The Doric String Quartet at Wigmore Hall review ****

Doric String Quartet

Wigmore Hall, 22nd November 2019

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.

Pergolesi and Vivaldi: OAE at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

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.

Joanna MacGregor at the Wigmore Hall review ****

Joanna MacGregor (piano)

Wigmore Hall, 11th November 2019

Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

  • Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) – Le rappel des oiseaux
  • François Couperin (1668-1733) – Les fauvétes plaintives
  • Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) – Le merle noir
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau – La poule
  • Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) – On an Overgrown Path X. The barn owl has not flown away
  • Sir Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934) – Oockooing Bird
  • Hossein Alizâdeh (b. 1951) – Call of the Birds
  • Henry Purcell (c.1659-1695) – Ground in C minor ZD221
  • Philip Glass (b. 1937) – Koyaanisqatsi Prophecies
  • William Byrd (c.1540-1623) – My Ladye Nevells Booke First Pavane
  • Philip Glass – Trilogy Sonata Knee Play No. 4 from Einstein on the Beach
  • Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) – Ciacona in F minor

I am guessing Johanna McGregor started out interrogating her extensive repertoire for an hour of solo piano pieces connected with birds, then thought, sod it, why doubt I chuck some Purcell, Byrd and Glass into the mix and end with Pachelbel. Good call. This genuinely was a delight from start to finish. Not a single wasted note, even from the composer, Hossein Alizadeh, whose work I had never heard.

Whilst Ms MacGregor dips into the Romantic repertoire, notably Chopin, it is the C20 and Baroque (especially Bach) for which she is most well known. Suits me. If pushed I would say I preferred the Couperin to the Rameau when it came to the battle, though both are so elegant there was no hint of aggression, between the French Baroque masters. The Rameau comes from a suite and is comprised of two related halves. Same structure in the Couperin, which represents warblers, and the second Rameau, hens pecking away in a courtyard that Respighi went on to pinch.

It was the Messaien that enthralled me. This is the second piece from Le Petite esquisses d’oiseaux, and represents the humble blackbird. Bright chords offset its calls and movement in four changing sections. I need a recording. Let’s see what Santa brings.

The cry of the owl is a warning in Czech and other folklore and here its scary screech here precedes a fading chorale, all beefed up with Janacek’s arpeggios and ostinatos.

The Birtwistle was written when he was just 15 and shows he was already heading off into his own world, albeit here still framed in jolly Satie-ism, and maybe, though he had never heard him, Messaien himself.

Iranian musician Hossein Alizâdeh wrote his Call of the Birds for a lute-like instrument, the shurangiz, and a duduk, similar to an oboe. Ms MacGregor has created her own arrangement of its rhythmic drive. I liked it, like a Middle Eastern jig.

Purcell’s C minor ground is an exemplar of the form, the rising arpeggio of the bass line, seven bars long, in the left hand with a “catch” tune suject to variation in the right, before the bass dies. All over in three minutes like a perfect pop song. The Byrd, a Pavane from the divine Lady Nevell’s Book, one of the first written keyboard collections, is a similar structure, a ground with harmony on top, but way more ornamented. He really was a clever fellow and with a surname to match the theme of the first half.

The first Glass is the typical cycle with in a cycle oscillation of PG’s piano work but was originally scored for chamber ensemble and chorus, coming at the end of the art film by Godfrey Reggio that was a big mainstream hit. The five knee plays connect sections of Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, at five hours long, it needs some breaks, and originally was performed by violin and voices, (where it works better).

The gentle Pachelbel chaconne, a stepwise structure subject to 21 variations, was followed with a more upbeat encore, a Handel Passacaglia, that fitted the bill.

One hour, one instrument. So much to enjoy.

London Sinfonietta and Tansy Davies at Kings Place review ****

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.

King Arthur by Henry Purcell at the Cadogan Hall review ***

London Concert Choir, Counterpoint, Mark Forkgen (conductor), Rachel Elliott (soprano), Rebecca Outram (soprano), Bethany Partridge (soprano), William Towers (countertenor), James Way (tenor), Peter Willcock (baritone)

Cadogan Hall, 7th November 2019

Henry Purcell – King Arthur

Early afternoon spent in the company of Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’s Joker before an evening listening to a semi-staged (is there any other) performance of Purcell’s semi-opera. I can categorically state that no-one else in the world will have thus spent their day.

You don’t need to hear from me as to Joker. Suffice to say that I am on the side of those who consider this bleak, referential, origin story to be a stone-cold classic.

As is, in it’s own way King Arthur. A classic I mean. Not bleak. Old HP didn’t have that in him. Though, famously, stone cold, per the famous chattering strings in the Frost Scene in Scene 2 of Act 3. HP just couldn’t help himself when it came to programmatic music, word painting as we arty farty types call it, and, when it comes to combination of music and voice he has rarely been surpassed, ever, though he always stayed in his comfortable, and successful, groove during his all too short 36 years.

Now King Arthur, like must of his theatrical oeuvre isn’t really an opera. The main characters don’t sing, to hat is left to the gods, fairies and peasants, of which there are a fair few here. The Britons and the Saxons, of which there are also a fair few, are spoken roles for actors. The libretto is by none other than John Dryden, superstar Restoration poet, imagine him and Purcell as a compositional supergroup, and the first performance was at the Queen’s Theatre on the river in London in 1691. Of course by then the royal patronage that both basked in under Charlie and Jimmy Twos was over, (Dryden had even converted to Catholicism to keep the commissions rolling in), and we had a Dutchman on the throne. After his success of Purcell’s Diocletian, promoter Thomas Betterton, who had written its libretto, took a punt on King Arthur, which also went down very well.

It is very silly. It tells the tale of the battles between King Arthur and the Saxons, specifically Arthur’s mission to rescue his betrothed, the blind Cornish princess Emmeline, stolen away by the dastardly King Oswald of Kent. Merlin, his Saxon equivalent, Osmond, and various right hand men and women also get a look in, as do Cupid, Venus, Grimbald, various other fairy types and a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses. I think you can get the picture. The entertainment was intended to look as good as it sounded, with a masque in Act 3 and and variously, a sacrifice, an off stage battle, peasants dancing in a pavilion, an enchanted wood, a castle and the seas around our very own sceptred isle. Dryden used all manner of sources for his text and it shows. And, at its heart, it is shameless jingoism.

As you can see, written more for spectacle than sense, and to allow the stage-makers of the time to show off their skills. Even with a rudimentary synopsis and the explanations of our two narrators for this performance, Aisling Turner and Joe Pike. Best just to sit back and relax and let the tunes roll over. Which they did, though I have to say this didn’t really catch fire in the way I had expected. Purcell and Dryden crammed a lot in in terms of mood and message, as well as genre, so bringing it all together is tricky and maybe a bit beyond conductor Mark Forkgen. Moving choir and soloists on and off stage and to different parts of the hall, added drama but the logistics proved a little distracting. If I am honest I lost track a bit somewhere in Act 2 and never really caught up.

Which meant the focus was music and singers. IMHO the pick of the soloists was bass baritone Peter Willcock with some of the others occasionally getting lost against the muscly sound of fine scratch HIP ensemble Counterpoint. Which suited me since it is that, “oh isn’t that clever”, or “isn’t that lovely” reaction to so many of Purcell’s musical ideas, that makes it such a pleasure to listen to. Whether elaborate counterpoint, or direct homophony, invariably against the chugging ground bass continuo, with frequent arpeggios, dotted rhythms, wide spread chords, with minimal dissonance, always different, always the same, with simple structures subjected to continual reinvention.

Britten and Shostakovich: LSO at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Denis Matsuev (piano)

Barbican Hall, 31st October 2019

  • Britten – Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from ‘Peter Grimes’
  • Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No 2,
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 6

Right if I am ever to catch up I am going tp have to be ruthless. So this is just for me and just for the sake of completeness.

Britten’s Sea Interludes showed off the colour and virtuosity of the LSO sections and included the Passacaglia where the Borough Brexiteers go after Peter, but wasn’t quite as atmospheric or as unified as some interpretations I have heard (and trust me, much like the Shostakovich here, I have heard a few). More Southwold than Aldeburgh. Still in getting to the darker recesses of the opera itself this was a success.

Prokofiev’s PC No 2 is, by reputation, an absolute bastard to play. Denis Matsuev showed me why in what is, apparently, his party piece. For a big fella he can move his hands, which he needs to, from one end to the other, extravagant crossing in the opening two movements. It was a manly reading, I could imagine Martha Argerich say covering the immense and inventive ground that SP, a mean tinkler of the ivories himself, demands, in a much more graceful way, but this was still a tremendous introduction to a piece, along with the other 4 SP created, that I need to do more work on. These abrupt shifts of mood and idea, the relegation of the orchestra to support act or even lower on the bill, the fact that after a massive opening movement and a ludicrously quick moto perpetuo second, there is no let up in the third, a mechanistic march. And then the forth kicks off again with the piano as percussion thing. Until, of course this being Prokofiev it turns, into, of all things, a folksy Russian jig.

SP originally wrote it in 1913. He left Russia in 1918, though famously, and bullishly, returned, and the original score was destroyed in a fire. So he reconstructed and revised it in 1924. Which maybe. in part, explains why it still sounds so, well, special and unique.

I have heard 4 and 8 of Gianandrea Noseda’s survey of the DSCH symphonies prior to this. This was equally as accomplished if occasionally lacking a little in astringency. No 6 is nuts. After the crowd pleasing, match winner of No 5, which got him back, temporarily in Stalin’s good books, he set out to “communicate feelings of spring happiness and youth”. Usual DSCH deadpan irony. After a sub 20 minute Largo, which feels longer, there is an Allegro galop and finally a rowdy Presto finale. Three movements. All over in half an hour.

What was he up to? Well listen more closely and you hear that, far from wandering off piste again, DSCH was actually very much toe-ing the Classical line. Almost all the material in the opening movement is derived Bach-like from the opening few bars, with clear signposts, from cor anglais, trumpet and harps amongst others, and a second half sonata form set up. The second movement is contrapuntal, more like the fast movements in the later string quartets than anything in other DSCH’s other symphonic manic dances, with a groovy clarinet solo. And the Finale, if you squint your eyes, (or whatever the aural equivalent is), could be Beethoven or even Mozart, an upbeat Rondo to get the feet tapping. Well maybe not quite. Certainly Rossini with another of those gnomic William Tell quotations. My guess is that, even if the thought police had got to work on his fingernails, Dmitri himself wouldn’t have know if he was taking the piss or playing it straight here.

The LSO seemed more on the ball in the symphony than the concerto, perhaps unsurprising given they have been round the block a few times now with GN but, if I am honest, it was the Prokofiev that had most impact. I am getting closer to cracking him I think and Mr Matsuev’s literally banging way as a soloist floated my boat.

Leningrad (No 7) next up though the Tourist won’t be there, (sold out I see which is a good thing) then No 9 (which never gets an airing and it a close cousin of No 6).

P.S. The photo above shows SP and DS in 1940. The fella with the Eraserhead cut is Aram Khachaturian, who, amazingly given the relative safety of his grooves managed to be denounced as a “formalist” along with his two mates, though not for long.

The Philip Glass Ensemble at the Barbican Hall review ****

The Philip Glass Ensemble

Barbican Hall, 30th October 2019

Philip Glass – Music With Changing Parts

Of course it was a disappointment that PG himself wasn’t up to appearing but the old boy is coming up to 83 years old and was poorly. Hopefully he is better now. Anyway this was still a proper occasion, involving many of his long term collaborators, in a performance of this pivotal work from 1970. PG didn’t hand over performance of his large scale compositions until the 1970s. Prior to that he wasn’t sure other outfits were up to the task. So it was his own eponymous band that premiered this, Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion and Music in Contrary Motion, (all from 1969) and Music in Twelve Parts, composed through 1971 to 1974, and the only work comparable to this.

MWCP has had a few outings since then, though not here, but had fallen out of the PGE’s regular repertoire. However, after hearing other recent performances PG decided to revisit the score and enlarge it with brass and a vocal ensemble. The new version premiered in NYC and SF in 2018 and this was its first airing in Europe.

The “new” MWCP is near 90 minutes long, unbroken, and is built on shifting keyboard and woodwind melodies, which are, towards the end, semi-improvisatory, though don’t panic, the PGE knew exactly where they were going, The addition of the brass, courtesy of the London Contemporary Orchestra, and the choir, here drawn from the boys and girls of the Tiffin Chorus, (which extends beyond the eponymous schools into Kingston and surrounding areas), doesn’t detract from the hypnotic vibe, but it does provide far more texture than the original which is proper psychedelic, hippy-dippy. Harmonies emerge, expand, enlarge and retreat and there are contrapuntal contrasts but not to the extent of the breakthrough Music in Twelve Parts, last heard in these parts in 2017. But MWCP has the distinct advantage of not going on for 5 hours plus.

It isn’t possible to hear all of these PG classic pieces. You will drift off, to the mundane, (I composed my admittedly short Xmas list), as well as the memorable, that is part of the experience. But there will also be times when the sound just takes over. The keyboards of Mick Rossi and Nelson Padgett basically churn out repeated semi-quavers throughout leaving the woodwind to generate the shifting ostinati and the voices, delivered with military precision under choral conductor, Valerie Saint-Agathe, the complexity. This is hard work for such young voices, rapidly repeating same note patterns, sometimes in unison and sometimes divided, which vary in length and intensity, The brass, when it got going, did rather drown out the rest, and the Barbican’s acoustic, even with the tinkering from Dan Bora and Ryan Kelly, PGE’s sound designer and audio engineer, wasn’t helpful. Though maybe the reverberation was the effect they were aiming for.

The absence of PG wasn’t too much of a handicap musically as PGE’s director Michael Riesman stepped in to conduct from the piano. He, and Lisa Bielowa on keyboards (though she normally sings), have been in the PGE for ages, and helped create the new orchestration of MWCP with PG. There is no doubt that all these extra layers have created a work much closer to PG’s recent work than the “classical” minimalism of his youth. Whether this is a good or bad thing, not having heard the original version, I couldn’t tell you. Though as a fan of the more ascetic I guess not. Still, like I say, you have to grab these opportunities when they arise and I, and the whole audience based on the genuine ovation, am pleased I did.

Apparently the last time MWCP played in London, 48 years ago, there were a couple of groovy cats in the audience by the name of Bowie and Eno. They went on to highlight PG’s influence on the Berlin trilogy and, as all you PG fans will now, he went on to compose, eventually with Lodger earlier this year, symphonies based on those three classic albums. That alone justifies the existence of MWCP.