Slovak Philharmonic play Dvorak 7 at InClassica Dubai

A sparkling conclusion to the Slovak Philharmonic’s concluding concert at the InClassica International Music Festival with a gripping rendition of Dvorak’s much-loved seventh symphony.

Conductor Daniel Raisky made good use of the dry acoustic conjuring up wistful phrasing and taut dry articulation. Throughout the work the string section once again proved their mettle with autumnal sounds. Unexpected detail was highlighted in the violas and cellos in the second movement; although sometimes out of balance with the front desk, the back desks of the first supported their section with impressive commitment. There were some rich melodic lines in the cellos too. 

The work nudged up a gear towards the middle of the second movement, with an exquisite third movement carefully crafted by Raisky, full of grace and poise. Come the final movement Raisky and his nimble band were clearly in their element, delicately pulling back where needed to expose details in the score. The occasional cheeky slide in the firsts in the final repeat of the main fourth subject gave proceedings a lift before we careered towards the final chord. 

Ravishing stuff.

InClassica International Music Festival is produced by the European Foudation for Support of Culture and SAMIT.

Gil Shaham plays Brahms Violin Concerto with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra at Dubai Opera

Warm enthusiastic applause greeted the conclusion of Gil Shaham’s performance of Brahms Violin Concerto with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra at Dubai Opera. Well deserved too. An heroic performance.

Shaham’s sweet tone rang out over lush strings throughout the first movement, sometimes battling with the woodwind and brass during the third. Some of the declamatory statements lacked the brilliance found in Shaham’s recording with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (2002) inevitably.

His stage presence might give the impression that he’s not in control. Not so. Where he triumphed was bringing the orchestra with him in some of the more complex gear shifts in the second and third movements.

But more than any of this was the spirit Shaham exuded on stage. Generosity came in spades – bowing with a heartfelt smile in response to the audience applause in between movements, and gesturing applause to the orchestra behind him. A refreshingly unpretentious performer whose ability to switch from one mode of communication to another is something to behold.

By far the best performance of my time out here in Dubai. Really enjoyed it.

InClassica International Music Festival is produced by the European Foudation for Support of Culture and SAMIT.

Alexey Shor’s Clarinet Concerto and Beethoven 7 from the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra with Andreas Ottensamer and Daniel Raiskin

The first of Alexey Shor’s new works I’ve heard at the InClassica International Music Festival in Dubai was a fun entertaining diversion written for clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer.

Shor’s Clarinet Concerto possesses an often fiendish decorative solo line suspended above opulent orchestral scoring that leaps from one musical influence to another in a short space of time. Pastiche or imitation? Or is it, as suggested in the programme, neoclassicism for a contemporary classical audience?

The composer’s twist on contemporary classical is in itself thought-provoking. Its music which clearly appeals to the diaspora in the auditorium whose enthusiasm for Shor’s work is marked. His music is clearly accessible, written with enthusiasm, and intended to appeal to a specific audience.

Whilst there are some moments when melodic lines need developing, it’s evident in the score where Alexey’s heart beats the fastest as a creative. In the Clarinet Concerto in particular (perhaps more than any of the works I heard in Malta in 2019) Shor demonstrates a fascination with the mechanics of the orchestral sound, a love of analysing how that sound is produced, and a desire to recreate it in his own form. The resulting homage he creates is a series of vignettes or musical tropes which, in the case of the Clarinet Concerto are linked by one overriding criteria: a sense of fun.

In this way the Concerto is a reflection of Ottensamer and a lot of clarinet repertoire. There are hints of Mozart, Gershwin, and in the more tender best expanded second movement, hints of Brahms too. Much of this is down to the sincerity in Ottensamer’s assured stage presence on stage. There is a sense of the showman about him that steers a clear path away from awkward stiff court jester-look often observed when clarinettists appear at the front of the stage. This confidence in the moment permeates the sound produced giving credibility to the finished product.

In the second half of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra’s Dubai concert with conductor Daniel Raiskin, a prompt reading of Beethoven’s 7th symphony full of clear articulation in the strings, warm woodwind, and powerful brass. A mildly unsettling moment between adagio and allegro in the first movement when the woodwind appear to ‘fluff’ the transition highlighted a rare and unexpectedly loss of cohesion, though this was quickly rectified during the second repeat. The second movement felt a little faster than I’ve heard it before – more of a stroll to the bank than a funeral march. The lively third and joyously uplifting fourth movement spotlit the power and delight in the Slovak Phil: a highly versatile bass section. A real delight to watch and listen to.

InClassica International Music Festival is produced by the European Foudation for Support of Culture and SAMIT.

Sergey Khachatryan plays Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto at Dubai International Music Festival 2021

Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan dominated the InClassica Dubai International Music Festival with an assured performance of Aram Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto, accompanied by the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergey Smbatyan in Dubai Opera.  

Khachatryan plays with a bright warm tone, a fast vibrato and contained physical movement, creating a solid and authoritative presence on stage.

This style really delivered during the lyrical sections of the slow second movement where the violinist spun gold in a deeply personal heartfelt evocation. In especially quiet sections towards the end of the movement the hall was still.

The concluding movement saw colourful interplay between the virtuosic solo line and woodwind and accompanying pizzicato cellos.   

Dubai Opera with a walnut wood interior is in some respects an unforgiving acoustic for a symphony orchestra to play in, especially one adhering to distancing and one player per stand. With one line of cellos necessarily positioned outside of the proscenium arch some of the power in the pizzicato notes was lost in the gentle but insistent syncopation in the first and second movements.

Where the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra undobutedly thrive is there string section in loud tuttis, and here the warmth of the Dubai Opera interior really helped support a rich string sound, especially during the first movement of the concerto.

Sergey Khachatryan encored with 10th century Armenian music – a sweet melismatic piece that suspended time. A capitivating musician who communicates his passion and sincerity with beguiling immediacy.

Charlotte Bray’s ‘Where Icebergs Dance Away’ at the BBC Proms 2021

‘Where Icebergs Dance Away’ (given its UK premiere by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2021), is an evocative meditation on climate change, inspired by a trip to Iceland’s Disko Bay where according to the composer, the icebergs appeared to ‘dance’.

Although the pre-performance introduction made clear that the piece wasn’t a literal depiction, Charlotte Bray’s trademark musical language created a haunting atmosphere with an uneasy stillness. Repeated deep bass notes ushered in spread chords across the orchestra which seemed to momentarily suspend time. In the opening section, towering shapes were sketched out, with high decorative woodwind phrases giving just enough detail for jagged edges.

An up-tempo middle section consisting of agitated phrases tossed around the orchestra provided an unexpected drive. There was a hint of a rhythmic pattern that might be developed towards the end of the middle section, but the opening material returns just before that sense of development can bed in. When the original idea returned it seemed to take on a slightly different feel – what was first unsettling is now reassuring, elegant, and beautiful. The image dissappears into the mist as the music fades away.

Its highly efficient writing and scoring means this surprisingly short piece that leaves me wanting more. A good thing then that Charlotte is working this into a larger piece for future performance.

That’s something to look forward to because Charlotte Bray’s musical language works really well with large-scale forces. The combination of pitch extremes (for example here in the basses and the violins) creates vistas in which epic drama waits to be played out. At the Speed of Stillness from 2011/12 is a highly recommended listen. Frenetic, urgent rhythmic patterns contrasted with brief moments of quiet. Also on the same album, Fire Burning in Snow (Moonshot) with Lucy Schaufer shows how really quite sparse writing for a handful of instruments can yield similar vivid imagery.

For a multi-dimensional demonstration of that same musical language Germinate for solo violin, cello, and piano with accompanying orchestra (see below with the Philharmonia Orchestra back in 2019) shows the same musical language used in two separate groups of players – chamber and orchestral.

Listen to ‘Where Icebergs Dance Away’ via BBC Sounds

Anna Lapwood’s ‘Images’ released on Signum on 3 September

Organist, composer, and conductor Anna Lapwood’s second release on Signum features music by Messiaen, Ravel, and Britten amongst others and coincides with her appearance both at the Proms as a performer and as a TV presenter. A savvy move that underlines the considerable influence she has for the next generation of musicians in this country.

More than this, the album Images recorded at Ely Cathedral in January of this year, further enhances the message her first album – All Things Are Quite Silent – clearly communicated. The multi-talented Anna Lapwood has a great many creative avenues she could follow in the future, which means a considerable range of musical experiences for the rest of us to enjoy in the years to come.  

Signum Classics has picked out three key tracks for pre-release.

Messiaen’s Vocalise-Etude was written in 1935 when the composer was 27. Technicolour chords support a wandering melody that lulls, caresses, and consoles in a tightly composed four or so minutes of bliss. Keep an ear out for the luscious cascading chords that appear towards the middle and the end, the latter iteration decorated with the tiniest distant upward series of chords giving the entire piece a delicate music box feel.  

Messiaen’s Vocalise-Etude / Lapwood / Signum

An illustration of Lapwood’s thorough musicianship is evident in the second pre-release track, the ‘Forlane‘ from Ravel’s ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin‘. Organist Erwin Wiersinga’s transcription of the original piano solo gives the piece (and the work as a whole) a new profile as something that could have just as easily been written for the organ. Importantly, it’s in Anna Lapwood’s choice of stops which create something really quite magical.  

Forlane / Ravel / Lapwood / Signum

The third pre-release points to the spotlight work – Storm from Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. The Four Sea Interludes are for any Britten fan (or anyone who’s spent time on Aldeburgh feeling the North Sea wind in their hair) highly evocative sounds. That emotional connection was felt most keenly during the first phase of lockdown (or maybe it was the second, I can’t quite remember now) when Anna was posting video clips from the arrangements she was making on her own church organ throughout 2020. At the time they seemed like the perfect antidote to the preponderance of multi-shot lockdown videos distributed across the internet. That they were then subsequently released as a complete set for cathedral organ makes the album itself much-anticipated.

The arrangements of something so familiar and so personally felt to the listener isn’t something embarked upon lightly. Done ‘wrong’ and cries of ‘It’s not good as the orchestral original’ would surely follow.

‘Dawn’ puts pay to any chances of that with an exquisite setting that uses both instrument and the acoustics of Ely Cathedral to create an epic piece of Gothic theatre. The addition of tubular bells (as originally scored) in Sunday Morning evokes the never-ending North Sea horizon.    The final movement ‘Storm’ is especially good, Lapwood’s arrangement exposing so much more of the detail in Britten’s original writing – the final ‘crashed’ chord closing the movement a particularly good example.

Storm / Britten / Lapwood / Signum

Like Anna, Gesualdo Six’s Owain Park is quickly establishing himself as a multi-talented musician, concert promoter (and content producer). Perhaps in years to come both of them will be seen as examples of what musicians need to be thinking about as content creators across multiple platforms. On this album, Park provides the title track, “a creative and powerful exploration of the many tonal possibilities of the English organ” inspired by words by Walt Whitman. The seven-minute piece is a dramatic piece of musical storytelling full of contrasting colours and textures that are both intriguing enough to trigger the curious and sufficiently familiar in terms of musical language to delight the listener.

Calling on Owain Park for new music is benefitting not only Anna Lapwood but also the musical genre as a whole. New music can be original, unexpected, and compelling all in one, without pushing people away.  

That same musical awareness was evident on ‘All Things Are Quite Silent’ where the inclusion of Kerensa Briggs ravishing Media Vita, made Lapwood a curator of the present day musical talent. Briggs makes another appearance on Images with ‘Light In Darkness’, a piece commissioned by Choir & Organ Magazine and St Andrew’s University Organ Week, demonstrating the composer’s love of creeping chord progressions and the gentle melee that ensues in large cavernous spaces.

Like Owain Park’s writing, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Taking Your Leave has that same adept understanding of how to make something new within a familiar frame of reference, contrasting exquisite delicacy with bone-rattling chords in a work I will be insisting is played at my own funeral, assuming I can guarantee a booking for both Ely Cathedral and Anna Lapwood.

George Lewis’ Minds in Flux at the BBC Proms 2021 with Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Not for the first time this Proms season I find that listening is paying unexpected dividends. George Lewis’ mix of electronics and live acoustic instrumentation in his meditation on decolonisation ‘Minds in Flux’ provided much-needed distraction and focus.

Billed as a work exploiting the considerable physical space on the Royal Albert Hall, you’d think it might have been lost in a radio broadcast. I’ve listened to it three times on-demand and found it utterly absorbing as a piece of live radio.

In fact, I might even go a step further and say it’s my favourite listening experience this season.

Some background might be helpful here.

Over the past few weeks three distinct challenges in my personal and professional life have coalesced: work; family; and money. I have as a result found myself frequently quick to anger. Not the impatient kind, rather a sense of rage in response to injustice or ineptitude.

Or rudeness. Laziness. Passive aggression. Snobbery and entitlement, ignorance, or controlling behaviour. Contrivance has been a reliable old pal too (see The Bright Orange Trainers debacle a few weeks back).

And even closer to home (and my heart) the dissonance between how we’ve all of us automatically praised the NHS (some even standing on a front door step to applaud invisible healthcare staff), and the level of care a close family member of mine has received (or not) during her prolonged and worrying stay in hospital.

Bringing up the rear … the inability of recruiters and recruiting managers to communicate with the applicant or interviewee brings out my inner foot soldier.

The rage that lays underneath all of these is real and it’s powerful. And I’m happy to admit it’s scared me a great deal.  

And then I hear something like George LewisMinds in Flux’ and feel like I’ve walked into an art installation. I see colour. I feel reassured. Blank spaces enclosed by sharp black lines and angular shapes are now coloured in. The rusty hinges have been oiled and are now squeak free. The shattered glass has been replaced. The fear, the self-loathing, and the momentary loneliness disappears in an instant. Organised sound heals.

My only slight concern is that the reason I’m enjoying it isn’t necessarily why Lewis originally wrote it for. Minds Flux is a work about decolonisation. I derive pleasure and reassurance from hearing what strikes me as a musical rendition of when things are both disassembling and reassembling all at the same time. Magical, visceral, and awe-inspiring.

A4 Brass Quartet’s new album ‘Mosaic’

The A4 Brass Quartet further consolidate their competition and commissioning success with a second album released last week, this time on the SOMM label.

A4 Brass Quartet combines dazzling technique, a mix of new works and arrangements of popular classics, in an album that illustrates what makes the group the exciting brass ensemble they are.

It’s their distinctive playlist that makes A4 Brass Quartet’s latest release Mosaic particularly special. The album features music Christian Overhead, Daniel Hall, and Bramwell Tovey, in addition to solid arrangements by tenor horn player Jonathan Bates and euphonium player Chris Robertson.

Bates follow-up to his blistering Toccata (in the quartet’s first album Mists of the Mountains), takes all four players on a fierce 2’24” demonstration of their collective techniques. Spoiler: Bates clearly loves to challenge his colleagues almost to the extent that it appears as a sport.  

If you’re looking for a lighter demonstration of the quartet’s spectacular technique, then Bramwell Tovey’s fourth end-of-the-pier-sounding ‘Street Song’ entitled ‘Very Fast Indeed’ amounts to the listener holding their breath for 2’33” whilst Bates, Robertson, Smith and Cavanagh do all manner of leaps and bounds simply for your delight and delectation.

Amidst all of this two particular points to pull out from the recording that really resonate.

First, there’s an unfussiness to A4 Brass Quartet’s sound production that steers them away from any sentimentalising of the brass ensemble sound.

This is most evident in Elgar’s Salut D’Amour and may well be down to there being only four voices. Similarly in Berstein’s Candide – no easy feat given the full orchestral scoring in the original – the players summon a whole range of colours, percussive imitation, and dynamics and through swift and seemingly effortless speed changes give a rich spirited rendition of the popular operatic overture.   

And second, is the most magical moment of the entire album is one carefully placed chord at the beginning of the final verse of Bruckner’s Locus Iste (arranged by Chris Roberston). Brilliant ensemble work which I suspect was recorded live (as what follows is the tiniest of wobbles that make everything ‘feel’ even more live).

Locus Iste

It’s a great achievement for the 2018 Royal Overseas League Chamber Music winners who now work regularly with Live Music Now and Music in Care Homes. The album is funded by City Music Foundation who supports musicians moving from educational to professional lives.

Saxophonist Rob Burton with pianist Ashley Fripp at St James Piccadilly

St James Piccadilly have started up their lunchtime recitals in central London today opening with a recital from saxophonist Rob Burton and pianist Ashley Fripp in an event staged by Royal Overseas League.

What prompted me to attend wasn’t only Rob’s highly effective social media and supportive marketing team but also the promise of a performance of Cesar Franck’s joyous sonata in A Major (which I believe might have been arranged by saxophonist Jean-Yves Fourmeau).

The Franck is a seminal work in terms of my appreciation of music.

Back in 1989, I page-turned for a schoolmate who performed it in a school concert with then Head of Music (the late) James Recknell accompanying. I remember it as an epic work. Serious stuff. Passionate. Melodramatic. I found it difficult to understand how someone the same age as me was able to tackle something quite so grown up.

It was the first time I recall hearing someone (the schoolmate was violinist Rebecca Burman) talking in visceral terms about what was so fantastic about the Franck sonata she loved playing. That same principle of authentic passion remains true to what Thoroughly Good is about today.

If Thoroughly Good has a theme choon the Franck A Major sonata would be it.

So that’s why I wanted to hear the arrangement for alto saxophone (following the discovery of a short clip on Instagram featuring Royal Overseas League winner Jonathan Radford playing it in rehearsal). I had no idea there was such an arrangement. I now discover there’s even an arrangement for baritone sax too.

Rob Burton’s interpretation brought out the passion in the work, but with a softer, rounder, and fuller sound. This created a fuller heartfelt statement, almost as though the saxophone was able to get at the core of the music in a way that perhaps the violin (for which the work was originally written) doesn’t in comparison.

What I especially appreciated throughout Burton’s performance was the way in which the upper register at the top of a crescendo or in the full-on fortissimo phrase seemed to bloom every time. The support that underpins these moments is impressive, not least because it is reliable and consistent.

