In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: Poulenc Chamber music

cbso-centre-stage

Poulenc Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon, FP32 (1922); Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano, FP43 (1924-6); Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano, FP100 (1931-2, rev. 1939-40)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Members: Marie-Christine Zupancic (flute),Emmet Byrne (oboe), Oliver Janes (clarinet), Nikolaj Henriques (bassoon), Elspeth Dutch (horn), Robert Markham (piano)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 21 January 2022 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It made sense to devote a programme in the Centre Stage series – put on by musicians of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – to the chamber music of Poulenc, which is hardly less representative than those vocal and choral pieces that likewise run throughout his output.

Increasing in size and substance, the three works this afternoon were also a viable overview of the composer’s evolution during the interwar period. The Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon finds Poulenc teasing out the expressive potential of Stravinsky’s often inscrutable chamber music from the previous decade; its Allegro and Final movements pursuing an agile dialogue whose harmonic astringency is offset by the wistful insouciance of its central ‘Romance’, in which the interplay between Oliver Janes and Nikolaj Henriques was at its most persuasive.

Stravinsky evidently had a direct output into the composition of the Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano which, cut from similar stylistic cloth to the earlier piece, reveals greater emotional range. Not least in the opening movement’s pointed contrast between its wistful introduction and headlong Presto, or the Andante’s haunted charm – here emphasized by plaintive oboe playing from Emmet Byrne – whose ‘vulnerability behind the façade’ is duly swept away by a finale in which the breezy humour of the ballet Les biches comes unmistakably to the fore.

The Sextet cost Poulenc fair effort before reaching definitive form at the start of the Second World War but is arguably his most representative work at that stage. Not least in the way its animated opening Allegro makes a virtue of any imbalance between piano and wind quintet – Robert Markham keeping matters securely grounded – or sheer timbral and textural variety of the Divertissement with piquant contributions from flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic and horn player Elspeth Dutch. Nor was there any lack of verve in a Finale whose recollection of the work’s opening, now suffused with greater pathos, must surely be a comment on the times.

Eloquently realized, it brought to an end an admirable showcase for both music and musicians. Next week sees a no less engaging programme of Kodály and Korngold by the CBSO strings.

Further information on future CBSO Stage concerts can be found here

On record – Peter Dickinson: Lockdown Blues (Somm Recordings)

lockdown-blues

Barber (arr. Dickinson) Canzonetta Op. 48 (1977-8)*
Berkeley
Andante Op.23/6 (1945)
Cage
In a Landscape (1948)
Dickinson
Blue Rose (1978); Freda’s Blues (2016); Lockdown Blues (2020)
Ellington (arr. Dickinson)
Twelve Melodies (1932-43)*
Gershwin
Three-Quarter Blues (c1925); Who Cares? (1931)
Goossens
Lament for a Departed Doll Op.18/10 (1917)
Lambert
Elegiac Blues (1927)
MacDowell
To a Wild Rose Op.51/1 (1896)
Poulenc
Pastourelle IFP69 (1927); Bal fantôme IFP64/4 (c1934)
Satie
Trois Gymnopédies IES26 (1888); Trois Gnossiennes IES24 Nos.1-3 (1889-90)

Peter Dickinson (piano)

SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0644 [68’24”]

Producer & Engineer Peter Newble

Recorded 16 and 17 April 2021 at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk. * indicates first recordings

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Peter Dickinson here turns the third phase of lockdown to his – and our – advantage with this collection of piano music touching on the blues and jazz which have long been a mainstay of his careers as performer and composer, and which also includes two notable first recordings.

What’s the music like?

The programme commences with the pensive sadness of Dickinson’s Freda’s Blues, written in memory of the widow of Lennox Berkeley, continuing with a poised and refreshingly non-mawkish take on MacDowell’s perennial To a Wild Rose – its blues and rag idioms made the basis of Dickinson’s Blue Rose. The empathetic feel of Lambert’s Elegiac Blues in memory of singer Florence Mills is affectingly caught, while Dickinson’s marrying of blues and Bach in Lockdown Blues recalls George Shearing’s pioneering such fusions. After the drollery of Poulenc’s Bal fantôme, Dickinson’s reworking of the Canzonetta which Barber intended for his unrealized Oboe Concerto proves a focal-point in its searching pathos. Such a quality is also to the fore in Berkeley’s limpid Andante, as is the alluring charm of Gershwin’s Three-Quarter Blues – and to which the whimsy of Poulenc’s Pastourelle provides a pertinent foil.

Whether as solo pianist or in recital with his sister Meriel, Dickinson has been unstinting in his advocacy of Satie and his reading of the original Gnossiennes (not those three published decades after the composer’s death) lacks for nothing in perception. Such is equally the case when, after the insinuating charm of Gershwin’s Who Cares? then the wistful eloquence of Goossens’s Lament for a Departed Doll, he renders Satie’s evergreen Gymnopédies with an objectivity that not unreasonably plays down the mystical aura often attributed to this music.

Perhaps the highlight here is Twelve Melodies that Dickinson has arranged from Ellington’s big-band numbers in what proved a veritable ‘golden age’ for such music and not previously recorded in this guise. Picking out a selection might hardly seem necessary, but the yearning of Solitude, eloquence of Lost in Meditation, questing emotions of Azure then the expressive warmth of Mood Indigo stand out in a sequence which concludes with the phlegmatic charm of Day-Dream then haunting atmosphere of Prelude to a Kiss. Moreover, Dickinson has one final trick up his sleeve with an elegant rendering of Cage’s In a Landscape – music in which this most recalcitrant of composers comes closest to his beloved Satie with its ineffable grace.

Does it all work?

Very much so, thanks not merely to the range of music covered but also through Dickinson’s insight. Into his 87th year when these recordings were made, his technique remains as fluent as his understanding and enjoyment are audible. Long able to accommodate the populist and the experimental within his own music, such inclusiveness extends to the idiomatic aspect of his interpretation and the deftness of his touch. Surely nothing can now prevent the Ellington set being taken up by pianists everywhere, with the numerous shorter pieces ideal as encores.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The piano sound has a naturalness and clarity ideal for this music, while few writers other than Dickinson would be equally aware of technical details and chart standings. Here is looking forward to further releases by this always resourceful pianist in his ‘Indian summer’.

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the SOMM Recordings website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more information on Peter Dickinson, click here.

In concert – Carolyn Sampson, Anna Lapwood, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada – Poulenc Gloria & Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

Yamada_Kazuki_5142_c_Zuzanna_Specjal

Tchaikovsky Solemn Overture ‘The Year 1812’ Op.49 (1880)
Poulenc
Gloria FP177 (1959)
Fauré
Messe Basse IGF50 (1881 rev.1906)
Saint-Saëns
Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.78 ‘Organ’ (1886)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Anna Lapwood (organ), CBSO Youth Chorus (Julian Wilkins, director), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 16 September 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Zuzanna Specjal (Kazuki Yamada), Marco Borggreve (Carolyn Sampson), Kirsten McTernan/BBC (Anna Lapwood)

It was no doubt coincidental that this opening concert of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s new season was typical of those programmes which one-time chief conductor Louis Frémaux gave with this orchestra during the mid-1970s, in its featuring two of his French specialities.

Back then, Poulenc’s Gloria could still be regarded as contemporary music, though its adept borrowing from the Stravinsky textbook married to the French composer’s insouciant brand of expressivity is arguably more widely accepted now than in that often style-conscious era. It duly responded to Kazuki Yamada’s keen impetus in the opening Gloria then the bracing syncopation of Laudamus te or a joyously animated Domine Fili. Carolyn Sampson (above) was an elegantly detached soloist in Domine Deus, opening-out emotionally in the Agnus Dei whose inward ecstasy was unerringly conveyed. Yamada elided deftly between the surging energy then calm resignation of the final Qui sedes; here, as throughout, the CBSO Chorus bringing supplicatory warmth to music it has been associated with almost since its founding.

Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony was a familiar item at CBSO concerts during the Frémaux era and one that the present-day orchestra tackled with no less alacrity. Yamada was clearly (and rightly) intent on stressing its symphonic cohesion – drawing ominous expectancy from the first half’s Adagio introduction then securing a powerful momentum in the main Allegro, before the organ’s hushed entry for a chastely eloquent slow movement. There was no lack of incisiveness or humour in the second half’s scherzo, not least its scintillating passagework for piano duet, but also purposeful intent as segued directly into the finale with its indelible main theme and its methodical build-up to an electrifying peroration. Here, too, Anna Lapwood’s (below) subtle choice of registration underlined motivic resourcefulness more than gestural brilliance.

In between these works, opening the second half, Fauré’s Messe Basse enjoyed relatively rare revival (at least in the concert hall). Initially a collaboration with André Messager, Fauré later essayed a complete setting of what is a Missa brevis (thus omitting the Gloria and Credo) for female voices and which sounds no less apposite when rendered, as here, by young singers. The CBSO Youth Choir summoned a poised detachment under the assured guidance of Julian Wilkins, abetted by Lapwood’s thoughtful accompaniment in this modest yet appealing piece.

One aspect of this programme that Frémaux would not have opted for was to commence with Tchaikovsky’s 1812, though few would surely dissent given the all-round focus of Yamada’s conception. Not least when the CBSO Chorus added its yearning tones to the opening section, returning towards the close for an emotive rendering of ‘God Save the Tsar’ to cap an already resplendent apotheosis. Tubular bells and Mahler-type mallet more than compensated for the absence of canon et al when this piece is trotted out at the end of a ‘greatest hits’ assemblage.

It was indeed fortuitous that Yamada open this season given his recent appointment as Chief Conductor of the CBSO from April 2023. He returns in due course, while next week brings Sarah Connolly for a rare hearing for Chausson’s rapturous Poème de l’amour et de la mer.

This concert will be repeated on Saturday 18 September at Symphony Hall – click here for tickets. You can find information on the new CBSO season here, while for more on Kazuki Yamada you can visit the conductor’s website

In concert – Martin Fröst & Roland Pöntinen at Wigmore Hall

Martin Fröst (clarinet), Roland Pöntinen (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 December 2019

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A concert that was relatively short on music but extremely high on musicianship and virtuosity. Martin Fröst is one of the finest clarinettists at work today, and fellow-Swede Roland Pöntinen, with whom he has enjoyed a musical partnership for 25 years, is an extremely highly respected pianist either in a solo capacity or here as a chamber music ally. Both delighted their young Wigmore Hall audience – yes, that can be a thing at this venue’s concerts! – who were on their feet at the end.

The two gave us ‘French Beauties and Swedish Beasts’, a concert based on their first disc for BIS made 25 years ago. The beauties were first, in the shape of Debussy and Poulenc. The former’s Première rapsodie was written as a competition piece for the Paris Conservatoire, and later orchestrated in a form revealing its stylistic parallels with the composer’s ballet Jeux. There was a balletic feel to this interpretation too, Fröst’s languorous tone complemented by the stop-start rhythms of Pöntinen’s piano part. Initially the music was happy to indulge in its warm, lush surroundings but gradually it grew more agitated until Fröst’s final, bluesy solo.

Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata, a late work, is dedicated to the composer Arthur Honegger and received its first performance in the hands of no less a duo than Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. It is difficult to imagine a better account than here, with Fröst’s tone in the quieter and reflective passages simply sublime, layered with emotion. This was complemented by a sparky finale, where the music flew out of the gate like a horse let into an open field. The performers finished each other’s musical sentences in a performance of wit, charm and sensitivity.

The first of the ‘Swedish Beasts’ followed, a piece from Anders Hillborg written for the partnership before his breakthrough work, the Clarinet Concerto which Fröst recorded some seven years later. This was a piece of two extremes, flitting between reflective slow phrases and sharp retorts where the clarinet used the outer limits of its register. It was effective and a concentrated piece showing off Fröst’s technical prowess.

The second Swedish Beast was much more benign, but Roland Pöntinen’s own Mercury Dream showed an affinity with the blues. Nocturnal New York seemed to be its focus, especially in the easily paced piano introduction and postlude, but when Fröst joined the music became more animated.

Prior to that the pianist (above) gave us two substantial chunks from Ravel’s Miroirs. His account of Une barque sur l’océan was highly pictorial, and his Alborada del gracioso had swagger, even if some of the initial phrases were clipped. Pöntinen has not yet recorded Ravel and it would be interesting to set alongside his many BIS recordings of earlier music.

The partnership finished with Chausson’s Andante and Allegro, a discovery from the composer’s Bayreuth period in his mid-twenties, before Wagner’s spell exerted itself on his music. This was an enjoyable piece, full of melodic grace in the flowing Andante before turning slightly darker for the passionate Allegro.

We had two superb encores from the duo, playing pieces Fröst has previously given with orchestra. BrahmsHungarian Dance no.1 in G minor surged forward passionately, while Göran Fröst, the clarinettist’s brother, contributed the hugely entertaining Klezmer Dance no.2, full of good tunes and musical banter between clarinet and piano. Given the technical expertise on show, the standing ovation that followed was inevitable.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music:

Debussy Première rapsodie (1909-10)
Poulenc Clarinet Sonata (1962)
Hillborg Tampere Raw (1991)
Ravel Miroirs: Une barque sur l’océan; Alborada del gracioso (1904-5)
Pöntinen Mercury Dream (1994)
Chausson Andante and Allegro (1881)

Encores
Brahms Hungarian Dance no.1 in G minor ()
Göran Fröst Klezmer Dance no.2

Further listening

You can hear the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

You can hear the album French Beauties and Swedish Beasts in its entirety on Spotify below. Alongside the items from this concert it includes the rather wonderful Saint-Saëns Clarinet Sonata:

Meanwhile Anders Hillborg’s Clarinet Concerto Peacock Tales’ written for Fröst, can be heard in its premiere recording here:

Wigmore Mondays – Jean Guihen Queyras & Alexandre Tharaud play Debussy, Poulenc, Marais & Bach

Jean Guihen Queyras (cello, above), Alexandre Tharaud (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 28 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 credits Marco Borggreve

Who could possibly be better suited for this concert among today’s musicians than cellist Jean Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexandre Tharaud? The long-established pairing constructed a hugely enjoyable programme of dance-based music for the combination, from two composers who were still writing for the viola da gamba to two writing for the modern cello but harking back to that older era.

The viola da gamba was on its way out when J.S. Bach and Marin Marais wrote their respective pieces for it. They did not know at the time, but it was about to lose its popularity to the cello, which – with one less string and eventually a spike for the player to hold it in – gradually took over.

Bach’s sonata, for viola da gamba and harpsichord, is equally rewarding when played by cello and piano as here, with great sensitivity and a lyrical line to the melodies from Queyras. The first movement Adagio (1:43 on the broadcast link) was beautifully weighted, as was the quicker but equally graceful Allegro (3:18). Both players found the deeper emotion of the Andante (7:06), Bach moving into the key of B minor for some aria-like soul searching. The final movement Allegro (11:03) was a delight, the benefit of an established musical partnership clear to see and with nicely judged ornamentation from Tharaud.

Marais wrote extensively for the lower end of the stringed instrument family, and his Pieces de viole contain music that is as challenging for the players as it is rewarding for the audience. This three-movement suite, arranged for the modern cello by Christian Döbereiner, contained a slower Prélude (16:53) and Sarabande grave (25:33) that Queyras and Tharaud played eloquently, the cellist finding wonderful clarity in his higher range. These shorter movements framed the main act, several variations on the popular tune La Folia titled Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), which, while apparently played without repeats, is where we had the real fireworks. There was terrific playing from both and a heightened sense of drama ran throughout.

Poulenc originally wrote his Suite Française for orchestra in 1935 as part of a ballet score, but it proved equally effective in a piano arrangement made later that year. This version for cello and piano was made in 1953, for performance by the composer with French cellist Pierre Fournier. Based on the music of 16th century composer Claude Gervaise, it is a charming suite of seven dance movements looking back some four hundred years, merging the musical language of that time with Poulenc’s perky writing and crunchy harmonies. It was brilliantly realised here.

The seven dance pieces are as follows: a lively Bransle de Bourgogne (30:13), a consoling Pavane (31:40), then a cheeky Petite marche militaire (34:00). The suite continues with an eerie Complainte, the cello in its highest register (35:17), then a largely reflective Bransle de Champagne (36:26), graceful Sicilienne (38:10) and ceremonial Carillon (39:29)

Debussy’s Cello Sonata (43:07) is one of the cornerstones of the cello repertoire, a late masterpiece with clear instructions that the pianist should ‘not fight the cello, but accompany it’. At its centre is a remarkable, forward looking second movement with an improvisatory air and extended episodes for pizzicato (plucked) cello.

This was a terrific performance, Tharaud starting off with a forthright opening statement but responding with great care to the nuances of Queyras and his beautifully shaded tone. The pair caught Debussy’s moods – his bold statements but also the furtive corners of the piece, which sometimes feels like it is hiding in the undergrowth on a hot summer evening.

Both elements were clear in the first movement, and also in the second (47:15), a Sérénade where Debussy’s fragments were all joined together. Queyras had the perfect range of pizzicato colours, but also the clarity of tone right at the top of the register. Tharaud complemented him with the ideal lack of sustain on the stumbling piano figurations and the weight of his responses.

All the while this music was headed for the quickfire finale (50:33), which in its short bursts of melody had charm, worry and glorious colour in equal measure, never quite letting go completely until the final bars and Queyras’ authoritative statement.

As a generous encore the pair complemented the Debussy with Rodion Shchedrin’s entertaining In the style of Albéniz (55:28), not dissimilar to the second movement of the Sonata in its evocative tones but more outrageous in its melodies and harmonies. Queyras and Tharaud set it up brilliantly to cap a memorable recital.

Repertoire

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

J.S. Bach Viola da gamba Sonata no.2 in D major BWV1028 (before 1741) (1:43)
Marais (1656-1728) Suite in D minor: Prelude (16:53), Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), Sarabande (25:33)
Poulenc Suite française (1935, arr. 1953) (30:13)
Debussy Cello Sonata in D minor (1915) (43:07)
Encore – Shchedrin In the style of Albéniz (1973)

Further listening

You can listen to the music heard in this concert on Spotify below, including Queyras and Tharaud in the works by Poulenc and Debussy:

Poulenc also wrote a Cello Sonata, which forms part of an album with works for cello and piano with works by Debussy, delivered by the Queyras and Tharaud pairing here:

As this concert illustrated, French composers were particularly skilled at taking inspiration from the Baroque and Classical periods of classical music (from c1650 to 1800). The playlist below enjoys some of the best examples, headed by Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin but also including works by Fauré, Debussy and Poulenc: