In concert – Oxford Lieder Festival celebrates Saint-Saëns with Elizabeth Watts, Victor Sicard & Anna Cardona, Fenella Humphreys & Martin Roscoe, Adèle Charvet & Anne Le Bozec

Various venues in Oxford, Saturday 9 October. Artists as listed below

Written by Ben Hogwood from online streams

The Oxford Lieder festival is into its 20th year, a cause for celebration indeed. It has become one of the UK’s finest classical music events, lovingly curated and produced but gathering increasing levels of enthusiasm every year.

The 2021 model is ideally weighted, with live music events streamed and recorded for posterity – an ideally weighted dual approach in these uncertain times. Titled Nature’s Songbook, it has set aside days for anniversary composers Saint-Saëns (100 years since his death) and the lesser-heard Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar (150 years since his birth)

Saint-Saëns had his day on the Saturday, offering audiences a chance to appreciate his under-heard Mélodies in the context of better-known chamber and stage works, not to mention works by pupils and contemporaries. Baritone Victor Sicard & pianist Anna Cardona (above) were on first, the 2011 winners of the festival’s Young Artists Platform giving a recital from the ideal acoustic Saint John the Evangelist.

They began with a pupil and close friend of the featured composer. Gabriel Fauré was to become one of the very finest French composers of the 20th century, his output headed but not restricted to sublime contributions in the world of chamber music, piano and song. We heard his first published song cycle Poème d’un jour Op.21, a brief affair – which is ironic, since the subject of Charles Grandmougin’s verse was exactly that. Sicard found his feet in the slightly sorrowful first song, with an easily flowing piano part from Cardona. There was strength of character in the second, and wistfulness in the third as the day-long love affair fizzled out.

Saint-Saëns melodies followed and – as is often the case with this composer – hit the mark immediately. The attractive La Brise was secured by a rustic drone from Sicard’s left hand, which also gave its urgency to the next song. Emotionally the heart of this selection lay in La splendeur vide Op.26/2, which was followed by the Danse macabre, Saint-Saëns working with inner resolve. Perhaps it lacked a little edginess but a really strong connection between the two was clear.

Fauré’s pupil Ravel was next, and Sicard found the exquisite, timeless quality of Kaddisch, its melodic inflections beautifully expressed and contrasting with the questioning L’Énigme Éternelle. Following this was Histoires Naturelles, the ideal choice given the festival’s theme. Cardona had a strong descriptive role to play, with some lovely detail portraying Crickets, and The Swan too, which had strong characterisation. The Guinea Fowl’s ‘rowdy and shrill’ ending was perfectly judged by the pair – as was an exquisite encore of Chanson française.

Later we further examined the link between teacher and student in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, as violinist Fenella Humphreys and pianist Martin Roscoe played sonatas by Saint-Saens and Faure. In an aside to the audience, Humphreys revealed it was the first time the duo had performed the Saint-Saens Violin Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.75 (1885), realising a long-held dream of playing a work in public she had loved since childhood.

The closer acoustics of the hall took a little while to adjust to – certainly on the live stream – but it was easy to admire the duo as they met the challenges of the busy first movement head on, getting beneath the tumultuous phrases to the deeper emotion below. The softer-hearted second theme, a chorale, with rippling arpeggios from the piano, reminded us that the Organ Symphony was not far off – and it was beautifully rendered here. A keenly felt Adagio led to a balletic third movement, initiated by Roscoe’s nicely pointed piano part. There was however a strong sense of everything pointing towards the finale. Its tremendous technical demands were comfortably conquered, but again the music’s feeling won the day, Humphreys playing winsome long phrases. Both players enjoyed the return of the ‘chorale’ theme, but also the peal of bells evoked by Roscoe from the piano.

Fauré’s Violin Sonata no.1 in A major Op.13 is an early work, written nine years earlier, when it was given a glowing review by his teacher. Humphreys spoke affectingly of its significance during lockdown, and it was clearly a tonic for her to be playing it again. The two players dovetailed beautifully, Roscoe’s flowing introduction picked up seamlessly by Humphreys’ lyrical phrases. The slow movement took time for deep thought, its gently undulating piano a foil for the violin’s probing melodies, gradually building to a deeply felt apex. The scherzo was winsome, its syncopations tripping over each other happily. An ardent account of the fourth movement found the players deep in conversation, right up to the end of this richly rewarding piece. It is difficult to write about what makes Fauré such an attractive composer – his gifts are plentiful but elusive – yet this performance had all the qualities that so impressed his teacher.

A strong cast of thirteen musicians assembled for a pair of concerts in the Saint John the Evangelist church. They were led by soprano Elizabeth Watts, and baritone Felix Kemp, with pianists Jâms Coleman, Martin Sturfält joined by principal players of the Echor Chamber Orchestra (Anna Wolstenholme (flute / piccolo), Jernej Albreht (clarinet), Owen Gunnell (percussion), Jonathan Stone and Sara Wolstenholme (violins), William Bender (viola), Nathaniel Boyd (cello), Laurence Ungless (double bass)

It is funny to think Saint-Saëns prohibited performances of Le Carnaval des Animaux in his lifetime, for fear of being dismissed as a frivolous composer. In the event the suite was published a year after his death, and the piece has had an enduring appeal ever since. The Oxford Lieder edition recognised that appeal but interspersed his suite with an array of animal-based songs from contemporaries and countrymen, together with short readings from nonsense verse by Ogden Nash.

The programme was brilliantly conceived but was too big, including a total of 17 songs alongside the Carnival without a break, meaning the flow was difficult to pick up at times. That said, the imaginative set of works largely succeeded thanks to the artistry on stage. Watts’ versatility was evident in the oppressive heat of Chausson’s La Caravane, its powerful vocal line in thrall to Wagner, and also in the amusing tale of La Cigale et la fourmi as set by Offenbach, with some brilliant high notes at the end.

There was a striking duet between Watts and flautist Anna Wolstenholme, portraying Roussel’s Rossignol mon mignon, before the soprano found the nub of Hugo Wolf’s solemn Wie lange schon war immer mein Verlangen. Felix Kemp was an effective foil, capturing the micro portraits of animals as realised by Poulenc from Apollinaire’s poetry, as well as Britten’s elusive Fish in the unruffled lakes.

The Carnival itself was a huge amount of fun. From the boisterous Introduction and Royal March of the Lion onward, it was nice to see the performers enjoying themselves in this irrepressible music. Double bassist Laurence Ungless caught the character of The Elephant, lumbering into view, while The Swan was beautiful and effortless in the hands of Nathaniel Boyd. Pianists evinced some ready laughter, before we returned to Watts for the rather lovely final song, Grieg’s own portrayal of the swan, which found her using a third language of the evening. The Echor soloists wrapped up with a celebratory finale, putting the cap on a concert which may have been too long, but which was ultimately enjoyable.

A packed day ended with a late evening recital from Adèle Charvet & Anne Le Bozec. Subtitled Mélodies on Tour, their program began with three English-language songs – two about sleep from Gounod, by turns perky then lustrous, with a setting of Longfellow’s poem Sleep. Saint-Saëns himself was next, evoking a heady atmosphere with A Voice By The Cedar Tree but then agitated in La mort d’Ophélie, where Charvet held an impressively strong tone.

The recital alternated songs by our chosen composer with a well-chosen selection of eight songs from Pauline Viardot, to whom Saint-Saëns dedicated his opera Samson et Dalila. Her song Lamento was the most directly communicative song, and an indication of why she is finally starting to get the exposure she deserves in a male-dominated field. Noch’Yu, one of two Pushkin settings, was evocative in this setting, but the pick of the eight was Aimez Moi, which brought a rapt stillness to proceedings.

Saint-Saëns‘ two settings of Uhland featured a striking piece of writing in the low register during Antwort, very well handled by Charvet, then the composer exaggerating his feelings rather in Ruhetal. Later we heard Guitares et Mandolines, the composer relishing the chance to depict the instruments in Anne Le Bozec’s deft accompaniment. The agitated Tournoiement spun itself into an eternal whirlpool.

There was time for two songs from Massenet, another underrated songwriter – his Crépuscule and Nuit D’Espagne expertly crafted examples, the latter with a Habanera-like profile – to which we returned in Viardot’s Madrid. The context of these night-time songs helped put the seal on a fascinating and richly rewarding set of concerts, showing the strength of depth French composers have to offer.

For further information on this year’s Oxford Lieder festival, you can visit the event’s website here

In concert – Carolyn Sampson, Anna Lapwood, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada – Poulenc Gloria & Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

Yamada_Kazuki_5142_c_Zuzanna_Specjal

Tchaikovsky Solemn Overture ‘The Year 1812’ Op.49 (1880)
Poulenc
Gloria FP177 (1959)
Fauré
Messe Basse IGF50 (1881 rev.1906)
Saint-Saëns
Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.78 ‘Organ’ (1886)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Anna Lapwood (organ), CBSO Youth Chorus (Julian Wilkins, director), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 16 September 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Zuzanna Specjal (Kazuki Yamada), Marco Borggreve (Carolyn Sampson), Kirsten McTernan/BBC (Anna Lapwood)

It was no doubt coincidental that this opening concert of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s new season was typical of those programmes which one-time chief conductor Louis Frémaux gave with this orchestra during the mid-1970s, in its featuring two of his French specialities.

Back then, Poulenc’s Gloria could still be regarded as contemporary music, though its adept borrowing from the Stravinsky textbook married to the French composer’s insouciant brand of expressivity is arguably more widely accepted now than in that often style-conscious era. It duly responded to Kazuki Yamada’s keen impetus in the opening Gloria then the bracing syncopation of Laudamus te or a joyously animated Domine Fili. Carolyn Sampson (above) was an elegantly detached soloist in Domine Deus, opening-out emotionally in the Agnus Dei whose inward ecstasy was unerringly conveyed. Yamada elided deftly between the surging energy then calm resignation of the final Qui sedes; here, as throughout, the CBSO Chorus bringing supplicatory warmth to music it has been associated with almost since its founding.

Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony was a familiar item at CBSO concerts during the Frémaux era and one that the present-day orchestra tackled with no less alacrity. Yamada was clearly (and rightly) intent on stressing its symphonic cohesion – drawing ominous expectancy from the first half’s Adagio introduction then securing a powerful momentum in the main Allegro, before the organ’s hushed entry for a chastely eloquent slow movement. There was no lack of incisiveness or humour in the second half’s scherzo, not least its scintillating passagework for piano duet, but also purposeful intent as segued directly into the finale with its indelible main theme and its methodical build-up to an electrifying peroration. Here, too, Anna Lapwood’s (below) subtle choice of registration underlined motivic resourcefulness more than gestural brilliance.

In between these works, opening the second half, Fauré’s Messe Basse enjoyed relatively rare revival (at least in the concert hall). Initially a collaboration with André Messager, Fauré later essayed a complete setting of what is a Missa brevis (thus omitting the Gloria and Credo) for female voices and which sounds no less apposite when rendered, as here, by young singers. The CBSO Youth Choir summoned a poised detachment under the assured guidance of Julian Wilkins, abetted by Lapwood’s thoughtful accompaniment in this modest yet appealing piece.

One aspect of this programme that Frémaux would not have opted for was to commence with Tchaikovsky’s 1812, though few would surely dissent given the all-round focus of Yamada’s conception. Not least when the CBSO Chorus added its yearning tones to the opening section, returning towards the close for an emotive rendering of ‘God Save the Tsar’ to cap an already resplendent apotheosis. Tubular bells and Mahler-type mallet more than compensated for the absence of canon et al when this piece is trotted out at the end of a ‘greatest hits’ assemblage.

It was indeed fortuitous that Yamada open this season given his recent appointment as Chief Conductor of the CBSO from April 2023. He returns in due course, while next week brings Sarah Connolly for a rare hearing for Chausson’s rapturous Poème de l’amour et de la mer.

This concert will be repeated on Saturday 18 September at Symphony Hall – click here for tickets. You can find information on the new CBSO season here, while for more on Kazuki Yamada you can visit the conductor’s website

In concert – Stephen Hough, CBSO / Edward Gardner: Saint-Saëns, Mazzoli & Debussy

hough-gardiner

Stephen Hough (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto no.4 in C minor Op. 44 (1875)
Mazzoli Violent, Violent Sea (2011)
Debussy La Mer L109 (1903-05)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 19 May 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been almost six months since the City of Birmingham Symphony last played to live audiences, but the frisson of expectation was palpable as the orchestra gradually took the stage for this first of nine concerts that, at around an hour’s duration, are being heard at 2pm then again at 6.30. The design of Symphony Hall’s platform makes it possible, moreover, to take out the raised platforms and so accommodate a larger number of musicians than would otherwise be possible in what is (hopefully!) a transitional period out of lockdown. Current restrictions still entail the spreading out of listeners, a small price to pay given the quality of acoustic at almost any point in this auditorium, while the rapid entry and exit procedures also enabled punters to assess the remodelled catering areas in advance of their June reopening.

As conducted by Edward Gardner, this programme featured works by two French composers with more in common than either could have suspected. Saint-Saëns nearly always brings out the best in Stephen Hough, and so it proved in this regrettably rare revival of the Fourth Piano Concerto. Its four sections grouped into two movements (a design the composer returned to a decade on with greater panache if less subtlety in his Third Symphony), the piece touches on aspects of sonata, variation and rondo procedures while its plain-spun material is developed in various and intriguing ways. This plus the close integration of soloist and orchestra often makes for a sinfonia concertante than concerto per se, yet there is no lack of virtuosity such as Hough despatched with alacrity – not least the cascading passagework in the final Allegro.

Saint-Saëns and Debussy evinced no mutual esteem, but as the former integrated symphonic elements into his concerto, so did the latter in his ‘three symphonic sketches’ which comprise La Mer. Here the CBSO came into its own, not least in the purposefully contrasted sequence of From Dawn to Midday on the Sea with its crepuscular writing for solo wind and divided strings through to a climactic chorale of visceral immediacy. Perhaps interplay of timbre and texture in Games of the Waves could have been more deftly handled, but Gardner exerted a firm grip over its course then drew real pathos from the final bars. He also found a persuasive balance between the volatile and poetic aspects in Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea, while maintaining steady momentum as issued forth in the chorale on its proudly affirmative return.

Between these works, Violent, Violent Sea by the highly regarded American composer Missy Mazzoli elicited a wholly different response as to its marine concept. Here it is the constant yet rarely insistent melding of translucent harmonies and pulsating rhythms (stemming from marimba and vibraphone) as underpin this music; the sustaining of whose atmosphere is the keener for its succinct duration. The ranging of its relatively modest forces across the extent of the platform also made for rather greater impact than might otherwise have been the case. It certainly added to the attractions of a programme which launched this series of concerts in impressive fashion. The CBSO returns next Wednesday with Nicholas Collon at the helm for a sequence that ends with the uncompromising defiance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

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

For further information about Missy Mazzoli, click here

Talking Heads: Beethoven 250 – Cyprien Katsaris

interview by Ben Hogwood

Celebrated pianist Cyprien Katsaris is on the phone to Arcana from Paris. We are to talk about the music of Beethoven, which he has celebrated with the release of a fascinating new box set, exploring a number of different corners of the composer’s piano output. Not for him a disc of sonatas – this includes some of Beethoven’s earliest and latest works, plus familiar utterances in unexpected guises, for instance Saint-Saëns’ and Musorgsky in arrangements of movements from the string quartets.

Cyprien is an extremely generous interviewee, and our chat is punctuated by musical examples given on the piano of his Paris apartment. He is also incredibly good-humoured and engaging. We begin the interview by discussing his first experiences of Beethoven’s music, which on the way reveal important aspects of his upbringing.

“We used to live in French Cameroon in the 1950s”, he says, “and I was raised there because my family emigrated from Cyprus. My parents were among the few people who had an LP collection, and I remember very well my first Beethoven listening was the Pastoral symphony and the Ninth, because they had those LPs. This could explain why I went into recording the transcriptions by Liszt of the nine Beethoven symphonies in the 1980s for Teldec, because since I was a kid I loved that music. I was always wondering if it was possible to enjoy this music with my own fingers on the piano, so you can guess the shock when I found out about those transcriptions, which were published by the French publisher Durand.”

He is a natural storyteller who draws some unexpected parallels. “As you might also guess, when you like something and you can’t get it, you want it more. It’s like having a girlfriend who is very beautiful, but when I walk down the street and I see another woman I want her even more because I know that I cannot get her. When I say this to my girlfriend she laughs, you know?! The same thing happened with the Pastoral symphony, and that could be the explanation for my very strong attraction towards transcriptions. I always try in my life to keep a balance in my concert programmes and recordings between normal, standard repertoire and forgotten pieces or transcriptions.”

His contribution to Beethoven’s anniversary is A Chronological Odyssey, a set of six CDs available on his own Piano 21 label. “The idea came to me in April last year, because I was wondering what to do for the 250th anniversary. Doing the 32 sonatas again did not seem like a good idea. There are so many, and I was told there are more than 70 versions. The idea was to do this chronological odyssey, mixing standard repertoire and transcriptions, and I also had a photocopy of the Kreutzer Sonata arranged for piano. I have had that for several years, and received it from a musicologist at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. He told me that the second movement was arranged by Carl Czerny. Nobody knows who did the other two movements, maybe Czerny and maybe someone else, and I was wondering if I should record it. That was the perfect combination, and the Spring Sonata too. They sound so nice on the piano. I only found out then that the Mozart and Beethoven sonatas, and the cello sonatas, are not written for violin and piano, but for piano with violin.”

We turn to Beethoven’s output of sonatas for solo piano. “As you know there are not 32 sonatas but 35”, he tells me, “because you have to include the first three ones that Beethoven wrote, known as the Electoral sonatas. I also wanted to include a rarity, the 2 Preludes in all 12 major keys. There is also the small Ritterballet, a commission from Count Waldstein. On the day of the premiere the Count said to the audience that he was the composer! It’s crazy. There is a piano transcription by Beethoven himself.”

Katsaris does also include some well-known works, such as the Moonlight and Appassionata sonatas. “I made a selection of eight sonatas in addition to the youth sonatas, and I tried to be careful about the combination of personal ideas and the information written by Beethoven himself on the score, considering that the pianos now are different to his years. For example, in the last movement of the Appassionata Sonata, it says Allegro ma non troppo, and almost all the big names who recorded or played it played it too fast! This is not what Beethoven wants. Of course it is a temptation to do that, but it’s not what he wrote!” By way of illustration he sings the theme. “These little details are important, in order to respect the wishes of the composer.”

A good deal of detective work has resulted in the unearthing of some unusual arrangements. “I have spent all those years – I’m 69 now – and I have been in libraries, specialist shops of antique scores, and sometimes you are lucky and sometimes not so lucky. Saint-Saëns, by the way, his anniversary is next year. He died in 1921, on 16 December – the exact anniversary of when Beethoven is supposed to have been born. I had invitations for a Beethoven recital in Bonn in May and September, where I was going to play the Symphony no.9 in a two-piano version with my good friend Etsuko Hirose. She lives in Paris, and won the Martha Argerich competition. We were going to play the Symphony no.9 together, and then I have an invitation on 16 December into the Beethoven Haus with several musicians playing a piece each. I hope the confinement t will allow us to do this. Saint-Saëns arranged for piano three movements from string quartets, and Musorgsky two movements from the last quartet, Op.135. It’s quite fascinating, and also the Wagner transcription of the Symphony no.9. It’s not as good as the Liszt version, but Wagner discovered the music of Beethoven when he was 18 years old, and he claimed that Beethoven and Shakespeare were visiting him in his dreams. He copied the Fifth and Ninth symphonies entirely, and transcribed the Fifth, so I wanted to include that transcription. It also allowed me to cover all the scores in my collection. Some of them I was not even aware of!”

There were more arrangements to come. “I found out about Louis Winkler, who made these great transcriptions of the Spring Sonata and some other pieces, and as I explained in the booklet, he did a lot and transcribed so many things! There was also Franz Kullak who transcribed the last movement of the Violin Concerto. It’s all very fascinating, and the idea was to have a chronological order from the very first transcription when Beethoven was 11 or 12 years old, up to the very last one. I didn’t even know that Beethoven wrote the short canons which he used to call a musical joke, which is very interesting and funny!”

He recounts his thoughts on Beethoven’s first work. “The very first piece is based on a march by Dressler. They didn’t find out where this march comes from, and I remember a German musicologist told me 25 years or so ago in Berlin that we pianists only play 2% of everything which has been published for the piano in the 19th century. Anyway, this piece is variations by a kid, and it could be considered in the beginning a little bit boring. I decided to change the tempi of the variations to make it a little bit more interesting, but this is not of course the only way to perform this piece. You can stay in the same tempo, like the theme. My argument is that when you consider Beethoven was a great improviser, like Mozart, Chopin, Bach or Liszt, the problem of composing music is that you have just one version put down in writing. For example, Chopin, when he played the same piece again, would change tempi, dynamics, the notes, even – we found several versions.”

The same applies here. “When you look at Beethoven maybe I am maybe the first pianist who recorded the four versions of that famous theme of the last movement of the Eroica Symphony. He wrote it first as a dance, part of a group of dances for orchestra with piano arrangements, and then he used it again as the last number of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. Then he uses it again in the last movement of the Eroica Symphony, and his Eroica Variations Op.35. It shows that sometimes they have these different ideas about a theme. We know he was a great improviser, and from the writings of Carl Czerny that he played quite fast and full of fire. I think that allows some freedom, especially in the Variations, and especially those that could become a little bit boring if you don’t add something a little bit more spicy. Of course Beethoven was a kid, and his teacher probably told him to keep the same tempo, but I think there is a probability that if Beethoven played that piece as an adult he would play it in a different way to when he was under the guidance of that teacher. What a pity we didn’t have recordings earlier!”

Cyprien also includes the Fantasy, published as Op.77 in Beethoven’s output. “What a difficult piece!” he exclaims. “This is a perfect example of what could have been an improvisation of Beethoven, right? It is a very interesting piece, and not often performed unfortunately. I don’t know if that is because it’s difficult. Is it because when a pianist wants to include the music of Beethoven in a program it’s always sonatas, and sometimes variations, and almost nothing else? I found out that some colleagues don’t even know about the existence of this piece. It’s a pity because it’s a great piece, and it’s interesting to have an overview between the first sonata and the last one.”

He has a special place for the last of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas, published as Op.111. “The last sonata is of course this great masterpiece. It’s all written in the booklet to the release, but it is expressing so much of what were the feelings and philosophy of Beethoven. With the Fantasy, you have at the end this strange theme which could be an embryo of the Ninth Symphony and the Ode To Joy theme. The same thing happened with Mozart. We are going to release the complete concertos in a few months, live recordings made in Salzburg, and one theme he used in his Piano Concerto no.8 in C major K246, and this theme he uses again a little bit differently in a later concerto, also in C major, and again in his last C major concerto, no.25. It’s so interesting to find out about all these connections. I remember about 15 years ago I made a CD devoted to the family of Mozart, the father and his son. I recorded one of the three sonatas of Leopold Mozart, which is a strange situation because he was a violinist but has not left any violin pieces! I found in his Piano Sonata in C major that the second movement contains some elements which are obviously used again by Mozart the son when he wrote the divine slow movement of the Piano Concerto no.21. This means that he remembered the slow movement of his father’s sonata.”

Katsaris is on something of a roll. “When I met your former prime minister Tony Blair at a dinner, I went to the piano of my friends and I improvised. First, I played the British national anthem, and then I improvised on the Warsaw Concerto, and Rule Britannia, and I asked him how many times did you meet the Queen in those Tuesday meetings? He could not remember because he did not write it down. But you know that Beethoven wrote variations on God Save The King and Rule Britannia, don’t you? On one of my CDs called Album d’un voyager, I recorded a piece, a set of variations on Rule Britannia composed and published in London something like 200 years ago by a French composer called Latour. He was established in London, and that was in my collection of old scores. Many people were writing fantasies, potpourris and variations on old tunes from Wales, England and Scotland.”

Our time is sadly up – which gives me time for one last question, on how Cyprien has reacted to lockdown conditions. “I am practising continuously”, he says with characteristic enthusiasm, “even without the confinement. I practise every day of the year. Life is too short and I have too many scores to still learn before I pass away! I have decided I will not pass away for several decades more. I practise every day except for the day of the concert. If you have a nice dinner in the evening you will spoil it by having a dinner before, so I always do not play on the day of the concert itself. The confinement here does not concern me at all.”

Beethoven: A Chronological Odyssey is a 6D anthology of the composer played by Cyprien Katsaris, and released by Piano 21. You can listen to the collection on the Spotfy link below, and you can explore purchase options at the Presto website

On record – Sinfonia of London / John Wilson – Escales: French Orchestral Works (Chandos)

Escales – French Orchestral Works

Chabrier España (1883)
Duruflé Trois Danses (1932)
Saint-Saëns Le Rouet d’Omphale Op.31 (1871)
Debussy Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune (1891-94)
Ibert Escales (1922)
Massenet Meditation from Thaïs (1894)
Ravel Rapsodie espagnole (1907-08)

Adam Walker (Debussy), Andrew Haveron (Massenet), Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Chandos CHAN 5252 [78’19”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineer Ralph Couzens

Recorded 6-7 September 2019 (Trois Danses nos.1 & 3), 16-18 January 2019 (other works), Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Sinfonia of London, an orchestra from the 20th century given a new lease of life by conductor John Wilson, makes its second release for Chandos.

In fact we could term it as a series of Sinfonia of London buses, for you wait two decades and then two come along at once! The orchestra’s renaissance began with a stunning account of Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp last year, but now they turn their attention to France, and an imaginatively chosen program celebrating the elusive but immediately recognisable French orchestral sound.

What’s the music like?

A complete pleasure. Although irresistibly French, the music in the collection does remind us of the close bond between France and Spain, thanks to classics of the repertoire from Chabrier and Ravel and a relative rarity from Ibert.

Chabrier‘s España begins the collection and it is an absolute delight, a feel good piece given even more of a lift in this brilliant account. Wilson’s instincts for the stage come to the fore immediately, the bouncy rhythms and cheeky asides proving irresistible when presented with this much colour and warmth.

At the other end Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole is no less characterful. The atmospheric Prélude à la nuit ghosts in from silence, Wilson delighting in the orchestral textures and Ravel’s masterly sense of line. The persuasive rhythms of the Feria are expertly judged, the silky strings giving way as the music surges forward with terrific momentum.

Between these two gateposts are works of colour and élan. It is so good to see the inclusion of relative rarities in Duruflé’s Trois Danses, one of only two completed orchestral works in his output, and Ibert’s underrated Escales (Ports of Call) which gives the collection its name. The Duruflé sparkles in Wilson’s hands, violins caressing the longer melodies of the Divertissement, first dance of the three. Much of the composer’s relatively small output is for organ, which he effectively uses as his orchestra, but a persuasive Danse lente and thrilling Tambourin give us further proof of his prowess with large forces, harnessing the influence of Dukas. The latter features a particularly enticing saxophone solo, the recording indulging the colour and scope of Duruflé’s writing.

The Ibert, meanwhile, is a treat. Just over a minute into Escales‘ first movement, Palermo, there is what can only be described as a murmuration of violins, the music fluttering upwards in a bold sweep. Meanwhile Wilson secures a terrific drive to the description of the third ‘port’, Valencia, which ends with a flourish.

Before Escales comes a fresh faced account of Debussy’s Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, the piece that effectively changed the face of music on the eve of the 20th century. Wilson and his charges capture the sense of newness, but also the enchanting and harmonies, with seductive playing from flautist Adam Walker. By contrast the Méditation from Thaïs, Massenet’s most famous orchestral excerpt, is more conventional. It could have felt misplaced here in terms of mood and musical language, but orchestra leader Andrew Haveron invests it with plenty of affection and never overdoes the romantically inclined melodies.

The packed release also finds room for a symphonic poem by Saint-Saëns. Le Rouet d’Omphale (The Spinning Wheel of Omphale) is a relatively early work and a great example of the composer’s melodic flair and ability for musical programming in thrall to Liszt. Wilson has its measure fully, pacing the music’s build ideally in arguably the finest modern recording since Charles Dutoit’s classic account with the Philharmonia in 1980.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is a brilliantly played and really well-chosen program, suiting both the curious listener and the familiar Francophile. What comes through most of all is the sheer enthusiasm and flair of the players, galvanized by Wilson in accounts that are both instinctive and incredibly well prepared.

From the opening notes of España it is immediately clear how this collection is going to go, and with the changes in mood suitably well planned and ordered – save arguably the Massenet – it is a listening experience you will want to return to often.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. This is music making as it should be, celebrating great orchestral music packed full of good tunes, instrumental colour and the ability to paint vivid pictures of its subjects. Wilson and his charges should be congratulated for an achievement which will surely land them with a glut of awards in the next few months – and only heightens the anticipation for their third release on Chandos, later this month, when they will return to Korngold for the Violin Concerto and String Sextet. In the meantime, make the most of this wonderful set of French fancies!

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Chandos website here