On record: John Pickard: Symphony no.5, Sixteen Sunrises etc (BIS)

Pickard Symphony No.5 (2014); Sixteen Sunrises (2013); Concertante Variations (2011); Toccata after Claudio Monteverdi (1998)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins

BIS BIS 2261SACD

Summary

The fourth release in BIS’s survey of orchestral works by John Pickard (b1963), featuring his latest symphony and two shorter pieces which between them underline the expressive scope of his musical thinking; rounded off by his sparkling transcription of a Baroque perennial.

What’s the music like?

Pickard has long been established as a symphonist of stature, with the Fifth as resourceful as its predecessors – a 32-minute continuity which unfolds an uncompromising argument with real subtlety. A key factor is the writing for three sets of timpani, distributed spatially to the rear of the orchestra, that pursue antiphonal exchanges of motifs and chords but also evolve melodic lines to a degree seldom attempted. This is most evident towards the centre, where timpani lines are heard over dense string harmonies in music as audacious as it is mesmeric.

The piece arrives here via a series of interrelated faster and slower tempi, the latter gradually predominating without any tailing-off of momentum so that the greater prominence of faster tempos in the latter stages feels as if a process coming full-circle. Aligned with this is a four-movement outline – the initial Tempestoso segueing into a Prestissimo then a Maestoso, before the final section culminates in a return to the defiant opening gesture. This is followed by a coda that brings suspenseful calm while also intimating activity still to be encountered.

As to the remaining works, Sixteen Sunrises was written for the Nagoya Philharmonic and takes as its inspiration those sunrises observable over 24 hours from the International Space Station. Pickard conveys this through an intensifying sequence of climaxes whose subsiding into stasis feels more pronounced each time; a process enhanced by some of the composer’s headiest and most atmospheric orchestration. Not that this is in any sense a literal depiction, as his admonishment to listeners who might attempt to count the 16 sunrises makes plain!

By contrast, Concertante Variations was written for the Presteigne Festival (and premiered there by Orchestra Nova) and represents Pickard at his most urbane. Scored for wind quintet, strings and timpani, this unfolds as an introduction, five variations and fugal coda. The theme introduces each wind instrument in turn, then the variations (alternately fast and slow) feature them as ‘first among equals’, before the coda sees the strings assume centre-stage as the piece races towards its affirmative ending – albeit given a droll twist by the laconic closing gesture.

Commissioned by the BBC as the ‘fanfare’ to a festival celebrating four centuries of Italian music, Pickard’s transcription of Monteverdi’s Toccata (the extended version as heard at the start of the 1610 Vespers) includes tuned percussion in what is a scintillating curtain-raiser.

Does it all work?

Indeed, not least when the Fifth Symphony is given so powerful a recording (made right after the premiere) by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (spearheaded by truly heroic timpani playing from Steve Barnard, Christina Slominska and Phil Hughes) under Martyn Brabbins, who has championed Pickard over two decades. Other pieces are no less committed in what is a finely balanced programme.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The sound is arguably the best yet in this series (SACD benefits the depth and translucency of this music’s textures), while Pickard’s annotations inform and amuse by turns.

Richard Whitehouse

You can find more information on this release on the BIS website

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On Record: Håkan Hardenberger – Dean: Dramatis Personae; Francesconi: Hard Pace (BIS)

Dean Dramatis Personae (2013), Francesconi Hard Pace (2007)

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra / John Storgårds

BIS (BIS 2067SACD)

What’s it all about?

Håkan Hardenberger returns with a further two concertos to add to the sizable number he has commissioned over these past three decades, as written by two leading composers from the middle generation whose musical aesthetics complement each other in almost every respect.

What’s the music like?

Well established as a violist before turning successfully to composition, Brett Dean (b1961) has several concertos among his output. As its title attests, Dramatis Personae evinces overtly dramatic connotations – not least those of Hamlet, an opera on which Shakespeare play Dean began writing immediately after the present work. Not that this concerto is about existential angst; rather it favours a distinctly sardonic take on the heroic concept – its initial movement, Fall of a Superhero, building from an anticipatory crescendo to an animated if increasingly fatigued interplay as subsides into enervated calm. Soliloquy proceeds as reflective dialogue whose elegiac quality takes on a renewed impetus in The Accidental Revolutionary, whose Chaplinesque humour reaches its apogee in the knockabout recessional which acts as coda.

A composer whose formative years were focussed on electronics, jazz and production, Luca Francesconi (b1956) has amassed a comparably diverse output where instrumental virtuosity is everywhere apparent. Not least in Hard Pace, a trumpet concerto that takes its cue from one of the instrument’s great practitioners. Although he never wrote or commissioned a concerto, Miles Davis delved extensively into those possibilities of varied accompaniment and sound diffusion everywhere audible in the Francesconi. This falls into two parts, the first building from eventful stasis to hectic activity before it suddenly ceases. The second part consists of three increasingly shorter sections – a taciturn Adagio whose emotional intensity spills over into the semi-cadenza of Miles, before the brief Finale brings matters to a decisive close.

Does it all work?

Yes. Neither of these concertos takes the all-round possibilities of the trumpet forward to the same degree as Peter Eötvös’s Jet Stream or Olga Neuwirth’s …miramondo multiplo… (both of which have been recorded by Hardenberger), but there can be no doubt as to their success in terms of demonstrating the instrument’s essential demeanour. That this is Hardenberger’s fourth disc of works for trumpet and orchestra on this label, moreover, wholly confirms his dedication to expanding what was once a genre proscribed both temporally and expressively.

The time has long gone when trumpeters searching for concertos outside of the Baroque or Classical eras had little more than that by Alexander Arutunian to draw on, for which sea-change Hardenberger can take no mean credit. His stentorian playing in both these pieces is further enhanced by an excellent contribution from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds with sure understanding of that expressive ebb-and-flow between soloist and orchestra. Both the SACD sound and booklet notes are well up to BIS’s customary standards.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. A welcome and impressive addition to a discography which, formerly on Philips and latterly on BIS, has no equals when it comes to defining a repertoire for the trumpet such as younger practitioners can take forward in the knowledge its potential is far from exhausted.

Richard Whitehouse

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On record: Allan Pettersson : Symphony no.14 (BIS)

Allan Pettersson Symphony no.14

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg

BIS 2230 [1SACD & 1DVD, 52’38’’ & 1h58m] Producer Jens Braun Engineer Stephan Reh. Recorded January 2016 at Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping

Summary

BIS nears the end of its cycle of the symphonies of Allan Pettersson (1911-80), as begun in Norrköping with Leif Segerstam then continued by Christian Lindberg, with the Fourteenth from his last years, when greater recognition did not dilute his music’s emotional intensity.

What’s the music like?

The mid-1970s was a difficult time for Pettersson, not least through the ban that he imposed on the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra after it abandoned its intention to take his Seventh Symphony on a US tour and which, though lifted before too long, consolidated his reputation as someone awkward to handle. After the frequently assaultive impact of its predecessor, the Fourteenth initially seems a more inward and restrained entity, yet an underlying plangency is seldom absent – its expressive ambit centred on a quotation from the song ‘Wise Men and Clenched Hands’, one of the 24 Barefoot Songs Pettersson had written three decades before and whose melodic profile here attains a special potency. Orchestrally the work is not so far removed from his earlier symphonies, albeit with an emergent sense of fatalistic acceptance.

As with all Pettersson’s symphonies except the Third and Eighth, No. 14 unfolds as a single movement in which traditional formal structures are scarcely apparent. It is possible, though, to hear the piece as comprising six main sections: in terms of this recording – these extend up to 2’18’’ of track 3, with its exposition of ominous and pensive states; the remainder of track 3, with its impulsively developmental character; track 4, a processional slow movement and one of the composer’s finest passages; track 5, which combines the process of development and start of the reprise on to a cathartic climax; tracks 6 and 7, continuing the reprise with the ‘Barefoot’ motif at its most acute; tracks 8 and 9, outlining a coda where the initial states are recalled prior to a close that embraces tonal closure more out of resignation than resolution.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that Pettersson controls his potentially disparate and unwieldy material with a sure underlying conviction. It helps that the Norrköping SO conveys this music’s fractious yet communicative expression with precision and finesse. By comparison, Sergiu Comissiona with the Stockholm Philharmonic (Phono Suecia, made soon after the world premiere) are undeniably feeling their way, while Johan M. Arnell with the then Berlin Radio Symphony (CPO, made soon after the German premiere) offer a spirited yet often diffuse run-through.

Further enhancements of this version are the superb SACD sound, the informative booklet note by Per-Henning Olsson and, above all, an accompanying DVD documentary The Song of Life. Made for Sveriges Television in 1987, this draws on footage from Pettersson’s final seven years, with fascinating insights into his formative years and wartime studies in Paris   as may well alter perceptions of this composer. Almost two hours of interviews and images, which Lindberg is to be commended for having restored and made available commercially.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, though anyone new to Pettersson should begin with one of his earlier symphonies (of which the Sixth, Seventh or Ninth all make worthwhile starting-points). Those who heve been following this BIS series, or who want to acquire the Fourteenth Symphony, need not hesitate.

Richard Whitehouse

Listen here on Spotify:

For more information, visit the BIS website

On record: Anders Hillborg: Sirens, Cold Heat, Beast Sampler (BIS)

Hillborg: Beast Sampler (2014); O dessa ögon (2011); Cold Heat (2010); Sirens (2011)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (Beast Sampler)

Hannah Holgersson (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (O dessa ögon)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / David Zinman (Cold Heat)

Ida Falk Winland, Hannah Holgersson (sopranos); Eric Ericson Chamber Choir; Swedish Radio Choir; Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sirens);

Summary

BIS’s second disc devoted to the music of Anders Hillborg (b1954), currently the highest profile composer in Sweden, comprises two of his more recent orchestral works, together with Sirens, his most ambitious piece to date; directed by three leading interpreters.

What’s the music like?

The disc opens with Beast Sampler, a nine-minute evocation of the orchestra as a (to quote the composer) ‘‘sound animal’’ that draws on extended instrumental techniques as well as electronically influenced textures in music. It essentially translates Ligeti’s mid-1960s idiom (specifically Lontano) into a demonstratively post-modern context. Colourful and not uneventful, this is music dependent not on what is said but rather the effectiveness of how it is said. Judged solely as a curtain-raiser, moreover, this is entertaining enough – but no more.

The dichotomy between technique and substance is more acutely exposed in Cold Heat, a three-way commission between orchestras in Berlin, Helsinki and Zurich. Its cosmopolitan genesis is embodied in the range of its influences while culminating in that staple of present-day resolutions – the Sibelian apotheosis. The continued recourse to this evinces as limited an understanding of what the Finnish composer was doing comparable to those ‘advocates’ from the interwar era. Good for first impressions, though.

Of the two vocal items, O dessa ögon (Oh these eyes) is a brief setting of verse by Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf whose aura of distanced ecstasy is eloquently conveyed by soprano and strings. At just over four minutes, it is easily the most substantial composition on this disc.

Which duly puts into perspective the qualities of Sirens. Opulently realized for two sopranos, mixed choir and orchestra – and, at just over half-an-hour, Hillborg’s most ambitious work to date – it utilizes lines from Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey (albeit expanded by the composer) where Ulysses is being implored by the sirens to abandon his voyage and submit to their fatal entreaties.

Once again, the technical realization leaves little to chance – Hillborg summoning considerable elegance and finesse from his forces such as makes for undeniably pleasurable listening. Yet the sheer consistency of the mood being sustained engenders monotony well before the work is concluded, taking in an amorphous central climax before subsiding into a long postlude which seems little more than an extended fadeout as empty as it is enervating.

Does it all work?

On its own terms, undoubtedly. As mentioned, Hillborg is a consummate technician able to bring any number of stylistic traits into viable accord. Nor is there any doubting the overall excellence of response displayed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under its trio of renowned conductors, or the all-round depth and spaciousness of the sound. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the limitations of this music are evident: Hillborg is simply unable to offer much of substance to flesh out his dazzling surfaces or his enticing textures.

Is it recommended?

Yes, on the basis that Hillborg is undoubtedly a composer of the moment and this collection affords a representative overview of what his music is about. Admire it on a first and even second hearing, then ask yourself just how much more you need to listen to this in future.

Richard Whitehouse

Watch Kent Nagano conduct the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Beast Sampler below:

HILLBORG’S Beast Sampler – Kent Nagano from Göteborgs Symfoniker on Vimeo.

Have a listen on Spotify below, to see if you agree with Richard’s verdict!

On record: Dutilleux – Le Loup; early orchestral works (BIS)

dutilleux-bis

Pascal Rophé, leading exponent of modern French music, conducts this up-and-coming French orchestra in music by a composer whose centenary falls this year, and whose influence on the contemporary music scene is out of all proportion to his modest if fastidiously crafted output.

What’s the music like?

The suite from Henri Decoin’s film La Fille du Diable features six brief items whose elements of Ravel and Stravinsky hardly lessen its attractiveness. Trois Tableaux Symphoniques (1945) derives from a Paris staging of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and is very different from Alfred Newman’s Hollywood score. Both pieces feature a prominent role for Ondes Martenot (made famous by Messiaen in his Turangalîla-Symphonie), its plangent tone to the fore in a haunting evocation of the Yorkshire moors then poignant depiction of the heroine’s demise.

Le Loup is a special case as though Dutilleux all but rejected the ballet, it occupies a crucial role in his evolution. The only previous complete recording – conducted by Pierre Bonneau in 1954 with co-author Jean Anouilh as narrator – has been restored to circulation (on Erato), but this new account (sans narration) is superior. Rophé finds a palpable momentum over its three tableaux, the influence of Prokofiev uppermost with that of Swiss-born Arthur Honegger – the most important younger French composer during the inter-war years – hardly less pervasive.

What is usually referred to as Deux poèmes de Jean Cassou initially comprised three sonnets by the wartime-resistance poet, these ruminations infused with pained nostalgia being joined by ‘Éloignez-vous’ for this more balanced sequence to which Vincent Le Texier responds in ample measure; his insight enhanced by luminous orchestration. More whimsical in manner, the Quatre Mélodies contains some of Dutilleux’s most appealing early inspirations, audibly increased in this resourceful orchestral version that remained unheard for over seven decades.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. From the outset Dutilleux possessed a technical finesse equalled by few of his peers, and while there is nothing on this disc to match his mature masterpieces, this music’s audible connection between its composer’s past and future makes for pleasurable listening.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Rophé secures keenly responsive playing which benefits from the immediate yet spacious SACD sound typical of BIS. Pierre Gervasconi contributes informative notes and this disc is a necessary acquisition, not least for those who think they know their Dutilleux.