In concert – Gramophone 100th Anniversary Concert @ Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

There is a famous, unattributed quote that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’. How, then, to interpret a concert in celebration of a magazine? The conclusion, when that magazine is 100 years old, is that surely its writers are doing something right!

The magazine is the esteemed Gramophone, formed in 1923 and reaching its centenary without a break, not even an issue missed during the Second World War. Gramophone has reflected the growth of the classical record industry, proving something of a bible for classical music listeners and buyers, with its recommendations of recordings and interviews / thought pieces to put them in context. Music old and new is covered, and not all of it classical – indeed, as we found out during James Jolly’s revealing and entertaining narration, the magazine reviewed pop music in the 1960s.

Jolly is the magazine’s Editor in Chief, and has been with the magazine since starting as editorial assistant in 1985. He gave a debt of gratitude to the Gramophone founder Sir Compton Mackenzie and the Pollard family, where the large part of the night’s story lay. Modestly, the magazine did not dwell on their current state, which would have been easy – for Gramophone is one of those rare things, a publication where subscription is done without the bat of an eyelid, and each issue read cover to cover – either physically or online, where you can enjoy the entirety of its archive in digital form.

How to celebrate such a publication in a concert? Choosing the Wigmore Hall was a smart move, honing resources and ensuring the celebrations were done with quality as well as quantity. The move did of course eliminate larger scale forms – opera and orchestral – but it retained the magazine’s sense of musical exploration through five centuries of music.

Violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien began with a concentrated performance of Debussy’s Violin Sonata, completed just six years before the magazine’s first edition. This was a thoughtful and virtuosic performance, Ibragimova fully inhabiting each phrase while Tiberghien successfully harnessed Debussy’s coloristic effects and sleights of harmony. The spectre of war was close at hand – as it was in Gramophone’s early years.

Next up was countertenor Iestyn Davies, a late replacement for soprano Fatma Said. It was a privilege to hear his Purcell, refracted through the eyes of modern composers, showing how access to the composer’s music has boomed since Gramophone started. Davies had a particularly arresting delivery for Britten’s Lord, what is man, before a deeply passionate vocal in the Thomas Adès setting By beauteous softness, Malcolm Martineau phrasing its postlude with exquisite shaping. Britten reappeared for a jubilant I’ll sail upon the Dog Star.

In Gramophone’s tenure the guitar has established itself as a central part of the classical repertoire. We heard two very different soloists – Milos in Mathias Duplessy’s bluesy Amor Fati, which though originating in France seemed to be looking over the Spanish border on occasion. Its full bodied chords were brilliantly declaimed. Sean Shibe, meanwhile, cast his eyes further east as partner for tenor Karim Sulayman in three songs of Arabic origins. Here was a striking alliance, Shibe’s exquisitely quiet playing a match for the tenor’s husky delivery. The two finished each other’s sentences, reflecting a musical chemistry of unusual quality found on their recent album Broken Branches.

We also heard three very different pianists, dazzling with virtuosity but also showing impeccable control. Nearest to the edge was Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, whose compelling excerpts from Ravel‘s suite Miroirs revealed rougher contours. These suited the storm of Une barque sur l’océan, while Alborada del gracioso was rustic and danced at quite a pace, the pianist relishing its whirling figurations.

Martin James Bartlett showed a painter’s touch to a pair of Liszt arrangements – the composer’s keyboard paraphrase of his son-in-law Wagner’s Liebestod especially fine. Bartlett’s phrasing was immaculate, each tune clear as a bell in spite of the myriad accompanying colours. The Schumann transcription Widmung also retained a songful air, powerful at its climactic passages.

Bisecting the keyboard soloists was soprano Carolyn Sampson and regular partner Joseph Middleton. Sampson will shortly reach her 100th album release, a remarkable achievement in a discography adorned with Gramophone accolades. We heard a well-chosen and varied selection taking us from Purcell and Britten to Saariaho via Poulenc and Régine Poldowski, the latter composer indicative of record companies’ efforts to include more female composers at last. Daughter of Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski, Poldowski made a very strong impression with L’heure exquise, while Sampson gave a ringing endorsement for Saariaho’s Parfum de l’instant, due in a future recording. Here she was aided by a fountain of cascading treble notes from Middleton.

Finally we heard Bernard Chamayou in a tour de force account of Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli, an apt choice in its inclusion of the city of Naples, looking out to a former home of Sir Compton Mackenzie on the island of Capri. Liszt added the Venezia e Napoli triptych as a footnote to the second book of his cycle Années de Pèlerinage, reflecting the impact of his travels around Europe as a virtuoso pianist. Its music is far from trivial and Chamayou, who recorded the complete cycle in 2010 brought unusually clear definition to the undulating figures of Gondoleria. The Rossini-themed Canzone was deeply intoned, majestically voiced with a sense of wonder projecting right to the back of the hall. Finally the Tarantella was a virtuoso affair, but Chamayou never lost sight of the thematic material in the tempestuous surroundings.   

It was the ideal way to conclude a high-quality concert, though an encore saw the assembled artists sing ‘Happy birthday’ to the publication that has served them so well. Here’s to another 100 years, Gramophone!

List of repertoire

Debussy Violin Sonata in G minor (1917)

Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (piano)

Purcell, realised Britten Lord, what is man (1945); Purcell, realised Adès By beauteous softness (2017); Purcell, realised Britten I’ll sail upon the Dog Star (1943)

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Duplessy Amor Fatí (2022)

Miloš (guitar)

Ravel Miroirs: Une barque sur l’océan; Alborada del gracioso (1904-5)

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)

Trad arr. Sulayman & Shibe La prima vez; Arab-Andalusian Muwashsha arr. Shibe Lamma Bada Yatathanna; Sayed Darwish arr. Shibe & Sulayman after Ronnie Malley El helwa di

Karim Sulayman (tenor), Sean Shibe (guitar)

Wagner arr. Liszt Isoldens Liebestod (1867); Schumann arr. Liszt Widmung (1848)

Martin James Bartlett (piano)

Purcell realised Britten Sweeter than roses (c1945); Britten Fancie (1965); Poulenc Fancy (1959); Régine Poldowski L’heure exquise (1917); Saariaho Parfum de l’instant (from Quatre Instants) (2002)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Liszt Venezia e Napoli S162 (1859)

Bertrand Chamayou (piano)

In concert – BCMG: T R E E Concert

Neue Vocalsolisten [Johanna Vargas (soprano), Truike van der Poel (mezzo-soprano), Martin Nagy (tenor), Guillermo Anzorema (baritone), Andreas Fischer (bass)]; Finchley Children’s Music Group, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Michael Wendeberg

Mason The Singing Tree (2020-3) [BCMG Sound Investment commission: World premiere]
Lachenmann Concertini (2005)

Town Hall, Birmingham
Friday 12 May 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s final concert this season also saw the conclusion of Tree City, a 16-year project that has seen Birmingham’s tree coverage increased by some 10% and an occasion marked by this Sound Investment commission from Christian Mason.

Among the leading UK composers, Mason (b1984) has written ambitious works before but none more so than The Singing Tree, a cantata whose seven movements unfold to a suitably arboreal text by Paul Griffiths. Despite its inclusion as an enlarged format in the programme, this was not easily readable under concert conditions (as its author wryly remarked), but of greater concern was its inaudibility during the actual performance; the intricacy of Mason’s writing for solo voices, children’s choir and large ensemble rather offsetting any such clarity.

A pity when Griffiths’ text, growing from the word ‘Tree’ such that each part multiplies by four (thus 1-4-16-64-256-1024), pertinently evokes the growth process alongside temporal and experiential evolution. Not that balance between the five solo voices, positioned centre-right of the platform, a 13-strong choir arrayed in the organ gallery, and an ensemble rich in timbral or textural possibilities seemed at fault, yet any sense of the music gaining gradually in emotional intensity to complement that of its musical complexity felt intermittent at best.

Most absorbing were those movements when Machaut’s rondeau Puis qu’en oubli threaded through the texture with tangible expressive intent, bringing to mind passages of comparable immediacy in seminal choral works by Berio, Kagel or Pousseur. Mason is demonstrably in that European lineage, making it more regrettable when despite its laudable intent – plus the commitment of Neue Vocalsolisten, Finchley Children’s Music Group and BCMG under the assured direction of Michael Wendeberg – his new piece made only an equivocal impression.

What it lacked in overall impact was given context in the second half, with a performance of Concertini by Helmut Lachenmann. Once notorious for (supposedly) predicating the gestural quality of sound, the composer’s more recent larger works exude a determination to align this with a tangible organic development – as heard in those climactic passages when the disparate sources coalesce for music sustained and visceral in its intent. Comparisons with the ataraxic progress of the lengthy final movement from Mason’s work were not to the latter’s advantage.

Once again, BCMG responded with conviction and no little finesse to Wendeberg’s direction – not least in the last third of this piece which had previously seemed to lose focus, but here readily conveyed the ensemble coming together in an audible while, this being Lachenmann, decidedly oblique resolution. Whatever else, the present work confronts and then overcomes those formal and expressive challenges it encounters to a degree that intrigues, frequently provokes but always engages the listener: something that should never be taken for granted. BCMG: NEXT earlier took the stage – pianist Rob Hao evincing due sensitivity in extracts from Lachenmann’s Ein Kinderspiel and in the eddying resonances of Wiegenmusik, before joining with flautist Emily Hicks for the plaintiveness of Mason’s Heaven’s Chimes are Slow.

You can read all about future events at the BCMG website. For more on the composers, visit sites dedicated to Christian Mason and Helmut Lachenmann – and for more on the performers, click on the names to read about Neue Vocalsolisten, Finchley Children’s Music Group and Michael Wendeberg

In concert – Jörg Widmann, CBSO – Weber, Widmann & Beethoven 7th symphony

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jörg Widmann (clarinet)

Weber (arr. Widmann) Clarinet Quintet in E flat major J182 (1815, arr. 2018)
Widmann Con Brio (2008); Drei Schattentänze (2013)
Beethoven Symphony no.7 in A major Op. 92 (1812)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 10 May 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Jörg Widmann has enjoyed a productive association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, having been Artist in Residence during the 2018/19 season, and tonight’s concert was typical with its playing to his strengths as composer, clarinettist and (by no means least) conductor.

Arranger, too, given this programme commenced with his take on Weber’s Clarinet Quintet. Most ambitious of its composer’s works for Heinrich Baermann, it demonstrably gains from receiving a concertante treatment. The interplay between clarinet and strings pointed up the acute contrasts of mood and motion in the initial Allegro, then transformed the Fantasia into an operatic ‘scena’ of sustained plangency. With its ‘capriccio presto’ marking and teasingly playful manner, no movement could be less like a Menuetto than the scherzo which follows; here and in the final Rondo, Widmann summoned a tensile virtuosity paying dividends in the latter’s impetuous course to a thrilling denouement. Having given us Weber’s ‘Third Clarinet Concerto’, maybe Widmann could add a Fourth by transforming the Grand Duo Concertant?

The stage was reset for Con Brio, most often played of Widmann’s orchestral works and (in other contexts) a curtain-raiser bar none. Commissioned to accompany Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies in a cycle by Mariss Jansons with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, it alludes to both pieces while casting an ear – sometimes facetious, always provocative – over two centuries of European art-music. Whether Widmann hears this as running on borrowed time, the closing bars do not so much resolve as atrophy via a break-down of graphic intent.

A darkened stage greeted listeners after the interval, across which was placed the music for each of Widmann’s Three Shadow Dances. These combine extended clarinet techniques with engaging, often playful virtuosity – moving (right to left) from the deadpan jazz gestures of ‘Echo-Tanz’, through the submerged remoteness (with no electronic treatment) of ‘(Under) Water Dance’, to the uproarious routines of ‘Danse africaine’ where the instrument becomes its own percussion outfit as it bounds towards the ‘elephant calls’ that signify its conclusion.

It made sense to round off the evening with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, having already been anticipated in the first half. In his opening remarks, Widmann spoke of the life-changing effect this work had at first hearing, and he duly threw caution to the wind with a reading that brimmed over with the excitement of new discovery. Surprisingly, he chose not to divide the violins right and left, as this would have emphasized their dizzying antiphonal exchanges in the outer movements. Having set a challengingly fast tempo for the scherzo, which the CBSO met with assurance, he might profitably have held back marginally for the greater part of the finale – enabling the coda to ‘take off’ with a frisson as could only be inferred here. This was otherwise a performance that conveyed the music’s visceral essence with thrilling immediacy.

It set the seal on an impressive showing for Widmann and this orchestra, who will hopefully be working together again in a future season. Next week sees the CBSO reunited with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla for a performance of Mahler’s decidedly non-valedictory Tenth Symphony.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website – and for specific information on Mirga conducting Mahler, click here. There are several sites to visit for more info on Jörg Widmann – click here for his official site, here for his profile at publisher Schott Music, and here for information from his management at HarrisonParrott

In concert – Binker Golding @ The Forge

Binker Golding (saxophone)

The Forge, Camden, London
Thursday11 May 2023

Reviewed by John Earls. Picture (c) John Earls

I once spoke to jazz saxophonist Binker Golding last year just after he had performed a blistering set at London’s Rough Trade East, promoting his excellent Feeding the Machine album with drummer Moses Boyd (very different but exciting musical fare). I told him I’d seen him at Ronnie Scott’s (with a quintet doing some new tunes for a forthcoming album) just as we were coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Oh?” he said, “It was all right, yeah?” I assured him it was. But was quite surprised he felt he had to ask.

This gig at The Forge in Camden with a superb seven piece band was testimony to what a great foundation that Ronnie’s gig was. Right from the off this outfit grabbed the evening and ripped up a storm.

The set mostly comprised of material from last year’s wonderful (and superbly titled) album Dream Like a Dogwood Wild Boy. It’s a great collection of tunes traversing across jazz, Americana, country and blues.

Opening with (Take Me To The) Wide Open Lows we get the mix of melody and solo virtuosity that is a feature throughout the evening whereby the band including Benet McLean (violin), Billy Adamson (guitars) and Daniel Casimir (bass) get to show what they can do collectively and individually. Philip Achille (harmonica) was a particular stand out for taking his instrument to places you didn’t know it could go. 

I have to confess I was more than a little disappointed when I found out that Sarah Tandy and Sam Jones were not going to be performing (as originally advertised). Tandy’s thrilling piano and Jones’ relaxed but sharp drumming – both of which are not only a feature of the album but were a considerable part of a performance at Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room in November 2022 for the London Jazz Festival – were something I was particularly looking forward to.

However, Deschanel Gordon – on organ rather than piano – and Zoe Pascal on drums offered a different but equally compelling dimension to the proceedings.

All Out Of Fairy Tales was a brilliant closer (as it is on the album). A beautifully wistful number.

I love the musicians that Binker Golding puts around him, what he does with them and what he lets them do. They seem to love it too.

Whether he thinks it or not (we didn’t get the chance to speak afterwards this time) this concert was a stunning display of what an assured composer, performer and band leader Binker Golding is. And if he’s reading this, it was more than all right.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

You can listen to the Binker Golding album on Spotify below:

In concert – Jennifer Johnston, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko – The Divine Poem

Jennifer Johnston (soprano, above), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (below)

Deutsch Phantasma (2022) [RLPO co-commission: UK premiere]
Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884-5)
Scriabin Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.43 ‘The Divine Poem’ (1902-4)

Philharmonic Hall, London
Thursday 4 May 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

He may now be the orchestra’s conductor laureate, but the 15-year partnership between Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was always tangible in this evening’s concert – its refreshingly different programme summoning the best from both orchestra and conductor.

Co-commissioning music by Bernd Richard Deutsch was an astute move – the Vienna-based composer now in his mid-40s and among the leading composers of his generation. Taking its cue from the Beethoven Frieze which Gustav Klimt devised for the 14th Vienna Secessionist Exhibition in 1902, this 15-minute piece takes a pointedly dialectical route as it evolves from the fractured uncertainty of yearning and suffering, via the cumulative intensity of a struggle against hostile forces, to the attainment of happiness through poetic creation. To what degree this might be a commentary on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (as embodied in the three parts of Klimt’s opus) is uncertain, but the motivic ingenuity and orchestral virtuosity of Deutsch’s response can hardly be doubted – not least in a performance as assured and committed as this.

If the indisposition of Adela Zaharia meant the regrettable omission of Strauss’s rarely heard Brentano-Lieder from tonight’s concert (though Petrenko has scheduled them with the Royal Philharmonic next season), hearing Jennifer Johnston in Mahler’s Gesellen-Lieder was by no means a hardship. The four songs, to the composer’s own texts, comprise an overview of his preoccupations (creative and otherwise) in his mid-20s with numerous anticipations of what became his First Symphony. Outlining a delicate interplay of pensiveness and wistfulness in the initial song, Johnston was no less attentive to its successor’s mingling of innocence with experience, and if the surging histrionics of the third song bordered on the melodramatic, the fatalistic procession of the final number felt the more affecting for its restrained eloquence.

Petrenko (above) set down a highly regarded cycle of Scriabin Symphonies over his tenure with the Oslo Philharmonic, and if the RLPO lacked any of that orchestra’s fastidious poise, the sheer verve and energy of its playing more then compensated. Not least in an opening movement whose unfolding can seem longer on ambition than attainment, but which was held together with unforced conviction – the most often prolix development duly emerging with a tautness to make it more than usually emblematic of this work’s metaphysical Struggles as a whole.

Outwardly more compact, the remaining movements require astute and cumulative handling such as these received here. The alternately enchanting and ominous Delights melded into an enfolding yet never amorphous entity, out of which the more animated motion of Divine Play gradually brought together earlier ideas on its way to an apotheosis whose amalgam of the work’s principal themes yielded grandiloquence without undue bathos. Scriabin’s cosmic aspirations thereby seemed the more ‘real’ for being the expression of purely musical forces. An expanded RLPO (its nine horns arrayed across the upper tier of the platform) was heard to advantage in the ambience of Philharmonic Hall, contributions by trumpeter Richard Cowen and leader Thelma Handy enhancing what was an authoritative and memorable performance.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra website. Click on the artist names for more on Jennifer Johnston and conductor Vasily Petrenko, and for more on composer Bernd Richard Deutsch – who also has a dedicated page at his publisher Boosey