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The Last-Ever Orchestral Album Made in the UK?

What a creepy coincidence that two of the most harrowing British orchestral works ever written would be recorded on two of the nation’s most fateful dates in recent history. December 12, 2019 was election day. It’s impossible to imagine that anyone involved with the London Symphony Orchestra had any idea of the horrors that would take place the following year, but there’s a bristling intensity, a sense of dread and desperation in their performance of Vaughan Williams’ 1935 Symphony No. 4 at the Barbican that night.

Antonio Pappano also led the orchestra through Vaughan Williams’ much differently dark Symphony No. 6 there on March 15 of last year, the final day of freedom in that country. To date, this chilling, riveting performance – streaming at Spotify – is the last live orchestral album ever recorded in the United Kingdom. Some rock bands have recorded clandestinely since then, but it’s hard to imagine that a full orchestra could pull off such a feat. And this isn’t just a powerful, insightful interpretation of two iconic works: these performances will rip your face off.

There’s a franticness to the introduction of the first movement of Symphony No. 4, leaving no doubt that the gusting pulses afterward do not bode well. The brass is particularly strong here, enhancing the effect, especially as the chromatics grow more macabre. By contrast, the lull afterward seems more conspiratorial – or more enigmatically suspenseful – by comparison to most recordings (the BBC Symphony under Martyn Brabbins also put out a noteworthy, grimly colorful recording of this last year).

Pappano’s dynamics are just as rich in the second movement, from the initial stalker bassline, to methodically pulsing portents, the morose flute theme overhead. a crashing coda and then the lustrously sweeping yet relentless unease afterward. The leaps and bounds of the third movement become more of a chase scene than danse macabre, notwithstanding a momentary cheery, Tschaikovskian interlude. Brisk as this may be, all hands are on deck and primed for battle.

Likewise, the faux-martial bombast of the fourth is downright Shostakovian, which becomes even more striking considering how low Pappano brings the lights down for the deep-space reverie midway through. Few ensembles allow themselves to channel the kind of sheer terror this orchestra does at the end. To call this music prophetic is an understatement: where so much of the world was oblivious, Ralph Vaughan Williams obviously had his eye on the ball.

Where Symphony No. 4 is a prelude, No. 6 is a dystopic postlude, composed in 1947. The opening movement’s series of crashing collapses – the ultimate epic fail, and possibly a Battle of Britain portrait – give way to a witheringly cynical, bounding, vaudevillian theme that follows, Pappano reaching for fullscale phantasmagoria. This could be Hitler, or someone closer to home. The aching, bittersweet longing that emerges immediately afterward will break your heart. When are we going to get back to normal, he asks. Will we ever get back to normal?

Movement two strongly echoes both the stalking menace of Symphony No. 4’s second movement and the vastness of the third, along with a bit of famously bellicose Tschaikovsky. Is this the composer trying to remind us that we’d better remember our history so as not to repeat it?

What’s with that tenor sax weaving in and out of the third movement’s mashup of the work’s initial bustle and striding cynicism? Pillorying postwar optimism, or for that matter any kind of optimism, it would seem: Hitler may have been toast, but the Soviet Union was as much a horror as ever and the Chinese Communist Party’s genocidal campaigns would soon be underway. Like the third movement of Symphony No. 4, this is on the fast side, but the impact is unescapable.

As is the utterly eerie, funereal hush throughout the fourth movement: Vaughan Williams slows down his signature interweave so we can watch the gears’ fateful motion up close this time, and Pappano has the orchestra locking in their long-range sights. An oboe solo channels longing and disappointment; the shivers from the strings go on and on and bring a chill that never lifts. You could call this a musical counterpart to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins.

The London Symphony Orchestra have released a ton of live recordings since the lockdown, and most of them have been fantastic. One suspects that they have many more lined up on the runway, but so far this is the very best of them all. In fact, this may be the best album of 2021 in any style of music.

April 16, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A World War II Symphony Offers Solace and Hope For These Times

It was 1943, and the Allies were battling the Nazis and their collaborators on several fronts. In bomb-cratered England, Ralph Vaughan Williams stepped in on short notice for his one and only performance as conductor for the world premiere of one of his symphonies. Desperate times, desperate measures.

Considering the conditions under which it was written, it’s no surprise that his Symphony No. 5 is the most smallscale in his notoriously lavish cycle. Contemporary accounts called the premiere a success. There’s a new recording with Martyn Brabbins leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra, whose often transcendent performance resonates just as strongly in our even more troubled era.

The ensemble open with a familiar Vaughan Williams trope, a constant, increasingly turbulent round-robin of windswept counterpoint. Led by the brass in its most somber moments of foreshadowing, this is the pinnacle of British Romanticism. If you wonder where the towering angst of the art-rock bands of the 1970s, particularly the Moody Blues, came from, the source material doesn’t get richer than this. How absolutely heartbreaking it is to hear these panoramas, knowing that the citizens of the countryside that so profoundly influenced this music are now under siege and largely unable to see those landscapes in person. Where is this era’s Martin Niemoller?

The orchestra execute the swirls and leaping riffs of the second movement with a poinpoint precision across the spectrum, drawing equally on Sibelius and a series of themes the composer had written around the same time for a broadcast of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. The distantly disquieted, nocturnal vastness and aching lustre of the third movement packs a wallop in this era: when will this be over, Vaughan Williams seems to be asking. Bringing the circling intensity of the introduction full circle, the orchestra offer hope with the mighty, prayerful fourth movement.

To put the symphony in even more resonant context, the album also contains a series of short themes from Vaughan Williams’ postwar operatic epic Pilgrim’s Progress. The excerpts here were recorded in 2019 (a year after the symphony) with a considerably different cast of musicians. Vocal soloists Emily Portman, Kitty Whately and Marcus Farnsworth are bolstered by the BBC Chorus and BBC Singers Quartet in these thirteen selections, ranging from fleeting set pieces to folksy dances and more expansive songs, many of them echoing themes recycled in the symphony.

January 3, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why a Symphony From 1935 Matters More Than Ever

The events of 2020 under the lockdown are eerily similar to 1935. By then, the Nazi campaign of genocide had begun, with the mass murder of disabled and cripped people, all of them euthanized by the German medical establishment. Here in the US, the President recently announced a deal with the huge pharmacy conglomerate Wallgreens to kill off residents of nursing homes with the Bill Gates needle of death. When are the general public going to wake up? Eighty-five years ago, Europe didn’t until it was too late to stop the Nazi war machine. If that historical precedent holds true, we are in trouble. As Pastor Martin Niemoller famously recalled, “Then they went after the Jews. Then they came for us.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 was premiered in 1935, by an earlier version of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Martyn Brabbins, lifelong champion of the Romantic tradition, conducts them in this latest recording, which hasn’t hit the web yet. If there was specific content or narrative in his music, the composer usually made that very clear, and he didn’t do that in this case. Still, this symphony is chillingly a reflection of its time, and in that sense, a cautionary tale.

As this storm gathers momentum, chromatics that stop thisshort of frantic cede to restlessly circling, gusty variations that rise with an increasing unease: hindsight may be 20/20, but it’s impossible not to read rumors of war into this. Brabbins immediately dims the lights for the comforting nocturne that morphs out of it: could this be a reflection on the momentary honeymoon between wars for the English people?

Likewise, a stalking pulse from the strings rises to enigmatic lustre, persistent disquiet disappearing in favor of twilit serenity in the second movement; yet it ends broodingly. A darkly bristling, distinctly Russian-tinged dance opens the third and transforms into a march in the last movement, albeit with suspiciously sarcastic humor. Again, Brabbins pulls the orchestra for a comforting lull, which doesn’t last. The Beethovenesque series of false endings grow more and more foreboding, to the point where the impact remains long beyond the final, seemingly sardonic blast of low brass.

Where is the 2020 counterpart to this troubled masterpiece? Probably still being written. The operative question is whether we’ll ever be able to hear it. In the UK in 1935 it was legal for an orchestra to perform in front of an audience..

This album opens with Vaughan Williams’ radically different “Pastoral” Symphony No. 3. As inspired by World War I gravesites as by the English countryside of the composer’s youth, it’s one of the quietest pieces in the symphonic repertoire, at least before the explosion of spectral music in the early 1980s.

The first movement comes across as sleepy time for heroes –an update on the wave motion the composer explored in his Sea Symphony – along with vast Dvorakian vistas. Maybe that influence explains the minor blues riff that anchors one of the main themes. The gentle, steadily ratcheting counterpoint introduced in the first movement comes further to the forefront in the more stark, spare, folksy second one. Alan Thomas’ long, restrained, distantly troubled trumpet solo is the highlight here.

Heroes wake up vociferously as the third movement gets underway, larks quickly ascend to the trees and some bustling and strutting ensues – yet quietly. Soprano Elizabeth Watts animatedly brings back the blues riffs over an almost imperceptible stillness to introduce the conclusion, rising to disorienting, fragmentary exchanges before the serene intertwine of the first movement returns. From there Brabbins meticulously leads the slow rise to a momentary triumph and descent into nocturnal content and contemplation, Watts adding celestial lustre at the end.

The record is also noteworthy for including the world premiere of Vaughan Williams’ previously unpublished cantata Saraband “Helen,” a setting of a Christopher Marlowe text about Helen of Troy. Brabbins’ arrangement is sober and understated; tenor David Butt Philip sings expressively over the increasingly bittersweet sweep of the orchestra and choir.

October 22, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vivid, Epic Symphonic Desolation

In a time of chiling isolation for so many people, the centerpiece of today’s album is the Sinfonia Antarctica, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ seventh and most haunting symphony, just released by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze and streaming at Spotify.

This 1953 epic is an exploration of vastness and all-pervasive cold. Some might call much of this classical heavy metal. It’s rarely performed, partly because it requires such lavish instrumentation. There’s an organ that leaps in to shock you for a few bars. The score also calls for a choir, plus wordless vocals from a soprano (Rowan Pierce, in this case), a wind machine and a small warehouse worth of percussion. In that sense, it’s sort of the Nutcracker for adults. No matter how you feel about Vaughan Williams’ music, you can’t fault him for thinking outside the box.

Thematically, the piece traces the grim trail of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed 1912 Antarctic expedition. For a composer, this subject matter is problematic in that there comes a point where desolation becomes interminable (Sarah Kirkland Snyder grappled with that same issue in Penelope, her exploration of the Odyssey from the home front). This is a long piece of music – and the orchestra weather the storm, titanically.

In his weatherbeaten voice, marrator Timothy West introduces each of the symphony’s five movements, the first with a quote from Percy Shelley – totally Iron Maiden, right? The mighty, somber opening theme telegraphs where this beast is going. Icy tubular bells, gothic soprano vocalese and echoes of the creepiest section of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals appear quickly. Agitated swirls from the strings – “We’ve got to call this off!” – are answered by cruel insistence from the brass, underscored by the stomp of the bass drums. A monochromatic landscape has seldom been so colorful.

The second movement has resolute brass against a spinning string section, a gleefully sinister dance from the xylophone and closes with a a pensive first encounter with the endlessness of the glacial terrain. Everything slows down in the third movement, with a pervasive ominousness, up to a rumbling gloom and Graham Eccles’ big organ break: this orchestra’s low strings are fantastic here.

The wistful fourth movement pictures the men of the expedition missing their sweeties at home, but a lightly trudging hope against hope from strings and high winds pushes that out of the picture. As the symphony sways toward its untimely end, a determined brightness persists against all kinds of low-register foreshadowing, but that heroism proves unsustainable and fades down to the washes of a ghostly angel choir.

The record also includes an equally vivid recording of the composers’s ninth and final symphony, notable for what was in 1958 the innovation of three saxophones amid the winds. It has a similarly macabre Tess of the D’Urbervilles subtext.

There’s looming trouble, anxiously silken clarity from the saxes, Tschaikovskian drama and moody Dvorakian landscape in the first movement. That drama continues with a lonely solo flugelhorn intro and rises from a martial menace to a gloomy sweep in the second: there seems to be a sudden moment where poor Tess meets her fate.

Movement three gets a suspiciously satirical strut to its militaristic pulses and stomps: a listener gets the feeling that the composer was not a fan of violence. The orchestra grow calmer and more lustrous as the conclusion begins, but once again trouble is on the horizon, drawing closer and closer. Daytime struggle alternates with brief, nocturnal respite: nighttime eventually wins. A momumental achievement for this inspired orchestra.

April 10, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Bring Their Dynamic Reinventions of Songs From Across the Jewish Diaspora Uptown Next Week

Violinist Lara St. John is the kind of musician whose presence alone will inspire her bandmates to take their game up a notch. Case in point: last summer in Central Park, where she played a picturesque, lyrical, alternately tender and soaring version of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. And this wasn’t with the kind of big-name ensemble St. John is accustomed to playing with: it was a pickup group. St. John’s dynamic focus may well have jumpstarted the group’s harrowing interpretation of Matthew Hindson’s Maralinga suite, a narrative about a 1950s British nuclear experiment in Australia gone horribly wrong.

St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz revisit that intensity and relevance with their program this March 14 and 15 in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession at 550 W 155th St in Harlem. The show is sold out – in order to get tickets to this popular uptown attraction, you need to get on their mailing list, who get first dibs before the general public and will often gobble them up. This isn’t a cheap experience, but if you look at it as dinner and a concert, it’s a great date night (it’s big with young couples). There’s an amuse-bouche and wines paired with the program: supplies are generous, there’s always a vegetarian choice and the choices of vintage can be a real knockout. And the sonics in the intimate but high-ceilinged stone space are as magical as you would expect.

Next week’s program is drawn from St. John’s most recent album with Herskowitz, wryly titled Shiksa, streaming at Spotify. It’s a collection of imaginative and sometimes radical reinterpretations of haunting melodies from across the Jewish diaspora and Eastern Europe by a wide variety of composers, as well as by the musicians themselves.

Among the album’s fourteen tracks, the Hungarian folk tune Czardas is reinvented as a scampering mashup with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Variaiuni (Bar Fight) is an old Romanian cimbalom tune as St. John imagines someone careening through it in the Old West. St. John learned the lickety-split klezmer dance Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn from iconic violinist Alicia Svigals, while composer Michael Atkinson’s arrangement of the wildfire Romany dance Ca La Breaza is based on Toni Iardoche’s cimbalom version. And she picked up the elegant Romany jazz tune Kolo in a bar in Belgrade.

The most poignant track is the Armenian ballad Sari Siroun Yar, which gave solace to composer Serouj Kradjian and his family growing up in war-torn Lebanon. The most wryly clever one is Herskowitz’s jazz version of Hava Nagila, in 7/4 time. St. John also plays an expressive suite of solo ladino songs arranged by David Ludwig, along with material from Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Hungary. It will be fascinating to witness how closely she replicates the material – or flips the script with it – at the show next week.

March 8, 2018 Posted by | folk music, gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment