Rhinegold Photo credit: Sally Corrick
Commemorating one of the great poets: Alec Roth

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Premieres: September’s new music

8:00, 1st September 2017

Alec Roth was adamant that his new song cycle should be performed in 2017, this year being the centenary of Edward Thomas’s death at the Battle of Arras. The poet has long been on Roth’s radar, but it was only after setting ‘Lights out’ a few years ago that the composer began to realise the potential of his oeuvre.

‘There was something I really connected to,’ Roth explains. ‘It’s something to do with his directness of utterance. On the surface he uses plain, everyday language and it’s only when you get to know it that you come to realise how clever that is – below the surface it’s so beautifully constructed and so rich in metaphor. It’s that combination of richness and simplicity which is so attractive. As soon as I read that particular poem, I could hear the music coming straight away.’

Inspired to read the rest of Thomas’s work, Roth ‘realised there were probably seven or eight cycles’ in the poet’s oeuvre. It him took a long time to choose which texts to set for this particular work. ‘I decided to focus the piece around this idea of the road, which recurs frequently in his work. He spent a lot of time walking around English country roads, and nobody writes about roads as he does. My sequence of poems are a journey along the road, from an initial starting point to the final song, which will be “Lights out”. It’s like a journey to the battlefields of France.’

Although the English countryside is central to Thomas’s poems, his writing leaves the poems open to multiple interpretations, with the war never far away. ‘There’s a wonderful poem called The Gallows, which is about how when you used to walk through the English countryside, you’d see pests, like weasels and magpies, which had been shot by gamekeepers, strung up on fences as a deterrent. Perhaps he’s thinking about the soldiers strung up on the barbed wire in France; he doesn’t say as much, but you can’t help making that connection.’

The premiere of the work will be given by the Sacconi String Quartet and long-term collaborators Mark Padmore and Morgan Szymanski, but can also be performed in other combinations. ‘I’m being ambitious – I’m trying to write it in such a way that it’ll be performable just by tenor and string quartet, or tenor and guitar, or all together. That’s my technical challenge; it’s quite tricky, but good fun.’

Roth hopes this flexibility will give the piece more viability, but his principal reason for choosing this combination was that it felt like a return to his artistic roots. ‘I don’t connect so much with the voice and piano tradition; I feel I have more in common with the early school of English song,’ Roth says. ‘John Dowland wrote for lute and viol consort; this is my equivalent, and I feel more sympathy with it.’ The composer considers the work more akin to a solo cantata rather than a song cycle: ‘It’s not just comprised of songs – there are recitatives and ariosos too, so it’s more mixed content.’

In writing the piece, Roth says he ‘just wanted to make something which is beautiful which the performers will enjoy performing and the audience will find engaging to listen to’. He pauses, then adds: ‘For me, Edward Thomas is one of our greatest poets, and I wanted to commemorate him and introduce other people to his work.’

Alec Roth A Road Less Travelled (Mark Padmore, tenor, Morgan Szymanski, guitar, Sacconi String Quartet, Great Malvern Priory, 3.30pm)

The brief for Fanfares was rather unusual: not only was the title of the piece specified, but it was also required that it would be drawn from another larger piece, to be performed later in the 2017/18 season. ‘The shorter piece could be from any part of the longer one, but it had to be four or five minutes long and it would open the concert,’ Grime explains. ‘So it had to make sense as part of something else, but also on its own.’

An enigmatic showpiece: Helen Grime © Amy Barton
An enigmatic showpiece: Helen Grime
© Amy Barton

The composer decided to make the piece the first movement of the longer piece. ‘I wanted it to be quite celebratory and virtuosic. It was quite difficult to see how something with such an explosive opening – lots of runs in the woodwind, percussion and lots going on – could come later in the piece.’

Throughout the composition process, Grime was constantly asking herself how Fanfares would relate to a larger whole, and how it would make sense both as part of something bigger and on its own terms. The concept on which the piece is created – the tension between outer and inner worlds – is something she will explore in greater detail in the larger piece.

The piece also plays with the very concept of a fanfare. ‘There are muted, distant fanfares which aren’t always very obviously fanfare-like, and I often combine different types of fanfares at the same time. You get things moving from the foreground to become accompanimental figures, so things are always shifting.’ The piece concludes in the inner world, offering a mysterious ending while pre-empting what happens in the second movement of the larger work. ‘It’s a showpiece, but an enigmatic one,’ Grime says.

The composer knew when she accepted the commission that it would open Sir Simon Rattle’s first season with the London Symphony Orchestra. ‘That’s quite a lot of a pressure,’ she says, laughing. ‘Every commission comes with different pressures, but this is huge. It’s a really important concert, and it’s an amazing statement Sir Simon is making by opening the season with a programme of music by living composers, apart from the Elgar. He’s always supported contemporary music, and I think he’s showing his intentions right from the get-go. While it was hugely exciting to receive the commission, it also came with its own sets of anxieties, to which I’m quite sensitive. But once you get into a piece and can put those things aside, you’re just focusing on writing the music. That’s all you can do, and you just have to hope for the best!’

