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Virtuosic Liszt from Lucille Chung

Liszt: Piano Music

Lucille Chung (piano)

The Canadian pianist Lucille Chung was born in Montréal and made her debut at the age of 10 with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Subsequently she has toured with Charles Dutoit in Asia and performed with over 65 leading orchestras around the world! Currently Lucille has made her home in New York City.

Lucille Chung hasn’t let small hands (she loves playing Liszt)¹ or being married to fellow concert pianist Alessio Bax (they play duos together) get in the way of her blossoming career.

The pianist states that she finds Liszt ‘an intriguing, fascinating and puzzling composer … an 18th century equivalent of a rock star’. This new release from Signum Classics sees Chung performing Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, S178 and Gretchen aus Faust-Symphonie, S513 together with a number of shorter pieces as her homage to the great composer.

The CD opens with the Toccata, S197a an extraordinary little study, unusual among the late pieces for its prestissimo tempo direction and the ambiguous ‘white-note’ flavour to the harmony. This is followed by Unstern: sinistre disastro S208 where Lucille shows her power in the crashing fortississimo dissonances at the work’s climax. We have the Wiegenlied (Chant du berceau), S198 with its aura of childlike innocence and a sense of muted anxiety followed by a suitably cheeky interpretation of Liszt’s Bagatelle sans tonalite, S216a. As the CD progressed I found myself in awe of the technical prowess on display that enabled these challenging works to be played with such apparent ease. The final miniature is perhaps the most remarkable; Trübe Wolken (Nuages gris), S199 and it is surely the high  point of Liszt’s experimentation with expressive composition. In as fine a performance as this Gretchen, the second movement of the Faust Symphony, one does not miss the full orchestra. However this also attributable to Liszt’s skill as a transcriber as evidenced in his transcriptions of the Beethoven Symphonies. All the while the CD is building towards the major work that concludes the recording.

The climax of the CD is a highly enjoyable performance of the single-movement Piano Sonata in B minor, S178 which benefits from a long period of familiarity with the work and the increased awareness that Lucille has acquired from her study of Liszt’s later works.

This latest offering further enhances my view of Lucille Chung as a musician of great intelligence, a pianist capable of eye-opening virtuosity and with a  power that is inversely proportional to her diminutive stature. In summary an excellent release and I look forward, with eager anticipation, to her next release.

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¹ She describes herself in the album’s notes as “a diminutive lady with hands spanning a 9th and this led her mentor, Lazar Berman to initially doubt that she would ever play Liszt well!

Expertly crafted Symphony Anthems by Humfrey

Pelham Humfrey: Symphony Anthems

Consort of Voices, Instruments of Time and Truth, Edward Higginbottom

Pelham Humfrey (1647 – 14.07.1674) was an English composer and lutenist, who was particularly noted for his anthems and sacred solo songs. He was the first of a new generation of English composers at the beginning of the Restoration period to gain prominence. In 1672, he succeeded Henry Cooke as Master of the Children
of the Chapel Royal, where one of his pupils was none other than Henry Purcell.

Humfrey’s compositions are peculiarly expressive and affecting as exemplified by the seven beautifully constructed anthems we get from Edward Higginbottom and his forces. They are surprisingly fine works mixing vocal solos and ensembles with string interludes. The space for which Humfrey conceived these anthems was modest: the royal chapel at Whitehall measured only 75 x 30 feet but this intimate ecclesiastical room was ideal for the declamatory style adopted by this interesting composer. These resplendent works clearly befit the court for which they were written. There is such poignancy and expressive power in the Verse Anthem O Lord my God (track 4) that one cannot help but wonder what works we might have inherited from Pelham Humfrey had he not met such an early death.

Pan Classics are to be commended for providing the opportunity for Edward Higginbottom and his colleagues to put these anthems on disc. The acoustic of the Chapelle des Verriers, Vallerysthal, Moselle in France where this CD was recorded in July 2017 is well suited to the anthems and has been captured well by the sound engineers. There is a useful booklet giving background information on the works and performers as well as the text of each anthem in English, German and French. This intriguing release is our Collectors’ Choice for May 2018.

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Poulenc CD from Jean-Luc Tingaud is pure joy

Poulenc: Les Biches – Suite, Les Animaux modèles – Suite & Sinfonietta

RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Jean-Luc Tingaud

Francis Poulenc wrote two ballets, the suites from which provide the main works on this recording. Les Biches is a sequence of captivating dances that explore many themes which were considered taboo at the time. The narrative of the work is essentially plot free but by fusing together musical styles from various periods and genres Poulenc makes a success of the work. The suite begins with busy melodies and bustling rhythms and almost jazz-like syncopations prior to a bitter-sweet slower section. the Rag-Mazurka, with its cheeky Chopin F sharp minor Polonaise quote, is not far removed from a Charleston dance! Fabulous stuff!

In Les Animaux modèles, Poulenc transforms the animals of La Fontaine’s fables into human characters in a patchwork score that in this performance is full of colour and humour. The Sinfonietta, FP 141 that brings the CD to a conclusion is a playful and light-hearted piece that is performed exceptionally well by the Irish forces of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra as indeed are  the other two works on this bargain Naxos release.

Maybe this performance of Les Biches does not quite match the audacity and live thrill of my go-to choice conducted by Thierry Fischer and his Welsh forces on Signum Classics, SIGCD205 but that is coupled with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. However the present CD is excellently recorded and as an all Poulenc disc it is pure joy. At bargain price it warrants a place not just in any Poulenc lovers collection but in any comprehensive music library. As such we have no qualms about making this our Bargain Choice for May 2018.

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McCreesh & his Gabrieli Consort reach new heights!

A Rose Magnificat

Gabrieli Consort, Paul McCreesh

Over the years we have come to expect great things from Paul McCreesh’s choir and this new release certainly does not disappoint. Indeed this new release on Signum, containing reflections on the story of the Virgin Mary in a number of Renaissance works interspersed with works giving a modern perspective, exceeds even our high expectations.

This CD contains a truly fascinating and diverse collection of pieces that combine effectively and provide an enjoyable listening experience when played from beginning to end. The programme opens with with Kenneth Leighton’s setting of the 15th century text Of a rose is all my song with soprano Ruth Provost weaving the refrain around and through the  homophonic choir texture most effectively. This is followed by a vibrant performance of Tallis’ magnificent 6-part Videte Miraculum. The third work, Peter Warlock’s As dew in Aprylle, is a short and rhythmically complex piece that is performed with delightful ease by this group of singers. Robert White’s flamboyant and substantial six-plus part Magnificat, contrasts well with the previous work; its inner movement giving the piece a timeless quality. Next we are given three versions of Ave maris stella; by James Macmillan, John Sheppard, and Owain Park. I particularly enjoyed the step-wise chant-like melody in Park’s offering. McCreesh then gives us the opportunity to compare Robert Wylkynson’s massive nine-voice Eton Choirbook setting, the earliest work on the disk, with Herbert Howells’ Renaissance-inspired Salve Regina. The former, with its two and three voice textures set against a wall of sound and the latter that ends so effectively with a soprano voice floating above the choir. Jonathan Lane’s There is no rose acts as an effective aperitif for the main work – a first performance on CD of the title piece A Rose Magnificat composed by the young, and clearly talented, British composer Matthew Martin and commissioned by the Gabrieli Consort. This work runs to more than ten minutes and is a large-scale and complex double choir setting full of texture and colour. The Gabrielli Consort sing this work with surety and verve leading to a thrilling performance that positively encourages the listener to replay this new and unfamiliar piece.

This has to be the choral CD of the year thus far! The Gabrielli Consort, under McCreesh, give an outstanding performance that is caught in superb sound by the Signum engineers. The CD is beautifully packaged with an excellent booklet containing the words of all the works, a fascinating conversation between Paul McCreesh, Matthew Martin and Jeremy Summerly, and notes about the performers. Indeed this is the standard that all CD releases should strive to reach. We have no hesitation in making this release our CD of the Month for May 2018.

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Carmen is 40th masterwork to join our collection

We have just added the 40th masterwork to our collection. Each week we add another work to  a collection that will eventually contain 100 masterpieces that will form a comprehensive introduction to classical music across all periods and genres.

It is not designed as a ranked list of the best 100 works! Iinstead it is ordered to provide variety and interest for the listener as the library grows and to form the basis of a wide ranging collection of some of the world’s finest music. Collect, enjoy and explore!

And ….. the fourth addition is Bizet’s opera Carmen!

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