sat 13/07/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Gavin Higgins, Christopher Simpson, Pina Napolitano | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Gavin Higgins, Christopher Simpson, Pina Napolitano

Classical CDs Weekly: Gavin Higgins, Christopher Simpson, Pina Napolitano

Brass bands, viols and a pair of 20th-century piano concertos

Pina NapolitanoLeonardo Onetti Muda


Gavin Higgins: Dark Arteries and other works Tredegar Town Band/Ian Porthouse (Tredegar Town Band)

The heavy industries associated with British brass bands may be close to extinction, so it’s reassuring to encounter evidence that so many of them are in rude musical health. Ignore brass bands at your peril; recent years have seen schemes such as El Sistema and Stirling’s Big Noise rightly lauded, but the likes of composer Gavin Higgins point out that brass bands have been performing a similar role for centuries in the UK. Raised in the Forest of Dean, he jokes that he “practically came out of the womb carrying a cornet,” and credits brass-playing with helping to control his Tourette’s Syndrome. This disc neatly showcases Higgins’ compositional versatility. In his words, “I don’t think light music should be bad music.” As he demonstrates in Fanfares and Love Songs, written in 2009 for the National Children’s Brass Band of Great Britain. That this thrilling, visceral piece was written for young players is extraordinary; the technical difficulties sound terrifying. Freaks! was prompted by Tod Browning’s 1932 film, Higgins writing darkly comic romp with a thrilling obbligato trombone part, heroically played by Jonathan Pippen. Its ten minutes are worth the disc price alone: music to make one giggle, wince and squirm. There’s also the larger scale Destroy, Trample as Swiftly as She, inspired, improbably, by the writings of the Marquis de Sade. It’s terrific music, not just terrific brass music.

The main attraction is the ballet score Dark Arteries, a collaboration with Rambert Dance Theatre first performed in 2015, the Tredegar Town Band’s players joining the dancers onstage. At times it’s a striking evocation of bleak mining landscapes, the short second section a percussive depiction of the Battle of Orgreave. The extended final movement is a mournful, moving meditation on a world where the mines have long gone, the pitheads superceded by industrial estates and golf courses. It packs a huge emotional punch. Utterly brilliant, and wonderfully well played.

Elegy - Schoenberg, Bartók, Krenek Pina Napolitano (piano), Liepaja Symphony  Orchestra/Atvars Lakstígla (Odradek)

Odd to discover that Schoenberg’s late Piano Concerto was initially commissioned by Oscar Levant – one of Schoenberg’s composition pupils and a performer more closely associated with Gershwin. Who’d been a friend and tennis partner of Schoenberg in Los Angeles. Levant bailed out when he realised that the short work he’d asked for was turning into a full-scale concerto, though the Gershwin link is worth pondering. The fleeting bluesy chords and string slides, coupled with Schoenberg’s characteristic writing for muted brass (sample the passage five minutes into the third movement) make this a much less intimidating work than it might seem on paper. Pina Napolitano’s performance is exceptionally lucid, aided by transparent orchestral playing. Yes, it’s a 12-note work, but Schoenberg’s canny structural sense means that it’s a compact piece which leaves you wanting more, the punchy final chord unambiguously positive. As a bonus, we get Schoenberg’s earlier Accompaniment to a Film Scene, music of dark unsettling potency. Thankfully the images it accompanies existed only in the composer’s mind.

Much more familiar is Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3, completed during the composer’s final months in 1945. Napolitano’s relaxed tempi for the outer movements are striking, the piece sounding less carefree than usual. As an approach it works, with an unusually touching central “Adagio religioso”, and the work’s conclusion less overtly optimistic. There’s sensitive orchestral playing from Atvars Lakstígala’s Liepaja Symphony Orchestra, who throw in as a bonus a Symphonic Elegy by Ernst Krenek. A 1946 response to Webern’s death, the rich string writing suggests Mahler more than Webern. Fascinating stuff – and, like Schoenberg’s concerto, proof that dodecaphonic music can be both melodic and moving.

Christopher Simpson: The Four Seasons Sirius Viols (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

Mention The Four Seasons and it’s Vivaldi or Franki Valli who invariably come to mind. There’s always room for scintillating new takes on Vivaldi’s ubiquitous sequence of violin concertos, but why not investigate this delectable work by one Christopher Simpson? Biographical details are sketchy, though we do know that he was born in Yorkshire in the early 1600s and died in 1669. A renowned viola da gamba player, little of his music has survived, apart from two sets of fantasias for viols. The Seasons is one, each section scored for a pair of bass viols and a treble, supported by a basso continuo.

Listening to this disc is like rubbing one’s back against a warm radiator, the viols’ rich, sonorous sound something to wallow in. The members of Sirius Viols share treble duties between the various pieces, the continuo part moving from cittern to chamber organ, taking in a theorbo and bandora en route. The organ works magnificently, its soft, woody timbre a perfect match for three viols. The recording is superb, the rhythmic interplay between players always audible. Don’t expect Vivaldian fireworks; Simpson’s music is much more introspective, though several of the faster dance movements are joyous: the third movement of Summer a thigh-slapping highlight. There’s a mysterious, sonorous bonus track entitled Eccles, unmentioned in the sleeve essay. A lovely disc.

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