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Joy Lisney, violoncello / James Lisney, piano
Catalogue no. WOODCD811 (1 CD)
'Schubertreise' is the fanciful name for a concert series presented by pianist James Lisney at London's Southbank Centre (from 2001 to 2004, with its completion later this year at the Purcell Room). In the original concert series, a chronological survey of the completed movements of Schubert's piano sonatas was the common thread which ran through programmes combining contrasting piano and chamber music, song and poetry, from a wide range of composers and writers. The 'Schubertreise' recording project seeks to reflect the spontaneity and variety of the original series by presenting piano works by Schubert alongside works by other composers, while making musical, historical and contextual connections between them.
The second volume of 'Schubertreise' marks the recording debut of James Lisney's 'cellist daughter Joy, who, at just 20, is already at the forefront of young British string players, in particular for her fearless and highly involved approach to twentieth-century and contemporary repertoire. Admittedly, the connections between the works presented on this CD are rather tenuous (the most obvious perhaps is that between father and daughter), and there is only one piece by Schubert (the Fantasy in C 'Grazer', D 605a). JOY, written especially for Joy by Dutch composer Jan Vriend, was inspired by a performance by Joy and James Lisney of Chopin's Sonata in g, opus 65, - and there are thematic and textural echoes of this in Vriend's work. Debussy's Estampes presents a journey in musical microcosm from the Far East to Iberia and back to France, while Witold Lutoslawski's profound and haunting Grave was dedicated to Stefan Jarocinski, a musicologist specialising in the music of Debussy, and there are quotations from Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande in the opening motif of the piece.
Of his work JOY, Jan Vriend says "It was not difficult to conjure up a title or a subject after seeing and hearing the pair at work. Of course, joy should be at the root of every work of art..............It seems joy and happiness have to be wrested from the pressures of opportunism, greed and short-sightedness". A sense of joy is not immediately apparent in the restless, richly-scored opening sequences, the contrasting timbres of the two instruments creating a sense of agitation and urgency. The section ends with the sound of wailing seagulls in the 'cello, and then moves into a sweeping, virtuosic section, with direct quotations in the piano from Chopin's Winter Wind Étude and the 'cello sonata. Later on there are moments of reflection, redolent of Messiaen at his most meditative. The piece ends almost with an afterthought, which provides a pleasing bridge to the Chopin Sonata which follows it. Vriend cleverly combines vitality and unselfconscious exuberance with dark storms and moments of calm contemplation.
In her playing, Joy highlights the fundamentally songful nature of this work in opulent, full-toned melodic lines, while the obvious technical demands of the work hold no fear for her: writing which often spans two octaves, the use of harmonics, and occasions where the bow is slapped against the instrument are all carried off with brio.
Chopin's Sonata in g was one of the works I heard Joy perform at her London debut in October 2011. Like the Vriend, it is richly-scored, the music shared equally between both instruments, romantic, and characteristically melodic. At first I questioned the sequencing of the Vriend followed by the Chopin on the CD, but it is very interesting to hear JOY first, and then reflect on the references Vriend takes from Chopin in a full performance of the sonata. There is much to enjoy here, from the sweeping sonorities of the first movement, a sprightly, folksy scherzo, the longspun lines of the third movement, and the swirling tarantella finale. The Schubertian connection comes from the strong identification Chopin felt with the tragic protaganist of Schubert's late song cycle Winterreise: Chopin was working on this sonata at the time of his final separation from Georges Sand. Joy's musical understanding and insightful approach to this work are clear throughout in the wide variety of colours, her acute attention to detail, and the ease with which she captures Chopin's shifting moods and textures. Always a sympathetic partner, the piano never dominates.
When I heard Joy at St John's Smith Square, it was her performance of Lutoslawski's profound Grave that was, for me, the most immediately arresting, not least in the intense sounds she was able to draw from her instrument, her technical assuredness and control, and, most strikingly, her commanding stage presence, which a seasoned performer twice her age would envy. None of her maturity nor passion is lost on the recording - an unsettling, haunting 'cello line set against clusters and splashes of sound in the piano. This is a rewarding and worthy close to the album, and all three pieces for 'cello and piano offer revealing insights into the blossoming artistry and enviable talent of Joy Lisney.
The works for solo piano sit well with the duo pieces. Schubert's 'Grazer' Fantasy (first released in 1995, and later appearing on Lisney's double Schubert disc of 2006, also avalaible from Woodhouse Editions) shows Lisney's affinity with Schubert’s writing in the graceful articulation, nuanced shading and rhythmic vitality. Chopin's Nocturne Op 62 No. 1 provides a neat link to Debussy with its delicate ornamentation and figurations. Debussy's Estampes are sensuous and evocative: a bright treble sound in 'Pagodes' over a subtly-pedalled bass line and sparing use of rubato highlight the orientalist influences - both artistic and musical - implicit in this work; while the the heat, dust and flirtatious nighttime rhythms of Andalucia are recalled in strummed sounds and exotic Moorish arabesques in 'Soirée dans Grenade'. Finally, a rain-soaked garden in France is evoked in the shimmering toccata 'Jardins sous la pluie'. Lisney's clarity of touch, rhythmic drive, colourful tonal range and musical sensitivity are given free rein in all three works, most joyfully in the final piece of the triptych.
Joy and James Lisney are appearing at the Haslemere Festival on 18th May in a concert featuring Vriend's JOY and Britten's Sonata in C Opus 65 for 'cello and piano.
Details of all Joy and James Lisney's forthcoming recitals here
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