Wigmore Mondays – Quatuor Arod & Timothy Ridout play Mozart

Quatuor Arod (above) [Jordan Victoria, Alexandre Vu (violins), Tanguy Parisot (viola), Samy Rachid (cello)], Timothy Ridout (viola)

Mozart
Divertimento in D major K136 (1772) (1:46-14:37 on the broadcast link below)
String Quintet in G minor K516 (1787) (17:02-50:49)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 February 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

This BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert showed us Mozart young and ‘old’ – that is, a work each from his teenage years and from his fourth decade. It was given by the Quatuor Arod, a French-based quartet on the BBC New Generation Artists scheme, and their ranks were boosted by viola player Timothy Ridout, himself on the YCAT scheme.

The Arod Quartet’s performance of the Divertimento in D major K136 (from 1:46 on the broadcast) shows what a sunny piece of music this is – although it could be argued they take the first movement a bit too fast, perhaps displaying a bit too much nervous energy. Either way they play it very well and with affection, the simple theme carrying a long way.

The second movement, marked Andante (5:57), feels just right, the four parts integrating in a way that brings home the simple pleasures to be taken from playing this music together. The third movement (12:16) scurries out of the blocks with a hint of mischief, the interplay between the four taking on a more competitive edge but with the first violin of Jordan Victoria ultimately triumphant, and technically excellent.

The String Quintet in G minor K516 operates at the other end of the emotional scale, being the dark to the Divertimento’s light for much of its half hour duration. It is a magnificent piece, profound from the very first theme, where first violinist Victoria mastered the longer phrasing and the increased stretch of the melody when the second main theme of the first movement came around. The sound is very different with two violas, and the greater prominence for Mozart’s own instrument seems to have inspired him to write with especially great feeling. This is the second of four mature string quintets (there are two younger works of smaller form), and these are pieces that are substantial in their dimensions, their feeling and also their melodic invention.

While the piece does start in questioning mood (from 17:02), the five players here portrayed its nervousness while bringing shafts of light into the writing. Vibrato was sparingly used if at all, but was a stronger expressive tool as a result. The first movement’s two main themes are strikingly played, its structure clearly mastered, and the overall sound with Ridout’s viola added is very attractive.

The Minuet is normally a light hearted affair in Mozart chamber music, but here was anything but (from 27:31). Any attempts to come up with a lasting tune are broken by the sliced chords of the quintet playing together, so that what aspires to be a charming dance never has a chance to get fully into its rhythm. Some respite comes from the Trio section, where the composer will usually contrast what has gone in the Minuet. Here, from 29:22, Mozart slips from the minor key to the major for the first time, and the tension eases notably – especially in this performance where sunnier thoughts make themselves known for the first time. This, however, is short lived, for the Minuet returns in even sterner form (31:22)

The slow movement Adagio (32:43) is even more alarming than the Minuet. This is an unexpected move, for the music is in E flat major, which normally finds composers writing stronger music, and it requires the players to use their mutes the whole way through. With no vibrato from the Arod the textures are stark and the sounds lean, especially when the quintet breaks into smaller sections as it frequently does. In the middle the clouds darken further as Mozart moves into the distant keys of B flat minor (34:28) and E flat minor (38:07), where the extra viola (Timothy Ridout) makes a personal outcry of pain. There is hope however, the first violin taking us to sunnier climbs before we return to what feels like a stronger repeat of the music from the start of the movement.

The final movement (41:15) keeps the prevailing mood, slow and solemn from the outset – but then moves towards the major key, and finally shifts up a gear at 44:00 with music of much greater optimism. Let off the leash, Jordan Victoria enjoys the effervescent music he now has, and the tunes flow beautifully, the stern music of the first three movements now receding into the memory.

Further Listening

Mozart’s late chamber works contain some of the most rewarding music in all of his output. The four mature String Quintets stand at the peak of his achievements, with the work performed at this concert complemented by three other masterpieces. In their key make-up they match Mozart’s last four symphonies, and these versions by the Grumiaux Trio and guests (on CDs 2 and 3) make for a wholly satisfying listening experience:

The Quatuor Arod are relative newcomers to the recording scene – but their first disc of string quartets by Mendelssohn is a nice departure point from the Mozart played here:

Finally Mozart’s 3 Divertimenti for strings – best heard in their quartet form – give some of the most carefree classical listening you could wish to enjoy. This collection from the Hagen Quartett brings them together with the perennial favourite, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik:

Playlist – Julia Kent: Cello Mix

It gives us great pleasure to welcome cellist and composer Julia Kent for the provision of a cello-themed playlist for Arcana:

In just over an hour of music she demonstrates a wonderful scope of modern ways of writing for the instrument. These range from the Cello Sonata of David Baker, which appeared on Sony Classical’s Black Composer series in the 1970s (for review on Arcana shortly), to music from Lori Goldston, Peter Gregson, Jo Quail and Resina.

In the course of an hour the cello moves between music of grace (Helen Money, Simon McCorry) and outright menace (Okkyung Lee, Philip Sheppard), not stopping at the same place or mood twice – and on occasion bringing other instruments on board. As a lapsed cellist myself I can declare myself astonished at the breadth of writing there is for the instrument currently.

Sit back and enjoy the cello’s versatility in an hour which I guarantee will take you to several special places!

On record: Julia Kent – Temporal (The Leaf Label)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Canadian cellist-composer Julia Kent turns to expressive dance for inspiration on her fifth album Temporal. Much of the music here has its origins in the theatre, and looks for a more organic approach than the relatively confrontational Asperities, her previous album for The Leaf Label in 2015.

What’s the music like?

In a word, emotional. The cello has properties unlike any other instrument, an ability to function as bass, harmony or treble – and all combine here to heart-melting effect. Kent uses the distinctive timbres of the instrument’s ‘open’ strings to create a mood in Last Hour Story, the expansive opening piece, but when the bass drops the full range of sound is fully revealed.

The music does indeed dance, often slowly – but the cello takes the lead with probing melodies from its rich tones. The use of subtle vocal effects around the edges only enhances the human connection. While Imbalance uses more electronics, with a fluttering figure from what sounds like a hi-hat, it cuts to the wide open Conditional Futures, a glorious sonic panorama.

When other instruments do appear, such as the soft piano in Crepuscolo, they are at a respectful distance, the cello kept as the foreground ‘lead’.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. Julia Kent knows intimately the potential of a cello not just to sing but also to provide harmonic substance and rhythmic impetus. All elements come together beautifully here.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Temporal represents a good way in to Julia Kent’s music but is also a natural pinnacle of her work so far. It repays both foreground and background listening, though the former is encouraged so you can get the extent of the intricacies in and around her cello. Once heard a few times, Temporal will become a permanent fixture.

Further listening

You can listen to Temporal below:

Meanwhile Julia has contributed a cello-themed playlist to Arcana which you can listen to here:

Live review – CBSO Youth Orchestra / Cristian Măcelaru: Copland Symphony 3, Clyne & Szymanowski with Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little (violin) CBSO Youth Orchestra / Cristian Măcelaru (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 24 February 2019, 3pm

Clyne This Midnight Hour (2015)
Szymanowski Violin Concerto no.1 Op.35 (1916)
Copland Symphony no.3 (1946)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Concerts from the CBSO Youth Orchestra have long been a regular and welcome fixture on the Symphony Hall calendar, with this afternoon’s programme offering a judicious selection such as ranged across almost a century of music by British, Polish and American composers.

Many CBSO Youth Orchestra concerts feature a world or local premiere, and today started with a first Birmingham outing for Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour. Drawing inspiration (albeit obliquely) from poems by Juan Ramon Jiménez and Charles Baudelaire, this compact piece initially alternates between energy and rumination with steadily accumulating impetus. A pity, then, that the second half rather loses focus through an uneasy amalgam of waltz-like flaccidness and folk-inflected juvenilia; the whole seeming rather less than the sum of its parts.

Tasmin Little (above) then joined the orchestra for Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, now firmly established as a repertoire item after many years on the periphery. Not the least fascinating aspect is its formal ambiguity – the continuous span interpretable both as a three-movement form as well as an extended sonata design.

It was a measure of Little’s insight that she elided between these possibilities in a performance which stressed the music’s organic inevitability as much as its heady sensuousness, abetted by Cristian Măcelaru’s attentive handling of an orchestration as by no means ‘plays itself’ in terms of overall balance. This was evident not least in the rapturous main climax – after which, Little vividly despatched the brief cadenza prior to the coda’s poignant recollection then the disarming evaporation of those final bars.

Copland’s Third Symphony is another piece to have garnered regular hearings in recent years – consideration of its being an anomaly in the composer’s output, by dint of its monumental aspirations, having become secondary to the sheer impact invested into its relatively modest (Brahmsian rather than Mahlerian) dimensions. A quality Măcelaru kept in mind throughout what was a cohesive and convincing account – whether in the steadily arching accumulation of tension then release across the first movement, tensile interplay of energy and nonchalance in the scherzo, or the calmly unfolding sequence of variants on a wistful opening theme that is the slow movement. Not the least significant aspect is the degree to which Copland secures thematic consistency across the broader span in the interests of formal and expressive unity.

The CBSO Youth Orchestra responded admirably, not least when being tested to the limit by the music’s polyphonic intricacy and textural density. Gratifying, too, that the best was saved until last – the finale powerfully launched by a paraphrase on Fanfare for the Common Man, before it heads into intensive discussion of the various thematic strands then builds inevitably to a majestic peroration. In Măcelaru’s hands, the latter conveyed affirmation without bathos – as though to confirm that emotional oneness no doubt at the heart of Copland’s conception.

The performance assuredly left its mark on the Symphony Hall audience, which responded with a well-deserved ovation. Next up is a concert by the CBSO Youth Orchestra Academy – for a programme of Weber, Shostakovich and Dvořák – at Town Hall on Sunday 28th July. You can find out more on the orchestra’s website

Further listening

Unfortunately there are no recording of Anna Clyne‘s This Midnight Hour online currently, but you can hear a recording of her orchestral piece Night Ferry on Spotify below:

Meanwhile Tasmin Little‘s recording of both violin concertos by Szymanowski for Chandos Records can be heard here, coupled with a scarcely recorded concerto by Mieczysław Karłowicz:

Finally Copland‘s Symphony no.3 can be heard below in a famous recording where the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

Arcana at the opera: Akhnaten @ ENO

Philip Glass Akhnaten

English National Opera, The Coliseum, London

Thursday 21 February 2019

Review by Ben Hogwood

Photo credits Jane Hobson

On its second run at the Coliseum, Phelim McDermott’s production of Philip Glass’s third opera Akhnaten looks set to be a sell-out hit this time around too.

That much is clear from the first declamation of Zachary James, the Scribe who provides commentary throughout the opera, describing the rise of the first ‘monotheist’ Pharoah of Egypt – that is, one who looks to believe in just one god.

Immediately the dust and shimmering heat of the Egyptian desert are rendered to the audience, not just through the stunning, scorched-earth stage design but through Glass’s orchestration, dispensing with violins in the orchestra for a leaner, drier sound.

The music is deceptive, and though it may on occasion lack development of its principle ideas it is emotionally substantial and deftly scored. Typically for Glass, the majority of the three acts are rooted in consonant harmonies, and are packed with arpeggiated figures that serve as their melodies. However that is not the full story, for over this base the composer manipulates urgent and sometimes troubling cross rhythms. These are often energetic figures set for the woodwind, and are musical statements that repeatedly ask questions of the plot that by and large are answered.

The ENO orchestra play superbly for Karen Kamensek, operating like the workings of a swan beneath the water line. Meanwhile up above on stage, the singers show superb control and poise, tackling the lengthy phrases with deceptive ease. They are compelling throughout, unwavering in pitch, and are married to arresting images and breathtaking colours. Skills ensemble Gandini Juggling provide mesmeric support, their notable feats of poise and balance given an expressive edge in line with the plot.

The king Akhnaten himself is sung by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who is a pure presence, his voice ringing out strongly to all corners of the Coliseum. It dovetails beautifully with the mezzo-soprano of his queen Nefertiti, sung by Katie Stevenson (below). Their slow moving duet in Act 2, where both singers sport vivid red trains, is a treat for the eyes and ears.

Indeed once the audience adjust to the pacing and development of an initially obscure plot, the opera becomes a study in thought. Rebecca Bottone, James Cleverton, Keel Watson and Colin Judson head a very strong supporting cast and sing superbly throughout, while the spoken declarations of Zachary James are especially good, adding real gravitas to the plot. The scenery frequently dazzles while the sun, lauded above all by the Egyptians, dominates proceedings from the back of the stage with reassuring stillness.

After 35 years, Akhnaten continues to provide a standout operatic experience, and dazzled newcomers and returning patrons alike on this occasion, a multi-dimensional treat for those lucky enough to attend. Phelim McDermott and above all Philip Glass have created an experience notable for its achievement in presenting an ancient civilization to the modern world, showing how the human spirit and instinct is essentially unchanged in all its time on earth, both for good and bad.
Go and see it while you have the chance.

There are three more opportunities to see Akhnaten at the Coliseum in London, on Thursday 28 February, Saturday 2 March and Thursday 7 March. For more information head to the ENO website

The only available recording of Akhnaten, made by the original cast and conducted by regular Glass collaborator Dennis Russell Davies, can be heard on Spotify below: