fri 05/06/2020

Classical CDs Weekly: Sofya Gulyak, The Prince Regent's Band, Esmerine | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Sofya Gulyak, The Prince Regent's Band, Esmerine

Classical CDs Weekly: Sofya Gulyak, The Prince Regent's Band, Esmerine

A piano recital from the Leeds competition's only female winner, period brass instruments, new music from Canada

Sofya Gulyak: intimacy and grandeur


Gulyak ChaconneChaconne - Sofya Gulyak (piano) (Champs Hill Records)


Gulyak ChaconneChaconne - Sofya Gulyak (piano) (Champs Hill Records)

Traditionally, a chaconne is an instrumental piece in triple time with a continually repeating bass line. Sofya Gulyak, winner of the 2009 Leeds Piano Competition, gives us seven. Best known is Busoni’s extraordinary Chaconne in D minor, a bold reinvention of a famous Bach number for solo violin. Gulyak is terrific, her performance combining craggy grandeur and warm intimacy. The final major chord has rarely sounded so well-earned. An early Chaconne in G major by Handel is a friendlier affair, Gulyak making the work shine. The rapid passage work a few minutes in is exhilarating. Whereas Liszt’s flamboyant transcription of the Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel’s opera Almira is more of a guilty pleasure, Handel's original almost buckling under the strain. The short prelude to Busoni's late Toccata dazzles and terrifies, preparing us for the dizzying closing chaconne.

Busoni was a friend of Nielsen, whose quirksome, angular Chaconne is worth 10 minutes of anyone's time, the abrupt changes of tone recalling the choleric first movement of his Second Symphony. Casella’s entertaining Variations on a Chaconne was new to me, as was Sofia Gubaidulina’s stern example, the closing fugue finishing with an exhausted whimper. A fascinating collection, superbly realised and beautifully recorded.

Russian Revolutionaries PRBRussian Revolutionaries Vol. I - Music by Victor Ewald and Oskar Böhme The Prince Regent’s Band (Resonus)

Back in the days of record shops, chamber music for brass would occupy an even smaller space than the nook or cranny allocated to wind quintet LPs. There's actually a fair bit of decent brass music out there, but few non-brass players ever get the opportunity to hear it. All the more reason to buy this disc: it includes two quintets by Victor Ewald. Like many Russian 19th century composers, writing music was a sideline, in Ewald’s case a distraction from his day job as a civil engineer. The Prince Regent’s Band score brownie points by adhering to Ewald’s original scoring, in this case a pair of cornets, althorn, baritone and tuba, instead of the standard line-up of two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba. It makes for a glorious noise, the individual instruments snuggling together rather than jostling for attention. Plus the group plays, rather heroically, on brass instruments manufactured in the late 19th century. The occasionally clunks and clicks of valves add to the fun. It's difficult to listen to a piece like the third movement of Ewald's E flat Quintet without grinning: this music will improve anyone's day.

Rarer are the items by one Oskar Böhme, a German cornet player who upped sticks to St Petersburg in 1897 and played in the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, staying on after the October Revolution. Poor Böhme met a sad end, accused during Stalin’s Great Terror of “participating in a counter-revolutionary organisation” and shot in 1938. Böhme’s four-movement Trompetten Sextett is sheer joy, as is his witty Rokoko Suite. There's a set of sonorous fugues, plus two enchanting slices of Nachtmusik. This disc is brilliantly annotated: individual instruments are listed, and shown on a glorious double page spread. Anneke Scott’s erudite notes make for fascinating reading, particularly when she's outlining the history of brass-playing in 19th century Russia. We learn that the Grand Duke Alexander was an enthusiastic cornet player who liked to rehearse brass chamber music every Thursday evening, shifting to the tuba after becoming Tsar Alexander III, his onerous court duties getting in the way of regular cornet practice. Wonderful.

EsmerineEsmerine - The Mechanics of Dominion (Constellation)

There's more antique brass on this beguiling disc in the form of a "valved cavalry horn". Other unusual instruments listed in the credits include the bowed marimba and the pochette. Esmerine are a Canadian "modern chamber ensemble", one of whose co-founders was a member of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This music is hard to classify: there's a waffly statement in the press notes about it being “a paen to the inscrutable, essential dignity of indigenous ethics…” Hmm. Not sure exactly what that means, but the pieces presented here by Rebecca Foon and Bruce Cawdron are consistently interesting, sound-wise. The disparate elements are always assembled in interesting ways, the production values serving the ideas wonderfully well.

Glockenspiels and marimbas feature heavily, notably in “La Lucha Es Una Sola”, its luminous string-writing accompanied by bell-like chimes. “La Plume Des Armes” involves a bewildering variety of percussion, each separate sound occupying a distinct aural space: listen through headphones and it's as if you could reach out and grab each instrument. "¡Que se vayan todos"! is the quiet highlight, Foon’s frail cello lament singing out over doleful piano chords before the mix thickens.

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