Friday, 31 May 2013

The Tallis Scholars - Tallis at 40: Gesualdo at 400

Following our BREMF Consort of Voices concert on Monday (see here), I was eager to hear The Tallis Scholars perform Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responses at Cadogan Hall this Wednesday 29 May, and I was not disappointed.

Gesualdo (1566-1613) is often thought of as being more radical as a composer than other contemporaries such as Palestrina, for example.  In our programme on Monday, we alternated some of Gesualdo's Responses with Palestrina's Lamentations, and the contrast couldn't be clearer, with Palestrina's smooth, almost ethereal lines and harmonies against Gesualdo's frequent key changes and sudden passages of rapid figuration.  However, Peter Phillips in his programme with The Tallis Scholars aimed to demonstrate that Gesualdo was by no means the most innovative composer of the time, in fact arguing that he was a relatively conservative composer.

They performed the nine Tenebrae Responses in one go, forming the first half of their programme.  For those unfamiliar with the works, they might have benefited from being broken up into smaller groupings, but The Tallis Scholars added some variety of texture by dropping from 12 voices to one to a part in many of the verse sections.  Gesualdo doesn't go in for a great deal of direct word-painting, so when he does it is all the more striking.  The contorted intervals and harmonies in the verse section of Recessit pastor noster, when the gates of hell are destroyed and the power of the devil is overturned, are a prime example.  Also the sudden explosion on the word liber (free) in Aestimatus sum descendentibus is a glorious moment, and The Tallis Scholars made this ring out beautifully.

Credit: Eric Richmond
The Tallis Scholars sound is generally very smooth and even, but Gesualdo's music dictates a greater degree of articulation, not least because of the sudden changes of rhythm and harmony, and Peter Phillips showed admirably his singers' ability to adapt to these requirements of the repertoire.  There was only one moment, at the start of Sepulto Domino, when I felt even The Tallis Scholars were slightly tentative - almost as if they were thinking, really, are you sure, Gesualdo?  I also found that here, and in fact throughout the programme, that one or two singers were consistently copy bound - understandable in such complex and unfamiliar repertoire, but I would have liked to have seen more engagement with their audience from time to time.

In the second half of the concert, they performed eight works all by different composers, to demonstrate the range of innovation, chromaticism and harmonic daring we perhaps don't often associate with music of this period.  Some composers were familiar (Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594), Giaches de Wert (1535-1596), Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565) and Monteverdi (1567-1643)) but some were certainly new to me (Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591) and Benedictus Appenzeller (1480-after 1558), for example).  There was also more variety in terms of settings here, ranging from the full 12 singers down to just four male voices in the incredibly arresting Calami sonum ferentes from de Rore.  This was actually the highlight of this second half for me - the opening canon basically weaving an upward chromatic scale between the four voices, creating amazing harmonic effects, and all credit must go to the pin-point accuracy of the four singers here.  This was followed by a five part motet by Hans Leo Hassler, Ad dominum cum tribularer.  In an inspired piece of programming, this continued the idea of a rising chromatic scale of the previous piece, again constructing a complex web, before chromatically falling at the end of the piece.  Other highlights included Mikołaj Zieleński's setting of Vox in rama, with its tortured chromatic suspensions at 'poratus et ululatus' (weeping and lamenting), and their final glorious performance of Monteverdi's Adoramus te, reassuring in its comparative simplicity and affirmative certainty, after all the preceding chromatic turmoil.  Peter Phillips explained how he had thought 'out of the box' in choosing their encore - Lay a Garland by Robert Pearsall (1795-1896), and this Victorian miniature would at first seem out of place.  However, somehow it gave the singers the perfect opportunity to relax into something warm and sumptuous, whilst also demonstrating the links to the harmonic innovations of Pearsall's forebears.  Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable programme, as ever expertly performed.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Brighton Festival, May 2013, Week 1 Part 2

Time to catch up on the rest of events from Week 1 of this year's Brighton Festival.

