On record: IN-IS: Seven Days (BDi Music Ltd)

in-is

Summary

Sheridan Tongue has always written music for others. In the course of writing music for film, TV and adverts he has earned himself a number of plaudits, not least a BAFTA nomination for Best Original Music on the acclaimed BBC drama Spooks. His work with Robert Plant, Blur and Beverley Knight – among many others – has given him pop sensibilities to go with his prowess as an arranger and orchestrator.

Seven Days has a personal story, though the listener is invited to discover it for themselves. On his blog Tongue indicates how it hit him during the recording session that he was finally making music for himself.

What’s the music like?

Extremely well crafted, and shot through with deep feeling. Tongue’s writing for strings produces some beautiful sounds and chords, but crucially he has the melodies to go with them too.

Scarlette In Love is a good example, with its richly toned cello solo, sounding more than a little like an ITV drama theme – Broadchurch, perhaps, while the opening title track is brilliantly constructed, working a memorable and subtly powerful loop to mesmeric effect with resonant violins. The closing Chorale Wo Soll Ich Fliehen Hin is an eerie update of Bach to muted string orchestra, extending its cold and icy tendrils around a melancholy line for violas.

The mood of Seven Days is essentially one of contemplation, but Tongue adds the light and shade of personal experience to create something much more meaningful.

Does it all work?

Yes. The voice of experience works well here, and although Seven Days is a relatively short listen it is a beautifully written and executed piece of work.

Is it recommended?

Yes. There are a lot of composers writing in this form, which reflects just how popular music for small orchestra or strings can be, with or without classical influences. Seven Days falls squarely between the two forms, and Sheridan Tongue’s craft, application and melodic gifts ensure he is up there with the best writers in his field.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

Wigmore Mondays – Beatrice Rana: Bach Goldberg Variations

beatrice-rana

Beatrice Rana (photo Marie Staggat)

J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV988

johann_sebastian_bach
J.S. Bach (1658-1750)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The famous Canadian pianist Glenn Gould made his first, famed recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the age of 23. Beatrice Rana has just completed hers at the very same age, as BBC Radio 3 presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch informed us just before this Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert began. Of course the interpretations would be wildly different, but there was plenty here to suggest Rana is going to be a wonderful pianist for many years to come.

She decided to use Bach’s marked repeats, a move that stretched the piece to 75 minutes and caused the BBC to extend their traditional hour – a move in favour of their Radio 3 New Generation Artists that suggests they too know exactly what she’s about.

Rana took her time with the opening Aria, setting the scene perfectly (from 1:49 on the broadcast link above). Bach’s timeless writing made the greatest possible impact because of this, in music of great, profound meaning, and whenever textures filled up later on there was always the knowledge this sublime music would return to wrap things up at the end.

Not that Rana gave us anything other than clarity, definition and musicality. Only once was her rhythmic profile noticeably challenged, as she took a while to get a definitive pulse for the seventh variation, a gigue, but elsewhere she was white hot, fingers skating over the keyboard in the toccata variations. In the slow variations she gave the music plenty of time to breathe, investing deep emotion into the minor-key sarabande (from 32:57) and similarly pained variation 25 (from 55:07) She also used helpful silences to signpost the music and give both her and the audience chance to take a breath and digest the music a bit, wondering at this great music.

On this evidence, her forthcoming disc of the Goldberg Variations for Warner Classics should be snapped up, and future concerts followed closely. She certainly did Bach full justice here.

Further listening

You can watch Beatrice in the opening bars of the Goldberg Variations, recorded last year:

…or you can take in Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldbergs below:

Meanwhile if it’s more Bach that you fancy, this Glenn Gould album gives you access to the amazing world of the Italian Concerto, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor and the Partitas for keyboard:

Vanessa Wagner – Expanding the piano

vanessa-wagner

We’ve already spoken to Murcof about his collaboration with pianist Vanessa Wagner – and now it’s time for her side of the story. She describes how she found classical music and how her meeting with Murcof opened up all sorts of electronic possibilities. Here they are on their work together:

Vanessa, can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

My parents were not listening to a lot of classical music. They were rather into jazz and the French chanson. Then one day, the piano of my great-grandmother came home, and I started to play. My childhood idol was a wonderful Romanian pianist named Clara Haskil, far away from the glamour girls are usually dreaming of! She is still an artist that I love.

Who are the composers you have grown to particularly admire?

I grew up with the music of Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Brahms and Janáček, who are still my favourites, Schubert especially. His melancholy, and the time stretched in his music touches me enormously. Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are pieces that never leave me.

What was it that appealed to you about working with Murcof?

I was the one to initiate this encounter. I have listened to his music for a long time. I met him at the workshop of the Infiné label, and we made an improvised test. Then I had the chance to have a residency in a room of the Arsenal of Metz. They gave me carte blanche to develop new projects, I invited Murcof to play with me, and Statea was born.

How did you make sure you got a good balance between the piano and the electronics?

I always asked Murcof to pay attention to the acoustic piano sound. The piano is the starting point of this project, and it was important that the electronic effects do not swallow its sound even if it is sometimes distorted. Similarly, it also seemed very important to stay true to the scores of composers that I interpret. That’s why the album is called Statea, which means balance in ancient Italian.

Had you listened to much electronic music prior to working with him?

I have listened to electronic music for 20 years. At that time, in my classical circles, it was frowned upon. I had never heard of the big techno anthems, and I went right back to ambient/IDM artists – the likes of Autechre, Aphex Twin, Model 500, Maurizio, UR etc.

Do you think there are other albums or pieces of music that bring classical and electronic together well?

Max Richter´s Four Seasons of Vivaldi works pretty well. Brian Eno also has a beautiful piece called Fullness of Wind, taking its lead from Pachelbel.

Do you think classical and electronic music have a lot more in common than one would expect?

I think meetings of the two styles are quite possible, if one avoids falling into the mainstream that we call crossover classical. The approach focuses on the sound result. We must respect the original script. Adding a beat onto a piece of Mozart or Beethoven cannot be a creative artistic process in itself.

Moreover, music known as ‘contemporary classical’ and art music has a lot in common with experimental electronic. Bridges are possible and desirable between these universes.

Has working with electronic music helped your appreciation of classical?

This does not specifically help me in my classical interpretation. What I greatly appreciate is to exercise out of my classical world, to transform the sound of my instrument, and to experience concerts differently, giving a new fresh perspective to my daily occupation of being a pianist.

For me, it is an interior window that opened itself, and I strongly hope that this is new cornerstone in the musical world which will contribute to the opening of minds and ears!

If you could recommend one piece of classical music to Arcana readers that you’ve been listening to recently, what would it be and why?

I would recommend listening to the Goldberg Variations of Bach (Glenn Gould, for example), the Death and the Maiden String Quartet by Schubert, or Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt, especially the second movement Silentium.

Statea, by Murcof and Vanessa Wagner, is out now on Infiné. The pair will appear at the Barbican on Monday 31 October as part of a bill including pianist Lubomyr Melnyk. Tickets can be purchased from the Barbican website. Vanessa will also be giving her thoughts on classical music to Arcana shortly!

GrauSchumacher Piano Duo at the Wigmore Hall

GrauSchumacherPianoDuo
GrauSchumacher Piano Duo

Richard Whitehouse on the UK premiere of a substantial new work from Philippe Manoury, along with homages to J.S. Bach from Busoni and Kurtág
Wigmore Hall, London Monday 19 October

J.S. Bach (arr. Kurtág): Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV106 – Sonatina; Alle Menschen müssen sterben, BWV643; Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV687 (various)

Busoni: Fantasia contrappuntistica, BWV256b (1920, arranged for two pianos in 1921)

Manoury: Le Temps, mode d’emploi (2014) [UK premiere]

Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher (piano duo)

The GrauSchumacher Duo – comprising pianists Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher – follows in a distinguished lineage of such partnerships (among them Alphons and Aloys Kontarsky, or Bracha Eden and Alexander Tamir), but at least in the UK is known primarily through its substantial discography (notably for the enterprising NEOS label) than for its live performances. All credit, then, to Wigmore Hall for scheduling this recital as part of its focus on contemporary music, and which featured the first British hearing for a major new work.

Now in his early sixties, Philippe Manoury is well established among his peers in Western Europe while enjoying occasional UK performances (his large-scale orchestral and choral piece Zeitlauf caused something of a stir in London three decades ago). Live electronics has been a constant presence in his music, and Le Temps, mode d’emploi is no exception. Lasting around 50 minutes, this falls into eight continuous sections in which the consciously-applied virtuosity of the pianists is underpinned by electronics in terms of spatial diffusion and textural stratification. At the same time, the music audibly evolves in terms of its salient motifs dispersed across the sound spectrum and that merge into an accumulation of activity exceeded only by the plethora of echoes heard towards the close. Cohesive, then, while also overly uniform in sonic profile (is it surprising that electronically treated piano timbre seems to have moved on only incrementally since Stockhausen’s Mantra half a century ago?), with the actual material rather less memorable than those processes to which it is being subjected.

What was undeniable was the alacrity with which GrauSchumacher tackled this epic among piano duos, or the clarity with which those from Experimental Studio of South-West German Radio projected the complex sound transformations throughout the fabled Wigmore acoustic.

Before the interval came a welcome hearing for Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica – a half-hour fantasy on, around and about Bach that began as a completion of his 14th contrapunctus from The Art of Fugue in 1910, soon to assume its definitive guise before being arranged for two pianos in 1921. This account pointed up the interplay of stark declamation and limpid passagework characterizing the initial chorale-variations, the increasing textural intricacy of the initial three fugues, then the tensile unfolding of the intermezzo with its three variations – leading, via a terse cadenza, to a climactic fourth fugue which was slightly underwhelming here, but the performance quickly regained focus for a haunting recollection of the chorale followed by the stretta (a concluding passage played at a faster tempo) that steers this piece through to its brief though magisterial conclusion.

An impressive reading overall, that gained from its having been placed in context with three Bach transcriptions by György Kurtág. Anyone present at one of the latter’s intimate recitals of these pieces with his wife may have found GrauSchumacher a touch too literal in overall execution, yet the sonatina from Bach’s Actus tragicus and the two chorale-preludes which followed evinced no lack of poise or elegance. Easy to overlook given what was to come, perhaps, while at the same time being telling instances of the maxim that ‘less is more’.

Jean-Guihen Queyras – Bach and Britten at the Wigmore Hall

Jean-Guihen Queyras plays works for solo cello by J.S. Bach and Benjamin Britten at the Wigmore Hall

jean-guihen-queyras

Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 6 July 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b060zmjg

on the iPlayer until 5 August

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, in recordings made by Queyras for Harmonia Mundi:

What’s the music?

Britten: Solo Cello Suite no.1 (1964) (20 minutes)

J.S. Bach: Solo Cello Suite no.6 (c1724) (30 minutes)

What about the music?

The idea of a cello playing on its own was only fully cultivated in the twentieth century – when Pablo Casals recorded the six Bach suites in the 1930s and they became part of the repertoire once again. Until then, unbelievably, they had lain dormant – but now they stand as arguably the most-played body of works for cello in existence. They are wonderfully flexible pieces, because the easiest parts of the suites can be played by budding amateurs. Generally, the higher the number of the suite, the more technically demanding they are.

Hence the Sixth and last suite in the set is extremely virtuosic. It is thought to have been written for a five-string instrument known as the violoncello piccolo, like the one in the picture below:

violoncello-piccolo

The Sixth is the longest of the suites, and often features multiple stopping – i.e. more than one note played at once. Because the fifth string of the violoncello piccolo would have been a higher one (an ‘E’ above the highest cello string of ‘A’) the suite is unusual for its treble-rich sound.

Britten stole into the world of the solo cello by way of his dear friend Mstislav Rostropovich, who threw down the gauntlet to him to write a number of compositions for the instrument. In taking on writing for the solo cello he was one of the first since Bach to take it on in a solo capacity – Zoltán Kodály and Max Reger being the others.

Britten made an explicit homage to Bach’s works in the use of different dance forms, and like the elder composer he often wrote out multiple stopping, using the confines of the instrument to somehow write independent parts for it. These can be heard especially as the second movement Fuga takes shape.

Britten was to write another two suites for solo cello, for it was clearly an instrument that pricked his compositional interest.

Performance verdict

If ever proof were needed that Bach can make you happy, Jean-Guihen Queyras supplied it handsomely in this wonderful hour of music. Each of the six movements making up the Sixth Cello Suite danced persuasively, although in the slower Allemande and Sarabande dances Queyras achieved a wonderful, all-encompassing peace. Technically he was superb – this is far from easy music to play in public – with rock solid intonation and an easy way that endeared him to his audience.

The Britten made a good contrast, for this is a very serious piece, with inner strife that Queyras built perceptibly as the final flurry of notes grew closer. Here he was careful to bring out Britten’s part writing for the instrument, so that on occasion it felt as though there were many more instruments than just one in the room. The cello’s probing tone still brought each melody to the front, while the technical effects Britten uses to enhance the impact of the piece were brilliantly executed.

What should I listen out for?

Britten

1:41 – the Canto primo, where the cello proclaims the theme majestically. Immediately you can hear Britten’s use of multiple stopping, which is where the cello plays chords from several strings at once. This moves into…

3:39 – the Fuga begins. It seems very unlikely that a fugue could work on a cello but it somehow does – when at 3:52 the next entry of the tune comes in, meaning several parts can exist simultaneously. The ear is led this way and that, as though two or even three cellos are playing. From hear the mood darkens to…

7:42 – the Lamento, which starts with a broad intonation, like a solo singer. Britten wrote so many of his instrumental pieces as though they are vocal.

10:07 – the Canto Secondo. In response to the Lamento the cello gives a subdued account of the Canto theme, appearing lost in thought.

11:07 – Serenata. Marked Allegretto pizzicato (quite fast but with the strings plucked) this is a more playful homage to the second movement of Debussy’s Cello Sonata, which Britten and Rostropovich recorded together in 1961.

13:33 – a movement marked as Marcia – where Britten achieves ghostly sounds firstly through the use of harmonics, where the left hand rests very lightly on the string, and then through the wood of the bow banging on the string (14:14). The mood is now agitated.

16:40 – from the murky depths of the cello we hear the solemn Canto terzo, another variant of the tune from the start. The music becomes gradually more forceful, moving into…

18:29 – the Bordone begins – an unusually titled movement that features a drone on the note ‘D’ – mostly from the open string. Around it a cluster of notes can be heard, while the left hand plucks the string absently. Again it sounds like there are two or three instruments playing, such is the density of Britten’s music.

21:39 – the final section, marked Moto perpetuo – and now the cello sounds like a group of excited insects, the melody fluttering around restlessly. At 23:02 the main tune returns but sounds breathless in this company, as it does until the end – which is deliberately distorted and angry.

J.S. Bach

27:08 – the expansive Prelude, rooted in D major by frequent sounding of the open ‘D’ string, before gradually opening out. Bach’s main tune returns at a lower pitch (‘G’) at 29:33 – but then the music climbs to a peak at 30:28.

32:16 – the slow Allemande dance begins. This is the longest single movement in all of Bach’s music for solo cello, and it resembles a religious contemplation. Time really does seem to stand still as the cello’s music unwinds with a great inevitability. When he repeats the first section (from 33:57) Queyras plays much quieter.

40:34 – the triple-time Courante dance, a lively affair that finds the cello jumping around its range.

44:31 – the slow, serene Sarabande – which inhabits a similar world to the earlier Allemande. It requires clarity on the part of the cellist, who is playing high chords for much of the sequence, but when played well it is very beautiful, as here.

49:46 – a lightness of touch runs through the two Gavottes. The first of these uses a lot of multiple stopping, while the second (beginning at 51:25) is more purposeful and works its way into a bit of a frenzy over a drone. The first Gavotte is repeated at 52:34.

53:25 – the last of the dances, a Gigue – again in triple time. This has a rustic feel and keeps the wide open sound Bach has used throughout the suite, which reaches a thoroughly uplifting finish at 57:33.

Further listening

If the sound of the cello on its own appeals, the rest of the Bach and Britten suites are wholeheartedly recommended. In the Britten, one of many fine recordings comes from Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk, made for Virgin Classics. It can be heard on Spotify here:

In the Bach works interpretations are many and varied, so it is advisable to try a number of different sources. One of the earlier classic recordings that is always rewarding comes from the French cellist Pierre Fournier, made for Deutsche Grammophon’s side label Archiv Produktion in 1960. Here it is on Spotify:

For more concerts click here