The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Shostakovich, Copland & Prokofiev

oberon-draperOberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper

Richard Whitehouse on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert of 20th century music from the superpowers, given at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 11 June

Shostakovich Festive Overture (1954)

Copland Clarinet Concerto (1948)

Prokofiev Symphony no.7 (1952)

Cosima Yu (clarinet), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

This evening’s concert from the Oberon Symphony Orchestra comprised three pieces which complemented each other ideally, especially when their immediacy and accessibility as music tends to offset their frequent technical difficulties – albeit for musicians rather than listeners.

Not least Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, written in three days to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, whose tunefulness does not make for ease of ensemble; not that this was an issue when the players were as alert rhythmically in the first theme as surely as they conveyed the suavity of its successor, and the grandeur of its framing fanfares emerging without undue heaviness. That Shostakovich struggled to refocus his music in the post-Stalin era hardly lessens the appeal of this piece when so capably rendered.

The sharp stylistic contrasts in Copland’s output may have been determined more by aesthetic than political considerations, yet here again those pieces written for a wider audience are by no means straightforward to perform. One might have expected a testing solo part in the Clarinet Concerto composed for Benny Goodman, but the high and exposed writing in the first movement hardly makes life easy, and it was a credit to the Oberon musicians that they met the challenge while capturing the Mahlerian plangency of this music. The second movement, with its continual syncopation and recourse to jazz idioms, presents difficulties that were less fully surmounted; which in no way deterred Cosima Yu – her elegant phrasing and rhythmic verve much in evidence through to that final and decidedly Gershwinesque upward glissando.

While it has never been neglected, Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is still too often interpreted at face value. A letter to the ailing composer from Shostakovich soon after the premiere betrays a recognition of deeper and more ambivalent emotion behind the outward naivety (something the latter clearly had in mind when writing his final symphony two decades on), and it was this ambivalence that Samuel Draper brought out most convincingly – not least in an initial Moderato of a formal simplicity concealed by the harmonic subtlety with which Prokofiev navigates its searching and often uneasy course. This was no less true of the ensuing Moderato, a waltz-sequence of ingratiating melodies undercut by a rhythmic assertiveness made manifest during a coda whose forced jollity came ominously to the fore.

The highlight was the Andante – easy to glide over when its themes are so simply and unobtrusively drawn, but here given with  a plaintiveness and regret as disarming as is the piquancy of its scoring (not least the melting harp passage toward its close). While the final Allegro was less convincing, this further instance of ‘easy’ expression allied to its fair share of technical difficulties is far from plain-sailing, and if ensemble was not always precise in the cavorting main sections (or the admittedly uninspiring central episode), the return of the first movement’s ‘big tune’ was finely judged and the coda suffused with acute poignancy.

Draper rightly opted for the quiet ending that Prokofiev had initially intended: no matter if   its final pizzicato was not together – the music’s essential fatalism could hardly be ignored.

The next Oberon concert takes place on 17th September 2015, where the orchestra will play the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ symphony and Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes. Here they are in the Tchaikovsky’s Fifth:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

Friendly Fire – Natalia Gutman, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

natalia-gutmanFriendly Fire – Natalia Gutman (above), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 27 January 2016

Welcome to Arcana’s new ‘alternative’ reviews slot! It is an ‘ask the audience’ feature – where I (Ben Hogwood) take a friend / colleague who doesn’t normally attend a classical concert and get them to review it in the bar afterwards. First up is Tony Winter, a young-at-heart 50-something from Watford, who shares his thoughts on a program of Schnittke (Pianissimo), Shostakovich (Cello Concerto no.2) and Bruckner (Symphony no.3 – original version)

tw

Arcana: How did you prepare for this concert?

Tony: Well I had a shave (d’oh! – Ed) No, I’ve been playing some recordings of the Shostakovich and a little bit of the Bruckner. Not the Schnittke, which was a bit of a surprise! I haven’t done an enormous amount of preparation.

What was your musical upbringing?

I had a brief encounter with the violin which I never really got on with – I didn’t get on with the teacher – and then when I was about 13 the guitar, but that was rock music. I played the guitar for years. When I retire it’s going to come out again! I played in a band called The Committee, but to be fair by the time they’d risen to fame they’d chucked me out!

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I love Bach, just because of the melodies. I think you can look at other people and say the orchestration is great but for me the genius is the melody. James Rhodes says ‘the immortal Bach’, which sums it up.

I’ve been playing a lot of David Bowie recently with his demise, I was a big fan of Bowie up to about the Let’s Dance era, and now suddenly I’ve been playing some of the later albums as I’ve been guilty of overlooking some of them. I don’t like it when it gets too commercial! But I think later on he was saying that he didn’t give a shit, which is an approach I’ve always liked.

The Outside album was described as ‘difficult and industrial’ but I think it’s great. I wonder in 200 years if people will be playing Bowie? He died at the same age as Shostakovich but who knows? Only time will tell. How many people were on stage tonight, over 100? I’m sure everyone would be using that if there weren’t cost implications to it!

I don’t know whether to say the Rolling Stones or Mozart for the third!

Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?

I’ve been to a few over the years – I’ve even started going to a few operas! Living close to the Watford Colosseum I’ve been going to concerts there as I’m a bit of a lazy bugger. I tend to go to any classical concerts they put on there. I’ve seen Beethoven’s 9th at Westminster Abbey, but that was a bit echoey!

James Rhodes sticks in the mind for his more modern presentation which particularly appealed to my kids. They’re learning the piano so that helped but it helped that he stood up and made a few jokes. I’m not saying everyone has to turn into a variety act but he judged it right. I like sitting at the front in an intimate gig, but coming here tonight though I think I should drag my sorry arse into London more as I don’t think you could fit that orchestra on the stage in Watford!

What did you think of the Schnittke?

I think I’d have to give it a few more listens. It did somewhat sound like they were tuning up for a while, and I’m not sure I liked the screeching of the flute over the top. Parts of it were interesting though, and when the violins came in quietly and slowly it almost sounded like a Jimi Hendrix track where he’s playing the guitar backwards. There were elements of it that appealed to me, and I will definitely investigate more. It didn’t grab me by the throat.

What about the Shostakovich?

I enjoyed that for a variety of reasons. Because I had prepared by having a few versions on in the background it had sunk in a bit, and then when you’re actually watching it live you’ve got to concentrate on it, and I thought Natalia Gutman was obviously really fantastic. It was an interesting piece and I really enjoyed it.

What about the Bruckner?

I did enjoy it but it was a different version to the one I’d been playing. It felt like it was building up to the end for a while! When I was listening to it at home I thought there were echoes of Beethoven in it, but listening to it tonight he was heavily influenced by Wagner and I could hear that. It wasn’t as melodic as some of the Beethoven symphonies, and I wasn’t overwhelmed by it.

I don’t think Bruckner will be one of my favourites, but then again, maybe I need to go back and listen to it! It was fantastic seeing an orchestra of that size, with ten double basses. As a bit of a hi-fi geek, you think that’s what it should sound like!

What about the environment and setting of the concert, and how it was promoted?

Well they didn’t get me down here, you did! I do feel strongly about this though because at the Watford Colosseum you go down there, and they’re absolutely fantastic, and the place is quarter full. You think why is this, as it’s fantastic value for money and there are as many people on stage as in the audience!

The Royal Festival Hall is very nice though and before the concert the youth musicians of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Foyle Future Firsts, were great. They were playing Shostakovich’s incidental music to Hamlet, and Vladimir Jurowski got up and talked about the piece and gave us loads of facts about it for ten minutes before they played. I was hugely impressed by that, it was really nice to see and the musicians were great. It was well worth the effort getting down here early!

Arcana’s brief thoughts on the concert:

A really rewarding evening which represented great value with a concert that lasted two and a half hours. The Schnittke, as Tony says, sounded a bit like an excerpt from a horror movie.

The Shostakovich was deeply considered by Natalia Gutman, who did not play with great volume but who managed to project her thoughts to a spellbound audience. She is one of the great surviving musicians from Shostakovich’s era, and it was a humbling experience to see her play – she may have missed one particularly crucial entry in the finale but her thoughts elsewhere were extremely profound.

Finally the Bruckner, a real tour de force – and a superb account from the orchestra and the brass in particular. This is one of Bruckner’s wildest symphonies, full of ideas that are not always controlled, and Jurowski projected the tension between instinct and adhering to symphonic form. The triumphant end was well-earned.

Wigmore Mondays – Dejan Lazić plays Haydn, Shostakovich, Schumann and his own work

dejan-lazic

Dejan Lazić (piano) plays a concert of Haydn, Shostakovich, Schumann and his own Istrian Dances

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday, 18 January 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06vrk8d

Available until 17 February

What’s the music?

Haydn – Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob.XVI:52 (1794) (20 minutes)

Shostakovich – 3 Fantastic Dances Op.5 (1922) (4 minutes)

Schumann – Waldszenen Op.82 (1849) (23 minutes)

Lazić – 3 Istrian Dances Op.15a (2008) (4 minutes)

Spotify

If you cannot hear the broadcast then this attached playlist covers almost all of the repertoire. Dejan Lazić has already recorded the Haydn and Schumann, while the Shostakovich is included in a recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy:

About the music

Haydn’s late Piano Sonata in E flat (given no.52 in the catalogue by the compiler Hoboken) is one of his grandest statements for the keyboard, an imposing piece that is often regarded as having a scope well beyond the solo instrument. It has Haydn’s characteristic wit but also an impressive stature.

By complete contrast the young Shostakovich – just fourteen at the time of writing the 3 Fantastic Dances – was just striking out, and you can sense him champing at the bit in these pieces. All three last under five minutes but are great fun.

Schumann was a great writer of character pieces for the piano, and Waldszenen (Forest Scenes) is one of the finest examples of his ability to paint portraits in relatively short periods of time. A group of nine pieces, these are often played with very little in the way of a break between them, and are often understated but without losing any intensity. Originally they were headed by poetic quotations, but the shadowy set of pieces was instead published without these and were given headings instead.

Finally Lazić himself gets in on the act, his 3 Istrian Dances rather similar to the solo piano works of Bartók in their reworking of national themes. Istria is a peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, shared by Croatia, Italy and Slovenia.

Performance verdict

Arcana was not present at the Wigmore Hall on this occasion, so this appraisal was done via the BBC iPlayer. Even from that it is quite clear not just what an accomplished pianist Lazić is, but that he has a strong sense of national identity in his compositions. In the lively Istrian Dances this takes him close to the sound world of Bartók, and this energetic performance proved an invigorating final number in the concert.

Lazić clearly has affection for the works of Haydn, and although some of his phrasing was quite mannered – nothing wrong with that, but not necessarily to everyone’s taste! – his technical control was superb, and some of the rapid passagework Haydn assigns to the right hand was thrown off with aplomb. Meanwhile the slow movement of the E flat sonata had a real depth of feeling.

His Schumann was excellent, very strongly characterised and recognising the intimacy found in a lot of these short pieces, the comfort of the forest sometimes spilling over into claustrophobia. Meanwhile the impudent Shostakovich was pure fun, the sound of a young composer flexing his muscles.

What should I listen out for?

Haydn

01:54 – a grand theme to start, anticipating Beethoven in its big scale. This is one of Haydn’s most substantial sonata themes. After an elaborate development, the first half of the movement is repeated from 4:06. Then from 6:22 Haydn takes the two main themes for a walk, running through some unexpectedly far-off keys until reaching home at 8:08.

10:12 – the slow movement starts in E major, the last key you would expect Haydn to use. But then this is Haydn, who likes to throw in a surprise or two to what ought to be conventional works! It is a thoughtful, intimate theme, too, one of his more profound slow movements for piano. Then at 13:09 Haydn moves the music into the minor key, and an unpredictable section based on the main tune, but before long we return to the opening material (14:16)

16:14 – a cheeky, stop-start last movement with repeated notes in the main tune. They sound like an over eager woodpecker or something similar! With typical wit Haydn develops these, making great use of silence in between some of his phrases and introducing some really difficult runs in the right hand. Again Haydn is adventurous in the rapid development section (from 18:46) until the witty theme makes a comeback (20:13)

Shostakovich

23:42 March – Allegretto – a thoughtful but quite carefree notion to this piece, and to the right hand especially, which becomes quite frivolous.

25:08 Waltz – Andantino – a relatively gentle start is misleading, as this piece turns out to be reckless and quite impetuous at times, making the listener jump!

26:32 – Polka – Allegretto – Shostakovich shows an early mastery of the piano, and despite pronounced influences from Chopin and Scriabin there is plenty of individuality to his style here too. Cheeky but meaningful.

Schumann

27:39 – Eintritt (Entry) – an endearing privacy immediately descends on Schumann’s music, beautifully written. The harmonies are open, and the melodies subtly restless, wandering for a while.

29:45 – Jäger auf der Lauer (Hunters on the lookout) – a furtive piece, hiding in the shadows initially, then becoming a lot bolder.

31:07 – Einsame Blumen (Lonely Flowers) – quite sparse, bring a melody and relatively economical accompaniment. It is a beautiful melody though, and has a strong yearning.

33:42 – Verrufene Stelle (Haunted Place) – the quietness of the piano is laced with tension, the scene far from comfortable. The music gets more animated but quickly retreats into its shell again, scarred by what it might have seen. There is a happier ending, mind, as the music moves to a major key and peace of mind.

37:51 – Freundliche Landschaft (Friendly Landscape) – a quickfire piece, happy go-lucky in these hands, relieved after the haunting has passed.

38:55 – Herberge (Wayside Inn) – the welcoming inn is a lively place in Schumann’s description, with a warm welcome, carrying on from the happy place above.

40:54 – Vogel als Prophet (Bird as Prophet) – a fascinating, mysterious piece that leaves a mark through its distinctive melodic profile. Its foreboding message hangs on the air.

43:58 – Jagdlied (Hunting Song) – an open air call to arms. Schumann wrote a lot of hunting songs for voice and piano and piano alone, but this one is reminiscent of Beethoven in its profile and the choice of E-flat major.

46:24 – Abschied (Farewell) – initially confident but immediately thoughtful, and the rest of the piece is relatively sombre and quietly moving.

Lazić

51:52 – an arresting call to arms in the first dance, with the notes in the right hand close together, creating crunchy dissonances.

The second dance is underway at 52:40 and is equally spiky, with quickfire shots from the right hand and powerful double notes in the left. At 53:39 a languid dance makes itself known and turns in on itself softly.

The third dance gets underway at 54:39 with highly distinctive rhythms, detached and tumbling down the keyboard at times before finishing suddenly at 55:24.

Encore

56:43 – the encore is the finale of one of Haydn’s best-loved Piano Sonatas, in C major (published as HXVI:50). You can sense the composer thumbing his nose at the audience in his witty asides and false approaches to the ending, which finally arrives at 58:53.

Further listening

Having mentioned Bartók earlier it would be churlish not to include something of his for solo piano, so attached to the bottom of the concert playlist you will find the 3 Rondos, played by Zoltan Kocsis. Alternatively you could try a whole set of Mazurkas by the Polish composer Karel Szymanowski, on the album below:

Edinburgh String Quartet – Intimate Voices

Edinburgh-Quartet

Ben Hogwood visits the Edinburgh String Quartet on their home turf for an inventive program studying the intimacy of the string quartet
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Wednesday 11 November

Schubert String Quartet in E flat major, D87 (1813)

Shostakovich String Quartet no.7 (1960)

Sibelius String Quartet in D minor, Op.56, Voces Intimae (1909)

Intimate Voices was the subtitle of this triptych from the Edinburgh String Quartet, an intriguing look at how the combination of two violins, viola and cello has become one of the main expressive forms in classical music.

To show how composers have approached the medium in different ways they presented a quartet by the teenage Schubert, a mature and compact example by Shostakovich and the only fully published example by Sibelius.

Of the three pieces it was perhaps this one – subtitled Intimate Voices – that carried the most penetrating emotional impact, played with passion and purpose by the quartet, whose dynamic control was especially impressive. The quiet moments, helped by an attentive Queen’s Hall audience, were a real window into Sibelius’ mind, and his string writing, which as the perceptive booklet note pointed out was boosted by his knowledge of stringed instruments through playing the violin, was interpreted with real style.

This piece was equalled in emotional impact by the Shostakovich, arguably the most effective of his fifteen quartets at making its mark in a very short space of time. Just twelve minutes pass in the String Quartet no.7 but in it we get deep into the thoughts of the composer. Shostakovich vividly illustrates his humour in the face of adversity but also the adversity itself, and the Edinburgh Quartet could be found warily treading forward as though worried what might be around the corner. Here again they paid exquisite attention to the quiet writing, so that when the third movement exploded out of the box it did so angrily and with maximum impact.

By complete contrast the first item in the program served notice that the sixteen year old Schubert was capable of going places. While taking obvious leads from Haydn (the second movement) and Mozart (the third) the String Quartet in E flat, published as D87 in the composer’s catalogue, is a beautifully crafted work that is by no means a copy. Schubert writes with confidence and melodic interest, the roots of his work in song already sown and making their most poignant effect in the first and third (slow) movements. The second movement was a blink-and-you-miss-it affair, with first violinist Tristan Gurney and cellist Mark Bailey helping to bring out the humour. Overall the intimacy between the players was as Gurney said in an insightful chat with the audience, essentially being a conversation between friends.

Gurney’s introduction was a key part of the enjoyment of this concert, showing that the theme Intimate Voices need not be restricted to the four players, but that the audience were included as well.

The Edinburgh String Quartet website can be accessed here

Tomasz Lis at Leighton House – Tchaikovsky and Chopin

tomasz-lis
Tomasz Lis

Richard Whitehouse on an intriguing recital from the Music at Unique Venues series
Leighton House, London Tuesday 10 November

Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37b (1875-6)

Chopin: Preludes, Op. 24 – selection (1835-9)

Tomasz Lis (piano)

This evening’s recital formed part of the series Music at Unique Venues, aiming to combine the appeal of music and art by holding recitals at places not normally associated with live performance or, moreover, that are not often open to the general public. Although Leighton House has been accessible over much of the past century, not least for live music-making, a lengthy period of renovation had effectively taken it out of circulation; making performances such as that given tonight by the Polish pianist Tomasz Lis a much-needed act of redress.

Each half began with Lis placing the music in the context of fine-art from the same period. Thus he prefaced his account of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons with consideration of those paintings A Rye Field and Winter by Ivan Shishkin (1832-98), whose deftly achieved realism found its complement in the understated and folk-inflected ethos of Tchaikovsky’s cycle; played with a winning combination of grace and eloquence by Lis, who pointed out it might have been titled ‘The Months’ were it not for the commercial acumen of its publisher.

The second half duly opened with Lis considering the paintings Souvenir de Mortefontaine by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) and Fire at Sea by JMW. Turner (1775-1851); their powerful synthesis of feeling with depiction finding direct equivalent in the 24 Preludes of Chopin, 16 of which (Nos. 1-11 and 13-17) were heard here. Two-thirds of such a closely integrated cycle might have been in error, but Lis ensured this selection unfolded with a cohesion such that the A flat prelude rounded-off the sequence with requisite poise.

Add to this visual and musical feast the opportunity to enjoy the surroundings of the house made famous by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-96) out of opening hours, and the result was an evening as instructive as it was pleasurable. Tomasz Lis has recently released his debut album – featuring impromptus by Schubert, Chopin and Fauré – via Rondeau Productions (Klanglogo KL1511), which is well recommended. The Music at Unique Venues continues next February at Armourers Hall in the City of London and then in May at the Saville Club.

You can read more about the Music at Unique Venues series here

Meanwhile the website of Tomasz Lis is here