Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases
‘Folk Songs of the British Isles’: Various artistes (Somm Recordings CD) ★★★★
Gwyn Williams was a popular long-serving viola player with the CBSO, joining in the late 1960s under Hugo Rignold and appointed principal viola by Sir Simon Rattle. After Gwyn’s death in 2015 his widow Stephannie established a Bursary Fund in his memory which supports talented young violists at Birmingham’s Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and endows chairs in the CBSO Youth Orchestra. She has organized fundraising concerts at Birmingham Town Hall, the CBSO Centre and the Conservatoire. Now comes this disc, a musical trip around the British Isles with 27 songs presented by a star roster of performers, giving their services free, with proceeds being donated to the Bursary Fund. There is something for everyone from perennial favourites like ‘Down By the Salley Gardens’ (tenor Nicky Spence), ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ (mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard) and ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ (singer-guitarist Caroline McCausland) to a real rarity, ‘English Folk Song’ with words by Spike Milligan sung by veteran jazz singer Elaine Delmar. Wales is well represented, in English and Welsh, by Wynne Evans and Mark-Llewellyn Evans – who join forces for a rousing duet on rugby favourite ‘Sospan Fach’. Geordie actor Kevin Whately gives authentically canny renderings of the Newcastle football fans’ favourite ‘Blaydon Races’ and ‘Dance te Thi Daddy’ well known as the theme tune for the 1970s BBC drama ‘When The Boat Comes In’. Accompaniments are shared by pianists Michael Pollock and John Wilson. Wilson composed the music and my colleague Christopher Morley supplied the words for the last item ‘Song for Gwyn’. Stephannie and Gwyn were married for 53 years and met when they were students at Trinity College of Music in London. The song, beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Maria Jagusz, tells of their first date, a pastoral idyll in Richmond Park when they first realized they were deeply in love. It provides the perfect end to a heartfelt musical tribute. Full song texts, and helpful background notes on each, are included.
Shostakovich: London Symphony Orchestra / Noseda (LSO Live CD / SACD) ★★★★
The fifth instalment of Gianandrea Noseda’s excellent cycle of Shostakovich symphonies pairs two of the composer’s most enigmatic works. Both Symphonies 6 and 15 confounded the expectations of audiences and the Soviet cultural commissars. The Sixth was premiered in 1939 and was originally to be an epic “Lenin Symphony” with soloists, chorus, and orchestra. What Shostakovich delivered was a three movement instrumental work lasting half an hour. Noseda, aided by some fine solo contributions from the LSO principals, emphasises the symphonies lyrical interludes, featuring piccolo, flute and velvety melancholy cor anglais. The final galop is a burlesque riot with references to Rossini’s ‘William Tell’ Overture which also appears in No.15 – alongside playful allusions to Wagner’s ‘Götterdämmerung’ and ‘Tristan und Isolde’ – the composer’s final symphony from 1971. Profound meditation on mortality, coded or musical joke – you decide. The LSO’s sumptuous sound and Noseda’s alert and witty conducting provide much pleasure.
Ian Venables & Vaughan Williams: Fisher, Vann, The Navarra Quartet (Albion Records CD) ★★★★
To commemorate the composer’s 150th Anniversary last year the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society commissioned a new work from composer Ian Venables. His song cycle ‘Portraits of a Mind’ was premiered last November at the Oxford Lieder Festival. It uses the same forces as RVW’s cycle ‘On Wenlock Edge’ – tenor, piano and string quartet – and sets works by poets associated with him: Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, Walt Whitman, the composer’s wife Ursula, and George Meredith. The Meredith is, inevitably and rightly, ‘The Lark Ascending’, and the soaring beauty of Alessandro Fisher’s lyric tenor is a perfect fit for the song. Fisher is again joined by pianist William Vann and The Navarra Quartet for a fine performance of ‘On Wenlock Edge’, even if he doesn’t quite find the depths which Ian Partridge and Ian Bostridge do. Iain Farrington’s arrangement of RVW’s ‘Four Hymns’ for these same forces casts new light on this familiar work.
‘My Soul, What Fear You?’: Christopher Purves, Simon Lepper, et al. (King's College Cambridge CD) ★★★★
Bass-baritone Christopher Purves must be one of Britain’s most versatile singers. When he graduated from Cambridge, where he’d been a boy treble in the King's College Choir, he joined the harmony group Harvey & The Wallbangers – you can hear him singing ‘Makin’ Whoopee!” on Simon Rattle’s 1980s ‘Jazz Album’. On the operatic stage he’s played everything from Figaro (Mozart) to Walt Disney (Philip Glass’s ‘The Perfect American’). But until now, aged 61, he had never recorded a lieder album. Versatility is again the keyword for a wide-ranging and sensitively sung selection of German works which ranges from Bach – a deeply searching exploration of ‘Ich habe genug’ – through Schumann, Schubert, Richard Strauss and Mahler to Hanns Eisler’s ‘The Hollywood Song Book’. The support is eclectic too with pianist Simon Lepper joined by accordion, flute, guitar, saxophone and double bass. There’s lots to enjoy here – try Purves as Mahler’s soulful doomed ‘Drummer Boy’.
Paul Henley ‘Piano Works’: Duncan Honeybourne (Bridges Music CD) ★★★★
For Worcester composer Paul Henley, "The piano is actually a percussive instrument", a truism which is right at the heart of his piano music, much of which embodies a Bartok-like drive. Duncan Honeybourne who persuasively performs Henley’s first three piano sonatas, ‘Five Epigrams’ (2019), ‘Suite’ (2002) and ‘Adagietto’ (2020) on this disc, adds the qualification that as well as Henley’s trademark “rhythmic vitality” his music also has “considerable lyrical potential”. Sonata No.1 (2005) has a blazingly forceful opening succeeded by a central Adagio which begins with a bell-like tolling figure, shades of Ravel’s ‘Le Gibet’, which returns at the end of this passionate but slightly sinister movement. Henley always supplies a strong rhythmic hook – the swinging almost jazzy figure opening Sonata No.2 for example – as the basis for his explorations, making his music easy to immerse oneself in even at first hearing. The five-movement ‘Suite’, composed for Henley’s son Luke’s eighth birthday, provides musical sunshine and jollity.