On Record: Håkan Hardenberger – Dean: Dramatis Personae; Francesconi: Hard Pace (BIS)

Dean Dramatis Personae (2013), Francesconi Hard Pace (2007)

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra / John Storgårds


What’s it all about?

Håkan Hardenberger returns with a further two concertos to add to the sizable number he has commissioned over these past three decades, as written by two leading composers from the middle generation whose musical aesthetics complement each other in almost every respect.

What’s the music like?

Well established as a violist before turning successfully to composition, Brett Dean (b1961) has several concertos among his output. As its title attests, Dramatis Personae evinces overtly dramatic connotations – not least those of Hamlet, an opera on which Shakespeare play Dean began writing immediately after the present work. Not that this concerto is about existential angst; rather it favours a distinctly sardonic take on the heroic concept – its initial movement, Fall of a Superhero, building from an anticipatory crescendo to an animated if increasingly fatigued interplay as subsides into enervated calm. Soliloquy proceeds as reflective dialogue whose elegiac quality takes on a renewed impetus in The Accidental Revolutionary, whose Chaplinesque humour reaches its apogee in the knockabout recessional which acts as coda.

A composer whose formative years were focussed on electronics, jazz and production, Luca Francesconi (b1956) has amassed a comparably diverse output where instrumental virtuosity is everywhere apparent. Not least in Hard Pace, a trumpet concerto that takes its cue from one of the instrument’s great practitioners. Although he never wrote or commissioned a concerto, Miles Davis delved extensively into those possibilities of varied accompaniment and sound diffusion everywhere audible in the Francesconi. This falls into two parts, the first building from eventful stasis to hectic activity before it suddenly ceases. The second part consists of three increasingly shorter sections – a taciturn Adagio whose emotional intensity spills over into the semi-cadenza of Miles, before the brief Finale brings matters to a decisive close.

Does it all work?

Yes. Neither of these concertos takes the all-round possibilities of the trumpet forward to the same degree as Peter Eötvös’s Jet Stream or Olga Neuwirth’s …miramondo multiplo… (both of which have been recorded by Hardenberger), but there can be no doubt as to their success in terms of demonstrating the instrument’s essential demeanour. That this is Hardenberger’s fourth disc of works for trumpet and orchestra on this label, moreover, wholly confirms his dedication to expanding what was once a genre proscribed both temporally and expressively.

The time has long gone when trumpeters searching for concertos outside of the Baroque or Classical eras had little more than that by Alexander Arutunian to draw on, for which sea-change Hardenberger can take no mean credit. His stentorian playing in both these pieces is further enhanced by an excellent contribution from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds with sure understanding of that expressive ebb-and-flow between soloist and orchestra. Both the SACD sound and booklet notes are well up to BIS’s customary standards.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. A welcome and impressive addition to a discography which, formerly on Philips and latterly on BIS, has no equals when it comes to defining a repertoire for the trumpet such as younger practitioners can take forward in the knowledge its potential is far from exhausted.

Richard Whitehouse

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BBC Proms 2017 – John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Sibelius, Grieg, Schumann & Hindemith

Prom 33: Lise Davidsen (soprano), Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Grieg Peer Gynt Op.23 (excerpts) (1876)

Sibelius Luonnotar Op.70 (1913); Karelia Suite Op.11 (1893)

Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 (1850)

Hindemith Symphony, Mathis der Maler (1934)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 10 August, 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

John Storgårds has been making his mark on the BBC Proms in his appearances as Chief Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. Tonight’s tale of two geographical halves commenced with excerpts from Grieg’s music to Peer Gynt; starting with the lively Overture (hardanger fiddles in evidence thanks to the violas), then continuing with a vehement Ingrid’s Lament, a deftly propelled Morning and a pensive Solveig’s Song undermined by Lise Davidsen’s fluttery vocal; finishing with the suitably quirky Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter.

Davidsen (above) was then heard to better advantage in Sibelius’s tone-poem Luonnotar, coping ably with the stratospheric range of this singular creation myth – not the least of whose fascinations was having been premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral. There have been some memorable accounts of this piece over recent years, and if Davidsen did not efface memories of such as Mattila and Komsi, she duly pointed up its drama and mystery in what was, for the greater part, a sympathetic account. The Proms audience was suitably attentive.

Sibelius’s comparatively mellifluous Karelia Suite brought this Nordic first half to its close. Storgårds’s widely contrasted tempi for the Intermezzo left a rather disjointed impression, and while the Alla Marcia sounded rumbustious enough, a certain coarseness of playing rather limited one’s enjoyment. Best by far was the Ballade, one of the composer’s most arresting earlier pieces in its enfolding modal harmonies and given a notably rapt reading with such aspects as the wistful cor anglais melody towards its close eloquently phrased.

The Germanic second half began in more restrained mood with Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Rarely performed for decades (and more often in the transcription for violin), this deceptively genial piece is among its composer’s most ingenious in terms of form and motivic continuity. Alban Gerhardt (above) maintained a determined while never merely inflexible course across its three continuous movements, the BBC Philharmonic providing support as attentive yet unobtrusive as the music required. Interesting to hear that the soloist thought the finale musically the least successful, as this emerged as arguably the most successful part – not least with its engaging dialogue kept on its toes and with no sense of dourness or grittiness as regarded the orchestral texture. Overall, a perceptive and convincing account of a work still too easily overlooked.

Storgårds then rounded-off the programme with a taut and tensile reading of the symphony that Hindemith derived from his opera Mathis der Maler. This retelling of cultural meltdown and social antagonism during the Thirty Years War proved too ‘contemporary’ for the Nazi regime to stomach, and it was no surprise that the premiere of the complete opera took place in Zurich. Storgårds had the measure of the Angelic Concert with its austere chorales and angular though never impersonal polyphony. The Entombment of Christ was affecting for all its brevity, while the climactic Temptation of St Anthony built surely and impulsively from its stark introduction, through a central interlude of tangible pathos, to a culmination such as blazed forth in affirmation. All credit to Storgårds for ensuring so cathartic an impact.

Richard Whitehouse (photo of Lise Davidsen (c) Ole-Jørgen-Bratland)

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


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.


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

Proms premiere – HK Gruber: into the open…

hk gruber

HK Gruber photo by Jon Super

Colin Currie (percussion), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds (Prom 5)

Duration: 28 minutes

BBC iPlayer link


The Gruber starts at 3:46 on the programme, with commentary beforehand

What’s the story behind the piece?

In an interview with Arcana, Colin Currie revealed the piece to be a memorial to David Drew, who in 1976 was appointed director of publications at the leading music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. Drew became known principally for his work revitalising the output and reputation of the composer Kurt Weill. In his obituary of the director, composer Alexander Goehr wrote for the Guardian how “he prepared scores, travelled Europe and America promoting the works, was instrumental in forming the Weill Foundation (1973) and not only changed, if not created, the public perception of the composer, but contributed to a sea-change in the development of composition in the second half of the 20th century.”

These works included Die Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins). Weill is a composer close to HK Gruber’s heart – and Gruber became an established composer on the Boosey roster.

Currie told Arcana about how, “The piece itself is about thwarted feelings of desperation and loss. It confronts bereavement in an angry and passionate way. It is a violent piece, and an unhappy one too – but it is also extremely lyrical and tender. The person, the subject, is clearly missed – but it is not easy to put into words.”

The Radio 3 broadcast talks of how the performance parts ‘verge on the impossible’ – and not just for the soloist!

Did you know?

Gruber sang with the Vienna Boys’ Choir as a child – and went on to play double bass in the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Initial verdict

The immediate reaction to this piece is that it will need more than two hearings to fully come to terms with the music within! It is a substantial piece of work, a work of many colours – using the multitude of percussion to the limits of its potential.

A cold emptiness is immediately evident at the beginning, the marimbas in prominence early on, as the size of the structure becomes clear. This is a slow building piece, in keeping with Gruber’s concept of it as a procession – and there are a few signposts that became clear on the first hearing.

At 8’40” in the program link there is a notable change as softly oscillating woodwind offer some consolation, then the brass have more thoughts about 11’32”, the orchestra gathering itself for a powerful onslaught towards the end of the piece – but the end is quiet.

To be honest I did rather lose the thread of the piece from halfway but I suspect that is a ‘listener fault’ rather than anything Gruber has done! Hence the need for more than one further listen.

It should be pointed out the performance standard seems to be incredibly high, despite what Currie was saying about the difficulty!

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

A good next port of call is BBC Radio 3 program CD Review, who explore recordings of Gruber’s music here – which gives you the ideal opportunity to hear snapshots of his music along with the thoughts of others.

Proms Interview: Colin Currie – Into the open

colin-currieColin Currie. Photo: Marco Borggreve

It is not an exaggeration to say that Colin Currie is one of the most exciting classical musicians at work today. The percussionist has been instrumental in securing a number of vital commissions from leading composers – Steve Reich, Elliott Carter and Rautavaara among them. Now he returns to HK Gruber for a second percussion concerto, into the open…, which he will give at Prom 5 with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and John Storgårds.

The piece is dedicated to the memory of David Drew, who in 1976 was appointed director of publications at the leading music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. In a chat with Arcana Colin took us through the piece itself, the instruments he uses and how Gruber’s music responds to bereavement.

Do you remember your first encounter with the Proms?

Yes – I think I played before I attended! It was in 1993, with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland. I was playing timpani, and we played Holst’s The Planets, and a new violin concerto by Thomas Wilson. It was a typical Proms programme.

What was your first Prom as a soloist?

I gave the premiere of Ruby by Joe Duddell in 2003. By then I had attended many Proms as a student. I would stay down in London over the summer and Prom ‘binge’, and from around 1995 I went to dozens of Proms, usually as a Prommer. I think it’s the best way to experience the festival, and the best way for me is to stand towards the back of the arena. The gallery also gives a really nice perspective.

It is amazing to play in the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, it is a huge hall and a wonderful audience. There were people packed around the orchestra in this concert, and it was wonderful.

You’ve worked with HK Gruber for nearly 15 years now. How do you think his music has changed and / or developed in that time?

He is always going through different stages of density in his music. At certain points his writing has become incredibly dense, and at other times he has the confidence to let things thin out, to use his charm and charisma. His qualities become transparent that way. He is developing often in a most challenging way, always looking for new angles and takes. His is an extremely creative and inquisitive mind, and he does things with a childlike wonder. An interesting comparison to showcase is the first percussion concerto, Rough Music, but I think this one is a better one. Rough Music is a wonderful piece, but this shows how things have moved on. It is more challenging for the soloist and for the orchestra, and it is highly intensified, more extreme, more daring and audacious!

The impression HK Gruber gives is that he has a keen sense of humour.

He does have a wicked sense of humour, that’s all true, but he is also extremely serious about his music, and it is done with lightness and enjoyment. It’s all about music and high art, nothing else matters, and he is incredibly passionate about it. If you don’t want to listen it is beyond him, and that’s why music is so strong for him.

You must have built up quite a set of memories of collaborations with composers.

Definitely. These composers I have got to know and I treasure those experiences, they are fascinating to me. I have come to relate strongly to their endeavours and the challenges they face. They are extremely strong characters, and not always easy, but it is an amazing sweep of personalities that I have been lucky enough to work with. I try to be a facilitator, and I will put them way ahead of anything that might be bugging me. I will put their music over and above their egos, and I try to put mine last!

into the open… is scored for a variety of percussion instruments. Can I get you to explain these ones?

Cencerros: “they are tuned cow bells”

Plate bells (or bell plates) “They sound like large church bells. There are three of them in this piece, and they are deep and resonant. None of the instruments are especially unusual, but the combinations Gruber uses are unusual. The plate bells are used with the marimba, gongs and temple blocks. It is a monstrous percussive machine! There are also six timpani with tom toms, snare and bongos – a grand total of 22 drums!”

Cajón (pronounced ca-hon) – “A box you sit on and play with your hands. It is used in Latin music.”

African balafon – “essentially a xylophone”

Did you know David Drew at all?

I did meet him briefly, but only meeting him once I was completely inspired by him. He was eccentric, and without being disrespectful it is fair to say he was crazy about music. I met him not long before he died, when I gave a concert in 2009. It was a concerto by Kurt Schwertsik, a Boosey & Hawkes composer, who is Austrian and a good friend of Gruber. Drew signed them in the 1980s I believe, and he was so passionate, jumping up and down like a child as he was energised by Mozart, Stravinsky and Schwertsik. I’ll be doing my best to do him proud in the performance.

(click here to watch an introduction to Schwertsik’s Marimba Concerto from the Scottish Ensemble

How does into the open… remember David Drew?

The piece itself is about thwarted feelings of desperation and loss. It confronts bereavement in an angry and passionate way. It is a violent piece, and an unhappy one too – but it is also extremely lyrical and tender. The person, the subject, is clearly missed – but it is not easy to put into words.

You have worked with John Storgårds on new percussion works previously. Do you find him particularly understanding to your requirements?

He is the best! He has a wonderful way of working with soloists, and he has been a vast presence in maintaining concerto-level performances. Nothing is ever too complicated, and nothing gets between him and the music. He always get the simplest approach, and gives us soloists confidence while also keeping us calm. He and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra are fantastic, I could not be happier with them.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

I am going to Vienna, which is a big deal as I am playing at Wien Modern, a festival I have revered from afar. I am playing the Gruber with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and it will be wonderful as it is my debut there.

I have some concerts further away but I am giving the premiere of a Percussion Concerto by Andrew Norman called Switch next season. That will be with the Utah Symphony Orchestra, they are celebrating their 75th anniversary in Cadogan Hall.

Are you continuing to work with Steve Reich?

Absolutely, the group is very busy touring away. Next season we will play the Music for 18 Musicians at the Royal Festival Hall, and will play the Quartet that he wrote for us. We are also very busy with upcoming projects and playing in Japan, and all around music. There is a great spirit for collective music, we have a lot of fun playing it. The Southbank performance will be part of my role as Artist in Association there, and after the Metal Wood Skin festival we have some wonderful plans in the pipeline!

Colin Currie performs into the open… with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds at the BBC Proms on Monday 20 July, in a concert that includes Haydn’s Symphony no.85 and Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

You can get more information about his disc of Gruber’s first Percussion concerto, Rough Music, by clicking here.

Finally an obituary and appreciation of David Drew from the composer Alexander Goehr can be read on the Guardian website