In concert – Echoes/BCMG NEXT @ Centrala

bcmg-next-centrala

Anderson Scherzo (with trains) (1993)
Salonen
Pentatonic Étude (2008)
Birtwistle
Duets for Storab (1983)
Donatoni
Soft (1989)
Finnis
Brother (2012/15)

Musicians from BCMG NEXT

Centrala, Digbeth, Birmingham
Thursday 16 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may not be the most easily locatable arts venue of those within Birmingham’s inner suburbs, but Centrala – launched almost a decade ago as a base for the dissemination and promotion of Central and Easter European cultures – was an appealing space for this latest recital featuring NEXT musicians from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. The performance area itself might have been compact to a fault, but there no feeling of excessive restriction in the course of what was a varied yet balanced programme of works stretching across almost four decades.

It began in invigorating fashion with a timely revival of Scherzo (with trains) whose premiere at Wigmore Hall was an early success for Julian Anderson – being one of his most engaging works for ensemble and a major contribution to its genre. Drawing inspiration from Thoreau as well as rhythms of high-speed trains, two clarinets (Heather Ryall and George Blakesley), basset horn (Beth Nichol) and bass clarinet (Emily Wilson) unfold an unpredictable discourse; one whose requirements of technique and coordination were met in this assured performance.

A pity that the scheduled account of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Spectra was lost through Covid-related issues, but a further hearing for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude was certainly no hardship. This testing paraphrase on a passage from Bartók’s unfinished Viola Concerto puts the soloist through its paces, restating the original in an understated apotheosis realized by Cameron Howe with evident sensitivity. Also reappearing from NEXT’s recent recital at Coventry Cathedral was Harrison Birtwistle’s Duets for Storab. Written when the composer lived on the Inner Hebridean island of Raasay, its inspiration lies in locations each having the name of a Viking prince whose shipwreck, pursuit and death are charted over six evocative pieces. Flautists Rebecca Speller and Leila Hooton were heard in (mainly) whimsical accord.

The music of Franco Donatoni enjoyed a brief vogue here in the decade before his death, but there have been few performances since – so making this revival of Soft the more welcome. Written for the late Harry Sparnaay, the bass clarinet’s doughtiest champion, this tensile and eventful piece feels typical of his late maturity in the way that seemingly detached, and even arbitrary gestures gradually build into a cohesive and cumulative continuity; one in which the expressive possibilities of the instrument are explored intensively though with no little irony.

Heather Ryall proved no mean exponent of this piece, as were Claudia Dehnke and Cameron Howe of Brother by Edmund Finnis. Written while he was composer-in-residence with the London Contemporary Orchestra, its four movements chart a gradually elaborating interplay between violin and viola, evolving from the meditative and incremental to the energetic and demonstrative – without the rapport between these instruments drawing apart in the process. Suffice to add the present performance lacked for nothing in terms of incisiveness or finesse.

It also brought to a close this final BCMG event for 2021. Dates of further performances are being announced in the new year, and it would be a shame if these not to feature a return to Centrala – well worth a visit by anyone who happens to be passing through Birmingham B5.

Further information on the BCMG can be found at their website. For more on NEXT Musicians click here, then on each of the composers names for the websites of Julian Anderson (with an alternative here), Esa-Pekka Salonen, Harrison Birtwistle, Franco Donatoni and Edmund Finnis. Finally for more information on the Centrala venue, click here

Online concert – Steven Isserlis & Connie Shih mark the centenary of Saint-Saëns @ Wigmore Hall

steven-isserlis

Saint-Saëns Cello Sonata no.1 in C minor Op.32 (1872)
Liszt Romance oubliée S132 (1880)
Fauré Romance Op.69 (1894)
Saint-Saëns Romance in F major Op.36 (1874)
Bizet arr. Hollman Carmen fantaisie (not known)
Willaume La noce bretonne Op.14 (pub. 1924)
Holmès arr. Isserlis Noël d’Irlande (1897)
Hahn 2 improvisations sur des airs irlandais (1894 rev. 1911)
Saint-Saëns Cello Sonata no.2 in F major Op.123 (1905)

Steven Isserlis (cello, above), Connie Shih (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, London
Thursday 16 December 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

This well-devised program to mark the centenary of the death of Saint-Saëns was put together by cellist Steven Isserlis and his regular partner, pianist Connie Shih. They presented the composer’s two cello sonatas, the first of which was recorded by Isserlis back in 1992, in an intriguing historical context.

There is no room for shrinking violets in the first movement of the Cello Sonata no.1 in C minor Op.32, a relatively early work, and both performers threw themselves headlong into the music. Saint-Saëns was a virtuoso pianist, and on occasion his writing for the instrument is as demanding if not more so than the instrument it is ‘accompanying’. Here however the two were on equal terms, with plenty of cut and thrust in a dramatic first movement. The C minor casting and stormy start draw parallels with Beethoven, and these were built upon in the players’ compelling dialogue. The improvisatory slow movement was ideally poised, with an air of mystery in its central section where the cello was in its lowest register, complemented by twinkling figures from the piano. The Allegro moderato third movement returned us to powerful, passionate music, Isserlis’ double stopping passages immaculately delivered and Shih finding the necessary definition and phrasing in a superbly played piano part.

A full 32 years elapsed between the first sonata and its sequel, the Cello Sonata no.2 in F major Op.123. By this time the 70 year-old composer’s style had developed considerably. It is a substantial piece, running over 35 minutes, and is perhaps less-performed on that basis, not to mention the demands made on the performers. Isserlis and Shih showed what a fine work it is, however, in a performance that was gripping from the off, full of passion but also finding the more elusive statements in the quieter music, where Saint-Saëns could be found writing subtle but far-reaching sleights of harmony.

A joyous opening paragraph surged forward with considerable energy, powering an impressive and flowing first movement, Shih harnessing the power of the piano but continuing to hold a sensitive balance. She led off a capricious scherzo, whose variations were brilliantly characterized, from a limpid third variation (marked Tranquille) to a rippling Molto allegro that followed.

The heart of the piece, however, lies in the substantial Romance, a dreamy slow movement with a beautiful melody and a profound middle section turning towards the minor key. Both played with poise and affection, finding the centre of music the audience could fully lose themselves in. The last movement, which the composer promised ‘will wake anyone who’s slept through the rest of the piece’, was terrific, working from its deceptively innocuous opening phrase to throw off the shackles and end in celebratory mood. Isserlis was typically generous with his expression, with Shih deserving credit for her technical command and shapely melodic phrasing. The octaves towards the end were especially well-handled.

While the two sonatas were the main works of the concert, the complementary pieces were no less involving, providing an ideal foil. Firstly we heard from Saint-Saëns’ close friend Liszt, one of his few works for cello and piano. The Romance oubliée began with a recitative, with beautiful tone in the held notes from the cello, setting the (intense) mood. Then another great friend (and pupil), Fauré – whose Romance uses the whole range of the cello, starting in the mysterious depths and ending in the rarefied upper register. Saint-Saens’ own warm-hearted Romance in F major Op.36 was affectionately recounted, before the showstopping Carmen fantasie from Saint-Saëns’ friend and regular recital partner, Joseph Hollman. This was a showstopper, with quickfire dances and a pizzicato Habanera, stylishly done by Isserlis.

Shorter pieces followed from Gabriel Willaume, Reynaldo Hahn and Augusta Holmès, each with fascinating connections to the composer. Willaume’s La noce bretonne (The Breton wedding) was rather moving, its distant drone growing in feeling and power before passing by and disappearing again. Hahn’s 2 improvisations were songlike and affecting in their simplicity, a soulful Willow Tree especially, before an arrangement by Isserlis of Holmès song Noël d’Irlande, its pentatonic language easy to absorb.

This was a very fine concert, with playing of an exceptionally high standard by both artists, but crucially with the involvement that told us how Saint-Saëns, in particular, could combine virtuosity with deep feeling, contrary to some opinion. It is hard to imagine how his centenary could have been better observed – and it ended with a perfectly weighted account of The Swan, one of his most famous shorter pieces – taken as it is from Carnival of the Animals. Isserlis needed only to introduce it with a wave of the hand.

You can watch this concert on the Wigmore Hall website for the next 28 days – and you can hear most of the music played by Isserlis and Shih on the Spotify playlist below, with some of the recordings drawn from their recent album Music from Proust’s Salons. That disc can be heard (and purchased) from the BIS website

On record – Peter Dickinson: Lockdown Blues (Somm Recordings)

lockdown-blues

Barber (arr. Dickinson) Canzonetta Op. 48 (1977-8)*
Berkeley
Andante Op.23/6 (1945)
Cage
In a Landscape (1948)
Dickinson
Blue Rose (1978); Freda’s Blues (2016); Lockdown Blues (2020)
Ellington (arr. Dickinson)
Twelve Melodies (1932-43)*
Gershwin
Three-Quarter Blues (c1925); Who Cares? (1931)
Goossens
Lament for a Departed Doll Op.18/10 (1917)
Lambert
Elegiac Blues (1927)
MacDowell
To a Wild Rose Op.51/1 (1896)
Poulenc
Pastourelle IFP69 (1927); Bal fantôme IFP64/4 (c1934)
Satie
Trois Gymnopédies IES26 (1888); Trois Gnossiennes IES24 Nos.1-3 (1889-90)

Peter Dickinson (piano)

SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0644 [68’24”]

Producer & Engineer Peter Newble

Recorded 16 and 17 April 2021 at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk. * indicates first recordings

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Peter Dickinson here turns the third phase of lockdown to his – and our – advantage with this collection of piano music touching on the blues and jazz which have long been a mainstay of his careers as performer and composer, and which also includes two notable first recordings.

What’s the music like?

The programme commences with the pensive sadness of Dickinson’s Freda’s Blues, written in memory of the widow of Lennox Berkeley, continuing with a poised and refreshingly non-mawkish take on MacDowell’s perennial To a Wild Rose – its blues and rag idioms made the basis of Dickinson’s Blue Rose. The empathetic feel of Lambert’s Elegiac Blues in memory of singer Florence Mills is affectingly caught, while Dickinson’s marrying of blues and Bach in Lockdown Blues recalls George Shearing’s pioneering such fusions. After the drollery of Poulenc’s Bal fantôme, Dickinson’s reworking of the Canzonetta which Barber intended for his unrealized Oboe Concerto proves a focal-point in its searching pathos. Such a quality is also to the fore in Berkeley’s limpid Andante, as is the alluring charm of Gershwin’s Three-Quarter Blues – and to which the whimsy of Poulenc’s Pastourelle provides a pertinent foil.

Whether as solo pianist or in recital with his sister Meriel, Dickinson has been unstinting in his advocacy of Satie and his reading of the original Gnossiennes (not those three published decades after the composer’s death) lacks for nothing in perception. Such is equally the case when, after the insinuating charm of Gershwin’s Who Cares? then the wistful eloquence of Goossens’s Lament for a Departed Doll, he renders Satie’s evergreen Gymnopédies with an objectivity that not unreasonably plays down the mystical aura often attributed to this music.

Perhaps the highlight here is Twelve Melodies that Dickinson has arranged from Ellington’s big-band numbers in what proved a veritable ‘golden age’ for such music and not previously recorded in this guise. Picking out a selection might hardly seem necessary, but the yearning of Solitude, eloquence of Lost in Meditation, questing emotions of Azure then the expressive warmth of Mood Indigo stand out in a sequence which concludes with the phlegmatic charm of Day-Dream then haunting atmosphere of Prelude to a Kiss. Moreover, Dickinson has one final trick up his sleeve with an elegant rendering of Cage’s In a Landscape – music in which this most recalcitrant of composers comes closest to his beloved Satie with its ineffable grace.

Does it all work?

Very much so, thanks not merely to the range of music covered but also through Dickinson’s insight. Into his 87th year when these recordings were made, his technique remains as fluent as his understanding and enjoyment are audible. Long able to accommodate the populist and the experimental within his own music, such inclusiveness extends to the idiomatic aspect of his interpretation and the deftness of his touch. Surely nothing can now prevent the Ellington set being taken up by pianists everywhere, with the numerous shorter pieces ideal as encores.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The piano sound has a naturalness and clarity ideal for this music, while few writers other than Dickinson would be equally aware of technical details and chart standings. Here is looking forward to further releases by this always resourceful pianist in his ‘Indian summer’.

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the SOMM Recordings website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more information on Peter Dickinson, click here.

In concert – Hockley Social Club & the CBSO present: Symphonic Sessions 2 – Ooh la la

2021.12.02 - Hockley Social Club Symphonic Sessions - cr. Hannah Fathers-5185

Symphonic Sessions 2 – Ooh la la

Emer/Piaf J’m’en fous pas mal (1946)
Milhaud Suite Op.157b – Jeu (1936)
Lili Boulanger Nocturne, ILB10 No. 2 (1911)
Satie Gymnopédie No. 1, IES26 No. 1 (1888)
Gould Benny’s Gig – VI, Calypso; VII, Jaunty (1962)
Khachaturian Clarinet Trio in G minor – Allegro (1932)
Louiguy/Piaf La vie en rose (1947)

Gilles Les trois cloches (1940)
Tiersen Amélie – Comptine d’un autre été (2001)
Debussy Première rhapsodie, ICD73 (1909-10)
Gershwin Shall We Dance – Walking the Dog (1937)
Stravinsky L’Histoire du soldat, Suite – Tango, Valse, Ragtime; Danse du diable (1919)
Tormé/Wells The Christmas Song (1945)
Glanzberg/Contet Padam, padam… (1951)

Gabrielle Ducomble (singer), Oliver Janes (clarinet), Colette Overdijk (violin), Julian Atkinson (double bass), James Keefe (piano)

Hockley Social Club, Birmingham
Thursday 2 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photos courtesy of Hannah Fathers

It might not have featured the eponymous song from John Cale, but this ‘Ooh la la’ certainly had more than its share of surprises in among the entertainment. The artistic and commercial success of the first Symphonic Sessions event held back in October meant that its successor, once again co-presented by Hockley Social Club (a beacon of light in the dreary surrounding of Newtown) and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, would not be long in coming. Soon enough for this to have taken on anticipations of Christmas in its overall aura, and with a cabaret element provided by Belgian chanteuse Gabrielle Ducomble, whose cover-versions of Édith Piaf have previously (and rightly) attracted widespread plaudits. The stage, or raised platform towards the centre of the venue, was ready for another varied and enjoyable evening.

The first set duly got off to a striking start with Michel Emer’s J’m’en fous pas mal, Gabrielle Ducomble bringing out the world-weariness of lyrics which Piaf all too easily made her own; and to which Jeu, third movement of Milhaud’s Suite for clarinet, violin and piano, provided a vivacious foil. The evocative poise of Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne was elegantly conveyed by Colette Overdijk, then James Keefe drew surprising nuances from electric piano for the first of Satie’s Gymnopédies. Oliver Janes and Julian Atkinson enjoyed putting two numbers from Morton Gould’s suite Benny’s Gig through their paces, the central scherzo of Khachaturian’s Clarinet Trio most engaging with its alternate vigour and suavity. Ducomble’s take on Louis Guglielmi’s La vie en rose, Piaf’s signature-song, brought this set to a warmly eloquent close.

After a ‘dessert interlude’, the second set found Ducomble leaving her mark on Jean Villard Gilles’s Les trois cloches (a Piaf song introduced to a new generation by Tina Arena), before the ‘Theme’ from Yann Tiersen’s music for the film Amélie injected an appealing whimsy. A sure highlight was Janes’s rendering of Debussy’s Première rhapsodie, sensuous and poetic by turns, then perfectly complemented by the coy jauntiness of Gershwin’s Walking the Dog (aka Promenade). Four dance pieces from the suite for violin, clarinet and piano arranged by Stravinsky from L’Histoire du soldat received an incisive response, then Ducomble offered a soulful take on Mel Tormé’s evergreen The Christmas Song. The faux affirmation of Norbert Glanzberg’s Padam, Padam… saw this Piaf-centred programme to its gently fatalistic ending.

