Arcana at the Proms – Prom 18: Edward Gardner conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Mahler and Britten

Prom 18: Stuart Skelton (tenor, above), Claudia Mahnke (mezzo-soprano), Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (above)

Britten Piano Concerto Op.13 (1938)
Mahler Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 1 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) received its Proms premiere in the year 1914, long before the huge upturn his music experienced in the 1960s. It is an example of Sir Henry Wood’s instinct for new music that it reached the Proms so soon, though the programme labelling of the piece as a ‘Henry Wood novelty’ does the work a massive disservice. A certain Benjamin Britten was on to it too, describing in 1937 the impact of its final set of poems, Der Abschied, and how it ‘passes over me like a tidal wave’.

Mahler was one of Britten’s foremost influences, specifically the Fourth Symphony, which you can hear at the Proms later in the season on Sunday 11 August. There is not much Britten this year, but what there was in this concert was brilliantly performed. The Piano Concerto has a youthful spring in its step, treating the instrument equally as a creator of percussion and melody, following in the traditions of Prokofiev and Shostakovich as it does so.

This performance showed it off in full. Leif Ove Andsnes (above), who has lived with the work for 25 years and performed it on his Proms debut in 1992, had its measure. Technically he was superb, leading from the front with an account of targeted bravura, never showing off for the sake of it and always keeping a melodic shape to even the most percussive of chord sequences. Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra offered solid support, if very occasionally falling behind the piano rhythmically – though that could also have been the Royal Albert Hall acoustic playing tricks. The strings were beautifully shaded in the quieter moments of the Impromptu, whose emotional depths hinted at a darker presence behind the technical feats – perhaps the presence of the Second World War, only a few years away.

Andsnes delivered an unexpected encore in the first movement of Mompou’s Suburbis, stylistically close to Ravel and Falla but still evoking its own individual nocturnal scene.

The Mahler followed the interval, lasting just over an hour – but given the quality of the performance the time passed in a flash. To date Edward Gardner’s encounters with Mahler have been relatively minimal, but the natural gravitas he gave to the orchestral writing in Das Lied von der Erde, not to mention the room made for the chamber-like instrumental solos, showed his instincts are ideally suited to the composer. The BBC Symphony Orchestra wind – fully deserving of their curtain call at the end – were on top form, as were the strings, their quiet thoughts during the final song in particular staying rooted in the memory.

Fine as the orchestral playing was, the two singers rightly shared the limelight. Stuart Skelton’s tenor was a thing of wonder, called into high register action at a daringly early stage in proceedings but delivering wholeheartedly from the off. His characterisation of the two drinking songs was spot on, the gestures and body language wholly at one with the words, giving him the creative licence to exaggerate a note or two. Here he had support from BBC Symphony Orchestra leader Igor Yuzefovich, and a suitably inebriated violin solo during Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring). Meanwhile in Von der Jugend (Of Youth) some nimble negotiation by Skelton of Mahler’s score gave the song an invigorating freshness. That he was able to project these natural and very human elements of phrasing without ever sounding contrived spoke volumes for the degree to which he has clearly inhabited this piece, as evidenced in his contribution to the Proms Twitter feed a few hours before.


Mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke (above) was equally assured in her delivery, the voice and its phrasing again completely comfortable with Mahler’s demands in Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely Soul in Autumn) and Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) before, in the celebrated Der Abschied (The Farewell), time stood still and the music became a thing of wonder. These otherworldly contemplations felt as though they extended from the Arena floor of the Royal Albert Hall right up to the stars, far beyond the dome, and Mahnke’s rapt expression spoke of how she too was experiencing the same transporting effect. Gardner’s operatic instincts stood him in good stead, particularly in the recitative-like sections, where orchestral players held notes like baroque continuo staples, but the overall effect was in aid of the contemplation of life itself.

The rude interjection of a mobile phone did nothing to break the spell, for these two singers, and the 80 or so instrumental singers behind them, had created something very special together.

New music and album from the Penguin Cafe

Photo credit (c) Alex Kozobolis

Good news for fans of the Penguin Cafe – the Arthur Jeffes-led ensemble have a new album setting foot on land in October.

For more than 35 years the Penguin Cafe name has stood for music free of constraint that looks to explore and embrace the colours of acoustic instruments around the world, enjoying the influence of classical music as it does so. The Jeffes name has been behind it from 1973, when Simon Jeffes began the group with cellist Helen Liebmann. More recently a second incarnation of the group, led by Simon’s son Arthur, was sealed by the 2017 album The Imperfect Sea.

At the core of the band’s message has been the state of the natural world, and as the press release details the new album Handfuls Of Night ‘began life after Greenpeace commissioned Jeffes to write four pieces of music corresponding to four breeds of penguins, to help raise awareness for the endangered Antarctic seas.

A fundraising evening at EartH in Hackney followed, where Penguin Cafe premiered the four songs named after their feathered counterparts to a sold out audience; the rousing contemporary folk inflected Chinstrap, the mournful and minimalistic Adelie, stoic and rhythmic The Life of an Emperor and the wistful, string-laden Gentoo Origin.

All appear on the new album, which has at its heart the soothing At The Top of the Hill, They Stood…, which you can hear below. Here the piano arpeggios are reassured by soft bass drum and woozy harmonium:

It bodes well for the long player. Handfuls of Night is out on October 4th on Erased Tapes, together with a set of UK live dates, ahead of a world tour in 2020. You can pre-order the album here

On record – Clare Hammond, Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan: Mysliveček: Complete Music for Keyboard (BIS)

Clare Hammond (piano), Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan

Josef Mysliveček (1737-1781)
Keyboard Concerto no.1 in B flat major (late 1770s)
Six Easy Divertimenti for Harpsichord or Piano-forte (1777)
Keyboard Concerto no.2 in F major (late 1770s)
Six Easy Lessons for the Harpsichord: Sonatas 1-6 (1780)

BIS BIS-2393 [74’22”]

Producer and Engineer Thore Brinkmann

Recorded March 2018 at the Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Not many composers could claim to have influenced one of the greatest composers to have lived, but Il Boemo (The Bohemian) could do just that. Josef Mysliveček, to whom the nickname was applied, was a Czech composer of rare standing and a mentor to Mozart in the 1770s. He had a life of eyebrow-raising but ultimately tragic events, culminating with his death in great poverty in Rome in 1781, having nearly lost his nose a couple of years earlier to a botched operation.

Clare Hammond’s interview for this site puts more musical detail onto his fascinating tale. More importantly this disc for BIS serves notice of Mysliveček’s standing as an important musical figure and prodigiously talented composer. If you like Mozart, his music is a natural but essential step for further exploration.

What’s the music like?

Really enjoyable. The Piano Concerto no.1, where Hammond is joined by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan, has a sparky personality, with plenty of vigour in its fast outer movements and elegance in the softly voiced central slow movement. There is an economy of thought, too – it finishes quickly with the minimum of fuss.

Clare Hammond clearly loves this music, and she plays with poise but also enjoys the instinctive nature of Mysliveček’s writing. The solo works are notable for their compressed construction, never threatening to outstay their welcome and on occasion producing unexpectedly dark undercurrents.

She is alive to these and handles the technical challenges really well. The Six Easy Divertimenti sound anything but unless they are in her hands! She makes the most of their tendencies to surprise, as in the mysterious pauses on some pretty exotic chords in the fifth piece.

The Piano Concerto no.2 has some notable syncopations in its first movement, as well as some adventurous harmonic diversions, before slipping into the minor key for a profound slow movement. Some of the music is contrary, staying away from big technical displays when you might expect them, but the third movement has a spring in its step nonetheless.

The Six Easy Lessons (again sounding pretty difficult!) bring parallels with the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti, and receive crisp and characterful performances. The second movement of the First Lesson reminds of the Czech composer’s tendency to spice up his melodies with chromatic movement, and this is one of many good tunes to be found throughout these spirited pieces.

Does it all work?

Yes. The structure of Mysliveček’s output from Hammond gives an ideally balanced disc, with the concertos complemented by the solo works. The clarity of her performance ensures it can be heard in the best possible light, and recording from the BIS engineering team is ideal.

Is it recommended?

Yes, and it fills a gap in the 18th century discography. Here is an important figure on whom the spotlight so rarely shines – and we are grateful to Hammond and McGegan for directing it to the right place.

Stream

Buy

You can buy this release directly from the BIS website

Switched On – GLOK: Dissident (Bytes)

What’s the story?

Ride’s Andy Bell has pulled together all his solo recordings to date under the GLOK alias. GLOK – the German word for ‘bell’ with a crucial letter missing – has been an undercover enterprise until now, an anonymous project brought to life by Bytes chief Joe Clay, a Ride fan himself.

As this story suggests Bell is modest about his side project, but now he has been ‘outed’ as a one-man band, expect to hear a lot more of this music as the year progresses, even allowing for a new Ride album due in August.

What’s the music like?

Dissident unwittingly taps into the success of recent TV series such as Deutschland 83 and 86, where the pleasures have been as much about the music as they have been the plot. Yet as Bell looks back to the 1980s and further, he brings in the influence of Krautrock luminaries such as Can, Neu! And Bauhaus. He does this without compromising his own skills as a guitarist and his credentials as a much-loved ‘shoegaze’ producer.

Keith Tenniswood has remastered the whole album, which unfolds at a very natural pace. The title track clocks in at nearly 20 minutes, but is one of those productions you can completely lose yourself in, the main riff turning away in the background while running through a series of filters, the drum beats receding and then coming back with extra depth.

Bell expands his outlook with the subtle groove of Kolokoi (the Russian word for ‘bell’) and the airy textures and firm kick drum of Pulsing, which has a tempo suitable for dub-infused house. Cloud Cover adds a reminder of his first known discipline as a guitarist – a nice acoustic meander here – while the closing Exit Through The Skylight introduces chattering beats and a more processed feel.

Does it all work?

Yes. Bell has equal headspace for the past and the present, setting the mood perfectly with tracks that are suitable for both ends of the day. ‘Dissident’ on its own shows he can master big structures with durable ideas, while the shorter tracks teem with melodies, subtle humour and a refreshing lack of pretence. The album repays both foreground and background listening, preferably in a hotter climate!

Is it recommended?

Yes. Ride fans will love it, but the recommendation extends to anyone with a love of instrumental music and synthesizers.

Stream

Buy

Ibiza – A symphony of dance music

When you think of Ibiza, what are the visual images generated in your head?

Are they glorious sunsets and heat-soaked villas with sandy beaches…or a bunch of rowdy types ‘on tour’ or on extended stag / hen weekends?

Happily, from first-hand experience, the natural pigeon holing that occurs thanks to reality TV programmes and social media is pretty wide of the mark.

Sure, there are those that go to the White Island to completely lose themselves and their minds, but equally there are those who travel for more soothing mental reasons. There is room for both and more besides in Ibiza.

With the visual images addressed, what are the musical images that come to mind? Because no trip to Ibiza can be complete without dance music – and yet, as with the visuals, there is much more here than at first appears.
During our holiday last month, I reflected on the way Ibiza’s music is structured, like acts in a play or even movements in a symphony.

There is a slow introduction. The day dawns, people rise slowly and amble to the pool, the breakfast bar, the beach – and their soundtrack is chillout music.

Where we stayed, at the excellent Axelbeach hotel across from San Antonio (view from the balcony above!), blissful poolside vibes slowed the pulse rate and calmed the fevered brow from the previous night. Then, gradually, as the day took hold, so too did the beats – and deep house music became the order of the day. Moody basslines and rich chords were the soundtrack as we flitted in and out of sunkissed reveries. At this point I particularly enjoyed the music of Mark Alow, reflecting the intense heat of the midday sun.

The effortless soundtrack grew ever so slightly faster as the day went on, like an extended warm-up DJ set preparing for the night ahead. As the sun dipped in the sky it was time to head across the bay to San Antonio, and the much-revered sunset strip.

This is one of the most established parts of Ibiza holiday life, though it treads a fine line between keeping the carefree atmosphere of those late 1980s beach parties, where the likes of Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker discovered the island’s potential, and the commercialism that has inevitably struck more recently.

Café Mambo, 25 years old this year, sits squarely between the two. Service is efficient, mostly friendly but occasionally too dismissive. Clearly our looks are important at this point, which was never the issue with Ibiza before I would have thought! Yet as we settle the magic of the area takes hold, and everyone anticipates the sunset moment itself.

Through the week we were to discover that the Golden Buddha bar just round the corner offers a much more authentic and unfiltered sunset experience, but this was good for now. We were at Cafe Mambo for a night promoting Pacha, and Radio Slave was in the wings with his brand of minimal, stretched out techno.

From the moment the dull red orb of the sun disappeared below the sea line, as we took a breath he sprang into action, delivering a dramatic change in mood and tempo, the onset of darkness bringing with it fresh energy. That he did this with such deceptively simple music was really impressive, his remix of Sasha’s Cut Me Down the calling card as the night opened up again. This would – in symphonic terms – be the start of the big finale.

A couple of nights later we found ourselves in Amnesia, where the finale was effectively split into two. Craig Richards and Seth Troxler were the opening DJs for a night with Cocoon, part of the season celebrating 20 years of the club on the island. A club and record label run by Sven Väth, Cocoon has always been about good times and an almost complete lack of pretence, and although prices at Amnesia are not exactly welcoming, everything else was.

It occurred to me at this point just how similar the roles of DJ and conductor are. Richards and Troxler were back to back, each choosing a tune or two in a relay style, the turntables their orchestra as the music unfolded. The dancefloor, initially empty, began to fill as their hypnotic beats took hold, the ‘less is more’ approach complemented by colourful dancers and two great big jellyfish, suspended above the dancefloor.

All this was happening on the terrace. In the main room, the beats were faster, the night more advanced, and those who had come to throw themselves around were having a ball. Back at the terrace, all that was about to arrive with Riccardo Villalobos, the Chilean DJ celebrated – like Radio Slave – for minimal yet timeless interpretations of house and techno.

With Villalobos though there is a much more primal instinct at play, which you can see as much from his image as you can hear it in his music. His set is not really about individual tracks, more about the pulsing rhythms as a whole, the DJ himself a ball of nervous energy behind the decks as he flits about impatiently, tweaking levels and ushering new depths of tremor-inducing drums.

It is incredibly effective, and even the relative lack of a melody does not prove a massive problem. The tunes can be found elsewhere of course, with the likes of Defected, Pacha and Soul Heaven serving up incredibly popular seasons of more soulful house in San Antonio itself.

Musically sated, we return to the hotel – and the cycle / symphony begins all over again. Ibiza really is one of a kind, and this trip was a fascinating insight to me of just how much dance and classical music have in common. Their functions can cross over, their structures are similar, yet the inspiration is equally lasting. Classical music might often try to claim the intellectual high ground, but the music can strive for cleverness and lose its immediacy. Dance music is clever in a different way, speaking to its lovers directly as it aims squarely for the feet and heart.

What I’m saying here is that different strokes for different folks is what music is all about. Long may it stay that way!

Here are two playlists from our ten days in Ibiza – ‘poolside’ and ‘club’:

Not surprisingly the ‘club’ one is shorter as a lot of the tracks we heard are not yet available – but hopefully it still catches the essence of our nights!

While we were there the sad news came through that Philippe Zdar, of French duo Cassius (below), had died in a tragic accident. Given his contribution to dance music in the last 20 years it was great to hear some of their tunes woven into DJ sets, especially at Café Mambo – and so this playlist starts with Cassius’ best-known tune as a small tribute. I was fortunate to interview Philippe once and found him a really engaging and mischievous subject. Both those qualities came across in his music and he will be greatly missed.