In concert – Ning Feng, CBSO / John Wilson: Rachmaninoff Symphony no.3, Glazunov Violin Concerto & Gershwin’s symphonic Porgy & Bess


Gershwin (arr. Bennett) Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture (1942)
Glazunov Violin Concerto in A minor Op.82 (1904)
Rachmaninoff Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.44 (1935-6)

Ning Feng (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 1 December 2021 (2.15pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo of Ning Feng (c) Felix Broede

John Wilson may have been taken by surprise when asked to introduce this afternoon concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but there was nothing left to chance as to the performances in what proved to be a judiciously planned and finely realized programme.

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is now well-established as an opera as much as a musical (hybrid or otherwise), not least through Wilson’s advocacy at English National Opera’s staging three seasons ago, but there is still a place for the ‘Symphonic Picture’ as posthumously realized by Robert Russell Bennett. The pre-eminent arranger and orchestrator from Broadway’s ‘golden age’, Bennett may have regarded Gershwin’s masterpiece as essentially a sequence of classy showtunes, but the finesse with which these were fashioned into a cumulative overview of the drama cannot be gainsaid. Wilson drew sumptuous playing from the CBSO in an arrangement by no means dismissive of Gershwin’s orchestration. Perhaps another time he could schedule the far more arresting Catfish Row suite, but so fine a reading of the Bennett was no hardship.

If Glazunov refused Gershwin’s request for tuition, he surely realized no amount of technique could compensate for – in the former’s case – limited or erratic inspiration. Not that his Violin Concerto is an unalloyed masterpiece, but its expressive elegance allied to a formal ingenuity have deservedly kept it in the repertoire and Ning Feng (above) audibly believed in every bar. Maybe the presentation of its main themes in the brief opening section was a little too matter-of-fact, but the central ‘slow movement’ then ensuing development and scherzo were rendered with the right deftness and incisiveness; nor did a relatively lengthy cadenza hang fire on the way to a ‘finale’ that ensured a scintillating close. A sympathetic accompanist, Wilson judged the orchestra’s contribution to a nicety, with some especially felicitous playing from woodwind.

It was Glazunov’s disastrous conducting that had sunk Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony but, four decades later, the Third Symphony finds the latter near the height of his creative powers – its pithy melodic content harnessed to an orchestral astringency that underlines the exiled composer’s confrontation with though not embracing of the musical present. Right from its haunting ‘motto’, through its contrasted themes (with exposition repeat) then a development that culminates in graphic anguish, Wilson had the measure of this masterly first movement.

What ensued was almost as fine, not least the seamlessness with which the slow movement’s scherzo emerged out of then back into the main Adagio – the playing off the acerbic against the bittersweet its own justification. If the finale felt a little too sectional in overall unfolding, there was no lack of characterization – not least the strings’ superb articulation in the central fugato as this headed towards the reprise, though a more continuous acceleration might have imbued the coda with even greater conclusiveness in what is a QED of unequivocal defiance.

Even so, this was a confident and, for the most part, insightful performance of a work whose true emotions are barely concealed beneath the enticing surface. The CBSO, which gave its all, will be back at Symphony Hall next Thursday in a major new work from Jonathan Dove.

For more information on the CBSO’s autumn season visit the orchestra’s website. For more on the artists, click here for John Wilson and here for Ning Feng

In concert – London Sinfonietta / Edmon Colomer: A Catalan Celebration


Gerhard Libra (1968)
Faula (2017)
Aequae (2012)
Januaries (2017)
Leo (1969)

London Sinfonietta / Edmon Colomer

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Wednesday 1 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A celebration of Catalan music, this concert by the London Sinfonietta also commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Roberto Gerhard – which, falling in January last year, had augured a number of events substantially curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant lockdowns. At least it had been possible to reschedule this programme – Gerhard’s work framing three recent pieces by contemporary composers whose music, if by no means beholden to that of their predecessor, was demonstrably influenced and even enhanced by it.

Of these three composers, Joan Magrané Figuera (b1988) was most audibly in the modernist lineage. Faula (Fable) unfolds continuously, its four strands of material being akin to levels of activity – exuding a nervous anticipation, ferocious interaction, static intoning, and a deft animation – present in varying combinations for a process which did not so much evolve as play out across its allotted time-span. More arresting was Aequae (Equal) by Raquel García-Tomás (b1984) – its ‘equality’ embodied in six parts, each of two-minute duration, that drew variety as well as ingenuity of response from its ensemble – with a subtle emphasis on those similarities arising unbidden from the emergence of identical motifs in differing contexts. By comparison, Januaries by Lisa Illean (b1983) felt relatively moribund with its concentration on a continuity that, if not static in its timbre or texture, evoked an atmosphere which started then ceased as though a photographic image not susceptible to real change or intensification. The phrase ‘monotonously beautiful or beautifully monotonous’ inescapably came to mind.

Qualities that could never be applied to Gerhard’s output in general or that of his final decade in particular. Works for ensemble are numerous from this time, yet it made sense to focus on those Astrological pieces which, written in the wake of his masterly Fourth Symphony, were also the last he completed. Both are structured as continuous entities alternating between the extreme of stillness and movement common to the music from his maturity. In the case of the ‘chamber concerto’ that is Libra, the concept of balance feels everywhere apparent – not least its six players interlocking in a range of sub-groups that attain equilibrium on both formal and expressive levels. While it pursues a similar trajectory, the ‘chamber symphony’ that is Leo is intentionally less cohesive in design – the confrontation within its larger forces pushing such constraints to, but never beyond their limits. Both works, moreover, feature an epilogue that, with their gently undulating motion and focus on a folk-inflected melody of exquisite poise, bring into accord their musical concerns as surely as those star-signs of Gerhard and his wife.

Music which has lost none of its affective capacity during the more than half-century since it appeared, and how apposite they should be played by the ensemble that gave their world and European premieres respectively. The London Sinfonietta sounded no less committed than its forebears on pioneering accounts with David Atherton – for which Edmon Colomer, his long-time advocacy heard in numerous performances and recordings, can take due credit. One can only hope it does not take another 50 years for this music’s intrinsic worth to be recognized.

For further information on the concert, click here For more information on the composers, click respectively for Roberto Gerhard, Joan Magrané Figuera, Raquel García-Tomás and Lisa Ilean. For more on Edmon Colomer, click here

In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: CBSO Percussion Ensemble

Daugherty Lounge Lizards (1994)
Volume (2006)
Dance Patterns (2002)
John Luther Adams
Qilyaun (1998)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble [James Keefe, Clíodna Shanahan (pianos), Adrian Spillett, Toby Hearney, Andrew Herbert, Matthew Hardy, RBC Students (percussion)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 3 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This last Centre Stage recital for 2021 brought a welcome return from the CBSO Percussion Ensemble for a programme such as demonstrated the sheer variety possible in the percussion medium even with the relatively small number of musicians required in most of these pieces.

Although he has written extensively for larger forces, Michael Daugherty is often at his best with chamber groupings as the two pianos and two percussion of Lounge Lizards, whose four sections keenly evoke the composer’s student years playing jazz piano – whether Sip ‘N’ Stir at Cedar Rapids, Dennis Swing Club at Hamburg, Ramada Inn on the New Jersey Turnpike and Bamboo Bar in Amsterdam. A range of ‘cool jazz’ idioms and practitioners is alluded to, with the deadpan humour as has long been a Daugherty hallmark never far below the surface.

Those who heard Missy Mazzoli’s Violent, Violent Sea at a CBSO concert in May will know of her vivid timbral sense, and Volume is no exception. Inspired by the inventive and highly charismatic playing of musicians from Trinidad, it can be performed (as here) with a second vibraphone replacing steel drum and which, heard alongside intricate exchanges for two kick drums and five bottles of water is, to quote the composer, ‘‘a raucous and joyful … homage to the … spirit of innovative music-making’’ – this performance certainly being no exception.

As Adrian Spillett remarked during a platform change, the music of Steve Reich has never been absent from a Centre Stage programme by this group – and Dance Patterns finds this composer at his most dextrous. Written for pairs of pianos, vibraphones and xylophones as part of the Dutch dance-film Counterphrases, its content does no more while no less than is indicated by its title, though such is the deftness and understatement of its interplay that the six-minute duration passes as though in an instant and all too soon dissolves into the ether.

‘Understatement’ is hardly apposite to describe Qilyaun by John Luther Adams – the Iñupiaq word for ‘shaman’s drum’ also ‘device of power’ graphically evoked in this visceral workout for four bass drums. Its gradual deceleration of activity to a midpoint of isolated strokes then reverse acceleration back to the initial rhythmic continuum was executed with a formidable unanimity by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire students, even if the need to keep listeners at a remove from the drums at the rear of the auditorium rather compromised social distancing.

That said, the piece was likely a revelation to those who know JLA only through his recent (and rightly acclaimed) orchestral works and concluded this recital in unequivocal fashion. Centre Stage resumes on January 21st with an all-Poulenc programme including the Sextet.

Further information on future CBSO Stage concerts can be found here

Switched On – The Black Dog: Music for Photographers (Dust Science Recordings)


reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Over the last two years, The Black Dog have been documenting their home city of Sheffield in visual form. If you follow them on social media you will surely have seen some of the city’s brutalist architecture featuring in moody black and white. Those images came at a price though, for the duo had the frustration of having to revisit some of their subjects to get the optimum results.

What they needed was a restful soundtrack to help them deal with the frustration or the anguish of developing and choosing the right photos, and so Music For Photographers was born.

What’s the music like?

Over the course of their careers The Black Dog have shown themselves to be incredibly versatile in their music making. This album brings a slower style to the surface, but one that shows the intensity of their working.

Dust Bunnies creates a lovely space, on the bleak side to begin with but gradually revealing a warmer musical language. Sensor is open and beautifully weighted, while Norman Foster Knew sounds like an ancient slow chorale rendered on an old organ. Bokeh Bokeh Bokeh takes a slightly bumpy rhythm as the clouds gather, and it cuts straight to the excellent Re-Pho-Kuss with Oliver Ho, a slightly dubby but highly atmospheric track.

We Are All Memories holds its poise really nicely, suspended on a consoling chord, while by contrast Lightroom Lies, Darkroom Doom is a study in sonic displacement, its long held notes laden with menace and darkly ominous. The clouds do eventually clear a little, however, as the track enters its last quarter, and we end in a suspended nothingness, as though the sky has turned an unusual colour. Finally Lost In Lines enters a trance state, gently pulsing mid range still quite darkly shaded but offering consolation.

Does it all work?

It does. The Black Dog hold a very impressive poise throughout this album, and the statements are shot through with an elegance and intensity.

Is it recommended?

Yes – another successful long player to add to the impressively long list the Sheffield duo have now clocked up. Watching their development is proving to be a rewarding experience – if a slightly expensive one for fans because of their prolific form!




Switched On – Jon Hopkins: Music for Psychedelic Therapy (Domino)


reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

After two albums driven by rhythm (Immunity and Singularity) Jon Hopkins had the wish to branch out in a different musical direction, turning his focus away from a ‘cosmic party or a set of festival bangers’.

His musical direction took him to a more classical approach, with no electronic drums in evidence and a musical language operating under much larger structures. Hopkins has openly admitted that the resultant workings are “more emotionally honest than I had been comfortable making before”, and has talked about the liberation of being cast free of traditional rhythmic structures.

The music was recorded in the dark of winter in early 2021, looking for brightness amongst the gloom. It is instructive to hear from the composer again: “Psychedelic-assisted therapies are moving into legality across the world, and yet it feels like no one is talking about the music. but the music is as important as the medicine.”

What’s the music like?

Right from the start it is clear Jon Hopkins is ploughing a very different furrow with this album. A treble-rich texture, with the regular ‘tsing’ of a tuning fork, sets out a scene more like the beginning of an extended yoga or pilates session. Woozy background textures blend with primary colours in the foreground, as musical phrases make themselves loosely known.

There is an immediate warmth to Hopkins’ musical language, and as we move into Tayos Caves, Ecuador i, the natural world takes over. A rush of water places the listener right in the middle of the action, with drips from the ceiling of the cave, a torrent of constant spray and the calling of a bird. The simplest of drones and long, drawn out phrases is added by Hopkins, but here we are all travelling together well beyond the studio.

We are in fact in the first part of a near 20-minute suite in three parts, which gradually introduces the thick ambience more common to Hopkins’ earlier work. The second part is a single, slowly shifting melodic sequence, while the third brings in a resonant treble sound. The structure is ideally paced, the listener slowing to the natural rhythms of the cave.

The album takes on the form of an entirely through-composed affair, lending weight to Hopkins’ observation of the similarity with classical music forms. Love Flows Over Us In Prismatic Waves is every bit as serene and comforting as its title suggests, while Deep In The Glowing Heart is the resultant balm, sat squarely in the tonal centre we have occupied for the last half-hour.

Such slow-moving music has a deep, rapturous message to the listener, and the more you become immersed in Hopkins world, the more intense the session. Ascending, Dawn Sky takes a step back, surveying the scene from a greater distance with the cool lapping of a quiet piano, and segues gently into Arriving, where the sound of chimes is complemented with a softly humming vocal – the nearest we get to words on the album so far. It is in effect a gentle warning for Sit Around The Fire, where we get the closing thoughts of Ram Dass, who speaks on the importance of inner connection in the company of meditative thoughts from musician East Forest. If Hopkins’ music has done its job, that has already been achieved.

Does it all work?

It does. Hopkins has a natural instinct for large structures but can also break them into smaller units, so there is enough going on in the short and the long term to keep the listener compelled. The hour passes just like a yoga session, so you may arrive feeling fraught and stressed, but you will leave with your mind on a higher plane.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Jon Hopkins has been threatening this album ever since he signed to Domino, and it is gratifying to see him make it. A document for our stress-filled times.



You can listen to clips from the album and purchase in CD or download form at the Domino website