Live review – Ealing Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons: Stanford: Symphony no.6

ealing-symphony-orchestra

Ealing Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons

St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane, London

Broadcast Thursday 10 June 2021, available online

Stanford Symphony no.6 in E flat major Op.94 ‘In honour of the life-work of a great artist: George Frederick Watts (1905)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Next year will be the centenary of the independent Ealing Symphony Orchestra, one of the leading voluntary ensembles in London. In more recent years the group have built a reputation for deviating from ‘normal’ repertoire, and their return from a tortuous year-and-a-half of lockdown saw an immediate return to that approach.

It came in the form of a welcome reappraisal of the Sixth symphony of Charles Villiers Stanford. Stanford occupies a godfather-like position in British music, credited with the instruction of many leading composers (Vaughan Williams, Holst, Coleridge Taylor and Ireland to name but a few), but his music tends to be admired rather than deeply loved. Stanford acknowledges the influence of continental Romantic composers in his music, with hints of Mendelssohn, Brahms and Wagner to be found, but in the course of this symphony closer parallels emerge to the music of Elgar, whose own first symphony was still three years away.

Conductor John Gibbons gave a heartfelt introduction from the podium at St Barnabas Church, where the orchestra are based, and the online pictures illustrated a wide spacing between the instruments, with many players wearing masks. Through necessity the strings were further apart, the cellos particularly far back, with the brass on the conductor’s far left. None of these unconventional placings harmed the performance, however, and there was a very strong sense of joyful homecoming, the opening of a new chapter.

physical energy

A good deal of this was due to Stanford’s music. The sixth symphony celebrates sculptor and artist George Frederic Watts, and in the first movement takes inspiration by Watts’ Physical Energy sculpture, now in Hyde Park (above, picture by David Hawgood). Stanford begins with the most positive and exultant music, played with appropriate gusto here. There were occasional lapses in the strings’ turning early on, but it bears remembering that amateur players in particular have been devoid of ensemble practice for so long, and such moments are inevitable as part of the ‘reawakening’ process. In any case the music powered forward with increasing conviction, its prevailing mood of strength and resolve in keeping with the players’ emergence from lockdown. A particularly fulsome solo from the orchestra’s leader (uncredited) was in keeping with the sunny disposition all around.

Love and Life c.1884-5 by George Frederic Watts 1817-1904

The heart of Stanford’s Sixth lies in the slow movement, where a soulful cor anglais solo sets the tone but long phrases were expertly paced towards the big climax. Based on Watts’ paintings Love and Life and Love and Death (both above), there was an appropriate romanticism near the surface throughout. The scherzo of light and shade was elusive, portraying the movement of water as depicted by Watts in Good Luck to your Fishing (below).

Good_Luck_to_your_Fishing_by_George_Frederick_Watts
This third movement would have benefited from a bit more rhythmic definition, but was still a n engaging account, especially as Gibbons plotted a smooth transition to the finale, where the drama heightened further. The venue proved its worth here, with just the right amount of reverb – and as all passion was spent towards the end the music slowed slightly, giving plenty of room for some excellent woodwind playing.

This was a fine and extremely enjoyable performance, passionate and concentrated – a persuasive advocate for Stanford’s music. His voice is all too seldom heard in this country, but performances like this ought to ensure greater coverage. It was the ideal choice for the Ealing Symphony Orchestra to reassert their identity after lockdown, and the enthusiasm and optimism throughout were uplifting. Watch it if you can.

For more information on the Ealing Symphony Orchestra’s return from lockdown on Saturday 10 July, and further events, visit the orchestra website

In concert – Michael Collins & Michael McHale: Widor, Bax, Muczynski & Horovitz @ Wigmore Hall

collins-mchale

Michael Collins (clarinet), Michael McHale (piano)

Widor Introduction et Rondo Op.72 (1898)
Bax Clarinet Sonata in D major (1934)
Muczynski Time Pieces Op.43 (1984)
Horovitz Sonatina (1981)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 17 May (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What a joy to see audiences back in Wigmore Hall on a Monday lunchtime, as the venue took its first available opportunity of 2021. The gathering was for an enterprising program of 20th century works for clarinet and piano from Michael Collins and Michael McHale, pleasingly off the beaten track in its selection and proving highly accessible.

Viewed online in this case, the excitement was palpable – from Andrew McGregor’s introduction for the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 to the performers’ demeanour as they began. The clarinetist successfully overcame an instrument malfunction, too, which caused him to repeat the first few minutes of the Bax sonata.

Collins and McHale began with Widor, however, a competition piece written for students of the Paris Conservatoire in 1898. Both performers settled immediately, Collins with a beautifully floated introduction and McHale with sensitive pedaling, the pianist then echoing the excitable flourishes from of clarinet when the Rondo itself arrived. This work occupies a happy place in Widor’s output, and was a joyful overture here.

The mood deepened for the Clarinet Sonata in D major of Sir Arnold Bax from 1934. First performed by Frederick Thurston, it is an unusually structured work, but the two movements sit together nicely. It was during the beautifully floated opening that Collins had to change his clarinet, but the advantage of this was that we were able to marvel at his control for a second time, supported by rippling figures from McHale. The first movement unfolded as though in one long phrase, revealing the influence of Wagner but establishing Bax’s own melodic grace too. The second movement had impressive urgency, with chromatic surges from the piano and impressive breath control from Collins. A typically deep second theme was matched by a lovely, poised closing section.

The Polish-American composer Robert Muczynski has an intriguing works list including many pieces for woodwind, and the Time Pieces of 1984 are among his most-performed. Each of the four movements looks to bring out different qualities of the clarinet and Collins was fully alive to their possibilities. The busy first piece was enjoyable, clarinet and piano ducking and diving in their interplay, while time became suspended in the outer sections of the second piece, lost in thought. The third explored the timbres of the solo clarinet, wonderfully nuanced by Collins, while the spicy dialogue of the fourth was laden with syncopation and brilliantly played.

The Sonatina for clarinet and piano from Joseph Horovitz dates from 1981, when it was first performed by Gervase de Peyer and Gwenneth Pryor in the Wigmore Hall itself. Like Muczynski, Horovitz is at home writing for wind and brass. Working within a compressed structure, the Sonatina was packed with incident and melody. A perky first movement unfolded with easy, winsome phrases, while the second was more introspective and took time for soul searching. Not so the finale, whose offbeat japes were carefree and witty in this performance, instinctively played.

It was over all too soon – but we were treated to an encore, Collins every bit as enthused as the audience. The warm-hearted Summer, from Paul Reade’s suite Victorian Kitchen Garden, was the ideal choice.

This concert is available to play for 30 days using the YouTube embedded link above.

In concert – Timothy Ridout & Tom Poster: Brahms Sonatas & Schwertsik world premiere @ Wigmore Hall

ridout-poster

Timothy Ridout (viola), Tom Poster (piano)

Brahms Sonata for viola and piano in F minor Op.120/1 (1894)
Schwertsik Haydn lived in Eisenstadt (2021, world premiere)
Brahms Sonata for viola and piano no.2 in E flat major Op.120/2 (1894)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 10 May (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was, on paper, an ideal match of repertoire and performers – and it proved that way on screen too, as the Wigmore Hall served us the latest offering in its lunchtime concert program.

Timothy Ridout and Tom Poster are both beneficiaries of the invaluable Young Concert Artists Trust (YCAT) scheme and the BBC’s New Generation Artists program, of which Ridout is still a member. They are both plotting exciting paths as distinctive artists, and as a duo they enjoy an easy rapport, clearly relishing the music they play – an observation which can never be taken for granted!

The two sonatas published as Op.120 are Brahms’ final notes in chamber music, and indeed among his last works altogether. To have younger artists playing them is to reveal the youthful heart amid their autumnal colours, showing off their elusive qualities and winsome melodies.

Both works may have originated for clarinet and piano but work equally well through the burnished tones of the viola. Indeed Ridout proved with the first notes of the Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 that the range is ideal for his instrument, and the tone – not to mention Poster’s complementary piano line – was ideally weighted once he had fully secured the intonation.

The second movement had a cold shiver, thanks to the use of less vibrato, but grew warmer as it progressed. The genial Allegro grazioso was a treat, the finale more celebratory but enjoying its flowing second themes too.

The E flat sonata was if anything even more successful, lighter on its feet and with airy phrases and interplay. The first movement bobbed and weaved beautifully, especially when Ridout was playing in the higher register, which Poster clearly relished. The second movement literally rolled up its sleeves for a powerful outpouring, Ridout’s tone beautifully supple. By contrast the central section benefited from the burnished tones of the double-stopped viola. The finale’s theme and variations were well judged, thoughtful and mellow to begin with but then more capricious as they progressed, finishing with a thoroughly convincing flourish.

Between the two Brahms works was an interesting new piece by Kurt Schwertsik, commissioned by Ridout himself. Schwertsik is a Viennese composer now in his 70s, aware of his place in musical history but making original and intriguing music. This piece was characteristically elusive, under the intriguing title Haydn lived in Eisenstadt. Set in several movements, it posed questions and answers, but remained curiously unsettled. BBC Radio 3 presenter Andrew McGregor thought the piece had ended at one point, only for another two movements to follow – a situation we have all surely experienced as audience members! Ridout swept through the longer phrases of the penultimate movement against softly tolling chords from the piano, before the last movement threw furtive glances into the shadows amid bursts of activity, ending in a similar vein to early Schoenberg.

Poster ensured the harmonies were a point of focus throughout, hinting at exotic late Romanticism but never quite settling in that mood. This was a piece of intriguing thoughts and colours, a substantial utterance well worth hearing again. It proved the ideal complement to the poised Brahms sonatas around it – and the encore of the older composer’s Wie melodien, with which the concert softly concluded.

This concert is available to play for 30 days using the YouTube embedded link above.

In concert – London Chamber Ensemble & Madeleine Mitchell: A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021)

London Chamber Ensemble [Madeleine Mitchell (violin, director), Joseph Spooner (cello), Sophia Rahman (piano), David Aspin (viola), Gordon Mackay (violin), Lynda Houghton (double bass), Peter Cigleris (clarinet, bass clarinet), Nancy Ruffer (flute), Alec Harmon (oboe), Bruce Nockles (trumpet), Ian Pace (piano)

Rebecca Clarke Piano Trio (1921)
Judith Weir Atlantic Drift: Sleep Sound ida Mornin’ (1995), Atlantic Drift (2006), Rain and Mist are on the Mountain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes (Movements I-IV, 2005)
Helen Grime Miniatures (2005)
Judith Weir The Bagpiper’s String Trio (1985)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad Invocation for cello & piano (1999)
Thea Musgrave Colloquy (1960)
Ruth Gipps Prelude for bass clarinet (1958)
Errollyn Wallen Sojourner Truth (2021, world premiere)
Grace Williams Suite for Nine Instruments (1934)

St John’s Smith Square, London
Monday 9 March (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Classical music still has an awfully long way to go before female composers are an integral part of its make-up, but the celebration of International Women’s Day is helping the cause considerably, gaining more traction with each passing year.

One of the highlights of the 2021 celebrations was this concert from St John’s Smith Square, masterminded by Madeleine Mitchell, who led the London Chamber Ensemble in a very satisfying hour-and-a-half of music.

In a concert celebrating eight women composers, the common threads of America and the Royal College of Music were also explored. The latter organisation is where Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams and Helen Grime all studied, and where Errollyn Wallen and Mitchell herself are now professors. Wallen wrote a new piece, Sojourner Truth, for the occasion.

The concert began however with a terrific performance of Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio. Completed in 1921, this substantial piece begins with a passionate outpouring, but it also has its elusive, mysterious moments. The trio of Mitchell, cellist Joseph Spooner and pianist Sophia Rahman caught these elements, getting off to a terrific start but pulling back to allow the enchanting slow movement room to breathe. At times Clarke’s music hints at influences from France – particularly Ravel but also Franck – which Spooner caught in his high intonation in the second movement. The spirit of the dance inhabited the finale, a more obviously English statement, but there was still room for more fervent thoughts when the trio united.

There was a sudden transition on the broadcast to the refreshing open air of Judith Weir’s Atlantic Drift, a compilation of three pieces for two violins proving an invigorating contrast to the denser textures of the Clarke. Weir’s incorporation of folk material into her music is enchanting, especially in the four-part last piece, Rain and mist are on the Moutain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes. Using a Gaelic song as its inspiration, Weir’s adaptation worked really well in these open air accounts from Mitchell and Gordon Mackay, the empty St John’s providing the ideal acoustic. Weir appeared later with The Bagpiper’s String Trio, a similarly folk-powered work from 1985. Based on a Scottish pipe tune this too lifted the listener away to the great outdoors, with excellent teamwork from Mitchell, Spooner and viola player David Aspin.

Helen Grime’s trio of Miniatures for oboe and piano were next, studies in compressed expression from the pale harmonics of the first to the jagged edges of the second. The third was an effective summation of Grime’s thoughts, panning out for a wider perspective from the piano. Alec Harmon and Sophia Rahman were fully responsive to the virtuoso demands.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Invocation for cello and piano followed, a late teenage piece offering an immediate chance to appreciate the probing line given to Joseph Spooner’s fulsome cello. As the composer’s response to Edvard Munch’s painting Melanchola reached its apex there were clangorous chords from Rahman, capping a compact but powerful utterance.

Thea Musgrave’s Colloquy was next, another model of economy – four short pieces for violin and piano packed with sharp, expressive statements. There were some challenges to performance here – such as the quick interchange between pizzicato and bowing in the second movement – which Mitchell took in her stride. The third piece was a touch more playful but still assertive, but the fourth was the most effective, a private train of thought gracefully prompted by Ian Pace’s piano.

The most striking piece of the evening – for its sound, its soul and its warmth – was Ruth GippsPrelude for bass clarinet. Gipps’ centenary falls this year, and her slightly baleful writing for the instrument was beautifully captured by Peter Cigleris, a model of control. After watching this I was struck by two questions – why do we not hear the music of Gipps more, and why are there not more pieces for solo bass clarinet?

Errollyn Wallen’s Sojourner Truth followed, written not just for Madeline Mitchell but for International Women’s Day – and taking us back to violin and piano. Based on a spiritual, O’er the crossing, it features intense dialogue between the two instruments, but when the melody is heard unaccompanied on the violin the ear is pulled firmly towards the centre of the music, a striking feature of another piece with more traditional inspirations.

To finish, we heard the 75-year-old Suite for Nine Instruments by Grace Williams. Scored for piano quintet, double bass, flute, clarinet and trumpet, it is a vivacious piece, quite modal and with hints of Stravinsky’s Septet for a similar instrumental combination – and equally driven in the outer movements, bringing the interval of a tritone right to the front. The London Chamber Ensemble played with flair, commitment and virtuosity, bringing a very impressive program to a close.

The concert is available to watch until 8 April on the link below – with some spoken introductions by Mitchell herself. On occasion the gaps between pieces are very short, but there are helpful markers to make viewing easier. Do make sure you watch, as some of the best chamber music from British women composers in the last 100 years is right here.

A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021) on International Women’s Day, directed by Madeleine Mitchell from St John’s Smith Square on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, Madeleine and the London Chamber Ensemble’s album of works by Grace Williams can be heard here:

In concert – Berliner Philharmoniker / Kirill Petrenko: The Golden Twenties – Weill & Stravinsky

Michael Spyres (Oedipus), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Jocasta), Andrea Mastroni (Tiresias), Krystian Adam (Shepherd), Derek Welton (Creon, Messenger), Bibiana Beglau (speaker), Men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker / Kirill Petrenko (above)

Weill Symphony no.1 in one movement (1921)
Stravinsky Oedipus Rex (1927)

Philharmonie, Berlin
Saturday 13 February (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

“This is no little hicktown. This is one helluva city!”

The words of Bertolt Brecht, writing about his home city in the song Berlin im Licht, set to music by Kurt Weill. It is a sentiment brought to the front of The Golden Twenties, an online festival from the Berliner Philharmoniker running through February, examining ‘a metropolis of contrasts…the epicentre of artistic modernism’.

The festival’s first concert, streamed from the Philharmonie via the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall, featured the Berliner Philharmoniker’s first ever performance of Weill’s single-movement Symphony no.1 from 1921. This seems like a remarkable historical oversight, even for a work as little-known, but the performance gave this student piece the best possible platform to reach a new audience.

After a thoughtful and revealing introduction from the orchestra’s concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, the Symphony’s distinctive main motive rang out like an extended peal of bells. With this arresting opening Weill laid out the ambition of his work, writing as a student of Busoni looking to impress. This bold statement was complemented by intricate and intimate solo episodes through the inner workings of the orchestra.

Kirill Petrenko conducted a cohesive and convincing account, making sense of the more congested writing and bringing out the parallels with Hindemith and Schoenberg, which he spoke about in the interval. The work’s fulsome harmonies had plenty of deep colour, and it was revealing to hear the counterpoint in such detail. The double basses made an eerie contribution through a fugal episode which wound its way up through the orchestra at several points in the work, before an impressive climax and a darkly shaded postscript. Petrenko nailed the scope of the piece but ensured there was plenty of room for the phrases to breathe individually.

Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex could hardly have been a more appropriate counterpart for a concert filmed behind closed doors. With its chilling opening statement, ‘The plague is destroying us!’, sung by a socially distanced male chorus from the choirstalls, it was a stark reminder of our current, locked down predicament – and struck an inevitable parallel with the state of the performing arts currently.

This 50-minute opera / oratorio is one of the most notable achievements in Stravinsky’s so-called ‘neo-classical’ period, a dramatic response to Sophoclese‘s tragedy that is not the easiest to digest but which packs an expressive punch.

Petrenko’s incisive conducting brought its message home with a lasting power, and in the performance he was aided by a strong cast of soloists. Michael Spyres’s tenor dominated in the title role, his ringing tones promising deliverance but ultimately winding up in great anguish before the end. He was given ample support by Creon (bass-baritone Derek Welton) and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, whose fulsome contribution was made in a bright red dress bringing her into dramatic contrast with the funereal black of chorus and orchestra.

Petrenko kept things moving throughout, with virtuoso contributions from woodwind and percussion in particular. In spite of their social distancing the chorus lost none of their power, playing out the tragic story with detail but an ominous inevitability. Holding the threads together was narrator Bibiana Beglau (above), an excellent choice and with strong proejction in the empty hall.

Highlights could be found in the assertive delivery of Welton in the ‘Avenge Laius’ section, while Spyres gave an impassioned promise that he would solve the riddle of the Sphinx. The chorus alternated between a horror at the plague, a sorrowful realisation of the plight of Oedipus, which was particularly moving, and the cold, regretful end.

This was an auspicious start to what promises to be a revealing celebration of Berlin and particularly Weill in the 1920s. The next concert on 16 February will look at the composer’s better-known Second Symphony, while this and future instalments will include the music of HindemithRichard Strauss and Eisler. If the performances are as good as these then online attendance is highly recommended.

The next concert in The Golden Twenties season can be seen and heard at the Berliner Philharmoniker website