On record – Ronald Stevenson: Piano Music Volume Five: Transcriptions of Purcell, Delius and Van Dieren (Christopher Guild) (Toccata Classics)

stevenson-5

Delius The Young Pianist’s Delius (1962, rev. 2005)
Purcell Toccata (1955); The Queen’s Dolour – A Farewell (1959); Hornpipe (1995); Three Grounds (1995)
Stevenson Little Jazz Variations on Purcell’s ‘New Scotch Tune’ (1964, rev ’75)
Van Dieren String Quartet No. 5 (c1925, rev. 1931; transcr. c1948-1987); Weep You No More, Sad Fountains (1925, transcr, 1951); Spring Song of the Birds (1925, transcr. 1987)

Christopher Guild (piano)

Toccata Classics TOCC0605 [80’57”]

Producer / Engineer Adaq Khan

Recorded 5 – 6 September 2020, 5 January 2021 at the Old Granary Studio, Toft Monks, Norfolk

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Christopher Guild continues his survey of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music with this volume comprising transcriptions of Purcell, Delius and Van Dieren – the latter’s Fifth Quartet fairly exemplifying Stevenson’s dedication to the spirit as much as the letter of the music at hand.

What’s the music like?

The essence of Stevenson’s re-creative approach is evident in his Purcell transcriptions, not least the Toccata with its deft changes of register and tensile rhetoric where Busoni’s benign presence can be felt. A lighter and more playful manner is evident in the Hornpipe, whereas the Three Grounds point up conceptual as well as musical links with Bach and, through their forming a ‘sonatina’ of unlikely cohesion, Beethoven. Greater license is demonstrated in the Little Jazz Variations, surely among Stevenson’s most delightful pieces in its blurring of the ‘boundary’ between transcription and composition and enhanced by its discreet take on pre-bop jazz idioms. The Queen’s Dolour looks to the poignant final aria from Dido and Aeneas for what is one of the most characteristic and, moreover, affecting Stevenson transcriptions.

All these pieces have been previously recorded, but not the remainder of this programme. A pity that The Young Pianist’s Delius is not more widely known, as this cycle of 10 miniatures drawn from across the composer’s output is a gift to pianists who have little original Delius to work with, whereas listeners who are unfamiliar with or deterred from investigating this easily misunderstood figure could hardly hope for a more representative or appealing breviary of his music. It helps that Stevenson’s transcriptions are straightforward but not in the least didactic.

Two songs by Bernard van Dieren – gravely eloquent as regards Weep You No More or deftly effervescent in Spring Song of the Birds – have secured a measure of familiarity when heard as encores. Not so the Fifth Quartet, never recorded in its original guise, whose transcription occupied Stevenson over almost four decades. Premiered in its revision in 1931, this work is among the most substantial from its composer’s later years as it unfolds from a discursive (if never rhapsodic) sonata design, via circumspect and headlong intermezzi, to a lively scherzo then soulful Adagio – before a resolute finale offers closure. Tonal ambivalence and textural intricacy are borne out in this recasting in terms of piano which lasts five minutes longer than the Allegri Quartet’s 1988 broadcast; not that Guild’s reading seems to lose focus in any way.

Does it all work?

Yes, given Stevenson’s command of keyboard technique and, moreover, his placing of this at the service of the piece in question. To paraphrase his comments on Liszt – were the classical repertoire suddenly to disappear, much it could still be accessed through those transcriptions that he made over the greater part of his career. Nor is the technique required of a consistently advanced degree, with the Delius and several of the Purcell pieces accessible to most capable pianists, though the Van Diren quartet necessitates an ability not far short of the transcriber!

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Christopher Guild is a resourceful and probing guide to Stevenson’s art; his Steinway D heard to advantage and his booklet notes readably informative. One final thought – the Van Dieren Quartets positively cry out for an integral recording: how about it, Toccata Classics?

Listen

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You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording. To find out more about the composer, visit the Ronald Stevenson Society, while for more on Christopher Guild, click here

On record – Ronald Center: Chamber and Instrumental Music Volume 2 – String Quartets 1-3 (The Fejes Quartet) (Toccata Classics)

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Robin Center
String Quartet no.1 (c1955)
String Quartet no.2 (1962-4)
String Quartet no.3 (1967)

Fejes Quartet [Tamás Fejes and Yoan Hlebarov (violins), Theodore Chung Lei (viola), Balázs Renczés (cello)

Toccata Classics TOCC0533 [70’34”]

Producer / Engineer Michael Ponder

Recorded 29 June – 2 July 2019 at RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its coverage of the Chamber and Instrumental Music by Ronald Center (1913-73) with this release of his three string quartets, written over his final 12 years of creativity and illustrating in full measure the strengths and weaknesses of his composing.

What’s the music like?

Born in Aberdeen then resident in the town of Huntly during his final three decades, Center was evidently a circumspect and retiring figure – if a hard taskmaster for those who studied with him. His modest output includes the powerful cantata Dona nobis pacem (issued on LP by Altarus back in the 1980s and well worth a new recording) and three string quartets – the first being the only work of his which saw publication in his lifetime. Taken as a whole, they epitomize an idiom that is trenchant and idiosyncratic, but often touching in its vulnerability.

The First Quartet is launched by an introduction whose dense textures duly set up the main Allegro by turns forthright and acerbic, its dissonance imbued with stealthy onward motion. There follows a scherzando-like movement whose tensile rhythms underpin ideas of a folk-inflected vitality, then an Adagio where facets of chorale and canon merge into a plangent and haunting threnody. After its equivocal opening bars, the final Allegro maintains a keen impetus – spurred on by pronounced ostinato patterns – through to its curtly decisive close.

The Second Quartet is on an incrementally larger scale, the opening movement setting forth with a proclamatory summons which the main Allegro unfolds in varied and often ingenious ways – not least the way its deceptively episodic trajectory evolves a long-term momentum. There follows a Vivace whose waspish demeanour is by no means devoid of humour, then a Mesto whose modal inflection and wistful central section make it the work’s emotional heart. Dance elements pervade the finale, an Allegro of headlong and ultimately unresolved energy.

The Third Quartet is outwardly more exploratory in its intensive use of serial elements and a seven-movement format, out of which larger sub-groupings emerge. Hence the opening two movements outline a methodical then ruminative first part; balanced by the speculative then quizzical, and impetuous then halting character of those which follow. That leaves the final Allegro to provide its forceful if increasingly eloquent and not a little fatalistic conclusion to a work which, though he was to live for a further six years, proved to be the composer’s last.

Does it all work?

Almost. Center was evidently a composer fully aware of what had been written in Europe up to the Second World War and after 1945, yet his three quartets suggest an ongoing struggle to redefine the possibilities of Bartók and Shostakovich et al in his own terms – hence leading to a sense of frustration, even inhibition, which is reflected in the frequent formal and expressive discontinuities of each piece. Qualities that come over in these excellent accounts by the Fejes Quartet, whose interpretative equivocation is – necessarily? – bound up with that of the music.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The first two quartets have been recorded (by the Saltire and Isla Quartets respectively) but having all three in first-rate sound with insightful notes by Alasdair Grant can only be to Center’s benefit. Might it be possible to record the music for string orchestra in due course?

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You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording. To find out more about the composer, visit the Ronald Center website, while you can click on the links for more on the Fejes Quartet and Deveron Projects

On record – Lyadov: Choral Music (Academy of Russian Music Chamber Choir / Ivan Nikiforchin) (Toccata Classics)

lyadov

Lyadov
Two Choruses from the Final Scene of Schiller’s ‘Die Braut von Messina’, Op. 28 (1878)
Glorification for Valdimir Stasov (1894)
Slava, Op. 47 (1899)
10 Russian Folksongs (1899)
Glorification for Vladimir Stasov (1899)
Farewell Song of the Schoolgirls from the Empress Maria Institute, Op. 50 (1900)
‘Drip, Ek’ Fugato (1900)
Glory to Nikolai Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1901)
Hymn to Anton Rubinstein, Op. 54 (1902)
Five Russian Folksongs (1902)
Chorus from Cantata in Memory of Mark Antokolsky (1902)
Music to Maurice Maeterlinck’s ‘Soeur Béatrice’, Op. 60 (1906)
15 Russian Folksongs (1908) – Nos. 3, 9, 10 and 14
10 Settings from the Obikhod, Op. 61 (1909) – Nos. 7 and 10
The Hourly Prayer of St Joasaph Gorlenko (1910)
Three Russian Folksongs (1912)
Glory to Evgeniya Ivanovna Zbrueva (1913)

Academy of Russian Music Chamber Choir / Ivan Nikiforchin

Toccata Classics TOCC0614 [66’46”] Russian (Cyrilic) texts and English translations / summaries

Producer / Engineer Ilya Dontsov

Recorded 5 November – 22 December 2020 at Concert Hall of Academy of Choral Arts, Moscow

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its intensive exploration of music’s (mainly) worthwhile byways with this anthology of choral music from Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914), enticingly sung in a sympathetic ambience – with all but two of the 39 pieces featured here being first recordings.

What’s the music like?

The irony that Lyadov is today most remembered for what he did not compose (the score of Diaghilev’s ballet The Firebird, for which he might not actually have been commissioned in any case) should not detract from the sizable corpus of piano music or limited but even more distinctive output of orchestral pieces which duly confirm a miniaturist of rare fastidiousness. Such quality is hardly less apparent in his acapella choral music, most of it featured here and which falls into three distinct categories such as are helpfully presented in generic sequence.

The first three tracks represent Lyadov’s ‘Original Religious Chants’ and find the composer enriching a genre that, almost by definition, went essentially unaltered over the two centuries from Bortnyansky to Gretchaninov. If his contributions lack the expressive fervour that later exponents – notably Rachmaninov – attained, the clarity of his writing and suppleness of his phrasing evince no little mastery and make these pieces as grateful to sing as they are to hear. Sung in English, they would hardly seem out of place within the context of domestic services.

The next 22 tracks survey most of Lyadov’s ‘Arrangements of Russian Folksongs’ which fall into two main categories – choral songs that are mainly slow and introspective, with spiritual or lamentational connotations; and choral dances as are mainly swift and demonstrative, with earthly or celebratory overtones. Again, later composers – notably Stravinsky in this instance – found a new level of harmonic astringency and rhythmic flexibility in such music, which is not to deny those qualities of pathos and charm this composer draws from his arrangements.

The closing 14 tracks comprise Lyadov’s ‘Complete Original Choral Works’ which prove a motley assortment – from choruses for theatrical productions, via homages to distinguished musical personages with a commemorative (not always memorial) function, to pieces of an occasional nature. Those the composer published indicate what he felt worth disseminating, with Op. 50 belying its rather cumbersome title for music whose wistful eloquence amounts to just under four minutes of understated bliss and the undoubted highlight of this collection.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that Lyadov clearly had an innate understanding of what was required when writing for unaccompanied voices. Those who are looking for emotional expansiveness or rhythmic invention will be disappointed, though such an approach was as far removed from Lyadov’s thinking within the choral medium as in those pieces for orchestra or piano. Rather, he opts for an intimacy and poise such as are effortlessly conveyed in these stylish renderings by the Academy of Russian Music Chamber Choir under the assured direction of Ivan Nikiforchin.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The clear if atmospheric acoustic provides an ideal ambience for these performances, with insightful notes by Igor Prokhorov who also provides English summaries for each of the folksongs. Those already familiar with Lyadov’s orchestral and piano music need not hesitate.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording.

On record – William Wordsworth: Orchestral Music Vol.3 (Toccata Classics)

wordsworth-3

Florian Arnicans (cello), Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

William Wordsworth
Symphony no.5 in A minor Op.68 (1957-60)
Cello Concerto Op.73 (1963)

Toccata Classics TOCC0600 [65’55”]

Producer Normands Slāva
Engineer Jānis Straume

Recorded 1-5 February 2021, Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its series devoted to the orchestral works of William Wordsworth (1908-88) in a coupling of two pieces from around the turn of the 1960s, when the changing priorities of the British musical establishment meant such music was increasingly overlooked.

What’s the music like?

Although it had to wait over a decade before its first performance in January 1975 (perhaps as it was written with no specific soloist in mind), the Cello Concerto is unerringly conceived for this instrument – not least the substantial opening Allegretto whose brusque initial orchestral tutti hardly prepares one for the wide-ranging if never discursive dialogue that follows. There is a lengthy and developmental cadenza before a reprise which continues the evolution of its pithy ideas prior to the ruminative close. Designated Nocturne, the ensuing Lento is among Wordsworth’s most atmospheric slow movements; the cello’s eloquent main theme provides a focal point thrown into relief by woodwind via a series of haunting asides, without seriously undermining the repose made tangible in the evocative closing bars. The final Allegro vivace is centred on a lively, even nonchalant refrain whose trenchant rhythmic profile comes to the fore in a fugal section whose accrued energy subsides into a musing solo passage – from out of which the earlier repartee continues through to a decisive while not a little sardonic coda.

Although premiered in 1962 and broadcast thereafter, the Fifth Symphony only now receives its first commercial recording – a pity, given this is arguably Wordsworth’s most emotionally involving such piece. A calmly undulating ‘motto’ at the outset is heard in three guises over each of three movements. Thematic in the initial Andante maestoso, its supplicatory writing for strings complemented with plangent woodwind in a discourse where the slowly emergent ‘landscape’ may well be that of the mind – not least its quietly ecstatic writing for solo violin toward the close. Rhythmic in the central Allegro, a scherzo whose spectral writing for tuned percussion and upper woodwind has more than a little malevolence – even with a whimsical trio to provide contrast. Its recalcitrant ebbing away makes the finale’s slow introduction the more striking, strings building to an expressive apex from where the Allegro begins. Here the harmonic aspect of the ‘motto’ is dominant, episodes of tensile fugato alternating with gentler asides on the way to an apotheosis whose affirmation is necessarily tempered by experience.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that both pieces find Wordsworth’s often elusive tonal language at its most searching. Florian Arnicans cannot have known the Cello Concerto before these sessions, but he captures its brooding understatement with undoubted assurance and thereby reinforces its claim to be the deepest and most substantial of this composer’s concertante works. The Fifth Symphony can be heard in a 1979 studio reading by Stewart Robson with the BBC Scottish Symphony (Lyrita), but Gibbons reveals more fully why it is likely the highlight of Wordsworth’s cycle.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The playing of the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra is on a par with that of the previous two instalments in this series, and Paul Conway contributes his usual thorough booklet notes. Good to hear the fourth volume in this series, featuring the Seventh Symphony, is imminent.

Read, listen and Buy

You can read Richard’s review of the first two volumes in the Wordsworth series on Arcana, clicking here for the first volume and here for the second

You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Toccata Classics website. For more information on WIlliam Wordsworth, click here. For more on the performers on this recordings, click on the names for websites devoted to Florian Arnicans, John Gibbons and the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra respectively.

On record – Arnold: Symphony no.9 & Grand Concerto Gastronomique (Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons) (Toccata Classics)

toccata-arnold

Malcolm Arnold
Grand Concerto Gastronomique Op.76 (1961)
Symphony no.9 in D Op.128 (1986)

Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie (soprano, Concerto), Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

Toccata Classics TOCC0613 [57’30”]

Producer Normands Slāva
Engineer Jānis Straume

Recorded 14-16 June 2021 at Great Concert Hall, Liepāja

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics marks the centenary of Malcolm Arnold’s birth (falling on October 21st) in a pertinent coupling of his final symphonic statement with music finding this composer at his most irreverent and, by so doing, juxtaposes the two sides of his creativity to startling effect.

What’s the music like?

It was the compositional hiatus resulting from emotional breakdown then tortuous recovery as provided the catalyst for the Ninth Symphony, whose superficial simplicity belies the anguish beneath its surface. John Gibbons (who had earlier conducted this work in London, as part of a nine-year Arnold cycle, and Northampton) brings tangible expectancy to the opening Vivace, its arresting initial gestures soon revealing that textural starkness which goes on to define the whole work, with a circuitous evolution even more marked in the Allegretto – an intermezzo whose wistful theme effects less a series of variations than poignant searching for formal and expressive closure. The ensuing Giubiloso is more overtly a scherzo with its headlong motion or trenchant exchanges between wind and strings, yet even here a curious detachment prevails.

Arnold’s eight previous symphonies each concluded in a relatively short and decisive finale, but the Ninth’s final Lento proves anything but – its sustained slowness abetted by restrained dynamics and a sparseness of detail which could have made for unrelieved gloom were it not for those myriad ‘shades of grey’ the composer draws from his reduced palette. An additional factor is Gibbons’s pulse for this movement as a tactus (one-second) rather than crotchet beat, leading to a traversal several minutes less than earlier recordings by Andrew Penny (Naxos), Vernon Handley (BMG) or Rumon Gamba (Chandos) and, as a result, making the cadential chord one of benediction than resignation. Whether or not this approach convinces depends on how one views the symphony overall, but there can be no doubting its sincerity of intent.

Composed for the Astronautical Music Festival – the last of several events inspired by Gerard HoffnungGrand Concerto Gastronomique is Arnold at his most uproarious. Its designation ‘for Eater, Waiter Food and Large Orchestra’ betrays a visual aspect not essential for enjoying this 15-minute consumption of Brown Windsor soup, roast beef, cheese, Peach Melba – with a sensuous cameo by soprano Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie – then coffee with brandy; framed by a Prologue and Epilogue of due portentousness, but thankfully no ‘Mr Creosote’ in evidence.

Does it all work?

As a coupling, yes. As to content, the Ninth Symphony will likely always divide opinion as to whether it is what Arnold intended or merely the best that he was able to achieve after the traumas of the preceding decade, but no-one could accuse Gibbons of realizing it as other than a cohesive entity whose formal proportions are as precisely judged as its expressive trajectory is purposefully conveyed. Listeners not convinced by those earlier recordings should certainly hear this new account, lucidly and persuasively rendered by the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra.

Is it recommended?

Yes, enhanced by thought-provoking booklet notes from Timothy Bowers along with realistic sound. Should still-missing orchestral pieces by Arnold (notably the Op. 1 First Divertimento or the Op. 12 Symphonic Suite) come to light, Gibbons will hopefully be asked to record them.

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You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording. You can read more about the Malcolm Arnold society at their website, while for more on each of the performers, click on the names Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie, Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and John Gibbons