Benjamin Baker, Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson – Berg: Violin Concerto & Schmidt: Symphony no.4

Benjamin Baker (violin), Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson

St John’s, Smith Square, London; Monday 16 October 2017

Richard Strauss, arr. Rodziński Der Rosenkavalier – Suite (1945)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Schmidt Symphony No. 4 in C (1933)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Never an ensemble to shirk a challenge, the Salomon Orchestra’s current season continued tonight with what, aesthetically, was an almost perfectly balanced programme – and whose second half brought a timely revival (in the UK) of the Fourth Symphony by Franz Schmidt.

With its catalyst in the tragically unexpected death of his daughter, this work was consciously intended as an ‘in memoriam’ and this is reflected in a formal design as fuses the customary four movements into an unbroken continuity; expressively also in that salient themes return almost as memories being recollected. From which perspective this performance succeeded admirably – Holly Mathieson having the measure of an overall design as though akin to the ‘journey of a life’, whose ending is tangibly (thereby inevitably) anticipated in its beginning.

The exposition’s themes – the first as introspective as the second, with its Magyar overtones, surges forth – were judiciously contrasted, and if the development was a little too rhetorical, it evinced the right cumulative intensity leading into an Adagio whose anguished climax was set into relief by the inward eloquence on either side. A touch stolid rhythmically, the scherzo did not lack impetus as it headed – lemming-like – over its cliff of disaster; in the aftermath of which the reprise gradually re-established momentum as the work came resignedly full-circle.

Its unity within diversity aside, the Fourth Symphony is a stern test of orchestral skill such as the Salomon met head on. The strings evinced the burnished warmth necessary for this music, and while woodwind intonation was on occasion wanting, it did not undermine an orchestral texture through which brass emerged with the appropriate impact. The solo contributions were well taken, not least from trumpeter John Hackett and cellist Kate Valdar, and Mathieson can take considerable credit for her advocacy of a piece whose repertoire status is still not secure.

Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas

Before the interval, Berg’s Violin Concerto had provided the ideal complement. Similarly inspired by the premature death of a woman (in this instance the teenage Manon Gropius), it also focusses on that continuum between life and death, as well as the transfiguration which may result. Here again the four movements, divided into two parts, can be difficult to make cohesive and though Benjamin Baker (above) was not lacking consistency, his rather unvaried tone leading to an expressive uniformity as made this, ultimately, an interpretation in the making.

Mathieson, though, was attentive and always responsive in support. Beforehand, she presided over an enjoyable account of a suite arranged towards the end of the Second World War from Der Rosenkavalier. Probably undertaken by the conductor Artur Rodziński, it takes in several of the highlights from Richard Strauss’s sprawling comedy – rather as does Robert Russell Bennett’s ‘symphonic picture’ derived from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which likewise has the result of reducing the larger work to a succession of glib purple-patches devoid of any real context.

Rendered with aplomb, it was surely possible, even so, to find a more fitting concert-opener – Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta would have been ideal temporally and conceptually. That aside, this evening was a fine demonstration from the Salomon and auspicious occasion for Mathieson.

For more concert information from the Salomon Orchestra, head to their website

Franz Welser-Möst‘s pioneering recording of Schmidt’s Symphony no.4, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, can be heard on Spotify below:

The Genesis of Minerva: Schumann and the Young Brahms – Minverva Piano Trio

minerva-piano-trio

Minerva Piano Trio (above): Michal Cwizewicz (violin), Richard Birchall (cello), Annie Yim (piano)

St John’s Smith Square, London; Sunday 23rd October, 2016

Schumann Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.63 (1847)

Birchall Contours (2014)

Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 in B, Op. 8a (original 1854 version)

A season-long residency as Young Artists at St John’s is enabling the Minerva Piano Trio to schedule several worthwhile recitals. None fitted the bill more than this afternoon’s programme, culminating in a rare revival for the First Piano Trio of Brahms as heard in its original version.

Completed when he was barely into his twenties, this is the only work from the outset of Brahms’s maturity to have survived essentially as it was conceived. That the composer substantially re-wrote it in 1889 (after his temporary ‘retirement’ from composition) but allowed the versions to co-exist suggests that, dissatisfied though he may have become with them, he was unable to suppress those earlier thoughts. One does not look to the 1854 version for formal unity or finesse, but it certainly has the edge in terms of expression and tonal cohesion.

The opening Allegro is as much about charting an emotional course through its constituent themes than fashioning them into a logical argument, yet such is the imaginative resource with which Brahms elaborates his material that the movement as it evolves becomes its own justification. The Minerva audibly appreciated this with playing as perceptive as the music required, then was equally inside the Scherzo with its alternately brusque and elegant ideas – and an intriguingly fugitive ending that the revision streamlines into something less arresting.

With its multiple allusions to the then nascent Lieder tradition, the Adagio casts a magnetic if unsettling spell and the Minerva accordingly brought out its exquisite ambiguity in full measure. No less impressive was a Finale which, irrespective of how convincing – or otherwise – is its reworking (and Clara Schumann’s strictures cannot be lightly dismissed), the audacious homecoming in B minor is here suffused with inevitability such as the older and wiser Brahms was unable to achieve by modulatory means alone: a QED in every sense.

A commanding performance, then, and the Minerva had been hardly less inside the idiom of Schumann’s own First Piano Trio at the start of this recital. Whether or not the emergence of his wife Clara’s masterly work for the medium just a year before was indeed the catalyst, the present piece harnesses those sombre hues often to the fore in Schumann’s later music with a textural translucency which never spills over into opacity. This, at least, was the impression left by a reading that plotted a resolute course through the discursive design of the opening movement then clarified the scherzo’s rhythmic intricacy without sacrificing its poise. The plangent ‘song without words’ that follows was seamlessly dovetailed into the finale, which unfolded with no lack of incident on its way to a decisive while tenuously affirmative close.

Coming between these expansive staples of the repertoire, Contours by the Minerva’s cellist Richard Birchall proved a diverting entity – its four brief movements amounting to a discreet unity that, with its evocative Nocturne and engaging Fast Waltz, confirmed a real grasp of this difficult medium. There was further music at the close – when, in response to generous applause, the Minerva gave an easeful reading of the Andante from Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G minor. An eloquent conclusion to an impressive recital by an ensemble which is clearly going places.

Richard Whitehouse

The Minerva Piano Trio returns to St John’s for further concerts on 9th March and 1st June 2017. Further information can be found at the St John’s website. You can hear more of the trio below:

Ensemble L’imaginaire play the music of Richard Barrett at St John’s Smith Square

ensemble-limaginaire

Ensemble L’imaginaire (above): Keiko Murakami (flute), Adam Starkie (clarinet),        Philippe Koerper (soprano saxophone), Maxime Springer (piano), Adaq Khan (sound engineer)

St John’s Smith Square, London; Sunday 16th October, 2016

the light gleams an instant (1996)
Zungenentwurzeln (1997)
fold (2016)
Katasterismoi (1999)
dying words II (2013)
epiphyte (2016)
interference (2000)

The Sunday afternoon concert series from St John’s has been a welcome development on the London calendar – not least when it means the appearance of such as Ensemble L’Imaginaire, the Strasbourg-based group currently touring this programme of music by Richard Barrett.

Swansea-born and now Belgrade-based, Barrett (b1959) has long had a cult following in the UK with just the occasional high-profile premiere (notably by the BBC) serving to reacquaint listeners of his importance. An ambitious and questing conceptualist, numerous pieces have been planned as components of larger and evening-length projects – making this afternoon’s selection of works from the past quarter-century a viable ‘composition’ in itself; not least in its focussing on those scientific and arcane issues that have long been central to his activities.

This sequence began with the light gleams an instant – part of the larger work Tract, whose interplay of filigree activity in the right hand with headlong motion in the left gives rise to an exacting and meaningful virtuosity that Maxime Springer took audibly in his stride. Between these instrumental pieces came electronic ‘interludes’ themselves related to larger projects – the first being Zungenentwurzeln (‘‘the uprooting of tongues’’), with its inspiration in Paul Celan and visceral anatomical sound-imagery. Next was fold, originating as a piece for oboe and here transformed for soprano saxophone that underlined antecedents in Roscoe Mitchell (and a reminder that Barrett has enjoyed a productive association with Evan Parker) besides setting a tough assignment for the performer which Philippe Koerper acquitted with panache.

This was followed by Katasterismoi (‘‘transformations into stars’’), embodying astronomical reflections past and present through a tactile process of developing variation. Its sound source was the biwa, making for a tangible link into Dying Words II – whose flautist also intones an ancient Japanese text on the impermanence of things in the natural world and in which Keiko Murakami’s performing from memory was an unarguable fete. The last electronic item was epiphyte, its analogy to intruding while not parasitic plant growth represented by a dextrous texture unfolding in stealthy terms. Finally, interference alludes both to electromagnetic and quantum theories via a circuitous solo for contrabass clarinet informed by bass drum strokes and apocalyptic fragments from Lucretius as Adam Stirkie coordinated with evident aplomb.

The fact that this programme was presented as a continuous sequence lasting for just under an hour should evince no qualms, but it was a pity that the sequence could not have been heard without interruption so as to underline its highly integrated nature as both the composer and performers intended. All four of the performers – not forgetting sound engineer Adaq Khan, who throughout secured an impressive sense of musical space and definition in the reverberant acoustic of St John’s – duly took the stage at the close for renewed and enthusiastic applause.

The audience of barely more than two-dozen punters was regrettable given the stature of this composer. Not that Barrett will be tempted to succumb to the blandishments of much present-day music, but his combative and provocative work deserves much wider acknowledgement.

Richard Whitehouse

Ensemble L’imaginaire ends its UK tour of Richard Barrett at Canterbury University on Wednesday 19th October at 1.10pm. Further information can be found at the Ensemble l’imaginaire website

Howard Shelley & London Mozart Players – Mozart Explored – Piano Concerto no.27

sjssHoward Shelley & London Mozart Players, St John’s Smith Square, 2 March 2016.

Mozart Explored: Piano Concerto no.27

For the latest in their Mozart Explored series at St John’s Smith Square, Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players turned their attention to the composer’s final work in the form.

It is astonishing when you pause to think that Mozart had already completed 27 piano concertos by the age of 35, quite apart from everything else he did. Even after the composition of this piece, when he was under all sorts of personal and financial pressure, he managed to write such ‘trifles’ as The Magic Flute, the Clarinet Concerto and the Requiem. So although the music here was shown to be wonderfully positive there was a twinge of sadness at a career cut so short.

Howard Shelley was the ideal guide, affable yet knowledgeable, and although his keyboard was positioned so he faced the orchestra rather than the audience this was a good move, for everyone in St John’s could see his hands at the keyboard – and as a result the music physically being made.

St John’s is a lovely venue for this music, a world apart from the incessant clamour of Parliament Square just around the corner – an oasis by the Thames. Shelley’s demeanour only aided this hour of escape, talking through the circumstances around the composition of the concerto and also getting to the nub of the main themes of each of the three movements.

And then the performance itself, which was beautifully and stylishly given. With the orchestra ideally sized, Shelley conducted them through the opening bars of the first movement before his own graceful solo part asserted itself, stressing the vocal nature of much of this music.

There was lovely interplay particularly with the woodwind, who were also a prominent feature of the second movement, which felt like an aria in Shelley’s hands. The finale, written in celebration of the onset of Spring, could have been a little misplaced given the bitterly cold wind outside, but it became a light footed and quite graceful dance, Shelley again taking the lead.

The LMP return on Thursday March 16 to turn their attention to Beethoven’s Emperor Piano concerto – and if you can make it the rewards will surely be many!

In concert – Werther Ensemble: British Piano Quartets at St John’s, Smith Square

werther-ensemble

Werther Ensemble (Jamie Campbell (violin), Nicholas Bootiman (viola), James Barralet (cello), Simon Callaghan (piano); St John’s Smith Square, London, 21 February 2016

Bliss Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 5 (1915)

Howells Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 21 (1916)

Alwyn Rhapsody (1938)

Walton Piano Quartet in D minor (1919)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Werther Ensemble has proved itself adept across the broad spectrum of nineteenth- and twentieth-century chamber music, and this enterprising programme demonstrated the range of response by British composers to that most often overlooked of media – the piano quartet.

Admittedly it got off to a lukewarm start with the Piano Quartet by Sir Arthur Bliss. True the first movement began impressively, but its ensuing contrast of romantic ardour with a gauche folksiness the composer was soon to jettison never quite worked, then the central Intermezzo was simply too short and lightweight to hold a balance between its predecessor and the lively finale with its dutiful recall of the work’s opening theme towards the close. Understandable if Bliss should have left this piece to its fate as he headed off in a radically different direction.

A year younger, Howells completed his own Piano Quartet at much the same time, yet here there could be no doubt as to its consistency of musical idiom with those other chamber works from this composer’s early maturity. The opening movement unfolded with no mean deliberation, its main ideas emerging gradually and only rarely asserting themselves against a constantly shifting harmonic context.

For all that it conveyed a purposeful momentum as the Werther was mindful to contrast with the lingering eloquence of the central Lento – building in stages towards a soulful climax tinged with regret. After this, the finale may have surprised with its rhythmic incisiveness and often headlong progress, yet the affirmative outcome was audibly in keeping with the underlying trajectory of this ‘dark horse’ among works of its kind.

After the interval, a welcome revival for the Rhapsody as was the first of Alwyn’s two contributions to the medium. This packed a wealth of incident into its modest timespan of a little more than nine minutes. The tensile initial idea proved dominant while being flexible enough to accommodate understated material in a loosely palindromic structure that brought a satisfying completion. The Werther was more than equal to the technical challenges of a piece as reminded one some of Alwyn’s most distinctive music is to be found in his chamber output.

The programme concluded with the Piano Quartet by which the teenage Walton gave notice of his protean talent. Although revised in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, this is very much a young composer’s music – one steeped in recent scores by Ravel and Stravinsky that are put to productive use over its thematically interrelated four movements.

The Werther duly sustained its half-hour span with conviction to spare – whether in its trenchant response to the bracing scherzo, the ambivalent shadows that inform the Andante’s fitful progress, or the ingenuity by which the opening movement links hands with the finale in an impressive show of technical resource and cumulative energy – especially during the latter’s heady central passage, a sure pointer towards the composer’s musical preoccupations a decade and more hence.

An impressive conclusion, then, to a well-conceived and finely executed recital, in spite of the occasional intonational flaw. Apparently this had to be postponed from last year because of illness among the ensemble – in which case, its rescheduling was justified in every respect.