Archive for the ‘Hyperion 10’ Category

Hyperion 10: #10. The Feast of St Michael and All Angels at Westminster Abbey / Choir of Westminster Abbey, Robert Quinney, James O’Donnell

September 26, 2010

Thank you if you’ve stuck with me through this. A bit more variety will be coming to the blog soon. But there’s been variety in these posts, albeit firmly within the sphere of classical music. And I hope they have given at least a dim impression of the magnificence of Hyperion Records.

For my last choice, I had to pick one of the marvellous series of discs to come out of Westminster Abbey in recent years. They have released a number of superb recordings of music relating to particular seasons or feasts of the liturgical year, and I have chosen the one for Michaelmas, which happens to fall this coming Wednesday. The strength of this series lies as much in the astute selection of repertoire as it does in the performances. The structure of each programme covers three services – Matins, Eucharist and Evensong. This allows a broad selection of motets and anthems, canticles, preces and responses, Psalms, a Mass setting, and an organ voluntary. It’s a superb concept.

I can’t cover everything in detail, but will write a few things about this particular programme. It opens with Richard Dering’s radiant Factum est silentium, though that is the only music here dating from before the late nineteenth century. The responses, familiar but never hackneyed, are those by Kenneth Leighton, a composer of whom I am particularly fond. Though of course I don’t remember it, I gather I met him when I was a few months old, he having been one of my parents’ lecturers at Edinburgh. Mrs Leighton kindly gave me a small wooden car as a present, though I do not play with it as often as I ought to. The two Psalm chants are among the most lovable in the repertoire: Stanford for Psalm 148 and Alcock for Psalm 91; and the ‘Jubilate’ for the Matins service is the popular Britten setting in C, which receives the breezy, ringing-toned performance it demands.

The centrepiece of the CD is Jean Langlais’ magnificent, imposing Messe Solennelle, which really allows the choir and organist Robert Quinney to shine. It’s a great example of a piece written in a modern idiom (though its harmonic language draws on the medieval) that is nevertheless fairly ‘user-friendly’ to those who believe themselves immune to post-1945 classical music, and judging by this performance it must be a joy to sing, if not a walk in the park.

The music for Evensong features pieces commissioned by George Guest for the 450th anniversary of the foundation of St John’s College, Cambridge in 1961. The music of Sir Michael Tippett can be forbidding, but in the motet Plebs Angelica and his evening canticles for John’s, he shows himself to be a sensitive (if in some respects severe) composer of liturgical music. The ‘Nunc dimittis’ from his service is particularly beautiful, and beautifully sung by a quartet of soloists led by the uncannily pure-voiced Nicholas Trapp. Much more than just a curiosity from a man who rarely wrote church music.

Herbert Howells, by contrast, wrote his best music for the church. His Sequence for St Michael is one of a handful of pieces that poignantly invoke the memory of his son Michael, who died suddenly in 1935 at the age of nine. It is a great pleasure to lose oneself in the richly chromatic writing of this moving tribute. If I have one regret about the series it is that no hymns are included, and I feel their absence particularly keenly on this disc, where Howells’ tune ‘Michael’ (‘All my hope on God is founded’) would have been a fitting and self-recommending choice. Jonathan Harvey’s arresting Laus Deo is the giddying and fitting final voluntary.

As luck would have it, here’s a rather nice video of the hymn from Westminster Abbey. I can’t quite date it, but given some of the hair on show (particularly on the lady in blue) I’d be surprised if it was much later than 1990.

Hyperion 10: #9. Brahms: Viola sonatas, op. 120; Trio for piano, viola and cello, op. 114 / Lawrence Power, Simon Crawford-Phillips, Tim Hugh

September 24, 2010

Given my current mood, in which my love of Brahms continues to grow each day until, I anticipate, some kind of explosion will be brought about, it would have been impossible for me not to choose at least some Brahms here. I’ve gone for the recording of his chamber music for viola – the op. 120 sonatas and the op. 114 trio – by Lawrence Power (viola), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano) and Tim Hugh (cello). These three works are among Brahms’ latest utterances, each one inspired by his acquaintance of the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld. It’s a shame there are no recordings of Mühlfeld that survive: he died in 1907 at the age of 51. Brahms swiftly made new arrangements of the pieces substituting viola for clarinet, and the rest is history.

I have a special affection for the viola, which undoubtedly arises in part from my being a trombonist. As solo instruments they are usually neglected in favour of the violin and cello, the trumpet and horn. Neither instrument gets the tune very often either, but at least in the orchestra, though I don’t wish to grumble unduly, the violas get to play a bit. I remember going to an orchestral rehearsal once and finding the trombones had only one note to play, which fell on the final beat of the piece. We were permitted to leave. But I digress from my point, which was meant to be that for this bridesmaid of instruments to be given the occasional opportunity to get married (taking this metaphor a little too far now) is a cause for celebration.

The point has been made more eloquently by others that, listening to these performances, there is not the slightest suggestion that they might originally have been written for another instrument. Lawrence Power is a persuasive and poetic soloist. The first sonata, various Ohrwürmer from which have been going around my head for what seems like days, is a favourite. Its third movement, whose kinetic joy recalls the finale of the great Franck sonata (and prompts me to wonder whether Brahms knew the piece) and which Tovey identified as “the most deliciously Viennese of all Brahms’s works”, is played with an irresistible verve. Power’s gentle, teasing portamenti are quite joyous. H.C. Colles wrote in 1933 that the sonatas lose a great deal when not played on the clarinet, a view also widely held by clarinettists. One wishes he could have heard Power and Crawford-Phillips. What the sonatas may necessarily lose in mellowness of tone they regain here in intimacy from the less forthright character of the viola.

In the trio, though, I do sometimes miss the autumnal shades of the clarinet against the cello and piano. Which is not to say that the three musicians here fail to give it a compelling reading – quite the opposite. Duncan Druce, writing in Gramophone, rightly praises it as “a very fine performance, of exceptional expressive range, from extreme delicacy to thrilling power.” For those who can’t bear not to hear the clarinet in these pieces (and what unreasonable people you are, I must say), Thea King’s intelligent performances of them are available from Hyperion’s budget label Helios, and also in this box set of Brahms’ complete chamber music, which also includes the CD under discussion (and may be bought somewhat more cheaply than from the Hyperion website at present).

Hyperion 10: #8. The Psalms of David / Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Scott

September 21, 2010

I think on first acquaintance with the Psalms in their Anglican manifestation, i.e. sung to harmonic chants, if I can remember that far back, I was not a receptive listener. In a bad performance the effect of these repeated chord patterns can be dull, particularly if the choir fails to take the trouble to illuminate the words. I’m afraid that with hymns I still often find myself glossing over the words, preoccupied with the tune. That’s a habit that repetition ought to eliminate: once you’ve got the notes, you can concentrate on what the words mean.

With the Psalms – especially with the Coverdale Psalter – one misses so much by failing to consider the text. You don’t have to have faith to see something tremendous in “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint : my heart also in the midst of my body is even like melting wax” (Psalm 22) or “I am become like a pelican in the wilderness : and like an owl that is in the desert” (Psalm 102). The poetry is evident in every line. Just a momentary glance at a phrase like “O Lord, rebuke me not in thine indignation : neither chasten me in thy displeasure” (Psalm 6) will transport me back years into the past like the twitch upon the thread Waugh writes about in Brideshead. Maybe the effect of the language is so profound because we (by which I mean I) have become accustomed to devotional writing being merely fit for purpose, rather than beautiful in its own right like the Book of Common Prayer.

To get back on track. This is a complete recording of the St Paul’s Cathedral Psalter. There’s no danger of the Choir of St Paul’s glossing over the words: each phrase is perfectly nuanced and executed, and their clarity of diction mostly overcomes the cavernous acoustic. That acoustic is a reason some critics have resisted the recording. I think the sense of place it gives can add immeasurably to the atmosphere, and don’t find harmonic definition obscured, though the resonance does mean that it is necessary for the choir on occasion to employ slower tempi than might be thought desirable.

The entirety of the recordings, which were made over a period of about seven years, date from John Scott’s tenure at St Paul’s, and he is more than ably assisted by his two organists, Andrew Lucas and Huw Williams, whose perceptive embellishments are all one could hope for. The choice of chants is a pleasing combination of the standard and the unexpected, the old and the new. The familiar Stanford chants for Psalms 147 and 150, for instance, are present and correct. I have very fond memories of singing the Cooke chant for Psalm 7 in an Eton Choral Course evensong at King’s several years ago. A treasure trove.

Hyperion 10: #7. Villa-Lobos: Piano Music / Marc-André Hamelin

September 19, 2010

I’m sure any number of magazine and newspaper articles about Marc-André Hamelin must have begun with an observation on the aptness of his name. He charms, he bewitches.

It was a wrench to have to choose only one of his many outstanding Hyperion recordings. To have to omit his Godowsky Studies (which were awarded the ultimate compliment of being appropriated by William Barrington Coupe in the Hattogate scandal), his Grainger, his glittering anthologies Kaleidoscope and In a State of Jazz (the latter of which contains perhaps my favourite of all his recorded performances, of George Antheil’s brash, brilliant Jazz Sonata), was very hard. Earlier this month Hamelin’s recording of his own Etudes was released, which a first listening demonstrates to be a far from self-indulgent issue.

But this most mercurial of pianists is represented in my list by his disc of the piano music of Heitor Villa-Lobos. If I had to distil the essence of the music of Villa-Lobos, I suppose I would describe it as a kind of South American impressionism. His harmonic language recalls Ravel, Debussy, Scriabin, even Szymanowski at times, while his melodies have a recognisably Brazilian flavour. It’s a unique and exhilarating combination.

Hamelin’s programme begins with the three jewel-like miniatures As três Marias, all inhabiting the upper realms of the keyboard, which shimmer and twinkle like the stars they represent. It’s the perfect aperitif for what follows.

What follows are the two books of A Prole do Bebê, which contain some of the most beautiful piano music I know. In some respects it’s music for children – the first book consists of portraits of dolls, the second of portraits of animals – but it’s not music children can play themselves (with the exception of a few freakily good ones on Youtube like Aaron Kurz, who plays a couple of the less tender ones here – quite staggering, not to mention disheartening). I love Hamelin’s way with the wistful pieces like ‘Mulatinha’ and ‘A Pobrezinha’, but the pyrotechnics demanded by ‘O lobosinho de vidro’ (The little glass wolf), throughout which the blaze of Brazilian colour is dazzling, do not find him wanting.

The programme ends with Rudepoêma, a nearly twenty-minute tour de force written for Artur Rubinstein, one of Villa-Lobos’ greatest champions. The composer believed it captured the soul of the pianist. It’s a demanding piece to listen to, with a lot to get one’s head around. I don’t imagine there have been many pianists with either the technical mastery or the intelligence to give it as coherent and as engrossing a reading as it receives here.

I could rave about Hamelin for ages, but one of his greatest gifts, it seems to me, is that he resists the temptation to put his virtuosity to the fore that overcomes some other pianists. He is always an instrument of the composer, and so let’s finish with Villa-Lobos, but not with Hamelin. Here is Rubinstein playing ‘O Polichinelo’ from the first book of A Prole do Bebê. How tremendous to have this document of the great man playing.