Sunday, 28 March 2021

A Life On-Line: Spring is in the air! NCEM, Leeds Lieder, Wigmore Hall, Jayson Gillham, Juliana Koch

Joseph Middleton and Ashley Riches at the Wigmore Hall (photo taken from live stream)
Joseph Middleton and Ashley Riches at the Wigmore Hall (photo taken from live stream)

This seems to be a week of festivals, what with Sunday 21 March being Early Music Day, and Leeds Lieder and National Centre for Early Music having Spring festivals this weekend. For Early Music Day, with dropped in on the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM) in York, where the Gesualdo Six gave us a lovely exploration of the music of Josquin and the composers who were inspired by him in After Josquin [NCEM]

Spring continued to be in the air at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday, when Ashley Riches (bass baritone) and Joseph Middleton (piano) gave a programme themed around Winter turning into Spring, which moved, from Schubert, to Britten's Winter Words to Brahms to Finzi. We began with Schubert, a lovely account of Strophe aus 'Die Götter Griechenlands' in which time seemed to be completely suspended, with both performers conjuring up a little bit of magic. Things were darker and and stronger in Auf dem Flusse where the river's flow was a steady tread in the piano and Riches brought a great element of drama to the piece almost reaching anger at the end. Frühlingsehnsucht was impulsive and urgent, yet with the final line of each verse almost standing motionless. Im Frühling had the sense of a carefree walk combining with deep emotions.

Here I have a confession, I have never really warmed to Britten's Thomas Hardy cycle, Winter Words, it is a piece I admire rather than love. Written for Peter Pears, you usually hear it sung by tenors but occasionally by baritones. I was a little unclear about whether there is an official baritone version, or whether singers simply transpose as suitable. 

Surprisingly, this performance absorbed me far more than some, perhaps because Riches and Middleton's approach was characterful without being irredeemably bleak.

There was something almost neo-Baroque about 'At day close in November', and a sense of it being a window onto something which was already happening and would continue after the song stopped. 'Midnight on the Great Western' was performed vividly with great relish for the words and terrific piano playing. I love the combination of deep philosophical musings and choo-choo train rhythms in the piano. 'Wagtail and baby' was vivdly descriptive and rather moral whilst 'The little old table' was surprisingly vivacious. 'The choirmaster's burial' had real drama and character, yet rapture at the end whilst 'Proud songsters' was delightfully lively. In 'At the railway station, upway' the two performers brought out the storytelling element in this urious tale, whilst 'Before life and after' ended things on an intense note.

A group of Brahms' songs came next. Auf dem Kirchhofe started with dark drama and a stormy day, but ended with a sense of rest. Es hing der Reif mixed lyricism and strong emotions, whilst An eine Aolsharfe was simply lovely. Frühlingstrost was almost overflowing with the intensity of joyful emotion. We ended with Gerald Finzi's glorious cycle of Elizabeth settings, Let us garlands bring, moving from the haunting 'Come away death' to the insouciant 'Who is Sylvia' and dramatic 'Fear no more the heat o' the sun' to the swagger of 'O mistress mine' and the exuberance of 'It was a lover and his lass'. [Wigmore Hall]

On Thursday, Juliana Koch, principal oboe of the London Symphony Orchestra joined pianist Jayson Gillham in a live-stream from St Paul's Knightsbridge in the first of a series of on-line concerts from Jayson Gillham and Friends. The intriguing programme featured music by Clara Schumann, Nikos Skalkottas and Maurice Ravel, as well as the two artists chatting and answering questions submitted by listeners, a nice mix.

We began with Clara Schumann's Three Romances, Opus 22 one of her last major works and written for her great friend and colleague the violinist Joseph Joachim. The first movement was intriguing with a rather wandering oboe part, this was music which was indeed romantic and perhaps Schumann-esque but had a definite voice of its own. The second movement had great character, and again that sense of wandering in the melody and harmony (but also rather oddly I could hear pre-echoes of Richard Strauss' Oboe Concerto). The final movement was more lyrically in the style of Robert Schumann. Juliana Koch played with a lovely warm tone and really convinced that that this was music for the oboe.

Nikos Skalkottas' Concertino for oboe and piano was also intriguing, the music not quite tonal yet not quite 12-tone. Full of perky rhythms, the work hinted both at French wind music and at the expressionist late style of Paul Hindemith. Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949) studied in Athens and in Berlin, where he took part in masterclasses with Arnold Schoenberg and his Concertino was written in 1939 when he was living in Greece.

The programme ended with Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin in a new version for oboe and piano by Christian Schmitt and Laurent Riou (the one an oboist and the other a composer). Ravel wrote the work for piano solo during World War I with each movement dedicated to a friend who had died in the war. Later Ravel would arrange four of the six movements for orchestra. This new version returned to the original suite, and gave us all six movement imaginatively reconceived for oboe and piano.

In the 'Prélude' Koch combined lovely tone with a great sense of line, and there was an engaging delicacy in the performance. 'Fugue' was delicate too and this is one of the non-orchestral movements which is less well-known. 'Forlane' was wistful yet with dancing rhythms, whilst the 'Rigaudon' was fast and vivid. 'Menuet' was lyrical with mellow, haunting tone, whilst the suite ended in engagingly runny manner with 'Toccata'. [Jayson Gillham] [EventBrite]

We were back at the Wigmore Hall on Friday for Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo's concert with violnist Alina Ibragimova, and like the Equilibrium initiative, the line-up here also featured young artists from Arcangelo's New Ensemblists programme. This was an evening of contrasts, violin concertos by Vivaldi and Bach versus concerti grossi by Locatelli and Corelli, a harpsichord concerto by Bach reconceived as a violin concerto versus Vivaldi's concerto for four violins which Bach reconceived as a concerto for four harpsichords, and the contrasts of scale between the full ensemble at full tilt and just Ibragimova, Cohen, theorbo and cello in Bach's Violin Sonata in E minor BWV1023. Ibragimova was playing with full historical kit (including period bow and gut strings), but she throws herself into the music in such a way that the performances almost transcend style. [Wigmore Hall]

We ended the week in Leeds and in York. We caught two concerts from Leeds Lieder's Spring weekend [see my review] and returned to the NCEM in York for their Awaken weekend, of which more tomorrow!



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