In concert – London Chamber Ensemble & Madeleine Mitchell: A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021)

London Chamber Ensemble [Madeleine Mitchell (violin, director), Joseph Spooner (cello), Sophia Rahman (piano), David Aspin (viola), Gordon Mackay (violin), Lynda Houghton (double bass), Peter Cigleris (clarinet, bass clarinet), Nancy Ruffer (flute), Alec Harmon (oboe), Bruce Nockles (trumpet), Ian Pace (piano)

Rebecca Clarke Piano Trio (1921)
Judith Weir Atlantic Drift: Sleep Sound ida Mornin’ (1995), Atlantic Drift (2006), Rain and Mist are on the Mountain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes (Movements I-IV, 2005)
Helen Grime Miniatures (2005)
Judith Weir The Bagpiper’s String Trio (1985)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad Invocation for cello & piano (1999)
Thea Musgrave Colloquy (1960)
Ruth Gipps Prelude for bass clarinet (1958)
Errollyn Wallen Sojourner Truth (2021, world premiere)
Grace Williams Suite for Nine Instruments (1934)

St John’s Smith Square, London
Monday 9 March (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Classical music still has an awfully long way to go before female composers are an integral part of its make-up, but the celebration of International Women’s Day is helping the cause considerably, gaining more traction with each passing year.

One of the highlights of the 2021 celebrations was this concert from St John’s Smith Square, masterminded by Madeleine Mitchell, who led the London Chamber Ensemble in a very satisfying hour-and-a-half of music.

In a concert celebrating eight women composers, the common threads of America and the Royal College of Music were also explored. The latter organisation is where Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams and Helen Grime all studied, and where Errollyn Wallen and Mitchell herself are now professors. Wallen wrote a new piece, Sojourner Truth, for the occasion.

The concert began however with a terrific performance of Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio. Completed in 1921, this substantial piece begins with a passionate outpouring, but it also has its elusive, mysterious moments. The trio of Mitchell, cellist Joseph Spooner and pianist Sophia Rahman caught these elements, getting off to a terrific start but pulling back to allow the enchanting slow movement room to breathe. At times Clarke’s music hints at influences from France – particularly Ravel but also Franck – which Spooner caught in his high intonation in the second movement. The spirit of the dance inhabited the finale, a more obviously English statement, but there was still room for more fervent thoughts when the trio united.

There was a sudden transition on the broadcast to the refreshing open air of Judith Weir’s Atlantic Drift, a compilation of three pieces for two violins proving an invigorating contrast to the denser textures of the Clarke. Weir’s incorporation of folk material into her music is enchanting, especially in the four-part last piece, Rain and mist are on the Moutain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes. Using a Gaelic song as its inspiration, Weir’s adaptation worked really well in these open air accounts from Mitchell and Gordon Mackay, the empty St John’s providing the ideal acoustic. Weir appeared later with The Bagpiper’s String Trio, a similarly folk-powered work from 1985. Based on a Scottish pipe tune this too lifted the listener away to the great outdoors, with excellent teamwork from Mitchell, Spooner and viola player David Aspin.

Helen Grime’s trio of Miniatures for oboe and piano were next, studies in compressed expression from the pale harmonics of the first to the jagged edges of the second. The third was an effective summation of Grime’s thoughts, panning out for a wider perspective from the piano. Alec Harmon and Sophia Rahman were fully responsive to the virtuoso demands.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Invocation for cello and piano followed, a late teenage piece offering an immediate chance to appreciate the probing line given to Joseph Spooner’s fulsome cello. As the composer’s response to Edvard Munch’s painting Melanchola reached its apex there were clangorous chords from Rahman, capping a compact but powerful utterance.

Thea Musgrave’s Colloquy was next, another model of economy – four short pieces for violin and piano packed with sharp, expressive statements. There were some challenges to performance here – such as the quick interchange between pizzicato and bowing in the second movement – which Mitchell took in her stride. The third piece was a touch more playful but still assertive, but the fourth was the most effective, a private train of thought gracefully prompted by Ian Pace’s piano.

The most striking piece of the evening – for its sound, its soul and its warmth – was Ruth GippsPrelude for bass clarinet. Gipps’ centenary falls this year, and her slightly baleful writing for the instrument was beautifully captured by Peter Cigleris, a model of control. After watching this I was struck by two questions – why do we not hear the music of Gipps more, and why are there not more pieces for solo bass clarinet?

Errollyn Wallen’s Sojourner Truth followed, written not just for Madeline Mitchell but for International Women’s Day – and taking us back to violin and piano. Based on a spiritual, O’er the crossing, it features intense dialogue between the two instruments, but when the melody is heard unaccompanied on the violin the ear is pulled firmly towards the centre of the music, a striking feature of another piece with more traditional inspirations.

To finish, we heard the 75-year-old Suite for Nine Instruments by Grace Williams. Scored for piano quintet, double bass, flute, clarinet and trumpet, it is a vivacious piece, quite modal and with hints of Stravinsky’s Septet for a similar instrumental combination – and equally driven in the outer movements, bringing the interval of a tritone right to the front. The London Chamber Ensemble played with flair, commitment and virtuosity, bringing a very impressive program to a close.

The concert is available to watch until 8 April on the link below – with some spoken introductions by Mitchell herself. On occasion the gaps between pieces are very short, but there are helpful markers to make viewing easier. Do make sure you watch, as some of the best chamber music from British women composers in the last 100 years is right here.

A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021) on International Women’s Day, directed by Madeleine Mitchell from St John’s Smith Square on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, Madeleine and the London Chamber Ensemble’s album of works by Grace Williams can be heard here:

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

Wigmore Mondays – Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper: From the Pens of Women

Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano, above), Simon Lepper (piano, below)

Jonathan Dove All the Future Days (Autobiography; Penelope; The Siren) (2004) (2:11-13:27 on the broadcast link below)
Vaughan Williams 4 Last Songs (1954-8) (13:58-23:27)
Judith Cloud Night Dreams (Variations on the Word Sleep) (2006) (24:58-28:12)
Lori Laitman Orange Afternoon Lover (I Was Reading a Scientific Article) (2006) (28:15-32:24)
Argento From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (Anxiety) (1974) (32:27-34:25)
Rebecca Clarke Lethe (1941) (35:58-39:00)
Juliana Hall Letters from Edna (To Harriet Monroe; To Mother) (1993) (39:05-43:15)
Jonathan Dove Nights Not Spent Alone (2015) (43:34-52:42)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 18 February 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing hour of music.

With no criticism intended, Mondays at the Wigmore Hall, where BBC Radio 3 hold a lunchtime concert every week, are a reliable way in which to start the week with quality music. They show off some of the very best in chamber, piano and vocal music, often in imaginative programs, but understandably catering for the audience with relatively well-thumbed pieces of music often included.

Not so on this occasion. Mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately always ensures she has an equal balance of male and female composers in her programs, and likes to sing about the stories of both sexes. From the Pens of Women, then, presented an opportunity to sing songs written by women – which in classical music is still not much as a proportion of the whole. She was joined by her regular recital partner Simon Lepper.

Autobiography (2:11 on the broadcast link) was a brave start, Whately straight into the high notes as she flew like the eagle in the text above the rapidly circling figurations of Lepper’s piano. Jonathan Dove’s sound world is fascinating here, clearly on the wing – and then coming down to earth a little for Penelope (4:46), which has a right hand piano figure not dissimilar to Britten, calling out in the right hand before the vocalist brings softer thoughts, then rising to soar with great feeling.

Then, from 8:04, another striking setting – this time The Siren, where Lepper worked overtime to bring a distinctive, treble-rich piano part that dives from the heights as though into a pool of water before cutting off quite suddenly at 13:27 on the broadcast.

Ursula Vaughan Williams‘ text, as set by her husband Ralph, is a very different story. One of her husband’s last works, the Four Last Songs would inevitably invite comparisons with the more famous works of the same name by Richard Strauss, but they are totally different. Vaughan Williams was less obviously heart-on-sleeve with his feelings, but look deeper and they are still there.

The first, Procris (13:58) is a little restless and decides against following the black humour of the story, while Tired (16:32) is a wonderful song, softly rocking its listener as a lullaby. Whately gave an appropriately understated reading here. Hands, Eyes and Heart (18:32) is a short song but then Menelaus (19:42), the most substantial of the four, finishes the brief cycle in a poignant mood.

Three settings of Margaret Attwood follow, with Judith Cloud’s Night Dreams (24:58) a beautifully observed setting of how the author ‘would like to watch you sleeping’. The song is dappled in half light and is shot through with the intimacy of the sleeping hours, while Lori Laitman’s Orange Afternoon Lover (I Was Reading A Scientific Article) (28:15) is similarly personal, set to a flowing accompaniment. Dominick Argento’s setting of Anxiety from From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (32:27) is propelled by the urgent piano part and keeps a high level of agitation throughout.

The text of Edna St Vincent Millay (above) provided the inspiration for the last third of the concert, a remarkable group of song settings. Rebecca Clarke’s Lethe is the very definition of bleakness, the underworld river supplying no comfort but only sorrow and menace (35:58), particularly in its ominous piano part at the end.

Juliana Hall’s settings of Letters from Edna provide some much-needed light relief, Millay asking humorously for payment from her publisher (39:05-40:22), declaring herself ‘awfully broke’, before passionately declaring her love and admiration To Mother (40:25).

Three settings make up Jonathan Dove’s mini-cycle Nights Not Spent Alone – the down to earth text of Recuerdo (43:34), with a quasi-orchestral piano part brilliantly managed by Lepper, the heady What lips my lips have kissed (47:41) and the passionate I too beneath your moon (50:18).

As an encore Whately and Lepper gave another Dove song, All These Dismal Looks (54:13-56:00), the fourth of five songs making up his Five Am’rous Sighs. The humourous song put the seal on an outstanding hour of music making, full of new discoveries and surprises and passionately delivered. The music and verse will I’m sure provide a springboard for listeners to the broadcast to look further afield. Talking of which…

Further listening

Kitty Whately has recorded the Jonathan Dove songs as part of a disc devoted to the composer’s music, including All The Future Days in its entirety, as well as Nights Not Spent Alone:

The below playlist contains all the music heard in this concert in available versions:

Meanwhile you can hear all the songs of Rebecca Clarke on this disc from Patricia Wright, Jonathan Rees and Kathron Sturrock:

Wigmore Mondays – Marwood, Power and Crawford-Phillips play Brahms

Anthony Marwood (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano) perform music by Rebecca Clarke, Martinů and Brahms

Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 28 September 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06dbdk3

on the iPlayer until 27 October

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. The Horn Trio is very rarely heard in the version for violin, viola and piano, but a recent recording from Maxim Rysanov and friends is included:

What’s the music?

Rebecca Clarke: Dumka for Violin, Viola and Piano (1941) (8 minutes)

Martinů: Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola (1947) (16 minutes)

Brahms: Trio for Violin, Viola and Piano (1884) (28 minutes)

What about the music?

rebecca-clarke

The music of Rebecca Clarke has taken a long while to reach our concert halls, but thankfully it is not the rarity it once was. A viola player of some distinction, she wrote a wonderful competition-winning Sonata for viola and piano in 1919. This Dumka comes towards the end of her career as a composer, though she lived for nearly 40 more years without consistent inspiration to compose. The piece alternates slow, melancholic figures with an attractive and dramatic dance.

Like Clarke, Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů had relocated to New York, and his Three Madrigals for violin and viola, essentially a late wartime work, were inspired by hearing the English Singers in concert in Prague. They were written for the brother and sister duo of Joseph and Lilian Fuchs. Though instrumental the pieces are clearly written with voices in mind, and through clever use of double stopping techniques (where the instruments play more than one string at once) it often feels as though more instruments are in the room.

Brahms wrote his Horn Trio, for horn, violin and piano, in memory of his recently-departed mother. A profound work, it contains a passionate and often stormy pair of slow movement, placed first and third, and two faster movements – a triple time Scherzo of more lyrical design and then a finale tailor made for the horn, sending the audience away with a vision of adversity conquered by strength.

Performance verdict

This was a very well-chosen program by the three friends, and it was especially rewarding to hear the music of Rebecca Clarke, a composer who is gradually feeling her way back to the exposure she deserves.

The Dumka performance was deeply felt, the slower music elegiac in tone through Marwood and Power’s closer harmonies.

These two excelled in Martinů’s Three Madrigals, which were surprisingly vigorous in content. The central madrigal was the charmer, its trills like autumn leaves in the breeze, calm but yet strangely restless.

The Brahms is an emotional work that tugs at the heart strings in the third movement Adagio, where the trio found the depth of the composer’s feeling. Yet the horn, for which this piece was ultimately written, was conspicuous by its absence and the viola – nicely played as it was by Lawrence Power – could not hope to fully deputise. Without the horn the fast music felt too polite, with no brassy rasp to enjoy in the Scherzo, nor fullness of tone towards the climax of the first movement. The finale was too fast, and although it is great ‘chase music’ this was a helter-skelter dash, the strings skating swiftly over thin ice rather than ducking and diving.

What should I listen out for?

Rebecca Clarke

2:13 – the stringed instruments are in close unison at the start, with a gentle melancholy running through their musical thoughts.

4:03 – the pace quickens and now the music dances, the stringed parts moving more independently of each other but still in close musical discussion. Their destination is less certain, as though dancing around the room unpredictably, and the mood becomes fractious.

7:58 – after the music reaches an emotional high – though not wholly positive – we return to the relative calm of the opening music, violin and viola back in close harmony.

Martinů

13:10 – the first madrigal is typical of Martinů, bustling into action with busy figurations from both instruments. There is energy aplenty, and it sounds as though both instruments are engaged in deep and earnest conversation. Martinů throws in some unexpected harmonic diversions to keep the listener on their toes. There is no let up, the music rushing towards a bright conclusion at 17:03.

17:27 – a complete change of mood for the second madrigal, a mysterious and enchanting piece that often sounds like the rustle of wind in branches. Martinů uses double stopping and trills here to give a fuller sound. Gradually the music becomes more positive and full in texture, Martinů working around to the same key of the first madrigal. The close harmony mirrors the brother-sister relationship of the dedicatees. The trills return at the end but are now settled.

23:51 – the third and final madrigal, an open-air burst of positivity! Again the music is busy, and here as elsewhere Martinů seems to be thinking of the dances of his home country. The trills return briefly at 27:41, before Martinů launches back into his main idea. In this performance the tempo is quick!

Brahms

32:33 – the first movement begins, marked Andante (at a walking pace). This is a slow walk at the beginning, with serious thoughts at a subdued volume. Soon the music becomes more animated, supported by a characteristically full-bodied and flowing piano part. In this version the violin and viola are close in harmony and dynamic; when the horn is involved it takes a greater lead. At 36:14 the viola introduces a halting second idea.

Around 37:00 the tone darkens, anticipating the sombre mood of the third movement, but this does not last too long – and at 39:02 Brahms can be heard at his most passionate before the movement ends.

40:09 – the second movement, a Scherzo. The restless piano establishes the triple time while the strings pull against the rhythm with syncopations – all typical Brahms qualities. The theme appears again at 41:41, then receives a stern development. At 42:45 Brahms effects a transition into the Trio section, which is slower, darker and reflective – and then at 44:26 the Scherzo returns.

47:29 – the mood darkens considerably for one of Brahms’s most profound utterances. This is the only instance in his music where Brahms uses the term Adagio mesto (slow and sad), and the heavy tread of the piano, and the instance at 49:19 where the stringed instruments are alone, are both instances that tell of the grief felt at losing his mother. It is not all doom and gloom however, for there are shafts of light at 52:08 – before the heavy heart is laid bare again towards the end.

54:26 – in which Brahms swiftly clears away his grief to write a wonderfully positive finale with a spring in its step, the three instruments seemingly chasing each other in flight. Nothing more to be said, except enjoy the wonderful music!

Further listening

There are not many opportunities to hear horn, violin and piano together – and since that combination is the original trio Brahms wrote for, the recommendation is for that version in a recording made for the Swedish record company BIS, by Marie-Luise Neunecker, Antje Weithaas and Silke Avenhaus.

Also on that recording is the trio for the same combination by Ligeti, which makes a vivid and intriguing contrast – titled as it is Hommage a Brahms: