Rameau to Mahler: LSO at the Barbican review ***

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London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, Magdalena Kozena

Barbican Hall, 11th January 2017

  • Schubert – Symphony No 8 Unfinished
  • Mahler – Ruckert Lieder
  • Handel – Three Arias
  • Rameau – Les Boreades Suite

Now I admit I hummed and harred about this particular gig. I am as excited as the next person about the return of Sir SR to London to lead the mighty LSO, but also recognise that, as his musical taste and mine are not entirely congruent, I had better carpe diem where I can. When he does serve up a favourite, chances are it is going to be the dog’s proverbials, to wit the simply stunning triptych of Stravinsky ballets, a highlight of last year (Stravinsky from Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican review *****).

So eventually I took the plunge here, intrigued by the Baroque on offer, recognising that I need to do more work on Schubert and wanting to see whether Sir SR is as nice to his wife, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, on stage as he is to the LSO and everyone else. The Mahler Ruckert Lieder and the three showy Handel Arias, one from Agrippina and two from Ariodante, certainly meant the missus had to put a shift in, two frocks and an hour in total either side of the interval. The Rameau has been a staple party piece for the Berlin Philharmonic for years, and it seemed interesting to see what the LSO would make of it.

As it turned out this programme also piqued the interest of Mrs TFP, who is rightly suspicious of my Renaissance/Baroque and Contemporary leanings, but who was happy to come along for the ride here. The Germanic quotient was also sufficiently high for her.

So what did I learn. Well …. aaah … I still don’t think I am ever going to embrace Schubert. I assume Sir Simon and the LSO gave this a respectable work-out but it is still just doodling for me, without the rhythmic discipline of Beethoven and with too many strands. Even the finished bits sound unfinished to me. I am really sorry as I know there are a lot of Schubert groupies out there.

Now the Mahler took a bit of time to get going but songs 3,4 and 5 (in Rattle’s sequence) let loose all of that Mahlerian drama and suspense, with the growly stuff at the bottom, the sniff of folk tunes and the aching strings all deployed to great effect. Mrs TFP combed the text scrupulously for mistranslation and therefore snaffled up the stories. I didn’t understand a word of what Ms Kozena was saying and, given it is the usual Romantic, Love/Fate/Man/Artist tripe, (with one about a lime tree apparently), I didn’t really care, but at times the noise was ravishing. Unsurprisingly I guess soloist and band were well matched thanks to Sir SR, though I wonder if Ms Kozena may have topped these renditions in previous performances. No matter. This was concentrated Mahler which for me is a good thing.

On the subject of concentrated musical pleasure, I cannot believe I am the only one who prefers to take his Handel operas from the set lunch, and not the full tasting, menu. The music induces a nice warm glow, for sure, but they can go on a bit. So I thought a triple helping of well chosen arias would hit the spot. These three are undoubtedly showy, particularly the final Dopo notte, but it didn’t feel as if orchestra and soloist were entirely comfortable in parts, and, I was reminded that old George Fred, once his lady singers got up a head of steam, was apt to encourage them further with interminable repeats. Even so it left me grinning from ear to ear.

As did the Rameau suite. So this is apparently one of those all singing, all dancing (literally) extravaganzas that the French Baroque invented. It was Rameau’s last opera tragedie and boy did he chuck the kitchen sink at it judging by this suite. An everyday tale of windy Gods, the orchestral colour is dazzling, with state of the art technology to boot. I absolutely adored it, as did Sir SR and the LSO. Very funky.

So another entertaining evening in the hands of Sir Simon, but also a reminder not to push the boat out too far in terms of repertoire I enjoy.

 

Peter Wispelwey (cellist) at Kings Place review ****

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Peter Wispelwey, cello

Cello Unwrapped: Bach Through Time Concert III. Kings Place Hall 1, 8th December 2017

  • JS Bach – Cello Suite No 1 in G, BWV 1007
  • Benjamin Britten – Cello Suite No 3, Op 87
  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Sonata for solo cello
  • JS Bach – Cello Suite No 3 in C, BWV 1009

If I had to pick my favourite venue in London for classical music it would probably be King’s Place. The design is lovely. The acoustic is perfect, especially upstairs. The welcome is warm. (I lost a book there once. They found the book and then they found me). The programming is interesting. In particular the year long seasons which artfully pull together chamber music across a genre or theme. This year, Cello Unwrapped; in the last couple of years, the Baroque and Minimalism. Next year, Time Unwrapped, a more ambitious conceit which is chock full of interesting programmes. To be fair it has helped that the last three years have focussed on particular favourites of mine in terms of period and instrument but, even so, I heartily recommend Kings Place to anyone who isn’t already a regular. Bear in mind too that I am only really a consumer of the classical events: there is plenty of other stuff, music, comedy, spoken word, going on there as well. Finally they make a decent cup of tea in the caff upstairs, the loos are spotless, and there is usually some free art to soak in before, after or during the interval. And, in the summer, there is a pleasant saunter available along the canal.

Now I appreciate that the very best chamber music is likely to be found elsewhere in London, specifically the Wigmore Hall. The Wigmore certainly has its charms, but the legroom isn’t up to much and, if you intend to spend a fair time in her formidable company, you had better get used to seeing the back of other peoples’ heads. I am partial to Cadogan Hall but the repertoire is mostly orchestral and requires careful sifting. St John’s Smith Square delivers some stirring stuff for Early Music, Baroque and Contemporary enthusiasts like the Tourist but there is no hiding the fact that it is a Church, atmosphere therefore trumping sound and comfort. Mind you it is a beautiful lump of Baroque, fancy enough to satisfy, but not so fancy as to make one queasy. Thomas Archer’s buildings have taken a bit of a hammering in London, (go see St Paul’s Deptford if you don’t believe me), so it is good that this, maybe his best, looks so perky. I am also very, very partial to Milton Court Concert Hall, largely for the same reasons as Kings Place, and St Luke’s Old Street, where the interior has been brilliantly re-crafted by architects Levitt Bernstein. But, in both cases, the number of concerts which match the Tourist’s tastes, is constrained.

I digress. It was the programme here that attracted me as I confess no knowledge of Ms Wispelwey before this evening. Bach obvs, it being impossible to hear the cello suites too many times in a lifetime, but also the Britten which echoes old JSB, and the Ligeti, which, in its own way, is also an homage to the old boy. Ligeti is rapidly becoming my favourite mid/late C20 Modernist. It’s great this “finding out about new music” lark.

Apparently Britten intended to emulate Bach and compose six cello suites but this, unfortunately, was the last, written in 1972. His last operas, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice, and then his failing heart, got in the way. Shame. I prize Britten’s chamber pieces above all of the rest of his glorious music. Obviously more personal but deeper, spikier and, if it is possible, cleverer. There are times, though, when Britten’s genius can be too satisfying, like a musical Vermeer, You just want him to cut loose. In some of the knottier passages of the chamber music this is what you get.

Actually scrub all the above. The reason why BB is the greatest English composer since Byrd, (sorry Purcell and Elgar fans), is the operas, of course. You can keep your Italian melodramas: give me Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw or Curlew River, (yep opera doesn’t have to be full orchestra and divas belting out love arias, in fact it is better when it isn’t), any day of the week. The whole must always be greater than the sum of the operatic parts in my book, and singing cannot smother drama.

Now this last suite has some deceptively simple ideas but the overall effect is still one of immense variety of expression. A four note motive is set against a repeated bass in one of Britten’s favoured mournful Passacaglias, with repeated pizzicato, which precedes the 3 Russian folk songs arranged by Tchaikovsky and the Orthodox hymn the Kontakion chant, which act as the conclusion. Remember this was written for, and first performed by his friend, the great Russia cellist Mistislav Rostroprovich, after hearing his performance of the Bach suites. After BB’s death Mr Rostroprovich couldn’t bear to play this piece.

Earlier in the piece we have a very quick, unsettling Moto Pertpetuo which appears to invert the motif and a stately Fuga which sets it against the main line, and suggests the counterpoint which JSB famously conjures up in his suites. Elsewhere we hear a Dialogo, marked allegretto, which flips across two staves, a Barcarola, which echoes the famous Prelude from JSB’s No 1 Suite which opened this recital, a jittery Marcia, and a strange Canto. Mr Wispelwey, in very droll fashion, introduces the piece by, er, introducing each of the short movements, which provided both bearings and an insight into Britten’s compositional process. All in all, a very satisfying rendition of one of BB’s finest works, IMHO.

The Ligeti sonata is made up of two movements, both written relatively early in his career, 1948 and 1953. The first, Dialogo, a slow movement, was written for a cellist who GL fancied. It is based on Hungarian folksong, (always a rich source of inspiration for the great man), and alternates from high to low ranges, apparently representing a conversation between a man and a woman. The Second movement is a Capriccio is a rapid Moto Perpetuo that, in places, would be tricky enough on a violin, let alone cello. It’s brilliant. Like the Britten the debt to JSB isn’t hidden, notably in the manic string crossing, as ears and mind rush to keep up with the musical invention. The thing about Ligeti for me is that his music always seems to be having a laugh. None of this thorny intellectualism that can so often block your path into contemporary music. There is a celebration of Ligeti’s music at the South Bank in May. Yea. I am signed up.

No need for me to rabbit on about the Bach in detail. You will know these pieces. They are, in essence, just dances. But what dances. If you don’t know them then you should. No point living a life without the best of Bach. Make it your New Year’s resolution.

I shall be looking out again for Mr Wispelwey’s recitals. He made these technically demanding pieces look easy, (well maybe not that easy), and has a very direct style which made it relatively straightforward to follow the line of the music. He has a winning charisma, and a natty shirt/waistcoat combo, but when it all got seriously emotional on stage, we were rapt. He knows the Bach suites like the back, front and sides of his hands, he has recorded them three times. I just bought the last recording, played on a Baroque cello, tuned at a lower pitch (392 vs 440 normally). Apparently he plays fast and loose with the usual tempo interpretations. Can’t wait to find out what it sounds like.

 

Bach and Telemann: Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court review *****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (director and violin), Rachel Brown (flute and recorder), Rachel Beckett (recorder), Alistair Ross (harpsichord) 

Bach and Telemann: Reversed Fortunes, Milton Court Concert Hall, 7th December 2017

I see I am now close to being a Academy of Ancient Music groupie. Not in a sinister way, that would be very strange. Just that I seem to pitch up to most of their London concerts. Unsurprising given their repertoire I suppose. And what a joy it always is to hear them play. This was no different. And I had a new chum in MSBD to join me.

Now the theme here was to contrast the contrasting fortunes of a certain Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. They were mates in the 1720s, 30s and 40s, with GPT becoming CPE Bach’s godfather, and both successively securing the reputation of the Collegium in Leipzig. Back in the day though Telemann (pictured above), with his suave, easy listening modelled on his French contemporaries, was by far the more popular composer, with JSB and his knotty, brainy counterpoint, and strong Lutheran faith, some way behind. As we all know JSB’s music languished for centuries, now some might say his is the daddy of all Western art music. Meanwhile whilst Telemann maintains a cherished place in the baroque world of the Baroque enthusiast, he is not much performed beyond this.

The influence of Vivaldi’s vast concerto output was much greater on JSB, and is clearly visible in the Brandenburg’s especially when played one to a part as here. In particular in the Fifth with its single tutti violin, though it is the solo harpsichord cadenza, the first ever of its type, that is the most memorable part of the concerto. Alistair Ross didn’t hold back once the harpsichord emerged from the string ritornello and his rubato was unleashed. A bit showier than Steven Devine in the last BC5 I heard in SJSS with the OAE. However, I think the Brandenburg 4 here with Rachel Brown and Rachel Beckett on the recorders was the highlight. Once the two Rachels got into the swing of it there was no stopping them, propped up by Bojan Cicic masterful violin playing, and by the end those recorders produced as sweet a sound as you could imagine (not always the case for the period recorder).

Having said that I think the most satisfying piece of the evening was the Telemann Concerto for flute and recorder. He wasn’t the only one to pair the “old” and the “new” wind instruments, Quantz was on to this, but he clearly mastered it. Written in 1712, the Concerto has some very attractive galant homophonic playing from the two instruments looking forward to the Classical. Elsewhere the soloists chase the lines from one to the other against very attractive dances, including nods to the eastern European folk tunes that he studied. The French influence on GPT is more apparent in the Overture suite, (he wrote over two hundred of these), with its simple dance rhythms and story based on Don Quixote. There is plenty of easy on the ear comic effect, (listen out for donkeys), and lots of colour. It is all so pleasant (though if I was critical maybe a tad too pleasant).

So another fine concert from the AAM who really seemed to be enjoying themselves. As I think did MSBD. In fact I know he did as he said so. I shall miss the AAM Messiah in the Barbican Hall and their intriguing Haydn and Dussek programme in April, but will be back here for the 15th February Pergolesi, Corelli and Handel gig, and for the 31st May concert in the Hall with Nicola Benedetti. Unmissable I reckon.

The Cardinall’s Musick at St John’s Square review ****

The Cardinall’s Musick // Andrew Marwood - London Wednesday 5

The Cardinall’s Musick, War and Peace

St John’s Smith Square, 19th November 2017

  • William Byrd – Kyrie from Mass for five voices
  • William Byrd – Ad Dominum cum tribularer
  • Benjamin Britten – Advance Democracy
  • James MacMillan – When you see the millions of the mouthless dead
  • Orlando Gibbons – O Lord in thy wrath
  • James MacMillan – A Child’s prayer
  • William Byrd – Agnus Dei from Mass for five voices
  • William Byrd – Kyrie from Mass for four voices
  • Philippe de Monte – Super flumina Babylonis
  • William Byrd – Quomodo cantabimus
  • James MacMillan – Emitte lucem tuam
  • Arvo Pärt – Da pacem
  • James MacMillan – Christus vincit
  • William Byrd – Agnus Dei from Mass for four voices
  • William Byrd – Peccavi super numerum

Sitting in Thomas Archer’s fine Baroque masterpiece church, rapt audience, listening to one of the UK’s finest ensemble interpreters of C16 and C17 British vocal music, here singing a diverse set of texts from composers past and present framed by extracts from William Byrd’s finest works, the Masses for four and five voices. And all to remember the fallen of past conflicts.

The Britten piece is packed with drama and I see nothing wrong with the pungent warning against Fascism in the text. As ever with the James MacMillan’s work the directness and invention wins you over but I have to say A child’s prayer, written in memory of the victims of Dunblane, pulls you right up with its repeated dirge of “Welcome”. Even by Part’s standards Da pacem is sparse but still so powerful. The biggest surprise of this excellent evening however was the Philippe de Monte motet which apparently stuck a chord with the nominally recusant Byrd. And the concluding five part Byrd motet, Peccavi super mumerum, which was new to me, left me pinned to my seat.

Don’t go through your life without William Byrd. I should probably stop there. So I will.

Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (director), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 3rd November 2017

  • Bach The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus 1 to 4
  • Mozart Piano Concerto 15
  • Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet
  • Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence

There is something truly thrilling about watching a group of string players, some standing, going hell for leather, as one, in a piece written exactly for them. Not to decry the full blown symphonic experience or the intimacy of the quartet but this is a special treat. Normally I see (and hear) this as part of a Baroque programme, normally Italian, or maybe a spot of Bach. Here we had a powerful modern ensemble.

Now we, for I was accompanied by the discerning ear and brain of Mrs TFP, that the wide expanse of the Festival Hall might swallow up the band but we needn’t have worried, as even from our perch astern, the sound was splendid. What was something of a shame is that the Hall was barely half full, a real shame since the ACO under Richard Tognetti, are world class. It was not as if the programme was challenging in any way. Even in the repertoire that we found less appealing, (I favoured the Shostakovich, Mrs TFP the Mozart), namely the Tchaikovsky, the finesse and control of the ACO was astounding. In those passages in the Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky which called for the strings to come together the unanimity of sound and movement (bows moving exactly in unison) was uncanny. Like one instrument.

Now I have heard the Art of Fugue performed by harpsichord, piano, string quartet and viol consort. All different, all fascinating as the simple theme is worked through with increasing complexity across the 13 completed, and 1 unfinished, fugues and, sometimes, the 4 canons. There is probably someone out there who has had a crack at Bach’s masterpiece on the stylophone. (I’d paid good money to see that). I gather that Richard Tognetti, who has led the ACO since 1990 (that presumably explains the discipline of playing on show), can sometimes get a little carried away with his arrangements. Not here. Now admittedly the first 4 of the contrapunctus are easy for even my ears to follow, as the meticulous theme is set out in the first, the dotted rhythm added in the second, turned upside down and filled out in the third and expanded and “sped up” in the fourth (here through the use of pizzicato). So I am not sure how much further they could go with this work, even with their technical mastery, but this was very interesting and flawlessly delivered.

I hate to admit it but the Mozart was beautiful. I don’t know the 15th Piano Concerto but I am well aware of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s qualities, last heard by me in a majestic Emperor Concerto under Essa Pekka Salonen. You can hear how young Wolfgang, (well not so young by the time he wrote this), created the piano concerto form we know and, usually, love today. There is some lovely woodwind action, lots of sublime tunes and some fiendish piano playing, but all wrapped up in a charming bow. Once again the playing of orchestra and soloist was technically precise, but with no lack of emotion.

Now my prime reason for booking this concert, other than the reputation of the orchestra, was the Shostakovich piece since this, in my experience is rarely performed. Written in 1924, when DSCH was still a student, in memory of his friend Volodiya Kurchavov, there are obvious signs of the composer DSCH would be come. The Prelude is still rooted in the Romantic Russian composers of the late C19 but in the plunging response to the initial theme and with the high accompaniment to the second theme there is more modernity. The Scherzo second piece could easily have dropped out of a DSCH symphony from twenty years later. Sardonic, ghostly, then a comedy march, with all that thrilling dissonance.. A joy to hear and brilliantly executed by the eight musicians.

The Tchaikovsky was the (good) surprise of the evening for here Mr Tognetti’s arrangement of this sextet, for all his strings, really showed just how extraordinary their playing is. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of passages in this near 40 minute piece, that annoy me intensely, it’s all just too show pony, but I did get sucked in I admit. Not sure it is the same Florence that I know and love but all that lushness and heart tugging yearning is hard to fight. And to be fair the ACO’s muscular approach dials down the sentimentality (though not the pony).

There isn’t much about Aussies that makes me jealous (actually that’s a lie, there is) but this orchestra is definitely one of them. I will add them to my list of must see orchestras/ensembles when they come to London alongside the Concertgebouw, Bavarian RSO, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Staatskapelles Berlin and Dresden, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Spira Mirabliis, Ensemble Intercomtemporain, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Les Arts Florissants, Freiburg Baroque, Europa Galante, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and, vain hope, Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Mind you with the LSO under Rattle we now have the best in the world, fact.

 

“Italy in England”, Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court review ****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (director and violin), Frank de Bruine (oboe)

Italy in England: When Handel Met Corelli, Milton Court Concert Hall, 19th October 2017

  • Corelli – Concerto Grosso in D major Op. 6 No. 4
  • Handel – Concerto for Oboe No. 3 in G minor
  • Geminiani – Concerto Grosso Op. 5 No. 3 (after Corelli)
  • Sammartini – Sinfonia in G major
  • Avison – Concerto Grosso in D minor No 3 ‘The garden of harmony’ (after Scarlatti)
  • Sammartini – Concerto for Oboe in E flat major
  • Handel – Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 5

We don’t know too much about Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). From the late 1670’s through to his death though he was a big noise in Rome, heralding a great leap forward in violin playing and an instrumental (ha ha) influence on the sonata and concerto form. Unless you are a Baroque nutjob, (there are more of them than you might think), you may only be peripherally aware of him. Yet you will certainly have heard snatches of his most famous composition the Op 6 12 Concerto grossi. Odds are if you hear Baroque music on a telly or film soundtrack, (and it isn’t Vivaldi Four Seasons or a blast of Handel), then it will be Corelli.

If you are just an occasional dipper-in to the Baroque canon, or just fancy some nice background stuff, get your hands on a recording of his Op 6. You won’t regret it. Here he is. Poodle wig and all. Fine looking fellow.

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By the late C17 Italy was the bees knees for all things musical, (as it had been in art for a couple of centuries), albeit with stiff competition from the French. Europe was stuffed with on trend Italian musicians and performers. Printed music was now ubiquitous assuming you mixed in the right circles. This concert from the consistently brilliant Academy of Ancient Music under its new(ish) leader Bojan Cicic sought to show how the the Italian Concerto grosso form, perfected by Corelli, and here his compatriots Geminiani and the Sammartini brothers, influenced composers in England, especially the mighty GF Handel. Both Geminiani and the elder Sammartini, Giuseppe, an oboist, ended up living in London, jus as Handel did. Handel had travelled to Italy from 1706 through to 1710  to learn from both Corelli and the other great master (of the keyboard especially) Scarlatti.

The Concerto grosso, as its probably not too complicated to surmise, is a piece of music where a small group of soloists, maybe a couple of violins and another instrument, called the concertino, pass the ideas between themselves and a larger orchestra, the ripieno. Simples. Mind you this is the Baroque so the orchestra is still pretty tiny by later standards. It is the forerunner of the single instrument concerto with orchestra we see today and which developed in the later Classical period. Vivaldi set the ball rolling with his acres of beautiful single violin (and other single instrument) concerti though the musical patterns are similar to his mates elsewhere in Italy.

Here, in addition to the violin led concerti on show from Corelli himself (the very jolly No 4), Geminiani, based on material from one of Corelli’s works, and Handel (No 5 from his own Op 6), we also had the same from Charles Avison, new to me, but I gather a big favourite of the cogniscenti. This was based on some of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas and was really absorbing. The oboe of Frank de Bruine joined the AAM in two other concerti and we had a sinfonia from the younger Sammartini Giovanni, a form that would develop further into the Classical period. Like the Avison I really enjoyed this and will investigate further.

Now I deft anyone now to get perked up by these pieces. They are dramatic, with vibrant rhythms, the typical motoric underpinning from cello and double bass, the continuo underpinning of the harpsichord, and the immediately catchy tunes from the other strings. It is dead easy to follow, the movements are short and sweet and the tempi unwaveringly fast-slow-fast.

The playing of the experienced AAM was pretty much faultless. We even had a moment of high drama (sort of) as Frank de Bruine had to simultaneously play and re-order his music in the Sammartini piece. I could listen to hours of this stuff, especially in this hall. Can’t wait for the next fix.