Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth


Edna Stern’s latest release is a fascinating find. Beautifully performed, for sure, but those performances are led by an intriguing, impeccably realised idea.

The pieces on this disc are well-loved and oft-recorded: the first four ‘Impromptus’ (D899) and the ‘Moments Musicaux’ (D780). But Stern, following the courage of her convictions, has arrived at a new way of hearing them. Or perhaps, more accurately, a very old one.

The artist’s sleeve-notes explain the background at length, and if you buy this album, you’ll find they are an excellent read. So I will just try to summarise here. Broadly, Stern became disenchanted with modern digital recording – in particular, the facility to edit performances into ‘perfection’. To the non-expert listener, what can sound like a seamlessly executed rendition of a work is sometimes a painstakingly finessed collage from multiple takes. Flashes of divine inspiration that don’t conveniently occur within the same run-through are made to do so, after the fact.

This came to a head, Stern tells us, when working with a sound engineer who produced an edit that was stitched together to the point where she could barely recognise her own interpretation. For this project, then, each of the ten pieces is represented by a single, intact take. Of course, Stern recorded them several times in order to choose her favourite, but no artificial mix-and-match took place. She picked the versions she found the most interesting or appealing, if not necessarily the most accurate: the integrity and spirit of the performance outweighed the occasional stray note or tempo.

One of the reasons I enjoyed Stern’s booklet essay so much is the extremity of her position. While she acknowledges the value and skills of everyone involved, she calls that game-changing edit a ‘monster’, and likens the studio correction of mistakes to offering a performance from a robot over a human. It’s forcefully argued stuff.

And thought-provoking. Schubert-lovers who are tripping over Impromptu recordings – anyone with shelves (or hard-drives) full of versions of their favourite works: what are we looking for? I realise there’s an element for many of seeking an ideal version that matches the one in their head, of looking for the ‘best’… and I don’t envy critics who have to make these sorts of comparisons all the time. But what it’s really about, surely, is hearing the works you love ‘renewed’, enjoying the surprise and delight of seemingly infinite reinterpretations of the same music.

You could argue that, most of the time, these differences survive modern recording techniques. What must be Stern’s worst nightmare – correcting every error or deviation from the score so that every pianist’s Schubert CD comes out identical to all the others – hasn’t come to pass. But by removing the safety net, Stern has thrown down a gauntlet of sorts – will other classical musicians follow suit and subject their unvarnished playing to scrutiny?

I use the word ‘classical’ here deliberately. Pristine clarity may be the common goal in this genre, but over on the rock side of the fence, many acts have often wanted to go back to the source, in their search for authenticity. There’s the huge number of bands who went through the ‘Unplugged’ rite of passage in the 90s. There are producers like Steve Albini, who seems to carry out the intensive labour upfront, listening to his clients and finding exactly the right place for the microphones in the room – then documenting the resulting live sound, with staggering results. There’s the formidable roster of groups – perhaps most famously, the White Stripes – who have made records at London’s Toe Rag Studios, renowned for their totally analogue set-up.

There is a rock-snob trap here, of course: “when it’s me, it’s authenticity – when it’s you, it’s nostalgia”. But Stern is totally alive to this, seeking to recapture the sound of the recordings she loved most during her early development. Has she succeeded?

When you start ‘Schubert on tape’, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d just lowered the stylus on to vinyl, or pressed the clunky play button on a cassette player. You hear the room before the piano. Instead of a CD’s usual dead silence, you hear an ambient noise that I instantly want to describe as ‘warmth’: it’s not disruptive, there’s no hiss or clicking, just a hushed presence that replaces any potential dryness or sterility.

There’s no doubt about it. I was hit by two waves of entirely pleasurable nostalgia. One, true: my youth, playing records and tapes in my room. Two, false: the feeling evoked by Stern of being at a Schubertiade, hearing the composer perform his work in intimate, informal surroundings.

Because once the music starts, you are there in the room (especially if using a decent pair of headphones). You can hear some of the pedal work – towards the end of Impromptu No. 4, for example, there’s a passage where this almost becomes a percussion feature – and the rise and fall of the keys, even (I think) accompanied once or twice by the click of a fingernail. This sustained, audible ‘physicality’ really brings home the effort involved in a good performance and, in the salon of the imagination, makes you feel genuinely close to the player.

I think there is also a pleasing effect on the dynamics. I was reminded of something the rock writer David Hepworth said on a podcast, when discussing the merits of vinyl over CD – almost his instant response was: “The drums don’t hurt.” Analogue recording as evidenced here has a generosity of scope – I can hear that Stern is across every pp and ff, and all points between, but the sound never becomes a bang or a whimper – it’s all accommodated in the bandwidth.

We hear chiming, keening top notes and a gorgeous bass rumble – particularly in, say, Impromptu No. 2 or Moments Musicaux No. 2 – reminiscent of a fortepiano (I was interested to read that Stern also plays this instrument). The dexterity and sensitivity of Stern’s playing is still immaculately conveyed, shining through – while benefiting from – the tape’s ambience.

As a result, I think Stern’s particular strengths and this style of recording are perfectly aligned. A successful experiment, then – I look forward to seeing the research continue, and hearing which composer becomes its next subject.

Schubert on Tape is available on the Orchid Classics label

This review first appeared on sister site ArtMuseLondon.com


105491206_266430451442172_334752493078903436_nAdrian Ainsworth is, by day, a copywriter specialising in plain language communications about finance and benefits. However, he spends the rest of the time consuming as much music, live or recorded, as possible – then writing about it, often on Specs, his slightly erratic ‘cultural diary’ containing thought pieces, performance and exhibition write-ups, playlists, and even a spot of light photography. He has a particular interest in art song and opera… and a general interest in everything else.

Twitter @Adrian_Specs

Listening in not-quite-darkness, with only the dim light from my bedside clock radio, I heard An Ending (Ascent) by Brian Eno. Of course I recognise it, but not quite in this arrangement. The sounds wash gently over me and in the dark and still of the night, it’s intimate and meditative, almost a lullaby.

Listening again, in daytime, in the surround sound of my kitchen HiFi, the music floats, weightless but for a simple sequence picked out on the harp, now growing in intensity with a soaring violin line over lusher instrumental textures….

It’s a soundworld which perfectly exemplifies the ethos and approach of Orchestra of the Swan and artistic director David Le Page, and which is given full creative rein in their latest release, Labyrinths.  With its exploration of themes of isolation, distance and a longing for human connection, it’s an appropriate album for our strange corona times. It also explores ideas of pilgrimage, contemplation and enlightenment, filtered through a sequence of beautifully atmospheric music, imaginatively arranged and exquisitely performed.

Formed in 1995, Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS) is a chamber orchestra based in Stratford-upon-Avon. Under the artistic direction of violinist David Le Page, an innovative, self-contained musician and one of the nicest people I’ve met in the industry, OOTS is passionate about audience inclusivity and this is reflected in its imaginative and adventurous programmes which blur the lines between genres. Labyrinths is the perfect example of the orchestra and its director’s vision. Devised as a “mixtape”, it continues the spirit of the mixtape of the 1980s (something which many of us of a certain age will remember creating for friends and boyfriends/girlfriends) with a diverse compilation of arrangements and reinterpretations of works by an eclectic mix of composers, which, as the album title suggests, takes labyrinthine twists and turns through music from the 14th century to the present day, from Buxtehude to Nico Muhly, Purcell to Brian Eno, and much else in between to delight and intrigue the listener. The range of musicians is equally diverse, including tenor Nicky Spence, saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes, Guy Schalom on darbuka drum, folk singer Jim Moray, and David Gordon on harpsichord.

the joy is to be found in discovering the surprising and delightful connections between culturally disparate and musically contrasting time periods. Themes of isolation, distance and a longing for human connection are filtered through beautifully atmospheric and exquisitely rendered sound worlds. This last year has been one in which we have all been confronted by the spectre of isolation and have certainly felt the need for face-to-face communication. Labyrinths invites the listener to immerse themselves completely in a sonically rewarding and wholly unexpected musical experience.

– David Le Page, violinist and Artistic Director of Orchestra of the Swan

David Le Page, violinist & Artist Director of OOTS

Labyrinths also celebrates a long tradition of arranging and transcription. This is seen most imaginatively in Jim Moray’s Cold Genius, a modern twist on Purcell’s ‘What power art thou?’ cold song from King Arthur, which in this rendering recalls the iciness of Vivaldi’s Winter with its spikey, slicing string accompaniment to Moray’s hypnotic, pulsing vocals. Or an arrangement of Piazzolla’s ‘Oblivion’, with a haunting clarinet (played by Sally Harrop) and the lush, silky strings of a 1930s cocktail orchestra.

The adventurous spirit of OOTS and David Le Page is evident throughout the album – not only in the arrangements but also the mix of instrumentation, blends of timbres, textures and colours, and the diverse repertoire. There is truly “something for everyone” on this album, and it’s an ideal intro for the classical music ingénue too, with tracks from the world of film, including Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack to Amélie and Max Richter’s ‘On the Nature of Daylight’, which has appeared in films by Martin Scorsese and Denis Villeneuve, and pop music from Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’ from one of their earliest albums to Joy Division’s ‘New Dawn Fades’.

Tenor Nicky Spence joins the orchestra in the ‘Pastoral’ from Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; this is preceded by ‘Bounce’, a new work composed by Trish Clowes during lockdown, a jazzy number with Bernstein-infused rhythms and an infectious sense of joy and freedom. Other highlights include ‘La Rotta’, in which Guy Schalom’s darbuka (a kind of drum) brings a raw, contemporary street sound to this Medieval dance, overlaid with fiddle and saxophone masquerading initially as a shawm, then drone, before taking off into an improvisatory flight of fancy.

And that ambient Eno track? It’s the perfect close to this brilliantly conceived, generous and rewarding recording. 

Highly recommended


Labyrinths is available on the Signum label and on streaming platforms including Apple Music and Spotify

Orchestra of the Swan

David Le Page

It came as no surprise for me to discover that composer Mathieu Karsenti is also a visual artist, whose abstract work reflects the movement, layers, counterpoint and rhythm of music.

His music is often multi-layered and contrapuntal, abstract yet tonal, exploring sonic colours, timbres and textures to create atmospheric, evocative pieces. His new EP, Under Piano Skies, offers the listener a selection of “internal musical landscapes” inspired by weather and the sky. Performed by pianist Marie Awadis, the four pieces on this album reference clouds, weather and sky while taking the listener to abstract realms and places for reflection and pause.

Throughout Karsenti, capitalises on the piano’s resonance and sustaining abilities to create atmospheric washes of sound and colour, the edges between notes and chords often blurred, like a watercolour painting.  In some instances, echo and sound effects are added to enhance the piano sound, but in general the instrument’s own sonic capabilities are sufficient to achieve the composer’s intentions.  ‘Virga’, a piece which starts simply, with two voices, grows increasingly florid with the introduction of repetitive semi-quaver triplet figures over low, sustained chords. With generous use of the pedal, a dramatic resonance and vibration is created, redolent of Somei Satoh’s extraordinary ‘Incarnation II’, before reverting to the simplicity of the opening. 

‘Cerulean’, by contrast, uses a minimal amount of notes, carefully chosen and meticulously organised, to create a work of meditative qualities, its serenity only occasionally disturbed by unexpected harmonies or piquant note blends. 

‘Petrichor’, named after the word for that special smell of pavements after rain and including sound effects of rainfall at the opening and close of the piece, is similarly reflective, impressionistic in character with one or two nods to Debussy and Satie in its melody and harmony. 

‘Nimbus’, marked “dreamy, head in the clouds”, seems to owe something to Morton Feldman in its gentle dynamics, ethereal, ‘floating’ sounds and use of silence; as the final piece on the EP it may end definitively on a long, sustained chord, yet its timbres and mood continue to resonate long after the piano sound has died away. 

The music is elegantly, sensitively played by pianist Marie Awadis, who is able to bring clarity to the sound, especially in the higher range of the piano, while also appreciating the particular effects the composer intends. The result is an album of exquisitely measured, absorbing and atmospheric piano music

Mathieu Karsenti has made the score of the pieces available and this music will certainly appeal to those who enjoy minimalist/post-classical repertoire and exploring the sonic possibilities of the piano (ability level Grade 5-7). 

‘Under Piano Skies’ is available to download or stream and the scores are available to purchase from the composer’s website

Meet the Artist interview with Mathieu Karsenti

9/11 : 20

Memorials on the twentieth anniversary of September 11th

Adam Swayne, piano

British pianist Adam Swayne’s latest disc marks the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 – a date which is deeply, painfully etched on our collective modern memory – and seeks to demonstrate ways in which composers memorialise or commemorate disaster through works by three American composers which deal with the events of 9/11 and their aftermath.

Karen Walwyn’s suite ‘Reflections on 9/11’ reference September 11, 2001 directly, and the time since, but the attacks themselves are absent. Instead, in Anguish (No. 3)  a plaintive melody is grafted onto an unsettled arpeggio accompaniment, redolent of Ravel’s Ondine. Growing increasingly textural and virtuosic, the music descends into trauma, with dissonant bell-sounds heard through a hectic melee of notes, before a reprise of the opening. Burial (No. 6), by contrast is sombre and introspective with an ostinato bass overlaid by an elegaic melody. A series of key changes lift and pierce before the music settles back into f minor with a sense of acceptance and, ultimately, hope.

These two pieces set the tone for the whole album: here we have music which memorialises rather than portrays the actual cataclysmic events, with a range of emotions from profound melancholy to anger, sorrow to resignation.

The centre-piece of the disc is ‘Sudden Memorials’, a brand new work by Kevin Malone, who has written eight works to date reflecting on the events and aftermath of 9/11. In 2006, he visited Shanksville, Pennsylvania, close to the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93. The perimeter fence is adorned with objects of remembrance and honour, left by visitors to the site; such public forms of commemoration have become common in recent years (flowers, candles, stuffed animals, religious objects) as a means for people to mark their own history and to create a public space for individuals and communities to unite in and express their grief.  Malone’s 30-minute composition captures in sound the instant and transient memorials that friends and relatives leave at the scene of a tragedy. Specially commissioned by Adam Swayne, the music reflects these myriad, fleeting memorials through brief quotations and “found” fragments from and references to, for example, hymn tunes, sports songs, gospel, Debussy, Chopin, lounge jazz and even birdsong; like the personal memorials on the Shanksville fence, these musical fragments are intended to trigger emotional responses from innocence and hope to grief, resignation and spiritual contemplation. The piece is dedicated to Adam Swayne, Adam, who gives the world première of the piece at London’s Wigmore Hall on 11th September 2021 at 1pm, the exact hour in Britain twenty years on the from the beginning of 9/11.

Memorial Fence 4

The other contemporary work on the disc is ‘Missing Towers’ by David Dei Tredici, the third part of his four-part Gotham Glory (2004). A two-part canon is used to symbolise the Twin Towers, while the music seeks to portray in miniature the epic scale of the absence and emptiness created by the collapse of those buildings. An arresting, reflective piece and a fitting close to the album.

 

This is not angry music (for that see Adam Swayne’s previous album). It does not rage against circumstances nor wring its hands in sorrow; yet one senses the grief and fury, held in check but only just beneath the surface. The music is spare, stoical, fragile, tender as a bruise, yet we know the wounds go much, much deeper. It’s music of extraordinary beauty and poignancy, shot through with memories, riven with emotion, yet never sentimental. 

These contemporary pieces are interleaved with works by American composers from a century earlier. ‘The Tides of Manaunaun’ by Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was inspired Irish mythology and portrays the marine effects created when Manaunaun, the Irish god of the sea swayed the particles of the cosmos in rhythmical, tidal movements “so that they should remain fresh when the time came for their use in the building of the universe” (Henry Cowell). The pieces requires the pianist to use the forearm to play large note clusters and the resulting timbres, textures and rolling rhythms are evocative of the violent movement of the ocean (and by association, perhaps, the roar of explosions and the sounds of falling buildings?). Over this dramatic, plangent bass line is a melody suggestive of an American hymn tune or spiritual. By contrast, ‘Fabric’ is almost romantic in style, but its contrapuntal lines and twining melody ensure the music never fully settles. In ‘Aeolian Harp’, Cowell utilises the piano’s strings which are strummed and plucked to create a piece of naive intimacy and delicacy.

Solace by Scott Joplin draws on Cuban habanera and Argentine tango, as well as the African American Ragtime for which Joplin is best known. Not only does the work create a wistful interlude of calm and reflection, it is also a reminder of the diversity of America’s culture and its people.

IMG_9752Adam Swayne is masterful and convincing in this repertoire, bringing virtuosic swagger when required, tempered by sensitively shaped phrases and spare rubato. The emotions and memories aroused by the music are never far from the surface, but Swayne ensures the main message remains clear: this is music about remembrance, reflection and commemoration. Like his previous album, Speak To Me, Swayne has brought together a fascinating range composers and music whose fundamental messages will resonate with many people. This is his personal memorial to the terrible events of 9/11.

The album cover image is a print of a wire sculpture by Scottish artist Vanessa Lawrence called “Together”. Vanessa was undertaking an artist residency in the North Tower on 9/11 and witnessed the terrible events at close-hand.

9/11 : 20 is released on September 11, 2021 on the Coviello Contemporary label and via streaming services. Album launch and concert at London’s Wigmore Hall on 11th September.


adam_swayne5
Adam Swayne

 

Adam Swayne’s career spans the roles of soloist, composer, conductor and teacher. He takes an inclusive and innovative approach to performance, putting communities at the heart of the music-making.

Adam is Deputy Head of Keyboard Studies at the RNCM and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He studied as a Fulbright Scholar with Ursula Oppens at Northwestern University in Chicago between 2003 and 2006. He has been fascinated by America and American music ever since.

Adam’s first CD for Coviello, (speak to me), featured American political music ranging from Amy Beth Kirsten to Rzewski, was selected as an Instrumental Monthly Choice by BBC Music Magazine, and received two nominations at the 2019 Opus Klassik awards in Germany.

Adam is concerned with the importance of music in commemoration. In 2012 he organised concerts for the centenary of the Titanic disaster, including a performance of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic in Southampton’s Guildhall on the exact anniversary of the tragedy.


Track list for ‘9/11:20’:

  • Karen Walwyn: Reflections on 9/11 (Nos. 3+6)
  • Henry Cowell: The Tides of Manaunaun, Fabric + Aeolian Harp
  • Kevin Malone: Sudden Memorials
  • Scott Joplin: Solace
  • David Del Tredici: Missing Towers

This recent release by Duncan Honeybourne on the EMR label makes a persuasive and highly listenable case for lesser-known English composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Recorded in August 2020 at Potton Hall, between lockdowns, as it were, Duncan Honeybourne, by his own admission, feels this is his best work to date. While many of us chafed at the enforced isolation and restrictions, Honeybourne has used the time extremely productively (he has also just released a recording of piano music by the late John Joubert – more here). Freed from a busy concert schedule, Honeybourne has welcomed the opportunity to “reconnect” with the piano and really immerse himself in the repertoire he most enjoys and loves.

A champion of lesser-known English piano music, Honeybourne’s affection for and understanding of the pieces on this disc is evident throughout in performances which reveal an acute appreciation of the wide variety of styles, moods and textures of this repertoire. The result is a generous 2-disc album which contains no less than eight world premiere recordings of works by Christopher Edmunds, Edgar Bainton, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, and Richard Pantcheff.

The title of the disc is taken from Psalm 103 (“out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord“), appropriately for the three substantial piano sonatas which frame the complete programme – from Edmunds’ big boned, luxuriantly romantic piano sonata, composed in 1938, with its nods to Liszt and Rachmaninoff in both its scale and breadth of expression, to the Bridge sonata written in the aftermath of the First World War – a work of utter desolation which calls out for reconciliation and forgiveness in a world torn apart by conflict, and Richard Pantcheff’s Sonata of 2017, written for Duncan Honeybourne, which although divided by almost a century, shares the dark, brooding emotional bleakness of Bridge’s work. Honeybourne captures the intensity and range of sentiment in these three sonatas and does not shy away from bravura virtuosity in the first movement of the Edmunds Sonata, which opens the album with its vivid first statements offset in the middle movement by a melting tenderness and warmth.

These substantial, dramatic works are complemented and contextualised by shorter works, mostly pastoral in theme, poetic and rhapsodic in nature, and lyrically presented by Honeybourne. Hubert Parry’s delightful ‘Shulbrede Tunes’ are affectionate, sometimes wistful portraits of the composer’s family and their Sussex home; Bainton’s ‘Willows’ and ‘The Making of the Nightingale’ are contemporary with Bridge’s Sonata, tender and evocative pastoral pieces; while Pantcheff’s Nocturnus V: Wind oor die Branders evokes the wind on the waves in his native South Africa. Another nocturne,  Britten’s atmospheric ‘Night Piece’ portrays nighttime scurryings and chirrups.

Friendships and teacher-pupil relationships connect the selection of pieces on this album: Frank Bridge taught Benjamin Britten, who in his later years mentored Richard Pantcheff. Honeybourne studied Britten’s Night Piece with Dame Fanny Waterman, founder of the Leeds International Piano Competition, for which the nocturne was commissioned as a test piece.

This is engaging collection of distinctive and diverse piano music offers listeners the opportunity to explore some stunning, lesser-known gems of the repertoire

emr-cd070-71Of the recording, Honeybourne says: “It was a joy to devise this programme, featuring some masterpieces I’ve known for a long time and love dearly, alongside the stunning Pantcheff Sonata, which I premiered in 2019 in London at an English Music Festival concert. It is a special privilege to present the recorded premieres of some terrific pieces that have languished in manuscript for many decades, and I hope listeners will get as much pleasure from hearing these wonderful gems as I have from all the excavation and preparation. It’s a great honour to bring them all together on this release.”

De Clamavi Profundis is released on the EM Records label.

Recommended


variations_coverIt’s a simple concept – a theme, or melody, initially stated in its original form, is put through a series of transformations, often quite complex and including textural, dynamic and key changes, to take player and listener on a fascinating musical journey. The Theme and Variations remains a popular genre amongst composers and the myriad ways in which composers respond to this simple form has resulted in some of the most inventive, intriguing and daring music in the piano’s repertoire.

For her new release for BIS, pianist Clare Hammond has chosen to focus on themes and variations from the 20th and 21st centuries which demonstrate a wide range of emotions and expression, from Syzmanowski’s heartfelt and atmospheric Variations on a Polish Theme, replete with Chopinesque filigree decoration and a tender, introspective lyricism, to Sofia Gubaidulina’s imposing and dramatic Chaconne. These works bookend variations by Lachenmann, Birtwistle (his own tribute to Bach’s Goldberg Variations), Adams, Copland and Hindemith. Throughout, one has the sense of composers revelling in the Theme and Variations genre: the angular, abstract modernism of Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations, perhaps the most “unpianistic” work on the disc with its extreme contrasts, for which Hammond makes a convincing case for it, is offset by the expressive poignancy of Hindemith’s Variations (1936), here given a haunting reading by Hammond. John Adam’s I Still Play (2017) is a an attractive, melodic miniature, written with the accomplished amateur player in mind, whose winding waltz moves through a variety of stylistic allusions, including nods to Erik Satie and Bill Evans. The music never fully settles and Hammond is ever alert to its shifts and switches. It’s refreshing listening after the spiky atonality and dynamic outburst of Harrison Birtwistle’s Variations from the Golden Mountain. Helmut Lachenmann’s Five Variations on a Theme of Franz Schubert start out in familiar territory – the theme is taken from Schubert’s Ecossaise D 643 – and the variations which follow refer back to the warmth of Schubert’s original interspersed with moments of playful wit, almost camp theatrical drama or turbulent frenzy. Again, Hammond’s account demonstrates how adept she is at handling music which switches between styles, textures and moods.

This interesting compilation of music offers a new angle on a well-known genre, eloquently and vividly portrayed by Clare Hammond, who shows an impressive fearlessness in tackling and recording some of the more complex or obtuse corners of the modern piano repertoire. It also serves as an excellent companion piece to her earlier recording Étude (also on the BIS label), exploring piano etudes by Lyapunov, Unsuk Chin, Syzmanowski and Kapustin.

Meet the Artist interview with Clare Hammond


Variations – Clare Hammond, piano

BIS RECORDS BIS-2493 SACD
Recorded December 2019 at Potton Hall