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Geraldine MUCHA (1917-2012)
Overture to the Tempest (1938? rev. 1964) [5:06]
Macbeth - Suite from the Ballet (1965) [11:49]
John Webster Songs (1975 orch.1983) [12:40]
Piano Concerto (1960/61) [23:08]
Sixteen Variations on an Old Scottish Song (1954) [9:50]
Irena Troupová (soprano), Patricia Goodson (piano)
Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra/Andreas Sebastian-Weiser
rec. 2013-15, Hradec Králové Philharmonic Hall, Czech Republic
ARCODIVA UP0192 2 231 [62:57]

This disc has proved to be something of a delightful discovery. The name of composer Geraldine Mucha - let alone her music - was completely unknown to me. Assuming that to be the case for most of the readers of this review perhaps a brief biography would be in order. Mucha was born Geraldine Thomson in Scotland in 1917. Her composing life spanned a remarkable ninety years up until her death in 2012. As a schoolgirl she was tutored by Arnold Bax and later at the Royal Academy of Music by William Alwyn and Alan Bush. This is taken from the website dedicated to her [www.geraldinemucha.org]: "The precocious Geraldine was able to read music long before she could read words. She was encouraged to compose by her father and given lessons in harmony by his colleague, the composer Benjamin Dale. Later she was introduced to Sir Arnold Bax, who showed a keen interest in her ability and would often play through her compositions and discuss them with her. "He always took my music seriously", she recalled. After leaving school Geraldine gained a place to study composition and conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. Here she was able to continue her tuition with Benjamin Dale, also being taught by the composers Alan Bush and William Alwyn. Alwyn is said to have remarked, "that girl has so much talent you don't know if she's got a brain or not."

Musically she admired Bartok and Stravinsky, realised Britten to be the emerging genius he was and had an early ballet praised by Constant Lambert. Key to her life artistically and practically was her marriage to the Czech war correspondent Jiři Mucha with whom she travelled to the recently-liberated Prague in 1945 where she lived for much of the rest of her long life. Soon after returning to Prague her husband was arrested by the communists as an "enemy of the state". Mucha survived by living off a small-holding with her only son and latterly after her husband's release in 1950 as a music editor - including the complete works of Dvorak - and translator but all the time still managing to be a productive composer. The very informative liner outlines details of various recordings and performances given of her music in Czechoslovakia as well as occasional UK/BBC performances. In later years she was involved in the organising of various exhibitions of the work of her father-in-law Alphonse Mucha who was a leading exponent of Art Nouveau - an Alphonse Mucha painting is used as the evocative artwork on this disc. Through the Prague Spring Music Festivals she maintained an active involvement with music and musicians but this disc is very much the first international release dedicated to her work. Her website - and the liner - mention Supraphon recordings but I cannot find any record of them appearing on CD.

These recordings have been made between 2013-15 which I imagine reflects the time it has taken to fund and bring to fruition a substantial project such as this. The good news for collectors and those fascinated in music off the beaten track is that this has been well worth the wait. In just over an hour's worth of music we are given an excellent overview of Mucha's work and range with each piece proving to be very impressive in its own right. Mucha has a clear and individual musical voice. Certainly if tonal European music from the mid/latter half of the 20th Century appeals there is much to enjoy. The disc opens with a concert overture The Tempest written while Mucha was a student and revised in 1964 - although it had to wait until 2015 for its premiere. As a student work it is very impressive in its sure handling of the orchestra and the bold and concise presentation of the themes. The Tempest of the title is indeed the Shakespeare play and Mucha seems to focus more on the human characters, a playful Ariel, a slightly galumphing Caliban, a sinuous theme I imagine to be Miranda rather than any evocation of the storm that wrecks the ship. Harmonically and melodically this is the most overtly conservative of the works presented but the confidence of the piece is what impresses.

Another Shakesperian influence follows in the suite to Mucha's [unperformed] ballet Macbeth. As an orchestral suite this was performed and recorded in Czechoslovakia in the 1960's. Again the dramatic aptness of the writing is very striking. The Suite consists of five well-contrasted movements which leaves me wanting more - I wonder how long the complete work is? The suite follows the narrative of the complete work so after an Introduction - instant foreboding and atmosphere with obsessive figurations over fractured brass writing - the Witches are introduced with off-kilter rhythms hobbling along in an oddly menacing and unsettlingly gleeful way. This does indeed sound very danceable with Mucha's ability to condense real character and atmosphere into barely two minutes of music very impressive. The following Banquet section is even more striking. Mucha sets up a kind of faux-fife and drum figure overlaid with sour clashing brass writing as though the trumpets are trying to be heraldic instead of billious. It quite brilliantly captures the mood of the play with Macbeth trying to ingratiate himself with the King while struggling with visions of Banquo's ghost. The side-slipping rhythms underline the sense of ill-ease. Lady Macbeth sleep-walking follows and is another three minute masterclass in atmospheric and evocative writing. Hypnotic musical phrases obsess and repeat before building to a climactic final chord. The suite closes with Death of Macbeth and conclusion. Again, I am very impressed with Mucha's handling of dramatic writing over concise timeframes.

Staying with the Elizabethan influence there follows Mucha's setting of three Songs of John Webster. Webster was a contemporary of Shakespeare most famous today for his plays The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. Mucha originally set excerpts from the plays - texts in English only are included in the liner - in 1975 for Jill Gomez accompanied by pianist John Constable. Gomez was a phenomenally gifted singer with a remarkably flexible and wide ranging voice which in part explains the sheer difficulty of the vocal writing in these songs. The orchestral version followed in the 1980's and as the liner says the harmonies Mucha uses are a considerable advance on either of the preceding works or indeed anything else on this disc. On this disc the songs are sung by Czech soprano Irena Troupová who makes a very good job of these very expressive but heavily demanding songs. Mucha favours long melismatic lines which make it hard for any soloist to maintain the clarity of the words but Troupová impresses with the evenness of her vocal production and the control of her singing. Her biography in the liner would imply a singer more used to performing baroque music but she uses that experience to bring to this angular and contemporary cycle a clean and light sound that sounds wholly appropriate. I have no way of telling how much Mucha adapted the score from the original piano version but this orchestral form again impresses by the effective and controlled use of a substantial instrumental group. As such this is a very impressive short song-cycle and certainly one that deserves to be heard alongside similar contemporaneous works. I suppose the only thing that prevents that is how to programme a sub-fifteen minute piece that makes such demands on performers.

Those practical/pragmatic concerns are less of an issue in the following piano concerto. At just over twenty three minutes this is still a quite concise work but one that could easily be included in concerts. None of Mucha's music is radical in any sense and certainly this 1961 Piano Concerto is a relatively easy listen albeit in a 20th Century idiom. The three movements follow a typical fast-slow-faster form. The opening Allegro is in a strongly rhythmic but good natured 7/8 which then settles into a more languorous and rocking figure which the liner describes as having "folk-inflected Celtic harmonies". Certainly throughout the entire work the textures and harmony is lighter and more sparkling than the Webster songs. Apparently Mucha was a considerable pianist as well as composer and the writing here sounds effective - there is more of an air of the Neo-Classical here than elsewhere. The central Andante allows the piano a very simple song-like melody that is gains greatly from that simplicity. There is a brief impassioned climax around 5:30 but the music soon subsides back into a gentle reverie. The closing Molto Allegro again seems to use themes with a folk-like modality as well as Mucha's preferred side-slipping time signatures. The whole concerto had a directness and modesty about it that is very appealing.

The disc is completed by the concerto's pianist Patricia Goodson playing a work for solo piano; Sixteen Variations on an Old Scottish Song. The song in question is the well-known Ca' the yowes which has been set by composers as diverse as Britten, Vaughan Williams and Haydn. In some ways this work shows Mucha's skill as a composer of absolute music at its best. Again the concision is impressive - the sixteen variations spanning just under ten minutes but the way each variation flow from one to the next is very effective. This is not keyboard writing that seeks overt display or virtuosity. It did remind me of some of Kenneth Leighton's solo piano works - a composer whose music still does not receive the attention and acclaim it deserves. The arc of the work is impressively handled too with a gentle chordal conclusion that is both simple and affecting. Apparently ArcoDiva are planning a second disc of Mucha's chamber music and I did wonder if this work is included here as a spill-over from those sessions but it does provide another fascinating facet of Mucha's musical personality.

As yet I have quite deliberately not mentioned the performers - except for the soprano - or the technical recording. The good news is that backing up the quality of the music presented here are performances of real engagement, conviction and skill alongside a recording that is clear and impressive. Conductor Andreas Sebastian-Weiser directs performances that sound alert to the detail of the scores as well as being sympathetic and energetic as required. The orchestral playing by the Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra is full of character and sensitivity as well as no little virtuosity. On the ear none of Mucha's work makes outlandish technical demands of its players but it still requires the clean and neat playing which it gets here - Mucha uses a very precise orchestral palette. The piano soloist in both the concerto and the sixteen variations is the American Patricia Goodson. As with the instrumental writing, the solo music requires control and clarity rather than fistfuls of virtuosity but Goodson is fully equal to the technical demands while at the same time having an excellent sense of the emotional boundaries of this music. The ArcoDiva engineers have found a good balance between soloists and the orchestral group. The sound as a whole is clear, perhaps a fraction bright but since this is not emotionally or harmonically 'lush' music that seems to suit the style of the work presented here. The booklet in English and Czech only is well presented and informative - but I would recommend the curious to visit the website mentioned above. The extra space the website affords expands upon the biographical note in the liner as well as offering excerpts from this disc and other Mucha recordings. The list of works on the site implies that most of the orchestral pieces Mucha wrote are included here although a 2 violin concerto entitled Carmina Orcadiana intrigues and there is mention of a Symphonic Poem too. Hopefully the companion chamber music disc will include the two string quartets and two nonets as well as more piano music - I will look forward to hearing that disc a lot.

For collectors interested in 20th Century British orchestral music this is an unheralded delight. Individual and impressive music, passionately performed and well presented. Now a complete version of the Macbeth ballet really would be something …
 
Nick Barnard
 
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

 

 




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