Live review – Kensington SO / Russell Keable: William Schuman 3rd Symphony, Adams, Bernstein & Tower

Kensington Symphony OrchestraRussell Keable (above)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London. Monday October 15, 2018

Tower Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 (1986)
Bernstein Divertimento (1980)
Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007, rev 2008)
Schuman Symphony No. 3 (1941)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra‘s 63rd season got off to a most impressive start with tonight’s concert of American music (simultaneously continuing the Americana ’18 festival taking place at St John’s during this year), opening with the Fanfare for the Common Woman with which Joan Tower launched her wider reputation over three decades ago. Rhythmically bracing while not without harmonic subtlety, it provided a fitting showcase for the KSO brass and percussion as well as a pertinent tribute to this composer in the year of her 70th birthday.

Leonard Bernstein‘s centenary was marked with his Divertimento, seven succinct movements that touch upon most of his salient traits and a reminder that his latter-day creativity was one where less equals more. Highlights include a delectable Waltz (enjoying frequent exposure on Classic FM), wistful Mazurka, evocative Blues then a rousing March: The BSO Forever whose Johann Strauss take-off duly makes for an uproarious close. Suffice to add the KSO was not found wanting in a piece written for the Boston Symphony’s own 100th birthday.

As Russell Keable‘s opening remarks made plain, John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony was an altogether more serious proposition. First heard at the 2007 Proms, the rather diffuse 45-minute work in four movements was duly streamlined into a continuous structure lasting barely half an hour. Surprising, then, that the result seems less than cohesive – its reworking of material from the composer’s third opera one of cinematic contrast than symphonic unity. Some of his most virtuoso orchestral writing, which the KSO tackled with relish, is hampered by the recourse to post-minimalist gestures that remain Adams’s (unwitting?) stock-in-trade. Even the final section, a setting of John Donne‘s sonnet Batter my heart with its baritone part taken by trumpet (here the mellifluous Stephen Willcox), felt less than truly affecting.

After the interval, a welcome revival (likely the first in London for two decades) for William Schuman‘s Third Symphony. One of a triumvirate of such pieces by American composers to emerge either side of the Second World War, it evinces a formal integration and expressive panache that its composer never surpassed – not least in the way its four movements are arranged in two larger parts such as complement each other unerringly, and with a steadily accumulating momentum which emerges across the whole in what is itself a marvel of tensile dynamism.

Keable delineated the variations of the initial Passacaglia with assurance, ensuring textural clarity here and in the ensuing Fugue while underlining how the numerous woodwind and brass solos emerge naturally from the string polyphony rather than sounding laminated onto it. Nor was there any lack of emotional poise with the Chorale, its understated eloquence in contrast to the inexorably mounting impetus of the closing Toccata whose final pages are as visceral as any in the symphonic literature – not least when rendered with such verve as here.

A memorable reading of a seminal though under-appreciated piece such as the KSO has long championed. Hopefully future seasons will see revivals of comparable American works – the Second Symphony of Roger Sessions and Seventh (Variation) Symphony of Peter Mennin.

For further information on the Kensington Symphony Orchestra you can visit the orchestra’s website

Wigmore Mondays: Nicholas Daniel & Charles Owen – J.S. Bach, Pavel Haas, York Bowen & Julian Anderson

Nicholas Daniel (oboe, above), Charles Owen (piano, below)

J.S. Bach Sinfonia from Easter Oratorio Kommt, eilet und laufet, BWV249 (1725, rev.1938) (1:33-5:40)
Pavel Haas Oboe Suite Op.17 (1939) (5:42-22:12)
Julian Anderson The Bearded Lady (1994) (24:20-31:33)
Stravinsky Russian Maiden’s Song (arr. for oboe and piano) (32:49-36:24)
York Bowen Oboe Sonata Op.85 (37:02-54:22)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The common link to the inventive programme for this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Recital was the oboist Leon Goossens, whose instrument Nicholas Daniel still plays. Goossens, who died in 1988, was a legendary artist. Arguably the most influential exponent of the oboe in the 20th century, he helped secure a good deal of modern repertoire for the instrument. He also loved to play arrangements of existing works, such as the Bach movement with which Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen began this concert (from 1:33 on the broadcast link)

This was beautifully phrased and ornamented by Daniel, with exemplary control and beauty of tone, complemented by subtle prompting from Owen. It led without a break into the curious but deeply affecting three-movement Suite from Pavel Haas. The Czech composer’s music is slowly making itself better known after a revival in the 1990s. Prior to then, Haas – along with fellow Jewish composers Erwin Schulhoff, Hans Krása and Gideon Klein, had suffered considerable neglect, due partly to the tragic events of 1941-1942. All were taken to concentration camps during the Second World War, and tragically none returned.

This piece was unpredictable in places, and even confrontational between the instruments, but it left quite an emotional trail, writing directly to the soul in the manner of Haas’s teacher Janáček. Its music contained some of the blunt economy of expression for which his teacher was renowned, but also a slightly more whimsical quality. The first movement Furioso (5:42) began sternly but soon became more introspective, Owen’s considered interpretation bringing characterisation to the twists and turns of the piano part. The second movement, marked Con fuoco (10:08) began with an outburst from the piano, which was then calmed a little by the lyrical oboe line – and the two plotted very different paths during the course of the movement, which finished with another impassioned statement from the piano. The final movement Moderato (15:38) was calmer and found greater alignment between the two. A lovely, much more intimate moment from 19:57 led by the oboe but with an evocative loop from the piano, growing to an impressive climax.

For his comedic piece The Bearded Lady, commissioned by Daniel and based on a scene in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, Julian Anderson used the extremities of the range of both instruments, the oboe jumping and swooping between high and low pitches, before we heard a tumbling figure down the piano. Then both instruments descended together, and while the piano hammered away at the low register Daniel left the stage. This was all part of the theatre, for soon we heard in the distance the mournful tones of the cor anglais (30:31), The Bearded Lady lamenting her fate at the end of an entertaining piece.

Stravinsky himself followed, an arrangement of the Russian Maiden’s Song from the 1921 comic opera Mavra. This had the classic Stravinsky combination of spiky rhythms but more tender melodic asides, the affecting and slightly humorous melody complemented by spicy harmonies from the piano.

York Bowen is often viewed as an English equivalent to Saint-Saëns or Rachmaninov – which gives a good idea of where his strengths lie. A melodic composer, he also makes quite heavy virtuoso demands on the performer – demands that Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen met head on. They enjoyed the light hearted and sweet first movement, with its winsome melody, presenting it as part of a graceful dance.

The slow movement (44:15), marked Andantino espressivo by the composer, featured a long-breathed melody that Daniel played and phrased beautifully, lightly prompted by Owen. As the music got more intense we heard more of the lower range of Daniel’s oboe, a full-bodied sound, before the melancholy theme reappeared.

The shackles were confidently thrown off for the finale (50:23, marked Allegro giocoso) with a cheeky and memorable theme, which led to some fun sparring between the instruments and a bright signing-off.

As a bonus Daniel brought the recital full circle, returning to a Bach arrangement – on this occasion the Siciliano from the Flute Sonata in E flat major BWV1031. Unfortunately the radio broadcast cut away before this was played – a shame, as they would have had room for it. It certainly capped a very fine recital which showed a much greater depth to the oboe repertoire than one might expect!

Further listening

Nicholas Daniel has not recorded any of the material in this concert, but it can be tracked in this Spotify playlist:

Five years ago Daniel and a number of colleagues released this disc of chamber works by the Scottish Thea Musgrave, who turned 90 this year:

Live review – Nash Ensemble: War’s Embers – Elgar Piano Quintet & John Ireland Piano Trio no.2

Nash Ensemble (above) [Ian Brown (piano), Stephanie Gonley, Michael Gurevich (violins), David Adams (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello) (N.B. the line-up pictured above is not the same as the one appearing at this concert)

LSO St Luke’s, Friday 12 October 2018 (lunchtime concert)

Ireland Piano Trio no.2 (1917)
Elgar Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84 (1918)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The First World War had a profound effect on composers of classical music. Many of them served or were closely involved with the conflict, and even those who weren’t used their music as a vehicle for the shock and dismay felt at the turn of events.

John Ireland expressed his horror through two chamber works completed in 1917, the Violin Sonata no.2 and the Piano Trio no.2. The latter work began this concert from the Nash Ensemble, part of their War’s Embers series focusing on music written around the War in England. Set in one compact movement, it is a powerfully expressive utterance, even when the music is quiet – as it was when the first cello melody began – to when it reaches peaks of intensity in the march sections, depicting the war itself. Ian Brown, Stephanie Gonley and Adrian Brendel were united in voice, their three instruments often linked in melody, while Brendel’s eloquent solo at the start set the solemn tone.

Stylistically the work draws part of its inspiration from Debussy and Ravel, and these links were nicely played up by the trio, but the opening music dominated to the point of obsession, sweeping all before it. As evidenced in an interview with BBC Radio 3 host Fiona Talkington after the performance, the players had a clear understanding of Ireland’s writing, and his still underrated status in chamber music form.

Ireland’s trio was first heard at the Wigmore Hall in June 1917, and at the same venue nearly two years later audiences heard the premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet. Composed in Sussex, this autumnal work, written just prior to the Cello Concerto, reflects a fascination the Elgars held with a group of dead trees in Flexham Park, their branches twisted ‘in an eerie manner’.

The spidery tendrils of the first few bars reflected this eerie vision, and refused to release their grip on the piece despite a first movement that really got into top gear in this performance, passionately played and majestically poised at times. There was an affecting second theme before we heard for the first time some Spanish rhythms, also inspired by legend around the dead trees and refracted through a prism in Elgar’s mind, strangely sketched but never fully coloured in.

The relative serenity of the slow movement, was countered by an emotional distance, as though here Elgar was conscious of the War, itself audible to him through the use of artillery just across the Channel. Perhaps because of this the trees made themselves known in closer proximity as the finale began, though here Elgar – and the Nash Ensemble – threw off the shackles to power through to an upward looking conclusion.

This was a fine performance of a work the Nash – and certainly Ian Brown – have had in their repertoire for more than 25 years. Brown displayed a natural instinct with the tricker phrases and was helped by a lovely string tone from the quartet in a performance that made sense of some of Elgar’s more distorted rhythms.

War’s Embers will come to BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 13 November and I urge you to hear it, placing this elusive work in the context of a fine performance.

Further listening

You will be able to listen to this concert on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 13 November. In the meantime recordings of the works heard are on the Spotify playlist below:

For further information on the Nash Ensemble’s War’s Embers series, visit the <a href=”http://www.nashensemble.org.uk/html/diary.htm&#8221; diary section on the ensemble’s website

Wigmore Mondays: Catriona Morison & Yuka Beppu in songs by Brahms, Korngold & Mahler

Catriona Morison (mezzo-soprano, above), Yuka Beppu (piano, below)

Brahms Meine Liebe ist grün Op. 63/5 (1873) (2:01-3:27), Alte Liebe Op. 72/1 (c1876) (3:37-6:37), Geheimnis Op. 71/3 (6:48-8:50) (1877), Ständchen Op.106/1 (c1888) (8:54-10:21), Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer Op.105/2 (1886) (10:32-13:30), Dein blaues Auge hält so still Op.59/8 (1873) (13:37-15:20) and Von ewiger Liebe Op.43/1 (1864) (15:25-19:13)
Korngold 5 Lieder Op. 38 (1947) – Glückwunsch (21:35-24:06); Der Kranke (24:11-26:10); Alt-spanisch (26:25-27:44); Alt-englisch (27:49-28:45), Kein Sonnenglanz im Auge (28:46-30:44)
Mahler Rückert Lieder (1901-2) Ich atmet’ einen linden (32:59-35:20) Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (35:24-36:33); Liebst du um Schönheit (36:43-39:12); Um Mitternacht (39:21-45:22); Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (45:35-51:50)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Catriona Morison and Yuka Beppu began their first recital at the Wigmore Hall with a group of seven Brahms songs, drawn mostly from the composer’s forties and fifties. There was an immediate surge of headstrong passion with the music of Meine Liebe est grün (My love’s as green) (2:01 on the broadcast link), with a typically full texture in the piano, but shadows fell in a moving account of Alte Liebe (Old love) (3:37), especially when the music turned back to its original minor key.

Geheimnis (Secret) (6:48) was notable for its pure stillness, while Ständchen (Serenade) (8:54) was restless but enjoyably so. Dein blaues Auge (Your blue eyes) (13:37) was bittersweet, but the most substantial song was left until last. Von ewiger Liebe (Eternal love) (15:25) threw off the shackles to rejoice in the power of its subject matter. Morison was superb here, pacing herself through to the final, glorious ode, showing here and elsewhere an admirable control of the full tones she has at her disposal. Yuka Beppu was a sensitive partner, bringing clarity to Brahms’ more congested part writing.

Morison clearly has a soft spot for the music of Korngold, and enjoyed the characterisations offered by the composer’s 5 Lieder of 1947. In each his melodic gifts and economy of setting are clearly evident, and in Der Kranke (24:11) the piano’s obsession with a nagging phrase, brilliantly handled by Beppu, felt like a recurring ache. Morison enjoyed the contrasting Alt spanisch (26:25) and the brash Alt-englisch (27:49) before the softer tones of Kein Sonnenglanz im Auge (My mistress’ eyes) (45:35)

In the right performance Mahler’s Rückert Lieder can present an unforgettable concert experience, which was exactly the case here. The flowing, outdoorsy Ich atmet einen linden Duft (I breathed a gentle fragrance) (32:59) had the ideal weight and pitch, delighting in its floral subject, while Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (35:24) found the subtle humour comparing the privacy of bees and songwriters! The ‘dying’ phrases of Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty) (36:43) were really well done, turning inwards, Morison’s voice again an instrument of beauty, while the famous Um Mitternacht (39:21) cast its spell through descriptive piano playing and expressive singing in Morison’s gorgeous lower register sound, the song’s pain vividly conveyed. Finally Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) (45:35) reduced the audience to silence and reflection on how remarkable it was that two young interpreters of this song could bring so much insight.

A deserved encore followed, returning us to Korngold and one of his finest songs, Schneeglöckchen – where Morison charmed throughout.

Further listening

Catriona Morison has not yet recorded the music heard in this concert, but it can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

Meanwhile you can explore the chamber music and songs of Korngold on this double album from Deutsche Grammophon, with the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and friends:

Meanwhile the orchestral versions of the Mahler songs appear on this peerless disc from Dame Janet Baker, one of the all time classics of the vocal classical repertoire:

Wigmore Mondays: Chiaroscuro Quartet play Haydn & Schubert

Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernán Benedí (violins), Emilie Hörnlund (viola), Claire Thirion (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in E flat major Op.33/2 ‘Joke’ (1781) (1:43
Schubert String Quartet in A minor D804 ‘Rosamunde’ (1824) (21:32-54:10)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 1 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This concert was due to be headed by clarinetist Annelien Van Hauwe, but sadly due to personal circumstances she was not able to join the Chiaruoscuro Quartet for Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Instead the quartet provided an autumnal work from their repertoire, Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor. This is known as the Rosamunde, for its slow movement contains a tune from the incidental music Schubert wrote to the play.

First, however, we had one of Haydn’s great early quartets. The composer already had two substantial sets of six quartets under his belt, published as Op.17 and Op.20 (the Sun quartets), and continued his expansion of the string quartet as the primary form of chamber music with six more, published as Op.33 in 1781. The second of these was subtitled The Joke, with a punchline making itself clear in the last movement.

Before that came an enjoyable first movement Allegro moderato (from 1:43 on the broadcast). This was a little bit sinewy in the sound initially, but it was played with a nice air and a hint of the humour that was to flourish later on. The perky second movement (7:02) found a slightly more detached approach from Ibragimova, but was given a sprightly step. By contrast the slow movement (10:21) felt very down at hand initially, with lean bow strokes from the players, with quite a savage intervention halfway through.

Perhaps this was to emphasise the humour of the skittish finale, beginning at 15:27. The tune is a fun one and was played as such, especially when the false endings began at 18:25 – after which point the audience enjoyed second guessing when the piece would actually finish. Haydn – even now – would have been smiling.

The Schubert (beginning at 21:32) enjoyed moments of great beauty in a performance stressing the softer nature of his quartet writing. With a very quiet start, the first movement developed into an engaging and often imposing argument as the main theme was modified and passed around – before returning, still in sombre mood, at 29:50.

The Rosamunde movement, starting at 34:01, was quite plaintive to start with but like the first movement grew in stature, its lyricism also more evident. The Scherzo was much darker, its shadowy outlines from 40:54 lightly sketched by the cello. The fragility of this music found shafts of light from its accompanying Trio section, with just a couple of squeaks in the upper register from the violin, before the scherzo material itself returned at 45:20.

The finale had a forthright, martial character (from 47:29) and found the firm resolution that the other movements had noticeably held back on – completing a thought provoking and carefully thought out performance from a very fine quartet.

Further listening

The music heard in this concert, including the Chiaroscuro’s recording of the Schubert, can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

The Chiaroscuro have recorded Haydn’s set of six quartets Op.20, which appear in the two album links below, showing off the early innovations made by the composer in the form. Entertaining, too!

For more information on the Chiaroscuro Quartet, head to their website