Beethoven symphony cycle from Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican review *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades (conductor), Nicholas Hodges (piano), Joshua Bloom (bass)

Barbican Hall, 22nd and 24th May 2018

  • Beethoven – Symphony No 4 in B flat major Op 60
  • Gerard Barry – Piano Concerto
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 5 in C minor Op 67
  • Gerard Barry – The Conquest of Ireland
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 6 in F major Pastoral Op 68

The latest instalments of the Britten Sinfonia’s Beethoven cycle under the baron of Thomas Ades, (alongside the valuable accompanying survey of Gerard Barry large-scale compositions) ,was as superb os the two concerts last year. (Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****) (Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades at the Barbican Hall *****). That Mr Ades, and his friend Mr Barry, adore the music of Beethoven was never in doubt. That Mr Ades understands it, and can conjure up performances of the symphony that are as good as any that I have ever heard, is what makes this cycle unmissable in my view. I urge you, no I beg you, to come along to the final concerts next year of the last three symphonies. The Hall was no more than half full which is near criminal. If Gustavo Dudamel and his well upholstered LA Phil can fill the house with a big, if not particularly insightful, version of the Choral Symphony, then the Britten Sinfonia and Thomas Ades deserve at least the same. If you hate all the bombast that others bring to Beethoven please look no further: conductor and orchestra have binned all that sickly vibrato, endless repeats, glum grandiosity, and started afresh.

If you can’t go then look out for the recording of the cycle which should appear,God and finance willing. This is how Beethoven should sound. The right orchestral forces, the right tempi, to my ears at least, every detail revealed, and every detail in exactly the right place. Strings never thick and slushy, woodwind given enough room to breathe, brass precise, timpani rock hard. It is the difference between the way you might see an Old Master, badly hung, in the wrong room, of some C19 artistic mausoleum, centuries of filth accumulated on varnish, cracked, colours faded,  and the way you might see the same work, restored rehung, with space and light aplenty, and notes which illuminate not patronise. The joy of rediscovery. The difference between a mediocre and a great performance in a concert hall is easily to tell even if you know nothing about the music. The audience will be still and silent. Sometimes though there is something more, a connection between music, performer and audience that fills the very air.

I felt this here. Or maybe it was just there were fewer people with more invested in the performance. Either way it was a triumph. The Fourth, like the Second last year, couldn’t be dismissed as a happy-go-lucky, lithe cousin of the muscular, growling, Eroica hero that they sandwich. The first movement, marked Adagio-Allegro vivace, is, for my money, one of the finest passages of music Beethoven ever wrote. The painful opening, the booming timpani and giant string chords which conclude it, the uneasy Adagio which follows punctuated by more big chords, the double repeated scherzo theme, a dance but with something lurking in the woodshed, and then the perpetuum mobile finale, which is almost too jolly. Indeed Beethoven scores it that way, a palpable sense of anxiety pervades the whole symphony. It needs a conductor alive to the Goth inside the symphony’s Pop, and its subtleties cannot contemplate too big a sound. Mr Ades is that man. The slow movement Adagio was, and I didn’t expect to use this word about these interpretations, sublime.

I get why 2, 4 and 8 are see as lightweights compared to 3, 5, 7 and 9, the keys, the structures, the moods, the context, but I think it is a shame to get caught up in this convention. The Fourth symphony in particular is as great as its more famous peers. So how would this conductor and the BS render the Fifth anew. Remember the Fifth, (once it got over the infamous disastrous first night, alongside the Sixth, and a whole bunch of other stuff), changed the face of Western art music. Composer, and the performer from now on could be Artists. Everything would be bigger. More emotional. More, well, Romantic. Audience and commentators were now at liberty to hear, think and write all manner of the over the top guff about “serious” music. For that we should probably throttle LvB but the Fifth is just so extraordinary, however many times you hear it, that we’ll permit him the excess.

I expected the BS and Thomas Ades to absolutely nail this and they did. Familiarity can breed contempt. Or it can, as here, promote shared understanding. Everyone on and off stage was able to revel in Beethoven’s astounding invention. If I ever hear a better interpretation I’ll be as a happy a man as I was here. The opening allegro, four notes, infinitely varied, needs no introduction, tee hee, it being the most famous introduction to a piece of music ever. I suppose some might tire of the repetition. Not me. Especially with no unnecessary repeat. The double variation of the Andante, which fits perfectly together ying and yang style, was ever so slightly less impressive but the Scherzo and the magnificent finale were glorious. As in the prior performances you hear everything, no detail is obscured, nothing is too loud or two soft. This means that, along with the “classical-modern” sound of the BS and the “right” calls on repeats that the architecture of Beethoven’s creation is fully revealed, from micro to macro scale.

