On record – Sir John Tomlinson, Rozanna Madylus & Counterpoise: Kokoschka’s Doll

Rozanna Madylus (mezzo-soprano), Sir John Tomlinson (bass), Counterpoise [Kyle Horch (saxophone/clarinet), Deborah Calland (trumpet), Fenella Humphreys (violin), Iain Farrington (piano)]

Music by John Casken, Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler, David Matthews, Richard Wagner, Anton Webern and Alexander Zemlinsky

Champs Hill Records CHRCD150 [81’54”]

Producer Matthew Bennett
Engineer Dave Rowell

Recorded 21-22 May 2018 & 17 January 2019, Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The enterprising ensemble Counterpoise returns with its second release – an ambitious and wide-ranging selection centred upon that redoubtable femme fatale who was Alma Mahler and with a major new piece of music-theatre featuring Sir John Tomlinson from John Casken.

What’s the music like?

The generous programme effectively divides into two parts. The Art of Love opens with four songs by Alma – her setting of Julius Bierbaum’s Mild Summer Night and A Nocturnal Light followed by that of Gustav Falke’s Harvest Song, all of them accorded a fresh perspective in resourceful arrangements by David Matthews. Much the finest is the recently located setting of Leo Greiner’s Lonely Walk, but even this must yield to the radiance of Paul Wertheimer’s Blissful Hour by Zemlinsky, Alma’s lover before Mahler and an underrated Lieder composer.

Matthews’s subtle arrangement of Mahler’s rapturous Rückert setting If You Love for Beauty, followed by his ominous Wunderhorn setting Where the Splendid Trumpet Sounds, proceed Iain Farrington’s violin-and-piano transcription of the start of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (it would be worth hearing the rest). Webern’s glinting Trio Movement for clarinet, trumpet and piano is intriguingly countered by Matthews’s hardly longer yet more equable Transformation (with addition of piano); after which, his arrangement of Wagner’s Dreams (last of five settings after Mathilde Wesendonck) underlines its rapt introspection. Rounding off this first part with Liszt’s take on Isolde’s Liebestod might almost be thought rather predictable, but Farrington’s pointedly unshowy rendering is an undoubted pleasure.

The second half of this programme is devoted to Kokoschka’s Doll – a melodrama for bass-baritone and ensemble by John Casken, who has also devised the text in collaboration with Barry Millington. Drawing on the artist’s letters and autobiography, this almost 40-minute piece focusses on Kokoschka’s fractious liaison with a recently widowed Alma Mahler, his near-death experience as a soldier on the Eastern front, then his ill-fated attempt to recreate Alma as a doll to his idealized specifications. Unfolding between past and present, the text provides plenty of leeway for Sir John Tomlinson to convey the tortured while not a little self-seeking protagonist through an adept interplay of speech and parlando – dispatched with his inimitable blend of fiery rhetoric and soulful rumination. Instrumentally the music is rich in timbral and textural nuance, following the emotional ebb and flow of Kokoschka’s musings as they spill over into the irrational. An engrossing concept, skilfully realized, which would certainly be worth presenting in a scenic version at some of the UK’s many studio-theatres.

Does it all work?

As an overall sequence, certainly. Counterpoise is an object-lesson of unity within diversity, whether in the range of music this ensemble brings together or in the arresting nature of the arrangements it favours. Added to which, the singing of Rozanna Madylus is a treat in store.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Performances and recording leave nothing to be desired, while the booklet features a succinct introduction by Millington along with reproductions from Kokoschka’s drawings of his ‘Alma Doll’ – more appealing visually than it becomes at the denouement of the scenario!

Listen and Buy

You can read more about this release, listen to clips and purchase from the Champs Hill website

Live review – Sara Hershkowitz, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Antony Hermus – The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure

Sara Hershkowitz (coloratura soprano, below), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Antony Hermus (above)

City Halls, Glasgow
Thursday 28 November 2019

Haydn Symphony no.22 in E flat major ‘Philosopher’ (1764)
Ligeti Mysteries of the Macabre (1974-77; 1992)
Wagner arr. Henk de Vlieger The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure (1991)

Written by Ben Hogwood

An evening of musical philosophy through three very different viewpoints, held together by superb orchestral performances and the artistry and energy of Antony Hermus, making his conducting debut with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

On this evidence it has the makings of a fruitful musical relationship. Certainly Haydn‘s Symphony no.22 in E flat major, known as the ‘Philosopher’, was carefully prepared and ideally executed. With just 26 players on the platform, and with most of them strings, the spotlight fell on the pair of horns and cor anglais players. They added unique colours and a doleful atmosphere to the profound opening Adagio, which had a steady accompanying tread. The harpsichord of Andrew Forbes was perfectly judged, complementing Haydn’s harmonic thoughts.

Orchestra leader Laura Samuel helped propel a second movement of earthy substance, which gave way to a charming Menuetto before a lively Presto wrapped things up, Haydn’s wit and inspiration in abundance once again. This was the second Haydn symphony in successive days for Arcana, after the CBSO and Riccardo Minasi’s persuasive reading the previous night. From experience a Haydn symphony a day really can go a long way – and indeed if you did two a week you would have enough for a whole year! Something definitely worth considering.

Back to the concert, and a complete change of tack for Ligeti’s uproarious and outrageous Mysteries of the Macabre, a concert piece lifted from his only opera Le Grand Macabre. And what a show it was from Sara Herskowitz, who has lived with this music some time, even on occasion dressing as Donald Trump to deliver it! Here – no doubt with the presence of BBC recording and streaming in mind – she gave Ligeti’s lines in the most sparkling of silver dresses. To say she owned the platform would be an understatement, for hers was a magnetic presence, often hilarious but frequently dazzling in its utter command of Ligeti’s demands. Using a large bottle of Irn Bru as a prop, she fair brought the house down in a performance that has to be seen to be properly appreciated. The virtuosi of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were her equal.

Another radical change of subject and perspective saw us experience the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in just over an hour after the interval. The man responsible for this orchestra-only compression is Dutch composer Henk de Vlieger, who has made a remarkable piece of music containing not just the best orchestral excerpts from the four operas but the vocal and thematic music of substance too. With some tasteful composing of his own to complement Wagner’s epic he has created a near-continuous piece of music that, while never expecting to eclipse the impact of the operas, is a wholly effective concert piece.

It helps when given the sort of commanding performance The Ring received here. The brass were simply superb – trumpets, trombones, Wagner tubas, tubas and horns responding to the considerable demands with relish, creating some wonderful sonorities while they did so. The Ride of the Valkyries was an early highlight, the theme given an appropriately majestic profile, while Alberto Menéndez Escibano‘s horn solo for Siegfrieds Heldentat, given from out the back of the hall, was brilliantly done.

The BBC Scottish strings and wind were on the same exalted level, and the Feuerzauber (Magic Fire Music) and Waldweben (Forest Murmurs) were wholly evocative and enchanting. Hermus brought a keen dramatic instinct to his conducting, including rubato where appropriate but also making the silences really tell. Even before the first note sounded he secured complete stillness in the hall, setting the tone for the performance that followed – and when other silences occurred they were impeccably observed by the audience. There was a terrific, ballsy account of Siegfried und Brunnhilde, brass again to the fore, while the violins shone in their unison passages throughout.

Antony Hermus paced the whole ‘adventure’ perfectly, meaning this ‘bite size’ Ring cycle clocked in at around 65 minutes. Do catch this concert online if you can over the next few weeks, for it was a really well constructed programme of very differing but inspiring musical works. From the elegant and sometimes earthy Haydn, through the compressed but outrageous Ligeti to the grand and spectacular Wagner, there was something for everyone.

You can hear this concert on BBC Radio 3 from the evening of Tuesday 3 December by clicking here

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, made up of some leading recordings of the works played.

Live review – Jeremy Denk, CBSO / Gustavo Gimeno: Beethoven & Stravinsky

Jeremy Denk (piano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gustavo Gimeno (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 20 November 2019 (2.15pm)

Beethoven
Egmont Op.84 – Overture (1810)
Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37 (1800, rev. 1803)
Stravinsky
Petrushka (1911, rev. 1947)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Beethoven and Stravinsky might not be felt natural bedfellows (whatever the latter claimed in later life), but this afternoon’s concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and fast-rising conductor Gustavo Gimeno was evidently intent on demonstrating otherwise. The overture from Beethoven‘s music for Goethe’s play Egmont duly launched the programme in imposing fashion, Gimeno securing a trenchant while slightly inflexible response across the main Allegro, with no lack of rhythmic definition as held good during an incisive peroration.

If his Third Piano Concerto finds Beethoven more overtly indebted to Classical precedent, its palpable emotional breadth is a clear pointer to what lay ahead. As soloist, Jeremy Denk had the measure of the opening movement’s often abrupt alternation between imperiousness and intimacy – not least a probing take on the development with those eloquent woodwind contributions. If the cadenza was a shade too volatile in its later stages, the fateful emergence of the coda (timpani and strings) was suitably rapt in its intensity. Raptness was equally the watchword of the central Largo, Denk pointing up the stark contrast of his E flat entry then duetting blissfully with bassoon and flute in its transition to the main theme, but as the coda (seemingly) evanesces into silence a greater dynamic subtlety would have been welcome.

Interestingly, Denk supplied this in abundance at that mesmeric point in the finale when the rondo theme ventures into the major as if to goad the music back to the prevailing C minor. Elsewhere, this was an impetuous and assured account which reached its culmination with a heady solo transition into a coda that dispersed preceding tensions through its unchecked ebullience. Denk returned for an unlikely yet appealing encore – a paraphrase (his own?) on the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner‘s Tannhauser as rapidly evolved into a full-blown rag.

Few British orchestras can have performed Stravinsky‘s early ballets with the frequency and consistency of the CBSO, which is not to suggest Gimeno was other than his own man in this reading of Petrushka – heard in its streamlined 1947 revision rather than the texturally more imaginative 1911 original (which this past nine decades the orchestra has only played under Pierre Boulez). Certainly the revision’s tendency to encourage a headlong and even ruthless approach was evident in an overly regimented take on the Russian Dance, the scene-setting that precedes it audibly lacking atmosphere, but thankfully not the central tableaux depicting Petrushka and the Blackamoor – the former as nervous and agitated as the latter was moody and, not least following the arrival of the Ballerina, ominous in its smouldering sexuality.

No less impressive were the surrounding evocations of the Shrovetide Fair – the latter with its various set-pieces vividly and tellingly characterized, on route to the sudden reappearance of the main protagonists then Petrushka’s death and ghostly apparition for what remain some of the composer’s most affecting pages. The stentorian trumpet writing was fearlessly delivered, and if those concluding pizzicato chords might have been more unanimous, it only marginally detracted from the conviction of what was a well conceived and finely executed performance.

This performance will be repeated at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Saturday 23 November at 7pm. For more details head to the CBSO website

Wigmore Mondays – Jeremy Denk plays Bach & Schubert

Jeremy Denk (piano)

J.S. Bach Partita no.5 in G major BWV829 (1726-1730) (1:35 – 16:37)
Schubert 4 Impromptus D935 (1827) (19:16 – 54:07)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 18 March 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

If you know anybody who is sceptical of the music of J.S. Bach, point them in the direction of the link above, and Jeremy Denk’s account of his Partita no.5. This sparkling display of virtuosity showed beyond doubt the composer’s ability to write instinctively with humour, a playful Partita where the only regret was the pianist’s decision not to use all the written repeats applied to the dance-based movements.

The reason for this would almost certainly have been time constraints, with Denk’s wish to combine the Bach with the Four Impromptus Schubert completed in 1827, his last full year. The two made a very satisfying coupling, giving listeners in the Wigmore Hall and to BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert an hour of fluidly written and brilliantly played pieces.

The Bach first, beginning at 1:35 on the broadcast link with a lively Praeambulum, then moving almost without a break into the traditional sequence of dance movements the composer reserved for pieces such as this. With the mood defined Bach presents an elegant Allemande (3:54), a light footed Corrente (7:35) and then a slower Sarabande (8:52), which features attractive doubling of the melody.

These slower dances always present a pause for thought within Bach, an intake of breath before more dancing – which here includes a Minuetta (11:34) where Bach puts a delightful ‘two against three’ set of rhythms together, the dance stumbling attractively. It’s over all too soon unfortunately, but the straight faced Passepied (12:38) has a stately feel, before the triple-time Gigue (13:48), with its centrepiece, a fugue that Denk masters most impressively, building the momentum to a thrilling conclusion.

Angela Hewitt has spoken of how the key of G major ‘always seems to inspire Bach to write music of great radiance, joy, gentleness and technical display’ – and that is on view throughout Denk’s spring-like account. He delighted in asides to the audience throughout, letting them in on his enjoyment of the music.

The Schubert presented a very different range of emotions. Published as a set of four pieces in 1839, twelve years after composition, the Impromptus work in isolation and also as a quartet, their themes crossing over but not as rigidly as a sonata might demand. This spirit of relative freedom runs through the four pieces.

The first Impromptu, in F minor (19:16 on the link) is a substantial piece that immediately brings Beethoven to mind with its call to arms – Schubert’s contemporary having not long died. The second theme of this impromptu (20:51) is soft and hymn-like, reflective yet with strength in depth when repeated and magnified, in development. This intense passage is cleverly worked, coming back around to the relatively stern main theme at 24:25, though Denk enjoys the more optimistic strains of the major key as it soon takes over. The ‘hymn’ recurs in this key at 26:08 – but as befits the uncertainty of this music, Schubert can’t resist more harmonic movement right through to the turbulent end.

The second Impromptu (29:43) is in F minor’s ‘relative’ key, A flat major, and starts in wonderful stillness. This main theme is restated on a number of occasions, resisting any of the louder interventions trying to derail it. A central section (from 33:05) is faster and flowing, but once again takes a turn for darker waters as Schubert alternates between major and minor key. This only heightens the soft contentment of the main music when it returns at 35:17, wonderfully handled by Denk.

The third Impromptu is similarly light and shade, but this time much more in favour of brighter thoughts. From its opening (37:27) it sets out a theme very similar to a famous melody from Schubert’s Rosamunde stage music, which the composer proceeds to take as a base for several variations – just as he did in an earlier String Quartet in A minor. This unfolds beautifully – with impeccable technique from Denk, and impressive depth in the minor key fourth variation (41:44). The twinkling figure of the final variation (45:30) looks to finish the piece in high spirits, but a final statement returns us to quiet thought.

Finally the fourth Impromptu (47:49) returns us to the F minor world of the first, though here Schubert is in the mood for a dance, evoking the Hungarian cimbalom with spicy harmonies and some daring passagework for the right hand. This finishes the piece acrobatically in the run up to 54:07, a feat superbly realised by Denk here.

As a completely irreverent encore, breaking Schubert’s spell but proving a superbly entertaining sign-off, we had the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser well and truly sent through the boogie-woogie and blues wringer by Donald Lambert (from 55:55 – 58:21)

Further reading and listening

If you enjoyed Jeremy Denk’s Bach playing, there is a disc of Partitas he released back in 2011 for Azica Records. You can hear it on Spotify here:

Denk’s latest release is an intriguing exploration of music from 1300 to the present day. You can hear it here:

Meanwhile to explore more Schubert Impromptus and pieces, the peerless Alfred Brendel is strongly recommended. This album includes all the Impromptus for solo piano as well as some attractive German Dances, the elusive but compelling 6 Moments Musicaux and the darkly tinged 3 Klavierstücke:

Wigmore Mondays – Sophie Pacini plays Chopin, Wagner & Schumann

Sophie Pacini (piano)

Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor Op.66 (c1834) (1:27-6:18 on the broadcast link below)
Wagner, transcribed Liszt Overture to Tännhauser S442 (arr.1848) (7:25-22:33)
Schumann Carnaval Op.9 (1834-5) 24:25-47:13

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 4 February 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Sophie Pacini’s Wigmore Hall recital began with a fast, flowing performance of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu. As the name implies this is an extremely free piece but there is structure too, with two distinct themes. From 1:27 on the broadcast link above you can hear the main material, then at 2:31 a contrasting and relatively settled theme in the major key. A short development section brings us back to the main material at 4:33, and then Chopin spins a beautiful coda from the second theme at 5:35.

Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s overture to the opera Tannhäuser (from 7:25) is something of an Everest for pianists; one that Sophie Pacini appeared to have scaled with commendable ease. This was a towering performance but also one that allowed the detail of the parts to come through – only rarely did the tunes threaten to become subsumed by the massive textures, and that certainly wasn’t the fault of Pacini – just a case of Liszt trying to accommodate so much of the orchestra!

In the broadcast the overture builds steadily from soft but noble beginnings, reaching what sounds like a mighty peal of bells at 9:27. This majestic theme dominates the music, coming back at 18:42 with an extraordinary accompaniment of what sounds like circling birds in the right hand part, leading up to a massive statement towards the end.

Carnaval is a favourite among the Schumann piano output, a series of character pieces that present a masked ball. Schumann himself is there, together with wife Clara – and not only that, Schumann invents several characters to depict the very different strains of his personality. There is a grand total of 20 different sections making up this attractive and colourful suite of pieces, and they run as follows (with approximate descriptions):

The very lively Préambule (24:25) begins the piece, cutting to Pierrot (26:36), whose repeated three-note figure reminded me of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Arlequin (27:47) is a short, playful number, leading to a charming Valse noble (28:32), then Eusebius (29:39), one of the ‘selfies’ in Carnaval that depicts composer’s ‘calm, deliberate’ side. By contrast Florestan (31:26) depicts the composer’s fiery, impetuous nature, and Schumann quotes the main waltz theme from his earlier work Papillons, Op. 2.

The Coquette (32:15) follows, depicting a flirtatious girl, before Réplique (33:18) acts as a reply. There would then be a freely-written section called Sphinxes, which Sophie Pacini chooses not to perform here. Instead we move on to the quick fire Papillons (33:48, no connection to Op.2), then A.S.C.H. – S.C.H.A (34:31), another form of self portrait. Chiarina (35:09) is a depiction of the composer’s wife Clara, while the spacious arpeggios of Chopin (36:03) depict the composer.

Estrella (36:46) depicts Ernestine von Fricken, before Reconnaissance (37:23), a brilliant musical portrayal that is thought to depict Schumann and Ernestine recognizing each other at the ball. Pantalon et Colombine (38:54) are from the commedia dell’arte, then we hear the charming Valse allemande (39:38)

An extremely active Intermezzo: Paganini (40:14) leads into a reprise of the Valse allemande. Then Aveu (41:30) initally feels a bit bashful in its depiction of a confession of love. A Promenade (42:20) moves directly to a Pause (43:58), written out in musical form. After an almost identical reprise of a passage from the opening Préambule, we lead without a break into the final section, the Marche des “Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins (The March of David Against the Philistines) (44:16) It is a rousing finish to a cycle full of character.

Sophie Pacini’s performance is a fast one – most versions clock in just under half an hour, whereas hers is under 23 minutes. This shows the quick tempo choices she makes, and the short pauses between musical numbers. On occasion the music feels a bit too hasty and some of the softer moments and dance scenes could do with a bit more space and charm, some time to breathe between the sections perhaps. That said, a very enjoyable performance of characterful music that ends triumphantly.

As a suitable footnote to the concert, Pacini returned to the key of C sharp minor for Saint-Saëns (48:26-53:33) and his Allegro appassionato.

Further listening

Sophie Pacini has recorded all of the repertoire given in her recital. Her encore piece, the Saint-Saëns Allegro Appassionato, is added in a new recording from Bertrand Chamayou:

Quite where Liszt found the time to transcribe loads of orchestral pieces for piano is a mystery, but he did – including all nine Beethoven symphonies! This collection from Glenn Gould includes the Fifth, as well as more Wagner:

Schumann’s character pieces for piano are greatly loved. Carnaval is one of the most popular, but there are plenty of others – and on this album from Wilhelm Kempff you can enjoy three collections – Kinderszenen (for children), the wonderful Kreisleriana and the Waldszenen (Forest Scenes):