The Swingling Sixties: the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, The Swingles, London Philharmonic Choir

Royal Festival Hall, 8th December 2018

  • Elizabeth Atherton – soprano
  • Maria Ostroukhova – mezzo-soprano
  • Sam Furness – tenor
  • Joel Williams – tenor
  • Theodore Platt – baritone
  • Joshua Bloom – bass
  • Stravinsky – Variations (Aldous Huxley in Memoriam)
  • Stravinsky – Threni
  • Stravinsky – Tango
  • Luciano Berio – Sinfonia

I cannot describe how excited I was about this concert, and not just because it represented the final instalment of the year long Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey retrospective in which the London Philharmonic Orchestra (amongst others) has performed the vast majority of Stravinsky’s large scale orchestral and choral works, as well as many of the ballets at operas, at the South Bank. Here, in the final instalment, we were treated to a pair of his late “serial” works for orchestra, Variations, and for choir, Threni, as well as a few welcome surprises. Of course Stravinsky being Stravinsky this was not the miserable, astringent, intellectual fare of the Second Viennesers but an altogether more satisfying feast.

However the real reason for the Tourist’s frenzied anticipation, (OK maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration), was the performance of Berio’s masterpiece Sinfonia. The Tourist hopes to soldier on for a few more years yet and pack in a little more exploration and understanding, (though he feels he may have come close to mapping out the boundaries of what he “likes” and “dislikes”), but he is pretty sure that Sinfonia would be a shoe-in for his list of top ten greatest “classical” music works. Actually, just for fun and in festive spirit, here is the current state of play on that work in progress. In no particular order. Only one piece per composer. Oh and there are 14. Like I say a work in progress.

  • Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 7
  • Isaac Albeniz – Iberia
  • Antonio Vivaldi – The Four Seasons
  • Arvo Part – Fratres
  • Johann Sebastian Bach – Sonatas and Partitas for Violin
  • Benjamin Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Etudes
  • Claudio Monteverdi – Vespers
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Symphony No 41
  • Steve Reich – Drumming
  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No 10
  • Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
  • William Byrd – Mass For 5 Voices

I’ll think you will agree there is nothing intimidating here and, if I say so myself, it contains a fair smattering of “popular” hits. Romantic composers are conspicuous by their absence and, for those of a certain age, in the words of Snap!, Rhythm is a Dancer here. Hopefully though you can see the Tourist is not the type to show off with the obscure or arcane. So, dear reader, if you are “new” to classical music, I say why not take the plunge with a few of these pumping beats.

Anyway back to the business in hand. Sinfonia was originally written for The Swingle Singers, the forerunner of this evening’s revamped ensemble and frankly the only group capable of doing it justice, but Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO still had a lot of work to do to pull this off. I have said before that Mr Jurowski, on his day and in the right repertoire, is as good as any conductor I have ever heard, including Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Colin Davies, Mariss Jansons, Georg Solti and John Eliot Gardiner. Any absentees you spot reflects the fact I either haven’t heard them or don’t like them. I have never heard Riccardo Chailly conduct but know I should and that Kirill Petrenko, based on the Beethoven 7 with the BPO at the Proms in September, plainly knows what he is about. F*ck me was that good.

When Mr Jurowski sets up shop permanently in Berlin in a couple of years it will be a blow to London. As will the departure of Esa-Pekka Salonen from the Philharmonia. I imagine there are plenty of people who couldn’t give a flying f*ck about the artistic leadership of London’s classical music ensembles and indeed the future direction of the South Bank but, trust me, culture, even when “highbrow”, really matters. I still have this uncomfortable feeling that olde England is now determined to plough on with making a right b*llocks of everything, from which our abiding advantage, our language, will not be sufficient to save us. We went down the toilet, geopolitically, for most of the Late Middle Ages until a few bright sparks in the C17 and beyond came up with the idea of combining capital, education and technology to travel round the world nicking land, stuff and people. We have been doing the same, that is falling back a little, for a few decades now. We still do many things well but only if we welcome innovation, capital and people. Thus changing who “we” are. Which “we” have always done. Cutting “ourselves” off is not, and has never been, an option.

Jesus what has got into me. Back to Vladimir and the LPO. He is a dab hand in just about anything Russian, and I include Stravinsky in that, but, over the past few years, he, and the orchestra have also sprung a fair few surprises. To which we can now add the Sinfonia. Berio composed the piece in 1968/69 to celebrate the 125th year of the New York Phil. Defiantly post-serial, (old Luciano had a few choice words to say about serial music even when embraced by Stravinsky), post-modern, (that being all the rage then as it still is now), forged in the white heat of the intellectual, and actual, revolutions of the late 1960s, (I realise this is not getting a bit w*anky), you might be forgiven for thinking that Sinfonia will be some arty-farty, hippy inflected guff that hasn’t aged well.

