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CD of the Week – The Irish Piano

The Irish Piano
RTE LyricFM

Not many Dubliners know, and very few Muscovites will admit, that it was an itinerant Irishman who first put Russia on the world’s musical map. John Field landed in St Petersburg in the winter of 1802 and, over the next 35 years, served as a role model to rising musicians and as a roving ambassador of Russian culture. Mikhail Glinka, the cornerstone Russian composer, was briefly his pupil. Frederic Chopin, it is said, stole one of Field’s devices – the nocturne.

‘The Irish Piano’ is a scintillating and sometimes whimsical recital that takes John Field as its starting point and spreads out across the whole of the island’s music, from bar songs, through a Samuel Barber tribute to the breezy post-tonalities of the present generation. Michael McHale, in St Peter’s Church of Ireland, Drogheda, strikes just the right tone of contemplative wonderment and mischievous mythology.

Starting with a traditional air of his own transcription, McHale introduces John Field both through a pair of his own nocturnes and through two-little-known homages by the American Samuel Barber and the expatriate Irishman Arnold Bax, who went on to serve the English Crown as Master of the Queen’s Musick. In amidst the classical verities, there are short new pieces by the captivating Donnacha Dennehy, the challenging Ian Wilson and other young Irish composers who have lately been taking the world stage in disproportionate numbers. Ireland has mysteriously become a crucible of contemporary music. Fascinating from start to stop, this album has lovely stuff that you won’t hear anywhere else.

Three mezzo CDs

Susan Graham: Virgins, Vixens and Viragos
Onyx

An unusually thoughtful star recital, running the gamut from Purcell to Sondheim and taking in such unfamiliar gems as Joseph Horovitz’s Lady Macbeth and Vernon Duke’s Ages Ago (if you can’t place Duke, he was Prokofiev’s best friend). Malcolm Martineau accompanies and the big vibrato is kept well in check. The virago, on the other hand, runs riot.

Joyce DiDonato: Drama Queens
Virgin

The queens are from baroque and early-classical operas, many of them obscure (Berenice, Queen of Palestine, anyone?), which allows Joyce to let rip with more decorations than an oligarch’s bathroom and more freedom than the US Constitution. Alan Curtis conducts Il Complesso Barocco with commendable discretion. If it feels a bit overwhelming, skip to track six for Handel’s chilling Cleopatra. The singing is in a class – a world – of its own.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux: Opera Arias
naïve

Ms Lemieux, a Canadian, is a contralto – a deeper, richer, more swoony type of voice than the general run of mezzos. She is good in Haydn and Mozart, gorgeous as Gluck’s Orfeo. Bernard Labadie conducts les violins du roy.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.