On record: Víkingur Ólafsson – Philip Glass: Piano Works (Deutsche Grammophon)

Summary

Deutsche Grammophon have taken the opportunity to celebrate Philip Glass’s 80th birthday with their new signing, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. He has already performed the piano etudes with the composer himself, and has recognised the depth of invention and emotion that sits beneath the surface of what initially seems to be repetitive, mechanical music.

‘My approach to each of the etudes is to enable the listener to create his or her own personal space of reflection’, he says in the DG press release – and we will get more of his thoughts in an interview given to Arcana shortly.

What’s the music like?

Ólafsson is true to his word. The Etudes – even in Glass’s own performances – can seem a bit dry and difficult to approach. Not so with Ólafsson, whose incredible control means he can play with unexpected grace, using the pieces as reflections but also catching the nuances of Glass’s rhythmic writing. The quality of the DG recording helps here too.

The contours of the Opening piece are caressed and beautifully phrased, proving to be much more emotive than if played straight, as Glass so often is. In No.5 he is slow and lost in thought, and in no.14 too, but by contrast the Etude no.9 is quite punchy. Etude no.15 has a powerful surge in D major before adopting a dance-like profile, while the nervous energy of No.3 puts the performance more on edge.

Quite how Ólafsson plays the repetitive notes of the Etude no.6 is a complete mystery! His performance of no.2 brings both sides of Glass together, beginning in sombre and reflective mood but building to something pretty substantial. Here he is joined by a string quartet, an arrangement by Christian Badzura that proves effective at breaking up the sound of the solo piano and introducing some more colours to the mix.

Does it all work?

Yes, thanks to Ólafsson’s sensitivity and Glass’s awareness of the different colours the piano can offer him. Much of the music here is typical Glass, arpeggiated and with subtle but lasting twists to the harmonies – and it works really well in this context.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. So much so that this is probably the best album we are likely to encounter in Glass’s 80th birthday year.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

On record: Amy Dickson – Glass (Sony Classical)

Summary

Amy Dickson has a long-held affinity with the music of Philip Glass, and made her first recording of the composer’s music back in 2008, with a fiendishly difficult arrangement of his Violin Concerto. For this album she adds an equally challenging arrangement of the Violin Sonata, as well as two shorter pieces from Glass’s score for The Hours, arranged by her husband Jamie. Glass sanctioned the arrangements himself – a rare occurrence, and one that illustrates his high opinion of Dickson’s playing.

To play these pieces Dickson has developed a revolutionary tactic of circular breathing (which she describes in her interview with Arcana here). This enables her to deliver the long, repeated phrases that Glass writes without taking a pause.

What’s the music like?

Busy! There is plenty of energy throughout Glass’s writing, especially in the first movement of the arranged Violin Sonata, as well as the faster passages of the Concerto. In the Sonata Dickson and pianist Catherine Milledge dovetail their phrases with really impressive clarity, and largely take away the more mechanical aspects of the music. The agile finger work and incredible breath control from the saxophonist enables her to meet Glass’s challenge of long, arcing phrases.

This music can be heard in two ways – the ear can focus in on the busy movement of the inside parts, or can just as easily pan out to the slower moving harmonies, the phrases operating in bigger blocks.

The most affecting music is actually heard in the shorter pieces arranged from The Hours, and the more restrained passages of the Sonata, whose central movement has a relatively forlorn mood.

Does it all work?

Yes, particularly in the concerto where the extra colours of the orchestra add a greater range of colours and shades to Glass’s music. At times the textures of saxophone and piano can render some of the faster music in the Sonata a little dry, but Dickson’s warm and mellow sound ensures these are short lived.

Dickson plays with passion and feeling, which brings the more calculated music to life. Pianist Catherine Milledge deserves immense credit for her dexterity with some crowded piano parts!

Is it recommended?

Yes, in the main. The music of the Sonata can get a bit too busy for some tastes, but essentially it makes a nice contrast to the already well loved concerto.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

Live review – Răzvan Suma & Rebeca Omordia: Do you like British Music?

Răzvan Suma (cello, above – photo credit Adrian Stoicoviciu), Rebeca Omordia (piano, below)

Romanian Cultural Institute, London, Thursday 9th March, 2017

Delius Romance (1896); Ireland Cello Sonata in G minor (1923); Elgar Salut d’amour, Op.12 (1888); Venables Elegy, Op.2 (1980); Matthew Walker Fast Music, Op.158 (2016); Enescu Allegro in F minor (1897); Lloyd Webber Nocturne (1948); Bridge Scherzetto, H19 (1902)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It is not often musicians get the chance to tour unusual repertoire, though Răzvan Suma and Rebeca Omordia have been doing just so with a recital of mainly British music which tonight arrived at the Romanian Cultural Institute as part of its enterprising Enescu Concert Season.

Playing continuously for just over an hour, their choice of music made for a varied as well as cohesive programme. Opening with the discreet charm of Delius’s early Romance, its echoes of Grieg and Massenet not precluding a more personal expression, the duo continued with an account of Ireland’s Cello Sonata that was a world away from the sombre introspection most often associated with this composer’s chamber output. After a taut and impulsive take on the initial Moderato, the slow movement exuded an anxiety that motivated the expected fatalism, then a finale whose tensile progress resulted in a peroration of unusual eloquence and resolve. Certainly, Ireland’s music only stands to benefit from such a forthright approach, and it is to be hoped that Suma’s and Omordia’s advocacy will continue long beyond their present tour.

After an elegant if not too indulgent reading of Elgar’s Salut d’amour, the duo played pieces by two contemporary figures. If Ian Venables is best known for a substantial contribution to English art-song, his chamber music is not insignificant and this early Elegy gave notice of an immersion in the ‘British tradition’ never insular or derivative. Keen to offset the inward tendencies of this repertoire, Robert Matthew Walker penned Fast Music as a toccata which veers engagingly between the incisive and ironic on its way to a decidedly nonchalant close.

The performers’ Romanian lineage was acknowledged with a propulsive account of Enescu’s Allegro in F minor that seems to have been a ‘dry run’ for the opening movement of his First Cello Sonata. The suave second theme is almost identical and while the stormy main theme of this piece is a little short-winded, and its development lacks focus compared to that of the sonata, the impetus sustained here is demonstrably greater than is found in its more rhapsodic and discursive successor. Such, at least, was the impression left by this persuasive rendering.

The recital concluded with two further miniatures by English composers. Rediscovered only after his death, the Nocturne by William Lloyd Webber evinces an appealing soulfulness the greater for its brevity: to which the early Scherzetto (also relocated posthumously) by Bridge provided a telling foil in its capricious humour and flights of fancy. It certainly made for an appropriate ending to this well-conceived and superbly executed programme; one, moreover, that is eminently worth catching at one of the subsequent appearances by this impressive duo.

Further information about these artists and their current UK tour can be found at website and website

On record: Anders Hillborg: Sirens, Cold Heat, Beast Sampler (BIS)

Hillborg: Beast Sampler (2014); O dessa ögon (2011); Cold Heat (2010); Sirens (2011)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (Beast Sampler)

Hannah Holgersson (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (O dessa ögon)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / David Zinman (Cold Heat)

Ida Falk Winland, Hannah Holgersson (sopranos); Eric Ericson Chamber Choir; Swedish Radio Choir; Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sirens);

Summary

BIS’s second disc devoted to the music of Anders Hillborg (b1954), currently the highest profile composer in Sweden, comprises two of his more recent orchestral works, together with Sirens, his most ambitious piece to date; directed by three leading interpreters.

What’s the music like?

The disc opens with Beast Sampler, a nine-minute evocation of the orchestra as a (to quote the composer) ‘‘sound animal’’ that draws on extended instrumental techniques as well as electronically influenced textures in music. It essentially translates Ligeti’s mid-1960s idiom (specifically Lontano) into a demonstratively post-modern context. Colourful and not uneventful, this is music dependent not on what is said but rather the effectiveness of how it is said. Judged solely as a curtain-raiser, moreover, this is entertaining enough – but no more.

The dichotomy between technique and substance is more acutely exposed in Cold Heat, a three-way commission between orchestras in Berlin, Helsinki and Zurich. Its cosmopolitan genesis is embodied in the range of its influences while culminating in that staple of present-day resolutions – the Sibelian apotheosis. The continued recourse to this evinces as limited an understanding of what the Finnish composer was doing comparable to those ‘advocates’ from the interwar era. Good for first impressions, though.

Of the two vocal items, O dessa ögon (Oh these eyes) is a brief setting of verse by Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf whose aura of distanced ecstasy is eloquently conveyed by soprano and strings. At just over four minutes, it is easily the most substantial composition on this disc.

Which duly puts into perspective the qualities of Sirens. Opulently realized for two sopranos, mixed choir and orchestra – and, at just over half-an-hour, Hillborg’s most ambitious work to date – it utilizes lines from Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey (albeit expanded by the composer) where Ulysses is being implored by the sirens to abandon his voyage and submit to their fatal entreaties.

Once again, the technical realization leaves little to chance – Hillborg summoning considerable elegance and finesse from his forces such as makes for undeniably pleasurable listening. Yet the sheer consistency of the mood being sustained engenders monotony well before the work is concluded, taking in an amorphous central climax before subsiding into a long postlude which seems little more than an extended fadeout as empty as it is enervating.

Does it all work?

On its own terms, undoubtedly. As mentioned, Hillborg is a consummate technician able to bring any number of stylistic traits into viable accord. Nor is there any doubting the overall excellence of response displayed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under its trio of renowned conductors, or the all-round depth and spaciousness of the sound. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the limitations of this music are evident: Hillborg is simply unable to offer much of substance to flesh out his dazzling surfaces or his enticing textures.

Is it recommended?

Yes, on the basis that Hillborg is undoubtedly a composer of the moment and this collection affords a representative overview of what his music is about. Admire it on a first and even second hearing, then ask yourself just how much more you need to listen to this in future.

Richard Whitehouse

Watch Kent Nagano conduct the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Beast Sampler below:

HILLBORG’S Beast Sampler – Kent Nagano from Göteborgs Symfoniker on Vimeo.

Have a listen on Spotify below, to see if you agree with Richard’s verdict!

Wigmore Mondays – David Greilsammer plays Scarlatti and Cage

david-greilsammerDavid Greilsammer (piano)

Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas: in D minor (Kk213), in D minor (Kk141) (12:11), in E (Kk531) (17:57), in B minor (Kk27) (23:58), in B minor (Kk87) (28:33), in A minor (Kk175) (35:25), in E (Kk380) (42:01), in D (Kk492)

interspersed with

Cage Sonatas for prepared piano: nos. 14 (8:47), 13 (15:20), 11 (21:31), 1 (26:23), 12 (32:38), 16 (38:55) & 5 (46:42)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 27 February, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

John Cage is a composer whose music transcends eras. That bold statement was made into reality by David Greilsammer’s imaginatively conceived recital of piano music at the Wigmore Hall, where innovations of the 18th century from Domenico Scarlatti rubbed shoulders with Cage’s music for ‘prepared’ piano.

The prepared piano is a heavily tampered instrument, beginning as a normal grand piano but ending up festooned with dampers, screws, nuts, bolts and even a rubber eraser. Hearing it in person is a real shock, because the resultant sounds are so far removed from a conventional piano tone that the listener has to instinctively check that it is a keyboard being used. The immediate reaction of raised eyebrows gives way to amazement that the instrument with which we are so familiar can make so many different timbres, clicks and beats.

Cage is often derided for these amendments, but hearing this concert from Greilsammer showed just how original his thinking was. The pure imagination of Scarlatti was also revealed, for his 550 sonatas were initially cast aside, with few published in his lifetime. Subsequently they have been shown to contain music of great freedom, expression and colour, so much so that the first sonata of the recital, no.213 in Ralph Kirkpatrick’s catalogue, (1:44 on the live broadcast link) – could almost have been by Cage. It helped that Greilsammer exaggerated its sparse contours and slow tempo, but it was a striking way to begin.

Cage’s evocations of the gamelan in his Sonatas made an immediate impact, helped by the fact Greilsammer was literally spinning between the normal piano for the Scarlatti and the prepared piano with little to no time difference. We passed through periods of energy but also reflection, always enjoying the shock of the new and some familiar contours of the old. With each switch it felt like we were being taken into another world.

The energetic Scarlatti pieces were stressed as such by Greilsammer – a punchy Kk141 especially – while on the Cage side the moods could be equally energetic. The contrasts were beautifully chosen, and so were the tonal centres – the rippling Scarlatti Sonata in E major, Kk531 (17:57), went straight into the treble-rich Sonata no.11 (21:31), and a more thoughtful Sonata in B minor Kk27 (23:58) segued into the more percussive Sonata no.12 (26:20) with barely a join in the notes. The same effect could be experienced at 32:38, where a pensive Scarlatti and a free, improvised Cage Sonata no. 12 were effectively joined together, the latter becoming gradually more aggressive as it moved forward.

The final three sonatas in the group were perhaps the most effective, a military-style march of Scarlatti in E major (42:01) cutting to the most evocative gamelan picture from Cage (46:42) and then to the final D major work of the Italian (48:18).

As a brilliantly conceived encore, Greilsammer offered a vision of his own nightmare, playing the right piece on the ‘wrong’ piano. This was the last Scarlatti sonata (53:50) – only on the prepared piano rather than the untampered one. It served to show just how surprisingly close the sound worlds of these two composers can be, and how music can effortlessly transcend gaps of three centuries.

Thought provoking and eyebrow-raising, this was a wholly stimulating concert and should be heard again!

Further listening

David Greilsammer’s album of Scarlatti and Cage is available to stream on Spotify: