Divine Art Recordings Group

A Musical Heaven on Earth

Divine Art Recordings Group

Simonburn is a “small human settlement” in Northeastern England, as Wikipedia phrases it. There is a church there named for St. Mungo, and in the early 1990s, its organ needed restoration. Stephen and Edna Sutton lived in Simonburn, and they and organist Henry Wallace recorded “Organ in the Hills” and released it on cassette as a fundraiser. The Suttons called their label Divine Art and continued it as a hobby after that first release, and Stephen eventually quit his job as a lawyer to run the label full time. Vacations to Vermont gave the Suttons a love for the area, and they moved there in the mid-2000s. The label’s headquarters are there now, and the Suttons run a small music store, a music and arts center, a museum of vintage audio equipment, and two other shops. They have time to take a breath about once a week, and they sleep about every two months. 

Divine Art Recordings Group actually consists of several labels, and this article hits some of the high points of its 500-odd releases. There is Divine Art itself, and unless otherwise noted, the releases I discuss will be on that label. Métier’s focus is on new music, from the avant-garde to the neo-tonal. In 2003 Divine Art acquired Athene, a label founded mainly for early music and period instrument releases. Diversions boasts a lot of light music as well as some newer music. (The label also includes other sub-labels for 78-era recordings, radio dramas, and liturgical music.) Divine Art’s first LP just came out, with selections from Burkhard Schliessmann’s Chronological Chopin series originally on SACD. You can purchase physical releases and downloads (MP3 and FLAC) at divineartrecords.com.

On the Beaten Path, with New Companions 
When Divine Art releases standard repertory, it is “always with good reason,” as Stephen Sutton indicates, and Joanna Leach’s Century of Domestic Keyboards (Athene) illustrates this beautifully. It’s a tour of four keyboards made from 1727 to 1832, and a tracing of the simultaneous evolution of keyboard writing. Leach plays pieces by Couperin, Byrd, and Handel on a spinet harpsichord with an astonishingly mellow sound. Couperin’s French Follies, or the Dominos (masqueraders’ cloaks), is a set of dance variations depicting the stages of a love affair, each represented by a different cloak color. It’s interesting that Virginity’s cloak is transparent. Hubba hubba indeed. Handel and Bach are played on a square piano from 1787, with a lute stop that creates a delicate plucked effect in Handel’s Air and Variations. An Antonio Soler sonata sounds rollicking on a square piano from 1823; Mendelssohn’s “Venetian Gondola Song” on another square piano made nine years later is richer in the lower registers, while the highs are gossamer and ghostly in ways a modern piano could never be.

Violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved and pianist Aaron Shorr give us the important Beethoven Explored series on Métier, where the master’s sonatas and other pieces are presented with works by his contemporaries. The first volume kicks off with Beethoven’s wonderful Tenth Sonata, and we are immediately reminded (or informed) that it is a “sonata for piano and violin,” not the other way around. The piano is prominently placed and muscularly played. In the slow movement, I particularly appreciate the unfussy approach and the way Skaerved lets some duskiness slip into his tone. Beethoven’s variations on Mozart’s “Se Vuol Ballare” are masterly. Archduke Rudolph’s Variations in F, on a theme by Prince Louis Ferdinand, are brilliant and should be better known. 

The Trio Gemelli’s Clarinet Trios by Brahms, Wood, and Beethoven is a stunner. Beethoven wrote his trio near the beginning of his career, and it is rambunctious and joyful. In 1890, Brahms threw a bunch of music into the Traun River and declared his composing days over. But, after hearing clarinetist Richard Mühlfield perform the next year, he picked up his pen again. Without Mühlfield, not only would we be without the trio, the Clarinet Quintet, and the two Clarinet Sonatas, we probably wouldn’t have the late intermezzos and other piano pieces, as well as the Four Serious Songs! The Gemelli’s Brahms is unhurried and its textures clear, even when the scoring is at its densest. English composer Hugh Wood’s trio is dissonant and sternly logical, but it doesn’t neglect lyricism and humor, and the musicians invest it with the same elegant phrasing as the other pieces. 

New Organ Colors
Beirut-born and Paris-trained organist and composer Naji Hakim succeeded Olivier Messiaen at the Eglise de la Trinité in 1993, staying there for 15 years. He shares with Messiaen a fondness for dazzling colors and inventive harmonies, but his compositions go down smoother. The title work on Embrace of Fire (Métier) has three movements, each based on a passage from Scripture; a fine tenor introduces two of them with the plainsong chants Hakim uses. In organist Simon Leach’s hands, the stops create El Greco-like colors, granting the mystical chords and swirling dances an exotic power. A Toccata written for Epiphany manages to be both majestic and welcoming. I’ve never heard sacred music so red-blooded and human! Violin joins the king of instruments in the meditative Salve Regina and the congenial Capriccio, and the recorder takes its turn in the delightful, folk-based Diptych. The Hommage à Igor Stravinsky is a dissonant, restless tribute depicting Stravinsky’s ever-changing paths. 

Divine Art also released ten albums of Carson Cooman’s organ music played by Erik Simmons. Cooman’s writing is much more traditional than Hakim’s but moderately spiced with dissonances and well-crafted. The sonics are remarkably clear, “without the excessive resonance and echo often a part of organ recordings,” as the label’s website puts it. 

A Banquet of Chamber Music
The talented Trio Anima Mundi’s Romantic Piano Trios brings us gems from the tangled hinterlands of the repertory. William Hurlstone’s Trio in G was written in 1905, a year before the composer’s death at age 30. The half-hour work balances Schubertian clarity with occasional Brahmsian tumult. Hurlstone loved melody and countermelody, and each of the four movements traces a perfect, satisfying arc. Max d’Ollone, Prix de Rome winner and student of Jules Massenet, wrote his trio in 1920, and it is replete with warm, lyrical themes. The first movement makes the three instruments sound almost like a full orchestra, so skilled and varied are the accompanying textures. The second is a gorgeous cantilena with harmonies that constantly shift in unexpected ways. After a quite Gallic scherzo comes a tarantella that is energetic but never too stressful. Swedish composer Dag Wirén (1905–1986) wrote his Piano Trio No 1 in 1932 during a stay in Paris. It has few dissonances, but it’s not lush or heart-on-sleeve like the rest of the program. Miriam Hyde’s Fantasy Trio is a solid piece, but its mere nine minutes leave me wanting more. The musicians play with nuance, color, and affection. Their new album of English piano trios, including a first recording of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Trio in A minor, should be available by the time this article appears. 

Another pleasant discovery is David Snell’s Chamber Music for Harp (Diversions). His Lyric Sonata, for flute, viola, and harp, opens demurely, with oh-so-gentle dissonances seeking out a tonal center in a moment that truly parts the clouds. Snell indulges in modal writing and often doubles melodies at different intervals—a fourth or a ninth—to spice up the harmony. The four other pieces feature the harp with flute and cello, flute alone, clarinet and horn, or violin. A superb harpist, Skaila Kanga is a principal with the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, a soloist with the Nash Ensemble, and a session musician for Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, and many others. Harp recordings often have boomy sound, but this one is very clear. The whole album is relaxing yet consistently interesting; with every hearing, it seems that the whole universe breathes more easily. 

Peter Hope wrote the pieces on Wind Blown within the last ten years; he may be pushing 90, but his music still carries youthful freshness and an unjaded appreciation for beauty. The Oboe Sonata and Clarinet Sonata are the most impressive; they have some jazz and klezmer in them, respectively. The Bassoon Sonata and Recorder Sonata are less inspired but still worthwhile. 

Baroque Music: A Standout Harpsichord and (the first?) Four Seasons
The Harmonious Thuringian “explore(s) the musical heritage of Bach and Handel and recreate(s) the sound of a locally built Saxon or Thuringian harpsichord such as they and their contemporaries may have heard.” Harpsichordist Terence Charlston chose some less-known Bach pieces; several fine obscurities by Marchand, JC Bach, Merula, Kuhnau, and others; and Handel’s Fifth Suite with the famous “Harmonious Blacksmith” variations. Especially interesting is a sacred piece by Johann Krieger where the harmonies nearly run off the rails, a nice reminder that some composers have always been willing to rattle people’s fillings. Charlston plays a 2010 copy of a Thuringian instrument, and it is the richest and most appealing that I’ve heard.

For something more genteel, Cantatas from the Georgian Drawing Room serves up several politely amorous settings for soprano and a few instrumentalists by Albinoni, Burgess, Arne, and others. Margarette Ashton’s singing is rather straight-toned, but it works well in this scenario. Pianist Peter Seivewright is recording the Complete Piano Sonatas of Baldassare Galuppi, a Venetian composer known as the “father of comic opera.” Fans of Scarlatti’s sonatas should investigate these charming, lyrical pieces performed on a modern piano, but be awarethat Seivewright’s playing isn’t always rhythmically settled. 

Little is known about Giovanni Antonio Guido, but he wrote a set of pieces called Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) arguably six or seven years before Vivaldi did. Vivaldi’s more famous set is positively Wagnerian in comparison; Guido’s is fairly tame and not particularly inventive, but it is quite sunny and well-written. The Band of Instruments makes this worthwhile listening for any Baroque lover. John Garth’s Six Concertos for Violoncello, written probably in the 1750s, are similar: they don’t move compositional mountains, but they are a pleasant way to pass an hour and a half. The Fourth is my favorite: the first movement’s spiffy, whistleable themes have the strongest profile of all; the second lives up to its Andante Affetuoso title, and the third is a refined minuet. Richard Tunnicliffe and The Avison Ensemble are consistently superb. 

Piano: Piobaireachd, Panayiotis, Parables, and Perseverance

Métier’sthree-volume 20th-Century British Piano Music Series has one of Sir Michael Tippett’s piano sonatas as the cornerstone of each disc. In Volume 3, the Fourth Sonata has a lot of wild polyphony, jostling rhythms, and dry wit. Nicholas Unwin plays it fantastically, though I feel he could have pushed the fourth movement toward even greater derangement. Robert Saxton’s single-movement sonata takes a lot of the 20th century’s experimental developments and makes them surprisingly listenable; new sections constantly grow out of old material, and the easy-to-follow gestures give coherence to what would be pointless rambling in lesser hands. Particularly enjoyable are delicious arpeggios left ringing in the air. Colin Matthews also blends modernist techniques in his 11 Studies in Velocity, though, as a comparison, Ligeti’s etudes have more individuality and diversity. 

Diversions has reissued Erik Chisholm’s Music for Piano, seven discs that Murray McLachlan originally recorded for Dunelm. Chisholm was a Scottish composer and conductor who integrated Celtic influences into his music; his “Piobaireachd” (bagpipe airs) mostly seem rather grim. Volume 3 has a handful of those and two sonatinas, but the highlight is the Cornish Dance Sonata, which starts simply enough. Chisholm’s writing gets more and more involved as the sonata progresses; impressionism mixes with vigorous dance, and barbarism never strays far from tonality. The final movement, “With Clogs On,” is a ten-minute celebration with a phantasmagoric finale.  

Métier also has some jazz releases. Nina’s Clock is an album of improvisations by pianist-composer Panayiotis Demopoulos. He mutes the piano strings often, and many of the pieces sound like a cross between John Cage’s prepared-piano pieces and jam band noodling with certain sonorities and patterns obsessively explored. The light-hearted “monk o’clock: blue tank” ends the disc with goofy blues, and the muted strings evoke guitars, electric pianos, and even wind instruments from note to note. Paul Schoenfield’s Piano Concerto: Four Parables (Athene) is jazz-influenced and pretty raucous, perfect if you’re looking for wilder adventures than Gershwin’s Concerto in F. The fourth movement is “about a jazz club in ‘Dog Heaven,’ where the streets are lined with bones and there is a fire hydrant on every corner.” Pianist Andreas Boyde is terrific, and the Schoenfield is paired with an attractive performance of Dvorak’s Piano Concerto. 

On Eric Craven’s Set for Piano, performed by Mary Dullea on Métier, Craven builds each section on a theme or rhythm that gives the ear something clear to hang onto, since the music sounds more like improvisation. When the chords are at their crunchiest, they are sweetened with jazziness. Tempos and dynamics are not indicated, and over 12 sections, the performer becomes more and more a part of the process. In “Twelve,” no note durations are given, and the performer is free to repeat or omit notated pitches and organize them as she sees fit. Dullea creates a 22-minute structure out of “Twelve” to end the journey. 

Light Music from Three Islands
George Grossmith (1847–1912) originated several roles in Gilbert & Sullivan operas; he was a capable music-hall songwriter as well, with a gift for caricature and mimicry. A Society Clown collects 24 of his songs, brightly sung by baritone Leon Berger, whose voice dwarfs Selwyn Tillett’s piano throughout all the shifting microphone placements. “His Nose was on the Mantelpiece” and “I’m Tired of the Moon, My Love & Myself” gave me a few chuckles; thanks to some slapstick noises, the message of “The French Verbs Song” still got through. Even American sentimental song gets a drubbing in “The Baby on the Shore,” sung in brutal imitation of a southern accent. 

Donald Swann is best known as half of the British comedy duo Flanders & Swann, but he did a fair bit of composing on his own, from settings of Tolkien poetry to an opera version of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. He had a life-long obsession with Greece, where he lived from 1944 to 1946 as a relief worker, and he set Greek folk songs and wrote a set of sonnets about the Dodecanese island of Casos. The Isles of Greece collects nearly 20 songs and sonnets, most of them orchestrated, sung by three singers. It’s not quite accurate to call all of them “light music,” as the sonnets are suffused with foreboding. Texts and translations are included, as is an archival recording Swann made of himself singing the Casos Sonnets at home. 

For honest-to-goodness light music, it’s hard to top the Charles Camilleri release on Diversions, a composer’s tribute to his native island in sparkling performances by the Bournemouth Symphony. The Knights of Malta ballet suite uses music written by the titular knights; “Grandmaster’s Minuet” has some particularly charming rhythmic changes. There’s a vivacious concertino for two pianos and orchestra, two suites, and a few miscellanies. They all remind me of light French music from Offenbach to Milhaud, but with a bit more substance and less willful insouciance. 

Anthony Goldstone, Powerhouse Pianist 
I hadn’t heard of the late Anthony Goldstone before, but I’ve been missing out! He possessed marvelous technique and musicality and made many excellent recordings for Divine Art. Caroline Clemmow became his duet partner in 1984 and his wife five years later. Their album Orientale is a blast: they’re thrilling in Adam Gorb’s Yiddish Dances and mysterious in Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia. Colin McPhee’s Balinese Ceremonial Music lets them be a gamelan, while plucked or prepared strings imitate sitars and tanpuras in John Mayer’s Sangit Alamkara Suite. At the opposite end of the spectrum is The Complete Piano Duos of Hans Gál, an Austrian-British composer (1890–1987) who wrote obstinately pleasant music. He often did so with some strikingly inventive counterpoint, though, or unexpected harmonic twists and turns. 

The Piano at the Carnival is one of the many recordings Goldstone made on his own, though in the transcriptions (Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite, Dvorak’s Carnival Overture), the different layers are voiced so clearly and distinctly, and the accompanying chords are so full, that you’ll swear it’s a duet. Schumann’s Carnaval is playful and impetuous, as it should be. My only complaint is a deficit of softness and shading, partly due to the engineering. Even quieter passages can be steely. Goldstone also contributed a few albums to the Russian Piano Music series, currently at 12 volumes. His Mussorgsky volume has Pictures at an Exhibition as the compelling centerpiece, played from a facsimile of the autograph score, which has many differences from the published score edited by Rimsky-Korsakoff. Also included are some of Mussorgsky’s “alternate takes” from Pictures and of other pieces like the famous “Hopak.” Goldstone has also completed unfinished works by Schubert and Mozart and made first recordings of transcriptions. In fact, Divine Art boasts that around 80% of its releases contain at least one premiere. They’ve come a long way from that humble organ in the hills, and I can’t wait to see where they go next.