These moments are if you like the theatrical ‘reveal’ – a kind of tonal denouement that brings a similar smile to the face like an unexpected by well-deployed key change. Similarly arpeggiated leaps to the top of the register – musical fireworks. Two of Burton’s party tricks perhaps.

The Royal Overseas League Edinburgh Fringe Concerts are because of COVID hosted in London in 2021. Discover more about who’s on and when (and what they’re playing) here.

St James Piccadilly’s Lunchtime Concerts continue throughout the summer. More details on STJP’s website.

All you need to know about Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, 40 and 41

Technically speaking here at Thoroughly Good there’s no such thing as needing to know anything about classical music. It’s just music after all. But it’s important to make blog posts findable on Google, so please forgive the title.

Born in 1756 and dead by 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart packed in a lot to his short life. Taken on a tour of Europe (taking in London en-route) by his father. By the time he died Mozart had written 24 piano concertos, 5 violin concertos, 22 operas and 41 (some scholars say 40) symphonies amongst a slew of other religious, secular and instrumental works.

Mozart wrote symphonies 38,49 and 41 – the last he wrote – in 1788. So, musically speaking, these works go some way to illustrate the extent to which Mozart had developed as a composer.

They are remarkable for the amount of invention and development – the way in which he takes a simple melodic idea heard at the beginning of each movement and develops that idea through various key changes and textures is stunning. It’s also something which is so familiar a sound and so entertaining to listen to that its constituent parts could easily go overlooked.

What is a symphony?

A big question that demands a long answer. But there’s no time for that now. Put at its simplest, it’s a series of separate pieces of music (usually four) which are contrasting in style, but unified around a musical key or repeating musical idea. At the same time as Mozart, the ‘Father of the Symphony’ Joseph Haydn was also writing symphonies though these were often much shorter in length. Symphonies written after Mozart’s death by Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler for example took on a much more epic scale.

Symphony No. 39

Listen out in particular for the final rip-roaring movement for an illustration of melodic invention built around one recurring musical and rhythmic idea. You’d think you’d tire of hearing it repeated over and over again. You won’t because Mozart is brilliant at varying it in ever more entertaining ways.

Symphony No. 40

The opening movement of Symphony No. 40 contains one of Mozart’s most famous tunes, underpinned by simmering string accompaniment.

The second movement has a stately dance feel to it throughout and takes the listener through a variety of musical keys of different colours that has the effect of subverting expectations and maintaining attention. It is a remarkable creation full of grace and poise.

The third movement breaks down into two contrasting sections, first a dramatic fast-paced swirling dance, the second a variation on the original musical idea but with an altogether smoother feel to proceedings. The first section returns to conclude the movement.

The concluding movement is tightly controlled and well-executed mayhem – a rollercoaster musical ride full of thrills and spills at every turn. Exactly the kind of music to have when something urgent needs doing. Exhilerating stuff.

Symphony No. 41

Full transparency: Symphony No. 41 is Thoroughly Good Favourite because of the richness of its sound built with contrasting wind and string textures. It also packs a punch in terms of contrasting musical ideas and complexities. Listen out for the variety of melodic ideas in the first movement alone. There’s even an operatic feel to some of the melodies in places.

The second movement has a similar stately thing going on as in the second movement No. 40. The third movement – a dance – has a portly swinging quality (when the timpani kick in).

Hold on tight for the rollicking joyous celebration in the fourth movement that starts with a seemingly low-key idea in the strings before opening out two bars later to include the entire orchestra in a blaze of exuberance.

Also, about five minutes keep an ear out for a series of jaw-dropping ‘chromatic’ notes where the melody seems to slide up and up. These are surprises and scrunchy and utterly gorgeous (if you like that kind of thing).

Towards the end, there’s what’s known as a ‘fugue’. Fugues are, no word of a lie, gripping musical wonders created when one musical idea is played by successive instruments to build a bigger whole. Put like that it sounds a bit shit, but go with it. It’s a treat.

Why is Symphony No. 41 nicknamed the ‘Jupiter’?

The nickname ‘Jupiter’ was applied to Symphony No. 41 allegedly by German violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salamon when he put on a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in London in 1821. The nickname is a reference to Jupiter, the chief god of the Roman pantheon.

Recommended recording of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, 40 and 41

There are A LOT of recordings of Mozart’s music. So whilst this is a Thoroughly Good Recommendation its not necessarily or the best. It’s just a Thoroughly Good one. It a live performance of the Australian Chamber Orchestra performing all three symphonies. They especially give it some welly in the final movement of Symphony No. 41. Very pleasing.

Hear Australian Chamber Orchestra director Richard Tognetti in conversation in the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast