• Philip May

Off the Digital Shelf: March 2016

I buy a lot of CDs. Below are three recent purchases, downloaded to my iPod, that are to my mind worth a second listen:

The Trees They Grow So High, Sarah Brightman & Geoffrey Parsons. Released 1988.

Sarah Brightman and Geoffrey Parsons perform nineteen of Britten’s folksong arrangements.

When I first heard this album, specifically when I heard Brightman’s voice in The Trees They Grow So High itself, I wanted to turn it off. Now I listen to it repeatedly. Although Brightman’s voice is – to sit on the fence about it – unique, and her pronunciation can be idiosyncratic, she nevertheless clearly takes the songs seriously, particularly their narratives and the moods they inhabit, and makes them entirely her own. The mournful undertones of her voice sit well with some of the slower numbers and its fine, thread-like quality makes the longer notes quite incisive. Parsons also draws a great deal from Britten’s simple, direct piano parts – take Early One Morning, for example – and executes them with clarity and affection. There is also a reassuring sense of unity between Parsons and Brightman. The only performance I’m not convinced by is Little Sir William. It’s a little too subdued, enough to be a plot spoiler.

Give the album at least the three-taste test before you dismiss it.

Heitor Villa-Lobos, The 5 Piano Concertos, Cristina Ortiz, Miguel Gómez-Martínez, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Released 1997.

Villa-Lobos’s Piano Concertos occupy a certain sound-world that, at times, is somewhat cinematic. This comes to a head in the Fourth Concerto, Andante con Moto, the first two minutes of which sound like the establishing shot of a James Bond scene (one of those seductive, exotic ones).

For a first-time listen, however, Concerto No. 2 is a good ice-breaker – it has a fragrant, golden and sweeping first movement (the recapitulation of which is orchestrated in a different and particularly beautiful light). This is offset with an eerie, dark and writhing Lento that builds in intensity and blossoms towards the middle. The brief, smoochy moments in the spikey fourth movement are also a pleasant surprise. After this, I would tackle Nos. 4 and 5 before 1 and 3, as the latter pair are a less immediate listen. If you do lose patience head straight for the Poco Adagio of the Fifth and final Concerto – the returning main theme with its descending bass line is quite captivating.

One parting suggestion: don’t be deceived by the openings to some movements. They can at times quickly yield and broaden to a more expressive, almost Romantic, sound-world.

Arnold Schoenberg, Drei Klavierstücke (1894) from Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern & Eduard Steuermann – Complete Works for Piano, Jan Michiels. Released 2005.

Whatever you or your ears make of Schoenberg’s music, if you have time for Brahms and Schumanns’ piano works then these three compositions are for you. Schoenberg wrote them when he was just 20, over 25 years before he pinpointed the twelve-note approach. The first, a reflective and lyrical Andantino written in two time but which sounds as though it is in three, shows the influence of Brahms. The second piece, on the other hand, sounds a little like a German take on Chopin. The final turbulent and unstable Presto is maybe an indication of the composer’s path ahead.

Though the set is a curiosity, the pieces are nevertheless enhanced in intrigue by their place in the composer’s back catalogue. As an additional point of interest, Michiels recorded the two-disc set on an almost-contemporary 1899 Bechstein, built five years after the set was composed.

[First published Mar 13th 2016]

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