sat 15/06/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Adventures in Sound, Tora Augestad, Ashley Fripp | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Adventures in Sound, Tora Augestad, Ashley Fripp

Classical CDs Weekly: Adventures in Sound, Tora Augestad, Ashley Fripp

Post-war modernism and songs for soprano and orchestra, plus an enterprising piano recital

Sins aplenty from soprano Tora AugestadThomas Olsen


Adventures In Sound (él records)

Dipping in and out of this highly desirable box Adventures in Soundset recalls 1950s sci-fi visions of the future, looking forward to a time when we'd all be driving flying cars and living under a benevolent one-world government. Alas, this is 2019 and things aren't quite so rosy. There's some seriously strange music here, undoubtedly forward-looking but very much of its time. Begin with Pierre Shaeffer, a French radio engineer who began playing with turntables to manipulate and distort sounds as early as 1948. His Cinq études de bruit was a groundbreaking example of musique concrète, playfully turning train noises, sneezes and snatches of radio dialogue into organised sound. There's a photo of Shaeffer at work in the booklet, looking like a provincial bank manager. His studio was visited by Cage, Varèse and Boulez, though the latter disagreed with Shaeffer’s freewheeling, playful approach. As did Stockhausen, several of whose early electronic pieces are included: Gesang der Jünglinge stands up superbly. Listening through headphones is a spiritual and sensual experience to savour, the mixture of electronics and boys’ vocals flitting from left to right alternately disconcerting and enchanting. Incredible to think that it was created in the mid-1950s.

Stockhausen’s little Étude Concrète No 5 and Kontra-Punkte, both written for "real" instruments, are both surprisingly enjoyable studies in combining and blending actual sounds. They’re joined by a pioneering early recording of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître, conducted by Robert Craft. The third disc, Electronic Music for the Mind and Body, contains the seriously weird stuff. Stockhausen’s Kontakte is a 34-minute electronic piece, the title‘s contact being that between the pre-recorded sounds and live musicians. Ligeti’s Artikulation turns synthesised and sampled sounds into a virtual language, and John Cage’s Cartridge Music achieves its effects via various objects inserted into turntable cartridges. Don't try this at home. All ear-stretching, and offered at bargain price. Él Records’ reprinted sleeve notes are useful, and the remastered recordings sound spectacular.

Portraying PassionPortraying Passion: Works by Weill, Paus and Ives Tora Augestad (soprano), Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Joshua Weilerstein and Christian Eggen (Lawo Classics)

You tend to know if you'll like a disc within a few seconds of pressing play. Tora Augestad’s version of Weill and Brecht's The Seven Deadly Sins will come as a shock for those who only know the recording made by Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya. That's a classic, but Lenya’s frail, rasping voice necessitated transposing the score a fair few notches south. Augestad sticks to the original pitch, and she's terrific: seductive, sharp and witty. I began applauding halfway through the fourth song, “Anger”, when Augestad’s Anna 1 begins her “Wer dem Unrecht in den Arm fällt” soliloquy. It’s a glorious tune, and conductor Joshua Weilerstein and a responsive Oslo Philharmonic are magnificent, slick accompanists. That little horn solo in the final bars – has it ever been dispatched so sweetly? The male quartet who take on the chorus part of the sisters’ family are also superb, their names tucked away in the small print at the back of the booklet. Stifle a tear as the bittersweet epilogue judders to a halt. Augestad's recording is the best out there. Oh, yes. And I never knew that Weill’s original choice of librettist was Jean Cocteau.

Super couplings, too. Marcus Paus’ Hate Songs sets three poems by Dorothy Parker, each one prefaced by an instrumental and vocal cadenza. Paus’s musical language is eclectic and direct. Sample Augestad in frustrated mood (“If I had a shiny gun/I could have a world of fun…"). She's terrifying but you daren’t switch off. John Adams's orchestrations of five songs by Charles Ives are sublime, and again they're wonderfully sung. Christian Eggen conducts both works, with Weilerstein leading the orchestra sans Augestad in Ives's The Unanswered Question. Really, really good. Excellent notes, plus full texts and translations. Lawo's sound is impressive.

Ashley FrippBach, Adès and Chopin Ashley Fripp (piano) (Willowhayne Records)

Ashley Fripp’s eclectic recital disc starts as it goes on. The Prelude to Bach’s second English Suite is really impressive here, a winning blend of muscularity and elegance. Reach the second movement’s “Allemande” and swoon, Bach's lines painted in soft, warm colours. Fripp isn’t afraid to exploit his Steinway's potential, and the fleeting hints of Bachian austerity are offset by the instrument’s indecently rich sound. It's lovely, and Fripp’s closing Gigue is a foot-tapping treat. It's followed by Thomas Adès’s own Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face, a contemporary throwback to Liszt’s operatic paraphrases, Fripp suggesting that the work is Adès's own reflection on the music from his first opera. Powder Her Face’s sleaziness is nicely conveyed in the opening section, the snatches of dance music unsettling rather than consoling. The technical challenges are brilliantly met (that rapid glissando at the start is immaculate) but the quieter moments linger longer: the little waltz which opens the third movement is addictive, Fripp making this unconventional, uncomfortable music as accessible as anything by Johann Strauss.

Three works by Chopin close the recital. Fripp's Berceuse in D flat and Barcarolle in F sharp are dispatched with winning delicacy, as is the opening of the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brilliante – so much so that the polonaise’s interruption comes as a bit of a shock. This isn't my favourite chunk of Chopin, but Fripp is incredibly persuasive, the manic closing pages highly impressive.

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