sun 21/04/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Copland, Handel, Janáček | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Copland, Handel, Janáček

Classical CDs Weekly: Copland, Handel, Janáček

American ballet scores, baroque chamber music and songs from Moravia

'You can’t quite believe you’re only hearing four musicians': The Brook Street BandKate Mount


Copland: Orchestral Works 1 BBC Philharmonic/John Wilson (Chandos)

There are sensational things in the first volume of John Wilson’s projected Copland series, but his disc suffers from being released too soon after Andrew Litton’s thrilling Colorado Symphony anthology. Litton scores by allowing us to hear Billy the Kid and Rodeo in their uncut original versions, and his orchestra play with a muscular grace that’s matched by BIS’s widescreen sound. Wilson’s hard-working BBC Philharmonic are more than capable, but many of Copland’s brasher moments are too restrained. El Salón México is a case in point: the bass drum and lower brass four minutes in could be weightier, and you long for a touch more abandon. Things do pick up very nicely near the close, but there’s not enough vulgarity. This Rodeo is also uneven: “Buckaroo Holiday”, taken at a lick, is as good as any recorded performance around and the suite’s reflective inner movements are excellent, but the “Hoe-down” lacks oomph.

Billy the Kid fares pretty well, though the Suite alone will always feel like a letdown once you’ve heard the complete ballet. Wilson’s “Mexican Dance” is brilliantly precise, and the gun battle thrills. Appalachian Spring in Copland’s orchestral transcription always benefits from a light touch and a lean sound, and this reading does come off well; Copland’s tricksy metrical changes are immaculately managed, and there’s plenty of warmth and radiance in the closing pages.

Handel: Trio Sonatas for two violins and basso continuo The Brook Street Band (Avie)

A colleague recently nailed Handel's appeal for me, describing this composer's unparalleled ability to express the sheer joy of being alive. These seven Trio Sonatas aren't particularly grand or formally ambitious, but they're brilliant music. A collection of unrelated works, they span 35 years of Handel's career, from his early years in Germany to his musical maturity in London. Two are linked to oratorios: the HWV 50A Trio Sonata in Bb is a chamber recasting of the overture to Esther, and a later Sonata in C shares much of its melodic material with the oratorio Saul, though which was written first has never been determined. The tiny finale is superb: Rachel Harris and Farran Scott are a perfect match on their baroque violins, the pair sparring with, mimicking and ultimately agreeing with each other.

Not everything is relentless major key sunniness; the most impressive work here is the HWV 368 Trio Sonata in its C minor incarnation. These four players bring out the slow first movement's sensuality, and the second Andante's melody unfolds with winning ease. You can’t quite believe you’re only hearing four musicians. Tatty Theo’s cello bass lines provide the requisite weight, and every moment is underpinned by Carolyn Gibley’s harpsichord continuo. Sample the Trio Sonata in F’s lively fugal Allegro and marvel at what happens just before the close, Handel’s tone shifting from gaiety to gravitas in just a few seconds. Life-enhancing stuff, and beautifully recorded too.

Janáček: Moravian Folk Songs Martina Janková (soprano), Tomáš Král (baritone) Ivo Kahánek (piano) (Supraphon)

Janáček's fascination with folk music led to his compiling in 1890 an anthology of 174 Moravian folk songs, 53 of which were later furnished with piano accompaniment to form his Moravian Folk Poetry. This enthralling disc allows us to hear the majority of them, with vocal duties split between soprano Martina Janková and baritone Tomáš Král. The language barrier is never an issue: musically these songs are incredibly vivid and full of character. Full texts and translations are provided, but I only began following them on my second listen. You can see immediately why these folk tunes would have appealed to Janáček, the majority of the verses being concerned with love in all its forms: erotic, unrequited, maternal or insincere. Even the tiniest songs have an incredible potency and raw power. The piano writing is magnificent, recalling Bartòk's folk song settings, Janáček's writing mixing stark simplicity with flamboyance. More importantly, every setting serves its text beautifully, and both singers are terrific, turning in performances of arresting sincerity.

The highlights are too numerous to mention. I can't stop listening to Janková's heartrending delivery of “Uneasy” (“I'm feeling uneasy deep down in my heart, like it was bound with a silk string tied up”), the jittery piano writing beautifully rendered by Ivo Kahánek. Or the later “Parting”, where the parting of two lovers causes the earth to tremble. You want to devour the whole lot, repeatedly. Tomáš Král is just as winning, and there's a gorgeous moment in “Charm” where he sings of a “sweet fair maid... whenever I look at you I tremble and lose my cool.” As a curtain raiser there's Janáček's earlier Ukvaldy Folk Poetry in Songs, a short sequence of thirteen numbers taking in the same blend of ecstacy, heartbreak and humour. Buy or download this now. You'll wonder how you lived without it. Essential for Janáček fans, and the best vocal disc I've heard in months.

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