On record – Lysander Piano Trio: Mirrors – 21st Century American Piano Trios (First Hand)

Cohen Around the Cauldron (2016)
Moya
Ghostwritten Variations (2015/16)
Higdon
Love Sweet (2013)*
Belimova
Titania and Her Suite (2014)
Cooper
An den Wassern zu Babel (2010)
Ciupinski
The Black Mirror (2013/14)

Lysander Piano Trio (Itamar Zorman (violin), Michael Katz (cello), Liza Stepanova (piano) with *Sarah Shafer (soprano)

First Hand Records FHR111 [71’26”]

Producer & Engineer Ryan Streber, *Paul Griffith

Recorded 2 & 3 January 2018 at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York; * 21 February 2018 at Performing Arts Center, Athens, Georgia

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

An enterprising and finely realized collection of recent works for piano trio (all of them first recordings) by the Lysander Piano Trio, an ensemble now well established on the American recital circuit, which here gets to display its versatility and conviction in abundant measure.

What’s the music like?

As varied as the composers featured. Senior among them, Jennifer Higdon (b1962) contributes in Love Sweet a song-cycle very different from the extrovert orchestral works for which she is best known; the unusual yet effective combination of soprano and piano trio affording a deft characterization of these five poems by early twentieth century author Amy Lowell that trace the fateful unfolding of a relationship with ruminative poignancy. Following directly, Titania and Her Suite by Sofia Belimova (b2000) is a disarmingly assured miniature by a composer then in her early teens – its animated and unpredictable take on the figure from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream having a maturity and assurance as to put into the shade efforts by other more recent prodigies. Where its composer goes from here should prove fascinating.

Either side of these works, Ghostwritten Variations by Reinaldo Moya (b1984) draws on four seminal novels of the post-war era in four variations on a theme whose understated eloquence is ideally suited to the respectively searching, agitated, insouciant and disembodied treatments which follow – so making for an trajectory enhanced by this theme’s audible presence at each stage. As its title suggests, An den Wassern zu Babel by William David Cooper (b1986) draws on Psalm 37 not only as text but also the melody found in a setting contemporaneous with the German translation by Martin Luther; from which emerges a continuous set of six variations whose contrasts are permeated (never slavishly) by the spirit of German expressionism from the early twentieth century, and in what becomes a ‘mirror’ as revealing as it is disconcerting.

With its influences ranging from prog rock to klezmer, Around the Cauldron by Gilad Cohen (b1980) opens the programme with a vividly evocative sequence inspired by the three witches (also known as the weird sisters) from Shakespeare’s Macbeth; these seven tightly contrasted vignettes taking in a Witches Waltz of glinting irony then culminating in Sacrificial which is hardly less chilling than the Third Ear Band’s score for Roman Polanski’s (in)famous film rendering. Concluding this collection, The Black Mirror by Jakub Ciupinski (b1981) takes up procedures associated with Baroque painter Claude Lorrain – the piece slowly emerging from tentative piano phrases and string harmonics to a climax whose etherealized intensity could not be better described than by the composer’s description of ‘‘an explosion in slow motion’’.

Does it all work?

Yes – inasmuch that there are no also-rans among the pieces featured and, even if there were, the unwavering commitment of the musicians would likely be more than compensation; not least Sarah Shafer, whose singing adds much to the affecting aura of the Higdon song-cycle.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound presents an often difficult medium to best advantage, while credit should be given to the booklet which features succinctly insightful notes on each piece along with biographies of each of the composers and artists – not to mention those five Lowell poems.

Listen and Buy

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

On record – Vaughan Jones & Marcus Price: History of the Salon – Morceaux caractéristiques 1823-1913 (First Hand)

d’Ambrosio Sérénade in D major Op.4 (1897); Aria Op. 22 (1903)
Braga La Serenata (1867 arr. Pollitzer)
Drdla Serenade no.1 in A major (1901)
Godard Canzonetta Op.35/3 (1876, arr. composer)
Granados Oriental Op.37/2 (1890, arr. Jones)
Hollander Mazurek in E major Op.25 (1898)
Laub Canzonetta in B minor Op.12/1 (1884)
Moszkowski Mélodie in F major Op.18/1 (1879, arr. Hermann); Guitarre in G major Op.45/2 (1890, arr. Sarasate)
Paganini Cantabile e Valzer Op.19 (1823)
Raff Méditation in A major Op.75/5 (1859, arr. Hermann); Cavatina in D major Op.85/3 (1862)
F. A. Schubert Bagatelles Op.13 (1860) – nos. 3, 4, 5 (Le désir), no. 9 (L’abeille), no.12 (Barcarola)
Sgambati Serenata napoletana Op.24/2 (1891)
Spohr Barcarole in G major Op.135/1 (1848)
Vecsey Valse triste in C minor (1913)
Zarzycki Mazurkas – no.1 in G major Op.26 (1884); no.2 in E major Op.39 (1894)

Vaughan Jones (violin); Marcus Price (piano)

First Hand Records FHR95 [82’50”]

Producer & Engineer John Croft

Recorded 27, 28 & 30 December 2019, Plumcroft Primary School, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Vaughan Jones continues a productive association with First Hand Records on this generous selection of encores from the golden age of the violin virtuoso, skillfully programmed so as to present composers often regarded as ‘one hit wonders’ in a more rounded and inclusive light.

What’s the music like?

One of the chief attractions is Jones’s bringing together the established with the unfamiliar – so the programme features not only Aleksander Zarzycki’s vibrantly assertive First Mazurka, but also its seldom revived and no less characterful successor. Earliest of those unashamedly public virtuosos, Niccoló Paganini is represented by music of an elegance and finesse by no means foreign to his persona; with the comparable expressive range of Alfredo d’Ambrosio as evident in his lilting Sérénade as in his sombrely musing Aria. Enjoying modest revival, Moritz Moszkowski contributes the languid Mélodie but also the indelible élan of his Guitarre.

Benjamin Godard remains one for whom quantity is not always synonymous with quality, but this arrangement from his Concerto romantique yields a winning insouciance. The inclusion of Joachim Raff’s emotive Cavatina was to be expected, but that of his aptly subtitled Après le coucher du Soleil is an unexpected and affecting pleasure. The name of František Drdla is securely kept alive by the appealing whimsy of his contribution, as is that of Gaetano Braga by the wistful eloquence and finely drawn contrast of his Angel’s Serenade. Whether or not his name is wholly responsible for his latter-day obscurity, Franz Anton (François) Schubert was evidently a skillful composer – hence these five out of 12 Bagatelles such as reference a subtle range of moods on route to the animated L’abeille then the ruminative Barcarola.

The stealthy virtuosity evinced by Giovanni Sgambati sounds anything but mindless, while the taciturn charm conjured by Ferdinand Laub makes plain why his musicianship was held in such high esteem by Tchaikovsky. The incisive wit and technical agility of Benoit (Benno) Hollander is everywhere apparent, as too is the winsome and (at least as rendered here) never unduly saccharine charm of Louis Spohr. Nor does the ‘heart on sleeve’ immediacy of Franz von Vecsey fall victim to false sentiment, whereas the second (and not necessarily the most immediately appealing) out of those dozen pieces that comprise Enrique Granados’s Danzas españolas brings the whole programme to a warmly and thoughtfully understated conclusion.

Does it all work?

Yes, and not only on account of Vaughan Jones’s astute sense of programming. Throughout this lengthy yet always engaging miscellany, his playing eschews mere showiness in favour of a discipline and focus which ensure that even the most obvious ‘war-horses’ emerge newly minted. It also helps when the pianism of Marcus Price is consistently attentive to the subtle variations of mood and expression as are contained herein, while the balance between violin and piano could hardly be improved upon in terms of its definition and overall perspective.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Special praise for a booklet which features the violinist’s finely researched notes and is designed to resemble a programme as might have been encountered at a recital during this period. Clearly FHR’s production values are no less conscientious than Jones’s musicianship.

Listen

Buy

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

On record – Skempton: Man and Bat, Piano Concerto & The Moon is Flashing (First Hand Records)

Howard Skempton
Eternity’s Sunrise (2003)
The Moon is Flashing (2007, arr. 2018)
Piano Concerto (2015, arr. 2018)
Man and Bat (2017)

James Gilchrist (tenor, The Moon is Flashing); Roderick Williams (baritone, Man and Bat); Tim Horton (piano, Piano Concerto); Ensemble 360

First Hand Records FHR90 [70’25”]

English texts included
Producer Tim Oldham
Engineer Phil Rowlands

Recorded 20 July 2019 at Upper Chapel, Sheffield (Man and Bat), 5-7 February 2019 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London (others)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A welcome addition to the recorded representation of Howard Skempton (b1947), including two pieces specially arranged by the composer for reduced forces and also two pieces written specifically for ensemble, all performed by artists closely associated with Skempton’s music.

What’s the music like?

Vocal writing has been a mainstay of Skempton’s in over recent years, the two largest pieces here setting poems by D.H. Lawrence. The term ‘setting’ is used advisedly, given Skempton’s approach is not one of expressive interpretation; rather one in which those individual words articulate a vocal line which, in its turn, articulates the instrumental writing so as to provide context.

Such is the premise on which Man and Bat operates – Lawrence’s highly descriptive, indeed discursive poem treated as a formal framework around which the ensemble unfolds a dialogue of constantly varying (not necessarily developing) motifs and phrases as provide an aural equivalent to what is being described. A not dissimilar approach is pursued in Snake, but here the musical treatment is audibly more static as befits a poem centred upon thought rather than action. This provides the concluding stage in a triptych preceded by a setting of Chris Newman’s self-deprecating A Day in 3 Wipes then, before it, the quizzical humour of Skempton’s own The Moon is Flashing which affords this diverse cycle its overall title.

The other two pieces are both instrumental, while being highly differentiated in themselves. Skempton has used generic titles only sparingly, his Piano Concerto predictable only in its avoidance of obvious models or precursors – the five movements (each lasting between two and four minutes) amounting to a series of vignettes in which the soloist variously combines with the ensemble, here a string quartet rather than string orchestra as originally conceived. Its title might suggest a natural piece with which to open, but Eternity’s Sunrise also makes for a persuasive rounding-off – a perfectly proportioned entity which amounts to a sequence of variations on an undulating theme apposite to the lines from William Blake that provided inspiration. Once again, Skempton’s writing is affecting through its sheer self-effacement.

Does it all work?

Very much so. From an output dominated by miniatures for the piano or accordion (his own instrument), Skempton has amassed a sizable and ever more varied catalogue from which the present release offers a judicious selection. It helps when the performances are so responsive to those qualities of emotional restraint and attention to detail that define the essence of this music. Roderick Williams and James Gilchrist can be relied upon for unforced insight, as too can the underrated pianist Tim Horton and the grouping of soloists which is Ensemble 360.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Skempton now enjoys a substantial discography which features a number of releases devoted to his music (most notably those on the NMC label), to which should now be added this latest from the always enterprising First Hand Records. The sound has all the focus and detail necessary with this composer, whose succinctly informative notes on each piece are complemented by anecdotal observations from each of the soloists. Those who are new to Skempton will find this an ideal way into his compositional ethos, where little is as it seems.

Stream

Buy

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

On record: The Flautadors – Bavardage (First Hand Records)

The Flautadors (Catherine Fleming, Merlin Harrison, Celia Ireland, Ian Wilson, recorders)

First Hand Records FHR55 Playing time: 60’24”

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Summary

Since its formation in 1997, The Flautadors has been at the forefront of recorder consorts in Europe and this latest disc, its fifth, features a selection of modern pieces, interlaced with arrangements of Scottish traditional songs, celebrating its 20th anniversary in fine fashion.

What’s the music like?

Two works by Japanese composers offer contrasting takes on aspects of Occident and Orient. Black Intention IV (1980) has Making Ishii exploiting microtonal tuning and extended playing techniques as akin to those of the European avant-garde – whereas in Idyll 1 (1976), Ryohei Hirose draws on Indian harmonic procedures to overly sensuous effect. With its combination of recorders and triangles, Arbos (1977) is a microcosm of the interplay between incremental melodic growth and relative harmonic stasis that Arvo Pärt pursued henceforth.

Two pieces by younger British composers underline the virtuosic potential of the recorder consort today. Bavardage (2002) finds David Murphy exploring the idea of gossip as springboard to quick-fire exchanges and emergence of a volatile momentum, whereas the calmer exterior of Leo Chadburn‘s De la Salle (2001) belies the intervallic intricacy (and the number of recorders) in what is atmospheric if at times unsettling music. Which leaves Terry Riley‘s In C (1964), that blueprint for American minimalism whose equably insistent pattern-making responds tellingly to the unity-within-diversity afforded by seven recorder players and 25 recorders.

As arranged by Ian Wilson, the Scottish traditional songs emphasize the lyrical aspect of recorder playing. Thus, the limpid poignancy of Ca the yowes and robust gaiety of Dandy Dancer, the virile impetus of Bose and Butter and reel-driven energy of The Deil Among the Tailors. Neil Gow’s Lament immortalised the 18th-century fiddler’s second wife in warmly elegiac terms effortlessly conveyed here, and though it may be less than four decades old, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies‘s Farewell to Stromness is a timeless classic whose pensiveness (and greater fervency of its central section) comes through unabated in this artless transcription.

Does it all work?

Yes. The Flautadors has long excelled right across the board when it comes to the recorder repertoire and such diversity is in evidence throughout this disc – which is recorded with an ideal blend of space and clarity, and informatively annotated by members of the ensemble.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Those who still hold to antiquated notions of what recorder music is should find this disc stimulating and enjoyable in equal measure. Note that The Flautadors will be playing some of these pieces in their 20th anniversary concert at Milton Court on 26th November.

To listen to clips from this release and for further information visit the Flautadors website, while ticket information for the Milton Court concert can be found here