ENDNOTES, February 2016
In this edition: Ben Palmer conducts music of the baroque era * Magnificat by Oliver Tarney * A Western Borderland from EM Records * Dr. Leslie Jones appreciates one of our finest pianists
Thursday 28th January was an important date for conductor, Ben Palmer, and his versatile chamber ensemble, The Orchestra of St. Paul’s. At a concert at St. Martin-in-the-Fields (the second such musical event there, arranged by a relatively new independent promoter and sponsor, Edmund Green) Mr. Palmer and his talented, mainly younger musicians gave a polished and inspiring rendition of four important works from the 17th and 18th centuries. The programme consisted of a suite from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (an opera which dates from the end of the 1680s); the first Water Music suite by Handel; Bach’s famous Orchestral Suite No. 3 (famous due to that evergreen baroque favourite, “Air on the G String”); and a Haydn symphony which is not aired very often, the 59th – known as the “Fire”.
From the very beginning of proceedings, Ben Palmer brought control, colour, authenticity and – most importantly – spirit to his performances, not least in the Act 1 section from Dido and Aeneas known as “Fear no Danger to ensue”, the orchestra’s oboe section producing a pointed, beautifully-shaped antique sound. The best-known part of the suite, “When I am laid in earth”, often known as Dido’s Lament, was delivered with a sorrowful, noble simplicity – understated to some extent, and yet conveying that rare feeling of emptiness and farewell. The venue of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, an Anglican church which was rebuilt by architect James Gibbs in 1724, could not have been a better choice for Ben Palmer: the dark spaces, hushed atmosphere, subdued lighting, the slight creak of the pews, and the orchestral “stage” overlooked by what was the Hanoverian Royal box – all complemented the Purcell to perfection.
But for the next work we emerged from the shadow and gloom of Purcell’s London, into an idealised vision of a pure, bright Thames riverscape – as realised on canvas by Canaletto and in music by Handel. The first suite from the Water Music, written as an open-air orchestral accompaniment to a river journey by George l, brought more fine things from the conductor and his ensemble: an antiphonal allegro, with noble statements from full-throated baroque horns answered by the whole orchestra, to the gentler serenades which reflect peace, blue sky, water and a feeling of the Thames as the river of royalty and of England. Bach’s Third Orchestral suite and Haydn’s 59th Symphony delighted the audience – the Haydn especially having that inventiveness and robust life which seems to emerge in all of his works.
If I had any criticism of the night it would be this: I feel that Mr. Palmer’s orchestra would benefit from an increase in the size of its string section, as there is often a tendency in baroque performances for an occasional thin sound to creep in here and there, something which is not confined to the smaller-scale Orchestra of St. Paul’s. Sometimes, with an instrumentalist or small string section exposed, the odd error can seem more pronounced, and I felt that a “heavier” violin presence would have provided more ballast for the OSP’s Royal yacht. However, such a comment seems of little consequence when one views and appreciates the quality of Ben Palmer’s conducting. I would certainly urge the BBC to come along to one of his concerts: how about Mr. Palmer conducting the strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in music by Purcell, or for an augmented Orchestra of St. Paul’s to perform at the Proms chamber music series?
New talent in the arts abounds in Britain, and an exciting disc has been passed on to The QR’s CD review pile: the Magnificat, by young British composer, Oliver Tarney (born in 1984). Available from Convivium Records and recorded at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Clapham, South London, Tarney’s choral-orchestral work is a highly-accessible (twelve-part) confluence of several spiritual traditions – the composer keen to find common ground between “the three Abrahamic religions” and, as he writes in the sleeve notes, “a proclamation of ecstatic joy… a symbol of faith in the face of uncertainty and of strength in the face of adversity”. Bringing this music to the recording studio is an inspirational conductor, and teacher of community choirs, Manvinder Rattan, and the Serafine Chamber Choir and Sinfonia (a new ensemble for this reviewer). The Magnificat has percussive, modern gestures – a reminder, perhaps, of the style of Karl Jenkins (well known for rhythmic choral works, such as The Armed Man) – but also moments that bring to mind the style of Benjamin Britten and the pure “holy water” of veteran Estonian composer, the deeply-religious Arvo Pärt. There is much for the choir and soloists to do in the manner of a large-scale oratorio, but I feel that it is in the private, reflective, mysterious moments of the score – the parts when the music feels like a whisper or a confiding of an idea – that Oliver Tarney reaches a true depth of feeling.
Finally, for this section of Endnotes, a taste of the forthcoming English Music Festival (which takes place over the May Bank Holiday weekend at Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire) – in the form of a new CD from the Festival’s recording arm, EM Records. Pianist Duncan Honeybourne embarks on a beautifully recorded English journey to “A Western Borderland”; the landscape of poet and composer, Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), whose visions of his native Gloucestershire enabled him to survive – at least physically – through the horrors of The Great War. One would never know from his Five Western Watercolours of 1923, that the composer was facing, and would succumb to, complete mental disarray and breakdown. A world première recording, Gurney’s suite contains what must be some of the most evocative, pastoral and touchingly picturesque titles and scenes to be conceived by an English composer: Twyver River, Alney Island, The Old Road, Still Meadows, and Sugarloaf Hill – places, and memories of places, which must have come into the composer’s mind like rare sunlight during the appalling bombardments and blackness of Passchendaele.
The music of Richard Francis (born 1946) also appears on the disc (alongside music by Elgar and Walford Davies) – Francis producing many Gurney-like short piano sketches and impressions, with titles such as April Shower, The Old Millwheel, Sea Idyll and Merry-Go-Round. Prior to receiving this CD, I had never before encountered Richard Francis, but I can now certainly recommend his characterful and romantic music, which seems to continue the tradition of composers such as John Ireland (who also conceived sea idylls in England and the Channel Islands, scenes of downland Britain, and merry jigs at country fairs). With the English Music Festival fast approaching, we can – I am sure – look forward to new discoveries, both from the period of the English Musical Renaissance, and from some of today’s emerging composers – such as Paul Carr, whose Violin Concerto receives its first performance on the Festival’s last night. QR will be there.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Steven Osborne, Piano Recital at St John’s Smith Square, Wednesday 3rd February, 2016
Schubert Impromptus, D.935: No.1 in F minor & No.4 in F minor
Debussy Masques; Images, Set 2; L’isle joyeuse
Rachmaninov Études-tableaux, Op.33: No.2 in C, No.3 in C minor, No. 5 in D minor: Opus 39: No.2 in A minor, No.5 in E flat minor, No.8 in D minor & No.9 in D
Versatile and eclectic are words that are invariably used to describe the repertoire of Steven Osborne, whose discography ranges from Schubert to Messiaen (the Turangalîla Syphonie) and from Debussy to Tippett, although he is currently “uncomfortable” playing both Chopin and Liszt. He has even appeared at the EFG London Jazz Festival, where he improvised on music by the late Bill Evans. Although he loves to learn new repertoire, Osborne has confided that this process is intellectually demanding and emotionally draining. After mastering Tippett’s music for piano, he took a year off.
For this very well attended recital at St John’s, part of Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series, Osborne’s programme was characteristically diverse, spanning almost the entire history of music written for the piano, and opening with Schubert’s Impromptus, D 935: No 1 in F Minor & No 4 in F Minor. These two late pieces were included on his 2015 Hyperion CD release.
A sensitive, intelligent and unassuming individual, judging from published interviews that we have read, Osborne clearly gave careful thought to the balance of his programme at St John’s. Thus, the two Schubert Impromptus he selected are works that convey different facets of their composer’s complex personality. No 1, marked Allegro Moderato is lyrical and introspective, somewhat reminiscent of Beethoven. It has a song like character and a beautiful and tender theme. Impromptu No 4, in contrast, is a dazzling piece evocative of dance with an at times frenetic tempo. It is scored Allegro Scherzando, i.e. to be played in a playful, light- hearted vein. Osborne, a technically gifted and virtuosic pianist who began learning the instrument at the age of three and subsequently attended St Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh then the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, brought out these contrasting qualities with aplomb. Éblouissant.
Steven Osborne has spoken eloquently of his passion for the “impressionistic” French piano repertoire of Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen and the first half of the concert concluded appropriately with Claude Debussy’s Masques; Images, Book 11, and a now combatative, now lyrical performance of the evergreen L’Isle joyeuse. For music to work, you must engage viscerally and emotionally with the material, according to Osborne. Judging from the audience’s response throughout, he completely succeeded.
During the interval, QR chatted briefly with the artist’s agent, who informed us that a surprise item had been added to the programme. Was this a cunning ploy to ensnare some hapless music critic who, emulating Jayson Blair, never actually attends the events he “describes”? The work in question, Processional (1983), by the avant-garde American composer George Crumb, is an atmospheric and quite substantial piece (about ten minutes long) that Steven Osborne evidently rates highly. Crumb has even had the temerity to define music, to wit, “a system of proportions in the service of spiritual impulse”.
Briefly introducing Processional, Osborne noted that Crumb, who grew up in Appalachia, has been influenced by the sounds of the forest, in particular by that of birdsong heard from afar. Life, as he remarked, feeds into music. The interpretation of this beautiful and mystical piece was one of the unexpected highlights of the evening. (See also the official George Crumb website at www.georgecrumb.net).
Finally, maestro Osborne turned to yet another composer he reveres, Sergei Rachmaninov, performing a demanding selection of his fiendishly difficult but expressive Études-tableaux or “picture studies” (1911). The technical and physical challenges that they present have been incisively described in a 2012 research paper by one Phillip Michael Blaine entitled “A Technical and Musical approach to Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux”.
Osborne has himself referred to what he calls the “transcendent music experience” and during several sections of this memorable concert, time’s winged chariot seemingly stood still.
This concert was broadcast on Radio 3 on Wednesday 10th February, 2016 and is currently available on the BBC Radio I Player
LESLIE JONES is the Editor of Quarterly Review