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:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Steve Hodges on the Philharmonia Orchestra playing John Adams

Arcana returns to the BBC Proms in the company of friends – and for our second visit this season we are dipping into one of the festival’s themes, the music of John Adams. Offering his thoughts was Steve Hodges (above)

Marianna Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Steve, what was your musical upbringing?

Personally, I would say it was broad. It started with The Beatles, The Monkees and The Rolling Stones. I grew up through the 1970s and enjoyed glam, and Sparks, and Elton John. Then after meeting people who had some really broad taste, I lapped up everything through electronica, David Bowie and punk.

I’ve gone on from there really, and gone sideways as much as I possibly could. I like to reflect on music and on what was going on at the time, socially, and what it actually represents. I think that’s an important factor about music. I really enjoyed the punk ideals that said anybody could do it, it made a new wave of music that was enormously important. Just because people could make a record didn’t mean they necessarily should, because some of them were awful, but there was so much choice and so many good things in the 1980s. Since then we’ve been through house and drum ‘n’ bass as well. My classical representation is a bit smaller, but I enjoy what I enjoy!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Starting with an old one, The Beatles – that was through my father’s record collection, which was a great influence as a young person. I appreciated them as they were. Then The Human League, as a lot of the Sheffield music was important to me, because at the time I was fortunate to be dabbling in music myself. It really crossed over, and Manchester music was a reference as well – so I would put Ultravox! in there as well. Those were the things that mattered really.

Turning to the concert, what did you think of the Bach / Stravinsky?

I thought there were subtler things here, I was surprised at the quiet volume, there were not so many people on stage I suppose. I was fascinated by the people playing, and the movement between the sections. I was watching for the technical side as much as the musical side. It was a nice ‘warmer-upper’ for the rest of it.

What about the Ravel?

I was much more in to this, and felt reflections of 1960s TV in the music, there were flurries that I kind of recognised. I really liked it. For the singer to remember the words was good, and being able to follow along in the book was interesting. I liked the shape of the music.

And the John Adams?

There was much more to think about with that one! I think the first movement built up, and we had the pleasure of seeing the orchestra and the punctuation, the offset rhythms, the bouncing around of the parts. There was a lot more percussive use here and the intricacies of the first piece were astonishing. He was definitely testing the technical abilities of the musicians. The crescendo at the end was almost human madness in my mind, it was almost too much to bear. The build up at the end, it went from the crossrhythms going on that were clear and observed, you could feel the pulses, and then that broke down at the end and it was completely consuming. You almost wanted to put your hands over your head.

The second movement was really nice at the start, I really liked that one. Because I’ve worked with sequencing a lot you could feel the repetition, the softness of the play, again testing the musicians in a different way at the limits of musicality. The lightness of touch stood out, and it was mostly driven by the harps to start with, and that was the bass, the pulse that drove it along to start with. I liked the guitar in there, I hadn’t spotted him and wondered where that was coming from.

What I liked about it most was where he was getting the strings to crescendo, it was like reversing an attack, and it was going round and round in a really interesting way. It was powerful and really interesting to hear that executed. I enjoyed that one most of all for sure. The arpeggios on the strings were really good, it was so delicate and ambient in its way. Even though it was gentle it was really strong.

How did you find the Proms as an experience?

Very nice. The reverence for the music was striking, and full marks for the quality of what you saw. The audience were obviously there to enjoy it, and treated it with the respect it duly deserved. It was a beautiful environment to hear such things. I’m almost a little disappointed it was quieter at the beginning but I guess we should have stood closer at the start. After a while though, you tune your ears into it. Everybody shut up so that we could all hear.

Having said that, the volume at the end of was enormous! The variety of the use of the instruments, like bowing the percussive instruments in the last piece, that was a softer element. It wasn’t orchestral techno by any means but there was a lot of crossover. It really was a testing thing for the musicians, and it really resonated how much was being put on them.

Is there anything you would change about the experience?

I did browse the catalogue and felt it was something I would like to do. I don’t think there is anything I would particularly change about it, and I’d be inclined to come again. I heard a few things on the TV last week, and I think I shall be listening out for more!

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music – Philharmonia / Esa-Pekka Salonen

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices and Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 2 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

This year’s Proms celebration of John Adams‘ 70th birthday moved on to some Naïve and Sentimental Music. Not my label, but the composer’s own – and a misleading one at that. The title implies a sketchily composed, throwaway fragment, but what we actually get is something very substantial, longer than many symphonies. The construction of the three sections making up the piece illustrate the ease with which the music of Adams expands to fill such dimensions, not something you could always say about the music of like-minded ‘minimalists’, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Where others of his ilk tend to work in smaller melodic units, Adams thinks nothing of spinning out a long, intense melody over several minutes, hanging like a long telegraph wire above the sun-drenched plains. Such an image came to my head as we listened to the second movement of three, Mother of the Man, where the guitar of Huw Davies sounded rather like the early music of Pat Metheny in its deceptively lazy traversal. The strings held fast, creating the wide expanses of which Copland would surely have been proud. The treble textures were especially rich, but when the dynamic dropped to a barely audible whisper on the violins, members of the audience were subconsciously leaning forward to follow developments in the music.

It helped that the conductor was also the dedicatee of Adams’ sizeable score, Esa-Pekka Salonen taking delivery on behalf of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1999. Here he secured some outstanding playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, who responded to the virtuoso demands of the music with impressive rhythmic impetus, intense focus and characterful phrasing. When the music gathered itself several times in the first movement, Naïve and Sentimental Music, the pacing and rhythms felt just right, with especially good work from harpists Heidi Krutzen and Stephanie Beck, not to mention percussionists Antoine Siguré, Scott Lumsdaine, Peter Fry, Stephen Burke, Tim Gunnell and Karen Hutt.

Towards the solemn close of Mother of the Man it was the brass bringing deeper shades to the forefront of the picture with exquisitely held chords. As Chain to the Rhythm hurried along the intensity built steadily and inexorably until it became nerve-shredding, the piece thundering along with gongs, bass drum, cymbals and massive timpani strokes giving it a mountainous perspective. We ended through the altitude of the violins, these massive orchestral sounds now a huge echo. It was a moving finish to a piece that is clearly underrated in Adams’ canon. Salonen clearly believes in it, and this audience did too.

A curious (but very interesting) first half began with Stravinsky’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her, a recomposition made to accompany the world premiere of the latter composer’s Canticum Sacrum in St Marks, Venice in 1956. This was an oddity of economical orchestration and sung text from a reduced choir. There was some quite tart colouring in the manner of Stravinsky’s later style, and his additions to the music of Bach added extra spice to the harmonies at unexpected points. An intriguing but puzzling arrangement, and one that threw the softer textures of Ravel’s Shéhérazade into relief.

This was no doubt intentional, for we were privy to a wonderful performance from French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa (above). Shéhérazade is a magical song cycle when performed well, but here it transcended all expectations – in fact I don’t recall ever seeing a singer who gauged the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall with quite the accuracy of Crebassa. Her direct communication with the audience was reinforced by the elegance and understated strength of her vocal delivery, a truly beautiful tone that caressed Ravel’s lines with clear love and affection.

The first song, Asie, held an exquisite tension as the travelling scene unfolded, while La flûte enchantée, the instrument itself beautifully played by Samuel Coles, thrilled with its orchestral colours and heady textures. L’indifférent was a little more mischievous, and again the exquisite tones and textures were in full accord with the very best Ravel performances.

Crebassa is most definitely an artist for the future, and her blend and rapport with the Philharmonia was something to behold. The reverent string textures and typically pinpoint orchestration were viewed through Salonen’s technicolour lens, but the team brought something very special to Klingor’s text. If you get the chance to hear the broadcast, do so as soon as you can. You will hear one of the best young singers in classical music right now!

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Steve Hodges will give his verdict on the John Adams Prom. Coming shortly!

Wigmore Mondays – Clara Mouriz & Joseph Middleton: Songs of the Antique

Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Purcell/Britten Alleluia (pre-1702, realised by Britten 1960)

Alessandro Scarlatti Son tutta duolo (c1699)

Anchieta arr. Dorumsgaard Con amores, la mia madre (unknown)

Liszt 3 Petrarch Sonnets (1842-6)

Duparc La vie antérieure (1884)

Hahn Tyndaris (1900)

Ravel Kaddisch (1914)

Falla 7 Spanish Popular Songs (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 June, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating concert that confirmed the versatility of Clara Mouriz and Joseph Middleton. Their performance, titled ‘Songs of the Antique’, concentrated on songs whose music or text looks a long way to the past for inspiration.

The mezzo-soprano has a rich and powerful voice in the middle register especially, which came to the fore in passionate accounts of the Liszt 3 Petrarch Sonnets, but also in the solo writing of Ravel and the quasi-orchestral scope of Duparc.

First we went right back to the Eighteenth century for an Alleluia – a song originally attributed to Purcell but found to be by John Weldon. Britten, as part of his Purcell revival, provided a complementary piano part, one that shadows the spun out vocal. This vocal won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Mouriz mastered it brilliantly here (from 1:49 on the broadcast link provided).

The Scarlatti, an excerpt from the opera La donna ancora è fedele, made a nice contrast (3:52). Unlike his brother, who wrote copious amounts of keyboard music, Alessandro wrote many operas – and the excerpt here shows how fluid his vocal writing could be. Meanwhile the arrangement of Anchieta’s folksong, thought to be from the fifteenth century, had a primal quality in this interpretation – with elegantly shaped piano from Middleton (7:01).

The Liszt was a highpoint of the recital, not just for Mouriz’s fire and passion but for Middleton’s word painting with the piano part. Liszt was borderline-obsessed with the sonnets, complementing his two vocal settings of the trio with powerfully descriptive pieces for the piano. The vocal line is highly charged in all three songs, and strongly Italian in musical flavour as well as language. Sonetto 104, Pace non trovo (I find no peace) surged forward turbulently in the piano part, a restlessness matched by Mouriz’s outpouring (from 10:31).

The Sonetto 47, Benedetto sia ‘I giorno (Blessed be the day) was notable for ‘the sighs and tears, the longing’ found by Mouriz at 20:07, while the final Sonetto 123 I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (I beheld on earth angelic grace) was beautifully sung (from 23:10), Mouriz mastering the wide ranges and dynamics Liszt asks for. Middleton’s decorative piano part was brilliantly done too.

After this we had the relatively rare chance to appreciate the songwriting guile of Henri Duparc, a French composer whose life was tragically cut short due to neurasthenia. He left just thirteen published songs, of which La vie antérieure is an expansive example. It began optimistically (30:13) but turned rather sour towards the end, this performance carefully paced and given impressive detail by Middleton.

Hahn’s Tyndaris offered more optimism after the Duparc (from 34:35) while Ravel’s Kaddisch, from his Deux melodies hebraïques, had a powerful declamation that Mouriz used to take over the hall (36:15).

Finally the Spanish mezzo-soprano was completely on home turf for Falla’s brilliantly written songs, a whole wealth of different characters and emotions coming out in this performance (from 42:22).

We had the famous Seguidilla murciana (43:00) where ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’, the mournful Asturiana (45:10), a brisk Jota (47:58), a soft Nana (Lullaby) (51:03), a brighter Cancion (52:48) with darker lining and finally the dramatic Polo (53:42), where the piano’s repeated notes appear to describe the stabbing pain in the singer’s heart.

As a richly deserved encore the pair gave a soulful performance of a Spanish funeral song, Let my soul mourn (57:08).

Further listening

The works in today’s concert are on Spotify and can be heard below:

As a contrast, why not try an album of orchestral music by the Spanish composer Turina, featuring at its centre the collection of Poema en forma de canciones:

Meanwhile, you can watch Clara and guitarist Sean Shibe perform Asturiana, from the Falla songs, below:

Wigmore Mondays – Kungsbacka Trio play Schumann and Ravel

Kungsbacka Piano Trio [Malin Broman (violin), Jesper Svedberg (cello), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)

Schumann Piano Trio no.2 in F major Op.80 (1847)

Ravel Piano Trio in A minor (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 13 March, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Schumann seems to have approached his career in clumps of music. 1841 was the fabled ‘year of song’, the catalyst for years of exceptional achievements in the form. The next year he ventured into the world of the string quartet, publishing three works. It wasn’t until 1847 that he decided to publish a piano trio, and here he was apparently spurred on by the quality of his wife Clara’s trio the year before. 1847 yielded two works for the combination.

The Second Piano Trio, Op.80 in his catalogue, begins with an outpouring of fervent but very positive feelings (1:35 on the broadcast), though its casting in F major makes it a little less tempestuous than the First Piano Trio in D minor, Op.63. Yes, it was a prolific year for the composer!

By now Schumann’s style was more contrapuntal – that is to say he was applying more of the practices perfected by Bach, linking his melodies through eventful interplay. The Kungsbacka Trio were alive to this way of writing, and all the parts were clearly audible, though when they merged into one there was some beautiful unison playing.

The second movement, a slow romance (from 9:57), was notable for the sweet tone of Malin Broman’s violin, though there was sterling work from cellist Jesper Svedberg at the outset. Meanwhile the third movement, a ‘canon’ (from 18:11), is almost like one bird following another in a slightly irregular waltz, the ‘canon’ being an almost exact imitation of one instrument (piano) by the others (cello and then violin). This movement softened further into the major key at the end. The finale (from 23:10) continued in the same high spirits.

The only Piano Trio of Ravel made a nice contrast. He did not publish much chamber music, but what his output lacks in quantity is compensated by works that remain right at the top of the repertoire. The shadow of World War I hangs over this work, published in 1914, especially as Ravel finished it before signing up as a truck driver. Despite moments of great sorrow and introspection in the slow movement, it ends on an ultimately positive note.

There are beautiful colours to be savoured, both through Ravel’s writing and this performance. The trio begins in dappled sunshine (31:10), and was especially notable in this performance for a first movement containing a lovely transition from the puffed up statements of the faster music to the slower, daintier second theme (leading up to 36:51).

The second movement (40:27) was also colourful, surging forwards in unison but also really attractively phrased for the second theme given by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips at 42:23 and then a unison from the strings shortly after. Then the mood turned inwards at 45:09 for the solemn third movement passacaglia, a form where the same bassline is repeated again and again but the tune varies. The final movement (52:30) shimmered in the sunlight, making a timely appearance on the Wigmore Hall stage to accompany the beautifully rendered harmonics of violin and cello.

As an encore the trio gave Beethoven, a movement from his Piano Trio in E flat major, Op.70/2 – again beautifully played and consistent with 20 years of great artistry from this source.

Further listening

A very nice complement to both the Ravel and the Schumann can be found in the Kungsbacka’s recordings of Faure for Naxos. This album includes his late Piano Trio and the stormy – and thrilling! – Piano Quartet no.2