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.