For Mark Morris’ review of the award-winning Belgium Renaissance and Baroque choir, click here
Saint-Saëns: ‘The Swan’ from Le carnaval des animaux
Gabriel Fauré: Sicilienne Op.78
Gabriel Fauré: Élégie in C minor Op.24
Elgar: Cello Concerto in e minor, Op.85 (arranged for cello and piano by the composer)
César Franck: Cello Sonata in A major (arranged from the Violin Sonata in A major by Jules Delsart)
All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral
Monday June 25, 2018
Rafael Hoekman (cello)
Jeremy Spurgeon (piano)
The 35 years or so between 1880 and the start of World War I is such an interesting and attractive period for classical music. Quite apart from the early beginnings of composers who were to revolutionize music – Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Ives, to name but three – there is, alongside powerhouses of Mahler and the Richard Strauss, a kind of warm glow to the last embers of Romantic music (and, perhaps, a more innocent world), that expressed itself in some places in a pastoral nationalism, in others in a mystical symbolism, in others in Impressionism.
This was the period that cellist Rafael Hoekman and pianist Jeremy Spurgeon concentrated on in their enterprising concert at All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral (where Spurgeon is the organist) on June 25. It was all the more welcome for being on an unusual day of the week for a concert in Edmonton – a Monday evening – and the surroundings of the Cathedral, with its warm brickwork, its tapestries and its stained-glass, suited this ambience well, and acoustically worked surprisingly effectively.
Hoekman is, of course, the Principal Cello of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and a considerable asset to that orchestra. The hallmarks of his playing are the richness of his tone, and the considerable emotional involvement in the music. His is, indeed, a Romantic style, happy to use vibrato emotively, and revelling in the phrasing and in the skills of changing colour and tone within a long phrase. Spurgeon, so often appearing in different musical roles in the city (as readers of these reviews will know), is a sensitive and sympathetic accompanist, but also a fine chamber musician, as he showed here.
The concert opened with a kind of prelude to that warm Romanticism of the evening: Saint-Saëns’ ‘The Swan’, written in 1886, which set just the right tone for music on a very hot summer’s evening.
Of the two Fauré’s selections that followed, his 1886 Sicilienne is, with its rippling opening piano, its musing yet singing cello lines, and its gentle fade way into inconclusiveness, quintessential idyll music of the period. His Élégie (1880) is better known (especially in the arrangement that Fauré made for cello and orchestra) and more stentorian. Both were beautifully played, with a notable moment in the Élégie when Spurgeon allowed the rhythmic line in the piano to free up and open out, and was then matched by Hoekman.
The central work in the concert, though, was composed when the innocence of that period had been shattered by the First World War. Elgar’s Cello Concerto, written in 1919, somehow manages to combine those rich Edwardian colours with a deep sense of regret and yearning, and it is almost impossible not to hear in it a lament for all those who had died. Elgar himself made the transcription for cello and piano a year after the full score was published. It’s a work that is daunting enough in its orchestral version (the cello is playing almost non-stop), but perhaps even more so when the cello is so exposed by being matched with piano alone. Of course there are moments when one misses the orchestra, but, to counteract that, the thinner textures means one can hear little unexpected details, the unfolding of the structure really comes across, and the arrangement is particularly effective in the slow movement.
Hoekman’s playing was wonderfully fluid from the outset, with very long phrasing, a consistency of tone, and the passion that the piece demands. If he was not quite so strong in the fast passage work of the second movement, the demands are considerable, the third movement was beautifully played, and the tempi in the finale well judged. More important, this was an emotive performance, and to give the whole concerto in the context of an already weighty recital was a risk that was fully justified in the playing.
César Franck’s Cello Sonata is an arrangement, by the French cellist Jules Delsart and sanctioned by the composer, of the Violin Sonata in A major. The piano part remains exactly the same, though the cello part of necessity has some changes, and Franck’s publisher simply included the cello solo part in with the violin score. In its violin form, it is one of Franck’s most celebrated works, and in its cello form it is one of the staples of the cello repertoire. Indeed, it was the last work that Jacqueline du Pré, who was so responsible for popularizing the Elgar Cello Concerto, recorded in the studio.
In spite of its rather autumnal opening, and although the violin sonata was written in 1886 (as a wedding present for the violinist Ysaÿe), it belongs to an earlier era than the rest of the works in this concert, weightier in feel and sound in the way that Brahms is weightier than Dvořák, more Balzac than Proust. Grand in its scale and ambitions, it received a performance to match, the highlight the deep solemnity and weight of the playing (and the lyricism that followed) in the third movement.
The concert ended with another piece written as an engagement present, Elgar’s Salut d’amour, which he wrote in Seattle in 1888, and brought back for his fiancee Caroline Alice Roberts. Like the Franck, it was originally written for violin and piano, but when it was published (as Liebesgruss – ‘Love’s Greeting’) a year later there were versions for violin and piano, piano solo, cello and piano, and for small orchestra (now perhaps the version most often heard). It is the Edwardian salon piece par excellence, with its winning song-like tune, a touch of wistfulness, its hint of knowing sophistication – a perfect way to end this most enjoyable concert, not just for the music, but because it was also Rafael Hoekman’s wedding anniversary.
Saturday, March 24, 2018
Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op.33a
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor Op.85
Rachmaninov: Symphony No.1 in D minor, Op.13
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Andreas Brantelid (cello)
conducted by Alexander Prior
“Vengeance is mine, and I shall repay”, Rachmaninov wrote at the head of his first symphony, emulating Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Quite what the vengeance was for is not entirely clear (it almost certainly refers to the words of an Orthodox chant that probably inspired the opening theme of the work), but it was it was a prescient quote, considering that the symphony was excoriated on its first performance on March 27, 1897. Rachmaninov, then only 26, had to read a vicious demolition job by the one of the most celebrated critics of the day, the composer César Gui. Rachmaninov put the symphony aside (the autograph score has never been rediscovered), and the work wasn’t revived until 1945, after the Russian conductor Alexander Gauk had reconstructed the score from the surviving orchestral parts.
Fitting vengeance, though, Rachmaninov certainly had, in the scintillating performance Alexander Prior gave with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, March 24, at the Winspear. It’s a young composer’s symphony, and it benefited from not only the young conductor’s passionate enthusiasm for the work, but also his experience with the Russian symphonic repertoire. Prior’s approach (as we have learnt from his Tchaikovsky) is grittier, more driving, with more Russian tensions, than many western interpretations – here it reminded me at times of Svetlanov’s terrific Melodia recording.
From the very first notes you knew this was going to be a really good performance – it breathed energy and confidence, and it was soon clear the orchestra were really going to respond to the conducting. The first two movements are marvellously flawed – with the flaws of youthful composition – in that the ideas fall over each other, the interest in the moment greater than that of the whole. Here a tougher, more driving interpretation, not overtly sentimental, pays dividends, binding those ideas closer together. One could hear the touches of Tchaikovsky, but Prior also made moments in the first movement sound like Sibelius, Rachmaninov’s contemporary (as he did at the very close of the symphony). The third movement was wonderfully rich, like the glowing texture of polished burr walnut infused with dark streaks and swirls, and with some beautiful smooth woodwind playing. Prior drew out the dark brooding element in this movement, and there were moments that musically looked forward to Rachmaninov’s orchestral masterpiece, The Isle of the Dead.
But the final movement was, fittingly, the climax of the performance. What a movement it is, too! Rachmaninov seems to shake off the 19th century, and transform the whole thing into some of the most advanced writing of the period. Here one could hear, in the incorporation of more populist elements, echoes of Mahler. The movement, with its massed percussion, could also be seen as heralding so much of Shostakovich’s orchestral music, though Shostakovitch couldn’t possibly have heard it or studied it. In other words, it was not only on the cutting edge of its time, but it anticipated later Russian music, and Prior brought out those elements in a performance of fire and energy, one of the best I have heard from this orchestra. If the powers that be do arrange for the ESO to tour, then they should seriously consider taking this symphony with them.
Inevitably, such a performance left one wondering what might have been. After the failure of the premiere, Rachmaninov increasingly turned to works that were essentially much safer, a few works such as The Isle of the Dead and the marvellous Orthodox choral services apart. In spite of all their breathtaking and much-loved emotional affect, they never really reflected the tenor of their age, which includes the Russian revolution, Stalin’s horrors, both World Wars, and the Great Depression. What would Rachmaninov have followed that last movement with, if he had received praise instead of contempt?
The performance of the Elgar cello concerto – another work that had a fiasco of a premiere – was less successful. Written in 1919, this is Elgar’s great contemplative peon to the waste and horrors of the First World War, and, with such heartfelt sorrow combined with a feel of wistful memories,it surely reflects something of the turbulent mixture of emotions that the survivors of the War felt. With the young Dane Andreas Brantelid as cellist, this performance never quite achieved the depth of emotion the concerto is capable of, and Prior seemed intent on breathing fresh approaches into the work – something that very rarely works with Elgar, as a number of conductors have found to their cost. Elgar is, above all, a composer of swell and fall, in the orchestral writing and in the melodic phrasing, and that was largely missing here. It was as if the whole work had been emotionally shifted sideways: the deep sorrow of the piece became just sadness, and the more playful moments became almost flippant. Having said that, Brantelid is clearly a very fine player, and I don’t want to exaggerate any sense of disappointment: if one had never heard the concerto before, this performance may well have been affecting. But the work has more to it than emerged on Saturday evening.
The concert had opened with a fine reading of the four sea interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes. Prior set up contrast between a sharper, edgy sound (such as the strings in Dawn or the woodwind in Sunday Morning) and a misty, more subdued texture (the brass in Dawn or the horns in Storm), that was most effective, creating anticipation. The mawkishness of Sunday Morning really came across, and there were reminders at times of how close the idioms of Britten and Shostakovitch could be at this period (1945). The suite is also an orchestral showpiece, and there were some splendid performances from the woodwind and from timpanist Barry Nemish, and a magical little trombone solo moment from John McPherson. The storm at the end was fast and furious, with an almost outrageous accelerando at the end, which orchestra and conductor pulled off with aplomb.
How well, too, the three works went together – a well-planned and wonderfully executed concert.
Edmonton Recital Society
Muttart Hall, Alberta College
Sunday, January 21st, 2017
Mozart, arranged Busoni: Overture to The Magic Flute
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, original version for two pianos, Op.56b
Bernstein, arranged Marcel Bergmann: selections from West Side Story
Marcel Bergmann: Urban Pulse
Dave Brubeck, arranged M. Bergmann: Blue Rondo à la Turk
Astor Piazzolla, arranged M. Bergmann: Oblivion
Astor Piazzolla, arranged M. Bergmann: Libertango
Egberto Gismonti, arranged M. Bergmann: Infancia
It’s always enjoyable watching, as well as listening to, piano duos. The rapport, concentration, and almost instinctive understanding needed is considerable, and to be able see the facial interaction between the two players, ranged at opposite ends of two concert grands nestling into each other, can draw an audience in to the music making in a very particular way.
That musical and personal intimacy is even more intense when the duo are husband and wife, as are Marcel and Elizabeth Bergmann. They have been performing as the Bergmann Piano Duo for well over two decades now, having originally met at the the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hanover in Germany (Marcel’s country of birth). For much of that time they were based in Calgary (Elizabeth was born in Medicine Hat), and they now live in White Rock, B.C., where they are artistic directors of the celebrated White Rock series of concerts. They have toured extensively in North America and Europe, and in May will be playing a series of concerts in China. Their repertoire is very extensive, from classic two-piano works, through new compositions (including works by Marcel himself), to jazz and jazz-inspired arrangements. Their considerable discography reflects this – they have recorded, for example, minimalist works, piano versions of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and music by Debussy and Rachmaninov, and all Bolcolm’s music for two pianos. Their latest album, American Stories, features excerpts from Bernstein’s West Side Story arranged by Marcel, along with other arrangements of jazz-tinged South and North American music.
Their recital at Muttart Hall on Sunday January 21st, presented by the Edmonton Recital Society, was largely drawn from the repertoire on this CD, with a first half that added a couple of more obviously classical works. It began with Busoni’s masterful arrangement of the overture to The Magic Flute, immediately establishing the duo’s musical virtues: a penchant for rich textures, especially in the lower range, a sureness of touch, a clean clarity in the upper end of the keyboard. They were a little hampered by a slight mismatch in the pianos they had been supplied with, the Steinway being audibly superior to the Yamaha, with its rather more twangy upper range. That was in itself instructive, as Marcel appeared to rather neatly compensate when playing the latter (the two regularly swapped pianos in the recital).
It was good, too, to hear the original two-piano version of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, so familiar in its orchestral guise. That original theme (not, incidentally, by Haydn but probably by Playel) sounds so Russian in the two-piano opening statement, and the second variation gave some credence to the stories that Brahms was supposed to have spend some of his teenage years playing piano in the bars of Hamburg – one could well imagine Marcel creating a jazzy version of this variation. That instinctive interaction between the two players was exemplified in the perfect unison of the rallentando in the final movement.
The highlight of the concert, though, was the music from Bernstein’s West Side Story, arranged for two pianos by Marcel. The music sits really well on the two keyboards; the arrangements are always at the service of the music, and never designed merely to show of the players or the two-piano format. Each of the movements played here had its strong pianist tone and atmosphere: smoky bar in ‘Maria’, a touch of Rachmaninov at the Hollywood Bowl in ‘Tonight’, a nod, indeed, to the world of the Haydn Variations in ‘One Hand, One Heart’, high drama in ‘The Rumble’, shades of Satie in ‘America’.
The arrangements evenly distribute the material between the two players, too, with a lot of handing over. Here the Bergmanns were a wonderful visual contrast: Marcel rather hunched over the piano, rather as if he was himself in some smoky Hamburg port-side dive, his left leg thrusting out from time to time, Elizabeth more upright, restrained, old-school Boston, perhaps. When they introduce works (which they do with humour and aplomb), their verbal overlapping is in itself a kind of musical counterpoint, as instinctive as their playing.
The second half opened with Urban Pulse, a work in three shortish movements by Marcel himself, commissioned in 2005 for the 10th Dranoff International Two Piano Competition. Although there are inevitably some elements designed for competition – such as the wide variety, from a bluesy walking bass to the fast and furious, in the central movement, ‘Cerulean Beat’ (if you wondered, cerulean is a colour range in the blue spectrum) – the work stands well on its own, encompassing some of Marcel’s interests, from the influence of minimalism in the opening and close (the ‘urban pulse’ of the title), through jazz. (You can hear and see the Bergmann Duo playing the work here.)
The remainder of the works were arrangements by Marcel of music with jazz or dance influence. The audience loved them, and if I personally might have hoped for one more work drawn from the classical repertoire, it was all enormously entertaining, played with gusto and enthusiastic energy – another hallmark of the duo (indeed, I don’t think there was a pp, let alone a ppp, in the whole recital). Brubeck’s famous Blue Rondo à la Turk transfers well to two pianos (though I subconsciously kept expecting to hear brushes on cymbals), and the encore – an arrangement by Marcel of the jazz pianist Chick Corea’s Spanish pastiche, La fiesta – transported us to the land of flamenco.
Egberto Gismonti, who was born in Brazil 1947 of Sicilian and Lebanese parents and studied with Nadia Boulanger and Jean Barraqué, has performed with many groups, including a trio with the famed Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. His Infancia (‘Childhood’) was attractive enough, influenced by Villa-Lobos. The highlight of this section, though, were two works by the foremost composer of tangos, the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). I had last heard some of his tangos played by the Vaughan String Quartet and the Italian-born Edmontonian accordionist Antonio Peruch, in a 2016 concert, and was rather disappointed. Not here. The Bergmanns created a rich-textured large-scale soundscape for Oblivion, and a real feel for the tango in Libertango, with a wonderful textured crescendo at its end, converting me to the merits of this attractive music.
The Bergmanns had not appeared in Edmonton for some years before this recital. I do hope it is not such quite a long gap until their next visit, and that perhaps we might have the opportunity sometime to hear at least one of Marcel’s major works for the duo, the Concerto for Two Pianos (which was premiered in 2014 in Red Deer) or the Concerto for Piano Four-Hands and Chamber Ensemble, premiered at the White Rock Concerts last year.
Holy Trinity Anglican Church
December 31st, 2017
Ēriks Ešenvalds: Stars
Ivo Antognini: Canticum Novum
Mendelssohn: from Sechs Sprüche Op.79
J.S. Bach: Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV 147
Joby Talbot: ‘Santiago’ from Path of Miracles
Ann-Sofi Söderqvist: What is Life?
Thomas LaVoy The Same Stream
Rossini: ‘Toast pour le nouvel an’ (Les peches de vieillesse Vol.2 No.1)
Trad. Arranged Desmond Early: The Parting Glass
Mendelssohn: ‘Denn hat seinen Englein befohlen’ MWV B53
There are plenty of us who don’t particularly want to venture out into a wind-chill of -40C to watch Edmonton’s New Year’s fireworks, and are equally adverse to a noisy New Year’s Eve party where too much is drunk and you have to wait interminably for a taxi to get you home.
For us party-shirkers, Edmonton’s best choir, Pro Coro, had the perfect answer: a New Year’s concert in the humble, atmospheric surroundings of Holy Trinity Anglican Church. They started at 7.30 on New Year’s Eve, and finished exactly when they promised they would, as 9.30, allowing us plenty of time to toddle home while the roads were still quiet. To make sure we hadn’t, Scrooge-like, entirely eschewed the spirit of the season, prosecco and treats were served in the intermission, and sometime after nine, conductor Michael Zaugg announced that it had to be New Year that moment somewhere in the world. He promptly distributed sparkly pointed hats to all the choir, donning one himself (it greatly suited him). A miniature reflecting mirror ball mysteriously appeared, and was ceremoniously lowered to the traditional countdown, and then the choir and the audience sang Auld Lang Syne.
Before that was a more rarefied indulgence, as the choir sang a wide range of music. Most of it was strongly Christian – appropriate, given that we were in an Anglican Church and New Year’s Eve fell on a Sunday – leavened with a couple of works with a strong philosophical bent, and two complete interlopers: Rossini musing on the sins of his old age in the delightful ‘Toast pour le nouvel an” to the poem by Émilien Pacini, and the 17th Century Scottish song The Parting Glass, lovingly sung by the choir and with a very good soloist in Caleb Nelson (the Scottish seem to have the genre of maudlin songs of parting after drinking sewn up, though some readers may know this song better in a version based on it by Bob Dylan, Restless Farewell).
The Christians had it over the philosophers, for the highlights were religious works by Mendelssohn and Joby Talbot. Mendelssohn wrote six short unaccompanied motets in Berlin between 1843 and 1846, to go with the Lutheran liturgy, to Biblical texts and each ending with the word ‘Hallelujah’. Zaugg had chosen three, reordering them to make chronological sense. The first was No.5 ‘Im Advent’ celebrating that the redeemer is coming, then No 1, ‘Christmas’, and finally No.2 ‘Am Neujahrstage’ (‘On New Year’s Day’). What beautiful works they are, too, the lively counterpoint harking back to Palestrina, a breath of renaissance translated into a Romantic choral sound, the motet for New Year’s Day unexpectedly slow, like overlapping chords from some ethereal celestial organ.
‘Santiago’, by the British composer Joby Talbot (born 1971, and probably best known for his film and television music), is the last section of an extensive 2005 choral work in four parts, Path of Miracles, that follows the famous pilgrims path to the cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It’s a wonderful conception: each of the four parts represents one of the staging posts on the pilgrimage, and it combines texts from medieval sources, Catholic liturgy, and original words by the librettist Robert Dickinson. Languages used are Greek, Latin, Spanish, Basque, French, English and German – in the final section, ‘Santiago’, words from the famed medieval Carmina Burana celebrate the coming of spring, alongside a wide variety of other texts. The music of this 22-minute section is equally varied: it opens with the effects of faster undulations against a slow moving backdrop, like the effect of the different distances of a landscape moving at different speeds as one travels. Then comes an evocation of a vista from the mountains, a view as one comes over the ridge, in the more unison second section. In the joyful arrival as Santiago is seen there is more than a touch of Carl Orff in the rhythms, turning into a march as the pilgrims arrive to great shouts of the city’s name. It’s deeply involving and descriptive music (and texts), and clearly Pro Coro revel in it.
The shade of Orff also appeared in the lively Canticum Novum by Swiss composer Ivo Antognini (born 1963). It was written in 2016, sets the Roman Liturgy, and is well worth the hearing (there’s good performance by the Batavia Madrigal Singers at the 48th Tolosa Choral Contest 2016, Basque Country, Spain on YouTube). J.S Bach followed. English speakers would have recognized Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habeas as ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. In fact the words by Salomo Franck in the original German of the sixth and final section of the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147, 1723), are different from Robert Bridges’ English version, which was incorrectly printed in the program booklet as a translation for the German sung here. Pro Coro went Swingle Singers, as various sections of the chorus jazzed the orchestral parts – fun to do (and in particular a feat of endurance from some of the sopranos), but personally I prefer that particular Bach straight.
The philosophers opened the second half. Ann-Sofi Söderqvist (born 1956) is a Swedish composer (and trumpeter). Her What is Life? (2006) seemed to have identity problems, with hints of jazz and middle-eastern vocalization amongst more orthodox choral writing. Pro Coro equally seemed unclear how to tackle it – I wondered if it would have been more effective if they had let go a bit more. 27-year old American composer Thomas LaVoy studied at Aberdeen University with Paul Mealor, who was Pro Coro’s composer-in-residence last year. The Same Stream (2015) to a text by the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was pleasant enough, voices indeed emulating a stream tumbling along, but was stronger on technique than memorability.
The whole concert had opened with a pleasing effect. The choir occupied the stage but also the side aisles as they came in, and for Stars by the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (born 1977), some played water-filled tuned wine-glasses, like a spread-out glass harmonica. The concert closed with Mendelssohn’s eight-part motet ‘Denn hat seinen Englein befohlen’ MWV B53. It is probably best known from its placement by the composer into Elijah, but it was actually written earlier, as an independent piece, in 1844. Here we had the original version (hence it being given in German), in spite of what the program booklet suggested. It was beautifully sung, as was the entire concert, just the occasional very minor lapse (such as a lack of totally unison on harder sounding consonants) simply reminding one how good this choir is overall.
Zaugg has promised that this New Year’s Eve concert was the start of a new Pro Coro tradition. I do hope so, and judging by the enthusiasm of the packed Holy Trinity Anglican Church (I have never seen it so full), there are lots of others who also want an alternative way to spend New Year’s Eve.
GROUND-BREAKING COMMISSION TRUE NORTH SYMPHONIC BALLET AIRS LIVE TO THE WORLD
WORLD PREMIERE LIVE-STREAMS OCTOBER 28, 2017
Calgary, Alta., October 25, 2017 – With great honour, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) presents its most ambitious Canadian commission since 2012, Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, which garnered international attention. True North: Symphonic Ballet brings together five-award winning Canadian composers from across the nation, a cultural advisor from the TSUU T’INA Nation in the Treaty 7 territory, and an acclaimed choreographer. The project embodies Canada’s multi-cultural identity and values in symphonic dance form. In partnership with the DeBoni New Works Programme, the CPO commissioned this piece to celebrate Canada 150 and is part of its five-week long True North Festival.
Audiences around the world can enjoy a fully immersive, real-time digital concert experience for no fee.
What: Live-broadcast of True North Symphonic Ballet – World Premiere
When: Saturday, October 28, 2017 at 8 p.m. (MST)
Ticket Information: Tickets to this concert are available through the Calgary Philharmonic Box Office at 403.571.0849 or online at calgaryphil.com.
Welcome! This new site, still under development, is for all those concert-goers and classical music lovers in Edmonton, and for those visiting to city who might wonder what classical music concerts are happening during their visit.
It has two areas:
– Iain Gillis & Mark Morris