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:

Under the surface – Introit: The Music of Gerald Finzi (Decca)

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Composer: Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

Nationality: English

What did he write? Finzi’s output is slender but there are reasons behind that – not least the fact he lost his father, teacher and three brothers all at the age of eighteen. This compilation reinforces his reputation as a miniaturist, capable of producing some exquisite pieces of around five or ten minutes in length. This is rather unfair, as his vocal writing and works for soloist and orchestra reveal a composer of much greater substance.

Dies natalis and Intimations of Immortality are the vocal works of choice, while there are concertos for cello and clarinet that are worth exploring. On a smaller scale Finzi loved setting the words of Thomas Hardy, with A Young Man’s Exhortation and Earth and Air and Rain two fine song cycles for voice and piano.

What are the works on this new recording? This is an anthology of Finzi’s shorter works from the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon. It concentrates on the string orchestra, his principal means of expression. A Severn Rhapsody, Prelude and Romance are all originals, as is the Eclogue for piano and orchestra, while Mike Sheppard, Paul Mealor and Patrick Hawes contribute specially commissioned arrangements that give extra prominence to saxophone (Amy Dickson) and horn (Nicolas Fleury).

The disc, headed by the beautiful artwork How bravely autumn paints upon the sky by Edward McKnight, celebrates the composer’s 60th anniversary in collaboration with The Finzi Trust.

What is the music like? Finzi’s music is like a late summer evening – often beautiful to the ear, but with creeping shadows in the background that make their presence felt in a subtle but meaningful way. These shadows are found especially in the yearning Romance and Prelude, and the consoling but darkly shaded Eclogue.

There is a lot of slow music here, perhaps reflecting the fact that Finzi’s shorter works are often at a slower tempo. As a result they do not give us every aspect of the composer’s output. It does however show how his writing for string orchestra is almost without equal in 20th century English music – fans include Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy – and it also shows how, in works like the Romance and the livelier Rollicum-Rorum especially, he could pen a memorable tune.

The Introit for violin and orchestra also has a good tune, and is sweetly performed by soloist Thomas Gould, while Rollicum-Rorum is sensitively played by Dickson, who shows impressive agility too.

What’s the verdict? This is a compilation that has clearly been put together with love, care and attention, but there is not as much variety as there could be. Finzi comes across here as relatively one-dimensional, and well-played though the performances are, it feels like an opportunity only partially taken.

Give this a try if you like… the lighter side of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius

Listen

Watch the album trailer below:

You can also listen to an excerpt from the disc on Spotify:

Under the surface – Lalo Piano Trios played by the Leonore Piano Trio (Hyperion)

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Composer: Édouard Lalo (1823-1892)

Nationality: French

What did he write? Lalo’s best-loved work is the Symphonie espagnole for violin and orchestra, but he actually wrote a fair amount of attractive orchestral music, such as a Symphony in G minor, a Cello Concerto and several other works for violin and orchestra that include a Violin Concerto and the Rapsodie norvegienne.

What are the works on this new recording? Lalo’s music is not too common these days, still less the chamber music. However there are three works for piano trio (the combination of violin, cello and piano) that have all been recorded for Hyperion by the Leonore Piano Trio. Nos.1 & 2 were written when the composer was in his mid to late twenties, while no.3 is a much later work, completed in 1880.

What is the music like? In a word, passionate. French music expert Roger Nichols draws attention to the influence of Schumann and Mendelssohn in the excellent booklet note, but Lalo really does feel like he wears his heart on his sleeve more than those composers do. Big, bold statements such as that from the cello in the fourth movement of the Piano Trio no.1 are straight from the heart, and the Leonore Trio convey the composer’s strong feelings throughout these excellent performances.

The first trio has a heroic feel, the music unashamedly romantic but often making its mark through memorable tunes. Lalo can on occasion be cheeky, and he does this especially in the Scherzo movements of each trio. The one in the last trio is a stormy affair, so powerful in fact that the composer orchestrated it four years later. The Leonore players do not hold back, powering forward in this turbulent but thrilling music, by far the loudest on the disc.

What’s the verdict? Brilliantly played, this disc makes an excellent case for a neglected part of Lalo’s output that finds the composer on very passionate form. With memorable melodies and rich, occasionally indulgent slow movements, this is invigorating music with a soft heart.

Give this a try if you like… Schumann, Mendelssohn, Franck

Listen

You can listen to excerpts from the disc at the Hyperion website

Meanwhile you can hear the Scherzo, the orchestrated movement from the Piano Trio no.3, as part of this excellent disc by Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, which contains some of Lalo’s most attractive works for violin and orchestra:

Under the surface – Mendelssohn Preludes and Fugues played by Howard Shelley (Hyperion)

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Composer: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Nationality: German

What did he write? Schumann regarded Mendelssohn as the ‘Mozart of the nineteenth century’, as he was an uncommonly gifted child prodigy. A pianist as well as a composer, Mendelssohn is nonetheless better known for his orchestral and choral works. His five symphonies are best represented by the Scottish, the Italian and the Reformation (nos.3-5 respectively), while his most famous choral work – and one often performed by amateur choral groups – is the story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

The composer’s impressive body of chamber music is now better appreciated, headed by two Piano Trios and six published String Quartets.

What are the works on this new recording? Mendelssohn’s work for solo piano is often regarded as a set of attractive miniatures. This is doubtless due to the popularity of the Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words), published in sets of six throughout the composer’s career. They are around three minutes each in length and carry attractive music and titles such as Venetian Gondola Song. On this recording, part four of a complete series of Mendelssohn piano music, Howard Shelley gives us the fifth book, a complement to the main work itself – the set of six Preludes and Fugues.

Mendelssohn was almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of Bach’s music in the nineteenth century, resurrecting the composer in a performance of the St Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, when Mendelssohn was still only 20. In the Preludes and Fugues he was paying a more obvious musical homage, using a form Bach had perfected for the keyboard.

What is the music like? When a composer writes a fugue it can sound as though they are showing off academically rather than communicating emotionally, but Mendelssohn brings to these works a strong sense of purpose and poise. His instinctive writing for the piano means the notes effectively play themselves, but they are not easy to play – which is where Howard Shelley comes in! Under his fingers the fugues really jump off the page when moving at pace, and the preludes each have strong personality.

Complementing them with Book 5 of the more romantic Songs without Words is a good move, and Shelley takes up the role of poet in the fanfare of the third piece or the lyrical Spring Song. Finally he adds the Andante cantabile e Presto agitato, an unpublished work of two halves, the first soft-hearted and the second bright and energetic.

What’s the verdict? This brilliantly played and recorded disc shows just how accomplished Mendelssohn’s writing for piano became, and with Howard Shelley completely mastering the technical demands the listener can appreciate the emotion of the music. The Preludes and Fugues are inspiring for their resilience, the Songs without Words for their poetic charm.

Give this a try if you like… Schubert, Chopin, J.S.Bach.

Listen

You can listen to excerpts from the disc at the Hyperion website

Meanwhile you can hear more of the composer’s Songs without Words on Spotify, in a complete set made by Daniel Barenboim:

Under the surface – Bruckner: String Quintet and Quartet (Linn)

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Fitzwilliam String Quartet, James Boyd (viola)

Composer: Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

Nationality: Austrian

What did he write? Bruckner’s reputation is almost entirely built on his nine symphonies and three Masses, which form the bulk of his regularly performed repertoire. However there are also a number of exquisite motets for unaccompanied choir.

What are the works on this new recording? Bruckner wrote very little chamber music, but the two works recorded here are by far the most substantial. The String Quintet is an ambitious, substantial piece that could easily be imagined for string orchestra, while the recently discovered String Quartet represents another sizeable contribution to the form.

What is the music like? The Bruckner of the symphonies is only occasionally glimpsed here, for this is music to fill drawing rooms rather than cathedrals. The quintet especially fulfils its purpose with intimacy and depth of emotion, especially in the slow movement, where the Fitzwilliam Quartet and James Boyd really go up a level.

The outer movements are a little less successful, in this recording at least, for the textures are a little congested. However the String Quartet in C minor of 1862, discovered in 1950, justifies its case for a more permanent place in the quartet repertoire, as it is a substantial and memorable work. The third movement Scherzo has a distinctive theme while the outer movements are resilient and very well done here.

As a bonus, the Fitzwilliam and Boyd include an alternative version of the Intermezzo for the String Quintet, given a polished and elegant performance here.

What’s the verdict? This new Fitzwilliam Quartet disc makes a compelling case for the recently discovered work, but is not always on the money in the Quintet itself. The Intermezzo could have a little more humour in its theme, while the outer movements sound a little grainy in the recording.

Give this a try if you like… Brahms, Mendelssohn or Schubert

Listen

You can listen to excerpts from this new disc on the Linn Records website