On Record: Emily Howard: Torus (NMC Recordings)

Emily Howard

Antisphere (BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Vimbayi Kaziboni)
Producer Matthew Bennett, Engineer Stephen Rinker
Recorded 29 November 2022, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

sphere (BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Mark Wigglesworth)
Producer Dean Craven, Engineer Stephen Rinker
Recorded at the Aldeburgh Festival, 23 June 2018, The Maltings, Snape

Compass (Julian Warburton (percussion), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Gabrielle Taychenné)
Producer & Engineer David Lefeber
Recorded 4 December 2022, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Torus (BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins)
Producer Ann McKay, Engineer Christopher Rouse
Recorded 11 November 2019, Barbican Hall, London

NMC Recordings D274 [68’58″]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

NMC releases a second collection of music by Emily Howard – now in her early forties and established among the most distinctive while forward-looking composers of her generation, heard in scrupulous performances by a notable line-up of British orchestras and ensembles.

What’s the music like?

Few world premieres from recent years have left an impression comparable to that of Taurus at the Proms in 2016. Its appearance, moreover, marked a further stage in an evolution which had commenced just over a decade earlier and has continued apace, with major commissions from British and European organizations. This has been paralleled by Howard’s commitment into researching the intrinsic properties of sound, most recently via the Centre for Practice & Research in Science and Music (PRiSM) at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music.

As it now stands, Torus is the first part in an informal trilogy of pieces collectively entitled Orchestral Geometries. It evolves along the perceived trajectory of a doughnut-shaped ball whose central void is crucial to music evoking absence as much as presence. Not that a work subtitled Concerto for Orchestra could be found lacking in either immediacy of content or virtuosity of gesture, which qualities come demonstrably to the fore as it unfolds and make for a composition involving in its expressive profile and fascinating in its formal process.

By contrast, Sphere is a succinct yet eventful journey through and around the global shape in question and which, in this context, might reasonably be thought an extra-terrestrial interlude – its ideas pithy while exuding enough potential for their development in subsequent pieces.

This is what happens in Antisphere which forms its conceptual opposite though also its aural continuation, the piece gradually encompassing the ‘sound-space’ through an engrossing and imaginative demonstration of orchestral prowess. Evident too is an increased focus upon the visceral nature of the musical content, likely reflecting a form which can precisely be defined in mathematical terms but remains all but intangible as regards human perception. Fortunate, then, that Howard has been able to render this concept as an emotional and affective whole.

Hardly less absorbing is Compass, the most recent of these pieces. This takes the spatial and nautical connotations of its title as the basis for music which unfolds as a cohesive dialogue between string septet and percussion that complements it and offers contrasts at every turn.

Does it all work?

It does, not least for providing an arresting take on that interplay of ‘heart and brain’ that has been a mainstay of Western music. The cerebral basis of all these pieces may be undeniable, though equally so is the precision of their forms and, above all, the allure of their expression judged intrinsically as sound. Much the same could be said of the music of Iannis Xenakis, the centenary of whose birth was commemorated last year, and whose thinking is continued by Howard from a vantage that is inherently personal while being decisively of the present.

Is it recommended?

It is, not least for its excellent performances by three of the BBC orchestras and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, with booklet notes by Paul Griffiths and mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. This impressive release reinforces Howard’s significance in no uncertain terms.

Listen & Buy

Torus is released on Friday 28 April. You can explore buying options at the NMC Recordings website, and listen to clips from the album at the Presto Music site. You can read Arcana’s interview with Emily Howard by clicking on the link, and click on the names for more on the composer Emily Howard, plus performers Vimbayi Kaziboni, Mark Wigglesworth, Julian Warburton, Gabrielle Teychenné and Martyn Brabbins

In concert – Nash Ensemble @ Wigmore Hall: Side by Side & Nash Inventions

Side by Side

Royal Academy of Music Students [Christopher Vettraino (oboe), Silvia Bettoli, Johan Stone (horns), Magdalena Riedl (violin), Gordon Cervoni (viola)], Members of the Nash Ensemble – Adrian Brendel (cello), Alasdair Beatson (piano)

Colin Matthews Time Stands Still (2004)
Balency-Bearn Entre-Deux (2022)
Alberga No-Man’s-Land Lullaby (1996)
Keting before we were ocean (2021)
Colin Matthews Dual (2021)
Abrahamsen Congratulations Greeting (2022)

Nash Inventions

Claire Booth (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Nash Ensemble [(Philippa Davies (flute), Gareth Hulse (oboe), Richard Hosford, Marie Lloyd (clarinets), Richard Watkins (horn), Sally Pryce (harp), Benjamin Nabarro, Michael Gurevich (violins), Lars Anders Tomter, Jennifer Stumm (violas), Adrian Brendel (cello), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Alasdair Beatson (piano)] / Martyn Brabbins

Casken Misted Land (2017)
Colin Matthews Seascapes (2021)
Anderson Van Gough Blue (2015); Three Songs (2018-22) [World Premiere of THUS]
Benjamin Viola, Viola (1997)
Turnage A Constant Obsession (2007)

Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 28 March 2023 (5pm and 7.30pm)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

It has become such a fixture on the London calendar that Nash Inventions, given annually by the Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall, could easily be taken for granted. As tonight’s concert proved, however, the range and quality of those works performed is anything but predictable.

His long-time drawing inspiration from the landscape of the North-East might suggest Misted Land as a ready-made title for John Casken. Yet this quintet for clarinet and strings focusses on emotion as much, if not more than evocation by unfolding from the intangible impressions of its initial movement, via impulsive contrasts of its intermezzo, to a finale whose visceral progress is curtailed by a timely return to the initial equivocation. Richard Hosford made the most of his alternately insinuating and forceful writing in a piece that well deserved revival.

Although settings by Michael Tippett early on confirmed the musicality of his verse, Sidney Keyes (1922-43) has been relatively little set – making this selection by Colin Matthews in Seascapes the more welcome. From the unforced rhetoric of The Island City, it takes in the fleeting sensations of From : North Sea and the tense rumination of Night Estuary; a brief Interlude leading to the heartfelt expression of Seascape – one of Keyes’s greatest poems, in which Claire Booth’s commanding eloquence (above) more than vindicated the cycle as a whole.

Last in an informal trilogy centred on the colour, Van Gough Blue sees Julian Anderson pay tribute to this artist in a sequence traversing dawn to night. A speculative emergence of sound and texture in l’Aube, soleil naissant precedes the heady rhythmic and melodic interplay of Les Vignobles then mounting animation of Les Alpilles. Nothing, though, prepares for the inward rapture of Eygalières or the dance toward destruction of la nuit, peindre les étoiles: pieces wholly characteristic of this composer and as finely realized as anything he has written.

Further music by Anderson followed the interval – three in an ongoing series for soprano and ensemble identical to, but very different in usage from, that of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. The viscerally sensual overload of Mallarmé’s Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe (here made a tribute to Debussy in the centenary of his death) contrasted with the disarming sincerity of le 3 Mai – an email by composer Ahmed Essyad written during the pandemic, then lines by Longfellow in THUS – Claire Booth here enacting what is less a setting than a musical riposte to its text.

Writing what had become a tribute to Takemitsu 18 months after his death, George Benjamin turned what might have reflected the viola’s innate introspection into an intensive exploration by two of these instruments of how they might discover rhythmic then melodic and harmonic accord. Music diverse in content and logical in its unfolding, its technical challenges remain considerable – making this performance by Jennifer Stumm (having replaced Timothy Ridout at short notice) and Lars Anders Tomter the more engaging through its audible conviction.

It might come a fair way back in his sizable output, but the song-cycle A Constant Obsession remains among Mark-Anthony Turnage’s finest vocal works. This reflection on ‘love’ – what it might be, what it becomes and what it could have been – is articulated across five settings of Keats, Hardy, Edward Thomas, Graves and Tennyson; its course predicted in a ‘Prologue’ and encapsulated in the bleakly humorous final poem. Mark Padmore (above) conveyed its measure now as 14 years before, as did Martyn Brabbins (below) with his attentive and unobtrusive direction.

The early evening slot brought together players from the Nash and Royal Academy of Music. Entre-Deux saw Andrea Balency-Béarn opening out the timbral and harmonic space between pitches with discreet elegance, and No-Man’s-Land Lullaby found Eleanor Alberga working toward a totemic melody with combative fervency. Sun Keting contributed music laced with nostalgia but also indignation in before we were ocean while, in Congratulations Greeting, Hans Abrahamsen commemorated the RAM’s bicentenary in lively and resourceful terms.

Colin Matthews provided a more quixotic take on that event in the subtle contrasted sections of Dual, with his music also opening and concluding this selection. Time Stands Still marked Simon Rattle’s 50th birthday in (surprisingly?) inward and even inscrutable terms, while 23 Frames marked the 30th anniversary of the Nash through that number of miniatures whose character felt as distinctive as their order was random. The outcome found this composer as his most entertaining, with no complaints if several ‘frames’ exceeded their 30-second remit.

A lengthy evening, then, and an impressive showcase for the Nash in term of marking those achievements past or present. Now is hardly the time for any complacency regarding events such as this, which remains a template for what is possible in matters of artistic excellence.

Click here for the Nash Ensemble website, and here for the Royal Academy of Music

Live review – Royal Philharmonic Society Awards 2023 @ Queen Elizabeth Hall

From left: RPS Awards winners Anna Lapwood, Abel Selaocoe, Leeds Piano Trail, The Endz, Manchester Collective

Queen Elizabeth Hall
2 March 2023

by Ben Hogwood

Timing is everything in music – and as the attendees of the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards unanimously agreed, both the show and its message at the Queen Elizabeth Hall were just what classical music needed.

As RPS chairman John Gilhooly emphasised in his no holds barred opening address, times in the industry are hard. Arts Council England have never been less connected with classical music than they are currently, looking past its versatility and potential to make increasingly bizarre funding decisions. All working in music are affected, from those starting out in education and learning their first instrument to those receiving music as therapy and stimulation for dementia and good mental health. Music, it is clear, should not be treated as a ‘nice to have’ extra. Rather, it is a galvanizing force bringing good into the lives of everyone ready to receive it, as we all saw during lockdown and as we experience from day to day.

Gilhooly’s passionate speech threw down a gauntlet to the government and Arts Council but did so in the spirit of collaboration and community. These two words appeared at regular intervals throughout the evening, which captured a wide range of heartwarming and inspirational work taking place around the country, in spite of these restrictions.

Winners included the Torbay Symphony Orchestra, representative of so many life-giving amateur ensembles around the UK in the joy they bring to so many who take part or spectate. Joy, too, is at the heart of Anna Lapwood’s tireless and effervescent work, the organist deservedly collecting the Gamechanger award for her achievements in bringing the instrument to a whole new audience. Put #playlikeagirl into TikTok or Instagram, and you’ll see what I mean!

The awards, stylishly presented by BBC Radio 3 anchors Petroc Trelawny and Hannah French, captured classical music in so many different forms. Timothy Ridout, a shining viola player of the present and future, credited his Luton and Bedfordshire musical roots as key to the Young Artist Award. Abel Selaocoe won the Instrumentalist Award, the cellist expanding the scope of his instrument to encapsulate non-Western musical traditions. How remarkable that an instrument with such a long history continues to develop.

There were even happy pandemic stories. Theatre of Sound won the Opera and Musical Theatre award, their production of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle born during lockdown and executed in Stone Nest, just off Shaftesbury Avenue in London. Martyn Brabbins, music director of English National Opera, deservedly won the Conductor award for his fearless work with the beleaguered company, in which he continues to form strong connections with his musicians, old and new alike.

The Multi-Story Orchestra won the Impact Award for their searing production The Endz, expressing the feelings of a young Peckham group for the death of teenager Malcolm Mide-Madariola, killed while standing up for a friend in a knife fight. Even the brief excerpt we heard conveyed their strength of feeling, and their acceptance speech confirmed how cathartic music had been in expressing their feelings.

One of the most poignant moments of the night came when Manchester Camerata’s film Untold – Keith (above) earned them the Storytelling Award, confirming once again the power of music to help people cope better with dementia. Meanwhile on the streets Leeds Piano Trail won the Series and Events Award for their strategically placed pianos, bringing more than 200,000 aspiring musicians to the city centre, while composer Gavin Higgins took the Large-Scale Composition Award for his Concerto Grosso, a rousing success at the BBC Proms with the Tredegar Town Band and BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Ryan Bancroft.

The live music in the awards was astutely programmed. Sheku Kanneh-Mason gave a striking excerpt from the Cello Sonata no.2 by Leo Brouwer, written for him and fresh off the page in a first performance. Soprano Anna Dennis, winner of the Singer Award, sang a striking song of Elena Langer, Stay O Sweet beautifully weighted with beautifully floated counterpoint from oboist Nicholas Daniel.

The most distinctive musical voice of the night, however, was that of composer Ben Nobuto. Having won the Chamber-Scale Composition Award for the innovative SERENITY 2.0, and somehow achieving an authentic and wholly original balance between Frank Ocean and Caroline Shaw in the process, he joined Ensemble Award winners Manchester Collective for a performance of Danish folk song Old Reinlender. This was cleverly approached from the first movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, the join between the two almost imperceptible but negotiated in joyful, songful music.

Sadly no members of Arts Council England were present to witness any of these musical tonics – it is to be hoped they will listen when the awards are aired on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 6 March. You should listen too, for you will find classical music, in spite of all its challenges, is swimming strongly against the tide.

You can watch the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards on the RPS website within the next week – while BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the ceremony, presented by Petroc Trelawny and Hannah French, on Monday 6 March. Click here to listen

In concert – Kate Trethewey, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO / Martyn Brabbins: Vaughan Williams at 150: Scott of the Antarctic

Vaughan Williams
Scott of the Antarctic (1948)
Directed by Charles Frend
Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Presented by Big Screen Live

Kate Trethewey (soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 11 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s birth concluding this evening in a showing, with live orchestral accompaniment, of Scott of the Antarctic which proved to be the composer’s most ambitious cinema project.

Directed by Charles Frend (who presided over several UK films in the 1940s and ‘50s, before having an equally prominent role in television) and released in November 1948, the film was a commercial success not least owing to the expressive scope and richness of its music. This extended to some 80 minutes, but Vaughan Williams was more than happy for it to be edited as required and was so in accord with Ernest Irving (director of music at Ealing Studios) that he dedicated to him his Sinfonia Antartica, evolved from the original score, four years later.

It was this close synchronization between image and music that Tommy Pearson (director of Big Screen Live) was intent on capturing when he prepared the film for concert presentation (and the background to which was described in entertaining detail in the programme for these concerts). Suffice to add while the overhauled soundtrack, consisting of dialogue and sound-effects, was all too evidently recorded in mono so that it is easily obscured by the music, the visual component has an opulence and immediacy as transcends its more than seven decades.

Occupying a space equivalent to the lower half of the organ in Symphony Hall, the screen was less dominant in a venue of this size than it would have been even in larger cinemas, but any wider or wrap-round treatment would doubtless have raised many technical obstacles and the print had, in any case, a clarity evident from the rear of the stalls. Much the same could also be said of the orchestra’s contribution, even if its seating on a level platform meant certain of those more intricate details and textures seemed less prominent than under concert conditions.

There can be little but praise for Martyn Brabbins’s direction. A Vaughan Williams exponent of stature (the latest instalment in his traversal of the symphonies has recently been issued on Hyperion), he has an instinctive feel for the emotional highs and lows of this music along with its myriad instrumental subtleties. That divide between what was retained for the soundtrack and what became the composer’s Seventh Symphony is greater than is often supposed, yet the degree to which the former effects and enhances one’s experience of the film is considerable.

This is not the place for any detailed overview of the film itself, though it is notable just how restrained and even absent is the music from the latter stages when Robert Scott and his team head towards oblivion the further they seem to be heading on their return journey. This might have been more to do with Frend or even Irving, but the resulting psychological dimension – beholden neither to inter-war expressionism nor wartime realism – was ostensibly new in a cinematic epic of this kind and makes the film historically as well as artistically significant.

The singing of Katie Tretheway and the CBSO Youth Chorus left nothing to be desired, but many attendees having stocked up on liquid refreshment beforehand saw a steady coming and going over much of the two hours: something that would not be tolerated in a concert, so why here?

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on the artists, click on the names of Kate Trethewey, Martyn Brabbins and the CBSO Youth Chorus

In concert – Soloists, University of Birmingham Voices & CBSO / Martyn Brabbins: Stanford: Requiem


Stanford Requiem Op.63 (1896)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano), James Way (tenor), Ross Ramgobin (baritone), University of Birmingham Voices, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 25 July 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Its official season may have ended over a week before, but the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was heard this evening in a rare revival of a work whose premiere it gave 125 years ago at the Birmingham Triennial Festival – that of the Requiem by Charles Villiers Stanford.

As historian Paul Rodmell recounted in his programme note, this Festival saw the launching of a host of major choral works during its 128 years of existence – notably Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 1846 and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in 1900. That the latter piece was soon regarded as trailblazing despite a largely unsuccessful premiere might be thought ironic given that, just three years earlier, Stanford’s Requiem had been received with some acclaim only to fall into obscurity along with the greater part of his sizable output in the wake of the First World War.

Not unexpectedly, Brahms instead of Berlioz or Verdi is the main presence – thus the Introit with its understated opening theme that recurs often in the work, while its distinction between sombre choral and aspiring vocal music is further emphasized by those expressive contrasts in the Kyrie. The vocalists come into their own in a Gradual whose orchestral textures find this composer at his most felicitous. A telling foil, moreover, to the Sequence with its menacing Dies irae or proclamatory Tuba mirum, then what follows bringing the soloists into individual focus: hence the heightened fervour of Carolyn Sampson, the more circumspect eloquence of Marta Fontanals-Simmons, slightly hectoring impulsiveness of James Way, and the brooding power of Ross Ramgobin; though the sequence overall exudes an almost symphonic cohesion.

Arguably the finest portion, however, comprises the final three movements. The Offertorium makes much of the contrast between warmly martial and intensively fugal sections, while the Sanctus has an ethereal radiance which carries through the ruminative Benedictus and into deftly resounding Hosannas. The funereal orchestral music preceding the Agnus Dei affords the darkest emotion of the whole work, but this only enhances the ensuing Lux aeterna with its serene fatalism that Frederic Leighton – artist and friend of Stanford, whose death early in 1896 was the catalyst – would doubtless have appreciated. Throughout this performance, the University of Birmingham Voices responded with alacrity to choral writing whose poise and translucency were always in evidence – not least in the most earnestly contrapuntal passages.

Special praise for Martyn Brabbins who, whether or not he considers it a masterpiece, directed this work with unwavering conviction. The balance between soloists or chorus and orchestra might largely take care of itself, but orchestral textures need astute handling if these are not to risk uniformity or even monotony and Brabbins drew a committed response from the CBSO such that the autumnal hues of Stanford’s writing came through unimpeded. Good to hear this performance is being released commercially, as it did full justice to a largely neglected work.

A last thought. One of Stanford’s earlier choral pieces is The Resurrection, a setting of the ode by Friedrich Klopstock. Maybe when the CBSO performs Mahler’s Second Symphony in a future season, it would be worth programming these assuredly very different works together?

For more information on the CBSO visit their website. For more information on Charles Stanford, meanwhile, visit the website of The Stanford Society