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A little while ago, I heard the Slava from Leoš Janáček's Glagolitic Mass on R3 Breakfast and was utterly smitten. I think it was a combination of the dazzling solo singing and dazzling last bars of the section where the shouts of amen! from the chorus alternate with great outbursts sounds from the orchestral brass and the organ that really got me.

It turned out that the recording I liked so much was from Norway: Ed Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. The quartet of soloists were every bit as top notch — Sara Jacubiak, Susan Bickley, Stuart Skelton, and Gábor Bretz — with Thomas Trotter adding sparkle via the obligato organ part. (The sound blend is superb despite, or maybe even because, the orchestra and choir were recorded in Grieghallen while Trotter was recorded separately in Bergen Cathedral)

The couplings on the recording are also well worth having: Adagio for orchestra; and the choral pieces Zdrávas Maria and Otče náš. All in all, a delightful discovery; although not, I'm sure, for my neighbours...

Rise heart

Apr. 16th, 2017 09:30 am
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Ralph Vaughan Williams' setting of George Herbert's poem Easter from Five Mystical Songs in an arrangement with organ accompaniment performed by the choir of King's College, Cambridge.

Easter by George Herbert

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or since all music is but three parts vied,
And multiplied;
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

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With the announcement of the death of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, what else but the shocking opening of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13. The movement sets the words of Yevtushenko's Babi Yar, a savage attack on Soviet indifference to the massacre of 100,000 Jews by the nazis and anti-semitism in the Soviet Union.

The poem links the ancient persecution of the Israelites with the Dreyfus Affair, the Białystok pogrom, and the capture of Anne Frank before eventually returning to the . At each point, the poet imagines himself in the place of those being attacked, eventually returning to the present to find him standing in the ravine at Babi Yar and mourning those murdered there.

Shostakovich's setting, strongly influenced by Mussorgsky, begins with a dirge like opening before the bass soloist, the voice of the poet, opens his narrative. There are sharp stabs from the brass when the poet talks of Dreyfus being poked with umbrellas; punches from the percussion as a child is kicked while the chorus jeer and chant anti-semitic slogans; darkness in the lower registers while poet imagines Anne Frank as a delicate branch, with the glockenspiel playing what should be a sweet melody above it all; finally the poet is pulled back to the present by a savage orchestral outburst that mirrors the breaking down of the Franks' door.

It's an astonishingly powerful creation that finds words and music working in concert to remind us that past evils must never be forgotten and that they form a continuous chain with the present.

The bass soloist here is Alexander Vinogradov with Philippe Jordan conducting the Orchestre de l'Opéra national de Paris.
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Via this morning's R3 Breakfast Steve Martland's Principia which, as Georgia Mann reminded us, was used as the theme tune to The Music Machine way back in the mid-90s.

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Another transmutation of a piece by Handel. This time it's Johannes Brahms' virtuoso Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel for solo piano. The piece showcases Brahms abilities as a master of variation and, after 25 different takes on the original aria, ends with a complex fugue. The performer here is Stephen Kovacevich.

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Ludwig Beethoven's set of 12 variations for piano and cello of Handel's See, the conquering hero comes from Judas Maccabaeus, here in the capable hands of Gautier Capuçon and Frank Braley:

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Via Martin Handley on R3's Sunday, the discovery that it's the 80th anniversary of Charles-Marie Widor's death. The toccata from the 5th Symphony never really gets old: the rapid semi-quaver runs that propel the piece forward with those big statements in the pedal line, the constant changes in key and the dramatic use of dynamics.

This is the same version that Handley selected: Olivier Latry playing the grand orgue de Notre Dame de Paris. Be warned, though, that the tutti, when it is finally deployed, is shockingly loud...

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This morning's survey of recordings of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder for Building a Library resulted in Nicholas Baragwanath selecting Simon Rattle's excellent live version from 2002. I'm not surprised: I bought it on the strength on Andrew Clements' enthusiastic review way back when it came out and I think it's stood the test of time well.

For anyone who doesn't know it, Gurrelieder is vast slab of late-Romanticism that is very much at odds with Schoenberg's later atonal works. The first part consists of a series of orchestral songs focusing on the love between King Waldemar and his mistress Tove — a romance that is, inevitably, doomed by the jealousy of Waldemar's queen. The section ends with a very beautiful, very Wagnerian song in which one of wood -doves of the Castle of Gurre tells the others of Tove's tragic death. In the second part, Waldemar curses God for the injustice of his beloved's death and is condemned to ride forever at the head of a skeletal hunting party. The final part features Waldemar and his wild hunt riding out, shocking the peasants as they pass, before the piece ends with a spectacular evocation of the sunrise.

While the video may not be the best quality and may not be quite in sync, here's a terrific performance of Gurrelieder from 2002, with Donald Runnicles conducting the BBC SO. The soloists are Jon Villars as Waldemar, Christine Brewer as Tove, Petra Lang as the wood-dove, and the much missed Philip Langridge as Klaus the Fool.

This brings back a lot of memories for me: I was lucky enough to be in the audience that night. I remember the Albert Hall was packed to the rafters and absolutely sweltering; it was around 30 celcius in London and well before the work to improve the air conditioning, making the place feel like a giant sauna! Luckily the performance more than made up for it and was good to see the hall full: I'd been to see a double bill of Olly Knussen's two Maurice Sendak operas, Higglety Pigglety Pop! and Where the Wild Things Are, two days before and the audience had been a little on the thin side...
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With R3 making thing of International Women's Day — I believe they may have done this last year as well! — last weekend's Record Review featured Kate Kennedy's survey of recordings of Ethel Smyth's music.

Although Kennedy highlighted Smyth's own early recording of The Wreckers Overture — amazingly exciting and very fast-paced — she actually preferred Alexander Gibson's slower approach with the Scottish National Orchestra from the late 60s, which brought out the details of the orchestration.

I especially like the trumpet arpeggios in the opening, redolent of nothing quite so much a the best Hollywood matinee soundtracks...
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A current earworm in the shape of Aram Khachaturian's Waltz from his Masquerade Suite. This is Kirill Kondrashin's particularly fine take on it from 1958: he gets the tempo just right and his change in dynamics before the first entry of the theme works particularly well.

It's interesting to compare Kondrashin's take on the piece with Stanley Black's version with the LSO, where the opening phrases are much less distinct and the tempo slightly faster...
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Not particularly authentic but this version of Vivaldi's Guitar Concerto in D RV93 is particularly lovely — Eduardo Fernández' ornamentation in the largo are a delight.

The musicians are the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by George Malcolm — this week's Essential Classics artist of the week, which I how discovered this particular performance...
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Feeling very energetic and Friday-ish — so much so that I've cleaned the communal hallway and washed the windows of the front door — so here's some cheerful Shostakovich to keep the feeling going. The piece, the Festive Overture, was written in a couple of days flat and is clearly channelling the spirit of Glinka's bouncy overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla:

The performers here are the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov, recorded as part of the Nobel Prize Concert in 2009...
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Before I leave JS Bach's Mass in B-minor, here's the first recording I bought: John Eliot Gardner's first version from the mid-80s. As Kenyon says, it's a bit frantic in places, but there's no doubting the commitment of the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir:

I used to listen to this every Sunday morning when I was a student as I waited for my laundry...
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Inspired by Saturday's episode of Building a Library on JS Bach's Mass in B-minor, two very different versions. The first is the Herbert von Karajan's take on the opening Kyrie:

The second is the entire piece courtesy of Concerto Copenhagen — Nick Kenyon's ultimate choice in his survey — in a one-voice-per-part version:

Each is lovely in its own way — I have both of them — and each seems to emphasize a different aspect of Bach's dazzling writing...
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For no terribly good reason other than sheer charm, the original piano and harmonium version of César Franck's Prélude, Fugue et Variation.

The performers are Jonathan Scott on harmonium and Tom Scott on piano.
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A delightfully over the top discovery in the form of Heinrich Biber's Missa Salisburgensis, written for the 1100th anniversary of the founding of the Archbishopric of Salzburg in 1682.

The performers here Musica Antiqua Köln and the Gabrieli Consort under Paul McCreesh.
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I've very much enjoyed this week's Breaking Free mini-season on the Second Viennese School on R3. As Schoenberg's daughter said on Music Matters, the music is actually far more accessable than people thing but most of the time it's played so badly that people think they don't like it.

The two biggest highlights were the performances of Berg's operas Wozzeck and Lulu — the latter in an English transation from ENO, but Essential Classics also featured some of Webern's pieces and whole a series of Schoenberg's string quartets.

But Breaking Free wasn't all serialism all the time and both Webern's and Schoenberg's delightful arrangements of pieces by JS Bach put in an appearance. First, then, is Anton Webern's precise orchestration of the Ricecar a Six from the Musical Offering, where the line is passed from one instrument to another to emphasize the tone colours:

Similarly successful are Arnold Schoenberg's orchestral versions of some of Bach's keyboard works. Eschewing the bombastic and overly Romantic approaches of the majority of arrangers, Schoenberg instead uses his orchestral forces to emphasize Bach's different contrapuntal lines. The arrangement of the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major BWV552 is an absolute masterpiece — it wasn't until I heard Schoenberg's version that I began to understand the complexities of Bach's original — but instead of that I've gone for the orchestral version of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele BWV564 from the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes.

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Motivated by this morning's Record Review, which played excerpts from recent versions of some of Bach's cantatas for alto soloist — both Iestyn Davies and Phillipe Jarosky have new recordings out — here's an unashamedly old-school version of Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV54.

The performer is Marga Höffgen accompanied the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Thomas — Bach's many-times-removed successor as Thomaskantor.
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I have a feeling I might have posted Gerald Finzi's In Terra Pax before, but it's so beautiful I feel completely justified in repeating myself. The piece is very characteristic of Finzi's output, with a wistful introduction that references The First Nowell followed by lovely reflective, slightly melancholy baritone solo which set Robert Bridges' poem Noel: Christmas Eve 1913, transporting the nativity to a snowy English landscape. Following the first part of poem, the chorus enter with words from St Luke's Gospel 2:8, introducing the shepherds abiding the fields.

The chorus continue with words from St Luke, announcing the arrival of the angel of the Lord. The soprano enters with the words of the angel, Luke 2:10-12, followed by a great outburst of joy from the chorus on the words "Glory to God in the highest" while the orchestra shifts back to quoting the carol, prefacing the return of the baritone with the closing verse of Bridges' poem.

It's a shame the piece isn't better known: it's truly lovely and the sad realisation that it was written close to the end of Finzi's life adds a bittersweet quality to the work and, especially, the pianissimo ending.
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For all its brevity, there's something very engaging about Peter Warlock's carol As I Sat Under Sycamore Tree. It has a charmingly sparky accompaniment and truly magical moment when the accompaniment drops out on words "And all the bells on Earth did ring" and the choir divides and harmonises.

This version, from the Allegri Singers, features an organ-only accompaniment but there is also a fine orchestral version featuring the Bornemouth SO under Hilary Davan Wetton on the Naxos album In Terra Pax


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