Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Brenden Gunnell (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth
Elgar The Dream of Gerontius Op.38 (1899-1900)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham Thursday 2 March 2023
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
It may have had a disastrous premiere here in October 1900, but Birmingham has more than made amends to The Dream of Gerontius through many subsequent performances by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with conductors ranging from Vernon Handley to John Eliot Gardiner, two recordings from its previous chief conductors (Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo), and tonight a reading which more than confirmed that this ground-breaking piece remains a touchstone of the choral repertoire almost 125 years on from that initial failure.
Although the innate Catholicism of John Henry Newman’s text no longer presents obstacles, the work’s technical demands remain considerable. Not least the characterizing of Gerontius himself, in which Brenden Gunnell acquitted himself with conviction – whether his wearied pallor then combative reckoning with Sancta fortis in Part One, or his wonderous musings then anguished acceptance of his purgatorial fate with Take me away in the longer second part. This role was consequently more believable and more empathetic because more human.
Not a little of that impression was abetted by Alice Coote’s contribution as the Angel. Less imperious than many predecessors (or contemporaries), the extent of her involvement only deepened as Part Two unfolded – the restraint, even reticence, of My work is done taking on heightened eloquence during There was a Mortal, before the Softly and gently of her farewell brought with it a transfiguring radiance as carried through to the close. This was a thoughtful and, increasingly, affecting approach to some of this work’s musical highpoints.
Nor should the contribution of Ashley Riches be underestimated, even though this is limited to two, albeit crucial, appearances in either part. Arresting and suitably proclamatory at the Priest in Proficisere, anima Christiana, he brought unfailing gravity and powerfully wrought rhetoric to Angel of the Agony – the substance of whose musical presentation can be heard in Elgar’s music across the decades to come, whatever the extent to which the composer moved away from accepting those tenets of Catholic orthodoxy that are set out in Newman’s poem.
One of several works to which it has returned regularly over its half-century of existence, the CBSO Chorus brought its wealth of experience to a piece whose difficulties of ensemble and intonation cannot be gainsaid. From the halting appearances of the Assistants, through to the intricate polyphony of the Demons then cumulative grandeur of the Choir of Angelicals and distanced poise of the Souls in Purgatory, the authority of its contribution – prepared on this occasion by Julian Wilkins – added in no small measure to the impact of the performance.
As, of course, did that of the CBSO. Any regret over Andrew Davis’s indisposition was duly tempered by Ryan Wigglesworth’s tangible immersion and belief in this score – to which he brought a composer’s concern for clarity and cohesion, with a sense of pacing and a placing of its emotional climaxes which made appreciate anew the ambition and audacity of Elgar’s overall conception. Birmingham will doubtless hear many more performances of Gerontius over ensuing decades, with this one a marker as to what the work can and should represent.
Knussen Chamber Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (above)
Knussen …upon one note – Fantasia after Purcell (1995) (from 2:15 on the broadcast link below) Birtwistle Fantasia upon all the notes (2011) (9:29) Freya Waley-Cohen Naiad (2019, world premiere) (20:14) Knussen Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ (1972, rev, 2018) (30:54) Abrahamsen Herbstlied (1992, rev. 2009) (38:58) Alastair Putt Halazuni (2012) (47:36) Knussen Songs without Voices (1991-2) (tbc)
The BBC Proms’ 800-year odyssey of music over eight weeks at the Cadogan Hall reached the present day in the company of the UK’s newest orchestra.
The Knussen Chamber Orchestra took its bow at the Aldeburgh Festival this year. Created specifically in memory and celebration of Oliver Knussen (above), it is an ensemble for commission and festival appearances, unrestricted in the repertoire it will perform – in that way very much reflecting the approach of its dedicatee. Comprising orchestral principals and budding young talent, it also reflects Knussen’s ability to communicate with musicians regardless of their standing.
Knussen is still greatly missed, a towering figure in British music in the latter part of the 20th century and the 21st until now. Tales have emerged not just of his mentoring of young composers and influence on the established writers, but of a sparkling personality and wit, a dinner companion par excellence. As a conductor he made several richly inventive programmes for the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Ensemble, and as a composer his small but perfectly formed catalogue is required listening for any budding contemporary composer of today. Like the composers he adored, particularly Stravinsky and Webern, his is a musical language that speaks directly through an economy of means.
That much was immediately evident in the three and a half minutes of …upon one note – Fantasia after Purcell, which used the colours of clarinet, violin, cello and piano to lasting effect. Knussen moved the omnipresent middle ‘C’ – the ‘one note’ – around the parts effortlessly, enjoying the harmonic diversions possible around it and alternating solemnity with mischief. The piece proved both a homage to Purcell and a brief spark of invention, and was ideally weighted by the soloists.
Birtwistle’s Fantasia upon all the notes has potential for mischief in its title but is in effect a typically serious piece. Written for an ensemble of seven players this was led with authority by harpist Céline Saout, who effectively drove the piece through its initial jagged outlines. The colours available to Birtwistle were exploited through music of stern countenance, its few tender asides to be cherished as the exception rather than the rule. Only at the end, with little points of pitch from solo instruments, did the mood lighten.
In a charming conversation with BBC Radio 3 host Petroc Trelawny, Freya Waley-Cohen revealed Knussen’s qualities as a tutor and a ‘wonderful person’. Naiad (20:14 on the broadcast) was a fitting tribute, fulfilling Cohen’s description of reflections from the scales of fish and dew on a spider’s web with music that cast a rarefied light, such as the sun does this time of year. The attractive melodic cells rippled with a slight chill, piercing moments of clarity from the woodwind contrasted by fuzzier asides from the strings. Although Cohen’s description of a slow piece and a fast piece rubbing up together was more difficult to follow, that did not mar in the slightest an enjoyable and meaningful piece, whose last few bars had a lilting four-note melody that hung on the air, leaving an enchanted atmosphere in its wake.
Bassoonist Jonathan Davies then stepped forward for Knussen’s highly virtuosic Study for Metamorphosis (30:54), based on Kafka. There were some extraordinary sounds here, the composer exploiting the cartoon-like persona the bassoon can elicit but also reminding us of the instrument’s versatility, its ability to paint pictures both happy and sad. Davies was superb and clearly enjoyed the experience.
Hans Abrahamsen’s Herbstlied followed (from 38:58), an extended arrangement and combination of a Danish song and two J.S. Bach subjects from The Art of Fugue. This instrumental version was unexpectedly moving, its picture painting of leaves ‘falling as from far…’ most apt for the time of year and given a vivid account by the five players. The cor anglais of Tom Blomfield added a unique sourness to the tone, and the downward motion of the melodies indicated sorrow, but there was still a sweeter melancholy here that stayed with the listener long afterwards.
We moved into Alastair Putt’s wind quintet Halazuni (47:36) without a break. This was a less affecting piece, more calculated in its depiction of a spiral (its title is the Persian word for spiral) The colours of the instruments – flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon – were frequently attractive, and while the music did on occasion feel predetermined, there was a clear end goal.
The best was saved until last in the form of Knussen’s Songs Without Voices (not yet linked to the broadcast on BBC Sounds). A group of four pieces for an ensemble of eight players, the Songs use vivid colour combinations which bring the composer’s imagery to life. The melodies, though short, are incredibly meaningful.
The first three Songs are wordless settings of texts by Walt Whitman, starting with Winter’s Foil, which was alive with bird calls and blustery winds. As elsewhere Wigglesworth secured playing of great poise and personality, led with characteristic authority by violinist Clio Gould. Prairie Sunset showed off the colours of the ensemble both separately and in combination, before the delicate outlines of First Dandelion were revealed. ‘simple and fresh and fair’.
Finally we heard Elegiac Arabesques, Knussen’s tribute to Polish-English composer Andrezj Panufnik. This wove an incredibly poignant thread, suitable in its own way as a memorial to the composer-conductor commemorated with such grace and feeling here.
The music in this concert can be heard on Spotify below:
A playlist featuring works both composed and conducted by Oliver Knussen can be heard below. It includes …upon one note from this concert, though not the Songs Without Voices – which are in fact available on the Erato label:
Composer Thomas Larcher (above) talks with Arcana editor Ben Hogwood about his music, and what we can expect from his upcoming residency at the Aldeburgh International Festival
The 72nd Aldeburgh Festival begins this weekend, and there are three artists-in-residence: tenor Mark Padmore, soprano / conductor Barbara Hannigan and the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher.
Larcher’s music has received good coverage in the last decade in particular, with a number of recordings released on the ECM label, but this portrait of his output will make an even wider appraisal possible. With music ranging from solo piano right through to large orchestra, there will also be a chance to catch the second performance – and UK premiere – of his first opera, The Hunting Gun.
We start by talking of Larcher’s memories of the festival – or not, as the case may be! “Let me say I haven’t had any experiences so far!” he says cheerily. “I visited Aldeburgh a year ago at the planning stage for what’s happening now, but I’ve never played a concert there and I don’t think a piece by me has ever been played there. This year’s program all comes through my friendship with Roger Wright, who once commissioned a piece from me for the Proms (the Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, performed by Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley). Since then we’ve been in touch, and he has always been very pleasant and friendly. I had the feeling that he is a person who speaks on one level, face to face with a composer, and not from the top down like a big promoter. I felt very much at home at the Proms because of that.”
There is a palpable excitement around the UK premiere of The Hunting Gun, which received very positive reviews from its premiere at the Bregenz Festival in Larcher’s home country Austria. He confirms the approach will be similar. “It will be the same staging as it was in Bregenz, and I know they have been working on the details. I think the main difference will be space. The hall is wonderful with a really good sound, whereas in Bregenz we were in a huge box, more or less. Everyone there said you will need amplification, as there was a lot of noise around from lights and fans. There was the possibility of amplification but we will see how it works out with the full orchestra. For example we didn’t have a pit in Bregenz, so we were all on the same level, but now the orchestra is down in the pit, which should make things feel more free. I hope it will be more intimate in the level of sound.”
Did working on a much larger composition bring out new properties in Larcher’s own writing? He considers the question. “On paper it is not such a big score. There are 19 or something players and a little choir, and the soloists. There are two elements I can mention, however. The first one is coming from the text (the opera is based on a Japanese novella from 1945). I find this little book by Yasushi Inoue (below) highly fascinating. I couldn’t start before I was really sure about how the text would evolve, how we could compress this quite complex novel into quite small pages of text, because I feel that operas – the texts are too long. My girlfriend Friederike Gösweiner, who is the librettist, has found a way to really keep the soul of this novel alive but still reduce it and condense it to something very precise and with very few words. I loved it. So already I could say some of the music had formed before I started.”
And the second element? “Something I had never done before was the integration of the chorus. The chorus is a hybrid thing, staging it as seated with the orchestra. It is a connection between the orchestra and the soloists, it is an amplifier of the soloists and they symbolise the echo room of the persons on stage, the psychological echo room. They have various functions which you can define or not define, but this whole mixture of the ensemble and the chorus proved to be highly interesting for me.”
A sizeable problem facing today’s composers is the difficulty in getting not just first but second performances of their works. To that end it must be very satisfying for Larcher having a sequel on which to rely relatively quickly after the first, and on such a major stage as Aldeburgh? “Yes, it’s really great. I can’t be thankful enough for having as an artist in residence. It’s a great festival and I think Roger has also with other people chosen an excellent solution for the music with Ryan Wigglesworth conducting. It’s all first rate and I’m very curious to hear it. The other day I heard it will also be on stage at Amsterdam as part of the Holland festival. Pierre Audi has invited me to be part of that.”
As a listener it can also be hard to get a second hearing for a new piece that you really want to hear again, so it is satisfying from that point of view also. “I think or I hope that I’m already contributing to changing the situation”, he says, “as I am getting slower and slower at writing! I will leave less pieces so that hopefully they will have half a chance to be played more often! I can’t speak for others but I think the amount of pieces being thrown out is enormous. Of course it is a frustration for composers when their pieces are not played again, and as we know a piece needs some time to grow, to develop and even to be corrected, the mistakes that everyone always makes. These chances don’t come too often. I cannot speak about this because I don’t have this experience, but that is such a lucky situation which is quite unique. I am very thankful to all my players, conductors and orchestras that program existing pieces. It is wonderful for me but should be that way for a lot more composers.”
This year’s Festival will offer a chance for listeners to take in another new Larcher work, the Movement for solo piano which will be played by Paul Lewis. “The Movement was the first piece I could really tackle after having written the opera,” he explains. “In a way I felt as though I was coming out of this huge tunnel, and the Movement was quite a liberation from that. I always have problems writing for piano because I used to be a concert pianist, and would play everything from J.S. Bach to Olga Neuwirth, and I played with so many conductors from Claudio Abbado to Frans Welser-Möst and Paavo Jarvi. Each time I wanted to write something for piano I thought why do I know this – oh no, it’s from Messiaen or Schoenberg, and I was revisiting music I had already played! I prepared the piano so that it became a new instrument for me, and it was more coverable than the well known natural sound. Here again I got myself into a state of going into a new piece and just writing for a ‘normal’ piano was so liberating, a very good experience for me.”
On the festival’s third day Paul Lewis will join Larcher and Mark Padmore for a concert including the Padmore Cycle, a collection of eleven pieces written for the tenor. Their partnership clearly holds a special place for Larcher. “That piece was very important for me and meaningful too. We really embraced the text, and it’s more about going for the text over the quality of the voice, it’s very important. The music meets something in me, but if the text is not right then it does not work. For me, writing for the voice is strongly connected with writing for Mark. For the Padmore Cycle, two friends who wrote the texts for it (Hans Aschenwald and Alois Hotschnig). I deliberately chose texts from these two writers close to me, and so I practically formed my own cycle. By choosing different things you show yourself by what you prefer and what you don’t want to be shown. The unifying force behind all that was Mark, and so it was excellent to write the piece with him. There are three versions of this piece already – the original one that will be heard at the festival, with piano – then there is another one with voice and piano trio and a third with voice and big orchestra.”
Larcher has often spoken of the importance of tonal music, though he shies away from what could be seen as more obvious clichés within his writing. Is that an approach he maintains? “Yes, although it has widened in a sense. If you go through film music it’s always so that the feel is tonal, major or minor, but the horror films have passages that are atonal, with the birds flying – passages that make you think of Hitchcock! In a way that is a shame, but it’s also a cliché with a reason. I think you have to be aware of that, and that you don’t fall into the trap of always over-using those clichés – for example in films they will think of using Arvo Pärt for a solemn scene and Ligeti for a horror trip. I have tried to explore something like multi-tonality and have different threads of tonal music interweaving, or even going on the other hand going to tonal regions when it’s a dramatic scene. I like to juxtapose different tonalities or patterns of chords to make those boundaries more flexible or accessible, and not stand still in those clichés. I think there are so many possibilities still, even though there are only 12 tones, to create new and interesting tonal material. I think we have not reached the end of the road, and I cannot tell how far I will go there but it’s definitely for me! I can’t say I don’t care about tonality or not tonality, but I try to find a way for having complexity in accessible audible forms.
Larcher will be at the Aldeburgh Festival for its duration, taking in the performances of his music all the way through to the Cello Concerto (Ouroboros) on Sunday 23 June with Alisa Weilerstein and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. “By then I will be an Aldeburgh citizen, a resident of Snape!” he jokes.
Yet it seems The Hunting Gun will fit in very well with the festival, for its scale and plot alone. “Absolutely, with the beach as well! Maybe one day it should be staged in front of the atomic power station, which nobody mentions when speaking about Aldeburgh?! I learned about it when I saw pictures by David Lynch of this power plant, so maybe his interest says there should be something done there at that point.”
Sizewell B (n.b. this picture is not by David Lynch!)
Talk turns to music and culture outside of what we might call ‘classical’ music. “I mentioned David Lynch because there are some very powerful photographs of his with power plants on them, they are very dark – and I was amazed how much of the atmosphere he can display in his films, and how it could be transported into a single black and white picture. This I found quite strong. Regarding art, of course I do have a lot of friends. I grew up in Vienna where I studied more at the Art Academy than the Music Academy in my spare time, because it was far more vibrant, far more interesting, and there were nicer girls! I spent a lot of time there and it had some substantial influences. I painted a lot as a child. Even now I am a passionate photographer whenever I can be. Today everyone is a photographer of course but for me taking photos and scribbling things down shows me how I work as a musician also, with methods and writing. How you construct these things has different layers, and I see clearer with a photograph than when I sit in front of my music sheets.
Regarding the music I experienced from 15 there was a jazz club in the town where everyone played, from Pat Metheny to Chick Corea, and from Art Ensemble of Chicago (above) to Dino Saluzzi – all of the jazz greats. This was so liberating for me at the time, it was a way out of this really boring classical scene as I had experienced it in the region. There were a lot of frustrated musicians who were speaking of a big musical world outside of this region, but it didn’t happen here! Sitting frustrated in a teaching job, I couldn’t imagine there would be something like that living in music. When someone like the Art Ensemble comes to your town and delivers their show or Art Pepper and all of those players it was the greatest thing that could happen. A new world opened up to me and showed me this was life and not a prison!
Exposure to these arts surely helps when writing an opera? “Yes, although I obviously trust in the different crafts, so I wouldn’t be a multi-disciplined artist because I am simply not able to, and I am interested in what other people bring into the process. I really like to learn from other disciplines, and be open for what comes into your cosmos as well.”
As artist-in-residence at this year’s Aldeburgh International Festival, Thomas Larcher can look forward to a number of performances of his work, with the UK premiere of The Hunting Gun, the world premiere of Movement, A Padmore Cycle performed with its dedicatee and performances of string quartets and orchestral works. For full details visit the Aldeburgh Festival website. For more information on Thomas Larcher, you can visit his website
The playlist below gives an introduction to his music through available recordings:
Joanne Lunn (soprano, above), Hallé Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor and piano)
Mozart Ch’io mi scordi di te, K505 (1786) Mozart Symphony no.34 in C major, K338 (1780) Mahler Symphony no.4 in G major (1892, 1899-1900, rev. 1901-10)
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; Wednesday 8 November 2017
From 24 November you will be able to listen to a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of this programme – link to follow
Written by Ben Hogwood
This was a nicely programmed afternoon concert, an attractive set of pieces with a Viennese connection that could initially be seen as lightweight but which were anything but.
First up was an inventive choice, Mozart’s standalone concert aria Ch’io Mi Scordi De Te?, a tribute to the soprano Nancy Storace. Written for soprano with piano and reduced orchestral forces, the composer used a text attributed to Lorenzo Da Ponte, who wrote the libretto for Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte. Joanne Lunn sang with great purity of tone, with her high notes particularly well-judged, while Ryan Wigglesworth (below) directed with sensitivity from the piano in the tender duet sections, where the orchestra felt like eavesdroppers.
This was followed by an extremely tasteful reading of Mozart’s Symphony no.34. This is a work that doesn’t get to poke its head above the parapet as much as its neighbouring ‘named’ symphonies in the composer’s output such as the Haffner and Linz. Wigglesworth chose his speeds well, so that the lovely Viennese textures were just the right density for Mozart’s lighter (but not lightweight) melodies. The energetic Hallé strings went well with the more graceful woodwind, particularly in the joyful finale, while the serene slow movement was also a highlight.
Mahler’s Symphony no.4 is, on face value, his most ‘classical’, following traditions established by Schubert and the like, innovatively adding a soprano for the final movement, a child’s vision of heaven. Wigglesworth’s interpretation was carefully thought out and extremely well played, the woodwind of the Hallé rising to the considerable challenges posed by this deceptively difficult symphony.
On the surface, the Fourth is grace and charm personified, but the cracks often show in the music, the lower you go in the orchestra. The first movement was crisp and clear, a bright outdoors scene beautifully painted, but a chill shadow was cast in the second movement thanks to leader Paul Barritt’s solo contribution on a specially tuned violin, not to mention those ominous rumblings in the bass. The slow movement had a beautiful serenity but the feeling of slight unease persisted, quelled briefly by a magnificent evocation of the gates of heaven, Wigglesworth securing rich, bright colours from the orchestra.
Lunn returned to the stage for the child’s vision of heaven, a radiant encounter but with the macabre orchestral elements present and correct. Wigglesworth consistently found the delicacy of Mahler’s scoring, as well as the ghoulish apparitions that are never far from the surface of this enchanting piece.
While this concert is not yet available online, you can listen to a Spotify playlist of the works performed below:
Barnabás Kelemen (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (above)
Barbican Hall, London / Wednesday 2 March
This typically well-planned BBC Symphony Orchestra concert had a surprise or two in store. Bookending the quartet of works on display were two pieces by Stravinsky – the Agon ballet from 1957 and the Symphony of Psalms.
They provided a good illustration of how Stravinsky changed styles as a composer, and how in spite of that he retained a fascination with older polyphonic styles. Some of the sound worlds in Agon, a set of twelve tableaux for twelve dancers, frequently alighted on melodic figures or chords that felt ‘old’, holding dissonances and deliberately leaving chords unresolved.
Agon is viewed as the work where Stravinsky starts to take his leave from a more obviously tonal approach to composition. In this performance it was lean yet colourful, with excellent solos from leader Stephanie Gonley, mandolin player Nigel Woodhouse, harpist Sioned Williams and Christian Geldsetzer and Richard Alsop, the two BBC SO lead double bass players, who nailed their otherworldly harmonics on each appearance.
The Symphony of Psalms was more obviously outgoing but saved its greatest emotional impact for the quieter music, the closing pages of ‘Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum’ (‘Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord’) from the BBC Symphony Chorus given out with softly oscillating orchestral figures.
Stravinsky uses the lower end of the orchestra in this piece, with no violins or violas, adding extra percussive punch from two pianos – all aspects that Wigglesworth brought forward in a taut performance. Great credit should however go to chorus master Hilary Campbell, who was unfortunately not mentioned in the concert programme. She is clearly popular with the singers, and helped secure that extra degree of accuracy and emotional involvement. One of Stravinsky’s most cinematic scores, it was in this performance a powerful statement of affirmation.
Wigglesworth positioned his own Violin Concerto modestly after the interval – I say modestly as in its five years of existence the piece has already ramped up an impressive number of performances. On this evidence its status is well-deserved, for it is a tightly structured unit of no little tension, the soloist searching for his ultimate melody while the reduced, ‘classical’ orchestra try and find their ultimate tonality.
Soloist Barnabás Kelemen (above) was a macho presence, with a little too much testosterone at times when the violin was surging forward, but he balanced that with some incredibly sensitive playing at the quietest moments of the piece, where the audience strained on his every note. Both melody and tonality were resolved in moments that confirmed Wigglesworth as a composer of impressive style and instinct.
The one dud in the program was Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from the opera Peter Grimes, seen through the visual projections of Tal Rosner. This was a commission from four American orchestras in Britten’s centenary year 2013, with each interlude was set to the images of the city from which the commission came. For its UK premiere Rosner added a portrait of London to go with the other orchestral excerpt from the opera, the Passacaglia. This was centrally placed, keeping the order in which the scenes appear in the opera.
Although well played by the orchestra, the idea sadly fell flat on several levels. Although Britten spent time in America – and indeed began Peter Grimes there – the work’s roots are so entrenched in Suffolk that to suggest anything other than the Aldeburgh coastline through the music feels completely wrong. Rosner’s constructions were skilled, and had a few fine moments where close-up images of the Golden Gate Bridge rotated in technicolour.
Sunday Morning, with its bright building blocks of orchestral colour, was revealed to be a minimalist precursor of the music of John Adams through the clever constructions of its visuals. However despite Britten’s more universal appeal as a composer these days, Peter Grimes surely belongs wholeheartedly in Suffolk – and any suggestion to the contrary, however well intended, feels wrong.