Especially when you start reading about its structure. Originally four movements, which Berio quickly expanded to five with a sort of coda that commented on the previous four, it begins with texts from Le cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked) from French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Yep that Claude Levi-Strauss. Up there with those other Gallic sorts like Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and Barthes, and worst still those dubious German types like the Frankfurt School, who we Brits are rightly suspicious of. Drinking wine, smoking odd cigarettes, carrying copies of Das Kapital, and, worst of all, thinking and talking all day. Still they, and their descendants, will never infect the stout yeomanry of the English shires with their clever dick mumbo jumbo once we get shot of “Europe”.

Now C L-S had a theory that myths were structured in “musical” form, following either a fugal or a sonata construction. Nope me neither. Anyway apparently there were exceptions to the rule for myths about the origins of water and this is what Berio alighted on for Movement I. Which I guess means it has no form. It is a kind of slow threnody punctuated by all manner of bangs and wallops with the eight amplified voices chiming in with the text. Near the end a piano gets a look in leading a percussive Bugs Bunny scramble. It is a bit nuts. C L-S was baffled by where LB was coming from. So don’t despair if you are too.

But it kind of has a way of drawing you in. Berio saw a sinfonia in a very literal sense, from the ancient Greek, a “sounding together”. A layering of sound, instrumental and vocal, often cacophonous for sure but always individually textured. And most importantly searching for “a balance” which is what distinguishes it from the plink-plonk-fizz of much of the contemporary classical music that preceded it. Thus, in movement II, Berio takes one of his own chamber works O King, for five instruments and mezzo-soprano, and recasts it for the orchestra. It is a kind of lament based on two whole tone scales where the singers gradually build up the name of Martin Luther King. Instrumental and vocal whoops representing the vowels and consonants contrast with a shimmering orchestral backdrop.

All clear. On to Movement III then. “In ruling fliessener Bewegung”. In quiet flowing movement. The sub-title of the third movement scherzo of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. For this, cut-up and re-orchestrated, is what, famously, sits behind the movement. Alongside countless other snatches of classical music through history. Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Beethoven, Bach, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith, Strauss, Berlioz, Stockhausen, Boulez and many, many more. And, because I guess it seemed to need it, fragments of Beckett’s The Unnameable are also sung, spoken and stuttered, alongside, behind or over the top of the music. There is also a bit of Joyce, some graffiti quotes, even Berio’s own diary entries.

It is a quite extraordinary experience, unnerving, hilarious, annoying, enigmatic and occasionally sublime, a history of music threaded through what might be someone’s personal history. At first it appears to be a mess, a collage with no structure or pattern. But hang on. Didn’t that musical quotation seem to echo the Mahler? And why did that phrase, which made me laugh out loud, jump out? Once again you are drawn in, looking for something, “keeping going” as Berio would have it, whilst all around “civilisation” is threatened by the forces of repression.

I know, I know. Now I sound like a right dick. And yes, just maybe it is a little bit still of its time, But it is just such a jaw-droopingly extraordinary sound-world, so rich, so un-musical yet so musical., that this must be forgiven. Movement IV returns to the tonality of the second movement with a quotation, again from Mahler’s Resurrection, setting up the voices to wander off into another, choral, world. Had enough of quotation? Berio hasn’t, as Movement V then packs in the mother of self-referencing, meta “analysis” of everything that has gone before. Your ears and brain will be processing the aural information, and telling you things, even if you don’t know how and why it is happening.

Not for one single second of the whole work does any of this feel like hard work. Quite the opposite. There is tension and resolution. It is uplifting even as it is disturbing. And very funny even as it mystifies. And I can’t imagine a better performance than here. I am listening to the recommended recording as I write. The Orchestre National de France under Pierre Boulez with the New Swingle Singers (including founder Ward Swingle himself). The LPO and current Swingles sounded better. And that from somewhere in the back stalls of the Festival Hall. Maybe it was the excitement of it being live but any way up it was tremendous. In the third movement especially the lilt of the Mahler scherzo really was there throughout but it never obscured the other musical phrases. Seating the Swingles behind the first row of strings, though still forcefully amplified, ensured they were both integrated with, and punchily counter-pointed, to the LPO. How so much detail was conjured from so much confusion was, literally, uncanny. I gather there are times when Vladimir Jurowski’s excessive precision can annoy some punters. Not me. And definitely not here.

And a shout out to the sound engineers at work for the performance. I can’t find a reference in the programme. Well done though. Unlike the BBC who managed to nonce up the Radio 3 recording.

So you will have to find another performance but give it a whirl if you can. half an hour of your life that you will never get back. But in a good way. A really, really, really good way.

What about the Stravinsky? Well the appetiser, the Variations in memory of Aldous Huxley who died on the same day that JFK was assassinated, is a twelve note tone row which is subject to a series of eleven mechanical “variations”, inversion, retrograde, and the like, with each variation made up of twelve orchestral parts and each having twelve beats in a metre. It was IS’s last orchestral score. Apparently Huxley himself would have had no truck with such serial musing but, coming in at just five minutes, it was interesting at the time if thereafter, forgettable, apart maybe from the astonishing 12 violin variation – like having Xenakis in da house.

The Threni however is an altogether more substantial affair, IS’s longest serial work, in three parts, each drawing on selected Latin verses from the Book of Lamentations, with the middle section by far the most substantial, It makes much use of sung Hebrew letters. There is no particular narrative, it not being intended for liturgy, and it wheels out a biggish orchestra, (including a sarrusophone and flugelhorn), six soloists and a hefty choir, though tutti are frugally used. It is serial in construction but, and this is where old Igor really shows his musical cunning, it doesn’t really sound like it. It is anchored in the more tonal elements of the twelve note row and regularly allows the dissonance to resolve in consonant highlights. The orchestral and choral textures are distinct and Stravinsky chucks in all manner of single tone chants and antiphonal exchanges such that, on occasion, it really does sound like the high polyphony of Tallis, Byrd and Palestrina, even if it plainly isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. It still has all the necessary austere, other-worldly “tunelessness” you might expect from a twelve tone choral work. It just isn’t ugly. Quite the reverse in many places. Full of drama and contrast. I am not saying you would want to chopping the veg or driving home for Christmas with this in the background, just that it is very different from what you might expect. It is not quite up to the neo-classical Symphony of Psalms from some 30 years earlier but is definitely up there with IS’s swan-song the Requiem Canticles.

IS drew inspiration from an earlier Lamentations of Jeremiah published in 1942 by Czech-Austrian composer Ernst Krenek which more explicitly used twelve tone technique combined with Renaissance modal counterpoint. (Don’t worry Krenek himself spent a couple of years aping Stravinsky’s neo-classicism before he became a disciple of Schoenberg). Whilst the first performance of Threni in Venice in 1958 went off well, the premiere in Paris a couple of months later was a right dog’s dinner with Stravinsky, who conducted, getting into a slanging match of recrimination with his bessie Robert Craft ,who was supposed to have prepared the orchestra, and Piere Boulez who drafted in the woefully under-rehearsed soloists. The chorus probably wasn’t best amused when presented with the original score which was, shall we say, scantily clad in the bar-line department. Mind you given the dynamic range that IS requests of the choir that might have been the least of their problems.

No such shenanigans with the LPO and Mr Jurowski who delivered a beautifully layered interpretation with the LPO chorus, split antiphonally, as persuasive as I had ever heard. In fact they made it look and sound easy which, as the paucity of live interpretations reminds us, it most certainly is not. I would point to Joshua Bloom and late replacement Sam Furness as the pick of the soloists, but then again then had more time to shine in the central passages.

Prior to the Sinfonia the Swingles served up a vocal arrangement of Stravinsky’s Tango, complete with beatbox, which I think improved on the orchestral and piano versions previously heard in this Series. And, after another a cappella treat in the form of the Piazzolla Libertango, the LPO encored with Stravinsky’s Circus Polka to send us on our way with a Yo Ho Ho.

Spare a thought though for Maxim Mikhailov the Russian bass, from a long line of Russian basses, who was booked for the Threni solo part and who sang in the Requiem Canticles here a few weeks ago. He died on 21st November. Seems like he was beaten up on a Moscow street. FFS.

Emerson String Quartet at Milton Court review ****

The Emerson String Quartet

Milton Court Concert Hall, 8th November 2018

  • Britten – String Quartet No 3, Op 94
  • 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. 

Thomas Ades and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

Lutoslawski2

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Ades, Kirill Gerstein (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 26th September 2018

  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
  • Thomas Ades – In Seven Days (Concerto for piano and orchestra)
  • Witold Lutoslawski – Symphony No 3

Thomas Ades is a talented chap. As composer, conductor and performer he follows in the footsteps of some of the greats., and I for one think there is a lot more to come. Some of the most memorable classical music evenings I have enjoyed in the past few years have been graced by his presence.

So although his own piano concerto, and the Lutoslawski (there he is above), were pieces I knew only by reputation, this, the opening concert of the LPO 18/19 season, looked a good bet. And it certainly came up trumps. Mr Ades has a way with Stravinsky as you might expect, his own music was greatly enhanced by Kirill Gernstein as the soloist (of sorts), who showed his affinity with TA’s music in one of his mazurkas as encore, but it was actually the Lutoslawski symphony that turned out to be the highlight of the evening.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements marked another step in the ongoing Changing Faces retrospective of his music at the Sot Bank. It is trademark IS, sparkling brass, bubbling woodwind and pulsating strings, smoothed off spikiness if you will. Though for me the fact that the three movements were composed independently over time shows through, so it isn’t right at the top of his orchestral oeuvre. The Allegro overture first movement definitely has its moments, harking back to the early revolutionary ballet scores with prominent piano here played by John Alley. The second movement, marked Andante, is comprised of material originally intended for a film versions of the St Bernadette Soubirous, Our Lady of Lourdes, (she of the multiple visions and Catholic granny’s favourite) and has an innocent charm, with a couple of interruptions, and vocal harp line. The finale, con moto, is a lot more aggressive, reflecting its completion at the end of the war in 1945, with that motoric quality that inhabits IS’s music, at least until the final austere serial phase.

In Seven Days doesn’t muck about, taking as its inspiration the Creation. The religious one or maybe the real one. Hard to tell. It was originally performed alongside a video composition from TA’s then husband Tal Rosner. It certainly has a vivid, cinematic approach to go with the programme, think Ligeti in terms of mood if not structure. But it didn’t need any visual assistance. Tiny particles of sound combine, break-up, recombine, ever expanding as we move through the seven movements, out of Chaos through to Contemplation. It was originally scored for a smaller orchestra. Here TA had the freedom to really crank up the engine especially in percussion and brass. Eat your heart out Haydn and all the others who have also had a go at the greatest story ever told. God as scientist not mystic.

It is one of those fractal compositions, music made out of algorithms or rules, built on repetition, where the very small mimics the very large. Maths as music, or maybe the other way round. So it is in a state of constant flux but the thing with Ades is that he cleaves close enough to conventional tonality, and, the secret sauce (for me I now realise) that is rhythm, not to disappear out of sight into the impenetrable. I can’t say it all fell into place on this first hearing, but it “made sense” which is all I need to revisit. The more modern and contemporary classical music I encounter the clearer it is becoming to me what is needed to rule it in or out. I do seem to have a penchant for ever changing repetition in music with rhythm and harmony, not melody, as the hooks (as it were). Ades kicks off with extremes of pitch in the opening perpetuum mobile, (I know now these could be my favourite two words in Latin), led by strings. This breaks with a chorale and the piano kicks in leading the orchestra to further rising and falling repetitions, with some very snazzy percussion, to mark the second day. The third day is another variation starting in the bass and rising up before the glittering harmonies of day four. Days five and six are a linked fugue, sort of Bachian, with the piano appearing in the second. A calmer interlude and then back to the beginning.

Witold Lutoslawki’s third symphony is probably his most well known composition. WL’s first symphony came out in 1948 but he was, like any worthwhile composer behind the Iron Curtain, derided by the authorities for “formalism”, which as far as I can make out was anything that wasn’t rum-pum-pom patriotic. WL didn’t return to the symphony until 1965 by which time the world had changed politically and musically. He was a big fan of John Cage’s experiments in chance in music which he embraced as “aleatory counterpoint” in his work, including the second, and this, the third symphony. Never fear folks, it doesn’t mean some knotty, joyless, meandering. Just some passages where some of the orchestral players have a bit of fun as far as I could tell in this performance. (Actually what I have learnt about Cage, which isn’t much I fear, says to me he was a pretty jolly sort).

The original commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra came in 1972 but WL couldn’t find the format he wanted.  In 1981 he alighted on the toccata which sits at the centre of the piece. Another two years and the rest of the work was signed off and delivered. A short prologue precedes the first of the two main movements, the toccata which is divided into three parts, each getting progressively “faster” by stretching out the basic rhythms, and punctuated by slower “intermezzi”. Apparently the Beethovian opening, and oft returning, four note motto is comprised of E naturals. Good to know. Then comes a shorter, slower “movement”, a swirling theme with string offsets. The symphony ends with a rapid coda and tutti. It is played through and comes across as a building of momentum culminating in huge crescendoes which subside and then build again. There is certainly a cosmic dimension which echoes the Ades piece, and like In Seven Days it always stays the right side of the tonality gulf and features some breathtaking instrumentation.

I could imagine that the symphony, even with this structure marked out, could get fuzzy. Not in Mr Ades’s hands though. It is a big leap to compare this performance to his ongoing, and outstanding, Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican, but, because he doesn’t hang about tempo wise, and because he prizes textural clarity over pompous showiness, in both cases, the layers of music are revealed not muddled.

So a big evening marshalled by a big man. There was much to bind the music together in terms of ambition, structure and feel. It normally takes Vladimir Jurowski, and the right repertoire, to bring the very best out of the LPO. He wasn’t missed here.

 

 

Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

patricia_kopatchinskaja_4_28c29_marco_borggreve

London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir, Thierry Fischer, Neville Creed, Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), William Davies (treble)

Royal Festival Hall, 24th March 2018

Igor Stravinsky

  • Symphony of Psalms
  • Violin Concerto in D
  • Credo, Ave Maria, Pater Noster

Leonard Bernstein

  • Chichester Psalms

I have banged on before about the virtues of Moldovan-Austrian-Swiss, (forget national borders people), violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja before, slam-dunking Berg or crossing musical boundaries with cellist pal Sol Gabetta (Kopatchinskaja and Gabetta at the Wigmore Hall review ****). She was at it again, this time with the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Thierry Fischer a relatively late replacement for Andres Orozco-Estrada.

This was another in the South Bank’s Stravinsky exploration kicking off with Igor’s Symphony of Psalms. Three parts, with Latin settings of psalms 39 (verses 13 and 14), 40 (verses 2,3 and 4) and 150, played without a break, and constructed as a Prelude, a Double Fugue and Symphonic Allegro. Inventive enough for you? Well just to keep you on your toes IS boots out the clarinets, violins and violas from the accompaniment to his four part choir, (kids preferred by IS for the upper two parts but I reckon women, as here, is better). He adds in not one, but two, pianos and a harp to augment his already hefty woodwind, brass (a tuba, lovely), percussion and the big strings.

The first part then is like some mutant Russian/Byzantine/Baroque/Neo-Classical jazzy chorale with ostinatos broken by thick E minor chords. That is the joy of his counterpoint. Then the fugue in C minor kicks off in the woodwind, all heavenly-mysterio, then the chorus kicks in with the second fugue, then we swirl around in heaven with some Mahlerian horns bubbling away in the background until we get some rounding homophonic pronouncements at the end. The final section starts off all stark, austere and hairshirt, like the end not the start, until the propulsive allegro kicks in with a trumpet-harp motive. There is a chordal tune, a bunch of exuberant triplets echoed by the chorus and a striking running tune for horns and pianos. The slow beginning is repeated, with more warmth, and then revisited in the final Haydn-esque coda as we rise up to the stars. There are Allejujas all over the shop. This is the longest section as it incorporates the whole of Psalm 150 and it is remarkably uplifting.

The piece was written, for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in December 1930. It could only have been written at that time, by that one man, and yet …. so much of it echoes down, and forward through, the centuries. I know how daft that sounds but it is, even by Igor’s standard’s, remarkable music. Now you would normally reckon that the London Symphony Chorus rules the big choral roost in the capital. On this showing you’d be wrong. The London Philharmonic Choir under Neville Creed were on scintillating form. Bravo.

If singing this marvellous work were not enough, (though I appreciate how much work they put in ahead of it), the choir were treated to a sit down and Ms Kopatchinskaja’s astonishing fiddling. Now she certainly has a singular, and confident, performing style. Bare feet, big gown, lots of hopping and skipping about, hair tossing, it is pretty difficult to take your eyes off her. Fortunately Pat Kop, (yep, that’s her own branding), delivers a sound to match the charismatic gypsy schtick. The first movement Toccata is a souped up slab of florid Baroque, the middle two Arias exactly that, the first an upbeat shakedown, the second balladic if you will, and the final movement, Capriccio, lands us back in the heyday of early C18 Venetian virtuosity. The LPO and Mr Fischer were more than a match for their soloist keeping up, and once or twice, spurring on our self-assured diva. IS asked for a big orchestra, though again with constrained strings, but wisely never let it loose collectively, allowing the violin to always shine.. This suited Pat Kop who just about stayed the right side of insistent.

Remember when IS sent this score out to the world in 1931 his dedicatee violinist ,Samuel Dushkin, was a little intimidated by the “unplayable” wide spread three note chords which kicks off each movement. IS told him not to panic, it was a piece of cake. Once again Igor, a piano player not a violinist remember, was right and the received wisdom of the expert was wrong. He writes one violin concerto and no composer since has escaped its influence, in terms of how to relate violin to orchestra. And yet that very concerto is suffused with history. Pat Kop though wrestled with the Baroque to ensure that none of Stravinsky’s sly humour was lost.

Big, bold stuff from a soloist and and orchestra who have mastered the work. The encore was Pat Kop’s own party piece cadenza which draws on material from the Concerto, nods to Bach and ropes in Pieter Schoeman, the LPO’s leader, to act as counterpoint. Her discography shows she isn’t going to be bounced into just churning out the classics.

The Choir then took centre stage, from the rear as it were, with performances of three choral pieces that IS wrote in France after he returned to the Orthodox faith. He was a profoundly religious chap, for all his musical revolutions, and these settings, of the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the prayer to the Virgin Mary. Initially set in Church Slavonic he revisited them in later years and transposed them in to Latin texts. The Credo is chanted in devotional harmony, the Pater Noster in similar meditative fashion with a syllable to each note, with the Ave Maria sing-song-y making more extensive use of melisma. IS offered no markings so the choir and its leader have plenty of expressive headroom.

I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be persuaded by the Chichester Psalms. I wasn’t. I just don’t get on with all that flash Harry (Lenny), sub-West Side Story, Mahlerian heart-tugging. Sorry. Young treble William Davies, understandably initially nervous, stepped up in the middle movement, well done, and the crowd seemed very pleased with the piece so what do I know.

Overall then a fine evening’s entertainment and well done to Mr Fischer and Mr Creed for guiding everyone through it. And sign me up to the Pat Kop fan club.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stravinsky from the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Alexander Ghindin (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2018

  • Igor Stravinsky – Scherzo fantastique, Op 3
  • Igor Stravinsky – Funeral Song, Op 5
  • Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op 30
  • Igor Stravinsky – The Firebird (original version)

My favourite concert of last year was Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO’s take on the three, culture changing Stravinsky ballets. Just stunning. (My favourite classical concerts of 2017).

Suffice to say that whilst Sir SR’s Petrushka and Rite of Spring were, (predictably), barnstorming it was The Firebird which really made me sit up, listen and think. Firstly because it was the original full ballet score which I do not listen to often enough. (I have recordings by Rattle/CBSO, Dutoit/Montreal SO, Abbado/LSO and Salonen/Philharmonia so its not as if I have an excuse). Secondly because he, and the LSO, were able to show how much of even the Firebird looks forward to the subsequent two ballets and the announcement to the world of Stravinsky’s own, revelatory voice, as well as back to mentor Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral colouration. And thirdly because it was just so good, even in the more restrained, colourful first half which was glorious.

Now the LPO are engaged on a year long survey of Stravinsky’s orchestral works (Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey) with Vladimir Jurowski and other conductors, (as did Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia in 2016), though many of the headline concerts are mixed up with all sorts of other repertoire. The intention is to show just how profound Stravinsky’s influence has been on the direction of classical music, as well as showing how varied were his own influences. To be an artist who is better than all who came before is a miracle. To be an artist who changes the entire direction of his/her art, whilst still acknowledging the past is mind-blowing. That is what the boy Igor did. Composers are still wrestling with his legacy. So you can’t have too much of Igor’s music I reckon. Especially when each time you listen something new pops up.

Still he had to start somewhere and Mr Jurowski and his band chose to kick off this evening with Scherzo fantastique, which along with Fireworks (Op4) and the Symphony in E flat major (Op 1), is the starting point of Stravinsky’s career. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, the other nationalist Russians in and around the Five and the folk-art primitivism which was prevalent pre-, (and even post-Revolution), can be clearly heard, of course. There is something more at work here in terms of ideas though, albeit still melodic, not rhythmic and avowedly late Romantic. After dissing all this “juvenilia” Stravinsky in the 1960s did eventually accept that it wasn’t half bad.

Funeral Song is a proper step forward though. This is getting performed all over the place since it was rediscovered in some broom cupboard in St Petersburg in 2015. Indeed this very band and conductor programmed it with their thunderous Shostakovich Eleventh at last year’s Proms (London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall review ****). It was composed in 1908 as a tribute to Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky remembered it as being more advanced in terms of chromatic harmony than any of his previous works. He was right on that score (geddit). The idea is that each of the instruments file past the master’s coffin, though often in ear-catching dialogue. It is a much darker piece than the earlier works and when it gets going there is an undeniable Wagnerian bombast to it which he just about gets away with. Anyway the point is that here some of the sound-world of the Firebird is creeping out for the first time.

Before we heard the LPO take on the Firebird we were treated to N R-K’s Piano Concerto, and treat it was. Now it is pretty easy to get sniffy about all these C19 Russian sound painters. I think I might have done. All this folk tune authenticity is exciting on first hearing but I find the novelty soon wears off. Which means I haven’t really bothered with this part of the repertoire. The chances of coming across this concerto were pretty slim as I gather it is rarely performed. It is a compact piece, one movement running to just 14 minutes though with three distinct sections, fast/slow/fast with a slow opener. For me that was its attraction but I can see that, for soloist and maybe audience, there is not enough grand gesture here to take on the canonic piano concertos. Rachmaninov is your best comparator but where Sergei would have spun out these ideas to 45 minutes, N R-K keeps it tight, with essentially just one theme, based, you guessed it, on a folk tune. The tune was sanctioned by the daddy of Russian nationalistic music Mily Balakirev who apparently gave this the thumbs up, though he became more critical of N R-K’s later work, thinking it veered into the “academic” and “Germanic”. There are plenty of flashy cascades a la Lizst which soloist Alexander Ghindin revelled in and the LPO accompaniment, especially from the woodwinds, was very persuasive. Mr Ghindin encored with the Dance russe from Petrushka to give us another take, though this felt a bit heavy-handed to me, (the playing not the linking). Maybe he had a plane to catch.

This was a clever piece to set up Mr Jurowski and the LPO’s take on The Firebird. Now when they get it right, this band and its conductor can match the best I have heard. It doesn’t always work, sometimes the line gets lost a bit, but tonight it did. Here was Stravinsky’s first real masterpiece, the debt to N R-K still audible, but with all the stunning innovation, which took Diaghilev’s breath away on first hearing, highlighted. From those growling double basses in the intro, though the shimmering strings in that magic garden, the riot of woodwind colour as our Bird takes flight, off stage brass action as Ivan bombs da house and monstrous tuba and percussion as Kastchei’s rave takes off, all sections were given a chance to shine. If I had to pick out specific contributions, well, Juliette Bausor’s flute was terrific, as well as David Pyatt and the other horns, the tuba of Lee Tsarmaklis and the piccolos of Stewart McIlwham and Lindsey Ellis.

I see I have signed up to a number of LPO concerts that have a sprinkling of Stravinsky in the mix. Whether they are part of this Changing Faces season is not entirely clear to me. No matter. You can’t get enough Igor after all.

 

 

My favourite classical concerts of 2017

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Right I know it is a bit late in the day but I wanted to make a list of the concerts I enjoyed most from last year. So everything that got a 5* review based on my entirely subjective criteria is ordered below. Top is Sir Simon and the LSO with their Stravinsky ballets. Like it was going to be anything else.

Anyway no preamble. No waffle. Barely any punctuation. Part record, part boast. Comments welcome.

  • LSO, Simon Rattle – Stravinsky, The Firebird (original ballet), Petrushka (1947 version), The Rite of Spring – Barbican Hall – 24th September
  • Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals – Reich Tehillim, Drumming – Royal Festival Hall – 5th May
  • Isabelle Faust, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Bernhard Forck – JS Bach Suite No 2 in A Minor BWV 1067a, Violin Concerto in E Major BWV 1042, Violin Concerto in A Minor BWV 1041, Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043, CPE Bach String Symphony in B Minor W 182/5 – Wigmore Hall – 29th June
  • Jack Quartet – Iannis Xenakis, Ergma for string quartet, Embellie for solo viola, Mikka ‘S’ for solo violin, Kottos for solo cello, Hunem-Iduhey for violin and cello, ST/4 –1, 080262 for string quartet – Wigmore Hall – 25th February
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Gerald Barry Chevaux de Frise, Beethoven Symphony No 3 in E Flat Major Eroica – Barbican Hall – 6th June 2017
  • Nederlands Kamerkoor,Peter Dijkstra – Sacred and Profane – Britten Hymn to St Cecilia, Gabriel Jackson Ave Regina caelorum, Berio Cries of London, Lars Johan Werle Orpheus, Canzone 126 di Francesca Petraraca, Britten Sacred and Profane – Cadogan Hall – 8th March
  • Tim Gill cello, Fali Pavri piano, Sound Intermedia – Webern 3 kleine Stücke, Op. 11, Messiaen ‘Louange à l’Éternite du Jesus Christ’ (‘Praise to the eternity of Jesus’) from Quartet for the End of Time, Henze Serenade for solo cello, Arvo Pärt Fratres, Xenakis Kottos for solo cello, Jonathan Harvey Ricercare una melodia for solo cello and electronics, Thomas Ades ‘L’eaux’ from Lieux retrouvés, Anna Clyne Paint Box for cello and tape, Harrison Birtwistle Wie Eine Fuga from Bogenstrich – Kings Place – 6th May
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Mark Stone – Gerald Barry Beethoven, Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1 and 2 – Barbican Hall – 2nd June
  • Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Howarth – Monteverdi Vespers 1610 – Barbican Hall – 23rd June
  • Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Murray Perahia – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Piano Concertos No 2 in B flat major and No 4 in G major – Barbican – 20th February
  • London Sinfonietta and students, Lucy Shaufer, Kings Place Choir – Luciano Berio, Lepi Yuro, E si fussi pisci, Duetti: Aldo, Naturale, Duetti: Various, Divertimento, Chamber Music, Sequenza II harp, Autre fois, Lied clarinet, Air, Berceuse for Gyorgy Kurtag, Sequenza I flute, Musica Leggera, O King – Kings Place – 4th November
  • Maurizio Pollini – Schoenberg 3 Pieces for piano, Op.11, 6 Little pieces for piano, Op.19, Beethoven, Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique), Piano Sonata in F sharp, Op.78 (à Thérèse), Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata) – RFH – 14th March
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Gerald Barry – Beethoven Septet Op 20, Piano Trio Op 70/2. Gerald Barry Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park – Milton Court Concert Hall – 30th May
  • Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Yefim Bronfman – Beethoven Piano Concerto No 4, Prokofiev Symphony No 5 – Barbican Hall – 24th November
  • Britten Sinfonia, Helen Grime – Purcell Fantasia upon one note, Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Colin Matthew, A Purcell Garland, Helen Grime Into the Faded Air, A Cold Spring, Knussen Cantata, Ades Court Studies from The Tempest, Britten Sinfonietta, Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks – Milton Court Hall – 20th September

 

Britten Sinfonia at Milton Court review *****

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Britten Sinfonia, Helen Grime

This is Rattle, Milton Court Hall, 20th September 2017

  • Purcell – Fantasia Upon One Note
  • Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Colin Matthews – A Purcell Garland
  • Helen Grime – Into the Faded Air
  • Oliver Knussen – Cantata
  • Helen Grime – A Cold Spring
  • Thomas Ades – Court Studies from “The Tempest”
  • Benjamin Britten – Sinfonietta
  • Igor Stravinsky – Dumbarton Oaks Concerto

Composer Helen Grime must be in seventh heaven having been chosen by Sir Simon Rattle to curate this concert and to open his first concert as Music Director of the LSO with her Fanfare. I had not heard any of her works before but on the strength of these two pieces, particularly the string sextet, Into the Faded Air, Sir Simon’s faith in her is more than justified. The other curators, Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, Oliver Knussen and Thomas Ades, drew their programmes from a similar creative wellspring, though Sir Harrison’s was suitably idiosyncratic, but Ms Grime’s offering held the most interest for me. The four composers span the decades of contemporary British classical music and show clear influences, one upon another. I note Helen Grime is also the resident composer at the Wigmore Hall.

The Purcell is, unsurprisingly, an imaginative piece, with one of the 5 parts held in middle C throughout (hello Terry Riley), allegedly so that Charles II could join in. A Purcell Garland was commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival in 1995 for his tercentenary, with three British masters arranging and invigorating Purcell fantasias for a mixed chamber group. Oliver Knussen’s fantasia directly echoes Purcell’s as the note playfully shifts around the ensemble, George Benjamin’s piece uses a celeste alongside clarinet and the two strings to create haunting textures and Colin Matthews takes an unfinished fantasia and extends it, mixing modern and baroque to great effect (this was my favourite sequence, Mr Matthews being especially adept with this instrumental combination).

We then had Helen Grime’s string sextet Into the Faded Air from 2007, made up of a short pair of opposing trios in the first movement, followed by a slow viola duet, a spiky, pizzicato driven third movement and a mournful chorale to conclude. Shades of Stravinsky certainly and Bartok for me. I really liked this piece.

I was less persuaded by Knussen’s “cantata” for solo oboe which has ten very short linked episodes searching for the high C resolution. Helen Grime’s A Cold Spring is another immediately appealing piece with a dance for a pair of clarinets, followed by an introspective horn “concerto”, and ending with a Stravinskian climax for the whole group. The Thomas Ades Studies take from material from his opera The Tempest and are scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. In just 8 minutes it sketches out the four shipwrecked aristos from the play and is brimful of energy and contrasts. Now I love Thomas Ades work as composer and performer and this was no exception.

Britten’s Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra from 1932 was his first numbered work, composed in just 3 weeks when he was a student at the RCM. I had forgotten just how clever this was – like a who’s who of composers from the previous three decades – but still recognisably his work. Whilst the first two movements have a pastoral, English feel about them to my ears, the final movement Tarantello bears the closest resemblance to Stravinsky. And Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-flat is where we ended. This was commissioned in 1939, just before Stravinsky fled to the US, for a certain Mrs Bliss, and blissful she must have been on receiving this. It takes Brandenburg 3 as a jumping off point and then frankly matches the genius of Bach. Igor Stravinsky. What a clever fellow. Still casting a long shadow over all art music today.

As usual the Britten Sinfonia, under their remarkable leader Jacqueline Shave, were on top form. They are utterly compelling under Thomas Ades in his ongoing Beethoven cycle (please try to see/hear this), but it is in contemporary music where they are without peers in this country. It is not easy to make this music immediately accessible, even to those of us laypeople that want to hear it, but the Britten Sinfonia do so effortlessly. Bravo.