Lucie Horsch and the AAM at Milton Court review *****

Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr (harpsichord, director), Lucie Horsch (recorder) 

Milton Court Concert Hall, 24th February 2019

  • Antonio Vivaldi – Flautino Concerto in C major, RV443 (arr in G major for recorder)
  • JS Bach – Harpsichord Concerto No 3 in D major BW V1054
  • Giuseppe Sammartini – Recorder Concerto in F major
  • JS Bach – ‘Erbame Dich’ from St Matthew Passion
  • JS Bach – Oboe Concerto in D minor BWV1059r (arr for recorder)
  • JS Bach – Concerto for Harpsichord No 7 in G minor BWV1058
  • Antonio Vivaldi – Flute Concerto in G minor ‘La Notte’, Op 10 No 2 RV104

Lucie Horsch is just 19 years old. That’s her above, at 14 when she appeared in the Eurovision Young Musician festival. Her first recording of Vivaldi came when she was just 16. Now she may not be a household name outside the world of Baroque music and probably never will be given her choice of instrument, the recorder, but inside that select, (though I think widening), club she is a sensation. The recorder is a tricky instrument to play and to hear. Not in the lads of Ms Horsch. She is simply an astonishing musician. I haven’t heard anyone come close to the articulation, beauty, control and variation of sound that she achieves on these instruments. And her virtuosity in some of the faster passages on show in this concert was dazzling. Richard Egarr and the rest of the AAM, unsurprisingly, looked as pleased as punch throughout.

Now to be fair young Lucie started off with a few advantages. Mum and Dad are professional cellists, Dad with the Concetgebouw. Though perhaps this makes it more surprising that she stuck with the recorder, the “beginners” instrument. Mind you this beginner never even managed to master the basics, his music teacher quietly suggesting to his mother at age 10 that young Michael might want to stick to his books.

Anyway lucky for us that Ms Horsch decided she liked the sound and the immediacy of the connection between this “simple” instrument and performer. Of course the recorder doesn’t have too much in the way of “standard” repertoire beyond the Baroque and as the “pastoral”cue in early operas. There are a few Classical offerings and even one or two later works but generally there is none of the interminable showy sh*te from the Romantic and early C20. The technology of woodwind moved up a gear in the second half of the C18, the concerto became an ever blowsier conversation between soloist and orchestra and the textures of chamber music became more complex.

Go back in time though and it is time for the recorder to shine. Early and Renaissance music is brimful of the little fella, whether in instrumental ensembles or consorts, in dance music or as an accompaniment to voices. It is the Baroque though that shows the recorder at its most virtuosistic with the Vivaldi and Sammartini pieces on show here somewhere near the top of the pile. And this is not just one recorder. Ms Horsch is equally adept across the size range, sopranino, descant, treble and tenor. Mid C20, and some contemporary, composers have explored the unique sound of the instrument, technology has expanded the range and Baroque and earlier specialists are discovering new scores and arranging existing works, as here, for the humble recorder.

Vivaldi’s RV443 is just such an arrangement having been written for a flautino, though frankly it matters little since this is effectively the C17 version of the sopranino recorder. In this performance though the key was shifted down to the less stratospheric G major from the original C minor. This is the Baroque party piece for recorder (and piccolo) players with its lilting Largo monologue framed by showpiece brisk Allegro movements with dazzling solo parts. In the first movement the soloists chimes in with and unbroken string of 84 eighth notes! And that’s just for starters. The final movement calls for a seemingly never-ending run of triplets. Even by AV’s standards this is intoxicating stuff. He wrote a couple more concertos for flautino, RVs 444 and 445 as well as two specifically for recorder RVs 441 and 442. This though is the Daddy and there are literally billions of recordings HIP and not so HIP. I doubt I will hear a better live version that Lucie Horsch’s however. I have no idea where she gets the puff from.

The other Vivaldi concerto in this programme is also a staple. RV439 is one of the six flute concertos which make up ABV’s published Opus 10 from 1728/29. It was printed by the Roger firm in Amsterdam, which first brought out the Op 3 L’Estro Armonico, though a second version was also printed in Venice for recorder for which it will have likely been originally scored with a chamber accompaniment, 2 violins, bassoon and continuo, R10 4. This is explains its suite-like structure with six, blink and you’ll miss ’em, movements. La Notte is the night in Italian, hence the second title of the rapid second movement Fantasmi or ghosts, (though they seem quite playful spirits), and the slow fifth movement il Sonno, sleep. The first movement is a staccato affair, a sort of nodding off, the central Presto has a touch of the REM (dreams not band) flickers about it, and the finale turns very perky, showing off Ms Horsch’s skills to great effect.

Giuseppe Francesco Gaspare Melchiorre Baldassare Sammartini (1695-1750) was renowned in his lifetime as a wind performer, (musical not flatulist, a performance style I for one would like to see revived), notably the oboe, but I can also testify to the invention of his recorder concentre compositions of which this is by far the most well known. There may not be too much to distinguish the accompaniment but as a workout for the recorder player this is up there with Vivaldi, though with more variation and less reliance on repeated arpeggios and the like. Now we must be careful not to confuse Giuseppe with younger brother Giovanni, also a composer and oboist, who was one of the precursors of the galant Classical style, taught Gluck, counted JC Bach as a fan and influenced Haydn through his concert symphonies which are definitely worth a listen, (if only as musical history lessons). It helped the brothers that Dad was a professional French oboist.

Giuseppe wasn’t quite as forward thinking as little bro’ but there is still plenty to admire in his late Baroque/proto-Classical grooves. Outside of the concertos there is plenty of action for the recorder in his sonatas and trios. He kicked off his career in Milan but it took off when he moved to London and the court of Freddy Prince of Wales. Handel no less considered him the greatest oboist ever. (Note to the gammons. You see that those bloody foreigners have been coming over here and stealing your jobs for centuries. Musicians, composers, even the bloody royal family. Worth thinking about, should you ever choose to think, when you are humming the Hallelujah chorus. Actually scrub that. Most gammons in my limited experience couldn’t give a flying f*ck about classical music. Nor culture in general. One reason why they are always so bloody angry about everything especially the very Brexit they craved).

Or maybe they are angry because the Germans got all the best tunes. Well specifically Beethoven and JS Bach. Here were a few of them. Ms Horsch took a well deserved breather when Richard Egarr took centre stage, (actually this is when his harpsichord was moved side on), for a couple of JSB’s harpsichord concertos. In 1713 whilst working at the Weimar court you Bach was assigned the tasking of making keyboard transcriptions of some Italian concertos including 10 by Vivaldi himself. This was the wellspring from which much of his Italianate instrumental music emerged with the harpsichord concertos first performed in the 1730s at his weekly jams in Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum. These two started life as violin concertos and the original scores have no tempo markings. So nothing to stand in the way of Mr Egarr cranking up the rhythm and fiddling with his stops and couplers (don’t ask).

You probably know “Erbame dich” – Have mercy – from the St Matthew Passion with its violin lament supporting the singer’s teary plea to God. St Peter breaking down after his triple denial of Jesus. Here the instrumental version. led by Bojan Cicic’s expressive violin, was effective but lost a little bit by being taken out of context and “de-lyricised”.

So that just leaves JSB’s BWV 1059r. Now pay attention. This is the final one of the eight harpsichord concertos, a companion to nos 3 and 7 above. Except that this only survived as fragments so had to be reconstructed to create an oboe concerto. Utilising the two instrumental outer movements of BWV 35, the cantata Geist und Seele vird verwirret which have long passages of keyboard writing, which probably came from a concerto which might have been written for oboe. And some bars repurposed from another cantata BWV 156. Oh and the slow central movement of the three, (the first has no tempo guidance), is pilfered from an oboe concerto by Venetian composer Alessandro Marcello (also worth a listen) which JSB came across in his Weimar days, see above.

And here the oboe part was arranged for recorder. Confused? I’m not surprised. That’s what happens when composers have to churn out new works for money. Which JSB certainly had to do. No wonder he reused his back catalogue. And if we don’t have the original scores there is more room for interpretation and scholarship. Most of the harpsichord concertos started off somewhere else.

It matters here because this concerto, however arrived at, has some mighty fine riffs even by JSB’s standards. I didn’t know it at all. I liked it a lot, Which probably won’t come as a great surprise to you. As did my new companion, MSBDOB, newly returned to London and keen to hear some tip top playing. This was a fortuitous start methinks.

The beauty of the recorder sound is the connection between player and sound. There isn’t much between their breath and what hits your ears. This vulnerability and innocence, if you will, is also what makes it a sometimes awkward listen. In the best hands though, including these, it is a sublime experience. Lucie Horsch will surely get better with experience and when whatever tosser of a record company executive can no longer surround her with all that sexist, gamine, prodigy sh*te that the classical music world is riddled with.


Philippe Herreweghe and Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor),
Bertrand Chamayou (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 21st February 2019

  • JS Bach – Orchestral Suite No.3 in D
  • Mozart – Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K.488
  • Mozart – Symphony No.41 (Jupiter) 

A rare opportunity to hear modern instruments tackle some core Baroque and Classical orchestral repertoire in an HIP style, which, when it works, can a thrilling musical experience. But here the Philharmonia was under the baton of not just any old conductor but one of the founding fathers of historically informed performance in the guise of Belgian maestro, and Jonathan Pryce look-a-like, Philippe Herreweghe.

Mr Herreweghe is the Artistic Director of the renowned Collegium Vocale Gent which he founded in 1970 whilst studying at the music conservatory in his native Ghent. It didn’t take long before the HIP world stood up and took notice of PH’s authentic and enthusiastic way with the Baroque, especially Bach, and recordings, for example of the Bach cantatas, with the likes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, soon followed. In 1977 PH also founded the La Chapelle Royale to focus on the French Baroque, the likes of Lully and Charpentier, and he has subsequently branched out into other eras and other ensembles (he is principal conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic), but it is his JS Bach interpretations which garner most praise. Generally, if he is the conductor on a recommended recording, you can safely take the plunge. If it is a Bach recording you would be daft not to.

BTW for those Brits who have never been to Ghent – more fool you. Leave St Pancras mid morning and you can still be there for lunch. Easy stroll around the centre taking in a couple of Gothic church crackers, a Belfry (with lift), a C10 castle, the Graslei medieval houses lining the canal – boat trip mandatory, a couple of supernatural art galleries (MSK if, like the Tourist you are drawn to early Flemish and first half of the C20, and the Contemporary Art Museum), two vouchsafed decent hotels (Marriott and Pillows Grand Reylof), some very tidy trough (with a fair few Michelin stars scattered throughout), lashings of great beer and, best of all, the greatest painting ever, the Van Eyck boys’ Adoration of the Lamb. Busy, but not as nuts as Bruges. The city is gearing up for a van Eyck celebration next year. So off you trot.

Now the Collegium Vocale Gent is a regular, if not frequent, visitor to London. They are over for a Bach B Minor Mass on 14th June at the Barbican. There are still plenty of tickets left. So go on, treat yourself. I also see they are taking the Glass opera, Einstein on the Beach, on a tour around the Low Countries. Crikey.

Prior to that though PH put a stripped back PO, and an excellent young French pianist in the shape of Bertrand Chamayou, through its paces. In fact prior to that a string quartet led by PO violinist Adrian Varela offered a free concert of Bach transcriptions (two Bach chorals, BMV 269 and 86, two Art of Fugue Contrapuntuses, is that the plural?), Stravinsky’s Concertino and the suite Punta del Este, from Argentinian, Aster Piazzolla, which was as good as it sounds.

Only four orchestral suites by JSB survive, in contrast to the 100 or more from composition whirlwind Telemann. They likely date from the Cothen years, written for Prince Leopold, and are some of the funkiest grooves the old boy ever laid down. They all begin with a lengthy overture followed by a series of dance movements; so French in structure if not always in sound. The overture of No 3 itself is French style, a slow stately D major opening, then a rapid, dotty fugue before a short reprise. Number three augments strings and woodwinds with timpani and three trumpets, which gives the first idea an Handelian majesty which suits the modern orchestra. JSB wastes no time shifting to the running semiquavers of the fugue which follows. You may well know the overture. If you don’t you will know the Air which follows, “On a G string”. It may be ubiquitous but it is still special. No Bach, no symphonic slow movements. The Gavotte, a courtly knees up, which follows is in two parts. Things heat up in the scrabbling Bouree which follows, but it is the final Gigue which takes us back to the jollity of the opening, trumpets blazing.

Now your man PH doesn’t hang around. Brisk is the usually ascribed epithet. Suits me. But with no dawdling or vibrato to hide behind this called for precision from the PO. Which they delivered. This sharp, clean sound, with steel in the 44 (yep count ’em) strings (literally), controlled wind (if you get my meaning) and hard stick timpani (oh dear), with the perpetual motion of Bach’s invention, is what really got me excited. Getting the balance right with such a full orchestra was always going to be tricky but PH and the PO, for the most part, were on to that.

I was a little less convinced by the Mozart PC. Not Bertrand Chamayou’s subtle and supple playing, proper Classical (not his normal specialism), but more in the drive of the orchestra. They didn’t quite match up in the jolly opening Allegro and in the closing, vivacious sonata-rondo. By the time BC joined the orchestra in the opening they had built up a head of stem that he was hard pressed to match, and things got a bit too racey by the end of the concerto, where WAM launches more than a few surprises. In the beautiful, dreamy F sharp minor Adagio, pretty much all piano and the only passage ever in this key from Wolfgang A, we could hear just how fine a pianist BC is, at least when it comes to delicate emotion. WAM wrote PC’s 22, 23 and 24 in a hurry to drum up some cash. They are, IMHO, his best 3 in the form, with the operatic 23 probably edging 24 to the top spot.

Mozart also churned out the last 3 symphonies in a matter of weeks. Still hard to credit. Jupiter is, of course, the best. And the final movement is the best of the four. The two themes of the opening Allegro jockey for supremacy with more than a whiff of Don Giovanni-esque irony. The Andante takes a simple theme and turns into into something altogether more knowing and the Menuet and Trio elevates that Classical staple to new heights. But that last movement, up there with Beethoven’s best, and therefore the best ever, is something else entirely. Four notes, upside down, inside out, round about, in fact very which way but loose, then twisted around another four themes similarly pushed and pulled, then all weaved together in celestial, head-banging perfection (I know, I know, it’s just music, but f*ck me, what music). Easy enough to make a hash of by going balls-out bluster. Not here though showing how “flexible HIP” is now, really, the only sensible option with Mozart. Even with repeats PH brought this in under the half-hour. I have a Norrington recording with LCP, again with all the repeats, which tops 35 minutes and he is no slouch.

Regular readers will know that I can’t be doing with the staples of the Romantic repertoire. This though pays the wages of the PO and its peers. They barely get near Bach, or even Mozart, at least in an orchestral context. Perhaps that is why they look pleased as punch at the end of this. Happy days. And for those of you who like a little more Romantic in your lives, albeit the early variety, PH is back with the PO in November to show off some Beethoven and Schubert.

Steve Reich: London Sinfonietta at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

London Sinfonietta, Synergy Vocals, Micaela Haslam, Andrew Gourlay (conductor), Sound Intermedia

Royal Festival Hall, 12th February in 2019

Steve Reich

  • Clapping Music
  • Runner for Large Ensemble
  • Music for 18 Musicians

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? The good thing, in this case, being the minimalist music of Steve Reich. There are those music lovers for whom just a few minutes sets their teeth on edge I gather. Not me though. Repetition, repetition, repetition. That’s what I crave. Except that it isn’t really repetitive. It is just structured sound. Built on rhythm. Which evolves. As has Mr Reich’s music. Perfectly demonstrated in this programme.

SR composed Clapping Music in 1972 as an antidote to all the paraphernalia and kit that the Steve Reich Ensemble required to perform his major compositions at that time, (as witnessed by Music for 18 Musicians after the interval). Two performers and their hands. One part fixed, the other repeatedly moving from unison to one beat ahead then back again. Clever clogs. SR, and the two performers here, David Hockings and Tim Palmer. Looks easy? Try it with the help of the app. It isn’t.

Runner for Large Ensemble, of winds, percussion, pianos and strings, is a relatively recent work, from 2016, and comprises five sections played without a pause. The tempo remains broadly constant but note durations vary from sixteenths to eighths to a standard Ghanian bell pattern, (Ghana being the source of many of SR’s works), and then reversed. It ends in the wind section with pulses played for as long as the players can sustain. It is not a long work, 15 minutes or so, and has a little less melodic interest that much of what we might term “late period” Reich (though here’s hoping with having many more compositions to come). This is as close to High Baroque as minimalism gets. I loved it.

Though I could listen to SR’s music all day. As it now seems could half of London. Programmes of Reich and Glass’s music, at least the large scale works, now sell out and audiences are no longer comprised of solitary, rather dubious looking, fifty-something blokes (hello Tourist), but the hip and trendy creative twenty-somethings from East London.

I have blathered on before on this blog about Music for 18 Musicians so I’lll keep this short. This was a turning point for SR as pulse and rhythm of the works from the 1960’s and early 1970s (Piano Phase, Violin Phase, Drumming) was augmented by expanded ideas around structure and, especially, harmony, and electronic intervention was curtailed. The movement between chords is still restricted, but, over the piece, there are repeated cycles of 11 chords, each held for two “breaths” from the voices and wind section(clarinets) which the strings follow. The 4 pianos and the mallet instruments deliver a regular rhythmic pulse, and, as the chords are stretched out, small “pieces” in arch form are built on top to create harmony and changes in instrumentation. The effect is like early polyphonic voice compositions with a cantus firmus overlaid with instrumental “melismas”. The sections are divided by cues from the mettalophone who becomes a sort of director and the modulations within chords are marshalled by the bass clarinet. here Timothy Lines. (Andrew Gourlay only conducted Runner).

All clear. It takes a few listens to get the picture and even then it is easy to get lost in the apparent repetition but it helps to get the map in mind. Then the choreography of sound (and movement as percussionists shift position), the way the focus and texture of the sound shifts across the ensemble, becomes clearer, and moves beyond the “hypnotic wash”. Understanding the process reveals the beauty. At least that’s what I think. Synergy Vocals lead by Michaela Haslam are the world’s experts in Reich’s work and the London Sinfonietta has form in Reich too, and together they were, mostly faultless in delivering the seamless ebbe and flow of the music.

Piano trio and percussion at the Wigmore Hall review ***

Sergey Khachatryan (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano), Colin Currie (percussion), Owen Gunnell (percussion), Sam Walton (percussion)

Wigmore Hall, 11th February 2019

  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Trio in D Op. 70 No. 1 ‘Ghost’
  • Arnold Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht Op. 4 (arr. Eduard Steuermann for piano trio)
  • Rolf Wallin – Realismos Mágicos
  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15 in A Op. 141 (arr. Victor Derevianko for piano trio and percussion)

OK so this didn’t quite go to plan. I was intrigued by the classical supergroup combination, the composers and the arrangements, but probably should have put a little more effort in to checking in advance whether I liked said arrangements. Always do your homework Tourist.

The Ghost was a success, as you might expect from this glittering trio of soloists and because it is Beethoven, thus being immune to criticism. I find that this pivotal work can either be taken with a Classical tilt, building on the master Haydn, or with a more forceful attitude, presaging the muscular Beethoven still to come. (Remember LvB previous contributions to the piano trio form were the three that formed his Op 1) This trio opted for the former with sometimes glittering results. The Ghost owes its name to the supernatural melodies of its slow movement. Apparently LvB was working on a possible opera based on Macbeth which perhaps explains the mood. It is the light and shade of the Allegro first movement and the full sonata form of the Presto finale which also explain its popularity with performers, including our friends here, alongside its “Archduke” Op 70 cousin.

Verklarte Nacht seems to follow me around like a drunken dinner party guest who will not accept that it is time for beddy-byes. I hoped that this cut-down version of the string quartet, from Schoenberg groupie Edward Steuermann, with the piano talking four of the string lines and violin and cello flying solo concertante style, might dilute the syrupy sweetness of the original. Afraid not, despite the best efforts of our musicians. It still sounds like knock off Wagner to my ears. And that is not a good thing. There are apparently five sections and a coda. Search me.

The Rolf Wallins virtuoso marimba piece, Realismos Mágicos, was a chance for Colin Currie to show off, just because he can. And he did, in some style. It is inspired by 11 short stories from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, hence the title.

So to Shostakovich 15. The symphonic version is sparse,enigmatic, suffused with DSCH’s own mortality, which is percussion and string heavy. So in theory this arrangement, for piano trio and various tuned, (xylophone and glockenspiel), and untuned, percussion should have worked. Unfortunately it doesn’t. Shostakovich needs woodwind and brass like a sandwich needs cheese and pickle (chez Tourist). I can see why the arranger, pianist Victor Derevianko, thought this would make sense after playing it through, for the censors, on the keyboard in 1971, and why DSCH agreed to the idea. And, with these fine musicians, there were clearly going to be passages that convinced; in the first movement, where the percussion is used to set up the quirky, black comedy, symbolised by the William Tell extract, and the finale, where uncertainly builds to repeated climaxes before the clockwork countdown to unremarkable oblivion. Where it disappoints, compared to the orchestral original, is in the slow movement and scherzo. A crowded Wigmore stage also condensed the sound which the Hall’s acoustic couldn’t quite

Definitely then a “it’s not you, it’s me” evening. Or maybe a soon to be forgotten one night stand. Either way I am sorry.

Peter Eotvos and the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (conductor), Iveta Apkalna (organ), László Fassang (Hammond organ)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2019

  • Arnold Schoenberg – Accompaniment to an Imaginary Film Scene, Op. 34
  • Bela Bartok – Dance Suite
  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
  • Peter Eotvos – Multiversum

A sort of panic purchase this. It is a bit of a faff to use credit for returned tickets at the South Bank. Forgot that a chunk of said credit was about to expire and had already booked most of the concerts I was keen to see. So a bit of fat finger fact finding on the phone ahead of a booked concert and this was the result. Which I promptly forgot about until it popped up in the diary. Still you can’t go wrong with a bit of Bartok and Stravinsky right, and the Eotvos piece (a UK premiere) look like a lark.

Well up to a point. As it turns out Multiversum was a thing to behold but the rest of the programme was less convincing.

What with his Blue Reiter and Expressionist mates, his own daubing and his atmospheric, serialist diddling, Schoenberg was a shoe-in for a film score commission but when it came in 1929, purist that he was, he turned it down and itself wrote this, for an “imaginary” film. It is made up of three moods, Threatening Danger, Fear and Catastrophe and is as dull as everything else I have heard by Schoenberg, whether it be late Romantic gushing, atonal, tonal, or twelve tone. Maybe one day I’ll get it but not so far.

I’ve said before that Bartok’s music is equally fascinating and baffling for me. The Dance Suite manages to be both at the same time. He was commissioned by the Budapest municipality to come up with something which could restore some pride in a Hungary battered by the WWI peace settlement. It’s six movements work as a kind of musical memento mori for the Hungary of history with folk dance music with distinct Hungarian, Romanian and Arabic characters. Like all of Bartok he doesn’t hang around ideas wise so just when you have got your head around one melody he is on to the next one. There are some punchy passages notably in the second Allegro molto (which seems to end with “The Hills Are Alive” !!), the proceeding Allegro vivace and the short, spooky Comodo. The Finale is a suite all by itself. Played the right way, as in the recording I have by the Chicago SO under Solti it is up there with the best of the Stravinsky ballets and Ravel’s most atmospheric works. Here it felt a bit underwhelming.

Things perked up with the Stravinsky, which I have always felt has an air of Shostakovich about it, despite the fact that IS thought DSCH was an appalling hack. The Symphony in Three Movements is really just three, admittedly brilliant and imaginative, movements, written at different times, which IS cobbled together. The Overture: Allegro is as exciting as anything he ever wrote with its motoric string march proceeded by a woodwind and piano scamper. IS was at the height of his fame in New York at the end of WWII and his ballet music was even sampled by Disney. This movement could have fallen straight out of The Rite of Spring albeit with a neo-classical lilt. The Andante: Interlude, L’istesso tempo is led by the harp and was originally intended for a film, The Song of Bernadette. It too has a balletic feel. The finale, Con Moto, was tacked on ahead of the 1945 premiere and comprises a lolloping march, woodwind burble and more keyboard accompaniment. I have heard more urgent and involving performances but Mr Eotvos drove the Philharmonia a little harder than in the prior two pieces to good effect.

Now the composer says the Multiversum was written to channel his interest in “string theory, gravitational waves and the relationships between multiple universes”. Uh oh. I have nothing about contemporary composers describing what prompted and inspired them, and programmatic music has a long history, but sometimes …….. Anyway there are certainly passages in Multiversum where Mr Eotvos goes a little bit B movie, sci-fi on our collective arses, (though thankfully no ondes martenot or electronica), but, cumulatively, across its 35 minutes it does leave a monumental impression. This is largely down to the innovative combination of pipe organ and Hammond organ and the way the orchestra, which is not vast, is placed and combined.

The 20 strong string section was positioned to the audience left, woodwinds to the right, with brass and percussion scattered through the back of the stage. The Hammond organ allows for various pulse-y, lengthened effects, while the main pipe organ, in step-wise motion, generates the throb that sits behind the soundscapes. Together they do say “cosmos” even if at times it was more film score than the mind being stuff of, say, Ligeti or Xenakis.

There are three movements, Expansion, Multiversum and Time and Space, with a kind of Bach-ian construction – Prelude, Toccata, Chorale- though I couldn’t work out much in the way of themes or ideas. There were though some undeniably impressive passages, with inventive harmonies and waves of repetition, and I would happily listen to the piece again, but the influences of Mr Eotvos’s Hungarian heritage, and years spent with Stockhausen and Boulez, were not immediately apparent. He seemed to be having a lot of fun though as did the two soloists and the PO. Iveta Apkalna, dressed in a long, Gothic frock coat, certainly added drama on the RFH’s mighty organ, (her own baby is the brand spanking new Klais organ in the Elbphilharmonie), and Laszlo Fassang showed why he has the market in “classical” Hammond organ sewn up.


Hungariana: Casals Quartet and Tamara Stefanovich at Milton Court review ****

Casals Quartet, Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Gerald McBurney (creative director), Amelia Kosminsky (video designer)

Hungaria, Milton Court Concert Hall, and 3rd February 2019

Gyorgy Kurtag

  • Six moments musicaux Op 44
  • Jatekok excerpts

Bela Bartok

  • 14 Bagatelles Op 6
  • String Quartet No 3
  • Three Burlesques Op 8c

Gyorgy Ligeti

  • Etudes excerpts
  • Musica ricercata VI-XI
  • String Quartet No 1 Metamorphoses nocturnes

One day. Three concerts. Showcasing the chamber music of the three most renowned Hungarian composers of the C20 (OK, well maybe that is a little harsh on Zoltan Kodaly). In fact, outside of some chap by the name of Franz Lizst, probably the three most famous Hungarian composers of all time. Except that European history being what it is all three of them were actually born in Romania, in its various incarnations. But their shared musical heritage, rooted to various degrees in folk music, is defiantly and definitely Hungarian. To perform the music, a Spanish quartet, albeit one with great affinity with the repertoire, and a Serbian pianist, though again one with proven expertise in all three composers.

A confession. I missed the first concert. Late-ish flight back the previous evening (Bologna since you ask – not humble-bragging but the Tourist highly recommends La Dotta/Grassa/Rossa, as well as nearby Ferrara and Ravenna. Be thankful he hasn’t the energy to start blogging on these trips or the vanity to Instagram). Anyway a bit tired to get to the Barbican by 11am so the first 5 parts of Ligeti’s Musica ricercata were missed, as were various excerpts from Kurtag’s Jatekok piano works, his 12 Microludes and Bartok’s String Quartet no 1. Most annoying (to miss) in retrospect were the Microludes, 12 tiny string quartet pieces in homage to Kurtag’s mate Mihaly Andras. Still, no worries, as, on the strength of Six moments musicaux, which was Kurtag’s fourth string quartet, I have a CD of his entire output for the form winging its way to me.

For I was very taken with Six moments musicaux, a title lifted from Schubert (and Rachmaninov). Written in 2005 the, er, six short pieces differ in character both between, and within, themselves. All are, as is characteristic with GK, very short. The first, Invocatio has loud, hard rhythms, an announcement, encasing a pianissimo melody and a chorale. Footfalls is a slow, broken waltz, the title taken from a late Beckett play. Then a Capriccio, a duel with obstinate lines and then a memoriam, a sort of passacaglia dedicated to Hungarian pianist George Sebak. This, like the finale, was based on two of the Jatekok piano pieces. The finale, titled Les Adieux, tilts at Beethoven but is subtitled in the manner of Janacek and is a lament of sorts. The penultimate is a “study in harmonics” based on birdsong a la Messaien.

George Kurtag was notoriously slow to get in to his compositional stride, writing just 9 small-scale works in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973 though he was commissioned to write some children’s piano pieces, which became the first 4 volumes of Jatokek (“Games”), and since then he hasn’t stopped, and there are now several hundred of these piano pieces alongside all his other work. All tiny, for solo or duo piano, their titles range across ideas, emotions, images, dedications, gestures, and together these fragments encompass the range of his musical imagination. If I am honest, even with the love and care lavished on them by Tamara Stefanovich, the combined effect was a bit stupefying, not in a bad way, just that, in the absence of titles or breaks, it was tricky to keep up. I will need to revisit.

Indeed I will need to explore all of GK’s oeuvre. The idea of reducing music to fragments appeals (Flowers We Are, Mere Flowers, from the eighth volume of Jatokek, is just 7 notes long), but, based on these pieces, this is music with emotional heft despite its brevity, and not just an academic exercise. GK (pictured above) is an expert teacher, especially in chamber music, and the echoes of his own favourites, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Webern and, of course, Bartok are easy to pick out. Of course it helps that GK adores the music of his friend and mentor Gyorgy Ligeti, who similarly, though I would contend, at a somewhat more elevated level, was to take the language and structure of music and turn it into something truly astounding. GK is still with us, now 93, though he was a little frail to attend the premiere of his opera, Fin de partie at La Scala last November, which is based on Beckett’s Endgame (which Ligeti first introduced him to).

In these two concerts we were treated to Tamara Stefanovich’s rendition of a handful of the Etudes (2, 8, 11, 3, 5, 15 and 10) and the second half of the Musica ricercata. The Etudes proved a fertile laboratory for Ligeti’s genius, mixing his early affinity for Hungarian folk sounds, (following in the footsteps of Bartok), his love of Debussy’s re-invention of piano music and purpose, his experiments with fractal patterns, his investigation of non-Western tonality and his fascination with Conlon Nancarrow’s complex cross-rhythms. Most of the etudes involve some, albeit very different variation on each hand playing at different speeds. If you have never heard, or claim never to want to hear, any “modern” classic music listen to the Etudes. You will change your mind. Guaranteed.

TS is a powerful advocate for the work, maybe not quite as powerful as her friend and collaborator, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who performed the Etudes in their entirety last year at the QEH Ligeti weekender, but brings more Debussyian grace. Musica ricercata is more rule-based composition, not serialist, but a suite intended to progress from just two notes to a full-blown High Baroque fugue. It was written in the early 1950’s in Budapest, where it could not be played given the Soviet musical mindset, and, when GL moved to the West he saw it as too simple, until 1969 when the adventure of Boulez and Stockhausen was no longer de rigeur. I am still listening and learning, (some helpful programme notes here courtesy of Paul Griffiths), so can’t explain the music musically as it were, but, like the Etudes I know I like it. A few more years and I might even understand these works.

The highlight of the day though was Ligeti’s First String Quartet however, “Metamorphoses nocturnes”. The Ligeti quartets are putting ever more frequent appearances in the quartet repertoire and the Casals turned in an excellent rendition, near matching the Arditti recording I have. GL took this early piece with him when he left Hungary in 1956 after the Soviet crackdown, and it was premiered in Vienna in 1958. However, like the Musica ricercata, it was deemed a little too “prehistoric” in Ligeti’s words, to warrant dispersion, until its first recording in the 1970s. By then the world was ripe for the interplay of the folk rhythms and trademark Ligetian polyphony, colours and enquiry. The eight sections generate a variety of moods, atmospheric, macabre, dance, humour, with a motif, G-A-G sharp-A sharp, threaded throughout. It is brilliant.

What to do with Bela Bartok? It seems that every time I hear a performance of Bartok’s work, whether orchestral, chamber or solo, (or choral as with Cantata profana performed recently by the LSO, alongside Ligeti’s Lontano), that gets the juices flowing, it is immediately followed by a performance that perplexes. Here the String Quartet No 3, which to be fair I have heard a few times before courtesy of the Emerson recording, challenged and fascinated, whereas the piano pieces, the 14 Bagatelles and Three Burlesques just confused me. Oh well, I guess I just keep trying.

Now sometimes these “immersive” days can feel a bit cobbled together. Not here though as creative director Gerard McBurney introduced each piece with appropriate extracts from the writings of the composers themselves, reinforcing the links between them and their homeland, and the words of contemporary poets, such as Endre Ady and Attila Joszef, in Hungarian as well as translated. Moreover the video backdrop created by Amelia Kosminsky, a mature final year student at the Guildhall, was stunning. She had discovered a treasure trove of amateur monochrome photographs from Hungary throughout the C20, the Fortepan archive, which she combined superbly to match music and text. If I am honest sometimes these designs can just be bloody distracting. Not here though.

Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at King’s Place review *****

Bang on a Can All Stars, BBC Singers, Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

Kings Place Hall One, 19th January 2019

I had heard a few snippets of Julia Wolfe’s compositions but freely admit this was a bit of a leap into the unknown. Still what I had heard seemed interesting, I was keen to take in a few of the excellent looking concerts programmed as part of the year long Venus Unwrapped season at Kings Place, focussing on women composers, and Anthracite Fields is an acclaimed work that won a Pulitzer Prize.

It is an oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble which was premiered in Philadelphia in 2014 by the Mendelssohn Club Chorus and the Bang On A Can All Stars, Julia Wolfe being on of the founders of BOAC, alongside Michael Gordon and David Lang. It is scored for bass (acoustic and electric and here played by Robert Black), keyboards (Vicky Chow), percussion (David Cossin), cello (Mariel Roberts), guitar/voice (Mark Stewart) and clarinet/bass clarinet (Ken Thomson) and, as well as the choir, also requires the services of a sound engineer (Andrew Cotton) and accompanying visuals (Jeff Sung and Don Cieslik).

The piece is a tribute to those who “persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region”. Julia Wolfe grew up in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania which lies to the South of the coal producing region, Anthracite is the purest form of coal, was mined from the turn of the C19, and by the turn of the C20 the region was powering much of America’s heavy industry. However through the first half of C20 the region declined in importance as the reserves were exhausted and, by the 1960’s, mining had essentially ended. It plays an important role in American industrial and labour history and Ms Wolfe is not the only artist to have explored its legacy. Less than one week later, the Tourist was privileged to see another top drawer, Pulitzer Prize winning, creative work which took inspiration from near this region, Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, based in Reading, Pennsylvania, which, over a century, turned from one of the richest to one of the poorest cities in the USA.

Julia Wolfe herself had previously addressed the plight of the American worker in Steel Hammer, her “art ballad” about the folk hero John Henry. Her text for Anthracite Fields is drawn from various sources, oral histories and interviews (including her own), local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, a list of contemporary daily activities that use coal power and an impassioned political speech by John L Lewis, a past head of the United Mine Workers Union.

It is made up of five movements together lasting just over an hour. In Foundation, a kind of dark chorale, the choir intone the names of miners killed in accidents, but only those named John with one syllable surnames, there being so many who died. It ends with further chant of representative polysyllabic names which give a flavour of the diversity of countries from which the miners emigrated to this small corner of one State. There is also a poetic passage drawn from the geology of coal formation. Breaker Boys takes a series of nervy rhymes and an interview and describes the painful work of the Breaker Boys, children employed to sort debris from the coal as it came down the chutes from the heads of the mine-shafts. Think folk-rock. The third movement Speech takes the aforementioned John L Lewis’s powerful oratory, “if we must grind up human flesh and bones”, sung here by BOACAS veteran Mark Stewart with choral responses. Flowers is inspired by the list of flowers Barbara Powell, literally a coal-miner’s daughter, recited during an interview with Ms Wolfe. It is gentler in tone than the other movements and, over its memorable rhythmic base, the choir explores some haunting harmonies. The last movement is another list, of activities followed by a rhyme about Phoebe Snow, a fictitious NYC socialite created for an advert whose white gown was unsullied during her railway journey, so pure was the coal fuelling the engine.

Now there is nothing difficult about Julia Wolfe’s music in Anthracite Fields. Quite the reverse. It is almost alarming in its immediacy. At its core it is a minimalist work, driven by the dirge-like rhythms laid down by the various members of the ensemble, and it is not afraid of grungy rock’n’roll. There is plenty of instrumental colour and the 20 or so strong choir have plenty of opportunities to show off. Here, in the well-balanced but enclosed acoustic of Kings Place Hall One, initially at least the band had the upper hand but this seem to be corrected through the second half of Foundation, or maybe it my ears adjusting.

It packs a huge emotional punch and there is nothing subtle about its messages. Bearing all this mind, and if you are prepared to be immersed in the concept, music and projections, you are in for a treat, should this return, as it should (this was its UK premiere). I should imagine it would be even more powerful in the version for a larger choir, 150 strong. It certainly deserves a bigger audience than this though I get that this sort of fusion, which is at the core of the Bang on a Can ethos, lies a bit beyond normal musical boundaries.