CD review

Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

In 2015, when Carolyn Sampson first joined forces with Joseph Middleton for the recital disc ‘Fleurs’, it was more or less her first venture into art song. Up to that point, many people would have associated her most closely with the earlier end of the repertoire, her crystalline voice gracing Bach, Dowland, Handel, Lully, Monteverdi, Purcell and others besides. But that overlooks her occasional forays into more modern eras: discs of Esenvalds and Poulenc, say, or Tavener at the Proms. One senses it was only a matter of time before song came calling.

Joseph Middleton is surely one of the finest and most well-regarded accompanists working today. He is currently Director of the Leeds Lieder festival, and he received the 2016 Young Artist Award from the Royal Philharmonic Society, whose jury described him as ‘a born collaborator’. As well as a superb sound – more of which later – he has a real flair for interesting, inventive programming that gives so many of his recordings an album-like unity.

‘Fleurs’, an album of English, French and German songs all with a floral theme, was an absolute revelation to me. First, there was the opportunity to hear the purity of CS’s tone inhabit such intimate and intense settings, then to appreciate JM’s ability to honour the different composers’ styles while maintaining a consistent ‘feel’ across the whole disc.

The pair obviously clicked, as – seemingly on a mission – they have been fast assembling a distinctive, irresistible body of work. The two subsequent CDs, ‘A Verlaine Songbook’ (theme – Verlaine’s words set by a variety of composers) and ‘Lost is my Quiet’, featuring countertenor Iestyn Davies alongside CS in a programme of lovestruck duets, have been equally captivating. Now for number four, and in all honesty, it’s probably their most sublime achievement yet.

Full disclosure: Schubert is my favourite composer, and ever since I heard CS and JM were planning an all-Schubert disc, I’ve been more or less ticking off the days to release one-by-one on the calendar. At the same time, would my expectations be unreasonably high? Could this possibly be as good as I hoped it would be? Here’s why I think it is.

While this disc is their first dedicated to one composer, the duo have still pushed the programming aspect further, to find their own way into such a vast catalogue of lieder. As the title of the album suggests, the tracks chosen focus on Schubert’s ability to compose such powerful, deeply-felt songs for and about women.

As a result, the album includes some of the indelible ‘greatest hits’ you might expect – but CS and JM have kept the integrity of any suites they belong to: for example, ‘Gretchen Am Spinnrade’ comes with the Britten completion of ‘Gretchens Bitte’, and ‘Der König in Thule’; while the famous ‘Ave Maria’ is the third in the sequence of ‘Ellen’ songs, all included here. The disc’s generous running time also features all four ‘Mignon’ and both ‘Suleika’ lieder.

‘Suleika I’ opens the programme, and is as good an example as any to illustrate the telepathic connection the duo seem to share. The early part of the song demands that JM play with great tenderness, but at great speed, as the accompaniment shimmers beneath lyrics speaking of burning heat cooled by the stirring wind. CS, taking full advantage of one of Schubert’s loveliest vocal melodies, shapes her tone and timbre to be part confessional, part conversational. The power and excitement rise – the dynamics of the piano and voice in perfect sync – then subside into the steadier sensuality of the closing, repeated verse. It’s the first five or minutes, containing an album’s worth of delights.

Two of the ‘stand-alone’ songs are also particular stand-outs for me. Like the ‘Suleika’ songs (words by Marianne von Willemer), the lyric used for ‘Romanze’ was also written by a woman, Wilhelmina Christiane von Chézy. Perhaps understandably, this draws out an exquisitely tender rendition from CS. As the voice sighs its way towards the end of each verse, JM subtly increases the volume of the left hand, as if the bass could buoy the singer up. The very last ‘Herz’ is as heartbreaking as the final line describes.

This is followed by ‘Blondel zu Marien’, which starts as almost a steady, stately serenade. However, as each of the two verses progress, they build to a complex sequence dominated by a spine-tingling downward cascade of notes, punctuated by trills and decorations that demonstrate exactly why CS’s combination of vocal beauty and agility make her such a natural communicator in art song.

I could enthuse like this about every track on the disc, from the tragic dignity of ‘So last mich scheinen’ (the third Mignon song) to that Everest of lieder, the 13-minute ‘Viola’, where both navigate the changes in mood as if a single unit.

But perhaps it’s wise to finish on ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, an extraordinary song by any standards, but famously composed when Schubert was only seventeen. The piano represents Gretchen’s spinning wheel, and by extension, her (in)ability to focus on operating it as she is distracted by thoughts of Faust, the man she loves. As a result, the accompaniment endlessly orbits around itself – apart from one key moment – while the voice rings out above it, ranging from hesitancy to unchecked passion. It’s hard to imagine a song where it’s more vital for the two performers to track each other with such precision, while conveying such extremes of emotion.

CS and JM absolutely nail it. As in the very best performances of this song I’ve heard, the pace only starts with exact regularity, until the movement begins to shift constantly with Gretchen’s concentration. JM audibly changes the way he ‘leans’ on the keys, spikier here, lengthier there, as if to capture the changing pressure on the wheel. CS is utterly in character and expertly paces the build-up to the astonishing ‘breakdown’ near the end of the song when the wheel stops altogether. After the climactic “sein Kuss!” she takes a breath, and then another, her Gretchen clearly reeling before gathering herself and sending the wheel spinning again.

Moments like this not only help elevate the disc from being brilliant to something of an instant classic – they also prompt me to mention the fantastic production by Jens Braun, recording at Suffolk’s Potton Hall. All four of the Sampson/Middleton CDs were made in the same conditions, and the space within the sound really helps you to feel like you’re in the room as private audience – especially if you use a decent pair of headphones.

This is the kind of album I could talk about until you physically stopped me; I can imagine pressing copies into the hands of friends. It’s everything I could have hoped for, and more.


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at adrianspecs.blogspot.co.uk

Twitter @Adrian_Specs

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist


A Soprano’s Schubertiade is available on the BIS Records label

Catalogue Number BIS-2343 SACD
EAN 7318599923437
Format SACD Hybrid
Release date Apr 2018
Total time 77’32

Stephen Hough’s Dream album

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A few years ago, I heard Stephen Hough in concert in a programme of “serious” music: the premiere of his ‘Trinity’ Piano Sonata III alongside Cèsar Franck’s mighty Prelude, Chorale & Fugue, plus works by Liszt and Schubert. And the encore? Eric Coates’ By the Sleepy Lagoon, which many will recognise as the theme tune from the BBC’s long running Desert Island Discs programme. Played with as much care and expression as the main programme, it was a delightfully witty and nostalgic close to the evening. This charming miniature appears on Stephen Hough’s latest release ‘Stephen Hough’s Dream Album’ and is given a lilting Chopinesque delicacy by Hough.

Dreaming – Isn’t this what we do when we listen to any kind of music? We suspend the reality of our ordinary lives, we long for spells to be cast, for phantoms to be grasped, to enter a state of ecstasy. (Stephen Hough).

Most of us go to concerts and listen to music to be taken to another place, and this album succeeds in this objective in spades, offering a varied selection of flights of fancy, erotic reveries, melancholy ponderings, and fleeting visions. All the works on the disc are transcriptions, by Hough himself and others (if you, like me, own Hough’s ‘Tributes and Transcriptions’ collection of piano music, you will be delighted to hear his mischievous Radetzky Waltz, the witty Niccolo’s Waltz with its nod to Paganini, Osmanthus Romp and Reverie, and Lullaby played by the composer/performer himself). Here, Hough the concert pianist is cast also as transcriber, interpreter and re-creator, and his own transcriptions are a testament to his musical insight, skill, and whimsy.

What makes this album so charming is Hough’s skilled programming, mixing high art with pieces, which in the hands of certain others, could sound schmaltzy and sentimental. Thus powerful performances of works Liszt and Dohnányi sit happily alongside Hough’s cheery Matilda’s Waltz (a reference to his father’s heritage and scored as a rumba) or amusing transcriptions of dances from Don Quixote. Hough avoids kitsch and brings to every piece his characteristic clarity, musical intelligence, wit, elegant phrasing, tasteful pedalling and an intoxicating kaleidoscope of expressive colours and moods to create an album which delights and surprises at every turn. It’s also deeply personal (two pieces were written for Hough’s partner), ending with “the piece I want to be the final piece I play in concert – the last encore of my last concert which I first heard on my first LP“. Nostalgic and bittersweet, redolent of “at homes” in Edwardian drawing rooms or pre-war cocktail hour, the music evokes a dreamy golden age tinged with poignancy. Hough’s magical soundworld brings an intense intimacy and elegance to every piece. Listen to it as an entire recital album or dip in and out of it: you will be utterly charmed and transported.


Stephen Hough’s Dream Album is available as a CD or download from Hyperion

 

 

 

 

 

A few years ago, I heard Stephen Hough in concert in a programme of “serious” music: the premiere of his ‘Trinity’ Piano Sonata III alongside Franck’s mighty Prelude, Chorale & Fugue, plus works by Liszt and Schubert. And the encore? Eric Coates’ By the Sleepy Lagoon, which many will recognise as the theme music from the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme. Played with as much care and expression as the main programme, it was a delightfully witty and (for those of us of a certain age) a rather nostalgic close to the evening. This charming miniature appears on Stephen Hough’s latest release ‘Stephen Hough’s Dream Album’.

Dreaming – Isn’t this what we do when we listen to any kind of music? We suspend the reality of our ordinary lives, we long for spells to be cast, for phantoms to be grasped, to enter a state of ecstasy. (Stephen Hough).

Most of us go to concerts and listen to music to be taken to another place, and this album succeeds in this objective in spades, offering a varied selection of flights of fancy, erotic reveries, melancholy ponderings, and fleeting visions. All the works on the disc are transcriptions, by Hough himself and others (if you, like me, own Hough’s ‘Tributes and Transcriptions’ collection of piano music, you will be delighted to hear his Radetzky Waltz, Niccolo’s Waltz, Osmanthus Romp and Reverie, and Lullaby played by the composer/performer himself). Here, Hough the concert pianist is cast also as transcriber, interpreter and re-creator, and his own transcriptions are a testament to his musical insight, skill, and whimsy.

In others’ hands, this music could sound schmaltzy and sentimental, but Hough brings to it his characteristic clarity, wit and an intoxicating kaleidoscope of expressive colours and moods to create an album which delights and surprises at each turn. It’s deeply personal, ending with “the piece I want to be the final piece I play in concert – the last encore of my last concert which I first heard on my first LP“. Nostalgic and bittersweet, redolent of “at homes” in Edwardian drawing rooms or pre-war cocktail hour, the music evokes a dreamy golden age tinged with poignancy. Hough’s magical soundworld brings an intense intimacy and elegance to every piece. Listen to it as an entire recital album or dip in and out of it: I guarantee you will be utterly charmed and transported.

Stephen Hough’s Dream Album (Hyperion)

CDA68213Piano Sonata in B flat major D960

Four Impromptus D935 Op 142

Marc-André Hamelin, piano

(Hyperion CDA68213)


Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, more used to scaling the most vertiginous peaks of the piano literature or revealing the more esoteric nuggets and rarities of repertoire, has released a recording of Schubert’s final piano sonata and the second set of Impromptus.

The evergreen Sonata in B flat, D960, is perennially popular with pianists and audiences alike, and regularly graces concert programmes and recordings. Not only is it a beautiful and absorbing piece of music, it also holds a curious fascination for pianists and listeners. Completed just a few months before the composer’s death in November 1828, this sonata (and to a lesser extent its companions D958 and D959) is regarded by many as a valediction or a premature message from beyond the grave – the composer’s final farewell at the end of a life cut tragically short by syphilis. As a consequence, this sonata has acquired a certain “otherworldiness” which can influence the way pianists approach it. It is, in my opinion, unhelpful to apply too sentimental an interpretation to this striking work, or to approach Schubert’s life and work in Vienna in the first part of the nineteenth century with 21st-century sensibilities:  it is worth noting that the average life expectancy for a man in Vienna in the 1820s was 38 years, and at the time when Schubert lived in that great city it was dangerous, dirty, disease-ridden, and rife with crime. All lives were lived on the edge of sorrow, not just Franz Schubert’s. And so while there is pathos, sombre melancholy and a sense of acceptance (but never resignation) in this Sonata, there is also serenity, exuberance and a tangible joie de vivre, particularly in the third and fourth movements. Indeed, by the close of the work, one has the sense of a composer who lived a full life and still had plenty more to say.

When so many performances and recordings of this great sonata exist, including some notable “benchmark” recordings which stand the test of time (and we each have our personal favourites), why would a pianist of Marc-André Hamelin’s standing and facility, with an already impressive discography, turn to Schubert? Well, in a way, late Schubert – like late Beethoven – sits up there alongside Shakespeare, and like Shakespeare’s writing, there’s always more to find in this music, and each performance (as a player or listener) is a different experience. The D960 has the richness of a journey willingly undertaken and plots a course through the whole gamut of the composer’s personality, his emotions and ideals. He’s introspective, yet his message has a universal truth – and tenderness too.

For a pianist who seems able to handle anything the repertoire can throw at him, from the craggy edifice of Charles Ives’ ‘Concord’ Sonata, Stockhausen’s enigmatic Klavierstück IX, to Villa-Lobos’ savage Rudepoema, or the mannered witty classicism of Haydn, late Schubert seems an unusual choice. Yet I know from a conversation with Marc-André that this is a hugely significant undertaking for him personally, and I feel this recording perhaps says more about the pianist than the work itself.

This is not virtuosic music, in the traditional sense of the word. It has no grand gestures nor intricately glittering passages; it is introspective and often deeply intimate. But there are certainly connections between Schubert’s last sonata and Ives’ Concord – both are large-scale works, expansive and wide-ranging, and require the pianist to create a clear narrative for the entire work, rather than “sleepwalking” through it. Schubert combines beauty and a structure so vast that it seems it may never end, and the work requires special reserves of concentration and artistic vision to be convincing. Pairing this large sonata with the four Impromptus D935 gives the listener a chance to appreciate Schubert’s intense artistic maturity and skill in handling structure in smaller works too.

Fortunately, Hamelin eschews the valedictory or overly sentimental approach for the D960 and opts for a leisurely Andante moderato in the opening movement, highlighting the graceful hymn-like melody of first subject, and despite a couple of rhythmic anomalies, the music moves forward with a serene sense of purpose, occasionally tinged with hesitancy. Agogic accents (a slight hesitation before arriving at a note) are used to emphasise the long notes which begin the phrases in the first subject. This can feel a little self-conscious at times, although I appreciate why Hamelin does it – it lends a dramatic poignancy to the melody. The infamous bass trill, first heard in bar 8, is a distant rumble, nothing more ominous, though later iterations feel more unsettling, quickly dispelled by the poetic melody, which is tastefully balanced against the accompaniment. The bridge to the development section (the exposition repeat is, thankfully, intact!) – those two extraordinary chords at bar 117 – is suitably ethereal, though the pause before embarking on the development is just on the uncomfortable side of dramatic for me. Overall, Hamelin’s take on this movement is not “Schubert as Beethoven on a quiet day”, but rather Schubert the genial spinner of songs: Hamelin gives this movement the intimacy of a lieder while also appreciating its regal expansiveness. Schubert’s good nature is never far away in the transitions between major and minor passages, to which Hamelin responds with a nuanced warming up or cooling of the sound, and the overall mood is positive – imperturbability and joyfulness are only occasionally disturbed by darkness.

The temperature drops somewhat in the slow movement (famously given a desolate, almost funereal air by Sviatoslav Richter’s choice of tempo), though the atmosphere is restrained and meditative rather than cold and melancholy. The bass line, whose rhythmic ostinato figure maintains the underlying sense of forward motion in the outer sections, is well delineated and never obscured by too much pedal. And it is that rising bass figure, over which the melody is simply yet elegantly shaped, which also saves the music from becoming too sombre. The middle section, in warm A major, is rather passive. I would have liked a greater sense of exaltation: it feels a little held back and occasionally ponderous. The coda however is sensitively managed, ending on a rising arpeggio in radiant C-sharp major.

If the opening movement unfolds like a great river plotting its final course, the third movement is as bright and playful as a mountain stream. Hamelin captures its bubbling, quixotic character, responding neatly to the harmonic sidesteps and shifting registers. A change of mood is signalled in the minor key Trio, whose fzp bass accents and syncopations in the right hand suggest an exotic and rather menacing dance or ländler, but the former ebullience is quickly restored in the return to the Scherzo, preparing the way for the finale.

It is in the finale that Hamelin has the greatest opportunities for virtuosity, yet there is restraint and sensitivity here, just as in the opening movement: supple responses to the shifting moods and harmonies, the second subject melody lyrically shaped, the dotted rhythms dance gracefully, and some colourful voicings give this movement playfulness and vigour. The occasional places where the tempo presses forward somewhat unexpectedly lend a slightly breathless sense of urgency, while the coda is bright, robust and positive.

Coming after the expansive D960 (other programmes may place these works the other way round), the Impromptus D935 also have the sense of a sonata in four contrasting movements. The fourth of the set has a toe-tapping vigour and wit, a darkly lit Hungarian dance (remember these pieces were written the year before the final sonatas in the aftermath of Winterreise), the third is graceful and mercurial, occasionally tongue-in-cheek, and the second tender and intimate.

The F minor Impromptu, the first of the set, has an orchestral grandeur offset by the tender duetting passages. Purists will balk at the addition of a “new” coda, written by Hamelin himself, who regards the score “a frozen moment in time“. His justification for adding a coda in this instance is that the work “basically finishes without a coda“, and while he believes that one should not stray too far from what the score says, it is sometimes “permissible to go a little bit away from it“. Certainly, it’s an interesting addition, perhaps more akin to Schumann than Schubert in its romantic textures, and it picks up the duetting fragments from the main body of the work. For me it just feels too unexpected.

But perhaps the most unexpected aspect is Hamelin’s decision to record late Schubert, given his predilection for more virtuosic/unusual repertoire. It’s a bold move, because the Sonata D960 holds such an important place in the repertoire and the hearts and minds of pianists, listeners and commentators. Do we need another recording of the D960? Does it matter that many others have also recorded it and others are waiting to record it in the future? I don’t think so, because the music is there to be played and this recording will enter the great catalogue of Schubert recordings to give pleasure to listeners. It may not be to everyone’s taste –  no recording ever could be – but there’s an eloquence and sensitivity in Hamelin’s approach to this music which is satisfying and committed.


Recording details: May 2017
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: 27 April 2018
Total duration: 81 minutes 48 seconds

Informative and readable liner notes by Richard Wigmore

 

debussy-piano-music---stephen-hough-hyperion-1515405549…….make sure it’s Stephen Hough’s new disc of piano music by Debussy (Hyperion).

I read Stephen’s illuminating article about Claude Debussy (New York Times, 2 March 2018) and then listened to his new disc of Debussy’s piano music (Estampes, Images, Children’s Corner, La plus que lente and L’isle joyeuse). Here is Stephen writing on Pagodes, the first piece on his new disc:

[Debussy’s] use of its tonal color………is not so much a translation of a foreign text as it is a poem written in a newly learned, fully absorbed language

Stephen could be describing his own playing here (though he is far too modest to do so!). For those more used to hearing him play Liszt with cool yet colourful virtuosity, his Debussy playing is deliciously liquid, lucid, perfumed, sensuous and elegant. The phrasing and pacing is so natural and supple, fermatas and pauses so sensitively judged, touch, articulation and pedalling so clear and carefully nuanced, one has the sense that Stephen has also “fully absorbed” the composer’s language.

Take Pagodes, for example, the piece which opens this disc. Textures and lines emerge, blur and recede with all the ethereal delicacy of watercolour painting (and the suite Estampes is a reminder that Debussy loved art), but there is clarity too, so that every note sounds like a crystalline droplet. Reflets dans l’eau is similarly coloured, glistening and shimmering with subtlety and elegance. There’s nothing fussy or contrived in Stephen’s account of this music, and his assertion in the NYT article that Debussy was a “modern” composer is more than confirmed in his highlighting of the composer’s fondness for piquant or erotic harmonies, surprising melodic fragments (often using the pentatonic scale) and rhythmic quirks.

Children’s Corner proves as much a delight for adults as the young ones: snow dances with feathery delicacy, while The Little Shepherd a study in tender simplicity, tinged with poignancy. Strictly for adults, La plus que lente is wonderfully louche and languorous, with its late-night cocktail bar swagger. L’isle joyeuse closes this fine recording with a sparkling clarity, wit and sunlit joie de vivre

Highly recommended

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) / Piano Music / Stephen Hough (piano) / Hyperion CDA68139

 

Meet the Artist – Stephen Hough

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Wolfgang Rubsam

It is not that often a set of recordings comes along which is genuinely as much a revelation and surprise to the Bach initiate as this one.  Wolfgang Rübsam’s current spate of recordings on his self-released ‘Counterpoint Records’ include the entire Well-Tempered Clavier (across 5 vols.), Art of Fugue and most recently a number of the Cello Suites (!), all of which are available only as downloads but thankfully in FLAC format as well as lossy MP3.  They all feature an unfamiliar sound: the Lautenwerk or lute harpsichord, in this case one of only a few in existence, built by the fine and intrepid instrument maker, Keith Hill.  Readers need look no further than Rübsam’s website for generous helpings of tracks from these CDs together with other recordings of Pachelbel, Buxtehude and Böhm (www.wolfgangrubsam.com/listen ).  For me the recordings speak for themselves, and I have grown to like them even more over time, as well as slowly realising how far they go against the grain of traditional Bach keyboard interpretation. Those who are not instantly convinced may want to read on and reflect.

First let it be said that the Lautenwerk has a charm all of its own.  The timbre outwardly resembles that of the buff stop that is featured on some harpsichords except that it is a lot fuller, mellow and, well, lute-like.  Although notes die away rapidly a warm reverberation is created by a set of strings above that resonate in sympathy, rather like the effect contributed by the undamped final octave or so of strings on the piano.  In fact, the ear does not seem to tire of this closely recorded sound as much as can be the case with the bright tone emitted by some conventional harpsichords, even after listening endlessly to it (on headphones).  There is a gentle ease about it, matched by the ease and delight of the player.  Sometimes the sound-world reminds me of arrangements of Renaissance polyphony for lute duet, and Rübsam manages to make the listener forget that this is actually a keyboard instrument, so nuanced is his touch.

The liberties the instrument itself seems to entice Rübsam towards, lead him beyond where most dare to tread in this very Germanic, learned repertoire. However, for me the results give a breath of fresh air to what can seem sometimes, even on the piano with all its dynamic variety, a rather trudging tradition of playing (I am thinking particularly of the fugues).  In fact, I think this raises a whole heap of questions about how such music may have been brought to life by the player of an instrument where other parameters such as dynamics are so minimal.  It is clear from the modern tendency to perform works like the Art of Fugue on strings and other combinations (not to mention piano) that the listener benefits from such individualisation of lines, yet Rübsam finds a viable and enchanting solution to this problem on the Lautenwerk by displacing one voice rhythmically from another resulting in a remarkably three-dimensional sense of the polyphony (Bradley Lehman has called his Bach ‘geodesic’), an effect that initially takes some getting used to.

This is nothing new for him.  His two complete Bach organ cycles (particularly the later one for Naxos) show a subtle rhetorical approach to rhythm that, although requiring more concentration from the listener, is deeply rewarding in communicating the sense of metre, the stress of dissonances and light and shade of rhythmic groupings, and bears out repeated listens. This sensibility has been transmitted to the work of his students too, including Julia Brown’s brilliant Buxtehude complete organ series for Naxos.  Rübsam himself also did quite a lot of piano recordings for Naxos that also show a distinctly free approach rarely heard in today’s pianistic Bach, saved from accusations of Romanticism by its accomplished ornamentation and deep awareness of style.  The ornamentation on his Lautenwerk recordings is also very impressive and adds to the sense of freshness.  Everything is on the table and there are no textbook solutions for Rübsam, who adds anything he chooses, before, on or after the beat.  Hearing it is really thought-provoking, reminding me of the writings of Frederick Neumann, who has always criticised the dogmatic approach of some early music specialists in the light of contradictory evidence, emphasising the final arbiter of good taste over formula in this epoch, a concept reinforced in many treatises.

There is something luxuriant, deeply sensuous about this playing that I think reveals a kind of ultra-sensitive Bach that perhaps has been unfairly obscured from view by pianists and harpsichordists alike, but is now perhaps coming more into the open (a favourable comparison would be Richard Egarr’s WTC) even if historically one might speculate this to be closer to the performance traditions of the later Bach circle.  Although we know of the importance of the clavichord to Bach, another instrument essentially lost to the modern concert world, it is interesting that the Lautenwerk also had a place close to Bach’s heart (two such instruments are listed in the inventory of his possessions at the time of his death) and these performances should perhaps make us think again about the expressive core of this music, its simultaneous expression of harmonic depth and contrapuntal complexity.  I for one have never enjoyed the canons from The Art of Fugue so much as in the hands of this wise sage of Bach interpretation, who seems to care nothing for contemporary fashion and everything for the music, its world of overlapping voices and subtle comings and goings.  It is fair to say you will find a whole universe here, the existence of which you might not even have suspected.

A 5CD version of WTC I+II by IFO Classics will be released first quarter of 2018.  www.ifo-classics.de/index.php/startseite.html

Also worth reading: Rübsam’s notes on ‘horizontal music’ here : www.wolfgangrubsam.com/biography

Other reviews of Rübsam CDs:

www.bach-cantatas.com/NonVocal/Klavier-Var-Rubsam-Part1.htm

A short video amalgamating various flexible versions of Bach’s C major Prelude from WTC 1 (including Rübsam’s): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0ygnhv2FQ8


About the reviewer:

Dr Charles Tebbs is a freelance piano teacher, pianist, one-time harpsichordist, organist, and accordionist, recording fanatic (both making and listening to) who also composes from time to time (and is a recipient of two minor composition prizes).  Special areas of interest include polyphonic music, jazz improvisation, historical keyboard performance practices from the 18th to early 20th century and early recordings.  He has recorded a CD of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on piano and made numerous contributions to YouTube.  Current plans include recording the entire Well-Tempered Clavier Book One on the piano in a temperament other than equal.

www.charlestebbs.co.uk

0712396065227_600When I put ‘Return of the Nightingales’ (Prima Facie records) into my CD player, my cat Monty immediately dashed into my office and up onto my desk to find the birds that sing so sweetly at the start of the title track of this new disc of music by Sadie Harrison. The piano enters, delicately yet brightly, imitating the twittering birdsong before moving into a lively, rhythmic passage. Ian Pace, the pianist for this track, is very much at home in contemporary and new music for piano, and it shows in the ease with which he handles technical difficulties and his vivid, immediate sound.

The variety of writing in just a few minutes of this piece signals the theme for the entire disc: it’s a wonderful example of Sadie’s compositional breadth and rich imagination and a lovely introduction to her colourful and accessible music. Not only does the disc demonstrate the range of Sadie’s compositional palette but it also showcases the talents of four excellent pianists – Ian Pace, Renée Reznek, Duncan Honeybourne and Philippa Harrison, all of whom have considerable experience in this type of repertoire and who bring myriad colours, timbre and musical sensitivity and individuality to each work on the disc.

Composed between 2011 and 2017, the pieces on this disc reveal the many contrasting styles within one composer’s output, reflecting Sadie’s wide-ranging musical and cultural influences, including the music of Bartok, Berg, Chopin, and Debussy, jazz legends Bill Evans, Fats Waller and Thelonius Monk, Methodist hymns, vintage film music, her passion for the cultures of Persia and Afghanistan (Sadie is Composer-in-Association of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music), and the natural world. In ‘Return of the Nightingales’ (the title is drawn from the translation of a Persian poem), near-Eastern folk idioms are woven into the starkly modernist suite of pieces Par-feshani-ye ‘eshq (played by Renée Reznek), while in Lunae ‘Four Nocturnes’ Duncan Honeybourne sensitively and sensuously illuminates the tender, intimate lyricism and delicate traceries of these delightful and arresting miniatures (I purchased the sheet music on the strength of this performance in order to learn the pieces myself). Philippa Harrison brings the requisite vibe and swing to the Four Jazz Portraits, capturing the style of each jazz great to whom they are dedicated; while in Shadows ‘Six Portraits of William Baines’ Sadie takes small quotations from Baines’ piano works and reflections on his diary entries to create intriguing miniatures, masterfully presented by Duncan Honeybourne. The Souls of Flowers recalls Chopin in its long-spun melodic lines and shimmering trills, while Northern Lights uses harmonies and idioms redolent of folksong and hymns. The final work, Luna…..for Nicola, is a tiny yet meaningful hommage to Nicola le Fanu, with whom Sadie studied for three years, and was written in response to hearing the premiere of Nicola LeFanu’s orchestral work ‘The Crimson Bird’. in February 2017.

The song of the nightingale is the unifying thread on this disc – in the third of the four Lunae, the evocation of Alabiev–Liszt’s ‘Le Rossignol’ as played by William Baines, and in the fluttering wings of Par-feshani-ye ‘eshq, but also less obviously in the use of trills, sparkling runs, chirruping note clusters and tremolandos.

This is wonderfully rewarding, varied and enjoyable disc, proof that contemporary piano music can be tuneful, attractive and entirely accessible. There is much to delight and challenge the pianist too: the pieces are generally within the capability of the intermediate to advanced player, and are available to purchase as scores (from University of York Music Press). I particularly like Sadie’s treatment of melodic fragments and her jazz-infused harmonies.

Highly recommended