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.

 

 

SCO Winds at Wigmore Hall review ****

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Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists

Wigmore Hall, 12th February 2018

  • Beethoven – Sextet in E flat, Op 71
  • Poulenc – Sonata for clarinet and bassoon
  • Beethoven – Octet in E flat, Op 103

A rare opportunity for completists to hear performances of Beethoven’s Sextet and Octet written for wind instruments. Now there is enough wind repertoire, (as it were), to keep a few ensembles ticking over on the side but, generally, if you like this sort of stuff, you have to keep a beady eye open and/or hear student performances. There doesn’t seem to be a widely available recording of these works, (there is one from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe but tricky to track down it seems). So to see the specialists from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra turn up at Wigmore Hall, with a new recording in tow, was an appetising prospect, at least for the Tourist.

The Sextet may be numbered Op 71 but it is a very early work from 1796 when the grumpy one was just getting going. He dismissed it later on but he was wrong, as, apart from a few dodgy songs, (never quite mastered that surprisingly), he never wrote a dull note. Scored for two each of clarinets, bassoon and horns, it may not approach the beauty and complexity of the Octet but there is more than enough to sink your teeth (or ears) into here. There is a fascinating syncopation early on from the clarinets in the opening Adagio and a simple four note motif from clarinets and bassoons emerges in the ensuing Allegro, with a second theme coming from first clarinet, before development and recapitulation brings in the bassoons and, properly, the horns. The bassoons then do most of the lifting in the lovely Adagio in B flat major, with horns coming in for the following Menuetto. The final movement is a classic(al) Beethoven foot tapping Rondo, with a march like theme with some horn blasts at the end. It’s not rocket science, it obeys all the rules but it is still inventive given the instrumentation. And the band coped admirably with a poorly chap in the audience. halfway through

I am always momentarily intrigued by Poulenc’s music but it never really turns into much more than this I am afraid. I know you are supposed to get fired up by his choral/vocal/operatic works but it all feels a bit of a trial and suffused with Catholic guilt. And the piano stuff is a bit lightweight. He did though deliver some boppy tunes for wind instruments in his chamber works, including this Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon, here delivered, I think, by Peter Whelan and Maximiliano Martin. Given the two instruments and Poulenc’s style there is nothing very profound going on here and indeed the audience gets to snigger at the end of the second and final movements. There are echoes of Mozartian divertimenti, Stravinsky’s appropriation of the Classical and some jazzy touches. So correct boxes ticked and some interest in the returning downwards lines in first and second movements. And the boys seemed to be having a good time.

Now the Octet really is a fascinating piece. Published as Op 103, (so near the Hammerklavier for example), it was actually written in 1792, before the Sextet and when Ludwig was only 22. Scored for two each of oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horns it might have been started in Bonn when LvB was circling around the Elector of Cologne. It was finished when he was studying under Haydn, though subsequently revised a bit with the last Presto finale replacing the original ending Rondino WoO25, (which might have been nicely squeezed in to this programme – just saying). He even took it and turned it into the String Quintet in E flat Op 4 to get it a proper audience. It is a remarkably assured piece with the sort of invention you expect in much later Beethoven chamber pieces. The opening motif is given a proper working out in the opening Allegro in a myriad of ways, the following Andante is one of those languid, sing-songy Beethoven melodies that insinuates itself effortlessly into your head. Then he writes a Scherzo. It may be labelled a Menuetto but Scherzo it is, with the influence of mentor Haydn apparent but with some uncanny foreshadowing of the kind of barnstormers Ludwig would create later on, albeit still fairly polite. The final rondo gives the horns their time to shine (though they get fulsome opportunity earlier on) and is a properly upbeat ending.

So there you have it. Music written for instruments favoured by German and Austrian courts from a time when Beethoven had to play the game and before he went all serious artist, look-at-me. But even this is so much more than the kind of burbling, bubbling, babbling wind pieces that these toffs at the time loved. A pleasure to hear, made more pleasurable by these expert interpreters. Chalk up another CD sale ladies and gentlemen of the SCO.

My favourite classical concerts of 2017

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Right I know it is a bit late in the day but I wanted to make a list of the concerts I enjoyed most from last year. So everything that got a 5* review based on my entirely subjective criteria is ordered below. Top is Sir Simon and the LSO with their Stravinsky ballets. Like it was going to be anything else.

Anyway no preamble. No waffle. Barely any punctuation. Part record, part boast. Comments welcome.

  • LSO, Simon Rattle – Stravinsky, The Firebird (original ballet), Petrushka (1947 version), The Rite of Spring – Barbican Hall – 24th September
  • Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals – Reich Tehillim, Drumming – Royal Festival Hall – 5th May
  • Isabelle Faust, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Bernhard Forck – JS Bach Suite No 2 in A Minor BWV 1067a, Violin Concerto in E Major BWV 1042, Violin Concerto in A Minor BWV 1041, Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043, CPE Bach String Symphony in B Minor W 182/5 – Wigmore Hall – 29th June
  • Jack Quartet – Iannis Xenakis, Ergma for string quartet, Embellie for solo viola, Mikka ‘S’ for solo violin, Kottos for solo cello, Hunem-Iduhey for violin and cello, ST/4 –1, 080262 for string quartet – Wigmore Hall – 25th February
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Gerald Barry Chevaux de Frise, Beethoven Symphony No 3 in E Flat Major Eroica – Barbican Hall – 6th June 2017
  • Nederlands Kamerkoor,Peter Dijkstra – Sacred and Profane – Britten Hymn to St Cecilia, Gabriel Jackson Ave Regina caelorum, Berio Cries of London, Lars Johan Werle Orpheus, Canzone 126 di Francesca Petraraca, Britten Sacred and Profane – Cadogan Hall – 8th March
  • Tim Gill cello, Fali Pavri piano, Sound Intermedia – Webern 3 kleine Stücke, Op. 11, Messiaen ‘Louange à l’Éternite du Jesus Christ’ (‘Praise to the eternity of Jesus’) from Quartet for the End of Time, Henze Serenade for solo cello, Arvo Pärt Fratres, Xenakis Kottos for solo cello, Jonathan Harvey Ricercare una melodia for solo cello and electronics, Thomas Ades ‘L’eaux’ from Lieux retrouvés, Anna Clyne Paint Box for cello and tape, Harrison Birtwistle Wie Eine Fuga from Bogenstrich – Kings Place – 6th May
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Mark Stone – Gerald Barry Beethoven, Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1 and 2 – Barbican Hall – 2nd June
  • Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Howarth – Monteverdi Vespers 1610 – Barbican Hall – 23rd June
  • Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Murray Perahia – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Piano Concertos No 2 in B flat major and No 4 in G major – Barbican – 20th February
  • London Sinfonietta and students, Lucy Shaufer, Kings Place Choir – Luciano Berio, Lepi Yuro, E si fussi pisci, Duetti: Aldo, Naturale, Duetti: Various, Divertimento, Chamber Music, Sequenza II harp, Autre fois, Lied clarinet, Air, Berceuse for Gyorgy Kurtag, Sequenza I flute, Musica Leggera, O King – Kings Place – 4th November
  • Maurizio Pollini – Schoenberg 3 Pieces for piano, Op.11, 6 Little pieces for piano, Op.19, Beethoven, Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique), Piano Sonata in F sharp, Op.78 (à Thérèse), Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata) – RFH – 14th March
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Gerald Barry – Beethoven Septet Op 20, Piano Trio Op 70/2. Gerald Barry Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park – Milton Court Concert Hall – 30th May
  • Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Yefim Bronfman – Beethoven Piano Concerto No 4, Prokofiev Symphony No 5 – Barbican Hall – 24th November
  • Britten Sinfonia, Helen Grime – Purcell Fantasia upon one note, Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Colin Matthew, A Purcell Garland, Helen Grime Into the Faded Air, A Cold Spring, Knussen Cantata, Ades Court Studies from The Tempest, Britten Sinfonietta, Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks – Milton Court Hall – 20th September

 

Nicola Benedetti and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall

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The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Marin Alsop, Nicola Benedetti

Royal Festival Hall, 4th February 2018

  • Beethoven Symphony No 4 in B flat
  • Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major

“Stardom” in the classical music world is a curious thing. To get there ideally you need to be a child prodigy. Then take a prize at your chosen music school. Get taken under the wing of a teacher and mentor, (more than one ideally), who are maestros from prior generations. Win a competition prize, or finish as a creditable runner-up, and secure a few prestigious gigs. A recording of a Romantic staple which tests the previous best recommendations. Set yourself up with your own festival in the middle of nowhere. Teach the kids and the underprivileged and travel. A lot. And, if you are a woman expect a load of airbrushed photos of you exuding grace, or if a bloke, brooding, ideally with a shock of unkempt hair. Make the cut, and there aren’t that many places available, and you are set up, literally, for life.

Obviously though you need talent and a level of dedication far beyond other jobs/professions/vocations. And even if you get to the top of the tree you are still only going to be appreciated by a minority of the population. Ah, but the pleasure you bring them cannot be measured.

Just occasionally though classical musicians break out into the wider consciousness by virtue of their genius, position and/or symbolism. In this concert I would contend we had two such musicians.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Marin Alsop’s rise to the top of the conducting profession. Recently appointed as Artistic Director for the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, alongside her leadership of the Baltimore and Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestras, she is probably best known to the general public from her two recent stints at the Last Night of the Proms. Here at the South Bank, where she is an Artist in Residence, she was given the award from the Association of British Orchestras, the trade body if you will. Let us hope she continues to inspire women to follow her. (I am looking forward to hearing Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO perform the Rite of Spring and Daphnis and Chole later in the year at the Barbican for example). There is a long way to go. Vienna’s other orchestra, the Philharmonic, didn’t permit women until 20 years ago (though they had a secret woman harpist, bloody hypocrites) and the unacceptable behaviour of certain male conductors is now being revealed. Ms Alsop is proving a powerful and eloquent champion and should be roundly supported for her work and her stance.

Nicola Benedetti has also proved capable of transcending the usual confines of classical music. Her recordings to date have not fought shy of delivering the popular “compilations” that shifts units. There was a packed house for this concert, and I would venture the majority were here just to see Ms Benedetti. This country is blessed with a rich classical music culture, (though maybe not quite as rich as Central and Eastern Europe), and there are plenty of talented musicians and marvellous composers. But world class soloists are a little thinner on the ground. So it is no wonder that Ms Benedetti, who is still just 30 years old, is so treasured, what with her MBE and Queen’s Medal for Music. Note I am unashamedly claiming her for Britain: she is unequivocally proud to be Scottish.

This was the first time I had heard her play. In a piece I now know well and, obviously, adore. With a band which comprises musicians who are at the top of their period music game. On a period fiddle whose sound I understand. This was Ms Benedetti’s first time with the OAE. (She will be joining the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican at the end of May in a programme of Vivaldi and Telemann. BUD and KCK have been signed up). Though not the first time she has played with gut strings. Ballsy then to take on Beethoven, the Daddy of the modern violin concerto, in a period performance.

So I couldn’t tell you what live sound she makes on steel strings, but, on the basis of this, it is probably something special. Here was a sweet, earthy and perfect tone but with a huge dynamic range. Very impressive. Especially in the slow movement Larghetto. And a real treat in the cadenza she has written specially in conjunction with Petr Limonov, what with its jamming with the timpani manned by Adrian Bending, (who also gets his big cameo in the opening and second movements of the Fourth Symphony remember), and its harmonic fantasy culminating in some showy pizzicato. Obviously you wouldn’t turn your back on an old-fashioned, knock ’em out between the eyes rendition, (my favoured recording is the Perlman/Barenboim/BPO which really pumps it up in the last movement), but this was still very satisfying. This is, after all, Beethoven’s least gruff, un-buttoned up orchestral masterpiece, set in its Happy D home key.

I wasn’t quite so persuaded by Marin Alsop’s treatment of the Fourth Symphony. Now I know it is a funny creature, murky and tentative in places, with those stop/starts, and it gets a bad rap compared to the Third and Fifth. But there is still lots to enjoy and explore. The OAE’s brass was in fine fettle but the woodwind was occasionally not quite what I expected and the strings felt a little too polite in the adagio vivace of the first movement, after that mysterious opening, and in the final allegro, which needs that massive contrast into the stalls. Tempi were a little on the slow side for me but then again I get off on John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire Et Romantique’s Beethoven cycle, especially in this symphony. Here Ms Alsop, as in the Violin Concerto, was most convincing in the slower movement.

 

 

 

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

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

Barbican Hall, 24th November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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