On Record: Los Angeles Philharmonic / Susanna Mälkki – Steve Reich: Runner / Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (Nonesuch)

Steve Reich
Runner (2016)
Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (2018)

Los Angeles Philharmonic / Susanna Mälkki

Nonesuch 7559791018 [35’25”]

Producer Dmitriy Lipay, Engineer Alexander Lipay

Recorded 1-4 November 2018 (Music for Ensemble and Orchestra), 6-7 November 2021 (Runner), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

It is best to let Steve Reich himself tell the story of these two closely related orchestral pieces. Runner, he says, is ‘for a large ensemble of winds, percussion, pianos, and strings.  While the tempo remains more or less constant, there are five movements, played without pause, that are based on different note durations.  First, even sixteenths, then irregularly accented eighths, then a very slowed-down version of the standard bell pattern from Ghana in quarters, fourth a return to the irregularly accented eighths, and finally a return to the sixteenths but now played as pulses by the winds for as long as a breath will comfortably sustain them.  The title was suggested by the rapid opening and my awareness that, like a runner, I would have to pace the piece to reach a successful conclusion.’

Meanwhile its companion, the Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, is in effect Runner 2. It is described by Reich as ‘an extension of the Baroque concerto grosso where there is more than one soloist. Here there are twenty soloists – all regular members of the orchestra, including the first stand strings and winds, as well as two vibraphones and two pianos.  The piece is in five movements, though the tempo never changes, only the note value of the constant pulse in the pianos.  Thus, an arch form: sixteenths, eighths, quarters, eighths, sixteenths.  Music for Ensemble and Orchestra is modelled on my Runner, which has the same five movement form’.

The recording marks the first foray of both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Susanna Mälkki into the music of Reich in recorded form.

What’s the music like?

Reich clearly enjoyed writing these pieces, as he tells David Lang in the liner notes for this release. The quick tempo means that as the starting gun fires, Runner is immediately into its stride with brisk music and rich colours. When the tempo marking halves to become Eighths, and then Quarters, the slower music is beautifully managed through sustained notes, pulling out the tension. The piano and vibraphones come through beautifully here, while the harmonies continue to negotiate new corners and scenery as a runner would do. The feeling persists, though, that Reich is at his happiest in the music of Sixteenths, where the busy conversations of the woodwind and the bell tolls of the vibraphones give the music impressive stature. The piece ends quickly, with one of the composer’s trademark ‘fades’.

Music for Ensemble and Orchestra feels weightier in its own Sixteenths section starts, pianos oscillating and strings gathering in hymn-like unison before the pianos create an impressive grandeur with their sustained low notes. Reich’s command of the orchestra is immensely assured, more so than it was in earlier works such as the Variations for wind, strings and keyboards or The Four Sections, but never losing the luminosity of those works, nor their capacity to pan out into larger spaces.

The Eighths section is the most emotionally powerful music yet, with large scale harmonies that move freely between weighted dissonance and brief consonance, the latter appearing like shafts of light in the music. Quarters brings forward the choirs of woodwind, their distinctive motif alternating with the piano, before the percussive instruments drive Eighths to greater heights, pianos chiming with the vibraphones. In typical Reich fashion the acceleration from Eighths to Sixteenths is both seamless and thrilling, the clarinets pushing to the front as the music gathers itself for the finish. Then just as suddenly – and seamlessly – the bottom drops away and the figures float away like birds on the wing, all treble and no bass.

Does it all work?

It does. The performances from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki are of a uniformly high degree, and the writing is subtly complex – meaning that Reich’s workings reward close inspection, but that the overall whole is beautifully realised and works well even in the middle foreground for the listener.

Is it recommended?

Of course. Steve Reich is a composer where nearly every move he makes is captured on record, to our advantage – and this pair of works, representing one of his most recently published chapters, are typically rewarding listening.

Listen

Buy

You can buy this new release at the Presto website. For more on Steve Reich himself, visit the composer’s website

From closed doors to a heavenly host: The completion of a Mahler symphony cycle

by John Earls pictures (c) Andy Paradise

Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I wrote a piece for Arcana FM on ‘Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19’. I concluded by saying that I wouldn’t get to see a performance of this epic ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – and complete my personal Mahler live symphony cycle – any time soon, but that when I did it would have a very particular significance.

I certainly didn’t know that the performance would be by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko at the Royal Albert Hall on a Sunday afternoon in late October 2022, a concert that was itself rescheduled due to the pandemic.

And what a performance it was. The Royal Albert Hall could be said to be purpose built for this work, accommodating not just an expanded orchestra (including seven off-stage brass players in the gods) but three choirs, two boys’ choirs, eight soloists and a huge concert organ (the Royal Albert Hall’s was once the largest instrument in the world).

You get the full blast of the organ from the off with the tumultuous opening of Part 1’s Veni Creator Spiritus. It’s quite a ride from there on in, and Petrenko and the RPO handled it superbly all the way through to the powerful finale of Part 2’s setting of the end of Goethe’s Faust. This was not just about the big sections, the delicate moments were deftly done too.

But this work is really all about the singing, and the assembled choirs of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony Choruses and City of London Choir, as well as the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School were magnificent.

And it wasn’t just the massed voices, as glorious as they were. The soloists – and let’s name them (above): Sarah Wegener (Magna Peccatrix), Jacquelyn Wagner (Gretchen), Regula Mühlemann (Mater Gloriosa), Jennifer Johnston (Mulier Samaritana), Claudia Huckle (Mary of Egypt), Vincent Wolfsteiner (Doctor Marianus), Benedict Nelson (Pater Ecstaticus) and James Platt (Pater Profundus) – were excellent too.

I made the point in my earlier piece that there is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. I think the standing ovation from the near sell-out crowd at the end was testimony to this.

Mahler’s Eighth is definitely one of those pieces that you need to see performed live. I’m so glad that I finally did.

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

On Record – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Domingo Hindoyan – Debussy, Dukas & Roussel (Onyx Classics)

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune L86 (1894); Jeux, L133 (1912)
Dukas La Péri (1911)
Roussel Bacchus et Ariane Op.43 – Suite no.2 (1931)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Domingo Hindoyan

Onyx Classics ONYX4224 [68’07″’]
Producer Andrew Cornall Engineers Philip Siney, Christopher Tann
Recorded 20-21 January, 24, 25 & 27 February 2022 at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Domingo Hindoyan’s first release as Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is a sequence of French ballet music which stretches across almost three decades, taking in that broad stylistic succession from Impressionism to Neo-Classicism as its remit.

What’s the music like?

Belatedly acknowledged as one of the defining masterpieces from the 20th century, Debussy’s Jeux is more familiar in the concert hall, where its myriad of formal subtleties and expressive nuances can more fully be savoured. Without ever feeling rushed, Hindoyan’s take is an alert and impulsive one – lacking just a last degree of mystery in its opening and closing pages, but with its larger sections maintaining a flexible momentum and those calmer interludes exuding a tangible expectancy. A reading, then, which would rank high on any shortlist of recordings.

Almost two decades on, Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane ballet inhabits a very different aesthetic. Effectively its second act, the Second Suite is not lacking for any sensual appeal – witness the interplay of violin and viola in its ‘Introduction’ (eloquently rendered by Thelma Handy and Nicholas Bootiman), or mounting fervour of The Kiss then ingratiating poise in Dance of Ariadne and Bacchus. Hindoyan has their measure, duly taking the final Bacchanale at an impetuous if never headlong tempo that builds to an apotheosis of finely controlled abandon.

Although it achieved notoriety via Nijinsky’s choreography (and dancing) in 1912, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was fully established as a game-changer in Western music – its opening flute melody (languidly played by Cormac Henry) setting in motion a sequence of episodes whose content is only marginally less remarkable than those seamless transitions between them. Ensuring an unbroken continuity, Hindoyan summons a response of unforced rightness in music whose essence is only made explicit as the last notes resonate into silence.

Finally, to Dukas and La Péri which proved his final work of any real consequence. After its brass delivers a lusty rendering of the Fanfare, the orchestra makes the most of this ‘poème dansé’ – whether in its crepuscular initial stages, the sweeping melody that duly comes to the fore then that orgiastic passage which sets in motion a gradual if unfaltering approach toward the main climax. Suitably uninhibited here, Hindoyan rightly places greatest emphasis on the ensuing postlude – its mingled radiance and regret surely as affecting as any music of this era.

Does it all work?

Yes, in terms of individual works. Hindoyan is evidently at home in this music, and the RLPO clearly relishes playing music not at the forefront of its programmes during recent years. The Roussel seems a little out of context, those ‘symphonic fragments’ from his earlier ballet Le festin de l’araignée would have been more appropriate, with Debussy’s Prélude replaced by Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales for a cohesive selection of French ballet music from just before the First World War. Hopefully Hindoyan will tackle these pieces in due course.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The RLPO’s playing is abetted by the spaciousness and definition of sound obtained from Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall, and Andrew Stewart pens succinctly informative notes. The association between orchestra and conductor looks set to go from strength to strength.

Listen

For more information on this release, and for purchase options, head to the Onyx Classics website. For more on the artists, head to the websites of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and their principal conductor Domingo Hindoyan.

On Record – Bülent Evcil, Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine / Theodore Kuchar – Thomas de Hartmann: Orchestral Music (Toccata Classics)

Thomas De Hartmann
Koliadky – Noëls Ukrainiens Op.60 (1940)
Une fête en Ukraine Op.62 (1940)
Concierto Andaluz Op.81 (1949)
Symphonie-Poème no.4 Op.90 (1955)

Bülent Evcil (flute), Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine / Theodore Kuchar

Toccata Classics TOCC0633 [65’43″’]
Producer Andriy Mokrytskiy Engineer Oleksii Grytsyshyn
Recorded 11-13 September 2021 at National Philharmonic Hall, Lviv, Ukraine

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its explorations with this release of orchestral music by Thomas de Hartmann (1885-1956), his posthumous reputation largely centred on his association with the Armenian philosopher George Gurdjieff but whose own music is well worthy of revival.

What’s the music like?

Although the Noëls Ukrainiens might appear as the descendent of folk-inspired sets by such as Rimsky-Korsakov or Lyadov, de Hartmann seeks rather to evoke the essence of this music than by quoting traditional melodies. The initial Chant spiritual for strings is a pertinent case in point – its textural and expressive restraint characteristic of what follows, notably the more developed final numbers: the chorale-like solemnity of La veille de l’Épiphanie, simmering fervour of Adieu, Koladá and Mussorgskian vigour of Goussak for an effervescent ending.

In his later years de Hartmann tackled the symphonic genre, albeit from a typically personal vantage in his Symphonie-Poèmes. The fourth of these remained unfinished at his death, with only its initial movement fully orchestrated. Over little more than five minutes, it provides a fair encapsulation of the composer’s later thinking – not least through an elaborate and often imaginative orchestration which accentuates formal obliqueness and expressive disjunctions. Intriguing as it is to speculate what came next, this remains a cohesive statement as it stands.

Written for Jean-Pierre Rampal then taken up by equally illustrious flautists such as Marcel Moyse, the Concierto Andaluz packs a considerable amount into its 10 minutes. Whether in the plaintive lyricism of the Entrada y Romanza, the fleet-footed and capricious Scherzino that is Juego – its winsome trio providing for necessary contrast, or the sultry evocation of Cante y Juerga, this is something of a hidden gem from the repertoire of concertante works for flute and deserving of greater exposure. Bülent Evcil leaves no doubt as to his advocacy.

Arranged from an eponymous ballet celebrating Catherine the Great, Une fête en Ukraine is de Hartmann at his most engaging. Not least the festive Ouverture, with its antecedents in the Russian ‘silver age’, or regal eloquence of Fanfare et Sarabande. The final three items are most substantial – the suitably fanciful imaginings of Incantation et danse du Chamane, the plangent modality of Nocturne, then the panache of Danilo Coupor (an English dance popular among Russian nobility in the early 19th century) which brings a scintillating close.

Does it all work?

Pretty much. That all four of these pieces are from de Hartmann’s maturity means that such influences as there were of earlier composers, primarily the melodicism of Tchaikovsky and harmonic innovations of Rimsky, have been subsumed into a more astringent while always eventful idiom. Both the shorter pieces would make attractive additions to a concert, and the larger collections each feature several items that are worth encountering in their own right – maybe as encores to round-off a programme from one of the more enterprising orchestras.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least with the Lviv National Philharmonic giving of its best under the astute direction of Theodore Kuchar. Unexceptionally fine sound, with exceptionally detailed annotations from John R. Mangan and Evan A. MacCarthy. A follow-up volume of de Hartmann is imminent.

For more information on this release, and for purchase options, head to the Toccata Classics website. More on Thomas de Hartmann can be found here – while you can click on the artist names for more on Bülent Evcil, Theodore Kuchar and the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine

On Record – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Adrian Williams: Symphony no.1, Chamber Concerto (Nimbus Alliance)

Adrian Williams
Symphony no.1 (2020)
Chamber Concerto: Portraits of Ned Kelly (1998)

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Nimbus Alliance NI6432 [70’31’’]
Producers/Engineers Phil Rowlands, Tim Burton
Recorded 8 April 2021 (Chamber Concerto), 1-2 December 2021 (Symphony) at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

This latest release in the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Symphony Project features its most ambitious instalment yet in the First Symphony by Adrian Williams (b1956), coupled with a no less eventful piece by this ‘dark horse’ among British composers of his generation.

What’s the music like?

Although having written various orchestral works, Williams had never tackled the symphonic genre before prior to being the ESO’s John McCabe Composer-in-Association in 2019 (he is currently its Composer Emeritus) but has confronted the challenge head-on. Playing almost 50 minutes and scored for an orchestra including triple woodwind, five horns, four trumpets and four percussionists with harp, piano and celesta, the work is evidently a summation of where its composer felt he had reached over the course of his musical odyssey. Yet for all its textural complexity and its pervasive richness of thought, this is music created out of basic motifs; the initial three notes generating the first movement’s main themes, as well as essentializing that longer term tonal goal as remains a focal point towards which intervening activity is directed.

From its imposing Maestoso epigraph, the opening Stridente unfolds against the background of (without necessarily adhering to) sonata-form design – its motivic components drawn into a continuous and frequently combative evolution purposefully unresolved at the close. There follows a Scherzando that eschews ternary design for a through-composed format proceeding by tension and release to a decisive ending. The expressive crux of the whole work, the Lento evinces a plangent and desolate tone whose sparse textures and elliptical harmonies re-affirm that ‘less is more’ maxim. Despite its Energico marking the finale unfolds with slow-burning momentum, made the more cumulative by channelling its motivic evolution toward a Dolente apotheosis whose outcome proves as inevitable formally as it feels transcendent emotionally.

The artist Sidney Nolan was latterly a neighbour of Williams, his powerfully un-romanticized evocations of famed Australian outlaw Ned Kelly directly influencing this Chamber Concerto. Its pungent opening sets wind quintet against string quartet, with double-bass and harp adding subtle contributions as the piece unfolds. The inward central section builds towards a febrile culmination – after which, wind and strings are drawn into a monody which brings a resigned though hardly serene ending. A purposeful overall trajectory ensures cohesion at every stage.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. These are impressive piece in terms of their ambition but also realization. There are considerable technical challenges on route, but they are met with conviction and no little resourcefulness by an expanded ESO which is often tested but never fazed. Kenneth Woods directs with his customary attention to detail as goes a long way toward clarifying music that is ‘complex and luminous’ in spirit as by design. Williams has evidently been waiting for this opportunity to contribute to the symphonic tradition and his execution rarely, if ever, falters.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The recording is as focussed and spacious as is necessary, and there are informative notes from composer and conductor. Next from this source is a release of concertos by Philip Sawyers, then one of symphonic works by the current Composer-in-Association Steve Elcock.

This recording is released on Friday 7 October 2022.

You can watch the world premiere of Adrian Williams’ Symphony no.1 on the English Symphony Orchestra website, and you can listen to clips from the recording at the Presto website. For more information on the composer, visit the Adrian Williams website – and for more on Sidney Nolan click here. Click on the names of Kenneth Woods and English Symphony Orchestra for their websites.