The Sound of Silence. Cage and Rauschenberg Take On A New Life With MusicArt.

During the summer of 1952, composer John Cage staged a happening that was going to change the world of music and art forever. At Black Mountain College in North Carolina, in the college dining hall, the audience listened to Cage read from an essay he had written on the relationship between music and Zen Buddhism. He punctuated his talk with long silences. It must have read like an extended poem.

Cage’s preoccupation with silence as musical form lead to his publishing of 4’33’’, his silent work, that same year.

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At that same college event, four white paintings had been suspended in the air above the audience. Robert Rauschenberg’s pristine White Paintings incarnated what Cage had expressed in words and in silence, namely painted space onto which the outside world could be projected. These paintings could change according to where they were hung; daylight, nature, harsh light spots could cast various shadows across the work. The canvas was a receptacle. A living tableau even, which changed from minute to minute – if only we were attentive enough. And that was the point – conceptual art as it came to be known, required us to think and to fine-tune our senses. And senses are at their most acute in stillness and space.

Knowing this, Cage in his 4’33” silent composition, drew our attention to ambient sound. For him there was no difference between sounds and music.

To this day, these ideas seem radical!

 

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Inspired by Cage’s and Rauschenberg’s works and ideas, pianist Annie Yim invited an audience to attend the premier of ‘Conceptual Concert in Three Acts’, at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London the other evening.

The concert room could barely accommodate the fashionable crowd that gathered for the event. Many had to make do with standing at the back, for along the walls, either side of them, precious Rauschenberg paintings had been hung. They formed part of a wonderful exhibition entitled Spreads 1975-83, the Thaddaeus-Ropac Gallery is putting on at the moment.That there wasn’t a white painting in sight was no bad thing and was consistent with the artistic layering that was about to take place in an evening of music, art and poetry.

At the front, a shiny black piano waited to be played. It was positioned between what seemed to be two huge canvases covered in sheets.

A tape recorder was switched on. ‘Nature is better than Art,’ said a gentle voice from the past belonging to the inimitable John Cage.

Annie Yim, founder of MusicArt which brings different art forms together, walked on stage to perform The Seasons composed by Cage in 1947. Sitting down at the piano she launched into winter: stark chords; spring: frolicking and skittering notes across the keyboard and summer: lyrical melodies, interspersed with mischievous interludes. Nuanced, precise playing of what is still considered to be experimental material is often hard to pull off and Annie Yim did so with gusto! The composition ended abruptly.

Act 11 was given over to new music by distinguished composer, Raymond Yiu which contained jazz elements and a beautiful duet played by Yim and the composer himself.

Meanwhile, Kayo Chingonyi, award-winning poet, read his own compositions. His poem entitled Matrix – Who’s to say, a tribute to Cage’s reverence for everyday (musical) sounds was particularly memorable and pertinent.

The latter part of the Act was devoted to Cage’s wonderful musings on the creative process: ‘I am trying to change my habits of seeing. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing’ (what dedication to permanent invention!) and poem To Whom which he read out at opening show of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings at the Stable Gallery in 1953. For me, one of the highlights of the evening was to listen to him speak.

And finally Act 111 unfolded. The sheets were removed to reveal two large mirrors. Pianist Yim sat down at the piano and as instructed by Cage in the 4’33” score, didn’t play a note.

Silence prevailed for 4’33’’. It was an entrancing experience. At first, time really did seem to stand still. As the performers froze, so did the audience. Very soon bemused expressions started to reflect in the mirror, bobbing heads looked this way and that.  Others, worn out by the lead up towards Christmas no doubt, simply closed their eyes and napped. Tiny sounds started to emerge from the stillness: nails clinking a wine glass, creaking chairs, stifled coughs. As if on cue, a rasping motorbike broke into the space. A tiny part of me felt it had been orchestrated but it didn’t matter for the mirrors revealed a room of smiling faces.

Cage had woven his magic as had MusicArt. It had been a bold enterprise by Yim and her team. She risked putting too many eggs into one basket. But overall, the project was cohesive, expertly performed by all and thought provoking, shedding further light on two iconic figures.

 

KH

 

Catch Rauschenberg Spreads and John Cage Ryoanji exhibitions at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, 37 Dover Street, London. On until 26 January 2019.

How To Get Out of the Cage. Engaging documentary featuring John Cage by award-winning film-maker Frank Scheffer on Youtube.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sax and Jazz. Jean Toussaint Still Has Youth Appeal

 

Sunday night in Camden. The temperature has plummeted and there are few people about on the high street.

Outside the Jazz Cafe however there is a queue forming. I rush to join it and edge my way forwards between the metal barriers to get my wrist stamped. A young man runs alongside us peddling his own CDs; £3 for an EP, £10 for the album. ‘I’ll have the EP,’ says the man in front of me, visibly sorry for the musician pounding the pavement on such a night.

We enter the venue and step out into a spacious bar area. Up ahead, the dimly lit dance floor, stage filled with instruments and leads, and running around them above, a buzzing mezzanine restaurant. The Jazz Cafe is a slick operation. Professional with friendly staff. It is the perfect venue for Jean Toussaint’s Allstar 6tet tonight.

I spy front man, Jean Toussaint, chatting with someone in the audience off stage and walk over and shake his hand. He hasn’t changed a bit since I last saw him play in the Bass Clef (sadly closed) almost three decades ago. He is tall, dressed in a suit, polite and still possesses that old-world charm. For someone who has spent most of his life playing in smoke-filled jazz clubs (no longer thankfully), his face is remarkably smooth and unlined.

He beams at the floor now filling with young people in their twenties. Women with afro hair dos and batik hairbands, young men dressed in dark jeans, clutching pints of lager. By their age, Toussaint was already touring the world with the famous drummer, Art Blakey, who had played with everyone, from Charlie Parker all the way through to Thelonious Monk. Toussaint was one of the ‘Messengers’.  In the late eighties he alighted in London, drawn by its effervescent jazz scene and settled here. With his own line up, Toussaint spent the next decade performing in London’s top music venues, Ronnie Scotts, Jazz Cafe, Pizza on the Park, Dingwalls and the 606 club.

At 9.20pm, a little early, Toussaint walks on stage with Andrew McCormack, a talented British pianist and composer. In interviews, McCormack is quick to mention Toussaint as having taking him under his wing. Toussaint takes his mentoring role seriously. He remembers what Art Blakey did for him. But having a band is not a charitable project, Toussaint only picks the best: Byron Wallen on trumpet, complete with studded cap, Dennis Rollins, trombonist. Double bass player Daniel Casimir slips in behind, together with Shane Forbes on drums.

During an interview Toussaint accords me the following day, he tells me a Miles Davies story. ‘Miles Davies’s approach to his band members was always the better you play, the better I gotta play. It’s not always like that in jazz. I allow my players space for their music.’

The gig at the Jazz Cafe is the occasion to perform pieces from his eleventh album, ‘Brother Raymond’  – and to combine it with new material: Gatekeeper, Missing of Sleep and Mandingo Brass.

thumbnail-300x269Toussaint nods to his own engineer brought in especially to do the live recording. In a beautiful baritone, Toussaint announces their first piece: Amabo, Obama spelt backwards. ‘I shall love in Latin he explains.’ It’s a musical fingers up to Trump. Refusing to give in to doom and gloom, Toussaint enters upon a joyous, irreverent piece. African rhythms abound (in honour of the first African, American President) and the 3 horn frontline beeps out the New York car horns. Two young men in front of me, bob up and down with their iPhones aimed at the stage. The rest of the floor is engaged in frenetic dancing.

Gatekeeper which follows, composed by trumpeter, Wallen, is a darker, introspective work, reminding us of effort and struggle in an unpredictable world.

In marked contrast, Doc is a tender, mellow composition by Toussaint. A gentle melody of three rising notes, smooth piano exploration, muted trumpet, played exquisitely by Wallen. The melody crescendos, becomes more urgent. Two thirds of the way through, Toussaint breaks in on tenor sax with a rollercoaster of notes suggesting pain, excitement, impatience and finally gratitude. His sax solo spills into the two other horns – a gorgeous musical moment!

Annoyingly I have to leave just as the sextet are about to embark on Mandingo Brass.

In our interview I ask Toussaint about ‘Mandingo Brass’.

‘It was the name of my first band in the US Virgin Isles where I was brought up.’ Calypso underpins the piece. Aged fourteen I started playing saxophone. I took to it immediately.’

Music was in the genes. Toussaint’s father had his own group and played trumpet but was forced to give it all up. ‘A sad time for him,’ says Toussaint in a reflective tone. Toussaint eventually left the island to follow his own musical path. He attended the very prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and from there New York and fame beckoned.

I ask Toussaint about his work ethic. ‘I am pretty disciplined these days. I practice three to four hours a day and sit down to some daily composition.’ Musical influences? So many. Jazz greats like Davies and Ellington. He listens to a lot of classical music: Messiaen, Chopin, Prokofiev, Stravinsky – an interesting mix! ‘Good music is good music,’ he insists.

And the future of jazz? Toussaint is optimistic. The students he has mentored at the Guildhall School of Music and Trinity Laban are starting to come through and make a name for themselves he tells me proudly. He mentions Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia but there are many more. ‘The more bands you have out there, the better it is for jazz.’

And judging by Jean Toussaint’s enthusiastic fans at the Jazz Cafe, it is clear that his young audience will grow.

 

KH

 

Brother Raymond album can be found in the ITunes store. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOST HISTORY RECLAIMED: William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load’

The first shot of World War I was fired in present-day Togo, in Africa. Did you know that? Nor did I. We know the name of the man who fired it – Sergeant-Major Alhaji Grunshi, who was part of the British West Africa Frontier Force, fighting in what was at that time a German colony. Maybe a million Africans served under the British in World War I, and maybe 350,000 under the Germans, but we know hardly any of their names at all. They were carriers and porters for the most part, as un-individualized and to those they worked for, as easily replaceable as the mules and horses they worked alongside.

This is the starting point for William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load,’ a simply astounding piece of work that mixes his art with shadow-play, defunct documentation, African dance, early jazz, Dada-ist insanity and historical fact; plus the bodies and voices of an ensemble team of musicians, singers and dancers. At Tate Modern, the gloomy length of the stage gave it something of the feel of a mystery play as well – one moment, one image, succeeding the last in a manner that suggested the ticking-past of images on some lost newsreel of ghosts. ‘The head and the load are the troubles of the neck’, goes the African proverb that gives this piece its title; you might substitute ‘The white man and his wars are the troubles of the African.’

Kentridge was born in South Africa, white and Jewish, which placed him in the position of outsider, of observer, from the start. His spiky, graphic style takes genres apart. Is what you are looking at print-making, or an image in evolution into something else? Is it a print, at all, or is it an arrested animation? Also, Kentridge hates white paper. His images are made on newsprint, old textbook pages, out-of-date maps. In this show his spiky marking become the bodies of the Africans herded out of Africa and, shipped across Europe to end up in the battlefields of Belgium and France; background to the dancers acting out their suffering, the speeches demanding emancipation from those who returned home, the primitive technology that tried to literally shut them up and mow them down. I can’t imagine anything that would have made being there more hellish than arriving in the mud of Flanders as an African conscript, nameless – the names were deliberately unrecorded, in case one of them should perform some act worthy of a medal – and for the most part, bootless, too.

Tate.org man as speaker head and load

Print-making uses repetition; so does ‘The Head and the Load’, in a way that partly suggests the stalemate of the Western front, but also to drive its message home. You listen to a chorus long enough, are presented with the same statistics frequently enough, watch the pathetic attempt of two exhausted, ragged, wounded men to get back to safety down the length of the stage, and whether you like it or not, you are shamed into an emotional involvement with what you’re seeing. Occasionally the voices onstage – and what voices they are, what power, what richness – morph as you listen. A siren becomes a scream of anguish and of outrage, a screech of Dada-ist poetry the stutter of a machine-gun. To come out of a performance ashamed of the colour of my skin was a novelty, but this is what ‘The Head and the Load’ accomplishes, moving the audience to a standing ovation and in some cases, actual tears. The show moves to New York in December, to the Park Avenue Armory. Hats off to the Tate for having got it first.

armoryonpark.org, December 4th-15th 2018

Images © Stella Oliver

 

JCH

EAST MEETS EAST END: A NEW DIVAN AT WILTON’S MUSIC HALL

Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper lurked and where on Cable St Mosley’s Blackshirts were given many bloody noses by what you might now call the Antifa, but which in 1936 probably looked more like a good old-fashioned East End mob, is one of those astonishing East End survivors of Blitz and redevelopment; an entrancing and wonderfully looked-after love-letter to the days of Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd. It has been a background artiste in so many movies that it has literally added them to its fabric: its downstairs bar is built out of leftover props from Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. On the 20th June this year it was the setting for Toward A New Divan, A Celebration of East and West through Music and Poetry.

The original, old, ‘Divan’ was the brainchild of Goethe, no less, and is a collection of his poems inspired by the works of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. The 200th anniversary of its completion is approaching in 2019: to mark this, the Gingko Library, who are one of the most innovative putters-out of content in this area of East inspiring West and vice-versa, have created a New Divan: works from 24 of our planet’s leading international poets to continue the dialogue Goethe began. With the support of Amal – A Said Foundation project, Wilton’s is where it was launched.

Now the combination of music and poetry can be blissful, or it can be exhausting. On Thursday it was exhilarating, high-spirited, unexpected and delightful. There were just enough poems, including one by Hafiz himself – exquisite in the original Persian, memorable in its English translation – to whet the appetite and make one long for publication of the book; the real stars of the show were the musicians of ’Tafahum’.

Tafahum may be unique: Western strings, woodwind and keyboards matched with Eastern percussion, an oud (the Eastern precursor to the guitar), a qanun (like a harpsichord without the keys, laid across the lap and played by plucking the more than 70 strings), and a ney (that breathy, almost hoarse-sounding, Middle Eastern flute, that is to music from this part of the world what ras-el-hanout is to its cuisine). Their inspiration comes from everywhere – one especially charming piece, ‘Three Fishes Laughing’ was inspired by the perfect E natural note a tube-train makes coming into Highgate Station. Honours were shared between Tafahum’s two composers, Benjamin Ellin (‘a Northern lad’, as he described himself) and Syrian-born Loual Ahlenawi, virtuoso of the ney. Professor Mena Mark Hanna had already described – and illustrated, with a bit of impromptu and very tuneful plainsong – what Western music lost when on first contact it began westernizing and then making archeology of Easter music. Tafahum is part of the antidote to all of that, and part too, of a dialogue between the arts of East and West that has never been so vitally necessary. Goethe would have been captivated – the Blackshirts, spinning in their graves.

The New Divan, edited by Barbara Schwepcke and Bill Swainson, will be published in 2019, with events at the Hay and Edinburgh festivals, among others.

JCH

 

Tunnel Music – Eos Trio at Brunel Museum

The ArtMuseLondon team ventured to Rotherhithe Wednesday night for a fine concert in a most unusual venue  – the massive iron shaft down to the Thames tunnel, the first road tunnel under the river, conceived and built by Marc Brunel, and his then unknown  son, Isambard Kingdom. Known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the tunnel – the first in the world under a major river –  opened in 1843 and hundreds of thousands of people walked through it in its first weeks. Originally the entrance hall to the tunnel, the shaft later provided ventilation from the steam trains which ran beneath, and many vestiges of its earlier role remain, from the soot-scorched walls with their crumbling stucco to the rumble of Overground trains which now run below in the original tunnel. The space was converted to a performance venue in 2016, complete with a freestanding cantilevered staircase (designed by architects Tate Harmer) of which Brunel, father and son, would be justly proud.

The space has a surprisingly good acoustic – with such a high ceiling it’s akin to a large church – and is atmospherically lit to create an intriguing and intimate concert space. But take a cardigan or wrap as, despite the warm evening, inside the shaft was distinctly chilly!

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Formed in 2017, Eos Trio (Angela Najaryan, Paul Evernden and Jelena Makarova) are a violin, clarinet and piano trio, all alumni of the Royal Academy of Music. They have a passion for both new and older repertoire, and their programme for the evening reflected this, beginning with a Sonata by CPE Bach (arranged for their combination of instruments by Paul Evernden), Arvo Pärt’s Frâtres for violin and piano, a new work by Greek composer Dimitris Maragopulos for clarinet and piano, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (for which the trio were joined by Canadian cellist Daryl Giuliano).

This was a most interesting concert, and once one’s ears had tuned in to the rather unusual, echoey acoustic and the strange rumblings and other “noises off” from the railway beneath, it proved an absorbing evening of music, sensitively and imaginatively played. Being so close to the music made it all the more powerful, especially the Messiaen, where the stark venue served as a reminder of the place where the Quartet was originally composed and premiered (a German prisoner of war camp). But this concert wasn’t just about the music – the venue was an integral part of the performance, providing a dramatic backdrop to some of the most spiritually profound music of the 20th century.

 

FW


Eos Trio

Brunel Museum

‘Classic Gershwin’ at The Bull’s Head

 

‘Classic Gershwin’, created by 7 Star Arts, explores the world of ever-popular composer George Gershwin by weaving his vibrant music with the fascinating story of his life – from his birth in the colourful, teeming New York of 1898 to his tragically early death from a brain tumour in 1937.

Viv McLean, piano

Susan Porrett, writer & narrator

Thursday 21 December 2017, the Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head

The Bull’s head is an attractive pub on the riverside at Barnes, south-west London, and is home to the iconic Jazz Room. Known at “the suburban Ronnie Scott’s”, the Jazz Room – once simply a room at the back of the pub and now in its own separate building – is almost as old as Ronnie’s, boasts a fine roster of jazz performers and is still regarded by many in the jazz world and beyond as a significant music venue. On first sight, it’s not the most appealing place, but when the lights are low, candles flickering, a glass of something in your hand, and with the right performers, the ambiance is pretty special.

The music of George Gershwin remains perennially popular with performers and audiences alike, and his life and work are vividly illustrated in ‘Classic Gershwin’, It is a mistake to think of Gershwin purely as a composer of “jazz” (a term he in fact disliked, preferring the term “swing” to describe his jazz-infused music). His musical tastes and influences were wide, from Bach to Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and he was particularly influenced by the French composers of the early twentieth-century, notably Maurice Ravel, who in turn was intrigued and impressed by Gershwin’s work. Gershwin’s great skill was his ability to manipulate different forms of music into his own unique musical voice.

This was the third performance of Classic Gershwin at The Jazz Room. It’s 7 Star Arts’ most popular show and the enthusiasm and enjoyment of the audience was palpable from the start. For those who may not wish to sit through an entire evening of solo piano music, the combination of music and words is ideal, and the text of ‘Classic Gershwin’ offers just enough information to continually pique the listener’s attention. George Gershwin is brought to life with the delightful interweaving of words and music. Each nugget is illustrated with sensitively-chosen music selections, including Someone to Watch Over Me, I Got Rhythm and the rarely-performed Three Preludes, to Swanee, the song which marked Gershwin’s elevation into the realms of established composer and song-writer after Al Jolson heard Gershwin play it at a party.

The first half of Classic Gershwin closes with Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin’s hommage to bustling metropolis of Jazz-Age New York, the city of his home, played with exuberance and panache by Viv McLean. The second half focuses on Gershwin’s later life, his growing success and fame, and his work in Hollywood. The description of his failing health (the result of a then-undiagnosed brain tumour) was told with great poignancy, and the concert closed on a tender note with The Man I Love, Percy Grainger’s beautiful transcription exquisitely played by Viv McLean

The great appeal of this words and music concert, aside from the wonderful music, played by Viv with a wonderfully natural musical sensitivity, all underpinned by his pristine technique, is its ability to offer just enough information in the text to keep the listener wanting more. Viv demonstrated that pieces driven by rhythmic vitality and syncopation can still have the most exquisite tonal palette and a magical dynamic range, and the music provided the most delicious interludes, complementing the text at every turn (the musical selections are made between Viv and Susan). The overall effect is a glorious and intriguing celebration of Gershwin’s life and work.

Classic Gershwin makes its West End debut at Crazy Coqs Live at Zedel on Thursday 29th March. Book tickets

High-rise Harmonielehre

A concert in a carpark, orchestra and audience gathered on level 8 of a 1980s brutalist hulk of concrete in Peckham, south-west London. It all sounds rather J G Ballard-esque, and indeed the way in to the venue is a grubby, litter-strewn entrance beside the PeckhamPlex cinema. There’s a bouncer in attendance and some heavy-duty metal barriers such as one might see at a demo. At the box office, we’re given a not a ticket but a wrist band, as if we’re attending a secret rave. The BBC Proms logo reassures us that we’ve come to the right place. It’s a hot day so a visit to the chemical loos on the top floor of the carpark requires a deep breath and a strong stomach.

In fact the Bold Tendencies multi-storey carpark arts venue is far from J G Ballard’s dystopian visions of violent chaos in the teeming, thrusting city. If anything, it’s a modern-day utopia, this ugly building revived (but hardly refurbished) as a space for art, drama and music, food and drink, shared purpose, community and conviviality. Twenty years ago the notion of presenting classical music in such a venue would have been laughed out of town; today it’s proving a popular venue for concerts by the resident Multi-Story Orchestra, and this is the second year the Proms have ventured outside the plush crimson-and-gold splendour of the Royal Albert Hall to present concerts in Peckham.

The traditional rules of engagement of classical music are more relaxed in this unusual setting. Complaints about extraneous noise or inappropriate applause are rendered redundant, for the music is regularly suffused with the sounds of south London – rattling trains and honking traffic on Peckham Rye. The acoustic in this uncompromisingly stark urban venue is surprisingly good: the low ceilings amplify and funnel the sound, and the close proximity of orchestra to audience creates a compelling immediacy to the performance. The atmosphere in the audience is a lot more relaxed – there were children and babes in arms at the performance I attended, and you can take your drinks into the performance space (there’s a rather cool bar on the top floor where they will mix you a mean Negroni). But the audience’s commitment to the performance matched that of the musicians, proof that you can hold a concert anywhere provided musicians and music are of the highest standard. The venue may be unusual, but there’s nothing novel about the quality and conviction of Multi-Story Orchestra.

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Christopher Stark conducts the Multi-Story Orchestra and Multi-Story Youth Choir

John Adams’ gigantic, absorbing Harmonielehre was the central work of the concert. A symphony in all but name inspired by Adams’ surreal dreams, this three-movement work takes its title from Schoenberg’s textbook on harmony, and in it Adams pays homage to the monumental works and rich romanticism of Mahler, Wagner, Sibelius and pre-atonal Schoenberg. Rejecting the more rigid minimalism of his compatriots Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Adams’ work fuses the familiar elements of minimalism – spooling motifs, complex rhythms, shifting time signatures – with the opulence of fin-de-siècle romanticism: thus the second movement, for example, does not directly quote from the Adagio of Mahler’s tenth symphony, but rather is a palimpsest, recalling with unfolding pain the earlier work, its rich textures and haunting melodies interwoven with Adam’s distinct use of sparkling percussion and trembling strings. From the booming, powerfully attention-grabbing repeated chords and propulsive energy of the first movement to the third movement, which unfolds like the sunrise opening prelude of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder before building in intensity to an astonishing, emphatic blaze of sound, this was a performance which enthralled, the sounds of the city absorbed into Multi-Story Orchestra’s full-bodied surround sound.

Kate Whitley’s I Am I Say was written in 2016 for local schoolchildren and was performed by the Multi-Story Youth Choir, a wonderful group of young voices whose clear diction presented the music’s forthright message of hope and anger. Organised in three parts, this bold, energetic and empowering work is a heartfelt plea to wake up and care for the world around us. Built on subtle repeated motifs, the music ebbed and swelled to fill the carpark concert space in a rousing and expressive finale.

A wake up call of a different kind opened the concert: Bach’s beautiful Chorale Prelude Wachet Auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers Awake!), orchestrated by Granville Bantock, its tender and meltingly familiar melody played with an enveloping warmth, infused with the unmistakable sounds of the big city.

 

FW

(pictures: BBC)