On record: Sinfonia of London / John Wilson – English Music for Strings (Chandos)

Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge Op.10 (1937)
Bridge Lament (1915)
Berkeley Serenade for Strings Op.12 (1938-9)
Bliss Music for Strings (1935)

Chandos CHAN 5264 [64’46”]
Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Alex James

Recorded 9-11 January 2020, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

After three wonderful albums extolling the virtues of French orchestral music, Korngold and Respighi, John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London charges turn much closer to home with a set of British music for strings drawn from the 1930s. They begin with an established classic, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, complemented by two neglected works from Sir Lennox Berkeley (his Serenade for Strings) and Sir Arthur Bliss (the Music for Strings), neither of which appears to have been recorded in the last 20 years. There is also room for the brief Lament from 1915 by Bridge himself.

What’s the music like?

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge will be familiar to many, but rarely in a performance as good as this. The theme, lovingly drawn from the Second Idyll for string quartet of Britten’s teacher, receives a virtuoso treatment, taken through a number of wildly differing dance forms before a powerful fugue and finale. The variations are sharply contrasted, with a crisp March at odds with the loving Romance that follows; the fulsome Wiener Walzer countered by the rush of a Moto perpetuo.

Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings works really well in this company. It is a work beginning with outward optimism but which ultimately falling under the shadow of the imminent Second World War. A busy first movement, its Baroque influences brought out by Wilson, is complemented by an inward looking but tender Andantino. Berkeley finds renewed energy in a quickfire Scherzo, but that is trumped by the closing Lento, which leaves a lasting impression, reflecting the anxiety felt as the 1930s drew to a close.

There is a good deal of positive energy in Bliss’ Music for Strings. Taking a lead from Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro of 1905, the composer writes for a full string orchestra but often picks out a smaller group of soloists. The substantial three movements show a masterly command of the string orchestra, from the wide span of the vigorous first movement to the meaningful Romance that follows, with lovely rich contributions from violas and cellos. The third movement starts hesitantly, in the depths, but soon the light breaks through to an effervescent finale.

Does it all work?

Everything works here, thanks to the thoroughly assertive performances secured by Wilson. He is quite quick on the draw with the theme for Britten’s variations, maybe quicker than some would like, but the thrills and spills that follow make this one of the finest versions available. The Aria Italiana has all guns blazing in a wonderful display of precision and power, while the Funeral March has a searing and chilling clarity.

Successful though the Britten is, it is the Berkeley and Bliss that ultimately give the disc its importance. The Berkeley is keenly felt, positive in its fast music but anxious in its two slower movements and raising emotional questions in the fourth. Wilson catches its air of uncertainty at the world in which we live, as relevant now as it was then.

The Bliss has terrific drive in its faster music, which builds up a thoroughly convincing momentum while succeeding in bringing forward the writing for the chamber ensemble at the front. The textures are beautifully clear thanks to the Chandos recording, the quicker melodies’ punchy phrasing cutting through easily.

The Bridge Lament, though short, proves a mellow complement to the Britten, a chance for the listener to collect their thoughts while the Sinfonia play with a beautiful, muted sound.

Is it recommended?

In every way. John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London breathe new life into this music, and their programme is superbly judged to bring two neglected and very fine works back into contention. The cover, a painting of Bliss’s Pen Pits house by Edward Wadsworth, is the icing on the cake with its classic 1930s style.

For further information on this release, visit the Chandos website.

In concert – Members of the English Sinfonia @ St John’s Smith Square: English Miniatures

Members of the English Sinfonia: Janice Graham (violin), Nick Bootiman (viola), Julia Graham (cello) Chris Hopkins (piano)

Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914)
Bridge Miniatures – Book 2, H88 (1910)
Coleridge-Taylor Piano Trio in E minor (1893)
Holst String Trio in G minor (1894)
Bax Piano Quartet in One Movement (1922)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London, 15 December 2020 (lunchtime)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Celebrating its 60th anniversary next year, the English Sinfonia will be remembered by older listeners for those valuable recordings of British music with Neville Dilkes (not least the first modern account of Moeran’s Symphony). Its current incarnation as ensemble-cum-chamber orchestra enables it to tackle a wide repertoire, and even though only the core personnel was featured in this afternoon’s concert, the works that were chosen offered a more than plausible overview of British chamber music composed across the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Easy to forget that, long before his music assumed a more radical mindset, Frank Bridge was a composer of lighter fare. Hence those three sets of Miniatures for piano trio – classy salon music of which the second set moves from a soulful while never cloying Romance, via an infectious and decidedly scherzo-like Intermezzo, to a Saltarello with more than a hint of menace in its hectic dash. By comparison, the Piano Trio of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor tries a little too hard to impress. If this early piece is hardly the equal of such as the later Clarinet Quintet, its three compact movements are never less than eventful – whether in the vehement Allegro with its portentous opening, a Scherzo whose unremitting energy brings little respite, or Finale whose distinctive furiant rhythm sees the whole work through to a forthright close.

Unlike the above, Holst composed relatively few chamber pieces in his maturity. While his String Trio evinces little sense of what he went on to achieve, this does not lack for incident. Idiosyncratic, too, in that its compact and forthright opening movement is followed by one which, over twice as long, integrates a slow movement, scherzo and finale that add up to an unlikely if cohesive whole; the fugal intricacies of that final section a stern test of ensemble such as the present players despatched with evident resolve. Appreciably more characteristic is the Piano Quartet by Bax – its tensile single movement packing a wide range of ideas and moods into little more than 10 minutes; and following an essentially conflicted to triumphal trajectory recalling that of the combative First Symphony which immediately preceded it.

Opening this afternoon’s programme, Janice Graham gave an affecting account of The Lark Ascending in the version for violin and piano first heard in public exactly 100 years ago. Now the orchestral version has become ubiquitous, this chamber guise can feel almost a reduction, yet the lucidity of its formal layout becomes even more explicit, and the understated poise of its piano part – as rendered by Chris Hopkins – belies any doubts as to Vaughan Williams’s limitations when writing for the instrument. An eloquent start to an enterprising programme.

Further information at https://www.englishsinfonia.org.uk/

Wigmore Mondays – Lise Berthaud & David Saudubray: Schubert & Brahms sonatas

Lise Berthaud (viola), David Saudubray (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 2 March 2020 (lunchtime)

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

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Neither of the two principal works in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime concert originated as viola pieces, but both have become repertoire staples for the instrument, the warmth of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata and the sage experience of Brahms’s First Clarinet Sonata being ideal vehicles for its silvery tone.

The Schubert is an especially unusual case, being the only prominent piece written for the arpeggione. This was an instrument with six strings and frets like a guitar, which was bowed and held between the knees.

Though it did not catch on as an alternative to the cello or the viola, Schubert wrote a substantial piece for a friend of his who played it. Because of the practicality of performing the work it was not until 1867 that it was finally published, with the realisation that it transcribes ideally for either cello or viola with piano accompaniment, the melodies lying under the fingers with deceptive ease.

The Arpeggione Sonata is a largely happy work, though it begins lost in thought (from 2:42 on the broadcast link). This was a measured intro from David Saudubray but as the first movement progressed the songful tone of Lise Berthaud’s viola took over, the pair enjoying the spring in the step of the faster music as though they were venturing out to dance. There was a really nice passage around the 8:38 mark, the viola using pizzicato to accompany the piano.

The second movement Adagio (14:28) explored more tender thoughts, the piano’s rocking motion suggesting the profile of a lullaby, especially with Berthaud’s soft musings above. However it was not long before we were straight into the Allegretto finale (18:13), the players investing more urgency until we arrived back at the dance (19:31), Schubert unable to resist setting the players on the floor once again. This good humour continued until the bright ending.

Brahms’s first contribution to the viola and piano repertoire is a very different animal, being from late in his career. Having decided to finish as a composer in 1890 it was something of a surprise when Brahms, having rid himself of the pressure of a Fifth Symphony, found inspiration in the clarinet. He wrote a Trio, Quintet and two Sonatas for the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, but it was soon brought to his attention that the Trio and both Sonatas transcribed very easily for viola – and those arrangements were made with his blessing.

As Lise Berthaud showed, the profile of Brahms’ melodies in the Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 are ideal for the instrument, the wide range of the first movement (29:07) easily under her fingers. The sweep of this melody and its subsequent development was impressive, as was the graceful second theme, with just the occasional slip from Saudubray in Brahms’s more congested piano writing. The controlled but expressive Andante was delightfully played (37:14), its roots clearly in song. A lilting Intermezzo was third (42:10), both players finishing each other’s musical sentences as equals, the music itself like a breeze in the branches of an old tree. The fourth movement (46:07), marked Vivace, threw caution away, with a peal of bells from the piano leading to a flowing and good spirited exchange, prone to the odd outspoken burst from the piano. Here was proof that the older Brahms still had the enthusiasm and musical vitality of his youth.

Repertoire

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

Schubert Arpeggione Sonata in A minor D821 (1824) (2:42)

Brahms Viola Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 (1894) (29:07)

As an encore we had a lovely piece from Frank Bridge, the Berceuse (52:40), whose rocking motion was evident in Saudubray’s sensitive piano playing, the ideal foil to Berthaud’s velvety tone.

Further listening & viewing

The music from this concert can be heard in the playlist below, with versions of the Schubert and Brahms recorded by Berthaud herself:

As alluded to in the review, late Brahms works particularly well for the viola, as this collection shows – with both sonatas and the trio for viola, cello and piano coupled together:

Frank Bridge wrote some winsome music for his first instrument, collected here by the viola player Louise Williams and pianist David Owen Norris, joined for three songs by mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby:

In concert – Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton: The Contrast

Carolyn Sampson (soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Friday 14 February 2020 (lunchtime)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit Marco Borggreve

Once best known for her interpretations of Baroque music, Carolyn Sampson is revelling in the world of song. With musical partner Joseph Middleton painting pictures from the piano, she has made a number of attractive releases for the BIS label – of which The Contrast is the latest.

This Wigmore Hall concert doubled as the album launch event, and was programmed with a wide range of responses to settings of English text. The pair began with Sir William Walton’s multi-poet cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table, reminding us just how different London was when this was written in 1962. The balance was tricky in The Lord Mayor’s Table itself, where there is a lot going on in the piano part, but Sampson carried her line with verve. Her accent on Wapping Old Stairs was well judged for subtly comedic effect, while Holy Thursday cast a spell and Rhyme ended the cycle with a flourish.

The songs of Roger Quilter can really blossom in the right hands, and Sampson sang this selection of five beautifully. The flowing My Life’s Delight and softer By a Fountainside showed off her natural delivery, Middleton responding with lovingly caressed accompaniment. Dream Valley was a beautiful reverie as dappled sunlight shone across the Wigmore Hall, while the Arab Love Song was urgent and fleet-footed, while Fair House of Joy ended the selection with a winning smile.

Huw Watkins wrote his Five Larkin Songs for Sampson, and was present for this powerfully affecting performance. The challenge of setting Larkin’s occasionally bleak verse is realised with music of passion and dramatic impact, and as she said from the stage, Sampson clearly loves to sing the songs. The wandering piano line of Who called love conquering? contrasted with the awkward shifts in the soprano line, both of which were handled extremely well. Sampson’s ringing delivery brought expressive power to Love Songs in Age, as did her instinctive use of vibrato. The end of Larkin’s wry poem Money, ‘it is intensely sad’, left a strong aftertaste, while Dawn showed a hint of Britten in its setting. The delivery of the last line, ‘How strange it is for the heart to be loveless, and as cold as these’, made an impression with its completely (and deliberately) flat tone.

Finally we heard five songs from Frank Bridge, whose contribution in this area is still underrated. That is in spite of heartwarming songs such as Go not, happy day, which was full of smiles in this performance, bubbling over with good feeling. Adoration showed of a sumptuous vocal tone, while Come to me in my dreams could have been written for such a voice. Once again Middleton’s accompaniment was ideally weighted and phrased, the two combining for a magical and poignant encore of Bridge’s Yeats setting When You Are Old, powered by an achingly tender melody from the piano.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music:

Walton A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table (1962)
Quilter My Life’s Delight Op.12/2 (1908), By a Fountainside Op.12/6 (1908), Dream Valley Op.20/1 (1916), Arab Love Song Op.25/4 (1927), Fair House of Joy Op.12/7 (1908)
Watkins Five Larkin Songs (2009-10)
Bridge When most I wink (1901), Go not, happy day (1903), Adoration (1905), Come to me in my dreams (1906), Love went a-riding (1914)

Further listening & viewing

You can listen to the whole of the In Contrast release on Spotify here:

To hear clips and to purchase, In Contrast can be found on the Presto website

Talking Heads: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood
Picture courtesy of Decca Classics

Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a rare commodity. In the midst of dazzling publicity, he is helping open doors for classical music by his very approachable demeanour and an approach to album-making that brings it into closer contact with other forms. On the evidence of this interview he is refreshingly grounded and intently focussed on his first love, which of course is music.

While some have expressed concern that the cellist might be overworked early in his career, our discussions around second album Elgar confirm him to be relaxed and deeply satisfied with the newest addition to his discography.

His debut album Inspirations, released this time in 2019, presented the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, the piece he played to win the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016. Kanneh-Mason coupled it with diverse pieces from Pablo Casals, Offenbach, Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley. This time however his main focus is the work of a much older man, the Cello Concerto in E minor of Sir Edward Elgar.

The recording of this much-loved corner of the cello repertoire was made with conductor Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. It has an intensity which belies Kanneh-Mason’s tender years, offering new viewpoints into what will be familiar music to a lot of people. Again the context into which Sheku puts the Elgar on his album is intriguing, of which more later. But where did he first hear the music of Elgar – and was it the piece he has just recorded?

“It would have been the concerto, definitely”, he recalls. “I listened to it a lot when I was younger, and I grew up with the famous Jacqueline du Pré version. While we were working on it I listened to a lot of different recordings of the piece, it’s such a special work. Other recordings I really love are the most recent Steven Isserlis recording, Truls Mørk with Simon Rattle, and the famous one from Beatrice Harrison with Elgar himself conducting. There is a huge range of ways in which people approach the piece, and what strikes me about the piece is that everyone reacts in a different way.”

The second movement (a Scherzo) finds Kanneh-Mason and Rattle scooting along with a particularly quick choice of tempo, and the cellist clearly relishes the fast bow strokes required. “It’s a fun piece to play, and you get swept up in it but you have to work on getting a lightness of touch with the repeated notes.”

Elgar’s concerto may be the main piece on the album but there are a variety of shorter pieces imaginatively included by Kanneh-Mason. One composer in particular we may be hearing from again is the Swiss-born American Ernest Bloch, born to Jewish parents. Two of his shorter pieces are included here. “I love his music”, says Sheku. “For Grade 8 I did the Prayer for cello and piano, which is a piece I knew to play young. It’s music I really love, and there’s also the piece for cello and orchestra, Schelomo, which I hope to record in the future. You can feel some of the pain in the harmonies he uses.”

More obscure still is a piece for cello ensemble, Hymnus, by the German composer Julius Klengel. “It’s an amazing piece”, he says. “He was a cellist as well, so I think that’s how he ended up writing for 12 instruments. Every week at the Royal Academy of Music we had a cello ensemble, and that’s how we got to know it. There’s a nice link there, as there is for all the pieces on the album. It’s very inspiring being around really young hardworking musicians and all of us being based in one place.”

How does Kanneh-Mason balance his studies with days like today, where he has a whole day of promotional interviews to navigate? “I just have to be very organised with my time, which is a good thing for us anyway. I never feel that I have too much on.”
He is particularly gushing when talk turns to his work with Sir Simon Rattle, and the bond they share in the interpretation of the Elgar. “Definitely. I think what I love about working with someone is the freedom to do what I want but knowing that they can do everything as well. It’s the spirit of true collaboration I think”.

The theme of collaborating runs through both albums, and Kanneh-Mason identifies with this original approach. “It’s nice to have a link and a reason for putting them together, like creating a concert program. It’s great to record a masterpiece and a big piece, and put it with smaller pieces that have an equal range of colour and harmony, and perhaps more subtleties.”

For Elgar he was helped by Simon Parkin, with sensitive arrangements for cello and orchestra of Elgar’s Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations, and the Romance originally written for bassoon and orchestra. To that he adds Frank Bridge’s Spring Song, the folksongs Blow The Wind Southerly and Scarborough Fair, and Fauré’s profound Elégie.

“He’s an amazingly skilled arranger”, says Sheku of Parkin, “and he keeps the heart of the pieces while making the most of the instruments. I love mixing the arrangements that complement the pieces of music in their original form, and it’s great to record them in respect of friends and teachers, which makes it more personal. I’m always excited and open to lots of new things and working with new people. I’ve had some amazing experiences with these recordings, and you can hopefully hear the enjoyment from them.”

As you might expect given his album programming, Sheku’s ‘out of hours’ musical tastes are varied. “I listen to a mixture of classical, jazz, reggae, and different kinds of folk music”, he says. “Growing up with music all around me has been really inspiring, and it has kept me grounded and motivated. Now I live with students, and the people below me are also musicians.”

Thinking back to his BBC Young Musician of the Year triumph brings Kanneh-Mason onto a subject close to his heart, musical education. “I think we should have as many young people in music as possible. The Young Musician of the Year is great as it shows people playing to the highest standard. When I did it I found watching people three or four years older than me was really inspiring, and it ultimately gives people the opportunity to do many more things.”

He also notes the importance of after care. “Afterwards there was so much attention, but the BBC really looked after me. It was important to have the right people around me and to be working with the right people. A competition is only good if what comes after is good.”

With time running out, we conclude by discussing his favourite musicians of the moment. “I love Steven Isserlis”, he says. “He’s my favourite cellist to watch…and I also love listening to the violinist Daniel Lozakovich. Martha Argerich is also someone I find really inspiring, I love watching her play the piano.”

This blend of youth and maturity, established and new, is perhaps the most inspiring thing about Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s success. His approach is very inclusive, and his next ventures will be very interesting to chart and appraise. With Elgar reaching the heights of number eight in the album charts so far, the musical world is very open to him right now.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Elgar album is out now on Decca Classics – it can be purchased here, via Apple Music, or streamed below via Spotify: