Oxford Lieder Festival – Mr McFall’s Chamber: Solitude

Mr McFall’s Chamber (above – Cyril Garac, Robert McFall (violins), Brian Schiele (viola), Su-a Lee (cello), Rick Standley (double bass), Maria Martinova (piano)

Sallinen Introduction and Tango Overture Op.74a (1997)
Pärt Für Alina (1976)
Tüür Dedication (1990)
Mustonen Toccata (1989)
Pēteris Vasks A Little Summer Music (1985)
Toivo Kärki Täysikuu (1953)
Sibelius Einsames Lied (arranged for piano sextet)
Unto Mononen Satumaa (1955)

Holywell Music Room, Oxford
Wednesday 17 October 2018 – 5:30pm

Written by Ben Hogwood

This recital, given in the intimate surrounds of the Holywell Music Room, was centred on Solitudes, a recent release of Baltic chamber music from Mr McFall’s Chamber, a group founded by violinist Robert McFall and centred around friends from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

This is surely how chamber music should be – a group of friends playing music that has mutual appeal – and the chemistry between the group was that of easy familiarity and affection. That affection spread to the audience, thanks to an easygoing set of introductions from McFall to put the music in context.

Over an hour’s concert we had seven very different and well-chosen pieces, linking nicely with the Oxford Lieder Festival’s theme of the Grand Tour and providing context of the Estonian music ahead of the evening concert from Kai Rüütel and Roger Vignoles.

Neighbouring Finland also got in on the act, and the Introduction and Tango Overture from Aulis Sallinen proved a bold opening piece once its persuasive rhythms and bold melodies got going. We heard more of the tango in Finland towards the end, with brilliantly swung versions of Toivo Kärki’s Täysikuu and Unto Mononen’s Satumaa.

Contrasting nicely with this was a brief but very poignant excerpt from SibeliusBelshazzar’s Feast, Einsames Lied (Song of Solitude, giving the concert its name), and a substantial Toccata by Olli Mustonen, which took Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as its inspiration but used powerfully driven rhythms and motifs to make a punchy piece with full bodied Romantic harmonies. As with the tangos, these were performed with great character and verve by the sextet.

To balance the concert rather nicely there were pieces for reduced instrumental forces. The brief meditation of Für Alina from Arvo Pärt, Estonia’s favourite composer, left a lasting mark through the sustain applied by pianist Maria Martoniva. So too did the powerful Dedication for cello and piano by fellow Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür, whose output falls under the influence of his time in progressive rock band In Spe. This blended catchy melodic riffs into a powerful call and response between cello and piano, with expressive cellist Su-a Lee and Martoniva quick to get to the heart of the piece.

Meanwhile A Little Summer Music, from Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, offered a sunny counterpart, its six short movements bursting with life and melody. Written as something of a pastiche, this did nonetheless work beautifully as six brief picture postcards of a Baltic summer, the violin imitating insects in the final movement while exploring attractive Latvian dances in the second, third and fifth. Cyril Garac played these with great dexterity and energy, helped with the fulsome accompaniment of Martoniva.

This was a hugely enjoyable concert, opening the door to a number of musical discoveries. Yet Mr McFall’s Chamber had one more trick up their sleeve, an encore of the hymn from SibeliusFinlandia, with the piece de resistance a solo role for Su-a Lee on musical saw. It was strangely moving as well as humorous – and capped a terrific concert.

Further listening

You can hear all of the repertoire from this concert performed by Mr McFall’s Chamber on Spotify. The album was made for Delphian Records:

Live review – O/Modernt / Hugo Ticciati at Kings Place: Looping Time

O/Modernt (above) / Hugo Ticciati (below)

Hall One, Kings Place, Friday 21 September 2018

Tüür Violin Concerto no.2 Angel’s Share (2018)
Adams Shaker Loops (1978)
Pérotin arr. Johannes Marmén Viderunt omnes (c1200)
Glass Symphony no.3 (1995)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The Time Unwrapped series at Kings Place has dealt out a number of very interesting concerts. This program from the young Swedish-based but European-sourced O/Modernt chamber orchestra combined established minimalist forebears with new interpretations of working with small musical cells – or waveforms as the program called it.

In a change to the order of the program we began with the Violin Concerto no.2 of Erki-Sven Tüür, premiered in the composer’s native Estonia earlier this year. Tüür has an intriguing past where progressive rock meets classical, and it has furnished him with a very strong sense of dramatic structure and the gift for vivid storytelling. This work, subtitled Angel’s Share, was all about interpreting the gap of air that appears in the barrel during the ageing of whisky, and how that can be applied to the wisdom of an adult as they grow older, ‘letting go of the unpleasant tastes’ in the words of the composer.

Cannily he captured this in musical terms, culminating with the release of the cork at the start of the concerto’s third movement, where the (sadly unnamed) percussionist dealt a striking blow. The start employed the other end of the percussive spectrum, with a high metallic note from which Ticciati’s solo part germinated. The soloist was superb, inhabiting the part and its distinctive figures, while the strings’ counterpoint was consistently absorbing and meaningful, right up to the affirmative finish. It would be great to hear this work again soon, and certainly those present appreciated it – among them violinist Fenella Humphreys.

John AdamsShaker Loops followed, a relatively early minimalist classic from 1978 that remains a success in concert. The near-constant tremolos require great stamina and control on the part of the string players, but that was never an issue with the 19-strong orchestra here, who danced and shimmered in tune with a sensitively handled light display. Double bassists Ben Griffiths and Jordi Carrasco Hjelm were the rock on which the three-movement piece stood, but the way the slower lines undulated over the top was particularly affecting, capturing the deep spiritual roots of the piece – which is after all a representation in music of ‘shaking’. Adams is in thrall to Sibelius when he writes for strings in this way, but the harmonic language is an extension and has a distinctly wide-open, American feel. Ticciati and his charges took us out onto that plain.

Johannes Marmén‘s arrangement of Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes opened the second half, a curiousity that showed how even in the 1200s music had minimalist tendencies. On occasion it was difficult to see Perotin’s original thinking, however, as the arrangement took hold, but the final paragraph from the double basses took us back into his world. It showed how ancient and modern can still integrate – we use largely the same notes after all – and how both are still relevant and complement each other. The fly in the ointment, unfortunately, was extraneous but unidentified noise from the roof of Hall One that threatened to disrupt the performance.

Ticciati had to acknowledge it with a rueful smile before moving straight into the jewel of tonight’s crown, Philip Glass’s Symphony no.3. The previous work in his symphonic output is on Brucknerian dimensions, running for nearly an hour, but in the Third Glass compresses his musical argument into an impressive, cohesive whole. O/Modernt got right to the heart of the small cells that are cleverly manipulated here, but also found the deep emotion of the central Chaconne, which has a dark heart but opens out with major key harmonies to find greater optimism – before going back into the minor key again. It is an ebb and flow that proves extremely affecting on repetition, and was the centrepiece of a fine performance, whose outer movements showed the virtuosity of these string players to the highest degree.

This was a very fine concert and an ideal showcase for minimalism as an extremely valid form of composition, showing also that there is a sizable library beyond the works of Steve Reich. By way of an encore we had Rufus Wainwright in the style of John Adams, his song Across the Universe played with beautiful precision and lovingly directed by Ticciati.