Peter Wispelwey (cellist) at Kings Place review ****

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Peter Wispelwey, cello

Cello Unwrapped: Bach Through Time Concert III. Kings Place Hall 1, 8th December 2017

  • JS Bach – Cello Suite No 1 in G, BWV 1007
  • Benjamin Britten – Cello Suite No 3, Op 87
  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Sonata for solo cello
  • JS Bach – Cello Suite No 3 in C, BWV 1009

If I had to pick my favourite venue in London for classical music it would probably be King’s Place. The design is lovely. The acoustic is perfect, especially upstairs. The welcome is warm. (I lost a book there once. They found the book and then they found me). The programming is interesting. In particular the year long seasons which artfully pull together chamber music across a genre or theme. This year, Cello Unwrapped; in the last couple of years, the Baroque and Minimalism. Next year, Time Unwrapped, a more ambitious conceit which is chock full of interesting programmes. To be fair it has helped that the last three years have focussed on particular favourites of mine in terms of period and instrument but, even so, I heartily recommend Kings Place to anyone who isn’t already a regular. Bear in mind too that I am only really a consumer of the classical events: there is plenty of other stuff, music, comedy, spoken word, going on there as well. Finally they make a decent cup of tea in the caff upstairs, the loos are spotless, and there is usually some free art to soak in before, after or during the interval. And, in the summer, there is a pleasant saunter available along the canal.

Now I appreciate that the very best chamber music is likely to be found elsewhere in London, specifically the Wigmore Hall. The Wigmore certainly has its charms, but the legroom isn’t up to much and, if you intend to spend a fair time in her formidable company, you had better get used to seeing the back of other peoples’ heads. I am partial to Cadogan Hall but the repertoire is mostly orchestral and requires careful sifting. St John’s Smith Square delivers some stirring stuff for Early Music, Baroque and Contemporary enthusiasts like the Tourist but there is no hiding the fact that it is a Church, atmosphere therefore trumping sound and comfort. Mind you it is a beautiful lump of Baroque, fancy enough to satisfy, but not so fancy as to make one queasy. Thomas Archer’s buildings have taken a bit of a hammering in London, (go see St Paul’s Deptford if you don’t believe me), so it is good that this, maybe his best, looks so perky. I am also very, very partial to Milton Court Concert Hall, largely for the same reasons as Kings Place, and St Luke’s Old Street, where the interior has been brilliantly re-crafted by architects Levitt Bernstein. But, in both cases, the number of concerts which match the Tourist’s tastes, is constrained.

I digress. It was the programme here that attracted me as I confess no knowledge of Ms Wispelwey before this evening. Bach obvs, it being impossible to hear the cello suites too many times in a lifetime, but also the Britten which echoes old JSB, and the Ligeti, which, in its own way, is also an homage to the old boy. Ligeti is rapidly becoming my favourite mid/late C20 Modernist. It’s great this “finding out about new music” lark.

Apparently Britten intended to emulate Bach and compose six cello suites but this, unfortunately, was the last, written in 1972. His last operas, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice, and then his failing heart, got in the way. Shame. I prize Britten’s chamber pieces above all of the rest of his glorious music. Obviously more personal but deeper, spikier and, if it is possible, cleverer. There are times, though, when Britten’s genius can be too satisfying, like a musical Vermeer, You just want him to cut loose. In some of the knottier passages of the chamber music this is what you get.

Actually scrub all the above. The reason why BB is the greatest English composer since Byrd, (sorry Purcell and Elgar fans), is the operas, of course. You can keep your Italian melodramas: give me Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw or Curlew River, (yep opera doesn’t have to be full orchestra and divas belting out love arias, in fact it is better when it isn’t), any day of the week. The whole must always be greater than the sum of the operatic parts in my book, and singing cannot smother drama.

Now this last suite has some deceptively simple ideas but the overall effect is still one of immense variety of expression. A four note motive is set against a repeated bass in one of Britten’s favoured mournful Passacaglias, with repeated pizzicato, which precedes the 3 Russian folk songs arranged by Tchaikovsky and the Orthodox hymn the Kontakion chant, which act as the conclusion. Remember this was written for, and first performed by his friend, the great Russia cellist Mistislav Rostroprovich, after hearing his performance of the Bach suites. After BB’s death Mr Rostroprovich couldn’t bear to play this piece.

Earlier in the piece we have a very quick, unsettling Moto Pertpetuo which appears to invert the motif and a stately Fuga which sets it against the main line, and suggests the counterpoint which JSB famously conjures up in his suites. Elsewhere we hear a Dialogo, marked allegretto, which flips across two staves, a Barcarola, which echoes the famous Prelude from JSB’s No 1 Suite which opened this recital, a jittery Marcia, and a strange Canto. Mr Wispelwey, in very droll fashion, introduces the piece by, er, introducing each of the short movements, which provided both bearings and an insight into Britten’s compositional process. All in all, a very satisfying rendition of one of BB’s finest works, IMHO.

The Ligeti sonata is made up of two movements, both written relatively early in his career, 1948 and 1953. The first, Dialogo, a slow movement, was written for a cellist who GL fancied. It is based on Hungarian folksong, (always a rich source of inspiration for the great man), and alternates from high to low ranges, apparently representing a conversation between a man and a woman. The Second movement is a Capriccio is a rapid Moto Perpetuo that, in places, would be tricky enough on a violin, let alone cello. It’s brilliant. Like the Britten the debt to JSB isn’t hidden, notably in the manic string crossing, as ears and mind rush to keep up with the musical invention. The thing about Ligeti for me is that his music always seems to be having a laugh. None of this thorny intellectualism that can so often block your path into contemporary music. There is a celebration of Ligeti’s music at the South Bank in May. Yea. I am signed up.

No need for me to rabbit on about the Bach in detail. You will know these pieces. They are, in essence, just dances. But what dances. If you don’t know them then you should. No point living a life without the best of Bach. Make it your New Year’s resolution.

I shall be looking out again for Mr Wispelwey’s recitals. He made these technically demanding pieces look easy, (well maybe not that easy), and has a very direct style which made it relatively straightforward to follow the line of the music. He has a winning charisma, and a natty shirt/waistcoat combo, but when it all got seriously emotional on stage, we were rapt. He knows the Bach suites like the back, front and sides of his hands, he has recorded them three times. I just bought the last recording, played on a Baroque cello, tuned at a lower pitch (392 vs 440 normally). Apparently he plays fast and loose with the usual tempo interpretations. Can’t wait to find out what it sounds like.

 

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics exhibition at the V&A review ****

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Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

V&A, 13th November 2017

You can’t seem to navigate on t’Internet, (all right, the bit that isn’t hate, porn or celebrity, which doesn’t leave much), for confessionals from opera lovers telling you how they came to love the “queen”, or is it “king”, of art forms. Alongside this are guides on where to start and how to enjoy your first opera. All this tends to come with an undercurrent of pleading though. The rare opera reviews here from the Tourist always seem to start with a diatribe about how bad opera can sometime be. I have tried with limited success to convert the SO, MS, BD to the cause though BUD, given his admirable lust for life, has responded magnificently. 

The fact is that opera can be hard work and that all of us inside the tent, by trying to appear welcoming and non-patronising, often come across as the exact opposite. Like evangelical Christians. The other problem is, despite what some of us want to believe (“it’s for everyone”, “you can pitch up in shorts”, “there’s tons of tunes”), there is always a proportion of the audience, especially at the ROH, who are there because they, (or someone else on their behalf), can afford it and not because they love it. And whisper it, some of it is unadulterated shite with preposterous plots, silly costumes, designers and directors craving kudos over interpretational vision, under-rehearsed divas who can sing for sure but can’t act and don’t care what happens beyond their arias. Yet when it works the “state of grace” you enter cannot be matched, even in my beloved “straight” theatre or from music alone.

It’s an utter mystery to me how this works for those who get off on Wagner (I’d rather have an enema), Verdi or Puccini but, as Aretha would have it, Doctor Feelgood has pitched up for me during Britten, Mozart and Monteverdi to name but a few.

So how were the curatorial boffins going to make this work. A minority art form, which may have a visual component but is primarily aural, which spans hundreds of years. Surprisingly well as it turns out. Through the simple device of picking a few specific works, premiered (though not the Wagner) in specific European cities in specific years, usually periods of immense social, political and economic change. And by not going in too deep. And with the use of those natty headphones which have worked so well since the ground-breaking David Bowie Is exhibition.

Now there are proper reviews bleating about what is “missing” in terms of composers and/or locations. Or saying the “wrong” works have been chosen. Or saying there isn’t enough musical content. Doh, it’s an exhibition not a performance and all this carping comes across “as I know better” elitism, the very thing this exhibition should eschew. For my money, given the obvious limitations. the team has done a terrific job in pulling together all manner of material and relating it to the contexts they have chosen to highlight.

You will get a sense of how the chosen operas reflect the societies from whence they came, the themes that each engaged with and the process of their creation and performance. All spiced up with lots to stimulate eye and brain. I accept that the soundtrack, with excerpts from the seven chosen operas, is a bit limiting but I didn’t care. I got to see lots of lovely objects, maps, paintings, scores, costumes, props, posters, programmes, models and instruments. I got some well chosen video footage of performance. I got a recreation of a set for Handel’s Rinaldo in booming London and of Shostakovich in his study banging away on his piano. I got all sorts of spurious feminist interpretations of Strauss’s still horribly ropey Salome in Dresden backed up with some dirty pictures from Kirchner. I got a sense of just how much ducking and diving Dmitry had to do to create his two premieres of Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District in Leningrad. I saw why the Italians are proud of the boy Giuseppe V, here with the big chorused Nabucco in Milan. I could hear how Monteverdi changed the Western musical world, albeit all for the decadent few of La Serenissima. I could see and hear how the Enlightened Mozart and Da Ponte stuck two figures up to the Viennese elite. The exhibition even has a swing at equating Wagner’s dodgy Medieval comic book warriors with the genius rebellion of Manet. Yeah, right.

Now I admit sometimes the urge to capture the big picture, and the need to make exhibits relevant, leads to some overly imaginative treatments from the curators. I would also have liked a bit more hard information on the handful of post 1945 productions we were treated to at the end. The footage was all well and good, (and the selection suited me), but might have left the uninitiated a bit bemused. Which is a shame because, for my money, the stories, plots, acting, productions and ideas which contemporary operas encapsulate are far easier to stomach than some of the “classics”, and the music no more challenging than the soundtracks to many big budget cinema releases.

Still mustn’t grumble. This is another blinder from the V&A and the new gallery is nice and airy (I know it’s underground). It isn’t going to pack ’em in Pink Floyd style and I have to say that my attendance, admittedly on a weekday afternoon, only served to reduce the mean average age. If you have some interest in opera, and are not too snobby, you will definitely be rewarded. Perhaps more importantly I would say that, if you have any interest in European social, economic and cultural history, even if opera isn’t your bag, over the last 500 years, this is also for you. Which frankly should include everyone who goes through the doors of the V&A.

Right there’s my puff. Now can I have my Punk and Post Punk 1977 to 1985 exhibition please Mr V&A.

 

Nederlands Kamerkoor at Cadogan Hall review *****

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Nederlands Kamerkoor: Sacred and Profane

Cadogan Hall, 8th March 2017

  • Britten – Hymn to St Cecilia
  • Gabriel Jackson – Ave Regina caelorum
  • Berio – Cries of London
  • Lars Johan Werle – Orpheus
  • Lars Johan Werle – Canzone 126 di Francesco Petrarca
  • Britten – Sacred and Profane

Another bit of a catch up here. This was so good though that I thought I better say something about it.

This was the latest in an ongoing stroll through the best choirs that pop up in London with BUD who knows where he is at with this sort of caper. Any sensible consumer of classical music will likely eventually conclude that the most versatile and approachable instrument of all is the human voice, with a smallish choir the optimal way to hear it. And the genius composers of the past for such limited, but pure, forces, the likes of Taverner, Tallis, Palestrina, Byrd, Gibbons, Monteverdi and Allegri, are now augmented by some greats from the mid C20 and from the ranks of contemporary composers.

Anyway this outfit, conducted by Peter Dijkstra, were outstanding. The likes of The Sixteen, The Tallis Scholars, The Cardinal’s Musick and so on are a delight to hear but somehow these guys seemed even better to my ear (Cadogan Hall, along with Wigmore Hall and Milton Court are perfect venues for choirs I think). They just had such extraordinary control both individually and collectively.

Now I know the Britten pieces pretty well but it was in the second of the Lars Johan Werle pieces, and especially Berio’s the Cries of London, that the dazzling virtuously of our Dutch friends really came to the fore. The Berio piece takes the sounds of a Medieval market and turns it into a quite extraordinary piece, challenging and beautiful. And the Lars Johan Werle Canzone somehow manages to sound both contemporary and an eerie take on Monteverdi at the same time. I was just blown completely away by this. The Gabriel Jackson piece was not quite of the same quality and had a bloke playing a few licks on an electric guitar harmonising with the choir which didn’t entirely work for me.

So I gather these guys are keen to expand the contemporary repertoire and are keen to commission new works. Sounds like the Dutch government rightly invests in them as well. For sure they now have a couple of 50+ blokes as groupies eagerly awaiting their return to London.

For those of you that are not familiar with contemporary or indeed Renaissance choral music I would strongly urge you to take the plunge. I guarantee that within a few seconds of one of these outfits opening their lungs all the s**t that swirls around your head thanks to modern life being rubbish will evaporate. You really don’t need to know anything about the music.

On my radar there are a few Monteverdi Vespers coming up (including 23rd June Barbican Academy of Ancient Music), The Tallis Scholars at St John’s Smith Square on 30th June, The Cardinal’s Musick 18th July Wigmore Hall and an Estonian Choir next January 30th at Milton Court with a bit of Arvo Part action. Go on treat yourself.