Peter Wispelwey (cellist) at Kings Place review ****

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Peter Wispelwey, cello

Cello Unwrapped: Bach Through Time Concert III. Kings Place Hall 1, 8th December 2017

  • JS Bach – Cello Suite No 1 in G, BWV 1007
  • Benjamin Britten – Cello Suite No 3, Op 87
  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Sonata for solo cello
  • JS Bach – Cello Suite No 3 in C, BWV 1009

If I had to pick my favourite venue in London for classical music it would probably be King’s Place. The design is lovely. The acoustic is perfect, especially upstairs. The welcome is warm. (I lost a book there once. They found the book and then they found me). The programming is interesting. In particular the year long seasons which artfully pull together chamber music across a genre or theme. This year, Cello Unwrapped; in the last couple of years, the Baroque and Minimalism. Next year, Time Unwrapped, a more ambitious conceit which is chock full of interesting programmes. To be fair it has helped that the last three years have focussed on particular favourites of mine in terms of period and instrument but, even so, I heartily recommend Kings Place to anyone who isn’t already a regular. Bear in mind too that I am only really a consumer of the classical events: there is plenty of other stuff, music, comedy, spoken word, going on there as well. Finally they make a decent cup of tea in the caff upstairs, the loos are spotless, and there is usually some free art to soak in before, after or during the interval. And, in the summer, there is a pleasant saunter available along the canal.

Now I appreciate that the very best chamber music is likely to be found elsewhere in London, specifically the Wigmore Hall. The Wigmore certainly has its charms, but the legroom isn’t up to much and, if you intend to spend a fair time in her formidable company, you had better get used to seeing the back of other peoples’ heads. I am partial to Cadogan Hall but the repertoire is mostly orchestral and requires careful sifting. St John’s Smith Square delivers some stirring stuff for Early Music, Baroque and Contemporary enthusiasts like the Tourist but there is no hiding the fact that it is a Church, atmosphere therefore trumping sound and comfort. Mind you it is a beautiful lump of Baroque, fancy enough to satisfy, but not so fancy as to make one queasy. Thomas Archer’s buildings have taken a bit of a hammering in London, (go see St Paul’s Deptford if you don’t believe me), so it is good that this, maybe his best, looks so perky. I am also very, very partial to Milton Court Concert Hall, largely for the same reasons as Kings Place, and St Luke’s Old Street, where the interior has been brilliantly re-crafted by architects Levitt Bernstein. But, in both cases, the number of concerts which match the Tourist’s tastes, is constrained.

I digress. It was the programme here that attracted me as I confess no knowledge of Ms Wispelwey before this evening. Bach obvs, it being impossible to hear the cello suites too many times in a lifetime, but also the Britten which echoes old JSB, and the Ligeti, which, in its own way, is also an homage to the old boy. Ligeti is rapidly becoming my favourite mid/late C20 Modernist. It’s great this “finding out about new music” lark.

Apparently Britten intended to emulate Bach and compose six cello suites but this, unfortunately, was the last, written in 1972. His last operas, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice, and then his failing heart, got in the way. Shame. I prize Britten’s chamber pieces above all of the rest of his glorious music. Obviously more personal but deeper, spikier and, if it is possible, cleverer. There are times, though, when Britten’s genius can be too satisfying, like a musical Vermeer, You just want him to cut loose. In some of the knottier passages of the chamber music this is what you get.

Actually scrub all the above. The reason why BB is the greatest English composer since Byrd, (sorry Purcell and Elgar fans), is the operas, of course. You can keep your Italian melodramas: give me Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw or Curlew River, (yep opera doesn’t have to be full orchestra and divas belting out love arias, in fact it is better when it isn’t), any day of the week. The whole must always be greater than the sum of the operatic parts in my book, and singing cannot smother drama.

Now this last suite has some deceptively simple ideas but the overall effect is still one of immense variety of expression. A four note motive is set against a repeated bass in one of Britten’s favoured mournful Passacaglias, with repeated pizzicato, which precedes the 3 Russian folk songs arranged by Tchaikovsky and the Orthodox hymn the Kontakion chant, which act as the conclusion. Remember this was written for, and first performed by his friend, the great Russia cellist Mistislav Rostroprovich, after hearing his performance of the Bach suites. After BB’s death Mr Rostroprovich couldn’t bear to play this piece.

Earlier in the piece we have a very quick, unsettling Moto Pertpetuo which appears to invert the motif and a stately Fuga which sets it against the main line, and suggests the counterpoint which JSB famously conjures up in his suites. Elsewhere we hear a Dialogo, marked allegretto, which flips across two staves, a Barcarola, which echoes the famous Prelude from JSB’s No 1 Suite which opened this recital, a jittery Marcia, and a strange Canto. Mr Wispelwey, in very droll fashion, introduces the piece by, er, introducing each of the short movements, which provided both bearings and an insight into Britten’s compositional process. All in all, a very satisfying rendition of one of BB’s finest works, IMHO.

The Ligeti sonata is made up of two movements, both written relatively early in his career, 1948 and 1953. The first, Dialogo, a slow movement, was written for a cellist who GL fancied. It is based on Hungarian folksong, (always a rich source of inspiration for the great man), and alternates from high to low ranges, apparently representing a conversation between a man and a woman. The Second movement is a Capriccio is a rapid Moto Perpetuo that, in places, would be tricky enough on a violin, let alone cello. It’s brilliant. Like the Britten the debt to JSB isn’t hidden, notably in the manic string crossing, as ears and mind rush to keep up with the musical invention. The thing about Ligeti for me is that his music always seems to be having a laugh. None of this thorny intellectualism that can so often block your path into contemporary music. There is a celebration of Ligeti’s music at the South Bank in May. Yea. I am signed up.

No need for me to rabbit on about the Bach in detail. You will know these pieces. They are, in essence, just dances. But what dances. If you don’t know them then you should. No point living a life without the best of Bach. Make it your New Year’s resolution.

I shall be looking out again for Mr Wispelwey’s recitals. He made these technically demanding pieces look easy, (well maybe not that easy), and has a very direct style which made it relatively straightforward to follow the line of the music. He has a winning charisma, and a natty shirt/waistcoat combo, but when it all got seriously emotional on stage, we were rapt. He knows the Bach suites like the back, front and sides of his hands, he has recorded them three times. I just bought the last recording, played on a Baroque cello, tuned at a lower pitch (392 vs 440 normally). Apparently he plays fast and loose with the usual tempo interpretations. Can’t wait to find out what it sounds like.

 

Bach and Telemann: Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court review *****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (director and violin), Rachel Brown (flute and recorder), Rachel Beckett (recorder), Alistair Ross (harpsichord) 

Bach and Telemann: Reversed Fortunes, Milton Court Concert Hall, 7th December 2017

I see I am now close to being a Academy of Ancient Music groupie. Not in a sinister way, that would be very strange. Just that I seem to pitch up to most of their London concerts. Unsurprising given their repertoire I suppose. And what a joy it always is to hear them play. This was no different. And I had a new chum in MSBD to join me.

Now the theme here was to contrast the contrasting fortunes of a certain Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. They were mates in the 1720s, 30s and 40s, with GPT becoming CPE Bach’s godfather, and both successively securing the reputation of the Collegium in Leipzig. Back in the day though Telemann (pictured above), with his suave, easy listening modelled on his French contemporaries, was by far the more popular composer, with JSB and his knotty, brainy counterpoint, and strong Lutheran faith, some way behind. As we all know JSB’s music languished for centuries, now some might say his is the daddy of all Western art music. Meanwhile whilst Telemann maintains a cherished place in the baroque world of the Baroque enthusiast, he is not much performed beyond this.

The influence of Vivaldi’s vast concerto output was much greater on JSB, and is clearly visible in the Brandenburg’s especially when played one to a part as here. In particular in the Fifth with its single tutti violin, though it is the solo harpsichord cadenza, the first ever of its type, that is the most memorable part of the concerto. Alistair Ross didn’t hold back once the harpsichord emerged from the string ritornello and his rubato was unleashed. A bit showier than Steven Devine in the last BC5 I heard in SJSS with the OAE. However, I think the Brandenburg 4 here with Rachel Brown and Rachel Beckett on the recorders was the highlight. Once the two Rachels got into the swing of it there was no stopping them, propped up by Bojan Cicic masterful violin playing, and by the end those recorders produced as sweet a sound as you could imagine (not always the case for the period recorder).

Having said that I think the most satisfying piece of the evening was the Telemann Concerto for flute and recorder. He wasn’t the only one to pair the “old” and the “new” wind instruments, Quantz was on to this, but he clearly mastered it. Written in 1712, the Concerto has some very attractive galant homophonic playing from the two instruments looking forward to the Classical. Elsewhere the soloists chase the lines from one to the other against very attractive dances, including nods to the eastern European folk tunes that he studied. The French influence on GPT is more apparent in the Overture suite, (he wrote over two hundred of these), with its simple dance rhythms and story based on Don Quixote. There is plenty of easy on the ear comic effect, (listen out for donkeys), and lots of colour. It is all so pleasant (though if I was critical maybe a tad too pleasant).

So another fine concert from the AAM who really seemed to be enjoying themselves. As I think did MSBD. In fact I know he did as he said so. I shall miss the AAM Messiah in the Barbican Hall and their intriguing Haydn and Dussek programme in April, but will be back here for the 15th February Pergolesi, Corelli and Handel gig, and for the 31st May concert in the Hall with Nicola Benedetti. Unmissable I reckon.

Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (director), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 3rd November 2017

  • Bach The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus 1 to 4
  • Mozart Piano Concerto 15
  • Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet
  • Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence

There is something truly thrilling about watching a group of string players, some standing, going hell for leather, as one, in a piece written exactly for them. Not to decry the full blown symphonic experience or the intimacy of the quartet but this is a special treat. Normally I see (and hear) this as part of a Baroque programme, normally Italian, or maybe a spot of Bach. Here we had a powerful modern ensemble.

Now we, for I was accompanied by the discerning ear and brain of Mrs TFP, that the wide expanse of the Festival Hall might swallow up the band but we needn’t have worried, as even from our perch astern, the sound was splendid. What was something of a shame is that the Hall was barely half full, a real shame since the ACO under Richard Tognetti, are world class. It was not as if the programme was challenging in any way. Even in the repertoire that we found less appealing, (I favoured the Shostakovich, Mrs TFP the Mozart), namely the Tchaikovsky, the finesse and control of the ACO was astounding. In those passages in the Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky which called for the strings to come together the unanimity of sound and movement (bows moving exactly in unison) was uncanny. Like one instrument.

Now I have heard the Art of Fugue performed by harpsichord, piano, string quartet and viol consort. All different, all fascinating as the simple theme is worked through with increasing complexity across the 13 completed, and 1 unfinished, fugues and, sometimes, the 4 canons. There is probably someone out there who has had a crack at Bach’s masterpiece on the stylophone. (I’d paid good money to see that). I gather that Richard Tognetti, who has led the ACO since 1990 (that presumably explains the discipline of playing on show), can sometimes get a little carried away with his arrangements. Not here. Now admittedly the first 4 of the contrapunctus are easy for even my ears to follow, as the meticulous theme is set out in the first, the dotted rhythm added in the second, turned upside down and filled out in the third and expanded and “sped up” in the fourth (here through the use of pizzicato). So I am not sure how much further they could go with this work, even with their technical mastery, but this was very interesting and flawlessly delivered.

I hate to admit it but the Mozart was beautiful. I don’t know the 15th Piano Concerto but I am well aware of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s qualities, last heard by me in a majestic Emperor Concerto under Essa Pekka Salonen. You can hear how young Wolfgang, (well not so young by the time he wrote this), created the piano concerto form we know and, usually, love today. There is some lovely woodwind action, lots of sublime tunes and some fiendish piano playing, but all wrapped up in a charming bow. Once again the playing of orchestra and soloist was technically precise, but with no lack of emotion.

Now my prime reason for booking this concert, other than the reputation of the orchestra, was the Shostakovich piece since this, in my experience is rarely performed. Written in 1924, when DSCH was still a student, in memory of his friend Volodiya Kurchavov, there are obvious signs of the composer DSCH would be come. The Prelude is still rooted in the Romantic Russian composers of the late C19 but in the plunging response to the initial theme and with the high accompaniment to the second theme there is more modernity. The Scherzo second piece could easily have dropped out of a DSCH symphony from twenty years later. Sardonic, ghostly, then a comedy march, with all that thrilling dissonance.. A joy to hear and brilliantly executed by the eight musicians.

The Tchaikovsky was the (good) surprise of the evening for here Mr Tognetti’s arrangement of this sextet, for all his strings, really showed just how extraordinary their playing is. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of passages in this near 40 minute piece, that annoy me intensely, it’s all just too show pony, but I did get sucked in I admit. Not sure it is the same Florence that I know and love but all that lushness and heart tugging yearning is hard to fight. And to be fair the ACO’s muscular approach dials down the sentimentality (though not the pony).

There isn’t much about Aussies that makes me jealous (actually that’s a lie, there is) but this orchestra is definitely one of them. I will add them to my list of must see orchestras/ensembles when they come to London alongside the Concertgebouw, Bavarian RSO, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Staatskapelles Berlin and Dresden, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Spira Mirabliis, Ensemble Intercomtemporain, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Les Arts Florissants, Freiburg Baroque, Europa Galante, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and, vain hope, Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Mind you with the LSO under Rattle we now have the best in the world, fact.

 

Fretwork at the Wigmore Hall review ****

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Fretwork (Asako Morikawa, Joanna Levine, Sam Stadlen, Emily Ashton, Richard Boothby)

Wigmore Hall, 18th September 2017

JS Bach – The Art of Fugue – Contrapunctus I-XI, XIV

Fretwork are one of those marvellous groups of dedicated adventurers who have brought Early, Renaissance and Baroque music back to life. There was a time when vast swathes of this music was forgotten, unperformed and left to rot. But just as the Modern swept away all that dreadful artistic junk from the Late C18 and C19 (Western art music was a bit more fortunate thanks to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) so an ever increasing band of scholars and, from the middle of the last century, performers (first amateur and then professional), revived and extended our knowledge of this music. And at the same time the beat came back.

In fact it seems to me that there are two types of Western classical music listener: those who revel in the bombastic pretensions of the Romantics , where a wall is erected between listener and performers, and those of us who prefer to get our pleasures from “simpler” structures, music with discernible rhythm and pulse.

We are now probably three generations into the rise of Early Music and “period performance”, which has a healthy following in the concert hall and in recordings. All this love and scholarship has also changed the way music is performed and understood across the “classical” spectrum. In contrast to jazz, blues and modern “popular” music, composition and performance are separated in “classical” music. Context and history matter. The how, what, why and when of performance and composition matter. The renaissance of the musical Renaissance has generated a vital third strand in “classical” music, alongside the veneration of the sacred Romantic texts performed by “gifted” performers and the challenge to the layman of “in yer face” contemporary classical.

So thanks to all those who devote their education and lives to bringing this joy and passing it on to the next generation, rather than selling their skills to an investment bank. And to those composers who are writing for these ensembles.

Fretwork is a viol consort founded in 1985 and, as I understand it, only Richard Boothby remains of the original line-up. Their focus is normally on music of a somewhat earlier vintage than JSB (though they will and do extend the viol sound into unexpected places). Indeed JSB didn’t stop tinkering with the Art of Fugue until just before he departed this world. For those that don’t know it, JSB takes a fairly straightforward (but eminently adaptable) theme in D Minor and then sets off counterpointing the bejesus out of it. Fugue, contrapunctus, counterpoint – it all means the same thing. Take the tune in one place, then get everyone else to pick it up whilst messing around with it, then mesh it all together into a satisfying whole. For some Bach’s music is incredibly fiddly, like the architecture of the High Baroque which leaves me cold. But, whilst I hear the fiddly, I also hear the rhythmic whole. And I think lots of other people do. Simple and complex simultaneously. That’s the genius.

Now the Art of Fugue can be played in any number of ways by any number of instruments (though a single harpsichord I gather is the most likely inspiration). Clever old JSB. Never seen or heard modern strings or a modern piano but wrote perfectly for them. By the time it was written the viol was on the way out superseded by the precursors of the stringed family we see today. So it is unlikely the old fella would have expected it to be played by this combination. Flat backs, sloped shoulders, different shaped holes, more strings, different bowing techniques and, importantly frets (hence the band’s name), all conjure up a very different sound-world to a modern string quartet say.

I loved it. Turns out this is a revelatory way to follow all the counterpoint. The viols create alternatively 3 or 4, and occasionally 5 lines, which can all be followed but without detracting from the overall architecture. Whilst maybe less transcendent than a single keyboard version, (played say by Glen Gould, grunts and all), it was probably superior to the string quartet interpretations I have heard. Best of all was the final unfinished fugue, No XIV, with its musical BACH signature. There is a lot of debate apparently around why the old boy didn’t finish it (he started it well before the onset of blindness and anyway could have had an assistant complete it). So usually once the three themes that make it up, including the BACH theme, are introduced and developed it just stops and trails off as written. Here Mr Boothby has, with the ideas of a clearly very bright scholar, finished it off. Whilst I have no idea of the theory that backs it up it made for a very satisfactory ending to an excellent recital.

Fretwork. Check ’em out.

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.

 

 

Murray Perahia at the Barbican Hall review ***

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Murray Perahia

Barbican Hall, 11th June 2017

  • J S Bach – French Suite No 6 in E major, BWV 817
  • Schubert – 4 Impromptus Op 142, D 935
  • Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K 511
  • Beethoven -Sonata No 32 in C minor, Op 111

Murray Perahia is a great pianist. No doubt about that. And I am always keen to hear his Beethoven interpretations. However the last few concerts I have seen in London from him have been a mixed bag. The solo recital this time last year was a little underwhelming with a fine Mozart A minor sonata offset by a curiously underpowered Hammerklavier. In contrast his Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 and 4 earlier this year, with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields which he also directed, were marvellous. Another performance of PC No 4 under the mighty Bernard Haitink’s baton was also sensational.

In this concert we had a similarly puzzling evening. The Bach was the best of the bunch, played with great clarity and musicality and with that lovely counterpoint revealed in all its perky glory. I won’t comment on the Schubert – I just don’t really get on with it – but the audience was clearly persuaded. I didn’t know the mournful Mozart Rondo but this was a compelling rendition so I will need to check it out.

The Beethoven, his final sonata, with its curious structure and strange, ethereal musings, took a bit of time to get going. Mr Perahia’s treatment of the Maestoso opening of the first movement was more deliberate than the recordings I know (Pollini and Paul Lewis are my favourites) but by the time we reached the fugal development, which uses the whole keyboard, it was back in the groove. The longer second movement, with its six variations largely in C major, was much more convincing and here I got lost in the beauty of Beethoven’s music. The movement is near 20 minutes in total but always seems timeless to me.

So a fine evening of solo piano music but not quite as engrossing as I had hoped.

Richard Goode at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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Richard Goode

Royal Festival Hall, 31st May 2017

  • JS Bach – Partita No 6 BWV 830
  • Chopin – Nocturne Op 62/1
  • Chopin – Mazurka Op 41/3
  • Chopin – Mazurka Op 41/4
  • Chopin – Mazurka – Op 50/3
  • Chopin – Polonaise-Fantasie Op 61
  • Beethoven – Sonata No 28 Op 101
  • Beethoven – Sonata No 31 Op 110

Whilst I do not own any recordings by renowned American pianist Richard Goode, and have not (to my knowledge which is fallible) seen him perform in concert, I was attracted to this programme and by his reputation in this repertoire. This certainly did not disappoint particularly in the Beethoven sonatas.

I know the Bach from a Glen Gould recording. For me no-one comes close to Gould’s musicality in Bach on a modern piano but Mr Goode’s more deliberate counterpoint was still in a pleasure in this delightful work. The first movement toccata is kind of the star of the show with a showy fugal structure at its heart. Then we get the dancey movements but as ever with JSB’s partitas (for whatever instrument) they take the dance base and ask the player to give it a thorough workout with many profound touches.

The mazurkas were a little more impactful for me than the Polonaise-Fantasie as this late work is where Chopin starts to get a little overbearing. I confess I am generally more for the smaller scale, “simpler” Chopin works, but the last of the Op 50 set is a bit more ambitious and actually therefore was a more satisfying listen when sandwiched between the chunkier works of Bach and Beethoven.

The slow movements of both of the late Beethoven sonatas were particularly impressive. The final movement of No 28 is a blinding pice of music with its tonal shifts and the acceleration to the finale. The same structure is employed in No 31 but here the songlike first movements and jaunty scherzo ends with a radiant slowish fugal movement which goes through massively dramatic stops and starts. There are plenty of more immediately attractive middle period sonatas and the big bastards like No 29 Hammerklavier and No 32 (all human life is there) but No 31 might be the best of the bunch because its gets more out of less. Anyway who cares, every note on the piano he ever wrote gets me.