From the Cape to Cairo by keyboard

Olatunji Akin Euba (1935 – 2020), founder of African pianism

I still remember when I first heard the unusual rhythms and bell-like tones of the Ethiopian pianist and composer Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou.  The smell of burnt toast brought me out of a musical reverie.  I could hear the patterns of African percussion in her playing even though I had no clue as to whom I was listening to.  Emahoy was a reclusive nun who rarely gave performances.  She died last year, prompting a reissuing of her sparse recordings.

She remained my main introduction to piano composition in Africa until the arrival of a new CD – African Pianism by Rebeca Omordia – where the work of seven contemporary African composers are featured, as well Chicago-born Florence Price who was the first black female composer to have a symphony premiered in that city in 1933.

There is much to enjoy, from the Arabic timbres of Algerian composer Salim Dada and Morocco’s Nabil Benabdeljalil to the polyrhythms of Soweto-born Mokale Koapeng, who explains that in his Prelude in D he “infuses the dance elements I grew up listening to and witnessing in various townships.” 

South Africa’s Grant McLachlan composed his Sonatina for Double Bass and Piano in 2016 and the third movement, Senzeni Na? (‘What have we done?’) remains hugely popular across the country. He says, “It is a recreation for piano of an anti-apartheid protest song often sung at funerals and demonstrations…inextricably linked to the struggle for freedom and democracy.”  The piece is slow and gentle, but with a quiet rage; it is easy to imagine it being played at sombre funerals.

In contrast, Fela Sowande’s Two Preludes on Yoruba Sacred Folk Melodies is a joyful, original and, as the excellent accompanying sleeve notes by Robert Matthew-Walker reveal, “a profoundly African print with a descending quasi-scalic theme in which seconds and thirds unfurl as leaves of a flowering plant.”

Akin Euba, who died in 2020 was regarded as the most distinguished Nigerian composer, musicologist and pianist of his generation.  He was the originator of “African Pianism” which he described as a style of composition aiming to join the inherent musical syntax of Nigerian Yoruba music to the European keyboard with connotations of fundamental harmony.   Euba was a siren voice for interculturalism in composition, pointing out the similarities between the piano as a Western instrument and several Nigerian traditional instruments. Wakar Duru is Euba’s arrangement of three of Nigeria’s most popular Yoruba songs. One can imagine the piece being played in a concert hall or in a rural village church with feet tapping or bodies swaying depending on location.

This recording is volume 2 of Rebeca Omordia’s exploration of the rich diversity of African piano compositions on the innovative Somm Recordings label.  It is a constantly surprising feast of sounds, moods and emotions. Born in Romania to a Romanian mother and Nigerian father, she is hailed as an African classical music pioneer and is the artistic director of the world’s first ever African Concert Series at the Wigmore Hall in London. This is a perfect starting point for intercultural musical exploration, east, west and all points north and south. 

African Pianism Vol. 2 by Rebeca Omordia.  Somm Recordings.  SOMMCD 0688

Bliss in the rain

A rain-soaked, windy, grey Sunday afternoon on the Deal seafront and around 50 valiant, anorak-wrapped hardy souls are in deckchairs facing the Royal Marines tribute (after the 1989 Deal Bombing, in which 11 Royal Marines died) bandstand listening to the Sandwich Concert Brass Band. Can there be a more enduring English scene? As I stand and observe, I wonder if any other genre of music could attract these people to this place, given the atrocious weather.

Brass bands have warmth, whiffs of nostalgia and an enduring empathy with audiences. We are not in awe of their virtuosity. A brass band is the friendly, helpful neighbour who always has that drill bit or lawn spiker to loan you.

Sir Arthur Bliss came to mind as I sheltered and listened. He adored brass bands and was often astounded by their virtuosity: “Hearing the sound these players can produce, it did not take much to persuade me to write Kenilworth.”

The previous few days I had been listening to a new Chandos CD, Bliss: Works for Brass Band, performed by the Black Dyke Band and conducted by that musical polymath, John Wilson. Kenilworth, F13 was composed in 1936 after a visit to four Lancashire towns and Kenilworth Castle. It has everything – an up-beat march, solemn ceremony, solo fanfares, touches of melancholy and a joyous concluding march. It is music that inspires the spirits and warms the heart whatever the weather.

John Wilson has ranged far and wide across Bliss’s brass band works. A highlight is ‘Things to Come’, a suite for Alexander Korda’s film based on H G Wells’ novel The Shape of Things to Come. Wells invited Bliss to compose the music for the film even before filming began. Bliss joined the production team to modify and embellish the score during shooting. The excellent sleeve notes note that the March melody is sorrowful in character, suggesting a weary humanity locked in never-ending strife, yearning for peace. Plus ça change.

Diaghilev’s Ballets left a lasting impression on Bliss. He recalled that leaving a ballet had led him to board the bus home with a Nijinsky leap. A meeting with Ninette de Valois led to the composition of his ballet Checkmate. The four dances on from the ballet soar and swirl as Love and Death compete for ascendancy. We hear rapid shifts of mood as elation and despair are played out. Hardly suitable for a wet Sunday afternoon in Deal – try evening twilight.

This wonderful CD encapsulates the moods and circumstances of a day, a week, a lifetime. John Wilson cajoles and nurtures the Black Dyke (have we lost all our Mills?) Band across this spectrum of Bliss and his love of brass.

Bliss: Works for Brass Band

Black Dyke Band conducted by John Wilson

Chandos Digital CHSA 5344

All eyes on Opera Rara…

At this year’s prestigious OPUS KLASSIK Awards, the Opera Rara recording label took centre-stage. Its success in winning the plaudits of the judges with a handsome CD set of a little-known opera by Offenbach, La Princesse de Trebizonde, has very much put the spotlight on a discerning recording initiative. Their latest release, Donizetti’s equally rare (1828) L’esule di Roma – ‘the exile from Rome’ – brings the work of opera conductor, Carlo Rizzi, to the fore, once again, as well as reminding us that 225 years have passed since Donizetti’s birth.

Rizzi, for many years associated with Welsh National Opera, has a rich and varied repertoire and endeared himself very much to audiences at the New Theatre, Cardiff, home of WNO, during the heyday of his tenure. The maestro’s Italianate ‘light touch’ – as opposed to the Teutonic heft of mid- to late-19th century opera – is put to great use in the bel canto genre of Donizetti. Yet this particular piece has many of the hallmarks of ‘heroic opera’, set as it is in the reign of Tiberius – whose opponents have been vanquished by General Publius, an outcome hailed by all it seems, except the Senator Murena, father of the beautiful Argelia, who has mysteriously disappeared… The reason: the ardent Septimus (the son of a man exiled by Murena) has returned to win Argelia’s heart – freely given – a situation which leads to his imprisonment. There is the unnerving unravelling of a political conspiracy, and the mental breakdown of Murena, who has condemned Septimus to death – but then, the eventual pardon and reuniting with Argelia – a typically joyful end for an opera of this era. 

Bass-baritone Nicola Alaimo, bel canto soprano Albina Shagimuratova, and tenor Sergey Romanovsky in the title role, lead the cast – supported by that orchestral precision-instrument, Britten Sinfonia, whose ensemble size as a chamber orchestra make it perfect for those intense moments for the romantic duo at the heart of this Roman epic – and yet also capable of the grand moment (a prelude, perhaps, to the age of Verdi). And what a combination the leading stars make: each scene and aria outshining the previous, giving the opera a sense of unrelenting drama, with no feeling of drift or dullness, just an immersion into the fate of the exile, and the pain of internal exile, in the stifling atmosphere of Tiberius’s citadel.

With an excellent CD booklet (synopsis, artist profiles etc.) the new discs are a firm recommendation for those who relish front-rank operatic performance, the intrigue and passion of Ancient Rome, and recordings capable of evoking the radiant, searing sounds of the opera house.

CD details: Donizetti, L’esule di Roma, Opera Rara, (ORC64)