On record: Meriel & Peter Dickinson: An Erik Satie Entertainment (Heritage Records)

satie-dickinson

Meriel Dickinson (mezzo-soprano / reader), Peter Dickinson (piano / reader)

Heritage Records HTGCD171 [68’09”] French texts included
Producer Antony Hodgson
Engineer Tony Faulkner

Recorded 6 October 1975 at All Saints’ Church, Petersham (Unicorn LP only) Remastered by Peter Newble

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Heritage label continues its worthwhile excavation of overlooked ‘deep catalogue’ with this selection of Erik Satie’s piano pieces, songs and prose as performed by Meriel and Peter Dickinson, whose recitals were a notable fixture of the UK music-scene over several decades.

What’s the music like?

After the lively and rumbustious march Le Piccadilly (1904), Trois melodies (1887) show the composer’s poignant take on domestic song-writing from the period. The haunting Deuxième Gnossienne (1893) is followed by the hieratic plangency of Hymne: ‘Salut Drapeau!’ (1891), while the Deuxième Pièce froide (1897) anticipates the quirky humour to come. Tendrement (1902) ranks among Satie’s most disarming songs, as does the amiable Proudre d’or (1900/1) within his piano music. Two winsome songs from incidental music for the play Geneviève de Brabant (1899/1900) precede two piano pieces – the mystically aloof Première Gymnopédie (1888) and the demurely anarchic Vexations (1893) – which, between them, outline the extent of Satie’s creative thinking. Similarly, the gently facetious humour of Trois melodies (1916) affords pointed contrast with the introspective mystery of the early Chanson (1887) then the considered evocation which is Chanson medieval (1906); further reminders that demarcation between this composer’s seemingly serious and humorous sides cannot be taken as absolute.

An undoubted bonus of the added live material is the Dickinsons’ readings from Satie’s own writings. Thus, there is Peter’s deadpan rendering of Satie’s Self-Portrait as provided for his publisher, its barbed whimsy duly complemented by brief piano interludes from his comedy Le Piège de Méduse (1913), while those gnomic expressions that are Quatres petites melodies (1920) inhabit similarly elliptical domain. Peter reads from the composer’s fanciful outline of his ‘routine for living’ in A Musician’s Diary, while Meriel tells of his ironic attitude towards Beethoven in Satie’s Fakes; between them, she sings the compact confessionals that are Trois Poèmes d’amour (1914). The gnomic song-cycle Ludions (1923), among Satie’s final works, makes a suitably telling foil to Peter’s reading of the archetypal Satie text In Praise of Critics. The selection concludes with a brace of songs – the blithely sardonic La Diva de l’Empire (1904) then the quintessentially Satie confection Je te veux (1897), its deftest interplay of charm and guile with a knowing sentimentality evidently to the pleasure of those listening.

Does it all work?

Very much so, given that Meriel and Peter are so attuned to the facets of Satie’s inimitable genius. At the time of this LP and its attendant recitals, its sheer extent had still to be fully assessed, which does not lessen the significance of the Dickinsons’ efforts (as with Satie’s younger contemporary and English counterpart Lord Berners) in championing this music at the highest artistic level. Both the transfer of the original Unicorn disc and the live extracts (mono) have been capably done – revealing few, if any, limitations in the source-material.

Is it recommended?

It is, not least as an informed and appealing introduction to this music by artists for whom its advocacy was clearly a labour of love. A pity that English translations of the song-texts were not included, though these are mostly accessible online, and their omission is a minor caveat.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Heritage Records website, and for more on Meriel and Peter Dickinson click here

Wigmore Mondays – Lawrence Power & Simon Crawford-Phillips: Le tombeau

Lawrence Power (viola, above), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 21 October 2019 (lunchtime)

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

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit (Lawrence Power) Giorgia Bertazzi

BBC Radio 3’s curious title for this concert was Adventures with a viola, despite Lawrence Power spending the last third of the concert playing the violin. Such is his talent on both instruments that the switch appeared to be effortless, part of an adventurous programme exploring the idea of paying musical homage.

To that effect, the first three pieces in the concert were linked. François Couperin’s expansive Prélude from the Première Suite pour viole (from 3:09 on the broadcast) exploited the lovely tone Power could get from the lower reaches of his viola, which helped accentuate the composer’s chromatic writing. A joint arrangement with Simon Crawford-Phillips of Ravel’s Menuet from the wonderful Le tombeau de Couperin followed (6:40), a fitfully effective version that was perhaps too fast in its execution, rather glossing over the cold central passage and the charm of the Menuet theme itself. The lack of repeats in this gorgeous piece of music accentuated the pair’s quick approach, despite a clever pairing of themes towards the end.

Australian composer Arthur Benjamin is not at all well known in these parts, but has an important role in musical history as a tutor of some repute. His own music can be overlooked because of that, and on this evidence unreasonably so – for Le tombeau de Ravel (10:58) was a pretty adventurous collection of a prelude, six waltzes and a coda, extremely well performed by the duo here. Having originally written it for clarinet and piano, Benjamin followed Brahms’s example by producing a viola and piano version, the instruments having a very similar range. The gruff start leads way to contrasting dances of affection and a quickfire number (17:00) requiring (and receiving) great virtuosity and dexterity from Power. There is charm in this music, too, as the next pizzicato waltz indicates, with tumbling figures from Crawford-Phillips, before a ghostly waltz with harmonics at 20:17 offers a starker picture. This is contrasted by a rousing finish.

We then heard a striking version for viola and piano of Three Berceuses from Thomas Adès’ opera The Exterminating Angel. They are based on two of the duets from Beatriz and Eduardo, the opera’s doomed lovers, and an eerie cradle song. These brought a wide range of colour and virtuosity from Power, with Crawford-Phillips providing expertly judged punctuation. The first Berceuse movement (26:30) was down at heel, with wispy outlines from the viola, then the second (29:44) had more expansive phrases, ending with crushing left hand octaves from Crawford-Phillips. The ghostly ‘round’ of the third (34:04) had the most memorable melody, ending on a decidedly macabre note as a mother cradling a dead lamb rather than her son attempted to rock it to sleep. Power’s harmonics on the viola were cold indeed.

A second group of homages followed, Power switching to violin for the duration. It was piano alone for Stravinsky’s brief but poignant Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (39:56), setting the chorale theme from his Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Crawford-Phillips managed the voicing of the parts beautifully. Tributes to Debussy followed from Erik Satie and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, Power reading the poem Debussy before Crawford-Phillips played the Satie Élégie (41:59). We then moved to a much more substantial tribute to the Spanish poet in the form of Poulenc’s troubled Violin Sonata.

The work itself had a tricky germination, its composer rejecting a couple of versions while not settling for the completed work either, returning to it in 1949. It is a dramatic piece, paying homage to the poet Lorca in assertive music that spills over into aggression in the first movement (44:10). In the second, an Intermezzo (50:37), Power and Crawford-Phillips painted exquisite shades through the bittersweet musical language, while the finale (56:38) was powerfully wrought, even more so when apparently hitting a wall (59:58) and sinking into desolation. A commanding performance proved Power’s aptitude in switching between musical instruments.

Repertoire

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

François Couperin Prélude from Première Suite pour viole (1728) (3:09)
Ravel, arr. Power & Crawford-Phillips Menuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) (6:40)
Benjamin Le tombeau de Ravel (1958) (10:58)
Adès Three Berceuses from The Exterminating Angel (2018) (UK premiere) (26:30)
Stravinsky Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920) (39:56)
Lorca Debussy (1921-24) & Satie Élégie from Quatre petits melodies (41:59)
Poulenc Violin Sonata (1942-3, rev. 1949) (44:10)

Further listening

You can listen to most of the music heard in this concert in the available versions on Spotify below, with the exception of the Adès, which has understandably not yet been recorded:

Meanwhile Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips can be heard in Arthur Benjamin’s Le tombeau de Ravel as part of this collection on Hyperion, where Power once again switches instruments for the composer’s violin works.

Poulenc‘s instrumental sonatas represent some of his very finest work, and this collection from the London Conchord Ensemble brings them all together:

Vanessa Wagner – Expanding the piano

vanessa-wagner

We’ve already spoken to Murcof about his collaboration with pianist Vanessa Wagner – and now it’s time for her side of the story. She describes how she found classical music and how her meeting with Murcof opened up all sorts of electronic possibilities. Here they are on their work together:

Vanessa, can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

My parents were not listening to a lot of classical music. They were rather into jazz and the French chanson. Then one day, the piano of my great-grandmother came home, and I started to play. My childhood idol was a wonderful Romanian pianist named Clara Haskil, far away from the glamour girls are usually dreaming of! She is still an artist that I love.

Who are the composers you have grown to particularly admire?

I grew up with the music of Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Brahms and Janáček, who are still my favourites, Schubert especially. His melancholy, and the time stretched in his music touches me enormously. Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are pieces that never leave me.

What was it that appealed to you about working with Murcof?

I was the one to initiate this encounter. I have listened to his music for a long time. I met him at the workshop of the Infiné label, and we made an improvised test. Then I had the chance to have a residency in a room of the Arsenal of Metz. They gave me carte blanche to develop new projects, I invited Murcof to play with me, and Statea was born.

How did you make sure you got a good balance between the piano and the electronics?

I always asked Murcof to pay attention to the acoustic piano sound. The piano is the starting point of this project, and it was important that the electronic effects do not swallow its sound even if it is sometimes distorted. Similarly, it also seemed very important to stay true to the scores of composers that I interpret. That’s why the album is called Statea, which means balance in ancient Italian.

Had you listened to much electronic music prior to working with him?

I have listened to electronic music for 20 years. At that time, in my classical circles, it was frowned upon. I had never heard of the big techno anthems, and I went right back to ambient/IDM artists – the likes of Autechre, Aphex Twin, Model 500, Maurizio, UR etc.

Do you think there are other albums or pieces of music that bring classical and electronic together well?

Max Richter´s Four Seasons of Vivaldi works pretty well. Brian Eno also has a beautiful piece called Fullness of Wind, taking its lead from Pachelbel.

Do you think classical and electronic music have a lot more in common than one would expect?

I think meetings of the two styles are quite possible, if one avoids falling into the mainstream that we call crossover classical. The approach focuses on the sound result. We must respect the original script. Adding a beat onto a piece of Mozart or Beethoven cannot be a creative artistic process in itself.

Moreover, music known as ‘contemporary classical’ and art music has a lot in common with experimental electronic. Bridges are possible and desirable between these universes.

Has working with electronic music helped your appreciation of classical?

This does not specifically help me in my classical interpretation. What I greatly appreciate is to exercise out of my classical world, to transform the sound of my instrument, and to experience concerts differently, giving a new fresh perspective to my daily occupation of being a pianist.

For me, it is an interior window that opened itself, and I strongly hope that this is new cornerstone in the musical world which will contribute to the opening of minds and ears!

If you could recommend one piece of classical music to Arcana readers that you’ve been listening to recently, what would it be and why?

I would recommend listening to the Goldberg Variations of Bach (Glenn Gould, for example), the Death and the Maiden String Quartet by Schubert, or Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt, especially the second movement Silentium.

Statea, by Murcof and Vanessa Wagner, is out now on Infiné. The pair will appear at the Barbican on Monday 31 October as part of a bill including pianist Lubomyr Melnyk. Tickets can be purchased from the Barbican website. Vanessa will also be giving her thoughts on classical music to Arcana shortly!

Murcof – bringing classical and electronic music together

murcof

Murcof is Mexican musician Fernando Corona, an artist who integrates classical and electronic music. Working with pianist Vanessa Wagner he has recently released the Statea album, an ambient piece of work that takes its source material from John Cage and Erik Satie amongst others. Here he talks to Arcana about his love of classical music, and how the two forms harmonise together. But first, here’s an introduction to their album together:

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

It was a long time ago when I was a kid, and it comes from the side of my father in the family. It was an album of Wendy Carlos playing Bach in the late 1970s, I think. He also did some electronic / analogue synthesizer interpretations of Bach’s music, and so that was the first proper marriage of electronic and classical that I heard. I developed an interest in both, and I became much more familiar with 20th century music from composers like Stravinsky, the Schoenberg school, Xenakis, Ligeti and all the people up to Arvo Pärt, Silvestrov and the minimalists. Classical music has been with me all this time from my childhood and this album is a logical place to go because of that.

How did you get to work with Vanessa?

I met her before we started making music, through her husband Alexandre Cazac. He is director of the Infiné label, and I have been friends with him for many years. We’ve worked together, and in that time he has been very supportive. It wasn’t until a week-long workshop that we did a small arrangement together however. We were playing the same night, and Vanessa was the first one on, then me, so we interlinked the two. Statea has been a work in progress since 2010.

In that time we only did 20 or 30 concerts together, so it is still a fresh collaboration, and now with the album done we are adapting it for the stage. Many things have changed, and we have started from scratch again with some of the pieces, but we have always respected what we are doing.

For our Satie work (Gnossienne no.3) the piano sounds have a lot of analogue processes, where we have brought the piano audio signal into the modular system, before messing around with ring modulation, filtering, and experimenting with the possibilities. The piece is not too long, but I recorded around 45 minutes of messing around and cut the most important and interesting bits to fit the final track.

The album is called ‘Statea’. Is that because you achieve the ideal balance between classical and electronic music?

It’s because to make an album is sometimes the hardest part. It was open enough, it wasn’t going to encapsulate us in a direct way, a literal way, but we talked about a good balance between acoustic and digital. You can listen to the piece as one whole, not just the acoustic and not just the digital but something that works together. That is one of the things I am looking for, not getting lost in the sounds and what I have to say. That’s the reason for the name. We were initially going to use the Latin but Alexandre suggested the old Italian way.

Sometimes when classical and electronic music meet the results are a bit cheesy, but there is a very deep emotion to what you do.

That’s good to know, it’s a process and a matter of deciding what works and what doesn’t. It’s telling a story, and each sound needs a reason for existing. Vanessa and I were working together for a common goal. Most of these compositions are well known, and people have an idea about them, but even if it’s an abstract message it’s still there. You can enhance it or steer it off somewhere else.

With Satie, yeah, we wanted to see him a new light, especially as it’s one of the pieces that is most famous. It was tricky to work with it because of what you just said. We wanted to try and prepare a fresh view of the piece, to justify Vanessa and I working on it to contribute something new.

Is your approach in some way similar to that of Satie, a kind of ‘less is more’ viewpoint?

In a way, though I do find it quite a challenge to say when a track is done. I take that step very seriously, and I don’t like to overdo or underdo things. When a piece is finished it is when I have explored so many possibilities! Then I choose the best one, polish it and finish it.

Do you intend to continue working with classical music in this way?

Yeah. There are many things that can be done with classical music, and there are many approaches I would like to try. I would say ‘watch this space’, with compositions old and new. The acoustic instruments are so rich, and it is wonderful to work with them electronically and to open a can of worms with some of the weird harmonics that are peculiar to those instruments.

It has been a really strong emotional passage for me since our early ages, it is a big part of me on a personal level, and it is a natural situation for me to work with it.

You have a very fine ear for orchestration. Have you ever written for a full orchestra?

Yes. I did a small interaction with Jean-Paul Dessy, from Belgium, who is a composer and a director. Musiques Nouvelles is the name of his ensemble, and they adapted a piece of mine for orchestra. I have been sitting with this idea for a long time, and I would love to sit down with a composer / director who is open to the idea. It would be a bit stressful for sure but would be a lot of fun as well.

What does classical music mean to you?

For me personally each kind of music is a whole avenue of expression – classical, jazz and electronic with its many subgenres. Classical is long standing for so many centuries, and for me it is about always keeping with acoustic instruments – the more conservative music.

Classical music is a combination of centuries of studying, developing, trial and error of previous work. It is an emotional world but also a very strict one. The core essence is the compositions, but you need trained interpreters to play it. Because of that it can be stressful and competitive, but I think it is worthwhile to have highly trained interpreters so that we can enjoy the music of the past, from the Baroque to the 20th century twelve-tone music of Schoenberg and his school.

It is always this though – highly emotional and direct. In my case I formed an instant connection with it and because of that I have always found it very emotional.

If you could recommend one piece of classical music to Arcana readers that you’ve been listening to recently, what would it be and why?

I always go to one of my favourite composers of late, Valentin Silvestrov, a composer from the Ukraine. His latest work is amazing and I often go back to his Requiem, written for his wife. One small section of it is also part of a series of songs for piano and voice, but he also did a version for choir and orchestra. It is not a new piece but it is the one that comes to mind right now.

Statea, by Murcof and Vanessa Wagner, is out now on Infiné. The pair will appear at the Barbican on Monday 31 October as part of a bill including pianist Lubomyr Melnyk. Tickets can be purchased from the Barbican website. Vanessa will also be giving her thoughts on classical music to Arcana shortly!

BBC Proms 2016 – Håkan Hardenberger and HK Gruber perform Kurt Weill & Kurt Schwertsik at Cadogan Hall

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), HK Gruber (chansonnier, above), Helen Crayford (piano), Mats Bergström (banjo & guitar), Claudia Buder (accordion), Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Broström Sputnik (2015)

Lundgren arr. Pöntinen The Seagull (2007)

Weill Speak Low (arr. Pöntinen) (1943); Songs from The Threepenny Opera (1928); Der Song von Mandelay (1929); Song of the Rhineland (1944)

Schwertsik Adieu Satie – Gymopédie; Clownerie acrobatique (2002, arr. 2010)

HK Gruber 3 MOB Pieces (1968, rev.1977)

Brahms arr. Broström Hungarian Dance no.6 (1869 / 2016)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 8 August 2016

Listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer

After A Satie Cabaret the BBC Proms chamber music series at Cadogan Hall continued in mischievous mood, this time bringing Kurt Weill and his associates centre stage. In doing so they managed to include another tribute to Satie, courtesy of Kurt Schwertsik, a member of the unofficial Third Viennese School with composers Friedrich Cerha and HK Gruber.

The three were responsible for the creation of MOB-art, in Gruber’s words ‘a celebration of enjoyment and invention’. The approach, enjoying tonal music but pushing boundaries and frequently encroaching on jazz and musical genres, was explored here by Gruber with good friends and long-time musical collaborators, trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger and Swedish composer Tobias Bröstrom.

As well as being a composer of some repute Gruber is an excellent conductor and vocalist into the bargain, and with Hardenberger he brought Weill’s music fair off the page, not to mention the words of his collaborators, Brecht and Ira Gershwin.

The concert began with Broström and a celebration of space travel, Sputnik. This completed one bumpy orbit of the Cadogan Hall, a lively and enjoyably syncopated curtain raiser. After this Jan Lundgren’s The Seagull was a mournful companion, beautifully observed by the muted trumpet.

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Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

Neither principal performer could stay quiet for long however, and we swiftly moved to the music of Weill. This was in the form of an attractive selection that showed not just the importance of the trumpet in the composer’s work, but also his chemistry with the acerbic wit and poignant observations in the text of Bertolt Brecht. These were given out by Hardenberger himself, revealing unexpected gifts for vocalising in Song of the Insufficiency of Human Behaviour, but also HK Gruber, surely without parallel in this music. There was a glint in his eye as he characterised the selections from The Threepenny Opera, One Touch of Venus, Happy End and Where Do We Go From Here?

They were superbly accompanied by accordionist Claudia Buder and Mats Bergström on guitar and banjo, both stylish players, while pianist Helen Crayford enjoyed the colourful harmonies and spiky rhythms. The string players of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields supplied extra body and impetus, clearly enjoying themselves.

After the Weill came two movements from Schwertsik’s suite Adieu Satie. The first of these was a lovely piece of expanded pastiche in the form of a Gymnopédie, led by Buder and supplemented by the strings, before the irreverent Clownerie acrobatique took enjoyable liberties with syncopations and melodic figures.

This led us to Gruber’s flagship work, the 3 MOB Pieces, where chamber ensemble and drum kit team up neatly with humour and touching asides. Composer Broström was now required to play drums, and did so with aplomb.

Finally all the performers were united for Broström’s mischievous but rather brilliant arrangement of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no.6, which called on Hardenberger to play at dizzying speed – and found him unexpectedly overshooting his final note. If anything this added to the enjoyment, for it was an occasion where spirit and humour were to the fore, with the distinctive colours of accordion, banjo and piano adding to the already ebullient strings.

The BBC Proms have delivered several imaginative chamber concerts this year, and this one was an excellent introduction to the music and world of HK Gruber ahead of a performance of Busking in Prom 34, where Buder, Bergström, Hardenberger and Gruber will once again join forces.

Ben Hogwood