In concert: Steven Isserlis, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Maxim Emelyanychev – Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto no.1 & ‘Organ’ Symphony

Saint-Saëns
Phaéton Op.39 (1873)
Cello Concerto no.1 in A minor Op.33 (1873)
Danse macabre Op.40 (1874)
Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.78 ‘Organ’ (1885-6)

Steven Isserlis (cello, below), Matthew Truscott (violin), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Maxim Emelyanychev (above)

Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 26 January 2023

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Steven Isserlis picture (c) Satoshi Aoyagi

Top marks to the planning team of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, for scheduling a night of Saint-Saëns in January! They chose a rousing quartet of works as part of the orchestra’s Sounds For The End Of A Century series, in what may have been a first live encounter for the orchestra with the French composer’s music.

They were matched with a suitably dynamic conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev throwing heart and soul into the music as we explored numerous links between Saint-Saëns and Liszt. This was done through a pair of symphonic dramas, one to open each half, the Cello Concerto no.1 and the Symphony no.3, the Organ, dedicated to Liszt himself.

The first drama told the story of Phaéton. Drawn from Greek mythology, it tells how the child of sun god Helios drives his chariot recklessly across the sky – from which he is felled by Jupiter’s lightning bolt. The action was thrillingly conveyed here, the vehicle veering wildly from the start in the quickfire violin lines. The warm second theme offered a little respite but all too quickly the thunderbolt arrived, delivered with maximum drama by three timpanists, Adrian Bending, Florie Fazio and Tom Hunter.

The second drama was Danse macabre, originally a song but now a seasoned favourite in its orchestral guise. The devilish solo violin role was taken up by orchestra leader Matthew Truscott with some relish, playing with vigour from his position just behind the woodwind. Emelyanychev’s pacing was ideal, and while the dance initially felt a little soft it transpired he had been saving the full fury of the orchestra for the final rendering of the theme, unleashed in a thoroughly satisfying blast.

Steven Isserlis joined the notably reduced orchestral forces for the Cello Concerto no.1, another popular piece full of melody and incident. Isserlis has championed the music of Saint-Saëns throughout his career, and this performance found him in his element, lovingly attending to the tender second theme of the first movement and the opulent Allegretto, while fully opening up to the virtuoso demands of the outer sections. Dialogue with the orchestra was brisk and full of smiles, while the structure of the concerto – a single movement in line with the piano concertos of Liszt – was expertly handled in league with Emelyanychev.

As a thoughtful encore Isserlis marked what would have been the 78th birthday of Jacqueline du Pré, choosing the most appropriate encore – The Swan from Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals. Accompanied by Emelyanychev on the orchestra piano, the cellist gave a serene yet searching account.

Finally we had the rare chance to hear the Organ Symphony in period instrument guise, with a blast from the Royal Festival Hall organ and James McVinnie. While the third is by some distance Saint-Saëns’ most popular symphony, it should be noted that a concert of either the fine Symphony no.2 or the work titled Urbs Roma would not go amiss before too long.

Here, however, was a piece written in dedication to Liszt at the surprising invitation from the Royal Philharmonic Society, and premiered at the long-demolished St James’s Hall near Piccadilly in London. It is easy to forget just how original a piece this is, with a large orchestra including not just organ but a piano (with two pianists), two harps and more. There is also an impressive resourcefulness on the part of the composer with his thematic material, which Emelyanychev took the chance to illustrate throughout.

The nervy first movement harked back to the motion of Phaéton’s chariot, albeit now riddled with anxiety, its syncopated nature leaving room for doubt. Consolation was on hand in the form of the substantial section marked Poco adagio, a noble utterance whose poise unexpectedly anticipates Elgar in style. The entrance of the organist here was expertly handled by McVinnie, whose familiarity with the Royal Festival Hall instrument enabled him to achieve an ideal balance with the orchestra. He did this through some wholly rewarding registration choices.

As a consequence the slow movement was deeply emotional, its quiet moments accentuated by Emelyanychev and the soft strings, played with little vibrato. The hurried Scherzo was a vivid contrast to this, and brilliantly played, before the doors were flung open for the famous finale.

McVinnie led with authority, securing a lovely, grainy sound from his instrument for the thunderous C major chord at the start. The two pianists, playing what seemed to be a modern instrument, caressed the upper reaches of the texture with delicate arpeggios. Emelyanychev steered clear of sentimentality in his interpretation, a move which actually heightened the impact of the piece and carried us to a thrilling conclusion.

A blast of C major to see January into the long grass was most welcome – what more could a concert goer want?!

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment website.

Switched On – numün: Book Of Beyond (Shimmy-Disc)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

numün have a rich musical pedigree. The trio are based in New York, and comprise Gamelan Dharma Swara‘s Joel Mellin and Christopher Romero and Bob Holmes of SUSS. Their first album in 2020, Voyage au Soleil, received wide acclaim for its marriage of a wide range of ambient musical forms.

The new record builds on the explorations made by Voyage au Soleil. Produced by Kramer, it includes a fusion of Eastern and Western musical stylings and instrumentation, listed on the press release to include Balinese gamelan, gender wayang, and cumbuz (a 12-string fretless banjo). These exist alongside the country and folk music-based instruments of slide guitar, baritone, mandolin and violin.

Adding to the musical pot are guest appearances from members of Brooklyn Raga Massive, Dharma Swara and Black Sea Hotel.

What’s the music like?

Trippy, in a good way!

Beyond sets out the colourful stall, with shimmering textures and pitches fluttering in harmony above the drone note. The open strings of the violin help present a rustic, outdoor picture. The following Steps picks up an easy, walking pace rhythm, led by guitar, and this same pace transfers to the lazy thrum of a mandolin for Sideways. Around the main melodic parts there are other hazy instrumental lines, complementing the rhythm while maintaining a heady atmosphere.

The use of bells on Eyes Open creates a richly coloured dream sequence which is sustained through Vespers, though here the colour comes from guitars and drones. The woozy Voices is like an aural mirage, shapes dancing on the horizon, while Lighter is led by softer flute tones. Arguably the most evocative track of all is left until last, the lower register of the violin providing velvety cushion as the lead for Lullaby.

Does it all work?

Yes – as a colourful musical backdrop rewarding different levels of Immersion on the part of the listener.

Is it recommended?

It is. Book Of Beyond staves off the winter chills with music of an appealing warmth, creating exotic pictures as it does so.

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In concert – Southbank Sinfonia – Journeys Through Worlds (Álvarez, Woolrich, Burell and Glass); Eruptions of Sound and Colour (Simpson and Mozart)

Journeys Through Worlds
Álvarez Metro Chabacano (1986, rev. 1991)
Woolrich Ulysses Awakes (1989)
Burrell Das Meer, das so gross und weit ist, da wimmelt’s ohne zahl, grosse und kleine Tiere (1992)
Glass Symphony no.3 (1995)
Southbank Sinfonia / Owain Park

Eruptions of Sound and Colour
Mark Simpson Geysir (2014)
Mozart Serenade no.10 in B flat major K361 ‘Gran Partita’ (1781-2)
Southbank Sinfonia / Nicholas Daniel

St John’s, Smith Square, London
Thursday 19 January 2023 @ 7pm and 9pm

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A typically diverse programme by Southbank Sinfonia; actually two programmes, each of which lasted just over and hour and offered respective showcases for the strings then woodwind of this enterprising outfit – now into the second season of its St John’s residency.

Journeys Through Worlds featured four works by contemporary composers, opening with the energetic and purposeful intricacy of Javier Álvarez’s Metro Chabacano. Inspired by Mexico City’s busiest subway station, it made for an engaging concert opener and a telling foil to the restraint of John Woolrich’s Ulysses Awakes. Obliquely reworking an aria from the opera by Monteverdi, this brought viola and strings into ruminative if at times sombre accord – Charles Whittaker drawing no mean eloquence from the solo writing. It may have one of the longest-ever titles, but Diana Burrell’s piece (translating as The vast and wide sea, wherein are things swarming innumerable, both great and small animals) brought the most dissonant music – its densely wrought textures needing scrupulous balance for their inner intensity fully to register.

This it received in part owing to attentive conducting from Owain Park, who went on to direct an impressive account of Philip Glass’s Third Symphony. Free from extra- or, for that matter, ‘other’ musical references, this modest work affords something of a neo-classical conception across its four movements – a moderately paced opener duly making way for a scherzo-like interplay of harmonic and pizzicato writing, then the soloistic writing of a fatalistic chaconne finding real contrast with the vigorous ensemble of a short while pointedly conclusive finale.

Eruptions of Sound and Colour, following a suitable interval, featured Southbank Sinfonia’s woodwind in two decidedly contrasted items. Established both as clarinettist and composer, Mark Simpson packed no mean activity into Geysir – its irresistibly upwards progress aptly evoking those Icelandic hot-springs of its title (which was evidently suggested by composer Simon Holt). These emerge out of an anticipatory calm to which the music at length returns, though the closing bars seem anything but tranquil given the activity that went before them.

Nicholas Daniel directed an assured account of this piece, then had prepared that of Mozart’s Gran Partita which followed (the Simpson having been commissioned for such a purpose). Still the finest and most likely longest work for wind ensemble, it also remains the canniest example of ‘functional’ music raised to a level transcending its ostensible purpose. Not least in the way that its orchestration – pairs of oboes, clarinets, basset horns and bassoons joined by four horns and double-bass – suggests possibilities both profound and far-reaching. It was a testament to the excellence of these musicians one never suspected (or would have noticed has this been a radio broadcast) the absence of any ‘guiding hand’ – such was their unanimity in pursuing the felicity and finesse of what ranks among its composer’s greatest achievements.

It proved a memorable way to close an evening of varied and consistently fine music-making. Southbank Sinfonia is returning to its home venue later this month in a Beethoven double-bill then over the coming months for repertoire established and unfamiliar but always worthwhile.

You can read more about the Southbank Sinfonia at their website. Click on the artist names for more on conductors Owain Park and Nicholas Daniel, while for more on the composers click on the names Javier Álvarez, John Woolrich, Diana Burrell, Philip Glass and Mark Simpson

Online Concert: Doric String Quartet & Brett Dean @ Wigmore Hall – Haydn & Beethoven

Doric String Quartet [Alex Redington, Ying Xue (violins), Hélène Clément (viola), John Myerscough (cello)], Brett Dean (viola)

Haydn String Quartet in F major Op.50/5 ‘The Dream’ (1787)
Beethoven String Quintet in C major Op.29 (1801)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 23 January 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

Is there a better musical tonic on a grey Monday in January than a Haydn string quartet? Not in this case, as the Doric String Quartet built on the solid foundations of their recent recordings of the composer’s music for Chandos with a well-crafted and nicely weighted account of one of the composer’s middle-period works.

Haydn wrote so many symphonies, string quartets and piano trios – to name just three disciplines in which he was prolific – that nicknames are helpful in identifying the works. Some of them can be quite spurious, but in the case of The Dream the label describes the serene slow movement of the quartet, and its carefree violin fantasies. The work is placed fifth work in a set of six quartets written for King Frederick William II of Prussia, and finds Haydn making further strides in the development of this new form.

The Doric captured that sense of discovery, although they took just a little while to settle, with a couple of relatively coarse moments at the start. This was however a beautifully played account, with an enjoyable lightness of touch in the outer movements and an airy account of the ‘dream’ movement itself. The players were clearly sticking to the first principles of chamber music, enjoying the conversational exchanges between the instruments but bringing the audience in on their enjoyment too. This was most evident in a lively third movement Menuetto and Vivace finale.

Brett Dean is one of the most-performed living composers, but he also has a formidable CV as a viola player, playing in the Berlin Philharmoniker for 14 years. While composing is his primary discipline these days he remains active as an instrumentalist. The Doric Quartet’s current tour includes his String Quartet Hidden Agendas, while welcoming Dean as a notable addition to the ensemble for Beethoven’s String Quintet.

The five have an easy musical chemistry, Dean effortlessly slotting in to play a work that is beginning to get the recognition it deserves, both within Beethoven’s output and in context as a fine continuation of Mozart’s innovations in the form. This performance got to the heart of Beethoven’s energetic writing in a flowing first movement, enjoying the melodic exchanges, while the second movement explored the richer mid-range colours available in music of elegiac quality, as well as enjoying the composer’s excursions to further flung keys.

In the third movement Scherzo there was a notable raising of the stakes, and an upsurge in kinetic energy. The demands were comfortably matched by the five players here, who built on this with a finale of high drama and stormy countenance.

For more livestreamed concerts from the Wigmore Hall, click here

On Record – Michael Collins, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Rumon Gamba – Arnold: Clarinet Concerto no.1, Philharmonic Concerto etc (Chandos)

Arnold
Commonwealth Christmas Overture Op.64 (1957)
Clarinet Concerto no.1 Op.20 (1948)
Divertimento no.2 Op.24 / Op.75 (1950)
Larch Trees Op.3 (1943)
Philharmonic Concerto Op.120 (1976)
The Padstow Lifeboat Op.94a (arranged for orchestra by Philip Lane)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Rumon Gamba

Chandos CHAN20152 [68’50″’]
Producers Brian Pidgeon and Mike George Engineers Stephen Rinker, Richard Hannaford and John Cole
Recorded 5 & 6 December 2019, 29 July at MediaCity UK, Salford

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This collection of six pieces from Sir Malcolm Arnold’s composing career stretches from one of his first published pieces, Larch Trees, to one of his last, the Philharmonic Concerto. Both were written for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, for whom he played trumpet from 1941 until 1948, and with whom he maintained a close association as a composer.

In between these pieces Chandos have chosen a satisfying mix of styles to reveal Arnold as a multi-faceted composer, not just the humourous one of which we hear most. That side of his writing is happily celebrated through The Padstow Lifeboat and the Divertimento no.2 for orchestra reveals the happiness he found through writing for children and young people, being young at heart himself.

The Commonwealth Christmas Overture finds Arnold in commission mode, called upon to write the music for Royal Prologue: Crown and Commonwealth, a programme narrated by Sir Laurence Oliver to preface the 25th Christmas speech by a ruling monarch. Completing the collection is the first of many concertos from Arnold’s pen, and the first of two for clarinet.

What’s the music like?

Chandos have already presented us with a good deal of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s music, and this is further enhanced by a programme giving us first recordings and revealing each side of the composer’s personality.

The Commonwealth Christmas Overture gets proceedings off to a suitably ceremonial start, with plenty of bluster and high jinks, all buoyed by colourful percussion. The influence of William Walton is immediately evident, for the main theme has more than a little in common with his own ceremonial march Crown Imperial, but Arnold goes on to develop it in his own inimitable way.

The Clarinet Concerto is a compact piece, deft and slightly bluesy in the outer movements but pausing for meaningful reflection in the Andante, the emotional centre of the work.

The Second Divertimento, long thought lost, is a fun piece where a lot happens in nine minutes! Using a traditional-sounding structure, Arnold has a lot of fun with the bracing Fanfare, atmospheric Nocturne and grand Chaconne, harnessing the power of the large orchestra.

The two pieces for the London Philharmonic are next, and are vividly contrasting pieces of work. Larch Trees is an evocative musical sketch, reminiscent of Moeran in the way it pans out over the rugged terrain of northern England, while also confiding intimately in its listeners through the woodwind. The Philharmonic Concerto is more obviously noisy and confrontational, this late work utilising the dissonance which will be noted by those familiar with Arnold’s later symphonies. This is not comfortable music but it is brilliantly written, challenging the orchestra to throw off their shackles. The probing violin lines of the Aria offer a chance for deeper reflection.

Finally The Padstow Lifeboat, one of Arnold’s brass band treasures, with its persistent ‘wrong note’ which warns all shipping. It makes for the ideal sign-off.

Does it all work?

Yes, and wonderfully so. Rumon Gamba has enjoyed a long and fruitful association with Arnold’s music and comes up trumps here, leading the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in some characterful and personal accounts. Arnold could hardly wish for better advocacy and understanding, the conductor charting his youthful prowess in Larch Trees, whose softer contours benefit from excellent recording by the Chandos engineers.

The Clarinet Concerto no.1 is brilliantly played by Michael Collins, negotiating the wide leaps of the solo part with aplomb, while responding with grace in the soulful slower sections. The strings of the BBC Philharmonic exploit the depths of the darker slow movement, its temperature appreciably colder by the end.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. This is an anthology that will appeal to seasoned Arnold listeners, for its mix of the familiar and a curio or two, while it is also the ideal place for those new to the composer. If you are after some music to combat the onset of January, you have come to the right place!

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For more information and purchasing options on this release, visit the Chandos website