sat 20/07/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Haydn, Vaughan Williams, Johannes Pramsohler | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Haydn, Vaughan Williams, Johannes Pramsohler

Classical CDs Weekly: Haydn, Vaughan Williams, Johannes Pramsohler

Classical piano sonatas, a British ballet score and a child-friendly baroque anthology

Dry wit: pianist Leon McCawleyClive Barda

Haydn Leon McCawleyHaydn: Sonatas and Variations Leon McCawley (piano) (Somm)

Haydn's keyboard music needs this sort of persuasive advocacy. Four sonatas and a set of variations is a lot to pack in to a single disc, but the composer’s inability to waffle on is his greatest asset. There's such elegance and economy at play in this music; every note counts and there's nowhere to hide. Leon McCawley’s unflappability is winning, the deceptive technical challenges surmounted with no sense of strain. I'm thinking of moments like the rapid semiquavers in the last movement of Sonata No 53, beautifully handled. He relishes the stranger flights of fancy but never spoils the fun by blurting out the punchline. Sonata No 60’s opening bars are bafflingly odd: McCawley has fun emphasising the prosaic bass line but keeps the music moving forward. And listen to the way he phrases the second movement’s aria-like melody, the soft chordal accompaniment barely audible.

Grandest of the four is the late Sonata in Eb. McCawley’s slow movement is matchless, and his dry wit is intoxicating in the quickfire finale. Really, really good, and there's a pleasing bonus in the form of Haydn's entertaining Variations in F minor. The soft, deadpan ending is a thing to marvel at. McCawley’s notes are a pleasure to read, and Somm’s warm sound suits this repertoire well.

Vaughan Williams Bergen Sir Andrew DavisVaughan Williams: Job, Symphony No 9 Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (Chandos)

The late Richard Hickox didn’t complete his Vaughan Williams cycle for Chandos, so it's now wrapped up in fine style by Sir Andrew Davis. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra are an excellent, if unexpected, substitute for Hickox’s LSO, and their participation serves to stress this music’s broad, universal appeal. The Blake-influenced ballet score Job is a delectable, deeply moving work; Davis's taut, unsentimental performance among the best it's received. So much is achieved with such simple means. As with the Saraband of the Sons of God, its clunkier chord changes are unsettling but so, so effective. Or the exuberant stomp of the splendidly named Dance of Plague, Pestilence, Famine and Battle. Satan does get most of the best bits: the organ entry in Scene VI is rightly terrifying. Davis secures some superb orchestral playing, with weighty brass and a trio of obsequious saxophones stealing the show.

Saxophones return in the generous coupling, along with a prominent flugelhorn. Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony was completed in 1957. Boulez or Stockhausen it isn’t. But what an emotionally charged and quirky piece this is. Savour the slow movement’s glorious flugelhorn solo, and the very characteristic, lumpen scherzo. The closing seconds are remarkable: a luminous, disquieting E major fade, sounding about as final as a final symphony’s ending can be. Beautifully played and sumptuously recorded, and a library choice for both works.

Barocco - The creative doodle book for musical kidsBarocco: The creative doodle book for musical kids Johannes Pramsohler (violin) (Audax Records)

As someone who’s recently been wrestling with the whole download versus physical format issue, it’s reassuring to find a release that confirms that I was right all along. CDs and vinyl do sound better than mp3 files or FLACs. Downloads are convenient, and take up zero space…. but there’s scant tactile pleasure gained from opening a folder on one’s desktop and listening through tinny speakers. Plus, spill tea on your external hard drive and you’ve lost everything. Rant over: this package is essentially a greatest hits compilation showcasing the brilliant Italian baroque violinist Johannes Pramsohler. And if you spurn the download, it comes as a robust hardback colouring/doodle book, printed on high-quality paper. The black and white artwork, by Moni Port and Christian Möhring, is attractive, crying out for embellishment. The text is child-friendly. And the musical excerpts are terrific. I tested a few tracks on a group of eight-year-olds. They stayed put, and asked to listen to the whole thing.

Pramsohler specialises in exhuming rare repertoire, and there are some treasures here. Trio Sonatas by Mondonville and Meister are delightful – the former’s effervescent flute obbligato a highlight. A brief Adagio from Meister’s G Minor speaks volumes in barely 90 seconds. Pramsohler’s collaborators are outstanding, with keyboardist Philippe Grisvard summoning more colours from his harpsichord in a compact Corelli sonata than you’d imagine possible. A few biographical snippets about the composers would have been welcome, but that's a minor niggle: this release is a treat. Do your bit for musical education - buy multiple copies and distribute to the children in your life.

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