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.
Journeys Through Worlds Álvarez Metro Chabacano (1986, rev. 1991) Woolrich Ulysses Awakes (1989) Burrell Das Meer, das so gross und weit ist, da wimmelt’s ohne zahl, grosse und kleine Tiere (1992) Glass Symphony no.3 (1995) Southbank Sinfonia / Owain Park
Eruptions of Sound and Colour Mark Simpson Geysir (2014) Mozart Serenade no.10 in B flat major K361 ‘Gran Partita’ (1781-2) Southbank Sinfonia / Nicholas Daniel
St John’s, Smith Square, London Thursday 19 January 2023 @ 7pm and 9pm
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
A typically diverse programme by Southbank Sinfonia; actually two programmes, each of which lasted just over and hour and offered respective showcases for the strings then woodwind of this enterprising outfit – now into the second season of its St John’s residency.
Journeys Through Worlds featured four works by contemporary composers, opening with the energetic and purposeful intricacy of Javier Álvarez’s Metro Chabacano. Inspired by Mexico City’s busiest subway station, it made for an engaging concert opener and a telling foil to the restraint of John Woolrich’s Ulysses Awakes. Obliquely reworking an aria from the opera by Monteverdi, this brought viola and strings into ruminative if at times sombre accord – Peter Fenech drawing no mean eloquence from the solo writing. It may have one of the longest-ever titles, but Diana Burrell’s piece (translating as The vast and wide sea, wherein are things swarming innumerable, both great and small animals) brought the most dissonant music – its densely wrought textures needing scrupulous balance for their inner intensity fully to register.
This it received in part owing to attentive conducting from Owain Park, who went on to direct an impressive account of Philip Glass’s Third Symphony. Free from extra- or, for that matter, ‘other’ musical references, this modest work affords something of a neo-classical conception across its four movements – a moderately paced opener duly making way for a scherzo-like interplay of harmonic and pizzicato writing, then the soloistic writing of a fatalistic chaconne finding real contrast with the vigorous ensemble of a short while pointedly conclusive finale.
Eruptions of Sound and Colour, following a suitable interval, featured Southbank Sinfonia’s woodwind in two decidedly contrasted items. Established both as clarinettist and composer, Mark Simpson packed no mean activity into Geysir – its irresistibly upwards progress aptly evoking those Icelandic hot-springs of its title (which was evidently suggested by composer Simon Holt). These emerge out of an anticipatory calm to which the music at length returns, though the closing bars seem anything but tranquil given the activity that went before them.
Nicholas Daniel directed an assured account of this piece, then had prepared that of Mozart’s Gran Partita which followed (the Simpson having been commissioned for such a purpose). Still the finest and most likely longest work for wind ensemble, it also remains the canniest example of ‘functional’ music raised to a level transcending its ostensible purpose. Not least in the way that its orchestration – pairs of oboes, clarinets, basset horns and bassoons joined by four horns and double-bass – suggests possibilities both profound and far-reaching. It was a testament to the excellence of these musicians one never suspected (or would have noticed has this been a radio broadcast) the absence of any ‘guiding hand’ – such was their unanimity in pursuing the felicity and finesse of what ranks among its composer’s greatest achievements.
It proved a memorable way to close an evening of varied and consistently fine music-making. Southbank Sinfonia is returning to its home venue later this month in a Beethoven double-bill then over the coming months for repertoire established and unfamiliar but always worthwhile.
Haydn Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor, Hob.I:45 ‘Farewell’ (1772) David Matthews Le Lac Op.146 (2018) Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915 Op.24 (1947) Mozart Symphony no.36 in C major K425 ‘Linz’
April Fredrick (soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Great Malvern Priory, Malvern Wednesday 23 November 2022
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
The English Symphony Orchestra’s season really hit its stride this evening with a programme featuring two major vocal works of the 20th and 21st centuries, heard alongside two notable while very different symphonies from near the start and towards the end of the Classical era.
As Kenneth Woods indicated, Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony would have been determinedly avant-garde to early listeners, and much of that innovative quality came over here. Not least in the initial Allegro, its jagged course and disjunctive tonal shifts only nominally countered by the Adagio’s increasingly fraught introspection. With its stark alternations in motion and phrasing, the Menuetto proved a telling foil to a finale where a turbulent Presto precedes an Adagio whose eloquence was sustained as the music subsides and musicians vacate the stage.
Whether or not this symphony would have been better placed at the end of this concert, it set up productive contrast with David Matthews’s Le Lac. Remembered more as statesman than poet, Alphonse de Lamartine was a crucial figure in French literature of the early Romantic period – his lengthy 1820 poem a remembrance of lost love comparable to verse by Shelley and Heine, and one whose slowly intensifying rapture is to the fore in this evocative scena. Two orchestral interludes aside, its formal and emotional progress is essentially determined by the vocal line; with which April Fredrick was at one in conveying the wistfulness but also anguish inherent of this music. The fastidious textures were no less finely delineated by the ESO, Woods sustaining a cohesive overall trajectory from earlier promise to ultimate loss.
Evidently it was Fredrick who had suggested juxtaposing this piece with Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which pairing succeeded admirably in terms of underlining conceptual and expressive links between them. Its sense of loss may be psychological rather than personal, but an emotional force comes over tangibly for all this music’s overt restraint: James Agee’s poetic reportage summoning a response the more affecting for its restraint and in whose vocal part Fredrick was never less than attuned. Woods brought no mean sensitivity or character to orchestral writing such as eschews the rhetoric found in many of Barber’s earlier scores and so foreshadows the subtlety of those two decades hence. This is a work with few significant precursors or successors, and the present reading made the most of its singular atmosphere.
The evening concluded with the relative extroversion of Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony – a piece whose having been written in four days doubtless occasioned its technical brilliance, yet also a formulaic quality to its actual substance. Not, however, in an Andante whose gentle pathos was to the fore, or a Menuetto whose brevity belies its resourceful use of woodwind. Woods found a winning effervescence in the initial Allegro, and if the second-half repeat in the final Presto may be one such too far, this music’s Haydnesque wit was never less than appealing.
It set the seal on a well-conceived and finely executed concert that, in pivoting between the established and unfamiliar (not only between but also within works) typifies thr resourceful approach to programming with which Woods and the ESO have now become synonymous.
Adams The Chairman Dances (1985) Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major K622 (1791) Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances Op.45 (1940)
Oliver Janes (clarinet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Bancroft
Symphony Hall, Birmingham Wednesday 2 November 2022 [2.15pm]
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Back from its successful US tour (the first such in almost a quarter of a century), the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra this afternoon returned to Symphony Hall for what was a programme of contrasts in which an element of dance seldom lurked far beneath the surface.
Although it is often considered emblematic of his opera Nixon in China, John Adams wrote The Chairman Dances well before completing the larger work – this ‘Foxtrot for Orchestra’ encapsulating much of its atmosphere without being intrinsic to its content. Capricious while shot through with a tellingly distanced nostalgia, this remains among Adams’s most effective concert pieces and Ryan Bancroft secured a fine account whose meticulous attention to detail was not without corresponding panache – down to its percussive ‘winding down’ at the close.
It is (nearly) always welcome when an orchestra’s section leader takes the platform as soloist, as was proven with Oliver Janes in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto – easily the most popular such piece in its repertoire yet one that can easily seem bland or even characterless in performance. There was little chance of that here – not least with a swift and purposeful take on the opening Allegro that left relatively little room for lingering over incidental detail, even if something of its underlying elegance was sacrificed with Janes’s powers of articulation pressed to the limit.
This approach paid dividends in the remaining movements, not least an Adagio whose limpid eloquence was conveyed without trace of indulgence or wanton sentiment. The final Allegro, too, had a winning buoyancy – Janes evincing a deftness and spontaneity to which the CBSO responded in kind, and with a surge of energy towards the closing chords. It set the seal on an appealing rendition which, perhaps surprisingly, Janes will not repeat at tomorrow evening’s concert from Warwick Arts Centre – when that by Gerald Finzi will be the concerto on offer.
Soon to take the reins at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Bancroft is evidently a conductor on a roll as was confirmed by his take on Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. A triptych that abounds in felicitous detail (as is often belied, if not actually concealed, by the score’s lack of expression markings), it needs flexible direction for each movement to cohere, and Bancroft had their measure. The first exuded a suspenseful energy that, in its central section, took on a winsome pathos embodied by its alto saxophone melody (affectingly played by Kyle Horch).
Even more persuasive was the sardonic central dance, its waltz motion underpinning some of the composer’s most astringent harmonies as were pointedly emphasized here. If the charged outer sections of the final dance lacked the ultimate in exhilaration, the quality of the CBSO’s response was never in doubt. In the slower middle episode, moreover, Bancroft’s deliberation ideally clarified those frequently dense textures whose expressive poise is achieved, uniquely for Rachmaninoff, without recourse to an actual melody. A sign of things to come, perhaps?
Bancroft will hopefully be returning next season, but the present one continues with events to mark the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s birth – including two of his symphonies and the film Scott of the Antarctic, for which the CBSO is contributing live accompaniment.
Arcana is delighted to hand our playlist baton over to Daniel Patrick Cohen, whose fascinating new album We Deliver is on our own playlist for review shortly.
Cohen, a Londoner living in Romania, has a particular love for film music and hip hop, and wrote a substantial score for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden, as part of the British Film Institute’s Rescue The Hitchcock 9 enterprise, where composers were invited to score the director’s silent films.
With We Deliver, Cohen writes a love letter to hip hop in the form of a 32-track album featuring 67 musicians, described as a lo-fi work entirely made up of throwaway-type tracks that a hip hop producer might have written.
His playlist, then, contains 15 such ‘throwaway’ tracks, including inspired examples from the likes of Daft Punk, J Dilla, Radiohead, Björk and even Mozart alongside five of his own compositions blended in to reveal the loose connections. He elaborated for us:
“The idea is that these tracks were moments of magic which I imagine captured the mood on a day so perfectly that they resisted being developed and expanded. I think it’s worth elaborating that there’s nothing “lazy” about them; on the contrary, one could spend a lifetime waiting for these moments!”