Shostakovich from the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy review ****

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Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), James Ehnes (violin)

Royal Festival Hall, 29th April 2018

Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, Op.77
  • Symphony no. 4 in C minor, Op.43

Apparently Vladimir Ashkenazy was at the premiere of the Fourth Symphony. In 1961, in Moscow, 25 years after it was written, DSCH having withdrawn it after Stalin metaphorically beat up him and his music in Pravda. How amazing is that. 57 years after that premiere a still sprightly 80 year old Mr Ashkenazy bounded up to the podium and delivered as committed a performance of the Fourth Symphony as you are likely to hear. Ably assisted by the massed forces of the Philharmonia, of which he is Conductor Laureate, let loose on a piece of the repertoire which is outside their normal C19 staples.

For those they don’y know it the Fourth is a curious beast. It contains plenty of recognisable DSCH tropes across its hour and a bit and its three “movements”, and is more Mahlerian in concept and execution, than the later symphonies. Indeed it shares the same key, C minor as the Resurrection, and a second movement akin to that symphony’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn third movement scherzo. Alas, if you were a Russian apparatchik in the 1930s it was bereft of the required redemptive triumphalism that Mahler delivered in his final movement. Mahler’s third was also an inspiration though it takes a knowing conductor to locate it.

It has a lot of bits and pieces, showing a resemblance to the modernism of DSCH’s early works, which he was supposed to have left behind. Idea after idea is introduced then discarded. Fun, but a little wearing, especially when compared to the long arcs of narrative in the later symphonies. You can see where all those polystylist Russian composers that followed DSCH, like Alfred Schnittke, got their ideas from. The shorter central movement is easier to read, with its nagging four note motif, but the opening fastish, and the closing slow/fast movement with its two massive codas are, to coin a phrase, all over the shop. DSCH is showing off, but it does get you to wondering where he might have gone if he hadn’t had to tread the line between undermining, and seeking the approval of, the capricious regime. Not saying that old Joe was good for Dmitry just that the ugly reality made him do more with less (ideas not instruments).

I have the well regarded recording by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra which doesn’t dilly-dally in either of the outer two movements which allows the ear, and brain, to discern a sonata-like structure amidst all the madcap invention. I don’t think Mr Ashkenazy was quite as bold with his tempi, so I don’t think it hung together quite as well as this recording, but this was still a performance to intrigue rather than confuse. Anyway you look at it though, these outer movements, clocking in just under half an hour each are going to have intervals of misunderstanding. Best then to admire the playing of the ton, literally, of members of the PO on stage, especially the woodwind, a match for the LPO in the DSCH symphonies, though the LPO has the benefit of Vladimir Jurowski’s increasingly brilliant readings.

So not the place to start if you don’t “get” Shostakovich. The popular First Violin Concerto certainly is though, especially with a soloist as assured as James Ehnes. The last time I heard Mr Ehnes was in a magical Messaien Quartet, alongside the Shostakovich Second Piano Trio at SJSS (Quatuor pour la fin du temps at St John’s Smith Square review *****). Mr Ehnes is a tall fellow, think Elrond to Mr Ashkenazy’s Bilbo Baggins, and it takes a seeming age for his bow to move across the strings given his very upright style. Looks can be deceiving though, as we all know, for, when Shostakovich asks the soloist to deliver in the lengthy cadenza between the third movement Passacaglia and Burlesca finale, he answered with aplomb. He was similarly convincing in the Passacaglia itself, one of DSCH’s genuinely “grand” inventions with its references to the Leningrad Symphony and the fate motif from Beethoven’s Fifth.

As with the Fourth Symphony there was a hiatus between the work’s completion in 1948 and first performance in 1955 (after Stalin’s death in 1953), by its dedicatee David Oistrakh with the Leningrad Philharmonic, a consequence of the Zhdanov decree. The piece is apparently Hamletian in scope, can’t see it myself, as well as symphonic in form, with a gentle, Elgarian Nocturne, preceding a “possessed” Scherzo (with the classic autobiographical DSCH motif, so common in later works, snuck in for the firs time), the aforementioned Passacaglia and the pumped up finale with glimpses of material from the other movements, including the folky dance of the Scherzo. Once again the PO woodwind shone.

So a fine evening presided over by a genuine grade A maestro. I am a big fan of Mr Ashkenazy piano playing, especially in Beethoven and Chopin, and even when it goes a bit off-piste. Unfortunately I never saw him play the piano live. I don’t suppose I ever will. Meanwhile this was more than adequate compensation.

 

Stravinsky, Debussy and Shostakovich: LPO and Leif Ove Andsnes at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 18th April 2018

  • Stravinsky – Symphony in C,
  • Stravinsky – Tango arr. for orchestra
  • Debussy – Fantaisie for piano and orchestra
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 54

I am pretty confident that no-one reads the reviews of classical music concerts posted here, not should they, since I know so very little about the music I hear, and what I do learn is ruthlessly plagiarised. But if you do stumble across this “content” by accident it really helps if you like Igor Stravinsky and Dmitry Shostakovich. A combination of my taste and that of those responsible for programming in the finest London venues means there is a lot of these two fellas on show here. More than I had realised.

This was another instalment of the Stravinsky Changing Faces festival at the South Bank, this time from the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski’s baton rather than one of their guest conductors.

Before I get to this a shout out for the free concert in the Hall just before this from members of the LPO Foyle Future First programme. This has been created to nurture talented young musicians who aspire to a career in the orchestra. They kicked off with a bouncy rendition of Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, then tackled some short pieces by Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Edison Denisov as well as Stravinsky’s own Epitaphium, a commemoration piece for flute, clarinet and harp, which acted as the inspiration for the other pieces which, in their turn, commemorate IS. The last piece was the more substantial Furst Igor, Strawinsky by Mauricio Kagel, drawn from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor and showcasing the dramatic singing talents of young bass Timothy Edlin, and some startling percussion effects.

I chanced upon this concert. On the basis of this I will endeavour to seek out any future offerings as should you if you are in the vicinity.

On to the main event. The Symphony in C was first performed in 1940 in Chicago conducted by IS himself. The first two movements, a Haydnesque shuffle with prominent oboe, here taken briskly, and a concertante with strings sandwiched by woodwind, were written in Paris, at the same tine as IS lost his daughter, first wife and mother. No grief on show though in this effervescent neo-classicism. The last two movements were composed after IS had moved to the US and comprise a scherzo with nods to IS’s early works and a slower conclusion focussed on woodwind. The trumpet of, I think, principal Paul Berniston, also got a good workout. Like everything Stravinsky wrote, the more times you listen to it the more you are astounded by how easy it all seemed to come to him, whatever form or style he was writing in, and however “academic” the music. This IMHO is about the best Neo-classical piece ever written.

The proceeding tango for chamber orchestra was originally a piano piece, as revealed by Leif Ove Andsnes later on in his encore. Even the stuff IS churned out for money, like this, is captivating, with strings, guitar, woodwinds and more brass than you might expect. Mr Andsnes is a confident fellow, I’ve heard him play a couple of times before, and have enjoyed his interpretations of Beethoven, the Nordics and Chopin, without being utterly convinced, I regard Debussy as a bit of an occupational hazard, as it often, as here, crops up in the programmes that appeal to me. All that swirling impressionism and general diddling about doesn’t really do it for me I am afraid. The piano being the chief instrumental purveyor of the diddling about tendency for composers so inclined, I wasn’t looking forward to this.

Once again my idiotic prejudices were confounded. The Fantaisie was written in 1890 as part of a prize young Claude secured but only the first movement was performed, leading CD to huffily withdraw it. Every time it was scheduled for performance thereafter, after revisions, he missed his deadlines, so that the original published score only appeared in 1919. The revisions were finally published in 1968. Leif OA has made a signature dish from this later version which is what we heard here. The first movement introduces the theme which turns up in the final allegro, there is a bit of the “exploratory” stuff which worries me but it settles into a tune by the end. The slow movement is grandly Romantic and in F sharp major. I shouldn’t like this but I did. Maybe I have a thing for this key. This moves into the the quicker, colourful finale which is underpinned by a repeated bass figure, and that, dear reader, is why I liked it. Probably because it doesn’t sound much like Debussy.

I don’t know how much rehearsal the orchestra got with the soloists. I am guessing it was limited since the programme implied we were getting the original 1919 version suggesting a bit of miscommunication. It didn’t matter. The more I hear the LPO with VJ at the helm the more I admire their unruffled ability to support, but never, overwhelm the soloist.

There is nothing diddly about Shostakovich’s 6th. After getting back in the Politburo’s good books with the 5th he went and upset the apple cart again with this bizarrely “unbalanced” though not “formalistic” symphony. 18 minutes or so of B minor largo slow movement with one of those never ending intros followed by a funeral march second theme, which is then repeated, but in a very subdued, passive way with solo flute from Juliette Bausor, ending with the briefest of recapitulation of the first themes. Then a scherzo, with trio accent, and strident climax, straight out of the DSCH copybook and a closing rondo, with contrasting waltz, that only needs a few clowns to gallop on stage to be complete and even has the enigmatic William Tell Overture which punctuates his last Symphony No 15. No fourth movement, all done in half an hour, audience always a bit taken aback, then relieved that it’s all over. And that’s the contingent, here thankfully large, who love this stuff. The best parties don’t go on too long. Who knows what it all means.

There is a lot of opportunity for pianissimo in the first movement, with most of the orchestra resting most of the time, and VJ and the LPO were keen to show what they could do. The extended second theme of the Largo was as close to eerie Shostakovichian, chair-pinning, perfection as you could ever want to hear,  and the closing presto faultless. Bish, bosh. It might still be on I Player if you’re interested.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir, Thierry Fischer, Neville Creed, Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), William Davies (treble)

Royal Festival Hall, 24th March 2018

Igor Stravinsky

  • Symphony of Psalms
  • Violin Concerto in D
  • Credo, Ave Maria, Pater Noster

Leonard Bernstein

  • Chichester Psalms

I have banged on before about the virtues of Moldovan-Austrian-Swiss, (forget national borders people), violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja before, slam-dunking Berg or crossing musical boundaries with cellist pal Sol Gabetta (Kopatchinskaja and Gabetta at the Wigmore Hall review ****). She was at it again, this time with the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Thierry Fischer a relatively late replacement for Andres Orozco-Estrada.

This was another in the South Bank’s Stravinsky exploration kicking off with Igor’s Symphony of Psalms. Three parts, with Latin settings of psalms 39 (verses 13 and 14), 40 (verses 2,3 and 4) and 150, played without a break, and constructed as a Prelude, a Double Fugue and Symphonic Allegro. Inventive enough for you? Well just to keep you on your toes IS boots out the clarinets, violins and violas from the accompaniment to his four part choir, (kids preferred by IS for the upper two parts but I reckon women, as here, is better). He adds in not one, but two, pianos and a harp to augment his already hefty woodwind, brass (a tuba, lovely), percussion and the big strings.

The first part then is like some mutant Russian/Byzantine/Baroque/Neo-Classical jazzy chorale with ostinatos broken by thick E minor chords. That is the joy of his counterpoint. Then the fugue in C minor kicks off in the woodwind, all heavenly-mysterio, then the chorus kicks in with the second fugue, then we swirl around in heaven with some Mahlerian horns bubbling away in the background until we get some rounding homophonic pronouncements at the end. The final section starts off all stark, austere and hairshirt, like the end not the start, until the propulsive allegro kicks in with a trumpet-harp motive. There is a chordal tune, a bunch of exuberant triplets echoed by the chorus and a striking running tune for horns and pianos. The slow beginning is repeated, with more warmth, and then revisited in the final Haydn-esque coda as we rise up to the stars. There are Allejujas all over the shop. This is the longest section as it incorporates the whole of Psalm 150 and it is remarkably uplifting.

The piece was written, for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in December 1930. It could only have been written at that time, by that one man, and yet …. so much of it echoes down, and forward through, the centuries. I know how daft that sounds but it is, even by Igor’s standard’s, remarkable music. Now you would normally reckon that the London Symphony Chorus rules the big choral roost in the capital. On this showing you’d be wrong. The London Philharmonic Choir under Neville Creed were on scintillating form. Bravo.

If singing this marvellous work were not enough, (though I appreciate how much work they put in ahead of it), the choir were treated to a sit down and Ms Kopatchinskaja’s astonishing fiddling. Now she certainly has a singular, and confident, performing style. Bare feet, big gown, lots of hopping and skipping about, hair tossing, it is pretty difficult to take your eyes off her. Fortunately Pat Kop, (yep, that’s her own branding), delivers a sound to match the charismatic gypsy schtick. The first movement Toccata is a souped up slab of florid Baroque, the middle two Arias exactly that, the first an upbeat shakedown, the second balladic if you will, and the final movement, Capriccio, lands us back in the heyday of early C18 Venetian virtuosity. The LPO and Mr Fischer were more than a match for their soloist keeping up, and once or twice, spurring on our self-assured diva. IS asked for a big orchestra, though again with constrained strings, but wisely never let it loose collectively, allowing the violin to always shine.. This suited Pat Kop who just about stayed the right side of insistent.

Remember when IS sent this score out to the world in 1931 his dedicatee violinist ,Samuel Dushkin, was a little intimidated by the “unplayable” wide spread three note chords which kicks off each movement. IS told him not to panic, it was a piece of cake. Once again Igor, a piano player not a violinist remember, was right and the received wisdom of the expert was wrong. He writes one violin concerto and no composer since has escaped its influence, in terms of how to relate violin to orchestra. And yet that very concerto is suffused with history. Pat Kop though wrestled with the Baroque to ensure that none of Stravinsky’s sly humour was lost.

Big, bold stuff from a soloist and and orchestra who have mastered the work. The encore was Pat Kop’s own party piece cadenza which draws on material from the Concerto, nods to Bach and ropes in Pieter Schoeman, the LPO’s leader, to act as counterpoint. Her discography shows she isn’t going to be bounced into just churning out the classics.

The Choir then took centre stage, from the rear as it were, with performances of three choral pieces that IS wrote in France after he returned to the Orthodox faith. He was a profoundly religious chap, for all his musical revolutions, and these settings, of the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the prayer to the Virgin Mary. Initially set in Church Slavonic he revisited them in later years and transposed them in to Latin texts. The Credo is chanted in devotional harmony, the Pater Noster in similar meditative fashion with a syllable to each note, with the Ave Maria sing-song-y making more extensive use of melisma. IS offered no markings so the choir and its leader have plenty of expressive headroom.

I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be persuaded by the Chichester Psalms. I wasn’t. I just don’t get on with all that flash Harry (Lenny), sub-West Side Story, Mahlerian heart-tugging. Sorry. Young treble William Davies, understandably initially nervous, stepped up in the middle movement, well done, and the crowd seemed very pleased with the piece so what do I know.

Overall then a fine evening’s entertainment and well done to Mr Fischer and Mr Creed for guiding everyone through it. And sign me up to the Pat Kop fan club.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stravinsky from the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Alexander Ghindin (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2018

  • Igor Stravinsky – Scherzo fantastique, Op 3
  • Igor Stravinsky – Funeral Song, Op 5
  • Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op 30
  • Igor Stravinsky – The Firebird (original version)

My favourite concert of last year was Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO’s take on the three, culture changing Stravinsky ballets. Just stunning. (My favourite classical concerts of 2017).

Suffice to say that whilst Sir SR’s Petrushka and Rite of Spring were, (predictably), barnstorming it was The Firebird which really made me sit up, listen and think. Firstly because it was the original full ballet score which I do not listen to often enough. (I have recordings by Rattle/CBSO, Dutoit/Montreal SO, Abbado/LSO and Salonen/Philharmonia so its not as if I have an excuse). Secondly because he, and the LSO, were able to show how much of even the Firebird looks forward to the subsequent two ballets and the announcement to the world of Stravinsky’s own, revelatory voice, as well as back to mentor Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral colouration. And thirdly because it was just so good, even in the more restrained, colourful first half which was glorious.

Now the LPO are engaged on a year long survey of Stravinsky’s orchestral works (Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey) with Vladimir Jurowski and other conductors, (as did Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia in 2016), though many of the headline concerts are mixed up with all sorts of other repertoire. The intention is to show just how profound Stravinsky’s influence has been on the direction of classical music, as well as showing how varied were his own influences. To be an artist who is better than all who came before is a miracle. To be an artist who changes the entire direction of his/her art, whilst still acknowledging the past is mind-blowing. That is what the boy Igor did. Composers are still wrestling with his legacy. So you can’t have too much of Igor’s music I reckon. Especially when each time you listen something new pops up.

Still he had to start somewhere and Mr Jurowski and his band chose to kick off this evening with Scherzo fantastique, which along with Fireworks (Op4) and the Symphony in E flat major (Op 1), is the starting point of Stravinsky’s career. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, the other nationalist Russians in and around the Five and the folk-art primitivism which was prevalent pre-, (and even post-Revolution), can be clearly heard, of course. There is something more at work here in terms of ideas though, albeit still melodic, not rhythmic and avowedly late Romantic. After dissing all this “juvenilia” Stravinsky in the 1960s did eventually accept that it wasn’t half bad.

Funeral Song is a proper step forward though. This is getting performed all over the place since it was rediscovered in some broom cupboard in St Petersburg in 2015. Indeed this very band and conductor programmed it with their thunderous Shostakovich Eleventh at last year’s Proms (London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall review ****). It was composed in 1908 as a tribute to Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky remembered it as being more advanced in terms of chromatic harmony than any of his previous works. He was right on that score (geddit). The idea is that each of the instruments file past the master’s coffin, though often in ear-catching dialogue. It is a much darker piece than the earlier works and when it gets going there is an undeniable Wagnerian bombast to it which he just about gets away with. Anyway the point is that here some of the sound-world of the Firebird is creeping out for the first time.

Before we heard the LPO take on the Firebird we were treated to N R-K’s Piano Concerto, and treat it was. Now it is pretty easy to get sniffy about all these C19 Russian sound painters. I think I might have done. All this folk tune authenticity is exciting on first hearing but I find the novelty soon wears off. Which means I haven’t really bothered with this part of the repertoire. The chances of coming across this concerto were pretty slim as I gather it is rarely performed. It is a compact piece, one movement running to just 14 minutes though with three distinct sections, fast/slow/fast with a slow opener. For me that was its attraction but I can see that, for soloist and maybe audience, there is not enough grand gesture here to take on the canonic piano concertos. Rachmaninov is your best comparator but where Sergei would have spun out these ideas to 45 minutes, N R-K keeps it tight, with essentially just one theme, based, you guessed it, on a folk tune. The tune was sanctioned by the daddy of Russian nationalistic music Mily Balakirev who apparently gave this the thumbs up, though he became more critical of N R-K’s later work, thinking it veered into the “academic” and “Germanic”. There are plenty of flashy cascades a la Lizst which soloist Alexander Ghindin revelled in and the LPO accompaniment, especially from the woodwinds, was very persuasive. Mr Ghindin encored with the Dance russe from Petrushka to give us another take, though this felt a bit heavy-handed to me, (the playing not the linking). Maybe he had a plane to catch.

This was a clever piece to set up Mr Jurowski and the LPO’s take on The Firebird. Now when they get it right, this band and its conductor can match the best I have heard. It doesn’t always work, sometimes the line gets lost a bit, but tonight it did. Here was Stravinsky’s first real masterpiece, the debt to N R-K still audible, but with all the stunning innovation, which took Diaghilev’s breath away on first hearing, highlighted. From those growling double basses in the intro, though the shimmering strings in that magic garden, the riot of woodwind colour as our Bird takes flight, off stage brass action as Ivan bombs da house and monstrous tuba and percussion as Kastchei’s rave takes off, all sections were given a chance to shine. If I had to pick out specific contributions, well, Juliette Bausor’s flute was terrific, as well as David Pyatt and the other horns, the tuba of Lee Tsarmaklis and the piccolos of Stewart McIlwham and Lindsey Ellis.

I see I have signed up to a number of LPO concerts that have a sprinkling of Stravinsky in the mix. Whether they are part of this Changing Faces season is not entirely clear to me. No matter. You can’t get enough Igor after all.

 

 

Nicola Benedetti and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall

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The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Marin Alsop, Nicola Benedetti

Royal Festival Hall, 4th February 2018

  • Beethoven Symphony No 4 in B flat
  • Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major

“Stardom” in the classical music world is a curious thing. To get there ideally you need to be a child prodigy. Then take a prize at your chosen music school. Get taken under the wing of a teacher and mentor, (more than one ideally), who are maestros from prior generations. Win a competition prize, or finish as a creditable runner-up, and secure a few prestigious gigs. A recording of a Romantic staple which tests the previous best recommendations. Set yourself up with your own festival in the middle of nowhere. Teach the kids and the underprivileged and travel. A lot. And, if you are a woman expect a load of airbrushed photos of you exuding grace, or if a bloke, brooding, ideally with a shock of unkempt hair. Make the cut, and there aren’t that many places available, and you are set up, literally, for life.

Obviously though you need talent and a level of dedication far beyond other jobs/professions/vocations. And even if you get to the top of the tree you are still only going to be appreciated by a minority of the population. Ah, but the pleasure you bring them cannot be measured.

Just occasionally though classical musicians break out into the wider consciousness by virtue of their genius, position and/or symbolism. In this concert I would contend we had two such musicians.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Marin Alsop’s rise to the top of the conducting profession. Recently appointed as Artistic Director for the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, alongside her leadership of the Baltimore and Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestras, she is probably best known to the general public from her two recent stints at the Last Night of the Proms. Here at the South Bank, where she is an Artist in Residence, she was given the award from the Association of British Orchestras, the trade body if you will. Let us hope she continues to inspire women to follow her. (I am looking forward to hearing Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO perform the Rite of Spring and Daphnis and Chole later in the year at the Barbican for example). There is a long way to go. Vienna’s other orchestra, the Philharmonic, didn’t permit women until 20 years ago (though they had a secret woman harpist, bloody hypocrites) and the unacceptable behaviour of certain male conductors is now being revealed. Ms Alsop is proving a powerful and eloquent champion and should be roundly supported for her work and her stance.

Nicola Benedetti has also proved capable of transcending the usual confines of classical music. Her recordings to date have not fought shy of delivering the popular “compilations” that shifts units. There was a packed house for this concert, and I would venture the majority were here just to see Ms Benedetti. This country is blessed with a rich classical music culture, (though maybe not quite as rich as Central and Eastern Europe), and there are plenty of talented musicians and marvellous composers. But world class soloists are a little thinner on the ground. So it is no wonder that Ms Benedetti, who is still just 30 years old, is so treasured, what with her MBE and Queen’s Medal for Music. Note I am unashamedly claiming her for Britain: she is unequivocally proud to be Scottish.

This was the first time I had heard her play. In a piece I now know well and, obviously, adore. With a band which comprises musicians who are at the top of their period music game. On a period fiddle whose sound I understand. This was Ms Benedetti’s first time with the OAE. (She will be joining the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican at the end of May in a programme of Vivaldi and Telemann. BUD and KCK have been signed up). Though not the first time she has played with gut strings. Ballsy then to take on Beethoven, the Daddy of the modern violin concerto, in a period performance.

So I couldn’t tell you what live sound she makes on steel strings, but, on the basis of this, it is probably something special. Here was a sweet, earthy and perfect tone but with a huge dynamic range. Very impressive. Especially in the slow movement Larghetto. And a real treat in the cadenza she has written specially in conjunction with Petr Limonov, what with its jamming with the timpani manned by Adrian Bending, (who also gets his big cameo in the opening and second movements of the Fourth Symphony remember), and its harmonic fantasy culminating in some showy pizzicato. Obviously you wouldn’t turn your back on an old-fashioned, knock ’em out between the eyes rendition, (my favoured recording is the Perlman/Barenboim/BPO which really pumps it up in the last movement), but this was still very satisfying. This is, after all, Beethoven’s least gruff, un-buttoned up orchestral masterpiece, set in its Happy D home key.

I wasn’t quite so persuaded by Marin Alsop’s treatment of the Fourth Symphony. Now I know it is a funny creature, murky and tentative in places, with those stop/starts, and it gets a bad rap compared to the Third and Fifth. But there is still lots to enjoy and explore. The OAE’s brass was in fine fettle but the woodwind was occasionally not quite what I expected and the strings felt a little too polite in the adagio vivace of the first movement, after that mysterious opening, and in the final allegro, which needs that massive contrast into the stalls. Tempi were a little on the slow side for me but then again I get off on John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire Et Romantique’s Beethoven cycle, especially in this symphony. Here Ms Alsop, as in the Violin Concerto, was most convincing in the slower movement.

 

 

 

Colin Currie Group at Kings Place review ****

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Colin Currie Group

Kings Place, 20th January 2018

Steve Reich

  • Music for Pieces of Wood
  • New York Counterpoint
  • Mallet Quartet
  • Drumming Part 1
  • Vermont Counterpoint
  • Quartet (2013)

So off to Kings Place for another immersion into the sound world of Steve Reich guided by his finest living advocates (probably), the Colin Currie Group. Having seen the CC Group perform Reich a couple of times in the past couple of years, (at the RFH), I consider myself something of a groupie. I was honoured this time to be accompanied by not one, but two, potential converts to the live, minimalist music cause in the shape of MSBD and MSBDB. And, to emphasise, you really do need to hear this live for the full effect.

I won’t bore you with another hagiography extolling the virtues of Mr Reich. Take a look here if you want that (Steve Reich’s Drumming and Tehillim at the Royal Festival Hall review *****). Suffice to say I urge anyone to give his music a whirl and see what you think. I won’t hold it against you if all that repetition sends you to sleep. Me, I am fascinated by it. Out of apparent rhythmic simplicity emerges music of shimmering and unsettling intensity.

On the subject of repetition in music I promised myself I would not use this blog to eulogise the now departed Mark E Smith. Let’s just say RIP. Hands down the most important creative force in my lifetime.

Anyway this gig kicked off with Music for Pieces of Wood written in 1973. Which is exactly that. Though these are not any old offcuts having been specially selected for their pitches, A, B, C, sharp D sharp and another D sharp an octave higher, and timbre. It is built entirely on patterns of beats and rests over three lengths 6/4, 4/4 then 3/4. That’s it. As so often with Mr Reich the apparent simplicity though belies its careful planning and the subtlety of outcome. There is no place to hide for the players here.

New York Counterpoint from 1985 sees a clarinettist, here Timothy Lines, pre-record ten different parts, including for bass clarinet, which is prominent in the last movement, against which he plays a final, eleventh line, live. Vermont Counterpoint from 1982, here performed by flautist Rowland Sutherland, employs a similar, though to my ear more complex, technique for flute, alto flute and piccolo, across 10 pre-recorded parts and one solo line using each instrument. In both cases, despite the discipline employed in terms of relationships of rhythm, tempo and meter, the effect is of often “melodic” and ambiguous counterpoint, with more than a whiff of Stravinsky’s neo-classical chamber works. Maybe at times in both pieces the solo line could have been brought forward a little “in the mix” but I was persuaded.

Mallet Quartet is a more recent piece from 2009 scored for two vibraphones and two five octave marimbas extending down to cello C apparently. Once again three movements, fast/slow/fast, with some fancy changes of mallets. The marimbas create the rhythmic backdrop linked by a canon structure in the fast movements, with the vibraphones providing the melodies, again largely in canon. In the slow movement it all gets pared back however, and the effect from the vibraphones is of a far more atonal world which I am not sure would be to everyone’s taste and is a fair way from “typical” Reich.

Back on track though with the iconic Drumming, or at least the first of the four movements. This is divided into four clear parts and is for four pairs of tuned bongos. (This makes me think once again of MES with his quip that The Fall was him and your granny on bongoes. Now if your granny could only play bongoes like this ……). Anyway this is quintessential Reich, building from one beat to twelve beats, alternated with rests, and then with the rests replaced with beats until the cycle is completed, and then reversed. This pattern is repeated in the other three movements with the different instruments, and it was a shame not to hear this (see review above), especially the spellbinding third movement with glockenspiels (and whistling !) and the thrilling final movement, where the whole lot gets chucked in. There is so much in the sound created that is it is impossible to believe the structure is so simple. This is Reich at his most hypnotic, made more so in this performance by the strobic effect of the movement of the sticks in the “fastest” passages. MSBD loved it so much he nodded off apparently – trust me that is a compliment. When Reich, (and other minimalist music), succeeds your mind and body can “drain away” leaving just the rhythm. Far out. Sorry for this hippy gibberish but it’s true.

Which brings me to Quartet from 2013. This piece, scored for two pianos and two percussion, which is the building block for many of Reich;s earlier works, shows what he is now up to. This is melodically much more complex than the previous works on show, with multiple key changes, breaks and pauses, frequent gentle dissonance, and shifts into new ideas. In fact more like most contemporary classical music. Fast/slow/fast once again, but the slow movement contains harmonic variety which you won’t find elsewhere in Reich’s compositions, though once or twice it veers towards doodling. Don’t worry, there is still rhythm at the core but this takes the players up a further notch in terms of level of concentration. Which is why is was written for, and dedicated to, this ensemble. I was much taken with it and will need to add it to the list of recordings of Reich’s music I need to lay my hands on. (I see there is one about to be released, And CCG are releasing their own recording of Drumming which will surely be a treat).

Loved it and so did the audience. Kings Place acoustic is terrific, warm and offering up waves of sound, so I doubt I will hear a better treatment of these works.

Next up CCG will play Reich;s Tehillim, based on psalms and reflecting his Jewish heritage, and which uses voices and wide instrumentation to drive melodic invention. Still Reich but this is more minimalism meets Baroque. Annoyingly the BBCSO also takes on Berio’s Sinfonia in this concert but I will be pandering to my new found fascination with Ligeti at the South Bank. Seems like the Barbican and the South Bank are going head to head in competition for the geeks.

 

Beethoven and Shostakovich: LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

barnatan-1-gallery

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Andres Orozco-Estrada, Inon Barnatan

Royal Festival Hall, 27th October 2017

  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 5 “Emperor”
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 7 “Leningrad”

Off to the Festival Hall for a couple of big beasts of the repertoire (or at least the repertoire I like). Yet I have to say that, in both cases, the interpretations were a little too polite and not quite the emotional body slams they can and should be.

This was the first time I had heard the LPO under the baton of guest conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada and the first time I had heard soloist Inon Barnatan. There is no point fiddling about in the first movement of the Emperor. Beethoven cuts to the chase pretty quick with a marchy rhythm with a little melodic twist and the two note theme which gets played with in the development. It is all pomp and show and Mr Barnatan with his bright expressive playing had the measure of the beast. The adagio and dancey rondo allegro require a greater connection with the orchestra, notably woodwinds, which was satisfactorily wrought but without real fireworks for me. Still much to admire.

On to the Shostakovich. Now even by DS’s “tombstone” symphony standards this is an absolute monster. You all know the story of its genesis. Written as the Nazi forces encircled the city, with DS pitching in as a fireman, premiered in Kuibyshev in March 1942, score smuggled out for performance in London and then New York, and apparently defiant testament to the heroism of the Soviet people, this is music as history. I know that there is a case for this to be a “requiem” for those who died at the hands of their own Government as well as the invader. But to me it sounds like a straight programmatic account of the war in the East with the ominous drum roll of the first movement giving way to the ghostly dance of the scherzo, the extended despair of the slow movement and the victory march of the finale (albeit tinged with pain for all those lost to the carnage).

Now it does go on a bit. It is easy enough to build tension in the first movement with the trite rat a tat tat of the side drum building to a climactic racket and the scherzo does its stuff as all DS’s scherzos do. But keeping the whole edifice alive through the outer parts of the third movement and first half of the final movement (both clock in at 20 minutes) is tricky and needs a bit of sludge and shaken up tempi I reckon. Percussion, brass and woodwind ticked the boxes but the strings were just a bit too Mahlerian for me.

Overall then I had hoped for a little bit more. Any rendition of the 7th is going to have some, shall we say, opportunities for lapses of concentration, and maybe I needed to try harder, but I have heard better. Mind you the young fella next to me was even more underwhelmed. Having bragged to his mates/colleagues before the piece, and during the inordinately long pause/hubbub after the first movement, he promptly dropped off until the applause kicked in. Maybe not the best choice after a long day at work but hopefully he caught up on his zzzz’s.