BBC Proms at Birmingham – Claire Barnett-Jones & Simon Lepper in songs by Horovitz, Smyth, Clarke, Vaughan Williams & Wallen

BBC Proms at Birmingham – Claire Barnett-Jones (mezzo-soprano), Simon Lepper (piano)

Horovitz Lady Macbeth – a scena (1970) [Proms premiere]
Smyth Fünf Lieder, Op. 4 (c1877) [Proms premiere]
Clarke The Seal Man (1921-2) [Proms premiere]
Vaughan Williams Four Last Songs (1954-8) [Proms premiere of original version]
Wallen Lady Super Spy Adventurer (2022) [BBC commission: World premiere]

Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Monday 29 August 2022, 1pm

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (Claire Barnett-Jones) (c) Benjamin Ealovega

The series of regional lunchtime Proms this afternoon reached Birmingham for a song recital by Claire Barnett-Jones, whose success at last year’s Cardiff Singer of the World and having studied at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire made her appearance doubly apposite. Equally so the initial item by Joseph Horovitz, after his death in February at 96. Lady Macbeth – a scena revealed his more serious side – with monologues from the first, second and fifth acts of ‘The Scottish Play’ charting the anti-heroine’s journey from aspiration via ambition to desperation.

The music of Ethel Smyth has been a recurrent feature this season – the present set of Lieder a reminder that, before she achieved fame with The Wreckers and notoriety as a suffragette, she had received a thoroughly Teutonic musical education in Leipzig. Fluent and idiomatic, these five settings are fluent and idiomatic: the enervation of Büchner’s Tanzlied followed by the wistfulness of Wildenbruch’s Schlummerlied and eloquence of Eichendorff’s Mittagsrum, then the assertiveness of Groth’s Nachtreiter and transcendence of Heyse’s Nachtgedanken.

Barnett-James rendered them with sensitivity and insight, with Simon Lepper (above) no less attuned to those most often intricate accompaniments. Qualities equally evident in Rebecca Clarke’s luminous setting of Masefield’s evocative if rather prolix The Seal Man as well as Four Last Songs that Vaughan Williams set to texts by his second wife, the poet Ursula Wood. From the fatalism of The Death of Procris, via the acceptance of Tired and the poise of Hands, Eyes and Heart, to the fulfilment of Menelaus – these are songs which speak of a life well-lived.

A very different take on the journey from innocence to experience is proffered by Lady Super Spy Adventurer, written by Errollyn Wallen for this recital and which might be described as a ‘concert aria’ in that its highly visual – and often visceral – rendering of the composer’s own text is balanced by a sure formal sense as to where these deceptively superficial observations are headed. Barnett-James despatched them with suitable aplomb such that Wallen, listening from home, must have been well satisfied.

Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon, the second song from his cycle of Rossetti poems House of Life, made for an affecting encore.

Click on the artist names for more information on Claire Barnett-Jones and Simon Lepper. For more information on this year’s BBC Proms, head to the festival website

In concert – Michael Collins & Michael McHale: Widor, Bax, Muczynski & Horovitz @ Wigmore Hall

collins-mchale

Michael Collins (clarinet), Michael McHale (piano)

Widor Introduction et Rondo Op.72 (1898)
Bax Clarinet Sonata in D major (1934)
Muczynski Time Pieces Op.43 (1984)
Horovitz Sonatina (1981)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 17 May (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What a joy to see audiences back in Wigmore Hall on a Monday lunchtime, as the venue took its first available opportunity of 2021. The gathering was for an enterprising program of 20th century works for clarinet and piano from Michael Collins and Michael McHale, pleasingly off the beaten track in its selection and proving highly accessible.

Viewed online in this case, the excitement was palpable – from Andrew McGregor’s introduction for the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 to the performers’ demeanour as they began. The clarinetist successfully overcame an instrument malfunction, too, which caused him to repeat the first few minutes of the Bax sonata.

Collins and McHale began with Widor, however, a competition piece written for students of the Paris Conservatoire in 1898. Both performers settled immediately, Collins with a beautifully floated introduction and McHale with sensitive pedaling, the pianist then echoing the excitable flourishes from of clarinet when the Rondo itself arrived. This work occupies a happy place in Widor’s output, and was a joyful overture here.

The mood deepened for the Clarinet Sonata in D major of Sir Arnold Bax from 1934. First performed by Frederick Thurston, it is an unusually structured work, but the two movements sit together nicely. It was during the beautifully floated opening that Collins had to change his clarinet, but the advantage of this was that we were able to marvel at his control for a second time, supported by rippling figures from McHale. The first movement unfolded as though in one long phrase, revealing the influence of Wagner but establishing Bax’s own melodic grace too. The second movement had impressive urgency, with chromatic surges from the piano and impressive breath control from Collins. A typically deep second theme was matched by a lovely, poised closing section.

The Polish-American composer Robert Muczynski has an intriguing works list including many pieces for woodwind, and the Time Pieces of 1984 are among his most-performed. Each of the four movements looks to bring out different qualities of the clarinet and Collins was fully alive to their possibilities. The busy first piece was enjoyable, clarinet and piano ducking and diving in their interplay, while time became suspended in the outer sections of the second piece, lost in thought. The third explored the timbres of the solo clarinet, wonderfully nuanced by Collins, while the spicy dialogue of the fourth was laden with syncopation and brilliantly played.

The Sonatina for clarinet and piano from Joseph Horovitz dates from 1981, when it was first performed by Gervase de Peyer and Gwenneth Pryor in the Wigmore Hall itself. Like Muczynski, Horovitz is at home writing for wind and brass. Working within a compressed structure, the Sonatina was packed with incident and melody. A perky first movement unfolded with easy, winsome phrases, while the second was more introspective and took time for soul searching. Not so the finale, whose offbeat japes were carefree and witty in this performance, instinctively played.

It was over all too soon – but we were treated to an encore, Collins every bit as enthused as the audience. The warm-hearted Summer, from Paul Reade’s suite Victorian Kitchen Garden, was the ideal choice.

This concert is available to play for 30 days using the YouTube embedded link above.

Wigmore Mondays – Daniel Ottensamer & Christoph Traxler

daniel-ottensamer

Daniel Ottensamer (clarinet, above), Christoph Traxler (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 27 June 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07h6cn8

Available until 27 July

What’s the music?

Luigi Bassi Concert Fantasia on themes from Verdi’s Rigoletto (1901) (13 minutes)

Zemlinsky arr. James Breed 2 Fantasies on Poems of Richard Dehmel Op. 9 (1990) (6 minutes)

Poulenc Clarinet Sonata (1962) (13 minutes)

Horovitz Clarinet Sonatina (1981) (13 minutes)

Spotify

Daniel Ottensamer and Cristoph Traxler have not recorded this music, but the Spotify playlist below gives a guide to other versions in the event you are unable to access the broadcast link:

About the music

A range of music for clarinet and piano, most of which lies slightly off the beaten track compared to repertoire staples.

We begin in Italy, with the clarinettist and composer Luigi Bassi (1833-1871), whose concert fantasia on themes from Rigoletto is arguably his most popular work. We then move to Vienna and Alexander Zemlinsky, a composer who for a long time was better known as teacher to Arnold Schoenberg. In more recent times his music has taken on greater prominence, for it sits between the romantic approach of Brahms and Mahler and the music of his pupil, which eventually left tonality behind altogether.

The Richard Dehmel fantasies were written for piano, but James Breed discerned suitable lines for clarinet and arranged them with the instrument in mind.

Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata is his last piece of chamber music, written in the summer before his death in 1962. Dedicated to Arthur Honegger, it was written for the clarinettist Benny Goodman.

Joseph Horovitz has been a prolific English composer, particularly for woodwind, and at the age of 90 still cuts a sprightly figure – he was in the audience for this concert! Born in Vienna, Horovitz emigrated to England at the start of the Second World War, and studied music in London. His sonatina for clarinet and piano, a short work with jazzy inflections, was completed in 1981.

Performance verdict

A fine and varied program of music for clarinet and piano, given with some panache by Daniel Ottensamer and Christoph Traxler. The Poulenc was an especially fine performance, with the faster movements taken at a daring pace. This meant a little bit of phrasing on the melodies was compromised, but the overall effect was thrilling.

This was also the case with Bassi’s Concert Fantasia, a real crowd-pleaser of a performance, which was nicely complemented by the heady romanticism of the Zemlinsky, effectively transcribing for clarinet and piano in James Breed’s sensitive arrangement.

The Horovitz was great to watch, especially with the composer’s enthusiastic reaction at the end. There were some persuasive rhythms here, some of which seemed to have been directly imported from the West Indies, and Ottensamer moved around the stage as he played, fully immersed in the music.

Another special moment was to follow in Popov’s arrangement of a late Brahms Intermezzo, bringing pure contemplation to the hall and some incredibly sensitive, quiet playing from both clarinet and pianist Christoph Traxler, who expertly shaded his lines throughout.

What should I listen out for?

Bassi

1:20 – the piano begins with a fanfare to make the audience sit up, preparing the way for the clarinet in a manner that suggests a grand orchestral piece. The clarinet arrives at 2:07, almost imperceptibly but then showing off through music of great athleticism. Once arrived it settles into a graceful theme. Then after another grand passage the clarinet showcases one of Verdi’s main themes at 4:23. The music becomes light and agile.

There is some very enjoyable back and forward between the clarinet and piano as they play Verdi’s themes and their variants, as though they are dancing on the stage themselves. The theatrical performance tricked the audience (including me!) at 10:10, where we thought the two had finished – but instead there were more athletics to come, finishing with a flourish at 14:00.

Zemlinsky / Breed

15:38 – Voice of the evening – as you might expect for music of the evening the mood is languid, the clarinet murmuring above the hazy piano. The harmonic language is rich with added notes, adding to the enchanted atmosphere.

18:45 – Forest rapture – this piece is more outwardly expressive in the clarinet part, but still carries a humid atmosphere, the trees close at hand. The arrangement for clarinet is a natural one.

Poulenc

23:28 – a bright, staccato start soon leads to one of the main themes of the sonata’s first movement, given on the clarinet at 23:43. Poulenc utilises the instrument’s capacity for bittersweet emotions, with music that alternates between charm and mischief. At 25:40 the music takes on a slow, thoughtful mood which the clarinet tops with a melody of great beauty. Then the music of the opening reappears, in a more sombre form.

28:49 – the second movement is a deeply felt Romanza, led by the clarinet with a lyrical opening, before another gem of a quiet melody at 29:36. This is countered by a higher, more raucous thought.

33:33 – after some introspection both clarinet and piano burst out of the blocks with an exuberant finale. It’s hard to resist the bright and breezy clarinet theme!

Horovitz

37:43 – a settled and fluid start from both clarinet and piano, quite lyrical in its delivery, though the music becomes livelier and has an undercurrent of angst in the exchanges between the two instruments. Then we return to the more convivial mood of the opening.

42:56 – a shadow falls across the start of the slow movement, with both instruments quiet and reserved.

47:14 – this is the most distinctive movement of the three, with a swaying rhythm immediately given out from the piano. This is a license for the clarinet to roam free, and it does so with persuasive good spirits.

Encore

51:30 – an arrangement of a Brahms piano piece – the Intermezzo, Op.118 no.2, made by Nicolai Popov. It is a lovely, autumnal piece of music.

Further listening / viewing

The clarinet was a very important instrument for one of this year’s anniversary composers, Max Reger. Reger is an undervalued composer, and some of his most expressive music was written for clarinet and piano, as this album from Eduard Brunner and Gerhard Oppitz reveals: