fri 01/07/2022

Classical CDs Weekly: Lutosławski, Szymanowski, Jórunn Viðar, The Revolutionary Drawing Room | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Lutosławski, Szymanowski, Jórunn Viðar, The Revolutionary Drawing Room

Classical CDs Weekly: Lutosławski, Szymanowski, Jórunn Viðar, The Revolutionary Drawing Room

Orchestral music from Poland and Iceland, and Viennese classical string quartets

The Revolutionary Drawing Room: an unexaggerated, affectionate performance that's a joy

Lutosławski: Concerto for Orchestra, Szymanowski: Three Fragments from Poems by Jan Kasprowicz Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Liebreich, with Ewa Podleś (contralto) (Accentus Music)

I've never come across a lousy recorded performance of Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra, and this stylishly packaged new one has loads going for it. An early work, it isn't at all typical of this composer's mature output – written before an encounter with the music of John Cage led to a bold change of direction. Lutosławski's use of folk melodies remains brilliantly idiosyncratic, the melodies stretched and distorted almost to breaking point. But this is a powerfully upbeat piece, the brash close fiercely affirmative. Alexander Liebrich's Polish players are magnificent, and the orchestral sound alternately shimmers and roars. Sample the moody, noirish opening of the "Passacaglia", the insistent plucked bassline supporting a beautiful cor anglais solo. The pedal notes of the "Intrada" sound like real F sharps, not dull thuds, and well-tuned drum thwacks give the music irresistible momentum. If you've avoided this vibrant, accessible slice of post-war music up to now, feel thoroughly ashamed and buy this CD.

Szymanowski's Three Fragments from Poems by Jan Kasprowicz complete the programme; heady transcriptions of songs composed in 1902, sung here with thrilling ardour by contralto Ewa Podleś. Liebrich's full-blooded accompaniments never overwhelm the singer. Wonderful performances and superb recording – but, disappointingly, no texts or translations are provided.

Jórunn Viðar: Fire: ballet suite for orchestra, Prologue for the Rhymes of Ólafur the Greenlander, Ólafur Liljurós – ballet suite Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Petter Sundquist and Paul Schuyler Phillips, Hamrahlid Choir/Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir (Smekkleysa)

Icelandic music? As well as Björk, there's the uncompromising Jon Leifs, whose volcanic Organ Concerto gets an outing in this summer's BBC Proms. But Jórunn Viðar's name was new to me. Born in Reykjavik in 1918, she began her career as a pianist, training in Berlin just before World War Two. She then studied composition at the Juilliard in 1943. Returning to Iceland in 1945, she forged a successful career as a piano soloist and composer. She's still very much alive, and three CDs of her music have just been made available in the UK. Each is terrific; they include a beguiling collection of songs setting Icelandic poetry, and one containing Viðar's exciting Piano Concerto. This disc, containing two ballet suites and an enchanting cantata, offers the best entry point. The sleeve notes are pleasing to read though frustratingly short on detail, and it's not made clear if Fire, dating from 1950, was extracted from a longer ballet score. Viðar was inspired by a poem of the same name, and the music is propulsive and entertaining. There’s a sudden lull in the middle, where you suspect the suite has morphed into a mini-violin concerto. This doesn’t last long, and Viðar described the moment as representing the point when “everything has burnt to ashes, then suddenly the fire blazes anew.”

Ólafur Liljurós followed in 1951. The narrative, based on an Icelandic folk tale, has the titular Christian hero resisting the erotic advances of a series of elf girls. Not a wise thing to do; Ólafur ends up being stabbed to death on his horse. Viðar's cinematic score is great fun, and the alluring elvish dance sequences suggest that Ólafur was making a grave mistake. His demise is signalled in shrill, abrupt fashion before the quiet close. We also get The Prologue for the Rhymes of Ólafur the Greenlander in the version with piano accompaniment, a setting of an epic poem describing yet another Ólafur's violent battles with the indigenous inhabitants of Greenland. Sung here by an excellent youth choir with thrilling clarity, it makes an immediate and vivid impression – though it's frustrating not to have a translation of the text. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Peter Sundquist and Paul Schuyler Phillips give sparkling performances of the orchestral pieces, and there's plenty of warmth to the recorded sound. Do investigate.

The Revolutionary Drawing Room & Simon Russell Beale: A Viennese Quartet Party – string quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Vanhal and Dittersdorf (Omnibus Classics)

This is a well-organised double CD: four classical string quartets played on gut strings, linked by spoken extracts from the name-dropping memoirs of one Michael Kelly, a Dublin-born tenor who forged a successful European career in the late 18th century. Pitting quartets by Haydn and Mozart alongside lesser examples by Vanhal and Dittersdorf serves to highlight the difference between skilled fluency and genius. Vanhal's 1786 Quartet in E Flat is proficient, entertaining and entirely forgettable. Unlike the first of Haydn's Op. 50 set, where the repeated cello notes at the outset sound as if someone's abruptly turned the volume up half way through the opening phrase. We're used to being shocked and delighted by Haydn's symphonies, but the string quartets can also surprise. This one's finale has a very typical false ending; you get up to make a cup of coffee and the music suddenly carries on. It's genuinely funny, not irritating, and the Revolutionary Drawing Room's unexaggerated, affectionate performance is a joy.

As is a spry reading of Mozart's K465, nicknamed "The Dissonance", the chromatic introduction deeply unsettling. As with the Haydn, you never quite know what's coming next. Dittersdorf's 6th Quartet can't compare, despite an energetic, catchy last movement. But you can't imagine the piece being better performed – still, I'd rather hear a complete Haydn or Mozart recital from these players. Each work is separated by a chunk of Michael Kelly's Reminiscences. Kelly pitched up in Vienna 1783 at the start of his successful career. We hear about his journey from Dublin to Naples. There’s a meeting with Haydn, and he gets beaten at billiards by Mozart. Fascinating stuff. But why do we get the quintessentially English Simon Russell Beale reading the texts? He does a splendid job, but wouldn't an Irish actor been more appropriate?

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