Probably the only thing not really evident over the course of this evening was the ‘‘specially dressed bohemian finery of a rather festive feeling Hockley Social Club’’ as was detailed on the promotional flyer, but no matter. The reaction from a capacity house was never less than enthusiastic – doubtless abetted by the variety of food and drink (including another designer cocktail) available, with DJ sets from Pritt Kalsi which enhanced the ambience between the live music-making. Incidentally, those who enjoyed Gabrielle Ducomble’s singing can hear her in residence at London’s Brasserie Zédel in the final week of December, and Symphonic Sessions will be back in action sometime next spring – now established as an attraction well beyond the confines of B19 and likely to remain so throughout 2022, and hopefully beyond.

symphonic-sessions-2

Further information on Symphonic Sesions can be found here. For more information on Gabrielle Ducomble click here, and head to the Brasserie Zédel website for details on her residence there.

In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: CBSO Percussion Ensemble

Daugherty Lounge Lizards (1994)
Mazzoli
Volume (2006)
Reich
Dance Patterns (2002)
John Luther Adams
Qilyaun (1998)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble [James Keefe, Clíodna Shanahan (pianos), Adrian Spillett, Toby Hearney, Andrew Herbert, Matthew Hardy, RBC Students (percussion)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 3 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This last Centre Stage recital for 2021 brought a welcome return from the CBSO Percussion Ensemble for a programme such as demonstrated the sheer variety possible in the percussion medium even with the relatively small number of musicians required in most of these pieces.

Although he has written extensively for larger forces, Michael Daugherty is often at his best with chamber groupings as the two pianos and two percussion of Lounge Lizards, whose four sections keenly evoke the composer’s student years playing jazz piano – whether Sip ‘N’ Stir at Cedar Rapids, Dennis Swing Club at Hamburg, Ramada Inn on the New Jersey Turnpike and Bamboo Bar in Amsterdam. A range of ‘cool jazz’ idioms and practitioners is alluded to, with the deadpan humour as has long been a Daugherty hallmark never far below the surface.

Those who heard Missy Mazzoli’s Violent, Violent Sea at a CBSO concert in May will know of her vivid timbral sense, and Volume is no exception. Inspired by the inventive and highly charismatic playing of musicians from Trinidad, it can be performed (as here) with a second vibraphone replacing steel drum and which, heard alongside intricate exchanges for two kick drums and five bottles of water is, to quote the composer, ‘‘a raucous and joyful … homage to the … spirit of innovative music-making’’ – this performance certainly being no exception.

As Adrian Spillett remarked during a platform change, the music of Steve Reich has never been absent from a Centre Stage programme by this group – and Dance Patterns finds this composer at his most dextrous. Written for pairs of pianos, vibraphones and xylophones as part of the Dutch dance-film Counterphrases, its content does no more while no less than is indicated by its title, though such is the deftness and understatement of its interplay that the six-minute duration passes as though in an instant and all too soon dissolves into the ether.

‘Understatement’ is hardly apposite to describe Qilyaun by John Luther Adams – the Iñupiaq word for ‘shaman’s drum’ also ‘device of power’ graphically evoked in this visceral workout for four bass drums. Its gradual deceleration of activity to a midpoint of isolated strokes then reverse acceleration back to the initial rhythmic continuum was executed with a formidable unanimity by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire students, even if the need to keep listeners at a remove from the drums at the rear of the auditorium rather compromised social distancing.

That said, the piece was likely a revelation to those who know JLA only through his recent (and rightly acclaimed) orchestral works and concluded this recital in unequivocal fashion. Centre Stage resumes on January 21st with an all-Poulenc programme including the Sextet.

Further information on future CBSO Stage concerts can be found here