On record: The Waldegrave Ensemble – Matthew Taylor: Chamber Music Vol.3 – Music for Winds (Toccata)

Taylor Chamber Music, Volume Three: Music for Winds

The Waldegrave Ensemble and friends

Introduction and Capriccio op.7 (1990)
Trio in memoriam VH op.21 (1997/2018)
Serenata Trionfale op.34 (2005)
Wind Quintet op.51 (2014-15)
Skål! (2004)

Toccata Classics TOCC0486 [54’16”]

Producer/Engineer Michael Whight
Recorded July 20-21 at Trinity United Reformed Church, Wimbledon; Trio recorded March 3 2018 at St Barnabas, Mitcham

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc from Toccata Classics of Matthew Taylor (b. 1964) focussing on his not inconsiderable output for wind ensemble, played by musicians who have worked with this composer on numerous occasions and have a sure understanding of his unmistakable idiom.

What’s the music like?

Most substantial in actual content are the two pieces for wind octet. Among Taylor’s earliest acknowledged works, Introduction and Capriccio comprises an opening section that exudes an ominous expectancy, duly offset by the main section which, with its vaunting motion and ever more demonstrative exchanges, provides a succinct yet eventful showcase for what is still a largely untried medium. Any stylistic uncertainty has been ironed out by the time of Serenata Trionfale, a companion piece to Nielsen’s Serenata in vano and proffering a rather different scenario from its deadpan stoicism. Formally Taylor’s work unfolds in deceptively Classical fashion from the alluring harmonies and unforced motion of its initial Andante, via the impetuous exchanges (not a little Tippett-like) of its scherzo then the more nuanced and often speculative dialogue of its intermezzo, to a finale whose bewitching introduction from offstage oboe is succeeded by a Presto which drives forward to its suitably uproarious close – the taciturn protagonist having in this instance been purposefully and successfully wooed.

Mention of Nielsen is a reminder his Wind Quintet remains unequalled in this genre. Taylor plays oblique tribute to in with Skål!, a jeux d’esprit that coincidentally offers a masterclass in how to fit the maximum allusions to Nielsen’s six symphonies into a minimal time-span (that to the First Symphony might well take some spotting). Only recently has Taylor essayed a Wind Quintet, and here the underlying model is not Nielsen but Malcolm Arnold. Its seven short movements play continuously – beginning with a lively Preludio festivo then taking in a skittish Hornpipe and Pensive Waltz with more than a hint of wistfulness; followed by a teasing Habanera and energetic Tarantella, before a Pastorale evinces the most searching and soulful music prior to an Epilogue which brings the whole work infectiously full circle.

That leaves the Trio in memoriam VH for flute, violin and cello, a typically individual tribute to the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-96). The opening movements are both marked Allegretto, with the elegant interplay and often reticent expression of the former (pointedly marked ‘innocente’) finding potent contrast in the playful manner of its successor; the work closing with a Moderato whose plangent musing draws on timbral shadings of real poise and finesse. Taylor’s commemoration results in the deepest and most eloquent music on this disc.

Does it all work?

Yes. Taylor has an instinctive feel for wind instruments (not surprising given he played the oboe during his formative years), evident throughout those works featured here – idiomatic and innovative despite (or even because of?) the absence of ‘advanced’ playing techniques.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Performances by the Waldegrave Ensemble and associated musicians do full justice to this music’s distinctive qualities, abetted by a recording that affords clarity without undue closeness of perspective. Taylor himself provides the informative and amusing booklet notes.

You can read more about this release and listen to clips on the Toccata Classics website, or listen in full on Spotify below:

Matthew Taylor’s composer website can be found here, while for more on the Waldegrave Ensemble click here

Talking Heads: Errollyn Wallen

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Errollyn Wallen is a positive force to be reckoned with in music. One of the primary reasons for this is her refusal to be restricted or compromised on a number of fronts, chief among them musical style and diversity. Both have presented lasting historical problems within classical music, but a chat with Errollyn makes anything seem possible through collaboration, flexibility and inclusivity. All these qualities and more have led to an MBE, awarded in June 2007 for services to music.

One of her passions and major achievements – as well getting her music played in space (of which more later!) is her involvement with Snape Maltings’ Friday Afternoons project, inspired by Benjamin Britten but taking on a new lease of life since the composer’s centenary year in 2013. Wallen is the composer of a dozen new songs for this year’s project, which she has entitled MAP: Songs For Children Everywhere. The collection is inspired by her travels around the world, from her native Belize to Suffolk and from Palestine to Scotland, and received its premiere in May at Hull’s Albermarle Centre. For performances as part of Friday Afternoons, which takes place on Friday 16 November, choirs can download the music directly from the website, where there are guides to difficulty, duration and availability.

When Arcana calls to discuss the new cycle Wallen is jetlagged after a trip to Nebraska, but she proves an engaging and passionate interviewee. She talks enthusiastically about her early meetings with the team performing MAP. “It was really inspiring with the school children, and part of the joy of the experience has been accompanying them myself. I was up there as far back as February, and I also tried some songs with local children in Suffolk which went well. It’s been so inspiring, we enjoyed hearing their response and they enjoyed it early on in the process.”

Her approach was one of freedom. “I tried not to write too much down, and I tried to put myself into my child’s self, which is why I included the song It’s Quarter To Nine:

Children find everything interesting. For instance Lonely Dog was about how there was a dog just mooching around at a bus stop:

… while A Sweet Shop in Jenin was about a shop full of amazing sweets in Palestine:

The Baby came about through working with Mahogany Opera, asked a boy if there’s a baby in the house. In some ways I knew children would get the idea and feel of the songs and use them to make vivid pictures, and that they would love the sound of words. All the texts are my own except for this one, it was a lovely, bouncy rhythm:

She considers the musical advantages of working with children. “They don’t have the barriers that adults might do, and also the voices I was writing for were untamed so I had to think about that too. I don’t go too much below middle ‘C’ in the songs, but I was still trying out the ranges of things. Some would be stretching difficulty but I also included an unaccompanied song, so that it gets across the freshness of children’s voices. In Rice and Beans – and Plantain too! I was using a song I admire called Old Abraham Brown. The song was modelled on it, using the words “I like rice and beans”, and using canons to create counterpoints. He’s a person that’s always been on my mind, and it was thinking back to the singing we did at school.”

Wallen is a passionate advocate of choirs in schools. “It’s a way in for children. You’ve got the words, stories and atmospheres, and you have security of singing in a larger group. A good example is that at one of the schools we went to there was a girl who couldn’t sit still, but by the end the kids were focussed on learning and she joined in with all the singing.”

It was important to her that Hull, last year’s City of Culture, should be part of the project. “I particularly asked to go back”, she says. “I was involved in the PRS Foundation biennial, and I also worked with a residency with refugees and primary school children. I was made aware of just how much singing they didn’t do. Together we made a piece about water and Hull, a companion piece to The Mighty River. I said let’s go back to Hull to continue that legacy. There will be lots of schools performing at the Albemarle Centre, we had a workshop with works for solo cello. The youngest was three and the eldest was 70.”

The composer continues to be a frequent traveller. “You store up impressions,” she says. For MAP I thought I’ve been to so many different places that I wanted to share some of those moments. One of the songs, Star, came from a memorable drive in the highlands of Scotland where I saw nobody for a long time but then came across a group of 20 or so deer. I was thinking about how would I remember the moment, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed composing it and am so pleased to have written it!”

While her travelling has so far remained Earth-bound, Wallen’s music has gone ahead of her into space – including her self-titled solo album ERROLLYN. “This happened because I met an astronaut in Houston called Steve MacLean”, she recalls. “He gave a talk to two of us which was great fun. He said he had always wanted to learn piano, but his children laughed at him. I taught him the bass line of my song Guru, so that he could improvise over it. He was about to go on to the Space Shuttle STS-115. We became very good friends, and later I made a short film with him called Falling. He took all three of my CDs to space with him, and NASA framed one of them for me. It was wonderful hearing his stories.”

FALLING by Errollyn Wallen and Dan Farberoff. Music performed live by Errollyn Wallen at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London from Errollyn Wallen on Vimeo.

Errollyn’s Ensemble X has a stirring motto: ‘We don’t break down barriers in music… we don’t see any’. Does she feel we are starting to get there in music across the board, or is there still much work to be done? “I think we’ve still got a long way to go”, she says with a hint of weariness, “but it can only be economics. It doesn’t make sense because I’ll go somewhere like Venezuela that has so much poverty and rich diversity in its music. We’ve got a perception problem with the wider public. The musicians know that’s not true. The funding cuts in schools do not help. We need to avoid losing generations of children who are talented and missing out. I do worry a lot, but when I see what Chineke! are doing the response is fabulous. Yet some people have been uncomfortable with them and that’s not the way to do it.

The positives are very clear, however. “It’s a joyfulness too”, she says. “I love playing with Chineke!, and Chi-chi Nwanoku, their founder, creates an atmosphere of true collaboration. It hasn’t been that easy with a lot of people, because when I started I was told what not to do. Everybody’s got to do what they want to do, and it’s wrong to hold them back.”

Chineke! and the emerging cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason are of course closely linked, and while Wallen welcomes his prominence there is a guarded warning too. “The world is ready for Sheku and it’s brilliant that he is there, but there have been Shekus before him. I think it’s a good time that people are waking up to the importance of diversity. What I have learned is that you cannot expect things to change unless you are taking part in them yourself. If you have grown up without seeing a person of colour you might have prejudices that are wrong. It’s not your fault but it’s important to recognise it.”

As regards writing for those of a much younger age, the importance of this task is not lost on her. “I still think composers and institutions think writing for children isn’t important, but it’s the future and sets what they remember. I wanted to be close to the action and see if I’d judged this right.”

For more information on Errollyn Wallen, you can visit her website

On record: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Hyperion)

Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony no.1 in B flat minor) (1903-09)
Darest thou now, O soul (1925)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following his impressive take on A London Symphony (given in the 1918 version), Martyn Brabbins here continues his Vaughan Williams cycle with its predecessor A Sea Symphony, coupled with a choral setting which reinforces the composer’s adherence to Walt Whitman.

What’s the music like?

Now that most of the numerous orchestral pieces Vaughan Williams wrote at the turn of the 20th century have been recorded, the context for the present work is far clearer than hitherto. Yet it still took six years before A Sea Symphony was completed; during which time, both its actual concept and his musical aesthetic underwent radical change. The premiere in Leeds on 12th October 1910 may have overshadowed by that of the Tallis Fantasia just a month before, but the larger work likewise confirmed VW’s arrival as a leading composer of his generation.

While not an overly long work (lasting around 67 minutes), A Sea Symphony feels expansive as compared to Vaughan Williams’s later such works and benefits from a formally focussed approach. This it receives from Brabbins, who controls the first movement securely from its magisterial opening, through its eventful if prolix ‘development’ then on to a rapt conclusion. The ensuing nocturne is less problematic and Brabbins duly points up the contrast between its fervent climax and pensive introspection on either side. He secures a rousing response in the scherzo, with its unabashed echoes of Elgar and Parry, then steers a convincing course across the expansive finale – whether in its cumulative earlier stages, its eloquent central vocal duet or the closing stages with their stark juxtaposing of bracing peroration and ethereal postlude.

Throughout this recording, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is responsive and committed, while the singing of the BBC Symphony Chorus leaves nothing to be desired in terms of tonal finesse and rhythmic articulation. The two soloists are less consistent. Marcus Farnsworth lacks presence during the combative baritone contribution to the first movement, though his stoic musing in its successor is far more persuasive. A soprano with the requisite mezzo range, Elisabeth Llewellyn yet evinces a vibrato in her higher register that can prove distracting, but this is less of a problem in the finale – she and Farnsworth exuding warmth and ardency in its lyrical central duet, while bringing poise without indulgence towards its close as vocal phrases stretch out in parallel to the expanse of that ‘journey’ being evoked.

Does it all work?

Yes, notwithstanding those reservations noted above. Brabbins adopts a firm though flexible approach which is demonstrably in the lineage of Sir Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley. Both orchestral playing and choral singing are first rate (in advance of that for Andrew Davis in the BBC’s first VW cycle a quarter-century ago), and there is once again an enterprising coupling. Darest though now, O soul finds Vaughan Williams briefly revisiting a Whitman text he set 18 years before in Toward the Unknown Region, reduced to a hymnal setting for unison chorus and strings.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound finds an ideal balance between spaciousness and definition, with probing notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. If Brabbins’s Sea Symphony is slightly less fine than his London Symphony, it is a consistent follow-up in what looks set to be impressive VW cycle.

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read more about Martyn Brabbins here

Wigmore Mondays: Aleksey Semenenko & Inna Firsova – Grieg, Ysaÿe, Debussy, Tchaikovsky & Paganini

Aleksey Semenenko (violin), Inna Firsova (piano)

Grieg Violin Sonata no.3 in C minor Op.45 (1886-7) (1:40-23:34)
Ysaÿe Violin Sonata in D minor Op.27/3 ‘George Enescu’ (1923) (25:34-32:13)
Debussy La plus que lente (1910) (34:17-38:16)
Tchaikovsky Valse-scherzo in C major Op. 34 (1877) (38:55-45:06)
Paganini, arr.Kreisler La Campanella (1826) (46:30-54:16)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 5 November 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

There were fireworks at the Wigmore Hall rather earlier than planned on this particular November 5th. The reason for this was the inflammatory partnership of violinist Aleksey Semenenko and pianist Inna Firsova, whose high voltage program of Grieg, Ysaÿe, Tchaikovsky and Paganini really got the heart rates fluttering.

The duo began with one of Grieg’s finest chamber works, the Violin Sonata no.3. While his first two works in the violin sonata are dressed in relatively sunny clothing, this third one has a lot more grit and determination in the notes. This was evident right from the start (1:40 on the broadcast, marked Allegro molto ed appassionato), a memorable theme given authoritative treatment by Semenenko and Firsova. The music drew back for some more intimate thoughts, but soon, as the main theme gets developed, a deeply passionate dialogue between violin and piano played out.

The second movement, a Romance (10:13), began with a clear and delicate melody from Firsova, a beautifully poised response to the first movement. Soon however a more agitated section started (12:18), led by the violin, but soon the glassy, soft-hearted music returned. The third movement Allegro moderato (16:06) began with a melody that feels like a folk tune, especially with the rustic piano accompaniment, and we were back into the urgent mood of the first movement. At 18:53 a rich second theme could heard, played by Sememenko with a very full, gorgeous sound, if just occasionally over-reaching on his tuning.

The Ysaÿe Sonata is for solo violin, directly inspired by the music for violin of J.S. Bach – but with considerably more display factored in. It is third of a set of six he completed in a short space of time and published as Op.27 in 1923. That said, the Belgian composer still writes with a keen sense of form, and this compact sonata, dedicated to fellow violinist / composer George Enescu, packs a lot into its six and a half minutes. So too did Semenenko, whose dazzling virtuosity (from 25:34) added to a beautiful tone gave it the best possible platform. Some of his bowing was razor sharp, especially in the fast music, but the attack was always impressively clean.

Semenenko and Firsova followed these fireworks with a pair of waltzes. Debussy’s example (34:17), originally for solo piano, is a sugar-sweet but elusive piece of work, beautifully harmonized by Firsova in this version. Tchaikovsky’s (38:55) is another story, a swaggering dance piece that both performers relished, swaying in and out of time with the familiarity of seasoned partners. It was all instinctive and brilliantly done, with Semenenko’s bow acting like a pond skater over the strings at times! An earlier performance of this work from the pair can be seen below:

One of the ultimate violin showpieces is La Campanella, written by Paganini in 1826 as the third and final movement for his Violin Concerto no.2, but arranged here for violin and piano by Fritz Kreisler – like Paganini a virtuoso of incredibly high standing.

Gravity is surely defied in this version, right from the main theme (46:30) to a series of contrasting sections, each of eye-watering difficulty – try from 52:00 on the broadcast to get some incredible dexterity between plucking (pizzicato) and bowing.

Great credit should go to Irina Firsova, too, for her mastery of what is effectively an orchestral score compressed for piano. The lightness of touch meant this was never a heavy account, despite the number of notes, and Semenenko’s agility fair won the day.

A spectacular recital indeed, which I would urge you to hear from the start. The pair weren’t quite finished, though, and complemented their fireworks with a little sparkler, Tchaikovsky’s Valse sentimentale in F minor Op.51/6 (56:12-58:21)

Further listening

As a good companion to this playlist, Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova have recorded a disc of similar themes, taking a Grieg sonata and virtuoso showpieces from Tchaikovsky, Paganini and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, ending with an intense account of Schubert’s Fantasy in C major:

If that isn’t enough, and to whet the appetite for more French music for violin and piano from the Wigmore Hall in a couple of weeks’ time, here is another Semenenko and Firsova double act in music by Poulenc, Chausson, Debussy and Saint-Saëns:

On record: Vassilis Varvaresos – V for Valse (Aparté)

V for Valse

Vassilis Varvaresos (piano)

Liszt Allegro spiritoso in A major S427/7 (1852), Mephisto Waltz no.1 S514 (1862)
Ravel La Valse (1920)
Rosenthal Carnaval de Vienne (1889)
Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (1838)
Scriabin Waltz in A flat major Op.38 (1903)
Tchaikovsky Valse sentimentale Op.51/6 (1882)

Aparté AP172 [61’31”]

Producer / Engineer Pierre Fenouillat
Recorded 22 & 24 July 2017 by Little Tribeca at Hotel de l’Industrie, Paris

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The first recital disc from Greek pianist Vassilis Varvaresos, winner at the 2016 Enescu Competition, and already heard on Schubert’s Winterreise with Dimitris Tiliakos as well as works for violin and piano by Schumann and Richard Strauss with Noe Inui (both on Navis Classics).

What’s the music like?

In an interesting conceptual ploy, the Valse (Waltz) has been taken as basis for an overview of almost a century’s piano music – during the course of which, keyboard virtuosity veered away from uninhibited display to reinforcing the emotional complexity of the piece at hand.

Varvaresos starts his recital in media res with Liszt‘s First Mephisto Waltz – the touchstone for a virtuosity fused with psychological complexity, rendered here with a combination of technical brilliance and emotional understatement as extends right to the scintillating final bars. The seventh from his Soirées de Vienne, a set of Valses-Caprices after Schubert, finds Liszt in more equable if hardly less resourceful mood, not least in the way he channels his borrowed ideas into a study as subtle formally as it is poetic and affectionate expressively.

A further highlight is Faschingsschwank aus Wien, last of Schumann’s piano cycles from his first full decade of creativity and one which tends to be overlooked in the context of several more innovative predecessors. Its outer movements can run the risk of mindless display, but this is never an issue for Varvaresos, who leavens their boisterousness with almost Classical objectivity. This applies equally to the three central movements, not least a Romanza whose poise and inwardness uncannily anticipate the piano miniatures of its composer’s last years.

Tchaikovsky‘s piano output remains relatively neglected, so it was astute of Varvaresos to include his Valse sentimentale, last in a set of six pieces which point up his indebtedness in this medium to earlier models (notably Schumann), yet whose melodic eloquence is wholly characteristic. Scriabin‘s Waltz in A flat makes for a telling foil, its melody line diffused into a harmonic radiance which blurs the expected tonal focus with teasing playfulness. Here, as throughout this programme, the suppleness of Varvaresos’s pedalling is of the highest order.

Discretion is hardly to be expected of an archetypal virtuoso such as Maurice Rosenthal, yet his Carnaval de Vienne is a riotous humoresque on themes by Johann Strauss II that makes a fittingly uproarious encore (as Varvaresos demonstrated at last year’s Enescu Festival). The virtuosity of Ravel’s La Valse is of an altogether more speculative manner, but this account makes a virtue of such ambiguity as this plays out across a structure audacious in its formal design and unnerving in its emotional follow-through – not least those fateful closing pages.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Varvaresos is evidently among a younger generation of pianists for whom virtuosity is neither to be played up to nor fought shy of; but rather placed at the service of the music in question so its salient qualities can more fully be appreciated and savoured.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is ideal in its realism and immediacy, with Jean-Yves Clement’s fanciful note complemented by a photo which looks rather like a still from an Alain Resnais film. An auspicious release by a pianist from whom much can be expected. V for Varvaresos indeed!

You can read more about this release on the Aparté website, or get more information on Vassilis at his website The full album can be heard on the Spotify playlist below: