On record – Simon Bainbridge: Chamber Music (Kreutzer Quartet, Linda Merrick) (Toccata Classics)

TOCC_0573

Simon Bainbridge
String Quartet no.1 (1972)
String Quartet no.2 (2014-16)
Clarinet Quintet (1993)
Cheltenham Fragments (2004)

Linda Merrick (clarinet), Kreutzer Quartet [Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Mihailo Trandafilovski (violins), Clifton Harrison (viola), Neil Heyde (cello)

Toccata Classics TOCC0573 [56’14”]

Producer Peter Sheppard Skaerved
Engineer Jonathan Haskell

Recorded 5 July, 30 October 2019, 3 March 2020 at St. Michael’s, Highgate, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics issues only the third release to be devoted to the music of Simon Banbridge (1952-2021), whose recent and untimely death at the age of 68 has made this an unintended if pertinent memorial to one of the more underestimated British composers of his generation.

What’s the music like?

Bainbridge’s two string quartets effectively frame his output. Commissioned by André Previn for the South Bank Summer Music, the First Quartet finds a composer barely into his twenties taking on board then recent innovations emanating from Eastern Europe (notably the Second Quartet by Ligeti) and fashioning these into a tense single movement whose juxtaposition of timbre and texture are integrated so that the music feels inevitable in its unfolding. What was heard ‘in passing’ proves to have had a decisive implication when encountered in retrospect.

By the time of his Clarinet Quintet, Bainbridge was creating music as distinctive in idiom as it was virtuosic in its technical demands. Analogies with the ‘classic’ works for this medium by Mozart, Brahms and Reger may be elusive, but the piece likewise evinces an introspection (whether – or not – ‘autumnal’) that offsets an inner world teeming with formal subtleties and expressive nuances. Once again, it is the slightest gestures and pithiest motifs which prove to be crucial in the elaboration of what is one of the composer’s most seamless overall concepts.

In contrast, Cheltenham Fragments proceeds as a sequence of ideas such as takes in various combinations of the ensemble as it assembles a design certain to be perceived differently by each listener, if not the element of high-flown lyricism which comes momentarily to the fore.

Moving to the Second Quartet is to find Bainbridge engaged in a distillation of compositional practice, underpinned by the direct influence of visual art – namely Ethopian-born American artist Julie Mehretu, images of whose canvasses were projected to the rear of the ensemble at the first performance. Not that a visual component should be necessary for appreciating what, unlike the preceding pieces, is music whose rapidity of gesture is abetted by that of tempo in this audibly fast-moving work – any passing sense of slowness occasioned by context rather than actuality. Moments of intense eloquence do emerge over the course of these 21 minutes, their short-lived repose acting as points of orientation during what is otherwise a propulsive journey toward a conclusion which, if it indeed brings oblivion, does so with exquisite poise.

Does it all work?

It does, not least through the commitment of the Kreutzer Quartet and, in the Clarinet Quintet, Linda Merrick in teasing out cohesion and imagination from music that possesses both these qualities in abundance, but which might easily be overlooked given its underlying reticence or unwillingness to ‘force the issue’. Along with its contribution to Toccata’s disc of Jeremy Dale Roberts (TOCC0487), this finds the Kreuzer at its considerable best – aided by commendably natural sound and thoughtful annotations by Peter Shepperd Skaerved and David Wordsworth.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and listeners are encouraged to investigate two NMC releases devoted to Bainbridge – one with his breakthrough work, the Viola Concerto (NMCD126), the other his Grawemeyer Award-winning song-cycle Ad ora incerta (NMCD059). More recordings will surely follow.

Listen

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You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording.

Listening to Beethoven #136 – Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor Op.13 ‘Pathétique’

Northern Sea in the Moonlight by Caspar David Friedrich (1823-24)

Piano Sonata no.8 in C major Op.13 ‘Pathétique’ for piano (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1 Grave – Allegro di molto e con brio
2 Adagio cantabile
3 Rondo: Allegro

Dedication Prince Karl von Lichnowsky
Duration 20′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

With the Pathétique sonata we arrive at the first true Beethoven heavyweight. The origin of the title – seemingly Beethoven’s own – is unclear. ‘What exactly did he mean by Pathétique?’, speculates Angela Hewitt. ‘The word comes from the Greek ‘pathos’, meaning suffering, experience, emotion. But as William Behrend says in his book on the Beethoven sonatas first published in 1923, ‘it should be understood in an aesthetic sense, as the expression of exalted passion’.

In Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Jan Swafford is left in no doubt about the importance of the work. ‘As a revelation of individual character and emotion, it was a kind of democratic revolution in music. And as such, the kind of expression exemplified in the Pathétique became a founding element of the Romantic voice in music.’

The Pathétique returns to C minor, scene of previous fiery triumphs such as the Piano Trio Op.1/3. Here, Beethoven writes a solemn introduction (marked as Grave), which leads to a stormy Allegro. For Daniel Heartz, ‘With its many melodic sighs and ‘speaking’ rhetoric, the Grave takes on the character of an operatic scena presaging the anguished aria to follow’.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most treasured slow movements, ‘simple yet profoundly moving’, and it is followed by, as Hewitt says, a ‘wistful, somewhat haunting’ finale.

Lewis Lockwood writes of how ‘the unleashed power of its first movement amazed contemporaries, even those who were becoming aware of Beethoven’s C-minor mood. The strong rhetoric of the Grave introduction dramatically prepared the way for the intense Allegro first movement, which whipped up a storm of excitement not previously heard in his – or anyone else’s – piano sonatas’.

Jan Swafford goes further. ‘From its glowering opening chords, the Pathétique paints pathos like no work before: naked and personal. Here Beethoven found a kind of music that seems not like a depiction of sorrow but sorrow itself. It is the voice that is new in this sonata, the emotional immediacy. The Pathétique did not initiate so much as confirm that Beethoven was bringing to music a new immediacy and subjectivity’. For him, ‘the Pathétique… would endure as the first fully formed avatar of the tension and dynamism Beethoven found in C minor’.

Thoughts

This work is a true landmark in Beethoven’s writing so far. While we have shared his pain in the C minor works – the Cantata on the Death of Joseph II and the Piano Trio Op.1/3 especially – nothing has approached the depth of emotion found here. The Grave is stripped to the bone, pouring its heart out in the spirit of a tragic introduction to a Baroque opera. The Allegro that follows is a whirlwind, and again the piano sounds skeletal in its execution.

The slow movement offers a calm repose, and it is Beethoven’s deepest to date, profound in the extreme and beautifully shaded. No wonder it appears on so many ‘classical contemplation’ playlists and compilations, for time really does seem to stop here. Spotify figures show just how popular it really is.

Beethoven’s return to C minor for the third movement deepens the frown again, though there is a little more light and shade now. Still, the structure is tight, the mood resolute and often stern, and the tension does not let up even through to the last chord. The Pathétique is a deeply serious work from beginning to end, giving us some of Beethoven’s most intensely beautiful music to date.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)

While revelling in the drama, Angela Hewitt highlights a problem for pianists that Beethoven ‘never indicated that the repeat of the exposition should return only to the Allegro section…perhaps he meant us to return to the very beginning and play the Grave once more?’ This is what she chooses to do in her own deeply felt recording.

Emil Gilels reaches profound depths in his reading, especially the majestic first movement, which moves from intense soul-searching to ivory-rattling drama. András Schiff is a compelling guide to the Pathétique, the sharper tone of his piano heightening the drama – as it does with the fortepiano of Paul Badura-Skoda.

You can hear clips of Hewitt’s recording at the Hyperion website

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1798 Haydn Die Schöpfung (The Creation)

Next up March for Wind Sextet in B-flat major(‘Grenadiermarsch’)

Live review – Thomas Kraines, Henry Goodman, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: The Art of Storytelling – Hansel and Gretel

eso-hansel

Thomas Kraines (music), Henry Goodman (narrator), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded 20 July 2020, available online from Friday 9 April 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra reaches the penultimate instalment of its series for virtual storytelling with one of the most enduring among fairy tales – Hansel and Gretel, here given in the more abrasive version such as leaves little or no room for sentimental embellishments.

Although it has always been a parable for the playing-off of good against evil, the intensified recent concern about the exploitation of children has given this story a more ominous undertow. Little of that was emphasized here, yet the scenario remains one where the brutal corrupting of innocence is foremost; whether in the guise of the stepmother, rendered here in scarifying Irish, or that of the witch whose tendency to caricature is judged to a nicety. That neither children nor woodcutter exudes much in the way of persona may itself be significant.

As will have been realized, Henry Goodman is an animated and appealing narrator as he leads the listener through a story where incident likely counts for more than the ultimate destination. The score itself shows Thomas Kraines’s knack for moving across genres and styles with real sureness of touch, alighting on elements of German romanticism and expressionism to inflect those highpoints of the narrative. That the theme for the stepmother and the witch is a 12-note row brings a fresh perspective to a conceit whose lineage stretches back over nearly a century.

As in previous instalments the ESO musicians play with skill and sensitivity, Kenneth Woods ensuring clarity and balance even in the densest textures. The presentation is sure to provoke children of all ages and, as usual, a range of sundry material enhances the overall experience.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

For information about Auricolae, visit Kenneth Woods’ website here

On record – Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg – Pettersson: Symphony no.12 ‘The Dead in the Square’ (BIS)

pettersson-12

Swedish Radio Choir, Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg

Pettersson
Symphony no.12 ‘De döda på torget’ (The Dead in the Square) (1973-4)

BIS BIS 2450SACD [55’40”]

Producer Hans Kipfer
Engineers Stephan RehMathias Spitzbarth

Recorded March 2019 and January 2020 at Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköpping

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Christian Lindberg (presumably) concludes BIS’s Pettersson cycle, with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, with the Twelfth Symphony – featuring poems by the then recently deceased Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in what is a typically unflinching statement of intent.

What’s the music like?

When he began the work, Allan Pettersson had not written for voices in almost three decades and his accepting a commission from Uppsala University for its 500th anniversary was never likely to result in a celebratory paean. To Swedish translations of nine poems from the Canto general collection by Pablo Neruda (1904-73), he created a continuous structure whose texts are not so much set as fashioned into a stark melody line (the choral writing almost entirely in rhythmic unison) as articulates the work’s musical evolution as surely as its emotional impact.

Although not charting any systematic evolution, the Twelfth Symphony does pursue a definite trajectory. The first and longest section, The Dead in the Square, follows its short yet active orchestral prelude with an ominous rendering of the tragedy being related at Santiago on 28th January 1946. Other than establishing an atmosphere of unrelieved anxiety, this also sets out the essential musical parameters of choral writing that does not attempt to ‘clothe’ the textual imagery so much as define and propel the musical content. Hence the smouldering desolation of The Massacres as follows an eventful orchestral interlude (used subsequently to comment on and/or anticipate these choral sections), then the stealthy evoking of human degradation in The Men of the Nitrate and the increasingly wretched imploration of the workers in Death.

The work’s emotional (if not temporal) mid-point arrives with the single stanza of How the Flags were Born, whose fleeting while unmistakable promise of change is intensified in the fervent roll-call of departed heroes in I Call on Them then the accusatory righteousness of The Enemies which is duly made the emotional fulcrum of the overall design. The ongoing struggle is vividly evoked through the hectic onward motion of Here They Are before past, present and future are drawn together in Always – bringing with it the most contemplative music of the whole work prior to the final outburst of defiance. A reminder, also, that Chile was in the process of succumbing to fascist rule even while Pettersson completed this work, whose ricocheting climactic chord of C must have appeared an ever more distant prospect.

Does it all work?

Yes, when as purposefully marshalled and cumulatively shaped as it is here. The pioneering account by Carl Rune Larsson (Caprice) has comparable emotional force but relatively little inner clarity, while Manfred Honeck’s version (CPO) – featuring the same choirs – evinces more character in individual sections but less sure a grasp of its ongoing structure. Precisely because of the way texts articulate content, those who are coming anew to Pettersson should find the piece an ideal way into its composer’s combative and unequivocal musical mindset.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Anyone unfamiliar with the work should certainly opt for this new recording, whose sound and annotations are fully on a par with earlier instalments in this Pettersson symphony cycle. Live performances outside of Sweden will hopefully become more frequent over time.

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For more information on this release visit the BIS website

Listening to Beethoven #135 – Sonata for piano and violin no.3 in E flat major Op.12/3

violin-sonata-op123

River Landscape Along the Tiber near the Acqua Acetosa (1814) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.3 for piano and violin in E flat major Op.12/3 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1. Allegro con spirito
2. Adagio con molta espressione
3. Rondo. Allegro molto

Dedication Antonio Salieri
Duration 18′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The third of Beethoven’s Op.12 sonatas for piano with violin arrives in the key of E flat major, oft-used in his output up until now.

Relatively little is written about the piece, which along with the other two Op.12 works appears to have had its first performance in 1799, with Beethoven himself at the piano and Ignaz Schuppanzigh playing violin.

However Nigel Simeone, writing in The Beethoven Companion, finds reason to admire the composer’s work, saying, ‘nothing in these works is more individual than the C major Adagio con molt’ expressione. With its violin melody against a wide variety of figuration low in the piano part, this rapt piece displays some of Beethoven’s most original invention from this period in his career, its piano writing hardly surpassed even in the piano sonatas.’

Thoughts

A relatively simple figure starts the third piece in the Op.12 set of sonatas, based on the E flat major arpeggio and shared between piano and violin. This cuts to bright dialogue and a development section where the piano lets loose with some extravagant flourishes. As with the other two pieces, inspiration comes from the Mozart direction – but the style is pure Beethoven, very open and agile, the two instruments finishing each other’s sentences.

The second movement switches to C major and is introverted, with simple, unaffected thoughts. The second section becomes particularly reserved, moving in its central section to long violin notes and a flowing piano accompaniment that bring to mind Gounod’s Ave maria arrangement of Bach’s famous C major prelude. The tables are then turned, the piano spinning the melody over soft violin figures, fully justifying the praise given by Nigel Simeone above.

The association with Bach is audible in the third movement too. After a perky tune leads us off, and the busy piano part propels the music forwards, there is an exchange of ideas with the fluency and profile of a Bach sonata, especially over the pedal note in the bass of the piano just before the end.

This piece feels like the more forward looking of the Op.12 set, despite going further back in time for its reference points. It completes a very positive triptych of works deserving of much closer inspection than they tend to get.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)

Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel give this music a ‘freshly minted’, just off the page feeling. Their instinctive approach is easy to enjoy. Yehudi Menuhin’s tone in the slow movement demands the listener’s attention, a beautiful interpretation with Wilhelm Kempff sensitive in his piano playing.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1798 Haydn – Die Schöpfung (The Creation) Hob. XXI:2

Next up Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor Op.13 ‘Pathétique’