Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Tsar's Bride - Barenboim, Milan broadcast

What have things come to, when Ivan The Terrible should now be known as "one of the same characters that inspired Eisenstein", according to the blurb on BBC Radio 3. Ivan the Terrible, supposedly a demonic despot who cast a shadow over all Tsars to come, and the father of the Russian Empire, reduced to a bit part in history?  Eisenstein's 1942 film is a classic, about which I've written  before, but there's a whole lot more to Ivan than the movies. Maybe modern "research" these days depends on what's on page 1 of Google, and look no deeper. 

No trivializing when it comes to Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride, where the Tsar's forceful persona dominates all around him. No trivializing, either, in Barenboim's account for Teatro alla Scala, recorded late last year.  Glorious playing, the riches in the orchestration suggesting the splendour of the Tsar's court . Yet poison seeps from below the surface. Wealth and power mean nothing, when you're paranoid, surrounded by enemies, real or imagined.  Listen HERE to the full broadcast. Fabulous, orchestral playing matched by fabulous singing too. This is what The Tsar's Bride should sound like. The Royal Opera House production a few years ago got attacked because it was  set in the modern world of the new oligarchy. Why not? since human nature doesn't change.  Is it so hard to imagine what it must be like around Vladimir Putin? 

The problem with the ROH production was that it was unidiomatically conducted (Mark Elder), polite watercolour, rather than pulsating blood. If Barenboim and his cast had done that production, the opera would not have been met with the incomprehension it received in London.   Incidentally, there's a film based on Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride. The filming is stunning, though musically it's pretty average.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Andreas Schager - shining new Parsifal, Berlin, Barenboim



Andreas Schager made his role debut as Parsifal with Daniel Barenboim in a new production for the Berlin Staatsoper. From all accounts, Schager's the bright new hope in the Wagner tenor world. He sang an outstanding Siegfried in Barenboim's BBC Proms Götterdämmerung,  

At the time, I wrote"The sensation of the evening was Andreas Schager. True Heldentenors are rare and a singer like this is rarer still. Schager's voice is full of natural colour and beauty, which he uses well, creating myriad nuances and shadings. His phrasing is intelligent, bringing out character and meaning.  In Wagner, it's not enough, ever, to sing words without meaning. Each time Schager sang, I felt that I was learning more about Siegfried than I'd fathomed before. Every  passage was individual, purposefully and beautifully expressed. Schager's voice is flexible, so he can do subtle changes of inflection without sacrificing line. He also has stamina. Though the part isn't a killer like that in Siegfried, it shouldn't pose problems. Schager has strong lungs but also strong technique. 

He can also act. He inhabits the part so intuitively that his body becomes an extension of his singing. His movements are instinctive and expressive.  Schager could not have had much coaching for the part since he only stepped into the Berlin production at short notice, and from what I've read, it was one devoid of Personenregie. When Schager moves, we remember that Siegfried grew up with animals in the forest, a true child of nature. Even when he dons a suit, Schager's agility suggests that the real Siegfried still lives within. The sheer joy and energy in Schager's singing makes us realize that, for Siegfried, everything is new and exciting."


Although Siegfried in Götterdämmerung, isn't quite as much of a tour de force as in Siegfried,  Parsifal in Parsifal is definitely a leap to the top, an anointment of sorts, promising a good future. 
Austrian born, Berlin resident Andreas Schager has quietly been building up a career in the smaller but more esoteric German houses, gaining the sort of experience that comes with hard work and total immersion in repertoire. He sings a lot of Wagner and did the title role in Rienzi twice, including this January in Hamburg. He's not a Met-style publicity creation and puts the hype about the Met Siegfried into perspective.  I was wracking my brain trying to remember where I'd heard Schager before and remembered the superb Mozart Magic Flute from Berlin in April 2013, where  Schager sings the first Armoured Man. It's not a huge part, but he's singing it with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

My Top 10 Hits of the 20th Century

HERE are Pierre Boulez's Top Ten Hits from the 20th Century. Anyone can play!  And should, because the fun is in the process of thinking, not in Beckmessering a result. My Top Ten Hits of the 20th Century. In Random Order. Subject to change at any moment.

