The world would be a poorer place if it were not for the Czech
composer Leoš Janáček’s gorgeous
‘Pohádka’. It was originally written in the early part of
1910 being completed on 10 February of that year. It was subject to a number
of revisions over a period of 13 years. The version that Naomi Wright plays
was published in 1924.
Janáček had strong leanings towards Russian culture: he was
competent in the language; he chaired the Russian Circle in Brno (1897-1915)
and had a deep interest in the literature of that country, especially
Tolstoy, Gogol, Lermontov and Dostoevsky. It was under the spell of Vasily
Zhukovsky’s (1783-1852) Russian stories concerning The Life and
Times of Tsar Berendyey
that he conceived his ‘Tale’ for
cello and piano. The word Pohádka corresponds to the English phrase
‘Fairy Tale’. Whatever the details of the story - and to a
certain extent this is ‘programme music without a programme’,
Janáček weaves a magical spell. The music is typically misty -
the use of lots of flats - and is often a dialogue between soloists.
The clever part of ‘Pohádka’ is the constant
balance between ‘delicate lyrical’ and ‘swift
dramatic’ moods of playing: it creates its own special enchantment.
The form of the work hovers somewhere between sonata and rondo. Naomi Wright
is correct in calling it a ‘sonata fantasy’.
There are many recordings of this piece available (31 listed at
Arkiv) with big names such as Stephen Isserlis/Thomas Ades and Mstislav
Rostropovich/Benjamin Britten leading the field. Wright and Lawson give a
superb performance, which is suitably atmospheric and deals well with the
various technical and interpretative issues that the work presents.
Naomi Wright has composed an interesting work for solo cello called
. It consists of three pieces with extremely diverse sources of
inspiration. The opening ‘Frida’ seemingly reflects the Mexican
artist Frida Kahlo, which is also the name of the composer’s motor
car. This is sultry music that takes its lead from the tango world of Astor
Piazzolla. The mood appears to portray the end of a long day after the
Fiesta has finished. The second piece is ‘Pune’ which was
inspired by Wright’s visit to India. It is a touch
‘Bollywood’ in places. The final number is dedicated to Joni
Mitchell, singer, songwriter, political activist and painter. For people of
a certain age she will always be remembered for her first major hit
‘Big Yellow Taxi’ however over the years she has explored a
wide-range of musical styles including jazz and electronic music. For my
is just a little too diverse and lacks a sense of unity.
Each piece is well-written and has considerable musical interest.
John Hearne’s ‘Ljod’ (1985) is the most
challenging piece here. The composer writes that the work was composed as an
entry into a ‘guestbook’ commemoration of a reunion of a number
of friends after many years of separation. I guess the reason for the
music’s darker moods is the obvious fact that no-one at that
get-together knew whether and if so when they would meet again. The word
‘Ljod’ translates as ‘poem’ or ‘poetry’.
Hearne is being extremely modest when he refers to his composition as being
a ‘little piece’. The music reflects the chilly atmosphere of
Iceland’s topography and the warmth of the people whom the composer
met there. The style is approachable but is coloured by an inevitable
darkness and introspection. There are some fraught passages; however the
conclusion is much more positive. This is a fine work that deserves to be
heard apart from its genesis as an occasional piece. There are no details
about the composer’s life and works given, but he does have an
. He is indeed a prolific composer.
I have not heard any music by Stephen Plews before. Unfortunately
once again the liner-notes tell us nothing about him. His website
notes that he
was born in Salford in 1961 and has enjoyed a career balancing his love of
classical music and jazz. Composers that have especially interested him are
Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky.
There are two works by Plews on this CD: the short ‘Preludes
1-3’ and ‘Trois conte des fées urbain’. The
‘Preludes’ are minuscule, lasting for a total of just 1 minute
47 seconds. This is almost ‘Webernesque’ in its conciseness.
They are approachable and create an attractive sound-scape: alas, they are
not long enough to get to grips with.
The ‘Trois Conte[s]’ seem to owe something to Ravel in
their title at least. The three movements depict some imaginary story which
the composer does not choose to reveal. All he says is that it reflects an
urban fairytale/nightmare. Plews has used a fairly traditional musical
language, but has incorporated electronic music into the mix. The three
short movements are ‘Pavane’, ‘Fantôme d’un
fée’ and ‘Une contemplation’. Finally, although my
French is not brilliant, should the title be ‘Trois Contes’ as
opposed to ‘Trois Conte’?
The main event on this CD is the Beethoven Cello Sonata No.2 in G
minor, Op.5. There are five examples of this genre in Beethoven’s
catalogue plus three sets of variations on themes by Handel and Mozart. The
sonatas were composed throughout the composer’s life between 1796 and
1815. The first two come from the ‘early period’, the third from
the ‘middle’ and the last two from the final (post 1815)
chapter. Most commentators would suggest that during his ‘early’
period he was influenced by Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven was not content
merely to imitate, but pushed the boundaries beyond what those masters had
achieved. From this period come the first two piano concertos and two
symphonies, the first dozen piano sonata and the Op. 16 string quartets.
The present Cello Sonata, along with the F major, was composed
during a visit the composer made to Berlin in 1796. They were dedicated to
Jean-Pierre Duport who was the first violoncellist to King Frederick William
II of Prussia. It is interesting to note that the king was an accomplished
cellist, and it is likely that Beethoven was at pains to impress him with an
interesting and independent cello part. It is a feature of this work that
the composer moves away from the ‘old’ concept of a piano sonata
with instrumental accompaniment to that of a genuine duo sonata where
players had a much more equal partnership.
Beethoven chose to exploit the instrumental possibilities of the
cello and included a wide range of technical effects including pizzicato,
double-stops and chords. He explored the instrument’s
‘declamatory and rhetorical abilities’ as well as the use of
cantabile melody. The entire register of the instrument was used. The Cello
Sonata No.2 is written in two movements: an adagio-allegro followed by a
rondo. The dramatic content of the first movement is reinforced by the long
adagio introduction which constantly hints at the stormy allegro that is to
follow. The rondo is much more relaxed in its mood.
Naomi Wright and Annabelle Lawson have given an excellent account of
this work. The balance between the cello and the piano is ideal and the
technical difficulties are handled with aplomb.
There are a number of issues with the presentation of this CD.
Firstly, like so many productions these days, the artistic element of the
cover and liner-notes design trumps its utility. Tiny yellow (?) text on a
purple background is not easy to read. I felt that these notes could have
included a little more detail, especially about the contemporary works.
There is no reference here as to when any of this music was written although
the notes do mention the date of printing of the Beethoven. I understand
that typically this information is available on-line, but this is an
assumption that cannot always be made. We are not given any biographical
details of the performers or the composers. The various recording dates and
locations are not tied into the actual compositions. There is the spelling
error alluded to above. Also there is a typo in the track listings -
movement 3 of the Janáček is shown as being on track 5 not 3. I
presume that the Trust that supported this work is the Kenneth
Leighton Trust? I would have put the pianist Annabelle Lawson in the same
size font on the cover as Naomi Wright as both the Janáček and
the Beethoven are true partnerships. Finally, I understand anybody’s
desire to keep their date of birth under wraps, but as the composer of
‘Frida’ I feel that Naomi Wright ought to have entered hers in
the liner-notes. None of the other composers are given dates either - but
were easily located online.
All this will no doubt be deemed nit-picking, yet it seems a pity to
have produced a fantastically
well-planned programme, to have
executed the works with considerable technical and musical ability, to have
delivered a first class sound recording but not given attention to detail.
These are often important to listeners as it can help them situate the works
in their musical and historical contexts. It is certainly essential for the
record reviewer to have all this information to hand.
Excellent playing and an imaginative programme.