Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Concertgebouw review ****

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider (violin) 

Het Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest, 19th June 2019

  • Detlev Glanert – Weites Land
  • Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major, Op 35
  • Bedrich Smetana – Vysehrad, De Moldau and Sárka from Má vlast 

There’s a clue in the title. The Tourist finds himself in Amsterdam once again for his yearly pilgrimage to the Internationaal Theater this time to see the Simon McBurney take on The Cherry Orchard. More to follow. Prior to that though sightseeing in Delft, Leiden and Haarlem and more culture in Amsterdam. Including this. My first look inside the Grand Hall in the Concertgebouw and my first experience of this superlative band on their home turf.

Now the Tourist yields to no man or woman when it comes to the reputation of the London orchestras and especially the London Symphony Orchestra. Things are looking up with Sir Simon Rattle in the conducting chair but I reckon the Gergiev years saw the band slip back compared to the best of their European peers, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, say. Yet if I had to pick one orchestra above all others, based on recordings and a couple of London dates years ago, (both sporting Shostakovich), the Concertgebouw would be it.

The RCO is currently between Chief Conductors having dispensed with Daniele Gatti following complaints of “inappropriate behaviour” from female members of the orchestra, to add to accusations from elsewhere. No prevarication here. Another reason to rate the band. Finally classical music is doing something about this sort of sh*te. The RCO was built on the bond between its Chief Conductor and the players. From 1963 until 2015 there were just three CC’s. They happened to be Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Chailly and Mariss Jansons. Who also just happen to be the greatest three conductors alive today. Though I have a few contenders still on the wish list.

A few of whom are on the list of guest conductors for this year and next year. Semyon Bychkov is not one of them. I have already been privileged to hear his take on Britten and especially Shostakovich with the LSO. Now I have to admit the core of his repertoire, showcased here, is not entirely up my street but I figured he and the band would win me over. They did. Of course I know the Tchaikovsky VC, who doesn’t, as well the big tunes from Ma vlast. But I find the former usually just a bit too showy and the latter can drone on a bit .The German composer Detlev Glanert is mostly known for his opera but SB is a big fan and tireless promoter of all his work.

I am also sure I have seen Danish-Israeli violinist Nikolai Sneps-Znaider before but my computer says no so I must have made it up. Anyway the Tchaikovsky concerto, alongside Mozart, looks like it is one of his specials and I see that he has even taken on Ma vlast as a conductor. Anyway the point is this two fellas are all over this programme.

Since I have never heard any of Mr Glanerto ‘s work before this familiarity was not immediately clear. But what was is that sound. You would be hard pressed to imagine an auditorium that screamed late C19 Romantic more. It was opened in 1888 and the Grote Zaal, with its beautiful moulded white woodwork and plaster interior, plush red velvet and plaques devoted to great, not so great and frankly forgotten composers popular at the time, is an absolute peach. The Tourist went cheap, of course, which meant a bit of neck ache looking up to the raised stage and only a few players visible, but perfect to study soloist and conductor. And hear that sound. Given that the Tourist is a bit sub-par on the hearing front and not really smart enough to know what he is listening to anyway the whole thing with acoustics might be expected to pass him by. But trust me you can hear it. Apparently the reverb time is perfect for lush Romantic repertoire. I can vouch for that. The rich sound literally envelopes you but never obscures the detail. Apparently the RCO’s style of playing is perfectly matched to this acoustic. Again I believe the experts.

This perfection has been secured with a bit of engineering jiggery-pokery down the years but broadly the original architect Adolf Leonard van Gendt and his team got it right first time. Remember this was at a time when the science of concerto hall acoustics was in its infancy. And the building was built on log piles (subsequently replaced with concrete when it started to sink). Amsterdam is full of exquisite buildings, new and old. This is one of the best.

The Glanert piece is sub-titled Music with Brahms so no prizes for guessing its inspiration, the Fourth Symphony to be exact, nor for realising why it was programmed with the Tchaikovsky and Smetana. Now Brahms may not be right at the top of the table of music the Tourist can’t abide, (Wagner since you ask), but it is certainly not his mug of Darjeeling. Weites Land translates as Open Land and so reflects the landscape programming of Ma vlast here transposed to the open marshland and wide skies of Northern Germany apparently. It shifts from gently lyrical to passages of vigorous tutti and was a decent opener even if I wouldn’t listen to it again.

But, that sound. Like I say I was hear for the occasion and experience not necessarily the music. It strikes me that the VC needs a performance that lifts up and rides along with Tchaikovsky’s exuberant vision. No point holding back. This is what NS-Z did on top of the fluffy shag-pile of sonorous sound piled up by the RCO and Mr Bychkov. NZ tacked on some Bach for an encore just to make me even happier.

Now I can’t pretend I am a convert to the set of symphonic poems that make up Smetana’s paean to his Czech homeland, the first three of which were on display here. BS was well on the way to deafness by the time he completed Vysehrad, inspired by the castle in Prague. De Moldau, or Vltava in Czech has that tune, you know it, which signifies, as intended, a Big River. Sarka was inspired by a myth about a Czech female warrior, again with music to match. In each poem BS does tend to have his cake and eat, and then go back for seconds. But there is some exquisite instrumentation, perfect I would have thought for this band, and Mr Bychkov put everything and more into the performance. The RCO, at least from my vantage point, is, to use a luxury car motoring analogy, more Bentley Continental than the Jaguar F Type of the LSO that I am used to, and chalk and cheese compared to the classic kit car Baroque specialists. But f*ck it, if I had the money, I would happily sit my ample arse in such svelte upholstery every day of the week.

And so I just lapped up the sound. Very satisfying. A fine evening. Made even more memorable when a fine looking Dutch chap turned on the way out, mistook me for his equally attractive young lady partner and reached out with his hand. Fear quickly turned to merriment across all three faces. I hope to be back. Not to worry the beautiful people of Amsterdam. No. To hear the RCO playing something I actually like, (though I realise their Mahlerian and Brucknerian core isn’t mine). Perhaps under the new Chief Conductor when finally chosen. They could do worse than choose Mr Bychkov.

Britten Sinfonia Beethoven cycle at the Barbican Hall review *****

Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades (conductor),

Barbican Hall, 21st and 26th May 2019

  • Lawrence Power (viola)
  • Eamonn Dougan (director)
  • Jennifer France (soprano)
  • Christianne Stotjin (alto)
  • Ed Lyon (tenor)
  • Matthew Rose (bass)
  • Britten Sinfonia Voices
  • Choir of Royal Holloway
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A majpor, Op 92
  • Gerald Barry – Viola Concerto
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93
  • Gerald Barry – The Eternal Recurrence 
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125

I have banged on before about just how revelatory Thomas Ades’ Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia has been. Well it seems that, for the final couple of concerts, the rest of the world, (well OK a few Beethoven nuts in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden) has caught up. A near full house for the Choral and a much better turnout for 7 and 8 than in previous installments.

The combination of, largely, modern instruments by an orchestra of solo and chamber specialists, (and now my favourite British ensemble), who have completely bought into the lessons of HIP under the baton of, again for my money, Britain’s greatest living composer, have produced Beethoven symphonies that surely reproduce the thrill of their first performance. Appropriate forces, minimal vibrato, tempos that believe Beethoven, textures exposed and perfectly combined. I have bloody loved the first four concerts and was really looking forward to the final pairing.

I wasn’t disappointed. The best Ninth I have ever heard. Ever. Soloists perfectly balanced and all as clear as a bell over the sympathetic accompaniment. And the choirs were immense. You don’t need a cast of thousands. How on earth Mr Ades and Eamonn Dougan managed to make the voices sound this perfect in this acoustic was a miracle. And everything Mr Ades drew out of the previous three movements before the finale was perfect.

Best Eighth I have ever heard live too though here the competition is, I admit, somewhat slighter. I will be honest and just say I never knew it was so good. It is short, it is jolly, with no slow movement, but it is full of intriguing, if brief, ideas. I finally got it. The Seventh wasn’t quite up to the same standard with the opening Vivace with all those abrupt early key changes not quite dropping into place and with the stop/start of the Allegretto funeral march maybe too pronounced. Minor quibbles. Still amazing.

