COMPOSERS: Nathaniel Dett,Traditional,Will James
LABELS: EMI Debut
WORKS: Spirituals & Gospel Songs
PERFORMER: Ruby Philogene (soprano), Julius Drake (piano); London Adventist Chorale/Ken Burton
CATALOGUE NO: CDZ 5 69707 2
‘May you live in interesting times,’ goes the Chinese curse. In this sense these are certainly interesting times for the big record companies, whose current difficulties (notably the over-saturation of mainstream repertory) and consequent diminution of production schedules have been widely publicised. But if EMI’s ‘Debut’ series is anything to go by, not every issue from that company will now be a ‘theme’ compilation, a Roberto Alagna mega-production, or a Callas reissue. Indeed, on the evidence of the first nine ‘Debut’ discs, EMI’s ‘interesting times’ have resulted in at least one extremely interesting idea.
The series offers young artists of already proven ability not yet known to the record-buying public the chance to ‘make one-off recordings with a major international label using state-of-the-art production facilities’. Balancing this obvious advantage for the youngsters chosen is an equally obvious one for the purchaser: all these discs are at budget price. The analogy is with paperback books: the possibility of sampling the work of an attractive unknown made that much easier. Presentation has been properly considered – each disc comes with decent biographical and musical notes in English, German and French (but, alas, no song texts where necessary). Added to this, the choice of performers themselves has been undertaken with care. In the first release, most are British. But not all: the pianist Nelson Goerner (b1969), whose all-Chopin disc is one of two that I’d want at any price, is a Europe-based Argentinian.
I first heard him in 1991 (the previous year he had won the Geneva Competition), when at the Grange de Meslay in Tours he had the unenviable task of replacing an indisposed Sviatoslav Richter, the Tours Festival’s household deity. At the time Goerner’s quiet self-assurance, beautifully solid technique, and air of unforced musical authority made an immediate impression. The passage of time has only deepened those qualities, while bringing to Goerner’s Chopin-playing a boldness and energy that at Tours it slightly lacked.
The disc includes fine-drawn accounts of the Third Sonata and A flat Polonaise-Fantaisie; more striking still are his unhurried Fourth Scherzo, Fourth Ballade and – best of all – Barcarolle, in which the iridescent sonorities, strong, steady rhythmic pull and supple lyrical manner of melodic unfolding elicit comparisons with Lipatti and Rubinstein. Goerner’s way of apparently drawing his interpretations out of the notes themselves makes him a young piano-aristocrat.
My other disc of choice – Life Story – belongs to a very different kind of pianist. Thomas Adès (b1971) participates in all eight of his own works (in Under Hamelin Hill, of 1992, his keyboard is that of a chamber organ). Not just for the reason that his piano-playing has a brilliance, delicacy, and ‘personality’ all its own – as have the notes he writes for the instrument – is Adès frequently the subject of parallels with Britten, another precocious youth who, in the early part of his career, suffered from reviewers’ over-use of the ‘clever’ adjective. Adès is already far more than that, as the disc makes plain.
Every piece here presented, whether for voice and piano (the succinctly picturesque Five Eliot Landscapes, 1990, or Life Story, 1994, the raucously blue – in more than one sense – Tennessee Williams setting) or piano alone (notably Still Sorrowing, 1992, in which a piece of Blu-Tac is used to damp the middle strings of the piano), offers an arrestingly imaginative initial idea which is then explored with wit, economy and unfailing deftness.Adès never seems to repeat himself, never over-extends himself, never blunts his gift for the razor-sharp musical mot juste.
For the other debutants, the budget-price category seems just right. In offering a programme of songs by Italian opera composers, the Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans invites comparisons that might otherwise prove unflattering. Already loved by Welsh National Opera audiences for her Ilia (Idomeneo), Sophie (Rosenkavalier) and Cinderella (in Massenet’s Cendrillon), she’s the possessor of a candid, shining, light-lyric instrument that traces easy, gracious curves across a wide compass; but her word-singing is at the ‘gifted student’ level, and her bel canto phrases are seldom idiomatically pulled taut.
The pleasures offered here are not those of style demonstration. Likewise the affecting but rather sober disc of spirituals and gospel songs offered by the warm-toned mezzo Ruby Philogene (fans of Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman may be expecting greater pathos and ‘swing’ than they find here) and the London Adventist Chorale; and the Strauss transcriptions played by Konstantin Scherbakov, a formidable Siberian pianist essaying a repertory associated with dashing, dazzling virtuosos like Moriz Rosenthal (whose Blue Danube Fantasy is included here), Leopold Godowsky, and (nearer our day) Shura Cherkassky.
For the rest, Richard Egarr’s Bach on the harpsichord (CDZ 5 69700 2), the Brindisi Quartet’s wind-and-string Mozart chamber music (CDZ 5 69702 2), and Palestrina from the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge (CDZ 5 69703 2) deserve at least a courteous commendation. The Stravinsky (Petrushka) and Mussorgsky (Pictures at an Exhibition) transcribed for two accordions by James Crabb and Geir Draugsvoll (CDZ 5 69705 2) are a curiosity which will be more to some tastes than others.