With Mr Ades and the BS having nailed the detail, shape and rhythm of the symphonies to date, I wondered how they would cope with the Pastoral. Maybe this, with its plain programmatic elements, wrapped its more gentle cloak, expressing all that utopian, Arcadian, rural idyll fluff that art conjured up as a salve to assuage guilt about industrialisation and urbanisation, would be the symphony where Mr Ades’s precise, vigorous approach might come unstuck.

Nope. For choice this might have been marginally less exciting than the rest of the cycle, the precision and heightened differentiation between instruments robbing a little of the warmth from LvB’s narrative. I’ll take the trade though when it results, for example, in the most thrilling storm I have ever heard, double basses thrumming, timpani thwacking. It also means the opening Allegro, which can doodle on a bit, saw variety emerge from the repetition. Nature untroubled by Man. Messaien would have purred at the birdsong emerging from woodwind in the Andante. And, in the finale, we heard the relief of real shepherds, not a bunch of embarrassed house servants dolled up by their lords and masters. Most Romantic plastic art is as schmaltzy as the Neo-Classical flummery that proceeded it, but there is some which sees the world for what it is, not want artist and patron wanted it to be. And some of it, Constable, in his sketches and watercolours, and, in his own darker way, Goya, could eschew history, violent nature and dramatic landscape, and showed more of the working reality of rural life. This Pastoral was in a similar vein. I now this all sounds like a load of poncey bollocks, but hopefully you get the gist.

Moving on. You remember those nights out in the pub, with your mates, talking sh*te and putting the world to rights. Of course you don’t. You were hammered. But you do remember it was a bloody good night out and things might have got a bit raucous and out of hand. Argument and love. Well Gerard Barry’s Piano Concerto, here receiving its London premiere, is the musical equivalent of one of those nights. Nicholas Hodges was basically asked to man-handle, (at one point literally, playing with his forearms), the piano and to get into a scrap with the orchestra. As the punches swung it got funnier though 20 minutes was probably enough. Some of the piano passages were more conciliatory but only in the way a drunk bloke (the woodwind) tries to calm his even more drunk mate (the brass) down a bit. It ends with some childish tinkles. It isn’t in Romantic concerto form, played straight through with no obvious structure, it has two wind machines, (here not amplified as expected, a shame), there is no real interplay between orchestra and soloist, just opposition, it is abrasive, chromatic and gets pretty loud. I reckon Vivaldi might have come up with something like this if he were around today.

In short it is a piece of music by Gerard Barry. I am sure he is nothing like this is reality, and I am being borderline xenophobic, but I see him as the musical equivalent of Samuel Beckett, the very definition of cussed. I am going to have to find a way into recordings of his music, probably after this time next year, as it is just too funny and punk to ignore. Mr Hodges is an expert in this dynamic modernism, having recording and performed the likes of Birtwhistle, Rihm, Carter and, indeed, Thomas Ades himself.

Mind you if I thought the Piano Concerto was a bit in-yer-face bonkers I was in for an even bigger surprise with The Conquest of Ireland. This is set to a text from Expugnatio Hibernica by Giraldus Cambrinus translated by A. Scott and F.X. Martin. Cambrinus was a Welsh writer and cleric in the twelfth century who hooked up with the army which invaded Ireland. The piece is marked quaver = 192 which I gather is pretty enthusiastic but Mr Barry then marks it “frenetic” and “NOT SLOWER” just in case we missed it. The brave soloist, here Joshua Bloom, is nominally a bass but he gets up to all sorts of pyrotechnics as he sings/speaks/growls/squawks the entirely unmusical words. It is basically detailed descriptions, written in a somewhat pompous style, of the bearing and appearance of seven Welsh soldiers. There is just one short throw-away line which dismisses the native Irish as barbarians. Mr Barry has composed intense, passionate, exuberant music to contrast this prosaic prose (!). Bass clarinet, marimba, winds and brass in combination, percussion, all got a work out. It is sardonic, in the way that I now see that so much of Mr Barry’s music is, but it certainly provokes a reaction and makes you think.

Anyway back to the performers. The Britten Sinfonia are my favourite musical ensemble. The others I regularly get to see, the LSO, the LPO, London Sinfonietta, the AAM and the OAE, are all, of course, excellent, and there are international orchestras that can blow my socks off when they visit, but it is the BS which consistently educates and surprises me. And Thomas Ades, IMHO, is now the closest thing to the immortal Benjamin Britten, that I can think of. Composer, performer, conductor. Equally gifted.

Oh and a final plea. This time to the ROH or ENO. A Fidelio. With Thomas Ades conducting. And Simon McBurney directing. I’ll wait.

 

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Barbican Hall review ***

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London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Michael Tilson Thomas, Camilla Tilling (soprano), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor), Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone)

Barbican Hall, 20th May 2018

Beethoven – Missa Solemnis

Hard to believe that the scruffy scrawl above is from the hand of the greatest ever composer in one of his greatest ever works. At least he thought so. And so does Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor Laureate of the LSO, judging by the number of times he has taken it on.

I am not so sure though and find myself siding with Adorno on this. This will probably be the one and only time I can make this absurdly pretentious claim since, however hard I try, I cannot understand a word of what the Frankfurt School of Marxist critical theory was about, though the intellectual posturer in me dearly wishes I did. I would love to know a lot about a lot, or even a lot about a little bit of what there is to know. Instead I am doomed to know a little bit about very little.

The thing is there isn’t much of the theme and variation repetition thing than Beethoven took to unparalleled heights (at least until The Fall and Wire came along) in the Missa Solemnis. The giant fugues at the end of the Gloria and Credo provide me with some structural understanding, and connect with other late works like the piano sonatas and string quartets, but otherwise there is quite a lot of, well, Romantic meanderings.

Now it is Beethoven with massed choral forces offering up a Mass on a scale comparable with the Choral Symphony so it can’t all be bad. And it isn’t. There are stills scraps of cracking tunes which are explored in imitation to conjure up the goose-bump feel that the earlier masters of polyphony managed. Especially in the second half of the Gloria, the middle of the Credo and the beginning of the Sanctus. But there just isn’t the overarching structure to help my little head stay happy. LvB intended to complete the MS for his patron and mate, Archduke Rudolph, who was receiving some honour or other in March 1820. He missed the deadline so didn’t actually complete it until 1823 just ahead of the Ninth. Maybe that changed it.

The LSO chorus is now so bonkersly brilliant that it sort of didn’t matter when they were belting it out. Especially in the soprano section. And, like I say, MTT knows his way around the score. The soloists seemed well matched to me, though I would marginally take Sasha Cooke’s mezzo and Toby Spence’s tenor over Camilla Tilling’s soprano and Luca Pisaroni’s bass-baritone.

I will keep trying but I don’t think I will ever fully succumb to the MS. Whisper it but I am happier listening to the Mass in C which, as Beethovian experts will tell you, leaves me on the nursery slopes and forever banished from the pistes. So be it. Vita summa brevis.

 

 

Spira Mirabilis at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

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Spira Mirabilis

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 15th May 2018

Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A Op 92

Spira Mirabilis is a group of talented young musicians from around the world who play in various European orchestras. They hole up in Formigine in Northern Italy near Bologna to learn from each other and devote themselves to intensive study of major orchestral works of the canon which they then take around Europe to entertain us punters, and, more importantly, show us how it is done. I suspect they also have a bit of craic along the way.

The twist is that they have no conductor. Which means, in the spirit of a chamber ensemble, they have to “immerse themselves in the score with the aim of reaching an interpretative consensus on a shared vision and a complete synthesis with the work”. Now if you thought that the conductor of an orchestra, as I did a few years ago, was just there on the podium to provide a bit of visual light relief,  you would be very much mistaken. Someone has to impose a musical vision on even the most detailed score involving all manner of decisions on tempi, dynamics, who does what where, when and why, and all manner of other stuff way above my pay grade. If you dump his or her direction then I imagine you are collectively setting yourselves up for one hell of an away day. Yet this is exactly what they do with the intention then of trying to explain to us how they did it. Wonderful.

In this case they just happened to pick, IMHO, the most perfect piece of music ever written. I believe Beethoven to be the greatest of composers, the symphony to be the most complete musical form and this to be his best. Though I can see why others might disagree with any and every part of that statement. Moreover I admit that there are individual pieces by modern composer/performers in popular music genres that would just edge it for me on the eponymous desert isle. (I should probably post something on that).

Spira Mirabilis have in fact already been through an entire Beethoven cycle, good call, so this constituted something of a revival. Yet there was still a palpable sense of excitement in the Hall ahead of, and through, this performance. When Beethoven wrote this his hearing had significantly deteriorated and he had retired to the spa town of Teplice in order to gee himself up. There is no programmatic intent, unlike its predecessor the Pastoral, yet it is an astonishingly uplifting, happy work. That maybe because it is essentially dance music. Anyway it was a hit from the off and it is easy to see why.

The first movement starts slowly but when the “dotted” rhythmic figure finally kicks in LvB proceeds to push and pull it around in so many ways that it barely seems plausible that it can tolerate this level of innovation. If you ever need to understand Beethoven’s genius in taking simple material and wrestling it into music of unparalleled emotional and intellectual power through progressive variation, it lies here. This is the longest movement of any of the symphonies.

Then there is the Allegretto. A funeral march where the ostinato is repeated and repeated until it attains monumental proportions. Strings largely in minor keys, woodwinds take the major. If you need to give someone important to you a good send off, alive or dead, this is the music you need. It is the most hummable tune ever written. The Presto that follows is joyous and funny and contrasts with its central hymnal trio and the Finale cuts loose completely. I’ll warn you. Avoid sitting next to a fat bloke, likely in shorts, probably leaning forward, imperceptibly wiggling his fingers, in time just about, if the Finale of the Seventh should be playing. He might just start sobbing. With joy. Truly pathetic.

It takes a marvellous performance to overwhelm me and I have to confess this wasn’t quite there. It was insightful in glimpses, especially in the third movement, the negotiation between the players was intriguing and there was a slippery quality I liked. Tempos were sensible but I might have preferred something a little brisker in the first two movements, especially in the second subject of the Allegretto. But I still think the necessary compromises made everyone hold back just a bit. A sense of “after you Claude”. I am all about consensus in the “real” world but in the realm of the creative democracy can only take you so far.

I also have to confess that I didn’t stay for the post match replays and interviews. No good excuse other than wanting to see the SO and LD that evening. Though they of course completely ignored me when I got home early. I discovered that Spira Mirabilis had repeated the second movement, this time whilst randomly sitting in the audience. Damn. I wish I had stayed for that.

Still overall a fine performance of a transcendent work intriguingly delivered.

 

 

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican review ***/***

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Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

Barbican Hall, 2nd May and 4th May 2018

  • Esa-Pekka Salonen – Pollux
  • Edgar Varese – Ameriques
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 5
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9 “Choral”

Canny students of architecture will realise that the pic above is not of the Barbican. The Brutalist Barbican Estate is a thing of beauty to my eyes, though not to many others I realise, but surely no-one can be anything other than blown away by Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the LA Phil under current Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. I’ve never been there but I think have been driven past a couple of times. On the bucket list.

There was enough in the two main programmes on offer this year from the LA Phil’s residency at the Barbican for the Tourist to pitch up to both, albeit with some trepidation. The last time I saw Senor Dudamel and his fine head of hair was with his other band, the legendary Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. They bashed out a showy Petrushka and Rite of Spring. In places it was electrifying, in others mystifying, (not mystical). I don’t know if at 37, and into his ninth year at the LA Phil, building on Esa Pekka Salonen’s legacy, S. Dudamel can still be counted a wunderkind. He is still as wilful as ever though.

As was revealed here. The first concert kicked off with a piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen himself, the man who is credited with turning the LA Phil into a contender for the US’s best orchestra, and certainly its most innovative in terms of contemporary classical music. We are lucky to have the fiery Finn, (fiery as Finns go I reckon), in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra, especially when he turns his baton to Stravinsky. As a composer though, I am less sure. This was the European premiere of Pollux, which, in time, will be paired with Castor, to mean both twins of Greek legend, immortal and mortal, are brought to musical life. Pollux is slow and dark, in the composer’s words, Castor will be faster. EPS nicked a bass line from a post-grunge band, slowing it right down, a chorale from a Rilke sonnet about the boy Orpheus and slipped in an Ancient Greek Aeolian echo. All right over my head. It bubbled along pleasantly enough, all clusters and modes, but I am afraid left no mark on me.

I have tried Varese’s Ameriques a couple of times now with limited success. I get how important Varese was, in retrospect, to the development of modern classical music, and I enjoyed the programme of chamber scale pieces delivered by Guildhall School students as part of the Varese immersion day at the Barbican this time last year. But Ameriques is just a noise. Of noise. And it is very noisy. Especially here as GD let his percussion and brass sections run riot. It is difficult not to feel something from the sheer, physical energy of the piece, and the Debussyian and Stravinskyian shards provide texture, but it just doesn’t go beyond the immediate wow.

Now I read a review that contained a remark along the lines that US orchestras can’t really do Shostakovich because they are “too well-fed”. I think that about sums it up. In my limited experience the best performances of DSCH’s symphonies are either the very lean, uncompromising performances from Russia orchestras in days gone by, or from contemporary European orchestras who can capture the essence of those orchestras, whilst harnessing their greater playing skills. Put a Russian conductor in charge of a British orchestra and you have a guarantee of success. Or better still just hand it over to maestro Haitink.

This Fifth would have left a smile on Joe Stalin’s face. DSCH’s Mahlerian tendencies were loud and proud and the D major finale was bombastic, yes, but still felt like genuine, not forced, adulatory. I think GD and the LA Phil were at their best in the second movement scherzo, (as they were in the imposing, fugal scherzo of the Choral Symphony), with its waltzy rollercoaster rhythms and distinct central trios. The Largo third movement, just strings and a touch of woodwind, was way too rich for my blood and the first movement was too mannered as it shifted from slow to fast and back again. The canons, at the opening for strings, and then between flute and horn, and violin and piccolo, in the recapitulation were as striking as ever but the lyrical second theme was too smooth by half. DSCH strings need to have a bit of acid about them, even in this, the friendliest and most “classical” of his symphonies.

GD and the LA Phil were at it again a couple of nights later for the Choral Symphony. I didn’t bother with the Chichester Psalms in the first half as I don’t like it. Sorry. Most of the Beethoven I listen to is “period informed” and/or nips along at a fair lick. The plushest of the recordings I have is probably the oldest, (in terms of how long I have had it), in the form of Karl Bohm and the VPO. GD and the LA Phil offered an even weightier interpretation. As you might have guessed I didn’t take to it.

I heard a fantastic rendition from the LSO in this very Hall under Bernard Haitink. My favourite concert of 2015. The London Symphony Chorus was in fine fettle on that evening as they were here. For me they were the best of the instruments on show. Actually let me rephrase that. All the instruments on show were impressive, it was just that by the time, every one had had their say, the line and structure of Beethoven’s masterpiece got a little lost. The release at the start of the finale felt a little reserved and the coda was bashed through like a getaway car. Julianna Di Giacomo’s soprano is a thing of some beauty but got a little to bright here, Jennifer Johnson Cano’s mezzo was a little indistinct. The lads done well, Michael Konig tenor and especially Soloman Howard’s bass.

All in all then an interesting couple of evenings, if not as involving as I would have expected, for what are, two of the greatest major works ever written. The LA Phil is well upholstered, professional to a man and woman, but put together with GD’s over-emphases and exaggerated tempi, (including the relaxed in the paddock approach to start times), not quite as astonishing as I had been led to expect. To be fair the Barbican Hall acoustic doesn’t take kindly to this sort of full throttle treatment but that’s what rehearsals are for.

Mind you I clearly was in a minority. On both nights the full house went bananas at the end. Horses for courses I suppose.

 

Beethoven and Shostakovich from the LSO at the Barbican review ****

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London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Barbican Hall, 8th April 2018

  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op 58
  • Shostakovich  – Symphony No 8 in C minor, Op 65

I could be imagining it but the LSO seems to be notching up a gear, from its already high level, each time I hear it. You would never get to hear Shostakovich under Sir Simon Rattle’s baton but here we had one of their two Principal Guest Conductors, in the shape of the inestimable Gianandrea Noseda, tackling DSCH’s mighty gloom-fest No 8, and delivering as good a rendition as you are likely to hear. In recent years, if I wanted to hear convincing performances of DSCH symphonies I would probably look elsewhere, to the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski maybe, though the last time I heard them take on No 8, at the Proms in 2015, it wasn’t perfect.

It is all about nailing that epic first movement. I say movement but let’s be honest it is pretty much a symphony in itself. Weighing in at a few minutes short of half an hour, depending on tempi, it winds up, through marches, to an immense tutti, strings blazing, drums rolling, and most of the woodwind and brass involved, before subsiding back to the immense adagio recapitulation of the second theme, with woodwind solos, that DSCH excelled at and which seem to cross all 11 of Russia’s time zones. And, it the conductor and orchestra aren’t careful to establish the line, it can feel like several hours. The tunes themselves aren’t complicated, the key “fate” motif is laid out right at the start, before the two lyrical themes are developed, and it is the fate motif to which orchestra returns before the fabulous cor anglais solo. Time for the LSO’s Christine Pendrill to shine which she did. Her woodwind colleagues also get there time in the sun in the later movements, notably the picccolo of Patricia Moynihan, the bassoon of Rachel Gough and the bass clarinet of Renaud Guy-Rousseau.

Having come out the other end of this movement. DSCH then slaps you, first with one of his textbook sardonic, militarised marches, and then with a moto perpetuo with screams that reeks of the battlefield, (think planes buzzing overhead) and contains the second of the symphonies massive tutti climaxes. The following slow passacaglia movement reworks the fate motif through brass, strings and, memorably, into the bass, before we get some relief in the concluding C major rondo kicked off by the bassoon solo. Even here though we get a repeat of the howling tutti before bass clarinet takes us to some sort of rest with alternate pizzicato and sustaining high strings (the fate motif inverted). As in the first movement, this final allegretto has plenty of action for snare and bass drums and trumpet calls.

DSCH claimed the symphony was, overall, uplifting and life affirming, pointing to the brighter, dancey, folk rhythms in that finale. He must have been taking the p*ss, as so often, given the extreme violence and suffering which characterises the previous movements. This was written over 10 weeks in 1943. Those punters who were expecting a sequel to the story of patriotic resistance apparently laid out in its predecessor, the Leningrad, were sorely disappointed. The Nazis were on the back foot now in Russia but, in retrospect, Dmitry was never going to big up Stalin and the leadership for saving Mother Russia. Its ambiguities are barely concealed, and, when DSCH was once again pilloried for his pessimism in 1948, it was singled out for special criticism.

Yet, for me, all of these middle symphonies wrestle with the same dilemmas. They are just music, so we must be careful not to get sucked too far into the “what did DSCH really mean” cottage industry, but, if we accept that context had an impact then it seems right to believe, that these symphonies, warts and all, are warnings against the depths to which humanity can sink whatever the ideological backdrop. This is not a symphony to set alongside other C minor tragedy to triumph belters, Beethoven 5, Mahler 2, Bruckner 8, it is too brutal overall and the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t bright enough, even with the ocassional tender passages, but I do think it is DCSH’s best, alongside 5 and 10.

Mr Noseda and the LSO are engaged in recording a DSCH symphony cycle. Not sure if this will form part of it but it would be a fitting contribution, assuming the engineers master the Barbican sound. My benchmark recording, as it so often is, is from the maestro Haitink with the Concertgebouw. This performance matched it.

I am afraid I wasn’t as convinced by Nikolai Lugansky’s rendering of Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto. Mr Lugansky is highly regarded, seen as sympathetic to the music and unshowy, but he is keen on his tinkly rubato, whereas I like my Beethoven direct and muscular. This was too Romantic and insufficiently Classical if you take my meaning. Noseda and the LSO offered up a perfectly apposite support, especially in the strings, but yielded too much to the piano in the second movement, and especially, concluding in the rondo, so it all went a bit arpeggio crazy. Mr Lugansky encored with some Mendelssohn which didn’t help my mood

Still it’s Beethoven and it wasn’t that annoying. And given the quality of the Shostakovich it was a minor irritant. Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO tackle No 10 next. My favourite. Can’t wait.

 

 

 

BBC Symphony Orchestra and Vilde Frang at the Barbican Hall review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, Vilde Frang (violin)

Barbican Hall, 21st March 2018

  • Anna Clyne – This Midnight Hour
  • Benjamin Britten – Violin Concerto, Op 15
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 6 in F major “Pastoral”, Op 68

The Violin Concerto is one of those Britten pieces that takes a bit of time to get used to. It was written in 1939 so contains plenty of the youthful flashiness, and debts to Stravinsky, which characterise early BB, but with a more serious intent which reflects his admiration for Alban Berg, whose own Violin Concerto, was the last in a frustratingly thin oeuvre. BB attended the posthumous premiere of Berg’s masterpiece in 1936, in Barcelona in the shadow of the forthcoming Spanish Civil War, as well as two further performances later in the year. Understandably he was mightily impressed.

BB’s own concerto was premiered in New York in March 1940 by the Philharmonic under John Barbirolli, given that he and Peter Pears were stuck there following the outbreak of war. The British premiere was in April 1941 in BB’s absence. Despite BB’s revisions in 1950, 1954 and 1965, which brings a little more of the late Britten’s soundworld to the violin part, the piece has historically been more admired than loved, but it has developed a bit more of a following in recent years.

Which means that some of today’s finest violinists have taken up the BB VC cause. These include Janine Jansen who played the piece with the LSO last year under Semyon Bychkov in this hall last year. This is not a concerto full of showy virtuosity, the soloist works on the ideas with the orchestra, but it does require a formidable technique. Ms Jansen certainly has that but the performance overall was a bit more athletic and weighty than I might have liked (though maybe that was the influence of the Mahler on the bill).

In contrast Vilde Frang, who has also recently recorded the piece, seemed a little bit more delicate, most obviously in the pianissimo sections, and the double stopping, of which there is a surfeit in the Scherzo, more Baroqueish than Modernist. This lighter, though still enthralling touch, made the final coda, constructed in BB’s favourite Passacaglia form, even more irresolute. a good thing in my book. The first movement, in sonata form, opens with a little rumble on the timps, then the bassoon takes up the tune, and then the rest of the orchestra, returning to it ostinato through the movement, whilst the violin moves in and out with its uneasy, song-like lament. The second theme is also martial in intent; there is a link to Shostakovich, but with more elegance and less hectoring. This theme is taken up by the violin, not the orchestra, in the recapitulation which ends with an unsteady coda. The second movement scherzo is spiky and Prokofievian in feel, with a very sinister transition to a tutti before ending with a cadenza, based on the first movement tunes, in which Ms Frang excelled. The ground bass which underpins the variations in the final movement is a bit wobbly in terms of tone, at one point D major triumphs, ending with a simple chant, over which the violin dances around, never quite closing out.

I think it is the uncertain tone, literally and metaphorically, that makes the BB VC seem like harder work than it actually is. Played like this though it is up there with the very best of BB’s works which require a full orchestra, the contemporary Sinfonia da Requiem and the War Requiem. It is a lot less knotty that the Cello Symphony that’s for sure. Having said that BB’s textures always work better for me in the pieces for smaller orchestras. I went back to the benchmark recording I have, the ECO under BB himself with Mark Lubotsky as soloist. Maybe I was just in a good mood at the concert but I reckon Ms Frang and Sakari Oramo gave them a pretty good run for their money, especially in the opening movement, which seemed to get to the point more quickly.

The BB VC was preceded by the London premiere of a 12 minute work written by Anna Clynne, British born now working in NYC. It was written for the Orchestre National d’Ille de France where she was resident composer. It is resolutely tonal and packs a hell of a punch. It is pretty sexy stuff too, as was her intention, based, as it is, on Baudelaire’s poe Harmonie du soir and one line from a poem by a chap called Jimenez about a nude lady running through the night. She packs a lot into the piece, kicking off with a rushing theme low down in the bass and cellos, moving to some sparkling woodwind, a slab of Brucknerian grandeur and then a Ravel like sharp waltz, before the whole thing seems to whirr around again. Apparently Ms Clyne notates her score with mood markings, intimate, melting, ominous, feverish, ferocious, aggressive, skittish, beautiful, eerie, which is easily comprehended. I have got much better at taking in contemporary compositions at the first, (and often only), outing, but this piece doesn’t require too much concentration, so immediate is its impact. Seems like the audience agreed judging by the reaction and deserved applause when Ms Clyne came out of the audience.

Which meant that, unusually, Beethoven took the back seat. Absolutely nothing wrong with Mr Oramo and the BBCSO’s take on the Pastoral but there wasn’t too much to get the pulse racing. The detail was there but the pacing was relaxed and the orchestra didn’t seem as engaged as when they are getting their teeth into unfamiliar repertoire or having to convince the big crowds at the Proms. Brooks babbled, birds sand, peasants partied, lambs gambolled, the storm came and went, but Mr Oramo didn’t seem to find the genuinely symphonic in the way others have. Still it’s Beethoven so pipe down Tourist and be happy with your lot.

 

 

 

SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart at Cadogan Hall review ****

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SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart, Sir Roger Norrington, Francesco Piemontesi (piano)

Cadogan Hall, 16th March 2018

Ludwig van Beethoven

  • The Creatures of Prometheus Overture, Op 43
  • Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37
  • Symphony No 3 in E flat major “Eroica”, Op 55

I guess the fashion for all Beethoven programmes began with LvB himself. Perhaps one of you clever musicologist types can tell me if this continued through the C19 and C20. In any event it is commonplace now. Makes sense really. Why would you want to dilute the maestro’s perfect work with the burblings of lesser mortals.

That master of Beethoven performance, Sir Roger Norrington, knows that and programmed accordingly as he brought the SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart to the Cadogan Hall as part of the Zurich International Orchestra Series, Sir Roger was made Conductor Emeritus of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, which merged with the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg in 2016, having led them from 1998 until 2011. This means that a fair few of this orchestra know him and his methods very well and it shows. And this is a fine orchestra make no mistake.

For those that don’t know Sir Roger made his name at the Kent Opera, and then his own London Classical Players, at the vanguard of historically informed performance. Minimal vibrato, strings not allowed to overwhelm the woodwind and strict adherence to the composer’s metronome marks, characterise his exquisite performances of Beethoven. That happens to be the way I like my Beethoven too. Not that syrupy, wobbly stodge filtered through the Romanticism of the second half of the C19 and the bombastic conducting of the first half of the C20. That means picking up the pace and pumping up the rhythm. His long association with the Stuttgart orchestra, and peers in Salzburg and Zurich, means that this is a modern orchestra fully in tune with his approach, able to deliver accurate “pure tone”. Mind you the fact that he still guest conducts at the ripe old age of 84 (this was his birthday – many happy returns) with some of the world’s most famous orchestras shows just how far the “right” way of playing has seeped into the mainstream for Beethoven and other Classical composers.

Now I am not going to lie. I can take or leave the Prometheus Overture. Beethoven churned out a fair few, 11 to be exact, Overtures for money, to accompany theatrical performances, with 4 linked to his only opera Fidelio and its first incarnation Leonore. Some get more of an airing than others, (anyone ever heard the Zur Namensfeier Overture?), and the general consensus is that a fair few are decidely ropey. The Creatures of Prometheus is Beethoven’s only ballet composed in 1801. I am not big on the ballet so I don’t know if this gets a regular airing but the Overture holds its own in the concert hall in part because it contains material that was later recycled into, yep, the Eroica Symphony and the Eroica Variations for piano. Delivered here with a bit of oomph which makes me a little less dismissive of this piece.

Our soloist for the PC3 was Swiss Francesco Piemontesi, protege of Alfred Brendel, who I confess was a new name for me. He has worked with this orchestra and Sir Roger before though and it showed. His piano was turned in, just like in 1800, with Sir Roger and his stool, (no score, no baton obvs), behind this which made for a different experience. In the Eroica we had the brass and wind players standing, outside the antiphonal strings and the double basses growling away at the back with the timp. Just another sign of Sir Roger rethinking the familiar. Anyway Mr Piemontesi was compelling especially in the faster, outer two movements. The pace at which the conductor takes this movements, and this layout, served him well and lent an interesting “slippery” quality to the concerto which was exciting. The Largo was maybe a bit too long on the power and short on the poetry but not annoyingly so. Encored with a bit of Brahms which furthered showcased his easygoing style.

The PC 3 was a great leap forward for Beethoven, (though maybe not quite as much as the Eroica), composed at the same time as that interesting but still “nice” Symphony No 2 and when he was still twiddling about with (admittedly still perfect) chamber pieces. Here is all that massive musical imagination bursting out, though still with some structural debt to Haydn and Mozart and specifically the latter’s C minor concerto No 24. The contrast with the weirdy E major in the slow movement is what makes you sit up and take notice.

The Eroica was similarly taken at a fair lick, even in the second movement funeral march. Crispy punchy strings acted as the perfect foil for woodwind detail and the horns especially in the scherzo and the trio. Is this Beethoven’s greatest work? Not sure, I still prefer Symphony No 7, but it doesn’t matter how many times you hear it still punches you in head, heart and gut. It is long yes, but the orchestral forces, as this orchestral layout reminds us, are no greater than normal for the time, just an extra horn. Yet from the off, in the first movement, LvB conjures up all manner of dissonances, surprises, syncopations and stresses to create drama and energy. Pop in a new tune halfway through like never before. Let the horn jump in too early. A timpani that cracks like wood on wood. Yet, in all this expectant momentum, even a non-musical person like the Tourist never loses the line, and when the resolutions come, its blessed relief. Even if it is just the woodwind really as we still have three more movements to come. I just can’t see how this mighty first movement makes sense played too slowly and without repeat.

A funeral march which basically defines all orchestral funeral marches, all grave and ominous, and then the switch to C major from minor for that jaunty episode telling us whoever died didn’t do so in vain. Always have to stop myself jumping up and saluting. Then after the second wave of death and glory the squeaky violins. Fade out. Under starters orders and we are off with the horsey scherzo with that lollop into 4/4. Another one of those brilliantly perfect ideas that no-one before would ever contemplate. Straight into the intro of the final movement with its opening tease, through about 6 symphonies inside one movement, until, bosh, the best ending to any LvB symphony.

This is a piece of cake for Sir Roger. Thomas Ades’s Eroica last year in the Barbican, as part of the cycle with the Britten Sinfonia, followed a similar template in terms of pace, power and animation but you definitely felt you had been in the ring for the full twelve rounds after that. Here Sir Roger was still able to unfurrow the brows of music and performers as it were, to leave me skipping off with a smile not a scowl. (Had to leave early to catch a train so missed the Mozart encore – doh).

As it happens the SO has seen Sir Rodger conduct on a couple of occasions, maybe 50% of her entire classical musical education. Still no reaction. If he can’t persuade her no-one can.

A diary clash prevents me from hearing Sir Rodger’s next outing with the OAE at the newly restored Queen Elizabeth Hall on 11th April. All Mozart. Mind you it’s sold out. No surprise there.