BBC Proms – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin : Knussen, Ravel & Benjamin

george-benjaminPierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin

Knussen The Way to Castle Yonder Op.21a (1988-90)
Purcell
(transc. Benjamin) Three Consorts (1680) [World premiere]
Ravel
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31)
Benjamin
Concerto for Orchestra (2021) [BBC co-commission: World premiere]

Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday 30 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; pictures BBC / Chris Christodoulou

The cancellation of last year’s Proms meant the loss of several pieces by George Benjamin in recognition of his 60th birthday. Tonight’s concert, featuring the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with whom this composer-conductor has often collaborated, provided something of a redress.

The programme (its hour-long duration not unreasonably given without interval) began with The Way to Castle Yonder, a brief yet potent ‘potpourri’ from Oliver Knussen’s second opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! as amply conveys the aura of winsome yet ominous playfulness that suffuses the larger work. While they enjoyed a 40-year friendship, Benjamin’s own aesthetic is appreciably removed from that of the older composer so that a detachment, even aloofness was evident – without, however, detracting from this music’s always deceptive whimsicality.

Transcriptions of Renaissance and Baroque sources have been a mainstay of post-war British music, Three Consorts following an established pattern with Benjamin’s take on these Purcell miniatures underlining their intricate textures and piquant harmonies. The (to quote Benjamin) ‘‘visionary moment of harmonic stasis near the middle’’ of In nomine 1 went for little, with the ‘‘mesmerising intersection of line and harmony’ in Fantasia 7 effecting a Stravinskian objectivity, but the understated humour of Fantasia upon One Note was tellingly delineated.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard then joined Benjamin and the MCO in a performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major that, though it had precision and refinement in abundance, was almost entirely lacking in the qualities that define this music’s essential persona. The opening Allegramente evinced a desiccated manner with such as the blues-inflected coyness of its transitions or the heart-stopping stasis prior to the reprise of the second theme going for little, while the central Adagio took on an all-enveloping inertia as it unfolded – the inward rapture of its expressive apex then the pathos of its ensuing cor anglais dialogue all too enervated in their repose. The closing Presto drew an incisive response from pianist and orchestra alike, but here again any sense of this music’s more provocative demeanour was absent from the prevailing stolidity.

Aimard returned for an animated reading of Benjamin’s early Relativity Rag which provided an admirable entree into the world premiere of the latter’s Concerto for Orchestra. Unfolding as a continuous span (a pause just past its mid-point may be structurally meaningful) across a little over 15 minutes, this is typical of Benjamin’s recent music in its systematic – but rarely predictable – formal trajectory and alluring emotional reticence. The various instruments are highlighted singly or in groups in what becomes an intensifying progression, albeit without a tangible momentum, to a climax which brings first violins to the fore, before subsiding into a close of serene equivocation. Superbly realized by the MCO, for whom it was written, this is a thoughtful addition to a genre in which ‘display’ has all too readily become the watchword.

One final thought – at his untimely death, Oliver Knussen had several large-scale orchestral works in progress and maybe even nearing completion. Might it not still be feasible to bring at least one of the pieces to performance? The UK music scene would be all the richer for it.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage. Click on the composer’s names for more information on Sir George Benjamin, and on the performers’ names for more information on Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Tenebrae & Nigel Short: Sacred Songs – The Secrets of Our Hearts

The Coronavirus pandemic looks set to change the way we listen to music for ever – and hopefully in a good way. Certainly if this ‘socially distanced’ concert from Tenebrae, given on BBC4 on Easter Day, is anything to go by. The 20 singers were arranged in the form of a conventional choir, to the viewer at least, but they all recorded their contributions remotely.

Thanks to this BBC4 were able to intricately stitch together a memorable half-hour sequence of music from J.S. Bach, Lobo, Purcell and Hubert Parry, an excerpt from his Songs of Farewell. Allegri’s timeless Miserere is also included.

While the togetherness and chemistry is inevitably not what it would have been had the choir been in the same room, this is an extraordinary achievement by the choir and their conductor Nigel Short. It is also one you can enjoy in your own place of lockdown for the next month, so make sure you watch in good time!

Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short, sing the following music:
J.S. Bach Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden
Lobo Versa est in luctum
Allegri Miserere
Purcell/Croft Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts
Parry My soul, there is a country
J.S. Bach Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein

You can watch the concert here

Wigmore Mondays – Joanna MacGregor: Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

Joanna MacGregor (above)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 11 November 2019 (lunchtime)

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

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Joanna MacGregor is a remarkably versatile pianist – and from this evidence at the Wigmore Hall, she is an artist who enjoys her music making as much as ever.

It would seem she was given free rein for this hour of music – and was certainly free as a bird in the opening selection of wing-themed pieces. Returning to earth for ‘Grounds’ – pieces of music with set, short structures in the bass – she was equally effusive, as well as ‘Chaconnes’, which are similar to ‘Grounds’ but based more on chord sequences than explicit basslines.

The 400 years or so of music started with a flourish. Rameau had a great ability to portray nature in music, and his Le rappel des oiseaux (The call of the birds) was a delight in its interaction between the hands. His contemporary, François Couperin, was represented by a strongly characterised Les fauvétes plaintives (The plaintive warblers), where MacGregor enjoyed the ornamentation of the right hand. That led to an arrangement of fellow countryman Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The black robin), originally for flute and piano but responding well here to its reduction, with quick fire block chords. Rameau’s portrait of La poule (The Hen) was brilliant, the clucking and strutting of the bird all too enjoyably evident.

Janáček’s piano music has an otherworldly quality of stark intimacy, and it does not get anywhere near the amount of recognition it deserves in the concert hall these days. Joanna MacGregor started her next segment of bird-themed pieces with the evocative piece The barn owl has not flown away. Taken from the first book of the Czech composer’s collection On an Overgrown Path, its haunting motifs fixed the listener in a gaze rather like the owl itself.

Birtwistle’s brief Oockooing Bird was next, a slightly mysterious creature in this performance, before a piano arrangement of Hossein Alizadeh’s Call of the Birds, normally heard in its original version for the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) and the shurangiz (an Iranian member of the lute family). MacGregor is so good at inhabiting the authentic language of these pieces, and she did so here in concentrated fasion.

For the ‘Grounds’ section, who better to start with than Purcell? He was a natural with supposedly constricted forms like this, and the Ground in C minor teemed with activity in MacGregor’s hands, the right hand figures dancing attractively, The piece prepared the way nicely for Philip Glass’s repetitive but meditative Prophecies, arranged from his music to Koyaanisqatsi. This film soundtrack contains some of the composer’s finest music, and MacGregor showed how well it transcribes for piano, building to a bold and emphatic finish.

For the final section we moved onto ‘Chaconnes’, and looked back to the 16th century for the earliest piece in the program. Yet Byrd’s First Pavane still sounds modern in piano guise – Glenn Gould certainly thought so – and Joanna MacGregor gave an extremely spirited and buoyant account. Glass appeared once more – this time the interlude Knee Play no.4 from his opera Einstein on the Beach – before the substantial Chaconne in F minor from Pachelbel, heard here on the piano instead of its ‘home’ instrument, the organ.

How refreshing not to hear the composer’s Canon, much-loved as it is – for Pachelbel is much more than merely a composer of that particular piece. MacGregor found the profound emotional centre, darkly coloured in the minor key – and with that came an impressive inner resolve.

For an encore we were introduced to the eleventh composer of the day through a spirited account of the Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor. It contained all the enthusiasm and melodic definition that made this hour in the company of Joanna MacGregor such a joy.

Repertoire

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

Rameau Le rappel des osieaux (pub. 1724) (2:21)
François Couperin Les fauvétes plaintives (pub. 1722) (5:27)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1951/1985) (9:05)
Rameau La poule (pub. 1729) (11:02)
Janáček The barn owl has not flown away (from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1) (1900-11) (15:36)
Birtwistle Oockooing Bird (2000) (19:39)
Hossein Alizadeh Call of the Birds (2003) (22:08)
Purcell (1659-1695) Ground in C minor Z221 (unknown) (27:31)
Glass Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi) (1982) (30:34)
Byrd First Pavane (from My Ladye Nevells Booke) (pub. 1591) (36:25)
Glass arr. Paul Barnes Knee Play No 4 (from Einstein on the Beach, from Trilogy Sonata) (1976) (40:44)
Pachelbel (1653-1706) Chaconne in F minor (unknown) (44:19)
Encore
Handel Passacaglia from Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor (52:33)

Further listening

Joanna MacGregor has yet to record most of the music in this concert, but the following playlist contains most of the music listed above:

Portrayals of birds in classical music are far reaching, but few managed them better than Haydn in the 18th century. His Symphony no.83 in G minor, La Poule (The Hen) begins this playlist containing 100 minutes of bird-themed music. It includes Respighi’s exotic suite The Birds, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and – perhaps inevitably – Vaughan Williams’ timeless The Lark Ascending:

For the most recommendable version of Janáček’s complete piano music, here is Rudolf Firkušný in both books of the evocative pieces On An Overgrown Path, ideal listening for this time of year:

For a good onward example of Joanna MacGregor’s art on the solo piano, her 2003 album Play is highly recommended, taking an open approach similar to this concert:

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 3: The English Concert / Kristian Bezuidenhout

The English Concert / Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpischord, above)

Purcell (1659-95)
The Virtuous Wife (before 1694): Overture (1:45 on the broadcast link below)
The Fairy Queen (1692): Hornpipe (4:38)
The Virtuous Wife (before 1694) – First Act Tune (5:41)
The Indian Queen (1695): Rondeau (8:41)
Chacony in G minor (c1678) (10:21)
Marchand (1669-1732)
Pièces de clavecin, Book 1: Allemande (publ. 1702) (17:33)
de La Guerre (1665-1729)
Violin Sonata in D minor (publ. 1707) (20:46 – 35:45)
Telemann (1681-1767)
Sonata in A minor, TWV 43:a 5 (unknown date) (39:43 – 48:47)
Handel (1685-1759)
Trio Sonata in G major Op.5/4 (publ. 1739) (50:02 – end)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 5 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

This was a really interesting hour of music from the English Concert and director / harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout, and it was all the more refreshing for a willingness to look beyond the more conventional repertoire you might have expected as part of the Proms’ look at 800 years of music in the Cadogan Hall chamber concerts this year.

Petroc Trelawny, always a consummate professional when introducing at the venue, gave helpful context behind the works chosen, and explained how each was looking to emulate the French style that was so fashionable thanks to the tastes and influence of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’.

First up was Henry Purcell, who was of course a popular figure and well enough established in England – but the choices here were not conventional. The Virtuous Wife, a comedy for the stage (beginning at 1:45 on the broadcast link), is just one example of many works Purcell wrote for the theatre in England. In this performance the overture was perhaps a touch too virtuous to begin with, though by the time the music broke at 2:43 a natural tempo and phrasing had been reached. The Fairy Queen’s Hornpipe (4:38) was vigorous, with a satisfying twang to the theorbo strings of William Carter.

The First Act Tune (5:41) was pensive but nicely phrased, showing off Purcell’s rich chromatic spectrum, and was followed by a graceful Rondeau, dancing slowly but elegantly (8:41), before the Chacony (10:21), one of his most famous instrumental pieces that we often hear today for string orchestra. It is a powerful set of variations over a ‘ground’ (a pre-set bass and chord progression) that gathers in intensity.

Next we had solo harpsichord, Bezuidenhout showing off his instincts in an improvisatory Allemande by the French composer Louis Marchand (17:33), with some expansive harmonic twists. That was followed by a dazzling Violin Sonata no.1 in D minor by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (20:46). Written in 1707 as part of a set dedicated to Louis XIV, it was deftly handled here by Tuomo Suni, with its six short movements marked as Prelude (20:46), Presto (23:20), Adagio (25:18), Presto-Adagio (26:00), Aria (29:53) and Presto (33:36). The Presto-Adagio showed not just only Suni’s clear tone, without vibrato, but the punchy ‘continuo’ accompaniment from Bezuidenhout and viola da gamba player Piroska Baranyay. A similarly crunchy sound inhabits the final Presto, after a graceful Aria.

Telemann’s enormous output can sometimes mask his achievements as a composer, and the Sonata in A minor – little known, it seems – showed itself to be an accomplished and dramatic piece, ‘praising the instrumental texture’ as Bezuidenhout explained. Bolstered by the double bass of Christine Sticher, the English Concert (above) really benefited from the extra depth to their sound, meaning a Trio Sonata had seven people on the platform managing the three parts!

The short suite made references to Poland, France and Italy in a Grave (39:43), Allegro – Adagio (40:32), Allegro (44:10), Largo e staccato (45:43) and final Allegro (46:15). The stylish performance had a rustic feel in the faster movements, with an earthy snap to the staccatos of the fourth and a brilliant cut and thrust to the final Allegro.
Finally Handel, and a brightly voiced Trio Sonata in G major Op.5/4, the kind of which he would surely have played with friends in his Brook Street flat in London. This performance played the piece in a different order to the norm, beginning with the ‘second’ movement, marked A tempo ordinario (50:02), which had an enjoyably full texture from the seven instruments, and then moving onto the ‘first’, an Allegro (53:55), where the violins took a more prominent role. An elegant Minuet (56:04) followed, then a Passacaille (58:02), with increasingly elaborate lines spun over a recurring bass line – which itself became enjoyably coarse.

An enlightening hour of music, then, which you are encouraged to enjoy on the link above.

Listen

The playlist below replicates the concert in available recordings, and includes the Gigue movement of the Handel which appears to have been omitted from the original concert:

Meanwhile to enjoy the many and varied delights of Purcell’s complete Theatre Music, the below recording from Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music will bring much pleasure:

The Favourite Soundtrack – listen here

Happy New Year!

One of the most hotly anticipated film releases of this New Year 2019 is The Favourite. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, supported by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as part of a starry cast to tell a tragi-comic tale around the life of the 18th century English monarch.

The score of this colourful, moving and often hilarious film is full to the brim with classical music – so as the release of the official soundtrack is a few weeks away, here is a playlist of the musical numbers. From Purcell‘s incredibly moving Music For A While to Messiaen‘s thundering Jésus accepte la souffrance (Jesus accepts suffering) by way of small-scale Schubert and Schumann, it contains some absolute gems!