Spira Mirabilis at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Messier51_sRGB.jpg

Spira Mirabilis

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 15th May 2018

Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A Op 92

Spira Mirabilis is a group of talented young musicians from around the world who play in various European orchestras. They hole up in Formigine in Northern Italy near Bologna to learn from each other and devote themselves to intensive study of major orchestral works of the canon which they then take around Europe to entertain us punters, and, more importantly, show us how it is done. I suspect they also have a bit of craic along the way.

The twist is that they have no conductor. Which means, in the spirit of a chamber ensemble, they have to “immerse themselves in the score with the aim of reaching an interpretative consensus on a shared vision and a complete synthesis with the work”. Now if you thought that the conductor of an orchestra, as I did a few years ago, was just there on the podium to provide a bit of visual light relief,  you would be very much mistaken. Someone has to impose a musical vision on even the most detailed score involving all manner of decisions on tempi, dynamics, who does what where, when and why, and all manner of other stuff way above my pay grade. If you dump his or her direction then I imagine you are collectively setting yourselves up for one hell of an away day. Yet this is exactly what they do with the intention then of trying to explain to us how they did it. Wonderful.

In this case they just happened to pick, IMHO, the most perfect piece of music ever written. I believe Beethoven to be the greatest of composers, the symphony to be the most complete musical form and this to be his best. Though I can see why others might disagree with any and every part of that statement. Moreover I admit that there are individual pieces by modern composer/performers in popular music genres that would just edge it for me on the eponymous desert isle. (I should probably post something on that).

Spira Mirabilis have in fact already been through an entire Beethoven cycle, good call, so this constituted something of a revival. Yet there was still a palpable sense of excitement in the Hall ahead of, and through, this performance. When Beethoven wrote this his hearing had significantly deteriorated and he had retired to the spa town of Teplice in order to gee himself up. There is no programmatic intent, unlike its predecessor the Pastoral, yet it is an astonishingly uplifting, happy work. That maybe because it is essentially dance music. Anyway it was a hit from the off and it is easy to see why.

The first movement starts slowly but when the “dotted” rhythmic figure finally kicks in LvB proceeds to push and pull it around in so many ways that it barely seems plausible that it can tolerate this level of innovation. If you ever need to understand Beethoven’s genius in taking simple material and wrestling it into music of unparalleled emotional and intellectual power through progressive variation, it lies here. This is the longest movement of any of the symphonies.

Then there is the Allegretto. A funeral march where the ostinato is repeated and repeated until it attains monumental proportions. Strings largely in minor keys, woodwinds take the major. If you need to give someone important to you a good send off, alive or dead, this is the music you need. It is the most hummable tune ever written. The Presto that follows is joyous and funny and contrasts with its central hymnal trio and the Finale cuts loose completely. I’ll warn you. Avoid sitting next to a fat bloke, likely in shorts, probably leaning forward, imperceptibly wiggling his fingers, in time just about, if the Finale of the Seventh should be playing. He might just start sobbing. With joy. Truly pathetic.

It takes a marvellous performance to overwhelm me and I have to confess this wasn’t quite there. It was insightful in glimpses, especially in the third movement, the negotiation between the players was intriguing and there was a slippery quality I liked. Tempos were sensible but I might have preferred something a little brisker in the first two movements, especially in the second subject of the Allegretto. But I still think the necessary compromises made everyone hold back just a bit. A sense of “after you Claude”. I am all about consensus in the “real” world but in the realm of the creative democracy can only take you so far.

I also have to confess that I didn’t stay for the post match replays and interviews. No good excuse other than wanting to see the SO and LD that evening. Though they of course completely ignored me when I got home early. I discovered that Spira Mirabilis had repeated the second movement, this time whilst randomly sitting in the audience. Damn. I wish I had stayed for that.

Still overall a fine performance of a transcendent work intriguingly delivered.

 

 

Ligeti in Wonderland at the South Bank review *****

ligeti1

Ligeti in Wonderland

Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, 11th, 12th and 13th May 2018

Pierre–Laurent Aimard (piano), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Marie-Luise Neunecker (horn), Daniel Ciampollini (percussion)

  • Ligeti – Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes,
  • Ligeti – 3 pieces for 2 pianos (Monument, Selbstportrat, Bewegubg),
  • Ligeti – Trio for horn, violin and piano
  • Steve Reich – Clapping Music
  • Ligeti – Etude No 8 for piano and percussion
  • Conlon Nancarrrow – Piano Player studies Nos 4 & 9 arr. for 2 pianos
  • PL Aimard – Improvisation for 4 hands on Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes
  • PL Aimard – Improvisation for piano and percussion on Ligeti’s Etude no 4 (Fanfares)

Shizuku Tatsuno (cello), Katherine Yoon, Yume Fujise (violins), Tipwatooo Aramwittaya, Ilaria Macedonia (harpsichords), lantian Gu, Laura Faree Rozada. Joe Howson (Pianos)

  • Sonata for solo cello
  • Ballad and Dance for two violins
  • Continuum for solo harpsichord
  • Passacaglia Ungherese for solo harpsichord
  • Musica Ricercata for solo piano

Pierre–Laurent Aimard (piano)

  • Etudes Books 1,2 and 3

Pierre–Laurent Aimard (piano), Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Marie-Luise Neunecker (horn), Nicholas Collon (conductor), Aurora Orchestra, Jane Mitchell (creative director), Ola Szmida (animations)

  • Chamber Concerto
  • Piano Concerto
  • Hamburgisches Konzert
  • Violin Concerto

Hello. The review starts down here. As you can see the Tourist, along with many others, similarly intrigued and maybe enraptured by the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, put in a shift enjoying this weekend of music dedicated to his music.

Not one second was wasted. Some of the pieces stood out, the Trio, the piano works especially the Etudes and the Violin Concerto, but overall this was a fantastic array of performances of this brilliant composer. Wonderland for sure.

Now it takes a few decades before the new in all art forms is appreciated. Classical music, even in its most saccharine form, is not going to be for everyone. Yet it seems pretty clear to me that Ligeti, ahead of the other big name Modernists who transformed Western art music in the middle of the last century, is the one most people would choose to listen to. There is innovation and extension in his sound world for sure, there is intellect aplenty and there is memorable structure, though not the mathematical -isms of his peers, but most of all there is a depth of expression that anyone, even this muppet, can grasp. Add to this rhythm, of sorts, power, humour by the bucketload, and it’s easy to see why he gets performed a fair bit more than his contemporaries. He wasn’t sniffy about minimalism and he embraced music from other cultures. If you want to dip your toe in the modern classical world then this is definitely where to start.

There is a grand, ambitious, searching quality to his music, audible even in these smaller scale chamber and solo works. More often than not the works teeter on the brink of chaos but always, one way or another, resolve so I think it is optimistic on the whole. And, importantly, as with Luciano Berio, (another favourite for me alongside Xenakis and Penderecki), the history of art music is not smothered or ignored.

Where, variously Romania, Hungary, Germany and Austria, when, the War, (only his mother survived the concentration camps from his Jewish family), the Cold War, the 50s, 60s and 70s, what, as he moved through electronic and the Cologne School, to “micropolyphony” and then “polyrhythm”, all tumble out of his music like an avant garde encyclopedia. Know all those sounds that inhabit movie and TV soundtracks, when the creatives what to think big, go cosmic or generally scare the pants off you. Ligeti kicked it off, when Kubrick nicked his grooves for 2001. Music as texture. He even looks the part.

One more thing before I end this wall of pretentious guff. He always knew when to stop. Twenty minutes tops, even for the concertos. Most works clock in under ten minutes. Even opera Le Grande Macabre is under two hours. Genius.

The first concert kicked off with the Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes. Yep there are 100 metronomes on stage set up with different beats. The performers skip on and set them off. Randomly. Of course it’s a joke, intended to explore the notion of chance in music (a la John Cage) but it becomes hypnotic, even a bit tuneful as patterns emerge from the chaos, and the gambler in me was desperate to have a punt on the last metronome clicking as it were. The survivor. An important concept for Ligeti given his personal history.

Pierre- Laurent Aimard was joined by regular collaborator Tamara Stefanovich for the two player piano pieces which preceded the Etudes. The first, Monument, sets up a cyclical rhythmic pattern which is then toppled with both players ending up at the very top of the keyboard. The second is an homage to minimalists Reich and Riley, fast scales and arpeggios with a backdrop of “silent” keys. This ends up in the bass. The third, Motion, is a canon, if you concentrate, which echoes the first piece.

The Trio is apparently an homage to Brahms. Search me. I suppose it does have a more Romantic structure than the polyrhythmic later Ligeti pieces. There is a sonata form opening, followed by a rapid ostinato with folky tunes wrapped around it, then a crooked march and a finale nicked from chords in Beethoven’s Les Adieux sonata. The main interest lies in the way the natural horn, with no keys and therefore lots of “out-of-tune” strange notes contrasts with the mannered piano, leaving the violin to hop between the two given its ability to produce natural harmonics. Since Ligeti dedicated his horn concerto (heard in the last concert) to Marie-Luise Neunecker, PL Aimard is the towering interpreter of Ligeti’s piano music and Pat Kop is my absolute favourite violinist in C20 music, there is no way this could have been bettered.

Then the fun started as PL Aimard and Daniel Ciampollini gave us a short rendition of Reich’s Clapping Music, (if you don’t know it the clue is in the title), which segued into Liget’s eighth Etude with Mr Ciampollini playing around it on his percussion kit, Nancarrow wrote his 49 Etudes for player piano because they were unplayable. Not so it seems, for these two particular studies, when four hands get involved. Then our percussionist interrupted on PL Aimard’s piano, and then both page turners, so all five were dinking out a version of the metronome piece that kicked things off. It was very droll though I admit you had to be there. Finally a dressed down version of Ligeti’s fourth etude.

Who knew classical music could be this much fun? OK maybe fun is stretching it but this whole performance emphasised the sharp humour which underpins Liget’s work as well as being a showcase for his rhythmic genius.

The next (free) concert was in the Purcell Room and involved students from the Royal College of Music. It mixed up some of the later solo Ligeti works with some from his early days in Romania and Hungary. As is always the case with RCM students the performance was at a very high level, better than many “professional” equivalents. Indeed this bunch already, largely, are on the circuit already. They all have jaw-droppingly impressive CV’s. I would single anyone out – they were all marvellous.

I heard the solo Cello sonata recently (Peter Wispelwey (cellist) at Kings Place review ****). It has been a nailed on cello classic since its premiere in 1979, though it was written in 1954. It was initially banned in Hungary by the “Composers Union”, a Stalinist censor. Two movements, a Dialogo, a conversation between a man and a woman, two ostinatos alternating between the upper and lower registers, and a Capriccio which has all sorts of thrilling extended techniques. (As an aside it would have been great to have recruited a cellist to the weekend cause to have a crack at the Cello Concerto with its bonkers high sustain at the end of the first movement).

The Ballad and Dance (1948) echoes Bartok with its loose transcriptions of Romanian folk songs. It is as easy to listen to as it sounds. Ligeti went on to explore Romanian folk songs in his Concert Romanesc (which sounds about as un-Modern and late C19 as it is possible to get).

Continuum was written for a two-manual harpsichord which can’t get up to much dynamically. The idea is that the notes are played so fast that the rhythm melts into a continuous blur. Almost to stasis. It looks and sounds like hard work to play but Tipwatooo Aramwittaya, (who appears to have medicine to fall back on if music and performance doesn’t pan out, which it will), was as cool as a cucumber. Like much of Ligeti the sounds are viscerally arresting but this is not mere novelty. Apparently it has been adapted for barrel organ to make it even simpler and even faster. The Passacaglia Ungherese, in contrast, is a repeated four bar descending ostinato intended to mimic the ground bass of the Baroque and was intended as a p*ss-take for his students, and those of us today, who love to keep moving to those Baroque grooves. It has some dancey counterpoints, obviously, and is marvellous. I need a recording.

The Musica Ricerta, like the Cello sonata, is a kind of experimental training work that Ligeti wrote in Hungary in the early 1950s away from the gaze of the censors. In each of the eleven pieces he places various restrictions on pitch, intervals and rhythms. they get sequentially more complicated as the number of pitch classes increases from the basic A in the first piece. Music for the brain for sure, but, as ever, Ligeti doesn’t skimp on the aesthetic. He loved sound you see.

This brings me neatly to the concert devoted to Ligeti’s 18 Etudes set across three books, started in 1985 and completed in 2001, his final work. All the influences on his “final late” period are there, central European folk music, Debussy, fractals, African cross-rhythms and Conlon Nancarrow. They are fiendishly difficult to play as Ligeti explores the entire range and possibility of the piano and piles layer upon layer of music. A fair few have a hectic, even aggressive quality, as they pile up into a rapid resolve but there are also poetic moments. There is a reason why M. Aimard is the pre-eminent performer of these pieces and the full house here was privileged to witness it. One of the best concerts I have ever attended.

The final concert expanded the player forces with the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon taking to the stage. The Chamber Concerto is a nailed on classic of the modern era, small-scale orchestra, 20 minutes in length, (no-one dares go further in new music, if only because it won’t get performed), and boundary-pushing. The opening movement has the instruments sliding around until they bash up against each other, then the winds sing out, before it all subsides. The second movements is a kind of mashed up Romantic fantasia which goes a bit awry, to be followed by a mechanical march, a clock factory under attack. The Presto finale is in a similar vein though ends perkily. If you ask me it is like a mini Rite of Spring, though as if some talented musicologist had discovered a partially burnt, muddled up copy of the score many years later. I am still trying to work it out.

The Piano Concerto is an even more uncompromising chap. Movements 1, 3 and 5, all quickest require the pianist to set the rhythms against which the orchestra adds snatches of melody. The second and fourth movements are more of a partnership. In the second the silly instruments, whistles and ocarinas, enter the chorale and in the fourth Ligeti sets up his head-spinning fractal structures. It is pretty quirky overall, sometimes confrontational, but immensely rich. I think it was the one piece over the weekend which really pushed the audience.

The Hamburgisches Konzert, Horn Concerto, was written for Marie-Luise Neunecker and in honour of Hamburg where he lived for 30 years. It is written, in part, for natural horn and exploits the strange harmonies which can emerge from the pure overtones of that beast. Finding out what sounds can do is part of the modern classical world but Ligeti, even here, never forgot to ensure this was set in a profoundly musical context. There are seven short movements. The soloist shifts between natural and valved horns, the four horn players in the orchestra, (all fine players, Pip Eastop, James Pillai, Ursula Monberg and Hugh Sisley), accompany on natural horns, the orchestra, except in the fourth movement takes a back seat. Now there is no doubt that the horn sound is a beautiful, extraordinary and eerie thing, (listen to Britten’s Serenade for a more comfortable alternative), but, to be fair, it can’t get up to much. But what it can do is showcased in this concerto and Ms Neunecker is probably the best person on the planet to show us how.

Having said that it was the Violin Concerto that brought the house down. Pat Kop is a magnetic stage personality, as she skips about, every inch the gypsy fiddler, in bare feet. The work is meat and drink for her, she even chucked in her own, entirely sympathetic cadenza, roping in the lead violin of Alexandra Wood. But the Aurora Orchestra also rose to the occasion. There are all sorts of non-standard tunings at work here, in the brass, in the woodwinds, even in one violin and viola. And, of course, the soloist, if they know what they are about, can bounce around to exploit the strange harmonics as GL intended. There are five movements, all of which exploit the coincidences, but the clarity of the interplay makes these sound more chamber-like than its two concerto peers. And dear reader there are passages, like the Aria at the beginning of the second movement, that are not at all scary. I promise. It’s a masterpiece I reckon.

So there you have. Possibly the best composer of the latter half of the C20 shown off to stunning effect by musicians who clearly love his work. You could feel the buzz in the room/s. The Barbican, courtesy of the BBCSO, has a “Total Immersion” day devoted to Ligeti on 2nd March next year, which repeats some of these works but offers up some choral and larger scale orchestra works. Do go.

 

 

 

Icebreaker at Kings Place review ****

louis-andriessen-1

Icebreaker: Velocity

Kings Place, 5th May 2018

  • Anna Meredith – Nautilus
  • Michael Gordon – Yo Shakespeare
  • Paul Whitty – nature is a language – can’t you read?
  • David Lang – Slow Movement
  • Louis Andriessen – De snelheid (‘Velocity’)

Boundaries. And their close, and troublesome cousins, borders. The bane of human existence. Setting them, seeing them, understanding them, crossing them. We have to set boundaries in what we do, what we learn, where we live, how we interact, how we identify to make sense of ourselves and those around us. Executive, legislature, judiciary create and police them. Arguments flow from them.

So I reckon, if you aren’t going to hurt anyone by doing so, transgressing boundaries every day, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep is good for you and good for humanity. No need to bother in your sleep. Your dreams and sub-conscious are already on the case.

That then is the only explanation I have for scuttling off to see Icebreaker perform at Kings Place. For this is music well beyond my normal boundaries. Icebreaker are an 11 piece contemporary music group founded by James Poke and John Godfrey in 1989. They combine guitars, electric strings, keyboards, pan-pipes, flutes, saxes, drums and various percussion; not your run of the mill instrumentation so no surprise that they have had a fair few pieces written especially for them. They aim to appeal to contemporary classical, rock and alternative music audience camps alike. There you go. Crossing boundaries. I have poked my nose into the first camp and like the perfume, I once lived in the second camp but left in the mid 1980s and don’t really know how the neighbourhood has changed since then and I have never visited the final camp and don’t really even know what they look like there.

I am guessing that Icebreaker are content to make their music and play to a select. but engaged, audience in appropriately sized venues. Good on ’em and good on whoever supports them. On the strength concert of this I will have to pay attention to them and the composers they showcased.

The concert was part of the year long Time Unwrapped Series at Kings Place which is examining the concept of time in music from all sort of angles. Many participants in the Series have argued that our perception of time is intimately bound up with music. Here were 5 pieces that were written in the last couple of decades, 3 for this very ensemble, which examine the concept of velocity in music, that is the rate of movement, think speed, compared to a fixed point of reference.

I had listened to the Louis Andriessen piece, called Velocity, de Snelhied in Dutch, before in its original form for three separate “orchestras” of unusual combinations, balanced through amplification. James Poke has arranged this for Icebreaker’s smaller forces retaining the structure. Mr Andriessen, there he is above, every inch the modern composer, is generally seen as a torchbearer for the minimalism that was kicked off in the US in the 1960s, and he was one of the key inspirations for the formation of Icebreaker. He was born into a family of composers and is a renowned teacher. The energy, pulse and rhythms of “classic” minimalism and jazz are audible in his music, as well as, who else, Stravinsky, but on top of this he lays big slabs of dissonant sound. It is really exciting stuff and he sounds like he had a lot of fun writing it. de Snelheid was a hit at the Proms given by the London Sinfonietta in 2012. A prom I missed because a) I am a dickhead and b) it was my birthday. Ligeti, Xenakis, Berio, Cage and Harvey in addition to Mr Andriessen were on the roster. Wow.

You would have thought I would have learnt my lesson. Oh no. Same thing last year when I missed the performance of Andriessen’s Workers Union, alongside pieces from the triumvirate of Bang on a Can composers, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang. Yes, dear reader, two of the very same composers who appeared in this programme. Small world, eh? Which it sort of is really, but it does seem that when composers such as Louis Andriessen are served up to a bigger and wider audience, of boundary breakers, positive surprise ensues, as at the Proms.

Now de Snelhied was apparently inspired when LA was driving with mates in Italy, listening to Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky and someone asks how fast they would have to go to go as fast as the music. Now this seemingly dumbass question is actually quite profound. Like LD saying the other day that she “couldn’t remember her first memory”. Whilst LD has a history of inadvertent hilarity, this actually points up that memory is constructed in the present and not “recorded” in our brains at the time of passing. Which is why it is fallible and plastic. Similarly LA realised that musical speed, like velocity itself, could only be measured, like velocity, by reference to a fixed point.

The piece kicks off with a steady pulse on two woodblocks around which the rest of the ensemble adds various repeated motifs. The woodblock pulse however speeds up at intervals, to close at 4x the pace it started out, (trust me this is very fast). This drags other instruments into accelerating except for one stubborn percussionist on bass drum and tom-toms who bashes out the same infrequent pulse throughout. The underlying chords too remain slow throughout. It is a weird aural sensation initially, but once you adjust to what is going on, you can hear what LA was up to; the tempo is not defined by the speed of the pulse but by the harmonic rhythm. I get it.

The other pieces similarly mess about with the notion of time, or more specifically, velocity in music. Anna Meredith’s Nautilus, here arranged for Icebreaker, introduces a slow strident drumbeat against a rising, skittery brass fanfare, both drawn from the electronic dance music which is Ms Meredith’s other vocation. By the end it becomes impossible to work out if this is a slow piece with a fast overlay or the other way round.

Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare divides the ensemble into three groups, one playing a basic semiquaver pulse, the other two playing respectively in 3:2 and 4:3 against this pulse. There is a beat of sorts in each group, but if you switch between them it gets a bit disorientating. Prof. Paul Whitty, (well named in this context as he is sort of taking the p*ss), has taken this very piece and “deconstructed it” by asking each player to take the notes on each of the pages of their scores and play them in order from highest to lowest. Three of the musicians also chuck in mp3 recordings, unsynchronised, which they may try to translate on their own instruments. The idea is that the timbre, note durations, dynamics and harmony remain the same as in Mr Gordon’s piece but in a disordered, ghostly way. I can grasp the idea but found it difficult to relate the two pieces but it was “fun” trying.

David Lang’s piece does exactly what it says on the tin, or should that be the can. It is 24 minutes of very, very slow note progression, which swirls about and feels very different depending on whether you try to focus your ears on the big picture architecture of the piece or the little details. It does test the patience, no doubt about that, but is it intriguing and has a kind of imposing grandeur. The compositional equivalent of a unified theory of everything, marrying the cosmic with the atomic. Try it.

So there you have it. Icebreaker took me to places I would never otherwise visit and I am very grateful to them for doing so. They delivered a thrilling performance, musically if not visually, as, with all the gubbins on stage, it look more like a studio jamming session than a “gig” despite a bit of coloured lighting. Icebreaker recorded the Gordon, Land and Andriessen pieces as long ago as 1994 so I think it is fair to say they know their way around them. Which is as well I think they are fiendishly difficult to pull off, not because of the notes or technique, but because the person right next to you is off playing something in a completely different time.

So take a tip from the Tourist. Break one of your self imposed cultural boundaries. Hate the theatre? Go and see King Lear, ideally in a language foreign to you. Love Mozart? Listen to some grindcore, though be wary of the lyrical extremes. Enjoy all that Tate Modern has to offer? Explore a cathedral. Canterbury, Ely or Wells would be my first choices. Ed Sheeran popping up too often on your Spotify? Try Neil Young. And so on.

What have you got to lose? Other than a couple of hours of your life. Being miserable. Still YOLO.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican review ***/***

image-disney_concert_hall_by_carol_highsmith_edit

Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

Barbican Hall, 2nd May and 4th May 2018

  • Esa-Pekka Salonen – Pollux
  • Edgar Varese – Ameriques
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 5
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9 “Choral”

Canny students of architecture will realise that the pic above is not of the Barbican. The Brutalist Barbican Estate is a thing of beauty to my eyes, though not to many others I realise, but surely no-one can be anything other than blown away by Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the LA Phil under current Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. I’ve never been there but I think have been driven past a couple of times. On the bucket list.

There was enough in the two main programmes on offer this year from the LA Phil’s residency at the Barbican for the Tourist to pitch up to both, albeit with some trepidation. The last time I saw Senor Dudamel and his fine head of hair was with his other band, the legendary Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. They bashed out a showy Petrushka and Rite of Spring. In places it was electrifying, in others mystifying, (not mystical). I don’t know if at 37, and into his ninth year at the LA Phil, building on Esa Pekka Salonen’s legacy, S. Dudamel can still be counted a wunderkind. He is still as wilful as ever though.

As was revealed here. The first concert kicked off with a piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen himself, the man who is credited with turning the LA Phil into a contender for the US’s best orchestra, and certainly its most innovative in terms of contemporary classical music. We are lucky to have the fiery Finn, (fiery as Finns go I reckon), in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra, especially when he turns his baton to Stravinsky. As a composer though, I am less sure. This was the European premiere of Pollux, which, in time, will be paired with Castor, to mean both twins of Greek legend, immortal and mortal, are brought to musical life. Pollux is slow and dark, in the composer’s words, Castor will be faster. EPS nicked a bass line from a post-grunge band, slowing it right down, a chorale from a Rilke sonnet about the boy Orpheus and slipped in an Ancient Greek Aeolian echo. All right over my head. It bubbled along pleasantly enough, all clusters and modes, but I am afraid left no mark on me.

I have tried Varese’s Ameriques a couple of times now with limited success. I get how important Varese was, in retrospect, to the development of modern classical music, and I enjoyed the programme of chamber scale pieces delivered by Guildhall School students as part of the Varese immersion day at the Barbican this time last year. But Ameriques is just a noise. Of noise. And it is very noisy. Especially here as GD let his percussion and brass sections run riot. It is difficult not to feel something from the sheer, physical energy of the piece, and the Debussyian and Stravinskyian shards provide texture, but it just doesn’t go beyond the immediate wow.

Now I read a review that contained a remark along the lines that US orchestras can’t really do Shostakovich because they are “too well-fed”. I think that about sums it up. In my limited experience the best performances of DSCH’s symphonies are either the very lean, uncompromising performances from Russia orchestras in days gone by, or from contemporary European orchestras who can capture the essence of those orchestras, whilst harnessing their greater playing skills. Put a Russian conductor in charge of a British orchestra and you have a guarantee of success. Or better still just hand it over to maestro Haitink.

This Fifth would have left a smile on Joe Stalin’s face. DSCH’s Mahlerian tendencies were loud and proud and the D major finale was bombastic, yes, but still felt like genuine, not forced, adulatory. I think GD and the LA Phil were at their best in the second movement scherzo, (as they were in the imposing, fugal scherzo of the Choral Symphony), with its waltzy rollercoaster rhythms and distinct central trios. The Largo third movement, just strings and a touch of woodwind, was way too rich for my blood and the first movement was too mannered as it shifted from slow to fast and back again. The canons, at the opening for strings, and then between flute and horn, and violin and piccolo, in the recapitulation were as striking as ever but the lyrical second theme was too smooth by half. DSCH strings need to have a bit of acid about them, even in this, the friendliest and most “classical” of his symphonies.

GD and the LA Phil were at it again a couple of nights later for the Choral Symphony. I didn’t bother with the Chichester Psalms in the first half as I don’t like it. Sorry. Most of the Beethoven I listen to is “period informed” and/or nips along at a fair lick. The plushest of the recordings I have is probably the oldest, (in terms of how long I have had it), in the form of Karl Bohm and the VPO. GD and the LA Phil offered an even weightier interpretation. As you might have guessed I didn’t take to it.

I heard a fantastic rendition from the LSO in this very Hall under Bernard Haitink. My favourite concert of 2015. The London Symphony Chorus was in fine fettle on that evening as they were here. For me they were the best of the instruments on show. Actually let me rephrase that. All the instruments on show were impressive, it was just that by the time, every one had had their say, the line and structure of Beethoven’s masterpiece got a little lost. The release at the start of the finale felt a little reserved and the coda was bashed through like a getaway car. Julianna Di Giacomo’s soprano is a thing of some beauty but got a little to bright here, Jennifer Johnson Cano’s mezzo was a little indistinct. The lads done well, Michael Konig tenor and especially Soloman Howard’s bass.

All in all then an interesting couple of evenings, if not as involving as I would have expected, for what are, two of the greatest major works ever written. The LA Phil is well upholstered, professional to a man and woman, but put together with GD’s over-emphases and exaggerated tempi, (including the relaxed in the paddock approach to start times), not quite as astonishing as I had been led to expect. To be fair the Barbican Hall acoustic doesn’t take kindly to this sort of full throttle treatment but that’s what rehearsals are for.

Mind you I clearly was in a minority. On both nights the full house went bananas at the end. Horses for courses I suppose.

 

Shostakovich from the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy review ****

vladimir_ashkenazy

Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), James Ehnes (violin)

Royal Festival Hall, 29th April 2018

Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, Op.77
  • Symphony no. 4 in C minor, Op.43

Apparently Vladimir Ashkenazy was at the premiere of the Fourth Symphony. In 1961, in Moscow, 25 years after it was written, DSCH having withdrawn it after Stalin metaphorically beat up him and his music in Pravda. How amazing is that. 57 years after that premiere a still sprightly 80 year old Mr Ashkenazy bounded up to the podium and delivered as committed a performance of the Fourth Symphony as you are likely to hear. Ably assisted by the massed forces of the Philharmonia, of which he is Conductor Laureate, let loose on a piece of the repertoire which is outside their normal C19 staples.

For those they don’y know it the Fourth is a curious beast. It contains plenty of recognisable DSCH tropes across its hour and a bit and its three “movements”, and is more Mahlerian in concept and execution, than the later symphonies. Indeed it shares the same key, C minor as the Resurrection, and a second movement akin to that symphony’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn third movement scherzo. Alas, if you were a Russian apparatchik in the 1930s it was bereft of the required redemptive triumphalism that Mahler delivered in his final movement. Mahler’s third was also an inspiration though it takes a knowing conductor to locate it.

It has a lot of bits and pieces, showing a resemblance to the modernism of DSCH’s early works, which he was supposed to have left behind. Idea after idea is introduced then discarded. Fun, but a little wearing, especially when compared to the long arcs of narrative in the later symphonies. You can see where all those polystylist Russian composers that followed DSCH, like Alfred Schnittke, got their ideas from. The shorter central movement is easier to read, with its nagging four note motif, but the opening fastish, and the closing slow/fast movement with its two massive codas are, to coin a phrase, all over the shop. DSCH is showing off, but it does get you to wondering where he might have gone if he hadn’t had to tread the line between undermining, and seeking the approval of, the capricious regime. Not saying that old Joe was good for Dmitry just that the ugly reality made him do more with less (ideas not instruments).

I have the well regarded recording by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra which doesn’t dilly-dally in either of the outer two movements which allows the ear, and brain, to discern a sonata-like structure amidst all the madcap invention. I don’t think Mr Ashkenazy was quite as bold with his tempi, so I don’t think it hung together quite as well as this recording, but this was still a performance to intrigue rather than confuse. Anyway you look at it though, these outer movements, clocking in just under half an hour each are going to have intervals of misunderstanding. Best then to admire the playing of the ton, literally, of members of the PO on stage, especially the woodwind, a match for the LPO in the DSCH symphonies, though the LPO has the benefit of Vladimir Jurowski’s increasingly brilliant readings.

So not the place to start if you don’t “get” Shostakovich. The popular First Violin Concerto certainly is though, especially with a soloist as assured as James Ehnes. The last time I heard Mr Ehnes was in a magical Messaien Quartet, alongside the Shostakovich Second Piano Trio at SJSS (Quatuor pour la fin du temps at St John’s Smith Square review *****). Mr Ehnes is a tall fellow, think Elrond to Mr Ashkenazy’s Bilbo Baggins, and it takes a seeming age for his bow to move across the strings given his very upright style. Looks can be deceiving though, as we all know, for, when Shostakovich asks the soloist to deliver in the lengthy cadenza between the third movement Passacaglia and Burlesca finale, he answered with aplomb. He was similarly convincing in the Passacaglia itself, one of DSCH’s genuinely “grand” inventions with its references to the Leningrad Symphony and the fate motif from Beethoven’s Fifth.

As with the Fourth Symphony there was a hiatus between the work’s completion in 1948 and first performance in 1955 (after Stalin’s death in 1953), by its dedicatee David Oistrakh with the Leningrad Philharmonic, a consequence of the Zhdanov decree. The piece is apparently Hamletian in scope, can’t see it myself, as well as symphonic in form, with a gentle, Elgarian Nocturne, preceding a “possessed” Scherzo (with the classic autobiographical DSCH motif, so common in later works, snuck in for the firs time), the aforementioned Passacaglia and the pumped up finale with glimpses of material from the other movements, including the folky dance of the Scherzo. Once again the PO woodwind shone.

So a fine evening presided over by a genuine grade A maestro. I am a big fan of Mr Ashkenazy piano playing, especially in Beethoven and Chopin, and even when it goes a bit off-piste. Unfortunately I never saw him play the piano live. I don’t suppose I ever will. Meanwhile this was more than adequate compensation.

 

Stravinsky, Debussy and Shostakovich: LPO and Leif Ove Andsnes at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

16794762330_2b22b89018_z

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 18th April 2018

  • Stravinsky – Symphony in C,
  • Stravinsky – Tango arr. for orchestra
  • Debussy – Fantaisie for piano and orchestra
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 54

I am pretty confident that no-one reads the reviews of classical music concerts posted here, not should they, since I know so very little about the music I hear, and what I do learn is ruthlessly plagiarised. But if you do stumble across this “content” by accident it really helps if you like Igor Stravinsky and Dmitry Shostakovich. A combination of my taste and that of those responsible for programming in the finest London venues means there is a lot of these two fellas on show here. More than I had realised.

This was another instalment of the Stravinsky Changing Faces festival at the South Bank, this time from the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski’s baton rather than one of their guest conductors.

Before I get to this a shout out for the free concert in the Hall just before this from members of the LPO Foyle Future First programme. This has been created to nurture talented young musicians who aspire to a career in the orchestra. They kicked off with a bouncy rendition of Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, then tackled some short pieces by Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Edison Denisov as well as Stravinsky’s own Epitaphium, a commemoration piece for flute, clarinet and harp, which acted as the inspiration for the other pieces which, in their turn, commemorate IS. The last piece was the more substantial Furst Igor, Strawinsky by Mauricio Kagel, drawn from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor and showcasing the dramatic singing talents of young bass Timothy Edlin, and some startling percussion effects.

I chanced upon this concert. On the basis of this I will endeavour to seek out any future offerings as should you if you are in the vicinity.

On to the main event. The Symphony in C was first performed in 1940 in Chicago conducted by IS himself. The first two movements, a Haydnesque shuffle with prominent oboe, here taken briskly, and a concertante with strings sandwiched by woodwind, were written in Paris, at the same tine as IS lost his daughter, first wife and mother. No grief on show though in this effervescent neo-classicism. The last two movements were composed after IS had moved to the US and comprise a scherzo with nods to IS’s early works and a slower conclusion focussed on woodwind. The trumpet of, I think, principal Paul Berniston, also got a good workout. Like everything Stravinsky wrote, the more times you listen to it the more you are astounded by how easy it all seemed to come to him, whatever form or style he was writing in, and however “academic” the music. This IMHO is about the best Neo-classical piece ever written.

The proceeding tango for chamber orchestra was originally a piano piece, as revealed by Leif Ove Andsnes later on in his encore. Even the stuff IS churned out for money, like this, is captivating, with strings, guitar, woodwinds and more brass than you might expect. Mr Andsnes is a confident fellow, I’ve heard him play a couple of times before, and have enjoyed his interpretations of Beethoven, the Nordics and Chopin, without being utterly convinced, I regard Debussy as a bit of an occupational hazard, as it often, as here, crops up in the programmes that appeal to me. All that swirling impressionism and general diddling about doesn’t really do it for me I am afraid. The piano being the chief instrumental purveyor of the diddling about tendency for composers so inclined, I wasn’t looking forward to this.

Once again my idiotic prejudices were confounded. The Fantaisie was written in 1890 as part of a prize young Claude secured but only the first movement was performed, leading CD to huffily withdraw it. Every time it was scheduled for performance thereafter, after revisions, he missed his deadlines, so that the original published score only appeared in 1919. The revisions were finally published in 1968. Leif OA has made a signature dish from this later version which is what we heard here. The first movement introduces the theme which turns up in the final allegro, there is a bit of the “exploratory” stuff which worries me but it settles into a tune by the end. The slow movement is grandly Romantic and in F sharp major. I shouldn’t like this but I did. Maybe I have a thing for this key. This moves into the the quicker, colourful finale which is underpinned by a repeated bass figure, and that, dear reader, is why I liked it. Probably because it doesn’t sound much like Debussy.

I don’t know how much rehearsal the orchestra got with the soloists. I am guessing it was limited since the programme implied we were getting the original 1919 version suggesting a bit of miscommunication. It didn’t matter. The more I hear the LPO with VJ at the helm the more I admire their unruffled ability to support, but never, overwhelm the soloist.

There is nothing diddly about Shostakovich’s 6th. After getting back in the Politburo’s good books with the 5th he went and upset the apple cart again with this bizarrely “unbalanced” though not “formalistic” symphony. 18 minutes or so of B minor largo slow movement with one of those never ending intros followed by a funeral march second theme, which is then repeated, but in a very subdued, passive way with solo flute from Juliette Bausor, ending with the briefest of recapitulation of the first themes. Then a scherzo, with trio accent, and strident climax, straight out of the DSCH copybook and a closing rondo, with contrasting waltz, that only needs a few clowns to gallop on stage to be complete and even has the enigmatic William Tell Overture which punctuates his last Symphony No 15. No fourth movement, all done in half an hour, audience always a bit taken aback, then relieved that it’s all over. And that’s the contingent, here thankfully large, who love this stuff. The best parties don’t go on too long. Who knows what it all means.

There is a lot of opportunity for pianissimo in the first movement, with most of the orchestra resting most of the time, and VJ and the LPO were keen to show what they could do. The extended second theme of the Largo was as close to eerie Shostakovichian, chair-pinning, perfection as you could ever want to hear,  and the closing presto faultless. Bish, bosh. It might still be on I Player if you’re interested.

Bach: The Late Concertos from the Feinstein Ensemble at Kings Place review ****

classic-185798_1920

The Feinstein Ensemble, Catherine Mason, Miki Takahashi, Sarah Moffatt (violins), Robin Bigwood (harpsichord), Martin Feinstein (flute, director)

Kings Place, 13th April 2018

JS Bach

  • Triple Concerto in A minor for flute, violin & harpsichord BWV 1044
  • Concerto in D minor for violin (reconstructed from BWV 1052)
  • Concerto in F for harpsichord & two recorders BWV 1057
  • Concerto in D for three violins (reconstructed from BWV 1064)

More Bach. Once again in the company of MSBD. Can you listen to too much JSB. Of course not. Mind you, you would have to if you ever wanted to get through all that he composed. Good luck with all those cantatas, chorales, songs, preludes, fugues, suites and toccatas. I will keep chipping away at the works for keyboards but, if I am honest, I think the solo string works and the concertos are enough to keep me satisfied.

Here we get a quartet of slightly less often performed concertos, composed in his maturity, when JSB was directing performances at the Collegium Musicum. That’s when he wasn’t occupied with composing music for his day jobs at four Leipzig churches. Three of the works are triple concertos, one reconfigured for 3 violins as opposed to 3 harpsichords and one single concerto for violin which was superseded by the harpsichord.

The first piece the Concerto in A minor for flute, violin and harpsichord in fact started life as two separate organ works, and is configured for the same orchestra as the Fifth Brandenburg even down to just having the three soloists play in the middle, slow movement (based on the organ sonata BWV 527). Moreover the harpsichord gets its own cadenza. the outer movement material is drawn from the Prelude and Fugue for A minor for harpsichord BWV 894 from 1717, and it is a lot less bright in mood that the Fifth Brandenburg. The outer two movements, marked allegro and presto, are complex even by JSB standards and. together, turn this into his longest concerto work. This was a big noise for just nine period instruments.

The harpsichord concerto in D minor BWV 1052 probably started out as a violin concerto, as we hear it here, witness the string-crossing formations in the first movement. This is unusual for having all three movements in minor keys. JSB’s use of riternello is most marked here.

The Concerto in F for harpsichord and two recorders is a subtle reworking of the Fourth Brandenburg in G major, with the solo violin part cleverly rewritten for the harpsichord and with the two recorders really coming to the fore.

As with the solo violin concerto the triple violin concerto in D was lost and only survived in the later harpsichord form. This has been reconstructed for the violins based on alterations made to the surviving score and it is a spectacular tour de force. Some of JSB’s stuff for multiple harpsichords can induce ear confusion I admit but not this work.  Hearing the melody lines played on shared violins, (above an often shared bass line), makes the work so much clearer.

Martin Feinstein, and his squad of crack Baroque musicians, are regulars at this venue, and he assembled a series of programmes here, alongside this, to celebrate the regular “Bach Weekend”. I am no flute expert but I would say Mr Feinstein knows where he is at on the pipes and his performance, alongside I think Catherine Manson on violin and Robin Bigwood on harpsichord, was thrilling, after a couple of minutes to get in the zone. Ms Manson took the lead for the solo violin concerto, with Emily Bloom joining Mr Feinstein for the recorder concerto. Ms Manson was joined by Miki Takahashi and Sarah Moffatt for the triple violin which was probably the highlight for me, although the two recorders ran it close, largely because I know the tunes.

The thing with JSB, as with Beethoven, is that the perfect logic and structure of the music makes you feel like you have heard it before and you know what is coming next. As it happens,, with JSB plundering his own back catalogue in this concertos, it is quite possible you have heard it before, but that is not what I mean. The instantaneous emotional joy is interlinked to the sustained intellectual pleasure. I still don’t really know what I am listening to in purely musical terms, all that counterpoint, harmonic and motivic organisation. I am though extremely grateful to all those Bach scholars, starting off with that nice Mr Felix Mendelssohn, who have got us to where we are now.

And to JSB himself for knowing that all those notes could, together, make these sounds. No Bach, no tonal system. No Bach, no modern instruments. No Bach, no instrumental solos.  Well maybe not entirely true, but his was the great leap forward in Western music. So kids, when you are listening to whatever Spotify chucks at you, and moving to the beat, you have JSB to thank.