On record: Acoustic Alchemy: 33 1/3 (Absolute)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acoustic Alchemy are Greg Carmichael (nylon guitar), Miles Gilderdale (acoustic and electric guitars), Fred White (keyboards), Gary Grainger (electric bass), Greg Grainger (drums)

OnSide Records CDONSIDE03 [40’39”]

Recorded 28-30 April 2016, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk

Produced by Greg Carmichael and Miles Gilderdale

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Acoustic Alchemy returns with 33 1/3 – the 17th studio album of its 38-year history and the seventh since Miles Gilderdale joined Greg Carmichael to give this band an electrified edge. All the expected ingredients are in place, though with a few tweaks to their familiar sound.

What’s the music like?

Certainly, there could be no better statement of intent than East of Babylon, a hard-hitting fusion of driving rock with Eastern overtones and a dash of funk that already ranks as an AA classic. If later tracks head into more expected territory, this brings no lessening of purpose – hence the equable interplay of Carmen’s Man, then the poetic evocation of The Swallow’s Tale with its pensive acoustic intro from Carmichael and soulful sax break by Jeff Kashiwa. 33 1/3 itself is replete with deft chord changes and a soaring electric solo from Gilderdale.

There is more than a touch of melancholy to the limpid profile of Winter’s End, while the slow-burning vibe of A Little Closer brings the rhythm section of Greg and Gary Grainger elegantly into focus – not to mention nimble piano work from Fred White. Discreet contrast is provided by Blues for Mr. Mu, its swinging gait and nonchalant guitar interplay abetted by cunning syncopation. The Girl With A Plan is a further highlight in its intricate guitar patterns, against a tensile rhythmic backing that AA has made its own over all these years.

The final tracks make an unlikely though welcome detour into the medium of acoustic guitar. The Allemande (from the Lute Suite in E minor BWV996) is a flowing study in two-part counterpoint, while the Prelude in D minor (transposed from that in C minor, BWV999) is typically Bach in its delicately arpeggiated melody and methodical accompaniment. A solo version of The Wind of Change (originally recorded for the AArt album) then provides a limpid showcase for Carmichael as well as an unexpectedly ruminative close to this album.

Does it all work?

Yes – for all that the album is among the shortest of the band’s career, this is undoubtedly a case of quality winning out over quantity. The only proviso is that the acoustic transcriptions feel as though ‘added on’ to the eight tracks preceding them and might have been even more effective were the Bach placed at the centre (they can, of course, easily be reprogrammed).

Not that these latter tracks are at all redundant: indeed, an album of Bach’s Inventions and sundry two-part pieces from Carmichael and Gilderdale would be an enticing proposition.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Sound has clarity and punch, while the digipack presentation is economical and stylish as befits the CD’s supposed ‘twilight’ era. 33 1/3 might not be a radical departure for Acoustic Alchemy, yet it does confirm this band’s relevance well into the 21st century.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about Acoustic Alchemy on their website

Wigmore Mondays – Jeremy Denk plays Bach & Schubert

Jeremy Denk (piano)

J.S. Bach Partita no.5 in G major BWV829 (1726-1730) (1:35 – 16:37)
Schubert 4 Impromptus D935 (1827) (19:16 – 54:07)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 18 March 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

If you know anybody who is sceptical of the music of J.S. Bach, point them in the direction of the link above, and Jeremy Denk’s account of his Partita no.5. This sparkling display of virtuosity showed beyond doubt the composer’s ability to write instinctively with humour, a playful Partita where the only regret was the pianist’s decision not to use all the written repeats applied to the dance-based movements.

The reason for this would almost certainly have been time constraints, with Denk’s wish to combine the Bach with the Four Impromptus Schubert completed in 1827, his last full year. The two made a very satisfying coupling, giving listeners in the Wigmore Hall and to BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert an hour of fluidly written and brilliantly played pieces.

The Bach first, beginning at 1:35 on the broadcast link with a lively Praeambulum, then moving almost without a break into the traditional sequence of dance movements the composer reserved for pieces such as this. With the mood defined Bach presents an elegant Allemande (3:54), a light footed Corrente (7:35) and then a slower Sarabande (8:52), which features attractive doubling of the melody.

These slower dances always present a pause for thought within Bach, an intake of breath before more dancing – which here includes a Minuetta (11:34) where Bach puts a delightful ‘two against three’ set of rhythms together, the dance stumbling attractively. It’s over all too soon unfortunately, but the straight faced Passepied (12:38) has a stately feel, before the triple-time Gigue (13:48), with its centrepiece, a fugue that Denk masters most impressively, building the momentum to a thrilling conclusion.

Angela Hewitt has spoken of how the key of G major ‘always seems to inspire Bach to write music of great radiance, joy, gentleness and technical display’ – and that is on view throughout Denk’s spring-like account. He delighted in asides to the audience throughout, letting them in on his enjoyment of the music.

The Schubert presented a very different range of emotions. Published as a set of four pieces in 1839, twelve years after composition, the Impromptus work in isolation and also as a quartet, their themes crossing over but not as rigidly as a sonata might demand. This spirit of relative freedom runs through the four pieces.

The first Impromptu, in F minor (19:16 on the link) is a substantial piece that immediately brings Beethoven to mind with its call to arms – Schubert’s contemporary having not long died. The second theme of this impromptu (20:51) is soft and hymn-like, reflective yet with strength in depth when repeated and magnified, in development. This intense passage is cleverly worked, coming back around to the relatively stern main theme at 24:25, though Denk enjoys the more optimistic strains of the major key as it soon takes over. The ‘hymn’ recurs in this key at 26:08 – but as befits the uncertainty of this music, Schubert can’t resist more harmonic movement right through to the turbulent end.

The second Impromptu (29:43) is in F minor’s ‘relative’ key, A flat major, and starts in wonderful stillness. This main theme is restated on a number of occasions, resisting any of the louder interventions trying to derail it. A central section (from 33:05) is faster and flowing, but once again takes a turn for darker waters as Schubert alternates between major and minor key. This only heightens the soft contentment of the main music when it returns at 35:17, wonderfully handled by Denk.

The third Impromptu is similarly light and shade, but this time much more in favour of brighter thoughts. From its opening (37:27) it sets out a theme very similar to a famous melody from Schubert’s Rosamunde stage music, which the composer proceeds to take as a base for several variations – just as he did in an earlier String Quartet in A minor. This unfolds beautifully – with impeccable technique from Denk, and impressive depth in the minor key fourth variation (41:44). The twinkling figure of the final variation (45:30) looks to finish the piece in high spirits, but a final statement returns us to quiet thought.

Finally the fourth Impromptu (47:49) returns us to the F minor world of the first, though here Schubert is in the mood for a dance, evoking the Hungarian cimbalom with spicy harmonies and some daring passagework for the right hand. This finishes the piece acrobatically in the run up to 54:07, a feat superbly realised by Denk here.

As a completely irreverent encore, breaking Schubert’s spell but proving a superbly entertaining sign-off, we had the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser well and truly sent through the boogie-woogie and blues wringer by Donald Lambert (from 55:55 – 58:21)

Further reading and listening

If you enjoyed Jeremy Denk’s Bach playing, there is a disc of Partitas he released back in 2011 for Azica Records. You can hear it on Spotify here:

Denk’s latest release is an intriguing exploration of music from 1300 to the present day. You can hear it here:

Meanwhile to explore more Schubert Impromptus and pieces, the peerless Alfred Brendel is strongly recommended. This album includes all the Impromptus for solo piano as well as some attractive German Dances, the elusive but compelling 6 Moments Musicaux and the darkly tinged 3 Klavierstücke:

Wigmore Mondays – Mariam Batsashvili plays Bach, Haydn & Liszt

Mariam Batsashvili (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903 (c1720) (1:45 – 13:19 on the broadcast link below)

Haydn Piano Sonata in D major HXVI:37 (1780) (13:59-24:20)

Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody no.12 in C sharp minor S244/12 (25:39-35:15)

Liszt, edited Busoni & Leslie Howard: Fantasy on themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni S697 (1842) (36:40-55:20)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 February 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Mariam Batsashvili has made a name for herself as a specialist in the music of one of the most masculine of piano composers. Franz Liszt is regarded very much as a showman, his music often thought to be for virtuosos only who will play it with as much blood and thunder.

However as the Georgian pianist Batsashvili showed here that does not always have to be the case. Her Liszt has its fair share of drama and power, for sure – no let-up there – but hers is a very musical approach, getting beneath the surface to show Liszt’s other compositional talents.

Before Liszt, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue from J.S. Bach – one of his pieces that does if anything look forward towards the free form Liszt and his contemporaries would use. Played on a piano it has a strong, instinctive flow – something Batsashvili gets into immediately as the Fantasy plays. With ideal use of the sustain pedal and enough sense of freedom, she delivers an un-showy but very strong musical performance, with a fugue notable for its clarity and expression from 8:14, gathering intensity as it progresses.

Having reached the sunny key of D major by the end of the Bach, Batsashvili stayed out on stage and in the same key while changing composer. Joseph Haydn wrote a large number of piano sonatas, the early examples of which were for friends. This good natured Piano Sonata in D major HXVI:37 (from 13:59) was for the sisters Franziska and Maria Katherina von Auenbrugger, who judging by this were positive souls with a sense of humour and strong technique.

Haydn’s own wit is there in the main theme from the start, and the busy figuration suggests the sisters had pretty nimble fingers too. The slow movement (marked Largo, from 18:22) takes a pensive turn in the minor key, with spicy harmonies suggesting some discomfort. That is removed by the finale (marked Presto ma non troppo, from 21:15), which takes us near to the spirited mood of the first movement if not fully shaking off the doubts recently aired.

Liszt wrote a total of 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, celebrating his home country in music of great passion and virtuosity, and often incorporating folk tunes into the mix. The Hungarian Rhapsody no.12 in C#minor S244/12 (25:39) starts with suitable drama and contrasts jagged left hand playing with more delicate tunes in the treble, particularly the twinkling, skipping dance at 31:14 when the harmonies turn from minor key to major. Batsashvili finds an exquisite delicacy in this music, sweet but not overly bearing and beautifully played.

Liszt also wrote a number of some incredible fantasies based on existing opera themes. The tour de force heard here, which he premiered in Berlin in 1843, takes themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni as the starting point, working them into a big-boned piece. This was reworked by Busoni, but left incomplete. Leslie Howard, who has recorded the entire piano works of Liszt for Hyperion, added the missing pieces to the jigsaw using the thematic material Liszt was dealing with, and staying true to his spirit and style.

Coincidentally or not, all the themes are from arias dealing with the ‘dangers of philandering’, as Radio 3 announcer Sara Mohr-Pietsch puts it – suggesting there is far more to Liszt’s arrangements than might initially meet the eye.

Batsashvali skips through the opening breezily, but the warning notes in the left hand are there to check progress – before we move into a delightfully played slower selection. Her pacing of the drama feels just right, especially the lead-up to 49:16 and another new theme. The principal material for the piece comes from Cherubino’s aria Voi che sapete and Figaro’s Non più andrai (both from Le nozze di Figaro) and the minuet scene from Don Giovanni. These themes are interwoven and developed to make a substantial whole, with the real big guns coming out for the coda, which Batsashvili plays with considerable panache up to 55:20.

As an encore she gave us two more Liszt arrangements on a much smaller scale. These were two of Chopin’s Polish SongsThe Ring and Bacchanal – and are included below.

Further Listening

Mariam Batsashvili has recorded Liszt’s operatic fantasy, but not the other works in this program – so the playlist below comprises recommended versions of the Bach, Haydn and Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody:

Liszt made a number of transcriptions of the music of Bach – and in particular his Preludes and Fugues. Artur Pizarro collected a good deal of these together for an album for Collins Classics:

Haydn’s piano sonatas do not always get the credit they deserve – so to hear more, listen to this wonderful collection from Alfred Brendel:

Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Bach, Janáček, Messiaen, Martinů & Edmund Finnis @ Wigmore Hall

Britten Sinfonia soloists [Thomas Gould (violin), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Emer McDonough (flute), Huw Watkins (piano)]

J.S. Bach Violin Sonata no.1 in B minor BWV1014 (1720)
Janáček Pohádka (1910)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1952)
Finnis Five Trios (world premiere tour) (2019)
Martinů Trio for flute, violin and piano (1936)

Wigmore Hall, London
Wednesday 13 February 2019

Photo credit Harry Rankin (Britten Sinfonia)

Review by Ben Hogwood

For years now Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch series has been a steady delight, a way to discover the new and rediscover the old in chamber music. Using interesting combinations of instruments and building consistently innovative programs around them, the group offer a very accessible way in to discovering classical music’s treasures of the small scale.

This latest series, given in Norwich, Cambridge and London, is no exception, exploring 300 years of chamber music for flute, violin, cello and piano. Pianist Huw Watkins was the one constant for the whole concert, which at London’s Wigmore Hall gave off the unmistakeable aroma of spring.

Watkins and Thomas Gould began proceedings with a very tasteful account of Bach’s Violin Sonata. It is always good to hear Bach with piano accompaniment, for the music is so versatile that it suits the colours available. In a work like this particular sonata, where the piano plays much more than the role of a traditional accompanist, the textures were ideal. The violin, too, had more notes than normal thanks to Bach’s ‘double stopping’ writing, and Gould played these passages beautifully.

Janáček’s Pohádka represented quite a step forward stylistically but the transition was natural, and the fierce lyricism so often associated with the Czech composer was brought to the fore. Caroline Dearnley enjoyed the song-like passages and Watkins gave great clarity to the busy accompaniments, neither musician stinting on the intensity of Janacek’s writing as the plot of the fairy tale took hold.

The same could be said of Le merle noir, Messiaen’s only published work for flute and piano. An important work that signals his intent to accurately reproduce birdsong on traditional instruments, it is a remarkable piece – and Emer McDonough brought to it a wide range of colour. Most importantly she made it sound natural, for while the notes are all written out the intention of the piece is to sound as instinctive as possible. Again Watkins was the catalyst with some carefully voiced and wholly complementary thoughts.

Each ‘At Lunch’ concert features a new work on its world premiere tour, and the springlike atmosphere was ideal for Edmund Finnis and his Five Trios, for the conventional piano trio grouping of violin, cello and piano. Finnis finds an unusual amount of space in his music, and here his blend of quick movement over slow, drone-like figures opened out the textures very attractively.

There was very little bass in the five trios, notable for their translucence and bright textures. The first introduced softly oscillating figures, while the second spread shafts of light from spread piano chords and string harmonics. The dappled sunlight streaming through the Wigmore Hall roof was the ideal companion for the rippling textures of the third piece, but then in the fourth we enjoyed a bolder statement from the cello, its fuller sound ringing through a haze of sustained piano and glassy violin. To finish, the prayerful fifth piece completed a meditative ten minutes from a composer whose rarefied textures are well worth further investigation.

The Britten Sinfonia members closed their generous concert with Martinů’s Trio for flute, violin and piano. So prolific was the Czech composer that it is easy to overlook his achievements, particularly in the chamber music field. While it can on occasion be tricky to recall some of his melodies after the first hearing of a piece, the overall feel of his writing is uniformly positive and, in this case, capable of making the audience smile and clap spontaneously.

The third of four movements was responsible for the clapping outburst, a wonderful piece of effervescent writing betraying his Parisian location when writing it. The outer movements were a little grittier but still charmed with their syncopation, colour combinations and piquant melodies. The tender second movement was heartfelt too.

The standard of musicianship in this concert was extremely high. Particularly memorable moments include Emer McDonough’s final movement cadenza in the Martinů, where Watkins held the performance together admirably despite the tricky rhythms, the graceful playing of Thomas Gould in the Bach and Caroline Dearnley’s rich cello tone in the fourth of Edmund Dinnis’s trios, not to mention the expressive Janáček.

Once more from this source, an enlightening hour of music in an imaginative context. If you live in London or the East of England you really should catch them live soon!

Further listening

You can listen below to an interview with Edmund Finnis, talking with Dr Kate Kennedy about Five Trios ahead of the Wigmore Hall concert://embeds.audioboom.com/posts/7174837-edmund-finnis-talks-about-his-new-work-five-trios/embed/v4?eid=AQAAACp5ZVy1em0A

You can also hear a new release of Finnis’s music for orchestra here:

Meanwhile the remainder of the program is grouped together on this Spotify playlist:

Wigmore Mondays: Thibaut Garcia & Antoine Morinière – Bach Inspirations

Thibaut Garcia (guitar, above), Antoine Morinière (guitar)

Barrios La Catedral (1921) (1:38-8:39)
Tansman Inventions (Hommage à Bach) (1967) (9:47-20:23) , Pièce en forme de passacaille (1953) (20:57-26:14)
Bach arr. Garcia / Morinière Two-Part Inventions (c1720) (28:36-34:12) – nos. 7 (28:36), 8 (29:53),9 (31:10), & 10 (33:18)
Allemande from English Suite No.3 in G minor (before 1720) (34:49-38:02)
Bach. arr Garcia Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV1004 (1720) (40:06-53:36)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 29 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

One of the most endearing aspects of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is its adaptability. It can be enjoyed on any instrument, a statement which rings true for only a few composers of his time. He did not write for the guitar directly, but in his lute writing and pieces for stringed instruments he often used melodies and figuration that transcribes effortlessly for the guitar. There is much to be found in this respect in the ‘easier’ keyboard pieces, several of which Thibaut Garcia and fellow guitarist Antoine Morinière played here.

This was a very well thought out program, picking up on composers for the guitar for whom J.S. Bach was a lasting influence. It began with Paraguayan composer Agustín Pío Barrios, a colourful composer whose music embraces the folk tunes of his country but is also in thrall to Bach. La Catedral, a three part homage, was beautifully played here (from 1:38 on the broadcast). In three sections, it set out a mood of affected nostalgia in the first, Preludio Saudade, before the Andante religioso (3:54) took on a processional mood. Finally Allegro Solemne (5:54) gained more momentum but was still carefully studied by Thibaut.

Polish composer Alexandre Tansman’s affectionate tribute of five brief Inventions began with a stately Passepied (9:47), moving on to an emotive Sarabande in the minor key (11:57), a Sicilienne with a nice lilt (14:17), a more lively Toccata (16:00), and then an introspective Aria (17:28). Capping this was a stand-alone Passacaille of impressive stature, given over an ever-present chord sequence.

The Bach inventions (28:36), transcribed into more ‘guitar friendly’ keys, worked well and became a very personal dialogue between two friends. It was as though one guitarist had taken the right hand part and the other the left hand, and were exchanging Bach’s ideas freely. It worked very nicely in the Wigmore acoustic, whether in the perky inventions (8 and 10) where the melodies passed seamlessly, or in the slower ones where the slightly different phrasing of each guitarist lent a nice personal touch.

The Allemande from the English Suite no.3 (34:49) was a graceful dance that became an intimate call and response, the parts originally written for both hands transferring nicely to the two guitars.

Arranging the Chaconne (40:06) for guitar is an impressive feat indeed – still more because Garcia managed to make it less about display (which many artists do) and more about emotional content. The single lines had a deep profundity, but when the virtuoso lines really did get going (from around 43:30) they were key to the overall impact as well as providing a dazzling technical display. Some of the weight of the piece is lost in transcription as far as sheer volume is concerned, but Garcia more than made up for this in a studied and brilliantly played account. There was a lovely transformation into the major key at 46:55, before returning to the sterner confines of the minor key again for the end.

Garcia’s brief encore (57:33-59:28) made excellent use of the harmonics. As you will hear on the broadcast in his amusing story, it is the Catalan folksong El testament de n’Amèlia (Amèlia’s Will), arranged by Miguel Llobet.

Further listening

You can track the repertoire used in this concert via the following Spotify playlist:

Meanwhile Thibaut Garcia’s new disc, Bach Inspirations, contains much of the music heard here, and is out now on Warner Classics:

Bach’s lute music transfers very well for guitar, as this album by the great guitarist Julian Bream demonstrates: