wed 17/08/2022

Classical CDs Weekly: Martinů, Muhly, ELF | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Martinů, Muhly, ELF

Classical CDs Weekly: Martinů, Muhly, ELF

Czech treasures, breezy Americana and entertaining arrangements for horn trio

A young American composer's work is showcased by a major label and doesn't disappoint. A classy British horn player enjoys teaming up with a pianist and a flautist. And an impressive cycle of 20th-century symphonies gets a welcome airing, thanks to a hard-working London orchestra and their principal conductor.

martinuMartinů: The Six Symphonies BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bělohlávek (Onyx)

Deep joy. There’s a lot of classical music which is justly neglected. But the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s six symphonies are always worth hearing, and this cycle of performances was recorded live at the Barbican during the BBCSO’s 2009/10 season. You do find yourself asking why these pieces aren’t better known; they’re colourfully orchestrated, intensely melodic and always emotionally involving. More importantly, they don’t sound like anyone else. Each symphony was written during Martinů’s exile in the USA, with the final one being completed in 1953. The sense of longing, of nostalgia, runs deep, and there’s an attractive Bohemian tinge to Martinů's music at its most lyrical, coupled with a sense of rapture which recalls Dvořák.

Jiří Bělohlávek’s readings are possibly definitive. Perhaps it’s to be expected that a Czech musician working in London can tap into Martinů’s wistful musings, and the sound which he gets his BBC players to make is totally idiomatic. He’s attuned to the music’s darker side, giving us an uncut Third Symphony which really broods and swaggers in its opening movement, the percussive piano writing adding steely glitter. The third movement coda is as heartbreaking as David Nice described in his concert review, with the dark, staccato piano chords an unpleasant stab in the back . The opening of the Fifth provides a textbook example of how to build tension in music, with an overwhelming sense of relief as the tempo quickens. But what’s stayed with me during weeks of listening to these discs is Martinů’s unique, generous melodic gift. It's heard in the Fifth’s last movement and in the brief, soaring string theme which appears early in the Sixth, most magically before the return of the peculiar insectoid buzzings which open the work. Bělohlávek will make you believe that this music should be standard 20th-century repertoire. He's right. Totally committed performances, and the recorded sound is rich and detailed.

muhlyNico Muhly: Seeing is Believing Aurora Orchestra/Collon (Decca)

Nico Muhly’s recent opera Two Boys was recently welcomed by Igor Toronyi-Lalic on these pages, and Decca have released this nicely packaged anthology of Muhly’s orchestral music, played by the young Aurora Orchestra under the precociously talented Nicholas Collon. Muhly, born in Vermont in 1981, studied composition under John Corigliano. He’s collaborated with the likes of Glass, Björk and Antony and the Johnsons. He’s a big fan of Renaissance English music, and good starting points on this disc are three radiant, glowing transcriptions of choral pieces by Byrd and Gibbons. Each is a joy, and as with last week’s Brahms/Schoenberg mash-up, the incongruities don’t matter one jot – the delicate plink of toy piano in an orchestrated Byrd motet sounds splendid. Muhly’s By All Means makes more oblique reference to his idols, with Tudor cadential figures floating cheekily in and out of a dense web of sound.

Seeing is Believing is the longest piece here, a rhapsodic 25-minute concerto for Thomas Gould’s electric six-string violin. Gould’s looped opening swirls occupy their own world, and Muhly’s achievement is to steadily integrate them with the orchestral writing. He has a wonderful ear for chords – the sustained brass tones heard a few minutes in creating a powerful sense of space, of distance. Muhly writes that the sound of the electric violin reminds him of the 1980s and of watching educational science videos, and it’s just possible to imagine the work as a soundtrack for a Horizon documentary about supernovas. Motion is an exciting, kinetic showpiece, and Step Team a more extended study in pulse. Vibrant, positive music, from a preternaturally gifted and likeable young composer. Beautifully performed too.

ELFELF: Reflections Dave Lee (horn), Geoff Eales (piano), Andy Findon (flute) (Nimbus)

Horn player Dave Lee’s earlier solo disc Under the Influence is re-released alongside this new one. Under the Influence’s success comes down to the range of music chosen by Lee; there can’t be many CDs which showcase Peter Maxwell Davies alongside David Bowie. Reflections is a collaboration between Lee and two colleagues – flautist Andy Findon and pianist Geoff Eales, both of whom have enjoyed careers as eclectic as Lee’s. Flute, horn and piano blend surprisingly well, and care has been taken to ensure that the results don’t tip over into bland mood music. Lee’s horn sound is fabulous – he’s one of the best legato players around, and the most impressive parts of the disc are where he lets the instrument sing. Findon is excellent at varying his platinum flute’s tone colours, and he plays with a warm vibrato which never becomes obtrusive. Barry Tuckwell released a disc of Jerome Kern songs in the 1980s which for me recalled Phantasia on this disc – an extended suite based on themes from Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Lloyd Webber is a shrewder, more skilful composer than he’s often given credit for, and the results hang together beautifully. The arrangement is a classy one, with both solo wind parts sounding like authentic flute and horn parts.

Michael Nyman’s If offers a reminder that this composer can produce extended cantabile melodies as well as hyperactive minimalism; equally successful are the compositions and arrangements by Eales, with Song for my Mother and his take on a meeting between Chick Corea and Rodrigo especially affecting. The only dodgy moments are the folk songs which begin the album. Beautifully played, but they can't help recalling Constant Lambert’s comment that with a folk song you can’t really do much with it apart from play it again. Louder.

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The author of the review poses a question "You do find yourself asking why these pieces aren’t better known..." I have been a great fan of Martinů for several decades and can only repeat what several Czech artists have said repeatedly about Martinů presentation abroad... it is very difficult to push his music through, as the dramaturges have always considered his music somehow lesser, too ecclectic, not original enough, not fitting into their concept how good music should be written. On the other hand (they said) the audiences always loved it...

...and children too. I took an eight-year-old to a Prom two years ago (or was it one?) expecting him to be bowled over by Stravinsky's Petrushka. Which he was, up to a point (shame Belohlavek chose the truncated ending when I'd explained all about the ghost on the roof, which didn't happen). But what he loved most was the Martinu Concerto for Two Pianos. Partly it was the visual aspect, no doubt, but I reckon children can follow Martinu, like Mozart, without in this instance asking too many questions as adults do about the form. Martinu seems to me to be inspired in every second in his best pieces, so if you live in the moment you'll never worry where you're going next. On the other hand I won't be inflicting Nico Muhly's longwinded piece for electric violin on anyone I know, kids or otherwise, any time.

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