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Gramophone awards shortList 2015

Contemporary

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Barry The Importance of Being Earnest Barbara Hannigan sop ..............................Cecily Cardew Peter Tantsits ten .........................John (Jack) Worthing Joshua Bloom bar ............................Algernon Moncrieff Katalin Károlyi mez ......................... Gwendolen Fairfax Hilary Summers contr .......................................Miss Prism Alan Ewing bass ...........................................Lady Bracknell Benjamin Bevan bass ..............................Lane/Merriman Joshua Hart spkr ................................................Dr Chasuble Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Thomas Adès NMC F NMCD197 (80’ • DDD)

After the first night of Oscar Wilde’s play, in 1895, George Bernard Shaw complained that it had more of the inhumanity of farce than the nuanced characterisation of proper comedy. Since then, play-goers have relished Wilde’s fizzing wit and not regretted the absence of finer feelings. Gerald Barry magnifies the fizzing quality into a relentless high-wire act that has the audience relishing the stamina of the performers, here under the needle-sharp control of ringmaster-in-chief Thomas Adès. Laughter and applause – as when a large number of dinner plates (they must be white) are smashed – do not seriously disrupt a performance remarkable for its energy and accuracy, atmospherically recorded. The eight singers and actors, with the 21 instrumentalists of BCMG (who also have to shout and stamp), combine into a phenomenally wellintegrated musical ensemble.

Barry casts Lady Bracknell as a bass, yet his response to Wilde’s elegant Victorian formalities is not so much the ‘moustache on the Mona Lisa’ effect, more a ferocious intensification of features latent in the original text, much reduced but also supplemented in the composer’s own libretto. Wilde’s poised verbal fencing turns overtly violent, underlining the playwright’s subversive attitude to social niceties, and also his dislike of the German language: as Cecily says, ‘I feel quite plain after my German lesson’. Ever keen to give subtlety a miss, Barry inserts gabbled versions of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ among a clutch of often brilliantly witty musical cannibalisations. The music is powered by manically automated recyclings of simple scalic and modal elements, fracturing the text in the process in ways which add considerably to the opera’s farcical profile. A DVD of a staging would give a more vivid impression of the virtuoso stylisation at work here but even a CD makes crystalclear what a dedicated musical maverick can do with a treasured literary antique usually thought to be beyond parody. Arnold Whittall (October 2014)

Birtwistle ‘Chamber Music’ Three Setting of Lorine Niedeckera. Nine Settings of Lorine Niedeckera. Piano Triob. Bogenstrich: Meditations on a Poem of Rilkec a Amy Freston sop cRoderick Williams bar bLisa Batiashvili vn abcAdrian Brendel vc bcTill Fellner pf ECM New Series F 476 5050 (65’ • DDD • T)

After decades of favouring winds and percussion in his ensemble pieces,

Birtwistle turned his attention in the course of the 1990s to string-writing, and to the piano, and to collections of songs. If you enjoy the ‘Fantasias and Friezes’ for string quartet that punctuate his settings of Paul Celan in Pulse Shadows, or the quartet sequence The Tree of Strings, let me recommend an exploration of his Piano Trio of 2011, together with the collection of songs recorded here and especially the cycle Bogenstrich. Whatever the medium and the accretions of tradition you might accept a composer of Birtwistle’s independence of mind to react against – in composing a piano trio, for example – he finds something fresh to say and an accommodation for his intensely personal vision of the world.

I know Brendel père admires him hugely: so who would pass up an invitation to write a piece for cellist Adrian plus the excellent pianist Till Fellner to honour Alfred’s 75th birthday? That was in 2006 and the result was a quite un-Mendelssohnian six-minute Lied ohne Worte. The following year Birtwistle composed Variationen, of similar dimensions, again for Brendel and Fellner; later yet another movement appeared (quick – Wie eine Fuge), to make three connected cello and piano pieces which were eventually book-ended by settings of Rilke’s ‘LiebesLied’, at the beginning for baritone and piano and at the close for baritone and cello. And everything of the same six-minute duration, give or take a second or two, as if this had been a ‘given’. Bogenstrich is the title of this half-hour of music, borrowed from Rilke’s image of a bow stroke drawing a single voice from two strings. It’s a cycle which continues to draw me back.

The settings of Lorine Niedecker (1903-70), for soprano and cello, began as a bouquet of three for Elliott Carter, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Carter who introduced this concise and modernist poet to Birtwistle. There are a dozen of hers here to which Birtwistle responds with great refinement of sound and procedure. Amy Freston is good but you need to follow the words with the booklet since she doesn’t articulate much with lips, teeth and tongue. Roderick Williams is very fine in Bogenstrich and the three instrumentalists, quite closely recorded, are in a class any composer would die for. Stephen Plaistow (August 2014)

Chin Cello Concertoa. Piano Concertob. Šuc a Alban Gerhardt vc bSunwook Kim pf c Wu Wei sheng Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra / Myung-Whun Chung DG F 481 0971GH (72’ • DDD)

Unsuk Chin is one of the best contemporary exponents of purely instrumental music drama, and these concertos provide absorbing listening. The Piano Concerto owes an explicit debt to her teacher, Ligeti, but it also represents a gesture of independence. Its coruscating toccatas and interlocking rhythmic patterns acquire a distinctive luminosity in structures that constantly evolve and threaten disorientation, only to find new ways of suggesting stability. The piece works well when given the kind of effortlessly precise and virtuoso interpretation from both soloist and orchestra that it receives here.

The Cello Concerto was a highlight of the 2009 BBC Proms, and although the booklet-notes don’t explain the nature of the

20 GRAMOPHONE AWARDS 2015

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