Britten : Violin Concerto (more here)
Messiaen  :Et exspecto resurrectionem Mortuorum (more here)
Messiaen : Chronochromie
Messiaen : Sept Hai kai (more here)
Britten : Death in Venice

Boulez : Pli selon Pli
Janáček : Diary of One Who Disappeared

Szymanowski : Symphony no 3 (more here)
Szymanowksi: Violin Concerto
Sibelius : Luonnotar

Sibelius : Symphony no 7

Mahler : Symphony no 8
Mahler : Symphony no 10 Cooke III completion (Harding)
Janáček : Sinfonietta (first version)
Brian Ferneyhough : Shadowlines

Britten : Billy Budd

Franz Schreker : Die Gezeichneten, or Irrelohe, or Christophorous
Walter Braunfels : Jeanne d'Arc (more here)
Berg : Wozzeck
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring

Edgard Varèse : Ionization, Equatorial

Elgar : The Dream of Gerontius
Ralph Vaughan Williams : Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad
Gerald Finzi : Dies Natalis
George Butterworth : Songs from A Shropshire Lad, Banks of Green Willow

Benjamin : Into the Little Hill
Birtwistle : Thesus Games, Earth Dances (more here
Ernst Krenek : Reisebuch aus den österreichIschen Alpen (more here
K A Hartmann : Simplicius Simplicissimus (more here)

K A Hartmann : Gesangszene (more here) 

Braunfels : Die Verkündigung (more here)
Puccini : Madama Butterfly (lots on this site) 
Mahler : Das Lied von der Erde
Xenakis : 
Boulez : Derive 2

Oops that's 80+ dashed off in 20 minutes, and loads left out.

Boulez Top 10 Hits of the 20th century

Fifteen years ago, a US journalist,  John Schaefer, had a good idea. Rather than interview Pierre Boulez, ask him to pick his Top Ten Hits of 20th century music. (more here)  And to his surprise, Boulez agreed. What a fun idea! As Schaefer says  Boulez is "funny and charming and very, very smart.". Not such a surprise to those familiar with the music, the man and his many other achievements. But, in the US, Schaefer notes, he's best known as  "the inventive music director of the New York Philharmonic ......in the early 70s, or the man who recorded two of the definitive versions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the Cleveland Orchestra". The divide between the US and Europe goes very deep indeed. and probably not just in music.

For his Top Ten, Boulez picks fairly safe and uncontroversial. No Henry Pousseur, no Luigi Nono, not even Messiaen, with whom Boulez is so closely connected.  Perfectly reasonable: he's addressing a generalist radio audience, giving them things they can relate to.  He's not holding a gun to anyone's head.  There is just no way that any lists of 10, or even 100, could possibly hope to be comprehensive. Almost by definition, creative arts can't be locked into artificial formats. In 20th century music, there's just so much variety that even labels like "modern" don't mean very much. Every sentient person is going to have his or her own personal list, always subject to change. And there's almost no way anyone.who makes a list can second guess someone else, or please everyone else  all of the time.

So what if Boulez leaves out something  It's his choice. "I might conduct Sibelius", Boulez once said, with a huge grin "When I'm 100". So what if Boulez doesn't conduct Sibelius? Sibelius hasn't been suppressed.  Why shouldn't people have different opinions ?  That, I think, is the essence of creativity. Until recently Schoenberg was the bogeyman  who destroyed tonality. Now, it's Boulez, though most people don't really know what he's actually done.  Just because  a lot of people think something's true, doesn't it make it true. The Bible may say God created the world in 7 days but that doesn't make science sin. So often those most obsessed with notions of suppression do a lot of suppressing themselves.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Boulez at 90 : a personal appreciation


Pierre Boulez turns 90 on March 26th. Celebrations started months ago, and will continue for a while.  There's so much interest in Boulez that it would be impossible to squash it all in at once. In January,  François-Xavier Roth conducted the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg with Pierre-Laurent Aimard.   It was with this orchestra that Boulez began the major part of his conducting career,  on the recommendation of  Hans Rosbaud, who'd come to know Boulez through Le Domaine Musical, the extraordinarily influential concert series Boulez curated in Paris. Boulez was already well established as a composer. His mentor, Olivier Messiaen, used early Boulez works to teach other students. Boulez is more than a composer who conducts; he is also a driving force in modern music. He founded Ensemble Intercontemporain and IRCAM, which has now grown into part of the new Philharmonie de Paris.  He was honoured in its keynote opening galas. French radio has done all-day Boulez marathons, no doubt followed elsewhere. In London, we had a Boulez Total Immersion, with several more concerts to come.  Time to replace the myths that have grown up around Boulez, and replace them with information.

A few years ago, I was at a private reception full of the great and good in European music. A  very difficult new piece was being premiered (not Boulez). Afterwards I was chatting to the young musician about circular breathing. We were in a corner, away from the crowd. And who should appear, leaving his entourage, making a point of quietly  encouraging the young player, who nearly fell over in surprise. Sincere encouragement, without ostentation.  Very different indeed from the myth of wild man.

Similarly, one year at Aldeburgh, Boulez charmed the Bach Mass crowd who come in every year.  That year, their buses arrived very early, and about 30 of them joined a masterclass Boulez was giving.  Noticing the influx of people even older than himself, he addressed himself directly to them and their interests. They stayed for the music, enjoying themselves.  At the end, some of them lined up to shake his hand, because no-one had told them they must not like modern music.

Until a few years ago, there was a perception that Arnold Schoenberg was the devil who destroyed western music.  But there never has been a time when music has stood still. Rameau shocked audience because he wasn't Lully. Paris  took a while to warm to Bizet or Berlioz.  Schoenberg's closest followers wrote music very different from their own. That's the real message of creativity: good composers are original, they aren't slavish copyists.  So, too, Boulez, who opens up possibilities for others to pursue in their own way. So what if, as a conductor, he programmes new repertoire?  Sir Henry Wood did that all the time. He even conducted Schoenberg.  The market is so big that no-one can do everything.  Boulez is a brilliant Messiaen conductor, but he can't stand the Turangalîla-Symphonie. The world hasn't collapsed., since others do. Nowadays we get far too much mediocrity because commercial pressures force conductors to do what the market wants, rather than what they actually care about. A conductor's duty is artistic excellence, which comes with the integrity to express things with personal vision, .

Another perceived problem with Boulez is that he's an intellectual. He's exceptionally well read and knowledgable, and a rigorous thinker. In this world where search engines make people instant experts, perhaps it's threatening that real wisdom comes from the  gradual way data is processed. and absorbed. Emotion can be expressed in many ways.  Boulez's emotion isn't worn on the sleeve, but white hot with the subtle intensity. that comes from deep engagement  As the world plunges into the barbarism of fundamentalist extremism ,we need all the more to appreciate the complexities of an intelligent mind.  Sometimes I think the rise of Creatioism is affecting music history. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how clubbable and conforming a person is, but whether they are true to their art. 

Above, a photos of  Messiaen, Loriod and Boulez in 1944. So what if Boulez scrapped with Messiaen?  As Pierre-Laurent Aimard, has said, sons need to rebel against their fathers to find themselves. Messiaen didn't stop loving Boulez one jot, and neither did Boulez stop loving him. One day, Boulez heard that Messiaen was trying to track down a   balafon, a West African xylophone. He found one, and carried the massive thing all the way up to the organ loft, where Messiaen was working.  Their bond was too great to be broken.


Tuesday, 24 March 2015

What's really ahead for BBC Radio 3 ?

On Thursday, the BBC Trust published a review of BBC Music stations (full document here). So what really does the future hold for BBC Radio 3?

It's striking how much commercial competitors have had an impact on the Trust's recommendations. Hence "Action 9"  which recommends for BBC Radio 3: "While individual programme and scheduling decisions are for BBC Radio not the Trust, we think that the priority for Radio 3 should be to increase choice for radio listeners by maximising its distinctiveness and minimising similarities with other stations". What does that mean, translated into plain English?

Although it's essential that the BBC is up to date on the market as a whole, that does not mean that competitors should dictate what the BBC does. Rupert Murdoch might not like what the BBC does but he doesn't, as yet, decide the agenda. Thank goodness that the BBC Trust isn't making recommendations on news provision, or sports. "Distinctiveness" means many things. In theory one could interpret this as meaning more esoteric, adventurous programming, but that would go against the whole way BBC Radio 3 has been heading for several years.. Does this mean scrapping the whole policy of de-specialization, when Radio 3 is run by those who espouse the mindless pabulum of "Ten Pieces" and the like? So it's much more likely that what the "Action" means is that commercial stations get priority and BBC Radio 3 gets the scraps that Classic FM does not want. When Classic FM started, it wasn't competition for the BBC but now it decides what BBC Radio 3 can and can't do?

Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, was until recently the boss at Classic FM, while the head of BBC Radio 3, Alan Davey, has a background, not in radio or even in music but as a bureaucrat at ACE.  There have even been murmurings in some quarters that BBC Radio 3's cherished bandwith be changed, which should also serve to kill Radio 3's competitive edge.   So what is the way ahead for BBC Radio 3? I should like to see a return to serious music values, and the integrity that made BBC Radio 3 great  because it is Britain's Cultural Ambassador to the whole world, a position even more significant with new digital technology. Classic FM remains, and will remain, no more distinctive than any other local radio station. Fundamentally,  it's BBC Radio 3 that should be ring fenced, not downgraded.  Public money has been invested building up BBC Radio 3, s it's not smart to prioritize to private interests.  The photo above is George Orwell, addressing The Third Programme. Have his predictions come to, pass?

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Boulez at 90 Barbican London Pli selon pli


The Barbican's Total Immersion Day  Boulez at 90, came to a climax with Notations 1, 7, 4, 3 & 2 and Pli selon pli.  A grand climax indeed, for these are pieces scored for very grand forces indeed - yet grandeur is not the point. This palette provides a spectacular range of colours, which Boulez employs with exquisite subtlety. Although Boulez is now approaching 90, I don't think we have yet truly begun to understand the possibilities he opened up with his music. Even his propensity to revise is a reminder that ideas don't freeze but continue to inspire and develop.  With every performance, we learn, and live, more fully.

The last time I heard Pli selon pli live was when Boulez himself conducted the Ensemble Intercontemporain.  This was at the end of a long tour through Europe, so I thought he looked frail because he was tired. He kept changing his spectacles, and cut out some parts of the piece (as a composer is entitled to do).  Earlier this year, he wasn't able to attend a major concert in his honour in his home territory, Baden-Baden. That last London Pli selon pli might have been Boulez's last major performance. But the music will, I think, regenerate forever.  François-Xavier Roth, one of the many good Boulez specialists these days, was originally scheduled to conduct, but had to pull out at the last moment. Thierry Fischer conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in his place, with Yeree Suh as soloist.

Stéphane Mallarmé's original poems described his response to Bruges, a city of canals, where the boundaries between land and water are blurred. A lot like Venice, which inspired Britten, Nono, Berio and even Erich Korngold. Hence the concept of "folds upon folds", layers upon layers. In this ambiguous, undulating landscape, familiar landmarks blur, always elusive and tantalizing. For me, anyway, it's a voyage of inward exploration.

.Pli selon Pli begins with a single explosive burst. It's significant, for the work is built on single chords and cells, every colour kept as pure as possible. As in impressionist painting, where brushstrokes shine, as in Debussy, whose influence hovers implicitly. At the core of the orchestra is the celesta, behind the conductor, five harps behind it, supplemented by xylophones, marimba, metallic bells and piano used as a percussion instrument. Also significantly, to those who remember Boulez's connection to Mahler,  the guitar and mandolin, which figure so decisively in Mahler's Symphony no 7, where they play much the same role as a human element in a  territory of dreams. Perhaps they even suggest the idea of an eternal troubadour, journeying through time (yet another of the "layers" in the piece).

With textures as diaphanous as these, every note counts: careful listening mandatory. This is chamber music on a large scale, where listening and silences are part of the process. Pli selon pli is an innovation in the art of writing for voice.  Boulez doesn't paint words,  but distils them to their essence. Sometimes words fragment into abstract sound, the poem completed as it were, by singer and players together, in invisible layers. This performance was greatly enhanced by the soloist Yeree Suh, whose experience with the piece paid off well.  She has a lighter, more baroque voice than Barbara Hannigan, closer to the moonlight qualities of Christine Schäfer, whose recording with Boulez and Ensemble Intercontemporain remains the benchmark. Suh 's high, delicate voice suggests emotional delicacy  that gives the piece its magic, yet her delivery was firm and clear: the guiding thread through this elusive labyrinth.

Mallarmé's first poem, Don (Gift), has images, but no grammar. Words are separated by spaces filled by dots, which are as essential to meaning as the words themselves. Boulez expresses this with sequences of single chords, rippling around the voice. You're listening to the spaces and thinking, while the voice stretches forwards, searching and exploring. In this first poem, meaning is suggested by images of rock-like harshness - basalt. lava, winter - contrasted with images of ephemera - foam on waves, memory, loss. The word "hiver" (winter) the single notes around the voice prickle like penetrating frost, the sea itself frozen hard. Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre le transparent glacier".

The Improvisation on Une dentelle s'ablouit combines Mallarmé's puzzles with Boulez's intricate structures, this time in reverse. Like lace, the soprano's lines trill and twist - horrendously difficult to sing - but behind her the music unravels. Whispering sibilants of cymbals being brushed, a fairly long passage for maracas. Then, as if brought to life by the line flotte plus qu'il ensevelit, the flutes emerge floating the vocal line that's subsumed behind the orchestra. Deftly placed silences again - a long gap between "au creux néant" and musicien" to emphasize dormant creation. Similarly, emphasis on the word "le sein", the key word in "Selon nul ventre que le sein filial on aurait pu naître".

Mallarmé throws a wild card with multiple puns on vowels in A la Nue Accablante Tu but Boulez parries with sound that extends the vowels and cuts across them with sharp sibilants.  Again, the hard images from the beginning of the cycle, "basse de basalte et des laves", Suh's legato rising and falling like the waves of the sea implicit in the symbols of foam and shipwrecks. The orchestral cells break into patterns that might suggest water, light, churning like the motions of waves. Gradually a new perspective emerges. Trumpets, tuba, tubular bells, so reminiscent of Messiaen that it feels like a deliberate reference, especially given the meaning of this work as a whole. Perhaps Boulez is referring to the penultimate section of Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, and to the end of Time itself. But perhaps it's also a reference to Messiaen himself, Boulez's spiritual father.  As Pierre-Laurent Aimard has said, sons defy their fathers in order to mature, it's the way of Nature. Boulez scrapped with Messiaen but their bond was so close that it could not break. This reaffirms the meaning of  le sein (the breast).  The last section, Tombeau consists of one phrase, "Un peu profound ruisseau calomnié la mort",  This, for me, gives Pli selon pli its intense emotional power.

Boulez's vocal writing doesn't get nearly the respect it deserves, perhaps because there's so much in his music that fascinates.  "Poetry beyond words" I wrote earlier this week about Birtwistle, Carter, Holt and Anderson at the Wigmore Hall (see more here).  Boulez's music takes off  above and beyond mere words, opening out new possibilities of feeling and of expression.  As a man, Boulez is exceptionally well read and interested in art (he collects Paul Klee) . In an era where the very word "intellectual" is  a term of abuse, we need people like Boulez more than ever.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Svatoslav Richter 100th Birthday

In honour of Svatoslav Richter's centenary, a special programme on BR Klassik "Der Heimatlose" HERE

ENO Annual Review 2013/14


The English National Opera published its Annual Review this week. Surprise! Contrary to expectations, it's in the black!  Just. The year 2013/14 ended with an an unrestricted surplus of £208,000 following box office income of £9,684,000 across 117 performances (2012/13 = £9,678,000 across 132 performances). This represents a box office uplift of 11.4% per performance, and an increase in audience numbers of 11%. Download the annual review here  (It's not a line by line account)


A quick summary :
  • Average audience capacity for ENO productions was 75% in the 2,358 seat London Coliseum
  • 117 performances of 13 ENO productions, 8 new and 5 revivals, including 1 world premiere, 1 UK premiere and 3 operas by living composers (Sunken Garden, The Perfect American, Satyagraha)
  • 201,361 audience members saw an ENO production at the London Coliseum or at the Barbican, with 70,000 attending for the first time
  • 173,102 audience members saw an ENO production at one of our international co-producing partners. 11 productions opened around the world in 7 countries
  • 302 performances of ENO shows took place in London and around the world 
  • ENO is the world’s leading co-producer, having now worked with more than 35 opera companies and festivals globally
  • ENO Screen was launched in February 2014 with the live broadcast of Peter Grimes. This screening was attended by over 15,000 audience members around the UK and Ireland and is the highest grossing UK screening ever of an opera by a British composer
  • 88% of singers and conductors were British born, trained or resident
  • A third of our tickets across the year were available for £30 or under, with prices starting at £5
  • Over 57,000 tickets to an ENO performance sold at £25 or less
  • 24,000 members of Access All Arias – a scheme for students and under-30s which offers significant ticket discounts. 2,833 Access All Arias tickets were purchased during 13/14 financial year
  • Secret Seats was launched in 13/14 financial year - at least 50 seats available at every performance for £20 (sometimes situated in top price areas of the house). 4,441 Secret Seats were purchased
  • 2,000 tickets were sold to Opera Undressed – a special scheme aimed at new opera-goers. 35% of attendees have returned to another production since coming to an Opera Undressed event
  • 411,235 audience members attended one of 235 performances at the London Coliseum
  • As well as ENO productions, the London Coliseum welcomed 13 visiting companies and productions and hosted the British Fashion Awards for the first time in December 2013
  • 15 exceptionally talented British singers received bespoke training and development through ENO Harewood Artists
  • 3,874 young people from 23 London State schools participated in ENO Opera Squad
  • Over 1.8 million unique visitors to our website – representing year-on-year growth of 40%
  • 93% growth in our Twitter followers, 65% growth in Facebook page likes
  • Three productions broadcast on BBC Radio 3, reaching over 450,000 listeners

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Poetry beyond words - Nash Ensemble Wigmore Hall


The Nash Ensemble's 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash's visionary mission.  Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman,  a quietly revolutionary figure in  her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country. Ostensibly, the concert featured some of the best modern British composers, plus Elliott Carter, an honorary Brit, since his music has been so passionately championed in this country.  But a deeper perusal of the programme revealed even greater depths.. "Poetry beyond Words" I thought, since most of the pieces transformed their original sources in text and visual images into exquisitely original works of art. Lieder ohne Worte: an affirmation of the life force that is creativity.

Simon Holt's Shadow Realm  (1983) gets its title from a poem by Magnus Enzensberger (a favourite of Hans Werner Henze).  ".....for a while/ i step out of my shadow/for a while.....".  Holt's music penetrates the elusive mysteries of the text, going beyond the words to express its spirit. It's structured in two halves, "shadowing" one another, but scored for an unusual combination of clarinet, harp and cello, creating a three-way conversation  creating a further shadow around the duality of its conception. It's a miniature, only eight minutes long, but its concision is so elegant that it puts to shame many works which drown in verbose meandering. Holt was only 25 when it was written: a remarkable original achievement by a composer whose self-effacing manner belies a mind of great originality. It says much about the Nash Ensemble that they commissioned it, long before Holt became famous.

The poems of Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) pack intense meaning into fragmentary, haiku-like lines, some of which don't even follow grammatical syntax. But therein lies their beauty.(that's her in the photo). Harrison Birtwistle's Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker (1998-2000), another Nash commission, distils each poem with a kind of almost homeopathic concentration, communicating the spirit of the poems, far more creatively  than mere word-painting.  Claire Booth sings arching lines which reach upwards and outwards, sustaining the legato, while the cello weaves around, without interruption, coming into its own only when the voice falls silent, like an elusive echo, Eventually, the poems seem to move away, beyond human hearing. The music gradually slows down, voice and cello retreating together with melancholy "footsteps", each note expressed with solemn dignity.  Birtwistle recognizes the fundamental structure of Niedecker's text, but emphasizing syllables and single words, rather than phrases. " thru bird/start, wing/drip, weed/drift", though in the text the words are joined. Perhaps this captures the sense of water, dripping quietly in some vast stillness. Yet it's also typically Birtwistlean puzzle-making,  creating patterns within patterns, layers within layers. Beautiful moments linger in the memory, like the "You, ah you, of mourning doves", where the poet plays with the word "you", which sounds like dove call yet also evokes human meaning, while the composer, for once, infuses the word "mourning" drawing its resonance out, like the cooing of the bird.

One of the great joys of Julian Anderson's music is that he's an extraordinarily visual composer. Graphic images inspire his music and enrich its interpretation. His Alhambra Fantasy (2000) was stimulated by Islamic architecture, The Book of Hours (2005) by the miniatures in  Trés riches heures du Duc de Berry, and even Symphony (2003), despite its non-committal title, owes much to the paintings of Sibelius's friend, Axel Gallen-Kallela. Yet again, the Nash Ensemble recognized his unique gift almost from the start.  Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) was inspired by  The Heart of a Humument, a book of paintings by Tom Phillips, where random words from an obscure novel were picked at random, then adventurously illustrated.  See more here.  Just as Phillips transforms words into visuals, Anderson transforms ideas into abstract music. Eight highly individual segments unfold over 12 minutes. Each has a title, borrowed from the book, though the settings as such aren't literal.  In the third segment "my future as the star in a film of my room", one of the violinists plays percussion (a ratchet), which whirrs like the cranking of an old-fashioned camera. In the Wigmore Hall, the sound is decidely disturbing, but that's perhaps Anderson's intention : we can't take what we hear for granted. In theory, the segments travel round Europe - Vienna, Bohemia, Carpathia, Paris. Far away landscapes of the imagination: perhaps we hear references to Janáček's Sinfonietta, crazily buoyant but cheerful. The Nash play at being folk musicians, imitating alphorns and shepherd's pipes.  Everything in joyous transformation!  Gradually, the clarinet (Richard Hosford) draws things together, as silence descends.  Although Anderson doesn't employ voice in this piece, it feels like song, because the instrumentation has such personality.


The recital began with the world premiere of  Richard Causton's Piano  Quintet (2015), dedicated to the Nash. It's lively and inventive. Violins and viola tease cello and piano, provoking and taunting, whiling off in all directions.  Gradually the piano (Tim Horton)  restores harmony with a gracious cantilena.  Peter Maxwell Davies's String Quintet (2014) also received its world premiere. Four movements, each with a different mood and form, the Chacony being the most vivid. Before that, Elliott Carter's Poems of Louis Zukofsky (2008), with Claire Booth and Richard Hosford.  Carter expresses the shape of the poems as they are laid out in print. There are silences in poems which create an impact by the way they look on the page denser scoring where needed, the vocal line calling out into aural space.  Zukofsky's copyright holder issues stern warnings against quotation and use.  A very different attitude to the immensely rewarding creative inter-relationship between different art forms which made this concert so rewarding. 

If I haven't written much about the performances, that's because the Nash Ensemble are always good, and reliable.  The players on this occasion were Tim Horton (piano), Philippa Davies (flute), Richard Hosford (clarinet), David Adams (violin), Michael Gurevich (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), James Boyd (violin), Björg Lewis (cello), Adrian Brendel (cello), Lucy Wakefield (harp) and Claire Booth (soprano), and Lionel Friend (conductor).  This article also appears in Opera Today.

This concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 13th June 2015