In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: Trios for flute, viola and harp (Marie-Christine Zupancic, David BaMaung & Katherine Thomas)

Instrument-detail-Neil-Pugh

Bax Elegiac Trio GP178 (1916)
Weinberg
Trio Op.127 (1979)
Debussy
Sonata for flute, viola and harp L137 (1915)

Members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra [Marie-Christine Zupancic (flute), David BaMaung (viola), Katherine Thomas (harp)]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Thursday 18 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although little more than a century old, the enticing combination of flute, viola and harp has since given rise to a host of stylistically varied pieces – three of which were featured in this Centre Stage lunchtime recital by members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

If not the most elaborate of his numerous works for mixed ensemble, Arnold Bax’s Elegiac Trio is surely among his most affecting as a (deliberately?) understated ‘in memoriam’ for those friends who had died as a result of the ill-fated Easter Uprising in Ireland. While the underlying mood rarely moves too far from that implied by the title, the close-knit motivic writing and subtly shifting emotions which are filtered through the textural ‘weave’ prove    as subtle as they are elusive – not least in a performance as focussed or as assured as this.

His extensive chamber output might be dominated by his 17 string quartets, but Mieczysław Weinberg wrote numerous pieces for sundry combinations – of which the present Trio could be considered typical of his spare and elusive later idiom. As in other works from this period, descriptions are replaced by metronome markings, endowing the music with an inscrutability as leaves the musicians to convey more tangible expression – whether in an initial movement that uncovers its formal trajectory as it brings these instruments into play, a central movement whose fragmentary textures never quite evolve into cohesive exchanges, then a finale whose vigorous rhythmic motion is tersely curtailed almost out of spite. An insightful account of an absorbing piece, especially when not given in its alternative version with piano replacing harp.

A recital such as this almost had to close with the Sonata by Debussy that will likely remain the template for this ensemble. Here, the opening Pastorale seemed a little too restive fully to convey this music’s ethereal emotion, but the Interlude found an ideal balance between incisiveness and elegance whose minuet-like gait belies its almost intuitive unfolding, while the Finale drew all three instruments into an inexorable motion through to the decisive close – the composer asserting his credentials as ‘musicien français’ with pointed understatement.

An appealing and not a little thought-provoking recital for which Marie-Christine Zupancic, David BaMaung and Katherine Thomas placed those present in their debt. The Centre Stage series continues on December 3rd, with a programme from the CBSO Percussion Ensemble.

Further information on future CBSO Stage concerts can be found here

On record – Aurora Trio: Crépuscule (EM Records)

crepuscule

Alwyn Two Folk Tunes (1936). Crépuscule (1955). Naïades (1971)
Bax Elegiac Trio (1916)
Lewis Divertimento (1982)
Lipkin Trio (1982)
Patterson Canonic Lullaby (2016)
Rawsthorne Suite (1968)

Aurora Trio [Emma Halnan (flute), Jordan Sian (viola), Heather Wrighton (harp)]

EM Records EMRCD069 [76’52”]

Producer Tom Hammond
Engineer John Croft

Recorded 15-16 February, 13 August 2020 at St John the Evangelist, Oxford

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Aurora Trio makes its debut for EM Records in a collection of British music featuring flute, viola and harp that spans exactly 100 years and encompasses a variety of approaches with regards to the combining of these distinct yet undeniably complementary instruments.

What’s the music like?

If not the most elaborate of his numerous works for ensemble, Arnold Bax’s Elegiac Trio is among his most affecting as an in-memoriam for those friends who died in the course of the Easter Uprising in Ireland. Although the overall mood rarely moves far from that implied by the title, the undulating emotion filtering through the textural ‘weave’ proves as subtle as it is elusive. Scored for just flute and harp, William Alwyn’s Naïades unfolds on a larger scale and inhabits a wider range of expression as it evokes both the eponymous spirits of antiquity and the environs of the Suffolk village of Blythburgh where it was written, while also being    a ‘fantasy sonata’ whose instruments interact with more than a little improvisatory freedom.

By contrast, the Suite that Alan Rawsthorne wrote for the Robles Trio is typical of his later music in its harmonic astringency and oblique while never abstruse tonal follow-through. A highly personal use of serial elements underpins the elegant opening Andantino as surely as it does a graceful, intermezzo-like Allegretto then the more demonstrative Allegro vigoroso. All these other works are here receiving their first recordings. Alwyn’s Crépuscule for harp offers a foretaste of that masterly concerto Lyra Angelica in its ethereal poise, whereas his Two Folk Tunes emerges as an appealingly contrasted duo – viola and harp as ruminatively combined in Meditation as they are animatedly juxtaposed in Who’ll buy my besoms?

The highlight is undoubtedly the Trio by Malcolm Lipkin, a composer yet to receive his due and who, as the present work affirms, was unafraid to elide between tradition and innovation with strikingly personal results – whether in the terse emotional contrasts of its Variations, tense and increasingly soulful inwardness of its Intermezzo or purposeful onward progress of a Finale whose impetus subsides towards the pensively fatalistic coda. Canonic Lullaby has Paul Patterson bring flute and harp into limpid accord, while Paul Lewis’s Divertimento puts all three instruments through their paces in a lively March, before embracing them in the lyrical Love Song then cordially sending them on their way in the nonchalant Waltz.

Does it all work?

Yes, given the relative stylistic range of the music featured and, moreover the quality of these performances. Care has evidently been taken to assemble the eight works into a cohesive and satisfying sequence such as this ensemble might tackle at one of its recitals, and which flows well as an overall programme. The playing leaves nothing to be desired in terms of accuracy, while the relative personality of each composer cannot be gainsaid. Ideally the release would encourage composers from the middle and younger generations to write for this combination.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The recording is excellent, with the frequently awkward balance between instruments expertly judged, and there are detailed annotations on both the works and their composers. It all adds up to a worthwhile release which deserves to be followed up, hopefully on this label.

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the EM Records website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more on the Aurora trio, you can visit their website

In concert – Michael Collins & Michael McHale: Widor, Bax, Muczynski & Horovitz @ Wigmore Hall

collins-mchale

Michael Collins (clarinet), Michael McHale (piano)

Widor Introduction et Rondo Op.72 (1898)
Bax Clarinet Sonata in D major (1934)
Muczynski Time Pieces Op.43 (1984)
Horovitz Sonatina (1981)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 17 May (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What a joy to see audiences back in Wigmore Hall on a Monday lunchtime, as the venue took its first available opportunity of 2021. The gathering was for an enterprising program of 20th century works for clarinet and piano from Michael Collins and Michael McHale, pleasingly off the beaten track in its selection and proving highly accessible.

Viewed online in this case, the excitement was palpable – from Andrew McGregor’s introduction for the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 to the performers’ demeanour as they began. The clarinetist successfully overcame an instrument malfunction, too, which caused him to repeat the first few minutes of the Bax sonata.

Collins and McHale began with Widor, however, a competition piece written for students of the Paris Conservatoire in 1898. Both performers settled immediately, Collins with a beautifully floated introduction and McHale with sensitive pedaling, the pianist then echoing the excitable flourishes from of clarinet when the Rondo itself arrived. This work occupies a happy place in Widor’s output, and was a joyful overture here.

The mood deepened for the Clarinet Sonata in D major of Sir Arnold Bax from 1934. First performed by Frederick Thurston, it is an unusually structured work, but the two movements sit together nicely. It was during the beautifully floated opening that Collins had to change his clarinet, but the advantage of this was that we were able to marvel at his control for a second time, supported by rippling figures from McHale. The first movement unfolded as though in one long phrase, revealing the influence of Wagner but establishing Bax’s own melodic grace too. The second movement had impressive urgency, with chromatic surges from the piano and impressive breath control from Collins. A typically deep second theme was matched by a lovely, poised closing section.

The Polish-American composer Robert Muczynski has an intriguing works list including many pieces for woodwind, and the Time Pieces of 1984 are among his most-performed. Each of the four movements looks to bring out different qualities of the clarinet and Collins was fully alive to their possibilities. The busy first piece was enjoyable, clarinet and piano ducking and diving in their interplay, while time became suspended in the outer sections of the second piece, lost in thought. The third explored the timbres of the solo clarinet, wonderfully nuanced by Collins, while the spicy dialogue of the fourth was laden with syncopation and brilliantly played.

The Sonatina for clarinet and piano from Joseph Horovitz dates from 1981, when it was first performed by Gervase de Peyer and Gwenneth Pryor in the Wigmore Hall itself. Like Muczynski, Horovitz is at home writing for wind and brass. Working within a compressed structure, the Sonatina was packed with incident and melody. A perky first movement unfolded with easy, winsome phrases, while the second was more introspective and took time for soul searching. Not so the finale, whose offbeat japes were carefree and witty in this performance, instinctively played.

It was over all too soon – but we were treated to an encore, Collins every bit as enthused as the audience. The warm-hearted Summer, from Paul Reade’s suite Victorian Kitchen Garden, was the ideal choice.

This concert is available to play for 30 days using the YouTube embedded link above.

Wigmore Mondays – Adam Walker, Tabea Zimmermann & Agnès Clément: Music for flute, viola and harp by Bax, Debussy & Gubaidulina

Adam Walker (flute, above), Tabea Zimmermann (viola) & Agnès Clément (harp) (both below)

Bax Elegiac Trio (1916) (1:40 – 11:15 on the broadcast link below)
Debussy Syrinx (1913) (12:47-14:28; Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915) (17:34 – 35:44)
Stravinsky Elégie for viola (1944) (37:21-43:24)
Gubaidulina Garten Von Freuden Und Traurigkeiten (Garden of Joy and Sorrow) (1980) (45:38-1:02:34)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 April 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Photo credits: Adam Walker (c) Marco Borggreve, Agnès Clément (c) Tysje Severens

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The combination of flute, viola and harp is relatively unusual but has inspired some extremely forward-looking music since the second decade of the 20th century. Within two years of each other Bax and Debussy wrote independently for the combination, responding very differently to the potential of new and open textures.

Sir Arnold Bax was in fact the first to publish, and his Elegiac Trio immediately casts its spell through the rippling adagios of Agnès Clément’s harp (from 1:40 on the broadcast). Above this the flute of Adam Walker and viola of Tabea Zimmermann exchange airy thoughts, introspective but also free of constraint. The watery sound is beautiful and weightless, but Bax’s thoughts become more substantial. The music comes to rest in the major key, having started in the minor, with the feeling of troubles put to rest.

Of all the pieces written for solo flute, Debussy‘s Syrinx (12:47) is both the most magical and the most innovative. And yet when you listen to it there is no effort at all required, the languid lines instinctive but leading to an impressive climax. Adam Walker plays superbly here, ending in the lower register lost in thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp (from 17:34) is also a piece deserving of its description as magical, and is regarded as one of the signposts to modern 20th century music for its innovations in sound, harmony and melody. It is ideal when heard after Syrinx, as the flute begins – then the viola. As the programme booklet writer Paul Griffiths vividly observes, this first movement, marked Pastorale, takes time to pause in reflection, while demonstrating Paul Klee’s idea of ‘taking a line for a walk’. It’s elusive yet captivating.

The second movement Interlude (24:50) is graceful and a little dance like. Again the textures are beautifully open, helped by the tone quality of the three soloists, who bring to Debussy’s music that wonderful hazy warmth we associate with the composer at times. Then from 27:38 we hear a joyous tune from flute and viola together, over flowing harp, before the movement subsides to a soft end.

The Finale (31:08) is often singled out for its striking sonorities. The harp tremolo gives a rich backing for the very separate thoughts of flute and harp, one enchanting and the other relatively scratchy with the bow towards the bridge. At all times Debussy is keenly aware of the colours he wants to portray and the three players here respond superbly, bringing their close attention to sonic detail with a convincing unison.

Tabea Zimmermann then goes alone for the understated but striking Elégie of Stravinsky – striking because it is scored for solo, muted viola and sounds as though it has been imported from another civilization. It is also in two parts, so the initial idea (37:21) gives way to an austere dialogue between different ‘voices’ on the same instrument. The end recaps the mournful opening before dying away.

A world very far from the Wigmore Hall is also the destination for the unusual colours (for classical audiences at least) conjured up by Sofia Gubaidulina. East frequently meets West in her compositions, and in Garten Von Freuden Und Traurigkeiten (Garden of Joy and Sorrow) the East is most obviously present in the harp, plucking its responses to the flute’s decorations with slides of pitch. It is eerie but also compelling.

Then from around 50:15 the viola explores its harmonics – the fingers resting very lightly on the string to get a glassy sound that appears to be far-off, but which Gubaidulina uses cleverly. The flute is still the most prominent instrument, but increasingly the viola’s ‘voices of the night’ and the harp’s insistent plucking make themselves known. The music gets more animated, taking the harp right down to its lowest range – from where the flute starts a solo ‘cadenza’ (54:00)

The garden then seems to fall under its own spell, with night noises from all three instruments, until the viola plays a powerful line rising to a height. After this the music of the opening returns, with the striking harp slides again in evidence, before fading to the middle distance.

A superb performance of this piece from three friends, for whom this was their first ever concert as a trio. That would explain the wonderful spontaneity on show, for you would never have known!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, including a live recording of the Gubaidulina and a legendary recording of the Debussy from the Melos Ensemble:

If Gubaidulina is a new name to your ears, then the strongest possible recommendation can be made for this recording of her Offertorium for violin and orchestra from Gidon Kremer, coupled with the Hommage à T.S. Eliot – a cycle for soprano and an octet featuring today’s viola player Tabea Zimmermann:

For more chamber music featuring the harp, this lovely collection from the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble is a treat. It includes two works by Debussy, the beautiful Introduction and Allegro by Ravel and the delightful Serenade for flute, harp and string trio by this year’s centenary composer Roussel: