Live review – Benjamin Grosvenor, CBSO / Vassily Sinaisky – Mozart, Sibelius & Wagner

Benjamin Grosvenor (above, piano), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraVassily Sinaisky (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 25 October 2018 (matinee concert)

Wagner Der fliegende Holländer – Overture (1841)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.21 in C major K467 (1785)
Sibelius Symphony no.1 in E minor Op.39 (1899)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It has often been remarked that concerts adhering to the once ‘standard’ format of overture, concerto and symphony are hardly frequent nowadays, so making this afternoon’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Vassily Sinaisky the more welcome.

Wagner has always made for an effective curtain-raiser, not least his overture to The Flying Dutchman. Earliest of his acknowledged operas, its eventful 10 minutes fairly encapsulate the salient incidents and principal themes – not least in this performance, Sinaisky confirming his operatic credentials (in which capacity he has been regrettably little heard in the UK) with an assured reading; most perceptive in its approach to Senta’s eloquent ballad near the beginning and in its Tristanesque return during the closing bars such as Wagner transformed in revision.

A scaled-down CBSO was equally responsive in Mozart‘s K467, happily no longer indelibly associated with one of the dreariest 1960s films. Often at his most perceptive in 19th-century music, Benjamin Grosvenor is no slouch in Mozart and his performance – as was that at this year’s Proms with the BBCSO and Sakari Oramo – was full of felicitous phrasing, even if the formal focus of the imposing first movement was likely of Sinaisky’s choosing. The Andante was affecting without affectation, Grosvenor embedding the solo part closely into that of the orchestra, then the final rondo conjured up effervescence at a not unduly headlong tempo. All credit to Grosvenor in choosing cadenzas by Robert Casadesus (whose Mozart recordings are required listening) and for a limpid reading of Rachmaninov‘s Lilacs as his encore.

Although his ambivalent relationship with the Austro-German symphonic tradition has often been noted, Sibelius’s Russian heritage is often downplayed – yet his first two symphonies would be inconceivable without Tchaikovsky’s input. The First of these has been compared with the Pathétique in its epic and ultimately tragic nature, but the influence of the Russian’s Fifth Symphony feels even more overt in its sombre clarinet-led introduction and an Allegro with its ingenious take on the sonata format. Sinaisky duly has the measure of its brooding power and surging energy, then opted for a flowing account of the Andante that brought out its pathos and quixotic changes of mood without it seeming turgid or episodic. The Scherzo, too, had the requisite dynamism and, in its trio, an appealing whimsy that was deftly drawn.

The highlight, though, was the finale – most often the movement which fails to ignite by dint of its discursive structure. Yet ‘Quasi una Fantasia’ need not imply rhapsodic and Sinaisky treated it accordingly, characterizing its dramatic then fervent themes with due appreciation of their formal integration towards an impassioned climax whose fateful outcome was never in doubt. It helped that orchestral playing was of unwavering commitment, with the CBSO giving of its collective best in a piece which it has played frequently over the past 86 years.

It set the seal on a concert which was a reminder one that even a mainstream programme can surprise and engage when the constituents are thoughtfully planned and performances never less than responsive. The enthusiastic reception of a sizable house was its own confirmation.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

Live review – London Contemporary Orchestra @ The Barbican: Other Worlds

London Contemporary Orchestra & ChoirRobert Ames
Universal Assembly Unit (art direction)
Artrendex (artificial intelligence)

Barbican Hall, London
Wednesday 31 October 2018

Scelsi Uaxuctum (1969) (UK premiere)
John Luther Adams Become Ocean (2013)

Written by Ben Hogwood

If the apocalypse comes while we are alive, what music do you want played?

It is a thought-provoking question, one that some composers have tackled head-on by writing music of their own. The end of days provided the link for this programme of polar opposites from the London Contemporary Orchestra, given at the Barbican to the accompaniment of images dictated by algorithmic responses, thanks to the AI technology of Artrendex and the Universal Assembly Unit.

