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 – Ning Feng, CBSO / John Wilson: Rachmaninoff Symphony no.3, Glazunov Violin Concerto & Gershwin’s symphonic Porgy & Bess

rachmaninoff-wilson

Gershwin (arr. Bennett) Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture (1942)
Glazunov Violin Concerto in A minor Op.82 (1904)
Rachmaninoff Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.44 (1935-6)

Ning Feng (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 1 December 2021 (2.15pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo of Ning Feng (c) Felix Broede

John Wilson may have been taken by surprise when asked to introduce this afternoon concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but there was nothing left to chance as to the performances in what proved to be a judiciously planned and finely realized programme.

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is now well-established as an opera as much as a musical (hybrid or otherwise), not least through Wilson’s advocacy at English National Opera’s staging three seasons ago, but there is still a place for the ‘Symphonic Picture’ as posthumously realized by Robert Russell Bennett. The pre-eminent arranger and orchestrator from Broadway’s ‘golden age’, Bennett may have regarded Gershwin’s masterpiece as essentially a sequence of classy showtunes, but the finesse with which these were fashioned into a cumulative overview of the drama cannot be gainsaid. Wilson drew sumptuous playing from the CBSO in an arrangement by no means dismissive of Gershwin’s orchestration. Perhaps another time he could schedule the far more arresting Catfish Row suite, but so fine a reading of the Bennett was no hardship.

If Glazunov refused Gershwin’s request for tuition, he surely realized no amount of technique could compensate for – in the former’s case – limited or erratic inspiration. Not that his Violin Concerto is an unalloyed masterpiece, but its expressive elegance allied to a formal ingenuity have deservedly kept it in the repertoire and Ning Feng (above) audibly believed in every bar. Maybe the presentation of its main themes in the brief opening section was a little too matter-of-fact, but the central ‘slow movement’ then ensuing development and scherzo were rendered with the right deftness and incisiveness; nor did a relatively lengthy cadenza hang fire on the way to a ‘finale’ that ensured a scintillating close. A sympathetic accompanist, Wilson judged the orchestra’s contribution to a nicety, with some especially felicitous playing from woodwind.

It was Glazunov’s disastrous conducting that had sunk Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony but, four decades later, the Third Symphony finds the latter near the height of his creative powers – its pithy melodic content harnessed to an orchestral astringency that underlines the exiled composer’s confrontation with though not embracing of the musical present. Right from its haunting ‘motto’, through its contrasted themes (with exposition repeat) then a development that culminates in graphic anguish, Wilson had the measure of this masterly first movement.

What ensued was almost as fine, not least the seamlessness with which the slow movement’s scherzo emerged out of then back into the main Adagio – the playing off the acerbic against the bittersweet its own justification. If the finale felt a little too sectional in overall unfolding, there was no lack of characterization – not least the strings’ superb articulation in the central fugato as this headed towards the reprise, though a more continuous acceleration might have imbued the coda with even greater conclusiveness in what is a QED of unequivocal defiance.

Even so, this was a confident and, for the most part, insightful performance of a work whose true emotions are barely concealed beneath the enticing surface. The CBSO, which gave its all, will be back at Symphony Hall next Thursday in a major new work from Jonathan Dove.

For more information on the CBSO’s autumn season visit the orchestra’s website. For more on the artists, click here for John Wilson and here for Ning Feng

In concert – Jess Gillam, CBSO / Jaume Santoja Espinós: Jess Gillam’s American Roadtrip

Jess-Gillam

Gershwin Cuban Overture (1932)
Villa-Lobos
Fantasia for Saxophone W490 (1948)
Copland
Danzón cubano (1942)
Milhaud
Scaramouche Op.165c (1937/9)
Copland
Appalachian Spring – Suite (1944/5)
Barber
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1935-6, rev, 1942-3)

Jess Gillam (saxophones, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jaume Santoja Espinós (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 20 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra took a break from ‘standard’ repertoire to focus on music by composers either American or with an American focus, in a programme which rung the changes to often vibrant and always appealing effect.

A familiar radio presence, Jess Gillam has already encouraged renewed interest in the music for classical saxophone, as her contributions amply demonstrated. Little heard in his lifetime, the Fantasia by Villa-Lobos is among those more modest creations of a composer known for his (over-reaching) ambition – its three short movements drawing animated and ruminative responses from the soloist enhanced by a restrained orchestration. Swapping soprano for the alto instrument, Gillam returned for Milhaud’s Scaramouche which was no less engaging in this arrangement than the original for two pianos; whether in its incisive opening movement, soulful central interlude or its final Brazileira which could hardly fail to provoke a response from orchestra and audience – the latter evidently appreciative of such an infectious display.

The CBSO captured the spirit of both pieces, thanks not least to former assistant conductor Jaume Santoja Espinós, who had opened the concert with Gershwin’s Cuban Overture – the percussion-clad exuberance of its outer sections a telling foil to the haunting pathos of those canonic textures at its centre. Copland’s Danzón Cubano can seem irritating in its rhythmic over-insistence, but Espinós brought an unsuspected wit and subtlety to this amalgam of coy nonchalance with an orchestration recalling Stravinsky’s forays into ‘crossover’ at this time.

Latin-American traits made way for those of a Europeanized East Coast after the interval, Espinós directing the suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring with a cohesion as brought out expressive contrasts between the various sections without these becoming too episodic. The idealization inherent in this ‘Ballet for Martha’ can hardly be gainsaid, yet the chaste eloquence of its musical content came through no less affectingly – not least as the familiar ‘Variations on a Shaker Hymn’ subsided into the serene inevitability of the final evocation.

The highlight was a welcome revival for Barber’s First Symphony, whose continuous design marries Sibelian formal precision with that unabashed emotionalism closer to Russian music from this period, with a cumulative impact to its four-in-one trajectory which was palpably in evidence. From the stark foreboding with which it begins, through the relentless impetus of its ‘scherzo’ and consoling poise of its ‘slow movement’ (felicitous oboe playing by Emmet Byrne), to the inexorable force of its closing passacaglia, this was a performance to savour.

An eventful evening, then, and was more to come with a post-concert informal performance from the quintet El Ultimo Tango, familiar from its several recordings and here providing a 30-minute overview of Astor Piazzolla for what was a – necessarily – belated tribute in the year of his centenary. Those wanting a longer selection can hear this group at CBSO Centre next February, while the CBSO returns next week for a programme of mainly French music from conductor Kevin John Edusei with Kirill Gerstein in both of Ravel’s piano concertos.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Jess Gillam, click here – and for more on El Ultimo Tango, here. For more information on Jaume Santoja Espinós, head to the conductor’s website

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Jak Hussain on the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert of American music

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Jak Hussain gives his verdict on the Minnesota Orchestra and their Prom in tribute to Leonard Bernstein.

Prom 31: Inon Barnatan (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

Bernstein Candide Overture (1989)
Gershwin Piano Concerto in F major (1925)
Ives Symphony no.2 (1897-1902, 1950)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Jak, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

My musical upbringing is Top of the Pops and The Chart Show, on a Thursday and Saturday. When we were all growing up we didn’t have much money to buy albums, and one of my earliest memories is my elder brother borrowing a tape recorder. We had two and he used them to record the Top 40 from one radio to another. Music was something that was in our house but it wasn’t a necessity to buy an album…but I remember my older sister used to listen to George Michael and Wham!, and everyone would gather round the television to watch Top Of The Pops in the early 1980s. We would sit there and watch when they came on, and that’s where I remember music the earliest.

Then The Chart Show on a Saturday morning – those were my outlet for music. It was an actual event to watch on Thursdays who would be the number one!
After that my sister got married, and her husband brought in the rest of it – easy listening, classic rock, and that’s what made me start listening to other genres – classical Indian music too. It all grew from there. My mum listens to traditional classical pieces from Bangladesh and India, and I think she is a lover of classical music, though she decided not to come to the Proms with me – she said no, take your wife!

Name three musical acts you love and why:

One is Jeff Buckley, one of my favourite artists of all time – and I love him because of the sweet and sour of his music. He made one album in his lifetime which is an absolutely sublime masterpiece, and then he passed away tragically. That masterpiece has left a legacy though. I reluctantly listen to the other pieces that have come out, because it’s his unfinished work, so it pains me to listen to it. It’s not how he would have liked it. That one album is sublime though, and fuses Western and Eastern music. One of his heaviest influences on that album is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – his Elvis Presley. You’ll notice that his vocal range is based on the Indian Raga scales.

The second one would be the band Queens Of The Stone Age. I think it’s Josh Homme’s voice more than anything, and the productions of his work.

The third would be film scores – they are my thing. I annoy my wife by telling her about composers and what music they’ve done, how they sound. John Williams uses a lot of horns, Thomas Newman a lot of piano, that sort of thing. I love film scores for what they evoke in the actual film they are trying to evoke. For me, film scores are the new classical music – they incorporate absolutely everything.

Where I grew up you were only supposed to like a certain genre of music, like hip hop or street culture. That wasn’t me – I like what I like! It doesn’t matter if it’s classical, pop music – something that evokes an emotion in you. This is what music is for me. You go through phases, and in my twenties I was very heavily into guitar band music, while my friends were listening to hip hop and drum and bass. I’d put a CD on in the car, of people like Jim Croce, Crosby Stills & Nash, stuff like that, and they would be “what are you listening to? This isn’t cool!” I think what’s better is that in my circle of friends their tastes actually grew, and rather than sticking to one genre they are receptive to different types, they’re appreciative of all genres, which I think is great.

Was this your first experience of the Proms in the Arena?

Yes. I had this misconception that it would be high brow, suited and booted – but it is very different to what I thought it would be. It’s absolutely brilliant, and shows you not to be judgemental about how things might me. It’s reverse snobbery! I had this idea of suits and ties, but it’s just people who love music. It sounds better in the arena than the seats, and you’re actually closer to the orchestra. You are a bit more detached in the circle and the boxes, it’s more regulated – but down here you can see what is going on.

What did you think of the Bernstein?

I’m familiar with West Side Story, but to answer that question I would put the first and second pieces as very similar. It reminds me of old Hollywood – and again movies from that era. One of them (the Gershwin Piano Concerto) reminded me of Cleopatra, when the drums were playing it made me think of the beginning credits. I remember watching these old movies with my dad and thinking they were brilliant, and that’s the whole thing with me liking movies, the scores make you remember the actual film. It stays with you, and so this music reminded me of a bygone era.

What did you think of the Ives?

The first couple of movements started off light and got heavier, but the last movement was the one I enjoyed the most. It had elements of Yankee Doodle, an American army tune that starts getting you going, and it ended absolutely brilliantly with the conductor jumping up and down to get the orchestra to make all the emotion he wanted. I loved the crescendo of sound, the military music – and then classical music all coming into it with a huge sound. I love the way they know how to lessen a tone in one part of the orchestra and bring it out elsewhere. I can’t read music so I don’t know how they do it, but it’s just amazing to see it come to life in front of you.

The thing that comes into my head with Ives is an image of a horse cantering. That’s the best way I can describe it! He goes from a minor key to a major key, and you think am I feeling sad or happy? I didn’t understand how some of it would go into a sombre mood and then it would go funny. In my head I have a structure of a piece of music – melancholy, happy or something – but here everything is in together. It works. With Gershwin I could understand the elements of jazz, but I didn’t understand if he was classical too. The music was great – it’s just the understanding of where it was going at the time. That was the first piece of Ives that I have heard though, and I really enjoyed it. I loved the end as well, it was one of those things where you think – should that be there?! I love delving into that sort of thing. Music is great, isn’t it?!

Verdict: SUCCESS