Evgeny Kissin, Beethoven piano sonatas at the Barbican Hall review ***

Evgeny Kissin

Barbican Hall, 6th February 2020

Ludwig van Beethoven

  1. Piano Sonata No 8, Op 13 Pathétique
  2. 15 Variations and a Fugue, Op 35
  3. Piano Sonata No 17, Op 31 No 2 Tempest
  4. Piano Sonata No 21, Op 53 Waldstein
  5. Encore: various Bagatelles Op 126, Op 33, Variations Op 76 and Ecossaise WoO 86

A quick pat-down of the still unruly barnet, bounce up the steps and stride purposely across the stage to the single Steinway piano. Quick bow. No score obvs. Then straight into the sombre beauty of the Pathetique’s Grave introduction, before the dotty rush of the ensuing Allegro, the gorgeous Adagio chorale and then the closing Rondo repeats. Then the Eroica Variations which take that famous opening questioning, slightly arch, melody from the finale of the Third Symphony, and present a half hour of extraordinary variations (15) around it with closing fugue. The highlight for me. The Tempest, with uncertainty the key to the opening’s barrage of arpeggios and trills, the siren song of the Adagio and then the desperate, incessant waves of the closing Allegretto. Finally the Waldstein with the rolling exploration of the mysterious Allegro, the short, equally weird Adagio which never gets going before jumping into the closing Rondo which builds and builds and builds, a symphony dressed up as a sonata. Then more, and more, and more, encores with the Op 76 Variations in D major the standout.

He shuffled off in between, took the tumultuous applause with a few short bows, might have smiled a bit, but otherwise this was another day in the office for Evgeny Kissin. Except that his office is unlike yours. Or any one else’s for that matter. Including those rarefied few engaged in the same profession as him. We have come a long way from the child prodigy, wunderkind, genius, how the f*ck does he do that years, he’s now 47, but to see and hear the Russian-Brit-Israeli maestro is still a fascinating experience. He can do anything he wants with a piano and a score and he makes it look easy. But, as in previous encounters, I can find this a bit numbing. And, in Beethoven especially, in these perfect, middle-ish, sonatas, I think he still adds too much. I want the all of Beethoven’s invention, surprise, technique, but I want to get inside his patterns and structure. It is almost as if, in the cat and mouse of perfect performance, the Kissin cat is just too smart for the Beethoven mouse. Just too good. Mind you I suspect LvB, even in his head, may not of imagined quite what dynamics the modern piano machine can conjure up.

Weird thing to say I know. He is not mannered. Or indulgent. Textures are full but not weighty. He doesn’t add, or subtract. Tempi are overall right. It’s just there is just a little too much polish to the detail. The architecture and line is intact, but I just get overwhelmed by technique. The notes are perfect, the space between them less so.

Still no question I’ll be here next year assuming the programme is even moderately appealing, (not a given with his Romantic leanings), and that science and cooperation have vanquished politics and blame. To hear piano playing of this technical brilliance even if it doesn’t quite convince at the punch in the gut level is still one of life’s great privileges.

Beethoven Weekender at the Barbican review

Beethoven Weekender

“This could be the closest thing to heaven …. “. No not the Tears for Fears dirge from 2004 but one of the many fine singles from the vastly under-rated, and alas short-lived, Kane Gang from 1984. The KG, along with the magnificent Prefab Sprout, and the rather less remembered and post-punky Daintees, at least in my mind, were the apogee of the early 80s British pop/blue eyed soul bands hailing from the North East’s Kitchenware Records in the 1980s. Rich melodies, lush production, and often orchestration, skilled song-writing.. What has this got to do with Beethoven I hear you cry. Well nothing actually. It is just this was the song that popped into my head as I enjoyed a fine fry up for lunch courtesy of Fast Break on Day 1 of the Barbican Beethoven Weekender in early February. Plainly I was in a good mood.

Obviously the celebration of the 250th year since Beethoven’s birth has now been put on hold during these troubled times. (The Tourist had intended to take in Bonn on his Spring train break). Once again I apologise for rabbiting on about a classical music gig from many weeks ago when there is so much more of import going on around us. However I was able to attend a smattering of Beethoven programmes prior to the lockdown taking effect but frankly nothing came close to this offering from the Barbican. All the symphonies, courtesy of some of the UK’s finest orchestras based outside London, interspersed with other, well thought through and informative contributions featuring bits and pieces of LvB’s piano, quartet and violin chamber works, alongside some other, moreorless quirky, responses made up this excellent Festival. And all for just £45. That’s right. The greatest music ever written, (in the Western art canon at least), spread over two full days with change from a bullseye.

I was very taken with the exhibits, ear trumpets, the great man’s violin, the Warhol print, drawn from the Beethoven Haus collection in Bonn, with the Beethoven Bites contributions from various young composers and performers, many drawn from the ranks of the Guildhall School, and Matthew Herbert’s deconstruction/ reconstruction of the Ninth, especially Together, which takes 30 or so recordings of the third movement and plays them simultaneously to the same time frame. This shows how performance can differ, not just in tempo, but also in tuning, pitch, recording technique, dynamics.

Christopher Park’s readings of various of the Bagatelles at St Luke’s Old Street was surprisingly involving, despite the always interesting interruptions by Gerald McBurney reading eye witness accounts of LvB’s playing (and scheming). Daniel Sepec is the only musician (I think) entrusted with playing Beethoven’s own fiddle, and he was joined in Milton Court by Tobias Schabenberger (fortepiano), Taj Murray (violin) and Silke Avenhaus (piano) for extracts from early violin sonatas and the Kreutzer. The Beeb’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch paid tribute to George Bridgewater, the Afro-European musician who inspired LvB’s greatest sonata and was its original dedicatee. And the marvellous Carducci Quartet, in the Pit, were joined by uber-luvvie Simon Callow for intense extracts from various string quartets interspersed with letters from LvB, to family, to collaborators, and, of course, his Immortal Beloved. Now Mr Callow is rightly renowned for his ability to put us through the emotional wringer, but, from my perch very close to him, I can confirm the old boy shed a real tear or two. Terrific.

Still it’s the Symphonies that put the meat on the bones of this celebration and I can report that we were treated to performances of the highest quality, all brought together with enthusiastic wisdom from uber Beethoven fan-boy John Suchet. I won’t babble on about the works themselves or the detail of the performances. All I can say is that I need to get out, of London, more. Although, based on the stunning interpretation of the Fifth and Sixth from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic *****, Liverpool’s (and Oslo’s) loss will be London’s gain when the young(ish) Russian comes permanently to the Royal Philharmonic. I expected much and wasn’t disappointed. If there is a better way to spend a Saturday morning then you had better tell me.

Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia **** (finally there is a connection with Newcastle) put everything and more into the Seventh and Eighth, and jst about edged Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Orchestra’s **** more thoughtful takes on the Second and Fourth. But this may reflect my preference for Seven and Eight in the pecking order. The programme notes certainly don’t imply that Ms Gražinytė-Tyla thought that she was in any way getting the short straw with Two and Four and the performances were testament to this. I think I am right in saying that she has shaken off you know what. A good reason to explore some of the good stuff the CBSO has posted up to take us through the coming weeks/months, including the documentary about their gifted musical director prodigy.

In fact the riches that the world’s orchestras have offered up in the past few weeks have to be seen and heard to be believed. The Concertgebouw probably takes the biscuit, I have started working my way through the Ivan Fischer Beethoven cycle, but take a look too at the offers from the Berlin Philharmonie, the LSO, the LPO, Wigmore Hall, the BRSO and, my favourite so far, the Monteverdi Orchestra and Choir. And, at this rate, no one will ever enter an opera house again. Just kidding but there is a lot to see for free right now. Though not for free as all us privileged types should be financially supporting our cultural institutions right now, as well, of course as those in the front line, and less fortunate than ourselves.

Anyway Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra *** were quite able to match the RCO in their performance of the Eroica, which got a little muddled in the development of the opening Allegro con brio and in some of the variations in the Finale, though their interpretation of the First more than passed muster. I have to say though that the least convincing interpretation in the cycle was the closing Ninth from the Halle Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder ***. Sopranos Elizabeth Watts and Sarah Castle were bulldozed a little, the balance between orchestra and chorus didn’t feel right and the tempi overall were too measured for me especially in the slow movement. Still it’s the Choral, it capped an amazing couple of days and I still went home happily humming the Ode to Joy.

Something to hang on to until this is all over.

PS. The programme notes to accompany the Weekender are excellent BTW. To the point essays on Beethoven’s various disappointments in life (family, love and deafness), his idealist politics, his cultural impact and some wham bam notes on the symphonies.

Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque: Vivaldi at the Wigmore Hall review *****

Rachel Podger (violin), Brecon Baroque, Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord), Daniele Caminiti (lute)

Wigmore Hall, 1st July 2019

Antonio Vivaldi

  • Sonata a4 al Santo Sepolcro RV130
  • Concerto in G minor for strings RV157
  • Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro RV169
  • Concerto in D for lute and strings RV93
  • Concerto in D Op 3, No 9 RV230 (arr. for harpsichord after JS Bach’s solo transcription BWV972)
  • The Four Seasons Op 8, Nos 1 to 4

The Tourist adores the sound that Rachel Podger makes in the Baroque violin repertoire and especially in Bach, Vivaldi and Biber. Moreover, and feel free to snigger at the back, but he still gets a thrill when a specialist like RP, or one of the Italian maestros like Giuliano Carmignola or Fabio Bondi, lets rip on the Four Seasons. You can stick all that turgid Romantic nonsense where the sun don’t shine. This is real music. And if you are too snooty in your choice of classical repertoire to agree then more fool you. The Tourist yields to no man when it comes to the outer reaches of early 80’s post punk funk (and, as we speak, has a bit of Stockhausen ringing in his ears), but that doesn’t stop him from wigging out to the perfect pop of Benny and Bjorn’s SOS come party time.

Ms P has a rich, dark tone which gets you right in the gut. Her interpretation with her regular chums Brecon Baroque is a little less Flash Harry than the Italian peers, (though they certainly don’t hold back in the fast movements in Summer and Winter), which pays huge dividends in the super slow Largos in Spring and Winter. This was still exhilarating when it needed to be though. As confirmed by the Tourist’s regular Baroque crony MSBD. Big grins all round. For if there is one thing that singles RP and this ensemble out, apart from their sparkling musicianship, then it is that they look like they are having a ball on the stage. Which infects the audience. Even at the somewhat staid Wigmore.

Before the Four Seasons we were treated to the Easter religious piece, the Sonata and Sinfonia “al Santo Sepolcro” which may have been written in Venice or Vienna when AV visited in the late 1720s to drum up business. The Sonata has a slow movement introduction which builds from a bass line through too an exchange between the solo violin line and full ensemble. The subsequent Allegro alternates between two complementary themes in classic AV fashion. The Sinfonia is similarly just two movements but here the home key is B minor and AV explores a couple of chromatic twists in the contrapuntal Adagio and then in the Allegro which zeroes in on one, sinuous theme. The two pieces were separated by RV157, one of the Concertos written of strings and continuo without soloist. There are 60 or so of these (RV109 to 169), some of which are named as Sinfonia, which seem to have straddled performance in both saved and secular spaces. This one has repetition, imitation, dazzling figuration and syncopation, the full monty of AV’s virtuosity. The step-wise slow movement is captivating and the finale, made up of repeated semiquaver rushes in the bass line and upper lines is terrific.

Sicilian, (so its in the blood), Daniele Caminiti stepped up from theorbo continuo to lute soloist for the RV93 concerto which was probably written by AV for one Count Wrtby during a sojourn in Vienna and for the smaller soprano lute rather that the standard Baroque instrument. It was conceived as a chamber piece, with accompaniment from two violins and continuo, with each of the three movements divided into two repeated halves. It has a more stately feel against which the treble lines of the lute are set, largely down to the exquisite central Largo. This was also part of the programme from funky mandolinist Avi Avital concept with the Venice Baroque Orchestra at the back end of last yea in this very Hall.

Op 3 no 9 is one of seven AV concertos that JS Bach transcribed for harpsichord in 1713/14 when he worked in the Weimar Court. He made small changes to the right hand part and more generous detailing in the left hand part to thicken up AV’s loose textures. From this and the original BB, and especially the Polish harpsichordist Marcin Swiatkiewicz, (who plays on RP’s sublime Rosary Sonatas recording), have devised a harpsichord concerto, a form that AV himself eschewed. Like everything else on this lovely evening this was a perfectly balanced ensemble performance, the soloist a lucid, but never shouty, voice alongside the rest of BB.

RP’s next outing in her residency at the Wigmore are a bunch of Bach concertos which I will miss followed by a Sunday morning slot of the Bach Sonata and Partita No 1 which I most assuredly won’t.