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

H.I.F.Biber

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.

Rachel Podger and VOCES8 at Kings Place review ****

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Rachel Podger, VOCES8 – A Guardian Angel

Kings Place, 28th March 2018

  • Orlando Gibbons – Drop, drop slow tears
  • Plainchant – Pater Noster
  • Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber – Rosary Sonata No 16 Passacaglia “A Guardian Angel”
  • Jonathan Dove – into thy hands
  • Nicola Matteis – Passaggio rotto, Fantasia, Movimento incognito (from Other Ayrs, Preludes, Allemandes, Sarabandes
  • Mendelssohn – Denn er hat seinen engeln befohlen uber dir
  • Rachmaninov – Bogoroditse Dyevo
  • Tallis – O nata lux
  • James Macmillan – Domine non secundum peccata nostra
  • Thomas Tomkins – When David heard
  • Bach – Partita for flute in A minor BWV 1013
  • Monteverdi – Adoramus te. Christe
  • Orlando Gibbons – Hosanna to the Son of David
  • Giovanni Gabrielli – Angelus Domini descendit
  • Owain Park – Antiphon for the Angels

Blimey. It took almost as long to write out the programme as to listen to some of these pieces.

What do we have here then? Well the undisputed queen of the Baroque violin, (OK maybe not given Isabelle Faust, Monica Huggett, Elizabeth Wallfisch and no doubt a few more I don’t know), has teamed up with the English vocal group VOCES8 to create a programme of violin and vocal works from across the ages all themed around “A Guardian Angel”. Some of these pieces appear on Ms Podger’s 2013 CD of the same name. Rachel Podger creates a big, clear sound with vigorous rhythm which makes it a joy to follow the line of the music. Yet when virtuosity is required, (not so much on this evening), she doesn’t hold back.

Angels being angels in Christian religion they turn up a fair bit in music notably Renaissance, Baroque and the modern composers who seek inspiration from their forbears. Here we have pieces for solo violin, (or flute transposed for violin in the case of the Bach sonata which formed the backbone to the second half), for choir alone and for a combination of the two. Angels watching over you is obviously anathema to my carefully constructed rationalist self-image though maybe all this music and my penchant for early Renaissance art and architecture might cumulatively start to rub off. I was reminded of the world (other-world?) that Annie Baker explored in her latest play John (John at the National Theatre review *****).

The plainchant with the choir perched in the balcony was as meditative as you like and was followed by the Baroque violinists party piece de jour from Biber which seems to be following me around everywhere. It’s title provided the stepping off point for Ms Podger. If you don’t know it, and the genuinely ground-breaking Sonatas that precede it you should. It still sounds cutting edge today. It doesn’t skimp on the bass notes which is probably when it floats my boat. Ms Podger’s recording is the best place to start.

I can take or leave the Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov and Dove pieces though VOCES8 were more convincing than I expected, the Matteis violin extracts were immediately invigorating in that typical Italian baroque way and the MacMillan piece was as spare (echoes of Part) as you might expect from this committed composer. The Tallis was my favourite with Ms Podger’s violin taking the highest line as the Jesus to the choir’s Elijah and Moses and alongside Andrea Halsey’s spellbinding soprano. Her voice is about as good as you will ever hear (says some-one who knows absolutely nothing about singing!!).

The biggest surprise of all was the Thomas Tomkins. New to me, I will need to seek this out. The Bach was obviously wonderful, Ms Podger has made this her own and proved that it could as easily been scored for violin as flute. The Monteverdi, Gibbons and Gabrielli pieces were relatively short but very welcome. Owain Park’s new work was commissioned especially for this collaboration and amalgamates texts by St Ambrose and Hildegard von Bingen sticking to the angel theme. Like so many commissions for choirs it is immediately attractive, it is a real thrill hearing accessible music for the fisr time.

Throughout the concert we had well constructed antiphonal exchanges between violinist and pure toned choir which brought out the best of the exceptional acoustic at Hall One of Kings Place. No clapping between the pieces, a rapt audience, (no phone glows as far as I could see), and discreet but appropriate lighting all combined to maintain the magic.

I can’t pretend I understand the music that was put in front of me. I can’t read music and I am steadfastly failing to learn its language. If you are like me, and I reckon there are a lot of you who are, (obviously I say this in full knowledge of the fact that no-one reads this), then I cannot recommend the combination of Early and/or Baroque music and voices highly enough. Food for brain, heart and soul (not that there is one, but like I say earlier, faith may yet surprise me).

 

 

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

 

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.