Live review – Nash Ensemble: War’s Embers – Elgar Piano Quintet & John Ireland Piano Trio no.2

Nash Ensemble (above) [Ian Brown (piano), Stephanie Gonley, Michael Gurevich (violins), David Adams (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello) (N.B. the line-up pictured above is not the same as the one appearing at this concert)

LSO St Luke’s, Friday 12 October 2018 (lunchtime concert)

Ireland Piano Trio no.2 (1917)
Elgar Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84 (1918)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The First World War had a profound effect on composers of classical music. Many of them served or were closely involved with the conflict, and even those who weren’t used their music as a vehicle for the shock and dismay felt at the turn of events.

John Ireland expressed his horror through two chamber works completed in 1917, the Violin Sonata no.2 and the Piano Trio no.2. The latter work began this concert from the Nash Ensemble, part of their War’s Embers series focusing on music written around the War in England. Set in one compact movement, it is a powerfully expressive utterance, even when the music is quiet – as it was when the first cello melody began – to when it reaches peaks of intensity in the march sections, depicting the war itself. Ian Brown, Stephanie Gonley and Adrian Brendel were united in voice, their three instruments often linked in melody, while Brendel’s eloquent solo at the start set the solemn tone.

Stylistically the work draws part of its inspiration from Debussy and Ravel, and these links were nicely played up by the trio, but the opening music dominated to the point of obsession, sweeping all before it. As evidenced in an interview with BBC Radio 3 host Fiona Talkington after the performance, the players had a clear understanding of Ireland’s writing, and his still underrated status in chamber music form.

Ireland’s trio was first heard at the Wigmore Hall in June 1917, and at the same venue nearly two years later audiences heard the premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet. Composed in Sussex, this autumnal work, written just prior to the Cello Concerto, reflects a fascination the Elgars held with a group of dead trees in Flexham Park, their branches twisted ‘in an eerie manner’.

The spidery tendrils of the first few bars reflected this eerie vision, and refused to release their grip on the piece despite a first movement that really got into top gear in this performance, passionately played and majestically poised at times. There was an affecting second theme before we heard for the first time some Spanish rhythms, also inspired by legend around the dead trees and refracted through a prism in Elgar’s mind, strangely sketched but never fully coloured in.

The relative serenity of the slow movement, was countered by an emotional distance, as though here Elgar was conscious of the War, itself audible to him through the use of artillery just across the Channel. Perhaps because of this the trees made themselves known in closer proximity as the finale began, though here Elgar – and the Nash Ensemble – threw off the shackles to power through to an upward looking conclusion.

This was a fine performance of a work the Nash – and certainly Ian Brown – have had in their repertoire for more than 25 years. Brown displayed a natural instinct with the tricker phrases and was helped by a lovely string tone from the quartet in a performance that made sense of some of Elgar’s more distorted rhythms.

War’s Embers will come to BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 13 November and I urge you to hear it, placing this elusive work in the context of a fine performance.

Further listening

You will be able to listen to this concert on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 13 November. In the meantime recordings of the works heard are on the Spotify playlist below:

For further information on the Nash Ensemble’s War’s Embers series, visit the <a href=”http://www.nashensemble.org.uk/html/diary.htm&#8221; diary section on the ensemble’s website

Wigmore Mondays: Lucy Crowe & Joseph Middleton – English song

Lucy Crowe (soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Purcell, realised Britten Lord, what is man? (A Divine Hymn) (1693) (1:17-6:36 on the broadcast link below); O solitude, my sweetest choice (1684-5) (6:40-12:00)
Weldon, realised Britten Alleluia (before 1702) (12:04-14:00)
Michael Head Over the rim of the moon (1918) (The ships of Arcady 15:20-18:15, Beloved 18:25, A blackbird singing 19:48-22:08, Nocturne 22:12-25:21)
Ireland The trellis (1920) (26:37-29:25); My true love hath my heart (1920) (29:33-31:10); When I am dead, my dearest (1924) (31:14-33:00); If there were dreams to sell (1918) (33:02-34:46); Earth’s call (34:54-39:38) (1918)
Walton 3 Façade Settings (1931-2) (Daphne (40:47-43:30; Through gilded trellises (43:36-47:16); Old Sir Faulk (47:17-49:08)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 24 September 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

On this evidence Lucy Crowe and Joseph Middleton are two of the finest exponents of English song around. This finely planned recital showed off the versatility in Crowe’s voice, as well as its clarity and pure emotion. Middleton also distinguished himself with some exceptional scene-setting and characterisation of his descriptive piano parts.

The solemn glory of Britten’s Purcell realisations provided an imposing start, although Crowe allowed the expansive setting of A Divine Hymn (from 1:17 on the broadcast) plenty of room to express its excitable joy, with a sparkling finish to boot. O solitude (6:40) was a more thoughtful interpretation and beautifully sung, while the twists and turns of John Weldon’s Alleluia (12:04) were skillfully negotiated. Britten’s expanded piano parts, his own informed response to Purcell’s melodies, were in safe hands thanks to Middleton.
There followed a rarity in the form of Michael Head’s short cycle Over the rim of the moon, from his late teenage years. The ships of Arcady (15:20) featured tolling bells in Middleton’s right hand, while a rapturous Beloved (18:25) gave up its soul. A blackbird singing (19:48) embraced the open air, with a sparkling first note from Crowe, while the cool Nocturne (22:12) sent a light shiver down the spine.

Crowe really came into her own in a sequence of five John Ireland songs. Ireland can be elusive in some interpretations, but not here. As soon as Middleton’s descriptive piano set the scene for The trellis (26:37) Crowe was in her element, using a poignant pause to illustrate ‘the whisper’d words between and silent kisses’. The breathless adoration of My true love hath my heart (29:33) was countered by the finality of When I am dead, my dearest (31:14), which brought a tear to the eye. If there were dreams to sell (33:02) offered a more upbeat outlook, before Earth’s call (34:54) took us right to the water, depicting the plover, cuckoo and stormy ploughland with exquisite detail, all blown by Middleton’s blustery breeze.

After these heights, the Walton Façade settings worked well, Crowe handling the tricky wordplay of Edith Sitwell impressively. Her sideways looks during Daphne (40:47) were brilliantly done, as were Middleton’s persuasive piano rhythms underpinning Through gilded trellises (43:36), where Crowe hit her top B flat with ease. Old Sir Faulk (47:17), with its bizarre lyrics, gave a nonsensical end.

The two encores were unforgettable. Crowe began with an unaccompanied version of She moved through the fair (50:23-53:18), which tugged urgently at the heartstrings, and ultimately brought a tear to the eye. So too did one of Britten’s finest folksong settings, The Salley Gardens (54:20-56:47), a pure and beautiful note on which to end.

Further listening

Lucy Crowe has not recorded any of the repertoire in this concert, but the playlist below gives leading interpretations of the songs she sang.

For further exploration of the songs of John Ireland, this album gives his complete output:

Live review – Răzvan Suma & Rebeca Omordia: Do you like British Music?

Răzvan Suma (cello, above – photo credit Adrian Stoicoviciu), Rebeca Omordia (piano, below)

Romanian Cultural Institute, London, Thursday 9th March, 2017

Delius Romance (1896); Ireland Cello Sonata in G minor (1923); Elgar Salut d’amour, Op.12 (1888); Venables Elegy, Op.2 (1980); Matthew Walker Fast Music, Op.158 (2016); Enescu Allegro in F minor (1897); Lloyd Webber Nocturne (1948); Bridge Scherzetto, H19 (1902)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It is not often musicians get the chance to tour unusual repertoire, though Răzvan Suma and Rebeca Omordia have been doing just so with a recital of mainly British music which tonight arrived at the Romanian Cultural Institute as part of its enterprising Enescu Concert Season.

Playing continuously for just over an hour, their choice of music made for a varied as well as cohesive programme. Opening with the discreet charm of Delius’s early Romance, its echoes of Grieg and Massenet not precluding a more personal expression, the duo continued with an account of Ireland’s Cello Sonata that was a world away from the sombre introspection most often associated with this composer’s chamber output. After a taut and impulsive take on the initial Moderato, the slow movement exuded an anxiety that motivated the expected fatalism, then a finale whose tensile progress resulted in a peroration of unusual eloquence and resolve. Certainly, Ireland’s music only stands to benefit from such a forthright approach, and it is to be hoped that Suma’s and Omordia’s advocacy will continue long beyond their present tour.

After an elegant if not too indulgent reading of Elgar’s Salut d’amour, the duo played pieces by two contemporary figures. If Ian Venables is best known for a substantial contribution to English art-song, his chamber music is not insignificant and this early Elegy gave notice of an immersion in the ‘British tradition’ never insular or derivative. Keen to offset the inward tendencies of this repertoire, Robert Matthew Walker penned Fast Music as a toccata which veers engagingly between the incisive and ironic on its way to a decidedly nonchalant close.

The performers’ Romanian lineage was acknowledged with a propulsive account of Enescu’s Allegro in F minor that seems to have been a ‘dry run’ for the opening movement of his First Cello Sonata. The suave second theme is almost identical and while the stormy main theme of this piece is a little short-winded, and its development lacks focus compared to that of the sonata, the impetus sustained here is demonstrably greater than is found in its more rhapsodic and discursive successor. Such, at least, was the impression left by this persuasive rendering.

The recital concluded with two further miniatures by English composers. Rediscovered only after his death, the Nocturne by William Lloyd Webber evinces an appealing soulfulness the greater for its brevity: to which the early Scherzetto (also relocated posthumously) by Bridge provided a telling foil in its capricious humour and flights of fancy. It certainly made for an appropriate ending to this well-conceived and superbly executed programme; one, moreover, that is eminently worth catching at one of the subsequent appearances by this impressive duo.

Further information about these artists and their current UK tour can be found at website and website

Wigmore Mondays – English Songs with Marcus Farnsworth & Joseph Middleton

farnsworth-middleton

Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 28 March 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b074zd45

Available until 27 April

What’s the music?

Purcell, arr. Britten – Music for a while; Fairest Isle (1945); Not all my torments (1943); Evening Hymn (1945) (13 minutes)

Ireland: Sea Fever; If there were dreams to sell; When I am dead my dearest; The bells of San Marie (9 minutes)

Finzi: Let us Garlands Bring (1929-1942) (15 minutes)

Trad, arr. Britten: The Salley Gardens (1940); Sally in our Alley (1959); The Plough Boy (1945) (9 minutes)

Spotify

Unfortunately not all the music performed is available on Spotify. There is however a playlist containing as many of the English songs performed as I could find:

About the music

A far-reaching program of English song, with old and new united through the thread of arrangements by Benjamin Britten – and in the middle some of the best early 20th century vocal writing from England.

Britten ‘realized’ a total of 42 vocal works by Purcell for voice and piano. That effectively means he gave them a new set of clothes, providing a new piano part for concert performance. This was done to give his recitals with Peter Pears more options, to remind their audience of Purcell’s standing, and for Britten to express his sheer admiration of the composer in musical form. These four examples illustrate how he was able to do this while keeping the essential mood of the Purcell originals.

Meanwhile in the 1930s Britten had already set out his position on folksongs. He was averse to Vaughan Williams’ treatment of them – in accordance with his teacher Frank Bridge – but aligned himself more readily with figures like Moeran, with whom he spent some time playing folksong arrangements, and Percy Grainger, who he and Peter Pears greatly admired. These three selections represent some of his best-loved arrangements.

The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death is marked by Gerald Finzi’s song cycle Let us Garlands Bring, a cycle of five songs the composer dedicated to Vaughan Williams. Finzi eventually arranged them for baritone and string orchestra, but this is the original version.

John Ireland, meanwhile, was a restless composer prominent in the early decades of the 20th century. His songs are an important part of his output, as well as chamber music, bittersweet orchestral music and a wonderful piano output containing some delectable miniatures. The vocal selection here includes arguably his best-loved song, Sea Fever.

Performance verdict

Marcus Farnsworth stepped in at the last minute to give this concert, and it seems to have been a winner. Arcana was not in the hall but his ability to stick with the original program was impressive, and the selection of English song is a clever and logical one.

Of this selection it is perhaps the Finzi that stands out as the most rewarding, a satisfying and extremely enjoyable cycle, but the Ireland songs – as always – leave a haunting impression.

Britten’s mining of his country’s musical archive for his own performing means is also very interesting to hear, and Farnsworth sings his arrangements with great clarity and poise. Joseph Middleton is a most able pianist alongside.

What should I listen out for?

Purcell, realized Britten

1:43 – Music for a While (words by John Dryden) It can take a little while to adjust to the idea of hearing Purcell’s music through Britten’s eyes. While his piano accompaniments are unobtrusive they are still recognisably his in the way the chords are spread. The piano often shadows the vocal line. There is then a real vocal emphasis on the way ‘the snakes drop from her head’ and ‘the whip from out her hands’

5:30 – Fairest Isle (Dryden) A grander setting, this, and the piano takes more of a back seat to the grand vocal line – though it does still offer complementary melodies.

7:45 – If all my torments (Anon) The piano and singer take a noticeably darker colour for this recitative, and the vocal line is almost completely free, the piano supplying just the basic outline of the harmonies. Farnsworth uses very little vibrato to enhance the despair of the song.

10:51 – Evening Hymn (Bishop William Fuller) After the despair of the previous song comes the consoling Evening Hymn, a period of repose at the end of the day. Again the piano is complementary rather than obtrusive, Britten making sure the voice projects very easily. The song ends with an expansive ‘Alleluia’

Ireland

16:44 Sea Fever (John Masefield) – one of Ireland’s most celebrated songs. It is ideal for the baritone, with a rich, resonant beginning and a vivid description of the ‘grey mist on the sea’s face’, at which point the piano goes quiet.

19:00 If there were dreams to sell (Thomas Lovell Beddoes) – Ireland’s music frequently explores the darker side, but this song is one of his most positive. The baritone has a yearning tone for much of the song, though reaches a fervent peak half way through.

20:59 When I am dead my dearest (Christina Rosetti) – despite its title the theme here is one of resignation rather than anything particularly morbid. The upper part of the baritone register is used.

22:54 The bells of San Marie (Masefield) – a slightly wistful but generally positive song, with a lilt to the piano part that gives it a folksy edge.

Finzi

26:37 – Come Away, Come Away, Death (from Twelfth Night) Finzi’s craft as a word setter is immediately evident in this song, which has a distinctive melody and is also laced with romance.

29:48 – Who is Silvia? (from The Two Gentlemen of Verona) – Who is Silvia, what is she? asks the baritone with a full voice. Finzi gives the piano a wandering counterpoint to the vocal melody. It is a celebratory song, especially when the words ‘to her let us garlands bring’ are sung.

31:20 – Fear No More The Heat o’ the Sun (from Cymbeline) – a flatter and lower beginning for the singer here, though this slower song grows gradually. There is a particularly heady piano interlude in the middle, where the harmonies are spicy and chromatic, before the final stanza, where the composer’s musings on death are fully revealed in power and emotion.

36:40 – O Mistress Mine (from Twelfth Night) – a much lighter outlook after Finzi’s contemplation of death, this is a perky song more preoccupied with youthful love.

38:33 – It Was a Lover and His Lass (from As You Like It) – another more energetic, ‘outdoor’ song, where Finzi celebrates the spring along with Shakespeare, in the company of his two lovers.

Trad, arr Britten

42:21 – The Salley Gardens (W.B. Yeats) – this is sung by Marcus Farnsworth at a lower pitch (D) than the one Britten arranged it in (F#) It is a plaintive and rather sad song.

45:01 – Sally in our Alley (Henry Carey) – one of Britten’s earliest folksong arrangements, this is a charming rendition of a romantic song. Farnsworth sings in A major rather than Britten’s arranged D.

49:13 – The Plough Boy (Anon) – the charming and rather quirky setting is an immediate winner thanks to the piano introduction, but the baritone’s clipped delivery is also a winner!

Encore

52:18 – the encore is Britten’s setting of I wonder as I wander (John Jacob Niles) which is an extremely moving experience when heard live. The piano does not play with the vocalist but is alongside, allowing the melody to be heard on its own.

Further listening

English song is a maligned but very enjoyable musical area – and arguably the best people to take us through it are the tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake. Here is their album The English Songbook: