Wigmore Mondays – Joanna MacGregor: Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

Joanna MacGregor (above)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 11 November 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Joanna MacGregor is a remarkably versatile pianist – and from this evidence at the Wigmore Hall, she is an artist who enjoys her music making as much as ever.

It would seem she was given free rein for this hour of music – and was certainly free as a bird in the opening selection of wing-themed pieces. Returning to earth for ‘Grounds’ – pieces of music with set, short structures in the bass – she was equally effusive, as well as ‘Chaconnes’, which are similar to ‘Grounds’ but based more on chord sequences than explicit basslines.

The 400 years or so of music started with a flourish. Rameau had a great ability to portray nature in music, and his Le rappel des oiseaux (The call of the birds) was a delight in its interaction between the hands. His contemporary, François Couperin, was represented by a strongly characterised Les fauvétes plaintives (The plaintive warblers), where MacGregor enjoyed the ornamentation of the right hand. That led to an arrangement of fellow countryman Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The black robin), originally for flute and piano but responding well here to its reduction, with quick fire block chords. Rameau’s portrait of La poule (The Hen) was brilliant, the clucking and strutting of the bird all too enjoyably evident.

Janáček’s piano music has an otherworldly quality of stark intimacy, and it does not get anywhere near the amount of recognition it deserves in the concert hall these days. Joanna MacGregor started her next segment of bird-themed pieces with the evocative piece The barn owl has not flown away. Taken from the first book of the Czech composer’s collection On an Overgrown Path, its haunting motifs fixed the listener in a gaze rather like the owl itself.

Birtwistle’s brief Oockooing Bird was next, a slightly mysterious creature in this performance, before a piano arrangement of Hossein Alizadeh’s Call of the Birds, normally heard in its original version for the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) and the shurangiz (an Iranian member of the lute family). MacGregor is so good at inhabiting the authentic language of these pieces, and she did so here in concentrated fasion.

For the ‘Grounds’ section, who better to start with than Purcell? He was a natural with supposedly constricted forms like this, and the Ground in C minor teemed with activity in MacGregor’s hands, the right hand figures dancing attractively, The piece prepared the way nicely for Philip Glass’s repetitive but meditative Prophecies, arranged from his music to Koyaanisqatsi. This film soundtrack contains some of the composer’s finest music, and MacGregor showed how well it transcribes for piano, building to a bold and emphatic finish.

For the final section we moved onto ‘Chaconnes’, and looked back to the 16th century for the earliest piece in the program. Yet Byrd’s First Pavane still sounds modern in piano guise – Glenn Gould certainly thought so – and Joanna MacGregor gave an extremely spirited and buoyant account. Glass appeared once more – this time the interlude Knee Play no.4 from his opera Einstein on the Beach – before the substantial Chaconne in F minor from Pachelbel, heard here on the piano instead of its ‘home’ instrument, the organ.

How refreshing not to hear the composer’s Canon, much-loved as it is – for Pachelbel is much more than merely a composer of that particular piece. MacGregor found the profound emotional centre, darkly coloured in the minor key – and with that came an impressive inner resolve.

For an encore we were introduced to the eleventh composer of the day through a spirited account of the Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor. It contained all the enthusiasm and melodic definition that made this hour in the company of Joanna MacGregor such a joy.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Rameau Le rappel des osieaux (pub. 1724) (2:21)
François Couperin Les fauvétes plaintives (pub. 1722) (5:27)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1951/1985) (9:05)
Rameau La poule (pub. 1729) (11:02)
Janáček The barn owl has not flown away (from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1) (1900-11) (15:36)
Birtwistle Oockooing Bird (2000) (19:39)
Hossein Alizadeh Call of the Birds (2003) (22:08)
Purcell (1659-1695) Ground in C minor Z221 (unknown) (27:31)
Glass Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi) (1982) (30:34)
Byrd First Pavane (from My Ladye Nevells Booke) (pub. 1591) (36:25)
Glass arr. Paul Barnes Knee Play No 4 (from Einstein on the Beach, from Trilogy Sonata) (1976) (40:44)
Pachelbel (1653-1706) Chaconne in F minor (unknown) (44:19)
Encore
Handel Passacaglia from Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor (52:33)

Further listening

Joanna MacGregor has yet to record most of the music in this concert, but the following playlist contains most of the music listed above:

Portrayals of birds in classical music are far reaching, but few managed them better than Haydn in the 18th century. His Symphony no.83 in G minor, La Poule (The Hen) begins this playlist containing 100 minutes of bird-themed music. It includes Respighi’s exotic suite The Birds, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and – perhaps inevitably – Vaughan Williams’ timeless The Lark Ascending:

For the most recommendable version of Janáček’s complete piano music, here is Rudolf Firkušný in both books of the evocative pieces On An Overgrown Path, ideal listening for this time of year:

For a good onward example of Joanna MacGregor’s art on the solo piano, her 2003 album Play is highly recommended, taking an open approach similar to this concert:

Wigmore Mondays – The Cardinall’s Musick / Andrew Carwood: The Gunpowder plot

The Cardinall’s Musick (above) / Andrew Carwood (below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 4 November 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

The year is 2420. London’s concert hall in the City is celebrating its 200th anniversary with a concert of music devoted to Brexit. There are songs and instrumental pieces looking to recreate the chaos of the time.

Sound fanciful? Not entirely – especially when you cast an eye over this fascinating concert from the Cardinall’s Musick and Andrew Carwood, which was all about the attempt to end the reign of King James I by Guy Fawkes and his associates in 1605.

Carwood assembled an intriguing programme of music from well-known composers of the day – Gibbons, Byrd, Tomkins and Weelkes – and those not so well known in Thomas Greaves, John Hilton, Michael East and Richard Allison. The ensemble performed groups of sacred and secular music from the time by the composers, ranging from big eight-part masterpieces by Byrd and Gibbons to miniature odes to tobacco from Michael East.

There were some unexpectedly poignant moments as the concert progressed, and funny ones too, but the group began with one of the best-known anthems from the era in Orlando GibbonsO clap your hands (2:20). The interweaving parts were beautifully realised under Carwood’s clear direction.

The conductor (above) then gave the first of several informative and entertaining guides to both the historical period and the repertoire. Thomas Greaves’ five-part welcome song in honour of James, England receive the rightful king (9:55) led to Thomas Tomkins’ thoughtful O God, the proud are risen against me (11:59). Written in eight parts, this was a barely concealed railing against the leaders of the plot to overthrow the king and government, with some spicy dissonances clearly inflected by the sopranos.
John Hilton’s As there be three blue beans (15:39) was unexpectedly mischievous, a three-part round brilliantly sung by altos Patrick Craig and David Gould, and tenor Benjamin Durrant. It finished by marking the existence of three universities in England – Cambridge, Oxford and James.

Also in this group was William Byrd’s majestic The eagle’s force (17:44), which benefited from the clarity of the altos’ singing, and Michael East’s ode O metaphysical tobacco (20:07). King James I hated tobacco – and eventually had its ambassador Sir Walter Raleigh executed to appease Spain – but many in society loved this new discovery (as they do 415 years on!) There was no evidence of gravelly voices in this performance!

A piece of really impressive heft followed, Byrd’s anthem Deus venerunt gentes (24:03), described by Carwood as ‘symphonic’. A setting of Psalm 78, it is said to be the psalm martyrs would say on their approach to death, to receive forgiveness – and was used by the composer here as a lament for his fellow composer Thomas Campion. By nature it is a serious piece, and its stately progression was ideally paced by the group here, offering time for reflection during its 13 minutes. The lower registers of Byrd’s writing, especially around the 30:25 mark, were immaculately observed and set the downbeat mood, which followed the text impeccably.


King James I

The next selection of music looked at England in the aftermath of the Guy Fawkes plot. After another helpful introduction from Carwood we heard a prayer for the posterity of the king, Richard Allison’s O Lord bow down, a reverential number (39:37), followed by Thomas Tomkins’ request to the Lord for protection, The hills stand about Jerusalem (43:43), where the two sopranos and tenor dovetailed exquisitely. Following the same theme, Thomas Weelkes’ sobering O Lord God Almighty had explicit mentions for the royal family and their security (46:08), once again showing how little has changed in the preceding 400 years.

Finally another great Byrd piece in the shape of the eight-part wonder Ad Dominum cum tribularer (50:36), one with a stark message not just for the country post-gunpowder plot but for the world today: “I speak peace to them and they clamour for war”. A setting of Psalm 120, it is unsurprisingly a work of sombre beginnings, with a couple of spicy dissonances, but it grew in strength and conviction in this performance, which was ideally paced and realised.

Repertoire

The Cardinall’s Musick are the following singers, conducted by Andrew Carwood:

Laura Oldfield, Cecilia Osmond (sopranos), Patrick Craig, David Gould (altos), Benjamin Durrant, Nicholas Todd (tenors), Robert Evans, James Birchall (basses)

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Gibbons O clap your hands (2:20)
Greaves England receive the rightful king (9:55)
Tomkins O God, the proud are risen against me (11:59)
Hilton As there be three blue beans (15:39)
Byrd The eagle’s force (17:44)
East O metaphysical tobacco (20:07)
Byrd Deus venerunt gentes (24:03)
Allison O Lord bow down (39:37)
Tomkins The hills stand about Jerusalem (43:43)
Weelkes O Lord God Almighty (46:08)
Byrd Ad Dominum cum tribularer (50:36)

Further listening

Unfortunately some of the music heard in this concert is not available on Spotify, but the below playlist contains the music that could be found in available versions:

The Cardinall’s Musick have made a number of highly acclaimed recordings of the music of William Byrd. Two are available to hear on Spotify, recorded in the 1990s for the ASV label and featuring the eight part works heard in the concert. They are the Cantiones Sacrae

…and the Propers for the Nativity

On a completely different tip is this playlist of music suitable for fireworks! It includes works by Stravinsky and Debussy, but begins with the perennial Handel favourite Music for the Royal Fireworks, conducted by the recently departed Raymond Leppard:

Wigmore Mondays – Richard Egarr: Keyboard music of the Tudors and Stuarts

Richard Egarr

Richard Egarr (photo Marco Borggreve)

Byrd Fantasia in A minor; Pavan and Galliard; The Bells

Purcell Suite in G major; Ground in C minor

Blow Chaconne in FaUt

Purcell Suite in G minor; Suite in D major; Ground in D minor

L-R William Byrd (c.1540-1623);   Henry Purcell (c.1659-1695); John Blow (1648-1708)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The harpsichord enjoys a rather chequered reputation in concert, and from personal experience at least among friends I can say it is one of those ‘marmite’ instruments.

Certainly it is unusual for it to have a place alone in a BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, yet here it was, with Richard Egarr beginning the 2017 part of the Wigmore Hall Monday lunchtime concert season.

In the event the BBC had chosen well, Egarr compiling a fascinating program of keyboard music from the Tudors (Byrd) and Stuarts (Purcell and Blow).

The music of Byrd, a composer for Queen Elizabeth, flows with obvious inspiration. Egarr’s selection here began with the free and at times elaborate Prelude and Fantasia (from 1:43 in the broadcast), moved on to a more stately Pavan and Galliard (from 10:54 and 14:39) from the impressive collection My Lady Neville’s Book and concluded with the descriptive The Bells (16:19), a remarkable piece of writing beginning with a single toll and working its way intricately through thrilling peals of bells.

Purcell, even now one of the greatest composers England has ever produced, appears to have written his harpsichord suites as a tuition aid, yet they are all characterised with dances fast and slow. Egarr played three suites here, the G major work (from 23:55 on the broadcast) the simplest and the G minor (from 37:07), with its brisk Corant dance, seemingly the most challenging. Most engaging, however, was the three-part D major suite (from 45:45), with its thoughtful Prelude and brief but vigorous Hornpipe.

Egarr also included two brief Grounds (pieces with a short, recurring bass line) by Purcell (27:24 and 49:31), with a third, A New Ground, as an encore (52:50). We also heard a Chaconne by Purcell’s teacher John Blow (30:18), a chirpy piece that became increasingly busy and eventful, leading to a series of grand, block chords near the end.

Egarr’s performance manner was conversational. He turned his own pages, and even gave the harpsichord itself a clap at the end, as though thanking it for staying well-tuned! His demeanour encouraged the audience to feel part of an intimate concert, and lightened some of the heavy cloud around London for the first Monday proper of 2017.

Further listening

You can listen to the music in this concert on Spotify below, with recordings from Egarr himself:

In concert – Spitalfields Music Festival: Byrd at the Tower of London with the Odyssean Ensemble

byrd-tower-chapel

Odyssean Ensemble / Colm Carey, Christian Wilson (organ); Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London, London, 2 June 2016

Byrd The Great Service (1590s)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The Spitalfields Music Summer Festival celebrates 40 years this summer – and what better way to begin by sending its audience to the Tower?

That was Arcana’s fate on a surprisingly cold and grey evening, though thankfully our time with the ravens was not at Her Majesty’s displeasure. Rather it was a wholly enlightening evening with the music of William Byrd, one-time composer for a rather older Queen Elizabeth than the one we now have.

The focus of attention was Byrd’s Great Service, composed tactically in installments in the 1590s, ensuring Byrd kept his role – which had been the subject of some controversy. Byrd was fundamentally a catholic, and so was composing outside of his comfort zone – and many of his contemporaries knew that and wanted him punished. The Queen ensured this did not happen – and 420 years on we had cause to be grateful as his polyphony illuminated the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula.

byrd-tower-chapel-2

Interior, the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, the Tower of London

Providing the voices were the Odyssean Ensemble conducted by Colm Carey, their ten members singing one to a part, and bringing great clarity to Byrd’s text settings in a rewarding acoustic. Their harmonies were crystal clear, the pronunciation likewise – and the melodies were carefully woven into a beautiful tapestry.

The music of the Great Service itself was sensibly complemented by three shorter numbers on a reduced scale, and at the centre of the concert we were given a helpful reminder from organist Christian Wilson of the composer’s genius at the keyboard with the Fantasy in A minor. Byrd was, we were informed, given a telling off for over-elaboration in his writing – but here the decorations were almost mischievously florid.

As a perfectly chosen encore Carey introduced O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth – an anthem based on Psalm 21 that asks to ‘give her a long life, for ever and ever’. In the year of our current monarch’s 90th birthday, it was the most appropriate way to end to a fascinating and rewarding lesson in musical history, enhanced further by the escorted walk to the Tower gate afterwards.

 

Wigmore Mondays – English madrigals with I Fagiolini

I-Fagiolini

I Fagiolini, conductor Robert Hollingworth. Photo (c) Eric Richmond

Wigmore Hall, London, 11 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0769q91

Available until 10 May

What’s the music?

Byrd This sweet and merry month of May (3 minutes)

Wilbye Adieu, sweet Amaryllis; Ye restless thoughts; Draw on a sweet night (9 minutes)

Tomkins Weep no more thou sorry boy; Too much I once lamented (12 minutes)

Gibbons The silver swanne (1 minute)

Ward If the deep sighs (8 minutes)

Janet Wheeler Music to hear (2015) (4 minutes)

William Brooks Oooh Will (2016) (world première)

Adrian Williams Love is a babe (2012) (4 minutes)

Spotify

Most of the music in this concert is not available on Spotify. Where possible a few of the items have been included on the playlist below:

About the music

What is a madrigal? Wikipedia obliges with a good definition, calling it a ‘secular vocal composition, usually a partsong, of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras’. That means roughly speaking the 16th and 17th centuries. Usually the song is unaccompanied, as here.

It is still a relatively rare thing to get the opportunity to hear madrigals in concert, which is where I Fagiolini are so valuable. This richly varied program covers approximately 500 years of music, beginning with popular examples of the form from William Byrd, John Wilbye, Thomas Tomkins, Orlando Gibbons and a descriptive epic from John Ward. Tomkins’ Too much I once lamented is described as ‘one of the great laments’ of the period.

Then the concert fast forwards to celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare through three new pieces setting his texts, each written for I Fagiolini themselves. These are responses from Janet Wheeler, William Brooks and Adrian Williams, each finding out for themselves how enjoyable the Bard’s texts remain!

Performance verdict

A few props put the icing on the cake for this hour-long concert of great character and enthusiasm. As compere Robert Hollingworth was ideal, and it was a real education as the vocalists led us through classical English madrigals of old, before illustrating how today’s composers respond to the text of the time.

It would be churlish to criticise the performance, for it was full of energy, crisp and incredibly even, and some contributions – Hollingworth’s in William Brooks’ Oooh Will for instance – almost defied belief! This was the most memorable of the three new pieces, though Adrian Williams’ Love is a babe made a strong impact with its soft-hearted romance, and Janet Wheeler’s Music to hear was memorable especially for its whispered closing bars.

Yet ultimately it was the old classics that made the greatest impression, none more so than Ward’s remarkable If the deep sighs, a powerful and evocative portrait of despair.

What should I listen out for?

Byrd

1:20 A bright sound from the six part ensemble, reflecting the ‘sweet and merry’ month. Short melodic figures are passed between each of the parts in the short song.

Wilbye

4:11 Adieu, sweet Amaryllis A slightly lower pitch for this madrigal, making the contributions of the male parts more audible. There is a lovely open harmonic progression at the end, which is more subdued with just the four parts.

6:16 Ye restless thoughts as though to represent the restless thoughts Wilbye bombards the listener with short fragments of melody. This madrigal is in just three parts.

8:32 Draw on a sweet night a slow and richly scored madrigal, reflective but also quite subtly passionate.

A spoken introduction from Robert Hollingworth follows…then leads to…

Tomkins

14:59 Weep no more thou sorry boy A poignant beginning to the song, which then begins to stress certain words and phrases in quicker figures (such as the phrase ‘if she chide’)

21:15 Too much I once lamented Some spicy harmonies and complex part writing for Tomkins’ lament, which proceeds with a slow and stately feel. Again Tomkins speeds up the music where he wants to stress certain words, but the madrigal proceeds with some beautiful layering of parts.

A second spoken introduction from Robert Hollingworth, paying tribute to recordings from the Consort of Musicke and the Deller Consort, and describing the Ward as ‘nine minutes of soaring pairs of lines and a thoroughly melancholic text’

Gibbons

28:56 The Silver Swanne is one of the best-loved early English madrigals. It is short but beautifully formed, with soaring soprano high notes and a surprisingly full sound for six parts.

John Ward

30:26 Immediately it is clear If the deep sighs will be an expansive piece, with longer phrases and slow but beautiful high singing from the sopranos. Around 33:30 there is some striking singing from the male voices. Then there is a really strong finish from the ensemble as they sing of how ‘as new showers increase the rising flood’.

Janet Wheeler

39:46 Music to hear This has some pretty spicy harmonies but the four voices stay quite close in rhythm and harmony throughout. Wheeler’s most original writing is saved for the end, and after a unison finish to the music the choir whisper, as though exhaling in musical form. You’ll have to strain to hear it on the broadcast though!

William Brooks

44:23 Oooh Will The quick part of the accompaniment for this song is just one voice – that of Robert Hollingworth, whose incredibly agile tones support the sonorous solo of Charles Gibbs. The style is bluegrass – not a common form for Shakespeare, but a mighty effective one!

Adrian Williams

48:16 Love is a babe A modern setting of modern-sounding words – what would Shakespeare have made of the frequent use of ‘babe’ I wonder? Williams’ response is romantic but the choir show great depth of feeling

Encore

53:33 – Thomas Morley’s Now is the month of May – given in an attempt to bring summer on apace, said Robert Hollingworth – and the bright performance of this most English of madrigals gives it the best possible opportunity. Unfortunately it was raining when I left the hall, so it didn’t quite work!

Further listening

If you think of madrigals the name of Monteverdi will surely be one of the first composers who comes to mind. So here is a recent disc of his madrigals from Paul Agnew and Les Arts Florissants:

Meanwhile the new I Fagiolini album for Decca can be heard here: