Music of the Spheres: Aurora Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (conductor), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Kate Wicks (production design), William Reynolds (lighting design) 

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 5th June 2019

  • Max Richter – Journey (CP1919)
  • Beethoven – Molto Adagio from String Quartet in E minor, Op.59 No.2 (Razumovsky)
  • Thomas Adès – Concerto for violin & chamber orchestra (Concentric Paths)
  • Nico Muhly – Material in E flat
  • Mozart – Symphony No.41 (Jupiter)
  • David Bowie – Life On Mars

‘There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.’ – Pythagoras

You get your money’s worth from the Aurora Orchestra. A concept, linking music and the cosmos, the “music of the spheres”, (which preoccupied the big minds of Greek philosophers and those that seized upon their ideas in the Renaissance), a light show, animation, narration courtesy of Samuel West and this Orchestra’s trademark, memorised, largely standing, performance of a classical music classic, this time from the Classical period, in the form of Mozart’s Jupiter. All for a tenner.

The QEH was packed and for once the Tourist was one of the older patrons rather than one of the young’uns. Whoever is in charge of the AO’s marketing deserves a pay rise, though Gillian Moore, (who can always be seen at these gigs – good on her), and the rest of the music team at the SouthBank Centre also seem to have nailed the programming at the QEH and Purcell Room since the re-opening.

Now I enjoyed the show. Or at least all the various elements especially the lighting, (at times the floor was lit up like Heathrow on a busy Friday evening). However the concept, whilst long on design came up a little short on ideas. No matter. It was, at the end of the day, the music that mattered most. And, on that front, the AO and chums delivered.

I have bored you at length about the glory of the Jupiter elsewhere following relatively recent outings from the Philharmonia under Philippe Herreweghe and from the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Both were on modern instruments, though HIP informed, and both were high on drama. The AO’s take was in a similar vein. High on energy and exuberance and high on happiness. You wouldn’t know Wolfgang was on his last legs, dragged down by family misery, from this interpretation. Nicholas Collon played a bit fast and loose in places with tempi, but deliberately; in the Andante cantabile to underline the mystery of the string harmonies and in the five way fugal Finale, to spotlight the initial theme based on a motif derived from plainchant “The Creator of Light”. See space/religious stuff in line with the evening’s theme.

However the main event for the Tourist was “Concentric Paths”, Thomas Ades’s Violin Concerto Op 24, which was premiered in 2005 by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. It comprises a slow central movement, Paths, sandwiched by two faster movements, Rings and Rounds. As usual with Ades the score is rhythmically complex, endlessly inventive, with a wide dynamic range, especially right at the top of the register, and combines cycles for violin and for the small scale orchestra, which complement and occasionally clash, but together create an atmosphere of constant. circular motion. Back to the theme see. Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto coped with everything Mr Ades threw at him and the AO were sublime with notable contributions from the flute and piccolo of Jane Mitchell and Rebecca Larsen. Mr Kuusisto encored with one of the deceptively simple, but oh so effective, post minimalist pieces from Nico Muhly’s Drones and Violin.

The evening kicked off with a new commission from another post minimalist Max Richter, Journey (CP 1919). It consists of a series of repeated rising lines, Part-like, which pulsate at different speeds. It doesn’t really resolve, just keeps going up and it is intended to be played in darkness. The relationship between the lines is intended to reflect the way that ancient astronomers mapped the orbits of the visible planets and the properties that their modern successors have identified in pulsars. Pleasant enough but since there is no real development a few minutes was probably enough. Mr Richter studied with the genius Luciano Berio and, in his solo albums to date, he has collaborated with the estimable likes of Tilda Swinton, Robert Wyatt and Wayne McGregor, and has plundered the likes of John Cage, Antonio Vivaldi, Gustav Mahler, phone ringtones and various heavy duty poets in his work. The boy plainly likes a concept and a bit of political commentary but doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. And he has no qualms about film and TV composition. His score was used for Nosedive, still one of the Tourist’s favourite Black Mirror episodes.

A little bit of a music lesson from big Sam to introduce the Molto Adagio from the No 2 Razumovsky courtesy of a scratch string quarter drawn from the AO. It is, as the programme says, “a work of radiant and mysterious beauty”. Not best served by the context. Extracting it from the complete work and setting it in this busy evening didn’t do it any favours. It’s Beethoven so cannot be criticised but I’ve heard it played better.

Now if I tell you that the encore was a version of Life on Mars, initially from Sam Swallow on piano, before the AO gradually joined with an orchestral accompaniment, with a giant glitter ball, you will get some idea of just how hard the team worked to press those cross-over buttons. It should not have worked but it did. Mr Swallow is a go-to fella when it comes to orchestral arrangements of pop and rock with an eclectic client list. The most important of which is Echo and the Bunnymen, who, as I am sure you already know, are the greatest rock’n’roll band of all time.

Nice ending to a cracking evening. Can’t say I care for the next leg of the AO’s outreach programme, some Berlioz, but next year they are back here with Pierre-Laurent Aimard for an evening of Beethoven. Tempting. Unfortunately in all the Beethoven 250 year brouhaha of next year they have been trumped by no less than Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique who will be rattling through their version of the Choral. Which might just be the standout gig of the year.

Mozart and Beethoven chamber music for winds at the Wigmore Hall review ****

Alexander Melnikov (piano), Alfredo Bernardini (oboe), Lorenzo Coppola (clarinet), Javier Zafra (bassoon), Teunis van der Zwart (horn)

Wigmore Hall, 31st March 2019

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Adagio in B minor K540
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Quintet in E flat for piano and winds K452
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Horn Sonata in F Op. 17
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Quintet in E flat for piano and winds Op. 16

A wind supergroup. I’ll resist the temptation to make a puerile joke. Still that’s what was on stage on this evening at the Wigmore. To play a couple of chamber music classics from the, er, Classical period. Whilst Beethoven went on to bigger and better things the Op 16 Wind Quintet is a piece of beauty and not insignificant innovation which owes a lot to its Mozartian predecessor but, especially in this direct comparison. also markedly departs from it. As for Mozart’s K452, well Wolfgang himself, at the time, 1784, reckoned it was the best thing he had ever written and who are we to argue. The evening was rounded off with Mozart’s K540 Adagio for piano, one of the most most poignant pieces he ever wrote, and Beethoven’s (only) virtuoso Horn Sonata.

Alexander Melnikov is probably as good as it will ever get, (maybe even than DSCH himself who was a bit of a ragged pianist by all accounts), when it comes to Shostakovich’s mighty Preludes and Fugues and his partnership with Isabelle Faust in the Beethoven violin sonatas is something I would pay good money to hear live. Annoyingly his next visit to the Wigmore with Ms Faust, and Jean-Guihen Queyras on cello, to play the Beethoven piano trios clashes with an even bigger gig; Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent taking on the Bach B minor Mass. (I also see the the CVG are touring Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. Now that would be, to use the modern parlance, a thing). I am hoping to see Mr Melnikov accompanying American soprano Claron McFadden in December when they take on some tricksy modern vocal repertoire including some Cathy Berberian staples.

As it happens Mr Melnikov’s fellow band members, all being experts in the HIP field, have close associations with the CVG, especially horn player Teunis van der Zwart. For this concert was unavowedly historically informed. Mr van der Zwart teaches in Holland, Javier Safra in Brussels, Lorenzo Coppola in Barcelona and Alfredo Bernardini in Salzburg, but they are all involved with top rank European period music ensembles and all studied in Holland as far as I can see, this being, with Belgium, the centre of the universe when it comes to HIP teaching and performance. The Tourist can never leave London but if he did that is probably where he would head.

AM set the scene with the Mozart Adagio, the only self-contained work by Mozart in the “melancholic” key of B minor, on his fortepiano. The initial phrases are pretty simple, and, on a fortepiano with its lack of sustain, it is a little underwhelming at first. But, as the second subject emerges, with the constant crossing of left had to right, things hot up and the fortepiano sound, with the twinklier higher notes and buzzy low notes, starts to properly emerge. In the development section Mozart piles up the pathos, first with an ascending harmonic sequence and then, descending, ending in a quick switch to B major, an unexpected twist after all that woe-is-me stuff. I don’t normally get too worked up by Mozart’s solo piano pieces, but this certainly did the trick. There is no doubt that, if you are used to hearing a piece on a modern piano, the fortepiano, with its distinct lack of oomph and narrow range, can be a disappointing alternative but with Mozart it works. My theory is that it turns “too many notes” into “just the right amount”, though to be fair this is not over-burdened with notes in the first place.

The rest of the ensemble then trooped on for the Mozart Quintet which again turned out to be a perfect illustration of why to makes sense to play music on the instruments it was designed for. Assuming the musicians are up to the task, which they were here. I doubt that this will ever become a favourite of mine, compared say to the late symphonies, some of the string quartets and the wind concertos and string/wind quintets, but this was very persuasive, highlighting the way in which WAM passed the phrases backwards and forwards between winds and keyboard, and, on these instruments, giving us a bit of rough to remove the complacent air that tends to creep into Mozart on modern instruments. The first movement starts off slow and the subsequent Allegro doesn’t get up to much, a gentle skip, but this allows the ear to get a taste for the sound, (I know, mixed metaphors), before the much more varied slow second movement where WAM takes us to some very interesting sounding places tonally led by clarinet and horn. This I liked. Just a hint of unease. The closing Rondo is much jollier, as the quickstep interplay between piano and wind becomes more elaborate.

Now the programme, (some excellent notes by Misha Donat), tells me that LvB wrote his horn sonata for one Giovanni Punto who was considered, in 1800, to be one of the greatest virtuoso soloists of the day. He was born Johann Wenzel Stich, in the service of one Count Wenzel Joseph von Thun, (reminding us that for most of human history even the ostensibly free were nothing of the sort), but, after learning his trade in Prague, Munich and Dresden, decided to skip away from his “employer” and take on a new identity to evade capture. I am guessing then that Count Thun wasn’t invited to the premiere of the piece where no less than LvB was the pianist.

The Allegro opening contains a number of remarkable innovations to show off Herr/Signore Punto’s technique, hand-stopping, (altering the pitch by sticking the hand in the bell end – quiet at the back please), a descent into the lowest of low chords in tandem with the keyboard, (the same pitch as a cello’s open C string – that buzzy, growly sound), and a passage of rapid arpeggios which I am guessing are beyond the capability of all but the best horn players. The middle movement is not some drawn out Largo, (that wouldn’t really work on the horn), but serves as an intro to the concluding Rondo and also highlights a dotted motif that permeates the whole sonata. LvB went on to utilise this structure, to greater effect, in later works, piano sonatas but also in the symphonies. One reason why Beethoven’s music, above all others, makes sense.

Whilst Mozart’s Quintet may have been an influence on Beethoven’s equivalent I am not sure, even with the help of the experts, that I can discern this in more than the general shape, notably the gentle, slow intro into the Allegro first movement and some of the more dramatic statements in the development. The horn comes out well in this movement and the keyboard gets the chance to show off one of those massive octave, (four and a half here), leaps that LvB was so beloved of. There is another one of those little repeated dotted rhythms here as well. The central rondo shape, marked cantabile – singsong to you and me – with theme and accompaniment, allows all four wind players to show off, with increasing ornamentation, leaving the piano to take the final turn. The actual Rondo finale has a bouncy quality stemming from its 6/8 “hunting” theme and, with its runs on the keyboard and rapid exchanges between the instruments, this could easily be mistaken for Wolfgang.

A fine programme then delivered by experts in their fields highlighting two of the finest pieces of chamber music ever written for these instruments. I would be very happy if they went on to record this programme. Over to you fellas.

Philippe Herreweghe and Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor),
Bertrand Chamayou (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 21st February 2019

  • JS Bach – Orchestral Suite No.3 in D
  • Mozart – Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K.488
  • Mozart – Symphony No.41 (Jupiter) 

A rare opportunity to hear modern instruments tackle some core Baroque and Classical orchestral repertoire in an HIP style, which, when it works, can a thrilling musical experience. But here the Philharmonia was under the baton of not just any old conductor but one of the founding fathers of historically informed performance in the guise of Belgian maestro, and Jonathan Pryce look-a-like, Philippe Herreweghe.

Mr Herreweghe is the Artistic Director of the renowned Collegium Vocale Gent which he founded in 1970 whilst studying at the music conservatory in his native Ghent. It didn’t take long before the HIP world stood up and took notice of PH’s authentic and enthusiastic way with the Baroque, especially Bach, and recordings, for example of the Bach cantatas, with the likes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, soon followed. In 1977 PH also founded the La Chapelle Royale to focus on the French Baroque, the likes of Lully and Charpentier, and he has subsequently branched out into other eras and other ensembles (he is principal conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic), but it is his JS Bach interpretations which garner most praise. Generally, if he is the conductor on a recommended recording, you can safely take the plunge. If it is a Bach recording you would be daft not to.

BTW for those Brits who have never been to Ghent – more fool you. Leave St Pancras mid morning and you can still be there for lunch. Easy stroll around the centre taking in a couple of Gothic church crackers, a Belfry (with lift), a C10 castle, the Graslei medieval houses lining the canal – boat trip mandatory, a couple of supernatural art galleries (MSK if, like the Tourist you are drawn to early Flemish and first half of the C20, and the Contemporary Art Museum), two vouchsafed decent hotels (Marriott and Pillows Grand Reylof), some very tidy trough (with a fair few Michelin stars scattered throughout), lashings of great beer and, best of all, the greatest painting ever, the Van Eyck boys’ Adoration of the Lamb. Busy, but not as nuts as Bruges. The city is gearing up for a van Eyck celebration next year. So off you trot.

Now the Collegium Vocale Gent is a regular, if not frequent, visitor to London. They are over for a Bach B Minor Mass on 14th June at the Barbican. There are still plenty of tickets left. So go on, treat yourself. I also see they are taking the Glass opera, Einstein on the Beach, on a tour around the Low Countries. Crikey.

Prior to that though PH put a stripped back PO, and an excellent young French pianist in the shape of Bertrand Chamayou, through its paces. In fact prior to that a string quartet led by PO violinist Adrian Varela offered a free concert of Bach transcriptions (two Bach chorals, BMV 269 and 86, two Art of Fugue Contrapuntuses, is that the plural?), Stravinsky’s Concertino and the suite Punta del Este, from Argentinian, Aster Piazzolla, which was as good as it sounds.

Only four orchestral suites by JSB survive, in contrast to the 100 or more from composition whirlwind Telemann. They likely date from the Cothen years, written for Prince Leopold, and are some of the funkiest grooves the old boy ever laid down. They all begin with a lengthy overture followed by a series of dance movements; so French in structure if not always in sound. The overture of No 3 itself is French style, a slow stately D major opening, then a rapid, dotty fugue before a short reprise. Number three augments strings and woodwinds with timpani and three trumpets, which gives the first idea an Handelian majesty which suits the modern orchestra. JSB wastes no time shifting to the running semiquavers of the fugue which follows. You may well know the overture. If you don’t you will know the Air which follows, “On a G string”. It may be ubiquitous but it is still special. No Bach, no symphonic slow movements. The Gavotte, a courtly knees up, which follows is in two parts. Things heat up in the scrabbling Bouree which follows, but it is the final Gigue which takes us back to the jollity of the opening, trumpets blazing.

Now your man PH doesn’t hang around. Brisk is the usually ascribed epithet. Suits me. But with no dawdling or vibrato to hide behind this called for precision from the PO. Which they delivered. This sharp, clean sound, with steel in the 44 (yep count ’em) strings (literally), controlled wind (if you get my meaning) and hard stick timpani (oh dear), with the perpetual motion of Bach’s invention, is what really got me excited. Getting the balance right with such a full orchestra was always going to be tricky but PH and the PO, for the most part, were on to that.

I was a little less convinced by the Mozart PC. Not Bertrand Chamayou’s subtle and supple playing, proper Classical (not his normal specialism), but more in the drive of the orchestra. They didn’t quite match up in the jolly opening Allegro and in the closing, vivacious sonata-rondo. By the time BC joined the orchestra in the opening they had built up a head of stem that he was hard pressed to match, and things got a bit too racey by the end of the concerto, where WAM launches more than a few surprises. In the beautiful, dreamy F sharp minor Adagio, pretty much all piano and the only passage ever in this key from Wolfgang A, we could hear just how fine a pianist BC is, at least when it comes to delicate emotion. WAM wrote PC’s 22, 23 and 24 in a hurry to drum up some cash. They are, IMHO, his best 3 in the form, with the operatic 23 probably edging 24 to the top spot.

Mozart also churned out the last 3 symphonies in a matter of weeks. Still hard to credit. Jupiter is, of course, the best. And the final movement is the best of the four. The two themes of the opening Allegro jockey for supremacy with more than a whiff of Don Giovanni-esque irony. The Andante takes a simple theme and turns into into something altogether more knowing and the Menuet and Trio elevates that Classical staple to new heights. But that last movement, up there with Beethoven’s best, and therefore the best ever, is something else entirely. Four notes, upside down, inside out, round about, in fact very which way but loose, then twisted around another four themes similarly pushed and pulled, then all weaved together in celestial, head-banging perfection (I know, I know, it’s just music, but f*ck me, what music). Easy enough to make a hash of by going balls-out bluster. Not here though showing how “flexible HIP” is now, really, the only sensible option with Mozart. Even with repeats PH brought this in under the half-hour. I have a Norrington recording with LCP, again with all the repeats, which tops 35 minutes and he is no slouch.

Regular readers will know that I can’t be doing with the staples of the Romantic repertoire. This though pays the wages of the PO and its peers. They barely get near Bach, or even Mozart, at least in an orchestral context. Perhaps that is why they look pleased as punch at the end of this. Happy days. And for those of you who like a little more Romantic in your lives, albeit the early variety, PH is back with the PO in November to show off some Beethoven and Schubert.

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 *****

mozart_jupiter_finale_final_section2c_bars_389-396_all_five_themes_together

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.

The Marriage of Figaro at the ENO review *****

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The Marriage of Figaro

English National Opera, 12th April 2018

It isn’t easy to think of a better opera than the Marriage of Figaro. And, as we culture vultures know, when opera works there is scarcely any entertainment to match it. It is just a shame that opera so rarely all comes together. It did here though making a perfect treat for BUD, and myself, as we continue to advance the young fella’s cultural education. One more Mozart to go, Cosi fan tutte, maybe the ROH revival next year, Britten now opening up, chuck in some Janacek after that and I’ll find a contemporary candidate which won’t scare him off.

It will be hard to match this though. Figaro may be the least daft and offensive of the classic Mozart operas but it still takes a wily director to render the sexual politics and dissection of class conflict entirely palatable to my modern eyes. Fiona Shaw certainly does this in her production, revived here for the second time with Peter Relton doing the honours. When I have something meaty to chew on in terms of message, to add to the comedy, and, of course, that divine, (might as well trot out the cliches), music, then there is nothing to do but sit back and enjoy. Singers who can act, constant movement through an imaginative. labyrinthine set from Peter McKintosh which intrigues and illuminates (and revolves, a lot!), and a concept which doesn’t overwhelm the story, but points up its darkest elements and is true to the Sevillian setting.

Now there is no doubt an army of opera bores who can tell me how much better it would be with top drawer international stars or a big name maestro in the pit. Piffle I say. What I like is an ensemble who can create a drama, rather than stepping off the plane, plonking themselves centre stage, screeching and then milking the applause. I was also more than satisfied with young Matthew Kofi Waldren’s handling of the ever exact ENO Orchestra. MKW is assistant to Martyn Brabbins and, in this uncluttered performance, was a more than capable deputy.

Even a musical numbnut like the Tourist can hear that Lucy Crowe, now graduated to the role of Countess, possesses a voice of exquisite power once she gets in the groove. When she comes in with that first aria hairs on backs of necks collectively stood on ends. Even when conspiring with Susanna to get back at the cocksure Count there was a tinge of heartache stiffened with revenge in her demeanour. Ashley Riches’s Count may not match her singing but he shows us a brutally direct aristo who is more confused than contrite when he gets his comeuppance. Thomas Oliemans may not be the most savvy of Figaros but he is perky enough. Rhian Lois as Susanna was the stand out for me though, as good as actor as I have seen on any stage, with a voice that needed no sur-titling. Katie Coventry’s Cherubino wasn’t annoying – that’s rare praise in my book.

Best of all though is getting to hear Jeremy Sams’s English translation of Da Ponte’s libretto in turn based on Beaumarchais’s play. The originals are exemplars of energy, suppleness and wit. Mr Sams’s verse matches them. It is often laugh out loud funny but still doesn’t blunt the sharper edges that puncture the mistaken identity and cupboard-hiding bromides. This is a comedy of cruelty not romance, as the Picasso-like bull skulls, (and minotaur allusions), the weapons, the confrontations, the barbs, the contracts, the tantrums, remind us. The cast, like the characters, relished turning the screw on each other. Remember this is a story where one woman (Marcellina) wouldn’t hesitate to use the law to catch her man (Figaro), a young boy (Cherubino) can’t keep his c*ck in his britches, the Countess agrees to feign adultery, she and her own fiance pimp out Susanna to the Count, a marriage (Marcellina and Bartolo) is agreed to legitimise an illegitimate child, Figaro is prepared to beat up his fiance on the basis of a lost pin and a bunch of blokes lurk beyond trees to watch the Count getting it on with Susanna. Nice eh.

The droit du seigneur that the Count will not relinquish may be the dramatic crux, but there is much more to Mozart/da Ponte’s plot, (even when it is shorn of the revolutionary monologue from Figaro berating the Count to be found in Beaumarchais). Fiona Shaw draws this out in ways that other, more frivolous, productions do not. Having the Countess walk out at the finale made sense. Men in positions of power haven’t changed much it seems so need to be reminded why then they are being w*nkers.

So a wonderful production of a wonderful opera. Don’t just take my word for it. Ask BUD.

 

 

Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall review *****

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Britten Sinfonia

Wigmore Hall, 24th January 2018

  • Heinrich Biber – Mystery Sonata No 1 “The Annunciation”
  • Philip Glass – Orbit
  • Leo Chadburn – Five Loops for the Bathyscaphe
  • Arvo Part – Spiegel am Spiegel
  • WA Mozart – Piano Trio No 3 K502

There is something of the spirit of punk about the Britten Sinfonia. They don’t have a principal conductor or director and play with pretty much who they like. They also play pretty much what they like with a refreshingly cavalier attitude to programming. I love them, whether it be a Bach St John Passion, electrifying accounts of the Beethoven symphonies under Thomas Ades, minimalist classics, Stravinsky, Ravel or contemporary British composers, all of which I have heard them perform in the last year or so.

So I was looking forward to this. Leo Chadburn’s new work Five Loops for Bathyscaphe, is scored for piano trio and electronics and runs for 10 minutes or so. So Jacqueline Shave (that’s her above), one of the violin leaders of the BS, Caroline Dearnley, the principal cello, and Huw Watkins, principal piano, had another 50 minutes or so to fill. What to choose? Mozart? Why not. After all his B flat minor trio is pretty much the first piano trio as we know the form, with all three instruments contributing rather than just a piano sonata with a bit of string diddling attached which previously defined the Classical form. And Arvo Part’s Speigel am Speigel? Yep, it’s a slam-dunk crowd-pleaser for violin and piano. But chucking in Philip Glass’s short piece, Orbit, for solo cello. And the first of Biber’s Mystery sonatas? Well as it turned out it all slotted together perfectly.

