BBC Proms 2017 – Anoushka Shankar and the Britten Sinfonia with Karen Kamensek perform ‘Passages’

Prom 41: Alexa Mason (soprano), Anoushka Shankar (sitar), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri), Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar), Britten Sinfonia / Karen Kamensek (above)

Philip Glass & Ravi Shankar Passages (1989-90)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017 (late night)

You can listen to this Prom here

Passages is a good, old fashioned piece of classical crossover as it really should be, an example of just how well different forms of music can feed from each other if the composers are flexible and like-minded about their project.

Philip Glass was certainly enthusiastic on discovering the music of Ravi Shankar in Paris in 1965, laying the roots for a collaboration between the two, finally engineered by Private Music in 1989. The result was the intriguing Passages, an hour-long work that sits squarely between the two in terms of style. It is a ‘to me, to you’ work, each composer finishing the other’s thoughts in full musical clothing.

Initially on hearing the strains of Offering and Sadhanipa, however, you might have wondered if the two composers actually met in the construction of the piece. Offering is so irrefutably ‘Glassy’ in style, bubbling beneath the surface before moving into those persuasive cross rhythms he executes so effectively, but it has extra colour in the orchestration to mark it out. Likewise, Sadhanipa stands out with its use of the rich timbres of the Eastern instruments brought in by Shankar as part of the fusion.

Gradually the sounds come together, the distinctive figurations of Shankar complementing the rigorous methods of Glass, and taming them attractively when appropriate. To experience this at the Proms was a treat indeed, the ever-flexible Britten Sinfonia sitting centre stage but often in thrall to the group of musicians positioned on their left, led by Shankar’s daughter Anoushka (below).

Hers was a particularly captivating presence, the sounds from her sitar at once alluring and lovingly wrought, a complement to the superb string playing of Jackie Shave and her Britten cohorts. Soprano Alexa Mason deserves a mention for her floated yet penetrating delivery above the textures in Channels and Winds, while the brass and woodwind were particularly strong in the passages where Glass asks for a more mechanised approach. Meetings Along The Edge was particularly powerful because of this.

The score was full of colourful surprises, which the audience lapped up, and did not suffer for the ‘bar lines’ introduced by conductor Karen Kamensek for the necessity of concert performance. Happily this did not rein the music in, for it was clearly intensively rehearsed, and the Britten Sinfonia players, no strangers to playing music across cultural and artistic borders, responded to the contours of Shankar’s melodies and the clear direction of Kamensek as naturally as they did for the Glass elements.

The resulting collaboration may be a little on the episodic side, but Passages is never less than intriguing, and in this late night performance its qualities were very much to the fore in music that pulsed and shimmered before our very eyes.

One gripe – it would have been nice to credit the orchestral players in the program. Great though it is to have a free and colourful document of the occasion, it seems a shame not to name the players responsible for helping make this night a memorable one.

Ben Hogwood

You can hear the original recording of Passages on the Spotify link below:

Wigmore Mondays – Carducci Quartet play Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt & Dvořák

Carducci Quartet (above, © Andy Holdsworth) (Matthew Denton, Michelle Fleming (violins), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola), Emma Denton (cello)

Philip Glass String Quartet no.3, Mishima (1985)

Arvo Pärt Summa (1992)

Dvořák String Quartet in F major, Op.96 American (1893)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19 June, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating concert presenting Dvořák’s American String Quartet in a very different context to the one we normally see. The Carducci Quartet approached this lovely, tuneful work from the direction of Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, and their different takes on minimalism. By doing this we got to compare the way each composer works and how they write for string quartet, and then had a chance to enjoy the way Dvořák repeats a lot of the themes in his own piece.

Philip Glass first, and his String Quartet no.3, written as part of his music for Paul Schrader’s film about Yukio Mishima. Some of the soundtrack has music for full orchestra but the string quartet are used for childhood flashbacks, and form an intriguing and character-building whole.

Glass took the five such movements and made them into a string quartet, in music of unexpected tenderness and sensitivity. That said, the first movement, 1957: Award montage, feels like a smaller string orchestra given the full bodied scoring (from 1:28 on the broadcast) November 25: Ichigaya (5:59) is a slow, reflective passage that sounds uncannily like the slow movement of the Dvořák to come. Grandmother and Kimitake (from 7:39) is a forceful, sharply defined piece of writing, brilliantly played here, while 1962: Body building (10:58) starts slower, using the mid to lower ranges of the quartet, before picking up again. Blood oath (12:49) has furtive arpeggios that gather power, while Mishima – Closing (16:13) is warmly reflective of what has gone before.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has become one of the most popular living composers. His musical style draws from his experience of chant music and bells, and is referred to as ‘tintinnabuli’, drawing from the Latin for bell. One of the first works to use this approach was Summa, written for string orchestra but equally at home in its string quartet setting (from 22:00). Its five minutes pass in blissful simplicity.

And so to the American Quartet (28:04), the perfect piece for a summer’s day. The Carducci immediately find the warmth of Dvořák’s tunes, which may have been written in America but are full of longing for his home country of Czechoslovakia. Most of them use a ‘pentatonic’ scale, which is a scale with five notes rather than the octave’s eight (explained here

The first movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo (meaning fast but not too fast, from 28:04) is full of the fresh outdoors and has some very hummable tunes. Contrasting the mood a little is the Lento slow movement (from 35:23), which gives more prominence to the cello for its gorgeous slow theme. It is sensitively played here by Emma Denton, especially when it returns at 41:13.

The third movement, marked Molto vivace (lively) is quite mischievous (from 42:47) and a little slower than quartets tend to take it in this performance. The sunny outlook remains, the quartet really enjoying themselves – though there are shadows in the central section. The finale (from 47:02) is marked Vivace ma non troppo (lively but not too fast), and zips along with yet more melodic inspiration. The Carduccis give this an ideal performance, thoroughly enjoying the lively and rustic melodies.

Further listening

The works in this concert are on Spotify and can be heard below:

If you want to hear more Glass then the Carducci have recorded his other quartets, and they are softly hypnotic:

Meanwhile a very appealing two-disc collection by the Chilingirian Quartet puts Arvo Pärt’s Summa in context with works by his contemporary John Tavener:

Víkingur Ólafsson – studying Philip Glass

Víkingur Ólafsson (photo: Ari Magg)

Last year, Arcana defined Víkingur Ólafsson as a true classical music entrepreneur. We explored his introductions to classical music, and talked about the two festivals he helps administer – Sweden’s Vinterfest and the Reykjavik Midsummer Festival. We also covered his friendship with composer Philip Glass, 80 this year. Olafsson professed his admiration for the composer and his creative energy, an admiration he has now transferred to disc in the form of his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Time, then, for chapter two in the interview!

When did you first encounter Philip Glass’s music?

It’s quite a specific memory. I was 13 years old, sitting with my two sisters in the back seat of our car on a family vacation. Dad was driving on the highway, heading from France to Switzerland and as we were bored and quarrelling in the back seat, he handed us this recording of Philip Glass Violin Concerto No.1 with Gidon Kremer (on DG as it happens) which we listened to on our Sony Discman players. It was unbelievable to discover this new sound world while passing by the French landscapes on 150 KM per hour.

Some of the Etudes on this album feel like extended meditations. Do you get into a kind of trance when you play them?

Not really, I’d rather have my audience in a trance… I just try to listen intensely and explore the possibilities of the instrument and acoustics, looking for the right proportions of sound and time.

Do you think the Etudes are actually much more emotional than the titles suggest they should be?

What is emotional for one person can be completely impersonal to the next. To me there is a nostalgia to the slow ones, but it’s emotions revealed through the filter of time. Etude means ‘study’, but one can also write etudes on emotions, just as well as on finger dexterity.

What technical challenges does the music present for you?

It’s relatively easy to learn the etudes and play them at an average level. But what I find difficult – as with any music – is to play them in the most specific way, when it comes to rhythm, texture, sound…

To get the clockwork fine tuned in a piece like Opening is extremely delicate and difficult, to take one example. And of course playing a piece like Etude No.6 is quite difficult, and the repeated notes make me feel as if I’m playing a late-20th century Scarlatti.

Etude No.20 requires intense layering of texture and pedal sensitivity and No 15 demands an orchestral palette on the piano. The etudes can be extraordinary when played well, but, like almost all other music, they can also be rather bland when played in a bland way. But blame the performer in that case.

Are you working closely with Philip on any new material?

We’ve discussed briefly a new work, but it’s too early to say more…

Aside from the piano music, what is your favourite piece by Glass?

I saw Einstein on the Beach in Berlin two years ago. It blew my mind to experience it live. I will also mention his Violin Concerto No.1, as it was the first piece I heard by him. And I have to mention Koyaanisqatsi. It’s actually on Youtube, I recommend spending a Sunday afternoon watching and listening to the great work.

Do you play music by any of the other so-called ‘minimalists’?

Yes, but they’re really not minimalists… at least not since the early 70s! I’m playing John AdamsPiano Concerto in Leipzig in June and I’ve played a bit of Steve Reich as well. I love these composers but I’ve played far more Glass than either of those.

What is it like being signed to Deutsche Grammophon, and do you have any plans for future releases on the label?

We are meeting in Berlin in March to discuss next albums. We have roughly three different ideas on the drawing board and they are all very different from one another – and from the Glass album. I don’t want people to know what to expect too much, I’d love for each of my album to tell its own story, independent from the previous ones.

I love working with Deutsche Grammophon as we have a mutual love of listening to, exploring and discussing music. And of course I’ve listened to so many DG records in my life and gotten to know so much great music and so many great performances through the label. It’s both a privilege and pleasure to work with them.

You can find out more about the Midsummer Music festival in Reykjavik here, while you can also discover Vinterfest here. For more information on Víkingur himself, head to his own artist website

On record: Víkingur Ólafsson – Philip Glass: Piano Works (Deutsche Grammophon)

Summary

Deutsche Grammophon have taken the opportunity to celebrate Philip Glass’s 80th birthday with their new signing, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. He has already performed the piano etudes with the composer himself, and has recognised the depth of invention and emotion that sits beneath the surface of what initially seems to be repetitive, mechanical music.

‘My approach to each of the etudes is to enable the listener to create his or her own personal space of reflection’, he says in the DG press release – and we will get more of his thoughts in an interview given to Arcana shortly.

What’s the music like?

Ólafsson is true to his word. The Etudes – even in Glass’s own performances – can seem a bit dry and difficult to approach. Not so with Ólafsson, whose incredible control means he can play with unexpected grace, using the pieces as reflections but also catching the nuances of Glass’s rhythmic writing. The quality of the DG recording helps here too.

The contours of the Opening piece are caressed and beautifully phrased, proving to be much more emotive than if played straight, as Glass so often is. In No.5 he is slow and lost in thought, and in no.14 too, but by contrast the Etude no.9 is quite punchy. Etude no.15 has a powerful surge in D major before adopting a dance-like profile, while the nervous energy of No.3 puts the performance more on edge.

Quite how Ólafsson plays the repetitive notes of the Etude no.6 is a complete mystery! His performance of no.2 brings both sides of Glass together, beginning in sombre and reflective mood but building to something pretty substantial. Here he is joined by a string quartet, an arrangement by Christian Badzura that proves effective at breaking up the sound of the solo piano and introducing some more colours to the mix.

Does it all work?

Yes, thanks to Ólafsson’s sensitivity and Glass’s awareness of the different colours the piano can offer him. Much of the music here is typical Glass, arpeggiated and with subtle but lasting twists to the harmonies – and it works really well in this context.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. So much so that this is probably the best album we are likely to encounter in Glass’s 80th birthday year.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

On record: Amy Dickson – Glass (Sony Classical)

Summary

Amy Dickson has a long-held affinity with the music of Philip Glass, and made her first recording of the composer’s music back in 2008, with a fiendishly difficult arrangement of his Violin Concerto. For this album she adds an equally challenging arrangement of the Violin Sonata, as well as two shorter pieces from Glass’s score for The Hours, arranged by her husband Jamie. Glass sanctioned the arrangements himself – a rare occurrence, and one that illustrates his high opinion of Dickson’s playing.

To play these pieces Dickson has developed a revolutionary tactic of circular breathing (which she describes in her interview with Arcana here). This enables her to deliver the long, repeated phrases that Glass writes without taking a pause.

What’s the music like?

Busy! There is plenty of energy throughout Glass’s writing, especially in the first movement of the arranged Violin Sonata, as well as the faster passages of the Concerto. In the Sonata Dickson and pianist Catherine Milledge dovetail their phrases with really impressive clarity, and largely take away the more mechanical aspects of the music. The agile finger work and incredible breath control from the saxophonist enables her to meet Glass’s challenge of long, arcing phrases.

This music can be heard in two ways – the ear can focus in on the busy movement of the inside parts, or can just as easily pan out to the slower moving harmonies, the phrases operating in bigger blocks.

The most affecting music is actually heard in the shorter pieces arranged from The Hours, and the more restrained passages of the Sonata, whose central movement has a relatively forlorn mood.

Does it all work?

Yes, particularly in the concerto where the extra colours of the orchestra add a greater range of colours and shades to Glass’s music. At times the textures of saxophone and piano can render some of the faster music in the Sonata a little dry, but Dickson’s warm and mellow sound ensures these are short lived.

Dickson plays with passion and feeling, which brings the more calculated music to life. Pianist Catherine Milledge deserves immense credit for her dexterity with some crowded piano parts!

Is it recommended?

Yes, in the main. The music of the Sonata can get a bit too busy for some tastes, but essentially it makes a nice contrast to the already well loved concerto.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify