Britten Sinfonia Beethoven cycle at the Barbican Hall review *****

Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades (conductor),

Barbican Hall, 21st and 26th May 2019

  • Lawrence Power (viola)
  • Eamonn Dougan (director)
  • Jennifer France (soprano)
  • Christianne Stotjin (alto)
  • Ed Lyon (tenor)
  • Matthew Rose (bass)
  • Britten Sinfonia Voices
  • Choir of Royal Holloway
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A majpor, Op 92
  • Gerald Barry – Viola Concerto
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93
  • Gerald Barry – The Eternal Recurrence 
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125

I have banged on before about just how revelatory Thomas Ades’ Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia has been. Well it seems that, for the final couple of concerts, the rest of the world, (well OK a few Beethoven nuts in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden) has caught up. A near full house for the Choral and a much better turnout for 7 and 8 than in previous installments.

The combination of, largely, modern instruments by an orchestra of solo and chamber specialists, (and now my favourite British ensemble), who have completely bought into the lessons of HIP under the baton of, again for my money, Britain’s greatest living composer, have produced Beethoven symphonies that surely reproduce the thrill of their first performance. Appropriate forces, minimal vibrato, tempos that believe Beethoven, textures exposed and perfectly combined. I have bloody loved the first four concerts and was really looking forward to the final pairing.

I wasn’t disappointed. The best Ninth I have ever heard. Ever. Soloists perfectly balanced and all as clear as a bell over the sympathetic accompaniment. And the choirs were immense. You don’t need a cast of thousands. How on earth Mr Ades and Eamonn Dougan managed to make the voices sound this perfect in this acoustic was a miracle. And everything Mr Ades drew out of the previous three movements before the finale was perfect.

Best Eighth I have ever heard live too though here the competition is, I admit, somewhat slighter. I will be honest and just say I never knew it was so good. It is short, it is jolly, with no slow movement, but it is full of intriguing, if brief, ideas. I finally got it. The Seventh wasn’t quite up to the same standard with the opening Vivace with all those abrupt early key changes not quite dropping into place and with the stop/start of the Allegretto funeral march maybe too pronounced. Minor quibbles. Still amazing.

The Barry Viola Concerto takes the flexing and stretching of a musical exercise with a simple melody and subjects it to all manner of variations. It ended with Lawrence Power whistling. It is, like all of Barry’s music in the series, immediately arresting, just a little bit unsettling, rhythmically muscular and very funny. Terrific.

The Eternal Recurrence which proceeded the Choral is equally unexpected. Extracts from Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra are delivered in a string of high notes by the soprano, here the fearless Jennifer France, in an a parlando, actorly style which is designed to mimic speech and not to sound “sing-y”. It’s a bit nuts and undercuts the text in a slightly sarcastic way, a bit like, some would say,Beethoven does with Schiller in the Ode to Joy. It reminded me of Barry’s The Conquest of Ireland which was paired with the Pastoral earlier on in this cycle.

I gather Gerard Barry uses a similar technique in his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, (based on the Fassbinder film). That is now firmly near the top of my opera “to see” list but for the moment I am very pleased to see that both The Intelligence Park and Alice’s Adventures Underground are coming up at the Royal Opera House. Thanks to Thomas Ades I think I can safely say I am now a fan of Gerard Barry. And the old fella has style and is generous to the performers of his music as we see when he takes his bow at each of these performances.

I won’t go rabbiting on about the musical structure or context of the Beethoven symphonies. You will know them. And if you don’t then frankly you are only living half a life. Beethoven wrote the greatest music ever written. If you don’t believe me then why not start next year when a recording of this cycle will be released and when there will be wall to wall live Beethoven performances to celebrate 250 years since his birth. Here’s a list of the best of them in London. They’ll be more.

  • 6th January, 6th February, 27th February, 19th March, 2nd April – Kings Place – Brodsky Quartet – Late Beethoven String Quartets
  • 19th January – Barbican Hall – LSO, Sir Simon Rattle – Berg Violin Concerto, Beethoven Christ on the Mount of Olives.
  • 1st and 2nd February – Barbican – Beethoven weekender – All of the Beethoven symphonies from various UK orchestras and much much more – all for £45
  • 6th February – Barbican Hall – Evgeny Kissin – Piano Sonatas 8, 17 and 21
  • 12th February – Barbican Hall – LSO. Sir Simon Rattle – Symphony No 9
  • 20th February, 4th November – Kings Place – Rachel Podger, Christopher Glynn – Beethoven Violin Sonatas
  • 1st to 17th March – Royal Opera House – Beethoven Fidelio
  • 15th March – Royal Festival Hall, PO, Esa-Pekka Salonen – 1808 Reconstructed – Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto No 4, Extracts from Mass in C, Choral Fantasy and more
  • 4th April – LPO, Vladimir Jurowski – The Undiscovered Beethoven – inc. The Cantata for the Death of Emperor Joseph II
  • 8th April – Barbican Hall – Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis – Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5, 7 and 9
  • 11th to 16th May – Barbican Hall – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner – the entire Symphony cycle.
  • 22nd November – Kings Place – Peter Wispelwey, Alasdair Beaton – Beethoven complete Cello Sonatas

Herbert Blomstedt and the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt (conductor) 

Royal Festival Hall, 14th April 2019

  • Mozart – Symphony No 40 K550
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 “Eroica”

Bernard Haitink is 90. Herbert Blomstedt is closing in on his 92nd birthday. Unsurprisingly perhaps neither of them is particularly animated on the conductor’s podium. Mind you neither of them ever has been. Now you might ask yourself, apart from, by reputation, being a thoroughly nice bloke, (probably part and parcel of his fervent faith), at this age what is in it for him, and us, of Herbert Blomstedt continuing his life’s work when he should have retired years ago. To which I respond the world of classical music works to different rules.

Just to be clear. An orchestra of the calibre of the Philharmonia probably doesn’t need a conductor, of whatever vintage, to play this two warhorses effectively and efficiently. But it does need a conductor to lead and shape its musical vision. In its case the soon to be departed Esa-Pekka Salonen, its current Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor. The reputation of young conductors is made on their skills in interpreting and shaping the music on the page, but their legacy is a function of what they do to the orchestras they are tasked to lead. What they play, why they play it, how they play it, where they play it, who they play it with, what they choose to set down for prosperity. All artistic decisions.

And then there is the commercial imperative. The PO helpfully shows what funds its 11 million quid annual running costs. (Just before any of you philistines get antsy that’s the price of one first team, high end Premiership footballer. I know football clubs are commercial concerns, often listed. But the cost of paying the asserts still makes then a sh*tty investment. Stick to consumer staples I say).

Around 25% comes from its Arts Council grant and tax relief – peanuts to you the taxpayer for the massive contribution to our cultural fabric. The result largely comes from ticket sales (15%), tours (25%), recordings/bookings (10%) and just over 20% from fundraising, all those nice philanthropic types. Now the head honcho conductor isn’t in the front line begging for money, (quite the reverse, E-PS donates a chunk of his earnings to the orchestra), but his, (shamefully still only very occasionally her), standing makes a big difference to the economics.

Of course the Chief Conductor/Artistic Director isn’t the only stick waver employed come show time. There are, depending on the size and status of the orchestra, a host of Guest Conductors, Conductor Laureates, Associate Artists and featured partner conductors who also shape and lead performances. One or two may play a part in the broader life of the orchestra, (the trainees for the big jobs if you will), but most pitch up for, more or less, just the rehearsal and the performance. But they will still have an ongoing relationship with the orchestra. This is important. Music making is a shared endeavour. If the orchestra doesn’t believe in the conductor trust me it shows.

Even so, unless things start to go seriously awry, the beat-keeping on the podium is more for us than them. Mind you in a big piece with a. big orchestra, the conductor is the thing that holds the dynamics together. And, he/she can still be invaluable, with his/her cues, in helping mesh soloist and orchestra together in a concerto. But largely, I would say, it’s all part of the orchestral theatre. So, obviously, it is what goes on beforehand that matters. There aren’t that many scores with nailed-down instructions on tempi, dynamics, articulation, phrasing, shaping ….. and all the other stuff that us non-musicians have no idea about. And even if there are it is not illegal to shake the score up a bit. So someone needs to set the interpretative rules.

And this can make a big difference. Just compare recorded performances of the same piece and you will get the picture. Composer and performer are generally the same in modern music genres. Not so, generally, in classical, art music. Who matters more is a function of musical history. Go delve.

(Now I know that there are plenty of performers and ensembles who work in a different way. No permanent conductor. Playing from memory. Just a leader. But I don’t they would do it for Mahler’s Eighth).

Which, finally, brings me to these performances of Mozart 40 and the Eroica. You and I have heard them billions of times. Old school, HIP, HIP informed, gut, steel, smaller/larger orchestration, fast/slow, Classically cool or fervently romantic. There are loads of ways to cut these delicious cookies. Herbert Blomstedt and the PO just played them. Perfectly. At a fair lick if I am honest which suits me, but never over-revving the PO’s engine, and with some well placed, not too much, vibrato, when it was reasonable to do so. But overall nothing showy. Just the right choices each and every time.

Mozart is not standard Blomstedt territory but he captured the tension in the opening Allegro, the clean textures of the Haydnesque slow movement, the bracing dance of the Menuet and Trio and nailed the forward-looking innovation of the finale. All the repeats present and correct. Maybe the minor key (this and No 25) is HB’s bag.

Beethoven definitely is his territory and this was marvellous. He plainly loves it and made the PO fall in love with this, the most important work of music in the Western canon IMHO, all over again. 50 strings. Count ’em. Violins antiphonally divided. But every texture, every phrase, even when it get a bit blowsy, in the coda to the epic opening movement or the heroic final variation in the Finale, was utterly transparent. He has clearly continued to learn from the new ways of approaching LvB’s music and grafted that on to the decades of dramatic interpretation he has lived through. No need to open the score. Back straight. Legs planted. Just fingers, elbows, shoulders to remind the players what they already knew. Some stand out double bass grooves and well hard thwack timpani. Natural trumpets. And, in the funeral march, plenty of aural elbow room for the woodwind to shine. The change that this piece of music ushered in was plainly heard but never at the expense of its still Classical grounding.

Best of all. He believes in Beethoven’s markings. Even if he, like most, can’t quite get there. I am not advocating blast beat fast a la Gardiner, (though I am salivating at the complete cycle with the ORR next year at the Barbican), but LvB knew what his was up to and if you don’t agree you can go back to your interminable Wagnerian dirges.

Even when taking the well deserved applause HB seemed more concerned with praising the audience than lapping up the audience appreciation. Mark of the man. With Abbado, Boulez, Harnoncourt, Masur and Davies sadly no longer with us this leaves Maestros Haitink and Blomstedt as the granddaddies. (I can’t vouch for Mr Muti). Both prize purity and don’t f*ck about with what is on the page. Haitink still gets my vote but he only seems to do Bruckner or Mahler now. So hearing what a legend does with stuff I love was a real privilege.

There aren’t that many recordings I would own conducted by HB, whether with the various Scandi outfits he has headed up, the Dresden Staatskapelle or the Leipzig Gewandhaus. (Under Barenboim and Chailly these two have climbed to the very top of the orchestral tree but guess who kicked off the journey). But I wouldn’t be without his Nielsen symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Basically he single handedly showed what the rest of the world what Denmark’s favourite musical maverick (I know, it’s a small field) could do. Priceless.

Mozart and Beethoven chamber music for winds at the Wigmore Hall review ****

Alexander Melnikov (piano), Alfredo Bernardini (oboe), Lorenzo Coppola (clarinet), Javier Zafra (bassoon), Teunis van der Zwart (horn)

Wigmore Hall, 31st March 2019

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Adagio in B minor K540
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Quintet in E flat for piano and winds K452
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Horn Sonata in F Op. 17
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Quintet in E flat for piano and winds Op. 16

A wind supergroup. I’ll resist the temptation to make a puerile joke. Still that’s what was on stage on this evening at the Wigmore. To play a couple of chamber music classics from the, er, Classical period. Whilst Beethoven went on to bigger and better things the Op 16 Wind Quintet is a piece of beauty and not insignificant innovation which owes a lot to its Mozartian predecessor but, especially in this direct comparison. also markedly departs from it. As for Mozart’s K452, well Wolfgang himself, at the time, 1784, reckoned it was the best thing he had ever written and who are we to argue. The evening was rounded off with Mozart’s K540 Adagio for piano, one of the most most poignant pieces he ever wrote, and Beethoven’s (only) virtuoso Horn Sonata.

Alexander Melnikov is probably as good as it will ever get, (maybe even than DSCH himself who was a bit of a ragged pianist by all accounts), when it comes to Shostakovich’s mighty Preludes and Fugues and his partnership with Isabelle Faust in the Beethoven violin sonatas is something I would pay good money to hear live. Annoyingly his next visit to the Wigmore with Ms Faust, and Jean-Guihen Queyras on cello, to play the Beethoven piano trios clashes with an even bigger gig; Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent taking on the Bach B minor Mass. (I also see the the CVG are touring Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. Now that would be, to use the modern parlance, a thing). I am hoping to see Mr Melnikov accompanying American soprano Claron McFadden in December when they take on some tricksy modern vocal repertoire including some Cathy Berberian staples.

As it happens Mr Melnikov’s fellow band members, all being experts in the HIP field, have close associations with the CVG, especially horn player Teunis van der Zwart. For this concert was unavowedly historically informed. Mr van der Zwart teaches in Holland, Javier Safra in Brussels, Lorenzo Coppola in Barcelona and Alfredo Bernardini in Salzburg, but they are all involved with top rank European period music ensembles and all studied in Holland as far as I can see, this being, with Belgium, the centre of the universe when it comes to HIP teaching and performance. The Tourist can never leave London but if he did that is probably where he would head.

AM set the scene with the Mozart Adagio, the only self-contained work by Mozart in the “melancholic” key of B minor, on his fortepiano. The initial phrases are pretty simple, and, on a fortepiano with its lack of sustain, it is a little underwhelming at first. But, as the second subject emerges, with the constant crossing of left had to right, things hot up and the fortepiano sound, with the twinklier higher notes and buzzy low notes, starts to properly emerge. In the development section Mozart piles up the pathos, first with an ascending harmonic sequence and then, descending, ending in a quick switch to B major, an unexpected twist after all that woe-is-me stuff. I don’t normally get too worked up by Mozart’s solo piano pieces, but this certainly did the trick. There is no doubt that, if you are used to hearing a piece on a modern piano, the fortepiano, with its distinct lack of oomph and narrow range, can be a disappointing alternative but with Mozart it works. My theory is that it turns “too many notes” into “just the right amount”, though to be fair this is not over-burdened with notes in the first place.

The rest of the ensemble then trooped on for the Mozart Quintet which again turned out to be a perfect illustration of why to makes sense to play music on the instruments it was designed for. Assuming the musicians are up to the task, which they were here. I doubt that this will ever become a favourite of mine, compared say to the late symphonies, some of the string quartets and the wind concertos and string/wind quintets, but this was very persuasive, highlighting the way in which WAM passed the phrases backwards and forwards between winds and keyboard, and, on these instruments, giving us a bit of rough to remove the complacent air that tends to creep into Mozart on modern instruments. The first movement starts off slow and the subsequent Allegro doesn’t get up to much, a gentle skip, but this allows the ear to get a taste for the sound, (I know, mixed metaphors), before the much more varied slow second movement where WAM takes us to some very interesting sounding places tonally led by clarinet and horn. This I liked. Just a hint of unease. The closing Rondo is much jollier, as the quickstep interplay between piano and wind becomes more elaborate.

Now the programme, (some excellent notes by Misha Donat), tells me that LvB wrote his horn sonata for one Giovanni Punto who was considered, in 1800, to be one of the greatest virtuoso soloists of the day. He was born Johann Wenzel Stich, in the service of one Count Wenzel Joseph von Thun, (reminding us that for most of human history even the ostensibly free were nothing of the sort), but, after learning his trade in Prague, Munich and Dresden, decided to skip away from his “employer” and take on a new identity to evade capture. I am guessing then that Count Thun wasn’t invited to the premiere of the piece where no less than LvB was the pianist.

The Allegro opening contains a number of remarkable innovations to show off Herr/Signore Punto’s technique, hand-stopping, (altering the pitch by sticking the hand in the bell end – quiet at the back please), a descent into the lowest of low chords in tandem with the keyboard, (the same pitch as a cello’s open C string – that buzzy, growly sound), and a passage of rapid arpeggios which I am guessing are beyond the capability of all but the best horn players. The middle movement is not some drawn out Largo, (that wouldn’t really work on the horn), but serves as an intro to the concluding Rondo and also highlights a dotted motif that permeates the whole sonata. LvB went on to utilise this structure, to greater effect, in later works, piano sonatas but also in the symphonies. One reason why Beethoven’s music, above all others, makes sense.

Whilst Mozart’s Quintet may have been an influence on Beethoven’s equivalent I am not sure, even with the help of the experts, that I can discern this in more than the general shape, notably the gentle, slow intro into the Allegro first movement and some of the more dramatic statements in the development. The horn comes out well in this movement and the keyboard gets the chance to show off one of those massive octave, (four and a half here), leaps that LvB was so beloved of. There is another one of those little repeated dotted rhythms here as well. The central rondo shape, marked cantabile – singsong to you and me – with theme and accompaniment, allows all four wind players to show off, with increasing ornamentation, leaving the piano to take the final turn. The actual Rondo finale has a bouncy quality stemming from its 6/8 “hunting” theme and, with its runs on the keyboard and rapid exchanges between the instruments, this could easily be mistaken for Wolfgang.

A fine programme then delivered by experts in their fields highlighting two of the finest pieces of chamber music ever written for these instruments. I would be very happy if they went on to record this programme. Over to you fellas.

Piano trio and percussion at the Wigmore Hall review ***

Sergey Khachatryan (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano), Colin Currie (percussion), Owen Gunnell (percussion), Sam Walton (percussion)

Wigmore Hall, 11th February 2019

  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Trio in D Op. 70 No. 1 ‘Ghost’
  • Arnold Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht Op. 4 (arr. Eduard Steuermann for piano trio)
  • Rolf Wallin – Realismos Mágicos
  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15 in A Op. 141 (arr. Victor Derevianko for piano trio and percussion)

OK so this didn’t quite go to plan. I was intrigued by the classical supergroup combination, the composers and the arrangements, but probably should have put a little more effort in to checking in advance whether I liked said arrangements. Always do your homework Tourist.

The Ghost was a success, as you might expect from this glittering trio of soloists and because it is Beethoven, thus being immune to criticism. I find that this pivotal work can either be taken with a Classical tilt, building on the master Haydn, or with a more forceful attitude, presaging the muscular Beethoven still to come. (Remember LvB previous contributions to the piano trio form were the three that formed his Op 1) This trio opted for the former with sometimes glittering results. The Ghost owes its name to the supernatural melodies of its slow movement. Apparently LvB was working on a possible opera based on Macbeth which perhaps explains the mood. It is the light and shade of the Allegro first movement and the full sonata form of the Presto finale which also explain its popularity with performers, including our friends here, alongside its “Archduke” Op 70 cousin.

Verklarte Nacht seems to follow me around like a drunken dinner party guest who will not accept that it is time for beddy-byes. I hoped that this cut-down version of the string quartet, from Schoenberg groupie Edward Steuermann, with the piano talking four of the string lines and violin and cello flying solo concertante style, might dilute the syrupy sweetness of the original. Afraid not, despite the best efforts of our musicians. It still sounds like knock off Wagner to my ears. And that is not a good thing. There are apparently five sections and a coda. Search me.

The Rolf Wallins virtuoso marimba piece, Realismos Mágicos, was a chance for Colin Currie to show off, just because he can. And he did, in some style. It is inspired by 11 short stories from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, hence the title.

So to Shostakovich 15. The symphonic version is sparse,enigmatic, suffused with DSCH’s own mortality, which is percussion and string heavy. So in theory this arrangement, for piano trio and various tuned, (xylophone and glockenspiel), and untuned, percussion should have worked. Unfortunately it doesn’t. Shostakovich needs woodwind and brass like a sandwich needs cheese and pickle (chez Tourist). I can see why the arranger, pianist Victor Derevianko, thought this would make sense after playing it through, for the censors, on the keyboard in 1971, and why DSCH agreed to the idea. And, with these fine musicians, there were clearly going to be passages that convinced; in the first movement, where the percussion is used to set up the quirky, black comedy, symbolised by the William Tell extract, and the finale, where uncertainly builds to repeated climaxes before the clockwork countdown to unremarkable oblivion. Where it disappoints, compared to the orchestral original, is in the slow movement and scherzo. A crowded Wigmore stage also condensed the sound which the Hall’s acoustic couldn’t quite

Definitely then a “it’s not you, it’s me” evening. Or maybe a soon to be forgotten one night stand. Either way I am sorry.

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican review ****

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Maxim Vengerov (violin), Martha Argerich (piano)

Barbican Hall, 12th January 2019

  • JS Bach – Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043,
  • Robert Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 in E flat major

I cannot tell a lie. I didn’t go to the Oxford Philharmonic’s 20th birthday bash at the Barbican Hall to listen to the orchestra though there were clearly a fair few university types, students, alumni and academic staff, in the packed house, who plainly did. No it was the chance to see three world class soloists strut their stuff, though try as I might I couldn’t find a chum to accompany me.

Well they didn’t disappoint. Anne-Sophie Mutter and Maxin Vengerov were, unsurprisingly, electric, and Martha Argerich showed why she is, unarguably, the world’s greatest living pianist. And that in a piece of music, the Schumann Piano Concerto, that remains a mystery to me. It is a very disorientating feeling, being enraptured by an artist’s playing yet not really caring about, or even liking, what she was playing. Quite the opposite with the Bach Double Concerto which is a belter. As is the Beethoven, obviously, though sadly, not here. Too rich and too slow for my taste.

The Bach was, surprisingly, Baroque-like however. Of course these two were never going to abandon the vibrato completely and this was a pretty fulsome band, but there was more than enough motoric chug from the continuo and strings to keep this HIP-ster happy. And when the two of the started riffing off against each other, especially in the sensuous Largo aria-like movement, you’d have to be a particularly humourless period music fanatic not to get carried along. Particularly as the two soloists, with their contrasting sounds, Ms Mutter brighter and sweeter, Mr Vengerov, richer and darker, and the OP players, seemed to be having such a ball. A-SM, what with her mannered interpretations and sergeant major-ish exhortations to the orchestra can seem a bit serious at times, and MV can be too doggedly static. Not here as they belted through the canonic closing Allegro. Easy to see why JSB always had Vivaldi on shuffle.

Now obviously I would rather listen to Martha Argerich playing stuff that does it for me. Bach, Beethoven, Scarlatti, her Chopin and Ravel, some Mozart and her way with the Prokofiev concertos (there is also a bit of Bartok, Stravinsky and Shostakovich in her recorded chamber repertoire I think). But Schumann is pretty close to the top of her favourites and she, because she is close to the divine, gets to choose. Now it seemed to me that in the opening Allegro she had to set Marios Papadopoulos and the OPO on to the same page as her, but once done, the magic started to work. Like I say I don’t understand or care for Schumann’s music but watching and hearing MA weave a reverie in the slower, middle movement and then show her superpower technique at the end of the closing Rondo, even with the orchestra doing its level best to blast her out, was a privilege. How on earth she can play that fast, that accurately and that beautifully is a mystery. Even if you have no truck with this, or any other classical music, I am convinced, if you heard here play live, you would understand. No encore. Shame.

Mr Papadopoulos is no mean pianist himself, especially with Beethoven, but his main musical legacy will be the creation of a top notch orchestra from scratch for Oxford, the town and the University. However on the basis of this Eroica he is resolutely old-school. Now I have a fair few recordings, Harnoncourt, Rattle, Szell, Gardiner, Haitink, Furtwangler and an Abbado (BPO. I mostly listen to the Harnoncourt with the COE, the classic Szell with the Cleveland and the Haitink with the Concertgebouw. So you can see I like my Beethoven, quickish, exact, rigorous and detailed. Not stately, lush, long on vibrato and rubato and all ubermensch-y. The orchestra doesn’t have to be chamber+ sized but it has to have that intent. The best live performance I have ever heard was the Britten Sinfonia’s under Thomas Ades in 2017. (You can still get to hear their 7,8 and 9 in May this year at the Barbican for just £15. The bargain of the decade).

I see a number of proper reviewers liked this “traditional, unidiosyncratic, steady, sturdy, big-boned” interpretation. Not me I am afraid. I began to wonder if it was my own funeral in the Adagio. There is no reason why a performance clocking in at 50 minutes can’t bring a sense of Beethoven’s overall structures. Not here though. I started inventing repeats that weren’t there.

Still it takes all sorts. And, like I said, I came for the soloists and to share in the celebration which was rounded off with a cheesy Happy Birthday medley encore.

My top ten concerts and opera of 2018

Just a list so I don’t forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is how JSB should sound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.