Swept Away - Music of a Lost Generation
Kings Place concert hall,
London, June 19 - 21, 2015
'...Continuum Ensemble's ambitious and admirable Swept Away mini-festival...'
'The singers... gave it their all, with Andrew Rees especially heroic... Anna Dennis and Martha Jones offered classy lyrical relief in the Alabama Song....'
'...the excellent Continuum Ensemble's committed, virtuosic playing under conductor Philip Headlam.'
'Mahagonny Songspiel and Berliner Requiem were brilliantly undertaken, the latter in a programme with the BBC Singers'
'...freestanding Brecht setting Vom Tod im Wald was a powerful experience as projected by bass Barnaby Rea and a darkly incisive accompaniment of ten winds.'
'[Toch's] Five Pieces for Orchestra proved fascinating....'
'[Toch's] Cello Sonata op. 50...was grippingly expounded by Joseph Spooner and...pianist Douglas Finch'
'Sarah Tynan was the lustrous soprano and Toch's inventiveness hardly for the first time in the weekend, held me spellbound.'
‘Lisa Nelsen, a flautist and a half, transformed her eight little solo slices of Hindemith into a powerfully characterized mini-drama. Her pauses were formidable.’
‘As for Weill, we heard him loudly in Friday’s Mahagonny Songspiel, springboard for the later opera...Weill’s music and Brecht’s words bouncing together, tartly ironic...I sat tightly gripped; you might almost say swept away.’
‘[Toch’s] Three Burlesques for solo piano, brilliantly played by Douglas Finch, were one highlight.’
‘Unfazed by the torturous vocal line---at times like Lakmé on acid---Donna Bateman gave a witty and sensual performance.’
‘...the leading roles of Helene and Robert are still challenging and... Anna Dennis and Andrew Rees gave them a heroic edge. The distinctive starkness of Norbert Meyn’s tenor made the other worldly intervention of the Wise Man suitably arresting.’
Little Red Riding Hood
by Georges Aperghis, English adaptation by Stephen Jeffreys
July 6, 2005, Almeida Theatre, Almeida Opera Festival
July 8, 2005 Robert Maycock, The Independent:
Veterans of bed time-story duty have had many, many chances to think about the subtexts to Little Red Riding Hood. Paranoid delusions, child abuse, gerontophilia we’ve been there. So it is a relief, both in Georges Aperghis and Stephen Jeffreys’ short operatic adaptation and in the on-the-move staging that Annabel Arden has given it for Almeida Opera, that these furtive dimensions are so well digested, acknowledged but never laboured.
The experience kept children of eight upwards and there were quite a few in the audience thoroughly absorbed. Or, at least, they laughed at the same things I did. The opera harks back to Charles Perrault’s earliest version of the tale, in his 17th century Mother Goose collection, in which nobody comes to the rescue. When the wolf seizes the grandmother, there is just enough suggestion of rape before she wraps herself in a sheet and makes a ghostly retreat. Then Red Riding Hood, explicitly invited into bed by the disguised wolf, suffers the same fate. A moral in verse follows, lightly but chillingly updated here to rhyme ‘Leicester’ with ‘molester’.
Aperghis has set it for six musicians, who also tell the story and act it out. The members of The Continuum Ensemble wear concert dress and are unable to do without music stands it’s quite intricate stuff out of which Arden has made a virtue, having them and the pianos moved gracefully around the stage to reinforce the mounting unease of the events.
Compounding it further, the narrative proceeds in repeating and overlapping phrases, so that it takes two steps forward and one back. That’s until the final stages, when it switches into fast-forward to reinforce the shock of Riding Hood’s unfamiliar demise.
Apart from the pianos, there are three high woodwinds and a violin, a deliberately limited sound palette that has a cumulatively claustrophobic effect. From time to time, one player activates a tuba through several metres of plastic tubing to make scary sounds, to which the audience reacts with hollow mirth.
The show’s distinction is in its staging and vocal delivery. It takes quite something to turn a bunch of modern music specialists into confident actors. But Arden has the musical experience and nous to bring off the adventure.
There was a great atmosphere in the Almeida, too: let the kids in and the usual new-music endurance test is transformed into a proper evening out.
John Allison, July 8, 2005, The Times:
The annual summer Almeida Opera season may be shrinking, but it is not as slight as it looks on the surface. When one of the main events is Little Red Riding Hood, trailed as a fantasy for everyone aged 9 and up, it’s easy to underestimate the experience until you see that the composer is Georges Aperghis, one of the great innovators of music theatre. Aperghis does indeed achieve something very rare in making a work that can appeal to people of any age.
Aperghis, 60 this year, was born in Greece but has lived all his adult life in France. If the French musical and dramatic scenes were but the starting point for an individual style that is both sophisticated and elemental, he has retained a French-like sensibility in his work. His subject matter ranges widely, but he has gone back to the original French source of Little Red Riding Hood, Charles Perrault’s 17th century fairytale, which means that there is no happy ending. As in Perrault, Aperghis ends with a moral warning young girls about the dangers of men.
But it’s even darker than that. At the end of this multi-layered interpretation, there is not just one wolf but several. Even the ‘dead’ girl turns her head and we see she has become a wolf herself the same as everyone else. Sections of the concise and sometimes witty text always spoken, never sung are repeated over and over in a ritualistic retelling of the story, mixed in with music played by the same performers who do the acting.
It is an almost unclassifiable art form, to which the director Annabel Arden and the members of The Continuum Ensemble are perfectly suited. The 45 minute piece opens with Aperghis’ tense and moody music played by an ensemble of two pianos, two clarinets, a saxophone and a violin, but soon we get a comical duet for two bass clarinets who have donned wolf masks. The violinist is the first to wear the red riding hood, yet the few props and costumes are shared in the course of the repeated cycles.
Led by Philip Headlam, the ensemble of Neyire Ashworth, Nell catchpole, Ingrid Laubrock, Ian Stuart and Cassie Yukawa perform with brilliant flexibility. They may be a little reliant on funny accents and the occasional silly walk, but for all the laughter they get there is no disguising the seriousness of this dark little piece.
Andrew Clements, Friday July 8, 2005, The Guardian:
Just two concerts and a couple of music theatre pieces make up this year’s Almeida Opera season; the only novelty is the British premiere of Little Red Riding Hood. Georges Aperghis’ teasing retelling prefers Charles Perrault’s tougher moralistic tale to any later soft-edged version. There’s no reprieve for his heroine once she has been gobbled up by the wolf, and the moral of the story there are wolves everywhere, so don’t have anything to do with strange men is rammed home in a rhyming homily.
Aperghis’ music blurs distinctions between theatre and concert pieces as well as between actors and instrumentalists, and Little Red Riding Hood is presented by a six piece ensemble, all of whom have to sing and act as well as play their instruments (two clarinets, saxophone, two pianos and violin.) Here, the superbly accomplished protagonists are members of The Continuum Ensemble, long time champions of Aperghis, in a spare, gently witty staging a few costumes, a couple of masks directed by Annabel Arden.
The tale unfolds as a series of cycles, constantly returning to the beginning and the first ‘once upon a time’ and revealing a bit more at each repetition. The narrative, in English, is delivered as a mix of speech and pitched chanting, shared out between the six players. Roles aren’t fixed the violinist is Red Riding Hood to begin with but later it’s one of the pianists and the acted-out elements of the story are interspersed with the musical numbers and stretches of narration (in a variety of accents at one point even switching into Japanese.)
The effect is to take the familiar tale apart and reassemble it in a variety of ways, with perspectives constantly changing. The music provides the glue in this construction kit; sometimes it’s unstable, sometimes jazzy and boldly rhythmic, pushing the action forward.
It’s deft, engaging and at just 50 minutes, never threatens to outstay its welcome.
The Music Theatre of Georges Aperghis
April 14, 1999; The Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, April 17, 1999
Born in Athens in 1945 but based in Paris since the sixties, Georges Aperghis is barely known in Britain. Occasional works by Aperghis turn up in new music concerts and the indefatigable Huddersfield Festival has featured him, but three concerts this week by The Continuum Ensemble offer the first sustained chance for London audiences to get to grips with an intriguing and mysterious figure.
Since the seventies, Aperghis has explored the possibilities of music theatre, re-evaluating the relationships between what performers play or sing ands what they do on stage and how words, music and gesture can be fashioned into a new grammar. His instrumentalists have to sing as well as play; singers must whistle; everyone has to move. A cellist plays the solo Recitations in a variety of positions, on his knees or cradling his instrument like a baby; the harpist in Fidelité launches a verbal tirade against her indifferent lover and reinforces her onslaught with her instrument which has some of its strings slackened to sound vaguely oriental. The Physiological Laugh is a power play between an arrogant baritone and his hapless accompanist, ending in humiliation after the singer has delivered a short lecture on the implications of laughter.
The scenarios are sometimes explicit, sometimes teasingly abstract; there’s a nervy humour about a great deal of it. The texts for the vocal works may be more or less coherent or use an invented polyglot language - Conversations for two voices create music out of the inflections of text, nothing more; the Recitations for female voice switch between comprehensible words and fractured syllables at dizzying speed. Speech is always mimicking music and vice versa; the boundaries are shifting all the time and nothing can be taken for granted.
If it’s hard to pin down Aperghis’ achievement and its place in the music of our time, it depends on the kind of stylish performances The Continuum Ensemble had prepared under its music director Philip Headlam. Annabel Arden had given a sharp continuity to the programme, interweaving it with the Recitations, performed by cellist Matthew Sharp and singers Lore Lixenberg and Rachel Shannon as if they’ known them all their lives. Patrizia Meier was the vituperative harpist in Fidelité while Joz Houben had the walk on, sit-down, say nothing role of the object of her obsessions; Headlam himself was the timorous accompanist in The Physiological Laugh, Richard Jackson his overbearing partner. There’s a final concert in the Purcell Room tonight with Aperghis’ purely instrumental music alongside works by his contemporary Dusapin and teacher Xenakis; it’s a bold, imaginative project, wonderfully well realised.
Songs in the Face of Death
December 7, 1994, Regent Hall, Oxford Street, London
Hilary Finch, The Times, December 12, 1994
He was 25, she was 21 when they were executed by the Nazis. Hans and Sophie Scholl, brother and sister, were prime movers in Munich’s ‘White Rose’ student resistance movement.
We found one of their leaflets of warning and protest on our seats in Oxford Street’s Regent Hall, the 150 or so of us who had gathered to hear their tale told in the words of Wolfgang Willaschek and the music of Udo Zimmermann. The evening was cold, dark, sober: it was like being at a memorial service.
Six years ago, a recording of Zimmermann’s newly revised Die Weisse Rose made a considerable mark. The music’s tight-lipped structure and the allusive poetry of a text which expresses without narration the shifting states of mind of its characters as they face death, makes it more song cycle than an opera (there are powerful résonances of Schubert’s Winterreise.)
I was fearful of what an attempted staging would do. But The Continuum Ensemble had commissioned a trenchant new English translation and Mike Ashman’s direction placing each singer in front of a single white screen left and right of the band on the small stage of the Regent Hall focuses word and music in spare, eloquent body language, without a moment’s distraction.
Sixteen ‘numbers’ some of them spoken, some declaimed, some growing from arioso into song and duet, were shared between Hans (Geoffrey Dolton) and Sophie (Jane Leslie MacKenzie) in extraordinarily committed, searingly communicative performances.
Schoenberg’s language is never far away, distilled by Zimmermann to serve his own expressive ends, as memory and reflection knit together in the constant metamorphosis of three six-note themes. Thanks to Philip Headlam’s lucid direction of the excellent Continuum Ensemble, the listener heard the plain speaking of the writing’s emotional language, not the complexity of its making.
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Anna Picard, Independent on Sunday, 17 April, 2002
A first recording from a young composer rarely brings this amount of enjoyment but Errollyn Wallen knows how to entertain. As a creative debut this rivals Zadie Smith’s White Teeth for sheer gutsiness; a collage of high and pop culture assembled by a very smart mind indeed. There’s a great deal of humour here: from Louis’ Loops a ‘what if’ fantasy that brings the mannerisms of French Baroque to the tinky-tonk of Margaret Leng Tans’ toy pianos to the half-arch, half naïve characters in Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals? Wallen has good ears the only low point is the Take Six-lite In Our Lifetime and her references are skillfully mixed. But will she be the next Judith Weir or the next Nina Simone? Dervish and Horseplay would indicate the former but her Ravel-meets Jobim riff for two pianos, The Girl in My Alphabet, is nothing if not jazz.
John L. Walters, The Guardian, 19 April, 2002
...There’s also a South African connection in Errollyn Wallen’s In Our Lifetime, composed in 1990 as a tribute to Nelson Mandela and performed by a multi-tracked, a cappella choir sung by baritone Mike Henry. It’s one of six substantial Wallen compositions in The Girl in My Alphabet (Avie).
The title track is a vigorous workout for two pianos, based loosely on The Girl from Ipanema. Horseplay is one of Wallen’s satisfyingly dense dance scores performed by The Continuum Ensemble, a four movement array of melodic and textural delights. This is not an album that establishes a single mood. It’s more like a boxed set of novels: there’s a huge amount of detail throughout, everything a product of a rigorous and lively musical intellect. Other pieces include Dervish for cello and piano and a song cycle for soprano and string quartet. The oddest track is a live recording of Margaret Leng Tan playing Louis’ Loops on toy piano. Like some of John Cage’s prepared piano pieces, it feels like world music from another planet.
Guy Rickards, Gramophone, July 2002
The first commercially available recording devoted entirely to the music of one of Britain’s most exciting young composers.
Errollyn Wallen is unsettingly versatile. Her works range from jazz songs (a highly successful sideline which she has toured as singer-songwriter) to opera, instrumental pieces to ballet. Her music is directly communicative, tonally based, recognizably turn-of-the-twenty-first-century. Although with one foot in the popular camp, she sees herself unequivocally as a composer in the modern classical tradition. Her facility for a good tune is evinced in her alternately quirky and sad cycle Are You Worried about the Rising Cost of Funerals? (1994) for which Wallen wrote her own texts, here beautifully sung by Patricia Rozario. Another side to her vocal style is provided by In Our Lifetime (1990), a tribute for baritone and tape to Nelson Mandela on his then impending release from prison.
Wallen’s instrumental works are richly diverse, with dance often a prominent feature. Dervish (2001) for cello and piano captures the Sufi whirling’s "rapt and still devotion" as well as the "passion that is in speed". The four dances of the ballet Horseplay (1998) are vivacious studies in motion. The delightful miniature Louis’ Loops (1999named for a young cousin and the composer Couperin), given here in Margaret Leng Tan’s world premiere performance, includes ‘snippets’ of Couperin dances. Wallen herself is heard as pianist in the title track, The Girl in my Alphabet (1990), a blockbuster piano duo in which The Girl from Ipanema is used as the basis for what amounts to a compositional CV.
This then is a brilliant portrait disc of a composer with a very clear focus yet still expanding her range. The performances are uniformly excellent and Andrew Keener’s sound is rich if a touch bright. I cannot commend this disc strongly enough.
Robert Matthew-Walker, International Record Review, July 2002
This is the first commercial CD to be devoted to the music of Errollyn Wallen and I very much hope it will not be the last. She is a wholly original and remarkable musician, whose talent ranges far and wide, from Courtney Pine, Des’ree, Eternal, heavy metal bands, BBC 1998 Proms (Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra), the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, The Royal Ballet, and so on. She’s also a lovely girl, but more importantly for us she is a spectacular composer.
Born in Belize, but long resident in London, Errollyn Wallen has a fearless and brilliant compositional technique that makes the long-passé minimalism and navel gazing attributes of more famous younger composers pale into insignificance. In her music we are confronted by a compelling, free-spirited and sometimes exasperating artist, and if you might think the inherent danger in such an all-encompassing approach is that her judgement tends to become obscured, then that is a risk that I as a mere listener am more than willing to take.
There is some marvellous stuff on this disc, especially the song cycle Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals?, the ballet Horseplay and the title track (for two pianos). I was not wholly convinced by Louis’ Loops (the Louis being both Louis Couperin and Errollyn’s godson, Louis Wallen), played here on two toy pianos, for I am not sure it really works as sound, but I’ll continue to give it a go. The recordings are outstanding technically, and the texts of all the songs are printed. The performances are superb.
Wallen is that rare kind of composer: genuinely new, a breath of fresh air, someone who takes all of our preconceptions and stands them on their heads in kindly, loving fashion. If she carries on like this, we are in for some great things. I can’t wait to hear her new community opera, commissioned for the Walton Centenary in Oldham this October, among other works in the pipeline. What about a genuine, wholly orchestral non-programmatic Symphony? I hope she’s up for it, and that Avie brings out her album of songs ‘Meet Me At Harold Moores’ stunning material, stunningly performed. Do yourself a favour - buy this CD and make contact with a genuine composer in our midst.
Daniel Felsenfeld; July 2002, ClassicsToday.com
When people say they love music that is ‘sincere’, it is very likely that they are talking about the sort of thing that Errollyn Wallen writes. Her solo disc is full of tunes, catchy rhythmic ideas and a notion that ‘everything’ is music. This is a composer who has a distinctly personal voice - uncluttered with artificial ‘hipness’ or academic agendas - and a powerful voice it is.
The disc opens with Dervish, a moody piece for cello and piano that’s warmly executed by Matthew Sharp and Dominic Harlan. They take the music seriously, tapping its many moods with sophistication and flowing ease. The cycle of five songs for soprano and string quartet titled Are You Worried about the Rising Cost of Funerals? (with poems by the composer) runs the gamut of influences from traditional African to Michael Nyman and it’s a sharp, tuneful, well-heard piece. Soprano Patricia Rozario assays her challenging part effortlessly.
Less successful is the piece for toy piano titled Louis’ Loops though it’s wonderfully executed by Margaret Leng Tan (who Wallen calls ‘New York’s Kinky Dinky Diva’.) It has nice sections, especially the incorporated baroque dances but it’s simply too busy for the instrument. The same is true of the disc’s final opus, which leans a little too heavily on a gag: the whole thing swirls to a quotation of the song ‘Girl from Ipanema’cute, but not enough payoff despite the interesting piano textures Wallen creates.
Horseplay, a multi-movement work for ensemble is the disc’s highpoint. It is an energetic, ebullient flight of fancy, wonderfully scored. Philip Headlam conducts The Continuum Ensemble with precision but also the perfect willingness to be a little rough around the edges when necessary. In Our Lifetime, a piece for baritone and tape, is a tribute to Nelson Mandela that beautifully and skilfully incorporates some South African music. This is the sort of release that a young composer dreams about---a thoughtful sample of her work, well-recorded and performed and attractively packaged.
Artistic Quality, Sound Quality: 9/10
Richard Whitehouse, Gramophone, September 2004
Roger Smalley was a vital force in the British avant grade of the late 19602 and early 70s, both as a performer and as a composer in his own right. His early works were influenced by Maxwell Davies before he fell under Stockhausen’s spell. In the mid-70’s Smalley moved to Australia, where he has lived ever since though little of his subsequent music has been heard here. This collection of chamber pieces shows that Smalley has certainly made his peace with the great tradition that he and so many of his contemporaries rejected in their youth; all the works on this disc derive from 19th century models, either Chopin mazurkas or late Brahms. But the result is never tired neo-romanticism, but far more bracing, for Smalley has refracted that harmonic and gestural world through its own principals or organization, creating a genuine and highly personal tension between that background and his invention.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, April 16, 2004
Roger Smalley studied with Stockhausen in the mid-1960s. With the late Tim Souster he founded the important electroacoustic group Intermodulation. Since then he has received acclaim as a concert pianist while working out a compositional path that has involved extensive personal negotiation with the legacy of classical music. This collection of his recent chamber music, performed by pianist Douglas Finch and members of The Continuum Ensemble includes variations on themes by Chopin and Brahms. Smalley is neither parodist nor plunderer. He engages earnestly with an orthodox version of European musical history, filtering the authority of the Romantics through that of his own experience. With scrupulous craft and a troubled sense of restored tonality Smalley tests the possibility of continuities between a past and current contexts. Inclusion of brief pieces by Chopin and Brahms played straight is part of this testing.
Julian Cowley, Wire, June 2004
Roger Smalley is best remembered in the U.K. for pioneering improvisation work with Intermodulation during the early 1970’s. A resident of Western Australia for some 28 years, his compositions include an impressive Symphony in One Movement and a Piano Concerto (both worth searching out on ABC Classics). Having released his early orchestral work Pulses, NMC now delves into Smalley’s recent chamber music in which the Romantic era is reassessed from a distinctly present-day perspective.
After stating the first six bars of the B flat minor Mazurka (Op. 24, no. 4), Variations on a Theme of Chopin proceeds brusquely until, with Variation 9, turning inward; the final three variations are a lengthy coda in which the Chopin becomes ever more pervasive. It is the A flat Mazurka (Op. 59, no. 2) which underlies the Piano Trio. In linked pairs of movements, a quietly rhetorical Prelude gives way to an energetic Scherzo. A brief Passacaglia forms the basis for variations which again reach a mid-point culmination before retreating to their source.
More engaging in its abstraction is Poles Apart. After a vigorous workout, an Intermezzo cross-cuts the melodic writing of each instrument, then the finale combines a chorale with variations on Chopin’s C sharp minor Mazurka. Here, momentum is allowed to accelerate over the course of the movement, just in time for the chorale to end the work in ethereal calm. Even more compact is the Clarinet Trio, eliding sonata-form and variations so the latter half becomes a subtly altered reprise of the initial ideas. Brahms is the indirect inspiration: overtly so in Crepuscule, where the E minor Intermezzo gives rise to three movements of fifteen variations.
Acclaimed for their recording of Errollyn Wallen’s music (Avie, 7/02), The Continuum Ensemble prove equally adept here, with Douglas Finch in command of writing whose demands are a reminder that Smalley is himself no mean pianist. Tightly focussed sound, and booklet-notes from Christopher Mark and the composer, add to the appeal of music where a positive compromise between retrenchment and progress is evident at every turn.
Martin Anderson, International Record Review, October 2004
This disc would be an ideal gift for anyone convinced that modern music can’t be good fun. It will also provide a welcome re-establishment of musical contact with Roger Smalley (born near Manchester in 1943) for people who, like me, have rather lost him from sight since he was claimed by Australia the best part of three decades ago. That point is underlined by the title of Christopher Smart’s opening essay in the booklet: ‘Roger Smalley’s Post-1988 Chamber Music in Context’ a fortunate label, since neither Smart, nor Smalley’s own subsequent notes on the music, nor the poorly organized work list on the Smalley page at the website of the Australian Music Centre makes free with dates for the five works on this CD. Their point in common here is that they take their inspiration, or point of departure, from music by Chopin or Brahms, whose originals are thoughtfully added to the menu.
The opening chords of the Variations on a Theme of Chopin for piano widely spaced, pompous and ironic at the same time suggest there’s fun in store and for eight variations Smalley makes intervallic hay with the Chopin Mazurka, op. 24, no. 4. But a more elegiac tone then emerges and an Australian one? I remember Peter Sculthorpe explaining how he was trying to write a genuinely Australian music by avoiding European-sonata contrast in favour of long, unbroken lines that emulated the vast emptiness of the Australian hinterland and here, too, even if briefly, Smalley sounds the note of desolate immensity.
The 14 minute Piano Trio (based on a chromatic harmonic progression in Chopin’s Mazurka, op. 59, no. 2) manages to veer between modernist angularity and consonant good humour without sounding Janus-faced. Its two parts are each slow - fast, the jocular first scherzo running into grinding dissonance. The second part uses an intriguing design: a brief but proud Passacaglia, unfolding Chopin’s progression from the bass up, introduces a set of 13 variations, the fast first six climaxing in the seventh after which the slow final six take the form of a chaconne.
The three-movement Poles Apart, scored for flute, clarinet, violin, viola and cello, is another play-area: the lusty first movement constantly changes beat (imagine an inebriated Hindemith and you’ll catch something of its unpredictable jollity); a gentle, nervous Intermezzo then introduces a ‘Chaconne with Chorale’, again sitting on a Chopin harmonic progression. The two final works are both anchored on Brahms. The Trio for clarinet, viola and piano takes its cue from the ‘unusually sparse even Webernianpassage [at] the opening of the first variation of the finale of the [Viola] Sonata op. 120, no. 2’ and then launches into a demonically jolly gallop in a sonata-form single movement. Crepuscule, scored for violin, viola, cello and piano, derives its material from the Intermezzo op. 116, no. 5, producing 15 variations which fall into three large spans. Here, too, there’s a kaleidoscopic humour at work, the variegated textures flashing with light and wit.
There are excellent performances from the Continuum players, in fine recorded sound. Well worth exploring.
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