On Record – Orion Weiss: Arc 1: Granados, Janáček & Scriabin (First Hand Records)

Granados Goyescas Op.11 (1911)
Janáček In the Mists (1912)
Scriabin Piano Sonata no.9 in F major Op.68, ‘Black Mass’ (1913)

Orion Weiss (piano)

First Hand Records FHR127 [74’51”]
Producer David Frost; Engineer Silas Brown
Recorded 22-24 May 2014 at SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center, New York

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records issues the first instalment of another planned trilogy (see also The Future is Female with Sarah Cahill), the Arc series being a traversal by Orion Weiss across a century of piano music with intermittent forays into conceptually related pieces by earlier composers.

What’s the music like?

Focussing on music from before the First World War, this first volume is dominated (at least in terms of length) by Goyescas – the cycle of piano evocations in which Granados both paid homage to the illustrious Spanish artist, while extending the potential for large-scale formal design associated primarily with Liszt. That the composer subsequently transformed this into a one-act opera says much for the original’s motivic interconnections, such as Weiss further emphasizes throughout an interpretation in which characterization and cohesion are as one.

The listener is guided from teasing melodic interplay in Flattery, via the (mostly) confiding intimacy of Conversation at the Window then encroaching fear of separation in Fandango by Candlelight and its pained experiencing in Laments, or The Maiden and the Nightingale. A tragic climax arrives in the ballade Love and Death; after which, Serenade of the Ghost offers an ironic epilogue. Weiss renders this methodical yet visceral sequence with no mean insight, drawing out that pathos seldom far beneath the surface of Granados’s mature music.

If the Spanish composer was realizing his vision despite – or even because of – his success as composer and performer, In the Mists finds Janáček combating those vicissitudes of personal and professional failure. Hence the tonally and expressively oblique nature of its initial three sections, such as Weiss articulates with notable emphasis on their volatile mood-swings and frequent welling-up of emotion. All of this is duly thrown into relief by the final Presto with its gradual yet, as here, inexorable tendency towards ultimate fragmentation and dissolution.

Much has been written over the past century about those occult and even satanic connotations of Scriabin’s Ninth Sonata, whose Black Mass subtitle was only added after the event and at the prompting of another. Once again, it is the harnessing of such fluid and increasingly violent expression to a formal follow-through as precise as it is fastidious which gives this music its uniqueness. Weiss ensures an audibly cumulative build-up that, in the closing stages, achieves a claustrophobic intensity which could be considered liberating or annihilating as one prefers.

Does it all work?

Yes. Although it is not hard to locate alternative recordings for each of these pieces of at least comparable value, their juxtaposition within this context makes for a programme absorbing in its overt contrasts yet satisfying in its overall cohesion. Whether or not Weiss has performed this in recital, the trajectory towards an even greater self-absorption and inward intensity feels as inescapable as the presentiments of world conflict which lie behind much of what is heard here. Future volumes will doubtless offer a changing perspective and maybe a ‘way forward’.

Is it recommended?

It is. The sound has a lucidity and detail ideal for piano music from this period, with Weiss’s annotations succinct but also pertinent to his interpretations. This series is a notable addition to his extensive discography, further information about which can be accessed at his website.


For further information on this release, head to the First Hand Records website, and for more information on Orion Weiss, head to his website

On Record – Sarah Cahill: The Future is Female, Vol.1: ‘In Nature’

Beglarian Fireside (2001)
Bon Keyboard Sonata in B minor, Op.2/5 (1757)
Carreño Un rêve en mer (1868)
Dillon Birds at Dawn, Op. 20 No. 2 (1917)
Gribbin Unseen (2017)
Jambor Piano Sonata ‘To the Victims of Auschwitz’ (1949)
Kaprálová Dubnová preludia, Op.13/1 & 3 (1937)
Kashperova Au sein de la nature – no.3: Le Murmure des blés (1910)
Mendelssohn-Hensel Lieder Op.8/1 & 3 (1846)
Watkins Summer Days (2020)

Sarah Cahill [piano, voice (‘Fireside’)]

First Hand Records FHR131 [71’32”]
Producer/Engineer Matt Carr
Recorded 15-28 August 2021 at St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, California

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records has issued the first instalment in a planned trilogy devoted to piano works by female composers ranging across the past three centuries, played by Sarah Cahill who has made both the reviving and commissioning of this music a mainstay of her performing career.

What’s the music like?

As Cahill relates in an introductory video (below), The Future is Female is a project to record music by women composers from the Baroque era through to the present-day. Loosely based around the theme of nature, this first volume opens with music from the cusp of the Classical era: Anna Bon, Venetian-born and Prussian-educated, whose primary keyboard work is Six Sonatas published as her Op. 2 – the fifth comprising three relatively substantial movements which finds influences from C.P.E. Bach being put to productive use.

The music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel has now started to come into its own, her extensive output for piano well represented by two from a set of Vier Lieder published as her Op. 8 and akin to the Songs without Words of her brother Felix in their respectively limpid and poetic moods. Exerting considerable influence as pianist and administrator, the Caracas-born Teresa Carreño wrote little in later life, making this teenage Étude-méditation the more striking for its suffused intensity. Equally highly regarded as a pianist, Leokadiya Kashperova brings an impressionist deftness to this movement from her piano suite In the Midst of Nature, whereas Fannie Charles Dillon yields an even lighter touch through an extract from Eight Descriptive Pieces with its pioneering though always subtle approach on the notation of various birdsong.

Long remembered through her association with Martinů, the short-lived Vitĕzslava Kaprálová was an able composer whose piano output includes April Preludes – elusive miniatures which pivot around without ever losing a sense of tonality. The sure highlight is the Piano Sonata by Agi Jambour, its recollection of Budapest during the Nazi occupation inspiring a piece whose three movements take in fraught passion, an Epitaph of sombre poise, then a finale of stark resolve. Of the three living composers, Eve Beglarian features the recitation of a poem by the teenage Ruth Crawford-Seeger within the context of an improvisatory piano backdrop. Deidre Gribbin pens a forceful study of London at a time of social and cultural upheaval, then Mary D. Watkins’s capricious evocation of children at play ends the recital on a more hopeful note.

Does it all work?

Yes. Although not all these pieces are of comparable value, the chronological approach such as Cahill favours makes sense in terms of a stylistic evolution in writing for piano; a parallel (rather than alternative) trajectory through 250 years of Western art music. There can be few reservations concerning either the sound, as good as it gets in terms of clarity and perspective, or the pianist’s detailed and informative annotations. At least half of this selection should be featured in the repertoire of pianists, male or female, which says much as to its overall worth.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The second volume is imminent with the third in preparation, making for a series as inclusive as it is wide-ranging. Cahill has already amassed a significant discography – further information can be found at her website, which also gives details of her forthcoming recitals.


For further information on this release, head to the First Hand Records website, and for more information on Sarah Cahill, click here. For more information on the composers, click on the names of Leokadiya Kashperova, Vitĕzslava Kaprálová, Agi Jambor, Eve Beglarian, Deidre Gribbin and Mary D. Watkins

On Record – incantati: J.S. Bach: Two-Part Inventions, Sinfonias, Trio Sonata no.3, Goldberg ‘Aria’ (First Hand Records)

incantati [Emma Murphy (soprano/alto/tenor recorders, voice flute); Rachel Scott (viola d’amore); Asako Morikawa (viola da gamba)]

J. S. Bach
Inventions, BWV772-86 (selection): no.1 in C; no.2 in C minor; No.4 in D minor; No.7 in E minor; no.8 in F; no.10 in G; No.11 in G minor; No.13 in A minor; No.15 in B minor. Sinfonias, BWV787-801 (selection): no.1 in C; no.4 in D minor; no.8 in F; no.9 in F minor; no.11 in G minor; no.13 in A minor
Chorale-Preludes: Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend BWV655; Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten BWV691; Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her BWV716
Trio Sonata no.3 in D minor BWV527
Trio Sonata no.6 in G major BWV530/2
Aria in G major (from Goldberg Variations BWV988)

First Hand Records FHR122 [59’48”]

Producer Tom Hammond
Engineer John Croft

Recorded 19-21 May 2021 at Church of the Ascension, Plumstead, London

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The trio incantati performs a miscellany of pieces by Bach, including selections from the two-part Inventions and the three-part Sinfonias, excerpts from the trio sonatas and several chorale preludes in what is a diverting hour-long recital by three complementary Baroque instruments.

What’s the music like?

Both the Inventions and Sinfonias stem from Bach’s period in service to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen during 1717-23. Both sets comprise 15 pieces that ascend in chromatic order (from C major to B minor) and they explore a range of formal and contrapuntal possibilities. While the Inventions are often canonic and the Sinfonias are mainly fugal, there are various instances where Bach allows his melodic inspiration full rein. Conceived as teaching pieces they may have been – most notably for his eldest son, the talented though quixotic Wilhelm Freidemann – but there is never any feeling that these cannot be appreciated as music for its own sake. Perhaps the ideal way to enjoy them is to play them, but few of those who do will find themselves able to match the discipline and insight conveyed by the present musicians.

Also included here are three chorale-preludes which can be found in either of the Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach that the composer assembled from a variety of sources (including music by other composers) while at Cöthen and later at Leipzig. Although these may be less intricately textured than the two- and three-part pieces, their focus on elaborating the melodic line against a spare if pertinent harmonic accompaniment brings its own rewards. Otherwise, the trio sonatas are drawn from the set of six Bach likewise assembled in Leipzig and which also derive from pedagogic material written with Wilhelm Friedmann in mind. The third of these pieces is included here complete – its three movements being ruminative, eloquent and vivacious. The Aria on which Bach based his Goldberg Variations makes for a limpid envoi.

Does it all work?

It does. For all its economy and restraint, this music is never easy to perform and record such that the delicate interplay can be savoured in real-time – but incantati and Chiaro Audio have done just that. It helps when the pieces played have been judiciously chosen to underline the variety that Bach draws from his textures and in relatively diverse contexts. Put another way -none of this music is unfamiliar even to non-specialists, but hearing it played thus ensures it is not predictable. Ivan Moody’s succinctly informative notes are an additional enhancement.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. As recommendable as this release is in musical terms, it also and regrettably serves a commemorative function. Emma Murphy, who died in August from the effects of an auto-immune disorder just before her 50th birthday, was among the leading recorder players of her generation and respected advocate for her instrument whether as performer or teacher. Tom Hammond, who died last December from heart failure at 47, was a musician of many talents – trombonist, conductor (notably those premieres of Matthew Taylor’s Third Symphony and his Flute Concerto) of Sound Collective and Sinfonia Tamesa, teacher (masterclasses on the occupied West Bank in Israel), co-organizer of Hertfordshire Music Festival and producer for Chiaro Audio. This proved to be their final recorded project, and both will be greatly missed.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the First Hand Records website. For more on incantati, click here – and for more information, click on the names of Emma Murphy, Tom Hammond and Chiaro Audio

On record – Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mark Fitz-Gerald – Mortimer Wilson: The Thief of Bagdad (First Hand Records)


Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mark Fitz-Gerald

Wilson The Thief of Bagdad Op.74 (1924)

First Hand Records FHR126 [74’45”]

Producer Philipp Knop Engineer Lisa Harnest

Recorded 11 April 2019 at Sendesaal, Hessicher Rundfunk, Frankfurt

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records comes up with another ‘first’ in this recording of the score for the film The Thief of Bagdad starring Douglas Fairbanks – one that set new standards for the ‘epic’   during the silent era, and which originally featured music to match from Mortimer Wilson.

What’s the music like?

Having starred in several major films (The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood), Fairbanks Sr determined to take matters to another level with The Thief of Baghdad – not least making its score an integral component. For this he turned to Wilson (1876-1932) – who had studied in Leipzig with Reger and later directed the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, writing numerous compositions and several pedagogical books – encouraging him to create music whose symphonic aspect and panoramic expression were in themselves innovative.

Not all those involved in the project shared Fairbanks’s enthusiasm – among them impresario Morris Gest, who conspired to replace Wilson’s score with one from a higher-profile figure. James C. Bradford’s hurriedly assembled concoction almost immediately fell by the wayside, allowing the film’s highly successful first run to continue with Wilson’s music firmly in situ. Understandable, perhaps, why it had garnered praise but also attracted reservations given an emotional intensity and technical intricacy in advance of those previously attempted within a cinematic context. That said, Wilson was keen to make realization as practicable as possible – using relatively modest forces to facilitate performances in out-of-town venues, limiting the number of tempo or expression markings and even printing its parts in an easy-to-use format.

Nine decades on, its restoration was inevitably a challenge such as Mark Fitz-Gerald, having done comparable work on Shostakovich’s similarly ground-breaking scores for New Babylon (Naxos 8.572824-25) and Alone (Naxos 8.570316), was well equipped to undertake. How the music was initially reassembled and then adjusted to ensure its absolute synchronization with the film is explained in the accompanying booklet, a process which took several months prior to the first present-day showing at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in October 2016, with the French premiere at Lyon this March. DVD presentation will hopefully be possible in due course; for now, the opportunity to hear Wilson’s superbly crafted score in so sympathetic a performance can only be welcomed by admirers of silent films and early 20th century music.

Does it all work?

Nearly always. Wilson’s music is firmly within the late-Romantic vein of Glière or Respighi, though a pertinent comparison might be Ernesto Halffter’s score for the silent film Carmen released just two years later and on which Fitz-Gerald undertook a similar act of restoration (Naxos 5.572260). In both cases, the music’s panoramic sweep is reinforced by interplay of themes and motifs which sustains dramatic tension across the whole. Moreover, the exclusion of repeated sections makes for a ‘screen symphony’ which fits comfortably onto a single disc.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra responds ably to Fitz-Gerald’s astute direction, and the sound has clarity as well as presence. The booklet, featuring extensive commentaries by Fitz-Gerald and Patrick Stanbury, sets the seal on this ambitious and worthwhile enterprise.

Listen and Buy

To listen to excerpts from this disc and view purchase options, visit the First Hand Records website. To read more about Mortimer WIlson, this interesting article from the New York Times gives more information, while for more on Douglas Fairbanks click here To read more about the performers, click on the names of Mark Fitz-Gerald and Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.

On record – Dmitry Smirnov: Bach, Bartók & Schneeberger – Works for solo violin (First Hand)


Dmitry Smirnov (violin)

J.S. Bach Partita no.2 in D minor BWV1004 (c1720)

Bartók Sonata, BB124 (1944)
Schneeberger Sonata (1942)
First Hand Records FHR117 [61’45”]

Producer / Engineer Jean-Daniel Noir

Recorded 8-10 February 2021 at ‘Il Poggio’, Montecastelli Pisano, Italy

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The violinist Dmitri Smirnov makes his debut for First Hand Records with this release of unaccompanied works from Bach and Bartók, together with a first commercial recording    for the wartime sonata by Schneeberger in what proves an astute and instructive coupling.

What’s the music like?

The Solo Violin Sonata by Bartók is the pre-eminent work of its kind in the twentieth century – Smirnov setting out his credentials in a forthright though never over-wrought account of its initial Tempo di ciaccona, followed by a tensile reading of the Fuga which still admits a bracing humour into its methodical construction. The Melodia is the emotional core of this work, and here Smirnov avails himself of a wide variety of timbre in its heartfelt unfolding, then the Presto makes for a coruscating finale that ultimately heads to its decisive ending.

Its famous finale can easily dwarf the initial four movements of Bach’s Second Solo Partita, but Smirnov is mindful to accord due emphasis to this succession of capricious Allemande, trenchant Courante, eloquent Sarabande then cavorting Gigue, whose jazzy syncopation provides a telling foil for what follows. Attacca in this instance – Smirnov heading directly into the Chaconne which here eschews rhetorical grandeur for an impulsive traversal of its motivically close-knit variations, sustained through to an unexpectedly taciturn conclusion.

Interest understandably focusses on a Solo Sonata by Swiss violinist Hansheinz Schneeberger (1926-2019), with whom Smirnov was personally acquainted. The present work is structured in three compact movements: a powerfully sustained Adagio – entitled Introduzione (quasi cadenza) – followed by an alternately humorous and suave Allegro, then a closing Allegro which is barely half the length of its predecessors, while compensating for any formal short-windedness with an unflagging energy which is maintained right through to its final cadence.

Does it all work?

Yes, whether in terms of a collection whose constituents can be enjoyed separately or as a straight-through recital. There are many other recordings of both the Bach and Bartók, but Smirnov brings his own interpretative approach to bear on each work while, at least for the present, has the field to himself in the Schneeberger. The repertoire for solo violin is wider than supposed, and Smirnov will hopefully continue with its exploration – maybe tackling one of those sonatas by Mieczysław Weinberg, Benjamin Frankel, or Bernard van Dieren.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The focussed while never constricted sound provides an ideal ambience for Smirnov, whose playing is complemented by his informative annotations. Both CD and booklet cover feature one of Scheeberger’s paintings, The Forest, dating from two years before his Sonata.

Listen & Buy


You can get more information on the disc at the First Hand website.