City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: First Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 17 & Sunday 18 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

There are numerous commemorations this month of the centenary of Debussy’s death, but the Debussy Festival taking place in Birmingham over the weekends of 17/18 and 24/25 March is likely the most extensive mounted in the UK.

Together with chamber and song recitals, films and talks, there is a series of concerts by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as its related orchestras and ensembles, which between them offer an overview not only of Debussy’s major works but also those who influenced him and those who have been influenced by him in their turn.

Saturday evening focussed on Sensual Debussy, opening with the piece in which the composer effectively became himself. Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1894) began proceedings, its pervasive sensation of lazy eroticism palpably conveyed. This segued into Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898/1908) – a rare instance of Debussy’s acappella writing, its lithe alternation of solo and ensemble voices enticingly conveyed by the Birmingham University Singers. Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (above) then directed a perceptive account of La Damoiselle élue (1888), its Rossetti text inspiring a cantata whose luminous modality and ecstatic lyricism fairly define musical pre-Raphaelitism. Soprano Ilse Eerens was eloquent in the ‘title-role’ and mezzo Aga Mikolaj (below) searching in her narrative, with the CBSO Youth Chorus’s singing ethereal but never cloying.

Mikolaj returned for three of Szymanowski’s Love Songs of Hafiz (1914) and captured their capricious flights of fancy as made one wish the whole cycle of eight could have been given. This might have been preferable to the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) that rounded-off the concert – finely played and convincingly directed, save for a rather jarring accelerando toward the climax of the Prelude, but whose emotional intensity was rationalized by Debussy into something more oblique and understated. As had just been heard in the latter’s Nocturnes (1899), first of his orchestral triptychs and a marvel of shifting textures in Nuages, then ominous evocation in Fêtes. The diaphanous yearning of Sirènes was hardly less evident; less than perfect integration with its female voices the only real flaw.

Sunday afternoon brought Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in a programme devoted to Debussy’s Legacy. Boulez’s Dérive 1 (1984) set the scene with its wave-like eddying of pithy motifs, then the music of Tristan Murail (above) took centre-stage with pieces from across three decades of his career. Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant (1978) is a reminder of how radical yet understated (à la Debussy) his music must have sounded in a French scene dominated by Boulezian serialism, harmonic overtones a constant around which the ensemble inhales then exhales its glistening timbres. How Murail got there was duly underlined by Couleur de mer (1969): almost his first acknowledged work, its five sections pit serial constructions against a more intuitive take on harmony and texture in music whose eruptive central span is almost as startling as its cadential sense of closure. Between these, Feuilles à travers les cloches (1998) is an evocative and eventful miniature anticipating the stark post-impressionism of Murail’s more recent music. Fastidious playing from BCMG, and perceptive direction by Julien Leroy.

The CBSO returned that Sunday evening for Modern Debussy, another hour-long sequence opening with a further account of Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune in the arrangement that Schoenberg’s pupil Benno Sachs made in 1921. With flute, oboe and antique cymbals left in place, and harmonium ingeniously filling-out the ensemble, this proved an appealing novelty and ideal complement to the Première Rapsodie (1910) in which Debussy transformed a test-piece into a minor masterpiece – CBSO principal clarinettist Oliver Janes as responsive to its melodic elegance as to its deft virtuosity.

Responsive in support, Graźinytė-Tyla then directed a bracing account of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1921) where some refined playing toned down the 1947 revision’s asperities. A pity Takemitsu’s exquisite Green had to be dropped (were the parts not received in time?), but Michael Seal presently took charge for a characterful reading of Jeux (1913) – confirming Debussy’s developing variation as no less crucial than Stravinsky’s mosaic-like construction to the evolution of music this past century.

Food for thought, indeed, over the course of this first weekend – not least for reminding one of just how central to modern Western music Debussy’s presence has been. Hopefully, too, the overall quality of interpretation will be maintained throughout next weekend’s concerts.

