On Record – Michael Collins, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Rumon Gamba – Arnold: Clarinet Concerto no.1, Philharmonic Concerto etc (Chandos)

Arnold
Commonwealth Christmas Overture Op.64 (1957)
Clarinet Concerto no.1 Op.20 (1948)
Divertimento no.2 Op.24 / Op.75 (1950)
Larch Trees Op.3 (1943)
Philharmonic Concerto Op.120 (1976)
The Padstow Lifeboat Op.94a (arranged for orchestra by Philip Lane)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Rumon Gamba

Chandos CHAN20152 [68’50″’]
Producers Brian Pidgeon and Mike George Engineers Stephen Rinker, Richard Hannaford and John Cole
Recorded 5 & 6 December 2019, 29 July at MediaCity UK, Salford

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This collection of six pieces from Sir Malcolm Arnold’s composing career stretches from one of his first published pieces, Larch Trees, to one of his last, the Philharmonic Concerto. Both were written for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, for whom he played trumpet from 1941 until 1948, and with whom he maintained a close association as a composer.

In between these pieces Chandos have chosen a satisfying mix of styles to reveal Arnold as a multi-faceted composer, not just the humourous one of which we hear most. That side of his writing is happily celebrated through The Padstow Lifeboat and the Divertimento no.2 for orchestra reveals the happiness he found through writing for children and young people, being young at heart himself.

The Commonwealth Christmas Overture finds Arnold in commission mode, called upon to write the music for Royal Prologue: Crown and Commonwealth, a programme narrated by Sir Laurence Oliver to preface the 25th Christmas speech by a ruling monarch. Completing the collection is the first of many concertos from Arnold’s pen, and the first of two for clarinet.

What’s the music like?

Chandos have already presented us with a good deal of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s music, and this is further enhanced by a programme giving us first recordings and revealing each side of the composer’s personality.

The Commonwealth Christmas Overture gets proceedings off to a suitably ceremonial start, with plenty of bluster and high jinks, all buoyed by colourful percussion. The influence of William Walton is immediately evident, for the main theme has more than a little in common with his own ceremonial march Crown Imperial, but Arnold goes on to develop it in his own inimitable way.

The Clarinet Concerto is a compact piece, deft and slightly bluesy in the outer movements but pausing for meaningful reflection in the Andante, the emotional centre of the work.

The Second Divertimento, long thought lost, is a fun piece where a lot happens in nine minutes! Using a traditional-sounding structure, Arnold has a lot of fun with the bracing Fanfare, atmospheric Nocturne and grand Chaconne, harnessing the power of the large orchestra.

The two pieces for the London Philharmonic are next, and are vividly contrasting pieces of work. Larch Trees is an evocative musical sketch, reminiscent of Moeran in the way it pans out over the rugged terrain of northern England, while also confiding intimately in its listeners through the woodwind. The Philharmonic Concerto is more obviously noisy and confrontational, this late work utilising the dissonance which will be noted by those familiar with Arnold’s later symphonies. This is not comfortable music but it is brilliantly written, challenging the orchestra to throw off their shackles. The probing violin lines of the Aria offer a chance for deeper reflection.

Finally The Padstow Lifeboat, one of Arnold’s brass band treasures, with its persistent ‘wrong note’ which warns all shipping. It makes for the ideal sign-off.

Does it all work?

Yes, and wonderfully so. Rumon Gamba has enjoyed a long and fruitful association with Arnold’s music and comes up trumps here, leading the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in some characterful and personal accounts. Arnold could hardly wish for better advocacy and understanding, the conductor charting his youthful prowess in Larch Trees, whose softer contours benefit from excellent recording by the Chandos engineers.

The Clarinet Concerto no.1 is brilliantly played by Michael Collins, negotiating the wide leaps of the solo part with aplomb, while responding with grace in the soulful slower sections. The strings of the BBC Philharmonic exploit the depths of the darker slow movement, its temperature appreciably colder by the end.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. This is an anthology that will appeal to seasoned Arnold listeners, for its mix of the familiar and a curio or two, while it is also the ideal place for those new to the composer. If you are after some music to combat the onset of January, you have come to the right place!

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For more information and purchasing options on this release, visit the Chandos website

On Record – BBC Concert Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey – Poulenc: Les Animaux modèles, Sinfonietta (Chandos)

Poulenc
Sinfonietta (1947-48)
Two movements from ‘Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel’ (1921, revised 1957)
Pastourelle from L’Éventail de Jeanne (1927)
Les Animaux modèles (complete ballet) (1940-42)

BBC Concert Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey

Chandos CHSA5260 [74’22″’]
Producer Brian Pidgeon Engineers Ralph Couzens, Alexander James
Recorded 10-12 March 2022 at Watford Colosseum

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This collection of colourful works for orchestra by Francis Poulenc has as its main work the ballet Les Animaux modèles, based on The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine. A vibrant work, it clearly had huge significance for the composer, who started on its composition after the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940, his aim ‘to find a reason to hope for the future of my country’. It received its first performance at the Paris Opera in 1942.

The ballet is symbolic, summarised in Nigel Simeone’s excellent booklet note about ‘a celebration of France’s past at its most lustrous’ than a collection of charming animal stories. It does however bring the story to life from the outset, with a vivid description of the dawn cutting to sharply characteristic portrayals of The Bear and The Two Companions, the former portrayed through an excellent horn solo, The Grasshopper and the Ant, The Amorous Lion, The Middle-aged Man and His Two Mistresses, Death and the Woodcutter, The Two Cockerels and finally The Midday Meal.

Complementing the ballet is the Sinfonietta, written for the BBC Third Programme and first heard in 1948. Initially the main themes of the work were to be part of a String Quartet that Poulenc was working on in 1945, but after its abandonment his friend and fellow-composer Georges Auric recognised the potential of the musical material. The work is dedicated to him in acknowledgement.

Completing the disc are two movements from Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, a collaborative single act ballet with Auric and the other members of composer collective Les Six, of which Poulenc was a leading member. There is also a soft-centred Pastourelle from another such collaborative piece, L’Éventail de Jeanne.

Very sadly this is the final recording made by the BBC Concert Orchestra’s principal conductor, Bramwell Tovey – completed just four months before his sad death from cancer at the age of 69.

What’s the music like?

In a word, colourful. Les animaux modèles is unquestionably the star turn, brilliantly played and characterised in this recording. Poulenc’s music is richly tuneful and beautifully orchestrated, often showing the influence of Stravinsky but realised with his own flair and mischievous humour. The central section of The Grasshopper and The Ant is a case in point, where a thrillingly brisk section cuts to an enchanting violin cadenza, the music briefly held in a spell until its release by shrill trumpets.

The Amorous Lion is a scene of great contrasts, with orchestral outbursts and volleys of percussion cutting to tender asides from string and woodwind choirs. The most substantial section – and arguably music – can be found in The Two Cockerels, where Poulenc realises music of great power and depth to portray the combat of the two birds. The surging climactic point, halfway through, is music of particularly strong feeling and resolve, Poulenc’s sentiments against the war reaching their heartfelt climax – before powerful exchanges between brass and the final toll on low piano. With passions largely spent, The Midday Meal provides a regal epilogue.

The slighter movements are no less fun, and The Middle-aged Man and his Two Mistresses scurries along furtively. Following Poulenc’s synopsis is enormously helpful, signposting the composer’s pictorial responses to the storyline as well as emphasising his wit.

In spite of its name, the Sinfonietta is one of Poulenc’s most substantial compositions. Far from being a slight, frothy work, it has a big-boned structure easily outdoing those dimensions, lasting nearly half an hour. Its convincing melodic arguments are led by the assertive first theme, drawing parallels with the Organ Concerto for its bite and resolve, while the second theme, beautifully realised here, brings mellow woodwind colouring. The second movement is a lively scherzo, balanced with tender asides that are fully realised in the slow third movement, a lyrical and colourful Andante cantabile. The brisk finale signs off with a flourish.

The two movements from Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel are short but mischievous and entertaining, with humourous trombone interventions, while the Pastourelle is a charming addition.

Does it all work?

Yes. These are fresh, vibrant performances given with evident affection by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Bramwell Tovey brings out the colourful orchestrations, allows the lyrical melodies a bit of heart-on-sleeve approach where appropriate, and brings rhythmically sharp responses too. Poulenc’s colourful writing is brought to the fore, along with the melancholic undertones his music often carries.

Is it recommended?

Yes, on many levels. The quality of the music, the excellent Chandos recordings from Watford Colosseum and some very fine performances from which Bramwell Tovey takes his lead. The icing on the cake is the choice of Henri Rousseau’s Monkeys and Parrot in Virgin Forest as cover art. It is the ideal complement for a wonderful album.

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For more information and purchasing options on this release, visit the Chandos website

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

John Ireland
Satyricon Overture (1946)
A Downland Suite [1941, arr. Ireland (movements 2 & 3), Geoffrey Bush (1 & 4)]
Mai-Dun (1920-21)
The Forgotten Rite (1913)
A London Overture (1936)
The Holy Boy (1941, Ireland’s string orchestra arrangement)
Epic March (1941-42)

Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Chandos CHAN 5293 [67’16”]
Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineer Ralph Couzens

Recorded 26-28 August 2021, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

John Ireland is a well-respected composer in the scope of early 20th century British music. Often writing in shorter forms, his songs and piano music present a fine body of work and enable the listener to get to know this bittersweet musical personality. Meanwhile the more substantial chamber music shows Ireland was capable of handling larger structures.

A good way in to the composer’s output is through his orchestral music, and there are several attractive anthologies already available – from Sir Adrian Boult and from John Wilson himself, conducting the Halle Orchestra. Wilson returns to the composer here in the company of the Sinfonia of London to give us a collection of suites, tone poems and pictorial overtures. Perhaps inevitably, The Holy Boy – Ireland’s best-known song – is also included, in its arrangement for string orchestra.

What’s the music like?

Ireland’s music is simultaneously elusive, heartfelt, melodic and elegiac – and these fine performances get right to the heart of his thinking.

Wilson and his charges begin with a good-natured account of the overture Satyricon, enjoying its syncopations before a smooth and elegant second theme from the strings, who impress with their command of the longer phrases. They come to the fore in a co-arranged version of A Downland Suite, two movements each recast from the brass band original by Ireland himself an Geoffrey Bush. This is music of silvery tone and generous melodic content, with an incisive Prelude, solemn Elegy, poised Minuet and a crisp, upward looking Rondo. Contrasting this with Mai-Dun is a good move, revealing Ireland’s colourful orchestrations and some lavish harmonies while digging deep emotionally.

The Forgotten Rite, a prelude serving as Ireland’s first published orchestral work. also has deep underlying emotion, while The Holy Boy – Ireland’s favoured song – is more sentimental but not excessively so. Bigger sounds are promised by the Epic March, which certainly lives up to its billing and stature, and A London Overture, which may have less bustle than its Elgarian counterpart (Cockaigne) but creates a studied portrait of the English capital city.

Does it all work?

Yes. Wilson has an innate understanding of this music, and with top class performances and clarity of recording there is little if anything to dispute here. The bigger pieces fare particularly well, with a crisply deployed Epic March and a detailed account of A London Overture that has particular insight in the work’s quieter moment. The Sinfonia’s account of A Downland Suite is subtle but affecting, with a gently dancing Minuet and a thoughtful Elegy that tugs softly but insistently at the heartstrings.

Perhaps the most successful piece is Mai-Dun, exploring some glorious shades of colour and texture, while the dappled sunlight of The Forgotten Rite is also exquisitely painted.

Is it recommended?

Yes – even in comparison with the Halle anthology, which shares much of the repertoire recorded here – though that one includes the suite The Overlanders rather than A Downland Suite. Either are very fine collections, but this Sinfonia of London set of recordings is extremely well recorded and performed with rare insight, capturing the composer’s personality to a tee.

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You can view buying options for this release – on download or SACD – on the Chandos website

In concert – Laura van der Heijden & Jâms Coleman @ Wigmore Hall – Pohádka: Tales from Prague to Budapest

Laura van der Heijden (cello), Jâms Coleman (piano)

Janáček Pohádka (1910, rev. 1912-23)
Dvořák Gypsy Songs Op. 55: Songs my mother taught me (1880)
Kaprálová Navždy from Navždy Op. 12 (1936-7)
Mihály Movement for cello and piano (1962)
Kodály 3 Songs to Poems by Bela Balazs Op. posth.: Why are you saying that you do not love me (1907-9); Énekszó Op. 1: Slender is a silk thread (1907-9)
Sonatina for cello and piano (1909)
Janáček Violin Sonata (1914-15, rev.1916-22)

Wigmore Hall, London, 9 March 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood Pictures (c) Olivia Da Costa (Laura van der Heijden), Sim Canetty-Clarke (Jâms Coleman)

It bears repeating that times are tough for new artists in music. Competition is fierce, while opportunities for live performance and recording have been severely hampered over the last two years of lockdown and pandemic restrictions. How refreshing, then, to talk about two new artists, a long term agreement with Chandos and a chamber music album notable for its originality and depth of expression.

The new artists, cellist Laura van der Heijden and her musical partner, pianist Jâms Coleman, have been performing together since 2017. Their debut album, for which this concert was an official launch, looks at music from Central and Eastern Europe with its roots in folk, either written directly for cello and piano or falling naturally into a vocal range.

The album shares its title, Pohádka, with a three-part fairy tale for cello and piano by Janáček, based on a Russian tale. This began the concert, a picture book performance bringing the story to life with sharp characterisation and flair. Janacek used a good deal of his music to explore macabre storylines and this was no exception, though the lighter, more lyrical moments were good fun. van der Heijden’s tone was sonorous and projected easily to the back of the hall, while Coleman’s stylish playing was capped with limpid work in the second section.

We then heard arrangements of two songs from Dvořák and Vítězslava Kaprálová as an idea complement, the former transcribing beautifully from voice to cello, with tasteful ornamentation from the cello. It was good to hear more of Kaprálová, a talented Czech composer who tragically died from tuberculosis when she was just 25. Her music immediately cast a spell, Coleman’s mysterious chords matched by a remote but moving line from the cello in its higher register.

Different qualities were required for the music of Hungarian composer and conductor András Mihály. His Movement for cello and piano was a dramatic rollercoaster, and rather volatile at times – reflecting perhaps the differing styles at play in modern music when it was written in 1962. While there were undoubtedly elements of Bartók and even Webern in the music’s contours, which veered into atonality at times, there was a fierce expression suggesting Mihály’s music should be explored further. Both players responded with a terrific performance, mastering the technical demands.

Zoltán Kodály was also an influence on Mihály, and his music suits the cello hand in glove, whether in large-scale sonatas or shorter, folk-informed songs. We heard two songs here, the cello a doleful voice for Why are you saying that you do not love me, while Slender is a silk thread found Coleman beautifully spinning out the silvery tale. However the single-movement Sonatina for cello and piano, at just under 10 minutes, made a lasting impression with its passion, profound lyricism and subtle melancholy. The performers’ love for this piece was clear, and the high voltage account found them finishing each other’s musical sentences.

The same could be said for Janáček’s Violin Sonata, a pungent piece whose proximity to World War One is evident in the rapid fire of its phrases. The composer’s unusual musical language was once again wholly compelling, with broad lyrical statements countered by strange, abrupt full stops to his melodies. The parallels with the current situation in Ukraine were impossible to ignore, especially with the emotion both players brought to the second movement Ballada, its sweeping melodies reaching skyward. Ultimately the acidic third and fourth movements cast a cloud over the mood, the players vividly depicting the distant sound of gunfire alongside more thoughtful introspection. van der Heijden was commendably modest about her own arrangement of the Sonata, for cello and piano, an extremely successful version losing none of the intensity or fractious treble phrases. Both players were superb, their virtuosity and togetherness notable throughout.

This was an extremely rewarding concert, energetic and romantic in turn but also thought-provoking through its wartime undercurrents. Laura van der Heijden and Jâms Coleman deserve great credit for their refreshing take on a chamber music album, which bodes well for their ongoing relationship with one of Britain’s best classical independents. Theirs is a partnership to watch closely.

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On record: Sinfonia of London / John Wilson – English Music for Strings (Chandos)

Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge Op.10 (1937)
Bridge Lament (1915)
Berkeley Serenade for Strings Op.12 (1938-9)
Bliss Music for Strings (1935)

Chandos CHAN 5264 [64’46”]
Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Alex James

Recorded 9-11 January 2020, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

After three wonderful albums extolling the virtues of French orchestral music, Korngold and Respighi, John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London charges turn much closer to home with a set of British music for strings drawn from the 1930s. They begin with an established classic, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, complemented by two neglected works from Sir Lennox Berkeley (his Serenade for Strings) and Sir Arthur Bliss (the Music for Strings), neither of which appears to have been recorded in the last 20 years. There is also room for the brief Lament from 1915 by Bridge himself.

What’s the music like?

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge will be familiar to many, but rarely in a performance as good as this. The theme, lovingly drawn from the Second Idyll for string quartet of Britten’s teacher, receives a virtuoso treatment, taken through a number of wildly differing dance forms before a powerful fugue and finale. The variations are sharply contrasted, with a crisp March at odds with the loving Romance that follows; the fulsome Wiener Walzer countered by the rush of a Moto perpetuo.

Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings works really well in this company. It is a work beginning with outward optimism but which ultimately falling under the shadow of the imminent Second World War. A busy first movement, its Baroque influences brought out by Wilson, is complemented by an inward looking but tender Andantino. Berkeley finds renewed energy in a quickfire Scherzo, but that is trumped by the closing Lento, which leaves a lasting impression, reflecting the anxiety felt as the 1930s drew to a close.

There is a good deal of positive energy in Bliss’ Music for Strings. Taking a lead from Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro of 1905, the composer writes for a full string orchestra but often picks out a smaller group of soloists. The substantial three movements show a masterly command of the string orchestra, from the wide span of the vigorous first movement to the meaningful Romance that follows, with lovely rich contributions from violas and cellos. The third movement starts hesitantly, in the depths, but soon the light breaks through to an effervescent finale.

Does it all work?

Everything works here, thanks to the thoroughly assertive performances secured by Wilson. He is quite quick on the draw with the theme for Britten’s variations, maybe quicker than some would like, but the thrills and spills that follow make this one of the finest versions available. The Aria Italiana has all guns blazing in a wonderful display of precision and power, while the Funeral March has a searing and chilling clarity.

Successful though the Britten is, it is the Berkeley and Bliss that ultimately give the disc its importance. The Berkeley is keenly felt, positive in its fast music but anxious in its two slower movements and raising emotional questions in the fourth. Wilson catches its air of uncertainty at the world in which we live, as relevant now as it was then.

The Bliss has terrific drive in its faster music, which builds up a thoroughly convincing momentum while succeeding in bringing forward the writing for the chamber ensemble at the front. The textures are beautifully clear thanks to the Chandos recording, the quicker melodies’ punchy phrasing cutting through easily.

The Bridge Lament, though short, proves a mellow complement to the Britten, a chance for the listener to collect their thoughts while the Sinfonia play with a beautiful, muted sound.

Is it recommended?

In every way. John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London breathe new life into this music, and their programme is superbly judged to bring two neglected and very fine works back into contention. The cover, a painting of Bliss’s Pen Pits house by Edward Wadsworth, is the icing on the cake with its classic 1930s style.

For further information on this release, visit the Chandos website.