Benjamin Britten – String Quartets No 1 in D Op 25, No 2 in C Op 36 and No 3 Op 94
All three Britten string quartets in one evening. Courtesy of the Doric String Quartet. Who have been working hard on this very repertoire, visible in their recent acclaimed recording. The Quartet has a long association with Britten’s music, having formed at Pro Corda in 1998, the school near Aldeburgh, and with Helene Grimaud playing on Britten’s very own viola.
Britten’s music can, I imagine, sound either too austere or too cautious for many listeners, depending on their musical taste. Too flashy, relying on surface effect, in thrall to musical form, and not generating real emotion. A bit too obvious, even too “perfect” maybe, though not immediately appealing. For me though this is his genius. The musical ideas are clear, but still present a challenge to those of us who don’t really understand music, even though they are not actually that challenging. In 1970s football parlance, one of those technical European midfielders, “good on the ball” but somehow suspect, lacking passion or “an engine”. But with performers who love and understand the music, and locate its centre and line, then there is feeling and passion aplenty. Easiest to find in the vocal and choral works and the operas but also abundant, for me at least, in the chamber music and, specifically, the three string quartets.
Which is where the Dorics step in. For there is no holding back here. They have a big, muscular sound which, whilst never obscuring the clarity of thought which is BB’s trademark, especially in the super sparse Third gives the quartets a punch and a drama that I haven’t encountered before. Less ascetic, more buoyant. Though never too extroverted, true I believe to BB’s intentions. Though with plenty of volume when required.
The First was completed in 1941, to a commission from Elizabeth Coolidge during Britten and Pears’s US sojourn, (though it is not actually the first quartet, BB having revived an early composition in the key of D, when just 17, late in life). It starts with a yearning sostenuto, missing Blighty perhaps, is followed by a swanky runaround Allegretto, a nocturnal Andante led by Alex Redington’s violin and ending with the sparkling harmonies of a rondo finale. Easy to place in the flash harry early years for BB.
Which is why the Second Quartet composed just 4 years later, when BB was deep in Peter Grimes, is still so surprising to me. Commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death, BB’s beloved forebear, it kicks off with a full throated Allegro, owing much to Schubert in feel and Haydn in form. The terse Vivace which follows links this movement to the final, stunning Chacony. BB just loved this form, variously chaconne or passacaglia, but his one is a belter. Near 20 minutes long, it shifts its shape continuously and, in places, gets a bit weird. The Doric’s really got hold of it and gave it a good shake. Loved it.
Which in turn set up the Third. BB waiting 30 years before coming back to the form and was near the end by the time he started. Not quite as death suffused as DSCH’s final fifteenth quartet, but still pretty bleak. At least until the final Passacaglia movement. In a work that quotes liberally from the final opera Death in Venice, this movement, like its equivalent in the opera, suggests a peaceful farewell for the protagonist, whether Aschenbach or BB. Prior to that, in the oppositional two part Duets, the jarring Ostinato scherzo, the central poignant Solo cantilena for first violin and the scorching Burlesque which precedes the descriptive Recitative which introduces that Passacaglia, we hear some of BB’s best ever beats.
As good a performance of BB’s quartets as you are likely to hear and, a reminder of why they are up there with late Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok and Shostakovich as the best of the form.
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Katherine Watson (soprano), Rowan Pierce (soprano), Zoe Brookshaw (soprano), Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe), Choir of the Age of Enlightenment
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 11th November 2019
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) – Stabat Mater
Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni (1671-1751) – Oboe Concerto in D minor, Op.9 No.2
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) – Gloria RV 589
Last year a Pergolesi Stabat Mater with BUD from the AAM. This year the OAE take with MSBD and Katherine Watson (braving a cold) and Iestyn Davies in the soloist chairs. I’ve already banged on about Pergolesi before. This is his most famous work. Written just before his early death from TB. More than a hint of the comic opera about its style, which are, largely, his other, authenticated contributions to Baroque musical history, (I have a recording of some of his instrumental offerings). Though certainly not its serious religious subject, a C13 poem depicting Mary’s vigil at the foot of the Cross. Took the European musical world by storm and, on and off, has been a favourite ever since. Immediate, direct and very effective, it is impossible not to be carried along by the lean, melodic strings offset with deliberately nostalgic stile antico effects, (from the time before Monteverdi revolutionised Western music). These include prolonged cadences and delayed resolutions. Feel the pain. Lovely but a couple of times a year is enough for me.
Albinoni was a prolific composer, around 80 operas, 40 chamber cantatas, 60 concertos and 80 sonatas, and was, in his day, as popular as Corelli and Vivaldi. Though not quite as good IMHO. Then again he only really considered himself a violinist and, being a rich toff, didn’t have to work. SO we should applaud his industry. And, in the oboe concertos, he did come up with some of the finest music ever written for the instrument. His Op 9 set contains 4 for solo oboe and 4 for two oboes and this one, No 2 is considered the best of them. It kicks off with an elegant medium paced Allegro, follows with a sublime and generous slow movement, with an aching, bel canto solo line against a rocking string ripieno, (which MSBD was much taken with), and a bouncy, scurrying finale, which again gives the soloist plenty of opportunity to show off. And, when it comes to Baroque oboe, very few can match the OAE’s Katharina Spreckelsen.
Last live listen to Gloria was with MS and MSC at the Cadogan Hall with the ECO, so it has become something of a family affair, (even the SO and BD have grinned, and, to be fair, more than bore it, in the past. Famously AV wrote the Gloria for a full SATB choir. despite their being, at least officially, no blokes in the Ospedale della Pieta, bar carrot top himself. Which means they were drafted in, or perhaps, in the array of talents in the convent, there were females basses or at least voices low enough to take the parts, maybe with the whole pitched an octave higher. The contemporary audience would never have known, the young women being concealed behind a grills at the balconies where they performed. We had the OAE’s dedicated chamber choir, thankfully in full view, a scratch outfit of professionals perfectly matched to the OAE’s beefy sound. This I can listen to more than a couple of times a year.
London Sinfonietta, Richard Baker (conductor), Tansy Davies (electronics), Elaine Mitchener (mezzo soprano), Elizabeth Burley (piano), Sound Intermedia
Kings Place, 9th November 2019
Tansy Davies – Salt box (2005)
Tansy Davies – Loophole and Lynchpins (2002-3)
Naomi Pinnock – everything does change (2012)
Tansy Davies – The rule is love (2019)
Tansy Davies – grind show (electric) (2007)
Tansy Davies – Undertow (1999, revised 2018)
Clara Iannotta – Al di làdel bianco (2009)
Tansy Davies – Neon (2004)
The Tourist has become very taken with the music of Tansy Davies. I have really enjoyed performances of her two operas, the mythic eco-fable, Cave and the tribute to the victims of 9/11, Between Worlds, and her Concerto for Four Horns, Forest, commissioned by the Philharmonia, and I have added a couple of CD’s of her music, Troubairitz and Spine to my, admittedly still small, contemporary classical collection. This concert was subtitled Jolts and Pulses, which is a pretty accurate and pithy description of the character of her chamber works, showcased here alongside works by two other women composers whose work, in TD’s eyes who curated this concert and performed on electronics, resembles her own.
TD started making music in a rock band before studying classical composition (and horn) at Colchester, the Guildhall and Royal Holloway. She won the BBC Composers Competition in 1996, commissions following hot on its heels, and now teaches at the Royal Academy. It is pretty easy to see why she is so popular amongst performers, (she has spent the early part of this year in residence in the hallowed halls of the Concertgebouw), and audiences. When I say popular I mean in the context of the admittedly non-mainstream fans of contemporary classical music. Most of which is still shoehorned into more accessible fare, or confined to chamber works such as here, and rarely performed on a large scale. Her music reaches into the rock, funk and jazz worlds, her unorthodox score directions reflect thi,s and she is unafraid of rhythm and repetition (which is why it floats my boat), or of explicit references and inspirations, natural and human. And electronics are often present to augment and support the acoustic instruments.
I think I can hear the influence of Sir Harrison Birtwhistle in her music: the wide dynamics, the layering, the solo lines, the percussive, er, jolts and pulses, the shimmers, the binary contrasts. It is no where near as thick, with much sparser textures, but it is raw, “organic”, alive, poetic. I’ll stop there.
The members of the London Sinfonietta on duty tonight are, obviously, perfect promulgators of her music and all were on top form. Salt boxes were used on battleships to keep ammunition dry and the work was inspired by the seascapes of the North Kent coast. The two part piano inventions of Loopholes and Lynchpins pulls apart the rhythms of Scarlatti sonatas. The rule is love, a new work co-commissioned by the LS, takes two 1995 texts, from John Berger and Sylvia Wynter, and sets Elaine Mitchener’s extraordinary vocal pyrotechnics (she also collaborated with TD in Cave) against a percussive drop. Kylie Minogue was in there somewhere I swear. Grind Show, a particular favourite, and inspired by a Goya painting, sets a twisted tango against a sinister, dank night. Undertow again contrasts the sleek and the dirty and neon is a funky workout, though more jazz/post-punk than James Brown. I defy anyone not to like this.
Mantra for 2 pianos with 12 antique cymbals, woodblock & 2 ring modulators (and shortwave radio/tape)
I confess. I was defeated by the performance of Donnerstag aus Licht by Le Balcon and the London Sinfonietta in the Royal Festival Hall a couple of weeks before this. This is the “accessible” Thursday instalment of Stockhausen cycle of operas taken from the days of the week and mixes his own personal history with that of the Germany of his youth before, and this is where I ducked out, going off into a load of cosmic mumbo jumbo as was the maestro’s want. That is not to say that I wasn’t fascinated by the first act and a half, musically and in terms of the performance, just that I couldn’t engage with whatever message is being conveyed. And I was a bit tired.
So maybe I had to conclude that I was just not up to the task of understanding the work of the man who revolutionised contemporary classical music. I would expect that the vast majority of you, (vast in this context being an abstract concept), if you can even be bothered to YouTube a bit of Stockhausen’s music, will think it a mighty load of old shite. I sympathise. But if you find yourself being stealthily drawn into the world of modern and contemporary classical music, for sure there are no tunes but structures, forms, sounds, ideas, emotions, inventions, in fact everything music is, is all still present and correct, and you are of a slightly nerdy bent, fascinated by the “maths” of music, then old Karlheinz needs to be tackled. Even if he was a grade A space cadet, believing he emanated from the star Sirius.
So imagine my surprise when, here in this recital, and in other smaller scale and earlier works I have subsequently explored, I discovered that there is far less to be intimidated about that I had imagines. In fact some of KS’s music positively rocks.
Case in point. Zyklus for percussion. Zyklus means cycle I gather in German. So the instruments are arranged in a circle. The “score” in a ring binder. The soloist can start where he/she likes and go round until he/she gets back to where he/she started. The notation is readable either way up as well. The keyed instruments, (marimba, vibraphone), are represented with traditional notation, but only for glissandos, but for the unpitched instruments, (drums, tom-toms, cymbals and other assorted metal and wooden paraphernalia,) KS dreamt up a new, graphic, depiction of the rhythms. All instruments are within easy reach of the player.
Given the freedom afforded the percussionist, and the vast array of instruments, this is as much theatre as music. Dirk Rothbrust, who works out of Cologne, is plainly a dab hand at this sort of caper and a born showman, channeling his inner Bonzo Bonham. However, clocking in at 15 minutes, Zyklus avoids the worst excesses of the 1970s heavy rock gods. And it is way more interesting in terms of textures and qualities.
The main event, the Mantra for 2 pianos and other stuff, was a far meatier affair. Over an hour in fact. I was expecting much from Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, who are the unparalleled champions of this sort of music. And they delivered. This is a heck of a piece of music. Can’t say I was transfixed throughout but there is still much to take in, admire and, yes, even enjoy.
The piece, premiered in 1970, marked a return to fully notated music after the years of experimentation with more esoteric “indeterminate” instructions for performers. It wears its Asian musical influences on its sleeves and, surprise, surprise, it actually has a tune you can hum. Namely the counterpointed melody, (“formula” in Stockhausen speak), of the “Mantra” which is subsequently subject to seemingly endless expansion and contraction. Not the kind of easy to follow repetition offered up by minimalism, nor the classic theme and variations, (as no notes are varied), but, mostly, very structured transpositions and transformations of the four segment, thirteen note, mantra, initially just four very condensed chords.
With electronic manipulation via ring modulators, (nope, me neither, but fortunately your man Marco Stroppa in the middle of the hall was handy with electronics), and some antique cymbals (crotales) and wood blocks thrown in for texture and to allow the two pianists to signal the change of sections to each other. Quick, slow, loud, quiet, inversions, oscillations, vibratos, some burbling morse code from a short wave radio, (it was the 1960s kids, no mobiles or Spotify), fights between the two pianos, even some vocal squawking from M Aimard and Ms Stefanovich at one point. It all ends with a kind of 10 minute speeded up reprise of the previous hour before the mantra growls into the end.
Read Wiki if you want to learn more about the ingenuity of the structure. Let’s be honest though it will only make sense to the ear of the expert. But, I repeat, what is amazing is that even a dummy like the Tourist, whose only qualification for enjoying this sort of stuff is open enthusiasm, can discern the patterns and can be intrigued, and at times amazed, by the results. Like Zyklus the “performance” adds to the impact of the music.
OK so it won’t be the opening number at the next demeaning shindig Chez Tourist, nor am I likely to invest in a recording, but this was undeniably worth the investment of a few quid and an hour. And the QEH has the ideal acoustic to present such a piece now all the junk has been cleaned out. Certainly better than the RFH next door.
Go on give this sort of stuff a whirl. I dare you. You never know.
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
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, 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.