Off the Digital Shelf: April 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:

 

Felix Mendelssohn, Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 from Mendelssohn: Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2, Gould Piano Trio. Released 2001.

I still wonder why Mendelssohn’s C Minor Trio isn’t as well-known as the D Minor. To an extent I can appreciate how it is: you can only afford to send one child to a good private school so, naturally, off goes the older one. They quickly become popular, receive excellent feedback, establish a good reputation then, before you know it, your Opus forty-two’s career has taken off, leaving its younger sibling on the library shelf. After seeking an authoritative opinion from an ensemble who has played both Trios extensively, it seems that the appeal of the D Minor may like in Mendelssohn’s concerto-like piano writing, offering perhaps more scope for virtuosic display.[1] On the other hand, the denser, more symphonic writing within the C Minor can pose balance issues on modern grand pianos, which may work against it.

Nevertheless, Mendelssohn’s Second Trio is a good listen: agitated, slick, dramatic, sweeping, sensitive, virtuosic, tortured, gutsy and consistently tuneful. The Gould Trio are, of course, excellent.

 

Arnold Schoenberg, Zwei Gesänge, Op. 1 from The Glenn Gould Edition – Schoenberg: Lieder, Glenn Gould, Ellen Faull, Helen Vanni, Donald Gramm & Cornelis Opthof. Released 1995 (but compiled of recordings made between 1964 and 1971).

Dank (‘Gratitude’) and Abschied (‘Farewell’) form Schoenberg’s first opus, written in 1898 when he was 24. They are hefty songs, weighed down with Romantic melancholy, but the Wagnerian harmonies are captivating. Dank exploits an agitated four-note turn which foreshadows an identical recurring motif in Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata used to similar anticipatory and climactic ends ten years later – worth a direct comparison. Although Karl Levetzow’s texts have the subtlety of a sledgehammer (reinforced with extra sledge) don’t let this dissuade you.

This particular rendition is expansive and driven in equal measure. Gramm’s tone is beautifully dark and Gould makes light work of the dense piano writing. Furthermore, the pianist has an equal, at times more important, role against the bass-baritone and Gould treats it as such – these are songs for equals.

 

Clint Mansell, Critical Mass from High-Rise (Original Soundtrack Recording). Released 2016.

If you’ve no inclination to see High-Rise then the score can offer a vivid insight into its tone: Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite gone wrong, the score left to soak in a barrel of wine. In the context of the film, the contrast of the plush amenities of the high-rise building and the tribal conflicts unfolding across its many floors is reflected sharply in Mansell’s score. In fact, Critical Mass is probably closer to Newman’s Everywhere Freesia from the Meet Joe Black soundtrack (‘gone wrong’ notwithstanding) and is worth a direct comparison: whilst Newman’s score is spicy and playful, Mansell’s is acidic and brutal. Critical Mass sways drunkenly between major and minor tonalities, the sound of the string orchestra at times grand and uniform, at other times disintegrating into aggressive confusion. 3/4 and 6/8 are contrasted and layered, an intoxicated dance-like quality always beneath the surface. Long synthesised notes gently but insistently penetrate the thick texture and percussive execution of the strings. As an aside, Critical Mass reappears in different arrangements and mutations throughout the soundtrack: The Circle of Women (after 0’42”), Danger in the Streets of the Sky (after 3’31”), A Royal Flying School (until 1’38”), and the most dainty This Evening’s Entertainment.

It is also worth noting that one musical thread not included on this soundtrack recording is the various mutations of Abba’s SOS, appearing in both a string quartet rendition and a truly nihilistic cover by Portishead.[2] Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto is also used to ironic effect. See the trailer.


 

[1] Individual technical difficulties within each Trio notwithstanding.

[2] At the time of posting, Portishead have announced that they do not intend to release their cover commercially.

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