Mix of the month, July

Last month’s New on Naxos list of recordings enabled a look at the various roles an orchestra plays in its repertoire. This month, we go small-scale and dip into programmes for both solo keyboard and chamber ensemble; we’ll follow them roughly in chronological order to give a historical and musical perspective.

There’s no better place to start than with the venerable J. S. Bach who, as far as I remember, used to outstrip all other classical composers in terms of display rack occupancy in those halcyon days of CD stores. But pianist-composer André Parfenov’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations comes with a difference: Bach’s original sits in tandem with Parfenov’s own set – the New Goldberg Variations – that touches on all manner of styles.

Bach’s set comprises thirty variations grouped into three sets of ten; there’s a canon at every third variation, each time rising in pitch by one step. This intricate formal approach is enhanced by virtuosic keyboard writing, at times suggesting the influence of Domenico Scarlatti. Here’s the second variation, with its captivating contrapuntal lines, followed by the florid bustle of the fifth variation.


Variation 2 (8.551399)


Variation 5 (8.551399)


Reflecting homage to Bach, here are two of Parfenov’s own variations. His second is a canon (Canone una struttura ritmica) that swings between straight-up tonality and jazz inflections, while his sixth variation, titled Serie, features a non-stop cascade of notes.


Canone una struttura ritmica (8.551399)


Serie (8.551399)


Muzio Clementi was born in Rome in 1752, two years after Bach’s death. He spent a good number of his formative years in England, moving to London in 1774 and establishing himself on the music scene as a performer, composer and director of Italian opera. His legacy to pianists is a significant one, although Mozart (whom Clementi once met) was not too keen on the Italian’s style of writing, accusing him of a lack of expression, taste and feeling. He did, however, grudgingly acknowledge his technical ability in right-hand playing of passages in thirds. Beethoven, in contrast, had a much higher regard of Clementi. This extract from his Keyboard Sonata Op. 2 No. 6 exemplifies those chains of thirds that Mozart grudgingly admired.

Keyboard Sonata Op. 2 No. 6 (8.573940)


Bach’s influence stretches to our next recording of keyboard music by the Italian-born composer Ferruccio Busoni; he was born in 1866, 34 years after the death of Clementi. The essence of Busoni’s music lies in its synthesis of those German and Italian ancestries. Bach is invoked throughout Wolf Harden’s latest recording which is a programme of mostly transcriptions of Bach’s music. Busoni’s Sonatina brevis, however, is described as a paraphrase, best explained by the performance itself.

Sonatina brevis (8.573982)


Altogether more joyful is Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s chorale prelude Nun freut euch, lieben Christen, the chorale melody effectively concealed within the jaunty figuration.

Nun freut euch, lieben Christen (8.573982)


Émile Sauret (1852-1920) was a French composer-performer who lived at the same time as Busoni, but his chosen instrument was the violin, not the piano. Hugely admired by Brahms, Liszt and Tchaikovsky, he produced more than 250 works, including major concertos and technical studies that reflected his stupendous technical ability in performance. One such work is his 24 Études-Caprices Op. 64 for solo violin, and Nazrin Rashidova’s recording of the set reaches Vol. 3 this month with Nos. 14-19. Here’s an extract from No. 19 that exemplifies both the music’s fusion of virtuosity and expression and the 19th-century’s rich vein of romanticism.

Étude-Caprice No. 19 (8.573975)


We land mid-20th century with Bohuslav Martinů’s Sonatina for Trumpet and Piano. It dates from early 1956, when the Czech composer held teaching positions at the Mannes College of Music in New York, and the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia. Martinů had fled from Europe to the US in 1941 under the threat of Nazi oppression. The Sonatina is a sunny, ‘New World’ miniature, fusing elements of jazz and folk music with a relentless, motoric energy. Unpredictable syncopations, bursts of flutter-tonguing, ecclesiastical chorales and a jocular polka are crisply juxtaposed in a pithy, almost satirical style. It reflects both Martinů’s Bohemian heritage and the neo-Classical principles of order, balance, and clarity that occupied one of his compositional phases.

Sonatina for Trumpet and Piano (8.573995)


We end today with contrasting styles of works from the 21st century, the first of which is by the Franco-Lebanese composer Bechara El-Khoury (b. 1956). Better known for his symphonic works, his catalogue nonetheless contains almost as many pieces for his own instrument, the piano. His Piano Sonata No. 4 dates from 2010-12. In its two movements, atonality rubs shoulders with chromaticism, diatonic sounds, minimalist-style melodies and abrupt dynamic contrasts. The opening of the second movement (Prestissimo frenetico) sets that scene well.

Prestissimo frenetico (8.579022)


Finally, to a short piece by the British composer Rob Keeley. Titled Nonchalantly, it’s one of his 5 Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano that were written in 2017. We’ll let the composer himself make the introductions:

“As the mainly recent pieces on this album show, I am very attracted to writing for small groups, and these days, even more for ‘classical’ media rather than the mixed ensemble so common in much contemporary music. As the generally abstract titles of my pieces suggest, I prefer to let the notes do most of the talking – I still believe (maybe hope…) that music (mine, at least) – if it’s any good, does not need much verbal elucidation for it to make sense to a curious listener. The Five Bagatelles are tender morsels which I hope leave you wanting more.”

5 Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano (8.579046)


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