wed 21/02/2024

Classical CDs: Smocks, sins and sea swell | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs: Smocks, sins and sea swell

Classical CDs: Smocks, sins and sea swell

German art song, jazz standards on horn and a water-themed orchestral collection

Mathieu HerzogRemi Riere

 

Anna Lucia challengeLICHT: 800 Years of German Lieder Anna Lucia Richter (mezzo-soprano), Ammiel Bushakevitz (hurdy gurdy, harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano, piano) (SWR2/Challenge Classics)

LICHT, 800 Years of German Lieder, from Anna Lucia Richter and Ammiel Bushakevitz does exactly what it says on the tin. Chronologically, the album’s eclectic programme takes us all the way from early 11th century Gregorian chant (it’s actually the final track, to make the story “run full circle”) to a song by Wolfgang Rihm published as recently as 2008. And on the way, it stops off to pay visits to (...wait for it...) Walther von der Vogelweide, Oswald von Wolkenstein, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, both Mendelssohn siblings, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Eisler, Brecht and Aribert Reimann.

It is almost as if the duo wanted to grab the opportunity to be bold, to show us that virtuosity in 2024 no longer has anything to do with singing a load of notes very fast, but is about finding compelling self-expression across a vast range of compositional voices, styles and eras. The project owes its existence to one of those German lockdown financing schemes for independent artists designed to spur them to try new things, but the real energy and impetus here have clearly come from Richter and Bushakevitz, presumably with help from Dr Doris Blaich of SWR who has made a studio and a range of instruments available in Stuttgart, and also produced the album.

I was taken by surprise by the very first medieval sounds. The mood is calm, accompanied by the sustained tones of a hurdy-gurdy. So who knew that Anna Lucia Richter has a previously hidden inner Montserrat Figueras to unleash on this repertoire? I didn’t. It is not hard to be mesmerised by the range and the sophistication of Richter’s vocal artistry. A real triumph on every level, much later on, is the set of Op.2 songs by Alban Berg, in which she both recalls (and arguably surpasses) Phyllis Bryn-Julson – it is quite simply fabulous singing, with a deep and subtle understanding of the line, combined with superhuman security of pitch. Also, the way in which Bushakevitz paces these songs is quite superb.

On the gentler side is a beautiful, maybe even a classic performance of that Mozart gem “Abendempfindung an Laura”, in which Richter is also alive to every nuance of the elegiac words about how the anonymous poet finds a particular calmness and beauty... in death. Another facet of Richter’s artistry is how she has transformed herself, with a rise to maturity in the past four years which is nothing short of stunning. Go back to “Heimweh”, a Schubert album released as recently as 2019 on Pentatone, when the blurb called her a “young German star soprano”, and we find a version of Schubert’s “Der Zwerg” with Gerold Huber which was light, airy, innocent, making the contrast with the exaggerated “character” voices all a bit jarring and over-theatrical. Then try the new mezzo version. It is a minor third lower, but, more importantly, we find ourselves in a very different world: Richter’s craft in telling the story, her depth and subtlety of characterisation have moved on by leaps and bounds. I did have reservations about just one group of songs: I found their approach to – no, let’s be frank, their attack on - the Mendelssohns more than a tad heavy-footed, but in the end this is a minor quibble: if one needs an album which confirms Anna Lucia’s growing stature as an individual artist who is going to do things her way rather than kow-towing to people who hate change, this is it. She truly is a virtuoso for our era. - Sebastian Scotney

Herzog MersMer(s) – music by Debussy, Dukas and Cras Appassionato/Mathieu Herzog (le label)

Putting Debussy’s La Mer alongside Jean Cras’s rarely-played Journal de Bord makes perfect sense. Start googling Cras and you’ll probably find a 1902 photo of the composer on his ship in 1902, holding his beloved cat. Like Albert Roussel, Cras served in the French navy and must be the only composer to have a navigational protractor named after him. His musical talents were encouraged by Henri Duparc, Cras finding the time to compose a surprising amount in between his naval duties before his premature death in 1932. Journal de Bord is a real find, a ripely orchestrated musical travelogue with each of its three movements prefaced with a precise time and an evocative description (“houle au large” being my new favourite French phrase). Exactly where Cras takes us isn’t specified, but the journey is a lot of fun. The first movement’s queasy sea swell is brilliantly evoked, followed by a beguiling portrait of “rien de particulier” plus an exhilarating finale, replete with ship’s horn blasting out near the close and a jazzy final chord. Terrific music, superbly played in this live recording by Mathieu Herzog’s Appassionata, nominally a chamber orchestra but here numbering nearly 80 players.

Herzog’s La Mer has loads of things to commend it, including a hefty tam tam thwack as the first movement closes and the reinstatement of the trumpet fanfares which Debussy deleted near the work’s close. These only last for a couple of seconds, but once you’re used to them you can’t manage without. The final minutes are exultant, a percussion-heavy explosion of sound. Dukas’s L'Apprenti sorcier makes for an exhilarating bonus, with exquisite, spiky wind playing and a palpable sense of menace as the buckets multiply. A booklet interview with Herzog points out that the piece can act as a warning about water wastage, and a percentage of the disc’s profits will be donated to The Seacleaners, a French charity raising awareness of the harm done by plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.

Circus DinogadCircus Dinogad (Zefir Records)

Dinogad? He’s an infant mentioned in an 8th century Welsh lullaby, perhaps the only smock-themed song in existence. It’s sung on this disc by contralto Hilary Summers in an exquisite arrangement by violinist Judith van Driel. She’s a member of Amsterdam’s Dudok Quartet, part of Circus Dinogad along with bass clarinettist Maarten Ornstein and theorbo player Mike Fentross. The term ‘fusion’ can send me running for the hills, but this album’s mixture of “ancient melodies, reimagined classics and innovative original compositions” is a pleasure from start to finish, the individual numbers variously arranged and composed by the group’s members. The first two tracks typify the variety on offer, Summers’ unadorned take on the English folksong “I will give my love an apple” segueing into a three-minute jig by French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. Arranged by Dudok cellist David Faber and played by all six instrumentalists, it’s a blast. I also love Faber’s lovely take on Ravel’s “Chanson ecossaise”, the soft high violin harmonics swirling like buzzing insects.

In between the cover versions are interspersed a set of Seven Deadly Sins, each miniature newly composed by a member of the group. Faber’s “Gluttony” is static, oppressive, the embodiment of someone too stuffed to move, and Summers’ “Pride” is vacuous hot air. I liked Summers’ “Avarice”, her soft cries of “mine” sounding like a spoilt child. Other highlights include Van Driel’s pungent “Hubristic Hornpipe”, Summers’ voice treated as an instrument, and Fentross’s sonorous transcription of Dowland’s “In Darkness let me dwell”. Production values are impressive, with excellent recorded sound and a booklet which contains full texts and translations.

Jim R DuosJim Rattigan: Duos (Three World Records)

You don’t have to be a brass nerd to appreciate Jim Rattigan’s solo work. If you’re new to him, try “Now and Then” from his 2020 album When, a glorious meeting between string quartet, piano and horn. Duos is both smaller scale and more epic, a triple album where Rattigan collaborates with three different partners. Each collaborator was picked for their respective area of expertise, Rattigan beginning with informal meetings (“I said I’ll pop over and we’ll have a play…”). Dialogues features pianist Ivo Neame and opens with a brilliant reimagining of Glazunov’s “Reverie”, now a soulful jazz ballad. The original’s contours are respected, and there’s a nice nod to the original’s hand-stopped coda. Neame's brilliant take on Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge" retains the original's harmonic richness but ditches the slow 4/4 tread for something far less comfortable. Three numbers by Rattigan are thrown in, "A Hero's Path" containing a fleeting allusion to Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. The second disc, You Must Believe in Spring, teams him with guitarist Nick Costley-White. The pair's version of My Funny Valentine exemplifies how well the pairing works, Costley-White knowing just how far to push the harmonies while Rattigan sails over the top, his warm, rich tone ideal for this repertoire. Michel Legrand's title track is another treat, the two instruments beautifully balanced.

Disc 3 contains ten numbers by Thelonious Monk, Rattigan commenting that "you really have to know the tunes - they're so full of surprises and never go quite where you think they will". He's partnered by regular collaborator Hans Koller, the two musicians revelling in Monk's idiosyncracies and eccentricities. Try humming along to "Ugly Beauty" after a single hearing and you'll struggle. Rattigan's horn really sings in an appealing cover of "Round Midnight" and lets rip in "Trinkle Tinkle". "Blue Monk" is a lot of fun, the album closing with an engaging version of the angular "Epistrophy", a tune simultaneously catchy and discombobulating. This is a highly entertaining box set, Rattigan's playing soothing and strident by turns. And, if you're curious, he'll be performing with Nick Costley-White at Birmingham's 1000 Trades on Friday 19th January

Sumptuous PlanetDavid Shapiro: Sumptuous Planet The Crossing/Donald Nally (New Focus)

David Shapiro subtitles his Sumptuous Planet “a secular mass”, by which he means he has borrowed the structure of the Christian mass service and used it to set selected passages from the famously atheist Richard Dawkins. This idea, which Shapiro describes as “pleasingly paradoxical”, results in a 75-minute a cappella “statement and celebration of belief in a scientific view of how life and the universe work.” It is a bold approach, reflected in the music, which is varied, engaging and impeccably sung by the American chamber choir The Crossing. Although Dawkins is a scientist, the reason he has had such a wide-ranging impact is that he can write about science in a way that communicates his awe of nature in poetic, even quasi-religious terms. I find passages like this from the fourth movement – “After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet… Within decades we must close our eyes again.” – both beautiful and profound, and Shapiro’s setting captures it in all its aspects, from a quiet start to a vigorous climax.

It is also at times a stark message. “Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent” is not something we like to hear (although not the less true for that) and the music here is appropriately pared-back and unsentimental. But the incantation of the “Thankfulness” section has a warmth and humility, and the final “Osanna – And We Dance” is a suitably ecstatic end to the whole work. This big piece is an impressive achievement – it’s not easy to sustain interest through a choral work of this scale – and Donald Nally and The Crossing are to be praised for commissioning and recording it. - Bernard Hughes

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