BBC Proms: The Brandenburg Project – Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Proms 29 & 30: Soloists, Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Prom 29
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.1 in F major BWV1046
Mark-Anthony Turnage Maya (2014)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major BWV1048
Anders Hillborg Bach Materia (2017)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.5 in D major BWV1050
Uri Caine Hamsa (2015)

Prom 30
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.4 in G major BWV1049
Olga Neuwirth Aello – ballet mécanomorphe (2017)
Brett Dean Approach – Prelude to a Canon (2017)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.6 in B flat major BWV1051
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.2 in F major BWV1047
Steven Mackey Triceros (2015)

Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 5 August 2018

You can watch this Prom by clicking here

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

If musical authenticity has largely banished J.S. Bach’s Six Brandenburg Concertos (BWV1046-51) from the standard repertoire, then the brace of Proms that constituted The Brandenburg Project enabled near-capacity audiences to experience what was once the foundation of this tradition. This was hardly the large-scale Bach that would once have been a familiar fixture at these concerts, but the playing of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra – by turns incisive and sensitive – and unfailingly astute direction of Thomas Dausgaard served these pieces well.

A quirky collection this is too. Uncertain as to its date (Bach’s promotional autograph to the Margrave of Brandenburg dates from 1721 but the music was likely in existence up to a decade earlier) and hardly constituting a logical or systematic key sequence (being in F, F, G, G, D and B flat respectively), it positively invites juxtaposition with works either akin in genre or inspired by their specific precedent. It was this latter factor which underlies the present project, with six diverse composers commissioned to write a piece inspired by the Brandenburg in question.

The Brandenburg Project – 1

With its relatively expansive four-movement structure and its virtuosic use of a (then) sizable complement of wind and strings, the First Concerto anticipates the Concerto for Orchestra of two centuries hence. Dausgaard secured a suitably forthright response, not least in the diverse ‘quodlibet’ that is the finale; the SCO then providing eloquent support for cellist Maya Beiser in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Maya. Although the least ‘connected’ to its Brandenburg in terms of concept and follow-through, this was an impressive showing for its soloist’s long -limbed phrasing and mellifluous tone – even if its two halves witnessed relatively little sense of expressive contrast or intensification. The fact that Turnage completed his contribution so far in advance of the project’s taking place suggests his response as being a generalized one.

Long the most famous (rather, immediately recognizable) of the set, the Third Concerto is a blueprint for the Concerto for Strings beloved of the high Baroque era. The SCO relished the robust and incisive contrapuntal interplay of its outer movements; the (deliberately?) absent slow movement being provided on this occasion by Anders Hillborg, who then drew upon its plaintive understatement in the slow section of his Bach Materia. With its prelude of anticipatory tuning, headlong workout between violin and double-bass in its scherzo, then a finale whose interaction of soloist and ensemble was as much vocal as instrumental, it was a showcase for ‘improvising violinist’ Pekka Kuusisto as communicated readily to the audience, even if its attractions (not for the first time in Hillborg) seemed to lie primarily on the surface.

Whether or not the first Concerto for Keyboard, the Fifth Concerto is an intriguing take on that nascent genre; its elaborate harpsichord part scintillating in Mahan Esfahani‘s rendition (not least the headlong ‘cadenza’ passage), with the more circumspect contributions of flute and violin no less appealingly taken by Fiona Kelly and Antje Weithaas. They remained in their respective roles for Uri Caine’s Hamsa, joined by the composer on piano for a piece whose ominous-sounding title is no more than the Arabic for ‘five’. What ensued was an object lesson in composing-out an already elaborate structure and it was hardly Caine’s fault if, at the end of a lengthy programme, this piece outstayed its welcome. Certainly, his attentive pianism and formal finesse would have held one’s attention in any other context.

The Brandenburg Project – 2

With its dextrous and, in the elevated central Andante, plangent interplay of violin and two recorders (the preferred option for those mythical ‘fiauti d’echo’ so designated by Bach), the Fourth Concerto is perhaps the most immediately attractive of these works; despatched with relish and not a little pathos by Kuusisto in partnership with Per Gross and Katarina Widell. As part of her response, Olga Neuwirth pointedly eschewed Double or even Triple Concerto connotations for a single flute as heard against an ensemble with two obligato trumpets and portable typewriter as part of the continuo. This, along with judicious use of tuning systems, gave her ‘ballet mécanomorphe’ which is Aello (2017 – the title that of a retributive Harpy) an insubstantial and capricious aura not without its more ominous and suspenseful qualities.

That the final two instalments segued directly between Brandenburg and commission was not their least fascination. In his Prelude – Approach to a Canon, Brett Dean came up with a methodical extemporisation where he and fellow violist Tabea Zimmermann pursued a fine line in ‘call and response’ with the ensemble; motifs from the Sixth Concerto being variously evoked and denied prior to a rhetorical lead-in to the Bach such as Schnittke might well have relished. With its scoring for low strings and its accordingly dark sonorities, this is the most intriguing of the Brandenburg’s – a Concerto for (or at least predicating) Two Violas whose intricately polyphonic opening movement makes way for winsome elegance in the Adagio then gallant buoyancy in the finale. Qualities to the fore in this most probing of accounts.

The segue was in the opposite direction for the final pairing, with the Second Concerto a putative Sinfonia Concertante whose modest dimensions belie the plethora of timbres and textures derived from its solo quartet. Kelly and Weithaas were partnered by oboist Mårten Larsson and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, their overt élan during the outer movements complemented by their wistful poise in the Andante. A sustained note from trumpet duly provided a link into Triceros  Steven Mackey’s typically resourceful response that deploys ‘family’ instruments (piccolo/alto flute, cor anglais and flugelhorn/piccolo trumpet) in music whose ingenious variations on Bach motifs readily evoke the title’s ‘three-horned chameleon’ through to a heady culmination then full-circle resumption of that trumpet note.

Maybe it would have been preferable to hear this latter trilogy in the published order (2-4-6), or at least end with the Sixth Concerto so that Bach’s music could have framed proceedings. Even so this was a fascinating and engrossing project, judiciously conceived and unfailingly well executed, such as confirmed both the intrinsic greatness of the Brandenburg Concertos and their continued relevance three centuries on. Might a similar Proms project be considered utilizing Bach’s Four Orchestral Suites or Handel’s Op. 6 Concerti Grossi? Let us hope so.

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

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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

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Beatrice Rana (photo Marie Staggat)

J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV988

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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

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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’.