OAE at the Royal Festival Hall review

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Roger Norrington (conductor)

Royal Festival Hall, 28th January 2020

Beethoven – Symphonies Nos 2 and 3

The Tourist has signed up for a lot of Beethoven this year. And already enjoyed many performances from many different ensembles with many different interpretations. Most of the central piano, chamber, string quartet, choral and orchestral repertoire is getting an outing, even some of the lesser known works. LvB has 138 Opus number attributions, (some with multiple parts), but once you strip out the early chamber music, the songs, (where his facility was less assured), some choral misfires, the interminable rewrites of Fidelio and piano ephemera, less than half of these get a regular airing. And that is before the various chamber, piano, miniatures, dances, vocal, choral and so on works not assigned an Opus number (WoO, Anh, Unv, Hess and Bia, to represent the various musicologist’s classifications), as well as fragments, ideas and intentions.

Not much of this, if any, will see the light of day even in this momentous year but the one thing we won’t run short of is the symphonies. (I know, I know. Covid-19 may have something to say about that but what can I do.) What is heartening to see is that the less performed symphonies, though this is a relative call as they are not too hard to find even in non-anniversary years, are cropping up frequently.

The debt to Haydn in No 1 is not concealed but there is already much of Beethoven here, sforzandi accents, tonal shifts and more wind, 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. It starts with a musical “joke”, though not a belly laugh to be fair, a series of chords in the “wrong” key, obeys sonata form throughout but chooses to expand and contract sections more wilfully than Papa Haydn and asks for faster tempi than predecessors. It is easy on the ear, definitively Classical but still recognisably Beethoven

A quick word on No 8 which has also not been given its due historically. In F major and relatively short, it is undeniably upbeat, but full of interesting ideas, consistent with the shock, awe and invention of its three predecessors, almost a retrospective before the final symphonic roll of the dice that was to come. The climax comes early in the first movement, the second is a metronomic slow movement played fast, the third is a kind of yokel’s minuet from three decades previous and the rondo finale is as remarkable as anything our man ever wrote.

No 4 is just wildly under-appreciated. From the comic ghostly hover at the opening through the look-at-me bop, complete with wind jam, the first movement is up there with his best, and doesn’t go on too long. The second is a squeezebox, slowed-down rondo, which shows just how much LvB could do with, ostensibly, so little. In the third movement LvB again takes the minuet form, speeds it up into a zig-zaggy scherzo, which thrice wraps around a hesitant trio. The perpetuum mobile finale is a fast, but not too fast, race to the finish line, as “unbuttoned” to use Beethoven’s own phrase as the madcap end of the 7th. I guess the problem is that doesn’t really go in for the deep, thick, heroic stuff of 3 and 5 but there is still something hyper and uneasy through the whole of the symphony, and a lot of ideas.

So to No 2. In the hands of Sir Rog and the OAE. Who played it a few years ago in this very hall, when I was still trying to convert the SO to the joys of LvB. (She famously whipped out a novel on that occasion, snuck-ed into the programme). It impressed then and did so again.

It dates from LvB’s time in Heiligenstadt in 1802, (though the first sketches date from 1800), and premiered in Vienna in 1803. Like the other, lesser even numbered, it just needs a good listen to, though it isn’t, I admit, quite as convincing as 4 and 8. The first movement, post its opening ta-da, exhausts its first theme, the second movement, larghetto, is one of LvB’s longest slow movements, very lovely, but a bit syrupy. The scherzo, is exactly that, a joke, a drunken dance. The finale has some exquisite string writing but doesn’t quite offer enough serious yin to the comedy yang of the preceding movements. In short the whole is a bit too jolly compared to what was to come. Surprising given just how much pain the old boy was in.

As with the Eroica Sir Rog wants us to have a good time, encouraging between movement applause and given he commands the OAE to get a move on, this works for No 2 if less for No 3. This briskness, and Sir Rog’s animated conducting, even from his trademark swivel chair, he is 86 after all, does occasionally mean a loss of focus but it does spread the joy. And whilst the tuned up wind, the absence of vibrato, the quivery brass, the thwack of the timpani, the sheer pace, may now no longer surprise, he and his HIP peers have been at this for near four decades now, it still remind us exactly why No 3 changed the direction of music. Fresh out of the box.

LSO: Beethoven and Berg at the Barbican review ***

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)

Barbican Hall, 15th January 2020

  • Berg – Seven Early Songs
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 7

One of these Half Six Fix early start capers that Sir Si has introduced, a capital idea. A pairing of Berg with Beethoven. Sir Si being a long term fan of the unfecund Austrian, the combination of serialist structure with gushy Romantic expression, seeming to have a particular appeal for him. And, this being the big 2-5-0 for LvB, the conductor and the LSO were, and still are, going to be putting in a few shifts when it comes to the symphonies.

However I don’t think I am alone in thinking that the Scouse Gandalf is less than secure in his handling of Beethoven. Back in the day, with the CBSO, and the Philharmonia, he shone a light on composers as diverse as Britten, Elgar, Mahler, Ravel, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Szymanowsk, Turnage, Vaughan Williams, as well as the Second Viennese chaps, a master of orchestral colour, even if overall structure sometimes eluded him. In Berlin though, I guess in part responding to age and demand, the likes of Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler, were added to the repertoire, and have featured heavily since the return to London. As far as I know though his only recorded take on the Beethoven symphonies is the cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic, which awkwardly juxtaposes their super-bright, hyper-operatic sound with the lessons of period performance, and, mostly, adherence to Ludwig’s metronome markings. Let’s just say it isn’t the best cycle I own. (That would still be Harnoncourt and the COE, which I can say, without any hint of hyperbole, is life changing).

On the subject of hyperbole I have claimed before on these pages that the Seventh Symphony is the greatest. By the greatest composer of all time. Thus it is the greatest symphony ever written. And the symphony is the supreme musical form. Ergo this is the greatest piece of music ever written. At least in Western art music. Of that I have heard. Which isn’t that much. And there might be days when, say, The Wedding Present’s Take Me or Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control or the Fall’s Gut of the Quantifier might take the accolade. So I wouldn’t listen to me.

Anyway this was as I feared, a slight disappointment. Sir Simon kept the pace up in the second movement Allegretto, pulling out the cello/viola counterpoint line, but somehow losing the pathos, and in a rousing Allegro finale, with Nigel Thomas battering his timpani, he seemed to me to lose the thread a little in the long rise and fall introduction to the opening Poco sustenuto. It all tried just a bit too hard to get down on it. Like your Dad on the dance floor. Good but not outstanding.

And the Seven Early Songs is basically Wagner/Strauss in disguise. As I had suspected. So despite the undoubted skills of both band and, especially, soprano Dorothea Röschmann, it therefore had zero chance of engaging me. Sorry.

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.

Prom 15, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra review *****

Prom 15 – Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor) 

Royal Albert Hall, 30th July 2019

  • Beethoven – Symphony No 2
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 5 

It always surprises just how few Proms concerts tick all the boxes for the Tourist. I can usually only manage 4 or 5 in the season. Partly this reflects holiday and other clashes, and this year I was a few hours late out of the block when booking opened, (so missing the Voces8 and English Concert gigs at Cadogan Hall and the first Vienna Phil Beethoven/Bruckner with Haitink conducting), but mostly it stems from the preponderance of Romantic repertoire and the relative absence of Early/Baroque/Classical in the programming. If you like the likes of Berlioz, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Bruckner, Dvorak, Strauss and Sibelius you were, as usual, in your element this year. If this is not your cup of tea a more judicious approach is called for. Mind you. This suits me in a way as, (whisper it), the dear old Albert Hall isn’t my favourite gaff even if the sound is never quite as bad as you might fear up in the Raising Circle where the Tourist perches.

So for me this concert was the one stand-out in the season. Beethoven 2, Shostakovich’s 10th, with the BRSO, under the baton of Mariss Jansons, which runs close to being the best orchestra in the world right now. Hold up chum I hear you say. Mariss Jansons? Shos 10? That’s not what it says above. Well no. Mr Jansons was ordered to take time off over the summer by his docs though it looks like he will be back in the saddle in Munich for the new season, (and maybe he will keep his mouth shut about female representation in music in future). Fortunately for Prommers and those at the Salzburg festival Yannick Nezet-Seguin was able to step in at short notice and his facility with Shostakovich was sufficient to see the 5th replaced the 10th. Which was no great disappointment.

Especially in an interpretation as powerful as this. Now the Tourist has had to wait a few years to witness the conducting, (or indeed pianistic), prowess of French-Canadian YN-S. Never heard the Rotterdam Phil when he was head honcho and am not about to jet over to the Met in NYC or Philadelphia to hear his current troupes. Also never heard the Chamber Orchestra of Europe where he guest conducts and always missed him a few years ago when he still did the same for the LPO. And judging by his discography there aren’t too many orchestral works where our paths might cross. But Shostakovich is clearly one, and, based on this Beethoven 2, it is also clear to me that I need to find a way to hear him lead a Mozart opera.

I am not smart enough to understand why certain conductors and orchestras lift music to another level. But I think I know when I hear it. The BRSO under MJ massively persuaded me with a Prokofiev 5 at the Barbican a couple of years ago. Their playing is powerful, accurate and precise. This was clear in the leisurely reading of the Beethoven Second. Easy on the vibrato, HIP style, but still with a foot firmly planted in the Romantic, focussed on the individual building blocks of the symphony though not utterly convincing on the whole. No 2 can be, shall we say, forgettable compared to what can after, but, in the right hands, is still a work of genius, especially the opening and closing movements.

It took a little time for LvB to bring it to together, interrupted by commissions and by encroaching deafness, and was largely written at Heiligenstadt, but, as is often remarked, you wouldn’t know about LvB’s personal travails from listening to this. The first movement Adagio-Allegro can’t match the Eroica in scale but it does signpost LvB’s future direction of travel. The Allegro wanders off to B flat before wending its way back to the D major home key and the rising scale of the allegro couldn’t be simpler but sets the tone for the surprisingly jolly vibe which pervades the work. The Larghetto, also in sonata form similarly doesn’t spend too long in the darkness, though its woodwind burbling does slightly overstay its welcome, and the following Scherzo and Trio movement marks the first use of the “joke” in a major symphony. The Allegro finale starts off like a classic LvB rondo but then develops into something far more musically complex and is dominated by rapid string passages. Immediately appealing, but satisfyingly clever, like all the symphonies which were to follow.

So a solid start. But it was the Shostakovich which really showed what this band and conductor can do. Given his opera jobs I suspect it may have been a little while since YN-S last tackled the Fifth but it is a work he knows well. And the BRSO certainly does. The complete Shostakovich cycle recording on EMI conducted by MJ may not, individually be best in class, but the 2, 3, 4, 12, 13, 14 versions on this set made with BRSO come close, and, at 20 quid, the cycle is a steal. I confess I prefer Haitink overall when it comes to DSCH, but also have versions of some of the symphonies from Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Ministry of Culture SO and Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool PO (whose complete set is also a bargain). And I would snap up a set of Kondrashin recordings should this ever return based on what the experts say.

The point is that whilst super smooth Shostakovich should be avoided, the extreme of the hardcore Russian approach does take a bit of getting used to. Extremes of anger, aggression, pain and pathos, are what these works are all about, and it is right that interpretations test the patience of the listener, whether it be in the bleak never ending slow movements, the sardonic scherzos or the melodramatic, ambiguous, opening and closing movements.. Whatever you think about what DSCH was actually trying to say in his music it definitely needs an edge, even if you end up concluding that it is sub-Mahlerian, film-music bombast as many have done. I love it but it is undeniably music of edge, effect, emotion and image, mixing high and low brow, light years away from the musical maths of a Bach or Stravinsky.

What it does need to convince however is perfect playing. Forgive the thoughts of this musical dummy but f you have a lot of instruments playing the same thing, or single instruments soloing over a sparse backdrop, then you need the players to be exact. DSCH does not forgive imprecision. The BRSO, perhaps more than any other outfit, move as one. Which means that all the “effects”, the fear, brutality, solace, the bright lights, the shadows, were perfectly executed. DSCH symphonies all, at least from 5 to 13 (1,2,3 are the avant garde formal experiments, 14 and 15 defiantly personal), conjure up images of war and terror and the capacity of humankind to overcome even if, like the Fifth, they came before WWII. But to pull together the passages in the movements to simulate the march of history, and then to lay on top the ironic detachment that, I think, DSCH sought, the last movement of No 5 being archetypical, requires conducting and playing of real skill. That’s what we got here. The sheen was there, no doubt, as were the debts to Mahler and Stravinsky in the phrasing, but this was also properly aggressive and emotional when it needed to be.

The Fifth is, I would assume, the most oft-performed of DSCH’s symphonies meaning the dangers of over-familiarity loom even larger. How to capture the thrill and surprise of the music without getting lazy? How to balance the ostensible formal conservatism of the four movements in DSCH’s “Soviet artist’s response to justified criticism” with the probing, questioning and cynicism which seems, even if this is wishful thinking on our part, to lie beneath? YN-S and the BRSO did not avoid echoing the folk tunes, festive dances and grandiose anthems that punctuate the work to meet Soviet requirements nor did they try too hard to subvert the “uplifting” coda to the finale as it turns from D minor to major. Nor did they over-reach in the still, hovering episodes of the opening movement which punctuate the aggressive tutti climaxes, nor in the heart-rending third movement Largo chant, (with some ear-strainingly quiet pianissimos), nor in the perverted waltz of the Allegretto. They just let it speak for itself. Whether as classic symphonic journey, as testament to the struggle of the Soviet people to escape oppression or as satirical indictment of the dread inflicted by Stalin and his regime. Or just as music which, whilst maybe too obvious and precipitate, immediately connects. As was very clear from the eruption of applause when finally the timpani and bass drum sounded out their last, immense, booms.

A bit of Mussorgsky for an encore. Dawn on the Moscow River from Kovanshchina. Arranged by guess who. Shostakovich.

Like I said. There are surprisingly few Proms that do it for me. But, just like last year and the BPO’s Beethoven 7 under Kirill Petrenko, I reckon I heard the pick of the season. (BTW sounds like Mr Petrenko means business kicking off the BPO season with what sounded like a belting Choral Symphony and serving up a diet of, unsurprisingly, Beethoven and Mahler in the first half of next year. I get the BPO will be glad to see the back of Rattle’s excursions into Rameau and Bernstein. Anyway the Tourist feels a trip to Berlin coming on).

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.