Live review – London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle: Stravinsky, Birtwistle & John Adams

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (above)

Barbican Hall, London
Thursday 2 May 2019

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (original version) (1920)
Birtwistle The Shadow of Night (2001)
John Adams Harmonielehre (1985)

Written by Ben Hogwood

These days attending a London Symphony Orchestra concert brings with it a guarantee of intriguing programming and breathtaking musicianship. This one had a real ‘darkness to light’ demeanour, moving from the blacker than black recesses of Sir Harrison Birtwistle to the wide open, sunlit panoramas created by John Adams.

Before that, a composer whose influence could be keenly felt in the music of both composers. Stravinsky made many innovations in pieces other than his celebrated Rite of Spring, and Symphonies of Wind Instruments could certainly be regarded as one of his most original. With the term ‘symphony’ interpreted through its original meaning, the ‘concord of sound’, Stravinsky proceeds to build an innovative one-movement piece that contrasts busy movement with still reflection.

The instrumentation is fascinating, especially in the original version, which uses alto clarinet and alto flute. It explains the simply wonderful sounds made by the 24-piece London Symphony Orchestra wind and brass, the rich chords often baleful and downcast (the piece is a memorial to Debussy) but the faster music sprightly and energetic. A better performance of this piece would be hard to imagine, energetically guided by Sir Simon Rattle.

The music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle continues to split opinion. For this particular listener it is not an easy prospect, and I confess to having developed headaches in previous performances of Earth Dances and Neruda Madrigales, while admiring The Moth Requiem and Silbury Air. I therefore approached The Shadows of Night with some trepidation, but found it an ultimately rewarding score, its heavy darkness punctuated by relieving solos of glittering light from bassoon and E-flat clarinet, where Chi Yu Mo was simply superb.

Birtwistle’s colouring of the lower regions of the string orchestra is particularly fine, and the first five minutes were a sonic wonder to behold, as though the Barbican had opened up into a monstrous cave. Then the piccolo stated a John Dowland song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, after which the piece lumbered through a number of sections with gathering tension. Once this was released the clarinet worked its magic, and Rattle set us down in a heap for the interval.

Following Birtwistle with John Adams was like throwing open the curtains to greet a sun-splashed new morning, and the LSO sparkled with what seemed to be new-found freedom. Harmonielehre delights in tonality, politely rejecting Schoenberg’s treatise of the same name to power forward with terrific rhythmic impetus and walls of consonant harmonies. Within themselves these create some exquisite dissonance and colour, with the brass and percussion in particular shining through. Rattle has this piece under his skin, having recorded it with the CBSO in 1993, and if anything his interpretation has gained speed and electricity. as the composer himself noted on Twitter!

The audience were swept up in the cumulative power and energy of the piece, particularly in its closing section, which carried all before it. Of all the prominent exponents of minimalism, Adams has the most effective orchestral writing, and his clear signposts of influences (Sibelius Symphony no.4, Stravinsky, Debussy and even Britten) were all used to original effect. It was an invigorating close to a terrific concert.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

You can read Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s thoughts on The Shadow of Night at his publisher Boosey & Hawkes’ website, and John Adams talks about Harmonielehre on his own webpage

Wigmore Mondays: Augustin Hadelich & Charles Owen – Brahms, Ysaÿe & Adams

Augustin Hadelich (violin, above), Charles Owen (piano, below)

Brahms Violin Sonata no.1 in G major Op.78 (1878-9) (1:57-28:08)
Ysaÿe Sonata for solo violin no.4 in E minor Op.27/4 ‘Fritz Kreisler’ (1923) (30:31-40:44)
Adams Road Movies (1995) (43:33-1:00:24)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 10 December 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was the third Monday lunchtime in the last six weeks where BBC Radio 3 and the Wigmore Hall have been concentrating on music for violin and piano. This nicely constructed recital complemented the previous pair from Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova, and Tai Murray and Silke Avenhaus, where we had heard two of the three violin sonatas by Grieg.

On this occasion we heard a contemporary of those works, the BrahmsViolin Sonata no.1 in G major – a work written for his friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim – and one also picked up by Clara Schumann. It is a highly attractive work and received an affectionate performance here, Augustin Hadelich and Charles Owen straight into the beatific air of the first movement (from 1:57 on the broadcast) With an equally genial theme from 3:24, this was Brahms at his most radiant, with a sweet tone from the violinist and flowing countermelodies from Owen. The airy role reversal at 5:20, with Owen playing the tune and Hadelich giving pizzicato (plucked) accompaniment was a lovely moment – as was the content beginning of the coda (11:35). In between this the music was passionate and animated, Brahms developing his source material.

The second movement (from 12:34) also benefited from Hadelich’s sweetly toned instrument, shaping up to be a lovely reverie until a much more animated central section blew away the cobwebs (15:00). Returning at 16:23, the main theme gained an extra layer from double stopping on the violin (playing more than one string at once), and Owen’s piano line continued as a model of sensitivity.

Clara Schumann stated that she would happily have the last movement of this sonata to accompany her on her journey ‘to the next world’, and you could hear why in this performance (from 20:05), which brought out its bittersweet quality. Brahms moves between G minor and G major, a delicate balancing act of music that sounds a bit fretful and gentler, uplifting thoughts. Hadelich and Owen caught them perfectly here, the latter’s nicely pointed piano working particularly well on the dance-like second idea of the movement. From 25:37 the major-minor tension resumed, resolved in a serene coda from 26:20, ending quietly.

Ysaÿe wrote his six solo violin sonatas at great speed, publishing them all together in 1923. The fourth pays particular homage to Bach, incorporating the dance forms that were used in his Sonatas and Suites for solo stringed instruments. It was dedicated to the violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler, one of the very greatest string players. Not surprisingly it makes technical demands on the performer but Hadelich was brilliant here (from 30:31), careful not to overdo the virtuosity at the expense of musical communication.

The three sections of the sonata moved from a dramatic first movement Allemanda (30:31) through a slowly evolving Sarabande used by the composer as a fugue (34:50) and then a bracing Finale (37:57). The Sarabande had the most striking sonorities of the three, thanks to the inventive pizzicato techniques matched spotlessly by Hadelich, but the last movement was a tour de force with which to finish!

Following this was one of the first pieces John Adams wrote for chamber forces, his evocative trip Road Movies, after a period where he admits to ‘studiously avoiding the chamber music format’. Yet, as this entertaining three movement piece proves, his music translates effortlessly to the smaller scale. The piano (played heroically here by Charles Owen!) supplies a lot of the rhythmic impetus and the bass foundations, leaving the violin to operate more freely up top.

The first movement, Relaxed Groove, is described by the composer as ‘a relaxed drive down a not unfamiliar road. Material is recirculated in a sequence of recalls that suggest a rondo form’. Both performers got to the nub of the bluesy music straight away, and also evoked the ‘solitary figure in an empty desert landscape’ in the second movement, entitled Meditative (49:11), where Hadelich had to detune his bottom string from a ‘G’ to an ‘F’. Finally the toe-tapping 40% Swing (55:19) closed out this virtuosic piece, both players smiling as they enjoyed its grooves and motifs.

We disembarked from the Adams vehicle, but an encore was waiting to see us on our way – a rather fine arrangement by Ysaÿe of the Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor, played with appropriate tenderness by Hadelich. Owen’s flowing accompaniment, too, was finely judged.

Further listening

Augustin Hadelich has not yet recorded any of the works in this recital, but the following playlist brings together the music heard in the concert, including a version of the encore arranged by Nathan Milstein:

For those enjoying the Ysaÿe Solo Sonata, a logical next port of call would be the unaccompanied 24 Caprices by Paganini, which Hadelich has recently recorded:

For those enjoying the Adams, here is a disc including not just Road Movies but a collection of the composer’s works for keyboard:

Live review – Kensington SO / Russell Keable: William Schuman 3rd Symphony, Adams, Bernstein & Tower

Kensington Symphony OrchestraRussell Keable (above)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London. Monday October 15, 2018

Tower Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 (1986)
Bernstein Divertimento (1980)
Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007, rev 2008)
Schuman Symphony No. 3 (1941)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra‘s 63rd season got off to a most impressive start with tonight’s concert of American music (simultaneously continuing the Americana ’18 festival taking place at St John’s during this year), opening with the Fanfare for the Common Woman with which Joan Tower launched her wider reputation over three decades ago. Rhythmically bracing while not without harmonic subtlety, it provided a fitting showcase for the KSO brass and percussion as well as a pertinent tribute to this composer in the year of her 70th birthday.

Leonard Bernstein‘s centenary was marked with his Divertimento, seven succinct movements that touch upon most of his salient traits and a reminder that his latter-day creativity was one where less equals more. Highlights include a delectable Waltz (enjoying frequent exposure on Classic FM), wistful Mazurka, evocative Blues then a rousing March: The BSO Forever whose Johann Strauss take-off duly makes for an uproarious close. Suffice to add the KSO was not found wanting in a piece written for the Boston Symphony’s own 100th birthday.

As Russell Keable‘s opening remarks made plain, John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony was an altogether more serious proposition. First heard at the 2007 Proms, the rather diffuse 45-minute work in four movements was duly streamlined into a continuous structure lasting barely half an hour. Surprising, then, that the result seems less than cohesive – its reworking of material from the composer’s third opera one of cinematic contrast than symphonic unity. Some of his most virtuoso orchestral writing, which the KSO tackled with relish, is hampered by the recourse to post-minimalist gestures that remain Adams’s (unwitting?) stock-in-trade. Even the final section, a setting of John Donne‘s sonnet Batter my heart with its baritone part taken by trumpet (here the mellifluous Stephen Willcox), felt less than truly affecting.

After the interval, a welcome revival (likely the first in London for two decades) for William Schuman‘s Third Symphony. One of a triumvirate of such pieces by American composers to emerge either side of the Second World War, it evinces a formal integration and expressive panache that its composer never surpassed – not least in the way its four movements are arranged in two larger parts such as complement each other unerringly, and with a steadily accumulating momentum which emerges across the whole in what is itself a marvel of tensile dynamism.

Keable delineated the variations of the initial Passacaglia with assurance, ensuring textural clarity here and in the ensuing Fugue while underlining how the numerous woodwind and brass solos emerge naturally from the string polyphony rather than sounding laminated onto it. Nor was there any lack of emotional poise with the Chorale, its understated eloquence in contrast to the inexorably mounting impetus of the closing Toccata whose final pages are as visceral as any in the symphonic literature – not least when rendered with such verve as here.

A memorable reading of a seminal though under-appreciated piece such as the KSO has long championed. Hopefully future seasons will see revivals of comparable American works – the Second Symphony of Roger Sessions and Seventh (Variation) Symphony of Peter Mennin.

For further information on the Kensington Symphony Orchestra you can visit the orchestra’s website

Live review – O/Modernt / Hugo Ticciati at Kings Place: Looping Time

O/Modernt (above) / Hugo Ticciati (below)

Hall One, Kings Place, Friday 21 September 2018

Tüür Violin Concerto no.2 Angel’s Share (2018)
Adams Shaker Loops (1978)
Pérotin arr. Johannes Marmén Viderunt omnes (c1200)
Glass Symphony no.3 (1995)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The Time Unwrapped series at Kings Place has dealt out a number of very interesting concerts. This program from the young Swedish-based but European-sourced O/Modernt chamber orchestra combined established minimalist forebears with new interpretations of working with small musical cells – or waveforms as the program called it.

In a change to the order of the program we began with the Violin Concerto no.2 of Erki-Sven Tüür, premiered in the composer’s native Estonia earlier this year. Tüür has an intriguing past where progressive rock meets classical, and it has furnished him with a very strong sense of dramatic structure and the gift for vivid storytelling. This work, subtitled Angel’s Share, was all about interpreting the gap of air that appears in the barrel during the ageing of whisky, and how that can be applied to the wisdom of an adult as they grow older, ‘letting go of the unpleasant tastes’ in the words of the composer.

Cannily he captured this in musical terms, culminating with the release of the cork at the start of the concerto’s third movement, where the (sadly unnamed) percussionist dealt a striking blow. The start employed the other end of the percussive spectrum, with a high metallic note from which Ticciati’s solo part germinated. The soloist was superb, inhabiting the part and its distinctive figures, while the strings’ counterpoint was consistently absorbing and meaningful, right up to the affirmative finish. It would be great to hear this work again soon, and certainly those present appreciated it – among them violinist Fenella Humphreys.

John AdamsShaker Loops followed, a relatively early minimalist classic from 1978 that remains a success in concert. The near-constant tremolos require great stamina and control on the part of the string players, but that was never an issue with the 19-strong orchestra here, who danced and shimmered in tune with a sensitively handled light display. Double bassists Ben Griffiths and Jordi Carrasco Hjelm were the rock on which the three-movement piece stood, but the way the slower lines undulated over the top was particularly affecting, capturing the deep spiritual roots of the piece – which is after all a representation in music of ‘shaking’. Adams is in thrall to Sibelius when he writes for strings in this way, but the harmonic language is an extension and has a distinctly wide-open, American feel. Ticciati and his charges took us out onto that plain.

Johannes Marmén‘s arrangement of Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes opened the second half, a curiousity that showed how even in the 1200s music had minimalist tendencies. On occasion it was difficult to see Perotin’s original thinking, however, as the arrangement took hold, but the final paragraph from the double basses took us back into his world. It showed how ancient and modern can still integrate – we use largely the same notes after all – and how both are still relevant and complement each other. The fly in the ointment, unfortunately, was extraneous but unidentified noise from the roof of Hall One that threatened to disrupt the performance.

Ticciati had to acknowledge it with a rueful smile before moving straight into the jewel of tonight’s crown, Philip Glass’s Symphony no.3. The previous work in his symphonic output is on Brucknerian dimensions, running for nearly an hour, but in the Third Glass compresses his musical argument into an impressive, cohesive whole. O/Modernt got right to the heart of the small cells that are cleverly manipulated here, but also found the deep emotion of the central Chaconne, which has a dark heart but opens out with major key harmonies to find greater optimism – before going back into the minor key again. It is an ebb and flow that proves extremely affecting on repetition, and was the centrepiece of a fine performance, whose outer movements showed the virtuosity of these string players to the highest degree.

This was a very fine concert and an ideal showcase for minimalism as an extremely valid form of composition, showing also that there is a sizable library beyond the works of Steve Reich. By way of an encore we had Rufus Wainwright in the style of John Adams, his song Across the Universe played with beautiful precision and lovingly directed by Ticciati.

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