On record: Morton Gould – The Complete Chicago Symphony Orchestra Recordings (RCA)

morton-gould

RCA bring together six discs of largely unavailable recordings made by composer / conductor Morton Gould and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between 1965 and 1968. The varied repertoire ranges from Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov to Ives and Gould himself.

What’s the music like?

Colourful. If you want a slightly random introduction to some very different styles of 20th century music then this is an excellent place to start. Charles Ives heads the bill, with the fiercely patriotic Three Places In New England and bracing Symphony no.2 exploring hometown themes in modernist settings.

Nielsen’s Symphony no.2, The Four Temperaments, is revealed as an emotional tour de force, while Gould’s own Spirituals are heart on sleeve and all the better for it. From the previous century comes a selection of Tchaikovsky waltzes and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar Symphony, whose insistence on an exceptionally catchy tune burns it into your consciousness.

Does it all work?

Yes. These are edge-of-the-seat performances. One of the shortest pieces here, William Schuman’s orchestration of Ives’ Variations on America, is also one of the most entertaining and humourous. The Russian repertoire is punchy and powerful, and including a rare performance of Myaskovsky’s Symphony no.21 a bonus, but it is the bigger Ives works that make this set so worthwhile.

The Three Places In New England are brilliantly played, bringing the homespun melodies through the complicated but invigorating textures, while the two symphonies make the strongest possible impact – even the first, where Ives was still writing conventionally. Here it is fresh and charming, channelling the spirit of Dvořák. If you have not heard the Symphony no.2 before, make sure you listen right to the end, as there is a surprise in store!

Is it recommended?

Yes. It’s a bargain – and nicely packaged too, with RCA using the original artwork and some interesting documentation of a brief but meaningful relationship between conductor and orchestra.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here:

Under the Surface at the Proms – Nielsen and The Four Temperaments

Prom 38, 13 August 2015 – London Symphony Chorus Womens’ Voices, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Juanjo Mena at the Royal Albert Hall


Fabio Luisi conducts the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in Nielsen at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Helios Overture
http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e4nrzc#b065xhdn

3 Motets, Hymnus Amoris and Symphony no.2, ‘The Four Temperaments’
http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e4nrzc#b065xhds

The Proms and one of this year’s anniversary composers, the Dane Carl Nielsen, are still relatively new friends.

This is because Henry Wood and subsequent directors of the festival did not consider his music worthy of inclusion until very recently – and indeed the Second Symphony, heard in this Prom, was only receiving its second ever Proms performance.

It was the culmination of a thoroughly enjoyable evening that showed Nielsen in several forms. We experienced religious contemplation towards the end of his life in the 3 Motets of 1931, the flowering of spring and love in the Hymnus Amoris of 1897 and then entered the symphonic boxing ring – or so it felt – for the taut arguments of the symphony, modelled on The Four Temperaments. These performances were all authentic, given by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Symphony Chorus and Symphony Orchestra.

The evening began with a sunrise – a magical evocation conjured from almost total stillness by conductor Fabio Luisi. As the Helios Overture took shape he kept a close ear to the orchestral colour, and the shafts of sunlight grew ever stronger thanks to wonderful horn playing.

The 3 Motets were cooler, partly because the choir singing them was relatively small, but if anything this enhanced their purity. In this late trio of works Nielsen pays homage to the Renaissance composer Palestrina in a series of carefully woven lines, though there is room for instinctive joy too – as there was in the final motet, Benedictus Dominus. Yet it was the words of an old man that stuck in the memory from the first motet, Afflictus sum, with its translated text “I am feeble and sore broken”.

We then heard Hymnus Amoris, an early work begun by the brightly voiced Boy and Girl Choristers of Winchester Cathedral before blooming through two additional choirs, soprano and baritone soloists (David Danholt and Anna Lucia Richter) and orchestra. Essentially a journey through life, the 25-minute cantata has a healthy glow and pulse, its treble rich sounds bringing forward the promise of new life and love, despite the onset of old age towards the end. Ultimately triumphant, the work finished in a blaze of colour, following excellent solos from Richter in particular.

If the musical language here carried the enthusiasm of youth, the mood darkened appreciably for the symphony – and Luisi noticeably stepped up a gear in his conducting. Using a subject that has often appealed to classical composers, the Four Temperaments, Nielsen takes us on a voyage of very differing emotions, and Luisi ensured these were clearly signposted but also keenly felt.

The turbulent first movement (the Choleric temperament) has a lot going on, moving restlessly from one cadence to another, but it packs a punch and is ultimately a tale of resolve. The middle two movements (Phlegmatic and Melancholic) reveal more obviously vulnerable sides, and in the third there are dark clouds over the soul as the music spends much of its time brooding in a minor key.

There are tunes to be enjoyed, though, especially a winsome number in the second movement, and Nielsen’s development of his material is notable for its speed of thought. Several listens to each movement are recommended to get a feel for his style, but in the Second Symphony Nielsen really convinces with his emotional arguments. The final movement, Sanguine, is the culmination, telling the tale of struggles won and demons vanquished. In a performance as convincing as this it was easy to be won around, a task made even simpler by a charming encore, the Dance of the Cockerels from Nielsen’s opera Maskarade.

Want to hear more?

The obvious next port of call for Nielsen is his Fourth Symphony, the Inextinguishable – a powerful and hugely affirmative piece. It can be heard on Spotify here, with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Herbert Blomstedt:

For the charming, rustic side to Nielsen’s character, the Wind Quintet is a charming place to start. Here it is as part of an all-Nielsen album from the Athena Ensemble:

 

The concert also included Nikolaj Znaider playing BrahmsViolin Concerto. More of that in a future post!

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival

Under the Surface at the Proms – Nielsen: Wind Quintet

Proms Chamber Music 2, 27 July 2015 – Royal Northern Sinfonia Winds at the Cadogan Hall

royal-northern-sinfonia-winds

Three of the five Royal Northern Sinfonia Winds taking part in the Cadogan Hall concert – Timothy Orpen (clarinet), Juliette Bausor (flute) and Steven Hudson (oboe). They were joined by Peter Francomb (horn) and Stephen Reay (bassoon)

Nielsen Wind Quintet (1922)

Composers and their anniversaries have long been a prominent feature of the BBC Proms, and this year is no exception.

Happily the BBC have taken the opportunity to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Carl Nielsen with both hands. The seeds were sown with Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and their cycle of the composer’s six symphonies that fitted snugly into their 2015-16 Barbican Season.

Now at the Royal Albert Hall we have the chance to enjoy the composer’s three concertos, for clarinet, flute and violin respectively – and here, in the second Proms Chamber Music concert of the season at Cadogan Hall, the opportunity to hear the composer’s most popular chamber work.

Audio

http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ez3zc8#b063dgkd

(Nielsen from 2:25)

The Wind Quintet is a charmer. Written in 1922 after Nielsen was captivated by the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, it celebrates the sonorities a combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon can offer – and Nielsen cheats a bit by alternating between oboe and its very close relative, the slightly deeper cor anglais (English horn).

The first movement celebrates the sound of the five instruments together and also on their own – while the second spins a lovely melody from the clarinet and uses it as the base for a sunlit movement. The third starts with improvisatory bursts from solo instruments – oboe and clarinet – before a solemn hymn deceives us into thinking the composer has gone all serious – before he enjoys a set of variations on that theme, pairing instruments off and exploring different combinations.

It is a lovely piece to listen to, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia Winds did it full justice, clearly enjoying the interplay. They were equally good with Mozart’s Quintet for piano and wind, where they were joined by the stylish piano playing of Christian Blackshaw, who led what is effectively a concerto reduction.

It was Mozart that Nielsen heard the Copenhagen ensemble playing – and the Wind Quintet in turn led to the Clarinet and Flute Concertos. So Nielsen, in the final decade of his life, proved an accomplished writer for wind instruments – and the Proms’ exploration of his achievements is already proving an enjoyable aspect of the festival.

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival

Under the Surface at the Proms – Delius and Nielsen

Prom 7, 22 July 2015 – BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis at the Royal Albert Hall

in-a-summer-garden

Delius’ garden in Grez-Sur-Loing, France Picture part of a collection at the website

Delius In a Summer Garden (1908)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02xv4kx/player

Is there a less fashionable British composer than Delius?

Not where the BBC Proms are concerned, it would seem – as right from the start the composer’s music has not done particularly well at the festival in the last 50 years. That poor form is exemplified by In a Summer Garden, written about Delius’ garden in Grez-Sur-Loing, France. The piece, receiving its first performance at the Proms since Sir Charles Groves brought it to the festival in 1977, was revived here under Delian specialist Sir Andrew Davis.

Delius’ mastery lies in his orchestration and harmony, with sultry added notes and hazy, impressionistic textures that evoke the laziness of a summer day. Woodwind add bird calls, and lazy melodies flit around the orchestra, before rising to an apex. This performance is as good as any you could wish for, and Davis conducted it with great affection.

Nielsen Clarinet Concerto (1928) with soloist Mark Simpson

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02xv6cj/player

Not surprisingly, Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto is a very different animal to the Delius. One of the composer’s last published works, it was the second in a sequence he was planning to write for members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet – but sadly due to ill health he did not get as far as oboe, horn or bassoon.

Cast in three movements, the piece takes on a very private demeanour at times, the clarinet asked to play very quietly. This was where Mark Simpson came into his own, with exemplary control and poise that he held right up to the end, despite the necessities of breathing!

In the faster music Nielsen often brings to mind the music of Shostakovich, and the snare drum assumes a prominent role, frequently interrupting the soloist with its own thoughts. David Hockings, the resident BBC Symphony Orchestra percussionist, was on superb form here, and his rat-a-tat traded blows with the clarinet as the outer movements zipped along. On occasion, especially at the start, Simpson could have been louder still – but in his defence the Royal Albert Hall is not the easiest acoustic to work with for such a piece!

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival

Danish String Quartet – Haydn and Shostakovich

The Danish String Quartet play works by Haydn and Shostakovich at Wigmore Hall

danish-string-quartet
Danish String Quartet (Frederik Øland, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen (violins), Asbjørn Nørgaard (viola), Fredrik Sjølin (cello)) – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 23 March 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05mqmkv

on the iPlayer until 22 April

Spotify

The Danish Quartet are yet to record either of these pieces, so for listeners unable to hear the BBC audio here is a Spotify playlist of the same works from the Lindsay Quartet (Haydn) and the Aviv Quartet (Shostakovich) – two fine versions:

What’s the music?

HaydnString Quartet in C major Op.54/2 (1788) (20 minutes)

Shostakovich String Quartet no.9 (1964) (25 minutes)

What about the music?

[PIC]

As my concert-going companion remarked, Haydn string quartets are always used as curtain openers, which can be something of a shame, as they are always performed when the quartet is at its ‘coldest’. This particular work, seemingly written for the violinist Johann Tost in 1788, can not be allowed to fall into that category, for the first violinist has a lot of demands made on him right from the start.

As with many Haydn works this quartet is deceptive, for it has the routine layout – yet tinkers with the overall design of a conventional string quartet. The first movement is a lot faster than it would be normally, while the second movement (the slow movement here) runs straight into the third (a minuet), a tactic very seldom witnessed. Not only that, the last of the four movements is predominantly slow.

Shostakovich’s most private thoughts went into his string quartets, which often convey the intense fear and claustrophobia he felt with the authorities seemingly poised to knock on his door in the middle of the night, ready to remove him forever for his supposedly rebellious musical tendencies. Ultimately he found ways of expressing himself in a private musical code, and the string quartets were especially vivid at using that.

Yet his ninth published string quartet is much more positive in mood than most, seemingly gathering itself to renounce the fear and stand confidently on two feet. As the Wigmore Hall program note states, this may have been due to the composer’s recent marriage – his third – and the slight ‘thaw’ in relations that was allowing him to revive the previously out-of-bounds opera Lady Macbet of the Mtsensk District.

Performance verdict

How refreshing to hear Haydn played with the energy the Danish String Quartet gave it in this performance. All too often these quartets sound too polite, but this account was a good reminder of Haydn’s innovations in the form, and in the way he makes this piece sound a bit like a miniature violin concerto. First violinist Frederik Øland was up to the job.

The Shostakovich was even better, given a depth of feeling and range of colour that suited the piece perfectly. Whereas some of the composer’s quartets are very closed in this felt like a positive, outgoing experience, standing tall in the face of the horrors of the time. Particularly effective was the Rossini-like polka that danced manically, while the slower sections – and in particular the quotes from Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov – were beautifully handled.

The quartet’s ensemble playing was superb, and their togetherness and positivity were two standout features of a superb concert.

What should I listen out for?

Haydn

1:49 – the first movement, unusual in the composer’s output for being marked Vivace (lively). The Danish Quartet enjoy its contours – particularly first violinist Frederik Øland, who has a challenging part!

8:14 – the mood turns sombre (and the key changes from C major to C minor) for the slow movement. Again the first violin starts to take the lead but sounds a bit absentminded against the long, slow chords from the other three instruments. This moves straight into…

11:27 – the Menuetto, an injection of pace and poise, with a typically upbeat theme from the composer. This is in direct contrast to the Trio section, from 13:03, with its discords. The texture is surprisingly full here for four instruments. The Menuetto reappears to put things right at 14:01, as though nothing had happened!

15:06 – a solemn introductory theme, which turns into a thoughtful and deeply felt Adagio. Very unusual for a slow movement to appear last in a typical four-movement quartet structure in the eighteenth century…and yet there is fast music to come, from 19:54 as the music scampers away…only to return to its previous slow tempo, on which it ends at 22:12.

Shostakovich

This quartet runs continuously but is in five distinct sections / movements:

24:48 – an airy beginning, with hints of unease from the inner and lower parts. The second violin is playing a theme associated with Pimen in Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. A light dance is played out and an air of tranquillity takes over. Yet even here, as the upper parts circle, nervy thoughts lurk in the shadows. Then we move to the second ‘movement’…

…at 29:05. A romance in all but name with happier thoughts, possibly inspired by the composer’s recent marriage (his third). The harmonies are lush here, and after some thought the tempo begins to increase…

..to 33:24, where a polka starts up, and the rat-a-tat rat-a-tat rhythm – a quotation from Rossini’s William Tell Overture­ – begins to obsessively take hold.  A furious energy is unleashed, brilliantly captured by the Danish Quartet, who keep an appealing roughness around the edges when the music is most fractious. The instruments converse with some of these melodic figures.

37:13 – the music takes on a mood of deep thought, but is wrenched from its reverie by violent pizzicato (38:09), a tactic used several times to unsettle the listener, before a piercing and unnerving violin cadenza briefly takes centre stage.

40:38 – the substantial final movement starts with a jolt, the music thrown forwards like a car starting suddenly. Having started this mad push forwards Shostakovich has to keep it going, and does to with some emphatic and blustery unison passages for two or more instruments of the quartet. Powerful lines on the cello are compromised by what can only be described as ‘scrubbing’ from the persistent second violin. Shostakovich’s sardonic humour makes itself known through ‘glissandi’ (where a note slides in pitch, mostly upwards in this case!), before an emphatic finish.

Encore – NielsenMit hjerte altid vanker arranged by the Danish String Quartet second violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen

52:40 – Chosen to celebrate 150 years since the Danish composer’s birth, this is a short but sweetly voiced chorale lasting just under two minutes.

Want to hear more?

As the Danish Quartet mentioned, their compatriot Carl Nielsen is in an anniversary year, born 150 years ago – and the foursome have recorded his complete string quartets, not often heard but here on this album on Spotify:

For more concerts click here