Emerson String Quartet at Milton Court review ****

The Emerson String Quartet

Milton Court Concert Hall, 8th November 2018

  • Britten – String Quartet No 3, Op 94
  • Shostakovich – String Quartet No 8 in C minor, Op 110
  • Beethoven – String Quartet No 7 in F major, Op 59 No 1, “Razumovsky”

You still see some venerable rock (and pop) bands unwisely soldiering on in their 60’s and even 70’s, sometimes with only one original member still in the line-up. Outside of disposable pop the creative force/s, the composer/s if you will, in contemporary popular music are invariably also the performer/s. Not so generally in classical art music, though that isn’t to say that many canonical composers weren’t, or aren’t, also adept performers. Just that composition and performance are more often separated, and that performance is often as important to composition in terms of audience enjoyment or appreciation. 

So when rock musicians die, so does the band, if it has managed to get that far without breaking up due to musical differences, substance abuse or fist-fights, in the established rock’n’roll manner. Leaving the audience with a ropey tribute band and recordings to keep the tunes alive.

In the classical world though, with its much longer back catalogue, legacy is the name of the game. And not just in composition. Performers live on. Not just in recordings but also in the name, and sound, of the band. Easy enough to envisage in the context of the orchestra with its link to place and with a constant turnover of personnel. The Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen can trace its lineage back to a bunch of regal trumpeters from 1448 (!), the venerable and still very highly regarded Leipzig Gewandhausorchester to 1743.

The idea that string quartets outlive their members might be a little trickier to get your loaf around though. Yet this is how it works. Members may come and go but the best quartets stick together for life, such is the dedication of performers to their art, and, when one of the four can no longer perform, pearly gates or otherwise, a replacement is drafted in. But this cannot be any old violinist, viola player or cellist. For the sound of a top notch string quartet, is a very particular thing, and continuity, as well as chemistry, needs to be guaranteed.

Now as is normally the case with the development of classical music, form followed technology and demand in bringing the string quartet to the fore. Once modern instruments had been perfected in the C18, notably the viola, (which is tuned a perfect fifth below the violin and an octave above the cello), and with enough patrons who liked the string quartet groove to pay up, composers were all set. As with so much else in classical music it was Papa Haydn who set the ball rolling in the 1750s. His massive output for the ensemble (68 named, 77 or so in total) is still amongst the best ever written IMHO. 

The string quartet, in the opinion of the Tourist, is about as “pure” as classical art music gets. Not easy to get right; any paucity of imagination is ruthlessly exposed. Four parts is enough to fashion an argument but not enough to take the foot off the intellectual or aesthetic gas. Plenty of opportunity to vary pitch but only the colour and texture of strings at the composer’s disposal. All of which might explain why not every big name has embraced the genre and why even those that have sometimes don’t always get beyond one effort or a brace. 

After Haydn, Mozart obviously churned out a fair few, 23 I think, though they are not all up to snuff. Still as ever with Wolfgang when he nails it he nails it. Then Beethoven with his 16 (and the Grosse Fuge) which, as with the symphonies and piano concertos, have never been bettered. Schubert also walked the talk with his 15 and a few assorted bits and bobs. (Note to Tourist: more work to do on these). 

As the fashion for showy-off, Romantic, bullsh*tty bombast gained traction in the C19 so the string quartet took a back seat, but returned with a bang in the C20. For the Tourist’s money the best of the bunch since 1900’ish are Janacek’s pair, Nielsen’s 6, Ravel and, (in a rare thumbs up from me), Debussy’s single shots, Stravinsky’s various musings, and, best of all, Britten’s haunting treble, Bartok’s virtuoso 6 and Shostakovich’s acutely personal 15. Oh and Glass’s 7 (and counting), Reich’s Different Trains, Crumb’s Black Angels, Nyman’s 5, Ligeti’s 2 and Xenakis’s 4. You might have some others to add. Tell me.

The Emerson String Quartet was formed in 1976, and still has two of its founder members in violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, alongside the viola of Lawrence Dutton, with cellist Paul Watkins the last in, having joined in 2013. I have recordings of their arrangement of The Art of Fugue and their renowned Bartok cycle. The Bartok is superbly recorded and is very, very precise and very, very intense. This is what they are famous for. Exact and technically brilliant interpretations. Which maybe lack a little emotion. That tends to be my preference but I can understand why others may take a different line (and there are occasions when I would agree).

Anyway this is what the Emersons are famed for. And this is exactly what they delivered at Milton Court. Britten’s Quartet No 3 was pretty much the last thing he composed appearing in the year he died, 1976. With its call-back to the music of his last opera, Death in Venice, in the final passacaglia, and the recitative quotes that precede it, it really is immensely moving. BB was very ill at this time, only able to work in short bursts following a heart bypass operation, and this seems to be reflected in the four condensed movements which precede the final “La Serenissima”. The opening “Duets”, in sonata form, is also haunting and, by virtue of its various permutations of the quartet personnel, as sparse as its title suggests, even when the duets are accompanied. The Ostinato second movement, like the Burlesque fourth movement, is very short, and taken at a fair lick even where it is played pizzicato. The parodic Burlesque could have come from the pen of Shostakovich in one of his more caustic moments, with its weird central spiccato passage. The central Solo is marked very calm with the first violin line, heading higher and higher, seemingly lifted from the mists, and mystery, of Curlew River. Or maybe Aldeburgh Beach, Or Snape. Anyway as with the rise and fall of the Passacaglia it sounds like BB was set to go home. Blub blub. 

The Emersons certainly got the measure of BB’s still extraordinary imagination and technique. But it felt a little less haunting than the recording I have from the Endellion Quartet. This was even more true in the Shostakovich. The Eighth was written when DSCH was in a very dark place, contemplating suicide. He went on in his final quartet, 15, to offer up a genuine personal elegy but this comes pretty close. He was supposed to be written a score to accompany a documentary about the bombing of Dresden but, after just a few days, he came up with this, “an ideologically deficient quartet nobody needs”. It was 1960 but DSCH still wasn’t “free” now being forced to join the Party. It has his trademark initial motif in the opening of the Largo on the cello, which is developed, before the main theme from his First Symphony pops up, before this in turn gives way to a  repeated rocking motif.

This rocking motif is then pumped up and speeded up to form the basis for the second movement scherzo. This is, even by Dmitry’s high standards, pretty scary stuff. The DSCH motif also crops up again, in contrasting tempi, As it does in the middle movement Allegretto, here transformed into a Waltz which then proceeds to quote his First Cello Concerto. A violin solo links to the first of the final two slow movements. This contains the tune to a Russian song about the victims of fascism, to whom DSCH eventually dedicated the quartet, but which might be aimed at totalitarianism more generally. The final Largo comes full circle with a return to the rocking motif.

The quartet is taken unbroken and with these powerful and dramatic ideas, and stirring emotion, it is easy to see why it is Shostakovich’s most famous and oft-performed quartet. It would be hard to imagine a more expertly crafted and sharp interpretation, these chaps leave nothing to chance, but, as I discovered a couple of weeks later, courtesy of the Brodsky Quartet, it is possible to wring a fair bit more gut-wrenching angst out of the piece. I have recordings by the Borodin Quartet, now in its eighth decade, constantly refreshed by the best of the Moscow Conservatoire, and the original dedicatees for most of DSCH’s quartets, and the English Fitzwilliam Quartet (founded in 1968) who also worked with the composer and were the first to record a complete cycle. 

As it turned out it was the Beethoven first Razumovsky which actually showed the Emersons at their very best. Count Razumovsky was an important Russian aristo and diplomat in Naples and then Vienna but his name has gone down in posterity for the three quartets he commissioned from Beethoven in 1806. All are magnificent but the first might just be the best of the bunch. This is altogether jollier music than the two pieces that preceded it, with its intriguing dissonance and implied repeat in the first movement, the rapid passing of the baton from one player to another, underpinned by the one note cello motif in the Allegretto second, the tragic F minor Adagio and then the ebullient finale with its bouncy Russian theme, (as in the other two Razumovsky pieces). The drilled-to-perfection understanding of the Emersons, and the more upbeat tone of the Beethoven was, for me, at least more satisfying.

That is not to say that overall I took very great pleasure in listening to this famous quartet. They are up there with the very best of their peers, some of which I have already mentioned. When it comes to Beethoven I think the Takacs Quartet (founded 1975) might have the edge of those I have heard live, though the Belcea Quartet (1994), who might just be my favourite string band, run them close. As for recordings of the Beethoven quartets have a sniff around the Alban Berg, Quartetto Italiano (for the middle quartets) and unparalleled Vegh (for the mighty last four).

While I am at it, should anyone care, add the Hagen Quartet (1981) to the bucket list when it comes to Mozart, the Quatuor Mosaiques (1987, HIP specialists) for Papa Haydn and the Kronos Quartet (1973), on the rare occasions they leave the US, in contemporary repertoire. 

The Australian Chamber Orchestra at Milton Court review *****

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The Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (director)

Milton Court Concert Hall, 22nd October 2018

WA Mozart

  • Symphony No 39 in E flat major K543
  • Symphony No 40 in G minor K550
  • Symphony No 41 “Jupiter” in C major K551

If you don’t know the Australian Chamber Orchestra then you should. I don’t mean personally one by one. Though I am sure that the 17 permanent members are all excellent people. No I mean that if you have any interest in classical music, or in music generally, for under their director and lead violinist, Richard Tognetti, they cast their net pretty widely for a classical band, you should find a way to see, and hear, them. In their chosen repertoire, primarily large chamber and small orchestral works, whether original scores or those adapted by the mercurial Mr Tognetti, they are well nigh unbeatable, I reckon. It’s the combination of scholarship, musicianship and enthusiasm you see.

There were magnificent last year in the concert I attended (Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review ****) and there were again this evening. Only this time they had expanded their strings core with more strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion drawn from various other ensembles to perform Mozart’s last 3 symphonies, which I defy anyone not to accept are amongst the finest pieces of music ever composed. And the biggest treat for me. The presence of MS whose intellectual and cultural curiosity knows no bounds, but who has been way too infrequent a companion for me at classical concerts. Let us just say that, by the end of the Jupiter, my boy was hooked.

There is plenty of Mozart that passes me by, too nice and too many notes. But not these symphonies, the da Ponte operas, the later piano concertos, the famous wind chamber pieces and various string quartets and quintets. After all you would have to be made of stone not to connect to this. These last three symphonies however are something else because they seem to operate on a higher musical and emotional level. Written in 1788, over a period of just six weeks, we don’t now who they were written for or where they were intended to be performed. His Dad Leopold, who was a big of a control freak by all accounts, had died the prior year. In the last couple of years of his life, Wolfgang was pretty poorly and reduced to begging from mates, but at the time of the composition of the symphonies, he had a decent income from his work at the Viennese Court, his and Constanza were happy and his operas had been a storming success in Prague. I don’t have too much truck with biographical or genius theories of creativity but I think these symphonies, whilst challenging on places, are pretty jolly overall, and there is enough invention to suggest that Wolfgang didn’t just download from brain to stave, however rapid their formation.

39 kicks off with a slow intro a la Haydn but soon perks up as it shifts to a cantilena with trumpets, timpani and descending strings. The second subject is softer, led by clarinets. The slow movement starts tentatively but then gets into a trademark groove as strings and winds each take the lead across three different themes, again with clarinets and bassoons, getting a workout. You might well know the minuet and trio tunes, (even if you don’t as is so often the case with WAM), and you certainly should know the Allegro finale which is as resolutely upbeat as anything he composed. It is easy to see why some smart punters reckon this was his best ever.

40, along with 25, is the only symphony in minor keys, and it is the use of clarinets once again which sticks in the ear (and mind). The Allegro opening, with the violin tune, two quaver, one crotchet, underpinned by pulsing violas, is another WAM classic, only he could have written it. There is a second theme, but you barely register it, such is the brilliance with which this opening tune is tweaked. Violas kick off the slow movement as well but here there are tics and tremors that point to what would have happened if WAM had managed a couple more decades. The minuet that wraps around the trio in the next movement also has its dissonant moments and the final Allegro really breaks the mould, famously, with its twelve note “serial” theme.

Apparently 41 was unperformed during WAM’s remaining 3 years, and it was a few decades before the world caught up. No clarinets here, oboes and bassoons get to do the wind work, and using the triumphal key of C major. Surely it is no coincidence that Beethoven kicked off his symphonic career in this key. The Tourist yields to no man (or woman) when it comes to the all time greatest, that’s LvB, but with 41 at least I get why some favour Wolfgang. From the jokey military demeanour of the opening movement through sweet mystery of the Andante, to the deceptively simple dance movement and into that “fugal” finale, which is as good as it gets, it is a marvel. Five themes, all magically locked together, by the end. There it is above. Seems so simple doesn’t it. It doesn’t sound it though.

It certainly pumped up MS as I said, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, wasn’t in the mood to hold back. Richard Tognetti is known for the drama and intensity he brings to performance and the ensemble, including guests, rehearses to within an inch of their lives as far as I can hear. The strings, literally, play as one and their is no room for any mawkish vibrato. HIP on mostly modern strings with period winds and brass suits me. The tempi are quick throughout and the phrasing is muscular. Right up my street. Mr Tognetti and the band have been playing the last three for over 25 years. I reckon they’ve nailed it.

Southbank Sinfonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy at Milton Court review ****

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Southbank Sinfonia, Vladimir Ashkenazy

Milton Court Concert Hall, 16th October 2018

  • Edvard Greig – Holberg Suite
  • Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No 1 “Classical”
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 7

I am very partial to Vladimir Ashkenazy’s musicianship. Especially his way with Beethoven and Chopin on the piano. I gather the cognescenti think he is a bit bland and a tad direct. I disagree. I can’t be doing with all that showy rubato. I want to hear Chopin’s, and especially Beethoven’s, notes. He is best known for his Rachmaninov but I can’t be doing with all that syrup and I probably need to find out if he is my way into Scriabin.

Anyway he doesn’t play piano live any more but he is still an inspirational, and energetic in his 81st year, presence on the podium. And here he was with the Southbank Sinfonia where he is Patron. The Southbank Sinfonia is an orchestral academy which each year brings together 33 young musicians, supported by a bursary, to provide an opportunity and plenty of hands on experience from which to launch into their professional career. There have been many successful alumni since the initiative was launched by Music Director Simon Over in 2002. They are based in St John’s Waterloo, (London, not Liverpool or Canada, that might be an expensive trip), and offer excellent rush hour concerts each month for any of you classical curious.

They are an impressive and enthusiastic bunch and I rarely miss an opportunity if convenient to hear a Beethoven Seventh, it being, along with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (scoff if you like but it won’t change my mind), Bach’s Partita No 2 for violin, Britten’s Serenade, Holst’s Planets, Mozart’s Jupiter, Ligeti’s Etudes, Monteverdi’s Vespers, Part’s Speigel am Speigel, Steve Reich’s Drumming, Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Tallis’s Mass for 5 Voices, the greatest works of classical music. The Seventh is the best of all though. I am now remembering the interpretation from Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic at this year’s Proms (No 68). Pardon my French, but f*ck me that was about the most exciting musical experience I have ever had, up there with Led Zeppelin at Knebworth and the Bunnymen in their pomp.

Anyway VA and the band delivered a very palatable rendition here, though the first movement was a little plodding and the last a bit unkempt, which the audience lapped up. As they did in the Greig. I had only heard the Holberg Suite once before, (with a quick revisit ahead of this). It’s neo-classical feel, an introduction then four dances, is attractive and Greig can conjure up a tune but it’s not really my bag. My regular reader will know that I have an ambivalent attitude to the boy Sergei, (there he is above looking well dapper), but that I am being increasingly persuaded. The First Symphony though is always a joy though, and being so, and because its all over in less than 15 minutes, it does pop up quite a lot in concert programmes.

Now we know that Prokofiev, even before that magpie Stravinsky, was on to the Classical, what with this First Symphony and his love of Haydn. Anyone with half an ear should love Haydn after all. It kicks off with a Mannheim Rocket, the same eight-note ascending arpeggio figure that Mozart uses in the finale of his G minor Symphony No 40 and Beethoven employs in the Scherzo of the Fifth. Way to go Sergei. The opening allegro keeps off in D major but soon bobs its way along into C. Come in anywhere and you could be listening to Haydn or Mozart, only just slightly off-kilter. There’s a rousing tutti about half way through then back to the scurrying. The second movement marked larghetto has a delicate string melody set against one of SP’s typical tick-tock rhythms. A brisk bunny hop. It could be early Beethoven. The third movement is a short plodding French gavotte, backed by characteristic drone, not the elegant minuet and trio of the genuinely Classical. If you think you’ve heard it before that’s because you have as it crops up again in Romeo and Juliet the ballet. Full on foot-tapper. The rousing finale races around the orchestra, the love child of a Shostakovich scherzo and a Beethoven rondo, wth sweet woodwinds, much like the finale of the Seventh.

So nice programme, enthusiastically, if not always entirely accurately, played, drenched with Mr Ashkenazy’s customary enthusiasm.

 

Bach and Telemann: Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court review *****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (director and violin), Rachel Brown (flute and recorder), Rachel Beckett (recorder), Alistair Ross (harpsichord) 

Bach and Telemann: Reversed Fortunes, Milton Court Concert Hall, 7th December 2017

I see I am now close to being a Academy of Ancient Music groupie. Not in a sinister way, that would be very strange. Just that I seem to pitch up to most of their London concerts. Unsurprising given their repertoire I suppose. And what a joy it always is to hear them play. This was no different. And I had a new chum in MSBD to join me.

Now the theme here was to contrast the contrasting fortunes of a certain Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. They were mates in the 1720s, 30s and 40s, with GPT becoming CPE Bach’s godfather, and both successively securing the reputation of the Collegium in Leipzig. Back in the day though Telemann (pictured above), with his suave, easy listening modelled on his French contemporaries, was by far the more popular composer, with JSB and his knotty, brainy counterpoint, and strong Lutheran faith, some way behind. As we all know JSB’s music languished for centuries, now some might say his is the daddy of all Western art music. Meanwhile whilst Telemann maintains a cherished place in the baroque world of the Baroque enthusiast, he is not much performed beyond this.

The influence of Vivaldi’s vast concerto output was much greater on JSB, and is clearly visible in the Brandenburg’s especially when played one to a part as here. In particular in the Fifth with its single tutti violin, though it is the solo harpsichord cadenza, the first ever of its type, that is the most memorable part of the concerto. Alistair Ross didn’t hold back once the harpsichord emerged from the string ritornello and his rubato was unleashed. A bit showier than Steven Devine in the last BC5 I heard in SJSS with the OAE. However, I think the Brandenburg 4 here with Rachel Brown and Rachel Beckett on the recorders was the highlight. Once the two Rachels got into the swing of it there was no stopping them, propped up by Bojan Cicic masterful violin playing, and by the end those recorders produced as sweet a sound as you could imagine (not always the case for the period recorder).

Having said that I think the most satisfying piece of the evening was the Telemann Concerto for flute and recorder. He wasn’t the only one to pair the “old” and the “new” wind instruments, Quantz was on to this, but he clearly mastered it. Written in 1712, the Concerto has some very attractive galant homophonic playing from the two instruments looking forward to the Classical. Elsewhere the soloists chase the lines from one to the other against very attractive dances, including nods to the eastern European folk tunes that he studied. The French influence on GPT is more apparent in the Overture suite, (he wrote over two hundred of these), with its simple dance rhythms and story based on Don Quixote. There is plenty of easy on the ear comic effect, (listen out for donkeys), and lots of colour. It is all so pleasant (though if I was critical maybe a tad too pleasant).

So another fine concert from the AAM who really seemed to be enjoying themselves. As I think did MSBD. In fact I know he did as he said so. I shall miss the AAM Messiah in the Barbican Hall and their intriguing Haydn and Dussek programme in April, but will be back here for the 15th February Pergolesi, Corelli and Handel gig, and for the 31st May concert in the Hall with Nicola Benedetti. Unmissable I reckon.