mon 26/02/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Prokofiev, Skempton, Walton | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Prokofiev, Skempton, Walton

Classical CDs Weekly: Prokofiev, Skempton, Walton

Effervescent Russian piano concertos, plus two discs of British music

Sensational in Skempton: Roderick WilliamsBenjamin Ealovega


Petrenko's ProkofievProkofiev: Piano Concertos 1&3, Overture on Hebrew Themes Simon Trpčeski (piano), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko (Onyx)

Good recordings can make you notice things you've never heard before. Like this one: Simon Trpčeski’s balletic, light-footed account of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No 3 is outstanding. It's one of the swifter performances on disc, Trpčeski matched every step of the way by Vasily Petrenko's pliant Liverpool players. Listen to the way the first movement's second subject is enunciated so crisply, and how often do we get to hear the lower strings’ soft accompaniment? Even the castanet player deserves a medal; it's as if someone's wiped the dust off an old portrait. Sample the shimmering string textures just before the recapitulation, before a breathtaking dash to the finish. Everything's in perfect equilibrium: an irresistible blend of flippant wit and deep soul. The more introspective variations in the second movement are wonderfully played by Trpčeski, as is the glorious slow music at the centre of the finale. The closing minutes are explosive.

It's coupled with an enjoyable performance of the Piano Concerto No 1, a work whose compact dimensions mean it's too infrequently heard. The opening melody has just the right garish splendour, Petrenko's trumpets suitably Slavic-sounding. There's more than a hint of Rachmaninov in Trpčeski’s handling of the slow section. The whole thing lasts just 15 minutes: I suggest listening to it twice. Hopefully this combo will record the whole set. As a bonus we get the quirky Overture on Hebrew Themes, heard in Prokofiev's transcription for full string section instead of solo quartet. This disc plays for just 53 minutes, but the quality of the playing is enough to make one forgive the short measure.

Skemton's RimeHoward Skempton: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Only the Sound Remains Roderick Williams (baritone), Christopher Yates (viola), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Martyn Brabbins (NMC)

Howard Skempton is usually thought of as a composer of miniatures, though the two recent works on this disc both last more than 30 minutes. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an extraordinary, abridged setting of Coleridge’s poem. It's sparingly accompanied by a quintet of strings, plus piano and horn. The text is sung, beautifully, by baritone Roderick Williams. Exactly how Skempton's restrained, tonal music works its magic is hinted at in John Fallas’s booklet essay. There’s talk of nine-note scales and four-part canonic textures, though this barely hints at the work’s dramatic power. The piano’s entry at the start of the second stanza made me jump, and it’s telling that the horn is first heard when Williams sings the word "copper". As an exercise in effective musical storytelling, it's magnificent, and a piece to fall in love with.

The coupling, Only the Sound Remains, is an extended work for 16 players. More nine-note scales provide the music’s "secret code": repeated hearings turning the piece into something described by Fallas as “strangely but endlessly hospitable”, a vast passacaglia based on a 45 note ground bass. The sounds are magical. Spooky, Feldmanesque chords alternate with passages of ear-tickling harmonic loveliness, the one constant being Christopher Yates’s solo viola. After 31 minutes, it stops, mysteriously. You'll then be tempted to press the repeat button. Ravishing stuff, both works immaculately directed by the versatile Martyn Brabbins. If you buy just one disc of contemporary music this year, get this one.

Brabbins's WaltonWalton: Violin Concerto, Variations on a theme by Hindemith, Partita, Spitfire Prelude and Fugue Anthony Marwood (violin), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion)

Martyn Brabbins pops up here too, here conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a Walton anthology. It's mandatory purchase thanks to an inspired performance of the Variations on a theme by Hindemith. Hindemith was a personal friend who'd given the first performance of Walton’s Viola Concerto in 1929. Walton used a theme from Hindemith’s Cello Concerto, also quoting from the opera Mathis der Maler. It's an exquisite, refined piece, the theme and coda bookending nine linked variations. It's all here: bittersweet lyricism and immaculate technique (the fugue near the end is magnificent). The closing bars are sublime. Hindemith died at the end of 1963 but did manage to hear the work performed; as a souvenir of a friendship between two underrated composers it's unmatched.

Nothing else on this disc is quite so good, but there’s lots to enjoy. I've long enjoyed Walton’s effervescent three-movement Partita. The BBCSSO's players can't quite match George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra in a vintage Sony recording, but acquit themselves very well, the principal trumpet deserving special praise. The cheesy Spitfire Prelude and Fugue is a harder sell, though Brabbins’ refusal to linger in the march makes it sound less oppressively jingoistic than usual. Far more substantial is Anthony Marwood’s intelligent reading of the sultry Violin Concerto. The work usually leaves me cold, but this taut performance is a keeper, especially in the long closing movement where the reprise of music from the concerto's opening is devastatingly effective. The coda’s fireworks are sensational. Good sleeve art and excellent sound too.

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