Benjamin Baker, Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson – Berg: Violin Concerto & Schmidt: Symphony no.4

Benjamin Baker (violin), Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson

St John’s, Smith Square, London; Monday 16 October 2017

Richard Strauss, arr. Rodziński Der Rosenkavalier – Suite (1945)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Schmidt Symphony No. 4 in C (1933)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Never an ensemble to shirk a challenge, the Salomon Orchestra’s current season continued tonight with what, aesthetically, was an almost perfectly balanced programme – and whose second half brought a timely revival (in the UK) of the Fourth Symphony by Franz Schmidt.

With its catalyst in the tragically unexpected death of his daughter, this work was consciously intended as an ‘in memoriam’ and this is reflected in a formal design as fuses the customary four movements into an unbroken continuity; expressively also in that salient themes return almost as memories being recollected. From which perspective this performance succeeded admirably – Holly Mathieson having the measure of an overall design as though akin to the ‘journey of a life’, whose ending is tangibly (thereby inevitably) anticipated in its beginning.

The exposition’s themes – the first as introspective as the second, with its Magyar overtones, surges forth – were judiciously contrasted, and if the development was a little too rhetorical, it evinced the right cumulative intensity leading into an Adagio whose anguished climax was set into relief by the inward eloquence on either side. A touch stolid rhythmically, the scherzo did not lack impetus as it headed – lemming-like – over its cliff of disaster; in the aftermath of which the reprise gradually re-established momentum as the work came resignedly full-circle.

Its unity within diversity aside, the Fourth Symphony is a stern test of orchestral skill such as the Salomon met head on. The strings evinced the burnished warmth necessary for this music, and while woodwind intonation was on occasion wanting, it did not undermine an orchestral texture through which brass emerged with the appropriate impact. The solo contributions were well taken, not least from trumpeter John Hackett and cellist Kate Valdar, and Mathieson can take considerable credit for her advocacy of a piece whose repertoire status is still not secure.

Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas

Before the interval, Berg’s Violin Concerto had provided the ideal complement. Similarly inspired by the premature death of a woman (in this instance the teenage Manon Gropius), it also focusses on that continuum between life and death, as well as the transfiguration which may result. Here again the four movements, divided into two parts, can be difficult to make cohesive and though Benjamin Baker (above) was not lacking consistency, his rather unvaried tone leading to an expressive uniformity as made this, ultimately, an interpretation in the making.

Mathieson, though, was attentive and always responsive in support. Beforehand, she presided over an enjoyable account of a suite arranged towards the end of the Second World War from Der Rosenkavalier. Probably undertaken by the conductor Artur Rodziński, it takes in several of the highlights from Richard Strauss’s sprawling comedy – rather as does Robert Russell Bennett’s ‘symphonic picture’ derived from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which likewise has the result of reducing the larger work to a succession of glib purple-patches devoid of any real context.

Rendered with aplomb, it was surely possible, even so, to find a more fitting concert-opener – Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta would have been ideal temporally and conceptually. That aside, this evening was a fine demonstration from the Salomon and auspicious occasion for Mathieson.

For more concert information from the Salomon Orchestra, head to their website

Franz Welser-Möst‘s pioneering recording of Schmidt’s Symphony no.4, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, can be heard on Spotify below:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Leanne Mison on the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra with Renée Fleming

The final Ask The Audience from the 2017 BBC Proms is with Leanne Mison, who promotes and endorses an impressive roster of electronic music artists for Bang On PR. Leanne talks to Arcana about a Prom given by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and their chief conductor Sakari Oramo, – with two solo vocal turns from the superstar New York soprano Renée Fleming.

Prom 61: Renée Fleming (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Andrea Tarrodi Liguria

Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915 Op.24

Richard Strauss Daphne – Transformation Scene, ‘Ich komme – ich komme’

Nielsen Symphony No 2 ‘The Four Temperaments’

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 30 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Leanne, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

My parents attempted to introduce me to classical music from quite an early age, but I didn’t show too much interest in it at the time. My mum joined a classical music vinyl club and would be sent a record every month, but we rarely ever played them. I’d love to dig them out now and see what she had! My proper introduction to music was via piano which I learnt to play from the age of seven, so pieces by BeethovenChopinMozart and Mendelssohn. I did get really into it at one point as I had an inspiring teacher who was about 80 years old and I’d get to practise on her baby Steinway. I reached Grade 7 but as the expectations grew for me to practise for an hour and more a day, my interest waned. At that age, it doesn’t earn you very much kudos with other kids so I gave in to peer pressure. My parents said I would regret it and they was right of course!

My parents listened to things like The Carpenters and The Cars.  Around the age of 9, I started listening to things like Salt ‘n’ Pepa, En Vogue and Bobby Brown. I still like that music now, it’s super fun. When I about 15, I tried to fit in and listen to the same kind of music my friends were into like Bon Jovi, Oasis and The Verve but it didn’t really stay with me to be honest. When I was 12, I randomly picked up a Telstar tape of rave music for 99p at Woolworths and I heard things like The KLF and 808 State for the firs time. I was like ‘Wow, what was that?!’ – there were no reference points, I had no idea about rave culture. I didn’t hear music like that again for quite a long time but that was the start of me getting into electronic music.

Could you name three musical acts that you love and say why you love them?

I really love what Factory Floor do. Their music can get so madly intense and mesmerising, and live – you can’t help but dance but you can also have a very cerebral experience with it too.

I’ve been really enjoying listening to Nick Hakim of late. His album Green Twins has this irresistible, other worldliness to it – all hazy psychedelic R & B.

And then there is the master entertainer Chilly Gonzales. He puts classical music and pop music in the same space, weaving them together and presenting their common thread. Then he throws in a heavy dose of comedy, a bit of history and a piano tutorial and we just lap it all up! I wish he’d been around when I was growing up, I probably would have been inspired to carry on and do my Grade 8!

Are you ever tempted to go back to the piano?

Obviously I’d love to be able to play now, who knows I might get back into it at some point (probably when I’m retired!)
One of the great benefits of having instant access to music on Youtube and Spotify is that you can actually hear what the piece is supposed to sound like and what you should be aiming for. It’s more inspiring than back in the old days!

What did you think of the Andrea Tarrodi piece tonight?

It was really pretty, delicate and playful. Lots of shimmers of light but then it went on a dramatic roller coaster later.

I really enjoyed it, so much so I wanted to go to the front to get the full experience!  I was quite surprised when you said the composer was younger than both of us.

If you didn’t know that piece was about anything, did it conjure up any images?

That’s a good question, I wasn’t really thinking along the line of images  – but now you mention it maybe rolling fields and mountain tops?

What about the Barber, with Renée Fleming?

This was very enjoyable too, and took me a bit more out of my comfort zone as I’m not used to listening to an operatic voice accompanied by that many musicians.  Sadly I’m more used to listening to things on laptop speakers so it’s a real treat to experience that breadth of sound and visually it’s very impressive too.

What did you think about the Strauss?

There was a lot going on here, I found the soaring operatic voice quite dramatic and emotional, I think I was more taken by what was happening with the strings. I should listen to more music like this and try and understand it. I found my mind wandering a bit more with this one, I started looking at the audience and observing their facial expressions and they seemed pretty serious on the whole. Perhaps they were intensely into it! The musicians facial expressions themselves were a lot more expressive, especially the conductor’s.

Working in music PR, I spend a lot of time reading reviews and people’s thoughts on music. Tonight it was a clean slate, I was listening to music I’m very rarely exposed to and with no idea what critics have said about it and that was very refreshing.

What did you think about the Proms, and what did you enjoy about it?

The music was actually quite accessible and experiencing that range and depth of sound in a space as beautiful as the Royal Albert Hall brings out all sorts of different feelings in you. It’s quite unique and I can see why people enjoy it so much.

Would you change anything about your Proms experience?

Not at all, I only wish I’d come to more. I went once about 10 years ago but my recollections of it are vague.
I’d read some of your Ask the Audience pieces before and was really intrigued by it and really glad you invited me!

My experience of seeing classical music is quite limited, I’ve seen some experimental music with orchestras such as Varèse performed at the Royal Festival Hall which was really dark. Also Helmut Lachenmann and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, all quite challenging and let’s face it, not nearly as fun as tonight!

Would you go again?

Yes, definitely. Here’s to next year and thanks very much for inviting me.

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – Renée Fleming sings Strauss & Barber – Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Prom 61 – Renée Fleming (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Andrea Tarrodi Liguria (2012) (UK premiere)

Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op 24 (194)

Richard Strauss Daphne – Transformation Scene, ‘Ich komme – ich komme’ (1937)

Nielsen Symphony no.2, ‘The Four Temperaments’ (1901-2)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 30 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

In her previous visits to the Proms Renée Fleming has proved a big draw, and although the arena may not have been full for her latest visit, with regular collaborators Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, it comprised a satisfying and ideally executed program.

Fleming’s contributions grouped into a loose theme of distant light and transformation. Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a love letter to the American home, and its dappled evening sunlight flickered beautifully under the hands of Oramo, the composer’s warm harmonies setting the scene for Fleming’s characteristically full bodied interpretation. She inhabited the storyteller’s guise with effortless and instinctive calm, though the animated middle section was also very well judged. With just the right amount of sentimentality, this was an ideal performance, and an aptly chosen encore of the song Sure on this shining night blazed a similar trail.

Fleming’s projection was ideal, particularly in the Transformation Scene from Richard Strauss’s second opera Daphne, where she moved from the front to a well-chosen offstage position for the culmination of the transformation itself, which sees Daphne take on the form of a laurel tree. The extended postlude from the orchestra reached upwards to a serene level of euphoria, and Fleming’s wordless vocalise at the end put the seal on a beautifully judged performance. Again we had an encore, and this was a special account of Strauss’s own orchestration of his best-loved song Morgen, with rapt solo from orchestra leader Andrej Power.

If anything the other two pieces were even more successful. The music of Andrea Tarrodi was new to the Proms, but on the basis of the orchestral piece Liguria this was extremely unlikely to be her only appearance. A colourful account of a visit to the Italian coast, Liguria is a kind of symphonic lettercard, its six scenes recounted in brightly lit orchestrations. The recurring, creeping brass harmonies from the first scene stood out, and reappeared towards the end, but also notable was the assurance with which the Swedish composer works with the orchestra, making original sounds and not resorting to contemporary music clichés. A composer whose acquaintance you are strongly advised to make.

Finally we heard Carl Nielsen’s Second Symphony, ‘The Four Temperaments’, receiving its second Proms performance in three years after the festival’s complete neglect of it in the 20th century. It is a powerful piece, and this account made a strong impression. Although the feverish first movement (Choleric) was convincing and brilliantly played the emotional centre lay in the Melancholic third movement, where Oramo wrought music of impressive angst and depth. Nielsen’s struggles were resolved by the Sanguine finale, where the composer lets rip perhaps a little too easily, but again the structure and the melodic groups made perfect sense. Oramo has built a strong affinity with the Danish composer’s music over the years, and there was something very satisfying in these days of disunity at seeing a Finn conduct a Swedish orchestra in Danish music.

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Leanne Mison will give her verdict on the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Prom. Coming shortly!

Roger Vignoles – A Strauss Odyssey

Roger Vignoles is one of Britain’s best-established accompanists. Respected for his technical ability, experience, breadth of repertoire and the work he does nurturing singers old and new, he is regularly seen at the illustrious venues worldwide.

More recently at the Wigmore Hall he has plotted a course through the daunting output of songs by Richard Strauss, a lesser known corner of the composer’s output. This has been complemented on disc courtesy of Hyperion, their series recently completed by an eighth and final disc with tenor Nicky Spence and soprano Rebecca Evans.

In a fascinating interview he talks with Arcana about his own introduction to classical music, the technical and psychological challenges in performing Strauss, his highlights from the series and the principles of accompanying a singer.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I have an early memory of a concert at Cheltenham Town Hall when Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony was performed – it was one of my father’s favourite pieces, hence one of his first LPs, together with Beethoven‘s Fifth Symphony and Franck’s Symphonic Variations. But he also loved Gilbert & Sullivan, so my brothers and I who were all choristers were basically brought up on a diet of English Cathedral Music and HMS Pinafore.

I also remember Peter and the Wolf loomed quite large (my favourite bit was the appearance of the wolf out of the forest), as well as the audience songs from Let’s Make an Opera. And I treasured a 78 single of Sousa’s Stars & Stripes played by the Coldstream Guards Band: nowadays my favourite version is Vladimir Horovitz’s – he gives it such an aristocratic swagger, like a Grande Polonaise in 4/4 time.

What was it about Gerald Moore that made you want to follow in his footsteps?

It was when my elder brother Charles (on whom I really learnt the basics of accompanying when we were both in our teens) gave me the first LP of Winterreise, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore. I was fascinated by the piano parts, but especially by Gerald’s beautifully judged piano sound and his wonderful sense of rhythm and pace, and I just thought: “I’d love to be able to do that.”

When did you first discover the songs of Richard Strauss?

It was probably when I went to the RCM in 1966. Hubert Dawkes, to whom I’d been assigned for accompaniment, plunged me in at the deep end with the Four Last Songs.  But I also thrilled to songs like Allerseelen, Die Nacht, Ständchen, etc.

Listen to Rebecca Evans singing September, the second of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, with Roger Vignoles. This is part of the eighth and final volume of Strauss songs released by Hyperion and available here

Are the piano parts particularly challenging? When I have seen you play at the Wigmore Hall before they often feel orchestral in concept, as though you are having to voice a whole ensemble.

Strauss’s early songs sound much like Schumann: pianistic in quality and perfect for a domestic soirée. But with Zueignung, the first of his Opus 10 group (his first published songs), there is an unmistakable sea change. It’s as though the Vienna Philharmonic has entered the drawing room, and from then on Strauss never looked back. Challenging?  Indeed, but Strauss also has a wonderful feel for the piano, and with very few exceptions his accompaniments are very grateful to play. Of course there can be a lot of notes to deal with and every now and then he does go completely over the top: Lied an meinem Sohn for instance, which sounds like a cross between Die Walküre and a Tchaikovsky piano concerto and was declared unplayable by Alfred Brendel, no less. It’s wonderfully sung by Christopher Maltman on Volume 4 (listen below):

As it happens thinking orchestrally has always come naturally to me, ever since my time studying with Paul Hamburger, for whom it was axiomatic that all song composers from Schubert onwards have a miniature orchestra in their heads. A couple of years playing Wagner and Strauss at Covent Garden helped cement this approach: many pianists make the mistake with Strauss of learning all the little notes first, but a stint in the opera house teaches you to see the wood for the trees, and as Paul Hamburger would often say, “If you get the gesture right, the little notes will fall into place”.

I should like to add that I owe an enormous amount to Paul, who taught me not only more about piano technique than any “real” pianist I ever worked with, but also about vocal coaching, style, language and poetry (even down to explaining Thomas Hardy to me in his thick Viennes accent).  Quite coincidentally the first song I ever took to him was by Strauss – Schlagende Herzen.

The Strauss series on Hyperion has had a really nice blend of singers new and slightly older, English and European. Was that a deliberate aim?

It wasn’t a deliberate aim, so much as the result of the series having taken twelve years to record, and at each stage looking for artists with the appropriate vocal and musical character for the volume in hand. It also very much reflects the singers whom I already was enjoying working with at any given time.

Do you think that in the Strauss songs we get a different view of him as a composer?

Strauss was naturally a composer of the large gesture, the panoramic sweep, with a distinct tendency to overblown romanticism of the kind that can turn some listeners off.  And of course the opera composer often shines through – there can be no doubt that the 25 years of song-writing that preceded his first operas were the laboratory in which he developed his gift for vocal characterisation.

But in the song format he is obliged to distil his musical ideas to their simplest essence. Just occasionally he doesn’t succeed, but on the many occasions when he does the result can be pure magic.  If I had to give just one example it might be Nachtgang, a tiny love-song of breathtaking tenderness – and unfathomable poignancy (listen below):

‘Accompanist’ feels like a slightly derogatory term for a role that requires such control and artistry. Is it your view that both performers have equal billing in a vocal recital?

It’s not often realised that the Lied or Mélodie is as much a piano art as a vocal one – it’s no accident that Schubert’s Lieder evolved with the early years of the piano – so of course singer and pianist should have equal billing. It is indeed a truly symbiotic partnership. But as for the A-word, I am proud to follow Gerald Moore as an “Unashamed Accompanist”. To me it’s the only term that naturally describes what I and my colleagues do. Nevertheless I can understand those who baulk at its negative associations and prefer the American coinage “collaborative pianist”. Just for the record the billing should of course always read “So-and-So, piano”, never “So-and-so, accompanist”.

What is the most common piece of advice you give to your students on accompanying a singer?

This from Geoffrey Parsons, another mentor: “Always have your own idea of how the song goes, rather than just be a blank canvas for the singer to draw on”.

But two other rules of thumb are useful: “It’s the singer’s job to slow down, the pianist’s to speed up again” and “Balance is as much a function of texture (ie transparency and clarity) as of decibels (as in am I too loud?)”

Is it important to have a personal affinity with the singer you are performing with, as well as a musical one?

It helps of course, especially if you are going on tour together. But I have had many experiences of wonderful music-making on minimal rehearsal, when there was no time at all to find out whether you got on personally offstage.

Are there any composers you have not yet recorded that you are keen to explore?

I love playing Rachmaninov songs (probably for the same reason that I love playing Strauss). And one day I might get round to Schoenberg’s Buch der hängenden Gärten.

If you could recommend a Strauss song to Arcana readers listening for the first time, which one would it be?

So many to choose from…  But for a real out-of-body experience, try Am Ufer, sung exquisitely by Christopher Maltman on Volume 4 (listen below):

Or for a remarkable stream of consciousness, Anne Schwanewilms singing O wärst du mein! on Volume 2 (listen below):

You are a painter as well, looking at Twitter…does music inspire your paintings at any point?

Not precisely: but a friend once told me they thought I painted with the same part of the brain that I play with.  Which is probably true. It is a fact that I have a very visual conception of the music that I play, especially in song where so much of the verbal imagery is itself visual. So in either medium I am playing with light and shade, with colour and texture, and with contrast – perhaps the most important tool in both.

You can read more about Roger Vignoles on his artist page, or click here for his Hyperion discography. With grateful thanks to Hyperion for the provision of highlights from their Strauss series, which are of course (c) Hyperion Records Ltd.

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