Live review – Sinfonia Tamesa & Matthew Taylor – Ethel Smyth Serenade & Brahms Third Symphony

Sinfonia Tamesa / Matthew Taylor

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London
Saturday 9th March 2019

Schumann Genoveva Op.81 – Overture (1850)
Smyth Serenade in D major (1890)
Brahms Symphony no.3 in F major Op.90 (1883)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Now into its eighteenth season, Sinfonia Tamesa has never been an orchestra afraid to ring the changes when it comes to programming. Tonight was no exception, with a rare hearing for Dame Ethel Smyth‘s Serenade to commemorate International Woman’s Day.

Not that this substantial piece proved unworthy of revival on its own merits. Brahms (whom Smyth admired above all others) is the obvious influence here, but Dvořák is equally evident in the rhythmic lilt and deft woodwind writing of its inner movements, an energetic scherzo followed by a hardly less animated intermezzo, and Matthew Taylor secured playing as lithe as it was incisive. He also brought out those expressive contrasts as make up for the opening Allegro’s lack of textural variety and ensured an underlying propulsion that carried the rather repetitious finale on to its decisive close. No major rediscovery, but a likeable and engaging work by a composer who wrote all too little purely orchestral music; should Tamesa choose to schedule Smyth’s masterly Double Concerto for Horn and Violin, then so much the better.

Framing this piece was music by Schumann and Brahms. The former’s only opera, Genoveva was a failure at its premiere and only infrequently revived today, but its melodic appeal helps compensate for some foursquare characterization – the overture making an effective concert item on its own terms. Some shaky intonation robbed the introduction of mystery, but what followed found a viable balance between agitation and an affirmation which (as also in the opera) ultimately wins through – evident here in the surging optimism of those closing bars.

After the interval came Brahms’s Third Symphony, its quiet ending merely one of the reasons why this is the least-often heard of the cycle. From the outset, Taylor secured the right tempo for an opening movement that can easily lose shape and direction; finding winsome charm in the second theme, before judging the development’s relaxation then accruing of momentum with assurance. The coda’s transfigured poise (Brahms’s riposte to Tristan?) carried over into the Andante, whose melodic simplicity belies an emotional ambiguity which was teased out from its ruminative asides before being made explicit in those confiding final pages. Good to hear what followed taken not as an unintentional slow movement, but rather an intermezzo whose pathos is accentuated by its deftly propelled motion. The finale brought a culmination in all respects, and though ensemble faltered during more dynamic passages, a sure impetus was sustained across the reprise (the thrilling modulation into which was tangibly conveyed) then a coda that recalls the work’s initial motto with a mingling of aspiration and benediction.

Make no mistake, this was a convincing and insightful take on a symphony of which such readings are still an exception to the rule. A fine showing, too, for Sinfonia Tamesa, which will return to St James’s on 6th July for a Rachmaninov programme under Matt Andrews.

For further information on Sinfonia Tamesa, visit the orchestra’s website – and for more on Matthew Taylor, click on this link

Live review – Mirel Iancovici & Jeroen Riemsdijk – The Legacy of Music: Enescu and His Teachers

Mirel Iancovici (cello), Jeroen Riemsdijk (piano)

Romanian Cultural Institute, London
Thursday 7th March 2019

R. Fuchs Cello Sonata no.2 in E flat minor Op.83 (c1908)
Enescu (arr. Iancovici) Romanian Rhapsody no.2 in D major (1901)
Enescu Tre Canti (1905/1903/1938); Sonata-Torso in A minor (1911)
Massenet Thaïs – Méditation (1894)
Fauré Cello Sonata no.2 in G minor Op.117 (1921)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The significance of Enescu‘s teachers throughout his formative years in Vienna and Paris has often been remarked but seldom reflected in performance, so making this evening’s recital as part of the Romanian Cultural Institute’s Enescu Concerts Series the more worthwhile.

Regarded more highly as a teacher than composer in his lifetime, Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) is best remembered for his orchestral Serenades. His Second Cello Sonata (its unusual key a response to the E minor of Brahms’s First Sonata?) is characteristic in its emotional reticence and intensive interplay between instruments, not least in the equable opening Allegro that duly makes way for a ruminative Adagio then a relatively animated finale. In the hands of Mirel Iancovici and Jeroen Riemsdijk, it certainly made its case for more frequent revival.

All the Enescu pieces featured were arrangements by Iancovici, beginning with that of the Second Romanian Rhapsody whose emphasis on song rather than dance makes it well suited to this medium. The Three Songs derive from various sources: the plaintive Doina (Lament) from a folk-inspired song, grandly rhetorical Preludio monodico from the initial movement of the First Orchestral Suite, then the mercurial Lăutarul (The Fiddler) from the opening movement of Impressions d’enfance. Together these made for an attractive and contrasted sequence, but it was the transcription of the Sonata-Torso that left the strongest impression – the intensely interiorized emotion and rhapsodic progress of this intriguing while undeniably discursive piece arguably better served in this guise than by the violin-and-piano original.

Just before this, the evergreen Méditation from the opera Thaïs by Massenet (a composer who wrote little or no chamber music) made for an easeful and not too indulgent interlude. The recital ended with Fauré‘s Second Cello Sonata, typical of his late music in its eliding of form into expression as confirmed by the fluid unfolding of its initial Allegro then the distanced soulfulness of its Andante, before the final Allegro affords a measure of robust humour and wistful poise as this elusive piece heads to its unexpectedly decisive close.

Throughout this recital, Iancovici’s playing was of an insight and discernment complemented by Riemsdijk’s lucid and attentive pianism. Hopefully they will return in this series; hopefully including either (or both!) of Enescu’s cello sonatas and more of Iancovici’s arrangements.

Further information on the Enescu Concerts Series at can be found at the Romanian Cultural Institute website

Mark Hollis: An Appreciation

Mark Hollis (4.1.1955–25.2.2019): An Appreciation, from Richard Whitehouse

First, picture this: a 16-year-old in the seated area of Birmingham’s Odeon about to witness a band of white-suited men whose reputation as a second-tier Duran Duran was confirmed by the set of synth-based songs lapped up by teenagers too hormonally active to hear the music.

Then, picture this: a 19-year-old standing in London’s Hammersmith Odeon (as it then was) to witness an augmented band awash with jazz inferences and ‘world’ percussion (as it soon became) in a set that suggested a brave new world of possibilities opening-up for British pop.

Now, picture this: a 28-year-old listening through a self-inflicted haze at a flat somewhere in the vicinity of Elephant and Castle to the all too valedictory-sounding swansong album from this band which ignorance meant had gone unnoticed on its release almost four years earlier.

Just how Talk Talk effected these transitions was, of course, merely part of the fascination surrounding this band in general and front-man Mark Hollis in particular. Indeed, the present writer would not even have been at the Birmingham gig had he not been invited by a school-friend whose sister was too young to be taking advantage of her competition prize, while his attendance at the London gig came about after a chance hearing of that band’s third album – The Colour of Spring emerging as a diamond in the murky sea of 1980s British pop.

Not that Talk Talk was blameless in this latter respect, though Hollis had been an unwilling New Romantic from the outset. Listen to the sophomore single Talk Talk, as originally set down by his former band The Reaction, for a perfect instance of second-string Punk that was reformatted with minimal fuss (the demo acting as New Wave transition) into the song it became. From here to the reluctant modishness of The Party’s Over, then uneasy swerving between personal confession and impersonal hit-making of It’s My Life made what came after the more telling.

Just what Talk Talk might have gone to achieve as a live act will never be known, as Hollis’s refusal to countenance further performance after 1986 was but one aspect of a mind-set which saw him and assorted cohorts move ever further from pop towards what later became known as post-rock; not so much an aesthetic entity as an amorphous category dreamed up by itinerant musos. Rose-tinted memories aside, the release of Spirit of Eden in the late-summer of 1988 really did suggest a new phase comparable to those defined by Sgt Pepper or Low / Heroes.

Undoubtedly an album whose listeners divide equally into the ‘formed their own bands’ and ‘became music critics’ categories, Spirit Of Eden has now been over-hyped more than it was initially under-appreciated – as any read through the well-intentioned sentiments of the many Hollis tributes readily underlines. Its achievement, following on from those seminal albums in the decades before it, was to blur generic boundaries so that the music’s intrinsic sound became its own justification – hardly something that tallied with AOR interests at the end of the ’80s.

That things did not quite work-out as they should was hardly the fault of Hollis or his band, which by now resembled more a ‘broken consort’ whose output had almost to be extracted from sonic raw-material under testing studio conditions. What remained constant, here or on even more unequivocal follow-up Laughing Stock, was the quality (in all senses) of Hollis’s voice as it veered between tremulous croon and mumbled intimation; all the while providing focus and continuity in the context of music as skirted genres without being beholden to any.

That fifth and final album slipped out on a new (and equally uncomprehending) label exactly three years after its predecessor, demonstrably moving as far beyond it creatively as ‘Eden’ had beyond ‘Spring’. That said, all three albums represent the qualitative best of times which memory recalls as being more favourable to such music inasmuch as the overall ‘scene’ was less fragmented and demarcated than it became. A cursory look at UK chart placings for the latter two suggests unit-sales such as far more mainstream bands could only dream of today.

Not that these considerations would have worried Hollis, who duly disappeared from view only to re-emerge seven years on with his eponymous solo album; one whose economy yet never austerity of means and inwardly confiding manner have belatedly earned it accolades not so far removed from those bestowed on his former band’s later work, though its uniform beauty of content and exquisite flatness of production make for a less engrossing experience. Hollis was always at his best when being provocative, however obliquely that may have been.

It is worth remembering that even this album would likely never have come about had Hollis not had a contractual obligation to fulfil. His ensuing departure – rather, self-imposed exile – from the music industry ‘for family reasons’ has been much debated, but there is no reason to doubt its veracity. After all, his comments during that uncommonly revealing interview from 1991, to the effect he could never imagine not making music but increasingly felt no need to record let alone perform it, could hardly have been a more explicit statement of future intent.

What remained, other than the almost unbroken ‘silence from Wimbledon’, were six albums (together with a modicum of B-sides and sundry tracks) which constitute a legacy integral to any consideration of Western music from the latter half of last century. What this represents in creative terms has fitfully been evident over the decades since. What this says in any wider or more inclusive terms should remain relevant for as long as Western culture refrains from apologizing itself out of existence – which might come about rather sooner than anticipated.

Time, then, to remember Mark Hollis not for what he failed to achieve or had no intention of achieving, but for what he left to anyone for whom music is not only an end in-itself but also a means of understanding just what can be achieved when thought and expression are as one.

Wigmore Mondays – Mariam Batsashvili plays Bach, Haydn & Liszt

Mariam Batsashvili (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903 (c1720) (1:45 – 13:19 on the broadcast link below)

Haydn Piano Sonata in D major HXVI:37 (1780) (13:59-24:20)

Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody no.12 in C sharp minor S244/12 (25:39-35:15)

Liszt, edited Busoni & Leslie Howard: Fantasy on themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni S697 (1842) (36:40-55:20)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 February 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Mariam Batsashvili has made a name for herself as a specialist in the music of one of the most masculine of piano composers. Franz Liszt is regarded very much as a showman, his music often thought to be for virtuosos only who will play it with as much blood and thunder.

However as the Georgian pianist Batsashvili showed here that does not always have to be the case. Her Liszt has its fair share of drama and power, for sure – no let-up there – but hers is a very musical approach, getting beneath the surface to show Liszt’s other compositional talents.

Before Liszt, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue from J.S. Bach – one of his pieces that does if anything look forward towards the free form Liszt and his contemporaries would use. Played on a piano it has a strong, instinctive flow – something Batsashvili gets into immediately as the Fantasy plays. With ideal use of the sustain pedal and enough sense of freedom, she delivers an un-showy but very strong musical performance, with a fugue notable for its clarity and expression from 8:14, gathering intensity as it progresses.

Having reached the sunny key of D major by the end of the Bach, Batsashvili stayed out on stage and in the same key while changing composer. Joseph Haydn wrote a large number of piano sonatas, the early examples of which were for friends. This good natured Piano Sonata in D major HXVI:37 (from 13:59) was for the sisters Franziska and Maria Katherina von Auenbrugger, who judging by this were positive souls with a sense of humour and strong technique.

Haydn’s own wit is there in the main theme from the start, and the busy figuration suggests the sisters had pretty nimble fingers too. The slow movement (marked Largo, from 18:22) takes a pensive turn in the minor key, with spicy harmonies suggesting some discomfort. That is removed by the finale (marked Presto ma non troppo, from 21:15), which takes us near to the spirited mood of the first movement if not fully shaking off the doubts recently aired.

Liszt wrote a total of 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, celebrating his home country in music of great passion and virtuosity, and often incorporating folk tunes into the mix. The Hungarian Rhapsody no.12 in C#minor S244/12 (25:39) starts with suitable drama and contrasts jagged left hand playing with more delicate tunes in the treble, particularly the twinkling, skipping dance at 31:14 when the harmonies turn from minor key to major. Batsashvili finds an exquisite delicacy in this music, sweet but not overly bearing and beautifully played.

Liszt also wrote a number of some incredible fantasies based on existing opera themes. The tour de force heard here, which he premiered in Berlin in 1843, takes themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni as the starting point, working them into a big-boned piece. This was reworked by Busoni, but left incomplete. Leslie Howard, who has recorded the entire piano works of Liszt for Hyperion, added the missing pieces to the jigsaw using the thematic material Liszt was dealing with, and staying true to his spirit and style.

Coincidentally or not, all the themes are from arias dealing with the ‘dangers of philandering’, as Radio 3 announcer Sara Mohr-Pietsch puts it – suggesting there is far more to Liszt’s arrangements than might initially meet the eye.

Batsashvali skips through the opening breezily, but the warning notes in the left hand are there to check progress – before we move into a delightfully played slower selection. Her pacing of the drama feels just right, especially the lead-up to 49:16 and another new theme. The principal material for the piece comes from Cherubino’s aria Voi che sapete and Figaro’s Non più andrai (both from Le nozze di Figaro) and the minuet scene from Don Giovanni. These themes are interwoven and developed to make a substantial whole, with the real big guns coming out for the coda, which Batsashvili plays with considerable panache up to 55:20.

As an encore she gave us two more Liszt arrangements on a much smaller scale. These were two of Chopin’s Polish SongsThe Ring and Bacchanal – and are included below.

Further Listening

Mariam Batsashvili has recorded Liszt’s operatic fantasy, but not the other works in this program – so the playlist below comprises recommended versions of the Bach, Haydn and Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody:

Liszt made a number of transcriptions of the music of Bach – and in particular his Preludes and Fugues. Artur Pizarro collected a good deal of these together for an album for Collins Classics:

Haydn’s piano sonatas do not always get the credit they deserve – so to hear more, listen to this wonderful collection from Alfred Brendel:

On record: FRAME – The Journey (Glacial Movements)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Journey is a set of ten soundscapes focusing on silence. Silence is of course as integral a part of music as the notes themselves, and FRAME – a project started in the 1990s by Eugenio Vatta and Andrea Benedetti – illustrate that beautifully here.

All of the music on this hour-long album is written by Vatta, and is in effect a compilation with Benedetti of FRAME live shows, where their music has followed the evolution of a movie. Their principle is that the album should focus on silence in space, and it does so in ten parts, each named after a planet of the solar system.

What’s the music like?

The idea of music focusing on silence might seem contradictory, but what it does here is focus the mind on the smallest of changes to the overall sound, if you’re listening closely – or, if you’re using the music more in the background, allowing it to evolve without any expectations or pressure. So it is that textures change slowly, like a slow moving body, with long held notes and textures that project an enormous sense of space.

Like Holst, Frame move through the planets in order of distance from the sun – unlike Holst they progress at a sedentary rate, with no surprises but cool, starlit textures to dive into on the way. Also unlike Holst, there is a section for ‘Earth’, so the listener can effectively take the role of a spacecraft flying past. It is mostly calming but there are moments of disquiet near the centre when discords and an insistent lower range tone make the ears retreat on instinct. ‘Mars’ is also a polar opposite, less the god of war than the owner of a very thick sonic blanket. It’s lovely.

‘Jupiter’ has a lot more of the action, as though our craft is passing close enough to get caught up in some of the vast winds that dominate the planet’s weather. ‘Saturn’ is genuinely unsettling, a short piece whose sudden movements of pitch are difficult to comprehend after the serene journey so far. ‘Neptune’ is majestic, a really strong linear wall of harmony. After some more turbulence in Pluto and Charon the arrival is consonant harmony, and represents a natural point of rest.

Does it all work?

Yes, providing ‘The Journey’ is experienced in the right environment. As an aid for busy situations such as commuting it works really well, or as a meditative hour for the brain to zone out. The cool textures are easy on the ear, but while ambience is the key there is a deeply intense heart to this music.

All these components are typical of a Glacial Movements release, with a whole that operates in an ambient space but can be put to meaningful foreground use also.

Is it recommended?

Yes. FRAME’s music takes the listener far from their own shores, immersing them in a wide open world of slow moving beauty.

Further listening

You can listen to The Journey on Spotify below:

Meanwhile the album is available from the Glacial Movements Bandcamp page, where the label’s consistently rewarding catalogue can also be explored.