On record – Han Chen plays Thomas Adès: Piano Works (Naxos)

Han Chen (piano)

Thomas Adès
Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (2009)
Still Sorrowing (1992)
Darknesse Visible (1992)
Blanca Variations (2015)
Traced Overhead (1996)
Three Mazurkas (2009)
Souvenir (2018)

Naxos 8.574109 [69’43”]

Producer Han Chen
Engineer Ryan Streber

Recorded 5-7 April 2019, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Taiwanese-born and American-based pianist Han Chen releases his third album for Naxos, bringing together almost all the works for solo piano by Thomas Adès (b1971) in readings that depart – sometimes markedly – from earlier practice and are the more impressive for it.

What’s the music like?

Adès’s piano music falls into three well defined phases. Premiered at the London recital that launched his wider career, Still Sorrowing draws on Dowland in a sustained rumination with ingenious use of the keyboard (is Blue-Tack still being used to dampen the middle register?). Darknesse Visible is more directly a Dowland paraphrase, its pianism highly demonstrative in its range of textures and dynamics. An early culmination is marked by Traced Overhead – its three (progressively longer) sections heading from the spiralling upward motion of Sursum, via the animation of Aetheria, to the gradual ascent of Chori whose heightened eloquence is fatefully undermined by its plunging descent near the close. Understandable that Adès then eschewed the piano medium (and largely avoided public performance) for more than a decade.

His return came from a typically unexpected angle. Among the most significant operas this past quarter-century, Powder Her Face might not have obvious pianistic potential, but Adès proved otherwise with a Concert Paraphrase which realigns several musical highlights into a four-part sequence given continuity by the ingenuity with which underlying dance measures merge into and out of each other. Those for whom its theatricality is all may be nonplussed, yet the essentially tragic essence behind the opera’s glittering façade is conveyed even more keenly through such abstract terms. No less ingenious, the Three Mazurkas refashion a genre most associated with Chopin and Szymanowski into music that recalls the études of Ligeti in their technical finesse and those expressive slights of hand capricious and affecting by turns.

Equally modest in their formal dimensions, the most recent two pieces could hardly be more contrasted in content. A test-piece for the 2016 Clara Haskill Competition, Blanca Variations takes a brief piece from Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel as basis for a study in highly intricate and dextrous pianism. Taken from his score for the film Colette, where it provides a haunting backdrop to the end-credits, Souvenir emerges as a discreet if potent homage to the tradition of French piano music through its slow waltz motion where inference becomes all.

Does it all work?

Yes, even though there are occasions when Adès’s consummate technique risks becoming its own justification. All credit, then to Han Chen (already with excellent releases of Liszt and Rubenstein on Naxos) for ensuring that surface allure is always at the service of an engaged and engaging musical expression. Most of these works have been recorded by the composer, several by numerous other pianists, but Chen clearly has an approach which enables him to render the music very much his own way – extending and enriching its potential accordingly.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Sound has clarity and definition without seeming clinical, and there are informative booklet notes by Paul Conway. One recent short piece (Berceuse from The Exterminating Angel) has not been included, but it hardly detracts from the qualities of this release overall.

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

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For further information on Thomas Adès visit the composer’s website

On record – Orchestra della Svizzera italiana / Damian Iorio – Malipiero: Symphony no.6, Serenata mattutina etc (Naxos)

Orchestra della Svizzera italiana / Damian Iorio

Malipiero:
Symphony no.6 ‘degli archi’ (1947)
Ritrovari (1926)
Serenata mattutina (1959)
Cinque studi (1959-60)

Naxos 8.574173 [58’32”]

Producer and Engineer Michael Rast

Recorded 2-5 May 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Naxos label continues its long-term traversal of the extensive orchestral output by Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973) with the present collection, which juxtaposes two of the Venetian composer’s most intriguing such pieces alongside two of his most characteristic.

What’s the music like?

Most substantial is the sixth of Malipiero’s 17 symphonies (only 11 of these are numbered sequentially). Its subtle, ‘of the strings’, is significant in this being a work written with the intrinsic sound of these instruments to the fore – notably in the modally infused harmonies that determine musical content and formal follow-through; the latter worth bearing in mind given the composer’s determination to eschew thematic development of the Austro-German tradition in favour of a motivic evolution that, as Ernest Ansermet pointed out, ‘’generate[s] other motif [that] do not carry the musical discourse – they are, rather, carried by it”. This is evident in the brusquely compressed first and third movements, but also the arching phrases of the lento (one of Malipiero’s finest inspirations) and the fantasia-like format of the finale.

The two sets of shorter pieces were written almost 35 years apart, but the stylistic difference between them is not merely one of ‘historical inevitability’. Thus, the Rediscoveries are full of formal quirks (not least the way in which the plangent central lento’s going off at a tangent is carried over into the ensuing intermezzo), along with an expressive acerbity redolent more of Milhaud than Hindemith. By the time of the Five Studies, Malipiero was in all senses the elder statesmen of Italian music and was held in high esteem – albeit as a figurehead rather than an active influence – by the post-war generation. It is not difficult to hear elements of Dallapiccola or even Maderna in these terse and gnomic utterances, though the penultimate Lento evinces a ruminative poise and emotional serenity which could only be by Malipiero.

Which leaves Morning Serenade, scored for a diverse ensemble handled with unobtrusive mastery and unfolding as a sequence of subtle variations on its opening idea that gradually draw the music deeper and more contemplatively into itself. Whether or not this piece was intended as a literal evocation, it assuredly sums up those qualities of Malipiero’s mature language which are most likely to appeal to listeners of the present and, for which reason, might be considered an ideal point of entry into an output that defies easy categorization.

Does it all work?

Almost always. Malipiero was never a composer for whom technical processes or emotional accessibility are paramount. Rather, he sought out new approaches to age-old issues that may have bemused his contemporaries but will intrigue those willing to listen without prejudice.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The performances here could hardly be bettered, with Damian Iorio securing playing of real precision and impetus from his Swiss Italian musicians. Earlier recordings of the Sixth Symphony (by Antonio de Almeida on Naxos) and Morning Serenade (by Stefano Cardi on Stradivarius) are surpassed, while sound and annotations leave little to be desired.

Hopefully Naxos might yet issue one of the numerous stage-works informing every phase of Malipero’s career; in the meantime, this disc is cordially recommended to devotees and newcomers alike.

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You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Naxos website here

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You can read Arcana’s interview with conductor Damian Iorio here, where he talks more extensively about his experience of more modern Italian classical music

On record – Manuel Barrueco, José Staneck, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero – Villa-Lobos: Guitar & Harmonica Concertos (Naxos)

Manuel Barrueco (guitar), José Staneck (harmonica), São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero

Heitor Villa-Lobos
Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra (1951)
Sexteto Místico (1917-55)
Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra (1955)
Quinteto Instrumental (1957)

Sexteto Místico: Cláudia Nascimento (flute), Layla Köhler (oboe), Douglas Braga (alto saxophone), Fábio Zanon (guitar), Rogério Zaghi (celesta), Suélem Sampaio (harp)
Quinteto Instrumental: Cláudia Nascimento (flute), Adrian Petrutiu (violin), Ederson Fernandes (viola), Adriana Holtz (cello), Suélem Sampaio (harp)

Naxos 8.574018 [60’04”]

Producer and Engineer Ulrich Schneider

Recorded 30-31 July (Guitar Concerto), 2-4 August 2017 (Harmonica Concerto), 29 April 2018 (Sexteto & Quintet), 2017 Sala São Paulo, Brazil

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Naxos make a significant addition to their series The Music of Brazil with works from the country’s favourite classical music son, Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos’ instrument was the guitar, and it takes centre stage for the much-loved Concerto, complemented by its cousin for harmonica and orchestra. Two chamber-sized pieces for six and five instrumentalists respectively complete an attractive line-up.

What’s the music like?

Warm and sunny – a perfect counterpart to the gloomy late mornings and early evenings of December!

The Guitar Concerto is especially good, a compact design with the small orchestra complementing the guitar perfectly. The piece has an easy going nature from the beginning but that doesn’t mean it’s insubstantial, as the wistful second theme proves. The slow movement is elegant but also keenly felt, with a thoughtful yet virtuosic cadenza that leads straight into the finale, which is crisp and incisive.

It is still unusual to hear the combination of harmonica and orchestra in a classical context, and the instrument’s piercing tone won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, no matter how good the performance. That said, Villa-Lobos, who wrote the Harmonica Concerto for the skilled American harmonica player John Sebastian, gives the main instrument plenty of good tunes and soulful inflections.

The small-scale works accompanying the concertos are both attractive too. The Sexteto Místico appears to have had a chequered history. Begun in 1917, when composers were exploring alternative sonorities in their chamber music, it was not published until final completion in 1955. It paints attractive colours of pastel shades, the addition of guitar and celesta giving it an exotic air, especially in the unison passages. Meanwhile the bigger Quinteto Instrumental feels more classical in its instrumentation and musical language, again using consonant harmonies that radiate sunshine. With a warm sonic picture the recorded sound is ideal.

Does it all work?

Much of it does. The Guitar Concerto receives an ideal performance that feels wholly authentic with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra’s accompaniment. Their dialogue with Manuel Barrueco is beautifully observed and lovingly phrased under Giancarlo Guerrero‘s direction, and Barrueco gives an excellent account of a justly popular work.

José Staneck is on brilliant form in the Harmonica Concerto, with impressive virtuosity complemented by lyricism, but even that and a sensitive orchestral accompaniment do not quite win me over on the work. It could just be a case of unfamiliarity with the harmonica in this context though, so don’t let that put you off!

The sextet and quintet are ideal, sunlight streaming in on these affectionate accounts that capture the fluid writing for harp, guitar and celesta round the edges.

Is it recommended?

Yes. It’s great to see Villa-Lobos programmed in this way, and the disc has great warmth and hence enormous appeal. Barrueco’s version of the Guitar Concerto is a great modern complement to those made by John Williams, Julian Bream and Narciso Yepes, and the couplings show off the composer’s versatility and invention.

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You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Naxos website here

On record – Shostakovich: The Bedbug; Love and Hate (Naxos)

Shostakovich
The Bedbug Op.19 – complete incidental music (1929)
Love and Hate Op.38 – complete film-score (1935)

Mannheim Opera Chorus / Dani Juris; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald

Naxos 8.574100 [58’54”]

Russian transliterations and English translations included
Producer Roland Kistner
Engineer Bernd Nothnagel

Recorded 18-21 February 2019 at Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen, Germany

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos continues its ground-breaking traversal of the film and theatre music by Shostakovich with this coupling of scores long unheard as originally conceived, thanks in part to the work of Mark Fitz-Gerald in having reconstructed these from extant sketches and soundtracks.

What’s the music like?

Shostakovich’s earliest theatre score was for The Bedbug, a scatological comedy by the ill-fated Vladimir Mayakovsky whose two parts were set in the then-present and 50 years later in 1979. The main items include several astringent dance numbers audibly akin to Stravinsky and Weill, while others were recycled for later dramatic projects (most notably the Wedding Scene [track 6] which soon became the Overture to Erwin Dressel’s opera Armer Columbus), with resourceful usage of such instruments as saxophone, mandolin and musical-saw. An air of sardonic detachment pervades this music which doubtless contributed to the production’s brief theatrical run and its subsequent oblivion, but the confidence and panache with which Shostakovich acquits himself can hardly be gainsaid. Although the parodying of such Soviet archetypes as firemen and pioneers soon became taboo in a Soviet Union beholden to Stalin, the experience gained served the composer well in subsequent ballets and revues, so making the present score a significant harbinger for what was to follow over the ensuing five years.

That said, it is the score for Love and Hate that leaves the stronger impression here. Directed by Albert Gendelshtein, this one of several films resulting from Soviet-German cooperation in the interwar period and which ceased in 1937 when the gulf between Stalin’s and Hitler’s ‘socialism’ became unbridgeable. In its quirkily compelling amalgam of post-expressionist and socio-realist elements, this film is more than mere historical curio – as Shostakovich’s music makes plain in an expressive directness evident from the outset. Most notable in this respect is the song How Long Will My Heart Ache and Moan?, initially allotted to mezzo and female chorus [track 19], and a series of searchingly descriptive pieces as culminates in the surging intensity of The Funeral [track 33]. It is at such junctures that the more elegiac aspect of the Fifth Symphony (two years hence) comes into focus, making one regret that no suite was previously compiled. Maybe this will now prove possible given the score’s timely availability, so enabling a vital link in its composer’s evolution to be properly appreciated.

Does it all work?

Yes, not least owing to the insight of Fitz-Gerald’s realizations with regard to those missing or fragmentary sections – where he captures the Shostakovich spirit in full measure – as also to the commitment of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz in realizing the often wilful while always arresting nature of the composer’s inspirations. Forward but not unduly immediate sound, with extensive annotations by Fitz-Gerald, musicologist Gerard McBurney and Soviet cinema authority John Leman Riley, further enhance the attractions of this release.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and it is to be hoped Fitz-Gerald will be continuing his exploration of this one facet of Shostakovich’s output as is still inadequately covered in terms of publication or recording. Several of the composer film and theatre scores from the 1930s still await such rehabilitation.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Naxos website, with an article on the recording here

On record – Salviucci: Serenade, Chamber Symphony & String Quartet (Naxos)

Salviucci
Cinque Pezzi (1930)*
Pensiero nostalgico (1931)*
String Quartet in C major (1932)*
Salmo di David (1933)*/***
Sinfonia da camera (1933)**
Serenata (1937)**

***Sabina von Walther (soprano); Ensemble Überbrettl / Pierpaolo Maurizzi (piano)
***Latin text and English/Italian translation.

Naxos 8.574049 [83’05”]

Producer Giovanna Salviucci Marini
Engineer Tommaso Tacchi

Recorded *23-25 July 2017 at Sala dei Concerti di Palazzo Chigi Saracini, Sienna and **4-7 October 2018 at Teatro degli Atti, Rimini

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos continues its inestimable series devoted to Italian music of the twentieth century with this disc of mainly first recordings by Giovanni Salviucci (1907-1937) – a largely forgotten composer, whom his contemporary Goffredo Petrassi once referred to as ‘‘the best of us all’.

What’s the music like?

Although his composing career lasted barely a decade, Salviucci left several notable works across most major genres. Of those pieces included here, earliest is the Five Pieces for violin and piano – appealing if expressively unvaried music, from which only the lively Alla Festa hints at his later rhythmic ingenuity. Each of them, though, would make an attractive encore; as too would Nostalgic Thought for cello and piano, or Psalm of David for soprano and piano – verse from Psalm 61 with its roots in a modality also drawing on French and Italian sources.

Just before this latter piece, Salviucci achieved something of a breakthrough with his String Quartet. The fast-slow-fast trajectory may yield no obvious surprises, but beneath the intently contrapuntal surface of its outer movements is a quixotic handling of tonality that offsets any risk of predictability. The highlight (in every sense) is the slow movement, an Adagio whose suffused eloquence and finely wrought rhetoric transcend Salviucci’s earlier music. That the piece is unpublished is something this excellent recording should go some way to remedying.

The other two pieces have previously been recorded, which hardly makes them familiar. Its scoring for 17 instruments suggests that the Chamber Symphony may have been conceived with knowledge of Schoenberg’s eponymous work, even though Salviucci’s approach to the balance between wind and strings is less combative and more pragmatic. Outer movements combine rhythmic incisiveness with a harmonic lambency redolent of Vaughan Williams, while the heartfelt Adagio and piquant scherzo confirm an ongoing process of maturation.

A process culminating in the Serenade that was Salviucci’s last completed work. Scored for nine instruments, its textural clarity and harmonic astringency suggest increasing familiarity with the composer’s inter-war contemporaries (Italian and otherwise), and if the lively outer movements are almost too succinct for their motivic ingenuity fully to register, the Canzona elides between soloistic and ensemble writing with deft mastery. The Venice premiere, four days after Salviucci’s death, must surely have rendered the loss of such potential more acute.

Does it all work?

For the most part. Salviucci’s earlier music may be notable more for fluency of technique, but the composer’s idiom evolved apace over his few remaining years, so that one is left only too aware of what he might have gone on to achieve in the very different cultural climate of post-war Italy.

The performances by the excellent Ensemble Überbrettl leave little to chance, with Pierpaolo Maurizzi as astute in direction as he is a pianist. Sound is just a little confined in the chamber works, while Giordano Montecchi’s notes provide a valuable biographical overview.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Salviucci was already a composer to reckon with, and this generous selection makes an ideal introduction to his music. Hopefully Naxos will now turn to the handful of orchestral works that he completed: in the meantime, the present release should be acquired forthwith.

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