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:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Sam Hogwood on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra playing Schumann, Berg & Brahms

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series it’s a family interview, with Sam Hogwood (niece of the editor, above!) giving her verdict on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s varied Prom.

Prom 40: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Robin Ticciati

Brahms Tragic Overture Op.81 (1880)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Thomas Larcher Nocturne – Insomnia (first UK performance) (2008)

Schumann Symphony no.3 in E flat major Op.97, ‘Rhenish’ (1850)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Sam, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

I guess I was privileged in the fact that I got to learn the flute. My earliest memories of music are dancing to my dad’s dance music, and then the radio – the top 40 and dance music with the odd rogue track thrown in – my first record that I ever bought was Donald, Where’s Your Trousers?! I remember buying that and being really pleased with myself! I also remember listening to Peter and the Wolf on my dad’s record player, and there were a few more classical pieces. There was one, a scary story that came with a book – Cranston Thorndike & The Dragon, by Terry Loughlin. We used to have that and play it quite a bit.

With people playing instruments it was you (me playing the cello – ed!) and also my aunt, Clare – I idolized her playing the flute so thought I should do that. When my brother Daniel was doing keyboards, and it turned out she was doing flute my mum and dad got me lessons. So it was a rich and varied upbringing!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

It’s tricky, I’m terrible with favourites! I would say the Foo Fighters, because of the energy they bring on to the stage. I think it’s the way Dave Grohl commands the crowd, no matter how many times you’ve seen them and wherever you’ve seen them it’s always immense.

I think Arcade Fire too, the first time I saw them was at Reading. To see how many of them there were on stage, and the variety of instruments they had – one of them would just suddenly whip out the hurdy gurdy! The fact a few of them would play three or four instruments, and go between them in songs – not even between songs – that’s just mad.

The third one would be The Killers I think. I’ve seen them quite a few times, and again it’s just a great show – because Brandon Flowers is such a great front man. He commands such energy, and demands it back from the crowd at the same time. It’s not just the band, he’s a show man.

How would your experience of the Proms compare with the live music you’ve seen?

I would say it’s more thought provoking, because of the silence. Even though you’ve got the music, there is an incredible amount of silence, whereas I would say that in concerts that aren’t classical there is such a din because of the crowd. That means you’re not necessarily appreciating the musicianship, whereas at the Proms, because there is such a silence, you’d pick up a wrong note or something out of time. There is a lot more pressure on it, and it commands a lot more with the lows and the highs, and it really gets you. There is also the element of deciphering the elements, whereas with pop concerts you are listening more as a whole.

What did you think of the first piece, the Brahms Tragic Overture?

I really enjoyed that. I think for some reason I hadn’t thought before how complementary the wind section is to the strings, and there were points where they were hitting the same notes where I couldn’t tell if it was the violins or the winds. They hit that same point, and then they separate so you can really hear the flutes, and their pitch. Something else I hadn’t really appreciated was with the vast number of strings, and how two flutes commanded as much impact with their melodies.

What did you think of the Berg Violin Concerto?

I enjoyed it. I thought it was interesting. I don’t know a lot about the orchestras, but I assumed the lead violinist, watching him – you could see why he needed to stand up, for space to express himself with the music. It was interesting, how it’s called a Violin Concerto but all the other instruments played throughout as well.

And what did you think of the new Thomas Larcher piece, Insomnia-Nocturne?

I thought about the idea of seeing colours in music that we talked about in the interval, but I thought for me it’s definitely emotion when I listen to music. I definitely thought in this piece a lot of it was very dark and anxious. It made you feel concerned, and it was heavy to the point that when it reached a dream state it was really quite a relief! When it’s that intense, linking back to film, you know why they use certain music in film. If you were to watch a horror film stripped of its music you wouldn’t think too much of it, but it’s the way the music is used that really gets you!

What was your verdict on the Schumann, after that?

It was lovely, and I’m really pleased they finished with that! It was like a magical fairy tale, and then the fourth section got quite dark and dangerous, and then it lightened off again. I thought some of the writing in the book, about the composer and their lives, was entertaining, but then it makes sense later on with what it said about Schumann.

Did you find the notes helpful, reading about the composer while the music is being played?

It’s interesting to read about the origins of the music, but I think it’s a side bit of information because with music you feel your own thing anyway. In the second piece, with the undercurrent about his mistress – you could put that out there but it’s like art, with a brush stroke on a page. The background to it almost becomes irrelevant to the art piece itself. You look at some art works and it tells you how evocative it is, but you look at it and think, ‘I’m not really getting that’ You see it for what it is. I went in the Tate Modern last month and saw the new exhibits, with fire bricks and spirit levels. I’m all for appreciating art but there are some pieces I don’t get, and even as an installation piece I don’t see what you’re telling me!

Thinking of the Proms, was there anything you particularly enjoyed?

The atmosphere; getting to appreciate classical music in a silent state. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room with so many other people who have been quiet for such a long period of time for a specific reason. With everything else it’s like the more noise the better, everything gets turned up, but with this if you even cough people stare at you. The musicians are that well skilled that some of the music they play is so soft, and if you’re not silent you’re not going to hear it. Having listened to classical music on the radio and now in a room it was very different.

If you could change anything about the Proms, what would you do?

I’d have the performers sat on the back tiers. When we came to see Bring Me The Horizon with an orchestra here, they were sat on the back three tiers, up quite high. Even if you were on the floor you could see them, whereas this time you could only see them if you were on a level above. I appreciate some people have just come to listen and are not so bothered about the visual aspect, but from a technical point of view I would definitely prefer to see them, it gives the music that bit more.

Would you go to the Proms again?

Definitely!

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – Christian Tetzlaff, Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Robin Ticciati: Brahms, Berg, Thomas Larcher & Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony

Prom 40: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Robin Ticciati

Brahms Tragic Overture Op.81 (1880)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Thomas Larcher Nocturne – Insomnia (first UK performance) (2008)

Schumann Symphony no.3 in E flat major Op.97, ‘Rhenish’ (1850)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are one of the UK’s finest ensembles, and they proved their worth once again with outgoing chief conductor Robin Ticciati leading a fine Prom tracing a course from darkness to light.

Brahms’s Tragic Overture is one of the composer’s deepest orchestral statements, and Ticciati was determined to present its steely side. Often the strings were without vibrato, the lean sound complemented by raucous horns and open textures in the woodwind. Lower strings growled ominously, and only the softer woodwind passages offered occasional respite in their beautifully choreographed choir.

Berg’s Violin Concerto contains music of similarly ominous qualities, in this case uncannily heralding the composer’s final year despite its dedication elsewhere. Though the violin begins with elegiac tones it has a broad emotional range, and Christian Tetzlaff (above) rose magnificently to the occasion, finding Berg’s many and varied colours but crucially balancing them with the excellent orchestral contributions.

The coded messages Berg inserts into the music were on occasion stripped bare, and the anger at the heart of the second movement was almost completely unconcealed. Its crowning moment lies in quiet simplicity, however, and when the quotation of Bach’s chorale Es Is Genug arrived on clarinets the mellow tones were deeply moving. Capping the concerto with his rise to a high ‘G’ at the end, Tetzlaff held the note at a barely audible volume so that it sounded like one last breath in his ascent to another world.

As the evening progressed the darkness drew in ever more closely for Thomas Larcher’s Insomnia Nocturne, an orchestral piece receiving its first UK performance. Written for a relatively small orchestra of eighteen, it was an uncomfortably accurate portrayal of sleep’s refusal to take hold, with a high pitched glockenspiel tone becoming particularly tiresome. Sitting in the background, its tone made an uncomfortable backdrop for the increasingly fractious instrumental activity in front, which finally subsided into a fitful slumber, the sort where it is already too late in the night to be rescued. The piece began with promising tonal material, but in a manner akin to insomnia this was rendered much less appealing by the end.

Thankfully Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony was on hand to pierce the darkness with music of unrestrained joy. The opening surge is one of the happiest in all classical music, and like the river on which it is based it takes everything with it downstream. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra were superb, the lofty horns enhancing the open-air sound while the woodwind worked together in beautifully shaded colours, as did the strings with more vibrato this time.

If anything the second movement Ländler was even better, flowing forward with purpose and charm, while the Intermezzo following also had a softer heart. The mood became solemn for Schumann’s powerful evocation of Cologne Cathedral in the fourth movement, the symphony turning inwards with self-doubt and contemplation, but from this the finale emerged with resolve and conviction.

A strong Prom, then, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra giving us something old (Brahms and Schumann), something new (Larcher), something borrowed in the Berg and something blue in the mood that ran throughout. Thankfully the shade of this particular blue changed from deep and dark at the outset to a bright and breezy azure by the end.

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Sam Hogwood will give her verdict on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Prom. Coming shortly!

Live: Jörg Widmann & Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

jorg_widmann_clarinet_040_c_marco_borggreve_crop

Jörg Widmann (clarinet, above – photo by Marco Borggreve) & Mitsuko Uchida (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Tuesday 31st January, 2017

Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 (1894)

Berg 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 5 (1913)

Widmann Fantasie for solo clarinet (1993)

Schubert Impromptu in C minor D899/1 (1827)

Widmann Sonatina facile (2016, UK première)

Schumann 3 Fantasiestücke Op.73 (1849)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The sound made by the clarinet is surely one of the most beautiful in classical music.

Yet, as Jörg Widmann reminded a packed Wigmore Hall when playing his Fantasie for solo clarinet, the instrument’s qualities extend far and wide. Widmann explored multiphonics – playing more than one note at once – and also used the clarinet to evoke a lilting Alpine dance, some outrageous Gershwin-style slides and baleful, shy asides as though he was the only performer in the room.

Widmann has been chosen as the Wigmore Hall’s Composer in Residence for 2017-18. It is a chance to appreciate his versatility, for clarinet pieces are one side of a substantial catalogue. He has written for solo piano, but although Mitsuko Uchida’s UK premiere performance of the Sonata facile was superbly characterised, it was not as successful musically. Widmann takes Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K545, as a starting point, but he effectively screws up the pages of the work, distorting and fragmenting so that they did not quite add up to a meaningful whole.

mitsuko-uchida-240815Far more purposeful was Uchida’s performance of Schubert’s first published Impromptu, where we explored the composer’s very heart through an interpretation that had the hall on the edge of their seats. The repetitive march theme was darkly coloured, but the transition from minor key to major brought brilliant shafts of light under Uchida’s quick fingers.

When the two musicians played together the results were electric. In spite of a mobile phone that rang for more than a minute, and a hearing aid that shrilled in close proximity to the pitch of Widmann’s clarinet, their Brahms was beautifully poised. The Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 is a late, nocturnal treasure, its tension giving way to an autumnal glow in exchanges between the instruments that behave as though they are old friends. This performance caught that intimacy, especially in the slow movement, and enjoyed the dance of the finale with a spring in its step.

Schumann’s 3 Fantasiestücke faired similarly, closing the program wreathed in smiles, despite the occasional furrowed brow in the first piece. Here the interaction was again on the most intimate of scales, Widmann’s control exquisite in the slower music and matched by Uchida’s voicing of the individual parts.

Even better was the duo’s performance of Berg’s 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, a relatively early publication from 1913 that explores the outer limits of tonality. The mysterious second piece had an extraordinary inner tension, fully released in a flurry of notes, while the last piece, also slow, hung on the air for an age.

Widmann’s control here was almost superhuman, and although he admitted to being out of breath after the Schumann, he and Uchida gave a substantial encore by the 14-year old Mendelssohn. The graceful second movement from his Clarinet Sonata sounded like the work of a much older man, and was lovingly played.

Steven Kovacevich at 75 – Berg and Schubert

Steven Kovacevich celebrates his upcoming 75th birthday with sonatas by Berg and Schubert at the Wigmore Hall

stephen-kovacevich

Steven Kovacevich (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 13 July 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b061fqzz

on the iPlayer until 12 August

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert. Steven Kovacevich has recorded the Schubert but it does not appear to be available on Spotify, so is included here in a leading recording by Maurizio Pollini. The Berg, which he has not recorded, is performed by Mitsuko Uchida:

What’s the music?

Berg: Piano Sonata, Op.1 (1908) (10 minutes)

Schubert: Piano Sonata in A major, published as D959 (1828) (37 minutes)

What about the music?

Steven Kovacevich describes the Berg Piano Sonata as music ‘drawn toward the distant future but still tied to the immediate past’. When he finished the first movement of what he thought would be a larger work in 1908, his teacher and mentor Schoenberg encouraged him that if he had said all he needed to say musically, there was no need to carry on. It is a landmark piece as music begins to break with conventional tonality.

While the 22-year old Berg was starting out, the 30-year old Schubert was signing off. Aware that he had not long to live, the gravely ill composer completed a trio of three massive piano sonatas, some of the biggest works ever written for the instrument and still to this day some of the most remarkable music you can hear on the piano. The second of the three in A major is a remarkable piece, contrasting passages of serenity and acceptance with sudden outbursts of temper – as in the second movement, initially slow but unable to contain itself fully. These are pieces that keep on giving in their remarkable construction and memorable melodies.

Performance verdict

The insights Steven Kovacevich has given into piano music over the last 50 years cannot be underestimated, and the sheer weight of experience he brings with him is the result of a lifetime spent performing at the very highest level.

It is this experience that shines through, especially in a reading of the Schubert sonata that is not without its problems. I would have to digress for a moment and ask if there are many 75-year olds who could play such a piece without a score, and think there are very few. Small wonder, then, that Kovacevich has what seems to be a memory lapse in the final movement, and there are a number of minor slips elsewhere. These are still very much worth persevering with because his portrayal of the unfolding drama in the Schubert is special indeed – and in the second movement in any case it is as though Schubert writes in a lot of ‘wrong’ notes.

What should I listen out for?

Berg

2:00 – one of the most intriguing beginnings to a composer’s published output is surely the quizzical opening notes of the Berg sonata, which end up in its supposed ‘home key’ of B minor, but only by asking far more questions than they answer. There is an immediate impression of a new world forming, and the harmonic outlook is constantly changing in music of great density.

The opening theme, however – the first three notes, at least – is distinctive enough to be felt in the development it receives afterwards. The music builds to a weighty climax at 7:51, then scales the heights at 10:42. Berg writes in a single paragraph, the music subsiding to the quiet, thoughtful finish.

Schubert

14:30 – the opening of the sonata is thoroughly positive, a call to arms – though Stephen Kovacevich is slightly understated in this performance. There is a serenity and intimacy that sets the tone for much of the piece.

15:57 – Schubert’s second theme, a lovely moment of introspection but also restfulness. Barely a minute later however there is a lot more audible strife, and things become fraught – until the return of this second theme at 17:41. A crunching chord at 18:07 prepares us for…

18:15 – Kovacevich repeats the movement so far (18:11) as instructed by Schubert. This helps balance the structure of the whole first movement.

23:53 – a return to the material that dominated the opening exchanges – and then, after a protracted and angst-ridden piece, the second theme and a peaceful close at 28:40.

28:54 – the slow movement begins. As with Beethoven, time seems to stand still in Schubert’s late sonatas, and his thoughts are almost of another world. The music here is very subdued but not by any means hopeless.

31:01 – the right hand seems to develop a mind of its own, becoming faster and faster. In response the music moves to distant and rather twisted harmonies – as Kovacevich notes, sounding a prophetic note towards the music of Liszt here. Feelings of anger and frustration come to the boil. The music collapses in something of a heap, exhausted at the end.

35:07 – the Scherzo, a piece of music that sounds like a feather being blown around by the wind. The detached delivery from Kovacevich’s right hand is subtly mischievous.

37:14 – the contrasting trio section begins, but is a short diversion from the main theme itself, which returns again in humour at 38:24.

39:28 – Kovacevich runs straight into the fluid finale but stops himself at 41:12. Then he picks up again at 41:26. To listen to this movement in full it is recommended to forward to…

51:16 – where after applause Kovacevich very graciously gives a re-run of the finale. Listening carefully to the full theme, there is a similarity between this and Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ theme from the Choral Symphony. It is in the main beautifully played, with a magical moment at 57:01 when we hear the theme in F sharp major, a fair way from home! At 1:01:12, however, Schubert arrives at his destination.

Further listening

A natural port of call from the Berg Piano Sonata is Schoenberg’s early piano works, which also dice with removing tonality altogether. These are the quite substantial Three Piano Pieces of 1909 and the tiny sketches that make up the Six Little Piano Pieces. Then to complement the Schubert we have the small but perfectly formed late Allegretto in C minor and three more beefy piano pieces from the last year of the composer’s life, written in a similar vein to the famous Impromptus. Here they are, all played by Maurizio Pollini and tagged on to the end of the concert playlist:

For more concerts click here