On record – Duncan Honeybourne: De Profundis Clamavi (EM Records)

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Armstrong Gibbs An Essex Rhapsody Op.36 (1921); Ballade in D flat (1940)
Bainton Variations and Fugue in B minor Op.1 (1898); The Making of the Nightingale (1921); Willows (1927)
Bridge Piano Sonata H160 (1921-4)
Britten Night Piece ‘Notturno’ (1963)
Edmunds Piano Sonata in B minor (1938)
Pantscheff Nocturnus V: Wing oor die Branders (2015); Piano Sonata (2017)
Parry Shulbrede Tunes (1914)

Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

EM Records EMRCD070-71 [two discs, 156’46”]

Producer Oscar Torres & Richard Pantcheff
Engineer Oscar Torres

Recorded 20 & 21 August 2020 at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Never a pianist to pull his punches, Duncan Honeybourne adds to his expanding discography with this extensive survey of British piano music which, written across almost 120 years and evincing a range of styles, more than reinforces the descriptive heading of the overall project.

What’s the music like?

The first disc begins with the Piano Sonata by Christopher Edmunds. Birmingham-born and long active at the School of Music there, he left a sizable output from which the present work impresses through its wide expressive range within modest formal dimensions. The opening Allegro recalls Medtner in its pivoting between fervency and repose, then the Lento strikes a note of heartfelt emotion underlined by its ‘mesto’ marking. Utilizing aspects of scherzo and finale, the closing Allegro returns to more extrovert concerns as it arrives at a virtuosic close.

Edgar Bainton was still in his teens when composing the Variations and Fugue which became his first acknowledged work. Brahms is a key influence, but the music’s motivic and textural discipline ensures a formal focus throughout the nine deftly contrasted variations then into a tensile and vividly cumulative fugue. Remembered primarily for his songs, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs wrote idiomatically for the piano as is demonstrated by the intricate passagework and often bravura writing of An Essex Rhapsody, while the later Ballade exudes deeper emotion – not least an ominous central section with undeniable overtones of war. Part of a compendious sequence exploring different aspects of night, Richard Pantcheff’s Nocturnus V: Wind on the Waves follows a trajectory of impending marine turbulence that duly regains its earlier calm.

Written at the home of his daughter’s family, Shulbrede Tunes finds Hubert Parry reflecting on domestic environs in a methodically constructed cycle – the 10 pieces taking in evocations of the priory and people within. A lively humour informs Bogies and Sprites that Gambol by Nights, with a ruminative pathos to the fore in Prior’s Chamber by Firelight. Here, as in the exuberant Father Playmate, the aging composer’s devotion to Austro-German romanticism results in music which is as affecting as Parry’s orchestral and choral works from this period.

The second disc opens with two further pieces by Bainton. From among his many miniatures, Willow is a limpidly impressionist album-leaf of no mean poignancy, then The Making of the Nightingale evokes this bird’s creation in imaginative terms that are appealingly realized here. Written for the first Leeds International Piano Competition, Benjamin Britten’s Night Piece is the only acknowledged piano work from his maturity – a study in dynamic and timbral nuance of a finesse as to make one regret his stated antipathy for the modern piano on its own terms.

It is the Piano Sonata by Frank Bridge (placed before the Britten) which inevitably dominates this collection, not least as this recording is among the finest from recent years. Testimony to the composer’s response to the carnage of war as well as its impact on his evolving idiom, the three movements unfold as a single cumulative entity – the sizable opening Allegro preceded by a slow introduction whose main motivic elements are gradually elaborated for the ensuing opposition between anguish and eloquence. The savage rhetoric of its close makes the contrast with the Andante’s consoling rumination more acute, the music as if surveying a landscape of memories which elides straight into the final Allegro with its renewed confrontation of earlier motifs – on the way to a stark denouement then a resigned and almost confessional epilogue.

Pantcheff’s almost contemporary Piano Sonata rounds off this collection. Its three movements each carries an inscription from the epic poem The Axion Esti by Odysseus Elytis that sets the tone for a restive and increasingly tumultuous Inquieto, followed by an Elegia whose sombre imagery might feel almost nihilistic were it not for the plaintive expression that emerges in its latter stages, then a finale whose Alla Vortice marking aptly indicates the gradual intensifying of mood which carries this movement – and the work as a whole – towards its explosive close.

Does it all work?

Undoubtedly, when heard as a collection. Honeybourne has been astute in his planning so that each disc can be appreciated as a stand-alone recital in its own right, or as independent halves of an ‘uber-recital’ which even he would be unlikely to undertake in a live context. All except the Bridge, Britten and Parry are receiving their first recordings, and it would be surprising if some pieces did not enjoy greater exposure in future. For his dedication in championing them, and for putting together such an ambitious anthology, Honeybourne can only be commended.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The piano sound is a shade hard at climaxes, while spacious and wide-ranging elsewhere, with detailed notes on each work and composer from various sources including the pianist. It adds up to an impressive release and a highlight of the EM Records catalogue so far.

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the EM Records website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more on Duncan Honeybourne, visit his website – and for more on Richard Pantcheff click here

In concert – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: A Covid Requiem

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Adès O Albion (1994, arr. 2019)
Pärt
Fratres (1977, arr. 1991)
Purcell (arr. Britten)
Chacony in G minor Z730 (c1680, arr. 1948)
Barber
Adagio in B flat minor Op.11 (1935, arr. 1936)
interspersed with poetry readings by Casey Bailey
Fauré
Requiem in D minor Op.48 (1887-90, rev. 1893)

James Platt (bass), Casey Bailey (poet), CBSO Children’s Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Tomo Keller (violin/director), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 6 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Even if live music-making has gradually been returning to how it was, the (ongoing) legacy of Coronavirus could hardly be overlooked, thus a concert such as that given this evening by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a necessary act of remembrance for all the many concertgoers to have been affected by the pandemic. As befitted such an occasion, no speeches or prefatory remarks were needed, with the darkening of the auditorium during the performance a simple but effective gesture which helped focus musicians and listeners alike.

Strings only were onstage in the first half – Tomo Keller directing a sequence as began with O Albion, Thomas Adès’s arrangement of the sixth movement from his quartet Arcadiana, whose gentle pathos made for the ideal entrée. Arvo Pärt has written numerous memorials and while Cantus might have been more appropriate in this context than Fratres, the latter’s sparing deployment of percussion as to underline its ritualistic emergence then withdrawal conveyed no mean eloquence. Surprising, perhaps, that Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony is not heard more frequently on such occasions, its expressive intensification here informed by an acute rhythmic clarity. Barber’s Adagio is, of course, a staple at these times – the visceral emotion of its climax and subdued fatalism that ensues audibly conveyed here.

Interspersed between these pieces were poems by Casey Bailey, currently Birmingham Poet Laureate and whose readings were undeniably affecting in their sincerity – whether the heady reportage of 23.03.21 (a date no-one in the UK could hope to forget), the intimate evocation of Weight or graphic remembrance of Once. His appearances on stage were precisely judged as to segue into then out of the music either side and it was a pity when he did not take a call at the end of this first half, alongside the CBSO strings, given his contribution to proceedings.

Tomo Keller remained for the second half – adding ethereal counter-melodies to two of the sections in Fauré’s Requiem, whose 1893 version is without violins but with divided violas and cellos along with reduced woodwind and brass to make for a reading closer to the initial conception and certainly more apposite tonight. Her credentials in the choral repertoire well established, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with a real sense of this work’s essential poise but without neglecting any deeper emotions. James Platt brought a ruminative warmth to the Hostias and Libera me, and it was an inspired touch to have the Pie Jesu sung in unison by the Children’s Chorus; its plaintiveness offsetting those richer tones of the Youth Chorus and CBSO Chorus, while opening-out the music’s textural and expressive range accordingly.

In one sense it would have been better had this concert not had to take place, given the legacy it commemorated (as was witnessed by the personal recollections occupying five pages of the programme) and yet, as those ethereal strains of the In Paradisum receded beyond earshot, a feeling of the Covid crisis having been recognized then overcome was palpable on the part of those present. Moreover, the CBSO’s next event is a performance of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – surely as transcendent and life-affirming an experience as could be hoped for.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Casey Bailey, click here, for James Platt click here, and for Tomo Kellner here

In concert – Mischa & Lily Maisky play Beethoven, Britten & Piazzolla @ Wigmore Hall

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Beethoven 7 Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte WoO 46 (1796)
Britten Cello Sonata in C major Op.65 (1961)
Piazzolla Le grand tango (1982)

Mischa Maisky (cello), Lily Maisky (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 1 November 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

Father and daughter duo Mischa and Lily Maisky presented an imaginative program of works for cello and piano in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, where it was gratifying to note a full attendance at the Wigmore Hall.

They immediately found the light-hearted spirit of Beethoven’s 7 Variations on Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen, an aria from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The piano takes the lead for much of this work, and Lily’s phrasing was subtle yet nicely shaped. The burnished tone of Mischa’s cello was a feature in the minor-key fourth variation, while Lily’s sensitive ornamentation at the start of the sixth was especially attractive.

A compelling performance of Britten’s Cello Sonata followed. As a former pupil of Mstislav Rostropovich, Mischa Maisky effectively has a direct line to a work that started the beginning of an extremely fruitful musical friendship between Britten and Rostropovich that lasted up to the composer’s death 15 years later. This performance inhabited the spirit of the work from first note to last, with the feeling in the first movement Dialogo that we were eavesdropping on a private conversation. Britten’s frequent but subtle references to Shostakovich were nicely highlighted here, with a few witty asides.

In the second movement Scherzo the Maiskys were dancing a balletic routine, Mischa’s pizzicato questions finished off by Lily’s featherweight answers. The tempo was slightly slower than is often used here, but in this way the pair effectively pointed out the work’s proximity in Britten’s output to the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The sombre third movement Elegie had a silvery tone from the cello, while the following Marcia dealt in sardonic humour. The finale was a tour de force, featuring low notes from Mischa’s cello capable of rattling the windows, before powering through to an emphatic finish.

Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango celebrates the dance form with which the Argentinian composer became obsessed, though as he stated the preoccupation was in his mind rather than the dancing feet. This was a passionate performance, the Maiskys in hold throughout as they maintained their close musical chemistry, right from the full bodied notes with which the cello began to a red-blooded dance for the closing pages. In between we had music of great tenderness and affection, not to mention rhythmic persuasion.

The duo gave us two encores, the first of which was a heartfelt tribute to the recent passing of Nelson Freire, clearly a dear friend. Bloch’s Prayer, from the short suite From Jewish Life, was an ideal choice, reverently played and with a searing tone quality to the highest register. It was a moving tribute that could hardly be bettered. There was also an ideal response in the form of Mischa’s own transcription of Brahms’s Lerchengesang Op.70/2, where Lily’s piano took the expressive lead.

You can hear the music played by Mischa and Lily on the Spotify playlist below, compiling Mischa’s recordings for Deutsche Grammophon of all the repertoire:

For more information on Mischa Maisky you can visit his artist page

In concert – CBSO Youth Orchestra plays Shostakovich with Michael Seal

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Howard Argentum (2017)
Britten
Diversions Op.21 (1940, rev. 1954)
Shostakovich
Symphony no.10 in E minor Op.93 (1953)

Nicholas McCarthy (piano, below), CBSO Youth Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 31 October 2021 (3pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It seems quite a while since the CBSO Youth Orchestra was last in action – this afternoon’s concert playing to its strengths with a programme as featured respectively early and mature works from Britten and Shostakovich, while beginning with a recent piece by Dani Howard.

Now in her late twenties, Howard is one among several British composers who have come to prominence in the past five years. Written to commemorate the silver-wedding anniversary of two close friends, the appropriately named Argentum is in a lineage of curtain-raisers by such as John Adams or Michael Torke – drawing audibly yet productively on such post-minimalist traits in music whose unbridled animation subsides towards a mid-point stasis, before rapidly regaining its previous energy over the course of a build-up to the pointedly affirmative close.

The CBSOYO evidently enjoyed making its acquaintance, then seemed no less attuned to the eclecticism pursued by Britten in his Diversions. Written for Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right-arm in the First World War, it takes the form of 12 variations on a theme announced by the orchestra whose faux-portentousness determines what follows. Prokofiev is the main influence (Britten could not have known his left-hand Fourth Concerto, written for but never played by Wittgenstein and unheard until the 1950s) on music of an inventiveness and verve admirably conveyed here by Nicholas McCarthy; his characterizing of each variation astutely gauged through to a scintillating ‘Toccata’ cadenza, with Michael Seal similarly judicious in the mock-solemnity of the ‘Adagio’ then a final ‘Tarantella’ of suitably uproarious humour.

Over his years as Associate Conductor of the CBSO, Seal has gained a formidable reputation in symphonic repertoire, with his account of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony never less than satisfying in its long-term cohesion. Not least the opening Moderato, unfolding at an almost unbroken pulse with the stark main theme powerfully wrought and its successor lacking only a degree of irony. The central development exuded palpable impetus and while the climactic arrival of the reprise could have been even more shattering, the wind-down into the musing coda was ideally judged. Taken at a swift if never headlong tempo, the Scherzo was suitably graphic in its evoking of violence (whether, or not, a ‘portrait’ of Stalin is beside the point), then the ensuing Allegretto was poised unerringly between slow movement and intermezzo.

This most intriguing portion of the work again lacked little in insight – with due credit to first horn Alex Hocknull for coming through, almost unscathed, in one of the lengthiest and most testing solos of the orchestral literature. A pity that Seal did not head straight into the finale, but his handling of its Andante introduction astutely mingled pathos with anticipation – the main Allegro itself pivoting between nonchalance and defiance through to a conclusion in which any thought of triumph over adversity was – rightly- withheld until the closing bars.

All in all, a gripping performance of a symphonic masterpiece and a fine demonstration of the CBSO Youth Orchestra’s collective prowess. The CBSO returns this Wednesday for Mozart and Mendelssohn frère et soeur, with Benjamin Grosvenor in Beethoven’s First Concerto.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Michael Seal, click here – and for more on pianist Nicholas McCarthy, click here

In concert – James Ehnes, CBSO / Finnegan Downie Dear: Cassandra Miller, Britten & Beethoven

©Frank-Bloedhorn-finnegan-downie-dear

Miller La Donna (2021) [UK premiere]
Britten
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.15 (1938-9)
Beethoven
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1807-08)

James Ehnes (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Finnegan Downie Dear (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 6 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; Picture of Frankie Downie Dear (c) Frank Bloedhorn

Tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra saw a first appearance with British conductor Finnegan Downie Dear, winner of the 2020 Mahler Competition in Bamberg, and a first hearing in the UK for an orchestral piece by the Canadian composer Cassandra Miller.

Currently based in London, where she is Professor of Composition at the Guildhall, Miller’s output has often drawn on pre-existing sources as are then integrated into the work at hand. Such is the case with La Donna, premiered at Barcelona earlier this year, where a group of Genoese male voices singing La Partenza da Parigi (as recorded by the redoubtable Alan Lomax in 1954) is channelled into music of intensive polyphonic activity and topped by a falsetto melodic line – the eponymous La donna. This builds to an apex as intricate in its texture as it is immediate in expression, then gradually subsides in a resonance of suffused elation. Such was the impression left by this performance, Downie Dear drawing sustained amplitude from relatively modest forces in a visceral demonstration of tension and release.

A time there was when Britten’s Violin Concerto enjoyed only a modest presence in British concert halls, though recent years have seen it taken up by leading soloists from around the world. Its edgy yet intense lyricism has a persuasive exponent in James Ehnes (above), who brought out the restless emotion of the initial Moderato – the five-note motto underlining the context of war and unrest from which it emerged. The Vivace’s rhythmic velocity and sardonic tone were no less evident, a tensile reading of the cadenza pointing up its thematic function and leading inevitably into the final Passacaglia. After a superbly shaped orchestral introduction, Ehnes characterized its variations with mounting intensity to a powerfully wrought climax – the final pages exuding a fatalistic eloquence no less affecting now than eight decades ago.

Perhaps this music’s rapt equivocation explains why it has often been programmed in recent seasons with Beethoven’s Pastoral. While by no means revelatory, the present account gave a good indication of Downie Dear’s abilities – not least his emphasis on rhythmic articulation during what was a relatively swift traversal of the opening Allegro, along with his fastidious attention to dynamics as brought the requisite focus and lucidity to the Scene by the Brook with its warmly enveloping string textures and its bird-calls deftly inflected towards the close.

The final three movements unfolded in much the same vein – the peasants lithe if arguably a little too well-behaved in their merrymaking and the thunderstorm forceful if not electrifying in response, though with a seamless diminuendo of volume and energy going into the finale. Without drawing the ultimate gravitas from its interplay of rondo and variation procedures, Downie Dear guided it surely and attentively to a ruminative coda – Beethoven transcending the incipient era of musical romanticism through the (deliberate) absence of any defining ego.

This evening’s programme is repeated tomorrow afternoon – with the Miller being replaced by Mozart’s Idomeneo overture – while the CBSO returns next week for Rossini, Berlioz, and Prokofiev under François Leleux, along with Baiba Skride in Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Cassandra Miller, click here – and for more information on Finnegan Downie Dear, head to the conductor’s website