Wigmore Mondays – Alec Frank-Gemmill & Alasdair Beatson: John Casken world premiere

Horn player Alec-Frank Gemill and pianist Alasdair Beatson give the world premiere of a new work by John Casken at the Wigmore Hall

alec-frank-gemmillWigmore Hall, London, 1 February 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window) – available until 3 March


What’s the music?

James MacMillan – Motet V from ‘Since it was the day of Preparation’ (for solo horn) (2010-11) (8 minutes)

Beethoven – Horn Sonata in F major Op. 17 (1800) (16 minutes)

John Casken – Serpents of Wisdom (world première, 2015) (12 minutes)

Schumann – Adagio and Allegro in A flat major Op. 70 (1849) (9 minutes)


Unfortunately neither the MacMillan nor the Casken pieces are available to stream at present. However you can hear the Beethoven and Schumann on the link here:

About the music

There is a pleasing amount of recent music written for the solo horn – and Alec-Frank Gemmill begins this concert with an extract from a much larger work by Sir James MacMillan. Since it was the day of Preparation… is a large, 70-minute piece using texts from St John’s Gospel – but within it are sections for solo instruments from the ensemble, using the sort of structure a composer like Benjamin Britten would have employed. A substantial one of these, for solo horn, is heard here.

John Casken wrote Serpents of Wisdom for this concert and these players, and was inspired by the imagery of a serpent primarily through the poem Celtic Cross by Norman MacCaig. As he wrote he was taken through the idea of a musical representation of the coils of brass that make up the horn. Through the piece he uses some unusual effects such as natural harmonics, which make the horn sound out of tune but are intended.

Beethoven wrote one of the very first sonatas for horn and piano, a three-movement construction that he started – and finished – the day before giving it in concert with the horn player known as Giovanni Punto. Meanwhile Schumann’s only work for horn and piano, the Adagio and Allegro, was written for a member of the Dresden Court Orchestra. It has been a little unfairly taken on by viola and cello players, and is more commonly heard in that version. Reverting to horn and piano enables us to hear why the theme for the Allegro works so well in its original form.

Performance verdict

A pleasant change for a Monday lunchtime from the Wigmore Hall – the first horn recital they have programmed at such a time for years. It was made all the better by the choice of a world premiere, and by the artistry of Alec Frank-Gemmill and Alasdair Beatson, an exciting duo fully justifying their billing as young musicians well worth experiencing live.

Frank-Gemmill is a really excellent player, and took on the Casken with impressive belief and skill. While clearly not an easy piece to play it made a powerful impression – equally so in the piano part, where Beatson had to work hard with some tricky passage work. Although inspired by the coils of brass, Casken’s piece often felt to me as though it was craggy in outline, and while its impression was largely gruff and unforgiving, there were some surprisingly tender asides.

The MacMillan was a striking piece, clearly in homage to Britten – and reminiscent of some of his writing for Dennis Brain – but also showing how it is possible to write quietly for the horn without losing any expression. Frank-Gemmill managed the low notes brilliantly here.

The Beethoven and Schumann were much more conventional but equally enjoyable. Beethoven writes for the horn without any inhibitions and there was plenty of gusto in the outer movements of this performance. The Schumann is a glorious piece, a true musical evocation of happiness, though this account did not completely lift itself off the printed page. No matter, for the new pieces had already left a lasting imprint – and an encore, Glazunov’s Rêverie, made for a lovely finish.

What should I listen out for?


1:41 – MacMillan’s piece has a soft and reverential opening which gives the piece a tonality and also a very low main note, which makes a lovely sound on the horn.

The melody has the appearance of plainchant, and gradually it grows in breadth and confidence. Then around 7:20 the music takes a confrontational approach, whooping excitedly and going all the way up to a remarkably high note at 8:04 – before its relatively calm finish.


11:58 – a brief yet quite understated fanfare from the horn begins the work – and it receives ample support from the more graceful piano theme behind it. A thoughtful second theme is heard at 12:55 before the first section of the first movement is repeated at 14’29. After a short development we hear the main tune once again at 18:15, and the second theme – now in the same key as the main one – at 18:59.

21:04 – a slower movement that begins with a soft and slightly sad air – but it doesn’t last long, as essentially it serves as a long introduction to the final movement, beginning at…

22:30 – quite an angular main tune for this movement, which proceeds in high spirits. The main theme comes back again, signs off brilliantly around 27:27


29:39 – a brisk start, energetic too. The first of the ‘natural’ notes is heard at 30:13 – you can hear it is out of tune but it is meant to be. The slower music at 30:44 is brooding and paints a relatively austere picture. As the music gets quieter the horn turns to the mute.

There is then an extended piece of writing with impressive energy and stature from the horn, which is required to perform a number of very difficult tasks, usually in cahoots with the piano, which itself has a jagged outline to its music. A slower section runs around 38:30, but then the piece gathers itself for a big finish at 40:15.


42:42 – a slow and romantic Adagio, led by the horn, which is largely graceful but has some tricky high notes. This leads into the exuberant Allegro at 46:59. This has a tricky theme with a wide range.


53:19 – as a soft-hearted encore the pair play the Rêverie in D flat major by Glazunov, which is a warm piece, even when it reaches the depths at 54:55. (4 minutes)

Further listening

This very fine disc from Richard Watkins, on the NMC label, brings together writing for horn from a number of highly respected modern composers, among them Gerald Barry, Peter Maxwell Davies, Robin Holloway, Colin Matthews, David Matthews, Mark Anthony Turnage and Huw Watkins. You can listen here:

Proms premiere – Sir James MacMillan: Symphony no.4


Sir James MacMillan

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Donald Runnicles (Prom 24)

Duration: 40 minutes

BBC iPlayer link


Meanwhile a full score of the piece can be viewed here (log-in needed)

What’s the story behind the piece?

It is always a bold move for a contemporary composer to write a new symphony, because that form seems to indicate a really major piece. However in the case of Sir James MacMillan that’s exactly what the Symphony no.4 is, a massive single movement for orchestra that the composer has dedicated to Donald Runnicles as a 60th birthday present.

The conductor describes it as having an ‘ancient and modern’ feel. The ancient is MacMillan’s quotes from much older music, and in particular the Mass Dum sacrum mysterium of the Scottish composer Robert Carver (c1485-1570) – an homage to an important figure in his musical development. There are “echoes of plainsong and chorales floating in the background”.

When discussing the piece on the radio broadcast beforehand, MacMillan talks of the importance of ‘music as ritual’. He says this is more an abstract work but still has a sense of that ritual. In an interview with The Scotsman MacMillan speaks of how the work became a symphony:


MacMillan also speaks warmly of his relationship with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who gave the first performance of his breakthrough piece The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at the Proms in 1990 under their then chief conductor Jerzy Maksymiuk. He talked of how he has got to know the people as characters rather than the instruments they play.

Did you know?

MacMillan is an avid Glasgow Celtic fan.

Initial verdict

With such a big piece it is difficult to appraise a symphony on first go. But the effect of hearing the Carver early on is striking, as it wends its way slowly through the busier orchestral accompaniment, as though the orchestra is processing into the room.
The undulating string passage at 8:12 on the link above bears Sibelius’ influence and is purely outdoor music, but gradually the strings cluster together in pitch. Then the attention turns to brighter treble sounds, with clarinets and brass occupying some higher pitches and sharp timbres. Then the drums come in with a big thwack (from 16:10) and the music moves into a much faster section.

The reverential sections come back and contrast with the greater movement, and there is a passage at around 29:00 where the orchestra really comes together in a moment of glassy clarity, expressing a keenly felt and slightly sweetened emotion.

Then around the 30:50 mark the piece would seem to have found a defining tonality of D minor, part of a slower coda that really hits the heights of emotion with the strings from 35:00.

From 37:45 there is a very ominous driving force at work, the bass drum powering the music as though driving home a great stake until the music cuts to the glistening rattle of a triangle, showing at first hand one of MacMillan’s great strengths, his mastery of orchestral colour. Then the piece builds with a massive gathering of orchestral power, cutting again to liquid percussion sounds and bells, an extraordinary effect, before a last chord dies away.
The Fourth Symphony does come across as a very spiritual work, and it carries a weighty emotional impact. One I look forward to hearing again!

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

Further exploration of Sir James MacMillan’s music is carried out by the BBC here:


Vaughan Williams and Sir James MacMillan – Oboe Concertos


Nicholas Daniel teams up with the Britten Sinfonia and Harmonia Mundi to present the recorded premiere of the Oboe Concerto by the recently knighted Sir James MacMillan. He couples this with a much shorter piece by the composer, One, and another British oboe concerto, the well-loved Vaughan Williams. Completing a varied cross-section of styles is Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes (A Time There Was), his final completed orchestral work.

What’s the music like?

MacMillan has written a bold Oboe Concerto, a substantial work lasting nearly 25 minutes that makes great technical demands on its soloist. It is a rewrite of an earlier piece for oboe and orchestra, In Angustiis, which responded to the horrors of 9/11. While the piece is essentially optimistic in tone, these thoughts can be felt in the second movement, essentially a lament, where the strings sigh painfully, and in a moment of deep thought that occurs towards the end of the first movement – in complete contrast to the jaunty, angular main material.

Vaughan Williams’ concerto is a lovely piece, its dreamy first theme coloured with strings to evoke a picture of hazy sunshine. Completed in 1944, it is a largely positive work in the face of the Second World War, especially in the third movement, where a dance plays out between oboe and strings.

Britten’s suite, as with so many of his orchestral works, is a model of economy, saying in fifteen minutes what many lesser composers would do in 25. It is extremely resourceful in its use of ten folk tunes, but it is also tinged with pain, the composer aware that he is in his last days – and this is felt in Daniel’s cor anglais solo in the tune Lord Melbourne.

One, the second MacMillan piece here also shows his love for his home country, based on a single, arching tune based on the traditional song of Scotland and Ireland.

Does it all work?

Nicholas Daniel is one of our finest oboists, and although even he admits to difficulties in learning the part for the MacMillan his playing is absolutely superb. The energy of that work contrasts with the soulful Vaughan Williams, an affectionate performance where the slightly reduced forces of the Britten Sinfonia (in comparison to a full scale orchestra) mean more detail can be heard and enjoyed. Turning his hand to a conducting role, Daniel teases out Britten’s subtle affection for folk tunes through the relative darkness of illness.

Is it recommended?

Yes – and how satisfying to listen to such a substantial contemporary piece for oboe, which could hardly have a better advocate than it does here.

With contrasting styles of music this disc is an unrestricted pleasure, and is recommended for all fans of classical music from these shores.

Listen on Spotify

This disc can be heard here:

The Gould Trio play Schubert at the Wigmore Hall

The Gould Piano Trio play Schubert at the Wigmore Hall


The Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 15 June 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):


on the iPlayer until 15 July


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found here:

Meanwhile clips of the Gould Piano Trio playing the music of York Bowen on a recent release for Chandos can be found here

What’s the music?

York Bowen: Rhapsody Trio (1926) (13 minutes)

Schubert: Piano Trio no.1 (1827) (40 minutes)

What about the music?

A nicely balanced hour of chamber music, with one classic of the piano trio repertoire complemented by a very little-known work.

That said, the music of York Bowen has received a lot of exposure of late – too much, some would say! At its best though Bowen’s writing shows that his high regard from composers such as Camille Saint-Saëns was not misplaced. It is chamber music that seems to be the most consistent part of his output. This Rhapsody Trio – written in a single movement format popular with English composers in the early decades of the twentieth century – was premiered at the Savoy Hotel early in 1926 at the annual dinner of the Federation of British Music Industries.

Schubert’s two big works for piano trio are justly celebrated, being two of the best and most substantial pieces for the form. The first was written a year before the composer’s death, for the same trio that gave the first performance of Beethoven’s Archduke piano trio. Incidentally that work is set in the same key, B flat major, leading to the drawing of similarities between the two. The works are similar length, but Schubert imposes his own distinctive style here, writing music that seems on the face of it to be very optimistic – but which can on closer inspection have a few worrisome moments. There is no shortage of tunes, though, and in the slow movement especially Schubert brings his song-writing prowess to bear in some beautifully written duet work for violin and cello above the piano.

Performance verdict

Watching this performance from The Gould Trio it was immediately clear just how much enjoyment they took from the music. The Schubert was full of sleights of humour but was also very detailed, and pianist Benjamin Frith demonstrated an uncanny instinct for knowing when to hold back slightly in a phrase, or when to push on.

The first movement emphasised how gracefully Schubert writes for strings, even in the midst of a lot of bluster, while the song-based second movement lived up to its billing. The ‘Scherzo’ was witty and took time over the longer notes of his contrasting ‘trio’ section, while as the curious last movement wended its way through all sorts of different keys the trio always had a firm hand on the tiller.

Meanwhile the Bowen was given the conviction and passion his music needs, emerging as a really fine piece of music. The end in particular was extremely well done, thoughtful but holding the audience in the palm of its hand.

What should I listen out for?


2:23 – the music begins as though emerging from a dream into the morning light. Held notes from the strings and some lazy thoughts from the piano are initially quite unfocused, but gradually the trio find their footing and a bold, louder passage ensues. At 4:34 a fetching melody can be heard on violin and cello in unison.

The music gradually picks up speed, the instruments now a lot more independent and the piano part more demanding. Although the comparisons are often between Bowen and Rachmaninov, I find the appealing unison passage from 9:30 to be like Fauré.

After another passionate section the music seems to be spent, but Bowen brings out a really atmospheric and rather affecting ending from around 14:00 onwards, all three instruments seemingly lost in thought.


17:55 – Few chamber works begin with this much positivity! Here the Gould Piano Trio are at pains to stress this music can also be graceful – a lot of trios give the opening of the first movement too much oomph. Here though the tune shines through, and is nicely articulated by pianist Benjamin Frith at 18:49.

19:49 – Schubert’s light and songful second main tune appears on the cello. The trio repeat the first section of this movement at 21:49.

25:35 – Schubert now takes the music further from home, moving through a number of different keys as the main tune gets distorted and more worked up. Eventually this leads back to ‘home’, and the main tune in its original state, at 29:01, from the piano with soft accompaniment. Then at around 31:40 the music pulls back, leading through to an emphatic finish at 32:46.

33:12 – the second movement – marked Andante (at a walking pace) – begins with a cello solo and soft piano accompaniment. The cello is soon joined by the violin with the same melody. The atmosphere is relaxed and nocturnal. However there are shadows that occasionally fall over the music. A good example is at 36:11, where a minor chord introduces a much colder edge. Everything is suddenly less certain, and Schubert alternates between these moods – mostly touching on the positive, and especially so as the movement subsides to a gentle close (from 42:20)

42:55 – the third movement begins. This is a ‘Scherzo’ (normally a jokey kind of movement) and it begins here with an innocent sounding melody. Then Schubert develops a kind of melodic cell that gets passed between the three instruments. The humour – exploited by The Gould Trio – comes mostly in the stop-start nature of the music. The trio section – usually a contrast – begins at 46:14 and is graceful, with long notes in the strings. The scherzo section returns at 48:05.

50:09 – the last movement begins with a sweet tune from the violin, then moves onto a more obviously dance-based second tune (50:49) Schubert then takes the music on a tour of some pretty distant tonal centres, setting his tunes in increasingly playful formats but keeping in the spirit of the dance. Then as the end approaches Schubert keeps pretending to finish before moving off in contrary directions…until he finally does at 59:02, setting off on a quick coda.

Further listening

Two bits of further listening for you this week – if you particularly enjoyed the Schubert, then The Gould Trio have a recording of the second piano trio made at the Wigmore Hall. It can be heard on Spotify below, occupying the last four tracks:

Meanwhile the Gould Piano Trio’s most recent recording, to be reviewed shortly on Arcana, is a fascinating collection of works for piano trio by three British composers – Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the recently knighted Sir James MacMillan and Sally Beamish. That disc can be heard on the Spotify link below:

For more concerts click here