Summer Evening Music

Sheffield Bach Choir has come up with an attractively diverse collection of ‘Music for a Summer Evening’ for its final concert of the season on the 10th of June.

As in recent years, the concert forms a Broomhill Festival event at St Mark’s Church; a much-reduced festival this year which gets underway on the day of the Bach Choir’s concert and ends a week later.

Stylistically varied, the programme ranges from early Baroque to the present day and the thoughts of the choir’s eminent conductor Simon Lindley are italicised in the following.

Some items are unaccompanied and others instrumentally supported by six members of the splendid National Festival Orchestra and Alan Horsey at the restored St Mark’s organ – “what an absolutely superb job Wood of Huddersfield have done for the church. The instrument is magnificently re-born!

In fact, it could be said the organ has a ‘starring’ role at the concert with “Handel’s magical Cuckoo and the Nightingale concerto for organ and strings” (Organ Concerto No 13 in F), “and Marcel Grandjany’s evocative and luxuriant Aria in Classic Style for harp and organ.”

Grandjany was a celebrated French-born American harpist and composer of harp music if you have not come across him before; and, there is Haydn’s Missa Brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo dating from around 1765, probably better known by its later attached alternative title.

It’s likely that Haydn himself played the elaborate solo organ part (at its first outing) in the Benedictus from which the work is widely known as the ‘Little Organ Mass’.

The other major accompanied choral work is the charming Magnificat setting attributed to Buxtehude, “a work as famous for its compelling instrumental interludes for strings as for its glorious choral writing.

It is very well known indeed in Germany and has been for eight decades after its re-discovery. Somehow, it’s never been as familiar in the UK or the States – the jury’s out on whether it’s actually by Buxtehude.

A friend and colleague of the composer, Gustav Düben, transcribed the piece along with over 100 other Buxtehude works, and it has gained greater currency outside Germany since John Rutter included it in his OUP volume ‘European Sacred Music’ in 1996.

Also being performed, though hardly in need of dwelling on, is the young Fauré’s evergreen classic Cantique de Jean Racine in John Rutter’s orchestration, although you may be not aware that Racine’s French text is a much earlier Latin hymn from a breviary for matins.

Unaccompanied choral music takes in the unfairly, almost forgotten E J Moeran’s “evocative Songs of Springtime – “okay, a bit late for Spring, but far too good to be excluded!

Indeed, the seven fairly brief Elizabethan settings, including two Shakespeare texts, from 1932 deserve wider circulation, even if they do have difficult chromaticism to get thoraxes round without instrumental aid to help with pitch.

Can’t speak for Robert Cockroft’s “superbThree Yorkshire Folk Songs (The Ripon Sword Dance, Scarborough Fair and An acre of land), “composed in April two years ago specifically for Gordon Stewart to conduct in a gala concert at Blackburn Cathedral” – though knew him many years ago without being aware that he was a closet composer!

He has, however, written three pieces previously for the distinguished concert organist, conductor and teacher, long-time resident organist at Huddersfield Town Hall, Andrew Carter, Noel Rawsthorne and Lionel Rogg being among others who have penned pieces for him.

Completing the programme is Karl Jenkins’s Adiemus for choir, organ and solo treble recorder, a huge success when the Bach Choir sang it at a Classical Sheffield Saturday morning event at Upper Chapel, Norfolk Street in March.

 

Secrets, Obsessions and Schubert-ian Gypsies

So, you may ask, how does a string quintet come to be played by a violin, cello, clarinet, accordion and cimbalom? – not any old string quintet, either, but Schubert’s immortal masterpiece!

Well, an ensemble made up of the five instruments calling itself ZRI (Zum Roten Igel) believes the gypsy/ Hungarian elements written into the Schubert quintet are not always clear to audiences now so have re-scored it to make them patently obvious.

A similar ‘re-imagination’ (a modern euphemism for arrangement!), a well thought of exercise has also been performed by the group on the Brahms Clarinet Quintet.

Prompting both ‘re-imaginings’ was a popular coffee house-cum-tavern in 19th century Vienna, Zum Roten Igel! – The Red Hedgehog, regularly frequented by Schubert, Brahms and others where they would have heard gypsy and folk bands as they socialised into the night.

Thus, Schubert’s String Quintet in new clothes with a dozen indigenous traditional tunes, plus the final song of the composer’s Winterreise cycle, Der Leiermann, woven in should at least to be an entertaining last concert at this year’s Bradfield Festival of Music on the 1st of July.

This year’s festival, in the picturesque surroundings of the historic church of St Nicholas at High Bradfield, is also its 20th birthday having been revived in 1998 – music festivals were held at the church in the 19th century, around the time Schubert’s String Quintet was penned in 1828, actually!

Proceedings get underway on the 24th of June with a visit by the ten-piece Austonley Brass ensemble and Neil Taylor: organ, who will not have to travel as far, for a Derek Renshaw-narrated mixture of Saint-Saëns: Carnival of Animals, Organ Symphony extracts, the Grand March from Aida, Star Wars and Schindler’s List themes and a Mary Poppins suite.

Jacqui Dankworth, daughter of two famous musicians, moves in (26th June) with husband Charlie Wood, a much-lauded American singer/songwriter and pianist, to celebrate a century of song taking in Alone Together, Autumn in New York, It Don’t Mean a Thing, A Foggy Day, You’ve Got a Friend, among others.

Twenty-four hours later, one of America’s finest younger generation string quartets, the Escher Quartet, which has had a spell on the prestigious BBC New Generation Artist scheme, performs Haydn’s Op 76 No 6 quartet, Debussy’s solitary essay in the form and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet.

Benjamin Grosvenor makes his third visit to the festival (28th June) but this time with a friend, South Korean violinist Hyeyoon Park whose instrumental prowess appears to be as great as his around a piano keyboard.

Their attractive programme is Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 8 and Piano Sonata No 14, the Moonlight, Ravel’s Violin Sonata No 2, Bartók’s Rhapsody No 1, Chopin’s Barcarolle Op 60 and César Franck’s Violin Sonata.

The human singing voice returns (29th June), three of them: soprano Elizabeth Watts, who needs no introduction to Sheffield audiences, tenor Nicky Spence and countertenor Christopher Ainslee, in the company of pianist Audrey Hyland to explore ‘Secrets and Obsessions’ over a programme of songs.

In total, 22 of them from the German pens of Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Loewe, the English quills of Purcell, Britten, Bridge, Balfe, George Butterworth, and French, Spanish, American items by Hahn, Granados and Lehrer.

Bringing us to the penultimate concert and a return visit by the outstanding St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble (30th June) in its 50th anniversary year with an evening of string sextets by Brahms, his second: Op 36, Dvořák: Op 48, and Richard Strauss, the often extracted string sextet prelude to his last opera Capriccio.

All concerts begin at 7.30pm; tickets range from £16 to £22 and a visit to www.bradfieldfestivalofmusic.co.uk will tell you how to obtain them.

 

Review: Ardent Homage and Chromaticism

Extremely familiar sounds greeted a snail-pace inching, physical wreck entering the Crucible Theatre (yours truly, actually); the strains of the famous folk-style Russian song Kalinka expertly played on a horn somewhere close by in the building.

Well, the venue was in the throes of an extensive nine-day Russian/ Soviet music festival promoted by Music in the Round and anchored by the superbly skilled musicians of Ensemble 360 mainly in the Crucible Studio, the ultimate destination of two shuffling legs to hear five of them.

The pièce de résistance, almost inevitably, was the 20-year-old Rachmaninov’s deeply felt memorial homage to Tchaikovsky, his epic Trio Élégiaque No 2, a tremendously sonorous performance from Benjamin Nabarro: violin, Gemma Rosefield: cello, and Tim Horton: piano.

Small wonder the threesome now pursues a much-lauded separate life independent of Ensemble 360 as the Leonore Piano Trio. They were totally inside the music and executed it with a controlled abandonment that was irresistible.

The balance between three flawlessly tuned instruments – super interplay between Nabarro and Rosefield! – was well nigh impeccable, an occasionally overloud keyboard making its presence felt in Horton’s tireless, impassioned playing of the almost relentlessly virtuosic piano part.

(For those not aware, the sound dampening piano lid is never in evidence in the Studio as it obscures sight lines in the in-the-round venue).

The pianist was also the keyboard partner in two duos of around ten-minute duration, and equal to their often fiendish technical demands, from the pens of Marina Dranishnikova and Nikolai Roslavets who will not mean much, if anything to most.

To avoid repetition see: So, Who is Marina Dranishnikova? at www.bernardleemusic.com

Her piece, Poème for oboe and piano in which flights of lyric beauty punctuate prevailing time-honoured, lovelorn Russian melancholy, is so skilfully wrought it’s difficult to believe it is the only thing she wrote.

Effectively, a Romantic work dating from the mid-20th century, Adrian Wilson triumphantly conquered the far from easy, complex oboe part with flowing intonation, expressive tonal beauty and rock-steady line.

The revolutionary Roslavets’s Viola Sonata No 1, his first work entirely written to his New System of Tonal Organisation, a massively complicated deployment (or re-deployment!) of pitch, chords, rhythms, etc, that he insisted was a logical evolution of traditional harmony, is a much more thorny affair.

Similarly, like Dranishnikova’s piece, there are occasional passages of very traditional lyrical harmony (tunes even!) which emerge as oases in a sea of often acerbic chromaticism that flirts with atonality.

In his programme note, Nigel Simeone describes it as a “passionate and ardently chromatic work”, apt adjectives in summing up Ruth Gibson’s stunning, full-blooded account of work with everything, remarkably, sounding pitched given Roslavets’s thoughts on pitch, the main plank of his New System!

A pity not more people were in the audience to hear such technically assured viola playing of a work that may well benefit from repeated hearings, and the rest of a magnificently played concert, for that matter.

Footnote: Ever growing severe physical problems, compounded by a potentially more serious complaint over the last six months, has reduced already decreasing reviewing activity to virtually nil. There is a possible slight ray of optimism, but breath should definitely not be held!

So, Who is Marina Dranishnikova?

This Thursday’s two concerts from Ensemble 360 in Music in the Round’s May Festival this year, Russia in the Round, are especially fascinating and in particular the one at lunchtime.

It introduces a couple of composers who will be totally unfamiliar to just about all but Russian music anoraks, Marina Dranishnikova and Nikolai Roslavets.

Dranishnikova (1929 –94), the daughter of Vladimir Dranishnikov, a friend of Prokofiev and composer who made his living mainly as a conductor, appears to have studied piano and composition at Leningrad Conservatory.

If she wrote anything else other than the piece getting an outing in the Russia in the Round festival, Poéme for oboe and piano, it has proved impossible to discover. However, the work’s lyrical outpouring strongly suggests she was far from being a beginner in 1953 when she wrote it.

Described as a challenging work and lasting a little short of ten minutes, Poéme was dedicated to the principal oboe of the Leningrad Philharmonic and was apparently prompted by an ‘unhappy love’ for an oboist – the word ‘tragic’ has also surfaced!

The adjective is apt in relation to Nikolai Roslavets (1881 –1944) who must have been the most persecuted composer under the Soviet regime. Mud sticks, they say, and even now he still largely persona non grata.

His ‘crime’ was nothing more than being a cosmopolitan modernist, or futurist composer who developed a compositional technique for atonalism taking late Scriabin as his starting point.

The barrage of unfounded vitriol launched at him for his efforts by a political system that he fully supported was as astonishing as it was intense to the point that even his deliberately unmarked grave was destroyed.

Performances of his music were banned from the early 1930s until the late 1970s, even the one-movement Viola Sonata No 1 from 1926 when Roslavets’s fame was at its peak in the Soviet Union and being performed this Thursday.

It can be described as a late Romantic work, harmonically adventurous and full of a yearning beauty that is difficult to resist, and yet it had been consigned to state archives after his death until the late 1980s when, at last, access to his manuscripts was granted.

As a point of interest, Alina Ibragimova, known to recent Music in the Round audiences, recorded Roslavets’s two violin concertos in 2008 with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov!

Roughly a ten-minute work, rounding the Roslavet sonata up with Dranishnikova’s Poéme to make a joint running time of around 20 minutes means the concert’s advertised duration of 55 minutes is going to be somewhat stretched as it concludes with Rachmaninov’s Trio Élégiaque No 2.

Have you noticed how many Russian composers writing memorial/ tribute pieces do so using the piano trio as a vehicle, by the way?

This is the third heard in the festival: Rachmaninov’s memorial homage following the death of Tchaikovsky. It was modelled on the latter’s only piano trio written as a tribute to Nikolai Rubinstein, while Shostakovich dedicated his Trio No 2 to Ivan Sollertinsky evoking images of Soviet death camps in the process.

Not in the festival, Arensky’s Trio No 1 (probably his best-known opus number), penned in memory of the highly renowned cellist and composer Karl Davidov, is another significant example.