Emerson String Quartet at Milton Court review ****

The Emerson String Quartet

Milton Court Concert Hall, 8th November 2018

  • Britten – String Quartet No 3, Op 94
  • Shostakovich – String Quartet No 8 in C minor, Op 110
  • Beethoven – String Quartet No 7 in F major, Op 59 No 1, “Razumovsky”

You still see some venerable rock (and pop) bands unwisely soldiering on in their 60’s and even 70’s, sometimes with only one original member still in the line-up. Outside of disposable pop the creative force/s, the composer/s if you will, in contemporary popular music are invariably also the performer/s. Not so generally in classical art music, though that isn’t to say that many canonical composers weren’t, or aren’t, also adept performers. Just that composition and performance are more often separated, and that performance is often as important to composition in terms of audience enjoyment or appreciation. 

So when rock musicians die, so does the band, if it has managed to get that far without breaking up due to musical differences, substance abuse or fist-fights, in the established rock’n’roll manner. Leaving the audience with a ropey tribute band and recordings to keep the tunes alive.

In the classical world though, with its much longer back catalogue, legacy is the name of the game. And not just in composition. Performers live on. Not just in recordings but also in the name, and sound, of the band. Easy enough to envisage in the context of the orchestra with its link to place and with a constant turnover of personnel. The Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen can trace its lineage back to a bunch of regal trumpeters from 1448 (!), the venerable and still very highly regarded Leipzig Gewandhausorchester to 1743.

The idea that string quartets outlive their members might be a little trickier to get your loaf around though. Yet this is how it works. Members may come and go but the best quartets stick together for life, such is the dedication of performers to their art, and, when one of the four can no longer perform, pearly gates or otherwise, a replacement is drafted in. But this cannot be any old violinist, viola player or cellist. For the sound of a top notch string quartet, is a very particular thing, and continuity, as well as chemistry, needs to be guaranteed.

Now as is normally the case with the development of classical music, form followed technology and demand in bringing the string quartet to the fore. Once modern instruments had been perfected in the C18, notably the viola, (which is tuned a perfect fifth below the violin and an octave above the cello), and with enough patrons who liked the string quartet groove to pay up, composers were all set. As with so much else in classical music it was Papa Haydn who set the ball rolling in the 1750s. His massive output for the ensemble (68 named, 77 or so in total) is still amongst the best ever written IMHO. 

The string quartet, in the opinion of the Tourist, is about as “pure” as classical art music gets. Not easy to get right; any paucity of imagination is ruthlessly exposed. Four parts is enough to fashion an argument but not enough to take the foot off the intellectual or aesthetic gas. Plenty of opportunity to vary pitch but only the colour and texture of strings at the composer’s disposal. All of which might explain why not every big name has embraced the genre and why even those that have sometimes don’t always get beyond one effort or a brace. 

After Haydn, Mozart obviously churned out a fair few, 23 I think, though they are not all up to snuff. Still as ever with Wolfgang when he nails it he nails it. Then Beethoven with his 16 (and the Grosse Fuge) which, as with the symphonies and piano concertos, have never been bettered. Schubert also walked the talk with his 15 and a few assorted bits and bobs. (Note to Tourist: more work to do on these). 

As the fashion for showy-off, Romantic, bullsh*tty bombast gained traction in the C19 so the string quartet took a back seat, but returned with a bang in the C20. For the Tourist’s money the best of the bunch since 1900’ish are Janacek’s pair, Nielsen’s 6, Ravel and, (in a rare thumbs up from me), Debussy’s single shots, Stravinsky’s various musings, and, best of all, Britten’s haunting treble, Bartok’s virtuoso 6 and Shostakovich’s acutely personal 15. Oh and Glass’s 7 (and counting), Reich’s Different Trains, Crumb’s Black Angels, Nyman’s 5, Ligeti’s 2 and Xenakis’s 4. You might have some others to add. Tell me.

The Emerson String Quartet was formed in 1976, and still has two of its founder members in violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, alongside the viola of Lawrence Dutton, with cellist Paul Watkins the last in, having joined in 2013. I have recordings of their arrangement of The Art of Fugue and their renowned Bartok cycle. The Bartok is superbly recorded and is very, very precise and very, very intense. This is what they are famous for. Exact and technically brilliant interpretations. Which maybe lack a little emotion. That tends to be my preference but I can understand why others may take a different line (and there are occasions when I would agree).

Anyway this is what the Emersons are famed for. And this is exactly what they delivered at Milton Court. Britten’s Quartet No 3 was pretty much the last thing he composed appearing in the year he died, 1976. With its call-back to the music of his last opera, Death in Venice, in the final passacaglia, and the recitative quotes that precede it, it really is immensely moving. BB was very ill at this time, only able to work in short bursts following a heart bypass operation, and this seems to be reflected in the four condensed movements which precede the final “La Serenissima”. The opening “Duets”, in sonata form, is also haunting and, by virtue of its various permutations of the quartet personnel, as sparse as its title suggests, even when the duets are accompanied. The Ostinato second movement, like the Burlesque fourth movement, is very short, and taken at a fair lick even where it is played pizzicato. The parodic Burlesque could have come from the pen of Shostakovich in one of his more caustic moments, with its weird central spiccato passage. The central Solo is marked very calm with the first violin line, heading higher and higher, seemingly lifted from the mists, and mystery, of Curlew River. Or maybe Aldeburgh Beach, Or Snape. Anyway as with the rise and fall of the Passacaglia it sounds like BB was set to go home. Blub blub. 

The Emersons certainly got the measure of BB’s still extraordinary imagination and technique. But it felt a little less haunting than the recording I have from the Endellion Quartet. This was even more true in the Shostakovich. The Eighth was written when DSCH was in a very dark place, contemplating suicide. He went on in his final quartet, 15, to offer up a genuine personal elegy but this comes pretty close. He was supposed to be written a score to accompany a documentary about the bombing of Dresden but, after just a few days, he came up with this, “an ideologically deficient quartet nobody needs”. It was 1960 but DSCH still wasn’t “free” now being forced to join the Party. It has his trademark initial motif in the opening of the Largo on the cello, which is developed, before the main theme from his First Symphony pops up, before this in turn gives way to a  repeated rocking motif.

This rocking motif is then pumped up and speeded up to form the basis for the second movement scherzo. This is, even by Dmitry’s high standards, pretty scary stuff. The DSCH motif also crops up again, in contrasting tempi, As it does in the middle movement Allegretto, here transformed into a Waltz which then proceeds to quote his First Cello Concerto. A violin solo links to the first of the final two slow movements. This contains the tune to a Russian song about the victims of fascism, to whom DSCH eventually dedicated the quartet, but which might be aimed at totalitarianism more generally. The final Largo comes full circle with a return to the rocking motif.

The quartet is taken unbroken and with these powerful and dramatic ideas, and stirring emotion, it is easy to see why it is Shostakovich’s most famous and oft-performed quartet. It would be hard to imagine a more expertly crafted and sharp interpretation, these chaps leave nothing to chance, but, as I discovered a couple of weeks later, courtesy of the Brodsky Quartet, it is possible to wring a fair bit more gut-wrenching angst out of the piece. I have recordings by the Borodin Quartet, now in its eighth decade, constantly refreshed by the best of the Moscow Conservatoire, and the original dedicatees for most of DSCH’s quartets, and the English Fitzwilliam Quartet (founded in 1968) who also worked with the composer and were the first to record a complete cycle. 

As it turned out it was the Beethoven first Razumovsky which actually showed the Emersons at their very best. Count Razumovsky was an important Russian aristo and diplomat in Naples and then Vienna but his name has gone down in posterity for the three quartets he commissioned from Beethoven in 1806. All are magnificent but the first might just be the best of the bunch. This is altogether jollier music than the two pieces that preceded it, with its intriguing dissonance and implied repeat in the first movement, the rapid passing of the baton from one player to another, underpinned by the one note cello motif in the Allegretto second, the tragic F minor Adagio and then the ebullient finale with its bouncy Russian theme, (as in the other two Razumovsky pieces). The drilled-to-perfection understanding of the Emersons, and the more upbeat tone of the Beethoven was, for me, at least more satisfying.

That is not to say that overall I took very great pleasure in listening to this famous quartet. They are up there with the very best of their peers, some of which I have already mentioned. When it comes to Beethoven I think the Takacs Quartet (founded 1975) might have the edge of those I have heard live, though the Belcea Quartet (1994), who might just be my favourite string band, run them close. As for recordings of the Beethoven quartets have a sniff around the Alban Berg, Quartetto Italiano (for the middle quartets) and unparalleled Vegh (for the mighty last four).

While I am at it, should anyone care, add the Hagen Quartet (1981) to the bucket list when it comes to Mozart, the Quatuor Mosaiques (1987, HIP specialists) for Papa Haydn and the Kronos Quartet (1973), on the rare occasions they leave the US, in contemporary repertoire. 

Southbank Sinfonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy at Milton Court review ****

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Southbank Sinfonia, Vladimir Ashkenazy

Milton Court Concert Hall, 16th October 2018

  • Edvard Greig – Holberg Suite
  • Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No 1 “Classical”
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 7

I am very partial to Vladimir Ashkenazy’s musicianship. Especially his way with Beethoven and Chopin on the piano. I gather the cognescenti think he is a bit bland and a tad direct. I disagree. I can’t be doing with all that showy rubato. I want to hear Chopin’s, and especially Beethoven’s, notes. He is best known for his Rachmaninov but I can’t be doing with all that syrup and I probably need to find out if he is my way into Scriabin.

Anyway he doesn’t play piano live any more but he is still an inspirational, and energetic in his 81st year, presence on the podium. And here he was with the Southbank Sinfonia where he is Patron. The Southbank Sinfonia is an orchestral academy which each year brings together 33 young musicians, supported by a bursary, to provide an opportunity and plenty of hands on experience from which to launch into their professional career. There have been many successful alumni since the initiative was launched by Music Director Simon Over in 2002. They are based in St John’s Waterloo, (London, not Liverpool or Canada, that might be an expensive trip), and offer excellent rush hour concerts each month for any of you classical curious.

They are an impressive and enthusiastic bunch and I rarely miss an opportunity if convenient to hear a Beethoven Seventh, it being, along with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (scoff if you like but it won’t change my mind), Bach’s Partita No 2 for violin, Britten’s Serenade, Holst’s Planets, Mozart’s Jupiter, Ligeti’s Etudes, Monteverdi’s Vespers, Part’s Speigel am Speigel, Steve Reich’s Drumming, Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Tallis’s Mass for 5 Voices, the greatest works of classical music. The Seventh is the best of all though. I am now remembering the interpretation from Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic at this year’s Proms (No 68). Pardon my French, but f*ck me that was about the most exciting musical experience I have ever had, up there with Led Zeppelin at Knebworth and the Bunnymen in their pomp.

Anyway VA and the band delivered a very palatable rendition here, though the first movement was a little plodding and the last a bit unkempt, which the audience lapped up. As they did in the Greig. I had only heard the Holberg Suite once before, (with a quick revisit ahead of this). It’s neo-classical feel, an introduction then four dances, is attractive and Greig can conjure up a tune but it’s not really my bag. My regular reader will know that I have an ambivalent attitude to the boy Sergei, (there he is above looking well dapper), but that I am being increasingly persuaded. The First Symphony though is always a joy though, and being so, and because its all over in less than 15 minutes, it does pop up quite a lot in concert programmes.

Now we know that Prokofiev, even before that magpie Stravinsky, was on to the Classical, what with this First Symphony and his love of Haydn. Anyone with half an ear should love Haydn after all. It kicks off with a Mannheim Rocket, the same eight-note ascending arpeggio figure that Mozart uses in the finale of his G minor Symphony No 40 and Beethoven employs in the Scherzo of the Fifth. Way to go Sergei. The opening allegro keeps off in D major but soon bobs its way along into C. Come in anywhere and you could be listening to Haydn or Mozart, only just slightly off-kilter. There’s a rousing tutti about half way through then back to the scurrying. The second movement marked larghetto has a delicate string melody set against one of SP’s typical tick-tock rhythms. A brisk bunny hop. It could be early Beethoven. The third movement is a short plodding French gavotte, backed by characteristic drone, not the elegant minuet and trio of the genuinely Classical. If you think you’ve heard it before that’s because you have as it crops up again in Romeo and Juliet the ballet. Full on foot-tapper. The rousing finale races around the orchestra, the love child of a Shostakovich scherzo and a Beethoven rondo, wth sweet woodwinds, much like the finale of the Seventh.

So nice programme, enthusiastically, if not always entirely accurately, played, drenched with Mr Ashkenazy’s customary enthusiasm.

 

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.