tue 13/04/2021

Classical CDs Weekly: Nielsen, Terry Riley, Will Todd | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Nielsen, Terry Riley, Will Todd

Classical CDs Weekly: Nielsen, Terry Riley, Will Todd

Danish symphonies, American piano duets and an approachable contemporary opera

The multi-faceted Terry RileyJean-Pierre Duplan


Nielsen: Complete Symphonies BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds (Chandos)


Nielsen: Complete Symphonies BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds (Chandos)

Recently completed Nielsen cycles by Alan Gilbert and Sakari Oramo have been released on separate discs. Chandos have issued John Storgårds’ new cycle in a single mid-price package. So it’s possible to spend a satisfying few hours working chronologically through the sequence, noting the thematic links, the stylistic tics which make this composer’s music so compelling. Oscillating semiquavers in woodwinds are a recurring feature, and Nielsen’s knack of writing neat fugues was present from the start.  As with recorded cycles of Sibelius and Mahler symphonies, it’s rare to find a conductor who gets them all right. Storgårds is at his best in nos. 5 and 6. The contrapuntal lines are never muddy. Paul Patrick’s side drum solo in No. 5 is excellent, and the ghostly first movement coda is wonderful. Maybe the second movement’s swinging main theme could be a little faster, but Storgårds draws the disparate elements together effectively and the symphony’s heroic close blazes. No. 6 is better still – the BBC Philharmonic coping heroically with Nielsen’s angular counterpoint. Trombone glissandi are magnificently sleazy, and the “Proposta seria” is affecting. The symphony’s end is as disconcerting as it should be, with David Fanning’s extended sleeve note suggesting that the bassoon pedal is the sound of Nielsen giving death the finger.

Things aren’t always as successful in the earlier symphonies. Nos. 1 and 2 seem a little under-characterised; the former’s speeds are occasionally cautious and No. 2’s extremes of mood feel muted. No. 3 does warm up after an uninvolving start – how good to hear those flutter-tongued trumpets before the first movement’s waltz. Gillian Keith and Mark Stone excel in the “Andante Pastorale”. No. 4 could do with a bit more weight and wildness; Gilbert and Oramo show how overwhelming this work should be. If you know and love these symphonies you’ll want this 3-disc box despite my reservations: Chandos’s sound is typically impressive, and the orchestral playing doesn’t disappoint. Not sure about the cover art though: Neale Osborne’s disquieting caricature makes Nielsen look uncharacteristically grumpy.

ZOFO Plays Terry Riley (Sono Luminus)

Pioneering Minimalist Terry Riley turned 80 in June. He’s most famous for In C, an iconic 1964 work built around 53 short melodic phrases which can be performed and repeated at will. Steve Reich took part in the first performance. Pounding semiquaver Cs are the constant, but each performance is unique, as browsing through performances on Youtube will demonstrate. This scintillating disc collects Riley’s output for piano duet, plus a handful of transcriptions. Riley’s fastidiousness and shrewd organisation will surprise anyone who’s only heard In C. These pieces fizz with intelligence. The breezy opening of Jaztine is typical, its insistent rhythms supporting fiendishly complex writing in the upper octaves. The recent Praying Mantis Rag is one of the catchiest things I’ve heard all year.

Riley also compels in more introspective mood. Etude from the OId Country has a bluesy, smoky opening before the tempo hots up, and there’s a similarly alluring passage at the heart of Jaztine. Special effects are all the more powerful for being used sparingly, as with the prepared piano sounds at the heart of Cinco de Mayo. Two pieces originally commissioned by the Kronos Quartet sound thoroughly idiomatic in their new colours, G Song’s irresistible forward motion coming to an unexpectedly abrupt halt. Simone’s Lullaby was originally a two-handed piece, but it’s impeccably refined and deeply affecting in duet form. ZOFO’s performances are flawless – Riley is quoted on the booklet: “They think and play as if guided by a universal mind.” Demonstration quality sound, as you’d expect from this source, and a bonus Blu-ray audio disc for the technologically gifted. Unmissable.

Will Todd: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Opera Holland Park (Signum)

Taking young children to "family" operas is a risky business. You may leave the performance buzzing, while the high your charges may be experiencing is probably due to the sweets they’ve ingested during the show. Wordy libretti and flat direction can kybosh the best of intentions, so it’s good to report that Will Todd’s new Alice opera, commissioned by Opera Holland Park, entertains even when shorn of its visuals. Maggie Gottlieb’s text manages to construct a coherent narrative from Carroll’s two books, though opening with James Cleverton’s White Rabbit being released by Fflur Wyn’s Alice from a cage in a pet shop. Carroll’s Drink Me bottle becomes an athletic soprano (Maud Millar). Keel Watson’s Caterpillar sings a growly blues number. A villainous Queen of Hearts is sung by a splendidly sardonic Robert Burt.

Todd’s 11-piece pit band is dominated by brass and wind, something necessitated by the opera’s al fresco staging. Which is why we get witty, accordion-led numbers sung by a quartet of Victorians whose job it was to lead the audience from scene to scene while the musicians upped sticks and relocated. Musically it’s all highly approachable – Todd’s penchant for brassy jazziness rarely jars, and there’s a magical wooziness to some of the softer episodes. No libretto is provided, but the cast sing with impeccable diction, the players never drowning out the voices. Can we have a DVD please?

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