In concert – ORF Vienna Radio SO / Marin Alsop: Musikprotokoll 2020 – Hidden Sounds

Joonas Ahonen (piano), ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop

Saariaho Chimera (2019) Austrian premiere
Maintz Piano Concerto (2014) Austrian premiere
López Disparates (2004-06) Austrian premiere

Helmut List Halle, Graz
Friday 9 October (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Now into its 53rd season, the Musikprotokoll festival in Graz has long been synonymous with some of Austria’s most innovative music-making, with this evening’s concert from the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and its current chief conductor Marin Alsop being no exception. Notable too was the sizable audience – notwithstanding the needs of social distancing – and its enthusiasm for a programme, as concise as it was uncompromising, which contained music by a younger Austrian composer and one who has been resident in that country over the past three decades.

First, though, a curtain-raiser by Kaija Saariaho – the Finnish composer who has long resided in Paris, whose output features harmonic subtlety and timbral finesse as its hallmarks. Both of these were present in Chimera – an oblique homage to Beethoven in the 250th anniversary of his birth, in which material from her earlier orchestral piece Orion was (almost) book-ended by the beginning and ending of that composer’s Second Symphony. The result was diverting if insubstantial, redolent of Berio’s re-imaginings while assuredly not outstaying its welcome.

Among the leading Austrian composers of his generation, Philipp Maintz (b1977) evidently wrote or at least began several piano concertos prior to completing the one heard tonight. He has spoken of admiration for the Ligeti and Lutosławski concertos, as well as his nonplussed regard for the Schoenberg; yet this latter soon came to mind in a piece whose four continuous movements take in a gradual accumulation of energy, followed by two contrasting intermezzi then a further and more rapid gathering of momentum toward the emphatic close. Connecting the whole are brief recitative-like passages as cede the foreground to a soloist whose dextrous pianism is otherwise embedded into the overall texture. Joonas Ahonen was an alert and agile soloist in music that requires, and received, acute coordination with orchestra and conductor.

Championed by such conductors as Michael Gielen, Peter Eötvös and Ilan Volkov, Jorge E. López (above) eschews both the gnomic intricacies of new-complexity and ironic self-regard of post-modernism in drawing resourcefully on the past for a provocative challenge to the future; not least those symphonic works as dominate his recent output. Leading into them is Disparates, described as a ‘Goya / Beethoven homage’ that draws parallels between the artist’s desolate late sketches with the composer’s equally gnomic Six Bagatelles from much the same time.

The sequence is no mere orchestration or paraphrase of piano originals. Its sepulchral textures thrown into relief by glassy asides from Stroh violin, the first piece merges reluctantly into the militaristic march-past of its successor, then on to those stark pathos and disjunctive contrasts of the two that follow. Fusing aspects of the final two bagatelles, the fifth piece veers between fraught eloquence and glowering recessional as it lurches on to an ending bereft of meaningful closure: Goya’s ominous imagery and Beethoven’s flights of fancy united in unwitting accord.

An engrossing and disquieting sequence, which yet offers a direct way into López’s singular musical ethos. The VRSO responded with verve and no little virtuosity to Alsop’s animated prompting, so rounding off what was an intriguing fixture in this always enterprising festival.

This concert can be seen and heard at the Musikprotokoll website

In concert – Gould Piano Trio @ Wigmore Hall

Gould Piano Trio [Lucy Gould (violin), Richard Lester (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano)]

Mozart Piano Trio in G major K564 (1788)
Clarke Piano Trio in E flat minor (1921)
Ravel Piano Trio in A minor (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London, 29 October 2020

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This latest event in the Wigmore Hall season saw a welcome recital by the Gould Trio, now well into its third decade and whose frequent appearances at this venue have always featured music from right across the medium of the piano trio; with tonight’s programme no exception.

A medium to which Mozart came relatively late in his career, producing five such works in little more than two years. Last in this sequence, K564 has rather remained in the shadow of its predecessors; unfairly so, as motivic interplay across and between its three movements is comparable to any of his more imposing pieces of this time. Such was affirmed in a reading which brought out the muscular interplay of its Allegro, the wistful elegance of its Andante then the relaxed nonchalance of a final Allegretto as ranks among Mozart’s most endearing.

Would that Rebecca Clarke had followed up her solitary contribution; the Piano Trio belonging to a clutch of pieces that should have laid the basis for a composing career but were destined to remain the peak of her achievement. The influence of Debussy and Ravel is often cited, but the vehemence of Bartók’s music from this period is equally evident – witness the emotional volatility of the first movement (which predates the similarly conceived opening movement of the Hungarian composer’s First Violin Sonata), fraught eloquence of the central Andante then driving impetus of the final Allegro; its powerful culmination subsiding into a resigned coda whose defiant ending feels almost in spite of itself. A fine performance by an ensemble which was championing this piece well before it attained the recognition it now justly enjoys.

If Ravel’s Piano Trio has never lacked for advocacy over the century and more since it was first performed, it remains a tough challenge both technically and interpretively. The present account was perhaps a shade under-characterized in the simmering dance rhythms of the first movement, with the Scherzo’s deft syncopations similarly downplayed at least until the sheer effervescence of its closing bars. No doubts, though, as to the ensuing Passacaglia – building methodically yet irresistibly to its baleful climax before winding down into the depths of the piano, from whence the finale steals in. The latter movement has been criticized for exuding near-orchestral sonorities, but Ravel’s handling of this is astutely judged – not least in a coda whose hard-won triumph in the face of encroaching adversity was powerfully conveyed here.

It certainly made for an impressive conclusion to this recital, just the sort of programme that feels necessary at such a time as this. Hopefully, these next few weeks will bring no cessation on the part of Wigmore Hall or the Gould Trio – their activities necessary now more than ever.

This concert can be streamed again until 29 November via the YouTube link above, or through the Wigmore Hall website here

These Wigmore Hall concerts are free to view but the venue is relying on the generosity of its audience to make them possible. If you do watch the concert, please consider making a donation, either at the Wigmore Hall website or via PayPal

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

Online music recommendations – Oxford Lieder Festival

Over the last few years the Oxford Lieder Festival has established itself as one of the most attractive prospects in the autumn events calendar for classical music. Given the challenges faced by the sector in this most trying of years, it gives great pleasure to report that the team, led by artistic director Sholto Kynoch, have gone above and beyond the call of duty to present this year’s model.

An online extravaganza lasting ten days, the festival continues its penchant for the use of attractive venues in the city, presenting them in an online format with Tall Wall Media which is both easy to navigate and admire.

The artistic standard remains as high as ever, as does the programming. Viewers on Saturday were treated to James Gilchrist immersing himself in ancient lute songs, with the florid tones of Elizabeth Kenny alongside, from where we switched to the Hollywell Music Room. Here we found the redoubtable Dame Sarah Connolly (above) and Eugene Asti in a program including Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben and a rapt account of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, time standing still during the final two songs, a darkly atmospheric Um Mitternacht and an expansive Liebst su um Schönheit.

Many of the Oxford Lieder concerts include a slot for emerging artists, a healthy recognition of the outstanding young talent coming through in the world of song. On this occasion it was bass William Thomas who lent his fulsome tones to a quintet of Schubert songs. We also heard a nicely linked quintet songs from Finzi, Quilter, Haydn and Geoffrey Bush.

The festival has a very healthy instinct for presenting songs in context and giving them the right level of background through guest musicological experts. Natasha Loges illuminated Brahms’ Lieder contributions with music from baritone James Atkinson and pianist Ana Manastireanu while on Saturday 17 October, the festival’s final day, we will get a fascinating chance to explore the song prior to Beethoven in the company of baritone Stephan Loges and Eugene Asti.

On Tuesday 13 October, the lunchtime concert found tenor Robin Tritschler (above) giving a superb hour of music with pianist Graham Johnson from the Hollywell Music Room, journeying round the Zodiac with all the spirit of first-time voyagers. Travelling through works from Barber, Schubert, Ives, Rebecca Clarke and Argento, their ultimate destination was the Songs of the Zodiac of Geoffrey Bush. This inventive cycle provides a setting for each sign, helpfully introduced by Johnson before the two offered vivid characterisation. Here there was plenty of wit but tenderness too.

The following lunchtime tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook included a substantial world premiere of a work by Michael Zev Gordon, a composer Gilchrist studied with at King’s College Cambridge in the 1980s. There was a rather nice irony about a work with its genesis in Cambridge receiving its first performance in Oxford, and Gordon’s Baruch – Ten Propositions of Baruch Spinoza showed itself to be an impressive piece indeed.

Fusing elements of chant and more modern, English song – Holst’s great Betelgeuse came to mind in the final Ex hoc tertio cognitionis… – it was a dramatic performance that definitely warrants a further viewing. The cycle started with Gilchrist using a harsher tone but as it unfolded the voice blossomed to fill the space around, helped by the sensitive balance provided by Tilbrook. In the words of Gordon, these were ‘aphorisms meant to be heard and pondered; here sung and pondered’. Gilchrist complemented this with an affectionate and yearning account of a work he has known since childhood, Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte – the first clearly defined song cycle.

Today’s lunchtime concert was rather special with Ian Bostridge (above) joined by pianist Saskia Giogini at Merton College Chapel in a characteristically intense account of Britten’s Canticle I: My Beloved Is Mine. The camera work should be mentioned here, as it captured the glorious chapel in an ideal complement to Britten’s arrangements of Five Spiritual Songs, where Bostridge was masterly, and in the beautiful Bach, the arias Ich habe genug, from the cantata of the same name, and Der Ewigkeit saphirnes Haus (from Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl). Taken on their own, these two – with the Oxford Bach Soloists – reminded us of the true value of live performance, even when given online in these restricted times.

The Oxford Lieder Festival continues until Saturday 17 October, where it will include a performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang from tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Michael Gees. Before then you can enjoy concerts from baritone Benjamin Appl and Sholto Kynoch, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and Simon Lepper and a keenly anticipated collaboration between soprano Lotte Betts-Dean and guitarist Sean Shibe. All concerts are available online until 1 November, or 15 November with the event’s Pioneer Pass – which is much appreciated if you want to catch up with recommended concerts from Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton, not to mention the Hermes Experiment!

For further details visit the festival website

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