Switched On – Jas Shaw: Sollbruchstelle 1-3 (Delicacies)

sollbruchstelleI

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The conditions brought on by the pandemic in the last year have shifted the goalposts for many composers. Working under lockdown has changed perspectives, often through necessity – and few people have experienced this more than Jas Shaw. A highly productive composer and producer, Shaw was confined to base by the risk of catching Covid and an operation on his cell disorder AL amyloidosis.

Typically his response to spending so much time in one room was a productive one, an album comprising three EPs of luminous ambience, sitting squarely between acoustic and electronic. He chose the title Sollbruchstelle (the German for ‘breaking point’) himself, interpreting that as a mixture of sadness and hope – but reflecting the difficulty he and many others have had to overcome in the last year.

What’s the music like?

Easy to listen to, but with emotive depth. Shaw’s resilience is immediately clear in the surefooted confidence of his writing, and everything unfolds at a natural pace, as instinctive for him as breathing it would seem.

The first EP begins with a really lovely piece of music, Hålla tummarna – a Swedish phrase meaning ‘to hold one’s thumbs’, to wish someone luck. In this case there are single, harp-like lines tracing shapes in the sky, with reassuring harmonies around. It turns into a she, meanwhile, occupies a lower part of the spectrum, with slow moving ambience in sonorous tones, like the slowed-down pealing of bells.

Volume 2 sharpens the tones, and The revenge of noise on harmony and I wig on a cone have serrated edges, the first compressing into a woolly pile at the end. The friendly bleeps of Felt compute, might delete contrast with this, as does the thick timbres of Absent and incorrect, with slowly moving chords that could describe the motion of an iceberg.

Each of the volumes have seven tracks, and the third begins with the absentminded thoughts of Rhyme undisturbed and the appealing minimalism of Snacks of carelessness, with its mottled piano sound. Shaw is always on the move in this section, and the brief Norwegian Blue and more substantial Double stop generate surprising energy, the latter twinkling at the edges. Finally Made not to fade gives some welcome solace, a reassurance surely for Shaw himself.

The three EPs that make up the full Sollbruchstelle album, work equally well as standalone units or as part of an 80-minute whole. Shaw used a piece of artwork by Leafcutter John for each, representing the music – as you can see on this page.

sollbruchstelleII

Does it all work?

Yes. Because of Shaw’s natural approach, the music here has plenty of room, and doesn’t try to do too much – but its understated impact is lasting. Shaw has a natural way with minimal loops without ever sounding contrived, and the continual changes of colour, light and shade form vivid patterns in the listener’s eye.

sollbruchstelleIII

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. If you’ve heard Shaw in his more energetic guise as half of Simian Mobile Disco, the electronic project with James Ford which is currently on hold, you will warm to this softer side of his musical personality – which is wholly convincing, albeit in much more ambient clothing. Shaw makes slowly evolving gems that dance in the half light.

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Listening to Beethoven #150 – 5 Pieces for musical clock, WoO 33

Müller’sches Gebäudehe by F. Sager. This was the art gallery where Joseph Count Deym von Střítež exhibited

5 Pieces for musical clock, WoO 33 (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication Joseph Count Deym von Střítež

Duration 16′

  1. Adagio. Adagio assai in F major
  2. Scherzo. Allegro in G major
  3. Allegro in G major
  4. Allegro non più molto in C major
  5. Minuet. Allegretto in C major

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Keith Anderson, in his extensive booklet notes for a collection of Beethoven chamber rarities on Naxos, writes about the Five Pieces for Musical Clock. The first two date possibly from 1794, but Anderson says the last three ‘were completed by 1800 for the exhibition of waxworks and musical automata displayed by Count Josef Deym, under the name of Müller, having returned to Vienna, after self-imposed exile caused by the death of an opponent in a duel.’

A gruesome state of affairs, but apparently, in a need to resurrect his reputation, the Count ‘had commissioned music from Haydn and Mozart, among others. He died in 1804, leaving his widow Josephine, the apparent object of Beethoven’s amorous inclinations, with four children and social problems to surmount from the fact that her husband had been déclassé, a result of his choice to embark on commercial ventures. The pieces for musical clock are transcribed for organ, an instrument the higher range of which corresponded to the higher register of the clock musical apparatus.’

Thoughts

There is a strange and slightly eerie quality to these five pieces when played on the organ. The first piece is a free spirit and quite ghoulish. Although it is marked Adagio there is a fantasy-like quality and a restless movement throughout its six minutes.

The second piece is a cheery triple-time dance played on a whistle, light as a feather. The third is cut from similar cloth, a twirl in the right hand used as a basis for a short piece that sparkles.

These two shorter pieces are given perspective by the longer fourth, a full blown sonata Allegro of jaunty persuasion. Beethoven enjoys moving between the parts, though the melodies are less obvious. The fifth piece, a Minuet, is a natural companion, and carries the same slight amusement level, the composer with tongue in cheek.

Recordings used and Spotify Links

Simon Preston (Deutsche Grammophon)
Janette Fishell (Naxos)

Simon Preston enjoys the unpredictable movements of these pieces, and chooses the ideal light registration for them. Janette Fishell is perhaps better recorded, and enjoys the humourous opportunities Beethoven offers.

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 1799 Haydn String Quartet in F major Op. 77/2

Next up Piano Concerto no.1 in C major Op.15

Live review – Kirill Gerstein, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki: World premiere of Saariaho’s ‘Vista’; Schumann & Debussy

susanna-malkki

Kirill Gerstein (piano), Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki (above, photo (c) Jiyang Chen)

Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki
Broadcast Wednesday 12 May 2021, available online

Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54 (1841)
Debussy Pièce pour Le Vêtement du blessé (unknown, publ. 1925); Berceuse héroïque (1914); Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon (unknown, publ. 2001); Élégie; Étude retrouvée (both 1915)
Saariaho Vista (2019, world premiere)

Written by Ben Hogwood

One of the very few advantages of being restricted to online concerts in the last year has been the chance to enjoy music making on an international scale. This happily gave the opportunity to hear a major world premiere, a new orchestral work from Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

A truly international piece, Vista was co-commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Its title page has the inscription For Susanna – presumably a dedication to the night’s conductor, Susanna Mälkki.

Although scored for a large orchestra, Vista is economical in its use of the forces. Inspired by road signs the composer saw in California – all promising great ‘vistas’ – the work has something of the West Coast about it, a shimmering heat haze and dust on the horizon. In its darker moments the twinkling of the stars, and the metropolis, can be discerned.

Vista impressed from the outset. Its first section, Horizons, began with a high oboe solo, played with very impressive control in this performance. As always with Saariaho’s music, the vivid colours in the orchestra made themselves known early on and after the initial intimacy of the wind instruments the view panned out appreciably, to an expansive picture.

Microtones and almost imperceptible changes in pitch were part of the evocation, and when the music alighted on a particular pitch the effect was striking. Saariaho’s music continuously evolved – shimmering, glistening, darkening, lightening, or casting shadow, as it did in a particularly vivid section where the metallic percussion took centre stage. Here the twinkling of glockenspiel contrasted with the spidery flurries of the strings.

saariaho

Targets, the second section, began with a blast of sound, before brass and strings were involved in dialogue – and we heard a flurry of activity from the whole orchestra, after which all the forces reached the same pitch, the view panning out again. Now the vista was nocturnal, with a shiver in the air.

Saariaho (above) was present, and in a rather moving response to the piece the orchestra and conductor applauded the composer, rather than the other way around. It is always difficult to appraise a major orchestral piece on the basis of its premiere, but on this evidence Vista is a major achievement and a piece to return to as often, Thankfully Mälkki is conducting it with the Berliner Philharmoniker on 22 May, but this was a special performance from the composer’s ‘home’ orchestra.

kirill_gerstein

Elsewhere on the program we enjoyed a fresh, vibrant performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in which the soloist was Kirill Gerstein (above). He clearly enjoys the piece, and the fast movements were notable for the clarity of their phrasing and lightness of touch. The first movement had an attractive lilt and some very appealing dialogue with the orchestra woodwind, oboe particularly. The slow movement gave plenty of room for Schumann’s softer sentiments, and the finale danced attractively.

The Schumann was complemented by some well-chosen solo Debussy, Gerstein opting for five lesser-known piano works. A palette-cleansing Pièce pour Le Vêtement du blesse, a posthumous publication, was followed by the steady tread of the Berceuse héroïque, given a solemn account. Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon was next, a piece unearthed in 2001 – sounding like a previously unreleased Prélude in these descriptive hands. The profound Élégie was next, then a rippling Étude retrouvée, a seldom-heard study written prior to the book of Études in 1915.

This was a fine concert, nicely structured and pointed towards the Saariaho – which fully lived up to its billing. Catch it if you can!

You can watch the concert on the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra website here

For more information on the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra digital season, you can visit their website here

Listening to Beethoven #149 – Septet in E flat major Op.20

The old Burgtheater in Vienna by Franz Gerasch (before 1906)

Septet in E flat major Op.20 for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

  1. Adagio – Allegro con brio
  2. Adagio cantabile
  3. Tempo di menuetto
  4. Tema con variazioni: Andante
  5. Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace
  6. Andante con moto alla marcia – Presto

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s Septet was a novelty work when it first appeared at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 2 April, 1800. The piece, completed by the composer over the winter beforehand, was not breaking any new musical ground particularly. Indeed, Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood speaks of it almost dismissively in finding an ‘ambition to please…written all over his Septet, Opus 20, a divertimento companion to the First Symphony intended for salon performance.’

The First Symphony appeared on the same bill at the Burgtheater, but to cast the Septet off as a trifle would be a mistake. Certainly it stays true to the Mozart models used in serenades and divertimenti for wind and strings, in its use of six movements and in the choice of not one but two dance-themed faster movements.

It is the instrumentation where Beethoven’s thoughts are new, the string quartet consisting of violin, viola, cello and now double bass. This adds depth to the scoring, but also frees the bassoon and cello up for more melodic roles. Peter Holman, writing for Hyperion, notes how ‘the relationship between strings and winds is more flexible and varied than before’. He enjoys the ‘mixture of grandeur and intimacy, virtuosity and informality’, while also noting a prominent part for virtuoso violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

Elsewhere it seems almost unfashionable for commentators to give the Septet too much room, as though it is not forward-thinking enough – but its public appeal is clear. Philip Reed, writing in a booklet note for Chandos, makes up for that shortfall, discussing how ‘Beethoven contrives to give the work a quasi-orchestral atmosphere. This quality is most apparent in the tuttis; elsewhere subtle use is made of different instrumental groupings to achieve maximum variety of texture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the central Theme and Variations’.

Thoughts

It is surely impossible to dislike Beethoven’s Septet. This is a piece full to the brim with good tunes, attractive scoring, persuasive rhythms and a very strong sense of community between all seven players. The scoring is a treat, working to bolster the sound to a small orchestra, in a model that was to be replicated by contemporaries Kreutzer and Berwald, as Holman points out.

The tunes are catchy enough for audiences to be humming them hours after a performance, which I can admit to first hand! The two best in this respect are the first Minuet, a delightfully cheeky tune that just refuses to go away, and the finale,

The first movement has some frothy exchanges when the faster sections arrives, while the slow movement, placed second, has some lovely sonorities, the clarinet coming to the fore in the tune and then the violin given some space to prove its virtuosity.

Placed fourth of the six movements is the Theme and Variations, where Beethoven’s invention is twofold – development of the theme and inclusion for each of the seven instruments, with solos for cello and then a lovely moment where clarinet and bassoon come to the fore. The doleful tones of the woodwind look on in the minor-key fourth variation, with a restless violin, while there are some ghostly timbres towards the end, the double bass growling low in the texture.

The second ‘dance’ movement is next, the horn coming to the front to lead a brisk march, then the cello asserting its new-found prominence as a melody instrument in the ‘trio’ section. Communal fun is the name of the game here, as it is in the finale, Beethoven ensuring all seven protagonists have fun with the abundance of melodic material.

The Septet is a tonic to the most subdued of moods, a true ray of sunshine – and one of Beethoven’s crowning early works.

Recordings used and Spotify Links

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble (Chandos)
Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet (Philips)
Nash Ensemble (ASV)
The Melos Ensemble(Eloquence)
Soloists of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
(Accentus)
Wiener Oktett (Deutsche Grammophon)

There are some lovely versions here, particularly a new release of a live performance from the Soloists of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The Wiener Oktett are enjoyably ‘old school’ and full bodied, while versions from the Nash Ensemble, the Melos Ensemble and the Gaudier Ensemble on Hyperion all hold their own. A mention, too, for a recording currently not on streaming services from the Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble, likely to be the only period instrument recording currently available.

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 1799 Haydn String Quartet in G major Op. 77/1

Next up Piano Concerto no.1 in C major Op.15

In concert – Timothy Ridout & Tom Poster: Brahms Sonatas & Schwertsik world premiere @ Wigmore Hall

ridout-poster

Timothy Ridout (viola), Tom Poster (piano)

Brahms Sonata for viola and piano in F minor Op.120/1 (1894)
Schwertsik Haydn lived in Eisenstadt (2021, world premiere)

Brahms Sonata for viola and piano no.2 in E flat major Op.120/2 (1894)

St John’s Smith Square, London
Monday 10 May (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was, on paper, an ideal match of repertoire and performers – and it proved that way on screen too, as the Wigmore Hall served us the latest offering in its lunchtime concert program.

Timothy Ridout and Tom Poster are both beneficiaries of the invaluable Young Concert Artists Trust (YCAT) scheme and the BBC’s New Generation Artists program, of which Ridout is still a member. They are both plotting exciting paths as distinctive artists, and as a duo they enjoy an easy rapport, clearly relishing the music they play – an observation which can never be taken for granted!

The two sonatas published as Op.120 are Brahms’ final notes in chamber music, and indeed among his last works altogether. To have younger artists playing them is to reveal the youthful heart amid their autumnal colours, showing off their elusive qualities and winsome melodies.

Both works may have originated for clarinet and piano but work equally well through the burnished tones of the viola. Indeed Ridout proved with the first notes of the Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 that the range is ideal for his instrument, and the tone – not to mention Poster’s complementary piano line – was ideally weighted once he had fully secured the intonation.

The second movement had a cold shiver, thanks to the use of less vibrato, but grew warmer as it progressed. The genial Allegro grazioso was a treat, the finale more celebratory but enjoying its flowing second themes too.

The E flat sonata was if anything even more successful, lighter on its feet and with airy phrases and interplay. The first movement bobbed and weaved beautifully, especially when Ridout was playing in the higher register, which Poster clearly relished. The second movement literally rolled up its sleeves for a powerful outpouring, Ridout’s tone beautifully supple. By contrast the central section benefited from the burnished tones of the double-stopped viola. The finale’s theme and variations were well judged, thoughtful and mellow to begin with but then more capricious as they progressed, finishing with a thoroughly convincing flourish.

Between the two Brahms works was an interesting new piece by Kurt Schwertsik, commissioned by Ridout himself. Schwertsik is a Viennese composer now in his 70s, aware of his place in musical history but making original and intriguing music. This piece was characteristically elusive, under the intriguing title Haydn lived in Eisenstadt. Set in several movements, it posed questions and answers, but remained curiously unsettled. BBC Radio 3 presenter Andrew McGregor thought the piece had ended at one point, only for another two movements to follow – a situation we have all surely experienced as audience members! Ridout swept through the longer phrases of the penultimate movement against softly tolling chords from the piano, before the last movement threw furtive glances into the shadows amid bursts of activity, ending in a similar vein to early Schoenberg.

Poster ensured the harmonies were a point of focus throughout, hinting at exotic late Romanticism but never quite settling in that mood. This was a piece of intriguing thoughts and colours, a substantial utterance well worth hearing again. It proved the ideal complement to the poised Brahms sonatas around it – and the encore of the older composer’s Wie melodien, with which the concert softly concluded.

This concert is available to play for 30 days using the YouTube embedded link above.