Britten Sinfonia Beethoven cycle at the Barbican Hall review *****

Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades (conductor),

Barbican Hall, 21st and 26th May 2019

  • Lawrence Power (viola)
  • Eamonn Dougan (director)
  • Jennifer France (soprano)
  • Christianne Stotjin (alto)
  • Ed Lyon (tenor)
  • Matthew Rose (bass)
  • Britten Sinfonia Voices
  • Choir of Royal Holloway
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A majpor, Op 92
  • Gerald Barry – Viola Concerto
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93
  • Gerald Barry – The Eternal Recurrence 
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125

I have banged on before about just how revelatory Thomas Ades’ Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia has been. Well it seems that, for the final couple of concerts, the rest of the world, (well OK a few Beethoven nuts in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden) has caught up. A near full house for the Choral and a much better turnout for 7 and 8 than in previous installments.

The combination of, largely, modern instruments by an orchestra of solo and chamber specialists, (and now my favourite British ensemble), who have completely bought into the lessons of HIP under the baton of, again for my money, Britain’s greatest living composer, have produced Beethoven symphonies that surely reproduce the thrill of their first performance. Appropriate forces, minimal vibrato, tempos that believe Beethoven, textures exposed and perfectly combined. I have bloody loved the first four concerts and was really looking forward to the final pairing.

I wasn’t disappointed. The best Ninth I have ever heard. Ever. Soloists perfectly balanced and all as clear as a bell over the sympathetic accompaniment. And the choirs were immense. You don’t need a cast of thousands. How on earth Mr Ades and Eamonn Dougan managed to make the voices sound this perfect in this acoustic was a miracle. And everything Mr Ades drew out of the previous three movements before the finale was perfect.

Best Eighth I have ever heard live too though here the competition is, I admit, somewhat slighter. I will be honest and just say I never knew it was so good. It is short, it is jolly, with no slow movement, but it is full of intriguing, if brief, ideas. I finally got it. The Seventh wasn’t quite up to the same standard with the opening Vivace with all those abrupt early key changes not quite dropping into place and with the stop/start of the Allegretto funeral march maybe too pronounced. Minor quibbles. Still amazing.

The Barry Viola Concerto takes the flexing and stretching of a musical exercise with a simple melody and subjects it to all manner of variations. It ended with Lawrence Power whistling. It is, like all of Barry’s music in the series, immediately arresting, just a little bit unsettling, rhythmically muscular and very funny. Terrific.

The Eternal Recurrence which proceeded the Choral is equally unexpected. Extracts from Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra are delivered in a string of high notes by the soprano, here the fearless Jennifer France, in an a parlando, actorly style which is designed to mimic speech and not to sound “sing-y”. It’s a bit nuts and undercuts the text in a slightly sarcastic way, a bit like, some would say,Beethoven does with Schiller in the Ode to Joy. It reminded me of Barry’s The Conquest of Ireland which was paired with the Pastoral earlier on in this cycle.

I gather Gerard Barry uses a similar technique in his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, (based on the Fassbinder film). That is now firmly near the top of my opera “to see” list but for the moment I am very pleased to see that both The Intelligence Park and Alice’s Adventures Underground are coming up at the Royal Opera House. Thanks to Thomas Ades I think I can safely say I am now a fan of Gerard Barry. And the old fella has style and is generous to the performers of his music as we see when he takes his bow at each of these performances.

I won’t go rabbiting on about the musical structure or context of the Beethoven symphonies. You will know them. And if you don’t then frankly you are only living half a life. Beethoven wrote the greatest music ever written. If you don’t believe me then why not start next year when a recording of this cycle will be released and when there will be wall to wall live Beethoven performances to celebrate 250 years since his birth. Here’s a list of the best of them in London. They’ll be more.

  • 6th January, 6th February, 27th February, 19th March, 2nd April – Kings Place – Brodsky Quartet – Late Beethoven String Quartets
  • 19th January – Barbican Hall – LSO, Sir Simon Rattle – Berg Violin Concerto, Beethoven Christ on the Mount of Olives.
  • 1st and 2nd February – Barbican – Beethoven weekender – All of the Beethoven symphonies from various UK orchestras and much much more – all for £45
  • 6th February – Barbican Hall – Evgeny Kissin – Piano Sonatas 8, 17 and 21
  • 12th February – Barbican Hall – LSO. Sir Simon Rattle – Symphony No 9
  • 20th February, 4th November – Kings Place – Rachel Podger, Christopher Glynn – Beethoven Violin Sonatas
  • 1st to 17th March – Royal Opera House – Beethoven Fidelio
  • 15th March – Royal Festival Hall, PO, Esa-Pekka Salonen – 1808 Reconstructed – Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto No 4, Extracts from Mass in C, Choral Fantasy and more
  • 4th April – LPO, Vladimir Jurowski – The Undiscovered Beethoven – inc. The Cantata for the Death of Emperor Joseph II
  • 8th April – Barbican Hall – Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis – Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5, 7 and 9
  • 11th to 16th May – Barbican Hall – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner – the entire Symphony cycle.
  • 22nd November – Kings Place – Peter Wispelwey, Alasdair Beaton – Beethoven complete Cello Sonatas

Mozart and Beethoven chamber music for winds at the Wigmore Hall review ****

Alexander Melnikov (piano), Alfredo Bernardini (oboe), Lorenzo Coppola (clarinet), Javier Zafra (bassoon), Teunis van der Zwart (horn)

Wigmore Hall, 31st March 2019

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Adagio in B minor K540
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Quintet in E flat for piano and winds K452
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Horn Sonata in F Op. 17
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Quintet in E flat for piano and winds Op. 16

A wind supergroup. I’ll resist the temptation to make a puerile joke. Still that’s what was on stage on this evening at the Wigmore. To play a couple of chamber music classics from the, er, Classical period. Whilst Beethoven went on to bigger and better things the Op 16 Wind Quintet is a piece of beauty and not insignificant innovation which owes a lot to its Mozartian predecessor but, especially in this direct comparison. also markedly departs from it. As for Mozart’s K452, well Wolfgang himself, at the time, 1784, reckoned it was the best thing he had ever written and who are we to argue. The evening was rounded off with Mozart’s K540 Adagio for piano, one of the most most poignant pieces he ever wrote, and Beethoven’s (only) virtuoso Horn Sonata.

Alexander Melnikov is probably as good as it will ever get, (maybe even than DSCH himself who was a bit of a ragged pianist by all accounts), when it comes to Shostakovich’s mighty Preludes and Fugues and his partnership with Isabelle Faust in the Beethoven violin sonatas is something I would pay good money to hear live. Annoyingly his next visit to the Wigmore with Ms Faust, and Jean-Guihen Queyras on cello, to play the Beethoven piano trios clashes with an even bigger gig; Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent taking on the Bach B minor Mass. (I also see the the CVG are touring Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. Now that would be, to use the modern parlance, a thing). I am hoping to see Mr Melnikov accompanying American soprano Claron McFadden in December when they take on some tricksy modern vocal repertoire including some Cathy Berberian staples.

As it happens Mr Melnikov’s fellow band members, all being experts in the HIP field, have close associations with the CVG, especially horn player Teunis van der Zwart. For this concert was unavowedly historically informed. Mr van der Zwart teaches in Holland, Javier Safra in Brussels, Lorenzo Coppola in Barcelona and Alfredo Bernardini in Salzburg, but they are all involved with top rank European period music ensembles and all studied in Holland as far as I can see, this being, with Belgium, the centre of the universe when it comes to HIP teaching and performance. The Tourist can never leave London but if he did that is probably where he would head.

AM set the scene with the Mozart Adagio, the only self-contained work by Mozart in the “melancholic” key of B minor, on his fortepiano. The initial phrases are pretty simple, and, on a fortepiano with its lack of sustain, it is a little underwhelming at first. But, as the second subject emerges, with the constant crossing of left had to right, things hot up and the fortepiano sound, with the twinklier higher notes and buzzy low notes, starts to properly emerge. In the development section Mozart piles up the pathos, first with an ascending harmonic sequence and then, descending, ending in a quick switch to B major, an unexpected twist after all that woe-is-me stuff. I don’t normally get too worked up by Mozart’s solo piano pieces, but this certainly did the trick. There is no doubt that, if you are used to hearing a piece on a modern piano, the fortepiano, with its distinct lack of oomph and narrow range, can be a disappointing alternative but with Mozart it works. My theory is that it turns “too many notes” into “just the right amount”, though to be fair this is not over-burdened with notes in the first place.

The rest of the ensemble then trooped on for the Mozart Quintet which again turned out to be a perfect illustration of why to makes sense to play music on the instruments it was designed for. Assuming the musicians are up to the task, which they were here. I doubt that this will ever become a favourite of mine, compared say to the late symphonies, some of the string quartets and the wind concertos and string/wind quintets, but this was very persuasive, highlighting the way in which WAM passed the phrases backwards and forwards between winds and keyboard, and, on these instruments, giving us a bit of rough to remove the complacent air that tends to creep into Mozart on modern instruments. The first movement starts off slow and the subsequent Allegro doesn’t get up to much, a gentle skip, but this allows the ear to get a taste for the sound, (I know, mixed metaphors), before the much more varied slow second movement where WAM takes us to some very interesting sounding places tonally led by clarinet and horn. This I liked. Just a hint of unease. The closing Rondo is much jollier, as the quickstep interplay between piano and wind becomes more elaborate.

Now the programme, (some excellent notes by Misha Donat), tells me that LvB wrote his horn sonata for one Giovanni Punto who was considered, in 1800, to be one of the greatest virtuoso soloists of the day. He was born Johann Wenzel Stich, in the service of one Count Wenzel Joseph von Thun, (reminding us that for most of human history even the ostensibly free were nothing of the sort), but, after learning his trade in Prague, Munich and Dresden, decided to skip away from his “employer” and take on a new identity to evade capture. I am guessing then that Count Thun wasn’t invited to the premiere of the piece where no less than LvB was the pianist.

The Allegro opening contains a number of remarkable innovations to show off Herr/Signore Punto’s technique, hand-stopping, (altering the pitch by sticking the hand in the bell end – quiet at the back please), a descent into the lowest of low chords in tandem with the keyboard, (the same pitch as a cello’s open C string – that buzzy, growly sound), and a passage of rapid arpeggios which I am guessing are beyond the capability of all but the best horn players. The middle movement is not some drawn out Largo, (that wouldn’t really work on the horn), but serves as an intro to the concluding Rondo and also highlights a dotted motif that permeates the whole sonata. LvB went on to utilise this structure, to greater effect, in later works, piano sonatas but also in the symphonies. One reason why Beethoven’s music, above all others, makes sense.

Whilst Mozart’s Quintet may have been an influence on Beethoven’s equivalent I am not sure, even with the help of the experts, that I can discern this in more than the general shape, notably the gentle, slow intro into the Allegro first movement and some of the more dramatic statements in the development. The horn comes out well in this movement and the keyboard gets the chance to show off one of those massive octave, (four and a half here), leaps that LvB was so beloved of. There is another one of those little repeated dotted rhythms here as well. The central rondo shape, marked cantabile – singsong to you and me – with theme and accompaniment, allows all four wind players to show off, with increasing ornamentation, leaving the piano to take the final turn. The actual Rondo finale has a bouncy quality stemming from its 6/8 “hunting” theme and, with its runs on the keyboard and rapid exchanges between the instruments, this could easily be mistaken for Wolfgang.

A fine programme then delivered by experts in their fields highlighting two of the finest pieces of chamber music ever written for these instruments. I would be very happy if they went on to record this programme. Over to you fellas.

English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall review *****

English Chamber Orchestra, Jessica Cottis (conductor), Ben Johnson (tenor), Ben Goldscheider (horn)

Cadogan Hall, 16th March 2019

  • Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin
  • Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31
  • Purcell/Britten – Suite of Six Songs from Orpheus Britannicus
  • Stravinsky – Pulcinella Suite

I love Britten’s Serenade, first performed in 1943. It might be one of my favourite ever pieces of classical music, up there with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Bach’s Violin Sonatas and, I am not ashamed to admit, The Four Seasons. I am not alone. There was a delightful senior in the lift at Cadogan Hall who concurred. But it needs a tenor and, especially, horn player, of the highest rank, to pull it off. The ECO of course has it in its genes, Benjamin Britten having been its first patron and founding musical influence.

Now there are many fine recordings, (I assume based on the artists involved), but as ever in Britten’s music the best bet is to have the great man conducting and, in this, if not in all, cases, Peter Pears, singing. I can see why the experts reckon the recordings with the mercurial Dennis Brain, for whom the part was written, on horn are definitive, but the first, from 1942 a year after the piece premiered, is a bit period scratchy for my liking, emotional as it is, and the second, a decade later, falls a bit short musically. Dennis Brain might just have been the greatest horn player of the C20 coming from, and there can’t be too many of these, a veritable dynasty of horn players. He died far too young, in rock’n’roll style, by wrapping his sports car round a tree. If he had lived longer who knows what the next generation of modernist composers, the likes of Ligeti and Berio, might have conjured up for him.

As for the Serenade though I actually prefer the later Britten/Pears recording on Decca with the LSO and Barry Tuckwell on horn. More musical, and Pears less comedy toff sounding, even if the horn is a tad less mysterious. I also love the second Bostridge with the BPO and Rattle and their principal horn Czech Radek Baborak. After all Ian Bostridge is surely better than Pears in most of Britten’s supreme vocal music. On that note make sure not to miss his Madwoman in Curlew River with the Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court next March. The staging in 2013 for Britten’s centenary, directed by Netia Jones at St Giles Crippplegate, with players from the BS, and IB in the same role, was extraordinary. One of the best “opera” experiences of the Tourist’s life.

So tenor Ben Johnson and Ben Goldscheider on horn had a lot to live up to. And by and large they did. The Serenade is not performed as often as it should be IMHO which perhaps reflects the combination of small string ensemble, a skilled horn player and a dramatic tenor. Ben Johnson certainly has the flair for the dramatic, he was an ENO Harewood artist, and his clear, if not overwhelming voice, fitted the piece and hall well. Ben Goldscheider, a BBC Young Musician finalist, who is now studying with the aforementioned Radek Baborak, left a deeper impression, adept in the more virtuoso passages and capturing the mystery and thrill of the more striking passages, even if the more lyrical settings lacked a little emotion.

The six movements, (book-ended by solo Prologue and Epilogue for the horn eschewing valves to create natural harmonics), comprise settings of poems by Charles Cotton (Pastoral), Tennyson (Nocturne), Blake (Elegy), a C15 Anonymous Dirge, Ben Jonson (Hymn) and Keats (Sonnet). Serenade literally means “an evening piece” and the poems combine to take us through nightfall from dusk to midnight. The dark heart of the work is the Black “O rose thou art sick” and the scary, pounding march of the Dirge that follows, “This ae night”, but the tunes and, typically with Britten, the atmospheres, by turns haunting, comforting, placid, dancing, of the outer settings, are exquisitely rendered. As usual Britten uses all sorts of clever and arresting techniques, the lilting string chords in the Pastoral, the echoing horn in the Nocturne, the semitone infection in the Elegy shifting the key from major to minor, the vocal repetition in the Dirge against the sinister string Fugue, the hunting horn in the Rondo hymn straight out of Mozart’s playbook and the string sustains in the Sonnet as we drift off to sleep, (not literally of course, and in any event, BG’s off stage Epilogue reprise would soon wake you up).

I see that Australian-British conductor Jessica Cottis played the French horn and trumpet in her youth which perhaps explains her confident way with the Serenade. I intend no offence but, physically, there isn’t much to Ms Cottis, I estimate 3 of her to 1 Tourist. She has a heck of a presence on the podium though. The ECO numbers on the night may only have maxed out in the Stravinsky, but Jessica Cottis teased out plenty of energy and power when required in this and in the rather more phlegmatic Ravel. I see she has had a couple of recent chamber operatic gigs with the Royal Opera House for Mamzer and The Monstrous Child and has appeared as a regular guest conductor after roles as Assistant at the BBC Scottish SO and Sydney SO under Ashkenazy. On the strength of these interpretations if I where looking for fresh musical leadership I would give her a job.

My last exposure to Le tombeau de Couperin was from Angela Hewitt in the solo piano version at the RFH with MSBD and MSBDD. No review on these pages as, thanks to collective misunderstanding, we managed to miss the star turn, Bach’s Partita No 4, which was, to saw the least, bloody annoying. Still the Ravel was superb and MSBDD was particularly chuffed, this being one of his favourite pieces. Now Ravel was a dab hand at lushly orchestrating other composers’ piano works but for his own he was a little more restrained. That isn’t to say that LTDC isn’t brimful of “colour”, that being the standard word to describe Ravel’s gorgeous ideas, just that you can feel the sombre tones which come from the work’s inspiration as a memorial to the close friends Ravel had lost in the Great War. This version of LTDC takes four of the piano’s six movements: the Prelude, where the traces of harpsichord ornamentation, this was after all inspired by the Baroque harpsichord genius Francois Couperin, is most apparent in strings and oboe; the Forlane, a Venetian dance which the Pope at the time had tried to re-introduce to replace the smutty tango, (is there no end to Catholic sex guilt), but which Ravel spices up with some dissonant notes; a courtly Menuet that goes a bit Scottish jig and ends up with a bit of that Ravelian jazz vibe; and finally a Rigaudon which is a medieval Provencal dance with central processional. The whole piece gives woodwind and, especially, brass a good workout which the respective members of the ECO seemed to thoroughly enjoy. I don’t have a recording of this. Clearly I should.

Apparently Henry Purcell composed over 250 songs and vocal works in his short 36 year life with three volumes being published posthumously as Orpheus Britannicus. BB, like so many subsequent British composers, loved HP, as would anyone in their right mind. Indeed they have a lot in common: inventive harmony, matchless word painting and transparent and direct melody in their music for voice. BB, along with Michael Tippett, was instrumental in bringing the near forgotten HP back into the mainstream, in part through settings of songs from the OB volumes. HP had only provided figured bass lines as accompaniment to the vocal parts but that is all BB needed, along with his preferred chamber orchestral forces, to bring the songs to life. Peter Pears, in editing the vocal lines, foregoes any frilly ornamentation and together the lads created some cracking numbers, modest in sound even if the lyrics are a bit British bulldog patriotic. It doesn’t look like they crop up on the Last Night of the Proms. They should. I see that BB himself writing about his and PP’s arrangements hoped to capture “something of that mixture of clarity, brilliance, tenderness and strangeness which shines out in all of Purcell’s music“. Could just as easily have been his own manifesto.

Having literally changed the course of music with those ballets Stravinsky, and Diaghilev as the promoter needed to come up with a new trick after the War. Diaghilev, in yet another inspired move, presented IS with a collection of music by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, he of the Stabat Mater, (and some criminally ignored operas and unrecorded orchestral pieces), and a book of stories about the stock commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella, or wife-beater and all round yob Mr Punch to us Brits. (BTW Pergolesi, like Purcell died way too young, though he only managed to get to the very rock’n’roll age of 26). From this IS conjured up the ballet Pulcinella which premiered in Paris in 1920 conducted by maestro Ernst Ansermet with choreography by Leonid Massine and designs by some bloke named Pablo Picasso. And so began IS’s neo-classical phase. Oh yessss.

The suite, written in 1922 and subsequently revised, (as IS was wont to do). is scored for chamber orchestra like the full ballet but the vocal parts are dumped and the material is condensed into 8 movements. I have recordings of the full ballet from Abbado and the LSO and Marriner and the ASMF, (unsurprisingly, given its genesis, Baroque specialists love having a go at this). In this performance Jessica Cottis and the ECO trod a nice line between the kind of crisp, HIP influenced, neo-classical Stravinsky now commonplace and the older, lusher, vibrato-ey style, though it didn’t quite make enough off the off-kilter chords and bouncy rhythms, after all most of the movements are based on dances. This is core repertoire for the ECO and it shows.

Next up from the ECO at Cadogan Hall on April 16th a brighter affair, the Mendelssohn VC with some Schubert, Suk and the cinematic Bartok Divertimento, led by the, er, ECO leader Stephanie Gonley and then. on May 22nd, some Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, from the other end of his neo-classical period. Looking forward to the former concert but will miss the latter. Clashes with the Stockhausen Donnerstag aus Licht. What have I let myself in for.

Philippe Herreweghe and Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor),
Bertrand Chamayou (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 21st February 2019

  • JS Bach – Orchestral Suite No.3 in D
  • Mozart – Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K.488
  • Mozart – Symphony No.41 (Jupiter) 

A rare opportunity to hear modern instruments tackle some core Baroque and Classical orchestral repertoire in an HIP style, which, when it works, can a thrilling musical experience. But here the Philharmonia was under the baton of not just any old conductor but one of the founding fathers of historically informed performance in the guise of Belgian maestro, and Jonathan Pryce look-a-like, Philippe Herreweghe.

Mr Herreweghe is the Artistic Director of the renowned Collegium Vocale Gent which he founded in 1970 whilst studying at the music conservatory in his native Ghent. It didn’t take long before the HIP world stood up and took notice of PH’s authentic and enthusiastic way with the Baroque, especially Bach, and recordings, for example of the Bach cantatas, with the likes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, soon followed. In 1977 PH also founded the La Chapelle Royale to focus on the French Baroque, the likes of Lully and Charpentier, and he has subsequently branched out into other eras and other ensembles (he is principal conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic), but it is his JS Bach interpretations which garner most praise. Generally, if he is the conductor on a recommended recording, you can safely take the plunge. If it is a Bach recording you would be daft not to.

BTW for those Brits who have never been to Ghent – more fool you. Leave St Pancras mid morning and you can still be there for lunch. Easy stroll around the centre taking in a couple of Gothic church crackers, a Belfry (with lift), a C10 castle, the Graslei medieval houses lining the canal – boat trip mandatory, a couple of supernatural art galleries (MSK if, like the Tourist you are drawn to early Flemish and first half of the C20, and the Contemporary Art Museum), two vouchsafed decent hotels (Marriott and Pillows Grand Reylof), some very tidy trough (with a fair few Michelin stars scattered throughout), lashings of great beer and, best of all, the greatest painting ever, the Van Eyck boys’ Adoration of the Lamb. Busy, but not as nuts as Bruges. The city is gearing up for a van Eyck celebration next year. So off you trot.

Now the Collegium Vocale Gent is a regular, if not frequent, visitor to London. They are over for a Bach B Minor Mass on 14th June at the Barbican. There are still plenty of tickets left. So go on, treat yourself. I also see they are taking the Glass opera, Einstein on the Beach, on a tour around the Low Countries. Crikey.

Prior to that though PH put a stripped back PO, and an excellent young French pianist in the shape of Bertrand Chamayou, through its paces. In fact prior to that a string quartet led by PO violinist Adrian Varela offered a free concert of Bach transcriptions (two Bach chorals, BMV 269 and 86, two Art of Fugue Contrapuntuses, is that the plural?), Stravinsky’s Concertino and the suite Punta del Este, from Argentinian, Aster Piazzolla, which was as good as it sounds.

Only four orchestral suites by JSB survive, in contrast to the 100 or more from composition whirlwind Telemann. They likely date from the Cothen years, written for Prince Leopold, and are some of the funkiest grooves the old boy ever laid down. They all begin with a lengthy overture followed by a series of dance movements; so French in structure if not always in sound. The overture of No 3 itself is French style, a slow stately D major opening, then a rapid, dotty fugue before a short reprise. Number three augments strings and woodwinds with timpani and three trumpets, which gives the first idea an Handelian majesty which suits the modern orchestra. JSB wastes no time shifting to the running semiquavers of the fugue which follows. You may well know the overture. If you don’t you will know the Air which follows, “On a G string”. It may be ubiquitous but it is still special. No Bach, no symphonic slow movements. The Gavotte, a courtly knees up, which follows is in two parts. Things heat up in the scrabbling Bouree which follows, but it is the final Gigue which takes us back to the jollity of the opening, trumpets blazing.

Now your man PH doesn’t hang around. Brisk is the usually ascribed epithet. Suits me. But with no dawdling or vibrato to hide behind this called for precision from the PO. Which they delivered. This sharp, clean sound, with steel in the 44 (yep count ’em) strings (literally), controlled wind (if you get my meaning) and hard stick timpani (oh dear), with the perpetual motion of Bach’s invention, is what really got me excited. Getting the balance right with such a full orchestra was always going to be tricky but PH and the PO, for the most part, were on to that.

I was a little less convinced by the Mozart PC. Not Bertrand Chamayou’s subtle and supple playing, proper Classical (not his normal specialism), but more in the drive of the orchestra. They didn’t quite match up in the jolly opening Allegro and in the closing, vivacious sonata-rondo. By the time BC joined the orchestra in the opening they had built up a head of stem that he was hard pressed to match, and things got a bit too racey by the end of the concerto, where WAM launches more than a few surprises. In the beautiful, dreamy F sharp minor Adagio, pretty much all piano and the only passage ever in this key from Wolfgang A, we could hear just how fine a pianist BC is, at least when it comes to delicate emotion. WAM wrote PC’s 22, 23 and 24 in a hurry to drum up some cash. They are, IMHO, his best 3 in the form, with the operatic 23 probably edging 24 to the top spot.

Mozart also churned out the last 3 symphonies in a matter of weeks. Still hard to credit. Jupiter is, of course, the best. And the final movement is the best of the four. The two themes of the opening Allegro jockey for supremacy with more than a whiff of Don Giovanni-esque irony. The Andante takes a simple theme and turns into into something altogether more knowing and the Menuet and Trio elevates that Classical staple to new heights. But that last movement, up there with Beethoven’s best, and therefore the best ever, is something else entirely. Four notes, upside down, inside out, round about, in fact very which way but loose, then twisted around another four themes similarly pushed and pulled, then all weaved together in celestial, head-banging perfection (I know, I know, it’s just music, but f*ck me, what music). Easy enough to make a hash of by going balls-out bluster. Not here though showing how “flexible HIP” is now, really, the only sensible option with Mozart. Even with repeats PH brought this in under the half-hour. I have a Norrington recording with LCP, again with all the repeats, which tops 35 minutes and he is no slouch.

Regular readers will know that I can’t be doing with the staples of the Romantic repertoire. This though pays the wages of the PO and its peers. They barely get near Bach, or even Mozart, at least in an orchestral context. Perhaps that is why they look pleased as punch at the end of this. Happy days. And for those of you who like a little more Romantic in your lives, albeit the early variety, PH is back with the PO in November to show off some Beethoven and Schubert.

Piano trio and percussion at the Wigmore Hall review ***

Sergey Khachatryan (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano), Colin Currie (percussion), Owen Gunnell (percussion), Sam Walton (percussion)

Wigmore Hall, 11th February 2019

  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Trio in D Op. 70 No. 1 ‘Ghost’
  • Arnold Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht Op. 4 (arr. Eduard Steuermann for piano trio)
  • Rolf Wallin – Realismos Mágicos
  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15 in A Op. 141 (arr. Victor Derevianko for piano trio and percussion)

OK so this didn’t quite go to plan. I was intrigued by the classical supergroup combination, the composers and the arrangements, but probably should have put a little more effort in to checking in advance whether I liked said arrangements. Always do your homework Tourist.

The Ghost was a success, as you might expect from this glittering trio of soloists and because it is Beethoven, thus being immune to criticism. I find that this pivotal work can either be taken with a Classical tilt, building on the master Haydn, or with a more forceful attitude, presaging the muscular Beethoven still to come. (Remember LvB previous contributions to the piano trio form were the three that formed his Op 1) This trio opted for the former with sometimes glittering results. The Ghost owes its name to the supernatural melodies of its slow movement. Apparently LvB was working on a possible opera based on Macbeth which perhaps explains the mood. It is the light and shade of the Allegro first movement and the full sonata form of the Presto finale which also explain its popularity with performers, including our friends here, alongside its “Archduke” Op 70 cousin.

Verklarte Nacht seems to follow me around like a drunken dinner party guest who will not accept that it is time for beddy-byes. I hoped that this cut-down version of the string quartet, from Schoenberg groupie Edward Steuermann, with the piano talking four of the string lines and violin and cello flying solo concertante style, might dilute the syrupy sweetness of the original. Afraid not, despite the best efforts of our musicians. It still sounds like knock off Wagner to my ears. And that is not a good thing. There are apparently five sections and a coda. Search me.

The Rolf Wallins virtuoso marimba piece, Realismos Mágicos, was a chance for Colin Currie to show off, just because he can. And he did, in some style. It is inspired by 11 short stories from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, hence the title.

So to Shostakovich 15. The symphonic version is sparse,enigmatic, suffused with DSCH’s own mortality, which is percussion and string heavy. So in theory this arrangement, for piano trio and various tuned, (xylophone and glockenspiel), and untuned, percussion should have worked. Unfortunately it doesn’t. Shostakovich needs woodwind and brass like a sandwich needs cheese and pickle (chez Tourist). I can see why the arranger, pianist Victor Derevianko, thought this would make sense after playing it through, for the censors, on the keyboard in 1971, and why DSCH agreed to the idea. And, with these fine musicians, there were clearly going to be passages that convinced; in the first movement, where the percussion is used to set up the quirky, black comedy, symbolised by the William Tell extract, and the finale, where uncertainly builds to repeated climaxes before the clockwork countdown to unremarkable oblivion. Where it disappoints, compared to the orchestral original, is in the slow movement and scherzo. A crowded Wigmore stage also condensed the sound which the Hall’s acoustic couldn’t quite

Definitely then a “it’s not you, it’s me” evening. Or maybe a soon to be forgotten one night stand. Either way I am sorry.

Hungariana: Casals Quartet and Tamara Stefanovich at Milton Court review ****

Casals Quartet, Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Gerald McBurney (creative director), Amelia Kosminsky (video designer)

Hungaria, Milton Court Concert Hall, and 3rd February 2019

Gyorgy Kurtag

  • Six moments musicaux Op 44
  • Jatekok excerpts

Bela Bartok

  • 14 Bagatelles Op 6
  • String Quartet No 3
  • Three Burlesques Op 8c

Gyorgy Ligeti

  • Etudes excerpts
  • Musica ricercata VI-XI
  • String Quartet No 1 Metamorphoses nocturnes

One day. Three concerts. Showcasing the chamber music of the three most renowned Hungarian composers of the C20 (OK, well maybe that is a little harsh on Zoltan Kodaly). In fact, outside of some chap by the name of Franz Lizst, probably the three most famous Hungarian composers of all time. Except that European history being what it is all three of them were actually born in Romania, in its various incarnations. But their shared musical heritage, rooted to various degrees in folk music, is defiantly and definitely Hungarian. To perform the music, a Spanish quartet, albeit one with great affinity with the repertoire, and a Serbian pianist, though again one with proven expertise in all three composers.

A confession. I missed the first concert. Late-ish flight back the previous evening (Bologna since you ask – not humble-bragging but the Tourist highly recommends La Dotta/Grassa/Rossa, as well as nearby Ferrara and Ravenna. Be thankful he hasn’t the energy to start blogging on these trips or the vanity to Instagram). Anyway a bit tired to get to the Barbican by 11am so the first 5 parts of Ligeti’s Musica ricercata were missed, as were various excerpts from Kurtag’s Jatekok piano works, his 12 Microludes and Bartok’s String Quartet no 1. Most annoying (to miss) in retrospect were the Microludes, 12 tiny string quartet pieces in homage to Kurtag’s mate Mihaly Andras. Still, no worries, as, on the strength of Six moments musicaux, which was Kurtag’s fourth string quartet, I have a CD of his entire output for the form winging its way to me.

For I was very taken with Six moments musicaux, a title lifted from Schubert (and Rachmaninov). Written in 2005 the, er, six short pieces differ in character both between, and within, themselves. All are, as is characteristic with GK, very short. The first, Invocatio has loud, hard rhythms, an announcement, encasing a pianissimo melody and a chorale. Footfalls is a slow, broken waltz, the title taken from a late Beckett play. Then a Capriccio, a duel with obstinate lines and then a memoriam, a sort of passacaglia dedicated to Hungarian pianist George Sebak. This, like the finale, was based on two of the Jatekok piano pieces. The finale, titled Les Adieux, tilts at Beethoven but is subtitled in the manner of Janacek and is a lament of sorts. The penultimate is a “study in harmonics” based on birdsong a la Messaien.

George Kurtag was notoriously slow to get in to his compositional stride, writing just 9 small-scale works in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973 though he was commissioned to write some children’s piano pieces, which became the first 4 volumes of Jatokek (“Games”), and since then he hasn’t stopped, and there are now several hundred of these piano pieces alongside all his other work. All tiny, for solo or duo piano, their titles range across ideas, emotions, images, dedications, gestures, and together these fragments encompass the range of his musical imagination. If I am honest, even with the love and care lavished on them by Tamara Stefanovich, the combined effect was a bit stupefying, not in a bad way, just that, in the absence of titles or breaks, it was tricky to keep up. I will need to revisit.

Indeed I will need to explore all of GK’s oeuvre. The idea of reducing music to fragments appeals (Flowers We Are, Mere Flowers, from the eighth volume of Jatokek, is just 7 notes long), but, based on these pieces, this is music with emotional heft despite its brevity, and not just an academic exercise. GK (pictured above) is an expert teacher, especially in chamber music, and the echoes of his own favourites, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Webern and, of course, Bartok are easy to pick out. Of course it helps that GK adores the music of his friend and mentor Gyorgy Ligeti, who similarly, though I would contend, at a somewhat more elevated level, was to take the language and structure of music and turn it into something truly astounding. GK is still with us, now 93, though he was a little frail to attend the premiere of his opera, Fin de partie at La Scala last November, which is based on Beckett’s Endgame (which Ligeti first introduced him to).

In these two concerts we were treated to Tamara Stefanovich’s rendition of a handful of the Etudes (2, 8, 11, 3, 5, 15 and 10) and the second half of the Musica ricercata. The Etudes proved a fertile laboratory for Ligeti’s genius, mixing his early affinity for Hungarian folk sounds, (following in the footsteps of Bartok), his love of Debussy’s re-invention of piano music and purpose, his experiments with fractal patterns, his investigation of non-Western tonality and his fascination with Conlon Nancarrow’s complex cross-rhythms. Most of the etudes involve some, albeit very different variation on each hand playing at different speeds. If you have never heard, or claim never to want to hear, any “modern” classic music listen to the Etudes. You will change your mind. Guaranteed.

TS is a powerful advocate for the work, maybe not quite as powerful as her friend and collaborator, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who performed the Etudes in their entirety last year at the QEH Ligeti weekender, but brings more Debussyian grace. Musica ricercata is more rule-based composition, not serialist, but a suite intended to progress from just two notes to a full-blown High Baroque fugue. It was written in the early 1950’s in Budapest, where it could not be played given the Soviet musical mindset, and, when GL moved to the West he saw it as too simple, until 1969 when the adventure of Boulez and Stockhausen was no longer de rigeur. I am still listening and learning, (some helpful programme notes here courtesy of Paul Griffiths), so can’t explain the music musically as it were, but, like the Etudes I know I like it. A few more years and I might even understand these works.

The highlight of the day though was Ligeti’s First String Quartet however, “Metamorphoses nocturnes”. The Ligeti quartets are putting ever more frequent appearances in the quartet repertoire and the Casals turned in an excellent rendition, near matching the Arditti recording I have. GL took this early piece with him when he left Hungary in 1956 after the Soviet crackdown, and it was premiered in Vienna in 1958. However, like the Musica ricercata, it was deemed a little too “prehistoric” in Ligeti’s words, to warrant dispersion, until its first recording in the 1970s. By then the world was ripe for the interplay of the folk rhythms and trademark Ligetian polyphony, colours and enquiry. The eight sections generate a variety of moods, atmospheric, macabre, dance, humour, with a motif, G-A-G sharp-A sharp, threaded throughout. It is brilliant.

What to do with Bela Bartok? It seems that every time I hear a performance of Bartok’s work, whether orchestral, chamber or solo, (or choral as with Cantata profana performed recently by the LSO, alongside Ligeti’s Lontano), that gets the juices flowing, it is immediately followed by a performance that perplexes. Here the String Quartet No 3, which to be fair I have heard a few times before courtesy of the Emerson recording, challenged and fascinated, whereas the piano pieces, the 14 Bagatelles and Three Burlesques just confused me. Oh well, I guess I just keep trying.

Now sometimes these “immersive” days can feel a bit cobbled together. Not here though as creative director Gerard McBurney introduced each piece with appropriate extracts from the writings of the composers themselves, reinforcing the links between them and their homeland, and the words of contemporary poets, such as Endre Ady and Attila Joszef, in Hungarian as well as translated. Moreover the video backdrop created by Amelia Kosminsky, a mature final year student at the Guildhall, was stunning. She had discovered a treasure trove of amateur monochrome photographs from Hungary throughout the C20, the Fortepan archive, which she combined superbly to match music and text. If I am honest sometimes these designs can just be bloody distracting. Not here though.