On Record – Saint Etienne: I’ve Been Trying To Tell You (Heavenly)

saint-etienne

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

For their tenth album, Saint Etienne have taken a trip down memory lane. The trio of Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell have all been recalling events, thoughts and emotions from 1997 to 2001, a period when the UK was basking in rarefied optimism under New Labour. Was it all a bad dream? Was it as good a time as people thought?

Using samples and clever production techniques, the trio pose these questions and more, in the form of a sample-based album that uses clips from the time period. For the first time – presumably for lockdown reasons – the album was recorded remotely, with no need for a studio – and with assistance from composer Guy Bousfield, who wrote two songs on the album.

What’s the music like?

Very relaxed and dreamy, even for a Saint Etienne album. It is much less song-based than is the norm for the trio, and the aim of the gentle memory jogging is subtle rather than firmly pointed. The focus on sonic snippets and the dubby, instrumental approach could easily be teleported from the period in question. We hear less from Sarah Cracknell as a vocalist, but that means that the times she does appear are accentuated, her phrases given extra importance. The profile of the music yields more satisfaction with each listen, as the manipulation of the samples is made clearer.

The samples themselves are unexpected – with appearances for Honeyz, The Lightning Seeds, Lighthouse Family and Samantha Mumba that if anything emphasise the musical distance we have put between ourselves and the period in focus. The field recordings have a more immediate effect of how society might have been before the pandemic, creating their own form of yearning.

Cracknell it is who starts the album, with several vocal lines competing for the foreground in Music Again, where a loping beat ebbs and flows gently. Fonteyn pans out even further, with the wide open natural spaces including birdsong at the end – a quality shared by many recently-released albums, recorded under lockdown conditions. Fonteyn segues into the gorgeous Little K, a warm fuzz of a track with dappled harp and sun-blushed ambience.

Blue Kite is glitchy in profile, drifting in and out of focus, before working up more of a head of steam. Pond House has a slow, wide open beat with a woozy texture, enhancing the dream state along with Cracknell’s ‘here it comes again’ loop. The singer comes to the front of the virtual stage for Penlop, a lullaby in all but name that calms the senses, before the gentle lapping of Broad River completes the recollections.

Does it all work?

Yes. Albums rooted in nostalgia often make the mistake of over-using the rose tinted spectacles in their longing backwards glances, but if anything I’ve Been Trying To Tell You does the opposite, in an unforced but gently nagging way.

The album is more a single construction than previous Saint Etienne long players, its relative lack of songs compensated by the bigger overall structure.

Is it recommended?

It is. I’ve Been Trying To Tell You poses as many questions as it answers, and although it works extremely well as an album to get horizontal with, there are many layers to its genius. It subtly but pointedly asks where the UK is now, where it is going, and were we all sold a dummy as the millennium approached?

There is an accompanying film from photographer Alasdair McLellan but the music for I’ve Been Trying To Tell You creates its own beautifully rendered imagery for the listener to lose themselves in. It is a rather lovely album.

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Listening to Beethoven #190 – “Ne’ giorni tuoi felici”, WoO 93

Portrait of Pietro Metastasio, c1770, by Meytens or Batoni

“Ne’ giorni tuoi felici”, WoO 93, duet for soprano, tenor and orchestra (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication Not known
Text Pietro Metastasio
Duration 7′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Ne’ giorni tuoi felici (‘In your days of happiness’) uses text from Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade, with Beethoven becoming the third recorded composer to set these words behind Leonardo Leo and Florian Gassmann. Writing briefly about the duet in booklet notes for Hyperion, Nicholas Marston notes that two of the soloists at the premiere, which appears not to have taken place until 1814, were Anna Milder-Hauptmann and Carl Weinmüller. They helped create the roles of Leonore and Rocco respectively in the premiere of Fidelio later that year.

Very little is written about this piece, other than to note its position in Beethoven’s output as one of the last vocal works written under the tuition of Salieri.

Thoughts

We hear the tenor first, pleading, ‘in the days of your happiness remember me’ – and his lover, the soprano, answers in kind. Initially the mood is relatively calm, but as the duet progresses things become more agitated. The singers’ lines are deeply expressive, and initially slower that has perhaps been the norm in Beethoven’s vocal music with orchestra so far. The composer gives the voices plenty of room, the orchestra at a polite distance, but the violins have important counter melodies to contribute.

A quicker section arrives just over half way through, the singers ‘dying of jealousy’ as they experience considerable distress, not to mention ‘savage pain’. This sours the mood and tugs at the heartstrings, ending the duet on a fractious note. At this point it feels unfinished, with more of the story to play out – as though Beethoven could have continued to write a more expansive piece using Metastasio’s text.

The soprano writing often hits the heights, but in a way less concerned with overt display and more with lyrical passion. She leads the duet, which makes a powerful impression – and gives notice that Beethoven’s dramatic gifts will be more than capable of shifting to the operatic stage before too long.

Recordings used

Dan Karlström (tenor), Reetta Haavisto (soprano), Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

Christopher Maltman (tenor), Janice Watson (soprano), English Chamber Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion) (an excerpt can be heard here)

Arthur Apelt (tenor), Hannelore Kuhse (soprano), Staatskapelle Berlin / Eberhard Büchner (Eterna)

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 1802 Charles-Simon Catel Sémiramis

Next up Bagatelle in C major / minor ‘Lustig-traurig’

In concert – Carolyn Sampson, Anna Lapwood, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada – Poulenc Gloria & Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

Yamada_Kazuki_5142_c_Zuzanna_Specjal

Tchaikovsky Solemn Overture ‘The Year 1812’ Op.49 (1880)
Poulenc
Gloria FP177 (1959)
Fauré
Messe Basse IGF50 (1881 rev.1906)
Saint-Saëns
Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.78 ‘Organ’ (1886)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Anna Lapwood (organ), CBSO Youth Chorus (Julian Wilkins, director), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 16 September 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Zuzanna Specjal (Kazuki Yamada), Marco Borggreve (Carolyn Sampson), Kirsten McTernan/BBC (Anna Lapwood)

It was no doubt coincidental that this opening concert of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s new season was typical of those programmes which one-time chief conductor Louis Frémaux gave with this orchestra during the mid-1970s, in its featuring two of his French specialities.

Back then, Poulenc’s Gloria could still be regarded as contemporary music, though its adept borrowing from the Stravinsky textbook married to the French composer’s insouciant brand of expressivity is arguably more widely accepted now than in that often style-conscious era. It duly responded to Kazuki Yamada’s keen impetus in the opening Gloria then the bracing syncopation of Laudamus te or a joyously animated Domine Fili. Carolyn Sampson (above) was an elegantly detached soloist in Domine Deus, opening-out emotionally in the Agnus Dei whose inward ecstasy was unerringly conveyed. Yamada elided deftly between the surging energy then calm resignation of the final Qui sedes; here, as throughout, the CBSO Chorus bringing supplicatory warmth to music it has been associated with almost since its founding.

Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony was a familiar item at CBSO concerts during the Frémaux era and one that the present-day orchestra tackled with no less alacrity. Yamada was clearly (and rightly) intent on stressing its symphonic cohesion – drawing ominous expectancy from the first half’s Adagio introduction then securing a powerful momentum in the main Allegro, before the organ’s hushed entry for a chastely eloquent slow movement. There was no lack of incisiveness or humour in the second half’s scherzo, not least its scintillating passagework for piano duet, but also purposeful intent as segued directly into the finale with its indelible main theme and its methodical build-up to an electrifying peroration. Here, too, Anna Lapwood’s (below) subtle choice of registration underlined motivic resourcefulness more than gestural brilliance.

In between these works, opening the second half, Fauré’s Messe Basse enjoyed relatively rare revival (at least in the concert hall). Initially a collaboration with André Messager, Fauré later essayed a complete setting of what is a Missa brevis (thus omitting the Gloria and Credo) for female voices and which sounds no less apposite when rendered, as here, by young singers. The CBSO Youth Choir summoned a poised detachment under the assured guidance of Julian Wilkins, abetted by Lapwood’s thoughtful accompaniment in this modest yet appealing piece.

One aspect of this programme that Frémaux would not have opted for was to commence with Tchaikovsky’s 1812, though few would surely dissent given the all-round focus of Yamada’s conception. Not least when the CBSO Chorus added its yearning tones to the opening section, returning towards the close for an emotive rendering of ‘God Save the Tsar’ to cap an already resplendent apotheosis. Tubular bells and Mahler-type mallet more than compensated for the absence of canon et al when this piece is trotted out at the end of a ‘greatest hits’ assemblage.

It was indeed fortuitous that Yamada open this season given his recent appointment as Chief Conductor of the CBSO from April 2023. He returns in due course, while next week brings Sarah Connolly for a rare hearing for Chausson’s rapturous Poème de l’amour et de la mer.

This concert will be repeated on Saturday 18 September at Symphony Hall – click here for tickets. You can find information on the new CBSO season here, while for more on Kazuki Yamada you can visit the conductor’s website

Listening to Beethoven #189 – “No, non turbarti”, WoO 92a

Portrait of Pietro Metastasio, artist unknown

“No, non turbarti”, WoO 92a, scene and aria for soprano and strings (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Scena: No, non turbarti’…
2. Aria: Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro

Dedication Not known
Text Pietro Metastasio
Duration 6′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This scena and aria, setting text from Metastasio’s La tempesta, is for soprano and strings, and marks one of the final pieces of work completed by Beethoven when still under the tuition of Salieri.

The autograph manuscript has corrections from his teacher, from whom Beethoven had been learning vocal composition, pointing his efforts towards the stage. Andrew Stewart, notes that Beethoven did not completely finish the orchestration, and that the premiere of this relatively short piece did not take place until 1814 – by which time he had completed his opera Fidelio.

Soprano Chen Reiss, writing about the piece for her recent album Immortal Beloved, observes that the aria seems ‘to predict the misfortunes in love he was to experience later in life’. Using the manuscript, she restored the music to predate Salieri’s ‘corrections’, offering a more authentic account of the composer’s intentions.

Thoughts

A sad stillness inhabits the start of the recitative, but soon the music becomes agitated. When the text observes, “See how the entire sky now blackens; the wind stirs up the dust and the fallen leaves”, Beethoven takes his cue with a rush of strings, their tremolo figuration portraying the restless storm.

The aria itself feels higher in register, with a greater distance between the singer and the strings as a form of solace in pure C major. The poet, however, is after a little more, and as Ian Page says, ‘pursues more amorous intentions’. “When there’s thunder and lightning I shall be with you”, consoles the text – and this music, appearing to indulge Beethoven’s love of Handel, does likewise.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

Sophie Bevan, The Mozartists / Ian Page (Signum Classics)
Chen Reiss, Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr (Onyx)
Reetta Haavisto, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

Three excellent performances here, but those from Sophie Bevan and in particular Chen Reiss are to be heard again. The latter has a slightly fuller voice, especially lower in the register. Both are accompanied by instruments of the period and conductors using harpsichord – which perhaps brings out the Handelian connections. Reetta Haavisto gives a powerful interpretation, and together with Leif Segerstam takes a more expansive view of the pair, clocking in at nearly seven minutes in comparison to Bevan’s five.

The below playlist collects all three recordings referred to above:

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 1802 Charles-Simon Catel: Sémiramis

Next up Ne’ giorni tuoi felici, WoO 93

Writer appreciation: Daniel Heartz

written by Ben Hogwood

This is the first in an occasional series of posts where I would like to draw attention to writers on music, classical or pop, whose work I love and respect.

Yesterday Arcana’s Listening to Beethoven series reached the Second Symphony – the last work discussed by Daniel Heartz in the third volume of an epic series looking at music of the 18th century.

I wanted to draw attention to Daniel’s writing because this series of books is quite simply invaluable. When I first considered purchasing it I baulked at the price per instalment (roughly £45, even at second hand) but I can honestly say it has provided me with incredible value for money.

Heartz’s strengths are many, but his ability to talk through technical aspects of music without losing the reader in jargon is unusually strong. However even that quality is second to his knack of placing the music in historical context, which he does so throughout the books. I warmed to this quality in the third volume (Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven 1781-1802) just as much in the second (Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School: 1740-1780). Going back further, the equally sizable volume of Music In European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720-1780 ensures lesser-known and appreciated composers such as Boccherini, J.C. Bach and Stamitz get the detail and respect they fully deserve.

Heartz is great at telling a story, applying the same detailed and pictorial approach to each composer or historical figure, and at every turn it is clear that a remarkable depth of research has been applied to his work. There is very little speculation needed, but where it is made he is never fanciful or exaggerated.

Very sadly Professor Heartz died in 2019. I must admit, rather selfishly, that I was hoping his exploration of Beethoven would continue beyond the year 1802, but on learning the sad news I can only say I am very grateful to him for illuminating the classical period of music history with such high quality, informed writing. His books will give pleasure and more information, no doubt, for many years to come.

A tribute to Daniel can be found here on the University of California website. The three books referred to above are published by W.W. Norton.