On record: Sinfonia of London / John Wilson – English Music for Strings (Chandos)

Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge Op.10 (1937)
Bridge Lament (1915)
Berkeley Serenade for Strings Op.12 (1938-9)
Bliss Music for Strings (1935)

Chandos CHAN 5264 [64’46”]
Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Alex James

Recorded 9-11 January 2020, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

After three wonderful albums extolling the virtues of French orchestral music, Korngold and Respighi, John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London charges turn much closer to home with a set of British music for strings drawn from the 1930s. They begin with an established classic, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, complemented by two neglected works from Sir Lennox Berkeley (his Serenade for Strings) and Sir Arthur Bliss (the Music for Strings), neither of which appears to have been recorded in the last 20 years. There is also room for the brief Lament from 1915 by Bridge himself.

What’s the music like?

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge will be familiar to many, but rarely in a performance as good as this. The theme, lovingly drawn from the Second Idyll for string quartet of Britten’s teacher, receives a virtuoso treatment, taken through a number of wildly differing dance forms before a powerful fugue and finale. The variations are sharply contrasted, with a crisp March at odds with the loving Romance that follows; the fulsome Wiener Walzer countered by the rush of a Moto perpetuo.

Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings works really well in this company. It is a work beginning with outward optimism but which ultimately falling under the shadow of the imminent Second World War. A busy first movement, its Baroque influences brought out by Wilson, is complemented by an inward looking but tender Andantino. Berkeley finds renewed energy in a quickfire Scherzo, but that is trumped by the closing Lento, which leaves a lasting impression, reflecting the anxiety felt as the 1930s drew to a close.

There is a good deal of positive energy in Bliss’ Music for Strings. Taking a lead from Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro of 1905, the composer writes for a full string orchestra but often picks out a smaller group of soloists. The substantial three movements show a masterly command of the string orchestra, from the wide span of the vigorous first movement to the meaningful Romance that follows, with lovely rich contributions from violas and cellos. The third movement starts hesitantly, in the depths, but soon the light breaks through to an effervescent finale.

Does it all work?

Everything works here, thanks to the thoroughly assertive performances secured by Wilson. He is quite quick on the draw with the theme for Britten’s variations, maybe quicker than some would like, but the thrills and spills that follow make this one of the finest versions available. The Aria Italiana has all guns blazing in a wonderful display of precision and power, while the Funeral March has a searing and chilling clarity.

Successful though the Britten is, it is the Berkeley and Bliss that ultimately give the disc its importance. The Berkeley is keenly felt, positive in its fast music but anxious in its two slower movements and raising emotional questions in the fourth. Wilson catches its air of uncertainty at the world in which we live, as relevant now as it was then.

The Bliss has terrific drive in its faster music, which builds up a thoroughly convincing momentum while succeeding in bringing forward the writing for the chamber ensemble at the front. The textures are beautifully clear thanks to the Chandos recording, the quicker melodies’ punchy phrasing cutting through easily.

The Bridge Lament, though short, proves a mellow complement to the Britten, a chance for the listener to collect their thoughts while the Sinfonia play with a beautiful, muted sound.

Is it recommended?

In every way. John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London breathe new life into this music, and their programme is superbly judged to bring two neglected and very fine works back into contention. The cover, a painting of Bliss’s Pen Pits house by Edward Wadsworth, is the icing on the cake with its classic 1930s style.

For further information on this release, visit the Chandos website.

Sound of Mind 10 – Sounds of Spring

If you’ve been indoors for over a week now, the chances are you’ll be climbing the walls!

Happily there are reasons to be cheerful just around the corner – not least the imminent arrival of spring.

Classical music composers have always taken to spring in their music, from Vivaldi through to Stravinsky. This playlist celebrates their portrayals of the season, through works including Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Schumann‘s Spring Symphony, Beethoven, Sibelius and finally Britten.

Have a listen and harness the positive energy our composers can provide!

 

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Louise Alder & Joseph Middleton: Lines written during a sleepless night

Louise Alder (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 6 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

This was a concert with an especially personal link for soprano Louise Alder. The Russian Connection – subtitle of her first album for Chandos – goes much further than the repertoire chosen. It reflects Alder’s Russian ancestry, with generations of her family, up to and including her grandfather in 1914, born in the country.

In addition to that, Alder and regular recital partner Joseph Middleton have created a captivating program linking Grieg, Medtner, Tchaikovksy, Britten, Rachmaninov and Sibelius through their choice of poets and their use of a language outside of their own. Six composers, four languages (at last count!) and some richly descriptive writing all made for a particularly memorable concert, especially when performed with the passion and musicality on show here.

Alder and Middleton judged their program to perfection, bringing in the new year with a spring in its step as Grieg’s Heine setting Gruß (Greeting) tripped into view (2:33 on the broadcast link). This is the first song in a compact but deeply descriptive cycle of six from the composer, setting German poetry with his typical melodic freshness and flair. Alder shows lovely control on the final ‘Gruß’ word, before applying a slight husk to the deeply felt Dereinst, Gedanke mein (One day, my thoughts) (3:40), which made a striking impact here. Lauf der Welt (The Way of the World) (6:23) has heady urgency, singer and pianist working as one, while the evocative Die verschwiegene Nachtigall (The secretive nightingale) (8:01) is a sultry, sensual setting in these hands, the initial picture beautifully painted by Middleton. Zur Rosenzeit (Time of roses) (11:40) is filled with intense longing, while Alder’s tone in Ein traum (A dream) (14:55) is particularly beautiful, working through to a powerful finish.

Nikolai Medtner is a Russian composer known for his piano music rather than his songs, so it was gratifying to have Alder and Middleton (above) include two here. They are fine pieces of work, too, with an impressively fulsome piano part that Middleton tackled with deceptive ease and clarity. Mailied (May song) (18:15) holds an intense vocal line over its catchy piano part, while Meeresstille (Calm sea) (20:10) is really well controlled by Alder here.

Tchaikovsky’s numerous songs contain many treasures, and the two French language examples here were no exception. The Sérénade (23:22) dances in the bright light of dawn, with a slightly furtive piano, while Les Larmes (The tears) (25:02) provides much darker soul searching.

Britten’s Russian-language song cycle The Poet’s Echo is a relative rarity in the concert hall, but as Alder and Middleton showed here it contains music of typically fearsome and compressed intensity. The spirit of Musorgsky is evident not just in the choice of poet (Pushkin) but in the bare piano lines, rumbling in the deep for the first song Echo (29:22). Alder’s line is fearlessly delivered, with songs like My heart… (32:17) and Angel (33:48), with its quasi-orchestral piano part, making a powerful impression. The nightingale and the rose (36:20) take powerful flight, the piano gnawing at the heel of the vocal line, while the strange Epigram (40:13) has a striking reverberation achieved through the open piano lid. The final song, Lines written during a sleepless night (41:07) captures the supreme irritation of insomnia through the ‘monotonous tick of the clocks’, with a chilling piano postlude. This work remains a difficult nut to crack, listening-wise, but this is the sort of performance to do it.

We then heard two songs by Rachmaninov, both again setting Pushkin texts. Sing not to me, beautiful maiden (46:44), an early song from the composer’s late teens, receives a fulsome account here with Alder capturing the devastating beauty of the song. The later How fair this spot (51:56), taking the mood from darkness to relative light, is even better, Alder’s top ‘B’ a note of extraordinary clarity.

The generously packed concert concluded with three Sibelius songs, sung in Swedish. Once again these songs are found to be fiercely intense, often expressed through the bare minimum of means. The tempestuous Säv, säv, susa (Sigh, rushes, sigh) (54:02) is heady stuff, while the dynamic range achieved by both performers in Våren flyktar hastigt (Spring is swiftly flying) (56:27) is hugely impressive. Finally Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote (The girl came from her lover’s tryst) (57:49) has a huge, orchestral scope, a reminder that the Second Symphony is not far away in the composer’s output. The song chills to the bone when turning tragically into the minor key for its third verse and the lover’s treason.

This was a simply outstanding concert from Alder and Middleton, deeply intimate yet including the audience in all of their asides. These qualities extended to the wonderful encore, Rachmaninov’s A Dream, where the rippling piano part and exotic harmonies supported Alder’s heavenly soprano line.

If more of the Wigmore Hall Monday lunchtime concerts are as good as this in 2020, we are in for many treats indeed! It only remains for you to listen on BBC Sounds if you haven’t already…and to keep up with the series as it progresses.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Grieg 6 Songs Op.48 (1884-8) (2:33)
Medtner Mailied Op.6/2 (1901-5) (18:15), Meeresstille Op.15/7 (1905-7) (20:10)
Tchaikovsky Sérénade Op.69/1 (1888) (23:22), Les Larmes Op.69/5 (1888) (25:02)
Britten The Poet’s Echo Op.76 (1965) (29:22)
Rachmaninov Sing not to me, beautiful maiden Op.4/4 (publ.1893) (46:44), How fair this spot Op.21/7 (1902) (51:56)
Sibelius Säv, säv, susa Op.36/4 (1900) (54:02), Våren flyktar hastigt Op.13/4 (1891) (56:27), Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte Op.37/5 (1901) (57:49)
Encore – Rachmaninov A Dream Op.38/5 (not on the broadcast)

Further listening

Most of the music from this concert is part of Louise Alder and Joseph Middleton’s new disc for Chandos, Lines Written During A Sleepless Night: The Russian Connection, with the exception of the two Rachmaninov songs. The full playlist is here:

If you enjoyed Alder and Middleton in this concert – which I’m sure you did! – their previous outing together is a sumptuous collection of songs by Richard Strauss for Orchid Classics which is bound to appeal, and certainly plays to their strengths:

Meanwhile to enjoy the Rachmaninov song output in its entirety there are few better historical guides than soprano Elisabeth Söderström and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy:

Saint Nicholas’ Day and Britten’s dramatic response

Today is a celebration of the feast of St Nicholas, the early Christian bishop who died on this day all the way back in the year 343. Nicholas is the model for the modern Santa Claus / Father Christmas, but he is also the inspiration behind a major piece of classical music, completed by Benjamin Britten in 1948.

Arcana’s sister site, Good Morning Britten, has this to say about the cantata:

St Nicolas is scored for tenor solo, chorus, semi-chorus, four boy singers and string orchestra, piano duet, percussion and organ. It was written to text by Eric Crozier, for performance at the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, Sussex, on 24 July 1948.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s honouring of the Christmas saint was timed for the centenary of Peter Pears’ old school, Lancing College in Sussex. Yet Saint Nicolas did not receive his first performance there – in fact it opened the very first Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948. Critics were requested not to write about the piece until its primary function at the school had been performed. The highly acclaimed libretto is from Eric Crozier, with whom Britten wrote Albert Herring.

Donald Mitchell, in his biography of the composer, observes that ‘for a year his music continued in the blithe spirit that Albert Herring had engendered’. He also notes how the work combines professional and amateur, Britten seeking not to exclude anybody on the grounds of musical talent. ‘There are testing but rewarding parts for the amateur singers and instrumentalists; congregational hymns, and one of the catchiest of his tunes for The Birth of Nicolas.’

This gives the strong sense Britten was writing for all ages and beliefs, and is reinforced by Stephen Arthur Allen. Writing in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, he declares it as ‘not purely a work for religious digest’. Furthermore, ‘A duality of narrative may be perceived through the dilemma between Nicolas’s public and private world:

“Our eyes are blinded by the holiness you bear,

The bishop’s robe, the mitre and the cross of gold.

Obscure the simple man within the Saint.

Strip off your glory, Nicolas, Nicolas, and speak! Speak!”

He warms to his theme. ‘The transparent nescience of The Birth of Nicolas is reinforced by its A major setting. The presence of the tritone, governing the stepwise movement of the sequence in each phrase, demonstrates that Britten is able to write music that children can engage with and sing easily, while embodying sophisticated intervals and a symbolic dimension that offsets generic expectations otherwise associated with such material.’

After that, perhaps the words of Michael Kennedy are key: ‘There is little need to examine this cantata in detail; it is best experienced whole and without analytical preparation.’

Thoughts

The advice from Michael Kennedy to refrain from analysing Saint Nicolas too much is sound indeed, for this is a dramatic piece that works best taken on face value.

Once again it is possible to witness Britten’s ability to write dramatic sacred music, and as in The Company of Heaven he bolsters that with sympathetically set hymn tunes. There is a strong sense of progression through the life of Saint Nicolas, too, and at his birth he gets a really catchy tune, written for the boys’ choir in a joyous A major. As he journeys to Palestine Britten colours his relatively small orchestral forces with a glassy, oscillating line for the two pianos and wispy held strings.

Meanwhile the tenor soloist – Pears, of course – gets frequent opportunities to exploit his talent for legato singing, with some extremely lyrical writing that would seem to me to have a strong Italianate flavour, that of Verdi perhaps.

The hymn quotations invite the involvement of a congregation, another element in common with The Company of Heaven. However Britten cannot resist the odd piece of harmonic mischief, and All People That on Earth do dwell, so beloved of Vaughan Williams, gets some unexpected minor chords. I couldn’t help but think that was a deliberate thumbing of the nose!

There is, however, a certain amount of homage being paid here, deliberate or otherwise. I was sure in places I could detect hints of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – especially in the way the two works end, alike in key in harmony, while there are passing elements of Handel and Bach, via Mendelssohn.

Once again Britten uses the performing spaces to his advantage, positioning the children’s choir a distance away from the main action. This is especially effective after the swell of the choir towards the end of His piety and marvellous works, which cuts to the trebles singing ‘Alleluia’ in the distance. It is a magical moment.

Equally fine are the climactic closing pages, the death of the saint marked by the singing of the Nunc Dimittis chant, Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in piece, which seals the deal on a very fine and enjoyable work.

Watch and listen

Below you can hear the late Sir Stephen Cleobury talking about the work, and how he went about the 2013 album he made with King’s College Cambridge Choir to mark Britten’s centenary:

On the Spotify link below you can listen to the album Cleobury conducted, which also includes the unaccompanied choral masterpiece Hymn to Saint Cecilia and the celebratory anthem Rejoice in the Lamb, again under the direction of Cleobury.

Wigmore Mondays – Pavel Kolesnikov & Samson Tsoy, Colin Currie & Sam Walton: Music for pianos and percussion

Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy (pianos), Colin Currie and Sam Walton (percussion) (pictured above in rehearsal, credit unknown)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 2 December 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A truly memorable concert with many more instruments than performers! The Wigmore Hall stage was straining at the seams for this concert, with a daunting battery of percussion positioned behind two lidless Steinway pianos.

As BBC Radio 3 presenter Fiona Talkington confirmed, the two pianists and their percussion counterparts had only met the previous week. This is where music making can be so thrilling, for chemistry had been established and all four performers clearly enjoyed the concert experience.

That much was clear from the first, atmospheric notes of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, given in an arrangement that seems to have been the composer’s own, retaining percussion parts from the orchestral original. The Prélude à la nuit (1:49 on the broadcast link below) immediately evokes the heady Mediterranean scene, laced with a background tension that was occasionally released in faster music, thrumming like an ensemble of guitars. Ravel’s orchestral concepts are easily discerned here, with the players very closely attuned. The Malagueña (6:02) is suitably enchanting, while the Habanera (8:05), with lovely detail on castanets and xylophone, wears its Carmen influences on its sleeve. Finally the dazzling Feria (10:52), brilliantly performed, wraps up our colourful Spanish sojourn with a flourish.

The percussionists then had a break while Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy gave us a rarity in the form of Britten’s Two Lullabies. Written for a concert with South African pianist Adolph Hallis, they are barely known – but carry a number of the 22-year old composer’s musical trademarks. The first lullaby is as you would expect, gently rocking like a boat as the listener’s head nods towards sleep (19:07) but the second, Lullaby for a retired colonel (23:20), is an ‘anti-lullaby’, seemingly written to annoy its subject into wakefulness with renditions of The British Grenadiers, Men of Harlech, the Marseillaise and the Last Post. This performance caught the gracefulness and cheek respectively.

The main act, if you like, was an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary piece. Even now, 82 years on from its Swiss premiere, there are few pieces as original as Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion, one of the standout pieces of 20th century repertoire but one of the least performed in that class, due to its unusual scoring.

This performance gave us the chance to appreciate Bartók’s unique sound world, from unhinged Allegros to daringly slow night music where nobody dare move a sinew. It begins in the depths (28:10) with the ominous rumbling of timpani and cold piano octaves. This is the small cell from which the piece grows, angular lines on the piano complemented by strident timpani. As always in Bartók the music is incredibly atmospheric, and when it breaks out into the faster music (from 31:30) an almost primal energy is released. Terrific playing from all four, who had only started playing this music together the previous week – with a stunning ending in pure C major.

The second music (42:13) is a classic example of Bartók’s night music. The brushes on the snare drum bring the cooler evening air into sharp focus, with an even colder unison on piano in response. This performance brings out these incredibly descriptive aspects of the writing, each detail carefully observed and pointed until – as in many slow movements from the Hungarian composer – the ground suddenly falls away and the music tears off at a pace. Soon enough a peace of sorts is restored, though again there is an eye left open just in case.

The third and final movement is the sound of unbridled joy, heralded by a rapid shift to C major and a terrific burst of energy. The xylophone (Sam Walton in this performance) has terrific clarity in its theme, which has sardonic overtones Shostakovich would have enjoyed, while the interplay between the pianos is superbly balanced. The percussion includes a driving part for both bass drum and timpani, where Bartók uses glissando to create an evocative twang, often in quieter passages. These were superbly judged by Colin Currie. The piece ends in unexpected quiet, the purity of C major ensuring it has the ideal place to rest after considerable exertions.

A truly great performance, this, one borne of musical instinct and chemistry that found all four performers going hell for leather in the quick music but exercising the utmost restraint to bring Bartók’s vivid colours through when all was quiet. Make sure you listen to it!

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Ravel Rapsodie espagnole (1907-8) (1:49)
Britten Two Lullabies (1936) (19:07)
Bartók Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1937)

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard in leading available versions on Spotify below:

Colin Currie and Sam Walton have recorded the Bartók previously, with pianists Cédric Tiberghien and François-Frédéric Guy. Details on that recording can be found together with soundbites at the Hyperion website:

Bartók wrote three pieces for Paul Sacher while in Switzerland – the Sonata as heard here, the remarkable Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta and the more rustic, folksy Divertimento for string orchestra. Both those pieces can be heard below as part of an album from Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra, which also includes the ballet suite from The Wooden Prince: