LSO play Ravel and Mussorgsky at the Barbican review ***

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London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Barbican Hall, 3rd June 2018

  • Ravel – Rapsodie Espagnole
  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 3
  • Mussorgsky arranged Ravel – Pictures at an Exhibition

It has been a few years since I have heard Pictures at an Exhibition live, and I have thoroughly enjoyed Mr Noseda’s way with Shostakovich and Beethoven recently, so I reasoned now was the time to reacquaint myself. Moreover Mr Bronfman’s account of the PC 4 last year, admittedly under the exacting eye and ear of Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian RSO, was pleasurable enough if not earth-shattering (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review *****). And I thought it right to risk another chapter in my ongoing love/hate relationship with Ravel.

The Rapsodie espagnole is a pastiche, of sorts, of Spanish music, in contrast to the rather more rooted offerings of the likes of de Falla, Albeniz and Granados, though Ravel is not the only French composer to have been seduced by all that sultry dance. Indeed when this was composed, in 1907, Maurice was immersed in all things Iberian what with his opera L’heure espagnole and the songs of the Vocalise-Etude. And his particular favourite was that familiar habanera rhythm – which turned into, amongst other things, the cha cha cha we now today. Mind you his mum was Spanish and he was born just over the border in the Pyrenees so it was in the genes/memes.

This was Ravel’s breakthrough orchestra piece and actually pretty much his only full force work that didn’t start in another form or from the piano. Whilst it isn’t based on any specific Spanish melodies there is no doubting where you are. Ravel, of course, was the master of musical and emotional coloration. Yet he doesn’t always surprise. When he does, for me mainly in the chamber, piano and piano concerto works, he can dazzle. When he doesn’t, often as not for me in the vocal works, he can be just a bit too diddly to no purpose. Not as diddly as Debussy who mostly really tries my patience, but still a triumph of style over substance.

Overall, given the material, this was reasonably enjoyable though I wouldn’t seek it out. There is a distinct descending four note ostinato motif that recurs through three of the four sections, with the Habanera being the exception. This helps it all hang together. The LSO was on top of the score, of course, but Mr Noseda’s reading felt a little forced, but not unpleasantly so, until the final Feria where the band cut loose.

This spilled over into the Beethoven where the quiet string theme that opens the C minor concerto shuffled into, rather than glided into, the room to set up the extended orchestral intro of the Allegro. Last time round in Beethoven I felt Mr Bronfman’s precise, delicate playing meant he got a bit bullied by the orchestra. I feared a repeat. As it turned out he was given enough room to breathe and the LSO, especially in the woodwind and lower strings, was on top form, with the Largo the standout. I have heard more convincing overall interpretations, and a bit more whoosh in the Rondo, but this was satisfying enough.

Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain, Vicious, Bonham, Curtis, Johnson, Buckley (x2), Cooke, Gaye, Coltrane, Parker, Parsons, Bolan, Tosh, Lynott, Nelson (PR). Some of my musical “heroes’ who died of unnatural causes, often with a fair bit more left to give, But if you want real rock’n’roll, nearly a century before any of these punters were doing their thing, then Modest Mussorgsky is your man. Obviously, like so many of the above, he was a f*cking idiot to waste his talent mashed up on booze, but, having chosen this course, and he did choose it seeking artistic freedom in this “bohemian life”, he got properly stuck in. Which meant he failed to complete vast swathes of work and didn’t get much beyond the piano and a bunch of songs and the completed opera Boris Godunov. He was a rubbish musician barely caring or knowing about structure or texture but boy could he capture a mood. and in BG he basically captures the essence of Russia.

Anyway there he is above in close up, in Repin’s famous portrait from 1881, which appeared in the marvellous Russia and the Arts collection at the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago. He looks a bit rough for sure. Worse still when you realise he was just 42 and died a few weeks later.

Easy to see what the colourist Ravel, as many others have done subsequently, was smitten with MM’s big ideas and couldn’t resist the temptation to smooth off the rough edges. The original piano suite of Pictures at an Exhibition was inspired by a posthumous retrospective of the work of artist Victor Hartmann, MMs mate who died aged 39. Mind you MM’s musical images, as you might expect, went way beyond whatever Hartmann envisioned, but the concept of the exhibition, with the repeated Promenade being us the viewer, holds the whole thing together and adds an ironic, detached air to the bombast. On the piano it doesn’t entirely work but in Ravel’s hands something magical emerges. Ravel used Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition of the piano original so a few changes were made but you get the feeling that MM would have been happy with the result even if he may not have known how Ravel got there.

It might all be very familiar but it the right hands, and the LSO and Gianandrea were the right hands, it can still be thrilling. Bydio, Baba-Yage and the Great Gate of Kiev didn’t disappoint. Boom. If you are a classical virgin and want to find a way into live performance there is no better way. You won’t stay there as you move on, and you may end up thinking it is all a bit daft, but the hairs on the back of your neck will still stand on end whenever you return to it.

Rock’n’roll. Sort of.

 

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the ENO review *****

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

English National Opera, 4th March 2018

Out of a long list of wildly inappropriate events that I dragged BD along to when she was younger perhaps provocateur Christopher Alden’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this very house was the most egregious. Not because the 14 year old her wasn’t up to the task of taking some pleasure from Britten’s opera; she is a very clever young woman who makes me immensely proud, (as do the other two in the very unlikely event that they read this – “Dad, what exactly do you do with you day now you are no longer working”). No, it was because of the audacious sub-text of public school abuse which underpinned the production. Not that this wasn’t an interesting, and very valid, perspective, just that it maybe wasn’t quite the Dream we were expecting.

ENO has reverted then to the older, 1995, Robert Carsen production of AMND, last revived in 2004, to pull in the punters. Good for me because a) I haven’t seen it and b) it is brilliant. Now my regular reader will likely be aware that I struggle with a lot of opera. Monteverdi, some Baroque, Mozart and some C20, can work for me but it is by no means guaranteed. Contemporary opera is what usually really floats my boat. There is a special place for Britten though. This is because it is English, or more precisely was written in English, so I have half a chance of understanding the words with my dodgy ears and don’t have to flick eyes up and down to sur-titles. Moreover, there is a proper marriage between libretto and music. The music fits the words and the drama and not the other way round. Britten chose stories with real drama and assumed that all of his performers could act. This much is reiterated by the interview with Britten in the programme. I care about the voices but I am not smart enough to know just how good the singers really are. In contrast I can understand why an audience gets all juiced up when the Queen of the Night hits those F6’s in Der Holle Racht … but it doesn’t always make up for an unfunny Papageno, risible plot and all that crass symbolism.

So drama first, music second, voices third. BB was judicious in his choice of source material, whether it be Auden, Crabbe, Maupassant, James, Melville or Mann. And why not turn to the greatest of them all in Shakespeare. But where to cut AMND, to avoid creating a 5 hour extravaganza, and how to shape the music around an already musical text? This is where BB, and Peter Pears, who took full joint credit for the libretto with BB, is so clever. By cutting out all the arranged marriage preamble, with the insertion of just one new line, we jump straight to the forest with Oberon and Titania wrangling. We swiftly get to experience the three different, but interlinked, sound worlds that BB has created for fairies, humans and mechanicals. The chop does mean that when Theseus and Hippolyta finally pitch up it’s a bit of a jolt, but by then we have had so many musically signposted episodes it’s easy enough to apprehend. A little bit of nipping and tucking in the order of the episodes to match text to music does also make for some novel juxtapositions: cheeky BB and PP send the lovers to bed unmarried, for example. Anyhow it’s the Dream so most of the audience will be up to speed on the story..

As ever with BB there a lot of essentially simple musical ideas which mean a numpty like me can feel the structure even if I can’t break the language. These ideas are clothed in innovative execution though. The Balinese influences, the debt to Purcell and Ravel, a bit of unthreatening twelve note serialism, all are audible, for this is the opera where Britten meshes the orchestral coloration and technical precociousness of the early operas and orchestral works with the spare stripped back austerity of his last decade or so. That is why, to me, it always sounds strikingly fresh and approachable whilst still endlessly inventive. The repetitions tell us where we are, and who we are with, in the drama but also allow us to soak up those exquisite sonorities that BB excelled in producing.

Intelligent and beautiful music in the service of the drama, not just a parade of flashy tunes. Which is where director Mr Carsen comes in, or more exactly his assistant, Emmanuele Bastet who supervised this revival. If Will S has provided plot and poetry, BB a crystalline musical structure around it, then the director only has to respond with a few big, bold ideas, and, ta-dah, success. Which is what we have here thanks in large part to Michael Levine’s outstanding designs.. A giant sloping bed fills the stage. Emerald green (Oberon) and a nocturnal blue (Tytania) dominate with occasional flashes of crimson. The Trinity Boys Choir of fairies marches on and off in perfect unison. The mechanicals, look like what they are, and their props in Pyramis and Thisbe, strike the right note of amateurish craft. The humans virginal white is gradually besmirched before they appear, alongside King and Queen, in glittering gold. There is coup de theatre in the suspended beds. Backdrops and lighting follow the same sharp, uncluttered aesthetic. A sort of synthesis of symbolist, minimalist and colour-field art, or maybe child-like Expressionism. Whatever, it it spot on. Any AMND, whether opera or on stage, that gets too floaty and ethereal gets the thumbs down in my book. That is not what dreams are made of.

Our Puck here, in the form of actor Miltos Yerolemou, counterpoints the action with his actions as much as his words. He is a very funny clown, (note he last appeared on stage as the Fool in the Royal Exchange Lear with Don Warrington), with pratfalls and tumbles a plenty, but he is the glue which brings the fairy and human worlds, fleetingly, together. As well as the superb design it is the choreography which enthrals in this production, courtesy of none other than Matthew Bourne and updated here by Daisy May Kemp.

Counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie stood out for me as Oberon, but that’s the way the opera is written, and because he is really, really good. The quartet of Hermia (Clare Presland), Lysander (David Webb), Helena (Eleanor Dennis) and Demetrius (Matthew Durkan) were well matched. The last three of these, along with our Tytania, soprano Soraya Mafi, and Theseus, Andri Bjorn Robertsson are all ENO home-grown talents, whose slight lack of projection was more than compensated by their movement and flair for the drama (and comedy). Joshua Bloom was perhaps an overly grandiloquent Bottom but that mattered less when unmasked/un-assed.

AMND doesn’t require a big orchestra which means ENO newcomer Alexander Snoddy, who is Director of the Nationaltheater Mannheim, could bring out all of BB’s eloquent phrasing and still keep the volume restrained enough to ensure the cast could all be clearly heard.

A perfect opera then based on a near perfect play near perfectly realised. At times like these I can accept, just, that opera trumps theatre as the greatest of art forms.

Ensemble InterContemporain at the Wigmore Hall review ****

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Ensemble InterContemporain

Wigmore Hall, 20th June 2017

  • Debussy – Premiere rapsodie
  • Bruno Maderna – Viola
  • Messiaen – Le merle noir
  • Philippe Schoeller – Madrigal
  • Luciano Berio – Sequenza 1
  • Ravel – Violin Sonata
  • Matteo Franceschini – Les Excentriques

Ensemble InterContemporain was founded in 1972 by Pierre Boulez and tenures 31 musicians, based in Paris but international in origin, and allows them to focus on contemporary chamber music. Thank you dirigiste France and take note you English philistines.

Having said that I confess I needed a bit of encouragement to pitch up to this which was provided by the Ravel Violin Sonata, which I haven’t heard performed live for donkeys years, as well as the Berio and the Messiaen pieces. I was less interested in the Debussy and the others works were going to be pot luck. But I figured if anyone could make this all work it would be this renowned collective.

Anyway it turned out to be a largely fascinating programme. The Debussy was more colourful than I anticipated. It was written as a test piece for students at the Paris Conservatoire so it gave clarinettist Jerome Comte a chance to work out accompanied by pianist Hideki Nagano (who I think on the night was the most assured performer – I would like to here him play in a solo capacity). The Bruno Maderna is a whole different barrel of fish. This is scored in open form which means the performer (Odile Auboin here) can choose their own route through the score. Interesting but I couldn’t help feeling this made for a somewhat tentative performance with no line I could follow,

The Messiaen piece was also written for students at the Conservatoire, this time flautists. There is a bit of bird song at the off as you might expect, then a few twiddly phrases and finally a mix of serial phrases on the piano and more rhythmic patterns on the flute, here sympathetically played by Sophie Cherrier. Good stuff. Now I confess the structure of the Philippe Schoeller piece escaped me, and the programme notes here went in to pretentious overdrive as they did with the premiered work by Matteo Franceschini. It is a piano quartet “informed” by Renaissance madrigals which contained some dazzling tremolo and glissando sounds as strings and piano came together. It will require some further investigation.

Berio’s Sequenza I is written for flute and, like all the Sequenzas, is a fine, direct piece. It consists of individual notes but you can discern the chords these would create so has a logic which makes listening straightforward. I thought Sophie Cherrier’s rendition was perfect. Ravel’s Violin Sonata (No 2) took him a bit of time to complete and is contemporaneous with his opera L’Enfant et les Sortileges. Like that work it is imbued with the spirit of the jazz, most notably in the “Blues” second movement, but also in phrases in the first movement. The last movement with its dancing semi-quavers for the violin is a personal favourite and I thoroughly enjoy Jeanne-Marie Conquer’s playing.

The soloists all returned for the Franceschini piece which is a collection of six character studies based on real though unnamed “eccentric” people. The first and last studies had a bit of pace about them but the other four were a bit more pedestrian and I am afraid I wasn’t up to the task of following the thread of the music.

Overall this was a rewarding evening listening to some fine musicians explore some exciting repertoire. Both Mr Schoeller and Mr Franceschini were in attendance. It is such a joy to see a composer and performers taking a bow. Glad I took the plunge. Contemporary classical music is a specialist pursuit and I get that for the vast majority of people this is all nonsense. But for me it is important that composers and musicians push the boundaries. The audience for modern and contemporary plastic arts is expanding. In time I think the same will happen for contemporary classical music. Mind you finding some mug to go along with is proving a challenge for me but I am convinced I will prevail, even if I may have to employ a little subterfuge.

 

 

 

Kopatchinskaja and Gabetta at the Wigmore Hall review ****

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Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Sol Gabetta

Wigmore Hall, 27th April 2017

Iannis Xenakis – Dhipli zyia
Jörg Widmann – Extracts from 24 Duos for violin and cello
Maurice Ravel – Sonata for violin and cello
György Ligeti – Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg
Peter Eötvös – a Call
Zoltán Kodály – Duo for violin and cello Op. 7

So it may not be on a par with the level of adulation reserved for Radiohead at Glastonbury but when the well heeled, third agers at the Wigmore Hall fall for a performer you can feel it (albeit in the form of polite applause and a few bravos). And on this evening they had two to really fawn over.

Moldovan Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Argentinian Sol Gabetta (looks like it is obligatory to mention nationalities in reviews of classical concerts) might have stepped straight out of casting central when it comes to playing the uninhibited, young female violinist and cellist. The thing is though they are the real deal. Individually they are both captivating performers, together they are awesome. Whilst this was actually a less intimidating programme than it might have looked on paper, it was still anything but genteel. But it cleverly showed off both their individual virtuosity and their combined energy, notably in the Ravel sonata and the Widmann extracts.

It was the Xenakis, Widmann and Ligeti pieces that drew me into going and they did not disappoint. The Xenakis piece is very early (1951) from his first year studying with Messiaen before he shook it all up with Metastaseis and created his own distinct sound world. The piece is still tonal, based on Greek folk songs and owes a clear debt to Bartok. But the two movement duo is still thrilling. PK and SG then played 6 of the 24 Widmann duos. I was not familiar with these but I should be. Lots of invention and a wide dynamic which seemed to fit our two heroines perfectly. More Wildman than Widmann.

Then the Ravel sonata. Now I don’t know why but I went into this less than fussed about hearing it. I sort of tolerate Ravel’s orchestral music and quite like a bit of the piano pieces but this sonata had passed me by. What a chump. This was outstanding. One of the best pieces of music I have heard so far this year. Just goes to show that you should keep your mind open. It is much more dynamic and aggressive than the earlier Ravel works I have heard. There is a real battle between violinist and cellist, which eases up in the final movement, and again an echo of our pal Bela B.

After the interval the Ligeti was a short, sweet growling canon-like thing – terrific. I was less sure about the Eotvos solo violin piece written for PK but heavens can this woman play a fiddle. And I have to admit defeat on Kodaly. I have tried but I just can’t get anything out of his music. With Bartok, whilst I need to get my head in the right place I can be drawn in, but I find his mate Zoltan just too prickly.

Overall though (there was a bit of some Bachs and Scarlatti thrown in) this was a genuinely exciting evening of chamber music that got us silver hairs all of a lather. My list of individual performers I will seek out is not long – I am too new to the game – but it has just had two names added somewhere near the top.