For more information on the CBSO Debussy Festival, you can visit the event’s website


On record: Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald – Shostakovich: The Gadfly, The Counterplan (Naxos Film Music Classics)

Shostakovich The Gadfly, The Counterplan Bachchor MainzDeutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald

The Gadfly, Op.97 (1955) – complete original score (ed. Fitz-Gerald)
The Counterplan, Op. 33 (1932) – excerpts

Bachchor Mainz, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Mark Fitz-Gerald

Naxos Film Music Classics 8.573747 [61’46”]
Producer Roland Kistner Engineers Bernd Nothnagel, Karl Haffner
Dates March 21st-24th, 2017 in Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Mark Fitz-Gerald continues his pioneering series of Shostakovich film scores in their original orchestration with this disc of the composer’s music for The Gadfly, coupled with pieces that never made it to the final cut and excerpts from the most successful of his earlier film-scores.

What’s the music like?

Unlike that on the previous discs in this Naxos series (scores to New Babylon on 8.572824/5, Alone on 8.573747 and Girlfriends on 8.572138), the music for The Gadfly was very much a mainstream project for a composer struggling to find focus in the post-Stalin era. Alexander Faintzimmer’s adaptation of Ethel Voynich’s novel, essentially a romantic politicization of the Risorgimento among the mid-19th century Italian states, was a success with both Soviet officialdom and the public; while the 12-movemnet suite, as adapted by Lev Atovmian, has long been the most widely heard of Shostakovich’s film-derived scores. The present ‘urtext’ version was prepared and edited by Fitz-Gerald in conjunction with DSCH publishing house in Moscow and Paris (and has been published as Volume 138 of the New Complete Edition).

Despite its 29 individual cues averaging under two minutes, this sequence is (surprisingly?) cohesive in formal and expressive follow-through. Framed by the surging ‘Overture’ (track 1) and rhetorical ‘Finale (29), it follows the scenario closely. The famous ‘Romance’ is divided between the tracks ‘Youth’ and its reprise (4/25), with eloquent violin playing from Nikolaus Boewer, and its middle section is located elsewhere. Further highlights include the evocative ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (15) derived from Bach’s Mass in B minor, the infectious ‘Contredanse’ and ‘Galop’ for strings (19/20), and effervescent ‘Bazar’ (22) which became the well-known ‘Public Holiday’. Many of the other tracks are predominantly sombre or introspective, though the understated effectiveness of Shostakovich’s instrumentation offsets any risk of uniformity.

Also included are two organ cues excluded from the final score – including ‘Ave Maria’ (31), an ingenious reworking of a parody mass by Renaissance composer Antoine de Févin as was replaced by the Bach. The disc is completed by three excerpts from The Counterplan – made to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, whose intermingling of personal relationships with construction in Leningrad is best remembered for its ‘Song of the Counterplan’. This emerges towards the close (34) to round-off these excerpts in fine style.

Does it all work?

Indeed. Fitz-Gerald secures a lively response from his Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie forces, with the various guitar and mandolin solos idiomatically taken, while Elke Voelker’s organ contributions are recorded with necessary ambient space. Those who know The Gadfly from the suite will find these frequently stripped-down orchestrations of the original film-score an unexpected pleasure. The sound is unexceptionally fine (volume levels in louder items can sound a touch manipulated), while John Riley’s booklet notes are detailed and informative.

Is it recommended?

Yes. This is a welcome act of restoration for film-music almost entirely known in a version approved though not undertaken by the composer. Hopefully this series will be continued – a recording of the complete score for The Counterplan would be a worthwhile next instalment.

You can read more about this release on the Naxos website, while for more on Mark Fitz-Gerald, visit his

On record: Eve Daniell, Roderick Williams & Simon Lepper – John Pickard: Songs (Toccata)

John Pickard Songs Eve Daniell (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Simon Lepper (piano)

The Borders of Sleep
Binyon Songs
The Phoenix

Toccata Classics TOCC0413 [61’01’’] English texts included
Producer/Engineer Michael Ponder
Recorded January 7th and 8th 2017 at St George’s, Bristol

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc of music by John Pickard (b1963) from Toccata Classics, this time focussing on his output for voice and piano which to date comprises just three works, though these are no less personal than his more extensive contributions to the orchestral and chamber genres.

What’s the music like?

In his booklet notes, Pickard speaks of the difficulty in finding the right words for music thus intended. His works featuring baritone evince due discernment in those poets he has set. Not least the Binyon Songs – five settings of Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), the ubiquity of whose For the Fallen has detracted from a large and varied corpus. The present sequence is nothing if not representative – conveying abused benevolence in Nature, re-emergence in Sowing Seed and hectic transition in Autumn Song. The warm confessional of When all the world is hidden (a likely counterpart to Mahler’s Liebst du um Schönheit?) makes for a telling foil to the relatively expansive The Burning of the Leaves, affording closure through its insight into the immutable process of decay and renewal – an apotheosis as probing as it is profound.

Whereas the Binyon songs are a loosely related sequence, The Borders of Sleep is a song-cycle in formal intent and expressive scope. Here the texts are by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), considered a ‘wat poet’ (he died at Arras) though one whose poetry tends toward the speculative and even oblique. These concerns are pursued across the course of nine songs – taking in such as the sombre monotony of The Mill-Water, black irony of The Gallows and impermanence of Rain. The final settings comprise a fitting culmination: the mood of Last Poem, made concrete by its alternate title The sorrow of true love, transmuted into the fatalistic calm of Lights Out whose initial line also provides the title of this work and whose intimation of transcendence through the release of sleep affords its own benediction.

In contrast, the earliest piece here sets the earliest text, The Phoenix freely adapted from R. K. Gordon’s translation of a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem found in the Exeter Book. In fining down the expansive original (677 lines), Pickard has created a scena for soprano and piano where the evocation of this mythical bird’s demise and rebirth becomes metaphor for change and renewal; hence aligning it with the more recent poets featured here then, by extension, the underlying concerns to be found in even the most abstract among Pickard’s compositions.

Does it all work?

Very much so – not least when the performances are so attuned to the spirit and sensibility of Pickard’s music. A stalwart of English-song repertoire, Roderick Williams invests the Binyon and Thomas settings with unsparing emotional acuity, and if Eve Daniell experiences passing difficulty with pitching and intonation, her command of high-flown rhetoric in The Phoenix leaves no doubt as to her identity with this piece. Simon Lepper’s accompaniment is of the highest order, while recorded sound judges balance between voice and piano to perfection.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and Pickard will hopefully add to his output for voice and piano in due course. In the meantime, acquire this disc and check out the composer’s orchestrations of his Binyon songs (also performed by Williams) on the English Music Records’ anthology Now Comes Beauty.

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website, while for more on John Pickard, you can visit his website here

YCAT at the Wigmore Hall: Savitri Grier & Richard Uttley play Poulenc, Messiaen & Beethoven

Savitri Grier (violin, above), Richard Uttley (piano, below – photo credit Cathy Pyle)

Poulenc Violin Sonata (1942-3)

Messiaen Theme and Variations (1932)

Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor Op.30/2 (1803)

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 6 March 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

I cannot recommend the YCAT Lunchtime Concert series at the Wigmore Hall highly enough. It gives us a chance to see the professional classical performers of tomorrow, and allows appreciation of just how much young talent there still is, waiting to be discovered. The YCAT (Young Classical Artists Trust) scheme gives an incredibly valuable service to classical music, giving young artists selected through a rigorous audition process the security of career guidance, a dedicated artist manager and a concert platform including appearances such as this at the Wigmore Hall.

This particular recital brought a current member of the scheme, violinist Savitri Grier, and an ‘alumni’, pianist Richard Uttley, who is building an impressive portfolio headed by contemporary music. This well chosen program showed the two have an extremely sound musical chemistry, and also showed Grier to be a formidable violinist of full tone and strong personality.

She immediately took command of the Poulenc Violin Sonata, so much so that even at the back of the hall it was easy to appreciate the depth and breadth of her phrasing. On occasion the artists were even a touch too loud, but that could hardly be considered a massive problem, especially with the virtuosity and crisp ensemble on display in the outer movements. The slightly resentful Adagio slow movement, written in the midst of the Second World War, showed the pair at their most sensitive, reigning in the volume to give some softly voiced thoughts that were truly touching.

Messiaen’s Theme and Variations occupy a rather singular place in the composer’s output, but show what he was to become – and convinced a young Pierre Boulez when he heard them that he had to study with the composer. The theme itself is mysterious, and both performers enjoyed this and the already expansive harmonic language adopted by the composer. Gradually the variations grew in intensity, reaching an impressive apex.

Mozart and Beethoven were the two composers to advance the Violin Sonata into the 19th century, writing as they were for the violin and piano as equal instruments. If anything Beethoven’s C minor example, the second of his game changing Op.30 trio of works, makes greater demands on the piano – but it is arguably the most ambitious work of its time for the combination.

The second Beethoven ‘C minor’ work in consecutive days at the Wigmore Hall (see Monday’s Leon McCawley recital for more), it exploded into life through an incredibly energetic and virtuosic performance. Both Grier and Uttley took a punchy approach to the first movement’s trade-offs, their ensemble particularly secure, but as the work progressed there was also room for humour (in the third movement Scherzo) and a greater elegance (the second movement Adagio cantabile, sensitively played).

Beethoven’s gruff exterior won out though, and in the finale, where Uttley rose to the demands of some fiendish scales demanded by the composer, there was a great tête-à-tête between the two players, an engaging game of cat and mouse where both were ultimately crowned the winners.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

Wigmore Mondays: Leon McCawley plays Haydn, Chopin, Beethoven & Hans Gál

Leon McCawley (piano, above – photo credit Clive Barta)

Haydn Piano Sonata in C minor, HXVI:20 (1771) (1:41 on the broadcast link – 18:08)

Hans Gál Three Preludes, Op 65 (1944) (19:34 – 28:12)

Chopin 2 Nocturnes, Op 37 (1838-9) (29:32-42:07)

Beethoven 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80 (1806) (44:07 – 53:49)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 5 March 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

Leon McCawley is an enterprising pianist who looks to play both the familiar and the unfamiliar, as his intriguing discography for the Somm and Avie labels shows. This concert, carefully planned, distilled this approach into an engrossing hour’s music of darkness and light.

The darkness was present in the works of the program inhabiting minor keys, especially those by Haydn, the first by Chopin, and the towering Variations of Beethoven.

Haydn first (from 1:41 on the broadcast) – one of his many Sonatas for piano that helped revolutionise the instrument’s reach and capacity. This particular example had a first movement (from 1:41, marked Moderato) that was surprisingly reserved and doleful for its composer, as though he had something on his mind.

McCawley moved into an equally serious Andante con moto (from 8:53), but as this settled a more lyrical approach took hold, rather like an aria. Brightening as the movement progressed, its elegance was countered by the finale (marked Allegro, from 13:46), which was detached in its delivery from McCawley, becoming more worked up as the themes were developed before a darker end at 18:08.

The Hans Gál pieces were undoubtedly the curiosity of the program. Gál’s renaissance of recent years has unearthed some very interesting music. A Jewish composer, he had to flee the Nazi regiment in the 1930s for the UK. Tragedy took hold there also, in the form of his elder sister and one of his sons taking their own lives, before the family were able to settle more in Edinburgh, where he worked for Donald Tovey at the university.

Due to the prominence of tonal writing in his music, and the unfashionable stance of this approach at the time, his music was more or less forgotten – until recently, where the conductor Kenneth Woods has revived the four symphonies, Matthew Sharp the music for cello and McCawley the piano music.

This was essentially a taster of freeform pieces, the Three Preludes beginning with something of a whirlwind at 19:34. They descended into a mid-range cluster of notes before the busy-ness returned. The second prelude (22:13) had more private thoughts, and was more romantic, while the third (26:10) was playful and elusive.

McCawley then moved on to thoughtful Chopin, the first of the 2 Nocturnes Op.37 (29:32) darkly shaded and very sombre. It was a nice touch moving from G minor to G major (36:30) for a more carefree, triple time piece, subtly charming.

These served as the ideal lead-up to some tempestuous Beethoven. When the composer is operating in the key of C minor you can usually expect fireworks – the Symphony no.5, the Pathétique piano sonata and the Piano Concerto no.3 are just three examples of the brimstone we hear in this key. The 32 Variations (from 44:07) are close in date to the Fifth, and have similar qualities – though here Beethoven takes a small chord progression cell and works his magic with it.

From the start McCawley powered through some impressive pianistic feats, using a really strong sense of phrasing to give the music space when needed. From 47:01 the music effectively moved into a slow ‘movement’ in C major, but it soon returned with extra vigour to the home key.

This was a brilliant performance, capped by an inspired encore of the same composer’s Bagatelle in C major Op.33/2 (54:47) – McCawley careful to choose an appropriate key. This was enjoyably mischievous, Beethoven playing around with both pianist and listener.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below – which includes McCawley’s own recordings of the Haydn and Gál:

McCawley is the only pianist to date who has recorded the complete piano works of Hans Gál, and the album is also on Spotify: