It’s been donkey’s years since I last saw the Great British Brodsky Quartet. In fact my guess is there has been a couple of line up changes since then, though Ian Belton on violin and Jacqueline Thomas on cello remain from the original founders in 1972, now joined by Daniel Rowland’s violin and Paul Cassidy’s viola. There were famous back in the day for me and my punky mates because they got involved with pop/rock types. They have never lost the spirit of adventure as this programme plainly shows. The centenary of the end of WWI has seen a lot of fine concerts: this idiosyncratic alternative was one of the best.
Now the main reason to turn up here was not, for once, Shostakovich’s No 8. Mind you that would have been worth the entrance money alone. Having heard a sophisticated, smooth version of DSCH’s quartet masterpiece from the Emersons a couple of weeks earlier, it was exhilarating to hear this much darker, plaintive alternative. This really got inside the meaning of the score, dedicated to “the victims of Fascism and War” in a way that the Emerson Quartet only hinted at. The two outer Largo C minor movements, with their famous DSCH musical monograms, were grimly intense here, the second movement scherzo fugue ferociously pungent and the middle movement waltz bitterly sardonic, on the edge of giving up. The slower fourth movement was here properly, brutally, dissonant with the KGB not just at the door as DSCH remarked, but inside the flat rifling through possessions. This is exactly what the Eighth should sound like, vibrato when vibrato, forte when forte, pianissimo when pianissimo.
Yet like I say this was not the main attraction nor war it the highlight of the evening. That was reserved for George’s Crumb’s Black Angels. It was written in 1973 as a response to the Vietnam War. It is scored for “electric string quartet” and includes a magic box of percussive and other effects, including vocals, and even featuring crystal wine glasses. Subtitled “Thirteen images from the dark land” and inscribed “in time of war”, it is, by turns, startling, frightening, menacing, ritualistic, elegiac, ethereal, mysterious, very loud and very soft. It is divided into three sections, Departure, Absence and Return each of which contains a painful threnody. There are baroque dances buried in here, but don’t expect Lully or Telemann. And then there is just noise. I haven’t the faintest idea how to convey the sheer breadth of its sound world and depth of its emotion. I suggest you go listen to it and see what you think. Probably best not, as the Brodsky’s refrained from doing here. amplify the music to the “threshold of pain” as Crumb instructed. Though it might have been interesting to observe the reaction of the Kings Place crowd to a heyday My Bloody Valentine take on Black Angels. GC is near 90 years old now but I bet he would still turn the dial up to 11.
Black Angels has rightly secured a pre-eminent place in the modern string quartet repertoire, but it isn’t easy, so fortunately, here, we were in the hands of experts. It is probably the best half hour or so of “music” I have heard this year.
The Karen Tanaka piece was commissioned by the Brodskys to mark the bicentenary of Beethoven’s Op 18 quartets and takes the first few bars of No as its inspiration. Interesting if not memorable. Erwin Schulhoff’s upbeat first quartet, with its mix of Czech folk rhythms, Stravinskian jazz and agitated dance probably needs further investigation. He was born in Prague, and this piece was written in 1924 when he was 30 but 17 years later he died of TB in the Wulzburg concentration camp. The Dave Brubeck piece. originally composed for string orchestra in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, says it all in its title.
Marvellous stuff. Oh and I caught a glimpse of the score for Black Angels even from my back of the stalls perch. For George Crumb’s scores are almost as intriguing as the extended and innovative techniques in the music itself. The above is not from Black Angels but a moto perpetuo piano piece. Even so see what I mean?
B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. I never saw Mark-Anthony Turnage’s second full scale opera when it was first performed in early 2000 at the ENO. On the basis of this semi-staged performance from the BBCSO as part of the In Remembrance weekend this was a terrible omission on my part for it is an extraordinary work both musically, and, given the strength of Amanda Holden’s libretto, dramatically. It is intensely powerful and moving even without a full set and staging. It beggars belief that it has not been revived since 2002, (and that it missed out on a run in Dallas thanks to political sensitivities).
It is constructed as a symphony in four acts, Home, War, Hospital and Dance. Harry Heegan is about to return to the family flat after a football match with his best mate Barney and girlfriend Jessie. Mum and Dad are intensely proud of their son who is about to head off to the war. Next door neighbour Susie joins the party, banging on about God. Mrs Foran from upstairs also turns up escaping abusive husband Teddy. The Silver Tassie, a cup with much significance appears, the men go to war full of optimism. The War act is primarily choral preceded by the mythic Croucher, representing, I think, the war dead and intoning Old Testament-ish doom. An officer complains at the doctors in the Red Cross station. A football game is delayed as the battle begins. The story then switches to the Hospital where an angry Harry is now paralysed, Teddy blinded and Jessie, who refuses to see Harry, is now coupled up with Barney, who saved Harry’s life. The final act sees Harry and Teddy spit out their pain and bitterness at those who still have their futures at the communal dance.
The opera is based on Sean O’Casey’s eponymous plan and it is therefore we who have to thank for the gripping drama. Whilst it is never made explicit, O’Casey intended that the Heegan family, and the rest of the community, should hail from the East Wall, a working class district of Dublin, adding further pungency to the message of the play (and opera) because, at that time, Ireland was still part of the UK and the republican movement was divided on whether the country should be involved in the war. So as some young men like Harry, Barney and Teddy headed off to war others prepared for insurrection at home.
O’Casey’s play was rejected by WB Yeats, then head honcho at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, when it was submitted in 1928, reflecting its political sensitivity. This was after the success of his first three major plays, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. So it premiered at the Apollo in London’s West End. There have been a fair few plays which rail at the futility of war and its consequences on the individuals who fight in it, but I doubt many match the raw power of The Silver Tassie.
So Amanda Holden, (to be clear not the airhead judge on BGT), and M-AT had something monumental to work with. Even so, and in no way intending to downplay Ms Holden’s contribution which provides M-AT with multiple opportunities to show off his trademark stylistic jagged juxtapositions, it is the score that takes the breath away. M-AT had already shown his dramatic flair in his first opera Greek, and his compositional skill with orchestral pieces such as Three Screaming Popes, Momentum, Drowned Out, Dispelling the Fears and Silent Cities, especially when it came to percussion and brass, but The Silver Tassie is on another level.
The symphonic structure is inspired by mentor Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids, with the first act setting out the main ideas and themes, the second the Adagio slow movement, brought to life by the large scale choral scenes (echoing the more Expressionist feel of the act in SO’C’s play), the third a Scherzo and the last act a “dance” finale with “off stage” band. This structure offers rhythmic backbone and plenty of tunes derived from song, (including Robert Burns’s own Silver Tassie), and dance, as well as repeated motifs, which make it easy to follow and show off MA-T’s uncanny ability to capture the emotional interior of the characters. There are episodes of rich orchestral colour but there are also plenty of more economic orchestration. The score should give the singers plenty of space, but just to make sure the cast were miked, (though M-AT, a couple of rows in front of me, needed to dash up to the sound desk to get the balance right early on). The second and fourth acts are up there with the best I have ever heard on an opera stage. Even allowing for the fact that this wasn’t an opera stage.
Sometimes this semi-staging lark can leave singers looking a little awkward unsure of how much to commit to performance versus voice. Costuming can also, sometimes, appear incongruous. Not here though, at east once the first act go going. There were some outstanding vocal performances, notably for me from Sally Matthews and Claire Booth, and Marcus Farnsworth as Teddy was very persuasive. But baritone Ashley Riches as Harry, even from my two perches (side stalls first half, back of circle second), was bloody marvellous not just in his singing but also in the way, pre and post wheelchair, he projected Harry’s exuberance and then his pain into the whole auditorium.
Now I have nothing to compare it to but, given just how amazing this was, I have to assume that Ryan Wrigglesworth and the BBCSO, and the BBC Singers and Finchley Children’s Music Group (complete with ensemble writhing) got as close as possible to the heart of the music.
You can listen to it for a couple more weeks on BBC Radio Opera on 3. Do yourself a favour and do so.
And can I beg the ENO to find a way and time to revive this. With Mr Wrigglesworth on the podium. I will chip in a few quid if it helps.
Shostakovich – String Quartet No 8 in C minor, Op 110
Beethoven – String Quartet No 7 in F major, Op 59 No 1, “Razumovsky”
You still see some venerable rock (and pop) bands unwisely soldiering on in their 60’s and even 70’s, sometimes with only one original member still in the line-up. Outside of disposable pop the creative force/s, the composer/s if you will, in contemporary popular music are invariably also the performer/s. Not so generally in classical art music, though that isn’t to say that many canonical composers weren’t, or aren’t, also adept performers. Just that composition and performance are more often separated, and that performance is often as important to composition in terms of audience enjoyment or appreciation.
So when rock musicians die, so does the band, if it has managed to get that far without breaking up due to musical differences, substance abuse or fist-fights, in the established rock’n’roll manner. Leaving the audience with a ropey tribute band and recordings to keep the tunes alive.
In the classical world though, with its much longer back catalogue, legacy is the name of the game. And not just in composition. Performers live on. Not just in recordings but also in the name, and sound, of the band. Easy enough to envisage in the context of the orchestra with its link to place and with a constant turnover of personnel. The Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen can trace its lineage back to a bunch of regal trumpeters from 1448 (!), the venerable and still very highly regarded Leipzig Gewandhausorchester to 1743.
The idea that string quartets outlive their members might be a little trickier to get your loaf around though. Yet this is how it works. Members may come and go but the best quartets stick together for life, such is the dedication of performers to their art, and, when one of the four can no longer perform, pearly gates or otherwise, a replacement is drafted in. But this cannot be any old violinist, viola player or cellist. For the sound of a top notch string quartet, is a very particular thing, and continuity, as well as chemistry, needs to be guaranteed.
Now as is normally the case with the development of classical music, form followed technology and demand in bringing the string quartet to the fore. Once modern instruments had been perfected in the C18, notably the viola, (which is tuned a perfect fifth below the violin and an octave above the cello), and with enough patrons who liked the string quartet groove to pay up, composers were all set. As with so much else in classical music it was Papa Haydn who set the ball rolling in the 1750s. His massive output for the ensemble (68 named, 77 or so in total) is still amongst the best ever written IMHO.
The string quartet, in the opinion of the Tourist, is about as “pure” as classical art music gets. Not easy to get right; any paucity of imagination is ruthlessly exposed. Four parts is enough to fashion an argument but not enough to take the foot off the intellectual or aesthetic gas. Plenty of opportunity to vary pitch but only the colour and texture of strings at the composer’s disposal. All of which might explain why not every big name has embraced the genre and why even those that have sometimes don’t always get beyond one effort or a brace.
After Haydn, Mozart obviously churned out a fair few, 23 I think, though they are not all up to snuff. Still as ever with Wolfgang when he nails it he nails it. Then Beethoven with his 16 (and the Grosse Fuge) which, as with the symphonies and piano concertos, have never been bettered. Schubert also walked the talk with his 15 and a few assorted bits and bobs. (Note to Tourist: more work to do on these).
As the fashion for showy-off, Romantic, bullsh*tty bombast gained traction in the C19 so the string quartet took a back seat, but returned with a bang in the C20. For the Tourist’s money the best of the bunch since 1900’ish are Janacek’s pair, Nielsen’s 6, Ravel and, (in a rare thumbs up from me), Debussy’s single shots, Stravinsky’s various musings, and, best of all, Britten’s haunting treble, Bartok’s virtuoso 6 and Shostakovich’s acutely personal 15. Oh and Glass’s 7 (and counting), Reich’s Different Trains, Crumb’s Black Angels, Nyman’s 5, Ligeti’s 2 and Xenakis’s 4. You might have some others to add. Tell me.
The Emerson String Quartet was formed in 1976, and still has two of its founder members in violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, alongside the viola of Lawrence Dutton, with cellist Paul Watkins the last in, having joined in 2013. I have recordings of their arrangement of The Art of Fugue and their renowned Bartok cycle. The Bartok is superbly recorded and is very, very precise and very, very intense. This is what they are famous for. Exact and technically brilliant interpretations. Which maybe lack a little emotion. That tends to be my preference but I can understand why others may take a different line (and there are occasions when I would agree).
Anyway this is what the Emersons are famed for. And this is exactly what they delivered at Milton Court. Britten’s Quartet No 3 was pretty much the last thing he composed appearing in the year he died, 1976. With its call-back to the music of his last opera, Death in Venice, in the final passacaglia, and the recitative quotes that precede it, it really is immensely moving. BB was very ill at this time, only able to work in short bursts following a heart bypass operation, and this seems to be reflected in the four condensed movements which precede the final “La Serenissima”. The opening “Duets”, in sonata form, is also haunting and, by virtue of its various permutations of the quartet personnel, as sparse as its title suggests, even when the duets are accompanied. The Ostinato second movement, like the Burlesque fourth movement, is very short, and taken at a fair lick even where it is played pizzicato. The parodic Burlesque could have come from the pen of Shostakovich in one of his more caustic moments, with its weird central spiccato passage. The central Solo is marked very calm with the first violin line, heading higher and higher, seemingly lifted from the mists, and mystery, of Curlew River. Or maybe Aldeburgh Beach, Or Snape. Anyway as with the rise and fall of the Passacaglia it sounds like BB was set to go home. Blub blub.
The Emersons certainly got the measure of BB’s still extraordinary imagination and technique. But it felt a little less haunting than the recording I have from the Endellion Quartet. This was even more true in the Shostakovich. The Eighth was written when DSCH was in a very dark place, contemplating suicide. He went on in his final quartet, 15, to offer up a genuine personal elegy but this comes pretty close. He was supposed to be written a score to accompany a documentary about the bombing of Dresden but, after just a few days, he came up with this, “an ideologically deficient quartet nobody needs”. It was 1960 but DSCH still wasn’t “free” now being forced to join the Party. It has his trademark initial motif in the opening of the Largo on the cello, which is developed, before the main theme from his First Symphony pops up, before this in turn gives way to a repeated rocking motif.
This rocking motif is then pumped up and speeded up to form the basis for the second movement scherzo. This is, even by Dmitry’s high standards, pretty scary stuff. The DSCH motif also crops up again, in contrasting tempi, As it does in the middle movement Allegretto, here transformed into a Waltz which then proceeds to quote his First Cello Concerto. A violin solo links to the first of the final two slow movements. This contains the tune to a Russian song about the victims of fascism, to whom DSCH eventually dedicated the quartet, but which might be aimed at totalitarianism more generally. The final Largo comes full circle with a return to the rocking motif.
The quartet is taken unbroken and with these powerful and dramatic ideas, and stirring emotion, it is easy to see why it is Shostakovich’s most famous and oft-performed quartet. It would be hard to imagine a more expertly crafted and sharp interpretation, these chaps leave nothing to chance, but, as I discovered a couple of weeks later, courtesy of the Brodsky Quartet, it is possible to wring a fair bit more gut-wrenching angst out of the piece. I have recordings by the Borodin Quartet, now in its eighth decade, constantly refreshed by the best of the Moscow Conservatoire, and the original dedicatees for most of DSCH’s quartets, and the English Fitzwilliam Quartet (founded in 1968) who also worked with the composer and were the first to record a complete cycle.
As it turned out it was the Beethoven first Razumovsky which actually showed the Emersons at their very best. Count Razumovsky was an important Russian aristo and diplomat in Naples and then Vienna but his name has gone down in posterity for the three quartets he commissioned from Beethoven in 1806. All are magnificent but the first might just be the best of the bunch. This is altogether jollier music than the two pieces that preceded it, with its intriguing dissonance and implied repeat in the first movement, the rapid passing of the baton from one player to another, underpinned by the one note cello motif in the Allegretto second, the tragic F minor Adagio and then the ebullient finale with its bouncy Russian theme, (as in the other two Razumovsky pieces). The drilled-to-perfection understanding of the Emersons, and the more upbeat tone of the Beethoven was, for me, at least more satisfying.
That is not to say that overall I took very great pleasure in listening to this famous quartet. They are up there with the very best of their peers, some of which I have already mentioned. When it comes to Beethoven I think the Takacs Quartet (founded 1975) might have the edge of those I have heard live, though the Belcea Quartet (1994), who might just be my favourite string band, run them close. As for recordings of the Beethoven quartets have a sniff around the Alban Berg, Quartetto Italiano (for the middle quartets) and unparalleled Vegh (for the mighty last four).
While I am at it, should anyone care, add the Hagen Quartet (1981) to the bucket list when it comes to Mozart, the Quatuor Mosaiques (1987, HIP specialists) for Papa Haydn and the Kronos Quartet (1973), on the rare occasions they leave the US, in contemporary repertoire.
London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Peter Moore (trombone)
Barbican Hall, 1st November 2018
Zoltan Kodaly – Dances of Galanta
James MacMillan – Trombone Concerto
Dmitry Shostakovitch – Symphony No 4
Now it might be the fact that I was a bit poorly for this performance that accounts for this lukewarm response. No need for any of you to worry. I am in fine fettle now but whatever bug it was prevented me from seeing the evening devoted to the electronic and chamber work of Iannis Xenakis at Kings Place a couple of days later, which was REALLY BLOODY ANNOYING since I am much taken with the composer and the performers, (London Sinfonietta with cellist Tim Gill who was in the hot seat for solo piece Kottos and Phlegra for 11 musicians). There is nothing quite like the sound world of Xenakis. Give him a whirl. YOLO.
The Fourth is a tricky customer. In complete contrast to the more conformist, (though still painful howl of protest), that is the Fifth, this symphony has DSCH still messing around with his avant-garde roots. That is not to say that it isn’t recognisably his voice, just that it is a long way away from the inventive Stravinskian juvenalia of the First and the awful, garish, empty patriotic posturing of the Second and Third. The Fourth is chock full of brilliant, if eccentric, ideas but isn’t too bothered with the usual rules of symphonic structure. It was written in 1936, when he was 30, the year DSCH got his telling off from Stalin. It was rehearsed but then withdrawn to be finally premiered in 1961 when Stalin and Zhdanov were safely in their graves. It has two massive movements embracing a scherzo, a giant 100 plus orchestra, lots of distorted songs and dances, excesses of aggression and pathos. Mahler removed from the mountains and marched at gun-point into the factory.
It is very tricky for conductor and composer to knit all of the twist and turns, (and musical cul-de-sacs, of which there are many), together and Mr Noseda didn’t quite find his compass on this evening. This, together with my man-flu, meant I drifted in and out a bit through the 70 minutes of performance, despite the volume. Not so with James MacMillan’s Trombone Concerto. This is the first time I have heard any of his music. surprising given that he is a favourite commissionee with British orchestras. This was the UK premiere of this work with Peter Moore, the Co-Principal trombone in the LSO, as the soloist. Now young Mr Moore, just 22, is something of a prodigy, haven’t taken his chair at just 18. His breakthrough came when he won the BBC Young Musician competition aged just 12, and in a few short years he has become a renowned soloist and is a visiting prof at the RCM. There he is above, winning the BBC contest. Awwh sweet.
Now I am no expert on the trombone, (or on any instrument come to think of it), but I have ears so can tell you that Mr Moore knows what he is about trombone-wise. Wind soloists are generally remarkable people as their technical prowess and control reveals just what their instruments are capable of playing. Mr MacMillan’s concerto is a single movement work which alternates between frenetic activity and “ghostly” passages drawn from the seven note theme which is set out at the start. The soloist’s line is set against this through the slower first passage and again, in bursts, as the pace hots up. A “waltz” of sorts follows, then a rush forward punctuated by the three orchestral trombones joining Mr Moore in a blast alongside, of all things, a siren. There might have been a wind machine as well. A slower, more lyrical swell follows then a kind of mad gigue before a jam from the four trombones again.
As ever, all you can do on hearing a piece of contemporary classical music for the first time is see if it grabs you, and this most certainly did. Maybe it was the novelty of hearing what was possible with a trombone, though Daddy Mozart and Brother Haydn, alongside Berio, Xenakis, Turnage and, of course, Christian Lindberg, have all shown me this in other works, or maybe it was just Peter Moore’s amazing skill, but I do think there was enough here to mean I should look into Mr MacMillan’s back, and in future, front catalogue.
The other piece on the menu was Kodaly’s Dances Of Galanta, a kind of augmented string suite, written in 1933 and based on Hungarian dance tunes. It has its fans I gather but I can now say I am not one of them. Having not really connected with Kodaly’s string quartets I think I can safely say that he is not for me even as his mate, Bela Bartok, especially in his 6 string quartets, most certainly is.
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.
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).
Ok so I bought a ticket here on a bit of a whim and because it garnered some awards on its premiere in Ireland. Now I know from past experience that the playwright Enda Walsh is not a man who likes to give audiences an easy night out. Disco Pigs is a belter of a play (and film) but, in trying to unravel the darker psychology and psychoses of the everyday, he sounds to me like the sort of dramatist who can be guilty of putting himself above the audience. All well and good if you like that kind of modern Expressionism but if it fails to connect what’s the point.
Still YOLO. What I hadn’t bargained for is just how good a composer Donnacha Dennehy is. This has all the trappings of a chamber opera. Except that there is a fair bit of spoken word, long periods of neither speech nor singing, though plenty to attract the eye and a main character who never opens his mouth. Which means the score has a lot of work to do and doesn’t always precisely articulate with the drama. But it is a fabulous score. Strains of post-minimalism (he studied with Louis Andriessen) with lots of sustained strings, micro-tonality galore, overtones, buckets of dramatic orchestration, hefty percussive rhythms, electronics, nods to Irish folk heritage, odd harmonies. As a rule of thumb if contemporary classical music grabs me by the throat on first listen for me there is something worth investigating. If there is no connection it can be safely discarded. No idea why or what lies behind that decision but this chap is definitely going to have to be listened to.
Now as for the play/drama/libretto I am less sure. Martin (Aaron Monaghan), emerging from the pit, is a violinist currently rehearsing (badly) a chamber opera with an unhealthy interest in bad-boy Carlo Gesualdo, the Renaissance prince and composer who mastered dissonance (please listen) but was a bit unhinged to say the least. (there he is above). Martin is not a happy bunny it seems and there is plenty of evidence in his drinking, movement, his calls, game-playing and his digital footprint to show it. But he doesn’t show us directly. Instead we get a drunken night in from Matthew (Benedict Nelson), wife Hannah (Maire Flavin) and her friend Amy (Sharon Carty) who Matthew makes a move on. It doesn’t end well. Presumably this is an acting out of the events that got Martin into the pickle he is in. Or maybe they are the neighbours from hell that Martin really doesn’t need. At the end, in a wood, Martin meets Scarlett (Kimani Arthur) a Tinder chum. Oh and there is a chorus to vocalise some things and to shuffle across the stage.
Though frankly I didn’t really have a clue what was going on. For someone who was effectively a mime artist Aaron Monaghan, apart from some suspect writhing, caught Martin’s dissolution brilliantly. The three singers were crystal clear though their texts were prosaic. The set (Jamie Vartan), lighting (Adam Silverman), video (Jack Phelan) and sound (David Sheppard and Helen Atkinson), all seemed to have a lot to say. I just don’t really know what they were saying. If it was just the breakdown of a life then I suppose it delivered but since I couldn’t find a way in I couldn’t really care. Maybe Martin was looking for beauty in an ugly world, a creative mind that is constantly disappointing himself, (this seems to be what Enda Walsh is driving at in the programme), but any meaning was too impenetrable for me. Past, present and, maybe, future frustratingly elided.
Plenty to look at and a ravishing score but as a work of drama … hmmm. No matter. The score, which really did make the link back to Gesualdo, and the playing of Crash Ensemble under conductor Ryan McAdams alone was enough.