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Classical CDs Weekly: Birtwistle, Shostakovich, ZOFO | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Birtwistle, Shostakovich, ZOFO

Classical CDs Weekly: Birtwistle, Shostakovich, ZOFO

21st century chamber music, Soviet quartets from Canada and Holst's Planets played by four hands

Celestial duets from Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke NakagoshiJim Block

 

Harrison Birtwistle: Chamber Music (ECM)

Begin with Bogenstrich – Meditations on a poem of Rilke and be surprised. At baritone Roderick Williams's effortless delivery of Rilke's "Liebeslied" and at the subtlety, the delicacy of Birtwistle's response to the text. This feels very much like a mainstream, defiantly unscary European art song. The piano writing, played here by Till Fellner, is full of passing beauties, and Adrian Brendel's cello is confident and rich-toned. This is highly approachable music, appearing on an 80th birthday anthology which could convince any casual listener that Birtwistle should should be admired rather than feared. There's even more delicacy in the settings of poems by the American modernist Lorine Niedecker. Scoring them for soprano and solo cello is a bold gesture which pays off, and Niedecker's oblique texts are clearly enunciated by Amy Freston. Several of these songs last little more than a minute, but their impact feels much bigger.

The one non-vocal item on this disc is Birtwistle's recent Trio for piano, violin and cello. Lucidly scored, strings and piano take turns to dominate the musical foreground, or more often pursue separate musical agendas. This is another vividly accessible work; you're aware of the sophisticated processes ticking away under the surface but they never detract from the music's expressive power. As an introduction to Birtwistle, this is a magnificent achievement – lyrical contemporary repertoire that you'll want to revisit.

Shostakovich: The Complete String Quartets Quatuor Arthur-leBlanc (XXI-21)

Everyone's heard Shostakovich's autobiographical Eighth Quartet. Casual listeners might have come across No. 10 on Radio 3, and that's probably it. Bartok's quartets fit neatly onto a pair of discs; Shostakovich's cycle of 15 needs a more daunting five or six. Any new set comes up against formidable competition: excellent new sets from the Pacifica and Alexander Quartets have appeared recently, and connoisseurs will return to vintage analogue recordings from the Borodins and Fitzwilliams. Newcomers would be well-served by this neat, slimline package from Montreal's Quatuor Arthur-Leblanc, a team seemingly set on rehabilitating the more obscure quartets in the sequence. Try the Ninth, a sequence of five linked movements composed in 1964. Everything is here – romance, comedy, dazzling compositional technique. The final movement's dizzy fugue is stunning in this performance. The coda is pure joy, Shostakovich tying his disparate musical threads together in some style. The close of No. 12 is similar, the relentless energy and pounding semi-quavers powerful, affirmative in their effect: one of the few unambiguously happy endings in this composer's output. There's a lovely performance of the highly approachable 14th Quartet, the third movement's radiant, bittersweet close daringly sustained. The leBlancs do remarkable things with the gloomy 15th. Listening to this work can be a little like watching beige paint dry in a cold room. I've rarely heard a performance as lyrical as this, though these players don't underplay the bleakness.

Number six's geniality comes across nicely, and the Jewish inflections of number four's finale are both affectionate and sardonic. Beginners would do well to start with these two works, and then move onto the darker, larger scale fifth. There's plenty of fire in this account the first movement, every strand audible. The finale's ambivalent close is nicely done. The Third Quartet is brilliantly dramatic, the shifts between flippancy and tragedy negotiated with ease. These players have this music in their bones, and they're nicely recorded too. Detailed, well-translated notes are provided as PDF files on a separate disc.


Zoforbit – A Space Odyssey: Piano duets by Sisask, Holst, Crumb and Lang ZOFO (Sono Luminus)

This CD's retro sleeve art is a winner, and the musical contents are similarly engaging. ZOFO are a San Francisco based piano duet, specialising in 20th century music and new commissions. Marie Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi's stage name is shorthand for twenty-finger orchestra. They're on astonishing form here. What's billed, slightly portentously, as "a metaphorical exploration of the galaxy" turns out to be a blast. Their transcription of Holst's The Planets is a composite, based on the composer's own piano duet original, with reference to the orchestral score. Hear this just once and you'll quite happily never sit through the orchestral version again. Two musicians are inevitably a bit more nimble than a hundred, and "Mercury" truly flies. "Mars" is stark, percussive and grim. "Jupiter" 's opening flurries could pass for 1970s minimalism, and Uranus is sensational, the often inaudible organ glissando as clear as day when played on a Steinway. "Neptune'" s fade, so often marred by dodgy choral intonation, works like a dream.

Estonian composer Urmas Sisask's The Milky Way is a brief, two movement work, the circling pentatonic configurations combined with plucked and strummed strings. Two movements taken from George Crumb's Celestial Mechanics involve similarly imaginative approaches to piano technique, though never descend into gimmickry. David Lang's Gravity is an affecting study based around sequences of slowly descending chords. You'll applaud when it's all over, and then listen to the whole thing again. The recording, made at Sono Luminus's studio in rural Virginia, is a thing of beauty. There's a bonus Pure Audio Blu-ray disc for those in search of higher fidelity. A wonderful release.

Hear this just once and you'll quite happily never sit through the orchestral version again

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