On record – Matthew Taylor: Symphonies nos.4 & 5 (BBC NOW / Woods) (Nimbus)

Matthew Taylor
Symphony no.4 Op.54 (2015-6)
Symphony no.5 Op.59 (2017-8)
Romanza for strings Op.36a (2006-7)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Symphonies), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Nimbus Alliance NI6406 [63’56”]

Producer Simon Fox-Gál
Engineers Simon Smith, Mike Cox (Symphony no.4)

Recorded 8 June 2019 at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London (Romanza); 14 January 2020 at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff (Symphonies)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A new release of music by Matthew Taylor, including the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, that means all of the composer’s works in this genre have now been commercially recorded (the First and Third on Dutton Epoch CDLX7178; the Second on Toccata Classics TOCC0175).

What’s the music like?

Symphonism goes back almost to the start of Taylor’s composing, his Sinfonia Brevis having been finished when he was 21, and symphonies have continued to appear at regular intervals across his output. Written respectively to mark the 50th anniversary of Kensington Symphony Orchestra, and as the third instalment within the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project, these two pieces feel typical not least as regards their absolute contrasts of form and expression; while being equally unmistakable as the music of just one composer.

An in memoriam to composer John McCabe – dedicated to his widow Monica – the Fourth Symphony falls into three continuous movements. The first, marked Giubiloso, maintains its energy across distinct shifts of dynamics and activity (the evocative writing for woodwind and harp redolent of Tippett); subsiding from its impassioned climax into an Adagio where strings take the foreground in music of textural richness and emotional depth. Beginning at a decided remove from what has gone before, the Finale buffa exudes a nonchalant humour (reminiscent of Arnold), complemented by a deftly scored episode that cannily prepares for the denouement. This is purposefully controlled through to a climax that recalls the work’s opening theme before an ending as feels the more decisive for its literally coming to a halt.
Heard as an interlude between two imposing statements, the Romanza could hardly be better placed. An arrangement of the second movement of Taylor’s Sixth Quartet (Toccata Classics TOCC0144), it testifies to the suffused lyricism evident in this composer’s writing for strings.

The Fifth Symphony is only Taylor’s second such work in four movements, but its formal and expressive emphasis differs greatly. Indeed, the initial Allegro is unprecedented in his output for sheer volatility (not unlike that of Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ Quartet), its driving impetus and explosive culmination creating a momentum which is pointedly left unfulfilled by the ensuing intermezzo-like Allegrettos. The first (a tribute to composer and teacher

Symphonism goes back almost to the start of Taylor’s composing, his Sinfonia Brevis having been finished when he was 21, and symphonies have continued to appear at regular intervals across his output. Written respectively to mark the 50th anniversary of Kensington Symphony Orchestra, and as the third instalment within the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project, these two pieces feel typical not least as regards their absolute contrasts of form and expression; while being equally unmistakable as the music of just one composer.

An in memoriam to composer John McCabe – dedicated to his widow Monica – the Fourth Symphony falls into three continuous movements. The first, marked Giubiloso, maintains its energy across distinct shifts of dynamics and activity (the evocative writing for woodwind and harp redolent of Tippett); subsiding from its impassioned climax into an Adagio where strings take the foreground in music of textural richness and emotional depth. Beginning at a decided remove from what has gone before, the ‘Finale buffa’ exudes a nonchalant humour (reminiscent of Arnold), complemented by a deftly scored episode that cannily prepares for the denouement. This is purposefully controlled through to a climax that recalls the work’s opening theme before an ending as feels the more decisive for its literally coming to a halt.

Heard as an interlude between two imposing statements, the Romanza could hardly be better placed. An arrangement of the second movement of Taylor’s Sixth Quartet (Toccata Classics TOCC0144), it testifies to the suffused lyricism evident in this composer’s writing for strings.

The Fifth Symphony is only Taylor’s second such work in four movements, but its formal and expressive emphasis differs greatly. Indeed, the initial Allegro is unprecedented in his output for sheer volatility (not unlike that of Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ Quartet), its driving impetus and explosive culmination creating a momentum which is pointedly left unfulfilled by the ensuing intermezzo-like Allegrettos. The first (a tribute to composer and teacher Cy Lloyd) is as terse and equivocal as the second (a tribute to Angela Simpson, wife of composer Robert Simpson) is poised and wistful. It thus remains for the final Adagio (a tribute to the composer’s mother Brigid) to secure that eloquent apotheosis towards which the whole work had been headed, as this moves with sustained power toward its plangent twin climaxes then on to a resigned coda.

Does it all work?

Indeed. In all three pieces, Kenneth Woods secures a dedicated response from the players so Taylor’s exacting yet practicable writing is heard to advantage, not least in acoustics whose immediacy emphasizes this music’s rapt inwardness as keenly as its untrammelled energy.

Is it recommended?

Yes, and not least for a booklet that features informative commentaries by both composer and conductor, and striking artwork by Andrea Kelland. An introductory portrait by James Francis Brown mentions Taylor as having written six symphonies: hopefully, no mere slip of the pen!

Listen & Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Read

You can discover more about Matthew Taylor by heading to his own website

In concert – April Frederick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Visions of Childhood – Following Mahler on the path to eternity

April Frederick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler arr. Stein Symphony no.4 in G major (1900) – Opening
Wagner arr. Woods Siegfried Idyll (1870)
Humperdinck arr. Woods Hänsel und Gretel (1892) – Der Kleine Sandmann; Abendsegen.
Schubert arr. Woods Die Forelle – Lied and Variations, D550/D667 (1817/19)
Mahler arr. Woods Das Irdische Leben (1892)
Schubert arr. Woods Der Tod und das Mädchen – Variations & Lied, D531/D810 (1817/24)
Mahler arr. Stein Das Himmlische Leben (1892/1900)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 16 October (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone online series continued this evening with an ingenious programme centred on Childhood, as depicted in music from the latter 19th century, and featuring chamber arrangements by the orchestra’s principal conductor Kenneth Woods.

The initial bars of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, heard in the now relatively familiar reduction by Erwin Stein, led seamlessly into Siegfried Idyll – here arranged for identical forces and so affording even greater prominence to Wagner’s felicitous writing for woodwind. In this never rushed account, Woods underlined the methodical aspect of music whose birthday association and ethereal aura rather bely its formal ingenuity. There were no qualms over instrumentation, even if the trumpet’s timely presence might have made the ecstatic climax seem even more so.

April Fredrick (whose impressive account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs in the first of these concerts is required listening) then took the stage for a medley drawn from the second act of Humperdinck’s timeless Hänsel und Gretel, trebling up as the Sandman and then both main characters in a reminder that the enchanting essence of this opera is seldom without its more ambivalent, even ominous undertones in the treatment of childhood. Moreover, this chamber reduction brought an intimacy that more closely aligned the music to its origins as a singspiel.

Of especial interest were two Schubert pieces – hardly unfamiliar in themselves, here given an unexpected while revealing guise. In the case of The Trout, this entailed interweaving the verses of the song with those variations of the fourth movement from the later piano quintet so as to make more explicit the constantly shifting emotions across what is often considered one of this composer’s most equable settings. A different procedure was adopted for Death and the Maiden, in which the slow movement of Schubert’s eponymous string quartet – its intensifying variations characterized by appealing woodwind contributions – were followed by the earlier song, heralded by the hieratic strains of harmonium, and whose mingling of anguish with resignation threw the variations’ emotional trajectory into more acute relief.

Following each of these items were songs by Mahler, the natural successor to Schubert in so many aspects of his music – not least these settings of texts from Des knaben Wunderhorn. In its pivoting between the child’s supplications and the mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of this composer’s most evocative songs – albeit of the child’s existence running out as though grains of sand. By contrast, The Heavenly Life speaks of a child’s paradisal existence in the afterlife and if Mahler’s treatment is a good deal more complex than the words might suggest (the singer’s assessment of this on the ESO website is worth hearing), Fredrick’s judicious floating of the vocal line was integrated with Wood’s astute handling of the ensemble to good effect.

Hearing the latter piece in Stein’s reduction as finale of the Fourth Symphony served equally to bring this well-planned and thought-provoking programme full circle; one that is required listening for those yet to hear it, and with the next concert in this series keenly anticipated.
This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here

In concert – Lotte Betts-Dean & Joseph Havlat @ Bishopsgate Institute

Lotte Betts-Dean (soprano), Joseph Havlat (piano)

Bishopsgate Institute, London
Friday 9 October, 1pm (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Hindemith Nine English Songs (1942-4): no.2, Echo; no.7, Sing on there in the Swamp
Varèse Un grand sommeil noir (1906)
Schoen Sechs Gedichte von Fritx Heinle (1932)
Szymanowski Before Bedtime Op.49/1 (1922-3)
Schoen Sechs Lieder für Kinder (1927)
Malipiero Omaggi (1920) – no.1, A un papagallo
Casella X-Berceuse Op.35/11 (1920)
Tyrwhitt-Wilson Trois petites marches funèbres (1916) – no.1, Pour un homme d’état; no.2, Pour un canari
Schoen Das Anti-Hitler Lied (1941); Das Heimkehrlied (c1940)
Spoliansky Das Lila Lied (1920)
Schoenberg Brettl-Lieder (1901) – no.1, Galathea

The recently returned lunchtime series at Bishopsgate promises an extensive range of music and artists. This afternoon’s recital was no exception in focussing on songs by Ernst Schoen (1894-1960), the German composer and radio pioneer who for some years resided in London.

Their programme divided into four complementary parts, Lotte Betts-Dean and Joseph Havlat began with ‘Music for Friends’ – two gently laconic settings by Hindemith of Thomas Moore and Walt Whitman being followed by the sombre rumination as drawn by Varèse from Paul Verlaine’s poem in almost the only extant piece of this composer’s earlier years. The settings of Fritz Henle (whose life was terminated by his own hand at the outbreak of the First World War) reveal Schoen having absorbed the expressionism of Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens cycle in songs that, elusive and unaffected by turns, were perceptively rendered here.

The second part centred on ‘Music for Children’, with the first of Szymanowski’s enchanting Children’s Rhymes followed by a set from Schoen. Here the inspiration lay in those nonsense rhymes after Russian texts which Stravinsky had penned the previous decade, albeit with an ironic edge rather more akin to Schulhoff’s songs and piano miniatures from the early 1920s.

The third part brought ‘Music for Dance and the Stage’ in the guise of pieces danced by Henri Châtin Hofmann (1900-1961) to Dadaist choreography (recently recreated when this selection was presented in Warsaw) which fairly typified the decadence and provocation of the Weimar Republic’s heyday. Insouciant miniatures by Malipiero and Casella were thus juxtaposed with two of the funeral pieces by Lord Berners, whose Satie-esque whimsy was shot through with an ominousness which Havlat (replacing an indisposed Samuel Draper) realized accordingly.

The fourth and final part focussed upon ‘Music for Politics’, Schoen’s pointed castigation of Hitler and his fervent contemplation on ‘coming home’ followed with a sardonic number by Mischa Spoliansky such as persisted as a Gay Rights anthem long after it had been created. Betts-Dean and Havlat upped the emotional ante in these latter songs, bringing the advertised programme to a close. Time, though, for two more of Schoen’s children’s songs and the first of Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder – the soprano’s coyness making up for any lack of sensuality.

An arresting recital by artists who will hopefully perform this and similar music again soon.

This concert can be accessed at the Bishopsgate Institute Facebook page

In concert – April Frederick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods perform Richard Strauss

April Frederick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 18 September (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The continued difficulties in mounting live concerts with an audience has led to any number of virtual and online presentations, of which the English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone is among the most imaginative. As organized and curated by Kenneth Woods, the ESO’s redoubtable music director (below), this promises a fresh perspective on various (often if not always) familiar pieces – performed in chamber reductions which respect the need for social distancing and illuminate aspects of the music not always evident in its more familiar guise.

Such was made manifest in the present account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, as heard in the transcription by James Ledger made for Felicity Lott’s farewell concert at the Wigmore Hall seven years ago and whose large ensemble emphasizes the wistful eloquence of these songs without undue enervation. It helped that April Frederick was at one with Ledger’s conception and Woods’s realization, whether in the lithe ardency of Frühling or the eddying rumination of September – this latter a candidate for the most perfectly realized of all Strauss’s songs.

The rapturous emotion of Beim Schlafengehen can verge on the cloying, but there was no risk of that here as Frederick imbued this setting of Hermann Hesse with a plangent emotion such as most renditions gloss over, complemented by Zoë Beyers’ unaffected handling of its violin solo. Joseph von Eichendorff‘s Im Abendrot was hardly less impressive, the expressive trajectory seamlessly sustained from impassioned opening to hushed close with its valedictory allusions to Strauss and Mahler – over which Frederick’s vocal hovered with mesmeric poise.

A chamber reduction by Tony Burke of Morgen! – Strauss’s setting of John Henry Mackay – for similar forces made for an unexpected if welcome encore. Here too it was the purity and understatement of Frederick’s approach that most readily compelled, in the process drawing this relatively early song into the emotional orbit of those written over half-a-century later. A fine ending to this first instalment of what promises to be a rewarding series, and one which looks set to reaffirm the significance of the ESO within the context of British music-making.

This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here

On record – Philip Sawyers: Symphony no.4 & Hommage to Kandinsky (BBC NOW / Woods)

Philip Sawyers
Symphony no.4 (2018)
Hommage to Kandinsky (2014)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Kenneth Woods

Nimbus Alliance NI6405 [64’32”]

Producer Simon Fox-Gál
Engineers Simon Smith, Mike Cox

Recorded 15 & 16 January 2020 at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Nimbus continues its coverage of Philip Sawyers (b1951) with this release of his most recent symphony, heard alongside a major symphonic poem written some years earlier, in what are impressively assured readings by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Kenneth Woods.

What’s the music like?

The emergence of Sawyers as a major symphonist of his generation has been among the more significant aspects of latter-day British music. From the overtly demonstrative First Symphony (2004), via the highly concentrated Second (2008) to the decidedly equivocal Third (2015), is to encounter a composer intent on expanding his idiom incrementally and without any fear of repeating himself. Hence the Fourth Symphony, whose three movements might be felt to take on the (unintentional) model of Bruckner’s Ninth from a distinctly contemporary perspective.

Such is immediately clear from the opening Moderato whose tonal ambivalence underpins an emotional restlessness set in motion by those granitic brass chords at the outset. Formally this is Sawyers’ most individual sonata design to date, its accrued tension duly carrying over into a scherzo with passing elements of intermezzo rather than an actual trio as ensures maximum continuity. There follows an extended Adagio of tangible weight and no little profundity, its focus ensured through a long-term transition from D minor to D accomplished as seamlessly as its incorporation of motifs from earlier in the score. Sawyers says that after this ‘‘there was nothing more to say’’, reinforced by a sustained apotheosis which resolves those chords from the outset with a finality only viable for a composer in command of his musical components.

Little that Sawyers writes is without symphonic potential, as is evident from his Hommage to Kandinsky. Scored for large forces and lasting almost 30 minutes, its subtitle A Symphonic Poem for Orchestra indicates this is no mere evoking of the Russian-born artist’s canvasses – though one aspect of his Composition IV has been transmuted into musical terms towards the start. Structurally the piece unfolds through alternating passages of relative stasis and motion, and if slower sections predominate as it progresses, there is never a risk of expressive inertia owing to the deftness with which existing motifs take on greater intensity while timbral and textural aspects are enriched accordingly. This latter aspect is crystallized at the close when an emphatic chordal cluster gradually dies down, to leave only the purest of C major tones.

Does it all work?

Yes, not least when this release judiciously combines two of Sawyers’ most distinctive and absorbing pieces. Never a composer who could be accused of favouring the easy option, his large-scale organization is, in both instances, as fascinating as it is resourceful. It helps when Kenneth Woods, who premiered Sawyers’ previous two symphonies (the Third as the initial commission of his 21st Century Symphony Project), is unstinting in his advocacy – securing playing of verve and finesse from the BBC NOW in the spacious ambience of Hoddinott Hall.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The annotations deftly interlace Woods’ descriptive commentary with Sawyers’ own analytical observations, and the booklet cover is graced by artwork from Philip Groom. It will be fascinating to hear just where Sawyers goes from here on his eventful symphonic odyssey.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Read

You can discover more about this release at the Wyastone website, and more about Philip Sawyers by heading to his own website