Mala Punica, Walled Garden - James weeks/exaudi/hortus ensemble
This is a seductive thing: lush, finespun music by James Weeks, performed by his peerless vocal ensemble Exaudi and the excellent instrumentalists of the Netherlands-based Hortus Ensemble – artfully recorded, too, by the Winter & Winter label. Mala punica (meaning pomegranate) is a set of eight pieces based on the Egyptian and Mesopotamian love poems of the Song of Songs. Walled Garden comprises three pieces for strings and flute trios that weave around the voices to create the image of an enclosed aural garden where beautiful sounds can grow. Weeks hones in on horticultural imagery in the texts so we get vine tendrils and flowers waving in the breeze, all treated with a close, gentle sensuality that shimmers and beguiles but never gets lurid. There’s a refinement and definition to the writing that sounds just right in Exaudi’s chiselled-but-definitely-not-chaste delivery.
Kate Mollison, Guardian
Mendelssohn, hensel & Sterndale bennett - Alice Neary
This thoughtful programme brings together three contemporaries: Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn) and William Sterndale Bennett, of whom Mendlessohn once wrote 'I think him the most promising young musician I know'. It's no surprise that the most vivid - and vividly realised - works here are Felix Mendelssohn's sonatas: even the relatively neglected First is a masterpiece of contrapuntal ingenuity beside which Sterndale Bennett's effective, but unambitious, duo pales. Alice Neary is crisply elegant in Mendlessohn's opening Allegro vivace against Benjamin Frith's mercurial fluency, drawing a wonderfully veiled sound from her throaty Gagliano cello. The falling exchanges of its wistful slow movement are limpid, though its flowing Allegro assai feels tame.
They fire up in the Second Sonata, which fairly bursts with vivacity, making this a strong contender beside the sinewy, high-voltage reading of Steven Isserlis and Stephen Hough (on Hyperion). Neary and Frith achieve an ideal effervescence, at no tonal expense, which also lifts Bennett's gracefully vocal Allegro. Frith's crystalline touch here, ideally recorded, is a joy, complemented by Neary's unforced eloquenc. If Bennett veers towards nonchalance - this is the man who lost confidence when offered the chance to make a life in Leipzig, his key legacy being to have arranged its first cricket match - this duo keep it buoyant with intense focus and colour.
Hensel proves the dark horse here, her two miniatures shot with gothic shadow. The turbulent Fantasia (original titled 'sonata') in G minor has a touch of Northanger Abbey, comedy rubbing shoulders with heart-stopping depth, while the sunny arioso of the Capriccio in A flat explodes into angry tumult. In both, one sense simmering power trapped in the confines of the salon piece form.
Helen Wallace, BBC Music Magazine
Röntgen string trios vol 4, No. 13-16 - lendvai string trio
This review wrote itself. All the marvellous traits I noted in Vols 1-3 (2/14, 11,14, 3/16) apply here: the 'freshness of melodic and thematic invention' with its 'inexhaustible fecundity of moody', 'sheer joie de vivre' and 'compositional craftsmanship', alongside 'the impeccable musicianship [of] the wonderful Lendvai Trio', their 'infectious enthusiasm consistently communicated' which 'compels attention'
No 13, a minor masterpiece of poise and grace, is the last of three trios Rontgen wrote in Bilthoven in early 1925. Nos 14-16 were produced singly (unlike their predecessors, which tended to be written in groups). No 14 dates from February 1928, following a trip to America. The main theme of the lovely Andantino con tenerezza has a touch of the Spiritual about it and the Trio as a whole, despite the minor home key, is light and relaxed. So is No 15, completed in August 1929 during a car tour of northern Italy with his eldest son, Englebert, and his daughter-in-law. Known to the family as the 'Car Trio', it records his impressions of the family holiday, complete with evocation of the car's horn and a Finale automobilistico. What turned out to be the final Trio was written in three days in May 1930. Once more, the music is full of charm, a real dialogue for the three players.
The performances are superbly committed and the recording, made in the Champs Hill Music Room in June 2015, is superbly balanced, the players in a beautifully natural perspective. Having revisited the earlier volumes in preparation for this new disc, i think this might just be the best of the series.
Guy Rickards, Gramophone Magazine
Shostakovich String Quartets Nos 1-15 - Brodsky Quartet
Few British ensembles have been more dedicated exponents of Shostakovich than the Brodsky Quartet. After their first recorded complete cycle for Teldec made in 1989, they have continued to give memorable concerts of his works in an astonishing variety of settings, from remote churches on Norwegian fjords to the Sydney Opera House.
As viola player Paul Cassidy explains in his engaging booklet notes, the Brodskys decided to make live recordings in the belief that concerts allow for a greater degree of communication between composer, performers and audience than the relatively clinical backdrop of the recording studio. This strategy works particularly well here since the performances as a whole achieve a rare degree of intensity. It really draws you into the unsettling subtext of Shostakovich's writing. Even if there are a few moments where the ensemble is not absolutely pristine, the Brodskys take greater risks than in their first recording, whether, for example, in stoking up ever-increasing levels of ferocity in the relentless second movement of the the Tenth, or in adopting a much slower yet concentrated tempo for the outer movements of the Eigth.
Violinist Daniel Rowland's charismatic contribution comes into its own in the wonderfully sensitive way he moulds the anguished melodic lines in the Recitative of the Second. Notably, too, in the powerful way he dispatches the frenzied outbursts that punctuate the desolate landscape of the 15th.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of these recordings lies in the huge range of dynamics and timbres that are employed to project the sometimes bewildering sequence of emotions that emanate from Shostakovich's musical argument. Nowhere is this more compellingly conveyed than in the way the seemingly carefree exterior of the Sixth is repeatedly subverted to present the work in much darker colours than is often the case.
Erik Levi, BBC Music Magazine
Beethoven and mendelssohn - sacconi quartet
String quartets stand out for different reasons, from quality of sound (the Takács or, in the past, the Alban Berg or Amadeus) to adventurous repertoire (Kronos or Arditti or JACK) to versatility, among whom the Sacconi Quartet, currently celebrating their 15th anniversary this year, are front-runners. They have a festival, work with a wide range of musicians and actors and have their own label. They are also very good. The works here, typically, are carefully matched: Mendelssohn wrote his mighty A minor quartet Op 13 in response to Beethoven's in A minor, Op 132. The playing is fresh and pliable, each work illuminating the other. Both have been widely recorded, but not together. Assuming you're not a completist, that's reason enough to snap up this disc.
Fiona Maddocks, Guardian
now comes beauty - bbc concert orchestra, gavin sutherland
It wasn't that long ago that Grayson Perry described beauty as 'the elephant in the room' in modern art. Now here are nine British composers who, in their very different ways, are determined to give that elephant a hearty embrace. We can easily forget how much courage such a stance would have taken until almost the end of the last century. It certainly did when David Matthews wrote his sumptuous and subtle White Nights in 1980, for me the stand-out piece in this collection. If you didn't now the date though, you'd probably guess it was on the newest work in the collection - along, perhaps, with John Pickard's grittily eloquent Binyon Songs and Christopher Wright's darkly brooding Legend.
Some of this music would easily originate from a world in which Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Eric Coates and even Richard Addinsell were still contemporaries. Is that a problem? Only if you want it to be, and presumably for ideological rather than music reasons. A great deal of it is very enjoyable, and perhaps most encouraging of all is the sense that something genuinely new and fresh - rather than just superficially novel - could emerge from this king of musical 'back to basics' attitude. The performances have warmth, polish and conviction and the recordings are very good too.
Stephen Johnson, BBC Music Magazine
BETTER ANGELS - EMILY PAILTHORPE
Intriguing set of luscious melancholy - Oboist Emily Pailthorpe has put together an intriguing programme from the limited repertoire available. She begins with a lusciously long-breathed account of Strauss's late concerto, then makes lyrical work of Samuel Barber's valedictory Canzonetta, both backed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Martyn Brabbins. The disc takes its name from Richard Blackford's Oboe Concerto The Better Angels of Our Nature, written for Pailthorpe in 2013. Fifteen minutes long, it is initially evocative of mid-20th-century Americana, then has at its fulcrum a haunting rendition of Taps, the military bugle call played at sunset or a funeral. The music that follows this is melancholy, yet ultimately consoling, and though the downbeat ending is almost anticlimactic, Pailthorpe and Brabbins make it work. In between come Barber's Summer Music, and Janacek's Mladi, in which Pailthorpe is not strictly in the spotlight, but is a distinctive voice leading a stylish chamber ensemble of BBCSO principals.
Erica Jeal, Guardian
nocturnal variations - Ruby hughes & joseph middleton
Drawing on the works of four favourite composers, soprano Ruby Hughes's recital brings together 16 songs about night, 'a time for contemplation, mediation, sleep and dreams', as she describes it in her introductory note.
Her singing is exceptional for its consistency. Though her tone is light and delicate, it's invariably true in pitch and capable of a surprising range of dynamic variety - a perfect instrument of its kind. Every word she sings comes through clearly.
Joseph Middleton's neat and purposeful accompaniments are major assets, and just as Hughes's singing offers an object lesson in how to bring words and notes together, she and her pianist collaborate as a duo of equals. Made in Champs Hill, the recording is close but also sensitive and revealing.
The repertoire forms a progression: Schubert was a beloved composer for Britten, and both Mahler and Berg influential predecessors. Each of the performers observes the details of Schubert's writing. In Mahler's 'Wo die schönen Trompeten blazon', 'Um Mitternacht' and 'Urlicht' Hughes combines a sense of intimacy with a grandeur of conception, while Middleton makes a good deal of accompaniments that feel orchestrally rather than pianistically conceived.
The evocative ambiguities of Berg's infrequently heard Four Songs Op. 2 are imaginatively explored, while the four unusual items by Britten, including the Goethe setting 'Um Mitternacht', prove well worth encountering.
George Hall, BBC Music Magazine
Tomkins: Anthems and Canticles - Magdalen College Choir, Daniel Hyde
Thomas Tomkins was one of the great tragic figures of English music. A magnificently prolific composer, his misfortune was to see every pillar of his life - musical, personal, religious, political and financial - demolished during the Civil War and its aftermath.
We think we have lived through a turbulent summer, it's a picnic compared with what Tomkins endured between 1642 and 1646, when Worcester under siege the cathedral where he worked desecrated, and his newly installed organ smashed up. No wonder one of his last masterpieces was the poignantly named Sad Pavan for these Distracted Times.
That's not included on this fine new disc from the Choir of Magdalen College Oxford, directed by Daniel Hyde, and Laurence Dreyfus's Viol consort Phantasm - but the selection does comprise several glorious anthems and viol fantasias and the superb Magnificat and Nunc Dmittis from Tomkins's Fifth Service.
And surprisingly, the overall mood is far from doleful. The interpretations are forthright and plangent, the sound soloists spirited, and the blend between choir and viols is excellent. Far from being broken by misfortune, Tomkins emerges as a proto-Beethoven figure, his sonorous or sinuous polyphony proclaiming the indestructibility of the human spirit, even when battered by ill-fate.
Incidentally, the disc is also Hyde's Oxford swansong. Next month he starts as director of music at St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York, succeeding the late John Scott.
Richard Morrison, The Times
stunden, tage, ewigkeiten - Benjamin appl & james bailieu
Hours, days, eternities... the first line of a poem by Heinrich Heine gives this CD its name - and warns us that this illuminating recital of Romantic and late-Romantic settings of his verse is likely to throw up more of those ever-vexed questions of just how bitter is Heine's sweet, and how did his composers mould their own responses to the poet's own?
Benjamin Appl, still a youthful BBC New Generation Artist, has the vocal robustness, cultivation and intelligence to test our own responses. The single vision of Grieg's springlike and springing 'Gruss' is contrasted with Mendelssohn's more emollient greeting, purling out of Appl's warm legato as effortlessly as in his performances of the poignant, salonesque settings by the composer's sister Fanny. For six rarely heard Heine settings by Rubinstein, Appl tapers his voice to sadness, while the lyrical heart of his baritone seduces the listener in the melodic ease of 'Du bit wie eine Blume', its pairs of staccato piano notes recreating a fragility of a fascinatingly different nature from that of Schumann's incomparable setting.
We're then plunged straight into four songs from Schubert's Schwanengesang, as apparently vocally effortless as Appl's concluding Schumann Dichterliebe. Here, as sensed throughout the recital, both Appl and his sentient accompanist, James Baillieu, give space, time, and ever-sensitive placing and pacing to the cycle, even if they sometimes fail to draw out the last drop of inner angst, pity and fear from these music encounters with Heine.
Hilary Finch, BBC Music Magazine
deo: harvey - the choir of st john's cambridge
This is an essential disc not only for admirers of Jonathan Harvey's work in general but for all those interested in contemporary sacred music. Harvey stretched the limits of Anglican church music in a way not seen, really, since Tippett's Evening Canticles from 1961, but did so with regularity and consistency. I recall fellow church music enthusiasts in the early 1980s making real (and largely successful) efforts to come to grips with this music, in a way they would never have done for the rest of Harvey's output; works such as I love the Lord were totems of the acceptable face of modern church music. but his work has never achieved a regular foothold in the worship of the Anglican Church, and in part this must be attributed to the technical difficulty of some of it. This outstanding recording may help to change that.
The relatively straightforward I love the Lord (1977) is in fact what opens the disc, preparing the way for a staggering performance of the agnificat and Nunc dimities, written the following year. The Magnificat is epic in scope, it is hard to believe that it lats just under eight minutes. Certainly these are difficult works, including various vocal techniques (whispering, glissandos, percussive repetition of consonants, etc) hardly common in the normal run of church music, but the investment the choir has clearly put into them really give extraordinary results. As Andrew Nethsingha writes in his detailed and reflective notes, 'Some contemporary music experts have considered Harvey's church music to be of lesser importance than his instrumental works. I want to stress how imaginative, innovative and courageous Harvey was in pushing the boundaries of church music, without ever losing the intensity of spirituality which underpins all the great religious music.' Precisely so, though it was of course essential that Harvey be able to write for a choir of sufficient technical ability to cope with is demands - and this was the great contribution of Martin NEary, with his pioneering work in commissioning new work at Winchester - and Harvey was never a straightforward Christian believer, as Nethsingha also acknowledges.
This disc also includes stunning performances of Come, Holy Ghost (1984), another of the composer's works that has proved more popular, though its technical demands should not be underestimated; the dazzling Missa braves (1995); and the very moving The Annunciation (2011), written right at the end of Harvey's life for this choir, as well as two exuberant works for solo organ (the Toccata also employs tape) performed by Edward Picton-Turbervill. This recording is outstanding on every count; remarkable and under-performed repertoire, beautifully performed and recorded. I wonder if St John's might next consider other works from Harvey's non-liturgical output, such as the wonderful Forms of Emptiness and Sobre un Extasis de Alta Contemplation? One can hope.
Ivan Moody, Gramophone Magazine
a western borderland - duncan honeybourne
The English piano music programmed here may not shift musical history's tectonic plates, but it still offers reasonable nourishment. Four of the five pieces receive their first recordings: the exception is Elgar's awkward but interesting Concerto Allegro, despatched by Duncan Honeybourne with a panache that can't quite disguise the composer's unease at writing for the piano in the first place.
Two of the rest hail from Richard Francis (b1946), the one contemporary composer in the group, all connected in some way with the English-Welsh border country. The the grandly conceived Fantasy Sonata of 1969, Liszt and John Ireland exchange a chromatic handshake. But I found most pleasure, and sharper skills, in his attractive haracteristic Pieces - morsels on the surface, though some have hidden depths.
Ivor Gurney's Five Western Watercolours needed more colour and rather less water to linger in this listener's memory, but it's fun to hear from Walford Davies in his student days, flamboyantly building up from his 1890 Theme and Variations from a docile, hymn-like melody. Honeybourne treats his enterprising repertoire with respect and affection.
Geoff Brown, BBC Music Magazine
Liberté, égalite, sororité - Ambache ensemble
The latest album from Diana Ambache's own label explores six works written between 1861 and 1952, and quietly reminds us of the marginalisation of female composers during the Romantic and modernist periods in France, as indeed elsewhere. Of the six, only Lili Boulanger is primarily remembered for her compositional output. We think of Viardot-Garcia as singer, mistress and muse before turning to her music, while Tailleferre is rarely considered away from her male colleagues in Les Six. Of Claude Arrieu, Louise Farrenc and Mel (or Mélanie) Bonis we hear nothing much at all.
The disc is, however, variable in content. Farrenc's 1861 Cello Sonata, indebted to Mendelssohn and Schumann, is unremarkable except for its swaying central Barcarolle, and the pastoral-neoclassical blend of Arrieu's Reed Trio (1936) isn't always ideally successful. Ambache compares Bonis - in whom sexual and religious impulses ran strong - to Messiaen, though one is more frequently reminded of Debussy, her fellow composition pupil: Scenes de la foret (1907), the disc's real find, opens in imitation of Pelléas, though the best of it has some of the grave eloquence of Boulanger's 1911 Nocturne. The bravura Hispanicism of Viardot-Garcia's Sonatine (1874) anticipates Lalo's Symphonie espagnole. Tailleferre's beautifully scored 1952 Concertino has charm, sophisticated elegance and a central Nocturne of considerable sensuality.
Technically accomplished and refined as always, Ambache proves a persuasive guide to the repertory, though there are occasional inequalities elsewhere. Rebecca Knight, though excellent, doesn't make the case for Farrenc's Sonata. We're not told which violinist is playing which work, and Boulanger's Nocturne gets a finer performance than Viardot-Garcia's Sonatine, where you notice some abrasion in the tone. Scenes de la foret is really a work for flute and two accompanists rather than a united trio, and Antony Robb shines in it, as indeed he also does in Tailleferre's Concertino. The recording itself is exemplary and beautifully engineered.
Tim Ashley, Gramophone Magazine