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.

My top ten concerts and opera of 2018

Just a list so I don’t forget.

1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – English National Opera – 4th March

Not quite a war-horse of a production but Robert Carsen’s version of Britten’s Shakespearean opera looks, sounds and, well, is just wonderful.

2. Ligeti in Wonderland – South Bank – 11th, 12th and 13th May

Gyorgy Ligeti. Now bitten and no longer shy. If there is one second half of the C20 “modernist” composer every classical music buff should embrace Ligeti is that man.

3. Beethoven Cycle and Gerard Barry – Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Barbican – 22nd and 24th May

This is how Beethoven should sound. Do not miss the last instalments in the cycle this May.

4. Isabelle Faust, Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord) – JS Bach
Sonatas and Partitas – Wigmore Hall and LSO St Luke’s – 9th April and 16th June

And this is how JSB should sound.

5. Opera – The Turn of the Screw – ENO – Open Air Theatre Regents Park – 29th June

Even the parakeets came in on cue in this magical, and disturbing, evening.

6. Greek – Grimeborn – The Kantanti Ensemble – Arcola Theatre – 13th August

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s breakthrough opera is still a thrill.

7. The Silver Tassie – BBCSO – Barbican Hall – 10th November

And this was a graphic reminder of why his mature masterpiece must be revived on an opera house stage.

8. BBC Prom 68 – Berlin Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko – Beethoven Symphony No 7 – Royal Albert Hall – 2nd September

Crikey. I only went for this. If Mr Petrenko keeps going on like this he might just become the greatest ever.

9. Brodsky Quartet – In Time of War – Kings Place – 18th November

A stunning Shostakovich 8th Quartet and then George Crumb’s jaw-dropping Black Angels.

10. Venice Baroque Orchestra, Avi Avital (mandolin) – Vivaldi (mostly) – Wigmore Hall – 22nd December

As rock’n’roll as the Wigmore is ever going to get.

Handel’s Messiah at the Barbican review ****

Britten Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia Voices

Handel’s Messiah, Barbican Hall, 19th December 2018

Jacqueline Shave (violin/director), Sophie Bevan (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Allen Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone)

Christmas on the way. Full house at the Barbican. MSBD as wingman. Messiah. A quartet of outstanding soloists. The Britten Sinfonia Voices. The Britten Sinfonia. And the very wonderful Jacqueline Shave leading the band.

It is of course impossible not to delight in the Messiah. At least that is the received wisdom. Yet, like so much Handel, I was worried it might, well, go on a bit. For this my friends was amazingly the first ever time I had seen and heard a live performance, Which given its Baroque lineage, its status as a Christmas fixture and its frequency of performance, especially by amateur choirs, is something of a surprise even to me. I suspect its appeal to a certain sort of Englishman (and woman), of which there were plenty on show at this performance, explains part of my reticence. The type that stands for the Hallelujah chorus, showing up our shared sheepish enthusiasm for imagined tradition. (And look what a mess that has got us into). It might also be my fear (not too strong a word) of really large scale choral performance. You know, where it all just becomes and aural blur.

So I figured the best way to get over this likely unfounded prejudice was to see an appropriately scaled performance, from an orchestra, choir and soloists at the top of their game, and in the company of MSBD, whose enthusiasm and all round gracious affability knows no bounds.

Well I can report that divvying up the Christ story (with the lead actor written out as it happens) into three sections and loads of parts (I think 54 in total), arias, recitative and chorus, plus the overture and pastoral symphony instrumental, makes for a much lighter affair, with more contrast and texture, than I had expected. Of course you will already know that no doubt, but for the uninitiated, this HIP style of performance, on modern instruments, is definitely the way in. You are probably familiar with the big numbers, the aforementioned Hallelujah chorus (we are suckers for anything fugal), “I know that my redeemer liveth” for soprano, “The trumpet shall sound for bass” as well as the choruses “Surely he hath borne our grief”, “Worthy is the Lamb” and the final Amen with its OTT dramatic pause before the end. Yet to be fair to old GFH is is rammed with good tunes. Pretty much throughout.

GFH never had a problem finding good tunes. he just had a bit of a problem in stopping them. At least that is my limited experience of the operas. other oratorios and assorted vocal extracts I have heard. And it wasn’t just in the vocal music. Those organ concerti can grind on a bit. I prefer those works when the format keeps it short, sweet and long on variation. The Concerti Grossi, bits of the Latin music and some of the trio sonatas. But frankly the old boy churned out, and recycled, so much stuff that I reckon, like your man Vivaldi, it is impossible to really know where you are in any of it, so best to just let it flow.

Messiah benefits from the fact that GFH only had 24 days to turn it around. I don’t hold with all that “genius in direct group chat with God” theory of inspiration, though I can see why the original 700 strong audience at the Musick Hall in Dublin (there it is above), might have felt that way. Sometimes, whatever your skill, you are just on it. And he certainly was here. Though infamously his librettist, who sort of commissioned him, Charles Jennens, didn’t think that much of his score. Bit rich coming from a man whose text, cobbled together from bits of the St James’s Bible and Coverdale Salter, is the very definition of fruity and defiantly non-linear (though to be fair this gave GFH a chance to properly ham up his own music). Anyway the fact that GFH had to take the rich outpouring of ideas and get them down without overworking or extending them was to his, and ultimately our, advantage. And for once he didn’t, or couldn’t, nick tunes from other composers, as he was wont to do. No shame in doing that then as there isn’t now.

Of course Messiah is just an opera without sets or costumes. With a plot we likely know inside out. By 1742 GFH’s actual operas were out of fashion. The public who now turned up and paid to hear music couldn’t be doing with this expensive and drawn out entertainment. (My theory is that the royals and aristos who generally funded opera and similar such entertainments in the C17 were, like the rich have done since time immemorial, mostly just showing off and couldn’t be arsed to watch what they paid for). So the resourceful Handel yet again, a few decades late, simply nicked an idea from Italy, fitted his music to English and served it up to us Protestant Brits (and the Irish) under our then German ruler. Interesting that Jennens became GFH’s bessie and advocate, publishing all his later scores, as he originally opposed the Act of Settlement that brought the Hanoverian line to England.

And he didn’t just nick the idea of the oratorio from Italy. Some of the tunes here are lifted from Italian madrigals that he had previously written, which, together with Jenner’s eclectic libretto, explains why it doesn’t really feel that sacred. And that ultimately is its genius and what probably explains its enduring appeal.

I have said before that the Britten Sinfonia is on the way to being my favourite band, probably because of the repertoire they tackle but also because their ethos, no principal conductor or director, means they can’t. and won’t, get away with just dialling in a performance or grumpily going through the motions with a parachuted in conductor. I get the impression they choose who they work with, and what they work on. And if, as here under Jacqueline Shave, the leadership comes from one of their own, then so much the better. This means the energy they bring to performance, the direct connection with the audience and the texture they create through interpretation is second to none. Now having a professional choir of the calibre of the BS Voices under Eamonn Dougan has opened up even more opportunities.

Now GFH’s original manuscript score is for 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, and basso continuo (cello, double bass, and harpsichord). The might have proved just a little too hair-shirt for the Barbican Hall so on this evening the BS sported the bassoon of Sarah Burnett, another cello alongside Catherine Dearnley, and another viola alongside Clare Finnimore, and a full 13 violins. Which is still, given the standard Baroque practice leaving later copyists to specify the appropriate instrumentation, as perfectly minimal a band as the work requires. With the 21 strong choir we were treated to absolute clarity with none of the blaring out using huge orchestras and choirs that started at the end of the C18 and continued through the C19. Apparently in 1857 at the Crystal Palace there was a performance with an orchestra 500 strong and a chorus of 2000. And that was not the record. Nuts.

For the bizarre thing is that the beauty of GFH’s invention lies in its restraint. His tunes are always pretty simple to understand, that is what makes them wonderful, and Messiah has a conveyor belt of terrific ideas. But GFH doesn’t feel the need to overdo with the orchestra, often surprisingly spare, and holding back, for example the trumpets and timpani until near the end. The music thus fits the text like a glove and the absence of a defining tonal scheme means that GFH can go where he will with the key to match the “emotion” in the words.

Having the soloists at either side of the stage, walking to the centre for their turns, was at first a little distracting but the payoff, each singer able to “tell”their part of the story and allowing us to focus solely on them and their voices, quickly became apparent. Now I am not smart enough to work out why, in choral works, any particular soloist is more convincing than another, it is a gut feeling, but normally there are one o0f two that stand out. Not here though. All four genuinely wowed. I remember Sophie Bevan from her performance in The Exterminating Angel. Here she had lifted time in the spotlight (not literally, this isn’t Broadway) but the was sublime. I could listen to Iestyn Davies’s countertenor all day, which trust me a few decades ago is not a phrase I thought I would ever write. He probably gets the best of the Messiah arias but even so he didn’t rest easy, ramping up the emotion. Like Mr Davies, I had heard Roderick Williams rich and dramatic baritone pretty recently, in the ENO War Requiem. Wonderful. And hearing the phrasing and virtuosity of Allen Clayton in this, rather than the recent LSO Spring Symphony, which I didn’t really get on with, was a joy.

So, I admit, I get it. Britten Sinfonia under Stephen Layton with Polyphony and two of these soloists now on order.

Glass and Reich: LSO at the Barbican review ***

Divine Geometry: London Symphony Orchestra, Kristjan Jarvi, Simone Dinnerstein (piano)

Barbican Hall, 29th November 2018

  • Charles Coleman – Drenched
  • Charles Coleman – Bach Inspired
  • Philip Glass – Piano Concerto No 3
  • Kristjan Jarvi – Too Hot to Handel
  • Steve Reich – Music for Ensemble and Orchestra

Funny one this. As part of our project to embrace the classics of minimalism the Tourist, MSBD and MSBDB schlepped off to the Barbican. Primarily to hear the new(wish) Reich piece in its UK premiere, and to catch up with the Glass, similarly making its UK debut. Didn’t really have a Scooby about the other pieces I am afraid.

Now somewhere in Estonia, (actually it relocated to the US) there is a factory which produces conductors. It is family owned and goes by the name of Jarvi and Sons, (in Estonian obvs). For Kristjan, along with older brother Paavo, is son to the veteran, and oft recorded, conductor Neeme. Sister Maarika plays the flute though I have no doubt she too is a dab hand with a baton.

Anyway young Kristjan, who has the gig as the AD of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic which he founded, sees himself as a bit of a musical chameleon and genre-buster. Having got his hands on the LSO again he wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to showcase one of his own works, Too Hot To Handel, nor a couple from his mate Charles Coleman. Drenched takes Handel’s Water Music as its starting point, and Bach Inspired, er, a string-only snatch from the Mighty One’s Well-Tempered Clavier and his “Nun common Der Heiden Helland” chorale, plus a couple of his own movements. Too Hot …. you can work out for yourself. Suffice to say it has pretty much undigested chunks of GF’s Concerto grossi mashed up with KJ’s own Stravinskian, post-minimalism, as well as a lot of running around for the LSO’s three percussionists, Neil Percy, Sam Walton and Jake Brown, and a starring role for Chris Hill on bass guitar (I kid you not).

Worshipping at the altar of the Baroque Gods and drawing the parallels with the Minimalists is self evidently “a good idea” but always better done with the C17 and C18 originals. These pastiches, whilst certainly not dull, and played with gusto by the LSO, ended up as classic classical “classic rock” if you get my drift. Not quite Smashie and Nicey, but skirting awfully close. The Coleman pieces, especially Bach Inspired had a bit more heterogenous invention, and wit, about them but even so it was all a bit weird to be honest. At near 40 minutes and over 13 movements, Jarvi’s own work I am afraid outstayed its welcome, was shown the door but still came back again.

As for the main events, well the Piano Concerto No 3 was a little too close to the pleasant warm waves of swirling arpeggios that Philip Glass can presumably churn out in his sleep and the Steve Reich piece was, guess what, just amazing.

The Concerto was written for this evening’s soloist Simone Dinnerstein and premiered in Boston in 2017. Glass, now 81, has moved a long way from the “hard-core” rhythmic minimalism (“repetitive processes” in his argot) of the 1960s and 1970s. His music now is much more melodic, chromatic, even romantic. When he composes for piano, as with the three concertos, the lovely Etudes and Metamorphosis and the film music transcriptions, he is a right old softie and gets all emotional. It can be moving and occasionally stirring stuff but it is mostly like being immersed in a nice warm metaphorical bath with Brahms and Rachmaninov.

You could be forgiven for thinking popular art-house film soundtracks, which have been, after all, a fair contributor to the old boy’s estate in the last few decades. And one of the reasons, perhaps along with his generosity in collaboration, why his music has been so influential. In fact it is pretty difficult to think of another composer of music in the second half of the C20, and into this millennium, his musical ideas have been quite so pervasive. It will be interesting to see whether Glass’s legacy, like much of post-modernist culture, survives. Whilst love for Schubert, another compositional production line, who I suspect Glass would most liked to be identified with, has pretty much continued to increase year in, year out since his early death, other comparable piece-work composers from the Baroque itself, Bach say, or Vivaldi, spent hundreds of years being ignored. Mind you in the age of digital junk it will be hard to forgot anything ever.

Yet amidst all the familiarity Glass is still capable of surprises and here it comes in the final movement, which is simplicity itself, being a homage of sorts to Arvo Part, he of the “holy minimalism”, with a simple, chiming melody over a bass drone. The introspective concerto, which is essentially three slow to medium paced movements, begins with soft oscillating chords against a processional base-line, which drifts in and out of the similarly paced orchestra. Crotchets become quavers then triplets, rising to a swell and then subsiding. The second chaconne-ish movement is all repeated arpeggios which ends with the unflashiest of cadenzas.

As its dedicatee, and given she is an acknowledged interpreter of Glass’s music, Ms Dinnerstein, who is what you might call a “self-made” performer, more in line with the You Tube pop generation, was unsurprisingly accomplished in her playing, technique, emotion and understanding all present and correct, and if it didn’t wow then that is more the fault of the music than her or the LSO strings. She encored with a Glass Etude. I would have liked more of those.

In less than a month’s time Philip Glass’s 12th Symphony will be premiered in LA under the baton of fellow “minimalist” grandee John Adams. You can’t fault his work ethic.

Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, premiered earlier this year in NYC, is Steve Reich’s first large scale orchestral work for 30 years, following The Four Sections in 1987. Reich is of course as much performer as composer and his ostensible reason for avoiding the orchestra genre was that performers were not really up to the task. Fair enough, but, as he admits, that is no longer true as there are now orchestral players, notably percussionists, but also specialists in the other sections, as well as the latest generation of conductors, who are more than up to the task, and who love and relish the challenge of creating his stunning sound-world. Mr Reich is a year older than his peer Mr Glass but they are chalk and cheese when it comes to productivity, as well as, despite the “minimalist” label, musical style.

SR can go a couple of years without a new piece. This is is no way a criticism for when they do arrive his compositions continue to be works of staggering genius. This, of course, assumes you are predisposed to his marrying of pulse, rhythm and process. Here he has contrasted an “ensemble”, lead strings, principal woodwinds, tuned pianos, vibraphones and keyboards, with an “orchestra” which adds a full string section and brass, in the form of four trumpets, to that ensemble.

The work is made up of five sections/movements, in typical Reich style simply numbered 1 to 5, which together form a Bartokian arch. the tempo is fixed across the sections but the speed varies according to note value: 16ths, 8ths, quarters, then 8ths and 16ths again. The key similarly changes across the movements, a minor third each time, from A to C to E flat to F sharp and back to A. All this remains moreorless gobbledygook to the Tourist but I reckon, as and when a recording appears, the structure that can be felt on first listening, will be understood by this musical dummy after repeated exposure. That is the big picture: second by second though it is the magical intricacy of melodic fragments repeated, echoed, chased and overlapped by different paired members of the ensemble with the rhythmic backbone provided by the rest of the orchestra. A Concerto grossi to match Handel though maybe not quite the Daddy of the form, Corelli.

Mr Jarvi, who likes a lively workout on the rostrum, seemed to have the measure of the piece, though I wouldn’t mind hearing the LSO take it on again under, say, their Conductor the Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas. He is, after all, the expert on great American music of the C20 and there was, I’ll warrant, a Coplandian/Ivesian twinkle in some of Reich’s invention. I see he will be premiering it in San Francisco next year as it revolves around the remaining or the six orchestras that co-commissioned it.

Ligeti, Bartok and Haydn choral works at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Francois-Xavier Roth (conductor), Camilla Tilling, Adele Charvet, Julien Behr, Christopher Purves, William Thomas

Barbican Hall, 11th November 2018

  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Lontano
  • Bela Bartok – Cantata profana
  • Haydn – Nelson Mass

Three composers I like. Three works I did not know. A slightly earlier start. A fine end to a fine day.

When I say I don’t know Liget’s Lontano that isn’t strictly true. In fact, even if you are a Ligeti virgin, there is a fair chance you have heard Lontano. For this is the music famously used to signify Jack Nicholson’s descent into full-on barking psychomania in The Shining film. Lontano, along with Atmospheres, is therefore still probably Ligeti’s most famous work, even though, in the five decades that followed their composition, GL went on to explore many other styles and musical ideas. 

Lontano, in Italian, means “far away” or “distant” as a performance instruction which about sums it up. For this is as “other worldly” as it gets, from a composer synonymous with the term. It is built up from layers of very quiet sound, initially cellos and flutes, from the smallish orchestra. These lines move in different tempos and to different rhythms but they combine, legato, to create Ligeti’s trademark micropolyphony. The crystallisation of these sounds brings out sustained, but shifting, harmonies that are very different from traditional or atonal composition but the overall effect is ravishing. And something for which horror and sci-fi film composers ever since should be eternally grateful. It is eerie, mysterious but utterly compelling. Take the bit where the high violins, barely audible, pulse against the throb of the low brass and wind. Given the score doesn’t really offer any metre as such Francois-Xavier Roth could only really prompt the orchestra. No matter. All the LSO had to do was trust Ligeti’s ear and F-XR’s experience with the piece. How GL knew all of his innovations, not just in these micropolyphonic pieces, would work is an utter mystery to me. Genius.

It was performed by the National Youth Orchestra at this years Proms so its a fairly frequent concert hall visitor. Don’t let it pass you by. 

Bartok’s Cantata profana, which was published in 1930, rarely gets an outing. Lasting only 20 minutes yet still requiring a full chorus and orchestra as well as a bass, (here William Thomas standing in for the indisposed Matthew Rose), and a very challenging high tenor part which pushed Julien Behr close to his limit. It is based on a slightly creepy, coming of age, folk ballad about nine brothers who go out hunting, turn into stags, (which I hope is a rare occurrence even in Transylvania), and then refuse to come home when Father asks them. Heady stuff which Bartok pitches somewhere between his more overtly derived folk driven orchestration and the lusher sound-world of his earlier stage works. The LS Chorus seemed entirely at home with the tricky Hungarian idiom of the text and the awkward contrapuntal textures of Bartok’s score, which divides into 8 parts in the second of the three movements..

That’s the thing with Bartok. It normally takes a few listens for me to get the gist of his music. Like Prokofiev I know there is something there worth working on but it doesn’t always reel me in immediately. I can’t always grasp the line and architecture of the whole work but the rhythms and melodies individually are often arresting. I have more work to do on the popular orchestral pieces, am close to cracking the string quartets, think the solo piano collections are fascinating and would love to see Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The piano concertos and the rest of his chamber music are bit of mystery. Whether Cantata profana on this listening will be added to the to do list is a moot point. 

As an aside if you want a quick burst of Romanian folk filtered through an orchestral lens, look no further than the Concert Romanesc. By none other than Ligeti. A perfect pastiche of a C19 nationalist Romantic tribute. It is really hard to believe this is the same composer as Lontano. 

Not knowing the Nelson Mass, as with any Haydn piece, is no handicap. It’s a mass, sung in Latin, so that’s the text nailed down, it is a relatively small orchestra, (just 4 double basses in the strings, trumpets, timpani and a small pipe-organ here played by Bernard Robertson), and, as usual, Papa keeps his textures homophonic and easy to follow. The Gloria ends with a mighty fugue and the Credo kicks off with an extended canon. What’s not to like? That is not to say it isn’t without drama, the LS Chorus letting fly in the Kyrie and Gloria. Julien Behr was persuasive, as was replacement bass, the ever excellent Christopher Purves. Mozart specialist Camilla Tilling’s soprano lost a little of its silky subtlety though newcomer Adele Charvet’s mezzo more than held its own. Even so there might have been a case for reigning in the 130 strong Chorus a little to offer a little light and shade. 

The Nelson Mass is the third of six that Haydn composed between 1796 and 1802, appearing just after The Creation in 1798. He titled it Missa in Angustiis, “Mass in difficult circumstances”, a reference to Napoleon’s march across Europe. There is a martial quality about some of the music, in the Kyrie and Benedictus for example, but, as usual Haydn can’t suppress his jolly nature throughout. As it happens a few days before its first performance Admiral Nelson (there he is above) secured a famous victory against the French fleet at Aboukir. A couple of years later Nelson went to visit the Esterhazy court and this was performed for him; hence the nickname. 

The Silver Tassie at the Barbican review *****

The Silver Tassie

Barbican Hall, 10th November 2018

  • Mark-Anthony Turnage (composer)
  • Amanda Holden (libretto)
  • Ashley Riches – Harry
  • Sally Matthews – Susie
  • Brindley Sherratt – The Croucher
  • Claire Booth – Mrs Foran
  • Marcus Farnsworth – Teddy
  • Alexander Robin Baker – Barney
  • Louise Alder – Jessie
  • Susan Bickley – Mrs Heegan
  • Mark le Brocq – Sylvester
  • Anthony Gregory – Dr Maxwell/Staff Officer
  • Andre Rupp – Corporal
  • Finchley Children’s Music Group
  • BBC Singers
  • BBC Symphony Orchestra
  • Ryan Wrigglesworth – conductor
  • Kenneth Richardson – stage director

B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. I never saw Mark-Anthony Turnage’s second full scale opera when it was first performed in early 2000 at the ENO. On the basis of this semi-staged performance from the BBCSO as part of the In Remembrance weekend this was a terrible omission on my part for it is an extraordinary work both musically, and, given the strength of Amanda Holden’s libretto, dramatically. It is intensely powerful and moving even without a full set and staging. It beggars belief that it has not been revived since 2002, (and that it missed out on a run in Dallas thanks to political sensitivities). 

It is constructed as a symphony in four acts, Home, War, Hospital and Dance. Harry Heegan is about to return to the family flat after a football match with his best mate Barney and girlfriend Jessie. Mum and Dad are intensely proud of their son who is about to head off to the war. Next door neighbour Susie joins the party, banging on about God. Mrs Foran from upstairs also turns up escaping abusive husband Teddy. The Silver Tassie, a cup with much significance appears, the men go to war full of optimism. The War act is primarily choral preceded by the mythic Croucher, representing, I think, the war dead and intoning Old Testament-ish doom. An officer complains at the doctors in the Red Cross station. A football game is delayed as the battle begins. The story then switches to the Hospital where an angry Harry is now paralysed, Teddy blinded and Jessie, who refuses to see Harry, is now coupled up with Barney, who saved Harry’s life. The final act sees Harry and Teddy spit out their pain and bitterness at those who still have their futures at the communal dance. 

The opera is based on Sean O’Casey’s eponymous plan and it is therefore we who have to thank for the gripping drama. Whilst it is never made explicit, O’Casey intended that the Heegan family, and the rest of the community, should hail from the East Wall, a working class district of Dublin, adding further pungency to the message of the play (and opera) because, at that time, Ireland was still part of the UK and the republican movement was divided on whether the country should be involved in the war. So as some young men like Harry, Barney and Teddy headed off to war others prepared for insurrection at home. 

O’Casey’s play was rejected by WB Yeats, then head honcho at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, when it was submitted in 1928, reflecting its political sensitivity. This was after the success of his first three major plays, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. So it premiered at the Apollo in London’s West End. There have been a fair few plays which rail at the futility of war and its consequences on the individuals who fight in it, but I doubt many match the raw power of The Silver Tassie. 

So Amanda Holden, (to be clear not the airhead judge on BGT), and M-AT had something monumental to work with. Even so, and in no way intending to downplay Ms Holden’s contribution which provides M-AT with multiple opportunities to show off his trademark stylistic jagged juxtapositions, it is the score that takes the breath away. M-AT had already shown his dramatic flair in his first opera Greek, and his compositional skill with orchestral pieces such as Three Screaming Popes, Momentum, Drowned Out, Dispelling the Fears and Silent Cities, especially when it came to percussion and brass, but The Silver Tassie is on another level.

The symphonic structure is inspired by mentor Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids, with the first act setting out the main ideas and themes, the second the Adagio slow movement, brought to life by the large scale choral scenes (echoing the more Expressionist feel of the act in SO’C’s play), the third a Scherzo and the last act a “dance” finale with “off stage” band. This structure offers rhythmic backbone and plenty of tunes derived from song, (including Robert Burns’s own Silver Tassie), and dance, as well as repeated motifs, which make it easy to follow and show off MA-T’s uncanny ability to capture the emotional interior of the characters. There are episodes of rich orchestral colour but there are also plenty of more economic orchestration.  The score should give the singers plenty of space, but just to make sure the cast were miked, (though M-AT, a couple of rows in front of me, needed to dash up to the sound desk to get the balance right early on).  The second and fourth acts are up there with the best I have ever heard on an opera stage. Even allowing for the fact that this wasn’t an opera stage. 

Sometimes this semi-staging lark can leave singers looking a little awkward unsure of how much to commit to performance versus voice. Costuming can also, sometimes, appear incongruous. Not here though, at east once the first act go going. There were some outstanding vocal performances, notably for me from Sally Matthews and Claire Booth, and Marcus Farnsworth as Teddy was very persuasive. But baritone Ashley Riches as Harry, even from my two perches (side stalls first half, back of circle second), was bloody marvellous not just in his singing but also in the way, pre and post wheelchair, he projected Harry’s exuberance and then his pain into the whole auditorium. 

Now I have nothing to compare it to but, given just how amazing this was, I have to assume that Ryan Wrigglesworth and the BBCSO, and the BBC Singers and Finchley Children’s Music Group (complete with ensemble writhing) got as close as possible to the heart of the music. 

You can listen to it for a couple more weeks on BBC Radio Opera on 3. Do yourself a favour and do so. 

And can I beg the ENO to find a way and time to revive this. With Mr Wrigglesworth on the podium. I will chip in a few quid if it helps.