On Record – Vanessa Wagner: Study Of The Invisible (InFiné Music)

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written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Vanessa Wagner returns with a thoughtfully compiled album bringing together a selection of modern piano music that might be described as ‘minimal’. Her concept is to show how new music can still explore the instrument afresh, using the barest of melodic or harmonic material as its stimulus but finding something substantial within.

The selection here includes works by 14 composers, many of them rare and unpublished.

What’s the music like?

This is a really inspired compilation, logically ordered and with a natural rise and fall. In the process of the anthology, Vanessa Wagner shows off a wide range of approaches to the piano, from flowing, watery pieces to more percussive interludes. The music might be predominantly slow but Wagner finds its pressure points and releases its emotional energy in full, showcasing some fine compositions in the process.

The rippling surfaces of Suzanne Ciani’s Rain, first in the collection, are a kind of homage to a Debussy Arabesque. Harold Budd’s La Casa Bruja has a slower, more reflective beauty, as does the Brian and Roger Eno collaboration Celeste. Contrast these with the gently twinkling ivories of Bryce Dessner’s Lullaby (Song for Octave), and the thicker brush strokes of David Lang’s Spartan Arcs.

The two Philip Glass selections range from a sombre, deeply felt Etude no.16 to a staccato Etude no.6 that sounds a bit more like a fly buzzing against the insides of a jam jar. Wagner really gets Glass’s phrasing, and the powerful refrain that the piece returns to is forcefully and brilliantly played. Even more dazzling is the following Etude no.3, ‘Running’, by Nico Muhly, its thrilling discourse brilliantly distilled.

Elsewhere Moondog’s flowing Prelude no.1 in A minor casts its eyes towards the past, while Julia Wolfe’s Earring finds striking sounds in the piano’s upper register. Ezio Bosso’s Before 6 complements the activity of the Glass and Muhly Etudes with almost complete stillness, the effect both meditative and moving.

The most striking of the compositions, however, is the album’s centrepiece. Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Grey, based on a Chopin Mazurka, starts with clumps of chords and a solemn, slow bass. From these beginnings the piece progresses to contemplation, lost in thought in its centre before a searing expression of feeling, the piano cutting through in Wagner’s intense interpretation. A sense of pathos is evident at the end, a satisfying resolution.

Does it all work?

Yes, on many levels. What this compilation also does is somehow highlight the importance of the music of Erik Satie, without including any. Much of the music here is both minimal, interesting and emotional, mirroring the older composer’s achievements in his Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies. Wagner plays this music with great feeling and panache.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. This is a fine creative project, brilliantly scoped and realised. If you want to discover new piano music, here is a whole album’s worth on which to reflect and enjoy.

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In concert – Hockley Social Club & the CBSO present: Symphonic Sessions

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Symphonic Sessions

Hockley Social Club, Birmingham
Thursday 21 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photos courtesy of Hannah Fathers

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Out & About’ schedule has seen musicians playing at venues from railway stations to suburban pubs, but tonight’s Symphonic Sessions, billed as ‘‘the perfect evening for the musically curious’’, was a more ambitious undertaking.

The venue was Hockley Social Club – located closer to Newtown and an area which, with its rundown warehouses next to remnants of faded civic planning, is ripe for redevelopment of a kind encountered on the other side of Great Hampton Street. Such urban realism aside, it was an ideal setting for an event designed to appeal to the young professionals living or working in this area, and the capacity (300 or so) attendance was gratifying to club and orchestra alike. Assorted street food and designer cocktails were some of the attractions available on the night.

The live element consisted of two half-hour sets played by a quartet drawn from the CBSO, situated on a raised central platform, and amplified so neither visibility nor audibility was an issue. The first set enjoyed a lively start with Year of the Boar from Sufjan Stevens’s zodiacal electronica Enjoy Your Rabbit, popularized in Michael Atkinson’s arrangement for the Osso Quartet. One of the most arresting younger American composers, Caroline Shaw has written widely for quartet but, while Entr’acte provided a showcase for the musicians’ dexterity – not least cellist Arthur Boutillier – its fractured continuity tried the patience of numerous punters. Not so those teasingly ironic excerpts from Anna Meredith’s Songs for the M8 – with Sigur Rós’s evergreen Hoppípolla, as reimagined by the Vitamin Quartet, a delightful signing-off.

The inward fervency of Stevens’s Year of our Lord began a second set that touched on more Classical fare with a visceral take on the second movement of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, then a lucid First Contrapunctus from Bach’s The Art of Fugue that only gained in eloquence on restarting after violinist Colette Overdijk had lost her battle with a dislodged microphone. The undoubted highlight was Bryce Dessner’s Aheym (Homeward) – a commission from the Kronos Quartet for the guitarist of The National, this is music whose propulsive energy and tensile interplay were to the fore in a performance which brooked no compromise. Violinist Kirstie Lovie and violist Amy Thomas then came into their own in excerpts from the Danish String Quartet’s folk-song anthology Wood Works, which made for a scintillating conclusion.

Either side of and in between the live music, low-key DJ sets (at least until the half-hour prior to closing) from ‘local tastemaker’ Pritt Kalsi did much to enhance the atmosphere for what throughout was a lively and appreciative audience. What proportion can be persuaded to make CBSO concerts at Symphony Hall a regular part of its fixture-list remains to be seen, though feedback on the ground was encouraging. Whatever else, the future of live events looks to be one in which listening across the spectrum of musical styles and genres has become the norm.

Good news, therefore, that Symphonic Sessions is destined not to be a one-off experiment, with the follow-up having been set for Thursday 2nd December. Whatever the line-up of musicians and music, it would seem certain that ‘‘A splendid time is guaranteed for all’’.

Further information on Symphonic Sesions can be found here. Further listening on the featured music can be enjoyed through the Spotify albums below:

Stevens:

Shaw:

Meredith:

Sigur Rós:

Shostakovich:

Bach:

Dessner:

Danish SQ:

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