Yesterday we learned of the almost incomprehensible decision by the BBC that they were planning to close the BBC Singers. The choir is one of the leading ensembles of its type in the UK – if not the leading example – and have been responsible for many important premieres and landmark concerts over their 99-year existence.
Only in 2020 they were on stage as the Proms concerts returned, with a memorable performance of Eric Whitacre‘s Sleep, while if you want proof of their versatility from this year, watch this video of an arrangement of ABBA‘s Little Things:
The Spotify playlist below celebrates just some of the recordings made by the BBC Singers, in the hope that they will somehow be able to continue their invaluable service to British music. Included are shorter works by John McCabe, Sir Michael Tippett, Elizabeth Maconchy and Diana Burrell, alongside excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem, under Jane Glover, Janáček’s The Excursions Of Mr. Brouček, in a Proms performance under Jiří Bělohlávek, and the same forces at work in Smetana’s large scale opera Dalibor.
Finally the Singers can be heard in the striking Moth Requiem by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, which they premiered at the Proms in 2013.
Prom 49 – Louise Alder, Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle
Birtwistle Donum Simoni MMXVIII (2018) Mahler Symphony no.2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-1894)
Royal Albert Hall, London Wednesday 24 August 2022
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos (c) Chris Christodoulou
“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”
The words of Gustav Mahler were never more appropriate than in the context of this exceptional BBC Proms concert, as Sir Simon Rattle and assembled forces from London and Birmingham threw body and soul into a spectacular performance of the composer’s Symphony no.2.
This, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony, puts its listener through the emotional wringer on a journey inhabiting life and death itself. The work has become a calling card for Rattle, too – he marked the opening of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with a memorable performance in 1991, and took his leave of the CBSO with the same piece. Here, as he prepares to step down as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, he was marking the turning of a page through a move to pastures new in Bavaria, where he will become Chief Conductor of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Bavarian Radio Chorus.
The pastures were a standout feature of this performance – but we began in turmoil, the huge first movement funeral march rumbling into gear with lines hewn from granite in the lower strings. Rattle pushes this movement forward much more than he once did, keeping a firm hand on the tiller, but with immediate and full immersion in Mahler’s thoughts. As the first movement took shape the horrors of death revealed themselves – along with hopes of sunnier climes through some beautifully shaded rustic scenes. Yet the chill winds kept returning, ultimately sweeping these away as the movement closed in their bleak acceptance.
Many accounts of the ‘Resurrection’ lose their focus at this point, but not this one. Instead we had a balletic triple time Ländler, danced with grace as the feather-light strings had their charming way. The main theme swelled like a newly budding flower, and although ghoulish reminders of the first movement persisted, this was the abiding impression. As Rattle pressed on without a break, however, the reveries were abruptly quashed by the hammer and tongs of the third movement Scherzo. Here the music twisted and turned sharply, the LSO responding to its conductor with peerless virtuosity in music of fire and brimstone. Percussion, wind and brass were superb.
Then, as the music teetered on the point of collapse, it was time to be borne away with the consoling tones of Dame Sarah Connolly (above, right). A consummate Mahlerian, she sang with compelling strength and grace, a powerful stage presence in league with Rattle, who presided over accompaniment of the greatest clarity. Connolly’s Urlicht was beautifully judged, taking us ever nearer to the wondrous entry of the choir.
Now time stood still. The audience, especially in the arena, were rooted to the spot at the massed choirs of the CBSO Chorus and London Symphony Chorus, singing as one in magically hushed tones. As the finale took shape it was by turns earth-moving and tender. Scenes flashed before the eyes, and an especially vivid episode from brass and percussion in the gallery observed a village-band intimacy. Here the Royal Albert Hall was utilised to its full potential, managing the wide scope of Mahler’s vision to perfection.
At the centre of this apocalyptic finale, percussion depicted the rising of the dead and the release of their chains, Rattle intentionally dragging his feet here to heighten the seismic impact. And then we were free, the resurrection itself met with blazing colours all around as the choirs sang Friedrich Klopstock’s text ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst di’ (‘Rise again, yea rise again, shalt thou’) as though their lives depended on it. Was it fanciful to suggest three years’ worth of pent-up emotion being released at this point? Probably not, when you consider the day-to-day roles of the choral singers themselves – carers, key workers, parents and children alike – with all finding the time and the need to bring us this music of the utmost quality.
Great credit should go to chorus director Simon Halsey for securing such discipline and humanity in the texts, and to soprano Louise Alder (both above with Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Simon Rattle). Alder sang above the masses with perfectly judged dynamics and phrasing, like Connolly fully aware of the scope of her role. Organist Richard Gowers added the icing on the cake, underpinning the throng with ideally judged balance.
This was a performance to talk about for years to come, a throwing-open of the doors to proclaim that music can – really – triumph over pretty much anything, the ‘Resurrection’ symphony, clearing everything in its path.
As an upbeat to the symphony we heard a short gift to Rattle from Sir Harrison Birtwistle, to whose memory the Prom was dedicated. Donum Simoni MMXVIII was typical of its composer, a spiky and even snarky postcard firing out missives from the (superb) percussion section against barbed comments from wind and brass. Lasting barely four minutes, it served its function well – but for tonight, as Mahler would have wished, the symphony was everything.
You can listen to Sir Simon Rattle’s recording of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony on Spotify below, where the CBSO Chorus and Symphony Orchestra are joined by soloists Arleen Auger and Dame Janet Baker:
I can well remember my first encounter with the music of SirHarrisonBirtwistle, as it left me with a headache. It was part of Sir Simon Rattle’s groundbreaking Towards The Millennium series with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, back in the 1990s at the Royal Festival Hall.
After a first half of Gubaidulina’s Offertorium had moved me to tears, I was not quite prepared for the sheer force of Sir Harrison’s EarthDances. The work hit me square in the face, and not in a good way – I found it industrial to the point of confrontation, and could not see a way in to liking his music in spite of many admirable qualities.
More fool me. As time has gone on I have realised how it is possible to respect a composer’s music without necessarily liking it. I could sense the craftsmanship running through Birtwistle’s work, the expert hand in knowing the forces he was writing for, the drama unravelling in each of his pieces. More and more, I realised respect was turning into admiration and – in some cases – appreciation.
An encounter with SilburyAir at the Proms was a memorably mysterious occasion, falling under the spell of some beautifully written music – as English as Vaughan Williams, it seemed to me, and wholly descriptive of the countryside in a very different way to what we usually call ‘pastoral’. Verses, too, I found to be intensely dramatic, full of interesting event and persuasive musical phrase.
I also warmed to the MothRequiem, premiered at Cadogan Hall in the same year, a touching piece with remarkably pictorial textures. To me it implied a slight mellowing of older age.
At this point I sense I have not yet spent enough time or effort with the music of Birtwistle to fully appreciate it, but it is clear that this is not music that gives up its treasures easily. Its respect has to be earned. I am full of admiration for Birtwistle, and can see how he has come to be revered in the way he has. I look forward to the penny dropping in the future.
Brett Dean is enjoying a productive start to 2022 in London musical life this year. Late January saw the UK premiere of his Piano Concerto, with Jonathan Biss and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, while the following month Lawrence Power gave a performance of the Viola Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The viola is Dean’s ‘home’ instrument, but more recently he has cast his eye further down the stringed instrument range to write for the cello. This work – the Cello Concerto – has had a number of high-profile performances around the world with its dedicatee Alban Gerhardt as soloist. Gerhardt now brings it to the UK for the first time, completing a date originally scheduled during the pandemic.
Australian composer Dean lives in the UK, and Arcana join him on a Zoom call from his home in a village near Newbury. We start by talking about the concerto’s genesis, which runs right back to when composer and soloist met for the first time. “I have known Alban for a long, long time,” he reveals. “His father, Axel, was a colleague of mine when I was playing in the viola section of the Berlin Philharmonic. They all have musician’s names – Alban, Cosima, Pamina – all quite quirky but very definitely music related names. I first encountered Alban when he was a teacher, and I taught his elder sister Manon the viola. For quite some years she has played in the viola section of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. I’ve known the family and known Alban since he was 16 or 17, and I played in the Berlin Philharmonic when he gave his debut, which would have been in the early 90s. He played the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and so it was coming full circle to write not only the Cello Concerto but prior to that I’d written him a piece for cello and piano, which he premiered with Steven Osborne. We’ve been collaborators for quite some time, and in recent years we have played in a string quintet which tours occasionally. It’s been a very special time, and great to unpack this piece with him.
Gerhardt is a fierce advocate of contemporary music. “With even the brand new pieces, he plays them all from memory”, reveals Dean. “He has an extraordinary dedication. He would play that down and say simply that he plays better from memory, but that’s underestimating what must go into that because it’s not easy to commit brand new pieces to memory.” Committing this new piece must have been a labour of love, given the distinctly shaded cello part? “It’s hard for me to judge, but it does have motifs and things you can remember. I do think my instrumental writing does allow and certainly uses motifs that you can remember. At the same time there is plenty of variation and modification and manipulation of those motifs such that it must be easy to end up going down the wrong path! That can happen in standard repertoire, having played quite a few viola concertos from memory – it is a very particular skill. It is liberating, I remember – although it’s been a while since I’ve played any of the big concertos from memory – but it is a great feeling when you get to that point.”
Was Brett writing the Cello Concerto as much for Alban the player as he was for the cello as an instrument? “Certainly”, he says emphatically. “The piece actually started life as a piece for solo cello, which strictly speaking I didn’t write for Alban. It was actually a competition piece for the Feuermann competition in Berlin, back in 2014 or 2015. It was called 11 Oblique Strategies, which was inspired by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt‘s pack of cards. It is a pack of cards that they put together, and you pull out a card. It was meant for creative artists, in Eno’s case in a studio and stuck for an idea. You go to the pack, pull out a card and it will have some sort of aphorism on it, like building bridges, burning bridges, or “You are sitting in a very large room and it’s very quiet” – things that get the mind ticking over. It became quite a thing back in the ‘70s. Famously David Bowie used these strategies when he was in his Berlin phase, writing Low and Heroes.”
Dean’s approach differed slightly. “With this piece it doesn’t have the spontaneity that Brian Eno built into the idea, because I actually chose eleven cards beforehand and ordered them. I was fascinated by the concept though and given that it was a competition piece for young cellists it seemed an appropriate thing to write a piece that somehow was about the creative and the recreative process. Alban was part of it, because he was the first cellist I ever showed the piece to, and he would run through it for me and with me. That meant I had a profound cellist’s approval. It seemed somehow fitting then when the concerto commission came up to take these ideas, because I was really happy with how the solo piece turned out, as it seemed to be one of those solo pieces that was opening multiple windows for me. He explains further. “Some pieces lead you further than other pieces do, and this piece cracked a few hard nuts for me compositionally. It seemed appropriate to use it as the basis of a piece for Alban, given he’d been part of its early stages. It is for Alban, and also for the cello.”
Dean has a confession to make. “The cello is the instrument I probably would have liked to have been playing. I love the viola, it has been good to me, but there is something about the whole gesture of cello playing that is quite stupendous and grand, and all the mastery and the range it has, I have always enjoyed writing for it. Even with chamber pieces of mine that feature the cello, it ends up having a good time! My quartets have a full prominent part, while I’ve written for the twelve cellos of my former colleagues in Berlin, the piece Twelve Angry Men. So, it was a wonderful and pleasing opportunity to write a concerto and above all for Alban, who I’ve known so long.”
The Cello Concerto has a long, continuous span across its single movement, so while there are some distinct divisions it is very much one broad section. Dean considers his answer. “I mentioned the cracking of difficult nuts with that solo piece, and I think the thing I was able to unify in that piece, in its many short movements, was the first time I felt I’d been able to approach something in the manner of a composer like György Kurtág, who I admire greatly. The Kafka Fragments are a good case in point. They are around 60 minutes long but are made up of so many small components, and yet it somehow is this single statement. I’ve always been fascinated by how he does that. With the solo cello piece I felt I got somewhere along that path. I had these very contrasting and different eleven sections that somehow hung together in a way that I found pleasing, and that was somehow more than the sum of its parts. It was building on that to come up with this big span in the Cello Concerto, and I’m really pleased that comes across because that’s not a given by any means.”
Another feature of the concerto is its striking orchestral colours, which prompts the question – does he find it advantageous writing for the orchestra having been part of one? “I’m sure”, he says emphatically. “I can’t imagine writing for orchestra without having had the background I’ve had. I’ve always felt it’s a bit like a home game writing for orchestra, because I go back into my orchestral mindset. I do still get a printout of the viola part and play through it, to see what it feels like. Even when I finished writing Hamlet, I got the viola part and slogged through it over a couple of days. It was bloody hard! It doesn’t necessarily make all that much sense. Just the viola part of an opera, but you know, the viola part of something like a cello concerto, given the action in in the divided strings, it gives you an indication of whether the energy is working correctly. It’s incredibly valuable in orchestrating contemporary music to know how to gauge energy. I find it really important to write parts that are challenging for orchestral players, but in that challenge it needs to be achievable, not too complex. That’s what I really liked about pieces in my own time in a professional orchestra. In the early years of the Berlin Philharmonic, it didn’t include that much really contemporary music, but I also did a lot of chamber music, and that included a lot of contemporary music with like-minded younger members of the Philharmonic. Yet as Claudio Abbado took over from Herbert von Karajan, and then Simon Rattle took over from Abbado, the repertoire changed significantly anyway.”
In writing for orchestra, Dean drew inspiration from one of his contemporary composers, Helmut Lachenmann (above). “As he said, an orchestra is an incredible kind of fascinating machine. It’s got 100 moving parts, and they all have a human brain, but getting them all to move in the same direction at the same time is another matter altogether! I met him a few times, and never had lessons with him, but we did talk a bit about those sorts of things. It was fascinating to also see the very different and quite extraordinary sound world that he creates. It’s much more about particular sounds and noises that you can get out of instruments. He could tell a brass player exactly where to put the embouchure to get exactly the sound he needs, which is why he’s been so convincing when he steps in front of an orchestra. On the page they look daunting, but he knows it’s achievable, and I learned a lot from that, to make it somehow a really positive challenge for each and every member of the orchestra rather than giving them a page load of black, notes everywhere! You won’t get the orchestra on side that way.”
The concerto is a collaboration of forces, rather than a contest between them. “That was something I was pleased about. The solo piece had a title Oblique Strategies, but it was about the creative process. It’s not necessarily trying to tell a story in the way quite a few of my pieces, including a couple of the concertante pieces, do. The first movement in my Trumpet Concerto, which I wrote for Håkan Hardenberger (below), is called Fall Of A Superhero. It is about pushing this trumpet to the max, so that actually the trumpet conks out at the end of the first movement. My Clarinet Concerto is called Ariel’s Music, and is a requiem for Elisabeth Glaser who was one of the first but one of the most prominent early campaigners in the AIDS era. She had been infected with HIV in a blood transfusion, and possibly because she was not from the gay community but from a straight community she had traction with the Reagan administration at the time, which was doggedly blaming it on lifestyle choices. That is also very much a ‘one pitted against many’ scenario. In the Cello Concerto I was pleased to try writing a concerto that was more about a collaboration. It is about the cello initiating ideas that get picked up by the orchestra, then sometimes the other way around, and about finding colours of the solo cellist with the orchestra rather than being in competition with them.”
Dean agrees that it is gratifying having the concerto performed several times as part of major orchestral programmes, each time with Gerhardt as soloist. “It’s obviously thrilling for me as a composer, even despite quite a few performances getting ‘Corona’d’! The performance in London was going to happen in 2020 but got rescheduled. That’s the big advantage of having a soloist like Alban, who is such a genuine champion of new music. There are many soloists who, dare I say it, feel it is a good move to commission a new concerto every now and then, but Alban is very committed to the idea in itself. Again, as in Håkan’s case as a trumpeter, you’ve got to build the repertoire. Yes, you can play Haydn and Hummel all your life, but that’s what his guiding principle has been, to create repertoire for the trumpet as a solo instrument. In the cello’s case, there are plenty of great pieces you can rely on, but not as many as the violinists or pianists. Alban’s dedication to really forging new repertoire is extremely genuine, and the other advantage is co-commissioning to get several guaranteed performances, because you’ve got various stakeholders in in the game, which is a blessing. It really makes a huge difference for me as a composer.”
Dean’s mention of Brian Eno earlier in the interview deserves to be revisited, as it implies the composer has been very open in his musical education and what he takes on as a composer. It wasn’t always that way. “The irony is that my education, my practical upbringing, was very much classical. I learned violin as a kid and progressed to the viola and chamber music. Then I went through the conservatory, and it was all classical music. However, the person that really got me fired up as a budding composer, and who awoke the latent, ambitious composer in me was a rock musician, a guy called Simon Hunt from Sydney.”
The two struck up a firm friendship and musical relationship. “We discovered a likeminded need to explore territory other than where we were, other than our day job. I was enjoying hugely my time at the Berlin Philharmonic, and yet I was aware of its limitations. The late von Karajan era was Richard Strauss and Bruckner, Beethoven and Brahms, and not a lot else. He was getting sick of I-IV-V chord progressions, if you like! He was the ‘interesting sounds’ person in this otherwise not especially enterprising rock band, and we started improvising together. It was through that, with close mic-ing of the viola and a piano frame and an early sampler, I was learning as much from being in a studio with Simon as I was playing in the Berlin Philharmonic. Somehow the ambition to compose came as much from retracking sessions in divey studios in inner city Sydney when I was back on holidays, or this little studio we had near Checkpoint Charlie, in the days before the Berlin wall came down. It was very enterprising and kind of pioneering, and I found it was a great complement to donning the tails and playing Bruckner, to be in alternative music cafes playing this new music. I still need the electronic geek to find my way around the studio! I’ve never really learned to operate the studio myself, but it liberated my ear to musical potential, even if it was a recording of shattering glass. Those sorts of things became part of the pieces that Simon and I were making, often for short films. They became part of the vernacular or the vocabulary of sound that I was only too keen to expand. Quite a few pieces of mine, particularly early on, included electronics.”
The appeal of his first discipline is clear, however. “Increasingly, whilst I will still have a kind of an extra few sounds created electronically, I do like to get as much variety of colour as I can out of the orchestra itself. In the Cello Concerto I have written for Hammond Organ for the first time, for example! I couldn’t say why, but there was something about it that was the sound I was after. I like the bizarre aspects of it, the oddness that it brings.”
On a more sombre note, our talk turns to the influence of the recently departed Harrison Birtwistle (above), who Dean has checked as a reference point even in the notes for the concerto. The two did meet, it turns out. “The first time we met was at a concert at the Wigmore Hall in mid-2019. It was a feature of his own music with the Nash Ensemble, including a premiere of a new piece for viola and cello, Duet for Eight Strings, which was performed by Lawrence Power and Adrian Brendel. We chatted together afterwards in the downstairs bar, having been introduced, and as it turned out Harry was staying the night in the Garrick Club. We ended up sharing a taxi together, and I had to pinch myself! Here I was chatting away in the back of a taxi with one of my all-time heroes. I must say that I’m working on a new opera at the moment, and I’m happy to admit I have a vocal score of The Minotaur on my desk. I have to say there are scores of his that I turn to as much as anybody else and more than most. There is a strange arch of clockwork in his music, and yet I find it just so liberating. It frees up the imagination just to listen to it, let alone how he goes about it. It’s like a refresher course for your brain, and emotionally so engaging. I can’t say I knew him well, but I feel very connected to him through some of his pieces – in particular Pulse Shadows, one of my favourite Birtwistle pieces. It is a miracle of invention.”
Dean confirms the opera he is working on, for Bavarian State Opera, is called Two Queens. “It examines the relationship between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, but it does so not through Schiller / Donizetti but uses their own words, which have been beautifully put together and distilled by Matthew Jocelyn, who I worked with on Hamlet. It is due to be premiered in two short years, so I’ve got to get my skates on! It is progressing though, and I’m having fun with it.”
With that our allocated time is up – but Dean has shown in that time a keen and alert grasp of the music he is working on and its place in time, with reference to his time with the Berlin Philharmonic, his work within rock music and his vocation as a composer. Go to watch the Cello Concerto in its first London performance and you will get an idea of what he is all about.
Alban Gerhardt is the soloist, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner, in Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 27 April. The concerto will be complemented by Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.5. For more information on tickets, click here
Anderson Scherzo (with trains) (1993) Salonen Pentatonic Étude (2008) Birtwistle Duets for Storab (1983) Donatoni Soft (1989) Finnis Brother (2012/15)
Musicians from BCMG NEXT
Centrala, Digbeth, Birmingham Thursday 16 November 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse
It may not be the most easily locatable arts venue of those within Birmingham’s inner suburbs, but Centrala – launched almost a decade ago as a base for the dissemination and promotion of Central and Easter European cultures – was an appealing space for this latest recital featuring NEXT musicians from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. The performance area itself might have been compact to a fault, but there no feeling of excessive restriction in the course of what was a varied yet balanced programme of works stretching across almost four decades.
It began in invigorating fashion with a timely revival of Scherzo (with trains) whose premiere at Wigmore Hall was an early success for Julian Anderson – being one of his most engaging works for ensemble and a major contribution to its genre. Drawing inspiration from Thoreau as well as rhythms of high-speed trains, two clarinets (Heather Ryall and George Blakesley), basset horn (Beth Nichol) and bass clarinet (Emily Wilson) unfold an unpredictable discourse; one whose requirements of technique and coordination were met in this assured performance.
A pity that the scheduled account of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Spectra was lost through Covid-related issues, but a further hearing for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude was certainly no hardship. This testing paraphrase on a passage from Bartók’s unfinished Viola Concerto puts the soloist through its paces, restating the original in an understated apotheosis realized by Cameron Howe with evident sensitivity. Also reappearing from NEXT’s recent recital at Coventry Cathedral was Harrison Birtwistle’s Duets for Storab. Written when the composer lived on the Inner Hebridean island of Raasay, its inspiration lies in locations each having the name of a Viking prince whose shipwreck, pursuit and death are charted over six evocative pieces. Flautists Rebecca Speller and Leila Hooton were heard in (mainly) whimsical accord.
The music of Franco Donatoni enjoyed a brief vogue here in the decade before his death, but there have been few performances since – so making this revival of Soft the more welcome. Written for the late Harry Sparnaay, the bass clarinet’s doughtiest champion, this tensile and eventful piece feels typical of his late maturity in the way that seemingly detached, and even arbitrary gestures gradually build into a cohesive and cumulative continuity; one in which the expressive possibilities of the instrument are explored intensively though with no little irony.
Heather Ryall proved no mean exponent of this piece, as were Claudia Dehnke and Cameron Howe of Brother by Edmund Finnis. Written while he was composer-in-residence with the London Contemporary Orchestra, its four movements chart a gradually elaborating interplay between violin and viola, evolving from the meditative and incremental to the energetic and demonstrative – without the rapport between these instruments drawing apart in the process. Suffice to add the present performance lacked for nothing in terms of incisiveness or finesse.
It also brought to a close this final BCMG event for 2021. Dates of further performances are being announced in the new year, and it would be a shame if these not to feature a return to Centrala – well worth a visit by anyone who happens to be passing through Birmingham B5.