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Classical Choices: May 2023 - Curated by Charlotte Gardner

Charlotte Gardner's latest pick of outstanding classical releases includes works from Vladimir Horowitz & Carlo Maria Giulini, Tessa Lark, Cambridge University Chamber Choir, Karim Sulayman and Sean Shibe .

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Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23

Vladimir Horowitz, Carlo Maria Giulini & the Orchestrea del Teatro alla Scala, Horowitz Plays Mozart

Deutsche Grammophon

This month’s classical playlist opens with a wonderful piano performance: Vladimir Horowitz playing the final movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23 with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Orchestrea del Teatro alla Scala. Taken from Horowitz’s GRAMMY-winning 1987 recording for Deutsche Grammophon, it provides the perfect contrast to the vocals and strings featured elsewhere in this month’s playlist.

The Stradgrass Sessions

Tessa Lark

‘This album is a snapshot of the way I live in music,’ says violinist Tessa Lark in her foreword to The Stradgrass Sessions. ‘Diversely; organically; intimately; sometimes collaboratively; sometimes solitarily; always sincerely; and anywhere, be it a concert hall or home studio.’  

Classical rubs shoulders with bluegrass and jazz in this organically flowing, virtuosically and poetically rendered programme. Lark performs both solo and as a duo, with collaborators including mandolinist supremo Sierra Hull and jazz king Jon Baptiste.

Born in Kentucky, Lark has an intimate knowledge of the bluegrass landscape, both as a listener and a player. This is evident from the sense of utter naturalness that runs through the album, with each piece complementing, feeding and riffing off its immediate neighbour. Ysaÿe’s Sonata for Solo Violin No 5, for example, sounds as though it was always destined to nestle between the bluegrass of Edgar Meyer’s Concert Duo for Violin and Bass and Lark’s own ‘Hysedelje’. 

Surprisingly, Meyer and Lark had never spoken prior to collaborating on the album, and their racks were recorded separately due to Covid lockdowns – though you wouldn’t know from listening. In fact, pandemic restrictions made this a multi-location album, recorded in various home studios – which is all the more remarkable when you consider the overall sound quality, which is so warmly vivid, the joins between tracks, which are almost invisible, and the fact that each performance is imbued with such energy and soul. 

Another notable partnership on this album is the unusual one between bluegrass and a fine old Italian instrument. Lark no longer plays the 1683 ex-Gingold Stradivarius violin that inspired the album’s title (loaned to her between 2014 and 2018 after she won Silver at the Indianapolis International Violin Competition), but the rich-hued clarity of her current 1600 Maggini is no less of a treat.

For this month’s playlist, I’ve selected Sierra Hull’s Chasin’ Skies, Lark’s own Le Soka and Edgar Meyer’s Concert Duo for Violin and Bass.

Pavel Chesnokov Sacred Choral Music

St John’s Voices, Cambridge University Chamber Choir, Graham Walker


Pavel Chesnokov was one of many Russian composers of sacred music whose musical lives were turned upside down as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent stamping out of organised religion (although he managed to continue conducting various secular choirs before he died from heart failure in 1944).

This album allows us to hear his All-Night Vigil op.44 of 1912, preceded by four smaller-scale works. It also gives us a chance to experience Cambridge’s choral scene beyond its famous chapel choirs, through St John’s Voices (the sister choir to St John’s College chapel choir), in partnership with Cambridge University Chamber Choir, all led by SJV director Graham Walker. 

This ensemble, with its female sopranos, and comparatively large size and fullness, feels on paper like a good match for this relatively big-boned music. In practice, it translates to an equally satisfying choral sound that is secure and silvery up top, and delivers both strength and lightness. It’s nicely balanced overall, with a wide dynamic range. Most importantly, you feel their understanding of the text. Add the acoustics of St John’s College Chapel, and there’s much to enjoy here. 

I’ve selected the Cherubic Hymn, Op 7, No 1 – an early work, written in 1897 when the composer was just 20 – followed by the two final settings of the All-Night Vigil, ‘The Great Doxology’ and ‘To Thee, the victorious Leader’. 

Broken Branches

Karim Sulayman and Sean Shibe


East and West is the theme of this vocal recital from tenor Karim Sulayman and British guitarist Sean Shibe. Inspired by their respective personal experiences of growing up in the West while having roots in the East – America/Lebanon for Sulayman, and Scotland/Japan for Shibe – the pair have gathered a multi-century, multinational classical repertoire (Dowland, Monteverdi, Britten, Rodrigo, Takemitsu, Harvey and Chaker) and juxtaposed this with traditional songs from the Middle East, exploring ideas of nationality, ethnicity and othering throughout.

The programme’s linchpin is Britten’s Songs from the Chinese: a suite written in 1956 for his partner Peter Pears to sing with guitarist Julian Bream. It’s through this piece that Shibe and Sulayman first met (the pair worked together on the song cycle for America’s Malboro Music Festival in 2013).   

Sulayman’s light, supple voice and Shibe’s own deftly multicoloured finesse bring a magically ethereal, capricious feel to these haunting songs, which are not pastiches of Chinese traditional music as their title might suggest, but something far more sophisticatedly intangible.  

Equally compelling, in an entirely different way, is the simple purity the pair bring to the programme-opener, Dowland’s ‘Time Stands Still’. Elsewhere, each musician’s individual arrangements of Middle Eastern songs feels like a gift. It is the quiet, stoic pain heard in Lebanese singer Fairuz’s ‘Li Beirut’, an anthem about the Lebanese spirit and its people’s resilience using the melody of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, that is perhaps most affecting, but the entire album is moving in various ways. 

For our playlist, I’ve chosen the aforementioned ‘Time Stands Still’, plus Jonathan Harvey’s ‘Sufi Dance’, Sayed Darwish’s ‘El Helwa Di’ and Fairuz’s ‘Li Beirut.’

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