Sunday, 16 July 2017

Fuel to the Proms fire on the First Night - Prom 1

© BBC/Chris Christodoulou
BBC Prom 1

Igor Levit (piano)
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Friday 14 July 2017




Tom Coult: St John's Dance

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

John Adams: Harmonium
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

'Mass hysteria, Schiller’s Ode to Joy and Wild Nights – a heady mix for this year’s opening night of the BBC Proms'.

Coult: 'The overlaying structure ... is deftly constructed, and Coult’s writing has great energy and drive, making this a successful concert opener'.

Beethoven: 'Levit made the long lyrical lines of the Largo sing'.

Adams: 'A highly impressive performance of this modern choral classic, testament to the input of the array of chorus directors involved, as well as to Gardner and the BBCSO’s command of the work's massive orchestral demands'.

Read my full review on Backtrack here.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

CD Reviews - July 2017


The first volume of conductor Rumon Gamba’s latest recording project of British Tone Poems, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is a promising start.  The disc opens with ‘Spring’, a Symphonic Rhapsody, by Frederic Austin (1872-1952).  This is a lush, filmic work, sounding perhaps more summery than spring-like, but nevertheless infectiously positive in outlook.  William Alwyn’s (1905-1985) brief ‘Blackdown - Tone Poem from the Surrey Hills’ follows, and is subtler in its pastoral hues, despite being written when he was just twenty-one.  Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946) drew on a poem by Shelley for his tone poem, ‘The Witch of Atlas’, a work full of atmosphere and delicate orchestration and frequent solo passages, detail which Gamba & the BBC NOW bring out beautifully. Troubled composer and poet Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) ended his days in a mental hospital, destroyed by his experiences in the First World War.  Philip Lancaster and Ian Venables have worked on his sketches for ‘A Gloucestershire Rhapsody’, creating a performable work, darker and more wistful in tone, and it is given a sensitive and touching performance here. Henry Balfour Gardiner’s (1877-1950) ‘A Berkshire Idyll’ also contains darker moments within its ostensibly sunny outer frame, and definite tinges of Debussy and Delius, and again there are plenty of opportunities for individual members and sections of the orchestra to shine, which they certainly do here. The disc concludes with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) early sea-inspired work, ‘The Solent’, with its hints of his Sea Symphony to come.  Even in this early work, it sits in another league of invention, with some particularly haunting quiet string writing. Whilst all these works sit in a relatively limited and harmonically safe soundworld (to our ears now), what stands out is the imaginative and varied orchestration and use of colour to illuminate these quintessentially English landscape portraits.  With richly warm and delicate performances from Gamba and the orchestra, this is a great start to what will surely prove to be a fascinating series.



I first heard viola player Timothy Ridout perform in the Brighton Festival with the Teyber Trio in 2015.  This year he was back at the festival, this time with pianist John Reid, and he gave a commanding performance.  For his debut recording, he has recorded, together with pianist Ke Ma, the complete works for viola by Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881).  Vieuxtemps was a violin virtuoso hailed at his debut as ‘the next Paganini’.  Yet he also frequently played the viola, and wrote a number of works for the instrument, all of which are here.  Only two movements exist of an unfinished second Viola Sonata, although they amount to nearly twenty-five minutes alone, and make for a striking opening to the disc here.  The opening Allegro is full of melodic invention, and the playful Scherzo that follows is a delight, to which Ridout gives great character.  A transcription by the composer of a movement from Félicien David’s Le Désert, entitled ‘La Nuit’, follows, a sweet, salon piece, exploiting the viola’s rich tone.  Next an Etude, with its perpetual flow of rapid semiquavers for the viola supported by delicate chords from the piano. The first Viola Sonata opens with a beautiful lyrical tune in the viola’s lower register before launching into an energetic allegro. The equally lyrical central Barcarolle is followed by an animated finale, in which there is more of an exchange between the piano and viola, giving Ma the chance to join Ridout in the foreground a bit more.  The only work for solo viola here is the short Capriccio, in which Vieuxtemps underpins a lyrical melody with spread chords, building to a highly virtuosic conclusion, and Ridout’s command here is impressive. Once again, it is a lyrical melody that’s central to the yearning Elégie, perhaps the most passionate piece on the disc, and Ridout is highly engaging here.  The disc closes with a perfect encore piece, Souvenir d’Amérique, a set of variations on Yankee Doodle, full of dazzling virtuosic display, and once again Ridout is in complete command of its demands.  This is an impressive debut recording by any standards, and also great to hear lesser-known repertoire for the Cinderella of the string family.



Finally, an intriguing release from harpsichordist Catalina Vicens, inspired by the opportunity given to her to perform on what is possibly the oldest playable harpsichord in existence.  Made in Naples in around 1525, the instrument has been restored in South Dakota by John Koster.  While deciding on repertoire to perform on the instrument, Vicens was inspired by the instrument’s possible history, old maps of Naples and writings from the time, as well as her own musings, and as a result she has written a short story to accompany the disc, titled Il Cembalo di Partenope (‘Partenope’s Harpsichord’ – Queen Partenope was the founder of Naples).  It is an atmospheric and dreamlike tale, I think best experienced in the free download audio book (available here) read by Vicens herself, accompanied with music from the CD.  The music itself is by a range of composers from the early part of the 16th century, starting with Antonio Valente’s (fl.1564-1580) publication of harpsichord works in 1576 and working backwards.  There’s a surprising variety here, although apart from the opening Fantasia del primo by Valente, they are mostly fleeting miniatures.  The dance-like movements, such as Valente’s Gagliarda napolitana, and the lively Calata ala spagnola by Joan Ambrosio Dalza (fl. 1508) add bursts of energy amongst the more reflective love songs and poetic numbers.  There is Italian and Spanish music, and music written for the lute and the voice too.  The harpsichord has a bright tone, and Vicens plays with great delicacy and poise, making this a delightful collection, aside from the added depth of the instrument’s history and Vicens’ atmospheric accompanying tale.  All in all, a fascinating and absorbing project, beautifully performed and presented.




(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, July 2017)

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Messages From the Sea - A Song Cycle for soprano, baritone, harp and piano by Clive Whitburn

Clive Whitburn is a composer living in Sussex, who has written a wide range of music, including chamber, orchestral and electronic music, as well as performing with two acoustic duos.  As an experienced choral singer himself, many of his more recent compositions involve choirs and singers.  He describes his music as 'usually, but not exclusively, tonal and melodic, ... rooted in the classical and baroque traditions as well as modern popular styles'.

In 2016, he was inspired by Messages From The Sea, a collection of letters and notes washed ashore on beaches, dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  These were compiled by Paul Brown in a book released in September 2016.  Messages found washed up in bottles and boxes on beaches were published in newspapers around the world, and Brown collected these.  They tell a wide range of tales, some tragic, some romantic, and some containing intriguingly unsolved mysteries.


Whitburn has taken four contrasting messages and set them to music, creating a fascinating short Song Cycle for soprano, baritone, harp and piano.

The first, ‘Thompson’s Message’, tells of the demise of a passenger steamship sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia for Liverpool in 1870, never to arrive.  It is set for soprano, harp and piano.  After the announcement of the date and location, the message contains just four short, sad phrases, telling us that the sea is sinking, and the writer says a brief goodbye, asking for his boy to be looked after.  The harp and piano exchange rippling rising arpeggios and a repeated octave motif, with the soprano line gradually sinking on each phrase.  The combination is highly effective and mournful, dying away to nothing at the end.

Next comes ‘Charles Pilcher’, a startling confession (spoiler alert!) of a man telling us that he murdered a woman, Margaret Hutchinson, and now, consumed with guilt, unable to sleep and seeing visions of her, he has decided to throw himself overboard at sea.  The message was found in 1896 between Dover and Folkstone – but the mystery remains unsolved as to who Pilcher or Hutchinson were.  Over an incessant repeated pattern on the piano, the harp tolls chords, and the soprano and baritone intone the confession.  Rising key changes as the story unfolds add to the dramatic effect, increasing the tension, until finally, the tale told, the music is allowed to die away.  Whitburn communicates the inherent unsettling nature of this tale well here in this effective setting.

‘Miss Charlesworth Presents’ is another fascinating vignette.  Violet Gordon Charlesworth was a young fraudster who claimed to be an heiress, and then faked her own death to escape debts.  The message in a bottle that turned up in Wexford Bay in 1909 was considered to be a hoax, as Charlesworth was subsequently found in Oban, Scotland, charged and sentenced to five years hard labour.  The message is a quirky, cheeky announcement of ‘Au revoir’ ‘to the press, police and public of Ireland’, and Whitburn’s setting is great fun, with a folksy, bouncy rhythm on the piano underpinning proceedings and the soprano and baritone sometimes singing together, sometimes in sequence, but maintaining the momentum of this sprightly tale.  The rhythmic pace and dynamic is a great contrast to the preceding, more subdued songs.

The cycle concludes with ‘All Is Well’, for soprano, baritone and harp.  After the darkness of the tales thus far, the final message announces the birth of a baby boy, the captain’s wife having given birth on board.  However, even this joyful message has a macabre connection – the message in a bottle was found near Dundee in 1873 inside an 11ft shark!  The setting here gives long lyrical lines to the soprano, imitated by the baritone, over simple, chordal accompaniment from the harp, ending with touching repetition of the phrase, ‘all is well’.

You can hear the full cycle on YouTube (see below) or on Soundcloud here.

The songs are given strong and evocative performances by soprano Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz and baritone Alex Roose, with Alexandra King on harp and Adam Swayne on piano. 


You can find more of Clive Whitburn’s music on Soundcloud here.