Distilling the musical process – An interview with Paul McCreesh

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Conductor Paul McCreesh turns sixty today. Best known for his work with Gabrieli Consort & Players, an adventurous period instrument-group he started almost forty years ago, McCreesh is a recording artist par excellence.

His most recent Gabrieli project has resulted in two new white albums on their house label for almost ten years now, Winged Lion, a sub-label of Signum Classics; Henry Purcell’s ‘dramatick operas’ King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692). 

Renowned Purcell advocates for decades, McCreesh and the Gabrielis recently won both the Opera Award and Recording of the Year at the 2020 BBC Music Magazine Awards for King Arthur.     

According to McCreesh, the new Purcell recordings are the result of both extensive background research and years of experience performing the music.   

”I think we all felt collectively that it was time to reassess all the work we’ve done; a good moment to go back and look at the sources and to rethink the pieces through.  We’ve been moving more and more towards trying to find the really specific way of playing this music. 

At least fifteen years ago, we started a pioneering work on historical stringing, for example. Now you may think a baroque orchestra is a baroque orchestra is a baroque orchestra, but actually the reality is that most baroque orchestras are pretty much modern orchestras, in the sense that they play half and half instruments with semi-modern strings and many compromises. 

I’m not particularly arguing with that, philosophically – you can play Bach marvellously on a piano after all – but it seems to me (So OK, I suppose I am arguing with it) there’s a degree of phoniness there. Or at least, one could actually take the matter a little bit more seriously, instead of playing everything from Monteverdi to Mozart with a single pseudo-baroque instrument.  

So we’ve done lots of work on historical stringing and setting up instruments with the correct stringing in ‘equal tension’ systems. And then we took that one step further, doing a lot of work on historical bow techniques.  Surely we are not the only group who have done that, but I think we’ve been the first to apply ‘French’ bowing techniques (actually described in English C17 sources too) to Purcell’s music.

 We also started working with Jean-François Madeuf, the French baroque trumpet player working in Basel, who is still the greatest exponent in playing the ‘real’ baroque trumpet.   By which I mean a trumpet without the ubiquitous finger holes… Jean-François and Graham Nicholson went to Warwickshire museums to measure and photograph a real English silver trumpet from about 1680 by John Bull, and then made two copies. These instruments, played entirely with embouchure and lip pressure, made us completely rethink our approach to articulation. 

Now, I come from England, and we have the most amazing ‘baroque’ (and other) trumpet players, but again, almost all play this sort of semi-modern instrument, which was developed through the (19) 60’s and 70’s.  I don’t decry for a minute the amazing artistry of their music-making with this instrument, but it isn’t really an instrument Bach or anybody else would have recognized. It works in a completely different way.

So, I guess with this project, and so many others, I’m trying to challenge myself, and the whole early music business, which – let’s be honest – has become a little bit of an industry, to push a little but harder, to be a bit more serious.  There’s so much more we could discover if we take the time. 

We started with King Arthur, which is a particularly difficult score to put together, as there’s no autograph source; everybody’s version of King Arthur is somewhat different. But I think we subjected all the music to the most thorough re-examination of the sources for probably for a good decade or two. I always been quite fond of King Arthur; it’s always like an awkward child, you tend to love it a little bit more.  It doesn’t play itself – you have to work really hard to get it to work. But, after a lot of struggling, I’m pleased with the end result, especially the combination of serious scholarship and free musicianship.

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With both The Fairy Queen and King Arthur I wanted to imbue the music with a sense of theatricality, but one which somehow felt appropriate for the seventeenth century.    

If I’m honest, frankly can’t bear so many recent recordings of baroque opera, because there just seems to me a general lack of finesse. So often it’s all so hyped – anger far too furious, every sad emotion injected with faux pathos, ornaments often ridiculously over the top, recorders tooting away, percussion everywhere, hideous ‘clever’ continuo…yuk!  Competitive strip-club dancing – everyone making flashier and flashier moves to titillate the audience. Part of this, of course, comes from stage production where directors too often are up to the same games. 

You know, the last thing I want is hair-shirt performances of a baroque opera. There’s plenty of space for passionate emotion on stage, and clowning around too, in appropriate moments, but for me it still has to have certain finesse and elegance to it.  But it has to be framed.  I hope we got something of that in these Purcell recordings – a desire to achieve more with smaller gestures.

Maybe that’s actually something I’m thinking about more and more as I get older: how you distil the musical process? Taking things from the music all the time, digging deeper, and not just tinkering with superficial details. And of course, that is such a difficult thing to analyse, because as you know, every conductor will sit there in an interview and will say, in hushed tones, ’oh but I’m truly only a servant of the music’ Fine, I say, but why don’t you start by trusting the bloody score?

I’m trying to get to the kernel of musical expression. Allowing instinct – perhaps my greatest gift – to fly free, but not neglecting the brain in the process of music-making. To think more. To read more. To take more care. To take more time. To resist the temptation of allowing the industrialization of our business to take over.

I think current fashions in dramaturgy are having a big influence on the way we play early opera. I’ve been privileged to work with some directors who have a fantastic feel for the language of opera, however inventive or modern the staging. But there have also been many frustrating experiences too. Seemingly endless weeks in the pit with directors unable to resist inventing some form of stage action every 45 seconds. Terrified the audience might be bored, (or maybe that they’ll be out of a job?).  I think the greatest moments in opera are often the more reflexive ones – a lone voice in a still stage can move just as much as a herd of wild animals or a troupe of semi-naked dancing boys.”

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As a result, McCreesh is having an opera sabbatical, but he still dreams of great productions 

“If opera houses allowed conductors and directors to choose each other then I’d maybe go back. I surely love opera, even if I don’t particularly like baroque opera. I’ve really done enough Handel – I just don’t really want to be conducting in the pit for four hours with endless siciliano arias.  But if I was offered a world-class cast and a great baroque orchestra, brilliant production, and one of those really great Handel operas, maybe Tamerlano or something like that, then there’s surely a reason to do it. But just sitting there for six weeks while another trendy director goes through their bag of tricks, no, I don’t want to do it, I’m too old.”

 

A Londoner by birth, McCreesh grew up in the eastern suburbs in what he calls a very normal suburban family. His father was a book-keeping accountant and his mother a radiotherapist working for the NHS.  

“My parents were good parents, in sense that they wanted their children to have opportunities they themselves didn’t have. I liked music. I was quite good at it, but I was no virtuoso.  Like many teenagers I wasn’t particularly focused, but I did arrange a few concerts with my schoolfriend musicians, and enjoyed that.  But it was surely not written in the stars I’d end up where I am.

I went to Manchester University where I read music, performance and musicology. Even at university I had no real understanding what a music career might be. Maybe we were just naive. I look at young people nowadays and they seem to be quite focused about what area they might end up working in, and what their job prospects might be. That was surely not class of 1978!

Anyhow, I left the university at 21. I had done quite a lot of conducting with students, but I had absolutely no idea how that might evolve into a career. I taught for four or five years at Leicestershire School of Music. I liked working with the youngsters very much, although the routine of instrumental teaching drove me slightly crazy. Having created the Gabrielis straight after graduating, I was taking my first steps into the profession. With the help of a very irritating boss, seemingly far too few career opportunities in teaching, and above all, the madness of youth, I gave up a safe job and became freelancer. 

Five years later I has an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. How did that ever happen?

There must have been some Machiavellian plan going on somewhere in my mind, but I didn’t expect to be there at that age. And I have to say, looking back at it, it was quite terrifying journey. Three or four years from the school classroom to work with the label of Karajan. I had to learn, and, by God, I had to learn quick.  But thank you, Deutsche Grammophon! You were prepared to take a punt on a young musician. I think a lot of ideas I had attracted them, and they needed at that time to refresh the stable of early musicians; obviously Gardiner and Pinnock had been a huge success, (and ended up far richer than I’ll ever become!) All the same there was this feeling that the early music world needed some new names and they signed me up, alongside Marc Minkowski.

Of course, I needed to prove my worth to DG, but in the end we were together fifteen years, and I did a tremendous amount of very interesting work with them. I’m still hugely grateful because they gave me such a start to my career. Those were the good old days! We actually got paid to make recordings! I think it’s probably a legacy of which I need feel no shame, but of course I’d like to record some of those works again. I’m always rethinking. I think I’m a better formed artist now – I hope so – but there’s always something about discovering pieces for the first time. I hope that is still to be heard there!

Truth to tell, I was never just a ‘baroquiste’ as the French say.  I’ve spent the last twenty or so years doing very little baroque music. The music business is lazy and just loves to pigeon-hole. I will be forever associated with the ‘sins of my youth’. But my ‘day job’ for twenty years has been guest conductor of symphony orchestras, in more or less standard repertoire, pretty much all over the world.

Now I have created the new Winged Lion record label, I’m able to record a far wider range of repertoire, including more than a few crazy projects! It’s hard because we need to fundraise huge amounts of some of these projects, but they are always labours of love, which feels good!”

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One of those crazy ideas is a recording of Elgar’s masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius (1900).  It’s another of McCreesh’s co-productions with National Forum of Music in Wroclaw, with combined choirs from Poland and UK, the Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra and Gabrieli Players. A series of performances had been scheduled for this summer and autumn, but, as with everything, Coronavirus has seen the project postponed to 2021 at the earliest.

“I’m determined that this project will happen, and my partners in Poland are determined it will happen. I have to remain optimistic. Obviously, what I can’t tell you of course, is the state of the music business if Coronavirus prevents us from working 12 or 18 months, or God forbid, longer.

Certainly 20th century British music has been a big part of my repertoire; Britten and Elgar especially, so it is quite natural for me to incorporate this music into to the Gabrieli whenever we can.  There is a huge amount to be learned from playing on early 20th century instruments – Elgar, Walton, or Parry, as I think we proved on our ‘English Coronation’ project in 2018.  It is a pity we can’t do more of that repertoire and more often. I’d love to do the two Elgar symphonies.  If we were richer, we surely would.”

 

As with the Purcell project, or, in fact, any Gabrieli project, a lot of background work has been carried out with The Dream of Gerontius too. Restoring the sonic realm of an early twentieth century British symphony orchestra has been an intriguing task.

”The piston horn is a fantastic instrument. We have the first horn that was used on the first Gerontius performance, now at the Royal Academy of Music. It is basically a hand horn, with an inserted valve mechanism. You can play these instruments incredibly loudly, and they have this brilliant more focussed sound, so different from the modern horn.

As for the trumpets, there’s actually correspondence between Elgar and the leading trumpet players of his day. It’s obvious that Elgar actually wrote for instruments in B flat or F (or occasionally in A and other keys) because he wanted specific instruments, not because he couldn’t be bothered or because it suited the key in the score.  

We’re also working with French school oboes and bassoons, which were used still played as late as the 30’s or 40’s in Britain. With string instruments, we are working on again a mixture of styles of instruments, because you got late nineteenth century instruments mixing with newer ranges of string technology, but still largely gut. Only really in my lifetime, from the sixties onwards, violins began to play with a majority of metal stings.  The sound of a large string orchestra playing predominantly on gut, is quite remarkably rich and translucent; this is the sound of Elgar, Mahler, Sibelius and many others. I’m always transfixed and hugely excited by the range of colours possible.”

 

McCreesh’s passion for Elgar has come with years. In his early days, he felt quite differently towards the composer’s music. 

“I remember playing cello in Gerontius once, on a conducting course, and absolutely hating it! I just couldn’t get my head around it. My advice to young people (and old too!) is, if you don’t like a piece, don’t give up. Come back to it, and if you still don’t like it, play it again. And you might just find it begins to speak to you. 

Some music can be instantly attractive, because it is immensely impressive, which is great. I’m fine with that. Especially for young people, because that’s a wonderful way in. Yet, the pieces I end up loving the most, are often pieces that meant little to me first time through.”  

 

In addition to Elgar, McCreesh has been spending time with Wagner too.

”I’ve been studying Parsifal recently. I’m not expecting Bayreuth to give me a call, but there’s something wonderful in that music that you can’t deny needs understanding. Wagner cast such a shadow on so much of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

It’s often said nobody half-likes or half-hates Parsifal, and I know what they mean. But listen to it and, for all the excesses, you somehow can’t dismiss it. Even one hour, forty five minutes for act 1! 

It is the most wonderful music, and so deeply rich with allusion. So what’s not to like; you’ve got medieval knights, you’ve got repressed sex and you’ve got religion.  And for five hours!  I learned my craft as a conductor with far too much Handel, and I think I have a good feel for pacing long structures organically. It is one of the things I sort of understand. But Wagner is such a challenge – those huge paragraphs of thirty minutes, then another that is twenty minutes and another one that is forty minutes. It is really hard to get those connections.  But I’m sure I could fall in love with this piece – maybe the next life?”

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However, making great ideas happen in real life, is not an easy task. 

“It is one of the really sad things about the music business. Compared to where we were fifty years ago, there are thousands of new pieces now that have been recorded. And amazing numbers of interpretations of core repertoire, all sorts of conductors, all sorts of nationalities, all sorts of standards, all sorts of historical perspectives, old and new.

And yet when it comes to it, what do we do in concert halls and opera houses? It is the same old warhorses. Endless Bach Passions, endless Mozart Requiems, endless Mozart, Verdi and Puccini operas, endless Beethoven and Mahler symphony cycles.  We never developed the audience to follow a wider repertoire. As money becomes tighter, programming becomes more conservative. There hasn’t really been a change in the core repertoire in the last fifty years.  

Very often the promoter just says, ‘sorry nobody will come’. That’s of course a chicken and egg. If you never promote less well known pieces, then people won’t come. Sometimes, I think, the promoters could be more imaginative, but, in the end, much of their success is judged on how many people will walk over the threshold. I can understand, but it’s frustrating.”

 

In addition to all the Gabrieli projects and guest-conducting symphony orchestras, McCreesh is a long-standing, passionate advocate of music education, who is not shy to speak out for the necessity of demanding cultural curriculum.

”I think the biggest problem we have in education, particularly in cultural education, is that we talk down to young people. That, and the fact that within the education world, there are a few people who are absolutely passionate about giving cultural experiences to young people, but a whole lot of people who are either indifferent or actually deeply hostile to the concept. The latter particularly annoy me.

What right do we have as teachers or parents to deny people access to some of the greatest minds that ever walked on the planet?  Just because we have decided in the year 2020 that it does not fulfill a particular political or social agenda?   

I’m also tired of ‘educationalists’ telling us young people find culture unapproachable, or irrelevant, or just too difficult. Well, maths is irrelevant for many of us, and often difficult; so is much literature. Isn’t it our job as teachers to make it interesting and relevant?  

So in music education, we get this obsession about ‘creativity’ – not in itself a bad thing, but it needs careful defining.  The idea that you give a child an electronic keyboard, they pick out six notes out, can’t write it down, and you call that a ‘composition’?  Where’s the intellectual rigor in that?  It’s completely stupid.  And without connection to the great music of the past and present, it seems to me we are depriving young people of access to one of the most stimulating things in humanity.”

 

In order to make things happen, McCreesh and the Gabrieli established their own education project, called Gabrieli ROAR, where a dozen choirs from state schools join Gabrieli’s professionals in certain projects, including some recordings.

”With ROAR, it is not just musical progress these people make, it’s also about providing a platform for increasing young people’s self-confidence and expression. I think it’s one of the things we need to work on much harder with young people, as the world becomes more difficult and we become more unforgiving.  I think people can learn so much from the process of communicating in different ways. Performance is one of the ways that make that possible.

Our huge Roar choirs, a mixture of young singers and some professionals side by side, provide a great safe space to connect with ‘core culture’.  The visceral joy of singing together, even more when accompanied by a huge orchestra, offers a thrilling environment which is both supportive and challenging. Let’s give all kids that opportunity.   

The ROAR experience it is about inviting young people into our professional world, it is not about writing some patronizing piece of rubbish designed to ‘engage’ or to be ‘relevant’ but ultimately vacuous. So maybe we tend to do quite a lot of music by dead white European males, but I’m not going to apologise if we offer young people Bach, Mendelssohn or Britten. 

All the best music is challenging. The reason we write music is that life is challenging. Music is an emotional language which works. And what is so amazing, is that even more than language, it seems to transpose itself over centuries with very little difficulty. You can hear a piece of medieval plainchant and it can still sound beautiful in a completely different context, maybe a thousand years later. 

And, whilst I’m on my soap box, can I add one more thing? If teaching music in schools makes you a better mathematician, improves your IQ, or makes you a more efficient tax inspector of the future, than that’s all marvellous, and a very good reason to invest more in arts education.  But PLEASE let’s teach culture for what it is – a celebration of humanity – not just a means of increasing test scores.”

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With the coronavirus pandemic and its repercussions upon us, McCreesh and the Gabrielis are facing unprecedented challenges, those taking their toll on the whole music business around the globe.    

”It’s a very difficult time in history, and we are blessed it seems with probably the lowest level of politicians, at least in the UK, I have seen in my life!  

I’ve had to learn to be a businessman as much as a musician. We’re all facing endless cancellations and near zero income; many musicians will have no work for probably at least year, maybe a lot longer.  So I cannot promise we will see this through – that’s the sad truth.  Even after nearly forty years.  But, my God, we’re going to throw everything we can to survive this – that I do promise.

So, I’m still optimistic – at least on most days! I have many exciting plans for Gabrieli, recordings, and lot of long term-plans for ROAR particularly, even if everything at the moment is on ice. It’s a very disturbing experience, and actually quite upsetting process. I think it is hard, sometimes, for people to understand what it is like to take an artist’s voice away. I know I’m not the only one feeling tearful.

We don’t know the extent of the likely damage; For me, if it’s just six dark months, I could almost see advantage. It is actually quite nice here and the weather is lovely, and I can do lots of things I should have done for years. (And of course I do understand many younger musicians can’t afford that luxury.) But when you’re sixty, and you’re looking at the future and there’s nothing in your calendar, other than cancellations, you do have that horrible feeling ‘will I ever get back’, knowing how fickle this business is.

Our business model is based on international touring, and at the moment that is completely impossible. It is very difficult time for us all.  I think we’ll see lot of casualties. I also think a lot of people will leave the business, because they cannot effectively support their families.

To some degree, the major orchestras are sort of protected. But if this goes on as long as I think it might, are governments or local authorities really going to pay for symphony orchestras to sit home for a year, two years, three years? I don’t think anybody’s safe.

But, the world will not end, and music will still be there, eventually, and in some form, to help us through. That I do know.”

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© Jari Kallio

Photos © Peter Reynolds, Sim Canetty-Clarke

Album review: Pre-echoes of opera? – Lindberg’s captivating Accused gets a superb premiere recording with Anu Komsi, FRSO and Hannu Lintu

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For decades, Magnus Lindberg’s œuvre was practically devoid of vocal music. Apart from the song Jag vill breda vingar ut (1978) and two choral pieces, Untitled (1978) and Songs from North and South (1993), Lindberg devoted his metier solely for instrumental music all the way until the composition of GRAFFITI (2008-09). 

Scored for chorus and orchestra, with a text based on ancient Pompeiian graffiti, Lindberg’s thirty-minute GRAFFITI heralded a new period in the composer’s output. Some five years later, Lindberg developed his ideas on vocal music to the next level, with the forty-minute Accused (2014), subtitled Three interrogations for soprano and orchestra.

Commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra for Barbara Hannigan, Accused is Lindberg’s first foray into the realm of solo voice in almost four decades. Scored for a large orchestra, with triple winds and brass, as well as a typically wide array of percussion, Accused provides an extraordinary challenge for its soloist. 

The text is compiled from various sources documenting interrogations of three citizens accused of different forms treason in different ages, from the French Revolution to WikiLeaks. The soloist depicts all personalities involved, engaged in dialogue with herself in three languages, French, German and English, respectively.  

Structurally, Accused is divided into three parts, or scenes, with the music flowing seamlessly from one part to the next. While each part has its own musical identity, reflecting, to some degree the time and place of each interrogation, there are shared musical elements recurring throughout Accused.  

Premiered by Barbara Hannigan, the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski in London in January 2015, Accused has travelled wide since its inauguration. Alongside Hannigan, Accused has been championed by the Finnish soprano Anu Komsi, who also sings the solo part on the premiere recording, collaborating with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and their Chief Conductor Hannu Lintu. 

Accused was recorded for Ondine at the Music Centre, Helsinki, during the FRSO summer break in June 2017, six months after the Finnish premiere. 

The text of the first interrogation derives from Les Confessions de Théroigne de Méricourt by Ferdinand de Strobl-Ravelsberg. The music begins with an orchestral introduction, transporting us back in the year 1791 and into the turbulent repercussions of the French Revolution. 

The opening pages of the score bear a sonic aura of a golden age Hollywood epoch, with the full orchestra engaged in a tumultuous overture. After half a minute, the music lands on a Lindbergian ostinato, followed by a series of fanfare-like brass interjections over a dark-hued pedal point on the lower strings. 

Glimmering winds and percussion pave the way for the first entry of the solo voice. The ensuing  four-minute scene is divided into two parts, a brief question by the interrogator, followed by a civil rights credo delivered by Mademoiselle Méricourt. 

Sung with exalted tour-de-force by Komsi, the vocal line soars above the radiant orchestral fabric. The solo part flourishes with incessant flow, apart from two brief orchestral interludes. 

As the vocal line reaches zenith, orchestra takes over, as the opening material returns to provide an impassioned culmination before the music surges back to the dark undercurrents of the low strings, reminiscent of both Aulis Sallinen and Bernard Herrmann. 

With Lintu at the helm, the FRSO tackled the orchestral storm of the opening movement with virtuosity and glimmering colour. Well balanced with their dazzling soloist, the instrumental lines shone out with formidable radiance. 

A brief, cinematographic transition ensues, as we jump ahead almost two centuries, into the bleak interrogation rooms of Stasi, in the GDR in 1970. 

The profound statements of civil rights, resounded empathically in the first part, are now replaced with the uttermost trivialities, as we are transformed into witnesses of a grotesque process, in which a citizen is being endlessly interrogated for the possession of three copies of a West German magazine, Der Spiegel. 

Yet it is the very triviality of the whole act that results in a bone-chilling effect. Set to music with the most intense vocal and instrumental drama, reminiscent of the masterpieces of German expressionism, namely Schoenberg and Berg, the fifteen-minute scene depicts the horrid state machinery of the GDR with disturbing poignancy.

 Together with Lintu and the FRSO, Komsi portrays the drastic dramaturgy of Lindberg’s shatteringly pertinent musical setting with laudable intensity. Perfectly nuanced to capture the smallest detail, the collaboration between the soloist, the orchestra and the conductor is striking, resulting in the most pervasive experience. 

Accused concludes with material from Adrian Lamo testimony, a part of the second day of the Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning trial in 2013. Set as a real-life court drama, the third part is an intense seventeen-minute dialogue, delving deep into the societal and psychological aspects of our loyalties. 

The third part opens with violent pizzicati, setting the stage for the interrogator. A hectic hearing ensues, with a series of ardent questions dealing with the Lamo’s impressions on Manning. The answers are short and spare, often in complete contrast with the interrogator’s vehement oratory. 

The orchestral fabric fuses together scale-like string figures, both pizzicato and arco, glimmering mallet percussion and harps, as well as echoes from the opening material in the brass. 

As the third part draws towards its end, a turning point ensues, as Lamo refuses to characterize Manning’s acts as treasonous, with three short negations in low, frail voice. A vocalise coda ensues, interwoven with low winds and brass, harps, celesta, chorales and glockenspiel. 

Komsi’s performance in the third part is simply astonishing. The impressive interplay with vocal contrasts, be they in dynamics, registers or textures, is carried out with gripping virtuosity. Lintu and the orchestra convey the layers of the orchestral canvas with admirable assuredness and idiomaticity that only years of experience in performing Lindberg can bring.   

Among the Lindberg œuvre, Accused stands out as a path to something new. Immensely rewarding, it is a demanding piece for its performers and listeners alike. Finding my way into this remarkable score was not straightforward, however. Yet, in the end, as Lindberg’s extraordinary construction began to unravel, I found myself endorsing its challenges wholeheartedly.  

Finished on the Finnish Independence Day in 2014, Accused may provide us a pre-echo of the yet-to-be-materialized Lindberg opera, a project very much in the composer’s mind, as he told in our recent interview. 

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The other piece on the disc, Two Episodes, is a fifteen-minute orchestral score, written in 2016, and premiered by the London Philharmonic with Jurowski at the BBC Proms that year. 

Although originally conceived as a companion piece for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1822-24), Two Episodes is, in the end, a standalone work of its own right. However, there are several shared elements between Two Episodes and the Ninth Symphony. In fact, the Lindberg piece closes with an A-E string tremolo, thus enabling the performance to segue directly into the opening of the Ninth. 

In addition to its closing, Two Episodes has other links to the Beethoven symphony. Most notably, Lindberg employs the two-note descending patterns from the opening of the Ninth Symphony throughout his score. On the very first pages, Lindberg virtually recreates Beethoven’s opening, albeit within his own, distinctive idiom. 

This Lindbergized Beethoven quote reappears throughout Two Episodes, as if lurking around the corner and jumping in when one least expects it. In addition, many passages in Lindberg’s score bear family resemblance with Beethoven’s slow movement. 

On a deeper level, there are some characteristically Beethovenian gestures woven into the fabric of Two Episodes by Lindberg, such as sudden sforzati and stubborn ostinati, alongside various shared features in instrumentation.   

Yet, on its sounding surface, Two Episodes reflects a sonic realm quite unlike Beethoven’s. As with many recent pieces by Lindberg, the textures are more akin to Debussy and Ravel, with a small dose of Berg too. Still, at the core of Two Episodes, there are genuinely Lindbergian musical processes at play. As suggested by its title, Two Episodes is divided into two main sections, separated by a fermata. 

Recorded in studio sessions at the Music Centre, Helsinki, in between the FRSO rehearsals for the Helsinki Festival in August 2019, Two Episodes gets a fantastic workout with the orchestra and Lintu. With tremendous voluble energy unleashed, the music flows thrillingly through its myriad textures, ever resounding in translucent clarity. 

 With Two Episodes, Lindberg joins the chain of composers reworking Beethoven references into their music. From Brahms’s First Symphony (1862-76) on, Beethoven has made posthumous appearances in the orchestral literature. It is no coincidence that Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (1902-03) opens with a solo trumpet heralding the rhythmic figure lifted from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1804-08). 

More recently, Jörg Widmann had a feast with Beethoven in his concert overture Con brio (2008) as did John Adams with Absolute Jest (2011) for string quartet and orchestra. 

As for Lindberg, there have been notable quotes embedded in his œuvre from early on, most notably a fleeting Purcell reference in Corrente (1991), some Monteverdi in Feria (1995-97) and a great deal of J. S. Bach in Chorale (2001-02). Thus, Two Episodes sits well into the composer’s creative continuum. 

 

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Hannu Lintu, conductor

 

Anu Komsi, soprano

 

Magnus Lindberg: Accused (2014) – Three interrogations for soprano and orchestra

Magnus Lindberg: Two Episodes (2016) for orchestra

 

Recorded at the Music Centre, Helsinki, June 2017 (Accused) and August 2019 (Two Episodes)

 

Ondine ODE 1345-2 (2020), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

Barenboim and Staatskapelle emerged from lockdown with luminous Mozart and Wagner

Staatsoper Berlin, GP Gedenkkonzert zum 8.Mai ©Peter Adamik

Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the ending of WWII in Europe, the musicians of the Staatskapelle Berlin joined their Music Director Daniel Barenboim onstage at the orchestra’s Unter den Linden home on Friday, for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus lockdown procedures back in March.

With necassary safety measures taken into account, there were no more than thirteen memebers of the orchestra involved with the Friday evening’s memorial concert, livestreamed from the empty house via 3sat.

The much-expected evening began with one of the most iconic pieces of classical music there is, namely Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G major, KV 525 (1787), better known as Eine kleine Nachtmusik.

Hearing this most familiar of pieces performed with sheer tangible beauty and musicality by the fabulous string players of the Staatskapelle under Barenboim was pure delight. Devoid of any mannerisms, the score was transformed into sounding fantasy with imagination and wit, rooted in admirable attention to detail.

The healing otherworldliness of Mozart’s invention was further enhanced by a spot-on choice for stage set, the famous star-clad dome from Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s 1816 production of Die Zauberflöte, heralding the forthcoming production of Mozart’s final opera at the Staatsoper next season.  

Under its nocturnal hue, a wondrous glimpse of 450-year tradition of the Staatskapelle came to pass as Barenboim and the musicians plunged into the Mozartian realm, and into the very soul of our lives on this shared continent, joined together in peace for the longest period in our history, by far.

Rarely, if ever, have I heard such meaningful take on Mozart’s four-movement serenade as this gorgeous one, joyously breaking the long silence, brought upon us by the coronavirus. Hearing this wonderful orchestra come together again lifted up one’s heart, to gaze into, hopefully, brighter future.

On the second half of the evening’s compact programme, Richard Wagner’s luminous symphonic tableau, Siegfried Idyll, WWV 113 (1870), was heard. Conceived as a birthday gift for the composer’s second wife, Cosima, the Idyll is, as its title suggests, is a musical manifestation of a priceless moment, extended into an eighteen-minute symphonic arch.

At Staatsoper, Siegfried Idyll was heard in its original, aptly intimate chamber guise. Scored for thirteen musicians, featuring string quintet, flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns and that all-important thirteen-bar appearance of solo trumpet, the Idyll allows the listener to share a moment of the Wagners life at Villa Wahnfried, while the composer was busy at work with his magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen.

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Although scored for vast orchestral forces, Wagner’s stage dramas contain tremendous passages of chamber music, clad in the most delicate scoring imaginable. These moments of intimacy are at the core of the Idyll, resulting in a musical mini-drama with charmingly evocative appeal. 

In terms of the actual music, Siegfried Idyll is rooted in an unfinished string quartet. For Cosima’s birthday gift, Wagner used the sketches as a source material, expanding the orchestration and incorporating variety of other thematic material, with a multitude of references, familiar to the composer’s inner circle.

Following its private premiere on Christmas Day 1870, Siegfried Idyll remained unknown to the public until 1878, when the score was first published in a version for thirty five players, rescored by the composer.

Since its publication, the Idyll has become a solid part of the symphonic repertoire. While still most often heard in its orchestral guise, the original chamber scoring has steadily gained more prominence. And gladly so, given its exquisite transparency and intimacy. 

With Barenboim, the thirteen players of the Staatskapelle gave a blissful performance of the Siegfried Idyll. With solo strings at play, the music was clad in most delicate raiment, bearing an aura of sublime musical conversation, to an astounding effect. 

The performance was awash with dazzling solo performances, with the most striking being the brief trumpet part, resounding from the tier across the auditorium. The gorgeous music for winds and the two horns was brought to life with picturesque splendour, whereas the strings shone with warmth and translucent radiance.

With a stage set from Der Ring on the background, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle transported us deep into the Wagnerian universe with their riveting performance. A splendid reminder of the fundamental role of music and all the arts in our lives, the evening was collective music therapy at the highest level.     

 

Staatskapelle Berlin

Daniel Barenboim, conductor

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G major, KV 525 ”Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1787)

Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll (1870) for 13 players

 

Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin

Friday 8 May 2020, 9.45 pm

 

© Jari Kallio

Photos © Peter Adamik

Coming together – Petrenko and the Berliners united the online audiences with a ravishing European Concert

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Wondrous things can come out of difficult times. On Friday, the Berliner Philharmoniker performed their first live orchestral concert since the mid-March. Conducted by Kirill Petrenko, fifteen members of the orchestra appeared onstage at the Philharmonie, keeping their safety distances, to perform this year’s European Concert. 

Originally, the 30th European Concert was to be performed in Tel Aviv, with a programme including Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1899-1901/1902/1910) and Rückert-Lieder (1901-02), as well as, Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (1880). In its Berlin reincarnation, the Mahler symphony appeared in its chamber guise, whereas the first half now included Arvo Pärt’s Fratres (1977/1991), György Ligeti’s Ramifications (1968-69) and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936). 

There is a special connection between Pärt’s Fratres and the Berliner Philharmoniker. For the piece appeared on the legendary 1984 ECM album, inaugurating both the label’s New Series and Pärt’s breakthrough in the West, performed by the 12 cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker. 

At Friday’s concert, Fratres was heard in its 1991 adaptation by the composer, rescored for for string orchestra and percussion. Probably the best-known example of Pärt’s tintinnabuli style, Fratres is a sublime set of variations, manifesting itself in chord sequences, altering between a recurring percussion cue. 

As the three-voice material gradually unfolds around a static pedal point, luminous harmonic clouds take shape and evaporate, to an alluring effect. While deceptively simple on page, the delicate counterpoint, mostly in mezzopiano dynamics, requires incessant concentration and clarity of expression. 

With Petrenko, the fifteen string players and a percussionist of the Berliner Philharmoniker gave an absolutely enthralling performance of Fratres. Rooted in sublime intensity, the dialogue between the string ensemble and the offstage percussion was brought to sounding reality with utmost beauty and textural clarity. 

An ideal piece to break the orchestral silence caused by the COVID-19, hearing Fratres with Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker was a deeply moving experience. 

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Pärt’s ingenious meditation was followed by Ligeti’s riveting spectral study for twelve solo strings, Ramifications. In the score, the strings are divided into two groups, with the first group tuned a quarter note higher than the second, which performs in standard tuning. As a result, a unique sphere of harmonies emerges, engulfing the listener with thrilling sonorities. 

As with Atmosphères (1961), there is no perceived rhythmic profile in Ramifications. Instead, the eight-minute piece is to be performed as a seamless flow of sound, as if emerging as a single gestalt, stretched in time and space. Like Fratres, the score of Ramifications requires uttermost concentration and refined articulation. 

Performed with virtuoso clarity and expression, Ramifications was pure aural joy with Petrenko and the Berliners. A microcosmos of its own, Ligeti’s one-of-a-kind score resounded with a wealth utterly fascinating sonic detail, clad in tremendous intensity of ever-shifting spectral panorama. 

Closing the first half, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936) was heard. First performed in 1938 in New York, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the Adagio was originally conceived as the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11 (1936). 

Since its premiere, Adagio for Strings has become an iconic cultural item, often performed during times of mourning, from accompanying the announcements of the deaths of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and JFK, to being performed as a 9/11 memorial. In Berlin, the piece was heard as a memorial for the coronavirus victims. 

Written in the form of an extended arch, the Adagio is based on a subtle melodic pattern, ascending and descending in step-wise motion. Instantly memorable, the Adagio is a formidable study in simplicity and communicativeness. Marvellously performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker string players with Petrenko, shunning all superficial pathos, the Adagio provided the listener with a much-needed, consoling experience. 

The second half of the concert was devoted to Gustav Mahler’s incomparable Fourth Symphony (1899-1901/1902/1910). As a remarkable transition from the vast orchestral resources used by the composer in his previous symphonic endeavors, Mahler scored the G major symphony for a quasi-classical orchestra, devoid of heavy brass. 

At the Philharmonie, Maher’s Fourth was heard in Erwin Stein’s 1921 chamber version for string quintet, flute, oboe, clarinet, two pianos, harmonium and three percussionists. A member of the Schoenberg circle in Vienna, Stein was closely involved in organizing the Society for Private Musical Performances.   

For these Vienna performances, Stein produced arrangements orchestral repertoire for various chamber ensembles, including his brilliant take on the Mahler Fourth. 

Chamber arrangements, when properly done, are manifestations of an art form of its own right. Bringing out the essentials of the original orchestral fabric, with sonorities re-imagined in a chamber setting requires craft, imagination and invention, while respecting the original entity as written by the composer. 

Before the advent of recordings, there was a substantial need for all kinds of chamber adaptations of orchestral repertoire. As a result, there  are numerous ravishing arrangements of key works lingering unperformed in the archives. 

While some purists may abhor the idea of performing musical pieces in other guises than their originals, I am assured that each and every one of us streaming the European Concert was delighted to be able to hear Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, thanks to Stein’s chamber version. 

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Stein rewriting of Mahler’s string parts for the five soloist is simply wonderful throughout, as are the rescored wind and brass parts. The two pianos and the harmonium augment the textures, with a splendid illusion of larger forces at play. Completed with a delightful  array of percussion, this is a substantial recreation of Mahler’s original score. 

The Fourth Symphony is cast in four movements, with an opening movement in sonata form, followed by a demonic scherzo and the most gorgeous adagio. The symphony closes, quite unexpectedly, with a song, depicting child’s vision of heaven. 

The first movement is set forth with sleigh bells, paving the way for the entry of the fabulously flowing opening theme, gently altering with the second subject. There is a bucolic hue woven into the opening movement, with darker undercurrents. 

A game of light and shadow, the first movement was performed with admirable sensitivity and gripping intensity by Petrenko and the members of the Berliner Philharmoniker. 

In the scherzo, Death takes the fiddle, as Mahler put it. Inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s 1872 painting, Mahler sets the second movement as a Totentanz, for scordatura solo violin and orchestra. Resulting in a nightmarish dance, the scherzo is one of Mahler’s finest, to a bone-chilling effect.

The violin solos were formidably performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto, with his colleagues and Petrenko as excellent partners in crime. 

The adagio is a set of ingenious variations, in the guise of a solemn procession. Proceeding through distant harmonies, the music resolves in an impassioned climax, followed by a swift coda. 

Petrenko moulded the symphonic arch of the adagio with extraordinary sense of architecture, paving the way for a compelling instrumental drama, as realized by the orchestra.

For the heavenly naivety of the closing moment, the orchestra was joined by soprano Christiane Karg, delivering the most moving rendition of the Wunderhorn text. With the child-like enchantment of heavenly wonders, the symphony is brought to its brilliantly bewildering conclusion.

With the reduced instrumental forces at play, Karg’s vocal line flourished with radiant simplicity and beauty. The orchestral texture was integrated with the solo part with superlative craft and reactivity, leading to an entrancing conclusion.  

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A collective event par excellence, the 30th European Concert lived up to its name, bringing the distanced audiences together in the most beautiful way imaginable. Hopefully there will be more to come in a not-too-distant future. 

 

Berliner Philharmoniker

Kirill Petrenko, conductor

 

Christiane Karg, soprano

 

Arvo Pärt: Fratres (1977/1991) for string orchestra and percussion

György Ligeti: Ramifications (1968-69) for 12 solo strings

Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings (1936)

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 4 in G major (1899-1901/1902/1910, chamber version by Erwin Stein, 1921) 

 

Philharmonie, Berlin

Friday 1 May 2020, 11 am

© Jari Kallio

Photos © Monika Rittershaus 

Album review: Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Adès launch their Beethoven & Barry cycle with an outstanding first volume

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Based on an intriguing three-season concert cycle by Thomas Adès and the Britten Sinfonia, Signum Classics has initiated a series of CD releases featuring the nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, alongside the music of Gerald Barry. Recorded at the Barbican Centre, London, these performances provide us with top-class music-making and fascinating testimony of creative programming and inspired dedication.

Last spring, a couple of weeks before the final installments of the 2017-19 cycle, Adès reflected the origins of the project, as a part of our thorough chat. 

”It was this wild idea, I wanted to do. I’ve done all these premieres of Gerald’s music, and I thought we’ve got to record them, though I never have time to record anything. And so we got thinking about how we could do this, and suddenly the idea was there. It was completely bananas! In the first year, nobody came at all, but who cares, it was fun. And it sort of built, so actually and they’re doing well now. I really enjoy doing the Beethoven. I won’t make a habit of it, but I’ve loved doing it and learned an awful lot. And doing Gerald’s older and newer work, it makes a lot of sense, I think, to do it. For me it makes sense. I think, now we’ve found a record company that will release it all as one thing, Barry and Beethoven together, and I’m really pleased about that.”

Now, a year-or-so later, the first volume of the series is out. The two-disc set features Beethoven’s first three symphonies as well as two pieces by Barry, namely the Piano Concerto (2012) and Beethoven (2008) for bass voice and ensemble. 

On disc one, the whole programme of the first Barbican concert from June 2017 is given more or less as-is. The disc opens with Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1795-1800), followed by Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-03). Barry’s Beethoven, a concert opener at the Barbican, now closes the disc, resulting in slight reshuffle of the original concert playlist.  

Beethoven’s witty introduction for his First Symphony, suggesting several keys before landing on its C major home, already points out the virtues of these performances. With Adès, the Britten Sinfonia sets us on an absolutely thrilling sonic journey. 

Two things stand out on these opening pars. First, there is that admirable clarity of sound, resulting from the dexterity of the small orchestral forces at play, enhanced by ever spot-on phrasing and balance. Second, one is swept away by the sheer energy, manifesting itself throughout the dynamic scale. 

The mounted tension of the adagio molto introduction is unleashed in full in the ensuing allegro con brio. As Beethoven sets forth to beat Haydn in his own game, a tremendous burst of musical joy ensues. The fabulous musicians of the Britten Sinfonia pass on the flamboyant spirit of the score to the listener, to an invigorating effect. 

The second movement, andante cantabile con moto lives up to its title. Adès sets the music in motion with an aptly chosen, lively tempo. As the musical fabric unravels at its natural pace, one is immersed into the brilliant sounding realm of the ensemble, filled with imaginative phrasing and luminous articulation. 

In the third movement, Beethoven pushes the menuetto to the edge with sharp rhythms and relentless sonic flow. In the trio, rapid string passages and marvellous woodwind phrases alternate with swift tutti passages. I’m not sure if I was able to draw a single breath during the profoundly entrancing performance. Be that as it may, by Adès and the Britten Sinfonia truly are one with this music. 

Another wondrously charged adagio introduction is heard before the concluding allegro molto e vivace. The orchestra and Adès close symphony with a brisk, joie de vivre take on finale.       

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Still, all things considered, it might be the stupendous performance of the Second Symphony that stands out as the absolute highlight of the album. I wonder if I have ever heard this symphony performed with such tremendous energy, clarity and commitment. 

From the very opening bars of the adagio on, Beethoven takes a quantum leap from the Haydnesque universe of his first symphonic endeavor to a hitherto unknown territories of the symphonic realm.

In terms of sound, the Second Symphony embraces a wider spectrum, in parallel with its broader emotional scale. This transformation is thoroughly reflected by the orchestra and Adès. 

Beethoven’s fantastic introduction builds up formidably to its two-bar climax, a haunting pre-echo of the Ninth Symphony (1822-24). In the allegro con brio, each and every instrumental group of the Britten Sinfonia shine out as the music unfolds within a well-balanced symphonic arc. With all its quirky accents and dynamic extremes, the movement is brought to a stirring conclusion.

The larghetto second movement is a feast of texture with its enchantingly interwoven sting and wind lines, ravishingly coloured by those ever-bright horns. Within this music, a dramatic narrative par excellence displays itself. 

The pace mounts abruptly with the brief scherzo. An assault of sharp rhythmic interjections and wild instrumental flow, there is the element of danger present within this wild ride. While the trio brings forth a change in the texture, there is no attempt to cool down the burning inner spirit of the music. 

In similar vein, the allegro molto finale flows unhindered through various soundscapes into its absorbing conclusion. As a whole, Adès and the Britten Sinfonia give us a spectacular take on the symphony, one with lasting enchantment.        

The first disc closes with Beethoven, Gerald Barry riveting setting of a selection of Beethoven’s letters in Emily Anderson’s English translation, including the famous lines written by the composer for his ”Immortal Beloved”. 

Scored for solo bass and an ensemble of fourteen musicians, the seventeen-minute piece is a captivating tableau featuring Beethoven’s musings on his everyday troubles of traveling, lodging and getting his letters sent in time, intermingled with contemplations of the endless complexities of love, and the eventual impossibility of a relationship. 

In his score, Barry avoids all the cheap tricks of allusion and quotation, and instead sets forth with his own, impeccable instrumental and vocal style. The music is more akin to Stravinsky’s neoclassical works than those of Beethoven, yet ever landing on Barry’s own, highly personal idiom. 

The solo part, fabulously performed by Mark Stone, unfolds in the manner of an extended recitative, not only conveying the message, but also re-enacting the very act of Beethoven’s letter-writing itself. 

The instrumental fabric is performed with incessant flow and intricate rhythmic detail, always in accord with the soloist. 

Disc two mixes together two pieces of utmost intensity. The recording of Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55, Eroica (1802-04) comes from a performance recorded a couple of days after the performances of the first two symphonies. Barry’s Piano Concerto, in its turn, was caught on disc a year later, upon its London premiere in May 2018. 

One can only imagine what a revolution the first performance of Eroica must have been back in Vienna in April 1805. His unprecedented symphonic creation had its roots in a deep personal crisis, brought forth by his rapidly deteriorating hearing. As documented in the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven was, in fact, composing himself out of suicide with Eroica.   

Beethoven’s Third Symphony is based on an extended four-movement formal outline. The opening movement is a vast sonata-allegro, with the most condensed introduction imaginable. For the movement is launched with two tutti chords, followed by the introduction of the main theme on the celli. 

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The first movement is a staggering symphonic canvas, with the whole orchestra engaged in vehement sonic play. Adès and the Britten Sinfonia set out at full throttle, resulting in one amazing performance. There is the wonderful paradox of a controlled free fall at play here, with ecstatic spontaneity joining hands with perfectly balanced formal scheme. 

In the marcia funebre, the orchestra and Adès plunge deep into the dark night of the soul. The music flickers at the threshold of desperation and disintegration, yet always managing to pull itself back together, to a shattering effect. 

Seldom, if ever, one gets to hear such deeply moving yet well-shaped performance of this music. For with this performance, every single detail is perfectly audible, without ever compromising with the emotional intensity inherent in the music. 

With the looming pitch-dark clouds of the funeral march finally lifted, the listener is engaged in the wildest of scherzos. With its signal-like main motive, the music dashes headlong into the open air alight with swift sunrise. The horns get their peak moment in the gorgeous trio, performed with utmost musicality. 

And thus we find ourselves in the midst of the fugal textures of the opening of the allegro molto finale. Soon the textures have been deployed across the full orchestra, and the finale proceeds steadfast towards its conclusion. 

The performance reaches zenith with the coda, a tour-de-force making all words fall short with its splendor. This is the most life-affirming Eroica imaginable!

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For the album conclusion the Britten Sinfonia is joined by pianist Nicolas Hodges to whom Barry has written his twenty-two-minute, single-movement Piano Concerto.

Scored for a large orchestra, including two wind machines and an orchestral piano, the concerto is a spectacular affair. The music is set in motion with a pronounced statement from winds and brass, followed by the entry of the solo piano. 

While there are superficial traces of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and various big bands, Barry’s music is, once again, unmistakably idiomatic. The full potential of the solo keyboard is unleashed, from cool, jazzy licks to massive chromatic clusters, occasionally enhanced by the orchestral piano. 

In terms of rhythm and phrasing, everything from pianola-like moto perpetuo to quasi-improvisatory passages gets an outing within this wonderful score.

The large orchestra is often used sectionally, resulting in richly varied soundscapes. Even though there are no separate movements, the sonic monolith of the concerto is cast into separate passages, varying in mood and texture.     

With Adès on the podium, the almost surreal orchestral fresco is painted with luscious colours by the Britten Sinfonia. Hodges ventures through the solo part with virtuosity and wit, providing an enthralling performance. The orchestra is well-interlocked with the soloist, with aligned rhythms, fluent phrasing and detailed balance. 

As a whole, this is a remarkable release in every respect. Aptly served by well-measured engineering by the Signum Classics team, these recordings are an absolute delight. Hopefully the next volumes are to be released as soon as possible. 

 

Britten Sinfonia

Thomas Adès, conductor

 

Nicolas Hodges, piano

Mark Stone, baritone

 

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1795-1800)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-03)

Gerald Barry: Beethoven (2008) for bass voice and ensemble

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ”Eroica” (1802-04)

Gerald Barry: Piano Concerto (2012)

 

Recorded at Barbican Centre, London, 2-6 June 2017 and 22 May 2018 (Barry Piano Concerto)

Signum Classics SIGCD616 (2020), 2 CDs

© Jari Kallio

Photos © Chris Christodoulou

Album review: Charles Gerhardt’s classic film score albums reappear on Sony’s budget box

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In the mid-seventies, RCA released a series of now classic albums titled Classic Film Scores. Conducted by Charles Gerhardt and performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, a London-based studio ensemble active until late nineties, these albums were each dedicated either to a Hollwood Golden Age composer or, in three cases, complied around certain actor. 

Produced by George Korngold, one of the key figures in establishing film music as an esteemed art form, these twelve albums were veritable milestones in presenting film scores on recordings.

Superbly performed and engineered with great care, the original albums made classic Hollywood film scores available in then state-of-the-art guise for a wide and enthusiastic audience. Alongside the four Bernard Herrmann albums on Decca Phase 4, the RCA series initiated the idea of re-recording classic film scores, a procedure carried further by labels such as Varèse Sarabande and Intrada, among others. 

The two most widely represented composers on the RCA series were, deservedly, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner. I addition to two albums dedicated to each composer, both of them appeared extensively on those actor-themed albums as well. 

In addition to various suites, either ones compiled by their composers or specifically adapted for these recordings, Max Steiner’s 1939 score for Gone with the Wind was extended to an album-length presentation. 

In some cases, original film compositions had yielded to various concert pieces of their own right. On the Gerhardt recordings, two film-based concert pieces by Korngold were included, namely the Cello Concerto in C, Op. 37 (1946), an extended version of the original piece appearing on his score for the film Deception, as well as Tomorrow, Op. 33 (1943), a tone-poem for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra, originating in the film The Constant Nymph. 

In addition, Bernard Herrmann’s Concerto Macabre (1945) for piano and orchestra from the film Hangover Square was included, in a version revised by the composer for these sessions with Joaquín Achúcarro, alongside the complete aria Salammbo, written for the opera scene of Citizen Kane (1941), and sung here by the young Kiri Te Kanawa. 

Alongside the Korngold, Steiner and Herrmann LPs, albums devoted to the scores of Dimitri Tiomkin, Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman and Miklós Rózsa were released. Joined by multi-composer releases dedicated to Erroll Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis, respectively, the series yielded to total twelve albums, each about forty five minutes in length.

Since late eighties, the original LPs have been available on CD as well, with some of them reissued in SACD format in Japan. However, most of the disc releases have been out of print for years, until now. 

This spring, Sony Classical, the current owner of the RCA back catalogue, has compiled the complete series of the original twelve albums into a generously-priced box set. Musically, the new box is an as-is re-release, providing the listener with the original CD remasters from thirty years back. 

No booklet of any kind is included, just track info and artists printed on the back side of each cardboard slipcase. The box itself comes with a stock photo of a film projector on the cover. Not much of a collector’s item per se, the music on the twelve discs, however, speaks volumes for itself. 

In many cases, these recordings are still, even today, the only available versions of the music apart from the films themselves. And, speaking in general terms, also the scores re-recorded elsewhere too, have stood the test of time very well. 

As one listens to Gerhard’s excerpts from Korngold’s two most iconic scores, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940), one wonders, if these scores have ever sounded as gorgeous as in these performances by the National Philharmonic Orchestra. The same can be said about the version of Gone with the Wind recorded here, although one might have hoped these sessions to have included chorus too. 

Alongside the Concerto Macabre and a suite from Citizen Kane, the Herrmann album includes suites from two of the most imaginatively orchestrated scores by the composer, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953) and White Witch Doctor (1953). Enhanced by the spacious clarity of the recording studio, both suites are a feast of instrumental color and invention. 

Franz Waxman’s thirty-year Hollywood career gets a fine representation here, with a series of dazzling excerpts ranging from the pioneering Bride of Frankenstein (1935) to Taras Bulba (1962). Waxman’s both Academy Award winning scores, Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951) appear on the album too, in formidable guises. 

One of the most delightful recordings in the entire series is a twelve-minute suite from Miklós Rózsa’s hauntingly dark 1947 score for The Red House. Selections from such Rózsa classics as Spellbound (1945) and The Lost Weekend (1945) are obviously included, while the epic Ben-Hur only appeared on a 1977 Decca recording by the National Philharmonic, with the composer conducting.    

As a whole, Max Steiner’s contribution to the Hollywood tradition remains the most astonishing one. The sheer amount and variety of music by the Austrian-born composer is breathtaking. Alongside his magnum opus, Gone with the Wind, there is an awe-inspiring selection of suites available across five discs here. 

The Bogart album opens with a spot-on presentation of the Casablanca Suite, incidentally also performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel at their Summer Night’s Concert at Schönbrunn last year. All in all, Steiner’s marvellous contributions to film noir are well covered, further demonstrated by fabulous recordings of selections from The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948). 

Another Steiner gems included in these recordings is Symphonie Moderne from Four Wives (1939). Scored for piano and orchestra, the eight-minute Symphonie is a concertante charmer, with allusions to Gershwin embedded in its genuinely Steinerian guise. 

The solo part is wonderfully performed by Earl Wild, with Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic in beautiful accord with their soloist.    

No Hollywood film music anthology would be complete without scores written for Westerns. From Steiner we get suites from Virginia City (1940), They Died with Their Boots On (1941) and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). Tiomkin’s The Big Sky (1952) is also included, alongside Newman’s The Bravados (1958). 

In addition to film scores, there are a couple of studio fanfares included among the recordings as well. Alfred Newman’s iconic 20th Century Fox Fanfare (1933) gets a rousing performance here, alongside the 1953 Cinemascope Extension. In similar vein, the Selznick Fanfare and the Warner Bros. Fanfare, both written by Steiner, are most welcome additions indeed.  

Two London-based choirs appear on these recordings. The Ambrosian Singers, a versatile chorus with notable appearances both on record and in the concert hall, is featured on five discs, including a tremendous performance of Strike for the Shores of Dover from The Sea Hawk as well as a splendid contribution to Newman’s The Robe (1952).

The John Alldis Choir, a professional ensemble of sixteen singers specializing in contemporary music, provide superlative vocal lines for Tiomkin’s amazing original score for Lost Horizon (1937), presented here in a generous 23-minute suite. 

All in all, the Gerhardt albums are well programmed throughout, with an ideal mix between the best-loved classics and some intriguing rarities. Fortunately the track listings are kept intact, without any re-release meddling with George Korngold’s original album designs. 

Some remastering would have been in place, however. Here and there, the ear picks distortions within the old CD masters, the most notable examples being the opening bars of Korngold’s The Private of Elizabeth and Essex Overture (1939) and a couple of passages in Steiner’s Symphonie Moderne.   

Apart from these occasional, deplorable effects of time, the sound quality is quite enjoyable. Given the outstanding quality of these performances, updated sonics might serve them even further. And, to be frank, these benchmark recordings would deserve proper liner notes, or at least liner notes of some kind. 

While the perfect re-release of this series is yet to materialize, let us enjoy all the ingenious music contained in this box set. Even today, they provide the best introduction conceivable for the gorgeous variety of sounds of the Hollywood golden age.  

 

Charles Gerhardt conducts Classic Film Scores 

 

National Philharmonic Orchestra

Charles Gerhardt, conductor

 

Band of the Grenadier Guards 

 

The Ambrosian Singers

The John Alldis Choir   

 

Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano

Norma Procter, contralto

 

Joaquín Achúcarro, piano

Earl Wild, piano

Sidney Sax, violin

Francisco Garbarro, cello

 

Sony Classical 19075920642 (2020), 12 CDs

© Jari Kallio

Album review: Tremendous Adès double bill with the composer conducting the Boston Symphony on DG

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A year after its world premiere, Thomas Adès’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018) has become somewhat of a phenomenon. Widely performed by its dedicatee, Kirill Gerstein, with the composer conducting, the concerto has been received with enthusiasm from Boston to Leipzig and from Helsinki to Munich.   

In similar vein, Adès’s tremendous 2013 tableau for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, Totentanz, premiered at the BBC Proms, has found a firm place in the repertoire, as a veritable contemporary classic.

Both works have now been preserved on disc too, with premiere recordings from Boston Symphony Hall, with the composer conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Recorded in 2018 and 2016, in conjunction with concert performances conducted by Adès, as a part of his position as Deborah and Philip Edmundson Artistic Partnership with the BSO, the Concerto and Totentanz are both eagerly-awaited additions to the composer’s CD catalogue. 

The disc opens with the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. The recording is based on the world premiere performances on 7-9 March 2019. The new concerto is nothing short of a masterpiece. Cast in three movements and lasting about twenty two minutes, the piece adopts, more or less, the traditional concerto scheme. 

However, within this framework, a dazzling sequence of the most imaginative musical events unravels, resulting in an absolutely enchanting, Adèsian journey. 

Following Concerto Conciso (1997) and In Seven Days (2008), the new concerto is, in fact, Adès’ third foray into the medium, although the first one to actually be called as such. For the composer, the working title of the new piece was Concerto in F, which happens to be, famously, the official title of George Gershwin’s 1925 piano concerto.

On a purely music level, the concertos of Adès and Gershwin do have a lot in common. In addition to the key of F, both pieces share an ingenious rhythmic profile, clad in riveting orchestral colour, both inhabiting a realm completely idiomatic to their composers, though. In addition to Gershwin, one can sense the presence of Ravel, Bartók and Prokofiev as spiritual forefathers of the new Adès concerto. 

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is launched with a luminously kinetic maze of the opening allegrissimo movement. Here Adès sets his musical material on a fascinating trajectory, with the soloist and the orchestra traveling through a riveting series of transformations. 

Within its solid structural framework, the first movement presents itself in many guises, resulting in an alluring musical landscape, with thrilling jitters. In our interview with the composer, Adès spoke about the essence of distorting the musical material, as a part of the creative process. In this respect, the opening movement of the concerto is a marvellous case in point.        

There is a fabulous cadenza embedded into the first movement. As the cadenza proceeds, two horns join the soloist adding their subtle harmonic aura to the musical fabric. Joined by full orchestra, the movement closes with a sonic whirlwind. 

The rhythmic drive of the allegrissimo is contrasted by the sublime central movement. Its poignant melodic material derives from the ethereal, chorale-like opening sequence. Throughout the movement, the solo piano part is woven together with tuned gongs, bass drum and tam-tam, leading to brilliant, extended sonorities.

In the finale, musical material from the first movement reappear, as the concerto goes round full circle. Clad in eloquent counterpoint, the textures build up in tension and density, until the music comes to a brief standstill in the middle of the movement. A bewitching coda ensues, to bring the concerto to its staggering close. 

On the new disc, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is presented with an extraordinary performance by Gerstein and the BSO. With the composer on the podium, the ever transforming orchestral textures are unraveled with admirable clarity, clad in gorgeous sonorities. 

The solo part is performed with impeccable virtuosity and profound musicality by Gerstein, resulting in a most rewarding musical experience. Adès and the orchestra are ever in accord with their soloist, providing the listener with joyously dexterous account of Adès’s spellbindingly elaborate contrapuntal textures. 

In terms of engineering, the concerto is well served on disc by the DG team. Both the solo part and the orchestra are recorded with spacious clarity, with an excellent sonic focus. My only minor complaint concerns the occasionally inaudible tuned gongs in the second movement. Having said that, it must be noted that, as a whole, the recording provides a highly satisfying listening experience.     

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The second item on the new disc, Totentanz, paints a sonic fresco quite different from the concerto. Written in one, thirty-five-minute-movement, Totentanz builds up to a vast symphonic fresco for mezzo-soprano, baritone and a large orchestra. The text is derived from a fifteenth-century frieze in St. Mary’s Church, Lübeck, eventually destroyed by a British air raid in World War II.  

In the course of Totentanz, Death, sung by a baritone, summons members of every category of human society to join, one by one, the last dance. With Death harvesting humans from the Pope to a baby, Totentanz assumes the form of a dialogue, with the mezzo-soprano portraying each of the doomed souls. 

The score opens with a series of angular brass fanfares, each leading to a massive tutti chord, heralding the arrival of Death. Baritone voice enters, with opening sermon, stating the motto of Totentanz, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the prologue of Berg’s Lulu (1929-35).

Following the introduction, Death appears, calling the Pope to join him in the grim, perpetual final dance. Transforming into various sonic guises, the orchestra keeps the music in incessant flow, while Death proceeds his sinister journey throughout each layer of the society.

As Totentanz unfolds, the score calls the mezzo-soprano to sing a total fifteen different roles, each given their own vocal identities by Adès. In each section, the orchestra evokes images related to the character involved, be they rulers or commoners of various trades, leading to a vivid series of orchestral tableaux, as if a nightmarish version of the MussorgskyRavel Pictures at an Exhibition (1874/1922). 

As the sequences follow each other in a seamless flow, the mezzo-soprano has to with from one role to another with utmost reactivity. In contrast, the baritone part transforms within an extended arc, ranging from the opening’s gloomy declamation to the intimate, almost commiserative dialogues between Death and the maiden and, eventually, the baby.

In each case, the doomed ones are caught unprepared by Death. Each of them, despite their position in the social hierarchy, is equally inept at facing their destiny. If not in life, at least in death the human society is an equal one. 

The two extraordinary soloists, baritone Mark Stone and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, covey their parts with utmost dedication and craft on the new DG album. Recorded in the course of three concert performances at Symphony Hall on 3-5 November 2016, Totentanz is a celebration of vocal art, both in terms Adès’s musical imagination and the performances of the two soloists. 

Both vocal lines convey a vast cavalcade of styles and emotions, ranging from the terrible majesty of Death to the horror, irony, protest, resignation and sorrow of his victims. As the score unravels, the vocal duets are transformed from outright clashes to subtle dialogues. 

The final meeting between Death and a baby is clad into the form of an elegy. Accompanied by achingly beautiful flugelhorn textures, Death invites the puzzled baby to join the others in the slowed-down round-dance. Following a gentle passage for strings and woodwinds, the music once again assumes a darker tone. 

A hollow coda ensues, as both soloist utter repetitions of the word ”tanzen”, gradually fading into whispering. On the final twelve bars, the orchestral textures are stripped into skeleton-like bare grunts from contrabassoon, contaforte, percussion, piano and double basses, carrying the dance rhythm into distance.     

With the composer at the helm, the Boston Symphony Orchestra gives an astonishing performance. The wealth of imagery rooted in Adès’s score is brought to life with tremendous sonorities, combined with a formidable attention to detail. In the course of Totentanz, the orchestra evokes an intricate, ever-changing fabric of rhythm, combined with astonishing imitations of the tolling of bells, massive tutti bursts and the most sublime string textures, materializing themselves on the very threshold of hearing.

The balance between the voices and the orchestra is quite ideal, with the vocal and instrumental lines blending in natural, organic manner. The orchestral sound is both transparent and aptly lush, true to the wondrous BSO tradition.

Heard in self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, Adès’s tremendous score speaks now with a whole new level of acuteness. The result is, in fact, quite therapeutic. 

 

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Thomas Adès, conductor

 

Kirill Gerstein, piano

Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano

Mark Stone, baritone

 

Thomas Adès: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018)

Thomas Adès: Totentanz (2013) for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra

 

Recorded at Symphony Hall, Boston, 3-5 November 2016 (Totentanz) and 7-9 March 2018 (Concerto) 

Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 7998 9 (2020), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

Photo © BR / Astrid Ackermann