sun 26/05/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Feldman, Nielsen, Scriabin | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Feldman, Nielsen, Scriabin

Classical CDs Weekly: Feldman, Nielsen, Scriabin

Spare pianism, ripe Russian symphonies and the greatest of all wind quintets

The Carion ensemble deliver 'the best wind quintet disc in years'Rune Johansen

Feldman: For Bunita Marcus Ivan Ilić (piano) (Paraty)

Exactly why Morton Feldman’s music works is a bit of a mystery; this is a musician who didn’t follow any particular school of composition, telling listeners that “I compose by ear, and there you have it.” There’s a good quote from Cornelius Cardew in pianist Ivan Ilić’s sleeve note that gets closer still to unpicking Feldman: “… almost all his music is slow and soft… only when one has become accustomed to the dimness of light can one begin to perceive the richness and variety of colour.” For Bunita Marcus is a late work, completed in 1985 and dedicated to one of Feldman’s favourite composition students. Some Feldman pieces take on Wagnerian dimensions, but this one is a relatively concise 70 or so minutes. Ivan Ilić’s disc cannily breaks it down into 22 linked sections. His booklet essay provides a lucid guide to the work, but the best advice would be to clear an hour or so, dim the lights, open a bottle of wine and listen.

This is such strange, hypnotic music, and quite unlike anything else. For long stretches nothing seems to happen at all, but you can’t tear yourself away, making the moments of change incredibly powerful: passages where the bare harmonies suddenly swell, or we get something approaching two-part writing. Enjoy it as a succession of beautiful sounds – bell-like chords, deep, resonant bass notes and pregnant pauses. Ilić’s sensitivity is just what this music needs. Undeniably odd, but magnificent all the same, and an ideal introduction to Feldman’s sound world.

Nielsen's Footsteps - Wind Quintets by Nielsen, Senstius, Emborg and Schultz Carion Ensemble (Odradek)

Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet is a humane, witty masterpiece, all the more remarkable coming from a musician whose first instrument was the violin. Nielsen's symphonies are full of striking woodwind writing – the Fifth's squealing clarinet solos are like nothing else in the repertoire, and No 6 closes with the sound of farting bassoons. The Quintet was written as a piece of compositional light relief after the seismic Fifth Symphony, Nielsen having overheard a group of wind players from the Royal Danish Orchestra practising in the house of a pianist acquaintance. It succeeds as a beautifully idiomatic piece of wind writing and as a set of character portraits illustrating the five musicians who gave the first performance in 1922 – Nielsen planned to write a concerto for each one, but only finished those for clarinet and flute. There's a bucolic opening movement, followed by a charming minuet. The finale's dark opening is a surprise, followed by an entrancing sequence of variations on a Danish hymn tune. The work receives a definitive performance on this disc, from the Danish-Latvian group Carion. There's a warmth and ease to their playing; it’s as if you're eavesdropping on private conversations in the quieter moments. Nielsen's spiky clarinet writing is brilliantly served by Egīls Šēfers, and Niels Anders Vedsten Larsen's bassoon playing is impeccable.

Smart folk would pay full price for this 25-minute work alone, especially in a performance as good as this. It comes with a smartly choreographed bonus DVD filmed in what looks like a posh art gallery, the players mingling, advancing and retreating and pairing off as the music requires. We get superb couplings in the form of three previously unpublished quintets found in the Danish Royal Library, each one owing much to Nielsen's example. The opening of Kai Helmer Senstius's Quintet consciously echoes Nielsen's. Jens Laursøn Emborg's is a suite of sharply drawn character pieces, and Svend Simon Schultz's bubbles with dry humour. All marvellous – the best wind quintet disc in years.

Scriabin: Symphonies 3 & 4 Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko (Lawo Classics)

One of Scriabin's early biographers wrote of him that “no one was more famous during their lifetime, and few were more quickly ignored after death.” This astute comment is easier to understand after a few hours spent in the company of this disc. While you're listening, it's terrific, possibly the loudest, most extravagantly orchestrated, most alluring music imaginable. And strangely unmemorable once it's all over. Symphony No 3's clunky motto theme is an earworm, and that's about it. But play this performance at full volume through a decent pair of speakers and you'll be dazzled. Vasily Petrenko secures electrifying playing from his Oslo Philharmonic players, particularly an extrovert, swaggering principal trumpet, suitably ear-splitting in the louder climaxes. Never has Scriabin’s music sounded so approachable, or so much fun.

The Poem of Ecstacy (Scriabin's 4th Symphony), barely 20 minutes long, is more interesting still, the bolder, more dissonant harmonies softened by diaphanous scoring and frequent changes of direction. Head-scratchingly strange, but utterly compelling. The resplendent final chord is something to be savoured, repeatedly. This is a phenomenal disc, smartly conducted and brilliantly recorded. It comes with a superb booklet, which describe Scriabin's understandable slump in reputation during the Soviet era – it's incredible, then, to discover that The Poem of Ecstacy was broadcast on national radio to celebrate Yuri Gagarin's space flight in 1961. Let's hope that Petrenko programmes both pieces in Liverpool soon.


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