sat 20/07/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Prokofiev, Philip Sawyers, Andrew Matthews-Owen | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Prokofiev, Philip Sawyers, Andrew Matthews-Owen

Classical CDs Weekly: Prokofiev, Philip Sawyers, Andrew Matthews-Owen

Russian violin concertos, plus two discs of contemporary music

Interesting but challenging: pianist Andrew Matthews-OwenNick Rutter


Batiashvili's ProkofievVisions of Prokofiev Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Yannick Nézet-Seguin (DG)

Buried beneath the soft focus photos and waffly booklet are very decent performances of Prokofiev’s two Violin Concertos. Lisa Batiashvili enters the Concerto No. 1’s first movement imperceptibly, floating over a carpet of shimmering tutti strings. This is one of the great concerto openings, Batiashvili’s reticence melting away just before the two-minute mark. The quirkier middle section is a treat here, Yannick Nézet-Seguin’s responsive COE strings alert to every sharp accent. Everything's perfectly judged: the scherzo whizzes past, and the finale’s ticking clock has the right amount of dry wit. The end is a treat, Batiashvili and Nézet-Seguin disappearing into the ether, arm in arm.

The Second Concerto, written after Prokofiev’s return to Russia in the 1930s, is a very different work. Batiashvili’s unaccompanied opening solo is nervy and intense, the mood unsettling and distinctly chilly. There's respite of sorts in a lyrical slow movement, but this is an uncommonly serious performance. Even the supposedly upbeat finale has a whiff of desperation, the manic coda close to collapse. These are technically immaculate, thoughtful performances, handsomely recorded. The couplings don't all come off. The “Grand Waltz” from Cinderella is effective heard on violin and orchestra, but the “Dance of the Knights” from Romeo and Juliet amuses more than it menaces. The march from The Love for Three Oranges just about works, but it's not a must-hear. Buy this disc for the concertos.

Sawyers 3Philip Sawyers: Symphony No. 3, Songs of Loss and Regret, Fanfare English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods, with April Fredrick (soprano) (Nimbus)

John Wilson's recent Richard Rodney Bennett compilation came to mind when listening to Philip Sawyers’ overwhelming Symphony No. 3, Sawyers sharing with Bennett the ability to blend astringent dodecaphony and tonality to potent effect. Sawyers’ Third dates from 2015, its four movements moving from brooding gloom to an unsentimental, positive close. It's a gripping listen, Sawyers’ style notable for its lyricism, even when he's in full-on Schoenberg mode. Take the symphony's ear-stretching “Adagio”, its angular string leaps and fulsome scoring paying homage to Bruckner and Mahler. There are also nods to English pastoralism, though the mixture never sounds like naff pastiche. Sawyers’ quirksome third movement intermezzo is unexpected and engaging, and the way in which a tonal brass chorale is incorporated into a largely serial finale is ingenious in the extreme. This isn't a glib journey from darkness to light, the music’s emotional power such that you rarely reflect on whether Sawyers is writing tonally or not. Terrifically played too, by dedicatee Ken Woods and his gallant English Symphony Orchestra. Wood’s sleeve notes, outlining movement by movement what's going on in the piece, are lucid and eloquent.

Sawyers’ Songs of Loss and Regret is a cycle of eight songs composed to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, here heard in an arrangement for strings and soprano. Poems by Housman and Owen feature: the latter's Futility was also set by Britten in his War Requiem, of course, and Sawyers’ version doesn't suffer by comparison, the whole sequence an understated, poignant delight, beautifully sung by April Fredrick. Sawyers’ magnificently brassy Fanfare closes the disc. It's fun, but the massed trumpets come as a bit of a shock after the song cycle’s parched, spare close. Good sleeve art and rich recording too – well worth investigating.

HaloHalo: Music for Piano by Phibbs, Tabakova and Kendall Andrew Matthews-Owen (RTF Classical)

This latest disc released by the Richard Thomas Foundation (“aiming to bring interesting and occasionally challenging pieces of contemporary music to new audiences”) is as good as the others I’ve heard. The nervous should begin with the seven Modétudes by the Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova, each one allotted a different musical mode. It's remarkable how each tiny piece has such a distinct character, my favourites being the doleful Locrian, immediately followed by a very Bartókian study in the Phrygian mode. Tabakova’s three-part Halo gives the collection its title, an otherworldly exploration of piano harmonics inspired by a glimpse of a halo around a full moon. The final section is a treat, its ostinato riff overlaid with glints and flashes of light.

Hannah Kendall’s On the Chequer’d Field Array’d is an entertaining attempt to describe the three stages of a chess game in musical form. Kendall’s slow, probing opening leads to a dense middle section and exhausted coda which suggests that the defeated party has taken it pretty badly. And there’s a set of Six Preludes by Joseph Phibbs, improvisatory, unfussy marvels of economy. No. 4, a gentle processional of bell sounds and elegant melody, is irresistible. Especially as played here by dedicatee Andrew Matthews-Owen, another persuasive advocate for new keyboard music. Appealingly resonant recording, and, as with the Sawyers release, the sleeve art is great. Another reason why CDs will always win over downloads.

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