Playlist – Sarah Beth Briggs

It gives us great pleasure to welcome pianist Sarah Beth Briggs as a guest curator for the Arcana playlist.

Sarah releases her new album Variations on Friday 24 March, a collection of works in the form by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. It complements a discography for AVIE that already boasts The Austrian Connection and discs of works for piano solo by Schumann and Brahms, and piano trios by Gál and Shostakovich as part of the Briggs Piano Trio.

We asked her for a blend of her current listening and one piece inspired by the Variations album – and I think you’ll agree she has come up with something rather special in the form of Edmund Rubbra’s rare but strikingly original orchestration of BrahmsVariations on a theme of Handel. Here it is in the only available current recording, conducted by Neeme Järvi:

As to her current listening, Sarah gives us a trio of very fine chamber works from the 19th century, Beethoven and Schubert to be precise, and the music of Hans Gál, finally emerging into the public consciousness – his very fine Cello Concerto:

We end with peerless jazz, the Oscar Peterson Trio and their wonderful Night Train

Our grateful thanks to Sarah – do have a listen on the Spotify link below:

On Record: Mark Bebbington, Duncan Riddell, RPO – Vaughan Williams: Fantasia, Piano Quintet, The Lark Ascending, Romance (Resonus Classics)

Vaughan Williams
Piano Quintet in C minor (1903, rev. 1905)
The Lark Ascending (1914, rev, 1919)
Romance (c1914)
Fantasia (quasi variazioni) on the ‘Old 104th’ Psalm Tune (1949)

Mark Bebbington (piano), Duncan Riddell (violin, Piano Quintet, Lark), Abigail Fenna (viola, Piano Quintet, Romance), Richard Harwood (cello, Piano Quintet), Benjamin Cunningham (double bass, Piano Quintet), City of London Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Hilary Davon Wetton (Fantasia)

Resonus RES10311 [64’53’’]

Producer Adam Binks
Engineers Dave Rowell (Piano Quintet, Fantasia), Adam Binks (The Lark Ascending, Romance)

Recorded 8, 9 June, 25 July 2022 at St John’s Smith Square, London

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Mark Bebbington assumes centre-stage for this diverse collection of pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams, ranging across almost a half-century of his output as well as providing an effective showcase for his (unjustly criticized) piano writing heard here within three different contexts.

Does it all work?

One from a number of early chamber works as have only been revived and published in recent years, the Piano Quintet finds its composer seeking an accommodation between the Germanic and French models. The opening Allegro drives its fiery and wistful main themes through an intense development and curtailed reprise to an uneasy close, while the Andante contrasts the hymnic eloquence of its outer sections with the agitation at its centre. Most distinctive is the closing Fantasia, whose five variations on a plaintive theme shared between piano and strings evince no mean motivic ingenuity or expressive variety as they build to a fervent conclusion. Bebbington and the RPO players make a persuasive case for this uneven yet absorbing piece.

The two duo works make for a telling contrast in themselves. Although now ubiquitous in its orchestral incarnation, The Lark Ascending as originally conceived with piano is appealing and evocative in its own right – not least given with unforced pathos by Duncan Riddell and accompanied by Bebbington with sensitive understatement. Probably dating from the same time, the Romance seemingly went unheard in the composer’s lifetime (one of several pieces intended for but never played by Lionel Tertis) and received its first public hearing in 1962. Its build-up to an impassioned climax and return to its initial serenity is a familiar trajectory though one which is flawlessly carried through here, as least as rendered by Abigail Fenna.

Forward some 35 years to the Fantasia (quasi variazioni) on the ‘Old 104th’ Psalm Tune – a piece whose infrequent performance is explained by the unlikely scoring for piano, chorus and strings but also the hybrid nature of its conception; the forthright nature of its four choral settings duly offset by the formal and expressive freedom of its alternating piano ‘cadenzas’ on route to a powerfully, even starkly drawn coda. Bebbington acquits himself with aplomb in the latter, while the City of London Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra respond with confidence to Hilary Davon Wetton, though perhaps this might have been the ideal occasion to revive the piece with accompaniment for string quartet as heard at its first private hearing.

Does it all work?

Almost. The follow-through of this selection is unusual to say the least, but its distinctiveness of content is undoubted – as, too, the quality of these performances. This is now the seventh version of the Piano Quintet and arguably the finest yet, the duos can stand comparison with any predecessor while that of the Fantasia has greater cohesion than the benchmark account by Adrian Boult with Peter Katin (EMI/Warner). Those familiar with Bebbington’s previous discs of VW’s piano music or early Fantasy (both Somm) will find comparable insights here.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The recalcitrant acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square here yields the requisite warmth and no little clarity, while Nigel Simeone’s notes are informative if (purposely?) contentious on occasion. Anyone who is wanting to acquire some or all of these works need not hesitate.

For purchase information on this album, and to hear sound clips, visit the Resonus Classics website. For more on the artists, click on the names for information on Mark Bebbington, Hilary Davan Watton, City of London Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Switched On – Secret of Elements: Rebuilding Notre Dame OST (InFiné)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

What a daunting prospect it must have been for Rostock composer and multi-instrumentalist Johann Pätzold, when he was approached to write the music for a documentary on the recovery of the great Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. With well over 1,000 years of musical tradition inside its walls, where would a composer start?

Pätzold – who records under the name Secret of Elements – stripped the ideas back to the elements themselves, with each of the documentary’s three episodes focused on wood, glass and stone. Building on these three fundamentals, he added aspects of spirituality and mechanics, including on the way musical references to the cathedral’s organ and choir.

What’s the music like?

Rebuilding Notre-Dame leaves a lasting and powerful reflection, and for Johann Pätzold it can be counted as a job very well done. He successfully evokes the distant past and the future within a sound framework that conveys the massive spaces in which the workers are restoring the cathedral. There is an air of reverence for sure, but also one of barely concealed horror at the plight in which the building finds itself.

The root of the music is the Adagio for Notre-Dame, composed first, and from this all the other ideas spring. It is a true lament, music of powerful regret and sorrow but also with an undercurrent of hope in its rising from the depths. Ruins also proves a moving utterance, an evocation of the choir, soaring to the heights over the support of the organ.

Born Again ends with a powerful and brilliant chord from the organ, the climactic notes of a surge of movement suggesting strong new beginnings. A New Chapter capitalises on this but with a rhythmic drive.

Shattered Glass is especially effective, while Stones generates urgency, suggesting many hands at work. The figurations in darker lower strings for Holy Grounds could be borne of Philip Glass, also with the organ towards the end, while Wood and Forest draws an exciting combination of scurrying orchestral figures and voices.

The final Resurrection is a suitably majestic way to bow out, restoring the cathedral to its former glory in music of power and splendour, great drums pounding in response to choral and orchestral might.

Does it all work?

Yes. Pätzold makes great use of audio perspective to convey the vast, empty spaces, while also bringing through a potted history of the music heard in the cathedral in the preceding years.

Is it recommended?

It is. This is a deeply impressive achievement from Secret of Elements, who has somehow captured all the emotions at play in the task of restoring one of the world’s most famous sacred buildings to its former glories. The fitting soundtrack suggests they will indeed be restored.



Online Concert: Francesca Dego & Alessio Bax @ Wigmore Hall – Mozart & Brahms

Francesca Dego (violin, above), Alessio Bax (piano, below)

Mozart Sonata for piano and violin in B flat major K454 Den første sommerfugl (1784)
Brahms Violin Sonata no.1 in G major Op.78 (1878-9)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 20 March 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

This was the first time violinist Francesca Dego and pianist Alessio Bax had performed together in public – but had that fact not been given to us by BBC Radio 3 announcer Andrew McGregor, the unsuspecting audience would have assumed they had been playing together for years. Both demonstrated an innate understanding of the music in this attractive programme, which had equal portions of light and shade.

Much of the light was found in the Mozart, his K454 violin sonata written during a phase where he was especially preoccupied with the key of B flat major. Around the violin sonata, regarded as one of the three crowning masterpieces in the form, sit the string quartet nicknamed the Hunt (K458) and the Piano Concerto no.18 (K456), the B flat neighbours evidence of a period where Mozart seems to have been especially fertile.

His stimulus on this occasion was the Italian violinist Regina Strinasacchi, a figure with whom the Italian Dego – a Mozart specialist herself – possibly felt an affinity. In detailing her affection for the work in the concert notes, Dego noted how Strinasacchi had studied at the Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi once taught, before meeting Mozart in Vienna.

The piece made a winsome impression here, Dego showing how, in Mozart performance, less can so often be more. The pair enjoyed a poised introduction, Dego lingering on the last note before a sparkling Allegro moderato opened up ahead. There was definitely an air of spring to this movement, with burbling piano figures and bright violin melodies ideally balanced by the two.

The slow movement took time for thought, enjoying the space afforded to an operatic violin line, though never lingered unnecessarily. Dego’s tone was especially enjoyable here. The finale was very nicely done, with breezy humour and opportunity for virtuoso display for both instruments, tastefully taken.

Alessio Bax Pianist Photo: Marco Borggreve

As with several of his first forays into a new musical form, Brahms took several attempts before he was happy to publish his Violin Sonata no.1, which was completed just after the Violin Concerto. It is an attractive work with memorable themes, but a shadow fell over its composition due to the fate of Felix, the son of Clara Schumann and Brahms’s godson, who contracted tuberculosis, from which he died.

Dego and Bax brought this melancholy to the slow movement, the music turning hollow at the extremes of the piano register, Bax’s shaping of the low phrases especially expressive. The soft coda was bittersweet, a mood which carried over into the slow movement. Whereas the first movement had plenty of room given to its attractive melody, the finale pushed forward, Brahms looking to blossom into an exultant major but ultimately remaining troubled by the frequent reappearance of the minor key. There was however a good deal of energy and ultimately the sonata ended positively, the light and shade of this performance having given it a deeper perspective.

Dego introduced a bold encore choice, the second movement Tarantella of Busoni’s Violin Sonata no.2 – a work that should be heard in the concert hall far more often. On this evidence, a recording would be most welcome, given the musicality the two performers brought to this fine recital.

For more livestreamed concerts from the Wigmore Hall, click here

Switched On – Sunroof: Electronic Music Improvisations Vol. 2 (The Parallel Series / Mute)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones are the electronic music equivalent of London buses. After spending the best part of four decades on their first collaborative album of improvisations, released under the Sunroof umbrella in 2021, they have knocked up the second round of musical trades in a matter of months. The instinctive musical understanding the pair have is brought together in a series of eight improvisations. This time they opted for more space, and allowed their ideas to either knock against each other or to get carried along with the flow.

What’s the music like?

Always intriguing, and with a spirit that carries the listener right back to those first collaborations in 1982. Miller and Jones find that the instinctive approach bears fruit, as does the decision to give their ideas more space.

At times their music evokes a busy beehive, or semi-repetitive industrial processes. The feeling is that of constant development, the pair able to bring forward interesting motifs, rhythms and textures in a spirit that recalls early electronic invention from the likes of Cabaret Voltaire.

January #2 concentrates on small fragments, moving together or against each other like tiny life forms squeezed into a small space. These are set against a longer drone, before shrill sounds from a triangle-like percussion begin to dominate. The music of July #2 suggests a series of codes, with voice-like fragments and bleeps put into the mix. November is a broader canvas, initially darker with more acidic sounds before panning out to reveal a more industrial landscape.

July #3 buzzes only briefly in comparison to July #1, which is a hive of activity and incident, its voice given a disconcerting Dalek edge. Meanwhile October brings in the most obvious rhythm, reminiscent of a game of ping pong but with accompanying synth arpeggios that bubble with activity. January #1 explores bell-like sonorities and acidic timbres, expanding to cavernous reverb in the process.

Does it all work?

It does, though sometimes the feeling is that Sunroof could have gone even further with their ideas, for their imagination is certainly fertile enough.

Is it recommended?

Very much so – a compelling set of improvisations that offers a ready complement to the first volume. Hopefully Miller and Jones are just getting into their stride, and we will hear the fruits of more Sunroof collaborations in the near future.