BBC Proms #25 – Carolina Eyck, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds: Kalevi Aho Theremin Concerto, Saariaho & Shostakovich

Prom 25 – Carolina Eyck (theremin), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Aho Eight Seasons (Concerto for Theremin & Chamber Orchestra) (2011) (London premiere)
Saariaho Vista (2019) (Proms premiere)
Shostakovich Symphony no.15 in A major Op.141 (1971)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 4 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

John Storgårds has given some memorable Proms with the BBC Philharmonic in the decade since he became this orchestra’s guest conductor, and tonight was no exception for featuring a theremin concerto by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Its title Eight Seasons should be taken advisedly – the eight continuous sections encompassing a period from autumn to spring, as is reflected in the mostly restrained yet constantly changing textures which define a progression from the richness of Harvest to Midnight Sun with its serenity informed by new potential.

An instrument as fascinating to watch being played as it is to hear, the theremin has become the victim of its own ubiquity as an enhancer of atmosphere in film-scores and for musicians from Brian Wilson to Jonny Greenwood. Carolina Eyck was a dedicated exponent (evident in her encore-demonstration) – not least in the latter stages when her vocalise proved an enticing extension of her instrumental prowess, and the myriad timbral shifts more than compensated for the intermittent blandness of Aho’s acutely fastidious if not consistently involving music.

The layout of this piece (wind quintet and percussion alongside reduced strings) necessitated an early interval to prepare for those relatively lavish forces of Vista, Kaija Saariaho’s latest return to the orchestra and inspired by traversing the Californian coast from Los Angeles to San Diego. This is embodied over two cumulative movements – the expectancy of Horizons duly fulfilled with the mounting activity of Targets which itself subsides into an intensified recollection of the opening, now sounding as expansive as that ‘vista’ envisaged by the title.

Music so complex needs a sure hand to maintain its focus, the BBC Philharmonic responding with alacrity to Storgård’s attentive direction while he steered a convincing trajectory through what is likely Saariaho’s finest large-scale work for years – the intricacy and translucency of her writing having a panache which ensured this was manifestly a showpiece with substance. In particular, the sense of ideas being tentatively anticipated then vividly recalled added much to the evocative quality of music as formally substantial as it sounded expressively involving.

From recent Finnish orchestral works to Shostakovich’s last and most equivocal symphony is a fair step aesthetically, but Storgårds ensured the succession was a meaningful one. If it did not evince the ultimate in ominous irony, those laughs elicited from the opening movement’s stealthy activity and allusive inanity were for real – as, more regrettably, were those hesitant coughs denoting uneasy response to the slow movement’s emotional intensity as heightened by its sparseness of gesture, while not forgetting an eloquent response by cellist Peter Dixon.

Nor was the percussion found wanting in its almost concertante role, to the fore in a scherzo where the whimsical and sardonic found an unlikely accord. From its sombre initial gestures, Storgårds then had the measure of a finale whose central passacaglia built toward a powerful climax, and while tension dropped with the resumption of earlier ideas, the spectral transition into the coda was judiciously handled with the latter mesmeric in its deft profundity. Should the BBC Philharmonic need a new chief conductor, Storgårds might be worth approaching.

For more information, click on the names of composers Kalevi Aho and Kaija Saariaho – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Carolina Eyck, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Switched On – farben: textstar+ (Faitiche)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This release brings together a series of four EPs released between 1999 and 2002 by the celebrated electronic musician Jan Jelinek, using the pseudonym farben.

The selection has been mastered from the original tapes, with two additional pieces also included. Jelinek also includes Polaroids of his home studio in Berlin at the time of recording.

“Every sound is a text” is the theme behind Jelinek’s thinking – “a bearer of meaning in search of a reader. Hoping the ideas inscribed in its autonomous existence will be understood as intended. While its beauty lies precisely in misunderstanding, in reading the coded message a new way every time. A thousand colours of sound, a thousand different ways to hear, to see, to understand.”

His description is a helpful accompaniment to the music as it takes hold.

What’s the music like?

Darkly cinematic. The way Jelinek works minimal material into something very descriptive is captivating throughout, and on headphones he effortlessly draws the listener in. With seemingly simple bleeps and clicks he can create atmospheres, while the subtle rhythms create surprisingly funky backdrops. These basic elements all help to form impressively constructed longer tracks, adding wider perspectives to draw out the listener’s aural view.

On the first track, Live At The Sahara Tahoe, 1973, the bleeps and clicks are complemented by shady pad sounds, while on FF things break out into a really strong, low-end funk. Beautone is an introverted, studio-bound track – and yet its chordal sequences hint at something much more active and the low-end squiggly bass is a treat. farben Says Love To Love You Baby has snatches of melody, rather like walking past a jazz club and hearing fragments of music.

The musical language is friendly and often with snippets of humour, easily glimpsed on the warm-hearted farben Says As Long As There’s Love Around, beats ricocheting around the stereo picture. farben Says So Much Love nails a more conventional but excellent deep house groove along the lines of Matthew Herbert, while the turntable scratches lend Raute extra warmth. Finally farben says Love Oh Love offers a watery backdrop, like its album companions setting a deep, nocturnal scene.

Does it all work?

It does, providing the listening environment is the right one – clubs or home stereos will bring out all the subtleties of Jelinek’s basslines and his intricately processed percussion.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. You could even call it textual healing!

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On Record – Ulf Bästlein & Hedayet Jonas Djeddikar – Martin Plüddemann: Ballads, Songs and Legends (Naxos)

Martin Plüddemann
Liederzyklus. Jung Dietrich (both 1879). Vineta. Venetianisches Gondellied (both 1880). Graf Eberhards Weissdom. Einkehr. Siegfrieds Schwert (all 1881). Der Glockenguss zu Breslau (1882). Die Taufe. Dr Martin Luther. Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt. Arthur Schopenhauer (all 1883). Die Legende vom Hufeisen (1884/9). Altdeutsches Minnelied. Frau Mette. Don Massias. Russisches Lied. Des Sängers Fluch (all 1885). Gute Nacht (1887). Loewe’s Herz (1892). Niels Finn. Die Katzen und der Hauscherr. Der Sarg auf der Maasinsel. Die Meer-maid. Des Lebens Winter (all 1893). Sankt Peter mit der Geiss (1895). Drei Wanderer (1897).

Ulf Bästlein (baritone), Hedayet Jonas Djeddikar (piano)

Naxos 8.551460-61 [two discs, 2h34m15s] Producer/Engineer: Alexander Grün Dates: October 2nd-4th, 2020 and March 19th-22nd, 2021 at Studio TONAL, Pfaffendorf German texts and English translations can be found on the Naxos website, as can the additional notes

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos once again puts inquiring listeners in its debt with a collection of Ballads, Songs and Legends from the short-lived though influential Martin Plüddemann, admirably realized and extensively documented by artists for whom this project has evidently been a labour of love.

What’s the music like?

Readers might recall the world premiere in late 1978 of an orchestral song Siegfrieds Schwert by Webern. In fact, its brash orchestration was all that the teenage composer had contributed to a ballad written 22 years earlier by Plüddemann – then so obscure that the connection was not made at this time. Born in Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg in Poland) in 1854, he had studied at Leipzig in the early 1870s then worked as a singing teacher, conductor and critic in, among other places, Munich and Graz before heading to Berlin where he died in 1897 aged just 43.

Although he championed the music of Wagner, Plüddemann was most influenced creatively by Carl Loewe – specifically his concept of the ballad which dominates those 50 or so pieces that he completed, and of which 33 are included in this collection. Examples can be found in such as Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, and while Plüddemann took this to a new level of formal and expressive density, the innately Teutonic nature of the genre consigned his music to oblivion once Austro-German culture had moved on near the start of the twentieth century.

The essence of Plüddemann’s thinking is amply conveyed by a collection as includes several of his songs, notably the winsomely understated Liederzyklus and mini-cycle after Heine that is Frau Mette – alongside the more substantial ballads in which the intertwined significances of story-telling and role-playing, coupled with the often graphically illustrative quality of the piano writing, results in music which is highly evocative or excessively mannered according to taste. Never in doubt, though, is the ability to draw each listener into its interiorized world.

Plüddemann’s most ambitious ballads are heard at the end of each disc – the Faustian pact as adumbrated by Wilhelm Müller when truth confronts beauty in Der Glockenguss zu Breslau, then the highly polemical relationship between art and the state in Ludwig Uhland’s familiar Der Sängers Fluch whose undeniably equivocal resolve says much for the aesthetic stance of the composer and many of his contemporaries. The shorter ballads evince a wide range of moods, not least Siegfrieds Schwert which sounds far more appealing in its original guise.

Does it all work?

Yes, provided listeners approach this music in the context of its intentions and limitations. As with Loewe, there is more than a hint of didacticism which might be thought off-putting, but it is to the credit of Ulf Bästlein and Hedayet Jonas Djeddikar that any such aspect has been integrated into the overall content of the piece at hand. Certainly, the former’s burnished yet never cloying baritone, allied to the latter’s dextrous while resourceful pianism, ensures that Plüddemann’s work benefits from a degree of advocacy it can seldom have received hitherto.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least as the sound has so realistic a balance between voice and piano, with essays by Bästlein, Michael Wilfert and Susan Youens that yield a wealth of information previously unavailable in English. Those drawn to the Austro-German musical byways need not hesitate.

For further information on this release, you can visit the Naxos website, and you can purchase by clicking on the link from Naxos Direct. Click on the names for more information on the composer Martin Plüddemann, and on the artists Ulf Bästlein and Hedayet Jonas Djeddikar

On Record – Bamberger Symphoniker / Jakub Hrůša – Bruckner 4: The Three Versions (Accentus)

Bruckner (ed. Korstvedt)
Symphony no. 4 in E flat major ‘Romantic’ – 1874, rev. 1875/6; 1878-80, rev, 1881; 1887, rev. 1888. Finales – 1878 ‘Volksfest’; 1881. Earlier drafts and versions

Bamberger Symphoniker / Jakub Hrůša

Accentus Music ACC30533 [four discs, four hours 34 minutes]
Producers: Sebastian Braun, Bernhard Albrecht; Engineers: Markus Spatz, Christian Jaeger
Date: November 2020 at Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle, Bamberg

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Jakub Hrůša directs the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra – whose chief conductor he has been since 2016 – in this survey of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony: three ‘versions’ of the complete work, together with two additional versions of the finale plus over a dozen sundry excerpts.

What’s the music like?

Evidently this project had its basis in a period of lockdown during the Covid pandemic, thus enabling a focus on one specific piece such as would have been unfeasible under more usual working conditions. How one responds to it depends, firstly, on how one sees the legitimacy of the ever-increasing editions of Bruckner symphonies; secondly, on the qualities – whether interpretative or executive – of these performances. Certainly, the identity of this conductor with this composer – whose music he has not previously recorded – can hardly be gainsaid.

Undoubtedly the highlight here is the 1874 version, of which this is the first recording in its 1876 revision – significant in that Bruckner clearly intended for the work to be heard in this guise, rather than its being a ‘first attempt’ shelved on completion. Hrůša might have taken the opening movement at a swifter underlying tempo, but its relatively prolix course is well articulated; as is that of the Andante whose course might seem circuitous compared to later versions, but which eschews discursiveness even so. Its close, moreover, provides a catalyst for the scherzo: too often dismissed as a failure, but recklessly imaginative in its expressive character and benefitting here from the revision’s excision of those pauses between sections. Even finer here is the finale, one whose supposedly lightweight content belies its rhythmic propulsion or a stealthily accumulating momentum unequalled by either revision – certainly not in so viscerally energetic a coda. The Bambergers give their all, while confirming that what Bruckner got wrong here was not necessarily put right in either of those later versions.

The 1878-80 version has become the preferred option in the post-war era, the streamlined trajectories of its initial two movements being more easily absorbed by listeners and more comfortably navigated by the musicians. Without yielding any revelations, Hrůša has their measure – not least a magisterially projected coda in the former or an inexorable approach   to the latter’s climax. The spacious acoustic of Joseph-Keilberth-Saal endows a convincing overall perspective but not the ultimate clarity, such as marginally obscures cross-rhythmic interplay of the brass during the Scherzo’s cumulative passages but ensures an ethereal aura in its trio. The Finale emerges broadly and patiently: maybe too much depending on whether one hears this version as the natural outcome of its music’s thematic potential, or an attempt to make this movement a weightier and more serious culmination that leaves an inevitable self-consciousness in its wake. Hrůša seems to have his doubts, though not in a fervent and headily cumulative account of what is undeniably among the most eloquent Bruckner codas.

The 1888 version is that by which earlier generations came to know this piece, making its latter-day rehabilitation the vindication of Bruckner’s final thoughts or an editorial cash-in according to vantage. Whether or not determined primarily by the composer or by his self-appointed acolytes, the cloyingly enriched harmony or theatrical reorchestrations speak of     a desire to ‘sell’ the ‘Romantic’ as a would-be-Wagnerian equivalent to the symphonies of Brahms. Qualities, moreover, which Hrůša tacitly acknowledges in a dependable but often detached reading – tacitly underlining the myriad textural changes without ever seeking to condone them. Neither does he shirk from following those inane truncations as the Scherzo proceeds into then out of its trio, such as conductors who otherwise adhered to this version were wont to ignore, nor the excisions meted out on the Finale as only serve to fracture an already unwieldy and formally disjunct design. As with the final revisions of his first three symphonies, this is worth hearing in context but not as means to any deeper appreciation.

The fourth disc consists of 14 excerpts, mainly of variants from the second version Bruckner amended during the revision process. Few will need to hear these more than twice, as is also true of an 1881 finale differing only incrementally from that found in the main performance (and which would have been more worthwhile had it featured the coda’s 1886 amendment). More valuable is the inclusion of the Volksfest finale as originally intended for the second version, and which Bruckner rightly recognized as a transitional version towards one that he was never to get quite right. As it stands, though, this alternation between the humorous and portentous makes an engaging piece in its own right; one that could even now find favour as a concert overture or even symphonic poem such as the composer never actually envisaged.

Does it all work?

That depends on whether you regard it as legitimate to release a set as contains three versions of just one piece. Editorial reservations as there are focus on whether Benjamin Korstvedt has exceeded his remit by presenting his editions as being of comparable validity, which is hardly unknown in latter-day academic practice (Simon Rattle’s account of this work, due from LSO Live, takes a similar if less inclusive approach using the editions of Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs). As to performances, those who already have accounts of the 1874 version by Michael Gielen (SWF Music) or Simone Young (Oehms Classics), the 1887 version by Osmo Vänskä (BIS) and 1878-80 version by upward of a dozen conductors can rest content. Hrůša is evidently a Bruknerian of note, however, and his perspective on this piece is well worth getting to know.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The presentation, four discs in a slipcase plus a booklet featuring detailed notes from Korstvedt and a thoughtful interview with the conductor, is stylishly economical. Those most redoubtable among the ‘usual suspects’ might dissent, but this project is its own justification. Note too that Hrůša and the Bamberg have a recording of the ‘First’ Symphony by Hans Rott – now regarded as the aesthetic link between Bruckner and Mahler, pertinently coupled here with the former’s Symphonic Prelude and the latter’s Blumine – due out on DG this October.

For further information on this release, you can visit the Accentus website, and you can purchase by clicking on the link from Presto Music. Click on the names for more information on the Bamberg Symphoniker and their chief conductor Jakub Hrůša

Switched On – Arp: New Pleasures (Mexican Summer)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Arp, the alias for American producer Alexis Georgopoulos, made a very positive impression with his 2018 album ZEBRA, the first in a projected trilogy for the Mexican Summer label. Where that record stepped into a lush landscape, its sequel makes its way to the heart of the city. The press release talks in florid terms of “the flinty glow of commerce, the sleek rhythms of industrialization, and the cool finesse of brutalism”, all leaving their imprint.

Once again Arp uses analogue synthesizers as his mode of expression, with the list of instruments including a whole squad of keyboards from Fairlights to Moogs, 707s to 909s. In spite of the number of instruments used, the objective for Arp is to make incisive music that on occasion moves to the experimental.

What’s the music like?

Extremely enjoyable, and full of human emotion in spite of its wholly electronic origins. Although set in the city some of these textures are still wide open, conveying a giddy excitement at their surroundings. There are some wonderfully rich colours from the analogue equipment, which Arp uses to the extent of its descriptive powers.

The busy activity of the city can be glimpsed on Sponge (for Miyake) with figures flitting across the stereo picture, or in the rolling drums and melodic nuggets of New Pleasures itself. The swirly goings-on of i: /o are complemented by a bendy bass bringing reminders of Paul Young, while Le Palace has some lovely chunky handicaps and airy lines that also reek of the 1980s…in a good way!

Traitor (Dub) has a good disco vibe from that era, as does Embassy Disco, which elegantly refers towards Kraftwerk but with some attractive contributions from the marimba. Cloud Storage proves to be a weird and wonderful ending of some woozy keyboard thoughts.

The mood running through the album is consistently positive and amiable, but never coasting – quite the opposite, as Arp packs his music with bite-sized riffs, rich bass sounds and subtle percussion. Often the mood leans towards the Balearic, suggesting a hot city, which is also implied by the nocturnal mood of many of the instrumentals.

Does it all work?

Yes, pretty much, and not least because New Pleasures reveals more melodic layers with each listen, showing an intricately constructed patchwork of complementary riffs and moods.

Is it recommended?

Yes – a fine complement to ZEBRA. The sequel, and the conclusion of the trilogy, is already eagerly awaited.

Listen

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