The Australian Chamber Orchestra at Milton Court review *****

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The Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (director)

Milton Court Concert Hall, 22nd October 2018

WA Mozart

  • Symphony No 39 in E flat major K543
  • Symphony No 40 in G minor K550
  • Symphony No 41 “Jupiter” in C major K551

If you don’t know the Australian Chamber Orchestra then you should. I don’t mean personally one by one. Though I am sure that the 17 permanent members are all excellent people. No I mean that if you have any interest in classical music, or in music generally, for under their director and lead violinist, Richard Tognetti, they cast their net pretty widely for a classical band, you should find a way to see, and hear, them. In their chosen repertoire, primarily large chamber and small orchestral works, whether original scores or those adapted by the mercurial Mr Tognetti, they are well nigh unbeatable, I reckon. It’s the combination of scholarship, musicianship and enthusiasm you see.

There were magnificent last year in the concert I attended (Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review ****) and there were again this evening. Only this time they had expanded their strings core with more strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion drawn from various other ensembles to perform Mozart’s last 3 symphonies, which I defy anyone not to accept are amongst the finest pieces of music ever composed. And the biggest treat for me. The presence of MS whose intellectual and cultural curiosity knows no bounds, but who has been way too infrequent a companion for me at classical concerts. Let us just say that, by the end of the Jupiter, my boy was hooked.

There is plenty of Mozart that passes me by, too nice and too many notes. But not these symphonies, the da Ponte operas, the later piano concertos, the famous wind chamber pieces and various string quartets and quintets. After all you would have to be made of stone not to connect to this. These last three symphonies however are something else because they seem to operate on a higher musical and emotional level. Written in 1788, over a period of just six weeks, we don’t now who they were written for or where they were intended to be performed. His Dad Leopold, who was a big of a control freak by all accounts, had died the prior year. In the last couple of years of his life, Wolfgang was pretty poorly and reduced to begging from mates, but at the time of the composition of the symphonies, he had a decent income from his work at the Viennese Court, his and Constanza were happy and his operas had been a storming success in Prague. I don’t have too much truck with biographical or genius theories of creativity but I think these symphonies, whilst challenging on places, are pretty jolly overall, and there is enough invention to suggest that Wolfgang didn’t just download from brain to stave, however rapid their formation.

39 kicks off with a slow intro a la Haydn but soon perks up as it shifts to a cantilena with trumpets, timpani and descending strings. The second subject is softer, led by clarinets. The slow movement starts tentatively but then gets into a trademark groove as strings and winds each take the lead across three different themes, again with clarinets and bassoons, getting a workout. You might well know the minuet and trio tunes, (even if you don’t as is so often the case with WAM), and you certainly should know the Allegro finale which is as resolutely upbeat as anything he composed. It is easy to see why some smart punters reckon this was his best ever.

40, along with 25, is the only symphony in minor keys, and it is the use of clarinets once again which sticks in the ear (and mind). The Allegro opening, with the violin tune, two quaver, one crotchet, underpinned by pulsing violas, is another WAM classic, only he could have written it. There is a second theme, but you barely register it, such is the brilliance with which this opening tune is tweaked. Violas kick off the slow movement as well but here there are tics and tremors that point to what would have happened if WAM had managed a couple more decades. The minuet that wraps around the trio in the next movement also has its dissonant moments and the final Allegro really breaks the mould, famously, with its twelve note “serial” theme.

Apparently 41 was unperformed during WAM’s remaining 3 years, and it was a few decades before the world caught up. No clarinets here, oboes and bassoons get to do the wind work, and using the triumphal key of C major. Surely it is no coincidence that Beethoven kicked off his symphonic career in this key. The Tourist yields to no man (or woman) when it comes to the all time greatest, that’s LvB, but with 41 at least I get why some favour Wolfgang. From the jokey military demeanour of the opening movement through sweet mystery of the Andante, to the deceptively simple dance movement and into that “fugal” finale, which is as good as it gets, it is a marvel. Five themes, all magically locked together, by the end. There it is above. Seems so simple doesn’t it. It doesn’t sound it though.

It certainly pumped up MS as I said, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, wasn’t in the mood to hold back. Richard Tognetti is known for the drama and intensity he brings to performance and the ensemble, including guests, rehearses to within an inch of their lives as far as I can hear. The strings, literally, play as one and their is no room for any mawkish vibrato. HIP on mostly modern strings with period winds and brass suits me. The tempi are quick throughout and the phrasing is muscular. Right up my street. Mr Tognetti and the band have been playing the last three for over 25 years. I reckon they’ve nailed it.

BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Martin Frost (clarinet)

Barbican Hall, 17th October 2017

  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No 9 in E flat major Op 70
  • Aaron Copland – Clarinet Concerto
  • Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No 6 in E flat major Op 111

Vikings, stave churches, Celsius, Bohr, Angstrom, Ibsen, Strindberg, Laxness, Kierkegard, Nielsen, Sibelius, Greig, Munch, Balke, Olafur Eliasson, ABBA, Bjork, Bergman (x2), Lars von Trier, Ullman, Sofia Helin, Mads Mikklesen, Kim Bodnia, the laconic Kimi, Schmeichel (P), Salonen (EP), Lego, IKEA, SAAB, zips, mobile phones, seat belts, loudspeakers, Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, art glass, Georg Jensen, BIG, arket, meatballs, herring, saunas, Gamla Stam, Djurgarden, Tivoli, that Bridge, Roskilde Cathedral, Uppsala Cathedral, Copenhagen Opera House, Temppeliaukio Church. There’s a few of my favourite Scandi  people and things. And that’s before anything from the natural world. And doesn’t include those Scandinavians I would count as friends. There are good reasons why Scandis are generally pretty pleased with themselves, though not in a wanky kind of way. They have much to be pleased about.

Anyway it turns out that there is an organisation for promoting the Scandinavian countries and their culture. CoScan. The Confederation of Scandinavian Societies. And every year since 1994 it has given an award to recognise the contribution of an individual. body or group on the international stage. Previous winners have included Sandi Toksvig, Magnus Carlsen (the best chess player in the world), Hans Blix, The Nordic Optical Telescope, that Bridge and Mika Hakkinen. This year was the turn of Finn Sakari Oramo, the Finnish Conductor of (amongst others) the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Presented on this very evening. Good on you Sakari. He seems like a thoroughly decent bloke and we here should be eternally grateful for the musical contribution he has made, especially to the Proms (five this year alone). He is a whizz across much of the Scandi composer repertoire, but especially Carl Nielsen, whose symphonies and, especially string quartets, don’t get enough of an airing IMHO.

in this programme he also wheeled out three works that should be performed more often. DSCH’s 9th may not be down there with the weird and whacky modernism of Nos 2 and 3 and the overly patriotic, fim-scorish 12th, but it does get neglected. Copland’s jazzy Clarinet Concerto is one of his favourites and was written for Benny Goodman but is pretty tricky so needs a top-notch soloist to do it justice. And Prokofiev’s 6th Symphony is rated by enthusiasts of his work but it is 1 and 5 that get trotted out most often.

So this seemed to me to be well-worth the effort. Which it certainly was. All three works come from the immediate post WWII era, and a scary time personally for DS and SP, but they are far from completely gloomy, at least in places.

Copland’s concerto is genuinely untroubled, and was premiered by Goodman in 1950. The slower opening drops straight out of Copland’s Americana, specifically Appalachian Spring, kicking off with low strings and harps, against which the clarinet meanders, with the violins then following. Just like the sad scene when the love interest dies in a Western. It then jumps into what seems to me to be a fiendishly tricky cadenza, fully written out, which Martin Frost, doing that curious Pied Piper jig that woodwind soloists seem to adore, made look simples. Of course maybe it is. What would I know. I got booted out of recorder practice at school on the grounds of persistent ineptitude. It ends with a fortissimo scale from one end of the clarinet range to the other. Amazing. Straight into the faster, final section, with all sorts of string effects like a sort of mega Bartok quartet. More showing off from Mr Frost with a jazz jam to finish. He encored with a klezmer arrangement from his brother Goran which near brought the house down. There he is above looking suitably impish. Frost is a good name for him.

DSCH initially promised a big splash for his Ninth, with soloists and chorus, just like you no who. Shostakovich being Shostakovich though what he actually served up was a five movement, small scale (by his terms) joke, which barely gets over the finish line. Obviously he has form with odd, almost embarrassingly jejune structures, and musical satire, as much as he could get away with, witness the Sixth, but here we have what I read as an entire flippant f*ck you across a whole symphony. Maybe not just to his political masters but also to the music world in general. Everything he is routinely accused of is there but recast in a sort of Haydn-esque jollity. Scurrying strings, whistling woodwind, boy soldier drums, farting brass fanfares, an abrupt “I’ve done enough” concluding chord. And that’s just the first movement. The second movement is one of those desolate stalking Moderatos but never plumbs the depths and the screaming strings never come. The scherzo lollops along but with no repeat slows into the regulation Largo with doomy fanfare and bassoon lament which as always for me at least conjures up the battlefield dead. But again it is on a tiny scale. This is the sort of movement DSCH can crank up to 20 minutes plus. This is all over in four. The symphony ends with a quick movement which kicks of with a folksy little lick which builds up and eventually dashes over the line to the close. The whole thing is like some child’s Toy-town version of a DSCH symphony. Oramo and the BBCSO, correctly, didn’t attempt to make a case for profundity, taking it straight. I loved it.

Once again I found myself being really taken with a major Prokofiev piece that I had dismissed previously. It is the most symphonic of his symphonies, the most expansive and the most, dare I say Shostakovich-ian. It does occasionally start to go a little too C19 Romantic on your ass but there are enough of the trademark SP lurches and new twists to forestall tedium. So, like DCSH, got himself into a lot of bother with Stalin’s “realist” henchman by being a sarky, modernist clever clogs. The difference is SP actually came back to Russia to face this, er, critical music. He liked to satisfy his customer but the iconoclast in him could never be entirely suppressed. The Sixth, as a commemoration for the war dead was initially OK’d by the authorities but then, in 1948, censured.

The first movement kicks off with a couple of lazy themes led by strings then oboes before snapping into gear with a third, more forthright chanting theme, set against a tick-tock rhythm, which revives the first theme and sets up a massive tutti climax. A mixture of Mahler, Shostakovich and Saint Saens, it collapses into horn squeals, then all three themes are reprised. As usual with SP it lurches around a bit but has some great colours and sounds. It can probably turn into a bit of a grandiloquent mess in the wrong hands but I reckon Mr Oramo, by cracking on, get it about right.

The second movement Largo starts off with a series of big, chromatic gestures, but with some swinging brass, a bit like Wagner loosened up and had a nice long toke. Then we move into a kind of dreamy, lyrical reminiscence, all Hollywood love story, which breaks back into the tick-tock march of the second theme, before the first is reprised, in size. Overall this movement is genuinely unsettling.

As, in some ways, is the final movement marked Vivace, but only because it kicks off in perky neo-Classical vein. Though the bass line is anything but gallant, thumping away angrily, and backed up with percussive piano. The second idea is another jolly scamp led by woodwind, then rising strings, but this time with the tuba doing its best to create havoc. Gradually the dance starts going off-kilter, the fun peters out, and nasty stuff jumps out. The chant from the first movement returns now over the percussive thuds and deep brass fanfares. A major triad to conclude. Happy and triumphant it ain’t.

Very convincing. I have subsequently revisited the work listening to a couple of Russian orchestra performances. It wasn’t just Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO who nailed this. It really is a terrific piece of music. I think I am properly converted to SP’s world. That’s the thing with “high” art. You just need to put the hours in.

 

 

 

 

Southbank Sinfonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy at Milton Court review ****

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Southbank Sinfonia, Vladimir Ashkenazy

Milton Court Concert Hall, 16th October 2018

  • Edvard Greig – Holberg Suite
  • Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No 1 “Classical”
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 7

I am very partial to Vladimir Ashkenazy’s musicianship. Especially his way with Beethoven and Chopin on the piano. I gather the cognescenti think he is a bit bland and a tad direct. I disagree. I can’t be doing with all that showy rubato. I want to hear Chopin’s, and especially Beethoven’s, notes. He is best known for his Rachmaninov but I can’t be doing with all that syrup and I probably need to find out if he is my way into Scriabin.

Anyway he doesn’t play piano live any more but he is still an inspirational, and energetic in his 81st year, presence on the podium. And here he was with the Southbank Sinfonia where he is Patron. The Southbank Sinfonia is an orchestral academy which each year brings together 33 young musicians, supported by a bursary, to provide an opportunity and plenty of hands on experience from which to launch into their professional career. There have been many successful alumni since the initiative was launched by Music Director Simon Over in 2002. They are based in St John’s Waterloo, (London, not Liverpool or Canada, that might be an expensive trip), and offer excellent rush hour concerts each month for any of you classical curious.

They are an impressive and enthusiastic bunch and I rarely miss an opportunity if convenient to hear a Beethoven Seventh, it being, along with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (scoff if you like but it won’t change my mind), Bach’s Partita No 2 for violin, Britten’s Serenade, Holst’s Planets, Mozart’s Jupiter, Ligeti’s Etudes, Monteverdi’s Vespers, Part’s Speigel am Speigel, Steve Reich’s Drumming, Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Tallis’s Mass for 5 Voices, the greatest works of classical music. The Seventh is the best of all though. I am now remembering the interpretation from Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic at this year’s Proms (No 68). Pardon my French, but f*ck me that was about the most exciting musical experience I have ever had, up there with Led Zeppelin at Knebworth and the Bunnymen in their pomp.

Anyway VA and the band delivered a very palatable rendition here, though the first movement was a little plodding and the last a bit unkempt, which the audience lapped up. As they did in the Greig. I had only heard the Holberg Suite once before, (with a quick revisit ahead of this). It’s neo-classical feel, an introduction then four dances, is attractive and Greig can conjure up a tune but it’s not really my bag. My regular reader will know that I have an ambivalent attitude to the boy Sergei, (there he is above looking well dapper), but that I am being increasingly persuaded. The First Symphony though is always a joy though, and being so, and because its all over in less than 15 minutes, it does pop up quite a lot in concert programmes.

Now we know that Prokofiev, even before that magpie Stravinsky, was on to the Classical, what with this First Symphony and his love of Haydn. Anyone with half an ear should love Haydn after all. It kicks off with a Mannheim Rocket, the same eight-note ascending arpeggio figure that Mozart uses in the finale of his G minor Symphony No 40 and Beethoven employs in the Scherzo of the Fifth. Way to go Sergei. The opening allegro keeps off in D major but soon bobs its way along into C. Come in anywhere and you could be listening to Haydn or Mozart, only just slightly off-kilter. There’s a rousing tutti about half way through then back to the scurrying. The second movement marked larghetto has a delicate string melody set against one of SP’s typical tick-tock rhythms. A brisk bunny hop. It could be early Beethoven. The third movement is a short plodding French gavotte, backed by characteristic drone, not the elegant minuet and trio of the genuinely Classical. If you think you’ve heard it before that’s because you have as it crops up again in Romeo and Juliet the ballet. Full on foot-tapper. The rousing finale races around the orchestra, the love child of a Shostakovich scherzo and a Beethoven rondo, wth sweet woodwinds, much like the finale of the Seventh.

So nice programme, enthusiastically, if not always entirely accurately, played, drenched with Mr Ashkenazy’s customary enthusiasm.

 

Holst’s The Planets: BBCSO at the Barbican review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus (women’s voices), Professor Brian Cox, Ben Gernon

Barbican Hall, 29th September 2018

I wasn’t quite sure of what the format would be for this performance of Holst’s The Planets. Maybe a quick intro from our most famous and telegenic physicist, then a work-out for the BBCSO under Guest Conductor Ben Gernon, with a few unspecified other repertoire to be tacked on. What I hadn’t bargained for was a full-on lecture preceding each of the seven movements with state-of-the-art slide-show accompaniment showcasing some of the most famous images of our solar system.

It was therefore a very pleasant surprise. The Hall was packed to the rafters and, this being The Planets with a famous bloke off the telly, there was a far more diverse audience than you normally see at the Barbican or the South Bank. And my, my, did I learn a lot. Although I confess I can’t remember it all. The point is that Prof Cox, with his dulcet Manc tones, his child-like enthusiasm and his preposterous hair-cut is just the man to show us how the latest scientific understanding of our solar system, drawn from all that hard- and soft- ware sent out over the last four decades to examine it, both connects to, and contradicts, the more mystical and conjectural view prevalent in the early C20 when Holst wrote his masterpiece.

Holst, with his attachment to English folk-song and Eastern mysticism, was a curious fellow in some ways. Swedish extraction, frail constitution, mates with Vaughan-Williams, teacher at St Pauls Girls School, as fancy as it gets even then, nice gaff looking over the Thames in Barnes, committed socialist. An interest in theosophy, a right rag-tag of funny ideas as far as I can tell, but which had quite a hold over the Western creative community in the inter-war period.

His music is pretty curious as well. Uncertain tonalities, modal expressions, the kind of counterpoint more typical of medieval forms, irregular and often belting rhythms, ear-catching dissonance. It all tumbled out in The Planets, which itself it as big a subject as you can imagine for programmatic music. No surprise that it was such a success when finally completed in 1917, bolstering his career and reputation, and no surprise it is so popular today. Its best ideas might now appear to be a field full of hackneyed war-horses but, if you step back from the familiar, it still has the power to wow especially, I think, in the slower passages. At the time it was as “modern” as Debussy or Stravinsky, and, like them, its influence on “everyday” classical music now, is inescapable. No Planets, no fantasy film scores.

Holts’s starting point was the elemental character of each of the seven planets which is what lies behind astrology, (connected to this theosophy caper apparently). All b*llocks obviously, even at the time, but Holst believed it. And believing in the power of the planets to influence us did give a starting point for Holst to set out what he saw as important facets of the human condition: War (Mars), Peace (Venus), Messenger (Mercury), Jollity (Jupiter), Old Age (Saturn), Magician (Uranus), Mystic (Neptune), Scoff all you like but this nonsense also meant that, on this night, the exact centenary, Prof Cox could then riff on how far we have come in our understanding of what makes up our solar system, and that more existential question, what other life might be, or have been, out there.

The BBCSO, (with the female voices of the choir for the final wordless chorus in Neptune) was on top form and threw itself into the hyped-up interpretation under Ben Gerson. With the movements broken up by Prof Cox’s oration it was important to establish momentum in each of the movements tout suite as it were. After all the whole piece clocks in at just under an hour with only Saturn and Venus getting anywhere near the 10 minute mark. Easy enough to quickly stake your claim on the thunderous toccata of Mars, (here claimed as a wider critique of industrial capitalism and not just the horror of mechanised warfare), the carnival scherzo of Jupiter, the bitonal dance of Mercury or the sardonic fantasy of Uranus. I have to say though that the BBCSO was actually most convincing in the nagging processional of Saturn and the endless hush of Neptune which take more time to overawe.

All up a splendid idea. Of course individually the images, the music and the lecture might have had more lasting impact, but put them all together and a deeper impression was created. It would be nice if we humans could keep our sh*t together long enough to find out if we are not alone.

The Cardinal’s Musick at Wigmore Hall review ****

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The Cardinal’s Musick, Andrew Carwood (director)

Wigmore Hall, 27th September 2018

  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – Motet Tu es Petrus, Missa Tu es Petrus, Gregorian Chant, Magnus Sanctus Paulus a 8
  • Giovanni Bassano – O Rex gloriae
  • Jacob Handl – Sanctus Bartholomeus
  • Thomas Crecquillon – Andreas Christi famulus
  • Tomás Luis De Victoria – Vidi speciosam
  • Francisco Guerrero – Virgo prudentissima
  • Sebastián de Vivanco – Magnificat octavi toni

More people should hand themselves over to the musicianship and scholarship of the best of British Renaissance vocal ensembles such as The Cardinal’s Musick or The Tallis Scholars or The Sixteen. Or, on those rarer occasions, when the best of their European cousins pop over. (Let us hope that isn’t made prohibitively difficult by the clusterf*ck that is Brexit though I suspect nothing would give greater pleasure to the never-happy social conservatives than watching us metropolitan liberals lose the opportunity to listen to such poncey, suspect singing).

Surely, it is impossible not to like complex polyphony sung by experts. Of course you could invest some time into learning about the composers of this ravishing music and the context in which it was created. As the canon of Renaissance music has expanded so too has our knowledge about those who created it, though biographical details are normally scant. Some vague-ish birth and death dates, a list of where they trained and what positions they held and what patrons they, (and by implication we), need to be grateful to. More often than not there is some detail in the careers of the most renowned of these men, (women got more of a look in in Medieval music and in the early Baroque, as we are now, thankfully, discovering), which marks them out as tricky in some way. Often over what they got paid. You would think the aristos and the Church would have been happy to pay up for art of this quality. Clearly not.

There are now a wealth of recordings of the (largely) French, Flemish, English, Italian and Spanish masters and the repertoire is still expanding. However, given the relatively limited number of performances and performers it is still likely that the casual listener/attendee, like yours truly, will encounter something new at every concert. The scholars and musicologists that lead the way still have plenty to play with I gather, so the sense of exploration and novelty that pervades Renaissance music performance, even though we are now well into the sixth decade of “rediscovery” since the first ensembles set out, isn’t about to end. I assume devoting your life to this sort of caper isn’t a way to make a lot of money but I hope that the economic ecosystem is robust enough to underpin such vocation.

You could also seek to understand when, why and how these pieces were performed. I guess having some sort of faith would be a good starting point for grasping the meaning of the religious works, but I also think it is perfectly possible for the irreligious to take something from the words and purposes of the texts. Even if all the rules of Christian liturgy and its founding myths remain a bit fuzzy you will certainly learn a lot about the political, religious and social contexts in which this works were created.

You might arm yourself too with as much knowledge as you can about the musical forms and structures which define this music. Sacred and secular, masses and motets, madrigals, modal and tonal, the way in which the vocal parts are put together, parody, imitation, suspensions, homophony, antiphony, plainsong, cantus firmus, dissonance, dyadic counterpoint. I can’t say I am there yet but some of the terminology is staring to fall into place. And remember folks the Tourist is, by virtue of a grotesquely painful singing voice, unable to perform, a source of eternal shame, and, by dint of what his music teacher at school was wont to call “tone deafness”, in a time before such educational derogation was outlawed, an utter inability to “read” notes on a page, only a consumer, and not a producer, of music. At the time I gloried in Mr Vaughan-Williams’, (I kid you not, but I am pretty sure he was no relation), disapproval. Now I really wish I had listened to him. Mind you I still take pride in being booted out of RE on a couple of occasions, for, and I swear this is no malleably manufactured memory, arguing with the teacher whose name I forget about the existence of God. Calling me a “long-haired jessy”, however apt, only served to fuel my nascent atheism I am afraid.

Anyway, you could learn all you can about this glorious music. Or you could, as frankly I normally do, let it wash over, and through, you. You know the thing where you forget about everything but the now, mind empties, body relaxes, free of the grinding anxiety of what has happened or what might be about to happen? To get it you can, I suppose, teach yourself, or get some-one to teach you, some sort of mindfulness mumbo-jumbo. Or you could just listen to Palestrina or Victoria. I promise it will work. After all it was written for exactly that purpose. To lose yourself in devotion. So piggy-back off that and get yourself along to one of these concerts. Close your eyes and let the voices take over.

Here endeth the lesson.

 

Thomas Ades and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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London Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Ades, Kirill Gerstein (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 26th September 2018

  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
  • Thomas Ades – In Seven Days (Concerto for piano and orchestra)
  • Witold Lutoslawski – Symphony No 3

Thomas Ades is a talented chap. As composer, conductor and performer he follows in the footsteps of some of the greats., and I for one think there is a lot more to come. Some of the most memorable classical music evenings I have enjoyed in the past few years have been graced by his presence.

So although his own piano concerto, and the Lutoslawski (there he is above), were pieces I knew only by reputation, this, the opening concert of the LPO 18/19 season, looked a good bet. And it certainly came up trumps. Mr Ades has a way with Stravinsky as you might expect, his own music was greatly enhanced by Kirill Gernstein as the soloist (of sorts), who showed his affinity with TA’s music in one of his mazurkas as encore, but it was actually the Lutoslawski symphony that turned out to be the highlight of the evening.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements marked another step in the ongoing Changing Faces retrospective of his music at the Sot Bank. It is trademark IS, sparkling brass, bubbling woodwind and pulsating strings, smoothed off spikiness if you will. Though for me the fact that the three movements were composed independently over time shows through, so it isn’t right at the top of his orchestral oeuvre. The Allegro overture first movement definitely has its moments, harking back to the early revolutionary ballet scores with prominent piano here played by John Alley. The second movement, marked Andante, is comprised of material originally intended for a film versions of the St Bernadette Soubirous, Our Lady of Lourdes, (she of the multiple visions and Catholic granny’s favourite) and has an innocent charm, with a couple of interruptions, and vocal harp line. The finale, con moto, is a lot more aggressive, reflecting its completion at the end of the war in 1945, with that motoric quality that inhabits IS’s music, at least until the final austere serial phase.

In Seven Days doesn’t muck about, taking as its inspiration the Creation. The religious one or maybe the real one. Hard to tell. It was originally performed alongside a video composition from TA’s then husband Tal Rosner. It certainly has a vivid, cinematic approach to go with the programme, think Ligeti in terms of mood if not structure. But it didn’t need any visual assistance. Tiny particles of sound combine, break-up, recombine, ever expanding as we move through the seven movements, out of Chaos through to Contemplation. It was originally scored for a smaller orchestra. Here TA had the freedom to really crank up the engine especially in percussion and brass. Eat your heart out Haydn and all the others who have also had a go at the greatest story ever told. God as scientist not mystic.

It is one of those fractal compositions, music made out of algorithms or rules, built on repetition, where the very small mimics the very large. Maths as music, or maybe the other way round. So it is in a state of constant flux but the thing with Ades is that he cleaves close enough to conventional tonality, and, the secret sauce (for me I now realise) that is rhythm, not to disappear out of sight into the impenetrable. I can’t say it all fell into place on this first hearing, but it “made sense” which is all I need to revisit. The more modern and contemporary classical music I encounter the clearer it is becoming to me what is needed to rule it in or out. I do seem to have a penchant for ever changing repetition in music with rhythm and harmony, not melody, as the hooks (as it were). Ades kicks off with extremes of pitch in the opening perpetuum mobile, (I know now these could be my favourite two words in Latin), led by strings. This breaks with a chorale and the piano kicks in leading the orchestra to further rising and falling repetitions, with some very snazzy percussion, to mark the second day. The third day is another variation starting in the bass and rising up before the glittering harmonies of day four. Days five and six are a linked fugue, sort of Bachian, with the piano appearing in the second. A calmer interlude and then back to the beginning.

Witold Lutoslawki’s third symphony is probably his most well known composition. WL’s first symphony came out in 1948 but he was, like any worthwhile composer behind the Iron Curtain, derided by the authorities for “formalism”, which as far as I can make out was anything that wasn’t rum-pum-pom patriotic. WL didn’t return to the symphony until 1965 by which time the world had changed politically and musically. He was a big fan of John Cage’s experiments in chance in music which he embraced as “aleatory counterpoint” in his work, including the second, and this, the third symphony. Never fear folks, it doesn’t mean some knotty, joyless, meandering. Just some passages where some of the orchestral players have a bit of fun as far as I could tell in this performance. (Actually what I have learnt about Cage, which isn’t much I fear, says to me he was a pretty jolly sort).

The original commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra came in 1972 but WL couldn’t find the format he wanted.  In 1981 he alighted on the toccata which sits at the centre of the piece. Another two years and the rest of the work was signed off and delivered. A short prologue precedes the first of the two main movements, the toccata which is divided into three parts, each getting progressively “faster” by stretching out the basic rhythms, and punctuated by slower “intermezzi”. Apparently the Beethovian opening, and oft returning, four note motto is comprised of E naturals. Good to know. Then comes a shorter, slower “movement”, a swirling theme with string offsets. The symphony ends with a rapid coda and tutti. It is played through and comes across as a building of momentum culminating in huge crescendoes which subside and then build again. There is certainly a cosmic dimension which echoes the Ades piece, and like In Seven Days it always stays the right side of the tonality gulf and features some breathtaking instrumentation.

I could imagine that the symphony, even with this structure marked out, could get fuzzy. Not in Mr Ades’s hands though. It is a big leap to compare this performance to his ongoing, and outstanding, Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican, but, because he doesn’t hang about tempo wise, and because he prizes textural clarity over pompous showiness, in both cases, the layers of music are revealed not muddled.

So a big evening marshalled by a big man. There was much to bind the music together in terms of ambition, structure and feel. It normally takes Vladimir Jurowski, and the right repertoire, to bring the very best out of the LPO. He wasn’t missed here.

 

 

Britten’s Spring Symphony from the LSO at the Barbican review ***

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LSO, LSO Chorus, Tiffin Choirs, Sir Simon Rattle, Philip Cobb (trumpet), Gabor Tarkovi (trumpet), Elizabeth Watts, (soprano) Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor)

Barbican Hall, 17th September 2018

  • Harrison Birtwhistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII
  • Gustav Holst – Egdon Heath
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage – Dispelling the Fears
  • Benjamin Britten – Spring Symphony

Now here was an object lesson in not doing one’s homework. Benjamin Britten’s music was my first introduction to the classical world and remains one of my all time fave composers, (mind you the list is pretty short). However, I am not persuaded by all of his work, including, I remembered just that tiniest bit too late, the Spring Symphony. So always check that the piece you think you are going to hear is exactly that at the time of booking and always, especially if it is a work of substance as here, listen to it before attending. Both rules ignored on this occasion in the most spectacularly cavalier fashion.

Still it was the LSO. Under the baton of Sir Simon with the LSO Chorus and the combined Tiffin Choirs, Girls’, Boys’ and Children’s. (BD sadly, saddled with tone deaf parents, was never a contender for the first of these crews). And, in the Spring Symphony, three excellent soloists, two of who I knew, Alice Coote and Elizabeth Watts, and one only by reputation, Allan Clayton. All the voices were superb, there are some tricky vocal pyrotechnics required in certain of the poetic settings, and the logistical challenges of getting everyone on stage (or just in front) were adroitly handled. At points the Barbican Hall stage was stuffed to the gills. Sir Simon really does need that bigger stage.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Russian emigre conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who had earlier sponsored BB’s breakthrough Peter Grimes. As so often, writing it took a lot out of BB, three years from start to finish, on and off. He originally intended to set Latin texts against a symphonic backdrop but, as was BB’s wont, he persuaded himself that English poetry would be bettered suited. When BB sets canonic English poetry on a smaller scale the results can be astonishing, Les Illuminations, the Serenade, the Nocturne, Phaedra and, I reckon, the Cantata misericordium. And obviously the War Requiem shows he was a dab hand with large scale forces. But the Spring Symphony doesn’t quite hang together IMHO, choruses and orchestra sometimes at odds with each other.

It is (just about) discernibly a symphonic structure, a la Mahler, the first part made up of five sections (Spenser, Nashe, Peele, Clare and Milton, with various ideas laid out, the second a slow movement with three settings (Herrick, Vaughan and Auden), the third a scherzo again with three poems (Barnfield, Peele and Blake) set to music and the rousing finale, setting Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Elizabethan paean to the month of May, London, to thee I do present. There is lots of invention, texture and tone throughout, BB avoids throwing the kitchen sink at everything, with many passages of light orchestration, and percussion, harp, certain woodwind and brass, especially trumpets, (a theme throughout the programme), all get a good look in. Since all the poems reference Spring, doh, there are plenty of Spring-ey tunes, but also some darker material; this was a message of hope in the aftermath of War but BB recognised not all was rosy in the European garden. It just isn’t an entirely satisfying whole for me.

Sir Simon has always been a dab hand with BB, even from his days with the CBSO, though this was at the more portentious end of his interpretative spectrum. Still everyone really does seem to be having fun at the LSO and the Chorus now that he as at the helm. So maybe I need to cheer up, raise my game and work a bit harder on this particular piece.

The concert opened with a new brass fanfare from Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, a gift to Sir Simon. It was, literally a blast, with a laugh at the end from the sole tuba. This was followed by an excellent reading of Holst’s Egdon Heath. I have always liked Old Gustav’s second most famous orchestral piece after you know what, (which the BBCSO is trotting out soon accompanied by Prof Brian Cox – interesting). That heady mix of Englishness, Ravellian orchestration and a hint of Eastern mysticism draws you in but it takes a conductor of Sir Simon’s insight to really persuade. It is a bit scary, even from the off, with the growling double basses, I for one wouldn’t want to go anywhere near Hardy’s heath based on this music. An elusive string melody is set alongside a sad processional in the brass and some meandering oboe. It never really lands anywhere despite the echoes of a dance, a simple stepwise, siciliano, and it can appear to go on a bit. Not here though.

Dispelling the Fears written by Mark-Antony Turnage in 1995 creates an atmosphere of urban, rather than rural, unease, led by the two trumpets of the LSO’s principal Philip Cobb and the Berlin Philhamonic’s Gabor Tarkovi. The two played pretty close together for much of the piece, creating some stunning harmonies, especially lower down the register, against the usual MAT cloth of Stravinsky, jazz, a whiff of blues, some earlyish Schoenberg. It is quite furtive, never really breaking out, with constant dissonance emerging from clashing semi-tones. There are a few passages of relative peace but mostly it prods and pokes. Like most of MAT’s work it really works though you are not always initially sure why.

So there we go. The LSO and Sir Simon once again showing off the Best of British. With the slight caveat that this may not actually be the best of the best British composer (with apologies to Purcell and Byrd).