Mahan Esfahani at the Wigmore Hall review ****

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Mahan Esfahani

Wigmore Hall, 5th June 2017

  • Thomas Tomkins – Pavane in A Minor
  • Giles Farnaby – Woody-Cock
  • Henry Cowell – Set of Four
  • WF Bach – Sonata E Flat Major
  • Steve Reich (arr Esfahani) – Piano Phase

The harpsichord is certainly not my favourite instrument. (Electric guitar since you ask). More than happy listening to it tinkling away as continuo in the best of Baroque but less persuaded of its solo virtues. Yet in the spirit of adventure, with an appealing programme and with Mr Esfahani’s reputation as one of the best in the harpsichord business, this was worth a shot. (For those that don’t know £15 for these lunchtime recitals at the best chamber music venue in the world is a bargain so, if you work locally, get in).

Now a cursory glance at previous posts will show that I am a sucker for liking most of what I see. I like to think this is because I have a eye for the best that the London cultural world has to offer (within the self-imposed boundaries I have set). However, I know that the reality is somewhat different. I am simply far too polite to offend and anyway I am enjoy reminding myself just how discerning I am in my solitary little echo chamber. So you would be wise to ignore everything I say.

In this case though I took a bit of a punt on something and I was genuinely bowled over. I didn’t know it was possible to hear a harpsichord make these kinds of sounds. The two early pieces from Tomkins and Farnaby show, in astounding fashion, just what the bewigged musicians of the Jacobean and Tudor period where up to following the example set by the master William Byrd. Woody-Cock (no sniggering at the back please), the piece by Giles Farnaby, takes a simple Scottish folk tune and turns into a dazzling display of keyboard virtuosity –  the woodcock being a dowdy nondescript little brown fellow until he starts displaying when he turns into the Nureyev of the air. Anyway it was a real lesson in what the harpsichord can do.

As was the piece by Henry Cowell. The programme notes tell me that Mr Cowell set out to marry the musical structures of the Baroque golden age of the harpsichord with the tonal language of composition in the 1960s, and with more than a nod to the then voguish fascination with the gamelan and Balinese music. It was certainly fascinating with a wide range of colours that I had not thought possible on the harpsichord. Not sure if I would seek it out again but I am glad to have been given the opportunity to hear it. The WF Bach took us back to more familiar ground although this era, the galant, the bridge between Baroque and Classical, when all was lightness of touch, can still sometimes come across as a bit frou-frou. Not here to be fair as there was still enough of the Baroque rhythmic backbone and a few darker touches in the piece.

Finally Mr Esfahani took on Steve Reich’s piano phase which he has arranged for harpsichord. So on with the headphones and the tape machine, and off with the jacket, leaving him looking like the least cool DJ on the planet. As he himself freely admits this piece pulls in a new audience to hear the harpsichord – including me. My musical education has come on in leaps and bounds but this still was the main draw for me. The harpsichord creates avery different sound-world when compared to the piano. The slight delay of the tape recording, which is the signature of Reich’s technique, created sonorities which were closer to Reich’s percussive pieces that the piano version. It certainly seemed to forge a more repetitive structure than the versions I am more familiar with.

Overall then this was an excellent journey through the possibilities that are offered by the harpsichord and I will certainly look out for Mr Esfahani’s next visit to London.

Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades

Barbican Hall, 6th June 2017

  • Gerard Barry – Chevaux-de-frise
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 in E Flat Major. Op 55 “Eroica”

That Beethoven eh. Too busy being a genius to get a decent haircut. Another reason why he is my sort of bloke.

I have raved about the other two concerts in this cycle, Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at Milton Court review ***** and Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall ***** so I suspect you won’t be too surprised if I do the same again here. Whilst I am not sure I would want my Eroica to always sound this way it was, as with the performances of Symphonies 1 and 2, an exhilarating restatement of this mighty work.

First though the Gerard Barry piece that Thomas Ades chose to pair with it. Apparently this got a kicking when it premiered at the Proms in 1988. I don’t know why. Yes it is loud, sometimes excruciatingly so, but it is hardly difficult. It was inspired by the destruction of the C16 Spanish Armada off the west coast of Barry’s native Ireland. and the title refers to those pointy wooden array of fixed spears that were used on battlefields to defend against cavalry attacks. You educated types will also know that it refers to a spiky piece of prose deliberately inserted by an author to unsettle you.

So Mr Barry didn’t hide his intentions. The piece begins and continues with a wall of sound from strings, then brass and woodwinds and then the whole shebang, and pretty much continues in this vein for most of the first ten minutes. There are then some “softer” interludes and a glockenspiel (I think) chimes in which offers the only percussive influence (thus making the noise-fest more interesting I think). The chords are comprised largely of crotchets and quavers, the score is marked “spikily” or “brutally” and the effect is of pounding dissonant rhythms. I loved it and I suspect that anyone who has been near any form of “loud” rock music from any genre would feel the same way.

Having located the inner Napalm Death in the Britten Sinfonia Mr Ades seemed keen to channel this into the Beethoven symphony. From the off we were treated to fast tempi which is my preferred default setting (one of my favoured Beethoven cycle recordings is John Eliot Gardiner’s with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique which will hearld a few sniggers from classical buffs). Minimal vibrato and a clear, brilliant sound really pumped up the score which, as any fool knows, is a work of unparalleled genius. (I know the “great male genius” narrative of artistic endeavour is bullsh*t but Beethoven just was, so yah boo sucks to you).

It was just really exciting though in places it did threaten to career out of control. Yet the detail of the phrasing and the dynamic breadth more than compensated. This will sound cliched but it really did feel like the whole score had been given a thorough cleansing, like a restored old master.

I cannot recommend this cycle highly enough based on the three symphonies so far. Thomas Ades and the Britten Sinfonia will be back in May next year to take on 4. 5 and 6. Please go along. If you have never been to a classical concert and don’t think it is for you make this your debut. Get a decent recording of these pieces, shove them on your IPhone, wait for the movements to shuffle through a few times to get to know the tunes, then take the time to listen to the whole thing one evening (phone off). This will mean you are tooled up for the real thing come next May. Then sit back and wait for your socks to be blown off.

The Island at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

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The Island

Southwark Playhouse, 5th June 2017

The Island was written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, whose other major work is Sizwe Bansi is Dead, and first performed, illegally, by the writers to an integrated audience in Cape Town in 1973. It was devised and rehearsed in secret under the threat of government censorship, when even discussion of the conditions in the infamous prison on Robben Island was prohibited. It takes inspiration from a performance of Antigone in 1970 on Robben Island by a group of inmates including Nelson Mandela as Creon.

For these reasons alone you should see this play. For those under 40 (and there were a number at this performance – good on them) I assume that the reality of apartheid is hard to grasp. This play, and the spirited performances delivered by Edward Dede and Mark Springer under the direction of John Terry (of Chipping Norton not Chelsea), is a shocking indictment of this regime, but also a universal reminder of how the state can still repress today. The two actors play John and Winston, who are cell mates on Robben Island, and who are planning to stage their own version of the trial scene from Antigone. It skilfully charts, through reminisces, their three years of shared captivity, their families beyond the prison, the reasons for their incarceration, and the intense friendship, indeed brotherhood, which keeps them defiant despite the injustice they are suffering.

The play opens with fifteen minutes of wordless, and prop-less, acting out of the pointless and back breaking work they are compelled to undertake – shifting sand to each other. They are then forced to run whilst shackled together whilst being beaten. It is uncomfortable to watch – that is the intention – and leaves you to ruminate over why this would ever be done to someone. The two actors make this imaginary pain feel very real. If you are getting fidgety after fifteen minutes of acting try 27 years locked up in this place it seems to say.

Thereafter there are few conscious reminders of their captivity – no guards (the unseen Hodoshe represents their captors and the whole apartheid machinery) or any other characters, and a near completely bare stage. The play instead focuses on what they do for, and say to, each other to keep their spirits strong and cling to the ideals of freedom. The dynamic shifts when John is told his appeal has been successful and will be released. The last part of the play sees the enactment of the scene from Antigone, where Antigone accepts her fate because she has done the right thing and thereby unmasks Creon as a tyrant hiding behind the law, and this is where the real power of the play is unlocked. What was true in Sophocles’s age was true in racist South Africa and is still true today.

Anyway go and see it. If it you find it a bit dour or hard work it might just remind you how free you are. And maybe make you think about the redemptive power of the theatre. And how the bastards in this world will always lose out in the end. And that surely is a good thing.

Vanessa Bell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery review ***

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Vanessa Bell 1879-1941

Dulwich Picture Gallery, 3rd June 2017

Sun shining. Dulwich Park at play. Bit of a picnic then off to the Vanessa Bell retrospective with SO, BUD and KCK. This is London. It won’t go away.

Dulwich PG does a fine job in bringing together thoughtfully curated exhibitions of the non-blockbuster names in a concentrated way. Nothing to frighten the horses but not too stuffy either. And the location is always worth the journey. In the last couple of years I have enjoyed exploring the work of artists as diverse as Nikolai Astrup with his bold Norwegian landscapes, the under-appreciated Winifred Knights, Eric Ravilious with his exacting eye and best of all MC Escher with his unique prints (so good I saw it again in the Hague). There have been some disappointments: the Adriaen van de Velde was the final proof that I just don’t get on with Golden Age Dutch landscapes.

This, broadly, was a success. I am not utterly convinced that the talents of the leading lights of the Bloomsbury Group were as considerable as they might have imagined. Their louche lifestyles (Bell was married to critic Clive Bell, was sister to Virginia Woolf, and had affairs with artists Roger Fry and Clive’s lover Duncan Grant) and absence of home-grown competition, might have secured them a more elevated place in British cultural history than is warranted. I am probably wrong on Virginia Woolf, the SO is the expert here, though interesting to note that Woolf herself envied her sister’s talent with paint, and certainly wrong on John Maynard Keynes, who applied his massive intellect, with self-evident success, to the world of Mammon rather than the Muses. I know it is a class warrior cliche to have a pop at this lot but generally I am not sure much of the painting that come out of the key BG figures was actually up to much.

Vanessa Bell though represents the best of the rum bunch however. This exhibition, apparently the first retrospective of this scale which surprises me, does highlight though that she never seemed to shake off the influences of her Continental peers, notably all those post-Impressionists. There are traces of German Expression here, a bit of van Gogh there, some Cezanne in the landscapes, Monet haystacks, Matisse dancers, some abstract experiments, a still life that is a dead ringer for her teacher Sargeant’s style. After a while however her voice does emerge and the whole does turn out to be more satisfying than the sum of the parts. The paint is tenderly applied and the colours, which are undeniably muddy throughout, do start to push out. The subjects, whether it be her toff mates, the lovely landscapes and houses she was fortunate enough to frequent, or the well composed still lifes, are undeniably attractive even if they don’t say much beyond that to me. I just can’t see the radical painter that others identify.

So all in all a very pleasant experience. I mean that in both a good way and a not so good way. This is the document of a privileged life seen through the art of a privileged woman. They are very pretty pictures but nothing that offered any new perspectives for me. Definitely worth viewing but only as a complement to other more challenging contemporaneous artistic output.

 

 

Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Mark Stone

Barbican Hall, 2nd June 2017

  • Gerard Barry – Beethoven
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 1 in C Major, Op 21
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 2 in D, Op 36

After the chamber concert earlier in the week reviewed here – Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at Milton Court review ***** – I was really looking forward to this, the first of the cycle of Beethoven symphonies conducted by Thomas Ades with the Britten Sinfonia. I wasn’t disappointed. It was outstanding.

The first thing to say is that the Hall was half-empty. This is a real shame as I think Mr Ades and the BS are outstanding advocates for these masterpieces. Remember this is early Beethoven and these two symphonies rarely get performed. If this is what they do with these pieces then goodness knows what surprises they will spring on us in rest of the cycle with the classic symphonies. The Eroica, No 3, the symphony that changed Western art music, is up next week, 6th June, and I really urge you to take the plunge.

I suppose it is possible that some are trepidatious about Mr Ades pairing Beethoven with Gerald Barry. With the Eroica comes Barry’s Chevaux de Frise which I gather is a full on noise-fest. Right up my strasse but maybe not for the twinset and pearls brigade. But for you young hipsters a perfect bragging opportunity surely.

In this concert the first two symphonies were paired with Mr Barry’s eponymous paean to the great man himself. This takes Beethoven’s famous letters to his “Immortal Beloved” and sets them to music, with a 15 strong band and a bass soloist. Well sort of sets them as the tone of the music often seems to bear no relationship to the overblown prose of Beethoven. It does sort of sound a bit like Mr Barry is taking the p*ss to me, but not in a malicious way, but in a gently affirming way. There is the typical Stravinsky-ian rhythmic propulsion that I now understand is typical of Mr Barry’s music, but this is interspersed with much tenderer tunes. It has the full quota of dissonance but again this seemed less jarring than in his other works. Mark Stone sang, or more precisely, recited the English translation of the text without alteration and with the occasional falsetto shift in character.

The whole effect of the piece then is to strip away the “romantic’ in Beethoven’s words and to emphasise the prosaic. And by doing so it becomes a way of humanising the great man and working against all the mythic baggage that surrounds him. And it ends with a chorale based on “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” that silly old me found quite moving. I still have a strong memory of visiting Heiligenstadt, where Beethoven wrote the sad letters to his brothers and composed the second symphony, many, many years ago on a miserable, chilly winter’s day and this all came flooding back. Anyway I thought this piece was fantastic.

So then we came to the real McCoy. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, this was firmly modern in sound bar the timpani (remember despite being 40 strong here this is nominally a chamber orchestra). Yet the full on, pacey tempos could not be more period if they tried. This for me is the ideal combination. I get the power in these still largely Classical compositions but with all of the sparkly brightness. It also means that the Beethovian trademarks – the look at clever old me “wrong key” opening, the blasting winds and the “just kidding” slow opening to the final movement of the first symphony – and the properly pumped up scherzo and stirring “I’m still standing” repeated tunes of the second symphony – are as fresh as a daisy.

And Mr Ades is an energetic conductor to say the least. Which definitely spills over into the BS’s playing. If you like your Beethoven old-skool gushy romantic probably best to steer clear. If you like your Beethoven with driving rhythms and shapely muscle then this is for you.

Will let you know how the Eroica pans out but I suspect I will like it. After all, after number seven, which is probably the greatest musical achievement ever, its my fave.

BTW in the interests of completeness I should mention another leg of this week’s Beethoven love-in. I went to hear Bernard Haitink (the world’s greatest living conductor) guide the LSO through the third piano concerto with Mitsuko Uchida (one of the world’s greatest living pianists) as soloist. This time the Barbican Hall was full to the rafters. No great surprise. Obviously it was stunning. Mr Haitink doesn’t get up to much on the podium – never has done as I recall – but here is simply no-one better able at phrasing this or any other music. Ms Uchida puts a bit more effort in but that still doesn’t prepare you for the sheer power of her Beethoven playing. It is technically brilliant but it just floors you when she comes in after the long orchestral opening, in the cadenza, and the flourish ahead of the bonkers last movement finale. And by getting perilously close to shutting up shop completely the spaces between the notes in the slow movement were exquisite. She doesn’t do all this diva-ish showing off and never puts herself before the thread of the music. Anyway you get the picture. Can’t think of  a better combination than this soloist with this conductor with this orchestra with this composer. The prolonged applause suggested most agreed with me.

No review as I didn’t stay for the Bruckner. That to me is just masochism.

 

 

Richard Goode at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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Richard Goode

Royal Festival Hall, 31st May 2017

  • JS Bach – Partita No 6 BWV 830
  • Chopin – Nocturne Op 62/1
  • Chopin – Mazurka Op 41/3
  • Chopin – Mazurka Op 41/4
  • Chopin – Mazurka – Op 50/3
  • Chopin – Polonaise-Fantasie Op 61
  • Beethoven – Sonata No 28 Op 101
  • Beethoven – Sonata No 31 Op 110

Whilst I do not own any recordings by renowned American pianist Richard Goode, and have not (to my knowledge which is fallible) seen him perform in concert, I was attracted to this programme and by his reputation in this repertoire. This certainly did not disappoint particularly in the Beethoven sonatas.

I know the Bach from a Glen Gould recording. For me no-one comes close to Gould’s musicality in Bach on a modern piano but Mr Goode’s more deliberate counterpoint was still in a pleasure in this delightful work. The first movement toccata is kind of the star of the show with a showy fugal structure at its heart. Then we get the dancey movements but as ever with JSB’s partitas (for whatever instrument) they take the dance base and ask the player to give it a thorough workout with many profound touches.

The mazurkas were a little more impactful for me than the Polonaise-Fantasie as this late work is where Chopin starts to get a little overbearing. I confess I am generally more for the smaller scale, “simpler” Chopin works, but the last of the Op 50 set is a bit more ambitious and actually therefore was a more satisfying listen when sandwiched between the chunkier works of Bach and Beethoven.

The slow movements of both of the late Beethoven sonatas were particularly impressive. The final movement of No 28 is a blinding pice of music with its tonal shifts and the acceleration to the finale. The same structure is employed in No 31 but here the songlike first movements and jaunty scherzo ends with a radiant slowish fugal movement which goes through massively dramatic stops and starts. There are plenty of more immediately attractive middle period sonatas and the big bastards like No 29 Hammerklavier and No 32 (all human life is there) but No 31 might be the best of the bunch because its gets more out of less. Anyway who cares, every note on the piano he ever wrote gets me.

 

 

 

Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at Milton Court review *****

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Thomas Ades, Gerald Barry, Britten Sinfonia

Milton Court Concert Hall, 30th May 2017

  • Beethoven – Septet in E Flat Major Op 20
  • Gerald Barry – Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park
  • Beethoven – Piano Trio in E Flat Op 70/2

I’m guessing that composer heaven is a miserable place. All those blokes (the world of classical composition, at least until the mid C20 is, like pretty much every other sphere of human activity, a damning indictment of the patriarchy), sitting at their pianos with a rictus grin unable to conceal their seething of the one bloke who wears a permanently beatific smile. He is called Ludwig van Beethoven and he is smiling to himself (cast that famous scowling portrait of him out of your mind) because he knows he is better, way better, at his job that all the rest of them. And they too know it.

I suppose it is possible to spend a life without Beethoven. I might have done and I know plenty of people who do. And I realise how much of a pretentious pr*ck I sound for saying it. And that I am implicitly asserting the cultural supremacy of Western and “high” art by doing so. This is not my intention. The thing is, his music is just so very, very good. Pulse, beat, rhythm, melody, harmony all perfectly laid out. To quote the zeitgeist there is always an “emotional journey” in our Ludwig’s pieces, sometimes trivial, sometimes on a grand scale. But more importantly there is musical logic. I can’t read music and don’t really understand the language. But I know that this music is, at its best, perfect and can conjure up that sensation of “nothing else mattering but the music” like nothing else.

So I was looking forward to my week of concert going which was basically just one long Ludwig love-in, largely, though not exclusively, in the company of Thomas Ades, and his fellow contemporary composer, Gerald Barry. Mr Barry is a self-confessed Beethoven nut. Mr Ades, whose work betrays his chameleon-like snaffling of the history of Western art music culture, is also a champion, as revealed by this three year cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the Britten Sinfonia, which has just kicked off. I really like Mr Ades as a composer, witness my review of the Exterminating Angel below. But now I have been bowled over by his skill as a performer and conductor as well.

The Exterminating Angel at the Royal Opera House review *****

This chamber concert ahead of the symphonies, kicked off with Beethoven’s Septet. Old Ludwig gave this a right pasting in his life-time as he considered it a bit of a trifle compared to all his later “serious” stuff. Far be it from me to disagree but I think he was wrong on this. It certainly easy on the ear with six movements all based on dance forms, and it unmistakably still Classical, but it is still full to the brim with ideas. Direction is provided by the solo violin and here Thomas Gould was excellent, supple, yet still candid, in his playing.

Mr Ades and Mr Barry then took to the floor for a two piano version of Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park, Mr Barry’s first opera. I have seen performances of his last two operas, The Importance of Being Earnest and Alice’s Adventures Underground (semi-staged and conducted by …. one Thomas Ades), and I bloody loved ’em. Anyone who thinks contemporary opera isn’t for them should see Importance – it is a hoot.

Anyway this piano piece delivers excerpts (literally) from his earlier opera which showcase his rhythmic power and use of comfortable dissonances contrasted with quieter, simpler, almost lyrical passages. It is this bold rhythmic attack that I like as well as the bawdy humour that seems to break out. Mr Ades composes in a similar vein even if the influences are a little more diverse. Their music doesn’t require a PhD to grasp and there is far less of that long, drawn-out, slow movement, plinky-plonky, atonal musing that has turned me off other contemporary composers. I can’t call it easy listening, but it is easy to understand. So seeing them bash the bejesus out of the pianos was a joy.

In the final piano trio, Mr Ades was joined by Thomas Gould on violin and Caroline Deamley on the cello. Op 70 no 2 is a little less well-known that no 1 the “Ghost”, but I prefer it. By now Beethoven was well and truly in his brave new world as he starts shifting us all over the place in terms of mood and tempo but still basically serving up a robust structure amidst all the “how did he do that moments”. Now Mr Ades is a big fella and he packs a punch (as the previous piece had shown) and he did’t hold back here. This contrasted with the more measured reading of violin and cello to great effect (for me if maybe not the purist). But this power is what I think Ludwig heard. There is a perfectly formed skeleton, there is flesh on these bones, and there are pleasing, delicate features. But for me the one abiding characteristic of Beethoven is muscle. And this performance suggests Mr Ades agrees.

I think I am going to like the symphonies.