fri 19/07/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Gershwin, William Berger, JACK Quartet | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Gershwin, William Berger, JACK Quartet

Classical CDs Weekly: Gershwin, William Berger, JACK Quartet

Norwegian Gershwin, nocturnal lieder and fiendish modern string quartets

The fearless JACK Quartet play Ligeti and Cage live from the Wigmore HallHenrik Olund

Gershwin: Music for Piano and Orchestra Freddy Kempf, Bergen Philharmonic/Andrew Litton (BIS)

Programme your CD player to play this disc in reverse order, so that Gershwin’s cheeky, pithy Variations on "I Got Rhythm" opens proceedings. You sense Gershwin’s harmonic and rhythmic confidence soaring; this little piece never puts a foot wrong. Freddy Kempf’s performance is brimful of zip and zing, and so dazzling that your first instinct is to listen to it again. Kempf is even better in the similarly neglected Second Rhapsody, a 1931 work which the composer regarded as one of his greatest achievements. Gone is the patchwork structure of Rhapsody in Blue; the Second Rhapsody stands up as an expansive single movement concerto. The tunes are still there – a percussive, pounding opening intended to accompany film of construction workers pounding rivets into the steel frames of skyscrapers, and an indecently bluesy big theme at the heart. Andrew Litton provides a lustrous orchestral backdrop to both pieces, with brilliant percussion and a first clarinet with plenty chutzpah.

We get Rhapsody in Blue in the earlier, superior Ferde Grofé jazz-band version. This is a fun reading, but Kempf doesn’t sound quite as unbuttoned as in the later pieces. There’s plenty of technical brilliance – staggering rapid passage work and articulation, but the emotional thrills are provided by Litton’s Bergen forces, again dominated by cheeky winds and brass. And the same reticence affects the opening movement of the Concerto in F, as if Kempf feels slightly embarrassed and would rather be playing Beethoven sonatas. But stick with Kempf – it’s a thrill to hear him slowly drop his guard and deliver a slow movement of melting beauty followed by an Allegro agitato moving at a giddying, thrilling pace. BIS’s SACD sound is marvellous – you’ll hear details not heard elsewhere, and the orchestral playing is stunning.

Insomnia: A Nocturnal Voyage in Song William Berger (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano) (Delphian)

What looks on paper to be an unlikely mixture of songs by composers as diverse as Wolf, Gounod, Debussy and Vaughan Williams makes complete sense in William Berger’s recital disc, with 17 songs reflecting a sleepless night endured by a man lamenting his lost love. So at 7.30pm we’ve Mozart’s Abenempfindung, the sequence ending, perhaps inevitably, at 6.00am with Strauss’s Morgen. The whole project gains extra poignancy from knowing that the cycle’s narrative was, in Berger’s words on theartsdesk, “the necessary, cathartic expression of my own grief for the end of a relationship.” You don’t, of course, need to know this. You’ll be beguiled by Berger’s voice and entranced by the more left-field musical choices. Three songs by English composers are pure gold in the hands of Berger and pianist Iain Burnside: Warlock’s The Night a stunner, as are two rarely-heard songs by Vaughan Williams and Richard Rodney Bennett.

Earlier, Debussy’s early, naïve Nuit d’étoiles  is sung with selfless delight and Fauré’s Claire de Lune and Mandoline soar over Burnside’s rippling accompaniment. Raymond Yiu’s recent Sonnet melts seamlessly into the mix, the backward glances enchanting rather than irritating.  Songs by Wolf and Liszt dominate post-midnight, and after Morgen we get a couple of encores, including a tiny Gounod number sufficiently breezy to banish the introspective mood and leave one feeling invigorated, not depressed.

William Berger sings Liszt's 'Oh! Quand je dors'



The JACK Quartet – Music by Ligeti, Pinscher, Cage and Xenakis (Wigmore Hall Live)

Ligeti’s String Quartet no 2 has a five-movement layout, a reference to the quartets written by his compatriot Bartók. His quartets contain their spooky moments, but this Ligeti piece ratchets feelings of nervy uncertainty to terrifying levels; after 20 minutes you’re exhausted. Passages hovering on the very edge of audibility suddenly explode. The quartet medium feels as if it’s being ripped apart. At times it’s as if the four players are completely oblivious to each others' presence, before you’re startled by a sudden backward-glancing gesture or conventional-sounding chord. Ligeti’s final Allegro con delicatezza begins in a mood of hushed expectancy, as if we’re going to get the resolution we’re desperately craving. The moment doesn't arrive – the piece dies away, imperceptibly. It’s terrific, and the JACK Quartet’s performance is jaw-dropping. Matthias Pintscher’s Study IV for Treatise on the Veil takes inspiration from a Cy Twombly painting; the player’s instruments prepared in Cageian fashion by having paperclips attached to the lowest strings. Head-scratchingly puzzling, but engaging.

With John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts we’re in another world; Cage’s vibrato-free melodies and widely spaced lines a shock to the system. The third section, Nearly Stationary, outstays its welcome, but the closing Quodlibet is a charmer. The thorniest morcel is saved for the dessert course; Iannis Xenakis’s 1983 Tetras. Thrilling stuff – loud, abrasive, and full of sounds which you’d struggle to identify as coming from stringed instruments. Here, the sonic shocks never sound like anything less than music – you can’t imagine the work ever blasting out with such force and swagger. Immaculate performances, captured on the wing in detailed, close up sound.

Watch the JACK Quartet play an extract from Tetras



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