Classical Music CDs, DVDs

Staff Reviews

Elgar & Walton Cello Concerto/ Britten Sea Inter

Li-wei Qin/ Lpo

Q&A: Thomas’ Music talk to Li-Wei Qin

 

1 You have recorded the Dvorak Cello Concerto, and now the Elgar and Walton, three very different pieces. Did you find you needed to approach them differently, or does the shared cello voice give them similarities?

 

For me, these are three very different concertos. Although they are all fairly romantic in character, however, the voicing and the colour landscapes for each are all very distinctive! Of course, there is a certain "English feel" to both the Elgar and the Walton. 

 

2 This is, I think, your second recording of the Elgar Concerto. How has your approach changed in the new version?

 

My first recording of the Elgar concerto was with the wonderful Adelaide symphony orchestra in 2003. That's a good ten years ago! I think as a cellist and as a musician, I have matured somewhat. Knowing that Elgar composed this work at a very late stage of his life, the first recording was purposely performed at a slightly broader tempo in order not to feel too young in my approach. This LPO version is much more organic and natural, perhaps as a result of so many more concert performance of this concerto during those ten years!  

 

3 It has been said that Elgar’s melodic lines mimic the intonation of spoken English. Do you notice this distinctive character when preparing his concerto?

 

It is extremely important for string players to mimic the singing voices! Both in colors and phrasings! I could easily imaging a beautifully melancholy story been told in English with these notes on the page!   

 

4 Your new CD features two of the best-loved English cello concertos, by Elgar and Walton; when I saw the composers’ names I assumed that you were including the Britten Cello Symphony, but in fact I see it is the Four Sea Interludes. Do you have any plans to record Britten’s Cello Symphony?

 

The Britten cello symphony was on the original plan! Due to the limits of  maximum timing on a CD, it was inevitable that we had to choose 2 out of these 3 best-loved English cello concertos. It was a conscious decision to include the Sea Interludes. I thought it would be more complete to include a work from each one of these three "Heroes' in the English musical history. I do hope that one day I will be invited to record the Britten cello symphony. What a magnificent work! 

 

5 There are a number of other, less well-known, English cello concertos, by Rawsthorne, Moeran, Cyril Scott, even Sir Arthur Sullivan. Have you considered performing any of them?

 

Having lived in the UK for more than 10 years, I do feel quite close to many of these English concertos. The Rawsthorne concerto for example is a very fine work that is certainly under-performed! 

 

6 You have recorded some interesting and offbeat repertoire, from Ross Harris’ Cello Concerto to the Brahms and Moór Double Concertos. Do you have a particular interest in less familiar music? 

 

I always believe that both the performers and the audiences are all playing vital roles in the development of music. Throughout history, composers have been working with performers as part of their compositional processes. It's our responsibility to continuing this tradition in order to 'discover' the future classics and legends! 




9/10

Only rarely does a CD like this come along—deceptively familiar repertoire played on a once appreciated but now entirely forgotten instrument. It is at least forty years since I first bought an LP of Lionel Rogg (or was it Gustav Leonhardt?) playing Bach’s C minor Passacaglia on the pedal-harpsichord, a radical departure for the era but almost mainstream nowadays. At the same time I was taking organ lessons, and my teacher owned a true exotic, a pedal-piano. Just as early eighteenth century organists might have used the pedal-harpsichord as a practice-instrument when an organ (or heater!) was unavailable, so nineteenth century organists presumably used the pedal-piano, although even then it was not a common instrument. In fact, the works of Alkan that the great Kevin Bowyer has recorded for organ were mostly intended for pedal-piano. Nonetheless, I do not recall in all my years of collecting discs of ever seeing another pedal-piano recital, or even another pedal-piano —it is the thylacine of instruments. Apparently there is one other CD available using the newer Doppio Borgato form.

Olivier Latry, best known for his recording of the complete Messiaen organ works on DG, debuts this wonderful instrument in characteristic repertoire: assorted chunky works by Alexandre Boëly, a Brahms Prelude and Fugue, a pair of Alkan Préludes, the Schumann Vier Skizzen which are more familiar on the organ, and two sizeable Liszt works—one the original version of the BACH Prelude and Fugue. His instrument on this CD is a gloriously sonorous 1853 Erard resembling the one owned by Alkan, which optimises the sense when listening of being engaged in time-travel. While I would not pretend that all, or indeed, much, of this music is truly great, the pleasure of hearing these archaic-sounding works on such a fine instrument is considerable. The effect of performing these works in this fashion is to deliberately blur the boundaries between organ and piano works; the composers were all notably fine pianists and organists—in the case of Alkan and Liszt, the very finest. Consequently there is absolutely no sense of these works being unidiomatic in their pedal-piano garb; organists practise fingered rubato, minimising the impact of the absent sustain pedal (no spare feet!). There can be no doubt, though, that while the other works are wonderfully endearing, the stand-out pieces here are the two huge Liszt pieces, the Évocation à la Chapelle Sixtine, a strange, pious work that manages to include a complete transcription of Mozart's Ave verum corpus within its compass, and the BACH Prelude and Fugue in its unfamiliar initial organ version, which is different again from both the revised organ and solo piano revisions that LIszt later made, making this performance a lovely, arcane musical pun, a reverse-engineered 'first piano version' of the piece.

Beyond the enjoyably nostalgic experience of hearing this wonderful old instrument in its native repertoire, there is much to relish in Latry’s astute program. Needless to say, his technique is more than a match for anything the pieces demand, even in the terrifyingly hard Liszt pieces, and he finds unexpected expressivity in what is often regarded as rather dry fare. I thoroughly enjoy this CD.


Tchaikovsky Arr. Ellington Nutcracker Suites

Harmonie Ensemble Ny

Arguably the greatest American composer of the 20th Century was not Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein, or even Bob Dylan, but Duke Ellington. Not only was Ellington the author of a string of remarkable jazz standards, like Take the A Train and Mood Indigo, he even found time to make jazz versions of classical scores. One of the most successful of these adaptations was his Nutcracker Suite, and the eminent New York-based Harmonie Ensemble have just issued a charming recording that pairs marvellously colourful renderings of both Tchaikovsky's original score and Ellington's jaunty gloss.


Monastic Chant 2cd

Theatre Of Voices

8/10

This HM Gold re-issue draws together two previous CDs by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, the Age of Cathedrals and Hoquetus. As the titles make clear, the one thing this CD is not is a collection exclusively of Monastic Chant; in fact, it is more properly considered as a collection of early (if not the earliest) sacred polyphony. The period covered is from the mid-twelth century, and the innovations of Magister Leoninus, right through to the fascinatingly egotistical work of Machaut, and the proto-Renaissance voice of Ciconia at the very end of the fourteenth. As one might expect from this specialist ensemble, the performances are astonishingly lucid, and entirely convincing—Hillier segregates women’s and men’s voices as contemporary practice would have required, bringing them together only in works of a more indirectly sacred character.

 

I must admit to being entirely won over to this kind of scholarship-infused period performance. The revolution in early music research has resulted in music-making at its most radical, not least in the development of a relatively unanimous mediaeval style. Comparison between performances of hockets (hoquet = “hiccup”) in 1968—by, say, David Munrow’s group—and these from 1999 show just how far we have come. The Theatre of Voices cope unflinchingly with most elaborately intertwined polyphonic gnarls—for example, Deus tuorum militum/de flore martyrorum, one of those mind-numbingly complex multiple-texted motets that throw a gauntlet down to modern notions of musical accessibility—while retaining both expressively lyrical melodic contours and precise enunciation.

 

CD1, the Age of Cathedrals makes no use of female voices at all, and presents what is known as the ars antiqua, the sacred music of the century and a half from 1150. It breathes the air of an entirely alien world, one of piety without art, and grinding monotony; Hillier and his singers manage to invoke the cloister, and the interminable liturgy, punctuated only by labour and sleep. This is nonetheless balanced by the awe-inspiring beauty of the music, and it is extraordinary to think that this beauty was really only a by-product of worship. The program on this first CD travels from the elemental, elementary polyphony from the Abbey of St Martial in Limoges, via the seminal organa of Leonin, to the grandiose—and to our ears, mesmeric—patterning of Perotin’s organa quadrupla.

 

The second CD contrasts with CD1 by being a portrait of the ars nova, which term describes the music of the fourteenth century, more or less. In addition to the selfconsciously arty hocketed motets, the program includes some organetto-style instrumental performances of works from the Codex Faenza. These charming proto-tientos lack the colourful harmonic elisions of the vocal works, but introduce the element of decorative extemporisation that may have emerged from the highly-developed fauxbourdon style—also the belligerently shawmy organ sound in Or sus, vous dormès trop, worthy of a shehnai player, reminds us that the crusades were still in recent memory. It is salutary to be reminded that instrumental music existed in parallel with vocal music from the thirteenth century onwards, even if it was not until the 1600s that it emerged as a genre in its own right.

 

Perhaps because of its more archaic character, the Age of Cathedrals is somewhat more satisfying: the ground it covers is less variegated. Hearing the mosaic of styles and sounds on Hoquetus creates an inappropriate sense of range that would have been entirely unnoticed by the inhabitants of the era—for them change would have been so slow as to be barely perceptible. But this is the perpetual debate for performers of this music—does one aim for consistency that can border on dullness, or create a historically-unjustified panorama? Neither solution is entirely satisfactory, although the latter is perhaps more consistent with the aspirations of the ars  nova composers.

 

This is one of the most satisfying and informative collections of early polyphony I have encountered, and I recommend it strongly. It conveys admirably the sombre dignity of the music, while illustrating the hitherto-suppressed complexity and wit that began to break loose in the fourteenth century. 




8/10

I would be unhesitatingly nominating this disc of ten choral motets by the 17th-century Roman composer Alessandro Melani for a CD of the month spot if they were not already taken. A close contemporary of such composers as Charpentier, d’Anglebert, Biber, Buxtehude, Locke and Humfrey, his music, at least in these convincing performances by Rinaldo Alessandrini’s Concerto Italiano, has a broad emotional range, and real originality. The author of the liner notes quotes the musicologist Jean Lionnet as regarding the music as being of “the highest quality”, and I do not think any listener would argue with that. Opening the disc is Melani’s Litanie per la beata vergine, and it is among the most beguilingly attractive music I have heard in a long time—harmonically and melodically memorable, sonorously voiced, and ravishingly beautiful. The mood is sutained for a full eleven minutes, an extended cry of sadness which manages to be simultaneously intensely personal in feel and grandly sombre. The vocal ensemble for the CD consist of nine solo voices, and all nine are used in the Litanie. The remainder of the disc uses various combinations of the singers in the motets, from a duet and trios to a closing octet: a wonderful Magnificat. The musical material varies from dense and effective counterpoint to advanced-sounding chordal homophony. Not all the music is as solemn as the Litanie, the de Necessitatibus and Laudate Pueri motets are positively buoyant in mood, while retaining the prevalent minor mode that gives all the motets a grave dignity.

 

The singing is beyond reproach:  although all nine singers are convincing as soloists, when they perform as a choir their blend is rich, sonorous, and balanced. Alessandrini’s organ playing catches exactly the right combination of solid backing and unobtrusiveness. Occasionally one catches the sound of the two theorbos providing a discreet but solid enrichment to the continuo. I have rarely enjoyed a disc of music by an unfamiliar composer as much as this one, and I would exhort anyone with an interest in 17thcentury music to seek it out—but any adventurous listener is also going to find this an irresistible gem.


Ravel Piano Concertos/ Debussy/ Massenet

Jean-efflam Bavouzet

9/10

It is not a particularly recent release, I’ll grant you, but I keep returning to this hybrid SACD of the great pianist Jean-Efflem Bavouzet playing both the Ravel G major and Left-Hand Piano Concertos. Previously, I had regarded the Zimerman/Boulez recordings (DG: 4492132—released January ‘99) of these two works as the stand-out available versions, and when DG announced a new release of the pieces with Boulez again, but this time one of my favourite Ravel pianists, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, as soloist (DG: 4778770—released Oct ‘10) like all serious Ravel fanciers I got quite excited. In the event, the Aimard CD was not quite as remarkable as had been expected: excellent but not epoch-making was the general consensus.

In all the fanfare centred round the DG disc, I failed even to register the Chandos release with Bavouzet that came out in November 2010, partly because the Ravel works are sandwiched between the early Debussy Fantasie, which I had always regarded as a bit grey, and some Massenet piano pieces. Having finally noticed that the Ravel Concertos were unostentatiously included in the package I gave this disc a listen—and was astounded. The Bavouzet performances of the Ravel works are as scintillating, well-judged, and exquisitely recorded as any I have ever heard, and this recording of the Debussy reveals it as one of those slow-burner works that gradually and firmly win one’s affections. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier are not quite the premium band that Boulez can summon (for this repertoire he uses the Cleveland Orchestra mainly) but they still excel in the brilliantly orchestrated music, giving a particularly joyous reading of the fake-folkiness of the G Major Concerto. And there’s more: the fifteen minutes of solo piano music by Massenet that concludes the CD which could so easily have come across as fatuous encoring in fact succeeds as a wonderful coup de théâtre, completely confounding expectations. In all, this is one of the most delightful CDs of the last twelve months, and I exhort all lovers of French music to give it a listen.




9/10

I have never heard a Mike Nock album that I haven’t liked, and I’ve heard quite a few. Nock’s new outing, with the Waples brothers as rhythm section and a pair of guest wind players—Karl Laskowski on sax and Ken Allars on trumpet—is among my favourites (although his trio outings Ondas from 1982 for ECM [ECM1220], Changing Seasons of 2002 [DIW628], and the Duologue CD [BL009] with the legendary Dave Liebman, remain hard to beat—all now deleted, sadly). In these younger players, Nock has found ideal sidesmen; they bring youthful freshness and vigour to complement Nock’s magisterial surefootedness.

The opening title track begins with a wistful cadential theme allowing of some effective bass flourishes, and eventually leads into a township-flavoured faster section that is never permitted to break loose—and is all the more effective for its restraint. Track two, the oddly-named The Sibylline Fragrance, continues the mood of wistful understatement, but in a more sophisticated harmonic/melodic landscape rich with interrupted cadences. Trumpeter Ken Allars and Nock himself manage to wrest intense poignancy in their respective solos. After these two melancholy tracks comes something a good deal funkier: Colours, an edgy uptempo  number that begins obsessively and continues with a minimalist solo from Nock before becoming increasingly dissonant and fractured, then resolving into valedictory melodic lines. 

The middle track, After Satie, introduces yet another mood, a modal urban ballad that manages to indirectly homage both the Miles of Kind of Blue, and the song Too darn hot. The middle section with its doubletime bassline and urgently expressive wind shapes is astonishingly assured. I wonder if the following Komodo Dragon takes its name from the sinuously winding wind melody that Nock occasionally interrupts with archaic-sounding  block fifths and out-of-kilter flurries? If Truth Be Known, the lengthy sixth  track, returns to the styling of track one, but cast in the minor mode, giving it a rich sophistication that the two wind players slowly build, ably and almost imperceptibly assisted by Nock’s embellishments which eventually emerge into the foreground as a brief and passionate explosion. This solo is arguably the heart of the album, positioned as it is at the archetypal ‘climax moment’ of the material (both track and CD), and yet it is over in seconds. Unsurprisingly, after the driving intensity of If Truth Be Known, the culminatory track Slow News Day is a pensive, if bouncy, compound-duple-rhythm envoi that winds the music up  elegantly.

The key to this album is its astonishing exactitude. Everything is judged perfectly: the balance of solo and ensemble playing is in perfect equilibrium; the path from track to track has an unarguable rightness; the phraseology is ideally suited to the material; nothing protrudes, or contradicts the various moods; subtle underpinning from the rhythm section articulates the expressive depth. But, also, if it has a weakness it is precisely its tidiness, that it would have been a treat to hear these masterly players fly a bit more perilously—I’d dearly love to hear this band play this material extendedly, live. Better still, a solo improvised session from Nock à la K Jarrett—one can but dream. In the meantime we just have to settle for this classiest of albums from this national treasure of a band.    

 


Goossens Orchestral Works Vol 2

Andrew Davis/ Mso

9/10

It would be hard to overstate the charms of this CD of music by Sir Eugene Goossens. Excepting those with a strong aversion to early twentieth century French music, and its opulent yet elegant orchestration, this collection of large and small pieces is sure to have an almost universal appeal. In fact, the opening set of orchestrated piano micropieces, Kaleidoscope, is almost too cute in its appeal, but once past this Suite for Children, and its companion, the tiny Tam O’Shanter, we enter another world with Goossens’ Three Greek Dances. These have the same longing pastoralism as Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, nor do they suffer from the comparison; the music is condensed, exotic, and virtuosically orchestrated.

Also included on the disc are other miniscule Goossens bonbons, a set of Four Conceits, Two Nature Poems, an Intermezzo from his opera Don Juan de Manara, and a composite set of Variations on the French air Cadet Rousselle, with contributions from Bax, Bridge and Ireland. These utterly delightful works serve to underline Goossens’ skills both as a miniaturist and an orchestrator—in fact, his instrumentations serve to inflate the impact of these tiny works, by telescoping their gestural world so that they seem to escape their temporal confinement.

Delectable though these petit fours are, the stand-out work is the odd but engaging Concert Piece written for Goossens’ siblings. It is surely the only work of its kind—who else would have written a work for oboe, two harps, and orchestra? A concerto it certainly is not, but its unified character makes it rather more than just portmanteau. The first movement opens with an assertively modernist fanfare, but immediately settles into a more fantastic vein, which juxtaposes the cor anglais’ unwinding of a pseudo-archaic and spiky melody against the harps’ sophisticated textural ground (complete with soundboard tapping). Predominant  in the second movement is a lyrical oboe/cor and harp duet that contrasts strongly with the eldritch first; it is strongly reminiscent of the French arcadianism of Ravel and Debussy, but the harmonic and instrumental writing is entirely Goossens’ own, as is the harp duet hear the end. It is in the third movement that one scratches one’s head—what exactly is he up to here? In rapid succession we are presented with the fragile sound of a harp with a sheet of paper inserted into its strings, and reminiscences of a string of familiar works, from the Offenbach Barcarolle andDvorak’s Humoresque, to a hint of a Mozart favourite, and even a dig at Petrouchka, combined with a motoric la-mi-do-re ostinato that recalls Holst’s Beni Mora. A stretch of stretto and suddenly the movement is over. Neither selfconsciously post-modern nor pastiche, unprecedented in his other output, this last movement strikes me as the swansong of a great orchestral conductor, slyly reminding us that he has paid his dues.

If there is a shortcoming of this music it is merely that Goossens’ compositional personality seems to be invested more in the orchestral colour, rather than its language, which, for all its beauty very often strikes as a prismatic reflection of someone else—the listener is frequently reminded of the deliberate, discreet, derivativeness of film music. The key to much of the material on this disc seems to be the oboe—his brother Leon’s instrument, and the indispensible ingredient of neo-pastoral soundworlds—which dominates so many of these scores.

 

What makes this CD so sumptuously, breathtakingly, desirable—beyond the music—is the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s superlative performances, and Sir Andrew Davis’ complete grasp of the multilayered complexity of this faux-innocuous music, coupled with the nigh-perfect recording. This is a hybrid SACD, and I’ve only heard the stereo mix; I imagine the multi-channel version would be truly electrifying. 


Atterberg Orchestral Works 1 Symphony 4 & 6

Neeme Jarvi

7.5/10

There are some composers who simply fail to generate enough visibility to be noticed behind their luminous peers. Such has been the fate of the Swedish Kurt Atterberg, notably successful in his lifetime (1887-1974) but latterly forgotten. Until now, I had always regarded his music as dull and conformist. On the strength of this recent Chandos CD I have been unexpectedly and agreeably disabused of this low opinion. While I still do not regard his music as rich in significance, the personality that emerges from these four very different pieces is gentle, wry, and sometimes mildly subversive. That these four disparate works are from a single pen is enough to reveal that his is an art that conceals art.

The first work on the CD is the Sixth Symphony, with its strange Dollar subtitle, the result of its having won the first prize—ahead of more obvious contenders such as Franz Schmidt, Havergal Brian, and Ludvig Irgens-Jensen—in the ill-conceived, world-wide 1928 Schubert competition. The work is oddly contradictory, at once earnest and arch; nonetheless, Atterberg’s composerly voice has a distinctive tone, if not a very strong character. The Symphony was controversialised by its prize (hence the somewhat unflattering nickname) which may account for his historical sidelining. As it is, the piece is informed with a very likeable sense of irony, and a Nielsenesque rusticitythe finale inescapably recalls the last movement of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony as it might have been parodied by the Danish master (who was one of the 1928 judges…). Setting aside all the palaver, this is a work that repays listening, music of deceptive sophistication—if you were in doubt, note the last ten seconds!—and  great charm.

It is followed by a piece that is its exact contrary, uncomplicatedly direct and mellow, the Varmland Rhapsody. This has a pastoral mood that is reminiscent of Holst, and very beautiful it is too. The subdued tone continues in the Suite No. 3, which is an arrangement of music extracted from some of the composers’ incidental music—again, redolent of Peer Gynt. These undemonstrative works act as a buffer of calm between the two more kaleidoscopic symphonies.

The closing work is the strongest, though, Atterberg’s Fourth Symphony. This is, despite its Sinfonia Piccola subtitle, quite a substantial work. Unlike the Sixth, it is in the standard four-movement form, and, we gather, is ‘Composed on Swedish National Melodies’. It opens with a powerful, assertive, and memorable theme but very quickly other elements appear, lyrical, dancelike, and fleeting, which give the first movement a formal richness that contrasts with the plangent slow movement. A tiny Scherzo and an old-fashionedly tuneful finale complete this delightful work. 

Do not think that Atterberg’s worth consists primarily in resembling other music, though. It is unsurprising that his composerly vocabulary shares much with his contemporaries, a vocabulary that we, in hindsight, have come to associate with specific composers. Atterberg disposes his musical language in his own individual way, and the results are very pleasing. The Gothenburg Symphony, under conductor Neeme Jarvi, clearly view resuscitating their fellow Swede as a labour of love, and shine in this unradical but charming music.

 




9.5/10

If I were a duelling man, I’d be prepared to heft my sabre in defence of the music of the American Charles Tomlinson Griffes. I have heard many recordings of his piano works in the past, all of which have honourably striven to promote the cause of this magnificent and undervalued music, but only now, under the hands of one of the world’s greatest pianists, has Griffes’ music found an interpreter who can really do justice to its marvels.

For a listener whose musical tastes encompass both Debussy and, say, Shostakovich, there is nothing in Griffes output that will offend, and a great deal that will impress. If a single other composer is brought to mind by the earlier works, it is his almost exact contemporary John Ireland; there is a similar finesse of keyboard imagination in the two composers. One can wonder if they knew each other’s work, but Ireland’s most characteristic pieces were written after Griffes death.

The CD opens with the mellow understatement of his Three Tone Pictures, which immediately declare his independence of mind. On the face of it these are self-effacingly simple pieces, but there is an originality to almost every component: harmony, melody, orchestration. The third piece, in particular, is almost spectral in its fleetingness. They could be the last, aphoristic, visionary testament of a nineteenth century master (Nuages gris…). In fact they are his Opus 5.

Listening to the Barcarolle from Griffes Fantasy Pieces, Opus 6,for the umpteenth time I suddenly realised that the music reminds me of another work—all’Italia, from Busoni’s Elegies of 1908. It is unreasonable to expect music from so early in a composer’s career not to be redolent of other works, but because Griffes is thought to have desired to study with Busoni the resemblance is notable. One can only imagine what changes such study might have wrought in his style; that the two works can be discussed as equals says something about Griffes’ level of accomplishment.

After Opus 6 come the famous Roman Sketches Opus 7, the works that have kept Griffes’ name alive since their first recording by Myra Hess in 1929. Consisting of four of the finest piano pieces ever written in America, the White Peacock, Nightfall, the Fountain of the Acqua Paola, and Clouds, this is utterly mature music that manages to wed the European and American temperaments in a brilliant stylistic synthesis. While the shadow of Debussy falls lightly across the soundworld, Griffes’ melodic and harmonic invention is very much his own, and his fastidious voicing and textures have a unique flavour. The last piece, Clouds, draws from Garrick Ohlsson some of the subtlest pianism I have ever heard: the first chord just glows into existence.

The outstanding work on the CD, though, is unquestionably the amazing Piano Sonata from 1917/8, in which we are immediately confronted by a radical change of voice—and it is worth noting that by this stage Griffes has abandoned opus numbers, rather as Busoni did. Gone is the haunting and melancholy restraint and in its place we find a sturdy modernism that has the same defiant post-war stance as Bridge’s Piano Sonata. The enlargement of expressive means and intellectual power is almost confronting—the opening performance instruction is Feroce. Its insistent drama is expertly offset by a newly re-imagined lyricism that retains the haunting quality of the earlier works but in a context of highly energised tension. In the slow movement Griffes empties out his texture of all decoration leaving only a lean and propulsive arioso, marked, quixotically, tranquillo.  The agitated Finale closes a work that has been justifiably called ‘epic’. That it is not in every pianist’s repertoire is barely explicable. I have always thought that this Sonata may have been a catalyst for Elliott Carter’s equally unprecedented Piano Sonata of 1945/6. By the time the work was published, Griffes was dead.

After the Sonata come two posthumously published works, de Profundis, and a Winter Landscape, both inhabiting a muted, sombre, but expressive soundworld; and, to close, the aphoristic Three Preludes, his last piano works. These surviving three of an intended five Preludes illustrate the radical direction Griffes was taking in his last months; I do not think I am wrong in hearing the echo of Scriabin’s Op.74 Preludes in this searching music.

In Griffes, America has its equivalent to the WW1 lost generation in Britain. Although he lived on to 1920, his death at 35 from ‘flu robbed the US of, quite conceivably, its greatest composer. Ohlsson’s tackles the considerable difficulties of the music with his usual flair and intelligence, not to mention staggering technique, and delivers magisterial, insightful—and delectably recorded—performances that allow us to assess this music’s greatness in the best possible light. Like me, I think you will admire, and love it.

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