Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review *****

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Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Barbican Hall, 24th November 2017

  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 4
  • Prokofiev – Symphony No 5

Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony, Chicago Symphony. These are the orchestras usually held up as the world’s best. The smart money though also rates the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. I know that Mr Jansons has a way with Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich through recordings, but this was the first time I had ever seen him, or his principal orchestra, perform. That just shows what a berk I am, (I have discounted previous visits thanks to repertoire), though I suppose you could say this means I have much to look forward to. Anyway I was quite excited.

The thing is I still don’t know if I really like Prokofiev’s music. Sometimes I am really swept along by the wealth of ideas and colours. Sometimes I am baffled. A work in progress if you will. With the Beethoven however there was enough from the programme to commit. I am so glad I did. I don’t think I have ever heard a conductor who exerts so much control over the dynamics of an orchestra. Mr Jansons seems to have worked out every single detail and every one of the orchestra members knew what to do and when to do it. The lushiest of lush strings, the silkiest of silky woodwind,  the punchiest of punch brass and the most precise of precision percussion.

A bit too perfect. Maybe. I wouldn’t want to hear this sort of performance every day of the week but it worked for me in the Prokofiev. This was SP’s return to the symphonic form after a 15 year hiatus, and the first after his return to the Soviet Union. You could read it like a “celebration” of the Red Army’s victories over the German army, (it premiered in 1944), but it would seem to make as much sense as reading Shostakovich’s symphonies in the same way. It seems to me that it defies any programmatic intent. The first movement opens with a woodwind theme that gets bashed up by brass and percussion, followed by some string development and then a dissonant halt before the B flat major resolution. If this is an epic tale of overcoming the enemy it is a funny way of showing it. The scherzo which follows, with a tune SP nicked from his own Romeo and Juliet, (and which is the theme tune for a telly programme I can’t identify which irks me immensely), is one of those amazing ideas which SP seems to conjure up at will and which defines the word sardonic. Here though he plays with it, rather than discarding it too early and moving on, which is what normally annoys me. It ends with a trademark dissonance. The strings of the BRSO were bonkers fast by the end but still perfectly regimented. The Adagio kicks off with a proper stringy heart tugger then a funeral march before the finale opens with a gallop that gets pulled apart by percussion until a final, odd maybe-heroic conclusion.

It always seems to me that SP never seemed entirely comfortable with what he created and felt compelled to shake ideas back up as soon as they were realised. This is what makes it a bit too bitty for me. Yet in this performance I could hear a line through the movements and all that ADHD nervous intensity was calmed and channelled.

Same in the Beethoven, but because I know and get this, all was pleasure. Yefim Bronfman has a delicate touch for a big fella (like me), and pulled it out for the showy bits, but this was all about the orchestra which was so on the ball in this that it felt like it only lasted 5 minutes. I guess all that sitting around waiting for the soloist in the opening movement after his first tinkle meant the game was over before it started but this was definitely one of those performances where the diva did what they were told, even when they were in the box seat. A good thing. Mind you Mr Bronfman got plenty of opportunity to show his skills in his encore of Schumann’s pretty, if pointless, Arabeske.

The second movement Andante is one of my favourite Beethoven moments with the meek piano weaving its ethereal tune around the dramatic string interjection. And the final movement Rondo is, in turn, one of my favourite Beethoven fist pumpers, which surrounds an enchanting central diversion. Imagine hearing that for the first time. A joy.

Just like my first time with this orchestra. Mr Jansons, who works the podium energetically despite being near 75 and having a pacemaker, exudes enthusiasm and, I’ll warrant, pride in his achievement with this band. After the concert he was presented with a Gold Medal from the Royal Philharmonic Society. Only around 100 or so of these have been bestowed since inception in 1871, and only 1 or 2 are given out each year (mind you they were pretty generous in the first year). He joins the likes of Mitsuko Uchida, who presented it to him, and, in terms of living conductors, Dutoit, Pappano, Barenboim, Rattle, and the master IMHO, Haitink. Like I said, the smart money rates him.

 

Beethoven and Shostakovich: LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

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London Philharmonic Orchestra, Andres Orozco-Estrada, Inon Barnatan

Royal Festival Hall, 27th October 2017

  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 5 “Emperor”
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 7 “Leningrad”

Off to the Festival Hall for a couple of big beasts of the repertoire (or at least the repertoire I like). Yet I have to say that, in both cases, the interpretations were a little too polite and not quite the emotional body slams they can and should be.

This was the first time I had heard the LPO under the baton of guest conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada and the first time I had heard soloist Inon Barnatan. There is no point fiddling about in the first movement of the Emperor. Beethoven cuts to the chase pretty quick with a marchy rhythm with a little melodic twist and the two note theme which gets played with in the development. It is all pomp and show and Mr Barnatan with his bright expressive playing had the measure of the beast. The adagio and dancey rondo allegro require a greater connection with the orchestra, notably woodwinds, which was satisfactorily wrought but without real fireworks for me. Still much to admire.

On to the Shostakovich. Now even by DS’s “tombstone” symphony standards this is an absolute monster. You all know the story of its genesis. Written as the Nazi forces encircled the city, with DS pitching in as a fireman, premiered in Kuibyshev in March 1942, score smuggled out for performance in London and then New York, and apparently defiant testament to the heroism of the Soviet people, this is music as history. I know that there is a case for this to be a “requiem” for those who died at the hands of their own Government as well as the invader. But to me it sounds like a straight programmatic account of the war in the East with the ominous drum roll of the first movement giving way to the ghostly dance of the scherzo, the extended despair of the slow movement and the victory march of the finale (albeit tinged with pain for all those lost to the carnage).

Now it does go on a bit. It is easy enough to build tension in the first movement with the trite rat a tat tat of the side drum building to a climactic racket and the scherzo does its stuff as all DS’s scherzos do. But keeping the whole edifice alive through the outer parts of the third movement and first half of the final movement (both clock in at 20 minutes) is tricky and needs a bit of sludge and shaken up tempi I reckon. Percussion, brass and woodwind ticked the boxes but the strings were just a bit too Mahlerian for me.

Overall then I had hoped for a little bit more. Any rendition of the 7th is going to have some, shall we say, opportunities for lapses of concentration, and maybe I needed to try harder, but I have heard better. Mind you the young fella next to me was even more underwhelmed. Having bragged to his mates/colleagues before the piece, and during the inordinately long pause/hubbub after the first movement, he promptly dropped off until the applause kicked in. Maybe not the best choice after a long day at work but hopefully he caught up on his zzzz’s.

 

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall review ****

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Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins, Jan Mracek

Cadogan Hall, 16th June 2017

  • Berio – Sequenza V for solo trombone
  • Prokofiev – Quintet in G Minor
  • Debussy – Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune,
  • Beethoven – Violin Concerto,
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 5

A welcome innovation from the RPO at its Cadogan Hall home. As a prelude to the main concert a short chamber concert was served up. In this case, an intriguing pairing of one of Berio’s Sequenzas, here for trombone, alongside Prokofiev’s infrequently programmed (at least in my experience) Quintet. The main concert was a triptych of favoured warhorses which can usually tempt me in.

The Berio piece is the usual exploration of musical technique that these sequenzas demand. There is a healthy dose of humorous novelty at work here in the techniques employed and some of the directions in the score, best of all, the fact that the soloist, has to dress up as a clown (I’ll let you look up Berio’s reasons for this!). The Principal Trombone of the RPO, Matthew Gee, didn’t disappoint, either in his rather elegant outfit (shoes and bald bloke wig being the main concessions) or in playing. The piece is fascinating but smartly doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Prokofiev Quintet is scored for oboe, clarinet, violin, violin and double bass which gives plenty of opportunity for the quirky invention that our Sergei seemed to revel in. The six movements have plenty of dynamic colour and the derivation of the piece, originally a commission for a chamber ballet, is very clear, I was reminded once again that I need to pay more attention to Prokofiev’s chamber music. So I will.

As for the main orchestral pieces, well the Debussy washed over me as it always does so I am afraid I am no real judge of Mr Brabbin’s interpretation nor the RPO’s performance. The Beethoven however took me back to familiar ground and this was a stirring performance by all concerned. Jan Mracek was making his debut with this orchestra having established a growing reputation in his native Czech. His playing is certainly idiomatic of his homeland which made for an interesting contrast with Mr Brabbin’s very deliberate reading. It livened up for finale though I confess I have heard more uplifting endings.

The Shostakovich was the meat course for me though and here Mr Brabbin’s careful phrasing and cool incision paid dividends. This was a performance that really drew out the Mahlerian parallels especially in movements 2 and 3. No irony in the ending here. This was definitively the response to “just criticism” that Shostakovich claimed it was (probably to save his own skin) and could easily be digested by those partial to a bit of C19 romanticism. The pounding Russian rhythms and banal folksy melodies were in evidence but this was more Autumnal middle Europe than Siberian winter. Stalin would have been made up with this first movement. I am not sure this is how I want my DSCH 5 to always sound but it was satisfying to hear this approach given a full airing.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.