On record – Villa-Lobos: Choral Transcriptions (São Paulo Symphony Choir / Valentina Peleggi) (Naxos)

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Villa-Lobos transcriptions of:

Bach Prelude and Fugue no.8 in E flat minor / D sharp minor BWV853, Prelude no.14 in F sharp minor BWV883; Fugues – no.1 in C major, BWV846; no.5 in D major, BWV874; no.21 in B flat major, BWV866; no. 22 in B flat minor BWV867
Beethoven Adagio cantabile Op.13/2
Chopin Waltz no.7 in C sharp minor Op.64/2
Massenet Élégie Op.10/5
Mendelssohn Lieder ohne Worte in E major Op.30/3
Rachmaninov Prelude in C sharp minor Op.3/2
Schubert Ständchen D957/3
Schumann Träumerei Op.15/7
Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras no.9 W449

São Paulo Symphony Choir / Valentina Peleggi

Naxos 8.574286 [58’32”] English and Portuguese translations included

Producer Ulrich Schneider
Engineers Marcio Jesus Torres, Camilla Braga Marciano, Fabio Myiahara

Recorded: 5-10 August 2019 at Sala São Paulo, Brazil

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos’s coverage of the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos (part of this label’s series The Music of Brazil) continues with a selection of mainly transcriptions from the piano repertoire that the composer undertook during the mid-1930s as part of his extensive educational commitments.

What’s the music like?

Almost all these arrangements emerged in the period 1932-5, when Villa-Lobos took on the challenge of overhauling music education in the public school system of Rio de Janeiro. This involved the creation, virtually from scratch, of a choral pedagogy that he drew from across the spectrum of Baroque, Classical and Romantic music. It is a measure of his prowess that such transformation from mostly piano sources was accomplished with unfailing rigour and an idiomatic quality, so the fame of the originals is almost the only clue to their provenance.

From the soulful strains of among the most mellifluous from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, the programme then continues with the Eighth Prelude and Fugue from the first book of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier – the former piece summoning a plangently rhetorical response which finds pertinent contrast with the latter piece’s methodical and intricate build-up to a culmination of sombre eloquence. The arrangement of Dreaming from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood fully conveys its wistful pathos, as does that of the First Fugue from Bach’s WTC the original’s cool elegance. Similarly, the last of Schubert’s Serenade settings loses little of this song’s plaintiveness, and the Twenty-First Fugue from Bach’s WTC takes on unexpected jauntiness in what proves one of Villa-Lobos’s most inspiriting re-creations.

Chopin’s Waltzes might be considered unsuited to the vocal medium, yet the C sharp minor responds ably to such elaboration, as too the ruminative calm of the Twenty-Second Prelude from Bach’s WTC. Rachmaninov might have thought better of his Prelude in C sharp minor had he encountered this uninhibitedly dramatic realization, with basses providing the baleful anchorage, in contrast to the yearning aura drawn from the Fourteenth Prelude of the second book from Bach’s WTC. Massenet’s Elegy exceeds the original song for bittersweet poise, a foil to the serenity of the Fifth Fugue from Bach’s WTC. The indelible main melody from the Adagio of Beethoven’s Pathétique segues ideally into the Ninth Bachianas Brasileiras, with Villa-Lobos’s choral incarnation rather more atmospheric and evocative than that for strings.

Does it all work?

Almost entirely and due in no small part to the excellence of the São Paulo Symphonic Choir with its Italian conductor Valentina Peleggi. Lasting just under 60 minutes, the selection feels varied yet also cohesive enough to be enjoyed as a continuous programme, while enterprising choirs from both sides of the Atlantic ought to find much here to enrich their existing rosters. Inclusion of Villa-Lobos’s own music at the close is a reminder its technical demands should never be taken for granted, but here too the SPSC rises to the challenge with unstinting verve.

Is it recommended?

It is. The acoustic is just a little reverberant at times yet without detriment to the clarity of the choral writing, with informative annotations from Manoel Corrêa do Lago. Listeners should also investigate a recent Naxos release of Villa-Lobos’s first three violin sonatas (8.574310).

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You can discover more about this release at the Naxos website, and you can also purchase the recording here. You can read more about conductor Valentina Peleggi here

BBC Proms – Víkingur Ólafsson, Philharmonia / Paavo Järvi: Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev & Shostakovich

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Víkingur Ólafsson (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Paavo Järvi

Prokofiev Symphony no.1 in D major Op.25 ‘Classical’ (1916-17)
J.S. Bach Keyboard Concerto in F minor BWV1056 (c1738-9)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor K491 (1786)
Shostakovich Symphony no. 9 in E flat major Op.70 (1945)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Saturday 14 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s Prom brought change of conductor, the always reliable Paavo Järvi stepping in for Santtu-Matias Rouvali in what would have been the latter’s Proms debut, but not of soloist – Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson duly making his first appearance at these concerts with concertos which, for the most part, played to his strengths.

The number of times that Bach’s keyboard concertos have been heard here on piano in recent decades can be counted on the fingers on one hand (Tatiana Nikolayeva’s D minor resonates in the memory), but that in F minor was a good choice in terms of its succinctness – the outer movements pitting soloist and (sizable body of) strings against each other with a trenchancy as was vividly conveyed here, with the central Andante an oasis of serenity that was not without its plangent asides.

Placing this piece before the interval, however, made for a distinctly short first half – given the relative length of Mozart’s C minor Concerto after the interval. There were many good things in this latter, Ólafsson keeping the first movement on a tight yet never inflexible rein so that its inclination to pathos – if not always its portentous undertones – came through in ample measure; not least in a coda that had been cannily prepared by the soloist’s cadenza. The central Larghetto was none the less the highlight – Ólafsson varying his tone such that piano melded into the woodwind for an early and defining instance of timbral colouration, with its limpid elegance never undersold. Maybe the finale was a little staid in the overall unfolding of its variations, but the coda’s strangely ambiguous poise was tangibly realized.

An auspicious debut, then, for Ólafsson, who underlined his prowess with affecting readings of the slow movement of Bach’s Fourth Organ Sonata (BWV526) in August Stradal’s chaste transcription and Liszt’s not unduly mawkish version of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus (K617). These further extended the disparity between each half – the first of which had commenced with Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony, not in the least small of scale or mimsyish as Järvi heard it; witness his acerbic and impetuous take on the initial Allegro, trumpets and timpani to the fore, then a Larghetto whose swift underlying tempo left little room for any harmonic piquancy to emerge. The Gavotte was slightly marred by several mannered agogics which tended to impede its rhythmic profile, but the Finale lacked little in sparkle or insouciance.

Among the most travelled and recorded conductors of today, Järvi can seem detached or even aloof in manner – but there was no such reticence evident in Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony as ended this programme. After a tensile and assertive Allegro, which audibly benefitted from the sizable forces onstage, the Moderato recalled Efrem Kurtz’s classic recording as to overall restraint and a dark-hued introspection rising to anguish in its twin climaxes. Playing without pause, the other movements were of a piece with the foregoing – a driving and almost manic Presto subsiding into a Largo, whose ruminative bassoon soliloquys were eloquently taken by Emily Hultmark, then an Allegretto whose capriciousness was acutely gauged through to its bitingly sardonic climax and breathless final payoff. Undoubtedly a performance to savour.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

BBC Proms – Steven Isserlis, LPO / Jurowski: Stravinsky, Bach, Walton & Hindemith

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Steven Isserlis (cello, below), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (above)

Stravinsky Jeu de cartes (1935-6)
Walton
Cello Concerto (1955-6)
Bach (arr. Goldmann)
14 ‘Goldberg’ Canons BWV1087 (1742-4 arr. 1977)
Hindemith
Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’ (1933-4)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 12 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; pictures (c) Chris Christodoulou

Vladimir Jurowski this evening concluded his highly impressive 14-year tenure as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra with a thoughtfully conceived and well-proportioned programme; one which typically played to this orchestra’s strengths as much as to his own.

Although it can seem something of an ‘also-ran’ in the context of his compositions from the period, Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes lacks for little in terms of that rhythmic effervescence as was engagingly evident in this performance – Jurowski pointing up the humour and even occasional glimmers of pathos that inform what can easily seem music written on autopilot. The LPO responded with a trenchancy and alacrity as held good throughout this ‘ballet in three deals’, the tonal punning of whose culmination at least ensures a humorous outcome.

Walton’s Cello Concerto used to be regarded with even less favour than Stravinsky’s ballet, but this piece (written by its composer at much the same age) is now seen as more than the enervated recycling of past success. Steven Isserlis (above) has long advocated its cause, and there was little doubting his commitment in a reading of perceptiveness and finesse. At times his spare and even fragile tone tended to recede into even so restrained and transparent as this, Jurowski mindful to rein in those brief climactic moments of the outer movements, but the artful interplay of the central scherzo did not lack for incisiveness or irony. Nor, after the second of the solo variations in the finale, was there any absence of rapture as soloist and orchestra are reconciled in drawing the music through to its close of fatalistic acceptance.

After the interval, a novelty in an arrangement by composer-conductor Friedrich Goldmann (1941-2009) of the 14 canons latterly identified from Bach’s printed copy of his Goldberg Variations. Arranged for a Stravinskian post-classical orchestra, these intricate and arcane studies in canonic dexterity emerge from gentle aridity to luminous elaboration with spare, methodical elegance such as intrigues and disengages in equal measure. Hardly something one expected to hear at such an occasion or this venue, though worth hearing all the same.

In its reiterating the values of Enlightenment humanism, moreover, this prepared admirably for Hindemith’s Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’; premiered on the cusp of Germany’s descent into barbarous self-destruction, and a plea from the committed – however reluctantly – artist for a rational response as might be worth emulating today. The alternately radiant and tensile unfolding of Concert of Angels was perfectly judged, as too the plaintive resignation of the brief if affecting Entombment. The Temptation of St Anthony then made for an elaborate finale, but Jurowski paced it superbly – the plangent central interlude thrown into relief by the impassioned episodes on either side, then its anguished introduction by an apotheosis whose ultimate wresting of triumph from adversity remains thrilling as a statement of artistic intent.

A performance to savour, then, not least as John Gilhooly presented Jurowski with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in recognition of services to music – an accolade with an illustrious history, which can rarely have been more deserved than on this occasion.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

Switched On: Arandel: InBach Vol.2 (InFiné)

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reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The second instalment of Arandel’s InBach project comes just a year after the first. The French producer, who chooses to remain anonymous for now, has been discovering a wide range of raw material beyond last year’s reinterpretations, and has enjoyed the new perspectives offered by live performance of the first album material.

Now the music takes on more spoken word contributions, as well as using rare instruments recorded at the Musée de la Musique in Paris. The record also features Ondes Martenot player Thomas Bloch and the cello of label mate Gaspar Claus.

What’s the music like?

Extremely varied. Arandel has an orchestral mind, which means he can approach music from many different directions. The stripped-back woodwind of Invention 5, for instance, builds from almost nothing to a full, symphonic climax with electronic choral voices, showing how the French producer ‘gets’ Bach’s increase in intensity.

Concerto for No Keyboard, on the other hand retreats to the lower end of the spectrum and applies the sort of electronic squiggles you would expect to hear from Wendy Carlos – whose Switched On Bach was a big influence on Arandel’s working.

The starry-eyed Doxa Notes is a beautiful way to start the album, and develops into a lush palette of electronics, with a spoken word top from Myra Davies. It is a reinterpretation of Aux Vaisseaux, itself based on Bach’s 14 Canons on The Goldberg Ground, BWV 1087.

Spoken word is an important component of this album and Nos Contours is an even better vocal number. Developed from Bodyline, a track on the first album, it features bubbling electronics under Ornette’s low but steady vocal, both bending under the weight of increased percussion towards the end.

Arandel’s handling of Bach’s original material is always respectful but is more than happy to take risks. Capriccio is otherworldly but in a good way, a reworking of Bach’s Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother which is in fact a memorial to Arandel’s own brother. Its spectral voicing is almost overrun by a large electronic choir, but is in fact swept up by its power.

Praeludium takes a dubby, four to the floor beat and pushes resolutely onwards, while the autotune of Fabula’s vocal over Bach’s Meine Seele Warter Auf Den Herrn will be more divisive, but it is nothing if not effective.

Confirmation of Arandel’s more adventurous approach can be found in Octobre, a pleasingly unconventional take on the famous Air. Luxurious in its Hamlet cigar promotion, this music is stripped back to a chamber organ and oboe sound here, together with well chosen atmospherics and a time-taken voiceover from the producer’s nephew, with a dreamlike story of an ominous gang of children.

Finally Myriade provides a soothing and rather moving close, with another voiceover – from no less than Bridget St.John – complementing the slow-moving, majestic harmonies.

Does it all work?

Yes. Some of the interpretations are more divisive than others, but this is a good thing, as Arandel is showing a wide range of possibilities when working with Bach’s music. When it comes to electronic music his is surely the most flexible of original material with which to work, and the fact it can be reproduced more or less faithfully says a lot about its staying power.

Is it recommended?

Yes. An essential purchase for those familiar with Arandel’s way of working, InBach Vol.2 suggests that the ideas are only just getting going rather than drying up! These powers of invention and imagination will surely serve the producer well as he moves on to even more ambitious things.

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Playlist – Clare Hammond

It is with great pleasure that we welcome pianist Clare Hammond to the Arcana playlist section.

Clare has just released a new solo album, Variations. It is a typically thoughtful and inventive program of works from the 20th and 21st-centuries, ranging from  Adams to Birtwistle, Copland to Gubaidulina.

We invited Clare to complement her new album with a selection of her own favourite sets of variations, and she has obliged with some new discoveries. We begin with one of the greatest of all, the towering Passacaglia for organ by Bach, via Leopold Stokowski‘s colourful orchestration. Then we downsize for Louise Farrenc‘s Variations concertantes sur mélodie suisse, for violin and piano, before we hear from George Walker, the first African American to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and only recently getting more exposure as a composer. Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz, with her Theme with Variations, offers a strong contrast to the Farrenc, again for violin and piano.

A Decca recording from 1993 follows, an early bit of recognition for the craft of Coleridge-Taylor and his substantial Variations on an African Air for orchestra. We go to piano for Lili Boulanger‘s typically concise and expressive contribution, before the wonderfully humourous, wacky and brilliant Variations on America by Charles Ives, in the orchestration by William Schuman.

Make sure you have a listen to this as well as Clare’s album, to be reviewed on Arcana soon. Our grateful thanks to her for an invigorating hour of music:

You can read more about Clare Hammond’s Variations album on the BIS website, and to hear clips and purchase from Presto Classical, click here