Handel Sonatas for Violin and Basso Continuo The Brook Street Band AV2387
This disc contains nine violin sonatas attributed to Handel (four of disputed authorship –though this is impossible to tell). The music is extremely attractive and entertaining, characterful and colourful, and the playing from the Brook Street Band is passionate and enthusiastic, although the ensemble is not always spot-on. The sound of the baroque violin is quite scratchy and harsh, especially in the fast movements in which almost a whistly, squeaky sound comes across, possibly caused by the minimal contact between the bow and the strings and the way the bow skitters across them (an issue probably not helped by the close microphone, either). That aside, the Band create nice dynamic contrasts, with some effective gestural spacing. Especially good, however, are the high spirits and energy with which they imbue the more up-beat movements, and the evident joy and love expressed in their performances of these works.
Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel James Gilchrist, Philip Dukes, Anna Tilbrook CHAN 10969
The songs on this disc are beautifully sung by James Gilchrist, with his bright, clear voice and excellent enunciation and diction –particularly wonderful in the more introspective works such as Let Beauty Awake and The Infinite Shining Heavens. Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel are followed by Six Studies in English Folk Song, in the composer’s own arrangement for viola and piano. Violist Philip Dukes has a light touch that works exceptionally well here – nothing is at all heavy-handed. There is a lovely focus to his tone as well, and despite the fact that this is not a big sound, it is nevertheless crystalline, with no wooliness to mar it. The Studies are followed by a batch of further songs, before the Romance for viola and piano and Rhosymedre in an arrangement by the eminent music critic Richard Morrison for tenor, viola and piano (which works quite well). The disc concludes with the Four Hymns for tenor, piano and viola obbligato. A lovely disc all round, and excellently performed by all three musicians, with Anna Tilbrook proving a sensitive and sympathetic accompanist throughout.
Walton Viola Concerto; Partita for Orchestra; Sonata for String Orchestra BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner, James Ehnes CHSA 5210
One of the finest recordings that I have heard of Walton’s Viola Concerto features on this disc, with solo violist James Ehnes and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Edward Gardner. The engineered sound is warm, welcoming and enveloping, and the soloist likewise creates a rich tone. The playing from both orchestra and soloist is incisive and passionate: the second movement in particular is full of energy and life, with the soloist suitably virtuosic. Overall, this is a powerful and beautiful account from all involved, with the players getting to the heart of the work, which consequently comes across more joyfully, exuberantly and comprehensibly than in most other renditions. The disc also contains an excellent performance of the Sonata for String Orchestra, with a warm but clean and not all fuzzy sound from the strings, and a similarly incisive, spirited, and energetic rendition of the Partita for Orchestra.
cpo Handel Johannes-Passion La Capella Ducale, Musica Fiata, Roland Wilson cpo 555 173-2
This anonymous setting of the St John Passion was found in the Royal Library in Berlin and ascribed to Handel (it is included in several Handel collections), but some scholars have doubted the attribution. The excellent booklet notes here from Roland Wilson discuss in detail the arguments for and against, which makes for fascinating reading.
The work itself is supposed to date from around 1704; Handel, if he did compose it, would have been eighteen, which could explain a slight unevenness of composition, attributable to youth and inexperience. It is nevertheless an interesting and beautiful piece, quite short for a Passion, partly because it begins relatively far into the Passion story. As it appears to have been composed for liturgical performance, being in two parts (presumably for performance before and after the sermon), Wilson has here opened each part with a hymn as a nod to the congregational singing that would have formed part of liturgical renditions.
The performance on this disc is not quite as polished as one would expect from cpo artists – the intonation from the orchestra and chorus isn’t centred and the soloists are slightly ropy, with sometimes insecure intonations and occasional failures of vocal control. This is not helped by the recorded sound, which is surprisingly muffled and muddy, especially where the voices are concerned. I also found it a little odd that there were no biographies of any of the performers in the disc booklet. Nevertheless, definitely an interesting disc and a work worth hearing.
Bax Symphony No. 2, Winter Legends BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, Goossens, Leppard, McCabe REAM.1137
This disc opens with Bax’s Second Symphony in a BBC Studio recording that was broadcast in 1956. Sir Eugene Goossens conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a passionate and dramatic performance. There is nice clarity in the textures, good shading of light and dark, and an unusually high degree of unanimity in the strings in terms of string choice, timing, and placing of portato. In fact, the only downside of this recording is the rather boxy sound. The Symphony is twinned with Winter Legends, with John McCabe the soloist and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Raymond Leppard in another BBC Studio recording, broadcast in 1978. Again, this is an excellent performance from the orchestra, as well as from John McCabe, whose playing has a pleasing openness of texture, along with highly commendable shaping and voicing.
British Music for Viola and Orchestra New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Helen Callus, Marc Taddie 8.573876
Vaughan Williams, Howells, Walton and Bowen are presented on this superb disc with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Marc Taddie, and solo violist Helen Callus. The disc opens with the gorgeous Vaughan Williams Suite for Viola and Orchestra of 1934, well played by both soloist and orchestra, with especially beautiful, diaphanous strings in the second movement. The Howells Elegy for viola, string quartet and string orchestra is another ravishing work, and here given a deeply-felt performance by all involved. It is followed by a muscular and impassioned account of the Walton Viola Concerto, while York Bowen’s wonderful Viola Concerto concludes the disc in a confident and assured performance, with bold, concise playing in this lush, romantic and intense work, and an especially lovely light touch from the soloist in the final movement. Excellent performances of important and glorious works.
Percy Grainger Complete Music for Wind Band Vol. 1 The Royal Norwegian Navy Band, Bjarte Engeset
This is the first in a complete series of Grainger’s music for wind band, with a strong emphasis on adhering exactly to Grainger’s specified instrumentation, however wacky. As such, it is a disc that explores the battier side of Grainger. It opens with a gloriously exultant and fun rendition of Molly on the Shore and follows this with Bell Piece, with its inclusions of handbells and tenor – the latter role is taken by Marius Roth Christensen, who is, alas, slightly scoopy. There is also a Bach realisation and arrangements of works by Lawes, Goossens, Faure, Franck, and Katharine Parker (another Australian pianist and composer who studied with Grainger). The disc includes several world premières, as well as well-loved works such as Country Gardens and Shepherd’s Hey. Performances from the Royal Norwegian Navy Band are light and dancing, with a lovely helter-skelter element to Shepherd’s Hey, for example, and fully capture Grainger’s weird and wonderful instrumentation.
Julian Lloyd Webber A Span of Time Julian Lloyd Webber, Jiaxin Lloyd Webber, John Lenehan 8.504053
This set brings together four of Julian Lloyd Webber’s recent recordings, three of which have been previously reviewed in these pages: A Tale of Two Cellos, Evening Songs, and And the Bridge is Love. The first features arrangements by Julian Lloyd Webber of works by composers ranging from Pergolesi and Purcell through Schumann and Dvorak to Part and Shostakovich: the pieces relevant to Albion are the arrangements of works by Purcell, Quilter, William Lloyd Webber and Holst, all of them beautifully arranged and performed. In Evening Songs, Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber, along with John Lenehan, perform Julian’s arrangements of songs by Delius and Ireland, while And the Bridge is Love is, again, an all-English music disc. This time Julian Lloyd Webber is both cellist and conductor, as he directs the English Chamber Orchestra in gorgeous works by Elgar, William Lloyd Webber, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Walton, and Ireland. The final disc in the set presents arrangements by Julian Lloyd Webber of concerti by Vivaldi. Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber are joined by the European Union Chamber Orchestra, directed by Hans-Peter Hofmann. As would be expected, the performance standards throughout the four discs are very high indeed, and the arrangements are sensitive and idiomatic: an excellent set of discs.
Sir Hubert Parry Twelve Sets of English Lyrics Volume II Sarah Fox, James Gilchrist, Roderick Williams, Andrew West SOMMCD 270
This is an excellent disc all-round, but one song -- If thou wilt ease thine heart -- so stands out above all the others that it would be worth buying the disc for this single song alone. The song is so beautifully crafted that, for me, it transcends Parry’s other songs, and the performance here from Roderick Williams is peerless and perfect. In fact, all the performances from Williams are superlative, with his flawless enunciation, radiant beauty, and tenderness in songs such as And yet I love her till I die. James Gilchrist’s sound is also lovely – warm, inviting, and enveloping. There is a little strain in his voice in the higher notes, but this doesn’t necessarily detract: the slight sense of fragility quite suits works such as Bright Star. Sarah Fox’s vibrato was too excessive for my liking (but that is very much due to personal taste). I also found Andrew West’s piano playing a little vertical, and would have liked a bit more line. However, these are minor points in the grand scheme of things. The programming was particularly good, with a trio of longer, substantial baritone songs in the middle of the disc. That glorious If thou wilt ease thine heart is at the heart of the programme, flanked by Dirge in Woods and What part of dread eternity. Wonderful.
Delius and Grieg Piano Concertos Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jan Latham-Koenig, Mark Bebbington SOMMCD 269
This disc presents an apt pairing, given the friendship between Delius and Grieg that lasted from their meeting in 1886 until Grieg’s death in 1907. It opens with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, which is followed by Delius’s Piano Concerto in C minor. Both of these works were recorded at St John’s, Smith Square, but the sound in the Delius comes over a bit warmer and fuzzier (a comment, not a criticism – I just found it rather odd!) The performances of both works are very good, with Bebbington on top, virtuosic, form. They are followed by two fragmentary sketches for Grieg’s second Piano Concerto in B minor, although these are really too insubstantial to give a real flavour of what the work could have been like. Delius’s Three Preludes are then given a light and dreamy rendition, before the disc concludes with Peter Warlock’s two-piano arrangement of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. This is interesting to hear, and a pleasant inclusion in light of the friendship between Warlock and Delius, but still something of a pale shadow of Delius’s full version. An interesting disc overall, with good performances and some rare pieces as well.--Em Marshall-Luck