Archive for the ‘chamber music’ category

Merry Christmas audio!

December 16, 2007

[click on this link, or on the PLAY button below]

Different Carols (c) Jonathan Burton 2007

Here is a slightly bumpy computer-fairground-organ version of my Christmas Card arrangements, courtesy of Sibelius Kontakt Silver…

Happy listening!  It’s about eleven minutes long (sorry it isn’t divided into eight tracks).  See previous blog entry for details.

You may have to try it a few times and/or pause it a bit to let the downloading catch up with itself!  Technology, eh.

Many thanks to Gillian and David for the mulled wine and mince pies!  And to the other nine players last Wednesday, particularly Lysander for stepping into the breach at the last minute.  (Hilary, please get well soon.)

Once again, a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS to all our listeners…

Merry Christmas Card!

December 13, 2007

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Here’s my 2007 Christmas Card!

It’s the first two pages of the (39-page) score of my Christmas carol arrangements for ten wind players – we’re still arguing about whether the word is ‘Decet’ or Dectet’ – which received their triumphant premiere play-through last night, to the accompaniment of mulled wine and mince pies.

There are eight movements:

1 – The Mediaeval One (Gaudete)
2 – The Basque one (Atoz, atoz)
3 – The French one (Il est né, le divin enfant)
4 – The Old English one (The Coventry Carol)
5 – The One About The Holly (from Cornwall)
6 – The Other French one (Nous voici dans la ville)
7 – The Other Mediaeval One (The Boar’s Head Carol)
8 – The Very Traditional One (Dies natalis tibi felicitatis)

No. 8 is actually a joke – it was Grahame (the 1st flute)’s birthday…

Now my challenge is to find a way to (a) convert the score into a sound file, and (b) put it on here for your delight!

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The Brodsky Quartet and friends — ‘Close To You II’

November 28, 2007

brodskyweb.jpg‘Sex And The String Quartet’ is not a widely discussed topic.  However, one of the delights of experiencing chamber music live – as opposed to on record or on the radio – is the interaction between the players:  the vibes, the sparks, the knowing grins, the micro-dramas, the body language.

For example, the Wihan Quartet (see my previous post) consists of four men:  their work ethic seems to be ‘Come on, chaps – let’s roll up our sleeves and go for it’ (with immense musicality and sensitivity, of course).  Conversely, when I heard the Chilingirian Quartet play Dvořák all those years ago, the viola player was the lovely, pale (and pregnant) Louise Williams, and it was touching to observe the tremendously gallant way in which the other three (male) members of the quartet nurtured and cared for her (musically, I mean).

In the Brodsky Quartet, the female member is the cellist, Jacqueline Thomas.  Uniquely, the quartet plays standing up, except for the cellist (yes, I know – ‘you can’t get that under your chin’), so she sits, literally, on a pedestal, with the others standing around her.  The image that came to my mind was of an ice princess surrounded by adoring acolytes (not wishing to be sexist or ‘look-ist’, but Ms Thomas is a strikingly tall and elegant ash blonde – though with a nice twinkle).

To composer Martin Butler, however, the image that came to mind was slightly different:

‘I imagined the four standing players to be acting as sentries, standing guard, keeping watch over the seated cellist and patrolling their space – hence the title. Then a friend pointed me in the direction of the opening scene of Hamlet – with its sentries, its sinister and slightly surreal atmosphere, its ghost, its uncertainty and apprehensiveness – and the flavour of the piece was fixed.’

The resulting work, Sentinels (for the Brodsky Quartet plus an extra viola – tonight John Metcalfe) was arresting and powerful, more challenging than other works by Prof. Butler that I have heard.  Strong, clear, colourful, totally ‘thought through’ – very rewarding.  (if you’re reading this, Martin, I’m sorry not to have met you;  I’ve been listening to the Tin Pan Ballet CD continuously in the car for a month!  Brilliant.)

When you add extra players to a quartet, the number of possible interactions – musical and interpersonal – must multiply geometrically (xkcd must have something to say about this).  With the six players required for Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, you are more or less listening to a string orchestra.  I have never managed to warm to this late-Romantic-early-Schoenberg ultra-emotional piece, although I can see and hear its virtues (maybe, for me, it’s just because it isn’t by Richard Strauss).  The Brodskys and friends gave a glorious performance – rich, passionate, sonorous, nuanced – but it didn’t do it for me (nor for my companion).

Then, in the second half, Schubert’s String Quintet – that favourite of Desert Island Discs (and me, of course).  (more…)

The Wihan Quartet at Blackheath

November 25, 2007

wihanqt.jpgThere’s something about listening to chamber music at 11 o’clock in the morning – the mind is sharper and clearer, you can appreciate the music more, and find yourself picking up hints and connections that you might miss in the bustle of an evening.  (I received my education in the Dvořák string quartets thanks to an unforgettable Chilingirian Quartet cycle of morning concerts at the Cheltenham Festival some years ago.)

So – though groping through the fog of an incipient cold – a brisk walk up the road to Blackheath Concert Halls, to hear the Wihan Quartet in one of the Blackheath Sundays series.

Am I right in thinking there’s a historical connection here?  I believe the quartet takes its name from the great Bohemian cellist Hanuš Wihan, dedicatee of the Dvořák Cello Concerto (and cuckolded by a very young Richard Strauss), and Wihan played at Blackheath Halls a century ago?  The programme was silent on this point – along with other important information such as the names of the four players and the key of the Dvořák Op. 61 Quartet.

Anyway, the Wihan Quartet are local favourites;  the Recital Room was packed out.  The Quartet are four youngish gentlemen from Prague, all cast in the same amiable puppyish mould (no jokes about ‘bouncing Czechs’, please) – their mothers probably think they need haircuts.  All were dressed in black;  they sat with the viola on the outside, which makes for a compact sound with the cello at the heart of the quartet, as it should be.

Their sound tends toward the lean and stringy, though never less than beautiful, and they can do a magical hushed pianissimo;  tuning and ensemble were extraordinarily immaculate (I overheard my neighbour say ‘They breathe as one’, although they did follow their leader’s upbeat sniffs).

They began with the Mozart ‘Dissonance’ Quartet, K 465 – what a tremendous piece.  It’s one of the set of quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, and you could feel Mozart striving to show the older master what he could do.  I caught myself wondering whether the famous ‘dissonant’ introduction was a homage to the ‘Chaos’ at the beginning of Haydn’s Creation, with its C minor harmonic dead-ends and non sequiturs;  but of course the Haydn was later, so perhaps the influence went the other way.  It was also interesting to try and track the progress of seeds planted in the introduction as they took root later in the work – the crawling chromatic bass lines, the chugging quavers.  Who knows.  And the lovely octave second subject in the last movement sang out like a ray of sunshine.

Then came Cavatina and Moravian Dance, billed in the advance publicity as by ‘Panufnik’ so I was expecting the very wonderful and underrated Andrzej Panufnik, Polish refugee and denizen of Surrey.  But no, this was by Roxanna, his composing daughter.  She shares many talents with her late father, including an accessible idiom and an ear for colour, the ability to swim effortlessly between simple chords and atonality with no bumps, and a taste for jazzy and bittersweet harmonies (sometimes with chords simultaneously major and minor). 

The Cavatina (more…)

Joshua Bell at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 18 November at… er… 7 pm

November 19, 2007

red-violin.jpgAll did not go quite according to plan:  Joshua Bell (along with several of the audience) apparently thought the concert started at 7.30, not 7, so it was getting on for 7.20 when a slightly dishevelled-looking figure finally came on to the Cadogan Hall stage, along with the more impeccably turned out pianist Jeremy Denk, both dressed all in black and looking somewhat like a couple of über-cool twelve-year-olds.

Things were further muddied by a misunderstanding which had led all of us (including me, writing the programme notes, and poor Lisa at the Hall who booked him a year ago) to think he would be performing the Sonata by John Corigliano (1964), whereas Mr Bell insisted he was playing Grieg’s Sonata No. 3 instead.  His rather garbled explanation did little to clear things up.

Anyway, all negative impressions were erased when they started to play.  The Schumann Sonata No. 1 was terrific (a little early scratchiness aside), charged with energy and understanding, the beautiful conversational middle movement full of intimacy and wit. 

(Amazing that in 1945 Harold Bauer thought it necessary to ‘improve’ Schumann’s violin sonatas, correcting perceived errors in balance, texture and dynamics and even ‘touching up’ the harmony.  Even more amazing that, as recently as 1972, John Gardner commends these versions to performers ‘for serious consideration’  [in ‘Robert Schumann, the Man and His Music’, ed. Alan Walker, Barrie & Jenkins 1972]. 

Poor Schumann… of course, he wasn’t well, was he… so he needs a helping hand… can’t orchestrate, poor dear… has good ideas but doesn’t know how to get them across… 

Terrifying arrogance!  Just play what the man wrote, and let it tell you how it’s supposed to go!  Trust him, he’s a greater musician than you will ever be!  End of rant.)

Then came Beethoven’s last Sonata, No. 10 in G, (more…)

Parry: Nonet

November 6, 2007

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 On Sunday afternoon (somewhat the worse for wear after driving 400+ miles to Bradford and back for a quintet gig and a curry – thanks, Jo T – but that’s another story) I joined some friends for a play-through of the Nonet in B flat by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918).  Not sure whose idea this was, or who had the music;  it’s scored for a slightly unusual wind combination of flute, oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns.  (Why?)

First impression was of an effective, well-written, energetic and colourful work, often in Parry’s vein of heroic maestoso familiar from Jerusalem, I Was Glad and Blest Pair of Sirens, but not descending into bombast, over-long in places but interestingly put together, with cyclic use of themes (the Scherzo has the same tune as the first movement, the last movement recycles themes from all the previous ones).  He’d been listening to Wagner, too – one ‘Tarnhelm’ chord shift straight out of Rheingold…

I didn’t know the piece, and didn’t have a chance to look at the blurb in the score, so can’t tell you much about it.  The most obvious influence seemed to be Richard Strauss – the most directly comparable work (in the same key) being Strauss’s early Suite in B flat, Op. 4;   but – and this is the most surprising fact about the Parry – this can’t have been an influence, as the Parry dates from 1877, seven years before the Strauss.  (Could the 20-year-old Strauss have heard the Parry?  No.  Although Parry was 29 when he wrote it, he was pretty well still unknown at the time, certainly outside England — and the Nonet was never performed in his lifetime.)

There’s a recording of the piece on Hyperion.  If I can track it down perhaps it will tell me more.  An interesting find.

We also (more…)

Harmoniemusik at St Gabriel’s

October 11, 2007

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Janna Hüneke, flute
Sarah Devonald, oboe
Mark Lacey, clarinet
Geoffrey Pearce, horn
Alec Forshaw, bassoon
Paul Guinery, piano

I have known, and played with, members of the wind-based group Harmoniemusik for a long time – in the case of Alec, the bassoonist, for longer than I care to recall (39 years, I guess).  So I always try to get to their concerts if I can.  Last night’s was at another venue new to me – St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico.  It was part of The Seven Series, a series of… er… seven concerts, featuring ‘a mixture of established professionals and some of the most exciting new talent of today’.  Not quite sure how Harmoniemusik fits in to this – ‘exciting old talent’ perhaps?  (sorry!)  The semi-pro (or semi-amateur) group was founded in 1991 after playing together on board a Mediterranean cruise ship, and has recently given concerts in France, Belgium and Germany, as well a regular gig in Cornwall.  They have just released their second CD.

Large Victorian churches are not the most suitable places for chamber music – tending to be cavernous, echoey, COLD!, uncomfortable, and lacking good sightlines;  if, as in this case, you have two rows of pews with a wide central aisle, there is nowhere from which anyone can have a decent view of the whole ensemble.  However, this was part of ‘Gabriel Arts’, an umbrella set-up based on the church, evidently with an enthusiastic local audience;  peripheral attractions included wine, cheese and an art exhibition (buy now or leave a sealed bid…).

The concert kicked off with Bozza’s Trois pièces pour une musique de nuit – one of those wispy French pieces difficult to bring off with non-French players, but they did a fine and evocative job.  Then Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Wind, K452, which Mozart himself thought ‘the best work I have ever written’, and it is certainly a sublime treat.  Pianist was Paul Guinery, better known as one of the voices of BBC Radio 3.  A heart-warming performance, with tempi that felt just right – not too slow, none of that snail-on-a-piece-of-elastic catching up at recapitulations.  Lovely wind solos, fine piano playing;  a word, too, for the piano, a hundred-year-old Steinway with a soft but carrying tone that almost sounded as if it could have been a Viennese fortepiano of Mozart’s day.

The second half (more…)

London Festival of Chamber Music

October 6, 2007

To my shame, I had never heard of the London Festival of Chamber Music, and this is their 13th year.  Thanks to a tip-off (thanks, Tony and Rosie) I found myself trundling off to deepest North Dulwich last night (05 Oct) – and what a treat it was.

I was expecting the usual draughty church hall in the back of beyond, but St Faith’s Community Hall, SE24, turns out to be a handsome brick and wood building (I would guess Edwardian), broad, squat, not large, but with a high wooden barn roof and balconies, giving it the feel of a tiny Snape Maltings.  Not a big audience, but packed and very enthusiastic.  Atmosphere and acoustic bright, warm and very welcoming.

The core of the Festival is the English String Quartet, leader Diana Cummings (behind whom it has been my pleasure and privilege to sit in various orchestras).  Their usual viola, Luciano Iorio, was unable to play because of a shoulder injury, but his ‘sub’ was the excellent Stephen Tees, and Mr Iorio instead made a charming and genial host, introducing players and works.

The evening kicked off with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet;  Andrew Sparling has a charming manner, always with a shy smile even seemingly when he plays, and he is exceptional in that he is happy to get right out of the way when the clarinet part is only an accompaniment.  The performance radiated a tremendous love of the music, charmingly involved yet restrained.  Maybe the ritenuto upbeat to the Menuetto – every time! – was a bit overdone, but I won’t complain.

Then the Divertissement for Bassoon and String Quintet by Jean Françaix (good heavens, another bassoon solo!), in which the Quartet was joined by Stacey Watton on double bass, who was enjoying himself hugely – a terrifically musical player with a great sense of drama and fun, but very discreet with it.  Bassoonist was Daniel Jemison, who has already figured in these pages.  French music for bassoon is notoriously very difficult, tending to the very fast, very quiet and very high:  to perform it on a German bassoon sometimes feels a bit like the legendary dog walking on its hind legs.  That was slightly my reaction to the only other time I have heard this piece – in a broadcast of a recording by Robin O’Neill, only a few weeks ago – but Daniel Jemison banished such thoughts with his effortless, witty, dazzlingly accurate and warmly communicative performance.  He has a particularly winning vibrato, I thought, sparingly applied.  The secret of his lovely tone was revealed when he told me he plays on a Soulsby… ha!  Our exclusive club grows ever more distinguished.

After the interval, (more…)

Divided loyalties, mixed feelings

August 26, 2007

Decisions, decisions… This week I had to decide between the Proms (using my season ticket) or the RPO Summer Serenade series at Cadogan Hall.  Having started the week on a terrific high with the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra prom (which ended with the kids doing a conga around the stage, wearing Venezuelan football shirts and twirling their instruments in the air while the audience rose to its feet and cheered), and a fine (but not roof-raising) account of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, I opted for some calm and civilised chamber music at Cadogan Hall.

Turned out to be a slightly low-key experience — everyone in the world (including all my friends, and even my colleagues who work at the Hall) were either on holiday (or on honeymoon, in one case) or at the Albert Hall or otherwise occupied, so the audiences were distinctly thin on the ground.

Tuesday was Mozart wind music — the C minor Serenade (what a fantastic piece) and the ’13 Wind’, which is lovely but does go on too long.  My initial feeling was that these were orchestral players not used to playing chamber music — they hadn’t realised how quietly they could, or should, play.  I didn’t recognise any of the players, which was unusual for me, apart from John Anderson on first oboe and David Chatterton on contrabassoon (not as authentic as a double bass would have been, but it was a great sound — up through the floorboards — and we contra players must stick together!). 

Wednesday (more…)