Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Concertgebouw review ****

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider (violin) 

Het Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest, 19th June 2019

  • Detlev Glanert – Weites Land
  • Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major, Op 35
  • Bedrich Smetana – Vysehrad, De Moldau and Sárka from Má vlast 

There’s a clue in the title. The Tourist finds himself in Amsterdam once again for his yearly pilgrimage to the Internationaal Theater this time to see the Simon McBurney take on The Cherry Orchard. More to follow. Prior to that though sightseeing in Delft, Leiden and Haarlem and more culture in Amsterdam. Including this. My first look inside the Grand Hall in the Concertgebouw and my first experience of this superlative band on their home turf.

Now the Tourist yields to no man or woman when it comes to the reputation of the London orchestras and especially the London Symphony Orchestra. Things are looking up with Sir Simon Rattle in the conducting chair but I reckon the Gergiev years saw the band slip back compared to the best of their European peers, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, say. Yet if I had to pick one orchestra above all others, based on recordings and a couple of London dates years ago, (both sporting Shostakovich), the Concertgebouw would be it.

The RCO is currently between Chief Conductors having dispensed with Daniele Gatti following complaints of “inappropriate behaviour” from female members of the orchestra, to add to accusations from elsewhere. No prevarication here. Another reason to rate the band. Finally classical music is doing something about this sort of sh*te. The RCO was built on the bond between its Chief Conductor and the players. From 1963 until 2015 there were just three CC’s. They happened to be Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Chailly and Mariss Jansons. Who also just happen to be the greatest three conductors alive today. Though I have a few contenders still on the wish list.

A few of whom are on the list of guest conductors for this year and next year. Semyon Bychkov is not one of them. I have already been privileged to hear his take on Britten and especially Shostakovich with the LSO. Now I have to admit the core of his repertoire, showcased here, is not entirely up my street but I figured he and the band would win me over. They did. Of course I know the Tchaikovsky VC, who doesn’t, as well the big tunes from Ma vlast. But I find the former usually just a bit too showy and the latter can drone on a bit .The German composer Detlev Glanert is mostly known for his opera but SB is a big fan and tireless promoter of all his work.

I am also sure I have seen Danish-Israeli violinist Nikolai Sneps-Znaider before but my computer says no so I must have made it up. Anyway the Tchaikovsky concerto, alongside Mozart, looks like it is one of his specials and I see that he has even taken on Ma vlast as a conductor. Anyway the point is this two fellas are all over this programme.

Since I have never heard any of Mr Glanerto ‘s work before this familiarity was not immediately clear. But what was is that sound. You would be hard pressed to imagine an auditorium that screamed late C19 Romantic more. It was opened in 1888 and the Grote Zaal, with its beautiful moulded white woodwork and plaster interior, plush red velvet and plaques devoted to great, not so great and frankly forgotten composers popular at the time, is an absolute peach. The Tourist went cheap, of course, which meant a bit of neck ache looking up to the raised stage and only a few players visible, but perfect to study soloist and conductor. And hear that sound. Given that the Tourist is a bit sub-par on the hearing front and not really smart enough to know what he is listening to anyway the whole thing with acoustics might be expected to pass him by. But trust me you can hear it. Apparently the reverb time is perfect for lush Romantic repertoire. I can vouch for that. The rich sound literally envelopes you but never obscures the detail. Apparently the RCO’s style of playing is perfectly matched to this acoustic. Again I believe the experts.

This perfection has been secured with a bit of engineering jiggery-pokery down the years but broadly the original architect Adolf Leonard van Gendt and his team got it right first time. Remember this was at a time when the science of concerto hall acoustics was in its infancy. And the building was built on log piles (subsequently replaced with concrete when it started to sink). Amsterdam is full of exquisite buildings, new and old. This is one of the best.

The Glanert piece is sub-titled Music with Brahms so no prizes for guessing its inspiration, the Fourth Symphony to be exact, nor for realising why it was programmed with the Tchaikovsky and Smetana. Now Brahms may not be right at the top of the table of music the Tourist can’t abide, (Wagner since you ask), but it is certainly not his mug of Darjeeling. Weites Land translates as Open Land and so reflects the landscape programming of Ma vlast here transposed to the open marshland and wide skies of Northern Germany apparently. It shifts from gently lyrical to passages of vigorous tutti and was a decent opener even if I wouldn’t listen to it again.

But, that sound. Like I say I was hear for the occasion and experience not necessarily the music. It strikes me that the VC needs a performance that lifts up and rides along with Tchaikovsky’s exuberant vision. No point holding back. This is what NS-Z did on top of the fluffy shag-pile of sonorous sound piled up by the RCO and Mr Bychkov. NZ tacked on some Bach for an encore just to make me even happier.

Now I can’t pretend I am a convert to the set of symphonic poems that make up Smetana’s paean to his Czech homeland, the first three of which were on display here. BS was well on the way to deafness by the time he completed Vysehrad, inspired by the castle in Prague. De Moldau, or Vltava in Czech has that tune, you know it, which signifies, as intended, a Big River. Sarka was inspired by a myth about a Czech female warrior, again with music to match. In each poem BS does tend to have his cake and eat, and then go back for seconds. But there is some exquisite instrumentation, perfect I would have thought for this band, and Mr Bychkov put everything and more into the performance. The RCO, at least from my vantage point, is, to use a luxury car motoring analogy, more Bentley Continental than the Jaguar F Type of the LSO that I am used to, and chalk and cheese compared to the classic kit car Baroque specialists. But f*ck it, if I had the money, I would happily sit my ample arse in such svelte upholstery every day of the week.

And so I just lapped up the sound. Very satisfying. A fine evening. Made even more memorable when a fine looking Dutch chap turned on the way out, mistook me for his equally attractive young lady partner and reached out with his hand. Fear quickly turned to merriment across all three faces. I hope to be back. Not to worry the beautiful people of Amsterdam. No. To hear the RCO playing something I actually like, (though I realise their Mahlerian and Brucknerian core isn’t mine). Perhaps under the new Chief Conductor when finally chosen. They could do worse than choose Mr Bychkov.

Christoph Sietzen and the Wave Quartet at the Concertgebouw review ****

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Christoph Sietzen, Wave Quartet (Bogdan Bacanu, Vladi Petrov, Emiko Uchiyama, Christoph Sietzen)

Het Concert-Gebouw, Recital Hall, 16th May 2018

  • Emmanuel Séjourné – Attraction for marimba, vibraphone and tape
  • Iannis Xenakis – Part B (from ‘Rebonds’) for percussion
  • J.S. Bach/Brahms – Chaconne (from Second Partita in D, BWV 1004) (arr. B. Bacanu) for marimba
  • Stewart Copeland – Sheriff of Luxembourg for marimba, percussion and tape
  • Ivan Boumans – The Cloth, op. 140 (encore) for percussion
  • Josh Groban – The Wandering Kind (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • J.S. Bach – Allegro (from Concerto in C, BWV 1061a) (arr. B. Bacanu) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – La muerte del ángel (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Oblivion (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Reentko Dirks – Danza non Danza (arr. The Wave Quartet) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Milonga del ángel (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Libertango (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Rodrigo Sanchez / Gabriela Quintero – Tamacun (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Rodrigo Sanchez / Gabriela Quintero – Juan Loco (arr. The Wave Quartet) (encore) for marimbas

OK so I confess I was a captive buyer for this. This was what was on in the Concertgebouw on the night I was there. There were a few other tourists in the same boat, and a healthy contingent of local Amsterdammers. Which, even in the smaller, though still resplendent recital hall, made up a full house. The recital hall, in full blown neo-classical style, is topped by a rotunda with the names of the Romantic greats immortalised, and some not-so-greats as well.

Anyway whilst I didn’t know the percussionist Christoph Sietzen, and the crack marimba team of which he is a member, the Wave Quartet, this programme intrigued. In particular the Xenakis, who is near the top of my further investigation list, the Bach and the Piazzolla. The programme consisted of the first five pieces for solo percussion with Mr Sietzen and then the pieces for the entire quartet, largely arranged by Ms Uchiyama. Bogdan Bacanu, who might just be the most accomplished marimba player ever, and certainly its greatest advocate, was a child prodigy and went on to teach the other three members, amongst others, in Linz and Salzburg I believe. He is also responsible for the Bach arrangements, which are completely faithful to the originals.

Remember there are a lot of works by Bach that weren’t necessarily written for specific instruments but its a fairly safe supposition that he didn’t have a percussion instrument in mind when he set down the pieces here. On the other hand the marimba, which is by some way the most expressive and dynamically sophisticated of the percussion stable, ranging across 4 or 5 octaves, even if its timbre is so particular, isn’t too far away from the harpsichord in terms of effect. It is, as we see here, becoming increasing popular in contemporary classical music and the technical proficiency of playing has come on in leaps and bounds in part thanks to Mr Bacanu.

The first piece was by Emmanuel Sejourne who is the pre-eminent composer for marimba and vibraphone and a world renowned player. It was originally written for violin and marimba but here Mr Sietzen substituted violin with a vibraphone. I have to say it was impressive though I might have preferred to here it later on once I had adjusted to the marimba sounds. Even so it is breathtaking to hear what is possible for these instruments.

Xenakis composed two pieces for solo percussion, this piece Rebonds, and Psappha. It isn’t much of a surprise given the composer’s mastery of rhythm and structure but it is genuinely mind-boggling in its complexity. There are two movements in Rebonds. Mr Sietzen only played Part B, a shame as I would love to have heard Part A as well. It is scored for two bongos, one tumba, one tom-tom, one bass drum and a set of five wood blocks or wooden slats. Xenakis leaves some decisions on the score to the performer, all part of the mathematics of his music, (remember he was architect, engineer and mathematician as well as composer and not averse to shunting the laws of physics into his work). Xenakis is so far beyond what I understand in music but, trust me, the intensity of the rhythms here, despite the abstraction, still provokes a basic, primal reaction which needs no maths degree. You will laugh at me, but if you have listened through a John Bonham drum solo in Moby Dick (Google it kids), you will understand, though this is way more sophisticated than Bonzo thrashing away.

I took the opportunity to listen to Psappha. Amazing.

You will likely know the Bach Chaconne from the Violin Partita No 2 which Brahms amongst others transcribed for the piano left hand. (There is a YouTube performance by Danile Trifonov no less if you are interested and if you want the violin original please listen to Rachel Podger’s recording). I am not going to pretend that this marimba version matches that but it is still absolutely the same beautiful piece of music and shows astonishing virtuosity.

The Stewart Copeland piece, which was commissioned for Mr Sietzen, was a little less convincing by comparison to what else was on offer in this recital but was pleasant enough. Mr Copeland, for you youngsters who regard this as ancient history, was the drummer for popular English beat combo The Police in the 1980s, whose cod-reggae sound should never have worked, and never have been as popular, but it did, and it was. Mr Copeland has gone on to write film and game soundtracks and some classical compositions including this. Prior to the Police he was manager and drummer for Curved Air for those of you with an unhealthy interest in progressive jazz-rock. (Never ever get into conversation with me about Soft Machine).

After Mr Sietzen’s marvellous show of musical, and physical, prowess in the first half we might have expected something more sedate after the interval. No way Jose. (That being a reference to the Latin fuelled energy of the last few pieces). The Wave Quartet were decked out in bright red shirts, think Kraftwerk circa Man Machine without the black skinny ties and Fascist undertones.

There are many areas of music which are a complete mystery to me. I had never heard of Josh Groban before. Apparently he is a big noise though in the popera world. I can happily maintain my aloof indifference on the basis of this piece.

The second Bach piece is arranged from the first movement Allegro two harpsichord version of the Concerto BWV 1061 for the same instruments. So each of the four marimbas players with their two mallets (called knobs) in each hand is effectively one hand of the score. Given that the harpsichord notes can’t really sustain there is sound logic (literally) to transcribe to marimbas. It works, though I am not sure I would turn to this again in a hurry. I can’t deny Mr Bacanu’s dedication in adapting Bach in this way. I see the Wave Quartet have recorded the other harpsichord concerto arrangements with orchestra.

Astor Piazzolla was the genius Argentine who meshed the tango, the Baroque and jazz into a fresh and exciting musical world in the 1950s and 1960s. I can see exactly why the Wave Quartet would want to play these pieces. You will definitely know the Libertango. (I first heard in I’ve Seen That Face Before by Grace Jones). You will think you know the other pieces. The arrangements didn’t seem too complex which meant the Wave Quartet could pull of all sorts of flourishes. They were having a ball and so was the audience. The Reentko Dirks and Sanchez/Quintero pieces, originally for guitar, have similar heritage, with the final Juan Loco seeing young Vladi Petrov showing off on a simple beat box drum. Cheesy but undeniably joyous.

There you have it. A celebration of just what percussion can do and a salutary reminder not to get bogged down in serious classical music.