tue 21/11/2017

Classical CDs Weekly: Barber, Britten, Ensemble Diderot, Jake Schepps | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Barber, Britten, Ensemble Diderot, Jake Schepps

Classical CDs Weekly: Barber, Britten, Ensemble Diderot, Jake Schepps

20th-century piano concertos, Baroque trio sonatas and contemporary bluegrass music

Jake Schepps, whose 'Quintet: Entwined' is one of those albums you'd want to rescue from a burning house

 

Britten & Barber: Piano Concertos Elizabeth Joy Roe (piano), London Symphony Orchestra/Emil Tabakov (Decca)

For years, the only available recording of Britten's Piano Concerto was the one with Sviatoslav Richter accompanied by the composer. Richter is still a contender, his expansive first movement tempo allowing the details to register without underplaying the music's vivacity. Speedier recent accounts by Howard Shelley and Steven Osborne can sound a little breathless. Elizabeth Joy Roe's timings suggest that she's going to follow the Richter approach, but she's as swift as any modern rival in the Toccata's opening flourish, which is brilliantly done, matched by incisive double-tonguing from Emil Tabakov's LSO winds. Decca's close balance adds to the excitement, even if it's occasionally overbearing. Joy Roe's first movement's cadenza is, however, a surprise; played here with rare flexibility and freedom it makes Britten sound like Debussy or Ravel, and the orchestra's quiet re-entry is daringly slow. I love it; this is one of the most sheerly beautiful orchestral passages in this composer's output, and slowing it down only makes it sound better. The subsequent movements are as memorable; a sly waltz and an Impromptu where the gamelan influences come to the fore. The March is again played with some flexibility, the closing bars weighty and dark. Exciting stuff – this is a phenomenal piece, still under-appreciated.

Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto makes for an appropriate coupling. Barber's romanticism is more overt than Britten's, and Tabakov's fulsome orchestral support is just what this work needs. The lusher tutti flourishes have plenty of colour, and Barber's thicker scoring doesn't suffer from congestion. There's a melting Canzone, and the finale's relentless 5/8 is handled with aplomb. As bonuses we get two solo nocturnes: Barber's gently dissonant, hyper-romantic Homage to John Field a sharp contrast to Britten's cooler Night Piece, a 1963 test piece for the first Leeds Piano Competition.

The Dresden Album Ensemble Diderot/Johannes Pramsohler (Audax Records)

Baroque fiddler Johannes Pramsohler studied the modern violin until an encounter with Rachel Podger at the Guildhall School led to a change of direction. He's played and recorded with almost every period-instrument band, and a linked collection of trio sonatas forms this debut disc for the Paris-based Ensemble Diderot. The unifying factor is one Johann Georg Pisendel. He was an influential Baroque violinist with a remarkable gift for social networking, meeting the likes of Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Couperin, Corelli and Telemann while playing for the modestly-named August the Strong's Dresden Hofkapelle in the early 18th century. Handel visited the Dresden court in 1719 and we're given two of his sonatas on this CD. Both are fun, though the G minor one is the more affecting, and the erudite, if discursive, sleeve notes by Reinhard Goebel allude to Handel's supernatural ability to tug at listeners' heartstrings. Which he does in this recording, with Pramsohler and fellow violinist Varoujan Doneyan singing their hearts out in the brief Largo. Both sonatas last barely 10 minutes but feel far weightier.

Telemann still gets a bad press, unfairly dismissed as an over-prolific hack, but the Eb Trio Sonata included here is a delight, its slow movement plumbing Handellian depths. I'll return most often to the rarities though – such as a tiny, sublime work by the Czech composer František Ignác Tůma which packs an emotional punch wholly at odds with its six-minute time span. Trio sonatas by Fux and Fasch complete the package, the last movement of Fux's sonata an effervescent D major romp. Pramsohler and Doneyan receive high-class support from cellist Gulrim Choi and Philippe Grisvald, and Denis Diderot's nifty zebra etching is on the cover. What's not to like?

Jake Schepps Quintet: Entwined (Fine Mighty Records)

Everyone needs to hear Jake Schepps's An Evening in Village, an enchanting sequence of short chamber pieces by Bartók arranged for bluegrass ensemble. This is one of those albums you'd want to rescue from a burning house. Entwined, improbably, collects new music commissioned for stringband quintet, in Schepps's words:“an ensemble solidified when banjoist Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys in 1945”. The very notion of contemporary music for banjo will have some readers running for the hills. But that's their loss. This album is consistently entertaining, intriguing and accessible, the quintet's euphonious, warm sound a constant source of uplift. Marc Mellits's Flatiron comprises eight short, punchy movements. Each one unfolds like a pithy short story, American folk music and minimalism knitted together over bouncing rhythmic ostinati.

Matt McBane's sparer scoring in Drawn has the five instruments heard as individual voices, an effect made stronger by the widescreen recorded balance. There's some sublime playing from violinist Ryan Drickey in the final “Ground”. Matt Flinner's Migrations is still more muted and elegant, the simplest of musical procedures never sounding naïve or clumsy. In case you're wondering whether things are getting a little too polite and well-behaved, the disc closes with Gyan Riley's Stumble Smooth. Beginning with a bewildering sequence of slaps, thuds and plinks which have you fearing for the safety of the instruments, it quickly accelerates, taking in Slavic rhythms, new age calm and folksy flamboyance. Superb, in short – a dazzling, witty album which is already on my "Best of 2015" shortlist. Buy it, get hooked, and then track down Schepps's joyous Bartók disc. 

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