Friday 24 August 2012

BBC Prom - Max’s Ninth, fine Delius from Tasmin Little and an Impressive Shostakovich Tenth from Vasily Petrenko

Having been unable to get to Liverpool for the World Premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Ninth Symphony last June I was glad to get an opportunity to hear it at last night’s BBC Prom.

Vasily Petrenko was again conducting the work with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert that included Tasmin Little playing the Delius’ Violin Concerto and a performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony.

At around 25 minutes this is one of Max’s shorter symphonies yet it proved to be a powerful work. From the richly striking opening with timpani rolls and brass dominating, as the work developed there were occasional quiet passages seemingly trying to fight against the orchestral outbursts.

After an upward soaring melody, a brass sextet intervened with a theme that was lighter though apparently ironic in nature. This was brushed aside by swirling strings, woodwind and percussion yet the ironic theme managed to return, seemingly revealing the absurdity of the world.

After a number of struggles between the brass and the rest of the orchestra the music subsides into a quietly mysterious section dominated by the low strings. Woodwind continue this theme leading to a flute solo. The full orchestra returns with momentary interventions of a quiet brass chorale before a lonely trumpet solo is heard against a hushed orchestra. If the earlier ironic brass passages did not clearly show the feelings being expressed, then this solo with military overtones does. This must be reflecting Max’s feelings concerning his country’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The brass sextet enters again before birdlike calls on the woodwind and sonorous string passages lead to more brass but this time plaintive in nature. There are strange shifting harmonies before the orchestra tries to rise to a climax. The work ends quietly with timpani against the low strings.

These are only my first impressions of a work that certainly has great depth and expression. I look forward to hearing the work again which, thanks to BBC iPlayer, I can.

Tasmin Little’s tone immediately brought a poignantly Delian feel to her performance of the Violin Concerto. The work was allowed to unfold naturally with many orchestral details becoming clear. Vasily Petrenko provided a surprisingly idiomatic orchestral sound and was not afraid to point up occasional little flourishes in the orchestra. A perfectly judged coda with the music quietly dying away ended a fine performance of this most elusive of concertos.

Ending this concert with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was entirely appropriate given the use of irony that this composer also used to express his feelings on his own country’s politics.

Vasily Petrenko has already recorded and performed many of Shostakovich’s symphonies including a much praised recording of the Tenth, so expectations were high on this occasion. What is impressive about Petrenko is the way in which he keeps the long line and flow of the music, such as where the first movement builds to its central climax. This was perfectly judged with a beautifully austere coda.

The second movement Allegro showed the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in fine form where the conductor did not allow the music to become too manic. The third movement was riven with an overwhelming emotional intensity and the fourth had an icily cold and intense emotion that was almost overwhelmingly bleak.

Warmth finally started to appear in the final movement but Petrenko kept the pace, such that it had the feel of a tentative, even false, warmth. The tautness of the playing in the coda was impressive bringing to an end a performance of great depth and insight.

See other Prom reviews:

Last Night of the Proms 2012 with Nicola Benedetti, Joseph Calleja and Team GB’s Olympic medallists

A Memorable Concert from Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic at the BBC Proms

Subtle Saint-Saëns from Benjamin Grosvenor at the Proms

A Battlefield at the Proms

Handel’s Water Music and Fireworks Music as they should be played

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Marvellously played Chamber Symphonies from Kalevi Aho

The Finnish composer Kalevi Aho is arguably one of the finest symphonists of our time.

Born in 1949, in Forssa, a small town on the Loimijoki river north-west of Helsinki, he began playing the violin and composing at the age on ten. He studied composition at the Sibelius Academy under Einojuhani Rautavaara, graduating in 1971. From 1971 to 1972 he studied in Berlin with Boris Blacher at the Staatlichen Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst.

From 1974 until 1988 he was a lecturer in musicology at Helsinki University and from 1988 until 1993 professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy. Aho became composer-in-residence for the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in 1992 and since 1993 Aho has worked as a freelance composer.

Aho’s early compositions were influenced by Shostakovich and Neo-Classicism. After a period where his music moved towards Modernism (such as in his Sixth Symphony of 1980), his later works aim at a more coherent free-tonal style.

Aho’s compositions include operas, vocal music, fifteen symphonies, three chamber symphonies, other orchestral works, numerous concertos including two for piano, a cello concerto and a violin concerto and a large amount of chamber music.

Aho’s symphonic works often follow an 'abstract drama', similar to that in his operatic works. The world premiere of his fifteenth symphony was given in Manchester by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena on 26th March 2011.

BIS Records have recorded a large number of his works, including most of the symphonies, as part of their projected recordings of all of his works (to date).

A new release from BIS Records  has all three of his chamber symphonies played by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Stefan Asbury (No. 1 and 2) and Jean-Jacques Kantorow (No.3).


The First Chamber Symphony, written in 1976, was a Helsinki Festival commission and is one single movement. From the start it has all the bleakness of a Shostakovich Chamber symphony before savage string sounds interrupt the sombre atmosphere rising at times to complex climaxes.

The Second Chamber Symphony is in three movements and dates from 1991/92, having been commissioned by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. The first movement has strings leaping dissonantly around before settling to a quieter, more settled, theme but eventually soaring to the highest reaches of the violins before concluding on a quietly meditative note which leads directly into the second movement.

Here there are anguished string sounds interrupted by what the composer calls Bartok pizzicatos (string slaps against the finger board). The sombre mood prevails with occasional angry outbursts, before we suddenly find ourselves in the third movement where rich sonorous string passages surge around before dying away to a quiet organ like sonorities before falling to three quiet notes played col legno on double basses.

The four movement Third Chamber Symphony from 1995/96 was again written for the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. This twenty six minute work opens with atmospheric sounds of nature, with the strings evoking bird calls. The music quietens before picking up again with wild sounds reminiscent of nature calls from the violins. The music again quietens to very chilled sounds before moving directly into the second movement where the alto saxophone quietly emerges with birdlike calls against hushed strings in what is a magical moment.

The atmosphere slowly warms as the alto saxophone becomes slowly louder and richer with some fabulous playing by saxophonist John-Edward Kelly. There is a quiet transition to the third movement where a hushed string note is held before the alto saxophone joins with a melancholy melody.  Eventually the saxophone rises to an accompanied cadenza against low hushed strings where again there is superb playing by from John-Edward Kelly.  The orchestra becomes more prominent as the saxophone continues its virtuosic role leading directly to the fourth and last movement where the saxophone plays around the strings until the saxophone’s calls appear to retreat into the distance, further and further away amongst the surrounding strings as the movement and whole work fades into the distance.

This last Chamber Symphony is a particularly wonderful and atmospheric work but the two earlier works are both fine compositions with the Second Chamber Symphony also providing much atmosphere as well as stretching the strings in some marvellous playing.

With notes by the composer and a first rate recording this new release is highly recommended.

See also:

Why does Finland continue to produce so many fine composers?

A Trombone Concerto from Finland’s Kalevi Aho


Saturday 18 August 2012

The music of Brian Chapple in mesmerising performances by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow

When I wrote my six part blog Celebrating British Music I knew that such an undertaking would inevitably leave out some fine composers that deserved a mention.

Brian Chapple (b.1945) may not be a household name but he has written some attractive music of real substance. He attended the Royal Academy of Music studying composition with Lennox Berkeley and piano with Harry Isaacs. His orchestral work Green and Pleasant was winner of the BBC Monarchy 1000 Prize in 1972.  Its premiere took place in Bath when, conducted by Norman del Mar, it was broadcast and televised.

Brian Chapple has received commissions from and premieres by the London Sinfonietta (Venus Fly-Trap), the London Mozart Players (Little Symphony, 1982), BBC Singers (Lamentations of Jeremiah, 1984) and the New London Orchestra (In Memoriam, 1989).

His work with the Highgate Choral Society resulted in two substantial choral, orchestral commissions, (Cantica, 1978) and (Magnificat, 1987) and the choir of St Paul's Cathedral has premiered his Missa Brevis, Ecce Lignum Crucis and St Paul's Service, 1996, a tercentenary commission.

The Choir of St Pauls Cathedral has recorded Chapple’s Ecce Lignum Crucis on a Hyperion disc entitled Passiontide at St Pauls (CDA66916

Chapple’s other works include a Piano Concerto premiered by Howard Shelley in 1979, the Choral symphony In Ecclesiis, Songs of Innocence, Five Blake Songs, Five Shakespeare Songs, a Piano Sonata and other piano works.

It is a recording of some of his piano music that has been issued by Divine Art Recordings played by one of our finest piano duos, Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow.


The opening work on this disc, Burlesque, was originally written for two pianos, eight hands and was premiered in 2000. This new version of the work from 2005, is for two pianos four hands. The opening marked Con moto slowly builds with richly sonorous playing from Goldstone and Clemmow whilst the following section, Con brio, has a Spanish flavour showing this duo’s supreme accuracy, playing as though one.

The third section, what the composer in his notes describes as a moto perpetuo, brings lithe rhythmic playing before the finale section which really swings with joyful playing of jazz rhythms and not a little virtuosity.

We enter a somewhat different world with Chapple’s earlier Piano Sonata (1986) commissioned  by Julian Jacobson and premiered by him at the 1986 Dartington International Summer School.

The first of the three movements is a short Adagio where the music seems to search around for a theme. The second relatively short Allegro movement again seems to leap around without obviously settling on a theme. The final movement progresses through an Allegro energico, a Largamente and Adagio tranquillo before a final short Allegro. It is in this movement that the themes searched for in the first two movements are seemingly resolved. There is certainly a resolution in the Adagio tranquillo section before the brief Allegro coda.

So engrossed was I by this sonata that I took Anthony Goldstone’s superb pianism for granted. His performance really is magnificent.

Brian Chapple’s Bagatelles diverses for solo piano consist of nine pieces, all seemingly fragmentary, and I was not convinced when reading the composer’s notes that they would ‘coalesce into a twenty three minute work of some weight.’ To my surprise the longer final bagatelles do just that and, by the penultimate bagatelle the work pulled together forming a work of some substance.

Caroline Clemmow’s playing of these pieces is wonderful and contributes much to the works cohesion. The richness of her playing towards the end of the work is superb.

Chapple’s Requies, for piano solo was written around the time of the first Gulf War and it was television images of destroyed armoured cars and the dead strewn across the landscape that led to this piece. Lasting around eleven minutes, this is an expressive and sombre piece that can indeed conjure up the feeling of wandering amongst the debris of war and the thoughts that it provokes. Anthony Goldstone really gets inside this work conjuring up an intense and mesmerising performance.

The disc ends with Four Pieces from ‘A Bit of a Blow’ for piano duet. No wonder a previous version of this music for solo piano was entitled ‘Swing’s the Thing’ as jazz rhythms embrace these pieces in a piano performance of style and panache showing this duo’s astonishing artistry and versatility.

See also:

Playing of astonishing brilliance from Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow in works by Mussorgsky, Alfven, Ibert, Lyadov, Britten and Ireland
Original Planets from the brilliant piano duo Goldstone and Clemmow

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Subtle Saint-Saëns from Benjamin Grosvenor at the Proms

Last night’s (Tuesday 14th August 2012) BBC Prom featured the outstanding young pianist Benjamin Grosvenor in Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor. The programme included Delius’ Paris: The Song of a Great City and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 in E minor with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under their Principal Conductor Charles Dutoit.

In his early tone poem, Paris, Delius had still not fully developed his own distinctive style, yet in this work there are atmospheric moments where the mature Delius can be heard. Charles Dutoit managed to bring out the Delian feeling in these passages and did his best to bring some cohesion to this rather sprawling work.

From the beginning it was evident that Benjamin Grosvenor’s view of the Saint-Saëns was never going to be barnstorming. This pianist has far more subtlety than that. There was thoughtful and wonderfully fleet and nimble playing whilst Dutoit brought out many beautiful details, particularly in the woodwind.

Grosvenor’s virtuosity came to the fore in the final movement where Saint-Saëns puts great demands on the pianist. Perhaps there were some repeated passages where there was too much emphasis but overall this was a tremendous performance.

We even got an encore in the form of Leopold Godowsky’s transcription of Saint-Saëns’ The Swan from his Carnival of the Animals. Godowsky never spared the pianist in his transcriptions and paraphrases but Benjamin Grosvenor had the measure of this work with some terrific playing.

Whilst Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is always likely to please a Prom audience it must be difficult to bring something new to this work. Dutoit’s conception of the work appeared to one of darkness and restraint. From the tentative beginning there was beautifully controlled playing. This holding back was very effective as when he allowed the orchestra their head the impact was all the more great.

The second movement in particular was dark and brooding with only occasional light allowed to appear. This restrained approach did not work so well in the third movement with its waltz theme. The final movement was again taut and heavy until the music gained momentum and the orchestra was fully allowed its head.

Despite many fine moments, the feeling of constantly holding back did tend, at times, to make this a slightly frustrating performance. 

See other Prom reviews:

Last Night of the Proms 2012 with Nicola Benedetti, Joseph Calleja and Team GB’s Olympic medallists

A Memorable Concert from Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic at the BBC Proms

BBC Prom - Max’s Ninth, fine Delius from Tasmin Little and an Impressive Shostakovich Tenth from Vasily Petrenko

A Battlefield at the Proms

Handel’s Water Music and Fireworks Music as they should be played

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Ruggiero Ricci (July 24, 1918 - August 6, 2012)

I have just read of the death of the great violinist Ruggiero Ricci at the age of 94 years at his home in Palm Springs, California.

Ricci ranked amongst the greatest violinists of his age. Born in San Bruno, California, into a musical family of Italian immigrants he was first taught to play the violin by his father. At age seven, he studied with Louis Persinger and Elizabeth Lackey.

A child prodigy, Ricci gave his first public performance in San Francisco in 1928 at the age of ten, where he played works by Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps. At the age of eleven he gave his first orchestral performance, playing the Mendelssohn concerto and soon after he had his highly successful debut at Carnegie Hall. Ricci later studied in Berlin with Georg Kulenkampff and with Michel Piastro and Paul Stassevich. Ricci found the reputation as a child prodigy difficult, especially when he made the transition to adult performer. He continued with his student practice of scales and exercises in order to ensure that his technique was always as good if not better than other violinists.

In 1947, Ricci was the first violinist to record Paganini’s complete 24 Caprices, Op. 1, in their original form. He also performed the world premieres of pieces by many contemporary composers, including the violin concertos by Gottfried von Einem and Alberto Ginastera.

Ricci taught violin at Indiana University, the Juilliard School and the University of Michigan as well as at the University Mozarteum in Salzburg and held master classes in the United States and Europe.

Ricci owned many valuable instruments, including the Guarneri Del Gesù violin known as the ex-Bronisław Huberman of 1734, a Storioni, and a Luiz Bellini.

Ricci’s career spanned seventy years with over 6,000 concerts in 65 countries. In his recording career he made over 500 recordings.

Vox (available from Amazon ) have released a five CD box set entitled The Art of Ruggiero Ricci which includes works by Bach, Brahms, Sibelius, Paganini, Wieniawski, Bruch and Lalo.

One of my own favourite Ricci recordings is his Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto recording with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jean Fournet. This Decca recording is available in two versions (both available from Amazon, one coupled with the Mendelssohn E minor Violin Concerto

and the other coupled with Viktoria Postnikova’s fine recording of the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Piano Concerto.

Ricci’s Tchaikovsky is a scintillating performance that also has moments of great poetry. I would recommend the Mendelssohn coupling as it gives another memorable Ricci performance.

Ruggiero Ricci may no longer be with us but he has left a legacy of wonderful recordings that later generations can enjoy.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Baroque Conversations - A remarkable recital from David Greilsammer

It has long been controversial to programme contemporary music with established classical works. The BBC Promenade Concerts have always introduced new music to audiences. When the impresario Robert Newman, manager of the newly built Queen's Hall in London, met Henry Wood in 1894 to talk about a series of Promenade Concerts he made his intention clear that they were to educate the listening public ‘in easy stages…popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.’

Nowhere has this been so clearly demonstrated this season than in the cycle of Beethoven Symphonies interspersed with works by Pierre Boulez, given by the West Eastern Divan Orchestra under their joint founder and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

When I heard the concert of Beethoven’s First and Second Symphonies (20th July 2012), I was beginning to have doubts about the programming of Boulez’s 45 minute Dérive 2, which was much longer than either of the two Beethoven symphonies either side of it. I think the issue with the programming is that of balance.

Interestingly, I see that Ilan Volkov, the new Music Director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra is programming Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light alongside Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony at their new Harpa Hall in Reykjavik. This late work, with its shimmering sounds, should prove an interesting work to precede Bruckner’s final work.

All of this brought me rather neatly to a new release from Sony Classical with David Greilsammer entitled Baroque Conversations.


The placing of contemporary piano pieces with Baroque masters such as Rameau, Couperin, Handel and Frescobaldi is bound to prove difficult for some listeners but such is the care put into the programming of this fascinating disc that I feel sure that anyone approaching it with open ears will enjoy this disc immensely. The recital is grouped in four sections each of three works, two baroque and one contemporary.

Rameau’s Gavotte et Six Doubles has a thoughtfully played Gavotte with attractive little flourishes. The six doubles have rhythmic panache and bounce with a lovely flourish at the end. It is the way David Greilsammer phrases the piece that sheds new light on the work, so that the transition into the Feldman that follows seems completely natural.

Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece of 1964 seems to reflect on the Gavotte of the Rameau and rather than clashing with it, seems to gain immensely from its juxtaposition with the earlier work.  The sudden change to Soler’s Sonata No.84 in D major is no more out of keeping than the change in the Rameau from the Gavotte to Six Doubles. Greilsammer really brings this piece to life with his rhythm and phrasing.

Francois Couperin’s Les Barricades mystérieuses is played with sophistication and warmth, making it the perfect foil for the dissonance and exoticism of Matan Porat (b.1982). There are conventional sounds in this piece written for David Greilsammer, entitled Whaam!, but they are effectively deconstructed into a completely different sound world where Messiaen shows a heavy influence alongside jazzy exotic rhythms. The jazz rhythms of the coda are simply stunning.

Handel’s Suite in D minor brings a sense of order but with the same sense of care, phrasing and rhythm carried over from the Porat. The Sarabande is played with a sensibility and thoughtfulness that adds feeling not often displayed in Handel’s keyboard music.

Greilsammer plays Johann Jacob Froberger’s Tombeau de Monsieur Blancrocher with a beautiful breadth and sonority that allows for a transition to Aux murailles rougies commissioned by David Greilsammer from Nimrod Sahar (b.1978) where there are attractive string harmonies from the prepared piano. It is difficult not to enjoy this strangely attractive piece where its conciseness allows for a readily understandable sense of form.

Orlando Gibbons’ Lord Salisbury’s Pavan and Galliard follows perfectly and it is odd that the Sahar work sounds so natural next to a 16th Century pavane.

Frescobaldi’s Toccata ottava di durezze e ligature is beautifully paced and perfectly phrased leading to Helmut Lachenmann’s (b.1935) Wiegenmusik. It is the ‘disengaging … from tonality and pitch’ referred to in the notes that allows this piece to achieve a complementary feel of analysing the baroque by breaking down of sounds and structure. In many ways this is the most fragmentary sounding piece.

Sweelinck’s Mein junges Leben hat ein End opens with a calm that makes a perfect transition from the Lachenmann piece before the attractive set of variations that concludes this piece.

It is David Greilsammer’s freedom of playing and his exquisite phrasing that helps to make these seemingly disparate works from such different eras work so well in this remarkable recital. The recording is first rate and the notes by Jorg Hillebrand are extremely informative. This is an outstanding recital which I heartily recommend.

Thursday 9 August 2012

A Battlefield at the Proms

I always try to listen to as much new music as possible and certainly during this BBC Proms season there is much to be heard.

When I saw that Wednesday’s Prom (8th August 2012) included a piece called Battlefield Concerto I was intrigued. Would this be something like Beethoven’s so called Battle Symphony (Wellington’s Victory) or perhaps a new 1812 overture?

Nothing could be further from the truth as this new work by the Swiss/French composer Richard Dubugnon was a work of some substance and virtuosity.

It was framed by Schubert’s Eighth Symphony and Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The Schubert had great atmosphere and the pacing allowed the organic growth of the music to slowly build. Whilst being a little tentative in feel this performance certainly made one hear the music afresh with many details becoming evident.

Ein Heldenleben received a performance with Wagnerian sweep with some finely detailed quiet passages. If, just occasionally, orchestral detail was slightly smudged this was nevertheless a fine performance.

Richard Dubugnon, (b. 1968) wrote his Battlefield Concerto for 2 pianos and orchestra Op.54 in 2010 as a result of a joint commission from the Orchestre de Paris, Gewandhaus Leipzig and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and is dedicated to Katia & Marielle Labèque who played the first UK performance at this Prom.

The work is inspired by Paolo Uccello’s (1397-1475) Triptych entitled The Battle of San Romano painted probably about 1438-40.

Intended as a descriptive work, it is by turns virtuosic, lyrical and percussive with a very French feel, and occasionally reminiscent of Ravel. The work has an epic feel and is at times almost like a Concerto for Orchestra. There are even jazzy rhythms and a hint of Bartok. It was difficult with just one hearing to grasp any clearly defined structure to the music. There were different themes which certainly appeared to represent the opposing parties in the battle and one could certainly get the feel of action taking place.

There was simply stunning playing by all concerned and, in particular, the Labèque sisters.

I would certainly like to hear this concerto again, and, indeed, other works by this interesting composer.

See other Prom reviews:

Last Night of the Proms 2012 with Nicola Benedetti, Joseph Calleja and Team GB’s Olympic medallists

A Memorable Concert from Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic at the BBC Proms

BBC Prom - Max’s Ninth, fine Delius from Tasmin Little and an Impressive Shostakovich Tenth from Vasily Petrenko

Subtle Saint-Saëns from Benjamin Grosvenor at the Proms

Handel’s Water Music and Fireworks Music as they should be played

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Petri Sakari conducts fine performances of Merikanto

The Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto (1893-1958) born in Helsinki, the son of the National Romantic composer Oskar Merikanto, was a major figure in Finnish music. He studied with Max Reger in Leipzig before the First World War caused him to travel to Moscow where he studied with Sergei Vasilenko.

Merikanto wrote a substantial body of work including three symphonies, orchestral works, concertos, chamber music and opera. His early works were rooted in Late Romanticism but from the 1920’s they became more modernist. In his opera Juha (1920-22) there is a strong expressionist streak though nevertheless retaining a degree of Late Romanticism.

By his second Violin Concerto of 1925 there are freely atonal melodies and by 1928 with his Sinfoninen harjoitelma (Symphonic study) his style was ruggedly dissonant. This new style was not received well by audiences and many of his works remained unperformed, indeed he destroyed his Third Violin Concerto (1931).

By the 1930’s Merikanto began to return to a more traditional style though whether this was because of the public’s reaction to his more radical works it is not known. During this later period he embraced Neo-Classicism though combining it with National and Romantic elements. In 1951 Merikanto was appointed Professor of Composition at the Sibelius Academy, thereby exerting an influence in post war Finnish Neo-Classicism.

Though I had known the name Aarre Merikanto it was not until I heard an Ondine CD of his attractive and lyrical Cello Concerto No.2 (1941/44) (available through Amazon ) that I became acquainted with his music. I was, therefore, pleased to listen to a recent recording of two of his symphonies.

This recent release from Alba Records has the first and third symphonies with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petri Sakari who has given us some fine Sibelius performances with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on Naxos.

ABCD 336

Merikanto wrote his first and second symphonies earlier in his career (1914/16 and 1918 respectively) but his third symphony was from his later period (1952/53) so they all avoid his more radical period, which in some ways is a pity since, had he written a symphony during his modernist period, it would have been extremely interesting.

Merikano’s Symphony No.1 in B minor Op.5 is the longer work at around thirty eight minutes and opens with a strong sweeping melody reminiscent of the Swede Kurt Atterberg. This beautifully orchestrated movement continues to become at times thoughtful and dramatic, before the return of the opening melody. The Scherzo second movement seems to me the weakest part of the symphony though it is rescued by the composer’s superb orchestration which lifts it beyond the material used. The central trio section, with its wistful theme, is particularly attractive.

The heart of this symphony is the slow movement andante that carries the weight of emotion and depth. There is at times, to my ears, an oddly Irish lilt to the music though also a certain Russianness, not surprising given his study in Moscow at that time.

The concluding Allegro vivace that pushes the music along at a fine pace is also not without its Russian feel, particularly in the extended central section marked Andante religioso. This long flowing melody provides some beautiful music, again wonderfully orchestrated, before shimmering strings lead to the return of the Allegro.

The three movement Third Symphony, much shorter at 22 minutes, builds from its tentative opening to a broad lyrical theme belying the overall marking of Scherzo: Vivace but soon changes character to the lively dance like tune of the Scherzo proper. A meditative section intervenes before the resumption of the dancing theme but the movement ends with a mysterious coda.

The deeply felt second movement andante opening with woodwind trills provides the weight and emotion of this symphony. Listening to this movement it is hard to believe that Merikanto’s return to a less modernist style was led by anything other than his own creative urge, such is the weight of this movement.

The short four and a half minute allegro finale has a lively and attractive theme tossed around the orchestra before the symphony ends suddenly.

These are attractive works and, though the first symphony has sections that seem to somewhat outstay their welcome, there are many beautiful moments and some unusual touches.

The Turku Philharmonic Orchestra under their conductor Petri Sakari is on fine form and the recording is first rate. There is much to enjoy in these two works which I recommended especially those who are interested in post Sibelius Finnish music.

Sunday 5 August 2012

Handel’s Water Music and Fireworks Music as they should be played

I missed the late night Prom concert on 18th July 2012 when Hervé Niquet directed his Concert Spirituel in performances of Handel’s Water suites and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Luckily I managed to catch the televised repeat last night as this was a terrific concert.

Hervé Niquet’s period band performed this music as it was intended, as entertainment. The raucous natural horns, though they may not have always hit every note perfectly, as to be to be expected in live performances with these old instruments, made a terrific sound. The period oboes blended beautifully with recorders to give some sonorous sounds. A special mention must be given to the large line up of natural trumpets that did a superb job.

The Music for the Royal Fireworks may not have had the line-up of twenty four oboes that were used in the Kings Consort’s recreation of the first performance in their Hyperion recording but, given that Handel wanted strings and the King did not, this was a performance that Handel would have loved.

Was it surprising that a French band seemed perfectly attuned to Handel’s music? Not at all, for though Britain adopted Handel with enthusiasm, he was of course originally German and travelled extensively in his youth.

The Royal Albert Hall provided a suitably large acoustic for this essentially outdoor music. Such was the visual impact of this concert with Hervé Niquet flamboyantly moving around the platform that I’m glad I was able to both listen and see the performance and, switched through my amplifier to use my Quad speakers, the sound was fabulous. No matter how good the sound at home, I still wished I had been there for the live event.

See other Prom reviews:

Last Night of the Proms 2012 with Nicola Benedetti, Joseph Calleja and Team GB’s Olympic medallists

A Memorable Concert from Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic at the BBC Proms

BBC Prom - Max’s Ninth, fine Delius from Tasmin Little and an Impressive Shostakovich Tenth from Vasily Petrenko

Subtle Saint-Saëns from Benjamin Grosvenor at the Proms

A Battlefield at the Proms

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Original Planets from the brilliant piano duo Goldstone and Clemmow

Many people will think that Gustav Holst’s The Planets was premiered in September 1918 at a private performance by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. In fact it was a performance given in the music hall of St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith, in its original version for two pianos, by Vally Lasker and Nora Day that came first.

Vally Lasker and Nora Day were two of Holst’s assistants at the school where he was Director of Music. Holst’s daughter, Imogen, was present sitting ‘just behind VW (Ralph Vaughan Williams) and Gussy as we all called him.’ The two pianists in this first performance later made a piano duet arrangement in order to make the work available to a wider number of performers.

Around the same time Holst found a country retreat two miles from Thaxted, Essex where he spent his weekends in a three hundred year old cottage surrounded by cornfields that much of the orchestration of The Planets was done.

The orchestral premiere of The Planets was conducted at Holst's request by Adrian Boult, in the Queen's Hall, London on 29th September 1918 before an invited audience.

Holst had taken up an offer from the Y.M.C.A. authorities for a post as Musical Organiser of educational work among the troops in the Near East. The Queen’s Hall performance on 29th September was funded by Holst's friend and fellow composer Henry Balfour Gardiner as a parting gift.

It was Adrian Boult that gave the first public performance of The Planets on 27th February 1919. Boult decided to play only five of the movements, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Uranus, and Jupiter as he believed that the public would find difficulty assimilating such a new work of this length.

Holst himself conducted Venus, Mercury and Jupiter at a Queen's Hall concert on 22nd November the same year and there was a performance of Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter at concert in Birmingham on 10th October 1920.

Imogen Holst said that ‘…he hated incomplete performances of The Planets, though on several occasions he had to agree to conduct three or four movements at Queen's Hall concerts…'

The first complete public performance of The Planets was not until 15th November 1920 with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates.

It is this ‘original’ version for two pianos that Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow perform on a re-issue on the Diversions label from Divine Art Recordings .

DDV 24154

This disc also includes the Elegy from Holst’s early Cotswold Symphony as well as a piano duet performance of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Edgar Bainton’s Miniature  Suite for piano duet and Frank Bury’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat for two pianos.

Holst knew that only a large orchestra could do full justice to his Planets but this recording by the brilliant duo Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow show precisely what can be gained in a two piano performance. Mars is forceful but never strident, building to a formidable climax. After some delicate playing in the beautifully cool and peaceful Venus, Mercury is sparkling, really taking flight in playing of astonishing accuracy.

In Jupiter the two pianos sound, at times, like celebratory bells whilst the big tune is played with simplicity and without undue pomp. The two piano version of Saturn shows more than anywhere else the modernity of the writing and it is no wonder that Boult was concerned about an audience assimilating the whole work for the first time.

Uranus is played with great swagger and superb precision whilst Neptune provides a conclusion of beautifully delicate and fluent playing, again highlighting the strangeness of the almost Debussian writing.

Elgar’s duet version of his Serenade for String Orchestra provides a complete contrast, lending itself well to the piano in a performance of intimacy, with the music never forced.

In my blog of 26th March 2012 I spoke of a performance by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow at Millichope Park in Shropshire of Frank Bury’s Prelude and Fugue in Eb for two pianos, a really fine work written in the 1930’s. Millichope Park was the home of Frank Bury and is still in the same family. The Prelude and Fugue gets a wonderful performance on this disc bringing out a real depth of feeling in the prelude and providing a scintillating fugue.

Edgar Bainton has been well served by the record companies such as Dutton Vocalion who have recorded his third symphony and some orchestral works and Chandos Records who have recorded his second symphony and some orchestral works. Of course Bainton lived to a good age whereas Bury’s life was tragically cut short by the Second World War.

Bainton’s short Miniature Suite for piano duet is something of a small gem, its three movements lasting only just over four minutes. Goldstone and Clemmow bring just the right amount of timeless feeling to the Minuet and Barcarolle and close with a delightful performance of the English Dance.

Holst ends the programme with the Elegy (In Memoriam William Morris). The Elegy is from his early Cotwold Symphony once negelected but now recorded twice, by Classico Records now licensed to Scandinavian Classics (available via Amazon )  and Naxos Records . Here the Elegy receives a sensitive performance in Holst’s own two piano arrangement.

There can be no doubt that Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow are one of  the finest piano duos around and the recording made in the church of St. John the Baptist, Alkborough, North Lincolnshire is full, clear and detailed.

See also:

Playing of astonishing brilliance from Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow in works by Mussorgsky, Alfven, Ibert, Lyadov, Britten and Ireland 

The music of Brian Chapple in mesmerising performances by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow 

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