Cerne Abbas is a pretty village nestled in “Thomas Hardy country” north of Dorchester (Hardy’s Casterbridge). It’s famous for its “rude giant”, carved into the side of a hill above the village, whose origins are unknown, and for the last 29 years, the village has been host to an annual music festival, founded and organised by the Gaudier Ensemble.

The festival was established in Cerne Abbas to provide musicians with an attractive place to perform and an opportunity for them to come together to play the music they wanted to play to the highest artistic standards. The festival has also forged important links with the local community and has created stimulation and inspiration for schoolchildren and young musicians. A generous programme of concerts is combined with open rehearsals and masterclasses for promising young musicians, and leading students from the Royal Academy regularly join the Gaudier Ensemble to perform in some of the concerts. The church of St Mary’s is an excellent venue for the concerts, with its fine acoustic and picturesque location.

I knew about the Cerne Abbas Music Festival from the pianist Susan Tomes (whom I’ve interviewed and subsequently met) who plays with the Gaudier Ensemble, but missed the festival last year due to my house move. This year, I was determined to attend; Cerne Abbas is a 45-minute drive from Portland through some of the most charming countryside, and my father’s visit was a good opportunity to enjoy a Sunday lunchtime recital of one our favourite works – Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet.

The opening piece, a quartet by François Devienne for strings and bassoon, was unknown to us but with its idioms and character so redolent of Haydn and Mozart, it felt familiar, and the performance was witty and colourful – what I call “friendly music” which puts everyone in a good mood and receptive for the rest of the concert.

Schubert’s Trout was infused with a warm intimacy, the piano ringing out like a carillon, high-spirited and lively but never dominating, the strings carefree and lyrical. Relaxed and genial, it felt irresistibly spontaneous, with its transparent textures and infectious, memorable melodies. The perfect music for a warm, sunny day in Dorset.

This was a most enjoyable and committed performance, the audience attentive and enthusiastic, and proof once again that fine music making exits and thrives outside of the capital. Next year Cerne Abbas Music Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary: the dates are already in my diary.

Cerne Abbas Music Festival

Meet the Artist interview with Susan Tomes

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It could have been any night at the Wigmore Hall, London’s ‘sacred shoebox’: the grand piano stretched across the stage like a gleaming limousine, the anticipatory hum of conversation in the foyer, people chatting in the bar…

Except it wasn’t any other night.

For me, it was my first experience of jazz at the Wigmore. It felt right, because for a jazz ingénue like me, it was easy to walk into a venue I know well for music which I didn’t know. It felt comfortable. The atmosphere was different, however, and the audience younger.

It all began in a familiar way – the lights dimmed, the pianist crossed the stage to the piano, his body language quiet and composed. Then that first piece, hushed, tender, elegantly voiced. Not “jazz” as I understood the term, but something which transcended the boundaries of genre. I heard Debussy, Scriabin, Ravel, a dash of Messiaen, a hint of Radiohead in the colourful, piquant harmonies. The piano sound was gorgeous, restrained, perfectly nuanced.

After the second piece, jazz pianist Jason Moran turned to the audience.

“People like me don’t play in halls like this” he said.

There was a burst of laughter from the audience, but this was no joke. Go into the green room at the Wigmore, where performers, Moran included, wait before going on stage, and you’re surrounded by photographs of others who have performed in this hallowed hall: there’s not a single person of colour amongst them.

The enormity, the responsibility, the flow of history and heritage weighs heavily on every performer playing at the Wigmore. And Moran clearly felt it too – only more so. Added to this, the night before he’d played at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn, with a portrait of the Old Radical staring right back at him as he sat at the piano. Imagine how that felt? He dedicated his Wigmore concert to “everyone who has walked across this stage”.

History was felt too in the stride number Carolina Shout, a hommage to Moran’s jazz forebears James P Johnson and Teddy Wilson. It was the only piece in the programme which felt like “real” jazz to me. Contrast it with Magnet, an earthy, dark, rumbling piece largely confined to the lowest registers of the piano which revealed sonorities and resonances rarely-heard – the echo of a voice shouting into a cave, drums and strings, bassoons, even the thrum of helicopter rotorblades….it reminded me of Somei Satoh’s Incarnation II, another piece which capitalises on the piano’s resonance.

Another work had the pulsing, looping hypnotic repetitions of Steve Reich. In all the playing, and his introductions to the pieces, Moran revealed himself to be a compelling communicator, creating connections through words and sound which drew us in, made us listen attentively – and made us think.

But it was in the more soulful, expressive and introspective numbers that I found most to admire – never before have I heard so many colours, nuances, subtleties of timbres from the Wigmore Steinway as in Moran’s hands. His first encore was achingly tender, so poignant, so intimate; the second more upbeat, a piece with the rhythmic drive to rouse us from our seats to offer a standing ovation.

“It’s all just music!” said my jazz pianist friend Rick Simpson when we were having a drink after the concert. And he’s right – it is all just music, regardless of genre or period. And on Friday night it was just music – and music making – of the highest order.

 

Ronan Magill, piano

Piano Sonata No. 3 in C, Op 2, No. 3

Two Bagatelles, Op 126 : G major – Andante con moto & E flat major. – Andante cantabile e grazioso

Piano Sonata No. 29, Op 106 ‘Hammerklavier’

Friday 26 April, Tincleton Gallery, Dorset


The tiny village of Tincleton is nestled in the pretty Dorset countryside near Moreton, where T E Lawrence (of Arabia) is buried. A converted Victorian school house is home to Tincleton Gallery which exhibits local artists and sculptors and also hosts concerts of jazz and classical music in an elegant vaulted gallery space which was once the schoolroom.

Organiser and host Joan Burdett-Coutts is friendly and welcoming, and one can take a glass of wine into the concert room, underlining the convivial ambiance of these events. The audience is very loyal, some people travelling from far outside the county to attend, and many come to all the concerts in the series.

The first time I met pianist Ronan Magill he played Liszt and Schubert, and some of his own compositions from his Titanic suite, on the Bechstein in my living room – a pre-performance ahead of a “proper” concert later that week. It’s a real treat to be so close to the music, and the music maker, and the audience at Tincleton Gallery enjoyed the same intimacy and immediacy of sound.

Ronan’s programme offered a snapshot of the extremes of Beethoven’s compositional life, from an early sonata, composed in 1795, to two Bagatelles from the Op 126, written after the final three piano sonatas and inhabiting the same otherwordliness as these works, and the monumental Hammerklavier sonata, one of the highest peaks of the pianist’s repertoire.

The early sonata is full of Hadynesque wit in its outer movements, deftly portrayed by Ronan, but the slow movement looks forward to the emotional depth and range of the Hammerklavier and the late sonatas, and was played with an elegance and sensitivity which found even greater expression in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier.

The first and last Bagatelles from the Op 126 contain all the brilliance, rhetoric and mercurial character of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and set the tone nicely for the Hammerklavier after the interval (during which more wine, nibbles and conversation).

The Hammerklavier is justly regarded by pianists as one of the high Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, and marks a significant point in Beethoven’s compositional life – a musical manifesto, which reaffirms the composer’s presence in the world, after the turbulent, difficult years of the Heilingenstadt Testament (a letter from October 1802 in which Beethoven expressed his despair over his increasing deafness). The sonata is a pianistic tour de force, from its infamous and perilously daring grand opening leap of an octave and a half  to its finger-twisting final fugue. As Beethoven himself stated, ‘it will give pianists something to do’. The cumulative effect of this work is overwhelming: an expression of huge power, richness and logic, and Ronan rose to the challenge of the majestic breadth of this great sonata

The Adagio sostentuto is the emotional heart of this expansive work, and here time was suspended in music which has an almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, combined with the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne, all played with a Mozartian clarity and broad dynamic palette. And out of this other-worldly place came a restless physicality in the gigantic explosion of the final fugue and its deliberate dissonances and crunchy harmonies.

What can one play after such a mountain has been scaled? Schubert’s sixth Moment Musical in consoling A flat major offered a gentle salve and shared the introspection of Beethoven in his more reflective moments.

Concerts at Tincleton Gallery

Guest review by Doug Thomas

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Gavin Bryars

In 1971, the British composer Gavin Bryars looped the recording of an unknown homeless man singing what was thought to be the religious hymn “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” over a dense minimalistic orchestral arrangement. The result is a mesmerising musical experience; first limited to twenty-five minutes on LP, then sixty minutes on cassette and finally seventy-four minutes with the CD version. Unfortunately, it appears that the old man never heard Bryars’ composition – and the composer himself later came to conclusion that the hymn had actually been improvised by the unknown man. Last Friday, 12th April 2019, a handful of lucky people gathered in the Tanks at London’s Tate Modern to experience for the very first time for a full twelve-hour live performance of the piece.

The event, scheduled at eight in the evening and running until the early morning, was organised so that the audience could stay for the entire duration of the concert, but with constant open doors to allow people to come and go throughout the night. Contrary to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby “Sleep”, no beds had been arranged; actually no seating had been arranged at all. The audience spontaneously sat, and later lay down, in a semi-circle in front of the orchestras, while some people stood up and moved around, as one would do in a museum room. The orchestras were the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Southbank Sinfonia and the Gavin Bryars Ensemble (including my arranging teacher at university, Audrey Riley). On the side of the orchestras, Street Wise Opera, a choir of people with experience of homelessness, and in the middle of all that, on contrabass and later on the conductor’s seat, Gavin Bryars himself.

The piece started quite spontaneously with no announcement or introduction. And then something happened. To the words of the old man’s voice and the sweetness of the instruments, the entire audience remained silent and immovably mesmerised. Stanza after stanza, the instruments introduced themselves, then the choir started singing. There was the beauty of the music, the honesty of the musicians and the singers, the admiration and attentiveness of the audience. When I checked the time, I realised that what felt like minutes had actually been hours. Throughout the night, members of the orchestra took turns in performing while part of the audience remained, as night owls, until the early morning.

Everything about this experience was right. The venue, which broke with the austere standards of classical concerts venues, and allowed everyone to come, and go. The spontaneous audience: musicians, curious wanderers or simple art and music lovers. The performers: amateurs and professionals gathered around a communal sense of honesty and authenticity. And of course, the music. What had always seemed to me like a beautiful two-dimensional musical painting became a sonic sculptural wrapping, and a unique musical experience. How lucky I feel to have been a little piece of history of minimalistic music.


Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London.

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DONNE Women in Music | Showcase Concert,  St Gabriel’s Church, London, 7th March

Guest review by Karine Hetherington

On the eve of International Women’s Day, I attended a concert at St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico, showcasing women’s music.

Soprano, Gabriella Di Laccio, the powerhouse behind the musical initiative Donne: Women in Music, welcomed us and introduced us to her musicians for the evening: James Akers guitarist, soprano, Susie Georgiadis and pianist Clelia Iruzun. I was pleasantly surprised to see a male musician in the line-up.

Akers produced a Romantic guitar, which is smaller than the classical guitar. I realise that night that my knowledge of the classical guitar was limited to Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream and John Williams. My mother played their records over and over during our childhood in the early 1970s.

James Akers, I learnt, had a few misgivings about the Father of the Guitar, André Segovia. Whilst acknowledging Segovia’s brilliance, he believed that guitar masters had limited the guitar repertoire we have been exposed to. Women composers especially had suffered as a result of Segovia’s promotion of Spanish male composers. This evening was the occasion to redress the balance.

He played works by Emilia Giuliani (1813-1850) who shared the stage with Franz Liszt, and Athénaïs Paulian (1801- c.1875) who was a child prodigy, was well known in British society and had a biography written about her. Prelude 2 by Giuliani was particularly appealing; however Akers’ delicate, dexterous play could have benefited from some amplification in the church. I listened to extracts from his Le Donne et la Chitarra CD later and was struck by the colour and expression he brought to each work. Highly recommended.

Next, Gabriella Di Laccio interpreted songs by Clara K.Rogers (1844-1931) and Avril Coleridge-Taylor (1903-1998). Can Sorrow Find Me by Coleridge-Taylor is a beautiful, dramatic and haunting work. Di Laccio had the power in the higher register but her voice felt a little tight in the lower notes and pianissimos. I was delighted however to hear her sing the same work again on BBC 3’s In tune the following day for International Women’s Day. This time Di Laccio broadcast it to the nation perfectly!

Meanwhile soprano, Susie Georgiadis, performed a variety of Italian and Brazilian songs, all very different in tone and all beautifully sung. Georgiadis’s voice is warm and controlled and rich with emotion.

Most memorable was Cardellina, a charming song about a little bird and Sul Fiume (By The River), an intensely romantic composition. The composer, Giulia Recli (1890-1970), together with many other female composers, appears on Susie Georgiadis’s CD Homage, just out.

The evening ended fittingly with a Brazilian protest song entitled Marielle presente (2018). Composed by Catarina Domenici, in memory of the Rio de Janeiro councillor Marielle Franco, who was assassinated last year, it was a rousing song in honour of those women who had died recently in Brazil for their political activities.

All in all a tantalising introduction to the world of female composition.

Hats off to Gabriella Di Laccio for her remarkably enlightening project, which can only grow and grow.


Both of the CD’s below are available from the Donne Musica online shop.

Le Donne e la Chitarra with James Akers.

Homage: Women Composers from Italy and Brazil – Susie Georgiadis, Soprano & Angiolina Sensale, Piano

Gabriella Di Laccio & Clelia Iruzun
Susie Georgiadis
James Akers

Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer of novels, who also blogs on art and music. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse, and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine promotes singers and musicians performing in the fast-growing Kensington and Olympia Music and Arts Festival. She is also a reviewer for ArtMuseLondon.com

Kate-S-and-Steven-DKate Semmens, soprano & Steven Devine, harpsichord. Weymouth Sunday Concerts, 10 March 2019

When I think of the Notebooks of Anna Magdalena Bach, I imagine a weighty tome, leather bound, filled with album leaves of handwritten music on thick creamy vellum.

Anna Magdalena was the second Mrs Bach and was her husband’s helpmeet, looking after his children and assisting in copying out music part for performance. The two surviving collections of music which have come to be called Anna Magdalena’s Notebooks contain works for keyboard and voice, written by her husband and others, used for teaching and for entertainment. The works are small-scale and domestic and offer an intriguing glimpse into the home life of the Bach family: the children studying their keyboard and composition techniques and the entire family enjoying making music together. Interleaved with verse songs, polonaises and minuets are early workings of pieces which Bach later turned into works regarded today as some of the finest in the entire classical canon, including the Aria which opens the Goldberg Variations and Schlummert ein which was developed into Cantata 82.

Kate Semmens and Steven Devine presented a charming programme of works for voice and keyboard drawn from the Notebooks of Anna Magdalena. Performing on an instrument by Colin Booth, copied from a 1710 harpsichord made near where Bach lived, Steven brought vibrancy and elegance to the music, and for me, someone normally to be found at piano concerts, it was refreshing and instructive to hear a harpsichordist’s approach to aspects such as voicing and articulation. Despite the dynamic limitations of the instrument, Steven brought richness of tone and texture, most keenly felt in an uplifting performance of the Italian Concerto BWV 971.

Kate’s soprano voice is warm, expressive and colourful with clear diction and fine sense of drama and contrast. There was a lovely sense of synergy and understanding between these two musicians which highlighted the intimacy of the music, and both musicians introduced the works on the programme, engagingly setting them in context. This was a intriguing insight into the home life of JS and AM Bach and a delightful afternoon of fine music, beautifully presented.


Weymouth Sunday Concerts are presented by Weymouth Music Club. Now in its 74th season, the club hosts six concerts per year on Sunday afternoons at Weymouth Bay Methodist Church. Further information

Meet the Artist interview with Kate Semmens

Meet the Artist interview with Steven Devine