Malcolm Arnold’s Centenary Celebration on SOMM

Violinist Peter Fisher and pianist Margaret Fingerhut’s centenary celebration of composer Malcolm Arnold has been a pleasing listening experience over the past couple of weeks. It’s taken a few weeks to be able to write about it.

I see Arnold as either misunderstood or under-appreciated. Someone who straddled concert and movie world, often overlooked because he was brilliant meeting his brief, and at the same time celebrated by people of a certain age (around 50) for writing cracking melodies and harmonies that withstood re-arranging for whatever musical forces were either available or wanting to place his music.

My introduction to his music was via his Peterloo Overture. Programmatic stuff. Educational without being brow-beaty. Fun and engaging with a bit of dark edge. A musical evocation of someone you feel inexplicably uneasy looking at after you’ve absent-mindedly followed him into a dark alleyway.

His first violin sonata which features on Fisher and Fingerhut’s SOMM release from last year has this vaguely threatening air about it. Written in his late twenties, it’s sense menace will unsettle the more pleasing folk tune melodies the composer celebrates or parodies (depending on your point of view). In the deft hands of Fisher snd Fingerhut I like this music by Arnold. It makes sense of an increasingly dark terrifying world. The second movement in particular.

In a similar vein, I’d pick out the the Waltz from the five pieces for violin originally written for Yehudi Menuhin. This could have so easily been straight and dull, but running to 2 minutes 20 or so there is spirit in the characterisation in both piano and violin that highlights Arnold’s breathtakingly efficient snd evocative writing. I am frankly amazed that the fifth piece brimming with so jazz-infused joyousness pre-dates Menuhin’s Grapelli collaboration.

If you’ve really no time to commit to the entire album then pick out the first track Sarabande, and the second op.27 English Dance from set 1. For all we bang about Vaughan Williams mastery of the music pastoral sound, I think in this arrangement Arnold’s heartfelt and sincere gentility is laid bare – someone able to pick out a tune and treat in a way that triggers the emotion without bringing on uncontrollable nausea. In this consistently excellent recording the brilliance of Arnold’s writing is laid bare.

A treat of a listen at the top of 2022.

Orchestra of the Swan’s new album release Labyrinths

It’s around this time of year I start to ponder how to montage the past twelve months.

In years gone by that’s been a relatively straightforward process. Travel results in video clips and pictures. Cut a year-long album with a musical track and the job is done. But when a year looks visually similar to the year that went before, then the montage gets a little challenging.

Music compensates where images fall short. One album, in particular, has shaped 2021 for me. Orchestra of the Swan’s ‘Labyrinths’.

I’m a big fan of ‘Labyrinths’, shaped in part by the editorial that drives the UK’s third and largely untalked about classical music radio station Scala Radio. Its musical purpose is articulated by playlist choices that combine core classical with modern-day crossover. Juxtaposing the two works better than you might think.

Orchestra of the Swan’s mixtape albums on Signum (‘Timelapse’ and ‘Labyrinths’) epitomises that approach. Artistic Director David Le Page personifies it too. “I lasted six months in music college,” he says nonchalantly during a pre-show talk in the bands home town Stratford-upon-Avon on Tuesday this week, “everything is focussed on the score in the conservatoires.”

It’s an interesting point he highlights. Jazz and folk are a creation in the moment; classical is focussed on recreating an imagined version of the past from a document which is often seen as the extant source.

But Le Page’s mixtaping isn’t a reaction to the confines of conservatoires.

It’s a celebration. It’s a skill that underlines why music is useful. It has the power to point to the thing none of us wants to talk about because the feelings are too painful to confront.

At the same time it can heal. Combining the two is where the magic is found.

Not many people are able to achieve that, largely because they get distracted by other things.

‘Labyrinths’ represents the highly sought-after middle ground that naive marketers crave but daring classical musicians get on with and make happen.

A mix of the curious and loving homage, OOTS second mixtape celebrates resilience,  consoles loss, and promises hope with a musical selection that spans 300 years. Hear reinventions of much-heralded classics alongside popular tracks that playlist our present-day experience, with brand new music that document the period. 

Orchestra of the Swan playing Labyrinths on their home turf in Stratford-upon-Avon Playhouse

Opening with Richter (not something I’d actively seek out), followed by a ravishing oboe solo from Victoria Brawn (recorded at Saffron Hall in April of this year), Labyrinths tentatively starts with remembrance and kindness. The frenetic La Rotta gives permission for a maniacal dance-off for those meeting for the first time in 18 months. A cheeky contortion of Bach’s Mit Fried und Freud gives Jacques Loussier a run for his money too, lining us up nicely for the melodrama of Purcell’s Cold Genius.

Singer Jim Moray brings a modern feel to this classic – modern-day human edge to the story of King Arthur gradually returning to life from a period of stasis. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the combination of cut-down strings and pop-like vocals is, well, genius curation. 

Piazzolla’s heartbreaking celebration of introversion is deftly realised by Sally Harrop who clearly adores the melodic line as Brawn does in the Respighi.

Also of particular note, Trish Clowes lockdown composition Bounce – jazz-infused fun that projects an image determined creativity. A ravishing studio production that will surely end up being core repertoire.

Britten’s Serenade with the beguiling Nicky Spence is the thing you never realised you wanted to hear next. I’d be happy for the album to end there (I’m not entirely convinced I need Farewell to Stromness) though I appreciate the parting gift in the last track.

It’s rare I wax lyrical about an entire album, but Labyrinths. That’s partly because when I saw part of it recorded at Saffron Hall it was the first live music I’d heard in months. It was also the moment when I reconnected with musicians from my past – people I’d got to know at the beginning of their careers. Labyrinths is then a musical tribute to the indomitable spirit of musicians, people whose talent I have depended on and am indebted to throughout the pandemic. 

Theatre of Sound’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle

A touching, poignant, and thought-provoking experience. An undoubted triumph for opera company Theatre of Sound.

Staging Bartok’s retelling of the Bluebeard legend through the lens of a woman with dementia and her carer-husband was a refreshing move on the part of director Daisy Evans and conductor Stevie Higgins. No great surprise perhaps given that both of them are energised by seeing the conventional from unusual perspectives, something reflected in their podcast interview.

It’s also manifest in every aspect of the Bluebeard’s Castle (4-14 November 2021) – an intimate production at the gorgeous brick-lined Stone Nest in Shaftesbury Avenue (surely a venue which needs to be made more of), audience sat in a horsehoe around a compact stage comprising multiple levels. Resourceful lighting design and the building’s generous acoustics projected this production on a much bigger scale; proximity to proceedings made it a touching, poignant, and thought-provoking experience for the audience.

I’ve not heard soprano Gweneth Ann Rand before and I am very keen to hear more of her. A rich comforting sound, even in the character’s most pained sequences, made her utterly compelling. Both her voice and Gerald Finley (Bluebeard) suited the small space really well.

Special reference should be made to the orchestrations by conductor Stephen Higgins. Paring back the score to clarinet, horn, string trio and keyboard for players in the London Sinfonietta exposed the brilliance in Bartok’s harmonic writing and, in places, gave the work an almost Britten feel.

Julian West

This is an undoubted triumph for Theatre of Sound – their first production, not only because of the core production but the parallel project ‘Judith’s Castle’ by composer Electra Perivolaris. The matinee performance paired with spoken word from actor Kevin Whately, Royal Academy of Music’s Julian West, and Imperial College’s Francesco Aprile brought just enough information to expose some of the misconceptions about dementia the disease. Julian West in particular has an unfailing ability to introduce a subject in such a way that you want to discover more about it. Little wonder he’s doing the work he is in the field of music and dementia.

In expanding their initiating idea for Bluebeard’s Castle, Theatre of Sound have deftly opened up a conversation about a difficult subject in an engaging way, and have done so just at a moment in time when the challenges of social care have featured more prominently in the media. I cannot wait for their next project.

Bath Festival Orchestra in London’s King’s Place play Smyth, Helen Grime and Vaughan Williams

Stripped back to a handful of string players the Bath Festival Orchestra opened their London premiere at Kings Place with a thoughtful and restorative two-movement Hymn Tune Preludes by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Principal oboe Polly Bartlett shone in the opening movement (as she did throughout the programme) with a silky smooth voluptuous tone, supported by modest clarinettists Luke English and Rennie Sutherland who knew their place and occupied it well. Principal horn Olivia Gandee anticipated the placing of the final chord in a beautifully characterful way. Bliss.

The focus was lost a little during the second movement, but programming wise this was a bold start demonstrating the innate confidence of this a sparse band.

That momentary loss of focus was partly because of the meandering quality in the melody, but also  because the lower strings needed a bit more support, something I was reminded of during the third movement of Ethyl Smyth’s joyous Serenade in D.

Smyth opens with Brahms, brushes with Mendelssohn and in the third movement, sidles with Tchaikovsky, outdoing all of them in a work I want to hear a lot more.

The wind excelled throughout the Smyth; the strings creating some rich warm textures in the lower registers and also during the quieter sections.

But there were times during fortissimos when the strings needed more players to compete with the powerful brass (or maybe the brass needed to dial it back a bit for the Kings Place acoustic). In these bravura moments the fortissimo strings sounded a little forced – little surprise given there were eight violins, three violas and two celli. Top marks

Helen Grime’s captivating Clarinet Concerto opened the second half, spotlighting soloist Julian Bliss’ stunning tone and unfussy but taut articulation. I especially appreciated the way in which the clarinet solo blended with the harmonies in the score played by the scaled back band, with key moments pointed to with judicious string pizzicato underpinned with punchy harp. (Thoroughly Good Listening Tip: Grime loves staccato. I love Grime for her love of staccato in an ambient space.)

Helen Grime has a rare quality to her writing: creating something new that is arresting, compelling and leaves me wanting to hear more of her. There’s a lot of discover. I cannot wait to dive in and (seeing as she’s yet another local composer to me) maybe even catching up with her for a podcast.

I didn’t stick around for the last work on the programme – Haydn’s London Symphony. And here I share an unexpected logistical, editorial and/or strategic observation. Post-COVID mitigations I have got rather used to there not being an interval in concerts. Punchy editorial statements uninterrupted by a silly interval mean more than someone creating an evening’s entertainment with a trip to the bar scheduled mid-way).

Don’t start at 8.00pm when there’s clearly no rush in central London, when you could quite easily have started at 7.30pm or even (my preference at 8.00pm). If you need to, cut the Haydn, and finish with the Smyth, sandwiching the clarinet concerto in between.

And another thing (I’m sorry). There’s a thing emerging about programme notes right now. Some bands are adopting a supposedly ‘innovative approach’ producing audio programme notes fronted by recognisable talent, instead of the conventional printed notes. If that’s your plan then stick to it. If you want me to listen to programme notes because you don’t want to print them or you can’t afford to (don’t make out it’s a COVID mitigation), don’t then make printed programmes available on the door.

And if you do, design the programme so that all the interesting information is made available in print. That’s the most accessible way for most of us to process the background information. If you’re going to make it available in audio form, don’t you also need to make it available in print, especially when on location (in King’s Place, Hall One) there’s no 4G and no wifi to access the audio programme notes?

The Two Moors Festival: a thought-provoking escape in nature

The best time to write about a Festival trip is a day or two after you return, I find.

Writing about my experiences on a trip during the journey home is too early. The day I return home is about unpacking and decompressing. The day after however, I’m usually starting to pine.

It’s at this magical moment in time that recent experiences have crystallised into lasting memories. These memories become inextricably linked with the names of performers and the music they played. Timing your first draft is therefore paramount.

I visited the first weekend of the two-weekend Two Moors Festival (1-10 October 2021), attending seven concerts in just over 48 hours, hearing solo piano, string quartets, vocal groups and percussion and electronics. All this within a twenty-mile radius accessible only by car or, if you’re a cyclist as unconcerned by the many gradients as by the changeable autumn weather.

Dartmoor is (how I imagine Exmoor will be for the second weekend in the Two Moors Festival) a world apart from the urban experience. The roads are narrow, the phone signal patchy-to-non-existent, and the silence when the final chord dies away deafening. All this and the need to adopt a snail’s pace speed at all times means there’s time to clock a great many chocolate box and breathtakingly idyllic views around every corner.

Little wonder I ended up feeling a little sad to heading home to London on Monday morning.

‘Arcadia Unlocked’ is the title given to the Two Moors Festival this year. The twenty-year-old festival based in Dartmoor and Exmoor has this year built its events around two weekends in October (rather than the usual week-long consecutive run).

This is a good move, making it easier for people like me to visit, capture and reflect on the spirit of the thing, throwing forward to a further opportunity for people to attend. The festival’s second weekend runs from Friday 8 – Sunday 10 October.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen (Photo © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL)

Two Moors Festival artistic director and violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen has seized upon both Dartmoor and Exmoor’s key selling-point and weaved this into an editorial strategy that capitalises on the moment by appealing to an audience drained by the unreality of our collective experience fuelled by COVID and Brexit.

While the media tells the story of the state cack-handedly implementing its own self-destruct strategy, Waley-Cohen has in the programme for Two Moors encourage concert-goers to consider something infinitely more real, more compelling, and more potent to soothe the soul and recalibrate our senses.

The strong theme that weaves its way throughout the entire Festival is the natural world around us. Not only as depicted in music, but reinforced with simple, immediate and relevant talks that celebrate the location and generate thinking. I wouldn’t have sought out a talk about birdsong, for example, nor picked out a book on a bookshelf on the subject.

And yet, attending Tom Whitehead’s fascinating explanation of why birds sing, how they sing, and what birds you can hear singing in the Dartmoor area set me up well for George Fu’s exhilarating hour-long concert of music by Messiaen and his tantalising transcriptions of Respighi’s The Birds.

I didn’t sit listening critiquing performance, rather thinking further on the questions the talks and the landscape had raised in me. That’s evidence of instinctive festival programming. The Two Moors Festival have found in Tamsin Waley-Cohen a valuable talent.

Cordelia Wlilliams (Photo © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL)

Pianist Cordelia Williams shone on the first night bringing part of her recent SOMM recording ‘Nightlight’ to Widecombe-in-the-Moor including a mix of unsettling Scriabin, Schumann and Schubert, in addition to Bill Evans reassuring ‘Peace piece’. It was the first time I’d heard the 2006 BBC Young Musician piano final winner play live – a musician who brings consistency to the keyboard that inspires in me as a listener a sense of strength. No pizazz, only love.

This may well have had something to do with the intimate setting Cordelia’s concert (and that of the other performers were set in). All of the church venues were warm supportive acoustics attended by a focussed, welcoming and appreciative audience. No airs and graces here, only appetites in need of sating. These settings make for a more immediate style of communication that brings the music alive in a way that ‘conventional’ concert settings don’t.

Similarly so the Barbican Quartet’s performance of Haydn’s Sunrise and Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 in G major. This was the first time I’d heard the work. Simmering with unexpected textures and unsettling shifts between major and minor, it made for an intense afternoon listen.

The Barbican Quartet, bassist Thea Sandy, and harpsichord player Nathaniel Mander joined Tamsin Waley-Cohen after an epic Bach Partita No. 2, for a spirited performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons proving the work is only as grey as the soloist and director allows it to be. No languid sentimentality here – only the kind of energy you’re likely to experience exposed to the elements on a moor.

Hats off to Stile Antico who wrapped up the weekend with a mixture of heavenly and earthly vocal delights – a series of short songs set for a variety of different vocal combinations. In the exposed dry acoustic of St John the Baptist the twelve-voice ensemble showed their brilliance, vocal lines combining to trigger emotional responses in me in the moment I wasn’t quite expecting.

Stile Antico at The Two Moors Festival

But the performer who gets the big thumbs up is percussionist Joby Burgess whose exploration of ‘Waste and Renewal’ in Toru Takemitsu’s Seasons, Linda Buckley’s Ektosis, and John Luther Adams ear-splitting ‘Qilyuan’ for bass drum and support live electronic loops had me gripped from beginning to end.

Not forgetting Rebecca Dale’s aptly ‘Can’t Sleep’ for vibraphone – a musical evocation of the brain’s unfailing ability to maintain a high level of activity just at the moment in time when you want to go to sleep. A timely reminder of the damage our present-day world can do just at the moment in time we need to switch off and recuperate. Not something I struggled with in the relative calm of Dartmoor, and a personal goal to strive for now that I’m back home in smelly old London.

The Two Moors Festival continues Friday 8-10 October 2021. If tickets are still available and you can get yourself a hotel room in and around Exmoor you’ll not be disappointed with musical offerings from pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, Huw Watkins, Nicky Spence and Laurence Power.  

Accordion player Ryan Corbett wins Royal Overseas League Keyboard Final 2021

A cracking evening at Royal Overseas League where a quartet of ridiculously young talented keyboard players brought us Lizst, Debussy, Ravel, Angeles, and Semyonov.

Alexander Lau had the toughest job opening with Debussy and Lizst, struggling to contain his nerves, manifest in sometimes over generous pedal work. The storytelling undoubtedly came together towards the conclusion of Lizst’s second Ballade, though against was the considerable competition which followed.

British pianist George Harliono has a striking presence on stage. Focussed taut playing was supported by a beautifully fluid and flirtatious right hand caressing the keyboard in such a way that the back my knee turned to jelly. The YCAT artist is one to watch.

Jinah Shim was the well-rounded pianist combining presence, technique and tenderness in addition to strength and power when Lizst’s writing called for it. There’s a solidity to her on-stage offering which is reassuring. Her storytelling is very strong.

The winner (and the only competitor I made a point of going up to during the deliberations to embarrass in front of his parents) was accordion player Ryan Corbett.

As he approached the stage the 22 year old was in already readying himself for an accordion arrangement of Lizst’s Prelude and Fugue on the name B-A-C-H. This intensity was momentarily unsettling.

What followed was scintillating. Remarkable dexterity at the keyboard, jaw-dropping isolation, and captivating storytelling that leaves me wondering why any of us are wasting any more time with pianists. A spectacle.

A cracking – I know I use this word A LOT but it’s especially appropriate here – evening, not least because the judges agreed with me.

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.