71iqtbpqvfl._ss500_John Ireland      Sarnia: An Island Sequence

John Ireland      The Island Spell

Tchaikovsky      The Seasons Opus 37a

Tom Hicks, piano


At first sight, pairing a twentieth-century British composer with a nineteeth-century Russian romantic seems an unusual combination, but in this debut disc by young British pianist Tom Hicks the music of these two composers sits well together, creating an enjoyable recital disc of music inspired by nature and infused with pastoralism.

The disc opens with ‘Sarnia’, whose first two movements were composed in 1940 while John Ireland was staying on Guernsey, shortly before it was occupied by the Germans. There is a nice connection between music and pianist here as Tom Hicks hails from Guernsey; ‘Sarnia’ is the Roman name for the island. This atmospheric, dramatic and expansive work portrays aspects of the island and Hicks’ sensitive attention to detail and understated bravura brings this music fully to life with colour, spacious expression, pungent sonorities, and a tender poignancy when required.

‘The Island Spell’, inspired by Jersey and the earliest of Ireland’s Channel Islands pieces, is evocative and impressionistic, redolent of Debussy’s perfumed harmonies and filigree traceries (Ireland was described as an “English Impressionist”), its delicate textures rendered with grace and clarity.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Seasons’ follow, a suite of 12 miniatures which encapsulate the composer’s distinct style in microcosm. These characterful, contrasting works are the perfect canvas for Hick to paint a full palette of colours and expression, capturing their intimacy and wistfulness, with a keen ear for details and textures.

Overall, an enjoyable and engaging debut recording from this impressive young pianist.

Recommended

 

For American pianist Jonathan Biss, Beethoven has been a near-constant companion for almost his entire life. He has been playing and writing about the 32 Piano Sonatas, has spent nearly ten years recording Beethoven’s sonatas and has embarked on a cycle of concerts performing all the sonatas at London’s Wigmore Hall and in the US (and let us hope this wonderful series will be able to resume….).

the intensity of my current immersion with his music has become one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Jonathan Biss

This handsomely-produced boxset of the complete Piano Sonatas (Orchid Classics) presents the sonatas not in chronological order, as many sets do, but rather with a cross-section of sonatas on each disc, to demonstrate Biss’s conviction that each one stands as a brilliant masterpiece in its own right. This approach – one which he is also taking in his concert cycle – allows the listener to appreciate the individual qualities and distinct structures of each sonata, and the extraordinary development in Beethoven’s piano writing. Thus, the final sonatas, usually presented as a trilogy, in concert and on disc, are placed on separate discs within the context of sonatas from different periods of Beethoven’s compositional life. Biss refutes the notion that Beethoven had three distinct compositional periods as an over-simplification and instead urges the listener to view Beethoven’s compositional style in “a perpetual state of evolution”; even the final sonatas still betray some of his gruffness and a desire to shock, while the slow movements of the early sonatas look forward to later ones in their heart-stopping beauty and eloquence.

As individual works, each is endlessly compelling on its own merits; as a cycle, it moves from transcendence to transcendence, the basic concerns always the same, but the language impossibly varied

Jonathan Biss

As mentioned in my review of his most recent Beethoven sonatas concert at the Wigmore, Biss is a “thinking pianist”, with an acute intellectual curiosity and an ability to articulate the exigencies of learning, maintaining and performing this music, its challenges and its joys, offering remarkable insights, “behind the notes”, as it were, from the point of view of the performer. “Here was vivid expression, vitality and flamboyance; no standing back from the music as if in modest reverence but rather a deep dive into its every nook and cranny to winkle out and reveal details afresh.”

So does Biss achieve a similar spontaneity, vitality and expressivity in the recording? I think so – and the set gets off to an energetic start with the Sonata in C minor, No 5, Op 10/1, its first movement dramatic and commanding, the finale a throbbing, quickfire rondo bookending a slow movement of immense elegance.

Biss also appreciates Beethoven’s humour and wit, and selects pacing, particularly in the up-tempo movements, to highlight this. He often finds the humour in the music which others often gloss over: quirky ritardandos and accelerandos, which may irritate purists, and laugh-out-loud fermatas. 

Purists may also baulk at shifts in pace which are not always marked in the score, but I like the often dizzying, sometimes unruly tempi, as if Beethoven couldn’t get his ideas down fast enough. There’s a strong sense of storytelling here too, with dramatic bursts of narrative presented with a gripping immediacy – the finale of ‘Les Adieux’, for example, overflows with heartfelt joy. Slow movements, meanwhile, become transcendent poetic interludes infused with grace, tenderness and warmth; and these often reveal the true depths of Beethoven’s imagination.

The famous opening movement of the ‘Moonlight’ sonata (too often the subject of rather lugubriously clichéd readings) is hushed and haunting, just teetering on the edge of tragedy, but always eloquent. Biss’s sound is luminous (“moonlit”?!) and liquid, his pace a gently rippling moderato. This is contrasted by a finale of almost unrelenting restlessness, occasionally bordering on a comic hysteria. It’s this kind of playing, combined with airy passagework, dramatic tempi, crisp articulation, and a vivid aural imagination that can harness the breadth of the piano’s sonorities (listen to his pedalling in the finale of the Waldstein and the kaleidoscopic sound effects he achieves), that had me on the edge of my seat for much of Biss’s recent Wigmore concert.

But it’s not all about fleet fingers. Biss gives us thoughtful long-spun melodic lines, well-balanced harmonies, taut, driving rhythms, rumbling tremolandos, dramatic fermatas, carefully-considered voicing, subito dynamic swerves, and colourful orchestration – all devices Beethoven employs to express an amazing range of emotions from joy to despair, wit and uproarious humour, stubbornness and rage, passionate ardour and transcendent serenity. The sheer force of Beethoven’s personality, his capriciousness and inventiveness, is illustrated by Biss with clarity and proportion, beauty and commitment. His Beethoven is direct, lively and spontaneous, ever alert to Beethoven’s shifting moods. And while he undoubtedly respects the composer and his music, Biss does not allow reverence to get in the way of telling an entertaining story (certain other Beethoven pianists would have us believe that because this is “great music”, it must also be Very Serious). Instead, Biss’s approach is delightfully optimistic – one senses his constant curiosity and open-mindedness about this music – and refreshingly liberated from more mainstream interpretative choices. One also has the sense of a pianist with a profound affection for this music which comes from a long association with it, but also an ongoing fascination; for Jonathan Biss, the journey is far from over.

This is, in short, beautiful, thoughtful and incredibly vivid playing, and because of the organisation of the sonatas, each disc feels complete and satisfying in its own right, like a recital. An invigorating addition to the catalogue of Beethoven piano sonatas.

Recommended


Jonathan Biss | Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas is available on the Orchid Classics label.

5044275-origpic-df6a41The young Jordanian-Palestinian pianist Iyad Sughayer makes an excellent case for the piano music of Aram Khachaturian in this impressive debut album.

Most people are familiar only with Khachaturian’s ballet music for Gayaneh and Spartacus, which regularly appears in concert programmes, but he also wrote a considerable amount of piano music, though only the sparkling, technically-challenging Toccata (here despatched with finesse and élan by Sughayer) has made it into the recital repertoire. This disc is a very welcome opportunity to explore his rarely-played piano music.

Organised as a recital, the disc opens with the virtuosic and expansive E-flat Piano Sonata of 1961. Two big-boned, tumultuous outer movements are offset by a haunting, perfumed lyrical middle movement. Sughayer expertly handles the varying moods and technical demands of this work with a confident polish and a crisp direct sound.

The rest of the album comprises shorter works, including the charming Children’s Album, also known as The Adventures of Ivan. Originally written for pedagogical purposes, these appealing miniatures are by turns poignant, witty and playful, often infused with folk idioms, and Sughayer neatly catches their contrasting characters, elevating these pieces beyond teaching music with his expressive tone control and sensitivity to this music’s changing moods (attributes which are in fact evident throughout this disc).

The disc closes with the showpiece, the Toccata (1932), which Sughayer manages with an impressive aplomb. Overall, this disc is fine showcase for Iyad Sughayer’s talent and an excellent introduction to the piano music of Aram Khachaturian.

Recommended

Khachaturian – Piano Works is available on the BIS label.

 

 

1566285092For many pianists, our first encounter with the music of Cyril Scott is through his exotic, languorous piece Lotus Land. This was also Georgian pianist Nino Gvetadze’s first introduction to Scott’s piano music, through one of her teachers at Tbilisi Conservatory.

Scott’s music is rarely performed today, though Lotus Land remains a perennial favourite at courses and piano clubs (I first discovered it when a friend played it at a weekend piano course and was drawn to its impressionistic, Debussyan idioms). His characterful piano miniatures were popular at their time of writing, at the start of the twentieth century when a piano graced most drawing rooms and there was a keen appetite and fashion for small pieces and songs which could be enjoyed at home. Lotus Land was a novelty for its time; evocative of exotic Eastern places with its perfumed harmonies and black-key glissandi, it is based on one of Scott’s own poems.

Scott stood on the cusp of the modern era: born in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as a student he heard Clara Schumann play, but his music and attitudes were forward-looking, even revolutionary. In addition to music, he also wrote poetry and copious prose on a variety of subjects from mysticism, religion and the occult to health and well-being. A vegetarian, he advocated alternative medicine and herbal remedies.

cyrilscott-nationalportraitgallery
Portrait of Cyril Scott by George Hall Neale (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Both John Ireland and Eugene Goosens recognised Scott’s position at the forefront of modern British composers, a key figure who pioneered a move away from the stranglehold of nineteenth-century Germanic romanticism and a musical conservatism, and he was admired by Wagner, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky and his lifelong friend and enthusiastic supporter Percy Grainger. But despite a prolific output of orchestral and chamber music, two operas, incidental music, and works for chorus, by the time of the Second World War, Scott’s music had declined in popularity, though he continued to compose, undeterred.

In her new recording of Cyril Scott’s piano music, Nino Gvetadze hopes to give the listener a glimpse into his musical imagination, which produced music which Debussy described as “an intoxication for the ear”. This disc is a selection of Scott’s piano music (Leslie De’Ath has recorded Scott’s complete piano music on the Dutton label), including the six Poems, Summerland, Op 54, and the Pierrot Pieces, Op 35. And of course Lotus Land in a dreamy, hauntingly sensuous reading by Gvetadze which for me evokes the drowsy humid heat of the east.

The influence of Debussy and late nineteenth-century orientalism is clear in Scott’s music. The listener could easily mistake pieces like Sphinx, The Garden of soul-sympathy and the two Pierrot Pieces for the work of Debussy, with their colourful, unexpected parallel harmonies and modality. Poppies from Poems has a Satie-esque eccentricity about it, while Summerland is redolent of Schumann’s Kinderscenzen or Faure’s Dolly Suite. Other pieces are more pedestrian and obviously English, all Edwardian drawing rooms, antimacassars and aspidistras with just a whiff of the exotic in their piquant rhythms and harmonies.

Gvetadze brings much colour, nuance, delicacy and grace to these piano miniatures, assisted by a lovely warm piano. Her sound is transparent, lyrical and elegant, and she is adept at highlighting the quirkiness and undisputed charm of the music, but there is a certain ‘sameness’ to Scott’s music in this selection which tires after a while. But Gvetadze is clearly a passionate advocate of this music, and as an overview of Scott’s piano music, this is an enjoyable, handsomely-produced collection. The CD includes interesting liner notes by Desmond Scott, the composer’s son.


Visions – Cyril Scott Piano Works | Nino Gvetadze (Challenge Records)

 

qtz2134R. Schumann – Works for Piano / Joseph Tong

This new release by British pianist Joseph Tong on the Quartz label contains some of Schumann’s most intimate and autobiographical music, notably the Fantasie in C, Op 17.

Never one for disguising his emotions, Schumann described it as “perhaps the most impassioned music I have ever written” (writing to Clara Wieck, March 1838), and here he wears his heart on his sleeve in a remarkable display of soul-bearing. Imbued with passionate and unresolved longing, the music portrays the heart-fluttering panoply of emotions from ecstasy to agony which being in love provokes. It is a work of great virtuosity, a huge test for the pianist, but Joseph makes light of this, offering an authoritative, magisterial and poised reading of the first two movements, whose seemingly disparate elements segue fluidly to create a coherent sense of ongoing narrative. The final movement, by contrast, is tender and intimate, and Joseph holds back in the more climactic episodes where others might push the tempo and volume, thus bringing a greater insensity of emotion and expression. There’s a wonderful lyricism and clarity throughout the work, with many interior details highlighted.

The fantasie is prefaced by the charming Arabesque, also in C, which moves forward with relaxed purpose and elegance. Papillons, the other large scale work on the disc and a work which amply reveals the contrasting sides to Schumann’s personality, is rich in wit and colour, and recalls some of the heroism of the Fantasie. The disc closes with the Faschingsschwank aus Wien, an engaging and robust account.

The disc includes detailed, informative liner notes by Richard Wigmore.

Recommended.


508178Dystonia: Franz Schubert – Sonata in A, D959, Robert Schumann – Kreisleriana / Andreas Eggertsberger, piano

This is a very personal disc for Austrian pianist Andreas Eggertsberger and the reason is in the title, Dystonia. With diminishing use of his left hand, Andreas finally received the diagonosis of focal dystonia in 2012, the same neurological disease that was probably documented for the first time with Robert Schumann. Following five years of treatment and therapy, which required a complete re-learning of the piano and meticulous exercises to bring rehearsed movement back under control, Andreas has returned to performing.

The pairing of a late Schubert sonata and Schumann’s Kreisleriana is an intelligent choice. Schumann was a great admirer of Schubert and championed his music after his death in 1828.

