Bach Orchestral Suites: OAE at Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Margaret Faultless (director/violin), Lisa Beznosiuk (flute)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 14th May 2019

Okey dokey pig in a pokey. There has been a grumpy tone in the last few posts that the workshy Tourist, courtesy of an imagined pep talk from Pauline, is resolved to shake off. So let’s park up the portable pulpit and climb back aboard the cheery charabanc of cultural criticism.

Mind you what can I tell you about the Four Orchestral Suites. I’ve come a fair way on my journey with Bach, who is the composer whose music I have begun to appreciate more than any other in recent years, (only a fascination with Ligeti has come close), but I still have a long way to go. If I am honest I will leave others to lead me through the vocal music and I doubt I will ever truly enjoy the sound of an organ of which he wrote profusely. There’s also still a lot of work to be done outside the obvious starting pieces in the works for keyboard but I reckon I have finally got my head around the chamber music and orchestral works. By which I mean I roughly know in what format and for what instruments he wrote. Not much I know but at least now I can properly start listening.

Any newbie to Bach is going to come across the Four Orchestral Suites pretty early on. And recognise plenty of the tunes. And what tunes. They are based on dance forms. Which makes then easy on the ear. But this being Bach there is so much more. The old boy termed them Ouvertures, referring to the form which preceded the dance movements in each of the suites. The French overture was all the rage in the Germany of Bach’s day. It was made. up of a stately majestic opening section in relatively slow dotted-note rhythm in duple meter, followed by a fast fugal section, then concluded with a short recapitulation of the opening music. Even if you know nothing about the Baroque, French, German, Italian or otherwise, but you have you seen any film which has toffs in preposterously big wigs behaving badly you will recognise the grooves. (Though not The Favourite. Like everything else about that film every piece on the soundtrack was chosen by someone who knows their stuff).

JS Bach wasn’t as prolific as some when it came to the suite, Telemann for example. But that would be because he was a glum pious bugger and was tied down by the religious day job. Or was it? The general consensus now is that he didn’t originally conceive these four works as a set and that they came together not when he worked in Cothen, (though he had the opportunity here), but after he landed his dream job, in 1723, as Music Director in Leipzig and Cantor at St Thomas’s School. This is when he was at his busiest but also when he sought to develop his music outside the confines of the church. From 1729 JSB became the director of the concert society, the Collegium Musicum Leipzig, which every Friday met at the same coffeehouse for a jam session. And it was for this group that he wrote the Orchestral Suites, albeit recycling some of his favourite riffs from previous work.

The Collegium though was all about exploring contemporary musical trends, which explains the form of the suites, but it was a serious, scholarly outfit, which is why JSB was able to serve up something much more than a clever pastiche of the genre. Which is why their immediate attractions, this is Bach at his most “galant”, then give way to something deeper and more satisfying.

The OAE, led on this evening, as is its raison d’ĂȘtre, by one of its own, co-leader Margaret Faultless, (whose inspirational contribution to HIP sort of matches her surname), kicked off with No 3 which probably dates from 1731. Here we get three oboes, a couple of trumpets and drums alongside strings and continuo, which explains the march-y, fanfare-y feel of the ouverture, which precedes that Air (on a G string). Now it always takes 10 minutes or so for my brain and ears to catch up with period ensembles and this was no different so it was only after the air that I was in the swing. As it happens the OAE’s violist Max Mandel stepped out after the Suite to ask if we liked the tempo that they had taken it at. I was one of the tiny minority who wanted it faster. Thus proving that, for me, and even in the slow movements, it can never be too fast or too loud in the Baroque and Classical. Well maybe not blast-beat chaotic but you get the drift.

Anyway I was warmed up by the two hop-along Gavottes, and the following rousing Bourree and swinging Gigue where the trumpets link back to the ouverture. By contrast Suite No 1 which followed is scored for two oboes and a bassoon, so with no trumpets and drums is a much less public and triumphant affair. The woodwind double the strings in the first theme but then operate as a solo trio weaving between the strings and continuo in the manner of a Handelian concerto grosso. The Courante which follows, in 3/2 metre, starts off bouncily enough but then turns into one of those shifting, swirling things of wonder, but it’s gone in a flash. The Gavotte, Menuet, Bourree and Passepied which follow are arranged in pairs with the second a variation on the first, sometimes just for wind sometimes just for strings, sometimes both, as in the second Gavotte where the strings imitate trumpet fanfares. This is JSB at his genius best. Something so simple becomes, er cliche alert, just sublime. The unrepeated dance, a Forlance, some sort of Slavic jig, is another little, pastoral gem.

No 2 came much later maybe 1739, (the numbers are not chronological), in fact it was probably JSB’s last orchestral work. It certainly sounds sterner, in the opening dotted march and then in the ensuing fugue, and when they come together we are in JSB’s world of pure musical invention where the old boy just never missteps in solving his mathematical and aesthetic puzzle. The dances include a Rondeau, another pair of Bourees, a Polonaise and finally a Menuet and Badinerie ,(which you will recognise – yep the Nokia ringtone favourite). These movements are where the OAE’s flautist Lisa Beznosiuk was able to strut her stuff, and strut she certainly did, (here’s the first page of the original flute part above). Yet for me the sweet, sweet Sarabande might just be the best movement of the suite. This is JSB in love. If you think the old boy’s music is too “intellectual”, which is b*llocks anyway, then listen to this and think again.

No 4, like Nos 1 and 2, similarly started off sans trumpets but, so uplifting is its opening Ouverture, that he quickly added 3 of them as well as drums. He also pinched the tune for his Christmas cantata in 1725. It is obviously Bach and obviously Baroque but there are times in this if I close my eyes when I could be listening to Mozart or early Beethoven. The dance movements, again with paired Bourees and Menuets sandwiching a Gavotte, highlight winds, trumpets and strings alternately, before a final Rejouissance which lives up to its name.

The OAE, for the most part standing, was on top form. The continuo of Stephen Devine (harpsichord), Luise Buchberger (cello) and Cecelia Bruggemeyer (bass) pushed and pulled throughout. I’d set these three along side my favourite ever rhythm sections any day of the week. * I would also call out the oboes of Katherine Spreckelsen and Alexandra Bellamy. A good night. An opinion shared by the entire MSBD sibling crowd whom it was my pleasure to accompany.

  • Since you are asking. Tony Thompson/Bernard Edwards, Benny Benjamin/James Jamerson, Al Jackson Jr/Donald Dunn, Paul Chambers/Jimmy Cobb, Sly & Robbie, Ashton and Carlton Barrett, Dennis Davies/George Murray, Brown Mark/Bobby Z, Les Pattinson/Pete de Freitas, Steve and Paul Hanley, Dave Allen/Hugo Burnham, Peter Hook/Stephen Morris, Tina Weymouth/Chris Frantz, Graham Lewis/Robert Gotobed, Bill Ward/Geezer Butler, John Paul Jones/John Bonham, Neil Peart/Geddy Lee.

English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall review *****

English Chamber Orchestra, Jessica Cottis (conductor), Ben Johnson (tenor), Ben Goldscheider (horn)

Cadogan Hall, 16th March 2019

  • Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin
  • Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31
  • Purcell/Britten – Suite of Six Songs from Orpheus Britannicus
  • Stravinsky – Pulcinella Suite

I love Britten’s Serenade, first performed in 1943. It might be one of my favourite ever pieces of classical music, up there with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Bach’s Violin Sonatas and, I am not ashamed to admit, The Four Seasons. I am not alone. There was a delightful senior in the lift at Cadogan Hall who concurred. But it needs a tenor and, especially, horn player, of the highest rank, to pull it off. The ECO of course has it in its genes, Benjamin Britten having been its first patron and founding musical influence.

Now there are many fine recordings, (I assume based on the artists involved), but as ever in Britten’s music the best bet is to have the great man conducting and, in this, if not in all, cases, Peter Pears, singing. I can see why the experts reckon the recordings with the mercurial Dennis Brain, for whom the part was written, on horn are definitive, but the first, from 1942 a year after the piece premiered, is a bit period scratchy for my liking, emotional as it is, and the second, a decade later, falls a bit short musically. Dennis Brain might just have been the greatest horn player of the C20 coming from, and there can’t be too many of these, a veritable dynasty of horn players. He died far too young, in rock’n’roll style, by wrapping his sports car round a tree. If he had lived longer who knows what the next generation of modernist composers, the likes of Ligeti and Berio, might have conjured up for him.

As for the Serenade though I actually prefer the later Britten/Pears recording on Decca with the LSO and Barry Tuckwell on horn. More musical, and Pears less comedy toff sounding, even if the horn is a tad less mysterious. I also love the second Bostridge with the BPO and Rattle and their principal horn Czech Radek Baborak. After all Ian Bostridge is surely better than Pears in most of Britten’s supreme vocal music. On that note make sure not to miss his Madwoman in Curlew River with the Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court next March. The staging in 2013 for Britten’s centenary, directed by Netia Jones at St Giles Crippplegate, with players from the BS, and IB in the same role, was extraordinary. One of the best “opera” experiences of the Tourist’s life.

So tenor Ben Johnson and Ben Goldscheider on horn had a lot to live up to. And by and large they did. The Serenade is not performed as often as it should be IMHO which perhaps reflects the combination of small string ensemble, a skilled horn player and a dramatic tenor. Ben Johnson certainly has the flair for the dramatic, he was an ENO Harewood artist, and his clear, if not overwhelming voice, fitted the piece and hall well. Ben Goldscheider, a BBC Young Musician finalist, who is now studying with the aforementioned Radek Baborak, left a deeper impression, adept in the more virtuoso passages and capturing the mystery and thrill of the more striking passages, even if the more lyrical settings lacked a little emotion.

The six movements, (book-ended by solo Prologue and Epilogue for the horn eschewing valves to create natural harmonics), comprise settings of poems by Charles Cotton (Pastoral), Tennyson (Nocturne), Blake (Elegy), a C15 Anonymous Dirge, Ben Jonson (Hymn) and Keats (Sonnet). Serenade literally means “an evening piece” and the poems combine to take us through nightfall from dusk to midnight. The dark heart of the work is the Black “O rose thou art sick” and the scary, pounding march of the Dirge that follows, “This ae night”, but the tunes and, typically with Britten, the atmospheres, by turns haunting, comforting, placid, dancing, of the outer settings, are exquisitely rendered. As usual Britten uses all sorts of clever and arresting techniques, the lilting string chords in the Pastoral, the echoing horn in the Nocturne, the semitone infection in the Elegy shifting the key from major to minor, the vocal repetition in the Dirge against the sinister string Fugue, the hunting horn in the Rondo hymn straight out of Mozart’s playbook and the string sustains in the Sonnet as we drift off to sleep, (not literally of course, and in any event, BG’s off stage Epilogue reprise would soon wake you up).

I see that Australian-British conductor Jessica Cottis played the French horn and trumpet in her youth which perhaps explains her confident way with the Serenade. I intend no offence but, physically, there isn’t much to Ms Cottis, I estimate 3 of her to 1 Tourist. She has a heck of a presence on the podium though. The ECO numbers on the night may only have maxed out in the Stravinsky, but Jessica Cottis teased out plenty of energy and power when required in this and in the rather more phlegmatic Ravel. I see she has had a couple of recent chamber operatic gigs with the Royal Opera House for Mamzer and The Monstrous Child and has appeared as a regular guest conductor after roles as Assistant at the BBC Scottish SO and Sydney SO under Ashkenazy. On the strength of these interpretations if I where looking for fresh musical leadership I would give her a job.

My last exposure to Le tombeau de Couperin was from Angela Hewitt in the solo piano version at the RFH with MSBD and MSBDD. No review on these pages as, thanks to collective misunderstanding, we managed to miss the star turn, Bach’s Partita No 4, which was, to saw the least, bloody annoying. Still the Ravel was superb and MSBDD was particularly chuffed, this being one of his favourite pieces. Now Ravel was a dab hand at lushly orchestrating other composers’ piano works but for his own he was a little more restrained. That isn’t to say that LTDC isn’t brimful of “colour”, that being the standard word to describe Ravel’s gorgeous ideas, just that you can feel the sombre tones which come from the work’s inspiration as a memorial to the close friends Ravel had lost in the Great War. This version of LTDC takes four of the piano’s six movements: the Prelude, where the traces of harpsichord ornamentation, this was after all inspired by the Baroque harpsichord genius Francois Couperin, is most apparent in strings and oboe; the Forlane, a Venetian dance which the Pope at the time had tried to re-introduce to replace the smutty tango, (is there no end to Catholic sex guilt), but which Ravel spices up with some dissonant notes; a courtly Menuet that goes a bit Scottish jig and ends up with a bit of that Ravelian jazz vibe; and finally a Rigaudon which is a medieval Provencal dance with central processional. The whole piece gives woodwind and, especially, brass a good workout which the respective members of the ECO seemed to thoroughly enjoy. I don’t have a recording of this. Clearly I should.

Apparently Henry Purcell composed over 250 songs and vocal works in his short 36 year life with three volumes being published posthumously as Orpheus Britannicus. BB, like so many subsequent British composers, loved HP, as would anyone in their right mind. Indeed they have a lot in common: inventive harmony, matchless word painting and transparent and direct melody in their music for voice. BB, along with Michael Tippett, was instrumental in bringing the near forgotten HP back into the mainstream, in part through settings of songs from the OB volumes. HP had only provided figured bass lines as accompaniment to the vocal parts but that is all BB needed, along with his preferred chamber orchestral forces, to bring the songs to life. Peter Pears, in editing the vocal lines, foregoes any frilly ornamentation and together the lads created some cracking numbers, modest in sound even if the lyrics are a bit British bulldog patriotic. It doesn’t look like they crop up on the Last Night of the Proms. They should. I see that BB himself writing about his and PP’s arrangements hoped to capture “something of that mixture of clarity, brilliance, tenderness and strangeness which shines out in all of Purcell’s music“. Could just as easily have been his own manifesto.

Having literally changed the course of music with those ballets Stravinsky, and Diaghilev as the promoter needed to come up with a new trick after the War. Diaghilev, in yet another inspired move, presented IS with a collection of music by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, he of the Stabat Mater, (and some criminally ignored operas and unrecorded orchestral pieces), and a book of stories about the stock commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella, or wife-beater and all round yob Mr Punch to us Brits. (BTW Pergolesi, like Purcell died way too young, though he only managed to get to the very rock’n’roll age of 26). From this IS conjured up the ballet Pulcinella which premiered in Paris in 1920 conducted by maestro Ernst Ansermet with choreography by Leonid Massine and designs by some bloke named Pablo Picasso. And so began IS’s neo-classical phase. Oh yessss.

The suite, written in 1922 and subsequently revised, (as IS was wont to do). is scored for chamber orchestra like the full ballet but the vocal parts are dumped and the material is condensed into 8 movements. I have recordings of the full ballet from Abbado and the LSO and Marriner and the ASMF, (unsurprisingly, given its genesis, Baroque specialists love having a go at this). In this performance Jessica Cottis and the ECO trod a nice line between the kind of crisp, HIP influenced, neo-classical Stravinsky now commonplace and the older, lusher, vibrato-ey style, though it didn’t quite make enough off the off-kilter chords and bouncy rhythms, after all most of the movements are based on dances. This is core repertoire for the ECO and it shows.

Next up from the ECO at Cadogan Hall on April 16th a brighter affair, the Mendelssohn VC with some Schubert, Suk and the cinematic Bartok Divertimento, led by the, er, ECO leader Stephanie Gonley and then. on May 22nd, some Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, from the other end of his neo-classical period. Looking forward to the former concert but will miss the latter. Clashes with the Stockhausen Donnerstag aus Licht. What have I let myself in for.

Philippe Herreweghe and Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor),
Bertrand Chamayou (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 21st February 2019

  • JS Bach – Orchestral Suite No.3 in D
  • Mozart – Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K.488
  • Mozart – Symphony No.41 (Jupiter) 

A rare opportunity to hear modern instruments tackle some core Baroque and Classical orchestral repertoire in an HIP style, which, when it works, can a thrilling musical experience. But here the Philharmonia was under the baton of not just any old conductor but one of the founding fathers of historically informed performance in the guise of Belgian maestro, and Jonathan Pryce look-a-like, Philippe Herreweghe.

Mr Herreweghe is the Artistic Director of the renowned Collegium Vocale Gent which he founded in 1970 whilst studying at the music conservatory in his native Ghent. It didn’t take long before the HIP world stood up and took notice of PH’s authentic and enthusiastic way with the Baroque, especially Bach, and recordings, for example of the Bach cantatas, with the likes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, soon followed. In 1977 PH also founded the La Chapelle Royale to focus on the French Baroque, the likes of Lully and Charpentier, and he has subsequently branched out into other eras and other ensembles (he is principal conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic), but it is his JS Bach interpretations which garner most praise. Generally, if he is the conductor on a recommended recording, you can safely take the plunge. If it is a Bach recording you would be daft not to.

BTW for those Brits who have never been to Ghent – more fool you. Leave St Pancras mid morning and you can still be there for lunch. Easy stroll around the centre taking in a couple of Gothic church crackers, a Belfry (with lift), a C10 castle, the Graslei medieval houses lining the canal – boat trip mandatory, a couple of supernatural art galleries (MSK if, like the Tourist you are drawn to early Flemish and first half of the C20, and the Contemporary Art Museum), two vouchsafed decent hotels (Marriott and Pillows Grand Reylof), some very tidy trough (with a fair few Michelin stars scattered throughout), lashings of great beer and, best of all, the greatest painting ever, the Van Eyck boys’ Adoration of the Lamb. Busy, but not as nuts as Bruges. The city is gearing up for a van Eyck celebration next year. So off you trot.

Now the Collegium Vocale Gent is a regular, if not frequent, visitor to London. They are over for a Bach B Minor Mass on 14th June at the Barbican. There are still plenty of tickets left. So go on, treat yourself. I also see they are taking the Glass opera, Einstein on the Beach, on a tour around the Low Countries. Crikey.

Prior to that though PH put a stripped back PO, and an excellent young French pianist in the shape of Bertrand Chamayou, through its paces. In fact prior to that a string quartet led by PO violinist Adrian Varela offered a free concert of Bach transcriptions (two Bach chorals, BMV 269 and 86, two Art of Fugue Contrapuntuses, is that the plural?), Stravinsky’s Concertino and the suite Punta del Este, from Argentinian, Aster Piazzolla, which was as good as it sounds.

Only four orchestral suites by JSB survive, in contrast to the 100 or more from composition whirlwind Telemann. They likely date from the Cothen years, written for Prince Leopold, and are some of the funkiest grooves the old boy ever laid down. They all begin with a lengthy overture followed by a series of dance movements; so French in structure if not always in sound. The overture of No 3 itself is French style, a slow stately D major opening, then a rapid, dotty fugue before a short reprise. Number three augments strings and woodwinds with timpani and three trumpets, which gives the first idea an Handelian majesty which suits the modern orchestra. JSB wastes no time shifting to the running semiquavers of the fugue which follows. You may well know the overture. If you don’t you will know the Air which follows, “On a G string”. It may be ubiquitous but it is still special. No Bach, no symphonic slow movements. The Gavotte, a courtly knees up, which follows is in two parts. Things heat up in the scrabbling Bouree which follows, but it is the final Gigue which takes us back to the jollity of the opening, trumpets blazing.

Now your man PH doesn’t hang around. Brisk is the usually ascribed epithet. Suits me. But with no dawdling or vibrato to hide behind this called for precision from the PO. Which they delivered. This sharp, clean sound, with steel in the 44 (yep count ’em) strings (literally), controlled wind (if you get my meaning) and hard stick timpani (oh dear), with the perpetual motion of Bach’s invention, is what really got me excited. Getting the balance right with such a full orchestra was always going to be tricky but PH and the PO, for the most part, were on to that.

I was a little less convinced by the Mozart PC. Not Bertrand Chamayou’s subtle and supple playing, proper Classical (not his normal specialism), but more in the drive of the orchestra. They didn’t quite match up in the jolly opening Allegro and in the closing, vivacious sonata-rondo. By the time BC joined the orchestra in the opening they had built up a head of stem that he was hard pressed to match, and things got a bit too racey by the end of the concerto, where WAM launches more than a few surprises. In the beautiful, dreamy F sharp minor Adagio, pretty much all piano and the only passage ever in this key from Wolfgang A, we could hear just how fine a pianist BC is, at least when it comes to delicate emotion. WAM wrote PC’s 22, 23 and 24 in a hurry to drum up some cash. They are, IMHO, his best 3 in the form, with the operatic 23 probably edging 24 to the top spot.

Mozart also churned out the last 3 symphonies in a matter of weeks. Still hard to credit. Jupiter is, of course, the best. And the final movement is the best of the four. The two themes of the opening Allegro jockey for supremacy with more than a whiff of Don Giovanni-esque irony. The Andante takes a simple theme and turns into into something altogether more knowing and the Menuet and Trio elevates that Classical staple to new heights. But that last movement, up there with Beethoven’s best, and therefore the best ever, is something else entirely. Four notes, upside down, inside out, round about, in fact very which way but loose, then twisted around another four themes similarly pushed and pulled, then all weaved together in celestial, head-banging perfection (I know, I know, it’s just music, but f*ck me, what music). Easy enough to make a hash of by going balls-out bluster. Not here though showing how “flexible HIP” is now, really, the only sensible option with Mozart. Even with repeats PH brought this in under the half-hour. I have a Norrington recording with LCP, again with all the repeats, which tops 35 minutes and he is no slouch.

Regular readers will know that I can’t be doing with the staples of the Romantic repertoire. This though pays the wages of the PO and its peers. They barely get near Bach, or even Mozart, at least in an orchestral context. Perhaps that is why they look pleased as punch at the end of this. Happy days. And for those of you who like a little more Romantic in your lives, albeit the early variety, PH is back with the PO in November to show off some Beethoven and Schubert.