Playlist – Christophe Rousset & Les Talens Lyriques

by Ben Hogwood

Christophe Rousset is a long-admired exponent of music from the Baroque period – but as this playlist shows, he should not be pinned down to that one era!

This year marks 30 years of his pioneering group Les Talens Lyriques, and the playlist below draws on recordings made in that period for the famous Universal imprint L’Oiseau Lyre, Decca and more recently the Bru Zane and Aparté labels. For the former Rousset conducted a landmark recording of Gounod’s Faust, released in 2019, while the latter are releasing three new albums this autumn.

Excerpts from the trio can be heard below, along with a celebration of Rousset’s contribution both as conductor and harpsichordist. There is much to enjoy here!

In concert – Alison Balsom & Anna Lapwood @ Chapel of St Augustine, Tonbridge School

Trad. arr. Oskar Lindberg Old Swedish Folk Song (unknown)
Kristina Arakelyan Modal Reeds (2021, world premiere)
Albinoni arr. Balsom / Lapwood Concerto in D Minor (1722)
Debussy arr. Lapwood Clair de Lune (1905); Syrinx (1913); The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (1910)
Britten arr. Lapwood Sunday Morning from Peter Grimes (1945)
Eben Okna (Windows): Green Window ‘Issachar’; Gold Window ‘Levi’ (1976)
J.S. Bach arr. Balsom / Lapwood Chorale Erbarm dich BWV 721 (unknown)
Owain Park Images (2018)
Alain arr. Balsom Litanies (1937)

Alison Balsom (trumpet), Anna Lapwood (organ), Sam Mendes (lighting director)

Chapel of St. Augustine, Tonbridge School, Tonbridge

15 October 2022

by Ben Hogwood

This was an inspirational evening of music, cleverly conceived and executed as the first in an impressive set of concerts to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Tonbridge Music Society. In its existence the society has attracted a stellar cast of classical and jazz artists to the Kent town, where they have a number of fine performing venues at their disposal. Even by their standards, however, this was an auspicious event.

Powered by a series of common musical denominators (and a shared love of Chelsea buns!), trumpeter Alison Balsom and organist Anna Lapwood created an immersive sequence of music for the striking Chapel of St Augustine in Tonbridge School. One of the many inspirations behind this was Alison’s teacher from the Guildhall School of Music, and her thank you gift took the form of an inspiring and memorable evening for many young performers, who in a ceremony afterwards were presented with a series of Diamond Music Awards given by TMS to support local musicians between the age of 5 and 18.

Both performers have a strong belief in giving back to their communities and passing on to the next generation of performers. The week leading up to the concert featured a master class given by Balsom for students of the school, and Lapwood’s continued personal and virtual encouragement for her many followers under the #playlikeagirl hashtag is bearing fruit if the young audience was anything to go by. Both showed why they can be lasting inspirations, their craft borne of a shared passion for the music they play.

Complementing the music was a lightshow, under the direction of Sam Mendes – Balsom’s husband, clearly relishing a more vocational night away from his film director profession. Running smoothly and logically, the music began with solo organ – and few would have been prepared for the immediate and bare emotion of the Old Swedish Folk Song arranged by Oskar Lindberg. We heard a counterpoint from Kristina Arakelyan, who was present for the world premiere of her similarly moving Modal Reeds. A cinematic piece led by Balsom, this had striking parallels to the film music of Thomas Newman in its rich harmonic palette and distinctive, bright textures. It made a strong impression.

The chapel was bathed in blue at this point, a subtle counterpoint to the music. Balsom then fell under the spotlight, moving to the organ loft for a spirited account of Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in D minor, its natural arrangement for trumpet making much of the heartfelt second movement, proving there is more than one Adagio bearing the composer’s name! Lapwood’s choice of registrations on the organ throughout the evening was ideal, but here especially she found a rewarding balance and sensitive phrasing.

A Debussy triptych followed – a mellow-voiced Clair de Lune, in the organist’s own arrangement, segueing neatly into Balsom’s account of Syrinx, the solo flute piece taking flight in its arrangement for trumpet. Both instruments combined in a plaintive account of The Girl With The Flaxen Hair.

The evening’s centrepiece was to follow, prefaced by a fiendishly difficult arrangement of Sunday Morning, second of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The longest stop on the organ came into play, rumbling beneath a vividly pictorial account where Balsom added a treble line. From here we moved to two substantial segments from Petr Eben’s Okna (Windows), a 1976 piece inspired by four of Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows. Coincidentally, only three miles down the road stands Tudeley parish church, the only site in England to feature original windows by the artist.

This piece is clearly special to Balsom, and the two gave a penetrating insight into Eben’s writing, taking two substantial excerpts. Lapwood exploited the organ’s colour, the mottled Green Window gathering intensity with some raucous interventions against Balsom’s fluid line. The steady build in the Gold Window was something special indeed, reaching an apex in what Balsom termed ‘the loudest B flat chord ever for non-amplified instruments’. It certainly left its mark here!

Great control was required for the floated melody of Bach’s chorale Erbarm dich before the evocative Images from Owain Park, to which the trumpet added a playful yet poignant treble line. Jehan Alain’s Litanies also benefited from this, the organ piece given an extra-ceremonial air to close proceedings. We were not fully done, however, as a softly played encore arrangement of Shenandoah held the audience rapt a little while longer.

Both artists should be applauded for their creativity and collaboration here, two words that sit towards the forefront of their thinking. The balance was ideal, a notable achievement given the familiar problems of tricky sightlines and the distance between the two performers. Mendes, too, should be credited for a sensitive response that cast a spell on those in the chapel, moving from cool blue hues to dramatic outlines in gold. A special evening indeed – how about reproducing it as a late-night Prom?

For more information on Anna Lapwood’s new Images album, featuring the piece from Owain Park, click here. Meanwhile for more on Alison Balsom’s recent release Quiet City, click here – and for more information on her debut album for EMI Classics (latterly Warner), containing a complete account of Petr Eben’s Okna, click here

In Appreciation – Lars Vogt

by Ben Hogwood

Yesterday we learned of the incredibly sad news that the pianist Lars Vogt had died, at the age of 51.

The warmth and appreciation of tributes paid to him from fellow artists yesterday evening testify to his warm personality, strength of character and great musicianship. Lars was diagnosed with cancer early in 2021, but even in his chemotherapy found that playing the piano channelled the most positive energy and feeling. Here, for instance, is a wonderful performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.24 given as part of the Parnu Festival with the Estonian Festival Orchestra and Paavo Järvi.

Lars was an extremely versatile artist, either as a soloist, chamber musician or conductor. Regular partners included violinist Christian Tetzlaff and cellist Truls Mørk, while he took part in a formidable piano trio with Christian and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff. He also proved himself a conductor of some note from the keyboard, directing the Royal Northern Sinfonia from the piano in recordings of the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms, and the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris in the concertos of Mendelssohn.

His orchestral partners spoke of him with great warmth, and certainly his time in Newcastle with the Royal Northern Sinfonia was characterised by energetic, creative music making and seasonal planning. My own memories of solo performance run back to a spellbinding account of the Goldberg Variations at Wigmore Hall:

As a concerto soloist I also recall a memorable account of BrahmsPiano Concerto no.2 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiří Bělohlávek at the Proms:

At the same festival, I also recall a full-blooded account of the Bartók Violin Sonata no.1 with Christian Tetzlaff:

As a recording artist, Vogt enjoyed many peaks, mostly in the company of the Ondine label. The playlist below brings together just a section of these recordings, in the knowledge that a couple more are yet to be released.

He will be greatly missed, and we send condolences to all his family and friends. His lasting gift to us is in the form of recordings we will treasure greatly:

An Easter Oratorio

This joyful piece of music was written by Bach in Leipzig, in April 1725. It has four vocal soloists, who take on the parts of Mary Magdalene (alto), the ‘other’ Mary (soprano) and the apostles Simon Peter (tenor) and John (bass).

It is a relatively short work, with a bright orchestra consisting of trumpets, timpani, wind and strings, and its celebratory air is perfect for the festival as it tells of the events of the first Easter day.

On paper – Steven Isserlis – The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion (Faber)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Ask Steven Isserlis the music he would take to a desert island, and his answer would surely be the six Bach Cello Suites. The cellist has lived with their music all his adult life, and having released his award-winning recording of them for Hyperion in 2007, he now expresses his deep love and admiration for them in written form.

What’s the book like?

In a word, invigorating. Having lived with the suites myself for 35+ years as an amateur cellist, your reviewer is very much a convert – but reading this gave me enthusiasm anew, for Isserlis reveals new treasures about this wonderful music at every turn.

Crucially he does this in a way that will appeal to cellists and non-cellists alike, and even those who struggle with musical terms. A helpful glossary is on hand to help here, but so is an introduction that sets out this celebration of six works where mystery, expression and originality walk hand-in-hand.

The origins of the suites are shrouded in mystery, right down to their authorship. Isserlis tackles these questions head-on, in a wholly compelling way. He confronts the doubts, examines the existing performing editions, and looks at the role of Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena in their publication, all without getting too bogged down in musicology. There is healthy but qualified assumption and speculation, made as a music lover but backed up with firm arguments from Bach scholars past and present.

Isserlis looks at the construction of each suite in great detail, marvelling at Bach’s consistent marriage of mathematical precision and emotional outpouring. He uses the scholarly texts but also leans heavily and most enjoyably on his perspective from the pure, musical instinct of a performer. This approach lifts the music from the page, frequently inspiring the reader to listen along.

This instinct leads to a central, compelling case for a subtext for the suites, describing the life of Christ in a way that can be keenly experienced by the listener but which also makes a great deal of musical sense, with the caveat that the cellist’s conclusions are largely speculative.

What is beyond doubt is the technical mastery shown by Bach in writing for the cello, and the inspiration that flowed so readily and so inevitably in writing the suites, lifting the instrument and its potential to a higher plain. The six suites are remarkable pieces both individually and collectively, as are the six movements of each – and Isserlis brings them to life as he writes. He celebrates their role in the life of any cellist while also, under his breath, lightly cursing some of the technical difficulties as the cycle progresses.

Readers can opt to take the book from start to finish, taking in each of the 36 movements, but the layout rewards repeat visits to dip in to individual parts and elements of their composition. This is ideal not just for serious, practicing cellists but also for individual listener preferences.

Does it all work?

Yes, in several ways. Isserlis is a fluent and passionate writer, putting the music first at all times, so that reading the book will almost always lead to a first hand encounter with the music. That is the surest guide to success for any book on music, surely!

Is it recommended?

Yes, on pretty much every level. For cellists – either full or part-time, like your reviewer – this book is essential and thought-provoking reading. It reveals afresh the many delights to be found in experiencing this wonderful music, and will also make you want to listen to more Bach, the choral works especially, to explore the fascinating parallels drawn between these and the suites.

Non-cellists should not hesitate to approach the book either, for there are many entertaining and thoughtful stories in the book that prove richly rewarding.

This is a fine achievement, celebrating a body of work that all cellists hold dear. The music lifts from the page and into our homes with an easy candour and compelling storytelling. It is a wonderful achievement.