Andreas gives the first movement of the Schubert sonata a generally good-natured air, the emotional voltes-faces are not laboured but feel fleeting and poignant. Nor does he push the tempo, which gives the movement a pleasing spaciousness without feeling overlong (and Andreas observes the exposition repeat). The second movement, too often given an overly psychological treatment with an almost funereal tempo (it’s marked Andantino, not Adagio!) by others who shall remain nameless, has a spare simplicity which contrasts well with the sprightly articulation and warm-hearted nature of the opening movement. It’s sombre rather than melancholy. The middle section unfolds with the drama of a Baroque fantasy, restrained at first so that the eventual climax is all the more impactful. Even in the bigger, louder gestures, the overall mood is introverted and reflective.  Again, a rather more leisurely tempo in the third movement gives the music more breathing space and time to appreciate smaller details, which are neatly articulated. The trio gives way to grandeur, briefly, but the overall mood is intimate. The good nature of the opening movement is reprised in the finale, and here Andreas brings a pleasing sense of nostalgia and warmth, the opening theme played with an elegant lyricism, its fragmented return at the close of the movement fleeting and tender. Overall, excellent articulation, tasteful pedalling and a clean, but not over bright sound (a Bosendorfer Imperial 1922). Having spent three years studying and learning this sonata myself, and listening to many different performances of it, Andreas’ account comes very close to my own and is perhaps the reason why I like his so much.

Kreisleriana, like Papillons, is a multi-movement work and reflects Schumann’s contrasting personalities, which he named Florestan (active, extrovert) and Eusebius (passive, introvert). Like the Schubert Sonata, this is elegantly and tastefully articulated with fine clarity, particularly in the more florid passages, and Andreas is ever alert to the shifting moods. The sehr langsam movements have a distinct poignancy, reflective, almost verging on tragedy. Overall, a colourful account, rich in character and contrast.

In addition to detailed notes on the pieces, the liner notes also contain an account of Andreas Eggertsberger’s journey from diagonosis to rehabilitation and as such may prove supportive to others afflicated with focal dystonia

Recommended

 

 

thumbnail_IMG_3393The beautiful packaging and handwritten note from the artist, embellished with pressed flowers, hinted at what was contained inside. For several days I didn’t want to open the package, it was so pretty, but when I did, I found something equally lovely, and intriguing too: an album of music, songs and poetry which reminded me of childhood holidays in Suffolk – by the sea at Aldeburgh or walking through the marshes and reed beds around Snape and Iken – and my parents listening to music by Benjamin Britten on their record player. And it is the music of Benjamin Britten which forms the basis of ‘The Wild Song’ – a musical and literary collaboration between soprano Marci Meth, pianist Anna Tilbrook, actor Simon Russell Beale and composer Mychael Danna.

marci_coverBritten was greatly influenced by the natural world, and specifically the coastal landscape of Aldeburgh and the windy, open marshes around the village of Snape where he lived and where he established the Aldeburgh Festival. One only has to listen to the Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’ to hear how much the sounds of the shoreline and the turbulent North Sea, the wind in the reed beds and birdsong infuse his music. His folksong arrangements are also rooted in the Suffolk landscape which he knew and loved so much, and 31 of them feature on ‘The Wild Song’, sung by Marci Meth with pianist Anna Tilbrook.

The songs alternate with poems by W B Yeats, read by actor Simon Russell Beale and selected by Marci, chosen because they complement the folksongs on a similar theme and their language resonates naturally with the lyrics of the songs. In addition, musical interludes by Oscar-winning film composer Mychael Danna are interspersed between the songs and poems. Each of Danna’s interludes contains a quote from the piano part of Britten’s folksongs – but slowed down, stretched and/or looped, so these become Danna’s own transcriptions of Britten’s.

Marci’s voice is elegant and sweet, perfect for Britten’s naïve song arrangements, and sensitively accompanied by Anna Tilbrook, whose piano sound is equally elegant, and both singer and pianist are alert to the shifting moods and charaters of these songs; there is plenty of wit, humour and robustness in the more lively songs. The poetry provides moments to pause and reflect – there is something very comforting about being read to and Simon Russell Beale surely has one of the most pleasing speaking voices – while Mychael Danna’s interludes act almost as a soundtrack, evoking Britten’s Suffolk. The entire album is very atmospheric. It is also beautifully produced with great care and attention to detail, including a generous booklet with all the song texts and poems. Appropriately, the album was recorded at the Britten Studio in Snape Maltings, Suffolk, where Britten lived and worked.

Recommended

Order The Wild Song

snape-winter-the-river-alde-at-snape-maltings
Reed beds and river Alde near Snape Maltings, Suffolk