Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Robert Simpson Symphonies 5 and 6 Davis Groves

SIMPSON Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6
Andrew Davis, Charles Groves, cond; London SO; London PO
LYRITA 389 (72:05)
Live: Royal Festival Hall 3 May 1973 (Symphony No. 5); 8 April 1980 (Symphony No. 6)


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The centenary of the birth of composer Robert Simpson (1921–1997) is a minor milestone in the history of British symphonism and is the motivation behind this release, of live recordings from the premieres of his Fifth (1972) and Sixth (1977) Symphonies. The Fifth, in particular, finds Simpson at the height of his powers, and the performance here is electric. A fitting tribute then, and also a release of some historical significance.

Simpson was a writer and broadcaster, as well as a composer, and his research interests focused around Haydn, Bruckner, Sibelius, and Nielsen. Those four symphonists are useful points of reference in triangulating Simpson’s style, and his approach to symphonic form can usually be linked back to them in some combination. The Fifth Symphony is in a symmetrical five-movement structure. It opens with a big—Haydnesque—surprise. The very quiet introduction suddenly erupts into a blaze of orchestral color, and from then on the first movement is vibrant, rhythmically incisive, and contrapuntally complex, like Nielsen but with denser harmonies. That first jolt clearly had the intended effect on the audience at the first performance. The Daily Telegraph review, by Martin Cooper, quoted in the liner said, “It seemed as though everyone in the audience had been literally jerked forward – as in a reflex spasm – by the sudden and sustained impact of the first tutti fortissimo outburst.” Credit for that piece of theater should go to conductor Andrew Davis, who would then have been around 28. He draws a dynamic and powerful performance from the London Symphony Orchestra, who had commissioned the work, and who do it full justice. Simpson suffered a serious illness while writing the work, a brain hemorrhage, and the last two movements were composed as he recovered. Even so, there is remarkable consistency across the work, and the ending, where chaotic tutti textures evaporate to leave a quiet, sustained high C, elegantly mirrors the opening gestures of the symphony. One of the other newspaper reviews quoted in the liner, from Desmond Shawe-Taylor in the Sunday Times, says the symphony would “compel all but the most rigidly advanced of listeners to take a closer look at this remarkable composer.” In hindsight, it is difficult to understand even what “rigidly advanced listeners” might have against this music, but this was the era when William Glock was BBC controller of music and Boulez led the BBC Symphony. Today, Simpson’s music sounds very much of its time, drawing on symphonic traditions, but not deliberately archaic, and a significant stylistic advance on the English pastoralists of the previous decades.

The Sixth Symphony was written at the suggestion of gynecologist Ian Craft, who saw a connection between fetal development and thematic development in music. The result is a large-scale two-movement work that gradually develops from vestigial motifs into much broader structures. Simpson himself conceded that “Such an idea is so close to the essence of one kind of symphonic music that there should be no need for programmatic description.” Indeed not, although he goes on to explain that an episode of repeated spasms mid-way through the work represents “a kind of birth.” But this sort of large-scale motivic development was central to Simpson’s approach to the symphonic form, which found its most complete and distinctive expression in the Ninth Symphony (1987). The Sixth looks forward and back across Simpson’s symphonic output (11 symphonies, dated 1951–1990), and is impressively constructed and orchestrated, but it does not stand out the way the Fifth does as a unique and unified symphonic conception. The performance here may be one issue, and liner note writer Jürgen Schaarwächter is possibly too candid in including a complaint from the composer that the orchestra was under-rehearsed and “Just hanging on for grim death….” Simpson perceived the performance as such a failure that he soon returned to the score and made significant revisions. But all London orchestras, including the London Philharmonic here, are renowned for their sight-reading, and the performance, under Charles Groves, sounds committed and accomplished, even if the textures are sometimes rough around the edges.

Although the documentation makes no mention, these recordings are clearly from the archive of Richard Itter, who spent decades capturing Third Programme/Radio 3 broadcasts on the highest quality tape recording technology of the day. The result is more than serviceable stereo sound: It is in the “archival” category, and sometimes lacks presence and weight in the climaxes, but the clarity belies the recordings’ age. The sound for the Fifth is slightly better than that for the Sixth, but even listeners adverse to vintage audio should have few concerns.

In the 1990s, studio recordings of all 11 Robert Simpson symphonies were made for Hyperion, all but the 11th under Vernon Handley with the Bournemouth Symphony and Royal Philharmonic (the 11th was recorded after Handley’s death by Matthew Taylor with the City of London Sinfonia). The discs were released individually, and then as a box set (44191/7). All are out of print now, although they are available as downloads. Comparison of Davis and Handley (with the RPO) in the Fifth finds Davis at a clear advantage. He is much better at delivering the shock factor, and he has the obvious benefit of an unprepared audience. Davis’s tempos are faster throughout, which brings powerful dynamism, especially to the outer movements. For the Sixth Symphony, Handley (again with the RPO) is preferable to Groves. The studio recording is again significantly slower, but this time the result is a more natural feeling of symphonic development and unforced breadth. His better rehearsed orchestra is another advantage, as is the studio sound. But Simpson had revised the work between the two recordings, so there is a clear advantage in hearing both. But it is the Fifth Symphony recording that recommends this new release: the performance was clearly a major event, and enough of that frisson is captured here for us to understand what the excitement was all about.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:6.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Ferneyhough Complete Piano Music Ian Pace


Ferneyhough Invention. Epigrams. Sonata for 2 Pianos. 3 Pieces. Lemma-Icon-Epigram. Opus Contra Naturam. Quirl. El Rey de Calabria 

Ian Pace, Ben Smith (pn) 

MÉTIER 28615 (2 CDs: 89:50)


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Brian Ferneyhough has a fierce reputation, but that belies the sheer variety of moods and textures in his music. The New Complexity movement, of which he is the figurehead, is more famous for the visual density of the notation employed than for the actual sounds that result. Listening to this survey, Compete Piano Music 1965–2018, it soon becomes clear that the amount of ink on the page of a Ferneyhough score is more the result of complex proportional relations than of actual notes per minute. His music can be fast and chaotic, but just as often, the complex tuplet notation is actually performed at a slow tempo, and instead we hear glistening resonances, continually transferred across the various registers of the piano.

Ian Pace is a contemporary music specialist, both as pianist and academic—he is reader in music and head of the music department at City University, London. His academic approach is everywhere apparent on this album. Rather than front-load the program with Ferneyhough’s most famous piano work, Lemma-Icon-Epigram (1981), he presents the music in chronological order. And the self-authored liner note is an in-depth discussion of the performance issues surrounding Ferneyhough’s piano music, with a page and a half of endnotes documenting the already extensive scholarship on the subject.

Even so, Lemma-Icon-Epigram is a good place to start. The piece has become a talisman for virtuosic pianists specializing in new music, so much so that those in the know are on first-name terms—so it’s Lemma to you and me. Ferneyhough has a life-long interest in Italian renaissance culture, and the movement titles refer back to a poetic form from the 16th-century. Again, the music’s notation precedes it, and there are certainly many passages here of fearsome complexity. But that is clearly not the only reason for the work’s revered status. Ferneyhough has a unique relationship with the piano. His music, in all genres, employs extremes of dynamic, range, and articulation, all of which can be explored on the piano. A characteristic sound that we often hear is an extremely loud but short note or chord, a dull thud, more a gesture than a pitch, which emphasizes the sheer physicality of the piano itself. But does Ferneyhough employ this sort of effect because of an interest in that physicality, or is it merely one pole in his expanded dynamic and articulation spectra? Listening through the chronology of works here, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction, and as his music grows more complex and subtle, it also seems to become ever-more suited to the piano and its mechanism.

Hearing the music is chronological order allows us to assess the early works on their own terms. Pace concedes in his liner note that Ferneyhough’s piano works are a poor guide to the composer’s development, as there are three large gaps, each of around 15 years, in which his works for other forces extended his style in important ways. As a result, the early four works here seem orphaned, all written 1965–1967 and therefore separated from the iconic Lemma by 15 years. But we hear the mature Ferneyhough in embryo in these pieces: Invention (1965), Epigrams (1966), Sonata for Two Pianos (1966), and Three Pieces (1966–67). The music often sounds pointillistic, but the composer experiments with different formal approaches. In Epigrams, he makes a virtue of the aphoristic quality of his post-serial language. In the Sonata for Two Pianos (performed here with Ben Smith), he bases the 16-minute single-movement form on expanding and contracting cells, and so many of the utterances are deliberately prolonged. The Two-Piano Sonata is notable for the clarity of its textures: we might imagine the (mature) Ferneyhough using two pianos to create music twice as dense, but throughout the work he explores more subtle combinations and balances.

The second disc is devoted to works from the 21st century. The most impressive of these, and the high point of the entire album, is Opus Contra Naturam, a substantial excerpt from Ferneyhough’s music theater piece Shadowtime, about the death of Walter Benjamin. Pace describes the central section of this work as “probably the most demanding of all Ferneyhough’s piano writing,” a startling conclusion, given the reputation of Lemma. And the music here certainly is more involved, with greater contrasts and layering, and plenty of that emphatic, rhythmically incisive writing that makes Ferneyhough’s mature music so satisfying. There are words spoken over the music, which appear to be performed by Pace himself—no wonder he finds the work “demanding.” His voice is very much in the background, and although the texts are in English (not printed in the liner) it is very difficult to make them out. That is frustrating, but it is also in the spirit of Shadowtime, which is primarily a chamber orchestra work, with the voices part of the musical texture and the narrative a subsidiary layer within the conceptual whole. Quirl (2011–2013) is music in a similar spirit—self-similar, in fact, as it is based on fractal rhythms. Some explanation of that would have been appreciated, although the music itself exudes a sense of mathematically derived complexity. The final piece El Rey de Calabria (c. 2019) is dedicated to the composer’s cat and is an uncharacteristic withdrawal from the confrontational character of the earlier music. Pace compares it to Schoenberg’s op. 33, a fitting allusion.

The recordings were made at City University and the University of Southampton, and the audio is clear. Pace performs with grace and conviction, and, most importantly in this repertoire, without any obvious sense of virtuosic display. The music is clearly under his fingers, and the excitement and tension, extreme as they often are, result from compositional choices rather than a virtuosic high-wire act. The most obvious competition is an album from Nicolas Hodges released in 2015, entitled Brian Ferneyhough: Complete Piano Works (Neos 11501). Repertoire-wise, Hodges gives the same works, but without Invention, which has only been rediscovered since that recoding, and El Rey de Calabria, which also postdates it. (Pace shows admirable scholarly caution is subtitling his “Complete Piano Works” with the date span “1965–2018”). Hodges collaborates with a separate speaker in Opus Contra Naturam, who is more clearly audible, and the result is more conventional melodrama. Both pianists are masters of this music, but Hodges has a lighter touch and gives a sense of exploring the textures. The result is more impulsive and more immediate. He has the better audio as well, which really benefits the quieter music. Pace is more grounded. He has a more tactile relationship with the keyboard and although the music is less playful under his fingers, the more consolidated sense of meaning and significance he projects is to the music’s advantage. Tempos tell a different story, and Pace is generally faster than Hodges, especially in Quirl, which Hodges plays in 15:57 to Pace’s 11:28. More interesting is the respective performers’ relationship with Ferneyhough’s deliberately complex notation. In his liner, Pace points out that notions like “accuracy” or “perfection” are more open to deconstruction here than in most music. Instead, the performer must cultivate a relationship with the notation, from which the interpretation grows. Significantly, the differences between Hodges and Pace in this music are more of tone than technique, with little to separate them in terms of rhythm and articulation. That suggests a validation for Ferneyhough’s contentious notation practices, which, of course is only one aspect of this music, and Pace, to his credit, always provides a satisfying aural experience. We quickly forget how this music looks and can focus instead on what it sounds like and what it means.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:6.


Saturday, 10 April 2021

BRUCKNER Mass in E Minor Te Deum Herreweghe

 BRUCKNER Mass No. 2 in E Minor. Te Deum

Philippe Herreweghe, cond;
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (sop)
Ann Hallenberg (alt)
Maximilian Schmitt (ten)
Tareq Nazmi (bs)
Collegium Vocale Ghent
O de Champs-Élysées
PHI 034 (51:40)


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Philippe Herreweghe brings a period performance perspective to Bruckner’s sacred music. Tempos are fast and the choral tone is pure and largely vibrato free. This has the effect of taking the Mass in E Minor back to its Renaissance roots. The plainchant is included before each movement, and the music that follows retains a chant-like simplicity and directness. Comparison with other recordings demonstrates just how radical Herreweghe’s tempos are. The first movement, for example, times in at 5:36, where most other recordings are over 7 minutes. But on its own terms, the performance works fine, and never sounds rushed. This is Herreweghe’s second recording of the work. The first was released in 1990 (Harmonia Mundi 901322). It has slower tempos than the new recording (that Kyrie is 6:33) but is also more traditional for having a smaller choir in a more reverberant acoustic. The new recording is from the Philharmonie Essen, and is miked close, without any pretense to a church acoustic. That gives Herreweghe license for his fast tempos, but the overall effect is a feeling of clarity and directness. The chorus is relatively large, but their intonation is impressively precise, and a work that tends towards a wash of sound in other recordings here retains a valuable focus on melodic contour and polyphonic texture.

The Te Deum is a larger work, and Herreweghe takes a more expansive approach. The choir is expanded, and a substantial orchestra is employed. The recording venue this time is the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre, but without reading that in the booklet, you would imagine a church setting. This time the microphones are distant and the textures are more homogenized. Despite its size, the orchestra sounds dry, and the organ has very little presence. The soloists bring a more Romantic sensibility, and Herreweghe is surprisingly supple in his accompaniment to the solo numbers. Even so, this is another fast reading, with Herreweghe again relying on the precision of his ensemble to articulate Bruckner’s textures. The faster tempos mean that rhythmic propulsion can be maintained without emphatic accents from the brass, especially in the Aeterna fac. The result is a suitably imposing edifice, but without the Gothic tinges that usually accompany the work.

Herreweghe is clearly a revisionist when it comes to Bruckner, but he also avoids the worst excesses of HIP conductors in this repertoire. His tempos are fast, but never rigid, and the singers never sound rushed. The Mass sounds austere, partly due to the dry recorded sound, but rather than sparsity, the effect is of an increased sense of devotion. That is true of the Te Deum as well, although here Herreweghe seems to be battling against the music’s Romantic sensibility, at least in the tuttis. It all adds up, thanks to the precision of the choral singing, but while the choral sound validates the Mass, in the Te Deum it seems more like a substitute for the grandeur we have come to expect.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:6.