Weill: Kocsis, Ulster Orchestra / van Steen (SOMM Recordings) ★★★★★
Kurt Weill’s name is for most people indissolubly linked with playwright Bertolt Brecht and their successful blend of song, satire and agit-prop in ‘The Threepenny Opera’ and ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’. Even after their split Weill’s reputation rests on his songs and, in America, musicals. Yet he was always a committed and imaginative composer of instrumental music. His Violin Concerto (1924) is an ingenious and engaging blend of lyricism – a perky flute solo in the ‘Serenata’ movement – and risqué Berlin cabaret cynicism, with soloist Tamás Kocsis equally adept in all its many facets. The Ulster Orchestra, under the ever-reliable Jac van Steen, relish its colourful scoring. Weill’s second symphony (1933) is a three-movement work, for an ‘Orchestra of Wind Instruments’ plus percussion and double bass, and van Steen reveals the dark undercurrents below its neo-classical surface. The playing is excellent as is the recording quality.
Stanford ‘Children’s Songs’: Whately, John, Allan (SOMM Recordings) ★★★
Look at a photograph of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford – walrus moustached, bow-tied, peering through a pince-nez – and he seems an unlikely composer of children’s songs. Appearances can be deceptive as this bumper 38 song collection, lasting nearly eighty minutes, reveals. The songs are shared between Kitty Whately (mezzo soprano) and Gareth Brynmor John (baritone) with excellent support from pianist Susie Allan. ‘A Child’s Garland of Songs’, dedicated to the composer’s own children, sets nine poems by Robert Louis Stevenson including trademark adventure pieces like ‘Pirate Story’, ‘Foreign Lands’ and ‘Me and My Ship’. Whately and Johns’ vivid performances will no doubt bring plenty of nostalgic pleasure for adults too. Two sets of songs from Helen Douglas Adam’s ‘The Elfin Pedlar’ are rather too twee but the adult ‘Four Songs’, settings of Tennyson, are religious and death-laden – definitely not for the kiddies. Other songs are included too and well worth exploring.
Saint-Saëns: Cyprien Katsaris (2CDs Willowhayne Records) ★★★★★
While this year’s 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth has been marked by a flood of new releases, last year’s centenary of Camille Saint-Saëns’ death passed almost unnoticed. This enterprising double CD set of transcriptions, by various hands, is delivered with virtuosic panache by French pianist Cyprien Katsaris. It’s a fitting tribute to his countryman who was a brilliant keyboard player on both piano and organ. This version of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony is stupendous with the soloist conveying the original’s gently rippling strings, yearning slow movement and thunderous organ entry most convincingly. He’s equally pleasing in the lighter fare too: ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ is very droll, the ‘Bacchanale’ from ‘Samson et Dalila’ – in Saint-Saëns’ own transcription – warm and sensuous and the popular ‘Danse Macabre’ (Liszt-Katsaris) dazzlingly despatched. The famous Piano Concerto No.2, often playfully dubbed as being “From Bach to Offenbach”, is also a delight in Bizet’s rarely-heard transcription.
Bridge & Britten: Clément, Connolly, Beatson (Chandos) ★★★★
Hélène Clément excels in this recital where she plays the 1843 Giussani viola owned by Frank Bridge which he bequeathed to his pupil Benjamin Britten when the latter left Britain for America in 1939. In Bridge’s ‘There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook’ – based on the death of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ and arranged by Britten for viola and piano – Clément sounds like an ethereal departed spirit, but is robust and extrovert in his Cello Sonata, in her own transcription, both works played in outstanding partnership with pianist Alasdair Beatson. In Bridge’s ‘Three Songs’ they are joined by Sarah Connolly’s rich and expressive mezzo-soprano in the composer’s settings of Arnold, Heine and Shelley. Clément’s performance of Britten’s ‘Elegy’ for Solo Viola is so intense it makes the fact that he wrote it as a 16-year-old even more amazing. She is joined by the eloquent Beatson in Britten’s soulful ‘Lachrymae.’