Bryce Dessner and the London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists at Queen Elizabeth Hall review ***

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London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists, Galya Bisengalieva (violin), Rakhi Singh (violin), Robert Ames (viola), Oliver Coates (cello) – Bryce Dessner (electric guitar)

Queen Elizabeth Hall. 10th April 2018

  • Bryce Dessner – Aheym for string quartet
  • Mica Levi – You belong to me for string quartet
  • Steve Reich – Electric Counterpoint for electric guitar and tape
  • Steve Reich – Different trains for string quartet and tape (with film from Bill Morrison)

I am pretty sure the last time I was in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was with a young BD and LD and the SO to see Slava’s Snow Show as a “Christmas Treat”. The SO booked the entertainment without, as is her wont, looking too closely at the details. Which is a shame as she has an aversion to clowns. Not a full blown psychic horror but enough to engender a vague sense of unease. Which is unfortunate as, for those that don’t know, Slava’s Snow Show involves clowns. A lot of clowns. On a journey. In Russian. Being the supportive family that we are we found the SO’s discomfort funnier that the show. We still do.

This was my first visit to the newly refurbished QEH and I can report an already handsome building is now even better looking. It looks like it will pursue a course of adventurous programming, which is marvellous, though I can’t pretend it is all to my taste.

This concert was though. Arse that I am I hadn’t recorded the details correctly in my foolproof diary system so I hadn’t realised Different Trains was on the menu and had no idea the evening would be graced by the presence of Mr Bryce Dessner. Now I am guessing this was in stark contrast to most of the audience, for whom, I assume, he was the main attraction. I do not know if the punters that can now be counted on to fill a hall showcasing minimalist classics have always been there, or whether they are new to the genre, but it doesn’t matter. The whole of arty. trendy, creative London turns up in droves now, (though not so much at venues without the social media presence of the Southbank)., which leaves me looking and feeling even more conscious of my shocking lack of style.

(Where did it all go wrong? I used to be a contender in the sartorial stakes and could oft be found propping up the bar at cutting edge London venues. Honestly. No longer. Now even the pensioner tribe at midweek theatrical matinees looks down on me. That it should come to this. Mind you, it’s all my fault. This too stolid flesh needs melting).

All this crossing of musical boundaries is immensely energising though, and, in some ways, it was minimalism that first brought together the the “high” art of classical music with the “popular” art of rock and pop. I would also contend that if it hadn’t been for “classical” composers in the 1950s and 1960s exploring what technology and music from other cultures had to offer, dance music would be much the poorer.

Anyway our man Mr Dessner stands astride the divide, as it were, with his well regarded minimal classical works and his day, or night, job as guitarist for The National. Now, as it happens, I like The National. No expert but I have a few of their albums and saw them support that dreadful old rocker Neil Young a few years ago in Hyde Park. Obviously I don’t mean Neil Young is dreadful. he is akin to a god in my eyes. What I can say though is that The National, along with the likes of Beach House, Death Grips, Eels, John Grant, The Knife, Metronomy and TV on the Radio, ensure that the non-classical section of my CD collection, (I know CDs, ho-ho-ho grandad), isn’t entirely made up of artists who are either older than me or dead. I also appreciate that this is hardly evidence of cutting edge musical taste, and is very white, but, I fear, so is your correspondent. And it also doesn’t mean that as far as I am concerned the best music made in the last few years has come from The Fall, (sadly no longer, why are we not still in a period of national mourning?) and Wire. Worse still, whilst writing this I am listening to Soft Machine. Could it be any worse?

Unsurprisingly Mr Dessner was terrific. I listened to Aheym for string quartet a couple of times before this and it is a worthy and apposite work to set alongside Steve Reich’s string quartet masterpiece. Written in 2009, early on in his catalogue, the title is Yiddish for “homeward” and is inspired by his granny’s stories about Eastern Europe and coming to America. There is a five beat jagged chordal rhythm that runs through the piece which is cut up and syncopated in various ways until a short solo cello line, with pizzicato breaks, takes us to a slower, murky fugal passage, above the cello rocking. This is repeated in a different way before the rhythm returns, with col legno bowing, some scratchy stuff, some very high harmonics and a bit of double stopping to round things off. It is not structurally complex but it is very arresting and every string effect on show was “enhanced” by the close microphones. I loved it though I don’t suppose it will pop up at the Wigmore any time soon.

Mica Levi’s work, written in 2016 for this very ensemble, takes the 1950s song of the title and zeroes in on scraps of music within it. There are three sections to be played in any order. Hannah, a kind of set of passacaglia variations with mad trilling, Jumping, sort of fugal with odd chords moving to tremolos over a cello grind, and Sun, with the higher strings sliding up over the cello drone. It is less interesting than it sounds. Again it was over-amplified for my liking.

Ahed of the interval and before the main event Mr Dessner took to the stage with electric guitar for a performance of Electric Counterpoint. No rock’n’roll razzamatazz here. He looked like one of the stage managers despite having taking a bow earlier after Aheym. EC has one live guitar part, obviously, alongside twelve recorded guitar parts, two on bass. There are three movements, without breaks, the first an 8 part canon with the live guitar over the top and harmonic pulse from the other recorded guitars, the slow movement is similar but with 9 parts and, er, a slower theme, and the final part, again a canon, but with more tonal variation and rhythmic change. It is pure Reich and here the QEH acoustic, the amplification and, obviously, our rock god, really delivered.

Different Trains, commissioned, like Aheym, by the Kronos Quartet, and premiered in this very venue in 1988, is way more interesting than it sounds. The live string quartet is backed by three recorded versions of themselves. This creates the opportunity for 16 part counterpoint and, in line with the concept of the piece, means we listen to a “past we did not witness”. The tape line also includes lines of speech, from Reich’s governess and a train porter, as well as Holocaust victims, as well as “train” noises. The idea is to contrast Reich’s train journeys across America as a child with the horrific journeys made by Jewish children in Europe during the war. The accompanying film from Bill Morrison reinforces the contrast and is, at times, disturbing. The first movement is upbeat, the snatches of conversation brief, and the rhythmic patterns clear and harmonics tonal. The second second is slower and darker with frequent sustains, more harmonic dissonance, and with the train ambience increasing. The final movement takes the voices from the first time and melds them into the music.

I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the performance with the recordings sometimes overwhelming the live performers though I was perched right at the back. Oliver Coates’s cello playing was very fine, as I know from previous performances, and Galya Bisengalieva’s first violin sang, but the second violin and viola parts were a bit muddied. On the other hand having the film footage definitely enhanced the powerful meaning behind Steve’s Reich’s music. (I am assuming the age of the footage is what delivered the “blotchy effects”). The performers were standing and split two by two on stage which made for an antiphonal effect, in mind if not ear.

Even with the sound this was still a fine rendition of a modern masterpiece near Reich’s best. More of this at the QEH please. I promise to smarten up next time.

Oh, and no clowns please.

Coraline at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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Coraline

Barbican Theatre, 7th April 2018

Was I the only person in the audience who knew nothing about Neil Gaiman’s 2003 cult children’s fantasy novella from whence came Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Coraline? It certainly felt like it. To be fair the provenance had dawned on me some time before the performance, but when I booked my perch it was the composer which drew me in not the subject. I guess if I had known more I might not have taken the plunge for fear of feeling a bit odd amongst this very youthful, in parts, audience. I am glad ignorance prevailed for I can report that this was a very fine entertainment indeed.

Music first. It isn’t MAT’s most inventive composition that is true though there are more than enough surprises to hold the attention of the musicophile. What it does do is fit Rory Mullarkey’s bracingly direct libretto, and Mr Gaiman’s pleasingly dark fable like the proverbial glove. It is through-composed, retaining MAT’s trademark spiky, jazzy, Stravinskian, often dissonant, tonality, with very little accommodation to its intended audience. Yet the musical ideas are plain enough even to the untutored ear (including mine). Our ageing actresses singing across the melody in their big number, their waltzes shifting to tangoes as we jump the house “divide”, the mouse orchestra, the close harmonies when ghosts are abroad and the way the Mother’s music darkens as we move from Good to Bad. Sian Edwards is an outstanding advocate of smaller scale new opera music, (she conducted the premiere of MAT’s debut opera Greek). The  Britten Sinfonia are about the best advocates of new music in this country. Put them together and the results are unsurprisingly sublime, bringing life to the score even when it flagged a touch. And Britten, whose Noye’s Fludde might be the best opera involving children because it, er, involves a lot of children, feels like he was an influence here.

Coraline, sung on this occasion by Robyn Allegra Parton, is a bolshie tween, who has just moved in to a new home with overbearing Mum, Kitty Whately, and kindly, inventor Dad, Alexander Robin Baker. The neighbours, Mr Bobo (Harry Nicoll), and the Misses Spink (Gillian Keith) and Forcible (Frances McCafferty), are a bit odd to say the least. The former directs a mouse orchestra and the latter were one time, fruity thespians. The front room of the flat has a door; Coraline walks through it to discover …. a mirror image of the room and parents with sown-up eyes, and another mother bent on evil. You can guess the rest even if you don’t know it. And even if you can’t guess there are plenty of people who could tell you.

If I am honest the couple of hours ex-interval running time could have been squeezed down to 90 minutes straight through, though I guess this might have tested the patience of some of the younger members of the audience. I have to say the youngsters were impeccably behaved throughout, reflecting the quality of what they were seeing and hearing, and putting to shame many an older audience what with their coughs, fidgeting, phone screens and snacking. Having just wrestled with a couple of excitable nephew/nieces the prior weekend I can appreciate just how well-behaved this audience was.

I can see why Rory Mullarkey felt the need to labour the story with excess exposition to ensure everyone knew where we were, but there was the odd time when the recitative might have been condensed. This too might have focussed the ear more on the best of MAT’s invention, and the fine stagecraft marshalled under Aletta Collin’s direction. The magic in particular was a tad underwhelming. On the other hand Giles Cadle’s claustrophobic revolving set, at the front of the otherwise blacked-out cavernous Barbican Theatre stage, was a marvel

The cast though was terrific, especially Robyn Allegra Parton as our heroine, who has a lot of singing to get through, and Kitty Whately as Bad Mum/Good Mum. Apparently Ms Whately had a bit of a sore throat for this performance. Only just about audible and it certainly did not inhibit her performance in any way. I recently saw her Sesto in Giulio Cesare, where she also stood out. Even with my ropey ears I heard most every line, which I can’t always claim is the case when the RSC treads the boards here.

Now this is a fair distance from Mr Turnage’s shocking breakthrough opera Greek, based on Stephen Berkhoff’s play, in turn drawn from Sophocles’s tragedy, Oedipus Rex. To this day that remains one of the finest pieces of musical theatre I have ever witnessed, at the ENO in 1990. His last full length opera, Anna Nicole, wasn’t too kid friendly either. I have never seen The Silver Tassie, based on Sean O’Casey’s anti-war play, though there is a concert performance in the diary.

I see MAT has indicated he may call it a day on opera after some critical muppets have had a pop at the score for Coraline, berating its relative simplicity. That would be a great shame IMHO. There is no doubt the audience was thoroughly bowled over by MAT’s family opera, even if these critics, who presumably never were, or never had, kids, are too blinkered to appreciate its appeal.

I don’t doubt a fair few of these critics get off on the gross, uber-mensch, toddler fantasies of racist, anti-semite Richard Wagner. Hmmmm…..

Carducci Quartet at St John’s Smith Square review ****

 

The Carducci Quartet

St John’s Smith Square, 23rd March 2018

This was the second time I had heard the Carduccis perform the first five Philip Glass string quartets, following their performance at Kings Place as part of the marvellous Minimalism Unwrapped year long festival in 2015. They are, along with the Smith Quartet, (whose recording I have), and the Kronos Quartet, the experts in these works. The First Quartet dates from 1966, the next four from 1983, 1985, 1989 and 1991 respectively. Glass has composed a further three quartets in recent years, including one a couple of months ago, as well as a couple of other works for this ensemble drawn from music for films. I need to hear them.

Mind you there are an awful lot of Philip Glass compositions that I have yet to hear. I suspect I won’t. No matter. You’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Of course that isn’t true but if you know your Glass you will know what I mean. I do find his chamber and piano music more intriguing than some of the larger scale works and, because I think the string quartet is the sine non qua of Western art music, these babies are my faves. There is more contrast, and therefore drama, than in the larger scale works though it is all relative.

The First Quartet was composed when Glass was in Paris studying under Nadia Boulanger, mixing with arty types and rejecting modernist composers, the likes of Xenakis, Boulez and Stockhausen, not because he couldn’t get on with their vibe but because he wanted to take a different course. He alighted on repetition and rhythm via Ravi Shankar and Indian classical music. Given that this was pretty much his first attempt at this new style it really is an impressive piece. There is still a degree of dissonance and apparent atonality which relates to modernism but the little cells of music in its two untitled movements, and the contrapuntal effects, are recognisably Glassian.

The Second Quartet, titled Company, was commissioned to accompany a monologue written by the master Samuel Beckett. The first and third, and second and fourth, movements are related and the soundworld is the classic harmonic progressions we know and, most of the time, love. The Third Quartet is drawn from the soundtrack that Glass composed for Paul Schrader’s film Mishima, about the eponymous Japanese novelist, though Glass had the quartet in mind throughout. There are six movements in total and they relate to the passages in the film, filmed in black and white, which flashback to Mishima’s childhood. They are varied in colour, playing with metrical accents and harmonic ideas.

The Fourth Quartet is a tribute to artist Brian Buczak and consists of three movements. This is a much more substantial piece than its predecessors and has pronounced elements of the Romantic referring, as it does, to the quartets of Schubert and Dvorak. The first movement moves away from familiar Glass territory into more complex polytonality, there is a yearning lyricism in the slower second movement and the third movement runs close to a chorale. This is surprisingly moving stuff.

The Fifth Quartet again titled Mishima also packs more of an emotional punch than you might expect from a cursory listen to Glass’s music. The very short first movement’s material appears again in the later four movements but we immediately know, with its pizzicato passages and long,melancholic phrases, that this is going to be a bit different. The second movement takes us back to more familiar Glass territory with triadic ostinatos for the lower strings, but even here the surface melodies reveal syncopations and unexpected shifts in phrasing. The pace hots ups a bit in the third movement, with a familiar motoric call and response, but the same elements recur before a shift into minor mode and the train slows down to a stop. The fourth movement starts slower, with a repeated swirl which accelerates, is subjected to some dissonant reworking, before slowing again. The last movement contains a much broader canvas of soaring lines and intricate figurations, interrupted by the slower themes from the first movement, before ending with a single pizzicato line. You would guess that this was “minimalist” but you might think it came from today’s generation and not from Glass himself.

Now I get why revivals of Glass operas can reliably pack out the ENO, terrific singing (especially choral), though not necessarily in an accessible language, a colourful production, a story, (though not much of one), but musically these are built up of big slabs of repetition. In contrast the string quartets never outstay their welcome and, in this particular case, you can see the best possible advocates perform them for not much more than a tenner, in the ever atmospheric SJSS. So it was a shame to see it less than half full.

So come on all you young’uns. If you can reclaim the opera house from us pensioner types you can do the same to the SJSS which, I have to admit, probably needs a dose of diverse blood.

 

 

 

BBC Symphony Orchestra and Vilde Frang at the Barbican Hall review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, Vilde Frang (violin)

Barbican Hall, 21st March 2018

  • Anna Clyne – This Midnight Hour
  • Benjamin Britten – Violin Concerto, Op 15
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 6 in F major “Pastoral”, Op 68

The Violin Concerto is one of those Britten pieces that takes a bit of time to get used to. It was written in 1939 so contains plenty of the youthful flashiness, and debts to Stravinsky, which characterise early BB, but with a more serious intent which reflects his admiration for Alban Berg, whose own Violin Concerto, was the last in a frustratingly thin oeuvre. BB attended the posthumous premiere of Berg’s masterpiece in 1936, in Barcelona in the shadow of the forthcoming Spanish Civil War, as well as two further performances later in the year. Understandably he was mightily impressed.

BB’s own concerto was premiered in New York in March 1940 by the Philharmonic under John Barbirolli, given that he and Peter Pears were stuck there following the outbreak of war. The British premiere was in April 1941 in BB’s absence. Despite BB’s revisions in 1950, 1954 and 1965, which brings a little more of the late Britten’s soundworld to the violin part, the piece has historically been more admired than loved, but it has developed a bit more of a following in recent years.

Which means that some of today’s finest violinists have taken up the BB VC cause. These include Janine Jansen who played the piece with the LSO last year under Semyon Bychkov in this hall last year. This is not a concerto full of showy virtuosity, the soloist works on the ideas with the orchestra, but it does require a formidable technique. Ms Jansen certainly has that but the performance overall was a bit more athletic and weighty than I might have liked (though maybe that was the influence of the Mahler on the bill).

In contrast Vilde Frang, who has also recently recorded the piece, seemed a little bit more delicate, most obviously in the pianissimo sections, and the double stopping, of which there is a surfeit in the Scherzo, more Baroqueish than Modernist. This lighter, though still enthralling touch, made the final coda, constructed in BB’s favourite Passacaglia form, even more irresolute. a good thing in my book. The first movement, in sonata form, opens with a little rumble on the timps, then the bassoon takes up the tune, and then the rest of the orchestra, returning to it ostinato through the movement, whilst the violin moves in and out with its uneasy, song-like lament. The second theme is also martial in intent; there is a link to Shostakovich, but with more elegance and less hectoring. This theme is taken up by the violin, not the orchestra, in the recapitulation which ends with an unsteady coda. The second movement scherzo is spiky and Prokofievian in feel, with a very sinister transition to a tutti before ending with a cadenza, based on the first movement tunes, in which Ms Frang excelled. The ground bass which underpins the variations in the final movement is a bit wobbly in terms of tone, at one point D major triumphs, ending with a simple chant, over which the violin dances around, never quite closing out.

I think it is the uncertain tone, literally and metaphorically, that makes the BB VC seem like harder work than it actually is. Played like this though it is up there with the very best of BB’s works which require a full orchestra, the contemporary Sinfonia da Requiem and the War Requiem. It is a lot less knotty that the Cello Symphony that’s for sure. Having said that BB’s textures always work better for me in the pieces for smaller orchestras. I went back to the benchmark recording I have, the ECO under BB himself with Mark Lubotsky as soloist. Maybe I was just in a good mood at the concert but I reckon Ms Frang and Sakari Oramo gave them a pretty good run for their money, especially in the opening movement, which seemed to get to the point more quickly.

The BB VC was preceded by the London premiere of a 12 minute work written by Anna Clynne, British born now working in NYC. It was written for the Orchestre National d’Ille de France where she was resident composer. It is resolutely tonal and packs a hell of a punch. It is pretty sexy stuff too, as was her intention, based, as it is, on Baudelaire’s poe Harmonie du soir and one line from a poem by a chap called Jimenez about a nude lady running through the night. She packs a lot into the piece, kicking off with a rushing theme low down in the bass and cellos, moving to some sparkling woodwind, a slab of Brucknerian grandeur and then a Ravel like sharp waltz, before the whole thing seems to whirr around again. Apparently Ms Clyne notates her score with mood markings, intimate, melting, ominous, feverish, ferocious, aggressive, skittish, beautiful, eerie, which is easily comprehended. I have got much better at taking in contemporary compositions at the first, (and often only), outing, but this piece doesn’t require too much concentration, so immediate is its impact. Seems like the audience agreed judging by the reaction and deserved applause when Ms Clyne came out of the audience.

Which meant that, unusually, Beethoven took the back seat. Absolutely nothing wrong with Mr Oramo and the BBCSO’s take on the Pastoral but there wasn’t too much to get the pulse racing. The detail was there but the pacing was relaxed and the orchestra didn’t seem as engaged as when they are getting their teeth into unfamiliar repertoire or having to convince the big crowds at the Proms. Brooks babbled, birds sand, peasants partied, lambs gambolled, the storm came and went, but Mr Oramo didn’t seem to find the genuinely symphonic in the way others have. Still it’s Beethoven so pipe down Tourist and be happy with your lot.

 

 

 

My favourite classical concerts of 2017

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Right I know it is a bit late in the day but I wanted to make a list of the concerts I enjoyed most from last year. So everything that got a 5* review based on my entirely subjective criteria is ordered below. Top is Sir Simon and the LSO with their Stravinsky ballets. Like it was going to be anything else.

Anyway no preamble. No waffle. Barely any punctuation. Part record, part boast. Comments welcome.

  • LSO, Simon Rattle – Stravinsky, The Firebird (original ballet), Petrushka (1947 version), The Rite of Spring – Barbican Hall – 24th September
  • Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals – Reich Tehillim, Drumming – Royal Festival Hall – 5th May
  • Isabelle Faust, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Bernhard Forck – JS Bach Suite No 2 in A Minor BWV 1067a, Violin Concerto in E Major BWV 1042, Violin Concerto in A Minor BWV 1041, Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043, CPE Bach String Symphony in B Minor W 182/5 – Wigmore Hall – 29th June
  • Jack Quartet – Iannis Xenakis, Ergma for string quartet, Embellie for solo viola, Mikka ‘S’ for solo violin, Kottos for solo cello, Hunem-Iduhey for violin and cello, ST/4 –1, 080262 for string quartet – Wigmore Hall – 25th February
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Gerald Barry Chevaux de Frise, Beethoven Symphony No 3 in E Flat Major Eroica – Barbican Hall – 6th June 2017
  • Nederlands Kamerkoor,Peter Dijkstra – Sacred and Profane – Britten Hymn to St Cecilia, Gabriel Jackson Ave Regina caelorum, Berio Cries of London, Lars Johan Werle Orpheus, Canzone 126 di Francesca Petraraca, Britten Sacred and Profane – Cadogan Hall – 8th March
  • Tim Gill cello, Fali Pavri piano, Sound Intermedia – Webern 3 kleine Stücke, Op. 11, Messiaen ‘Louange à l’Éternite du Jesus Christ’ (‘Praise to the eternity of Jesus’) from Quartet for the End of Time, Henze Serenade for solo cello, Arvo Pärt Fratres, Xenakis Kottos for solo cello, Jonathan Harvey Ricercare una melodia for solo cello and electronics, Thomas Ades ‘L’eaux’ from Lieux retrouvés, Anna Clyne Paint Box for cello and tape, Harrison Birtwistle Wie Eine Fuga from Bogenstrich – Kings Place – 6th May
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Mark Stone – Gerald Barry Beethoven, Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1 and 2 – Barbican Hall – 2nd June
  • Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Howarth – Monteverdi Vespers 1610 – Barbican Hall – 23rd June
  • Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Murray Perahia – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Piano Concertos No 2 in B flat major and No 4 in G major – Barbican – 20th February
  • London Sinfonietta and students, Lucy Shaufer, Kings Place Choir – Luciano Berio, Lepi Yuro, E si fussi pisci, Duetti: Aldo, Naturale, Duetti: Various, Divertimento, Chamber Music, Sequenza II harp, Autre fois, Lied clarinet, Air, Berceuse for Gyorgy Kurtag, Sequenza I flute, Musica Leggera, O King – Kings Place – 4th November
  • Maurizio Pollini – Schoenberg 3 Pieces for piano, Op.11, 6 Little pieces for piano, Op.19, Beethoven, Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique), Piano Sonata in F sharp, Op.78 (à Thérèse), Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata) – RFH – 14th March
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Gerald Barry – Beethoven Septet Op 20, Piano Trio Op 70/2. Gerald Barry Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park – Milton Court Concert Hall – 30th May
  • Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Yefim Bronfman – Beethoven Piano Concerto No 4, Prokofiev Symphony No 5 – Barbican Hall – 24th November
  • Britten Sinfonia, Helen Grime – Purcell Fantasia upon one note, Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Colin Matthew, A Purcell Garland, Helen Grime Into the Faded Air, A Cold Spring, Knussen Cantata, Ades Court Studies from The Tempest, Britten Sinfonietta, Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks – Milton Court Hall – 20th September

 

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at Milton Court review ****

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Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Kaspars Putnins (conductor)

Milton Court Concert Hall, 30th January 2018

Arvo Part

  • Solfeggio
  • Summa
  • Magnificat
  • Zwei Beter
  • The Woman With the Alabaster Box
  • Nunc dimittis
  • Dopo la vittoria

Cyrillus Kreek

  • Onnis on inimene (Blessed is the Man)
  • Psalm 104

Jonathan Harvey

  • Plainsongs for Peace and Light
  • The Angels

Veljo Tormis

  • Kutse jaanitulele from Jaanilaulud (St John’s Day Songs for Midsummer Eve)
  • Raua needmine (Curse Upon Iron)

Now I gather that the Estonian people like a sing-song. Choirs are a big deal there and choral singing and national identity are tightly bound together. They even had a Singing Revolution between 1987 and 1991 as they sought independence from the Soviet Union. So this evening was an event and was graced with the presence of no less than Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas.

Now I am not going to pretend this was the main draw for me. Profound apologies Your Excellency, but what intrigued me was the opportunity to here some of the choral works of the mighty Arvo Part sung by his country men and women. Albeit mostly in Latin, with a German, English and Italian text thrown in for good measure. Now I genuinely believe that the magic of Part’s “holy minimalist” tintinnabuli can work on anyone. I believe I am right in saying he is the most performed living “classical” composer. That doesn’t mean people are whistling Speigel am Speigel on every street corner though. This is still a minority pastime, but I do think there is something in his music, (and the spaces between the notes), which can burrow into the soul of all who come across it. Not that they have souls. That is obviously mumbo-jumbo. Old Arvo might sign up to Orthodox Christianity but not me. But it does something. Even if it is just to clear the head and leave you suspended in the sound for the duration of the piece.

So it was a pleasure to rope in MSBD to the Part party. Now, in retrospect, it might have been better to break him in gently with the usual programmatic device of interspersing Part’s choral works with other contemporary composers who relish the challenge of a choir as well as selected Renaissance masters. Even I have to admit that seven of Part’s choral works back to back can induce a slowing of the heart rate that is difficult to distinguish from slumber.

The opener Solfeggio is particularly interesting. It was originally written in 1964, though I think refined in 1993, which means it actually came before Part announced himself to the world with the bang. crash, wallop of Credo for chorus, orchestra and piano in 1968. This remember was when Part was a paid-up serialist, although Credo for my money is still a cracking piece of music. Solfeggio asks the choir to trot out an ascending C major row in strict serial fashion, singing, would you believe, “do re mi … “, but you’d be hard pressed to tell it apart from the “classic” Part style which emerged in 1977 after the several year hiatus and his personal enlightenment.

Summa is a setting of the Credo from the Latin Mass, though its title conceals its origin,  composed in the pivotal year of 1977. It was, along with Part’s settings of the Magnificat (1989) and Nunc dimitis (2001) for the Anglican evensong, the most entrancing of the evening’s performances. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has a bewitching and very exact delivery with clear definition across the parts. This means the intriguing shifts that Part employs here, and the shimmering climaxes, especially in the Nunc, seemed more suited to their style. In contrast the more direct The Woman with the Alabaster Box from 1997, sung in English and which sees adjacent thirds appear under long sustained notes, was less thrilling to me than the Latin texts, which are all based on Part’s “classic” stepwise triads.

Zwei Beter, based on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican I gather, is a more complex beast, (it’s all relative mind you), with denser harmonies and sung in German. Now one way or another I have recordings of most of Part’s works, (I think some remain unrecorded), but I didn’t know this piece at all. In contrast I am familiar with Dopo la vittoria from 1996 which is also somewhat more “complex” than the Latin texts. Sung in Italian this “piccolo cantata” tells the story of the baptism of Augustine by St Ambrose, (who apparently broke into song whilst doing the necessary), the patron saint of Milan for which city it was written. There is a discernible story with defined sections, including a brisk opening and ending, and some pronounced homophony at crucial, uplifting points. Who said Part all sounds the same.

After the interval we were treated to a pair of psalm settings by Cyrillus Kreek, an Estonian composer from the generation prior to Part, and a man who devoted his life to setting the country’s rich legacy of folk songs into choral arrangements. These songs stem from the wave of Estonian nationalism that stirred in the second half of the C19. These two pieces were very easy on the ear and sung with real conviction by the choir. A pair of works by British composer Jonathan Harvey followed, from the end of his career. Harvey regularly turned to choirs alongside his electronic and chamber pieces. The Angels was set by the Bishop of Winchester to which Harvey adds a hummed accompaniment. Plainsongs is more substantial polyphony with some beautiful, gently dissonant passages across its sixteen parts.

Finally the EPCC treated the audience to two works from Veljo Tormis, who passed away last year, after actually retiring in 2000. Slightly older than Part, but possibly even more renowned in his homeland, with a huge body of choral work to his name. Most of the settings stem from Estonian folk songs and I gather it is fair to say he has inspired multiple generations with his music. He was born during Estonia’s short lived inter-war period of independence, lived through the German and Soviet annexations and the Socialist Republic, and through to independence again. He mixed with all the big names during his musical education in Russia and was “honoured” with his own KGB files.

The first piece belongs to a cycle which describes the important Midsummer celebrations. It starts simply enough but builds into something more sophisticated. The Germanic influence is clear. But this was just a taster for the extraordinary Curse of Iron which followed. Apparently this gets a fair few airings outside Estonia and it isn’t difficult to see why. To the rhythm of a simple drum beat throughout, and with solo bass and tenor parts, Mr Tormis sets a story based on a Finnish epic, but sung in Estonian. It is, like it says, a curse on iron, as you do, and it is very dramatic. A ritual with repeated ostinatos, I have never heard anything like it. Neither had MSBD. Imagine a kind of shamanistic chant which ends up with sopranos warning against nuclear proliferation. Can’t. Well go and hear it then. It’s on I-Player since the concert was recorded for Radio 3.

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir concert recording

A riveting way to end the concert and unsurprisingly the EPCC, and especially their Latvian conductor Kaspars Putnins, were having a ball during it. If I were part of the Estonian guest party I would have found it pretty difficult not to get up and join in. Pride in their country but pride in Europe too methinks. Great stuff.

Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall review *****

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Britten Sinfonia

Wigmore Hall, 24th January 2018

  • Heinrich Biber – Mystery Sonata No 1 “The Annunciation”
  • Philip Glass – Orbit
  • Leo Chadburn – Five Loops for the Bathyscaphe
  • Arvo Part – Spiegel am Spiegel
  • WA Mozart – Piano Trio No 3 K502

There is something of the spirit of punk about the Britten Sinfonia. They don’t have a principal conductor or director and play with pretty much who they like. They also play pretty much what they like with a refreshingly cavalier attitude to programming. I love them, whether it be a Bach St John Passion, electrifying accounts of the Beethoven symphonies under Thomas Ades, minimalist classics, Stravinsky, Ravel or contemporary British composers, all of which I have heard them perform in the last year or so.

So I was looking forward to this. Leo Chadburn’s new work Five Loops for Bathyscaphe, is scored for piano trio and electronics and runs for 10 minutes or so. So Jacqueline Shave (that’s her above), one of the violin leaders of the BS, Caroline Dearnley, the principal cello, and Huw Watkins, principal piano, had another 50 minutes or so to fill. What to choose? Mozart? Why not. After all his B flat minor trio is pretty much the first piano trio as we know the form, with all three instruments contributing rather than just a piano sonata with a bit of string diddling attached which previously defined the Classical form. And Arvo Part’s Speigel am Speigel? Yep, it’s a slam-dunk crowd-pleaser for violin and piano. But chucking in Philip Glass’s short piece, Orbit, for solo cello. And the first of Biber’s Mystery sonatas? Well as it turned out it all slotted together perfectly.

Now I have been unlucky in my endeavours to hear a performance of Biber’s Mystery, (or Rosary), sonatas for violin and continuo live. There are 15 of these chaps, divided into 3 cycles, Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious, plus a closing Passacaglia for solo violin. Each one takes as its subject one of the Catholic “rosary”episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary. They were likely written in 1676 but were unknown until 1905 ,and they are one of the earliest and best known examples of “scordatura”, where the violin is tuned in a way that is not standard. This permits all sorts of funky effects. Don’t test me on this but it is pretty straightforward even for a dumbass like me to hear the differences. One of the Vivaldi Op 9 Le Cetra concertos does this, Stravinsky does it at the start of the Firebird and Ligeti’s Violin Concerto is a prime example. Mind you Ligeti chucks so many effects into his concerto I am hard pressed to know where it is.

Biber tests the skill of the violinist to the max so it is a unlikely anyone was up to the job in the C17. What is on the page doesn’t correspond to what hits the ear. Don’t worry it doesn’t get too weird but it does create sounds, chords and harmonies with real drama. Now unfortunately we only got the first instalment here, which is the one which doesn’t arse about with the tuning, but it was still a blinder to open the concert with and Ms Shave delivered. It opens with a virtuoso figuration, being the Angel appearing before  our Mary, and them moves into a gentler sort of theme and variations.

The Glass “sonata” was new to me. The programme notes suggest Glass is referencing Bach’s mighty cello suites. He is. But then again anyone that writes a piece for solo cello is working in the shadow of the master. Even so lots of fancy figuration and double stopping does conjure up Bach’s counterpoint and Glass’s ordered repetitions are redolent of JSB’s own structures. Ms Dearnley is at home here as she is in the Baroque.

Now I have listened to, and seen performed, Part’s Speigel am Speigel, more times than I care to remember. It is one of my favourite pieces of music period. Which probably shows how easily pleased I am. This was one of his first “tintinnabuli” works, along with Fur Alina, from 1978, and it is “minimal” even by his standards. Simple arpeggios in piano and rising, then falling, scales from violin. If you are ever too worked up about anything just pop this on. Hey presto, blood pressure plummets. Now Ms Shave and Mr Watkins seemed to take this at a marginally faster tempo than I am used to, (it is all relative as not much happens), and took a minute of two to get in the groove, but once there it was as good a performance as you will hear.

I tried with the Mozart. Honestly. If I switch off and let it drift around and through me then it is pleasant enough but I still don’t really get it. Just too nice. Obviously there are bits of Mozart, and times when I listen to it, like watching a great Figaro, where it lifts me up and takes me away, but this wasn’t one of them.

Which brings me to the Leo Chadburn premiere, co-commissioned by the BS and Wigmore. I knew nothing about Mr Chadburn but I gather he is one of these new brand of musician/composer who doesn’t give a fig for established boundaries. He writes and performs across genres, releasing three synthpop albums a few years ago as alter ego Simon Bookish, and remixing for the likes of Grizzly Bear. He can certainly sing a bit I gather. This piece takes the classic piano trio instrumentation and hooks in pre-recorded voices from himself and Gemma Sanders, and some sparse electronica. It graphically describes the journey on 23rd January 1963 of oceanographers Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh to the bottom of the ocean. Eleven kms down to be exact in the Mariana trench, in that little ball Bathyscaphe Trieste thing. The idea of the piece is to create a sense of motionlessness in the music, deep and watery I guess, and allow the voices and words to tell the story. It succeeds admirably. There is nothing to scare anyone off in this simple but very effective sound-world. Think eerie harmonics from the strings and muffled chords from both ends of the range for the piano, as well as some theatrical plucking from inside the piano. The whole thing grips from first to last. It deserves a much wider audience. I am sure Mr Chadburn knows how to make that happen.

This whole concert was a joy. Music for everyone. Even if they know absolutely f*ck all about any of it. Still I suppose if they all prefer listening to a little ginger chap who has the temerity to suggest he is the next Van Morrison, then who am I to argue. Just seems a shame. Still that’s your pesky, high/low culture divide in late neo-liberal, capitalist society for you.