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Classical album reviews: Simon Smith, John Tavener, Iestyn Davies


Simon Smith "Alfred Schnittke: Complete Piano Music" (Delphian)

This career-retrospective offers a fascinating glimpse of how a series of strokes affected Alfred Schnittke’s work, comparable to the changes between De Kooning’s pre- and post-stroke paintings. The youthful pieces are Romantic and Serialist exercises of varying charm, but the three Sonatas are something else entirely, crammed with sudden dynamic changes and unorthodox techniques. Piano Sonata No 1 is the longest and most striking: within two minutes, it goes from the most liminal of openings to a single note being hammered, with increasing speed and ferocity, over two dozen times. It then unfolds into a harrowing journey through extended dissonance a vast expressive range captured by Simon Smith with extraordinary sensitivity, detail and emotional commitment.


Download: Piano Sonata No 1;  Piano Sonata No 2; Piano Sonata No 3

John Tavener "The Veil of the Temple" / "Eternity’s Sunrise" (Signum Classics/ Harmonia Mundi)

Reissued to commemorate the composer’s recent passing, both these albums share the crucial component of Patricia Rozario’s otherworldly soprano. The Veil of the Temple is a 2-CD, 150-minute condensation of an ecumenical vigil intended to last the entire night through till dawn, drawing on various strands of Christian belief; Eternity’s Sunrise draws together five shorter works of texts taken from Blake, Seferis, Sappho and the Orthodox funeral service. The performances reflect Tavener’s instruction that they should be “sung and played with restrained ecstasy” rather than excitement or melancholy, a guidance that ensured the “Funeral Canticle” made a sublimely peaceful send-off for the composer’s father.


Download: Eternity’s Sunrise; Song of the Angel; Funeral Canticle; The Veil of the Temple

Iestyn Davies "Your Tuneful Voice: Handel Oratorio Arias" (Vivat)

Iestyn Davies brings a grace and calm entirely appropriate to these Handel arias. The stepped ornamentation of “Mortals Think That Time Is Sleeping” is no showboating exercise, but an elegant ascent of a sweeping staircase, to the courtly accompaniment of the King’s Consort’s early-instrument blend of alto recorder, chamber organ and strings. Elsewhere, restrained pizzicato and a flowing oboe line carry “Tune Your Harps to Cheerful Strains”, swashbuckling strings and fanfaring horns drive “Mighty Love Now Calls to Arms”, and in a baroque extension of a Purcellian format, solo trumpet emphasises the sombre nobility of his phrasing on “Eternal Source of Light Divine”. Throughout, Davies’ control is remarkable.


Download: O Sacred Oracles of Truth;  Mortals Think That Time Is Sleeping;  Eternal Source of Light Divine