In concert – City of London Sinfonia @ Southwark Cathedral: Origin: This is CLS

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Monteverdi arr. Wick Toccata from ‘L’Orfeo’ (1607)
Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Tabakova
Frozen River Flows (2005)
Finnis
The Centre is Everywhere (2019)
Vasks
Music for the fleeting birds (1977)
Tabakova
Origin (2022) (world premiere)
Carter
A Fantasy about Purcell’s ‘Fantasia on one note’ (1975)
Tavener
The Hidden Face (1996)

Hugh Cutting (countertenor), Dan Bates (oboe), City of London Sinfonia / Alexandra Wood (violin)

Southwark Cathedral, London
Thursday 3 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood

When the young Richard Hickox assembled a performing group in 1971, his vision was an extended family of talented musicians coming together to project the enjoyment of their art onto their audience.

Just over 50 years on, Hickox may sadly no longer be with us but his vision, realised by the City of London Sinfonia, burns with an ever brighter flame. This celebration in Southwark Cathedral may have been a year late, due to the consequences of the pandemic, but it brought everything together in a programme blending the old with the new.

Great credit should go to the orchestra’s creative director and leader, Alexandra Wood, for choosing music that looked simultaneously forwards and backwards, while utilising the vast spaces offered by the cathedral in inspiring and imaginative ways.

The audience were free to roam around during the concert, which was a considerable plus, for acoustic hotspots could be found and exploited, while it was also possible to stand to one side in contemplation. The mood was relaxed but focused, with audience members chosing a mixture of both options. The only danger of this was unexpectedly finding yourself in front of a group of instrumentalists when they were about to play, meaning the focus would suddenly shift in your direction! This was a risk well worth taking, for the rewards were many.

Before the concert, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, Andrew Nunn, spoke warmly of the power of music to soothe the fevered mind, giving the pertinent Biblical example of David’s harp curing Saul’s war-torn temper, illustrated vividly by a stained-glass window depiction at the back of the church. The parallels with Russia and Ukraine were unmistakeable, and before the programme started everyone stood for the Ukraine national anthem.

The programme itself began under that very window, with Stephen Wick’s excellent arrangement of the Toccata from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the brass filling the cathedral from back to front with sonorous colours.

The baton then passed to the strings for an unforgettable account of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. This work was written for performance in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910, utilising the space in imaginative ways – and the City of London Sinfonia responded in kind, with the work’s solo group in the round in the nave, and the main body of the strings in the centre of the church. This was a deeply emotive performance, finding the intersection between the old of Tallis and Vaughan Williams’ own sweeping melodies and added-note harmonies. In doing so a composition that is often overplayed gained fresh insight, and, for your reviewer standing at the back of the church, a magical experience.

British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova has a close association with the Sinfonia. Frozen River Flows, an earlier work from 2005, appeared here in an arrangement for clarinet and percussion which was played in the south transept. This brightly coloured piece found Katherine Spencer’s clarinet evoking graceful lines not dissimilar to Poulenc, complemented by the richness of the vibraphone and crotales (antique cymbals), expertly managed by Chris Blundell.

We also heard Tabakova’s music in the world premiere of Origin, written for this concert. It was a brief but meaningful celebration placing violin soloist Alexandra Wood in the nave, with the accompanying musicians under the tower. Wood’s role was that of virtuoso, but she managed it carefully so that slower contributions from the strings and vibraphone were ideally balanced. Tabakova has a talent for the immediate creation of an atmosphere, and this may have been a relatively minimal piece but it left a lasting impression.

Complementing this was another work in the round of the nave, as 12 string players assembled for Edmund Finnis’s The Centre is Everywhere. This was a wholly appropriate choice, the soloists creating unusual and original sounds. On occasion the music swelled like the bellows of an accordion, then subsided to a barely audible whisper, then appeared to be reaching beyond the cathedral for the skies above. Finnis has an unusual and remarkable habit of writing music that becomes an out of body experience, and The Centre is Everywhere shows there is still so much more to achieve when writing for stringed instruments.

The programme turned to wind instruments for a timely reference to the troubles in Ukraine. Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks wrote Fleeting Birds in 1977 as an expression of his need for freedom. Restricted from travelling by the Soviet authorities, he made his feelings known through music. The City of London Sinfonia winds walked the length of the cathedral as they played, turning from joyous expressions of freedom and release to statements soured by compression, reflecting the composer’s earthbound plight.

Freedom lay in Elliott Carter’s Purcell Fantasy, richly expressed by the brass around a persistent middle C, before cutting without a break to John Tavener’s Hidden Face for a final contemplation. The stillness of this work is deceptive, achieved through great virtuosity from solo oboe and a countertenor, singing text written by Mother Maria. Oboist Dan Bates and singer Hugh Cutting were superb throughout, the latter floating his words effortlessly above the prayerful strings, whose sonorous tones were the ideal match for Bates’s keening oboe, which also scaled unfathomable heights with impressive ease.

It was a fitting way to finish a deeply felt concert and celebration, that of a performing group who continue to do their founder proud. Like their musical choices, the City of London Sinfonia look to the future, embracing new advances as well as nurturing past achievements while they do so. They deserve to continue as a treasured feature of the capital’s music making.

To read more about the City of London Sinfonia, visit their website – and for more on composers Dobrinka Tabakova and Edmund Finnis, click on their names

Wigmore Mondays – Maxim Rysanov & Ashley Wass: Schubert plus

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Maxim Rysanov (viola), Ashley Wass (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 14 March 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0739t8r

Available until 13 April

What’s the music?

Schubert – Sonatina for violin and piano in G minor (arr. Rysanov) (1816) (20 minutes)

Leonid Desyatnikov Wie der Alte Leiermann (1997) (14 minutes)

Sergey Akhunov – Erlkönig (2015) (5 minutes)

Dobrinka Tabakova – Suite in Jazz Style (2008) (15 minutes)

Spotify

Unfortunately most of the music in this concert is not available to stream…but there is a violin version of the Schubert that you can hear on the below playlist – which also contains some recommended listening and the originals of the Schubert songs inspiring the pieces by Desyatnikov and Akhunov:

About the music

This is a concert rather cleverly themed on the music of Schubert. Maxim Rysanov, though still a relatively new performer, has already contributed much to the available repertoire for the viola – and some of these contributions are in the forms of original compositions by Brahms and Schubert.

Schubert wrote three attractive Sonatinas for violin and piano, but their titles are misleading as they were applied posthumously. They are actually quite in depth pieces deserving of a bigger audience, and as Rysanov shows the G minor work transcribes nicely for viola and piano.

Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov works predominantly in film, but wrote Wie der Alte Leiermann, his take on a song from Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, for viola and piano. Likewise fellow Russian Sergey Akhunov expanded on Erlkönig, one of the composer’s darkest songs, to create a minimalist spectacular.

Finally Bulgarian composer Donbrinka Tabakova, with whom Rysanov has worked closely on an arrangement of a Schubert sonata for viola and orchestra, contributes a freely formed Suite in Jazz Style, where she looks to combine classical and jazz in a way successfully achieved by the likes of Stravinsky, Milhaud and Duke Ellington to name just a few.

Performance verdict

Maxim Rysanov is without doubt one of the finest viola players around, and he cemented that reputation with a series of powerful and passionate performances at the Wigmore Hall.

He has also gained a reputation for imaginative programming, and that was also in evidence, taking the music of Schubert and projecting it into much newer music and influences. This was a more guarded success, for the piece by Desyatnikov felt too long, despite its dramatic profile, and was rather relentless in its cold and downbeat mood. This does imply it was a successful recasting of the Winterreise song, which is hardly sweetness and light itself, but a little more light amongst the shade would have been welcome.

Akhunov’s Erlkönig was more effective as it had more momentum and rhythmic interest, though this too was starting to test the ear and run thinner on inspiration by the time its five minutes came to a close.

Far more involving was Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova’s Jazz Suite, for it was more obviously fun, as well as being more immediately emotional. There were some clever syncopations and use of the viola to get some truly unusual sounds, and Rysanov clearly warmed to this, in the company of Ashley Wass’s clear but nicely swung rhythms.

The Schubert with which the two began was very well played and carried an urgent dialogue throughout, reminding us that the three pieces in this form are not trifles, as the Sonatina name implies they should be – they are actually really substantial and memorable works.

What should I listen out for?

Schubert

1:28 – a call to arms to begin (marked Allegro giusto by the composer, which becomes a bit more furtive as the piano takes the lead. This is repeated (2:51) and then developed from 4:14 – before a reprise back in the ‘home’ key at 5:12. Mostly the two instruments are equal partners, though they both become obsessed with the three-note figure that dominates Schubert’s thinking. Rysanov’s arrangement for viola lies relatively comfortably under the fingers.

6:55 – a relaxed Andante forms the slow movement, with a nice and simple theme from the viola. Schubert gives it plenty of space, and the whole movement – though relatively short – has a nice airy profile.

12:57 – the influence of Mozart can be more clearly felt in this brisk Menuetto. You would have to look pretty lively if you were dancing three in a bar! The viola is effective when Rysanov drops down an octave to exploit the lower range (e.g.13:48). A trio section (from 13:59) is nicely poised, before the main theme comes back at 14:54.

15:42 – this sounds more like one of Schubert’s songs, with an offbeat piano accompaniment to the main viola tune. There is a lively secondary tune though, which comes through to dominate – especially when Schubert brings it back in the main key at 19:05, to close what had initially been an uncertain piece in emphatic fashion…or so we thought! He then swings back to the minor key, but ultimately this tune wins through.

Desyatnikov

The inspiration for Desyatnikov’s piece is Schubert’s Der Leiermann, which can be heard here:

23:02 – the harsh tones of the viola’s opening strings evoke the hurdy-gurdy in coarse style. In response the piano line feels very cold, and the two exchange their ideas. Then there is a slow statement from the viola using harmonics () before things get very fraught between the instruments. At 28:43 a new, faster section starts with urgent sounds and a swing to the melody that sounds almost American. In the long closing section, from 33:30, the music’s frosty tone becomes almost devoid of feeling, though some outbursts (34:08) draw vivid parallels with the music of Janáček.

Akhunov

Akhunov’s inspiration is Schubert’s Erlkönig, which can be heard here:

38:48 – a twisted introduction, with plenty of discords, gives way almost immediately to an intriguing development, a pulsating tonal base from the piano and a melodic cell that grows steadily from the viola.

Tabakov

45:35 – this first movement, marked ‘Confident’, starts out with a walking bass in the piano deliberately written to imitate the sound of a plucked bass instrument. Over the top is an airy, improvisatory piece of work from the piano. The pair spar playfully until the viola literally dies away.

49:54 – the second movement is marked ‘Nocturnal’, and treats the viola as though it were a solo jazz singer. After a sultry introduction from the piano the viola comes in with a bluesy tune, moving between the major and minor keys with ease. Tabakova uses some intriguing techniques to vary the sound of the instrument.

56:12 – the third movement has a simple marking – ‘Rhythmic’. It starts almost inaudibly, scratching on the viola, but then the two instruments start trading a syncopated figure. The music has a happy disposition, and both viola and piano dance around each other, the viola becoming ever more expansive in its language. The two are restless bodies right until the end.

Further listening

There is plenty of good music for viola and piano if you look hard enough. Maxim Rysanov has recorded a fair bit of it already – and in a link with the music of this concert, here is an album begun by the Arpeggione Sonata arranged by Dobrinka Tabakova for viola and string orchestra:

Meanwhile you can watch her Suite in Old Style – again with Rysanov – below: