CD Review- Words and Music on Bobby and Hans vol 4

Critic Rick Jones (longtime critic for the London Evening Standard) compares the new Orchestra of the Swan recording of Schumann 1 with that of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Yannick Nezet-Seguin on Deutsche Grammophon. Read the original here.

It’s Bobby and Hans for the win.


Disc of the Day: One hears the first cuckoo… Not one but two Schumann Spring Symphonies hove into earshot. Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan versus Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Woods wins it. One needs express no surprise when the committed outfit with its own conductor beats the prestige youngsters under the rising star jet-setter.  The Woods performance is tighter, rhythmically crisper, richer in contrasts, more characterful and always closer to the composer’s wishes. Nezet-Seguin twice decelerates where no tempo change is marked – the first movement’s second subject (where Woods marks the contrast not by speed but stark, clear-blue-water contrast between the wind legato and the string agitato) and, more deliberately, the bowed unisons after the skittish pizzicato in the finale. It ruins the momentum. Woods carries on through precipitously, which is clearly what Schumann intends. Woods is slower in the slow movement but anticipates the chords with unified crescendi. He is half a minute quicker in the Scherzo and quite Beethovenian in the string scales where the European conglomerate sounds plodding and lacks the bass throb in the same scales. The solos – the paused horn call, the flute cadenza – show the European mettle but one expects that as these are the cream of instrumentalists skimmed off, but the sense of ensembles within the ensemble in the Stratford On Avon orchestra, with Woods’ woodwind even achieving comic tone together, is more important ultimately than fine solos. Golden the daffodils in Shakespeare’s birthplace.


CD Review- Classical Ear on Bobby and Hans vol. 3

A new review from Andrew Aschenbach, editor-in-chief of the new app “Classical Ear”

Gál: Symphony No 2 in F major, Op 53; Schumann: Symphony No 4 in D minor, Op 120

Orchestra of the Swan / Kenneth Woods

Avie AV2232

Bobby and Hans vol 3

Now here’s quite a find. Austrian-born Hans Gál (1890-1987) took flight from Nazi Germany in 1938, eventually settling in Edinburgh (where he became a much-loved figure in that city’s musical life). The Second of his four symphonies dates from 1943 after a period of great personal tragedy, yet there’s no hint of mawkish self-pity in the ravishingly beautiful, profoundly consolatory Adagio slow movement (the work’s emotional core), while the preceding scherzo positively winks with gleeful mischief. Above all, Gál develops his memorable material with the natural resourcefulness and sureness of purpose that are the hallmarks of a true symphonist. Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan (which is based in Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon) lend this radiant and substantial score the most eloquent and affecting advocacy, and go on to give a comparably accomplished and invigorating account of Schumann’s masterly Fourth Symphony – a strikingly fresh-faced, spontaneous-sounding display, full of illuminating touches, personable warmth and genuine freshness of new discovery. Do investigate this bold, enormously rewarding coupling.

–Andrew Achenbach

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Scotia Festival 2013 in review- Schnittke String Trio with Ensemble Epomeo

A review from Stephen Pedersen of the opening concert of the 2013 Scotia Festival, featuring Ensemble Epomeo. Read the original here.


CONCERT REVIEW: Gifted chamber players echo spring’s diversity

May 28, 2013 – 5:48pm BY STEPHEN PEDERSEN

Philippe Djokic opened Monday night’s Scotia Fest concert in the Dunn with a Bach marathon. (ERIC WYNNE / Staff)

Philippe Djokic opened Monday night’s Scotia Fest concert in the Dunn with a Bach marathon. (ERIC WYNNE / Staff
Contemporary music can hardly avoid being influenced by the entire catalogue of classical and new art music. But degrees of acceptance are sometimes slow to catch up.

Monday night, in the Sir James Dunn Theatre, the Scotia Festival of Music launched its 34th annual rite of spring chamber music concert series with the help of Bach, Alfred Schnittke and Franz Schubert.

Violinist Philippe Djokic took the stage alone to recreate the incredible world of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo violin marathon, the Chaconne in D minor from the 2nd Violin Partita.

It was a solid and a thorough performance, articulated throughout with the kinds of musical weights and measures — drawn out phrases, defining articulations — that bring a vivid sense of musical presence to one of the richest scores in the violin repertoire, and take years to develop.

Djokic has lived long with this work, nourished his understanding of it in both his practice and teaching studio. He now plays it with the kind of easy creative absorption that has long gone beyond the need for conscious thought.

Now, it is more a question of gathering its elements gently in and pacing his way through it so that it both speaks and sings with elegant eloquence as it shapes itself in both his mind and ours.

Quietly, thoroughly, Djokic’s Bach music unfolded like a flower, opening itself to our imaginations.

After this calm and light-filled opening, the Ensemble Epomeo — Caroline Chin, violin, David Yang, viola, and Kenneth Woods, cello — gave us a completely different, more angst-ridden kind of eloquence in their performance of Schnittke’s Trio for Violin,Viola and Cello.

At one time, Schnittke’s score would have been slighted as “eclectic” for his use of allusions to other composers’ styles. But critics, after a decade or two of aesthetic collage in all the arts, found a more positive, and more useful term in calling it “polytonalism,” and let it go at that.

Schnittke’s uses these references like a musical James Joyce, fitting them in with sometimes shocking effect, only to calm us down in a measure or two as the logic of their creative energy reveals itself to us.

Violent attacks and harshly, dissonant harmonies provided clues of the musical imagery of mid-20th-century European anguish, as populations coped with boom and bust amid the ideological struggle between Russia and the West. Hints of all this percolated through the sudden shifts of Schnittke’s music from outrage to childlike sentimentality.

Throughout, the excellent Ensemble Epomeo three instruments merged into a rare kind of musical experience. Spacious and uncannily unified, it was wholly successful in towing the audience along as though they were floating in a huge balloon of music and harmony.

You can’t really write about such experiences. But as an audience you know that for a moment or two, for a measure, for a note of harmony, for a tone colour, you were vividly held together in the same aesthetic space.

After the intermission, three Scotia Festival veterans, pianist John Novacek, violinist Mark Fewer and cellist Denise Djokic, took on Schubert’s Trio in E-flat major, D. 929 in a lively performance.

Each of its four movements, but especially the first and the fourth, acutely expressed Schubert’s rhythmic energy, led by Novacek at the grand piano, making it live up to its name.

The delicacy of the repeated note, mandolin-like triplets in the treble of the piano, executed by Novacek with breath-holding evenness and crispness of touch in the fourth movement, contrasted with the warm lyricism of the cello lines, especially in the second movement.

When played as this trio played, Schubert’s sweetness and his intuitive gift for simple but enchanting melodies made for a happy, chatty audience as it exited the theatre.

Scotia Festival in review- preview feature from the Chronicle Herald

An interesting feature looking ahead to the (now-completed) 2013 Scotia Festival from senior Chronicle Herald classical critic Stephen Pedersen. Read the original here

Woods, Brady headline festival

May 24, 2013 – 5:34pm BY STEPHEN PEDERSEN
Classical music stars Halifax-bound for Scotia Festival of Music, which starts Monday
Conductor and cellist Kenneth Woods, left, and electric guitar improv virtuoso Tim Brady will be in Halifax next week for the Scotia Festival of Music, which opens Monday and runs to June 9.

Conductor and cellist Kenneth Woods, left, and electric guitar improv virtuoso Tim Brady will be in Halifax next week for the Scotia Festival of Music, which opens Monday and runs to June 9.
Scotia Festival of Music’s latest classical music stars are cellist-conductor Kenneth Woods and electric guitar improv virtuoso Tim Brady.

The festival opens Monday night with Woods, violinist Caroline Chin and violist David Yang of Ensemble Epomeo playing the Schnitke String Trio.

Schubert’s E Flat Major Piano Trio with returning favourites pianist John Novacek, cellist Denise Djokic and violinist Mark Fewer will be sharing the opening program, and violinist Philippe Djokic opens the festival with Bach’s Chaconne (solo violin).

Woods, a Scotia Festival alumnus, has a big career in full stride, both as conductor and as cellist with his Epomeo Ensemble. His waggish sense of humour can be sampled at his blog in his impassioned, tongue-in-cheek defence of repeating the Exposition in symphonies, chamber music and piano sonatas.

At this year’s festival, Woods will conduct three concerts: the final Gala concert June 9, the John Adams Violin Concerto (with Philippe Djokic), a version for winds of the Threepenny Opera, and Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (Scotia Festival Strings).

On June 7, Tim Brady premieres his We’re Hardcore with soprano Janice Jackson and string quintet (with double bass).

Brady, who calls Halifax “a very special place,” is contributing not only his skill as an improviser and composer to Scotia Festival Young Artists but an original composition for oboe, electric guitar, string trio (Epomeo) and piano called FLOW.

“I’m giving three 90-minute workshops for students to work on understanding how to approach a new piece, but also doing a bit of improvising to loosen them up. Just because you are learning a Beethoven sonata doesn’t mean you have to turn off your own creative ideas.

“There’s not an inherent contradiction between playing classical music and having your own ideas,” he says.

The biggest barrier to improvising and musical creation, he says, is fear.

“It’s that simple. People are afraid of making mistakes.

“The main thing is to get in a room, start talking, take these basic concepts and ideas and adapt. Once you get into creation mode, you have to let go of the concept of mistakes. It’s a new piece so there can’t be any mistakes. That’s a big leap for people to take.”

With master classes, rehearsals and outreach programs in Halifax schools, Brady will be a busy guy. He also has to find time to practise. “I can probably find an hour or two here and there. You find the time. You can’t live without it, partly because you don’t want to lose your chops. But at a certain point you practise because you like practising.

“There is a certain pleasure in practising, even if I didn’t have shows coming up. I can’t imagine getting so old and crotchety. I’m pretty sure I’m going to practise guitar until they rip it out of my — what’s the Charlton Heston line? — my ‘cold, dead hands.’”

He’ll be busy. Yet, says managing director Chris Wilcox, “this festival is really the Ken Woods Scotia Festival. He came here as a young artist in 1993. He’s been back several times and came back when we did Messiaen’s Turangalila and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.”

“He’s playing in four concerts, conducting three, giving a master class, and two outreach programs with his trio in schools.”

Wilcox pointed out other highlights of this year’s festival, including the rest of Friday’s program, where Brady’s premiere (We’re Hardcore) shares space with Kurt Weill and Benjamin Britten.

Brady’s electric guitar recital (June 2), Airi Yoshioka’s violin recital and also solo works (June 2), the Berg Concerto for Violin and 13 Winds (June 4), the Adams Violin Concerto, along with the Threepenny Opera (version for winds) and, among other treasures, Denise Djokic playing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto (June 9) — all are highlight concerts and almost all the works are 20th century masterpieces we don’t hear played in Halifax often, if at all.

Plenty of music for learners, plenty of masterpieces for gourmet concert-goers, plenty of opportunities for young artists getting a taste of how insanely busy things can get in the life of a professional musician.

Scotia Festival 2013 in review- Final Gala Concert

A review of the final Gala concert of the 2013 Scotia Festival of Music from critic Stephen Pederson at the Chronicle Herald. Read the original here.

June 10, 2013
Concerto performances stunning
 Scotia Festival of Music ended on triple stun Sunday afternoon in the Dunn Theatre: stunning program, stunning soloists, stunning orchestra.

Under the understated guidance of Kenneth Woods (also stunning in its delivery of the music without either mannerism or exaggerated expression), the orchestra of professionals and students simply delivered a full house of concertos with violinist Mark Fewer, pianist John Novacek and cellist Denise Djokic.

Novacek, with his inimitable nimbleness of 10-fingered nuances, played Mozart’s extraordinary Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453 just before the intermission, with Fewer introducing us to the resourceful tangles and inventive graces of John Adams’ 1994 Violin Concerto and Djokic delivering a powerful performance of the Cello Concerto No. l in E-flat major of Dmitri Shostakovich.

A perfect storm, in other words, in the fusion of composers, soloists and players, to end one of the best-programmed Scotia Festivals in its 34 years of annual spring chamber music concerts.

Paradoxically, the Adams’ violin concerto appeared to wander aimlessly, but with intent. It absolutely refused to let us stray from attentiveness. Which means that Fewer knew entirely what he was doing.

Motion in music and even more so, momentum, is animated by repetition. In his concerto, Adams resorted, as he often seems inclined to do in his music, to this time-honoured solution to the problem, to make repetition basic and inevitable.

In this concerto, the solo line is active, wide-ranging, often bizarrely original, but it is tied down by a familiar device, a chaconne figure, a bass line which is repeated.

Fewer gave a remarkably assured and penetrating performance of this entirely new, yet also entirely familiar, music. Technically, though he played it without making it sound so, this concerto is fiendishly difficult.

Novacek played the Mozart concerto with his typical habit of brilliantly nuanced finger work, each note expressive without exaggeration but making even the familiar sound new.

For the finale, Denise Djokic gave a powerful performance of the Shostakovich concerto: strong, assured, expressive. Wood and the orchestra gave her space, acoustic space, for an ideal balance of soloist and ensemble.

It has been two weeks of remarkable concerts in the Dunn at this year’s Scotia Festival. For me, one of the most remarkable was the playing of Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, for strings, Op. 10, on Friday night.

Somehow I have missed hearing this powerful work during long years of listening to classical music. Hearing it for the first time under the direction of so honest and intuitive a musician as Kenneth Woods was a shattering experience, leaving me speechless with awe and wonder.


CD Review- MusicWeb International on Bobby and Hans, vol 3

A new review from critic Dan Morgan at MusicWeb. Read the whole thing here. 

A short sample follows

Just Released- Volume Three of the Complete Symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann

Just Released- Volume Three of the Complete Symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann

The Second Symphony opens with a most unsettling string theme that blossoms into a mellifluous, pulsing tune whose mood and manner might well suggest pared-down Bruckner. Structurally it’s more tightly drawn – no dancing mountains here – and in that sense Gál’s musical language tends to look backwards more than it does forward. That’s not a criticism, merely a marker, for it’s clear this music inhabits a strange, half-lit world between the warm Romanticism of the 19th century and the cooler climes of the 20th. That said, the gloaming is occasionally pierced with shafts of pure, unexpected loveliness.

This band plays with admirable finesse and concentration, and the recording is clean and well focused. Gál’s textures – often spare, but never emaciated – are alleviated somewhat by the greater amplitude and more rhythmically alert Allegro energico. At times there’s a hint of Mahler in dancerly mode, but what strikes one most forcibly is Gál’s propensity for periods of lucence and chamber-like intensity. It’s a persuasive mix, and there are no longueurs to speak of. As for that gorgeous Adagio, with its haunting cello line at the outset, it’s startling in its blend of radiance and gravitas. Eloquent playing, too.

Concert Review- Tempo Magazine on “The Trumpet Shall Sound”

A review appeared in Tempo Magazine from January 2013 of the Orchestra of the Swan’s “Trumpet Shall Sound” concert. A short excerpt follows

Composer John McCabe

Composer John McCabe


Although John McCabe’s Rainforest II, of 1987, is in effect a chamber concerto for trumpet and 11 strings, his extensive body of concertante works has lacked an official trumpet concerto. La Primavera, which had its première on 15 June 2012, now happily fills that gap. The subtitle derives from McCabe’s consideration of two aspects of the approach of Spring: the vitality of burgeoning growth and the flowering of the new or refreshed life as it expands.

Completed in 2012, McCabe’s concerto is conceived on a small scale, requiring an accompanying orchestra consisting of one each of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet and tenor trombone, together with a modest array of percussion – for one player – and strings. Two unconventional aspects of the score must be mentioned. First, in the work’s central Andante the soloist uses a flugelhorn, an instrument of melancholy radiance with resonances of Miles Davies and Vaughan Williams’s symphonic swansong; McCabe exploits both of these elements persuasively to stirring effect in his slow movement. The second  unusual element concerns the percussion, which, due to its obbligato-like character, is required to be placed at the front of the platform near the trumpet soloist.

Formally, the work is traditional, with three clearly defined sections or movements in the pattern of fast–slow–fast. Quicksilver and quixotic, the opening Allegro switches between moods of buoyant  festivity and chamber-like delicacy. Droll references to the Rite of Spring add to the music’s zestful good humour, though it is typical of McCabe’s fastidiousness that these Stravinsky ‘quotations’ are not merely inserted randomly into the score but rather constitute a logical development  of the ascending and descending woodwind figures heard in the concerto’s opening bars…

Following without a break, the slow movement begins in a state of near-suspension, an effect achieved by layers of sustained and muted strings, before an intricate theme rises eventually from the lower  strings, ultimately forming a full string texture. The jazz-like nature of this central episode is emphasised by subtle use of double-bass pizzicato and openly lyrical writing for the soloist. After a brief ‘quasi cadenza’ for solo trumpet and bongos, the swift finale is infectiously rhythmic, mirroring the first movement’s accumulation through the contiguity of various overlapping strands…In the concerto’s closing moments, the combined orchestral forces punch out a forceful, heavily accented unison before the textures rapidly etiolate, leaving the trumpet solo with the last word.

Commissioned by the Orchestra of the Swan and dedicated to trumpet soloist Simon Desbruslais, La Primavera was expertly rendered by these musicians under the authoritative direction of Kenneth Woods. A  special tribute must be paid to the key contribution of the orchestra’s percussionist, spotlighted by this exacting score almost as much as Desbruslais; their extensive interplay was a crucial element in the concerto’s winning composite of conviviality and intimacy.

Earlier in the first half of the concert at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Civic Hall, another new piece received its world première – Deborah Pritchard’s Skyspace for solo piccolo trumpet and string orchestra, inspired by the installations of artist James Turrell. Divided into seven vivid miniatures, this finely wrought piece extracted a strikingly rich and diverse range of colours from its circumscribed resources, thanks in part to an imaginative use of divided strings, notably in sumptuous chordal passages….

Also on the orchestra’s exceptionally enterprising programme, which included Michael Tippett’s Little Music for Strings and Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’, was a rare and welcome opportunity to hear Robert Saxton’s piece for solo trumpet and small orchestra Psalm – A Song of Ascents, written in 1992 and given its première by John Wallace and the London Sinfonietta the following year. This poetic work was influenced by diverse biblical references to the trumpet, ranging from ceremonial fanfares to the instrument’s seraphic associations. The diversity of character suggested by these allusions is reflected in Saxton’s textless psalm, which ranges widely in mood from the bell-tinted introspective beginning, launched by a unison E, to the joyously rhythmic third and final section via a song-like allegro moderato central episode. Generating waves of pulsating energy, the score increases gradually in tempo until a resounding climax is reached, followed by a radiant, sustained A major coda ending in a state of repose. It was gratifying to be given a chance to experience this challenging work in a reading of such heroic panache and fierce dedication: soloist, players and conductor valiantly negotiated the score’s fiendish polyrhythms and labyrinthine tempo associations, whilst building a convincing case for it to be regarded as one of Saxton’s finest utterances.

To sum up, this event was memorable for the quality of its performances and the boldness of its scheduling in equal measure. It is a pleasure to be able to report that the featured McCabe, Pritchard and Saxton works have been recorded by the same artists for future release on the Signum Classics label.

Paul Conway

CD Review- Grahan Rickson, The Arts Desk on Gal/Krasa Complete String Trios

A review from Graham Rickson at The Arts Desk of Ensemble Epomeo’s recording of the Complete String Trios of Hans Gal and Hans Krasa. Read the whole thing here.

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Hans Gál & Hans Krása: Complete String Trios Ensemble Epomeo (Avie)

Avie have already successfully exhumed the four symphonies by the Austrian émigré Hans Gál, who pitched up in Edinburgh in the 1940s and enjoyed a long academic career. His early Serenade in D for string trio epitomises his early style – breezy, neoclassical and full of busy counterpoint which never sounds too studied or pedantic. This is supremely approachable, engaging music, and sweetly played here – every chromatic kink handled with deft skill. Best is the closing Alla Marcia, dazzling in terms of its technical facility, and, evidently, very enjoyable to play. The Serenade is paired with Gál’s 1971 Trio in F sharp minor, a darker, brooding work originally featuring the viola d’amore – though a standard viola is heard here. Gál’s opening movement seems to hark back to fin-de-siecle Vienna, and the mood of bittersweet melancholy is neatly sidestepped in the trio’s closing minutes. Cellist Kenneth Woods describes Gál as the Viennese classical tradition’s “last, modest master” and it’s hard not to agree.

Also on the disc are several works by the Czech composer Hans Krása. He died inAuschwitz in 1944, having spent two years interned in the Theresienstadt ghetto – where the short Tanec and Passacaglia and Fuga for string trio were composed. This makes listening to both of these brilliantly communicative pieces an uneasy experience, each one a masterly exercise in musical doublespeak. I won’t attempt to describe them – buy this disc and experience them for yourself. Eloquent performances in glowing sound.

CD Review- Strad Magazine, Matthew Rye, on Gal/Krasa Complete String Trios

From the December 2012 issue of The Strad

A disc of String trios where time and place play an inescapable role


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Epomeo Play Krasa and Gal


Here is music for string trio by two composers of Jewish heritage from the same generation, whose experience of the cold hand of Nazism resulted in different fates. The Viennese Hans Gál managed to escape to Britain in 1928 and lived to the ripe old age of 97; the unluckier Czech-born Hans Krása enjoyed, if that’s the word, a brief stay of execution at the Jewish show camp of Terezin before being murdered in Auschwitz aged 44. The players of Ensemble Epomeo capture the charm of Gál’s delightful neo-Classical Serenade (1932) with a sense of line and subtlety of texture. But, one feels, they could have brought more muscle to the emotional sound world of the F sharp minor Trio, with its nostalgic throwback to pre-war Vienna viewed from the sanctuary of 1970’s Edinburgh (and which in its original version included a viola d’amore).

However, they certainly don’t hold back in the short Krása pieces, written during the composer’s last days in Terezin. Here they exploit the dance-of-death tendencides of the Tanec and the sense of order overthrown in the Passacaglia and Fugue (each of which dissipates into Expressionist anarchy) and a frightenly challenging end. A warmly-recorded and thought-provoking disc.

Matthew Rye

CD Review- MuiscWeb International on Spring Sounds, Spring Seas

A new review from MusicWeb International for Spring Sounds, Spring Seas. Read the whole thing here. A short sample follows. An earlier, five-star version of this same review appears at Art Music Reviews.


These are world premiere recordings, and the programme also lays claim to being “the world’s first chamber orchestra recording featuring a full program of music with shakuhachi and koto.” The CD title is a reference both to the Orchestra of the Swan’s ‘Spring Sounds Festival’ and a translation of the opening work, Haru No Umi, into English: ‘The Sea in Spring’.

Composer James Nyoraku Schlefer is founder of the not-for-profit Kyo-Shin-An Arts, an organization “dedicated to the appreciation and integration of Japanese musical instruments in Western classical music.” Kyo-Shin-An commissioned Daron Hagen’s Koto Concerto, his first venture into the exotica of non-Western instruments. Schlefer, on the other hand, has a close and longstanding relationship with Japanese culture – ‘Nyoraku’ (“like the essence of music”) is a name acquired through intensive training and study in traditional music. This CD offers an accessible introduction to the timbral and expressive capabilities of the traditional shakuhachi and the 20-string koto, as interpreted by contemporary, but decidedly audience-friendly, American composers also employing normal occidental forces.

Schlefer’s three-movement Shakuhachi Concerto is subtly scored for strings, harp and percussion, with a ‘semi-solo’ role played by the shakuhachi, an end-blown flute frequently heard in film music wishing to evoke Japan, China or Far Eastern religions. Schlefer is an accredited shakuhachi ‘Grand Master’, and the Concerto consequently has little time for pseudo-ethnic flutterings. Instead, this attractive, highly approachable work – mainly contemplative, sometimes almost static but with bursts of strong rhythmic energy – exhibits considerable craftsmanship and no little artistry.

As a performer, Schlefer’s mastery of what is a very difficult instrument to play well is awe-inspiring, as a superb high-definition YouTube video of this very recording on hiswebsitedemonstrates.

The subtitle of Daron Hagen’s Koto Concerto is a reference to the 11th-century ‘Tale of Genji’, a longwinded romance involving a royal son made commoner through political shenanigans who falls in love with a girl about whom he knows only that she plays the koto divinely! With Hagen eschewing direct extra-musical narrative, the Concerto’s five sections capture various psychological states from the story, although the overall feel is a generally cheery one, ending in consummation – or, as the story discreetly puts it, ‘Vanished into the Clouds’. For anyone interested in hearing the zither-like koto played both virtuosically and expressively, this is a work to experience. Hagen’s colourful, lively writing for orchestra pushes things along, skilfully and tunefully blending Japanese and American styles. Yumi Kurosawa, young but immensely experienced, is a koto player par excellence. In 2009 she debuted with a solo disc of her own pieces for the 21-string koto, a so-called ‘world fusion’ collection aptly entitled ‘Beginning of a Journey’ and available through her website. Her performance here can also be viewed, in another splendid high-definition YouTube video this time on Hagen’s website

Both shakuhachi and koto appear together in the CD opener, Schlefer’s very recent Haru No Umi Redux. The ‘redux’ is an indication of the fact that Schlefer has reworked the quasi-traditional Japanese New Year’s tune, Haru No Umi – actually composed by Michiyo Miyagi in 1929 – adding some of his own material with a light string orchestra backing. Redux is a lovely, thoughtful piece made up of several equally atmospheric solo, duo and tutti sections.

The still-underrated Orchestra of the Swan are having a busy time of things at the moment – this is already their third release of 2012, following two Avie CDs pairing symphonies by Schumann and Hans Gál (review,review). They were led in those recordings by the even more prolific Kenneth Woods, who, as part of his ongoing advocacy of Gál and wearing his cellist hat in the Ensemble Epomeo, has just had another Avie disc released, featuring both the composer’s String Trios and a couple of shorter works by Hans Krása (AV 2259). For Woods and the Swans the present disc will surely add to their growing reputation for measured, quality interpretations, as well as a laudable, healthy interest in music that without their intervention would probably languish unjustifiably in dusty library basements. Whilst Woods is Principal Guest Conductor of the Orchestra, David Curtis, who steps in for Hagen’s Genji, is actual Artistic Director and has established the ensemble as a champion for living composers, many of whom they have commissioned. In many ways he cuts a similar figure to Woods – confident, relaxed and thankfully lacking any taste for melodrama. All of that comes across in these recordings, which are as arresting and entertaining as either composer could wish for.

Sound quality throughout the CD is very good indeed, warm and well balanced

CD Review- Classical Source on Ensemble Epomeo: Gal and Krasa, Complete String Trios

A very positive new review of Ensemble Epomeo’s debut CD from Classical Source editor Colin Anderson.

Read the whole thing here. A short sample follows below


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However, although placed at the end of the disc, and previously recorded, it was the two pieces by Hans Krása that your reviewer was initially attracted to. Czech-born Krása (1899-1944) died an ignominious death in the Nazi gas chambers at Auschwitz on 18 October in the penultimate year of World War Two; he had been transported there just two days previously together with fellow-composers Gideon Klein, Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas. Tanec (which simply means Dance) is salty and spirited before relaxing into the reflective curves of Eastern European exotic expression, then syncopating and swanking along to a rather bitter-chorded conclusion. Gravitas informs the opening of Passacaglia and Fuga (also from 1944), serious and searching, Bachian with just a hint of Schoenberg, but any severity is offset by a slow and seductive waltz and, then, a furious Fugue, concluding with another off-note finish.

Each of Hans Gál’s string trios lasts for around 25 minutes. The first one is disguised as a Serenade (1932). Its four movements are outgoing and pleasing, written with economy, every note having its place, and Gál wasn’t about to turn his back on the popular side of Viennese dance in music that is at once ‘light’, intricately laced and symphonic. The second movement melts in the mouth, its counterpoint developing like a spider’s web. The following Minuet is a lively affair (Haydn and Mozart would have welcomed Gál to dinner as one of their own) and the finale is engaging in its tripping transparency and classical interweaving. This really attractive work – capricious and singing (I plagiarise Gál’s movement titles) – is a very likeable discovery.

The String Trio in F sharp minor dates from 1971. The first movement might be thought strict and strenuous, the writing pared to musical essentials, but there is no lack of assertiveness and bittersweet detours. The second movement, marked Presto, courses along; and the finale, a ‘Theme and Variations’, is often deep in thought, but its privacy is neither ring-fenced to shared listening nor indifferent to changes of mood.

Vividly recorded, the three instrumentalists of Ensemble Epomeo – closely balanced in a slightly too big and resonant acoustic – play superbly individually and as a team and with obvious commitment; clearly Kenneth Woods’s burgeoning conducting career is not to the detriment of his artistry on the cello. Woods has also written a typically enlightening booklet note.

MusicWeb International on Bobby and Hans vol. 2

A new review of the latest disc in the Orchestra of the Swan Gal/Schumann series by critic Byzantion is available on the MusicWeb International website.

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 Read the whole thing here. A short sample follows-
The four semi-spotlit soloists turn in terrific performances in this least symphonic of Gál’s four Symphonies, but then again so do their fellow OS-members under Woods’ immaculate direction. He and the OS are even better in Schumann’s Second Symphony, which finds the composer in Beethovenian vein at his most luxurious and radiant, despite his ongoing battle with depression. Though there is an astonishing focus on C major throughout all four movements, the Second is anything but monotone, even the slow movement emanating a joie-de-vivre and elegance that underline the healing power of passionate music. The smaller ensemble of the OS works perfectly for Schumann, and Woods’ attention to the details of this intellectual but emotionally gripping score and phrasing is second to none – this is the Second Symphony as Schumann wrote it to sound, and as the early-Romantic masterpiece it truly is!

CD Review- The Arts Desk, Graham Rickson on Bobby and Hans vol. 2

A new review from critic Graham Rickson  this week at The Arts Desk is available here.

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“An Austrian Jew who eventually settled in Edinburgh and achieved fame as an academic, Gál’s early renown came through composition. His final symphony was completed in 1974 but – intensely personal, elegiac, nostalgic music, and completely out of step with the times – it could have been written 80 years before. Gál saw himself as part of the Austro-German tradition, and his last symphony achieves a Haydnesque clarity and concision. It’s sparely scored for a classical orchestra, and you’re reminded of Richard Strauss’s similarly anachronistic final works…”
“The restraint of the Gál is intelligently coupled with Schumann’s Symphony No 2. There are no reservations at all about the playing of the Orchestra of the Swan under Kenneth Woods. Good chamber orchestras can make Schumann sound lighter, fresher, leaner – there’s plenty of definition and lightness here. Woods manages to make the first movement’s obsessive triple time rhythm sound like music instead of a stuck record, and the Scherzo has the requisite bounce. There’s plenty of stoic melancholy in the Adagio, but not enough to derail the symphony’s emotional trajectory. Excellent, in other words.”


CD Review- Robert R. Reilly on Gal and Schumann Third Symphonies

A new review from Robert R Reilly in the June Crisis Magazine of several recent Hans Gál recordings, including Bobby and Hans vol. 1, which he describes as follows:


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“The Third Symphony, which opens with such a gentle, lovely theme on the oboe, then the flute, before the horns zone in more assertively, has simply to be one of the most graceful modern symphonies. There is a haunting Viennese waltz lilting through parts of it. How can anything this lovely – try to resist the gorgeous andante – not have been performed in 55 years, until this superb recording by Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan? They and their forces both do equally well with the Schumann …. This is music for those who thought the world had ended, and who can now discover that it didn’t.” [emphasis added]

Reilly’s column (you can read his review of our earlier Gál Violin Concerto disc here) is on of the more diverse and interesting in its breadth—this month, in addition to Gál, he covers music by Braunfels, Rontgen, Fritz Brun, Felix Weingartner (yes, the conductor), Havergal Brian, Enescu, Wolf-Ferrari, Paul Graener and Paul Juon. Yes, that’s all in one month’s column, and not a mention of celebrity crossover discs in sight.

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