In concert – April Frederick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Visions of Childhood – Following Mahler on the path to eternity

April Frederick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler arr. Stein Symphony no.4 in G major (1900) – Opening
Wagner arr. Woods Siegfried Idyll (1870)
Humperdinck arr. Woods Hänsel und Gretel (1892) – Der Kleine Sandmann; Abendsegen.
Schubert arr. Woods Die Forelle – Lied and Variations, D550/D667 (1817/19)
Mahler arr. Woods Das Irdische Leben (1892)
Schubert arr. Woods Der Tod und das Mädchen – Variations & Lied, D531/D810 (1817/24)
Mahler arr. Stein Das Himmlische Leben (1892/1900)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 16 October (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone online series continued this evening with an ingenious programme centred on Childhood, as depicted in music from the latter 19th century, and featuring chamber arrangements by the orchestra’s principal conductor Kenneth Woods.

The initial bars of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, heard in the now relatively familiar reduction by Erwin Stein, led seamlessly into Siegfried Idyll – here arranged for identical forces and so affording even greater prominence to Wagner’s felicitous writing for woodwind. In this never rushed account, Woods underlined the methodical aspect of music whose birthday association and ethereal aura rather bely its formal ingenuity. There were no qualms over instrumentation, even if the trumpet’s timely presence might have made the ecstatic climax seem even more so.

April Fredrick (whose impressive account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs in the first of these concerts is required listening) then took the stage for a medley drawn from the second act of Humperdinck’s timeless Hänsel und Gretel, trebling up as the Sandman and then both main characters in a reminder that the enchanting essence of this opera is seldom without its more ambivalent, even ominous undertones in the treatment of childhood. Moreover, this chamber reduction brought an intimacy that more closely aligned the music to its origins as a singspiel.

Of especial interest were two Schubert pieces – hardly unfamiliar in themselves, here given an unexpected while revealing guise. In the case of The Trout, this entailed interweaving the verses of the song with those variations of the fourth movement from the later piano quintet so as to make more explicit the constantly shifting emotions across what is often considered one of this composer’s most equable settings. A different procedure was adopted for Death and the Maiden, in which the slow movement of Schubert’s eponymous string quartet – its intensifying variations characterized by appealing woodwind contributions – were followed by the earlier song, heralded by the hieratic strains of harmonium, and whose mingling of anguish with resignation threw the variations’ emotional trajectory into more acute relief.

Following each of these items were songs by Mahler, the natural successor to Schubert in so many aspects of his music – not least these settings of texts from Des knaben Wunderhorn. In its pivoting between the child’s supplications and the mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of this composer’s most evocative songs – albeit of the child’s existence running out as though grains of sand. By contrast, The Heavenly Life speaks of a child’s paradisal existence in the afterlife and if Mahler’s treatment is a good deal more complex than the words might suggest (the singer’s assessment of this on the ESO website is worth hearing), Fredrick’s judicious floating of the vocal line was integrated with Wood’s astute handling of the ensemble to good effect.

Hearing the latter piece in Stein’s reduction as finale of the Fourth Symphony served equally to bring this well-planned and thought-provoking programme full circle; one that is required listening for those yet to hear it, and with the next concert in this series keenly anticipated.
This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here

In concert – April Frederick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods perform Richard Strauss

April Frederick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 18 September (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The continued difficulties in mounting live concerts with an audience has led to any number of virtual and online presentations, of which the English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone is among the most imaginative. As organized and curated by Kenneth Woods, the ESO’s redoubtable music director (below), this promises a fresh perspective on various (often if not always) familiar pieces – performed in chamber reductions which respect the need for social distancing and illuminate aspects of the music not always evident in its more familiar guise.

Such was made manifest in the present account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, as heard in the transcription by James Ledger made for Felicity Lott’s farewell concert at the Wigmore Hall seven years ago and whose large ensemble emphasizes the wistful eloquence of these songs without undue enervation. It helped that April Frederick was at one with Ledger’s conception and Woods’s realization, whether in the lithe ardency of Frühling or the eddying rumination of September – this latter a candidate for the most perfectly realized of all Strauss’s songs.

The rapturous emotion of Beim Schlafengehen can verge on the cloying, but there was no risk of that here as Frederick imbued this setting of Hermann Hesse with a plangent emotion such as most renditions gloss over, complemented by Zoë Beyers’ unaffected handling of its violin solo. Joseph von Eichendorff‘s Im Abendrot was hardly less impressive, the expressive trajectory seamlessly sustained from impassioned opening to hushed close with its valedictory allusions to Strauss and Mahler – over which Frederick’s vocal hovered with mesmeric poise.

A chamber reduction by Tony Burke of Morgen! – Strauss’s setting of John Henry Mackay – for similar forces made for an unexpected if welcome encore. Here too it was the purity and understatement of Frederick’s approach that most readily compelled, in the process drawing this relatively early song into the emotional orbit of those written over half-a-century later. A fine ending to this first instalment of what promises to be a rewarding series, and one which looks set to reaffirm the significance of the ESO within the context of British music-making.

This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here

RSNO Friday Night Club – Richard Strauss & Berg

Tonight, Friday 17 April, the RSNO Friday Night Club returns with an intriguing pair of characters. The first is Richard Strauss‘s Don Juan, one of his most celebrated symphonic poems, in which the 24-year old composer paints a portrait of the serial philanderer. Its high spirits mask a darker underbelly. Thomas Søndergård conducts.

Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill then joins the orchestra in a performance of Berg‘s Seven Early Songs. These very late Romantic nuggets, completed 20 years after Don Juan, show Berg straining at the limits of tonality and finding great intensity as he sets the work of seven different poets.

You can watch the on the orchestra’s website here, or join on Facebook here

Live review – CBSO Youth Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada: Elgar Symphony no.1, Takemitsu & Richard Strauss

CBSO Youth Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 23 February 2020 (3pm)

Takemitsu Dreamtime (1981)
Richard Strauss Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche Op.28 (1894-5)
Elgar Symphony no.1 in A flat major Op.55 (1907-08)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It is hardly an understatement to say that the concerts given each season by the CBSO Youth Orchestra are frequently among the most enterprising and engaging of all those to be heard in Symphony Hall, with this afternoon’s event under Kazuki Yamada proving no exception.

A contrasted pair of tone poems comprised the succinct first half, beginning with a welcome revival of Toru Takemitsu‘s Dreamtime. Conceived as a dance piece for Netherlands Dance Theatre, this is typical of the music from its composer’s maturity in its dissonant (but rarely abrasive) harmonies and its diaphanous textures. Both of these were fully in evidence, with Yamada also mindful to instill a sense of cumulative unfolding as ensures cohesion in music that can easily drift or lose focus. Suffice to add there was little sense of that happening here.

Takemitsu was not a composer given to the humour (ironic or otherwise) permeating Richard Strauss‘s Till Eulenspiegel, heard in an account that initially felt a little stolid in its depiction of that prankster from the Middle Ages; but which soon gained in conviction over the course of Till’s encounters monkish, amorous and social on the way to a vivid depiction of his trial and execution – with its irrepressible pay-off. Assured playing by woodwind and brass were the highlights of a reading to remind one of just how technically exacting this music remains.

112 years on from its premiere and Elgar‘s First Symphony exudes a very different if equally unequivocal virtuosity, such as happily held few fears for these musicians. Japan has a noted line of Elgar interpreters (not least the conductor Tadaaki Otaka), and Yamada demonstrated his credentials with a taut while never inflexible take on the lengthy opening movements – its indelible ‘motto’ theme eloquently and un-fussily rendered, then the main Allegro securing an almost ideal balance between anxiety and rumination across music which strives without ever regaining that calm assurance whose glimpses become the more affecting for their transience. No less impressive was Yamada’s handling of the coda as this winds down towards becalmed resignation, abetted by playing of exquisite finesse from the CBSOYO woodwind and strings.

There was little to fault in a scherzo that alternated the incisive and the wistful with unforced rightness, and how unerringly Yamada judged its transition into an Adagio that, less moulded than it often is, yet unfolding seamlessly towards its serene close. Not that there was anything bland or uninvolving about this music, or a finale that (rightly) followed with minimal pause; the barely suppressed expectancy of its introduction heading into an Allegro whose impetus hardly faltered. Strings never sounded fazed by the contrapuntal intricacy of its development, while brass came into their collective own during an apotheosis where the re-emergence of the motto theme evinced a triumph shorn of bombast or self-regard; the closing bars setting the seal on a performance of a maturity the more remarkable given the age of its exponents.

Elgar One has over the years come in for more than its fair share of objections to its supposed overtones of jingoism and self-gratification. That there was nothing of that here was tribute to Yamada in his drawing so ardent and insightful an interpretation from the CBSOYO players.

Wigmore Mondays – Katharina Konradi & Eric Schneider : Songs by Schubert, Rachmaninov & Richard Strauss

Katharina Konradi (soprano), Eric Schneider (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 3 February 2020 (lunchtime)

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

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Picture (c) BBC

The BBC’s New Generation Artists scheme has been running for 20 years, and the anniversary was marked by Wigmore Hall over the weekend prior to this concert. Graduates from the scheme are an indication of its value, and you only have to look at the first intake of artists to see how valuable it has been. Baritone Christopher Maltman, violinist Lisa Batiashvili, cellist Alban Gerhardt, pianist Steven Osborne and the Belcea String Quartet were among the first intake back in 2000 – and all are right at the top of their game as classical performers today.

Soprano Katharina Konradi is one of the most recent recruits to the scheme. Born in Kyrgyzstan and of German nationality, she is the first soprano from her country to have a career as a Lied, concert and opera singer. On the basis of this recital, given with regular partner Eric Schneider, hers will be a name to remember.

Konradi has a very fresh tone – unforced, expressive, and beautifully rounded in places. She resists the urge to sing too loudly, which for the purposes of this recital worked beautifully in the hushed moments of the Strauss and Schubert songs particularly, if not the more climactic moments of the Rachmaninov numbers.

Schubert, the father of the modern song, provided the first three numbers, carefully chosen and beautifully delivered. To pick a small selection from the 630 or so in his output is difficult to say the least, but the trio showed a brighter outlook than we normally hear in the concert hall.

Suleika II (2:06) receives a measured performance, gaining pace as the singer hurries to her beloved, while An mein Herz (To my heart) (6:44) is riddled with anxious piano repetitions, Schneider’s restless movement between major and minor keys dominating the mood. Konradi floats serenely above the turbulence. Suleika I (10:10), first of the songs Schubert wrote for Beethoven’s Leonora muse Anna Milder, carries a vivid depiction of the East Wind and the ‘fresh motion of its wings’, brought to rest after a lovely, floated final verse.

From Schubert to Rachmaninov, and a quartet of songs fresh with the promise of spring. The well-known Lilacs (17:26) is brightly voiced, then Konradi finds the top notes for Beloved, let us fly (19:15) with relative ease, the tumult of the city left behind. Meanwhile the beautiful, soaring line of How fair this spot (21:42), with its effortless top notes, is countered by the wordless but highly expressive Vocalise (23:53), one of Rachmaninov’s best-known works.

Richard Strauss is still not as well-known as a song composer as he might be, possibly on account of the difficulty of his works for singer and pianist alike. This was a very satisfying selection, however, and on the broadcast you can here that on Du meines Herzens Krönelein (You, my heart’s coronet) (30:42) the singer is at ease with his style. She shows off a wide range in Das Rosenband (The rose garland) (32:47), where Schneider does well to keep pace with the changes of mood and harmony, while both find the soft, rapturous heart of Glückes genug (Abundant happiness) (35:52). The famous Morgen!… (Tomorrow!)… (38:25) is where we really get a glimpse of Konradi’s potential as an interpreter, for she refuses to over-sing, her restrained approach securing a beautiful purity of tone.

Back to Schubert for the final three songs, and again some less-experienced positivity. Im Abendrot (Sunset glow) (44:08) is one of his ‘stiller’ songs, nicely observed here, while Lied des Florio (Florio’s song) (47:38) is graceful, apart from the pain of the higher notes describing the bittersweet love of the subject. Delphine (51:05) is also a double edged sword, strongly characterised and with a powerful finish where Konradi rises to a great height.

Repertoire

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

Schubert Suleika II D717 (written in 1821) (2:06); An mein Herz D860 (1825) (6:44); Suleika I D720 (1821) (10:10)
Rachmaninov Lilacs Op.21/5 (1902) (17:26); Beloved, let us fly Op.26/5 (1906) (19:15); How fair this spot Op.21/7 (1902) (21:42), Vocalise Op.34/14 (1915) (23:53)
Richard Strauss Du meines Herzens Krönelein Op.21/2 (1889) (30:42), Das Rosenband Op.36/1 (1897-98) (32:47), Glückes genug Op.37/1 (1898) (35:52), Morgen!…Op.27/4 (1894) (38:25)
Schubert Im Abendrot D799 (44:08); Lied des Florio D857/2 (47:38); Lied der Delphine D857/1 (all 1825) (51:05)

After the Radio 3 transmission we were treated to a well-placed Schubert encore. The pointers towards Mahler were clearly audible in Nacht und Träume, another song from 1825.

Further listening & viewing

The music from this concert can be heard in the playlist below, including versions of the Strauss songs by Katharina herself.

For further listening to the songs of Schubert, Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton are assured guides, in this attractive collection recorded for BIS recently:

The songs of Richard Strauss certainly repay repeated listening. While the complete works have been recorded on Hyperion, a rather good collection – again on BIS – can be heard here from soprano Camilla Tilling and pianist Paul Rivinius:

It’s only a month since Arcana was enthusing about another soprano singing Rachmaninov at the Wigmore Hall. Louise Alder and Joseph Middleton delivered a wonderful recital based on their new album Lines written during a Sleepless Night, which can be heard here: