In concert – City of London Sinfonia @ Southwark Cathedral: Origin: This is CLS

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Monteverdi arr. Wick Toccata from ‘L’Orfeo’ (1607)
Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Tabakova
Frozen River Flows (2005)
Finnis
The Centre is Everywhere (2019)
Vasks
Music for the fleeting birds (1977)
Tabakova
Origin (2022) (world premiere)
Carter
A Fantasy about Purcell’s ‘Fantasia on one note’ (1975)
Tavener
The Hidden Face (1996)

Hugh Cutting (countertenor), Dan Bates (oboe), City of London Sinfonia / Alexandra Wood (violin)

Southwark Cathedral, London
Thursday 3 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood

When the young Richard Hickox assembled a performing group in 1971, his vision was an extended family of talented musicians coming together to project the enjoyment of their art onto their audience.

Just over 50 years on, Hickox may sadly no longer be with us but his vision, realised by the City of London Sinfonia, burns with an ever brighter flame. This celebration in Southwark Cathedral may have been a year late, due to the consequences of the pandemic, but it brought everything together in a programme blending the old with the new.

Great credit should go to the orchestra’s creative director and leader, Alexandra Wood, for choosing music that looked simultaneously forwards and backwards, while utilising the vast spaces offered by the cathedral in inspiring and imaginative ways.

The audience were free to roam around during the concert, which was a considerable plus, for acoustic hotspots could be found and exploited, while it was also possible to stand to one side in contemplation. The mood was relaxed but focused, with audience members chosing a mixture of both options. The only danger of this was unexpectedly finding yourself in front of a group of instrumentalists when they were about to play, meaning the focus would suddenly shift in your direction! This was a risk well worth taking, for the rewards were many.

Before the concert, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, Andrew Nunn, spoke warmly of the power of music to soothe the fevered mind, giving the pertinent Biblical example of David’s harp curing Saul’s war-torn temper, illustrated vividly by a stained-glass window depiction at the back of the church. The parallels with Russia and Ukraine were unmistakeable, and before the programme started everyone stood for the Ukraine national anthem.

The programme itself began under that very window, with Stephen Wick’s excellent arrangement of the Toccata from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the brass filling the cathedral from back to front with sonorous colours.

The baton then passed to the strings for an unforgettable account of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. This work was written for performance in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910, utilising the space in imaginative ways – and the City of London Sinfonia responded in kind, with the work’s solo group in the round in the nave, and the main body of the strings in the centre of the church. This was a deeply emotive performance, finding the intersection between the old of Tallis and Vaughan Williams’ own sweeping melodies and added-note harmonies. In doing so a composition that is often overplayed gained fresh insight, and, for your reviewer standing at the back of the church, a magical experience.

British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova has a close association with the Sinfonia. Frozen River Flows, an earlier work from 2005, appeared here in an arrangement for clarinet and percussion which was played in the south transept. This brightly coloured piece found Katherine Spencer’s clarinet evoking graceful lines not dissimilar to Poulenc, complemented by the richness of the vibraphone and crotales (antique cymbals), expertly managed by Chris Blundell.

We also heard Tabakova’s music in the world premiere of Origin, written for this concert. It was a brief but meaningful celebration placing violin soloist Alexandra Wood in the nave, with the accompanying musicians under the tower. Wood’s role was that of virtuoso, but she managed it carefully so that slower contributions from the strings and vibraphone were ideally balanced. Tabakova has a talent for the immediate creation of an atmosphere, and this may have been a relatively minimal piece but it left a lasting impression.

Complementing this was another work in the round of the nave, as 12 string players assembled for Edmund Finnis’s The Centre is Everywhere. This was a wholly appropriate choice, the soloists creating unusual and original sounds. On occasion the music swelled like the bellows of an accordion, then subsided to a barely audible whisper, then appeared to be reaching beyond the cathedral for the skies above. Finnis has an unusual and remarkable habit of writing music that becomes an out of body experience, and The Centre is Everywhere shows there is still so much more to achieve when writing for stringed instruments.

The programme turned to wind instruments for a timely reference to the troubles in Ukraine. Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks wrote Fleeting Birds in 1977 as an expression of his need for freedom. Restricted from travelling by the Soviet authorities, he made his feelings known through music. The City of London Sinfonia winds walked the length of the cathedral as they played, turning from joyous expressions of freedom and release to statements soured by compression, reflecting the composer’s earthbound plight.

Freedom lay in Elliott Carter’s Purcell Fantasy, richly expressed by the brass around a persistent middle C, before cutting without a break to John Tavener’s Hidden Face for a final contemplation. The stillness of this work is deceptive, achieved through great virtuosity from solo oboe and a countertenor, singing text written by Mother Maria. Oboist Dan Bates and singer Hugh Cutting were superb throughout, the latter floating his words effortlessly above the prayerful strings, whose sonorous tones were the ideal match for Bates’s keening oboe, which also scaled unfathomable heights with impressive ease.

It was a fitting way to finish a deeply felt concert and celebration, that of a performing group who continue to do their founder proud. Like their musical choices, the City of London Sinfonia look to the future, embracing new advances as well as nurturing past achievements while they do so. They deserve to continue as a treasured feature of the capital’s music making.

To read more about the City of London Sinfonia, visit their website – and for more on composers Dobrinka Tabakova and Edmund Finnis, click on their names

Talking Heads: Nicholas Daniel

nicholas-daniel

Interview by Ben Hogwood

As part of the inspiring Summer At Snape season, the counter-tenor Andrew Watts and oboist Nicholas Daniel, are giving world premiere performances of Sir John Tavener’s La Noche Oscura, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards. Arcana took the chance to talk with Daniel, who received an OBE for his dedication to music in October 2020, about his lasting friendship with Sir John, as well as his hopes for live music in such a difficult time.

To begin, we look back to Daniel’s first musical meeting with the composer. “I remember hearing The Whale and thinking it was fabulous and risqué,” he says. “It became a piece people talked about more than heard when I was at the Royal Academy. I first met him through Richard Hickox, who I persuaded to ask John to write for me as a thank you for playing at his and Pamela’s wedding.”

While writing La Noche Oscura, Tavener did not consult with his dedicatees. “He never consulted with me about writing”, says Daniel. “I don’t know whether he did with other artists, but for me his pieces seemed to have arrived as a newborn but sitting up and asking for food. Even with Kaleidoscopes we only vaguely discussed the idea of wearing Indian clothes to play it and lighting it really well, months before he wrote it.”

The piece itself is an intriguing balancing act “Noche has inside it a major contradiction in terms. The words are absolutely agonising: “Where have you hidden, beloved, and left me moaning?” “Tell him I suffer, grieve and die” “but thou hast utterly rejected us: thou art very wroth against us,” but the music is not. He says “shining, intense, with majesty and grandeur”, and from my preparation I see the music as flowing through the words to a place where the music is in control. It’s as though the grinding agony of the words are not ignored, but swept away by the beauty of the harmony. It seems a little like Niobe, Britten’s D flat Major tribute to the Queen whose 14 children died (from the 6 Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe), or maybe Gluck’s Che faro senza Euridice, which has nobility in the face of death. Interestingly both those pieces take their lead from Greek Myth.”

Written for oboe and countertenor, La Noche Oscura blends a relatively unusual combination of soloists, though Daniel refutes my initial suggestion the combination would be hard to balance. “In what way would it be difficult? Because Andrew Watts has the biggest counter tenor voice on the planet and therefore the oboe would be drowned? Possibly. Or that the oboe in the high register might drown the counter tenor in the middle? Well, John knew my playing very well and my high register is something I’ve worked very much to develop over years, partly through composers writing death defyingly quiet music for me up there. Listen to the cadenza of John Woolrich’s Oboe Concerto for instance. Noche is a whole major third lower in my part than the highest parts of Kaleidoscopes and I know how to balance to the gentler parts of a counter tenor voice anyway.”

tavener

He speaks with great warmth of Tavener (above), both as a friend and as a composer. “I adored him. He was completely unique, and although he maybe lived in other realms as well as ours he was completely able to exist in a very charming and entertaining way in the here and now. I think that he probably felt quite relaxed with me because he was very free in what he said, possibly sensing in me the very non-judgemental and open nature of my soul. His health must have been such a burden to him, and I was always slightly aware of his frailty – the main time I knew him was towards the end of his life. I will never forget the sound he made on the piano and ‘singing’ the music he’d written for me. It was like a seance.”

Is his music particularly appropriate for the times we are living through? “I believe that John’s music is appropriate for any time and any space. He can turn a bike shed into a cathedral with his music. I would love to think that as we have entered the very promising Age of Aquarius we might find it has uses for meditation, for finding stillness, and for connecting ourselves with the planet and with each other.”

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Talk turns to the pandemic, and a particularly special concert Daniel and long-time recital partner Julius Drake gave at the Wigmore Hall in 2020 (above), part of a special season of lunchtime concerts marking the hall’s reopening in June. It was a meaningful concert for those watching online – and for the two performers. “Oh my goodness, thank you. Well, it was a fantastic moment to be able to play to the world, yes. We chose the programme to entertain, and to touch people’s hearts. It was very moving how the artists in that first week all supported each other by text messages!  It was so special to play two new pieces there, by Michael Berkeley and Huw Watkins, and also to play Madaleine Dring’s music, which I adore. As it happened it was two days after the murder of George Floyd, and I decided to dedicate the Bach encore to his memory. It proved harder than I thought to speak about it. The reality is the piece I played (basically in one breath using circular breathing) was shorter than the time he was prevented from breathing. The connection was obvious and absolutely shattering.”

The current situation with Government restrictions from the Coronavirus pandemic means plans for future concerts are sadly up in the air. The reality is stark, and Daniel’s diary has a small number of entries. “A few. Incredibly few. 2023 is looking a little better than the rest of 2021 and 2022 put together. This is all going to take some time. It’s also going to take some fearless programming and risk taking to make concerts irresistibly inviting. New music, new presentation, fresh diverse repertoire; young, diverse artists, a fresh dawn for true diversity and the certain knowledge that we will never take an audience for granted ever again.”

There is a little consolation on the recording front, where Daniel has been busy. “Haha! I’ve been very lucky to have some recordings released over the last while, music by Eleanor Alberga, Roxanna Panufnik and Mark Simpson with Mozart, the latter recorded in lockdown. I had the huge joy of recording a disc for my new label Chandos with the exquisite Doric Quartet of British music which will be out later in the year. On that disc I recorded the Delius Two Interludes on Leon Goossens’ 1911 Lorée Oboe. It was a huge privilege to be allowed to play this massively historic and important instrument.”

Will his approach to making music be any different after the pandemic? “Yes”, he says emphatically. “I’m saying to my students that it has to BURN. No prisoners can be taken, risk taking is everything and make it HIT the audience like your life depends on it. Now is the time to make music COMPLETELY relevant to people’s lives, especially to our children, each one of whom deserves to play an instrument and learn the language of music. Scotland is giving this to their children but England and the rest of the U.K.? Not yet.”

The effects of restrictions imposed in the pandemic are clear to see, and Daniel addresses this head on. “I would love audiences to spare a moment of thought for the artists right now, let alone the effect on our incomes. Not being on stage for more than a year plays havoc with your mind, and just getting to the concert hall seems to involve rules and regulations and risks we have never known before. Personally I’m very grateful that people are taking some of the same risks coming to hear concerts, but it feels weirdly exposing to walk on stage to the smell of hand sanitiser having just ripped off your mask, metres apart from your colleagues. We do it despite these things because we want to and because we have to, and because most of us are addicted to music and concerts.”

Andrew Watts and Nicholas Daniel will give two performances of Sir John Tavener’s La Noche Oscura with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards at Snape Maltings on Friday 25 June. Their program, part of the ongoing Summer at Snape festival, includes music by Handel, Tansy Davies and two works by Britten, including the Temporal Variations orchestrated by Colin Matthews – who spoke with Arcana earlier in the season here. For details and tickets click here

Summer at Snape runs from Friday 4 June until Saturday 11 July. For full details on all the live events, visit the Snape Maltings website.
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Wigmore Mondays – Ruby Hughes, Natalie Clein & Julius Drake: Works for soprano, cello & piano

Ruby Hughes (soprano, above), Natalie Clein (cello), Julius Drake (piano, both below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 9 March 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating hour of music for three instruments not often linked – soprano, cello and piano. Its imaginative programme comprised music by six composers from three different centuries using four languages! It made for a very satisfying whole.

Kodály’s single-movement Sonatina for cello and piano (1:41 on the radio broadcast) began the program. This is a work with which Natalie Clein and Julius Drake are very familiar, having recorded it for Hyperion in 2009, and they immediately found its expressive core. The Sonatina was initially intended for a Sonata the composer finished in 1909, but it happened to work particularly well on its own, and was completed later. Its colourful music – which has parallels to Debussy’s own Cello Sonata – is rich in melodic and harmonic content. Free in form, it speaks directly of the composer’s Hungarian heartlands. Clein’s tone was sumptuous in this performance and Drake’s piano exemplary, the two plotting a convincing course for the work.

This was followed without a break by three of John Tavener’s 6 Akhmatova Songs, written for soprano Patricia Rozario and cellist Steven Isserlis in 1993. In effect the cello is singing here too, its wordless line providing an otherworldly introduction for the third song of the six, Boris Pasternak (10:45). Clein’s rich sound was the ideal foil for the clarity of Ruby Hughes’ soprano. Couplet (12:48) was immediately more agitated, the gruff cello adopting a more questioning slant as it helped describe the poet’s suspicion about praise of her own work. Hughes, too, was more penetrating in her delivery. Finally Dante (14:23) grew outwards from the start, its expressive line shared between singer and instrumentalist.

Deborah Pritchard’s short but powerful Storm Song (16:46), a setting of text by Jeanette Winterson, was the last part of this unbroken first sequence. Premiered almost exactly three years ago, it was led by Hughes’ wide ranging but beautifully shaped melodic lines, soaring above the sinuous cello and piano as they descended into a powerful maelstrom at the song’s heart.

Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis were next, three heady settings of words by Pierre Louÿs, initially claimed to be erotic works from Ancient Greece. They were in fact the poet’s own construction, a fact Debussy presumably knew. La flûte de Pan (23:02) immediately transported the listener to a sultry outdoor setting and a lovers’ tryst, given appropriately chromatic settings by the composer. Julius Drake provided a rich tapestry in Debussy’s piano writing, and the humid setting was enhanced by the slow, tolling bells of the introduction to La chevelure (25:50) Hughes, now lower in her range, cast the spell. Le tombeau des naïades (29:16) closed this deliberately elusive trio, and we were left feeling as though we were all in on a rendezvous that was not supposed to be happening!

On the palmy beach is a commission from Kings Place for Judith Weir, completed in 2019 for these three performers and watched here by the composer herself. A cycle of four themed songs, it takes encounters with the sea and its inhabitants as inspiration, setting four very different poems by Wallace Stevens, Kathleen Jamie, Norman McCaig and Emily Dickinson. Weir has blogged on how she initially intended to keep the two instruments in step with each other, but how it became ‘much more alluring to liberate the cello’. Presumably for copyright reasons, the text for only one of the four poems (the Dickinson) could be printed, which made the text more difficult to follow in spite of Hughes’ wonderful singing. Yet there was a great deal of communication through the music, for which Clein and Drake were equally responsible.

Clein soared towards the heights in the prologue to the setting of Stevens’ Fabliau of Florida (34:30), where foam and cloud are one, and gave a full-throated epilogue too. Weir’s use of the cello to depict a jellyfish in Jamie’s The Glass-hulled boat (38:23) was uncanny, humorous and strangely touching, the agile lines dovetailing with Hughes’ own words. Norman McCaig’s Basking Shark (42:08) was next, the broad cello line a counterpoint to Hughes’s vivid storytelling and only latterly joined by the piano. Finally the setting of Dickinson’s I started Early – Took my Dog – (656) (46:13) was compelling, the sea toying with the author before ultimately opting not to catch her up.

To conclude a unique concert we heard Schubert’s Auf dem Strom (50:57), written for Beethoven’s memorial a year after his death in 1828 and containing a quotation from the Eroica Symphony. Setting the poetry of Ludwig Rellstab, it was written for soprano with horn and piano accompaniment, the composer later adding an obbligato cello was just as valid instead of the horn. This was to our advantage, for it enabled Natalie Clein to project the phrases beautifully, setting the scene for Hughes’ subtly wrought grief. With eloquent playing from Drake, this felt rather like the slow movement of a Schubert piano trio, but with words – expressive and touching.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Kodály Sonatina for cello and piano (1922, published 1969)
Tavener Akhmatova Songs (1993) (excerpts) (10:45)
Pritchard Storm Song (2017) (16:46)
Debussy Chansons de Bilitis (1897-8) (23:02)
Weir On The Palmy Beach (2019) (34:30)
Schubert Auf dem Strom D943 (1828) (50:57)

Further listening & viewing

The works by Deborah Pritchard and Judith Weir have not been recorded yet, but you can hear available recordings of the works by Kodály, Tavener, Debussy and Schubert on the following Spotify playlist:

References to Natalie Clein and Julius Drake’s Kodály recordings of 2009 were unfortunately missed from the Wigmore Hall program. You can hear preview clips of their collection, including the Sonatina on the Hyperion website

The most recent collection of music by Judith Weir comes highly recommended. Airs from Another Planet is a collection of songs and chamber music, released on the enterprising Delphian label:

Meanwhile the music of John Tavener continues to enchant in a lasting way. While awareness of the composer centres all too often around his piece for cello and orchestra, The Protecting Veil, this collection of works for cello from RCA – nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 1997 – has aged very well. It includes all six of the Akhmatova Songs, performed by dedicatees Patricia Rozario and Steven Isserlis: