Cello Suites Nos 1-6
Yo-yo Ma (cello)
Sony Classical 19075854652 133:05 mins (2 discs)
Yo-yo Ma is a well-travelled musician, in every sense.
The Silk Road project not only widened his cultural perspective, but also opened up his playing and musicianship. Now he returns to the Bach Suites, as a prelude to a world-wide tour. As a cellistcommunicator he is second to none: few who witnessed his magisterial survey of the suites at the 2015 BBC Proms will forget it – not so much for the actual performances, which were self-effacing to a fault, but for the extraordinary sense of communal engagement he generated.
Remove that electric frisson of live relationship and what remains?
This, his third complete recording, has a Zen-like serenity, a lightness of being, in spirit if not always in bow stroke. The sense of an interior dialogue is beautifully sustained, especially in the D minor and C minor preludes. And a dancing brio lights up the Gavottes, Bourrées and earthily charming Gigues. By contrast, Allemandes and Courantes are perhaps too close in character: the D major Allemande floats free, a wistful fine-spun meditation, but the Courante, while graceful, lacks energy and bite (compared to, say, Isserlis or Watkin, it can feel slack), while the Sarabande is spectral, breathy, mezzo piano.
Ma always did have a light radiance to his sound, but here it can sound naked, with a guitarlike lack of depth. There are also times when his bow wavers: in the notorious E flat Prelude, for example, or the C major Prelude, whose final chords are roughly broken off, or the D major Prelude, spoiled by overemphases that don’t always come from the music. If some movements seem untethered, missing a depth of flavour, the fluency of narrative is never in doubt. Perhaps that’s appropriate for such long lived-in performances: weathered and worn smooth over the years, their bare bones glow all the more luminously. Helen Wallace
Debussy • Satie
Debussy: Préludes, Book I; Satie: Gnossiennes; Gymnopédies Fazil Say (piano)
Warner Classics 9029570567 65:48mins Some 60 years ago there were critics who relished Toscanini’s moans in
La bohème as indicating emotional involvement. Perhaps they did, but I confess to being one of those who would rather have been without them. I can’t say that Fazil Say’s moans, fairly generously distributed throughout this disc, destroy his interpretations, because sadly so much else is at fault.
Say is one of those performers who feel free to say to themselves, ‘Well, I know Debussy wrote a diminuendo here, but I prefer a crescendo; and here he writes “en animant”, but I shall slow down.’ Add to these factors a cavalier way with pedalling (at the end of ‘Voiles’, the pedal is plainly marked to be released leaving the major third stranded), with the length of rests and with tempos (‘Minstrels’ is preposterously slow), and I begin to fear something on the lines of an ‘anniversary curse’, promoting a bandwagon that attracts performers who may not be wholly sympathetic to the composer in question.
The Satie pieces come over slightly better, though there is no case for ignoring the difference between the sharply contrasted dynamics in the first two Gymnopédies and the hairpins in the third one. In one or two places the editing has been inelegant, with one particularly clumsy moment in bar 37 of the first Gymnopédie. Roger Nichols
Messiaen Livre d’orgue; Monodie; Tristan et Yseult; Verset pour la fête de la Dédicace
Tom Winpenny (organ)
Naxos 8.573845 57:29 mins
This is the most rewarding disc thus far in Tom Winpenny’s survey of Messiaen’s organ works. The Livre d’orgue (1951) is the radical heart of the composer’s writing for the instrument. Written in the midst of a period when he was experimenting with how the fundamentals of musical sound relate to each other, the title – a nod to the experiments of earlier French organ masters – seems dryly abstract set alongside Messiaen’s usual rich imagery. ★owever, while the compositional methods may have been esoteric, the extraordinary sounds emanating from Messiaen’s instrument in the early 1950s were described at the time as being vibrantly wild.
Winpenny’s precision suits the esoteric machinations of the opening and closing pieces, ‘Reprises par interversion’ and ‘Soixante-quatre durées’, with the organ of the Église Saint-martin, Dudelange, Luxembourg possessing some delightfully rasping pedal notes. Crucially, he also finds real power and passion in conveying the abyss of ‘Les Mains de l’abîme’. Winpenny prefaces the Livre with an attractive account of the Verset pour la fete de la Dédicace, probably the least familiar of Messiaen’s acknowledged organ pieces.
Two posthumous discoveries complete the disc. The little Monodie from 1963 is no more than an exercise for a tutor book written by Messiaen’s assistant at Sainte Trinité. At the opposite end of the spectrum comes a premiere recording with the sweetly harmonised ‘Thème d’amour’ for Lucien Fabre’s 1945 play Tristan et Yseult. Instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi, it nicely caps a fine disc. Christopher Dingle PERFORMANCE ★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★
Paganini Caprices for Solo Violin
Lisa Jacobs (violin)
Cobra Records COBRA 0064 87:04 mins (2 discs)
As if to enhance the astounding inventiveness of Paganini’s writing, the general tendency for many years (at least on disc) was to play the caprices with the emphasis firmly on staccato brilliance, high-speed agility and free-flowing adrenalin. The downside of such an approach was that by the time one arrived at the fiendish flutterings of No. 6, listener fatigue was almost invariably beginning to set in. Lisa Jacobs, by contrast, emphasises cantabile purity, so that even the flightiest of Paganini’s finger-breaking miniatures emerges miraculously as though it was being sung. As a result, having negotiated the merciless ricochets of No. 5 using the original bowings (many players opt for separate bows), No. 6 sounds less like an excruciatingly demanding étude in accompanied melody than an operatic scena with a compelling emotional narrative.
No less persuasive is Jacobs’s velvet cushioning of No. 2’s awkward string-crossing leaps, thereby enabling its melodic chicanery to emerge as a seamless flow, and the withering-laughter descents of No. 11’s outer sections, which are inflected with just the right degree of temporal lassitude. Even the horn-calls of Nos 9 and
14, which are normally despatched in martialistic strict tempo, sound alluringly seductive here.
No. 17, with its rippling downward scales and high-octane middlesection octaves emerges as a poetic gem in its own right, while rounding off the set, each variation of No. 24 is imbued with its own distinctive musical personality. Some may crave a greater sense of visceral excitement in this of all violin works, although musically Jacobs is virtually in a class of her own. Julian Haylock PERFORMANCE ★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★★
Steven Osborne (piano)
Hyperion CDA 68188 61:39 mins
For all his mastery of larger forms Rachmaninov’s miniatures, I confess, can seem in the hands of most pianists rather invariably lugubrious and moody, certainly compared to the pithy and quick-silver inspiration of his near contemporary Scriabin. An exceptional level of sympathy coupled with extraordinary piano technique is needed to transform these works into pure narrative gold.
Steven Osborne has already shown his feeling for Rachmaninov’s music in recordings of the Preludes and the Second Sonata, so it is no surprise to hear him give such idiomatic
accounts of the Etudes-tableaux.
The sheer polish of his technique is remarkable, approaching the patrician nonchalance of Rachmaninov himself – indeed, appearing at times to exceed him, as in the swift Allegro con fuoco, albeit with the undeniable advantage of modern studio recording as against the single continuous takes Rachmaninov had to contend with. Rustem ★ayroudinoff’s acclaimed Chandos recording of these opuses is simply outclassed in this respect.
Yet I felt something was missing, a sense that Osborne was perhaps not fully attuned to Rachmaninov’s particular voice as opposed to the style the composer shared with early Scriabin. That affinity is exactly what Mikhail Pletnev provides, though offering just four of the Etudes-tableaux, in his Hommage à Rachmaninov album on Deutsche Grammophon: his transcendental technique, and seamless coordination of pedal with rhetorical rubato and phrasing fully unveil these darkly expressive and compelling dramas. For a complete set of these works, Osborne’s recording is recommendable, if not quite reaching the inspirational level Pletnev demonstrates in his selection. Daniel Jaffé PERFORMANCE ★★★★
Reicha Studies in Fugal Style for Piano; Fugue No. 12, Op. 36
Ivan Ili (piano)
Chandos CHAN 20033 62:33 mins Born in 1770, the same year as Beethoven, Antoine Reicha was his childhood friend and played side by side with him in the Bonn court orchestra when they were 15; they remained friends in adulthood. But while Beethoven’s career as a composer took off like a rocket, Reicha’s was still-born, so he set out to earn his living as a teacher, leaving his compositions to the judgment of posterity. But he was clearly a brilliant teacher: as professor of counterpoint and fugue at the Paris Conservatoire, he taught Liszt, Franck, Gounod and Berlioz, the latter leaving a glowing testimonial to his imaginative and open-minded approach.
Last year the Serbian-american pianist Ivan Ili released a first volume of Reicha’s piano music.
The second volume confirms what the first suggested, which is that in this pianist Reicha’s music has the best possible advocate. Composed exactly two hundred years ago, these studies – each consisting of a prelude and a fugue – still await their breakthrough into the standard recital repertoire. But as Ili shows, they are a revelation of what could still be done with this form, a century after Bach’s 48 but still in Bach’s sound world. Reicha plays clever games with form – everything from minuet, canon, chaconne, and gigue to invertible counterpoint – and hints by turns at ★andel, Scarlatti, and – in the extraordinary 85-second closing fugue – Beethoven at his wittiest and grittiest. There’s always a trace of tongue-in-cheek in Reicha’s moments of apparent high seriousness, but when he lets his imagination flow – as in the 12 tiny variations crammed into three and a half minutes of the third Etude – his music is sweetly persuasive. Ili plays with charm and transparent precision throughout. Michael Church
Calling the Muse Old & New Pieces for Theorbo: works by Castaldi, Helstroffer, Kapsberger, Piccinini, Satie etc.
Bruno Helstroffer (theorbo); with Rosemary Standley (voice), Jean-luc Debattice (narrator), Michel Godard (serpent), Emek Evci (double bass) Alpha Classics ALPHA 391 53:11 mins This disc of old and new pieces for theorbo is something of a whimsical curiosity. ★ere, Baroque composers Piccinini, Kapsberger and Castaldi rub shoulders with Erik Satie and a profusion of vocal and instrumental compositions and arrangements by Bruno ★elstroffer. I am still not quite sure what to make of it all, but there is a part of me which inclines towards regarding the compilation as self-indulgent nonsense. Certainly, I do not wish to be either unfair or unkind, so perhaps the most helpful way to inform the reader is to quote ★elstroffer’s own concept of his programme:
‘It’s a road map… It’s a hurly-burly account of my years playing blues and rock music and early music; the thousands of miles I’ve travelled with my wonderful theorbo, cities, landscapes, railways, skies, scents, lights; above all – the music of the people I’ve met.’
Taken as a road map, as ★elstroffer invites us to do, there are plenty of stopping-off places to enjoy, among which the Kapsberger pieces and, surprisingly the Satie Gnossienne No. 1 are among the most rewarding. My sensibilities responded less favourably to the song Comme un Beffroi and a lengthy poem dedicated to ★elstroffer, written and read by the actor and writer Jean-luc Debattice. This last-mentioned might almost be considered as a quasi musical answer to the selfie, and sits uncomfortably with the remainder of the programme, eccentric as it is.
Recorded sound affords clarity to the vocal items but is too reverberant for the theorbo. Proceed with caution! Nicholas Anderson PERFORMANCE ★★
Debussy: Rêverie; Suite Bergamasque; Satie: Gnossiennes Nos 1 & 3; Gymnopédie No. 1; Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit; Pavane pour une infante défunte
Alice Sara Ott (piano)
DG 483 5187 66:02 mins
A dreamy excursion through Paris by dusk, this elegant and atmospheric album from
Alice Sara Ott marks ten years since the pianist signed to Deutsche Grammophon. Bringing together favourite works from Satie, Debussy and Ravel, Nightfall features some beguiling and beautiful playing, although occasionally lacks emotional punch.
Debussy’s Rêverie opens the disc and Ott plays with a mystery and delicacy that is entrancing at first but comes to lack variety. While such restraint is well suited to
Satie’s enigmatic Gymnopédie No. 1 and Gnossiennes Nos 1 and 3, all executed beautifully by Ott, this Debussy feels a notch too subdued and in need of greater line and lyricism. Ott is more expressive in Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, finding a hushed eloquence in ‘Clair de Lune’ that is captivating, although a touch more exuberance would be welcome in the mischievous ‘Menuet’.
Ravel’s notoriously tricky
Gaspard de la nuit conjures mysterious images of fleet water nymphs, corpses left suspended from the gallows and capering goblins, and Ott here responds with colour and flair, pacing the tension of ‘Le Gibet’ and its haunting bell-like tones with particular finesse. The disc closes with a stately performance of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte to complete this imaginative and evocative celebration of twilight. Kate Wakeling
Out of Beethoven’s shadow: Ivan Ilic´ is ‘the best possible advocate’ for Reicha