BBC Proms – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin : Knussen, Ravel & Benjamin

george-benjaminPierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin

Knussen The Way to Castle Yonder Op.21a (1988-90)
Purcell
(transc. Benjamin) Three Consorts (1680) [World premiere]
Ravel
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31)
Benjamin
Concerto for Orchestra (2021) [BBC co-commission: World premiere]

Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday 30 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; pictures BBC / Chris Christodoulou

The cancellation of last year’s Proms meant the loss of several pieces by George Benjamin in recognition of his 60th birthday. Tonight’s concert, featuring the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with whom this composer-conductor has often collaborated, provided something of a redress.

The programme (its hour-long duration not unreasonably given without interval) began with The Way to Castle Yonder, a brief yet potent ‘potpourri’ from Oliver Knussen’s second opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! as amply conveys the aura of winsome yet ominous playfulness that suffuses the larger work. While they enjoyed a 40-year friendship, Benjamin’s own aesthetic is appreciably removed from that of the older composer so that a detachment, even aloofness was evident – without, however, detracting from this music’s always deceptive whimsicality.

Transcriptions of Renaissance and Baroque sources have been a mainstay of post-war British music, Three Consorts following an established pattern with Benjamin’s take on these Purcell miniatures underlining their intricate textures and piquant harmonies. The (to quote Benjamin) ‘‘visionary moment of harmonic stasis near the middle’’ of In nomine 1 went for little, with the ‘‘mesmerising intersection of line and harmony’ in Fantasia 7 effecting a Stravinskian objectivity, but the understated humour of Fantasia upon One Note was tellingly delineated.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard then joined Benjamin and the MCO in a performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major that, though it had precision and refinement in abundance, was almost entirely lacking in the qualities that define this music’s essential persona. The opening Allegramente evinced a desiccated manner with such as the blues-inflected coyness of its transitions or the heart-stopping stasis prior to the reprise of the second theme going for little, while the central Adagio took on an all-enveloping inertia as it unfolded – the inward rapture of its expressive apex then the pathos of its ensuing cor anglais dialogue all too enervated in their repose. The closing Presto drew an incisive response from pianist and orchestra alike, but here again any sense of this music’s more provocative demeanour was absent from the prevailing stolidity.

Aimard returned for an animated reading of Benjamin’s early Relativity Rag which provided an admirable entree into the world premiere of the latter’s Concerto for Orchestra. Unfolding as a continuous span (a pause just past its mid-point may be structurally meaningful) across a little over 15 minutes, this is typical of Benjamin’s recent music in its systematic – but rarely predictable – formal trajectory and alluring emotional reticence. The various instruments are highlighted singly or in groups in what becomes an intensifying progression, albeit without a tangible momentum, to a climax which brings first violins to the fore, before subsiding into a close of serene equivocation. Superbly realized by the MCO, for whom it was written, this is a thoughtful addition to a genre in which ‘display’ has all too readily become the watchword.

One final thought – at his untimely death, Oliver Knussen had several large-scale orchestral works in progress and maybe even nearing completion. Might it not still be feasible to bring at least one of the pieces to performance? The UK music scene would be all the richer for it.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage. Click on the composer’s names for more information on Sir George Benjamin, and on the performers’ names for more information on Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

On record – Early Stereo Recordings Vol.4: Albéniz, Bizet, Kodály & Ravel (First Hand)

early-stereo-recordings-4

Philharmonia Orchestra / Eugene Goossens (a), Guido Cantelli (d); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vittorio Gui (b) Paul Kletzki (c), Eugene Goossens (e)

Albéniz (orch. Arbós) Iberia – excerpts (1905-09, orch. c1928) (a)
Bizet Petite Suite (1871, orch. 1880) (b)
Kodály Dances of Galánta (1933) (c)
Ravel Daphnis et Chloé Suite no.2 (1909-12): Danse générale (d); Boléro (1928) (e)

First Hand Records FHR79 [78’21”]

Producers David Bicknell (a), Lawrance Collingwood (b,d,e), unknown (c)
Engineers Christopher Parker (a-d), Robert Gooch (e)

Recorded 12 July 1955 (b), 18 September 1957 (e) at Abbey Road Studios, London; 15 February (a), 24 March (c) and 28 May 1956 (d) at Kingsway Hall, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records continues its exploration of pioneering stereo recordings from the EMI archives with this collection of orchestral works, mainly from the earlier decades of the 20th century, as demonstrates the success of various HMV producers and engineers in harnessing the potential of stereophonic sound to the playing of what, in the 1950s, were the two finest London orchestras – the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic, working with conductors in music with which they were not necessarily associated over the greater part of their careers.

What are the performances like?

Starting with an incisive yet expressively deadpan take on Ravel’s Danse générale, all that survives in stereo of Guido Cantelli’s recording of the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé, the selection proceeds to excerpts from Albéniz’s piano cycle Iberia, orchestrated by Enrique Arbós. Seldom encountered in concert nowadays, these five pieces (all of the First, plus one each from the Second and Third Books) constitute a worthwhile suite in themselves. Eugene Goossens duly underlines his prowess in earlier 20th-century music with performances that bring out the evocative poise of Evacación, then alternate fervour and piety of El Corpus en Sevilla, before the capricious charm of Triana and capering energy of El Puerto; the cumulative emotional charge of El Albaicin closing this sequence with unfailing panache.

Goossens is hardly less persuasive in Ravel’s Boléro – at this time, not quite the ubiquitous showpiece it became – the inexorably accumulating momentum ideally served by his refusal to rush its devastatingly effective trajectory; the final stage largely taking care of itself when allowed to emerge inevitably. A further worthwhile revival is that of Bizet’s Petite Suite, five miniatures drawn from his earlier cycle for piano duet Jeux d’enfants and given with winning deftness by Vittorio Gui – demonstrably in his element when the sessions for his re-recording of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro finished ahead of schedule. Kodály’s Dances of Galánta has itself returned to favour in recent years, but few accounts are ever likely to match that of Paul Kletzki in his steering this ever more animated sequence through to its breathless conclusion.

Do they all work?

Pretty much, allowing for occasional lapses in ensemble that are notably few given the hectic schedule these London orchestras pursued at this time. Remastering has been deftly handled by Ian Jones – Albéniz and Bizet being transferred from HMV Stereosonic tapes, respectively by Giampaolo Zeccara and Ted Kendall (the latter’s 1997 set of Mahler ‘first recordings’ for Conifer is fondly remembered). There are extensive background notes from David Patmore, along with observations by Peter Bromley, whose tenacity has made possible this FHR series.

Are they recommended?

Indeed, not least given the interest of the actual music and the relative unfamiliarity of most of the recordings. The rapid standardization of the listening experience through the medium of streaming has made such releases as this more valuable by (hopefully) making potential listeners aware of just what became possible with the greater recourse to the stereophonic process, as of those numerous triumphs (among not a few failings) which resulted given the right combination of technology and musicality. Further instalments are keenly anticipated.

Listen & Buy

 

You can get more information on the disc at the First Hand website, where you can also find information on the first, second and third volumes in the series 

On record: Michael Brown – Noctuelles: Ravel & Medtner (First Hand Records)

Michael Brown (piano)

Ravel  Miroirs (1904-5)
Medtner Second improvisation (in variation form) Op.47 (1925)

First Hand Records FHR78 [61’49”]
Producers Adam Golka, Roman Rabinovich
Engineers Monte Nickles, Jim Ruberto

Recorded 2-10 January 2019 at Olivier Music Barn, Tippet Rise Arts Centre, Fishtail MT

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Michael Brown follows his earlier disc for First Hand Records (Beethoven and Mendelssohn on FHR67) with this coupling of Ravel’s most extensive solo piano work and Medtner’s most extended such piece outside of his sonatas; here featuring two recently discovered variations.

What’s the music like?

While the term ‘post-impressionism’ had not then been applied in a musical context, Ravel’s Miroirs effectively inaugurates this through five pieces that evoke the essence of the image in question rather than merely attempting its depiction. Other pianists may have rendered these evocations more acutely, but few have approached so highly contrasted a sequence with such evident concern for formal and expressive unity.

Hence the overall seamlessness with which the fugitive activity of Noctuelles is followed by the wistful poise of Oiseaux tristes; itself proceeded by those glistening textures and kaleidoscopic timbral interplay of Une barque sur l’océan, then the stark juxtaposition (vividly delineated here) between high-jinx and eruptive unease of Alborada del gracioso. Nor is La vallée des cloches the slight anti-climax it can often seem, Brown judiciously setting the scene for that stately modal theme as is among the composer’s most potent inspirations. An interpretation leaving one more than usually aware that the audacity of Ravel’s musical thinking is made more so by its pointed understatement.

One cannot imagine that Medtner had much regard for this music – but, fortunately, he almost always proved more flexible in his accommodation with past and present as composer than as writer. Never more so than with his Second Improvisation, written after he had left the Soviet Union for uncertain exile in Paris then London – its subtitle ‘in variation form’ indicating the fusing of precision and fluidity that gives this work its substance and its fascination. Brown’s perceptive reading is made more so by his inclusion of two previously unpublished variations which he tracked down to the National Library of Canada: thus, the elaborate passagework of La Cadenza (placed between variations four and five) and the coursing rhetoric of Pesante (placed between variations 11 and 12) which, between them, open out the emotional scope of what is already a design as unpredictable as it is engrossing. Certainly, the trajectory between the initial Theme and eventual Conclusion exudes a freedom from inhibition that Medtner here achieves almost despite himself and which Brown is demonstrably intent on conveying.

Does it all work?

Yes, given Brown teases out those musical connections between composers whose aesthetic outlook differed greatly (Medtner forthright in condemning most of his contemporaries). The account of Miroirs can certainly hold its own in what is now a crowded field (one featuring such as Beatrice Rana on Warner and Steven Osborne on Hyperion), whereas in the Second Improvisation the main competition comes from Hamish Milne (CRD) and Geoffrey Tozer (Chandos), neither of who include the additional two variations that Brown interpolates here.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The acoustic of the Olivier Music Barn is ideal for piano music of this intricacy and subtlety, while Brown’s booklet notes are succinctly informative. A welcome release by one of the Tippet Rise triumvirate who have become notable contributors to First Hand Records.

Listen and Buy

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the First Hand Records website. Meanwhile you can listen to Noctuelles on Spotify:

In concert – Gould Piano Trio @ Wigmore Hall

Gould Piano Trio [Lucy Gould (violin), Richard Lester (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano)]

Mozart Piano Trio in G major K564 (1788)
Clarke Piano Trio in E flat minor (1921)
Ravel Piano Trio in A minor (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London, 29 October 2020

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This latest event in the Wigmore Hall season saw a welcome recital by the Gould Trio, now well into its third decade and whose frequent appearances at this venue have always featured music from right across the medium of the piano trio; with tonight’s programme no exception.

A medium to which Mozart came relatively late in his career, producing five such works in little more than two years. Last in this sequence, K564 has rather remained in the shadow of its predecessors; unfairly so, as motivic interplay across and between its three movements is comparable to any of his more imposing pieces of this time. Such was affirmed in a reading which brought out the muscular interplay of its Allegro, the wistful elegance of its Andante then the relaxed nonchalance of a final Allegretto as ranks among Mozart’s most endearing.

Would that Rebecca Clarke had followed up her solitary contribution; the Piano Trio belonging to a clutch of pieces that should have laid the basis for a composing career but were destined to remain the peak of her achievement. The influence of Debussy and Ravel is often cited, but the vehemence of Bartók’s music from this period is equally evident – witness the emotional volatility of the first movement (which predates the similarly conceived opening movement of the Hungarian composer’s First Violin Sonata), fraught eloquence of the central Andante then driving impetus of the final Allegro; its powerful culmination subsiding into a resigned coda whose defiant ending feels almost in spite of itself. A fine performance by an ensemble which was championing this piece well before it attained the recognition it now justly enjoys.

If Ravel’s Piano Trio has never lacked for advocacy over the century and more since it was first performed, it remains a tough challenge both technically and interpretively. The present account was perhaps a shade under-characterized in the simmering dance rhythms of the first movement, with the Scherzo’s deft syncopations similarly downplayed at least until the sheer effervescence of its closing bars. No doubts, though, as to the ensuing Passacaglia – building methodically yet irresistibly to its baleful climax before winding down into the depths of the piano, from whence the finale steals in. The latter movement has been criticized for exuding near-orchestral sonorities, but Ravel’s handling of this is astutely judged – not least in a coda whose hard-won triumph in the face of encroaching adversity was powerfully conveyed here.

It certainly made for an impressive conclusion to this recital, just the sort of programme that feels necessary at such a time as this. Hopefully, these next few weeks will bring no cessation on the part of Wigmore Hall or the Gould Trio – their activities necessary now more than ever.

This concert can be streamed again until 29 November via the YouTube link above, or through the Wigmore Hall website here

These Wigmore Hall concerts are free to view but the venue is relying on the generosity of its audience to make them possible. If you do watch the concert, please consider making a donation, either at the Wigmore Hall website or via PayPal

On record – Sinfonia of London / John Wilson – Escales: French Orchestral Works (Chandos)

Escales – French Orchestral Works

Chabrier España (1883)
Duruflé Trois Danses (1932)
Saint-Saëns Le Rouet d’Omphale Op.31 (1871)
Debussy Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune (1891-94)
Ibert Escales (1922)
Massenet Meditation from Thaïs (1894)
Ravel Rapsodie espagnole (1907-08)

Adam Walker (Debussy), Andrew Haveron (Massenet), Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Chandos CHAN 5252 [78’19”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineer Ralph Couzens

Recorded 6-7 September 2019 (Trois Danses nos.1 & 3), 16-18 January 2019 (other works), Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Sinfonia of London, an orchestra from the 20th century given a new lease of life by conductor John Wilson, makes its second release for Chandos.

In fact we could term it as a series of Sinfonia of London buses, for you wait two decades and then two come along at once! The orchestra’s renaissance began with a stunning account of Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp last year, but now they turn their attention to France, and an imaginatively chosen program celebrating the elusive but immediately recognisable French orchestral sound.

What’s the music like?

A complete pleasure. Although irresistibly French, the music in the collection does remind us of the close bond between France and Spain, thanks to classics of the repertoire from Chabrier and Ravel and a relative rarity from Ibert.

Chabrier‘s España begins the collection and it is an absolute delight, a feel good piece given even more of a lift in this brilliant account. Wilson’s instincts for the stage come to the fore immediately, the bouncy rhythms and cheeky asides proving irresistible when presented with this much colour and warmth.

At the other end Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole is no less characterful. The atmospheric Prélude à la nuit ghosts in from silence, Wilson delighting in the orchestral textures and Ravel’s masterly sense of line. The persuasive rhythms of the Feria are expertly judged, the silky strings giving way as the music surges forward with terrific momentum.

Between these two gateposts are works of colour and élan. It is so good to see the inclusion of relative rarities in Duruflé’s Trois Danses, one of only two completed orchestral works in his output, and Ibert’s underrated Escales (Ports of Call) which gives the collection its name. The Duruflé sparkles in Wilson’s hands, violins caressing the longer melodies of the Divertissement, first dance of the three. Much of the composer’s relatively small output is for organ, which he effectively uses as his orchestra, but a persuasive Danse lente and thrilling Tambourin give us further proof of his prowess with large forces, harnessing the influence of Dukas. The latter features a particularly enticing saxophone solo, the recording indulging the colour and scope of Duruflé’s writing.

The Ibert, meanwhile, is a treat. Just over a minute into Escales‘ first movement, Palermo, there is what can only be described as a murmuration of violins, the music fluttering upwards in a bold sweep. Meanwhile Wilson secures a terrific drive to the description of the third ‘port’, Valencia, which ends with a flourish.

Before Escales comes a fresh faced account of Debussy’s Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, the piece that effectively changed the face of music on the eve of the 20th century. Wilson and his charges capture the sense of newness, but also the enchanting and harmonies, with seductive playing from flautist Adam Walker. By contrast the Méditation from Thaïs, Massenet’s most famous orchestral excerpt, is more conventional. It could have felt misplaced here in terms of mood and musical language, but orchestra leader Andrew Haveron invests it with plenty of affection and never overdoes the romantically inclined melodies.

The packed release also finds room for a symphonic poem by Saint-Saëns. Le Rouet d’Omphale (The Spinning Wheel of Omphale) is a relatively early work and a great example of the composer’s melodic flair and ability for musical programming in thrall to Liszt. Wilson has its measure fully, pacing the music’s build ideally in arguably the finest modern recording since Charles Dutoit’s classic account with the Philharmonia in 1980.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is a brilliantly played and really well-chosen program, suiting both the curious listener and the familiar Francophile. What comes through most of all is the sheer enthusiasm and flair of the players, galvanized by Wilson in accounts that are both instinctive and incredibly well prepared.

From the opening notes of España it is immediately clear how this collection is going to go, and with the changes in mood suitably well planned and ordered – save arguably the Massenet – it is a listening experience you will want to return to often.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. This is music making as it should be, celebrating great orchestral music packed full of good tunes, instrumental colour and the ability to paint vivid pictures of its subjects. Wilson and his charges should be congratulated for an achievement which will surely land them with a glut of awards in the next few months – and only heightens the anticipation for their third release on Chandos, later this month, when they will return to Korngold for the Violin Concerto and String Sextet. In the meantime, make the most of this wonderful set of French fancies!

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Chandos website here