Live review – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle: Stravinsky, Birtwistle & John Adams

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (above)

Barbican Hall, London
Thursday 2 May 2019

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (original version) (1920)
Birtwistle The Shadow of Night (2001)
John Adams Harmonielehre (1985)

Written by Ben Hogwood

These days attending a London Symphony Orchestra concert brings with it a guarantee of intriguing programming and breathtaking musicianship. This one had a real ‘darkness to light’ demeanour, moving from the blacker than black recesses of Sir Harrison Birtwistle to the wide open, sunlit panoramas created by John Adams.

Before that, a composer whose influence could be keenly felt in the music of both composers. Stravinsky made many innovations in pieces other than his celebrated Rite of Spring, and Symphonies of Wind Instruments could certainly be regarded as one of his most original. With the term ‘symphony’ interpreted through its original meaning, the ‘concord of sound’, Stravinsky proceeds to build an innovative one-movement piece that contrasts busy movement with still reflection.

The instrumentation is fascinating, especially in the original version, which uses alto clarinet and alto flute. It explains the simply wonderful sounds made by the 24-piece London Symphony Orchestra wind and brass, the rich chords often baleful and downcast (the piece is a memorial to Debussy) but the faster music sprightly and energetic. A better performance of this piece would be hard to imagine, energetically guided by Sir Simon Rattle.

The music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle continues to split opinion. For this particular listener it is not an easy prospect, and I confess to having developed headaches in previous performances of Earth Dances and Neruda Madrigales, while admiring The Moth Requiem and Silbury Air. I therefore approached The Shadows of Night with some trepidation, but found it an ultimately rewarding score, its heavy darkness punctuated by relieving solos of glittering light from bassoon and E-flat clarinet, where Chi Yu Mo was simply superb.

Birtwistle’s colouring of the lower regions of the string orchestra is particularly fine, and the first five minutes were a sonic wonder to behold, as though the Barbican had opened up into a monstrous cave. Then the piccolo stated a John Dowland song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, after which the piece lumbered through a number of sections with gathering tension. Once this was released the clarinet worked its magic, and Rattle set us down in a heap for the interval.

Following Birtwistle with John Adams was like throwing open the curtains to greet a sun-splashed new morning, and the LSO sparkled with what seemed to be new-found freedom. Harmonielehre delights in tonality, politely rejecting Schoenberg’s treatise of the same name to power forward with terrific rhythmic impetus and walls of consonant harmonies. Within themselves these create some exquisite dissonance and colour, with the brass and percussion in particular shining through. Rattle has this piece under his skin, having recorded it with the CBSO in 1993, and if anything his interpretation has gained speed and electricity. as the composer himself noted on Twitter!

The audience were swept up in the cumulative power and energy of the piece, particularly in its closing section, which carried all before it. Of all the prominent exponents of minimalism, Adams has the most effective orchestral writing, and his clear signposts of influences (Sibelius Symphony no.4, Stravinsky, Debussy and even Britten) were all used to original effect. It was an invigorating close to a terrific concert.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

You can read Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s thoughts on The Shadow of Night at his publisher Boosey & Hawkes’ website, and John Adams talks about Harmonielehre on his own webpage

Live review – Patricia Kopatchinskaja, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Stravinsky: The Firebird

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 2 May 2019

Weinberg Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes Op.47/1 (1949)
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1878)
Stravinsky The Firebird – complete ballet (1910)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

With a European tour imminent and details of next season just out, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was evidently on a high when tackling this afternoon’s programme of contrasted works by Russian and Soviet composers.

His centenary may not fall until December, but Mieczysław Weinberg has been a mainstay of the CBSO’s current season (with the Third Symphony to follow at this year’s Proms), and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes was a welcome addition. At a time when Soviet composers were under intense pressure to write music of an inherently populist nature, its deployment of melodies from the territory of Bessarabia (from where his parents hailed, but not the Warsaw-born composer) draws unashamedly on a lineage from Liszt to Bartók – Weinberg’s handling of these, in what is a subtle take on the slow-fast archetype, being a stylish and personal one. Gražinytė-Tyla duly had its measure, whether in the ruminative opening with its plangent solo woodwind or the boisterous later stages when brass comes vividly and irresistibly to the fore.

An evergreen such as Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto should have presented no surprises, but that was to bargain without Patricia Kopatchinskaja (above) as soloist. Incapable of giving a routine performance, her sometimes reckless while always compulsive account of the first movement left little doubt as to her ringing of the changes – above all, in a spontaneous rendering of the cadenza such as convincingly brought out its improvisatory nature. Not was there any lack of inwardness in the Canzonetta, its chamber-like textures delectably drawn, and though tempi in the finale were almost self-consciously extreme, the frisson as generated by its ever-faster refrain seemed all but tangible. Gražinytė-Tyla drew an alert and attentive response from the CBSO, consistently making the most of Tchaikovsky’s delicate yet also incisive orchestration.

Only Kopatchinskaja could have come up with an encore where she, the conductor, violinist Kate Suthers and cellist Eduardo Vassallo engaged in something between a Ligeti madrigal and a Cathy Berberian improv. Something about the planet being round? It hardly mattered.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird is a piece of which all recent CBSO chief conductors have made a virtue, with Gražinytė-Tyla no exception. Perhaps surprisingly, this was an interpretation that emphasized the score’s formal unity and motivic ingenuity rather than any overly illustrative aspect; not least in the lengthy sequence between the Khorovod and Infernal Dance as can often seem to mark time judged purely as music.

Conversely, there was on occasion a lack of theatrical immediacy or evocative poise needed if the full ballet is to convince away from the stage. Highlights were a Supplication with the Firebird’s entreaties were alternately soulful and alluring, then a Berceuse whose rapt response from muted strings held the periodically restive audience in its thrall prior to an energetic while slightly matter-of-fact Apotheosis.

Any imprecisions will doubtless be ironed-out during the repeat performance on Saturday. A reminder, too, that Gražinytė-Tyla’s memorable reading of Weinberg’s 21st Symphony with the CBSO has just been released as the first fruit of her contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

Further information on this concert can be found at the CBSO website, and on the Weinberg release over at Deutsche Grammophon

Further listening

You can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below, including Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s recording of the Tchaikovsky and the CBSO in The Firebird under Sir Simon Rattle:

Wigmore Mondays – Julian Prégardien & Éric Le Sage: Schumann ‘Liederkreis’ & Fauré ‘La bonne chanson’

Julien Prégardien (tenor), Éric Le Sage (piano)

Schumann Liederkreis Op.24 (1:21-20:44 on the broadcast link below)
Fauré Nocturne no.6 in D flat major Op.63 (22:32-30:36)
Le Bonne Chanson Op.61 (32:13-52:38)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 April 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

The words to the song cycles can be found here for the Schumann and here for the Fauré

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Julien Prégardien and Éric Le Sage began their double header of Romantic song cycles with a lesser known collection from Schumann. The Liederkreis he published as Op.24 in 1840, his celebrated ‘year of song’, sets poetry by his contemporary Heinrich Heine – specifically the Buch der Lieder, where writer Richard Wigmore identifies common ground of ‘extremes of elation and despair and their mingled sentimentality, self-pity and ironic self-mockery’.

These are relatively short but emotive songs, the end of one often linking to the start of the next through key and mood. The first song, Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage (Every morning I awake and ask) (1:21 on the broadcast) is carefree with an accompaniment from Le Sage that trips along relatively happily, then Es treibt mich hin (I’m driven this way) (2:22) recounts the giddy excitement of waiting to see a loved one. By contrast, Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen (I wandered among the trees) (3:25) finds the subject in deeply introspective and almost resentful mood, despite the relatively calm music. Prégardien reaches some effortless high notes here, and also adopts a suitably flat tone towards the end.

Lieb Liebchen, leg’s Händchen (Just lay your hand on my heart) (7:00) is a short but rather macabre poem, given with halting piano from Le Sage, after which Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden (Lovely cradle of my sorrows) (7:45) follows immediately, offering consolation in the major key.

Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann (Wait, o wait, wild Seaman) (11:06) stays in the same key but throws off the shackles with a brilliantly descriptive piano part from Le Sage. Berg’ und Burgen schaun herunter (Mountains and castles gaze down) (13:08) describes the ‘mirror-bright Rhine’ with effortless romanticism, but almost unwittingly prophesies Schumann’s attempt on his life with the words, ‘The river’s splendour beckons; But I know it – gleaming above it conceals within itself Death and Night’.

Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen (At first I almost despaired) (16:49) is sombre in mood but quickly cast off by Mit Myrthen und Rosen (With myrtles and roses) (17:43), a light and spring-like conclusion to the cycle.

As a satisfying bridge from Liederkreis to Fauré’s most successful cycle Éric Le Sage – a specialist in the music of both composers – gives a fluid performance of the sixth of Fauré’s thirteen Nocturnes for piano, works that span his whole career. No.6 in D flat major (22:32) is probably the best known, and while its Chopin influences are evident its harmonies bear the French composer’s stylistic imprint. It has a long melody in the right hand from the start, and reaches an impressive climax at 28:20.

La bonne chanson is close to the Nocturne in Fauré’s output, and was intended for his mistress Emma Bardac. It sets nine of the 21 poems from Paul Verlaine’s collection, but it was not initially well received due to its elusive harmonies and longer phrasing. In the cycle Fauré uses recurring melodies to bind the collection together.

The cycle begins in radiant light with Une sainte en son aureole (A saint in her halo) (from 32:13 on the broadcast). The mood is cast, and Puisque l’aube grandit (The day is breaking) continues the bright atmosphere with flowing piano from Le Sage (34:16), and Prégardien copes well with the demands on the lower register of his voice half way through.

La lune blanche (The white moon) casts its spell from 36:14, the pure tone of Prégardien unforced but gaining strength on the higher notes. J’allais par des chemins perfidies (I walked along treacherous ways) is more forceful (38:17), then J’ai presque peur, en vérité (In truth, I am almost afraid) (40:12) has a nervous energy and won’t stay still, before proclaiming its love at the end.

Avant que tu ne t’en ailles (Before you fade) (42:27) is a lovely song, initially harking back to the Nocturne in both key and mood, before Fauré breaks off, propelling it away in another fit of restlessness describing the ‘thousand quail singing in the thyme’. The composer keeps the piano busy once more in Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d’été (So, on a bright summer day it shall be), though Prégardien is much more powerful here too (44:58).

N’est-ce pas? (Is it not so?) is richly romantic, retaining the subtlety of Fauré’s best songs (47:28), while the cycle concludes with L’hiver a cessé (Winter is over) (49:47). Beautifully phrased and paced by Le Sage, the introduction sets the scene for a song that pulls together all the separate elements of the cycle.

For an encore Prégardien and Le Sage gave us three Schumann songs – the first three from his cycle Dichterliebe in fact (54:24 onwards).

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, in the available versions:

Although Julien Prégardien has not recorded Liederkreis, he has a good deal of Schumann under his recorded belt – including this attractive collection with Le Sage and Sandrine Piau, which includes the masterly song cycle of Heine settings Dichterliebe:

You can also watch the album promo here:

On record: Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons – William Wordsworth: Orchestral Music Vol.1 (Toccata Classics)

Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

William Wordsworth
Symphony no.4 in E flat major Op.54 (1953)
Symphony no.8 Op.117 ‘Pax Hominibus’ (1986)
Divertimento in D major Op.58 (1954)
Variations on a Scottish Theme Op.72 (1962)

Toccata Classics TOCC0480 [80’38”]
Producer Normunds Slāva
Engineer Jánis Straume
Recorded 8-12 January 2018 at Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics embarks on a series devoted to the orchestral output of William Wordsworth (1908-88), his reputation doubtless affected by his music satisfying neither the criteria of post -war modernism nor that easy accommodation with earlier eras as favoured by traditionalists.

What’s the music like?

While he found a measure of success in the decade after the Second World War, Wordsworth had few performances in his later years with only a handful of works recorded. That began to change when Lyrita issued studio accounts of the Second and Third Symphonies (SRCD.207) in 1990, followed by broadcast performances of the First and Fifth in 2016 (REAM.121). The present disc thus fills several more gaps in his discography, not least two further symphonies in what must be hoped will eventually see the complete cycle being commercially available.

Dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli, who had assiduously championed its predecessor, the Fourth Symphony is a tautly conceived single movement – its slow introduction providing the salient material for the sonata design which follows. Although themes are relatively clearly defined, the evolutionary process blurs expected formal divisions so that the piece unfolds seamlessly for all its disjunct contrasts. The developmental episode is made more disquieting through its underlying march-rhythm, then the reprise transforms what had gone before by expressively heightening these themes on the way to a culmination whose decisiveness is permeated with that fatalism which informed so much of this composer’s music. Praised by Neville Cardus among others, it stands as an ideal entry-point into Wordsworth’s symphonic writing overall.

Also featured here are two slighter but not insubstantial pieces. Indeed, the Divertimento has distinct symphonic connotations – witness the purposeful unfolding of its Overture towards a heightened recall of its initial gesture, the wistful Air with its plaintive woodwind writing and crepuscular harmonies, then the lively Gigue whose ideas are kept in perpetual motion up to a rumbustious close. Lighter in tone, Variations on a Scottish Theme finds Wordsworth at his most approachable; the mid-nineteenth century tune The Hundred Pipers (attributed to Carolina Oliphant) made the subject of nine variations whose brevity (only the fifth lasts near two minutes) is complemented by its deftness and charm. Conceived with ‘school’ musicians in mind, this is a piece such as ought to find favour with young and amateur musicians today.

The Eighth Symphony is another matter entirely. Wordsworth’s final work, its subtitle ‘Pax Hominibus’ indicates his lifelong pacifist convictions though any relation to musical content is oblique at best. The first of its two movements proceeds ruminatively, with much recourse to solo lines and spare textures, creating formal and expressive expectations that its successor feels intent on denying. This opens with a strangely dislocated crescendo and continues with an elegiac passage, diaphanously scored, before a literal reprise of what has been heard before then a recall of the first movement’s main theme, prior to a calmly eloquent conclusion. The composer left an alternative ending – rightly included here as a repeat of the movement, for all that its insistence on jarring defiance feels at odds with the mood of this work as a whole.

Does it all work?

Yes. Wordsworth may not be a difficult composer to assimilate, though his music does not reveal its essence easily or without some effort. That said, there is an underlying logic and cohesion to his formal processes which is as tangible as it is satisfying, with the emotional depth that emerges is similarly undeniable. It helps when the playing of the Latvian-based Liepāja Symphony Orchestra sounds so attuned to its reticent idiom, with John Gibbons clearly having thought about this music so that its measure might more fully be conveyed.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound has clarity and focus, while Paul Conway’s annotations are detailed and probing. Hopefully the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies will follow, with major works such as the wartime oratorio Dies Domini – praised by Vaughan Williams and still unperformed.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website

On record: Jeremy Dale Roberts – Chamber and Instrumental Music (Toccata Classics)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Sheppard Skaerved (violin), Roderick Chadwick (piano) Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skaerved & Mihailo Trandafilovski (violins), Morgan Goff (viola),  Neil Heyde (cello) with Bridget MacRae (cello)

Jeremy Dale Roberts
Capriccio for violin and piano (1965)
Tombeau for piano (1966-69)
String Quintet (2012/14)

Toccata Classics TOCC0487 [78’24’’]
Producer Peter Sheppard Skaerved
Engineer Jonathan Haskell
Recorded 17-18 December 2014 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead (String Quintet), 3 July 2014 (Capriccio) and 22 February 2017 (Tombeau) at St Michael’s, Highgate, London

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics further sets the pace by releasing this disc of music by Jeremy Dale Roberts (1934-2017), whose distinguished academic career (for over three decades at Royal College of Music, latterly as Head of Composition) likely obscured his achievements as a composer.

What’s the music like?

Over more than half a century, Dale Roberts created a catalogue whose diversity is out of all proportion to its modesty (some 40 works). The present disc is the third devoted to his music, following releases on the NMC and Lorelt labels; the latter also featuring Capriccio for violin and piano. This 12-minute piece is dedicated to Howard Ferguson, whose technical finesse it emulates for all that its stylistic profile is appreciably wider – evoking Stravinsky and Bartók as it builds to an assaultive climax before subsiding into the subdued while sombre postlude.

As Roderick Chadwick infers in his booklet note, Tombeau was for Dale Roberts his defining work in terms both of encapsulating where his music had reached at that point and in making possible what came after. Unfolding continuously over 30 minutes, its central elegy is framed by a volatile sequence of studies and variations (Chadwick understandably eschews analysis, even if a diagrammatic outline would have helped in elucidating the intricate overall design). Stylistically, too, the piece ranges widely across the pianistic spectrum from Schumann, via Szymanowski, to Messiaen – with the eventual outcome as personal as it is hard-won. A pity dedicatee Stephen Kovacevich never recorded a piece undoubtedly at the forefront of post-war piano music (British or otherwise), but Chadwick’s identification with the score is total.

The largest work here was also its composer’s swansong. Despite its seemingly abstract title, the String Quintet embodies a densely allusive and multi-layered narrative inspired by Marina Tsvetaeva and Edvard Munch while being given focus by Virginia Woolf, though this is not to suggest the piece is other than an intrinsically musical statement. The viola often assumes an almost concertante role during those three movements which make up the first part, then is largely absent from its successor – a lengthy meditation for violins and cellos whose recall of earlier ideas is riven by silence prior to a culmination capped by the viola’s ghostly offstage re-emergence. A singular experience, then, and a singular work which repays intensive study – from a composer who’s not taking the easy path was never vindicated more fully than here.

Does it all work?

Indeed. To say that Dale Roberts is a connoisseur’s composer should not imply his music is hermetic or obscure; rather it assumes the listener’s commitment and goodwill in the process of assessing the piece at hand. Each of these recordings benefited from the composer’s active participation during the recording sessions. Peter Sheppard Skaerved is at his imperious best, whether in partnership with Chadwick or as part of an augmented Kreutzer Quartet; while his and Chadwick’s booklet notes deftly combine musical discussion with personal recollection.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely. This is now the best point of entry into Dale Roberts’s output, and one hopes for more issues from Toccata. In particular, the Cello Concerto Deathwatch (perhaps coupled with the still-unperformed orchestral cycle Arbor Vitae) cries out for commercial release.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website, and about the composer Jeremy Dale Roberts at his website