On record: AWARE – The Book Of Wind (Glacial Movements)

Summary

Reading the titles given to the chapters of The Book Of Wind is revealing. They sound like an excerpt from a biblical tale, as though recounting Moses and his encounters with God. What they actually appear to be is the beginning of inspiration for this album by AWARE, the alias of Alexander Glück. Like his Glacial Movements label mates he operates largely without obvious rhythm and is free of a harmonic base, but responds to the imaginary text using vivid sound pictures.

What’s the music like?

The tale is told through music that is barely anchored to the ground, existing in a cloud that changes in consistency, density and colour. The 14 excerpts vary in mood and reach a natural apex in the storm halfway through. As the music builds towards this there is a bigger scale strongly implied by the powerful third track until he reached the mountain, while a powerful storm tore the mountains apart has almost visible clouds. Gradually the music subsides and reaches a softer place of rest by the end, the last track and went out dipping to almost inaudible levels before hints of earlier  music return.

Does it all work?

Yes, although the music itself is not quite as varied as the track titles imply it will be. It is a very impressive piece of writing though, the sections hang together very cohesively and the wide scope of the mountain and inclement weather are dominating features.

Is it recommended?

Yes, on the whole, once the lasting emotional power is harnessed.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

Wigmore Mondays – Véronique Gens & Susan Manoff in French song

Véronique Gens (soprano, above, © Franck Juery) & Susan Manoff (piano, below)

Hahn Néère; Trois jours de vendange

Duparc Chanson triste; Romance de Mignon

Chausson Le Charme; Les Papillons; Hébé

Hahn Quand je fus pris au pavillon; Le Rossignol des lilas; A Chloris

Chausson Le Chanson bien douce; Le Temps des lilas

Hahn Études latines – Lydé; Tyndaris; Pholoé; Phyllis; Le Printemps

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8 May, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This Wigmore Hall concert proved an ideal opportunity for listeners to venture off the beaten track in the richly rewarding world of French art song. It also seemed doubly appropriate in the wake of the presidential election the previous day that Véronique Gens should be on hand, for she is one of the best French singers around. In Susan Manoff she had a more than able partner to match her every move, and the two based their program on a recent Gramophone award-winning recital disc.

The concert was bookended by songs from Reynaldo Hahn, including excerpts from his Études latines. The serious Néère (from 4:02 on the broadcast) searched for a lost love, Gens a yearning presence, but Trois jours de vendange (Three days of vintaging) was a bigger celebration.

Attention turned to Henri Duparc, whose incredibly small musical output is led by his fine songs. Few are better than Chanson triste (11:01), which was powerfully delivered by Gens, set in the moonlight portrayed so vividly by Manoff’s piano. Romance de Mignon (14:00) offered a little more daylight, another passionate utterance in thrall to his hero Wagner.

It was a short stylistic shift to the songs of Ernest Chausson, Gens choosing a really wonderful selection that should be far better known. The partnership with Manoff was at its best here, the piano fluttering relentlessly in Les papillons (21:35) without settling, while Gens’ playful lines danced above. Le charme (20:00) and Hébé (23:05), two other songs from the same early set, were equally winsome. These were balanced by three more Hahn songs, and while the perky Quand je fus pris au pavillon (25:52) and melodious nightingale (Le rossignol des lilas, 27:15) were nicely done they were always going to be in the shadow of Á Chloris (29:17), its imitation of a Bach aria absolutely on the money in this performance.

Two more Chausson songs followed – the urgent Le Chanson bien douce (32:30) and softly majestic Le Temps des lilas (35:14) – and then we moved on to a quintet of Hahn works to finish. Four of these were from the Études latines (from 41:02), while Le Printemps (The Spring) literally flung wide the doors of the hall at (49:41). The quartet of studies were lyrically quite amusing while musically thoughtful, often finding the singer in a rather dishevelled state – especially the thoughtful Pholoé (45:19) and Phyllis (46:46). The closing Le Printemps celebrated the season which until now seems rather reluctant to arrive in the UK!

A generous selection of encores completed a memorable recital. We were treated to Les roses d’Ispahan, a lovely song by Gabriel Fauré (52:20), then an Offenbach song Le Corbeau et le Renard (56:20), and finally PoulencLes Chemins de l’amour (The pathways of love) (59:28)

Further listening

You can hear the album Gens and Manoff made with much of this material on Spotify:

For further French song listening, bringing in the worlds of Debussy and Fauré, try this wonderful selection with pianist Roger Vignoles:

Oberon Symphony Orchestra – UK premiere of Enescu’s Fourth Symphony

Richard Whitehouse on a major British premiere given by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Samuel Draper (above)

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 29 April 2017

Mahler Blumine (1884)

Bartók Romanian Folk Dances, BB76 (1917)

Schubert, realized Newbould Symphony No. 10 in D, D936A (1828) – Andante

Enescu Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1934, orchestration completed Bentoiu) UK premiere

Tonight’s concert from the Oberon Symphony featured a British premiere (the second from this orchestra) in the Fourth Symphony by Enescu. Written largely during 1933-4, this was left in abeyance with only the first movement and the start of its successor orchestrated. That the work was structurally complete enabled the composer and musicologist Pascal Bentoiu (who would have turned 90 this month) to prepare this in 1996 for performance; since when, there have been several more hearings in Romania and Germany but not until now in the UK.

Compared to the opulence of its two predecessors, the Fourth Symphony is audibly a product of the inter-war years. Playing for around 33 minutes, its three movements evince traits from Bartók and Stravinsky, but there is little overtly neo-classical about a content which features some of the most emotionally charged music Enescu wrote. Much of this impact is achieved by opening-out the nominal formal designs in a process of continuous variation that extends across the piece, and resulting in a ‘tragedy to triumph’ trajectory beholden to no precedent.

It was that sense of music in perpetual evolution that came over strongly in this performance. Adopting a trenchant yet never inflexible tempo for the opening Allegro, Samuel Draper duly brought out the drama and pensiveness of its main themes, then found no mean eloquence in the climactic stages prior to a brutal descent into silence. From here emerges a fusion of slow movement and intermezzo that unfolds uncertainly but never aimlessly across a landscape of echoes and allusions; an intensifying processional Draper controlled superbly while ensuring the melismatic solo writing was accorded necessary expressive space. There was a palpable expectancy conveyed as the finale hovered into view; this free rondo evolving as if a ‘stretto’ of mounting activity to a coda whose affirmation is informed by evidently bitter experience.

It was just such an ambiguity that came across so tangibly here, Draper maintaining seamless momentum throughout this movement’s formal complexity and textural intricacy as found its fulfilment in the tonal resolution of the closing bars with their implacable final chord. This set the seal on a reading of real conviction and insight, in which the Oberon SO has rarely played better, that communicated itself readily to the enthusiastic audience. The UK may have had to wait over two decades to hear this work live, yet its essential worth was more than vindicated.

The first half prepared well for the Enescu with a trio of contrasted pieces whose juxtaposition itself offered food for thought. Starting as incidental music then briefly finding a home in his First Symphony, Mahler’s Blumine had a wistfulness and poise to the fore here, then Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances elided keenly between incisiveness and elegance. Schubert’s ‘Tenth Symphony’ is one of music’s great might-have-been’s, the Mahlerian overtones of its central Andante made explicit in Brian Newbould’s realization as in Draper’s sensitive interpretation.

An impressive showing, then, for the Oberon Symphony as it approaches five years of making music. And, with the Fourth Symphonies of Brahms and Vaughan Williams scheduled for the next two concerts, its future programming promises to be no less ambitious and resourceful.

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

Wigmore Mondays – Louis Lortie plays Chopin

Louis Lortie (piano)

George Benjamin Shadowlines (6 Canonic Preludes) (2001)

Chopin 24 Preludes Op.28 (1839)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 24 April, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Louis Lortie has a long-held affinity with the music of Chopin, and that was abundantly clear in the affection with which he played the composer’s 24 Preludes.

Completed in 1839, they are an extraordinary set of pieces that travel through each of the conventional Western tonal centres in the course of just 40 minutes. Chopin structures them cleverly, pairing them up so that each prelude appearing in a major key (for instance the first one in C major) is followed by its closest relative in a minor key (in this case A minor). The series proceeds using the ancient ‘cycle of fifths’, so that after ‘C’ we move to ‘G’, then ‘D’, and so on until a complete circuit is reached.

Previous exponents of this sort of cycle include Bach, whose famous ‘48’ also uses all the keys, but moves in a stepwise movement from C to C sharp, then D. In visiting the form Chopin was clearly aware of Bach’s efforts in the previous century, for he took the music with him on holiday to Majorca, where some of the preludes were written.

Lortie brought the cycle to life (from 18:06 on the broadcast link provided), with some of the shorter pieces reeled off at dazzling speed. The quick ones, for instance those in G major (21:02) or a particularly stormy affair in F sharp minor (27:29) were on occasion a bit too swift for the phrasing to be abundantly clear, but when he spent time over the melancholic no.4 in E minor (21:57), or the serious no.6 in B minor (24:37), the melodies were beautifully shaped, the depth of feeling immediately evident.

The natural centrepiece of the cycle is no.15 in D flat major, known as the Raindrop (from 36:27). It is at least twice as long as any of the others but also contains at its heart a very strong reference to plainchant, the speculation being that Chopin was capturing a haunted abbey in his writing. It looks forward to Debussy in this sense, and Lortie played it with the grandeur it deserved. Following it with the whirlwind B flat minor prelude (41:50) was the storm after the calm, the whirlwind superbly energised.

A beautifully crafted finish included the delicacy of the F major prelude from 51:35) and the stern countenance of the final D minor prelude (52:25), carrying its head high to put a cap on a superb performance of 24 strongly characterised pieces.

A little less effective were the 6 Canonic Preludes by George Benjamin, written so that whatever is played in one part has to be shadowed by the other. Some of the pieces were effective characterisations, not a million miles from Schoenberg’s mysterious piano pieces, but others felt emptier emotionally. Lortie played them superbly, but perhaps repeated hearing on the broadcast will bring them to life.

Further listening

Lortie is in the process of recording the complete piano works of Chopin, and his first album in the series for Chandos is a great next step after the Preludes, containing as it does the great Piano Sonata no.2.

Arcana at the opera: Madama Butterfly @ ROH

Puccini Madama Butterfly

Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London

Saturday 22nd April, 2017

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Productions of Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera are notable for their longevity. That by Robert Helpmann held the stage over three decades until 1983, while the current production from Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier has now reached its fifth revival in barely 14 years.

Notions of the balance between Japanese tradition and American imperialism have inevitably changed much since Puccini’s day (though aren’t the music’s frequent allusions to The Star-Spangled Banner more than a little ironic?), but this Leiser/Caurier production continues to strike a plausible balance between social comment and an archetypal Japanoise which skirts without descending to cliché. Enhanced by Christian Fenouillat’s plain though unfussy sets, Agostino Cavalca’s unexceptional if appropriate costumes and Christophe Forey’s subdued yet pertinent lighting (the silhouette strategy paying dividends in Act Three), it makes for a presentation which avoids subversion while also underlining those provocative elements in Puccini’s music too often sacrificed when his score is rendered as a sentimental tear-jerker.

Vocally this ‘second cast’ is anything but second rate. Reprising the role from 2015, Ana María Martínez brings ardour and eloquence aplenty to Cio-Cio San; besides an edginess to her sending-up of Yamadori’s pretensions in Act Two then a deft pivoting between elation and desolation, before the fateful denouement, which only adds to the range of a character made wise beyond her years. With notable Royal Opera roles in Mozart and Verdi already behind her, Martínez is clearly an artist as versatile vocally as she is arresting dramatically.

As also is Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincai, previously heard as Rodolfo at the ROH and here harnessing his natural richness and resonance of tone to a portrayal of Pinkerton that, if not making him exactly sympathetic, contextualizes his shortcomings to a degree that avoids the callous or mean-spirited. His plangent Act Three aria is the more affecting for its absence of false emoting, while his vocal elegance elsewhere works admirably in those numerous duets which throw into relief his shortcomings – resulting in a striking and resourceful assumption.

The secondary roles are hardly less successful, not least Scott Hendricks as Sharpless whose desire to do the right thing is always outdone by his inability – even unwillingness – to alter the course of events. Elizabeth DeShong exudes warmth and compassion as Suzuki, and her masterly acting makes appreciably more of this part on-stage than is evident from the score alone. Carlo Bosi is a cunning and deceitful Goro, Jeremy White summons all his vocal and dramatic presence for a riveting cameo as the Bonze, while Yuriy Yurchuk brings the right sardonic touch to that of Yamadori. Emily Edmonds does what she can with the overly brief role of Kate Pinkerton, while Gyula Nagy is a properly portentous Imperial Commissioner. The roles of Butterfly’s family seem as well-contrasted in vocal as they are in visual terms.

A further plus is Renato Balsadonna’s conducting, superbly geared to this opera’s emotional contrasts and dramatic pacing while securing a committed response from the ROH orchestra. It sets the seal on this revival of a production by no means at the end of its natural life-span.