Icebreaker at Kings Place review ****

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Icebreaker: Velocity

Kings Place, 5th May 2018

  • Anna Meredith – Nautilus
  • Michael Gordon – Yo Shakespeare
  • Paul Whitty – nature is a language – can’t you read?
  • David Lang – Slow Movement
  • Louis Andriessen – De snelheid (‘Velocity’)

Boundaries. And their close, and troublesome cousins, borders. The bane of human existence. Setting them, seeing them, understanding them, crossing them. We have to set boundaries in what we do, what we learn, where we live, how we interact, how we identify to make sense of ourselves and those around us. Executive, legislature, judiciary create and police them. Arguments flow from them.

So I reckon, if you aren’t going to hurt anyone by doing so, transgressing boundaries every day, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep is good for you and good for humanity. No need to bother in your sleep. Your dreams and sub-conscious are already on the case.

That then is the only explanation I have for scuttling off to see Icebreaker perform at Kings Place. For this is music well beyond my normal boundaries. Icebreaker are an 11 piece contemporary music group founded by James Poke and John Godfrey in 1989. They combine guitars, electric strings, keyboards, pan-pipes, flutes, saxes, drums and various percussion; not your run of the mill instrumentation so no surprise that they have had a fair few pieces written especially for them. They aim to appeal to contemporary classical, rock and alternative music audience camps alike. There you go. Crossing boundaries. I have poked my nose into the first camp and like the perfume, I once lived in the second camp but left in the mid 1980s and don’t really know how the neighbourhood has changed since then and I have never visited the final camp and don’t really even know what they look like there.

I am guessing that Icebreaker are content to make their music and play to a select. but engaged, audience in appropriately sized venues. Good on ’em and good on whoever supports them. On the strength concert of this I will have to pay attention to them and the composers they showcased.

The concert was part of the year long Time Unwrapped Series at Kings Place which is examining the concept of time in music from all sort of angles. Many participants in the Series have argued that our perception of time is intimately bound up with music. Here were 5 pieces that were written in the last couple of decades, 3 for this very ensemble, which examine the concept of velocity in music, that is the rate of movement, think speed, compared to a fixed point of reference.

I had listened to the Louis Andriessen piece, called Velocity, de Snelhied in Dutch, before in its original form for three separate “orchestras” of unusual combinations, balanced through amplification. James Poke has arranged this for Icebreaker’s smaller forces retaining the structure. Mr Andriessen, there he is above, every inch the modern composer, is generally seen as a torchbearer for the minimalism that was kicked off in the US in the 1960s, and he was one of the key inspirations for the formation of Icebreaker. He was born into a family of composers and is a renowned teacher. The energy, pulse and rhythms of “classic” minimalism and jazz are audible in his music, as well as, who else, Stravinsky, but on top of this he lays big slabs of dissonant sound. It is really exciting stuff and he sounds like he had a lot of fun writing it. de Snelheid was a hit at the Proms given by the London Sinfonietta in 2012. A prom I missed because a) I am a dickhead and b) it was my birthday. Ligeti, Xenakis, Berio, Cage and Harvey in addition to Mr Andriessen were on the roster. Wow.

You would have thought I would have learnt my lesson. Oh no. Same thing last year when I missed the performance of Andriessen’s Workers Union, alongside pieces from the triumvirate of Bang on a Can composers, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang. Yes, dear reader, two of the very same composers who appeared in this programme. Small world, eh? Which it sort of is really, but it does seem that when composers such as Louis Andriessen are served up to a bigger and wider audience, of boundary breakers, positive surprise ensues, as at the Proms.

Now de Snelhied was apparently inspired when LA was driving with mates in Italy, listening to Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky and someone asks how fast they would have to go to go as fast as the music. Now this seemingly dumbass question is actually quite profound. Like LD saying the other day that she “couldn’t remember her first memory”. Whilst LD has a history of inadvertent hilarity, this actually points up that memory is constructed in the present and not “recorded” in our brains at the time of passing. Which is why it is fallible and plastic. Similarly LA realised that musical speed, like velocity itself, could only be measured, like velocity, by reference to a fixed point.

The piece kicks off with a steady pulse on two woodblocks around which the rest of the ensemble adds various repeated motifs. The woodblock pulse however speeds up at intervals, to close at 4x the pace it started out, (trust me this is very fast). This drags other instruments into accelerating except for one stubborn percussionist on bass drum and tom-toms who bashes out the same infrequent pulse throughout. The underlying chords too remain slow throughout. It is a weird aural sensation initially, but once you adjust to what is going on, you can hear what LA was up to; the tempo is not defined by the speed of the pulse but by the harmonic rhythm. I get it.

The other pieces similarly mess about with the notion of time, or more specifically, velocity in music. Anna Meredith’s Nautilus, here arranged for Icebreaker, introduces a slow strident drumbeat against a rising, skittery brass fanfare, both drawn from the electronic dance music which is Ms Meredith’s other vocation. By the end it becomes impossible to work out if this is a slow piece with a fast overlay or the other way round.

Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare divides the ensemble into three groups, one playing a basic semiquaver pulse, the other two playing respectively in 3:2 and 4:3 against this pulse. There is a beat of sorts in each group, but if you switch between them it gets a bit disorientating. Prof. Paul Whitty, (well named in this context as he is sort of taking the p*ss), has taken this very piece and “deconstructed it” by asking each player to take the notes on each of the pages of their scores and play them in order from highest to lowest. Three of the musicians also chuck in mp3 recordings, unsynchronised, which they may try to translate on their own instruments. The idea is that the timbre, note durations, dynamics and harmony remain the same as in Mr Gordon’s piece but in a disordered, ghostly way. I can grasp the idea but found it difficult to relate the two pieces but it was “fun” trying.

David Lang’s piece does exactly what it says on the tin, or should that be the can. It is 24 minutes of very, very slow note progression, which swirls about and feels very different depending on whether you try to focus your ears on the big picture architecture of the piece or the little details. It does test the patience, no doubt about that, but is it intriguing and has a kind of imposing grandeur. The compositional equivalent of a unified theory of everything, marrying the cosmic with the atomic. Try it.

So there you have it. Icebreaker took me to places I would never otherwise visit and I am very grateful to them for doing so. They delivered a thrilling performance, musically if not visually, as, with all the gubbins on stage, it look more like a studio jamming session than a “gig” despite a bit of coloured lighting. Icebreaker recorded the Gordon, Land and Andriessen pieces as long ago as 1994 so I think it is fair to say they know their way around them. Which is as well I think they are fiendishly difficult to pull off, not because of the notes or technique, but because the person right next to you is off playing something in a completely different time.

So take a tip from the Tourist. Break one of your self imposed cultural boundaries. Hate the theatre? Go and see King Lear, ideally in a language foreign to you. Love Mozart? Listen to some grindcore, though be wary of the lyrical extremes. Enjoy all that Tate Modern has to offer? Explore a cathedral. Canterbury, Ely or Wells would be my first choices. Ed Sheeran popping up too often on your Spotify? Try Neil Young. And so on.

What have you got to lose? Other than a couple of hours of your life. Being miserable. Still YOLO.

Bach: The Late Concertos from the Feinstein Ensemble at Kings Place review ****

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The Feinstein Ensemble, Catherine Mason, Miki Takahashi, Sarah Moffatt (violins), Robin Bigwood (harpsichord), Martin Feinstein (flute, director)

Kings Place, 13th April 2018

JS Bach

  • Triple Concerto in A minor for flute, violin & harpsichord BWV 1044
  • Concerto in D minor for violin (reconstructed from BWV 1052)
  • Concerto in F for harpsichord & two recorders BWV 1057
  • Concerto in D for three violins (reconstructed from BWV 1064)

More Bach. Once again in the company of MSBD. Can you listen to too much JSB. Of course not. Mind you, you would have to if you ever wanted to get through all that he composed. Good luck with all those cantatas, chorales, songs, preludes, fugues, suites and toccatas. I will keep chipping away at the works for keyboards but, if I am honest, I think the solo string works and the concertos are enough to keep me satisfied.

Here we get a quartet of slightly less often performed concertos, composed in his maturity, when JSB was directing performances at the Collegium Musicum. That’s when he wasn’t occupied with composing music for his day jobs at four Leipzig churches. Three of the works are triple concertos, one reconfigured for 3 violins as opposed to 3 harpsichords and one single concerto for violin which was superseded by the harpsichord.

The first piece the Concerto in A minor for flute, violin and harpsichord in fact started life as two separate organ works, and is configured for the same orchestra as the Fifth Brandenburg even down to just having the three soloists play in the middle, slow movement (based on the organ sonata BWV 527). Moreover the harpsichord gets its own cadenza. the outer movement material is drawn from the Prelude and Fugue for A minor for harpsichord BWV 894 from 1717, and it is a lot less bright in mood that the Fifth Brandenburg. The outer two movements, marked allegro and presto, are complex even by JSB standards and. together, turn this into his longest concerto work. This was a big noise for just nine period instruments.

The harpsichord concerto in D minor BWV 1052 probably started out as a violin concerto, as we hear it here, witness the string-crossing formations in the first movement. This is unusual for having all three movements in minor keys. JSB’s use of riternello is most marked here.

The Concerto in F for harpsichord and two recorders is a subtle reworking of the Fourth Brandenburg in G major, with the solo violin part cleverly rewritten for the harpsichord and with the two recorders really coming to the fore.

As with the solo violin concerto the triple violin concerto in D was lost and only survived in the later harpsichord form. This has been reconstructed for the violins based on alterations made to the surviving score and it is a spectacular tour de force. Some of JSB’s stuff for multiple harpsichords can induce ear confusion I admit but not this work.  Hearing the melody lines played on shared violins, (above an often shared bass line), makes the work so much clearer.

Martin Feinstein, and his squad of crack Baroque musicians, are regulars at this venue, and he assembled a series of programmes here, alongside this, to celebrate the regular “Bach Weekend”. I am no flute expert but I would say Mr Feinstein knows where he is at on the pipes and his performance, alongside I think Catherine Manson on violin and Robin Bigwood on harpsichord, was thrilling, after a couple of minutes to get in the zone. Ms Manson took the lead for the solo violin concerto, with Emily Bloom joining Mr Feinstein for the recorder concerto. Ms Manson was joined by Miki Takahashi and Sarah Moffatt for the triple violin which was probably the highlight for me, although the two recorders ran it close, largely because I know the tunes.

The thing with JSB, as with Beethoven, is that the perfect logic and structure of the music makes you feel like you have heard it before and you know what is coming next. As it happens,, with JSB plundering his own back catalogue in this concertos, it is quite possible you have heard it before, but that is not what I mean. The instantaneous emotional joy is interlinked to the sustained intellectual pleasure. I still don’t really know what I am listening to in purely musical terms, all that counterpoint, harmonic and motivic organisation. I am though extremely grateful to all those Bach scholars, starting off with that nice Mr Felix Mendelssohn, who have got us to where we are now.

And to JSB himself for knowing that all those notes could, together, make these sounds. No Bach, no tonal system. No Bach, no modern instruments. No Bach, no instrumental solos.  Well maybe not entirely true, but his was the great leap forward in Western music. So kids, when you are listening to whatever Spotify chucks at you, and moving to the beat, you have JSB to thank.

 

 

 

 

 

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).

 

 

Colin Currie Group at Kings Place review ****

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Colin Currie Group

Kings Place, 20th January 2018

Steve Reich

  • Music for Pieces of Wood
  • New York Counterpoint
  • Mallet Quartet
  • Drumming Part 1
  • Vermont Counterpoint
  • Quartet (2013)

So off to Kings Place for another immersion into the sound world of Steve Reich guided by his finest living advocates (probably), the Colin Currie Group. Having seen the CC Group perform Reich a couple of times in the past couple of years, (at the RFH), I consider myself something of a groupie. I was honoured this time to be accompanied by not one, but two, potential converts to the live, minimalist music cause in the shape of MSBD and MSBDB. And, to emphasise, you really do need to hear this live for the full effect.

I won’t bore you with another hagiography extolling the virtues of Mr Reich. Take a look here if you want that (Steve Reich’s Drumming and Tehillim at the Royal Festival Hall review *****). Suffice to say I urge anyone to give his music a whirl and see what you think. I won’t hold it against you if all that repetition sends you to sleep. Me, I am fascinated by it. Out of apparent rhythmic simplicity emerges music of shimmering and unsettling intensity.

On the subject of repetition in music I promised myself I would not use this blog to eulogise the now departed Mark E Smith. Let’s just say RIP. Hands down the most important creative force in my lifetime.

Anyway this gig kicked off with Music for Pieces of Wood written in 1973. Which is exactly that. Though these are not any old offcuts having been specially selected for their pitches, A, B, C, sharp D sharp and another D sharp an octave higher, and timbre. It is built entirely on patterns of beats and rests over three lengths 6/4, 4/4 then 3/4. That’s it. As so often with Mr Reich the apparent simplicity though belies its careful planning and the subtlety of outcome. There is no place to hide for the players here.

New York Counterpoint from 1985 sees a clarinettist, here Timothy Lines, pre-record ten different parts, including for bass clarinet, which is prominent in the last movement, against which he plays a final, eleventh line, live. Vermont Counterpoint from 1982, here performed by flautist Rowland Sutherland, employs a similar, though to my ear more complex, technique for flute, alto flute and piccolo, across 10 pre-recorded parts and one solo line using each instrument. In both cases, despite the discipline employed in terms of relationships of rhythm, tempo and meter, the effect is of often “melodic” and ambiguous counterpoint, with more than a whiff of Stravinsky’s neo-classical chamber works. Maybe at times in both pieces the solo line could have been brought forward a little “in the mix” but I was persuaded.

Mallet Quartet is a more recent piece from 2009 scored for two vibraphones and two five octave marimbas extending down to cello C apparently. Once again three movements, fast/slow/fast, with some fancy changes of mallets. The marimbas create the rhythmic backdrop linked by a canon structure in the fast movements, with the vibraphones providing the melodies, again largely in canon. In the slow movement it all gets pared back however, and the effect from the vibraphones is of a far more atonal world which I am not sure would be to everyone’s taste and is a fair way from “typical” Reich.

Back on track though with the iconic Drumming, or at least the first of the four movements. This is divided into four clear parts and is for four pairs of tuned bongos. (This makes me think once again of MES with his quip that The Fall was him and your granny on bongoes. Now if your granny could only play bongoes like this ……). Anyway this is quintessential Reich, building from one beat to twelve beats, alternated with rests, and then with the rests replaced with beats until the cycle is completed, and then reversed. This pattern is repeated in the other three movements with the different instruments, and it was a shame not to hear this (see review above), especially the spellbinding third movement with glockenspiels (and whistling !) and the thrilling final movement, where the whole lot gets chucked in. There is so much in the sound created that is it is impossible to believe the structure is so simple. This is Reich at his most hypnotic, made more so in this performance by the strobic effect of the movement of the sticks in the “fastest” passages. MSBD loved it so much he nodded off apparently – trust me that is a compliment. When Reich, (and other minimalist music), succeeds your mind and body can “drain away” leaving just the rhythm. Far out. Sorry for this hippy gibberish but it’s true.

Which brings me to Quartet from 2013. This piece, scored for two pianos and two percussion, which is the building block for many of Reich;s earlier works, shows what he is now up to. This is melodically much more complex than the previous works on show, with multiple key changes, breaks and pauses, frequent gentle dissonance, and shifts into new ideas. In fact more like most contemporary classical music. Fast/slow/fast once again, but the slow movement contains harmonic variety which you won’t find elsewhere in Reich’s compositions, though once or twice it veers towards doodling. Don’t worry, there is still rhythm at the core but this takes the players up a further notch in terms of level of concentration. Which is why is was written for, and dedicated to, this ensemble. I was much taken with it and will need to add it to the list of recordings of Reich’s music I need to lay my hands on. (I see there is one about to be released, And CCG are releasing their own recording of Drumming which will surely be a treat).

Loved it and so did the audience. Kings Place acoustic is terrific, warm and offering up waves of sound, so I doubt I will hear a better treatment of these works.

Next up CCG will play Reich;s Tehillim, based on psalms and reflecting his Jewish heritage, and which uses voices and wide instrumentation to drive melodic invention. Still Reich but this is more minimalism meets Baroque. Annoyingly the BBCSO also takes on Berio’s Sinfonia in this concert but I will be pandering to my new found fascination with Ligeti at the South Bank. Seems like the Barbican and the South Bank are going head to head in competition for the geeks.

 

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.