On record – Nash Ensemble – Julian Anderson: Poetry Nearing Silence (NMC)

Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins

Julian Anderson
Ring Dance (1987) Benjamin Nabarro, Michael Gurevich (violins)
The Bearded Lady (1994) Richard Hosford (clarinet), Ian Brown (piano)
The Colour of Pomegranates (1994) Philippa Davies (alto flute), Ian Brown (piano)
Prayer (2009) Lawrence Power (viola)
Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) Benjamin Nabarro (violin, triangle), Michael Gurevich (violin, triangle), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)
Another Prayer (2012) Benjamin Nabarro (viola)
Van Gogh Blue (2015) Ian Brown (piano), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Marie Lloyd (clarinet, bass clarinet), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)

Producer and Engineer David Lefeber
Digital Editing Susanne Stanzeleit

Recorded 1-3 April 2019 at Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, Kent

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Back in 2007 NMC released a disc called Book of Hours, a highly enjoyable compendium of the work of Julian Anderson, where smaller-scale music rubbed shoulders with ambitious works like the Symphony and the Book of Hours itself, which combined an ensemble and electronics to fascinating effect.

Poetry Nearing Silence is to all intents and purposes a follow-up release to that Gramophone Award winner, and features the Nash Ensemble and their members in short works by Anderson. They range from solo instrumental pieces to suites for ensemble, written from 1987 to 2015.

What’s the music like?

Concentrated, effective and stimulating. It is great to have such variety within a disc the listener can either dip into or experience in full. Either approach brings dividends.

Ring Dance, for two violins, opens the collection with the instruction that it should ‘be played with unimaginable joy!’ The open string drones with which the piece starts give a penetrating sound, and this approach is consistent with the piece. The instruction with some of the bowing is often to dig in hard near the strings, which gives an extra scratchy timbre. The sound is also striking when the open strings shift up a fifth, accentuating the positive if not always obviously joyful.

The Bearded Lady is next, receiving a tour de force account from clarinetist Richard Hosford and pianist Ian Brown. After the bold opening it becomes more lyrical if still high in its register, defiant yet mournful in its regret at how characters such as the bearded lady – in this case, Baba the Turk from Auden’s The Rake’s Progress – have been portrayed on stage. The uncompromising notes from the piano at the end speak plenty here.

It is surprising not more composers write for alto flute, for the instrument has a really appealing sonority. Anderson writes enchantingly on his nocturne The Colour of Pomegranates, aided by a richly coloured performance from Philippa Davies and Ian Brown, which builds to the sound of tolling bells on the piano and sharper, bird like squawks from the flute. This piece sounds a lot further East than England – and indeed is named after an Armenian film.

Another change of sound brings in the husky viola of Lawrence Power for Prayer, a more recent piece in which Anderson enjoys writing for the instrument he learned briefly in his teens. Here is a reminder that the instrument has a much bigger range than composers often use, grainy in its lower register but with a penetrating line higher up where Anderson capitalises for his melodic material. You might expect Prayer to be a contemplation but this one lets its thoughts unravel and regroup.

After four pieces bringing forward solo instruments, the disc moves to the ensemble number that gave its name. Poetry Nearing Silence is for seven players and runs through eight short movements, where Anderson reacts to the unusual drawings and words therein of Tom Phillips. The crisp chords that open Muse in Rocks or Pebbles or Clouds or Foliage are immediately appealing for their watery colours, and the suite continues to deliver keen illustrations of its subject matter. Anderson writes dreamy lines through Know Vienna, while the intriguing buzzing of a ratchet, played by the second violin, adds mystery to the bigger ensemble number My Future as the Star in a Film of My Room. As the suite progresses Anderson makes keen use of his resources in concentrated, expressive music that charms and impresses in equal measure. Shrill clarinet and gritty strings make notable colours, yet when the piece collapses as the bell tolls in Tall Rain Rattled Over Paris, the music subsides into silence. A dramatic piece well worth returning to.

Another Prayer returns us to solo instruments, this time for violin. It is around the same length as its viola counterpart heard earlier on, and shares some melodic material. It shares its restlessness too, forthright from the start and buzzing with nervous energy. Benjamin Nabarro rises to its challenges comfortably, but also creates a rarefied atmosphere with the harmonics of the central section.

Finally the most substantial piece, Van Gogh Blue, based on the painter’s letters that relish ‘the sheer stuff of which his own art is made’. This is the most obviously expressive piece of the collection, with clarinet-rich sonorities and expansive piano teamed to immediate effect in L’Aube, soleil naissant. Second movement Les Vignobles invokes the dance, while Les Alpilles teems with activity and life, the painter seemingly writing faster than his pen will allow. The clarinets dominate here. Eygalieres is a heat haze, with lovely colours emanating from the suspended chords of the ensemble, expanded by the piano. They create fuzzy yet bright sound worlds. Finally la nuit, peindre les étoiles is more playful, pizzicato violin and clarinet often in cahoots. There is a bigger scope to this movement, the recording playing effectively with perspective as some of the group sound detached and distant, almost bickering in the room next door.  The sparring, completed over solemn piano notes, completes an eventful and compelling piece.

Does it all work?

Yes. It is well worth giving the disc several airings so the works make themselves clear. It will be apparent that Julian Anderson is capable of writing concentrated music that sticks, and that he is incredibly versatile in his writing either for alto flute, viola or even the ratchet. Martyn Brabbins conducts superb accounts of the ensemble pieces, technically fault free in the way the Nash Ensemble tend to be – but also finding the sensitive centre of Van Gogh Blue in the beautifully voiced Eygalieres.

Is it recommended?

Yes, very much so. While Anderson’s orchestral works have rightly enjoyed good exposure of late, the chamber music has tended to drift under the radar. What it needed was a collection like this to push it into the spotlight.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from Poetry Nearing Silence and to purchase a copy at the Presto website here

Wigmore Mondays – Lawrence Power & Simon Crawford-Phillips: Le tombeau

Lawrence Power (viola, above), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 21 October 2019 (lunchtime)

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

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit (Lawrence Power) Giorgia Bertazzi

BBC Radio 3’s curious title for this concert was Adventures with a viola, despite Lawrence Power spending the last third of the concert playing the violin. Such is his talent on both instruments that the switch appeared to be effortless, part of an adventurous programme exploring the idea of paying musical homage.

To that effect, the first three pieces in the concert were linked. François Couperin’s expansive Prélude from the Première Suite pour viole (from 3:09 on the broadcast) exploited the lovely tone Power could get from the lower reaches of his viola, which helped accentuate the composer’s chromatic writing. A joint arrangement with Simon Crawford-Phillips of Ravel’s Menuet from the wonderful Le tombeau de Couperin followed (6:40), a fitfully effective version that was perhaps too fast in its execution, rather glossing over the cold central passage and the charm of the Menuet theme itself. The lack of repeats in this gorgeous piece of music accentuated the pair’s quick approach, despite a clever pairing of themes towards the end.

Australian composer Arthur Benjamin is not at all well known in these parts, but has an important role in musical history as a tutor of some repute. His own music can be overlooked because of that, and on this evidence unreasonably so – for Le tombeau de Ravel (10:58) was a pretty adventurous collection of a prelude, six waltzes and a coda, extremely well performed by the duo here. Having originally written it for clarinet and piano, Benjamin followed Brahms’s example by producing a viola and piano version, the instruments having a very similar range. The gruff start leads way to contrasting dances of affection and a quickfire number (17:00) requiring (and receiving) great virtuosity and dexterity from Power. There is charm in this music, too, as the next pizzicato waltz indicates, with tumbling figures from Crawford-Phillips, before a ghostly waltz with harmonics at 20:17 offers a starker picture. This is contrasted by a rousing finish.

We then heard a striking version for viola and piano of Three Berceuses from Thomas Adès’ opera The Exterminating Angel. They are based on two of the duets from Beatriz and Eduardo, the opera’s doomed lovers, and an eerie cradle song. These brought a wide range of colour and virtuosity from Power, with Crawford-Phillips providing expertly judged punctuation. The first Berceuse movement (26:30) was down at heel, with wispy outlines from the viola, then the second (29:44) had more expansive phrases, ending with crushing left hand octaves from Crawford-Phillips. The ghostly ‘round’ of the third (34:04) had the most memorable melody, ending on a decidedly macabre note as a mother cradling a dead lamb rather than her son attempted to rock it to sleep. Power’s harmonics on the viola were cold indeed.

A second group of homages followed, Power switching to violin for the duration. It was piano alone for Stravinsky’s brief but poignant Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (39:56), setting the chorale theme from his Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Crawford-Phillips managed the voicing of the parts beautifully. Tributes to Debussy followed from Erik Satie and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, Power reading the poem Debussy before Crawford-Phillips played the Satie Élégie (41:59). We then moved to a much more substantial tribute to the Spanish poet in the form of Poulenc’s troubled Violin Sonata.

The work itself had a tricky germination, its composer rejecting a couple of versions while not settling for the completed work either, returning to it in 1949. It is a dramatic piece, paying homage to the poet Lorca in assertive music that spills over into aggression in the first movement (44:10). In the second, an Intermezzo (50:37), Power and Crawford-Phillips painted exquisite shades through the bittersweet musical language, while the finale (56:38) was powerfully wrought, even more so when apparently hitting a wall (59:58) and sinking into desolation. A commanding performance proved Power’s aptitude in switching between musical instruments.

Repertoire

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

François Couperin Prélude from Première Suite pour viole (1728) (3:09)
Ravel, arr. Power & Crawford-Phillips Menuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) (6:40)
Benjamin Le tombeau de Ravel (1958) (10:58)
Adès Three Berceuses from The Exterminating Angel (2018) (UK premiere) (26:30)
Stravinsky Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920) (39:56)
Lorca Debussy (1921-24) & Satie Élégie from Quatre petits melodies (41:59)
Poulenc Violin Sonata (1942-3, rev. 1949) (44:10)

Further listening

You can listen to most of the music heard in this concert in the available versions on Spotify below, with the exception of the Adès, which has understandably not yet been recorded:

Meanwhile Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips can be heard in Arthur Benjamin’s Le tombeau de Ravel as part of this collection on Hyperion, where Power once again switches instruments for the composer’s violin works.

Poulenc‘s instrumental sonatas represent some of his very finest work, and this collection from the London Conchord Ensemble brings them all together:

Wigmore Mondays – Marwood, Power and Crawford-Phillips play Brahms

Anthony Marwood (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano) perform music by Rebecca Clarke, Martinů and Brahms

Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 28 September 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06dbdk3

on the iPlayer until 27 October

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. The Horn Trio is very rarely heard in the version for violin, viola and piano, but a recent recording from Maxim Rysanov and friends is included:

What’s the music?

Rebecca Clarke: Dumka for Violin, Viola and Piano (1941) (8 minutes)

Martinů: Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola (1947) (16 minutes)

Brahms: Trio for Violin, Viola and Piano (1884) (28 minutes)

What about the music?

rebecca-clarke

The music of Rebecca Clarke has taken a long while to reach our concert halls, but thankfully it is not the rarity it once was. A viola player of some distinction, she wrote a wonderful competition-winning Sonata for viola and piano in 1919. This Dumka comes towards the end of her career as a composer, though she lived for nearly 40 more years without consistent inspiration to compose. The piece alternates slow, melancholic figures with an attractive and dramatic dance.

Like Clarke, Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů had relocated to New York, and his Three Madrigals for violin and viola, essentially a late wartime work, were inspired by hearing the English Singers in concert in Prague. They were written for the brother and sister duo of Joseph and Lilian Fuchs. Though instrumental the pieces are clearly written with voices in mind, and through clever use of double stopping techniques (where the instruments play more than one string at once) it often feels as though more instruments are in the room.

Brahms wrote his Horn Trio, for horn, violin and piano, in memory of his recently-departed mother. A profound work, it contains a passionate and often stormy pair of slow movement, placed first and third, and two faster movements – a triple time Scherzo of more lyrical design and then a finale tailor made for the horn, sending the audience away with a vision of adversity conquered by strength.

Performance verdict

This was a very well-chosen program by the three friends, and it was especially rewarding to hear the music of Rebecca Clarke, a composer who is gradually feeling her way back to the exposure she deserves.

The Dumka performance was deeply felt, the slower music elegiac in tone through Marwood and Power’s closer harmonies.

These two excelled in Martinů’s Three Madrigals, which were surprisingly vigorous in content. The central madrigal was the charmer, its trills like autumn leaves in the breeze, calm but yet strangely restless.

The Brahms is an emotional work that tugs at the heart strings in the third movement Adagio, where the trio found the depth of the composer’s feeling. Yet the horn, for which this piece was ultimately written, was conspicuous by its absence and the viola – nicely played as it was by Lawrence Power – could not hope to fully deputise. Without the horn the fast music felt too polite, with no brassy rasp to enjoy in the Scherzo, nor fullness of tone towards the climax of the first movement. The finale was too fast, and although it is great ‘chase music’ this was a helter-skelter dash, the strings skating swiftly over thin ice rather than ducking and diving.

What should I listen out for?

Rebecca Clarke

2:13 – the stringed instruments are in close unison at the start, with a gentle melancholy running through their musical thoughts.

4:03 – the pace quickens and now the music dances, the stringed parts moving more independently of each other but still in close musical discussion. Their destination is less certain, as though dancing around the room unpredictably, and the mood becomes fractious.

7:58 – after the music reaches an emotional high – though not wholly positive – we return to the relative calm of the opening music, violin and viola back in close harmony.

Martinů

13:10 – the first madrigal is typical of Martinů, bustling into action with busy figurations from both instruments. There is energy aplenty, and it sounds as though both instruments are engaged in deep and earnest conversation. Martinů throws in some unexpected harmonic diversions to keep the listener on their toes. There is no let up, the music rushing towards a bright conclusion at 17:03.

17:27 – a complete change of mood for the second madrigal, a mysterious and enchanting piece that often sounds like the rustle of wind in branches. Martinů uses double stopping and trills here to give a fuller sound. Gradually the music becomes more positive and full in texture, Martinů working around to the same key of the first madrigal. The close harmony mirrors the brother-sister relationship of the dedicatees. The trills return at the end but are now settled.

23:51 – the third and final madrigal, an open-air burst of positivity! Again the music is busy, and here as elsewhere Martinů seems to be thinking of the dances of his home country. The trills return briefly at 27:41, before Martinů launches back into his main idea. In this performance the tempo is quick!

Brahms

32:33 – the first movement begins, marked Andante (at a walking pace). This is a slow walk at the beginning, with serious thoughts at a subdued volume. Soon the music becomes more animated, supported by a characteristically full-bodied and flowing piano part. In this version the violin and viola are close in harmony and dynamic; when the horn is involved it takes a greater lead. At 36:14 the viola introduces a halting second idea.

Around 37:00 the tone darkens, anticipating the sombre mood of the third movement, but this does not last too long – and at 39:02 Brahms can be heard at his most passionate before the movement ends.

40:09 – the second movement, a Scherzo. The restless piano establishes the triple time while the strings pull against the rhythm with syncopations – all typical Brahms qualities. The theme appears again at 41:41, then receives a stern development. At 42:45 Brahms effects a transition into the Trio section, which is slower, darker and reflective – and then at 44:26 the Scherzo returns.

47:29 – the mood darkens considerably for one of Brahms’s most profound utterances. This is the only instance in his music where Brahms uses the term Adagio mesto (slow and sad), and the heavy tread of the piano, and the instance at 49:19 where the stringed instruments are alone, are both instances that tell of the grief felt at losing his mother. It is not all doom and gloom however, for there are shafts of light at 52:08 – before the heavy heart is laid bare again towards the end.

54:26 – in which Brahms swiftly clears away his grief to write a wonderfully positive finale with a spring in its step, the three instruments seemingly chasing each other in flight. Nothing more to be said, except enjoy the wonderful music!

Further listening

There are not many opportunities to hear horn, violin and piano together – and since that combination is the original trio Brahms wrote for, the recommendation is for that version in a recording made for the Swedish record company BIS, by Marie-Luise Neunecker, Antje Weithaas and Silke Avenhaus.

Also on that recording is the trio for the same combination by Ligeti, which makes a vivid and intriguing contrast – titled as it is Hommage a Brahms:

Steven Isserlis and friends – Czech chamber music

czech-chamber-music
Fate by the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, 1920

Jeremy Denk (piano), Joshua Bell (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Steven Isserlis (cello), Wigmore Hall, 20 May 2015.

As Steven Isserlis wrote so eloquently in the program notes for this concert, ‘Why is it that so much Czech music is loveable in such a unique way?’

This, the first of two parts, revealed a quartet of composers intent on spoiling the listener with a mass of tunes (teacher Dvořák and pupil Suk) or using their music to express the highly charged climate in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (Janáček and, from a distance, Martinů)

Jeremy Denk, Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and Lawrence Power planned this concert to perfection, the abundance of tunes placed first and last, with the deeper moments in between.

It is doubtful Suk’s Piano Quartet, the first published piece of a precocious seventeen year old, has ever had a performance like this, bursting with pride and enthusiasm. After a forthright statement of the first tune from the ensemble, a beautiful solo from Isserlis revealed the work’s softer underbelly, which came to the fore in a similarly affecting tune in the slow movement, the cello releasing a beautiful mellow sound.

Janáček’s Violin Sonata wore a permanently furrowed brow. The icy reach of the muted violin in the last of the four brief movements was key to summing up a work that bristles with anger, though redemption was briefly found in the second movement Balada, with a theme of silvery consolation.

The second of three cello sonatas by Bohuslav Martinů was next. Isserlis has championed these works for more than 25 years, and gave a commanding performance of a moving work. Written in America in 1938, the composer having successfully fled Paris and the Nazis, it is a deeply felt and resilient utterance, especially in the second movement where time stood still.

As far as the tunes were concerned, the best was saved until last. Dvořák’s Piano Quartet no.2 positively bursts with Czech melodies – which are revealed to be surprisingly close in mood and contour to the American tunes he was to use towards the end of his career. Here they were swept along in a wonderful performance of good feeling, played with great sensitivity by Jeremy Denk, whose phrasing was key to the utmost charm of the Scherzo, the tender Adagio and the rustic finale.

Yet this was music for a team of friends to enjoy, the music surging forwards with a positivity rarely experienced to this extent in the concert hall – and happily caught by microphones, hopefully for a future release on Wigmore Hall Live. Those Czechs, they knew a good tune – and these four were the best possible Bohemian Rhapsodists in waiting!

The music from this concert can be heard here on Spotify. Part two of this series is at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 23 May, and will include the Dvořák Piano Quintet and the Piano Trio by Smetana.