Summer heat – Josef Suk’s A Summer’s Tale

by Ben Hogwood

As you will no doubt be aware, this week has seen record breaking temperatures in the UK, which has inspired something of a hot weather classical music sequence.

After works from Debussy and the Danish composer Poul Ruders, I have been reminded of this substantial orchestral piece A Summer’s Tale, by the Czech composer Josef Suk.

Suk, the son-in-law of Antonin Dvořák, has been given greater appreciation in the last few decades for an orchestral output notable for its descriptive and emotional powers. Perhaps his best known work is the tragic symphony Asrael, mourning the loss of both his wife and father-in-law. Operating on a very large scale (lasting 70 minutes in most performances) it is an incredibly powerful work of Mahlerian dimensions. A Summer’s Tale is the work that builds on the hope offered by the end of Asrael, becoming a positive celebration of our sunniest season.

Certainly the first movement, Voices of life and consolation, becomes a heady exultation with full orchestra, a true celebration of nature. The small scale third movement, Blind Musicians, is an account of the composer’s encounter with a small-scale band, playing repetitive folk music – and he sets it for smaller orchestral forces here. Meanwhile the fourth movement, In the Power of Phantoms, is a joyous and almost riotous affirmation. For the fifth movement, Night, Suk employs a sultry nocturne, the music finding rest from the sun but also exploring the richness of the lower strings in a surging chorale episode.

You cab listen to A Summer’s Tale below in a particularly fine version from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras:

Summer heat – Poul Ruders’ Solar Trilogy

by Ben Hogwood

After yesterday’s languid summer overtones made by Debussy, I have opted for a very different portrayal of heat in today’s selection. The Danish composer Poul Ruders wrote his celebrated Solar Trilogy between 1992 and 1995, describing in it the life and behaviour of the Sun.

This time we get an immediate sense of the overwhelming heat generated by our nearest star from the off. It is fascinating to compare Ruders’ writing with that of Holst in The Planets. Here Ruders portrays the sheer solar energy at work, using all corners of the orchestra to create some truly vast sounds. This is modern music that responds really well to repeated listening, and could easily be used as part of a film or game soundtrack.

The trilogy begins with a stunning stroke in the form of Gong, a piece that seethes with activity and rhythmic drive, before moving onto the central Zenith, whose atmosphere grows very gradually but with considerable tension.

Finally Corona describes an eclipse of the sun, with a ‘sizzling’ start, to quote the composer, before running off at a terrific pace. With an insistent drive it radiates outwards, the orchestra effectively a supergiant star.

Danish composer Ruders continues to write a great deal of music with orchestra, and his work is incredibly descriptive and rewarding. To find out more and to hear more of his music, visit his website here – while at the bottom of this page you will find a dedicated Spotify playlist including the Solar Trilogy and the most recent recording of Ruders’ music, with Mahan Esfahani in the recent Harpsichord Concerto. In contrast, the orchestral piece Nightshade of 1986 completes the selection:

Summer heat – Debussy’s Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un Faune

by Ben Hogwood Picture – Impression: Sunrise by Claude Monet

As our UK-based readers will know, England is bracing itself for what could be the hottest week on record. With that in mind, I began thinking of musical evocation of hot weather, and each time I kept on coming back to Debussy‘s influential masterpiece of 1894, the Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Few orchestral works create such an immediate heat haze, but with one deceptively languid flute solo Debussy set the scene, against a cushion of sunbathed strings and soporific, enchanting woodwind.

I remember playing this piece as an orchestral cellist and falling under the spell of the music, with its rich harmonies and persuasive melodies. Debussy’s mature style was established here – revealing an uncommon ability to tug at the senses and lull the brain at his command. Bask in the sunshine and enjoy!

New release – Wordcolour

Here’s a nod in the direction of a particularly interesting new release from Wordcolour, aka Nicholas Worrall.

His new album, The trees were buzzing, and the grass, was released on Houndstooth yesterday – and it looks set to be one of the most intriguing debuts of the year.

A collaborative work, it features guest slots from friends and acquaintances including percussionist Michael Anklin, voice artist Natasha Lohan and performance artist Es Morgan.

Morgan and Worrall worked together on a script for the album, which they chopped and dispersed through the music, interspersed with narration from friends. The music itself flits between scenes, ambient environments and acoustic backdrops in the manner of a film shoot, creating a compelling story.

The wide range of colours are typified by Blossom, which you can watch below:

The joy of polls

There are a number of reasons to love Twitter, even now!

There are a number of reasons to love Twitter, even now!

I won’t go into the reasons not to love Twitter, which are all pretty obvious and usually involve politics, trolls and rampant prejudice or discrimination…but for me it remains a place where like minds can hang out and appreciate things they know and love, as well as discovering whole new worlds of culture. The latter is one of the main reasons for me continuing to use the platform. It is continually inspiring to discover and share other people’s love of music, as well as keeping up with news and developments in all musical forms.

There are a good number of polls or questionnaires to be found on Twitter, in which you can engage, spectate or ignore as you see fit. I did want to mention one in particular, from the reliable source that is Michael Irons, which got me thinking. It went like this:

I saw it late, but since reading it my mind has been occupied for several days. Having given it some thought, the ten composers I listen to most of all are probably as follows:

Sibelius, Prokofiev, Schumann, Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy, Haydn, Brahms, Shostakovich and Dvořák

Now, which ten composers’ music would I like to explore further and / or hear more in concert?

This one is trickier, but going on first instinct I would like to take five of each. There are some composers I still think are massively underappreciated, and I would like to hear more of them in concert. Off the top of my head those five are:

Hindemith, Grieg, Franck, Holst (beyond The Planets) and Joan Tower. Oh, and Liszt as a bonus.

Then five composers I would really like to explore further are:

Rameau, John Foulds, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Caroline Shaw and Andrea Tarrodi, whose music I first heard at the Proms back in 2017.

I’m going to throw the question to electronic and pop music, too – with the ten outfits I listen to most being these:

James, Super Furry Animals, Ed Sheeran (not by choice, but through the radio!), Tears For Fears, New Order, Blur, Stereolab, Depeche Mode, Björk and Erland Cooper

Five outfits I would love to hear in concert are Lady Gaga, Depeche Mode (sadly looking less likely with recent events), Def Leppard (I know!), Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell (also unlikely). The five acts I want to hear more of, on recent recommendation, are Robert Palmer, The Hollies, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder (reappearances) and Can.

These names, of course, are just the tip of the iceberg. What I wanted to ask, is which composer(s) or pop acts would you like to read more (or less) of on Arcana? I know there is a big Beethoven project ongoing, but generally we try to adopt a complete lack of any policy on the music we cover! Please let me know, on social media (on Twitter we are here or through e-mail (editor@arcana.fm)

by Ben Hogwood