OAE at the Royal Festival Hall review

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Roger Norrington (conductor)

Royal Festival Hall, 28th January 2020

Beethoven – Symphonies Nos 2 and 3

The Tourist has signed up for a lot of Beethoven this year. And already enjoyed many performances from many different ensembles with many different interpretations. Most of the central piano, chamber, string quartet, choral and orchestral repertoire is getting an outing, even some of the lesser known works. LvB has 138 Opus number attributions, (some with multiple parts), but once you strip out the early chamber music, the songs, (where his facility was less assured), some choral misfires, the interminable rewrites of Fidelio and piano ephemera, less than half of these get a regular airing. And that is before the various chamber, piano, miniatures, dances, vocal, choral and so on works not assigned an Opus number (WoO, Anh, Unv, Hess and Bia, to represent the various musicologist’s classifications), as well as fragments, ideas and intentions.

Not much of this, if any, will see the light of day even in this momentous year but the one thing we won’t run short of is the symphonies. (I know, I know. Covid-19 may have something to say about that but what can I do.) What is heartening to see is that the less performed symphonies, though this is a relative call as they are not too hard to find even in non-anniversary years, are cropping up frequently.

The debt to Haydn in No 1 is not concealed but there is already much of Beethoven here, sforzandi accents, tonal shifts and more wind, 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. It starts with a musical “joke”, though not a belly laugh to be fair, a series of chords in the “wrong” key, obeys sonata form throughout but chooses to expand and contract sections more wilfully than Papa Haydn and asks for faster tempi than predecessors. It is easy on the ear, definitively Classical but still recognisably Beethoven

A quick word on No 8 which has also not been given its due historically. In F major and relatively short, it is undeniably upbeat, but full of interesting ideas, consistent with the shock, awe and invention of its three predecessors, almost a retrospective before the final symphonic roll of the dice that was to come. The climax comes early in the first movement, the second is a metronomic slow movement played fast, the third is a kind of yokel’s minuet from three decades previous and the rondo finale is as remarkable as anything our man ever wrote.

No 4 is just wildly under-appreciated. From the comic ghostly hover at the opening through the look-at-me bop, complete with wind jam, the first movement is up there with his best, and doesn’t go on too long. The second is a squeezebox, slowed-down rondo, which shows just how much LvB could do with, ostensibly, so little. In the third movement LvB again takes the minuet form, speeds it up into a zig-zaggy scherzo, which thrice wraps around a hesitant trio. The perpetuum mobile finale is a fast, but not too fast, race to the finish line, as “unbuttoned” to use Beethoven’s own phrase as the madcap end of the 7th. I guess the problem is that doesn’t really go in for the deep, thick, heroic stuff of 3 and 5 but there is still something hyper and uneasy through the whole of the symphony, and a lot of ideas.

So to No 2. In the hands of Sir Rog and the OAE. Who played it a few years ago in this very hall, when I was still trying to convert the SO to the joys of LvB. (She famously whipped out a novel on that occasion, snuck-ed into the programme). It impressed then and did so again.

It dates from LvB’s time in Heiligenstadt in 1802, (though the first sketches date from 1800), and premiered in Vienna in 1803. Like the other, lesser even numbered, it just needs a good listen to, though it isn’t, I admit, quite as convincing as 4 and 8. The first movement, post its opening ta-da, exhausts its first theme, the second movement, larghetto, is one of LvB’s longest slow movements, very lovely, but a bit syrupy. The scherzo, is exactly that, a joke, a drunken dance. The finale has some exquisite string writing but doesn’t quite offer enough serious yin to the comedy yang of the preceding movements. In short the whole is a bit too jolly compared to what was to come. Surprising given just how much pain the old boy was in.

As with the Eroica Sir Rog wants us to have a good time, encouraging between movement applause and given he commands the OAE to get a move on, this works for No 2 if less for No 3. This briskness, and Sir Rog’s animated conducting, even from his trademark swivel chair, he is 86 after all, does occasionally mean a loss of focus but it does spread the joy. And whilst the tuned up wind, the absence of vibrato, the quivery brass, the thwack of the timpani, the sheer pace, may now no longer surprise, he and his HIP peers have been at this for near four decades now, it still remind us exactly why No 3 changed the direction of music. Fresh out of the box.

Horn Calls: Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Richard Watkins (horn), Allan Clayton (tenor)

Royal Festival Hall, 16th January 2020

  • Carl Maria von Weber – Overture Der Freischütz
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage – Horn Concerto (Towards Alba)
  • Benjamin Britten – Serenade for tenor, horn & strings
  • Richard Strauss – Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche

Broke the golden rule. It is bad enough that I inflict this shite upon you and join all the other narcissists clogging up the Interweb and generally adding to the carbon burden. But I had resolved not to comment on anything that I had not sat all the way through. Notes for my own consumption but never yours. Here though I felt compelled to announce just how marvellous a concert this was. Despite walking out after the Britten Serenade and thereby avoiding the Strauss. Which, as it happens, I have heard live a couple of times and loathed. Another bloke in the lift on the way down adopted the same strategy. Why sully the perfect?

For I cannot imagine much better that this take on one of BB’s most sublime, and rightly popular, compositions. Comparable with the composers own versions surely. I might have guessed that Allan Clayton’s tenor is the perfect instrument for the work but how good is that Richard Watkins. He used to be principal horn for the PO, so he was surrounded by plenty of mates and presumably was attuned to Esa-Pekka’s no messing, forceful take on the work, even if he left before the Finnish maestro came to London. (Apparently E-P S, to add to his many talents, is a dab hand himself on the horn). He now works as a soloist fronting the London Winds and is a member of the Nash Ensemble. Every note was delivered exactly as I imagined BB composed it for the mercurial talent of Dennis Brain, the orchestra’s first principal player. The horn, let’s face it, when it enters its expanded harmonic world, is about the most thrilling, note for note, instrument in the orchestra. Obvs you can have too much of a good thing, but not here.

Which makes Mark-A T’s achievement in this world premiere of his own Horn Concerto that much more remarkable. He has always created contemporary classic music of real immediacy, but here, commissioned by Richard Watkins himself, he channels the German romantic horn tradition, of which Weber was a part, through the horn tributes of the English composing generation prior to him, Tippett, Colin Matthews, Oliver Knussen, and of course Britten himself, whilst still keeping his trademark jazzy syncopations and Stravinskian rhythms. BB’s piece, doh, is a paean to the night, setting those exquisite English texts through the ages, to faultless musical ideas, concentrated and not as flashy as some of his stuff. M-A T, in contrast, is all about the sunrise and the coming day. Alba in olde English meant “a call to the end of the night and beginning of the day”.

The so titled brief opening movement has lots of chirpy orchestral lines bouncing off the horn but, never thickens or overwhelms. The slow second movement is inspired by a late Larkin poem, Aubade, a morning serenade, in which the fear of mortality engendered by sleepless nights is banished by the light and the normality of the working day. The horn is the lyrical and bluesy expressive voice set against some beautiful, lower resister, string writing, punctuated with sustained low pedal points. The finale is also drawn from a poem, John Donne’s The Sun Rising, exactly the poet you want to mirror BB’s own choices, and does exactly what it says on the tin. M-A T offers up dense, chromatic, contrapuntal chords over which the horn soars.

Can’t remember the Weber and, like I say, no interest in the Strauss. But this was sublime and I expect Towards Alba to provide plenty of work for Mr Watkins, and others, in years to come. A fitting tribute maybe to another brilliant exponent of the French horn, Australian Barry Tuckwell, who sadly passed away on this very evening. I see Messrs Watkins and Clayton have recorded BB’s Serenade with the Aldeburgh Strings. Time to buy I think and set alongside BB’s own recording which featured Mr Tuckwell on peerless form and Peter Pears, later on his career, was marginally less the mannered English toff.

Peter Grimes at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor), Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Royal Northern College of Music Chorus, Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm, Håkon Matti Skrede (chorus master), Vera Rostin Wexelsen (stage direction)

Royal Festival Hall, 30th November 2019

Let’s not waste too much time on this. For this extraordinary evening is what happens when talented music-makers devote themselves to doing justice to a near perfect, no make that perfect, work of musical theatre.

The Bergen Philharmonic’s principal conductor Edward Gardner had already elevated Britten’s most complete opera into something special at the ENO (and the Proms) during his tenure there alongside Aussie heldentenor Stuart Skelton generally acknowledged to the best Grimes in the world today. EG’s Norwegian chums have taken The Borough to their hearts, what with fish, the sea, overcast skies, gruffness and chunky knit jumpers I guess it is no great surprise, and when they unveiled the fruits of this collaboration at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years back the critics went mental.

As they did again after this. And they were right too. You will not hear a more powerful, dramatic, atmospheric, moving interpretation of the score. And Mr Skelton now captures utterly the ambiguity in Grimes as he bullies the apprentice (Samuel Winter), whilst just about retaining enough man-child humanity to justify Ellen Orford’s sympathy. And I doubt you will see or hear a better Ellen than Erin Wall. Swedish and Norwegian sopranos, Hanna Husahr and Vibeke Kristensen, brought a bit of Scandi glamour to the two nieces, joining a peerless Brit cast. Roderick Williams as Balstrode, Susan Bickley as Auntie, Catherine Wyn-Rodgers as Mrs Sedley, Neil Davies as Swallow, Marcus Fansworth as Ned Keene, Robert Murray as Bob Boles, James Gilchrist as the Reverend Adams and Barnaby Rea as Hobson. It doesn’t get much better in terms of matching voice to character.

Now the thing is, these semi- staged versions, here just costumes (dark blues, greens and black, with just one telling flash or red), some barrels, ropes and so on, standing in for the various Borough locations, mean everything is focussed on the music and the voices. Which partly explains just why this was so darned good. But it also means we the audience are not distracted by too much visual stimulus. Not that this is a bad thing in the best opera productions. But the absence thereof here meant that the performers could uncover all of the nuanced psychological insight that is afforded by BB’s music and Montagu Slater’s libretto. (And, to be fair George Crabbe’s richly descriptive poetry which inspired it). Which is what took this performance into a different league. Grimes’s otherness, his failure to fit in, the darkness, cruelty or worse, that torments him, the ordinariness of the villagers and their routines, the scapegoating, hypocrisy and vengeance, the landscapes. The ambivalence of people, place and purpose. The good, the bad and the ugly of humanity. This really digs in to the themes generating real drama in a way you rarely see in any theatre. music or otherwise. Setting the chorus (brilliantly assembled and marshalled by Hakon Matti Skrede) behind orchestra, with principals ranged at the front of the stage, was not the only echo of Greek tragedy.

I assume that this ensemble will set this down in a recording one day but it really needs to be heard, and seen, to be appreciated. So, if and when it appears again, do not hesitate if you have any interest at all in the work. I await Mr Gardner’s return to a London gig with the LPO with bated breath.

Britten Sinfonia Beethoven cycle at the Barbican Hall review *****

Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades (conductor),

Barbican Hall, 21st and 26th May 2019

  • Lawrence Power (viola)
  • Eamonn Dougan (director)
  • Jennifer France (soprano)
  • Christianne Stotjin (alto)
  • Ed Lyon (tenor)
  • Matthew Rose (bass)
  • Britten Sinfonia Voices
  • Choir of Royal Holloway
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A majpor, Op 92
  • Gerald Barry – Viola Concerto
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93
  • Gerald Barry – The Eternal Recurrence 
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125

I have banged on before about just how revelatory Thomas Ades’ Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia has been. Well it seems that, for the final couple of concerts, the rest of the world, (well OK a few Beethoven nuts in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden) has caught up. A near full house for the Choral and a much better turnout for 7 and 8 than in previous installments.

The combination of, largely, modern instruments by an orchestra of solo and chamber specialists, (and now my favourite British ensemble), who have completely bought into the lessons of HIP under the baton of, again for my money, Britain’s greatest living composer, have produced Beethoven symphonies that surely reproduce the thrill of their first performance. Appropriate forces, minimal vibrato, tempos that believe Beethoven, textures exposed and perfectly combined. I have bloody loved the first four concerts and was really looking forward to the final pairing.

I wasn’t disappointed. The best Ninth I have ever heard. Ever. Soloists perfectly balanced and all as clear as a bell over the sympathetic accompaniment. And the choirs were immense. You don’t need a cast of thousands. How on earth Mr Ades and Eamonn Dougan managed to make the voices sound this perfect in this acoustic was a miracle. And everything Mr Ades drew out of the previous three movements before the finale was perfect.

Best Eighth I have ever heard live too though here the competition is, I admit, somewhat slighter. I will be honest and just say I never knew it was so good. It is short, it is jolly, with no slow movement, but it is full of intriguing, if brief, ideas. I finally got it. The Seventh wasn’t quite up to the same standard with the opening Vivace with all those abrupt early key changes not quite dropping into place and with the stop/start of the Allegretto funeral march maybe too pronounced. Minor quibbles. Still amazing.

The Barry Viola Concerto takes the flexing and stretching of a musical exercise with a simple melody and subjects it to all manner of variations. It ended with Lawrence Power whistling. It is, like all of Barry’s music in the series, immediately arresting, just a little bit unsettling, rhythmically muscular and very funny. Terrific.

The Eternal Recurrence which proceeded the Choral is equally unexpected. Extracts from Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra are delivered in a string of high notes by the soprano, here the fearless Jennifer France, in an a parlando, actorly style which is designed to mimic speech and not to sound “sing-y”. It’s a bit nuts and undercuts the text in a slightly sarcastic way, a bit like, some would say,Beethoven does with Schiller in the Ode to Joy. It reminded me of Barry’s The Conquest of Ireland which was paired with the Pastoral earlier on in this cycle.

I gather Gerard Barry uses a similar technique in his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, (based on the Fassbinder film). That is now firmly near the top of my opera “to see” list but for the moment I am very pleased to see that both The Intelligence Park and Alice’s Adventures Underground are coming up at the Royal Opera House. Thanks to Thomas Ades I think I can safely say I am now a fan of Gerard Barry. And the old fella has style and is generous to the performers of his music as we see when he takes his bow at each of these performances.

I won’t go rabbiting on about the musical structure or context of the Beethoven symphonies. You will know them. And if you don’t then frankly you are only living half a life. Beethoven wrote the greatest music ever written. If you don’t believe me then why not start next year when a recording of this cycle will be released and when there will be wall to wall live Beethoven performances to celebrate 250 years since his birth. Here’s a list of the best of them in London. They’ll be more.

  • 6th January, 6th February, 27th February, 19th March, 2nd April – Kings Place – Brodsky Quartet – Late Beethoven String Quartets
  • 19th January – Barbican Hall – LSO, Sir Simon Rattle – Berg Violin Concerto, Beethoven Christ on the Mount of Olives.
  • 1st and 2nd February – Barbican – Beethoven weekender – All of the Beethoven symphonies from various UK orchestras and much much more – all for £45
  • 6th February – Barbican Hall – Evgeny Kissin – Piano Sonatas 8, 17 and 21
  • 12th February – Barbican Hall – LSO. Sir Simon Rattle – Symphony No 9
  • 20th February, 4th November – Kings Place – Rachel Podger, Christopher Glynn – Beethoven Violin Sonatas
  • 1st to 17th March – Royal Opera House – Beethoven Fidelio
  • 15th March – Royal Festival Hall, PO, Esa-Pekka Salonen – 1808 Reconstructed – Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto No 4, Extracts from Mass in C, Choral Fantasy and more
  • 4th April – LPO, Vladimir Jurowski – The Undiscovered Beethoven – inc. The Cantata for the Death of Emperor Joseph II
  • 8th April – Barbican Hall – Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis – Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5, 7 and 9
  • 11th to 16th May – Barbican Hall – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner – the entire Symphony cycle.
  • 22nd November – Kings Place – Peter Wispelwey, Alasdair Beaton – Beethoven complete Cello Sonatas

Herbert Blomstedt and the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

Philharmonia Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt (conductor) 

Royal Festival Hall, 14th April 2019

  • Mozart – Symphony No 40 K550
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 3 “Eroica”

Bernard Haitink is 90. Herbert Blomstedt is closing in on his 92nd birthday. Unsurprisingly perhaps neither of them is particularly animated on the conductor’s podium. Mind you neither of them ever has been. Now you might ask yourself, apart from, by reputation, being a thoroughly nice bloke, (probably part and parcel of his fervent faith), at this age what is in it for him, and us, of Herbert Blomstedt continuing his life’s work when he should have retired years ago. To which I respond the world of classical music works to different rules.

Just to be clear. An orchestra of the calibre of the Philharmonia probably doesn’t need a conductor, of whatever vintage, to play this two warhorses effectively and efficiently. But it does need a conductor to lead and shape its musical vision. In its case the soon to be departed Esa-Pekka Salonen, its current Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor. The reputation of young conductors is made on their skills in interpreting and shaping the music on the page, but their legacy is a function of what they do to the orchestras they are tasked to lead. What they play, why they play it, how they play it, where they play it, who they play it with, what they choose to set down for prosperity. All artistic decisions.

And then there is the commercial imperative. The PO helpfully shows what funds its 11 million quid annual running costs. (Just before any of you philistines get antsy that’s the price of one first team, high end Premiership footballer. I know football clubs are commercial concerns, often listed. But the cost of paying the asserts still makes then a sh*tty investment. Stick to consumer staples I say).

Around 25% comes from its Arts Council grant and tax relief – peanuts to you the taxpayer for the massive contribution to our cultural fabric. The result largely comes from ticket sales (15%), tours (25%), recordings/bookings (10%) and just over 20% from fundraising, all those nice philanthropic types. Now the head honcho conductor isn’t in the front line begging for money, (quite the reverse, E-PS donates a chunk of his earnings to the orchestra), but his, (shamefully still only very occasionally her), standing makes a big difference to the economics.

Of course the Chief Conductor/Artistic Director isn’t the only stick waver employed come show time. There are, depending on the size and status of the orchestra, a host of Guest Conductors, Conductor Laureates, Associate Artists and featured partner conductors who also shape and lead performances. One or two may play a part in the broader life of the orchestra, (the trainees for the big jobs if you will), but most pitch up for, more or less, just the rehearsal and the performance. But they will still have an ongoing relationship with the orchestra. This is important. Music making is a shared endeavour. If the orchestra doesn’t believe in the conductor trust me it shows.

Even so, unless things start to go seriously awry, the beat-keeping on the podium is more for us than them. Mind you in a big piece with a. big orchestra, the conductor is the thing that holds the dynamics together. And, he/she can still be invaluable, with his/her cues, in helping mesh soloist and orchestra together in a concerto. But largely, I would say, it’s all part of the orchestral theatre. So, obviously, it is what goes on beforehand that matters. There aren’t that many scores with nailed-down instructions on tempi, dynamics, articulation, phrasing, shaping ….. and all the other stuff that us non-musicians have no idea about. And even if there are it is not illegal to shake the score up a bit. So someone needs to set the interpretative rules.

And this can make a big difference. Just compare recorded performances of the same piece and you will get the picture. Composer and performer are generally the same in modern music genres. Not so, generally, in classical, art music. Who matters more is a function of musical history. Go delve.

(Now I know that there are plenty of performers and ensembles who work in a different way. No permanent conductor. Playing from memory. Just a leader. But I don’t they would do it for Mahler’s Eighth).

Which, finally, brings me to these performances of Mozart 40 and the Eroica. You and I have heard them billions of times. Old school, HIP, HIP informed, gut, steel, smaller/larger orchestration, fast/slow, Classically cool or fervently romantic. There are loads of ways to cut these delicious cookies. Herbert Blomstedt and the PO just played them. Perfectly. At a fair lick if I am honest which suits me, but never over-revving the PO’s engine, and with some well placed, not too much, vibrato, when it was reasonable to do so. But overall nothing showy. Just the right choices each and every time.

Mozart is not standard Blomstedt territory but he captured the tension in the opening Allegro, the clean textures of the Haydnesque slow movement, the bracing dance of the Menuet and Trio and nailed the forward-looking innovation of the finale. All the repeats present and correct. Maybe the minor key (this and No 25) is HB’s bag.

