London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor), Stewart McIlwham (piccolo), Colin Currie (percussion)
Royal Festival Hall, 16th January 2019
Arne Gieshoff – Burr
Anders Hillborg – Sound Atlas
Erkki-Sven Tuur – Piccolo Concerto (Solastalgia)
Louis Andriessen – Agamemnon
Helen Grime – Percussion Concerto
It is amazing what a little bit of knowledge, a dash of pretension and a fair amount of persistence can do. A few of years ago, like any right-minded, gregarious, gainfully employed individual, the Tourist wouldn’t have gone near a concert comprised solely of contemporary classical music. A minority pursuit for the culturally affected. Now I am wondering how many of the Southbank’s SoundState festival to attend. In the end I bottled it and only pitched up to this but there was plenty across this adventurous festival ,for the musically curious to get their teeth, and ears, into. Try it. What have you got to lose.
The draw here, aside from the always perky Marin Alsop on the podium and, of course, the LPO, was the Percussion Concerto from Helen Grime, written for master whacker Colin Currie, and the Louis Andriessen premiere. I also figured three Nordic composers, who I admit I had never heard of, couldn’t be a bad thing. (Though it turns out only one was actually from the region showing how little attention I was paying and the pitfalls of lazy ethnocentricity). And who would’t be tempted by a piccolo concerto.
Well it turned out that the Andriessen was as bold and brassy as expected, the Percussion Concerto will definitely require a revisit but the big surprise, for me if not the cognoscenti as he is already a big noise in their world, was Anders Hillborg’s Sound Atlas.
As Marin Alsop wryly observed her introductory interview with Arne Gieshoff was in danger of lasting longer than the piece itself. It was inspired by a wooden “burr” 3D puzzle, dates from 2014 and certainly had some spunk about it. There was an echo of Elliot Carter in the concentrated energy circling more stable “pedals”.
Estonian Erki-Sven Turr lives on an island in the Baltic Sea, (images of Nordic noir crime drama immediately pop into my head – a dull day and very windy,) and was prompted to write Solastalgia by the visible impact of climate change on his surroundings. Solastalgia is a time coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe the distress we feel when we see how the climate is changing the environment of our memory.
(Now my regular reader has probably divined that much agonising has left the Tourist in the Stoical camp, philosophically speaking. We humans will come and go, we are not special, we will have failed to hang around for very long in the scheme of things (despite thinking we are better than every other species) and the earth will get over the damage that our brash, selfish selves do. Still he can’t deny that it is pretty scary to watch how our infantile inability to defer gratification has left us f*cking up so much in my lifetime, with climate the obvious victim).
In Solastalgia the piccolo acts as the squeaky catalyst for much bigger shifts of texture and process across the orchestra.. E-S T describes his “vectorial” compositional style in the programme but I confess it is beyond me. As was frankly this work. Never mind, if you don’t try it you won’t ever know if you like it.
Sound World was commissioned by the LPO alongside the LA Phil, the NDR Elbphilharmonie and Goteborgs Symfoniker, and this was its world premiere. Now this was much more my style. Crystalline is the word used to describe its sound world and the first section, which makes sense giving the extensive use of string micro-tones and the eerie squeals of the glass harmonica, expertly played here by Philipp Marguerre. River of Glass, Vaporised Toy Pianos (!!!), Vortex and Hymn follow this first section and all accurately describe the mood and texture of the music. It is measured in tempo and there is enough relation to diatonic history to make it easy to digest. Ligeti sat on top of Romantic, Sibelian string drones.
Helen Grime, like the three composers mentioned above, had a few words to say ahead of her piece, again receiving its world premiere. For someone so talented she is remarkably modest. To be fair there wasn’t anything ground-breaking about the Concerto in terms of structure, with three movements played straight through, (Bright, Subdued/Lamenting and Fleet-footed/Mercurial), instrumentation or technique, but, if you have one of the best percussionists in the world, then you might as well turn up the virtuosity quotient, which she duly did. The outer movements were predominantly tuned percussion, marimba, glockenspiel and vibe, with the inner section largely tom-toms, bongos, cymbals and woodblocks. The best ideas came with the frenzied, semi-quaver rhythmic repetitions at the beginning and end, counterpointed with strings and with the interplay between soloist and orchestral percussion. The wobbling pitches of the middle section, like all “drum solos”, was remarkable more for CC’s skill than musical inspiration. Even so I was rapt, but then I always am by this musician. Given how excited he was it is remarkable he didn’t crash into anything as he bobbed from one side of the podium to the other.
Louis Andriessen’s Agamemnon was here also receiving its European premiere. The inspiration was The Iliad and LA helpfully lays out the Dramatic Personae to include homo-erotic warrior Achilles, defecting bird-watcher Kalchas, the hapless, wind sacrifice Iphigenia and best-served-cold vengeful wife Klytaimnestra, as well as the brutal Mycenaen king himself. I must admit to being a little suspicious of this conceit especially when I saw that LA had pimped up his orchestra with a couple of pianos, a sax, electric and bass guitar and a drum kit. Well, as is always the case with this veteran composer, I should not have worried. The characters do not appear in programmatic sequence, except at the end, when Kassandra, she of the prophecies, steps ups with text from Aeschylus, via Ted Hughes, and here voiced by woodwind Principal Sue Bohling. Instead the colour and tone of the various episodes in the 20 minute piece indicates the various mortals of the story. War and terror are audible, this is Greek tragedy after all, but there are softer, more lyrical passages, notably for oboe and sax. There isn’t too much of the LA post-minimalism with which I am more familiar, though there are echoes of ancient musical structures a la his classic De Staat, but there are jazz infections and syncopated percussion. A kind of post-modern tone poem/film score if you will.
It was a lot to take in but there was more than enough that warrants further examination and would be surprised if any of these pieces fail to get a further outing in years to come. The hall wasn’t full but it was busier than I have seen for many a more traditional programme. That perhaps speaks to the esteem in which Marin Alsop is held. Many a conductor talks a good game when it comes to new music: she, and the LPO, were prepared to put in the hard yards to make it happen. There were certainly four happy looking and grateful composers on stage.
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, The Swingles, London Philharmonic Choir
Royal Festival Hall, 8th December 2018
Elizabeth Atherton – soprano
Maria Ostroukhova – mezzo-soprano
Sam Furness – tenor
Joel Williams – tenor
Theodore Platt – baritone
Joshua Bloom – bass
Stravinsky – Variations (Aldous Huxley in Memoriam)
Stravinsky – Threni
Stravinsky – Tango
Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
I cannot describe how excited I was about this concert, and not just because it represented the final instalment of the year long Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey retrospective in which the London Philharmonic Orchestra (amongst others) has performed the vast majority of Stravinsky’s large scale orchestral and choral works, as well as many of the ballets at operas, at the South Bank. Here, in the final instalment, we were treated to a pair of his late “serial” works for orchestra, Variations, and for choir, Threni, as well as a few welcome surprises. Of course Stravinsky being Stravinsky this was not the miserable, astringent, intellectual fare of the Second Viennesers but an altogether more satisfying feast.
However the real reason for the Tourist’s frenzied anticipation, (OK maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration), was the performance of Berio’s masterpiece Sinfonia. The Tourist hopes to soldier on for a few more years yet and pack in a little more exploration and understanding, (though he feels he may have come close to mapping out the boundaries of what he “likes” and “dislikes”), but he is pretty sure that Sinfonia would be a shoe-in for his list of top ten greatest “classical” music works. Actually, just for fun and in festive spirit, here is the current state of play on that work in progress. In no particular order. Only one piece per composer. Oh and there are 14. Like I say a work in progress.
Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 7
Isaac Albeniz – Iberia
Antonio Vivaldi – The Four Seasons
Arvo Part – Fratres
Johann Sebastian Bach – Sonatas and Partitas for Violin
Benjamin Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
Gyorgy Ligeti – Etudes
Claudio Monteverdi – Vespers
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Symphony No 41
Steve Reich – Drumming
Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No 10
Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
William Byrd – Mass For 5 Voices
I’ll think you will agree there is nothing intimidating here and, if I say so myself, it contains a fair smattering of “popular” hits. Romantic composers are conspicuous by their absence and, for those of a certain age, in the words of Snap!, Rhythm is a Dancer here. Hopefully though you can see the Tourist is not the type to show off with the obscure or arcane. So, dear reader, if you are “new” to classical music, I say why not take the plunge with a few of these pumping beats.
Anyway back to the business in hand. Sinfonia was originally written for The Swingle Singers, the forerunner of this evening’s revamped ensemble and frankly the only group capable of doing it justice, but Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO still had a lot of work to do to pull this off. I have said before that Mr Jurowski, on his day and in the right repertoire, is as good as any conductor I have ever heard, including Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Colin Davies, Mariss Jansons, Georg Solti and John Eliot Gardiner. Any absentees you spot reflects the fact I either haven’t heard them or don’t like them. I have never heard Riccardo Chailly conduct but know I should and that Kirill Petrenko, based on the Beethoven 7 with the BPO at the Proms in September, plainly knows what he is about. F*ck me was that good.
When Mr Jurowski sets up shop permanently in Berlin in a couple of years it will be a blow to London. As will the departure of Esa-Pekka Salonen from the Philharmonia. I imagine there are plenty of people who couldn’t give a flying f*ck about the artistic leadership of London’s classical music ensembles and indeed the future direction of the South Bank but, trust me, culture, even when “highbrow”, really matters. I still have this uncomfortable feeling that olde England is now determined to plough on with making a right b*llocks of everything, from which our abiding advantage, our language, will not be sufficient to save us. We went down the toilet, geopolitically, for most of the Late Middle Ages until a few bright sparks in the C17 and beyond came up with the idea of combining capital, education and technology to travel round the world nicking land, stuff and people. We have been doing the same, that is falling back a little, for a few decades now. We still do many things well but only if we welcome innovation, capital and people. Thus changing who “we” are. Which “we” have always done. Cutting “ourselves” off is not, and has never been, an option.
Jesus what has got into me. Back to Vladimir and the LPO. He is a dab hand in just about anything Russian, and I include Stravinsky in that, but, over the past few years, he, and the orchestra have also sprung a fair few surprises. To which we can now add the Sinfonia. Berio composed the piece in 1968/69 to celebrate the 125th year of the New York Phil. Defiantly post-serial, (old Luciano had a few choice words to say about serial music even when embraced by Stravinsky), post-modern, (that being all the rage then as it still is now), forged in the white heat of the intellectual, and actual, revolutions of the late 1960s, (I realise this is not getting a bit w*anky), you might be forgiven for thinking that Sinfonia will be some arty-farty, hippy inflected guff that hasn’t aged well.
Especially when you start reading about its structure. Originally four movements, which Berio quickly expanded to five with a sort of coda that commented on the previous four, it begins with texts from Le cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked) from French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Yep that Claude Levi-Strauss. Up there with those other Gallic sorts like Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and Barthes, and worst still those dubious German types like the Frankfurt School, who we Brits are rightly suspicious of. Drinking wine, smoking odd cigarettes, carrying copies of Das Kapital, and, worst of all, thinking and talking all day. Still they, and their descendants, will never infect the stout yeomanry of the English shires with their clever dick mumbo jumbo once we get shot of “Europe”.
Now C L-S had a theory that myths were structured in “musical” form, following either a fugal or a sonata construction. Nope me neither. Anyway apparently there were exceptions to the rule for myths about the origins of water and this is what Berio alighted on for Movement I. Which I guess means it has no form. It is a kind of slow threnody punctuated by all manner of bangs and wallops with the eight amplified voices chiming in with the text. Near the end a piano gets a look in leading a percussive Bugs Bunny scramble. It is a bit nuts. C L-S was baffled by where LB was coming from. So don’t despair if you are too.
But it kind of has a way of drawing you in. Berio saw a sinfonia in a very literal sense, from the ancient Greek, a “sounding together”. A layering of sound, instrumental and vocal, often cacophonous for sure but always individually textured. And most importantly searching for “a balance” which is what distinguishes it from the plink-plonk-fizz of much of the contemporary classical music that preceded it. Thus, in movement II, Berio takes one of his own chamber works O King, for five instruments and mezzo-soprano, and recasts it for the orchestra. It is a kind of lament based on two whole tone scales where the singers gradually build up the name of Martin Luther King. Instrumental and vocal whoops representing the vowels and consonants contrast with a shimmering orchestral backdrop.
All clear. On to Movement III then. “In ruling fliessener Bewegung”. In quiet flowing movement. The sub-title of the third movement scherzo of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. For this, cut-up and re-orchestrated, is what, famously, sits behind the movement. Alongside countless other snatches of classical music through history. Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Beethoven, Bach, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith, Strauss, Berlioz, Stockhausen, Boulez and many, many more. And, because I guess it seemed to need it, fragments of Beckett’s The Unnameable are also sung, spoken and stuttered, alongside, behind or over the top of the music. There is also a bit of Joyce, some graffiti quotes, even Berio’s own diary entries.
It is a quite extraordinary experience, unnerving, hilarious, annoying, enigmatic and occasionally sublime, a history of music threaded through what might be someone’s personal history. At first it appears to be a mess, a collage with no structure or pattern. But hang on. Didn’t that musical quotation seem to echo the Mahler? And why did that phrase, which made me laugh out loud, jump out? Once again you are drawn in, looking for something, “keeping going” as Berio would have it, whilst all around “civilisation” is threatened by the forces of repression.
I know, I know. Now I sound like a right dick. And yes, just maybe it is a little bit still of its time, But it is just such a jaw-droopingly extraordinary sound-world, so rich, so un-musical yet so musical., that this must be forgiven. Movement IV returns to the tonality of the second movement with a quotation, again from Mahler’s Resurrection, setting up the voices to wander off into another, choral, world. Had enough of quotation? Berio hasn’t, as Movement V then packs in the mother of self-referencing, meta “analysis” of everything that has gone before. Your ears and brain will be processing the aural information, and telling you things, even if you don’t know how and why it is happening.
Not for one single second of the whole work does any of this feel like hard work. Quite the opposite. There is tension and resolution. It is uplifting even as it is disturbing. And very funny even as it mystifies. And I can’t imagine a better performance than here. I am listening to the recommended recording as I write. The Orchestre National de France under Pierre Boulez with the New Swingle Singers (including founder Ward Swingle himself). The LPO and current Swingles sounded better. And that from somewhere in the back stalls of the Festival Hall. Maybe it was the excitement of it being live but any way up it was tremendous. In the third movement especially the lilt of the Mahler scherzo really was there throughout but it never obscured the other musical phrases. Seating the Swingles behind the first row of strings, though still forcefully amplified, ensured they were both integrated with, and punchily counter-pointed, to the LPO. How so much detail was conjured from so much confusion was, literally, uncanny. I gather there are times when Vladimir Jurowski’s excessive precision can annoy some punters. Not me. And definitely not here.
And a shout out to the sound engineers at work for the performance. I can’t find a reference in the programme. Well done though. Unlike the BBC who managed to nonce up the Radio 3 recording.
So you will have to find another performance but give it a whirl if you can. half an hour of your life that you will never get back. But in a good way. A really, really, really good way.
What about the Stravinsky? Well the appetiser, the Variations in memory of Aldous Huxley who died on the same day that JFK was assassinated, is a twelve note tone row which is subject to a series of eleven mechanical “variations”, inversion, retrograde, and the like, with each variation made up of twelve orchestral parts and each having twelve beats in a metre. It was IS’s last orchestral score. Apparently Huxley himself would have had no truck with such serial musing but, coming in at just five minutes, it was interesting at the time if thereafter, forgettable, apart maybe from the astonishing 12 violin variation – like having Xenakis in da house.
The Threni however is an altogether more substantial affair, IS’s longest serial work, in three parts, each drawing on selected Latin verses from the Book of Lamentations, with the middle section by far the most substantial, It makes much use of sung Hebrew letters. There is no particular narrative, it not being intended for liturgy, and it wheels out a biggish orchestra, (including a sarrusophone and flugelhorn), six soloists and a hefty choir, though tutti are frugally used. It is serial in construction but, and this is where old Igor really shows his musical cunning, it doesn’t really sound like it. It is anchored in the more tonal elements of the twelve note row and regularly allows the dissonance to resolve in consonant highlights. The orchestral and choral textures are distinct and Stravinsky chucks in all manner of single tone chants and antiphonal exchanges such that, on occasion, it really does sound like the high polyphony of Tallis, Byrd and Palestrina, even if it plainly isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. It still has all the necessary austere, other-worldly “tunelessness” you might expect from a twelve tone choral work. It just isn’t ugly. Quite the reverse in many places. Full of drama and contrast. I am not saying you would want to chopping the veg or driving home for Christmas with this in the background, just that it is very different from what you might expect. It is not quite up to the neo-classical Symphony of Psalms from some 30 years earlier but is definitely up there with IS’s swan-song the Requiem Canticles.
IS drew inspiration from an earlier Lamentations of Jeremiah published in 1942 by Czech-Austrian composer Ernst Krenek which more explicitly used twelve tone technique combined with Renaissance modal counterpoint. (Don’t worry Krenek himself spent a couple of years aping Stravinsky’s neo-classicism before he became a disciple of Schoenberg). Whilst the first performance of Threni in Venice in 1958 went off well, the premiere in Paris a couple of months later was a right dog’s dinner with Stravinsky, who conducted, getting into a slanging match of recrimination with his bessie Robert Craft ,who was supposed to have prepared the orchestra, and Piere Boulez who drafted in the woefully under-rehearsed soloists. The chorus probably wasn’t best amused when presented with the original score which was, shall we say, scantily clad in the bar-line department. Mind you given the dynamic range that IS requests of the choir that might have been the least of their problems.
No such shenanigans with the LPO and Mr Jurowski who delivered a beautifully layered interpretation with the LPO chorus, split antiphonally, as persuasive as I had ever heard. In fact they made it look and sound easy which, as the paucity of live interpretations reminds us, it most certainly is not. I would point to Joshua Bloom and late replacement Sam Furness as the pick of the soloists, but then again then had more time to shine in the central passages.
Prior to the Sinfonia the Swingles served up a vocal arrangement of Stravinsky’s Tango, complete with beatbox, which I think improved on the orchestral and piano versions previously heard in this Series. And, after another a cappella treat in the form of the Piazzolla Libertango, the LPO encored with Stravinsky’s Circus Polka to send us on our way with a Yo Ho Ho.
Spare a thought though for Maxim Mikhailov the Russian bass, from a long line of Russian basses, who was booked for the Threni solo part and who sang in the Requiem Canticles here a few weeks ago. He died on 21st November. Seems like he was beaten up on a Moscow street. FFS.
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Ades, Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Royal Festival Hall, 26th September 2018
Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
Thomas Ades – In Seven Days (Concerto for piano and orchestra)
Witold Lutoslawski – Symphony No 3
Thomas Ades is a talented chap. As composer, conductor and performer he follows in the footsteps of some of the greats., and I for one think there is a lot more to come. Some of the most memorable classical music evenings I have enjoyed in the past few years have been graced by his presence.
So although his own piano concerto, and the Lutoslawski (there he is above), were pieces I knew only by reputation, this, the opening concert of the LPO 18/19 season, looked a good bet. And it certainly came up trumps. Mr Ades has a way with Stravinsky as you might expect, his own music was greatly enhanced by Kirill Gernstein as the soloist (of sorts), who showed his affinity with TA’s music in one of his mazurkas as encore, but it was actually the Lutoslawski symphony that turned out to be the highlight of the evening.
Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements marked another step in the ongoing Changing Faces retrospective of his music at the Sot Bank. It is trademark IS, sparkling brass, bubbling woodwind and pulsating strings, smoothed off spikiness if you will. Though for me the fact that the three movements were composed independently over time shows through, so it isn’t right at the top of his orchestral oeuvre. The Allegro overture first movement definitely has its moments, harking back to the early revolutionary ballet scores with prominent piano here played by John Alley. The second movement, marked Andante, is comprised of material originally intended for a film versions of the St Bernadette Soubirous, Our Lady of Lourdes, (she of the multiple visions and Catholic granny’s favourite) and has an innocent charm, with a couple of interruptions, and vocal harp line. The finale, con moto, is a lot more aggressive, reflecting its completion at the end of the war in 1945, with that motoric quality that inhabits IS’s music, at least until the final austere serial phase.
In Seven Days doesn’t muck about, taking as its inspiration the Creation. The religious one or maybe the real one. Hard to tell. It was originally performed alongside a video composition from TA’s then husband Tal Rosner. It certainly has a vivid, cinematic approach to go with the programme, think Ligeti in terms of mood if not structure. But it didn’t need any visual assistance. Tiny particles of sound combine, break-up, recombine, ever expanding as we move through the seven movements, out of Chaos through to Contemplation. It was originally scored for a smaller orchestra. Here TA had the freedom to really crank up the engine especially in percussion and brass. Eat your heart out Haydn and all the others who have also had a go at the greatest story ever told. God as scientist not mystic.
It is one of those fractal compositions, music made out of algorithms or rules, built on repetition, where the very small mimics the very large. Maths as music, or maybe the other way round. So it is in a state of constant flux but the thing with Ades is that he cleaves close enough to conventional tonality, and, the secret sauce (for me I now realise) that is rhythm, not to disappear out of sight into the impenetrable. I can’t say it all fell into place on this first hearing, but it “made sense” which is all I need to revisit. The more modern and contemporary classical music I encounter the clearer it is becoming to me what is needed to rule it in or out. I do seem to have a penchant for ever changing repetition in music with rhythm and harmony, not melody, as the hooks (as it were). Ades kicks off with extremes of pitch in the opening perpetuum mobile, (I know now these could be my favourite two words in Latin), led by strings. This breaks with a chorale and the piano kicks in leading the orchestra to further rising and falling repetitions, with some very snazzy percussion, to mark the second day. The third day is another variation starting in the bass and rising up before the glittering harmonies of day four. Days five and six are a linked fugue, sort of Bachian, with the piano appearing in the second. A calmer interlude and then back to the beginning.
Witold Lutoslawki’s third symphony is probably his most well known composition. WL’s first symphony came out in 1948 but he was, like any worthwhile composer behind the Iron Curtain, derided by the authorities for “formalism”, which as far as I can make out was anything that wasn’t rum-pum-pom patriotic. WL didn’t return to the symphony until 1965 by which time the world had changed politically and musically. He was a big fan of John Cage’s experiments in chance in music which he embraced as “aleatory counterpoint” in his work, including the second, and this, the third symphony. Never fear folks, it doesn’t mean some knotty, joyless, meandering. Just some passages where some of the orchestral players have a bit of fun as far as I could tell in this performance. (Actually what I have learnt about Cage, which isn’t much I fear, says to me he was a pretty jolly sort).
The original commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra came in 1972 but WL couldn’t find the format he wanted. In 1981 he alighted on the toccata which sits at the centre of the piece. Another two years and the rest of the work was signed off and delivered. A short prologue precedes the first of the two main movements, the toccata which is divided into three parts, each getting progressively “faster” by stretching out the basic rhythms, and punctuated by slower “intermezzi”. Apparently the Beethovian opening, and oft returning, four note motto is comprised of E naturals. Good to know. Then comes a shorter, slower “movement”, a swirling theme with string offsets. The symphony ends with a rapid coda and tutti. It is played through and comes across as a building of momentum culminating in huge crescendoes which subside and then build again. There is certainly a cosmic dimension which echoes the Ades piece, and like In Seven Days it always stays the right side of the tonality gulf and features some breathtaking instrumentation.
I could imagine that the symphony, even with this structure marked out, could get fuzzy. Not in Mr Ades’s hands though. It is a big leap to compare this performance to his ongoing, and outstanding, Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican, but, because he doesn’t hang about tempo wise, and because he prizes textural clarity over pompous showiness, in both cases, the layers of music are revealed not muddled.
So a big evening marshalled by a big man. There was much to bind the music together in terms of ambition, structure and feel. It normally takes Vladimir Jurowski, and the right repertoire, to bring the very best out of the LPO. He wasn’t missed here.
London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir, Thierry Fischer, Neville Creed, Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), William Davies (treble)
Royal Festival Hall, 24th March 2018
Symphony of Psalms
Violin Concerto in D
Credo, Ave Maria, Pater Noster
I have banged on before about the virtues of Moldovan-Austrian-Swiss, (forget national borders people), violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja before, slam-dunking Berg or crossing musical boundaries with cellist pal Sol Gabetta (Kopatchinskaja and Gabetta at the Wigmore Hall review ****). She was at it again, this time with the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Thierry Fischer a relatively late replacement for Andres Orozco-Estrada.
This was another in the South Bank’s Stravinsky exploration kicking off with Igor’s Symphony of Psalms. Three parts, with Latin settings of psalms 39 (verses 13 and 14), 40 (verses 2,3 and 4) and 150, played without a break, and constructed as a Prelude, a Double Fugue and Symphonic Allegro. Inventive enough for you? Well just to keep you on your toes IS boots out the clarinets, violins and violas from the accompaniment to his four part choir, (kids preferred by IS for the upper two parts but I reckon women, as here, is better). He adds in not one, but two, pianos and a harp to augment his already hefty woodwind, brass (a tuba, lovely), percussion and the big strings.
The first part then is like some mutant Russian/Byzantine/Baroque/Neo-Classical jazzy chorale with ostinatos broken by thick E minor chords. That is the joy of his counterpoint. Then the fugue in C minor kicks off in the woodwind, all heavenly-mysterio, then the chorus kicks in with the second fugue, then we swirl around in heaven with some Mahlerian horns bubbling away in the background until we get some rounding homophonic pronouncements at the end. The final section starts off all stark, austere and hairshirt, like the end not the start, until the propulsive allegro kicks in with a trumpet-harp motive. There is a chordal tune, a bunch of exuberant triplets echoed by the chorus and a striking running tune for horns and pianos. The slow beginning is repeated, with more warmth, and then revisited in the final Haydn-esque coda as we rise up to the stars. There are Allejujas all over the shop. This is the longest section as it incorporates the whole of Psalm 150 and it is remarkably uplifting.
The piece was written, for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in December 1930. It could only have been written at that time, by that one man, and yet …. so much of it echoes down, and forward through, the centuries. I know how daft that sounds but it is, even by Igor’s standard’s, remarkable music. Now you would normally reckon that the London Symphony Chorus rules the big choral roost in the capital. On this showing you’d be wrong. The London Philharmonic Choir under Neville Creed were on scintillating form. Bravo.
If singing this marvellous work were not enough, (though I appreciate how much work they put in ahead of it), the choir were treated to a sit down and Ms Kopatchinskaja’s astonishing fiddling. Now she certainly has a singular, and confident, performing style. Bare feet, big gown, lots of hopping and skipping about, hair tossing, it is pretty difficult to take your eyes off her. Fortunately Pat Kop, (yep, that’s her own branding), delivers a sound to match the charismatic gypsy schtick. The first movement Toccata is a souped up slab of florid Baroque, the middle two Arias exactly that, the first an upbeat shakedown, the second balladic if you will, and the final movement, Capriccio, lands us back in the heyday of early C18 Venetian virtuosity. The LPO and Mr Fischer were more than a match for their soloist keeping up, and once or twice, spurring on our self-assured diva. IS asked for a big orchestra, though again with constrained strings, but wisely never let it loose collectively, allowing the violin to always shine.. This suited Pat Kop who just about stayed the right side of insistent.
Remember when IS sent this score out to the world in 1931 his dedicatee violinist ,Samuel Dushkin, was a little intimidated by the “unplayable” wide spread three note chords which kicks off each movement. IS told him not to panic, it was a piece of cake. Once again Igor, a piano player not a violinist remember, was right and the received wisdom of the expert was wrong. He writes one violin concerto and no composer since has escaped its influence, in terms of how to relate violin to orchestra. And yet that very concerto is suffused with history. Pat Kop though wrestled with the Baroque to ensure that none of Stravinsky’s sly humour was lost.
Big, bold stuff from a soloist and and orchestra who have mastered the work. The encore was Pat Kop’s own party piece cadenza which draws on material from the Concerto, nods to Bach and ropes in Pieter Schoeman, the LPO’s leader, to act as counterpoint. Her discography shows she isn’t going to be bounced into just churning out the classics.
The Choir then took centre stage, from the rear as it were, with performances of three choral pieces that IS wrote in France after he returned to the Orthodox faith. He was a profoundly religious chap, for all his musical revolutions, and these settings, of the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the prayer to the Virgin Mary. Initially set in Church Slavonic he revisited them in later years and transposed them in to Latin texts. The Credo is chanted in devotional harmony, the Pater Noster in similar meditative fashion with a syllable to each note, with the Ave Maria sing-song-y making more extensive use of melisma. IS offered no markings so the choir and its leader have plenty of expressive headroom.
I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be persuaded by the Chichester Psalms. I wasn’t. I just don’t get on with all that flash Harry (Lenny), sub-West Side Story, Mahlerian heart-tugging. Sorry. Young treble William Davies, understandably initially nervous, stepped up in the middle movement, well done, and the crowd seemed very pleased with the piece so what do I know.
Overall then a fine evening’s entertainment and well done to Mr Fischer and Mr Creed for guiding everyone through it. And sign me up to the Pat Kop fan club.
Suffice to say that whilst Sir SR’s Petrushka and Rite of Spring were, (predictably), barnstorming it was The Firebird which really made me sit up, listen and think. Firstly because it was the original full ballet score which I do not listen to often enough. (I have recordings by Rattle/CBSO, Dutoit/Montreal SO, Abbado/LSO and Salonen/Philharmonia so its not as if I have an excuse). Secondly because he, and the LSO, were able to show how much of even the Firebird looks forward to the subsequent two ballets and the announcement to the world of Stravinsky’s own, revelatory voice, as well as back to mentor Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral colouration. And thirdly because it was just so good, even in the more restrained, colourful first half which was glorious.
Now the LPO are engaged on a year long survey of Stravinsky’s orchestral works (Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey) with Vladimir Jurowski and other conductors, (as did Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia in 2016), though many of the headline concerts are mixed up with all sorts of other repertoire. The intention is to show just how profound Stravinsky’s influence has been on the direction of classical music, as well as showing how varied were his own influences. To be an artist who is better than all who came before is a miracle. To be an artist who changes the entire direction of his/her art, whilst still acknowledging the past is mind-blowing. That is what the boy Igor did. Composers are still wrestling with his legacy. So you can’t have too much of Igor’s music I reckon. Especially when each time you listen something new pops up.
Still he had to start somewhere and Mr Jurowski and his band chose to kick off this evening with Scherzo fantastique, which along with Fireworks (Op4) and the Symphony in E flat major (Op 1), is the starting point of Stravinsky’s career. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, the other nationalist Russians in and around the Five and the folk-art primitivism which was prevalent pre-, (and even post-Revolution), can be clearly heard, of course. There is something more at work here in terms of ideas though, albeit still melodic, not rhythmic and avowedly late Romantic. After dissing all this “juvenilia” Stravinsky in the 1960s did eventually accept that it wasn’t half bad.
Funeral Song is a proper step forward though. This is getting performed all over the place since it was rediscovered in some broom cupboard in St Petersburg in 2015. Indeed this very band and conductor programmed it with their thunderous Shostakovich Eleventh at last year’s Proms (London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall review ****). It was composed in 1908 as a tribute to Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky remembered it as being more advanced in terms of chromatic harmony than any of his previous works. He was right on that score (geddit). The idea is that each of the instruments file past the master’s coffin, though often in ear-catching dialogue. It is a much darker piece than the earlier works and when it gets going there is an undeniable Wagnerian bombast to it which he just about gets away with. Anyway the point is that here some of the sound-world of the Firebird is creeping out for the first time.
Before we heard the LPO take on the Firebird we were treated to N R-K’s Piano Concerto, and treat it was. Now it is pretty easy to get sniffy about all these C19 Russian sound painters. I think I might have done. All this folk tune authenticity is exciting on first hearing but I find the novelty soon wears off. Which means I haven’t really bothered with this part of the repertoire. The chances of coming across this concerto were pretty slim as I gather it is rarely performed. It is a compact piece, one movement running to just 14 minutes though with three distinct sections, fast/slow/fast with a slow opener. For me that was its attraction but I can see that, for soloist and maybe audience, there is not enough grand gesture here to take on the canonic piano concertos. Rachmaninov is your best comparator but where Sergei would have spun out these ideas to 45 minutes, N R-K keeps it tight, with essentially just one theme, based, you guessed it, on a folk tune. The tune was sanctioned by the daddy of Russian nationalistic music Mily Balakirev who apparently gave this the thumbs up, though he became more critical of N R-K’s later work, thinking it veered into the “academic” and “Germanic”. There are plenty of flashy cascades a la Lizst which soloist Alexander Ghindin revelled in and the LPO accompaniment, especially from the woodwinds, was very persuasive. Mr Ghindin encored with the Dance russe from Petrushka to give us another take, though this felt a bit heavy-handed to me, (the playing not the linking). Maybe he had a plane to catch.
This was a clever piece to set up Mr Jurowski and the LPO’s take on The Firebird. Now when they get it right, this band and its conductor can match the best I have heard. It doesn’t always work, sometimes the line gets lost a bit, but tonight it did. Here was Stravinsky’s first real masterpiece, the debt to N R-K still audible, but with all the stunning innovation, which took Diaghilev’s breath away on first hearing, highlighted. From those growling double basses in the intro, though the shimmering strings in that magic garden, the riot of woodwind colour as our Bird takes flight, off stage brass action as Ivan bombs da house and monstrous tuba and percussion as Kastchei’s rave takes off, all sections were given a chance to shine. If I had to pick out specific contributions, well, Juliette Bausor’s flute was terrific, as well as David Pyatt and the other horns, the tuba of Lee Tsarmaklis and the piccolos of Stewart McIlwham and Lindsey Ellis.
I see I have signed up to a number of LPO concerts that have a sprinkling of Stravinsky in the mix. Whether they are part of this Changing Faces season is not entirely clear to me. No matter. You can’t get enough Igor after all.
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Andres Orozco-Estrada, Inon Barnatan
Royal Festival Hall, 27th October 2017
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 5 “Emperor”
Shostakovich – Symphony No 7 “Leningrad”
Off to the Festival Hall for a couple of big beasts of the repertoire (or at least the repertoire I like). Yet I have to say that, in both cases, the interpretations were a little too polite and not quite the emotional body slams they can and should be.
This was the first time I had heard the LPO under the baton of guest conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada and the first time I had heard soloist Inon Barnatan. There is no point fiddling about in the first movement of the Emperor. Beethoven cuts to the chase pretty quick with a marchy rhythm with a little melodic twist and the two note theme which gets played with in the development. It is all pomp and show and Mr Barnatan with his bright expressive playing had the measure of the beast. The adagio and dancey rondo allegro require a greater connection with the orchestra, notably woodwinds, which was satisfactorily wrought but without real fireworks for me. Still much to admire.
On to the Shostakovich. Now even by DS’s “tombstone” symphony standards this is an absolute monster. You all know the story of its genesis. Written as the Nazi forces encircled the city, with DS pitching in as a fireman, premiered in Kuibyshev in March 1942, score smuggled out for performance in London and then New York, and apparently defiant testament to the heroism of the Soviet people, this is music as history. I know that there is a case for this to be a “requiem” for those who died at the hands of their own Government as well as the invader. But to me it sounds like a straight programmatic account of the war in the East with the ominous drum roll of the first movement giving way to the ghostly dance of the scherzo, the extended despair of the slow movement and the victory march of the finale (albeit tinged with pain for all those lost to the carnage).
Now it does go on a bit. It is easy enough to build tension in the first movement with the trite rat a tat tat of the side drum building to a climactic racket and the scherzo does its stuff as all DS’s scherzos do. But keeping the whole edifice alive through the outer parts of the third movement and first half of the final movement (both clock in at 20 minutes) is tricky and needs a bit of sludge and shaken up tempi I reckon. Percussion, brass and woodwind ticked the boxes but the strings were just a bit too Mahlerian for me.
Overall then I had hoped for a little bit more. Any rendition of the 7th is going to have some, shall we say, opportunities for lapses of concentration, and maybe I needed to try harder, but I have heard better. Mind you the young fella next to me was even more underwhelmed. Having bragged to his mates/colleagues before the piece, and during the inordinately long pause/hubbub after the first movement, he promptly dropped off until the applause kicked in. Maybe not the best choice after a long day at work but hopefully he caught up on his zzzz’s.
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Alina Ibragimova (violin)
Prom 71, Royal Albert Hall, 6th September 2017
Igor Stravinsky – Funeral Song,
Igor Stravinsky – Song of the Volga Boatmen,
Sergei Prokofiev – Violin Concert No 1 in D Major
Benjamin Britten – Russian Funeral
Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No 11 in G Minor “the Year 1905”
What with one thing and another, but mostly my stupidity at missing the booking opening, I only made it to one RAH Prom this year and missed out on two or three that I really wanted to hear/see. Never mind BBC Radio 3 came to the rescue with their recordings. BTW I WILL PERSONALLY KICK SHIT OUT OF ANY POLITICIAN WHO HAS THE TEMERITY TO FUCK ABOUT WITH THE BBC. I can’t move quickly but I am a big lad so you don’t want to get in my way. Understood. Just joking. I think.
Moving swiftly on. The main reason for picking this Prom was the opportunity to hear the LPO with personal favourites Vladimir Jurowski (a man who seems to conduct with his shoulders and head as much as his hands and eyes, riveting from my choir perch), and the meticulous violinist Alina Ibragimova, having a crack at some hardcore C20 Russian repertoire. And specifically Shostakovich 11 which gets an outing now and then but not regularly enough to miss. Having said that I still can’t decide how much I like it.
Before the main event we had some early works from clever clogs Stravinsky. The score for Funeral Song, Op 5, was only recently rediscovered and is a memorial to teacher and mentor Rimsky-Korsakov. The latter’s influences are fairly clear, (we must thank N R-K for Stravinsky’s mastery of orchestral colours), but, for me,, the louder voice was Wagner, not a good thing to my ears. This was followed by Stravinsky’s arrangement of the Song of the Volga Boatmen, which is a rousing, if very short, ditty which served as the original Russian anthem post 1917 Revolution.
I don’t know if I will ever “get” Prokofiev. I have heard some convincing performances of his works recently, the Quintet and Martha Argerich playing the Piano Concerto No 3 (mind you I reckon Martha could leave you open mouthed in admiration playing Happy Birthday on the spoons). And the piano sonatas I remember seeing performed have been interesting. But there may be too many ideas in the music for me. My ears and brain crave repetition and structure. There is enough rhythm in Prokofiev but there is a lot of flitting about. So I may not be up to it. Still I will keep trying. This Violin Concerto created the same confusion for me. Ms Ibragimova puts line and detail into her performances and really convinces. There were passages of real interest, even when it all got a bit too lyrical, and there were such clever twists and one blinding fast passage, but once again it was just too “bitty”. Sorry. Moreover, whilst I was close enough to hear the violin clearly even with my ropey ears, I suspect the gallery punters might have been working a bit harder.
In contrast to Prokofiev Britten is dead easy for me to understand. Russian Funeral is the only piece he wrote for brass band and it is an open, Mahlerian march bookending a disquieting scherzo. The march is taken from a Russian funeral song (which appears again in the DSCH symphony), hence the title, and the whole thing reflects Britten’s anti-war stance. I loved it.
Now the main event. It is a heck of a slab. An unbroken hour, four movements, slow, faster, slow, fastish. It is based on four revolutionary songs and takes the events of the failed 1905 uprising. The programme is pretty clear, The Palace Square in winter as the revolutionaries march to petition the Tsar. The fighting starts, the Imperial Guard opens fire and the assembly is brutally quashed. We then mourn the thousand dead and finally look forward to when the proletariat will succeed in throwing off the yoke of their oppressors. Now there are some absolutely belting tunes in all of this, but it is a long, drawn out affair. This is one of the DSCH symphonies that drifts towards the cinematic which is fine except we have no pictures for the eyes so the ears get a bit of an overload. And the contrast between the icy despairing chords of the Adagios and the martial drumming of the Allegro movements is a bit overwrought. As ever with DSCH you can sometimes have too much of a good thing.
Having said that it certainly clears out the passages and conjures up an epic vision of the struggle. There isn’t very much of the sardonic or sarcastic audible here, or if there is, it is well hidden, so I can see why this went down a treat with the big boys in the Party when it was served up in 1957 as part of the 40 year celebrations. DSCH did make a few veiled comments pointing to what wad happened in 1956 in Hungary but it didn’t leap out. But then the old chap never did give much away. From the perspective of the centenary of the Revolution though it does feel a bit odd especially when you know what DSCH delvers when he nails it. Can’t fault the playing though and Mr Jurowski wisely gave as much room as was needed to the expansive phrases. No point rushing this edifice as it isn’t going to make much of a difference. And when needed he and the band turned it up to 11, indeed right at the end when the bells come in, we were treated to a 12 on the Tufnel scale.
When all is said and done, and despite the shortcomings, No 11 is still an extraordinary wall of sound and the LPO nailed it. Thanks lads and lasses.