ENDNOTES March 2015
In this edition: Treasured Classics from violinist, Devorina Gamalova * Wim Henderickx and his avant-garde collective * Tasmin Little plays French violin sonatas * Elgar from Norway
A former principal violinist of the Neue Elbland Philharmonic Orchestra of Saxony, a teacher at Dresden’s music academy, and a passionate soloist and advocate for music, Devorina Gamalova appears on the Discovery label (accompanied by Bulgarian composer and pianist, Krassimir Taskov – catalogue number, DMV114) in a collection of “treasured classics”. Devorina enchants with her playing, which is never showy or over-forceful, but instead lovingly performs – and re-interprets – dances by Falla and Brahms. She also embroiders and shapes meditations and romances by Saint-Saens and Shostakovich; a Melody by Tchaikovsky, Fritz Kreisler’s Prelude and Allegro, and offers us a lyrical fusion of Bach and Gounod – all in one piece. Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20 ends the disc, a heady brew of country life, gypsy romance and good tunes from Eastern Europe. When playing this disc, I experienced something which so many listeners – and not necessarily classical listeners – are searching for: the sensation of pure pleasure, ease of listening (which is not quite the same as Classic FM’s trademark of easy listening) and contented enjoyment. Mr. Taskov’s sensitive accompaniments add to the delight of this popular array of music, which as the CD notes suggests, concentrates more on “expression and feeling than on showmanship”.
In complete contrast is a recording of the music of Antwerp-based avant-garde radical, Wim Henderickx, whose work is performed by the HERMESensemble “an artist collective for contemporary music and art”. With the music of John Cage, Morton Feldman and England’s Joby Talbot under their belts – (Joby Talbot achieved acclaim at the Proms in recent years for his dark, Gothic arrangement for full symphony orchestra of Purcell’s Chaconne) – the ensemble’s stated aim is to “open up new artistic horizons”. Recorded at the appropriately named Crescendo Studio, the disc presents: Disappearing in Light (written in 2008), the sub-sections of which are Darkness, Mantra l, Meditation, Mantra ll and Light; Raga lll (from 2010); and the 25-minute-long The Four Elements. It seems that Henderickx began his all-culture-encompassing, frontier-pushing journey at the beginning of this century, when he symbolically sounded a gigantic gong in Bouthanath, in the misty Shangri-la of Nepal’s Himalayas. And elements of Eastern music pervade his atmospheric score, alongside the jagged elements of the soundscapes of Ligeti, the strange and disembodied shouts and chants of the human voice, and all the percussive language of extreme modernism. And yet the violin, flute and viola figure in this work: as if the chamber music of Debussy has been refracted into Henderickx’s particular time and space. An extraordinary experience on what appears to be the HERMESensemble’s own disc, distributed by Launch Music International (code: 8-714835-085669).
Time now for a return to the world of tonality, this time with French violin sonatas, played with effortless, romantic and classical finesse by Tasmin Little, undoubtedly one of the greatest violinists this country has ever produced, and a performer with enormous stage-presence who leads performances, even when some of the best of our conductors are at the helm. Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894) was, I must admit, a name entirely new to me, so full marks to Tasmin (and her fine accompanist, Martin Roscoe) for bringing this romantic Belgian-born composer – solid, yet capable of producing light and shade – to our attention. Ravel’s Sonata Movement, and the Sonata No. 1, Op. 13 (in four movements) are also here, faithfully recorded at a venue which appears to be increasingly popular for chamber recitals, Potton Hall in East Suffolk. Lekeu, it seems, was a follower of Cesar Franck, and although there is a sense of Teutonic influence in the young composer’s work, it nevertheless seems leavened to some extent by a sense of Frenchness, which Tasmin Little’s loving performance brings to the fore. The first movement, which is expansive, and has a memorable, restated theme, also brought to mind the broad, emphatic style of Tchaikovsky’s violin sonata. A sad twist to the tale of Lekeu: he died at just 24 years of age, from drinking contaminated water. I am certain that the craftsmanship of this composer might, if fate had played out differently, have given rise to greatness.
To England now, or rather, to Norway, with Sir Edward Elgar – under the baton of one of our best Elgarians, Sir Andrew Davis, for so many years synonymous with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Proms. Chandos Records (cat. no. CHSA 5149(2)) has brought Sir Andrew to the rostrum of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, and – ranged behind it – the Bergen Philharmonic Choir, the Edvard Grieg Kor, and the Choir of Collegium Musicum, Bergen; with soloists, Emily Birsnan (soprano), Barry Banks (tenor) and Alan Opie (baritone). The work: Elgar’s Op. 30, his Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, which dates from 1896.
The historian, David Cannadine in his essay, The Pleasures of the Past, noted that if Elgar had died at the age of 40, his name would, today, live on only in specialist books about English music – his few, mainly choral works given the occasional outing at provincial or esoteric festivals. Elgar was 39 when King Olaf was written (for a festival in North Staffordshire): his masterpiece, the Enigma Variations (championed by the great Wagnerian, Hans Richter) would come three years later. Fortunately, and unlike the Belgian composer Lekeu, Elgar lived quite a long and full life, drawing inspiration from the lanes and hills of Worcestershire, Herefordshire, and (in 1918), Sussex; from a sense of British imperial destiny and history; and from numerous legends, poems, stories from Shakespeare, and sagas from the pen of Longfellow – and it is from the latter that King Olaf derives.
A “blue-eyed Norseman” and a Viking in reverse (Olaf converted to Christianity, was baptised in the Scilly Isles, and later set forth on his expeditions to fight for the new religion with great zeal), the spirit and action of Elgar’s drama almost lends itself to opera. Noble and dramatic ideas pulse through the score, and the choral contributions are exciting and point very definitely to the true majesty that would come in The Dream of Gerontius and The Kingdom. It is always good to hear European orchestras playing English music – and it is worth remembering that when Elgar’s First Symphony was first performed in 1908, the work had a Europe-wide and international following. The international currency of our music seems to have been stronger in the late-19th and early-20th centuries than it is today. But we can only hope that this Chandos production will lead the way in bringing the less well-known music of the British Isles to a wider audience.
As to the performance, it is difficult to find fault with any aspect of what Sir Andrew Davis gives us. The orchestral style of playing in Norway is a little different from the British orchestras; and I – at first – missed the richer “bloom” of sound; that “darker-brown” sound which the London Philharmonic of Sir Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley produced in the 1970s and ‘80s on EMI and at the Royal Festival Hall. The Bergen strings are sharp, astringent, precise, but their brass and percussion soon achieve that Elgarian richness, as the Nordic seas surge, and King Olaf engages in his great battles and causes. The new disc, I am pleased to say, also includes Elgar’s 1897, The Banner of St. George, with words by a fine-sounding Victorian fellow, Shapcott Wensley: the flag of the Saint coming from England’s “misty ages”, with “deathless heroes” and “glorious deeds of old” abounding. These sentiments, say some critics, are completely old-fashioned and outdated – and yet we seem to have no difficulties with Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky – the words of which are so blood curdling (those that invade Russia’s towns and fields will be “put to death”) as to make St. George and King Olaf seem quite moderate.
STUART MILLSON is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Next time: More Elgar – a review of The Dream of Gerontius, and interview with conductor, Ronald Corp, whose London Chorus will be centre-stage for this great choral masterpiece. And we also cover an important new recording by the Tallis Scholars of sacred works by Arvo Part.