September’s list of new releases again boasts a wide spectrum, from big-hitting orchestral performances to intimate solo recitals. I’ve taken a small-is-beautiful focus for the overview of this month’s line-up, highlighting solo performances, works for chamber ensembles and music for chamber orchestra. And I’m going to start with a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra that was subsequently scaled down and dressed up to give it a completely new complexion.
I’m referring to the 1871 London version of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem). He began work on the original score with orchestral accompaniment in 1865; the first performance wasn’t given until 18 February 1869, in Leipzig.
Two years later, Ein deutsches Requiem was first performed in Britain. This time, the format was not a grand concert with large chorus and orchestra. Instead, the performance took place in a private home on Wimpole Street, in central London. It featured a choir of around 30 voices, a solo soprano and baritone, and a piano duet for accompaniment (which was a discreet doctoring of Brahms’ version of the work for piano duet alone). The work received its first public performance in Britain in 1873, when it was sung in English. Our new recording conveys a good idea of how those private and public performances would have sounded. Here’s an extract from the second section: For mortal flesh is as the grass.
For mortal flesh is as the grass (8.573952)
The practice of arranging large-scale works for piano, as exemplified just now by Brahms, is seen again in the next work – Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, written in 1841 and arranged for piano four-hands by Clara and Robert Schumann, a version that was published the following year. In an age before sound recording was possible, arrangements, initially for solo piano, offered the only way to get to know, play and hear the substance of large-scale works. Here’s part of the third movement of the Schumanns’ arrangement of Robert’s First Symphony.
Symphony No. 1 (8.551415)
The number of players in a chamber ensemble is usually in single digits. A symphony orchestra (or philharmonic orchestra) will have a hundred players, or more. A chamber orchestra, sometimes called a sinfonietta, will employ a fraction of that number. Smaller can be beautiful in a number of respects, even though a chamber orchestra can’t produce the dynamic punch of its big brother. We can listen to an extract from the Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1986) by the Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg. It had true chamber roots in that it was derived from a string quartet he had written way back in 1940. Here’s the vivacious last movement.
Chamber Symphony No. 1 (8.574063)
We downsize and down tempo a little now with music by Giovanni Salviucci, his Chamber Symphony for 17 Instruments. Born in 1907, Salviucci was recognised as one of Italy’s most talented composers alongside Luigi Dallapiccola and Goffredo Petrassi but his early successes and all future hopes were quashed by his untimely death in 1937. The Chamber Symphony was written in 1933. The second movement is a pleasantly gentle interlude in which all the melodies and colours of individual lines can be clearly heard.
Chamber Symphony for 17 Instruments (8.574049)
Music for three performers is next in two pieces of music written more than three centuries apart. The first is by the 17th-century Spanish composer Juan Hidalgo. His Zagalejos del valle (Shepherds of the Valley), performed here by singer, harpsichord and double harp, is a tono humano, a form of secular song characteristic of and exclusive to the Spanish Baroque, from a period when solo accompanied songs were at their most popular. The protagonist addresses some shepherds as he wonders which is the worse fate, death or absence from one’s beloved, given that, as the refrain tells us, there is little to tell the two apart.
Zagalejos del valle (8.574092)
Across to neighbouring Portugal now and music for piano trio (violin, cello and piano) by Alexandre Delgado, who was born in 1965. He composed his Trio Camoniano in 2013, originally as a sequence of three songs, and rescored the work for piano trio in 2017, retaining the intensely lyrical quality of the original songs. The first movement depicts a lover’s lament, the third an evocation of saudade – longing. The middle movement, Erros meus, má fortuna (My mistakes, bad fortune), also concerns love gone awry, but this time the tone is resentful, placing the blame squarely on Fortune. Correspondingly, Delgado writes music that is tempestuous and which, in spite of dance-like moments, ends with an angry protest at the injustice of love.
Erros meus, má fortuna (8.574014)
We pare down to two performers now (violin and piano) in two 19th-century violin sonatas written within 30 years of each other, and in a related European style, but geographically set considerably apart.
Joseph Joachim Raff (1822–1882) was born in Switzerland. His early interest in composition became an obsession which led him to seek Mendelssohn’s opinion of his talent; he received a very positive endorsement in return. Liszt took Raff on as his amanuensis in Weimar, Germany in 1850, and his compositional output grew. He became known primarily as a symphonist; he also produced a large portfolio of piano works. But Raff’s first love was the violin and his pieces for the instrument were promoted by no less a virtuoso than Sarasate.
It wasn’t until the autumn of 1853 that Raff began to compose his first violin sonata, by which time he had already written ten other works for the instrument. His deteriorating relationship with Liszt had curtailed his activities as Liszt’s assistant sufficiently to allow him more time to devote to his own compositions. The Violin Sonata No. 1 is an ambitious composition with a generally nervous character, which may perhaps stem from Raff’s frustration with his situation in Weimar and his repeated inability to secure a post away from the city. I want to play you the second movement, marked ’Very quick and precise’. Can you synchronise with the beat with complete precision? What at first sight appears to be a standard Mendelssohnian scherzo is mischievously subverted by myriad fleeting changes of metre.
Violin Sonata No. 1 (8.573841)
Three years before that music was written, Leopoldo Miguéz was born in Brazil. He went on to receive his musical education in Spain, Portugal and France before returning with influences from Europe to a homeland in a state of enormous social upheaval. The lyrical character of Miguéz’s ambitious Violin Sonata, Op. 14, composed in 1885, is developed in a far more sophisticated and contrapuntal manner to anything previously experienced in Brazil. It helped mark an important change in the country’s chamber music, helping it to move from pieces intended largely for domestic use to works suitable for public performance in concert halls, as this extract from the first movement of the sonata demonstrates.
Violin Sonata, Op. 14 (8.574118)
Finally to a performance on solo guitar. Naxos enjoys a significant following of guitar afficionados and the label’s regular releases of recitals by winners of international guitar competitions helps to feed that appetite. We’ll finish, then, with playing by Vojin Kocić, winner of the 2018 Michele Pittaluga International Classical Guitar Competition. The music is an extract from a sonata by Antonio José (1902-1936), who was praised by Maurice Ravel as a composer who would “become the greatest Spanish musician of our century”. But José’s arrest and execution near his home city of Burgos in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War cast his music into a subsequent obscurity which has only recently been remedied. I hope you’ll enjoy listening to the last movement of his only sonata for guitar, a remarkably original and inventive work.
Guitar Sonata (8.574133)