The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Sibelius, Liszt and the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

oberon-orchestraOberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper

Richard Whitehouse on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert of Sibelius, Liszt and Saint-Saëns, given at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 17 September

Sibelius The Swan of Tuonela Op.22/2 (1895)

Liszt Les préludes (1854)

Sibelius Valse triste Op.44/1 (1903)

Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, ‘Organ’ (1886)

Andrew Furniss (organ), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

Tonight’s concert (the fourteenth) from the Oberon Symphony had a strong element of Liszt running through it – not least a welcome revival of the symphonic poem Les préludes which, while its historical importance is undeniable, retains only a marginal place in the repertoire.

Although it started out as the autonomous overture to settings of Joseph Autran’s Les quatre éléments (the connection with Alphonse de Lamartine’s Nouvelles méditations poétiques was made later and its reasoning remains unclear), Les préludes is essentially an abstract reflection on the passage of life from aspiration to fulfilment, and Samuel Draper rightly emphasized the cyclical evolution of its themes as these outline a viable sonata design whose introduction and coda confirm the emotional distance travelled. The secondary themes are among Liszt’s most appealing and were eloquently rendered; if the stormy central development seemed inhibited, a convincing momentum was maintained from the ethereal interlude through the reprise then on to an apotheosis whose grandeur was shorn of bombast or unnecessary grandiloquence.

These latter qualities, wholly extraneous to Liszt’s thinking, had by the mid-twentieth century reduced this piece to little more than caricature: harmlessly in the case of its soundtrack to the adventure series Flash Gordon, but offensively so when the final bars were used to announce Nazi bombing successes during the Blitz. In stressing purely musical virtues, a performance such as this can only abet the work’s and the composer’s cause; hopefully Draper will have an opportunity to include another of Liszt’ s symphonic poems in these concerts before long.

When Saint-Saëns (retrospectively) dedicated his Third Symphony to the memory of Liszt, the latter’s reputation was still intact – not least in terms of its cyclical form, making this work the harbinger of an intrinsically French take on the genre that prospered over the next century.

Draper assuredly had the measure of this stealthy evolution across two parts. After a plaintive introduction, the Allegro took time to intensify towards the climactic reprise of its first theme, but the transition to the Adagio had the right expectancy and the latter movement was almost ideal in blending seraphic poise with a lucidly unfolding variation. Andrew Furniss ensured that the organ timbre was fully integrated into that of the orchestra – the Oberon being heard at its best in a scintillating account of the scherzo; after which, the finale was taken firmly in hand so that its big tune (did those smiles among the audience betray knowledge of its use as the 1977 hit ‘If I Had Words’?) emerged unhackneyed, while the fugal and pastoral episodes were drawn into a tight-knit and cumulative progression towards the resplendent peroration.

Prefacing each of these pieces in either half was music by Sibelius. For all its popularity, The Swan of Tuonela is among its composer’s most introspective statements. Draper brought out a sustained anguish in the strings, ideally complemented by plangent cor anglais playing from Bruno Bower. If the fraught climax of Valse triste was a little diffuse, the elegiac opening and close were tellingly rendered – underlining why this miniature rapidly became a worldwide success, and thus making the composer’s signing away of its copyright the more regrettable.

The next concert by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with a selection of Mozart’s arias and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (soprano Anousheh Bromfield) is on Saturday 21st January 2017

Watch the previous concert from the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with Cosima Yu as soloist in Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

BBC Proms 2016 – Louis Lortie: Venezia e Napoli

louis-lortie

Louis Lortie (piano) © Elias

Rossini, transcribed Liszt La regata veneziana; La danza (1830-35, transcr. 1837)

Poulenc Napoli (1925)

Fauré Barcarolle no.5 in F sharp minor Op.66 (1894); Barcarolle no.7 in D minor Op.90 (1905)

Liszt Venezia e Napoli (1859)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 22 August 2016

Listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer

For an hour Louis Lortie managed to transport the Cadogan Hall audience to even sunnier climes – to Venice and Napoli, to be exact. He did this through a well constructed program painting pictures of the Italian cities and regions from afar, for none of the chosen composers were Italian.

All except Rossini, that is – though the two Soirées Musicales chosen for this concert were given in arrangements made by Liszt. Typically these were hyped up for concert audiences, but as in most of Liszt’s transcriptions there is a sensitive side staying true to the original, and Lortie found that unerringly in the humour of La danza.

We transferred from Venice to Naples for Francis Poulenc’s brief but vivid three-movement portrait. The central Nocturne was the great find here, a really lovely bit of descriptive music bookended by two fast movements typical of Poulenc in their wit and, in the Caprice italien, a deceptively soft heart that Lortie delighted in showing us.

It was especially good to hear two of Fauré’s Barcarolles included, especially as Louis Lortie has realised his love of the composer’s music in a new disc from Chandos. The Barcarolles are real diamonds, perfect for listening at either end of the day, and are highly original in their elevation of an older art form all but ignored by other composers. Lortie showed concert audiences need not be dissuaded by them either, with a darkly shaded Barcarolle no.7, which found some of the Fauré’s shadowy writing encroaching from the edges like the approach of night. Meanwhile the distinctive motif of the Barcarolle no.5 was ever-present, though towards the end of this the pianist was too full with his volume at the bell-like top end of the register.

That said, his playing throughout was remarkably accurate and expressive, and both qualities were evident in a superb performance of Venezia e Napoli, the epilogue to part two of Liszt’s piano travelogue Années de Pèlerinage. The virtuosity on show was breathtaking in the final Tarantella, but it was the poetic depiction of the gondola and the slower Canzone, with its majestic interpretation of Rossini’s Otello, that really hit home.

Ben Hogwood

In concert – Barbara Nissman plays Ginastera at Kings Place

barbara-nissman

Barbara Nissman (piano); Hall One, Kings Place, London, 24 April 2016

Liszt Mephisto Waltz No.1, S514 (1862)

Bartók Allegro Barbaro, BB63 (1911)

Ginastera Tres Danzas Argentinas, Op.2 (1937)

Prokofiev Piano Sonatas – No.1 in F minor, Op.1 (1909); No. 3 in A minor, Op.28 (1917)

Ginastera Piano Sonata No.3, Op.55 (1982)

Bartók Night Music, BB89 No.4 (1926)

Ginastera Piano Sonata No.1, Op.22 (1952)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although his centenary has been widely reported, the music of Alberto Ginastera has been relatively little heard in the UK so far this year – making this recital from one of his most devoted pupils more welcome. Best known here for a cycle of Prokofiev sonatas a quarter-century ago, Barbara Nissman is a pianist wholly in the tradition of transcendental pianism – though such virtuosity never precludes an enquiring approach to the music at hand, as was evident in the thoughtfulness with which this morning’s programme had been assembled.

Beginning with Liszt’s First Mephisto Waltz was a case in point, as the essence of all that followed is encapsulated in its cunning juxtaposition of unbridled revelry and romantic yearning while Lenau’s decidedly sardonic take on the Faust legend is unfolded. Nissman despatched it with required verve and elegance, then summoned comparable impetus in the brief yet remorseless accumulation of energy of Bartók’s Allegro Barbaro – a repost to those who had doubted the integrity behind the unremitting intensity of his musical idiom.

There is nothing rebarbative about the Danzas Argentinas as were among Ginastera’s earliest successes, the teenage composer delighting in the rhythmic élan yet also insinuating lyricism of ideas inspired by though not beholden to the folk-music of his homeland. If the even younger Prokofiev was at all less assured stylistically when making his compositional debut with his First Sonata, this one-movement amalgam of sonata aspects within a more inclusive design lacks little in the resolve necessary to integrate its wide stylistic remit.

Nissman projected it with relish, then was no less convincing in the Third Sonata that – whatever the derivation from earlier material – brings appreciably greater individuality to bear on its ingenious four-in-one structure and uninhibited yet resourceful display. Qualities which are hardly less apparent in the Third Sonata which the ailing Ginastera wrote for Nissman, its allusion to Scarlatti extending beyond the use of binary form to a rhythmic and harmonic pungency as spills over into the effervescent coda with its curtly decisive close.

After the ‘Night Music’ movement from Bartók’s suite Out of Doors had provided a welcome moment of pensiveness, the recital was concluded by the First Sonata with which Ginastera moved decisively from his earlier nationalism towards a more wide-ranging musical outlook. That said, the spirit of the Argentinian pampas is heard simmering below the surface of the bracing initial Allegro and more overtly in those disembodied rustlings which permeate the Presto. The Adagio must rank among the most eloquent penned by its composer, with Nissman probing its depths as surely as she conveyed the energy of the finale when it surges towards a coruscating close. In its amalgam, moreover, of Classical formal poise with post-Romantic expression, the piece looks pointedly from its own time to that of the present.

A well-planned-recital and a welcome return for Nismann, who introduced each piece from the stage. A pity none of the recordings on her Three Oranges label was available, as these feature a wealth of unfamiliar as well as neglected music, and well deserve investigation.

You can read more about Barbara Nissman at her website, while her Three Oranges Recordings site can be accessed here

Friendly Fire – Shakespeare 400: London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda

gianandrea-nosedaFriendly Fire – Simon Trpčeski, London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 25 February 2016

Welcome to Arcana’s new ‘alternative’ reviews slot! It is an ‘ask the audience’ feature – where I (Ben Hogwood) take a friend / colleague to a classical concert and get them to review it in the bar afterwards. Our second ‘reviewer’ in the series is John Earls, a family man from Harrow & Wealdstone who works as Head of Research at Unite. He shares his thoughts on a program of music inspired by ‘Shakespeare 400’ – with works by Smetana (Richard III), Tchaikovsky (Romeo and Juliet), Richard Strauss (Macbeth) and the seemingly unconnected Piano Concerto no.2 by Liszt. The artists are pianist Simon Trpceski and the London Symphony Orchestra under newly announced guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda.

john-earls

Arcana: How did you prepare for this concert?

John: I didn’t do that much in the way of preparation, other than see what the four pieces in the concert were, and whether I was familiar with them. At the time the only one I thought I was familiar with was the Tchaikovsky, but you reminded me I had heard the Liszt before.

What was your musical upbringing?

As a young child, pretty limited. Most of the music I heard from my parents would have been Irish music, then as I went through school I was more exposed to bits of classical music, as I learned the clarinet. In my teens I got more into contemporary music, rock music, new wave – I played in my own band – and became more interested in jazz and classical music as I got older and attended more concerts and read more about those particular types of music. Jazz and classical are the forms of music I listen to most now.

Name three musical acts you love and why:

(almost without hesitation): Miles Davis was a trailblazer and an innovator who has done some very different things throughout his career. He also struck me as a great leader of bands and ensembles, because he was a great talent spotter who pulled some phenomenal musicians together, and it always struck me that anybody who played with him was better for the experience. They tended to be either better musicians or composersafter having gone through the Miles Davis experience, and also his ensembles tended to be greater than the sum of their parts.

I would also go for Christy Moore, who in many ways would be the soundtrack to my development and my life. I think he has a huge amount of integrity, and if you listen to him sing he comes across as somebody who really means it. If you see him performing live you see a gifted songwriter but also somebody who has a mission to transmit the songs he knows. He has a great deal of songs he hasn’t written but he is able to communicate and pass them on.

I should pick a band really…Wire. I saw them last year for the first time in around 30 years, at the Lexington near Kings Cross. They were influential in my formative days in the late 1970s / early 1980s. They were innovative and straddled the artistic side with the punk sensibility, but had the credibility of doing what they wanted to do. To release an album like they did last year nearly 40 years after they first started, and to think they can still do it, was a phenomenal achievement. They are still great live and the songs incredibly well crafted.

Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?

I’m not sure I fit your criteria of ‘someone who doesn’t normally attend a classical concert’. I’m actually a regular classical concert goer – all forms and types. Living in London I’ve been able to see some of the finest musicians and orchestras in the world. Many of my most treasured musical moments have been at ‘classical music’ concerts – Mitsuko Uchida playing Schubert’s late piano sonatas, Rattle and the Berlin Phil doing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians with Reich himself playing. I also think some pieces are best experienced live – Messiaen’s Turangalila, for example. Had a few disappointments too! But live music is really important to me. 

What did you think of the Smetana?

I thought it was OK – I could see why they had used it as a piece with which to start. Would I have got the Shakespeare connection? Probably not, but having known it I could see there were bits that sounded regal. Some bits reminded me of a royal hunt, with lots of trumpet. Some of it was like a fanfare but there was solo trumpet that was quite ‘angsty’ and personal. I suppose the trumpet has royal connections. Those things came into my mind while I was listening but I’m not sure, as a piece of music, I would be in a huge hurry to listen to it again.

What about the Liszt?

I hadn’t remembered that I had heard it before. I quite enjoyed it, but there were parts where the pianist seemed a bit stroppy and belligerent, reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis! I enjoyed it a bit less than I thought I was going to but the thing that did stick out for me was the cello (Rebecca Gilliver’s solo in the third movement – ed). The sound was absolutely beautiful.

What about the Tchaikovsky?

I was more familiar and knew what to expect. I wasn’t used to being that close to the orchestra! If you heard those four pieces of music and was told there was a Shakespeare link to be honest I probably couldn’t have noticed it, but the one that would be most likely would be that one – and you would probably think Romeo and Juliet because of the tragedy, the romance and the action. You almost feel like you’re in a Bond movie! It’s got everything in it, around 16 minutes, it packs it all in, and it’s Tchaikovsky, who I love.

Finally, what about the Richard Strauss?

I thought that was a good piece to finish on. It had a range of things. I don’t think I would have thought Shakespeare but it was more personal in that it was not necessarily a narrative story – you’re inside somebody’s head. I’ve got ‘magisterial’ written down here, and I felt there was a real tension in it. The offstage snare drum was great, I always like that use of the space, and I’ve not heard the percussion played like that before (the tam tam I think! – ed)

It was more psychological I think, and it was only in that piece that I noticed Noseda’s score was tiny, I’ve never seen one so small! I enjoyed the music, and would go back to listen to it again. I didn’t realise Strauss was 24, that’s quite a phenomenal achievement – not only to put all the instrumentation together but to get the psychological elements at that stage, you would think only an older composer would manage that.

What about the environment and setting of the concert, and how it was promoted?

The only PR I’ve seen was the Shakespeare-related things, and I couldn’t see the link with the Liszt, but I like the idea of linking things in. Sometimes it can be a bit contrived but I think if it’s used as a technique to expose you to different bits of music then that’s fine – like Romeo and Juliet – and it worked for me in the case of the Strauss but not the Smetana.

I think they got the range and order of the pieces right. I’ve been to the Barbican as a venue, and I do like the way it works with an instrument offstage, like they did with the Strauss. I’ve seen that done with vocal and choral pieces and it can work. I think the conductor was quite energetic, not necessarily in a flowing way – quite staccato would be your terminology! There seemed a good rapport between him and the orchestra, the sense they really respect him.

If you could give it a mark out of 10 what would you give?

Probably a 7, but that would be an average. The Tchaikovsky and the Strauss would be an 8 or 9, and the Smetana would drag it down a bit. But it was certainly worth going to!

Arcana’s brief thoughts on the concert:

The connections between classical music and Shakespeare are many, but the London Symphony Orchestra did really well to present a variety of nineteenth century settings. All fall into the ‘Romantic’ period, where composers were getting to grips with the idea of the orchestra being a storyteller in what was known the ‘symphonic poem’.

Smetana’s Richard III was an ideal curtain opener, though like its subject it had an uneven walk – brilliantly portrayed but still with a sense of a portrait not quite fully fledged.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was different. This was the London Symphony Orchestra on white hot form, Gianandrea Noseda conducting like a man wholly affected by the tragedy. This music surged forward with passion and drama in equal measure, and the hair stood up with the volley of brass and percussion, and the intensity of the love theme on the strings.

Richard Strauss’s Macbeth was equally intense, though even more effective in exploring the minds of the two main protagonists of the story. The lower strings had a steely effectiveness, the double basses brilliantly marshalled, while the drama above unfolded in compelling fashion.

Though Liszt’s Piano Concerto no.2 had no Shakespearian connection it was a relatively sound choice, for he is a composer unable to resist the temptation of telling a story! This one had its moments of drama, albeit fleeting in comparison to the warhorses of the second half.

Wigmore Mondays – Denis Kozhukhin – Out of Doors

denis-kozhukhin
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 22 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b071774c

Available until 24 March

What’s the music?

Haydn – Piano Sonata in D major, HXVI:24 (1773) (10 minutes)

Brahms – Theme and Variations in D minor (1860) (10 minutes)

Liszt – Benediction du Dieu dans la solitude (1847) (16 minutes)

Bartók – Out of Doors (1926) (14 minutes)

Spotify

Denis Kozhukhin has recorded the Haydn sonata but not any of the other works in this repertoire. In case you are unable to hear the radio broadcast the below playlist contains legendary recordings of the Brahms (Radu Lupu), the Liszt (Claudio Arrau) and Andreas Haefliger’s account of the Bartók:

About the music

Haydn is acknowledged as the godfather of so many forms that became the norm in classical music from the late 1700s onwards. As well as the symphony and the string quartet, he left a great body of piano sonatas that are fresh, original and ground breaking. Later examples from Beethoven and Schubert would surely not have been written were it not for works such as the D major example here.

The Brahms Theme and Variations is actually an arrangement of the second movement of his String Sextet no.1 – and transcribes for piano effortlessly, so much so that the listener would think it was a piano original. This was in order for it to be played by Clara Schumann, who received the score as a forty-first birthday present in 1860.

Liszt wrote his Benediction as part of a cycle of ten pieces for piano called Harmonies poétiques et religeuses in 1847. It is a relatively long, single span of contemplation, and in it the composer writes music that could be seen as an early pointer towards the so-called ‘impressionism’ of Debussy and Ravel. So often known for writing barnstorming piano pieces, Liszt takes his foot off that particular pedal for once.

Liszt’s fellow Hungarian Béla Bartók wrote his short set of five pieces, Out of Doors, in 1926. As its name suggests it is a celebration of the Hungarian countryside, by raucous day – pipes, drums and chases – and by atmospheric night, where the sounds of amphibious creatures can be heard in some of his exquisite nocturnal picture painting.

Performance verdict

From this concert it is very clear that Denis Kozhukhin is a special talent. The well-designed hour of music moved almost seamlessly from the simplicity of Haydn to the brazen antics of the Bartók with almost no join.

Kozhukin’s Haydn was lovely, the D major sonata receiving an airy performance with plenty of rubato – which means a stylish way of letting the music breathe – so that the rhythms were not too rigid.

The Brahms was similarly magical in the quieter passages, allowing Kozhukhin to use an imposing tone when the music returned to the minor key. This was a performance flying in the face of the obvious technical difficulties presented by the composer – and the same could be said for the Liszt, reaching moments of hypnotic beauty in its outer sections.

Kozhukhin took his time here, creating and maintaining the mood of contemplation, holding the atmosphere while easily managing the fiendishly difficult writing for the right hand. In the Bartók he found a good balance between percussive power and the primitive, folksy material that the composer brings to the surface. As a result Out of Doors felt like a celebration, entertaining and energetic, but with an added chill to the night pieces.

What should I listen out for?

Haydn

1:10 – the piece starts with a flourish in the right hand, one that recalls the sonatas of Scarlatti – as BBC Radio 3 announcer Fiona Talkington points out. It is a fresh tune that twinkles with the accompaniment that Haydn chooses, with very little bass. As is customary the first section is repeated (2:14) before at 3:20 Haydn starts to develop his main idea, moving it around harmonically. This is brief – as at 4:25 we hear the main idea again.

5:47 – the slow movement, which is immediately quite sombre and preoccupied. It is in the style of an aria, as though an imaginary singer were taking the line Haydn gives to the right hand. It is a brief but poignant movement, lost in thought towards the end. Haydn emerges from the quiet mood, leading straight into…

8:54 – the last movement, a short structure bright in tone and with an amicable tune. The end is rather nicely done.

Brahms

11:44 – Brahms begins with a grand statement. The first statement of the tune is given to the right hand, while the left plays arpeggiated chords. It is a big tune – and the first of six variations starts at 13:09, still in the minor key. By 15:38 the music is worked up and full of darkly coloured passion, but then Brahms slips effortlessly into the major key and a lighter outlook (16:54), from where Kozhukhin leads to a radiant variation. At 20:04 the austere minor key returns, but Brahms still finished in the major key, settling the strife experienced earlier.

Liszt

22:35 – Benediction du Dieu dans la solitude (God’s blessing of solitude) is a radiant performance of a piece that begins with a very long melodic phrase. It is quite unusual for Liszt in having very few moments of fire and brimstone, and instead achieves a kind of ecstasy of contemplation. The key – F sharp major – is key to this, the black keys somehow much more mystical than the white on this occasion! There are two central sections – both calming influences (28:39 and 30:58) before the original material returns (32:28). We hear all three tunes before the piece closes softly.

Bartók

39:03 – With Drums and Pipes – an exuberant if heavy start, low on the piano. This is almost an early precedent of rock music with its pounding rhythms!

40:40 – Barcarolla – a slower dance that flows nicely but which sounds uneasy, as though the direction of the boat on the water is uncertain.

43:10 – Musettes – this is rustic, dance-based material, where a lot of the tunes sound as though they are packed with wrong notes (they aren’t!) It makes them strangely charming.

46:05 – The Night’s Music – a classic example of a Bartók night setting. The music closes in on itself, and in the distance some animal / insect noises can be heard, disturbing the night’s piece when they get closer or make sudden noises, such as when Kozhukhin slams the upper end of the piano. It is an atmospheric and highly descriptive piece of music, and more than a little eerie as the sounds persist, seemingly stopping any chance of sleep.

51:11 – The Chase – a bruising encounter with the hands seemingly all over the place on the keyboard. The rhythms are deliberately inconsistent as the music hurries along, with great dissonance and surprises in both parts.

Encore

54:35 – the first encore is a sonata from Domenico Scarlatti – a relatively slow one that makes much of a trill in the right hand. It was published as Kk247 and lasts four minutes…after which point (at 59:01) we hear another sonata, this time from the Spanish composer Antonio Soler – a brighter example in D major – just the two minutes.

Further listening

At the bottom of the playlist you can hear the original Brahms Theme and Variations, written as the second movement in his String Sextet no.1. You can then hear another set of variations – on a theme of Haydn – as well as trying to second guess where Liszt was heading, in the direction of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau! Finally some more Bartók – his three movement Piano Sonata, just as raucous and unhinged as Out of Doors. Listen below: