BBC Proms – Nielsen Fifth Symphony; Schumann Violin Concerto & Jörg Widmann’s Armonica – BBC Philharmonic / Storgårds

prom-23-1

John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms on Monday 1 August. (c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 23; Royal Albert Hall, Monday 1 August 2016

Widmann Armonica (2006) [UK premiere] [Christa Schönfeldinger (glass harmonica), Teodoro Anzellotti, (accordion)]

Schumann Violin Concerto in D minor (1853) (Thomas Zehetmair, violin)

Sibelius The Tempest – Prelude (1925)

Nielsen Symphony No.5 (1922)

Listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Tonight’s Prom brought a first visit this season from the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by its principal guest conductor John Storgårds in a wide-ranging programme which began in ethereal near-silence and ended in a blaze of affirmation rarely equalled this past century.

The relative silence was to be found in Armonica, among the most distinctive pieces by Jörg Widmann in that it features a solo role for glass harmonica – partnered here by the more abrasive sound of accordion in music which emerges into then evanesces out of focus; heard against a backdrop where indebtedness to Ligeti’s earlier orchestral works does not preclude a wealth of imaginative textures, particularly in the opening minutes. Christa Schönfeldinger and Teodoro Anzellotti interacted seamlessly, not least in those overly gestural closing pages.

prom-23-2

Christa Schönfeldinger performs Widmann’s Armonica with and Teodoro Anzellotti, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. (c) Chris Christodolou

Perhaps it was such ethereal sounds that the ailing Schumann heard over the troubled weeks prior to his final breakdown. If so, little of this otherworldliness found its way into the Violin Concerto which was his last major work. Its having been kept under wraps for eight decades, then miraculously relocated near the outset of the Nazi era, has passed into legend. Musically the piece can verge on the routine, not least a first movement whose progress is more than a little dogged due to insufficiently contrasted ideas, then a finale whose underlying polonaise rhythm abets the repetitiveness. Best is a slow movement that revisits Schumann’s ‘romanza’ idiom a last time; its enervated aura exquisitely judged by Thomas Zehetmair and Storgårds – musicians who have (uniquely?) encountered this unsettling work both as soloist and conductor.

The emotional temperature rose appreciably in the second half – first with the Prelude from the extensive incidental music Sibelius wrote for a Copenhagen production of The Tempest. Guardedly admired at first, it has latterly been hailed as a precursor of tonal innovations half a century on. While his account was not lacking for physical immediacy, Storgårds chose to emphasize those modal contours that spread across woodwind and brass as the piece moves beyond its climax towards as tenuous a resolution as any during the first half of last century.

How to wrest resolution from apparent chaos was the goal for Nielsen in his Fifth Symphony, a work that has rightly moved towards the centre of the repertoire over the past two decades. Consistency was the watchword of Storgårds’s interpretation – finding an unarguable ‘tempo giusto’ for the initial half of the first movement, its unfolding across shifting tonal planes as finely articulated as the intensifying ambivalence that suddenly clears going into the Adagio rejoinder. The climax had suitably majestic import, and it was hardly Paul Patrick’s fault if his side-drum ‘cadenza’ was outshone by John Bradbury’s plangent clarinet solo in the coda. The second movement’s propulsive opening Allegro was well judged and if Storgårds risked momentum in the curious bitonal transition, the ensuing Presto had the right headlong energy.

Nor was there any lack of focus in the fugal Andante which gradually works its way to where the earlier resolve can be regained, albeit now with a formal and expressive closure as makes possible a thrilling peroration that was superbly gauged at the end of this impressive reading.

Richard Whitehouse

On record: Oberon Symphony Orchestra – Beethoven, Dvořák, Grieg & Langgaard

oberon

Beethoven: Symphony No.6 ‘Pastoral’; Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor (Rohan de Saram (cello), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper)
Recorded live at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, London on 19th October, 2013

Grieg: Peer Gynt – Suites Nos. 1 & 2; Langgaard: Symphony No. 4 ‘Løvfald’ (UK premiere); Sibelius: Symphony No.5 (Oberon Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Draper)
Recorded live at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, London on 27th September, 2014

Now nearing the end of its fourth season, the Oberon Symphony has already established itself as an orchestra equally at home in the standard repertoire and relatively unfamiliar music; its conductor, Samuel Draper, as attentive to the letter of the score in question as to the spirit that informs it. These discs, comprising two out of its 13 concerts to date, typify the questing spirit of its performances: these are presented unedited, with no attempt to disguise passing flaws in ensemble or intonation – not that this lessens appreciation of some committed music-making.

What’s the music like?

The first disc juxtaposes two seminal pieces from either end of the 19th century. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony has been described as the last of his works where beauty of sound and richness of texture predominate, and Draper acknowledges this in his unforced approach to the opening Allegro then his leisurely though never sluggish handling of its Andante. Some felicitous woodwind playing here (not least with the interplay of bird-calls towards its close) is further evident in the scherzo, even if the earnest characterization arguably pre-empts the ‘Storm’ movement which emerges as sombre rather than elemental. The highlight is a finale that rightly carries the expressive weight of the whole, its progress underpinned by an elusive if tangible onward motion which holds good through to a radiant climax and searching close.

The performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto features Rohan de Saram, for many years the cellist of the Arditti Quartet and a soloist whose perspective on arguably the finest work in its genre is distinctive and refreshing. Thus the initial Allegro is rendered with the necessary emotional breadth, its expansive though never unduly protracted formal design confidently unfolded despite passing technical fallibilities, while the central Adagio is even finer in its mingling of wistfulness with those passionate outbursts as open-out the music’s expression accordingly. De Saram’s inward eloquence comes into its own both here and in the extended coda to the finale, an inspired afterthought (prompted by the death of the composer’s sister-in-law) whose intense retrospection makes the concluding bars more affirmative in context.

The second disc has the Oberon SO venturing into more esoteric realms with the UK premiere of the Fourth Symphony by the Danish composer Rued Langgaard. Langgaard (1893-1952) is among the more prominent instances of a creative figure who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, yet between his heady early success and the neglect prevalent from the mid-1920s onwards is a series of works that ought to have established him among the leading European composers of his generation. Not least the Fourth Symphony (1916): its subtitle, ‘Fall of the Leaf’, is often rendered as ‘Autumn’ though the seasonal process of change and decay surely has a metaphysical and even apocalyptic resonance. Its single movement, in eight continuous sections, is best heard as an expanded sonata-form design overlaid by continuous variation.

Certainly the plunging gesture with which it opens sets the tone for what follows and Draper amply brings out this fatalistic defiance, then ensures a seamless transition into the plaintive second main theme whose opulent expansion on strings at the end of the exposition is among the work’s highpoints. Nor does the central span risk diffusiveness, Draper as attentive to the geyser-like eruptions on strings and woodwind at its apex as to the mesmeric transition when oboe unfolds a plangent melodic line over a string cluster of inward intensity. Exposed string writing is for the most part securely managed, and while Draper cannot quite prevent the final stages from hanging fire, he secures the necessary momentum heading into the coda with its startling bell-like ostinatos, then a final build-up in which dread and decisiveness are as one.

This concert commences with three pieces from Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt. ‘Morning’ is rapturously expressive, while ‘The Death of Åse’ avoids undue vehemence, its inward final bars preparing for a ‘Solveig’s Song’ whose indelible main melody never becomes cloying.
Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is given a sympathetic if not always ideally focussed reading. The first movement is finely launched, Draper ensuring the altered exposition repeat has the right cumulative intensity, with the majestic central climax moving convincingly into its ‘scherzo’ continuation where progress can be fitful, yet the coda lacks little in velocity. More debatable is a second movement which emerges as a slow intermezzo, its progress having insufficient lightness of touch as the music takes on a greater ambivalence prior to its winsome close. In the finale, Draper elides ideally between the surging impetus and airborne rapture of its main themes; if Sibelius’ ingenious design feels at times uncertain, neither the glowing affirmation of its coda nor the decisiveness of those six closing chords (taken ‘in tempo’) can be gainsaid.

Does it all work?

On both discs, the warm while occasionally diffuse sound is in keeping with the acoustic of St. James’s Sussex Gardens, with the booklets including full personnel for each concert and some excellent booklet notes (notably from Hannah Nepil on Dvořák and Andrew Mellor on Langgaard) – though Draper’s name might reasonably have featured on both the front covers.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The discs are obtainable either at the Oberon SO’s concerts (the next of these is on September 17th), or directly via the orchestra’s website

Wigmore Mondays – Baiba and Lauma Skride play Nordic works for violin and piano

skride

Baiba Skride (violin) and her sister Lauma (piano, both above)

Wigmore Hall, London, 2 May 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b078wy1n

Available until 31 May

What’s the music?

Sibelius Four Pieces Op. 78 (1915-17) (13 minutes)

Vasks Maza vasaras muzika (Little Summer Music) (1985) (10 minutes)

Rautavaara Summer Thoughts (1972/2008) (4 minutes)

Nielsen Violin Sonata No. 2 in G minor Op. 35 (1912) (20 minutes)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below. Neither of the Skride sisters have recorded this repertoire before, but there are other versions picked out instead:

About the music

An intriguing program based on the first instrument of composers Sibelius and Nielsen – the violin. While both composers wrote violin concertos that are either extremely well known (Sibelius) or appreciating gradually (Nielsen) their music for violin and piano is almost shrouded in secrecy.

Sibelius wrote a few sonatas but much more in the way of short pieces for violin and piano, many of which were requested as commissions for the salon market. The four here are characteristic examples of a composer who uses economy in his writing, often ending his pieces abruptly but using music of charm and poise – and inventive textures.

Nielsen’s Violin Sonatas are rarely heard, but the second sonata, completed in 1912, is a substantial piece that shows the composer’s ease with dealing in bigger forms of music. The second sonata falls between the third and fourth symphonies in his output.

We also hear shorter pieces for violin and piano by two composers heavily influenced by Sibelius and Nielsen, the Latvian Peteris Vasks and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. The warmth felt in both sets of pieces show how Nordic music is not just about the cold!

Performance verdict

Arcana was not at the concert at the Wigmore Hall, but listening to the broadcast it is clear of the involvement both performers have in these works.

The deep-seated passion running through the third of the Sibelius pieces is striking and intense, with the technical mastery of what sounds like a tricky Rigaudon very stylishly achieved.

If anything the Second Violin Sonata of Nielsen carries a greater impact, for this is an impressive piece of work whose stature grows with each hearing. It is unjustly neglected for sure, and the Skride sisters give it an excellent performance here, the violinist’s tone especially impressive in the longer notes used by the composer for many of his themes.

Providing light for the relative shade are the works by Vasks and Rautavaara, full of charm, warmth and melodic invention. They complete a program with an outdoor feel, and both performers give this seldom-heard music the fresh performances it deserves.

What should I listen out for?

Sibelius

1:57 Impromptu The first piece of the four has a dreamy piano and more energetic violin, which feels free spirited over the relatively static harmony.

4:01 Romance The sweet tone of the romance is carried by the violin’s melody over a calm piano accompaniment. There is a childlike quality to the main material reminiscent of Schumann, but the music becomes more passionate.

7:14 Religioso A heavier feel to this, especially in the piano, which uses more of the keyboard in its part, and the lower register of the violin too. A melancholy piece.

12:55 Rigaudon A French dance that starts commandingly in the major key but then has a brief shadow of darkness (13:19) when it shifts into the minor. The rhythm is often syncopated in a way that suggests the tango, and the piece ends abruptly – as so many Sibelius pieces do!

Vasks

16:42 The opening section of this piece (marked Breit, Klangvoll) sounds like bird calls exchanged between the violin and piano.

17:55 A slow episode (marked Nicht Eiland), sweetly sung by the violin.

19:27 A dance, led by the violin, with a rustic, outdoor feel.

21:10 The music takes a serious tone, moving to a minor key, and appears lost in thought.

23:53 –  a glittering descent on the piano (a glissando) introduces another folksy section, with an outdoor feel.

25:21 – once again we hear the first section, with its bird calls.

Rautavaara

27:14 – Rautavaara’s interpretation of summer is a dreamy one, with a wandering line on the piano, but it gradually gathers its intensity for a passionate middle section, falling back and then gathering once again with the violin holding long, lyrical notes. It then fades into the middle distance.

Nielsen

32:25 – initially the mood is calm, starting on the lowest note of the violin, but the music wanders and soon the violinist is taking charge of a passionate section that includes a grand theme in C major around 34:31. By 37:30 the music is a little lighter on its feet but the exchanges continue to brim with passion. The movement ends with reflection at 39:40.

39:55 – the slow movement begins with a broad melody from the violin. The long notes are countered with a restless piano part. That spills over into a fraught statement at 40:48, after which the music calms down. The piano figure can never be fully shaken off however, and even when the movement ends sweetly at 46:48 it does so with the two note progression the piano used almost all the way through.

47:18 – the third and final movement flows with more serenity, and then the piano at 48:44 introduces a jubilant episode, joined in a high register by the violin. By this point the music has reached E major – the same key Nielsen uses as a home base in his exuberant Symphony no.4 (the Inextinguishable). The music gathers greater energy, and at 51:10 the piano hammers out brittle, percussive notes before the music fades to end.

Encore

53:11 – the Mazurka by Sibelius, Op.81/1, the first of five published pieces. This is a piece with plenty of fire in its introduction, but charm when the theme is heard again, softly, at 53:52. The violin has to move between passionate low register tune and a swift upsurge to the high register.

Further listening

Baiba Skride has recorded both the Sibelius and Nielsen Violin Concertos, and these can be heard in company with Sibelius’ 2 Serenades for violin and orchestra. They are on Spotify here:

Wigmore Mondays – Esther Yoo & Zhang Zuo play Mendelssohn & Sibelius

esther-yoo

Esther Yoo (violin), Zhang Zuo (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 21 March 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07457qx

Available until 20 April

What’s the music?

Bach – Chaconne from the Solo Violin Partita no.2 in D minor, BWV 1004 (c1720) (15 minutes)

Sibelius – Sonatina for violin and piano in E major, Op.80 (1915) (12 minutes)

Glazunov – Grand Adagio from Raymonda (Act 1) (1898) (4 minutes)

Mendelssohn – Violin Sonata in F major (1838) (21 minutes)

Spotify

In case you are not able to hear the radio broadcast, here is a link to a playlist of the music played. Esther Yoo has not recorded any of it in violin and piano form, so substitute versions have been used:

About the music

Sibelius wrote a great deal of music for the violin but other than the famous Violin Concerto, very little of it is heard regularly these days. It is therefore a refreshing change to see the E major Sonatina listed. A relatively short work, it helped Sibelius through a particularly testing time with his finances.

Mendelssohn has a number of parallels with Sibelius where the violin is concerned, writing a famous Violin Concerto that gets played at the expense of pretty much everything else. Once again in this case there are works for violin and piano, and the Violin Sonata chosen for this concert is the most substantial, completed in 1838. For some unexplained reason it was not published in Mendelssohn’s lifetime, and was resurrected by Yehudi Menuhin in the 1950s.

Esther Yoo begins the concert alone, with Bach’s famous Chaconne – taken from his Solo Violin Partita no.2. It is a landmark in solo instrument writing, a tour de force of 64 different versions of the same sequence of chords that Bach develops with ever greater virtuosity.

She complements the Sibelius, meanwhile, with a short piece – an excerpt of a love scene from Glazunov’s ballet Raymonda.

Performance verdict

A refreshing program from Esther Yoo, who has just recorded a very well-received disc of Sibelius and Glazunov with Vladimir Ashkenazy.

It was particularly good to report a rare outing for the Sibelius Sonatina, a piece with energy and fresh invention that definitely sweeps away the cobwebs! Yoo and her musical partner Zhang Zuo (known as ‘Zee-Zee’) gave a performance full of enthusiasm and energy, giving Sibelius’ melodies a real shot in the arm. Prior to this Yoo had greatly impressed with her account of the Bach Chaconne, a deliberately slow and careful start gathering in pace and intensity, taking the fearsome technical challenges in her stride.

Glazunov’s Grand Adagio made a fitting complement to the Sibelius, invested with suitable passion, but the real discovery was the Mendelssohn, a piece of great craftsmanship and, in the slow movement, a depth of feeling unusual even for him. The two performers had great chemistry here and clearly enjoyed their interactions through the faster music, taking time in the slow movement to let the hymn-like passage sing.

An excellent concert concluded with a Korean folksong arranged for violin and piano, played with delicacy and then great gusto!

What should I listen out for?

Bach

1:28 – the violin begins with a grand statement of a chord sequence which it then proceeds to spin out over 64 variations, reaching great intensity in the string crossing around 7:30. The variations are set mostly in the minor key but move to the major at 9:15. Bach gives an enormous variety of colour, speed, attack, repose and musicality, starting relatively slowly but moving to passages of increasing difficulty and intensity, notably the string-crossing passage mentioned above, but this is also one of his most profound pieces of music when interpreted well. The music turns back to the minor key with impressive dramatic effect.

Bach often asks for the violin to employ ‘multiple stopping’; that is, playing more than one note at a time – which means the music can sound as though it is in many parts, despite still being played on the one instrument.

Sibelius

18:49 – a bold start from Sibelius, with the colour from the piano recognisably his. The grand introduction cuts to a quicker theme at 19:30 which suggests the outdoors. The music trips along at quite a pace – as so often Sibelius suggesting quick movement in his music. It also ends with a typical lack of fuss.

22:25 – the thoughtful second movement starts to spread its wings with the emergence of a rather beautiful melody from the violin.

27:03 – a broad melody on the lower register of the violin restores a grand air to the piece, though soon the violin twists upwards. The music gets faster again, returning us to the spirit of the first movement, with energy and grace in equal measure. Up to the end it becomes increasingly breathless, Sibelius throwing in a surprisingly light finish.

Glazunov

31:05 – as you might expect from a declaration of love in a Russian ballet, this is deeply passionate music, with a melody tailor made for the violin. With long phrases and sweeping gestures the music swoons. The violin reaches for the heights around 34:35, before sinking gracefully into a soft coda.

Mendelssohn

36:47 – it is difficult to understand why Mendelssohn did not publish his Violin Sonata when it starts as brightly as it does in this performance. A distinctive theme leads to close interplay between violin and piano. This being Mendelssohn there is a typically busy piano part, but there is a particularly nice, spring-like passage around 40:00 where the music slows and the composer’s lyrical side comes out.

45:38 – the slow movement is an unexpected treat, one of Mendelssohn’s most searching emotionally. It begins with a solemn statement on the piano, joined by the violin in

52:40 – a typically brisk Mendelssohn finale, the violin scampering off with the piano in hot pursuit. Initially there is barely room for breath, right up until a contrasting slower section.

Further listening

Yoo’s new disc would seem the ideal place to go next, containing Glazunov’s Violin Concerto as well as the one by Sibelius. It has been very well received and can be heard here:

Meanwhile you can watch a preview of the disc here:

Keith Emerson

The sad news today is that Keith Emerson, spearhead of the legendary trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, has died aged 71.

The group could be regarded as the original pirates of classical music, taking pieces by Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bach, Bartók and – famously – Musorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition, reworking them affectionately for rock band and a new audience.

By way of tribute, here they are in their most famous arrangement of all, Copland‘s Fanfare for the Common Man:

A full appreciation of Emerson’s achievements, especially with regard to his use of classical music, will follow in due course.