London Sinfonietta 50th Anniversary Concert

Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Simon Haram (saxophone), London Sinfonietta , London Sinfonietta Academy Alumni / David Atherton, George Benjamin, Vladimir Jurowski

Birtwistle The Message (2007)
Stravinsky Octet (1923)
Ligeti Chamber Concerto (1970)
Deborah Pritchard River Above (2018) (World premiere)
Samantha Fernando Formations (2018) (World premiere)
Abrahamsen Left, alone for piano (left hand) & orchestra (2015) (London premiere)
Various Encore! (14 Variations on a Hornpipe by Purcell) (2018) (World premiere)

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 24 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here (available until 22 February 2018)

With a bold slogan Unfinished Business – We’re 50, the London Sinfonietta illustrated at their birthday concert exactly why the ensemble remains such a vital cog in the musical life of the capital and the UK.

Their relentless drive for the new, the original, and the game-changing, is coupled with a level of musicianship that remains at the very highest in all they do. This concert reminded us of those things, while a couple of tactful presentations drew attention to the inspirations behind the music, as well as highlighting those who were sadly not able to experience the half-centenary birthday.

To the music – and a short fanfare to begin in the form of The Message, written for the Sinfonietta’s 40th birthday by one of the composers to help shape the ensemble, Sir Harrison Birtwistle (from 4:43 on the broadcast link above). It began proceedings with appropriate ceremony, brilliantly played and controlled by the spotlit trio of clarinettist Mark van der Wiel, trumpeter Alistair Mackie and percussionist David Hockings.

Stravinsky’s Octet followed (from 7:43-23:19), conducted by one of the ensemble’s founders, Sir David Atherton. This was a colourful account, enjoying the outdoorsy and often playful writing for the less-than-usual combination of flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone.

The short introduction ushered in the perky main theme of the first movement (from 9:12), but it was in the second movement (12:01) where the Sinfonietta really excelled, the flurries of notes brilliantly delivered by clarinets and bassoons. The third movement (12:10) enjoyed Stravinsky’s pointed interactions between the instruments, bassoons again dictating the rhythmic impetus.

The first half ended with Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, written in 1970 and continuing to dazzle with its innovations in tone and sonority (from 27:35-47:05). Atherton worked with the composer on the score, so this ‘first hand’ performance had real authority. It was a performance of exceptional detail, the atmospheric effects hushing the audience almost in to a stage of hypnosis in the quieter moments.

By complete contrast the harsher interventions had the power to make the listener jump, meaning a return to the state of hypnosis was needed for some nerves to be kept intact! The players were terrifically alive to the changes in mood and colour, and in those loud moments (e.g. 38:54) Clive Williamson’s piano added an edge of visceral power.

If the first half was a summation of the London Sinfonietta’s expertise with established 20th century repertoire, the second reaffirmed their commitment to the very new.

Deborah Pritchard’s commission River Above, a world premiere, gave us a marked change in sonority as we turned to the solo saxophone of Simon Haram. This was a brilliantly played piece, exploring the timbre of the instrument to good effect through long-breathed phrases (1:28:00-1:36:49 on the broadcast).

This was followed by a second world premiere, Samantha Fernando’s Formations (1:40:41-1:49:17) for an ensemble of 15 players. This was much more immediate in its impact, beginning with imposing block chords before moving to a section with sharp, barbed wire edges to the texture. Throughout there were fascinating and colourful sonorities and strong tonal associations, before the piece began to move forward with greater purpose towards the end, which if anything came too soon.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen has enjoyed a close association with the ensemble since the late 1960s, so the inclusion – and London premiere – of Left, alone, a Concerto for piano (left hand) and orchestra (1:58:30-2:19:00), conducted by George Benjamin, was wholly appropriate. The much larger orchestra and piano required a considerable break while the heroic front of house team expanded the, but the wait was worth it – for this was an apt choice.

Starting with a real show of strength, soloist Tamara Stefanovich had terrific energy, the piano outlining a bold rhythmic profile in the lower register but then moving higher, accompanied by the large ensemble. As Abrahamsen says in the interesting interview with Sara Mohr-Pietsch on the radio broadcast, the wiry tones of the large ensemble are essential to the overall sound, preferable to the fuller symphony orchestra approach. This was clear as the piece progressed, becoming less of a battle between left hand and orchestra; more an integration of the two different sound worlds, so that when twinned with the bassoons at the end the sound palette burbled like a hot spring.

Finally there was a collaborative commission, a collage of Variations on a Hornpipe by Henry Purcell (from 2:24:31-2:42:46 on the broadcast link), conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The variations were written by 14 composers with Sinfonietta connections, and were followed by an altered statement of the hornpipe itself written by 10 more. All contributions were woven together under the direction of John Woolrich, who composed the beginning and end.

The best advice here is to listen to the introduction on the radio, then to guess who might be the composer of each fragment as the piece proceeds! A stately, ceremonial air surrounded the piece at its start but gradually the variations moved it further from the source. Perhaps inevitably the fragmented approach led to a disjointed whole at times, with a short attention span – due to the number of composers involved rather than Woolrich’s sterling work in getting the music together.

It was however a suitable showcase for the Sinfonietta as an ensemble, proving beyond doubt once again that their virtuosity knows no bounds, and ended with a flourish – as though to say, “Here’s to another 50 years, at the very least”. And so say all of us!

A 50th anniversary tribute will follow on these pages soon.

Further listening

You can listen to an album of Hans Abrahamsen’s music made by the London Sinfonietta in 1997 on Spotify:

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Genesis Suite & Bartók Concerto for Orchestra

Simon Callow, Rodney Earl Clarke, Sara Kestelman, Helen McCrory (narrators), Gerard McBurney (creative director), Mike Tutaj (projection design), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Various composers The Genesis Suite (1945)
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

Barbican Hall, London; Saturday 13 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

Collaboration in classical music is rare. Pop music is full of it – many of the best songs and albums are co-written – but for composers to work together on a single work is nigh on unthinkable. Full marks, then, to Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra for reminding us of an instance when that did in fact happen – no fewer than SEVEN classical composers coming together in 1945, at the end of World War II, to write the Genesis Suite. The project was held together by Nathanial Shilkret, masterminding the project from Hollywood.

The Suite, of course, has nothing to do with the rock band. Yet it is fully progressive, telling the story of the first book of the Bible from creation through to the construction of the Tower of Babylon in the space of an hour, working its way from Schoenberg to Stravinsky via Shilkret himself, Alexandre Tansman, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Ernst Toch.

Rattle and creative director Gerard McBurney collaborated on a series of moving images and audio clips to put the Genesis Suite in modern perspective. These were thought provoking and occasionally daring. The story of Cain and Abel (with surprisingly upbeat music from Milhaud) was played out to a Middle Eastern backdrop, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were prominent during the story of The Flood (Noah and the Ark), while the construction of the Shard against Stravinsky’s music for Babel was a powerful allegory.

Unfortunately the music was overshadowed somewhat by the wordy text, taken directly from the King James Bible, and read as written. Nor was it helped by a lack of ensemble between the starry quartet of narrators. Simon Callow and Helen McCrory stood far left, Sara Kestelman and Rodney Earl Clarke far right – which meant for the audience it was a strain to hear two of the four speakers unless sat directly in the middle, despite the amplification. Some speakers were better versed than others in their delivery, too – and maybe because of my own seated position Kestelman and Clarke appeared to have greater emotional involvement.

The London Symphony Chorus, however, were as one in their powerful contributions, dressed in white to maximise their dramatic delivery. When the men came out into the stalls for the Stravinsky finale the Suite’s tension between creation and what man has done with it reached its ultimate, tense conclusion.

Musically the Suite was inconsistent. Schoenberg’s Prelude stood out for inventive orchestration and far reaching harmonic language, while in a dramatic sense Toch’s dramatic setting of The Rainbow (The Covenant) was a notable high. Creation itself, Shilkret’s contribution, felt hurried, the seven days of creation crammed into ten minutes.

Despite these reservations Genesis Suite made a lasting impression, especially following Rattle’s assertion that all composers except one wrote in exile. After the interval another such composer, the Hungarian Béla Bartók writing in America in 1943, was to light up the concert.

It is very easy to take the LSO’s virtuosity for granted, but in a performance like this they shone from every corner. Rattle challenged them to dig deep technically and emotionally and they delivered on every level, particularly in the work’s deeply felt heart, the Elegia. Rattle and McBurney opted to continue with images, which were slow moving or static this time, depicting the forests Bartók looked on during composition. However the gauze on which the images were shown did on occasion muffle the projection of the brass musicians sat under or behind the screen.

Ultimately this did not spoil a terrific performance, where sinewy strings and percussive outbursts were complemented by outstanding, colourful woodwind playing. The first of the two scherzos brought this out, with pairs of bassoons, flutes, clarinets and oboes outstanding in their delivery, balanced by the trumpets. The finale danced energetically, bathed in a luminous glow which proceeded to leave its spell on the audience.

Further listening

You can see Sir Simon Rattle talking about the Genesis Suite below:

The music from this concert, including Rattle’s own recording of the Concerto for Orchestra, can be heard on this Spotify playlist:

Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival Ensemble – Stravinsky, Ustvolskaya & Shostakovich

Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival Ensemble: Elena Bashkirova (piano, above), Marina Prudenskaya (soprano), Pascal Moragués (clarinet), Sergej Krylov (violin), Alexander Knyazev (cello)

Stravinsky Suite from The Soldier’s Tale (for violin, clarinet and piano) (1918-19)
Ustvolskaya Piano Sonata no.5
Shostakovich Seven Poems of Alexander Blok, Op.127 (1967)
Ustvolskaya Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1849)
Shostakovich Piano Trio no.2 in E minor Op.67 (1944)

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 14 December 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

Pianist Elena Bashkirova founded the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival in 1998, and this celebration at the Wigmore Hall was part of a desire to continually expand the festival beyond Israel’s borders. Here we had a well-conceived program of Russian music, if a little unremitting in its darkly coloured focus.

It was especially gratifying to see the prominence given to Galina Ustvolskaya’s music. A pupil of Shostakovich, she has a small but potent legacy of works, which show a style already thinking well ahead of its time. In the first half of the concert we heard the Piano Sonata no.5, a remarkably concentrated piece of music lasting only half the 20 minutes it does on record. The suspicion was that Bashkirova did not follow some of the instructed repeats, or that her performance was simply much faster than those before it. Either way it left a powerful imprint, its refusal to budge from a central Db anchoring the music becoming a really strong musical device in spite of all the activity around it.

Arguably even more accomplished was the Trio for clarinet, violin and piano with which the concert’s second half began. This too left a lasting impression, thanks largely to the sensitivity with which Pascal Moragués and Sergej Krylov played the quiet music, and to the probing and penetrating tone of Bashkirova’s right hand. As Paul Griffiths’ booklet note pointed out, this music sounds more like late Shostakovich – but its composition date of 1949 shows just how originally Ustvolskaya was thinking.

From Shostakovich we heard two works, the late Seven Poems of Alexander Blok, Op.127, and the Piano Trio no.2 in E minor, Op.67. Both are hugely effective concert pieces, but it was the Blok poems that cut to the core at the end of the first half. Soprano Marina Prudenskaya, a late stand-in for Anna Samuil, got right to the heart of Blok’s verse, nowhere more so than in the savage destruction of Burya (The Storm). From this a wispy cello line emerged, Alexander Knyazev responding with a moving plaintive tone, after which the trio joined for the first time in accompanying Prudenskaya for the final song. It capped a tightly structured performance, the string players finding just the right tone if not always the exact intonation, while Bashkirova’s piano probed the lower reaches of the bass sound.

This was also the case in the Second Trio, which was occasionally a bit unkempt technically but which unerringly found the heart and focus of Shostakovich’s music. From the ghostly harmonics at the start, Krylov and Knyazev were clearly on the same emotional page, and with Bashkirova the three players achieved an impressive variety of volume and colour. Shostakovich’s powerplay scherzo and middle of the last movement were incredibly strong and lasting statements, but as ever with his music the greater meaning could be found in the moments of intimacy where the listener can hear a pin drop. The last movement thus became the focus of attention, music of sorrow, paranoia and anger – with just a little respite at the end.

The evening began with Stravinsky’s suite from A Soldier’s Tale, distilled into short movements for clarinet, violin and piano. Melodic and spiky, this performance was enjoyable and included just the right amount of humour, before taking a darker turn for the final Triumphal March of the Devil, where Krylov took over.

An excellent and thought provoking concert, particularly in the light of the various programmes marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution this year.

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Steve Hodges on the Philharmonia Orchestra playing John Adams

Arcana returns to the BBC Proms in the company of friends – and for our second visit this season we are dipping into one of the festival’s themes, the music of John Adams. Offering his thoughts was Steve Hodges (above)

Marianna Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Steve, what was your musical upbringing?

Personally, I would say it was broad. It started with The Beatles, The Monkees and The Rolling Stones. I grew up through the 1970s and enjoyed glam, and Sparks, and Elton John. Then after meeting people who had some really broad taste, I lapped up everything through electronica, David Bowie and punk.

I’ve gone on from there really, and gone sideways as much as I possibly could. I like to reflect on music and on what was going on at the time, socially, and what it actually represents. I think that’s an important factor about music. I really enjoyed the punk ideals that said anybody could do it, it made a new wave of music that was enormously important. Just because people could make a record didn’t mean they necessarily should, because some of them were awful, but there was so much choice and so many good things in the 1980s. Since then we’ve been through house and drum ‘n’ bass as well. My classical representation is a bit smaller, but I enjoy what I enjoy!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Starting with an old one, The Beatles – that was through my father’s record collection, which was a great influence as a young person. I appreciated them as they were. Then The Human League, as a lot of the Sheffield music was important to me, because at the time I was fortunate to be dabbling in music myself. It really crossed over, and Manchester music was a reference as well – so I would put Ultravox! in there as well. Those were the things that mattered really.

Turning to the concert, what did you think of the Bach / Stravinsky?

I thought there were subtler things here, I was surprised at the quiet volume, there were not so many people on stage I suppose. I was fascinated by the people playing, and the movement between the sections. I was watching for the technical side as much as the musical side. It was a nice ‘warmer-upper’ for the rest of it.

What about the Ravel?

I was much more in to this, and felt reflections of 1960s TV in the music, there were flurries that I kind of recognised. I really liked it. For the singer to remember the words was good, and being able to follow along in the book was interesting. I liked the shape of the music.

And the John Adams?

There was much more to think about with that one! I think the first movement built up, and we had the pleasure of seeing the orchestra and the punctuation, the offset rhythms, the bouncing around of the parts. There was a lot more percussive use here and the intricacies of the first piece were astonishing. He was definitely testing the technical abilities of the musicians. The crescendo at the end was almost human madness in my mind, it was almost too much to bear. The build up at the end, it went from the crossrhythms going on that were clear and observed, you could feel the pulses, and then that broke down at the end and it was completely consuming. You almost wanted to put your hands over your head.

The second movement was really nice at the start, I really liked that one. Because I’ve worked with sequencing a lot you could feel the repetition, the softness of the play, again testing the musicians in a different way at the limits of musicality. The lightness of touch stood out, and it was mostly driven by the harps to start with, and that was the bass, the pulse that drove it along to start with. I liked the guitar in there, I hadn’t spotted him and wondered where that was coming from.

What I liked about it most was where he was getting the strings to crescendo, it was like reversing an attack, and it was going round and round in a really interesting way. It was powerful and really interesting to hear that executed. I enjoyed that one most of all for sure. The arpeggios on the strings were really good, it was so delicate and ambient in its way. Even though it was gentle it was really strong.

How did you find the Proms as an experience?

Very nice. The reverence for the music was striking, and full marks for the quality of what you saw. The audience were obviously there to enjoy it, and treated it with the respect it duly deserved. It was a beautiful environment to hear such things. I’m almost a little disappointed it was quieter at the beginning but I guess we should have stood closer at the start. After a while though, you tune your ears into it. Everybody shut up so that we could all hear.

Having said that, the volume at the end of was enormous! The variety of the use of the instruments, like bowing the percussive instruments in the last piece, that was a softer element. It wasn’t orchestral techno by any means but there was a lot of crossover. It really was a testing thing for the musicians, and it really resonated how much was being put on them.

Is there anything you would change about the experience?

I did browse the catalogue and felt it was something I would like to do. I don’t think there is anything I would particularly change about it, and I’d be inclined to come again. I heard a few things on the TV last week, and I think I shall be listening out for more!

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music – Philharmonia / Esa-Pekka Salonen

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices and Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 2 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

This year’s Proms celebration of John Adams‘ 70th birthday moved on to some Naïve and Sentimental Music. Not my label, but the composer’s own – and a misleading one at that. The title implies a sketchily composed, throwaway fragment, but what we actually get is something very substantial, longer than many symphonies. The construction of the three sections making up the piece illustrate the ease with which the music of Adams expands to fill such dimensions, not something you could always say about the music of like-minded ‘minimalists’, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Where others of his ilk tend to work in smaller melodic units, Adams thinks nothing of spinning out a long, intense melody over several minutes, hanging like a long telegraph wire above the sun-drenched plains. Such an image came to my head as we listened to the second movement of three, Mother of the Man, where the guitar of Huw Davies sounded rather like the early music of Pat Metheny in its deceptively lazy traversal. The strings held fast, creating the wide expanses of which Copland would surely have been proud. The treble textures were especially rich, but when the dynamic dropped to a barely audible whisper on the violins, members of the audience were subconsciously leaning forward to follow developments in the music.

It helped that the conductor was also the dedicatee of Adams’ sizeable score, Esa-Pekka Salonen taking delivery on behalf of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1999. Here he secured some outstanding playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, who responded to the virtuoso demands of the music with impressive rhythmic impetus, intense focus and characterful phrasing. When the music gathered itself several times in the first movement, Naïve and Sentimental Music, the pacing and rhythms felt just right, with especially good work from harpists Heidi Krutzen and Stephanie Beck, not to mention percussionists Antoine Siguré, Scott Lumsdaine, Peter Fry, Stephen Burke, Tim Gunnell and Karen Hutt.

Towards the solemn close of Mother of the Man it was the brass bringing deeper shades to the forefront of the picture with exquisitely held chords. As Chain to the Rhythm hurried along the intensity built steadily and inexorably until it became nerve-shredding, the piece thundering along with gongs, bass drum, cymbals and massive timpani strokes giving it a mountainous perspective. We ended through the altitude of the violins, these massive orchestral sounds now a huge echo. It was a moving finish to a piece that is clearly underrated in Adams’ canon. Salonen clearly believes in it, and this audience did too.

A curious (but very interesting) first half began with Stravinsky’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her, a recomposition made to accompany the world premiere of the latter composer’s Canticum Sacrum in St Marks, Venice in 1956. This was an oddity of economical orchestration and sung text from a reduced choir. There was some quite tart colouring in the manner of Stravinsky’s later style, and his additions to the music of Bach added extra spice to the harmonies at unexpected points. An intriguing but puzzling arrangement, and one that threw the softer textures of Ravel’s Shéhérazade into relief.

This was no doubt intentional, for we were privy to a wonderful performance from French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa (above). Shéhérazade is a magical song cycle when performed well, but here it transcended all expectations – in fact I don’t recall ever seeing a singer who gauged the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall with quite the accuracy of Crebassa. Her direct communication with the audience was reinforced by the elegance and understated strength of her vocal delivery, a truly beautiful tone that caressed Ravel’s lines with clear love and affection.

The first song, Asie, held an exquisite tension as the travelling scene unfolded, while La flûte enchantée, the instrument itself beautifully played by Samuel Coles, thrilled with its orchestral colours and heady textures. L’indifférent was a little more mischievous, and again the exquisite tones and textures were in full accord with the very best Ravel performances.

Crebassa is most definitely an artist for the future, and her blend and rapport with the Philharmonia was something to behold. The reverent string textures and typically pinpoint orchestration were viewed through Salonen’s technicolour lens, but the team brought something very special to Klingor’s text. If you get the chance to hear the broadcast, do so as soon as you can. You will hear one of the best young singers in classical music right now!

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Steve Hodges will give his verdict on the John Adams Prom. Coming shortly!