Playlist – Sound of Mind 7: Strings and things

Here is another playlist for your delectation, in the new age of ‘staying in’.

This one features works for strings of very different character, from the energetic works by John Adams and Tchaikovsky to a more reflective, serene approach from Philip Glass and Sir Edward Elgar. You get an idea here of the versatility of the string orchestra, which can be by turns sombre and bracing.

Enjoy the music!

Ben Hogwood

Playlist – Sound of Mind

With the world in such a weird place at the moment, now seems like a good time to share a playlist of ambient music to ease the mind.

This one, homemade on the hoof, includes some personal favourites from Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, The Orb and a whole lot more:

I hope you enjoy it – and if you have any suggestions for future playlists please get in touch. Happy to do a whole load more!

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Joanna MacGregor: Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

Joanna MacGregor (above)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 11 November 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Joanna MacGregor is a remarkably versatile pianist – and from this evidence at the Wigmore Hall, she is an artist who enjoys her music making as much as ever.

It would seem she was given free rein for this hour of music – and was certainly free as a bird in the opening selection of wing-themed pieces. Returning to earth for ‘Grounds’ – pieces of music with set, short structures in the bass – she was equally effusive, as well as ‘Chaconnes’, which are similar to ‘Grounds’ but based more on chord sequences than explicit basslines.

The 400 years or so of music started with a flourish. Rameau had a great ability to portray nature in music, and his Le rappel des oiseaux (The call of the birds) was a delight in its interaction between the hands. His contemporary, François Couperin, was represented by a strongly characterised Les fauvétes plaintives (The plaintive warblers), where MacGregor enjoyed the ornamentation of the right hand. That led to an arrangement of fellow countryman Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The black robin), originally for flute and piano but responding well here to its reduction, with quick fire block chords. Rameau’s portrait of La poule (The Hen) was brilliant, the clucking and strutting of the bird all too enjoyably evident.

Janáček’s piano music has an otherworldly quality of stark intimacy, and it does not get anywhere near the amount of recognition it deserves in the concert hall these days. Joanna MacGregor started her next segment of bird-themed pieces with the evocative piece The barn owl has not flown away. Taken from the first book of the Czech composer’s collection On an Overgrown Path, its haunting motifs fixed the listener in a gaze rather like the owl itself.

Birtwistle’s brief Oockooing Bird was next, a slightly mysterious creature in this performance, before a piano arrangement of Hossein Alizadeh’s Call of the Birds, normally heard in its original version for the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) and the shurangiz (an Iranian member of the lute family). MacGregor is so good at inhabiting the authentic language of these pieces, and she did so here in concentrated fasion.

For the ‘Grounds’ section, who better to start with than Purcell? He was a natural with supposedly constricted forms like this, and the Ground in C minor teemed with activity in MacGregor’s hands, the right hand figures dancing attractively, The piece prepared the way nicely for Philip Glass’s repetitive but meditative Prophecies, arranged from his music to Koyaanisqatsi. This film soundtrack contains some of the composer’s finest music, and MacGregor showed how well it transcribes for piano, building to a bold and emphatic finish.

For the final section we moved onto ‘Chaconnes’, and looked back to the 16th century for the earliest piece in the program. Yet Byrd’s First Pavane still sounds modern in piano guise – Glenn Gould certainly thought so – and Joanna MacGregor gave an extremely spirited and buoyant account. Glass appeared once more – this time the interlude Knee Play no.4 from his opera Einstein on the Beach – before the substantial Chaconne in F minor from Pachelbel, heard here on the piano instead of its ‘home’ instrument, the organ.

How refreshing not to hear the composer’s Canon, much-loved as it is – for Pachelbel is much more than merely a composer of that particular piece. MacGregor found the profound emotional centre, darkly coloured in the minor key – and with that came an impressive inner resolve.

For an encore we were introduced to the eleventh composer of the day through a spirited account of the Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor. It contained all the enthusiasm and melodic definition that made this hour in the company of Joanna MacGregor such a joy.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Rameau Le rappel des osieaux (pub. 1724) (2:21)
François Couperin Les fauvétes plaintives (pub. 1722) (5:27)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1951/1985) (9:05)
Rameau La poule (pub. 1729) (11:02)
Janáček The barn owl has not flown away (from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1) (1900-11) (15:36)
Birtwistle Oockooing Bird (2000) (19:39)
Hossein Alizadeh Call of the Birds (2003) (22:08)
Purcell (1659-1695) Ground in C minor Z221 (unknown) (27:31)
Glass Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi) (1982) (30:34)
Byrd First Pavane (from My Ladye Nevells Booke) (pub. 1591) (36:25)
Glass arr. Paul Barnes Knee Play No 4 (from Einstein on the Beach, from Trilogy Sonata) (1976) (40:44)
Pachelbel (1653-1706) Chaconne in F minor (unknown) (44:19)
Encore
Handel Passacaglia from Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor (52:33)

Further listening

Joanna MacGregor has yet to record most of the music in this concert, but the following playlist contains most of the music listed above:

Portrayals of birds in classical music are far reaching, but few managed them better than Haydn in the 18th century. His Symphony no.83 in G minor, La Poule (The Hen) begins this playlist containing 100 minutes of bird-themed music. It includes Respighi’s exotic suite The Birds, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and – perhaps inevitably – Vaughan Williams’ timeless The Lark Ascending:

For the most recommendable version of Janáček’s complete piano music, here is Rudolf Firkušný in both books of the evocative pieces On An Overgrown Path, ideal listening for this time of year:

For a good onward example of Joanna MacGregor’s art on the solo piano, her 2003 album Play is highly recommended, taking an open approach similar to this concert:

On Record – Vanessa Wagner: Inland (InFiné)

What’s the story?

After her Statea collaboration with Murcof, Vanessa Wagner turns to solo piano for this substantial anthology of pieces with a minimalist slant. It is a broad selection, from the established coffee shop soundtracks of Michael Nyman through to longer pieces by Gavin Bryars, Hans Otte and Pēteris Vasks. Wagner brings together different approaches from either side of the Atlantic, and in doing brings up a half century of albums for French label InFiné.

What’s the music like?

The key to the success of this album is in the planning. By bringing together different approaches Wagner keeps the interest level high, from short but poignant pieces such as Moondog’s Für Fritz (Chaconne in A minor) to Otte’s Das Buch der Klänge, Pt. 2, which has a tonal base but ventures quite a long way harmonically, as its ripples get more pronounced. The pronounced statement at the end serves of a reminder of the influence of Janáček on this area of music.

There are two pieces from Bryce Dessner, with Ornament 3 especially animated, bringing suggestions of Sibelius. The Etude no.9 of Philip Glass drives forward obstinately, its kinetic energy bracing if slightly clinical, but this is complemented by the short but descriptive Railroad (Travel Song) from Meredith Monk. If Michael Nyman’s The Heart Asks Pleasure First inevitably conjures up visions of an Italian coffee chain in the early morning, it is still given extra freshness here, Wagner giving Nyman’s arpeggios a flowing sweep and a really nice sense of space.

Gavin BryarsRamble On Corona hits some deeper set emotions as it works out, reminiscent of the Spanish composer Mompou in its pairing of intimacy and space, while Nico Muhly’s Hudson Cycle has a lovely, lilting syncopation that rocks gently.

The best is saved for last, however, the Latvian composer Vasks really casting a spell with the stillness and poise of Baltâ ainava (White scenery), a cold excerpt from his substantial piano suite The Seasons, serving as one of those ‘last pieces before sleep’.

Does it all work?

Yes, very well indeed. Wagner has a very sympathetic ear for music that has plenty to offer, getting to the nub of its meditative qualities but bringing out its positive energy too. Each composer holds their own, the result an authoritative and accurate look at piano music in the 21st century, showing how it is possible to write with both simplicity and substance.

Is it recommended?

Yes, in all sorts of different musical directions! Recommended to fans approaching from the more ordered classical direction of Reich and Glass, but also to those coming in from the more electronic approaches of Nils Frahm and Murcof.

Stream

Buy

Arcana at the opera: Akhnaten @ ENO

Philip Glass Akhnaten

English National Opera, The Coliseum, London

Thursday 21 February 2019

Review by Ben Hogwood

Photo credits Jane Hobson

On its second run at the Coliseum, Phelim McDermott’s production of Philip Glass’s third opera Akhnaten looks set to be a sell-out hit this time around too.

That much is clear from the first declamation of Zachary James, the Scribe who provides commentary throughout the opera, describing the rise of the first ‘monotheist’ Pharoah of Egypt – that is, one who looks to believe in just one god.

Immediately the dust and shimmering heat of the Egyptian desert are rendered to the audience, not just through the stunning, scorched-earth stage design but through Glass’s orchestration, dispensing with violins in the orchestra for a leaner, drier sound.

The music is deceptive, and though it may on occasion lack development of its principle ideas it is emotionally substantial and deftly scored. Typically for Glass, the majority of the three acts are rooted in consonant harmonies, and are packed with arpeggiated figures that serve as their melodies. However that is not the full story, for over this base the composer manipulates urgent and sometimes troubling cross rhythms. These are often energetic figures set for the woodwind, and are musical statements that repeatedly ask questions of the plot that by and large are answered.

The ENO orchestra play superbly for Karen Kamensek, operating like the workings of a swan beneath the water line. Meanwhile up above on stage, the singers show superb control and poise, tackling the lengthy phrases with deceptive ease. They are compelling throughout, unwavering in pitch, and are married to arresting images and breathtaking colours. Skills ensemble Gandini Juggling provide mesmeric support, their notable feats of poise and balance given an expressive edge in line with the plot.

The king Akhnaten himself is sung by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who is a pure presence, his voice ringing out strongly to all corners of the Coliseum. It dovetails beautifully with the mezzo-soprano of his queen Nefertiti, sung by Katie Stevenson (below). Their slow moving duet in Act 2, where both singers sport vivid red trains, is a treat for the eyes and ears.

Indeed once the audience adjust to the pacing and development of an initially obscure plot, the opera becomes a study in thought. Rebecca Bottone, James Cleverton, Keel Watson and Colin Judson head a very strong supporting cast and sing superbly throughout, while the spoken declarations of Zachary James are especially good, adding real gravitas to the plot. The scenery frequently dazzles while the sun, lauded above all by the Egyptians, dominates proceedings from the back of the stage with reassuring stillness.

After 35 years, Akhnaten continues to provide a standout operatic experience, and dazzled newcomers and returning patrons alike on this occasion, a multi-dimensional treat for those lucky enough to attend. Phelim McDermott and above all Philip Glass have created an experience notable for its achievement in presenting an ancient civilization to the modern world, showing how the human spirit and instinct is essentially unchanged in all its time on earth, both for good and bad.
Go and see it while you have the chance.

There are three more opportunities to see Akhnaten at the Coliseum in London, on Thursday 28 February, Saturday 2 March and Thursday 7 March. For more information head to the ENO website

The only available recording of Akhnaten, made by the original cast and conducted by regular Glass collaborator Dennis Russell Davies, can be heard on Spotify below: