Igor Stravinsky – three personal favourites on the 50th anniversary of his death

by Ben Hogwood

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky was a true revolutionary, and at Arcana we are looking forward to exploring the music behind that revolutionary voice later on in his anniversary year.

For now, here are three personal favourites of mine. The first is the ballet Petrushka, written in 1911 when Stravinsky was emerging from the influence of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. This was the piece that switched me on to the composer’s colourful and descriptive sound world, highlighting his thoroughly original harmonic thinking:

The second is a much later ballet, Agon, written in America in 1957. By this time Stravinsky had explored a number of different styles, and was beginning to push the boundaries of tonality along with a new, more austere form of orchestration. In spite of that, there is an appealing warmth to the sparse textures of this, his final ballet:

Finally, a true favourite – the Symphony of Psalms. I was fortunate enough to play the cello in a performance of this and I can honestly say it was one of the most enjoyable 25 minutes of my musical life. The first chord is quite unlike anything I had heard before, but as the piece progresses Stravinsky’s use of the choir and orchestra is highly unusual for anything written in 1930, culminating in a wonderful, meditative Laudate Dominum that could easily go on for eternity. This performance conducted by Pierre Boulez is one of the best:

Stay with Arcana for some exciting explorations of Stravinsky later in 2021, but for now raise a toast to a wholly original voice.

In concert – Berliner Philharmoniker / Kirill Petrenko: The Golden Twenties – Weill & Stravinsky

Michael Spyres (Oedipus), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Jocasta), Andrea Mastroni (Tiresias), Krystian Adam (Shepherd), Derek Welton (Creon, Messenger), Bibiana Beglau (speaker), Men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker / Kirill Petrenko (above)

Weill Symphony no.1 in one movement (1921)
Stravinsky Oedipus Rex (1927)

Philharmonie, Berlin
Saturday 13 February (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

“This is no little hicktown. This is one helluva city!”

The words of Bertolt Brecht, writing about his home city in the song Berlin im Licht, set to music by Kurt Weill. It is a sentiment brought to the front of The Golden Twenties, an online festival from the Berliner Philharmoniker running through February, examining ‘a metropolis of contrasts…the epicentre of artistic modernism’.

The festival’s first concert, streamed from the Philharmonie via the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall, featured the Berliner Philharmoniker’s first ever performance of Weill’s single-movement Symphony no.1 from 1921. This seems like a remarkable historical oversight, even for a work as little-known, but the performance gave this student piece the best possible platform to reach a new audience.

After a thoughtful and revealing introduction from the orchestra’s concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley, the Symphony’s distinctive main motive rang out like an extended peal of bells. With this arresting opening Weill laid out the ambition of his work, writing as a student of Busoni looking to impress. This bold statement was complemented by intricate and intimate solo episodes through the inner workings of the orchestra.

Kirill Petrenko conducted a cohesive and convincing account, making sense of the more congested writing and bringing out the parallels with Hindemith and Schoenberg, which he spoke about in the interval. The work’s fulsome harmonies had plenty of deep colour, and it was revealing to hear the counterpoint in such detail. The double basses made an eerie contribution through a fugal episode which wound its way up through the orchestra at several points in the work, before an impressive climax and a darkly shaded postscript. Petrenko nailed the scope of the piece but ensured there was plenty of room for the phrases to breathe individually.

Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex could hardly have been a more appropriate counterpart for a concert filmed behind closed doors. With its chilling opening statement, ‘The plague is destroying us!’, sung by a socially distanced male chorus from the choirstalls, it was a stark reminder of our current, locked down predicament – and struck an inevitable parallel with the state of the performing arts currently.

This 50-minute opera / oratorio is one of the most notable achievements in Stravinsky’s so-called ‘neo-classical’ period, a dramatic response to Sophoclese‘s tragedy that is not the easiest to digest but which packs an expressive punch.

Petrenko’s incisive conducting brought its message home with a lasting power, and in the performance he was aided by a strong cast of soloists. Michael Spyres’s tenor dominated in the title role, his ringing tones promising deliverance but ultimately winding up in great anguish before the end. He was given ample support by Creon (bass-baritone Derek Welton) and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, whose fulsome contribution was made in a bright red dress bringing her into dramatic contrast with the funereal black of chorus and orchestra.

Petrenko kept things moving throughout, with virtuoso contributions from woodwind and percussion in particular. In spite of their social distancing the chorus lost none of their power, playing out the tragic story with detail but an ominous inevitability. Holding the threads together was narrator Bibiana Beglau (above), an excellent choice and with strong proejction in the empty hall.

Highlights could be found in the assertive delivery of Welton in the ‘Avenge Laius’ section, while Spyres gave an impassioned promise that he would solve the riddle of the Sphinx. The chorus alternated between a horror at the plague, a sorrowful realisation of the plight of Oedipus, which was particularly moving, and the cold, regretful end.

This was an auspicious start to what promises to be a revealing celebration of Berlin and particularly Weill in the 1920s. The next concert on 16 February will look at the composer’s better-known Second Symphony, while this and future instalments will include the music of HindemithRichard Strauss and Eisler. If the performances are as good as these then online attendance is highly recommended.

The next concert in The Golden Twenties season can be seen and heard at the Berliner Philharmoniker website

 

LSO: Always Playing – Katia & Marielle Labèque, Szymanowski and clarinet masterworks tonight @ 7pm

There is an enticing potpourri of 20th and 21st century music from the London Symphony Orchestra on tonight’s installment of the LSO’s online series ‘Always Playing’.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the orchestra in the Hungarian Peasant Songs from Bartók before they are joined by tenor Edgaras Montvidas for Szymanowski‘s seldom heard but exotic ballet Harnasie. Then clarinetist Chris Richards steps up as the soloist for works composed by Stravinsky and Bernstein for the great Woody Herman</strong).

However the main work of the evening's concert is a big, half-hour concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra from Osvaldo Golijov. Nazareno, completed in 2009, is based on themes from La Pasión según San Marcos, and is fronted by the Labèque sisters, with percussionists Gonzalo Grau and Raphaël Séguinier.

The performance, from Thursday 13 December 2018, can be seen on the orchestra’s YouTube channel from 7pm tonight here:

Live review – Jeremy Denk, CBSO / Gustavo Gimeno: Beethoven & Stravinsky

Jeremy Denk (piano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gustavo Gimeno (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 20 November 2019 (2.15pm)

Beethoven
Egmont Op.84 – Overture (1810)
Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37 (1800, rev. 1803)
Stravinsky
Petrushka (1911, rev. 1947)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Beethoven and Stravinsky might not be felt natural bedfellows (whatever the latter claimed in later life), but this afternoon’s concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and fast-rising conductor Gustavo Gimeno was evidently intent on demonstrating otherwise. The overture from Beethoven‘s music for Goethe’s play Egmont duly launched the programme in imposing fashion, Gimeno securing a trenchant while slightly inflexible response across the main Allegro, with no lack of rhythmic definition as held good during an incisive peroration.

If his Third Piano Concerto finds Beethoven more overtly indebted to Classical precedent, its palpable emotional breadth is a clear pointer to what lay ahead. As soloist, Jeremy Denk had the measure of the opening movement’s often abrupt alternation between imperiousness and intimacy – not least a probing take on the development with those eloquent woodwind contributions. If the cadenza was a shade too volatile in its later stages, the fateful emergence of the coda (timpani and strings) was suitably rapt in its intensity. Raptness was equally the watchword of the central Largo, Denk pointing up the stark contrast of his E flat entry then duetting blissfully with bassoon and flute in its transition to the main theme, but as the coda (seemingly) evanesces into silence a greater dynamic subtlety would have been welcome.

Interestingly, Denk supplied this in abundance at that mesmeric point in the finale when the rondo theme ventures into the major as if to goad the music back to the prevailing C minor. Elsewhere, this was an impetuous and assured account which reached its culmination with a heady solo transition into a coda that dispersed preceding tensions through its unchecked ebullience. Denk returned for an unlikely yet appealing encore – a paraphrase (his own?) on the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner‘s Tannhauser as rapidly evolved into a full-blown rag.

Few British orchestras can have performed Stravinsky‘s early ballets with the frequency and consistency of the CBSO, which is not to suggest Gimeno was other than his own man in this reading of Petrushka – heard in its streamlined 1947 revision rather than the texturally more imaginative 1911 original (which this past nine decades the orchestra has only played under Pierre Boulez). Certainly the revision’s tendency to encourage a headlong and even ruthless approach was evident in an overly regimented take on the Russian Dance, the scene-setting that precedes it audibly lacking atmosphere, but thankfully not the central tableaux depicting Petrushka and the Blackamoor – the former as nervous and agitated as the latter was moody and, not least following the arrival of the Ballerina, ominous in its smouldering sexuality.

No less impressive were the surrounding evocations of the Shrovetide Fair – the latter with its various set-pieces vividly and tellingly characterized, on route to the sudden reappearance of the main protagonists then Petrushka’s death and ghostly apparition for what remain some of the composer’s most affecting pages. The stentorian trumpet writing was fearlessly delivered, and if those concluding pizzicato chords might have been more unanimous, it only marginally detracted from the conviction of what was a well conceived and finely executed performance.

This performance will be repeated at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Saturday 23 November at 7pm. For more details head to the CBSO website

Wigmore Mondays – Lawrence Power & Simon Crawford-Phillips: Le tombeau

Lawrence Power (viola, above), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 21 October 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
Photo credit (Lawrence Power) Giorgia Bertazzi

BBC Radio 3’s curious title for this concert was Adventures with a viola, despite Lawrence Power spending the last third of the concert playing the violin. Such is his talent on both instruments that the switch appeared to be effortless, part of an adventurous programme exploring the idea of paying musical homage.

To that effect, the first three pieces in the concert were linked. François Couperin’s expansive Prélude from the Première Suite pour viole (from 3:09 on the broadcast) exploited the lovely tone Power could get from the lower reaches of his viola, which helped accentuate the composer’s chromatic writing. A joint arrangement with Simon Crawford-Phillips of Ravel’s Menuet from the wonderful Le tombeau de Couperin followed (6:40), a fitfully effective version that was perhaps too fast in its execution, rather glossing over the cold central passage and the charm of the Menuet theme itself. The lack of repeats in this gorgeous piece of music accentuated the pair’s quick approach, despite a clever pairing of themes towards the end.

Australian composer Arthur Benjamin is not at all well known in these parts, but has an important role in musical history as a tutor of some repute. His own music can be overlooked because of that, and on this evidence unreasonably so – for Le tombeau de Ravel (10:58) was a pretty adventurous collection of a prelude, six waltzes and a coda, extremely well performed by the duo here. Having originally written it for clarinet and piano, Benjamin followed Brahms’s example by producing a viola and piano version, the instruments having a very similar range. The gruff start leads way to contrasting dances of affection and a quickfire number (17:00) requiring (and receiving) great virtuosity and dexterity from Power. There is charm in this music, too, as the next pizzicato waltz indicates, with tumbling figures from Crawford-Phillips, before a ghostly waltz with harmonics at 20:17 offers a starker picture. This is contrasted by a rousing finish.

We then heard a striking version for viola and piano of Three Berceuses from Thomas Adès’ opera The Exterminating Angel. They are based on two of the duets from Beatriz and Eduardo, the opera’s doomed lovers, and an eerie cradle song. These brought a wide range of colour and virtuosity from Power, with Crawford-Phillips providing expertly judged punctuation. The first Berceuse movement (26:30) was down at heel, with wispy outlines from the viola, then the second (29:44) had more expansive phrases, ending with crushing left hand octaves from Crawford-Phillips. The ghostly ‘round’ of the third (34:04) had the most memorable melody, ending on a decidedly macabre note as a mother cradling a dead lamb rather than her son attempted to rock it to sleep. Power’s harmonics on the viola were cold indeed.

A second group of homages followed, Power switching to violin for the duration. It was piano alone for Stravinsky’s brief but poignant Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (39:56), setting the chorale theme from his Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Crawford-Phillips managed the voicing of the parts beautifully. Tributes to Debussy followed from Erik Satie and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, Power reading the poem Debussy before Crawford-Phillips played the Satie Élégie (41:59). We then moved to a much more substantial tribute to the Spanish poet in the form of Poulenc’s troubled Violin Sonata.

The work itself had a tricky germination, its composer rejecting a couple of versions while not settling for the completed work either, returning to it in 1949. It is a dramatic piece, paying homage to the poet Lorca in assertive music that spills over into aggression in the first movement (44:10). In the second, an Intermezzo (50:37), Power and Crawford-Phillips painted exquisite shades through the bittersweet musical language, while the finale (56:38) was powerfully wrought, even more so when apparently hitting a wall (59:58) and sinking into desolation. A commanding performance proved Power’s aptitude in switching between musical instruments.

Repertoire

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

François Couperin Prélude from Première Suite pour viole (1728) (3:09)
Ravel, arr. Power & Crawford-Phillips Menuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) (6:40)
Benjamin Le tombeau de Ravel (1958) (10:58)
Adès Three Berceuses from The Exterminating Angel (2018) (UK premiere) (26:30)
Stravinsky Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920) (39:56)
Lorca Debussy (1921-24) & Satie Élégie from Quatre petits melodies (41:59)
Poulenc Violin Sonata (1942-3, rev. 1949) (44:10)

Further listening

You can listen to most of the music heard in this concert in the available versions on Spotify below, with the exception of the Adès, which has understandably not yet been recorded:

Meanwhile Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips can be heard in Arthur Benjamin’s Le tombeau de Ravel as part of this collection on Hyperion, where Power once again switches instruments for the composer’s violin works.

Poulenc‘s instrumental sonatas represent some of his very finest work, and this collection from the London Conchord Ensemble brings them all together: