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.

 

Luciano Berio: London Sinfonietta at Kings Place review *****

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Luciano Berio: Theatre of the World

London Sinfonietta, Kings Place Choir, Jonathan Cross (presenter), John Woolrich (curator)

Kings Place, 4th November

  • Lucy Schaufer – mezzo-soprano
    Michael Cox – flute
    Darragh Morgan – violin
    Paul Silverthorne – viola
    Timothy Lines – clarinet
    Lucy Wakeford – harp
  • Young violinists from Waltham Forest Music Service and the Kurumba Youth Orchestra
    London Sinfonietta

Luciano Berio

  • Lepi Yuro
  • E si fussi pisci for solo viola and for choir
  • Duetti: Aldo
  • Naturale
  • Duetti: Various
  • Divertimento
  • Chamber Music for clarinet, cello, harp and mezzo-soprano
  • Sequenza II for harp
  • Autre fois
  • Lied for clarinet
  • Air arr John Woolrich
  • Berceuse for Gyorgy Kurtag
  • Sequenza I for flute
  • Musica Leggera
  • O King
  • Chants Parallelles

Many years ago, maybe 30 or so, I heard a piece by Luciano Berio in a mixed programme at the Barbican. The ticket was free, courtesy of FF, and I cannot, for the life of me, remember the other pieces, the performers or the name of the Berio work. But I remember being completely blown away by the music, making a firm mental note that it was by Berio and that I should explore his music further.

Of course I didn’t. Modern classical music was just too tricky to grasp and I had a life to get on with. But there must have been the germ of something there. Now that I am older, and maybe wiser, I am beginning to understand that this was not a one-off novelty experience. There was something about Berio’s music that had left a mark. There seem to a handful of other modernist classical composers who similarly create a connection for me and I am still working my way through other candidates. Outside of the minimalists and a handful of contemporary names, Berio, along with Iannis Xenakis, Gyorgy Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki are the chaps that float my boat. There may be more.

So I am actively seeking out performances, live and recorded, of these lads. Heaven knows why they stand out but I think I am drawn to the fact that they all seem to engage with the musical past in some way, they pump up the rhythm, they can create extraordinary sound worlds (if you can’t hum it best to get wowed I find) and they favour dramatic and dynamic contrasts. No doubt if you know what you are talking about when it comes to music you would be able to offer me more comprehensive explanations (feel free to do so – I would be very grateful). There is still a lot of modern and contemporary classical music that leaves me absolutely baffled so there must be something going on in my head with these particular composers.

Here was a marvellous opportunity to enjoy a variety of Berio’s small scale output as part of the Turning Points series at Kings Place curated by British composer John Woolrich with the London Sinfonietta, who excel in modern works and premiered many of Berio’s pieces in the 1970s and 1980s. Now Mr Berio didn’t seem to suffer from any form of “composer’s block”. Prolific doesn’t begin to describe it. He composed for all manner of instrumental forces, including electronics and tape, and was particularly adept with the human voice, as well as strings, piano and flute Their are many large scale works, Coro and Sinfonia are maybe the most well known, but there is also a wide range of chamber and solo pieces which left Mr Woolrich with a serious curating challenge. One which I think he responded to with aplomb.

If there is one thing that characterises Berio’s oeuvre it is the way he incorporates the music of the past into the music of his present (the second half of the C20 to be exact). The references can be direct in terms of source material, (he arranged the work of diverse composers from Monteverdi to Mahler), or indirect in terms of fragments, quotes and styles. He saw this as transcription rather than collage but the effect, for the non-musical listener like me, is like a comfort blanket which anchors the “avant-grade” in the familiar.

Folk music played a large part in his framework and this concert kicked off with Lepi Yuro, a classic Croatian folk song scored here for viola. That was followed by a famous Sicilian folk song, E si fussi pisci, set first for solo viola and then, in its more usual format, for mixed chorus, with some suitably fishy impersonations at its conclusion. This choral arrangement was one of the very last pieces Berio composed. Nothing challenging here at all.

We then moved on to one of Berio’s short 34 duetti (1983) for two violins. These were originally written as teaching pieces to introduce the techniques of contemporary music to students, with one half of the duet given a much higher level of technical difficulty than its partner. Each was dedicated to a performer. composer or musicologist and, through time, they increased in sophistication as Berio took a playful view on the history of violin composition and just what it was possible to do with the instrument. The first piece was dedicated to Aldo Bennici, one of Berio’s favourite champions and a multiple dedicatee. After Naturale we were treated to ten more of the Duetti with Darragh Morgan, the LS’s lead violin, charmingly accompanied by young members of the Waltham Forest Music Service and Kurumba Youth Orchestra. Bartok, Stravinsky, Boulez and Berio’s Italian contemporary and sidekick in his electronic adventures, Bruno Maderna, were all name-checked.

Naturale from 1985 takes a recording of a raw and passionate Sicilian folk singer, Peppino Celano, belting out street vendor cries, (if you get the chance listen to Berio’s Cries of London for six unaccompanied voices which is just amazing), and frames it with an extremely expressive viola playing material transcribed from folk songs as well various percussion effects from marimba, rototoms and tam-tam. It is a extremely affecting and the most substantial piece on show in the programme. 

Next up was Divertimento, an early piece from 1946 (revised in the mid 1980s) composed for string trio, before he went to the US and discovered serialism, and which pays homage to Stravinsky and Bartok. This was followed by the first of the two Sequenzas on show, this being No II for harp with No I for solo flute following later on in the programme. Berio’s 18 Sequenzas are amongst the most well known and performed of his compositions and are staples of the solo repertoire for the instruments they showcase. In each case they exploit, with Berio’s trademark humour and musical knowledge, the full gamut of playing possibility with extended techniques piled up high. Watching Lucky Wakeford thumping the side of her harp or picking up the very highest registers was a joy. Berio wanted to show just what was possible beyond pretty glissando for the harp and he surely does. This was also true for the more commonly encountered Sequenza for flute played by Michael Cox which was another highlight of the evening.

Autre fois from 1971, scored for harp, flute and clarinet, is a miniature subtitled Berceuse Canonique pour Igor Stravinsky, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about its mood and structure. This was followed by Lied for solo clarinet (here played by Timothy Lines) which, as the title suggests, sounds like a mournful song. The orchestral version of Air dates from 1969 but the following year it was recast for soprano and piano quartet. Our mezzo-soprano for this evening was Lucy Shaufer who was in fine voice. Remember Mr Berio’s works for voice comprise some of the finest contemporary pieces for mezzo-soprano given his muse was the American Cathy Berberian whom he married in 1950 and whose professional partnership extended well beyond their divorce in 1964. 

Air was followed by Berceuse per Gyorgy Kurtag, another short piece written in 1998 and dedicated to the redoubtable Hungarian master of the very small. This was followed by Musica Leggara (1974) for flute, viola and cello, (and I gather a tambourine if required), dedicated to a certain Godfreddo Petrassi, which is a spiky canon and not I think the “light music” of the title. Another joke maybe. The concert ended with  one of Mr Berio’s most famous vocal pieces, O King, written in 1968 for mezzo soprano and here strings and woodwinds. This was later incorporated into Sinfonia, possibly Berio’s most influential work. This was written to commemorate the death of Martin Luther King and, as you might expect, packs a powerful emotional punch as the civil rights leader’s name gradually emerges from the soprano’s voice line, If you could pick one work that gets to the heart of Berio’s music this might be it.

i was, annoyingly unable to stick around for the post concert discussion, (I know this sort of thing smacks of obsessive nerdiness but you can learn a lot), but the insight into Berio from the interviews showing in the other Hall at Kings Place was very welcome. He didn’t sound like he was the easiest chap to get on with but the reminisces did show just how broad were his influences and how much he influenced. His role as a teacher and mentor and his fascination with the business of making music, with sound itself, was also emphasised.

And we got to listen to Chants Paralleles, one of his ground-breaking electronic works from 1975. Now a lot of this sort of thing is just so much electronic bubble and squeak in my very limited experience but once again, somehow, Berio makes it vital and intriguing.

There you have it. I am a fan. Give him a whirl. You never know you might like it

And hats off to Kings Place for these Turning Points events. There is a bit of cheesy novelty involved in some of them but this can be overlooked given the learning on offer. The concert on 24th March 2018, from the London Sinfonietta again, which brings together some classic chamber works from the early C20, and links this to space-time and Einstein, (if every playwright on the London stage seems to be intent on shoehorning in brain-bending science, why not music?), looks interesting. As does the OAE’s contrasting of Haydn’s first and last symphonies on the 12th May.

I don’t suppose the bigwigs at the Wigmore Hall are quaking in their boots but Kings Place has emerged as a worthy foil to the grand old dame of Wigmore Street.

 

 

 

Tim Gill (cellist) at Kings Place review *****

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London Sinfonietta’s Tim Gill: Avant Cello

Kings Place, 6th May 2017

Tim Gill – cello
Fali Pavri – piano
Sound Intermedia

  • Anton Webern – 3 kleine Stücke, Op. 11,
  • Olivier Messiaen – ‘Louange à l’Éternite du Jesus Christ’ (‘Praise to the eternity of Jesus’) from Quartet for the End of Time,
  • Hans Werner Henze – Serenade for solo cello,
  • Arvo Pärt – Fratres,
  • Iannis 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

I have a theory. If the C18 was characterised by the rise of the violin (beauty and enlightenment) in Western art music and the C19 the piano (power, expression and romanticism), then the C20 saw the cello come to the fore. If you want to pump up the emotion, eloquence and lyricism in music then the cello is the chap for you. It does profound in a way no other instrument can match and the C20 has much that composers have wished to be profound about. And in the purely musical sense you have 4 strings capable of a such wide variety of sound that it is really easy for the uninformed punter like me to grasp.

So there are some very good, some not so good and some very famous pieces written for cello from the last century. Think the large scale concertos of Elgar, Honegger, Walton, Prokofiev, Britten, Shostakovich, Ligeti, Lutoslawski and Penderecki for starters. There are also plenty of smaller scale works and this is largely the repertoire that the Cello Unwrapped series is exploring at Kings Place this year. Whilst there is a place rightly reserved in the series  for the mighty cello led works of JS Bach and Vivaldi and the earlier Classical composers there are also plenty of C20 cello works to feast upon.

And of those programmes this for me looked the best of the bunch (though I am signed up for a handful later in the year). I can’t pretend I went into this knowing all of these pieces but there were enough hooks and enough interesting sounding composers to get me all of a flutter.

I wasn’t disappointed. The Webern pieces are over in a instant but they pack in a host of new sounds which must have had contemporary listeners in full on WTF mode. I had heard the Messiaen before but on its own it is truly beautiful. Just a simple, unfolding, sonorous (cello trademark) cantilena like Part and Tavener deliver, and with a hint of Britten. Easy peasy to like. Then the first of the solo cello pieces, the Henze serenade. Henze is on my list to do more work on and blimey this was persuasive. Nine little movements each with a clear musical structure and immensely playful but never pastiche. I have heard Part’s Fratres millions of times, in various combinations, but this might have been the best ever. The arpeggiated opening and percussive interludes were played by Tim Gill with real aggression, and in the chorales he and Fali Pavri really attacked the music in a way I never thought possible. The Xenakis piece for solo cello was another one of the works by this composer that sound like they have been pulled out from deep underground with all sorts of exhilarating sounds and rhythms which get us boys all worked up. The Harvey piece involved a live tape delay which meant that Gill’s single cello line turned into a five part canon. The Ades piece was a sweeter affair intended to depict the action of water – I enjoyed this but it wasn’t as immediately exciting as some of the other compositions. As for Paint Box by Anna Clynne, well the mix of recorded voice, breathing  and other sound loops with a sonorous cello line and Mr Gill playing a musical box (I kid you not) was way better than it had any right to be. I love this thing where a piece which frankly I am never likely to hear again sucks you right in and then lodges in your head for days afterwards. We ended with the Birtwhistle piece. What can I say, it is just too much of a stretch for me now but one day, perhaps, I hope to become sufficiently sophisticated so that his work will make sense to me – alas this evening was not it (I am not taking the p*ss here – I really do mean this).

So I take my hat off to Mr Gill. He is principal cellist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the London Sinfonietta so clearly knows his onions. I cannot though imagine a better advocate for this music and with Fali Pavri he had a more than sympathetic partner. Just brilliant. This is the way to listen to contemporary art music.