Friday, 30 November 2012

Highly recommendable re-release of important works by Arvo Pärt on Deutsche Grammophon

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)  has tended to be thought of as simply a minimalist composer. Whilst, in his later works, his music can be loosely described as such, this is, nevertheless, a somewhat simplistic view. Up until the 1970’s Arvo Pärt’s music was variously influenced by neo-classical styles, the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók and twelve-tone technique and serialism.

After a period of studying plainsong, Gregorian chant, and Renaissance polyphony, in 1977, came Fratres, one of the first works in his radically new tintinnabuli style, from the Latin tintinnabulum meaning bells or a group of bells. The same year brought Tabula Rasa – or Clean Slate – a work reflecting his transition to this new style with its simple harmonies and often single unadorned notes, or triads.

To call Pärt’s music minimalistic is to ignore the very personal style that underlies this composition.

As part of Deutsche Grammophon’s  new 20C series of re-issues of 20th century music, that includes such composers as Schoenberg, Mahler, Weill, Bartok, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Boulez, Ligeti and Torke, comes an enticing recording of three major works by Arvo Pärt.

0289 479 0569
The two works mentioned above, Fratres and Tabula Rasa, are coupled with his Third Symphony from 1971. The performances from his fellow countryman, Neeme Järvi, with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the violinists Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony, the percussionist Roger Carlsson and Erik Risberg (prepared piano) couldn’t be better.
From its fiery, dramatic, opening with the solo violin playing rapid arpeggios, Fratres, for violin, string orchestra and percussion, holds the attention immediately. The string orchestra enters, holding a bass drone in the background as the solo violin plays figures over a broader string melody. Pizzicato interruptions are reinforced by the distinctive use of claves. There are outbursts of fiery playing before the return of the pizzicato strings and claves, followed by the return of the melodic figurations over the orchestra. Dramatic and quieter reflective moments alternate. Yes, there is repetition but this is never simply minimalistic music, but by turns, music that is dramatic and still, at times clearly derived from plainchant. The solo violin reaches its highest register against quiet strings to close the work with the string orchestra and claves having the final quiet say.

Tabula Rasa is a double concerto for two violins, string orchestra and prepared piano that adds a gong like sound to the music. In two movements, the opening theme, marked Ludus. Con moto, is repeated several times with a quiet interlude between where the prepared piano adds its evocative sound. This develops to a section where the solo violins and prepared piano play a short tune. Each time the two violins reappear after a quiet section, the music develops and grows as does each interlude. The lively sections become richer and the prepared piano adds a more resonant touch. The music reaches a pitch with loud hammering sounds from the prepared piano and agitated strings. There is a long held note from the orchestra that ends the first movement.

The second movement of Tabula Rasa, marked Silentium. Senza moto, demonstrates Pärt’s development towards his own distinctive minimalism. There is a steady opening beat with strings and solo violins and occasional gong like sounds from the prepared piano giving the music a somewhat ecclesiastical feel. There is a slow, long drawn development but overall this is music that evokes stillness and lack of movement. The prepared piano makes only occasional but important additions, breaking the stillness and repetition with wonderfully atmospheric sounds. The writing for the two violins is strikingly effective.  The music rises ever higher on the two violins before the prepared piano seems to bring them back on course and they descend, leaving the work to end on the low strings.

The slightly earlier Symphony No.3 is a wonderful work full of interest. The first movement, marked simply as crochet = 66 – crochet = 104 – attacca, opens with a solo clarinet but fills out with more woodwind before orchestra joins in the melancholy theme. Very soon bells sound a cautious note. There are more brass and woodwind passages before the music really takes off in an expansive theme. Brass and strings arrive before the strings power this stirring movement forward. The music returns to a quieter theme but still with a forward momentum. Pärt’s countryman, Eduard Tubin is very much recalled in this music. Brass interjections and percussion lead the music upwards before ending on the brass.

Marked minim = 54 – 56 Piu mosso – attacca, the second movement opens with a theme on low strings, in sombre mood, before it is taken up by woodwind and strings. A solitary bell sounds quietly but insistently then the string melody rises with an intense yearning feel. Part way through, the low strings and brass richly intone the theme, adding gravitas. A solo piccolo, vibraphone and celeste pick out a little tune before, after a pause, the strings quietly enter sounding melancholy again. A solo trumpet picks up the tune with other brass slowly joining in. After another pause, rich strings, timpani and bells enter in a short, dark theme before a lone timpanist makes a repeated insistent toll before speeding up to a series of rapid rolls over a quiet orchestral sound. This fades out as though the storm has passed.

The final movement, marked minim = 60 - alla breve, begins with strings quietly playing the earlier theme. There are a series of interruptions from a lively theme on woodwind and brass. Low strings ruminate before the brass follows by woodwind enter, gradually rising from the lower register pulling the strings up. The music becomes more dynamic and restless. The music rises to a climax, rich in orchestral sounds, with percussion. There are many thoughtful touches on percussion and woodwind as the music works its way forward again in a quiet string melody. The theme is given to various brass instruments before a trombone joins against low strings. Briefly a flute joins in before the music broadens and increases in volume to sound out the theme loudly before being cut off.

I cannot recommend this release too highly, containing as it does, three of Pärt’s most important and attractive works in beautifully recorded performances.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Many beautiful moments in David Owen Norris’ Oratorio ‘Prayerbook’

David Owen Norris (b.1953) will be known to most people as a pianist and broadcaster. What may be less well known are his compositions.

His works include his popular Folksong settings which were broadcast on Radio 3, A Small Dragon for soprano, clarinet and piano, commissioned by the Scottish Arts Council, settings of Poems by Roger McGough, a community cantata Interruption at the Opera House, written for the Petworth Festival, Benedicite, for children, which was broadcast in 1990 on Radio 4’s Morning Service, and Die! Sober Flirter, a radio-opera, commissioned by the BBC in 1991 for the Mozart year.

More recently there has been his second radio-opera, The Jolly Roger, premiered in November 2008, Think only this, a song-cycle for tenor, cello and piano, (premiered and recorded by Philip Langridge), Tomorrow nor Yesterday a song-cycle for tenor and piano to poems by John Donne, premiered in 2006, a Piano Concerto in C premiered in May 2008 at the English Music Festival and a number of piano pieces including a set of variations Play on.

In 2006, the Oxford Bach Choir under Nicholas Cleobury premiered David Owen Norris’ oratorio Prayerbook at the first English Music Festival.  At over 70 minutes long this work, a setting of words from the Book of Common Prayer, and writings as diverse as St Basil, Bernard of Morlaix and  the formerly Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, is about Tradition and Change. The setting is unusual in that it calls for a choir, choristers, close harmony group, baritone, two sopranos, organ and string quartet as well as three trombones, trumpet, timpani, tubular bells, cymbals and hand-chimes.

EM Records have now issued a recording of Prayerbook with the Waynflete Singers, the Choristers of New College Oxford, the Navarra String Quartet, and close harmony group Over the Bridge, with David Coram (organ), Peter Savidge (baritone) and sopranos Fiona Hymns and Lauren Fowler. Prayerbook is in three parts. Part I: Faith, Part II: Hope and Part III: Charity.

This work grew on me after a couple of hearings and certainly the opening Prelude with trombones, organ and later string quartet certainly attracts the attention. Towards the end, the strings provide a particularly attractive and haunting tune, the section ending with solo violin and organ.

Preface opens with a setting from the Book of Common Prayer sung by the chorus and Peter Savidge (baritone) with organ accompaniment. The baritone is later joined by the two sopranos Fiona Hymns and Lauren Fowler. This is in the form of a recitative with words that don’t really lend themselves easily to such treatment, but by varying the setting it works quite well.

In the section entitled Aria there is a repetitive setting of the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins’ words ‘I have become involved in many arguments’ with baritone and string quartet. The returning repeats do add an appropriate hammering out of the theme. The Litany, with baritone, chorus, organ and trumpet, makes for an effective setting with the close harmony group, Over-the-Bridge, that includes two countertenors, tenor and bass, joining on the words ‘From fornication and all other deadly sin’ makes for a lighter, even comic, setting. However the section builds to a climax with timpani on the words ‘Good Lord, deliver us.’  There is a rich baritone setting of the words ‘Brethren, be sober, be vigilant’ that draws The Litany to a close.

David Owen Norris, like many other composers before, uses Bach-like chorales within this work. The hymn Oh God our help in ages past is set in a variety of arrangements for each verse. The third verse, with Over-the-Bridge doesn’t quite work for me being rather shrill, but there is a grand finale using all instruments.

Part II opens with God the Son, an extended organ fugue that, following the hymn, sounds very much like variations on the same tune. As this builds it’s a terrific piece leading directly to Collect, a setting of ‘Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel’ for chorus. The following setting of ‘Lighten our Darkness’ from the Book of Common Prayer has the chorus responding to the baritone as in Anglican services.

I would imagine that Calypso represents the more modern form of worship in this Oratorio about Tradition and Change. It is a rhythmic, repetitive section sung by the choristers and female voices, with a layering of the repeated words ‘Hail Gladdening Light.’

Advertisement is another setting from the Book of Common Prayer with also words by John Keble and features the baritone and chorus again making responses before the organ announces a baritone solo. David Owen Norris knows how to bring a timeless quality to much of his writing. Half way through the string quartet joins, with solo baritone after a return of the organ the lively strings return before the hymn like ‘Lord be thy Word, my Rule’ for choir and organ.

Rubric is a lovely piece with choral sounds that evoke the English country church or cathedral. Sung by the chorus this is a highly effective setting of ‘In Quires and Places where they sing.’ Over-the-Bridge join at one point and, very beautifully a soprano. Despite my reservations about the close harmony group this is, nevertheless, quite a memorable section. With The Last Trump the solo baritone enters with the hymn ‘Personent hodie’ before chorus and organ, reinforced with trombones and then tubular bells, join in. Over-the-Bridge joins to provide an effective lighter version of the last verse.

Part III commences with an Interlude: God the Holy Ghost for string quartet and organ, an extremely unusual and effective piece that gives an appropriately ethereal quality to the music. A richly evocative arrangement of the hymn tune Penlan for string quartet follows with Canon then featuring organ then chorus.

Aria opens with strident sounds from the string quartet before the baritone joins in this setting of words by David Jenkins, beginning with the words ‘When I want God to be near.’ The strings soon cease and the organ joins. This is an austere setting that warms as the quartet again joins at the end.

Amor is a setting of the hymn ‘Love Divine, all loves excelling’ but to a tune I didn’t know, first for soprano and organ, then chorus before the trumpet joins. Chorus and organ and trumpet make for a stirring climax. The Double Fugue sung by Over-the-Bridge, the close harmony group, is a round like double fugue setting of ‘A man may not marry his grandfather’s wife etc.’ and is an entertaining and humorous section. 
Opening quietly on organ with chorus, Chaconne, a setting of St Paul’s ‘For our knowledge is imperfect...’  it builds to a tremendous climax for timpani, organ and chorus before quietening for ‘Now we see in a glass, even in a dark speaking …’

Trinity is beautifully done, opening without a break with string quartet, trumpet, trombones and bells with some quite exquisite sounds. The organ eventually brings back the tune from the Fugue: God the Son at the end. Cadenza directly follows, a terrific piece for organ pedals, with some stirring dissonance. I’d certainly like to hear more organ music from David Owen Norris.

A New World is an uplifting setting of ‘Dearly beloved, we are met together in the presence of God’ from the Book of Common Prayer, a true affirmation of God’s presence and our opportunity to make the world a better place. The work ends with a Seven Fold Amen, a stirring conclusion for all forces yet ending on a quiet note.  

There are many beautiful moments in this unusual work. Whilst it does not always gel as a whole, this is a work worth hearing for its many glorious moments.



Saturday, 24 November 2012

Performances to treasure from Marc-André Hamelin

Just occasionally one attends a concert that one knows has been a special experience. Marc-André Hamelin’s appearance at Malvern Theatres last night (23rd November 2012) was just such an occasion.

Part of the Yamaha International Piano Series, Hamelin played a Yamaha CFX piano in a recital that included Bach, Fauré, Ravel and Liszt.

Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor BWV542 was at one commanding yet sensitive with a forward momentum and a clear structural line. In Hamelin’s hands Fauré’s Impromptu No.2 in F minor Op.31 was gloriously romantic with lovely rubato and a silken touch. Fauré’s Barcarolle No.3 in G was mesmerising in its atmospheric ebb and flow, its fleeting moods caught perfectly.

Marc-André Hamelin’s performance of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit must rank amongst the finest I’ve heard. Ondine was pure poetry and delicacy to such an extent that words seem insufficient. Hamelin gave us a superb Le Gibet and a formidable Scarbo. What a wonderful touch Hemelin has.

This well planned recital gave us Liszt’s brief Nuages Gris, its harmonic progressions linking us very much to Debussy and the preceding Ravel. I have heard many fine interpretations of Liszt’s B minor Piano Sonata but last night’s performance from Hamelin was really special, full of poetry and passion, yet beautifully controlled. There were lovely little touches throughout and, oh, those beautiful rippling passages. This was a performance to treasure.

As an encore Hamelin gave us a substantial treat, his own brilliant set of Paganini Variations, with syncopated rhythms and jazz influences, dissonances and quotes from other composers including a brief reference to Rachmaninov’s Variations.

Marc-André Hamelin is a superb artist and this was one of those occasions that will live in the memory.

And what about that Yamaha piano? What stood out most of all was the beautifully sweet upper register – particularly in the hands of a master like Marc-André Hamelin.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A Natural History of the Piano – Stuart Isacoff’s fascinating, informative and entertaining book on all aspects of the piano and its exponents

I have a 1974 edition of Ernest Closson’s classic book History of the Piano. Originally published in 1944, it is a detailed history of keyboard instruments from the Clavichord to the modern piano complete with details of their mechanical construction.

When I received a copy of Stuart Isacoff’s new book A Natural History of the Piano I wondered if it would be another publication of a similar nature but the sub-title of the book, The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians – from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between, shows that it is much, much more. Whilst my cherished Closson book remains an essential guide to the piano itself, this new volume gathers together a colossal array of information about every aspect of pianos, pianists and pianistic styles.

Stuart Isacoff
ISBN 9780285641129
Souvernir Press
382 pp
Stuart Isacoff is a pianist, critic and teacher and, in this book, explores the history and evolution of the piano and how its sound provides the basis for emotional expression and individual style.

The opening chapter A Gathering of Traditions sets the scene for the breadth of this book pulling together such great names as Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Rachmaninov and Horowitz all in the first two pages. This isn’t merely an attempt to be inclusive but a real example of how genres are indeed closer together than many people are sometimes prepared to accept. We are told that Rachmaninov and Horowitz went to hear Art Tatum perform and, remarkably, that Peterson had a link to Liszt through his Hungarian teacher, Paul de Marky who had studied in Budapest with Stefan Thomán who had studied with the great Liszt. This cross fertilisation remains the subject of the first chapter and, indeed, much of the book.

A separate chapter, The Piano is Born, covers the development of the piano. Many people can probably name some early piano makers but the story of the ‘father’ of the piano and his patron makes for a fascinating read.  Not surprisingly, Mozart has a chapter to himself as does the rise and popularity of the piano where some odd examples of the domestic piano can be seen, such as the sewing table piano, which has to be seen to be believed, and the bizarre looking giraffe piano.

The chapter Performers on the Road fascinatingly tells of the 18th century Charles Burney’s travels through Europe and his encounters with musicians, John Field’s first job as a ‘piano plugger’ for Clementi, and the 19th century Austrian pianist Leopold de Meyer who self styled himself ‘The Paganini of the Piano’.  Interspersed are many little gems such as when the Julliard School professor, Joseph Bloch, ended up performing in a leper colony in Borneo.

The chapter also catalogues how the piano changed and how manufacturers began supplying pianos to the great performers as a kind of endorsement. There is a wonderful anecdote about the 19th century pianist, Henri Hertz, who arranged a concert for sixteen players and eight pianos which were out of tune with each other and another concert where the March Nationale was advertised as to be played on four pianos but disappointed many who expected the pianist to do it alone.

Piano duos, threesomes and even the six piano ensemble, Piano Circus, are included. Finally there is an entertaining section on pianists drunk or dying at the keyboard.

The Four Sounds is a short but instructive chapter on the shaping of the piano’s sounds, pedal technique, tuning and temperament and pianists’ playing styles. There are four chapters that categorise various pianistic styles under The Combustables, The Alchemists, The Rhythmitisers and The Melodists.

The Combustables takes us on a tour of such figures as CPE Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Czerny, Haydn, Liszt, Bartok, Kodaly, Stravinsky, Elliot Carter, Eubie Blake, Earl Hines and Cecil Taylor, as well as asking the question ‘What’s a Sonata?’ And just to add to the suitability of the chapter title there is the story of Jerry Lee Lewis setting fire to his piano on stage.

The Alchemists rightly gives Debussy much space, then such diverse figures as Messiaen, Schoenberg, Scriabin, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, McCoy Tyner, Thelonius Monk, through to John Cage, Henry Cowell, Terry Riley and Steve Reich are covered. There is even a section about the player piano.

The chapter covering artists under the title The Rhythmitisers takes us on a journey from European, Caribbean and African roots through Jelly Roll Morton, and James P Johnson to Fats Waller, Gershwin, Willie Smith, Art Tatum and Count Basie. Sixties singers/songwriters such as Neil Sedaka, Carole King, Stevie Wonder and Elton John get a mention before a couple of pages devoted to Dave Brubeck.

The Melodists takes us from Schubert, through Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Erik Satie, Ravel, Gershwin, Teddy Wilson and George Shearing.

A chapter entitled The Cultivated and Vernacular takes us from Scott Joplin, Edward MacDowell and Charles Ives to Aaron Copland via the Latin rhythms of Piazzolla, Ginastera and Villa-Lobos and The Russians are Coming covers such artists as the great Anton Rubinstein through to Vladimir de Pachsman, Ignaz Friedman, Vladimir Horowitz, Rachmaninov, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Prokofiev and Tatiana Nikolayeva.

The Germans and their Close Relations looks at Hans von Bulow, Artur Schnabel, Rudolf Serkin, Edwin Fischer, Alfred Brendel, and Paderewski where rivalry of piano manufacturers caused problems when he was due to perform at the Chicago World Fair.

Keys to the World looks at the different national and personal playing styles and includes such pianists as Godowsky, Josef Hofmann, Myra Hess (who gets short shrift from Virgil Thomson), Alfred Cortot (who doesn’t get a very good personal endorsement from Murray Perahia), Michelangeli, Pollini, Leon Fleisher, Andre Watts, Yefin Bronfman and Van Cliburn. There are useful sections on piano technique as well as piano competitions.

On the Cutting Edge is an excellent chapter heading for such a pianist as Glenn Gould given the quote from conductor George Szell ‘The nut’s a genius.’ Film, radio and television’s influence on the piano are covered as is, Earl Wild, and the satirical PDQ Bach (alias Peter Schickele). Finally there is a small section on electronic and digital pianos.

The chapter Everything Old is New Again brings together again the various genres by telling a story about the 86 year old pianist Menahem Pressler, described as ‘a bullet train without brakes’, and clarinettist Richard Stoltzman making their way to give a recital at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, an area connected to the folk music revival of the 1960’s. There is a short section on the piano in China and on the decorative styles of pianos including the bizarre photograph of pianist Evan Shinners playing a grand piano from the inside.

The appendix containing supplementary notes is worth reading in itself as it contains much that is interesting. There is a section giving contributors’ biographies though this often excludes the individual’s dates, an exhaustive list of sources and a comprehensive index.

Throughout the book there are numerous writings by such figures as Piotr Anderszewski,  Menahem Pressler, Vladimir Horowitz, Yefim Bronfman, Beethoven’s biographer and friend Ferdinand Ries, Claude Debussy, Andre Watts, Wanda Landowska (on Creative Fainting!), Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff, Emanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson to name just a few.

There are over 100 illustrations throughout this book and with so many anecdotes and fascinating information, written with obvious enthusiasm, it is difficult to put this entertaining book down. The gathering together here of so much information is an achievement in itself but to place the material in such an informative and entertaining narrative will make all lovers of the piano and, indeed, lovers of music want this book.

Obtainable from Amazon:

Friday, 16 November 2012

Highly recommended re-releases of Peter Maxwell Davies' Symphonies on Naxos

Over the last year, Naxos have been re-issuing the Collins Classics recordings that were made of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Symphonies No’s 1 – 6. Max was well served by Collins Classics until its demise in 1998 and many of his other works were recorded on this label. Sadly, apart from the first six symphonies, these recordings could only be obtained second-hand and, often, at great expense so Naxos are doing a great service to admirers of the composer.

I had already got the first four of Max’s symphonies on the original Collins Classics CDs but the remainder were getting increasingly expensive to source second-hand. It was with much enthusiasm that I was able to report in my blog of 12th February 2012 that Naxos  had undertaken to release these recordings.

The final two CDs have recently been released by Naxos on two discs covering Symphonies 4 and 5 (8.572351) and Symphony No.6 with Time and The Raven and An Orkney Wedding and Sunrise (8.572352) with the composer conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra respectively.


Peter Maxwell Davies never originally intended to write a symphony, indeed he states that, during his expressionist period, he did not think that he would ever feel it necessary to write large scale works for orchestral forces. In fact the first symphony started out as a result of a commission from the Philharmonia Orchestra for an orchestral work for which Max wrote a single movement provisionally entitled Black Pentecost inspired by a poem by George Mackay Brown that he had already set to music. Maxwell Davies felt that the single movement was incomplete and was ‘budding and putting out shoots.’ It eventually grew into the 58 minute four movement work that we know today and became a turning point in his output. This first symphony, completed in 1976, was premiered by the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1978. More symphonies followed, No. 2 in 1980, No.3 in 1984, No. 4 in 1989, No.5 in 1994, No. 6 in 1996, No.7 in 2000, No.8 (Antarctic) in 2000 and more recently No.9 in 2012.

Throughout the symphonies and many other compositions, Max has used the magic square, a mathematical device which offers a wide variety of ways to manipulate pitches and note lengths. However, as Max would be the first to say, the listener does not need to know anything about the methods used to compose the music. The music stands on its own merits. What does come out clearly is how Maxwell Davies’ methods lay down an underlying form and unity that seems to come from such methods. But it is the important influence of Orkney that also runs through these six symphonies.

There are two particular sources of inspiration for Max’s Symphony No.4, the plainchant Adorna thalamum tuum, Sion and a particular incident that occurred one morning when the composer came out of his house, on the island of Hoy, to be confronted by a golden eagle perched on a nearby fence. The symphony is also different from its predecessors in that, whilst written for the forces of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the scoring has no trombones or tuba and no additional percussion, but the work is nevertheless louder and brighter as the timpani, horns and trumpets have much more input.

It is indeed the brass that makes a strident opening of the first movement moderato before being joined by the woodwind.  The strings appear quietly but soon the brass dominates again. There are darkly atmospheric sounds as the music settles, if it can be said to settle at all, into a plaintive theme for cor anglais. This is rugged music perhaps evoking the Orkney coastland. Brass and strings build to a climax and, towards the end, all subsides into a dark theme on bassoon then anguished woodwind. After an interruption from the brass the cor anglais returns as strings quietly end the movement.

Timpani rolls mark the beginning of the second movement allegro that follows without a break. Woodwind and pizzicato strings follow before trumpets take a dominant role, with woodwind entering to lead to a climax. A clarinet leads to a developed passage for strings eventually leading to a section, full of mysterious sounds and, finally, the return of the cor anglais before being cut off as the third movement  adagio begins with low woodwind playing quietly against shimmering string sounds, conjuring up images of a deserted landscape.  Brass and timpani enter creating a dramatic turbulence but the music soon returns to the woodwind and quietly hesitant strings. Eventually the strings take over, providing a richer rising melody decorated by woodwind interventions cut off at a peak by timpani. This signals a more boisterous section with brass and timpani above agitated strings. The music eventually subsides and woodwind and strings resume their quiet theme. The movement ends quietly on the strings.

The fourth and final movement, marked andante – allegro, opens with jagged stabs from the woodwind replied to by the strings. The strings gain momentum forming richer textures before the woodwind enter in a flurry of sounds floating above the orchestra, working up complex textures and themes. Short stabbing brass sounds appear and slowly increase as the tension builds. As it develops it is as if the music is floating statically. The ear can always follow the gripping lines of each orchestral part in this wonderful evocation of a rugged windswept coastal scene. A solo trumpet enters against the strings but the timpani cut this off and the woodwind return before the solo trumpet returns. Shimmering strings quietly play before the trumpet bursts out and the movement ends quietly on pizzicato strings.

Written for the Philharmonia Orchestra to celebrate its Fiftieth Anniversary, Symphony No.5 is a shorter work, lasting around 26 minutes, and played without a break. The symphony is again inspired by plainchant as well as quoting from Max’s earlier work Chat Moss.

Woodwind open this work with a beautiful little theme before a sudden outburst of brass. There are sounds from the timpani before strings enter with the distinctive but subtle sound of the flexatone, then brass and timpani again resume. A passage for woodwind, strings and flexatone ensues, leading to a steady, almost march like forward moving theme that builds up in richness using the whole orchestra. After a climax the music quietens with woodwind, strings and tuned percussion. The brass enters again in a florid passage but soon drops back to a quietly mysterious section with drooping trombone sounds against woodwind and strings.

The brass and tuned percussion pick up and, with timpani, there is a forward moving rhythm, almost processional, driving the music to a climax of brass, strings and percussion. This slows to something of a plod but still with a steady forward movement. The music descends to woodwind and strings quietly playing a plaintive theme preceding a beautiful, quietly flowing, melody for strings. The woodwind and brass seem to ruminate before brass and bells dominate. Strings and woodwind take over but the brass returns before it drops back again to the woodwind and strings with a solo drooping motif evoking the sound a lone seabird. The full orchestra returns to a glorious broad climax with timpani followed by a battery of percussion and brass before a return to the quietly meditative strings and again the sound of a lone gull. A string tune follows above quietly sliding strings before a bassoon enters in an atmospheric passage. The strings quietly ruminate until the final hushed timpani sound.

This surely is the symphony that newcomers to Maxwell Davies symphonic works should hear first coupled as it is with the magnificent Fourth Symphony.

Maxwell Davies’ Symphony No.6 was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society to celebrate its Fiftieth Anniversary and was first performed in Kirkwall, on Orkney, as part of the 1996 St Magnus Festival. It is dedicated to the Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown.

The germ idea for the three movement Symphony No.6 is a slow theme from his work of a year earlier, Time and the Raven. The first movement adagio – allegro opens atmospherically with pizzicato strings followed immediately by a drooping string motif and a timpani roll before woodwind join in the drooping theme. This develops into a short climax for full orchestra. The music seems to heave backwards and forwards interspersed with quiet ruminative moments over a subtly developing and forward moving undertow. There are lovely little details that evoke the sounds of the wild with the music constantly moving and shifting ebb and flow. Eventually brass and tambourine try to move the music forward to a climax, as if the music is trying to break out in some way, but seems to fall back. A flute theme appears in a Scottish sounding little tune. Eventually a real climax breaks out but still there is the melodic line in the strings to which the music returns. The Scottish sounding theme on the flute returns, backed by fluttering strings before being picked up by a solo violin. A solo trumpet joins against the other brass and hovering strings before quietening to an end.

Timpani strokes open the second movement before a trombone intones a solemn melody interrupted by more timpani before leading to a massive climax. Strings hold a melodic feel which brass and percussion try to break out of. A struggle seems to ensue with wild brass and percussion against the melodic strings. The strings have their way for a moment in a melodic passage before brass returns. By the end there is a final word from the timpani and percussion to suddenly end the movement.

Low strings open the third movement slowly. A powerful, constantly shifting, melody on the strings continues, perhaps one of Max’s most beautiful creations. Woodwind and brass join as do percussion and finally the marimba. Slowly the pace quickens a little as the full orchestra builds to a slight climax providing music of breadth and power. There are magical sounds conjured with strings, marimba and percussion. Towards the end the music seems to heave up from the depths with brass to a climax against anguished string sounds where the Scottish tune can be heard again. Short brass and timpani outbursts signal the end of the work that quietens and peters out on the timpani and percussion.

Time and the Raven precedes the Sixth Symphony by one year and was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. Underneath the surface of this apparently lighter work, there is an undertow of darkness. In Peter Maxwell Davies’ own words ‘…the Raven becomes a symbol of warning – in my work, dark music hints at what could be, were attitudes to nationalism not to modify.’

Whilst there is the feeling of nationalistic music, no actual National Anthem is used. This work seems to bring together two elements of Max’s work, the lighter occasional piece and his darker more serious work. Occasionally there is an Ivesian feel as the pseudo anthems emerge from a kaleidoscope of sounds. This is a terrific piece that is more than just an occasional work.

Orkney Wedding and Sunrise was written in 1984 for the centenary of the Boston Pops Orchestra. This most popular work of Maxwell Davies was inspired by an actual wedding attended on the Orkney Island of Hoy that was the first wedding on the island for many years. It is a brilliantly inspired work that takes us from the guests arriving at a wedding, to the band tuning up, dancing, a drunken fiddler, and guests leaving at dawn as a bagpiper welcomes the rising sun. If you haven’t already heard this work then you really should not miss it.

These re-releases are a great addition to Naxos’ catalogue. The performances are everything you would expect from these orchestras under the baton of the composer. There are informative notes by the composer himself as well as Richard Whitehouse and David Nice. Highly recommended. 

See also:

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Works of depth and quality from Richard Blackford

In recent times there seems to have been a resurgence in the writing of choral works that are popular with a wider public. This is surely a good thing, particularly now it is recognised that many styles of classical music can co-exist side by side without necessarily having to be complex or difficult to have depth and quality.

Depth and quality certainly came to mind when I listened to a new release from Nimbus Alliance featuring works by Richard Blackford. The main work on this new disc is Mirror of Perfection, a setting of words by St Francis of Assisi but there are also six choral anthems including Blackford’s Westminster Te Deum.

NI 6205
Richard Blackford  was born in London in 1954 and graduated from the Royal College of Music. He was later appointed Composer in Residence at Balliol College Oxford. In addition to many choral works he has also written a Violin Concerto (2007) and a Clarinet Quintet (2009). His four-hour choral and orchestral score for CNN/BBC Millennium won an Emmy Award for Best Title Sequence. He has written extensively for theatre, cinema and television. In 2008 he became the first ever Composer in Association to the Brno Philharmonic.

Mirror of Perfection was commissioned by the Royal Ballet School and first performed at the Royal College of Music in 1996. In this recording the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Ballard Lane Preparatory School Choir are conducted by the composer with soloists Ying Huang (soprano) and Bo Skovhus (baritone)

It is in seven sections or canticles, the first of which, Canticle of the Creatures, opens with a rich baritone solo ‘Laudato si, misignore’ from Bo Skovhus. The chorus joins quietly before gaining strength and when the orchestra joins the chorus it leads to a soaring, ecstatic passage. Bo Skovhus has a prominent role as the words ‘Laudato si, misignore’ are repeated. One is soon drawn into the beauty of Blackford’s writing which is by turns both contemplative and ecstatic.

Plaintive strings open the Canticle of Love I, before the baritone enters. When soprano Ying Huang enters it is against more anguished strings. At the words ‘Vivento muor’ the baritone adds to the emotional thrust. At times Ying Huang is almost operatic in this dramatic writing.

A vibrant section for chorus and orchestra, Canticle of the Furnace, follows providing much first rate musical invention, with some tremendous singing from the chorus in this rhythmically syncopated writing.

Canticle of Love II opens with sombre orchestral playing. The soprano enters hesitatingly on the words ‘Che cielo e terra grida’ Brass and bells interrupt, before a rising ecstatic theme with rich orchestral accompaniment. Ying Huang is in lovely voice as she soars majestically.

The pizzicato strings that open Canticle of the Birds are soon joined by the baritone in a lovely setting of St Francis’ sermon to the birds sung in French. Midway through, this canticle rises to a passionate, romantic orchestral interlude. At words ‘Mes frères’ the children’s choir joins the orchestra before baritone Bo Skovhus joins with them to end this section.

There are pizzicato strings again at the opening of Canticle of Love III. An alto chorus enters slowly, seemingly uncertain at the words ‘Amore, amore, che si m’hai ferito’ (‘Love, love, who has so wounded me’). The music becomes more animated and, as more of the choir joins, layers are added to increase the drama and passion. The orchestra enters to add even more strength and emotion. Later the singing and orchestra quietens, yet moves unfalteringly along before the soprano rises in one last passionate moment before the canticle ends quietly.

The last canticle, Canticle of Peace, has a rich orchestral opening before a passionate part for solo violin. The children’s chorus then enters with the words ‘Beati quelli kel soteranno in pace’ (‘Blessed are the peacemakers’) with such a striking orchestral accompaniment that makes this a superb, very affecting moment of extreme beauty. The baritone joins towards the end, then soprano in a rich tapestry of sound rising to a climax of power and beauty before a quiet orchestral ending.

Richard Blackford really knows how to set words drawing, as he does, so much more from the texts with his music. The Choral Anthems on this disc are performed by the BBC Singers conducted by David Hill with Olivia Robinson (soprano) and Iain Farrington (organ).

Written for Westminster Abbey and first performed there in 2010, A Westminster Te Deum is a jubilant work, full of life, with an organ opening wonderfully played by Iain Farrington. The BBC Singers are in fine form in this most attractive work that has a gentler and contemplative central section. There is an attractive melody that runs right through this work until its stirring conclusion. 

On Another’s Sorrow was commissioned by Jeremy Backhouse and the Vasari Singers on the occasion of their 25th Anniversary. This a capella work is a setting of William Blake where Blackmore shows what can be achieved by such simple means. There is some really effective part writing with a gloriously sung rich climax.

I Know That My Redeemer Liveth is another attractive and sensitive a capella setting that brings the words to life in the way that Blackford places emphasis on the words. From the Song of Songs is a lively, tuneful setting for soprano solo and organ that evokes youth and spring. Beautifully sung by Olivia Robinson, there is much lightness of touch in the writing.

A Lullaby is a setting of anonymous 15th century text in which Blackford manages to evoke an ancient, timeless feel that gently rises and falls. This performance gives more strong performances from all section of the BBC Singers and a lovely contribution from Iain Farrington. I Will Sing To The Lord is a bright and joyful anthem that concludes this CD with the rich sounding BBC Singers accompanied by organist Iain Farrington. This work is full of little details that enhance the setting and has a rousing ending.

There are some fine works on this disc, in particular the beautiful Mirror of Perfection, which I am glad to have got to know. The recordings made in the Winter Gardens, Bournemouth in 1997 (Mirror of Perfection) and St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge in 2012 (Choral Anthems) are excellent and there are full texts and translations.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Playing of sensitivity and bravura from Murray McLachlan in Weinberg’s Piano Sonatas

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) has long been a neglected figure in the west. Even his name varies from Mieczyslaw Weinberg to Moishe Vainberg, Moishe Weinberg and Mieczyslaw Vainberg. My collection of Weinberg CDs sits on the shelf under Vainberg, the name used on earlier recordings.

I have always loved the music of this composer from the days when I bought an HMV Melodyia LP of his Fourth Symphony and Violin Concerto. My blog of 6th June 2012 gives more information about this composer, as does the Weinberg website

Whilst the earlier Olympia recordings of the symphonies are no longer available I am glad to see that Chandos are continuing their releases of these works.

Equally exciting is the release on two CDs of Weinberg’s six piano sonatas by Divine Art Recordings with that fine pianist Murray McLachlan.

dda 25107

These recordings form part of a Russian Piano Music Series covering, so far, such composers as Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Kabalevsky, Shchedrin, Rebikov, Gliere, Lyapunov, Arensky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Mussorgsky.

The first of these two Weinberg CDs has the Piano Sonatas No’s 1, Op.5 (1940), No.2, Op.8 (1942) and No.3, Op.31 (1946) as well as the 17 Easy Pieces, Op.24 (1946).

The 21 year old composer’s First Piano Sonata is remarkably forward looking in its dissonance. It opens with strongly dissonant chords before the entry of a quiet theme that is almost atonal in its freedom, before developing into a richer, more complex climax before a quiet close. The allegretto is light and jolly with a slightly manic Shostakovich sound.

The andantino is quietly flowing, dissonant melody whilst the allegro molto finale that concludes this work is full of energy. Murray McLachlan is excellent here, always maintaining the flow and line of the music.

Weinberg’s Second Sonata starts with a driven allegro. There is less obvious dissonance in this sonata, more subtlety. The central section, whilst more gentle has a forward drive which never seems to stop. The allegretto, though with a similar momentum, nevertheless does provide some respite after the first movement.

The third movement is a gentle adagio, freely flowing across various keys. This is an entrancing movement, somewhat mysterious in its feel and wonderfully played. The vivace finale, a rondo, is again very tonally free, whilst at one point quoting from Haydn, something I hadn’t noticed until reading Per Skans note. There is some formidable playing in this work.

By the three movement Third Sonata there seems to be an established Weinberg style, free flowing, with free use of tonality. The andante tranquillo is certainly such a movement. The dissonance is still there but subsumed into the overall sweep of the movement. There is more formidable playing from Murray McLachlan. In the wrong hands this music could lose the flow, momentum and sense of structure but McLachlan maintains all of this superbly.

The adagio sounds folk music inspired and is picked out slowly, along with a dissonant accompaniment. This is another of Weinberg’s strange slow movement creations. In the moderato con moto, Shostakovich does seem to loom, yet Weinberg manages to enlarge on his theme and brings something new and personal.

The 17 Easy Pieces are a set of charming miniatures lasting between 13 seconds and 2 minutes, which cannot be easy to play. More it is their simple charm that the title must refer to. There are attractive pieces such as the Bach like The Nightingale, a quite beautiful little The Sick Doll, an effective little Melancholy Waltz, The Goldfish that threatens to turn into London Bridge is Falling Down, and the longest piece The Dolls that is quite lovely. You can almost imagine Weinberg sitting at his piano improvising these pieces. McLachlan certainly gives that impression.

The second of these two Weinberg CDs has the Piano Sonatas No’s 4 Op.56, (1955), 5, Op.58, (1956) No.6, Op.73 (1960).

By the Fourth Sonata (1955) it is clear that Weinberg has reached a mature style. There is subtlety and depth in the first movement allegro with the material superbly developed with a greater sense of form. The shorter allegro second movement proves the perfect foil for the opening movement. There is restraint in the forward movement of the music, contrasted with some dense and formidable passages perfectly handled by Murray McLachlan.

The adagio is a thoughtful, long drawn melody that conjures up a stillness and withdrawn emotion. This is a wonderful movement played with great feeling and control. McLachlan’s playing has great emotional substance. The somewhat folksy finale allegro leads this sonata to a dynamic conclusion with challenging writing. If this was folk inspired then it soon develops into a much more complex piece before a quiet ending. I love this work and will return to it often.

The three movement Fifth Sonata is perhaps not as structurally perfect as the fourth but, in its own way, just as fine. The allegro opens powerfully before one realises that it is turning into a long developed passacaglia before eventually being overlaid in the form of a canon, developing into complex writing that is still based on the opening theme. Murray McLachlan keeps the overall line of this music superbly, despite its complexities.

An andante separates the two outer movements in music that is, again, reserved and withdrawn, sustaining a tentative melody over some ten minutes. There is great sensitivity of playing before the movement ends ambiguously. The allegretto finale has a delicate and playful opening until it develops into a formidable and complex section before falling back again. It builds up again but with less force before a pianissimo close. Just as with the first movement this is a wonderfully created flow of melody.

Weinberg’s finale piano sonata, the Sixth Sonata, is a much smaller, two movement work. The adagio has an anguished opening with bell like chords. It is obvious just how far Weinberg had progressed since his early first sonata. There is a pause before the second subject that is more restrained and gentle, leading to a section where the music ruminates on a little rhythmic motif which soon ceases before the restrained theme returns.

A lightly sprung allegro molto introduces the second movement which works its way through fugal passages reaching a tremendous climax. What terrific playing there is from Murray McLachlan.

Murray McLachlan is ideal in this repertoire, playing with both sensitivity and bravura. These former Olympia recordings are excellent, with excellent piano tone and there are first rate notes by the late Per Skans. These beautifully produced discs are thoroughly recommended.

See also:

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Lennox Berkeley and friends – a fascinating book of writings that will have a wide appeal

When I started writing my blog Celebrating British Music I always realised that it would probably run to more than one blog, even though I was only covering the period of the British music renaissance from around 1860.

I surprised myself when I found that I eventually ended up with a six part blog which, even then, left out many composers that, I am sure, many followers would have expected to be included.

One composer that definitely had to make it into my blog was Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989). Berkeley is one of those composers that, along with such other composers as Rubbra and Rawsthorne, made a distinctive contribution to British music of the 20th century, yet have not had the public profile that they deserve.

Boydell Press have just published a fascinating book called Lennox Berkeley and friends, a collection of writings, letters and interviews that give a wonderful insight, not only into the composer himself, but also into other music figures of the age.

Boydell Press
344 pages
ISBN 9781843837855
Edited by Peter Dickinson, who has already given us The Music of Lennox Berkeley also published by Boydell Press, this new book contains a fascinating collection of writings including his series of reports that he wrote from Paris for the Monthly Musical Record, letters to his teacher Nadia Boulanger, a selection of Berkeley’s later Writings and Talks, four interviews with the composer, extracts from Berkeley’s diaries, interviews with performers, composers, family and friends, as well as a full catalogue of works and sixteen pages of black and white plates.

There is an interesting introduction by Peter Dickinson that sets out some biographical information before the section that has the ‘reports’ from Paris that Berkeley wrote between 1929 and 1934 for the Monthly Musical Record. These give a fascinating insight into the musical life of Paris of the time; a musical life that Berkeley was well involved in with his studies under Nadia Boulanger and friendship with Poulenc. These reports were not from someone merely in the thrall of other composers, as Berkeley could be quite outspoken in his views. He seems to have admired Stravinsky immensely whilst commenting on Milhaud’s works as ‘never seem to be satisfactory’ and ‘a little patchy’ (Viola Concerto).

In a report from December 1933 Berkeley shows his range of musical interests when he reveals his appreciation of the works of Palestrina, Lottie, Schutz and Gluck which he had recently heard.

Berkeley’s letters to Nadia Boulanger during the period 1924-1974 contain many fascinating comments on his own works, the works of other composers, as well as performers such as Gieseking, Stravinsky playing his own Duo Concertante with the violinist, Samuel Dushkin, Walton (whose First Symphony he didn’t seem to like), Copland, and of course Britten.

He writes from London about being ‘suffocated with Sibelius, Delius, Ireland and Vaughan Williams’.  He is in Paris in October 1939 when he writes to Boulanger about his concerns over the impending war. The letters continue throughout the war, from London, where he writes about his diminished pacifist views, through the 1950’s with the deaths of Dinu Lipati and Kathleen Ferrier to the later letters where he asks if Nadia Boulanger can spare time to see a young John Taverner and his father when they visit Paris. These are just a few of the tantalising subjects that will be found in these letters.

The selection of Berkeley’s later Writings and Talks (1943-1982) includes writings on such themes as Britten and his First String Quartet, Modern French Ballet Music (1946), British Music Today (1949), an insightful analysis of Britten’s Spring Symphony, Faure, Poulenc – An Obituary, Lili Boulanger, Alan Rawsthorne, Ravel, and a 1982 Centenary Tribute to Stravinsky. In Concert-Going in 1963 he compares the riot that broke out at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, with modern audiences and the apathy to which they ‘seem so often to be sunk.’ There is also a poignant musing on old age written in 1981.

In the four fascinating interviews with Lennox Berkeley made between 1973 and 1978, the first, with Peter Dickinson on the occasion of Berkeley’s 70th birthday, he recalls his study under Nadia Boulanger and her teaching methods. In the second with C.B. Cox, Alan Young and Michael Schmidt, in 1974, there are insights into his view of a number of French and English composers. In the third interview from 1978, on the occasion of Berkeley’s 75th birthday, again with Peter Dickinson, he again talks of his own music, whilst touching on Britten and John Tavener. In the fourth of the interviews, with Michael Oliver, again from 1978, he discusses his symphonies.

Then there are the extracts from Berkeley’s diaries from 1966-1982. Berkeley by his own admission was not a very consistent diarist and, in one entry from 1978 he writes,’ Complete failure to keep this diary during the first months of this year.’  But other entries are much longer with many insights such as his entry in December 1970 about Michael Tippett’s opera The Knot Garden.

There are anecdotes such as when a party of German guests arrived during a dinner in Monte Carlo in 1968, where Berkeley was with fellow jury members, who included, amongst others, Nadia Boulanger and the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe or, on another occasion, when he records the Queen Mother’s view of certain Norfolk houses. Conductors don’t get overlooked as with Sir Adrian Boult, of whom he writes, surprisingly, ‘He’s not a very inspiring conductor, but extremely efficient…’

Part VI of the book has interviews with such people as Julian Bream, Norman del Mar, Colin Horsley, John Manduell, Nicholas Maw, Malcolm Williamson, Freda Berkeley, Michael Berkeley, Basil Douglas and Desmond Shawe-Taylor.

Norman del Mar has many interesting things to say and, as would be expected, the family members, his widow Freda and son Michael are able to give real personal insights into the man himself.

In the final part of the book there is a transcript of a memorial address given by Sir John Manduell at Westminster Cathedral on 20th March 1990. Finally there is a catalogue of works, bibliography, index of works and an excellent general index.

This is a beautifully produced book that will appeal to many, not just Lennox Berkeley enthusiasts or even just lovers of English music. Having as it does so much about the music of Britain and France during the fascinating interwar and post war years, it will have a wide interest.

The publication of this book was supported by the Lennox Berkeley Society