Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Bach, Janáček, Messiaen, Martinů & Edmund Finnis @ Wigmore Hall

Britten Sinfonia soloists [Thomas Gould (violin), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Emer McDonough (flute), Huw Watkins (piano)]

J.S. Bach Violin Sonata no.1 in B minor BWV1014 (1720)
Janáček Pohádka (1910)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1952)
Finnis Five Trios (world premiere tour) (2019)
Martinů Trio for flute, violin and piano (1936)

Wigmore Hall, London
Wednesday 13 February 2019

Photo credit Harry Rankin (Britten Sinfonia)

Review by Ben Hogwood

For years now Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch series has been a steady delight, a way to discover the new and rediscover the old in chamber music. Using interesting combinations of instruments and building consistently innovative programs around them, the group offer a very accessible way in to discovering classical music’s treasures of the small scale.

This latest series, given in Norwich, Cambridge and London, is no exception, exploring 300 years of chamber music for flute, violin, cello and piano. Pianist Huw Watkins was the one constant for the whole concert, which at London’s Wigmore Hall gave off the unmistakeable aroma of spring.

Watkins and Thomas Gould began proceedings with a very tasteful account of Bach’s Violin Sonata. It is always good to hear Bach with piano accompaniment, for the music is so versatile that it suits the colours available. In a work like this particular sonata, where the piano plays much more than the role of a traditional accompanist, the textures were ideal. The violin, too, had more notes than normal thanks to Bach’s ‘double stopping’ writing, and Gould played these passages beautifully.

Janáček’s Pohádka represented quite a step forward stylistically but the transition was natural, and the fierce lyricism so often associated with the Czech composer was brought to the fore. Caroline Dearnley enjoyed the song-like passages and Watkins gave great clarity to the busy accompaniments, neither musician stinting on the intensity of Janacek’s writing as the plot of the fairy tale took hold.

The same could be said of Le merle noir, Messiaen’s only published work for flute and piano. An important work that signals his intent to accurately reproduce birdsong on traditional instruments, it is a remarkable piece – and Emer McDonough brought to it a wide range of colour. Most importantly she made it sound natural, for while the notes are all written out the intention of the piece is to sound as instinctive as possible. Again Watkins was the catalyst with some carefully voiced and wholly complementary thoughts.

Each ‘At Lunch’ concert features a new work on its world premiere tour, and the springlike atmosphere was ideal for Edmund Finnis and his Five Trios, for the conventional piano trio grouping of violin, cello and piano. Finnis finds an unusual amount of space in his music, and here his blend of quick movement over slow, drone-like figures opened out the textures very attractively.

There was very little bass in the five trios, notable for their translucence and bright textures. The first introduced softly oscillating figures, while the second spread shafts of light from spread piano chords and string harmonics. The dappled sunlight streaming through the Wigmore Hall roof was the ideal companion for the rippling textures of the third piece, but then in the fourth we enjoyed a bolder statement from the cello, its fuller sound ringing through a haze of sustained piano and glassy violin. To finish, the prayerful fifth piece completed a meditative ten minutes from a composer whose rarefied textures are well worth further investigation.

The Britten Sinfonia members closed their generous concert with Martinů’s Trio for flute, violin and piano. So prolific was the Czech composer that it is easy to overlook his achievements, particularly in the chamber music field. While it can on occasion be tricky to recall some of his melodies after the first hearing of a piece, the overall feel of his writing is uniformly positive and, in this case, capable of making the audience smile and clap spontaneously.

The third of four movements was responsible for the clapping outburst, a wonderful piece of effervescent writing betraying his Parisian location when writing it. The outer movements were a little grittier but still charmed with their syncopation, colour combinations and piquant melodies. The tender second movement was heartfelt too.

The standard of musicianship in this concert was extremely high. Particularly memorable moments include Emer McDonough’s final movement cadenza in the Martinů, where Watkins held the performance together admirably despite the tricky rhythms, the graceful playing of Thomas Gould in the Bach and Caroline Dearnley’s rich cello tone in the fourth of Edmund Dinnis’s trios, not to mention the expressive Janáček.

Once more from this source, an enlightening hour of music in an imaginative context. If you live in London or the East of England you really should catch them live soon!

Further listening

You can listen below to an interview with Edmund Finnis, talking with Dr Kate Kennedy about Five Trios ahead of the Wigmore Hall concert://embeds.audioboom.com/posts/7174837-edmund-finnis-talks-about-his-new-work-five-trios/embed/v4?eid=AQAAACp5ZVy1em0A

You can also hear a new release of Finnis’s music for orchestra here:

Meanwhile the remainder of the program is grouped together on this Spotify playlist:

Tasmin Little, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Edward Gardner at the Barbican – Janáček, Smetana, Szymanowski & Eötvös

Ed Gardner
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (above) (photo © Benjamin Ealovega)

Barbican Hall, Saturday January 7, 2017

Janáček Jealousy

Smetana Ma vlast: Vltava; Šarka

Szymanowski Violin Concerto No.2 (soloist – Tasmin Little)

Eötvös The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies [UK premiere]

Janáček Taras Bulba

L-R Leoš Janáček (1854-1928); Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884); Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937); Péter Eötvös (b1944)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Edward Gardner returned to the BBC Symphony for this diverse if not wholly successful programme, which opened with the ultimate in terse curtain-raisers. Intended then abandoned as the overture to his opera Jenůfa, Janáček’s Jealousy (1895) has latterly enjoyed a peripheral place in the repertoire. Heard here in the late Charles Mackerras’s realization of the original version, it made for a vivid impression – not least when its alternation between strident brass gestures and eloquent string writing unerringly evokes Sibelius during much the same period.

Next came the second and third instalments from Smetana’s cycle of symphonic portraits, Ma vlast. The performance of Vltava (1874) was a disappointment – its constituent sections rather failing to cohere, with Gardner making little of the visceral ‘St John’s Rapids’ episode and the apotheosis doddering along at a jog-trot.

Šarka (1875) fared better – Gardner exerting a tight grip over its scenario of female retribution, with felicitous playing from solo clarinet and horn prior to the fateful close. In context, these pieces sounded curiously adrift, suggesting that a different selection (Šarka, then From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields maybe?) might have proved more effective. Even better to opt for one of those early ‘Gothenburg’ symphonic poems that are rarely revived, of which Wallenstein’s Camp would ideally have complemented the Janáček in the second half.

Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little

Time was when Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto (1933) existed in the shadow of its predecessor, but this last major work by the composer enjoys increasingly regular revival – its amalgam of luscious textures and folk-inflected harmonies underpinned by a formal cohesion where elements of sonata and rondo forms link hands over a powerful cadenza (by the initial soloist Paweł Kochánski) that Tasmin Little rendered with aplomb.Elsewhere her intonation occasionally faltered as she strove for parity against often dense orchestral writing, though a cumulative impact was rarely less than evident on the way to the affirmative closing pages.

After the interval, a welcome first hearing in the UK for a recent orchestral piece by Peter Eötvös. Written for the Basque National Orchestra, The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies (2012) utilizes not only the quirky rhythmical profile of that region’s traditional music but also its indigenous percussion – two cajóns situated near the front of the orchestra goading the music on with their distinctive timbre. The piece follows an eventful (and suspenseful) trajectory in which the imagery conveyed by the title is amply though subtly conveyed; the typically stratified textures making possible the luminous final stages then an ending which, not for the first time with this composer, suggests a possible continuation just out of reach.

Later Janáček fairly specializes in such oblique endings, and if Taras Bulba (1918) is not one of these, this rhapsody’s graphic yet by no means literal depiction of events related by Gogol leaves no doubt as to its composer’s identification with his subject. Gardner brought fervency then starkness to the respective deaths of Andriy and Ostap, and while the opening stages of the final section were a little temperate, the apotheosis had a glowing inevitability – though some fallible playing was a reminder of this music’s demands for all its relative familiarity.

On record: Stephen Hough plays Scriabin & Janáček: Sonatas & Poems

stephen-hough

Two of the giants of the piano from the twentieth century lock horns in Stephen Hough’s newest release for Hyperion – which actually brings together recordings made in 2011 and 2013. Scriabin and Janáček complement each other as they both explore rich variants of tonal writing – and in Scriabin’s case, leave tonality altogether.

What’s the music like?

Alexander Scriabin has an output almost entirely based around the piano, which became his primary means of expression. Within that, Scriabin seems to have loved the black keys and in particular F sharp, around which many of his works are centred. The Piano Sonata no.4 and Piano Sonata no.5 both reside in that key, although both make frequent and increasingly exotic bids for freedom, part of the mystical style the composer was working towards.

In Vers la Flamme (Towards the Flame) he reaches his goal, making a complete break with tonality in music that seems to be flying through the air – apt, really, as Scriabin believed in the concept of levitation. Here he conveys it in musical form.

By contrast the piano music of Leoš Janáček has a remote but incredibly intense form of intimacy that can at times be truly disconcerting. The music of Book I of On an Overgrown Path is fraught with anxiety but also has astonishing power, and it has eerie premonitions of death – the fate tragically befalling the composer’s daughter Olga, who lost her life to typhoid in 1903.

The Piano Sonata ‘1.X.1905, From the street’ has an equally tragic genesis, and would have been lost completely had the pianist Ludmila Tucková not copied two of its movements before Janáček lobbed them into the Vltava river. The date is that of the death of Frantisek Pavlík, a Moravian carpenter killed by Austrian forces for his support of a Czech-speaking university.

Does it all work?

Yes. Stephen Hough gets right inside the worlds of these two differing but complementary composers. He gives a frankly astonishing account of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata no.5, notable for its total technical command. This can also be applied to Vers la Flamme, where the fiendish trills reveal a work right on the edge.

Meanwhile the Janáček works thrive on the same levels of clarity, and the vivid picture painting in a piece such as The barn owl has not flown away!, from On an Overgrown Path Book I, lingers long in the memory. Meanwhile the latent anger in the Sonata is undimmed.

Is it recommended?

Without reservation. Stephen Hough is a superb pianist and musician, and plays these works with a command and clarity beyond the reach of most pianists.

Listen

You can get a preview of each track from this disc on the Hyperion website

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.

Emika

emikaEmika picture © Katja Ruge

Up until now, singer-songwriter Emika has been best known for her one-woman electronica, best witnessed on her Emika and DVA albums for Ninja Tune. Yet she has always carried a torch for classical music, and recently released Klavirni, an album of piano miniatures, on her own Emika Records label. She is therefore the ideal artist to kick off Arcana’s interview section! She does so by talking about her watershed encounters with classical music, and the ambitious plans she has as a composer and label owner.

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?
It was actually the first moment I cried from listening to music. I was 12 and even though I was on my own I felt very embarrassed. I was forced to stay with my parent’s friends during our family holiday and I was being mega grumpy and did not want to join in doing any ‘nice’ things such as going on a long walk, so I decided to stay at the house on my own. I went through all their CDs and found Chopin piano nocturnes. The piece was Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Op.9 No. 2:

Your ‘Klavirni’ album is inspired by Janácek and Bartók – were there any piano pieces in particular that inspired you when writing the album?
I’m very impressed by Erik Satie‘s work, it is so touching and so precise. I think playing lots of notes is quite achievable on the piano as it’s always based on scales and anyone can learn to move their fingers in a spider-like pattern. But having the confidence to leave space in between phrases, to not play every possible note, to not feel the need to show-off. That is also skill in my opinion and I think Satie and Janáček were not only great piano players but they were also fantastic composers and therefore didn’t need to be ‘virtuosic’. I love piano pieces with a sense of space inside them.

Is some of your work improvisatory? The recordings have a very natural flow to them, as if you recorded them in one take.
They are all one-take improvs. Sometimes if my cat jumped on my chair or my mum got a phone call, I cut out these kinds of unwanted sounds. But there are lots of moments when it started to rain outside (in England of course it rains a lot) and you can feel this pressure change in some of the recordings. That stuff is pretty cool and ‘real’. I like to explore ‘real’ space within recordings and not only work with synthesis.

Was it important to keep some electronic elements from the work you’ve done before, such as the sampling, re-sampling and other processes you have used on the album?
Yes for sure. I have an itch to scratch! It’s fun to pull sounds apart and also get to know the music on a sonic level.

Although you have used these processes, you have made sure the music keeps its simplicity. Do you think sometimes classical music overcomplicates itself?
Yes. Too much diddle-di-di. I don’t like most classical music to be honest, just a few composers / conductors / performers and specific pieces from each.

Do you think moving between electronic club music and classical music means it becomes more accessible to the listener…and do you plan to keep writing in both styles?
I don’t like the stiff wall between these worlds. There’s no need to be just one way or the other and I plan do what I do until there is no difference between them in relation to my work. It’s all music.

What further classical music do you have planned…and might it involve you singing?
I’m going to record my first really big orchestral piece this year in Prague which features the beautiful Czech soprano Michaela Srumova and around 70 players. The music is rooted in grief, and features a miracle which pushes you over the edge and then you fall into a great unknown. It’s so full of life, things which I cannot express through words or any other way. Some things really are best expressed purely as musical forms.

What does classical music mean to you?
Life itself.

If you could recommend one piece of classical music to Arcana readers, what would it be and why?
Barber‘s Adagio for Strings. It doesn’t get more sincere then this.

Emika‘s new album Klavirni is available to buy now, either digitally, on CD or on vinyl. The vinyl has intonation included, while the CD has an option to email Emika Records direct to have the notation sent.

Emika has completed a DJBroadcast podcast in the form of an ambient mix, which can be heard here – while Dilo, one of the recordings from the album, can be downloaded for free here