Lloyd Cole at G Live review ****


Lloyd Cole

G Live, Guildford, 3rd March 2018

No idea why I like the music of grouchy, arch, wistful, charter of failing relationships,  Lloyd Cole. I have never felt sorry for myself in my life. Well maybe a bit. Oh alright then, practically every day. Here is a man who, at least early on, in the 3 albums with the Commotions and 4 solo albums which span the period of this Retrospective Tour, re-invented the pop music staple love song with indelible melodies, demon hooks and ridiculously clever lyrics.

It has been a very long time since i saw him him live, 1985 I think, Hammersmith, Palais or Odeon, I can’t remember. I should have made more of an effort to renew the acquaintance based on this gig. So what do we get? Stripped back acoustic versions of pretty much all his classic songs, which I detail below thanks to someone with a better memory than me, a marvellous take on Leonard Cohen, one of his heroes I think, and a winning line in self-deprecation. This primarily revolves around his age (he’s now 57) though as he remarks most of these songs written between 1983 and 1996 (bar one, Myrtle and Rose, dedicated to his Mum in the audience – awwh) come from the hand of some-one older than his years.

Now I gather in some gigs in the tour he has been joined on stage in the second half by one of his sons which I can see may have pepped things up a bit. Not a criticism. These arrangements are wonderful and Mr Cole is, and has always been an adept guitarist, but there were one or two moments where I missed some of the complexity of the lines which makes him a genius songwriter. Not the words, they still sound as fresh and inventive as ever, but the instrumental hooks which pepper the songs. On the other hand, I reckon his voice, for the Commotions songs especially, may be better than in his youth. Richer, deeper, more soulful as you’d expect but still absolutely clear and not at all ragged as with some “old” pop stars.

Dragged the SO along. She’s no fan, and this didn’t convert her, but was won over by his humour. He even has special words of recognition for the patient multitude of unwilling partners dragged along here.

So if you are, or were, a fan, a triumph. My favourites? I Din’t Know That You Cared, My Bag, Butterfly/Famous Blue Raincoat, Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?, No Blue Skies, Perfect Skin and, obviously, Forest Fire (which is one of my favourite songs of all time anyway).

Once again I find myself reviewing an event that is over, by which I mean the tour, unless you happy to be near the Theatre Royal Margate tonight. If he does pop up again anywhere near you, and you are umming and ahhing over going. Don’t. Just go. At the very least you will see loads of fifty-somethings with terrible dress sense from around your area.

  • Patience
  • Perfect Blue
  • Rattlesnakes
  • Loveless
  • I Didn’t Know That You Cared
  • Love Ruins Everything
  • Pretty Gone
  • Charlotte Street
  • My Bag
  • Butterfly
  • Famous Blue Raincoat
  • So You’d Like To Save The World
  • Jennifer She Said
  • Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?
  • Like Lovers Do
  • Cut Me Down
  • Brand New Friend
  • Why I Love Country Music
  • No Blue Skies
  • 2cv
  • Undressed
  • Don’t Look Back
  • Mr Malcontent
  • No More Love Songs
  • Hey Rusty
  • Perfect Skin
  • Lost Weekend
  • Myrtle and Rose
  • Four Flights Up
  • Forest Fire




Mortal Voices: Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court review ****


Academy of Ancient Music, Christian Curnyn (director and harpsichord), Keri Fuge (soprano), Tim Mead (counter-tenor)

Milton Court Concert Hall, 15th February 2018

  • Corelli – Concerto grosso Op 6 No 1 in D major
  • Handel – Cantata HWV 230 “Ah! Che troppo inequali”
  • Handel – Cantata HWV 82 “Il Duello Amoroso”
  • Pergolesi Stabat Mater

As usual after BUD and I had chewed over the big economic, social, philosophical and political questions of the day, and reminded each other just how clever we are, as well as scoffed on some tasty, if evil, fare at the redoubtable Bad Egg in Moorgate, there was minimal time for a preview of the evening’s entertainment. Which meant that BUD got the shock of his life when Tim Mead opened his mouth in the second of the Handel cantatas in the programme. He wasn’t expecting a counter-tenor. Especially from a man who could easily pass as the next James Bond given his rugged good looks and sartorial elegance.

My what a voice though. Now if you are a fully paid up, Baroque, (especially Baroque opera), and, increasingly, Contemporary classical, music enthusiast, you are going to come across a fair few counter-tenors. I think I have heard voices with more power and range than Mr Mead’s but not as much clarity and brilliance. This was apparent in the “Il Duello Amoroso”, a decidedly dodgy tale of unrequited love between a shepherd and a goddess, where the counter-tenor and soprano voices sparred elegantly. It really came to the fore however in Pergolesi’s wham-bam, smash hit Stabat Mater.

Pergolesi didn’t get up to much musically. Dying at 26 from TB didn’t help, and, if I am honest, the bits of his output I’ve heard, (or have recordings of), beyond the Stabat Mater aren’t that memorable. Churning out lightweight, comic operas, for your ADHD aristocratic patrons is not, unsurprisingly, a recipe for a lasting musical legacy. When he hit upon this medieval Latin setting of the Christian staple of Mary lamenting her son’s suffering on the cross, he struck gold though. Just a shame it was only completed a few days before he popped his clogs. Still thanks to Bach, and others, the score was widely disseminated in the C18 and has never gone out of fashion.

That’s because, musically and lyrically, he doesn’t hang around. The 12 verses make a virtue of brevity. None is more than 5 minutes long and the whole comes in at 40 minutes. There is loads of contrast, audible human touches and plainly programmatic twists where text and music are perfectly matched, and the fusion, for that is what it is, of Baroque and early Classical, means it is easy, and very affecting, on the ear. Others have had a stab at setting the Stabat Mater, Vivald and Haydn, come to mind, but this tops the lot.

Obviously the AAM, especially the strings, nailed the score, and gave plenty of space for the two excellent soloists to capture the drama and pathos of the setting. Whether individual aria or in duet both singers seemed to really care about the music and text. Forget the religious mumbo-jumbo, this is the moving story of a Mum’s grief. Best bit. The Fac ut portem Christi mortem from Tim Mead alone. Very moving.

I was less convinced by the Handel. That’s just me and Handel though. It is always a pleasant experience listening to GFH but it never really involves me.  Even 4 hours of his operas. I hope to get lifted up and swept along but always end up earthbound. Even, whisper it, in a Messiah. He’s a flash Harry make no mistake, and all those voices, here, there and everywhere, is proper WOW, but it all feels a bit devoid of emotion. A man can only have so much bouncing bass and celebratory trumpet action. Anyway I was happy enough to go with the pleasant enough flow in these two cantatas.

The programme kicked off with Corelli’s Op 6 No 1 Concerto Grosso. You cannot go wrong with that. The 12 Concerto Grossi are like a Corelli greatest hits collection. There will always be some stunning concertante work, the two violins and the darker cello, beefed up by the ripieno players, the rest of the band. This concerto has some brutally fast semiquavers stuff for the solo cello and his violin mates and some lovely lyrical, slower dances to kick off the first couple of movements. There is plenty of room to blag which Bojan Cicic, (he really is a top violinist), Rebecca Livermore and Joseph Crouch took full advantage of. The whole band though seems to delight in playing together. That is why, even if I am not absolutely sure of all the musical ingredients, I will try to see all their London concerts.

I recommend you try to do the same, especially if you are new to the Baroque. And I also heartily recommend you dip into recordings of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Corelli’s Concertos if you haven’t already. You won’t regret it.

SCO Winds at Wigmore Hall review ****


Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists

Wigmore Hall, 12th February 2018

  • Beethoven – Sextet in E flat, Op 71
  • Poulenc – Sonata for clarinet and bassoon
  • Beethoven – Octet in E flat, Op 103

A rare opportunity for completists to hear performances of Beethoven’s Sextet and Octet written for wind instruments. Now there is enough wind repertoire, (as it were), to keep a few ensembles ticking over on the side but, generally, if you like this sort of stuff, you have to keep a beady eye open and/or hear student performances. There doesn’t seem to be a widely available recording of these works, (there is one from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe but tricky to track down it seems). So to see the specialists from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra turn up at Wigmore Hall, with a new recording in tow, was an appetising prospect, at least for the Tourist.

The Sextet may be numbered Op 71 but it is a very early work from 1796 when the grumpy one was just getting going. He dismissed it later on but he was wrong, as, apart from a few dodgy songs, (never quite mastered that surprisingly), he never wrote a dull note. Scored for two each of clarinets, bassoon and horns, it may not approach the beauty and complexity of the Octet but there is more than enough to sink your teeth (or ears) into here. There is a fascinating syncopation early on from the clarinets in the opening Adagio and a simple four note motif from clarinets and bassoons emerges in the ensuing Allegro, with a second theme coming from first clarinet, before development and recapitulation brings in the bassoons and, properly, the horns. The bassoons then do most of the lifting in the lovely Adagio in B flat major, with horns coming in for the following Menuetto. The final movement is a classic(al) Beethoven foot tapping Rondo, with a march like theme with some horn blasts at the end. It’s not rocket science, it obeys all the rules but it is still inventive given the instrumentation. And the band coped admirably with a poorly chap in the audience. halfway through

I am always momentarily intrigued by Poulenc’s music but it never really turns into much more than this I am afraid. I know you are supposed to get fired up by his choral/vocal/operatic works but it all feels a bit of a trial and suffused with Catholic guilt. And the piano stuff is a bit lightweight. He did though deliver some boppy tunes for wind instruments in his chamber works, including this Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon, here delivered, I think, by Peter Whelan and Maximiliano Martin. Given the two instruments and Poulenc’s style there is nothing very profound going on here and indeed the audience gets to snigger at the end of the second and final movements. There are echoes of Mozartian divertimenti, Stravinsky’s appropriation of the Classical and some jazzy touches. So correct boxes ticked and some interest in the returning downwards lines in first and second movements. And the boys seemed to be having a good time.

Now the Octet really is a fascinating piece. Published as Op 103, (so near the Hammerklavier for example), it was actually written in 1792, before the Sextet and when Ludwig was only 22. Scored for two each of oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horns it might have been started in Bonn when LvB was circling around the Elector of Cologne. It was finished when he was studying under Haydn, though subsequently revised a bit with the last Presto finale replacing the original ending Rondino WoO25, (which might have been nicely squeezed in to this programme – just saying). He even took it and turned it into the String Quintet in E flat Op 4 to get it a proper audience. It is a remarkably assured piece with the sort of invention you expect in much later Beethoven chamber pieces. The opening motif is given a proper working out in the opening Allegro in a myriad of ways, the following Andante is one of those languid, sing-songy Beethoven melodies that insinuates itself effortlessly into your head. Then he writes a Scherzo. It may be labelled a Menuetto but Scherzo it is, with the influence of mentor Haydn apparent but with some uncanny foreshadowing of the kind of barnstormers Ludwig would create later on, albeit still fairly polite. The final rondo gives the horns their time to shine (though they get fulsome opportunity earlier on) and is a properly upbeat ending.

So there you have it. Music written for instruments favoured by German and Austrian courts from a time when Beethoven had to play the game and before he went all serious artist, look-at-me. But even this is so much more than the kind of burbling, bubbling, babbling wind pieces that these toffs at the time loved. A pleasure to hear, made more pleasurable by these expert interpreters. Chalk up another CD sale ladies and gentlemen of the SCO.

Stravinsky from the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ****


London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Alexander Ghindin (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2018

  • Igor Stravinsky – Scherzo fantastique, Op 3
  • Igor Stravinsky – Funeral Song, Op 5
  • Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op 30
  • Igor Stravinsky – The Firebird (original version)

My favourite concert of last year was Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO’s take on the three, culture changing Stravinsky ballets. Just stunning. (My favourite classical concerts of 2017).

Suffice to say that whilst Sir SR’s Petrushka and Rite of Spring were, (predictably), barnstorming it was The Firebird which really made me sit up, listen and think. Firstly because it was the original full ballet score which I do not listen to often enough. (I have recordings by Rattle/CBSO, Dutoit/Montreal SO, Abbado/LSO and Salonen/Philharmonia so its not as if I have an excuse). Secondly because he, and the LSO, were able to show how much of even the Firebird looks forward to the subsequent two ballets and the announcement to the world of Stravinsky’s own, revelatory voice, as well as back to mentor Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral colouration. And thirdly because it was just so good, even in the more restrained, colourful first half which was glorious.

Now the LPO are engaged on a year long survey of Stravinsky’s orchestral works (Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey) with Vladimir Jurowski and other conductors, (as did Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia in 2016), though many of the headline concerts are mixed up with all sorts of other repertoire. The intention is to show just how profound Stravinsky’s influence has been on the direction of classical music, as well as showing how varied were his own influences. To be an artist who is better than all who came before is a miracle. To be an artist who changes the entire direction of his/her art, whilst still acknowledging the past is mind-blowing. That is what the boy Igor did. Composers are still wrestling with his legacy. So you can’t have too much of Igor’s music I reckon. Especially when each time you listen something new pops up.

Still he had to start somewhere and Mr Jurowski and his band chose to kick off this evening with Scherzo fantastique, which along with Fireworks (Op4) and the Symphony in E flat major (Op 1), is the starting point of Stravinsky’s career. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, the other nationalist Russians in and around the Five and the folk-art primitivism which was prevalent pre-, (and even post-Revolution), can be clearly heard, of course. There is something more at work here in terms of ideas though, albeit still melodic, not rhythmic and avowedly late Romantic. After dissing all this “juvenilia” Stravinsky in the 1960s did eventually accept that it wasn’t half bad.

Funeral Song is a proper step forward though. This is getting performed all over the place since it was rediscovered in some broom cupboard in St Petersburg in 2015. Indeed this very band and conductor programmed it with their thunderous Shostakovich Eleventh at last year’s Proms (London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall review ****). It was composed in 1908 as a tribute to Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky remembered it as being more advanced in terms of chromatic harmony than any of his previous works. He was right on that score (geddit). The idea is that each of the instruments file past the master’s coffin, though often in ear-catching dialogue. It is a much darker piece than the earlier works and when it gets going there is an undeniable Wagnerian bombast to it which he just about gets away with. Anyway the point is that here some of the sound-world of the Firebird is creeping out for the first time.

Before we heard the LPO take on the Firebird we were treated to N R-K’s Piano Concerto, and treat it was. Now it is pretty easy to get sniffy about all these C19 Russian sound painters. I think I might have done. All this folk tune authenticity is exciting on first hearing but I find the novelty soon wears off. Which means I haven’t really bothered with this part of the repertoire. The chances of coming across this concerto were pretty slim as I gather it is rarely performed. It is a compact piece, one movement running to just 14 minutes though with three distinct sections, fast/slow/fast with a slow opener. For me that was its attraction but I can see that, for soloist and maybe audience, there is not enough grand gesture here to take on the canonic piano concertos. Rachmaninov is your best comparator but where Sergei would have spun out these ideas to 45 minutes, N R-K keeps it tight, with essentially just one theme, based, you guessed it, on a folk tune. The tune was sanctioned by the daddy of Russian nationalistic music Mily Balakirev who apparently gave this the thumbs up, though he became more critical of N R-K’s later work, thinking it veered into the “academic” and “Germanic”. There are plenty of flashy cascades a la Lizst which soloist Alexander Ghindin revelled in and the LPO accompaniment, especially from the woodwinds, was very persuasive. Mr Ghindin encored with the Dance russe from Petrushka to give us another take, though this felt a bit heavy-handed to me, (the playing not the linking). Maybe he had a plane to catch.

This was a clever piece to set up Mr Jurowski and the LPO’s take on The Firebird. Now when they get it right, this band and its conductor can match the best I have heard. It doesn’t always work, sometimes the line gets lost a bit, but tonight it did. Here was Stravinsky’s first real masterpiece, the debt to N R-K still audible, but with all the stunning innovation, which took Diaghilev’s breath away on first hearing, highlighted. From those growling double basses in the intro, though the shimmering strings in that magic garden, the riot of woodwind colour as our Bird takes flight, off stage brass action as Ivan bombs da house and monstrous tuba and percussion as Kastchei’s rave takes off, all sections were given a chance to shine. If I had to pick out specific contributions, well, Juliette Bausor’s flute was terrific, as well as David Pyatt and the other horns, the tuba of Lee Tsarmaklis and the piccolos of Stewart McIlwham and Lindsey Ellis.

I see I have signed up to a number of LPO concerts that have a sprinkling of Stravinsky in the mix. Whether they are part of this Changing Faces season is not entirely clear to me. No matter. You can’t get enough Igor after all.



Nicola Benedetti and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall


The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Marin Alsop, Nicola Benedetti

Royal Festival Hall, 4th February 2018

  • Beethoven Symphony No 4 in B flat
  • Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major

“Stardom” in the classical music world is a curious thing. To get there ideally you need to be a child prodigy. Then take a prize at your chosen music school. Get taken under the wing of a teacher and mentor, (more than one ideally), who are maestros from prior generations. Win a competition prize, or finish as a creditable runner-up, and secure a few prestigious gigs. A recording of a Romantic staple which tests the previous best recommendations. Set yourself up with your own festival in the middle of nowhere. Teach the kids and the underprivileged and travel. A lot. And, if you are a woman expect a load of airbrushed photos of you exuding grace, or if a bloke, brooding, ideally with a shock of unkempt hair. Make the cut, and there aren’t that many places available, and you are set up, literally, for life.

Obviously though you need talent and a level of dedication far beyond other jobs/professions/vocations. And even if you get to the top of the tree you are still only going to be appreciated by a minority of the population. Ah, but the pleasure you bring them cannot be measured.

Just occasionally though classical musicians break out into the wider consciousness by virtue of their genius, position and/or symbolism. In this concert I would contend we had two such musicians.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Marin Alsop’s rise to the top of the conducting profession. Recently appointed as Artistic Director for the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, alongside her leadership of the Baltimore and Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestras, she is probably best known to the general public from her two recent stints at the Last Night of the Proms. Here at the South Bank, where she is an Artist in Residence, she was given the award from the Association of British Orchestras, the trade body if you will. Let us hope she continues to inspire women to follow her. (I am looking forward to hearing Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO perform the Rite of Spring and Daphnis and Chole later in the year at the Barbican for example). There is a long way to go. Vienna’s other orchestra, the Philharmonic, didn’t permit women until 20 years ago (though they had a secret woman harpist, bloody hypocrites) and the unacceptable behaviour of certain male conductors is now being revealed. Ms Alsop is proving a powerful and eloquent champion and should be roundly supported for her work and her stance.

Nicola Benedetti has also proved capable of transcending the usual confines of classical music. Her recordings to date have not fought shy of delivering the popular “compilations” that shifts units. There was a packed house for this concert, and I would venture the majority were here just to see Ms Benedetti. This country is blessed with a rich classical music culture, (though maybe not quite as rich as Central and Eastern Europe), and there are plenty of talented musicians and marvellous composers. But world class soloists are a little thinner on the ground. So it is no wonder that Ms Benedetti, who is still just 30 years old, is so treasured, what with her MBE and Queen’s Medal for Music. Note I am unashamedly claiming her for Britain: she is unequivocally proud to be Scottish.

This was the first time I had heard her play. In a piece I now know well and, obviously, adore. With a band which comprises musicians who are at the top of their period music game. On a period fiddle whose sound I understand. This was Ms Benedetti’s first time with the OAE. (She will be joining the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican at the end of May in a programme of Vivaldi and Telemann. BUD and KCK have been signed up). Though not the first time she has played with gut strings. Ballsy then to take on Beethoven, the Daddy of the modern violin concerto, in a period performance.

So I couldn’t tell you what live sound she makes on steel strings, but, on the basis of this, it is probably something special. Here was a sweet, earthy and perfect tone but with a huge dynamic range. Very impressive. Especially in the slow movement Larghetto. And a real treat in the cadenza she has written specially in conjunction with Petr Limonov, what with its jamming with the timpani manned by Adrian Bending, (who also gets his big cameo in the opening and second movements of the Fourth Symphony remember), and its harmonic fantasy culminating in some showy pizzicato. Obviously you wouldn’t turn your back on an old-fashioned, knock ’em out between the eyes rendition, (my favoured recording is the Perlman/Barenboim/BPO which really pumps it up in the last movement), but this was still very satisfying. This is, after all, Beethoven’s least gruff, un-buttoned up orchestral masterpiece, set in its Happy D home key.

I wasn’t quite so persuaded by Marin Alsop’s treatment of the Fourth Symphony. Now I know it is a funny creature, murky and tentative in places, with those stop/starts, and it gets a bad rap compared to the Third and Fifth. But there is still lots to enjoy and explore. The OAE’s brass was in fine fettle but the woodwind was occasionally not quite what I expected and the strings felt a little too polite in the adagio vivace of the first movement, after that mysterious opening, and in the final allegro, which needs that massive contrast into the stalls. Tempi were a little on the slow side for me but then again I get off on John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire Et Romantique’s Beethoven cycle, especially in this symphony. Here Ms Alsop, as in the Violin Concerto, was most convincing in the slower movement.




Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at Milton Court review ****


Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Kaspars Putnins (conductor)

Milton Court Concert Hall, 30th January 2018

Arvo Part

  • Solfeggio
  • Summa
  • Magnificat
  • Zwei Beter
  • The Woman With the Alabaster Box
  • Nunc dimittis
  • Dopo la vittoria

Cyrillus Kreek

  • Onnis on inimene (Blessed is the Man)
  • Psalm 104

Jonathan Harvey

  • Plainsongs for Peace and Light
  • The Angels

Veljo Tormis

  • Kutse jaanitulele from Jaanilaulud (St John’s Day Songs for Midsummer Eve)
  • Raua needmine (Curse Upon Iron)

Now I gather that the Estonian people like a sing-song. Choirs are a big deal there and choral singing and national identity are tightly bound together. They even had a Singing Revolution between 1987 and 1991 as they sought independence from the Soviet Union. So this evening was an event and was graced with the presence of no less than Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas.

Now I am not going to pretend this was the main draw for me. Profound apologies Your Excellency, but what intrigued me was the opportunity to here some of the choral works of the mighty Arvo Part sung by his country men and women. Albeit mostly in Latin, with a German, English and Italian text thrown in for good measure. Now I genuinely believe that the magic of Part’s “holy minimalist” tintinnabuli can work on anyone. I believe I am right in saying he is the most performed living “classical” composer. That doesn’t mean people are whistling Speigel am Speigel on every street corner though. This is still a minority pastime, but I do think there is something in his music, (and the spaces between the notes), which can burrow into the soul of all who come across it. Not that they have souls. That is obviously mumbo-jumbo. Old Arvo might sign up to Orthodox Christianity but not me. But it does something. Even if it is just to clear the head and leave you suspended in the sound for the duration of the piece.

So it was a pleasure to rope in MSBD to the Part party. Now, in retrospect, it might have been better to break him in gently with the usual programmatic device of interspersing Part’s choral works with other contemporary composers who relish the challenge of a choir as well as selected Renaissance masters. Even I have to admit that seven of Part’s choral works back to back can induce a slowing of the heart rate that is difficult to distinguish from slumber.

The opener Solfeggio is particularly interesting. It was originally written in 1964, though I think refined in 1993, which means it actually came before Part announced himself to the world with the bang. crash, wallop of Credo for chorus, orchestra and piano in 1968. This remember was when Part was a paid-up serialist, although Credo for my money is still a cracking piece of music. Solfeggio asks the choir to trot out an ascending C major row in strict serial fashion, singing, would you believe, “do re mi … “, but you’d be hard pressed to tell it apart from the “classic” Part style which emerged in 1977 after the several year hiatus and his personal enlightenment.

Summa is a setting of the Credo from the Latin Mass, though its title conceals its origin,  composed in the pivotal year of 1977. It was, along with Part’s settings of the Magnificat (1989) and Nunc dimitis (2001) for the Anglican evensong, the most entrancing of the evening’s performances. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has a bewitching and very exact delivery with clear definition across the parts. This means the intriguing shifts that Part employs here, and the shimmering climaxes, especially in the Nunc, seemed more suited to their style. In contrast the more direct The Woman with the Alabaster Box from 1997, sung in English and which sees adjacent thirds appear under long sustained notes, was less thrilling to me than the Latin texts, which are all based on Part’s “classic” stepwise triads.

Zwei Beter, based on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican I gather, is a more complex beast, (it’s all relative mind you), with denser harmonies and sung in German. Now one way or another I have recordings of most of Part’s works, (I think some remain unrecorded), but I didn’t know this piece at all. In contrast I am familiar with Dopo la vittoria from 1996 which is also somewhat more “complex” than the Latin texts. Sung in Italian this “piccolo cantata” tells the story of the baptism of Augustine by St Ambrose, (who apparently broke into song whilst doing the necessary), the patron saint of Milan for which city it was written. There is a discernible story with defined sections, including a brisk opening and ending, and some pronounced homophony at crucial, uplifting points. Who said Part all sounds the same.

After the interval we were treated to a pair of psalm settings by Cyrillus Kreek, an Estonian composer from the generation prior to Part, and a man who devoted his life to setting the country’s rich legacy of folk songs into choral arrangements. These songs stem from the wave of Estonian nationalism that stirred in the second half of the C19. These two pieces were very easy on the ear and sung with real conviction by the choir. A pair of works by British composer Jonathan Harvey followed, from the end of his career. Harvey regularly turned to choirs alongside his electronic and chamber pieces. The Angels was set by the Bishop of Winchester to which Harvey adds a hummed accompaniment. Plainsongs is more substantial polyphony with some beautiful, gently dissonant passages across its sixteen parts.

Finally the EPCC treated the audience to two works from Veljo Tormis, who passed away last year, after actually retiring in 2000. Slightly older than Part, but possibly even more renowned in his homeland, with a huge body of choral work to his name. Most of the settings stem from Estonian folk songs and I gather it is fair to say he has inspired multiple generations with his music. He was born during Estonia’s short lived inter-war period of independence, lived through the German and Soviet annexations and the Socialist Republic, and through to independence again. He mixed with all the big names during his musical education in Russia and was “honoured” with his own KGB files.

The first piece belongs to a cycle which describes the important Midsummer celebrations. It starts simply enough but builds into something more sophisticated. The Germanic influence is clear. But this was just a taster for the extraordinary Curse of Iron which followed. Apparently this gets a fair few airings outside Estonia and it isn’t difficult to see why. To the rhythm of a simple drum beat throughout, and with solo bass and tenor parts, Mr Tormis sets a story based on a Finnish epic, but sung in Estonian. It is, like it says, a curse on iron, as you do, and it is very dramatic. A ritual with repeated ostinatos, I have never heard anything like it. Neither had MSBD. Imagine a kind of shamanistic chant which ends up with sopranos warning against nuclear proliferation. Can’t. Well go and hear it then. It’s on I-Player since the concert was recorded for Radio 3.

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir concert recording

A riveting way to end the concert and unsurprisingly the EPCC, and especially their Latvian conductor Kaspars Putnins, were having a ball during it. If I were part of the Estonian guest party I would have found it pretty difficult not to get up and join in. Pride in their country but pride in Europe too methinks. Great stuff.

Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall review *****


Britten Sinfonia

Wigmore Hall, 24th January 2018

  • Heinrich Biber – Mystery Sonata No 1 “The Annunciation”
  • Philip Glass – Orbit
  • Leo Chadburn – Five Loops for the Bathyscaphe
  • Arvo Part – Spiegel am Spiegel
  • WA Mozart – Piano Trio No 3 K502

There is something of the spirit of punk about the Britten Sinfonia. They don’t have a principal conductor or director and play with pretty much who they like. They also play pretty much what they like with a refreshingly cavalier attitude to programming. I love them, whether it be a Bach St John Passion, electrifying accounts of the Beethoven symphonies under Thomas Ades, minimalist classics, Stravinsky, Ravel or contemporary British composers, all of which I have heard them perform in the last year or so.

So I was looking forward to this. Leo Chadburn’s new work Five Loops for Bathyscaphe, is scored for piano trio and electronics and runs for 10 minutes or so. So Jacqueline Shave (that’s her above), one of the violin leaders of the BS, Caroline Dearnley, the principal cello, and Huw Watkins, principal piano, had another 50 minutes or so to fill. What to choose? Mozart? Why not. After all his B flat minor trio is pretty much the first piano trio as we know the form, with all three instruments contributing rather than just a piano sonata with a bit of string diddling attached which previously defined the Classical form. And Arvo Part’s Speigel am Speigel? Yep, it’s a slam-dunk crowd-pleaser for violin and piano. But chucking in Philip Glass’s short piece, Orbit, for solo cello. And the first of Biber’s Mystery sonatas? Well as it turned out it all slotted together perfectly.

Now I have been unlucky in my endeavours to hear a performance of Biber’s Mystery, (or Rosary), sonatas for violin and continuo live. There are 15 of these chaps, divided into 3 cycles, Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious, plus a closing Passacaglia for solo violin. Each one takes as its subject one of the Catholic “rosary”episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary. They were likely written in 1676 but were unknown until 1905 ,and they are one of the earliest and best known examples of “scordatura”, where the violin is tuned in a way that is not standard. This permits all sorts of funky effects. Don’t test me on this but it is pretty straightforward even for a dumbass like me to hear the differences. One of the Vivaldi Op 9 Le Cetra concertos does this, Stravinsky does it at the start of the Firebird and Ligeti’s Violin Concerto is a prime example. Mind you Ligeti chucks so many effects into his concerto I am hard pressed to know where it is.

Biber tests the skill of the violinist to the max so it is a unlikely anyone was up to the job in the C17. What is on the page doesn’t correspond to what hits the ear. Don’t worry it doesn’t get too weird but it does create sounds, chords and harmonies with real drama. Now unfortunately we only got the first instalment here, which is the one which doesn’t arse about with the tuning, but it was still a blinder to open the concert with and Ms Shave delivered. It opens with a virtuoso figuration, being the Angel appearing before  our Mary, and them moves into a gentler sort of theme and variations.

The Glass “sonata” was new to me. The programme notes suggest Glass is referencing Bach’s mighty cello suites. He is. But then again anyone that writes a piece for solo cello is working in the shadow of the master. Even so lots of fancy figuration and double stopping does conjure up Bach’s counterpoint and Glass’s ordered repetitions are redolent of JSB’s own structures. Ms Dearnley is at home here as she is in the Baroque.

Now I have listened to, and seen performed, Part’s Speigel am Speigel, more times than I care to remember. It is one of my favourite pieces of music period. Which probably shows how easily pleased I am. This was one of his first “tintinnabuli” works, along with Fur Alina, from 1978, and it is “minimal” even by his standards. Simple arpeggios in piano and rising, then falling, scales from violin. If you are ever too worked up about anything just pop this on. Hey presto, blood pressure plummets. Now Ms Shave and Mr Watkins seemed to take this at a marginally faster tempo than I am used to, (it is all relative as not much happens), and took a minute of two to get in the groove, but once there it was as good a performance as you will hear.

I tried with the Mozart. Honestly. If I switch off and let it drift around and through me then it is pleasant enough but I still don’t really get it. Just too nice. Obviously there are bits of Mozart, and times when I listen to it, like watching a great Figaro, where it lifts me up and takes me away, but this wasn’t one of them.

Which brings me to the Leo Chadburn premiere, co-commissioned by the BS and Wigmore. I knew nothing about Mr Chadburn but I gather he is one of these new brand of musician/composer who doesn’t give a fig for established boundaries. He writes and performs across genres, releasing three synthpop albums a few years ago as alter ego Simon Bookish, and remixing for the likes of Grizzly Bear. He can certainly sing a bit I gather. This piece takes the classic piano trio instrumentation and hooks in pre-recorded voices from himself and Gemma Sanders, and some sparse electronica. It graphically describes the journey on 23rd January 1963 of oceanographers Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh to the bottom of the ocean. Eleven kms down to be exact in the Mariana trench, in that little ball Bathyscaphe Trieste thing. The idea of the piece is to create a sense of motionlessness in the music, deep and watery I guess, and allow the voices and words to tell the story. It succeeds admirably. There is nothing to scare anyone off in this simple but very effective sound-world. Think eerie harmonics from the strings and muffled chords from both ends of the range for the piano, as well as some theatrical plucking from inside the piano. The whole thing grips from first to last. It deserves a much wider audience. I am sure Mr Chadburn knows how to make that happen.

This whole concert was a joy. Music for everyone. Even if they know absolutely f*ck all about any of it. Still I suppose if they all prefer listening to a little ginger chap who has the temerity to suggest he is the next Van Morrison, then who am I to argue. Just seems a shame. Still that’s your pesky, high/low culture divide in late neo-liberal, capitalist society for you.