Stravinsky from Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican review *****

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London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle

Barbican Hall, 24th September 2017

  • Igor Stravinsky – The Firebird (original ballet)
  • Igor Stravinsky – Petrushka (1947 version)
  • Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

So here is is. The second coming. Sir Simon Rattle kicks off his tenure at the helm of the LSO. I missed the opening concert of British composers (annoying) and the Damnation of Faust (no interest) but this was always going to be a must see so I booked as soon as it opened.

Now it has been perfectly possible to see Sir Simon in London with the LSO, (for example, a Mahler 6 and the Ligeti Grande Macabre earlier this year), and other bands, (a Haydn Seasons and the late Mozart symphonies both with the OAE stick in the memory), but this was the first opportunity to gauge what will be possible for orchestra and conductor to achieve now they have quality together.

So it was an expectant mood in the hall as the Scouse Gandalf took to the podium (no need for scores – it is all in his head), after a few words with a clearly pleased as punch Lord Mayor. And then all hell broke loose. This was simply breathtaking. For long periods I was sitting stock still (and I am a terrible fidgeter) either open-mouthed in astonishment or grinning to myself like the proverbial cat from Cheshire.

Now I like the boy Stravinsky. And the more I get to grips with his compositions the more pleasure (and intellectual stimulation) I get. But it is hard to beat these three ballet scores.

Sir Simon chose to deliver the complete Firebird ballet. This means there is more of the still late Romantic colouration and chromaticism before we get to the Kashchei mad disco bits which presage The Rite of Spring. This means the debt to mentor Rimsky-Korsakov and the stench of Imperial Russia (give ’em fairy tales instead of food) hangs heavy in the air. Tchaikovsky and the rest of the Five are also on show. As usual Sir Simon was not interested in galloping through the first half of the exotic first tableau, to make sure every ounce of orchestral magic was received and understood by the audience. Which meant that by the time we got to the stunning apotheosis we were begging for release. Oooh. You just knew Igor, after this first lucky break, was going to take this to the next level.

Which is what he did. For Petrushka we got the 1947 streamlining though this is the standard nowadays. Here we start to get the big repeated rhythms and motifs which are what took the world of Western classical music by the scruff of the neck and turned it into a new direction. The late C19 structure is sort of still visible but in a kind of ironic way. The thrust towards Modernism and the age of machines is starting to take over though with rapid changes of direction, repetitions, major keys piled up and loads of banging tunes. And at the centre was the LSO’s own pianist master, Philip Moore.

A well earned break and we got to Sir Simon’s Rite of Spring. What a racket. In a brilliant way. The orchestra throughout was using every available inch of the Barbican stage with 60 odd strings on show and more brass than Yorkshire. And in the giant rhythmic climaxes they all got a look in. My ears were pounding and I was at the back of the circle. Heaven knows what it must have been like for the captives at the front of the stage. I have heard some marvellous Rite of Springs, (in my view, I cannot vouch for the ear of the professional), but this topped the lot. You can see why everyone got so enervated at the first performance in 1913. I was tempted to jump out of my seat at the end of Dance of the Earth and yell “go on my son”.

Now the LSO is top notch. We know that. Best in the world. Maybe. Best in my world. Definitely. But I have never heard them sound like this. Under Valery Gergiev, sometimes with interpretations that seem to be dialled in a couple of hours before a concert, they looked, and sounded, frustrated. Not here. They were having a blast. I have never seen an orchestra looking so happy. Every single section sounded faultless to me bar a couple of overly-enthusiastic brass fanfares. Yet is was the woodwind which stood out. And when the strings where belting out as one, like some giant single instrument, or capturing a pianissimo so quiet time was suspended, it just felt good to be alive.

So all in all a genuinely memorable evening. I cannot wait for the next from this marriage made in musical heaven. Unfortunately a fair slice of Sir Simon’s standard repertoire is not entirely to my taste but there should be enough from the C20 and contemporary commissions and from Classical masters. Indeed in January he will take the LSO back to the Baroque in part (Handel and Rameau) alongside Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder (with the lady wife singing – his, not mine) and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. There is also a very attractive C20 programme with Janacek, Carter, Berg’s Violin Concerto, with the marvellous Isabelle Faust, and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. And there is plenty of Mahler, as well as Tippet, Bernstein and Strauss for those attuned to that sort of thing. Bring it on.

Monteverdi Vespers at the Barbican Hall review *****

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The Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of the AAM, Robert Howarth, Louise Alder, Rowan Pierce, Thomas Hobbs, Charles Daniels

Barbican Hall, 23rd June 2017

It was the Academy of Ancient Music and its choir performing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. It was bound to get 5 stars.

If you have spent your life blissfully unaware of Monteverdi’s Vespers then I implore you to take a listen. I can see that a few people have accidentally stumbled upon this blog, normally when looking for reviews of plays that proper critics and bloggers haven’t bothered to see. So they had no choice but to read my nonsense. If you are one of these people and you happen to open this post by mistake, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE find a way to listen to the Vespers of 1610.

I don’t care what bag of music you are into. I don’t care if you think classical music is a load of nonsense. This is different. I promise. It does go on a bit I admit. Hour and a half. But it is broken up it to lots of different chunks. And it is divine. In both the sacred and secular sense.

Now if you or I wanted a new job we would ask around. Probably scan the press, specialist and general. Contact an agency or if you are an important sort, tap a headhunter. You would dust off the CV and hawk it around. Not our Claudio though. When he wanted to escape from his overbearing employer the Duke of Mantua, feeling overworked and under-appreciated, he wrote this and sent it off to the movers and shakers in the rest of Italy (though it wasn’t Italy then of course) with a particular eye on a job with the cashed up Pope. He was well known largely for his madrigals, where he was the bees knees, the Ed Sheeran of his day. But he wanted a more prestigious position where he could churn out more weighty stuff – like what happens to all talented pop stars when they “want to be taken seriously”. In the end he got the top gig at St Mark’s in Venice.

This explains why Monteverdi mixed up the various styles of church music, some taken from tunes he had already written, to create this Vespers. The title says it all: “To the Most Holy Virgin: a Mass for four voices, for Church chorus, and Vespers to be sung by several voices, with a few sacred songs”. All of the elements of the standard Catholic Vespers are there but interspersed with other elements which make for a masterly mash-up. The piece is unique for its time in the way it looks back to the Renaissance with plainchant melodies anchoring the structures in the five psalms, the hymn (Ave maris stella) and the choruses of the Magnificat, that make up the Vespers. Yet it also looks forward into the Baroque of Bach, and even some proto-Classical homophony, in the four “concertos” and sonata which are more “secular” in sound despite still praising the Virgin Mary to the hilt. All of the contrasting textures, both for voices and instruments, also show why Monteverdi effectively invented opera.

The performance by the AAM and chorus under the guiding hand of Robert Howarth at the harpsichord was excellent I think. Of the soloists we, (BUD wasn’t going to be allowed to miss this one), were most taken with Thomas Hobbes (tenor) and Louise Alder (soprano) but it almost seems churlish to say so. The twenty strong choir was on top form and the AAM (which is made up of some of the finest period music interpreters anyone) was magnificent.

Now you will find smartarses who reject this way of performing the Vespers – several voices to a part, two tenors and two sopranos, step out soloists, “echo’ effects meaning soloists whizzing around the building and so on – but trust me, they can safely be ignored. A perfect Vespers might need a Cathedral and candlelight rather than the Barbican stage but the music is just so amazing that I strongly recommend that you just add this to your bucket list and get on with ticking off. I cast iron guarantee you won’t regret it.

 

 

 

 

 

Murray Perahia at the Barbican Hall review ***

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Murray Perahia

Barbican Hall, 11th June 2017

  • J S Bach – French Suite No 6 in E major, BWV 817
  • Schubert – 4 Impromptus Op 142, D 935
  • Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K 511
  • Beethoven -Sonata No 32 in C minor, Op 111

Murray Perahia is a great pianist. No doubt about that. And I am always keen to hear his Beethoven interpretations. However the last few concerts I have seen in London from him have been a mixed bag. The solo recital this time last year was a little underwhelming with a fine Mozart A minor sonata offset by a curiously underpowered Hammerklavier. In contrast his Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 and 4 earlier this year, with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields which he also directed, were marvellous. Another performance of PC No 4 under the mighty Bernard Haitink’s baton was also sensational.

In this concert we had a similarly puzzling evening. The Bach was the best of the bunch, played with great clarity and musicality and with that lovely counterpoint revealed in all its perky glory. I won’t comment on the Schubert – I just don’t really get on with it – but the audience was clearly persuaded. I didn’t know the mournful Mozart Rondo but this was a compelling rendition so I will need to check it out.

The Beethoven, his final sonata, with its curious structure and strange, ethereal musings, took a bit of time to get going. Mr Perahia’s treatment of the Maestoso opening of the first movement was more deliberate than the recordings I know (Pollini and Paul Lewis are my favourites) but by the time we reached the fugal development, which uses the whole keyboard, it was back in the groove. The longer second movement, with its six variations largely in C major, was much more convincing and here I got lost in the beauty of Beethoven’s music. The movement is near 20 minutes in total but always seems timeless to me.

So a fine evening of solo piano music but not quite as engrossing as I had hoped.

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.

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.

 

 

London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review ****

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Anne-Sophie Mutter, Sir Mark Elder, London Symphony Orchestra

Barbican Hall, 7th May 2017

Modest Mussorgsky, arr. Rimsky-Korsakov – Prelude to Khovanshchina
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major Op.35
Shostakovich – Symphony No.15 in A major Op.141

Who’d be a Russian composer eh. Mussorgsky drinks himself to death at 42 (look at the famous Repin portrait to remind you there is no glamour in this form of self destruction) and p*sses away whatever talent he may had have (one powerfully dramatic opera in Boris Godunov). Tchaikovsky may have taken his own life, or fell victim to cholera, at just 53, and seemed by many accounts to have felt compelled to keep his sexuality a private matter. And Shostakovich lived a life of allusion and inference which kept his true feelings about the society he lived and worked in a mystery.

So you’d be surprised if they produced a jolly night out musically. Well then you might have been surprised. Well maybe only a bit, as some of this did sound exactly as you might have expected given these personal demons. Yet in other ways, these pieces seem to me at least quite a long way from the narratives that are routinely get trotted out to explain the work of these three composers.

So with the Khovanshchina Prelude we have the opening to Mussorgsky’s planned grand historical opera exploring the changes in Russia society in the reign of Peter The Great. Unfortunately it never got finished and Rimsky Korsakov had to step in and tszuj it up a bit and smooth it off. I am afraid that for me it is just a bit of a meandering melody with no great interest. The Tchaikovsky concerto is properly blingy with memorable tunes but gets a little less endearing with each hearing I think. The Shostakovich, on the other hand, gets more interesting for me with each hearing. Four movements, usual proportions, biggish orchestra but balanced. But what he then does with this structure is all over the shop. Lots of single instrument lines, loads of obvious and not so obvious musical quotations, exaggeratedly simple tunes and then complex twelve note themes. The parallels with Nielsen’s 6th Symphony are often drawn which makes sense and which I always love. Who knows what he was thinking but it does seem to me to be some sort of encapsulation of all of his output before set against some sort of commentary on all that he had seen in his life. Anyway its top notch.

So the Shostakovich wqs the main reason for going to this concert (it is the programme that largely drives my choice now that I have a firm handle on the boundaries of what works for me like in the classical music world). However I am also keen to hear as many of the great performers and conductors and this was a chance to knock a couple off the list. I have to say Anne-Sophie Mutter must be the best violinist technically I have ever heard but this almost felt too perfect and furiously methodical. Still I will remember this performance, especially when she turned to the LSO to implore them punp it up, even if I am not sure I really enjoyed it. For the Shostakovich though I can see why Sir Mark Elder is held in such high regard.

So all in all a very fine programme and I will add Sir Mark Elder to the list of must see conductors (when they have the right pieces) which includes Rattle, Haitink, Jurowski, Jansons, Salonen and Chailly.

Bach’s St John Passion at the Barbican Hall review ****

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Britten Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia Voices

Barbican Hall, 14th April 2017

Britten Sinfonia
Mark Padmore – Evangelist/director
Jacqueline Shave –  leader/director
Simon Russell Beale – speaker
Britten Sinfonia Voices

JS Bach – St John’s Passion

They were a glum looking bunch these great classical composers weren’t they? It is alright for us with our endless, carefully composed, beaming selfies but these poor b*ggers only had one shot at pictorial immortality normally and relied on some hack artist to deliver it. Of course, the real reason they all look grumpy is obviously because it is so tricky to paint a smile. But I find it interesting that a combination of the “genius” theory of artistic accomplishment together with these received pictorial representations so often leads us into divining the temperament of the man (for alas it was always a man) from his music.

Anyway JS does look a bit stern in this picture. I guess he was a pious chap but then that might largely have come with the job. In contrast the St John Passion to me is anything but stern and pious. It is a dramatic story, well told, with no let up in pace (the bigger St Matthew Passion is not necessarily better in my view for clocking in at 3 hours vs the 2 hours here). JSB mixes up the recitative and chorus, the solo arias, the chorales and the musical accompaniment to marvellous effect here.

Now this performance was delivered, as I understand it, with the forces intended by JSB, so a couple of everything, first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, flutes and oboes, augmented by double bass, cor anglais, bassoon, organ continuo and oboe d’amore and viola da gamba. Thus a mix of modern and period instruments. Each of the vocal parts was a single line sung by eleven members of Britten Sinfonia Voices, including its director Eamonn Dougan, alongside Mark Padmore, who is, rightly, considered a pre-eminent singer of the Evangelist role, and whose vision this performance was.

However, I have to say that the Barbican Hall is not the cosiest venue for such an enterprise, which impacted a couple of the arias, and, just occasionally, swallowed Mr Padmore’s recitative. and ensured that some of the more vibrant chorales were a bit murky.

Laid on top of the piece were a couple of readings from the mighty Simon Russell-Beale, of Psalm 22 and an incredibly moving Ash Wednesday by TS Eliot. I doubt there is a man on earth who is better at thundering out this sort of stuff whilst making it look easy – just marvellous – though I guess it will have wound up the purists. And the piece ended, as apparently it did in JSB’s day in Leipzig, with a restorative motet by a chap called Jacob Handl.

Overall then I enjoyed this performance, though my attention did wander a bit. I am persuaded by this stripped back approach with mostly modern instruments when compared to the big guns approach which I have experienced for this, and the St Matthew Passion in the past, but I wonder if a smaller hall and a definitive leader on stage might have just helped clarify things a little.

Still this is just minor grumbling. At the end of the day it is still a beautiful piece of music whichever way you cut it, notably in the chorales at the top of each Part and the run of arias post the Crucifixion. I am looking forward to the next Bach workout.