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

Igor Levit

Barbican Hall, 26th January 2020

Dmitri Shostakovich – 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel

Wilton’s Music Hall, 16th January 2020

I was much taken with one of Told By An Idiot’s previous productions Napoleon Disrobed, which featured its co-founder and AD Paul Hunter alongside Ayesha Antoine, whose career unsurprisingly has gone fro strength to strength after she starting out in soaps, and was directed by the shape-shifting wonder that is Kathryn Hunter. For TSTOCCAS Paul Hunter similarly spins a yarn from an alternative history, this time inspired by the chance, and brief, meeting between Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel in 1910 on a passenger ship bound for New York as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Subsequently for two years Stan acted as Charlie’s understudy, though he, Chaplin, barely acknowledged this.

In homage to the silent movie era the action is largely silent, with on stage piano accompaniment from Sara Alexander, (to a score from talented jazz composer Zoe Rahman which even manages to squeeze in a hip-hop routine), who is also roped in to the action as Charlie’s Mum, alongside the diminutive Amalia Vitale who plans Charlie, Jerome Marsh-Reid who plays a lanky Stan, as well as a few supporting roles, Nick Haverson who plays impressario Fred Karno as well as Oliver Hardy, Charlie’s Dad and others. Ionna Curelea’s set, an ingenious children’s playground ship/theatre/hotel that works vertically as much as it does horizontally and fills the Wilton’s stage, is the backdrop for a jaw-dropping display of perfectly choreographed physical theatre. Much credit to physical comedy consultant, master of mime Jos Hauben, and dance choreographer Nuna Sandy. OK so the time, past, future and present jumbled up, and character shifts, even with video (Dom Baker) and lighting (Aideen Malone) cues, are a little tricky to follow but I guess that Paul Hunter, who also directs, has reasoned that the visual comic entertainment is enough to draw us in until the narrative becomes clear. In this he is right.

PH’s mission is to create fantasy out of fact, though with less profound consequences than, say, a certain numpty POTUS, which explains the central scene where Chaplin accidentally bops Stan on the head with a frying pan and disposes of the body overboard, which provides some of the most impressive of many pratfalls and slapstick(s). The more poignant side of early comedy is not left untouched notably in the scenes detailing Charlie’s Victorian London childhood, complete with drunken parents and midnight flits. When even the stamina of three actors plus pianist is not enough to fill the drama an audience member is roped in for piano duty. And, in maybe the funniest episode, Amalia Vitale, who nails Chaplin’s mannerisms, persuades another punter to join her on stage for a swim. All secured through charm alone and without saying a word.

90 minutes is probably as long as the cast can physically deliver and the show might benefit from excising a handful of ideas and scenes but if you really want to see sustained theatrical invention, every mime trick in the book is rolled out, and have more than a chuckle or two, (and thereby distract from multiple Ends of the World angst), then this is I can heartily recommend. I see the tour continues to Northampton and Exeter at the end of this month.

Joanna MacGregor at the Wigmore Hall review ****

Joanna MacGregor (piano)

Wigmore Hall, 11th November 2019

Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

  • Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) – Le rappel des oiseaux
  • François Couperin (1668-1733) – Les fauvétes plaintives
  • Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) – Le merle noir
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau – La poule
  • Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) – On an Overgrown Path X. The barn owl has not flown away
  • Sir Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934) – Oockooing Bird
  • Hossein Alizâdeh (b. 1951) – Call of the Birds
  • Henry Purcell (c.1659-1695) – Ground in C minor ZD221
  • Philip Glass (b. 1937) – Koyaanisqatsi Prophecies
  • William Byrd (c.1540-1623) – My Ladye Nevells Booke First Pavane
  • Philip Glass – Trilogy Sonata Knee Play No. 4 from Einstein on the Beach
  • Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) – Ciacona in F minor

I am guessing Johanna McGregor started out interrogating her extensive repertoire for an hour of solo piano pieces connected with birds, then thought, sod it, why doubt I chuck some Purcell, Byrd and Glass into the mix and end with Pachelbel. Good call. This genuinely was a delight from start to finish. Not a single wasted note, even from the composer, Hossein Alizadeh, whose work I had never heard.

Whilst Ms MacGregor dips into the Romantic repertoire, notably Chopin, it is the C20 and Baroque (especially Bach) for which she is most well known. Suits me. If pushed I would say I preferred the Couperin to the Rameau when it came to the battle, though both are so elegant there was no hint of aggression, between the French Baroque masters. The Rameau comes from a suite and is comprised of two related halves. Same structure in the Couperin, which represents warblers, and the second Rameau, hens pecking away in a courtyard that Respighi went on to pinch.

It was the Messaien that enthralled me. This is the second piece from Le Petite esquisses d’oiseaux, and represents the humble blackbird. Bright chords offset its calls and movement in four changing sections. I need a recording. Let’s see what Santa brings.

The cry of the owl is a warning in Czech and other folklore and here its scary screech here precedes a fading chorale, all beefed up with Janacek’s arpeggios and ostinatos.

The Birtwistle was written when he was just 15 and shows he was already heading off into his own world, albeit here still framed in jolly Satie-ism, and maybe, though he had never heard him, Messaien himself.

Iranian musician Hossein Alizâdeh wrote his Call of the Birds for a lute-like instrument, the shurangiz, and a duduk, similar to an oboe. Ms MacGregor has created her own arrangement of its rhythmic drive. I liked it, like a Middle Eastern jig.

Purcell’s C minor ground is an exemplar of the form, the rising arpeggio of the bass line, seven bars long, in the left hand with a “catch” tune suject to variation in the right, before the bass dies. All over in three minutes like a perfect pop song. The Byrd, a Pavane from the divine Lady Nevell’s Book, one of the first written keyboard collections, is a similar structure, a ground with harmony on top, but way more ornamented. He really was a clever fellow and with a surname to match the theme of the first half.

The first Glass is the typical cycle with in a cycle oscillation of PG’s piano work but was originally scored for chamber ensemble and chorus, coming at the end of the art film by Godfrey Reggio that was a big mainstream hit. The five knee plays connect sections of Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, at five hours long, it needs some breaks, and originally was performed by violin and voices, (where it works better).

The gentle Pachelbel chaconne, a stepwise structure subject to 21 variations, was followed with a more upbeat encore, a Handel Passacaglia, that fitted the bill.

One hour, one instrument. So much to enjoy.

Alls Well That Ends Well at the Jermyn Street Theatre review *****

All’s Well That Ends Well

Jermyn Street Theatre, 6th November 2019

Hard to credit but the Tourist had never seen a production of AWTEW until now. Which made the pleasure in seeing Tom Littler’s pint sized production, in tandem with the Guildford Shakespeare Company, even sweeter. Wiki tells me that AWTEW is, by Will’s standards, a compact play with 13 named characters as well as the usual stand-in “Soldiers, Servants, Gentlemen, and Courtiers”. Mr Littler has whittled it down to a cast of 6 with some clever excisions, revisions, re-inventions, gender changes, doubling and tripling. And some precise choreography, thanks to Cydney Uffindel-Phillips, to make it all fit the tiny JST stage.

Now as far as I can see all the elements of the plot, pinched from The Decameron, are present and correct though I can’t be sure about the detail of the text. Doctor’s daughter Helena, the graceful Hannah Morrish who has already impressed in the RSC’s 2017 series, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus and especially Coriolanus, as well as Simon Godwin’s Tony and Cleo at the NT, is in love with the up himself Bertram, a well judged performance from Gavin Fowler. His Mum the Countess (Miranda Foster take 1) is on board but Helena heads off to Paris to cure the sickly Queen (not King) of France (Miranda Foster take 2) who commands Bertram to marry her as the payment for her healing hands. The cad scoots off to war, with his chum, prize arse Parolles, Robert Mountford having about as much fun as it is possible to have on stage whilst still nominally acting, telling Helena he will truly be hers if she bears his child and wears the family ring. The Countess disowns him, Bertram turns his charm on one Diana (Ceri-Lyn Cissone take 1), she and Helena hatch classic bed swap routine. Ring secured, sexy time wrapped up. Helena fakes death, naturally, Bertram returns home to marry aristo but Helena interrupts. Bertram bowled over. AWTEW.

Overseeing the capers is one Lord Lafew (Stefan Bednarczyk) and Miranda Foster’s final incarnation as a Florentine widow and Mum of Diana. Oh, and of course, there is a whole comic routine mocking the bravery of wind-bag Parolles, facilitated by a handy, invented, soldier Dumaine, also Ceri-Lyn Cissone.

Mr Bednarczyk and Ms Cissone are not on stage just for their, fine, acting skills though but also for their facility on a piano. For, if music be the food of love …. I know wrong play but music is central to this production, though not maybe always quite the tunes you might expect. Helena loves her vinyl collection with Rumours, Horses and Blue, (look ’em up Gen Z), forming the soundtrack which are expanded and extended in some nifty arrangements courtesy of Stefan B himself. I can see why the one-size fits all lyrics of The Chain might fit the AWTEW bill though I was a little less sure elsewhere. But the music acts as a very pleasing counterpoint to the text and creates continuity in the shifts between the scenes.

As I say this is a logistical triumph with lighting (Mark Dymock) and sound (Matt Eaton) tailored to fit Neil Irish and Annett Black’s glam, cardboard box set, which like the play itself, works way better on stage than on page. But that was just the admirable starting point in Tom Littler’s direction. How to make the audience believe that the lovely, perfect in every way, Helena would fall for the shallow, man-chump Bertram? And especially believe his turn on a sixpence, she’s the girl for me, at the end. Is it because he was always secretly in love with her, just paralysed by the class divide? Or is it because he cannot, or will not, lose face at the end?

Not in this reading I think it is because we, like her, believe he can get better and that his initial dismissal is in part youthful inexperience. And she is the maturer, having had to grow up fast after the loss of her parents, (she regularly caresses her keepsake box), and not driven by money or status. Which is what makes it a thoroughly modern rom-com, for both good, it is hard not to like the set up, journey and the happy ending, and bad, it really is still the most sexist tripe when you think about it. But because both hero and heroine learn something about themselves along the way, once again the Bard, gets away with it, in our age as well as his. Of course there is clowning and plotting which are knowing in their familiarity, and, in Parolles, we have one of WS’s finer comic creations, whose comeuppance, as he rats on Bertram, is salutary.

This then is a dreamy, charming productions which has charmers at its heart, including, Queen, Countess and, in her way, Widow, and uses Helena’s unspoken memories as a way to solve some of the “problems” that this lesser-performed play presents. The intimacy of the staging, every single expression is conveyed to very single audience member, and the strength of the performances, also helps to frame and unify the production which just about magics away the abrupt shifts in tone.

And anyway, let’s face it, all this guff about Shakespeare’s problem plays is exactly that. They all contain “problems”. Life is full of problems. Veering from comedy to tragedy, with dead ends, changes of heart and head, and never really making any sense. Will knows that, and knows that we know that. Marriage may have been couched in rather ore prosaic terms in Elizabethan England but Tom Littler has, by rolling with Shakespeare’s invention, found a way to create a minor key classic.

Britten and Shostakovich: LSO at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Denis Matsuev (piano)

Barbican Hall, 31st October 2019

  • Britten – Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from ‘Peter Grimes’
  • Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No 2,
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 6

Right if I am ever to catch up I am going tp have to be ruthless. So this is just for me and just for the sake of completeness.

Britten’s Sea Interludes showed off the colour and virtuosity of the LSO sections and included the Passacaglia where the Borough Brexiteers go after Peter, but wasn’t quite as atmospheric or as unified as some interpretations I have heard (and trust me, much like the Shostakovich here, I have heard a few). More Southwold than Aldeburgh. Still in getting to the darker recesses of the opera itself this was a success.

Prokofiev’s PC No 2 is, by reputation, an absolute bastard to play. Denis Matsuev showed me why in what is, apparently, his party piece. For a big fella he can move his hands, which he needs to, from one end to the other, extravagant crossing in the opening two movements. It was a manly reading, I could imagine Martha Argerich say covering the immense and inventive ground that SP, a mean tinkler of the ivories himself, demands, in a much more graceful way, but this was still a tremendous introduction to a piece, along with the other 4 SP created, that I need to do more work on. These abrupt shifts of mood and idea, the relegation of the orchestra to support act or even lower on the bill, the fact that after a massive opening movement and a ludicrously quick moto perpetuo second, there is no let up in the third, a mechanistic march. And then the forth kicks off again with the piano as percussion thing. Until, of course this being Prokofiev it turns, into, of all things, a folksy Russian jig.

SP originally wrote it in 1913. He left Russia in 1918, though famously, and bullishly, returned, and the original score was destroyed in a fire. So he reconstructed and revised it in 1924. Which maybe. in part, explains why it still sounds so, well, special and unique.

I have heard 4 and 8 of Gianandrea Noseda’s survey of the DSCH symphonies prior to this. This was equally as accomplished if occasionally lacking a little in astringency. No 6 is nuts. After the crowd pleasing, match winner of No 5, which got him back, temporarily in Stalin’s good books, he set out to “communicate feelings of spring happiness and youth”. Usual DSCH deadpan irony. After a sub 20 minute Largo, which feels longer, there is an Allegro galop and finally a rowdy Presto finale. Three movements. All over in half an hour.

What was he up to? Well listen more closely and you hear that, far from wandering off piste again, DSCH was actually very much toe-ing the Classical line. Almost all the material in the opening movement is derived Bach-like from the opening few bars, with clear signposts, from cor anglais, trumpet and harps amongst others, and a second half sonata form set up. The second movement is contrapuntal, more like the fast movements in the later string quartets than anything in other DSCH’s other symphonic manic dances, with a groovy clarinet solo. And the Finale, if you squint your eyes, (or whatever the aural equivalent is), could be Beethoven or even Mozart, an upbeat Rondo to get the feet tapping. Well maybe not quite. Certainly Rossini with another of those gnomic William Tell quotations. My guess is that, even if the thought police had got to work on his fingernails, Dmitri himself wouldn’t have know if he was taking the piss or playing it straight here.

The LSO seemed more on the ball in the symphony than the concerto, perhaps unsurprising given they have been round the block a few times now with GN but, if I am honest, it was the Prokofiev that had most impact. I am getting closer to cracking him I think and Mr Matsuev’s literally banging way as a soloist floated my boat.

Leningrad (No 7) next up though the Tourist won’t be there, (sold out I see which is a good thing) then No 9 (which never gets an airing and it a close cousin of No 6).

P.S. The photo above shows SP and DS in 1940. The fella with the Eraserhead cut is Aram Khachaturian, who, amazingly given the relative safety of his grooves managed to be denounced as a “formalist” along with his two mates, though not for long.

Thomas Ades and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Adès (conductor), Kirill Gerstein (piano), Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir

Royal Festival Hall, 23rd October 2019

  • Sibelius – Nightride and Sunrise, Op 55
  • Thomas Adès – Concerto for piano & orchestra
  • Holst – The Planets, Op 32

An opportunity to break MS into the world of modern/contemporary classical music in the admittedly unthreatening person of the mighty Thomas Ades, here both composer and conductor. Mr Ades is quite possibly my favourite living composer and his take on Beethoven with the Britten Sinfonia provided some of my favourite performances in the last few years. I am pleased to say that my favourite son, whose intellectual curiosity fortunately knows no boundaries. is now a convert. Indeed we both regarded this UK premiere of TA’s 2018 piano concerto, his second after In Seven Days from 2008, as the highlight of the evening, surpassing his predictably astute reading of The Planets.

First up though Sibelius’s sleigh ride inspired tone poem. Now there must have been a time when I thought I liked Sibelius. I have a symphony cycle recording from Simon Rattle and the CBSO and the violin concerto, and I seem to remember both were purchased on the back of live renditions. But now I find him pretty much unlistenable. Big slabs of music where not much happens. Organic yes, nature in all its glory as here, yes, clear themes gently mutated. Night Right and Sunrise is a game of two halves. The chugging sleigh ride rhythms giving way to a restorative chorale. Audience and orchestra deep in concentration, the string players especially in that dotted quaver/semi-quaver repeat, but even TA was unable to help me get it.

Kirill Gerstein, with TA conducting, first performed the piano concerto with the commissioning Boston Symphony Orchestra in March, with performances following in New York, Leipzig, Copenhagen and Cleveland, with Helsinki, Munich, Amsterdam and LA to come. So you can see that this is a “big thing” music wise and will have given TA and KG the opportunity to play with some of the top rank orchestras worldwide. I would be very surprised if this isn’t seen as an instant classic with KG, who plainly loves it, (already performing from memory), being compelled to yield his first mover advantage in the very near future. Hopefully he will get his recording in first as this definitely deserves it.

The first movement, marked Allegramente, jolly, opens with drum rolls and is in sonata form with a march tune between the two themes and an extended cadenza at the end. The second slow movement, Andante gravemente, starts with a melody and countermelody after a chordal intro, and follows this with a lovely second melody idea set against a rising harmony. The final Allegro giojoso restores the merry mood, with a jaunty canon following an opening tumbling theme before a brass clarion heralds a new bouncy boogie with a choral climax. These themes and the call to arms that punctuate them are reworked in many ways but always with soloist, orchestra and conductor flaunting their Gershwinian jazz trousers. Like so much of TA’s music it probably couldn’t exist without Stravinsky, Ravel and Britten, but there is also, more surprisingly as sense of Bartok in the slow movement and Rachmaninov in the finale. But it is Prokofiev that keeps coming to mind especially in the improvisatory piano line with shifting tonality, syncopation, counterpoint, imitation, repetition and light-hearted dissonance all contributing to the buoyant mood. Like a contemporary artist who believes in the enduring value of paint and colour, TA takes inspiration from the best that his forebears have come up with in the last 150 years for this combination and defiantly reworks it. We weren’t the only happy punters.

I love The Planets but recognise that, outside of the big thrills, over familiarity can sometimes dampen the wow factor. Not here though. As with his fresh take on Beethoven, TA, isn’t all driven tempi and flash harry. There are passages of surprisingly muted, dare I say traditional, interpretation, in Mars, in Jupiter, in Uranus. Mind you that’s not to say the LPO, all 109 of them just about crammed on to the RFH stage, didn’t make a heck of a racket in said Mars and Jupiter. Mercury and Uranus showed up TA’s ear for detail amidst the perky Disney bops. However it was in the pulse-y interplay between harp and flute and the strings in Saturn and Neptune that impressed me most.

Top class. MS has asked for another. I will need to tread carefully after this.