Howard Skempton: Man and Bat, Piano Concerto, The Moon is Flashing, Eternity’s Sunrise Roderick Williams (baritone), James Gilchrist (tenor), Tim Horton (piano), Ensemble 360 (First Hand Records)
I’ve enjoyed Howard Skempton’s music since hearing his orchestral processional Lento decades ago. It’s still available on the NMC label, and should be snapped up forthwith. You’ll be hooked. Then buy this new release, and John Tilbury’s collection of Skempton piano music. Man and Bat sets a poem by DH Lawrence, baritone Roderick Williams accompanied by piano, string quartet and double bass. Exactly how Skempton’s diatonic, tonal language sounds so fresh and new remains a mystery to me, the clipped piano chords of the opening exactly mirroring the narrator’s hesitant walking, the music taking wing when the titular mammal is found flying around his Florentine bedroom. Anyone who’s ever had to deal with an animal intruder will identify with what transpires, and this 25 minute work is funny, moving and gripping. Williams’s performance is terrific: this piece could become a popular classic. As could Skempton’s little Piano Concerto, heard here in a new piano quintet arrangement, the solo part unchanged. It’s incredibly affecting, the first section little more than a sequence of mellifluous chords.
Tim Horton’s unaffected, heartfelt playing is perfectly judged.
You’d love to hear him tackle some Feldman.
There’s also a chamber version of the song cycle The Moon is Flashing. Lawrence’s Snake forms the longest section, offset by two short texts. One is a sweet Valentine’s greeting from Skempton to his wife, followed by an irresistibly catchy setting of a poem by Chris Newman. Tenor James Gilchrist is winning, and it’s good to read his thoughts on the work in the booklet: “I have no idea why it works and hangs together… I think the audience on the first night was rightly stunned.” He’s correct – this music will enrich your life. The performances on this disc are uniformly excellent, Ensemble 360 closing proceedings with the Blake inspired chamber piece Eternity’s Sunrise. It’s engrossing. A superb anthology.
Henry Charles Litolff (1818-1891) was celebrated as a first-rate pianist boasting a solid pedigree: he studied with Mendelssohn’s mentor Ignaz Moscheles, taught Hans von Bulow, and won Franz Liszt’s praise. Litolff also composed prolifically in many genres, although he survives primarily through one work, the Scherzo movement from his Fourth Concerto Symphonique Op. 102 for piano and orchestra. His two piano trios, however, are worthy of revival.
The D minor trio is admittedly piano heavy, but the E-flat major treats all three instruments fairly judiciously. Both works abound with exuberance and energy, especially in the opening Allegros, where melodic ideas and virtuosic flourishes run rampant. The E-flat trio’s Scherzo movement features supple interplay and a lightness of texture that evoke Mendelssohn, while the cascading runs in the Prestissimo’s rollicking finale demand the utmost agility and flexibility from performers.
While each member of the Leonore Trio (Benjamin Nabarro, violin; Gemma Rosefield, cello; Tim Horton, piano) brings a strong individual profile to their respective parts, the group’s marvelously dovetailed interplay and crackling ensemble precision leave me breathless. Collectors drawn to the chamber repertoire’s neglected corners should snap up this thoroughly enchanting, smartly annotated, and wonderfully engineered release.
Hubert Parry (1848-1918) may not have written the most original late-Romantic piano trios around, yet one cannot deny his first-rate craftsmanship and ability to wring the most out of his material. In Parry’s E minor trio, the Leonore Piano Trio members dive into the Allegro appassionato’s soaring interval leaps and neo-Brahmsian rhythmic interplay at full force, while giving eloquent voice to the music’s lyrical contrasts. The Molto vivace’s can-can-like outer sections convey similar gusto, while the musicians play the bordering-on-schmaltz Trio with just the right dose of curvaceous affection. The Adagio proves more interesting in the delicate high-lying passages than in the relatively ponderous loud climaxes. However, each player clearly revels in the Allegro giocoso finale’s inventive and sometimes unpredictable piano/strings interplay.
If anything, the G major Trio (unpublished during Parry’s lifetime, but edited by Parry scholar Jeremy Dibble, who also wrote this release’s superb booklet notes) is a more concise and sophisticated work, and the Leonore Trio responds in turn. Violinist Benjamin Nabarro’s vibrato at the start of the second-movement Allegretto is a little fulsome for my taste, yet he and pianist Tim Horton toss the rapid passages back and forth with expert dovetailing and conversational ease.
Filling out the disc is Parry’s D minor Partita for violin and piano, a work rooted in baroque dance forms that might be described as Handel rewritten by Elgar.
Nabarro and Horton give a fine performance, and bring special vigor and snap to the frequent dotted-rhythm motives. Kudos to these musicians for continuing to explore the piano trio repertoire’s obscure yet worthy nether regions with their customary care and commitment.
Sheffield, in a sort of reverse gesture, brought musical wares to London last weekend. The admired Music in the Round chamber series, based at the Crucible Studio Theatre, presented four programmes centred on Schumann and Mendelssohn, performed by its resident Ensemble 360, at Wigmore Hall. Coals to Newcastle, perhaps; but when the playing was as searing as the account by the group’s string contingent, led by Benjamin Nabarro, of Mendelssohn’s F minor Sixth Quartet, one hardly complains. From their brutal opening (fortepiano) attacks — like a raw noise — to Nabarro’s dazzling dexterity at the tragic end, this relentless outpouring of the composer’s grief for the loss of his sister, Fanny, was pure pain made utterly compelling.
Nabarro, with the pianist Tim Horton, had previously lent formidable (and virtuosic) passion to Grieg’s C minor Sonata No 3. And the clarinettist Matthew Hunt, with Horton, realised Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op 73, a sonata by any other name, with terrific panache.
You really want to like Edouard Lalo’s first two piano trios. The composer writes supremely well for violin, cello, and piano, and handles the genre with skill, assurance, and fluency. His ear for texture and register always catches your attention, especially in the second subject of Trio No. 2’s first movement, where a hymn-like cello theme is surrounded by soft, high-lying piano figurations, or in the varied solo/accompaniment and contrapuntal passages of the Trio No. 1 finale. If only the musical ideas themselves were consistently so interesting and emotionally engaging as they are in his Trio No. 3; its grippingly obsessive slow movement is worth the price of admission, while the volatile finale might be best described as “Schumann on steroids”.
The Leonore Piano Trio has much to offer in regard to its meticulous observing of Lalo’s wide-ranging dynamics. The players intensify quirky phrases with biting accents and discreet portamentos, such as those in the Trio No. 2’s strange Minuetto, yet can deliver suavely dovetailed ensemble work in the Trio No. 3’s tricky Presto Trio section, with its delicate yet melodically important pizzicatos.
The latter’s aforementioned finale may seem overwrought and super-intense in comparison with the relatively blended geniality of the Gryphon Trio and Trio Parnassus recordings. Then again, these two ensembles sidestep Lalo’s “con fuoco” directive that the Leonore Trio positively relishes. Hyperion’s engineers leave no detail unheard, although a slightly more distant perspective might have relieved occasional congestion in loud passages. On balance, this is the finest release with all three Lalo trios in the present and past catalogs.
Tim Horton shone and Ensemble 360 were beguiling at the opening night for this year’s love-and-war-themed rendition of the chamber music festival
The twin themes of the 2014 Music in the Round festival are love and war. For the opening concert of the series, Brahms supplied the romance while Prokofiev and the young British composer Charlie Piper provided the conflict.
Piper’s The Dark Hour is an ambitious, well-realised half-hour suite for seven solo instrumentalists and a narrator, based on the journal of private JW Greystone, who served in northern France in 1916. Piper’s setting adroitly captured the journal’s mixture of absurdity and horror: the “evening hate” of the enemy bombardment ignited a noisy explosion on the viola; and tense pizzicato phrases suggested the anxiety of a sortie to repair the wire in no man’s land, then morphed into a surreal exchange as Greystone described how a German patrol that was engaged in the same activity asked if they might borrow a hammer.
Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No 7, completed in 1942, was the second in the War Sonata trilogy, in which the composer – obliged to provide an ode in honour of Stalin’s 60th birthday – produced a sequence of aggressively dissonant works that seemed more accurately to reflect what he thought of him.
Here Tim Horton gave a truly ferocious performance: the insistent, single-note bass of the final movement suggested the despair of a Soviet composer slamming his head against a brick wall.
One does not generally look to Brahms for coded personal messages – except in the second of his string sextets, in which the composer embedded a passage spelling (in German notation) the name of the woman with whom he had recently broken off an engagement. To make it even more explicit, Brahms wrote: “Here I tore myself away from my last love.” The tone produced by Ensemble 360 was both beguiling and bitter. Rarely has a kiss-off sounded so sublime.
Photo by Benjamin Ealovega
Following hard on the heels of Trio Wanderer’s imposing Harmonia Mundi recording of Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio No 1 we now have the Leonore’s readings of both his trios (with Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, arranged for piano trio, as a dreamy treat). Equally impressive, the Leonore Trio do much to persuade us to listen anew to Arensky – too often dismissed as a lightweight Tchaikovsky –
playing with sumptuous breadth and beguiling warmth in the first trio, and with appropriate seriousness of intent in the altogether graver second. Revelatory playing from Benjamin Nabarro, violin, Gemma Rosefield, cello, and Tim Horton, piano.