Now I have been unlucky in my endeavours to hear a performance of Biber’s Mystery, (or Rosary), sonatas for violin and continuo live. There are 15 of these chaps, divided into 3 cycles, Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious, plus a closing Passacaglia for solo violin. Each one takes as its subject one of the Catholic “rosary”episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary. They were likely written in 1676 but were unknown until 1905 ,and they are one of the earliest and best known examples of “scordatura”, where the violin is tuned in a way that is not standard. This permits all sorts of funky effects. Don’t test me on this but it is pretty straightforward even for a dumbass like me to hear the differences. One of the Vivaldi Op 9 Le Cetra concertos does this, Stravinsky does it at the start of the Firebird and Ligeti’s Violin Concerto is a prime example. Mind you Ligeti chucks so many effects into his concerto I am hard pressed to know where it is.

Biber tests the skill of the violinist to the max so it is a unlikely anyone was up to the job in the C17. What is on the page doesn’t correspond to what hits the ear. Don’t worry it doesn’t get too weird but it does create sounds, chords and harmonies with real drama. Now unfortunately we only got the first instalment here, which is the one which doesn’t arse about with the tuning, but it was still a blinder to open the concert with and Ms Shave delivered. It opens with a virtuoso figuration, being the Angel appearing before  our Mary, and them moves into a gentler sort of theme and variations.

The Glass “sonata” was new to me. The programme notes suggest Glass is referencing Bach’s mighty cello suites. He is. But then again anyone that writes a piece for solo cello is working in the shadow of the master. Even so lots of fancy figuration and double stopping does conjure up Bach’s counterpoint and Glass’s ordered repetitions are redolent of JSB’s own structures. Ms Dearnley is at home here as she is in the Baroque.

Now I have listened to, and seen performed, Part’s Speigel am Speigel, more times than I care to remember. It is one of my favourite pieces of music period. Which probably shows how easily pleased I am. This was one of his first “tintinnabuli” works, along with Fur Alina, from 1978, and it is “minimal” even by his standards. Simple arpeggios in piano and rising, then falling, scales from violin. If you are ever too worked up about anything just pop this on. Hey presto, blood pressure plummets. Now Ms Shave and Mr Watkins seemed to take this at a marginally faster tempo than I am used to, (it is all relative as not much happens), and took a minute of two to get in the groove, but once there it was as good a performance as you will hear.

I tried with the Mozart. Honestly. If I switch off and let it drift around and through me then it is pleasant enough but I still don’t really get it. Just too nice. Obviously there are bits of Mozart, and times when I listen to it, like watching a great Figaro, where it lifts me up and takes me away, but this wasn’t one of them.

Which brings me to the Leo Chadburn premiere, co-commissioned by the BS and Wigmore. I knew nothing about Mr Chadburn but I gather he is one of these new brand of musician/composer who doesn’t give a fig for established boundaries. He writes and performs across genres, releasing three synthpop albums a few years ago as alter ego Simon Bookish, and remixing for the likes of Grizzly Bear. He can certainly sing a bit I gather. This piece takes the classic piano trio instrumentation and hooks in pre-recorded voices from himself and Gemma Sanders, and some sparse electronica. It graphically describes the journey on 23rd January 1963 of oceanographers Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh to the bottom of the ocean. Eleven kms down to be exact in the Mariana trench, in that little ball Bathyscaphe Trieste thing. The idea of the piece is to create a sense of motionlessness in the music, deep and watery I guess, and allow the voices and words to tell the story. It succeeds admirably. There is nothing to scare anyone off in this simple but very effective sound-world. Think eerie harmonics from the strings and muffled chords from both ends of the range for the piano, as well as some theatrical plucking from inside the piano. The whole thing grips from first to last. It deserves a much wider audience. I am sure Mr Chadburn knows how to make that happen.

This whole concert was a joy. Music for everyone. Even if they know absolutely f*ck all about any of it. Still I suppose if they all prefer listening to a little ginger chap who has the temerity to suggest he is the next Van Morrison, then who am I to argue. Just seems a shame. Still that’s your pesky, high/low culture divide in late neo-liberal, capitalist society for you.