Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at St Luke’s Old St review *****

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Isabelle Faust (violin), Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord)

LSO St Luke’s Old St

JS Bach

  • Sonata no 3 for violin and harpsichord in E major BWV 1016
  • Partita no 2 for solo violin in D minor BWV 1004
  • Sonata no 1 for violin and harpsichord in B minor BWV 1014
  • Toccata for harpsichord in D minor BWV 913
  • Sonata no 6 for violin and harpsichord in G major BWV 1019

The second instalment in Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout’s rendition of the six JSB violin sonatas BMV 1014-1019 following on from the Wigmore Hall in April. (Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Wigmore Hall review ****). Once again they allowed themselves a solo each, but this time some more JSB, in keeping with the Bach Weekend theme, which also celebrated the 75th birthday of the venerable Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

This time I was joined by Bach groupie MSBD. Early start. 11am on a Saturday. I wish every day started this way though.

At times JSB is truly sublime. More so that any other composer. You might find it in the cantatas, others in the masses or passions, or maybe the keyboard, instrumental ensemble works or the cello suites. Not for one moment could I disagree with you but, for me, the apotheosis of JSB’s genius lies in the violin sonatas and partitas, solo and accompanied. Great art induces a state of rapture. Not the nonsense exclusive coach trip into the sky that some befuddled Christians cling on to, but the state of grace, individual or collective, that you can feel inside your whole being when dancing in a club, or breathless and motionless in the theatre, or when your ear sends pure sound to your brain at a concert or when you get lost in a painting. It doesn’t happen much, just as well as that might overwhelm, but it is part of what makes life worth living. I appreciate that this might be a terribly old-fashioned way to think about art but I dare you to tell me I am wrong.

Anyway it happened here. In the final movement of the Partita. The immense Ciaconna. Amongst Bach’s finest creations as the programme says. They’re not wrong. It gets me most times but here, OMG, Isabelle Faust, her violin, St Luke’s, my ears, my brain, the audience, and of course, old JSB all came together as one. This old buffer did his best to hold back a tear. It is so simple, just a basic four bar pattern, (apparently “the harmonisation of a descending tetrachord” – thanks again programme notes). But JSB is able to do so much with it including a huge mood shift about two thirds of the way in. This is when you might just believe that JSB reconciles himself to the early death of first wife Maria – he was to meet Anna just a year later.

The accompanied sonatas came close to their solo cousins. I have banged on before about just how expressive Isabelle Faust is when it comes Baroque violin. She’s pretty handy too when it comes to the rest of the canon. Listen to her recordings of the Beethoven, Bartok and Berg concertos if you don’t believe me. She can even persuade me with her historically-informed interpretations of that Mozart chap. But Bach is where she enters a different realm. She applies an astringent, almost abstract, rigour which just blows me away. And KB, who has a gentler conversation with his harpsichord, is the perfect accompanist. IF doesn’t muck it up with unnecessary and unwarranted vibrato, and both the left and right hand lines for KB are clear and not jangly. This leaves plenty of room for the sonatas to breathe and, in the superb space that is St Luke’s, with the sun streaming in from outside ….. well you can see where I’m coming from.

JSB continued to revisit and buff up the six sonatas throughout his life. Maybe that’s why the old boy perfected his art here. In the early decades of the C18 the trio texture was considered the compositional ideal for chamber music, creating a perfect synthesis of linear counterpoint, full-sounding harmony and cantabile melody, (thanks once more programme notes). Put this trio principle into the hands of the man who got closer to the ideal of perfect harmony than anyone else in the history of Western music, with the melodies driven by the finest of instruments the violin, then obvs it was going to work. JSB created trio works for flute, viola da gamba (which I like) and organ but they don’t come close.

Listen to No 1, BMW 1014. It kicks off with a 5 part texture with double stopping and a 3 part effect on the harpsichord. The two quick movements, (the first 5 sonatas stick to the old skool sonate di chiesa four movement set up with No 6 breaking free into 5 movements), have each of the three lines chipping in together, the perfect realisation of the trio principle with the third movement switching to violin and harpsichord right hand weaving around a left hand bass. No 3 BMW 1016 kicks off with a slow movement where both players can show off their skills, followed by a bouncy fugue, a powerful lament in C sharp minor before rounding off with an extraordinary gallop where the violinist can really show off. No 6 BMW 1019, is very different, with a central solo harpsichord movement flanked by two jolly giant Allegro opener/closers (real faves) and two slow, simple (-ish) shuffles in a kind of canonic form.

Other than the aforementioned divine Ciaconna the Partita No 2 consists of 4 dance movements, an Allemanda, a Corrente, a Sarabanda (which foreshadows the Ciaconna) and a Giga. We have Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Kothen’s Calvinism to thank for JSB’s discovery of all things boogie as he wasn’t confined to elaborate Church music in the Prince’s employment. (We also have the genius Antonio Vivaldi to thank for the twin graces of rhythm and repetition that underpin JSB’s unique ear for inventive sonority).

Other than the Sarabanda thsee dance movements are all monophonic in structure so easy to understand and have a dominant rhythm from which the violin goes off on ever more exciting harmonic excursions. It was a massive hit when first published and performed and remains so to this day. It really is very easy to see (and hear) why. You do not need to have any interest or understanding of classical music to get this. You just need ears and a pulse. So whatever your musical bag, I implore you to listen to it. IT WILL MAKE YOUR LIFE BETTER. I promise.

KB had a little less time to shine though not by much as he picked the most extensive of the six toccatas, BMW 910-916. The D minor 913 was composed when JSB was just 20 as he went AWOL from his job and walked the 450kms to Lubeck to hear Dieterich Buxtehude play. So next time you complain about how tricky it is to get to the Barbican think on JSB’s devotion. It opens with a typical Baroque improvisation, (typical for others that is), followed by a couple of JSB trademark fugues linked by a bridge which shifts tempo and ending with a tierce de Picardie, a major chord at the end of a minor key piece, which JSB was partial too. After the Partita and the first two sonatas this harpsichord piece shifted the mood before the final, jolliest, No 6 sonata. Smart programming and smart playing, (I only know these toccatas from the never surpassed Glen Gould on piano).

So there you have it. This will definitely be a top 10 2018 concert for me and I am pretty sure for MSBD, though I have lined up a few more for his delectation. And I wonder if, by the end of my musical education, I end up realising that no-one topped Bach. It is beginning to feel that way.

 

Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Wigmore Hall review ****

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Isabelle Faust (violin), Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord)

Wigmore Hall, 9th April 2018

  • JS Bach – Violin Sonatas 4, 5 and 2, BWV 1017, 1018 and 1015,
  • Johan Jacob Froberger Suite No 12 in C minor for harpsichord,
  • Biber – Violin Sonata No 5 in E minor, Mystery Sonatas Passacaglia in G minor “Guardian Angel”

JS Bach tick. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber tick. Not just the Passacaglia from the Mystery Sonatas, which seems to appear on every Baroque violinists concert programmes right now, but one from the “other” 1681 set of sonatas. And then this chap Froberger which also turned into a qualified tick. All from the violin of Isabelle Faust, always a resounding tick, and harpsichord of Kristian Bezuidenhout, likewise.

This partnership has recently recorded the Bach Violin sonatas using some top draw instruments and the reviews are very positive. On the strength of this performance I have bought the CD. I am also signed up, in tandem with MSBD, for the second instalment of the other sonatas at St Luke’s on 16th June. I see there are a few tickets left. Snap ’em up I say.

The first couple of minutes of the opening Sonata No 4 weren’t perfect, harpsichord right hand just a bit forceful compared to left and the violin, but balance was quickly achieved and from there on we, and they, never looked back. These works are not right at the top of the Bach instrumental pile, crowded out by the solo works and the concertos and suites, but, IMHO, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be. And this sublime partnership is making that case convincingly. Son CPE certainly thought they were amongst Dad’s best works, They are not revolutionary in structure adhering to the familiar baroque sonata di chiesa pattern of four slow-fast-slow-fast movements, but they are some of the first to have a fully written out keyboard part rather than a bassline with some indications of harmonies to be filled in above it. This means the right hand can match the melodies of the violin whilst the left hand trots out the bassline. This gives the texture of a trio sonata which is most clearly heard in No 4.

No 4 kicks off with a lilting siciliano, follows with a three line fugue, then an adagio with triplets in the keyboard right hand alongside a dotted violin rhythm, then another fugue with some syncopation and cross-rhythms. No 5 starts with a largo where the violin gradually adds melody to the three part invention of the keyboard, unrelated at first and then conjoined, like a cantata aria apparently. The fast movements are fugues again, the second slow movement, arpeggios from keyboard with double stopping accompaniment from violin. No 2 is strictly 3 part, beginning with another gentle dance imitating the contemporary ‘galant” manner, followed by another fugue which sandwiches some flashy violin, then a canon, then another fugue. Now I confess I am not entirely sure what all this means but once I have recording in hand, or ear, I will try to work it out. That is the fun of art music; you know you like it, you can then spend years working out why you do and what it is.

Now apparently our man Froberger was the leading keyboard composer of the mid C17, born in Stuttgart, and working for 20 years as an organists for the Hapsburg emperors in gilded Vienna, though like all these chaps he got about a bit. Free movement across Europe you see. His compositions unite the Italian, German and French traditions, the French broken style still be based on lute technique (and a bit dull to my ears). This is one of his suites based on dances grouped by key, here C. It begins with an allemande in the form of a lament, then cheers up a bit with gigue, courante and sarabande. Still can’t quite remember the differences but this passed the time pleasantly enough. Seems JJ Froberger was a bit of a noodle forbidding publication of his compositions in his lifetime. The right to be forgotten, though now he must be a wet dream for Baroque keyboard scholars.

In contrast the Biber sonata was, yet again, a revelation. This is part of a set of 8, published in 1681, and is a barnstormer with extreme upper register shrills, very fast runs and bonkers double stopping. The work is continuous starting with a fantasia-like intro, then into an exquisite set of variations over a ground bass, then a show off presto and ending with another beautiful set of variations. Maybe this fellow isn’t quite up there with JSB and Vivaldi but he is in the vicinity and it’s a mystery to me why he isn’t more popular. A CD of this set of sonatas has literally just dropped through the letter box. I’m on it.

Biber didn’t tour much, despite his astounding technique, preferring to publish his ground breaking works for violinists and let the punters work it out for themselves. I like the sound of that. He spent most of his working life in Salzburg, after doing a runner from an employer in Bohemia. I suspect you would be hard pressed to find a bar of chocolate with his mug on it in Salzburg though unlike you know who. He married well and his surviving kids were musically gifted. In addition to the violin pieces apparently he also wrote plenty of large scale sacred music, though I haven’t seen any being performed, maybe they are a bit too labour intensive. I will find out and let you know.

Needless to say Ms Faust’s rendition of this sonata was electric, in atmosphere not technology of course. Biber may have been ahead of his time, until the Italians overtook him, but he wasn’t that advanced. I really hope she programmes more of these solo violin pieces in future and that some promoters will be brave enough to let one of the sublime baroque violinists performing today to have a crack at the Mystery Sonatas in full.

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

 

Twentieth Century Masters: LSO at the Barbican review ****

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London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, Isabelle Faust

Barbican Hall, 14th January 2018

  • Janacek – Overture: From the House of the Dead
  • Elliott Carter – Instances
  • Berg – Violin Concerto
  • Bartok – Concerto for Orchestra

Back to the Barbican for another round with Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO, though this was more familiar ground (for me) compared to the previous outing (Rameau to Mahler: LSO at the Barbican review ***) a few days earlier. And back to my more usual perch. Once again the Hall was pretty much full to the rafters, and, encouragingly, it looked liked a very youthful audience. (Or I am ageing more rapidly than I thought). Anyway, on the subject of age, the thread here was orchestral works written near the end of their lives by these four very different composers. All of which gave a chance for the whole orchestra to shine.

Now the main draw for me here was Isabelle Faust. I think she is probably the best current violinist in the world. Mind you, as is my wont, I have gone all hyperbolic in this claim with little evidence to back this up. So, more exactly, the best violinist I have heard in the past couple of years, based on recordings and her Bach outing last year at the Wigmore Hall (Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin at the Wigmore Hall review *****).

As it happens I saw a fine rendition of the Berg Violin Concerto performed by another favourite violinist in the elfin form of Patricia Kopatchinskaja last year at the RFH with the LPO under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. And I recently invested in the benchmark Levine/Mutter recording, (even though I am not entirely convinced by Ms Mutter). Now I am not going to pretend that listening to Berg comes easily to me, but even I can hear that there is a rich depth in his works from the combination of passion, intelligence, serial technique and romanticism, that rewards persistence. I rashly signed up for a performance of Wozzeck at the Frankfurt Oper a couple of years ago in German with German sub-titles (FYI I don’t speak German). Unforgivably I bought the cheapest ticket up in the gods. It is a wonderful auditorium but I could only see half the stage. That was still enough to be transfixed by an outstanding production. But most of all it meant I had no choice but to get lost in the score. Stunning. Add to this the Lulu in 2016 at the ENO directed by William Kentridge, which I confess was beyond me in parts, but was visually spectacular, and I am now well on the road to Bergian conversion. Mind you, what with his long(ish) musical education under Schoenberg, the proscription of his music under the Nazis and his early death, aged 50, after a bizarre insect biting incident, there isn’t too much composition to get your head around.

Now this Violin Concerto isn’t like others in the canon. It’s tricky for sure, and asks a lot of the soloist, but it isn’t showy. Orchestra and soloist have to mesh together. It is pretty much the last piece Berg wrote and is dedicated to the memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma (Mahler’s widow) and Walter Gropius (Bauhaus founder), who died from polio at 18. Apparently she was a captivating young woman in the manner of her mother.

The two movements are each split into two parts and with the waltz emerging from the material set out in the first movement, and the chorale emerging from the more rhythmic, almost cadenza, in the second movement. This the tempo is reversed in each. I can sort of pick out the established musical structures from within the twelve tone architecture but couldn’t tell you exactly what was going on. Suffice to say this is a dark, brooding, self-absorbed piece for the violinist and Ms Faust seemed to capture this utterly. She seemed lost in music, caught in a trap, to paraphrase Philly’s finest sisters, There are times when the whole edifice becomes just that bit self indulgent but this is where Sir SR’s insistence on picking out the orchestral instrumentation pays dividends. I hadn’t realised how detailed are the parts for harp, clarinet, viola, flute and trumpet were in this piece. I do now.

Which brings me to the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Now this is a piece written with the express intention of letting everyone in the band have a solo, like some prog-rock group in its 1970s pomp, It is an obvious, but still inspired, choice to present to an audience in a first season, and, I would hazard a guess, if you are engaged in a bit of musical team-building. I have Rattle’s first, (I think), stab at this when he was a younger at the CBSO, (though the bargain basement Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra version tops it). Anyway Sir Simon knows his way around it, and it brilliantly matches his predilection for coloration and deliberation.

I am not going to lie. It blew my socks off. There is just so much to listen to here. The first movement strings and brass, coming out of the undergrowth, with the woodwind, led by a solo oboe, getting their turn in the spotlight. The wonderful second movement scherzo with its contrasting intervals, an eerie disco. Next up an Elegia, exactly as it says, with the strings swirling around and up to be met by bold brass chords and a piccolo sticking its little nose in. The second scherzo quotes, mocks and, ultimately, compliments Shostakovich with tuba and harps getting involved, and the final movement works in classic Bartok folky stuff with a gallop to a rousing chorale at the conclusion.

I reckon we won’t have seen the last of this piece, or of Bartok, from Sir Simon and the LSO and it can probably get even better from here. Hopefully too we will see him rework some of his other C20 repertoire. Some more Stravinsky for sure, but I’d loved to hear his latest takes on Britten’s music for orchestra and, please, some, no all, of the Nielsen symphonies.

Anyway the other two pieces in this concert were tried and trusted composers for Sir Simon, Janacek’s Overture From the House of the Dead didn’t quite get the pulse racing in the way the Bartok did, but still suggested what the LSO is heading towards. (I see the House of the Dead will see a new production at the Royal Opera House in the forthcoming season. That has contemporary relevance written all over it). Sir Simon has always championed Elliott Carter and I can see why. This was another of those short, but inventive, comedy pieces that Carter was turning out in his musically fecund 90s and even into his 100s, but it has a strangely, moving ending.

Can’t wait to see what the Scouse Gandalf will programme with his band for the forthcoming season. Hopefully not too much Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius please.

 

 

Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin at the Wigmore Hall review *****

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Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Isabelle Faust, Bernhard Forck

Wigmore Hall, 29th June 2017

  • JS Bach – Suite No 2 in A Minor BWV 1067a
  • JS Bach – Violin Concerto in E Major BWV 1042
  • JS Bach – Violin Concerto in A Minor BWV 1041
  • CPE Bach – String Symphony in B Minor Wq 182/5
  • JS Bach – Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043

I had never seen the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin nor Isabelle Faust before but was aware of their reputations so I was really looking forward to this concert. Well I certainly wasn’t disappointed. This was thrilling stuff. I can safely say these were the best performances of Bach Violin Concertos that I have ever heard (mind you I haven’t heard that many live to be fair).

The opening suite set out the stall. The Akamus was founded in 1982 with many long standing members. It is also boasts a prolific performance schedule. This shared experience shows. The unanimity of the playing was astounding with the whole chamber ensemble moving as one, with every line of Bach’s music audible. A masterclass in amplitude if you like. The A Minor Suite is comprised of six dance movements preceded by an overture and was compelling from the off. There are only relatively brief periods when the solo violin line shines through but this was our introduction to Ms Faust’s ostensibly delicate, but remarkably convincing, playing. It is a mystery to me how someone who appears to barely stroke the strings with the bow creates such grand and convincing phrases.

In the subsequent JS Bach pieces,, the violin of Bernhard Forck was increasingly prominent, both as sympathetic leader, and and as support to Ms Faust. This really was Bach concerto musicianship of the highest order especially in the closing Double Concerto with its majestic fugal opening, sweet slow movement and finale with that three note repeated riff running through The link back to Vivaldi (ritornello is great for dummies like me – all the music I love is repetitive in some way) was highlighted, but the clarity of the playing made it easy to pick out the Bach innovations in each of the violin concertos. I haven’t heard better. 

The CPE Bach piece was new to me and was a fair way from the inoffensive galant style that I had thought was the hallmark of these String symphonies. Not sure I will go out of my way to explore these pieces further but this was more striking than I had anticipated.

I would love to hear more of this ensemble and soloist playing this repertoire. I am even prepared to forgive the couple of frightening perms and suspicious mullet sported by some of the gentleman on show. This will definitely figure in my annual top ten. How sad is that. I am 53. I am not holed up in a musty smelling bedroom. I should have grown out of making lists four decades ago.