The Barry Viola Concerto takes the flexing and stretching of a musical exercise with a simple melody and subjects it to all manner of variations. It ended with Lawrence Power whistling. It is, like all of Barry’s music in the series, immediately arresting, just a little bit unsettling, rhythmically muscular and very funny. Terrific.

The Eternal Recurrence which proceeded the Choral is equally unexpected. Extracts from Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra are delivered in a string of high notes by the soprano, here the fearless Jennifer France, in an a parlando, actorly style which is designed to mimic speech and not to sound “sing-y”. It’s a bit nuts and undercuts the text in a slightly sarcastic way, a bit like, some would say,Beethoven does with Schiller in the Ode to Joy. It reminded me of Barry’s The Conquest of Ireland which was paired with the Pastoral earlier on in this cycle.

I gather Gerard Barry uses a similar technique in his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, (based on the Fassbinder film). That is now firmly near the top of my opera “to see” list but for the moment I am very pleased to see that both The Intelligence Park and Alice’s Adventures Underground are coming up at the Royal Opera House. Thanks to Thomas Ades I think I can safely say I am now a fan of Gerard Barry. And the old fella has style and is generous to the performers of his music as we see when he takes his bow at each of these performances.

I won’t go rabbiting on about the musical structure or context of the Beethoven symphonies. You will know them. And if you don’t then frankly you are only living half a life. Beethoven wrote the greatest music ever written. If you don’t believe me then why not start next year when a recording of this cycle will be released and when there will be wall to wall live Beethoven performances to celebrate 250 years since his birth. Here’s a list of the best of them in London. They’ll be more.

  • 6th January, 6th February, 27th February, 19th March, 2nd April – Kings Place – Brodsky Quartet – Late Beethoven String Quartets
  • 19th January – Barbican Hall – LSO, Sir Simon Rattle – Berg Violin Concerto, Beethoven Christ on the Mount of Olives.
  • 1st and 2nd February – Barbican – Beethoven weekender – All of the Beethoven symphonies from various UK orchestras and much much more – all for £45
  • 6th February – Barbican Hall – Evgeny Kissin – Piano Sonatas 8, 17 and 21
  • 12th February – Barbican Hall – LSO. Sir Simon Rattle – Symphony No 9
  • 20th February, 4th November – Kings Place – Rachel Podger, Christopher Glynn – Beethoven Violin Sonatas
  • 1st to 17th March – Royal Opera House – Beethoven Fidelio
  • 15th March – Royal Festival Hall, PO, Esa-Pekka Salonen – 1808 Reconstructed – Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto No 4, Extracts from Mass in C, Choral Fantasy and more
  • 4th April – LPO, Vladimir Jurowski – The Undiscovered Beethoven – inc. The Cantata for the Death of Emperor Joseph II
  • 8th April – Barbican Hall – Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis – Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5, 7 and 9
  • 11th to 16th May – Barbican Hall – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner – the entire Symphony cycle.
  • 22nd November – Kings Place – Peter Wispelwey, Alasdair Beaton – Beethoven complete Cello Sonatas

Herbert Blomstedt and the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt (conductor) 

Royal Festival Hall, 14th April 2019

  • Mozart – Symphony No 40 K550
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 “Eroica”

Bernard Haitink is 90. Herbert Blomstedt is closing in on his 92nd birthday. Unsurprisingly perhaps neither of them is particularly animated on the conductor’s podium. Mind you neither of them ever has been. Now you might ask yourself, apart from, by reputation, being a thoroughly nice bloke, (probably part and parcel of his fervent faith), at this age what is in it for him, and us, of Herbert Blomstedt continuing his life’s work when he should have retired years ago. To which I respond the world of classical music works to different rules.

Just to be clear. An orchestra of the calibre of the Philharmonia probably doesn’t need a conductor, of whatever vintage, to play this two warhorses effectively and efficiently. But it does need a conductor to lead and shape its musical vision. In its case the soon to be departed Esa-Pekka Salonen, its current Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor. The reputation of young conductors is made on their skills in interpreting and shaping the music on the page, but their legacy is a function of what they do to the orchestras they are tasked to lead. What they play, why they play it, how they play it, where they play it, who they play it with, what they choose to set down for prosperity. All artistic decisions.

And then there is the commercial imperative. The PO helpfully shows what funds its 11 million quid annual running costs. (Just before any of you philistines get antsy that’s the price of one first team, high end Premiership footballer. I know football clubs are commercial concerns, often listed. But the cost of paying the asserts still makes then a sh*tty investment. Stick to consumer staples I say).

Around 25% comes from its Arts Council grant and tax relief – peanuts to you the taxpayer for the massive contribution to our cultural fabric. The result largely comes from ticket sales (15%), tours (25%), recordings/bookings (10%) and just over 20% from fundraising, all those nice philanthropic types. Now the head honcho conductor isn’t in the front line begging for money, (quite the reverse, E-PS donates a chunk of his earnings to the orchestra), but his, (shamefully still only very occasionally her), standing makes a big difference to the economics.

Of course the Chief Conductor/Artistic Director isn’t the only stick waver employed come show time. There are, depending on the size and status of the orchestra, a host of Guest Conductors, Conductor Laureates, Associate Artists and featured partner conductors who also shape and lead performances. One or two may play a part in the broader life of the orchestra, (the trainees for the big jobs if you will), but most pitch up for, more or less, just the rehearsal and the performance. But they will still have an ongoing relationship with the orchestra. This is important. Music making is a shared endeavour. If the orchestra doesn’t believe in the conductor trust me it shows.

Even so, unless things start to go seriously awry, the beat-keeping on the podium is more for us than them. Mind you in a big piece with a. big orchestra, the conductor is the thing that holds the dynamics together. And, he/she can still be invaluable, with his/her cues, in helping mesh soloist and orchestra together in a concerto. But largely, I would say, it’s all part of the orchestral theatre. So, obviously, it is what goes on beforehand that matters. There aren’t that many scores with nailed-down instructions on tempi, dynamics, articulation, phrasing, shaping ….. and all the other stuff that us non-musicians have no idea about. And even if there are it is not illegal to shake the score up a bit. So someone needs to set the interpretative rules.

And this can make a big difference. Just compare recorded performances of the same piece and you will get the picture. Composer and performer are generally the same in modern music genres. Not so, generally, in classical, art music. Who matters more is a function of musical history. Go delve.

(Now I know that there are plenty of performers and ensembles who work in a different way. No permanent conductor. Playing from memory. Just a leader. But I don’t they would do it for Mahler’s Eighth).

Which, finally, brings me to these performances of Mozart 40 and the Eroica. You and I have heard them billions of times. Old school, HIP, HIP informed, gut, steel, smaller/larger orchestration, fast/slow, Classically cool or fervently romantic. There are loads of ways to cut these delicious cookies. Herbert Blomstedt and the PO just played them. Perfectly. At a fair lick if I am honest which suits me, but never over-revving the PO’s engine, and with some well placed, not too much, vibrato, when it was reasonable to do so. But overall nothing showy. Just the right choices each and every time.

Mozart is not standard Blomstedt territory but he captured the tension in the opening Allegro, the clean textures of the Haydnesque slow movement, the bracing dance of the Menuet and Trio and nailed the forward-looking innovation of the finale. All the repeats present and correct. Maybe the minor key (this and No 25) is HB’s bag.

Beethoven definitely is his territory and this was marvellous. He plainly loves it and made the PO fall in love with this, the most important work of music in the Western canon IMHO, all over again. 50 strings. Count ’em. Violins antiphonally divided. But every texture, every phrase, even when it get a bit blowsy, in the coda to the epic opening movement or the heroic final variation in the Finale, was utterly transparent. He has clearly continued to learn from the new ways of approaching LvB’s music and grafted that on to the decades of dramatic interpretation he has lived through. No need to open the score. Back straight. Legs planted. Just fingers, elbows, shoulders to remind the players what they already knew. Some stand out double bass grooves and well hard thwack timpani. Natural trumpets. And, in the funeral march, plenty of aural elbow room for the woodwind to shine. The change that this piece of music ushered in was plainly heard but never at the expense of its still Classical grounding.

Best of all. He believes in Beethoven’s markings. Even if he, like most, can’t quite get there. I am not advocating blast beat fast a la Gardiner, (though I am salivating at the complete cycle with the ORR next year at the Barbican), but LvB knew what his was up to and if you don’t agree you can go back to your interminable Wagnerian dirges.

Even when taking the well deserved applause HB seemed more concerned with praising the audience than lapping up the audience appreciation. Mark of the man. With Abbado, Boulez, Harnoncourt, Masur and Davies sadly no longer with us this leaves Maestros Haitink and Blomstedt as the granddaddies. (I can’t vouch for Mr Muti). Both prize purity and don’t f*ck about with what is on the page. Haitink still gets my vote but he only seems to do Bruckner or Mahler now. So hearing what a legend does with stuff I love was a real privilege.

There aren’t that many recordings I would own conducted by HB, whether with the various Scandi outfits he has headed up, the Dresden Staatskapelle or the Leipzig Gewandhaus. (Under Barenboim and Chailly these two have climbed to the very top of the orchestral tree but guess who kicked off the journey). But I wouldn’t be without his Nielsen symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Basically he single handedly showed what the rest of the world what Denmark’s favourite musical maverick (I know, it’s a small field) could do. Priceless.

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.

Peter Eotvos and the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (conductor), Iveta Apkalna (organ), László Fassang (Hammond organ)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2019

  • Arnold Schoenberg – Accompaniment to an Imaginary Film Scene, Op. 34
  • Bela Bartok – Dance Suite
  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
  • Peter Eotvos – Multiversum

A sort of panic purchase this. It is a bit of a faff to use credit for returned tickets at the South Bank. Forgot that a chunk of said credit was about to expire and had already booked most of the concerts I was keen to see. So a bit of fat finger fact finding on the phone ahead of a booked concert and this was the result. Which I promptly forgot about until it popped up in the diary. Still you can’t go wrong with a bit of Bartok and Stravinsky right, and the Eotvos piece (a UK premiere) look like a lark.

Well up to a point. As it turns out Multiversum was a thing to behold but the rest of the programme was less convincing.

What with his Blue Reiter and Expressionist mates, his own daubing and his atmospheric, serialist diddling, Schoenberg was a shoe-in for a film score commission but when it came in 1929, purist that he was, he turned it down and itself wrote this, for an “imaginary” film. It is made up of three moods, Threatening Danger, Fear and Catastrophe and is as dull as everything else I have heard by Schoenberg, whether it be late Romantic gushing, atonal, tonal, or twelve tone. Maybe one day I’ll get it but not so far.

I’ve said before that Bartok’s music is equally fascinating and baffling for me. The Dance Suite manages to be both at the same time. He was commissioned by the Budapest municipality to come up with something which could restore some pride in a Hungary battered by the WWI peace settlement. It’s six movements work as a kind of musical memento mori for the Hungary of history with folk dance music with distinct Hungarian, Romanian and Arabic characters. Like all of Bartok he doesn’t hang around ideas wise so just when you have got your head around one melody he is on to the next one. There are some punchy passages notably in the second Allegro molto (which seems to end with “The Hills Are Alive” !!), the proceeding Allegro vivace and the short, spooky Comodo. The Finale is a suite all by itself. Played the right way, as in the recording I have by the Chicago SO under Solti it is up there with the best of the Stravinsky ballets and Ravel’s most atmospheric works. Here it felt a bit underwhelming.

Things perked up with the Stravinsky, which I have always felt has an air of Shostakovich about it, despite the fact that IS thought DSCH was an appalling hack. The Symphony in Three Movements is really just three, admittedly brilliant and imaginative, movements, written at different times, which IS cobbled together. The Overture: Allegro is as exciting as anything he ever wrote with its motoric string march proceeded by a woodwind and piano scamper. IS was at the height of his fame in New York at the end of WWII and his ballet music was even sampled by Disney. This movement could have fallen straight out of The Rite of Spring albeit with a neo-classical lilt. The Andante: Interlude, L’istesso tempo is led by the harp and was originally intended for a film, The Song of Bernadette. It too has a balletic feel. The finale, Con Moto, was tacked on ahead of the 1945 premiere and comprises a lolloping march, woodwind burble and more keyboard accompaniment. I have heard more urgent and involving performances but Mr Eotvos drove the Philharmonia a little harder than in the prior two pieces to good effect.

Now the composer says the Multiversum was written to channel his interest in “string theory, gravitational waves and the relationships between multiple universes”. Uh oh. I have nothing about contemporary composers describing what prompted and inspired them, and programmatic music has a long history, but sometimes …….. Anyway there are certainly passages in Multiversum where Mr Eotvos goes a little bit B movie, sci-fi on our collective arses, (though thankfully no ondes martenot or electronica), but, cumulatively, across its 35 minutes it does leave a monumental impression. This is largely down to the innovative combination of pipe organ and Hammond organ and the way the orchestra, which is not vast, is placed and combined.

The 20 strong string section was positioned to the audience left, woodwinds to the right, with brass and percussion scattered through the back of the stage. The Hammond organ allows for various pulse-y, lengthened effects, while the main pipe organ, in step-wise motion, generates the throb that sits behind the soundscapes. Together they do say “cosmos” even if at times it was more film score than the mind being stuff of, say, Ligeti or Xenakis.

There are three movements, Expansion, Multiversum and Time and Space, with a kind of Bach-ian construction – Prelude, Toccata, Chorale- though I couldn’t work out much in the way of themes or ideas. There were though some undeniably impressive passages, with inventive harmonies and waves of repetition, and I would happily listen to the piece again, but the influences of Mr Eotvos’s Hungarian heritage, and years spent with Stockhausen and Boulez, were not immediately apparent. He seemed to be having a lot of fun though as did the two soloists and the PO. Iveta Apkalna, dressed in a long, Gothic frock coat, certainly added drama on the RFH’s mighty organ, (her own baby is the brand spanking new Klais organ in the Elbphilharmonie), and Laszlo Fassang showed why he has the market in “classical” Hammond organ sewn up.


Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican review ****

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Maxim Vengerov (violin), Martha Argerich (piano)

Barbican Hall, 12th January 2019

  • JS Bach – Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043,
  • Robert Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 in E flat major

I cannot tell a lie. I didn’t go to the Oxford Philharmonic’s 20th birthday bash at the Barbican Hall to listen to the orchestra though there were clearly a fair few university types, students, alumni and academic staff, in the packed house, who plainly did. No it was the chance to see three world class soloists strut their stuff, though try as I might I couldn’t find a chum to accompany me.

Well they didn’t disappoint. Anne-Sophie Mutter and Maxin Vengerov were, unsurprisingly, electric, and Martha Argerich showed why she is, unarguably, the world’s greatest living pianist. And that in a piece of music, the Schumann Piano Concerto, that remains a mystery to me. It is a very disorientating feeling, being enraptured by an artist’s playing yet not really caring about, or even liking, what she was playing. Quite the opposite with the Bach Double Concerto which is a belter. As is the Beethoven, obviously, though sadly, not here. Too rich and too slow for my taste.

The Bach was, surprisingly, Baroque-like however. Of course these two were never going to abandon the vibrato completely and this was a pretty fulsome band, but there was more than enough motoric chug from the continuo and strings to keep this HIP-ster happy. And when the two of the started riffing off against each other, especially in the sensuous Largo aria-like movement, you’d have to be a particularly humourless period music fanatic not to get carried along. Particularly as the two soloists, with their contrasting sounds, Ms Mutter brighter and sweeter, Mr Vengerov, richer and darker, and the OP players, seemed to be having such a ball. A-SM, what with her mannered interpretations and sergeant major-ish exhortations to the orchestra can seem a bit serious at times, and MV can be too doggedly static. Not here as they belted through the canonic closing Allegro. Easy to see why JSB always had Vivaldi on shuffle.

Now obviously I would rather listen to Martha Argerich playing stuff that does it for me. Bach, Beethoven, Scarlatti, her Chopin and Ravel, some Mozart and her way with the Prokofiev concertos (there is also a bit of Bartok, Stravinsky and Shostakovich in her recorded chamber repertoire I think). But Schumann is pretty close to the top of her favourites and she, because she is close to the divine, gets to choose. Now it seemed to me that in the opening Allegro she had to set Marios Papadopoulos and the OPO on to the same page as her, but once done, the magic started to work. Like I say I don’t understand or care for Schumann’s music but watching and hearing MA weave a reverie in the slower, middle movement and then show her superpower technique at the end of the closing Rondo, even with the orchestra doing its level best to blast her out, was a privilege. How on earth she can play that fast, that accurately and that beautifully is a mystery. Even if you have no truck with this, or any other classical music, I am convinced, if you heard here play live, you would understand. No encore. Shame.

Mr Papadopoulos is no mean pianist himself, especially with Beethoven, but his main musical legacy will be the creation of a top notch orchestra from scratch for Oxford, the town and the University. However on the basis of this Eroica he is resolutely old-school. Now I have a fair few recordings, Harnoncourt, Rattle, Szell, Gardiner, Haitink, Furtwangler and an Abbado (BPO. I mostly listen to the Harnoncourt with the COE, the classic Szell with the Cleveland and the Haitink with the Concertgebouw. So you can see I like my Beethoven, quickish, exact, rigorous and detailed. Not stately, lush, long on vibrato and rubato and all ubermensch-y. The orchestra doesn’t have to be chamber+ sized but it has to have that intent. The best live performance I have ever heard was the Britten Sinfonia’s under Thomas Ades in 2017. (You can still get to hear their 7,8 and 9 in May this year at the Barbican for just £15. The bargain of the decade).

I see a number of proper reviewers liked this “traditional, unidiosyncratic, steady, sturdy, big-boned” interpretation. Not me I am afraid. I began to wonder if it was my own funeral in the Adagio. There is no reason why a performance clocking in at 50 minutes can’t bring a sense of Beethoven’s overall structures. Not here though. I started inventing repeats that weren’t there.

Still it takes all sorts. And, like I said, I came for the soloists and to share in the celebration which was rounded off with a cheesy Happy Birthday medley encore.

The LSO and Barbara Hannigan at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Barbara Hannigan (soprano)

Barbican Hall, 10th January 2019

  • Sibelius – Symphony No 7 in C major, Op 105
  • Hans Abrahamsen – let me tell you
  • Nielsen – Symphony No 4 “Inextinguishable”, Op 29

I am pretty sure that Simon Rattle’s Sibelius cycle with the CBSO from 1991 was one of the first classical music CDs that I bought, (there was a bit of vinyl prior to this and I have never been what you might call an early adopter). So there was a time when I liked, or thought I should like, the Sibelius symphonies and Sir Simon’s way with them. No longer I am afraid. I can get the ebb and flow, the organic construction, the elemental, the river and sea analogies, but I just start to zone out after a while and it all turns into a bit of a drone. Maybe Sir Simon’s now generally heavier readings, deliberate pacing and eye for detail overwhelmed the piece but it did nothing for me.

What a confession to have to make. I understand that the Seventh Symphony, completed in 1924, was itself something of a mould breaker what with its one unbroken movement, its constantly shifting tempi and its dogged reliance on C major and minor. And the fact that he wrote it when p*ssed up to his eyeballs. He went on to compose the tone poem Tapiola and an arrangement of the Tempest suite and a few chamber pieces, and destroyed the manuscript of an Eighth Symphony, but by 1929 he was done, publishing nothing for the next three decades, although I gather he tried, (as well as knocking up some tunes for his Mason mates). Retirement, after a lifetime of excess, was clearly good for him since he got to the ripe old age of 91. I can see why the Finns are so proud of him but I am with those who hear the radical conservative in his music rather than the conservative radical.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle, let me tell you, from 2012-13, was composed with Barbara Hannigan’s voice in mind. He wasn’t the first contemporary composer to do this and he won’t be the last. For her soprano is a most extraordinary instrument. The piece is divided into three parts with seven sections in all and the text, created by Paul Griffiths from his novella of the same title, is drawn entirely from the 483 words that Ophelia delivers in Hamlet, though with very changed meanings and tones. This Ophelia speaks of memory, of music, or love and she doesn’t end up face down in a pond, hair artfully arranged amongst petals. The music of Mr Abrahamsen is (micro)-tonal and largely consonant, but he does slice it up in unusual ways harmonically, whilst still offering a clear, if shifting, pulse behind the glittering, glassy melody textures, driven by percussion and high strings. As most informed commentators have said, it is wintry music, no question. Now I can’t pretend the music leapt out at me on first hearing but it did create a solicitous backdrop for that voice and there is no doubt I will be listening again.

Whether she is singing Britten, Berg, George Benjamin, Gerard Barry, Ligeti, or any number of other modern and contemporary composers it has not yet been my pleasure to hear, she is utterly beguiling and totally convincing. Her soprano is light and clear, but immensely powerful, and she can act. I had another look at Lessons in Love and Violence, this time courtesy of the BBC broadcast, and this time therefore up close rather than the dolls-house view from the ROH amphitheatre of the live view. Firstly a reminder that it is a very, very good opera and secondly there are times when, as Queen Isabel, Ms Hannigan, IMHO, is up there with the best of stage actors, whilst still managing to sing exquisitely, with meaning, to the back of the auditorium.

In this piece HA has served up all manner of opportunity for BH to show off that emotional connection, with suspensions, tremolos, swoops and soars, mournful ululations, floating high notes, even Monteverdian rebounds or, to use the technical term, “stile concitato”. It was a big success when to first appeared, the recording with Andriss Nelsons and the Bavarian RSO went down a storm, and the audience lapped it up at the Proms a couple of years ago. Easy to see why HA, BH, Sir Simon and the LSO fully deserved the applause.

The Nielsen was an altogether jollier affair than the Sibelius (Danes being, in the Tourist’s experience, somewhat more upbeat company than Finns). And for me, Rattle’s deliberate way, and the LSO’s accurate playing, served this much better than the Sibelius. Nielsen, as we all know, liked to chuck it about a bit and here in the Fourth with his defiant sub-title and programmatic exhortation – “in case all the world were to be devastated by fire, flood or volcanoes and all things were destroyed and dead, nature would still begin to breed new life again….” – he starts as he means to go on.

I can see why some might not take to the Nielsen’s progressive tonalities, awkward, clashing sonorities, his shifting themes, big, bold rhythms and mix of C19 and C20 musical languages. For me he is, in contrast to Sibelius, the conservative radical. Tonalities don’t always comfortably agree with each other, but always resolve in some way. I like the way all the ideas jostle for space, and there are many interesting and unusual textures and colours, which often bear an uncanny resemblance to the work of composers from earlier and later decades. One foot in the past and one in the future. If you started with Brahms and Grieg, mashed it up with a hefty squirt of Mahler, a dash of Shostakovich, put it in an oven marked Bartok and Schoenberg, whilst still remaining in a kitchen built by polyphony and Bach, you might have the recipe.

He went through a wobbly phase through the turn of the century, listen to the Second Symphony, and he certainly played up to the stereotype of the troubled Nordic creative. Whilst recognised in his lifetime, it took some a much longer before his distinctive voice was recognised internationally, if not in Denmark, where his songs remain part of the country’s fabric.

The symphony has four defined movements, but these are unbroken, and it takes a few listens to realise that themes that emerge in each of the movements do, in fact, share material. The opening Allegro opens with a stirring crossing of woodwind and strings and from which emerges a hopeful woodwind whistle in E major, which returns in the final movement. After numerous dramatic rises and falls the climax of this movement also anticipates the final resolve. The Poco Allegretto which follows is an impish folk tune, subject to various treatments. The Poco Adagio starts with descending strings set against an intermittent timpani thud, turns a bit darkly pastoral, before building to another foretaste of the climax. The final Allegro starts with scurrying strings, before some Hollywood gush, some chaotic martial cross rhythms, a calmer phase before the message of hope, if we can just endure, is hammered home.

The Fourth was written in 1916. Nielsen had gone into WWI a proud nationalist like Sibelius and so many artists and intellectual across Europe. It didn’t take him long, amidst the carnage of industrialised slaughter, to change his mind. This was his response. “Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable”. A fair motto to also attach to the composition from his countryman a century later.