Christ on the Mount of Olives: LSO at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Elsa Dreisig (soprano), Pavol Breslik (tenor), David Soar (bass), London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey (chorus director)

Barbican Hall, 19th January 2020

  • Berg – Violin Concerto
  • Beethoven – Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op 85

After a somewhat disappointing take on the Seventh Symphony paired with Berg’s Seven Early Songs just a few days previously, and, given the reputation of oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives as a somewhat lesser work from the pen of our Ludwig, the Tourist approached this concert with some trepidation. I have heard the piece but don’t own a recording and cannot claim to know it at all. Well, turns out it’s a belter. Fair enough its not the Missa Solemnis or the Mass in C major (which I happen to prefer), and there are a few routine, by Beethoven’s standards, passages but there are some sublime musical ideas and plenty of drama. Maybe not quite up there with Haydn’s oratorios but running closer than you might think.

LvB started writing Christus am Ölberge, to give it its German title, in 1802 just after he had written the harrowing Heiligenstadt Testament, and was first performed in 1803, though not published until 1811.The libretto comes from poet Franz Xaver Huber, and, in a very human way, deals with the agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest. The tenor takes the role of Jesus, the bass Peter and the soprano a seraph. Even after Christian Schreiber was enlisted to make significant changes to the libretto LvB wasn’t happy with the text, and opinion then and since has tended to look down on the overall tone and structure of the oratorio, with the exception of the gut busting Welten signen choral finale.

The piece suited Sir Simon’s sense of the dramatic and his ability to shape individual sections. Some of the solo and choral parts are really sensational, and, with the LSO seeming to relish the novelty, the orchestral writing was similarly striking. It kicks off with a call to action from the trombones before Pavel Breslik’s vivid tenor sets out Christ’s plaintive plea to God. This was followed by Elsa Dreisig’s lovely soprano, truly angelic, and then the chorus stiffening his resolve. David Soar’s bass in truth doesn’t get much of a look in and the chorus, as soldiers, disciples and the like only really get going in the second half of the story. But, when the LSO Chorus is finally unleashed, all 145 of them, the effect was magical.

Whilst I get why Sir Si whats to showcase as much Berg as he can, him being a fave composer of his, and the Violin Concerto is, similarly a tempting morsel, actually full four course meal with the two movements each divided into two sections, the prelude, then scherzo, the cadenza and finally chorale variations. Indeed when Sir Si was still in Berlin he came over a couple of years back to take it on with the LSO, though then with the peerless Isabelle Faust on the fiddle. That was a triumph as soloist and orchestra made sense of Berg’s most compelling exercise in reconciling romantic diatonicism with twelve note serialism. Here orchestra, conductor and soloist, Lisa Batiashvili, weren’t always quite on the same page, though it was impossible to fault Ms B’s articulate playing which went easy on the vibrato and always sensed the sharp dance that underpin’s Bartok’s tunes.

P.S. Anyone who is anyone in the Western art canon has had a stab at Christ in the Mount of Olives so plenty of choice for the pic above. Though I would give you some Goya though, just because I am, what with all this global misery, going through a bit of a Goya phase right now.

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.

William Kentridge: Smoke, Ashes, Fable at Sint-Janshospitaal review ****

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William Kentridge: Smoke, Ashes, Fable

Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges, 20th February 2018

Off to Bruges and Brussels for a couple of days. Main purpose. To soak up the best paintings that the Northern Renaissance has to offer. Now you all know that it doesn’t get much prettier than Bruges, (though Ghent may just top it). Which also means that it should be avoided like the plague during the high season. And it should never be insulted with just a day trip. Do not miss the Chapel of St Basil, the Gothic Hall in the Stadhuis, with its “Medieval” murals telling the story of the City from C19 artist Albrecht de Vriendt, and Frank Brangwyn’s drawings and etchings in the Arenthuis. Ooh and don’t be sniffy about taking a boat trip.

The main reason for going though is the art. Specifically the first two rooms of the Groeningmuseum. Go in February. Get there early and you might just have the rooms to yourself. Room 1 has the extraordinary diptych from Gerard David, The Judgement of Cambyses, a warning to dodgy politicians everywhere, and a Bosch Last Judgement. Room 2 though will take your breath away. Impossible to know which way  to look. Hans Memling, Petrus Christus, more David. Further on Adriaen Isenbrandt, Hugo van der Goes and Jan Provoost. And works of astounding beauty from unidentified masters.

Topping it all is Jan van Eyck’s, Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele. His greatest ever painting? I think so. Thus making it the greatest work of Western art ever. Swing your head round and you see his portrait of his missus Margareta. This must be the single best concentration of art in the world.

Of course you may hate this stuff what with all that religious mumbo-jumbo, preponderance of shiny things and “realism” that is anything but. You’d be a mug though.

In which case the Memlings in the ground floor of the Sint-Janshospitaal are also not going to do much for you. Shame. There are five astonishing works capped by the St John Altarpiece and Shrine of St Ursula. Take your magnifying glass. And see the fascinating videos which show Memling’s underdrawings and his immense skill as a draughtsman.

Or move on. For help is at hand. In the form of William Kentridge. Now I didn’t go specifically to see this carefully constructed collection of Kentridge’s recent work by curator Margaret Koerner. But it was fortuitous timing nonetheless. South African William Kentridge is one of the most renowned of the, how shall I put this, older generation of contemporary living artists. His work covers drawings, prints and sculpture, but he is probably best known for his animated films and for the installations that contextualise them. He makes charcoal drawings, which he then erases and changes, filming the results to create his glorious Expressionistic animations. His subjects are numerous, though history, language and justice are common themes, specifically in his native South Africa, from his perspective as a white Jew whose parents defended the victims of apartheid.

I saw the production of Berg’s Lulu at the ENO in 2016 which he directed and which bore his distinctive visual stamp. I can’t say I was enthralled by the results but that is largely because Alban Berg’s music, and specifically this opera, are works-in-progress for me. There are a number of great artistic statements that may confound or confuse me at first but which I know I should keep working at.. Lulu is one of them. It looked amazing though thanks to WK and the video crew.

I also saw the exhibition of Kentridge’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2016 entitled Thick Time. Now, as in this exhibition, I can’t pretend I was persuaded by everything that Mr Kentridge creates. Yet even in the drawings and videos whose meanings are elusive to me, and there were a few here, there is something compelling which draws you in.

In Thick Time he created six installations the highlight of which, by far, was The Refusal of Time, a meditation on time and fate in which composer Philip Miller provided a hypnotic score to accompany WK’s videos and a “ready-made’ Leonardo-ish “breathing” machine. In Right Into Her Arms WK creates a sort of mini-theatre with a dance drama centred on the disappointment of desire I think. Seven Fragments for George Melies, Day for Night and Journey to the Moon imagined an artist embarking on a series of adventures and was the most obviously Expressionistic of the works with its allusions to early silent cinema.

Here in Smoke, Ashes, Fable the highlight undoubtedly is More Sweetly Play the Dance from 2015. First off it is set in the amazing upstairs room in the Hospital, a cathedral in wood. The works here have all been chosen to reflect the location, but this is the piece which is most evocative. It is based on a medieval Dance of Death. This is a medieval hospital. Across eight massive white panels WK’s charcoal drawing animations see a not quite monochrome processional emerge, drawn from the silhouette of his collaborators. A brass band plays a repetitive tune against this. It is both sombre and celebratory. This Dance of Death though will be more familiar to you from African funeral processions but the characters here seem very different. You literally cannot take your eyes off it and have to sit mesmerised watching at least one, (in my case three), revolutions of the procession. Most everyone there when I visited was drawn in and grinning from ear to ear. For, although this may portray the fragility of human existence, there is something immensely celebratory about the work. Marvellous.

Next door are a set of large scale tapestries which show the silhouettes of African figures, carrying day-today objects, set in maps from the C19. Lives literally carried on their shoulders, a comment on migration perhaps. Downstairs the exhibition opens with drawings and extracts from the monumental 600m long frieze Triumphs and Laments which WK created alongside the Tiber to tell the history of Rome in 2016. I really, really need to see that before it eventually fades away. The installation which titles the exhibition is a little more introspective but still intriguing.

Now I am not saying you should make a special trip to Bruges to see this exhibition, If only for the very good reason that it is now over. But if his work does find a home near you then you must find a way to see it. If you are anywhere near the Reina Sofia in Madrid right now you have just that opportunity in an exhibition centred on his excursions into opera. And later this year he has something cooking in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. There will be other stuff I am sure. Go.

 

 

 

Twentieth Century Masters: LSO at the Barbican review ****

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London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, Isabelle Faust

Barbican Hall, 14th January 2018

  • Janacek – Overture: From the House of the Dead
  • Elliott Carter – Instances
  • Berg – Violin Concerto
  • Bartok – Concerto for Orchestra

Back to the Barbican for another round with Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO, though this was more familiar ground (for me) compared to the previous outing (Rameau to Mahler: LSO at the Barbican review ***) a few days earlier. And back to my more usual perch. Once again the Hall was pretty much full to the rafters, and, encouragingly, it looked liked a very youthful audience. (Or I am ageing more rapidly than I thought). Anyway, on the subject of age, the thread here was orchestral works written near the end of their lives by these four very different composers. All of which gave a chance for the whole orchestra to shine.

Now the main draw for me here was Isabelle Faust. I think she is probably the best current violinist in the world. Mind you, as is my wont, I have gone all hyperbolic in this claim with little evidence to back this up. So, more exactly, the best violinist I have heard in the past couple of years, based on recordings and her Bach outing last year at the Wigmore Hall (Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin at the Wigmore Hall review *****).

As it happens I saw a fine rendition of the Berg Violin Concerto performed by another favourite violinist in the elfin form of Patricia Kopatchinskaja last year at the RFH with the LPO under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. And I recently invested in the benchmark Levine/Mutter recording, (even though I am not entirely convinced by Ms Mutter). Now I am not going to pretend that listening to Berg comes easily to me, but even I can hear that there is a rich depth in his works from the combination of passion, intelligence, serial technique and romanticism, that rewards persistence. I rashly signed up for a performance of Wozzeck at the Frankfurt Oper a couple of years ago in German with German sub-titles (FYI I don’t speak German). Unforgivably I bought the cheapest ticket up in the gods. It is a wonderful auditorium but I could only see half the stage. That was still enough to be transfixed by an outstanding production. But most of all it meant I had no choice but to get lost in the score. Stunning. Add to this the Lulu in 2016 at the ENO directed by William Kentridge, which I confess was beyond me in parts, but was visually spectacular, and I am now well on the road to Bergian conversion. Mind you, what with his long(ish) musical education under Schoenberg, the proscription of his music under the Nazis and his early death, aged 50, after a bizarre insect biting incident, there isn’t too much composition to get your head around.

Now this Violin Concerto isn’t like others in the canon. It’s tricky for sure, and asks a lot of the soloist, but it isn’t showy. Orchestra and soloist have to mesh together. It is pretty much the last piece Berg wrote and is dedicated to the memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma (Mahler’s widow) and Walter Gropius (Bauhaus founder), who died from polio at 18. Apparently she was a captivating young woman in the manner of her mother.

The two movements are each split into two parts and with the waltz emerging from the material set out in the first movement, and the chorale emerging from the more rhythmic, almost cadenza, in the second movement. This the tempo is reversed in each. I can sort of pick out the established musical structures from within the twelve tone architecture but couldn’t tell you exactly what was going on. Suffice to say this is a dark, brooding, self-absorbed piece for the violinist and Ms Faust seemed to capture this utterly. She seemed lost in music, caught in a trap, to paraphrase Philly’s finest sisters, There are times when the whole edifice becomes just that bit self indulgent but this is where Sir SR’s insistence on picking out the orchestral instrumentation pays dividends. I hadn’t realised how detailed are the parts for harp, clarinet, viola, flute and trumpet were in this piece. I do now.

Which brings me to the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Now this is a piece written with the express intention of letting everyone in the band have a solo, like some prog-rock group in its 1970s pomp, It is an obvious, but still inspired, choice to present to an audience in a first season, and, I would hazard a guess, if you are engaged in a bit of musical team-building. I have Rattle’s first, (I think), stab at this when he was a younger at the CBSO, (though the bargain basement Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra version tops it). Anyway Sir Simon knows his way around it, and it brilliantly matches his predilection for coloration and deliberation.

I am not going to lie. It blew my socks off. There is just so much to listen to here. The first movement strings and brass, coming out of the undergrowth, with the woodwind, led by a solo oboe, getting their turn in the spotlight. The wonderful second movement scherzo with its contrasting intervals, an eerie disco. Next up an Elegia, exactly as it says, with the strings swirling around and up to be met by bold brass chords and a piccolo sticking its little nose in. The second scherzo quotes, mocks and, ultimately, compliments Shostakovich with tuba and harps getting involved, and the final movement works in classic Bartok folky stuff with a gallop to a rousing chorale at the conclusion.

I reckon we won’t have seen the last of this piece, or of Bartok, from Sir Simon and the LSO and it can probably get even better from here. Hopefully too we will see him rework some of his other C20 repertoire. Some more Stravinsky for sure, but I’d loved to hear his latest takes on Britten’s music for orchestra and, please, some, no all, of the Nielsen symphonies.

Anyway the other two pieces in this concert were tried and trusted composers for Sir Simon, Janacek’s Overture From the House of the Dead didn’t quite get the pulse racing in the way the Bartok did, but still suggested what the LSO is heading towards. (I see the House of the Dead will see a new production at the Royal Opera House in the forthcoming season. That has contemporary relevance written all over it). Sir Simon has always championed Elliott Carter and I can see why. This was another of those short, but inventive, comedy pieces that Carter was turning out in his musically fecund 90s and even into his 100s, but it has a strangely, moving ending.

Can’t wait to see what the Scouse Gandalf will programme with his band for the forthcoming season. Hopefully not too much Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius please.