Screen Grab: The music of Marriage – new BBC drama brings composer Caroline Shaw to the fore

This week the BBC have started showing the intriguing drama Marriage, which has superstar quality from its two lead characters, Sean Bean and Nicola Walker.

The series has split opinion in its accurate portrayal of every life in a marriage lasting 27 years – largely played out in real time. As the series has developed the many subtleties have combined to a plot that is gathering substance and meaning as time goes on, rather like life itself.

One of the most striking elements of the drama is its bold choice of signature tune, which again has divided opinion sharply. The chosen music is by composer Caroline Shaw (above) – the first couple of minutes of her Partita for unaccompanied choir, specifically the first movement Allemande.

Initially the voices sound like an extra part of Marriage, especially as the plot continues to play out, but as the voices come together in a firm pitch so too do the images, and the end credits roll.

You can listen to the full movement, which lasts six minutes, below – and enjoy Shaw’s wonderful layering of the voices, with spicy harmonic clashes and some vibrant writing for the small choir:

The Partita continues with three further movements, each based on an old dance form. The Sarabande is initially soothing and enchanting, before really letting rip with primal power halfway through. The Courante, the most substantial of the four movements, has a number of hypnotic effects and fresh faced harmonies, especially halfway through as it soars to unexpected heights.

Finally the Passacaglia has a lilting base to its music, and a spoken word commentary resumes as it did at the start of the piece, before the voices end powerfully in unison.

Here is a live performance, given by the dedicatees Roomful of Teeth – with whom the composer sings:

Aside from this high profile appearance, Shaw has been making quite a name for herself in recent years. In 2021, Nonesuch released the album Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part, written and performed with Sō Percussion:

Meanwhile the choral piece And the Swallow lingers particularly long in the memory:

You can discover more of Caroline’s music at her website

On Record – Ulf Bästlein & Hedayet Jonas Djeddikar – Martin Plüddemann: Ballads, Songs and Legends (Naxos)

Martin Plüddemann
Liederzyklus. Jung Dietrich (both 1879). Vineta. Venetianisches Gondellied (both 1880). Graf Eberhards Weissdom. Einkehr. Siegfrieds Schwert (all 1881). Der Glockenguss zu Breslau (1882). Die Taufe. Dr Martin Luther. Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt. Arthur Schopenhauer (all 1883). Die Legende vom Hufeisen (1884/9). Altdeutsches Minnelied. Frau Mette. Don Massias. Russisches Lied. Des Sängers Fluch (all 1885). Gute Nacht (1887). Loewe’s Herz (1892). Niels Finn. Die Katzen und der Hauscherr. Der Sarg auf der Maasinsel. Die Meer-maid. Des Lebens Winter (all 1893). Sankt Peter mit der Geiss (1895). Drei Wanderer (1897).

Ulf Bästlein (baritone), Hedayet Jonas Djeddikar (piano)

Naxos 8.551460-61 [two discs, 2h34m15s] Producer/Engineer: Alexander Grün Dates: October 2nd-4th, 2020 and March 19th-22nd, 2021 at Studio TONAL, Pfaffendorf German texts and English translations can be found on the Naxos website, as can the additional notes

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos once again puts inquiring listeners in its debt with a collection of Ballads, Songs and Legends from the short-lived though influential Martin Plüddemann, admirably realized and extensively documented by artists for whom this project has evidently been a labour of love.

What’s the music like?

Readers might recall the world premiere in late 1978 of an orchestral song Siegfrieds Schwert by Webern. In fact, its brash orchestration was all that the teenage composer had contributed to a ballad written 22 years earlier by Plüddemann – then so obscure that the connection was not made at this time. Born in Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg in Poland) in 1854, he had studied at Leipzig in the early 1870s then worked as a singing teacher, conductor and critic in, among other places, Munich and Graz before heading to Berlin where he died in 1897 aged just 43.

Although he championed the music of Wagner, Plüddemann was most influenced creatively by Carl Loewe – specifically his concept of the ballad which dominates those 50 or so pieces that he completed, and of which 33 are included in this collection. Examples can be found in such as Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, and while Plüddemann took this to a new level of formal and expressive density, the innately Teutonic nature of the genre consigned his music to oblivion once Austro-German culture had moved on near the start of the twentieth century.

The essence of Plüddemann’s thinking is amply conveyed by a collection as includes several of his songs, notably the winsomely understated Liederzyklus and mini-cycle after Heine that is Frau Mette – alongside the more substantial ballads in which the intertwined significances of story-telling and role-playing, coupled with the often graphically illustrative quality of the piano writing, results in music which is highly evocative or excessively mannered according to taste. Never in doubt, though, is the ability to draw each listener into its interiorized world.

Plüddemann’s most ambitious ballads are heard at the end of each disc – the Faustian pact as adumbrated by Wilhelm Müller when truth confronts beauty in Der Glockenguss zu Breslau, then the highly polemical relationship between art and the state in Ludwig Uhland’s familiar Der Sängers Fluch whose undeniably equivocal resolve says much for the aesthetic stance of the composer and many of his contemporaries. The shorter ballads evince a wide range of moods, not least Siegfrieds Schwert which sounds far more appealing in its original guise.

Does it all work?

Yes, provided listeners approach this music in the context of its intentions and limitations. As with Loewe, there is more than a hint of didacticism which might be thought off-putting, but it is to the credit of Ulf Bästlein and Hedayet Jonas Djeddikar that any such aspect has been integrated into the overall content of the piece at hand. Certainly, the former’s burnished yet never cloying baritone, allied to the latter’s dextrous while resourceful pianism, ensures that Plüddemann’s work benefits from a degree of advocacy it can seldom have received hitherto.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least as the sound has so realistic a balance between voice and piano, with essays by Bästlein, Michael Wilfert and Susan Youens that yield a wealth of information previously unavailable in English. Those drawn to the Austro-German musical byways need not hesitate.

For further information on this release, you can visit the Naxos website, and you can purchase by clicking on the link from Naxos Direct. Click on the names for more information on the composer Martin Plüddemann, and on the artists Ulf Bästlein and Hedayet Jonas Djeddikar

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Music from Wyastone – Sibelius: Symphony no.6 & Tapiola

Sibelius Symphony no.6 in D minor Op.104 (1923); Tapiola Op.112 (1926)

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 1-2 March 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

A cycle of Sibelius symphonies by the English Symphony Orchestra got underway last year with an impressive account of the Seventh, making this second instalment the more pertinent for showing just how the composer had arrived at that work and where he went from there.

Only if the Sixth Symphony is viewed as neo-classical does it feel elusive, rather than a deft reformulation of Classical precepts as here. The first movement duly unfolded as a seamless evolution whose emotional contrasts are incidental – Kenneth Woods ensuring its purposeful course complemented the circling repetition of the following intermezzo, with its speculative variations upon that almost casual opening gesture. Ideally paced, the scherzo yielded a more incisive tone which the finale then pursued in a refracted sonata design as gained intensity up to its climactic mid-point. Tension dropped momentarily here, quickly restored in a disarming reprise of its opening and a coda whose evanescence was well conveyed; a reminder Sibelius Six is as much about eschewal of beginnings and endings in its seeking after a new cohesion.

A suitably expanded ESO then tackled Tapiola – Sibelius’s last completed major work, whose prefatory quatrain implies an elemental aspect duly rendered through the near/total absence of transition in music of incessant evolution. A quality to the fore in this perceptive reading with Woods finding the right balance between formal unity and expressive diversity throughout its underlying course. Just occasionally there was a lack of that ‘otherness’ as endows this music with its uniquely disquieting aura, yet a steadily accumulating momentum was rarely in doubt towards the seething climax, then a string threnody whose anguish can bestow only the most tenuous of benedictions. A reminder, too, that not the least reason Sibelius might have failed to complete his Eighth Symphony was because he had already realized it in the present work.

The ESO being heard to advantage in the spacious clarity of Wyastone Hall, these accounts will be worth getting to know on commercial release (with the Seventh Symphony) early next year, when this cycle will itself continue with recordings of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies

These works are available for viewing on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 29 July – 1 August, then through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

In concert – April Fredrick, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Mozart, Richard Strauss, Doolittle & Dvořák

Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C minor K546 (1783, rev 1788)
Richard Strauss (arr. Burke) Morgen! Op.27 no.4 (1894)
Doolittle A Short, Slow Life (2011)
Dvořák (arr. Burke) Rusalka B203 – Song to the Moon (1900)
Mozart Symphony no.39 in E flat major K543 (1788)

April Fredrick (soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Great Malvern Priory, Malvern
Wednesday 15 June 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This latest concert in its current season found the English Symphony Orchestra back at the Priory in Great Malvern in a programme with, at its centre, a contrasting triptych of vocal items from April Fredrick which continued her Affiliate Artist role in impressive fashion.

At its centre was a performance (the UK premiere?) of A Short, Slow Life, Emily Doolittle’s setting of a poem which finds Elizabeth Bishop at her most Dickinson-like with its reflection on growing up in a seeming Arcady latterly undone as much by existential as environmental factors. Enfolding and intricate, its scoring for nine instruments offers an evocative context for the vocal line to emerge from and with which to interact – Fredrick making the most of their dialogue in this winsome and, thanks to Kenneth Woods, finely co-ordinated reading.

Either side came chamber reductions from Tony Burke. In Morgen!, Strauss’s setting of John Henry Mackay, it was the understatement of Fredrick’s approach that compelled by drawing this relatively early song into the emotional orbit of those from half-a-century later. In ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka, her unaffected eloquence arguably came through more directly in an arrangement that (rightly) predicated the soloistic nature of the orchestral writing. Technically immaculate, Fredrick’s artistry was itself never less than life-affirming.

Framing this programme came two not unrelated works by Mozart. Written in 1783 when the composer was extending the formal and expressive weight of his music by intensive study of Bach and Handel, this C minor Fugue’s two-piano austerity took on a greater richness when arranged for strings and prefaced by a brief if searching Adagio which throws its successor’s contrapuntal density into greater relief. The ESO duly responded with playing of sustained trenchancy that incidentally reminded one no less than Beethoven took its example to heart.

Having given perceptive accounts of Mozart’s 40th and 41st symphonies earlier this season, it made sense that Woods and the ESO to include the 39th as opens what increasingly seems a symphonic triptych in design and intent. This performance was no less idiomatic – the first movement’s introductory Adagio imposing yet flexible so that its ‘heroic’ quality with those wrenching harmonies was never in doubt, the main Allegro building up tangible momentum through a tensile development then an even briefer coda decisive in its impetus and sweep.

Even more than its successors, the Andante is the heart of the work – among the most striking instances of that ineffable pathos Mozart made his own. Inward while with no lack of forward motion, it made a telling foil to the Menuetto with its bracing outer sections and a trio which featured a delectable expressive pause prior to a last hearing of the clarinet’s amiable melody. Nor was there any lack of wit in the scintillating finale, the repeat of its second half necessary for one of Mozart’s rare incursions into the ‘false ending’ beloved of Haydn to leave its mark. A fine conclusion, then, to another worthwhile concert by the ESO which returns early next month for a very different, all-American programme that includes a rare outing for the full-length version (including the ‘hurricane’ episode) of Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring.

For further information on April Fredrick, click here, and for more on Emily Doolittle click here. To find out more about the artists, click on the names for more Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra.

On record – Jeremy Huw Williams & Paula Fan – From The Hills of Dream: The Forgotten Songs of Arnold Bax (EM Records)


Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone), Paula Fan (piano)

The Grand Match (1903). To my Homeland (1904). Leaves, Shadows and Dreams. Viking-Battle-Song (1905). I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden. The Twa Corbies (both 1906). Longing. From the Hills of Dream (both 1907). Landskab (1908). Marguerite (1909). Das tote Kind (1911). Welcome, Somer. Of her Mercy (both 1914). A Leader (1916). The Splendour Falls (1917). Le Chant d’Isabeau. A Rabelaisian Catechism (both 1920). Carrey Clavel (1925) – all world premiere recordings

EM Records EMRCD073 [77’56”]

Producer Jeremy Huw Williams Engineer Wiley Ross

Recorded 13, 14, 16, 22 & 23 October 2020 at Jeff Haskell Recording Studio; 13 November 2020 at Jim Brady Recording Studios, University of Arizona, Tucson, USA

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

EM Records continues its coverage of lesser-known (or the lesser-known music of) English composers in an extensive survey of ‘forgotten’ songs by Arnold Bax, of which only a few were publicly performed in his lifetime with several of them first heard as recently as 2018.

What’s the music like?

Although he is best known for his symphonies and tone poems, songs with piano occupy a not unimportant place in Bax’s output – particularly over his formative years. This selection unfolds chronologically – opening with a lively setting of Moira O’ Neil’s The Grand Match, then continuing pensively with Stephen Gwynn’s To My Homeland in which Bax’s love of Irish culture was first manifest. Two settings of ‘Fiona Macleod’ (aka William Sharp) – the evocative Leaves, Shadows and Dreams, then the (would-be) heroics of Viking-Battle-Song – precede a ravishing take on Percy Shelley’s I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden, before The Twa Corbies finds Bax experimenting (not always successfully) with recitation in this traditional text. Two further settings of Macleod – the poised elegance of Longing, then the searching inwardness of From the Hills of Dream – lead on to this composer’s only treatment of a text in Danish, that of Landskab (Landscape) by Jens Peter Jacobsen, whose three manuscripts imply syntactical problems never adequately resolved despite the music’s gentle eloquence.

Bax set four texts by William Morris, among which the warmly expressive Marguerite went (surprisingly) unheard until now. The sombre symbolism of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s Das tote Kind is underplayed despite being in the original German, and two rondels by Geoffrey Chaucer – the wistful charm of Welcome, Somer then deft humour of Of her Mercy – exude sentiments to which he is more attuned. This is even more evident in A Leader, a setting of George Russell’s poem that underlines Bax’s emotional involvement with those issues and persons of Ireland’s ill-fated Easter Uprising that ranks among the composer’s finest songs. Few are likely to prefer his dogged setting of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Splendour Falls to that by Britten (or the Delius part-song), whereas the traditional Le Chant d’Isabeau has appealing winsomeness. A Rabelaisian Catechism is a salacious take on another traditional text, with a little help from Vaughan Williams and Wagner, while Carrey Clavel matches Thomas Hardy’s wry observation of scorned love to a tee and makes for a delightful close.

Does it all work?

Most of the time. Almost from the outset, Bax was an inventive but also interventionist setter of texts, such that the poet’s sentiments are not necessarily those conveyed in his songs. This might explain why he increasingly eschewed the genre once he had found his true metier in orchestral and chamber media, so that there are very few songs from the mid-1920s onwards. That said, the literary range of what Bax did set as well as the expressive range of his settings ensures his contribution is a notable one and is enhanced by those songs featured on this disc.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least through the advocacy of Jeremy Huw Williams whose unstinting advocacy is underpinned by Paula Fan’s perceptive accompaniment. The extensive booklet notes are by the Bax authority Graham Parlett, to whose memory this release is appropriately dedicated.

Listen and Buy

To listen to excerpts from this disc and view purchase options, visit the EM Records website. To read more about Arnold Bax, visit his dedicated composer website, and for more on the performers, click on the names of Jeremy Huw Williams and Paula Fan. Finally for more information on the English Music Festival, click here