In concert – April Fredrick, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – The Journey Home: Haydn, David Matthews, Barber & Mozart

Haydn Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor, Hob.I:45 ‘Farewell’ (1772)
David Matthews Le Lac Op.146 (2018)
Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915 Op.24 (1947)
Mozart Symphony no.36 in C major K425 ‘Linz’

April Fredrick (soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Great Malvern Priory, Malvern
Wednesday 23 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s season really hit its stride this evening with a programme featuring two major vocal works of the 20th and 21st centuries, heard alongside two notable while very different symphonies from near the start and towards the end of the Classical era.

As Kenneth Woods indicated, Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony would have been determinedly avant-garde to early listeners, and much of that innovative quality came over here. Not least in the initial Allegro, its jagged course and disjunctive tonal shifts only nominally countered by the Adagio’s increasingly fraught introspection. With its stark alternations in motion and phrasing, the Menuetto proved a telling foil to a finale where a turbulent Presto precedes an Adagio whose eloquence was sustained as the music subsides and musicians vacate the stage.

Whether or not this symphony would have been better placed at the end of this concert, it set up productive contrast with David Matthews’s Le Lac. Remembered more as statesman than poet, Alphonse de Lamartine was a crucial figure in French literature of the early Romantic period – his lengthy 1820 poem a remembrance of lost love comparable to verse by Shelley and Heine, and one whose slowly intensifying rapture is to the fore in this evocative scena. Two orchestral interludes aside, its formal and emotional progress is essentially determined by the vocal line; with which April Fredrick was at one in conveying the wistfulness but also anguish inherent of this music. The fastidious textures were no less finely delineated by the ESO, Woods sustaining a cohesive overall trajectory from earlier promise to ultimate loss.

Evidently it was Fredrick who had suggested juxtaposing this piece with Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which pairing succeeded admirably in terms of underlining conceptual and expressive links between them. Its sense of loss may be psychological rather than personal, but an emotional force comes over tangibly for all this music’s overt restraint: James Agee’s poetic reportage summoning a response the more affecting for its restraint and in whose vocal part Fredrick was never less than attuned. Woods brought no mean sensitivity or character to orchestral writing such as eschews the rhetoric found in many of Barber’s earlier scores and so foreshadows the subtlety of those two decades hence. This is a work with few significant precursors or successors, and the present reading made the most of its singular atmosphere.

The evening concluded with the relative extroversion of Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony – a piece whose having been written in four days doubtless occasioned its technical brilliance, yet also a formulaic quality to its actual substance. Not, however, in an Andante whose gentle pathos was to the fore, or a Menuetto whose brevity belies its resourceful use of woodwind. Woods found a winning effervescence in the initial Allegro, and if the second-half repeat in the final Presto may be one such too far, this music’s Haydnesque wit was never less than appealing.

It set the seal on a well-conceived and finely executed concert that, in pivoting between the established and unfamiliar (not only between but also within works) typifies thr resourceful approach to programming with which Woods and the ESO have now become synonymous.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about April Fredrick, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on composer David Matthews, click here

On record – Peter Dickinson: Lockdown Blues (Somm Recordings)

lockdown-blues

Barber (arr. Dickinson) Canzonetta Op. 48 (1977-8)*
Berkeley
Andante Op.23/6 (1945)
Cage
In a Landscape (1948)
Dickinson
Blue Rose (1978); Freda’s Blues (2016); Lockdown Blues (2020)
Ellington (arr. Dickinson)
Twelve Melodies (1932-43)*
Gershwin
Three-Quarter Blues (c1925); Who Cares? (1931)
Goossens
Lament for a Departed Doll Op.18/10 (1917)
Lambert
Elegiac Blues (1927)
MacDowell
To a Wild Rose Op.51/1 (1896)
Poulenc
Pastourelle IFP69 (1927); Bal fantôme IFP64/4 (c1934)
Satie
Trois Gymnopédies IES26 (1888); Trois Gnossiennes IES24 Nos.1-3 (1889-90)

Peter Dickinson (piano)

SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0644 [68’24”]

Producer & Engineer Peter Newble

Recorded 16 and 17 April 2021 at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk. * indicates first recordings

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Peter Dickinson here turns the third phase of lockdown to his – and our – advantage with this collection of piano music touching on the blues and jazz which have long been a mainstay of his careers as performer and composer, and which also includes two notable first recordings.

What’s the music like?

The programme commences with the pensive sadness of Dickinson’s Freda’s Blues, written in memory of the widow of Lennox Berkeley, continuing with a poised and refreshingly non-mawkish take on MacDowell’s perennial To a Wild Rose – its blues and rag idioms made the basis of Dickinson’s Blue Rose. The empathetic feel of Lambert’s Elegiac Blues in memory of singer Florence Mills is affectingly caught, while Dickinson’s marrying of blues and Bach in Lockdown Blues recalls George Shearing’s pioneering such fusions. After the drollery of Poulenc’s Bal fantôme, Dickinson’s reworking of the Canzonetta which Barber intended for his unrealized Oboe Concerto proves a focal-point in its searching pathos. Such a quality is also to the fore in Berkeley’s limpid Andante, as is the alluring charm of Gershwin’s Three-Quarter Blues – and to which the whimsy of Poulenc’s Pastourelle provides a pertinent foil.

Whether as solo pianist or in recital with his sister Meriel, Dickinson has been unstinting in his advocacy of Satie and his reading of the original Gnossiennes (not those three published decades after the composer’s death) lacks for nothing in perception. Such is equally the case when, after the insinuating charm of Gershwin’s Who Cares? then the wistful eloquence of Goossens’s Lament for a Departed Doll, he renders Satie’s evergreen Gymnopédies with an objectivity that not unreasonably plays down the mystical aura often attributed to this music.

Perhaps the highlight here is Twelve Melodies that Dickinson has arranged from Ellington’s big-band numbers in what proved a veritable ‘golden age’ for such music and not previously recorded in this guise. Picking out a selection might hardly seem necessary, but the yearning of Solitude, eloquence of Lost in Meditation, questing emotions of Azure then the expressive warmth of Mood Indigo stand out in a sequence which concludes with the phlegmatic charm of Day-Dream then haunting atmosphere of Prelude to a Kiss. Moreover, Dickinson has one final trick up his sleeve with an elegant rendering of Cage’s In a Landscape – music in which this most recalcitrant of composers comes closest to his beloved Satie with its ineffable grace.

Does it all work?

Very much so, thanks not merely to the range of music covered but also through Dickinson’s insight. Into his 87th year when these recordings were made, his technique remains as fluent as his understanding and enjoyment are audible. Long able to accommodate the populist and the experimental within his own music, such inclusiveness extends to the idiomatic aspect of his interpretation and the deftness of his touch. Surely nothing can now prevent the Ellington set being taken up by pianists everywhere, with the numerous shorter pieces ideal as encores.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The piano sound has a naturalness and clarity ideal for this music, while few writers other than Dickinson would be equally aware of technical details and chart standings. Here is looking forward to further releases by this always resourceful pianist in his ‘Indian summer’.

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the SOMM Recordings website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more information on Peter Dickinson, click here.

In concert – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: A Covid Requiem

mirga-grazinyte-tyla

Adès O Albion (1994, arr. 2019)
Pärt
Fratres (1977, arr. 1991)
Purcell (arr. Britten)
Chacony in G minor Z730 (c1680, arr. 1948)
Barber
Adagio in B flat minor Op.11 (1935, arr. 1936)
interspersed with poetry readings by Casey Bailey
Fauré
Requiem in D minor Op.48 (1887-90, rev. 1893)

James Platt (bass), Casey Bailey (poet), CBSO Children’s Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Tomo Keller (violin/director), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 6 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Even if live music-making has gradually been returning to how it was, the (ongoing) legacy of Coronavirus could hardly be overlooked, thus a concert such as that given this evening by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a necessary act of remembrance for all the many concertgoers to have been affected by the pandemic. As befitted such an occasion, no speeches or prefatory remarks were needed, with the darkening of the auditorium during the performance a simple but effective gesture which helped focus musicians and listeners alike.

Strings only were onstage in the first half – Tomo Keller directing a sequence as began with O Albion, Thomas Adès’s arrangement of the sixth movement from his quartet Arcadiana, whose gentle pathos made for the ideal entrée. Arvo Pärt has written numerous memorials and while Cantus might have been more appropriate in this context than Fratres, the latter’s sparing deployment of percussion as to underline its ritualistic emergence then withdrawal conveyed no mean eloquence. Surprising, perhaps, that Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony is not heard more frequently on such occasions, its expressive intensification here informed by an acute rhythmic clarity. Barber’s Adagio is, of course, a staple at these times – the visceral emotion of its climax and subdued fatalism that ensues audibly conveyed here.

Interspersed between these pieces were poems by Casey Bailey, currently Birmingham Poet Laureate and whose readings were undeniably affecting in their sincerity – whether the heady reportage of 23.03.21 (a date no-one in the UK could hope to forget), the intimate evocation of Weight or graphic remembrance of Once. His appearances on stage were precisely judged as to segue into then out of the music either side and it was a pity when he did not take a call at the end of this first half, alongside the CBSO strings, given his contribution to proceedings.

Tomo Keller remained for the second half – adding ethereal counter-melodies to two of the sections in Fauré’s Requiem, whose 1893 version is without violins but with divided violas and cellos along with reduced woodwind and brass to make for a reading closer to the initial conception and certainly more apposite tonight. Her credentials in the choral repertoire well established, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with a real sense of this work’s essential poise but without neglecting any deeper emotions. James Platt brought a ruminative warmth to the Hostias and Libera me, and it was an inspired touch to have the Pie Jesu sung in unison by the Children’s Chorus; its plaintiveness offsetting those richer tones of the Youth Chorus and CBSO Chorus, while opening-out the music’s textural and expressive range accordingly.

In one sense it would have been better had this concert not had to take place, given the legacy it commemorated (as was witnessed by the personal recollections occupying five pages of the programme) and yet, as those ethereal strains of the In Paradisum receded beyond earshot, a feeling of the Covid crisis having been recognized then overcome was palpable on the part of those present. Moreover, the CBSO’s next event is a performance of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – surely as transcendent and life-affirming an experience as could be hoped for.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Casey Bailey, click here, for James Platt click here, and for Tomo Kellner here

In concert – Jess Gillam, CBSO / Jaume Santoja Espinós: Jess Gillam’s American Roadtrip

Jess-Gillam

Gershwin Cuban Overture (1932)
Villa-Lobos
Fantasia for Saxophone W490 (1948)
Copland
Danzón cubano (1942)
Milhaud
Scaramouche Op.165c (1937/9)
Copland
Appalachian Spring – Suite (1944/5)
Barber
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1935-6, rev, 1942-3)

Jess Gillam (saxophones, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jaume Santoja Espinós (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 20 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra took a break from ‘standard’ repertoire to focus on music by composers either American or with an American focus, in a programme which rung the changes to often vibrant and always appealing effect.

A familiar radio presence, Jess Gillam has already encouraged renewed interest in the music for classical saxophone, as her contributions amply demonstrated. Little heard in his lifetime, the Fantasia by Villa-Lobos is among those more modest creations of a composer known for his (over-reaching) ambition – its three short movements drawing animated and ruminative responses from the soloist enhanced by a restrained orchestration. Swapping soprano for the alto instrument, Gillam returned for Milhaud’s Scaramouche which was no less engaging in this arrangement than the original for two pianos; whether in its incisive opening movement, soulful central interlude or its final Brazileira which could hardly fail to provoke a response from orchestra and audience – the latter evidently appreciative of such an infectious display.

The CBSO captured the spirit of both pieces, thanks not least to former assistant conductor Jaume Santoja Espinós, who had opened the concert with Gershwin’s Cuban Overture – the percussion-clad exuberance of its outer sections a telling foil to the haunting pathos of those canonic textures at its centre. Copland’s Danzón Cubano can seem irritating in its rhythmic over-insistence, but Espinós brought an unsuspected wit and subtlety to this amalgam of coy nonchalance with an orchestration recalling Stravinsky’s forays into ‘crossover’ at this time.

Latin-American traits made way for those of a Europeanized East Coast after the interval, Espinós directing the suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring with a cohesion as brought out expressive contrasts between the various sections without these becoming too episodic. The idealization inherent in this ‘Ballet for Martha’ can hardly be gainsaid, yet the chaste eloquence of its musical content came through no less affectingly – not least as the familiar ‘Variations on a Shaker Hymn’ subsided into the serene inevitability of the final evocation.

The highlight was a welcome revival for Barber’s First Symphony, whose continuous design marries Sibelian formal precision with that unabashed emotionalism closer to Russian music from this period, with a cumulative impact to its four-in-one trajectory which was palpably in evidence. From the stark foreboding with which it begins, through the relentless impetus of its ‘scherzo’ and consoling poise of its ‘slow movement’ (felicitous oboe playing by Emmet Byrne), to the inexorable force of its closing passacaglia, this was a performance to savour.

An eventful evening, then, and was more to come with a post-concert informal performance from the quintet El Ultimo Tango, familiar from its several recordings and here providing a 30-minute overview of Astor Piazzolla for what was a – necessarily – belated tribute in the year of his centenary. Those wanting a longer selection can hear this group at CBSO Centre next February, while the CBSO returns next week for a programme of mainly French music from conductor Kevin John Edusei with Kirill Gerstein in both of Ravel’s piano concertos.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Jess Gillam, click here – and for more on El Ultimo Tango, here. For more information on Jaume Santoja Espinós, head to the conductor’s website

In concert – Leonidas Kavakos, Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson: Elgar Symphony no.3; Barber & Korngold

Leonidas Kavakos (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 27 February 2020

Barber First Essay Op.12 (1937)
Korngold Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1945)
Elgar, realized Anthony Payne Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.88 (1933; 1993-4)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credit (John Wilson) Sim Canetty-Clarke

It is good to see John Wilson taking up more concert engagements, so putting his talent at the service of symphonic repertoire. Tonight, he directed the Philharmonia in a programme that culminated with quite possibly the finest reading Elgar’s Third Symphony has yet received.

The relatively brief first half commenced with Barber’s First Essay, written in the wake of his soon-to-be ubiquitous Adagio and given a high-profile launch by Arturo Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic. Succinct to a fault, the sombre rumination of its initial section soon makes way for music of brittle aggression (such as Britten surely had in mind writing the Dies irae section of his Sinfonia da Requiem two years later), and reaches a short-lived climax with the return of the piece’s opening which itself subsides into musing expectation.

A timely revival, whereas Korngold’s Violin Concerto now seems almost too familiar since coming in from the cold some quarter-century ago. Leonidas Kavakos has become one of his staunchest advocates, but while his recent Proms account often verged towards the soporific, this evening saw much greater focus; not least an initial Moderato whose yearning melodies were rendered with real incisiveness, then a Romanze whose lush textures and diaphanous harmonies never risked becoming cloying. If the final Allegro was even more impressive, this was because what is ostensibly the weakest movement emerged on a par with those before – Kavakos pointing up its effervescence while keeping any indulgence in check on route to the heady return of its opening theme, in what is a coup de théâtre even by Korngold’s standards.

Wilson has already demonstrated his Vaughan Williams credentials, and is evidently no less at home in Elgar. Some 22 years on from its premiere and the Third Symphony, as realized by Anthony Payne, continues to fascinate and exasperate in equal measure – yet, while there can be no denying its conjectural status, what came over here was Wilson’s conviction as he steered a purposeful course through the opening movement – pulling together what can feel a prolix development then evincing similar grip and determination in the coda. What follows was ideally poised between scherzo and intermezzo, its balletic and song-like strains eliding seamlessly, while the Adagio has seldom sounded more potent in its wrenching dissonances and wan consolation as lead to a coda whose fragmented texture only emphasized its pathos.

On to the finale (Wilson rightly ensured minimal pause between movements) and while there was no lack of finesse in the shaping of its themes, Wilson made relative light of there being no concrete development section by bringing its nominally tentative variants into tensile and, above all, cumulative accord. This carried through into the coda – undoubtedly the best Payne which Elgar never wrote and whose spirit of reaching out towards whatever might lie beyond was palpably conveyed as the music receded, slowly but never disconsolately, toward silence.

At some 50 minutes this was as taut and incisive a reading as the piece can yet have received, but the essential rightness of Wilson’s approach could not be doubted. Payne himself looked mightily impressed, and one can only hope a recording with the Philharmonia is in the offing.