Live review – Viktoria Mullova, Matthew Barley & LPO / Orozco-Estrada: Dusapin premiere

Viktoria Mullova (violin, below), Matthew Barley (cello, below), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada (above)

Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 28 November 2018

Enescu Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 in A, Op. 11 No. 1 (1901)
Dusapin At Swim-Two-Birds (LPO co-commission: UK premiere) (2017)
Martinů Symphony No. 4, H305 (1945)
Ravel La Valse (1920)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This centenary year of the establishing of a greater Romanian state (aka the National Day of Romania) brought tonight’s varied programme from the London Philharmonic under Andres Orozco-Estrada, now into his third season as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor.

Enescu‘s First Romanian Rhapsody might have seemed almost too obvious a choice, but this sophisticated piece suffused with the ‘confidence of youth’ is hardly a populist crowd-pleaser, so making Orozco-Estrada’s rather superficial approach the more disappointing. The opening exchanges were prosaic, the ensuing episodes lacking in wit and (to quote Richard Bratby’s note) insouciance and the heady climactic stages rather jog-trotted their way forward without much hint of that deftness and effervescence as can still excite audiences nearly 120 years on.

The first UK hearing of a major work from Pascal Dusapin is never to be passed over, with At Swim-Two-Birds continuing the series of concertante pieces running through his creative maturity. The title is that of Flann O’Brien’s 1939 novel, which considers Irish culture from a decidedly post-Joycean perspective, but Dusapin’s concerto hardly reflects this beyond its being a double concerto in two movements – both interweaving incisive passages with those that float suspended above their recurring key-notes. Viktoria Mullova (above) and Matthew Barley (below) were fully responsive to their solo and duet writing, whether in the intricate dialogue of the first movement or emerging cadenza-like writing of its successor; during which Dusapin’s predilection for ricocheting percussion and translucent textures came enticingly to the fore.

Such qualities are no less central, albeit put to very different ends, in the Fourth Symphony that Martinů wrote towards the end of the Second World War – when a victorious outcome could openly be expressed. The result is its composer’s most affirmative such piece, though there are many instances of ambivalence and Orozco-Estrada was attentive to such as those moments of stasis in the first movement’s subtly curtailed sonata design, offbeat accents that impede forward motion in the scherzo (its folk-tinged trio enchantingly evoking Dvorak), or sudden and teasing shifts in perspective which rein-in the emotional fervency of the Lento. The finale, too, has glimpses of doubt but Orozco-Estrada marshalled momentum unerringly through to a peroration that caps what should now be a repertoire work in outright jubilation.

An impressive reading, then, which found the partnership between orchestra and conductor at its finest. After this, was La Valse (or anything else for that matter) really necessary? Not that this performance was without its merits, Orozco-Estrada mindful to avoid letting an endlessly fascinating and always unnerving work descend to the level of mindless showpiece, but the music’s reserves of irony and violence sounded merely hectoring when heard in this context. That said, the visceral close was finely navigated by an LPO intent on projecting every bar.

This enterprising and often exhilarating concert was enthusiastically received by all those present. Hopefully Orozco-Estrada will tackle further Enescu and Martinu in future, while a too little known piece as Prokofiev’s Russian Overture fairly cries out for his advocacy.

On record: Vassilis Varvaresos – V for Valse (Aparté)

V for Valse

Vassilis Varvaresos (piano)

Liszt Allegro spiritoso in A major S427/7 (1852), Mephisto Waltz no.1 S514 (1862)
Ravel La Valse (1920)
Rosenthal Carnaval de Vienne (1889)
Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (1838)
Scriabin Waltz in A flat major Op.38 (1903)
Tchaikovsky Valse sentimentale Op.51/6 (1882)

Aparté AP172 [61’31”]

Producer / Engineer Pierre Fenouillat
Recorded 22 & 24 July 2017 by Little Tribeca at Hotel de l’Industrie, Paris

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The first recital disc from Greek pianist Vassilis Varvaresos, winner at the 2016 Enescu Competition, and already heard on Schubert’s Winterreise with Dimitris Tiliakos as well as works for violin and piano by Schumann and Richard Strauss with Noe Inui (both on Navis Classics).

