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125th Anniversary of Howells’ birth

The English composer Herbert Norman Howells was born 125 years ago in Lydney, Gloucestershire on 17 October 1892. He gained his early musical education as a chorister and organist before moving to London, in 1912, to study at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry among others.

Howells will be well-known to choristers up and down the country. An early popular and critical success was his Hymnus Paradisi written for the Three Choirs Festival in 1950. The motet Take him, earth, for cherishing written in memory of John F Kennedy ranks among the finest works of English sacred music. His final final large-scale choral work was the Stabat Mater first performed in 1965. One of his last works to appear in his lifetime was the Requiem which was written in the early 1930s but only edited for performance from his manuscripts in 1980 and published the following year. It is inextricably linked to untimely youthful death but is nonetheless a beautiful and searingly moving work.

If you are unfamiliar with the work of Howells then this award-winning CD by the mixed choir at Trinity College Cambridge, directed by Stephen Layton is well worth a listen.

Remarkable debut album from Noa Wildschut

Noa Wildschut plays Mozart

Noa Wildschut (violin), Yoram Ish-Hurwitz (piano), Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Gordan Nikolić (conductor)

The young Dutch violinist Noa Wildschut has chosen a programme of Mozart that combines concertante and chamber works for her debut as a Warner Classics recording artist. The supremely talented, and confident, sixteen-year-old is the child of a Rotterdam Philharmonic violist and a private violin teacher, as well as being the protégé of Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Noa Wildschut also includes Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K219 ‘Turkish’ which she chose because it is so gorgeous and full of humour. She goes on to say that the concerto is ‘like a kind of opera, with all those different characters, really, a story is being told’. For this performance she is joined by the Nederlands Kamer Orkest under its Concertmaster and artistic leader Gordan Nikolić. Noa’s phrasing in this work is beyond reproach and the orchestra faithfully follow her assured performance.

For the Violin Sonata No. 32 in B flat major, K454 Wildschut is joined by the pianist Yoram Ish-Hurwitz. I am less convinced by her performance here. Mozart wrote this piece as this is a conversation between equals but this does not quite come across. Perhaps it is an awareness of the equal nature of the piano and violin parts that has led her to be slightly understated in this piece.Nonetheless this is a quite remarkable recording debut and I look forward to getting an opportunity to see her perform live and indeed to her next venture on CD.

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Footnote: Anne-Sophie Mutter, herself, began her own recording career with a recording of the Mozart Third and Fifth violin concerti with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra when she was a similarly tender age.

Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 – No. 9 in our collection

Max Bruch (6 January 1838–2 October 1920) was a German Romantic composer and conductor who wrote over 200 works but only a handful of his works get performed currently. Today his fame rests largely on this piece; the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, which has become a mainstay of the violin repertoire. Other works by Bruch that you may encounter are his Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46 for violin & orchestra and Kol Nidrei, Op. 47 on Hebrew themes for cello & orchestra. Both of these pieces are well worth exploring.

This concerto was written in three movements. The first marked Allegro molto appassionato is a rhapsodic prelude whose opening drum roll and sombre woodwind theme introduce an impassioned flourish for the solo violin. The orchestral part soon gains a more rhythmic pattern against which the violinist pits a new, dramatic theme. At the emd of the movement, the initial flourishes return  in a more pronounced form and provide a link to the central adagio. This second movement is the emotional heart of the piece and contains many beautiful themes; the first three introduced on the violin and the fourth by horn and woodwind. The final movement is a sparkling, dance-like allegro that, perhaps in tribute to the great Hungarian-born violinist Joseph Joachim (for whom Bruch wrote the piece), has a strong Hungarian feel about it.

For our collection we have chosen a performance starring Anne-Sophie Mutter the German violinist who was supported early in her career by the great conductor Herbert von Karajan. This magnificently played and conducted version was recorded in 1980 but still holds ones attention 37 years later. Herbert von Karajan does not dominate the performance (something he had a tendency to do when conducting concerti) allowing Anne-Sophie Mutter to steal the show with a warm, singing quality throughout the work. In particular in the slow movement her playing sounds absolutely gorgeous.

For the vinyl fans reading this, I am pleased to say that this performance has just been re-issued on DG (Catalogue No: 4797220).

View the other works in our collection.

Most alluring Bach recital by Sandro Ivo Bartoli

J S Bach: Preludes, Fantasias and Minuets

Sandro Ivo Bartoli (piano)

This disc, from Berlin-based Solaire Records, contains a number of rarely heard Bach miniatures together with Bach’s Prelude, Fugue & Allegro, BWV998 and his Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue in D minor, BWV903. They are performed by the Italian pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli on a large, modern Steinway piano. The CD comes within a slipcase which includes a lavishly produced booklet containing many fascinating articles by the pianist and these add significantly to the value of the recording.

Initially I was a little surprised to find Sandro performing Bach as earlier in his career, under the guidance of the great Shura Cherkassy, Bartoli explored the music of such 20th century, Italian composers as Alfredo Casella, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Ottorino Respighi and Ferrucio Busoni among others. I guessed that Busoni was the link to this new direction with his essays on the interpretation of Bach and his piano transcriptions of the keyboard music. However, it transpires that the pianist has loved many of these pieces since childhood and only now, after more than thirty years of performing, does he feel ready to commit Bach’s works to public performance.

Apart from the two major works on this disc, mentioned above, and the Six Little Preludes, BWV933-938 there is no obvious order in which to play the other pieces. However, the works are carefully sequenced on the CD and there is a natural flow as one listens to the disc in its entirety. Bartoli says that he has always been in awe of Bach’s Prelude, Fugue & Allegro that opens the disk. He plays it in Bach’s original version, rather than Busoni’s edition, and the listener quickly becomes aware of Bartoli’s virtuosity and the beautiful tone that he produces from his beloved Steinway. The little preludes might be regarded as trivial pieces but here they are performed as though they are really significant to the Bartoli and he delivers  charming accounts of them. Among the other small pieces, delights include BWV921 with its central sections of variations over ground bass and the more ambitious Fantasia in A minor, BWV922 which, after the initial quick scales gains an almost hypnotic quality with its seemingly endless variations on a simple theme. The CD comes to a close with a compelling performance of the Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue in D minor that I enjoyed so much it will replace my much-loved performance of the work by Ivan Moravec, on his Supraphon ‘Twelfth Night Recital’, as my go to choice for this work!

We have here a CD that will not appeal to ‘purists’ who insist on hearing Bach keyboard works on a harpsichord; but open-minded music lovers will be able to share the considerable pleasure that I gained from this disc. What we have on this disc is not some random collection of works but rather a programme put together, by a most talented pianist, after much thought and consideration. This is a joyous rendition of Bach’s music performed by a pianist who sees the fun (not a word usually linked with Bach!) in many of the pieces. It is outstandingly well recorded and you can easily believe that you are being given a private performance in your own home. In short, this disc contains highly creative Bach-playing of the highest order and it will be revisited frequently. Not since I first encountered Glenn Gould playing Bach have I been so excited by a new Bach piano release! It is fully worthy of five stars and will make a great addition to any music library.

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I look forward to future releases from Sandro Ivo Bartoli with keen anticipation and hope that he sees fit to provide us with further excursions into the keyboard music of J S Bach.