On record: Oberon Symphony Orchestra – Beethoven, Dvořák, Grieg & Langgaard

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Beethoven: Symphony No.6 ‘Pastoral’; Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor (Rohan de Saram (cello), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper)
Recorded live at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, London on 19th October, 2013

Grieg: Peer Gynt – Suites Nos. 1 & 2; Langgaard: Symphony No. 4 ‘Løvfald’ (UK premiere); Sibelius: Symphony No.5 (Oberon Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Draper)
Recorded live at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, London on 27th September, 2014

Now nearing the end of its fourth season, the Oberon Symphony has already established itself as an orchestra equally at home in the standard repertoire and relatively unfamiliar music; its conductor, Samuel Draper, as attentive to the letter of the score in question as to the spirit that informs it. These discs, comprising two out of its 13 concerts to date, typify the questing spirit of its performances: these are presented unedited, with no attempt to disguise passing flaws in ensemble or intonation – not that this lessens appreciation of some committed music-making.

What’s the music like?

The first disc juxtaposes two seminal pieces from either end of the 19th century. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony has been described as the last of his works where beauty of sound and richness of texture predominate, and Draper acknowledges this in his unforced approach to the opening Allegro then his leisurely though never sluggish handling of its Andante. Some felicitous woodwind playing here (not least with the interplay of bird-calls towards its close) is further evident in the scherzo, even if the earnest characterization arguably pre-empts the ‘Storm’ movement which emerges as sombre rather than elemental. The highlight is a finale that rightly carries the expressive weight of the whole, its progress underpinned by an elusive if tangible onward motion which holds good through to a radiant climax and searching close.

The performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto features Rohan de Saram, for many years the cellist of the Arditti Quartet and a soloist whose perspective on arguably the finest work in its genre is distinctive and refreshing. Thus the initial Allegro is rendered with the necessary emotional breadth, its expansive though never unduly protracted formal design confidently unfolded despite passing technical fallibilities, while the central Adagio is even finer in its mingling of wistfulness with those passionate outbursts as open-out the music’s expression accordingly. De Saram’s inward eloquence comes into its own both here and in the extended coda to the finale, an inspired afterthought (prompted by the death of the composer’s sister-in-law) whose intense retrospection makes the concluding bars more affirmative in context.

The second disc has the Oberon SO venturing into more esoteric realms with the UK premiere of the Fourth Symphony by the Danish composer Rued Langgaard. Langgaard (1893-1952) is among the more prominent instances of a creative figure who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, yet between his heady early success and the neglect prevalent from the mid-1920s onwards is a series of works that ought to have established him among the leading European composers of his generation. Not least the Fourth Symphony (1916): its subtitle, ‘Fall of the Leaf’, is often rendered as ‘Autumn’ though the seasonal process of change and decay surely has a metaphysical and even apocalyptic resonance. Its single movement, in eight continuous sections, is best heard as an expanded sonata-form design overlaid by continuous variation.

Certainly the plunging gesture with which it opens sets the tone for what follows and Draper amply brings out this fatalistic defiance, then ensures a seamless transition into the plaintive second main theme whose opulent expansion on strings at the end of the exposition is among the work’s highpoints. Nor does the central span risk diffusiveness, Draper as attentive to the geyser-like eruptions on strings and woodwind at its apex as to the mesmeric transition when oboe unfolds a plangent melodic line over a string cluster of inward intensity. Exposed string writing is for the most part securely managed, and while Draper cannot quite prevent the final stages from hanging fire, he secures the necessary momentum heading into the coda with its startling bell-like ostinatos, then a final build-up in which dread and decisiveness are as one.

This concert commences with three pieces from Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt. ‘Morning’ is rapturously expressive, while ‘The Death of Åse’ avoids undue vehemence, its inward final bars preparing for a ‘Solveig’s Song’ whose indelible main melody never becomes cloying.
Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is given a sympathetic if not always ideally focussed reading. The first movement is finely launched, Draper ensuring the altered exposition repeat has the right cumulative intensity, with the majestic central climax moving convincingly into its ‘scherzo’ continuation where progress can be fitful, yet the coda lacks little in velocity. More debatable is a second movement which emerges as a slow intermezzo, its progress having insufficient lightness of touch as the music takes on a greater ambivalence prior to its winsome close. In the finale, Draper elides ideally between the surging impetus and airborne rapture of its main themes; if Sibelius’ ingenious design feels at times uncertain, neither the glowing affirmation of its coda nor the decisiveness of those six closing chords (taken ‘in tempo’) can be gainsaid.

Does it all work?

On both discs, the warm while occasionally diffuse sound is in keeping with the acoustic of St. James’s Sussex Gardens, with the booklets including full personnel for each concert and some excellent booklet notes (notably from Hannah Nepil on Dvořák and Andrew Mellor on Langgaard) – though Draper’s name might reasonably have featured on both the front covers.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The discs are obtainable either at the Oberon SO’s concerts (the next of these is on September 17th), or directly via the orchestra’s website

Under the surface – Kuula Orchestral Music

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Composer: Toivo Kuula (1883-1918)

Nationality: Finnish

What did he write? Kuula is not well known outside of Finland, but in his home country his reputation rests largely on his vocal music, the record company Ondine describing him as ‘a colourful and passionate portrayer of Finnish nature and people’. His catalogue includes numerous works for male choir.

What are the works on this new recording? For this disc of some of his orchestral music, Leif Segerstam has chosen the most popular works in the two South Ostrobothnian Suites­ – the Finnish region where Kuula lived. They led to him being dubbed as a successor to Sibelius. Complementing these are the Festive March and the Prelude and Fugue. All the works date from the last decade of the composer’s short life.

What is the music like? Much of it is attractive, if a little undemanding. The Prelude and Fugue feels as though it is trying a little too hard to impress, but the Festive March is a natural and spontaneous composition that sounds like Brahms on holiday.

Perhaps because they describe the Finnish country, the South Ostrobothnian Suites are the most colourful music here. The first suite is especially notable for the graceful, silvery Folk Song, where the strings taking the lead, while there is a surprisingly rustic feel to the Devil’s Dance. Meanwhile in the second suite a clean orchestral picture emerges for The Bride Arrives, while Kuula shows a gift for picture painting in the evocative woodwind calls towards the end of Rain in the forest. Perhaps the most memorable picture painting occurs in the gamelan figuration of Will-o-the-wisp, the last number in the second suite – which is beautifully played by the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Leif Segerstam.

What’s the verdict? If you like classical music to be slightly in the background then this is ideal, music that doesn’t make too many demands on the listener but is nonetheless rewarding when painting a picture of Finland. It is true the attractive cover draws you in, but on many occasions here there is music to match.

Give this a try if you like… Dvořák, Grieg or lighter Brahms

Spotify Playlist

You can listen to excerpts from the disc at the Presto website (be sure to click on the ‘Listen’ tab)

Meanwhile you can hear the composer’s complete songs for male voice choir on Spotify here:

Under the surface – Grieg Piano Music played by John McCabe

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Composer: Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Nationality: Norwegian

What did he write? Two of Grieg’s works are among the most popular in classical music. These are the early Piano Concerto and the music for Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, containing such treasures as Morning and In The Hall of the Mountain King.

What are the works on this new recording? In this new issue of remastered recordings originally made for RCA in 1978, the recently deceased pianist John McCabe plays two late collections of the composer’s music for solo piano – the Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances) and a collection of short pieces published as Stimmungen (Moods) in 1905.

What is the music like? Grieg writes delightfully for the piano, and these pieces show a complete mastery of the three-minute format. In the case of the Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances) he effectively turns transcriber, arranging original folk material for piano but in such a way that it sounds like it was originally written for the instrument.

It is tuneful music, and in both collections the composer’s gift for melodic setting is clear. Often his melodies are played out over drones in the left hand of the piano, giving the music a rustic feel.

McCabe finds the exquisite tension in the first piece, Resignation, while by contrast the second, Scherzo-Impromptu, is an amicable dance, and Tune from the Fairy Hill, the fourth of the Slåtter, is a dance for the outdoors. In the Hommage à Chopin, a technically demanding Studie from the Stimmungen, McCabe is wholly equal to the task.

Grieg’s music may be charming but if often demonstrates a chilling undercurrent, which can clearly be heard in The Mountaineer’s Song and Night Ride from Stimmungen. McCabe communicates this with a real frisson.

What’s the verdict? This music feels intensely personal, and although it is the work of a composer in his sixties there is still a resolutely youthful side to it, and McCabe brings out the balance between the two.

Give this a try if you like… Sibelius piano music, Chopin or Mendelssohn

Spotify Playlist

Firstly you can listen to Resignation, the first piece of the Slåtter, here

A playlist of lesser-known Grieg is available on Spotify below, including the mature Violin Sonata no.3, the two Elegiac Melodies, Bergliot for baritone and orchestra and finally the Lyric Suite, comprising orchestrations of some of his piano pieces. The final March blows away the cobwebs!

Under the surface – Stenhammar String Quartets

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Composer: Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927)

Nationality: Swedish

What did he write? Stenhammar was a pianist primarily, but enjoyed a real affinity with the string quartet, publishing six works in all. His two symphonies, piano concertos and a Serenade are also occasionally heard.

What are the works on this new recording? The String Quartet no.1 and String Quartet no.2. Both are in four movements and last about half an hour each. They are the last of the six to have been recorded by the Stenhammar Quartet for the Swedish record company BIS.

What is the music like? On reflection Stenhammar’s early string quartets have a relatively basic musical language but they feature attractive writing for strings, and are really well played in these affectionate performances.

In the String Quartet no.1 there is a nice falling motif that stands out in the second movement, while the fourth sets out with a strong sense of purpose, as if Stenhammar has been listening to Beethoven.

The String Quartet no.2 is a darker piece, with a shadow passing over the music at the end of the first movement in particular. Here too there is some tuneful music though, and the increasingly vigorous last movement has shades of Dvořák, especially in the pentatonic* ending.

What’s the verdict? These two works are by no means demanding but they make for very pleasant listening at either end of the day, even if the attention occasionally wanders. Very pleasant spring time music.

Give this a try if you like… Dvořák, Grieg or Mendelssohn

Spotify Playlist

A Stenhammar playlist is available on Spotify below, including a mature String Quartet no.4, the lovely Serenade, the Piano Concerto no.2 and the choral piece Midwinter.

Glossary

*pentatonic – a form of scale that only has five notes, as opposed to the most commonly used octave in Western music that has eight.