It’s been donkey’s years since I last saw the Great British Brodsky Quartet. In fact my guess is there has been a couple of line up changes since then, though Ian Belton on violin and Jacqueline Thomas on cello remain from the original founders in 1972, now joined by Daniel Rowland’s violin and Paul Cassidy’s viola. There were famous back in the day for me and my punky mates because they got involved with pop/rock types. They have never lost the spirit of adventure as this programme plainly shows. The centenary of the end of WWI has seen a lot of fine concerts: this idiosyncratic alternative was one of the best.
Now the main reason to turn up here was not, for once, Shostakovich’s No 8. Mind you that would have been worth the entrance money alone. Having heard a sophisticated, smooth version of DSCH’s quartet masterpiece from the Emersons a couple of weeks earlier, it was exhilarating to hear this much darker, plaintive alternative. This really got inside the meaning of the score, dedicated to “the victims of Fascism and War” in a way that the Emerson Quartet only hinted at. The two outer Largo C minor movements, with their famous DSCH musical monograms, were grimly intense here, the second movement scherzo fugue ferociously pungent and the middle movement waltz bitterly sardonic, on the edge of giving up. The slower fourth movement was here properly, brutally, dissonant with the KGB not just at the door as DSCH remarked, but inside the flat rifling through possessions. This is exactly what the Eighth should sound like, vibrato when vibrato, forte when forte, pianissimo when pianissimo.
Yet like I say this was not the main attraction nor war it the highlight of the evening. That was reserved for George’s Crumb’s Black Angels. It was written in 1973 as a response to the Vietnam War. It is scored for “electric string quartet” and includes a magic box of percussive and other effects, including vocals, and even featuring crystal wine glasses. Subtitled “Thirteen images from the dark land” and inscribed “in time of war”, it is, by turns, startling, frightening, menacing, ritualistic, elegiac, ethereal, mysterious, very loud and very soft. It is divided into three sections, Departure, Absence and Return each of which contains a painful threnody. There are baroque dances buried in here, but don’t expect Lully or Telemann. And then there is just noise. I haven’t the faintest idea how to convey the sheer breadth of its sound world and depth of its emotion. I suggest you go listen to it and see what you think. Probably best not, as the Brodsky’s refrained from doing here. amplify the music to the “threshold of pain” as Crumb instructed. Though it might have been interesting to observe the reaction of the Kings Place crowd to a heyday My Bloody Valentine take on Black Angels. GC is near 90 years old now but I bet he would still turn the dial up to 11.
Black Angels has rightly secured a pre-eminent place in the modern string quartet repertoire, but it isn’t easy, so fortunately, here, we were in the hands of experts. It is probably the best half hour or so of “music” I have heard this year.
The Karen Tanaka piece was commissioned by the Brodskys to mark the bicentenary of Beethoven’s Op 18 quartets and takes the first few bars of No as its inspiration. Interesting if not memorable. Erwin Schulhoff’s upbeat first quartet, with its mix of Czech folk rhythms, Stravinskian jazz and agitated dance probably needs further investigation. He was born in Prague, and this piece was written in 1924 when he was 30 but 17 years later he died of TB in the Wulzburg concentration camp. The Dave Brubeck piece. originally composed for string orchestra in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, says it all in its title.
Marvellous stuff. Oh and I caught a glimpse of the score for Black Angels even from my back of the stalls perch. For George Crumb’s scores are almost as intriguing as the extended and innovative techniques in the music itself. The above is not from Black Angels but a moto perpetuo piano piece. Even so see what I mean?
Shostakovich – String Quartet No 8 in C minor, Op 110
Beethoven – String Quartet No 7 in F major, Op 59 No 1, “Razumovsky”
You still see some venerable rock (and pop) bands unwisely soldiering on in their 60’s and even 70’s, sometimes with only one original member still in the line-up. Outside of disposable pop the creative force/s, the composer/s if you will, in contemporary popular music are invariably also the performer/s. Not so generally in classical art music, though that isn’t to say that many canonical composers weren’t, or aren’t, also adept performers. Just that composition and performance are more often separated, and that performance is often as important to composition in terms of audience enjoyment or appreciation.
So when rock musicians die, so does the band, if it has managed to get that far without breaking up due to musical differences, substance abuse or fist-fights, in the established rock’n’roll manner. Leaving the audience with a ropey tribute band and recordings to keep the tunes alive.
In the classical world though, with its much longer back catalogue, legacy is the name of the game. And not just in composition. Performers live on. Not just in recordings but also in the name, and sound, of the band. Easy enough to envisage in the context of the orchestra with its link to place and with a constant turnover of personnel. The Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen can trace its lineage back to a bunch of regal trumpeters from 1448 (!), the venerable and still very highly regarded Leipzig Gewandhausorchester to 1743.
The idea that string quartets outlive their members might be a little trickier to get your loaf around though. Yet this is how it works. Members may come and go but the best quartets stick together for life, such is the dedication of performers to their art, and, when one of the four can no longer perform, pearly gates or otherwise, a replacement is drafted in. But this cannot be any old violinist, viola player or cellist. For the sound of a top notch string quartet, is a very particular thing, and continuity, as well as chemistry, needs to be guaranteed.
Now as is normally the case with the development of classical music, form followed technology and demand in bringing the string quartet to the fore. Once modern instruments had been perfected in the C18, notably the viola, (which is tuned a perfect fifth below the violin and an octave above the cello), and with enough patrons who liked the string quartet groove to pay up, composers were all set. As with so much else in classical music it was Papa Haydn who set the ball rolling in the 1750s. His massive output for the ensemble (68 named, 77 or so in total) is still amongst the best ever written IMHO.
The string quartet, in the opinion of the Tourist, is about as “pure” as classical art music gets. Not easy to get right; any paucity of imagination is ruthlessly exposed. Four parts is enough to fashion an argument but not enough to take the foot off the intellectual or aesthetic gas. Plenty of opportunity to vary pitch but only the colour and texture of strings at the composer’s disposal. All of which might explain why not every big name has embraced the genre and why even those that have sometimes don’t always get beyond one effort or a brace.
After Haydn, Mozart obviously churned out a fair few, 23 I think, though they are not all up to snuff. Still as ever with Wolfgang when he nails it he nails it. Then Beethoven with his 16 (and the Grosse Fuge) which, as with the symphonies and piano concertos, have never been bettered. Schubert also walked the talk with his 15 and a few assorted bits and bobs. (Note to Tourist: more work to do on these).
As the fashion for showy-off, Romantic, bullsh*tty bombast gained traction in the C19 so the string quartet took a back seat, but returned with a bang in the C20. For the Tourist’s money the best of the bunch since 1900’ish are Janacek’s pair, Nielsen’s 6, Ravel and, (in a rare thumbs up from me), Debussy’s single shots, Stravinsky’s various musings, and, best of all, Britten’s haunting treble, Bartok’s virtuoso 6 and Shostakovich’s acutely personal 15. Oh and Glass’s 7 (and counting), Reich’s Different Trains, Crumb’s Black Angels, Nyman’s 5, Ligeti’s 2 and Xenakis’s 4. You might have some others to add. Tell me.
The Emerson String Quartet was formed in 1976, and still has two of its founder members in violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, alongside the viola of Lawrence Dutton, with cellist Paul Watkins the last in, having joined in 2013. I have recordings of their arrangement of The Art of Fugue and their renowned Bartok cycle. The Bartok is superbly recorded and is very, very precise and very, very intense. This is what they are famous for. Exact and technically brilliant interpretations. Which maybe lack a little emotion. That tends to be my preference but I can understand why others may take a different line (and there are occasions when I would agree).
Anyway this is what the Emersons are famed for. And this is exactly what they delivered at Milton Court. Britten’s Quartet No 3 was pretty much the last thing he composed appearing in the year he died, 1976. With its call-back to the music of his last opera, Death in Venice, in the final passacaglia, and the recitative quotes that precede it, it really is immensely moving. BB was very ill at this time, only able to work in short bursts following a heart bypass operation, and this seems to be reflected in the four condensed movements which precede the final “La Serenissima”. The opening “Duets”, in sonata form, is also haunting and, by virtue of its various permutations of the quartet personnel, as sparse as its title suggests, even when the duets are accompanied. The Ostinato second movement, like the Burlesque fourth movement, is very short, and taken at a fair lick even where it is played pizzicato. The parodic Burlesque could have come from the pen of Shostakovich in one of his more caustic moments, with its weird central spiccato passage. The central Solo is marked very calm with the first violin line, heading higher and higher, seemingly lifted from the mists, and mystery, of Curlew River. Or maybe Aldeburgh Beach, Or Snape. Anyway as with the rise and fall of the Passacaglia it sounds like BB was set to go home. Blub blub.
The Emersons certainly got the measure of BB’s still extraordinary imagination and technique. But it felt a little less haunting than the recording I have from the Endellion Quartet. This was even more true in the Shostakovich. The Eighth was written when DSCH was in a very dark place, contemplating suicide. He went on in his final quartet, 15, to offer up a genuine personal elegy but this comes pretty close. He was supposed to be written a score to accompany a documentary about the bombing of Dresden but, after just a few days, he came up with this, “an ideologically deficient quartet nobody needs”. It was 1960 but DSCH still wasn’t “free” now being forced to join the Party. It has his trademark initial motif in the opening of the Largo on the cello, which is developed, before the main theme from his First Symphony pops up, before this in turn gives way to a repeated rocking motif.
This rocking motif is then pumped up and speeded up to form the basis for the second movement scherzo. This is, even by Dmitry’s high standards, pretty scary stuff. The DSCH motif also crops up again, in contrasting tempi, As it does in the middle movement Allegretto, here transformed into a Waltz which then proceeds to quote his First Cello Concerto. A violin solo links to the first of the final two slow movements. This contains the tune to a Russian song about the victims of fascism, to whom DSCH eventually dedicated the quartet, but which might be aimed at totalitarianism more generally. The final Largo comes full circle with a return to the rocking motif.
The quartet is taken unbroken and with these powerful and dramatic ideas, and stirring emotion, it is easy to see why it is Shostakovich’s most famous and oft-performed quartet. It would be hard to imagine a more expertly crafted and sharp interpretation, these chaps leave nothing to chance, but, as I discovered a couple of weeks later, courtesy of the Brodsky Quartet, it is possible to wring a fair bit more gut-wrenching angst out of the piece. I have recordings by the Borodin Quartet, now in its eighth decade, constantly refreshed by the best of the Moscow Conservatoire, and the original dedicatees for most of DSCH’s quartets, and the English Fitzwilliam Quartet (founded in 1968) who also worked with the composer and were the first to record a complete cycle.
As it turned out it was the Beethoven first Razumovsky which actually showed the Emersons at their very best. Count Razumovsky was an important Russian aristo and diplomat in Naples and then Vienna but his name has gone down in posterity for the three quartets he commissioned from Beethoven in 1806. All are magnificent but the first might just be the best of the bunch. This is altogether jollier music than the two pieces that preceded it, with its intriguing dissonance and implied repeat in the first movement, the rapid passing of the baton from one player to another, underpinned by the one note cello motif in the Allegretto second, the tragic F minor Adagio and then the ebullient finale with its bouncy Russian theme, (as in the other two Razumovsky pieces). The drilled-to-perfection understanding of the Emersons, and the more upbeat tone of the Beethoven was, for me, at least more satisfying.
That is not to say that overall I took very great pleasure in listening to this famous quartet. They are up there with the very best of their peers, some of which I have already mentioned. When it comes to Beethoven I think the Takacs Quartet (founded 1975) might have the edge of those I have heard live, though the Belcea Quartet (1994), who might just be my favourite string band, run them close. As for recordings of the Beethoven quartets have a sniff around the Alban Berg, Quartetto Italiano (for the middle quartets) and unparalleled Vegh (for the mighty last four).
While I am at it, should anyone care, add the Hagen Quartet (1981) to the bucket list when it comes to Mozart, the Quatuor Mosaiques (1987, HIP specialists) for Papa Haydn and the Kronos Quartet (1973), on the rare occasions they leave the US, in contemporary repertoire.
London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Peter Moore (trombone)
Barbican Hall, 1st November 2018
Zoltan Kodaly – Dances of Galanta
James MacMillan – Trombone Concerto
Dmitry Shostakovitch – Symphony No 4
Now it might be the fact that I was a bit poorly for this performance that accounts for this lukewarm response. No need for any of you to worry. I am in fine fettle now but whatever bug it was prevented me from seeing the evening devoted to the electronic and chamber work of Iannis Xenakis at Kings Place a couple of days later, which was REALLY BLOODY ANNOYING since I am much taken with the composer and the performers, (London Sinfonietta with cellist Tim Gill who was in the hot seat for solo piece Kottos and Phlegra for 11 musicians). There is nothing quite like the sound world of Xenakis. Give him a whirl. YOLO.
The Fourth is a tricky customer. In complete contrast to the more conformist, (though still painful howl of protest), that is the Fifth, this symphony has DSCH still messing around with his avant-garde roots. That is not to say that it isn’t recognisably his voice, just that it is a long way away from the inventive Stravinskian juvenalia of the First and the awful, garish, empty patriotic posturing of the Second and Third. The Fourth is chock full of brilliant, if eccentric, ideas but isn’t too bothered with the usual rules of symphonic structure. It was written in 1936, when he was 30, the year DSCH got his telling off from Stalin. It was rehearsed but then withdrawn to be finally premiered in 1961 when Stalin and Zhdanov were safely in their graves. It has two massive movements embracing a scherzo, a giant 100 plus orchestra, lots of distorted songs and dances, excesses of aggression and pathos. Mahler removed from the mountains and marched at gun-point into the factory.
It is very tricky for conductor and composer to knit all of the twist and turns, (and musical cul-de-sacs, of which there are many), together and Mr Noseda didn’t quite find his compass on this evening. This, together with my man-flu, meant I drifted in and out a bit through the 70 minutes of performance, despite the volume. Not so with James MacMillan’s Trombone Concerto. This is the first time I have heard any of his music. surprising given that he is a favourite commissionee with British orchestras. This was the UK premiere of this work with Peter Moore, the Co-Principal trombone in the LSO, as the soloist. Now young Mr Moore, just 22, is something of a prodigy, haven’t taken his chair at just 18. His breakthrough came when he won the BBC Young Musician competition aged just 12, and in a few short years he has become a renowned soloist and is a visiting prof at the RCM. There he is above, winning the BBC contest. Awwh sweet.
Now I am no expert on the trombone, (or on any instrument come to think of it), but I have ears so can tell you that Mr Moore knows what he is about trombone-wise. Wind soloists are generally remarkable people as their technical prowess and control reveals just what their instruments are capable of playing. Mr MacMillan’s concerto is a single movement work which alternates between frenetic activity and “ghostly” passages drawn from the seven note theme which is set out at the start. The soloist’s line is set against this through the slower first passage and again, in bursts, as the pace hots up. A “waltz” of sorts follows, then a rush forward punctuated by the three orchestral trombones joining Mr Moore in a blast alongside, of all things, a siren. There might have been a wind machine as well. A slower, more lyrical swell follows then a kind of mad gigue before a jam from the four trombones again.
As ever, all you can do on hearing a piece of contemporary classical music for the first time is see if it grabs you, and this most certainly did. Maybe it was the novelty of hearing what was possible with a trombone, though Daddy Mozart and Brother Haydn, alongside Berio, Xenakis, Turnage and, of course, Christian Lindberg, have all shown me this in other works, or maybe it was just Peter Moore’s amazing skill, but I do think there was enough here to mean I should look into Mr MacMillan’s back, and in future, front catalogue.
The other piece on the menu was Kodaly’s Dances Of Galanta, a kind of augmented string suite, written in 1933 and based on Hungarian dance tunes. It has its fans I gather but I can now say I am not one of them. Having not really connected with Kodaly’s string quartets I think I can safely say that he is not for me even as his mate, Bela Bartok, especially in his 6 string quartets, most certainly is.
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Martin Frost (clarinet)
Barbican Hall, 17th October 2017
Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No 9 in E flat major Op 70
Aaron Copland – Clarinet Concerto
Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No 6 in E flat major Op 111
Vikings, stave churches, Celsius, Bohr, Angstrom, Ibsen, Strindberg, Laxness, Kierkegard, Nielsen, Sibelius, Greig, Munch, Balke, Olafur Eliasson, ABBA, Bjork, Bergman (x2), Lars von Trier, Ullman, Sofia Helin, Mads Mikklesen, Kim Bodnia, the laconic Kimi, Schmeichel (P), Salonen (EP), Lego, IKEA, SAAB, zips, mobile phones, seat belts, loudspeakers, Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, art glass, Georg Jensen, BIG, arket, meatballs, herring, saunas, Gamla Stam, Djurgarden, Tivoli, that Bridge, Roskilde Cathedral, Uppsala Cathedral, Copenhagen Opera House, Temppeliaukio Church. There’s a few of my favourite Scandi people and things. And that’s before anything from the natural world. And doesn’t include those Scandinavians I would count as friends. There are good reasons why Scandis are generally pretty pleased with themselves, though not in a wanky kind of way. They have much to be pleased about.
Anyway it turns out that there is an organisation for promoting the Scandinavian countries and their culture. CoScan. The Confederation of Scandinavian Societies. And every year since 1994 it has given an award to recognise the contribution of an individual. body or group on the international stage. Previous winners have included Sandi Toksvig, Magnus Carlsen (the best chess player in the world), Hans Blix, The Nordic Optical Telescope, that Bridge and Mika Hakkinen. This year was the turn of Finn Sakari Oramo, the Finnish Conductor of (amongst others) the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Presented on this very evening. Good on you Sakari. He seems like a thoroughly decent bloke and we here should be eternally grateful for the musical contribution he has made, especially to the Proms (five this year alone). He is a whizz across much of the Scandi composer repertoire, but especially Carl Nielsen, whose symphonies and, especially string quartets, don’t get enough of an airing IMHO.
in this programme he also wheeled out three works that should be performed more often. DSCH’s 9th may not be down there with the weird and whacky modernism of Nos 2 and 3 and the overly patriotic, fim-scorish 12th, but it does get neglected. Copland’s jazzy Clarinet Concerto is one of his favourites and was written for Benny Goodman but is pretty tricky so needs a top-notch soloist to do it justice. And Prokofiev’s 6th Symphony is rated by enthusiasts of his work but it is 1 and 5 that get trotted out most often.
So this seemed to me to be well-worth the effort. Which it certainly was. All three works come from the immediate post WWII era, and a scary time personally for DS and SP, but they are far from completely gloomy, at least in places.
Copland’s concerto is genuinely untroubled, and was premiered by Goodman in 1950. The slower opening drops straight out of Copland’s Americana, specifically Appalachian Spring, kicking off with low strings and harps, against which the clarinet meanders, with the violins then following. Just like the sad scene when the love interest dies in a Western. It then jumps into what seems to me to be a fiendishly tricky cadenza, fully written out, which Martin Frost, doing that curious Pied Piper jig that woodwind soloists seem to adore, made look simples. Of course maybe it is. What would I know. I got booted out of recorder practice at school on the grounds of persistent ineptitude. It ends with a fortissimo scale from one end of the clarinet range to the other. Amazing. Straight into the faster, final section, with all sorts of string effects like a sort of mega Bartok quartet. More showing off from Mr Frost with a jazz jam to finish. He encored with a klezmer arrangement from his brother Goran which near brought the house down. There he is above looking suitably impish. Frost is a good name for him.
DSCH initially promised a big splash for his Ninth, with soloists and chorus, just like you no who. Shostakovich being Shostakovich though what he actually served up was a five movement, small scale (by his terms) joke, which barely gets over the finish line. Obviously he has form with odd, almost embarrassingly jejune structures, and musical satire, as much as he could get away with, witness the Sixth, but here we have what I read as an entire flippant f*ck you across a whole symphony. Maybe not just to his political masters but also to the music world in general. Everything he is routinely accused of is there but recast in a sort of Haydn-esque jollity. Scurrying strings, whistling woodwind, boy soldier drums, farting brass fanfares, an abrupt “I’ve done enough” concluding chord. And that’s just the first movement. The second movement is one of those desolate stalking Moderatos but never plumbs the depths and the screaming strings never come. The scherzo lollops along but with no repeat slows into the regulation Largo with doomy fanfare and bassoon lament which as always for me at least conjures up the battlefield dead. But again it is on a tiny scale. This is the sort of movement DSCH can crank up to 20 minutes plus. This is all over in four. The symphony ends with a quick movement which kicks of with a folksy little lick which builds up and eventually dashes over the line to the close. The whole thing is like some child’s Toy-town version of a DSCH symphony. Oramo and the BBCSO, correctly, didn’t attempt to make a case for profundity, taking it straight. I loved it.
Once again I found myself being really taken with a major Prokofiev piece that I had dismissed previously. It is the most symphonic of his symphonies, the most expansive and the most, dare I say Shostakovich-ian. It does occasionally start to go a little too C19 Romantic on your ass but there are enough of the trademark SP lurches and new twists to forestall tedium. So, like DCSH, got himself into a lot of bother with Stalin’s “realist” henchman by being a sarky, modernist clever clogs. The difference is SP actually came back to Russia to face this, er, critical music. He liked to satisfy his customer but the iconoclast in him could never be entirely suppressed. The Sixth, as a commemoration for the war dead was initially OK’d by the authorities but then, in 1948, censured.
The first movement kicks off with a couple of lazy themes led by strings then oboes before snapping into gear with a third, more forthright chanting theme, set against a tick-tock rhythm, which revives the first theme and sets up a massive tutti climax. A mixture of Mahler, Shostakovich and Saint Saens, it collapses into horn squeals, then all three themes are reprised. As usual with SP it lurches around a bit but has some great colours and sounds. It can probably turn into a bit of a grandiloquent mess in the wrong hands but I reckon Mr Oramo, by cracking on, get it about right.
The second movement Largo starts off with a series of big, chromatic gestures, but with some swinging brass, a bit like Wagner loosened up and had a nice long toke. Then we move into a kind of dreamy, lyrical reminiscence, all Hollywood love story, which breaks back into the tick-tock march of the second theme, before the first is reprised, in size. Overall this movement is genuinely unsettling.
As, in some ways, is the final movement marked Vivace, but only because it kicks off in perky neo-Classical vein. Though the bass line is anything but gallant, thumping away angrily, and backed up with percussive piano. The second idea is another jolly scamp led by woodwind, then rising strings, but this time with the tuba doing its best to create havoc. Gradually the dance starts going off-kilter, the fun peters out, and nasty stuff jumps out. The chant from the first movement returns now over the percussive thuds and deep brass fanfares. A major triad to conclude. Happy and triumphant it ain’t.
Very convincing. I have subsequently revisited the work listening to a couple of Russian orchestra performances. It wasn’t just Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO who nailed this. It really is a terrific piece of music. I think I am properly converted to SP’s world. That’s the thing with “high” art. You just need to put the hours in.
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)
Barbican Hall, 2nd May and 4th May 2018
Esa-Pekka Salonen – Pollux
Edgar Varese – Ameriques
Shostakovich – Symphony No 5
Beethoven – Symphony No 9 “Choral”
Canny students of architecture will realise that the pic above is not of the Barbican. The Brutalist Barbican Estate is a thing of beauty to my eyes, though not to many others I realise, but surely no-one can be anything other than blown away by Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the LA Phil under current Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. I’ve never been there but I think have been driven past a couple of times. On the bucket list.
There was enough in the two main programmes on offer this year from the LA Phil’s residency at the Barbican for the Tourist to pitch up to both, albeit with some trepidation. The last time I saw Senor Dudamel and his fine head of hair was with his other band, the legendary Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. They bashed out a showy Petrushka and Rite of Spring. In places it was electrifying, in others mystifying, (not mystical). I don’t know if at 37, and into his ninth year at the LA Phil, building on Esa Pekka Salonen’s legacy, S. Dudamel can still be counted a wunderkind. He is still as wilful as ever though.
As was revealed here. The first concert kicked off with a piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen himself, the man who is credited with turning the LA Phil into a contender for the US’s best orchestra, and certainly its most innovative in terms of contemporary classical music. We are lucky to have the fiery Finn, (fiery as Finns go I reckon), in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra, especially when he turns his baton to Stravinsky. As a composer though, I am less sure. This was the European premiere of Pollux, which, in time, will be paired with Castor, to mean both twins of Greek legend, immortal and mortal, are brought to musical life. Pollux is slow and dark, in the composer’s words, Castor will be faster. EPS nicked a bass line from a post-grunge band, slowing it right down, a chorale from a Rilke sonnet about the boy Orpheus and slipped in an Ancient Greek Aeolian echo. All right over my head. It bubbled along pleasantly enough, all clusters and modes, but I am afraid left no mark on me.
I have tried Varese’s Ameriques a couple of times now with limited success. I get how important Varese was, in retrospect, to the development of modern classical music, and I enjoyed the programme of chamber scale pieces delivered by Guildhall School students as part of the Varese immersion day at the Barbican this time last year. But Ameriques is just a noise. Of noise. And it is very noisy. Especially here as GD let his percussion and brass sections run riot. It is difficult not to feel something from the sheer, physical energy of the piece, and the Debussyian and Stravinskyian shards provide texture, but it just doesn’t go beyond the immediate wow.
Now I read a review that contained a remark along the lines that US orchestras can’t really do Shostakovich because they are “too well-fed”. I think that about sums it up. In my limited experience the best performances of DSCH’s symphonies are either the very lean, uncompromising performances from Russia orchestras in days gone by, or from contemporary European orchestras who can capture the essence of those orchestras, whilst harnessing their greater playing skills. Put a Russian conductor in charge of a British orchestra and you have a guarantee of success. Or better still just hand it over to maestro Haitink.
This Fifth would have left a smile on Joe Stalin’s face. DSCH’s Mahlerian tendencies were loud and proud and the D major finale was bombastic, yes, but still felt like genuine, not forced, adulatory. I think GD and the LA Phil were at their best in the second movement scherzo, (as they were in the imposing, fugal scherzo of the Choral Symphony), with its waltzy rollercoaster rhythms and distinct central trios. The Largo third movement, just strings and a touch of woodwind, was way too rich for my blood and the first movement was too mannered as it shifted from slow to fast and back again. The canons, at the opening for strings, and then between flute and horn, and violin and piccolo, in the recapitulation were as striking as ever but the lyrical second theme was too smooth by half. DSCH strings need to have a bit of acid about them, even in this, the friendliest and most “classical” of his symphonies.
GD and the LA Phil were at it again a couple of nights later for the Choral Symphony. I didn’t bother with the Chichester Psalms in the first half as I don’t like it. Sorry. Most of the Beethoven I listen to is “period informed” and/or nips along at a fair lick. The plushest of the recordings I have is probably the oldest, (in terms of how long I have had it), in the form of Karl Bohm and the VPO. GD and the LA Phil offered an even weightier interpretation. As you might have guessed I didn’t take to it.
I heard a fantastic rendition from the LSO in this very Hall under Bernard Haitink. My favourite concert of 2015. The London Symphony Chorus was in fine fettle on that evening as they were here. For me they were the best of the instruments on show. Actually let me rephrase that. All the instruments on show were impressive, it was just that by the time, every one had had their say, the line and structure of Beethoven’s masterpiece got a little lost. The release at the start of the finale felt a little reserved and the coda was bashed through like a getaway car. Julianna Di Giacomo’s soprano is a thing of some beauty but got a little to bright here, Jennifer Johnson Cano’s mezzo was a little indistinct. The lads done well, Michael Konig tenor and especially Soloman Howard’s bass.
All in all then an interesting couple of evenings, if not as involving as I would have expected, for what are, two of the greatest major works ever written. The LA Phil is well upholstered, professional to a man and woman, but put together with GD’s over-emphases and exaggerated tempi, (including the relaxed in the paddock approach to start times), not quite as astonishing as I had been led to expect. To be fair the Barbican Hall acoustic doesn’t take kindly to this sort of full throttle treatment but that’s what rehearsals are for.
Mind you I clearly was in a minority. On both nights the full house went bananas at the end. Horses for courses I suppose.
Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), James Ehnes (violin)
Royal Festival Hall, 29th April 2018
Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, Op.77
Symphony no. 4 in C minor, Op.43
Apparently Vladimir Ashkenazy was at the premiere of the Fourth Symphony. In 1961, in Moscow, 25 years after it was written, DSCH having withdrawn it after Stalin metaphorically beat up him and his music in Pravda. How amazing is that. 57 years after that premiere a still sprightly 80 year old Mr Ashkenazy bounded up to the podium and delivered as committed a performance of the Fourth Symphony as you are likely to hear. Ably assisted by the massed forces of the Philharmonia, of which he is Conductor Laureate, let loose on a piece of the repertoire which is outside their normal C19 staples.
For those they don’y know it the Fourth is a curious beast. It contains plenty of recognisable DSCH tropes across its hour and a bit and its three “movements”, and is more Mahlerian in concept and execution, than the later symphonies. Indeed it shares the same key, C minor as the Resurrection, and a second movement akin to that symphony’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn third movement scherzo. Alas, if you were a Russian apparatchik in the 1930s it was bereft of the required redemptive triumphalism that Mahler delivered in his final movement. Mahler’s third was also an inspiration though it takes a knowing conductor to locate it.
It has a lot of bits and pieces, showing a resemblance to the modernism of DSCH’s early works, which he was supposed to have left behind. Idea after idea is introduced then discarded. Fun, but a little wearing, especially when compared to the long arcs of narrative in the later symphonies. You can see where all those polystylist Russian composers that followed DSCH, like Alfred Schnittke, got their ideas from. The shorter central movement is easier to read, with its nagging four note motif, but the opening fastish, and the closing slow/fast movement with its two massive codas are, to coin a phrase, all over the shop. DSCH is showing off, but it does get you to wondering where he might have gone if he hadn’t had to tread the line between undermining, and seeking the approval of, the capricious regime. Not saying that old Joe was good for Dmitry just that the ugly reality made him do more with less (ideas not instruments).
I have the well regarded recording by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra which doesn’t dilly-dally in either of the outer two movements which allows the ear, and brain, to discern a sonata-like structure amidst all the madcap invention. I don’t think Mr Ashkenazy was quite as bold with his tempi, so I don’t think it hung together quite as well as this recording, but this was still a performance to intrigue rather than confuse. Anyway you look at it though, these outer movements, clocking in just under half an hour each are going to have intervals of misunderstanding. Best then to admire the playing of the ton, literally, of members of the PO on stage, especially the woodwind, a match for the LPO in the DSCH symphonies, though the LPO has the benefit of Vladimir Jurowski’s increasingly brilliant readings.
So not the place to start if you don’t “get” Shostakovich. The popular First Violin Concerto certainly is though, especially with a soloist as assured as James Ehnes. The last time I heard Mr Ehnes was in a magical Messaien Quartet, alongside the Shostakovich Second Piano Trio at SJSS (Quatuor pour la fin du temps at St John’s Smith Square review *****). Mr Ehnes is a tall fellow, think Elrond to Mr Ashkenazy’s Bilbo Baggins, and it takes a seeming age for his bow to move across the strings given his very upright style. Looks can be deceiving though, as we all know, for, when Shostakovich asks the soloist to deliver in the lengthy cadenza between the third movement Passacaglia and Burlesca finale, he answered with aplomb. He was similarly convincing in the Passacaglia itself, one of DSCH’s genuinely “grand” inventions with its references to the Leningrad Symphony and the fate motif from Beethoven’s Fifth.
As with the Fourth Symphony there was a hiatus between the work’s completion in 1948 and first performance in 1955 (after Stalin’s death in 1953), by its dedicatee David Oistrakh with the Leningrad Philharmonic, a consequence of the Zhdanov decree. The piece is apparently Hamletian in scope, can’t see it myself, as well as symphonic in form, with a gentle, Elgarian Nocturne, preceding a “possessed” Scherzo (with the classic autobiographical DSCH motif, so common in later works, snuck in for the firs time), the aforementioned Passacaglia and the pumped up finale with glimpses of material from the other movements, including the folky dance of the Scherzo. Once again the PO woodwind shone.
So a fine evening presided over by a genuine grade A maestro. I am a big fan of Mr Ashkenazy piano playing, especially in Beethoven and Chopin, and even when it goes a bit off-piste. Unfortunately I never saw him play the piano live. I don’t suppose I ever will. Meanwhile this was more than adequate compensation.
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Royal Festival Hall, 18th April 2018
Stravinsky – Symphony in C,
Stravinsky – Tango arr. for orchestra
Debussy – Fantaisie for piano and orchestra
Shostakovich – Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 54
I am pretty confident that no-one reads the reviews of classical music concerts posted here, not should they, since I know so very little about the music I hear, and what I do learn is ruthlessly plagiarised. But if you do stumble across this “content” by accident it really helps if you like Igor Stravinsky and Dmitry Shostakovich. A combination of my taste and that of those responsible for programming in the finest London venues means there is a lot of these two fellas on show here. More than I had realised.
This was another instalment of the Stravinsky Changing Faces festival at the South Bank, this time from the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski’s baton rather than one of their guest conductors.
Before I get to this a shout out for the free concert in the Hall just before this from members of the LPO Foyle Future First programme. This has been created to nurture talented young musicians who aspire to a career in the orchestra. They kicked off with a bouncy rendition of Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, then tackled some short pieces by Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Edison Denisov as well as Stravinsky’s own Epitaphium, a commemoration piece for flute, clarinet and harp, which acted as the inspiration for the other pieces which, in their turn, commemorate IS. The last piece was the more substantial Furst Igor, Strawinsky by Mauricio Kagel, drawn from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor and showcasing the dramatic singing talents of young bass Timothy Edlin, and some startling percussion effects.
I chanced upon this concert. On the basis of this I will endeavour to seek out any future offerings as should you if you are in the vicinity.
On to the main event. The Symphony in C was first performed in 1940 in Chicago conducted by IS himself. The first two movements, a Haydnesque shuffle with prominent oboe, here taken briskly, and a concertante with strings sandwiched by woodwind, were written in Paris, at the same tine as IS lost his daughter, first wife and mother. No grief on show though in this effervescent neo-classicism. The last two movements were composed after IS had moved to the US and comprise a scherzo with nods to IS’s early works and a slower conclusion focussed on woodwind. The trumpet of, I think, principal Paul Berniston, also got a good workout. Like everything Stravinsky wrote, the more times you listen to it the more you are astounded by how easy it all seemed to come to him, whatever form or style he was writing in, and however “academic” the music. This IMHO is about the best Neo-classical piece ever written.
The proceeding tango for chamber orchestra was originally a piano piece, as revealed by Leif Ove Andsnes later on in his encore. Even the stuff IS churned out for money, like this, is captivating, with strings, guitar, woodwinds and more brass than you might expect. Mr Andsnes is a confident fellow, I’ve heard him play a couple of times before, and have enjoyed his interpretations of Beethoven, the Nordics and Chopin, without being utterly convinced, I regard Debussy as a bit of an occupational hazard, as it often, as here, crops up in the programmes that appeal to me. All that swirling impressionism and general diddling about doesn’t really do it for me I am afraid. The piano being the chief instrumental purveyor of the diddling about tendency for composers so inclined, I wasn’t looking forward to this.
Once again my idiotic prejudices were confounded. The Fantaisie was written in 1890 as part of a prize young Claude secured but only the first movement was performed, leading CD to huffily withdraw it. Every time it was scheduled for performance thereafter, after revisions, he missed his deadlines, so that the original published score only appeared in 1919. The revisions were finally published in 1968. Leif OA has made a signature dish from this later version which is what we heard here. The first movement introduces the theme which turns up in the final allegro, there is a bit of the “exploratory” stuff which worries me but it settles into a tune by the end. The slow movement is grandly Romantic and in F sharp major. I shouldn’t like this but I did. Maybe I have a thing for this key. This moves into the the quicker, colourful finale which is underpinned by a repeated bass figure, and that, dear reader, is why I liked it. Probably because it doesn’t sound much like Debussy.
I don’t know how much rehearsal the orchestra got with the soloists. I am guessing it was limited since the programme implied we were getting the original 1919 version suggesting a bit of miscommunication. It didn’t matter. The more I hear the LPO with VJ at the helm the more I admire their unruffled ability to support, but never, overwhelm the soloist.
There is nothing diddly about Shostakovich’s 6th. After getting back in the Politburo’s good books with the 5th he went and upset the apple cart again with this bizarrely “unbalanced” though not “formalistic” symphony. 18 minutes or so of B minor largo slow movement with one of those never ending intros followed by a funeral march second theme, which is then repeated, but in a very subdued, passive way with solo flute from Juliette Bausor, ending with the briefest of recapitulation of the first themes. Then a scherzo, with trio accent, and strident climax, straight out of the DSCH copybook and a closing rondo, with contrasting waltz, that only needs a few clowns to gallop on stage to be complete and even has the enigmatic William Tell Overture which punctuates his last Symphony No 15. No fourth movement, all done in half an hour, audience always a bit taken aback, then relieved that it’s all over. And that’s the contingent, here thankfully large, who love this stuff. The best parties don’t go on too long. Who knows what it all means.
There is a lot of opportunity for pianissimo in the first movement, with most of the orchestra resting most of the time, and VJ and the LPO were keen to show what they could do. The extended second theme of the Largo was as close to eerie Shostakovichian, chair-pinning, perfection as you could ever want to hear, and the closing presto faultless. Bish, bosh. It might still be on I Player if you’re interested.