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

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.

Handel’s Messiah at the Barbican review ****

Britten Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia Voices

Handel’s Messiah, Barbican Hall, 19th December 2018

Jacqueline Shave (violin/director), Sophie Bevan (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Allen Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone)

Christmas on the way. Full house at the Barbican. MSBD as wingman. Messiah. A quartet of outstanding soloists. The Britten Sinfonia Voices. The Britten Sinfonia. And the very wonderful Jacqueline Shave leading the band.

It is of course impossible not to delight in the Messiah. At least that is the received wisdom. Yet, like so much Handel, I was worried it might, well, go on a bit. For this my friends was amazingly the first ever time I had seen and heard a live performance, Which given its Baroque lineage, its status as a Christmas fixture and its frequency of performance, especially by amateur choirs, is something of a surprise even to me. I suspect its appeal to a certain sort of Englishman (and woman), of which there were plenty on show at this performance, explains part of my reticence. The type that stands for the Hallelujah chorus, showing up our shared sheepish enthusiasm for imagined tradition. (And look what a mess that has got us into). It might also be my fear (not too strong a word) of really large scale choral performance. You know, where it all just becomes and aural blur.

So I figured the best way to get over this likely unfounded prejudice was to see an appropriately scaled performance, from an orchestra, choir and soloists at the top of their game, and in the company of MSBD, whose enthusiasm and all round gracious affability knows no bounds.

Well I can report that divvying up the Christ story (with the lead actor written out as it happens) into three sections and loads of parts (I think 54 in total), arias, recitative and chorus, plus the overture and pastoral symphony instrumental, makes for a much lighter affair, with more contrast and texture, than I had expected. Of course you will already know that no doubt, but for the uninitiated, this HIP style of performance, on modern instruments, is definitely the way in. You are probably familiar with the big numbers, the aforementioned Hallelujah chorus (we are suckers for anything fugal), “I know that my redeemer liveth” for soprano, “The trumpet shall sound for bass” as well as the choruses “Surely he hath borne our grief”, “Worthy is the Lamb” and the final Amen with its OTT dramatic pause before the end. Yet to be fair to old GFH is is rammed with good tunes. Pretty much throughout.

GFH never had a problem finding good tunes. he just had a bit of a problem in stopping them. At least that is my limited experience of the operas. other oratorios and assorted vocal extracts I have heard. And it wasn’t just in the vocal music. Those organ concerti can grind on a bit. I prefer those works when the format keeps it short, sweet and long on variation. The Concerti Grossi, bits of the Latin music and some of the trio sonatas. But frankly the old boy churned out, and recycled, so much stuff that I reckon, like your man Vivaldi, it is impossible to really know where you are in any of it, so best to just let it flow.

Messiah benefits from the fact that GFH only had 24 days to turn it around. I don’t hold with all that “genius in direct group chat with God” theory of inspiration, though I can see why the original 700 strong audience at the Musick Hall in Dublin (there it is above), might have felt that way. Sometimes, whatever your skill, you are just on it. And he certainly was here. Though infamously his librettist, who sort of commissioned him, Charles Jennens, didn’t think that much of his score. Bit rich coming from a man whose text, cobbled together from bits of the St James’s Bible and Coverdale Salter, is the very definition of fruity and defiantly non-linear (though to be fair this gave GFH a chance to properly ham up his own music). Anyway the fact that GFH had to take the rich outpouring of ideas and get them down without overworking or extending them was to his, and ultimately our, advantage. And for once he didn’t, or couldn’t, nick tunes from other composers, as he was wont to do. No shame in doing that then as there isn’t now.

Of course Messiah is just an opera without sets or costumes. With a plot we likely know inside out. By 1742 GFH’s actual operas were out of fashion. The public who now turned up and paid to hear music couldn’t be doing with this expensive and drawn out entertainment. (My theory is that the royals and aristos who generally funded opera and similar such entertainments in the C17 were, like the rich have done since time immemorial, mostly just showing off and couldn’t be arsed to watch what they paid for). So the resourceful Handel yet again, a few decades late, simply nicked an idea from Italy, fitted his music to English and served it up to us Protestant Brits (and the Irish) under our then German ruler. Interesting that Jennens became GFH’s bessie and advocate, publishing all his later scores, as he originally opposed the Act of Settlement that brought the Hanoverian line to England.

And he didn’t just nick the idea of the oratorio from Italy. Some of the tunes here are lifted from Italian madrigals that he had previously written, which, together with Jenner’s eclectic libretto, explains why it doesn’t really feel that sacred. And that ultimately is its genius and what probably explains its enduring appeal.

I have said before that the Britten Sinfonia is on the way to being my favourite band, probably because of the repertoire they tackle but also because their ethos, no principal conductor or director, means they can’t. and won’t, get away with just dialling in a performance or grumpily going through the motions with a parachuted in conductor. I get the impression they choose who they work with, and what they work on. And if, as here under Jacqueline Shave, the leadership comes from one of their own, then so much the better. This means the energy they bring to performance, the direct connection with the audience and the texture they create through interpretation is second to none. Now having a professional choir of the calibre of the BS Voices under Eamonn Dougan has opened up even more opportunities.

Now GFH’s original manuscript score is for 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, and basso continuo (cello, double bass, and harpsichord). The might have proved just a little too hair-shirt for the Barbican Hall so on this evening the BS sported the bassoon of Sarah Burnett, another cello alongside Catherine Dearnley, and another viola alongside Clare Finnimore, and a full 13 violins. Which is still, given the standard Baroque practice leaving later copyists to specify the appropriate instrumentation, as perfectly minimal a band as the work requires. With the 21 strong choir we were treated to absolute clarity with none of the blaring out using huge orchestras and choirs that started at the end of the C18 and continued through the C19. Apparently in 1857 at the Crystal Palace there was a performance with an orchestra 500 strong and a chorus of 2000. And that was not the record. Nuts.

For the bizarre thing is that the beauty of GFH’s invention lies in its restraint. His tunes are always pretty simple to understand, that is what makes them wonderful, and Messiah has a conveyor belt of terrific ideas. But GFH doesn’t feel the need to overdo with the orchestra, often surprisingly spare, and holding back, for example the trumpets and timpani until near the end. The music thus fits the text like a glove and the absence of a defining tonal scheme means that GFH can go where he will with the key to match the “emotion” in the words.

Having the soloists at either side of the stage, walking to the centre for their turns, was at first a little distracting but the payoff, each singer able to “tell”their part of the story and allowing us to focus solely on them and their voices, quickly became apparent. Now I am not smart enough to work out why, in choral works, any particular soloist is more convincing than another, it is a gut feeling, but normally there are one o0f two that stand out. Not here though. All four genuinely wowed. I remember Sophie Bevan from her performance in The Exterminating Angel. Here she had lifted time in the spotlight (not literally, this isn’t Broadway) but the was sublime. I could listen to Iestyn Davies’s countertenor all day, which trust me a few decades ago is not a phrase I thought I would ever write. He probably gets the best of the Messiah arias but even so he didn’t rest easy, ramping up the emotion. Like Mr Davies, I had heard Roderick Williams rich and dramatic baritone pretty recently, in the ENO War Requiem. Wonderful. And hearing the phrasing and virtuosity of Allen Clayton in this, rather than the recent LSO Spring Symphony, which I didn’t really get on with, was a joy.

So, I admit, I get it. Britten Sinfonia under Stephen Layton with Polyphony and two of these soloists now on order.

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

beethoven_sym_6_script

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

Barbican Hall, 22nd and 24th May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Coraline at the Barbican Theatre review ****

coraline

Coraline

Barbican Theatre, 7th April 2018

Was I the only person in the audience who knew nothing about Neil Gaiman’s 2003 cult children’s fantasy novella from whence came Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Coraline? It certainly felt like it. To be fair the provenance had dawned on me some time before the performance, but when I booked my perch it was the composer which drew me in not the subject. I guess if I had known more I might not have taken the plunge for fear of feeling a bit odd amongst this very youthful, in parts, audience. I am glad ignorance prevailed for I can report that this was a very fine entertainment indeed.

Music first. It isn’t MAT’s most inventive composition that is true though there are more than enough surprises to hold the attention of the musicophile. What it does do is fit Rory Mullarkey’s bracingly direct libretto, and Mr Gaiman’s pleasingly dark fable like the proverbial glove. It is through-composed, retaining MAT’s trademark spiky, jazzy, Stravinskian, often dissonant, tonality, with very little accommodation to its intended audience. Yet the musical ideas are plain enough even to the untutored ear (including mine). Our ageing actresses singing across the melody in their big number, their waltzes shifting to tangoes as we jump the house “divide”, the mouse orchestra, the close harmonies when ghosts are abroad and the way the Mother’s music darkens as we move from Good to Bad. Sian Edwards is an outstanding advocate of smaller scale new opera music, (she conducted the premiere of MAT’s debut opera Greek). The  Britten Sinfonia are about the best advocates of new music in this country. Put them together and the results are unsurprisingly sublime, bringing life to the score even when it flagged a touch. And Britten, whose Noye’s Fludde might be the best opera involving children because it, er, involves a lot of children, feels like he was an influence here.

