Collegium Vocale Gent at the Barbican review *****

Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor), Dorothee Mields (soprano), Hanna Blazikova (soprano), Alex Potter (countertenor), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Krešimir Stražanac (bass)

Barbican Hall, 14th June 2019

It’s Bach. It’s the B Minor Mass. So of course it is beautiful. But it can be a bit, well, “bitty”. After all the old boy did cobble it together at the end of his life from a few of his greatest hits, probably to impress the big-wigs in Leipzig. Not that you would notice. It is still one of the most sublime works of art ever created. And you don’t need a religious bone in your body to understand that.

So the real pleasure on this special evening was hearing the Collegium Vocale Gent under Philippe Herrewghe deliver a performance that articulated the work as a whole, as well as the individual parts. Crucial given they played 2 hours straight through, (which meant it was too long for any liturgical purpose). PH and the CVG have been perfecting their HIP interpretation of the work for decades. I doubt there is anyone who understands the work better. That means the standard HIP set up of a chorus of just 18 including our 5 soloists who step out, (of the chorus, not with each other), and a band of 24, with strings, timpani, a couple of flutes and bassoons, 3 oboes and 3 trumpets and a horn. And a violone (a kind of viol double bass) to set alongside the dinky organ to augment the continuo. Which means three or four singers to each SATB part expanding to two per part in the Sanctus.

There was nothing forced about the performance. The chorus, soloists and band have no interest in trying to blow the bloody doors off which created a purity of tone that, in the high points, the Kyrie, the Sanctus, Bennedictus ossana, was simply magical. And PH had no interest in forcing the pace, trusting in JSB’s rhythmic bounce and spare lines to make the point. There was no vibrato so that even in the Barbican cavern thee was absolute clarity of tone and Latin text. If you want a great slab of swirling sound then this isn’t the B minor for you. But if you want rhetoric and comprehension then this is the way forward for you. Though don’t for one minute think these 18 voices can’t raise the roof when required.

No doubt a fair few talents have come and gone since the CVG was founded in 1970. But PH has been at the helm throughout. Which shows. No baton. Level with the band. More directing the traffic than keeping the beat, secure in the knowledge that everyone on the stage knows what they are doing. There was a sense that we in the seats were intruding on some sort of private devotion. The two sopranos were perfectly matched, similar in tone, most beautifully in the Christe eleison. Yet the most sublime moments came when individual voices were matched by individual instruments. Violin and soprano in Laudamus te, soprano, tenor and flute in Domine Deus, counter-tenor and oboe d’amore in Qui sedes and bass and horn in the Quoniam.

I loved it. And MSBD, who had already put in a hard days’ work unlike the layabout Tourist, maybe even more judging by the rapturous grin. he sported throughout.

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

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

Wigmore Hall, 31st March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philippe Herreweghe and Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor),
Bertrand Chamayou (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 21st February 2019

  • JS Bach – Orchestral Suite No.3 in D
  • Mozart – Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K.488
  • Mozart – Symphony No.41 (Jupiter) 

A rare opportunity to hear modern instruments tackle some core Baroque and Classical orchestral repertoire in an HIP style, which, when it works, can a thrilling musical experience. But here the Philharmonia was under the baton of not just any old conductor but one of the founding fathers of historically informed performance in the guise of Belgian maestro, and Jonathan Pryce look-a-like, Philippe Herreweghe.

Mr Herreweghe is the Artistic Director of the renowned Collegium Vocale Gent which he founded in 1970 whilst studying at the music conservatory in his native Ghent. It didn’t take long before the HIP world stood up and took notice of PH’s authentic and enthusiastic way with the Baroque, especially Bach, and recordings, for example of the Bach cantatas, with the likes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, soon followed. In 1977 PH also founded the La Chapelle Royale to focus on the French Baroque, the likes of Lully and Charpentier, and he has subsequently branched out into other eras and other ensembles (he is principal conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic), but it is his JS Bach interpretations which garner most praise. Generally, if he is the conductor on a recommended recording, you can safely take the plunge. If it is a Bach recording you would be daft not to.

BTW for those Brits who have never been to Ghent – more fool you. Leave St Pancras mid morning and you can still be there for lunch. Easy stroll around the centre taking in a couple of Gothic church crackers, a Belfry (with lift), a C10 castle, the Graslei medieval houses lining the canal – boat trip mandatory, a couple of supernatural art galleries (MSK if, like the Tourist you are drawn to early Flemish and first half of the C20, and the Contemporary Art Museum), two vouchsafed decent hotels (Marriott and Pillows Grand Reylof), some very tidy trough (with a fair few Michelin stars scattered throughout), lashings of great beer and, best of all, the greatest painting ever, the Van Eyck boys’ Adoration of the Lamb. Busy, but not as nuts as Bruges. The city is gearing up for a van Eyck celebration next year. So off you trot.

Now the Collegium Vocale Gent is a regular, if not frequent, visitor to London. They are over for a Bach B Minor Mass on 14th June at the Barbican. There are still plenty of tickets left. So go on, treat yourself. I also see they are taking the Glass opera, Einstein on the Beach, on a tour around the Low Countries. Crikey.

Prior to that though PH put a stripped back PO, and an excellent young French pianist in the shape of Bertrand Chamayou, through its paces. In fact prior to that a string quartet led by PO violinist Adrian Varela offered a free concert of Bach transcriptions (two Bach chorals, BMV 269 and 86, two Art of Fugue Contrapuntuses, is that the plural?), Stravinsky’s Concertino and the suite Punta del Este, from Argentinian, Aster Piazzolla, which was as good as it sounds.

Only four orchestral suites by JSB survive, in contrast to the 100 or more from composition whirlwind Telemann. They likely date from the Cothen years, written for Prince Leopold, and are some of the funkiest grooves the old boy ever laid down. They all begin with a lengthy overture followed by a series of dance movements; so French in structure if not always in sound. The overture of No 3 itself is French style, a slow stately D major opening, then a rapid, dotty fugue before a short reprise. Number three augments strings and woodwinds with timpani and three trumpets, which gives the first idea an Handelian majesty which suits the modern orchestra. JSB wastes no time shifting to the running semiquavers of the fugue which follows. You may well know the overture. If you don’t you will know the Air which follows, “On a G string”. It may be ubiquitous but it is still special. No Bach, no symphonic slow movements. The Gavotte, a courtly knees up, which follows is in two parts. Things heat up in the scrabbling Bouree which follows, but it is the final Gigue which takes us back to the jollity of the opening, trumpets blazing.

Now your man PH doesn’t hang around. Brisk is the usually ascribed epithet. Suits me. But with no dawdling or vibrato to hide behind this called for precision from the PO. Which they delivered. This sharp, clean sound, with steel in the 44 (yep count ’em) strings (literally), controlled wind (if you get my meaning) and hard stick timpani (oh dear), with the perpetual motion of Bach’s invention, is what really got me excited. Getting the balance right with such a full orchestra was always going to be tricky but PH and the PO, for the most part, were on to that.

I was a little less convinced by the Mozart PC. Not Bertrand Chamayou’s subtle and supple playing, proper Classical (not his normal specialism), but more in the drive of the orchestra. They didn’t quite match up in the jolly opening Allegro and in the closing, vivacious sonata-rondo. By the time BC joined the orchestra in the opening they had built up a head of stem that he was hard pressed to match, and things got a bit too racey by the end of the concerto, where WAM launches more than a few surprises. In the beautiful, dreamy F sharp minor Adagio, pretty much all piano and the only passage ever in this key from Wolfgang A, we could hear just how fine a pianist BC is, at least when it comes to delicate emotion. WAM wrote PC’s 22, 23 and 24 in a hurry to drum up some cash. They are, IMHO, his best 3 in the form, with the operatic 23 probably edging 24 to the top spot.

Mozart also churned out the last 3 symphonies in a matter of weeks. Still hard to credit. Jupiter is, of course, the best. And the final movement is the best of the four. The two themes of the opening Allegro jockey for supremacy with more than a whiff of Don Giovanni-esque irony. The Andante takes a simple theme and turns into into something altogether more knowing and the Menuet and Trio elevates that Classical staple to new heights. But that last movement, up there with Beethoven’s best, and therefore the best ever, is something else entirely. Four notes, upside down, inside out, round about, in fact very which way but loose, then twisted around another four themes similarly pushed and pulled, then all weaved together in celestial, head-banging perfection (I know, I know, it’s just music, but f*ck me, what music). Easy enough to make a hash of by going balls-out bluster. Not here though showing how “flexible HIP” is now, really, the only sensible option with Mozart. Even with repeats PH brought this in under the half-hour. I have a Norrington recording with LCP, again with all the repeats, which tops 35 minutes and he is no slouch.

Regular readers will know that I can’t be doing with the staples of the Romantic repertoire. This though pays the wages of the PO and its peers. They barely get near Bach, or even Mozart, at least in an orchestral context. Perhaps that is why they look pleased as punch at the end of this. Happy days. And for those of you who like a little more Romantic in your lives, albeit the early variety, PH is back with the PO in November to show off some Beethoven and Schubert.