On record – Victoria Borisova-Ollas: Angelus (BIS)

Victoria Borisova-Ollas
Angelus (2008)
The Kingdom of Silence (2003)
Before the Mountains Were Born (2005)
Creation of the Hymn (2013)
Open Ground (2006)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrey Boreyko (Angelus), Martyn Brabbins (The Kingdom of Silence, Before the Mountains Were Born), Sakari Oramo (Open Ground)

BIS BIS2288 SACD [82’08”]

Producers Thore Brinkmann, Ingo Petry
Engineers Marion Schwebel, Matthias Spitzbarth

Recorded August 2016 (Open Ground), November 2017 (Angelus), August 2019 (The Kingdom of Silence, Before the Mountains Were Born) in Stockholm Concert Hall

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

BIS issues what is only the second release dedicated to the music of Victoria Borisova-Ollas (b1969), Vladivostok-born and resident in Sweden for almost three decades, superbly played by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and sumptuously recorded in Stockholm Concert Hall.

What’s the music like?

UK audiences have had few opportunities to hear Borisova-Ollas, but her piece Wings of the Wind was second at the Masterprize International Music Competition in 1998, and her multi-media drama The Ground Beneath Her Feet was premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2007. Her orchestral writing is confident and assured – drawing on a lineage that takes in such as Rimsky, Glière and Respighi in music which is never less than evocative or atmospheric, but lacks greater expressive focus so as to convey a more arresting personality.

An in memoriam to her teacher Nikolai Korndorf, The Kingdom of Silence duly proceeds as the ‘journey of a life’ from beatific stasis, through episodes of angst and decisiveness, and on to a serene if underwhelming catharsis. More distinctive is Before the Mountains Were Born, the third of this composer’s works to draw inspiration from the Psalms (here No. 94 – ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place’) and whose supplicatory yearning informs a cadenza-like passage for the four principal woodwind prior to a decidedly unexpected close.

The nearest thing here to a showpiece, Open Ground picks up on American minimalist traits in its swift and unrelenting while highly eventful progress to a tellingly evanescent conclusion: a tale of reality and stability which could yet find favour with orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic.

Most expansive is Angelus, inspired by a visit to Munich and the sheer range of bell-sounds to be heard there – the result being a ‘morning to evening’ evolution where elements of chant and tintinnabulation are prominent within a texture of lingering and iridescent sonority such as enfolds the senses without engaging the intellect. Moreover, the accumulation of incident toward its centre lacks underlying emotional intensification, or the organ-capped climax any semblance of tension and release. More substantial is Creation of the Hymn – a sequence of variations, on an original theme of some trenchancy, originally written for string quartet and reworked for 15 strings. A range of stylistic associations is evoked, but the astute dovetailing of expressive contrasts and purposeful follow-through to a fervent ending holds the attention.

Does it all work?

Whatever else, this music is certainly good as regards first impressions. Dig deeper, however, and lack of substance in the actual ideas and way by which these generate the larger content is hard to deny – for all that the aural enticement of the orchestration cannot be gainsaid. Nor is there any lack of commitment from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, guided by Messrs Boreyko, Brabbins and Oramo to performances of real virtuosity. Those who already have the earlier disc of Borisova-Ollas’s orchestral music on Phono Suecia will certainly want this too.

Is it recommended?

Yes, with reservations. Wide-ranging sound is on a par with BIS’s customary high standards, while the composer’s annotations are quirky but informative. Hopefully releases of Borisova-Ollas’s chamber and instrumental work will emerge to open-out the perspective on her music.

Listen & Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the BIS website

Spotify

On record – Nash Ensemble – John Pickard: The Gardener of Aleppo (BIS)

John Pickard
The Gardner of Aleppo (2016)
Daughters of Zion (2016)*
Snowbound (2010)
Serenata Concertata (1984)**
Three Chicken Studies (2008)
The Phagotus of Afranio (1992)
Ghost-Train (2016)

*Susan Bickley (mezzo); **Philippa Davies (flute); Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins

BIS BIS 2461 SACD [79’22”]

Producer / Engineer Simon Fox-Gál

Recorded September 2018 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

BIS continues its coverage of music by John Pickard (b. 1963) with an extensive overview of chamber works surveying more than three decades of creativity, in performances by the Nash Ensemble that do ample justice to this composer’s combative while always accessible music.

What’s the music like?

Earliest is Serenata Concertata, written when Pickard was still an undergraduate and his first paid commission. Essentially a concerto for flute and five instruments, it unfolds continuously from a haunting Cadenza I then a pensive Aria I to the Scherzo-Notturno whose accrued energy carries over into the climactic Cadenza II, before Aria II brings an emotional poise that gradually dies away towards the close. Whatever its passing influences, Pickardian traits are everywhere apparent and the composer was surely right to keep this work in his catalogue.

Philippa Davies makes a fine showing, as does Ursula Leveaux in The Phagotus of Afranio – the title that of a fanciful forerunner of the bassoon, whose Hoffnung-like presence evinces humour and no little pathos in this entertaining ‘capriccio’. Hardly less diverting, the Three Chicken Studies evoke its subjects respectively laying, feeding then fighting in miniatures, as rendered by Gareth Hulse, both winsome and insouciant (and fully deserving of inclusion in Pickard’s catalogue). Alone among these pieces, Snowbound has been previously recorded (Toccata Classics) – the new account being more spacious and more graphic in its depiction of a familiar landscape as rendered unrecognizable through music that cannily emphasizes those darker sonorities of bass clarinet, cello and piano on route to a ‘glacial’ denouement.

The remaining three works followed in the wake of the imposing Fifth Symphony and testify to the variety of Pickard’s approach irrespective of genre or instrumentation. Setting a text by Gavin D’Costa, Daughters of Zion relates the fateful decision of Mary and its consequences in music by turns ominous and plangent – superbly sung by Susan Bickley. No less resonant in emotional impact, The Gardner of Aleppo was inspired by an incident in the Syrian civil war, where a flower-seller continued to ply his wares in the face of heavy bombardment up until his untimely death. Here, too, flute, viola and harp make for a (surprisingly?) tensile combination across its trajectory of evocation, animation and recollection. By comparison, Ghost-Train might appear humorous in its (often graphic) portrayal of the once obligatory fairground ride; as represented by a perpetuum mobile whose stealthy refrain finds contrast with sundry episodes of a more or less grotesque nature, duly culminating in an apotheosis whose sombre equivocation suggests this to be a journey from which there can be no return.

Does it all work?

Yes, given the alacrity with which these musicians respond to music that, for all its textural and harmonic intricacy, conveys that expressive immediacy manifest throughout Pickard’s output. By so doing, moreover, the stylistic consistency of his idiom is no less in evidence.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Sound is well up to BIS’s customary standards as to clarity and perspective, with the composer’s booklet note typical in its keen observation and wry humour. Further releases of Pickard’s music, not least his first three symphonies, will hopefully follow from this source.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the BIS website, where you can also purchase the recording.

On record – Lorenda Ramou – From Berlin to Athens: Skalkottas Piano Works (BIS)

Skalkottas
Griechische Suite A/K79a (1924)
(Suite) A/K79b (1924)
Sonatina A/K75b (1927)
15 kleine Variationen A/K75c (1927)
Suites – no.2 A/K72 (1940); no.3 A/K73 (1941); no.4 A/K74 (1941)
The Gnomes A/K110 (1939)

Lorenda Ramou (piano)

BISBIS 2364SACD [87’43’’]

Producer & Engineer Christian Starke

Recorded October and November 2017 at Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Between 1998 and 2008 BIS undertook a ground-breaking series devoted to Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949), and this new release features almost all the music for solo piano that was still to be collated. The result is a fascinating journey through one facet of this fascinating composer.

What’s the music like?

As Lorenda Ramou indicates, this recital divides into three parts.

The first of these comprises music written in Berlin during Skalkottas’s study there, including the composer’s two earliest surviving works. Greek Suite is a quirkily appealing amalgam of neo-classical and traditional stylisms with distinct jazz overtones in its closing movement. The ‘Suite’ (its title can only be conjectured as the first two pages of music are missing) develops these influences on a larger scale, not least the scintillating Shimmy tempo finale. Come the Sonatina and Skalkottas’s language has evolved apace – hence the expressively detached Siciliano, then restive finale with its ominous coda; an upbeat to the masterly 15 Little Variations on a Beethoven-inspired theme that finds a natural climax in its laconic recollection following a subdued apotheosis.

The next three pieces were all written in Athens during Skalkottas’s ‘inner exile’ after being repatriated. Ramou’s implication that the Second, Third and Fourth Suites (the earlier First Suite was recorded by Nikolaos Samaltanos on BIS1133/4) form an extended sequence that fuses this composer’s preoccupation with ‘classical’ and popular’ formal archetypes in his mature post-tonal language. Highlights include the angular virtuosity of no.2’s Rapsodie, the inexorable motion of no.3’s Marcia funebre, and the oblique wistfulness of no.4’s Serenade. Performable (also listenable to) separately or as a 30-minute continuum, these confirm Skalkottas’s mastery of a medium about which he often felt equivocal yet to which he contributed some of the most thought-provoking music from the mid-twentieth century.

Also written in Athens, The Gnomes was intended to accompany a Christmas dance-show but rhythmic difficulty led Skalkottas to orchestrate a selection of miniatures by other composers under an identical title (recorded by the Caput Ensemble on BIS1364). Relocated in 2015, the present piece unfolds in two parts of six and three items – the former as tensile and impulsive as the latter – notably an Intermezzo (Chorale) – are hieratic and evocative. What the scenario depicted is unclear, though the presence of a Greek carol rather suggests something seasonal.

Does it all work?

To varying degrees according to when the music was written. The Variations and three Suites can rank with the finest Skalkottas compositions, while the early pieces and The Gnomes are fascinating subsidiary items. Nothing here should be without interest for discerning pianists.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Ramou is a perceptive guide throughout, even if certain of the more extrovert pieces could evince greater panache. Among the previously recorded works, those from Samaltanos (BIS) of the Sonatina and Variations are coupled with the 16 Melodies, with those by Steffen Schleiermacher (MDG) and Lefki Katanou-Lindahl (Caprice) of Third and Fourth Suites part of miscellaneous recitals. At nearly 88 minutes, this is among the longest discs yet issued, but the range and depth of the SACD sound is wholly commensurate with BIS’s usual standards.

Stream

Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the BIS website

On record – Ulf Wallin, Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg – Pettersson: Violin Concerto no.2 & Symphony no.17 (BIS)

Ulf Wallin (violin); Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg

Pettersson
Violin Concerto no.2 (1977, rev. 1980)
Symphony no.17 (1980, ed. Brylka/Lindberg)

BIS BIS 2290SACD [61’06”]

Producers Martin Nagorni (Violin Concerto), Hans Kipfer (Symphony)
Engineers Fabian Frank (Violin Concerto), Stephan Reh (Symphony)

Recorded January 2017 (Symphony) and January 2018 (Violin Concerto) at Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköpping

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Christian Lindberg continues his traversal of Allan Pettersson’s symphonic output with the Second Violin Concerto, coupled with a first recording of all that the composer left of what was likely to be his Seventeenth Symphony in a performing version co-edited by Lindberg.

What’s the music like?

Coming in the wake of his volatile and combative Thirteenth Symphony, Pettersson’s Second Violin Concerto (following a Concerto for Violin and String Quartet of 28 years before) was commissioned then premiered by Ida Haendel, though it seems likely to have been conceived beforehand.

The taxing and almost continuous solo part often subsumed into the orchestra, so making it more a ‘symphony for violin and orchestra’, with an inverted virtuosity such as the composer made no attempt to temper. He did, though, overhaul the texture after the premiere in 1980, allowing the soloist more definition against the orchestra – its undivided violin part in particular – but without lessening the music’s intensity in any way. The outcome, it hardly needs to be added, is a violin concerto that is conceptually and emotionally unlike any other.

Although (here) playing for some 53 minutes, the single movement falls into several distinct sections which are duly followed on this disc. Thus, a lengthy ‘exposition’ proceeds from an impulsive first thematic group to its expressively more yielding successor that draws on the 14th from Pettersson’s war-time Barefoot Songs (‘The Lord walks in the meadow’), whose plaintive irony underlies much of what follows. An almost equally extensive ‘development’ is largely taken up with the opening themes, before a distilled ‘reprise’ of the second group then an extended ‘coda’ (marked Cantando) in which various motifs are freely combined on the way to a conclusion whose wistful poise became a feature of the next two symphonies – the music audibly intent on making peace with itself while admitting no false consolation.

The fill-up is the draft of what Pettersson presumably intended as his Seventeenth Symphony (but this is not so indicated on the manuscript), here given its first recording in a performing version edited by Markus Brylka and Christian Lindberg. Playing for almost seven minutes, its atmosphere of fraught anticipation rather looks back to the composer’s symphonies of the 1960s – albeit from the more equivocal perspective of his last years. The absence of further sketches makes its evolution impossible to guess, but what does exist is undeniably arresting.

Does it all work?

Yes. Ulf Wallin is a violinist of the first rank yet never self-conscious or self-regarding as a virtuoso and is accorded unstinting support from the Norrköping musicians, with Lindberg predictably authoritative in his direction. Ida Haendel’s 1980 account (Caprice) features the original orchestration and remains a compelling if undeniably historical document, whereas Isabelle van Keulen’s 1999 recording (CPO) makes a convincing case in more concerto-like terms. Those coming to the piece for the first time should certainly opt for this new account.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The sound is well up to the high standard of previous releases from this series in clarity and spaciousness, and there are informative notes by Per-Henning Olsson. Just the choral Twelfth Symphony to come in what has been a rewarding and often revelatory cycle.

Stream

Buy

For more information on this release visit the BIS website

On record – Clare Hammond, Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan: Mysliveček: Complete Music for Keyboard (BIS)

Clare Hammond (piano), Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan

Josef Mysliveček (1737-1781)
Keyboard Concerto no.1 in B flat major (late 1770s)
Six Easy Divertimenti for Harpsichord or Piano-forte (1777)
Keyboard Concerto no.2 in F major (late 1770s)
Six Easy Lessons for the Harpsichord: Sonatas 1-6 (1780)

BIS BIS-2393 [74’22”]

Producer and Engineer Thore Brinkmann

Recorded March 2018 at the Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Not many composers could claim to have influenced one of the greatest composers to have lived, but Il Boemo (The Bohemian) could do just that. Josef Mysliveček, to whom the nickname was applied, was a Czech composer of rare standing and a mentor to Mozart in the 1770s. He had a life of eyebrow-raising but ultimately tragic events, culminating with his death in great poverty in Rome in 1781, having nearly lost his nose a couple of years earlier to a botched operation.

Clare Hammond’s interview for this site puts more musical detail onto his fascinating tale. More importantly this disc for BIS serves notice of Mysliveček’s standing as an important musical figure and prodigiously talented composer. If you like Mozart, his music is a natural but essential step for further exploration.

What’s the music like?

Really enjoyable. The Piano Concerto no.1, where Hammond is joined by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan, has a sparky personality, with plenty of vigour in its fast outer movements and elegance in the softly voiced central slow movement. There is an economy of thought, too – it finishes quickly with the minimum of fuss.

Clare Hammond clearly loves this music, and she plays with poise but also enjoys the instinctive nature of Mysliveček’s writing. The solo works are notable for their compressed construction, never threatening to outstay their welcome and on occasion producing unexpectedly dark undercurrents.

She is alive to these and handles the technical challenges really well. The Six Easy Divertimenti sound anything but unless they are in her hands! She makes the most of their tendencies to surprise, as in the mysterious pauses on some pretty exotic chords in the fifth piece.

The Piano Concerto no.2 has some notable syncopations in its first movement, as well as some adventurous harmonic diversions, before slipping into the minor key for a profound slow movement. Some of the music is contrary, staying away from big technical displays when you might expect them, but the third movement has a spring in its step nonetheless.

The Six Easy Lessons (again sounding pretty difficult!) bring parallels with the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti, and receive crisp and characterful performances. The second movement of the First Lesson reminds of the Czech composer’s tendency to spice up his melodies with chromatic movement, and this is one of many good tunes to be found throughout these spirited pieces.

Does it all work?

Yes. The structure of Mysliveček’s output from Hammond gives an ideally balanced disc, with the concertos complemented by the solo works. The clarity of her performance ensures it can be heard in the best possible light, and recording from the BIS engineering team is ideal.

Is it recommended?

Yes, and it fills a gap in the 18th century discography. Here is an important figure on whom the spotlight so rarely shines – and we are grateful to Hammond and McGegan for directing it to the right place.

Stream

Buy

You can buy this release directly from the BIS website