Beethoven Choral Symphony: LSO at the Barbican review *****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey (chorus director), Iwona Sobotka (soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Florian Boesch (baritone)

Barbican Hall, 12th February 2010

Not quite the Tourist’s last Beethoven fix before lockdown. A very dramatic take on various of the piano sonatas from Boris Giltburg was to follow a couple of weeks later, but this, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, was the final live orchestral piece I heard prior to us holing up, somewhat ahead of “Government” “advice”. The sonatas were shared with MSBD: the Choral with MS himself. A fine way to bow out then, hopefully temporarily, in this Beethoven anniversary year. And not just because the Ninth is such an almighty thing, ending with the “Ode to Joy”. Towering achievement is the customary cliche I believe. No, this was also memorable not just because it was the first time my lad had heard it performed live but also because Sir Simon Rattle, who has always nailed Beethoven in the past in my experience, and the LSO, smashed it.

OK so I can imagine, and have seen and heard, better all-round performances, not least from the wizard Haitink and this band in this hall a few years ago. But this was still something special. We opted for the cut-down programme, just the Choral, in the Half Six Fix slot, an initiative I hope the LSO maintains when normality, or some version of it, returns. Which means we missed out on Berg’s Lulu Suite. No pointing pushing my boy too hard and anyway, Lulu works better as opera than orchestral, where Alban’s lush romanticism can dominate at the expense of the quirky dramatic.

Anyway like I say the Beethoven was very, very good. Sir Si, after a little lecture on lessons learnt from past maestros, didn’t rush the Allegro first movement, from the opening crashing chord entries, properly cosmic, into the two themes, and, especially, in the giant coda, all ma non troppo, just like LVB said. Nor in the Scherzo, that marvel of sonata form, based on a racey fugue ,(pinched from the first movement opening), wrapped inside the ternary structure, with the dinky trio, with perky oboe solo from Juliana Koch, and Goughie’s sublime bassoon, in between. Which meant that when we got to the Adagio, I was happy to luxuriant in the vibrating string bubble bath, which is not always the case. I’d guess Rattle clocked in at over a quarter of an hour. I am normally a fan of the HIP close-to-10-minute take per Gardiner, Harnoncourt and Norrington, where the double variation structure doesn’t get lost, but here Rattle got away with it, like Bohm does in the classic VPO recording, (and unlike Rattle’s own recording with the Viennese which is really, really dull).

It was in the final movement though where the LSO and Sir Si really hit the heights. This wasn’t just down to the soloists, all blessed with power, clarity and control, and, for once, perfectly balanced. Or the simply outstanding LSO Chorus, who have never sounded better to my ears. Bravo Simon Halsey. No, it was because the mix of old-skool tempo and phrasing with more up-to-date technique, from the ear-straining pianissimo throb of the cello/bass first entry of the OTJ theme, after the recaps, to the chop-smashing last couple of bars, really paid dividends. Listening now to that very Bohm recording, which builds, and builds, and builds, then releases, and releases, and releases, I get what Rattle was aiming for. A kind of controlled volatility. MS and the other 2000 souls in the Barbican Hall felt it. For once the ovation made sense.

Say what you like. The Choral may be OTT, manipulative, hackneyed, ubiquitous, but, when done well, especially to those of us who like Beethoven’s big bones, there is nothing better. Still firmly on the credit side of the humanity ledger which we are all finding ourselves contemplating right now.

Noseda and the LSO at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Roman Simovic (violin)

Barbican Hall, 9th February 2020

  • Prokofiev – Symphony No 1 in D major Op 25 “Classical”
  • Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No 1 Op 19
  • Mussorgsky arr Rimsky-Korsakov – Prelude to “Khovanshchina”
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 9 in E flat major Op 70

The latest all Russian instalment in the Shostakovich symphony cycle from Principal Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO. Late to the party the Tourist has tuned in to Nos 4, 8 and 6 and mightily persuasive they were too. I confess I am not sure where we are up to or what is left to go, or, obviously, when this might happen. Main concern at the moment is that everyone in both venue and orchestra is safe and that all is intact for when performance returns.

Let’s face it, old Dmitry and his music is not the jolliest. Most obviously the predecessor to this. The Eighth, from 1943 with the Battle of Stalingrad still raw, was written in the face of, and is a testament to, the horror of war. It sounds like it. In 1945, war over, the smart money then was on DSCH coming up with some sort of triumphal victory ode, albeit laced with his characteristic torments, which recognised the immense sacrifice of the Soviet nation and people. And not just to keep the Party bosses onside. He even started work on a grand choral symphony, (this is number 9 after all), but abandoned this and instead came up with the Ninth, a far from heroic, five movement, parodic, tragi-comedy. He claimed it was light touch but, unsurprisingly, the censors baulked and it was added to the Sixth and Eighth, (and the by now forgotten Fourth), as proscribed. “formalist” works.

The opening Allegro kicks off with a light, Haydnesque theme, before a comic polka second theme exposition which is, uniquely for DSCH, repeated, then an angry development, before the polka theme, now darker, returns. There is nothing delightful about the shuffling waltz which follows nor the final three movements, a short-lived shrieking scherzo, a bassoon led Largo which ends in a grotesque march and a sarcastic race-to-the-finish victory parade. Their unbroken structure reflects that of the Eighth, but the impression is more like the stunted circus of the Sixth. It is even shorter clocking in at under half an hour. So much for Stalin and the boys expectation of a rival to Beethoven’s Choral.

Still, even with all of the DSCH expected, and unexpected tics, there is something of the Classical about the Ninth, which makes its pairing with Prokofiev’s own “Classical” symphony satisfying. Both are pretending to toe the line by imitating the acceptable, lightly-scored, face of the musical past. But both are also using this to convey some other meaning. Or are they? After all, DSCH’s and SP’s musical satire, and the bombastic paeans to Soviet greatness by their compliant, less talented, and now forgotten, peers in the Composers’ Union, are surely just notes on a page. Any interpretation, beyond that of the performers, is imposed upon the notes by composer, commentator and audience. What if DSCH was serious when he said about the Ninth “a transparent, pellucid, and bright mood predominates”.

The young Prokofiev said he set out to ape Mozart in his First Symphony. But foreshadowing the neo-classicism of Stravinsky and others, especially with plenty of trademark, spikey dissonances was still a provocative thing to do in some ways in the year of the Revolution. Even so, and accepting that its pure sonata form is more Haydn than Mozart, the Classical is a gem which I, and plenty of others, will never tire of hearing.

I hope to be able to say the same thing about his First Violin Concerto in time. I don’t have a recording of this, also composed in 1917, or its sister from 1935. I probably should. It has some damned fine tunes, inspired by his trip to the great outdoors at that time, before he skipped to the US, as well as epiphany of seeing the Ballet Russes in 1914. It didn’t get performed until 1923 by which time his Puck-ish, musical bad-boy reputation had cemented, so it’s lyricism and easy melodies, especially in the opening movement marked Andantino, are a bit of a surprise. On the other hand with the vibrant scherzo, packed full of extended technique for the soloist, and the tick-tock repetition of the orchestra behind the solo cantabile line in the finale, we are back on a surer SP footing. It is still though an easy listen.

Especially when the soloist, Roman Simovic, and the orchestra are so friendly. For Mr Simovic is their leader and, judging by their appreciation, as well as ours, after the performance, he is very well-liked. Which I think extends to Mr Noseda as well. He doesn’t push either music or orchestra, so that what we get is interpretations of energy and expression without too much softening of the sharp edges which characterise both of these C20 Russian giants. I was a little less persuaded by the Prelude to Khovanshchina but whether this is because even Rimsky-Korsakov couldn’t conjure coherent colour from the, admittedly, bold ideas of the, by then, permanently sh*t-faced Mussorgsky, I know not. I see Shostakovich also offered an arrangement (and Stravinsky and Ravel) but I doubt even this would persuade. I have dipped into that Boris Godunov during lock-down from my already short short-list of operas which might do it for me. It doesn’t.

Mr Noseda certainly knows which of the LSO many fine buttons, especially the woodwind girls and boys, to press with unmannered and intelligible phrasing in the symphonies and unintrusive back-seat driving in the concerto. He may not have much in the way of “natural rhythm” on the podium, think drunk uncle/wedding/Guns N’Roses, but musically he is proving, in this intense repertoire at least, to be best man (see what I did there).

Evgeny Kissin, Beethoven piano sonatas at the Barbican Hall review ***

Evgeny Kissin

Barbican Hall, 6th February 2020

Ludwig van Beethoven

  1. Piano Sonata No 8, Op 13 Pathétique
  2. 15 Variations and a Fugue, Op 35
  3. Piano Sonata No 17, Op 31 No 2 Tempest
  4. Piano Sonata No 21, Op 53 Waldstein
  5. Encore: various Bagatelles Op 126, Op 33, Variations Op 76 and Ecossaise WoO 86

A quick pat-down of the still unruly barnet, bounce up the steps and stride purposely across the stage to the single Steinway piano. Quick bow. No score obvs. Then straight into the sombre beauty of the Pathetique’s Grave introduction, before the dotty rush of the ensuing Allegro, the gorgeous Adagio chorale and then the closing Rondo repeats. Then the Eroica Variations which take that famous opening questioning, slightly arch, melody from the finale of the Third Symphony, and present a half hour of extraordinary variations (15) around it with closing fugue. The highlight for me. The Tempest, with uncertainty the key to the opening’s barrage of arpeggios and trills, the siren song of the Adagio and then the desperate, incessant waves of the closing Allegretto. Finally the Waldstein with the rolling exploration of the mysterious Allegro, the short, equally weird Adagio which never gets going before jumping into the closing Rondo which builds and builds and builds, a symphony dressed up as a sonata. Then more, and more, and more, encores with the Op 76 Variations in D major the standout.

He shuffled off in between, took the tumultuous applause with a few short bows, might have smiled a bit, but otherwise this was another day in the office for Evgeny Kissin. Except that his office is unlike yours. Or any one else’s for that matter. Including those rarefied few engaged in the same profession as him. We have come a long way from the child prodigy, wunderkind, genius, how the f*ck does he do that years, he’s now 47, but to see and hear the Russian-Brit-Israeli maestro is still a fascinating experience. He can do anything he wants with a piano and a score and he makes it look easy. But, as in previous encounters, I can find this a bit numbing. And, in Beethoven especially, in these perfect, middle-ish, sonatas, I think he still adds too much. I want the all of Beethoven’s invention, surprise, technique, but I want to get inside his patterns and structure. It is almost as if, in the cat and mouse of perfect performance, the Kissin cat is just too smart for the Beethoven mouse. Just too good. Mind you I suspect LvB, even in his head, may not of imagined quite what dynamics the modern piano machine can conjure up.

Weird thing to say I know. He is not mannered. Or indulgent. Textures are full but not weighty. He doesn’t add, or subtract. Tempi are overall right. It’s just there is just a little too much polish to the detail. The architecture and line is intact, but I just get overwhelmed by technique. The notes are perfect, the space between them less so.

Still no question I’ll be here next year assuming the programme is even moderately appealing, (not a given with his Romantic leanings), and that science and cooperation have vanquished politics and blame. To hear piano playing of this technical brilliance even if it doesn’t quite convince at the punch in the gut level is still one of life’s great privileges.

Mozart’s Final Flourish: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ivan Fischer (conductor)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2020

Mozart Symphonies Nos 39, 40 and 41

The OAE, like so many of its orchestral peers, is doing a remarkable job in bringing music to us in this troubling times. All with a solidly educational bent, befitting an ensemble which has followed its own path, keen to bring historically informed performance and repertoire, (and now much more), to as broad an audience as possible since it was founded in 1986. Take a look. And while you are at it see what the LSO, Berlin Phil, LPO, London Sinfonietta, Aurora Orchestra, Wigmore Hall and others are up to. Loads of archive, and even, socially distanced, recent, performances. Let me know what else you have found.

Oh and don’t get me started all on the opportunities to buff up on opera. Most of it isn’t for me but if you are keen on your Verdi, Puccini or Wagner, you are spoilt for choice. OperaVision, Marquee TV, the streams from the Met, the Royal Opera House, Vienna State Opera, as well as the Dutch National Opera, Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, La Monnaie, Bayerische StaatsOper, Deutsche Oper Berlin and our own Garsington Opera. They may be more. So far my lockdown viewing has only extended as far as the Aldeburgh Peter Grimes on the Beach, the Glyndeboure Fairy Queen and the ROH Gloriana. And best of all the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra semi-staged trilogy under Sir John Eliot Gardiner from La Fenice. Spell binding.

Anyway from a purely music perspective then it’s hard to beat the Concertgebouw archive,, whether the Orchestra itself or the venue website. I am currently thoroughly enjoying the Beethoven symphony cycle with the venerable ensemble under the baton of guest conductor Ivan Fischer. Rich interpretations and even digitally mediated the vibrant sound of orchestra and venue is palpable.

Ivan Fischer also acts as one of the Principal Artist conductors for the OAE, (when he isn’t working with the ensemble he founded back in 1983, the Budapest Festival Orchestra). And here was a programme of the last three great Mozart symphonies played in one grand sweep, though with an invitation from the urbane Mr Fischer between movements, which the audience was happy to accept. There was an interval half way through No 40 but the idea, not altogether successful, was to highlight the links between symphonies and movements. Ivan Fischer picked up the notion of seeing and hearing the three symphonies as a whole came from his mentor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, so who am I to argue. All the interruptions however seemed to me to dispel rather than support the theory.

They were all written in quick succession in the summer of 1788, without a commission, at a time when, allegedly, Mozart was even more brassic than usual. The level of invention, even by Wolfgang’s high standards, is astounding, instrumentation pushed to its limits, and structurally they are all similarly orthodox, only hinting at the risks that LvB was to take less than a couple of decades later. The differences however are still profound. No 39 is more understated, often deceptively simple, but very satisfying, No 40, along with No 25 the only one of WAM’s symphonies in a minor key, dials up the Haydn-esque Sturm und Drang emotion, with No 41, Jupiter, in more heroic vein, straining at the leash of the possible whilst still, in the still gob-smacking finale, (however many times you hear it), echoing the contrapuntal wizardry of the past especially JSB.

The OAE and Mr Fischer created a perfectly agreeable interpretation of the works without them ever seeming to catch fire and there were a few issues with balance and dynamics, (the QEH suits this orchestra better than the RFH), with the woodwind seeming to recede. Having said that I recall this orchestra playing this repertoire in this space a few years ago under another guest conductor, Sir Simon Rattle. I don’t always get on with his gigs, but this one was a triumph.

Beethoven Weekender at the Barbican review

Beethoven Weekender

“This could be the closest thing to heaven …. “. No not the Tears for Fears dirge from 2004 but one of the many fine singles from the vastly under-rated, and alas short-lived, Kane Gang from 1984. The KG, along with the magnificent Prefab Sprout, and the rather less remembered and post-punky Daintees, at least in my mind, were the apogee of the early 80s British pop/blue eyed soul bands hailing from the North East’s Kitchenware Records in the 1980s. Rich melodies, lush production, and often orchestration, skilled song-writing.. What has this got to do with Beethoven I hear you cry. Well nothing actually. It is just this was the song that popped into my head as I enjoyed a fine fry up for lunch courtesy of Fast Break on Day 1 of the Barbican Beethoven Weekender in early February. Plainly I was in a good mood.

Obviously the celebration of the 250th year since Beethoven’s birth has now been put on hold during these troubled times. (The Tourist had intended to take in Bonn on his Spring train break). Once again I apologise for rabbiting on about a classical music gig from many weeks ago when there is so much more of import going on around us. However I was able to attend a smattering of Beethoven programmes prior to the lockdown taking effect but frankly nothing came close to this offering from the Barbican. All the symphonies, courtesy of some of the UK’s finest orchestras based outside London, interspersed with other, well thought through and informative contributions featuring bits and pieces of LvB’s piano, quartet and violin chamber works, alongside some other, moreorless quirky, responses made up this excellent Festival. And all for just £45. That’s right. The greatest music ever written, (in the Western art canon at least), spread over two full days with change from a bullseye.

I was very taken with the exhibits, ear trumpets, the great man’s violin, the Warhol print, drawn from the Beethoven Haus collection in Bonn, with the Beethoven Bites contributions from various young composers and performers, many drawn from the ranks of the Guildhall School, and Matthew Herbert’s deconstruction/ reconstruction of the Ninth, especially Together, which takes 30 or so recordings of the third movement and plays them simultaneously to the same time frame. This shows how performance can differ, not just in tempo, but also in tuning, pitch, recording technique, dynamics.

Christopher Park’s readings of various of the Bagatelles at St Luke’s Old Street was surprisingly involving, despite the always interesting interruptions by Gerald McBurney reading eye witness accounts of LvB’s playing (and scheming). Daniel Sepec is the only musician (I think) entrusted with playing Beethoven’s own fiddle, and he was joined in Milton Court by Tobias Schabenberger (fortepiano), Taj Murray (violin) and Silke Avenhaus (piano) for extracts from early violin sonatas and the Kreutzer. The Beeb’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch paid tribute to George Bridgewater, the Afro-European musician who inspired LvB’s greatest sonata and was its original dedicatee. And the marvellous Carducci Quartet, in the Pit, were joined by uber-luvvie Simon Callow for intense extracts from various string quartets interspersed with letters from LvB, to family, to collaborators, and, of course, his Immortal Beloved. Now Mr Callow is rightly renowned for his ability to put us through the emotional wringer, but, from my perch very close to him, I can confirm the old boy shed a real tear or two. Terrific.

Still it’s the Symphonies that put the meat on the bones of this celebration and I can report that we were treated to performances of the highest quality, all brought together with enthusiastic wisdom from uber Beethoven fan-boy John Suchet. I won’t babble on about the works themselves or the detail of the performances. All I can say is that I need to get out, of London, more. Although, based on the stunning interpretation of the Fifth and Sixth from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic *****, Liverpool’s (and Oslo’s) loss will be London’s gain when the young(ish) Russian comes permanently to the Royal Philharmonic. I expected much and wasn’t disappointed. If there is a better way to spend a Saturday morning then you had better tell me.

Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia **** (finally there is a connection with Newcastle) put everything and more into the Seventh and Eighth, and jst about edged Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Orchestra’s **** more thoughtful takes on the Second and Fourth. But this may reflect my preference for Seven and Eight in the pecking order. The programme notes certainly don’t imply that Ms Gražinytė-Tyla thought that she was in any way getting the short straw with Two and Four and the performances were testament to this. I think I am right in saying that she has shaken off you know what. A good reason to explore some of the good stuff the CBSO has posted up to take us through the coming weeks/months, including the documentary about their gifted musical director prodigy.

In fact the riches that the world’s orchestras have offered up in the past few weeks have to be seen and heard to be believed. The Concertgebouw probably takes the biscuit, I have started working my way through the Ivan Fischer Beethoven cycle, but take a look too at the offers from the Berlin Philharmonie, the LSO, the LPO, Wigmore Hall, the BRSO and, my favourite so far, the Monteverdi Orchestra and Choir. And, at this rate, no one will ever enter an opera house again. Just kidding but there is a lot to see for free right now. Though not for free as all us privileged types should be financially supporting our cultural institutions right now, as well, of course as those in the front line, and less fortunate than ourselves.

Anyway Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra *** were quite able to match the RCO in their performance of the Eroica, which got a little muddled in the development of the opening Allegro con brio and in some of the variations in the Finale, though their interpretation of the First more than passed muster. I have to say though that the least convincing interpretation in the cycle was the closing Ninth from the Halle Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder ***. Sopranos Elizabeth Watts and Sarah Castle were bulldozed a little, the balance between orchestra and chorus didn’t feel right and the tempi overall were too measured for me especially in the slow movement. Still it’s the Choral, it capped an amazing couple of days and I still went home happily humming the Ode to Joy.

Something to hang on to until this is all over.

PS. The programme notes to accompany the Weekender are excellent BTW. To the point essays on Beethoven’s various disappointments in life (family, love and deafness), his idealist politics, his cultural impact and some wham bam notes on the symphonies.

OAE at the Royal Festival Hall review

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Roger Norrington (conductor)

Royal Festival Hall, 28th January 2020

Beethoven – Symphonies Nos 2 and 3

The Tourist has signed up for a lot of Beethoven this year. And already enjoyed many performances from many different ensembles with many different interpretations. Most of the central piano, chamber, string quartet, choral and orchestral repertoire is getting an outing, even some of the lesser known works. LvB has 138 Opus number attributions, (some with multiple parts), but once you strip out the early chamber music, the songs, (where his facility was less assured), some choral misfires, the interminable rewrites of Fidelio and piano ephemera, less than half of these get a regular airing. And that is before the various chamber, piano, miniatures, dances, vocal, choral and so on works not assigned an Opus number (WoO, Anh, Unv, Hess and Bia, to represent the various musicologist’s classifications), as well as fragments, ideas and intentions.

Not much of this, if any, will see the light of day even in this momentous year but the one thing we won’t run short of is the symphonies. (I know, I know. Covid-19 may have something to say about that but what can I do.) What is heartening to see is that the less performed symphonies, though this is a relative call as they are not too hard to find even in non-anniversary years, are cropping up frequently.

The debt to Haydn in No 1 is not concealed but there is already much of Beethoven here, sforzandi accents, tonal shifts and more wind, 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. It starts with a musical “joke”, though not a belly laugh to be fair, a series of chords in the “wrong” key, obeys sonata form throughout but chooses to expand and contract sections more wilfully than Papa Haydn and asks for faster tempi than predecessors. It is easy on the ear, definitively Classical but still recognisably Beethoven

A quick word on No 8 which has also not been given its due historically. In F major and relatively short, it is undeniably upbeat, but full of interesting ideas, consistent with the shock, awe and invention of its three predecessors, almost a retrospective before the final symphonic roll of the dice that was to come. The climax comes early in the first movement, the second is a metronomic slow movement played fast, the third is a kind of yokel’s minuet from three decades previous and the rondo finale is as remarkable as anything our man ever wrote.

No 4 is just wildly under-appreciated. From the comic ghostly hover at the opening through the look-at-me bop, complete with wind jam, the first movement is up there with his best, and doesn’t go on too long. The second is a squeezebox, slowed-down rondo, which shows just how much LvB could do with, ostensibly, so little. In the third movement LvB again takes the minuet form, speeds it up into a zig-zaggy scherzo, which thrice wraps around a hesitant trio. The perpetuum mobile finale is a fast, but not too fast, race to the finish line, as “unbuttoned” to use Beethoven’s own phrase as the madcap end of the 7th. I guess the problem is that doesn’t really go in for the deep, thick, heroic stuff of 3 and 5 but there is still something hyper and uneasy through the whole of the symphony, and a lot of ideas.

So to No 2. In the hands of Sir Rog and the OAE. Who played it a few years ago in this very hall, when I was still trying to convert the SO to the joys of LvB. (She famously whipped out a novel on that occasion, snuck-ed into the programme). It impressed then and did so again.

It dates from LvB’s time in Heiligenstadt in 1802, (though the first sketches date from 1800), and premiered in Vienna in 1803. Like the other, lesser even numbered, it just needs a good listen to, though it isn’t, I admit, quite as convincing as 4 and 8. The first movement, post its opening ta-da, exhausts its first theme, the second movement, larghetto, is one of LvB’s longest slow movements, very lovely, but a bit syrupy. The scherzo, is exactly that, a joke, a drunken dance. The finale has some exquisite string writing but doesn’t quite offer enough serious yin to the comedy yang of the preceding movements. In short the whole is a bit too jolly compared to what was to come. Surprising given just how much pain the old boy was in.

As with the Eroica Sir Rog wants us to have a good time, encouraging between movement applause and given he commands the OAE to get a move on, this works for No 2 if less for No 3. This briskness, and Sir Rog’s animated conducting, even from his trademark swivel chair, he is 86 after all, does occasionally mean a loss of focus but it does spread the joy. And whilst the tuned up wind, the absence of vibrato, the quivery brass, the thwack of the timpani, the sheer pace, may now no longer surprise, he and his HIP peers have been at this for near four decades now, it still remind us exactly why No 3 changed the direction of music. Fresh out of the box.

Igor Levit plays Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues at the Barbican review *****

Igor Levit

Barbican Hall, 26th January 2020

Dmitri Shostakovich – 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87

If you going to be inspired by anyone to write a monumental piano piece than JS Bach is a good place to start, specifically his Well Tempered Clavier collection of 48 Preludes and Fugues. Like Bach DSCH created a purely musical structure, with no explicit or implicit narrative or meaning. Unlike Bach he did not adhere to a strict arrangement of parallel major/minors pairs ascending the chromatic scale, though all the keys of the scale are represented as both free-form prelude (like Chopin’s Op 28) and strucured fugue, and follow the logic of the circle of fifths (again like Chopin). However these vary in mood, pace, length and complexity, some barely a minute long, others like the rolling no 16 fugue (easily confused by me for a prelude) runs to 10 minutes, some, like fugue no 9 for just two voices, whilst no 13 is a dazzling five. DSCH refers to, and quotes from, JSB at various points (as well as other Baroque tropes) to amplify the debt, and, of course, this wouldn’t be DSCH if he didn’t quote himself at times.

The work was composed in winter 1950/51 after DSCH had attended a Bach musical festival in Leipzig where he judged the piano competition won by his compatriot the 26 yo Tatiana Nikolayeva. Inspired and impressed DSCH dedicated 24 P&F to her and she premiered the work publicly in Leningrad in 1952. Prior to this DSCH had to get it through the Union of Composers who predictably managed to find fault, thinking it glum and morbid, viewing the fugue as a Western, archaic form and objecting to the dissonance in many of the episodes. Still there was now only a year or so to go before Stalin died and the pressure on DSCH started to lift.

The benchmark recording, from Hyperion, is by Ms Nikolayeva herself, who, even after she was able to travel to the West, pretty much exclusively focussed on Bach and DSCH, with a bit of Beethoven thrown in. On fact it was the very last piece she played just before her death in 1992. She recorded the work in its entirety on three other occasions and others had since had a pop at it, Ashkenazy, Donohoe, Konstantin Scherbakov, even Keith Jarrett, but, because of its length, demands and style, many have also avoided it, or just recorded a selection (Richter and old Dmitri himself though plainly not because he hadn’t mastered it!). I had be looking to acquire the recent recording by Alexander Melnikov for whom I have an inordinate amount of time, but, after this astonishing interpretation from Igor Levit I might wait to see if he commits piano to recording studio.

There are those who diss DSCH’s P&F as just sketches for his larger scale works, yeah like which composer doesn’t have an overarching sound, or as just pastiche Bach. Plainly bollocks and maybe reflecting the fact that it hasn’t been oft recorded and requires a deal of effort and concentration from performer. Like I say the extracts I have heard Mr Melnikov play impressed but hearing the whole thing, near three hours even before a couple of intervals, was extraordinary. IL has a penchant for big, structured, piano works, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Ronald Stevenson’s 80 minute uninterrupted Passacaglia on DSCH, yep dedicated to you know who, and I was confident from hearing his way with Beethoven that I would likely enjoy this. But even so I was massively surprised by just how much detail and emotion he brought out in the music, to se alongside its obvious intellect, power and character.

Mr Levit has a big fan club amongst those that know and it isn’t difficult to see why. Hunched over the keyboard, all coiled intensity, fingers flashing, pounding keys, limiting use of the pedals, (though the stage floor took a n occasional pounding) which made the polyphony at times even more remarkable, building and then resolving tension, the architecture of each P&F articulated but without losing sight of the details. From the tranquil C major opening through to the triumphant, with caveat, D major final pairing, I was knackered by the end so goodness how drained IL felt. It must have taken a few glasses of Margaux to come down from that.

I don’t hold with this standing ovation nonsense for anything seen on stage. This time though no question. For exceptional artistry as well as phenomenal stamina.

Christ on the Mount of Olives: LSO at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Elsa Dreisig (soprano), Pavol Breslik (tenor), David Soar (bass), London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey (chorus director)

Barbican Hall, 19th January 2020

  • Berg – Violin Concerto
  • Beethoven – Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op 85

After a somewhat disappointing take on the Seventh Symphony paired with Berg’s Seven Early Songs just a few days previously, and, given the reputation of oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives as a somewhat lesser work from the pen of our Ludwig, the Tourist approached this concert with some trepidation. I have heard the piece but don’t own a recording and cannot claim to know it at all. Well, turns out it’s a belter. Fair enough its not the Missa Solemnis or the Mass in C major (which I happen to prefer), and there are a few routine, by Beethoven’s standards, passages but there are some sublime musical ideas and plenty of drama. Maybe not quite up there with Haydn’s oratorios but running closer than you might think.

LvB started writing Christus am Ölberge, to give it its German title, in 1802 just after he had written the harrowing Heiligenstadt Testament, and was first performed in 1803, though not published until 1811.The libretto comes from poet Franz Xaver Huber, and, in a very human way, deals with the agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest. The tenor takes the role of Jesus, the bass Peter and the soprano a seraph. Even after Christian Schreiber was enlisted to make significant changes to the libretto LvB wasn’t happy with the text, and opinion then and since has tended to look down on the overall tone and structure of the oratorio, with the exception of the gut busting Welten signen choral finale.

The piece suited Sir Simon’s sense of the dramatic and his ability to shape individual sections. Some of the solo and choral parts are really sensational, and, with the LSO seeming to relish the novelty, the orchestral writing was similarly striking. It kicks off with a call to action from the trombones before Pavel Breslik’s vivid tenor sets out Christ’s plaintive plea to God. This was followed by Elsa Dreisig’s lovely soprano, truly angelic, and then the chorus stiffening his resolve. David Soar’s bass in truth doesn’t get much of a look in and the chorus, as soldiers, disciples and the like only really get going in the second half of the story. But, when the LSO Chorus is finally unleashed, all 145 of them, the effect was magical.

Whilst I get why Sir Si whats to showcase as much Berg as he can, him being a fave composer of his, and the Violin Concerto is, similarly a tempting morsel, actually full four course meal with the two movements each divided into two sections, the prelude, then scherzo, the cadenza and finally chorale variations. Indeed when Sir Si was still in Berlin he came over a couple of years back to take it on with the LSO, though then with the peerless Isabelle Faust on the fiddle. That was a triumph as soloist and orchestra made sense of Berg’s most compelling exercise in reconciling romantic diatonicism with twelve note serialism. Here orchestra, conductor and soloist, Lisa Batiashvili, weren’t always quite on the same page, though it was impossible to fault Ms B’s articulate playing which went easy on the vibrato and always sensed the sharp dance that underpin’s Bartok’s tunes.

P.S. Anyone who is anyone in the Western art canon has had a stab at Christ in the Mount of Olives so plenty of choice for the pic above. Though I would give you some Goya though, just because I am, what with all this global misery, going through a bit of a Goya phase right now.

Accademia Bizantina at Milton Court review *****

Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone (director)

Milton Court Concert Hall, 19th January 2020

Bach the Craftsman: The Art of Fugue

In which, as part of a Bach weekend curated by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, Ottavio Dantone and his troupe of crack HIP strings play the Art of Fugue. I should probably stop there as there isn’t anything to add really. It is the genius of JSB applied to the musical form that most reveals his genius, the fugue. A theme, the “subject” is heard in one “voice”, then repeated in imitation at different pitches in subsequent lines, before being developed, then returning to the subject in the tonic key. In this case served up 16 ways with a handful of canons thrown in at the end for good measure. With the greatest …… ending in artistic history.

To be played on harpsichord (for the very skilled and very brave), piano, quartet, or as here, expanded strings alongside harpsichord and diddy organ, 13 souls in total. Take your pick, though you would be hard pressed to top this version, which allows everyone line to be head and creates some surprising sonorities. AB were founded in the glorious city of Ravenna, M. Dantone joined in 1989, becoming music director in 1996, and they are amongst the foremost performers of Italian Baroque operas. My regular readers will know that I am a big fan of the rock’n’roll approach these Italian outfits take to their Baroque forebears. To hear them treat Bach’s prayer, for that is what it is, in the same way was simply thrilling. Ottavio Dantone is plainly a genius.

No better way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Horn Calls: Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Richard Watkins (horn), Allan Clayton (tenor)

Royal Festival Hall, 16th January 2020

  • Carl Maria von Weber – Overture Der Freischütz
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage – Horn Concerto (Towards Alba)
  • Benjamin Britten – Serenade for tenor, horn & strings
  • Richard Strauss – Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche

Broke the golden rule. It is bad enough that I inflict this shite upon you and join all the other narcissists clogging up the Interweb and generally adding to the carbon burden. But I had resolved not to comment on anything that I had not sat all the way through. Notes for my own consumption but never yours. Here though I felt compelled to announce just how marvellous a concert this was. Despite walking out after the Britten Serenade and thereby avoiding the Strauss. Which, as it happens, I have heard live a couple of times and loathed. Another bloke in the lift on the way down adopted the same strategy. Why sully the perfect?

For I cannot imagine much better that this take on one of BB’s most sublime, and rightly popular, compositions. Comparable with the composers own versions surely. I might have guessed that Allan Clayton’s tenor is the perfect instrument for the work but how good is that Richard Watkins. He used to be principal horn for the PO, so he was surrounded by plenty of mates and presumably was attuned to Esa-Pekka’s no messing, forceful take on the work, even if he left before the Finnish maestro came to London. (Apparently E-P S, to add to his many talents, is a dab hand himself on the horn). He now works as a soloist fronting the London Winds and is a member of the Nash Ensemble. Every note was delivered exactly as I imagined BB composed it for the mercurial talent of Dennis Brain, the orchestra’s first principal player. The horn, let’s face it, when it enters its expanded harmonic world, is about the most thrilling, note for note, instrument in the orchestra. Obvs you can have too much of a good thing, but not here.

Which makes Mark-A T’s achievement in this world premiere of his own Horn Concerto that much more remarkable. He has always created contemporary classic music of real immediacy, but here, commissioned by Richard Watkins himself, he channels the German romantic horn tradition, of which Weber was a part, through the horn tributes of the English composing generation prior to him, Tippett, Colin Matthews, Oliver Knussen, and of course Britten himself, whilst still keeping his trademark jazzy syncopations and Stravinskian rhythms. BB’s piece, doh, is a paean to the night, setting those exquisite English texts through the ages, to faultless musical ideas, concentrated and not as flashy as some of his stuff. M-A T, in contrast, is all about the sunrise and the coming day. Alba in olde English meant “a call to the end of the night and beginning of the day”.

The so titled brief opening movement has lots of chirpy orchestral lines bouncing off the horn but, never thickens or overwhelms. The slow second movement is inspired by a late Larkin poem, Aubade, a morning serenade, in which the fear of mortality engendered by sleepless nights is banished by the light and the normality of the working day. The horn is the lyrical and bluesy expressive voice set against some beautiful, lower resister, string writing, punctuated with sustained low pedal points. The finale is also drawn from a poem, John Donne’s The Sun Rising, exactly the poet you want to mirror BB’s own choices, and does exactly what it says on the tin. M-A T offers up dense, chromatic, contrapuntal chords over which the horn soars.

Can’t remember the Weber and, like I say, no interest in the Strauss. But this was sublime and I expect Towards Alba to provide plenty of work for Mr Watkins, and others, in years to come. A fitting tribute maybe to another brilliant exponent of the French horn, Australian Barry Tuckwell, who sadly passed away on this very evening. I see Messrs Watkins and Clayton have recorded BB’s Serenade with the Aldeburgh Strings. Time to buy I think and set alongside BB’s own recording which featured Mr Tuckwell on peerless form and Peter Pears, later on his career, was marginally less the mannered English toff.