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Classical Choices: Janine Jansen, Alexi Kenney & Irish Baroque

Charlotte Gardner’s latest pick of classical music for the dCS Edit includes a much-anticipated new recording from Janine Jansen, a fresh and surprising album from Californian violinist Alexi Kenney, and a celebration of the 18th century Black soprano, Rachel Baptist, from Peter Whelan and the Irish Baroque Orchestra

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If there was ever a time to remind ourselves of the emotional power of being at a live concert, it’s as we prepare for the return of the world’s largest classical music festival, the BBC Proms. 

To mark the occasion, this month’s playlist opens with a modern classic from Elim Chan, who will conduct the Proms First Night on July 19. Her 2020 Gramophone Award-winning collaboration with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor for Chopin’s two piano features such engrossingly symphonic, atmospherically colour-filled and committed playing from Chan and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra that by the time Grosvenor first enters in No 1, you’ll have almost forgotten it’s a piano concerto at all. 

From there, it’s on to our new releases, which include Dutch violinist Janine Jansen’s much-anticipated new concerto recording, a multi-stylistic programme of Bach-informed new music from young American violinist Alexi Kenney, plus Peter Whelan and the Irish Baroque Orchestra’s celebration of the 18th century black soprano, Rachel Baptist. Enjoy!

Sibelius, Prokofiev 1, Violin Concertos

Janine Jansen, Klaus Mäkelä, Oslo Philharmonic


It’s always an event when Janine Jansen releases a new recording. Even more so when the release in question – an imaginative pairing of Sibelius’s sole violin concerto with Prokofiev’s No 1 – happens to be her first concerto recording in nine years. To add to the sense of occasion, her conductor is another of Decca’s most exciting musical voices, Klaus Mäkelä, who recently recorded an acclaimed Sibelius symphony cycle for the label.

Completed in 1904, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto was his love letter to the instrument on which he had initially planned to make a career as a virtuoso performer, before his compositional talents outstripped his violinistic ones. The music evokes the folklore-filled natural landscapes of Finland, to which he retreated from Helsinki shortly before the work’s completion. (He built a family home near Lake Tuulusa, a redemptive act which offered an escape from the city’s temptations following the death of his youngest child and a subsequent slide from heavy drinking into full-blown alcoholism.) 

Jansen and Mäkelä’s impassioned, Romantic reading feels alive to these emotional undercurrents and the score’s contrast-rich storytelling. Rubato’d expansiveness is balanced against thrillingly urgent pace; rhythmically tight, poised expectancy against freewheeling freedom and barely-contained wildness; silvery flight against earthily elemental darkness.

Jansen brings a kaleidoscopically colourful palette of right and left hand colouring and a tremendous dynamic range (the absolute hush of her pianissimos…). Mäkelä, locked at her side, is constantly lifting out details of colour and conversation in the score, bestowing particular love on his lower strings. Their combined sense of broadly conceived narrative arc, and the sheer drama and passion, are overwhelming. I’m not sure I’d ever previously heard such a slow-built, heart-stoppingly wide and ecstatic climax in the Adagio, followed by such an affectingly sudden drop to tender quietness (listen from 6’50” onwards).

From the finale’s pacy, folky drama, we move into the more neoclassical melting lyricism opening Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto of 1917, another work connected with an escape to nature. (It was written in the Caucasus, where Prokofiev had retreated as the Russian Revolution unfolded in Petrograd.) The piece is cast in the same key as the Sibelius’s final chord, with its hushed tremolo strings accompaniment evoking the Sibelius’s own opening, and it’s another perfectly shaped and balanced piece of musical drama from Jansen and Mäkelä. 

For a final cleverly-programmed treat, Mäkelä takes up his cello to duet with Jansen for Sibelius’s miniature for pizzicato violin and cello, Water Droplets, whose plumply steadily falling rainfall beautifully recalls the ticking accompaniment of the Prokofiev’s Moderato finale.

I’ve given you the Sibelius for this month’s playlist.

Shifting Ground

Alexi Kenney

Californian violinist Alexi Kenney is carving out a highly interesting career, combining soloist appearances with orchestras with all sorts of chamber projects that are pushing the traditional classical envelope. (He’s performed as a soloist with the Cleveland and Philadelphia symphonies, and is also a founding member of Owls – a string quartet comprised not of the usual two violins, viola and cello but instead of violin, viola and two cellos.) 

Shifting Ground is his debut album, created with the support of a 2020 Borletti Buitoni Trust grant. It takes its title from the popular baroque compositional device of ground bass, whereby a repeated bass line serves as the foundation for variations, and was inspired by Kenney’s love for one of the greatest sets of variations over a ground bass ever written, the Chaconne from JS Bach’s Violin Partita No 2 in D minor. 

That Chaconne sits as the programme’s climax. Preceding it are further JS Bach pieces along with more baroque music by Nicola Matteis, interspersed with new music exploring how Bach’s influence has rippled through time: premiere recordings of works by Matthew Burtner, Salina Fisher and Angélica Negrón, plus a piece by Eve Beglarian, and Kenney’s own arrangements of music by Schumann, Joni Mitchell and Ariana Grande.

This whopping stylistic spread slots together fabulously well, simultaneously delivering a constant sense of the fresh, unexpected and contrasting, and a strong sense of flow. 

Among the world premieres, two were commissioned for this album. First, Negrón’s The Violinist melds Kenney’s violin with electronics and the taped voice of New York-based comedian Ana Fabrega, narrating a nightmare in which she’s pushed onstage to perform Brahms’s Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic despite not knowing how to play the violin. 

Its minimalist music, electronic sampling style and Fabrega’s deadpan delivery won’t suit everyone’s tastes, but whether you love the piece or find it jarring, it’s undeniably invigorating. 

More universally appealing is Fisher’s Hikari (Light), which draws upon traditional oriental modes and string techniques, as well as the violin’s own open-strings resonance, for a dreamlike ‘search for light’ further set off by the brightly shining tone of Kenney’s gorgeous modern instrument by Stefan Peter Greiner. Hikari’s other key element is string-crossing crossing writing which clearly emulates that found in Bach’s Chaconne. Kenney has uses this device himself for his folkily contemplative take on Arianna Grande’s thank u, next, one of the album’s most beautiful surprises.

For the playlist I’ve given you thank u, next, followed by the sequence that runs from Matteis’s Alia Fantasia to Fisher’s Hikari and on to the third premiere recording, Matthew Burtner’s Elegy a gently meditative and tensely heartbreaking work played to the sound of trickling water, in memory of Muir Glacier, which melted away in 2009.

Rachel Baptist: Ireland’s Black Syren

Rachel Redmond, Peter Whelan, Irish Baroque Orchestra


One of the most intriguing descriptions of 18th century Irish musical life left by the Irish actor and playwright John O’Keefe (1747-1833) reads, ‘My fondness for song had often led me to the concerts at Marlborough Green, Dublin. Among the very fine singers, there was a Rachel Baptist, a real black woman, a native of Africa: she always appeared in the orchestra in a yellow silk gown, and was heard by the applauding company with great delight’. The soprano in question was Rachel Baptist, the ‘Celebrated Black Syren’ who was performing regularly in Dublin during the early 1750s, and who despite O’Keefe’s description appears actually to have been born in Ireland, of African descent. 

Baptist’s notable career took in London and Liverpool among other cities, where she performed alongside the likes of famed castrato Ferdinando Tenducci. It’s a frustrating fact that little concrete information on either her life or music has survived, but this album sees Peter Wheelan and his Irish Baroque Orchestra follow what musical breadcrumbs do exist, collaborating with soprano Rachel Redmond to present works Baptist might have performed at Dublin’s 1752 ‘Grand Concert of Vocal and Instrumental Musick’, including arias by Handel, Pasquali (a couple of premiere recordingsgğ) and Purcell, plus some instrumental pieces.

The resultant programme is an upbeat one which does a smart job of spinning the energetic atmosphere suggested by contemporary descriptions of these musical events. The Niccolo Pasquali works are jolly stuff: perhaps not at Handel’s level, but catchy and melodic, making it plain to see why the crowds were lapping it up in 1752. Redmond’s light, silvery agility and energy is a perfect fit for it. 

This is also true for the Handel, whose works include ‘Mirth, Admit Me of Thy Crew’ from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato – a category-defying work sitting somewhere between oratorio and ode, penned in 1740 as Handel transitioned from Italian opera to oratorio – and ‘Softly Sweet in Lydian Measures’ from his oratorio Alexander’s Feast. Here, Redmond’s pure, bright tones are locked in close duet with a softly gut-stringed solo cello. A stand-out among the orchestra-only numbers is Geminiani’s famous Corelli-inspired ‘La Folia’ variations, whose darkness Whelan and his musicians have voiced with particularly affecting delicacy. Their closing number is then another time-honoured favourite, Purcell’s ‘Fairest Isle’, performed with gorgeous gracefully curving delicacy and chamber lucidity from the instrumentalists, and jewel-light purity from Redmond.

On the playlist you’ll find Handel’s Alla Caccia ‘Diana cacciatrice’ HWV 79 followed by Pasquali’s Overture to The Grand Festino and ‘The Triumphs of Hiberia’.

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