Radio 2 Piano Room – a ray of light for February

Written by Ben Hogwood

This is not an advert…but it is a post urging you to listen to some of the sessions in BBC Radio 2’s Piano Room series of concerts if you haven’t already.

Over the last month on Radio 2’s weekday Ken Bruce show, a different act each day has delivered three songs from the BBC’s Maida Vale studios. While the title implies the act will be alone at the piano, the reality is that two of their songs are recast by the BBC Concert Orchestra and their team of expert arrangers. For a bonus the chosen soloist(s) will cover a song of their choice.

The results, quite frankly, have been unexpectedly good and occasionally spectacular. Performers that you might think of as day to day radio fodder have reinvented their songs in this environment. David Gray, for instance, a fine songwriter who arguably suffers from overexposure of his most familiar songs, was transformed. Please Forgive Me (a brilliant arrangement by Tim Bradshaw), This Year’s Love and a cover of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer took on a life of their own in the Piano Room’s first instalment, setting the tone for what followed.

Over the weeks there have been some deeply impressive sessions from newer artists who have raised their game. Radio staples such as Anne-Marie, Ella Henderson and Clean Bandit delivered heartfelt sessions, where every breath could be heard and felt on the airwaves, the musical equivalent to an actor appearing on the West End stage. Anne-Marie in particular deserves great credit for elevating Ed Sheeran’s Bad Habits to another level entirely.

The real stars, dare I say it, have been the BBC Concert Orchestra and their team of arrangers. They have delivered consistently strong and sensitive versions of these songs, lovingly crafted and gaining new qualities through the exquisite string and woodwind writing. Although they have a full orchestra at their disposal the arrangers have never overused them, always keeping the vocalists at the front.

My personal favourites in this month have been David Gray, Simple Minds, Tears for Fears, Jamie Cullum and – unexpectedly – Natalie Imbruglia, who sang a beautifully arranged version of Torn that really cut to the heart.

There are however still a couple of sessions I have yet to hear – and if they reach the same standard as those listed then we are in for a treat.

Take my advice, then, and head for the iPlayer or BBC Sounds, where no less than 60 freshly minted songs await. You will not be disappointed. Now, which other world broadcaster could possibly offer this?

Mark Lanegan: An appreciation

by Ben Hogwood Photo by Steve Gullick

Very recently we learned of the incredibly sad news that singer Mark Lanegan has died, aged 57. Lanegan was an integral part of grunge when it surfaced in the 1990s, both in a solo capacity and as vocalist for his band Screaming Trees. He went on to enjoy a richly creative career for the next three decades.

He did so in the face of great adversity, for Lanegan’s adolescence was riddled with crime and dependency on alcohol and drugs. He faced these with remarkable strength, reaching a long period of abstinence, with those struggles detailed in his recently released autobiography Devil in a Coma. The title is a reference to a prolonged bout of Covid in 2021, which left him hallucinating and in a coma.

All these elements of his life can be felt in his music, his voice often painting pictures of unfathomable darkness, but also using the power of music as a release to help him out of those holes.

My first encounter with Lanegan’s voice was relatively late in his career, after his work with Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age and just as he started collaborating with Soulsavers in 2007. The song Kingdoms Of Rain stopped me dead in my tracks and lingered long in the mind, for although there was darkness at its heart there was a spiritual element that spoke of hope and light around the edges:

The next Soulsavers collaboration, Revival, was even more explicit in its search for redemption, offering spiritual solace in the company of a troupe of gospel singers. A majestic song, seemingly modelled on Bob Dylan’s Knocking At Heaven’s Door, it is a musical treasure – and seeing it live at Bush Hall, London in 2007 it is a memory I will never forget.

A year later I was booked in to do an interview with him to talk about his new album as one half of The Gutter Twins with Greg Dulli. In hindsight, I should not have agreed – it was 10am on a Saturday morning and I was to phone him at a hotel in Amsterdam. It was quickly clear that he was not enthusiastic about the idea, and I got the impression he had been given a busy program of interviews he did not feel happy about. He was entirely professional, but we got through 15 questions in five minutes, and the answers, though unfailingly polite, were monosyllabic. We said an amiable goodbye, but the interview was never written up.

Lanegan’s happy place was clearly in the music, and a wealth of tributes from fellow artists confirm he was a joy to work with. He became so prolific that it was hard to keep pace with all his endeavours. The need to make music was primal, filling the gaps he had previously crammed with other stimulants. Three albums with Isobel Campbell were made, cementing a special partnership that saw their first album, Ballad of the Broken Seas, nominated for a Mercury Prize. The Gutter Twins collaboration, Saturnalia, left a powerful and more guitar-fuelled impact.

Lanegan’s voice was always at the forefront of anything to which he contributed, instantly recognisable. It was shaded like the finest bourbon, but with a cracked upper register that regularly let the light in, like a deeper blend of The Band’s Robbie Robertson and Nick Cave.

He continued to work with Soulsavers, and another album, Broken, moved him from occasional guest to centre stage vocalist.

It exceeded the creative heights of the first, headed by the remarkable Death Bells:

However it was now time to move to a solo setting, yielding another rich vein of creativity that Lanegan mined with 4AD, Vagrant and latterly Heavenly Recordings. With them he made the Gargoyle, Somebody’s Knocking and Straight Songs Of Sorrow albums, consistently fulfilling records that had moments of wide-eyed optimistic in their outlook.

Songs like Beehive were building on the promise shown by Harvest Home, an example from the Phantom Radio album of 2014. This gives a good example of Lanegan singing higher over a much more energetic beat:

Lanegan’s voice made him suitable for guest slots with electronic music producers. Sadly my wish to see him do a collaboration with Massive Attack was not fulfilled, but vocal turns on the music of Bomb The Bass, Moby and UNKLE brought previously unseen elements to their music as well as his. The singer’s stage presence continued to be magnetic, as those lucky enough to see him at London’s KOKO in 2017 would surely agree. Brooding, dark as night for sure – but smiling more now, totally at home in charge of another batch of majestic songs.

Given the troubles and obstacles he faced in life, it is remarkable that Mark Lanegan made it as far as 57. That he did is testament to the healing power of music, and thankfully he has left us with some truly wonderful material to savour, for which we are extremely grateful.

You can read a obituary for Mark Lanegan written by Will Burns, on the Heavenly Recordings website:

In concert – Caroline Sheen, Louise Dearman, Nadim Naaman, Jeremy Secomb, CBSO / Martin Yates – Sondheim: Broadway Baby

Follies Overture
Company Company; Being Alive
Anyone Can Whistle Anyone Can Whistle
Follies Could I Leave You; Broadway Baby
Sondheim Three Sondheim Waltzes
Sweeney Todd A Little Priest; Johanna
Gypsy Some People
Merrily We Roll Along Old Friends

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum Overture
Company The Little Things You Do Together
West Side Story Something’s Coming; Balcony Scene; A Boy Like That
Passion Loving You
A Little Night Music Send In The Clowns
Into The Woods Giants In The Sky; Agony
Company Getting Married Today
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum Comedy Tonight

Louise Dearman, Nadim Naaman, Jeremy Secomb and Caroline Sheen (vocalists), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Martin Yates

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 14 January 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse photos (c) Beki Smith (above) and Florian Wende (below)

This overview of Stephen Sondheim was inevitably leant poignancy by the composer’s death in November but this, in turn, only served to emphasize the extent of his achievement across more than half a century and at least 16 stage-works; across the course of which, he brought the American musical to a new level of sophistication. The present selection further provided a reminder of that additional depth and richness made possible when the instrumental writing is allotted to full orchestra, of which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a keen advocate.

A versatile conductor, Martin Yates launched the evening via a bustling take on the Overture to Follies, Sondheim’s double-edged homage to Broadway’s ‘golden age’, before all four of tonight’s vocalists took the stage for the title-song from Company – its edgy expectancy offset by the fervency of that musical’s ‘Being Alive’ rendered by Nadim Naaman. Jeremy Secomb brought real poise to the title-song of initially ill-fated Anyone Can Whistle; Louise Dearman was defiance itself in ‘Could I Leave You?’, while Caroline Sheen teased out the insouciance of a further Follies song ‘Broadway Baby’. The CBSO duly gave its all in the lively and not-a little sardonic waltzes as taken from Anyone Can Whistle, then Dearman and Secomb proved well complemented as scheming barber and piemaker in ‘A Little Priest’ from Sweeney Todd; Naaman’s pathos in ‘Johanna’ a reminder of this musical’s compassionate side. Sheen sassily projected Sondheim’s lyrics to Jule Styne’s music in ‘Some People’ from Gypsy, then all four singers rounded-off the first half with the barbed ‘Old Friends’ from Merrily We Roll Along.

broadway-baby

A lively traversal of the Overture to A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum set up the second half in suitably racy fashion, with Dearman and Secomb bringing real piquancy to Company’s edgy duet ‘The Little Things You Do Together’. Three numbers from West Side Story reminded one of Sondheim’s peerless lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music – Naaman’s inquiring take on ‘Something’s Coming’ followed by his and Sheen’s rapturous showing for the ‘Balcony Scene’ (a.k.a. ‘Tonight’), the latter joining Dearman for the searing medley ‘A Boy Like That / I Have A Love’ as forms this musical’s emotional apex. Not that Secomb’s unforced eloquence in ‘Loving You’ from Passion proved an emotional come-down; neither did Dearman in conveying the bittersweet soul of ‘Send In The Clowns’ from A Little Night Music – Sondheim’s most recognizable melody. Two numbers now from multi-layered Into The Woods – Naaman suitably astounded in ‘Giants In The Sky’; he and Secomb pointing up the fanciful imagery of ‘Agony’. Dearman and Sheen joined him for the heady triple-take of ‘Getting Married’ from Company, then the advertised programme concluded with the quartet in the uproarious ‘Comedy Tonight’ such as unerringly sets the tone for Forum as a whole.

Those who might have been bemoaning the absence of Sunday In The Park With George (its first act arguably Sondheim’s most perfect achievement) would have been reassured with the ecstatic ‘Sunday’ that brought the evening to its close; one in which the contribution from the CBSO played no small part in conveying the sheer range of Sondheim’s enduring creativity.

For more information on this concert you can visit the CBSO website. Meanwhile click on the artist names for information on Martin Yates, Louise Dearman, Nadim Naaman, Jeremy Secomb and Caroline Sheen. To read more about Stephen Sondheim himself, visit the Stephen Sondheim Society

On record – Lyadov: Choral Music (Academy of Russian Music Chamber Choir / Ivan Nikiforchin) (Toccata Classics)

lyadov

Lyadov
Two Choruses from the Final Scene of Schiller’s ‘Die Braut von Messina’, Op. 28 (1878)
Glorification for Valdimir Stasov (1894)
Slava, Op. 47 (1899)
10 Russian Folksongs (1899)
Glorification for Vladimir Stasov (1899)
Farewell Song of the Schoolgirls from the Empress Maria Institute, Op. 50 (1900)
‘Drip, Ek’ Fugato (1900)
Glory to Nikolai Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1901)
Hymn to Anton Rubinstein, Op. 54 (1902)
Five Russian Folksongs (1902)
Chorus from Cantata in Memory of Mark Antokolsky (1902)
Music to Maurice Maeterlinck’s ‘Soeur Béatrice’, Op. 60 (1906)
15 Russian Folksongs (1908) – Nos. 3, 9, 10 and 14
10 Settings from the Obikhod, Op. 61 (1909) – Nos. 7 and 10
The Hourly Prayer of St Joasaph Gorlenko (1910)
Three Russian Folksongs (1912)
Glory to Evgeniya Ivanovna Zbrueva (1913)

Academy of Russian Music Chamber Choir / Ivan Nikiforchin

Toccata Classics TOCC0614 [66’46”] Russian (Cyrilic) texts and English translations / summaries

Producer / Engineer Ilya Dontsov

Recorded 5 November – 22 December 2020 at Concert Hall of Academy of Choral Arts, Moscow

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its intensive exploration of music’s (mainly) worthwhile byways with this anthology of choral music from Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914), enticingly sung in a sympathetic ambience – with all but two of the 39 pieces featured here being first recordings.

What’s the music like?

The irony that Lyadov is today most remembered for what he did not compose (the score of Diaghilev’s ballet The Firebird, for which he might not actually have been commissioned in any case) should not detract from the sizable corpus of piano music or limited but even more distinctive output of orchestral pieces which duly confirm a miniaturist of rare fastidiousness. Such quality is hardly less apparent in his acapella choral music, most of it featured here and which falls into three distinct categories such as are helpfully presented in generic sequence.

The first three tracks represent Lyadov’s ‘Original Religious Chants’ and find the composer enriching a genre that, almost by definition, went essentially unaltered over the two centuries from Bortnyansky to Gretchaninov. If his contributions lack the expressive fervour that later exponents – notably Rachmaninov – attained, the clarity of his writing and suppleness of his phrasing evince no little mastery and make these pieces as grateful to sing as they are to hear. Sung in English, they would hardly seem out of place within the context of domestic services.

The next 22 tracks survey most of Lyadov’s ‘Arrangements of Russian Folksongs’ which fall into two main categories – choral songs that are mainly slow and introspective, with spiritual or lamentational connotations; and choral dances as are mainly swift and demonstrative, with earthly or celebratory overtones. Again, later composers – notably Stravinsky in this instance – found a new level of harmonic astringency and rhythmic flexibility in such music, which is not to deny those qualities of pathos and charm this composer draws from his arrangements.

The closing 14 tracks comprise Lyadov’s ‘Complete Original Choral Works’ which prove a motley assortment – from choruses for theatrical productions, via homages to distinguished musical personages with a commemorative (not always memorial) function, to pieces of an occasional nature. Those the composer published indicate what he felt worth disseminating, with Op. 50 belying its rather cumbersome title for music whose wistful eloquence amounts to just under four minutes of understated bliss and the undoubted highlight of this collection.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that Lyadov clearly had an innate understanding of what was required when writing for unaccompanied voices. Those who are looking for emotional expansiveness or rhythmic invention will be disappointed, though such an approach was as far removed from Lyadov’s thinking within the choral medium as in those pieces for orchestra or piano. Rather, he opts for an intimacy and poise such as are effortlessly conveyed in these stylish renderings by the Academy of Russian Music Chamber Choir under the assured direction of Ivan Nikiforchin.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The clear if atmospheric acoustic provides an ideal ambience for these performances, with insightful notes by Igor Prokhorov who also provides English summaries for each of the folksongs. Those already familiar with Lyadov’s orchestral and piano music need not hesitate.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording.

In concert – Oxford Lieder Festival celebrates Stenhammar with Camilla Tilling, Agnes Auer, Martin Sturfält, Lotte Betts-Dean, the Stenhammar Quartet and Sholto Kynoch

Various venues in Oxford, Sunday 10 October. Artists as listed below

Written by Ben Hogwood from online streams

“There is no better way to get to know Stenhammar than the songs”, says pianist and scholar of the composer Martin Sturfält. With around half of the composer’s output delivered on this third day of the Oxford Lieder Festival, it was the ideal opportunity to get to know the Swedish composer, 150 years on from his birth. Arcana dipped its toe in four of the online events.

Celebrating Stenhammar, placed second in the substantial quintet of concerts, seemed the best place when approaching this series online. Taking the form of a seminar with musical examples, it doubled as the ideal introduction to the composer and an extremely useful and interesting top-up for those with working knowledge.

Beginning, naturally, with two songs, we were able to enjoy the clear voice of soprano Agnes Auer, giving with Sturfält a radiant account of I Skogen (In The Forest), which they countered with the distracted Adagio.

A panel of Sturfält, Daniel Grimley and Leah Broad then proceeded to give valuable historical context to Stenhammar’s work, brimming over with enthusiasm for the increased exposure his music has enjoyed of late. Broad explained the composer’s continued resolve to compose accessible tonal music in the wave of modernism sweeping Europe, renouncing Schoenberg and Strauss but striking out instead for a clarity of expression. This could be seen in helpful parallels drawn with Swedish art and politics of the time.

Auer illustrated why the fuss is justified, with a special account of Klockan (The Bell), one of Stenhammar’s finest songs stopping time as she sang. Later on Lutad Mot Gärdet (Leaning On The Fence) was a lovely illustration of how the composer’s relative simplicity could fuel profound feelings, especially through the clear tones of this singer.

In between Sturfält played the rather lovely Sensommarnätter (Late Summer Nights) Op.33. This suite captured both the clear light and furtive movements of nature at that time of year, but also found a metaphor for the late summer of life. Though written in 1914 the suite had been in Stenhammar’s mind for some time, and the performance here caught the essence of the five pieces, a tantalising combination of certainty amid darker thoughts and feelings.

Before this the day had begun with a broader celebration of Nordic song, in the company of young artists – soprano Siân Dicker, tenor Alessandro Fisher, mezzo Lotte Betts-Dean and pianist Keval Shah, who proved an excellent guide. As he said, nature provided the drama itself – and these examples, from contemporaries of Stenhammar, brought little-known names to the surface in illustration of the depth of songwriting talent in the Nordic countries in the 20th century.

Adolf Fredrik Lindblad’s Höstkvällen made a strong impact through Betts-Dean, as did Kuula’s slightly troubled Syystunnelma and a slightly playful Serenad from Erik Bergman. Here, Fisher and Shah portrayed the falling leaves with little flourishes. Betts-Dean also caught the unpredictable directions of Grieg‘s Autumn Songs. Definitely a song of two halves, it held the realisation that summer is over and winter is making a play for our affections. Meanwhile the remarkable Sibelius song Norden pushed Dicker’s voice to its limit, successfully, and she also shone in Merikanto and Madetoja.

The third concert, subtitled A Swedish Sensation, featured the Stenhammar String Quartet in a tense Elegy and brisk Intermezzo from Lodolezzi sjunger (Lodolezzi sings). Then they were joined by Lotte Betts-Dean for a fascinating set of five songs from Henri Marteau. The viola crept upwards before a portrayal of how the ‘quiet drops fall to earth from the clouds’ was brilliant in Thränentropfen, while the exultant In dem Garten meiner Seele found the ‘magic voice of a violin’ from first violinist Peter Olofsson at the end. Betts Dean set a very high standard, with wonderful tone and full voice in Sonnenlied, pushing to her upper range with impressive poise and power.

The quartet then proceeded to give a fluent account of their namesake’s String Quartet no.4, showing its ready inspiration in a first movement that delighted in a good many tunes, the instruments engaged in confident dialogue. The influence of Mendelssohn could be found in this busy activity, but the richly coloured Adagio made a more lasting mark, Olofsson’s passionate solo floating above the waves created by the other three instruments. There was a busy scherzo with a particularly bright fugal episode, high on energy, before touches of humour imbued the finale with positive spirits. Again, the dialogue between the four was intimate and entertaining.

The fourth concert, given in a starry Saint John the Evangelist church, included a complete performance of Stenhammar’s cycle Songs and Moods. The object of this concert was to show off Stenhammar’s talents to the full in the company of the best possible artists for the task. Agnes Auer returned, while Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling and baritone Jakob Högström gave fully idiomatic performances, all paired with festival director Sholto Kynoch, who had somehow found the time to rehearse the challenging piano parts!

The route to Stenhammar came by the way of Lindblad, Rangström, Nordqvist, Alfvén, Linde and Peterson-Berger, and was again illuminating in its selections. The darker shades of Ture Rangström’s Pan received a nice, airy delivery from Tilling, while Alfven’s Saa tag mit Hjerte was the most affecting song so far with its simple yet searching message and melody. Bo Linde’s Äppelträd och päronträd (The apple tree and the pear tree) sprang forward with renewed energy, while Peterson-Berger set a mood of longing with När jag för mig själv, and the poignant lyric “I think of a friend whom I will never find”.

After six very fine songs from Stenhammar himself – Ingalill Op.16/3 testing the upper range of Tilling and Fylgia Op.16/4 clinging urgently to its subject – we heard Högström in Songs and Moods Op.26. This fulsome baritone was beautifully projected, supported by a crystal clear piano part. There was a sharply rendered portrait of the butterfly orchid that stood out, then a staccato Miss Blonde & Miss Brunette which proved the most substantial song. Kynoch was certainly kept very busy! To the land of bliss was brilliantly judged, tripping along like a slightly tipsy dance, while Prins Aladdin af Lampan, with several twists and turns, wrought its way to a powerful climax.

Tilling returned for more of the composer’s single songs, with Vid fönstret Op.20 offering poignant words on ageing, then Månsken (Op. 20/4) a clear portrayal of the forest. For an encore, soprano and baritone linked in Swedish.

This was an absolutely fascinating day, too much to take in one sitting but consistently revealing when watched back on the different streaming sites. Great credit should go to the video production team, for the songs were expertly filmed, but also to the panelists and performers for clearly relishing their chance to show their respect for one of Sweden’s best-loved composers. This day will surely have won Wilhelm Stenhammar many new friends.

For further information on this year’s Oxford Lieder festival, you can visit the event’s website here