RSNO Friday Night Club – Richard Strauss & Berg

Tonight, Friday 17 April, the RSNO Friday Night Club returns with an intriguing pair of characters. The first is Richard Strauss‘s Don Juan, one of his most celebrated symphonic poems, in which the 24-year old composer paints a portrait of the serial philanderer. Its high spirits mask a darker underbelly. Thomas Søndergård conducts.

Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill then joins the orchestra in a performance of Berg‘s Seven Early Songs. These very late Romantic nuggets, completed 20 years after Don Juan, show Berg straining at the limits of tonality and finding great intensity as he sets the work of seven different poets.

You can watch the on the orchestra’s website here, or join on Facebook here

In concert – Christian Tetzlaff, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen: Weimar Berlin – Angels and Demons

Christian Tetzlaff, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 26 September 2019

Hindemith Rag Time (well-tempered) (1921)
J.S. Bach arr. Schoenberg Two Chorale Preludes: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele BWV654; Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist BWV667 (1925)
Berg Violin Concerto (1935)
Hindemith Mathis der Maler Symphony (1934)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This year the Philharmonia Orchestra have been exploring the music of Weimar Berlin as it was in the 1920s and 1930s, with fascinating results. Their most recent concert, subtitled Dreams and Demons, may have been relatively short, but it gave plenty of food for thought and the musical rewards were considerable.

A rather older composer who worked in Weimar made himself known throughout the concert, for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was quoted, refracted and alluded to in each of the four pieces on the programme. Firstly we heard the opening notes of the Prelude in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, part of an affectionate and brilliantly ‘worded’ joke by Hindemith, whose Ragtime started the concert with a swagger. Esa-Pekka Salonen clearly enjoyed its gruff humour, but found the touches of elegance beneath the surface too.

The Ragtime’s surge to the close in E flat minor blossomed with a cleverly executed join into the first of two Bach chorale prelude arrangements by Schoenberg. Here we wondered at his audacious orchestration, taking on what he saw as ‘the first twelve tone music’ and sharing it around the orchestra with typically inventive pointing towards the melodies. Timothy Walden’s cello probed elegantly at the inner melodic lines of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, while the exuberant close of Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geistdrew heralded the Hindemith work we were about to hear.

Berg’s Violin Concerto quotes from a Bach chorale, Es ist genug (It is enough) at the height of its remembrance of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler. Subtitled To the Memory of An Angel, the work traverses a wide range of emotions in its thought processes, from brief oases of calm to fraught periods of activity. The clarinets of the Philharmonia, in all ranges, were superb, whether in the lighter Ländler theme of the first movement or the solemn chorale itself, their imitation of a pipe organ ghostly and – when the solo violinist’s harmonics were in play – ethereal. This was because soloist Christian Tetzlaff (above) also brought a wide range of sounds to the piece, from the fragility of the opening strings of the start to the surging faster music where he took the music by the scruff of the neck. His was a technically brilliant yet musically sensitive performance, closely joined to Salonen’s deft work with the orchestra.

All the while this wonderful piece was heading for the final bars and the ultimate rest, the sort of chord you would want to go on forever as Berg’s orchestral colours mingle with the highest note the violin reaches in the whole piece. Together Teztlaff and Salonen ensured the pacing was ideal, helped considerably by the light and shade of the Philharmonia’s contribution.

After the interval came a regrettably rare chance to hear some Hindemith in the concert hall in the shape of the Mathis der Maler Symphony, a three-movement work drawn from the opera of the same name. This oft-maligned composer exerts a good deal of influence on the tonal music of the second half of the 20th century, more than he is credited for, and his own works are instantly recognisable. Nor, as Salonen and the Philharmonia illustrated, is there a lack of colour or personality in his orchestral writing.

This was a superb performance of a piece Salonen clearly holds close to his heart, having conducted it at the Proms and recorded it for Sony in 2004. The expectant hush from the strings at the start was magical, the effect like walking into a sacred building, and this was reinforced by a solemn intonation of a chorale from the trombones, those Bach influences coming quickly to the surface. Salonen’s slower tempo here worked well.

The silvery strings enjoyed the moments of confluence in Hindemith’s writing, with the added note chords allowed to breathe, but Salonen was not above letting the grittier parts of the music off the leash, pushing forward through the faster phrases. The Philharmonia woodwind and brass were superb, the bell-like clarity of their playing bolstered by deeper shades. With all these qualities noted, Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert) unfolded beautifully, with a grand sense of ceremony at the end, while in response Grablegung (Entombment) was initially thoughtful, its ruminative woodwind then replaced by a brass-dominated climax which Salonen controlled immaculately.

Most dramatic of all was Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony), with a ravishing tone from the Philharmonia strings at the outset. As it progressed the movement had a terrific cut and thrust, its tension released with impressive stature in the closing pages. Mathis der Maler is a wonderful score, one of Hindemith’s finest achievements – and by no means the only peak of his orchestral output. Here it put the seal on a fascinating and immensely rewarding concert, with superb musicianship throughout.

Further listening

You can hear the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including Salonen’s account of the Mathis der Maler symphony:

This playlist offers a broader view of Hindemith’s orchestral output, with the ballet suite Nobilissima Visione, the Concert Music for Strings and Brass and the vastly underrated piece for piano and orchestra The Four Temperaments:

Wigmore Mondays – Novus String Quartet play Respighi & Berg

Novus String Quartet [Jaeyoung Kim, Young-Uk Kim (violins), Kyuhyun Kim (viola), Woongwhee Moon (Violoncello)]

Respighi Quartetto dorico (1924) (2:00 – 23:53 on the broadcast link below)

Berg Lyric Suite (1926) (27:15 – 59:23)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 March 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Listening to the Quartetto dorico is like taking a big step back in time. The opening salvo of Ottorino Respighi’s quartet from the mid-1920s is certainly arresting for its volume and scoring – only four instruments but a massive sound! – and its musical language feels imported from another age.

The young Korean ensemble capture these qualities, establishing a dream state that is maintained throughout the performance. Respighi’s quartets are rarely performed, so the BBC and Wigmore Hall should be commended for bringing this one in from the cold, adding another dimension to the 20th century string quartet.

There is an otherworldly quality to the high violin writing later on in this single-movement span, lasting over 20 minutes – and the concentration of feeling provides an intense listening experience. From 4:30 on the broadcast link the music retreats to a quieter passage led by the viola, who essentially intones another chart to the soft, restful comments of the other three. A distinctive section starts at 9:27, with an irregular pulse but a strong rhythmic profile established by the plucked cello string, which gives a dance-like feel to the melody.

At 14:15 an important section starts, the Passacaglia – which has six beats in the bar. The music here is slow moving and deeply contemplative, the first violin taking the lead with a lot of the thoughts as the harmonies stay relatively still. Gradually the higher reaches of the instruments come into play, before a dramatic series of unison sweeps bring down the curtain.

If you’re able to read music I would highly recommend following the score with the performance, as it helps you appreciate Respighi’s unique approach to writing for string quartet. The link is here

From the sacred to the profane – and affter heady music to lift us away from earth, Alban Berg’s six-movement Lyric Suite brings us right back to earthly experiences. Though publically dedicated to the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, as it quotes from his Lyric Symphony, it is in fact a not-so-private account of his doomed affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, who he met on a visit to Prague in the 1920s.

The tempo markings of the six movements are descriptive and tell the story. The first provides a good introduction to Berg’s unique way of using serial (or ‘non tonal’) music in a way that is still highly melodic and richly layered with harmonies. Marked Allegretto gioviale (from 27:15 on the broadcast), it uses all four instruments for thick textures and intense dialogue, telling the story of the start of the couple’s affair.

The second movement, marked Andante amoroso (30:43), is lighter, with more of a spring in its step as Berg profiles Hanna and her two children, with distinct musical motifs for each. The third (Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico (37:24)) gives a musically vivid account of the affair’s consummation, with feather light textures, the instruments’ bows used near the bridge to create a feverish atmosphere.

Then, as the doomed nature of the relationship makes itself evident, the music turns sourer. The fourth movement is a slow one, Adagio appassionato (40:36) – and is passionate and pretty heavy, turning to depths of desolation at the end. The second violin (44:20) quotes from the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony, but this is eerie and displaced, with the ending at 46:38 still more remote.

The last pair of movements is devastating for Berg. It starts with a febrile affair marked Presto delirando – Tenebroso (47:13) and has crisp, jagged phrases until, as the music slows, the thoughts become more remote and despair-laden, leading to the relatively sudden end at 51:45.

Finally the Largo desolato, which really is the end of everything () These are melodies that speak of despair and desolation, the end of the tether. A brief show of spirit and resolve is made at 56:56 but this is soon overcome by the viola and second violin, before some sweeping, downwards facing melodies on the cello. The music, fully spent, peters out at 59:23, as though Berg can no longer say any more.

Like the Respighi above, there is so much going on in Berg’s Lyric Suite that it may be an advantage to follow the music itself while listening. It can be found here

The Novus String Quartet gave incredibly impressive accounts of both works, taking the physical and mental demands in their stride and keeping a consistently high standard of ensemble. They have a refreshing approach to programming, and these elements should ensure they are a top level string quartet to keep an eye on.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, with the Novus Quartet’s recently released recording of the Berg Lyric Suite an added draw:

https://open.spotify.com/user/arcana.fm/playlist/0Oqnt2uLE6E7L09TVxPU4Q?si=hD6X6m3RTTS9_jXU_bav_w

The Quartetto dorico is one of two string quartets completed by Respighi, but he also wrote the celebrated Il tramonto (Sunset) for soprano and string quartet. All three works fit very nicely onto one album, recorded by the Brodsky Quartet and the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter:

Meanwhile Berg’s music for string quartet works extremely well in company with his colleague and fellow ‘serial’ composer Anton Webern. Berg’s rich romanticism and Webern’s incredibly concentrated approach complement each other on this Juilliard Quartet album:

One more playlist to end with – a selection of string quartets from the mid-1920s, illustrating the range of styles applied to the idiom at that time. There are some very different responses here from Janáček, Bartók, Martinů and Frank Bridge – very interesting to compare and contrast!

On screen: Barbara Hannigan, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Stravinsky: Rite of Spring; Berg: Wozzeck Fragments; Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre (LSO Live)

Webern Six Pieces op.6 (1909/28)
Berg Three Fragments from Wozzeck, op. 7 (1923)
Ligeti arr. Howarth Mysteries of the Macabre (1992)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (1913)

Barbara Hannigan (soprano – Berg & Ligeti), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO3028 [84’58’’] One DVD and one Blu-ray disc

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from its all-French programme (LSO3038), LSO Live here releases a further concert by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle on DVD and Blu-ray – once again a co-production with the digital channel Mezzo and in association with ARTE France.

What’s the music like?

Rattle has long been an advocate of Webern’s Six Pieces and made a fine recording of it in his Birmingham days. This LSO account is notable for its scrupulous attention to dynamics and tonal shading, even if such fastidiousness minimizes any real spontaneity in this elusive music. A case in point is the rather effortful climax to the explosive second piece, while the ‘funeral march’ fourth lacks underlying momentum on the way to its powerful though hardly unnerving culmination. Elsewhere, this music’s subdued introspection is tellingly conveyed.

The Three Fragments which Berg drew from Wozzeck follows on naturally. Focussing on the character of Marie enabled the composer to bring together three of this opera’s highlights for concert use, and Barbara Hannigan brings a probing characterization to the lullaby from Act One then the bible-reading scene from Act Three. She captures the naivety of the child at the close of the third fragment, before which the LSO comes into its own in a powerful while not unduly vehement interlude prior to the final scene – Rattle steering them through unerringly.

Hannigan returns in rather different guise for Mysteries of the Macabre that Elgar Howarth arranged from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. This present-day staple of the coloratura repertoire lends itself to all manner of parody and if Hannigan’s juvenile delinquent might be felt inappropriate for a chief of secret police, her vocal contribution is uninhibited in its virtuosity. Rattle and his orchestra enter-into the music’s anarchic accordingly, the former’s joke at the expense of Nigel Farage seeming all too ironic in the light of subsequent events.

Rattle’s association with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring goes back to the outset of his career and hearing this account is a reminder of his prowess in music the LSO has itself played many times. Yet for all the consummate technical skill, there is a nagging sense of conductor and orchestra going through the motions to ultimately predictable effect (indeed, the performance from Peter Eötvös with the LSO later that season generated much more genuine excitement and sense of purpose). Easy to admire, there is little here to make one assess this work afresh.

Does it all work?

Absolutely in terms of a programme both cohesive and provocative. Things are more mixed in term of performances – with those of the Berg and (musically at least) the Ligeti as good as one is ever likely to hear, that of the Webern just a little too micro-managed overall and the Stravinsky a reminder that superb playing and expert conducting do not necessarily make for a gripping interpretation.

As an indication of Rattle’s association with the orchestra of which he subsequently became Music Director, there is much here that is enjoyable and engrossing

Is it recommended?

Yes, in terms of a concert to which one might wish to return on repeated occasions. Sound and vision leave little to be desired in either format, though post-production means that there is little sense of the orchestra performing in a tangible acoustic – Barbican Hall or otherwise.

For more information on this release, visit the LSO Live website

Benjamin Baker, Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson – Berg: Violin Concerto & Schmidt: Symphony no.4

Benjamin Baker (violin), Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson

St John’s, Smith Square, London; Monday 16 October 2017

Richard Strauss, arr. Rodziński Der Rosenkavalier – Suite (1945)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Schmidt Symphony No. 4 in C (1933)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Never an ensemble to shirk a challenge, the Salomon Orchestra’s current season continued tonight with what, aesthetically, was an almost perfectly balanced programme – and whose second half brought a timely revival (in the UK) of the Fourth Symphony by Franz Schmidt.

With its catalyst in the tragically unexpected death of his daughter, this work was consciously intended as an ‘in memoriam’ and this is reflected in a formal design as fuses the customary four movements into an unbroken continuity; expressively also in that salient themes return almost as memories being recollected. From which perspective this performance succeeded admirably – Holly Mathieson having the measure of an overall design as though akin to the ‘journey of a life’, whose ending is tangibly (thereby inevitably) anticipated in its beginning.

The exposition’s themes – the first as introspective as the second, with its Magyar overtones, surges forth – were judiciously contrasted, and if the development was a little too rhetorical, it evinced the right cumulative intensity leading into an Adagio whose anguished climax was set into relief by the inward eloquence on either side. A touch stolid rhythmically, the scherzo did not lack impetus as it headed – lemming-like – over its cliff of disaster; in the aftermath of which the reprise gradually re-established momentum as the work came resignedly full-circle.

Its unity within diversity aside, the Fourth Symphony is a stern test of orchestral skill such as the Salomon met head on. The strings evinced the burnished warmth necessary for this music, and while woodwind intonation was on occasion wanting, it did not undermine an orchestral texture through which brass emerged with the appropriate impact. The solo contributions were well taken, not least from trumpeter John Hackett and cellist Kate Valdar, and Mathieson can take considerable credit for her advocacy of a piece whose repertoire status is still not secure.

Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas

Before the interval, Berg’s Violin Concerto had provided the ideal complement. Similarly inspired by the premature death of a woman (in this instance the teenage Manon Gropius), it also focusses on that continuum between life and death, as well as the transfiguration which may result. Here again the four movements, divided into two parts, can be difficult to make cohesive and though Benjamin Baker (above) was not lacking consistency, his rather unvaried tone leading to an expressive uniformity as made this, ultimately, an interpretation in the making.

Mathieson, though, was attentive and always responsive in support. Beforehand, she presided over an enjoyable account of a suite arranged towards the end of the Second World War from Der Rosenkavalier. Probably undertaken by the conductor Artur Rodziński, it takes in several of the highlights from Richard Strauss’s sprawling comedy – rather as does Robert Russell Bennett’s ‘symphonic picture’ derived from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which likewise has the result of reducing the larger work to a succession of glib purple-patches devoid of any real context.

Rendered with aplomb, it was surely possible, even so, to find a more fitting concert-opener – Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta would have been ideal temporally and conceptually. That aside, this evening was a fine demonstration from the Salomon and auspicious occasion for Mathieson.

For more concert information from the Salomon Orchestra, head to their website

Franz Welser-Möst‘s pioneering recording of Schmidt’s Symphony no.4, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, can be heard on Spotify below: