BBC Proms 2016 – Shostakovich, Rachmaninov & Emily Howard from Alexey Stadler, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

proms-stadler

Alexey Stadler pictured during his performance of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 53; Royal Albert Hall, 25 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The BBC Proms should be commended for their commitment to new music, though this does come with a caveat, for it is not often that a commission for the Proms makes it to a second or third performance. Hopefully that fate will not befall Emily Howard’s Torus, a joint commission with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave it a thoroughly committed and virtuosic first performance under Vasily Petrenko.

Torus is based on a mathematical phenomenon, but to Howard’s credit she did not make this the domineering feature of the piece – if she did, like all good composers, it was part of the essential framework rather than explicitly signposted. Instead we were able to enjoy the colours of the large symphony orchestra, and especially the percussion, the three players using bows on their cymbals to make the textures glint towards the end.

Though subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, there was no display of gravity defying, musical athletics for the sake of it. Rather we enjoyed the orchestra as an instrument, the melodic content taking on a distinctive falling motif as though the music were heading for a trap door.

proms-petrenko

Shostakovich’s popular Cello Concerto no.1 followed, with a last minute substitute, Alexey Stadler, standing in for the unfortunately ill Truls Mørk. Any doubts about inferiority were immediately quelled, the young Russian cellist finding the soul of the music in a searching account of the slow movement and cadenza in particular. Petrenko and the RLPO, so attuned to this composer’s music in their award winning accounts of his symphonies for Naxos, were superb in support, especially horn player Timothy Jackson – but Stadler rightly stole the show, adjusting to the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall with commendable ease. His beautiful tone brought both pain and hope to the solo part in equal measure, and led to a gorgeous encore in the form of the Sarabande from Bach’s Solo Cello Suite no.2.

Finally Petrenko led his orchestra in the music of another composer with whom they share great familiarity – Rachmaninov. There are several warhorses in his output that are arguably overplayed in concert, but the Symphony no.3 is not one of them – and how wonderful it was in this account, with soulful melodies, sleights of hand from Petrenko and sudden bursts of light from the orchestra.

The tricky syncopations of the finale were expertly handled, the orchestra delivering the suddenly loud snaps like the slamming of a door, a thrilling effect in the live arena. Yet they were also alive to the music’s lyrical and occasionally less certain undercurrents, where leader Thelma Handy was a superb soloist.

As an encore Petrenko brought out Shostakovich’s arrangement of YoumansTea For Two, and gave it a brilliant send-up, as though conducting the last night. It was a beautifully judged encore, and showed again just how much this orchestra and conductor enjoy working together – which is what it’s all about, surely!

Ben Hogwood

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Stuart Fitzsimon on Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Emily Howard

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
fitzThis is the latest in the series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Stuart Fitzsimon (above) gives his thoughts on Prom 53.

Alexey Stadler (cello), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko

Emily Howard Torus (2016, world premiere); Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1 (1959); Rachmaninov Symphony no.3 (1935-38)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Fitz, what was your musical upbringing?

It wasn’t particularly musical – music was never forced upon me – but I played the guitar as a school kid, and I did Grades 1 and 2 with classical guitar. I was in numerous choirs – the school choir, a chamber choir, the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy Choir. I performed on Radio 4, and on tours in Switzerland and Italy. From a classical perspective I never played on a classical instrument. My brother played saxophone and keyboard, but I wouldn’t consider any of these to be orchestral instruments.

There were records in the house – more tapes than records – and I remember on holiday taking my mum and dad’s Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats tape to France on holiday and playing it on loop. I remember their Beatles records, but I was never encouraged musically really – it just all happened!

I went to University. I originally wanted to be a policeman, but they wouldn’t offer me criminology as I didn’t have a law degree – they offered me part criminology, part sociology. I enjoyed the sociology far more, decided I didn’t want to be a policeman any more. So I did a degree, which didn’t have anything to do with what I wanted to do in my career or life!

So I started going to gigs, and meeting people who were into similar music as me – dirty London Indie of the time! I started managing bands, putting on bands, and realised then that I wanted to work in the music industry. I knew lots of people in bands and ended up going to a lot of those gigs for free, and thought why don’t I start putting on some bands? So that’s how my Flook night started that I did in London.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Three acts I love are The Libertines, The Cribs and the Super Furry Animals.

The Super Furries are a band I fell in love with, having missed their first two albums. I got bored of the guitar because I couldn’t be bothered to practice around 14 or 15, and I stopped listening to pop music…but then I got into it again and went through the mandatory Oasis and Blur thing at the time in the mid-1990s. Then I started looking at the lesser bands I didn’t pick up at the time and Super Furries were one of them.

I remember listening to the Guerrilla album in the garden of my mate’s house, and it was the weirdest album I’d been introduced to by friends. Up until then it was dad rock, man rock, and then suddenly you’ve got this band writing stuff like intros before track 1 on the CD player! Playing a CD and immediately rewinding it to minus two minutes or whatever, like a secret hidden track, is pretty bizarre!

The rest of the album contains songs about chewing gum and mocking the concept of having a mobile phone. This was before they became ubiquitous! Super Furries saw all that kind of stuff coming, and knew how it was going to change people’s lives. It was a bizarre album for the instruments they used, the sound they made – the first weird band I got into!

I went to university and discovered a whole load of music I didn’t know about, the widest range of music from meeting different people. After that you settle into what you know and love and social groups that come off the back of that. After university I started gigging more and going on internet forums – before Facebook, MySpace – Face Party and Friendster were the networks of the time!

When I wasn’t doing data entry I was wasting time on internet forums, and the one I was on most was The Libertines.org. I met a hell of a lot of people through that – some of my very best friends today! It was a new thing in 2003-4, knowing people from log-in names and stuff. I remember when I first went to meet them in Camden and I told my mum, I think she was concerned I was going to get stabbed that night – what if they’re murderers?!

They didn’t kill me though, and the people I met from that social circle are very dear to me these days too. It all stems from the fact it was the Libertines board. My job is probably a result of people I met on that board, and knowing I wanted to get a job in music. I didn’t talk about the music to be fair! They were the band for a year-18 months who had their moment where they burned very brightly, and they pissed it all up the wall. They’re not the same band they were then, but I still love them for what they were.

The Cribs were one of the bands who got tagged on to what was known as the ‘Nigel’ scene, bands like Selfish C**t, The Unstrung, Special Needs. Some of the bands made the best out of being in that category, and The Cribs somehow got associated with it despite having nothing to do with London! They played a lot in Lodnon, stayed and crashed down here a lot, and I ended up going to a lot of their gigs.

They’re definitely my favourite live band, probably recorded band too, and I was fortunate to go in the studio when they recorded their second album, hearing Hey Scenesters! for the first time and recording with Edwyn Collins, an absolute legend. I was fortunate to record with them (on the song Martell) – they’re lovely blokes and a brilliant band. They’ve done very well to hold on to what they had in their early 20s.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I don’t really have any, although I was in choirs – I sang famous pieces like Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah and Zadok the Priest. On the basis they are classical pieces it’s probably through those, singing them in concerts. In terms of going to watch music I can’t think of many situations other than the 6Music Prom with Laura Marling in 2013. I saw Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall but would say that was an opera rather than classical.

How would you rate your first Proms experience?

It was very interesting. I’d never considered going to a classical concert and standing up, like you do in the arena, ‘in the pit’. That was quite surreal, with people standing, sitting, lying down – all in their own world. It was a different type of person at the sides, a bit older, wiser, maybe richer. I really enjoyed it, I wasn’t expecting to stand but it was unexpected and enjoyable!

I’ve always thought of the Proms as a classical music event but as I was listening to the first piece I didn’t think it sounded classical! I would say it was more orchestral than anything else. The orchestra pinned it all together. The first piece she was talking about science and mathematics had influenced her, and it didn’t sound classical in the same way that the Shostakovich did, the more sorrowful, mournful Russian piece. The symphony screamed ‘classical’ at me though!

What might you improve about the experience?

It had the formula you spoke about before the concert, where you might get a piece you didn’t know to start with, and then the cellist – who was exceptional! – and then the symphony, the larger piece with all the instruments. I think that approach works well. If you started with the symphony people would probably leave when they’ve heard the bit they know, so I understand why it works that way.

I don’t know if I would necessarily change anything but I might do something more aligned to my personal tastes – musicians I love, a piece I have an affinity with – thinking about films I love with classical or orchestral music in. There are definitely things I would want to do but I don’t think I would change the theme of tonight’s event, I enjoyed it. The symphony was what I would expect from a night out at the Proms – quiet and then loud – but I loved it.

Would you go again?

Yeah, definitely. It’s not something I’ve ever gone and bought tickets for but I didn’t know you could do the standing option, and I’d do that again. You didn’t tell me what this night was about and I didn’t research it, but I was pleasantly surprised. If I was looking through a Proms calendar there is no reason why I would have chosen tonight, but it was probably a perfect example about what they are about. I would definitely go again, and probably go to a random Proms event – it would be as rewarding as someone you know. So after that I would wholeheartedly recommend going to watch the Proms!

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

Elias String Quartet and Simon Crawford Phillips – Messages Old and New

Messages old and new – the Elias Quartet give an Emily Howard world premiere, and are then joined by Simon Crawford Phillips for Schumann’s Piano Quintet

elias-quartet

Elias Quartet (Sara Bitlloch, Donald Grant (violins), Martin Saving (viola), Marie Bitlloch (cello), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 4 May 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05qypn8

on the iPlayer until 9 June

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a link to a recording of the Schumann (Howard’s pieces is a world premiere so not yet recorded). The Schumann is played here by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin String Quartet:

Spotify

What’s the music?

Emily Howard Afference (2015) (22 minutes)

Schumann – Piano Quintet (1842) (32 minutes)

What about the music?

Emily Howard’s new piece Afference, a substantial work for string quartet, is based on a physiological term to describe the way in which the brain processes our experiences of the world. Howard herself has a degree in maths and computer science, something that might lead an audience to expect a very calculated approach to composing music. This is not entirely the case though, as the biography on Howard’s own website suggests.

Afference appears to be her first work for string quartet, commissioned by the Elias Quartet themselves. It joins a canon of pieces that range from large-scale orchestral works (Axon and a symphony called Magnetite) to smaller scale compositions for clarinet and piano.

Schumann’s Piano Quintet was written in 1842, when he was still giddy with love for wife Clara. She was the dedicatee of this work, but as the BBC Radio 3 announcer Georgia Mann details it was first performed with none other than the composer Felix Mendelssohn at the piano.

Performance verdict

A fine concert, with concentrated playing from the Elias Quartet of what is on two listens an engaging new work for string quartet. Emily Howard writes in a distinctive style that the Elias Quartet understand, and the colours she achieves are consistently interesting and imaginative. It helps to know the program for the piece, as there do indeed seem to be a lot of messages transmitted in 22 minutes. Some of them are very nervy, though ultimately the piece feels of a positive nature.

The Schumann receives an excellent performance, the happiness of the first, third and final movements a joy to behold – while the second movement, if a tiny bit slow in its central section perhaps, is uneasy and in need of consolation this ultimately provides. Simon Crawford-Phillips plays brilliantly, with authority but also ensuring the strings are heard at all times. His nimble finger work in the third movement scherzo is especially impressive.

What should I listen out for?

Emily Howard

1:20 – a busy start with all four instruments playing frenetically then cuts to a section with a very small voice, doing battle with the quartet.

5:55 – the instruments all take a melodic line that uses portamento (sliding from one pitch to another) before a more intimate phrase starts to dominate. At this point the instruments are close together in pitch.

8:09 – a much slower section, with an intense violin pitch that grows into what sounds like a sorrowful lament, while the other three instruments give softly breathed harmonies. This leads on to some feverish activity, Howard’s nervous messages transmitted at great intensity.

13:17 – As the second movement starts there is a large gap between the instruments – violins on high and cello down below. The lack of a key centre brings to mind some of the quartet writing of Schoenberg, though Howard’s writing has more pitch-related implications in the cello’s continual return to its low ‘D’.

16:50 – a striking passage for violin with upwards phrases, in which Howard seems to be reaching for higher plains

18:51 – the instruments stick closer together again, but at 19:53 the violin shoots out a much higher phrase. The harmonies still make the music sound quite uneasy, as if in a state of dread.

22:20 – a piercing line on the violin returns to the pitch of D, before the rest of the quartet finish the piece with a short series of comments.

Schumann

26:23 – the first movement begins with a wonderfully positive outpouring of music from piano and strings together. The theme itself is a surprisingly catchy one

27:35 – a lovely tune makes itself known on the cello, Schumann at his most romantic with the music flowing beautifully onwards. This tune is then picked up with a counter melody from the violin.

32:03 – now in the centre of the development section, the music gets more turbulent, the piano lines swirling around those of the string quartet, but then we switch to a triumphant reprise of the opening music at 32:45.

35:33 – the subdued second movement begins. This is a form of funeral march and it has a halting tune, played by both strings and piano with short notes. This is complemented by a much sweeter episode of music that begins at 37:19, still in the spirit of remembrance but with a positive approach. The sombre first theme returns once again at 38:56.

40:10 – a faster episode begins, led by the piano, the strings with much heavier lines alongside – but still the tune persists from the viola at 41:00, picked up by the violin – and the sweeter theme also makes a reappearance (41:49).

44:16 – the third movement, a Scherzo, begins with fizzing interplay led by the piano. Schumann again finds music of great positivity and energy. At 45:34 a second section begins, in the far-removed key of F sharp major, before the main scherzo returns with just as much irrepressible energy at 46:16. At 46:58 a new section is introduced, again with plenty of energy! The main theme returns at 48:02, carrying through to an emphatic finish at 48:57.

49:04 – the last of the four movements begins, and again the energy levels are up – though here we begin in a minor key that briefly recalls the second movement march. Quickly the music moves to E flat major – the ‘home’ key of the piece. The music then becomes more reserved and secretive.

51:24 – the first theme comes back, though the music is still in a minor key and still feels a long way from ‘home’. Gradually though the music gets greater presence in the ‘home’ key, and by the time we get to 54:16 it is rooted here, and sweeps to a decisive finish by way of a fugue, instigated by the piano at 54:41 and rounding off at 56:28.

Want to hear more?

Following the contrasting nature of the two pieces in this concert, the suggested further listening looks to progress from the Howard with Schoenberg’s String Quartet no.2. This famously has a last movement that sets the text ‘I feel the air from another planet…’, sung by a soprano and said to consciously signal the composer’s move away from writing in a particular key (tonality). Here the words are sung by Susan Narucki, in conjunction with the Schoenberg Quartet.

After the Schumann a rewarding next port of call is the Piano Quintet by Dvořák, his second in the form – and once again played by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet. The playlist can be found on Spotify here:

For more concerts click here