wed 17/04/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Louis Andriessen, Mozart, Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Louis Andriessen, Mozart, Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik

Classical CDs Weekly: Louis Andriessen, Mozart, Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik

A dazzling contemporary opera, three classical symphonies and piano music from father and daughter

Pianist Clare Hammond plays the music of Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik with warmth and authorityJulie Kim


Louis Andriessen: La Commedia – a film opera in five parts Dutch National Opera, Asko Ensemble, Schönberg Ensemble/Reinbert de Leeuw (Nonesuch)

This the liveliest recording of a contemporary opera I've ever heard, in a belter of a performance. Dutch composer Louis Andriessen's La Commedia is an unwieldy, unorthodox opera. It's described in the booklet as a set of five mini-cantatas, each setting texts from Dante's Divine Comedy. Frustratingly, the libretto isn't included with this set, but can be downloaded. Grumbles aside, I began listening without texts and was glued to the work for the full two-hour duration. I didn't worry about the plot. Why is this opera so compelling? It's the music, isn't it – Andriessen's trademark propulsive minimalism is there in places, but this score is dazzlingly eclectic. The fluency recalls the likes of Henze – Andriessen can write effortlessly in any style he chooses, and brilliantly so. His scoring for children's voices is as fluent as Britten's, and there's an extended introduction to The Garden of Earthly Delights which sounds like an offcut from West Side Story. Wind chorales recall the austerity of late Stravinsky. Flickering harps suggest an entry into paradise. And the quirky coda is a wonderful payoff, the children's choir closing the opera with an oblique joke.

The vocal performances are excellent. What the booklet calls "the default Louis Andriessen affect" means singing in a style appropriate to early music, so there's minimal vibrato. Claron McFadden's Beatrice is excellent, and the late Jeroen Willems' turn as Lucifer steals the show. An enchanting, accessible set, in other words. There's an unexpected extra in the form of indie director Hal Hartley's filmed version on DVD. The black and white filmed inserts are intermittently effective, particular during the opening minutes, but the sections taped during the opera's Amsterdam performances are more successful. A shame that there are no subtitles - but, as stated previously, this music has enough communicative punch to survive without them.

Mozart: Symphonies 39, 40, 41 Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Sony)

Nikolas Harnoncourt believes that Mozart's last three symphonies constitute an "instrumental oratorium" – a single work in three sections. They were composed rapidly within a few months during the summer of 1788. Only No 39 has the traditional, slow introduction, while its monothematic last movement concludes brusquely in E flat, permitting a neat harmonic segue into the G minor angst of No 40. The latter is a work which can make you feel that you're staring into the abyss, meaning that No 41's assured C major offers listeners a measure of musical and psychological salvation. Sony haven't allowed any pauses between the three symphonies – hearing the G minor work instantaneously following No 39 is disconcerting – but it feels musically valid. Aspects of these performances will infuriate traditionalists, but Harnoncourt's interpretative decisions invariably feel like risks worth taking.

No 40's slow movement whizzes past at a feverish pace, and the Menuetto, at this speed, becomes a noirish danse macabre. The outer movements seethe and bubble, helped by a close recording balance. No 39's Finale clatters along like an effervescent overture, helped by brilliant bassoon and oboe playing. No 41 is the performance least likely to offend, though Harnoncourt's quirky way with the opening flourish may irritate. I loved it, and it was thrilling to hear a Molto Allegro in which the various themes are so intelligently characterised. Concentus Musicus Wien play as if possessed, while Sony's sound is rich and full-bodied.

Reflections: solo piano music by Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik Clare Hammond (piano) (BIS)

Andrzej Panufnik managed to settle in Western Europe in the late 1930s but returned to his native Poland when war broke out, giving underground concerts with Lutosławski to raise funds for resistance workers. After a break of several years, he eased himself back into composition with a 1947 cycle of Twelve Miniature Studies for solo piano. It is fabulous, assured music, each study based on the same thematic material, descending in fifths until all the keys are covered. Panufnik can do thumping virtuosity, but the most affecting studies are the quieter, nocturnal ones – the fourth a rapt slice of Bartókian night music, the eighth a wistful folk-tinged elegy. Folk influences are more overt in piano transcriptions of three vocalises for soprano and piano, Panufnik's 1949 Hommage à Chopin, neatly arranged here by the composer's daughter Roxanna. The compositional processes are invariably sophisticated, but never intrude. Reflections, completed within days of Roxanna's birth in 1968, is built upon transpositions and reflections of a simple triad, and 1984's Pentasonata is built around five beat rhythms and the pentatonic scale.

Roxanna's own piano output compliments that of her father. Second Home's elegant, sophisticated variations on a Polish folk theme are followed by a miniature composed in memory of a family friend. Modlitwa brings father and daughter together; Andrzej's prayer setting left unfinished, the text's second verse elaborated posthumously by Roxanna. This is a fascinating, rewarding recital; both composers' pieces recall and suggest the music of others – Bartók and Lutosławski the strongest influences – but they've very distinct, personal identities. Claire Hammond's performances exude warmth and authority, and her Steinway is impeccably recorded.

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