In concert – David Titterington plays Messiaen’s La Nativité at St John’s Smith Square

David Titterington (organ)

St John’s Smith Square, Thursday 19 December 2019 (lunchtime)

Messiaen La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord or The Birth of the Saviour)

Review by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou (David Titterington), Ben Hogwood (SJSS organ)

Organ recitals can be curiously awkward affairs. The performer will often sit with their back to the audience, playing from a spot in the venue that is nigh on impossible to access. Taking a bow from their stage is fraught with difficulty – in this case a wrong move could lead to an unexpected descent! – and any heroic page turning deeds are done by an unseen accomplice in the dark, on a wing and a prayer (speaking with the cold sweat of experience!)

That said, this was an organ recital of the highest order from David Titterington. The scene was set in St John’s Smith Square, where just around the corner TV crews were covering the state opening of parliament with a security lockdown in place. Here the mood was different but similarly tense, the dank December gloom ensuring the audience were almost in darkness, save for the minimal light of a chandelier.

Yet these circumstances served to draw strong parallels with the very first Nativity. Political unrest, dark times – and in them the arrival of light, acknowledged in Messiaen’s rapturous response to the Biblical tale. Nothing is ever done by halves with this particular French composer, and his response came in the form of a massive, nine-movement organ suite lasting just over an hour. For Messiaen, contemplation is achieved through massive added-note chords, complex rhythms and large structures. Each section in this 1935 work responds to images from the birth of Jesus, and it is one of the composer’s first works to use birdsong melodies and rhythms from India and Ancient Greece.

Taking up the challenge, Titterington – himself the St John’s organ curator – delivered what could only be described as an heroic performance. So much of this music is about creating an atmosphere, and although the elements had combined helpfully it was his choices of registration and phrasing that took us to the next level, securing both a spectacular and reverent performance.

We began with the mottled chords of La vierge et l’enfant (The Virgin and Child) before clipped upper register notes introduced Les bergers (The Shepherds), their tumbling single lines brilliantly executed. Desseins éternels (Eternal designs) had appropriately rich, blanket chords which aided of contemplation and meditation, the subdued lighting helping the cause.

Meanwhile the massive Le verbe (The Word) was a tour de force, with impressive flourishes in the right hand, the structure easily grasped before the probing lines and eventual harmonic stability of Les enfants de Dieu (The Children of God), which ended in mysterious quiet. Titterington then gave superb definition to the complicated treble parts of Les anges (The Angels), with bell-like peals ringing around the church.

The sounds for Jésus accepte la souffrance (Jesus accepts suffering) were brilliantly secured, with a deep growl from the lower reaches of the organ depicting the trials at hand, which were ultimately overcome in brighter sound at the end.

We then contemplated the slowly circling figures of Les mages (The Magi), with a lovely pipe timbre chosen for the second part of the piece, before Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us) brought the house down, a glorious finale that reached a blazing conclusion.

When experienced in this way close to Christmas La Nativité comes alive, its colourful musical prose and richer than rich harmonies preparing us for the feasting in store – but also contemplating the quiet wonder of the festival, the still, peaceful voices that even now strive to remain as a crucial part of the Christian calendar.

Further listening

You can hear Messiaen’s cycle on Spotify below, in a recent recording for the King’s College Cambridge label by Richard Gowers:

Live review – Kensington SO / Russell Keable: William Schuman 3rd Symphony, Adams, Bernstein & Tower

Kensington Symphony OrchestraRussell Keable (above)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London. Monday October 15, 2018

Tower Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 (1986)
Bernstein Divertimento (1980)
Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007, rev 2008)
Schuman Symphony No. 3 (1941)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Kensington Symphony Orchestra‘s 63rd season got off to a most impressive start with tonight’s concert of American music (simultaneously continuing the Americana ’18 festival taking place at St John’s during this year), opening with the Fanfare for the Common Woman with which Joan Tower launched her wider reputation over three decades ago. Rhythmically bracing while not without harmonic subtlety, it provided a fitting showcase for the KSO brass and percussion as well as a pertinent tribute to this composer in the year of her 70th birthday.

Leonard Bernstein‘s centenary was marked with his Divertimento, seven succinct movements that touch upon most of his salient traits and a reminder that his latter-day creativity was one where less equals more. Highlights include a delectable Waltz (enjoying frequent exposure on Classic FM), wistful Mazurka, evocative Blues then a rousing March: The BSO Forever whose Johann Strauss take-off duly makes for an uproarious close. Suffice to add the KSO was not found wanting in a piece written for the Boston Symphony’s own 100th birthday.

As Russell Keable‘s opening remarks made plain, John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony was an altogether more serious proposition. First heard at the 2007 Proms, the rather diffuse 45-minute work in four movements was duly streamlined into a continuous structure lasting barely half an hour. Surprising, then, that the result seems less than cohesive – its reworking of material from the composer’s third opera one of cinematic contrast than symphonic unity. Some of his most virtuoso orchestral writing, which the KSO tackled with relish, is hampered by the recourse to post-minimalist gestures that remain Adams’s (unwitting?) stock-in-trade. Even the final section, a setting of John Donne‘s sonnet Batter my heart with its baritone part taken by trumpet (here the mellifluous Stephen Willcox), felt less than truly affecting.

After the interval, a welcome revival (likely the first in London for two decades) for William Schuman‘s Third Symphony. One of a triumvirate of such pieces by American composers to emerge either side of the Second World War, it evinces a formal integration and expressive panache that its composer never surpassed – not least in the way its four movements are arranged in two larger parts such as complement each other unerringly, and with a steadily accumulating momentum which emerges across the whole in what is itself a marvel of tensile dynamism.

Keable delineated the variations of the initial Passacaglia with assurance, ensuring textural clarity here and in the ensuing Fugue while underlining how the numerous woodwind and brass solos emerge naturally from the string polyphony rather than sounding laminated onto it. Nor was there any lack of emotional poise with the Chorale, its understated eloquence in contrast to the inexorably mounting impetus of the closing Toccata whose final pages are as visceral as any in the symphonic literature – not least when rendered with such verve as here.

A memorable reading of a seminal though under-appreciated piece such as the KSO has long championed. Hopefully future seasons will see revivals of comparable American works – the Second Symphony of Roger Sessions and Seventh (Variation) Symphony of Peter Mennin.

For further information on the Kensington Symphony Orchestra you can visit the orchestra’s website

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