Talking Heads: Emika

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Most people hate January…but then, from early on in our chat, it is clear Emika is not one of them. “I love January, it’s the one!” she gushes. “Everyone’s moping around, but I’m just on it doing all my work so I can relax in the summer! Everywhere is cold and dark in Berlin currently but I really love it at this time of year.”

We have connected to talk about the many and varied musical projects in which she is currently involved. Head of the queue is new piano album Klavirni Temna, a sequel to 2014’s Klavirni – about which she became Arcana’s very first interviewee in 2014. A lot has changed in her life since then, in particular the arrival of a baby girl. The new addition is heavily connected to Klavirni Temna, of which more later – but first Emika is talking about how her music is developing.

“My creativity is getting a lot worse now I’m a mother! I’m doing more and more, I’m collaborating a lot more. I have a new label concept, working with a lot more artists, and working in much more creative zones. There are things that don’t fit my Emika project but I can do them on someone else’s record. I call it having music kittens, lots of them!”

Klavirni Temna can be thought of as the pedigree in the litter. While the new release schedules and streaming platforms are packed with solo piano records, it has a distinctive voice of its own, and when heard on headphones (listen above!) it is like having someone in the room next door. “That’s what I wanted”, she affirms. I like the feeling that someone’s actually performing, a person in a time and a moment. All the pieces and improvisations are ones that didn’t have mistakes in them, and they were recorded on my phone. Then I went back to them, racked up on a lot of things and recorded them properly.”

Emika was effectively recording for two. “It’s a particularly interesting record because I wrote it while I was pregnant, and I could feel how the baby was responding to the music. When it went too dark I could feel the baby didn’t like it, and it got more uncomfortable! I finished the record and was in a rush, so I whacked plug-ins on it and thought it would be nice, I could put it out, and concentrate on becoming a mother. But when I’d had the baby it sounded rushed and clean, and not really me. I re-did it and used broken, dirty, dusty tape compression and delay. I wasn’t sure what to do, I had the test presses and didn’t know, so I put the test presses on and my daughter came in. She was listening, and then came over and tapped my stomach and said ‘mummy sound’! She understands the piano as being home and me. Forever we have this sound connection, and it’s one of a kind, a strange musical thing.”

Her Czech musical ancestors wrote similarly intimate pieces for piano, the likes of Dvořák, Suk and Janáček putting down some of their most private thoughts in suites and individual pieces, such as the Janáček example played by Piotr Anderszewski above. Emika is no different. “The piano’s my notebook. It feels like a black pencil and a white piece of paper, and it’s how I can set down to work.”

Each of the pieces is identified as Dilo, which means ‘moment’ in Czech. “It is exactly like that, and I feel akin to it”, she says. “Janáček made a lot of pieces for his children, and that was a big confidence boost to me. If he’s done it I will do it! Since the first Klavirni album solo piano has become so popular and trendy, and that’s why I wanted to develop the sound this time. Usually my music is not so trendy but this feels like the height of the trend! And it is five years since I did the last Klavirni album. It’s cool – it could have gone either way, but this release makes the other one safer if you know what I mean.”

There are unexpected twists and turns as the album develops, meaning the listener is kept on their toes while experiencing the darkly meditative scores. Dilo 31 is an example, dropping in pitch as it progresses in an affecting and slightly disturbing way. “The engineer couldn’t believe I wanted it that way, he was really confused! I think bending the piano’s pitch afterwards rather than playing it live is cool.”

Emikae loves the escapism playing the piano affords. “My studio is close to a forest, and that’s what I see when I’m playing, with the weather changing. The piano is right by the window, so it’s connected to the outside world. I’ve shifted from a dark Berlin room to a lofty space outside. The studio is a work in progress, and it’s really inspired by Earthship. I saw how Michael Reynolds builds houses from trash, using glass bottles and tyres. The houses capture energy and heat from the sun and have their own ecosystem, and you can grow food too. I’ve been researching solar power, and the goal is to have somewhere sustainable, rather than being part of a grid system. I am trying to downsize, to not use too much energy and to do more with less. The piano is the ultimate instrument for that…synthesizers, not so much!”

Her enthusiasm for the move is contagious. “The first step was to move out of the city. Then I wanted to look at designs, and to get architects. I’m really inspired by the Tiny House movement, and I would love to build a tiny house studio. You can run them with solar power, and reuse your waste. It’s all about getting ready for the next era of survival and energy, and it’s making me think very differently about shrink wrap, vinyl and all those things. It’s difficult in the digital age to replace that with something meaningful, but we will find a way!”

Now she’s fully installed in the German countryside, Emika can devote more time to her second symphony project. “It’s inspired by the economist Jeremy Rifkin, who delivered a talk with VICE on YouTube (below):

I looked him up and just e-mailed him. I let his chief of staff know that I wanted to do a piece of music inspired by his work, and to my surprise he got back to me! Melanfonie, my first symphony, looked back to the past, but this one is looking 300 years into the future. I’ve been experimenting with using Maxim SP to play synthesizers, deciding what they play with a set of conditions that you program in first. It plays for half an hour, and I’ve got about 80 recordings, each one of them getting better with the process. Now I’d like to get the orchestra to play those parts.”

Emika’s willingness to embrace both the analogue sounds of the piano and the future digital ways of working is inspiring, each complementing the other in her music. “The more we understand technology, the closer it’s getting to nature and feels like it will save it again. I would like this symphony to be a live process. With Melanfonie everyone got it on the CD after, and didn’t get the live experience. For this symphony the idea is to do it in front of a live audience, with no click track or headphones. That creates a lot of pressure, but if you’re going to do it it’s the best thing you can do. This time I want to have synthesizers and to perform with the orchestra. That was the feedback, to have some bass-heavy, epic stuff going on!”

Klavirni Temna, Emika’s second piano album, is released on Friday 14 February on Emika Records. You can listen to extracts and order the album on Bandcamp here:

You can read more detail about Emika’s studio set-up on the Music Tech website (opens in a new window)

Wigmore Mondays – Lucie Horsch & Thomas Dunford: Music for Recorder and Lute

Lucie Horsch (recorder, above), Thomas Dunford (lute, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 10 February 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

The recorder does not appear to have great appeal or exposure to the concert-going public, yet with a few more concerts like this from Lucie Horsch and Thomas Dunford could change that perception very quickly indeed.

The Dutch player Horsch is still only 20, but she demonstrated incredible virtuosity and command of the four or five different instruments she called upon in this recital. Not only that but her musical instincts were extremely sound, her communication with equally stylish lute player Thomas Dunford borne of friendship and a shared enjoyment of the music. It said much that when the solo pieces were being performed, the instrumentalist not involved listened closely and often smiled in response to the phrases they heard.

The well-planned concert was packed with music from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, with a brief excursion to the 20th for a brave and brilliantly realised arrangement of Debussy’s Syrinx. That appeared fourth in a list of 11 pieces from no fewer than 10 composers, performed in four logical blocks.

Horsch and Dunford started together with the Sonata Seconda in stil moderno by Venetian composer Dario Castello (from 1:58 on the broadcast link). If you listen you will hear the purity of the recorder’s tone, on a soprano instrument, and the mottled sound of the lute which complements it ideally. It may sound as though Dunford is playing with a very relaxed air, but watching him confirmed there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes for the part to sound so instinctive. As the sonata unfolds here Horsch demonstrates her bravura in the faster music.

Dowland’s Preludium (7:31) follows, a subdued, slightly downcast piece for lute that works well as an introduction for Horsch’s own arrangement of the famous song Flow, my tears (12:19). Here the two communicated beautifully, even with the vocal line slightly tampered by the recorder’s limitations on producing vibrato.

This is followed by the Suite no.5 in F from the French composer Charles Dieupart, a set of six dance movements prefaced by an Ouverture (16:35). The dances are an Allemande (17:46) with an attractive lilt, then a lively and spiky Courante (20:54); both are countered by a slower Sarabande (22:11). Then comes a Gavotte with a spring in its step (24:24), a Menuet en rondeau (25:19) and finally a lively Gigue (26:46), where Dunford’s lute strumming gives a good snap to the rhythms.

We then jump forward over 200 years for Horsch’s own arrangement of Debussy’s famous solo flute piece Syrinx (28:48). This is a remarkable performance, given the definition Lucie gets from the very difficult lower notes on her recorder. Here the subdued but sonorous tones take on an exotic and faintly South American air.

She turns to a slightly smaller instrument for the Philidor, a Sonata in D minor with four movements. It begins with a slower introduction (32:16), an intricate fast movement with the players swapping melodies (34:33), an elegant Courante (35:37) and a much more deliberate Les notes égales et détachez (36:45), which blossoms into a lively fast section.

For the next sequence of three pieces we get an idea of how far the performers have looked for this programme, with a really nice blend of moods and colours. Les Voix Humaines (40:26), an arrangement of a piece for solo viol by Marin Marais, is subdued but stylish in Dunford’s solo lute performance. That blends into the enchantment of François Couperin’s nightingale, strongly evoked by Horsch in Le rossignol-en-amour (44:00). Horsch then gives a short but moving dance from Dutch composer Jacob van Eyck (46:35). Recercadas by Diego Ortiz (48:47) is a florid response, with the lute strummed like a guitar. Then comes the remarkably modern sounding world of Joan Ambrosio Dalza’s Calate ala spagnola (51:30), with repeated notes anticipating tremolos in much later guitar music, brilliantly played by Dunford before the music fades away.

Finally the Marais Couplets de folies (54:48), a set of variations on the famous tune La Folia. Dunford’s lute sets out the theme before the recorder enters. Its lines grow in difficulty, and there were some eye-popping moments of virtuoso brilliance from Lucie Horsch here. With the two performers sat together they still cut a relaxed presence, as though both were performing in your own front room. An unnamed encore, unfortunately dropping off the end of the broadcast, encapsulated the bright and instinctive music of the previous hour.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Castello Sonata Seconda in stil modern (published 1629) (1:58)
Dowland Preludium (7:31); Flow my tears (12:19) (both 1600)
Dieupart Suite No. 5 in F major (publ. 1701) (16:35)
Debussy Syrinx (1913) (28:48)
Philidor Sonata in D minor (publ. 1712) (32:16)
Marais Les Voix Humaines (publ. 1701) (40:26)
François Couperin Le rossignol-en-amour (publ. 1722) (44:00)
van Eyck Lavolette (publ. 1646) (46:35)
Ortiz Recercadas (unknown, 16th century) (48:47)
Dalza Calate ala spagnola (unknown, 16th century) (51:30)
Marais Suite in D minor – Couplets de folies (Les folies d’Espagne) (publ. 1701) (54:48)

Further listening & viewing

The music from this concert can be heard in the playlist below, with some of the repertoire appearing on Horsch and Dunford’s most recent release Baroque Journey. The original versions of Dowland’s Flow, my tears and Marais’ Le Voix Humaines are included.

Baroque Journey is itself a very enjoyable listen, showing off the complementary talents of both of the soloists in this concert:

Meanwhile the music of Charles Dieupart can be explored in the company of Henry Purcell, both composers’ music for recorder making up this album from Hugo Reyne and La Simphonie Du Marais:

Finally a link to the remarkable music of Marin Marais and the second book of his Pièces De Viole, played by the masterful Jordi Savall:

In concert – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Iván Fischer: Mozart’s Final Flourish

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Iván Fischer

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Friday 7 February 2020

Mozart
Symphonies: no.39 in E flat major K543; no.40 in G minor K550; no.41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (all composed in 1788)

This concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 12 February. You can listen to it here

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Few orchestras inspire their audience as consistently as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Tonight was no exception, presenting ‘Mozart’s Final Flourish’ – his three final symphonies, nos. 39-41, written unusually in a short space of time, without commission, in 1788. The three works represent Mozart’s mastery of the symphonic form, and as conductor Iván Fischer explained to us before the performances began, there is an argument for the three works being viewed as one.

Fischer structured the concert to support his point, the trinity performed in order but with the interval positioned between the second and third movements of the Symphony no.40. This did not prove as much of a hindrance as expected, for the ‘one giant stucture’ – seen as such by no less than Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Fischer’s teacher – was merely paused half way through. Fischer encouraged applause between movements, a tactic which fragmented the performance a little but added to the relaxed atmosphere and will have encouraged first-time attendees.

The performances were very fine indeed. Symphony no.39 in E flat major, no.543 in Köchel’s catalogue of Mozart compositions, does not always get the appreciation it deserves. This is a shame as it is a wonderfully affirmative work, packed full of good tunes that responded well to the orchestra’s lean sound and fresh phrasing. The slow movement Andante was really nicely characterised, its middle section appropriately stern, while the busy finale chattered excitedly, Fischer leading the conversation.

The Symphony no.40 in G minor came as something of a shock to audiences with its ‘Sturm und drang’ approach, in keeping with Haydn and other artistic movements of the day but clearly plumbing emotional depths for the composer. The first movement was tautly argued, relenting a little for the Andante which was perhaps too relaxed in tone. When we returned after the interval the Menuetto disappeared rather quickly, with Fischer’s brisk tempo and an absence of repeats, while the fourth movement brought more abstract qualities to the fore before its final flourish.

And so to the Symphony no.41 in C major, nicknamed the ‘Jupiter’ 40 years or so after its publication. What a remarkable achievement this is, its surface simplicity masking complex inner workings with the serenity of a swan. Fischer, who smiled throughout, revelled in another fine performance, typified by the extra spring given to the exuberant second theme of the first movement. The tender heart of the Andante cantabile was aided by a lovely muted string sound, while the floated delivery from the violins helped the deceptively straightforward themes in the Menuetto. All this was headed for the finale, however, and its masterful fugue. This conversation between parts is the closest thing to perfection in Mozart’s symphonic writing, and the OAE relished both their individual parts and the ensemble workings resulting from them, building enough kinetic energy to sweep us home.

This was a thought provoking and ultimately uplifting evening, and the ideal setting of the scene for anyone moving on to Beethoven next!

Further listening and viewing

A reminder that this concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 12 February. You can listen here

You can find out more about the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on their website, and you can get an introduction to them in a minute through the video below:

The orchestra appear not to have recorded Mozart’s last three symphonies, but their one-time guest conductor Frans Brüggen made these excellent live recordings with the Orchestra of the 18th Century. They sit relatively closely to the sound heard at this concert:

Wigmore Mondays – Katharina Konradi & Eric Schneider : Songs by Schubert, Rachmaninov & Richard Strauss

Katharina Konradi (soprano), Eric Schneider (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 3 February 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Picture (c) BBC

The BBC’s New Generation Artists scheme has been running for 20 years, and the anniversary was marked by Wigmore Hall over the weekend prior to this concert. Graduates from the scheme are an indication of its value, and you only have to look at the first intake of artists to see how valuable it has been. Baritone Christopher Maltman, violinist Lisa Batiashvili, cellist Alban Gerhardt, pianist Steven Osborne and the Belcea String Quartet were among the first intake back in 2000 – and all are right at the top of their game as classical performers today.

Soprano Katharina Konradi is one of the most recent recruits to the scheme. Born in Kyrgyzstan and of German nationality, she is the first soprano from her country to have a career as a Lied, concert and opera singer. On the basis of this recital, given with regular partner Eric Schneider, hers will be a name to remember.

Konradi has a very fresh tone – unforced, expressive, and beautifully rounded in places. She resists the urge to sing too loudly, which for the purposes of this recital worked beautifully in the hushed moments of the Strauss and Schubert songs particularly, if not the more climactic moments of the Rachmaninov numbers.

Schubert, the father of the modern song, provided the first three numbers, carefully chosen and beautifully delivered. To pick a small selection from the 630 or so in his output is difficult to say the least, but the trio showed a brighter outlook than we normally hear in the concert hall.

Suleika II (2:06) receives a measured performance, gaining pace as the singer hurries to her beloved, while An mein Herz (To my heart) (6:44) is riddled with anxious piano repetitions, Schneider’s restless movement between major and minor keys dominating the mood. Konradi floats serenely above the turbulence. Suleika I (10:10), first of the songs Schubert wrote for Beethoven’s Leonora muse Anna Milder, carries a vivid depiction of the East Wind and the ‘fresh motion of its wings’, brought to rest after a lovely, floated final verse.

From Schubert to Rachmaninov, and a quartet of songs fresh with the promise of spring. The well-known Lilacs (17:26) is brightly voiced, then Konradi finds the top notes for Beloved, let us fly (19:15) with relative ease, the tumult of the city left behind. Meanwhile the beautiful, soaring line of How fair this spot (21:42), with its effortless top notes, is countered by the wordless but highly expressive Vocalise (23:53), one of Rachmaninov’s best-known works.

Richard Strauss is still not as well-known as a song composer as he might be, possibly on account of the difficulty of his works for singer and pianist alike. This was a very satisfying selection, however, and on the broadcast you can here that on Du meines Herzens Krönelein (You, my heart’s coronet) (30:42) the singer is at ease with his style. She shows off a wide range in Das Rosenband (The rose garland) (32:47), where Schneider does well to keep pace with the changes of mood and harmony, while both find the soft, rapturous heart of Glückes genug (Abundant happiness) (35:52). The famous Morgen!… (Tomorrow!)… (38:25) is where we really get a glimpse of Konradi’s potential as an interpreter, for she refuses to over-sing, her restrained approach securing a beautiful purity of tone.

Back to Schubert for the final three songs, and again some less-experienced positivity. Im Abendrot (Sunset glow) (44:08) is one of his ‘stiller’ songs, nicely observed here, while Lied des Florio (Florio’s song) (47:38) is graceful, apart from the pain of the higher notes describing the bittersweet love of the subject. Delphine (51:05) is also a double edged sword, strongly characterised and with a powerful finish where Konradi rises to a great height.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Schubert Suleika II D717 (written in 1821) (2:06); An mein Herz D860 (1825) (6:44); Suleika I D720 (1821) (10:10)
Rachmaninov Lilacs Op.21/5 (1902) (17:26); Beloved, let us fly Op.26/5 (1906) (19:15); How fair this spot Op.21/7 (1902) (21:42), Vocalise Op.34/14 (1915) (23:53)
Richard Strauss Du meines Herzens Krönelein Op.21/2 (1889) (30:42), Das Rosenband Op.36/1 (1897-98) (32:47), Glückes genug Op.37/1 (1898) (35:52), Morgen!…Op.27/4 (1894) (38:25)
Schubert Im Abendrot D799 (44:08); Lied des Florio D857/2 (47:38); Lied der Delphine D857/1 (all 1825) (51:05)

After the Radio 3 transmission we were treated to a well-placed Schubert encore. The pointers towards Mahler were clearly audible in Nacht und Träume, another song from 1825.

Further listening & viewing

The music from this concert can be heard in the playlist below, including versions of the Strauss songs by Katharina herself.

For further listening to the songs of Schubert, Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton are assured guides, in this attractive collection recorded for BIS recently:

The songs of Richard Strauss certainly repay repeated listening. While the complete works have been recorded on Hyperion, a rather good collection – again on BIS – can be heard here from soprano Camilla Tilling and pianist Paul Rivinius:

It’s only a month since Arcana was enthusing about another soprano singing Rachmaninov at the Wigmore Hall. Louise Alder and Joseph Middleton delivered a wonderful recital based on their new album Lines written during a Sleepless Night, which can be heard here:

Live review – CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Beethoven Symphonies 2 & 4; Unsuk Chin & Liam Taylor-West

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 30 January 2020

Chin SPIRA – Concerto for Orchestra (2019) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK Premiere]
Beethoven Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36 (1802); Symphony no.4 in B flat major Op.60 (1806)
Taylor-West Turning Points (2019) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World Premiere]

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra laid an early marker for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth this December and, also, continued the notable series of commissions that themselves are centred around the orchestra’s centenary in September.

The new work was SPIRA – a Concerto for Orchestra by Seoul-born and Paris-based Unsuk Chin (above). Her more recent music may have tempered the incisive modernism of those works that established her reputation, though Chin has thus far avoided the race towards the mainstream evident in numerous of her contemporaries, and the present piece secured a engaging balance between the intricate complexity of its textures and an ingeniously defined formal trajectory such as ensured its long-term continuity was readily perceptible – even on an initial hearing.

Inspired by the mathematical theory of the ‘spiral curve’ or growth spiral’ with the potential for biological, indeed musical growth this entails, SPIRA emerges as a sequence of formally expanding and expressively intensifying curves which involve the various orchestral sections (individually and collectively) on the way to an apotheosis of visceral immediacy; the music then withdrawing into those ethereal realms whence it came. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla directed an assured and engaging performance of this likely highlight among Centenary Commissions.

It certainly made a telling foil to the Beethoven which followed. With authentic trumpets and what sounded like leather-capped timpani sticks to the fore, the first movement of the Second Symphony was nothing if not dynamic, for all MG-T rather breezed through the quixotics of its imposing introduction then drove the ensuing Allegro such that string articulation faltered. Exciting if a shade glib, whereas the ingratiation of the Larghetto was ideally judged and the glancing humour of the Scherzo more appealing for not being rushed. Nor was there any lack of character in the finale, at its most perceptive during a trenchant development then a coda whose teasing hesitancy made its eventual arrival the more potent. Interesting, too, whether MG-T’s omitting of exposition repeats in the outer movements becomes an interpretive trait.

Likewise, those of the Fourth Symphony – the probing nature of whose introduction seemed rather matter of fact, though impetus during the main Allegro was rarely at the expense of its Haydnesque humour. Once again the Adagio proved most impressive in its sustained poise, the many dynamic nuances unobtrusively observed (not least towards its still-startling close), while the capricious interplay of the scherzo was nothing if not invigorating; a tailing-off of phrases going each time into the trio being an especial pleasure. Perhaps because lacking its exposition repeat, the closing movement emerged as a little short-winded, but MG-T had the measure of its capering humour – Beethoven playing fast and loose with the classical finale, on the way to a conclusion in which formal cohesion and expressive nonchalance are as one.

The concert ended with the first of 20 commissions by composers under 30 for the CBSO’s centenary. Turning Points found Liam Taylor-West (above) making resourceful use of sizable forces in music whose bracing if never brazen display ought to make for an effective curtain-raiser.

For more on Unsuk Chin you can visit her page on the Boosey & Hawkes website., while further information on the music of Liam Taylor-West can be found here Meanwhile Arcana’s Beethoven odyssey begins soon! Head here for more details.