Monday, 9th December 2019
Students of the Trombone Department of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland: Adam Dougherty, Alan Adams, Andrew Macleod, Anne Wylie, Becky Butchart, Jamie Philip, Jordan Robertson, Joshua Parkhill, Khoo Min Kai, Milja Matras Niclasen, Robyn Anderson and Simone Kelly Hutchinson. Directed by Simon Johnson of the BBC SSO, with Jonathan Hollick, also of the BBC SSO, as guest soloist
The line-up for the pre-Christmas concert was impressive, not only in terms of the number of performers taking part and their youthfulness, but also for the fact that 50 per cent of the ensemble of students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland were female – a percentage of brass players not matched anywhere else in the concert-going experience of your correspondent. What an exciting prospect for the future of orchestral music in the UK!
As is normal when an ensemble of players of the same instrument presents a programme, the evening consisted of a number of arrangements of already familiar pieces together with more specialised and unfamiliar repertoire known only to practitioners of the instrument in question, on this occasion the trombone – an instrument normally heard from afar at the back of the orchestra, but this evening taking front of stage and being heard in all its splendour at close range.
The evening began with an unfamiliar piece, Tower Music by Vaclav Nelhybel a composer born just over a century ago in Czechoslovakia, who subsequently worked in Switzerland and Germany before settling in USA. It evoked the sound of bells tolling to one another across a city and its antiphonal effects were like an updated version of music written for St Mark’s Basilica in Venice centuries earlier. The original version was for an octet of trombones, but all twelve players took part, imparting extra sonority to the music. We were obviously in for a worthwhile experience.
Elsa’s Procession from Wagner’s Lohengrin followed. It was played by eight trombones, who admirably captured the nobility of the piece, playing with a marvellous blend. A very different world is portrayed in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, the Preludio of which was next on the programme. It’s a strange piece, in that it consists of a prelude, an offstage tenor aria – Jonathan Hollick joined the ensemble for this, the first of his outstanding solo contributions –and a resumption of the prelude with entirely new music of distinguished melodic pedigree. Even before the curtain rises on this extraordinary opera, we have been treated to a wealth of melodic invention – and the most famous numbers, the Easter Hymn and the Intermezzo have yet to come! The Grand Canyon Octet by Eric Ewazen, a contemporary American composer, was another rarity. Originally written for Horn Octet, but also arranged by the composer for trombones, a version which Simon Johnson thought superior, is a substantial three-movement work, evoking the atmosphere of its eponymous landmark. The central movement had a nocturnal feel to it, while the finale had a recurring hymn-like refrain with increasingly virtuosic interjections. The nobility of sound produced by the choir of trombones was most impressive. A rollicking version of Jingle Bells by the American trombonist and composer Tommy Pederson brought the first half of the evening to a close. Members of the audience repaired to an upstairs room in search of mince pies and non-alcoholic refreshment. A few recalcitrants were lured in the direction of the bar, which was open for another event taking place elsewhere in the building.
Following the interval, we heard Full Tilt by Anthony di Lorenzo, an Emmy Award winning contemporary American composer, who models himself apparently on John Williams. The strong rhythms, rasping glissandi and jazzy syncopations in the piece made it easy to understand the reasons for his success. A much gentler number, Sleep by Eric Whitacre in an arrangement by Lewis Bettles, provided a complete contrast in a performance which was a model of legato playing and smooth sonorities. Song for Japan by Steven Verhelst, a Belgian trombonist and composer was perhaps the discovery of the evening. It was written in 2011 in support of victims of the recent tsunami. Following a brief introduction by two solo players, there unfolds what is surely a “hit” tune which could not fail to become popular were it to be given air time on Classic fm, for example. The performance was well worthy of the music.
Simon Johnson described the two penultimate pieces on the programme as “two cheesy tunes”. They turned out to be Just a Closer Walk by Mahalia Jackson and Old Devil Moon, composed for the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow. It was introduced by Ella Logan and Donald Richards on Broadway.
The evening concluded in a distinctly Christmassy atmosphere with performances of Jingle Bell Rock and The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, complete with sleigh bells played by two “volunteers” from the audience, who acquitted themselves with aplomb. As so often happens towards the end of an evening’s music making, there was an atmosphere of relaxed nonchalance about these performances. Tommy Pederson, who had featured at the end of the first half, also contributed the arrangement of O Come, all ye Faithful which served as an encore and encouraged at least some members of the audience to put their vocal cords to the test.
Earlier on, Simon Johnson had paid tribute to the enormous dedication of the students who formed the ensemble – and it showed. Jim McGrath paid tribute to the role of Gill De Groote in arranging the evening. Tribute must also be paid to Jonathan Hollick, who for much of the evening played as an ordinary member of the group, and to Simon Johnson for his skilful and unfussy direction of the players and his verbal introduction of the whole programme, which was clearly much enjoyed by the sizeable audience who attended.
Monday, 7 October 2019
Doune Bassoon Quartet
(Graeme Robertson-Brown, Kath Nagl, Peter Wesley and Anthea Wood)
The Club Concerts resumed on 5th October with a recital by the Doune Bassoon Quartet which was warmly received by an appreciative audience, to most of whom much of the music, though familiar in its original form, would be being heard for the first time in its current arrangements. The Quartet had assembled a programme of generous length which was notable for its tunefulness and catchiness – just the thing to enliven a dull October evening.
An arrangement of Bernstein’s Overture to Candide got the evening off to a cracking start and kept all four players busy as they delivered with aplomb the music’s athleticism, lyricism, effervescence and wit. It was immediately evident that the combination of four bassoons had more going for it than might have seemed likely on paper. It was followed by an arrangement of A Whiter Shade of Pale, a song made popular in the 1960s by the group Procul Harum. It owes not a little to J S Bach’s famous Air on the G String, but was apparently the cause of some dispute among members of the group, who made rival claims as to who deserved the credit for its composition. No such acrimony was in evidence in this performance in which Graeme’s cantabile playing was admirably supported by his colleagues.
The members of the quartet took it in turns to introduce the various items on the programme and it fell to Anthea Wood to speak about the next one, Almirena’s aria from Handel’s Rinaldo, which is such a favourite of hers that it was performed on the accordion at her wedding. Given that Almirena is singing Lascia ch’io pianga la cruda sorte and is clearly not happy with the hand which fate has dealt her, it might seem a daring choice for a wedding, but on the day the bride calls the shots!
Elgar’s famous Chanson de Matin followed in an arrangement by Peter Wesley, which showcased the lyrical potential of the bassoon in its upper register. Peter was also responsible for a number of other ingenious arrangements in the course of the evening. Kath Nagl introduced the following item with a measure of self-confessed apprehension, as she was required not only to play the bassoon, which is not a problem for her, but to sing, which she suggested might be! In the event she had nothing to be worried about. Her singing was mellifluous, well tuned and noted for the clarity of her diction – virtues which many more experienced singers would do well to imitate. The song itself, which was one of the “hits” of the evening, was The Bassoon Song, a music hall ditty by the improbably-named Quenton Ashlyn, who in real life may have been Frank Kennedy, an early twentieth century government employee who abandoned that calling in favour of becoming a “society entertainer”. The text, which contains a number of what would have been naughty rhymes were it not for the intervention of the bassoon, extols the virtues of the instrument, its value as an aid to seduction and its usefulness as a household accessory. It was a real discovery, a knock-out! An arrangement by Peter Wesley of Tea for Two (with apologies to Dmitri Shostakovich) brought the the first half of the concert to an apt conclusion.
The second half began with two pieces by Prokofiev, a jaunty scherzo with a more soulful trio, and the Gavotte from the Classical Symphony, the former of which may well have been the only piece in the programme originally written for four bassoons. At one stage in the evening Anthea Wood had asked, “What doesn’t go for four bassoons?” and by the end she could well have claimed to rest her case. They were followed by another Peter Wesley arrangement – of the Cakewalk from Children’s Corner by Debussy in which Peter played contrabassoon to impressive effect. Peter Maxwell-Davies’s Farewell to Stromness, which came next, proved ideally suited to its new guise, a really interesting alternative to the usual piano version with which we are familiar. Sousa for Bassoons, which provided a striking contrast, this time of some stonkingly good tunes composed, arranged (by Andrew Balent) and performed with enormous panache by the Quartet, with Peter treating us to a piccolo descant played on contrabassoon. The penultimate number was Oblivion by Astor Piazzola, a languid bossanova in which Graeme Robertson-Brown demonstrated some breath-taking breath control in its song-like main theme. The Dambusters by Eric Coates brought the official programme to a rousingly patriotic conclusion.
In response to the enthusiastic reception of the audience, the four musicians performed Bassoonist’s Holiday, better known in its guise as Bugler’s Holiday by the American Leroy Anderson, which sent the well-contented audience away with a smile on their faces and one of those tunes that you just can’t forget in their ears. In his closing remarks, Jim McGrath paid tribute not only to the performers but to Gillian de Groote, the new orchestral rep, whose arm-twisting had no doubt had more than a little to do with the re-launch of the Club Concerts.
Monday 13 May 2019
Mark O’Keeffe (trumpet) and Sasha Savaloni (guitar)
The combination of trumpet and guitar (or something similar) is by no means unique (one only has to think of mariachi music and TexMex bands like Calexico) but in the classical sphere it is more unusual. For one thing there are issues of volume and tone – the unamplified acoustic classical guitar is no match for the trumpet in full flight, unless the guitarist (to use today’s parlance) “shreds” at full volume, a style favoured by some rock musicians but generally unsuitable for a Club occasion! Thus it was that in this superb recital by these most talented musicians the eye eventually noted a very discreet pick-up and cable attached to the body of Sasha’s guitar, leading to an almost equally discreet amp positioned behind his seat. The resulting sound and balance was almost perfect, the tone gentle or robust as required and the guitar only occasionally (and at that, only very briefly) being overwhelmed by the trumpet.
I have concentrated on the guitar thus far, simply because at Club events I am usually faced with instruments I could not begin to play. The guitar is perhaps the most versatile, portable and forgiving of instruments, allowing professionals and amateurs alike to sound good. It is an instrument I play, but in a completely different style and at nothing like the level demonstrated by Sasha. It was a pleasure to occasionally (all too occasionally) recognise a fleeting chord shape and marvel at his stretch, not to mention the magic achieved by the dexterity required of his right hand, though that was generally obscured by the music stand.
Perhaps one day the music stand can be dispensed with, as this new duo has only been playing together for a comparatively short while. I suspect the repertoire may have been comparatively new to Sasha – though not to Mark who played throughout from memory. Sasha and he had met late last year in the Conservatoire and, after much deliberation on Mark’s part as to whether to form a duo of this unusual nature at all, they started rehearsing in January, exploring repertoire that might work for a recital programme. The combination is an unusual one, but at least one precedent, and one cited by Mark, is that of Urban and Sabina Agnas, a husband and wife duo from Sweden (several videos of their performances can be found via Google).
Mark is, of course, very well known to Club members, having played many an entertaining concert for us, but without disrespecting those earlier entertainments, this had the feel of something very special, a duo setting out on a journey which will hopefully see many more such recitals to many more audiences. As ever Mark provided informative and sometimes amusing commentaries for our benefit.
The recital, all essentially arrangements for trumpet and guitar rather than pieces composed for the combination, began with John Dowland’s beautiful ‘Flow My Tears’ which segued into a movement from J S Bach’s cantata ‘Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland’ BWV 61. Mark explained that this latter had special meaning for him, being associated with his musical confrere, the pianist/organist John Langdon. He had passed away late last year. John had been a remarkable musician, cherished by all at the RCS and whoever came in contact with him. John and Mark had played many concerts together around Scotland, including Oban, Paisley Abbey and Culzean Castle. The Bach ‘Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland’ (Now come the Gentile Church) had been one of their “party pieces”.
The theme of Mark’s Christmas 2017 Club recital was songs and the trumpet’s ability to correspond to the human voice and the third piece was based on Franz Schubert’s lieder “Ständchen” (Serenade).
Next came the wistful and very beautiful Spanish Dance No 5, ‘Andaluza’ by the ill-starred Enrique Granados (he and his wife died in 1916, victims of a German torpedo attack in the English Channel). Hereafter, a thread emerged in the programme, with the composers whose pieces we heard afresh in these arrangements for these two complementary instruments being individuals who had passed through Paris in the early 20th century, often meeting each other.
Manuel de Falla’s suite of Seven Spanish Songs, variously sultry or energetic, was executed with sensitivity and flair as required (‘The Moorish Cloth’, ‘Murcian Seguidilla’, ‘Asturian’, ‘Jota’, ‘Nana’, ‘Song’, ‘Pole’). These Spanish composers were followed by a piece by Maurice Ravel, born close to the Basque region and, like so many French composers, often attracted to things Spanish, though on this occasion the piece had no such connections. Instead it was ‘Kaddish’, originally a song with piano and violin accompaniment whose text was part of the Jewish prayer sequence of the same name. Another arrangement of song followed, Kurt Weill’s “Je ne t’aime pas”, before a fresh theme emerged in the recital, that of composers who had at one point or another had been taught by that most famous of music teachers in Paris, Nadia Boulanger. One such was the Brazilian composer Hector Villa Lobos, and it was his famous Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, more closely associated with ranks of cellos but also, significantly, the human voice, that we now heard effectively transposed for trumpet and guitar. Next came pieces by the Argentinian master of the bandoneon, Astor Piazzolla, ‘Oblivion’ and 'Libertango’, another of Boulanger’s pupils drawn from South America to Paris.
And to conclude, and influenced by the BBC SSO’s planned visit to the St Magnus Festival, Mark and Sasha treated us to ‘The Rose of St Magnus’, a piece by the contemporary folk artist, Ivan Drever.
All in all, this was a most enjoyable performance and one can only hope that this duo will continue to give pleasure with their splendid playing and thoughtful programming. Quite simply, as if they were in any doubt, the combination works, and works very well. Mark and Sasha have other gigs coming up in Glasgow in June (see the ‘Other Concerts’ page on this website) and they are not to be missed.
Monday, 3 December 2018
Hedley Benson (Trumpet), Jonathan Hollick (Trombone), Andrew Forbes (Piano)
For the first, and hopefully not the last, of this season’s concerts we were joined by the familiar and very welcome figure of Hedley Benson, Principal trumpet in the BBCSSO, and two younger colleagues, Jonathan Hollick, a recent recruit to the trombone section and Andrew Forbes, director of music at Glasgow Cathedral. The audience, your present correspondent included, did not know what to expect on a rather chilly December evening. In the event, the programme offered could never have been guessed at and far outstretched any possible expectations.
It began innocuously enough with a performance by all three of Hail, Smiling Morn, a jolly, tuneful Christmas piece which clearly took Hedley back to his formative years in Yorkshire.
The next three items, all by the Swedish composer Folke Rabe (1932-2017), who is hardly a household name, were for unaccompanied brass. Jonathan Hollick played Basta, a piece for solo trombone written in 1982 for the Swedish virtuoso Christian Lindberg when he was still a student at the Royal College of Music, Stockholm. The piece required and received considerable virtuosity, with its wide range of sound effects and dynamics, its glissandi and, at one point, what sounded like more than one note at the same time, an effect possibly produced by the trombonist singing while playing. That was followed by Shazan, a work for solo trumpet written a couple of years later for Håkan Hardenberger, a work of staggering difficulty with an extraordinarily wide tessitura, scales, trills, some of the highest trumpet notes imaginable and some very low ones which Hedley warned in advance sounded “a bit like a bodily function”. It would be pleasing to report that the audience to a man, or woman, adhered to his strict injunction not to laugh at this point of the piece. Pleasing, but untrue! The word shazan is associated with wizardry, a quality which was much in evidence in Hedley’s bravura performance. By way of light relief after these two challenging pieces, the audience was split in two and directed by Hedley and Jonathan to engage in some rhythmic clapping, with Hedley’s side having a slightly longer pattern to perform than Jonathan’s. After a brief rehearsal, we were required to combine the two exercises simultaneously and were than told that we had just performed Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. The trio of Rabe pieces was rounded off by Tintomara (1992), which was written for both of the dedicatees of the previous two pieces: yet another virtuoso number with staccato notes, glissandi, close imitation, military-style fanfares and great rhythmic complexity, all brought off with considerable aplomb by two performers who clearly enjoyed a close musical and personal rapport.
At this point, a few observations. The programme offered by these two musicians was by no means a quick run through of a few familiar and well-tried party pieces. They were clearly challenging themselves and the audience by opting to play music of exceptional difficulty written for two of the most famous and adventurous exponents of brass music in the world. The music was also challenging for the audience, very few, if any, of whom would have been familiar with it or with its style. Fritz Kreisler was said to dislike the concept of live broadcasts of his concerts, as the listener could turn him off peremptorily at the flick of a switch. I would venture to suggest that many of Monday’s audience, had they been listening late at night on Radio 3 would have switched off or tuned in to Classic fm. One of the strengths of live music making is that neither of those options is open to the listener, who is therefore encouraged or even forced to give the music and the performers a chance. For the present writer at least, these three pieces were the highlight of the evening – a clear instance of the influence of outstanding performers on the art of composition and on those successors who take up the challenge after them.
To round off the first half, Karl Jenkins’s Salm o Dewi Sant was played in an arrangement for trumpet, trombone and piano. This piece struck a more stately tone than the Scandinavian ones, but its final section included some jazzy, quasi-improvisatory contributions on the trumpet, in which Hedley Benson clearly revelled. Before repairing to the foyer to sample some Christmas fare, the audience joined in a hearty rendition of O Come, all ye Faithful, with suitably festive contributions from the brass soloists.
After the interval, Hedley Benson and Andrew Forbes played With malice toward none, a piece taken from John Williams’s sound track to the film Lincoln. It was immediately accessible music, with echoes of American songs, including Amazing Grace, and an air of attractive melancholy, beautifully realised by both performers.
There then followed another audience rendering, this time of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, again with suitable brass interpolations.
Jonathan Hollick’s next choice was a substantial one: an arrangement for trombone and piano of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs. In the original version, the texts are biblical: from Ecclesiastes in the first three, which speak of death and the transitory nature of life, and from St Paul to the Corinthians in the final number – his magnificent paean on charity, which, though deadly serious, is certainly more upbeat than the Old Testament texts which precede it. Such is Brahms’s melodic fecundity that these songs worked remarkably well in their instrumental transcription. There was even an advantage to this version, in that the trombone can encompass the wide range of the original vocal part more easily than most singers can, and that, in the final song the famous words about seeing through a glass darkly “Wir sehen jetzt durch einen Spiegel in einem dunklen Worte” were easily taken in one breath by Jonathan Hollick, a feat achieved by very few singers. This might be an appropriate point at which to pay tribute to Andrew Forbes’s contribution to the evening. The piano accompaniments to the Four Serious Songs make considerable demands on the player, demands to which Andrew rose unflinchingly.
Hedley Benson’s final offering was a Zelda, by the Australian Percy Code, which Hedley described as the most famous cornet solo ever written. Its coloratura writing would have stretched even the most agile of sopranos. Hedley approached its fiendishly difficult embellishments with his usual sangfroid, bringing a fascinating evening of music making to an exhilarating conclusion, save for a brief extract for audience and players from We Wish you a Merry Christmas.
So, apart from a few nods towards seasonal good cheer, a predominantly serious evening. Yet Hedley Benson’s presentational skills and the easy rapport which he immediately established with the audience made it an evening of revelation and delight. Is it worth pointing out that nothing quite like it exists in Glasgow except under the auspices of the BBC Scottish Symphony Club?
Monday 21 May 2018
Tub/ology (aka Andy Duncan & Friends)
Andrew Duncan and Craig Anderson, tubas; Scott Kerr and Evelyn Bradley, euphoniums.
Tub/ology describes itself, perhaps a little tongue in cheek or perhaps accurately, as ‘Scotland’s Premier Tuba Quartet’ on its Facebook page (and I would not be surprised at this, either because they are indeed unique, or because they are better than the rest or a bit of both). The pre-concert information promised a wide ranging programme plus insights into "the greatest (and least understood) instrument in the orchestra". It is also, we leant, one of the youngest instruments in the orchestra, the first tuba patent, for a bass tuba in F, (the word tuba means ‘trumpet’ in Latin) being granted (in Prussia) to Wilhelm Friedrich Wieprecht and Johann Gottfried Moritzin September 1835. (By my reckoning, the saxophone is younger, having been patented in 1840). The tuba is the largest and lowest pitched member of the brass family as was amply demonstrated by the range of tubas on stage, complemented by the two euphoniums (sometimes referred to as tenor tubas).
The band’s name, the ‘ology’ part, is to emphasise its desire to spread the word and educate about this wonderful instrument, whose sheer size and generous proportions are all too easily identified with Danny Kaye’s famous children’s song “Tubby the Tuba” or the antics of Gerard Hoffnung. Yet its capacity to be much more has been amply and often demonstrated, perhaps most famously in the ‘Romanza’ of the Tuba Concerto of 1954 by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a clear demonstration of its lyrical capabilities.
In between the pieces, the players spoke passionately about their instrument, its history, how the sound is obtained (like all brass instruments by moving air past the lips to produce a "buzz" into a mouthpiece) and how awkward it is to travel with one or even, as sometimes required, two tubas (not least in a taxi).
And what of the music? Although Bach was mentioned in the pre-concert ‘flyer’ there was to be none, but much as I love Bach, he is everywhere and so that was no great loss. Instead we were treated to a great variety of what I suppose Beecham might have called concert lollipops. And here I must hold up my hand and confess that the more ‘classical’ elements in the programme were largely unknown to me. Most, if not all, were works by lesser known composers arranged for tuba. Among these were the Petites Litanies de Jesus by Gabriel Grovlez (1879-1944) a friend of Faure) arranged Tony Swainson, ‘Czardas’, a folkloric rhapsody from 1904 by Vittorio Monti which featured Andy Duncan on ‘lead tuba’ and the encore piece, the ‘Florentiner Marsch’ by Julius Fucik (1872-1916) a Czech composer for brass and military bands. As signs of a misspent adulthood, I was much more at home with Scott Kerr’s arrangement of music by French electronic duo Daft Punk. No less entertaining was Giovanni Dettori’s rethinking of Lady Gaga. Taking a phrase from this current iconic star’s “Bad Romance” by way of an Apple computer and loop pedal, Dettori has come up with a ‘Lady Gaga Fugue’, which reminded me of Glenn Gould’s “So you want to write a fugue”. The old met the new in two pieces, one an arrangement of the Ulster Scottish traditional song “Wayfaring Stranger”, again with loop pedal, much covered by folk and rock artists everywhere, and the other a fascinating merger of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” (written in the early 1990s for the soundtrack of ‘Rush’ but referencing also his 4 year old son Conor who fell to his death from a New York apartment in March 1991) and Pachelbel’s timeless Canon from c 1700. Combined in an arrangement by Albert Wieder & Christoph Moschberger, Scott and Craig interweaved their lines melodic and canonic, the result a fascinating take on a piece that has perhaps been over played, and a song that can sometimes seem mawkish. And the new and contemporary was also in evidence with two striking pieces by the American composer John D Stevens (b191), described in Wiki as “an American composer/arranger, tubist, and brass pedagogue”. ‘Power’ which opened the concert was an arresting introduction, and ‘Dances’ the longest piece, in three movements, the concert’s centrepiece, was an intriguing and highly enjoyable fusion of the American and the Latin.
A concert? A recital? Maybe more of a ‘gig’? But what’s in a name: this was a hugely entertaining evening presented by sterling musicians at the top of their game, and I really hope this is not the last we see or hear from the excellent Tub/ology! An ideal way to end the Club’s 2017-18 season.
Monday, 12th February 2018
Charlotte Ashton (Flute), Lynda Cochrane (Piano), Laura Samuel (Violin) Rhoslyn Lawton (Viola), Sarah Oliver (Cello) and Helen Thomson (Harp)
Charlotte Ashton, the Principal Flute of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and a group of friends presented a very varied and generous programme of music for the the Club’s February concert. Every single item featured the flute, so the evening was a bit of a tour de force for Charlotte herself.
The first half of the programme consisted of pieces for flute and piano, the latter played by Lynda Cochrane with her customary musicianship and flair. A two-movement piece (The HamburgeSonata) by CPE Bach opened the proceedings. Both movements were very much flute-dominated and at once revealed Charlotte’s limpid tone and agility. There was a feeling that all was going to be well throughout the recital. The Canzone by Samuel Barber which followed involved quite a jump in time and mood and proved to be an interesting piece in more ways than one. Barber was, like composers of an earlier age, no stranger to recycling hos own music. The famous Adagio for Strings, which started life as the second movement of his first string quartet and was also set by him to the words of the Agnus Dei is the best known example. The Canzone was originally written for flute and piano in 1959, but reworked by Barber for the slow movement of his better-known piano concerto which first saw the light of day in 1962. With its beautiful wistful melody and wonderful singing lines it deserves to be better known. It’s the sort of piece which would quickly become a household favourite were it to be aired on Classic FM.
The Sonata for Flute and Piano by Francis Poulenc which followed it is in need of no such advocacy. Despite its traditional form and some aspects of the writing which are firmly grounded in classical tradition – the piano’s arpeggiated chords at the start and the flute’s trills in the opening movement, for example - it inhabits a very different sound world from that of the classical sonata. It might almost be said to have a split personality, in that the opening movement, which is marked Allegretto malincolico and the central Cantilena which follows it are both tinged with sadness and nostalgia, whereas the final Presto giocoso is an outpouring of robust high spirits. Both flautist and pianist rose to the work’s considerable demands. The Flute Sonata is one of a planned series of late sonatas by Poulenc, possibly in imitation of Debussy, who was working on a series of six sonatas towards the end of his life, but managed to complete only three. It is an odd coincidence that exactly the same fate befell Poulenc himself. The Flute Sonata is another example of musical recycling, though this time not by the composer. It exists in a very convincing orchestration by Lennox Berkeley, a noted Francophile and friend of Poulenc, who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
The first half, and Lynda Cochrane’s contribution to the evening’s music making, ended with the Ronde des Lutins by Antonio Bazzini, a 19th century Italian composer best known today for this very piece. It is much loved by violin virtuosi, but even the best of them can sound rather scratchy in its outer sections, which depict the antics of goblins. In this transcription for flute there was no such problem. The central part of the Ronde is a splendidly lyrical interlude – perhaps goblins have their more romantic side - before the return to the high jinks of the opening. The Ronde des Lutins is an unashamedly bravura piece of a sort designed to bring the house down. It succeeded, leaving at least this listener on the edge of his seat and filled with admiration for the performers’ precise ensemble and the pianist’s astonishing ability to do her own page turns even in music which goes at such a breakneck speed.
After the interval Charlotte and the harpist Helen Thomson performed three works for flute and harp – and what a gratifying combination that is! They began with the Sonata for Flute and Harp by Arnold Cooke, a Yorkshireman who lived for almost a century from early in the twentieth century till early in the twenty-first. The sonata comprises an appealingly melodic first movement which also contains more playful elements, a flute-dominated Andante of great melodic charm and a lively finale with unusual tonguing effects. The performance was all that could be wished for and the work itself joins a growing list of Club Concert “discoveries”. From Yorkshire we were transported to Buenos Aires for a tango by Astor Piazzolla: Night Club 1960, one of four movements from Histoire du Tango originally written for flute and guitar. It contrasts rhythmic dance music with moments of seductive tenderness, and provided a complete contrast with the preceding sonata. It was followed by Chopin’s Variations on a Theme by Rossini, a piece much beloved by flautists which exists in a version for piano and flute as well as in an orchestrated one. Given the authorship of the work, the version for piano and flute is likely to have been the original. The theme is the well-known aria Non più Mesta accanto al Fuoco, the jaunty finale of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, introduced by the heroine Cinderella, who in this version of the story is recognised by her prince not by dint of fitting into a glass slipper, but by the bracelet which she is wearing. No more toiling by the fire for her! The variations put the perky little tune, and its performers, through their paces in a suitably exuberant and celebratory manner.
To conclude the evening, Charlotte was joined by the string players Laura Samuel, Rhoslyn Lawton and Sarah Oliver for a performance of Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D major, K285, written during a visit to Mannheim in the late 1770s for an amateur flautist from the Dutch East Indies to whom Mozart was introduced by a friend. It is often suggested that Mozart disliked the flute, but there is nothing in this sunny work to support that theory. It is brimful with marvellous ideas and contains a central Adagio in which the flute plays a rapturously beautiful melody, which could have been written by Bach. The accompaniment of plucked strings gives the movement a serenade-like quality, and despite its being in the minor key, it exudes contentment. The busy concluding Rondeau, one of Mozart’s happiest inventions, ensured that the audience went away in a similar frame of mind. The quartet was performed with élan and a palpable sense of relish by four musicians who seemed to derive at least as much enjoyment from playing it as the audience did from hearing it.
Yet again the Club was privileged to be offered a recital whose wide-ranging and often unfamiliar repertoire it would be difficult to find under any other aegis.
Monday, 4 December 2017
Mark O’Keeffe (trumpet) and Walter Blair (piano)
For the Club’s Christmas Concert Mark O’Keeffe, principal trumpet of the BBCSSO, and Walter Blair presented an evening of arrangements for trumpet and piano of vocal music, mainly drawn from the repertoire that might be encountered in a song recital, though it would be difficult to think of any one singer who could comfortably embrace such a wide variety of styles in a single programme. One consequence of this choice was that the evening was replete with melody: song thrives on melody in a way that symphonic music for the most part does not.
Walter Blair, who throughout the recital proved to be a most supportive and sensitive partner, sat out the first item, Blow the Wind Southerly, which was performed unaccompanied, perhaps in deference to the famous recording by Kathleen Ferrier. Mark O’Keeffe played the song with an enviable control of legato, which prompted the thought that, while singers have to find a way round consonants, which are the enemy of legato, instrumentalists, apart from pianists and percussionists, have no such difficulty. The next port of call was Cadiz, as depicted in Les Filles de Cadiz by Leo Delibes - one of the earliest examples of the love affair between French composers and Spain. Here Mark produced trills which would be the envy of any soprano. We stayed in France, at least as far as the composer was concerned, with Softly Awakes my Heart from Saint-Saens’s opera Samson et Delilah. For the present writer, this number evoked memories of another famous contralto/mezzo-soprano: Marion Anderson, the first black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. As a matter of fact, the evening was benignly haunted by the ghosts of singers of the past. The performance of this aria was notable for Mark O’Keeffe’s extraordinary breath control and the deftness with which Walter Blair coped with a pretty tricky piano reduction of the orchestral score and with page turns as well. What a remarkably chromatic affair the refrain of this famous aria is! Saint-Saens came to be regarded as old hat in his later years, but he was a very prolific and highly inventive composer.
The ghost of Victoria de los Angeles hovered over the performers for Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs, which brought the first half of the evening to a close. It was interesting to hear how well these songs worked musically, even when shorn of their texts, which range from warnings about (metaphorically) stained cloth in a shop window, through the trials and tribulations of lovers to a gentle cradle song. Falla’s music is, of course, genuinely Spanish and the country’s dance rhythms are very much of the essence in these songs. Their mood encompasses wistfulness, maternal tenderness and bitterness; the piano arts are by turns mesmerising and rhythmically sprightly. All of this was realised with accomplishment by both trumpeter and pianist.
Following an interval in which seasonal fare was provided, we were transported to Paris in the year of the German invasion for a waltz-song by Francis Poulenc, Les Chemins de L’Amour. The presiding ghost this time was that of Yvonne Printemps, the noted chanteuse for whom Poulenc composed this song, which is one of his most popular works, unsurprisingly in view of the attractiveness of its melody and its catchy refrain. Ravel’s Habañera of 1907, originally a vocalise, bridged the gap between Poulenc and another composer active during World War II, Kurt Weill, whose song Je ne t’aime pas evoked memories of Ute Lemper, who doesn’t really qualify as a ghost, as she is still with us. Someone who unfortunately is no longer with us is the Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, to whom Mark O’Keeffe, who revealed himself as a singer manqué, paid eloquent tribute when introducing the next two items on the programme, When Silent Night doth Hold me and Spring Waters by Rachmaninov. For both of these songs we were emphatically in Russia, as the composer, who was a prolific writer of songs, never wrote a single one after his emigration to the United States in 1917. The former number was remarkable for the astounding breath control which Mark lavished on its final phrase; the latter for the bravura with which both performers attacked its virtuoso writing, particularly for the piano. After so many visits to foreign parts, it was inevitable that Mark would pay at least a brief visit home. Home in this case was represented by Believe me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms, a setting to a traditional melody of words by the Irish poet Tom Moore, who, Mark explained, wrote the verse as a tribute to his wife, who had been scarred by smallpox. Mark’s rendering of this song, which was genuinely touching, was marked by a generosity of phrasing which not even John McCormack, whose ghost fluttered in the background, could match. Incidentally, the recording of this song which McCormack made on the eve of St Patrick’s Day in 1911 in New York is greatly to be preferred to his 1935 performance, despite the latter’s superior sound quality. We moved rather to the south of New York for the penultimate number of the evening, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, with its strong evocation of the late Paul Robeson. Robeson, being a bass, could only sing the sing in his own register. Mark O’Keeffe, being a trumpeter, was able to cover with equal effect a range which no singer could master. The evening ended nearer to home with My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, the famous love song by Burns. The presiding spirit here was, of course, that of Kenneth McKellar, whose early recording of this peach of a song is hard to beat. “Sing along, if you like,” Mark encouraged the audience, and some doughty souls made a brave stab at doing so, but, for all the familiarity of the the words and melody, the wide range of the tune puts it beyond the comfort zone of most amateur singers. Better to leave it to the professionals?
It turned out that, before coming to the City Halls, Mark had sent an exhausting day in the recording studio. That he nevertheless honoured his commitment to perform for us speaks volumes for his sheer professionalism and his generosity of spirit. Not for the first time, the club is indebted to him for an outstanding evening of music making.
Monday, 13th November 2017
Barry Deacon (Clarinet), Amy Cardigan (Violin), Harold Harris (Cello) and Laura McIntosh (Piano)
Barry Deacon, an old friend of the club, presented and performed in an unusual programme of trios, each of which inhabited a different and fascinating sound world.
The evening began with what was, but did not sound like, the most recently composed of the works, a Trio by Gian Carlo Menotti for Clarinet, Violin and Piano. Menotti is probably better known as the composer of the television Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, the founder of the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto and the librettist of Samuel Barber’s most successful opera Vanessa. The trio is a most engaging piece in three movements, the outer two quick and witty, the central one lyrical. The first movement (Capriccio) opens jauntily, but also contains a number of lyrical ideas, including one theme of real melodic distinction. The central Romance has clarinet and violin exchanging soaring, romantic, expansive lines, and the finale (Envoi) is by turns fugal, lively and witty. It received a most convincing performance from all three musicians, who were clearly convinced of its worth, as were their listeners.
Not the least useful aspect of club concerts is the off the beaten track repertoire often chosen by the performers, who, unsurprisingly, know their way around the music composed for their instruments rather better than the rest of us. Another is the chance to hear and see at close quarters members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in more informal conditions than can exist at the concerts in the Grand Hall. In this context Barry Deacon proved himself to be a most engaging compère throughout the evening, not only providing spoken programme notes, but tantalising the audience with quiz-type questions about the Beatles, their responses to which suggested that they would be unwise to choose that as a specialist subject should they ever find themselves on Mastermind.
The Menotti was followed by the most substantial work of the evening, Brahms’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, one of a number of late compositions which he was inspired to write after hearing the playing of the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld. The others which have clarinet parts are the the Clarinet Quintet and two splendid Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano, which also exist in arrangements for Viola and Piano. Given that Brahms had already decided to retire, the existence of these works, and of a substantial body of late works for solo piano are a legacy for which lovers of music, and of Brahms in particular, should be eternally grateful to Mühlfeld. The presence of the cello contributes to the predominantly autumnal feel of much of the trio. Harold Harris played the part with a marvellous generosity of tone. The work itself may be late, but has an abundance of memorable ideas, not only in its opening Allegro alla Breve, but in the more song-like Adagio and Andantino which follow it. The start of the Adagio was remarkable for a long melody which Barry Deacon delivered with seemingly inexhaustible supplies of breath. How does he do it? The Andantino, in triple time, is rather like a songful intermezzo before the final Allegro, a more fiery and energetic affair with hints of the Hungarian side of Brahms. Here, as elsewhere throughout the evening, Laura McIntosh proved herself to be more than up to the considerable demands of the keyboard writing.
Following the interval Amy Cardigan introduced a suite of five numbers from The Soldier’s Tale by Stravinsky, who was a great recycler of his own works, to say nothing of those of other composers. This version for trio, which exploits in different ways the possibilities of all three instruments is, in your humble correspondent’s opinion, more enjoyable than the complete work. All three players rose to its challenges, whether in the shrill upper ranges of the clarinet in the opening Soldier’s March, the ostinato piano figure of the second movement (The Soldier’s Violin), in exchange for which he sells his soul to the devil, or the tango of the fourth movement, which was remarkable for the display of double stopping which Amy Cardigan clearly relished. The concluding Dance of the Devil, with its rhythmic drive and terrific concluding flourish, brought a very satisfying concert to a rousing conclusion. Yet another musical treat for a chill winter’s evening.
Monday, 9th October 2017
Alberto Menèndes Escribano (Horn), Ana Cordova (Double Bass), Arthur Boutillier (Cello), Lynda Cochrane (Piano)
The evening was not without surprises and, in one case, even a puzzle. More about the puzzle later.
The first surprise was that, at the start of the concert, Alberto Menèndes Escribano announced a couple of changes to the advertised programme, but not to the first item – Schumann’s enchanting Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano, but had no means of playing his part, as he appeared to have left his horn elsewhere. It turned out that Ana Cordova was going to launch the evening by playing the Schumann in an arrangement for double bass. Schumann certainly sanctioned the use of a cello instead of horn, but most members of the audience were probably hearing the double bass version for the first time. It turned out to be a most interesting and successful transcription. Who would have thought that this instrument could be so ardently lyrical in the song-like Adagio or so athletic in the jubilant Allegro which follows? Lynda Cochrane, no stranger to Club concerts, provided ideal support in both sections. Odd to think that we were all hearing something which Schumann himself almost certainly never heard. It is difficult to imagine that he would have disapproved.
Telemann’s Horn Concerto in D replaced the advertised one by Mercadante, and a very winning piece it turned out to be. Alberto Menèndes Escribano proved more than equal to the challenges of the often high-lying solo part, whether in the jaunty opening Vivace with its repeated notes, in the horn’s almost rhapsodic response to the rather formal orchestral (piano) part in the slow movement or in its decorative additions to the final minuet.
Ana Cordova and Lynda Cochrane returned to play another rarity – the Grand Allegro “alla Mendelssohn” by Giovanni Bottesini, the famous 19th century composer and virtuoso, sometimes referred to as the Paganini of the double bass. It put the instrument through its paces from the top to the bottom of its register. It was Mendelssohnian not only in its lyricism and drive, but, to this listener at least, in what seemed like a number of reminiscences of the E minor Violin Concerto. Its virtuosic finish brought the first half of the concert to a rousing conclusion.
Following the interval we heard what will once more have been a first for most members of the audience: Sea Eagle, for solo horn by Peter Maxwell Davies, first performed at the Dartington Summer School by Richard Watkins in 1982, the year of its composition. This atmospheric piece requires the soloist to employ a wide range of dynamics and effects, all of which were brought off with aplomb by the BBCSSO’s Principal Horn.
Mozart’s Sonata for Cello and Bassoon K292, written when the composer was nineteen years old and arranged for double bass, brought together two members of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Ana Cordova, of whose excellence we had already had ample evidence earlier, and Arthur Boutillier, a young Frenchman whose playing was an unalloyed delight. From the word go, he communicated a palpable sense of enjoyment, making frequent eye contact with his partner and responding to all the moods of the music, whether in its moments of lyricism or in the humour of the rondo finale. His tone was bright and well projected, and he blended mellifluously with Ana Cordova when the players were required to duet. It was a pity that he appeared only in this one piece, but it was an appearance that whetted the appetite for more.
Richard Strauss, whose father was, of course, a famous hornist found himself supplanted for the second time in the changes to the advertised programme. In place of his Introduction, Theme and Variations in E flat – not a title to set the heart on fire! – we were treated to the much more romantically named En Forêt by Eugène Bozza, a 20th century Franco-Italian composer who died as recently as 1991. This showpiece for horn and piano is apparently well known by players of the former instrument, but will have been new to many. It was a splendid piece and received a marvellous performance. It opens with energetic, outdoor music replete with horn calls and whoops and their echoes, but then comes the real puzzle of the evening: the horn begins to play a melody copied almost note for note from the plainsong sequence from the Mass for Easter Sunday, Victimae Paschali Laudes. ** After this episode the music reverts to its former mood and Hubert, represented by the horn, romps back home in a very positive frame of mind at the end of the piece.
All of the musicians who played for us were making their debut at the club, with the exception, of course, of Lynda Cochrane, who is a long-standing favourite. If they enjoyed their evening with us as much as we did, we may well hope to see and hear them again.
** A little detective work was needed to find out what might be going on here. It appears that En Forêt is based on the legend of St Hubert, an 8th century wastrel who was converted to Christianity when on Good Friday, while hunting in the forest of the piece’s title instead of accompanying the faithful to church, received a vision of the crucified Christ between the antlers of a stag he was about to kill. This miraculous manifestation caused him to mend his ways, to the extent that he later became Bishop of Liège and was canonised, at least in the popular imagination. He is the patron saint of hunters. It seems that Bozza, in depicting this incident, instead of choosing to quote music from the liturgy of Good Friday, has preferred instead to use that of Easter Sunday, as though Hubert had met Mary Magdalen on her way back from the empty tomb. The scene of St Hubert’s conversion is the subject of a remarkable painting in the Prado (Madrid) attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder and Rubens, and can also be seen on the label of bottles of the herbal liqueur Jägermeister (Master of the Hunt).