"This album follows on from a previous one in which Alexandra Sostmann combined Bach with contemporary music (review), so if this concept already attracted you then this further exploration will live happily next to the previous one in your collection. Recorded at the same location, production standards are high indeed, with the piano sound full and warm but without any lack in detail, but with the large concert hall acoustic creating an attractive but not too resonant halo around the sound.
Done in an interview format, the booklet notes see Alexandra Sostmann explain that she is “interested in the connections between different epochs and their polyphonic structures.” Bach was an inevitable choice, followed by William Byrd “as I knew that polyphony and contrapuntal style were important to him… I began with vocal polyphony and arrived at Orlando Gibbons and virginal music, which I wanted to combine with contemporary music.”
Sostmann’s Bach is rich and red-blooded without over-dramatising, but contrasts sharply with the Prayer bell sketch by the late and much-lamented Oliver Knussen. As the title suggests, this piece explores ringing sonorities, and was composed as a musical obituary for Toru Takemitsu. There is some Debussy in here, but there are also cultural interactions going on, with a rhythmic feel that is both free sounding and ritualistic, and arguably related both to Western and Eastern bell traditions. This religious atmosphere is heightened by being placed next to an arrangement of Sir John Tavener’s choral miniature The Lord’s Prayer, which has a pallet-cleansing charm and directness. William Byrd’s Pavan and Galliard is related in key to the Tavener, the flow of musical narrative in this recital now taking on its own life. This piece comes directly from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, which Sostmann was given permission to study, her excellent performance also informed by consultation with Renaissance specialist Desmond Hunter. Markus Horn’s subsequent Piece after Byrd is a notated jazz improvisation on Byrd’s Pavans, and by all accounts one of the most challenging pieces in this recital to play well, Sostmann doing a fine job in adopting the jazz idiom. Listeners may wonder at the inclusion of such a piece, but jazz is the closest we have today to the Baroque performance practice of improvising on harmonic progressions or, even more anciently, building on a melodic cantus firmus.
After this explosion of jazz we return to the meditative world of John Tavener in his Arvo Pärt-like In memory of my two cats, and the now familiar minimalist piano piece China Gates by John Adams, both played with immaculate sensitivity. Orlando Gibbons takes us back in time with his eloquently expressive and ornament-garlanded Pavan and Galliard Lord Salisbury. Then there is Tavener’s Zodiacs, the limited notes in which symbolise “the tree of life, sun and moon, heaven and earth.” Xiaoyong Chen appeared in Sostmann’s previous album, and Diary VI is an interesting counterweight to Knussen’s Prayer bell sketch in its use of piano sonorities, including pedal notation that indicates how deep it should be pressed to the centimetre. There are four parts: Prism, Swishing, Reflection and Echo, and Sostmann describes the work as “like a sculpture in space.” Space and time of course, but there are some fascinating effects, particularly with the lower strings of the instrument. Bach’s Ricercar a 6 voci emerges from this as an almost inevitable sounding final statement with an effect a bit like that extra chorale you often hear as a close to The Art of Fugue, which is the way it should be in such a recital. If you like this kind of concept for a programme then this is a very fine example indeed, with an immersive atmosphere and an involving and indeed transformative narrative arc."