On record: London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth – Panufnik Legacies III (LSO Live)

Panufnik Legacies III:
Ashby Desires (2016)
Campbell Frail Skies (2015)
Giguère Revealing (2015)
Horrocks-Hopayian A Dancing Place (Scherzo) (2010)
Lee Brixton Briefcase (2011)
Morgan-Williams Scoot (2015)
Roth Bone Palace Ballet (2014)
Sergeant but today we collect adds (2008)
Shin In this Valley of Dying Stars (2016)
Siem Ojos Del Cielo (2008)
Taplin Ebbing Tides (2014)
Whitter-Johnson Fairtrade? (2008)

London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth

Producer Jonathan Stokes
Engineer Neil Hutchinson
Recorded 26-27 April 2019, LSO St Lukes, London

LSO Live LSO5092 [67’54”]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Operating since 2005, the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme (in memory of the Polish-born British composer) has enabled a generation of aspiring artists to be heard on an international platform, with results that are rarely less than diverting and sometimes not a little compelling.

What’s the music like?

Ayanna Witter-Johnson questions the ethicality of third-world production in the interests of Western consumerism via an eventful while (purposely?) inconclusive interplay of grinding rhythms and ominous harmonies. Ewan Campbell draws on meteorological conditions of the sky for this study of no mean textural and timbral finesse, though what is much the longest piece rather loses focus in its fraught closing stages. Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian toys with concepts derived from Ancient Greek theatre, Classical concepts of democracy and the Marx Brothers in this scherzo whose gender-specific aspects go for little assessed purely as music. Donghoon Shin takes his cue from the nature of stars in a piece whose overtly impressionist elements do not preclude episodes of more purposeful activity, even scintillating virtuosity.

Alex Roth seeks to convey notions of human experience through a diverse orchestral palette – submerged within, an 1888 recording of Handel’s Israel in Egypt adds its intriguing temporal resonance. Matthew Sergeant draws on disparate objects displayed at a 1953 exhibition for a sequence of vignettes whose unforeseen interconnectedness results in unlikely yet engaging variations on the initial premise. Patrick Giguère seems intent on conveying that process of ‘revealing’ less as a reduction in musical layers as of accessing the essence of the composer, which proves worthwhile more in theory than in practice. Sasha Siem takes up the notion of ‘‘the eyes of a person who is absent or no longer there’’ for a piece where the struggle of a melody to break into the foreground creates palpable tension in the shortest of these pieces.

Bethan Morgan-Williams gives preference to clarinets in music whose sudden transformation from nonchalance to anxiety is achieved with appealing verve and an ultimately barbed irony. Michael Taplin has contributed a study in (as its title suggests) emergence and evanescence such as the orchestra is well equipped to convey, provided that the music does not outstay its welcome. Benjamin Ashby seeks to reconcile opposites – namely those of the flesh and of the spirit – in a process where understated antagonisms (inevitably?) seems rather more arresting than even their tentative reconciliation. Finally, Joanna Lee draws upon memories of cassette players (presumably those formerly referred to as ‘ghetto-blasters’) that frequently enlivened inner-city environs during the 1980s, albeit with greater visceral impact than is evident here.

Does it all work?

Mostly, and not least because François-Xavier Roth draws playing of unstinting commitment from the London Symphony Orchestra. His support for the Panufnik Composers Scheme has been a primary factor in its success over the past 15 years and will doubtless continue to be so.

Is it recommended?

Yes, notwithstanding a relative lack of underlying rhythmic energy or cumulative momentum with almost all these pieces. Anyone interested in sampling what is on offer should head to the Shin, Sergeant or Siem pieces (though not necessarily in that order!) then proceed from there.

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For further information, audio clips and purchase information visit the LSO Live website

On record – Tabea Zimmermann, Stéphane Degout, Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth: Berlioz: Harold en Italie & Les Nuits d’été

Berlioz
Harold en Italie (1834)
Les Nuits d’été (1840-1841, orch. 1843 & 1856)

Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Stéphane Degout (baritone), Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth

Harmonia Mundi HMM 902634 [70’28”]

Recorded 2-3 March 2018 at Philharmonie de Paris

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Released earlier this year, this disc from Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth marks the 150th anniversary of the death of composer Hector Berlioz by looking at two of the composer’s biggest innovations. The ensemble use instruments of the period to create a sound similar to that which the composer might have heard.

What’s the music like?

Described as a ‘symphony in four parts with viola obbligato’, Harold In Italie is one of the first obvious ‘tone poems’. In it Berlioz uses the viola soloist to represent a traveller, but one who travels with others – in this case the orchestra, for the instrument operates alongside rather than in front of them. Harold is tuneful and fun, a spirited affair full of incident, enjoying the companionship between orchestra and solo viola, played here by Tabea Zimmermann.

Alongside it is one of the very first song cycles with orchestra, Les Nuits d’été. This collection sets five poems by Berlioz’s close friend Théophile Gautier, and was originally intended for more than one voice. Now they are more commonly heard with a mezzo-soprano soloist, but on this occasion Les Siècles are joined by baritone soloist, Stéphane Degout who sings the composer’s own adaptation.

Does it all work?

Yes. Despite quite a reverberant recording, Harold In Italie benefits from the brilliant playing and lean orchestral sound of Les Siècles, whose sharp edges are a real asset in dramatizing this work. The violin tremolos are sharp, the wind and brass sounds clear but with an appealing grit to them.

Zimmermann gets the balance just right, her virtuosity beyond reproach but her phrasing totally in keeping with the orchestra. Her first thoughts, just over three minutes in to the first movement (Harold aux montagnes), are the theme that will dominate the piece, and are ideally weighted against the harp, responding really well as the music becomes more energetic. As the travelling picks up speed, Les Siècles and Roth sound terrific in full flow.

When Zimmermann accompanies the Marche de pèlerins chantant la prière du soir (March of the Pilgrims) there is a too and fro between the jovial theme and the horns’ distant chime, which sounds like a warning. Zimmermann’s spidery string crossing half way through is particularly good, before the music disappears evocatively into the distance at the end.

The third movement Sérénade has an airy start before slowing for a theme initially heard on mellow cor anglais. The thrumming of the harp half way through lulls the listener into a lovely reverie, after which the sudden loud note to start the finale, Orgie de brigands, will make you jump! Roth’s relatively broad approach is capped here with music that really blooms under his direction, and as the finale veers out of control, Harold under the influence in a tavern, the swaggering discords are brilliantly achieved by Roth before the story rights itself, the sense of homecoming heightened.

Les nuits d’été (Summer nights) is enjoyable albeit with a slightly cooler temperature. The ear adjusts easily to the less common male protagonist, which in several songs means the music is sung lower than in the mezzo-soprano versions.

Stéphane Degout has an attractively rich, slightly nasal tone and a very clear diction, bringing a relatively carefree approach to Villanelle, with intimate strings. The voice really comes into its own in a warm account of Le Spectre de la rose, with shadowy figurations from the strings. Their lean tone adds an edge to the beginning of Sur les Lagunes, whose sombre beginning leads to a passionate outburst from the soloist. Absence and Au cimetière, Clair de lune are richly atmospheric, while the final L’Île inconnue is a cheery and optimistic affair.

The tempi are on the nippy side – second song Le Spectre de la rose, for instance, is more than a minute quicker than Dame Janet Baker’s celebrated account – but the phrasing still feels natural.

Is it recommended?

It is. Roth and his charges always bring a fresh approach to the music they play, and in Zimmermann and Degout they have two soloists ideally suited to the task. Zimmermann leads Harold en Italie with style and panache, while Degout’s rounded tones offer a new shade for Berlioz’s song cycle.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple file formats visit the Presto website

London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth: Half-Six Fix – Stravinsky & Debussy

London Symphony OrchestraFrançois-Xavier Roth (above)

Half-Six Fix

Stravinsky Le chant du rossignol (1917)

Debussy La Mer (1903-1905)

Barbican Hall, London; Wednesday 28 March 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The London Symphony Orchestra’s new Half-Six Fix initiative went ‘live’ with this Stravinsky / Debussy double header; a concert full of colour and mutual appreciation for two of the 20th century giants.

A more relaxed approach was immediately evident on arrival at the Barbican for the early evening hour of music. Downloading the EnCue app gave audience members a stream of content at their disposal, with comprehensive notes on the two pieces as well as artwork and cues for the performances themselves.

Interestingly during the concert I did not witness anybody using their phone in this way – which in a sense was encouraging, for everyone was in thrall to the performers themselves. The other major disadvantage with reading concert notes on a mobile phone is the distraction of notifications from elsewhere. Surely one of the great advantages of live music is that it takes you to a special place away from everyday life! That said, the resources available do also give the option for reading between pieces, and were of a high quality to make them fully worthwhile.

Our compere for the evening was François-Xavier Roth and he was the ideal host, introducing the pieces with a nice line in respect and humour. The use of musical examples with the orchestra was helpful – flautist Gareth Davies showed off Stravinsky’s Le chant du Rossignol, while it was nice to see glockenspiel and cymbals promoted to the front line so that we could appreciate Debussy’s masterly use of the orchestra in La mer.

The performances were superb. Le chant du Rossignol had rhythmic precision and musical finesse, telling the story of the nightingale and the efforts of its Japanese imitators to emulate its song in vivid, widescreen technicolour. Stravinsky’s inspiration in this piece was revealed to be very close to Petrushka, and Roth conducted a performance that brought the melodies to the front but emphasised some wonderful textures conjured up in the middle foreground. There were visuals, and fleeting glimpses of solos, but it seemed the LSO had not fully decided whether to show the orchestra in full or images derived from the piece, settling for a halfway approach which was fleetingly helpful.

Watching the orchestra was definitely enough – their standard these days is as high as ever, and if anything was even better for La mer. Clearly this is one of Roth’s first loves, and from a seat near to the orchestra you could practically feel the spray as the orchestra dived in.

Tempo choices were on the whole assertive but never at the expense of detail and expression, and when the final swell came in the third movement, Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the wind and the waves).

Roth is an ideal host for this sort of evening, which can be wholeheartedly recommended, a case of quality winning over quantity – and it is pitched at a level where everyone present, from the first time attendee to the hundredth, will learn something new and get a fresh perspective. A great initiative for opening the mind to classical music in a more relaxed setting.

On record: The Panufnik Legacies II (LSO Live)

lso-panufnik-legacies-2

Colin Matthews, Max de Wardner, Evis Sammoutis, Christopher Mayo, Toby Young, Elizabeth Winters, Larry Goves, Raymond Yiu, Anjula Semmens and Edmund Finnis Panufnik Variations
Duncan Ward P-p-paranoia
Alastair Putt Spiral
Aaron Parker Captured
Kim B. Ashton Spindrift
James Moriarty Granular Fragments
Elizabeth Ogonek as though birds
Leo Chadburn Brown Leather Sofa
Bushra El-Turk Tmesis
Matthew Kaner The Calligrapher’s Manuscript

London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth

Summary

Three years on and the Panufnik Legacies series continues with a disc no less substantial if perhaps less diverse than its predecessor. Beginning with a set of variations on the opening theme from what is arguably the Polish-born composer’s greatest work, this continues with nine pieces again by participants of the Panufnik Composers Scheme – all testament to the scope and ambition of the LSO Discovery project which has played a crucial, even decisive role in introducing many new composers to audiences at the Barbican and LSO St Luke’s.

What’s the music like?

Panufnik Variations comprises the ‘theme’ from that composer’s Universal Prayer (1969), followed by 11 variations that open-out its essence without always probing it in any depth. From this perspective, variations by Evis Sammoutis, Christopher Mayo, Larry Goves and Anjula Semmens (3, 4, 7 and 9) are the most perceptive, with that by Raymond Yiu (8) the most entertaining in its allusion to a more famous Panufnik work often revived by the LSO. Colin Matthews orchestrated theme, first and final variations in highly professional fashion.

Of the stand-alone pieces, Duncan Ward’s P-p-paranoia packs a fair degree of incident into compact proportions, while Alastair Putt’s Spiral takes a segment of the Fibonacci Sequence as basis for its accumulating impetus. Aaron Parker’s Captured evidently utilizes ‘‘looping techniques and ambient forms’’ for its four brief fragments without a context, then Kim B. Ashton’s Spindrift evokes abstract seascapes in its ebb and flow. James Moriarty’s Granular Fragments evolves his notions of timbre and texture over three subtly contrasted miniatures.

Elizabeth Ognek’s as though birds elides its three miniatures into a cohesive if unfocussed whole, whereas Leo Chadburn’s Brown Leather Sofa brings a de Chirico-like ethos to bear on his austere musical sculpture. Bushra El-Turk’s Tmesis draws on Arabic prosody for a piece abundant in gestures that ultimately lack distinction. Finally, Matthew Kerner’s The Calligrapher’s Manuscript looks to the model-books from Johan Hering in a lengthy (12-minute) work whose two parts respectively predicate textural density then melodic clarity.

Does it all work?

Yes, inasmuch that all of these pieces – each written between 2011 and 2013 – give notice of compositional techniques thoroughly absorbed and confidently handled. If there is a proviso, it is that most (but not all) of them seem almost too well suited to the premise of small-scale works designed to slot into an ostensibly mainstream programme without causing any undue provocation. That several composers operate in part outside of the classical domain feels of little consequence when the music in question follows so overtly a post-modernist template.

Is it recommended?

Certainly, though the greater stylistic range of the first Panufnik Legacies release (LSO Live LSO5061) is a better starting-point for those wishing to get a real sense of what this scheme is about. What is never in doubt here is the excellence of the London Symphony Orchestra’s playing as it tackles these pieces, or of François-Xavier Roth’s commitment to a cause made possible in part via the involvement of the Panufnik estate. Two years after that composer’s centenary, one can only hope his own music will retain more than a foothold in the repertoire.

Richard Whitehouse