On Record – Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire / Pascal Rophé: Debussy Orchestrated (BIS)

Debussy Orchestrated

Debussy arr. Büsser Petite Suite; Debussy arr. Caplet La boîte à joujoux (1919), Children’s Corner (1911)

What’s the story?

This beautifully packaged collection from BIS brings together a trio of Debussy pieces arranged for orchestra. There are two characterful suites whose cleaner lines look back to classical and baroque forms, beginning with the four-movement Petite Suite, originally for two pianos and arranged for orchestra by Henri Büsser.

The central work of the three is La boîte à joujoux (The toy box). This surprisingly substantial piece was written by Debussy in 1913 as a piano score, but due to the first World War was not performed until 1919, after the composer’s death, by which time it had been orchestrated by André Caplet. The ballet tells in miniature detail of a toy soldier falling in love with a doll protected by a polichinelle, who will not give her up. The two fight and the soldier is wounded, but is nursed back to health by the doll, and they fall in love.

Caplet was a trusted collaborator, having already arranged Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite for orchestra in 1911. The composer wrote the piano version for his daughter Claude-Emma, nicknamed ‘Chou-Chou’, in 1908.

What’s the music like?

As attractive as the cover! What is abundantly clear from each of the three scores is that even in his keyboard music Debussy had orchestral designs – which Caplet and Büsser bring to fruition.

The Petite Suite is a charmer in this performance, from the languid En bateau to the brisk, bracing Ballet. The phrasing is especially beautiful in the winds towards the end of the former, while there is an attractive lilt to the Cortège and a light bounce to the rhythms of the Menuet.

La boîte à joujoux features some exquisite storytelling and wind playing. There is a beautiful oboe solo as the scene isset in the toy shop, the music hanging mysteriously. The lovely clarinet in The doll’s waltz is complemented by detailed shading in the strings. There are stylish contributions from the orchestral pianist too, especially at the very end where the orchestra hang on every note. The bluster of battle and The sheepfold for sale leads to a translucent coda. Here a tender, slightly mournful finish from piano is trumped by an emphatic sign off from the orchestra

Children’s Corner is similarly colourful. The Berceuse has long shadows enhanced by the bass strings, but the Serenade for the Doll is delightful. The Snow Is Dancing is appropriately mysterious, and there is a poignant oboe solo for The Little Shepherd. Finally the Golliwogg’s Cake Walk is a brilliant study of light and shade, with the ebullient theme a treat.

Does it all work?

It does. Pascal Rophé brings great detail to Debussy’s storytelling, and while the orchestral playing is of an extremely high standard the wind section deserve special mention for the way in which they inhabit the characters of each tale. The BIS recording captures every detail. There are also reminders that in spite of these colourful stories the spectre of World War One lies in the shadows.

Is it recommended?

Heartily. This is a colourful and thoroughly enjoyable album, lovingly realised and beautifully played. An essential addition to any Debussy collection.


On record – Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg – Pettersson: Symphony no.12 ‘The Dead in the Square’ (BIS)


Swedish Radio Choir, Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, Norrköpping Symphony Orchestra / Christian Lindberg

Symphony no.12 ‘De döda på torget’ (The Dead in the Square) (1973-4)

BIS BIS 2450SACD [55’40”]

Producer Hans Kipfer
Engineers Stephan RehMathias Spitzbarth

Recorded March 2019 and January 2020 at Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköpping

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Christian Lindberg (presumably) concludes BIS’s Pettersson cycle, with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, with the Twelfth Symphony – featuring poems by the then recently deceased Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in what is a typically unflinching statement of intent.

What’s the music like?

When he began the work, Allan Pettersson had not written for voices in almost three decades and his accepting a commission from Uppsala University for its 500th anniversary was never likely to result in a celebratory paean. To Swedish translations of nine poems from the Canto general collection by Pablo Neruda (1904-73), he created a continuous structure whose texts are not so much set as fashioned into a stark melody line (the choral writing almost entirely in rhythmic unison) as articulates the work’s musical evolution as surely as its emotional impact.

Although not charting any systematic evolution, the Twelfth Symphony does pursue a definite trajectory. The first and longest section, The Dead in the Square, follows its short yet active orchestral prelude with an ominous rendering of the tragedy being related at Santiago on 28th January 1946. Other than establishing an atmosphere of unrelieved anxiety, this also sets out the essential musical parameters of choral writing that does not attempt to ‘clothe’ the textual imagery so much as define and propel the musical content. Hence the smouldering desolation of The Massacres as follows an eventful orchestral interlude (used subsequently to comment on and/or anticipate these choral sections), then the stealthy evoking of human degradation in The Men of the Nitrate and the increasingly wretched imploration of the workers in Death.

The work’s emotional (if not temporal) mid-point arrives with the single stanza of How the Flags were Born, whose fleeting while unmistakable promise of change is intensified in the fervent roll-call of departed heroes in I Call on Them then the accusatory righteousness of The Enemies which is duly made the emotional fulcrum of the overall design. The ongoing struggle is vividly evoked through the hectic onward motion of Here They Are before past, present and future are drawn together in Always – bringing with it the most contemplative music of the whole work prior to the final outburst of defiance. A reminder, also, that Chile was in the process of succumbing to fascist rule even while Pettersson completed this work, whose ricocheting climactic chord of C must have appeared an ever more distant prospect.

Does it all work?

Yes, when as purposefully marshalled and cumulatively shaped as it is here. The pioneering account by Carl Rune Larsson (Caprice) has comparable emotional force but relatively little inner clarity, while Manfred Honeck’s version (CPO) – featuring the same choirs – evinces more character in individual sections but less sure a grasp of its ongoing structure. Precisely because of the way texts articulate content, those who are coming anew to Pettersson should find the piece an ideal way into its composer’s combative and unequivocal musical mindset.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Anyone unfamiliar with the work should certainly opt for this new recording, whose sound and annotations are fully on a par with earlier instalments in this Pettersson symphony cycle. Live performances outside of Sweden will hopefully become more frequent over time.



For more information on this release visit the BIS website

Playlist – Clare Hammond

It is with great pleasure that we welcome pianist Clare Hammond to the Arcana playlist section.

Clare has just released a new solo album, Variations. It is a typically thoughtful and inventive program of works from the 20th and 21st-centuries, ranging from  Adams to Birtwistle, Copland to Gubaidulina.

We invited Clare to complement her new album with a selection of her own favourite sets of variations, and she has obliged with some new discoveries. We begin with one of the greatest of all, the towering Passacaglia for organ by Bach, via Leopold Stokowski‘s colourful orchestration. Then we downsize for Louise Farrenc‘s Variations concertantes sur mélodie suisse, for violin and piano, before we hear from George Walker, the first African American to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and only recently getting more exposure as a composer. Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz, with her Theme with Variations, offers a strong contrast to the Farrenc, again for violin and piano.

A Decca recording from 1993 follows, an early bit of recognition for the craft of Coleridge-Taylor and his substantial Variations on an African Air for orchestra. We go to piano for Lili Boulanger‘s typically concise and expressive contribution, before the wonderfully humourous, wacky and brilliant Variations on America by Charles Ives, in the orchestration by William Schuman.

Make sure you have a listen to this as well as Clare’s album, to be reviewed on Arcana soon. Our grateful thanks to her for an invigorating hour of music:

You can read more about Clare Hammond’s Variations album on the BIS website, and to hear clips and purchase from Presto Classical, click here

On record – Victoria Borisova-Ollas: Angelus (BIS)

Victoria Borisova-Ollas
Angelus (2008)
The Kingdom of Silence (2003)
Before the Mountains Were Born (2005)
Creation of the Hymn (2013)
Open Ground (2006)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrey Boreyko (Angelus), Martyn Brabbins (The Kingdom of Silence, Before the Mountains Were Born), Sakari Oramo (Open Ground)

BIS BIS2288 SACD [82’08”]

Producers Thore Brinkmann, Ingo Petry
Engineers Marion Schwebel, Matthias Spitzbarth

Recorded August 2016 (Open Ground), November 2017 (Angelus), August 2019 (The Kingdom of Silence, Before the Mountains Were Born) in Stockholm Concert Hall

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

BIS issues what is only the second release dedicated to the music of Victoria Borisova-Ollas (b1969), Vladivostok-born and resident in Sweden for almost three decades, superbly played by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and sumptuously recorded in Stockholm Concert Hall.

What’s the music like?

UK audiences have had few opportunities to hear Borisova-Ollas, but her piece Wings of the Wind was second at the Masterprize International Music Competition in 1998, and her multi-media drama The Ground Beneath Her Feet was premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2007. Her orchestral writing is confident and assured – drawing on a lineage that takes in such as Rimsky, Glière and Respighi in music which is never less than evocative or atmospheric, but lacks greater expressive focus so as to convey a more arresting personality.

An in memoriam to her teacher Nikolai Korndorf, The Kingdom of Silence duly proceeds as the ‘journey of a life’ from beatific stasis, through episodes of angst and decisiveness, and on to a serene if underwhelming catharsis. More distinctive is Before the Mountains Were Born, the third of this composer’s works to draw inspiration from the Psalms (here No. 94 – ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place’) and whose supplicatory yearning informs a cadenza-like passage for the four principal woodwind prior to a decidedly unexpected close.

The nearest thing here to a showpiece, Open Ground picks up on American minimalist traits in its swift and unrelenting while highly eventful progress to a tellingly evanescent conclusion: a tale of reality and stability which could yet find favour with orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic.

Most expansive is Angelus, inspired by a visit to Munich and the sheer range of bell-sounds to be heard there – the result being a ‘morning to evening’ evolution where elements of chant and tintinnabulation are prominent within a texture of lingering and iridescent sonority such as enfolds the senses without engaging the intellect. Moreover, the accumulation of incident toward its centre lacks underlying emotional intensification, or the organ-capped climax any semblance of tension and release. More substantial is Creation of the Hymn – a sequence of variations, on an original theme of some trenchancy, originally written for string quartet and reworked for 15 strings. A range of stylistic associations is evoked, but the astute dovetailing of expressive contrasts and purposeful follow-through to a fervent ending holds the attention.

Does it all work?

Whatever else, this music is certainly good as regards first impressions. Dig deeper, however, and lack of substance in the actual ideas and way by which these generate the larger content is hard to deny – for all that the aural enticement of the orchestration cannot be gainsaid. Nor is there any lack of commitment from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, guided by Messrs Boreyko, Brabbins and Oramo to performances of real virtuosity. Those who already have the earlier disc of Borisova-Ollas’s orchestral music on Phono Suecia will certainly want this too.

Is it recommended?

Yes, with reservations. Wide-ranging sound is on a par with BIS’s customary high standards, while the composer’s annotations are quirky but informative. Hopefully releases of Borisova-Ollas’s chamber and instrumental work will emerge to open-out the perspective on her music.

Listen & Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the BIS website


On record – Nash Ensemble – John Pickard: The Gardener of Aleppo (BIS)

John Pickard
The Gardner of Aleppo (2016)
Daughters of Zion (2016)*
Snowbound (2010)
Serenata Concertata (1984)**
Three Chicken Studies (2008)
The Phagotus of Afranio (1992)
Ghost-Train (2016)

*Susan Bickley (mezzo); **Philippa Davies (flute); Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins

BIS BIS 2461 SACD [79’22”]

Producer / Engineer Simon Fox-Gál

Recorded September 2018 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

BIS continues its coverage of music by John Pickard (b. 1963) with an extensive overview of chamber works surveying more than three decades of creativity, in performances by the Nash Ensemble that do ample justice to this composer’s combative while always accessible music.

What’s the music like?

Earliest is Serenata Concertata, written when Pickard was still an undergraduate and his first paid commission. Essentially a concerto for flute and five instruments, it unfolds continuously from a haunting Cadenza I then a pensive Aria I to the Scherzo-Notturno whose accrued energy carries over into the climactic Cadenza II, before Aria II brings an emotional poise that gradually dies away towards the close. Whatever its passing influences, Pickardian traits are everywhere apparent and the composer was surely right to keep this work in his catalogue.

Philippa Davies makes a fine showing, as does Ursula Leveaux in The Phagotus of Afranio – the title that of a fanciful forerunner of the bassoon, whose Hoffnung-like presence evinces humour and no little pathos in this entertaining ‘capriccio’. Hardly less diverting, the Three Chicken Studies evoke its subjects respectively laying, feeding then fighting in miniatures, as rendered by Gareth Hulse, both winsome and insouciant (and fully deserving of inclusion in Pickard’s catalogue). Alone among these pieces, Snowbound has been previously recorded (Toccata Classics) – the new account being more spacious and more graphic in its depiction of a familiar landscape as rendered unrecognizable through music that cannily emphasizes those darker sonorities of bass clarinet, cello and piano on route to a ‘glacial’ denouement.

The remaining three works followed in the wake of the imposing Fifth Symphony and testify to the variety of Pickard’s approach irrespective of genre or instrumentation. Setting a text by Gavin D’Costa, Daughters of Zion relates the fateful decision of Mary and its consequences in music by turns ominous and plangent – superbly sung by Susan Bickley. No less resonant in emotional impact, The Gardner of Aleppo was inspired by an incident in the Syrian civil war, where a flower-seller continued to ply his wares in the face of heavy bombardment up until his untimely death. Here, too, flute, viola and harp make for a (surprisingly?) tensile combination across its trajectory of evocation, animation and recollection. By comparison, Ghost-Train might appear humorous in its (often graphic) portrayal of the once obligatory fairground ride; as represented by a perpetuum mobile whose stealthy refrain finds contrast with sundry episodes of a more or less grotesque nature, duly culminating in an apotheosis whose sombre equivocation suggests this to be a journey from which there can be no return.

Does it all work?

Yes, given the alacrity with which these musicians respond to music that, for all its textural and harmonic intricacy, conveys that expressive immediacy manifest throughout Pickard’s output. By so doing, moreover, the stylistic consistency of his idiom is no less in evidence.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Sound is well up to BIS’s customary standards as to clarity and perspective, with the composer’s booklet note typical in its keen observation and wry humour. Further releases of Pickard’s music, not least his first three symphonies, will hopefully follow from this source.



You can discover more about this release at the BIS website, where you can also purchase the recording.