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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Concerto in D major, HobXVIII:11(c 1783) [17:36]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Hommage à Haydn (1909) [2:21]
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Prélude élégiaque (1909) [3:52]
Maurice RAVEL (1874-1934)
Menuet sur le nom de Haydn (1909) [1:54]
Cheryl FRANCES-HOAD (b 1980)
Stolen Rhythm (2009) [2:00]
Between the Skies, the River and the Hills (2018) [26:11]
Vincent D’INDY (1851-1931)
Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn, Op. 65 (1909) [3:01]
Reynaldo HAHN (1874-1947)
Thème varié sur le nom d'Haydn (1909) [2:31]
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Fugue sur le nom d'Haydn (1909) [1:53]
Traditional Bosnian tune
Kad ja pođoh na Bembašu (2018, arr. Frances-Hoad) [2:53]
Ivana Gavrić (piano)
Southbank Sinfonia/Karin Hendrickson
rec. 2015-19, Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, London; Potton Hall, Westleton; Music Room, Champs Hill, Pulborough, UK
RUBICON RCD1038 [64:21]

The conceit behind this issue owes everything to a chain of thoughts and events experienced by the Sarajevo-born pianist Ivana Gavrić; in essence it connects her homeland, the once fashionable claim that the finale of Haydn’s celebrated D major concerto is based upon a Bosnian folksong, the centenary (1909) and bicentenary (2009) of Haydn’s death and her long-time friendship with Cheryl Frances-Hoad, a student contemporary at Cambridge throughout (I assume) the late 1990s and early 2000s. In consequence, the disc collates the six miniatures based on Haydn’s name composed by six renowned French composers in 1909 together with Frances-Hoad’s similarly inspired piece Stolen Rhythm from 2009. Bookending them are the aforementioned Haydn concerto and a big new concertante work by Frances-Hoad whose extraordinary finale incorporates a (different) Bosnian folk tune Kad ja pođoh na Bembašu; this tune also forms the basis of the cadenza Frances-Hoad has contributed for the meltingly beautiful slow movement of the Haydn (she is also responsible for the equivalent in the first movement). The disc concludes with an arrangement of the unadorned folksong.

This combination of so many seemingly diffuse elements (no matter how persuasive the theoretical thread that connects them) may look on paper to be ill-conceived in terms of providing a satisfying programme; that it succeeds on almost every level seems to be largely due to the enormous commitment of the performers, not least the Southbank Sinfonia and their conductor Karin Hendrickson – their playing in Frances-Hoad’s new piece is especially convincing and conveys both fastidious preparation and profound insight.

Ivana Gavrić is a formidable, thoughtful, versatile presence throughout. Her Haydn may be as light as a feather in the outer movements, especially in the finale, but there is both elegance and real depth in the central Un poco adagio that raises it way above the workaday. And yet there is a welcome degree of distance too; Gavrić carefully avoids getting lost in its myriad beauties and allows Haydn to speak on his own terms. Her friend’s cadenza provides a degree of expressive wriggle-room which she is happy to exploit. The outer movements are propulsive and objective, tautly driven by Hendrickson’s clear-sighted direction. There’s plenty of vim in Gavrić’s lean, decisive playing. The acoustic is generous and creates the impression that the orchestra is larger than it actually is. This may not be a reference account of the Haydn (there’s so many to choose from- I seem to have played Hamelin’s Hyperion recording with Les Violons du Roy to death in the last few years) but it is abundantly satisfying in itself and it fits neatly in this singular programme. Frankly one wouldn’t feel short-changed if one heard this graceful account live.

The solo piano pieces are each thoughtfully delivered by Gavrić, they work well as a sequence and sound fabulous. Given that one all too infrequently hears Debussy’s and Ravel’s delightful little tributes to Haydn, it is instructive to experience them in some sort of context. Gavrić invests Debussy’s Hommage with an almost jazzy cool it didn’t know it had. It lilts and swings in a way that’s almost indecent for a piece from 1909 while Ravel’s characterful Menuet seems more contemporary than ever in this company. The other pieces are all interesting; Dukas’ Prélude élégiaque is admittedly a rather lumbering construction but D’Indy’s Menuet is playful and elegant. Best of all to my ears is Reynaldo Hahn’s superb little Thème varié. For a composer associated with sensuality and languor, this piece exudes concise classicism and impressive formal logic. It packs an awful lot into 150 seconds. Widor’s compact yet glittering Fugue rounds off the sequence. Gavrić’s focused playing is certainly complemented by Rubicon’s pleasingly natural recorded sound.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s bicentennial Haydn tribute Stolen Rhythm has been imaginatively placed right at the centre of these six pieces – it constitutes a kind of pivot for the whole disc. Nor does its more contemporary countenance jar – indeed it’s neatly conceived, eminently pianistic and effortlessly witty in a way that neatly matches its Gallic models. Ivana Gavrić recorded it as one of seven piano Homages for a superb Frances-Hoad portrait album– also called ‘Stolen Rhythm’- which I reviewed a couple of years ago – that same Champs Hill account features here.

Which leads me to Frances-Hoad’s impressive new piano concerto Between the Skies, the River and the Hills. I have repeatedly found the music of this composer gripping, satisfying and surprising; each new piece seems to communicate effortlessly at first, before yielding more on successive listens in its detail, scope and ambition. Frances-Hoad seems to possess an insatiable appetite for literature, much of it little known. This interest is a blessing as it informs much of her instrumental writing as well as the consistently brilliant songs and choral pieces that she has produced in the last decade and a half. The new concerto is no exception – in this case the literary inspiration is The Bridge over the Drina, a historical epic by the intriguing Bosnian writer and diplomat Ivo Andrić (1892-1975). Published in 1945, it won Andrić the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature and remains a cornerstone of Balkan writing. It covers 400 years of human destructive folly – all the while the world continues to turn, the bridge and river of the title constitute a metaphor for resilience and triggered a pertinent, evocative response from Frances-Hoad.

The first movement has an identifiably fluvial quality; its crystalline piano line traces its way urgently, implacable in the face of human and natural obstacles, here represented by a shifting harmonic backcloth featuring howling woodwind, lyrical string melody and roaring timpani. Sunlight ripples through these constantly shifting climes in the form of sounds that suggest tuned glasses but turn out to be a bowed vibraphone. The simple piano octaves that open the span return at its end, somehow untouched by the intervening turbulence. The central Scherzando projects a lighter touch, its vague hints of Shostakovitch or Prokofiev subtle and fleeting. Perky winds (including a prominent bassoon), and sardonic fife-and drum flavours thumb their noses at the past, while Gavrić makes free with the busy, grateful piano writing. One really senses that all the performers are having a ball in this exhilarating music.

The remarkable finale constitutes half of the work’s duration. Essentially it’s a kind of chaconne which derives from the Bosnian folk song Kad ja pođoh na Bembašu (When I went to Bentbaša). This is repeated seven times almost verbatim in different instrumental combinations; the piano part is skeletal, dropping hints of something here and there – the power that emerges fitfully and evasively is never telegraphed. During the fourth repetition of the tune the complexity in the piano writing begins to build. Is it pulling the melody along with it, or being shaped by it? At 7:00 the piano chords become yet more dissonant but coalesce fleetingly with the great melody –until the point at 8:34 where there is sudden consensus- this is the cathartic peak of the entire work. At 9:09 Gavrić finally takes up ‘her’ tune (Kad ja pođoh na Bembašu is to Sarajevo as “You’ll never walk alone” is to the city of Liverpool) firstly with simple string accompaniment, and then completely alone. There’s a long reflective solo - I wouldn’t describe it as a cadenza – rather it cuts through as a deep rumination on the events/novel that inspired the concerto. The sunlight in the form of the bowed vibraphone peeks through once more prior to the work’s conclusion - whatever happens life is programmed to go on. Between the Skies, the River and the Hills is a stimulating, imaginative tour de force. Frances-Hoad’s pacing and orchestration is masterly. Gavrić, Hendrickson and the Southbank players revel in it.

The disc concludes with a rendition of the bare, unadorned folk tune on piano. It is touching and uneasy. It’s an apt way to end an issue of singular personal design which has universal appeal. Frances-Hoad’s concerto merits the widest currency – I urgently commend it to all.

Richard Hanlon

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