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. 

Carducci Quartet at St John’s Smith Square review ****

 

The Carducci Quartet

St John’s Smith Square, 23rd March 2018

This was the second time I had heard the Carduccis perform the first five Philip Glass string quartets, following their performance at Kings Place as part of the marvellous Minimalism Unwrapped year long festival in 2015. They are, along with the Smith Quartet, (whose recording I have), and the Kronos Quartet, the experts in these works. The First Quartet dates from 1966, the next four from 1983, 1985, 1989 and 1991 respectively. Glass has composed a further three quartets in recent years, including one a couple of months ago, as well as a couple of other works for this ensemble drawn from music for films. I need to hear them.

Mind you there are an awful lot of Philip Glass compositions that I have yet to hear. I suspect I won’t. No matter. You’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Of course that isn’t true but if you know your Glass you will know what I mean. I do find his chamber and piano music more intriguing than some of the larger scale works and, because I think the string quartet is the sine non qua of Western art music, these babies are my faves. There is more contrast, and therefore drama, than in the larger scale works though it is all relative.

The First Quartet was composed when Glass was in Paris studying under Nadia Boulanger, mixing with arty types and rejecting modernist composers, the likes of Xenakis, Boulez and Stockhausen, not because he couldn’t get on with their vibe but because he wanted to take a different course. He alighted on repetition and rhythm via Ravi Shankar and Indian classical music. Given that this was pretty much his first attempt at this new style it really is an impressive piece. There is still a degree of dissonance and apparent atonality which relates to modernism but the little cells of music in its two untitled movements, and the contrapuntal effects, are recognisably Glassian.

The Second Quartet, titled Company, was commissioned to accompany a monologue written by the master Samuel Beckett. The first and third, and second and fourth, movements are related and the soundworld is the classic harmonic progressions we know and, most of the time, love. The Third Quartet is drawn from the soundtrack that Glass composed for Paul Schrader’s film Mishima, about the eponymous Japanese novelist, though Glass had the quartet in mind throughout. There are six movements in total and they relate to the passages in the film, filmed in black and white, which flashback to Mishima’s childhood. They are varied in colour, playing with metrical accents and harmonic ideas.

The Fourth Quartet is a tribute to artist Brian Buczak and consists of three movements. This is a much more substantial piece than its predecessors and has pronounced elements of the Romantic referring, as it does, to the quartets of Schubert and Dvorak. The first movement moves away from familiar Glass territory into more complex polytonality, there is a yearning lyricism in the slower second movement and the third movement runs close to a chorale. This is surprisingly moving stuff.

The Fifth Quartet again titled Mishima also packs more of an emotional punch than you might expect from a cursory listen to Glass’s music. The very short first movement’s material appears again in the later four movements but we immediately know, with its pizzicato passages and long,melancholic phrases, that this is going to be a bit different. The second movement takes us back to more familiar Glass territory with triadic ostinatos for the lower strings, but even here the surface melodies reveal syncopations and unexpected shifts in phrasing. The pace hots ups a bit in the third movement, with a familiar motoric call and response, but the same elements recur before a shift into minor mode and the train slows down to a stop. The fourth movement starts slower, with a repeated swirl which accelerates, is subjected to some dissonant reworking, before slowing again. The last movement contains a much broader canvas of soaring lines and intricate figurations, interrupted by the slower themes from the first movement, before ending with a single pizzicato line. You would guess that this was “minimalist” but you might think it came from today’s generation and not from Glass himself.

Now I get why revivals of Glass operas can reliably pack out the ENO, terrific singing (especially choral), though not necessarily in an accessible language, a colourful production, a story, (though not much of one), but musically these are built up of big slabs of repetition. In contrast the string quartets never outstay their welcome and, in this particular case, you can see the best possible advocates perform them for not much more than a tenner, in the ever atmospheric SJSS. So it was a shame to see it less than half full.

So come on all you young’uns. If you can reclaim the opera house from us pensioner types you can do the same to the SJSS which, I have to admit, probably needs a dose of diverse blood.

 

 

 

Satyagraha at English National Opera review ***

01/00/1998. File pictures of Mahatma Gandhi

Satyagraha

English National Opera, 27th February 2018

Finally I have got to see all three of Philip Glass’s seminal operas, Einstein on the Beach (the science-y one), Akhnaten (the religious one) and now this Satyagraha (the political one). Einstein on the Beach was a recreation of the original Robert Wilson production at the Barbican a few years ago. Gruelling in places, daft as well, and it looked pretty lo-fi. Akhnaten, also at the ENO with substantially the same creative  team, looked and sounded sublime, but overall I was middle-whelmed. And so it was with Satyagraha. Improbable’s staging certainly tops the already lofty heights they achieved in Akhnaten, and there was probably more to the story unfolding in Sanskrit, but the pleasure, and marginal pain, derived by this observer was not dissimilar.

Since I can’t really imagine more committed advocates than this creative team for these two operas I think I have to conclude that, if pushed, I prefer my Glass in other formats. Like the string quartets or the works for keyboards. That’s a terrible admission isn’t it. Anyway probably as well I know now as Mr Glass has written a fair few operas, 29 and counting, including the chamber works. Mind you he has been pretty busy across all genres. He’s already snuck in another string quartet this year for example I see. Anyway the profligacy of PG is both joy and curse for the committed fan of minimalism, or, as he terms it, repetitive music.

There is no doubt that there is a unique pleasure in succumbing to its hypnotic effect. Hearing the structures slowly change as the notes are added or subtracted. Melodies, motifs and harmonies appearing, disappearing and reappearing. Wave upon wave of sound, altering, circling, revisiting, but never really getting anywhere. Timeless. Meditative. All transcendent when it’s just you and the music. But with opera the whole point is to witness the music interact with the drama. And this is where the disconnect emerges. If you succumb solely to the music then the visual spectacle risks taking too much of a back seat. There is way too much stagecraft trickery to admire here though to permit drifting off into an hypnotic trance. Who would have thought so much could be done with papier-mache and sellotape? Yet the structure and pace of PG’s score, the episodic structure of the “action”, largely based on key events in the struggle for emancipation by Indians in South Africa, led by Gandhi, and the Sanskrit text, all make for very static human tableaux. And a lot of slow motion shuffling.

A spell is cast but there are times when it might be nice to be snapped out of the soporific contemplation into some high drama. Having influences on Gandhi past, present and future, in the form of Tolstoy, then Rabindranath Tagore, and finally Martin Luther King, lurking at the back of the set isn’t quite enough, and the wow moments as Improbable make newspaper come to life, create gods and monsters before our eyes or bring crowd scenes to life, don’t always articulate with the, you guessed it, non-linear story (based on my reading of the synopsis).

Still admire the parts. The marvellous chorus and orchestra led by Glass expert Karen Kamensek, (as in Akhnaten), moulded PG’s musical shapes effortlessly. I didn’t know that I had seem Improbable’s work before in a very different context, namely Lost Without Words at the National Theatre, improv theatre from a cast of older actors, which worked a bit better than I might have expected. AD’s Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson, and here associate Julian Crouch, don’t lack for imagination or, based on Satyagraha, brilliance of execution. The go-to team for video design, 59 Productions, also leave their mark. Toby Spence gives us the Gandhi of myth, standing stock still for long periods, then bursting into his sumptuous tenor, but no sign of the man himself. The rest of the cast have even less opportunity to shape characterisation beyond the puppets they share the stage with. They all sounded great to me though, especially soprano Charlotte Beament, as Gandhi’s assistant.

The central message of Satyagraha, a Sanskrit word which Gandhi defined as “holding on to truth”, and which underpinned his theory and praxis of nonviolence, does sort of emerge from the production, but a bit of reading around, before and after, helps. The denial of self, the power of the collective, the effectiveness of planned and self-critical resistance. Think of this as a project. Put a bit of effort in and you might just learn something.

Or just do what I suspect the majority of the packed house at the ENO were doing, (this has been revived thrice, it is so “popular”). Gaze and listen in wonder and don’t get antsy about the fact it is all over the shop. At the end of the day the ENO has its hit and this, with its predecessor, is pulling in all sorts of punters who might, rightly in my view, give a wide berth to Verdi and Puccini.

Mind you I reckon this new generation of Glass converts might draw the line at the 5 hours of hippyish clap-trap that is Einstein on the Beach.

 

 

Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall review *****

jackie-shave-900x900

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.