Coraline, sung on this occasion by Robyn Allegra Parton, is a bolshie tween, who has just moved in to a new home with overbearing Mum, Kitty Whately, and kindly, inventor Dad, Alexander Robin Baker. The neighbours, Mr Bobo (Harry Nicoll), and the Misses Spink (Gillian Keith) and Forcible (Frances McCafferty), are a bit odd to say the least. The former directs a mouse orchestra and the latter were one time, fruity thespians. The front room of the flat has a door; Coraline walks through it to discover …. a mirror image of the room and parents with sown-up eyes, and another mother bent on evil. You can guess the rest even if you don’t know it. And even if you can’t guess there are plenty of people who could tell you.

If I am honest the couple of hours ex-interval running time could have been squeezed down to 90 minutes straight through, though I guess this might have tested the patience of some of the younger members of the audience. I have to say the youngsters were impeccably behaved throughout, reflecting the quality of what they were seeing and hearing, and putting to shame many an older audience what with their coughs, fidgeting, phone screens and snacking. Having just wrestled with a couple of excitable nephew/nieces the prior weekend I can appreciate just how well-behaved this audience was.

I can see why Rory Mullarkey felt the need to labour the story with excess exposition to ensure everyone knew where we were, but there was the odd time when the recitative might have been condensed. This too might have focussed the ear more on the best of MAT’s invention, and the fine stagecraft marshalled under Aletta Collin’s direction. The magic in particular was a tad underwhelming. On the other hand Giles Cadle’s claustrophobic revolving set, at the front of the otherwise blacked-out cavernous Barbican Theatre stage, was a marvel

The cast though was terrific, especially Robyn Allegra Parton as our heroine, who has a lot of singing to get through, and Kitty Whately as Bad Mum/Good Mum. Apparently Ms Whately had a bit of a sore throat for this performance. Only just about audible and it certainly did not inhibit her performance in any way. I recently saw her Sesto in Giulio Cesare, where she also stood out. Even with my ropey ears I heard most every line, which I can’t always claim is the case when the RSC treads the boards here.

Now this is a fair distance from Mr Turnage’s shocking breakthrough opera Greek, based on Stephen Berkhoff’s play, in turn drawn from Sophocles’s tragedy, Oedipus Rex. To this day that remains one of the finest pieces of musical theatre I have ever witnessed, at the ENO in 1990. His last full length opera, Anna Nicole, wasn’t too kid friendly either. I have never seen The Silver Tassie, based on Sean O’Casey’s anti-war play, though there is a concert performance in the diary.

I see MAT has indicated he may call it a day on opera after some critical muppets have had a pop at the score for Coraline, berating its relative simplicity. That would be a great shame IMHO. There is no doubt the audience was thoroughly bowled over by MAT’s family opera, even if these critics, who presumably never were, or never had, kids, are too blinkered to appreciate its appeal.

I don’t doubt a fair few of these critics get off on the gross, uber-mensch, toddler fantasies of racist, anti-semite Richard Wagner. Hmmmm…..

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

 

Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall review *****

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Britten Sinfonia

Wigmore Hall, 24th January 2018

  • Heinrich Biber – Mystery Sonata No 1 “The Annunciation”
  • Philip Glass – Orbit
  • Leo Chadburn – Five Loops for the Bathyscaphe
  • Arvo Part – Spiegel am Spiegel
  • WA Mozart – Piano Trio No 3 K502

There is something of the spirit of punk about the Britten Sinfonia. They don’t have a principal conductor or director and play with pretty much who they like. They also play pretty much what they like with a refreshingly cavalier attitude to programming. I love them, whether it be a Bach St John Passion, electrifying accounts of the Beethoven symphonies under Thomas Ades, minimalist classics, Stravinsky, Ravel or contemporary British composers, all of which I have heard them perform in the last year or so.

So I was looking forward to this. Leo Chadburn’s new work Five Loops for Bathyscaphe, is scored for piano trio and electronics and runs for 10 minutes or so. So Jacqueline Shave (that’s her above), one of the violin leaders of the BS, Caroline Dearnley, the principal cello, and Huw Watkins, principal piano, had another 50 minutes or so to fill. What to choose? Mozart? Why not. After all his B flat minor trio is pretty much the first piano trio as we know the form, with all three instruments contributing rather than just a piano sonata with a bit of string diddling attached which previously defined the Classical form. And Arvo Part’s Speigel am Speigel? Yep, it’s a slam-dunk crowd-pleaser for violin and piano. But chucking in Philip Glass’s short piece, Orbit, for solo cello. And the first of Biber’s Mystery sonatas? Well as it turned out it all slotted together perfectly.

Now I have been unlucky in my endeavours to hear a performance of Biber’s Mystery, (or Rosary), sonatas for violin and continuo live. There are 15 of these chaps, divided into 3 cycles, Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious, plus a closing Passacaglia for solo violin. Each one takes as its subject one of the Catholic “rosary”episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary. They were likely written in 1676 but were unknown until 1905 ,and they are one of the earliest and best known examples of “scordatura”, where the violin is tuned in a way that is not standard. This permits all sorts of funky effects. Don’t test me on this but it is pretty straightforward even for a dumbass like me to hear the differences. One of the Vivaldi Op 9 Le Cetra concertos does this, Stravinsky does it at the start of the Firebird and Ligeti’s Violin Concerto is a prime example. Mind you Ligeti chucks so many effects into his concerto I am hard pressed to know where it is.

Biber tests the skill of the violinist to the max so it is a unlikely anyone was up to the job in the C17. What is on the page doesn’t correspond to what hits the ear. Don’t worry it doesn’t get too weird but it does create sounds, chords and harmonies with real drama. Now unfortunately we only got the first instalment here, which is the one which doesn’t arse about with the tuning, but it was still a blinder to open the concert with and Ms Shave delivered. It opens with a virtuoso figuration, being the Angel appearing before  our Mary, and them moves into a gentler sort of theme and variations.

The Glass “sonata” was new to me. The programme notes suggest Glass is referencing Bach’s mighty cello suites. He is. But then again anyone that writes a piece for solo cello is working in the shadow of the master. Even so lots of fancy figuration and double stopping does conjure up Bach’s counterpoint and Glass’s ordered repetitions are redolent of JSB’s own structures. Ms Dearnley is at home here as she is in the Baroque.

Now I have listened to, and seen performed, Part’s Speigel am Speigel, more times than I care to remember. It is one of my favourite pieces of music period. Which probably shows how easily pleased I am. This was one of his first “tintinnabuli” works, along with Fur Alina, from 1978, and it is “minimal” even by his standards. Simple arpeggios in piano and rising, then falling, scales from violin. If you are ever too worked up about anything just pop this on. Hey presto, blood pressure plummets. Now Ms Shave and Mr Watkins seemed to take this at a marginally faster tempo than I am used to, (it is all relative as not much happens), and took a minute of two to get in the groove, but once there it was as good a performance as you will hear.

I tried with the Mozart. Honestly. If I switch off and let it drift around and through me then it is pleasant enough but I still don’t really get it. Just too nice. Obviously there are bits of Mozart, and times when I listen to it, like watching a great Figaro, where it lifts me up and takes me away, but this wasn’t one of them.

Which brings me to the Leo Chadburn premiere, co-commissioned by the BS and Wigmore. I knew nothing about Mr Chadburn but I gather he is one of these new brand of musician/composer who doesn’t give a fig for established boundaries. He writes and performs across genres, releasing three synthpop albums a few years ago as alter ego Simon Bookish, and remixing for the likes of Grizzly Bear. He can certainly sing a bit I gather. This piece takes the classic piano trio instrumentation and hooks in pre-recorded voices from himself and Gemma Sanders, and some sparse electronica. It graphically describes the journey on 23rd January 1963 of oceanographers Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh to the bottom of the ocean. Eleven kms down to be exact in the Mariana trench, in that little ball Bathyscaphe Trieste thing. The idea of the piece is to create a sense of motionlessness in the music, deep and watery I guess, and allow the voices and words to tell the story. It succeeds admirably. There is nothing to scare anyone off in this simple but very effective sound-world. Think eerie harmonics from the strings and muffled chords from both ends of the range for the piano, as well as some theatrical plucking from inside the piano. The whole thing grips from first to last. It deserves a much wider audience. I am sure Mr Chadburn knows how to make that happen.

This whole concert was a joy. Music for everyone. Even if they know absolutely f*ck all about any of it. Still I suppose if they all prefer listening to a little ginger chap who has the temerity to suggest he is the next Van Morrison, then who am I to argue. Just seems a shame. Still that’s your pesky, high/low culture divide in late neo-liberal, capitalist society for you.