In concert – Jayson Gillham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes: Grace Williams, Grieg & Sibelius

Williams Penillion (1955)
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 (1868)
Sibelius
Symphony no. 5 in E flat major Op. 82 (1919)

Jayson Gillham (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes

Cadogan Hall, London
Tuesday 12 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) Benjamin Ealovega (Jayson Gillham)

Its high-profile concerts may currently be elsewhere in London, but the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra continues its schedule of regular performances at Cadogan Hall, and this evening was heard under the direction of former principal associate conductor Owain Arwel Hughes.

Hughes has rightly featured Welsh music whenever possible, and this programme began with Penillion that Grace Williams wrote for National Youth Orchestra of Wales. Two symphonies aside, several other of Williams’s pieces are inherently symphonic – not least her ‘symphonic poem in four movements’ whose title infers the Welsh tradition of singing against an existing melody. This is heard at its most evocative in the initial Moderato with solo trumpet intoning its (original) theme in the context of ethereal contributions from woodwind, harp, and strings. There follows a tensile Allegro then haunting Andante as ‘scherzo’ and ‘slow movement’ of a piece where the trenchant final Allegro proceeds toward a gently fatalistic close. Certainly, this is music such as warrants frequent hearings – irrespective of the present cultural climate.

Hard to imagine Grieg’s Piano Concerto undergoing a period of neglect, yet familiarity need not breed contempt at the hands of a skilled and sensitive exponent which Australian-British pianist Jayson Gillham assuredly is. After a commanding start the first movement felt unduly sectional in its unfolding, its orchestral tuttis a little overwrought, but the second main theme was limpidly rendered then Gillham came into his own with a cadenza whose developmental aspect was as audible as its virtuosity. With its poetic contributions from solo horn and cello, the Adagio was no less affecting, then the finale’s lyrical middle section threw into relief the combative dialogue either side. Its flute melody returns in a peroration whose grandiloquence found effective contrast with the Notturno in C (Op.54 No 4) that Gillham gave as an encore.

Even if Sibelius’s Second Symphony had been replaced by his Fifth during the run-up to this concert, the latter’s inclusion played no less to the RPO’s collective strengths. Building those earlier stages of the first movement’s intricate evolution patiently and methodically, Hughes amply brought out this music’s epic as well as ruminative qualities on the way to a powerful central climax – from where its scherzo-like continuation headed stealthily and purposefully to a coda that, if it lacked the last degree of visceral impact, generated undeniable dynamism.

The highlight was an Andante enticingly poised between intermezzo and slow movement – its plaintive repartee of not without its more ominous moments, yet whose winsome essence was itself a telling foil to the finale. Here the coursing interplay of strings and enfolding eloquence of its ‘swan theme’, horns magnetically to the fore, set in motion the eventful progress toward an apotheosis whose affirmation was never in doubt. If some of those concluding chords were not quite unanimous, this hardly detracted from the majesty of Sibelius’s overall conception.

A memorable ending, then, to an appealing programme that found the RPO on fine form and confirmed Hughes’s insights. The orchestra returns here next week in a concert of Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák with the violinist Fumiaki Miura and the conductor Domingo Hindoyan.

The inclusion of Penillion was made possible with funding from the ABO Trust’s Sirens programme, a ten-year initiative to support performance and promotion of music by historical women composers. Further information can be found by clicking here For further information on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here Click on the performer names to read more about Jayson Gillham and Owain Arwel Hughes, and for more on Grace Williams click here

In concert – Clare Hammond, CBSO / Michael Seal: Nielsen, Grieg & Sibelius

clare-hammond-grieg

Nielsen Helios Overture FS32 (1903)
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 (1868)
Sibelius
Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 39 (1898-9)

Clare Hammond (piano, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 9 March 2022 (2.15pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A Scandinavian programme this afternoon from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, featuring music by the three most famous of this region’s composers (so no representation for Sweden), and presided over with his customary authority by CBSO’s associate conductor Michael Seal.

Unusual nowadays to have a programme consisting of overture, concerto and symphony – but Nielsen’s Helios is as fine a curtain-raiser as any, its ‘sunrise to sunset’ scenario captured with one of the most graphic crescendos and diminuendos in the literature. Seal ensured this gradual emergence, and its faster evanescence, were unerringly paced – the horns’ echoing sonorities enfolded into the orchestral texture; and if the intervening intermezzo and fugato rather tread water by comparison, their role within the formal scheme made for a cohesive overall entity.

Whether or not Grieg tired of hearing or at least playing his Piano Concerto, he would surely have appreciated Clare Hammond’s take on its solo part. The inedible opening gesture might have been less than usually arresting, but the opening movement proceeded methodically and often poetically so its structural seams were barely in evidence – culminating in a resourceful account of the cadenza with the composer’s motivic ingenuity much in evidence. Easy to pass off as a bland interlude, the Adagio had an appealing poise that opened into keen pathos at its height. Trenchant rather than impetuous, the outer sections of the finale were rarely less than engaging but it was the warm soulfulness at the centre that really struck home; its return for a triumphal apotheosis did not quite avoid portentousness, but it ensured a decisive conclusion.

A distinctive and, for the most part, convincing performance which Hammond followed with the caressing harmony of the eleventh from Szymanowski’s Op. 33 Etudes – music in marked contrast to the existential drama of Sibelius’s First Symphony which came after the interval.

The latter work’s emergence against a background of fraught self-determination has inevitably taken on far greater resonance during recent weeks, and it was to Seal’s credit that he played down any tendency to overt sentiment – rendering the first movement, its sombre introduction limpidly realized by Oliver Janes, as the striking and frequently innovative study in expressive contrasts it should be. Nor was there any lack of Tchaikovskian pathos in the Andante, whose whimsical passages were as vividly delineated as those eruptive outbursts towards its climax.

The ensuing Scherzo had the right rhythmic tensility and, in its central trio, enticing whimsy – but it was the Finale as set the seal on this performance. The ‘Quasi una fantasia’ marking can result in emotional overkill but Seal kept its prolix follow-through in focus at all times – whether with the anguished recall of the work’s initial theme, surging impetus of its swifter sections, or the heart-on-sleeve immediacy of its ‘big tune’; pervaded by an ambivalence to the fore in a peroration which (almost) avoided histrionics on the way to its fatalistic close.

A fine response from the CBSO, playing here with burnished eloquence and Matthew Hardy making the most of a timpani part that has structural as well as expressive significance. Few having heard it are likely to underestimate this work’s status in Sibelius’s symphonic output.

For more information on the CBSO’s current season, visit their website. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Clare Hammond and Michael Seal

Playlist: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at 50

by Ben Hogwood

Last week Arcana published an interview with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra violist Dov Scheindlin, in recognition of his time with the orchestra and their significant birthday. 50 years is a long time for a chamber orchestra, let alone a conductor-less one! Joining the celebrations, Deutsche Grammophon have released a 55-CD box set of all the orchestra’s recordings for the label.

Arcana have drawn on personal experience to select a playlist of recordings from the orchestra too, mostly from the DG archive. They range from a perky Haydn symphony to sparky Stravinsky pieces, from the wonderful open-air freshness of Grieg‘s Holberg Suite to the instinctive genius of Brad Mehldau‘s recently-released variations.

If I had to pick a favourite it would be a quite wonderful disc of Respighi orchestral works, crowned by an account of Trittico Botticelliano, a set of three orchestral responses to Botticelli pictures that is both colourful and intensely moving. Listen to the third picture, The Birth of Venus, and you will see what I mean:

Online recommendations – Bergen International Festival 2020

How long is it since you last experienced live music?

For the vast majority of us it will be two months and counting now…the last for Arcana having been on Monday 16 March at the Wigmore Hall.

Thankfully in that time a huge number of artists, organisations and orchestras have stepped into the breach, either with archive concert footage or with online concerts and recitals. One of the biggest contributions to date, however, comes from the Bergen International Festival, which is streaming over 50 events online for free.

These are genuine live events, given without an audience and streamed across the world from the festival’s website – and there is some quality music making coming up.

The evening of Saturday 23 May will see Leif Ove Andsnes and friends giving an all-Schumann concert at 20:00 (19:00 GMT), capped by the wonderfully invigorating Piano Quintet, while Sunday 24 May (21:15, 20:15 GMT) brings the traditional festival performance of Grieg‘s evergreen Piano Concerto. The soloist will be Víkingur Ólafsson, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under chief conductor Edward Gardner. Intriguingly, the Grieg will be prefaced by VasksThe Fruit Of Silence, with the Edvard Grieg Kor.

Meanwhile Monday 25 May brings an intriguing concert from ​Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Sonoko Miriam Welde (violin), Ludvig Gudim (violin), Eivind Ringstad (viola) and Amalie Stalheim (cello). The quintet will perform works by Schubert, Mozart and Jörg Widmann – the composer’s Idyll and Abyss and String Quartet no.3. Nicknamed the Hunt, it will follow Mozart’s quartet of the same name.

These three concerts alone give an idea of the breadth of repertoire and quality we can expect from the festival. Head here to experience it for yourself!

Wigmore Mondays – Alessandro Fisher & Roger Vignoles: Nordic Tales

Alessandro Fischer (tenor, above), Roger Vignoles (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 March 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

With the Coronavirus pandemic now sadly in full swing, this was the last concert at the Wigmore Hall for some time, the venue now on an enforced break until mid-April at the earliest. It served as a reminder of just how lucky we are to be able to experience live music, and how good it is to have concerts such as this preserved on the radio.

This particular concert was a fascinating program of Nordic tales through the eyes of four composers of different nationality. BBC New Generation Artist Alessandro Fisher and the superb, ever-attentive Roger Vignoles cleverly constructed a program focusing on Scandinavia. Yet we saw it not just through the eyes of one of its favourite musical sons (Grieg) but through three others with strong connections – Robert Schumann (Germany), Frederick Delius (England) and Gunnar de Frumerie (Sweden).

Schumann’s 5 Lieder date from 1840, his famed year of song, and came about from his admiration of Hans Christian Andersen’s ability to blend the childlike and the grotesque in his stories. Each of the five songs behaves in a similar way musically. Märzveilchen (The March Violets) (2:32), are aptly timed here, with an appropriately breezy and outdoor air, Fisher’s clear voice adding to the sunny countenance. In Muttertraum (A mother’s dream) (4:10) a shadow falls over the music, drawing longer as the tenor describes the ominous appearance of a raven, all to the accompaniment of a beautifully shaped single line from Vignoles (below).

For Der Soldat (The soldier) (6:56) the muffled drum is vividly described by Schumann – and Vignoles – and Fisher’s voice takes on a declamatory form but reaches stunned silence at the end, when he realises he has killed his man. In Der Spielmann (The fiddler) (9:55), Fisher’s ringing voice tells of celebration but also an untimely death, before the final Verratene Liebe (Betrayed Love) (13:14) This brief song stays in genial mood despite its subject matter.

You can learn a lot about a composer’s output from their songs, and in the case of Grieg his songs reveal the work of a skilled tunesmith and an effortless ability to set a scene in next to no time. The songs here tell of those skills, and Fisher clearly loved performing them. He begins with two early works, the affectionate To brune Øjne (Two brown eyes) (15:50) and yearning Jeg elsker dig (I love you) (16:55).

Grieg’s depiction of En svane (The swan) is held in magical suspension by both Fisher and Vignoles (19:51), its serene progress leading to the flowing song Med en vandlilje (With a waterlily) (22:26). Prinsessen (24:55) has particularly special pleading from Fisher here, the prince’s entreaties to his beloved falling on deaf ears, while Fra Monte Pincio (28:02) has an urgent delivery, thinking of good times ahead.

To Delius, who visited Norway for a number of epic walks across the country, and whose relationship with the country remained close. He was good friends with Grieg, too, so it is perhaps inevitable they should both share common ground as excellent songwriters. The selection here begins with Twilight Fancies (34:40), Roger Vignoles shading the picture with distant horn fanfares and Fisher judging his vibrato ideally. The song sets a translation of the text used by Grieg in Prinsessen, and the different responses of the composers are fascinating in comparison.

Young Venevil (38:32) strains at the leash, impetuous but ultimately unlucky in love. The Nightingale (40:35) is airy and atmospheric, its chromatic movement nicely managed, while Longing (43:24) brings with it a surge of feeling through the flowing piano and Fisher’s ringing tone.

The music of Gunnar de Frumerie is seldom heard, but he is highly regarded among 20th century Swedish composers. The Songs of the Heart cycle features deeply intimate music, its subject matter woven into natural allegory. The six songs begin with the contemplative, almost rapturous When You Close My Eyes (47:58), then the pure You Make Everything Beautiful (50:10), which feels whiter than white. Blessed It Is To Wait (52:36) carries a feeling of impatience despite its title, before the profound From The Depths Of My Soul (54:16). You Are My Aphrodite (57:05) surges forward with great passion and intensity, Fisher’s effectively surfing the turbulent waves of the accompaniment. Finally Like A Wave (58:24) carries a Debussy-like humidity, sultry and ardent.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Schumann 5 Lieder Op.40 (1840)
Grieg To brune Øjne Op.5/1, Jeg elsker dig Op.5/3 (1864), En svane Op.25/2, Med en vandlilje Op.25/4 (1876), Prinsessen (1871), Fra Monte Pincio Op.39/1 (1869-84)
Delius From Seven Songs from the Norwegian (1889-90): Twilight Fancies (34:40); Young Venevil (38:32); From Five Songs from the Norwegian (1888): The Nightingale (40:35); Longing (43:24)
de Frumerie Hjärtats sånger (Songs of the Heart) Op.27 (1942, rev. 1976) (47:58)

As an encore, once the Radio 3 microphones had departed, Fisher and Vignoles gave a brilliantly rendered account of Ian VenablesFlying Crooked, a comical but rather accurate portrayal of the flight of a butterfly, in this case a Cabbage White.

Further listening & viewing

Alessandro Fisher has not yet recorded the music given in this concert, but each song is included on the playlist below, in leading versions that include Anne Sofie von Otter’s account of Songs of the Heart:

Grieg’s songs are particularly worthy of further exploration, and these recordings from soprano Claire Booth and pianist Christopher Glynn are a great introduction to his craft:

von Otter meanwhile has recorded a disc of Swedish songs which include the works by Gunnar de Frumerie:

Finally Delius and his Norwegian connection, brilliantly explored in this vocal and orchestral collection from Danacord: