Talking Heads: Nicholas Daniel

nicholas-daniel

Interview by Ben Hogwood

As part of the inspiring Summer At Snape season, the counter-tenor Andrew Watts and oboist Nicholas Daniel, are giving world premiere performances of Sir John Tavener’s La Noche Oscura, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards. Arcana took the chance to talk with Daniel, who received an OBE for his dedication to music in October 2020, about his lasting friendship with Sir John, as well as his hopes for live music in such a difficult time.

To begin, we look back to Daniel’s first musical meeting with the composer. “I remember hearing The Whale and thinking it was fabulous and risqué,” he says. “It became a piece people talked about more than heard when I was at the Royal Academy. I first met him through Richard Hickox, who I persuaded to ask John to write for me as a thank you for playing at his and Pamela’s wedding.”

While writing La Noche Oscura, Tavener did not consult with his dedicatees. “He never consulted with me about writing”, says Daniel. “I don’t know whether he did with other artists, but for me his pieces seemed to have arrived as a newborn but sitting up and asking for food. Even with Kaleidoscopes we only vaguely discussed the idea of wearing Indian clothes to play it and lighting it really well, months before he wrote it.”

The piece itself is an intriguing balancing act “Noche has inside it a major contradiction in terms. The words are absolutely agonising: “Where have you hidden, beloved, and left me moaning?” “Tell him I suffer, grieve and die” “but thou hast utterly rejected us: thou art very wroth against us,” but the music is not. He says “shining, intense, with majesty and grandeur”, and from my preparation I see the music as flowing through the words to a place where the music is in control. It’s as though the grinding agony of the words are not ignored, but swept away by the beauty of the harmony. It seems a little like Niobe, Britten’s D flat Major tribute to the Queen whose 14 children died (from the 6 Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe), or maybe Gluck’s Che faro senza Euridice, which has nobility in the face of death. Interestingly both those pieces take their lead from Greek Myth.”

Written for oboe and countertenor, La Noche Oscura blends a relatively unusual combination of soloists, though Daniel refutes my initial suggestion the combination would be hard to balance. “In what way would it be difficult? Because Andrew Watts has the biggest counter tenor voice on the planet and therefore the oboe would be drowned? Possibly. Or that the oboe in the high register might drown the counter tenor in the middle? Well, John knew my playing very well and my high register is something I’ve worked very much to develop over years, partly through composers writing death defyingly quiet music for me up there. Listen to the cadenza of John Woolrich’s Oboe Concerto for instance. Noche is a whole major third lower in my part than the highest parts of Kaleidoscopes and I know how to balance to the gentler parts of a counter tenor voice anyway.”

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He speaks with great warmth of Tavener (above), both as a friend and as a composer. “I adored him. He was completely unique, and although he maybe lived in other realms as well as ours he was completely able to exist in a very charming and entertaining way in the here and now. I think that he probably felt quite relaxed with me because he was very free in what he said, possibly sensing in me the very non-judgemental and open nature of my soul. His health must have been such a burden to him, and I was always slightly aware of his frailty – the main time I knew him was towards the end of his life. I will never forget the sound he made on the piano and ‘singing’ the music he’d written for me. It was like a seance.”

Is his music particularly appropriate for the times we are living through? “I believe that John’s music is appropriate for any time and any space. He can turn a bike shed into a cathedral with his music. I would love to think that as we have entered the very promising Age of Aquarius we might find it has uses for meditation, for finding stillness, and for connecting ourselves with the planet and with each other.”

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Talk turns to the pandemic, and a particularly special concert Daniel and long-time recital partner Julius Drake gave at the Wigmore Hall in 2020 (above), part of a special season of lunchtime concerts marking the hall’s reopening in June. It was a meaningful concert for those watching online – and for the two performers. “Oh my goodness, thank you. Well, it was a fantastic moment to be able to play to the world, yes. We chose the programme to entertain, and to touch people’s hearts. It was very moving how the artists in that first week all supported each other by text messages!  It was so special to play two new pieces there, by Michael Berkeley and Huw Watkins, and also to play Madaleine Dring’s music, which I adore. As it happened it was two days after the murder of George Floyd, and I decided to dedicate the Bach encore to his memory. It proved harder than I thought to speak about it. The reality is the piece I played (basically in one breath using circular breathing) was shorter than the time he was prevented from breathing. The connection was obvious and absolutely shattering.”

The current situation with Government restrictions from the Coronavirus pandemic means plans for future concerts are sadly up in the air. The reality is stark, and Daniel’s diary has a small number of entries. “A few. Incredibly few. 2023 is looking a little better than the rest of 2021 and 2022 put together. This is all going to take some time. It’s also going to take some fearless programming and risk taking to make concerts irresistibly inviting. New music, new presentation, fresh diverse repertoire; young, diverse artists, a fresh dawn for true diversity and the certain knowledge that we will never take an audience for granted ever again.”

There is a little consolation on the recording front, where Daniel has been busy. “Haha! I’ve been very lucky to have some recordings released over the last while, music by Eleanor Alberga, Roxanna Panufnik and Mark Simpson with Mozart, the latter recorded in lockdown. I had the huge joy of recording a disc for my new label Chandos with the exquisite Doric Quartet of British music which will be out later in the year. On that disc I recorded the Delius Two Interludes on Leon Goossens’ 1911 Lorée Oboe. It was a huge privilege to be allowed to play this massively historic and important instrument.”

Will his approach to making music be any different after the pandemic? “Yes”, he says emphatically. “I’m saying to my students that it has to BURN. No prisoners can be taken, risk taking is everything and make it HIT the audience like your life depends on it. Now is the time to make music COMPLETELY relevant to people’s lives, especially to our children, each one of whom deserves to play an instrument and learn the language of music. Scotland is giving this to their children but England and the rest of the U.K.? Not yet.”

The effects of restrictions imposed in the pandemic are clear to see, and Daniel addresses this head on. “I would love audiences to spare a moment of thought for the artists right now, let alone the effect on our incomes. Not being on stage for more than a year plays havoc with your mind, and just getting to the concert hall seems to involve rules and regulations and risks we have never known before. Personally I’m very grateful that people are taking some of the same risks coming to hear concerts, but it feels weirdly exposing to walk on stage to the smell of hand sanitiser having just ripped off your mask, metres apart from your colleagues. We do it despite these things because we want to and because we have to, and because most of us are addicted to music and concerts.”

Andrew Watts and Nicholas Daniel will give two performances of Sir John Tavener’s La Noche Oscura with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards at Snape Maltings on Friday 25 June. Their program, part of the ongoing Summer at Snape festival, includes music by Handel, Tansy Davies and two works by Britten, including the Temporal Variations orchestrated by Colin Matthews – who spoke with Arcana earlier in the season here. For details and tickets click here

Summer at Snape runs from Friday 4 June until Saturday 11 July. For full details on all the live events, visit the Snape Maltings website.
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In concert – Ian Bostridge, CBSO / Michael Seal: Britten Nocturne & Malcolm Arnold Symphony no.5

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Ian Bostridge (tenor), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Britten Nocturne Op.60 (1958)
Arnold Symphony no.5 Op.74 (1961)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 9 June 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been centred on ‘England’s dreaming’, but there is surely a future for such astute juxtapositions of works by British composers as that heard in this latest concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; two pieces separated by just three years but poles apart stylistically.

The fourth and last of Britten’s orchestral song-cycles, Nocturne is a sequence with emphasis very much on the cyclical aspect. Its eight settings each features an obbligato instrument heard alongside string orchestra, the tenor adopting a flexible arioso manner with which to deliver a range of texts across centuries of English poetry. After a somnolent initial setting of Shelley – strings introducing a spectral rhythmic figure acting as a ritornello across the work – the bassoon emerges for an ominous setting of Tennyson, then the harp for a jejune rendering of Coleridge.

Notably restrained with his characterization thus far, Ian Bostridge upped the expressive ante when horn came to the fore in an evocative treatment of Middleton; the more so as timpani entered for Wordsworth’s troubled verses on the aftermath of revolution. Accrued tension spilled over to a plangent setting of Owen with cor anglais in attendance, then flute and clarinet joined the voice in a rapt take on Keats. All seven instruments duly reappeared for the final setting of Shakespeare – complementing tenor and strings when they arrived at a barely tangible repose.

Throughout, Michael Seal was typically alert and sensitive in accompaniment – before letting the CBSO off its collective leash for Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony. If not the finest of his cycle (which accolade would likely go to the Seventh), the Fifth is the most representative in its disjunct contrasts and fraught emotions – not least in an opening Tempestuoso whose pivoting between stark irony and consoling empathy results in several assaultive climaxes as were fearlessly delivered. In his pointedly succinct note for the premiere, Arnold confessed himself ‘‘unable to distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality’’ – a disingenuity that made possible the Andante with its aching main melody and soulful secondary theme which between them engender a baleful culmination before the earlier raptness is fitfully regained.

In his unequalled 1973 recording with this orchestra, Arnold secured playing of transcendent poise from the strings in this movement, but Seal was not far behind in the sustained intensity he drew from the present-day CBSO. Nor was there any lack of sarcasm in the scherzo which follows – wind and brass exchanging gestures either side of the clarinets’ freewheeling tune in the trio, then an abrasively confrontational coda. It remains for the Risoluto finale to attempt a summation with elements from the earlier movements thrown together in an atmosphere of martial volatility; climaxing in a restatement of the slow movement’s main theme resplendent but, ultimately, futile – the music collapsing into a void in which bells echo forlornly against fading lower strings. The CBSO imbued these closing minutes with truly graphic immediacy.

This instructive and cathartic programme brought a (rightly) enthusiastic response from those present. Next week features another British symphony, the first by Thomas Adès, alongside music by Purcell and Mozart for what should be a no less provocative and absorbing concert.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about the next concert of Purcell, Mozart and Adès on Wednesday 16 June, click here, and for more on Sir Malcolm Arnold you can visit the website dedicated to the composer.

Talking Heads: Colin Matthews

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Interview by Ben Hogwood

The Aldeburgh Festival may not be with us in name this year, but its spirit burns brightly in the form of Summer at Snape, a series of safely distanced concerts to be given over every weekend in June.

As with the festival, these concerts feature imaginative programming, with contemporary music to the fore. Composer Colin Matthews has an illustrious history at Snape and Aldeburgh stretching back to his time as assistant to Benjamin Britten late in the composer’s life. He will be close at hand, with two new works receiving their premiere live performances. Firstly, the Nash Ensemble will feature in the first performance with an audience of Seascapes, setting poetry by Sidney Keyes. Conducted by Martyn Brabbins, the verses will be sung by soprano and dedicatee Claire Booth.

The next day will give audiences a chance to enjoy a new arrangement for string orchestra of the Double Concerto by Britten himself, a work completed at the age of 18 when the composer was still a student. Matthews arranged the original for full orchestra but has now reduced his forces, and the Royal Academy of Music Strings under John Wilson will reveal the new version with soloists Thomas Zehetmair (violin) and Ruth Killius (viola).

Matthews is a generous interviewee, taking time to consider questions from Arcana around both works and the return of live music – not to mention the problem of finding inspiration as a composer during the pandemic. First, however, we started by asking him about the poetry of Sidney Keyes, whose verse forms the bedrock of Seascapes.

“As far as I remember I first came across Sidney Keyes through Tippett’s The Heart’s Assurance”, Matthews recalls, “and I wrote a song cycle to Keyes’ words as long ago as 1968, long since withdrawn. Re-reading Keyes’ complete poems a few years back made me want to make a (hopefully better!) attempt to set him, and one of the poems (Night Estuary) was one I set more than 50 years ago – although I can’t recall it at all. The complexity of his thought doesn’t make for easy setting, but the words have a lyricism and power which calls for music.”

The work was first performed at London’s Wigmore Hall on 30 April, part of a Nash Ensemble program including works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Julian Anderson and Simon Holt (which you can watch above).

What was it like seeing the work finally performed live? “Rather remarkable – only my third experience of live music in about 14 months, and an unusual experience to hear a work for the first time more than a year after it was completed.”

Claire Booth is the ideal singer for this work, and Matthews wrote the vocal line especially with her in mind. “Absolutely. I’ve known Claire since she took part in the Aldeburgh Composition Course in (I think) 2000, and this is the third piece that I’ve written for her. I chose a small ensemble whose colours are relatively subdued: a lot of the music is introspective in mood and is designed very much for the soloist to float over it.”

Moving on to the Britten, we consider the Double Concerto for violin, viola and orchestra, written at the age of 18 – and which Matthews has now reduced to the accompaniment of strings only. Does he detect is a lineage back to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, a work for the same instrumental combination? “Obviously he (Britten) knew the Sinfonia Concertante, and he mentions a performance (with Lionel Tertis) in his 1931 diary, a few months before he started on the Concerto. It was one of the last pieces I heard him conduct. But there’s no influence from Mozart other than the soloists: instead, it follows very much the three-movement form of his Sinfonietta Op.1 which he had just completed, but on a larger scale.”

How much work was required between the 1997 version, made from the fully catalogued work (above), and the version we will hear at Snape? “A great deal! Making the 1997 version was comparatively simple, as Britten had made very detailed indications of instrumentation in his short score. Reducing it to strings alone – which was Thomas Zehetmair’s idea – meant a lot of rethinking and reworking. For instance, there is an important timpani part in the finale which took a lot of work to transfer satisfactorily to the double basses.”

We move on to talk about Britten’s writing for strings, and Matthews pinpoints several passages in his writing that have left a lasting admiration. “This work of course predates the most important of his string pieces, the 1936 Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, whose string writing is a model of flair and virtuosity. The string writing for the original version of the Concerto is rarely as adventurous, so I was to some extent constrained by what was already there, as well of course as having to adapt music that was written for wind and brass. In many respects it had been easier to emulate Britten’s string writing in my orchestration of the Temporal Variations, originally for oboe and piano, and so starting from scratch.

We move on to discuss the last year, and how it has been for Matthews as a composer. Has he had plenty of material for new works or has it been hard to find inspiration at times? “At first there was a sense of freedom in not writing to commission or deadline”, he says, “and I wrote a fairly large-scale orchestral piece in the summer of last year. Subsequently I’ve been finding it a bit difficult to focus on projects other than small or solo pieces, and this is one of several arrangements I’ve made for the smaller forces that are necessary in these difficult times, which has been a good way to keep up momentum.”

The last question requires the simplest of answers to confirm just how valuable Summer at Snape promises to be. What does it mean to Colin to be part of live music making at Snape once again? “Very special.”

Summer at Snape runs from Friday 4 June until Saturday 11 July. For full details on all the live events, visit the Snape Maltings website. For more on Colin Matthews, you can visit the composer’s website here
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In concert – Lawrence Power, CBSO / Nicholas Collon: Stravinsky, Britten & Shostakovich

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Lawrence Power (viola), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (above)

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, revised 1947)
Britten Lachrymae Op.48a (1950, orch. 1976)
Shostakovich Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 26 May 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This second in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s live concerts, heading out of lockdown, featured works from the first half of the last century – focussing on wind then strings, before bringing the whole orchestra into play for one of the defining symphonies from this period.

It was an astute move to open with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments as, 14 days short of the centenary of its premiere to a bemused London public, the extent of its innovation and influence was there for all to hear. The performance was attuned to its bracing alternation of diverse musical types, and while the elongated platform layout might have caused passing uncertainties, Nicholas Collon made a virtue of its fluid continuity right through to the final chorale which ‘remembers’ Debussy with an emotion the more acute for its hieratic restraint.

It may have entered the repertoire but slowly, Britten’s Lachrymae is now well to the fore of the viola’s still limited concertante output and Lawrence Power gave a potent rendering of a piece conceived for William Primrose then orchestrated for Cecil Aronowitz. The evocative if sparse writing for strings is a reminder this was Britten’s final creative act, bringing out the ambiguous shadings of these variations on Dowland’s Flow my tears (played and sung at the outset by Power) which culminate with a rendering of the full song in all its grave elegance.

Speaking beforehand, Collon (who gave a perceptive account of the Ninth Symphony with the CBSO some years back) spoke of his pleasure in utilizing the extent of Symphony Hall’s platform to programme a work on the scale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Accordingly, this was a performance whose impact and intensity were evident from the outset; the opening movement unfolding gradually but with keen underlying intensity though its searching, then wistful main themes, to a surging development and climactic reprise before subsiding into a fateful coda. If the scherzo was less capricious than it often is, Collon’s trenchant handling   of its outer sections exuded an acerbic charm – offset by the trio’s deadpan humour (with an airily whimsical solo from leader Jonathan Martindale), before a pay-off of ominous import.

The ensuing Largo is the work’s emotional heart in every sense, and this afternoon’s reading made the most of its fraught eloquence with some limpidly unforced string playing then, in the mesmeric central episode, woodwind soliloquys of a spectral remoteness. Nor was there any lack of gravitas as the movement reached a baleful culmination, and from where Collon oversaw a faultless transition through to those consoling final bars. Always difficult to bring off, the finale had the virtue of almost seamless progression through its high-octane opening stages then the musing introspection at its centre – Collon making light of some tricky tempo changes on the way to an apotheosis of unremitting focus. The tonal ambivalence between triumph and tragedy might have been more acute, but its inevitability was never in doubt.

An impressive way to conclude what was almost a full-length concert (and one these players had to repeat just three hours later). The CBSO returns next Wednesday with a less strenuous programme which will include a welcome outing for Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about the next concert on Wednesday 2 June, click here

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.