In concert – Jennifer Johnston, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko – The Divine Poem

Jennifer Johnston (soprano, above), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (below)

Deutsch Phantasma (2022) [RLPO co-commission: UK premiere]
Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1884-5)
Scriabin Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.43 ‘The Divine Poem’ (1902-4)

Philharmonic Hall, London
Thursday 4 May 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

He may now be the orchestra’s conductor laureate, but the 15-year partnership between Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was always tangible in this evening’s concert – its refreshingly different programme summoning the best from both orchestra and conductor.

Co-commissioning music by Bernd Richard Deutsch was an astute move – the Vienna-based composer now in his mid-40s and among the leading composers of his generation. Taking its cue from the Beethoven Frieze which Gustav Klimt devised for the 14th Vienna Secessionist Exhibition in 1902, this 15-minute piece takes a pointedly dialectical route as it evolves from the fractured uncertainty of yearning and suffering, via the cumulative intensity of a struggle against hostile forces, to the attainment of happiness through poetic creation. To what degree this might be a commentary on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (as embodied in the three parts of Klimt’s opus) is uncertain, but the motivic ingenuity and orchestral virtuosity of Deutsch’s response can hardly be doubted – not least in a performance as assured and committed as this.

If the indisposition of Adela Zaharia meant the regrettable omission of Strauss’s rarely heard Brentano-Lieder from tonight’s concert (though Petrenko has scheduled them with the Royal Philharmonic next season), hearing Jennifer Johnston in Mahler’s Gesellen-Lieder was by no means a hardship. The four songs, to the composer’s own texts, comprise an overview of his preoccupations (creative and otherwise) in his mid-20s with numerous anticipations of what became his First Symphony. Outlining a delicate interplay of pensiveness and wistfulness in the initial song, Johnston was no less attentive to its successor’s mingling of innocence with experience, and if the surging histrionics of the third song bordered on the melodramatic, the fatalistic procession of the final number felt the more affecting for its restrained eloquence.

Petrenko (above) set down a highly regarded cycle of Scriabin Symphonies over his tenure with the Oslo Philharmonic, and if the RLPO lacked any of that orchestra’s fastidious poise, the sheer verve and energy of its playing more then compensated. Not least in an opening movement whose unfolding can seem longer on ambition than attainment, but which was held together with unforced conviction – the most often prolix development duly emerging with a tautness to make it more than usually emblematic of this work’s metaphysical Struggles as a whole.

Outwardly more compact, the remaining movements require astute and cumulative handling such as these received here. The alternately enchanting and ominous Delights melded into an enfolding yet never amorphous entity, out of which the more animated motion of Divine Play gradually brought together earlier ideas on its way to an apotheosis whose amalgam of the work’s principal themes yielded grandiloquence without undue bathos. Scriabin’s cosmic aspirations thereby seemed the more ‘real’ for being the expression of purely musical forces. An expanded RLPO (its nine horns arrayed across the upper tier of the platform) was heard to advantage in the ambience of Philharmonic Hall, contributions by trumpeter Richard Cowen and leader Thelma Handy enhancing what was an authoritative and memorable performance.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra website. Click on the artist names for more on Jennifer Johnston and conductor Vasily Petrenko, and for more on composer Bernd Richard Deutsch – who also has a dedicated page at his publisher Boosey

On Record – Orion Weiss: Arc 1: Granados, Janáček & Scriabin (First Hand Records)

Granados Goyescas Op.11 (1911)
Janáček In the Mists (1912)
Scriabin Piano Sonata no.9 in F major Op.68, ‘Black Mass’ (1913)

Orion Weiss (piano)

First Hand Records FHR127 [74’51”]
Producer David Frost; Engineer Silas Brown
Recorded 22-24 May 2014 at SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center, New York

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records issues the first instalment of another planned trilogy (see also The Future is Female with Sarah Cahill), the Arc series being a traversal by Orion Weiss across a century of piano music with intermittent forays into conceptually related pieces by earlier composers.

What’s the music like?

Focussing on music from before the First World War, this first volume is dominated (at least in terms of length) by Goyescas – the cycle of piano evocations in which Granados both paid homage to the illustrious Spanish artist, while extending the potential for large-scale formal design associated primarily with Liszt. That the composer subsequently transformed this into a one-act opera says much for the original’s motivic interconnections, such as Weiss further emphasizes throughout an interpretation in which characterization and cohesion are as one.

The listener is guided from teasing melodic interplay in Flattery, via the (mostly) confiding intimacy of Conversation at the Window then encroaching fear of separation in Fandango by Candlelight and its pained experiencing in Laments, or The Maiden and the Nightingale. A tragic climax arrives in the ballade Love and Death; after which, Serenade of the Ghost offers an ironic epilogue. Weiss renders this methodical yet visceral sequence with no mean insight, drawing out that pathos seldom far beneath the surface of Granados’s mature music.

If the Spanish composer was realizing his vision despite – or even because of – his success as composer and performer, In the Mists finds Janáček combating those vicissitudes of personal and professional failure. Hence the tonally and expressively oblique nature of its initial three sections, such as Weiss articulates with notable emphasis on their volatile mood-swings and frequent welling-up of emotion. All of this is duly thrown into relief by the final Presto with its gradual yet, as here, inexorable tendency towards ultimate fragmentation and dissolution.

Much has been written over the past century about those occult and even satanic connotations of Scriabin’s Ninth Sonata, whose Black Mass subtitle was only added after the event and at the prompting of another. Once again, it is the harnessing of such fluid and increasingly violent expression to a formal follow-through as precise as it is fastidious which gives this music its uniqueness. Weiss ensures an audibly cumulative build-up that, in the closing stages, achieves a claustrophobic intensity which could be considered liberating or annihilating as one prefers.

Does it all work?

Yes. Although it is not hard to locate alternative recordings for each of these pieces of at least comparable value, their juxtaposition within this context makes for a programme absorbing in its overt contrasts yet satisfying in its overall cohesion. Whether or not Weiss has performed this in recital, the trajectory towards an even greater self-absorption and inward intensity feels as inescapable as the presentiments of world conflict which lie behind much of what is heard here. Future volumes will doubtless offer a changing perspective and maybe a ‘way forward’.

Is it recommended?

It is. The sound has a lucidity and detail ideal for piano music from this period, with Weiss’s annotations succinct but also pertinent to his interpretations. This series is a notable addition to his extensive discography, further information about which can be accessed at his website.


For further information on this release, head to the First Hand Records website, and for more information on Orion Weiss, head to his website

Scriabin at 150

Today marks 150 years since the birth of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, one of the most colourful characters in 20th century music – and one of the most original thinkers too.

A lot of that thinking went beyond his music to embrace the universe itself, culminating in the unfinished Mysterium project. This hugely ambitious concept was to be performed in the Himalayas and followed by the end of the world.

That gives an indication of the scope of the composer’s thinking, and you can trace that in his music too, which moves from Chopin-influenced piano works to increasingly complex and dense music, notable for its rich harmony and unusual rhythms. As Scriabin’s music progressed so did his fascination with colour and in particular synaesthesia, which became a primary stimulation for him in his writing.

Arcana intends to look at his work in more detail this year, particularly the ten piano sonatas which stand as a fascinating and innovative cycle of work. For now, though, you can enjoy Prometheus: The Poem Of Fire. Depending on your viewpoint, this tone poem, set in the composer’s favourite key of F sharp major, could be Scriabin’s Symphony no.5, or a second piano concerto. Either way it is an exotic, unbroken piece of music lasting nearly 25 minutes, rich in colour and certainly rewarding repeated listening!

In February 2010 Anna Gawboy, a Scriabin scholar and doctoral candidate at the Yale School of Music, attempted to realize the composer’s ultimate wish of a colour keyboard which would perform the work. She worked towards this with conductor Toshiyuki Shimada, the Yale Symphony Orchestra and the lighting designer Justin Townsend.

You can watch the lead-up to the concert and the performance itself on the documentary below:

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:

On record: David Gordon Trio – Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band (Mister Sam Records)


Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Alexander Scriabin died in Moscow at Easter 1915 – unaware that, over the Atlantic, Israel Baline (Irving Berlin) had hit pay-dirt with Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The David Gordon Trio here ventures into that potent realm in which ‘musics’ meet in place as so often in time.

What’s the music like?

Praeludium Mysterium evokes Scriabin’s unrealized Himalayan extravaganza in pensive yet probing terms. Integrating his ‘mystic chord’ within the harmonic trajectory of Berlin’s hit in Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band would have given both pause for thought, and Scriabin would surely have been disconcerted by transforming a prelude he never played in public into the incisive modality of Scriabin’s Depressed.

Light relief comes with the Debussian high-jinx of Cakewalk, then the engaging Prelude for Both Hands suggests  Scriabin could profitably have deployed jazz and dance idioms. Famous Etude unashamedly transforms his most famous piece into a rumba, with Antonio María Romeu’s danzón Tres Lindas Cubanas a trailblazing number that was hardly less influential on both its listening and dancing public.

Onward to the bluesy sequences of Nuances that suggest Bill Evans as a future acolyte, then the tensile Choro Mazurka gives a Brazilian twist to this most favoured dance of Scriabin’s output. Francisco Canaro’s tango El Pollito vividly overcomes the musical distance between Moscow and Buenos Aires, with the ethereal Rootless Sonata delving further into a putative Scriabin/Evans union.

Comparable possibilities are pursued with the hard-bopping rhythms of Improbable Hip, followed by the limpid piano study that is Pixinguinha’s Passínha and which opened-up the potential of choro music for non-Brazilian audiences. The programme closes with the diffusion of a mazurka into the caressing harmonies of River, most notable for those myriad timbral shades of which the synatheist Scriabin would surely have approved.

Does it all work?

Yes, because the David Gordon Trio is unafraid to stick out its collective neck in pursuit of a singular fusion. Hopefully it will further investigate the bringing together of artists diverse in aim yet kindred in spirit: maybe a Boulez/Bowie synthesis as a fitting double ‘in memoriam’?

Is it recommended?

Absolutely, as those who missed the trio’s memorable recent gig at London’s 606 Club can judge for themselves. Check out the David Gordon Trio website and also Mister Sam Records for previous releases from this thought-provoking jazz outfit.

Listen on Spotify