In concert – Do we need a new compass? / Anna Dennis & BCMG NEXT @ CBSO Centre, Birmingham

compass

Schoenberg Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912)

Anna Dennis (soprano), BCMG NEXT (Rebecca Speller (flute), Heather Ryall (clarinet), Claudia Dehnke (violin), Cameron Howe (viola) Carwyn Jones (cello), Joe Howson (piano) / Leo Geyer (conductor)

Querfurth cold pastoral (2021) [UK Premiere]
Ghisi
 Black Rain (2021) [UK Premiere]

Anna Dennis (soprano), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (Robert Looman (flute), Nicholas Cox (clarinet), Kate Suthers (violin), Ulrich Heinen (cello), Goerge Barton (percussion), John Reid (piano) / Gabriella Teychenné

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Thursday 17 March 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has been involved in various cross-national projects over its 35 years, with Do we need a new compass? one of the most ambitious: three concerts in three countries by three ensembles, with BCMG joining Bologna’s FontanaMix Ensemble and Hannover’s Das Neue Ensemble in commissioning two composers to write for one of the other ensembles. This last of three concerts featured two UK premieres next to a piece whose influence, conceptually and musically, has been far-reaching in the 120 years of its existence.

Whether through its eliding between cabaret and art-song, or its scoring for mixed ensemble, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire still blazes a trail. This performance duly played to the virtues of these ‘three times seven poems’ – Anna Dennis teasing a deft elegance from ‘Moondrunk’ and forlorn yearning from ‘A Pallid Washerwoman’, her rapt intertwining with flute in ‘The Sick Moon’ a highlight. The second part was less consistent – the ominous menace of ‘Night’ a little tepid, then the graphic imagery of ‘Red Mass’ falling short of its climactic violence.

Not so the stark evocation of ‘The Crosses’ as set the tone for the gradual pacification of the third part – from the suffused melancholy of ‘Homesickness’, through the visceral irony of ‘The Moon Fleck’ (its canonic interplay a stern test of coordination as was amply fulfilled), to the distanced nostalgia of ‘O Ancient Scent’ with its numbed sense of re-arrival. Dennis was never less than persuasive in these settings, and Leo Geyer ensured that BCMG NEXT brought character as well as discipline to Schoenberg’s always resourceful instrumentation.

A tough challenge, moreover, for the new pieces which came after the interval. Interesting that that by Kaspar Querfurth should have sounded the more ‘Italian’ – the restrained, even austere ambience of cold pastoral bringing to mind the deadpan ambivalence found in the later music of Donatoni and Aldo Clementi, for all that the vestigial evolving of its motifs went some way to conjuring a musical evocation of Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn – or at least those final two lines when the object being contemplated utters its indelible response.

His extensive involvement in electroacoustics was evident in Daniele Ghisi’s Black Rain, though the earlier stages in his setting of lyrics by Andrea Agostini were for the most part understated in their interaction between voice, ensemble and electronics; the latter coming   to the fore gradually while remorselessly so as to envelop the soundstage in a coruscating resonance – above which, Dennis’s voice emerged as an expressive focal point. ‘Immersive’ is a rather overused term these days, but the present piece more than justified this epithet.

It helped in these latter works that the BCMG musicians was so responsive to the direction of Gabriella Teychenné, whose activity with London-based Sinfonia Humanitas has rightly been attracting plaudits. She was wholly justified, too, in having begun the second half with the First Postlude (1981) by Valentin Silvestrov – the Ukrainian composer’s homage to his Russian forebear Shostakovich, whose ‘strength through calmness’ is a potent reminder of music’s ability to reach across boundaries to a degree exemplified by this evening’s concert.

Further information on BCMG events in the 2021/22 season can be found at their website. Click on the names to read more detail on composers Kaspar Querfurth and Daniele Ghisi, or for more on Anna Dennis, Leo Geyer and Gabriella Teychenné

On record – Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: The Complete Recordings On Deutsche Grammophon (Deutsche Grammophon

orpheus-chamber-orchestra-complete

Soloists, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Various works (see DG link below for full repertoire details)

Deutsche Grammophon 4839948 (55 CDs)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This box set tells the story of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – soon to celebrate their 50th anniversary – and the recordings they have made to date for Deutsche Grammophon. Formed in 1972, the conductor-less ensemble from New York have amassed an impressive body of work, spanning repertoire from Handel and Vivaldi to Schoenberg and William Bolcom, examined here across 55 CDs.

The group have enjoyed a fruitful relationship with DG, undertaking several projects. Among these are the Mozart wind concertos, with principals from the orchestra employed as soloists, and a clutch of hand-picked Haydn symphonies. Jed Distler’s booklet introduction, meanwhile, reveals a remarkable agreement which saw them commit the Schoenberg Chamber Symphonies and Verklarte Nacht to disc in 1989, in return for a version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons four years later.

Also included in this set is a previously unavailable account of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, a live recording from Warsaw in 2018.

What’s the music like?

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra records are known for their crisp ensemble and energetic, engaging performances, but also for their poise. While their approach to Baroque music might not appeal to historical purists, nobody can deny the enthusiasm they bring to the Handel Concerti Grossi Op.6, nor their vibrant collection of Vivaldi Cello Concertos with regular collaborator Mischa Maisky, or the Flute Concertos with Patrick Gallois.

Their Mozart is particularly enjoyable, the wind concertos blossoming under the ‘home’ soloists, who have the advantage of an immediate musical rapport with their accompanists. The Sinfonia Concertante, with soloists Todd Phillips (violin) and Maureen Gallagher (viola), is especially good, while horn players William Purvis and David Jolley, clarinettist Charles Neidich, flautist Susan Palma-Nidel, oboist Randall Wolfgang and bassoonist Frank Morelli also excel. The Flute and Harp Concerto, with harpist Nancy Allen, is sublime, while a generous selection of the wind Serenades and string Divertimenti are delightful.

The Haydn symphonies fare particularly well, too, and often have an irresistible zest. The account of the Symphony no.80 in D minor is notable in this respect, but there is restraint and darker feeling in the Symphony no.49 in F minor, ‘La Passione’, its introduction taken at a daringly slow tempo. Meanwhile the disc of Rossini overtures still defies gravity in the absence of a conductor, a remarkable achievement!

The inclusion of Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony boosts an already excellent account of the two piano concertos, with Jan Lisiecki. It is fresh faced and buoyant in the outer movements, with a balletic poise for the inner two. Meanwhile their account of Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus has plenty of spring in its step, as does a wonderful disc devoted to music for strings by Grieg and Tchaikovksy. The Dvořák Serenades, too, fare particularly well, and there are two thoroughly engaging discs devoted to the music of Copland and Ives.

Best of all are the orchestra’s Stravinsky and Schoenberg recordings. The Stravinsky selection has excellent accounts of the ballets Pulcinella (the suite) and Orpheus, but equally valuable are the shorter pieces, where the composer’s gruff humour is caught to rhythmic perfection. The performance of Dumbarton Oaks could hardly be bettered. The Schoenberg has some eye-watering virtuosity in the Chamber Symphony no.1, an ideal way in for doubters of the composer – as is a translucent Chamber Symphony no.2 and a velvet-textured Verklarte Nacht.

Finally a mention for the orchestra’s Respighi, a colourful and moving trio of pieces comprising The Birds, a selection of the Ancient Airs and Dances and a particularly vivid account of the Trittico Botticelliano, showing off the composer’s colourful orchestration but also his deeply felt treatment of long-treasured melodies.

Does it all work?

Largely. One could argue that the disc of French orchestral music is a touch too glossy, or that the recordings of Bartók, Kodály and Suk do not quite have the authority a central European ensemble might bring to them. Even with those reservations, however, they are so well played that there is so much to enjoy, the slow movement of the Bartók Divertimento a particularly chilly example.

Is it recommended?

Unreservedly. This is a superb collection from an orchestra who are essentially a single instrument themselves, so together are their interpretations and their virtuosity. Their recording legacy for DG is unlike any other, and it is to be hoped it will blossom still further over – who knows? – maybe the next 50 years. This is a remarkably solid platform on which to build.

Listen and Buy

You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Presto website.

Reading

You can read Arcana’s interview with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra violist Dov Scheindlin here, and listen to a playlist picking out Ben Hogwood’s personal favourites here.

Alexander von Zemlinsky at 150

Today marks 150 years since the birth in Vienna of composer, conductor and teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Zemlinsky is a figure of great historical importance in classical music, with a marked impact behind the scenes on the direction it was to take in the 20th century. In his early twenties, he caught the attention of Brahms, who was impressed with the Clarinet Trio published as a composer’s Op.3 in 1896. Around this time Zemlinsky also met Schoenberg, and then Alma Schindler, with whom he had an intense relationship. Their union was unexpectedly and suddenly broken in 1902, however, when Alma married Gustav Mahler.

Zemlinsky’s musical family tree is an intriguing one. As a teacher he mentored and encouraged Berg, Webern and Korngold. As a conductor he received unreserved praise from Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Weill. Stravinsky declared in 1964, “I do believe that of all the conductors I have heard, I would choose Alexander Zemlinsky as the most outstanding, and this is a mature verdict.” Schoenberg admired his “natural, unforced and obvious greatness”.

It is as a composer that we remember him here, however, for Zemlinsky’s music has not yet reached the audience it deserves. One of his greatest works, the Lyric Symphony made a strong impression at the Proms in 2016, and the Clarinet Trio was performed at the same festival this year. Those are just two of many fine compositions, however. Brahms was also impressed with Zemlinsky’s symphonic writing, and as an orchestral composer both his tone poem Die Seejungfrau and the Sinfonietta are fine works. The magical opening bars of the former, as heard in a new recording from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko for Onyx Classics, are to be treasured:

The four string quartets are also highly regarded, as is the output for solo piano, while another strong area for Zemlinsky was Lieder. Here there are many fine settings, perhaps the best of which are his 6 Songs after Poems by Maeterlinck of 1910-13.

The Spotify playlist below brings a number of these pieces together – while you can visit the Alexander Zemlinsky website to learn more about his life and work. Meanwhile a biography by Antony Beaumont, published in 2000 by Cornell University Press, is also highly recommended.

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:

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Genesis Suite & Bartók Concerto for Orchestra

Simon Callow, Rodney Earl Clarke, Sara Kestelman, Helen McCrory (narrators), Gerard McBurney (creative director), Mike Tutaj (projection design), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Various composers The Genesis Suite (1945)
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

Barbican Hall, London; Saturday 13 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

Collaboration in classical music is rare. Pop music is full of it – many of the best songs and albums are co-written – but for composers to work together on a single work is nigh on unthinkable. Full marks, then, to Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra for reminding us of an instance when that did in fact happen – no fewer than SEVEN classical composers coming together in 1945, at the end of World War II, to write the Genesis Suite. The project was held together by Nathanial Shilkret, masterminding the project from Hollywood.

The Suite, of course, has nothing to do with the rock band. Yet it is fully progressive, telling the story of the first book of the Bible from creation through to the construction of the Tower of Babylon in the space of an hour, working its way from Schoenberg to Stravinsky via Shilkret himself, Alexandre Tansman, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Ernst Toch.

Rattle and creative director Gerard McBurney collaborated on a series of moving images and audio clips to put the Genesis Suite in modern perspective. These were thought provoking and occasionally daring. The story of Cain and Abel (with surprisingly upbeat music from Milhaud) was played out to a Middle Eastern backdrop, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were prominent during the story of The Flood (Noah and the Ark), while the construction of the Shard against Stravinsky’s music for Babel was a powerful allegory.

Unfortunately the music was overshadowed somewhat by the wordy text, taken directly from the King James Bible, and read as written. Nor was it helped by a lack of ensemble between the starry quartet of narrators. Simon Callow and Helen McCrory stood far left, Sara Kestelman and Rodney Earl Clarke far right – which meant for the audience it was a strain to hear two of the four speakers unless sat directly in the middle, despite the amplification. Some speakers were better versed than others in their delivery, too – and maybe because of my own seated position Kestelman and Clarke appeared to have greater emotional involvement.

The London Symphony Chorus, however, were as one in their powerful contributions, dressed in white to maximise their dramatic delivery. When the men came out into the stalls for the Stravinsky finale the Suite’s tension between creation and what man has done with it reached its ultimate, tense conclusion.

Musically the Suite was inconsistent. Schoenberg’s Prelude stood out for inventive orchestration and far reaching harmonic language, while in a dramatic sense Toch’s dramatic setting of The Rainbow (The Covenant) was a notable high. Creation itself, Shilkret’s contribution, felt hurried, the seven days of creation crammed into ten minutes.

Despite these reservations Genesis Suite made a lasting impression, especially following Rattle’s assertion that all composers except one wrote in exile. After the interval another such composer, the Hungarian Béla Bartók writing in America in 1943, was to light up the concert.

It is very easy to take the LSO’s virtuosity for granted, but in a performance like this they shone from every corner. Rattle challenged them to dig deep technically and emotionally and they delivered on every level, particularly in the work’s deeply felt heart, the Elegia. Rattle and McBurney opted to continue with images, which were slow moving or static this time, depicting the forests Bartók looked on during composition. However the gauze on which the images were shown did on occasion muffle the projection of the brass musicians sat under or behind the screen.

Ultimately this did not spoil a terrific performance, where sinewy strings and percussive outbursts were complemented by outstanding, colourful woodwind playing. The first of the two scherzos brought this out, with pairs of bassoons, flutes, clarinets and oboes outstanding in their delivery, balanced by the trumpets. The finale danced energetically, bathed in a luminous glow which proceeded to leave its spell on the audience.

Further listening

You can see Sir Simon Rattle talking about the Genesis Suite below:

The music from this concert, including Rattle’s own recording of the Concerto for Orchestra, can be heard on this Spotify playlist: