Beethoven Choral Symphony: LSO at the Barbican review *****

London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey (chorus director), Iwona Sobotka (soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Florian Boesch (baritone)

Barbican Hall, 12th February 2010

Not quite the Tourist’s last Beethoven fix before lockdown. A very dramatic take on various of the piano sonatas from Boris Giltburg was to follow a couple of weeks later, but this, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, was the final live orchestral piece I heard prior to us holing up, somewhat ahead of “Government” “advice”. The sonatas were shared with MSBD: the Choral with MS himself. A fine way to bow out then, hopefully temporarily, in this Beethoven anniversary year. And not just because the Ninth is such an almighty thing, ending with the “Ode to Joy”. Towering achievement is the customary cliche I believe. No, this was also memorable not just because it was the first time my lad had heard it performed live but also because Sir Simon Rattle, who has always nailed Beethoven in the past in my experience, and the LSO, smashed it.

OK so I can imagine, and have seen and heard, better all-round performances, not least from the wizard Haitink and this band in this hall a few years ago. But this was still something special. We opted for the cut-down programme, just the Choral, in the Half Six Fix slot, an initiative I hope the LSO maintains when normality, or some version of it, returns. Which means we missed out on Berg’s Lulu Suite. No pointing pushing my boy too hard and anyway, Lulu works better as opera than orchestral, where Alban’s lush romanticism can dominate at the expense of the quirky dramatic.

Anyway like I say the Beethoven was very, very good. Sir Si, after a little lecture on lessons learnt from past maestros, didn’t rush the Allegro first movement, from the opening crashing chord entries, properly cosmic, into the two themes, and, especially, in the giant coda, all ma non troppo, just like LVB said. Nor in the Scherzo, that marvel of sonata form, based on a racey fugue ,(pinched from the first movement opening), wrapped inside the ternary structure, with the dinky trio, with perky oboe solo from Juliana Koch, and Goughie’s sublime bassoon, in between. Which meant that when we got to the Adagio, I was happy to luxuriant in the vibrating string bubble bath, which is not always the case. I’d guess Rattle clocked in at over a quarter of an hour. I am normally a fan of the HIP close-to-10-minute take per Gardiner, Harnoncourt and Norrington, where the double variation structure doesn’t get lost, but here Rattle got away with it, like Bohm does in the classic VPO recording, (and unlike Rattle’s own recording with the Viennese which is really, really dull).

It was in the final movement though where the LSO and Sir Si really hit the heights. This wasn’t just down to the soloists, all blessed with power, clarity and control, and, for once, perfectly balanced. Or the simply outstanding LSO Chorus, who have never sounded better to my ears. Bravo Simon Halsey. No, it was because the mix of old-skool tempo and phrasing with more up-to-date technique, from the ear-straining pianissimo throb of the cello/bass first entry of the OTJ theme, after the recaps, to the chop-smashing last couple of bars, really paid dividends. Listening now to that very Bohm recording, which builds, and builds, and builds, then releases, and releases, and releases, I get what Rattle was aiming for. A kind of controlled volatility. MS and the other 2000 souls in the Barbican Hall felt it. For once the ovation made sense.

Say what you like. The Choral may be OTT, manipulative, hackneyed, ubiquitous, but, when done well, especially to those of us who like Beethoven’s big bones, there is nothing better. Still firmly on the credit side of the humanity ledger which we are all finding ourselves contemplating right now.

Evgeny Kissin, Beethoven piano sonatas at the Barbican Hall review ***

Evgeny Kissin

Barbican Hall, 6th February 2020

Ludwig van Beethoven

  1. Piano Sonata No 8, Op 13 Pathétique
  2. 15 Variations and a Fugue, Op 35
  3. Piano Sonata No 17, Op 31 No 2 Tempest
  4. Piano Sonata No 21, Op 53 Waldstein
  5. Encore: various Bagatelles Op 126, Op 33, Variations Op 76 and Ecossaise WoO 86

A quick pat-down of the still unruly barnet, bounce up the steps and stride purposely across the stage to the single Steinway piano. Quick bow. No score obvs. Then straight into the sombre beauty of the Pathetique’s Grave introduction, before the dotty rush of the ensuing Allegro, the gorgeous Adagio chorale and then the closing Rondo repeats. Then the Eroica Variations which take that famous opening questioning, slightly arch, melody from the finale of the Third Symphony, and present a half hour of extraordinary variations (15) around it with closing fugue. The highlight for me. The Tempest, with uncertainty the key to the opening’s barrage of arpeggios and trills, the siren song of the Adagio and then the desperate, incessant waves of the closing Allegretto. Finally the Waldstein with the rolling exploration of the mysterious Allegro, the short, equally weird Adagio which never gets going before jumping into the closing Rondo which builds and builds and builds, a symphony dressed up as a sonata. Then more, and more, and more, encores with the Op 76 Variations in D major the standout.

He shuffled off in between, took the tumultuous applause with a few short bows, might have smiled a bit, but otherwise this was another day in the office for Evgeny Kissin. Except that his office is unlike yours. Or any one else’s for that matter. Including those rarefied few engaged in the same profession as him. We have come a long way from the child prodigy, wunderkind, genius, how the f*ck does he do that years, he’s now 47, but to see and hear the Russian-Brit-Israeli maestro is still a fascinating experience. He can do anything he wants with a piano and a score and he makes it look easy. But, as in previous encounters, I can find this a bit numbing. And, in Beethoven especially, in these perfect, middle-ish, sonatas, I think he still adds too much. I want the all of Beethoven’s invention, surprise, technique, but I want to get inside his patterns and structure. It is almost as if, in the cat and mouse of perfect performance, the Kissin cat is just too smart for the Beethoven mouse. Just too good. Mind you I suspect LvB, even in his head, may not of imagined quite what dynamics the modern piano machine can conjure up.

Weird thing to say I know. He is not mannered. Or indulgent. Textures are full but not weighty. He doesn’t add, or subtract. Tempi are overall right. It’s just there is just a little too much polish to the detail. The architecture and line is intact, but I just get overwhelmed by technique. The notes are perfect, the space between them less so.

Still no question I’ll be here next year assuming the programme is even moderately appealing, (not a given with his Romantic leanings), and that science and cooperation have vanquished politics and blame. To hear piano playing of this technical brilliance even if it doesn’t quite convince at the punch in the gut level is still one of life’s great privileges.

Beethoven Weekender at the Barbican review

Beethoven Weekender

“This could be the closest thing to heaven …. “. No not the Tears for Fears dirge from 2004 but one of the many fine singles from the vastly under-rated, and alas short-lived, Kane Gang from 1984. The KG, along with the magnificent Prefab Sprout, and the rather less remembered and post-punky Daintees, at least in my mind, were the apogee of the early 80s British pop/blue eyed soul bands hailing from the North East’s Kitchenware Records in the 1980s. Rich melodies, lush production, and often orchestration, skilled song-writing.. What has this got to do with Beethoven I hear you cry. Well nothing actually. It is just this was the song that popped into my head as I enjoyed a fine fry up for lunch courtesy of Fast Break on Day 1 of the Barbican Beethoven Weekender in early February. Plainly I was in a good mood.

Obviously the celebration of the 250th year since Beethoven’s birth has now been put on hold during these troubled times. (The Tourist had intended to take in Bonn on his Spring train break). Once again I apologise for rabbiting on about a classical music gig from many weeks ago when there is so much more of import going on around us. However I was able to attend a smattering of Beethoven programmes prior to the lockdown taking effect but frankly nothing came close to this offering from the Barbican. All the symphonies, courtesy of some of the UK’s finest orchestras based outside London, interspersed with other, well thought through and informative contributions featuring bits and pieces of LvB’s piano, quartet and violin chamber works, alongside some other, moreorless quirky, responses made up this excellent Festival. And all for just £45. That’s right. The greatest music ever written, (in the Western art canon at least), spread over two full days with change from a bullseye.

I was very taken with the exhibits, ear trumpets, the great man’s violin, the Warhol print, drawn from the Beethoven Haus collection in Bonn, with the Beethoven Bites contributions from various young composers and performers, many drawn from the ranks of the Guildhall School, and Matthew Herbert’s deconstruction/ reconstruction of the Ninth, especially Together, which takes 30 or so recordings of the third movement and plays them simultaneously to the same time frame. This shows how performance can differ, not just in tempo, but also in tuning, pitch, recording technique, dynamics.

Christopher Park’s readings of various of the Bagatelles at St Luke’s Old Street was surprisingly involving, despite the always interesting interruptions by Gerald McBurney reading eye witness accounts of LvB’s playing (and scheming). Daniel Sepec is the only musician (I think) entrusted with playing Beethoven’s own fiddle, and he was joined in Milton Court by Tobias Schabenberger (fortepiano), Taj Murray (violin) and Silke Avenhaus (piano) for extracts from early violin sonatas and the Kreutzer. The Beeb’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch paid tribute to George Bridgewater, the Afro-European musician who inspired LvB’s greatest sonata and was its original dedicatee. And the marvellous Carducci Quartet, in the Pit, were joined by uber-luvvie Simon Callow for intense extracts from various string quartets interspersed with letters from LvB, to family, to collaborators, and, of course, his Immortal Beloved. Now Mr Callow is rightly renowned for his ability to put us through the emotional wringer, but, from my perch very close to him, I can confirm the old boy shed a real tear or two. Terrific.

Still it’s the Symphonies that put the meat on the bones of this celebration and I can report that we were treated to performances of the highest quality, all brought together with enthusiastic wisdom from uber Beethoven fan-boy John Suchet. I won’t babble on about the works themselves or the detail of the performances. All I can say is that I need to get out, of London, more. Although, based on the stunning interpretation of the Fifth and Sixth from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic *****, Liverpool’s (and Oslo’s) loss will be London’s gain when the young(ish) Russian comes permanently to the Royal Philharmonic. I expected much and wasn’t disappointed. If there is a better way to spend a Saturday morning then you had better tell me.

Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia **** (finally there is a connection with Newcastle) put everything and more into the Seventh and Eighth, and jst about edged Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Orchestra’s **** more thoughtful takes on the Second and Fourth. But this may reflect my preference for Seven and Eight in the pecking order. The programme notes certainly don’t imply that Ms Gražinytė-Tyla thought that she was in any way getting the short straw with Two and Four and the performances were testament to this. I think I am right in saying that she has shaken off you know what. A good reason to explore some of the good stuff the CBSO has posted up to take us through the coming weeks/months, including the documentary about their gifted musical director prodigy.

In fact the riches that the world’s orchestras have offered up in the past few weeks have to be seen and heard to be believed. The Concertgebouw probably takes the biscuit, I have started working my way through the Ivan Fischer Beethoven cycle, but take a look too at the offers from the Berlin Philharmonie, the LSO, the LPO, Wigmore Hall, the BRSO and, my favourite so far, the Monteverdi Orchestra and Choir. And, at this rate, no one will ever enter an opera house again. Just kidding but there is a lot to see for free right now. Though not for free as all us privileged types should be financially supporting our cultural institutions right now, as well, of course as those in the front line, and less fortunate than ourselves.

Anyway Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra *** were quite able to match the RCO in their performance of the Eroica, which got a little muddled in the development of the opening Allegro con brio and in some of the variations in the Finale, though their interpretation of the First more than passed muster. I have to say though that the least convincing interpretation in the cycle was the closing Ninth from the Halle Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder ***. Sopranos Elizabeth Watts and Sarah Castle were bulldozed a little, the balance between orchestra and chorus didn’t feel right and the tempi overall were too measured for me especially in the slow movement. Still it’s the Choral, it capped an amazing couple of days and I still went home happily humming the Ode to Joy.

Something to hang on to until this is all over.

PS. The programme notes to accompany the Weekender are excellent BTW. To the point essays on Beethoven’s various disappointments in life (family, love and deafness), his idealist politics, his cultural impact and some wham bam notes on the symphonies.

OAE at the Royal Festival Hall review

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Roger Norrington (conductor)

Royal Festival Hall, 28th January 2020

Beethoven – Symphonies Nos 2 and 3

The Tourist has signed up for a lot of Beethoven this year. And already enjoyed many performances from many different ensembles with many different interpretations. Most of the central piano, chamber, string quartet, choral and orchestral repertoire is getting an outing, even some of the lesser known works. LvB has 138 Opus number attributions, (some with multiple parts), but once you strip out the early chamber music, the songs, (where his facility was less assured), some choral misfires, the interminable rewrites of Fidelio and piano ephemera, less than half of these get a regular airing. And that is before the various chamber, piano, miniatures, dances, vocal, choral and so on works not assigned an Opus number (WoO, Anh, Unv, Hess and Bia, to represent the various musicologist’s classifications), as well as fragments, ideas and intentions.

Not much of this, if any, will see the light of day even in this momentous year but the one thing we won’t run short of is the symphonies. (I know, I know. Covid-19 may have something to say about that but what can I do.) What is heartening to see is that the less performed symphonies, though this is a relative call as they are not too hard to find even in non-anniversary years, are cropping up frequently.

The debt to Haydn in No 1 is not concealed but there is already much of Beethoven here, sforzandi accents, tonal shifts and more wind, 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. It starts with a musical “joke”, though not a belly laugh to be fair, a series of chords in the “wrong” key, obeys sonata form throughout but chooses to expand and contract sections more wilfully than Papa Haydn and asks for faster tempi than predecessors. It is easy on the ear, definitively Classical but still recognisably Beethoven

A quick word on No 8 which has also not been given its due historically. In F major and relatively short, it is undeniably upbeat, but full of interesting ideas, consistent with the shock, awe and invention of its three predecessors, almost a retrospective before the final symphonic roll of the dice that was to come. The climax comes early in the first movement, the second is a metronomic slow movement played fast, the third is a kind of yokel’s minuet from three decades previous and the rondo finale is as remarkable as anything our man ever wrote.

No 4 is just wildly under-appreciated. From the comic ghostly hover at the opening through the look-at-me bop, complete with wind jam, the first movement is up there with his best, and doesn’t go on too long. The second is a squeezebox, slowed-down rondo, which shows just how much LvB could do with, ostensibly, so little. In the third movement LvB again takes the minuet form, speeds it up into a zig-zaggy scherzo, which thrice wraps around a hesitant trio. The perpetuum mobile finale is a fast, but not too fast, race to the finish line, as “unbuttoned” to use Beethoven’s own phrase as the madcap end of the 7th. I guess the problem is that doesn’t really go in for the deep, thick, heroic stuff of 3 and 5 but there is still something hyper and uneasy through the whole of the symphony, and a lot of ideas.

So to No 2. In the hands of Sir Rog and the OAE. Who played it a few years ago in this very hall, when I was still trying to convert the SO to the joys of LvB. (She famously whipped out a novel on that occasion, snuck-ed into the programme). It impressed then and did so again.

It dates from LvB’s time in Heiligenstadt in 1802, (though the first sketches date from 1800), and premiered in Vienna in 1803. Like the other, lesser even numbered, it just needs a good listen to, though it isn’t, I admit, quite as convincing as 4 and 8. The first movement, post its opening ta-da, exhausts its first theme, the second movement, larghetto, is one of LvB’s longest slow movements, very lovely, but a bit syrupy. The scherzo, is exactly that, a joke, a drunken dance. The finale has some exquisite string writing but doesn’t quite offer enough serious yin to the comedy yang of the preceding movements. In short the whole is a bit too jolly compared to what was to come. Surprising given just how much pain the old boy was in.

As with the Eroica Sir Rog wants us to have a good time, encouraging between movement applause and given he commands the OAE to get a move on, this works for No 2 if less for No 3. This briskness, and Sir Rog’s animated conducting, even from his trademark swivel chair, he is 86 after all, does occasionally mean a loss of focus but it does spread the joy. And whilst the tuned up wind, the absence of vibrato, the quivery brass, the thwack of the timpani, the sheer pace, may now no longer surprise, he and his HIP peers have been at this for near four decades now, it still remind us exactly why No 3 changed the direction of music. Fresh out of the box.