On record: Anders Hillborg: Sirens, Cold Heat, Beast Sampler (BIS)

Hillborg: Beast Sampler (2014); O dessa ögon (2011); Cold Heat (2010); Sirens (2011)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (Beast Sampler)

Hannah Holgersson (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (O dessa ögon)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / David Zinman (Cold Heat)

Ida Falk Winland, Hannah Holgersson (sopranos); Eric Ericson Chamber Choir; Swedish Radio Choir; Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sirens);

Summary

BIS’s second disc devoted to the music of Anders Hillborg (b1954), currently the highest profile composer in Sweden, comprises two of his more recent orchestral works, together with Sirens, his most ambitious piece to date; directed by three leading interpreters.

What’s the music like?

The disc opens with Beast Sampler, a nine-minute evocation of the orchestra as a (to quote the composer) ‘‘sound animal’’ that draws on extended instrumental techniques as well as electronically influenced textures in music. It essentially translates Ligeti’s mid-1960s idiom (specifically Lontano) into a demonstratively post-modern context. Colourful and not uneventful, this is music dependent not on what is said but rather the effectiveness of how it is said. Judged solely as a curtain-raiser, moreover, this is entertaining enough – but no more.

The dichotomy between technique and substance is more acutely exposed in Cold Heat, a three-way commission between orchestras in Berlin, Helsinki and Zurich. Its cosmopolitan genesis is embodied in the range of its influences while culminating in that staple of present-day resolutions – the Sibelian apotheosis. The continued recourse to this evinces as limited an understanding of what the Finnish composer was doing comparable to those ‘advocates’ from the interwar era. Good for first impressions, though.

Of the two vocal items, O dessa ögon (Oh these eyes) is a brief setting of verse by Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf whose aura of distanced ecstasy is eloquently conveyed by soprano and strings. At just over four minutes, it is easily the most substantial composition on this disc.

Which duly puts into perspective the qualities of Sirens. Opulently realized for two sopranos, mixed choir and orchestra – and, at just over half-an-hour, Hillborg’s most ambitious work to date – it utilizes lines from Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey (albeit expanded by the composer) where Ulysses is being implored by the sirens to abandon his voyage and submit to their fatal entreaties.

Once again, the technical realization leaves little to chance – Hillborg summoning considerable elegance and finesse from his forces such as makes for undeniably pleasurable listening. Yet the sheer consistency of the mood being sustained engenders monotony well before the work is concluded, taking in an amorphous central climax before subsiding into a long postlude which seems little more than an extended fadeout as empty as it is enervating.

Does it all work?

On its own terms, undoubtedly. As mentioned, Hillborg is a consummate technician able to bring any number of stylistic traits into viable accord. Nor is there any doubting the overall excellence of response displayed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under its trio of renowned conductors, or the all-round depth and spaciousness of the sound. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the limitations of this music are evident: Hillborg is simply unable to offer much of substance to flesh out his dazzling surfaces or his enticing textures.

Is it recommended?

Yes, on the basis that Hillborg is undoubtedly a composer of the moment and this collection affords a representative overview of what his music is about. Admire it on a first and even second hearing, then ask yourself just how much more you need to listen to this in future.

Richard Whitehouse

Watch Kent Nagano conduct the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Beast Sampler below:

HILLBORG’S Beast Sampler – Kent Nagano from Göteborgs Symfoniker on Vimeo.

Have a listen on Spotify below, to see if you agree with Richard’s verdict!

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Tim Squier on Beethoven, Dutilleux and HK Gruber

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
gruber-buskingThis is the continuation of a 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, Tim Squier gives his thoughts on Prom 34.

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Claudia Buder (accordion), Mats Bergström, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Dutilleux Timbres, espaces, movement (1990)
Gruber Busking (2007)
Beethoven Symphony no.5 in C minor (1804-1808)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Tim, what was your musical upbringing?

It was my mum that brought me up, and in terms of music it’s not worth going there really! It was very middle of the road – Cliff Richard, some of The Beatles. I discovered most things myself pretty much, she would have the radio on sometimes – but when I first discovered my own music it was via an alarm clock, an FM radio that she gave me. It was all the pop of the time in 1984-1986 – Madonna, Prince, A-ha, your Now 1984. Certainly in my early years there was Band Aid – and I wasn’t particularly cool. There wasn’t anything of a classical background in there!

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

Harold Budd is a big one for me. I do love my ambient and he doesn’t seem to put a foot wrong really. He just seems to have a certain emotion and style where you can just get lost in it. It can be background but it can be foreground as well. I can work to it, and not be fully tuned in, or I can be sitting down and listening to it and it works just as well.

I’m going for artists who have been with me for a long time, and Fleetwood Mac are an act that I could never really get enough of. They’ve gone through different phases like the 1980s pop side but I can also do the Peter Green stuff, and the Stevie Nicks especially. I just keep discovering new things off the albums too, like Oh Daddy from Rumours recently. Stevie Nicks solo – just brilliant, too. Not every single track but she’s the sort of person you can see her rehearsal footage on YouTube and it’s amazing. I’m watching it thinking it’s better than the album version!

For the third one I’ll go for someone electronic – Carl Craig. Certainly between 1990 and 1996 where he couldn’t put a foot wrong. He could do an ambient track, a banging techno track, stuff that doesn’t all into a genre – something for the dancefloor, something for the home. Carl recorded a lot of that on cassette tape, it didn’t sound very good but still did the business!

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I think almost unintentionally my first experience of anything like classical music would have been through film scores. One of my best friends in London has been responsible for playing me some classical music but not so much for a long time now. I have been to one Prom before but it was a long time ago and I can’t remember the actual pieces – but I know I enjoyed it. I quite enjoy listening to it but I don’t know much about it. I’ve heard some Ravel before, and quite enjoyed that.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

The Royal Albert Hall is always a joy, it’s a great venue – and the acoustics are really good for classical rather than pop I think. I really rated the first piece (the Dutilleux) and enjoyed that the most I think.

What did you think of the Dutilleux?

It was thoroughly enjoyable, I’m a real sucker for that deep sound from the lower strings – there is a certain orchestral sound I really love, the lower frequency, and you get a lot of that in film scores. There was a lot of that coming through and it flowed really well. I wasn’t bored at all, I really loved it.

What did you think of the HK Gruber?

It started out interesting, and the introduction was good, but the trumpet was too much of a focal point and I found myself drifting out. I was trying to listen to the background more but because of the positioning I was trying to hear what was going on my right hand side, but every time I tried I could hear the trumpet. There was a variety of devices going on (the mutes and three different trumpets – Ed) I’ll always give things a chance, and I tried but it didn’t work out!

And the Beethoven?

That was really enjoyable, a nice take on it – it’s been a while since I heard the entire piece and I think it really worked. There were some quirky moments, it was great watching the whole orchestra. There was one really young player who really stood out (oboist Henry Clay), he was really good. Another thing going back to the first piece, the Dutilleux – the percussion was great. With the Beethoven I loved the whole thing and there was a really nice stereo effect coming through, the clarity was there more and I could pick up on certain things, especially being a bit of an audiophile.

There are bits you forget as well – you don’t get them played on Capital Radio four times a day after all! It was good to hear those. So I think the Dutilleux first, then the Beethoven, then the Gruber.

Would you go again?

Absolutely, for sure. I’m quite open to new musical experiences and will try most things but would do this again!

Verdict: SUCCESS

You can read Arcana’s review of the whole Prom here – and you can listen to it on the BBC iPlayer

BBC Proms 2016 – BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Beethoven’s Fifth, Dutilleux & HK Gruber

gruber-busking

Soloists Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Claudia Buder (accordion) and Mats Bergström (banjo) pictured during the performance of HK Gruber‘s Busking, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 34; Royal Albert Hall, 10 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

Sakari Oramo continues to inspire. His tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to date has been characterised by imaginative programming and excellent performances, and putting an obvious spring in the orchestra’s musical steps.

Last year they delivered a Prom capped by Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, an account that fizzed with enthusiasm and vigour, and these same qualities were on show for the Fifth Symphony here. Oramo’s speeds were on the aggressive side, the slow movement arguably losing a bit of expressive heart because of it, but the faster movements unquestionably thrilling in their verve and forward drive.

Because of this approach, music that could have been over familiar received a new, sparkling coat of paint, and excellent woodwind contributions, particularly from new oboist Henry Clay, elevated the standard of playing. Guest leader Malin Broman set the tone with great vigour.

The first half gave us two contemporary pieces of very different impact. Timbres, espaces, movement became a three-movement orchestral piece when Henri Dutilleux revised it in 1990, and in this performance we could revel in its beautifully shaded colours, its sudden, strident unisons, and its captivating rhythms – all reflecting the painting on which it is based, Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

1280px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

These were expertly delivered by the BBC Symphony percussion, while in the second movement the glorious spectacle of twelve cellos highlighted the genius in the composer’s part writing as well as the deep lyricism of his melodies. This was the third Dutilleux performance of the week, capping a very strong trio begun with The Shadows of Time and the Cello Concerto Tout un monde lointain…

Less obviously successful was the substantial piece by HK Gruber, Busking – a work from 2007 receiving its UK premiere. Again the composer’s inspiration was a painting, in this case Picasso’s Three Musicians:

Picasso_three_musicians_moma_2006

Despite an excellent performance, in which trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger turned various shades of red and purple, all the while staying fully in command of his instruments, this was a piece that unfortunately ran out of steam quite early on.

A very promising beginning, with swaying syncopation brought on by the trumpeter with just his mouthpiece, ultimately lost its rhythmic impetus. Unfortunately the balance between the three soloists also became skewed heavily in favour of the trumpet, at the expense of brilliantly played detail from accordion (Claudia Buder) and banjo (Mats Bergström).

A doleful slow movement briefly evoked a melancholy cabaret, and did so very effectively, but here again the tones of the trumpet dominated, despite Hardenberger’s use of the mellow flugelhorn. This was not the fault of the players – and could also reflect Arcana’s position in the arena – but it was a shame to miss out on the touches of humour elsewhere. By the third movement, where some energy returned, the piece had by that time run out of substance.

That should not count against the overall success of this Prom, however, as the excellent performances of the BBC Symphony Orchestra reaped their just rewards.

Ben Hogwood

You can hear other Dutilleux performances at the BBC Proms by following the links below:

The Shadows of Time with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen

Tout un monde lointain… with Johannes Moser (cello) and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena

The 2016 BBC Proms are go! Here’s what happened in Prom 1…

proms-2016

The national flag of Argentina waves in response to Sol Gabetta‘s account of the Elgar Cello Concerto

(c) Ben Hogwood

The BBC Proms are go!

The 2016 season is underway, and in a packed Royal Albert Hall this evening we were treated to the first of 75 Proms. As is traditional Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave us a flavour of the season, but also a substantial second half in the form of Prokofiev‘s cantata and film score, Alexander Nevsky.

To begin, a sad reflection of the world’s troubles could be keenly felt in La Marseillaise, the Proms showing solidarity with France after the horrors in Nice. After such an event music can feel inconsequential but it can also bring people together and provide some sort of comfort – and in the big, swooning tunes of Tchaikovsky‘s Romeo and Juliet Oramo provided just that. The woodwind chorale on the approach to the end was particularly moving.

Sol Gabetta then stamped her own personality on Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, taking a few liberties with the tempo – but none of these were for personal gain, rather reflecting her own interpretation of the music. The pauses at the end of some of Elgar’s phrases were unexpected but profound, while the silvery accompaniment of the BBC SO spoke of Autumn rather than our supposed high summer. Gabetta’s encore, Dolcissimo by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, found her singing as well as playing cello, reducing the Royal Albert Hall to reverent silence.

Things got even colder for Prokofiev‘s film score Alexander Nevsky, though there were thrilling moments when the massed choir of the BBC National Chorus of Wales – just over 200 in all – let rip. The basses reached their lowest notes with commendable accuracy, while the Battle On The Ice, where Nevsky faces his German and Estonian foes, was thrilling and immediate.

Yet the show was stolen by Olga Borodina, the Russian mezzo-soprano ghosting onto the stage for a keenly felt account of The Field of the Dead near the end. Her emotion was first hand, and Oramo’s sensitive hand on the tiller encouraged a similarly heartfelt response from the orchestra.

It was a concert that bodes well for the season – and this year Arcana is planning two different approaches to its coverage of the BBC Proms. There will be a few straight ‘reviewed’ concerts, but the focus of our coverage will be on taking people to the Proms who have not been before. To that end our reviews of Proms will not be by experts, rather by first-time punters chosen from a pool of friends and contacts. Further to that, all reviews will be from the Arena, which is the ultimate Proms experience – and which to my knowledge is the best place for sound quality, let alone atmosphere.

No other source reviews from here as far as I am aware…so stick with Arcana in the weeks ahead, particularly through August. I can assure you we will be bringing classical music to new audiences on a weekly basis!

Ben Hogwood

Proms guide – First Night: A tale of two Belshazzars

belshazzars-feast-rembrandt

Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt

Prom 1 – Christopher Maltman, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b062nrdk/bbc-proms-2015-season-first-night-of-the-proms

Sibelius’ suite begins at 57:45; Walton’s interpretation at 1:18:36.

The Biblical tale of Belshazzar’s Feast, where the downfall of Babylon is predicted by a human hand writing on the wall during a lavish party, inspired three very different responses. The first, from Handel in 1744, took the form of a large scale sacred piece, but the second half of this Prom threw together two very different responses by twentieth century composers.

Sibelius wrote a score of ten scenes, condensing it into a suite of four for concert performance. It finds the composer in typically economic form, though it is a surprise to note the exotic Oriental Procession, colourfully rendered by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Finnish conductor is an expert in this music, and found the emotional depths of the stark Solitude and the emotive Nocturne, where flautist Michael Cox spun a delectable web of notes. The finale, Khadra’s Dance, signed off in typical style.

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The massive forces assembled for Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Walton, on the other hand, throws everything at his 35-minute tale, including the whole story in a choral dramatisation that at times threatened to take the roof off the Royal Albert Hall. With 256 singers (give or take one or two on the naked eye count from the Arena!) this was a massive scale on which to play out the story, and Christopher Maltman did a sterling job in the baritone solo role.

The chorus were the stars, though, and the combined forces of the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales were absolutely superb; hair-raising, even. Their shout of “SLAIN!” when Belshazzar finally perished was terrifying. No less chilling was the macabre percussion used when the hand appears.

Yet the epic climax of the piece, with Babylon’s redemption trumping the empty jubilation of the feast, was the crowning glory. Brilliantly marshalled by Oramo and superbly sung by the assembled BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, this was a piece to fire the starting gun on the 2015 Proms with maximum power. Here’s to the next 75!

Further listening

If this is your first encounter with the music of Walton, a strong recommendation goes to the composer’s Symphony no.1, his finest orchestral composition:

Sibelius‘ incidental music is curiously elusive – so here is some more in the form of his score for the play Pelléas et Mélisande. You will doubtless recognise the first movement, At the Castle Gate, as the music used for the BBC’s The Sky at Night:

If your curiousity is aroused for the third of the Belshazzar interpretations, this Spotify link gives you Handel‘s oratorio in its entirety:

This BBC Prom also included Nielsen’s ebullient overture to Maskarade and Mozart’s masterly Piano Concerto no.20, with soloist Lars Vogt. They are also on the iPlayer link above