Proms at … Cadogan Hall 8: Knussen Chamber Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth – A Tribute to Oliver Knussen

Knussen Chamber Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (above)

Knussen …upon one note – Fantasia after Purcell (1995) (from 2:15 on the broadcast link below)
Birtwistle Fantasia upon all the notes (2011) (9:29)
Freya Waley-Cohen Naiad (2019, world premiere) (20:14)
Knussen Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ (1972, rev, 2018) (30:54)
Abrahamsen Herbstlied (1992, rev. 2009) (38:58)
Alastair Putt Halazuni (2012) (47:36)
Knussen Songs without Voices (1991-2) (tbc)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 9 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

The BBC Proms’ 800-year odyssey of music over eight weeks at the Cadogan Hall reached the present day in the company of the UK’s newest orchestra.

The Knussen Chamber Orchestra took its bow at the Aldeburgh Festival this year. Created specifically in memory and celebration of Oliver Knussen (above), it is an ensemble for commission and festival appearances, unrestricted in the repertoire it will perform – in that way very much reflecting the approach of its dedicatee. Comprising orchestral principals and budding young talent, it also reflects Knussen’s ability to communicate with musicians regardless of their standing.

Knussen is still greatly missed, a towering figure in British music in the latter part of the 20th century and the 21st until now. Tales have emerged not just of his mentoring of young composers and influence on the established writers, but of a sparkling personality and wit, a dinner companion par excellence. As a conductor he made several richly inventive programmes for the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Ensemble, and as a composer his small but perfectly formed catalogue is required listening for any budding contemporary composer of today. Like the composers he adored, particularly Stravinsky and Webern, his is a musical language that speaks directly through an economy of means.

That much was immediately evident in the three and a half minutes of …upon one note – Fantasia after Purcell, which used the colours of clarinet, violin, cello and piano to lasting effect. Knussen moved the omnipresent middle ‘C’ – the ‘one note’ – around the parts effortlessly, enjoying the harmonic diversions possible around it and alternating solemnity with mischief. The piece proved both a homage to Purcell and a brief spark of invention, and was ideally weighted by the soloists.

Birtwistle’s Fantasia upon all the notes has potential for mischief in its title but is in effect a typically serious piece. Written for an ensemble of seven players this was led with authority by harpist Céline Saout, who effectively drove the piece through its initial jagged outlines. The colours available to Birtwistle were exploited through music of stern countenance, its few tender asides to be cherished as the exception rather than the rule. Only at the end, with little points of pitch from solo instruments, did the mood lighten.

In a charming conversation with BBC Radio 3 host Petroc Trelawny, Freya Waley-Cohen revealed Knussen’s qualities as a tutor and a ‘wonderful person’. Naiad (20:14 on the broadcast) was a fitting tribute, fulfilling Cohen’s description of reflections from the scales of fish and dew on a spider’s web with music that cast a rarefied light, such as the sun does this time of year. The attractive melodic cells rippled with a slight chill, piercing moments of clarity from the woodwind contrasted by fuzzier asides from the strings. Although Cohen’s description of a slow piece and a fast piece rubbing up together was more difficult to follow, that did not mar in the slightest an enjoyable and meaningful piece, whose last few bars had a lilting four-note melody that hung on the air, leaving an enchanted atmosphere in its wake.

Bassoonist Jonathan Davies then stepped forward for Knussen’s highly virtuosic Study for Metamorphosis (30:54), based on Kafka. There were some extraordinary sounds here, the composer exploiting the cartoon-like persona the bassoon can elicit but also reminding us of the instrument’s versatility, its ability to paint pictures both happy and sad. Davies was superb and clearly enjoyed the experience.

Hans Abrahamsen’s Herbstlied followed (from 38:58), an extended arrangement and combination of a Danish song and two J.S. Bach subjects from The Art of Fugue. This instrumental version was unexpectedly moving, its picture painting of leaves ‘falling as from far…’ most apt for the time of year and given a vivid account by the five players. The cor anglais of Tom Blomfield added a unique sourness to the tone, and the downward motion of the melodies indicated sorrow, but there was still a sweeter melancholy here that stayed with the listener long afterwards.

We moved into Alastair Putt’s wind quintet Halazuni (47:36) without a break. This was a less affecting piece, more calculated in its depiction of a spiral (its title is the Persian word for spiral) The colours of the instruments – flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon – were frequently attractive, and while the music did on occasion feel predetermined, there was a clear end goal.

The best was saved until last in the form of Knussen’s Songs Without Voices (not yet linked to the broadcast on BBC Sounds). A group of four pieces for an ensemble of eight players, the Songs use vivid colour combinations which bring the composer’s imagery to life. The melodies, though short, are incredibly meaningful.

The first three Songs are wordless settings of texts by Walt Whitman, starting with Winter’s Foil, which was alive with bird calls and blustery winds. As elsewhere Wigglesworth secured playing of great poise and personality, led with characteristic authority by violinist Clio Gould. Prairie Sunset showed off the colours of the ensemble both separately and in combination, before the delicate outlines of First Dandelion were revealed. ‘simple and fresh and fair’.

Finally we heard Elegiac Arabesques, Knussen’s tribute to Polish-English composer Andrezj Panufnik. This wove an incredibly poignant thread, suitable in its own way as a memorial to the composer-conductor commemorated with such grace and feeling here.

Listen

The music in this concert can be heard on Spotify below:

A playlist featuring works both composed and conducted by Oliver Knussen can be heard below. It includes …upon one note from this concert, though not the Songs Without Voices – which are in fact available on the Erato label:

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 7: Wojciech Świtała & the Silesian String Quartet play Weinberg & Bacewicz

Silesian String Quartet [(Szymon Krzeszowiec, Arkadiusz Kubica (violins), Łukasz Syrnicki (viola), Piotr Janosik (cello) (above)], Wojciech Świtała (piano, below)

Weinberg String Quartet no.7 (1959) (2:47 – 26:49 on the broadcast link below)

Bacewicz Piano Quintet no.1 (1952) (30:36 – 53:10)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 2 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Photo credit Magdalena Jodłowska (Silesian String Quartet)

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

For this listener at least, it has taken a while for the Proms At…Cadogan Hall theme to catch on this season. However the BBC’s traversal of 800 years of musical history has turned out to be both original and interesting, touching on areas of music not often heard or given top billing. By grouping these two anniversary composers together a cogent and thought provoking program was the result; a concert subdued in delivery but high on musical and emotional substance.

Both Polish composers featured are not thought of as front rank examples of their country’s classical music tradition, but on this evidence both should be brought forward. There are past reasons for that relative neglect, in the relative unavailability of Weinberg’s music to western ears, and the effective suppression of his and Grażyna Bacewicz’s music, but as classical music looks to remove boundaries and stereotypes, these are exactly the type of musical figures that should benefit from such a move.

We heard Weinberg first, and the seventh of his impressive output of seventeen string quartets (from 2:47 on the broadcast link above). It is perhaps the one that sails closest to the style of his friend and protector Shostakovich, especially in the second movement where it quotes from his String Quartet no.3. As the Adagio first movement (2:47 on the broadcast) shows, the two composers have much in common in mood if not execution. Weinberg’s bittersweet lyricism is to the fore here, the radiance of pure C major at the very beginning reminiscent of Shostakovich’s own first string quartet in the same key from 20 years later.

As the music progresses however there are more troubled offshoots and episodes, the players digging deeper and the music lost in thought. Weinberg does still keep his audience in mind of the brighter sound of the opening material, which returns at 8:18.

The second movement (marked Allegretto, 9:24) has shadowy outlines from the cello, the music again wary but prone to quick and nimble outbursts from second violin (the excellent Arkadiusz Kubica) – very much in the vein of a Shostakovich scherzo, but with less bite to its execution.

The third and final movement (15:24), a substantial set of 23 variations on a theme, feels like the emotional crux of the work, and was performed as such here by the Silesians. Passionate solos from first violinist Szymon Krzeszowiec and viola player Łukasz Syrnicki (an extended dialogue from 24:20) took place in the Adagio sections, and were complemented by some really concentrated and increasingly fraught quartet episodes in the Allegro, the melodies compressed and tense. In keeping with the movement’s arch structure this tension built towards the viola solo, which marked the passionate final section and a resolution in C major. The feeling was that of a battle won, but at a cost.

Bacewicz contributed two piano quintets to her sizeable chamber music output, and both are works of originality and style. While many piano-led works such as these go for volume and bluster in the keyboard part there is more poise and reserve here, the piano and strings complementing each other on an equal footing.

There is a light touch to the music too, especially in the dance music of the second movement. Before then the first movement (initially marked Moderato by the composer) sets a relatively austere scene, though the string glints at the edges. A faster central section hints at a dance and certainly gains more energy before falling back to the slower approach, albeit with more depth this time, certainly as performed here.

The second movement (marked Presto, 37:47) takes the Polish oberek dance as its inspiration, the forthright piano melody supported by lilting, syncopated strings before summoning itself for a dramatic finish. The slow movement (Grave, 42:09) is every bit as powerful, though here the steps are very slow and steady to a stern, full-bodied climax.

The finale (48:35) had great purpose and originality of texture, the quartet busying their musical arguments against an increasingly outspoken piano part. A set of quick fire exchanges and bustling figures among the strings were harnessed for a full bodied closing statement.

Both pieces were superbly played in this concert, the commitment of the Silesian String Quartet beyond contention – as was also the case for pianist Wojciech Świtała. If the music itself was a little straight faced, it was a timely reminder that only 80 years ago (to the week) the Second World War had begun. The music therefore served as a warning for lessons that appear not to have been heeded!

Listen

The music in this concert can be heard on Spotify below:

The Silesian String Quartet have also recorded a good deal of Weinberg’s chamber output. Here is a disc of the composer’s String Quartets nos. 9 & 10:

They have also recorded all seven string quartets by Bacewicz, in an award winning double album for Chandos which you can hear below:

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 4: Aris Quartet play Schubert, Sirmen & Haydn

Aris Quartet [Anna Katharina Wildermuth, Noémi Zipperling (violins), Caspar Vinzens (viola), Lukas Sieber (cello)]

Schubert String Quartet no.1 in G minor / B flat major D18 (1810/11) (2:03 – 18:14 on the broadcast link below)
Maddalena Laura Sirmen String Quartet No. 5 in F minor (publ. 1769) (20:20 – 31:43)
Haydn String Quartet in B flat major Op.76/4 ‘Sunrise’ (1796-7) (33:04 – 54:33)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 12 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

The BBC Proms are charting 800 years of history in their Proms At…Cadogan Hall concerts this season, and the fourth instalment brought an examination of the string quartet towards the start of its existence. It was great to see Haydn – the acknowledged father of the form – given top billing for once, with one of the six masterpieces published as his Op.76, the mature peak of his chamber music output.

Before that, the youthful Aris Quartet brought us music by an even younger composer. Schubert was only just into his teens when he delivered the first of fifteen published string quartets, and even at this point – with a work given its first performance by the family quartet in their home – he was finding a distinctive and adventurous voice. Schubert played viola in his own piece – and it was published when he turned 15.

The String Quartet no.1 inhabits two keys, G minor and its major key ‘relative’, B flat. The first movement (from 2:03 on the broadcast link above) has a tender slow introduction but becomes surprisingly stern as its main theme kicks in (3:47), with brisk tremolo figurations. This is complemented by a less stern, major key theme later on (5:24). The Aris Quartet gave it the appropriate depth, before moving on to the silvery elegance of the Menuetto (7:56), where the quartet are instructed to use mutes. This had a nice rise and fall to its dance steps in the Aris performance. A warm Andante followed (11:30), now in the sunnier climbs of B flat major, before a bright and breezy finale (14:31) in the same key confirmed the young composer’s progress not just with writing for strings, but in his already enviable grasp of form.

Very little has been heard to date of Maddalena Laura Sirmen, but thanks to the BBC Proms we had confirmation that women composers were indeed alive and well in the 18th century. Thankfully performances of their work are starting to break through, and to hear Sirmen’s String Quartet no.5, published alongside Mozart’s early works, was to hear a voice rooted in Venetian Baroque traditions but very much looking forward.
Sirmen’s work opens with a short but quite austere Largo (20:20), which the quartet played with a bit less vibrato, gradually using more as the music became warmer. Then at 21:30 they gave a nice, full sound to the first Allegro, an attractive movement and a busy affair where the parts are closely intertwined. Sirmen’s style is free of padding and the players enjoyed its conversational style. The Largo returned at 26:26, casting a shadow before the Minuetto (27:40) drew us back to music of optimism and charm.

Haydn wrote a great many string quartets – thought to be 68 in all – but the six published as Op.76 are among his finest achievements in the field. He somehow manages to find a fresh approach with each of his works, and in the case of the ‘Sunrise’ it is through a musical portrayal of the very beginning of the day (from 33:04). He had already successfully tried this approach in a symphony (the introduction of Symphony no.6 (Le Matin) the best example) but this is a more intimate affair.
The performance here was beautifully shaded to catch the first light, with a sensitive and beautiful solo from Anna Katharina Wildermuth, but the ensuing busy passages – the players following the composer’s directions – were much more forceful, as though the sun had woken a gale force wind too.

This was a very fine performance, enjoying Haydn’s invention and wit, but giving each return to the ‘Sunrise’ material the magic of the first hearing. The second movement, marked Adagio, was expansive but also softly voiced (41:18), an example of one of the composer’s later, radiant slow movements. There was still plenty of room given to the first violin part, and Wildermuth took full advantage with excellent intonation.

A typically lively Minuet followed, with a smile and the odd knowing glance through its chromatic melodies (45:59). With it came a contrasting Trio section which had something of the march about it (57:35), over a steady drone from cellist Lukas Sieber, with the Minuet repeated at 49:01. The fourth movement (50:02) was elegant, light on its feet and with fine ensemble playing, the quartet enjoying Haydn’s presentation of the theme and its variations right up to the brisk finish.

Once off air the quartet gave an encore of the last movement of Dvořák’s American string quartet, disrupting the progression through 800 years for the live audience rather, but again playing with plenty of energy and virtuosity.

Listen

The music in this concert can be heard on Spotify below:

The six Surmen quartets can be heard on Spotify in this collection from the Allegri Quartet:

Meanwhile Haydn’s collection of Op.76 quartets can be heard here in a fine set of recordings from the Takacs Quartet:

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 3: The English Concert / Kristian Bezuidenhout

The English Concert / Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpischord, above)

Purcell (1659-95)
The Virtuous Wife (before 1694): Overture (1:45 on the broadcast link below)
The Fairy Queen (1692): Hornpipe (4:38)
The Virtuous Wife (before 1694) – First Act Tune (5:41)
The Indian Queen (1695): Rondeau (8:41)
Chacony in G minor (c1678) (10:21)
Marchand (1669-1732)
Pièces de clavecin, Book 1: Allemande (publ. 1702) (17:33)
de La Guerre (1665-1729)
Violin Sonata in D minor (publ. 1707) (20:46 – 35:45)
Telemann (1681-1767)
Sonata in A minor, TWV 43:a 5 (unknown date) (39:43 – 48:47)
Handel (1685-1759)
Trio Sonata in G major Op.5/4 (publ. 1739) (50:02 – end)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 5 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

This was a really interesting hour of music from the English Concert and director / harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout, and it was all the more refreshing for a willingness to look beyond the more conventional repertoire you might have expected as part of the Proms’ look at 800 years of music in the Cadogan Hall chamber concerts this year.

Petroc Trelawny, always a consummate professional when introducing at the venue, gave helpful context behind the works chosen, and explained how each was looking to emulate the French style that was so fashionable thanks to the tastes and influence of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’.

First up was Henry Purcell, who was of course a popular figure and well enough established in England – but the choices here were not conventional. The Virtuous Wife, a comedy for the stage (beginning at 1:45 on the broadcast link), is just one example of many works Purcell wrote for the theatre in England. In this performance the overture was perhaps a touch too virtuous to begin with, though by the time the music broke at 2:43 a natural tempo and phrasing had been reached. The Fairy Queen’s Hornpipe (4:38) was vigorous, with a satisfying twang to the theorbo strings of William Carter.

The First Act Tune (5:41) was pensive but nicely phrased, showing off Purcell’s rich chromatic spectrum, and was followed by a graceful Rondeau, dancing slowly but elegantly (8:41), before the Chacony (10:21), one of his most famous instrumental pieces that we often hear today for string orchestra. It is a powerful set of variations over a ‘ground’ (a pre-set bass and chord progression) that gathers in intensity.

Next we had solo harpsichord, Bezuidenhout showing off his instincts in an improvisatory Allemande by the French composer Louis Marchand (17:33), with some expansive harmonic twists. That was followed by a dazzling Violin Sonata no.1 in D minor by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (20:46). Written in 1707 as part of a set dedicated to Louis XIV, it was deftly handled here by Tuomo Suni, with its six short movements marked as Prelude (20:46), Presto (23:20), Adagio (25:18), Presto-Adagio (26:00), Aria (29:53) and Presto (33:36). The Presto-Adagio showed not just only Suni’s clear tone, without vibrato, but the punchy ‘continuo’ accompaniment from Bezuidenhout and viola da gamba player Piroska Baranyay. A similarly crunchy sound inhabits the final Presto, after a graceful Aria.

Telemann’s enormous output can sometimes mask his achievements as a composer, and the Sonata in A minor – little known, it seems – showed itself to be an accomplished and dramatic piece, ‘praising the instrumental texture’ as Bezuidenhout explained. Bolstered by the double bass of Christine Sticher, the English Concert (above) really benefited from the extra depth to their sound, meaning a Trio Sonata had seven people on the platform managing the three parts!

The short suite made references to Poland, France and Italy in a Grave (39:43), Allegro – Adagio (40:32), Allegro (44:10), Largo e staccato (45:43) and final Allegro (46:15). The stylish performance had a rustic feel in the faster movements, with an earthy snap to the staccatos of the fourth and a brilliant cut and thrust to the final Allegro.
Finally Handel, and a brightly voiced Trio Sonata in G major Op.5/4, the kind of which he would surely have played with friends in his Brook Street flat in London. This performance played the piece in a different order to the norm, beginning with the ‘second’ movement, marked A tempo ordinario (50:02), which had an enjoyably full texture from the seven instruments, and then moving onto the ‘first’, an Allegro (53:55), where the violins took a more prominent role. An elegant Minuet (56:04) followed, then a Passacaille (58:02), with increasingly elaborate lines spun over a recurring bass line – which itself became enjoyably coarse.

An enlightening hour of music, then, which you are encouraged to enjoy on the link above.

Listen

The playlist below replicates the concert in available recordings, and includes the Gigue movement of the Handel which appears to have been omitted from the original concert:

Meanwhile to enjoy the many and varied delights of Purcell’s complete Theatre Music, the below recording from Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music will bring much pleasure:

Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Matthew Taylor Symphony no.5, Mendelssohn & Beethoven

Pavel Šporcl (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (above)

Cadogan Hall, London
Sunday 9 June 2019 (3pm)

Taylor Symphony no.5 Op.59 (2018)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64 (1844)
Beethoven Symphony no.5 in C minor Op.67 (1808)

Written by Richard Whitehouse, who also introduced the concert with Matthew from the Cadogan Hall platform

This debut at Cadogan Hall by the English Symphony Orchestra was also the third in its 21st Century Symphony Project, having previously included the Third by Philip Sawyers and the Ninth from David Matthews. This afternoon brought the Fifth Symphony of Matthew Taylor (below).

Symphonism goes back to the start of Taylor’s composing career, his Sinfonia Brevis having been completed at just 21. The present work is only his second such piece in four movements, but here the formal and expressive emphasis feels very different. Indeed, the opening Allegro is unprecedented in his output for its tensile volatility (not unlike that of Beethoven’s Serioso Quartet), its driving impetus and explosive culmination creating a momentum pointedly left unfulfilled by the ensuing intermezzi: the first (a tribute to composer and teacher Cy Lloyd) as terse and equivocal as the second (a tribute to Angela Simpson, wife of composer Robert Simpson) is poised and wistful. It remains for the final Adagio (a tribute to Taylor’s mother Brigid) to secure that eloquent apotheosis towards which the whole work had been headed.

The ESO responded with playing of sustained emotional power such as carried through this movement’s plangent twin climaxes and on to its resigned coda. Not that there was any lack of commitment earlier – Kenneth Woods having set a suitably headlong tempo for the first movement as left his players unfazed, then characterizing the central intermezzi with regard for their subtly different auras. A fine rendering of a piece which amply reinforces Taylor’s standing as a symphonist of stature. Hopefully further hearings will not be long in coming.

The rest of this concert consisted of standard repertoire, but there was nothing routine about the performances. Pavel Šporcl (above) was soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, notable for the trenchancy and forward impetus of its opening movement – not least the structurally crucial cadenza placed between development and reprise, then the alternately easeful and searching Andante. The finale had no lack of wit or insouciance – Šporcl duly returning for a dynamic account of the Fifth Caprice by Paganini, its coruscating passagework delivered with aplomb.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony received a reading as attentive to the smaller detail as to its overall trajectory. The initial Allegro was incisive though never inflexible, not least in delineating the myriad variants on its indelible four-note ‘motto’, and if the Andante evinced a marginal lack of grandeur at its relatively swift tempo, those teasing asides which open-out its expressive course were deftly underlined.

Using the Clive Brown edition of this piece, Woods (rightly) opted to include the second-time repeat of scherzo and trio – giving it an enhanced presence as ideally complemented the finale’s ensuing majesty. There was little to fault in the latter’s uninhibited course: whether, or not, this edition places greater emphasis on the piccolo part, the clarity with which it emerged itself proved something of a revelation.

A memorable conclusion to a concert which also underlined the importance of this project in bringing together past and present of the symphony as a genre of ongoing and vital relevance. Next year sees a third instalment in the guise of the First Symphony by James Francis Brown.

Further listening

Toccata Classics have previously issued an album of Matthew Taylor orchestral music, recorded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Garry Walker. The composer’s Second Symphony and Viola Concerto can be heard here:

Pavel Šporcl can be heard in violin concertos by Richard Strauss and Korngold on the album below:

For more information on Matthew Taylor, visit the composer’s website Meanwhile Kenneth Woods has a detailed website of writing and engagements here, and you can read more about the English Symphony Orchestra here