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

In concert – Steven Isserlis & Mishka Rushdie Momen @ Wigmore Hall

It must have been extremely special for Steven Isserlis to be playing the music of three of his favourite composers at the Wigmore Hall on this day – even more so as the date fell on the birthday of one of them, Robert Schumann.

He is one of the cellist’s greatest musical loves, and the sense persists that Isserlis is still discovering more things that make it so. One of Schumann’s many strengths is the versatility of his music, meaning pieces such as the 3 Romances Op.94, originally written for oboe and piano and given to his wife Clara as a Christmas present in 1849, can easily be performed with violin or, indeed, the cello.

Schumann’s birthday was marked by a performance of unaffected romantic beauty from Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, very much on an equal footing playing the composer’s first instrument. The pair caught the doleful and slightly inquiring nature of the first romance beautifully, while the surge of feeling in the central music of the second was a strong cumulative wave. The third, its theme given in a darker shade, was briefly introspective in its unison phrases but then more overtly passionate.

Before Schumann came another ‘birthday’ composer. Beethoven’s 250th is not likely to receive quite so much live coverage as it would have done in a year without a pandemic, but what it lacks in quantity it will surely make up for in quality. The Sonata for piano and cello no.1 in F major, the first of a pair published as the composer’s Op.5, is the ideal concert opener. It begins in slight trepidation of what it is about to discover, but then, on establishing what is effectively a new form of writing for the cello and piano together, throws itself headlong into the rapids.

The Allegro that comes after that first sense of discovery was joyous indeed, with lovely dialogue in play between the two protagonists. Isserlis smiled frequently, as though revelling in the combination of favourite music and venue once again, while Momen’s clear phrasing dovetailed neatly with the cello’s, owning some of the really tricky right hand runs with fearless accuracy.

The second movement had a terrific burst of energy, the sun breaking through at every possible opportunity when its catchy theme made several reappearances. The pair also gave a nice air of mystery when Beethoven suddenly departed from ‘home’ and ended up in a number of seemingly unrelated tonal centres, before reassuring us with the warmth of the home key once again.

As he introduced his favourite 20th century cello sonata, there was a sense of Isserlis’ heart almost bursting with the chance to play music live again. He described his discovery of Fauré’s late music as ‘being outside a door but then passing through and wondering why on earth I had been outside’, before the pair played the Cello Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.108, the first of two such works from the Frenchman.

This was a very fine performance indeed, Isserlis and Momen watchful and urgent at the start, its music wracked with uncertainty but nonetheless pushing forward with great conviction. The Andante slow movement began lost in thought, the bell-like toll of the piano matched by Isserlis’ rich legato tone, before reaching heights of passion that the final movement also delivered, the performers now glorying in the major key and Fauré’s bursts of sunshine, the strong resolve of the first movement bringing its ultimate reward.

The pair finished with a profound account of Isserlis’ own transcription of a Bach chorale prelude, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, in which – as the cellist noted – Bach says it all.

In concert – A week locked into Wigmore Hall

At 1pm on Monday June 1st, live music-making returned to the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3.

While we have been incredibly fortunate to enjoy live streams of music from around the world since lockdown began, this felt like something extra special. A whole month of lunchtime concerts, served up by our finest chamber music venue in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, and streamed on the Wigmore Hall website. With a selection of top class artists, all of whom live close enough to journey in and play, all that was missing was the audience – but this added extra poignancy, offering us private moments with the musicians in our own home, a deluxe version of what BBC Radio 3 has been giving us for decades. A note should be made for presenter Andrew McGregor‘s broadcasting manner, expertly paced and perfectly weighted.

The musical riches in the first week have been many and varied. The first concert was ideally placed, Steven Hough giving us Busoni’s epic realisation of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor and Schumann’s lovelorn Fantasie in C major. In some performances of the Bach-Busoni the virtuoso elements of the piece take over at the expense of feeling, but not here. Hough shaped the phrases with great care, bringing out the gusto when it was needed but giving an incredibly well-balanced account of a familiar showpiece.

With Schumann’s Fantasie he gave a flowing performance of a notoriously difficult work, made all the more poignant because of its circumstances, written in isolation by a composer pining for his wife Clara. There was joy, too – the march theme of the second movement ringing out with bell-like clarity, while the resolution at the end, softly voiced, left a lasting smile.

Tuesday’s song recital from soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook had the themes of Hope and Longing – appropriately in the awful context of world events, which saw the concert begin with a two-minute period of reflection on racial inequality and violence.

Crowe began on high, judging her vibrato beautifully for Thomas Arne’s aria O ravishing delight, before three Schumann songs found her vocal control matched by her communication with the audience, in spite of the empty hall. The sound world of Berg’s 7 frühe Lieder is very different, with challenges of tricky melodic intervals and words by seven different poets, but the soprano handled them effortlessly, helped by Tilbrook’s painterly application of light and shade for the corners of Berg’s nocturnal settings.

The pair moved on to a selection of poignant folk songs, none more so than the unaccompanied She moved through the fair, before English lyrics old and new from Thomas Dunhill, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams and Madeline Dring. It was a touching recital with both soprano and pianist clearly on the same page.

Few guitarists would expect to receive compliments on the quality of their quiet playing…but that was what stood out immediately from Sean Shibe’s solo recital on the Wednesday. With a collection of attractive Scottish dances the listener was drawn in from the start and borne to the beauty of the Highlands, the tunes carrying on the air in performances of extraordinary intimacy.

The same could be said for Shibe’s performance of Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor, carefully studied but delighting in the expressive interplay between the parts, bringing Bach’s notes clean off the page. Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint was even better, Shibe moving to a Fender to play the 12th part of this multilayered composition. The waves of sound echoing around the Wigmore as the guitarist, now barefoot, completely lost himself in the music.

Oboist Nicholas Daniel and pianist Julius Drake, both Wigmore regulars and musical partners for 40+ years, crammed their Thursday lunchtime with music old and new, all of personal significance.

They included two short premieres, the wide open textures of Huw Watkins’ haunting Arietta and the uncertainties of Michael Berkeley’s A Dark Waltz, written in lockdown. There was a rarity,too, in the first broadcast performance of Liszt’s darkly coloured Élegie, originally written for cello and piano but here in a recently unearthed version with for cor anglais.

Howard Ferguson’s arrangement for oboe and piano of Finzi’s substantial Interlude was beautifully paced and deeply felt in that slightly elusive way in which the composer writes, Drake absorbing the extra parts with ease. Meanwhile Ferguson’s arrangements of three pieces for pedal piano by Schumann studies were also nicely done. Later we heard three attractive shorter pieces from Madeline Dring, and finally Nicholas Daniel showed off the oboe’s versatility in three rewarding arrangements of popular songs, including The Girl From Ipanema and capped by All The Things You Are. A note, too, for the pair’s deeply felt and beautifully observed Bach encore, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, prefaced by a sensitive introduction.

Last but not least, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy reminded us what an intimate form of communication the piano duet can be. As the pair live together they have experienced isolation in each other’s company, and that in itself brought an extra poignancy to their lovingly played selection of BrahmsLiebeslieder Waltzes, a profound Schubert Impromptu in A flat from Tsoy and a bittersweet clutch of six Waltzes, Ländler & German Dances from Kolesnikov.

Together the pair enjoyed the humour and lightness of touch in Beethoven’s 8 Variations on a theme of Count Waldstein, but the best was saved for last and a wonderful performance of Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor. Recognised as one of the finest works in the piano duet repertoire, it received a performance led by Tsoy that moved from almost painful introspection to passionate outbursts five minutes later. The scherzo section had plenty of cut and thrust, while the whole piece, ideally paced, built to an almost overwhelming strength of feeling, capped by an intensely dramatic pause before the softly voiced opening theme returned.

What a musical week it has been – and looking at the roll call it looks like we are in for another three weeks of equally fine and moving insights. You can catch up with all the concerts on the links above and are strongly advised to do so, for there are some incredibly fine performances waiting to be heard. Live concerts may not be with us for a while yet, but in the meantime these intimate hours with some of our best classical music artists are an ideal substitute.

You can see the schedule for forthcoming Wigmore Hall livestreams here, the series resuming courtesy of cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen on Monday 8 June.

Music online – BBC Radio 3 to restart Wigmore Hall concerts behind closed doors

Since its beginnings five years back, Arcana has made a big deal of the BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts at the Wigmore Hall on Mondays, covering the majority of recitals given in that time. The concerts bring a great deal of pleasure to listeners not just in the hall but at home, brightening up a dreary Monday on many occasions. Their availability on catch-up through BBC Sounds only heightens the xpe

Very happily the concerts are to return to our homes. With the Wigmore Hall closed to the public until September, Alan Davey, Controller of BBC Radio 3 and John Gilhooly, Director of Wigmore Hall, have today confirmed the first live classical music broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 from Wigmore Hall, following the nationwide lockdown.

A series of 20 concerts will take place at 1pm every weekday throughout the month of June, starting on Monday 1st. The series will mark Wigmore Hall’s temporary re-opening, as well as BBC Radio 3’s return to live concert broadcasting, part of their Culture in Quarantine initiative.

Programmes are to be confirmed, but rather excitingly the artists confirmed include a wide array of British-based talent, listed alphabetically below:

James Baillieu (piano), Benjamin Baker (violin), Iain Burnside (piano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Michael Collins (clarinet), Imogen Cooper (piano), Lucy Crowe (soprano), Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Julius Drake (piano) Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Angela Hewitt (piano), Stephen Hough (piano), Elizabeth Kenny (lute), Pavel Kolesnikov (piano), Paul Lewis (piano), Michael McHale (piano), Joseph Middleton (piano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Hyeyoon Park (violin), Timothy Ridout (viola), Sean Shibe (guitar), Anna Tilbrook (piano), Samson Tsoy (piano), Ailish Tynan (soprano), Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Adam Walker (flute), Roderick Williams (baritone)

Arcana will be looking to cover a number of these concerts, offering listening guides as we have done for five years. See you in the virtual concert hall!

Ben Hogwood

On record – Gustavo Díaz-Jerez: Maghek – Seven Symphonic Poems About The Canary Islands (Signum Classics)

Cristo Barrios (clarinet), Ricardo Descalzo (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Eduardo Portal

Gustavo Díaz-Jerez
Maghek: Ymarxa, Ayssuragan, Guanapay, Chigaday, Azaenegue, Erbane & Aranfaybo

Signum ClassicsSIGCD 612 [two discs, 137’50”]

Producer Matt Dilley
Engineers Mike Hatch, Tony Lewington

Recorded 17-20 November 2019 at Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Signum Classics issues of its most ambitious releases in Seven Symphonic Poems about the Canary Islands by the Tenerifan-born Gustavo Díaz-Jerez (b1970), a substantial undertaking such as ought to secure this acclaimed composer and pianist greater international prominence.

What’s the music like?

Although Smetana blazed the trail with Ma vlast, his cycle inspired by Bohemian legend and places, few recent composers have attempted such a sequence of interrelated movements – a notable exception being Pascal Dusapin with his Seven Solos for orchestra (1992-2009). This precedent may be significant as, though its subtitle implies something of a ‘suite touristique’, Maghek is the work of one respected for his research into the spectral and physical properties of sound. Not that Díaz-Jerez’s music is rarefied or academic; running parallel to its technical ingenuity is an involvement with Canarian history and topography as evident from the titles of each piece. This does not make for something naively illustrative or pictorial, but it does ensure an evocative dimension is manifest at every stage of a long and absorbing traversal.

It is not clear from Díaz-Jerez’s detailed and insightful booklet notes that the order in which these pieces are heard is the only intended sequence, and whether other permutations may be possible or even desirable. That they were premiered (and presumably can still be performed) individually rather suggests the latter, which itself adds a further layer of fascination to music already awash with mystery and intrigue. A reminder, too, that the image of the Canaries as a choice destination for holidaymakers seeking sun, sea and sand is far from the whole picture.

As presented, the cycle begins in Tenerife with its myriad gradations of light and shade, then to La Palma which unfolds as a concertante piece for clarinet and orchestra in which the latter gradually and ominously assumes dominance. By contrast, Lanzarote is represented by a full-blown piano concerto, a sometimes equable and at other times confrontational means through which to evoke interplay of natural and human elements. The forbidding terrain of La Gomera engenders music of textural intricacy and timbral finesse, then Gran Canaria brings something of a culmination with its cumulative interplay between relative stasis and dynamism toward a visceral climax. Fuerteventura imaginatively explores cultural contrasts and conflicts wrought across time, then El Hierro makes for an understated and even teasingly inconclusive ending.

Does it all work?

Yes, whatever the order in which these pieces are heard. Díaz-Jerez is clearly an orchestrator of ingenuity and resourcefulness, who understands how to realize the potential of his sizable forces, yet this would count for little were his sense of formal evolution not so sure-footed. The playing of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra leaves nothing to be desired under the expert guidance of Eduardo Portal, while both clarinetist Cristo Barrios and pianist Ricardo Decalzo seem fully attuned to music whose technical demands are confidently surmounted.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound has a clarity and lustre which presents this music in the best possible light, while the composer’s annotations shed valuable light on the semantic derivations behind each piece. Do investigate this release, then try Díaz-Jerez’s piano cycle Mataludios (IBS182018).

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 Signum Classics website, and at a special dedicated website for the project here