Meet Jonathan Berman

This afternoon Jonathan Berman conducts a BBC Proms Plus Portrait to celebrate Sir Peter Maxwell’s Davies’ 80th birthday. A selection of his chamber works will be played by alumni from our London Sinfonietta Academy, interspersed by conversation between Sir Peter and Andrew McGregor.

The concert starts at 5.45pm in the Royal College of Music, tickets are free and available on the door. If you can’t make it, the event will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 10.15pm tonight.

We spoke to Jonathan about what to expect, and asked what he’s currently listening to…

This afternoon we are going to hear three pieces by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, one for solo viola and two for small ensemble interspersed with a conversation with the composer himself. Antechrist is a short six-minute overture which was written for the opening concert of the Pierrot Ensemble in 1967.  The idea of an ‘Antichrist’ reoccurs in Maxwell Davies’ music, from The Lighthouse where the antichrist figure manifest itself as the ‘beast’ which destroys the lighthouse keepers from the inside out to the actual resurrection of the Antichrist at the end of the ballet Vesalii Icones.

Antechrist begins with a 13th century motet, accompanied by handbells, drums and tambourine which even though it is stretched over nearly three octaves is easily recognisable and plays the role of the ‘Christ’ figure. The following section distorts this religious medieval motet (although the pitches are very closely related), even making a joke of the motet using grotesque violin glissandi, hence playing the role of the ‘Antichrist’. These two characters alternate until they play together in a climactic final rendition of the motet with the ‘Antichrist’ section superimposed on top of the motet.

The second piece Runes From a Holy Island is a set of five short pieces giving little snapshots of the Island of Hoy, where Maxwell Davies lives. They are a set of miniature seascapes describing specific places around the island, which he conjures up through the use of hidden (and some less-hidden) compositional ‘crossword puzzles’.


Fantasia and Two Pavanes by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies 

Preparing for this concert I have been listening to a lot of Maxwell Davies and I have been so struck by both the volume and the variety of his work. In my searching I have come across these pieces, which have, among other things, made me laugh a great deal!

Maxwell Davies’ arrangement of Purcell’s Fantasia and Two Pavanes is wonderfully humorous, including an organ with a stop that doesn’t work, and the two pavanes are presented as foxtrots played on a record player where the player slows down and speeds up in places and other hidden surprises…

Click here to hear a clip.

Recently I have had a, possibly unhealthy, addiction to Italian music. Here are some choice hits that I’ve become particularly fond of:

Ave Corpus Sanctum by Marchetto da Padova
This is really early music – but I’m very fond of the weird turns it makes.

La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini
This is a very nice opera all about gender equality in 1625.

Ah si ben mio by Verdi, sung by Fernado de Lucia
This is just a beautiful recording from 1917. I love the rhythmic freedom and sensitivity to the drama of the music. Also amusing to hear the tuba doubling on the bass line!

Inverno in-ver by Castiglioni
I was introduced to Castiglioni some years back and have become a great fan of his music and I wish it was played much more. Again I find such humour and delicacy in this piece which, as it was once describe to me, is ‘like Vivaldi and Respighi up a few octaves’!

Satyricon by Maderna
It seems that quite a bit of what I have been listening to recently has been humorous music – which isn’t always the case – but to round that off here is a chamber opera by Bruno Maderna. Written in the 1970s, this is a section of scenes that can be performed in whatever order the performer wants, each with its own musical style and language. (Make sure you get to 3.55 for the first little surprise.)

And finally a couple from Spotify:

Moro, Lasso, al mio duolo by Gesualdo

No look into Italian music could ever be complete without some Gesualdo. This is one of his later motets from Book Six which from the very first bar inhabits a world different to anything of the time (or even after).

Concerto no 2 by Paganini, played by Ivry Gitlis
Paganini has a slightly bad name, mainly from the caprices that are often too difficult and so are played badly! However he is, for me, the very best bits of Italian belcanto opera distilled into solo violin pieces with the most wonderful characters participating in the drama. Here Gitlis plays so endearingly and flirtatiously in this canzonetta – one can even see it on stage, being sung underneath the window of the leading lady with guitar accompaniment!

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