Switched On: Grasscut: Haunts (Lo Recordings)

grasscut-haunts

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The roots for Grasscut’s new mini album lie in the footnotes of a previous long player. The 2015 opus Everyone Was A Bird, which explored meaningful places for the duo of Andrew Phillips and Marcus O’Dair, invited listeners to submit thoughts on their own significant places in the form of voicemail messages.

Phillips’ brief was initially to select one of these messages and turn it in to a fully-fledged composition, but it soon became apparent that the abundance and quality of material was way more than one recordings’ worth. The project sat on the back burner for a while but is fully realised as an extended EP. In the end six messages were chosen, with a web of music spun around each, painting pictures of locations from Brighton up to the Firth of Forth.

What’s the music like?

Captivating – as are the descriptive messages themselves. Each of the six portraits is like an individual postcard, carefully stitched together, and the meaningful aspects of each location are clear in the emotion of the subjects. The places themselves are hugely varied – from Inchkeith Island, in the middle of the Firth of Forth with an abbey and near-constant wind – to The Garden, a more private and domestic utterance.

The music in the latter is utterly charming, telling a story well before we hear the voicemail message, the song of a blackbird accompanied by the plaintive open strings of a violin, Inchkeith Island is on a larger scale, the water around ever-present, while Human Estuary uses a lovely chamber music group with violin, clarinet and double bass. The Pull is punctuated by an enchanted figure on the piano, its sound cushioned and mottled. Witley Common is similarly mysterious, while The Garden tells a vivid story even before the message, the open strings of a violin used as a countermelody to a blackbird breaking into song. Seacliff makes good use of a Kathleen Ferrier sample, as Phillips says, ‘singing like a mermaid in the distance’.

Does it all work?

Yes. The Overwinter album earlier this year was a timely reminder of Phillips and O’Dair’s ability to make music that transports their listener to another place, but with the voicemail messages setting the tone here, the accompanying pictures are ever more vivid. The only regret is that some of the compositions are not longer – Seacliff and The Pull especially have enough material to blossom into recordings double the length that they occupy.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Grasscut devotees will not need to hesitate as this mini-album continues their development as composers of meaningful music of time and place. Newcomers would also be advised to start here – but to carry on with the other albums, as this is a band hitting the sweet spot with an unerring accuracy.

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In concert – Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Soliloquies & Dialogues – Music made in Lockdown

bcmg-soliloquies

Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group [Oliver Janes (clarinet), Ryan Linham (trumpet), Collette Overdijk (violin), Julian Warburton (percussion), Amelie Thomas (trumpet)]

Oram Counting Steps – first version (2020)*
Murail Les Ruines circulaires (2006)
Ma Xiao-Qing Back to the Beginning (2020)*
del Avellanal Carreño speak, sing… (2020)*
Donghoon Shin Couplet (2020)*
Howard R (2021)*
Reich New York Counterpoint (1985)
Birtwistle The Message (2008)
Oram Counting Steps – second version (2020)*

[Works indicated * received their live premieres]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Tuesday 15 June 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been unable to present live events during the past 15 months, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has not been inactive – commissioning a series of pieces from composers around the world for performance online as part of its Soliloquies & Dialogues project. Having been performed at Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery last Friday, a representative selection of these was this evening presented at CBSO Centre – in the process, confirming that ‘‘while we were all unified by lockdown, our reactions were still highly individual’’.

Tristan Murail’s Les Ruines circulaires was written well before the pandemic, but it vividly encapsulates the ‘dialogues’ aspect – clarinet and violin in confrontation, before opening out into a melodic discourse in a two-way process that might always be the same, only different.
It was vividly realized tonight, violinist Colette Overdijk then having two solo pieces – the first a live hearing for Ma Xiao-Quing’s evocative Back to the Beginning which, while less demonstrative than the online premiere, integrated elements of music and speech with greater subtlety and finesse. Donghoon Shin’s Couplet placed its expressive contrasts in stark relief – thus, an ‘aria and toccata’ in which long-breathed lyricism was succeeded by music whose gestural force and its rapidly accumulating energy were rendered with no mean virtuosity.

Between these works, clarinettist Oliver Janes gave the premiere of speak, sing…, where José Del Avellanal Carreño took advantage of new developments in Machine Learning technology – recorded improvisations by the soloist forming a basis for the interaction between ‘human’ responses as written by the composer with ‘artificial’ responses as generated by the prism-samplernn programme. The outcome was an eventful and unpredictable dialogue, though the subfusc quality of the electronic element rather stood in the way of more engaging synthesis.

Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint was no less radical in its interplay between clarinet and tape four decades ago, Janes (understandably) sounding more at ease in the dialogue with his pre-recorded self in this performance of appealing deftness and not a little quizzical humour. Beforehand, percussionist Julian Warburton took the stage for the live premiere of R, where Emily Howard explores geometrical concepts as well as the possibilities of sonic growth and decay in a piece whose variety is more immediate given its concision and sense of purpose. Afterwards, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Message provided a telling foil in its halting dialogue between clarinet and trumpet – tersely curtailed by the arrival of military drum; a piece that commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the London Sinfonietta in the pithiest of terms.

Framing the whole, two versions of Celeste Oram’s Counting Steps anticipated then reflected on what was heard. Taking its cue from Fux’s treatise Gradus ad Parnassum, specifically two aphorisms with their expressing strength through courage in the face of weakness and decay, its methodically elaborating trumpet part against a graphic video projection was confidently rendered by Ryan Linham – with, in the second version, Amelie Thomas hardly less assured in support. An arresting framework in which to present this always enterprising programme.

You can find information on the next BCMG live performance here, while Collette Overdijk gives the online premiere of Back to the Beginning here

Listening to Beethoven #164 – Sonata for piano and violin no.4 in A minor Op.23

joseph-anton-koch-mountain-scene

Mountain Scene (1796) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.4 for piano and violin in A minor Op.23 (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Presto
2. Andante scherzoso, più allegretto
3. Allegro molto

Dedication Count Moritz von Fries
Duration 20′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

A relatively quick return for Beethoven to the duo sonata, with a pair of works for piano and violin. He worked first on Op.23 and then immediately began Op.24, the Spring sonata, its much more famous sibling. The two works were published together, like the Op.12 trio of sonatas, but due to an error in the engraving they were assigned separate opus numbers. Both pieces were written for Count Moritz von Fries, a banker who was an important patron to Beethoven around this time.

Many see the separate publication of the two works as an appropriate move, for commentators regard the Op.23 sonata as the chalk to the Spring sonata’s cheese. Daniel Heartz gives Op.23 a surprisingly wide berth, and his detailed examination of early Beethoven only finds one short paragraph for the work. ‘It seems dour and astringently contrapuntal compared to the lushly endowed siren before us in Op.24’, he writes. ‘In competition with alluring beauties, overt sagacity has rarely won the day, nor does it do so here’. He does however point out that ‘it was the composer’s habit to work simultaneously on works of disparate character’.

William Drabkin is more complimentary, marking the influence of Mozart throughout. Writing in The Beethoven Companion, Nigel Fortune notes the rarity of A minor in Beethoven’s output, before observing that the sonata ‘is unique, too, in being dominated by so much tense and bare linear movement’.

The outer movements are prime examples of this, he says, while the ‘slow’ movement includes – exceptionally – ‘a fugato on a theme that contrasts vividly with the slurred and halting motion of the opening idea’.

Thoughts

This unusual piece has the feeling of a work Beethoven had to get out of his system. The key of A minor was one he very seldom used – nor, incidentally, did Haydn – and in fact this violin sonata is his only large-scale work to use the key. There is a marked tension between A minor and A major throughout, the sort of duel that would become a feature of the mature works of Schubert, who often used ‘A’ as a centre.

The bare opening of the first movement finds both instruments in unison, and though it looks like it should be playful on the page it proves rather acerbic. The movement proceeds with a stern dialogue, unwieldly but still effective.

Signs of warmth appear in the slow movement, where Beethoven switches to the major key. Rhythmically the two instruments are very much in step, with a stop-start feel to the tune, and as Beethoven constructs variations on it the music becomes a little more flowing. The unusual fugue passage would have been a big surprise to the audience of the time, and still feels a little odd here.

The third movement bursts out of the blocks in the same spirit of the first, and again feels more like a duel than a collaboration – but the simplicity of the second theme brings a tender contrast, a reminder of the warmth that can still be found in spite of Beethoven’s lean and slightly mean approach in this piece.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)

Once again the fresh approach of Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel is invigorating, and the relative lack of vibrato from Seiler’s violin suits the character of the music without making it too dark. Yehudi Menuhin has a much fuller sound by contrast, but this brings a welcome warmth to the slow movement in particular, as does the responsive playing of Wilhelm Kempff. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka have a similar profile, while the newest version – from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen – is quite a powerhouse, sweeping forward impressively.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

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 1801 Vanhal – Clarinet Sonata in C major

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.5 in F major Op.24 ‘Spring’

Listening to Beethoven #163 – Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op.43

Maria Casentini, Beethoven’s prima ballerina for The Creatures of Prometheus. Used courtesy of Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op.43 for orchestra (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Salvatore Viganò & Empress Maria Theresa
Duration 60′

Music and reconstruction of the plot (from Wikipedia)

Overture
Act 1
Introduction
Poco adagio
Adagio – allegro con brio
Minuetto
Act 2
Maestoso – Andante
Adagio – Andante quasi allegretto
Un poco adagio – Allegro
Allegro con brio – Presto
Adagio – Allegro molto
Pastorale
Andante
Maestoso (also known as “Solo di Gioia” for solo dancer Gaetano Gioia) – Procession of Silenus
Allegro – Comodo – Dance of Pan and two fauns or nymphs
Andante – Adagio (also known as Solo della Casentini, written for Beethoven’s prima ballerina, Maria Casentini)
Andantino – Adagio (also known as Solo di Viganó)
Finale- Wedding

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Ballet had been a central feature of entertainment in Vienna’s court theatres for several generations prior to Beethoven’s arrival, and after a fallow period under Joseph II, Leopold II restored it to a higher standing in the 1790s. Beethoven had just one encounter with the stage in Bonn, his music for the Ritterballet, but as Daniel Heartz points out many of the piano variations he wrote in Vienna were based on dances or arias, showing he was keeping abreast of new works for the stage.

The celebrated choreographer Salavtore Viganò was asked to premiere a new work each year in Vienna from 1799, and in 1801 he chose to focus on the story of Prometheus. With the intention to honour Empress Marie Therese, Beethoven was invited to write the music, and the hour-long score occupied him up to the premiere in the Burgtheater on 28 March 1801.

Anthony Burton, writing in the Deutsche Grammophon Complete Beethoven, remarks that ‘The Creatures of Prometheus is a work of unusual interests in two respects. It consists of over an hour of mature Beethoven…which is virtually unknown apart from a short overture and one tune in the finale. And it is one of only two extended ballet scores by major composers of the Classical period (the other is Gluck’s Don Juan) to have survived intact. After its first performance the piece became wildly popular, receiving another 28 performances before the end of the following year.

Summarising the plot, he writes, ‘The demigod Prometheus creates two human figures out of clay and brings them to life with the aid of fire stolen from heaven. Finding them lacking in any emotion, he leads them to Parnassus, where they are instructed in the arts by Apollo, Bacchus and the Muses, and through the power of harmony made susceptible to all the passions of human life.’

Heartz describes the structure of the ballet as a ‘heroic-allegorical’ story with the heroism in Act 1 and the allegorical work in Act II, a much longer structure’. The overture, with its close links to the Symphony no.1 in C major, is often performed separately as a concert-opener. Act II is described as ‘more pageant than action ballet’.

Heartz picks out three numbers for special attention. No.8 is described as ‘an impressive rondo in martial style’, no.10 ‘a lovely Pastorale’, and no.16 ‘the great Finale’, where Beethoven writes a theme later used in his Eroica Variations Op.35, and the finale of the Eroica symphony. No.14 in F is the big solo for the celebrated Signora Casentini, playing the first woman created.’

Anthony Burton’s conclusion is striking. ‘Prometheus caught and enhanced the dramatic fire of which Beethoven was capable. It emboldened him to attempt more daring orchestral feats in Symphony no.2. Experience in theatre helped him when he returned to the dramatic stage with his Leonore in subsequent years.

With all that said, audiences were disappointed, in spite of Beethoven’s prowess as a composer. As he wrote just three weeks after the premiere, ‘I have made a ballet, but the ballet master did not make the very best of his end of the job’.

Thoughts

Most concert-goers encounter just five minutes of Beethoven’s music for The Creatures of Prometheus, through the Overture. It is often chosen as an opening piece by orchestras because of its abrupt start, a chord hewn from the rock face. Like the beginning of the first symphony it is a C major chord with an added seventh (B flat) but this time the added note is at the bottom of the texture. The sharp attack no doubt stifles conversation among even the most disruptive audience members! Beethoven’s expert use of silence around the first few chords heightens the drama.

If the Overture is the only part of the ballet you have heard, then you have been missing out. The Creatures of Prometheus might not be a forsaken masterpiece, but it has a lot of good tunes, imaginative orchestration and some very positive music. The relative lack of plot does play a part at times, meaning there is not quite as much contrast in the music of Act 2 as there might have been, but Beethoven’s writing more than compensates.

The orchestration feels heavier than the first symphony, both in the overture and in the bright and breezy section where the statues come to life. The harp playing of Amphion is a striking beginning to the fifth number, which also has a striking cello solo (Orpheus) whose cadenza is followed by a soft-hearted theme as the creatures are presented to Apollo.

There is an impressive heft to the section where the two humans are taught martial arts, while the Pastorale is rather lovely. The prima ballerina solo is elegant and beautifully scored, with solos for basset horn and oboe. The penultimate number begins in subdued fashion but breaks out into a vigorous exchange. Finally we turn to one of Beethoven’s favourite keys, E flat major, for the wedding and celebration of Prometheus’ mission. The important theme ends the ballet in celebratory mood, with a spring in the step and some bracing orchestral figures.

A highly enjoyable hour in Beethoven’s company, then – and an energising one too.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

Orchestra of the 18th Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
Freiburger Barockorchester / Gottfried von der Goltz (Harmonia Mundi)

After the opening chords ricochet, the sound of the Freiburger Barockorchester is unexpectedly rich in the lower end, before a headlong rush through the first Allegro. Their approach is a vigorous one, and highly enjoyable in the faster music where a gutsy orchestral sound is revealed.

Frans Brüggen conducts another ‘period instrument’ version with real panache, his Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century not quite as bombastic as their counterparts from Freiburg but giving a classy interpretation nonetheless. Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts a version with plenty of character from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, while the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra impress with their control and depth, if not quite as much evident excitement as the period versions.

To listen to clips from the recording from the Scottih Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on Hyperion, head to their website

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 1801 Haydn The Spirit’s Song, Hob.XXVIa:41

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.4 in A minor Op.23

Listening to Beethoven #162 – Piano Sonata no.11 in B flat major Op.22

Abend am Fluss (Evening on the River) by Caspar David Friedrich (c1820-5)

Piano Sonata no.10 in B flat major Op.22 for piano (1800-01, Beethoven aged 30)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Adagio con molta espressione
3 Minuetto

4 Rondo: Allegretto

Dedication Baroness Josephine von Braun
Duration 27′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

This is the last piano sonata thought to belong to Beethoven’s so-called ‘early period’ – and it is one of the least known. Its neglect is mysterious, as the composer himself thought highly enough of the work to declare it ‘really something’ when writing to his publisher Hoffmeister. Donald Tovey agreed, the respected musicologist viewing it as ‘exemplifying early Beethoven at its best’.

His enthusiasm is not universally shared by fellow scholars. Daniel Heartz concludes the work is ‘hardly the winner Beethoven claimed. Of its four movements, only the last is undeniably superior in quality’. The first movement is ‘meant to impress by its feats of pianism’…but ‘on closer acquaintance, the movement seems somewhat lacking in content’.

Angela Hewitt fights her corner against the sceptics, waxing lyrical on the first movement as ‘a brilliant Allegro con brio‘, and on the operatic style of the second, which her favourite of the four. The last movement Rondo, she concedes, needs ‘a good technique combined with an equally good imagination’ to hold it together.

William Drabkin, writing for Deutsche Grammophon’s Complete Beethoven Edition, arrives at a striking conclusion. ‘With Op.22 the classical piano sonata has not only ‘washed itself’, it has also exhausted itself. It was now time for Beethoven to try out new external designs as well as exploring new internal means of expression.’

Thoughts

Perhaps inevitably my thoughts are somewhere in between the opinions of Heartz and Tovey, yet the feeling persists that this is a work that could grow in stature with repeated listening and insight. Having heard it several times I can say the themes do stick in the head, and that Beethoven’s way in developing them makes for a very fluent piece of work.

The innocuous, slightly playful theme of the opening is deceptive, but its mood prevails and a hint of humour can be felt throughout. The slow movement is subdued but elegant, with a freely expressive line in the right hand giving it the operatic air observed by Angela Hewitt.

Like the first movement, the third initially seems innocuous, but its theme is attractive until countered by the nagging second idea. Again the themes of the finale seem slight, but have staying power after a few listens. Things take a darker turn as the movement develops, as B flat major becomes B flat minor, but the clouds clear with the reappearance of the main themes. In this movement Beethoven finds close links with Bach, an early premonition of the great fugue he will use in the Hammerklavier sonata, ironically in the same key. Here the writing is less substantial and has less of an impact, but it does nonetheless get Beethoven to the right place for his next stylistic developments to begin.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)
Claudio Arrau (Philips)

Angela Hewitt’s enthusiasm transfers to her recording, which is thoroughly enjoyable and brings out a stage-like element of Beethoven’s writing. It helps that she is flexible with her choices of tempo, letting the music breathe for a little longer when it needs to. There are notable versions from Gilels, who gives the slow movement a lot of room without dropping the tension, and Brendel who is characteristically fluid.

You can hear clips of Hewitt’s recording at the Hyperion website

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 1801 John Marsh Symphony no.30 in E minor

Next up The Creatures of Prometheus Op.43