Prom 70 Jonny Greenwood at the Royal Albert Hall review *****

Prom 70 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, Hugh Brunt (conductor), Daniel Pioro violin), Katherine Tinker (piano), Jonny Greenwood (bass guitar, tanpura), Nicolas Magriel (tanpura)

Royal Albert Hall, 10th September 2019

  • Biber – Mystery Sonata no 16, Passacaglia in G minor
  • Penderecki – Sinfonietta for strings, Vivace
  • Jonny Greenwood – Three Miniatures from Water No 3
  • Jonny Greenwood – 88 (No 1)
  • Steve Reich – Pulse
  • Jonny Greenwood – Horror vacui for solo violin and 68 strings

Bit misleading to only put Jonny Greenwood’s name in the title since as you can see there were a whole host of collaborators on this fascinating evening, but then again it was the floppy haired, mercurial JG who put the thing together and was the main draw for the just-about full house.

And a smart programme he conjured up too. I will be brief. Daniel Pioro kicked off with a fine, sharp, rendition of the Passacaglia from Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. I have banged on about this exquisite piece of music before, a Baroque bestseller. Hopefully a few more punters were turned on by it.

It is not difficult to see what Krzysztof Penderecki should be one of JG’s favourite composers and a major influence on his classical, and I would contend, film-score, work. The more Penderecki I hear, and I have heavily invested in recent months, the more I like. It might be modernism for muppets but it works. The Vivace from the Sinfonietta is a kind of moto perpetuo fugal thing. with a clear link back to Bach and Vivaldi, based on a simple note pair. Again hopefully a gateway for some of the audience into KP’s stronger stuff.

JG’s Three Miniatures for piano come from material originally intended for a more substantial string piece, inspired by a Larkin poem. He added a violin line and the drone of a couple of Indian tanpuras, here played by himself and the master of the instrument, Nicolas Magriel. They use a simple octatonic scale much enamoured of Messaien, chaconne like, and are impossible not to like.

Better still though was 88 (No 1) from 2015 which JG aptly instructs on the score as “like Thelonius Monk copying Glen Gould playing Bach”. Clever Jonny. Pick three of the greatest keyboard sound makers of all time, take another Messaien symmetrical scale structure, create a Bachian fugue and then add Monkian dissonant improvs. Then switch to glissandos and scales so violent that Katherine Tinker, for whom I think this was written, had to wear fingerless gloves. Subtle it ain’t but the audience, rightly, was very impressed. As was I. With music as well as performance.

Given that I am a disciple of all things Reich I never thought I would say this. but Pulse was, on this evening, (well late night actually since the whole thing kicked off at 10.15pm – all right for you student-y, creative types but a stretch for us oldies, even those who are economically inactive), the least interesting thing on show. Pulse dates from 2015, and is, despite the title, a long way from the minimalism of the 1970s. Melodic canons, with a whiff of bebop, shift through changing chords which then start to unravel, all anchored with JG’s throbbing bass “line”.

Finally the world premiere of Horror vacui, a substantial, near half hour, for pretty much all of the BBCNOW and BBC Youth Ensemble’s string sections and Daniel Pioro as soloist, or maybe, “leader”. Penderecki, like so many modernist peers started off studying electronic music. JG wanted to take live acoustic orchestral string sounds and replicate the soundworlds of early electronica. Horror vacui is the fear of open space. Good title as the sound never lets up. DP creates a line and the string orchestra then “manipulates” it with reverbs, echoes, resonances and stretches, each of the 7 movements mimicking a classic electronic sound technique. As experimental music brilliant. As an exercise in concept, idea and technique brilliant. As an entertaining sound world brilliant. OK so maybe some of the ideas were over extended, and maybe this is written with as much commercial as artistic purpose but it still did it for me. JG, unlike just about every other rock and roller who has a stab at it, can compose for an orchestra, (he trained as a violinist before Colin invited little bro into the band), that much is obvious from the film scores. But increasingly it is clear from his super serious works. Yet this is still easy enough to grasp and enjoy.

And remember as I think I may have remarked previously on these pages I don’t like Radiohead. Even though literally everything about me should say otherwise.

Terrific evening. More of the same next years please BBC Proms people.

Just one more thing. Jonny. If you are reading this get yourself a nice, crisp white shirt for next time eh, son. If the BBCNOW and Youth Ensemble members can go to all that trouble it wouldn’t hurt you to dump the T shirt.

Stockhausen chamber music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Dirk Rothbrust (percussion), Marco Stroppa (sound design)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2nd June 2019

Karlheinz Stockhausen

  • Zyklus for percussion
  • Mantra for 2 pianos with 12 antique cymbals, woodblock & 2 ring modulators (and shortwave radio/tape) 

I confess. I was defeated by the performance of Donnerstag aus Licht by Le Balcon and the London Sinfonietta in the Royal Festival Hall a couple of weeks before this. This is the “accessible” Thursday instalment of Stockhausen cycle of operas taken from the days of the week and mixes his own personal history with that of the Germany of his youth before, and this is where I ducked out, going off into a load of cosmic mumbo jumbo as was the maestro’s want. That is not to say that I wasn’t fascinated by the first act and a half, musically and in terms of the performance, just that I couldn’t engage with whatever message is being conveyed. And I was a bit tired.

So maybe I had to conclude that I was just not up to the task of understanding the work of the man who revolutionised contemporary classical music. I would expect that the vast majority of you, (vast in this context being an abstract concept), if you can even be bothered to YouTube a bit of Stockhausen’s music, will think it a mighty load of old shite. I sympathise. But if you find yourself being stealthily drawn into the world of modern and contemporary classical music, for sure there are no tunes but structures, forms, sounds, ideas, emotions, inventions, in fact everything music is, is all still present and correct, and you are of a slightly nerdy bent, fascinated by the “maths” of music, then old Karlheinz needs to be tackled. Even if he was a grade A space cadet, believing he emanated from the star Sirius.

So imagine my surprise when, here in this recital, and in other smaller scale and earlier works I have subsequently explored, I discovered that there is far less to be intimidated about that I had imagines. In fact some of KS’s music positively rocks.

Case in point. Zyklus for percussion. Zyklus means cycle I gather in German. So the instruments are arranged in a circle. The “score” in a ring binder. The soloist can start where he/she likes and go round until he/she gets back to where he/she started. The notation is readable either way up as well. The keyed instruments, (marimba, vibraphone), are represented with traditional notation, but only for glissandos, but for the unpitched instruments, (drums, tom-toms, cymbals and other assorted metal and wooden paraphernalia,) KS dreamt up a new, graphic, depiction of the rhythms. All instruments are within easy reach of the player.

Given the freedom afforded the percussionist, and the vast array of instruments, this is as much theatre as music. Dirk Rothbrust, who works out of Cologne, is plainly a dab hand at this sort of caper and a born showman, channeling his inner Bonzo Bonham. However, clocking in at 15 minutes, Zyklus avoids the worst excesses of the 1970s heavy rock gods. And it is way more interesting in terms of textures and qualities.

The main event, the Mantra for 2 pianos and other stuff, was a far meatier affair. Over an hour in fact. I was expecting much from Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, who are the unparalleled champions of this sort of music. And they delivered. This is a heck of a piece of music. Can’t say I was transfixed throughout but there is still much to take in, admire and, yes, even enjoy.

The piece, premiered in 1970, marked a return to fully notated music after the years of experimentation with more esoteric “indeterminate” instructions for performers. It wears its Asian musical influences on its sleeves and, surprise, surprise, it actually has a tune you can hum. Namely the counterpointed melody, (“formula” in Stockhausen speak), of the “Mantra” which is subsequently subject to seemingly endless expansion and contraction. Not the kind of easy to follow repetition offered up by minimalism, nor the classic theme and variations, (as no notes are varied), but, mostly, very structured transpositions and transformations of the four segment, thirteen note, mantra, initially just four very condensed chords.

With electronic manipulation via ring modulators, (nope, me neither, but fortunately your man Marco Stroppa in the middle of the hall was handy with electronics), and some antique cymbals (crotales) and wood blocks thrown in for texture and to allow the two pianists to signal the change of sections to each other. Quick, slow, loud, quiet, inversions, oscillations, vibratos, some burbling morse code from a short wave radio, (it was the 1960s kids, no mobiles or Spotify), fights between the two pianos, even some vocal squawking from M Aimard and Ms Stefanovich at one point. It all ends with a kind of 10 minute speeded up reprise of the previous hour before the mantra growls into the end.

Read Wiki if you want to learn more about the ingenuity of the structure. Let’s be honest though it will only make sense to the ear of the expert. But, I repeat, what is amazing is that even a dummy like the Tourist, whose only qualification for enjoying this sort of stuff is open enthusiasm, can discern the patterns and can be intrigued, and at times amazed, by the results. Like Zyklus the “performance” adds to the impact of the music.

OK so it won’t be the opening number at the next demeaning shindig Chez Tourist, nor am I likely to invest in a recording, but this was undeniably worth the investment of a few quid and an hour. And the QEH has the ideal acoustic to present such a piece now all the junk has been cleaned out. Certainly better than the RFH next door.

Go on give this sort of stuff a whirl. I dare you. You never know.