sun 21/07/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Alwyn, Sibelius, Tenebrae | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Alwyn, Sibelius, Tenebrae

Classical CDs Weekly: Alwyn, Sibelius, Tenebrae

Piano miniatures from Gary Cooper's distant cousin, a Finnish giant's final utterance and a matchless collection of Slavonic religious music

Tenebrae sing Russian Orthodox musicEric Richmond


William Alwyn: Piano Music Mark Bebbington (Somm)

William Alwyn was a Suffolk-based composer who died in 1985. He dabbled in painting and writing, and held the post of Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music for nearly 30 years. His output included a cycle of symphonies and the music to several well-known British films. Curiously, he was related to the actor Gary Cooper, even providing the score to Cooper's final screen appearance. Alwyn's piano output, as represented here, more than deserves an occasional hearing. Mark Bebbington gives us graceful readings of Alwyn's 11 Fantasy Waltzes, completed in 1955. Chopin and Ravel are among the most audible influences, but these pieces invariably sound more than skilled pastiche.  Though defiantly tonal, the harmonic language is sophisticated and engaging. There's a power and edginess to several of the waltzes – nos 7 and 9, both slow and weighty, are among the best. There's a similar glowering quality to the early Funeral Rites for the Death of an Artist, and the 1940 Piece for Piano. The Sonata alla Toccata, for all its brilliance and verve, just doesn't pack the same emotional punch.

Bebbington is wonderful in an engaging five-movement suite of pieces for children, The Weather Vane – showing that music for young performers needn't be simplistic. He also includes the 1946 Sonatina by Doreen Carwithen. Carwithen, a prize-winning composition pupil of Alwyn's in the 1940s, married him in 1961, neglecting her own career in favour of promoting her husband's music. Her Sonatina is a substantial, characterful work, rhythmically lively and powerful enough to make you regret that she didn't compose more.

Sibelius: Masonic Ritual Music YL Male Voice Choir/Matti Hyökki, Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Jaako Kuusisto (BIS)

That Sibelius composed nothing from 1930 to his death in 1957 isn't quite true. The recently exhumed fragments of what's assumed to be the lost Eighth Symphony are tantalising, and it's widely accepted that the work was completed in full score before the manuscript was burned in a kitchen stove. Sibelius did keep himself quietly busy with arrangements and revisions, and this fascinating disc includes the last original works he wrote – two 1946 choral numbers which were added to his collection of Masonic Ritual Music. Sibelius became a freemason in 1922, becoming Honorary Member of the Grand Lodge of Finland five years later. The Ritual Music is a baggy assemblage of numbers for male chorus, tenor and organ obbligato. Several of the numbers are magnificent – particularly an extended funeral march for organ. And the 1946 Ode to Fraternity deserves to be a friendly nation's national anthem. The otherworldly language of Tapiola and The Tempest rarely surfaces in what is, essentially, a collection of practical, earthy music. Harri Viitanen conjures magnificent sounds from the organ of Helsinki Cathedral, and Matti Hyökki's choir don't disappoint, particularly in a sonorous acapella version of the Finlandia Hymn. Tenor Hannu Jurmu soars.

Rather more appealing for non-initiates is Jaako Kuusisto's concert arrangement of the music for tenor and orchestra. He admits that “no special attempt was made to imitate Sibelius's style of orchestration, as that kind of approach rarely works out for the best.” He's right – the spectral, lean sounds heard in the final symphonies and Tapiola are a perfect match for their thematic material. Here, Kuusisto's rich, warm colours are a perfect match for Sibelius's solid, rousing hymn tunes. Mika Pohjonen's vocals are a treat. Sibelius obsessives will enjoy comparing the organ and orchestral versions. Good BIS sound too.

Russian Treasures Tenebrae/Nigel Short (Bene Art)

Russian Treasures is a disconcertingly vague, unexciting title for a quietly spectacular choral disc: a rather wonderful anthology of Russian acapella sacred music. Tenebrae's sound under Nigel Short isn't what we might expect in this repertoire – smoother, and vibrato-free. Very English, in other words. But the results are magical, and the group's basses hit their subterranean low notes with ease. David Nice's sleeve notes begin by telling us of Tchaikovsky's desire “ to do something for church music”, feeling that contemporary liturgical composition was “utterly out of harmony with the Byzantine style of the architecture... with the whole structure of the Orthodox service.” Tchaikovsky's own setting of the All-Night Vigil was begun in 1881. We don't get any excerpts from it here, but we do get his quietly beautiful English-language version of one of the 16 Songs for Children, arranged for a New York performance. Several numbers from Rachmaninov's own All-Night Vigil are included. And sung so magnificently that you hope that Tenebrae will record the complete work. The sudden swell halfway through Bogoritse Devo is sublime, rendered more magical by faultless diction and intonation.

Viktor Kallinikov's Svete tihiy is a compact wonder – the final cadence among the most uplifting things I've heard in months. Short gives us two fruity settings by the maverick conductor Nikolay Golovanov. We get three wonderful pieces by the little-known Pavel Chesnokov, whose career as a composer of religious music took an understandable nosedive after 1917. There's also music by Gretchaninov and Kedrov. All superb – this disc is already in my best-of-2014 pile. Everything works – the acoustic is just resonant enough and the engineers haven't kept us at too much of a distance. An essential purchase.


Although my knowledge of the genre is sketchy to say the least, I'm a bit of a sucker for choral sacred music and over the years I've purchased a number of CDs by The Sixteen, New College Choir, The Monteverdi Choir, etc. Based on Graham's enthusiastic review, I'm about to add "Russian Treasures" to my collection.

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