Peter Eotvos and the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (conductor), Iveta Apkalna (organ), László Fassang (Hammond organ)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2019

  • Arnold Schoenberg – Accompaniment to an Imaginary Film Scene, Op. 34
  • Bela Bartok – Dance Suite
  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
  • Peter Eotvos – Multiversum

A sort of panic purchase this. It is a bit of a faff to use credit for returned tickets at the South Bank. Forgot that a chunk of said credit was about to expire and had already booked most of the concerts I was keen to see. So a bit of fat finger fact finding on the phone ahead of a booked concert and this was the result. Which I promptly forgot about until it popped up in the diary. Still you can’t go wrong with a bit of Bartok and Stravinsky right, and the Eotvos piece (a UK premiere) look like a lark.

Well up to a point. As it turns out Multiversum was a thing to behold but the rest of the programme was less convincing.

What with his Blue Reiter and Expressionist mates, his own daubing and his atmospheric, serialist diddling, Schoenberg was a shoe-in for a film score commission but when it came in 1929, purist that he was, he turned it down and itself wrote this, for an “imaginary” film. It is made up of three moods, Threatening Danger, Fear and Catastrophe and is as dull as everything else I have heard by Schoenberg, whether it be late Romantic gushing, atonal, tonal, or twelve tone. Maybe one day I’ll get it but not so far.

I’ve said before that Bartok’s music is equally fascinating and baffling for me. The Dance Suite manages to be both at the same time. He was commissioned by the Budapest municipality to come up with something which could restore some pride in a Hungary battered by the WWI peace settlement. It’s six movements work as a kind of musical memento mori for the Hungary of history with folk dance music with distinct Hungarian, Romanian and Arabic characters. Like all of Bartok he doesn’t hang around ideas wise so just when you have got your head around one melody he is on to the next one. There are some punchy passages notably in the second Allegro molto (which seems to end with “The Hills Are Alive” !!), the proceeding Allegro vivace and the short, spooky Comodo. The Finale is a suite all by itself. Played the right way, as in the recording I have by the Chicago SO under Solti it is up there with the best of the Stravinsky ballets and Ravel’s most atmospheric works. Here it felt a bit underwhelming.

Things perked up with the Stravinsky, which I have always felt has an air of Shostakovich about it, despite the fact that IS thought DSCH was an appalling hack. The Symphony in Three Movements is really just three, admittedly brilliant and imaginative, movements, written at different times, which IS cobbled together. The Overture: Allegro is as exciting as anything he ever wrote with its motoric string march proceeded by a woodwind and piano scamper. IS was at the height of his fame in New York at the end of WWII and his ballet music was even sampled by Disney. This movement could have fallen straight out of The Rite of Spring albeit with a neo-classical lilt. The Andante: Interlude, L’istesso tempo is led by the harp and was originally intended for a film, The Song of Bernadette. It too has a balletic feel. The finale, Con Moto, was tacked on ahead of the 1945 premiere and comprises a lolloping march, woodwind burble and more keyboard accompaniment. I have heard more urgent and involving performances but Mr Eotvos drove the Philharmonia a little harder than in the prior two pieces to good effect.

Now the composer says the Multiversum was written to channel his interest in “string theory, gravitational waves and the relationships between multiple universes”. Uh oh. I have nothing about contemporary composers describing what prompted and inspired them, and programmatic music has a long history, but sometimes …….. Anyway there are certainly passages in Multiversum where Mr Eotvos goes a little bit B movie, sci-fi on our collective arses, (though thankfully no ondes martenot or electronica), but, cumulatively, across its 35 minutes it does leave a monumental impression. This is largely down to the innovative combination of pipe organ and Hammond organ and the way the orchestra, which is not vast, is placed and combined.

The 20 strong string section was positioned to the audience left, woodwinds to the right, with brass and percussion scattered through the back of the stage. The Hammond organ allows for various pulse-y, lengthened effects, while the main pipe organ, in step-wise motion, generates the throb that sits behind the soundscapes. Together they do say “cosmos” even if at times it was more film score than the mind being stuff of, say, Ligeti or Xenakis.

There are three movements, Expansion, Multiversum and Time and Space, with a kind of Bach-ian construction – Prelude, Toccata, Chorale- though I couldn’t work out much in the way of themes or ideas. There were though some undeniably impressive passages, with inventive harmonies and waves of repetition, and I would happily listen to the piece again, but the influences of Mr Eotvos’s Hungarian heritage, and years spent with Stockhausen and Boulez, were not immediately apparent. He seemed to be having a lot of fun though as did the two soloists and the PO. Iveta Apkalna, dressed in a long, Gothic frock coat, certainly added drama on the RFH’s mighty organ, (her own baby is the brand spanking new Klais organ in the Elbphilharmonie), and Laszlo Fassang showed why he has the market in “classical” Hammond organ sewn up.


Hungariana: Casals Quartet and Tamara Stefanovich at Milton Court review ****

Casals Quartet, Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Gerald McBurney (creative director), Amelia Kosminsky (video designer)

Hungaria, Milton Court Concert Hall, and 3rd February 2019

Gyorgy Kurtag

  • Six moments musicaux Op 44
  • Jatekok excerpts

Bela Bartok

  • 14 Bagatelles Op 6
  • String Quartet No 3
  • Three Burlesques Op 8c

Gyorgy Ligeti

  • Etudes excerpts
  • Musica ricercata VI-XI
  • String Quartet No 1 Metamorphoses nocturnes

One day. Three concerts. Showcasing the chamber music of the three most renowned Hungarian composers of the C20 (OK, well maybe that is a little harsh on Zoltan Kodaly). In fact, outside of some chap by the name of Franz Lizst, probably the three most famous Hungarian composers of all time. Except that European history being what it is all three of them were actually born in Romania, in its various incarnations. But their shared musical heritage, rooted to various degrees in folk music, is defiantly and definitely Hungarian. To perform the music, a Spanish quartet, albeit one with great affinity with the repertoire, and a Serbian pianist, though again one with proven expertise in all three composers.

A confession. I missed the first concert. Late-ish flight back the previous evening (Bologna since you ask – not humble-bragging but the Tourist highly recommends La Dotta/Grassa/Rossa, as well as nearby Ferrara and Ravenna. Be thankful he hasn’t the energy to start blogging on these trips or the vanity to Instagram). Anyway a bit tired to get to the Barbican by 11am so the first 5 parts of Ligeti’s Musica ricercata were missed, as were various excerpts from Kurtag’s Jatekok piano works, his 12 Microludes and Bartok’s String Quartet no 1. Most annoying (to miss) in retrospect were the Microludes, 12 tiny string quartet pieces in homage to Kurtag’s mate Mihaly Andras. Still, no worries, as, on the strength of Six moments musicaux, which was Kurtag’s fourth string quartet, I have a CD of his entire output for the form winging its way to me.

For I was very taken with Six moments musicaux, a title lifted from Schubert (and Rachmaninov). Written in 2005 the, er, six short pieces differ in character both between, and within, themselves. All are, as is characteristic with GK, very short. The first, Invocatio has loud, hard rhythms, an announcement, encasing a pianissimo melody and a chorale. Footfalls is a slow, broken waltz, the title taken from a late Beckett play. Then a Capriccio, a duel with obstinate lines and then a memoriam, a sort of passacaglia dedicated to Hungarian pianist George Sebak. This, like the finale, was based on two of the Jatekok piano pieces. The finale, titled Les Adieux, tilts at Beethoven but is subtitled in the manner of Janacek and is a lament of sorts. The penultimate is a “study in harmonics” based on birdsong a la Messaien.

George Kurtag was notoriously slow to get in to his compositional stride, writing just 9 small-scale works in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973 though he was commissioned to write some children’s piano pieces, which became the first 4 volumes of Jatokek (“Games”), and since then he hasn’t stopped, and there are now several hundred of these piano pieces alongside all his other work. All tiny, for solo or duo piano, their titles range across ideas, emotions, images, dedications, gestures, and together these fragments encompass the range of his musical imagination. If I am honest, even with the love and care lavished on them by Tamara Stefanovich, the combined effect was a bit stupefying, not in a bad way, just that, in the absence of titles or breaks, it was tricky to keep up. I will need to revisit.

Indeed I will need to explore all of GK’s oeuvre. The idea of reducing music to fragments appeals (Flowers We Are, Mere Flowers, from the eighth volume of Jatokek, is just 7 notes long), but, based on these pieces, this is music with emotional heft despite its brevity, and not just an academic exercise. GK (pictured above) is an expert teacher, especially in chamber music, and the echoes of his own favourites, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Webern and, of course, Bartok are easy to pick out. Of course it helps that GK adores the music of his friend and mentor Gyorgy Ligeti, who similarly, though I would contend, at a somewhat more elevated level, was to take the language and structure of music and turn it into something truly astounding. GK is still with us, now 93, though he was a little frail to attend the premiere of his opera, Fin de partie at La Scala last November, which is based on Beckett’s Endgame (which Ligeti first introduced him to).

In these two concerts we were treated to Tamara Stefanovich’s rendition of a handful of the Etudes (2, 8, 11, 3, 5, 15 and 10) and the second half of the Musica ricercata. The Etudes proved a fertile laboratory for Ligeti’s genius, mixing his early affinity for Hungarian folk sounds, (following in the footsteps of Bartok), his love of Debussy’s re-invention of piano music and purpose, his experiments with fractal patterns, his investigation of non-Western tonality and his fascination with Conlon Nancarrow’s complex cross-rhythms. Most of the etudes involve some, albeit very different variation on each hand playing at different speeds. If you have never heard, or claim never to want to hear, any “modern” classic music listen to the Etudes. You will change your mind. Guaranteed.

TS is a powerful advocate for the work, maybe not quite as powerful as her friend and collaborator, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who performed the Etudes in their entirety last year at the QEH Ligeti weekender, but brings more Debussyian grace. Musica ricercata is more rule-based composition, not serialist, but a suite intended to progress from just two notes to a full-blown High Baroque fugue. It was written in the early 1950’s in Budapest, where it could not be played given the Soviet musical mindset, and, when GL moved to the West he saw it as too simple, until 1969 when the adventure of Boulez and Stockhausen was no longer de rigeur. I am still listening and learning, (some helpful programme notes here courtesy of Paul Griffiths), so can’t explain the music musically as it were, but, like the Etudes I know I like it. A few more years and I might even understand these works.

The highlight of the day though was Ligeti’s First String Quartet however, “Metamorphoses nocturnes”. The Ligeti quartets are putting ever more frequent appearances in the quartet repertoire and the Casals turned in an excellent rendition, near matching the Arditti recording I have. GL took this early piece with him when he left Hungary in 1956 after the Soviet crackdown, and it was premiered in Vienna in 1958. However, like the Musica ricercata, it was deemed a little too “prehistoric” in Ligeti’s words, to warrant dispersion, until its first recording in the 1970s. By then the world was ripe for the interplay of the folk rhythms and trademark Ligetian polyphony, colours and enquiry. The eight sections generate a variety of moods, atmospheric, macabre, dance, humour, with a motif, G-A-G sharp-A sharp, threaded throughout. It is brilliant.

What to do with Bela Bartok? It seems that every time I hear a performance of Bartok’s work, whether orchestral, chamber or solo, (or choral as with Cantata profana performed recently by the LSO, alongside Ligeti’s Lontano), that gets the juices flowing, it is immediately followed by a performance that perplexes. Here the String Quartet No 3, which to be fair I have heard a few times before courtesy of the Emerson recording, challenged and fascinated, whereas the piano pieces, the 14 Bagatelles and Three Burlesques just confused me. Oh well, I guess I just keep trying.

Now sometimes these “immersive” days can feel a bit cobbled together. Not here though as creative director Gerard McBurney introduced each piece with appropriate extracts from the writings of the composers themselves, reinforcing the links between them and their homeland, and the words of contemporary poets, such as Endre Ady and Attila Joszef, in Hungarian as well as translated. Moreover the video backdrop created by Amelia Kosminsky, a mature final year student at the Guildhall, was stunning. She had discovered a treasure trove of amateur monochrome photographs from Hungary throughout the C20, the Fortepan archive, which she combined superbly to match music and text. If I am honest sometimes these designs can just be bloody distracting. Not here though.

Glass and Reich: LSO at the Barbican review ***

Divine Geometry: London Symphony Orchestra, Kristjan Jarvi, Simone Dinnerstein (piano)

Barbican Hall, 29th November 2018

  • Charles Coleman – Drenched
  • Charles Coleman – Bach Inspired
  • Philip Glass – Piano Concerto No 3
  • Kristjan Jarvi – Too Hot to Handel
  • Steve Reich – Music for Ensemble and Orchestra

Funny one this. As part of our project to embrace the classics of minimalism the Tourist, MSBD and MSBDB schlepped off to the Barbican. Primarily to hear the new(wish) Reich piece in its UK premiere, and to catch up with the Glass, similarly making its UK debut. Didn’t really have a Scooby about the other pieces I am afraid.

Now somewhere in Estonia, (actually it relocated to the US) there is a factory which produces conductors. It is family owned and goes by the name of Jarvi and Sons, (in Estonian obvs). For Kristjan, along with older brother Paavo, is son to the veteran, and oft recorded, conductor Neeme. Sister Maarika plays the flute though I have no doubt she too is a dab hand with a baton.

Anyway young Kristjan, who has the gig as the AD of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic which he founded, sees himself as a bit of a musical chameleon and genre-buster. Having got his hands on the LSO again he wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to showcase one of his own works, Too Hot To Handel, nor a couple from his mate Charles Coleman. Drenched takes Handel’s Water Music as its starting point, and Bach Inspired, er, a string-only snatch from the Mighty One’s Well-Tempered Clavier and his “Nun common Der Heiden Helland” chorale, plus a couple of his own movements. Too Hot …. you can work out for yourself. Suffice to say it has pretty much undigested chunks of GF’s Concerto grossi mashed up with KJ’s own Stravinskian, post-minimalism, as well as a lot of running around for the LSO’s three percussionists, Neil Percy, Sam Walton and Jake Brown, and a starring role for Chris Hill on bass guitar (I kid you not).

Worshipping at the altar of the Baroque Gods and drawing the parallels with the Minimalists is self evidently “a good idea” but always better done with the C17 and C18 originals. These pastiches, whilst certainly not dull, and played with gusto by the LSO, ended up as classic classical “classic rock” if you get my drift. Not quite Smashie and Nicey, but skirting awfully close. The Coleman pieces, especially Bach Inspired had a bit more heterogenous invention, and wit, about them but even so it was all a bit weird to be honest. At near 40 minutes and over 13 movements, Jarvi’s own work I am afraid outstayed its welcome, was shown the door but still came back again.

As for the main events, well the Piano Concerto No 3 was a little too close to the pleasant warm waves of swirling arpeggios that Philip Glass can presumably churn out in his sleep and the Steve Reich piece was, guess what, just amazing.

The Concerto was written for this evening’s soloist Simone Dinnerstein and premiered in Boston in 2017. Glass, now 81, has moved a long way from the “hard-core” rhythmic minimalism (“repetitive processes” in his argot) of the 1960s and 1970s. His music now is much more melodic, chromatic, even romantic. When he composes for piano, as with the three concertos, the lovely Etudes and Metamorphosis and the film music transcriptions, he is a right old softie and gets all emotional. It can be moving and occasionally stirring stuff but it is mostly like being immersed in a nice warm metaphorical bath with Brahms and Rachmaninov.

You could be forgiven for thinking popular art-house film soundtracks, which have been, after all, a fair contributor to the old boy’s estate in the last few decades. And one of the reasons, perhaps along with his generosity in collaboration, why his music has been so influential. In fact it is pretty difficult to think of another composer of music in the second half of the C20, and into this millennium, his musical ideas have been quite so pervasive. It will be interesting to see whether Glass’s legacy, like much of post-modernist culture, survives. Whilst love for Schubert, another compositional production line, who I suspect Glass would most liked to be identified with, has pretty much continued to increase year in, year out since his early death, other comparable piece-work composers from the Baroque itself, Bach say, or Vivaldi, spent hundreds of years being ignored. Mind you in the age of digital junk it will be hard to forgot anything ever.

Yet amidst all the familiarity Glass is still capable of surprises and here it comes in the final movement, which is simplicity itself, being a homage of sorts to Arvo Part, he of the “holy minimalism”, with a simple, chiming melody over a bass drone. The introspective concerto, which is essentially three slow to medium paced movements, begins with soft oscillating chords against a processional base-line, which drifts in and out of the similarly paced orchestra. Crotchets become quavers then triplets, rising to a swell and then subsiding. The second chaconne-ish movement is all repeated arpeggios which ends with the unflashiest of cadenzas.

As its dedicatee, and given she is an acknowledged interpreter of Glass’s music, Ms Dinnerstein, who is what you might call a “self-made” performer, more in line with the You Tube pop generation, was unsurprisingly accomplished in her playing, technique, emotion and understanding all present and correct, and if it didn’t wow then that is more the fault of the music than her or the LSO strings. She encored with a Glass Etude. I would have liked more of those.

In less than a month’s time Philip Glass’s 12th Symphony will be premiered in LA under the baton of fellow “minimalist” grandee John Adams. You can’t fault his work ethic.

Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, premiered earlier this year in NYC, is Steve Reich’s first large scale orchestral work for 30 years, following The Four Sections in 1987. Reich is of course as much performer as composer and his ostensible reason for avoiding the orchestra genre was that performers were not really up to the task. Fair enough, but, as he admits, that is no longer true as there are now orchestral players, notably percussionists, but also specialists in the other sections, as well as the latest generation of conductors, who are more than up to the task, and who love and relish the challenge of creating his stunning sound-world. Mr Reich is a year older than his peer Mr Glass but they are chalk and cheese when it comes to productivity, as well as, despite the “minimalist” label, musical style.

SR can go a couple of years without a new piece. This is is no way a criticism for when they do arrive his compositions continue to be works of staggering genius. This, of course, assumes you are predisposed to his marrying of pulse, rhythm and process. Here he has contrasted an “ensemble”, lead strings, principal woodwinds, tuned pianos, vibraphones and keyboards, with an “orchestra” which adds a full string section and brass, in the form of four trumpets, to that ensemble.

The work is made up of five sections/movements, in typical Reich style simply numbered 1 to 5, which together form a Bartokian arch. the tempo is fixed across the sections but the speed varies according to note value: 16ths, 8ths, quarters, then 8ths and 16ths again. The key similarly changes across the movements, a minor third each time, from A to C to E flat to F sharp and back to A. All this remains moreorless gobbledygook to the Tourist but I reckon, as and when a recording appears, the structure that can be felt on first listening, will be understood by this musical dummy after repeated exposure. That is the big picture: second by second though it is the magical intricacy of melodic fragments repeated, echoed, chased and overlapped by different paired members of the ensemble with the rhythmic backbone provided by the rest of the orchestra. A Concerto grossi to match Handel though maybe not quite the Daddy of the form, Corelli.

Mr Jarvi, who likes a lively workout on the rostrum, seemed to have the measure of the piece, though I wouldn’t mind hearing the LSO take it on again under, say, their Conductor the Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas. He is, after all, the expert on great American music of the C20 and there was, I’ll warrant, a Coplandian/Ivesian twinkle in some of Reich’s invention. I see he will be premiering it in San Francisco next year as it revolves around the remaining or the six orchestras that co-commissioned it.

Ligeti, Bartok and Haydn choral works at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Francois-Xavier Roth (conductor), Camilla Tilling, Adele Charvet, Julien Behr, Christopher Purves, William Thomas

Barbican Hall, 11th November 2018

  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Lontano
  • Bela Bartok – Cantata profana
  • Haydn – Nelson Mass

Three composers I like. Three works I did not know. A slightly earlier start. A fine end to a fine day.

When I say I don’t know Liget’s Lontano that isn’t strictly true. In fact, even if you are a Ligeti virgin, there is a fair chance you have heard Lontano. For this is the music famously used to signify Jack Nicholson’s descent into full-on barking psychomania in The Shining film. Lontano, along with Atmospheres, is therefore still probably Ligeti’s most famous work, even though, in the five decades that followed their composition, GL went on to explore many other styles and musical ideas. 

Lontano, in Italian, means “far away” or “distant” as a performance instruction which about sums it up. For this is as “other worldly” as it gets, from a composer synonymous with the term. It is built up from layers of very quiet sound, initially cellos and flutes, from the smallish orchestra. These lines move in different tempos and to different rhythms but they combine, legato, to create Ligeti’s trademark micropolyphony. The crystallisation of these sounds brings out sustained, but shifting, harmonies that are very different from traditional or atonal composition but the overall effect is ravishing. And something for which horror and sci-fi film composers ever since should be eternally grateful. It is eerie, mysterious but utterly compelling. Take the bit where the high violins, barely audible, pulse against the throb of the low brass and wind. Given the score doesn’t really offer any metre as such Francois-Xavier Roth could only really prompt the orchestra. No matter. All the LSO had to do was trust Ligeti’s ear and F-XR’s experience with the piece. How GL knew all of his innovations, not just in these micropolyphonic pieces, would work is an utter mystery to me. Genius.

It was performed by the National Youth Orchestra at this years Proms so its a fairly frequent concert hall visitor. Don’t let it pass you by. 

Bartok’s Cantata profana, which was published in 1930, rarely gets an outing. Lasting only 20 minutes yet still requiring a full chorus and orchestra as well as a bass, (here William Thomas standing in for the indisposed Matthew Rose), and a very challenging high tenor part which pushed Julien Behr close to his limit. It is based on a slightly creepy, coming of age, folk ballad about nine brothers who go out hunting, turn into stags, (which I hope is a rare occurrence even in Transylvania), and then refuse to come home when Father asks them. Heady stuff which Bartok pitches somewhere between his more overtly derived folk driven orchestration and the lusher sound-world of his earlier stage works. The LS Chorus seemed entirely at home with the tricky Hungarian idiom of the text and the awkward contrapuntal textures of Bartok’s score, which divides into 8 parts in the second of the three movements..

That’s the thing with Bartok. It normally takes a few listens for me to get the gist of his music. Like Prokofiev I know there is something there worth working on but it doesn’t always reel me in immediately. I can’t always grasp the line and architecture of the whole work but the rhythms and melodies individually are often arresting. I have more work to do on the popular orchestral pieces, am close to cracking the string quartets, think the solo piano collections are fascinating and would love to see Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The piano concertos and the rest of his chamber music are bit of mystery. Whether Cantata profana on this listening will be added to the to do list is a moot point. 

As an aside if you want a quick burst of Romanian folk filtered through an orchestral lens, look no further than the Concert Romanesc. By none other than Ligeti. A perfect pastiche of a C19 nationalist Romantic tribute. It is really hard to believe this is the same composer as Lontano. 

Not knowing the Nelson Mass, as with any Haydn piece, is no handicap. It’s a mass, sung in Latin, so that’s the text nailed down, it is a relatively small orchestra, (just 4 double basses in the strings, trumpets, timpani and a small pipe-organ here played by Bernard Robertson), and, as usual, Papa keeps his textures homophonic and easy to follow. The Gloria ends with a mighty fugue and the Credo kicks off with an extended canon. What’s not to like? That is not to say it isn’t without drama, the LS Chorus letting fly in the Kyrie and Gloria. Julien Behr was persuasive, as was replacement bass, the ever excellent Christopher Purves. Mozart specialist Camilla Tilling’s soprano lost a little of its silky subtlety though newcomer Adele Charvet’s mezzo more than held its own. Even so there might have been a case for reigning in the 130 strong Chorus a little to offer a little light and shade. 

The Nelson Mass is the third of six that Haydn composed between 1796 and 1802, appearing just after The Creation in 1798. He titled it Missa in Angustiis, “Mass in difficult circumstances”, a reference to Napoleon’s march across Europe. There is a martial quality about some of the music, in the Kyrie and Benedictus for example, but, as usual Haydn can’t suppress his jolly nature throughout. As it happens a few days before its first performance Admiral Nelson (there he is above) secured a famous victory against the French fleet at Aboukir. A couple of years later Nelson went to visit the Esterhazy court and this was performed for him; hence the nickname. 

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. 

Twentieth Century Masters: LSO at the Barbican review ****

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London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, Isabelle Faust

Barbican Hall, 14th January 2018

  • Janacek – Overture: From the House of the Dead
  • Elliott Carter – Instances
  • Berg – Violin Concerto
  • Bartok – Concerto for Orchestra

Back to the Barbican for another round with Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO, though this was more familiar ground (for me) compared to the previous outing (Rameau to Mahler: LSO at the Barbican review ***) a few days earlier. And back to my more usual perch. Once again the Hall was pretty much full to the rafters, and, encouragingly, it looked liked a very youthful audience. (Or I am ageing more rapidly than I thought). Anyway, on the subject of age, the thread here was orchestral works written near the end of their lives by these four very different composers. All of which gave a chance for the whole orchestra to shine.

Now the main draw for me here was Isabelle Faust. I think she is probably the best current violinist in the world. Mind you, as is my wont, I have gone all hyperbolic in this claim with little evidence to back this up. So, more exactly, the best violinist I have heard in the past couple of years, based on recordings and her Bach outing last year at the Wigmore Hall (Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin at the Wigmore Hall review *****).

As it happens I saw a fine rendition of the Berg Violin Concerto performed by another favourite violinist in the elfin form of Patricia Kopatchinskaja last year at the RFH with the LPO under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. And I recently invested in the benchmark Levine/Mutter recording, (even though I am not entirely convinced by Ms Mutter). Now I am not going to pretend that listening to Berg comes easily to me, but even I can hear that there is a rich depth in his works from the combination of passion, intelligence, serial technique and romanticism, that rewards persistence. I rashly signed up for a performance of Wozzeck at the Frankfurt Oper a couple of years ago in German with German sub-titles (FYI I don’t speak German). Unforgivably I bought the cheapest ticket up in the gods. It is a wonderful auditorium but I could only see half the stage. That was still enough to be transfixed by an outstanding production. But most of all it meant I had no choice but to get lost in the score. Stunning. Add to this the Lulu in 2016 at the ENO directed by William Kentridge, which I confess was beyond me in parts, but was visually spectacular, and I am now well on the road to Bergian conversion. Mind you, what with his long(ish) musical education under Schoenberg, the proscription of his music under the Nazis and his early death, aged 50, after a bizarre insect biting incident, there isn’t too much composition to get your head around.

Now this Violin Concerto isn’t like others in the canon. It’s tricky for sure, and asks a lot of the soloist, but it isn’t showy. Orchestra and soloist have to mesh together. It is pretty much the last piece Berg wrote and is dedicated to the memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma (Mahler’s widow) and Walter Gropius (Bauhaus founder), who died from polio at 18. Apparently she was a captivating young woman in the manner of her mother.

The two movements are each split into two parts and with the waltz emerging from the material set out in the first movement, and the chorale emerging from the more rhythmic, almost cadenza, in the second movement. This the tempo is reversed in each. I can sort of pick out the established musical structures from within the twelve tone architecture but couldn’t tell you exactly what was going on. Suffice to say this is a dark, brooding, self-absorbed piece for the violinist and Ms Faust seemed to capture this utterly. She seemed lost in music, caught in a trap, to paraphrase Philly’s finest sisters, There are times when the whole edifice becomes just that bit self indulgent but this is where Sir SR’s insistence on picking out the orchestral instrumentation pays dividends. I hadn’t realised how detailed are the parts for harp, clarinet, viola, flute and trumpet were in this piece. I do now.

Which brings me to the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Now this is a piece written with the express intention of letting everyone in the band have a solo, like some prog-rock group in its 1970s pomp, It is an obvious, but still inspired, choice to present to an audience in a first season, and, I would hazard a guess, if you are engaged in a bit of musical team-building. I have Rattle’s first, (I think), stab at this when he was a younger at the CBSO, (though the bargain basement Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra version tops it). Anyway Sir Simon knows his way around it, and it brilliantly matches his predilection for coloration and deliberation.

I am not going to lie. It blew my socks off. There is just so much to listen to here. The first movement strings and brass, coming out of the undergrowth, with the woodwind, led by a solo oboe, getting their turn in the spotlight. The wonderful second movement scherzo with its contrasting intervals, an eerie disco. Next up an Elegia, exactly as it says, with the strings swirling around and up to be met by bold brass chords and a piccolo sticking its little nose in. The second scherzo quotes, mocks and, ultimately, compliments Shostakovich with tuba and harps getting involved, and the final movement works in classic Bartok folky stuff with a gallop to a rousing chorale at the conclusion.

I reckon we won’t have seen the last of this piece, or of Bartok, from Sir Simon and the LSO and it can probably get even better from here. Hopefully too we will see him rework some of his other C20 repertoire. Some more Stravinsky for sure, but I’d loved to hear his latest takes on Britten’s music for orchestra and, please, some, no all, of the Nielsen symphonies.

Anyway the other two pieces in this concert were tried and trusted composers for Sir Simon, Janacek’s Overture From the House of the Dead didn’t quite get the pulse racing in the way the Bartok did, but still suggested what the LSO is heading towards. (I see the House of the Dead will see a new production at the Royal Opera House in the forthcoming season. That has contemporary relevance written all over it). Sir Simon has always championed Elliott Carter and I can see why. This was another of those short, but inventive, comedy pieces that Carter was turning out in his musically fecund 90s and even into his 100s, but it has a strangely, moving ending.

Can’t wait to see what the Scouse Gandalf will programme with his band for the forthcoming season. Hopefully not too much Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius please.