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John Abbott (San Francisco, CA)

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Ireland: Piano Works, Vol. 1
Ireland: Piano Works, Vol. 1
Price: £6.11

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chelsea Reach, 30 April 2014
"Chelsea Reach” from the Three London Pieces, is a gentle ramble in lilting six eight time that moves mostly in rich block chords. The level of dissonance ebbs and flows in a carefully controlled way: for instance the first three bars have no accidentals, but they are introduced in the next three bars and intensify in the following three. The intensity peaks at bar nine (where the melody also reaches its highest point) and from there it returns to straightforward harmony and a return to the home key of Ab (at bar 10). The rhythm is equally controlled, mostly sticking to regular quavers, but breaking out just occasionally into more dance-like dotted rhythms.

Ireland loved London. “Chelsea Reach” (the title refers to the Thames embankment near Battersea Bridge and Cheyne Walk, well known for its colourful houseboats) was written at his studio in 14 Gunter Grove, Chelsea, where he lived from 1915 until the traffic noise finally drove him out in 1953. Ireland himself played the first public performance at the Aeolean Hall in London on 7 June, 1918.

Arrangements for Chamber Ensemble
Arrangements for Chamber Ensemble

5.0 out of 5 stars Off-kitler waltz in masterly chamber arrangement, 30 April 2014
I’ve been fascinated by this off-kilter waltz that forms the middle movement of the Romantic Suite for orchestra, op 125 ever since I first heard it – and it’s even better in the Schoenberg arrangement for flute, clarinet, string quartet, harmonium (four hands) and piano (four hands). While never straying from a regular 3/4 meter, this piece seems to get hung up in all the accompanying figures and motifs, and only occasionally soars off with heightened expressiveness into what sounds like the main melodic material, only to falter again shortly afterwards. It comes over as a montage of waltz fragments, yet the melodies, when they come, are so memorable that the piece somehow hangs together. Schoenberg considered Reger to be a genius, and must have admired his highly chromatic harmonic language and strict counterpoint.

But this music is as far away as you can get from the Reger that most people know, of dense and complicated double fugues for the organ. It’s lyrical, impressionistic and lightly scored throughout, sliding effortlessly through multiple keys in quick succession and managing to sound innocent (almost Mendelssohnian) and yet sinister at the same time. That sinister undercurrent is intensified further for me by the distinctive sound of the harmonium. Schoenberg made this arrangement in 1921 for his Society for Private Musical Performances, as a means of playing through contemporary works without going to the expense of hiring a full orchestra. The Society put on more than a hundred concerts of modern music in Vienna by composers such as Bartok, Berg, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Webern and many others – though Reger, who died in 1916, was the most often performed by far.

Suk: Asrael Symphony
Suk: Asrael Symphony
Price: £14.67

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Angel of Death, 30 April 2014
This review is from: Suk: Asrael Symphony (Audio CD)
A good place to start getting to know Josef Suk’s powerful Symphony No 2 in C minor (Asrael) is the second movement, Andante. Asrael is the old testament angel of death, and Suk began composing this work early in 1905, nine months after the death of his father-in-law (and teacher) Anton Dvorak. It started out as a celebration of Dvorak’s life, but in July that year Suk’s wife, Otilie Suková (Dvorak’s daughter), also died, and the tone of the work changed from optimism to despair. The second movement quotes from Dvorak’s Requiem, but behind the main melodic material is a persistent Db, played by flutes and a muted trumpet, which continues throughout most of the movement, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foregroumd. It has been memorably described by John Stearne as “like an eye gazing fixedly into space”. The third movement scherzo is also a highlight – a manic waltz that all but falls apart in its agitation.

Piano Pieces Opp. 117, 118, & 119
Piano Pieces Opp. 117, 118, & 119
Price: £8.79

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intermezzo in C major, 30 April 2014
The dance-like Intermezzo in C major, number three from the Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119, is a particular favourite of mine. Just by listening it’s clear that the piece makes clever use of rhythmic ambiguity, and also that it’s very concentrated thematically. The theme in question is just four notes long and it’s stated (characteristically using a middle voice) right at the beginning in quavers – E, up to G, up to A and back down to G again – that’s it. Brahms uses variation and augmentation on the theme, but also uses a battery of rhythmical tricks to change its emphasis and build up tension. For instance: the theme constantly starts at different points in the bar (see the first 15 notes); there’s a constant interplay between 6/8 time and 3/4 time; the accents fall in unexpected places; and Brahms adds dissonant harmonies at the points where resolutions might have been expected. There’s also something of a battle between the home “natural” key of C major and A major (reached via A minor, the relative minor of C). A major is used for the middle section, which nevertheless remains focused on the same motif, just in a different key. Both the rhythmic (6/8 versus 3/4) and harmonic (C versus A major) conflicts are resolved in the coda.

Brahms wrote the Op 119 pieces in 1893 on his summer holidays in the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl. He was aged 60, had only four more years to live, and only the two Clarinet Sonatas (Op 120), some folk song arrangements, the Four Serious Songs (Op 121) and the Chorale Preludes (Op 122) left to compose.

Brahms: Motets
Brahms: Motets
Price: £7.58

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Geistliches Lied - emotion and strict counterpoint, 30 April 2014
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This review is from: Brahms: Motets (Audio CD)
Does the use of strict counterpoint preclude emotion? Of course not, and Brahms’ earliest accompanied choral work, Geistliches Lied, is proof (should proof be needed). Brahms was 23 when he composed it, the same year Schumann died, and it had only been three years since he first began to attract widespread public acclaim, during and after his concert tour of April and May 1853. This “sacred song”, to a poem by Paul Fleming about the acceptance of fate and trust in God, may have originated from complex exercises in counterpoint Brahms was exchanging with his friend Joseph Joachim at the time.

Geistliches Lied is set as a double canon, with the tenor part imitating the soprano part four beats later at the unusual interval of a ninth, and then the bass doing the same with the alto using a different melody that fits in with the first. It’s an entirely audible process, but listeners don’t need to know it’s happening and quite probably will not notice at all. Somehow the lines still come together at key points in the text (such as the rising figures on the words “sei stille”) and for cadences without breaking the canon. This is largely achieved through the careful placement of rests or the lengthening or shortening of notes in the individual parts.

The organ accompaniment also plays its part. The opening, as well as anticipating the canons to come, introduces the rising lines that (along with its low E-flat pedal point) underpin the amazing Amen coda. Here the thought of any formal musical procedures seems miles away as a soaring soprano line leads into a series of intense suspensions that descend and resolve with agonizing slowness to provide the emotional release. However, even here canonic elements remain in place, reversed this time as the basses lead with the altos following two bars later. They are allowed to complete their first Amen before the second canonic group enters for the climax of the work, with the sopranos and tenors (now a half bar apart) both reaching their highest notes in the piece.

In the late 1990s I had to arrange a funeral at St Bride’s Church in London, and the use of the professional choir (the performers on this disk) was a requirement. I asked them to sing Geistliches Lied, as well as one of Parry's Songs of Farewell. Nearly 20 years later I still remember the incredible emotional impact on the congregation this final Amen had.

Mendelssohn: Elijah
Mendelssohn: Elijah
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars He, Watching Over Isreal, 30 April 2014
This review is from: Mendelssohn: Elijah (Audio CD)
Just to highlight a single chorus from Elijah, “He Watching Over Israel” is beautifully mellow and melodic and compliments the biblical text perfectly. The structure is simple. The first part sets the phrase “He watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps”. Then comes the second part: “Shouldst though walking in grief, languish, He will quicken thee”. Finally, the two parts are combined for eight bars which ratchets up the emotional tension and leads straight into a beautifully intense, but still languid coda, where most of the emphasis is put onto the words “slumber” and “sleep”. The harmonic sequence used in the coda, repeated twice with variations, shows just how rich the combination of four voice parts can be – and Mendelssohn is a master at tweaking the parts to unexpectedly turn what might have been a major chord into a minor one, and vice versa. It really gets the blood pumping. Music history tends to put Elijah in a somewhat negative light. Bernard Shaw dismissed it as conventional and uninspired, and it set the tone for the often stultifying English oratorio tradition which its popularity here sparked off. But there are gems within, and this chorus is one of them

Chopin: Late Masterpieces (Barcarolle/ Mazurkas/ Nocturnes/ Sonata No.3)
Chopin: Late Masterpieces (Barcarolle/ Mazurkas/ Nocturnes/ Sonata No.3)
Price: £16.30

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Berceuse in D flat major, 30 April 2014
“Berceuse” is French for “lullaby” or “cradle song”, and like the other famous example, Faure’s 1864 Berceuse from the Dolly Suite (in the UK forever famous as the theme tune for the BBC children’s radio programme Listen with Mother), Chopin’s Berceuse in D flat major is characterized by a rocking motion between two chords (the tonic and dominant seventh), used throughout as a harmonic base. But on top of this basso ostinato Chopin weaves a set of 14 variations of melody and accompaniment, starting with the simplest theme and building up to a peak of complexity and speed in the ninth variation, before subsiding again for the return to simplicity at the end – a return to the innocence of sleep following unrest? Its musical fascination lies in the contrast between the unvarying structure in the left hand and the freedom of the right.

This is unmistakably late Chopin, and can be grouped alongside the nine or so other works composed between 1843 and 1847 (the number marking a significant decline in his output compared to earlier years), showing an interest in new forms and increased emotional depth. These works include the third and final piano sonata in B minor, the Barcarolle in F sharp major and the two late Nocturnes, numbers 17 and 18. Although still only in his mid-30s when he composed the Berceuse, Chopin’s health was already failing – as was his relationship with George Sand – and he had only four more years to live.

According to Robert Macfarlane (in The Old Ways), in the winter of 1917 the poet Edward Thomas played the Chopin Berceuse over and over again in various billets, mostly large and echoing empty houses just behind the front line at Arras, on a gramophone one of the officers had brought with him. Thomas was only out in France for ten weeks before he was killed at the Battle of Arras on April 9, 1917.

Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonatas
Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonatas
Price: £6.54

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Consider how Domenico Scarlatti...., 30 April 2014
I have ignored Dominico Scarlatti’s one movement keyboard sonatas for years, thinking of them (if I did at all) as sub-Bach. A passage from Basil Bunting’s long poem Briggflats that I came across recently has made me go and seek them out. Here’s the passage:

As the player’s breath warms the fipple the tone clears.
It is time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti
condensed so much music into so few bars
with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence,
never a boast or a see-here; and stars and lakes
echo him and the copse drums out his measure,
snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight
and the sun rises on an acknowledged land.

Bunting (1900-1985) was always interested in music and his poetry was written to be read aloud to bring out its sonic qualities. Briggflatts is a long autobiographical poem written in 1965 (“the finest long poem to be written in England since T S Eliot’s Four Quartets”, according to Cyril Connolly). In live performances, Bunting used to read its five parts interspersed with recordings of Scarlatti, and modeled the structure of his poems on the music. He chose the classic 1956 George Malcolm harpsichord selection (also used in Neil Astley’s Bloodaxe recording of the poem, first issued in 1980), but I’m afraid I prefer the piano, and Mikhail Pletnev’s performances in particular, despite some criticism that he brings too much of a romantic sensibility to the pieces. However, to me they balance the two worlds perfectly – in the first track here (the D major sonata, KK 443, L418) for instance, the brittle, ornamented opening immediately brings to mind the harpsichord, but as soon as the main theme comes in (at 12 seconds), Pletnev eases into the music with finely judged pianistic legato and expansiveness.

Scarlatti suffers from the fact that there are over 550 sonatas and it’s hard to know where to start – the Malcolm and Pletnev recordings only share four common selections.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 2, 2015 6:23 PM BST

Buckingham Nicks + Bonus (UK Import)
Buckingham Nicks + Bonus (UK Import)

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Blueprint for subsequent Fleetwood Mac albums, 30 April 2014
On a plane journey recently I had the chance to watch the documentary "Sound City", about the Sound City recording studios in Los Angeles. The film was made by drummer Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters) and is excellent throughout. But one part was particularly interesting for me. It focused on the recording of "Buckingham Nicks", the album that led to Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joining Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s, starting with "Fleetwood Mac" (1975) and then "Rumours" (1977). It's a great record and like a blueprint for the subsequent Fleetwood Mac releases, though little heard today because for some reason it never made it onto CD. I have an old vinyl copy but can't play it any more.

A standout track for me is the instrumental "Stephanie", composed and played by Buckingham - whose distinctive guitar style pervades all the tracks. Buckingham uses his thumb to pick out the bass and lower parts (like the left hand for a pianist) while using the rest of his fingers for patterns, arpeggios and the melody on the upper strings in a highly independent way. And to make this work more effectively he also changes the typical guitar tuning - something he apparently tried to keep secret in his early days so that other guitarists wouldn't copy him. It sounds so full it's hard to believe there's just one player or no overdubs - except for the electric guitar melodies on the record, but these aren't really needed, this is essentially a solo piece.

"Stephanie" reminds me of the folk-influenced finger-picking guitar style Paul McCartney used on "Blackbird" taken up a few notches, and it's evident again on the Rumours track "Never Going Back Again". Although the original is still hard to find, Buckingham has been playing the piece live recently and there are performances available on YouTube. And if you are interested in how it is played, search on YouTube for the fascinating tutorial by Sara Carter. The prospect of a cover version on YouTube is typically something to avoid at all costs, but not in this case - she absolutely nails it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 24, 2014 4:48 PM GMT

Wizzard Brew
Wizzard Brew
Offered by BestSellerRecordshop
Price: £16.54

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strange Brew, 30 April 2014
This review is from: Wizzard Brew (Audio CD)
This is a fascinating CD to revisit. Wizzard was Roy Wood's post Electric Light Orchestra Project, and it was released after the success of a couple of singles - "Ball Park Incident" and "See My Baby Jive". These were admittedly "heavy" in some respects, but Wood's in-built pop sensibility showed through nonetheless, and they both ended up high in the charts. In retrospect, there are hints in these two singles of what was to come on the album, but it did nothing to prepare me for the shock when I bought Wizzard Brew in March 1973, lured by the singles and by the splendid cover. In those days buying a record was a fairly big investment, and for me the guilt factor of money not wisely spent soon kicked if I didn't immediately like what I heard.

The opening track "You Can Dance the Rock and Roll" takes us straight away into very hardcore guitar rock territory, and then turns disconcertingly to dissonant free jazz for the second track, "Meet me at the Jail House", with its extended passages for savage saxophones at the opening and closing. After that, another complete contrast: "Jolly Cup of Tea" is a Sousa-like piece for brass band, massed male voices and whistling that might easily have been recorded by the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band, or the Beatles in "Yellow Submarine" mode. Roy also gets out his 1950s Elvis Presley rock and roll impersonation on "Gotta Crush (About You)" complete with anarchic instrumental interpolations.

The one track I did latch onto at the time was more in Wood's epic melodic style, familiar from the Move and (particularly) ELO. "Wear a Fast Gun" is still the album's highlight for me with its accessible pop melody mixed with florid classical horn solo lines and everything-but-the kitchen sink orchestration. Best of all is the lengthy coda where the hymn "Abide with Me" is introduced as a counter melody to powerful effect, either side of an elegiac orchestral interlude led by the cellos.

Those who buy the CD version nowadays get extra tracks - the four Wizzard hit singles plus the intriguing "Ball Park Incident" instrumental B-side called "The Carlsberg Special (Pianos Demolished)". As if the original music on Wizzard Brew wasn't diverse enough, the CD now ends with the pop novelty classic "I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday" - arguably one of the catchiest songs of all time, though still featuring massed horns, children's choirs and whatever other instruments Roy Wood had to hand.

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