Wigmore Mondays – Jess Gillam & Zeynep Özsuca

Jess Gillam (soprano and alto saxophones, above), Zeynep Özsuca (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 7 October 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Saxophonist Jess Gillam is proving to be a breath of fresh air for BBC Radio 3 and for classical music in general. Her combination of passionate artistry, technical flair and down to earth presentation is ideal, and brought colour to a dull Monday in October. Her spoken introductions between the pieces in this concert had a nicely judged patter, showing someone at ease with an audience and enthusiastic about the music she plays. The refreshing lack of pretence fed into the inspiring performances too. Gillam was helped by a very well chosen programme of music showing off the versatility of her instrument, in doing so covering a rich variety from the last 300 years.

The Pequeña Czarda of Pedro Iturralde was an ebullient first piece and a sign of things to come, placing the first earworm as well as showing off Gillam’s technique and Zeynep Özsuca’s colourful accompaniment. It draws the odd parallel to Midnight In Moscow in its slow passages, and both performers caught the contrast between these and the helter-skelter faster music.

The Marcello Oboe Concerto in D minor, transposed down a tone into C, illustrated how well works for oboe can transcribe for the saxophone, especially when played with as much control as there was from Gillam and Özusca here. The saxophone is a much louder instrument but Gillam really enjoyed the subtle colours available, and this worked especially well in the famous Adagio (11:08 on the broadcast link). In the outer movements Özusca found great clarity to bring the part writing to life.

Anna Clyne’s new piece Snake and Ladder introduced electronics to the equation, reminding us how the saxophone is one of the most versatile instruments between classical and rock music. Written for saxophone and distortion pedal, it was an effective and enjoyable piece, though sat at the back of the hall we had what sounded like wow and flutter from the breathing.

This led through a bit of a stylistic jolt to Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata, which appeared to be presented in original form without an arrangement – certainly none was credited. Gillam clearly loves this piece and played it beautifully, though the more plaintive oboe tone from which the third movement especially benefits was understandably more difficult to find (from 30:06). This movement, an elegy to Poulenc’s great friend Prokofiev, is effectively the last music he wrote and as such is very profound. Gillam did however do a brilliant job with the fast central movement (25:56 on the broadcast), with spiky counter thrust from Özsuca, while the first movement had established the mood.

We then heard from composer Rudy Wiedoeft, an American composer who raised the profile of the saxophone worldwide. His Valse Vanite, an original piece, drew on his love of transcribing other composers, and it was as though Chopin had taken a vacation in Harlem. Both musicians clearly have a lot of affection for this piece, and Gillam’s ornamentation was exquisitely done.

A reduced version for saxophone and piano of John Harle’s RANT! followed, this enjoyable and tuneful piece drawing on folk tunes from Gillam’s native Ullswater. That the composer, also Gillam’s teacher, was in the audience said much for the bond and mutual respect the two enjoy.

A soulful Pièce en forme de habanera followed, Ravel leading nicely into Gillam’s party piece. Milhaud‘s Scaramouche is the work she played in orchestral form at the Last Night of the BBC Proms in 2018, though it is arguably more effective in partnership with piano. Özsuca was a little far back in the mix to begin with but the fast movement was still hugely enjoyable, followed by a thoughtful slow movement and perky Brazileira (58:48), Gillam breaking into a grin once more as she played the catchy tune.

The audience would have been happy with this as the final earworm with which to leave, but a bonus was in store in the form of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood (not on the broadcast), the encore showing off Gillam’s remarkable breath control in slower music.

This was a really enjoyable concert, and it was so refreshing to see another younger artist throwing off any shackles that classical music might present, and offering it out as music, pure and simple. Proof if it were ever needed that music should be there for everyone to enjoy!

Repertoire

Jess Gillam and Zeynep Özsuca played the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets)::

Iturralde Pequeña Czarda (2:03)
Marcello Oboe Concerto in D minor (7:34)
Clyne (Snake and Ladder) for saxophone and electronics (19:27)
Poulenc Sonata for oboe and piano (21:05)
Wiedoeft Valse Vanité (35:00)
Harle RANT! (40:27)
Ravel Pièce en forme de habanera (47:53)
Milhaud Scaramouche Op. 165b (51:13)

Further listening

Some of the music played in this concert can be heard on Gillam’s debut album Rise. This includes the orchestral version of John Harle’s RANT!, and the works by Iturralde, Marcello and Wiedoeft – and of course the finale of the Milhaud:

Gillam’s teacher John Harle has a very impressive recorded legacy, raising the profile of the classical saxophone in contemporary classical music. The Sax Drive album (one in a series of PR own goals when it comes to saxophone album titles!) is well worth exploring for the three concertos it holds from Stanley Myers, Richard Rodney Bennett (his Concerto for Stan Getz) and Michael Torke:

Meanwhile if you liked the music of Milhaud you will find this hugely attractive collection from EMI to be very much your thing:

Live review – CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Honegger, Ravel & Brahms Second Symphony

City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Gražinytė-Tyla (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 31 May 2019

Honegger Pastorale d’été (1920)
Ravel Introduction and Allegro (1905); Le tombeau de Couperin (1919)
Brahms Symphony no.2 in D major Op.73 (1877)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Back from their extensive European tour, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and their music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla returned to home-base with this arresting programme of early 20th-century French music and a classic of the Austro-German symphonic repertoire.

Most understated among curtain-raisers, Honegger’s Pastorale d’été is always a pleasure to encounter and this account had its measure – whether in the evanescent outer sections with their intangible aura, or livelier central episode with its fleeting allusions to Swiss folksong. Gražinytė-Tyla has spoken of her desire to investigate composers ‘off the beaten track’ and Honegger would seem a plausible candidate; such works as the capricious Cello Concerto or anguished Fifth Symphony fairly crying out for reassessment and considered advocacy.

Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro enabled the conductor to take a break while a seven-strong ensemble from the CBSO gave this perfect marriage of formal lucidity and expressive poise; at its most perceptive in the wistful opening music that returns even more hauntingly towards mid-point, with a harp cadenza that Katherine Thomas rendered precisely while delicately. It duly prepared for Le tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s highly oblique response to the enveloping tragedy of the First World War in an account that defined more fully than usual the character of its middle movements. The astringent irony of the Forlane became more so at Gražinytė-Tyla’s swift tempo, with the Menuet allowed space for its pathos and tenderness to register. If the Prélude and Rigaudon left less of an impression, there was little to fault with either.

After the interval, a performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony that went much of the way towards conveying those passing yet always tangible ambiguities which offset any general equanimity of mood. The opening movement felt not quite the sum of its parts – Gražinytė-Tyla tending to rush headlong into climaxes, and with a curiously indecisive transition into the development as suggested she might still be pondering over that repeat of the exposition. Yet such as the stark transition into the reprise (those granitic harmonies of trombones and tuba really hitting home) then the suffused eloquence of the coda were perfectly achieved, as was the slow movement which here emerged as a more complex amalgam of agitation and resignation than is often the case, not least in those fatalistic intimations towards the close.

Next came a winsome take on the Intermezzo, its pert alternations of elegance and animation deftly while never too knowingly rendered; after which, the finale had energy to spare, if not at the expense of that ambivalence as is made explicit with the mysterious transition into the reprise (a passage of which Mahler could hardly have been unaware). From here Gražinytė-Tyla steered a secure course through to the closing peroration, its exhilaration never risking bombast when emphatic brass chords drove home the prevailing tonality in bracing fashion.

An absorbing performance, then, bolstered by some consistently fine playing from the CBSO. Gražinytė-Tyla returns one final time this season when, in the middle of June, she tackles a piece that has become synonymous with this orchestra – Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Further listening

You can hear a playlist of the pieces heard in this concert on Spotify below – none of which appear to be available in recordings made by the CBSO as yet:

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!