orchestral

Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 6, Monologue, String Trio & Concerto for Three

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Day three of my celebration of the music of Alfred Schnittke features music from a concert focusing on works involving solo strings, broadcast on 14 January 2001. Taking centre stage are soloists Ula Ulijona (viola), Marta Sudraba (cello), and the great violinist Gidon Kremer; they’re joined by the London Sinfonietta, directed by Eri Klass. In addition, there’s a fascinating survey by Gerard McBurney of Schnittke’s relationship with the Concerto Grosso form; apologies for the sound quality in these sections, which have become rather crackly for some reason.

Schnittke’s sixth Concerto Grosso is also his last, composed in 1993, and it’s a short work, the three movements lasting under a quarter of an hour. After a momentary—rather angry—pondering from the piano, the short first movement lets loose into a non-stop Allegro; far from taking a neo-continuo role, the piano’s relationship to the strings is more like that of a concerto, with distinct echoes of Shostakovich at times. Structurally, it’s highly formal, almost the entire movement repeated in its entirety before a wildly exuberant coda. The central Adagio is a duet for piano and solo violin, very simple at first, although this only goes to highlight an apparent discomfort between the two instruments. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 1, Fragments (World Première) & Symphony No. 4

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The second concert being featured in this week of music by Alfred Schnittke comprised two of his major compositions plus the world première of a work unfinished at his death. It took place on 13 January 2001, and was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

The concert began with perhaps Schnittke’s most-performed work, the Concerto Grosso No. 1. Opening movement ‘Preludio’ begins on prepared piano, gently clattering its way through a nursery rhyme-type melody. It’s answered with a hocketed idea in the solo violins, rocking back and forth on adjacent semitones (one can see already where this may be going: clusters a-go-go), while the lower strings form a backdrop of sustained harmonics. There’s a brief soloistic flourish in the violins, the violas slither down their strings to a bottom pedal note, the harpsichord teases its keyboard, and a gorgeous second idea begins. Above a glacial viola chord, a violin solo explores a melody at the bottom of its register; it’s not specified in the score, but in this performance Clio Gould opts to play near the bridge, making the line effectively fragile, and causing some delicious overtones to appear at the edges. A duet is formed, and the harpsichord re-announces the nursery tune; a curt, loud response in all the strings (tutti for the first time), brings the movement to an end, the violins’ hocketing idea now widened from a semitone to sevenths and ninths. You’d be forgiven for thinking a composer like Vivaldi had a hand in the second movement. Titled ‘Toccata’, it’s a diabolical parody of Vivaldi, overstuffed with ridiculously strict and stretto canons, Schnittke at his most caustically comical. Read more

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Magnus Lindberg – Al largo (UK Première)

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A little over a week ago, on 13 October, came the first UK performance of Magnus Lindberg‘s new orchestral work, Al largo, given by the London Philarmonic Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. The title is an interesting one; as well as suggesting the musical term, associated with considerable slowness, the expression in fact refers to “being offshore, specifically referring to the moment when you reach the open sea and you don’t see the coast anymore, and what is before you is vast” (from Lindberg’s programme note).

The opening is all grand fanfares, dominated by the heavy brass (but nicely flecked with muted trumpets), out of which emerges a music in search of its own momentum. Bass drums make leaden stabs at something pulse-like, the rest of the orchestra respond with an inchoate morass of melodic tendrils; with Lindberg’s title in mind—and without wishing to get too Donald Tovey about it—this opening episode is highly suggestive of a boat slowly gathering speed. The grandiosity of the moment isn’t over-stated, however; Lindberg treads carefully through the momentous triads and imposing bass pedals, peppering the texture with softer woodwind flourishes, introducing a rapid chromatic motif that will become important later. After a short time it becomes clear that a pulse—at least, a clearly delineated one—isn’t a prerequisite for momentum, and the music charts a new path, one made particularly vibrant by the strings’ lush chords. Read more

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Vale of Glamorgan Festival: World Premières by Arvo Pärt and Arlene Sierra

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On 9 September, a concert given at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, was for the most part concerned with the music of Arvo Pärt, featuring a new work commissioned by the festival, In Spe for wind quintet and strings. It’s a short piece, in which the winds take precedence at first: horn, oboe and bassoon take turns stating the work’s fundamental idea. The rest of the work is essentially a series of what E. E. Cummings might have called “nonvariations” on that theme; the melody is draped in constantly changing decoration, the voice moving between registers, inversions and retrogrades adding what little spice there is to be gleaned from Pärt’s agonisingly constricted use of material and harmony. Surprisingly, it all feels terribly technical; while the temptation with so much of Pärt’s music is simply to drift, switched off and blissed out, on the surface, i found myself pulled under during In Spe, staring at what lay beneath; i don’t think this is due purely to the paucity of invention on display in the work; Howard Skempton’s Lento goes round in even more demonstrably regular circles for much of its duration, but there the result is hypnotic and entirely convincing. Somehow, the material here all feels terribly workaday, almost like an exercise; unfortunately, as neither the inner workings nor their surface sheen are that interesting, this militates against In Spe, enfeebling it, even in its brief attempts at more dynamic strength. Arvo Pärt’s fans will be delighted; all the ‘tintinnabuli’ stuff is present and correct, and the piece presents them with absolutely nothing unfamiliar, nothing to think about. Read more

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Proms 2010: Martin Matalon – Lignes de fuite (UK Première)

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On Thursday evening, the Proms was treated to the UK Première of Argentinian composer Martin Matalon‘s Lignes de fuite (“Lines of convergence”), tackled with obvious relish by the splendid BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by François-Xavier Roth.

The work opens, appropriately, with a single static line, passed between the horns, gradually coloured and fragranced by the percussion and woodwind; it’s a captivating introduction, pregnant with potential. Matalon doesn’t take any time whipping his material into shape, however; the music is positively marshalled around the orchestra. Special attention is given to the brass, who deal with their passages with brusque efficiency, while the strings (aided by celesta) strike more elegant poses, their lines almost coyly twirling their way upward. The structure is given space and more interesting shape by brief episodes where everything momentarily stops, a chance for everyone to get their bearings before launching off somewhere new. Read more

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Proms 2010: Albert Schnelzer – A Freak in Burbank (UK Première)

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A week ago at the Proms — a more innocent time, before seemingly everyone started talking about Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new work for all the wrong reasons (Beyoncé) instead of the right ones (it’s crap) — came the first UK performance of Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer‘s wonderfully-titled A Freak in Burbank. Schnelzer is at pains to stress the connection he feels in this work to director Tim Burton, desiring it to exhibit a parallel kind of quirkiness to that found in Burton’s movies. The work began with Joseph Haydn as an inspiration, but while the size of the orchestra is of late 18th century dimensions, Haydn as an explicit point of reference is more-or-less lost entirely—Schnelzer’s half-apology that Haydn’s influence remains in “the use of G.P. and the transparent textures” isn’t terribly convincing. Read more

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Proms 2010: Cage, Cardew, Skempton and Feldman

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A few hours after the bizarre final notes of Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 4 had faded away, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ilan Volkov came to the Royal Albert Hall to present the Proms with a late-night performance of rather more experimental fare.

They began with one of John Cage‘s most important early works, the percussion sextet First Construction (in Metal). The word ‘construction’ couldn’t be more apt; Cage really went to town on the structure of the work, all of it based around the proportions 4 : 3 : 2 : 3 : 4. Composed in 1939, it would be another decade before Cage would begin his written dialogue with Boulez, but such scrupulous, numerically-based structures foreshadow what would become central to the French composer’s own compositional preoccupations. For all their intricacy, however, First Construction‘s structuralisations are not particularly audible, not that this militates against the work in any significant way. The instrumentation is so colourful, their deployment so brash and fanciful, that it’s simply a non-stop joy to behold, moving from passages of mechanised regularity to more rhythmically obscure material, where the pulse is harder to perceive. What’s most striking, though, is how fresh it continues to sound: 71 years young. Read more

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Proms 2010: Arvo Pärt – Symphony No. 4 ‘Los Angeles’ (UK Première) plus Mosolov

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Last Friday evening’s Prom concert, given by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, brought to the UK Arvo Pärt‘s first symphony in almost four decades: his fourth, subtitled (with both geographical and theological connotations) ‘Los Angeles’.

However, before Pärt’s work—in an imaginative, even provocative bit of concert programming—came a short work by the relatively obscure Russian composer Alexander Molosov: The Foundry. More boisterous than bombastic, Molosov’s work is a soaring paean to industry, not merely praising but actually personifying the relentless energy and force of contemporary machinery. The pace isn’t particularly quick, but the sheer power expressed in the music is rather daunting. Molosov’s orchestral writing is bold and exhilarating, the brass writing in particular (especially the eight horns, 2’05” into the recording) perhaps laying down the groundwork for the kind of material John Williams would compose in his film scores 50 years later. Its quality makes it all the more tragic that the remaining portions of Molosov’s ballet suite Steel (of which The Foundry was the opening movement) are lost. The conclusion of the piece brought to mind a portion of John Ruskin i read the other day (in ‘The Nature of Gothic’), where he writes of how one must “be satisfied to endure with patience the recurrence of the great masses of sound or form” and “bear patiently the infliction of the monotony for some moments, in order to feel the full refreshment of the change”; the conclusion of The Foundry feels almost as though Molosov’s ideas have left him, the music oscillating round and round and on and on, incessantly—only for the monotony to be thrilling broken in the work’s final flourish. Read more

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Proms 2010: James Dillon – La navette (UK Première)

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As far back as 1988, in his seminal essay on what was, at the time, laughingly called ‘the New Complexity’, Richard Toop described the Scottish composer James Dillon—even within that narrow niche—as an ‘outsider’. Over two decades on, in Dillon’s sixtieth year, little as changed; he remains relatively unknown within the UK, but one imagines this hardly troubles him very greatly; in the pre-performance interview snippet, Dillon comments on how “my references [are] very much not the kind of obsessions that seem to be peculiar to Britain in particular…”. Having heard already in this year’s Proms a fair smattering of the kind of ‘obsessions’ that do occupy the British mainstream, it took no more than a few seconds of Dillon’s La navette (given its UK Première last Thursday) to become aware just how different is the kind of musical language with which he speaks. His is a musical world seemingly without limits, certainly without borders; Dillon’s fascination with all manner of worldwide customs and philosophies informs his work from its conception to its surface. Read more

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Proms 2010: Tarik O’Regan – Latent Manifest; Alissa Firsova – Bach Allegro (World Premières)

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For this year’s Proms, Saturday 14 August was designated “Bach Day”, and buried beneath all the BWVs were two new works, by Tarik O’Regan and Alissa Firsova, both works described as ‘arrangements’.

O’Regan’s approach, as he saw it, was to tease out ‘hidden’ musical lines within the opening movement of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3 BWV 1005. Who’d have thought that, buried within Bach’s music, was a whole load of post-John Adams material waiting to get out? The conductor, Andrew Litton, says in the interval discussion that his criterion for judging a great transcription or arrangement is “when you listen to it, you don’t wish you were hearing the original…”, and on that basis O’Regan comes off rather badly. All the same, Latent Manifest has some nice orchestrational moments, preventing it from being entirely dull.

Firsova roots herself in the last movement of Bach’s Viola da gamba Sonata No. 3 BWV 1029 and, thankfully, she doesn’t try so obviously to be seen to be clever. The title, Bach Allegro, says it all; unlike O’Regan’s work, which was nothing of the kind, this is a true arrangement, allowing Bach’s material to stand squarely in the foreground. While the orchestration is a little dry, there are some beautifully quirky moments, including an amusing brief dialogue between tubas and piccolos (Berlioz would be proud), as well as a hilarious bit of counterpoint proffered by, of all things, a flexatone (Gordon Jacob would be proud). It’s by far the superior offering, and the audience was clearly able to perceive that as well. Read more

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Bath International Music Festival, Bath Abbey: Dhafer Youssef – Les Ondes Orientales (World Première)

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Last Wednesday, the Beloved and i were at Bath Abbey, for a “Messiaen Centenary Celebration” given as part of the Bath International Music Festival. In addition to Messiaen‘s rarely-performed Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine and a keyboard concerto by J. S. Bach, the concert included the world première of Les Ondes Orientales by Tunisian composer Dhafer Youssef. Pianist Joanna MacGregor is the artistic director of the Bath Festival, and she also took part in the piece. Read more

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Thomas Adès – These Premises Are Alarmed, Concerto Conciso, Asyla (World Premières)

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i’ve been interested in Thomas Adès‘ work for many years, so here are recordings of the world première performances of three of his compositions. The tale behind his miniature orchestral work These Premises Are Alarmed is interesting, if disappointing. Adès was commissioned to compose a piece for the series of three inaugural concerts at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, which opened in September 1996 (i was fortunate enough to attend these concerts). For some time beforehand, the word was circulated that Adès was at work on a piano concerto, which – in Classical fashion – he would direct from the keyboard. As the concert approached, however, rumours began to fly that Adès was having difficulties with the piece and things seemed to be getting rather desperate. Eventually, all that could be salvaged from the project was a mere three minutes of music, a pretty meagre offering (George Benjamin, also commissioned for these concerts, wrote Sometime Voices, a substantial work). It’s difficult to be too praiseworthy about These Premises Are Alarmed; the orchestration is interesting and lively, but there’s the ever-present sense that this is material pieced together in haste. Nonetheless, it’s a testament to Adès’ abilities that the result has such aplomb. It was premièred at the Bridgewater Hall on 12 September 1996 by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano.

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James MacMillan – Symphony No. 3 ‘Silence’ (Scottish Première)

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Here’s the Scottish première of James MacMillan’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Silence’, broadcast last Tuesday. Don’t be taken in by that subtitle; this piece does the exact opposite of “what it says on the tin”. MacMillan is more concerned with the perception – within the human experience of tragedy and cruelty – of God gone ‘silent’, inspired by the writings of Shusaku Endo and encapsulated in Christ’s cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. Far from being silent, the symphony is, in fact, a work brimming with unrest, of Mahlerian scope and with suitably collossal tutti passages (fittingly, the remainder of the concert consisted of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, the two works sitting well beside each other). Read more

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