The first part was the end of days in the darkest possible sense. Giacinto Scelsi’s five-part Uaxuctum takes as its inspiration the Legend of the Maya City, and its self-destruction for religious reasons. Due to the demands made on the performers – and, the programme argued, an overly conservative approach to using Scelsi’s music – this was the UK premiere of a piece written nearly fifty years ago.

The textures were remarkable, achieved through a variety of vocal techniques such as trills, tremolos, hissing, deep breathing and nasal sounds. The use of quarter tones lent an extra level of difficulty and a sense of dread to the music, the vocals stubbornly sat in between the instrumental notes at times. The London Contemporary Choir met these demands heroically, stood on the left under a screen whose barbed imagery and sudden explosions of orange and red light were wholly appropriate.

The sizable orchestra was bolstered by a massive battery of percussion, including an enormous barrel rubbed with a ‘thundersheet’ – which made a suitably massive noise. This provided some chilling, incendiary shocks, while the percussion themselves supported the music from what felt like underneath the floorboards.

Perhaps because of the massive screen the edge was taken off the sound a little, which compromised the raw impact of the piece, but Scelsi’s often monotone musical language left an incredibly strong impact under the passionate direction of Robert Ames. Its resultant chill stayed throughout the interval.

John Luther Adams, environmentalist as well as composer, has garnered many plaudits for Become Ocean, a 2013 composition that sees the Earth returning to its early state of complete water coverage. Should it happen again, this form of apocalypse would be man-made; the ultimate destination should global warming continue in the way it does.

Adams chose not respond to this with the sharp edges and doom-mongered percussion of an industrial age. Rather he utilises the orchestra as a single instrument of subtly altering shades, beginning low in the murky depths of the piano but gradually superimposing layers to make a wonderfully sonorous block chord the listener can literally dive into.

Interpreting this as a colour, it could only be the deepest blue of the unfathomable ocean, and the imagery responded as such, submerging the orchestra in slow moving waves under deep, grey cloud. We were, it seemed, cast out in the middle of the ocean, as far from land as could be, but this was to be a meditative exile, accepting of its fate if not wholly aspiring to it.

The music carried for 45 minutes and there were several climax points, where the images grew deeper, before Ames pulled us back to the bare bones again. Adams ended where he had begun, back in the lower reaches of the piano.

Silence was the only appropriate response to this wall of water through sound, a wonderful contemplation and immersion that proved unexpectedly moving, the realisation hitting home of just how much damage we have inflicted on our own planet.

If they ever met, Scelsi and Adams would surely have found a common ground, despite the fascination of their wildly different responses to the final, greatest destruction. They left us with much to ponder and admire, especially from the London Contemporary Orchestra, whose standard of performance was unstinting, and whose virtuosity behind the scenes ensured these two apocalyptic visions met their final destination.

Further listening

The works in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

Wigmore Mondays: Thibaut Garcia & Antoine Morinière – Bach Inspirations

Thibaut Garcia (guitar, above), Antoine Morinière (guitar)

Barrios La Catedral (1921) (1:38-8:39)
Tansman Inventions (Hommage à Bach) (1967) (9:47-20:23) , Pièce en forme de passacaille (1953) (20:57-26:14)
Bach arr. Garcia / Morinière Two-Part Inventions (c1720) (28:36-34:12) – nos. 7 (28:36), 8 (29:53),9 (31:10), & 10 (33:18)
Allemande from English Suite No.3 in G minor (before 1720) (34:49-38:02)
Bach. arr Garcia Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV1004 (1720) (40:06-53:36)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 29 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

One of the most endearing aspects of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is its adaptability. It can be enjoyed on any instrument, a statement which rings true for only a few composers of his time. He did not write for the guitar directly, but in his lute writing and pieces for stringed instruments he often used melodies and figuration that transcribes effortlessly for the guitar. There is much to be found in this respect in the ‘easier’ keyboard pieces, several of which Thibaut Garcia and fellow guitarist Antoine Morinière played here.

This was a very well thought out program, picking up on composers for the guitar for whom J.S. Bach was a lasting influence. It began with Paraguayan composer Agustín Pío Barrios, a colourful composer whose music embraces the folk tunes of his country but is also in thrall to Bach. La Catedral, a three part homage, was beautifully played here (from 1:38 on the broadcast). In three sections, it set out a mood of affected nostalgia in the first, Preludio Saudade, before the Andante religioso (3:54) took on a processional mood. Finally Allegro Solemne (5:54) gained more momentum but was still carefully studied by Thibaut.

Polish composer Alexandre Tansman’s affectionate tribute of five brief Inventions began with a stately Passepied (9:47), moving on to an emotive Sarabande in the minor key (11:57), a Sicilienne with a nice lilt (14:17), a more lively Toccata (16:00), and then an introspective Aria (17:28). Capping this was a stand-alone Passacaille of impressive stature, given over an ever-present chord sequence.

The Bach inventions (28:36), transcribed into more ‘guitar friendly’ keys, worked well and became a very personal dialogue between two friends. It was as though one guitarist had taken the right hand part and the other the left hand, and were exchanging Bach’s ideas freely. It worked very nicely in the Wigmore acoustic, whether in the perky inventions (8 and 10) where the melodies passed seamlessly, or in the slower ones where the slightly different phrasing of each guitarist lent a nice personal touch.

The Allemande from the English Suite no.3 (34:49) was a graceful dance that became an intimate call and response, the parts originally written for both hands transferring nicely to the two guitars.

Arranging the Chaconne (40:06) for guitar is an impressive feat indeed – still more because Garcia managed to make it less about display (which many artists do) and more about emotional content. The single lines had a deep profundity, but when the virtuoso lines really did get going (from around 43:30) they were key to the overall impact as well as providing a dazzling technical display. Some of the weight of the piece is lost in transcription as far as sheer volume is concerned, but Garcia more than made up for this in a studied and brilliantly played account. There was a lovely transformation into the major key at 46:55, before returning to the sterner confines of the minor key again for the end.

Garcia’s brief encore (57:33-59:28) made excellent use of the harmonics. As you will hear on the broadcast in his amusing story, it is the Catalan folksong El testament de n’Amèlia (Amèlia’s Will), arranged by Miguel Llobet.

Further listening

You can track the repertoire used in this concert via the following Spotify playlist:

Meanwhile Thibaut Garcia’s new disc, Bach Inspirations, contains much of the music heard here, and is out now on Warner Classics:

Bach’s lute music transfers very well for guitar, as this album by the great guitarist Julian Bream demonstrates:

Wigmore Mondays: Karina Gauvin & Maciej Pikulski – French song

Karina Gauvin (soprano, above) and Maciej Pikulski (piano, below)

Hahn Quand je fus pris au pavillon (1899) (1:26-2:41); Si mes vers avaient des ailes (1888) (2:45-5:23; A Chloris (1916) (5:26-8:40)
Debussy Nuit d’étoiles (c1880) (9:59-13:04), Mandoline (1882) (13:09-15:06), Beau soir (1891) (15:10-18:00), L’Enfant prodigue – Récitatif et air de Lia (1884) (18:38-23:44)
Poulenc Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne (1931) (25:21-26:12, 26:15-27:03, 27:07; Métamorphoses (1943) (29:31-; Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon – C (1943) (34:46-38:18)
Bizet Guitare (1866) (39:57-42:20), La coccinelle (1868) (42:27-47:36), Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe (1867) (47:51-52:55), Ouvre ton Coeur (1859-60) (53:05-55:47)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 22 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

An enjoyable tour around the French ‘mélodie’ from Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin and pianist Maciej Pikulski began with the music of Hahn. A celebrated song composer, his melodic gifts were fully evident in this selection of three, although the wide vibrato Gauvin employed did sometimes lessen its impact. A bright account of Quand je fus pris au pavillon (from 1:26 on the broadcast) showed off the breezy, outdoor approach, but the vibrato was too wide in an otherwise gentle Si mes vers avaient des ailes (2:45). The wonderful A Chloris, with its homage to Bach in the serene piano part, found ideal phrasing from Pikulski and rapturous delivery from Gauvin, if again a little too wobbly.

She was on much more secure ground in a selection of early Debussy. The composer’s first published work, Nuit d’étoiles was especially effective in its evocation of the lyre, where Pikulski was superb and Gauvin had a lovely, floated delivery. Mandoline was also a treat in the unison towards the end of the song, while Beau Soir savoured the heady atmosphere of the sunset. There followed an aria from L’Enfant prodigue (18:38), a dramatic tour de force where Gauvin took complete control, singing powerfully of a mother’s loss.

Poulenc’s songs are never less than entertaining in concert, though you have to be quick to appreciate some as they are gone in mere moments! There was a nonsensical air to two of the three poèmes, whose text are attributed to the fictitious Louise Lalanne. The first two sped by in a blur, nicely pointed and characterised, before the slower Hier went much deeper in its emotional impact.

The first of the Métamorphoses was similarly brief (29:31) but the flowing second (30:43) was a slow and thoughtful utterance, beautifully paced. The third (33:29) raced away from sight, but then as a complete contrast we had the down at heel dfgd (34:46), contemplating Paris in the wake of the Second World War.

Gauvin and Pikulski finished with a very varied quartet of Bizet songs, beginning with the bracing Guitare (39:57), with words by Victor Hugo. The piano imitated the strummed chords of the instrument and turning to sunnier climbs as C major replaced C minor (41:32) Gauvin relished the vocal demands here and in La coccinelle, another Hugo text of curious form which she characterised richly. In Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe (47:51) we had the highlight of the whole recital, and surely one of Bizet’s best songs – a profound departure with a deep sense of longing that Gauvin wholly inhabited, right up to the floated final notes. Then Ouvre ton Coeur (53:05) brought flashes of exoticism with the added notes of Pikulski’s thrummed accompaniment and Gauvin’s vibrato, on this occasion perfectly judged, to the sudden cry of the final note.

Gauvin gave us one of Poulenc’s most popular songs, Les Chemins de l’amour, as an encore (57:44-1:02:24) – and though a slow version it found the bittersweet heart of the song.

Further listening

You can track the repertoire used in this concert via the following Spotify playlist:

(Veronique Gens)

Oxford Lieder Festival – Kai Rüütel and Roger Vignoles: Tallinn to St Petersburg

Kai Rüütel (soprano, above), Roger Vignoles (piano, below)

Härma Ei saa mitte vaiki olla (I cannot stay silent)
Brahms Wie Melodien Op.105/1, Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer Op.105/2, Klage Op.105/3, Auf dem Kirchhofe Op.105/4
Rachmaninov O, dolgo budu ja, v molchan’i nochi tajnoj (In the silence of the secret night) Op.4/3, Poljubila ja (The Soldier’s Wife) Op.8/4, Zdes’ khorosho (How fair is the spot) Op.21/7
Mägi Kolm laulu Betti Alveri luulele (3 songs on poems by Betti Alver) [(Päike paistis, kaste hiilgas (The sun was shining, the dew gleamed), Kui kajab muusika (When music echoes), Uneaknale, uneaknale kevad koputas (On the window of sleep)]
Tormis Nukrad Viivud (Sorrowful Moments) [Kevadpäike, ära looju veel (Spring sun, do not set yet), Sügislaul (Autumn Song), Ei ole roose õitsenud minule (‘No roses have bloomed for me’), Armastus (‘Love’)
Rimsky-Korsakov Plenivshis rozoj, solovey (The Nightingale) Op.2/2, Na kholmakh Gruzii (On Georgia’s Hills) Op.3/4, Serenade Op.4/4, Drobitsya, i pleshchet, i brizzhet volna (The wave breaks) Op.46/1, Kogda volnuyetsya zhelteyushchaya niva (When the ripening wheat fields gently stir) Op.40/1
Mart Saar nnemuiste (In Days of Yore), Kõrs kahiseb (The Straw Murmurs), Kadunud ingel ‘Lost Angel’, Sügismõtted (Autumn Thoughts), Mis see oli? (What was It?), Üks ainus kord (Only Once More)

Holywell Music Room, Oxford
Wednesday 17 October 2018 (evening)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Continuing the Baltic theme of this Wednesday at the Oxford Lieder Festival, Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel and pianist Roger Vignoles gave a fascinating concert introducing their audience to Estonian song from the 20th century, helpfully placed in the context of Romantic Russian and German song. Rüütel had very helpfully provided English translations of the Estonian songs, which was particularly useful for those Festival goers who had attended the earlier ‘Language Lab’ in the Ashmolean museum, where we had an introduction to the language from Kerli Liksor.

Rüütel set the tone with the unaccompanied Estonian folk song Ei saa mitte vaiki olla (I cannot stay silent), before four late Brahms songs showed off the rich tones of her mezzo-soprano. Yet there was a feeling these were merely a prelude to the meat of the concert, which really began with a wonderfully evocative account of the first of three Rachmaninov songs, In the silence of the secret night. The value of Vignoles’ scene setting was incalculable both here and in the Brahms, with some complex piano writing handled with apparent ease and an instinctive sense of melody and expression. Rüütel inhabited the character of The Soldier’s Wife with a powerful sorrow, contrasted with a dream-like finish to How Fair Is The Spot.

There followed 3 Songs on poems by Betti Alver from the 96-year old Estonian composer Ester Mägi. These had a very clear sense of location in their folk-inspired melodies, with distinctive inflections that Rüütel was ideally placed to exploit. These were mirrored in the piano part, which provided a particularly dramatic introduction for the second song, Where Music Echoes. The directness of the text was strangely refreshing and was reflected in the economy of the music, slightly redolent of Janáček in its economy but forging a very distinctive path.

The name of Veljo Tormis will be a more familiar name to students of Baltic music. Known primarily for his choral work, he is a fine song composer too – and the 1958 collection Sorrowful Moments left a lasting impression. Its central pair, Autumn Song and No Roses Have Bloomed For Me, were darkly toned, but the final Love offered much greater hope, Rüütel singing from the heart of ‘the stars that light the traveller’s way’.

Photo credit (c) Ben Ealovega

We returned to Russia for the beginning of the second half, with some rarely heard songs from Rimsky-Korsakov. Given the melodic prowess and dramatic scene setting on show in songs like On Georgia’s Hills and The Wave Breaks it remains a mystery that Rimsky’s songs are not heard more in the concert hall. Rüütel sang them with great fullness of tone but also enjoyed the more tender moments of Serenade and When The Ripening Wheat Fields Gently Stir. Vignoles’ tumultuous evocation of The Wave Breaks was a highlight; so too the pair’s account of The Nightingale.

Finally we heard the music of Mart Saar, an Estonian composer from the first half of the 20th century who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov. In one of several helpful introductions Rüütel told of how Saar followed Rimsky’s advice to ‘be himself’ but also to take risks – and those qualities were evident in these deceptive songs. They were deceptive because some of the twists and turns had an individual quirk, Romantic in profile but alighting on unexpected harmonies or melodies. To Rüütel these were second nature, and in Autumn thoughts especially she found a deep, soulful mood. The first song, In days of yore, had more obvious folk music inflections, but perhaps the most dramatic song of all was Lost Angel, where Vignoles’ mastery of the challenging piano part set the way clear for Rüütel’s direct, emotive response.

As an encore Rüütel and Vignoles gave us a timeless account of Richard Strauss’s Morgen which, while brilliantly performed it did not distract from the impact of the Estonian and Russian music we had just heard. Clearly there are many riches to be discovered from the Baltics, and it is to be hoped Rüütel and Vignoles might set these down permanently for a record company such as Hyperion.

This was a memorable concert, and will be broadcast soon on BBC Radio 3. It comes with the strongest possible recommendation!

Further listening

There is relatively little material on streaming services with which to discover Estonian songs – but there is a new series devoted to the songs of Mart Saar that has just begun:

Meanwhile most of the music from the concert can be heard on the below Spotify playlist: