Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

Rick Wakeman has been a consistently fascinating artist throughout his decades-long career. As a fan of both classical and progressive rock music, I feel he’s been a constant presence, his cape sweeping nonchalantly across any so-called dividing lines between genres and styles.

In contrast to the grandeur of some of his earliest and most familiar work, Wakeman’s most recent releases have felt more intimate and introspective. The 2017 album ‘Piano Portraits’ was just that: solo piano treatments – somewhere between arrangements and variations – of an eclectic range of pieces that covered Debussy and Fauré, Elgar and Holst, Bowie and the Beatles… and not to leave out his own band, Yes.

This new album, ‘Piano Odyssey’, is in many ways a sequel with seemingly deliberate echoes of its predecessor. As before, there are two Beatles tracks, and just the one from Bowie this time, amid other carefully chosen cover versions. Yes is represented by two new arrangements. On the classical team are Liszt, Dvorak and Handel.

As the album title suggests, though, a journey of some kind has taken place. Rather than simply repeat himself, Wakeman has added strings and a choir more or less throughout, diluting the forensic focus on the lone piano. However, the lush arrangements can’t disguise the fact that this feels like an even more personal project, surveying Wakeman’s career more incisively and giving it a perhaps unexpected unit

I think this unity is behind the quality I loved most about the disc, which is that it sounds exactly like something its creator would pull together – and yet at the same time, it feels like a surprise, not quite like anything else. In theory, given the forces involved, the classical feel should dominate, but that isn’t what happens. Instead, it’s rather more like listening to a kind of ‘chamber’ prog: Wakeman often deploys his string players and singers as if they were band members, the choir in particular performing ‘solos’, moving in and out of tracks as needed rather than saturating them. His own distinctive playing has him operating like a combined rhythm and lead guitar might, capturing the melodies at the top end with great delicacy (and some very agile embellishments!), without sacrificing a sense of real propulsion.

As a result, the pieces that really hit home for me are the two Yes songs, in particular ‘And You & I’, and the reworks of two of his solo tracks, ‘After the Ball’ (now merged with Liszt’s ‘Liebestraume’), and ‘Jane Seymour’ (originally composed on organ, and with Bach coursing through its bloodstream). In the CD liner notes, Wakeman explains how the new versions make what he was trying to do clearer, more audible. And there’s no doubt that ‘Piano Odyssey’ is giving him the opportunity to shine a light on his practice: without trying to ‘match’ or ‘outdo’ Liszt, he has deliberately designed his medley to show how the composer influenced him. (Elsewhere, he uses this technique to illuminating effect in ‘Largos’ – merging Dvorak and Handel with the utmost respect, but a refreshing lack of deference.) Equally, in ‘And You & I’, the sparkling high-pitched melody is so evocative of Jon Anderson’s vocal it’s somehow uncanny.

I don’t think the record is totally flawless. How you react to the more familiar covers will inevitably depend on your relationship to the originals, and what you want a new version to achieve. I felt ‘The Boxer’ was a misfire: to me, the song, while tender, has an underlying resolve and pugnacity that befits its title. Here, the slow pace fatally weakens it, along with oppressive strings and the choir contributing isolated ‘lie la lie’s with no context. On the other hand, a similarly sentimental treatment of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ fits the song like a glove. The version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is shot through with wit, subverting any bombastic expectations the listener might have – even Brian May’s guitar cameo appears out of nowhere.

Two completely new compositions again emphasise the personal – named for two adopted moon bears, Rocky and Cyril (Wakeman is a passionate animal rights advocate). Writing from scratch in this idiom allows Wakeman to produce probably the most nakedly emotional tracks on the record, the signature traits (again, the steady motor, the climb to the high register) reflecting how much of himself he has put into these pieces. And I think it’s fair to say that the whole album – a heart-on-sleeve musical autobiography-of-sorts – wins through as an accomplished yet totally sincere attempt by the artist to communicate a true audio sense of himself.

Rick Wakeman’s ‘Piano Odyssey’ is available now on the Sony Classical label.

Meet the Artist interview with Rick Wakeman


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

Twitter: @adrian_specs

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

 

 

 

 

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

Bela Bartók – Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos
Paul Constantinescu – Cântec

Paul Constantinescu – Dobrogean dance: Toccata
Franz Liszt – Hungarian Rhapsody No 5 in E minor
Franz Liszt – Mephisto – Waltz No 1

Florian Mitrea, piano

Tuesday 30th January 2018

St Martin’s in the Fields, an elegant neoclassical church in the heart of London, resonated to the colourful, earthy sounds and rhythms of Eastern Europe in Florian Mitrea’s lunchtime concert. In an interesting and contrasting programme he offered a “taster” of his debut disc ‘Following the River’ with works by Bela Bartok, Paul Constantinescu and Franz Liszt

Fresh from winning fourth prize in the inaugural International Music Competition in Harbin, China, Florian betrayed no sign of lingering jet lag (he flew back to London from China on Sunday) in an energetic and committed performance book-ended by dances by Bartok and Liszt. The vibrant sounds and asymmetrical rhythms of Bartok’s Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm were despatched with muscular verve and nimble articulation. Hearing Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz in the same programme as the Bulgarian Dances reminded us of Liszt’s eastern European heritage, and here this work was less a devilishly tricky crowd-pleasing virtuosic romp and more a fitting companion piece to Bartok’s dances which opened the concert. Equally, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 5 was given a noble grandeur, imbued with a sweeping romanticism but also deeply connected to the composer’s heritage.

The middle of the programme was occupied by two works by Romanian composer Paul Constantinescu (1909-63). Cântec, a set of variations on a Romanian folksong, was infused with a bittersweet nostalgia, while Dobrogean dance: Toccata recalled the off-beat folk rhythms of Bartok in a work which combined glittering virtuosity with poignant lyricism. Both works were beautifully paced, sensitively shaped, and highly evocative.

These two works appear on Florian’s debut disc, Following the River, inspired by childhood memories of “hot summer nights spent on a boat in the middle of a channel, deep in the heart of the Danube Delta” (FM). The Danube, the longest river within today’s European union, flows through 10 countries and four capital cities – Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade – and carries with it stories, folklore, memories and more. In Following the River we find quite a different version of the river from “An der schönen blauen Donau”, by the Austrian Johann Strauss II, which celebrates the great river in Vienna; this is a far more personal evocation. The selection of pieces by Bartok, Schubert and Liszt and Romanian composers Sigismund Toduta, Paul Constantinescu and Radu Paladi all call on the folk heritage and music of eastern Europe in works of rich textures, dynamic rhythms, piquant harmonies and simple yet haunting melodies. Schubert’s Hungarian Melody is given a more earthy treatment, with a strong focus on its offbeat rhythms which turns in from a salon piece into a true folk melody. The disc introduces listeners to the varied and intriguing piano music of lesser-known composers Toduta, Constantinescu and Paladi, complemented by well-known works by Liszt. This is a very personal and meaningful selection of music, elegantly presented and masterfully played, with a deep appreciation of and affinity with the folk heritage which lies at the heart of all this music.

Highly recommended

Following the river: Music along the Danube

Bela Bartok, Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos Sz. 107
Sigismund Toduţă, Twelve Variations on a Romanian Christmas Carol
Franz Schubert, Hungarian Melody D 817
Paul Constantinescu, Variations on a Romanian Folksong
Paul Constantinescu, Joc Dobrogean. Toccata (Dobrogean dance)
Franz Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5 ‘Héroïde-élégiaque’ in E minor
Sigismund Toduţă, Suite of Romanian Songs and Dances
Radu Paludi, Rondo a capriccio
Sigismund Toduţă, Chorale on ‘God, have mercy’ and Toccata

© and ℗ 2017 ACOUSENCE records (ACO-CD 13317) www.acousence.de


Meet the Artist – Florian Mitrea

 

Two things, in fact…..

The first is Renée Reznek‘s new disc From My Beloved Country: New South African Piano Music, which features works by Neo Muyanga, Kevin Volans, Michael Blake, Rob Fokkens, Hendrik Hofmeyr, Peter Klatzow, David Earl and David Kosviner. Some of the works were commissioned by Reznek, including ‘Hade Tata’ (Neo Muyanga, 2013), composed in honour of Nelson Mandela. It opens with a haunting 4- note dirge motif which provides the theme for this programmatic piece whose title translates as “sorry, father”. Written as a tribute to Mandela on the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, the music is suffused traditional Sesotho and Zulu music with Ethiopian melismatic style, jazz and western classical music idioms. It celebrates Mandela’s childhood, his release from prison, and the weight of expectations placed upon him following his release to create a new South Africa.

Kevin Volans’ ‘PMB Impromptu’ (2014) was written “as a little tribute to Renee Reznek’s amazing fingerwork”. It appears to reference the minimalism of composers such as Reich and Adams, but it also pays homage to Debussy in a reworked passage from l’Isle Joyeuse, and Sindling’s ‘Rustle of Spring’. Reznek’s clarity and tonal colour really brings this music to life.

Volans’ ‘A Garden of Forking Paths’ is taken from his Progressively Prickly Piano Pieces, part of a graded series for players of all ages. Here, tonal control and sensitive use of the piano’s resonance create a piece whose meditative mood contrasts perfectly with the previous work.

Two works by Michael Blake from his six-volume cycle Afrikosmos reference Eastern Cape uhadi music, and the connection between this and Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, much of which draws on the folk music of his homeland. Meanwhile, Rob Fokkens’ ‘Five Miniatures’ also explores South African music, but in a concentrated form. These pieces offer ‘micro-studies’ in melody, rhythm, tonal palette and texture.

Partita Africana (Hendrik Hofmeyer) is one of the longer works on the disc. Darker in character, it merges the Baroque prelude and fugue with elements found in African music, including the pentatonic scale, repetitive melodic elements and irregular pulse. It’s an imposing work which evokes the vastness of the African plains.

Peter Klatzow’s ‘Barcarolle (Arnold Schoneberg in Venice)’ is a moody, atmospheric work which commemorates Schoenberg’s visit to Venice in 1925, and the piece includes motifs from the second of his Three Piano Pieces op 11. Reznek highlights the music’s inherent lyricism with a warm sound and sensitive pacing.

‘Song Without Words’ (David Earl) has a personal association for Reznek – it was composed as a wedding present for her daughter and was played during her wedding ceremony. It has the charm and lyricism of a song without words by Mendelssohn, with hymn-like elements in keeping with the ceremony. Earl’s ‘Barcarolle’ was also written in celebration of a family event: commissioned by Reznek on the occasion of her daughter’s engagement, the piece owes something to late Liszt in its haunting, rolling motifs and dramatic climaxes before the music settles into more peaceful waters. These works are played with great warmth and affection by Reznek.

The final work on the disc is ‘Mbira Melody’ (David Kosvner) which celebrates the African “thumb piano”, a instrument consisting of a wooden board with staggered metal keys, which are plucked with the thumbs. Redolent of Volan’s ‘PMB Impromptu’, it is also minimalist in style with its repeating figures and perpetuum mobile character. It ends with a witty chord.

This varied and imaginative collection of piano music reflects the influence of Western European music on South African composers, while also paying homage to the folk music and vernacular of the country. Reznek’s very personal affinity with the highly varied musical idioms presented in this collection is clear from the warmth and ease which is evident throughout, yet she is alert to the myriad moods and characters of each piece, creating an album which is both refreshing and revelatory.

Recommended.

From My Beloved Country is available on the Prima Facie label

https://soundcloud.com/ascrecords/renee-reznek?in=ascrecords/sets/prima-facie-records

5060113443885Scottish pianist Christopher Guild‘s second volume of piano music by Ronald Stevenson could equally be subtitled “From My Beloved Country….”. Although born in Blackburn in Lancashire, Stevenson’s father was a Scot, and the composer settled in the Scottish Border village of West Linton, south of Edinburgh. Scotland proved to be one of the profoundest influences on his life, and this album attests to that: it contains music directly influenced by or drawn from Scottish landscape, heritage and culture, together with works inspired by his creative friendships with other musicians. The album also contains several premiere recordings, including ‘Three Scots Fairy Tales’ which reveal Stevenson’s concern to create attractive and enjoyable music for young piano students. Christopher Guild responds to this by playing the pieces not as simplistic children’s music but instead brings great charm to these miniatures, highlighting their musical sophistication – for example, ‘What the Fairy Harper Told Me’ has Debussyan idioms and offers practise in the use of the sustaining pedal over rolled chords, as well as developing a sweet tone.

The most substantial work on the disc is ‘A Carlyle Suite’ (1995), written to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Thomas Carlyle. It’s a hommage to Carlyle from different viewpoints, and not only those which look directly at Carlyle himself. The second movement, for example, portrays an imaginary recital between Chopin and Jane Carlyle in Chelsea in 1848. Motifs and fragments drawn from Chopin’s mazurkas and a Valse Triste, all presented in a Bel Canto style, mingle with allusions to distinctly Scottish idioms. The seven movements of ‘A Carlyle Suite’ which follow are a ‘Study in historical styles on Frederick the Great’s theme’ (used to J S Bach in the ‘Musical Offering’), a set of variations which explore different musical devices and styles, from a French Baroque Overture (Var. 1) to a variation which evokes Debussy’s tonally ambiguous soundworld (the uninformed listener could easily mistake this for Debussy’s own music) with its whole tone scales and piquant, colourful harmonies.

One of the premiere recordings on the disc is of ‘Rory Dall Morison’s Harp Book’ (1978), a group of eight pieces which Stevenson transcribed from the harp book of the blind harper, Rory Dall Morison (c.1676-c.1714), who was born on the isle of Skye. Stevenson brings striking harmonisations and textures, and a simple poignancy to these simple folk melodies, and Christopher Guild’s crisp articulation and attention to detail evoke the sound of a harp, while his warm cantabile sound reminds us that these pieces are undeniably piano works.

The disc opens with ‘Hebridean Seascape’, Stevenson’s skillful reworking of the slow movement of Frank Merrick’s second piano concerto. It’s an evocative work, Lisztian in its scale and virtuosity, with rich orchestral sonorities, swelling melodies and fleeting birdsong, but also imbued with Scottish musical vernacular (the middle section references a Skye fisherwoman’s chant).

Just as on his first disc of Stevenson’s music, Christopher Guild brings a keen sensitivity to the music’s varying idioms and moods – from sprightly dances to the spacious romance of the Hebridean Seascape, there is much to enjoy from Guild’s assured touch and colourful soundworld. Recorded at Turner Sims Hall in Southampton, the piano tone is bright with a warm, rounded bass which really suits this music. Comprehensive liners notes by Christopher Guild accompany the disc, which include touching reminiscences of his meetings with Stevenson. And if you choose to purchase the album as a download, Toccata Classics have helpfully included a download of the liner notes on their website.

Recommended

Ronald Stevenson Piano Music, volume two – Christopher Guild, piano

Toccata Classics, Catalogue No: TOCC0388
EAN/UPC: 5060113443885

 

 

 

 


Our times maybe troubled, deeply troubled, but thank goodness we can still gain pleasure and solace from music – and Daniel Grimwood‘s recently-released disc of piano music by Adolph von Henselt offers over an hour of unalloyed bliss.

If you didn’t know the name of the composer beforehand – and many may not – the opening notes of the first track might have you confidently exclaiming “oh it’s Chopin!”. There’s the same ominous tread in the opening as Chopin’s Op 49 Fantasie. And then you might think “it’s Liszt!” on hearing the tumbling virtuosic passages which sparkle under the lightness and precision of Daniel Grimwood’s touch.

Other works recall the bittersweet lyricism of Schubert or look forward to the richer textures of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But this is Adolph Von Henselt, a little known Bavarian-born composer whom Grimwood champions.

Organised in the manner of an old-fashioned recital disc, there is much to savour and enjoy in the variety of works explored here. Virtuosic concert pieces sit comfortably alongside elegant miniatures, offering the listener a broad flavour of Henselt’s style and oeuvre. The Nocturnes, Impromptus and Études prove Henselt was every bit a master of these genres as his contemporaries Chopin and Liszt – and he made similar technical and interpretative demands on the pianist too. There are passages of vertiginous virtuosity which appear sweeping and effortless rather than merely showy with Daniel’s acute sense of the scale and pacing of this music. It’s lushly expressive but Daniel’s clarity and delicacy means it is never cloying or too heavily perfumed.

This disc would go into my “lateral listening” recommendations: if you love Chopin, I guarantee you’ll love Henselt just as much.

This is the second of Daniel’s recordings for the Edition Peters label and it has delightful cover artwork by Janet Lynch and comprehensive liner notes. As Daniel himself says of this disc: “It’s my small way of restoring Henselt…..to his rightful place in the repertoire

Highly recommended

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A Land So Luminous – music by Richard Causton and Kenneth Hesketh, performed by The Continuum Ensemble under the direction of conductor Philip Headlam with outstanding soloists including soprano Mary Bevan, violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, pianist Douglas Finch, flautist Lisa Nelsen and cellist Joseph Spooner.

The disc features work for large ensemble, duos, trios and music for solo flute, cello and piano. Kenneth Hesketh and Richard Causton are amongst the foremost British composers of their generations, and ‘A Land So Luminous’ showcases their distinct compositional voices and musical craftsmanship, from Hesketh’s piquant, light-filled textures to Causton’s inventiveness and imagination. The music on the disc is diverse and atmospheric, and draws inspiration from an eclectic catalogue of sources, including Heinrich Hoffman’s 19th cautionary tales for children, Der Struwwelpeter (‘Shock-Headed Peter’), the poetry of Marina Tsvetayeva, Fats Waller, shamanic ritual and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K. 622. The title track ‘A Land So Luminous’ takes its name from a piece by writing by 17th century French philosopher-poet Cyrano de Bergerac.

All the works on the disc reveal strong musical gestures and means of expression. Hesketh’s works are expansive, visual and colourful: in Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher (‘Don’t Suck Your Thumb’) clarinet and piano dart and weave in a playful yet faintly grotesque dance; while in the second ‘Netsuke’ long sustained sounds emerge overlaid by a wistful clarinet melody gradually build to an unsettling climax. Causton’s ‘Threnody’ is a haunting setting of the English translation of a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva. The piece relies on the musicians being sensitive about their roles, resulting in a work of concentrated poignancy. Mary Bevan’s crystalline yet highly expressive voice is complemented by elegaic clarinets and a delicate piano part. In ‘Sleep’, a work for unaccompanied solo flute inspired by a poem called ‘Mythistorema’ by George Seferis, Causton creates an unsettling aural image of sleep, beset by frequent changes in time signature and tempo. Lisa Nelsen, on flute, displays control and sensitivity in her performance. The night-time theme continues in ‘Night Piece’ for solo piano, based on the clarinet line from the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and performed by Douglas Finch, who brings a delicate clarity and tenderness to this dreamlike work.

Recommended

Release by Prima Facie Records

Meet the Artist…… interview with Kenneth Hesketh