Ligeti Immersion Day at the Barbican review ****

Ligeti Immersion Day, Guildhall Musicians, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Sofi Jeaninn (conductor), Augustin Hadelich (violin), Nicolas Hodges (piano)

Milton Court Concert Hall, St Giles’ Cripplegate, Barbican Hall, 2nd March 2019

Not obligatory to illustrate the world of Gyorgy Ligeti with a “universe” picture. But given the associations of, particularly, his micropolyphonic and choral music, with such themes, (via, amongst others, its use by Stanley Kubrick in 2001 A Space Odyssey), I figured, why not? And this image. courtesy of the Hubble telescope is a beauty no? Just like Ligeti’s music.

From a relatively recent standing start I have immersed myself in Ligeti’s music, of which there are essentially three periods, the Bartokian, “secret” early music, the micropolyphonic phase, and the final polymodal, polyrhythmic works after the four year hiatus around 1980. All his work though incorporates pulse, process and humour and a fascination with pitch, texture and harmony. His music is intriguing but there is usually some immediate appeal. Its structures, often deliberately, hold back emotion, or show it in an exaggerated or comic way, perhaps a reflection of his extraordinary life story. Yet beneath the surface scepticism it worms its way in to your head and heart. Well it does me. It is easy to see why he is now probably the most popular modernist composer.

At the top pf his game he is up there with Bach and Beethoven. So you can imagine how excited I was by this Immersion Day, which followed a similar, though smaller scale celebration at QEH last year under the direction of Pierre-Laurent Aimard. This day kicked off with the documentary film All Clouds Are Clocks, then to Milton Court for a selection of chamber works from students at the Guildhall, a chat by Ligeti expert Tim Rutherford-Johnson, a survey of unaccompanied choral works at St Giles’ Cripplegate by the BBC Singers and finally some of the key orchestral works with the BBC SO under the baton of Sakari Oramo including the two late concertos for violin and piano. Here’s the complete list.

  • Musica ricerata
  • 10 Pieces for Wind Quintet
  • Horn Trio
  • Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel
  • Éjszaka – Reggel
  • Zwei Kanons
  • Dri Phantasien
  • Idegen földön
  • Húsvét
  • Betlehemi királyok
  • Lux Aeterna
  • Magány
  • Nonsense Madrigals
  • Clocks and Clouds
  • Violin Concerto
  • Piano Concerto
  • Atmosphères
  • San Francisco Polyphony

I’ll spare you a great long regurgitation of the programme notes. Hardly seems worth it for the two readers who might stumble across this. Highlights then? The Horn Trio, Ligeti’s first statement of his mature style from 1982, which looks backwards in some ways to the Romantics but also contains astonishing new sounds and rhythms. A shout out to Karen Starkman’s horn playing, which was equally effective alongside the varied miniatures of the 10 Pieces for Wind Quintet. Best though was Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel, (with pipes, drums, fiddle) from 2000, which sets four poems by Ligeti’s Hungarian mate Sandor Weores for mezzo-soprano, to a background of bonkers tuned and untuned percussion. Pure imagination. I particularly enjoyed the short, folk based, early choral pieces but star billing went to Lux Aeterna, the piece which Kubrick purloined, and which is the very definition of other worldly. Perfection from the BBC Singers. And in the evening, well all amazing but particularly Nicolas Hodges’s direct take on the metrical patters of the Piano Concerto from 1988 and, best of all, the closing San Francisco Polyphony, an eleven minute concerto for large orchestra which represents just about every idea GL ever had. Just immense.

Lucie Horsch and the AAM at Milton Court review *****

Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr (harpsichord, director), Lucie Horsch (recorder) 

Milton Court Concert Hall, 24th February 2019

  • Antonio Vivaldi – Flautino Concerto in C major, RV443 (arr in G major for recorder)
  • JS Bach – Harpsichord Concerto No 3 in D major BW V1054
  • Giuseppe Sammartini – Recorder Concerto in F major
  • JS Bach – ‘Erbame Dich’ from St Matthew Passion
  • JS Bach – Oboe Concerto in D minor BWV1059r (arr for recorder)
  • JS Bach – Concerto for Harpsichord No 7 in G minor BWV1058
  • Antonio Vivaldi – Flute Concerto in G minor ‘La Notte’, Op 10 No 2 RV104

Lucie Horsch is just 19 years old. That’s her above, at 14 when she appeared in the Eurovision Young Musician festival. Her first recording of Vivaldi came when she was just 16. Now she may not be a household name outside the world of Baroque music and probably never will be given her choice of instrument, the recorder, but inside that select, (though I think widening), club she is a sensation. The recorder is a tricky instrument to play and to hear. Not in the lads of Ms Horsch. She is simply an astonishing musician. I haven’t heard anyone come close to the articulation, beauty, control and variation of sound that she achieves on these instruments. And her virtuosity in some of the faster passages on show in this concert was dazzling. Richard Egarr and the rest of the AAM, unsurprisingly, looked as pleased as punch throughout.

Now to be fair young Lucie started off with a few advantages. Mum and Dad are professional cellists, Dad with the Concetgebouw. Though perhaps this makes it more surprising that she stuck with the recorder, the “beginners” instrument. Mind you this beginner never even managed to master the basics, his music teacher quietly suggesting to his mother at age 10 that young Michael might want to stick to his books.

Anyway lucky for us that Ms Horsch decided she liked the sound and the immediacy of the connection between this “simple” instrument and performer. Of course the recorder doesn’t have too much in the way of “standard” repertoire beyond the Baroque and as the “pastoral”cue in early operas. There are a few Classical offerings and even one or two later works but generally there is none of the interminable showy sh*te from the Romantic and early C20. The technology of woodwind moved up a gear in the second half of the C18, the concerto became an ever blowsier conversation between soloist and orchestra and the textures of chamber music became more complex.

Go back in time though and it is time for the recorder to shine. Early and Renaissance music is brimful of the little fella, whether in instrumental ensembles or consorts, in dance music or as an accompaniment to voices. It is the Baroque though that shows the recorder at its most virtuosistic with the Vivaldi and Sammartini pieces on show here somewhere near the top of the pile. And this is not just one recorder. Ms Horsch is equally adept across the size range, sopranino, descant, treble and tenor. Mid C20, and some contemporary, composers have explored the unique sound of the instrument, technology has expanded the range and Baroque and earlier specialists are discovering new scores and arranging existing works, as here, for the humble recorder.

Vivaldi’s RV443 is just such an arrangement having been written for a flautino, though frankly it matters little since this is effectively the C17 version of the sopranino recorder. In this performance though the key was shifted down to the less stratospheric G major from the original C minor. This is the Baroque party piece for recorder (and piccolo) players with its lilting Largo monologue framed by showpiece brisk Allegro movements with dazzling solo parts. In the first movement the soloists chimes in with and unbroken string of 84 eighth notes! And that’s just for starters. The final movement calls for a seemingly never-ending run of triplets. Even by AV’s standards this is intoxicating stuff. He wrote a couple more concertos for flautino, RVs 444 and 445 as well as two specifically for recorder RVs 441 and 442. This though is the Daddy and there are literally billions of recordings HIP and not so HIP. I doubt I will hear a better live version that Lucie Horsch’s however. I have no idea where she gets the puff from.

The other Vivaldi concerto in this programme is also a staple. RV439 is one of the six flute concertos which make up ABV’s published Opus 10 from 1728/29. It was printed by the Roger firm in Amsterdam, which first brought out the Op 3 L’Estro Armonico, though a second version was also printed in Venice for recorder for which it will have likely been originally scored with a chamber accompaniment, 2 violins, bassoon and continuo, R10 4. This is explains its suite-like structure with six, blink and you’ll miss ’em, movements. La Notte is the night in Italian, hence the second title of the rapid second movement Fantasmi or ghosts, (though they seem quite playful spirits), and the slow fifth movement il Sonno, sleep. The first movement is a staccato affair, a sort of nodding off, the central Presto has a touch of the REM (dreams not band) flickers about it, and the finale turns very perky, showing off Ms Horsch’s skills to great effect.

Giuseppe Francesco Gaspare Melchiorre Baldassare Sammartini (1695-1750) was renowned in his lifetime as a wind performer, (musical not flatulist, a performance style I for one would like to see revived), notably the oboe, but I can also testify to the invention of his recorder concentre compositions of which this is by far the most well known. There may not be too much to distinguish the accompaniment but as a workout for the recorder player this is up there with Vivaldi, though with more variation and less reliance on repeated arpeggios and the like. Now we must be careful not to confuse Giuseppe with younger brother Giovanni, also a composer and oboist, who was one of the precursors of the galant Classical style, taught Gluck, counted JC Bach as a fan and influenced Haydn through his concert symphonies which are definitely worth a listen, (if only as musical history lessons). It helped the brothers that Dad was a professional French oboist.

Giuseppe wasn’t quite as forward thinking as little bro’ but there is still plenty to admire in his late Baroque/proto-Classical grooves. Outside of the concertos there is plenty of action for the recorder in his sonatas and trios. He kicked off his career in Milan but it took off when he moved to London and the court of Freddy Prince of Wales. Handel no less considered him the greatest oboist ever. (Note to the gammons. You see that those bloody foreigners have been coming over here and stealing your jobs for centuries. Musicians, composers, even the bloody royal family. Worth thinking about, should you ever choose to think, when you are humming the Hallelujah chorus. Actually scrub that. Most gammons in my limited experience couldn’t give a flying f*ck about classical music. Nor culture in general. One reason why they are always so bloody angry about everything especially the very Brexit they craved).

Or maybe they are angry because the Germans got all the best tunes. Well specifically Beethoven and JS Bach. Here were a few of them. Ms Horsch took a well deserved breather when Richard Egarr took centre stage, (actually this is when his harpsichord was moved side on), for a couple of JSB’s harpsichord concertos. In 1713 whilst working at the Weimar court you Bach was assigned the tasking of making keyboard transcriptions of some Italian concertos including 10 by Vivaldi himself. This was the wellspring from which much of his Italianate instrumental music emerged with the harpsichord concertos first performed in the 1730s at his weekly jams in Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum. These two started life as violin concertos and the original scores have no tempo markings. So nothing to stand in the way of Mr Egarr cranking up the rhythm and fiddling with his stops and couplers (don’t ask).

You probably know “Erbame dich” – Have mercy – from the St Matthew Passion with its violin lament supporting the singer’s teary plea to God. St Peter breaking down after his triple denial of Jesus. Here the instrumental version. led by Bojan Cicic’s expressive violin, was effective but lost a little bit by being taken out of context and “de-lyricised”.

So that just leaves JSB’s BWV 1059r. Now pay attention. This is the final one of the eight harpsichord concertos, a companion to nos 3 and 7 above. Except that this only survived as fragments so had to be reconstructed to create an oboe concerto. Utilising the two instrumental outer movements of BWV 35, the cantata Geist und Seele vird verwirret which have long passages of keyboard writing, which probably came from a concerto which might have been written for oboe. And some bars repurposed from another cantata BWV 156. Oh and the slow central movement of the three, (the first has no tempo guidance), is pilfered from an oboe concerto by Venetian composer Alessandro Marcello (also worth a listen) which JSB came across in his Weimar days, see above.

And here the oboe part was arranged for recorder. Confused? I’m not surprised. That’s what happens when composers have to churn out new works for money. Which JSB certainly had to do. No wonder he reused his back catalogue. And if we don’t have the original scores there is more room for interpretation and scholarship. Most of the harpsichord concertos started off somewhere else.

It matters here because this concerto, however arrived at, has some mighty fine riffs even by JSB’s standards. I didn’t know it at all. I liked it a lot, Which probably won’t come as a great surprise to you. As did my new companion, MSBDOB, newly returned to London and keen to hear some tip top playing. This was a fortuitous start methinks.

The beauty of the recorder sound is the connection between player and sound. There isn’t much between their breath and what hits your ears. This vulnerability and innocence, if you will, is also what makes it a sometimes awkward listen. In the best hands though, including these, it is a sublime experience. Lucie Horsch will surely get better with experience and when whatever tosser of a record company executive can no longer surround her with all that sexist, gamine, prodigy sh*te that the classical music world is riddled with.


Hungariana: Casals Quartet and Tamara Stefanovich at Milton Court review ****

Casals Quartet, Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Gerald McBurney (creative director), Amelia Kosminsky (video designer)

Hungaria, Milton Court Concert Hall, and 3rd February 2019

Gyorgy Kurtag

  • Six moments musicaux Op 44
  • Jatekok excerpts

Bela Bartok

  • 14 Bagatelles Op 6
  • String Quartet No 3
  • Three Burlesques Op 8c

Gyorgy Ligeti

  • Etudes excerpts
  • Musica ricercata VI-XI
  • String Quartet No 1 Metamorphoses nocturnes

One day. Three concerts. Showcasing the chamber music of the three most renowned Hungarian composers of the C20 (OK, well maybe that is a little harsh on Zoltan Kodaly). In fact, outside of some chap by the name of Franz Lizst, probably the three most famous Hungarian composers of all time. Except that European history being what it is all three of them were actually born in Romania, in its various incarnations. But their shared musical heritage, rooted to various degrees in folk music, is defiantly and definitely Hungarian. To perform the music, a Spanish quartet, albeit one with great affinity with the repertoire, and a Serbian pianist, though again one with proven expertise in all three composers.

A confession. I missed the first concert. Late-ish flight back the previous evening (Bologna since you ask – not humble-bragging but the Tourist highly recommends La Dotta/Grassa/Rossa, as well as nearby Ferrara and Ravenna. Be thankful he hasn’t the energy to start blogging on these trips or the vanity to Instagram). Anyway a bit tired to get to the Barbican by 11am so the first 5 parts of Ligeti’s Musica ricercata were missed, as were various excerpts from Kurtag’s Jatekok piano works, his 12 Microludes and Bartok’s String Quartet no 1. Most annoying (to miss) in retrospect were the Microludes, 12 tiny string quartet pieces in homage to Kurtag’s mate Mihaly Andras. Still, no worries, as, on the strength of Six moments musicaux, which was Kurtag’s fourth string quartet, I have a CD of his entire output for the form winging its way to me.

For I was very taken with Six moments musicaux, a title lifted from Schubert (and Rachmaninov). Written in 2005 the, er, six short pieces differ in character both between, and within, themselves. All are, as is characteristic with GK, very short. The first, Invocatio has loud, hard rhythms, an announcement, encasing a pianissimo melody and a chorale. Footfalls is a slow, broken waltz, the title taken from a late Beckett play. Then a Capriccio, a duel with obstinate lines and then a memoriam, a sort of passacaglia dedicated to Hungarian pianist George Sebak. This, like the finale, was based on two of the Jatekok piano pieces. The finale, titled Les Adieux, tilts at Beethoven but is subtitled in the manner of Janacek and is a lament of sorts. The penultimate is a “study in harmonics” based on birdsong a la Messaien.

George Kurtag was notoriously slow to get in to his compositional stride, writing just 9 small-scale works in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973 though he was commissioned to write some children’s piano pieces, which became the first 4 volumes of Jatokek (“Games”), and since then he hasn’t stopped, and there are now several hundred of these piano pieces alongside all his other work. All tiny, for solo or duo piano, their titles range across ideas, emotions, images, dedications, gestures, and together these fragments encompass the range of his musical imagination. If I am honest, even with the love and care lavished on them by Tamara Stefanovich, the combined effect was a bit stupefying, not in a bad way, just that, in the absence of titles or breaks, it was tricky to keep up. I will need to revisit.

Indeed I will need to explore all of GK’s oeuvre. The idea of reducing music to fragments appeals (Flowers We Are, Mere Flowers, from the eighth volume of Jatokek, is just 7 notes long), but, based on these pieces, this is music with emotional heft despite its brevity, and not just an academic exercise. GK (pictured above) is an expert teacher, especially in chamber music, and the echoes of his own favourites, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Webern and, of course, Bartok are easy to pick out. Of course it helps that GK adores the music of his friend and mentor Gyorgy Ligeti, who similarly, though I would contend, at a somewhat more elevated level, was to take the language and structure of music and turn it into something truly astounding. GK is still with us, now 93, though he was a little frail to attend the premiere of his opera, Fin de partie at La Scala last November, which is based on Beckett’s Endgame (which Ligeti first introduced him to).

In these two concerts we were treated to Tamara Stefanovich’s rendition of a handful of the Etudes (2, 8, 11, 3, 5, 15 and 10) and the second half of the Musica ricercata. The Etudes proved a fertile laboratory for Ligeti’s genius, mixing his early affinity for Hungarian folk sounds, (following in the footsteps of Bartok), his love of Debussy’s re-invention of piano music and purpose, his experiments with fractal patterns, his investigation of non-Western tonality and his fascination with Conlon Nancarrow’s complex cross-rhythms. Most of the etudes involve some, albeit very different variation on each hand playing at different speeds. If you have never heard, or claim never to want to hear, any “modern” classic music listen to the Etudes. You will change your mind. Guaranteed.

TS is a powerful advocate for the work, maybe not quite as powerful as her friend and collaborator, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who performed the Etudes in their entirety last year at the QEH Ligeti weekender, but brings more Debussyian grace. Musica ricercata is more rule-based composition, not serialist, but a suite intended to progress from just two notes to a full-blown High Baroque fugue. It was written in the early 1950’s in Budapest, where it could not be played given the Soviet musical mindset, and, when GL moved to the West he saw it as too simple, until 1969 when the adventure of Boulez and Stockhausen was no longer de rigeur. I am still listening and learning, (some helpful programme notes here courtesy of Paul Griffiths), so can’t explain the music musically as it were, but, like the Etudes I know I like it. A few more years and I might even understand these works.

The highlight of the day though was Ligeti’s First String Quartet however, “Metamorphoses nocturnes”. The Ligeti quartets are putting ever more frequent appearances in the quartet repertoire and the Casals turned in an excellent rendition, near matching the Arditti recording I have. GL took this early piece with him when he left Hungary in 1956 after the Soviet crackdown, and it was premiered in Vienna in 1958. However, like the Musica ricercata, it was deemed a little too “prehistoric” in Ligeti’s words, to warrant dispersion, until its first recording in the 1970s. By then the world was ripe for the interplay of the folk rhythms and trademark Ligetian polyphony, colours and enquiry. The eight sections generate a variety of moods, atmospheric, macabre, dance, humour, with a motif, G-A-G sharp-A sharp, threaded throughout. It is brilliant.

What to do with Bela Bartok? It seems that every time I hear a performance of Bartok’s work, whether orchestral, chamber or solo, (or choral as with Cantata profana performed recently by the LSO, alongside Ligeti’s Lontano), that gets the juices flowing, it is immediately followed by a performance that perplexes. Here the String Quartet No 3, which to be fair I have heard a few times before courtesy of the Emerson recording, challenged and fascinated, whereas the piano pieces, the 14 Bagatelles and Three Burlesques just confused me. Oh well, I guess I just keep trying.

Now sometimes these “immersive” days can feel a bit cobbled together. Not here though as creative director Gerard McBurney introduced each piece with appropriate extracts from the writings of the composers themselves, reinforcing the links between them and their homeland, and the words of contemporary poets, such as Endre Ady and Attila Joszef, in Hungarian as well as translated. Moreover the video backdrop created by Amelia Kosminsky, a mature final year student at the Guildhall, was stunning. She had discovered a treasure trove of amateur monochrome photographs from Hungary throughout the C20, the Fortepan archive, which she combined superbly to match music and text. If I am honest sometimes these designs can just be bloody distracting. Not here though.

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.