The Busch Ensemble consists of Mathieu van Bellen (violin), Jonathan Bloxham (cello) and Omri Epstein (piano).  They performed Mozart's Piano Trio in C major K548, Josef Suk's Elegie Op. 23, and Brahms' Piano Trio in C minor Op. 101 in their lunchtime concert (Wednesday 8 May, Studio Theatre). In the Mozart, it is the piano that largely takes centre stage, although the cello gets more of a starring role in the slow movement, with a solo melody in the upper registers.  The finale is a lively rondo, with all players enjoying the chase.  I felt that Epstein took a little while to settle into the running scale passages of the first movement, but once relaxed in, this was an enjoyable performance, with Bloxham enjoying his lyrical solo in the slow movement.  By the finale, these young players had definitely arrived, and they finished with engaging confidence.  Suk's Elegie Op. 23 was originally composed for solo violin and cello, string quartet, harmonium and harp, but the composer also arranged it for piano trio, as we heard here.  The violin opens with the wistful, lyrical melody, which the cello repeats with the violin in counterpoint.  The piano largely provides chordal accompaniment, although has more to do in the two dramatic middle sections.  The mysterioso coda brings this delightful miniature to a close.  The Busch Ensemble gave a convincing performance here, although I would have liked a warmer violin tone - although to be fair, this is largely down to the dry acoustic of the Studio Theatre.  However, the overall tone of the ensemble warmed considerably for a very strong performance of the Brahms.  Here the players relished the way in which Brahms plays with cross rhythms and hemiolas, particularly in the finale, which had real drive.  This is pure, intense late Brahms, and the Busch Ensemble really got to the tragic, romantic core of this music for me.  Brahms attempts to wipe this all away with a C major finish, but we are left unconvinced.  We were treated to a delightful performance of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49 as an encore.  I look forward to hearing more from this ensemble in the future.

Vocal ensemble I Fagiolini, directed by Robert Hollingworth joined forces with Brisbane based circus performance group Circa, directed by Yaron Lifschitz for an innovative performance piece, How Like and Angel.  This took place in All Saints Church in Hove (Tuesday 7 - Friday 10 May), stripped of its seating and sparsely lit, using two main stage areas at either end of the church.  Segments from the six circus performers of acrobatics, tumbling and balance were interspersed with and overlapped with performances by I Fagiolini of an impressively wide range of repertoire.  We heard Tallis, Josquin and Victoria, all beautifully performed (particularly the Victoria for me), but there were also contemporary pieces from Roderick Williams and Adrian Williams, as well as the beautiful Dialogue from French composer Daniel-Lesur (1908-2002).  One of the sopranos (I think Anna Crookes, but there was no credit in the programme) gave an impressive performance of Hildegard of Bingen's O
Credit: Eric Richmond
viridissima virga - and this was the one time when the singers and circus performers came together, with Crookes interacting with two of the female performers.  This was an incredibly captivating show, although my one criticism would be that the linkage between the two forms was not always apparent (apart from in the Hildegard).  Most of the time, we moved from listening to watching, or the music provided a backdrop to the circus, but I wasn't entirely convinced there was a coherently integrated narrative.  Having said that, I was entranced, and the whole audience had their hearts in their mouths as we watched one performer climb the height of the church to the clerestory with just a rope, and then proceed to free fall to the ground (onto a mat!).  Oh, and I Fagiolini's performance of the South African song Umsindisi, whilst moving their way through the audience must be the only time I have heard a white vocal ensemble sound convincing singing South African songs (but then I'm not South African - others may disagree).  A great performance all round, which has rightly garnered rave reviews.

Credit: Jacqui McSweeney
Mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley and tenor Nick Pritchard were joined by Simon Lepper on piano for a recital of music by Benjamin Britten for their lunchtime concert on Thursday 9 May.  They began with four of Britten's arrangements of songs by Purcell - two duets and a solo song a piece.  Following the formality of the opening, well-known Sound the Trumpet, Nick Pritchard immediately showed some of the excellent characterisation both singers would demonstrate throughout their recital in Man is for the Woman Made.  They then performed a Britten set each - Pritchard took the Thomas Hardy settings, Winter Words, and Anna Huntley performed A Charm of Lullabies, dedicated by Britten to the mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans.  From these sets, the highlights for me were The Choirmaster's Burial and Before Life and After from the Hardy set, both somehow capturing a sense of poignancy and regret, and Sephestia's Lullaby, a setting of Robert Greene from A Charm of Lullabies.  Once again, this song shows how Britten expertly conveys the world between sadness and joy in his bitter-sweet harmonies.  Both singers relished these, and their ability to create a world of real characters within each short song was impressive.  They finished with a set of folk song arrangements.  Sharing the lines between them worked well, and they finished with well-played humour in The Deaf Woman's Courtship, written for Pears and Kathleen Ferrier to perform.  A swift encore of the old favourite, Oliver Cromwell concluded an excellent programme.

Another example of combining art forms next, with a staging of Britten's Canticles.  Directors Neil Bartlett and Paule Constable used a very sparse Theatre Royal, with the bare building revealed, limited props and minimal lighting.  The five Canticles were then given a range of treatments, using dancers, actors, film and lighting to enhance Britten's score.  The first thing to say about this was that the musical performances were absolutely faultless, and often spellbinding.  Tenor Ian Bostridge and counter-tenor Iestyn Davies in Canticle II, facing and singing into the piano, created the most wonderful blended, eery and appropriately disturbing sound, and when joined by baritone Benedict Nelson in Canticle IV, the three singers performed Britten's perfect setting of T S Eliot's words in a totally captivating way.  And in a way, herein lay the problem with this for me - the musical performances were so perfect and absorbing that there was little need for anything additional, and much of the staging actually created distraction rather than any new dimension.  That said, the film backdrop for Canticle III, with scenes of bombing raids interspersed with Passion paintings, was inspired, and because it was directly behind the performers did not unduly shift focus.  The two dancers in Canticle II explored the ambiguous and often disturbing father/son relationship in an interesting way.  But the acted out breakfast scene in Canticle I, and the loan spinning dancer in Canticle V added little for me.  Perhaps for some the music may be a little inaccessible, particularly on first hearing, so maybe the added visual aspects provided an in to the sound world for those unfamiliar.  Nevertheless, I wouldn't have missed this performance for the world.  Ian Bostridge in particular was clearly in his element, with Iestyn Davies and Benedict Nelson equally impressive, but Julius Drake also deserves special mention for his piano accompaniment in Canticles I-IV, as do Richard Watkins (horn - Canticle III) and Sally Pryce (harp - Canticle V).  

On Friday 10 May, the Nash Ensemble were in the Music Room of the Royal Pavilion.  Their original programme was to explore the music of several composers who had been incarcerated in the notorious concentration camp at Theresienstadt, now known as Terezín, and who were later murdered at Auschwitz.  Sadly, one of the ensemble's members, Marianne Thorsen had to withdraw at short notice for family reasons.  She was replaced by violinist Krysia Osostowicz, but unfortunately this understandably required some programme changes.  The rest of the line-up was the same - Ian Brown (piano), Richard Lester (cello) and Philip Dukes (viola).  In the second half, they performed the Dvořák Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat major as planned, and pianist Ian Brown also performed the Pavel Haas (1899-1944) Suite for solo piano.  Sadly, pieces by Gideon Klein (1919-45) and Hans Krása (1895-1944) had to be replaced - instead, the ensemble performed the Schumann Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47.  However, once I'd adjusted to the disappointment of the programme change, this proved to be a wonderful evening of chamber music in the wonderful, over the top and slightly preposterous Music Room.  The Schumann is always a joy to hear, often overlooked in favour of the better known Piano Quintet.  The cello in particular has a starring role, especially in the third slow movement, and Richard Lester took advantage of the beautiful melody here.  Haas' Suite for solo piano is a fascinating piece, with definite shades of Bartók.  The interplay of rhythm and spiky dissonance makes this an enjoyable performance piece, and Brown definitely had fun with it.  However, the Dvořák stood out for me as the most enjoyable, and the four players really seemed to relish the music here.  Weightier than his first Piano Quartet, Dvořák like Schumann gives the cello a beautiful lyrical solo in the slow movement.  And despite the majority of the finale being in the minor key, Dvořák finishes on a high with an exuberant end in the major, which the Nash Ensemble clearly enjoyed, as did the audience.

Monday, 20 May 2013

CD Reviews - May 2013

First of all, violinist Tasmin Little and pianist Piers Lane with Violin Sonatas by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936).  Both composers produced just one sonata each, but Respighi produced a set of Six Pieces (Sei pezzi) for violin and piano, of which three are included here.  Strauss’ Sonata is an unashamedly romantic work, composed when he was 23, and had met Pauline de Ahna, who he later married.  Right from the opening the central role of the piano is clear, with a vocal, almost operatic violin part.  Little produces a luscious, warm tone, with full-bodied accompaniment from Lane.  The beautiful central Andante has singing lines, with delicate filigree accompaniment, contrasting with the dark piano opening to the Finale, before both players are unleashed, and let rip with swaggering abandon, reminiscent of Don Juan.  In the Respighi Sonata, the violin is more forward – the piano part is still virtuosic, but more in response to or underpinning the extremes of the violin.  This work is also harmonically more unusual than the Strauss.  The slow movement is introspective, with rhapsodic piano writing, building to a climax of torment before subsiding into calm.  The Finale is a driven passacaglia, with great rhythmic propulsion, its 20 variations a real tour de force for both players.  After a brief respite for slow, chorale-like middle variations comes a singing, violin led variation.  A dark, pesante variation comes before the fast rhythmic drive returns, the piano writing now reminiscent of Rachmaninov.  The Sei pezzi are much smaller in scale, with a real salon feel. Melodia has a sweet tune, with a hint of something darker in its central section.  The Valse caressante has a shimmering piano opening, with a lilting, romantic feel, and Little & Lane really dance here.  The closing Serenata is suitably elegiac and sensitive.

Now for three works for viola and piano, from violist Christian Euler, with pianist Paul Rivinius.  They begin their disc with the Sonata by Arthur Bliss (1891-1975).  They launch straight into a swirling, turbulent opening movement, both instruments working hard together, with only brief calm moments of respite, yet surprisingly the movement ends rather suddenly and quietly, ushering in the dark central Andante.  This opens with mysterious viola pizzicato over dark piano chords, before the viola takes off with an almost eastern melody, and the movement then grows in challenge, particularly for the viola, using the uppermost registers of the instrument, before closing with the strange pizzicato textures of the opening.  The Furiant finale is a real stretch for both players, and they carry it off with appropriate élan.  The Sonata from Arnold Bax (1883-1953) has a slightly sinister opening, with glassy piano chords beneath a modal, Celtic viola line.  The slow Finale has thick, heavy piano chords, and feels sombre and quite impressionistic, yet with a surprisingly relaxed conclusion.  Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed his Suite originally for viola and small orchestra, but also arranged the work for viola and piano, which is what we have here.  The eight pieces form three thematic groupings – Christmas (Prelude, Carol, Christmas Dance), Folk (Ballad, Moto perpetuo) and Dance (Musette, Polka and Galop).  This is an enjoyable work, although I miss the greater variety of textures the orchestral version offers.  All the works on this disc were dedicated to the celebrated violist Lionel Tertis, who also premiered all three.  Overall, these are fine performances, with only the occasional shrillness of tone in the upper registers of the viola. 

The prolific clarinetist Michael Collins has yet another disc out, this time of Clarinet Concertos, with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, which he also conducts.  Yet this is not a straightforward concerto set – we have the classic Mozart Concerto, coupled with Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, composed for the great jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, but we also have a concerto work from Australian composer Elena Kats-Chermin (b.1957), entitled ‘Ornmental Air’, and composed with Collins as soloist in mind.  Collins uses a basset clarinet for the Mozart, and the Kats-Chernin piece was also written for this deeper clarinet with an extended lower range.  Collins’ Mozart is incredibly smooth and silky, and his obvious communication with the orchestra as soloist/conductor gives this modern instruments performance an intimate chamber feel.  The Copland which follows is also remarkably tight given the absence of a separate conductor, and has great life and perkiness.  Collins plays the central cadenza with ease – in fact it is this incredible ease which characterises the disc as a whole, with the blend between soloist and orchestra intuitive throughout.  Kats-Chernin uses the same orchestral forces as the Mozart, and was intended as a companion piece, although beyond this there are few similarities.  The rhythmic, 5/4 drive in the first movement reminded me at times of John Adams, although it slightly runs out of steam towards the end of the movement.  This is followed by a cadenza passage, leading to the second movement, with a bluesy take on Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3.  The pace picks up again, and the energy returns for the final movement, driving right to the finish.  Overall, these are not showy performances, but respectful and at all times sensitive to the diverse musical styles, quite an achievement in this wide-ranging repertoire.   

Pianist Steffen Schleiermacher’s new recording of the Catalan composer Federico Mompou’s (1893-1987) cycle Música Callada is a real find.  The title loosely translates as ‘Silent Music’, and comes from a poem by the sixteenth century Spanish mystic, San Juan de la Cruz.  This collection of 28 short pieces, in four Books, was composed between 1959 and 1967, when the rest of the classical world were engrossed in electronics and serialism.  These delicate miniatures are a world away from that, and seem to come from an earlier time, perhaps closest to Eric Satie, with a touch of Ravel – not surprising since he studied in Paris in 1911 and was close to ‘Les Six’, the group of composers which included Poulenc, Honegger and Milhaud.  These miniatures are almost all slow in tempo, yet Mompou somehow avoids monotony and the set builds to create a beautiful dreamlike atmosphere.  Schleiermacher’s sensitivity and variety of tone maintained my interest throughout.  A great discovery.  

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, May 2013).

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Brighton Festival, May 2013 - Week 1, Part 1

Well, the first week of this year's Brighton Festival is over, and what a great week it's been.  Here are my thoughts on the first part of the week's events that I attended.

Credit: Tim Dickeson
The week began for me with a bit of an experiment - and that is one of the joys of the festival, trying out new things.  So as modern jazz is one area of music unfamiliar to me, I decided to try out a lunchtime concert (Saturday 4 May, Studio Theatre) with saxophonist Marius Neset and his band.  Neset hails from Norway, and has been described as the most talented Norwegian saxophonist since Jan Garbarek.  Now I know some Garbarek, of course from the seminal project with the Hilliard Ensemble, but also from hearing him live in Brighton some years ago.  From that limited experience, I found Neset much more 'high energy', and the band (Anton Eger, drums, Petter Eldh, bass and Ivo Neame, piano) were incredibly tight.  This was a great concert, mostly tracks from his new and second album, Birds - although I have to confess that I spent the whole concert thinking that 'Bert's', as I heard it, was a funny title for an album!  My favourite track was a more lyrical piece, called Portuguese Windmill (which again I
misheard as Portuguese Woman!), but the more 'violent' (as Neset described it) Boxer was also a highpoint.  And interesting to see a totally different demographic at a lunchtime festival concert - clearly the Brighton jazz scene were out in force, and very appreciative of the young performers, as was I.  So, this year's first experiment for me scored a big tick!

Neset, M. 2013. Birds. Marius Neset et al. Compact Disc. Edition Records EDN1040.

Just an hour later, I was back in the Studio Theatre (formerly the Pavilion Theatre) for another experiment - this time a book reading.  The book in question was 'Fanny and Stella', which tells the true story of a remarkable sub-culture of cross-dressing amongst gay men in Victorian England, and the cause célèbre that Fanny Park and Stella Boulton's trial became.  The author, Neil McKenna began by talking about some of the context for this.  He managed to be very entertaining at the same time as raising some quite political issues about how gay history is portrayed and perceived.  I was particularly interested in his argument that conventionally, gay people in the past are portrayed solely as victims of oppression and as sad or tormented characters.  Whilst he in no way said that oppression did not occur, as the trial described in his book shows,
he also pointed out that here was an example of gay men being who they wanted to be, and living in longstanding relationships, even supported by their families.  He then proceeded to read a chapter from the book, which focused on Miss Ann Empson, who ran a boarding house where Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton took rooms.  Lord Arthur was Stella's husband, and Miss Empson appeared in the trial giving evidence about the visitors to Lord Arthur's rooms, and of cross-dressing that occurred there.  McKenna describes the woman's prurient prejudice, mixed with her obvious delight at being central to the trial, as well as her obvious fondness for a tipple, with great humour.  I've bought the book, and am looking forward to reading more about this incredible story.  An important piece in the jigsaw of gay history which deserves to be told.

McKenna, N. 2013. Fanny & Stella. Faber & Faber, London.

Credit: Eric Manas
The following day was a highly anticipated recital by the great pianist Paul Lewis (Sunday 5 May, Glyndebourne).  He performed the final three of Schubert's Piano Sonatas, two in the first half (D958 in C minor and D959 in A major) followed by the final B flat major Sonata (D960) in the second half.  I found this a rather curious experience, and am coming to the conclusion that Glyndebourne Opera House is just not an ideal venue for a piano recital, particularly for such intimate and intense repertoire such as this.  Paul Lewis' playing was faultless, and his focus was not in question - no preamble or nervous adjusting of the piano stool, just straight on stage and immediately into the turbulent opening bars of the C minor Sonata.  Unfortunately, his performance of this Sonata was marred by persistent coughing, particularly from one audience member close to Lewis on the front row - so much so that he clearly complained when he left the stage after this first Sonata, as an announcer came on stage to request that people refrain from coughing for the remainder of the concert.  Miraculously, people largely managed to do this from then on, which just shows that it is possible to sit through a concert without having to constantly cough and splutter if one really tries.  However, the tension this caused, combined with Lewis' rather aloof stage presence, meant that as a concert experience, this never quite won me over.  The playing was  unquestionably excellent (although I missed the first movement repeats, particularly in the final Sonata, which has a significant first time bar), and the slow movement of the B flat major was particularly beautiful.  Ultimately, I think Paul Lewis' communication and focus was with Schubert and the music, which is fine, but I'm not sure we as the audience were made entirely welcome.

Credit: Noémie Reijnen
In contrast, the very next day (Monday 6 May), I was back in the Studio Theatre for another piano recital, this time by the young Romanian pianist Alexandra Silocea.  She played an imaginative programme, themed around reflections of water, with music by Debussy, Ravel and Liszt.  Now this repertoire is perhaps more extrovert than the Schubert, but immediately I felt a sense that Silocea wanted to communicate the music to us, audience.  Again, the venue was on her side - a small audience, with nobody more than about 10 rows away from her.  The playing was also exceptional - perhaps with the first Debussy piece, Reflets dans l'eau, there was a touch of nervousness, but once in her stride, the rippling rhythms and liquid harmonies
were delightful, as was the humour in Poisson d'or.  Liszt's Variations on 'Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zargen' take the contained chromaticism of Bach's chorus and unleash it, and Silocea equally took flight in this virtuoso piece, yet returned to a beautiful joyous calm for the closing chorale setting.  The programme also included Ravel's incredibly difficult Jeux d'eau, and again, Silocea ably rose to its challenges.  Yet the most inspired bit of programming here was to end with two of Liszt's arrangements of Schubert songs - Der Müller und der Bach from Die schöne Müllerin, and Auf dem Wasser zu singen.  Liszt still manages to find virtuosity here, but Schubert's touching beauty speaks through, and Silocea communicated this perfectly.  Overall, I enjoyed this recital way more than the previous day's - a recital must surely be about communication with the audience, and even if the venue and repertoire assist, the performer still needs to want to engage.  Her latest album, Sound Waves, includes most of the repertoire she performed here, out on 13 May 2013.

Various. 2013. Sound Waves. Alexandra Silocea. Compact Disc. Avie AV2266.

To finish off the day, it was over to the Dome for Cirque Éloize's fantasy circus piece, Cirkopolis.  Inspired by Kafka, Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Fritz Lang's Metropolis, using film production and a stark industrial set, the twelve performers explored the fantasy world of a man trapped in the machine who dreamed of dance and of a beautiful woman.  There is juggling, ring work, aerial acrobatics, amazing feats of balance and strength, and more - and at the end of the day, colour wins out, even when the central character returns to his desk.  At times beautiful, poignant and touching, this ultimately was a surprisingly life-affirming show.  I attended a matinée performance, full of families and children, and I wondered if the dark, frightening setting would appeal to young children - but judging by the audience response, they loved it just as much as I did!

More from Week 1 to follow....