Patricia Petibon and Susan Manoff at the Wigmore Hall – La Belle Excentrique

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Patricia Petibon (soprano) and Susan Manoff (piano) – La Belle Excentrique, Wigmore Hall, Wednesday 16 December 2015

Review by Ben Hogwood

It isn’t often you see a rubber chicken as part of a song recital, and I would wager one has not been seen on the Wigmore Hall stage for quite some time. If ever! But this wasn’t just any song recital, this was a concert where soprano Patricia Petibon and pianist Susan Manoff asked questions of their audience, expanding the format but making them laugh and cry in the process.

The concert, a memorable Wigmore debut for Petibon, reminded us how regimented and serious some song recitals can be. Not a criticism you understand, for sometimes it is only right and proper to sit and listen to a singer and pianist making music of raw emotion. It can be one of the very best live experiences in classical music. But this was so very different, Petibon and Manoff marrying humourous music with songs of deep emotion, punctuated with well-chosen piano pieces.

La Belle Excentrique was the title given to the recital, which fell neatly into two parts. Part one began with understated beauty, the crystalline music of one of Reynaldo Hahn’s finest songs A Chloris a daring way to start, especially when sung so quietly. Yet gradually it became clear Petibon was here to have some fun, the actions at the end of the third Hahn song Quand je fus pris au pavillon a notice of intent. Soon the soprano was barking (Manuel Rosenthal’s Fido, Fido) and then Manoff donned a trunk for the same composer’s story of L’éléphant du Jardin des Plantes, both brilliantly done. Hats were donned for songs by Satie and Poulenc, while charm and heart-rending emotion took hold in two wonderful songs by Fauré.

The second half also moved between extremes. France, Spain and the Swiss Alps dovetailed beautifully for songs of powerful impact from lesser-known composers such as Henri Collet and Fernando Obradors, as well as underrated song composers Joaquín Turina and Joseph Canteloube, whose Chants d’Auvergne have fallen out of fashion in the last few decades. Petibon’s performance of La delaïssádo (The forsaken girl) proved this to be an oversight, matched by exceptional playing from Manoff who effortlessly deconstructed the orchestral parts. Then we moved back to farce, and an exaggerated performance of Leonard Bernstein’s song cycle La Bonne Cuisine. For this, Petibon and Manoff went the whole hog by dressing up as chefs and using props relating to the food they were describing. It was hilarious! The recital ended with a no holds barred performance of Lara’s popular song Granada, before two encores – the popular French song Parlez-moi d’amour and a short excerpt, The Cat, from Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortileges.

These two performers were a breath of fresh air on the Wigmore Hall stage, heightening our appreciation for 20th century song while questioning the conventional format of the song recital. The strongest possible recommendation I can give lies in the fact I have since purchased two of Petibon’s albums on Deutsche Grammophon, La Belle Excentrique and Melancolia (see Spotify below!) – and would wholeheartedly recommend and Susan Banoff as a concert experience to completely blow away the cobwebs.

Wigmore Mondays – Sabine Meyer, Daniel Hope and Sebastian Knauer

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Sabine Meyer (clarinet), Daniel Hope (violin), Sebastian Knauer (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 2 November 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06mc8lk

on the iPlayer until 2 December

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify:

What’s the music?

Stravinsky: Suite from ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ (1918-1919) (15 minutes)

Milhaud: Scaramouche (clarinet and piano) (1937) (9 minutes)

Satie: Gnossiennes nos. 1 & 4 (piano solo) (1890, 1891) (8 minutes)

Bartók: Contrasts (17 minutes)

What about the music?

There is not much repertoire for the combination of clarinet, violin and piano, but what there is available more than makes up for the dearth of material.

Stravinsky wrote The Soldier’s Tale for three speakers and a carefully chosen small group of instruments. The story tells of a soldier who trades his fiddle to the devil in return for prosperity – and in this condensed suite, arranged for clarinet, violin and piano, Stravinsky works some of the key numbers together in a combination that brings forward the raw elements of the story. All three instruments work together in punchy rhythms, or apart in virtuosic writing.

Milhaud’s Scaramouche is one of his most popular pieces, a short work that has proved flexible in arrangements for two pianos, saxophone and orchestra, or clarinet and orchestra. The clarinet and piano arrangement is the fourth version of the work he made – with a riotous first movement and a finale that brings forward his fascination with Brazilian dance forms.

Erik Satie wrote a lot of piano music, its appeal lying in a combination of suitability for amateurs and a direct emotional expression. The Gnossiennes are inspired by encounters with Romanian folk musicians, and are reactions to the music rather than an attempt to recapture it.

Bartók wrote his Contrasts for the unusual trio combination in response to a commission from the jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman and Bartók’s friend Joseph Szigeti. Originally called Rhapsodies, Bartók changed the title of the piece because of its very different moods and musical figures. After the curiously named Recruiting Dance there is a second movement that typically goes through a wide range of moods and speeds, before a helter-skelter beginning to the last movement finds the violinist using a detuned instrument.

Performance verdict

A quite outstanding concert from three soloists right at the top of their game who clearly work well in an ensemble capacity. It was a clever move to start with the Stravinsky – the dry humour, hummable tunes and tap-inducing marches worked very well in the Wigmore Hall acoustic, and with Daniel Hope effortlessly evoking the scratchy fiddle of the Soldier in this particular Tale, it was a performance that charmed and dazzled with its easy virtuosity.

Scaramouche fared much the same way, though Sabine Meyer’s playing in the first of the three movements was so exceptional – and fast – that it earned applause on its own. This lovable piece could brighten up any day, though even in this quickstep performance there was time for a little reflection in the second movement. The third showed off Milhaud’s aptitude for writing in Brazilian dance forms, and swung with a persuasive manner.

Two of Satie’s Gnossiennes provided a short cooling off period, simplicity themselves but also strangely moving with their modal folk writing.

Finally there were more fireworks, this time in the form of Bartók’s Contrasts, brilliantly played and with a keen sense of ensemble that implied these players meet up to play a lot more than they actually do! Meyer’s cadenza in the first movement took the breath clean away, but Hope and Knauer were not exactly slouches either! Hope gave a superb cadenza himself in the last movement, while Knauer was the glue for the performance, powerful in the fast music but finding the gamelan-like sonorities of the second movement with disarming ease.

The encore – Shostakovich’s Polka arranged for the original for two violins and piano – was invested with the same humour and enjoyment that kept the audience spellbound throughout the previous hour.

What should I listen out for?

Stravinsky

1:21 The Soldier’s March – Immediately the dry wit of Stravinsky’s music makes itself known, with little to no sustain in the violin or piano parts.

2:56 The Soldier’s Violin – the violin writing is deliberately scratchy, while the piano plays a typical Stravinsky ‘ostinato’, a repeated four note motif in the left hand that sounds awkward yet somehow completely right!

5:32 The Little Concert – some bold unison writing for the three instruments here, with bright colours as they show off in concert. However it’s not long before the piano ostinato comes back in the left hand – much quicker this time. The players work energetically throughout here.

8:20 Tango-Waltz-Ragtime – an exaggerated yet very persuasive tango from the violin, with what sounds like ‘wrong’ notes in the piano. Then the violin leads us through a waltz, exaggerating its gestures all the time in an attempt to rouse a sick princess.

14:46 The Devil’s Dance – in this whirlwind dance the soldier’s aim is to get the devil to play so fast he falls asleep. This is ideal for Stravinsky, who presents a brilliant sequence of syncopated rhythms and ensemble playing. When the end comes at 16:01 the devil falls down exhausted.

Milhaud

18:49 – Taken at an incredibly fast pace, this illustrates everything appealing about Milhaud’s music – the melodic invention, the humour and the snappy rhythms. The second theme, given out in octaves on the piano (19:45) sounds rather like Stravinsky, before the main idea makes a reappearance at 21:00. Huge fun!

21:50 – a doleful slower movement that brings out the mellow qualities of the clarinet’s lower range in its opening phrases.

25:44 – if you count each beat quickly at the start of this dance you’ll get the 3-3-2 that is characteristic of this particular Brazilian-infused dance. Once again the music is in high spirits, particularly the clanging piano octaves for the second idea (starting at 26:25). The shrill end is brilliantly done by Meyer.

Satie

29:46 – Gnossienne no.1 – time slows down almost immediately with this piece, which has a forlorn expression but also carries its listener off to another world. This is partly due to the folk melodies it uses, but also the variation of dynamics between loud and extremely quiet.

33:51 – Gnossienne no.4 – again the simplicity of this piece is a notable feature, with a stepwise movement to the melody and arpeggios in the left hand that point all the way forward to the music of Philip Glass and Ludovico Einaudi. The plaintive quality of the music remains.

Bartók

39:18 – the first movement has the curious title of a Recruiting Dance (dfgd) It starts with the violin plucking (pizzicato) before the clarinet and piano join. The music seems to turn in a circular fashion initially. The music continues to feel agitated, with extended trills from around 41:10 sowing the seeds of unease. Then from around 43:40 we have an extended solo (cadenza) for the clarinet.

44:42 – a soft but very uneasy slow movement begins with the clarinet and violin in slow unison, to which the piano responds with a soft, rumbling sound. Throughout this movement it evokes the sound of the gamelan, while the other two instruments make slow intonations above. This mood changes to a more fractious outlook around 47:07, where each of the instruments deals with extended trills, creating a vision of flying night music.

49:17 – the last of three movements begins with Daniel Hope on a cheap, detuned violin (apparently one he bought from E-bay!) Soon he casts this aside for the normal instrument and a typically frenetic Bartók fast movement plays out its arguments. At 51:40 the mood lightens with a slower but piercing violin solo, before the harmonies get more remote. Then the faster music starts to show itself, with shrill calls from the clarinet before the violin gets its moment at 54:05. The music then moves to a thoroughly convincing conclusion at 56:16.

Encore

58:00 – the well-chosen encore is a quick but funny Shostakovich Polka, subtly arranged from the original which is for two violins and piano.

Further listening

For some more repertoire featuring the clarinet, violin and piano, this album from Supraphon features not just the works heard here from Stravinsky and Bartok, but also works for the combination by Khachaturian and Milhaud.

One of Milhaud’s best-loved pieces is La Création du monde, and this can be heard as part of an album from Martha Argerich and friends:

 

 

 

John Foxx – Redefining classical music?

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John Foxx, the founding vocalist of Ultravox, is a prolific composer of electronic music, both instrumental and vocal. His recent endeavours include a solo release, London Overgrown, and an album Codex as part of the group Ghost Harmonic, recorded with classical violinist Diana Yukawa and frequent collaborator Benge (with whom he has also recorded as John Foxx and The Maths).

Because of his heritage and continued quest for making new music, Arcana spoke to him about his music, and in particular about the effect classical music has had on his life, in both positive and negative ways.

You seem to be in a very rich creative vein at the moment. Have you always been this productive, or are you finding that collaborations with others are bringing even more music out of you?

Collaboration is a fascinating thing – it’s so productive, but each time you have to figure out a new way to surf along with other people’s energies. You’ve both set yourself up – so then you have to put up or shut up. It puts you right on the spot and is very energising. Plus you both get to share the blame!

What does Diana Yukawa bring to your work with Benge that other classical violinists might not?

She enjoys improvising and enjoys being thrown in at the deep end with technological temporal disorientation devices. Not many classically trained musicians can handle that. She thrives on it and produces surprising results.

Diana has the sort of musical ability and agility that I find enviable. We’ve really only begun to glimpse her potential.

What is it about your relationship with Benge – and his studio – that inspires musical creativity?

It’s great fun – and always fascinating.

At first you think everything sort of half works but then you realise he’s managed to get beautifully rough sounds on sometimes beautifully rough equipment that excite you into the next stage without being able to resort to your own clichés.

When you listen back at home you realise you’ve been creatively misled into something you might have dismissed otherwise. And it all sounds very fine indeed.

I also love his take on mixing. The usual hierarchy gets dismantled and you hear sounds that don’t often get a just exposure. He’s completely fearless in that respect.

With London Overgrown, I first listened to it in bright early morning sunshine journeying into London, and the music and visuals seemed to go very well together. Is that how you see it?

Good – I think there’s a lot of English weather in the music, the sun through clouds and the sort of perspectives you might glimpse calmly gliding through overgrown streets. It is both detached and tranquil. ‘Serene Velocity’ was the phrase that best seemed to describe it.

Was it a conscious move to write music with these projects that seems to be more treble rather than bass?

Well, with London Overgrown the instrument I used most was an old DX7, and that can produce beautifully complex upper frequencies, so I simply enjoyed and went along with that. Many of the pieces were improvised using 30 second delays, and delays so long create their own ecologies. It’s like gardening. You let things grow. In the end I had a city that was completely overgrown.

In the case of Ghost Harmonic we were obviously focussed on Diana’s violin, so that defines the frequencies to a large extent. The bass end was supplied by the big Moog and textural intervals supplied through the interplay between those two and the reverberation and delays. I like the violin’s range – it really is a singing instrument, a human voice extension. I’d like to use a cello against it next time – a marvellous creative groaning device.

Would you say either Codex or London Overgrown are classical in any way – their form or melodic contours, say?

Well, that’s such an interesting question, and to some extent it supplied the reason for this recording.  So I hope you’ll forgive me if I ride my wee hobby horse for a moment.

You see, I think the divisions between classical and other music are really illusory, but nevertheless interesting – ‘classical’ is a sort of ossified form, historically where music began to be written down instead of being played, personal and constantly evolving, as it was before the evolution of the orchestra –  and this is what created all the problems.

You see, orchestras couldn’t improvise any longer because they’d become too big. They have marvellous, unlimited harmonic and melodic potential but they’re like an ocean liner to a canoe – they can’t manoeuvre instinctively.

Orchestras are also very hierarchical and bureaucratic – all instructions have to be written down and adhered to in order to operate effectively, otherwise chaos would ensue because of the sheer number of participants involved.

That’s when orchestral players became more focussed on obedience training than improvisation skills and agility, simply because it was necessary for the successful operation of the music.

Musicians unwittingly became a reproductive device. The conductor assumed the interpretive role, but even he couldn’t fundamentally alter the score. Writing things down also fixes them, it tends to inhibit or prevent any further development, so that’s another reason the whole thing became so inflexible.

I think it’s no accident that the orchestra evolved during the industrial revolution, where factory and bureaucratic systems also had to evolve, to deal with the massive scale of industry and populations.

They are really a sort of model of idealised, organisational harmony created through bureaucracy – powerful, monolithic and effective – but there’s always a price and the price paid here is the sacrifice of individual freedom of interpretation and expression. By logical increments you find we have unwittingly locked ourselves into a sort of bureaucratic form – bureaucratic music.

With Diana we were attempting to steal the fire of some of that marvellous technical skill that classical music demands – and set it free among the fields of infinite sonic possibilities that a modern recording studio can offer. You can change time relationships, even reverse them, and manipulate sequences, perceptual spaces, perspectives, harmonies and textures. You can focus down like a microscope, or out into landscapes and even create occurrences that behave like weather systems.

Of course the act of recording also captures, alters and defines a sort of music, just as written music does, but in very different ways – so there’s still a price for every gain.

We began by simply wanting to see what would happen if we mixed the most intriguing possibilities of both genres, without prejudice. Along the way we also began to realise it might offer a way out of this impasse that so called ‘classical music’ seems to have unwittingly entered.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

Yes – first hearing of Nimrod by Elgar (from the Enigma Variations) and realising the power and subtlety of an orchestra.

I heard older music in church – the sung Latin mass, which was marvellous to hear and that oceanic feeling of dissolving into something greater than yourself. I also begun to understand how chants evolved by harmonising with your own delayed reflections from the architecture – architectural music as opposed to bureaucratic music.

When I hear music by Thomas Tallis I hear the astounding beauty of those interwoven voices, then realising the evolutionary connections between chants and orchestras and architecture.

Then the next thing that really impressed me was Satie‘s piano music. I heard someone play the Gymnopédies one afternoon in the old lecture room at art school.

I can still picture the instant – early summer, big open doors, the view down the marvellous avenue of trees at Avenham, and that beautiful elegant music. It is perfect minimalism, with poise and tranquillity, like distilled civilisation in a few notes and a sound. I was transfixed. it seemed to alter everything. I’ve loved piano ever since. It really is my favourite sound in the world apart from a blackbird’s song.

You said in an interview with me a while back how you liked what John Cage did, and the theory that music is organised noise. Is that how you see it – and is that why the noise of Benge’s studio, for instance, assumes the importance it does?

Yes to both. Understanding that music is organised noise was a great liberation. It enables you to understand and encompass lots of other sources of music from traffic to industrial noise to feedback and other accidental by-products such as tape hiss and glitches etc. Inherent imperfections become part of the landscape, so the landscape immediately becomes bigger and more textured, as well as more fun.

Would you ever consider writing for orchestral forces, or what are seen as more ‘classical’ forces, such as an electronic string quartet?

Maybe – but I’d need to have the motivation – usually some aspect of music that seems to need reconciling or some neglected possibility that intrigues enough to do the work. In the case of Ghost Harmonic, that was supplied by attempting to reconcile classical playing abilities with modern recording and improvisation.

What does classical music mean to you?

Something wonderful that became confined by its own form.

It means great possibilities still unrealised – what might happen if you facilitated a real interplay between the massive harmonic possibilities of orchestras and the full potential of a modern recording studio?

At present the classical world sees recording simply as a means of recording a single performance – any other manipulations are seen as inauthentic. There’s no attempt to access the massive compositional possibilities of modern recording. What a waste!

What are you listening to at the moment, and what piece of classical or modern music would you recommend Arcana readers go out and find?

Ruben Garcia made some beautiful piano and reverberation improvisations on a record called A Roomful of Easels. I often play some of these pieces at home.

There’s one David Darling recording, by the instigator of ECM Records Manfred Eicher, called Cello – improvisations against long delays. It’s a specific mood and poise, perfectly held, beautifully recorded and composed. Sadly, I didn’t much like his other recordings – except perhaps Dark Wood. It seems he needed the austerity of vision enforced by Eicher.

And Satie, always. He’s really the Marcel Duchamp of modern music – the point it all began, for me. His work embodies purity of intention and gorgeous simplicity with elusive intelligence. A benchmark.

London Overgrown is out now on Metamatic Records – and on the same label, the Ghost Harmonic album Codex is also available – their website can be viewed here

Emika

emikaEmika picture © Katja Ruge

Up until now, singer-songwriter Emika has been best known for her one-woman electronica, best witnessed on her Emika and DVA albums for Ninja Tune. Yet she has always carried a torch for classical music, and recently released Klavirni, an album of piano miniatures, on her own Emika Records label. She is therefore the ideal artist to kick off Arcana’s interview section! She does so by talking about her watershed encounters with classical music, and the ambitious plans she has as a composer and label owner.

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?
It was actually the first moment I cried from listening to music. I was 12 and even though I was on my own I felt very embarrassed. I was forced to stay with my parent’s friends during our family holiday and I was being mega grumpy and did not want to join in doing any ‘nice’ things such as going on a long walk, so I decided to stay at the house on my own. I went through all their CDs and found Chopin piano nocturnes. The piece was Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op.9 No. 2:

Your ‘Klavirni’ album is inspired by Janácek and Bartók – were there any piano pieces in particular that inspired you when writing the album?
I’m very impressed by Erik Satie‘s work, it is so touching and so precise. I think playing lots of notes is quite achievable on the piano as it’s always based on scales and anyone can learn to move their fingers in a spider-like pattern. But having the confidence to leave space in between phrases, to not play every possible note, to not feel the need to show-off. That is also skill in my opinion and I think Satie and Janáček were not only great piano players but they were also fantastic composers and therefore didn’t need to be ‘virtuosic’. I love piano pieces with a sense of space inside them.

Is some of your work improvisatory? The recordings have a very natural flow to them, as if you recorded them in one take.
They are all one-take improvs. Sometimes if my cat jumped on my chair or my mum got a phone call, I cut out these kinds of unwanted sounds. But there are lots of moments when it started to rain outside (in England of course it rains a lot) and you can feel this pressure change in some of the recordings. That stuff is pretty cool and ‘real’. I like to explore ‘real’ space within recordings and not only work with synthesis.

Was it important to keep some electronic elements from the work you’ve done before, such as the sampling, re-sampling and other processes you have used on the album?
Yes for sure. I have an itch to scratch! It’s fun to pull sounds apart and also get to know the music on a sonic level.

Although you have used these processes, you have made sure the music keeps its simplicity. Do you think sometimes classical music overcomplicates itself?
Yes. Too much diddle-di-di. I don’t like most classical music to be honest, just a few composers / conductors / performers and specific pieces from each.

Do you think moving between electronic club music and classical music means it becomes more accessible to the listener…and do you plan to keep writing in both styles?
I don’t like the stiff wall between these worlds. There’s no need to be just one way or the other and I plan do what I do until there is no difference between them in relation to my work. It’s all music.

What further classical music do you have planned…and might it involve you singing?
I’m going to record my first really big orchestral piece this year in Prague which features the beautiful Czech soprano Michaela Srumova and around 70 players. The music is rooted in grief, and features a miracle which pushes you over the edge and then you fall into a great unknown. It’s so full of life, things which I cannot express through words or any other way. Some things really are best expressed purely as musical forms.

What does classical music mean to you?
Life itself.

If you could recommend one piece of classical music to Arcana readers, what would it be and why?
Barber‘s Adagio for Strings. It doesn’t get more sincere then this.

Emika‘s new album Klavirni is available to buy now, either digitally, on CD or on vinyl. The vinyl has intonation included, while the CD has an option to email Emika Records direct to have the notation sent.

Emika has completed a DJBroadcast podcast in the form of an ambient mix, which can be heard here – while Dilo, one of the recordings from the album, can be downloaded for free here