In concert – April Frederick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods perform Richard Strauss

April Frederick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 18 September (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The continued difficulties in mounting live concerts with an audience has led to any number of virtual and online presentations, of which the English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone is among the most imaginative. As organized and curated by Kenneth Woods, the ESO’s redoubtable music director (below), this promises a fresh perspective on various (often if not always) familiar pieces – performed in chamber reductions which respect the need for social distancing and illuminate aspects of the music not always evident in its more familiar guise.

Such was made manifest in the present account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, as heard in the transcription by James Ledger made for Felicity Lott’s farewell concert at the Wigmore Hall seven years ago and whose large ensemble emphasizes the wistful eloquence of these songs without undue enervation. It helped that April Frederick was at one with Ledger’s conception and Woods’s realization, whether in the lithe ardency of Frühling or the eddying rumination of September – this latter a candidate for the most perfectly realized of all Strauss’s songs.

The rapturous emotion of Beim Schlafengehen can verge on the cloying, but there was no risk of that here as Frederick imbued this setting of Hermann Hesse with a plangent emotion such as most renditions gloss over, complemented by Zoë Beyers’ unaffected handling of its violin solo. Joseph von Eichendorff‘s Im Abendrot was hardly less impressive, the expressive trajectory seamlessly sustained from impassioned opening to hushed close with its valedictory allusions to Strauss and Mahler – over which Frederick’s vocal hovered with mesmeric poise.

A chamber reduction by Tony Burke of Morgen! – Strauss’s setting of John Henry Mackay – for similar forces made for an unexpected if welcome encore. Here too it was the purity and understatement of Frederick’s approach that most readily compelled, in the process drawing this relatively early song into the emotional orbit of those written over half-a-century later. A fine ending to this first instalment of what promises to be a rewarding series, and one which looks set to reaffirm the significance of the ESO within the context of British music-making.

This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here

On record – Philip Sawyers: Symphony no.4 & Hommage to Kandinsky (BBC NOW / Woods)

Philip Sawyers
Symphony no.4 (2018)
Hommage to Kandinsky (2014)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Kenneth Woods

Nimbus Alliance NI6405 [64’32”]

Producer Simon Fox-Gál
Engineers Simon Smith, Mike Cox

Recorded 15 & 16 January 2020 at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Nimbus continues its coverage of Philip Sawyers (b1951) with this release of his most recent symphony, heard alongside a major symphonic poem written some years earlier, in what are impressively assured readings by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Kenneth Woods.

What’s the music like?

The emergence of Sawyers as a major symphonist of his generation has been among the more significant aspects of latter-day British music. From the overtly demonstrative First Symphony (2004), via the highly concentrated Second (2008) to the decidedly equivocal Third (2015), is to encounter a composer intent on expanding his idiom incrementally and without any fear of repeating himself. Hence the Fourth Symphony, whose three movements might be felt to take on the (unintentional) model of Bruckner’s Ninth from a distinctly contemporary perspective.

Such is immediately clear from the opening Moderato whose tonal ambivalence underpins an emotional restlessness set in motion by those granitic brass chords at the outset. Formally this is Sawyers’ most individual sonata design to date, its accrued tension duly carrying over into a scherzo with passing elements of intermezzo rather than an actual trio as ensures maximum continuity. There follows an extended Adagio of tangible weight and no little profundity, its focus ensured through a long-term transition from D minor to D accomplished as seamlessly as its incorporation of motifs from earlier in the score. Sawyers says that after this ‘‘there was nothing more to say’’, reinforced by a sustained apotheosis which resolves those chords from the outset with a finality only viable for a composer in command of his musical components.

Little that Sawyers writes is without symphonic potential, as is evident from his Hommage to Kandinsky. Scored for large forces and lasting almost 30 minutes, its subtitle A Symphonic Poem for Orchestra indicates this is no mere evoking of the Russian-born artist’s canvasses – though one aspect of his Composition IV has been transmuted into musical terms towards the start. Structurally the piece unfolds through alternating passages of relative stasis and motion, and if slower sections predominate as it progresses, there is never a risk of expressive inertia owing to the deftness with which existing motifs take on greater intensity while timbral and textural aspects are enriched accordingly. This latter aspect is crystallized at the close when an emphatic chordal cluster gradually dies down, to leave only the purest of C major tones.

Does it all work?

Yes, not least when this release judiciously combines two of Sawyers’ most distinctive and absorbing pieces. Never a composer who could be accused of favouring the easy option, his large-scale organization is, in both instances, as fascinating as it is resourceful. It helps when Kenneth Woods, who premiered Sawyers’ previous two symphonies (the Third as the initial commission of his 21st Century Symphony Project), is unstinting in his advocacy – securing playing of verve and finesse from the BBC NOW in the spacious ambience of Hoddinott Hall.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The annotations deftly interlace Woods’ descriptive commentary with Sawyers’ own analytical observations, and the booklet cover is graced by artwork from Philip Groom. It will be fascinating to hear just where Sawyers goes from here on his eventful symphonic odyssey.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Read

You can discover more about this release at the Wyastone website, and more about Philip Sawyers by heading to his own website

Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Matthew Taylor Symphony no.5, Mendelssohn & Beethoven

Pavel Šporcl (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (above)

Cadogan Hall, London
Sunday 9 June 2019 (3pm)

Taylor Symphony no.5 Op.59 (2018)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64 (1844)
Beethoven Symphony no.5 in C minor Op.67 (1808)

Written by Richard Whitehouse, who also introduced the concert with Matthew from the Cadogan Hall platform

This debut at Cadogan Hall by the English Symphony Orchestra was also the third in its 21st Century Symphony Project, having previously included the Third by Philip Sawyers and the Ninth from David Matthews. This afternoon brought the Fifth Symphony of Matthew Taylor (below).

Symphonism goes back to the start of Taylor’s composing career, his Sinfonia Brevis having been completed at just 21. The present work is only his second such piece in four movements, but here the formal and expressive emphasis feels very different. Indeed, the opening Allegro is unprecedented in his output for its tensile volatility (not unlike that of Beethoven’s Serioso Quartet), its driving impetus and explosive culmination creating a momentum pointedly left unfulfilled by the ensuing intermezzi: the first (a tribute to composer and teacher Cy Lloyd) as terse and equivocal as the second (a tribute to Angela Simpson, wife of composer Robert Simpson) is poised and wistful. It remains for the final Adagio (a tribute to Taylor’s mother Brigid) to secure that eloquent apotheosis towards which the whole work had been headed.

The ESO responded with playing of sustained emotional power such as carried through this movement’s plangent twin climaxes and on to its resigned coda. Not that there was any lack of commitment earlier – Kenneth Woods having set a suitably headlong tempo for the first movement as left his players unfazed, then characterizing the central intermezzi with regard for their subtly different auras. A fine rendering of a piece which amply reinforces Taylor’s standing as a symphonist of stature. Hopefully further hearings will not be long in coming.

The rest of this concert consisted of standard repertoire, but there was nothing routine about the performances. Pavel Šporcl (above) was soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, notable for the trenchancy and forward impetus of its opening movement – not least the structurally crucial cadenza placed between development and reprise, then the alternately easeful and searching Andante. The finale had no lack of wit or insouciance – Šporcl duly returning for a dynamic account of the Fifth Caprice by Paganini, its coruscating passagework delivered with aplomb.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony received a reading as attentive to the smaller detail as to its overall trajectory. The initial Allegro was incisive though never inflexible, not least in delineating the myriad variants on its indelible four-note ‘motto’, and if the Andante evinced a marginal lack of grandeur at its relatively swift tempo, those teasing asides which open-out its expressive course were deftly underlined.

Using the Clive Brown edition of this piece, Woods (rightly) opted to include the second-time repeat of scherzo and trio – giving it an enhanced presence as ideally complemented the finale’s ensuing majesty. There was little to fault in the latter’s uninhibited course: whether, or not, this edition places greater emphasis on the piccolo part, the clarity with which it emerged itself proved something of a revelation.

A memorable conclusion to a concert which also underlined the importance of this project in bringing together past and present of the symphony as a genre of ongoing and vital relevance. Next year sees a third instalment in the guise of the First Symphony by James Francis Brown.

Further listening

Toccata Classics have previously issued an album of Matthew Taylor orchestral music, recorded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Garry Walker. The composer’s Second Symphony and Viola Concerto can be heard here:

Pavel Šporcl can be heard in violin concertos by Richard Strauss and Korngold on the album below:

For more information on Matthew Taylor, visit the composer’s website Meanwhile Kenneth Woods has a detailed website of writing and engagements here, and you can read more about the English Symphony Orchestra here

On record: Briggs Piano Trio – Hans Gál & Shostakovich: Piano Trios (Avie)

Briggs Piano Trio [David Juritz (violin), Kenneth Woods (cello), Sarah Beth Briggs (piano)]

Gál
Piano Trio in E major Op.18 (1923)
Variations über eine Wiener Heurigenmelodie Op.9 (1914)
Shostakovich
Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor Op.67 (1943)

Avie AV2390 [63’05”]

Recorded 11-13 March 2018 at Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
Producer/Engineer Simon Fox

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The reappraisal of Hans Gál (1890-1987) continues with his music for piano trio, performed by musicians who have been consistent advocates of the Austrian-born Scottish composer.

What’s the music like?

Both of Gal’s contributions emerged relatively early in his career, when he fast establishing a reputation in his native Vienna as composer and teacher. The Piano Trio is typical in terms of the subtle ingenuity Gál brings to this deceptively orthodox structure. Thus, the Tranquillo opening of the first movement alternates with faster material such that its underlying sonata design becomes cumulative in its formal cohesion. There follows a propulsive scherzo, itself contrasted with an insinuating trio, then a finale whose eloquent theme initiates a series of variations which deftly extends the music’s expressive range on the way to a headlong coda.

Lighter in tone, the Variations on a Viennese ‘Heurigen’ Melody itself wrests a surprisingly varied sequence from a ‘street tune’ whose evidently unprintable text is wittily evoked here.

It was almost inevitable, even so, that Gál’s works should be outfaced by the Second Piano Trio of Shostakovich. Inscribed to the memory of the composer’s friend and confidante Ivan Sollertinsky and inspired by reports of atrocities committed during the Nazi invasion, this may also have been influenced by his recent friendship with Mieczysław Weinberg in its drawing on Jewish folk inflections – particularly in a finale whose ‘dance of death’ material creates an inexorable momentum that is powerfully in evidence here. Nor is there any lack of conviction in the first movement’s gradual intensifying of motion, the scherzo’s sardonic gaiety then the Largo’s simmering pathos in this most direct of Shostakovich passacaglias. The work’s closing bars, too, are all of a piece with what before in their fateful resignation.

Does it all work?

Indeed. The Briggs Piano Trio is an excellent ensemble, and as at home with the methodical elaboration of the Gal as it is with the more intuitive unfolding of the Shostakovich. Earlier recordings of the former are outclassed by this new version, while that of the latter can rank among the finest of recent years. It helps that the sound has a combination of spaciousness and immediacy ideal for this difficult medium, with Kenneth Woods‘s own notes providing a succinct though informed overview to help set these pieces within their rightful context.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. If neither Gál work represents his earlier music at its finest (for which turn to his first two string quartets or the Second Symphony) they offer rewards aplenty, while the Shostakovich is a version to reckon with. Further releases by this group are keenly awaited.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about the release on the Avie website, while the video below gives a preview of the disc: