Live review – April Fredrick, David Stout, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle

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April Fredrick (soprano, Judith), David Stout [baritone (Bluebeard) / speaker (Prologue)], English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Bartók arr. van Tuinen / Karcher-Young Bluebeard’s Castle (1911/12)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded June 16-17 2021 for online broadcast, premieres 13 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s season of online concerts drew to its close tonight with a performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the only opera by Bartók and seminal work on the cusp between the late-Romanticism and nascent Modernism from the early twentieth century.

While its libretto by Béla Balázs is susceptible to interpretation, that concerning the ultimate impossibility of meaningful human communication is surely the decisive factor for Bartók’s setting of what became his longest work and his most explicitly personal statement. Yet this emotional scope never results in a lack of formal cohesion or expressive focus, ensuring that the duo-drama unfolds both inevitably and inexorably towards a fateful denouement that – by no means coincidentally – brings the piece full circle in terms of its underlying introspection.

A piece, then, of epic sweep but whose climactic moments only rarely dominate music that is (surprisingly?) well suited to reduction of a kind undertaken here by Christopher van Tuinen and revised by Michael Karcher-Young. The 25-strong ESO copes ably with those undulating contrasts in mood and texture that underpin the traversal of the protagonists through the castle and its environs, through to a culmination whose outcome feels no less tragic for having been ordained almost from the outset – a fable of disillusion whose impact comes across unscathed.

Of course, such considerations are relative to the success of the two singers in conveying the range of their respective roles. Whether or not she had previously sung that of Judith, April Fredrick has its full measure as she moves from confidence, via wariness and imploration, to reluctant acceptance of the part she must play in the completion of a journey that other wives have undergone before her. Rendered with vibrancy but no lack of finesse, this is a perceptive assumption, and one which Fredrick will hopefully be able to repeat on stage before too long.

Not that David Stout is necessarily upstaged in his portrayal of Bluebeard – emerging here as no misogynist, still less a murderer, than a conflicted figure whose avowals of love can never outweigh those inherent failings of self that have led to his repeating the same pattern of loss as before. Having previously taken on the spoken Prologue with thoughtful anticipation, Stout projects the role with no mean impetus as well as a keen eloquence that comes to the fore in those fateful later episodes when the sixth and seventh doors have almost to be prized open.

Otherwise, the ESO plays to its customary high standards throughout a score which, if never as radical as works of this period by Schoenberg or Stravinsky, remains a testing assignment with the integration of overtly expressionist tendencies into music of a Straussian opulence. This reduction loses little in either respect, due notably to a piano part as achieves more than textural filling-in then a harmonium part adding substance and atmosphere in equal measure. Kenneth Woods paces these 65 minutes with an acute sense of where the drama is headed.

Indeed, the only real proviso is the end-credits being accompanying by music from earlier in the opera. Surely it would be possible to have silence for the one minute it takes for these to ‘roll’? Otherwise, this is an excellent conclusion to a worthwhile season of online concerts.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For further information on future English Symphony Orchestra concerts, click here. ‘Fiddles, Forests and Fowl Fables’ is now available from the English Symphony Orchestra Website.

Live review – April Fredrick, Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Inspired by Mahler

April Fredrick (soprano, above), Zoë Beyers (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler (arr. Stein) Das irdische Leben (1892/1900)
Weinberg Concertino for Violin and Strings, Op. 42 (1948)
Schulhoff Suite for Chamber Orchestra, Op. 37 (1921)
Ullmann (arr. Woods) Chamber Symphony op 46a (1943/1999)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded in 2020 for online broadcast, Wednesday 27 January 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Holocaust Memorial Day is a timely opportunity to hear music anticipatory of, inspired by or stemming from events that have defaced human history on all too many occasions, and which provided the basis for this latest online concert from the English Symphony Orchestra.

The underlying tone for this programme was set by Mahler, with one of his settings of texts from the folk collection Des knaben Wunderhorn. In pivoting between the child’s supplication and his mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of the composer’s most evocative songs – not least its portrayal of the child’s existence running out as though this were grains of sand. April Fredrick accordingly invested the vocal part with just the right combination of ominous dread and lingering pathos.

ESO leader Zoë Beyers then took centre-stage for Weinberg‘s Violin Concertino, the product of late-1940s Soviet culture when accessibility was not just desired but prescribed. Modest in expressive scope next to those chamber works that preceded it, this work is highly appealing – not least in the deftness and subtlety with which the composer unfolds his ideas across an ingratiating Allegretto, ruminative Adagio (whose cadenza-like introduction brings the most arresting music in the whole work), then a final Allegro whose thematic interplay is nothing if not resourceful. Beyers rendered it with unfailing eloquence, making it clear just why this attractive piece – which had to wait almost half a century for a first public hearing – should now have established itself among the most often performed of Weinberg’s orchestral works.

In telling contrast, Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra was a pert reminder of the composer’s usage of jazz as part of a lifelong and tragically curtailed stylistic odyssey. While the faster numbers recall the wit of Poulenc’s earlier chamber music and irony of Stravinsky’s suites for theatre orchestra, the Valse Boston (its soulful violin solos hauntingly rendered by David Juritz) and Tango admit of a searching introspection to the fore in those works from Schulhoff’s last years. Qualities which are pointedly side-lined by the uproarious final Jazz.

The final work provided the culmination in every respect. Written during internment at the transit camp of Terezin (aka Theresienstadt), the Third String Quartet is Viktor Ullmann’s likely instrumental masterpiece – in terms both of its formal unity and expressive diversity – and whose transcription onto the larger canvas has been persuasively achieved by Kenneth Woods. Chamber Symphony makes a not inappropriate title, this single span drawing the contrasted movements into a seamless and finely-balanced whole – the initial theme acting as a soulful refrain between the angular scherzo with its waltz-like undertow then, after the terse development, a fugal Largo whose accrued intensity carries over into the final Rondo with its striving towards a fervent restatement of the ultimately transfigured ‘motto’ theme’.

An imposing work, given a committed reading by this orchestra under its arranger in what was an appropriate tribute for the day. The ESO’s online series is scheduled to continue on the 26th of February, with a portrait concert of the American composer Steven R. Gerber.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 7.30pm on Wednesday 27 January 2021 here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

In concert – April Fredrick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Visions of Childhood – Following Mahler on the path to eternity

April Fredrick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler arr. Stein Symphony no.4 in G major (1900) – Opening
Wagner arr. Woods Siegfried Idyll (1870)
Humperdinck arr. Woods Hänsel und Gretel (1892) – Der Kleine Sandmann; Abendsegen.
Schubert arr. Woods Die Forelle – Lied and Variations, D550/D667 (1817/19)
Mahler arr. Woods Das Irdische Leben (1892)
Schubert arr. Woods Der Tod und das Mädchen – Variations & Lied, D531/D810 (1817/24)
Mahler arr. Stein Das Himmlische Leben (1892/1900)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 16 October (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone online series continued this evening with an ingenious programme centred on Childhood, as depicted in music from the latter 19th century, and featuring chamber arrangements by the orchestra’s principal conductor Kenneth Woods.

The initial bars of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, heard in the now relatively familiar reduction by Erwin Stein, led seamlessly into Siegfried Idyll – here arranged for identical forces and so affording even greater prominence to Wagner’s felicitous writing for woodwind. In this never rushed account, Woods underlined the methodical aspect of music whose birthday association and ethereal aura rather bely its formal ingenuity. There were no qualms over instrumentation, even if the trumpet’s timely presence might have made the ecstatic climax seem even more so.

April Fredrick (whose impressive account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs in the first of these concerts is required listening) then took the stage for a medley drawn from the second act of Humperdinck’s timeless Hänsel und Gretel, trebling up as the Sandman and then both main characters in a reminder that the enchanting essence of this opera is seldom without its more ambivalent, even ominous undertones in the treatment of childhood. Moreover, this chamber reduction brought an intimacy that more closely aligned the music to its origins as a singspiel.

Of especial interest were two Schubert pieces – hardly unfamiliar in themselves, here given an unexpected while revealing guise. In the case of The Trout, this entailed interweaving the verses of the song with those variations of the fourth movement from the later piano quintet so as to make more explicit the constantly shifting emotions across what is often considered one of this composer’s most equable settings. A different procedure was adopted for Death and the Maiden, in which the slow movement of Schubert’s eponymous string quartet – its intensifying variations characterized by appealing woodwind contributions – were followed by the earlier song, heralded by the hieratic strains of harmonium, and whose mingling of anguish with resignation threw the variations’ emotional trajectory into more acute relief.

Following each of these items were songs by Mahler, the natural successor to Schubert in so many aspects of his music – not least these settings of texts from Des knaben Wunderhorn. In its pivoting between the child’s supplications and the mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of this composer’s most evocative songs – albeit of the child’s existence running out as though grains of sand. By contrast, The Heavenly Life speaks of a child’s paradisal existence in the afterlife and if Mahler’s treatment is a good deal more complex than the words might suggest (the singer’s assessment of this on the ESO website is worth hearing), Fredrick’s judicious floating of the vocal line was integrated with Wood’s astute handling of the ensemble to good effect.

Hearing the latter piece in Stein’s reduction as finale of the Fourth Symphony served equally to bring this well-planned and thought-provoking programme full circle; one that is required listening for those yet to hear it, and with the next concert in this series keenly anticipated.

This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here

 

In concert – April Fredrick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods perform Richard Strauss

April Fredrick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 18 September (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The continued difficulties in mounting live concerts with an audience has led to any number of virtual and online presentations, of which the English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone is among the most imaginative. As organized and curated by Kenneth Woods, the ESO’s redoubtable music director (below), this promises a fresh perspective on various (often if not always) familiar pieces – performed in chamber reductions which respect the need for social distancing and illuminate aspects of the music not always evident in its more familiar guise.

Such was made manifest in the present account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, as heard in the transcription by James Ledger made for Felicity Lott’s farewell concert at the Wigmore Hall seven years ago and whose large ensemble emphasizes the wistful eloquence of these songs without undue enervation. It helped that April Fredrick was at one with Ledger’s conception and Woods’s realization, whether in the lithe ardency of Frühling or the eddying rumination of September – this latter a candidate for the most perfectly realized of all Strauss’s songs.

The rapturous emotion of Beim Schlafengehen can verge on the cloying, but there was no risk of that here as Fredrick imbued this setting of Hermann Hesse with a plangent emotion such as most renditions gloss over, complemented by Zoë Beyers’ unaffected handling of its violin solo. Joseph von Eichendorff‘s Im Abendrot was hardly less impressive, the expressive trajectory seamlessly sustained from impassioned opening to hushed close with its valedictory allusions to Strauss and Mahler – over which Fredrick’s vocal hovered with mesmeric poise.

A chamber reduction by Tony Burke of Morgen! – Strauss’s setting of John Henry Mackay – for similar forces made for an unexpected if welcome encore. Here too it was the purity and understatement of Fredrick’s approach that most readily compelled, in the process drawing this relatively early song into the emotional orbit of those written over half-a-century later. A fine ending to this first instalment of what promises to be a rewarding series, and one which looks set to reaffirm the significance of the ESO within the context of British music-making.

This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here