Wigmore Mondays: Danny Driver plays Dreamscapes by Messiaen, Saariaho, Ligeti & Schumann

Danny Driver (piano, above – photo credit Richard Haughton)

Messiaen Prélude No 5 (Les sons impalpables du reve) (1928-9) (2:36-8:15 on the broadcast link below)

Saaraiaho Ballade (2005) (8:30-15:06)

Ligeti Étude No 6 (Automne à Varsovie) (1985) (15:29-20:37)

Schumann Kreisleriana Op.16 (1838) (23:17-59:32)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 March 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating program from Danny Driver on the theme of ‘Dreamscapes’, an hour away from reality in the company of composers intent on using the piano to express new harmonies and colours.

Few 20th century composers had a greater sense of colour than Olivier Messiaen, and the vivid shades of his Prélude No.5 began the recital. Titled Les sons impalpables du reve (The Impalpable Sounds of a Dream), it was described by its composer as ‘polymodal, consisting of a blue-orange mode with a chordal ostinato and cascades of chords, and a violet-purple mode having a copper timbre. Note the pianistic writing, composed of triple notes, rapid passages in chords, canon in contrary motion, hand crossing, various staccatos, brassy louré, gem effects’. All elements to enjoy in Driver’s richly textured performance, from 2:36 on the broadcast link above – with a questioning feel to some of the harmonic phrases.

Then a relative rarity, a piano work by Kaija Saariaho, the Finnish composer whose output until now has largely concentrated on the orchestra and works for the stage. This time the composer ‘wanted to write music with a melody that grows out of the texture before descending into it again; a work that constantly shifts from a complex, multi-layered texture to concentrated single lines and back again’. From 8:30 on the broadcast you will hear the Ballade under the assured control of Driver, in a performance of great intensity that plummets back to earth at the end.

For the third of this group Driver intriguingly chose Ligeti’s Étude no.6 (15:29) – with the immediately recognisable, rarefied sound world of the composer. The fingers of the right hand worked largely in octaves here, with richly layered music supporting the descending melodies – until absolutely everything descended at the end in Driver’s powerhouse performance.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana is a group of eight pieces inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fantasy on the imaginary musician Johannes Kreisler. Each of the sections is in direct contrast to its neighbour, reflecting the character’s manic depression – with which Schumann may have felt an affinity given his own extremely variable state of mind. Certainly inspiration was at hand for this substantial work, which he completed in the space of just four days in 1838, before revisiting slightly in 1850.

Inevitably the muse of Clara Schumann, Robert’s soon-to-be-wife, is close at hand – and explains the outpouring of feeling in each of the works. The pieces vary between between dramatic, tempestuous fantasies such as the first, third and seventh numbers, and deeply personal thoughts expressed in beautiful surroundings, as in the second piece, the longest in the cycle by far.

Schumann sets up a tonal conflict, too – the fast pieces are in the minor key, and most rooted on G – nos. 3, 5, 7 & 8 fall into this category – while the slower, tender pieces (2, 4 & 6) are conceived around B flat major, G minor’s closest relative. The tension between the two, as well as an abundance of melodic material, lay at the heart of Danny Driver’s interpretation.

Driver clearly loves this music, and gave a passionate performance, enjoying the unbroken stream of inspiration in the first piece (23:17), then the repose and reflection in the second (26:14), the pianist allowing plenty of room for thought and contrast between the faster episodes in this much longer piece.

The third piece set up an excitable drama (36:36) with a commanding left hand, while the fourth responded once more with calm introspection (41:45). The fifth piece was detached in this performance, quite an edgy main idea (45:30) giving way to a more graceful centre. Appropriately the sun appeared during the sixth piece (49:18), giving a promise of the spring we are all hoping will arrive soon – and then Driver tore into the seventh piece with relish (53:32).

Any performance of Kreisleriana lives or dies by the last piece, a playful but rather haunting finale (55:56) that rises and falls like a bird on the wing. Driver caught its essence superbly here, with plenty of give and take in the tempo to give the melody its natural rise and fall. Schumann’s music is at its most exquisite here.

For an encore Driver turned full circle, bringing us back to Messiaen for another Prélude – his first, La colombe (The Dove) – a sign that birds would be his principal subject matter when writing music!

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below – which in the absence of a version from Driver includes Alfred Brendel’s recording of Kreisleriana:

Danny Driver’s discography includes a recent landmark recording of piano concertos by women composers for Hyperion, bringing the works of Dorothy Howell, Amy Beach and Cécile Chaminade:

On screen: Barbara Hannigan, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Stravinsky: Rite of Spring; Berg: Wozzeck Fragments; Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre (LSO Live)

Webern Six Pieces op.6 (1909/28)
Berg Three Fragments from Wozzeck, op. 7 (1923)
Ligeti arr. Howarth Mysteries of the Macabre (1992)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (1913)

Barbara Hannigan (soprano – Berg & Ligeti), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO3028 [84’58’’] One DVD and one Blu-ray disc

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from its all-French programme (LSO3038), LSO Live here releases a further concert by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle on DVD and Blu-ray – once again a co-production with the digital channel Mezzo and in association with ARTE France.

What’s the music like?

Rattle has long been an advocate of Webern’s Six Pieces and made a fine recording of it in his Birmingham days. This LSO account is notable for its scrupulous attention to dynamics and tonal shading, even if such fastidiousness minimizes any real spontaneity in this elusive music. A case in point is the rather effortful climax to the explosive second piece, while the ‘funeral march’ fourth lacks underlying momentum on the way to its powerful though hardly unnerving culmination. Elsewhere, this music’s subdued introspection is tellingly conveyed.

The Three Fragments which Berg drew from Wozzeck follows on naturally. Focussing on the character of Marie enabled the composer to bring together three of this opera’s highlights for concert use, and Barbara Hannigan brings a probing characterization to the lullaby from Act One then the bible-reading scene from Act Three. She captures the naivety of the child at the close of the third fragment, before which the LSO comes into its own in a powerful while not unduly vehement interlude prior to the final scene – Rattle steering them through unerringly.

Hannigan returns in rather different guise for Mysteries of the Macabre that Elgar Howarth arranged from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. This present-day staple of the coloratura repertoire lends itself to all manner of parody and if Hannigan’s juvenile delinquent might be felt inappropriate for a chief of secret police, her vocal contribution is uninhibited in its virtuosity. Rattle and his orchestra enter-into the music’s anarchic accordingly, the former’s joke at the expense of Nigel Farage seeming all too ironic in the light of subsequent events.

Rattle’s association with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring goes back to the outset of his career and hearing this account is a reminder of his prowess in music the LSO has itself played many times. Yet for all the consummate technical skill, there is a nagging sense of conductor and orchestra going through the motions to ultimately predictable effect (indeed, the performance from Peter Eötvös with the LSO later that season generated much more genuine excitement and sense of purpose). Easy to admire, there is little here to make one assess this work afresh.

Does it all work?

Absolutely in terms of a programme both cohesive and provocative. Things are more mixed in term of performances – with those of the Berg and (musically at least) the Ligeti as good as one is ever likely to hear, that of the Webern just a little too micro-managed overall and the Stravinsky a reminder that superb playing and expert conducting do not necessarily make for a gripping interpretation.

As an indication of Rattle’s association with the orchestra of which he subsequently became Music Director, there is much here that is enjoyable and engrossing

Is it recommended?

Yes, in terms of a concert to which one might wish to return on repeated occasions. Sound and vision leave little to be desired in either format, though post-production means that there is little sense of the orchestra performing in a tangible acoustic – Barbican Hall or otherwise.

For more information on this release, visit the LSO Live website

Interview: Loscil – granular processes, emotive results

loscil

Scott Morgan (above) is the Vancouver-based producer behind the music of Loscil. Under this moniker his music is often found filed under ‘ambient’, but in reality it has more of a foreground impact through its deep and meaningful content. He talks with Arcana about his experiences of classical music, how it can be found in the fringes and structures of his work, while discussing his methods of composition and personal investment in the music.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

That’s a tough question! I don’t know if I can remember listening to what I understand as classical music, as I wasn’t really from a musical family at all. I’m quite sure my first exposure would have been to some sort of film or movie. I did eventually go to university for music, and it’s funny because even though I took music at high school – saxophone and playing in a rock band – I don’t remember a relationship with classical music until later.

I was studying from modernism and moving on, and of course a lot of that is rooted in classical music. Certain composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky had their more retro periods; they were doing their experimental stuff and went back to more kind of tonal, traditional classical stuff.

I always look back and kind of regret that my parents never put me in piano. My first exposure to music was through my uncle who gave me an acoustic guitar which I self taught, and then I took saxophone in high school. I eventually gave up on that, but that was the road that led to me being more of a composer and an experimenter with studio stuff, in that I loved to play around with electronics and to muck with things and make sounds. I would pick up an instrument and learn how to play it but never that well, enough to make sounds with it.

In your encounters with classical music, who are the composers you have grown to admire?

I was really drawn to people like Ligeti and Penderecki, people like these 1960s composers who were doing stuff with texture and using the orchestra as a sound palette rather than writing melodies and harmonies and traditional stuff.

Xenakis too, and I really loved all that Webern twelve tone stuff. I was really drawn to this idea that you could play with texture, because texture and timbre – the colour of the sound – had always been present, and good orchestrators know how to manipulate that stuff, but it was never at the forefront, it was always rhythm and melody and harmony that were given all the attention.

When did you realise you had a real aptitude for working with texture in particular?

I wasn’t conscious of it in my teens when I was doing rock band stuff, but when I was first going to school the splinter for me was working with computers and electronics. I had a professor I worked with who was really in to this technique called granular synthesis, and actually Xenakis explored a lot of this stuff too. There are some overlaps with acoustic writing and practice, but granular synthesis is where you take a sound and you cut it up into a bunch of tiny grains or components, and it gives you this control over the sound in terms of multiplying it in density or growing it in time. You have this sculptural control over sound.

The first time I heard it and the first time most people hear this kind of process is so ghostly, and you hear all these voices that come out of the sound. The texture of it is so rich and inviting that it creates this instant kind of sound world, stretching and multiplying the sound. I was really taken by this process, and I think finding the connections from there into what people were doing acoustically was really interesting.

That’s why Ligeti is often a good acoustic counterpart in terms of building up these clouds and textures of sound. That was the genesis for me, and then I went on to muck with other computer, digital signal processing models to build up textures and sounds. That ended up being the root of the Loscil project, which has been about building these textures and working with sound in that sculptural way.

There’s something truly different from what you heard before, that eureka moment of doors opening, where you realise that you can think of it this way now. In my early school days I was having more moments like that with worlds opening up, and different ways of thinking about sound and music.

Your music has a vast sense of space in it. Is that something you are keen to have, or is it a by-product of how you write?

I think it’s a bit of both. When you’re working with electronics, everything is so instant in real time that you can almost be as much of an audience member or listener as you are a composer. I find there is this very zen-like state that I get in to making stuff where I can sit and listen to loops for long periods of time, and really enjoy that space, and in fact feel kind of guilty that I have to really impose myself on it as an editor and as a composer, to present it to people. I’ve done a couple of releases, one of them a digital release a few years ago called Stases.

It was this exploration of these long, drone-like textured arcing shapes that had a longer trajectory to them. They didn’t have really identifiable elements to them – rhythm, melodic components, and yet they have been some of my more popular recordings. People like to put them on and have them as this kind of aural wallpaper, while they’re writing or working on visual arts. I find people put these on as a mental stimulus. I get into these patterns when I’m working that is an altered state, half listening and have creating, and the tools let you do that. I guess a lot of instrumentalists get into a similar state, where you’re zoning out on scales or something.

I find your music very effective during travelling to work on the train.

Train travel is an interesting one. There is something inherent about the rhythm of the train and the movement outside the window and I assume a lot of commuters want to get out of the reality that they’re in when commuting!

What I perhaps wasn’t quite so prepared for at first was the depth of emotion or concentration in your music.

Sometimes there are things you can’t quite explain when you’re creating stuff, and where it comes from it’s hard to put your finger on. I know I am generally a happy person, but things come out when I’m making stuff! There is a way of using the creative process and the creation of music to express that which you can’t express in other ways, and that’s what ends up coming out a lot of the time.

With your new album Monument Builders, was it a coincidence to be releasing it on Remembrance Day, or was that planned?

It’s funny. I didn’t choose that, but I asked the label if it was intentional, and I got a three word reply that was something to the effect of ‘yes of course!’ I believe it was somebody’s intention, but not really mine.

Was it inspired by a particular event or set of events? I know you mentioned a link with the Philip Glass score to Koyaanisqatsi.

I rewatched Koyaanisqatsi, and the version I was watching was quite messed up. It was a VHS tape and the pitch was a little off, and the tracking on the machine, and I thought it was interesting. I saw it first in a Vancouver theatre, which has ironically been destroyed and replaced with condos, which is the Vancouver thing right now.

We’re such a young city, and that is my attraction to it. I used it for the cover of Monument Builders, a 1970s kind of brutalist thing. It is one of only a couple of buildings of that style in Vancouver now, everything else is like flashy glass towers. I found that related to Koyaanisqatsi as something that was very epic and meant to spark you and wake you up emotionally as to what is going on in the world – over consumption, over population.

Over time, as technology progresses, maybe what was once epic is no longer quite as epic, and especially when it was projected on an old format. It’s like you are looking into the past, warning you of the future. A lot of time has gone by now, over 30 years since that movie came out, and there is something interesting to me about that and relating it to architecture.

You look at our city, and my mum thinks that building is so ugly, but there is something beautiful about it too, and there will probably be one of the last things standing. It was a swarm of ideas about that kind of stuff. Some of it is admittedly a little dark but there is a core beauty about it too.

There is a certain brightness to your music too, for instance in the previous album Sea Island where there are bright, deep blues implied.

When I look back at most of my catalogue, I realise so much of it is unintentional when you’re inside it, but when you see it splayed out in front of you a lot of my work accidentally plays with the spectrum between the natural world and the industrial world. There are times when I have moved to one side over the other, but ultimately I think I’m after some sort of balance of what it is to be human, and what it is to be human inside of this natural world we live in. We are a part of it but we’re also outside of it – or we think of ourselves as out of it.

When you are writing with electronic sounds and samples do you feel like you are in charge of an orchestra, in a classical sense?

A little bit. I definitely take some of my musical education in terms of writing for instruments and apply that. You’re often working in tonal ranges or pitch ranges, the bass, the mids and the highs, and you’re always wanting to balance those things, and I definitely think I compartmentalise those things in a similar way. I don’t think of moving a melody among different instruments and things, but there is a slight touch that is definitely taken from acoustic writing.

Some of the Loscil tracks could in theory be played by an orchestra.

Yeah, I’ve actually tried to imagine that at times myself. It is a really interesting question, wondering how I could create this sound not using electronics and only using an orchestra. It would be a really fun challenge but I just need more money!

I think I have always really been a kind of acoustic composer at heart, who just ended up using electronics. I think that’s part of the reason I’m folding in acoustic instruments a lot of the time. On Monument Builders I wrote a lot for the French horn, I thought that would be interesting.

The final track on Monument Builders, Weeds – does that use cut-up vocal sounds?

Yeah, that’s my friend Ashley Pitre. She sang on a couple of tracks on Sea Island, and I had the samples still kicking around. I ended up using some processing on them, and it has some of the granular technique I was talking about, to chop up the voice a little bit.
When I play live I tend to leave that one towards the end, because you can’t do much after it! It has more of a dynamic range that is not as common in my work – most of it gets to a point where it sits at one particular level and will then gradually decay. That track really goes from nothing to everything over the course of seven or eight minutes, and when I do it live the volume gets quite a bit louder at the end.

Do you think your sense of structure has a lot in common with modern classical composers?

Yeah, maybe I’ve not experimented with structure as much as I could have done over the years. I did do a release, an interesting project with an Irish record company called Wist Rec, who asked me to score a novel and they were using these Penguin mini-classics, and asking composers to write music for this book. I was given Malcolm Lowry’s story Lunar Caustic, which is a short story about a pianist in New York who loses his mind and gets put in an asylum.

He mentions the Grieg music to Peer Gynt in his story, and listening to this in the asylum. I ended up writing and working with a friend of mine on the piano parts, and we ended up referencing elements of the Grieg piece. We played a lot more with the structure, and because the book is so structured it allowed us to think in a different kind of shape.

Normally I approach a piece of music as an isolated thing, and this was like four movements, so that was one of the few times I’ve stretched the structure away from what is common for me, which is making a bunch of pieces that might speak to one another but ultimately get compiled and turn out on an album. Because of vinyl’s popularity again you think about sides and the length of an album, and it’s interesting to be freed from that and be a little more flexible.

The original version with the book, I’m not sure if you can buy it anymore, but the version on Bandcamp is a reconstructed version with my friend Kelly Wyse, a pianist from Seattle.

What does classical music mean to you?

It’s a treasure trove. For me I would say any kind of music history. I am actually drawn more to early music, and the study of that alongside politics and history, and what’s going on in the world. I think you can draw so much looking back at classical music like that.

I also have an incredible respect and admiration for classical players. Any time I get an opportunity to work with performers who have dedicated their lives to an instrument, and are masters of that instrument, I have so much respect for it – probably because I am just not that person! I have not mastered an instrument. But the discipline that goes along with that, and the ability to read music off the page and understand an instrument so well that you can express through it, is fascinating to me.

Is that what makes electronic music so great, that it enables people to formulate more of what’s in their heads musically?

I think so, but I think there is another element with electronic music that you get the ability to not only do that but you get a feedback system, and get drawn in to areas of experimentation that you just would not discover. I think that’s a lot harder to realise than with a traditional approach of sitting at a piano and orchestrating. You don’t get that immediate feedback of what it does when you bend it and shape it. That’s relinquishing to the machine, but it is part of the process as well.

If you could recommend a couple of classical pieces for Arcana readers, that have maybe held a special place for you, what might they be?

Because we spoke about Ligeti I would definitely recommend Atmosphères. I’m obviously on the modern end of things here, but the opening of Koyaanisqatsi is high on my list these days. My composition teacher hated the minimalists, so it was held from us in a certain way, but I discovered those on my own later. He was really into Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

I love Gregorian chant, too, and Thomas Tallis. There is something about that modal music, and because it is religious music it is performed in these massive churches and cathedrals with their massive reverb.
Reverb now is such a massive part of electronic music, so the idea of a fully natural reverb is fascinating and interesting, and also when you think of what we are drawn to electronically does have its roots in religious music. I’m not a religious person but it makes you wonder if something fundamentally spiritual is being handed down in that sense.

Loscil’s album Monument Builders is out now on Kranky. For more information on Loscil and Scott Morgan, head to his artist website

Britten Sinfonia At Lunch Two: Anna Clyne’s This Lunar Beauty

britten-sinfonia

Julia Doyle (soprano), Marios Argiros (oboe), Maggie Cole (harpsichord), Jacqueline Shave, Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (cello), Caroline Dearnley (cello)

Wigmore Hall, 20 January 2016

Written by Ben Hogwood

If you live in London or the South East of England, and fancy a bit of musical exploration, then the Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch series comes highly recommended.

Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the enterprise promises a brand new work in every concert – and proceeds to build the whole hour of music around it, often with the shared theme of a particular instrumental or vocal combination. With programme notes for adults or schoolchildren, it is one of the most accessible lunchtime concerts you could wish to enjoy – and as well as having the obvious bonus of professional quality performances, it is completely judgement-free!

This particular concert illustrated just why the formula works so well. Taking as its theme the combination of voice, oboe and strings, the Britten Sinfonia built an intricately weaved concert taking in arias from Bach and Scarlatti cantatas as well as two very different approaches to minimalism from Arvo Pärt and Ligeti. It was fitting, then, that the final piece – the new commission from Anna Clyne, This Lunar Beauty, should bring all these strands together.

anna-clyne

Anna Clyne photo by Javier Oddo

Setting the W.H. Auden poem of the same name, Clyne has written a piece of outstanding beauty. Its calling card is a distinctive melody that seems to be sourced from medieval England, but works it in a way of which the late 1960s British folk pioneers such as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span or Pentangle would be entirely proud.

The repetitions of the tune, given in soprano Julia Doyle’s clear tones, were subtly varied by additions and subtractions to the instrumental texture, filling up with strings or paring back so the glitter of the harpsichord could be sensed on top. This Lunar Beauty left a strong emotional impression, using its forces sensitively in new music of rare quality and depth.

Before this, Doyle leant her clear tones to three varied arias from Bach Cantatas, with oboist Marios Argiros excelling in the obbligato to the aria Tief gebückt und voller Reue. We also heard Salvatore Sciarrino’s arrangement of two arias by Alessandro Scarlatti, the first of which had a striking accompaniment of muted strings without vibrato.

The two very different approaches to minimalism were fascinating. In Arvo Pärt’s Fratres time stood suspended as the string quartet’s theme, first heard in ghostly harmonics, gradually found body and soul before ebbing away into the distance. Ligeti’s Continuum froze time in a wholly different way, the solo harpsichord – brilliantly played by Maggie Cole – seemingly trapped in rapidly flashing strobes. Somehow, despite the hyperactive energy, this too found its own stillness.

A very fine concert, hopefully to be broadcast on the BBC in the future. In the meantime, have a listen to the audio below – and get yourselves over to listen to vocal works on Anna Clyne’s website, because this is a composer we want to hear a lot more of!

You can also hear her new Violin Concerto The Seamstress on the BBC iPlayer, performed by Jennifer Koh and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. The concert is available until 14 February 2016