BBC Proms – Víkingur Ólafsson, Philharmonia / Paavo Järvi: Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev & Shostakovich

olafsson-jarvi

Víkingur Ólafsson (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Paavo Järvi

Prokofiev Symphony no.1 in D major Op.25 ‘Classical’ (1916-17)
J.S. Bach Keyboard Concerto in F minor BWV1056 (c1738-9)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor K491 (1786)
Shostakovich Symphony no. 9 in E flat major Op.70 (1945)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Saturday 14 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s Prom brought change of conductor, the always reliable Paavo Järvi stepping in for Santtu-Matias Rouvali in what would have been the latter’s Proms debut, but not of soloist – Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson duly making his first appearance at these concerts with concertos which, for the most part, played to his strengths.

The number of times that Bach’s keyboard concertos have been heard here on piano in recent decades can be counted on the fingers on one hand (Tatiana Nikolayeva’s D minor resonates in the memory), but that in F minor was a good choice in terms of its succinctness – the outer movements pitting soloist and (sizable body of) strings against each other with a trenchancy as was vividly conveyed here, with the central Andante an oasis of serenity that was not without its plangent asides.

Placing this piece before the interval, however, made for a distinctly short first half – given the relative length of Mozart’s C minor Concerto after the interval. There were many good things in this latter, Ólafsson keeping the first movement on a tight yet never inflexible rein so that its inclination to pathos – if not always its portentous undertones – came through in ample measure; not least in a coda that had been cannily prepared by the soloist’s cadenza. The central Larghetto was none the less the highlight – Ólafsson varying his tone such that piano melded into the woodwind for an early and defining instance of timbral colouration, with its limpid elegance never undersold. Maybe the finale was a little staid in the overall unfolding of its variations, but the coda’s strangely ambiguous poise was tangibly realized.

An auspicious debut, then, for Ólafsson, who underlined his prowess with affecting readings of the slow movement of Bach’s Fourth Organ Sonata (BWV526) in August Stradal’s chaste transcription and Liszt’s not unduly mawkish version of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus (K617). These further extended the disparity between each half – the first of which had commenced with Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony, not in the least small of scale or mimsyish as Järvi heard it; witness his acerbic and impetuous take on the initial Allegro, trumpets and timpani to the fore, then a Larghetto whose swift underlying tempo left little room for any harmonic piquancy to emerge. The Gavotte was slightly marred by several mannered agogics which tended to impede its rhythmic profile, but the Finale lacked little in sparkle or insouciance.

Among the most travelled and recorded conductors of today, Järvi can seem detached or even aloof in manner – but there was no such reticence evident in Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony as ended this programme. After a tensile and assertive Allegro, which audibly benefitted from the sizable forces onstage, the Moderato recalled Efrem Kurtz’s classic recording as to overall restraint and a dark-hued introspection rising to anguish in its twin climaxes. Playing without pause, the other movements were of a piece with the foregoing – a driving and almost manic Presto subsiding into a Largo, whose ruminative bassoon soliloquys were eloquently taken by Emily Hultmark, then an Allegretto whose capriciousness was acutely gauged through to its bitingly sardonic climax and breathless final payoff. Undoubtedly a performance to savour.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

In concert – Alina Ibragimova, CBSO / Joshua Weilerstein: Weir, Prokofiev & Beethoven

Joshua Weilerstein 58_credit Sim Canetty-Clark

Alina Ibragimova (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Weir Heroic Strokes of the Bow (1992)
Prokofiev
Violin Concerto no.1 in D major Op.19 (1915-17)
Beethoven
Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1811-12)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 7 July 2021 (6.30pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Joshua Weilerstein courtesy of Sim Canetty-Clark; Alina Ibragimova courtesy of Giorgia Bertazzi

While not the centenary season as had been anticipated, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current run of live concerts has nevertheless found the orchestra in great shape, reinforced by the final event that marked an equally unexpected if auspicious debut for Joshua Weilerstein.

He may have substituted the planned account of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, but Weilerstein retained Judith Weir’s Heroic Strokes of the Bow to begin the programme. Although written before her spell as the CBSO’s Composer-in-Residence (1995-8), the present piece is among her most characteristic larger works – taking its cue from Paul Klee’s similarly titled painting for a 15-minute study in frustrated momentum, whereby violins pursue an eventful trajectory constantly undermined by rhythmic discontinuity. A belated coming to the fore of woodwind propels this music towards a peroration which never quite materializes prior to its subsiding then terse pay-off. Not a straightforward or necessarily rewarding piece to tackle, the CBSO strings still sounded engaged throughout a piece typical in its sense of ultimate anti-climax.

Alina Ibragimova then joined the orchestra for Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, its modest scale and prevailing inwardness only partly belying technical demands that were confidently surmounted here. The partnership with Weilerstein, moreover, was a good one – whether in the first movement’s gradual expressive opening-out from, then retreating-back to sustained lyricism, or the Scherzo’s cavorting high-jinx and playful nonchalance. Ibragimova’s tempo for the finale seemed initially a little too deliberate, but the panache of those brief orchestral tuttis then stealthy intensification to the rapturous return of the opening theme left no doubt as to either soloist’s or conductor’s sense of exactly where the music was going – the violin’s airy arabesques melding into the deftest of orchestral textures for the spellbinding final bars.

The inclusion of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony made for a near full-length concert which, being given twice, says much for the CBSO’s collective stamina. Ensemble faltered slightly in the first movement’s introduction, relatively weighty as Weilerstein heard it, but the main Vivace proved unanimous in response as it was trenchant in conception – highlights being an uninhibited transition to the reprise, then inexorable build-up toward a coda whose clinching of the overall design felt more potent through a slight if perceptible acceleration at the close.

Weilerstein (rightly) went directly into the Allegretto, its alternation of pathos and sanguinity ideally gauged, then the scherzo exuded a joyous animation and its trio an eloquence which was no less apposite. The finale may have lacked its exposition repeat, but the seamlessness with which this movement unfolded left no feeling of its being sold short – not least through an astute judging of dynamic contrasts then a final peroration which, if it lacked for a degree of visceral excitement, none the less concluded this symphony with unwavering affirmation. Hopefully, Weilerstein will soon be returning to this orchestra. Next month, though, the CBSO heads to the Proms for a programme featuring Ruth Gipps’s Second Symphony and Brahms’s Third, along with a delayed premiere for Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel Symphony.

You can find information on the CBSO’s appearance at the Proms at the festival’s website.

Talking Heads: Erland Cooper

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Erland Cooper is very much a ‘glass half-full’ musician. If anything, the glass is often full to overflowing as he has kept busy with creative projects through lockdown, up to and including a chance to finally realise the Barbican show he had planned for June.

Although he resides a long way from his native Orkney, both on a physical and spiritual level, Cooper finds solace and inspiration in his Hoxton studio. “It’s been an absolute safe haven”, he says gratefully. “When lockdown was very acute, I would still come over at 6-7am, before anyone was up, and not meet a soul. It’s obviously a bit different now, but it’s just been great, and I’ve been able to get under the fingernails of a few projects that I would perhaps not have had time for before.”

His third album, Hether Blether – the concluding part of an Orcadian trilogy begun by Solan Goose and continued by Sule Skerry – was released at the end of May. This was just as it was dawning that the UK tour, scheduled for September, was going to become a casualty of the restrictions brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic. He remains philosophical, however. “Live performance isn’t the be all and end all for me, it’s part of the journey, and literally part of the transportation to Orkney, when you’re up and down the country – in the Barbican Hall for instance. At the end of last year it came into realisation that there is a whole new enjoyment to bringing to the audience a room, a space, a ferry that takes you up to the North Sea and back again. That became a real process, but I’ve forgotten about it to a point. We were starting to put that into place, but that tour wasn’t until September anyway. Live music takes a lot out of me, and I tend to put it to the back of my mind until I’m ready to give it everything, so I hadn’t thought about it a great deal.”

In terms of the record, Erland had already let it out into the wider world. “You know a record is truly done when I play it to my close friends”, he says. “That’s when I feel like something’s done, and finished, but it’s taking it that bit further when you actually give it out to the world, and all of a sudden it’s getting reviewed – good or bad, it doesn’t matter – and it’s getting listened to. I got a message from someone who said they were trying to introduce music to my daughters, and trying to get them to sleep, a little bit earlier. Every night, about 15 minutes before they go to bed, they play one of my records back to back, and they said it sets the tone but it also gets them asking questions about classical music and electronic music. I just thought, you couldn’t plan that! There’s nothing you could try and do to plan that. So it really feels finished when it goes out the door.”

As with Solan Goose (air) and Sule Skerry (water), Hether Blether (land) is a deeply personal piece of work. “It finds some of the themes that we’re all feeling here during lockdown – those of community, ‘alone’ spaces, the people we spend our time with. Those are all feelings that are very much in this final record for me, personally. It is certainly a zeitgeist of it feeling like a good time to reflect and think about transportation, real or imagined. In a nutshell it was definitely surreal, but I also felt like it was important to just get it out. That was a good thing. Like a gannet!”

We agree on the importance of new music at this time, a source of positive energy. “I’ve really been enjoying the new records from Ghostpoet and Nadine Shah”, he says, “along with some classical releases, and going back to things I perhaps hadn’t heard before – Peter Gregson’s work, for example – and just going into things. Everyday when I come into the studio I listen to a new record, whether it’s a score by Alex Somers, or Julianna Barwick. It’s a constant, it’s a great thing.”

He was careful to control the noise around Hether Blether’s release in light of the pandemic, and found new positives from the experience. “When I was thinking about promoting the album I thought it was important not to shout about it, and just to have a break for a month or so. I think that was absolutely the right thing to do, and that’s the only thing I probably would have changed about the behind the scenes process. I quite enjoyed looking at it in a different way. It has been a great time for music, hasn’t it?”

We move on to discuss a mutual love, the Wigmore Hall – and its success in streaming live concerts, giving an indication of the live music we all miss. “That hall is very important to me”, he gushes. “I can’t wait to go back. I should take a little hip flask the next time I’m back there. I’ll do it very respectfully!”

Talk turns to a much wider space, and the video accompanying Skreevar, second single from Hether Blether. In it, Cooper dashes along the street in Orkney before jumping, fully clothed, into the North Sea. “I had a lot of e-mails from people saying ‘did you jump?’ and I had to say, ‘Did you watch the video to the end? Do you think a wee record label can afford to fake that?!’ We did one take, and that was it! I don’t know if I told you but when we did it I ran up to the edge three times. The first time was to judge how long it would take, the second time was so that Alex (Kozobolis), who was videoing could test running behind me, bearing in mind he had to do that with a camera and not fall in the sea as well, and then the third time.”

The shoot created quite a stir. “A couple of days before we did it we had to plan the tide, so we had that right. When we were practicing we had to stop traffic several times, and then there was a whole group of local folk who effectively started to egg me on, and then a bunch of tourists who were shouting like this sort of thing happens every day! Then, this really young couple were on the peer to the left, and they were oblivious to what was happening. They sat down where George Mackay Brown and I like to sit and reflect, and they must have sat down to have their supper and a glass of wine or something, after the second take. They got the fright of their lives when this six foot three, gangly bloke in a nice jacket jumps off the peer! They were just like, what? That was a highlight. It was very cold by the way, it didn’t look like it but it was!”

Watching it from the seclusion of a locked down living room is strangely liberating. “It was a great memory. I was saying to the guys at the time, I did it when I was 16-25, I’ll do it again when I’m middle aged, and then again when I’m 70. I’m only doing it once though, to get it right! It was only about a metre deep, so you would have reached the bottom. I’ll tell you what though, I’ll never forget that as long as I live! How often can you say that to yourself, really truly? That was what it was for, to create an adult memory as strong as a childhood one.”

Erland has already performed at the Barbican in a sense this year, taking over the Centre’s Instagram page for a week and projecting films made by Alex Kozobolis to his own albums across the estate. “That was so interesting for me. I don’t know if you ever used to develop film, where you effectively learn the virtue of patience – even just posting it off to the chemist. You don’t know what 35-40 pictures you’re going to get back, and there’s something about projecting digital footage that had come all the way from Orkney onto something as iconic as the Barbican Brutalist architecture. It felt like a slow development of film, and I really enjoyed that. I felt that Margaret Tait, the Orcadian experimental film maker, would be proud of that. Using the technology we have now, a portable projector, we were reframing work done by hand as a reference for true escapism. I know the question has come up for a lot of people, asking themselves where they truly want to live in the future, because of how limiting it is living in the city.” The duo enjoyed their endeavours. “It was really good for Alex as well, he really enjoyed the process, and I got to enjoy the process of curating some of his photos of the Barbican which again was a joy.”

Lockdown has brought with it a deep appreciation of the natural world for many people, and this is a key element of Erland’s music and life. “I think noticing that everyday joy and magic from nature has been so prominent up until now because of less noise pollution. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to value the great outdoors, but I’m glad people are taking notice. I think it’s like anything in life, if you take away the liberty, that’s when you truly value it. It’s very sad really. I hope it’s a wake-up call, a consistent driver for people.”

He has remained in close contact with his home island. “It’s been lovely. My folks were down in England, believe it or not, on a very rare potential holiday to Spain. I really feel for them, because they don’t really go away that much, and they’re both now retired so were really looking forward to it. There’s something about that generation when the pandemic first hit which was quite cavalier, which very swiftly changed because they’re very intelligent people! We agreed that going back to Orkney made sense, and so they drove through the night and got to the ferry crossing just before they closed – it was the last one for the night and before they closed for lockdown!”

Now their existence is completely independent from the mainland. “My dad said that lockdown for them isn’t much different from daily life. They have a cup of tea with the sunrise, and go for a walk or two a day. For them it was really good to get home. I’ve become friends with a few other people posting on Instagram, and I’ve been drawn to them. I’ve found it a great joy. I have one friend who is a wonderful artist, she sent me a little Orkney rescue package, some food, pieces of fudge and bits of art. I must admit I ate everything the day it arrived! I feel very connected with it. Also, you know very well that these records that I have been making are ultimately a tool for someone who isn’t there, and would go off with their books and tape recorders, and take snippets back with them, to try and capture an essence of it.”

Cooper has a number of musical irons in the fire. “I am using a different approach for the ambient ‘sister’ to Hether Blether, for as you know there has been an ambient companion to each of the albums so far, Sea Change and Murmuration. The final record that will be a companion to Hether Blether is called Landform. I’ve shared my work with Marta Salogni, the Italian producer. She’s a great lover of analogue production and recording, using tape machines as an instrument, which I enjoy too. Instead of throwing ideas around I thought I might put into three folders, titled, air, sea and land, and just put sounds into them, a whole collection of tones out of Hether Blether, drop them into the three folders and say there you go. It’s a bit like pick a card, any card – pick a few, and then break up the elements of the final record. It is about the community but it pulls together elements from the first two albums as well, so just putting the tones into three folders and asking her to pick what she wants when she wants, at no pace, and no urgency. That’s something I’ve started. I also have something else which is quite ambitious, but I will say no more at this stage!”

It was perhaps inevitable that Cooper would be busy, given his work ethic. “I think when you give something away, I just have this hunger to keep exploring the things that excited me the most during the process of creating and honing in on that. You’ll probably get a sense of what I mean. It’s a culmination of learning, developing and writing wrapped up together, so I’m working on that. “

The calm of the studio is helping creativity. “It is, and I’m very fortunate to have it. The lockdown is the only time I’ve ventured into watching movies there. I tend to just work in the studio but I’ve had a few 18-19 hour days in there. It’s not just a working environment, sometimes it can become like a cinema! I tell myself that I can only watch a film in there if it has an exceptional score.”

Erland Cooper performs with members of the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican on Saturday 10 October, with images and video content from Alex Kozobolis. The concert can be seen either in person or online, with tickets available from the Barbican website.

Talking Heads: Rick Wakeman (part 2)

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

For part two of Arcana’s extensive interview with keyboard royalty Rick Wakeman we pick up where we left off, by asking the celebrated musician for his plans, virus permitting of course, to tour his new album The Red Planet.

“We’re celebrating the Mars landing in Armenia next year; we’re going to do the whole of the Red Planet live. Brian May’s going to come along and join us. That’s the plan for next year, as long as COVID-19 is behaving itself. In terms of space-themed albums I’ve got No Earthly Connection, Out There, The Red Planet and 2000 AD into the future which are all based on space. There’s enough to do a weekend but then you’ve got to convince a promoter it’s a good idea.”

Other plans are afoot. “There is so much planned for next year!” he gushes. “We’ve got the event at the National Space Centre in Leicester. There are three missions on their way to Mars at the moment, and they’re due to arrive the end of February beginning of March. We’ve gone for Saturday 27 March, because that’s just before a series of five prog rock festival dates. We thought we would have the launch then because the mainstream press will be going Mars potty. We expect by then they will have discovered how much water there was. Another great rock and roll thing that they recently discovered was that when it rains on Mars, it rains dry ice! How rock and roll is that?!” It’s almost as though Rick was meant to do a gig there. “Well that’s it!”, he laughs.

Taking a step back, he considers the implications of what the missions might find. “There are a lot of scientists and astrophysicists who believe there is a true connection between Mars and Earth, and that in the next 100 years we may find out what that is. If there is reincarnation I hope I come back as someone who might know what it was. My grandchildren might even get to know some of this in their lifetime. You can only go so far when you’re talking to them until they ask if Peppa Pig lives there, so I’m well aware it might be a bit down the line before they cotton on to what Grandpa Grumpy, as they call me, is up to!”

Talk turns to Rick’s musical work during lockdown – with several projects affected by his distance from co-writers. “The Red Planet has taken up a lot of time. I have been working on some other projects too, including work on a musical with Sir Tim Rice. We had planned quite a lot of get-togethers over the last few months, but he ended up in lockdown in Cornwall and I was in Suffolk. The counties couldn’t be further apart really. We had a lot of discussions on the phone but there’s not a lot we can do when we’re not in the same room together. That’s on the burner going nicely, another musical that is all funded and ready to go. I’ve been working on a couple of other recording projects, and also planning stuff for next year working on the premise that it will happen. I’m an optimistic person, so I don’t listen to the gloom mongering on the news at the moment. You’ve got to feel sorry for the politicians, because virtually every scientist has a different view on it all, so it’s pick the one that suits your politics the best! It’s a total no-win situation. Then in true British fashion it’s how you can bend the rules – you can open pubs but not clubs, the social distancing doesn’t apply to Bournemouth or Brighton beach. What is going on?! Each of the four nations has got a different view on how it should be done! You don’t know whether to laugh or cry really. I’m just 71 and a grumpy old man.”

I confess to assuming Rick was much younger than the age he has just stated – certainly his demeanour on the phone suggests a youthful spirit that has been retained – but he confirms. “Yes, I am 71 and as grumpy as you like. Grumpy but enthusiastic!”

Happily, he still feels that his keyboard playing has the same technical prowess, but is wary of the ageing process. “I practice every day. I do suffer from minor rheumatism and arthritis in the hand, and I do know that the day will come when I can’t have the dexterity I have now. When I do the piano concerts my hands ache, so it’s hot and cold water in the sink afterwards. I know a good doctor, who said, ‘Look at it this way – most footballers, when they get to the age of 40, they have to have knee replacements or hip replacements. The reason for that is those parts of the body have been battered, used 100 more times than the average person. Think of your hands, they have probably played at least three hours a day, sometimes more. Your hands have probably done 1000 times more exercise than the average person, so they’re going to wear out!’ He said just to keep playing and practicing and doing what you can, and then you’ll know the day when they can’t. I have made provisions a bit for that. When it happens, with some of the bigger pieces I’ve got, if I put a good band around me it will take a lot of the pressure off.”

He is aware of the possible impact on solo piano concerts. “I can still perform the pieces, but I think the piano concerts would suffer first. I don’t ever want to get to the stage – and I discussed this with my good friend Jon Lord when he was still with us – where we go on stage and we are applauded for what we were. You should be applauded for what you are, not what you were. We shall see, I hope there’s a lot more left. We’re just moving into a new house and I’ve got the most stunning music room to work in, overlooking a river estuary. I’m still working on the principle that there’s a lot left in the old boy. I love what I do, I enjoy what I do, I would lie if I said sometimes I don’t get tired, but when I get tired I just stop.”

Staying at home has other symptoms, too. “The lockdown hasn’t helped my exercise, because I like my food and I’ve eaten too much. I’ve always had a yo-yo weight problem, I’m the West Bromwich Albion of weight – up one season, down the next. I’ve got to make a bit of an effort but my wife’s brilliant at that. I’ve got a great family as well, the kids have a go at me. Grandpa Grumpy will do what he’s told I suppose!”

Classical music is part of his daily diet. “I listen to quite a lot, and most of the stuff I’ve got in the car is classical. I’ve got a huge collection of CDs of classical stuff, and I love choral music. At the moment I’ve got a ton of Prokofiev in the car – I’ve got works for cello in there, The Love for Three Oranges too, which I really love. I’ve got various compilations of opera arias, which are great in the car because I can join in and nobody can hear me sing! I use the Del Boy Trotter thing where they won’t let you join in the concert so you might as well join in the car. In the office there were about 4,000 CDs, and about half of those would be classical, but they’re all in boxes and have gone down to the new house. It’s very much what’s floating around at the moment.”

We close by pondering the benefits of music to our daily lives. “It’s incredibly good for our health in every respect”, he says passionately. And with that, our time is up – an hour in the company of one of the most enthusiastic musical minds around. When the Mars missions reach their goal early next year, we can expect to hear a lot more of Rick Wakeman, and once his house move is complete, don’t be surprised if they inspire more music! For now, though, The Red Planet comes with a strong recommendation.

The Red Planet, by Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble, is available with several packages at his online shop

Playlist – Bing & Ruth

It gives us great pleasure to welcome Bing & Ruth frontman David Moore to Arcana’s playlist section.

We have been talking with David about the new Bing & Ruth album Species, due for release on Friday 17 July – and his experience of lockdown and recent world turbulence, onto which he effectively has a front window from his New York home.

David’s playlist reflects his deep love of Bach, with the Chaconne from the Solo Violin Partita no.2 in D minor acting as the centrepiece. Leading up to this we have the vibrant Toccata from Sergei Prokofiev, which contrasts with the winsome Sales Tax On The Women from The New Lost City Ramblers. Sons of Kemet‘s incendiary cut All Will Surely Burn is next, before Smoke Dawson‘s Pretty Polly, from the Fiddle album, transports us to the great wide open.

The Bach follows the rich colours and harmonies of Miles Davis‘ Gershwin elaboration Fisherman, Strawberry and Devil Crab – after which we hear the sonorous Farfisa tones of Bing & Ruth‘s Live Forever, an extended highlight from the new album.

Rudy Van Gelder‘s remix of Gene Ammons‘ sultry Hittin’ The Jug is next, then The Carter Family‘s The Storms Are On The Ocean, a poignant song thought to date from the early 1930s. Just a few years separate this from The Ink Spots’ I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire, a rather beautiful song with which to close.

Our thanks to David for this inspiring collection of music. Stay tuned for the full interview and a review of the new album.

Bing & Ruth’s album Species is out on Friday 17 July from 4AD. You can pre-order it from the Bandcamp embed below