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Classical CDs Weekly: Brahms, Stephen Hough, Joby Talbot, Schoenberg | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Brahms, Stephen Hough, Joby Talbot, Schoenberg

Classical CDs Weekly: Brahms, Stephen Hough, Joby Talbot, Schoenberg

Contemporary Brits and the marriage of two very different Viennese minds

Divine comedian Joby Talbot: wonderful when wetJohann Persson

This week we've a glittering, shimmering ballet score with an aquatic theme, and a brilliant British pianist shows off his compositional skills. Plus, in a week where we all need cheering up, 20th-century music's scariest genius shows that he had a fully developed sense of humour.

liebesliederOther Love Songs: Songs by Brahms and Stephen Hough, The Prince Consort (Linn)

Brahms at his most genial is paired with a new song cycle written by polymath British pianist Stephen Hough. He’s a treasure – one of the best virtuoso pianists around, as anyone who’s heard his Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov recordings will attest. And placing his songs in between the two sets of Brahms Liebeslieder makes much sense, as there’s only so much uninterrupted triple-time jollity you can take, even if the later Neue Liebeslieder sometimes venture into darker territory. Hough even manages to link his Other Love Songs to Brahms, with the opening When I Have Passed starting with a hummed recollection of Brahms’s Es bebet das Gesträuche, the song that precedes it on this disc. But he “decided, for the sake of contrast, to avoid waltzes, and to avoid setting poems about romantic love between a man and a woman” and to have them accompanied by three-handed piano.

These songs celebrate gay, fraternal and religious love and they’re angry, consoling and witty by turns; Jennifer Johnston’s Scouse accent is appropriately funny in Langston Hughes’s Madam and her Madam and the hothouse eroticism of the Kashmiri Song is supported by Hough’s Indian-inspired piano writing. Listen to how the melodic line soars during Housman’s The Colour of His Hair, and experience goosebumps of delight as soprano and alto sing the Agnus Dei at the close of the final song, taking its text from the Gospel of St John. After which, returning to the frothiness of the first Brahms set of Liebeslieder can come as a bit of a shock. This is a marvellous recital, held together by Alisdair Hogarth’s piano-playing, aided by Philip Fowke and Hough. The singing is faultless, especially Jacques Imbrailo’s velvety baritone. It’s on Linn too, so the sound quality and production are impeccable.

Schoenberg: Brahms - Piano Quartet in G minor (orchestrated by Schoenberg), Accompanying Music to a Film Scene, Chamber Symphony No 1; Berlin Philharmonic/Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)

Schoenberg’s cuddly side is revealed on this marvellous EMI disc. Sir Simon Rattle is always at his best when he’s off the beaten track, and these performances, taped live in Berlin’s Philharmonie late in 2009, are stunners. This 1937 orchestration of Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet is one of the most purely entertaining things you’re likely to hear. Schoenberg referred to it as Brahms’s Fifth Symphony, explaining that he made the orchestration because he liked the piece, that it was seldom played, and that “the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you can hear nothing from the strings. I wanted to hear everything, and this I achieved”. He also claimed to have gone no further in terms of orchestration than Brahms would have done if he had a modern symphony orchestra at his disposal. The orchestral string-writing sounds totally idiomatic; less convincing are the chromatic brass lines and tuned percussion. No matter – the results glow with affection and good humour, and anyone feeling slightly jaded after this week’s events needs to hear this. Sample the exquisite, shadowy coda to the Intermezzo, the manic militaristic outburst in the Andante con moto, and the exultant minor-key Rondo alla zingarese, a riot of trombone glissandi and over-prominent xylophone. It’s phenomenally dispatched here – listen to the lower strings at the start of the movement, and the wailing clarinet solo in the cadenza. Rattle made a good recording of the work with the CBSO in the 1980s, but this one is better played and more exciting.

The Accompanying Music to a Film Scene is more typical of this composer; nine minutes of dodecaphonic music written for a silent film that existed only in Schoenberg’s head. Which is possibly a good thing. It’s still a fascinating rarity, oddly romantic in tone despite the 1930s horror film outbursts, and it's brilliantly orchestrated. The curio is the final item, a 1935 rescoring for full orchestra of the early Chamber Symphony No 1. It emerges as a voluptuous, Straussian wallow – highly entertaining if less sharp than the finely chiselled original. Again, fantastic playing, with the virtuosic horn parts nicely prominent.

talbottideJoby Talbot: Tide Harmonic (Signum)

The best thing about Neil Hannon’s sub-Scott Walker croonings with 1990s indie band The Divine Comedy were often the imaginative orchestral backings, mostly created by former band member Joby Talbot. Talbot's career as a composer has since soared, and he most recently provided the extravagant score to the Royal Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland. Tide Harmonic grew out of a commission from American choreographer Carolyn Carlson and was first performed in Lille in 2008 in a version for keyboards, harp and percussion. This performance has been rescored, Talbot adding a small string section and himself taking one of the keyboard parts. Originally entitled Eau, the five-movement work adds up to an ambitious "water symphony", one which "focuses on the substance itself, the forces that act upon it, and the energy that flows through and from it". Even without the choreography, it’s surprising how well the music holds the listener’s attention; Talbot’s mellifluous aquatic burblings creating sounds of power and beauty.

Musically there’s nothing to scare – lots of insistent minimalist riffs, which when combined with Talbot’s chiming percussion and keyboard figurations can create wonderful gamelan-like effects. It’s all very fluid, very elusive, and surely that’s the point. This is music which is devoid (in a good way) of conventional cadences, which flows, buckles and changes direction just when you think you’ve the measure of it, like water dripping through your fingers. The violence of Storm Surge and Algal Bloom provide welcome dashes of spice, the power deriving from devices as simple as clashing major and minor triads. Maybe the apotheosis which ties up the piece in Confluence is overlong but the pay-off, a single piano note combined with a violin harmonic and a chiming bell, is delicious.

 

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