Last week I went up to Stratford to attend a concert given by the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Tom Hammond, a friend and colleague for whom I have been doing some publicity work.

There’s a nice symmetry in all of this because Tom and I first met online through a blog article he wrote, bemoaning the fact that critics and concert reviewers rarely seem to make the effort to travel outside of the M25, or indeed Zone 6 on the Underground, to cover the excellent and varied music-making which goes on outside the capital. The issue came up for discussion at the Music Into Words event I co-organised back in 2016, where an arts editor from a leading broadsheet newspaper basically admitted that they tend only to cover the “premier division” of concerts, and that these are by and large in London. It’s a great pity because there is so much fantastic music-making going on outside of the capital: since moving to Dorset I have attended three excellent music festivals, which, by the way, attract international artists, and Tom is co-artistic director of an excellent music festival based in Hertfordshire – easily accessible by road and rail from London, but largely overlooked by mainstream critics because, despite also attracting international artists, it takes place in what is sneeringly call “the provinces”.

There is nothing provincial about the Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), nor the programme at Tuesday night’s concert. Led by David Le Page, one of the most self-contained and sincere musicians I have ever met, OOTS can match any London chamber ensemble in its creative programming and outreach and educational projects. Tom had been invited by David Le Page, who is AD of the orchestra, to create a programme and he chose to focus on Jean Sibelius, whose music first attracted him to classical music when he was a child. Some may regard a programme focusing on a single composer as “a list”, but this imaginative programme combined well-known works, such as The Swan of Tuonela and the layered complexity of the Seventh Syphony, with the rarely-performed Humoresques for Violin & Orchestra and excerpts from the Tempest suite. Entitled Intimate Voices, it gave the audience the opportunity not only to experience some of Sibelius’ lesser-known music but to also appreciate the breadth of his musical imagination and artistic development for the programmed spanned the outer limits of his compositional life. It made for a fascinating and absorbing evening, and the orchestra rose to the challenge of this complex, multi-faceted music with great aplomb. They were joined for the Humoresques by violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and there was a very palpable sense of mutual cooperation and enjoyment between soloist and orchestra.

But there was more, beyond the music itself, which made this a particularly enjoyable and uplifting evening, and that was the audience, who filled the Stratford Playhouse auditorium with the kind of warm enthusiasm that many promoters can only dream of. It was quite evident that this audience was as committed as the orchestra, and this created a wonderful sense of a shared experience – which is what music making is all about, after all.

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Tom Hammond conducting Orchestra of the Swan, 21 January 2020

 

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I have British pianist Joseph Tong to thank for introducing me to the wonderful piano music of Jean Sibelius: Joseph played a selection of miniatures, ‘The Trees’, at a concert for my local musical society, which revealed the variety and expressive qualities of Sibelius’ writing for the piano, too often overlooked when compared to the statue and popularity of his symphonies.

Joseph is a keen champion of Sibelius’ piano music and has traveled to the composer’s home in Finland to play his piano. In his recordings of Sibelius’ piano works, Joseph seeks to demonstrate the composer’s command and understanding of the instrument through a selection of works written during the main periods of the his creative life. There are crisp textures, folk melodies, rhythmic dances and imaginative part-writing. This volume contains Sibelius’ most significant large-scale work for piano, the Piano Sonata in F, Op 12, and one of his best-loved orchestral transcriptions, the Valse triste, which opens as a melancholy waltz that grows into something more far expressive, romantic and upbeat (though always tinged with poignancy, not unlike Ravel’s La Valse).

The miniatures on this disc, the Six Bagatelles, Five Characteristic Impressions and Four Lyric Pieces have a quirky individuality, with their hints of folk idioms, lyrical melodic inspiration and pianistic challenges. Joseph is alert to the changing characters and moods of these miniature marvels and brings warmth and affection to his sound and interpretation.

In planning the running order for the disc, Joseph wanted to combine “large-scale works with shorter pieces (or sets of pieces) in a way which might mirror a concert programme” and so the recording closes with a fine reading of Sibelius’ early Piano Sonata in F, a large-scale work rich in late-Romantic expression which fully utilises the modern piano’s resources. It has a Rachmaninoff-like spaciousness to it – the piano music of both composers seems to acknowledge and express the vastness of their homelands (even when writing in miniature form), though Schumann is a more likely influence in Sibelius’ early piano writing. The first movement certainly shares Schumann’s extrovert exuberance and brilliance. The middle movement, Andantino, is more restrained, a simple hymn-like melody with an accompaniment of syncopated chords, which becomes more florid in the middle part of the movement. The finale is rambunctious cheerful rondo, driven by its motoring rhythms and busy theme, which ends in virtuosic cascades of notes.

Like the previous volume, this is a rewarding compilation, revealing Joseph’s affinity with the music and its composer in his depth of tone, varied colours and musical understanding. The recording quality is excellent, with an immediacy of sound which suggests a live concert performance (and I was fortunate to hear Joseph perform the Piano Sonata and shorter works at his recent concert at St John’s Smith Square to launch this recording).

Sibelius’ piano music is accessible and satisfying to play, and I urge pianists to seek out this excellent survey.

Recommended

 

 

 

(photo credit: Gareth Barton)
(photo credit: Gareth Barton)

Violinist Fenella Humphreys and pianist Nicola Eimer celebrate the 150th anniversaries of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen in a concert combining works for violin and piano by these two composers, together with new works by contemporary composers.

Alongside works by Sibelius and Nielsen, the duo will premiere a new set of five pieces composed on the footprint of Sibelius’s Five Pieces op.81 by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Alasdair Nicolson, Matthew Taylor, David Knotts and Anthony Powers.

Programme

Jean Sibelius: 4 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.115
Cheryl Frances-Hoad: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Alasdair Nicholson: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
David Knotts: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81knotts da
Matthew Taylor: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Anthony Powers: New work for PUR 4 Feb 2015 after Sibelius’ 5 Pieces for violin & piano, Op.81
Jean Sibelius: Sonatina in E for violin & piano, Op.80
Interval
Carl Nielsen: Violin Sonata No.2 in G, Op.35

The concert takes place on 4th February 2015 at the Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. Further information and tickets here

‘Fenella Humphreys responds to its elegiac reflection and technical display at top flight level’ (Orchestral Choice CD, 5* BBC Music Magazine)

‘Nicola Eimer is an outstanding artist’ (The Strad Magazine)