Live review – CBSO with Oliver Janes & Andrew Gourlay: Strauss, Copland & Rachmaninov

Oliver Janes (clarinet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Thursday 6th April, 2017

Richard Strauss Don Juan Op.20 (1888)

Copland Clarinet Concerto (1948)

Rachmaninov Symphony no.3 in A minor Op. 44 (1936)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

An ear infection meant that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla had to withdraw from this concert, which provided a welcome opportunity for Andrew Gourlay (now into his second season as Music Director of the orchestra in Valladolid) to make his debut at Symphony Hall with the CBSO.

A pity the Fourth Suite from the ballet The Golden Key by Mieczysław Weinberg had to be dropped from the programme, but that will hopefully be rescheduled (and if Gražinytė-Tyla could tackle one of this composer’s symphonies as his 2019 centenary approaches, then so much the better). Instead, Gourlay directed an account of Strauss’s Don Juan which, while it rather failed to ignite in the earlier stages, evinced some suitably enticing playing during the amorous central episode and then a rousing culmination prior to those fatalistic closing bars.

Hardly a natural complement to Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, but the latter piece works well in a variety of contexts. It also provided an impressive showcase for Oliver Janes, now into his third season as principal clarinet of this orchestra and a player whose elegant while never unduly soft-grained tone was admirably suited to the first movement, with its limpid backing for strings and harp. Janes tackled the central cadenza with no less security – necessarily so as, in addition to its technical virtuosity, it functions as a formal and expressive ‘bridge’ into the second movement. This latter, substituting piano for harp and focusing on the jazz idioms often to the fore in Copland, was a little too reined-in over much of its course with the final pages failing to lift off, though there was never any doubting Janes’s identity with the piece.

The highlight of the concert came after the interval with a perceptive and involving account of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony. Although it lags well behind its predecessor in terms of performance, this piece has moved from the periphery of the repertoire as earlier tendencies to dismiss it as a rerun of past glories have yielded to a recognition of just how subtly while effectively it overhauls the composer’s thinking for the inter-war period. Not for nothing was Nikolay Medtner alarmed by what he heard as the ‘modernization’ of Rachmaninov’s idiom.

In terms of textural balance and formal continuity it poses more problems than any other of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works, but Gourlay was never fazed by these potential pitfalls. The unworldly ‘motto’ launching the first movement was hauntingly rendered, and the only error in what followed was the omission of an exposition repeat necessary to balance an extensive development whose crisis-riven denouement was acutely realized here.

Neither did Gourlay misjudge the integration of slow movement and scherzo in what follows – the outcome being a developing variation as seamless as it was affecting. If the finale then unfolded at slightly too relaxed a pace, this enabled Gourlay to characterize detail in as resourcefully orchestrated a movement as Rachmaninov ever penned – with the closing accelerando vividly brought off.

A convincing take, then, on this engaging symphony and a fine marker for Gourlay to have laid down in what should prove an ongoing association with this orchestra. Those unable to attend Saturday’s repeat can hear it being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 18th April.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

Friendly Fire – Shakespeare 400: London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda

gianandrea-nosedaFriendly Fire – Simon Trpčeski, London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 25 February 2016

Welcome to Arcana’s new ‘alternative’ reviews slot! It is an ‘ask the audience’ feature – where I (Ben Hogwood) take a friend / colleague to a classical concert and get them to review it in the bar afterwards. Our second ‘reviewer’ in the series is John Earls, a family man from Harrow & Wealdstone who works as Head of Research at Unite. He shares his thoughts on a program of music inspired by ‘Shakespeare 400’ – with works by Smetana (Richard III), Tchaikovsky (Romeo and Juliet), Richard Strauss (Macbeth) and the seemingly unconnected Piano Concerto no.2 by Liszt. The artists are pianist Simon Trpceski and the London Symphony Orchestra under newly announced guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda.

john-earls

Arcana: How did you prepare for this concert?

John: I didn’t do that much in the way of preparation, other than see what the four pieces in the concert were, and whether I was familiar with them. At the time the only one I thought I was familiar with was the Tchaikovsky, but you reminded me I had heard the Liszt before.

What was your musical upbringing?

As a young child, pretty limited. Most of the music I heard from my parents would have been Irish music, then as I went through school I was more exposed to bits of classical music, as I learned the clarinet. In my teens I got more into contemporary music, rock music, new wave – I played in my own band – and became more interested in jazz and classical music as I got older and attended more concerts and read more about those particular types of music. Jazz and classical are the forms of music I listen to most now.

Name three musical acts you love and why:

(almost without hesitation): Miles Davis was a trailblazer and an innovator who has done some very different things throughout his career. He also struck me as a great leader of bands and ensembles, because he was a great talent spotter who pulled some phenomenal musicians together, and it always struck me that anybody who played with him was better for the experience. They tended to be either better musicians or composersafter having gone through the Miles Davis experience, and also his ensembles tended to be greater than the sum of their parts.

I would also go for Christy Moore, who in many ways would be the soundtrack to my development and my life. I think he has a huge amount of integrity, and if you listen to him sing he comes across as somebody who really means it. If you see him performing live you see a gifted songwriter but also somebody who has a mission to transmit the songs he knows. He has a great deal of songs he hasn’t written but he is able to communicate and pass them on.

I should pick a band really…Wire. I saw them last year for the first time in around 30 years, at the Lexington near Kings Cross. They were influential in my formative days in the late 1970s / early 1980s. They were innovative and straddled the artistic side with the punk sensibility, but had the credibility of doing what they wanted to do. To release an album like they did last year nearly 40 years after they first started, and to think they can still do it, was a phenomenal achievement. They are still great live and the songs incredibly well crafted.

Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?

I’m not sure I fit your criteria of ‘someone who doesn’t normally attend a classical concert’. I’m actually a regular classical concert goer – all forms and types. Living in London I’ve been able to see some of the finest musicians and orchestras in the world. Many of my most treasured musical moments have been at ‘classical music’ concerts – Mitsuko Uchida playing Schubert’s late piano sonatas, Rattle and the Berlin Phil doing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians with Reich himself playing. I also think some pieces are best experienced live – Messiaen’s Turangalila, for example. Had a few disappointments too! But live music is really important to me. 

What did you think of the Smetana?

I thought it was OK – I could see why they had used it as a piece with which to start. Would I have got the Shakespeare connection? Probably not, but having known it I could see there were bits that sounded regal. Some bits reminded me of a royal hunt, with lots of trumpet. Some of it was like a fanfare but there was solo trumpet that was quite ‘angsty’ and personal. I suppose the trumpet has royal connections. Those things came into my mind while I was listening but I’m not sure, as a piece of music, I would be in a huge hurry to listen to it again.

What about the Liszt?

I hadn’t remembered that I had heard it before. I quite enjoyed it, but there were parts where the pianist seemed a bit stroppy and belligerent, reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis! I enjoyed it a bit less than I thought I was going to but the thing that did stick out for me was the cello (Rebecca Gilliver’s solo in the third movement – ed). The sound was absolutely beautiful.

What about the Tchaikovsky?

I was more familiar and knew what to expect. I wasn’t used to being that close to the orchestra! If you heard those four pieces of music and was told there was a Shakespeare link to be honest I probably couldn’t have noticed it, but the one that would be most likely would be that one – and you would probably think Romeo and Juliet because of the tragedy, the romance and the action. You almost feel like you’re in a Bond movie! It’s got everything in it, around 16 minutes, it packs it all in, and it’s Tchaikovsky, who I love.

Finally, what about the Richard Strauss?

I thought that was a good piece to finish on. It had a range of things. I don’t think I would have thought Shakespeare but it was more personal in that it was not necessarily a narrative story – you’re inside somebody’s head. I’ve got ‘magisterial’ written down here, and I felt there was a real tension in it. The offstage snare drum was great, I always like that use of the space, and I’ve not heard the percussion played like that before (the tam tam I think! – ed)

It was more psychological I think, and it was only in that piece that I noticed Noseda’s score was tiny, I’ve never seen one so small! I enjoyed the music, and would go back to listen to it again. I didn’t realise Strauss was 24, that’s quite a phenomenal achievement – not only to put all the instrumentation together but to get the psychological elements at that stage, you would think only an older composer would manage that.

What about the environment and setting of the concert, and how it was promoted?

The only PR I’ve seen was the Shakespeare-related things, and I couldn’t see the link with the Liszt, but I like the idea of linking things in. Sometimes it can be a bit contrived but I think if it’s used as a technique to expose you to different bits of music then that’s fine – like Romeo and Juliet – and it worked for me in the case of the Strauss but not the Smetana.

I think they got the range and order of the pieces right. I’ve been to the Barbican as a venue, and I do like the way it works with an instrument offstage, like they did with the Strauss. I’ve seen that done with vocal and choral pieces and it can work. I think the conductor was quite energetic, not necessarily in a flowing way – quite staccato would be your terminology! There seemed a good rapport between him and the orchestra, the sense they really respect him.

If you could give it a mark out of 10 what would you give?

Probably a 7, but that would be an average. The Tchaikovsky and the Strauss would be an 8 or 9, and the Smetana would drag it down a bit. But it was certainly worth going to!

Arcana’s brief thoughts on the concert:

The connections between classical music and Shakespeare are many, but the London Symphony Orchestra did really well to present a variety of nineteenth century settings. All fall into the ‘Romantic’ period, where composers were getting to grips with the idea of the orchestra being a storyteller in what was known the ‘symphonic poem’.

Smetana’s Richard III was an ideal curtain opener, though like its subject it had an uneven walk – brilliantly portrayed but still with a sense of a portrait not quite fully fledged.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was different. This was the London Symphony Orchestra on white hot form, Gianandrea Noseda conducting like a man wholly affected by the tragedy. This music surged forward with passion and drama in equal measure, and the hair stood up with the volley of brass and percussion, and the intensity of the love theme on the strings.

Richard Strauss’s Macbeth was equally intense, though even more effective in exploring the minds of the two main protagonists of the story. The lower strings had a steely effectiveness, the double basses brilliantly marshalled, while the drama above unfolded in compelling fashion.

Though Liszt’s Piano Concerto no.2 had no Shakespearian connection it was a relatively sound choice, for he is a composer unable to resist the temptation of telling a story! This one had its moments of drama, albeit fleeting in comparison to the warhorses of the second half.

Wigmore Mondays – Dreams in the night with Sandrine Piau and Susan Manoff

sandrine-piau

Sandrine Piau (soprano), Susan Manoff (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 5 October 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06fljk4

on the iPlayer until 4 November

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. Where possible the versions used are those recorded by Sandrine and Susan themselves.

https://open.spotify.com/user/arcana.fm/playlist/4cTJZxw7IZDoP2W2Mrs3H5

What’s the music?

Mendelssohn: Neue Liebe (1834); Nachtlied (1847); Hexenlied (1827) (8 minutes)

Vincent Bouchot: Galgenlieder (1991-92) (9 minutes)

Richard Strauss: Die Nacht (1885); Morgen! (1894); Ständchen (1888) (10 minutes)

Debussy: Chansons de Bilitis (1898) (9 minutes)

Trad, arr. Britten: The Salley Gardens (1940); There’s none to soothe (1945); I wonder as I wander (c1940-41) (9 minutes)

What about the music?

Sandrine Piau and Susan Manoff begin with songs by Mendelssohn, an area of his output that doesn’t get a great deal of exposure in the concert hall, especially when you consider he wrote dozens of them! However the first song, Neue Liebe, shows an instance where the poetry of Heinrich Heine bought out the best in him.

Equally intriguing is the inclusion of music by Vincent Bouchot. Galgenlieder means ‘gallows songs’, dedicated to ‘the child that is within the man’, and Bouchot here uses some curious poems by Christian Morgentern, who appears to be writing about visions of hanged kings. They are strange and expressionist in nature, on occasion sounding like something the Second Viennese School of composers (especially Schoenberg) might write.

Debussy’s Chansons Bilitis are a relatively early work, setting the Sapphic poetry of Pierre Louys, who claimed these texts were adapted from the Greek – but Debussy knew otherwise. The flute of Pan was a topic that was particularly close to the composer at this time, and he used it as a basis for the famous orchestral piece Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune.

Like Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss wrote a good number of songs, but apart from a few celebrated examples many of them lie undeservedly in the doldrums where the concert hall is concerned. Happily the recent celebrations of 150 years since the composer’s birth have brought many of the songs, which are highly original in form, back into the spotlight. Piau and Manoff give three of the most popular examples here, tending towards Strauss’s earlier work.

Britten amassed some 65 folksong arrangements for voice and piano so that he could perform them with his partner Sir Peter Pears. Often the piano parts are reinvented, casting the original melody into a very different light. The three examples in this concert are some of the very best.

Performance verdict

A note first of all to say Arcana arrived late due to a prior engagement, and so took in the Mendelssohn and Bouchot from the BBC iPlayer link above.

However even in half a concert Sandrine Piau showed just why she is one of the finest sopranos around today. While we often hear her in 18th century repertoire (Baroque operas, mostly) she has a voice perfectly suited to the recital hall.

What really shone through about this concert was that she had clearly taken time to get to know the resonance of the Wigmore Hall, for in Britten’s setting of I wonder as I wander, where she is largely unaccompanied, the high notes found an echo from the roof perfectly. This completed a spellbinding trio of Britten folksong arrangements, Piau sitting at the piano with Susan Manoff for There’s none to soothe.

Manoff, despite apparently not feeling her best, clearly enjoyed the Richard Strauss selection, where her full bodied piano parts were beautifully shaded in their portrayal of nocturnal scenes. The Debussy Chansons de Bilitis were heady, perfumed songs that spoke of sultry nights of passion.

Beginning the concert were the Mendelssohn songs, showing a natural writer at work and enjoying the unhinged Hexenlied especially. The Bouchard was intriguing, for although the text was very strange indeed at times, there was much to commend the musical language of this little known composer. Piau and Manoff brought out the expressive elements of his work.

What should I listen out for?

Mendelssohn

1:53 – a challenging start for any singer, Neue Liebe is full of big leaps, high notes and jumpy chords from the piano.

4:15 – a much calmer scene is set for Nachtlied, though this reaches a peak of intensity and a rapturous high note, as the singer beckons the Nightingale to strike up.

7:09 – there is no mistaking the devilish edge to Hexenlied (Witches’ Song) as the piano begins with an urgent figure that the singer takes up. Hers is an unhinged vocal, while the piano depicts the lightning and wind that whisk the witch away ‘through the howling gale to the Brocken’.

Bouchot

10:06 Mondendinge (Moon things) – quite a spooky intro from the piano, and an otherworldly atmosphere even when the singer comes in.

12:20 – Der Hecht (The Pike) – another surreal story, one that finds the singer leaping about like a distressed fish at the start. Seemingly random movements but an effective finish

13:40 – Die Mitternachtsmaus (The Midnightmouse) – another eerie song of the night time, the scene set by the higher right hand of the piano, which seems to be enacting the midnight chimes. The singer’s voice is also high and quite tense.

16:45 – Das Wasser (Water) – Bouchot’s style is loosely tonal, and even here where the rippling textures of the piano obscure pure harmony there is a clear centre. Again the soprano voice is high and pretty tense, but it is arguably the piano that is the more descriptive of the two here.

17:51 – Galgenkindes Wiegenlied (Gallows child’s lullaby) – this is a song with much less movement, but the piano part still suggests the darkness of the night with the odd beam of moonlight.

Richard Strauss

22:34 – Die Nacht – Strauss immediately captures the rarefied atmosphere of the night. At 24:22 the mood darkens as Strauss turns the music towards the minor key – though this mood does not prevail, with soaring notes from the soprano before a soft close from the piano.

25:44 – Morgen! – Possibly Strauss’s most famous song, this begins with an extended prelude. Here the twilight hours are exquisitely rendered by the piano, before the hushed voice enters at 26:56. The song is totally unrushed, reaching the utmost serenity when the piano adds a postlude from 29:02, fading into stillness.

29:48 – Ständchen – here the piano is much more active, portraying the rustling wind Highest note reached at 31:42 before a jubilant postlude.

Debussy

32:51 – La flûte de Pan – the piano immediately casts the spell of this poem through an enchanted and elaborate melody in the right hand. It is a beautiful intro and the mystery deepens with the soprano’s entry.

35:21 – La Chevelure – a sensual and heady poem, and the music wanders in a distracted state, almost falling under its own spell as the senses take hold.

38:39 – Le Tombeau des naiads – whereas the previous song was all about the sensuality of long hair, this song has icy tendrils and spreads a wintry chill, thanks to Debussy’s piano writing. There is however a more optimistic upturn near the end.

Trad, arr Britten

42:44 – The Salley Gardens – the first and one of the most popular of Britten’s folksong settings, The Salley Gardens has a powerful pull through its harmonies, which lie at the heart of the song, sitting underneath the simple melody.

45:18 – There’s none to soothe – Britten is one of the masters of economy, and that is clear in this simple yet deeply affecting setting, set in triple time but with an unusual stress on the second beat of the three. Piau’s voice soars beautifully above.

46:51 – I wonder as I wander – talking of economy, Britten splits the voice and piano for this incredibly powerful setting, keeping the purity of the melody on its own without accompaniment. You may be able to hear on headphones how Sandrine Piau moves around the stage while singing it, delivering the last verse with her back to the audience.

Encores

53:10 – Fantoches by Debussy, from the first book of Fêtes galantes. A lively, blustery encore lasting just a minute and a half.

55:47 – Le secret by Fauré, a lovely song whose two minutes are both intimate and serene.

Further listening

With such a variety of music in the concert it is difficult to know what to suggest next. Perhaps a good next move is to hear Sandrine in her ‘day job’, as a soprano of real class in earlier music. Even the music of Mozart is quite late for her – but here is a link to her Desperate Heroines release, featuring high voice arias by the composer:

https://open.spotify.com/album/3beRQIuFsm82SecRUz8GyY

To go back a little further, here she is in an album from 2012 of music by J.S. Bach:

https://open.spotify.com/album/1eqvWZu0VVPszG1PGXXQoC

 

Miah Persson – songs for voice, violin and piano at the Wigmore Hall

Miah Persson, Malcolm Martineau and Birgit Kolar perform works by Handel, Donald Waxman and Richard Strauss

miah-persson

Miah Persson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) and Birgit Kolar (violin) – Wigmore Hall, London & live on BBC Radio 3, 20 April 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05qypn8

on the iPlayer until 21 May

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of the songs sung by Miah Persson. She has not recorded any of them as yet, so I have selected suitable alternatives. The playlist can be found here:

spotify:user:arcana.fm:playlist:0GxLX32yLf0mMVTaq7rE1J

What’s the music?

Handel – 3 German Arias (1724-1727) (17 minutes)

Donald Waxman – Lovesongs (1989) (14 minutes)

Richard Strauss – Violin Sonata, Second movement – inspiration (1887) (8 minutes)

Richard StraussSeptember and Beim schlafengehen (from the Four Last Songs)(1948) (10 minutes); Morgen (1894) (4 minutes)

What about the music?

The combination of voice, violin and piano is not heard much in the concert hall these days, but here Miah Persson, Birgit Kolar and Malcolm Martineau constructed a program of compositions using the forces spanning 265 years. A little imagination was required on the part of the listener – particularly in two of the three Strauss songs where the violin was introduced – but otherwise the combination worked well.

Handel’s three German Arias are part of a group of nine he wrote while setting poetry by his friend Heinrich Brokes – and they are his only settings in the language. Each is scored for a singer, a treble instrument (the violin in this case) and ‘continuo’ – which is the group of people supplying either bass line, chords or both. In this case Malcolm Martineau’s piano comfortably fulfilled that discipline.

Donald Waxman celebrates his 90th birthday this year, inviting comparisons with Elliott Carter, the grandest of old men of American music. Waxman’s best known musical currency is the song, and this group of four love songs contains poems about love by Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Herrick, an anonymous author and Thomas Hardy.

Finally three songs by Richard Strauss, introduced by the luscious, Romantic harmonies of the second movement of his Violin Sonata. Two of the composer’s last songs are chosen as well as an early song, Morgen, which was a wedding present to his wife.

Performance verdict

Miah Persson has a rather special voice, and heard in person at the Wigmore Hall it could easily melt the most stubborn heart.

This program was a slightly curious one, but made sense in the way it was presented. Handel’s word painting was brought to life by Persson in three of the Nine German Arias, which she sang beautifully – restrained but elegant. Meanwhile Donald Waxman’s rich Loveletters offered a more obviously Romantic view of the world and were passionately sung.

The violin was a helpful counterpart here, but was not always at its most useful in the Strauss songs, picking up elements of the orchestral part for which it was written, and ensemble with Martineau was just occasionally scrappy at the beginning and end of songs.

Two of Strauss’s Four Last Songs felt a bit bereft without the others, and despite Malcolm Martineau’s superhuman efforts there was too much going on in the piano version. Morgen, however, was a sumptuous finish to the program.

What should I listen out for?

Handel

1:49 Das zitternde Glänzen der spiegelden Wellen (The shimmering gleam of dancing waves)

This attractive aria begins with a bright violin solo, before a similarly bright entrance from the soprano. The two instruments Martineau’s very sensitive playing brings out the countermelodies when they are needed.

7:53 In den angenehmen Buschen (In these pleasant bushes, where light and shade intermingle)

A shadow falls over the music initially, with a solemn violin solo presumably painting the shade of the text. The bright soprano soars beautifully overhead, however, and finds a rather lovely major key at 9:01, then a brief but really stunning piece of virtuosity to close at 12:11.

13:00 Meine seele hort ihm Sehen (My soul hears through seeing)

‘How all things rejoice and laugh’ is the text during this aria, and Persson seems to be doing just that, her bright voice complemented perfectly by the relative restraint from Kolar and Martineau. This aria, as the BBC Radio 3 announcer Sara Mohr-Pietsch observes, is full of the joys of spring.

Waxman

20:07 Lovesong (Rainer Maria Rilke) – this piece is just for voice and violin and has a curiously exposed feeling, right from the opening notes from the violin. Kolar plays double stopped (more than one note at once) until Persson glides in, at which point she largely switches to a single note. The tonality is often elusive but the song is carefully thought.

23:57 The Mad Maid (Robert Herrick) – the two instruments begin with unhinged figures that threaten to settle into a busy, Stravinsky-like rhythm, with plenty of syncopations – yet the song feels beyond reach, rather like the mind of the maid, right through to its colder conclusion.

28:16 Nocturne (Anon) – a more obviously romantic song. The close interplay between violin and piano leads to a slow, sonorous melody from the singer. There is a much sweeter aftertaste to this encounter.

32:04 A Bygone Occasion (Thomas Hardy) – a festival air to the last song through the busy piano line, with some jazzy elements in the exchanges with violin. Again Persson’s voice is imperious, and joyful too.

Richard Strauss

35:20 – Violin Sonata, Second movement – an improvisatory and rapturous movement for violin and piano, exploring rich harmonies and melodies. The piano part is particularly full-bodied, as though Strauss were writing for a miniature orchestra. A choppy central section introduces some turbulence that rights itself for a return to the main theme.

43:37 – September from the Four Last Songs­ – this may be music of an old man (Strauss was 84 at the time of composition) but it is clearly a man who has enjoyed a good life. Persson sings with real passion, and the note where she comes back in at 45:07 is worth hearing several times!

48:06 – Beim schlafengehen (When falling asleep)­ – the sleep here of course is the ultimate, end-of-life sleep – but Strauss paints a contented picture, as does Persson – though the piano part has a job rendering all the orchestral detail with just two hands! The violin arrives to help at 49:44, upon which the soprano becomes more and more powerful, the vocal line sweeping upwards as though reaching for heaven.

Encore

54:09 – Morgen (Morning) – one of Strauss’s most celebrated songs, and in the intro the listener can almost imagine the sun hovering at the horizon, ready to break through and begin the day. With it comes an atmosphere of intense calm, taken up by Persson.

Want to hear more?

During the Waxman in particular I was put in mind of the songs of Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland, both found on a wonderful disc from the soprano Barbara Bonney, accompanied by none other than André Previn. It can be heard on Spotify here

For more concerts click here

Wigmore Hall Portrait Gallery – Christiane Karg and Gerold Huber

Wigmore Hall Portrait Gallery – Christiane Karg and Gerold Huber perform an intricate sequence of portraits of literary figures by Wolf, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Hahn and Duparc

christiane-karg-gerold-huberChristiane Karg and Gerold Huber – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 9 February 2015. Photos © Steven Haberland / Albert Lindmeier

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051zyhb

on the iPlayer until 8 April

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

For those unable to hear the broadcast I have put together a Spotify playlist. Christiane has recorded the Strauss songs but nothing else from the program, so I have chosen suitable available versions:

What’s the music?

Wolf4 Mignon Lieder (1888) (15 minutes)

Brahms and Richard Strauss – Ophelia Lieder (interspersed – the music is Brahms’ 5 Ophelia-Lieder (1873) and Strauss’s 3 Ophelia Lieder Op.67 (1918) followed by Saint-SaënsLa mort d’Ophélie (1857) (14 minutes in total)

Hahn – 3 songs (Lydé (1900), A Chloris (1916) and Séraphine (1896) (8 minutes)

Duparc – 2 songs (Phidylé (1882), Romance de Mignon (1869) (9 minutes)

What about the music?

wigmore-portraits
Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852) is part of the Tate Gallery collection. His painting influenced the image in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

This is a really well chosen program from Karg and Huber, justifying the singer’s burning of the midnight oil (in the announcer’s anecdote!) to come up with some vivid character portraits that draw the casual listener in through the links between the songs. This is surely how a song recital should be structured.

Thanks to their enterprise we get an interesting blend of Romantic Lieder – that is, nineteenth century song writing that is much more obviously expressive. German composers are strongly represented, beginning with Wolf’s four settings of Goethe, and his poems on the tragic figure of Mignon.

Then our gaze turns to Ophelia, by way of five early Brahms Lieder and three late, eccentric interpretations by Richard Strauss – before a French alternative from Saint-Saëns.

Finally the heady fragrance of three sublime songs from Hahn and two more substantial, meaty efforts from Duparc clinch a consistently engaging recital.

Performance verdict

On this evidence – listening on the radio rather than in the hall – Karg and Huber are ideally matched. Their delivery is especially emotive during the Wolf, where the soprano inhabits a lot of the distress and strife handed out to Mignon.

It is a great idea to fuse the portraits of Ophelia in this way, and anyone approaching Brahms songs for the first time would be surprised at the brevity and simplicity of them. They contrast nicely with the Richard Strauss examples, where Karg shows a lot of vocal agility without ever losing control.

The French songs are sumptuous, especially the Hahn, throwing open the doors to let in some Spring light.

What should I listen out for?

Wolf

The words for these songs can be found here

1:55 – Heiss mich nicht reden (Bid me not speak) – the first Mignon setting moves in unexpected harmonic directions, never really sure of itself as Mignon seeks peace ‘in the arms of a friend’. Judging by the piano postlude this is not found.

5:04 – Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (Only those who know yearning) – a sombre minor-key opening from the piano.

7:25 – So lasst mich scheinen (Let me seem to be an angel) – a cold piano sound and a distracted vocal. Again the harmonies move restlessly, as does the melody, the song in a dream state but not at rest either.

10:47 – Kennst du das Land (Do you know the land)– a rather more positive outlook in this relatively relaxed song until a sudden outburst from the piano, which on its second appearance follows a particularly fraught passage from the soprano.

Brahms / Richard Strauss

The words for the Brahms can be found here, and for the Richard Strauss here

18:57 – the first of five very brief Brahms songs – this one a thoughtful melody with singer and piano together.

19:42 – the second Brahms song, a mere 20 seconds!

20:06 – the first Strauss song inhabits a weird world of a piano part seemingly cut loose from its moorings, and a melody that doesn’t have an obvious resting point. Mysterious but intriguingly so.

22:37 – the third Brahms song, a much brighter affair.

23:12 – the second Strauss song trips along in a state of high agitation but is perhaps too short to make a sustained impact.

24:44 – the fourth Brahms song, another incredibly brief number – but beautifully delivered here.

25:32 – the fifth Brahms song – even though it is a minute long there is still a distinctive melody here.

26:49 – the third Strauss song, and a deeply mysterious one that casts its spell immediately through the piano line, broken momentarily by outbursts in the middle and at the end.

Saint-Saëns

29:58 – an urgent song from the French composer, with the high soprano voice doubled by the left hand of the piano.

Hahn

The words for the Hahn songs are to be found here

35:04 – Lydé – a much more positive outlook is immediately evident in this song, with an open air texture and bright vocal. There is a grand piano postlude, and what sounds like a wrong note.

37:50 – A Chloris – a twinkling piano introduction has a melodic ornamentation that takes its lead from Bach’s AIr on the G string before the soprano arrives in a lower register. A contemplative song, one of Hahn’s very best, this is beautifully sung by Karg. The interaction with the piano is ideal.

40:33 – Séraphine – a calm and radiant atmosphere runs through the third Hahn song.

Duparc

The words for the Duparc songs can be found here

43:28 – Phidylé – Karg sounds imperious in her control of the fuller melody that makes the second part of this song. The exotic musical language is very much in thrall to Wagner, and reaches its peak with high notes and turbulent, stormy piano writing.

48:15 – Romance de Mignon – another perfumed song, but this is an early song suppressed by the composer. Duparc writes so well for the voice.

Encore

54:00 – Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade – going back to the first composer to write about the ‘mad woman’ Mignon, as Karg describes her. Huber shapes the piano part superbly under Karg’s urgent vocal.

Want to hear more?

It is difficult to suggest another step after such an intriguing and well-thought program, but underneath the songs of on the Spotify link above are further possibilities – including Wolf’s remarkable Prometheus, Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, in a legendary recording from Jessye Norman, and to finish some more Duparc.

For more concerts click here