Helen Grime Fanfares (London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Barbican, 7.30pm)

Matan Porat’s new work for string quartet will receive its premiere as part of the concert launching Cuarteto Casals’ Beethoven cycle. The new piece, which is programmed immediately before the Op 132 quartet in A minor, takes its inspiration from the Beethoven and will allow the audience to hear it in a new light.

Paying tribute to Beethoven: Matan Porat © Neda Navaee
Paying tribute to Beethoven: Matan Porat
© Neda Navaee

The work’s subtitle, Otzma, is drawn from a marking used in the third movement of the Beethoven. ‘There is a marking, “Neue Kraft fühlend”, which means “Feeling renewed strength” – and otzma means “power” or “strength” in Hebrew,’ Porat says.

He refers to the Beethoven in other ways as well. ‘I didn’t take musical quotations in the most obvious manner, but the Beethoven quartet is special in its use of modality. The slow movement is in the Lydian mode, which begins on F; my quartet doesn’t use that note.’

I ask the composer whether he finds it easy to write for string quartet, and his answer is equivocal. ‘Of course it’s a great medium, but because so many amazing masterpieces have been written, you feel the weight on your shoulders because there’s so much history. On the other hand, it’s always very nice for me to write for an ensemble I know. I’m a pianist as well and I’ve played with the Cuarteto Casals several times, so I had them in mind when I wrote the piece – it’s much more personal.’

Praising the ensemble’s playing as ‘beautiful and fiery’, Porat says: ‘They have a lot of energy, and the piece has a constant energy throughout. They also play with amazing quality of sound, and there are many movements where the quartet plays in unison, as in the second movement of the Beethoven, essentially creating one instrument from four players. Overall, though, the piece is a moving flow of energy.’

Matan Porat String quartet Otzma (Cuarteto Casals, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

Alexandra Harwood New work (I Musicanti, St John’s Smith Square, London, 3pm)

Missy Mazzoli Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) Euro prem of orchestral version (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Karina Canellakis, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 7.30pm)

Catherine Lamb New work (The Tanks, Tate Modern, 22.15pm)

Grace Williams Violin sonata (Madeleine Mitchell, violin, Konstantin Lapshin, piano, Powis Hall, Bangor University, 11am)

John Adams Lola Montez does the Spider Dance London prem Lotta Wennäkoski Flounce (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, London, 7.15pm)

Patrick Hawes St George & The Dragon (National Youth Harp Orchestra, Luisa Cordell, conductor, St James’s Piccadilly, London, 7.30pm)

Franz Liszt Magyar Rapszódia No 23 in C sharp minor ‘Rêves et Fantaisies’ S242/23 (Leslie Howard, piano, Wigmore Hall, 4pm)

John Casken Clarinet quintet Alexander Goehr Quintet for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin and double bass (Nash Ensemble, Martyn Brabbins, conductor, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

James MacMillan A Special Appeal (Choir of Westminster Abbey, James O’Donnell, conductor, Westminster Abbey, London)

Sally Beamish The Judas Passion (Julia Doyle, Brendan Gunnell, James Newby, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Nicholas McGegan, conductor, Saffron Hall)

Cheryl Frances-Hoad Invocatio Roxanna Panufnik Votive Cecilia McDowall To a Nightingale Freya Waley-Cohen Vitae David Knotts At the Mid Hour of Night Mika Haasler Fugue for Pamela (Wihan Quartet, Wigmore Hall, 1pm)
Jack White Three After-Dinner Pieces (Peter Moore, trombone, Richard Uttley, piano, Colston Hall, Bristol, 1.05pm; also 3 October, Wigmore Hall, London, 1pm)
Kaija Saariaho Trans UK prem (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 7.30pm; also 28 September, 2.15pm)

Philip Glass Symphony no 11 UK prem (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko, conductor)
Daniel Bjarnason Violin concerto (Pekka Kuusisto, violin, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor, Royal Festival Hall, 7.30pm)

Edward Cowie Earth Music 2 (BBC Singers, Nicholas Kok, conductor, St Paul’s Knightsbridge, London)

Mark-Anthony Turnage Prussian Blue (Savitri Grier, violin, Benedikt Schneider, viola, Mikayel Hakhnazaryan, cello, Matthew McDonald, bass, Tom Poster, piano, St John’s Church, Truro, 3pm; also 2 October, Cedar Hall, Wells Cathedral School, Wells, 7pm; 3 October, Stowe School, 7pm; 4 October, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge; 5 October, Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm)

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