What’s the music like?

In an interesting conceptual ploy, the Valse (Waltz) has been taken as basis for an overview of almost a century’s piano music – during the course of which, keyboard virtuosity veered away from uninhibited display to reinforcing the emotional complexity of the piece at hand.

Varvaresos starts his recital in media res with Liszt‘s First Mephisto Waltz – the touchstone for a virtuosity fused with psychological complexity, rendered here with a combination of technical brilliance and emotional understatement as extends right to the scintillating final bars. The seventh from his Soirées de Vienne, a set of Valses-Caprices after Schubert, finds Liszt in more equable if hardly less resourceful mood, not least in the way he channels his borrowed ideas into a study as subtle formally as it is poetic and affectionate expressively.

A further highlight is Faschingsschwank aus Wien, last of Schumann’s piano cycles from his first full decade of creativity and one which tends to be overlooked in the context of several more innovative predecessors. Its outer movements can run the risk of mindless display, but this is never an issue for Varvaresos, who leavens their boisterousness with almost Classical objectivity. This applies equally to the three central movements, not least a Romanza whose poise and inwardness uncannily anticipate the piano miniatures of its composer’s last years.

Tchaikovsky‘s piano output remains relatively neglected, so it was astute of Varvaresos to include his Valse sentimentale, last in a set of six pieces which point up his indebtedness in this medium to earlier models (notably Schumann), yet whose melodic eloquence is wholly characteristic. Scriabin‘s Waltz in A flat makes for a telling foil, its melody line diffused into a harmonic radiance which blurs the expected tonal focus with teasing playfulness. Here, as throughout this programme, the suppleness of Varvaresos’s pedalling is of the highest order.

Discretion is hardly to be expected of an archetypal virtuoso such as Maurice Rosenthal, yet his Carnaval de Vienne is a riotous humoresque on themes by Johann Strauss II that makes a fittingly uproarious encore (as Varvaresos demonstrated at last year’s Enescu Festival). The virtuosity of Ravel’s La Valse is of an altogether more speculative manner, but this account makes a virtue of such ambiguity as this plays out across a structure audacious in its formal design and unnerving in its emotional follow-through – not least those fateful closing pages.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Varvaresos is evidently among a younger generation of pianists for whom virtuosity is neither to be played up to nor fought shy of; but rather placed at the service of the music in question so its salient qualities can more fully be appreciated and savoured.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is ideal in its realism and immediacy, with Jean-Yves Clement’s fanciful note complemented by a photo which looks rather like a still from an Alain Resnais film. An auspicious release by a pianist from whom much can be expected. V for Varvaresos indeed!

You can read more about this release on the Aparté website, or get more information on Vassilis at his website The full album can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Michael Hubbard on the CBSO concert of Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series musicOMH editor Michael Hubbard gives his verdict on the City of Birmingham Orchestra and their Prom of French music.

Prom 31: Inon Barnatan (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130 ‘Du fond de l’abîme’ (1914-17)
Debussy Nocturnes (1897-99)
Ravel Boléro (1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 15 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Michael, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

There was always a guitar hanging in the lounge, as my father learnt a bit in the 1960s. He used to play things like Islands In The Sun, and then my mother would say “That’s enough!” and hang it up again. When I was in infant school, like anybody else, recorders became a fixture in my life. I had a descant, a tenor and a treble at various points. I never got round to the bass, only one person had that, maybe because her parents were richer.

In terms of the music I used to listen to, that was something else entirely. My mother was deaf, but she could somehow pick out some music more than others. She passed some of that on to me, and some of that was the opera side – especially Puccini – but there was music from King Sunny Adé through to Tina Turner, too. My father’s music taste could be discerned a little from what he used to play on guitar. When I was a little older I was able to go through his music and play some of it, from Johnny Cash to Abba. I know my mother’s teenage fixation was Elvis Presley. So although I had no formal music knowledge before I started learning an instrument, there was I suppose a lot of music around – but I had to look for it.

When were you first aware of classical music?

I was doing things in school, music class – and starting to pick up names like Purcell. When I started flute lessons at the age of 11, more of those composers became names to me, but up until then it was essentially things I heard on the radio. I had very little knowledge at that time.

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I could probably name about 300 and they’d change every time I tried to answer… so this will be the first three that come to mind.

Jean-Michel Jarre was a massive hero of my early teens. He is probably the main reason why the first musical instrument I was really interested in was the synth. I was self taught; when my grandmother died she said in her will, ‘he must have a keyboard’, and my mother stuck to that. She brought me the keyboard I wanted, a Yamaha PSS-680, with its mini keys. I went on to Korgs and Rolands after that, and eventually had a couple of years of piano lessons, which supplemented the flute tuition I’d been persevering with. Knowing my way round a synth – and covering Jarre tracks with it – opened the door to composition, and before long I’d written some rudimentary pieces. I could never have done that with just a flute, on my own – the synth allowed me to play everything. Like Jarre. His enormous Fairlights were of course a world away from my Yamaha, but here was a doorway through which I wished to step.

There was also a sense of drama in what Jarre was doing, it was like ‘I’m taking over Docklands for a concert’, or ‘I’m taking over a space shuttle launch site’. I loved that, that everything stopped because music was that important. The very idea he was putting out there was ‘I AM – LOOK’. The idea that drama could be a thing that is art – something you could express from yourself as opposed to someone scripting it for you, it could be you creating it, and you could take over the whole district of a city with your lights and your sound – was amazing to me. I had videos of the Docklands concert and Rendezvous Houston. I think they helped me become aware that hiding in the corner in the hope of never being seen was a life strategy that I’d already taken too far.

Another very big influence on my life was Erasure. Vince Clarke was composing on guitar but transferring his ideas across to synth. I think I’d pigeonholed synths and guitars in different worlds until I understood his process. You composed on one or the other, and that instrument of composition would then define your music and your artistic statement. Nonsense, of course. 1984 was for me a pivotal year as I discovered the UK Top 40 on Radio 1 and its visual highlights on Top Of The Pops. The charts were, it quickly became apparent, full of gays – as well as (half of) Erasure, there was Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, and especially Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the list went on.

Through them and their conduit, the BBC, I became aware of a larger world. Andy Bell could appear in gold lamé hotpants to sing Sometimes on prime-time BBC1 and millions of our countrymen – not least my parents – would watch. I began to realise that we probably reacted differently to this performance. With my age still in single figures, the lyrical meaning of Frankie‘s Relax, I confess, passed me by – but Erasure’s songs, beginning with the chorus of Sometimes, had me analysing and reanalysing all sorts of assumptions. It marked at least the beginning of an awakening.

I’d already bought my first album on cassette tape, but my first CD album was for someone of my age not an obvious choice – Delirium by Capercaillie. En route to America for the first time, I was in a duty free shop with my father. He’d been concerned I wouldn’t have enough to occupy me on the plane, and took me into a shop and get me an album to listen to. I could choose from whatever was there. I can’t think what caused me to choose Capercaillie – I didn’t then know the band was named after a bird, or anything about their music. I did know they were Scottish, having scanned the sleeve notes, and somehow I’d lasted this long on the planet without owning any music by Scots, despite most of my family hailing from north of the border. Maybe it was a curiosity to hear if we’d have a shared connection.

Delirium merged synth sounds with their Gaelic folk music, and the latter was an otherworldly thing to my ears – I had no idea what those lyrics were about. I listened to the reels and jigs, and I wanted to listen to more of them. By extension from there started to listen more broadly to folk music. Capercaillie’s Delirium is not pure folk, but they are steeped in its traditions, and it opened that world up to me and gave me landmarks to mark the course of exploration.

The Proms does that too. You go along to see something that, as a piece of sheet music written hundreds of years ago, could be stultifying, but actually it’s alive because people are on stage and giving their own interpretations – like tonight’s Prom, with the trombonist in the orchestra in Boléro.

What did you think of the music in tonight’s Prom?

It was my first time ever hearing Boléro live, although like most people I expect I know it very well. It was my first time hearing anything by Debussy live, and had never heard anything by Lili Boulanger. I’ll work back, because I have Boléro in my mind at the moment.

I think it’s a pivotal piece of music. It’s not that exciting because once you’ve heard it you know where it goes, but that’s also true of most trance singles released on Positiva at the turn of the century. It’s a dance music track in embryonic minimalist form, building layers, reshaping loops, falling back. It’s also a pop music track because it’s instantly memorable. And it’s a classical music track because it uses an orchestra – it’s many different things. I want to know how it affects the broader world beyond classical, not if it was too fast or too slow, or which genre it neatly fits into. It’s probably not Ravel’s best in his own mind, but it’s certainly his big crossover hit from beyond the grave.

With Debussy I found myself not focusing on the musicians, but drifting. Not that it was bad, but I think that’s what it was about. I started thinking of other images the music was putting in my mind, in a way that Boléro didn’t. The first piece (the Prélude à L’apres-midi d’un faune) I thought was better at doing that than the Nocturnes. It was a nice warm-up, and I could see why it was first. Nobody stood out, it was a piece that brought everybody together. There was one thing happening organically. I couldn’t sing you a note of it now, but it engendered thoughts of other things.

With the Boulanger I found it very quiet, despite everything on stage – which felt like a choice that the performers had decided to restrain things. I thought that was odd.

What was your experience of the arena compared to elsewhere in the Royal Albert Hall?

For the Debussy I think I would rather have been sat down, but not for Boléro. It was odd to be standing up for classical, I would have expected to sit down and would rather do that I think.

Verdict: A qualified SUCCESS, even more so with seats!

Prom 44 – CBSO Choruses & Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot – Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

Prom 44 Justina Gringytė (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (above)

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130 ‘Du fond de l’abîme’ (1914-17)
Debussy Nocturnes (1897-99)
Ravel Boléro (1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 15 August 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photo of CBSO (c) Upstream Photography

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC Proms website here

One of the BBC Proms’ most valuable undertakings this season is the music of Lili Boulanger (1893-1918). Her biggest choral work, a setting of Psalm 130 (Du fond de l’abîme) was the centrepiece of this enchanting concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Ludovic Morlot.

For once the Royal Albert Hall acoustic was ideally suited to the instrumentation of a piece, especially with the amount of detail lit up by this particular interpretation. Beginning with organ and lower strings that seemed to be positioned somewhere underground near the loading bay, the piece grew assuredly in stature and emotion, finding the nub of its text. The assembled throng of the CBSO Chorus sang as one, shaping Boulanger’s phrases beautifully while enjoying the harmonic twists and turns that give this piece – completed a year before its composer’s death – a distinctively modern turn.

Boulanger (above) was a friend of Debussy but had a tragically short-lived existence, dying from complications of illness at the age of 24. In that brief time she had already served notice as a composer of considerable invention, deep emotion and the ability to extend colour, harmony and melody in particular. All these things were on show in Psalm 130, the performance notable for its exquisite brush strokes.

The only problem was a difficulty in following the text itself from the arena. Although the right notes were undoubtedly there from the chorus, and mezzo-soprano Justina Gringytė was full of tone in her solo passages, the words themselves were difficult to grasp above the texture. Some of the blame for this could go to the Royal Albert Hall acoustic itself – and it certainly wasn’t at the expense of a quite wonderful piece that should occupy a much firmer place in the repertoire.

For the rest of the programme Morlot and his charges gave us popular Debussy and Ravel, beginning in the heat haze of Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune and ending with the minimalist Boléro. These pieces were fascinating to contrast, from Marie-Christine Zupancic’s languorous flute solo that led off the Debussy – beautifully played – to the insistent, temple-knocking side drum of Adrian Spillett in the ubiquitous Boléro. Morlot paced both to perfection, giving us a chance in the Ravel to indulge in Matthew Knight’s trombone solo but also bringing out the Spanish rhythms and colour that make the piece a riot. He brought percussion section leader Spillett to the stage for a well-deserved curtain call at the end.

Before Boléro we were treated to the exquisite Nocturnes of Debussy – which would have been even more exquisite were it not for a barrage of coughing around the hall. Still, that did not completely harm a sensuously shaded account of Nuages (Clouds), the first Nocturne, whose softly oscillating chords left their understated mark, before the second and much quicker Fêtes (Festivals) ran lightly on its feet. The central procession episode of this pictorial movement was brilliantly paced by Morlot, with a hallucinogenic effect achieved through to muted trumpets, distant horns and wide open string textures.

While these two movements were special the concluding Sirènes (Sirens) was bewitching, fusing women’s voices and orchestra in an innovative combination that predates Holst’s The Planets by some 20 years. The CBSO Youth Choir were superb here, singing as one and hitting the high notes without fear – and without compromising the colour Debussy so clearly strives for. Morlot portrayed the vast, wide open scope of the sea – but also seemed to be looking beyond, casting his gaze far into space. This worked extremely well in the Royal Albert Hall, though perhaps quelling the coughers at the end was an even greater achievement!

This was an inspirational Prom, giving us familiar classics and the relatively unknown, boosting the profile of Lili Boulanger while reasserting the claims of Debussy and Ravel to be masters of their field. French classical music at its finest.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC SO / Sakari Oramo – Schmitt, Franck, Ravel & Sibelius Symphony no.3

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 27 October 2017

Schmitt Symphony No.2 in E flat major, Op.137 (1957)

Franck Variations symphoniques (1885)

Ravel Piano Concerto in D ‘for the Left Hand’ (1930)

Sibelius Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op.52 (1907)

You can listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking here (available until 26 November)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Sakari Oramo‘s Sibelius cycle continued as part of a judiciously balanced programme which opened with a rare revival of the Second Symphony by Florent Schmitt. This continues the French symphonism of Roussel and Honegger; albeit with a quirkiness of melodic thought and virtuoso handling of sizable forces to confirm Schmitt as no mere epigone. Indeed, the angular wit of the first movement suggests his willingness to confront post-war modernism head on, and if the central Lent admits warmer and even tender emotion, the finale resumes the assaultive mood with an unremitting intent through to its scabrous close. Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra had the measure of this unsettling piece throughout; their responsiveness underlining that Schmitt was not one to accept the passing of his own era with even a hint of good grace.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (below) then joined the orchestra for two staples from the French concertante repertoire, separated in time by almost half a century. Good to see that Franck‘s Variations symphoniques has now re-established itself in UK concert programmes, as this unlikely yet successful hybrid of elements from symphony and concerto, as drawn into the pithiest of its composer’s cyclical designs, has a substance more than equal to its entertainment. Bavouzet and Oramo were especially fine in the expressive contrasts of its opening minutes, and if the rhapsodic musing at its centre seemed a little inflexible, then the effervescence of its final section too forcefully projected, there was no doubting the coherence and the ingeniousness of its composer’s response to a piano-virtuoso tradition he spent much of his life despising.

That the Franck outlines a ‘three movements in one’ formal design makes it a more than likely precursor to Ravel‘s Piano Concerto in D major, the most enduring of those left-hand works written for the redoubtable (if frequently wrong-headed) Paul Wittgenstein. Not the least attraction of tonight’s performance was its emphasizing the canniness of the balance between soloist and orchestra, such that the former was never less than audible in the context of what is the most overtly rhetorical and combative of all Ravel’s works. Add to this Bavouzet’s limpidity in the eloquent theme which returns intensified in the cadenza, not to mention Oramo’s control of momentum in the jazz-inflected animation of the scherzo, and what resulted was a reading attentive to every aspect of this masterpiece: one that justifiably brought the house down.

Sibelius’s Third Symphony is easy to underestimate as a transitional work poised between overt romanticism and renewed classicism. It was to Oramo’s credit that elements of both aesthetics were not only evident but also reconciled – not least in an opening Allegro which moved between fervency and incisiveness with no mean purpose. The highlight came with a central Andantino whose quasi allegretto marking may have been minimal, but whose opening-up of emotional space made for a riveting listen. The final movement was hardly less impressive in its purposeful equivocation between scherzo and finale, Oramo teasing resolve out of uncertainty so the hymn-like theme that eventually emerges built to a powerful apotheosis. A gripping performance, reinforced by the conviction of the BBCSO’s response.

For more concert information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, head to their website

You can hear a recording of the Florent Schmitt made by Leif Segerstam on Spotify below: