On record: Steve Elcock: Orchestral Music, Volume One (Toccata)

Elcock Symphony no.3 Op. 16 (2005-10); Choses renversées par le temps ou la destruction op.20 (2013); Festive Overture op.7 (1997)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Summary

The first release devoted to Steve Elcock, whose distinctive and uncompromising music went unheralded until four years ago when Toccata Classics supremo Martin Anderson took up the cause which resulted in the recording of the works featured here in Liverpool earlier this year.

What’s the music like?

Born in Chesterfield in 1957 and residing in central France for over three decades, Elcock has amassed a select catalogue (currently running to op.26) with five symphonies at its core. The present disc is dominated by his Third Symphony, composed over five years and cast in three movements whose relative contrasts become subsumed into the powerfully cumulative whole.

The opening Allegro veers between dynamism and stasis as to override thematic distinctions in its underlying sonata-form, heading to a tensile yet unresolved ending. Elements of parody are accentuated in the ensuing ‘Ostinato’, whose middle section emphasizes a coarse melody which points up the lunging and often violent activity around it. Its climax spills over into a final ‘Passacaglia’ as long as its predecessors combined, while given focus by its methodical alternation between loud and quiet expression, along with a steady sarabande rhythm which underpins the ultimately tragic tone. The winding down to an ominous, trill-suffused centre then intensified surge towards a tragic outcome is duly capped by the stark closing cadence.

A notable achievement, but scarcely less impressive is Choses renversées par le temps ou la destruction (Things knocked down by time or destruction). This symphonic triptych moves from the tense expectancy of ‘broken columns’ with its dismantling of the 14th Prelude from Book Two of Bach’s ‘48’ (played on harpsichord by Richard Casey), through the amorphous textures then eventual eruption of ‘mills of god’, to the all-round confrontation of ‘last man standing’ whose unfolding as a slow rondo effects the blackly humorous waltz near its close.

By contrast, the Festive Overture is in the lineage of pieces by such as Walton and Arnold, though Elcock draws comparably on Shostakovich’s eponymous piece and Elliott Carter’s Holiday Overture for its lively interplay of blithe melody and ingenious counterpoint.

Does it all work?

Yes, notwithstanding a passing tendency to over-score and the occasional pre-emptive climax. Elcock’s music has energy and momentum, but also eloquence and resourcefulness, as amply holds the attention. Mention is made of the ‘Nordic-British’ symphonic tradition, though that of European modernism is frequently detectable with the imaginative handling of orchestral texture and a rhetoric leavened with irony. For someone largely self-taught in composition, moreover, Elcock’s sense of control over form and expression is rarely less than impressive.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least when the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra sounds so committed to the cause under the guidance of Paul Mann. The latter contributes an informative overview of these pieces, complemented by the composer’s autobiographical outline. Further instalments are planned, rightly so, but it would be a pleasure to hear these works – the Third Symphony in particular – in live performance; affording this music the tangibility it amply warrants.

To listen to clips from this release and for further information visit the Toccata Classics website, while for more on Steve Elcock you can visit the composer’s website

BBC Proms 2016 – Shostakovich, Rachmaninov & Emily Howard from Alexey Stadler, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

proms-stadler

Alexey Stadler pictured during his performance of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 53; Royal Albert Hall, 25 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The BBC Proms should be commended for their commitment to new music, though this does come with a caveat, for it is not often that a commission for the Proms makes it to a second or third performance. Hopefully that fate will not befall Emily Howard’s Torus, a joint commission with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave it a thoroughly committed and virtuosic first performance under Vasily Petrenko.

Torus is based on a mathematical phenomenon, but to Howard’s credit she did not make this the domineering feature of the piece – if she did, like all good composers, it was part of the essential framework rather than explicitly signposted. Instead we were able to enjoy the colours of the large symphony orchestra, and especially the percussion, the three players using bows on their cymbals to make the textures glint towards the end.

Though subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, there was no display of gravity defying, musical athletics for the sake of it. Rather we enjoyed the orchestra as an instrument, the melodic content taking on a distinctive falling motif as though the music were heading for a trap door.

proms-petrenko

Shostakovich’s popular Cello Concerto no.1 followed, with a last minute substitute, Alexey Stadler, standing in for the unfortunately ill Truls Mørk. Any doubts about inferiority were immediately quelled, the young Russian cellist finding the soul of the music in a searching account of the slow movement and cadenza in particular. Petrenko and the RLPO, so attuned to this composer’s music in their award winning accounts of his symphonies for Naxos, were superb in support, especially horn player Timothy Jackson – but Stadler rightly stole the show, adjusting to the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall with commendable ease. His beautiful tone brought both pain and hope to the solo part in equal measure, and led to a gorgeous encore in the form of the Sarabande from Bach’s Solo Cello Suite no.2.

Finally Petrenko led his orchestra in the music of another composer with whom they share great familiarity – Rachmaninov. There are several warhorses in his output that are arguably overplayed in concert, but the Symphony no.3 is not one of them – and how wonderful it was in this account, with soulful melodies, sleights of hand from Petrenko and sudden bursts of light from the orchestra.

The tricky syncopations of the finale were expertly handled, the orchestra delivering the suddenly loud snaps like the slamming of a door, a thrilling effect in the live arena. Yet they were also alive to the music’s lyrical and occasionally less certain undercurrents, where leader Thelma Handy was a superb soloist.

As an encore Petrenko brought out Shostakovich’s arrangement of YoumansTea For Two, and gave it a brilliant send-up, as though conducting the last night. It was a beautifully judged encore, and showed again just how much this orchestra and conductor enjoy working together – which is what it’s all about, surely!

Ben Hogwood

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Stuart Fitzsimon on Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Emily Howard

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
fitzThis is the latest in the series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Stuart Fitzsimon (above) gives his thoughts on Prom 53.

Alexey Stadler (cello), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko

Emily Howard Torus (2016, world premiere); Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1 (1959); Rachmaninov Symphony no.3 (1935-38)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Fitz, what was your musical upbringing?

It wasn’t particularly musical – music was never forced upon me – but I played the guitar as a school kid, and I did Grades 1 and 2 with classical guitar. I was in numerous choirs – the school choir, a chamber choir, the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy Choir. I performed on Radio 4, and on tours in Switzerland and Italy. From a classical perspective I never played on a classical instrument. My brother played saxophone and keyboard, but I wouldn’t consider any of these to be orchestral instruments.

There were records in the house – more tapes than records – and I remember on holiday taking my mum and dad’s Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats tape to France on holiday and playing it on loop. I remember their Beatles records, but I was never encouraged musically really – it just all happened!

I went to University. I originally wanted to be a policeman, but they wouldn’t offer me criminology as I didn’t have a law degree – they offered me part criminology, part sociology. I enjoyed the sociology far more, decided I didn’t want to be a policeman any more. So I did a degree, which didn’t have anything to do with what I wanted to do in my career or life!

So I started going to gigs, and meeting people who were into similar music as me – dirty London Indie of the time! I started managing bands, putting on bands, and realised then that I wanted to work in the music industry. I knew lots of people in bands and ended up going to a lot of those gigs for free, and thought why don’t I start putting on some bands? So that’s how my Flook night started that I did in London.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Three acts I love are The Libertines, The Cribs and the Super Furry Animals.

The Super Furries are a band I fell in love with, having missed their first two albums. I got bored of the guitar because I couldn’t be bothered to practice around 14 or 15, and I stopped listening to pop music…but then I got into it again and went through the mandatory Oasis and Blur thing at the time in the mid-1990s. Then I started looking at the lesser bands I didn’t pick up at the time and Super Furries were one of them.

I remember listening to the Guerrilla album in the garden of my mate’s house, and it was the weirdest album I’d been introduced to by friends. Up until then it was dad rock, man rock, and then suddenly you’ve got this band writing stuff like intros before track 1 on the CD player! Playing a CD and immediately rewinding it to minus two minutes or whatever, like a secret hidden track, is pretty bizarre!

The rest of the album contains songs about chewing gum and mocking the concept of having a mobile phone. This was before they became ubiquitous! Super Furries saw all that kind of stuff coming, and knew how it was going to change people’s lives. It was a bizarre album for the instruments they used, the sound they made – the first weird band I got into!

I went to university and discovered a whole load of music I didn’t know about, the widest range of music from meeting different people. After that you settle into what you know and love and social groups that come off the back of that. After university I started gigging more and going on internet forums – before Facebook, MySpace – Face Party and Friendster were the networks of the time!

When I wasn’t doing data entry I was wasting time on internet forums, and the one I was on most was The Libertines.org. I met a hell of a lot of people through that – some of my very best friends today! It was a new thing in 2003-4, knowing people from log-in names and stuff. I remember when I first went to meet them in Camden and I told my mum, I think she was concerned I was going to get stabbed that night – what if they’re murderers?!

They didn’t kill me though, and the people I met from that social circle are very dear to me these days too. It all stems from the fact it was the Libertines board. My job is probably a result of people I met on that board, and knowing I wanted to get a job in music. I didn’t talk about the music to be fair! They were the band for a year-18 months who had their moment where they burned very brightly, and they pissed it all up the wall. They’re not the same band they were then, but I still love them for what they were.

The Cribs were one of the bands who got tagged on to what was known as the ‘Nigel’ scene, bands like Selfish C**t, The Unstrung, Special Needs. Some of the bands made the best out of being in that category, and The Cribs somehow got associated with it despite having nothing to do with London! They played a lot in Lodnon, stayed and crashed down here a lot, and I ended up going to a lot of their gigs.

They’re definitely my favourite live band, probably recorded band too, and I was fortunate to go in the studio when they recorded their second album, hearing Hey Scenesters! for the first time and recording with Edwyn Collins, an absolute legend. I was fortunate to record with them (on the song Martell) – they’re lovely blokes and a brilliant band. They’ve done very well to hold on to what they had in their early 20s.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I don’t really have any, although I was in choirs – I sang famous pieces like Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah and Zadok the Priest. On the basis they are classical pieces it’s probably through those, singing them in concerts. In terms of going to watch music I can’t think of many situations other than the 6Music Prom with Laura Marling in 2013. I saw Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall but would say that was an opera rather than classical.

How would you rate your first Proms experience?

It was very interesting. I’d never considered going to a classical concert and standing up, like you do in the arena, ‘in the pit’. That was quite surreal, with people standing, sitting, lying down – all in their own world. It was a different type of person at the sides, a bit older, wiser, maybe richer. I really enjoyed it, I wasn’t expecting to stand but it was unexpected and enjoyable!

I’ve always thought of the Proms as a classical music event but as I was listening to the first piece I didn’t think it sounded classical! I would say it was more orchestral than anything else. The orchestra pinned it all together. The first piece she was talking about science and mathematics had influenced her, and it didn’t sound classical in the same way that the Shostakovich did, the more sorrowful, mournful Russian piece. The symphony screamed ‘classical’ at me though!

What might you improve about the experience?

It had the formula you spoke about before the concert, where you might get a piece you didn’t know to start with, and then the cellist – who was exceptional! – and then the symphony, the larger piece with all the instruments. I think that approach works well. If you started with the symphony people would probably leave when they’ve heard the bit they know, so I understand why it works that way.

I don’t know if I would necessarily change anything but I might do something more aligned to my personal tastes – musicians I love, a piece I have an affinity with – thinking about films I love with classical or orchestral music in. There are definitely things I would want to do but I don’t think I would change the theme of tonight’s event, I enjoyed it. The symphony was what I would expect from a night out at the Proms – quiet and then loud – but I loved it.

Would you go again?

Yeah, definitely. It’s not something I’ve ever gone and bought tickets for but I didn’t know you could do the standing option, and I’d do that again. You didn’t tell me what this night was about and I didn’t research it, but I was pleasantly surprised. If I was looking through a Proms calendar there is no reason why I would have chosen tonight, but it was probably a perfect example about what they are about. I would definitely go again, and probably go to a random Proms event – it would be as rewarding as someone you know. So after that I would wholeheartedly recommend going to watch the Proms!

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

Life, the Universe and Music – a conversation with Vasily Petrenko

vasily-petrenko
Photo (c) Mark McNulty

Richard Whitehouse talks to conductor Vasily Petrenko about the music of Enescu and Scriabin, his work with two orchestras who have flourished under his direction (the Oslo Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) and not confusing your Petrenkos!

Chatting with Vasily Petrenko is precisely that: an informal exchange of ideas and anecdotes with none of the potential divisions between interviewee and interviewer. Not that this in any way belies his commitment as a conductor, having brought the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to the 15th Enescu Festival in Bucharest (they first appeared here four years ago) for two of this event’s most ambitious concerts – the second of which featured the Romanian composer’s lavish and hugely demanding Third Symphony (given its London premiere only last February). Was this a work Petrenko had conducted previously?

“No, and I can’t wait to hear how it comes together this evening [for the record, it was an undoubted highlight of the festival]. Enescu still suffers from being thought of as a composer of folk-inspired music, but there’s far more to his thinking. The Third Symphony is an important stage in the evolution of the genre after Mahler, and only really makes its mark in a large venue such as the Grand Palace here in Bucharest. I doubt whether it could ever become a repertoire piece, yet much the same was said of Mahler’s symphonies up until the 1960s so you can never be sure.”

Hopefully Petrenko will soon bring his other orchestra to the Enescu Festival – the Oslo Philharmonic, of which he has been Chief Conductor since 2013. Having appeared at the Edinburgh Festival last month, and with a UK tour next March, theirs is building into an equally auspicious partnership – underlined by the imminent appearance of Scriabin’s First and Fourth Symphonies on the LAWO Classics label. Although no longer the cult figure he once was, Scriabin is still viewed with a degree of suspicion and his abilities as a symphonist treated with some scepticism.

lawo

“I think there are several reasons for this, not least his premature death in 1915 and the advent of the Bolshevik Revolution three years later which meant that Russian music took a very different route from that on which Scriabin was headed. Clearly the piano music – the sonatas in particular – has become part of the twentieth-century repertoire, and I feel that the five symphonies are due the same recognition. You have to remember, too, that Scriabin’s evolution came at a time of immense ferment across all the arts – not least music; indeed, I tend to feel that the history of music from the Renaissance onwards is one of an increasing acceleration, so the early twentieth century was a real explosion of possible ways forward. Only now, perhaps, can we view this era more objectively and get a balanced overview of what was achieved. When this happens, I’m sure that Scriabin’s symphonies will be seen as crucial to their time.”

Was it fortuitous that The Poem of Ecstasy was being designated on this new disc as Symphony no.4? “Not at all, and you can be sure that Prometheus – The Poem of Fire will be given as Symphony no.5 when we record it. Scriabin himself had no doubt these pieces followed on chronologically from his previous symphonies and it’s not difficult to hear why. I think what we might call ‘extra-musical’ factors have tended to draw attention away from their musical content – the formal rigour and especially the thematic economy of which the composer was capable by then.”

Petrenko’s commitment to the Scriabin cause is such that he is keen to perform and, if possible, record Preparation for the Final Mystery that the composer had envisaged prior to his death, and which was realized over the course of three decades by musicologist Alexander Nemtin. “I imagine that the precise nature of Scriabin’s Mysterium [a week-long synaesthetic ‘happening’ in the foothills of the Himalayas, intended to bring about the purification of the human race] can never be known, and maybe even the composer wasn’t too sure beyond the overall concept. Yet the ‘Preparation’ as Nemtin has realized it is more than an indulgence: I feel it stands up as a musical statement in its own right, and would be a great way to crown our work with Scriabin. I’ve little doubt, too, it would come across much more effectively in Oslo’s Konserthus than some remote performance space in the Himalayas!”

Mention of the Konserthus is a reminder that the orchestra finally looks set for a new concert hall – to be situated on the waterfront at Filipstad, with the Oslo Philharmonic as the principal tenant and the project to be financed in conjunction with the building of a congress hotel on the adjacent site. Petrenko remains optimistic, albeit cautiously so, concerning future developments.

“Thirty years on from the initial proposals, and this looks like becoming a reality. Of course, there will always be those who say such a project is taking up resources that could be better used elsewhere, but if you consider the positive impact this is likely to have in terms of infrastructure and employment, then there can be little doubt why it should get the go-ahead. I very much hope it will come about during my tenure with the orchestra.”

Indeed, there seems no reason why Petrenko’s four-year contract in Oslo should not be extended before long. In Liverpool, meanwhile, he has an open-ended contract which only requires him to give three years advance notice of when he wishes it to be concluded.

“This is ideal in that it enables us to plan ahead, with more than enough time in hand when either of us feels the need to move on. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together so far [not least cycles of Rachmaninov symphonies for Warner and Shostakovich symphonies for Naxos], and there’s no reason why it should end when we’re able to put on concerts such as those at this year’s Enescu Festival. That said, I was more than a little surprised when I received congratulatory emails and tweets about taking on the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 2018 [actually the conductor Kirill Petrenko]. It’s great to be popular, but some people had evidently confused their Petrenkos!”