Harrison Birtwistle – some thoughts

by Ben Hogwood

I can well remember my first encounter with the music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, as it left me with a headache. It was part of Sir Simon Rattle’s groundbreaking Towards The Millennium series with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, back in the 1990s at the Royal Festival Hall.

After a first half of Gubaidulina’s Offertorium had moved me to tears, I was not quite prepared for the sheer force of Sir Harrison’s Earth Dances. The work hit me square in the face, and not in a good way – I found it industrial to the point of confrontation, and could not see a way in to liking his music in spite of many admirable qualities.

More fool me. As time has gone on I have realised how it is possible to respect a composer’s music without necessarily liking it. I could sense the craftsmanship running through Birtwistle’s work, the expert hand in knowing the forces he was writing for, the drama unravelling in each of his pieces. More and more, I realised respect was turning into admiration and – in some cases – appreciation.

An encounter with Silbury Air at the Proms was a memorably mysterious occasion, falling under the spell of some beautifully written music – as English as Vaughan Williams, it seemed to me, and wholly descriptive of the countryside in a very different way to what we usually call ‘pastoral’. Verses, too, I found to be intensely dramatic, full of interesting event and persuasive musical phrase.

I also warmed to the Moth Requiem, premiered at Cadogan Hall in the same year, a touching piece with remarkably pictorial textures. To me it implied a slight mellowing of older age.

At this point I sense I have not yet spent enough time or effort with the music of Birtwistle to fully appreciate it, but it is clear that this is not music that gives up its treasures easily. Its respect has to be earned. I am full of admiration for Birtwistle, and can see how he has come to be revered in the way he has. I look forward to the penny dropping in the future.

Nicholas Angelich – An appreciation

by Ben Hogwood

Earlier this week the very sad death of Nicholas Angelich was announced, at the age of just 51. Thankfully the highly-regarded pianist made a good deal of recordings for Virgin Classics and later Warner, many of which included the music of Beethoven and Brahms, at whom he excelled.

This playlist includes the late set of Fantasias published by Brahms as Op.116, then a sparkling clip from Prokofiev’s arrangement of music from his ballet Romeo and Juliet. I was lucky to see Angelich perform Brahms’s Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor at the Wigmore Hall with violinist Renaud Capuçon, viola player Antoine Tamestit and cellist Gautier Capuçon, around the time of their excellent recording for Virgin Classics. You can hear that as part of the playlist, which ends with Angelich in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, a lean account with the Insula Orchestra and Laurence Equilbey:

Radu Lupu – An appreciation

by Ben Hogwood

Yesterday was a particularly sad day in the world of classical music, and over the next few days Arcana will be paying tribute to three musical figures.

Sadly the death of Romanian pianist Radu Lupu (above) was announced, at the age of 76. A full tribute can be found on the Gramophone magazine website, where Lupu’s standing as an artist of great repute and dignity can be fully appreciated.

I did not see him perform live, sadly, but have looked back over Lupu’s relatively small and perfectly formed discography to choose a few personal favourites. I have chosen purely solo piano music, as this is where I have encountered his wonderful storytelling most often – and include music by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Here the extent of his storytelling ability can be witnessed – not to mention his instinctive musical phrasing.

Mark Lanegan: An appreciation

by Ben Hogwood Photo by Steve Gullick

Very recently we learned of the incredibly sad news that singer Mark Lanegan has died, aged 57. Lanegan was an integral part of grunge when it surfaced in the 1990s, both in a solo capacity and as vocalist for his band Screaming Trees. He went on to enjoy a richly creative career for the next three decades.

He did so in the face of great adversity, for Lanegan’s adolescence was riddled with crime and dependency on alcohol and drugs. He faced these with remarkable strength, reaching a long period of abstinence, with those struggles detailed in his recently released autobiography Devil in a Coma. The title is a reference to a prolonged bout of Covid in 2021, which left him hallucinating and in a coma.

All these elements of his life can be felt in his music, his voice often painting pictures of unfathomable darkness, but also using the power of music as a release to help him out of those holes.

My first encounter with Lanegan’s voice was relatively late in his career, after his work with Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age and just as he started collaborating with Soulsavers in 2007. The song Kingdoms Of Rain stopped me dead in my tracks and lingered long in the mind, for although there was darkness at its heart there was a spiritual element that spoke of hope and light around the edges:

The next Soulsavers collaboration, Revival, was even more explicit in its search for redemption, offering spiritual solace in the company of a troupe of gospel singers. A majestic song, seemingly modelled on Bob Dylan’s Knocking At Heaven’s Door, it is a musical treasure – and seeing it live at Bush Hall, London in 2007 it is a memory I will never forget.

A year later I was booked in to do an interview with him to talk about his new album as one half of The Gutter Twins with Greg Dulli. In hindsight, I should not have agreed – it was 10am on a Saturday morning and I was to phone him at a hotel in Amsterdam. It was quickly clear that he was not enthusiastic about the idea, and I got the impression he had been given a busy program of interviews he did not feel happy about. He was entirely professional, but we got through 15 questions in five minutes, and the answers, though unfailingly polite, were monosyllabic. We said an amiable goodbye, but the interview was never written up.

Lanegan’s happy place was clearly in the music, and a wealth of tributes from fellow artists confirm he was a joy to work with. He became so prolific that it was hard to keep pace with all his endeavours. The need to make music was primal, filling the gaps he had previously crammed with other stimulants. Three albums with Isobel Campbell were made, cementing a special partnership that saw their first album, Ballad of the Broken Seas, nominated for a Mercury Prize. The Gutter Twins collaboration, Saturnalia, left a powerful and more guitar-fuelled impact.

Lanegan’s voice was always at the forefront of anything to which he contributed, instantly recognisable. It was shaded like the finest bourbon, but with a cracked upper register that regularly let the light in, like a deeper blend of The Band’s Robbie Robertson and Nick Cave.

He continued to work with Soulsavers, and another album, Broken, moved him from occasional guest to centre stage vocalist.

It exceeded the creative heights of the first, headed by the remarkable Death Bells:

However it was now time to move to a solo setting, yielding another rich vein of creativity that Lanegan mined with 4AD, Vagrant and latterly Heavenly Recordings. With them he made the Gargoyle, Somebody’s Knocking and Straight Songs Of Sorrow albums, consistently fulfilling records that had moments of wide-eyed optimistic in their outlook.

Songs like Beehive were building on the promise shown by Harvest Home, an example from the Phantom Radio album of 2014. This gives a good example of Lanegan singing higher over a much more energetic beat:

Lanegan’s voice made him suitable for guest slots with electronic music producers. Sadly my wish to see him do a collaboration with Massive Attack was not fulfilled, but vocal turns on the music of Bomb The Bass, Moby and UNKLE brought previously unseen elements to their music as well as his. The singer’s stage presence continued to be magnetic, as those lucky enough to see him at London’s KOKO in 2017 would surely agree. Brooding, dark as night for sure – but smiling more now, totally at home in charge of another batch of majestic songs.

Given the troubles and obstacles he faced in life, it is remarkable that Mark Lanegan made it as far as 57. That he did is testament to the healing power of music, and thankfully he has left us with some truly wonderful material to savour, for which we are extremely grateful.

You can read a obituary for Mark Lanegan written by Will Burns, on the Heavenly Recordings website:

Bernard Haitink – An appreciation

by Ben Hogwood

Last week we heard the sad news of the death of Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink at the ripe old age of 92.

Haitink was a special man indeed, seen by many as the last in a long line of ‘old school’ conductors. He was an artist of great craftsmanship and elegance, who earned the respect of his peers through an incredibly long career that only ended in 2019.

The tributes flooding in from ensembles the conductor worked with say everything about Haitink as a man. The Salzburg Festival declared, “The music world has lost one of its very greatest. His aim was never to triumph; probably that is why his interpretations became such triumphs.” The Berliner Philharmoniker praised how “He always impressed and inspired us with his qualities – his great craftsmanship, his perfect knowledge of the score, his warm, noble bearing.” From Sir Simon Rattle, an insight borne of personal experience: “He was one of the rare giants of our time, and even rarer and more precious, a giant full of humility. My dear Bernard, we keep you deep in our hearts.”

Like many people I have had the pleasure of listening to Haitink’s recordings for many years, but my first live memories go back to the first ever BBC Proms concert I attended in September 1997. There he conducted the European Union Youth Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony no.7, following a sensitive account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4 where the soloist was Emanuel Ax. By coincidence the same works and soloist featured at Haitink’s last Prom in 2019, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic.

I also saw Haitink at the Proms in 2005, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra as soloist Hélène Grimaud performed the Ravel Piano Concerto. After the interval, Haitink gave a characteristically poised account of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, which left its mark on this particular listener for days:

I remember too a very special pair of Proms in 2011, Haitink and Ax united once again for Brahms with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, one of several ensembles with which the conductor forged a special relationship.

As a recording artist, Haitink gave us a vast array of special symphony, concerto and opera recordings. He recorded multiple symphony cycles of Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann, not to mention landmark collections of Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams symphonies with the Concertgebouw and London Philharmonic Orchestras, and fine cycles of Rachmaninov and Beethoven piano concertos with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Alfred Brendel respectively. That’s before we even get to opera! There he delivered much-loved recordings of Mozart, Wagner, Richard Strauss and Britten to highlight just a few.

I have delved into the discography for a set of recordings with personal significance – which can be accessed on the Spotify playlist below. They include Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich and begin with Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.5, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

It is safe to say that Bernard Haitink will occupy a special place in the heart of many a musician and listener, and this gives just a small number of reasons why: