Robert Stove

Robert Stove

Articles by Robert Stove

December 16, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Songs by Max Reger (Sophie Bevan)

In songwriting terms, Reger remains a one-hit wonder: his Mariä Wiegenlied, but heaven help anyone seeking the rest of his vast Liederoutput. Now Hyperion has come to the rescue,  but even they supply a mere 33 of the nearly 300 songs which Reger left. Repeatedly discernible in this selection dominated by miniatures is the composer’s tendency to resort to restless chromaticism in songs that begin as folk-like, almost drawing-room productions. No wonder recitalists have shied away. Far easier to master a song that stays in the same mood throughout, rather than switching within seconds from Schubertian quasi-naivety to Hugo-Wolf-style anguish. Significantly, Reger preferred minor poets: no Goethe, Schiller or Heine here. Occasionally Reger uses a verse familiar from Strauss: Mackay’s Morgen!, which Reger makes almost indistinguishable from a Wagnerian dusk. But other Reger settings show him in a much better light and they deserve more frequent airings. This reviewer was particularly taken by the martial Zwischen zwei Nächten, the impressionistic Aeolsharfe(like Debussy to German words), and above all the deliberately antiquarian In einem Rosengärtelein. Sophie Bevan has a big timbre which nevertheless encompasses considerable delicacy when needed. Malcolm Martineau is perfectly attuned to Reger’s unrelenting demands. Engineering and booklet annotations…This…

October 4, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Franck, Debussy: Piano Quintet, String Quartet

Whilst Debussy’s and Ravel’s quartets have been constant disc-mates since the LP epoch, there is greater artistic justification for hearing Debussy coupled with Franck’s wild, alarming (yet classically built) quartet-plus-piano masterpiece, given that Debussy took ages to expunge Franck’s influence from his system. The Franck Quintet might or might not have been a coded love-letter to the composer’s pupil Augusta Holmès, but it transcends all attempts at biographical reductionism. By comparison, the Debussy, however beguiling, can seem slightly incoherent.That Marc-André Hamelin meets Franck’s punitive technical demands was to be expected. Less predictable (since few will have heard Hamelin in chamber music before) is his collaborative panache. This admirably vivid performance never conveys the feeling of pianist and colleagues going their separate ways. Rather, they catch fire from each other’s interactions. As for the Debussy, the Takács instrumentalists give – thank goodness – the sense that they have never heard of wishy-washy terms like “Impressionism.” They often dare to be downright harsh, above all in the pizzicato-dominated second movement. This is a good account to reassure those who think themselves over-familiar with the composition. The recorded sound, somewhat dry (and markedly kinder to the piano than to the strings), nowhere detracts…

January 5, 2016
CD and Other Review

Review: Ysaÿe: Six Sonatas for solo violin (Alina Ibragimova)

Name an instance of unaccompanied violin music not by Bach or Paganini and most of us will struggle. Unless, that is, we have a special affinity with Belgium, in which case, the half-dozen works which Eugène Ysaÿe produced (1923-24) may have come to our attention. While both Franck and Chausson dedicated their best-known violin compositions to Ysaÿe, even violinists themselves rarely show much interest in his original output. A new recording emerges every few years but swiftly fades from view. Each movement of these pieces could appropriately bear Liszt’s title: “studies in transcendental execution.” But Liszt seldom discernibly influences the actual music, and anyone who dreads being subjected to a kind of hour-long Flight of the Bumble-Bee has a congenial surprise in store. Most obvious of the music’s features is its severity, suggesting Busoni above all. The printed score’s pages are black with expression marks and bowing indications as well as notes, but the writing never sounds over-ornate. Rather, it remains profound, however energetic. No real portraiture of the dedicatees, all great violinists themselves, appears to have been intended. The Fourth Sonata, inscribed to Kreisler, sounds scarcely less austere than the First, inscribed to Szigeti, though suggestions of Romanian fire…

April 10, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Gounod: Complete works for pedal piano (Prosseda)

If there existed a prize for the World-Famous Composer Whom We Falsely Supposed We Knew, Gounod would win it at a canter. Take away Faust, the Funeral March for a Marionette (immortalised by Alfred Hitchcock), the Bach-derived Ave Maria, and how much Gounod have most of us heard? Singularly little. Even his Messe Solennelle and O Divine Redeemer, beloved during the early 20th century, have largely faded from general consciousness. Yet never fear, Hyperion is here, giving us not just utterly obscure Gounod pieces but an utterly obscure instrument: the pedal-piano (usually called pédalier in France and Pedalflügel in Germany), which once inspired enthusiasm in Schumann, Alkan, and Franck. Equipped with an organ-style pedal-board as well as standard piano keys, the pédalier emerged recently on an Olivier Latry disc where the tinny, clattering, bar-room sound largely defeated this reviewer. Hyperion’s pédalier has a much more attractive tone, and incorporates two Steinway grand pianos – the annotations explain the Rube-Goldberg-like procedures involved – to produce handsome results. Compared with a conventional piano, the timbre remains on the dry side. Nevertheless the outcome proves unfailingly musical, which chez Latry it assuredly was not.  No-one would credit this repertoire with consistent brow-furrowing profundity,…

March 2, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Handel: Harpsichord Suites (Egarr)

When Heifetz told Schoenberg that he could not possibly perform the latter’s Violin Concerto unless his own left hand were to acquire a sixth finger, the composer allegedly replied: “I can wait.” Perhaps a similar sentiment governs the harpsichordist confronted with Handel’s decidedly tricky solo pieces.  On paper they might not look overpoweringly difficult; but often they fall awkwardly under the hands, in a manner which Richard Egarr’s impressive booklet essay compares to Brahms’ pianistic style. At least the piano has a sustaining pedal to help out with polyphonic interplay (Glenn Gould, Sviatoslav Richter and Andrei Gavrilov all tackled these works). No such luck with the harpsichord. Besides, stylistic problems – greater than anything in Bach’s English Suites or French Suites – also bedevil the player. How Handelian should they seem, given that their free-and-easy preludes echo the French clavecinistes, and their intricate counterpoint passages do not resemble much in the oratorios or concerti grossi? Altogether it is unsurprising, if regrettable, that (except for everybody’s favourite movement, The Harmonious Blacksmith concluding Suite No 5) this music has been traditionally underestimated. Egarr’s curiously frivolous interpretations seem to me unlikely to win converts. The man has technical brilliance to burn, but he rarely…

February 13, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: Lutheran masses Volume 1 (The Sixteen/Christophers)

Dating from the 1730s, Bach’s four short Mass settings are the red-headed stepchildren of his choral output. Several Bach scholars have actively belittled them as “mindless” (Philipp Spitta in the 19th century) and “quite nonsensical” (Albert Schweitzer). Moreover, they contain abundant recycling of cantata movements not always perfectly suited to their new Latin words. Still, now that they have attracted such significant directors as Konrad Junghänel (Harmonia Mundi) and Philippe Herreweghe (Virgin Classics), competition in this repertoire is quite tough. Harry Christophers uses just two voices per part, a practice inherently neither good nor bad. In churches, even one-voice-per-part choirs can often convey unexpected vigour. Yet too frequently in a recording context, a tiny choir necessitates damping down the orchestral contribution, neutralising genuine drama, as opposed to mere indiscriminate briskness. So here. Junghänel, with forces comparable in size, obtains a spectrum of vocal and instrumental colours to which Christophers seems indifferent, allowing his musicians, in comparison with these impressive rival versions, to sound unduly genteel. The appropriately robust horn-players briefly heard in BWV233 appear to have wandered in from a different and more impassioned performance.  Elsewhere, one might as well be listening to a robust Vivaldi opera as to anything…

January 30, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Döhler, Dreyschock: Piano Concertos (TSO, Shelley)

Volume 61 in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto project finds Howard Shelley in top form. Not only does he despatch hair-raisingly difficult passagework as if it were the simplest exercise, but he simultaneously directs from the keyboard, securing committed and alert playing from his Hobart colleagues. How far these labours are justified by the music’s merits remains the question. Theodor Döhler (1814-56) and Alexander Dreyschock (1818-69), both child prodigies who achieved brief renown, will be largely unknown. Dreyschock’s most admired achievement consisted of playing Chopin’s Revolutionary Study with octaves added to the left-hand; Döhler lacked even this claim upon posterity. Dreyschock’s Morceau de Concert deserves revival – a Beethovenian study in gravitas, with intelligent instrumentation in which cello and horns play significant roles. It seems odd that anyone capable of writing this should also have purveyed the clichéd homage to Vienna, for which even the booklet note cannot summon marked enthusiasm. Döhler’s concerto lies between the Dreyschock pieces in quality, with some imaginative modulations in the first movement but with bland note-spinning elsewhere. Hyperion’s engineering is clean and well-balanced, if slightly less opulent than the label’s best. Not among the finest releases in this valuable series.

January 23, 2014
CD and Other Review

Review: Taneyev, Arensky: Piano Quintets (Piers Lane, Goldner String Quartet)

Whilst neither of the works on this disc is a world premiere, both will represent unknown territory to most people (as they certainly did to the present reviewer). Sergei Taneyev and Anton Arensky – born in, respectively, 1856 and 1861 – belonged to an in-between generation of Russian music, neither old enough to be coeval with Tchaikovsky, nor young enough to be colleagues of Rachmaninov and Scriabin. Arensky did take lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov (who spoke of him latterly with undisguised contempt) but owed much more to Tchaikovsky’s example. His variations on Tchaikovsky’s song Christ Had A Garden once enjoyed considerable celebrity as a Beecham-style lollipop. His Piano Quintet dates from 1900, and it owes its biggest stylistic debt to Schumann, whom it evokes in its coursing ebullience and tendency to repetitive rhythms. At times Mendelssohn and Dvořák are intimated too. Charm and good humour prevail, even the slower sections being pensive rather than conspicuously sad. Not the most profound, original, or exotic achievement, then, but a welcome adjunct to the slender corpus of worthwhile pieces for this instrumental combination. It will inspire renewed sorrow that Arensky died (from tuberculosis aggravated by booze) when only 44 years of age. Taneyev’s 1911…