Dean Dramatis Personae (2013), Francesconi Hard Pace (2007)

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra / John Storgårds

BIS (BIS 2067SACD)

What’s it all about?

Håkan Hardenberger returns with a further two concertos to add to the sizable number he has commissioned over these past three decades, as written by two leading composers from the middle generation whose musical aesthetics complement each other in almost every respect.

What’s the music like?

Well established as a violist before turning successfully to composition, Brett Dean (b1961) has several concertos among his output. As its title attests, Dramatis Personae evinces overtly dramatic connotations – not least those of Hamlet, an opera on which Shakespeare play Dean began writing immediately after the present work. Not that this concerto is about existential angst; rather it favours a distinctly sardonic take on the heroic concept – its initial movement, Fall of a Superhero, building from an anticipatory crescendo to an animated if increasingly fatigued interplay as subsides into enervated calm. Soliloquy proceeds as reflective dialogue whose elegiac quality takes on a renewed impetus in The Accidental Revolutionary, whose Chaplinesque humour reaches its apogee in the knockabout recessional which acts as coda.

A composer whose formative years were focussed on electronics, jazz and production, Luca Francesconi (b1956) has amassed a comparably diverse output where instrumental virtuosity is everywhere apparent. Not least in Hard Pace, a trumpet concerto that takes its cue from one of the instrument’s great practitioners. Although he never wrote or commissioned a concerto, Miles Davis delved extensively into those possibilities of varied accompaniment and sound diffusion everywhere audible in the Francesconi. This falls into two parts, the first building from eventful stasis to hectic activity before it suddenly ceases. The second part consists of three increasingly shorter sections – a taciturn Adagio whose emotional intensity spills over into the semi-cadenza of Miles, before the brief Finale brings matters to a decisive close.

Does it all work?

Yes. Neither of these concertos takes the all-round possibilities of the trumpet forward to the same degree as Peter Eötvös’s Jet Stream or Olga Neuwirth’s …miramondo multiplo… (both of which have been recorded by Hardenberger), but there can be no doubt as to their success in terms of demonstrating the instrument’s essential demeanour. That this is Hardenberger’s fourth disc of works for trumpet and orchestra on this label, moreover, wholly confirms his dedication to expanding what was once a genre proscribed both temporally and expressively.

The time has long gone when trumpeters searching for concertos outside of the Baroque or Classical eras had little more than that by Alexander Arutunian to draw on, for which sea-change Hardenberger can take no mean credit. His stentorian playing in both these pieces is further enhanced by an excellent contribution from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds with sure understanding of that expressive ebb-and-flow between soloist and orchestra. Both the SACD sound and booklet notes are well up to BIS’s customary standards.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. A welcome and impressive addition to a discography which, formerly on Philips and latterly on BIS, has no equals when it comes to defining a repertoire for the trumpet such as younger practitioners can take forward in the knowledge its potential is far from exhausted.

Richard Whitehouse

Listen here on Spotify:

Under the Surface: Antonina Styczeń – Weinberg: Works for flute (Tacet)

Weinberg Flute Concertos: No.1 Op.75 (1961); No.2 Op.148 (1987); 12 Miniatures Op.29bis (1945/83); Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp Op.127 (1979)

Antonina Styczeń (flute), Paweł Czarny (viola), Zuzanna Fedorowicz, Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra / Wojciech Rajski

What’s it all about?

The complete output for flute and orchestra of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96), played by an artist of high calibre (and not merely as a flautist!), with the first recording of an arrangement by a composer whose stranding has risen immeasurably over the two decades since his death.

What’s the music like?

Weinberg’s flute concertos provide a revealing insight into his music at key junctures of his career. The First Concerto is one of a group of pieces, including the Fourth Symphony and Violin Concerto, that finds Weinberg refocussing his approach to abstract composition in the wake of Stalin’s death; culminating in the formidable cohesion of the Fifth Symphony a year later. Modest in scope, it unfolds from a lively initial Allegro, via a Largo of exquisite poise to a final Allegro whose teasing understatement is brusquely curtailed only at the very last.

By the time of his Second Flute Concerto, Weinberg was struggling with failing health and his eclipse by a younger and ostensibly more provocative generation of composers. Not that this piece evinces defeatism or self-pity; instead refining the conception of its predecessor so that the angular opening Allegro affords potent contrast with a Largo of affecting poignancy, then with a fugitive Allegretto. Allusions to Bach, Gluck et al flit by in the latter as Weinberg reflects on this instrument as also his evolution as a composer across more than five decades.

What makes this disc mandatory for all admirers of Weinberg is its first recording of the 12 Miniatures, initially conceived with piano accompaniment then arranged for string orchestra some 38 years later. On one level a sequence of improvisatory gestures, discreetly contrasted as to texture and expression, they yet emerge as an engaging unity almost despite themselves. Nor is it surprising that, heard in this way, these pieces seem more a product of Weinberg’s last years – during which time his musical idiom became ever more distilled and refractory.

Although never envisaged as other than a chamber work, the Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp might itself be thought a concerto manqué; sharing as it does the concertos’ three-movement form, alongside their undemonstrative juxtaposing of animated and introspective. Debussy’s totemic sonata for these instruments could hardly not be referred to during its course, yet the means-by which they combine, thereby resulting in music of far from untroubled serenity, is Weinberg’s alone. A ‘one-off’ in his output, it could not be mistaken for any other composer.

Do the performances do it justice?

Yes. Antonina Styczeń is a flautist as adept technically as she is insightful interpretively. She enjoys evident rapport with the Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra of Sopot, as also her fellow players in the trio. Accounts of the concertos from Anders Jonhäll (Chandos, coupled with the Cello Fantasia and Clarinet Concerto), are more atmospheric while less characterful; among three other recordings of the trio, avoid that on BIS as this substitutes piano for harp – with unfortunate results. The present disc is admirably recorded and informatively annotated.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Styczeń is clearly a musician to watch. In addition to her flute playing, she is also a skilled horse-rider (as is made plain by the booklet photos) and intends to combine these two media in future. Happily, she falls at none of the fences encountered in Weinberg’s music!

Richard Whitehouse

Listen here on Spotify: