sat 16/12/2017

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Haydn, Ligeti, Smaro Gregoriadou | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Haydn, Ligeti, Smaro Gregoriadou

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Haydn, Ligeti, Smaro Gregoriadou

Elgar in new clothes, ear-stretching pianism and a satisfying guitar anthology

Pianist Shai Wosner


Elgar orch. Donald Fraser: Piano Quintet, Sea Pictures English Symphony Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, Rodolfus Choir/Kenneth Woods (Avie)

Donald Fraser's orchestration of Elgar's expansive Piano Quintet was prompted by a 1918 entry in Lady Elgar's diary, describing a chance overhearing of her husband composing "wonderful new music... which should be in a War Symphony." It certainly feels symphonic, and Fraser's uninhibited transcription serves the work brilliantly, the more florid moments taking their cue from Elgar's own 1921 orchestration of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue. You'll be seduced within seconds, Kenneth Woods' English Symphony Orchestra wonderfully responsive in the work's shadowy opening – tutti strings and harp making magical sounds 50 or so seconds in. What ensues is consistently impressive and idiomatic – even the soft tambourine flurries accompanying the quirky second subject feel instinctively 'right'. Orchestrating chamber music is always problematic, and nay-sayers will complain that Elgar's introspection has been drowned out by Fraser's exuberance. I wasn't offended in the slightest – what we get is an emotionally involving quasi-symphony with a powerfully affirmative conclusion. In any case, no one’s forcing sceptics to listen. Approach it with an open mind and you’ll be won over.

Fraser's clever arrangement of Elgar's Sea Pictures for SATB choir, string orchestra and solo string quartet (echoing the great Introduction and Allegro) will also set alarm bells ringing, but I prefer it to the original. The archness which can afflict performances from solo contraltos is totally absent. The texts aren't always audible, but that's rarely a problem; the work's melodic richness has always been more appealing than the word setting. There's confident singing from the Rodolfus Choir and rich string playing from the English Chamber Orchestra, again conducted by Woods. All highly enjoyable, with the Piano Quintet a must-hear.

Haydn and Ligeti: Concertos & Capriccios Shai Wosner (piano) Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Collon (Onyx)

Pairing Haydn and Ligeti makes such good sense that one wonders why it's not been done more often. There's a good Ligeti quote in pianist Shai Wosner's sleeve note: “Humour and seriousness, for me, always go together” – Ligeti making the point that levity isn't an inferior emotion, but an ingredient which makes music infinitely more approachable and appealing. Wosner's performance of Ligeti's Piano Concerto is a wowzer. You ideally need two brains and three hands to play this piece well. Wosner makes it sound easy, the rattling cross rhythms effortless, the sheer musicality drawing you in. Ligeti's spooky second movement contains one of his blackest jokes. Which I won't spoil for those who haven't experienced it, apart from recommending that you crank the volume up and lower the lights. Nicholas Collon's Danish National Symphony Orchestra are superb accompanists, the xylophonist and principal horn deserving special mention. Wosner also includes Liget's early solo Capriccio, both drily appealing miniatures.

Two Capriccios by Haydn are also thrown in, one of which includes specific instructions for the pianist to hold a note until the sound disappears completely – the effect of which can make the player look as if they've forgotten what comes next. And there's a pair of Haydn's best-known piano concertos. The faster movements are as sly as you'd expect – the 11th concerto's “Rondo all'Ungarese” is breathtaking, but Wosner and Collon score extra points by handling the slow movements with such tender affection – no. 4's “Adagio” a case in point. A terrific disc, and superbly recorded to boot.

El Aleph – 20th and 21st Century Guitar Music Smaro Gregoriadou (Delos)

This recital’s technical details are outlined in some detail – Smaro Gregoriadou’s various choices of guitar dictated by the musical demands of the pieces she plays. So we get different combinations of gut and metal strings, and alternative tunings; it’s a shame that Delos’s booklet doesn’t include photos of the various instruments used. That gripe aside, this is a superb recital which will comfortably be devoured in a single sitting. Some of the composers’ names are familiar: I was beguiled by four short works by the Paraguayan guitarist and composer Agustin Barrios. A very Bachian Prelude in C minor makes an excellent entry point, along with Dukas’s pupil Manuel Ponce’s appealing Thème varié et Finale, moving from louche moodiness to giddy effervescence. Henze’s elegant Drei Tentos show their composer moving away from serialism to a freer style, dipping his toes into conventional tonality. Nikita Koshkin’s rhythmically electrifying Toccata illustrates a passage from Revelations depicting birds falling dead from the sky.

After which, Sean Hickey’s Tango Grotesco comes as light relief, a brilliantly written pastiche. Most recent are René Eespere’s austere Tactus spiritus and the one non-solo work included:  Gregoriadou’s El Aleph after Jorge Luis Borges for guitar ensemble. Borges’ short story concerns a point in space where the entire universe can be glimpsed from a single vantage point. As a display of contemporary performance techniques it’s marvellous, the second section’s eerie textures suggesting a huddle of prepared pianos. All superb, and one of the best guitar discs I’ve heard in ages.

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