Beethoven definitely is his territory and this was marvellous. He plainly loves it and made the PO fall in love with this, the most important work of music in the Western canon IMHO, all over again. 50 strings. Count ’em. Violins antiphonally divided. But every texture, every phrase, even when it get a bit blowsy, in the coda to the epic opening movement or the heroic final variation in the Finale, was utterly transparent. He has clearly continued to learn from the new ways of approaching LvB’s music and grafted that on to the decades of dramatic interpretation he has lived through. No need to open the score. Back straight. Legs planted. Just fingers, elbows, shoulders to remind the players what they already knew. Some stand out double bass grooves and well hard thwack timpani. Natural trumpets. And, in the funeral march, plenty of aural elbow room for the woodwind to shine. The change that this piece of music ushered in was plainly heard but never at the expense of its still Classical grounding.

Best of all. He believes in Beethoven’s markings. Even if he, like most, can’t quite get there. I am not advocating blast beat fast a la Gardiner, (though I am salivating at the complete cycle with the ORR next year at the Barbican), but LvB knew what his was up to and if you don’t agree you can go back to your interminable Wagnerian dirges.

Even when taking the well deserved applause HB seemed more concerned with praising the audience than lapping up the audience appreciation. Mark of the man. With Abbado, Boulez, Harnoncourt, Masur and Davies sadly no longer with us this leaves Maestros Haitink and Blomstedt as the granddaddies. (I can’t vouch for Mr Muti). Both prize purity and don’t f*ck about with what is on the page. Haitink still gets my vote but he only seems to do Bruckner or Mahler now. So hearing what a legend does with stuff I love was a real privilege.

There aren’t that many recordings I would own conducted by HB, whether with the various Scandi outfits he has headed up, the Dresden Staatskapelle or the Leipzig Gewandhaus. (Under Barenboim and Chailly these two have climbed to the very top of the orchestral tree but guess who kicked off the journey). But I wouldn’t be without his Nielsen symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Basically he single handedly showed what the rest of the world what Denmark’s favourite musical maverick (I know, it’s a small field) could do. Priceless.

Bach St John Passion: OAE at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Simon Rattle (conductor), Peter Sellars (director), Choir of the Enlightenment

Royal Festival Hall, 2nd April 2019

JS Bach – St John Passion

  • Camilla Tilling (soprano)
  • Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
  • Andrew Staples (tenor)
  • Mark Padmore (tenor, Evangelist)
  • Roderick Williams (baritone, Jesus)
  • George Nigl (baritone)

The Tourist, along with chum for the night TMBOAD, was recently blindsided, in a good way, by the staging of Britten’s War Requiem at the ENO which was far more theatrical than he had anticipated. Well blow me if if didn’t happen again with this St John Passion. I had not really clocked the presence of Peter Sellars on the list of creatives so had only anticipated a semi-staged version, a bit of movement, some subtle lighting, that sort of thing. However, from the moment we saw the OAE lined up on one side of the stage, it was clear something more was on the cards. What we didn’t expect was a full blown, punch to the gut emotional, acted out Passion, complete with modern dress costumes, (red and blue for the Marys, monochrome for the rest), occasional props, an immensely atmospheric lighting design courtesy of Ben Zamora, musical solos from memory, (my favourite was Simone Jandl and her viola d’amore and Katharine Spreckelsen and her oboe da caccia), and even walk-on contributions from Sir Simon Rattle himself.

The St John Passion is a powerful work of act even without the dramatisation, reflecting the subject, (even for those of us who have no faith), and the direct, even simple, way that JSB chose to set it. I can imagine that there will be those who would prefer, in theory, to be left to focus on the music, the voices and the text, but I would defy them not to be bowled over by the extra dimension that Peter Sellars staging brings to the work. This is not the first large scale Bach vocal work that the Tourist and BUD have shared in recent years, we have a B Minor Mass and a Christmas Oratorio under our belt, and the Tourist has a number of independent Bachian choral sojourns on top of this. The Tourist may have waited until his middle ages before he “got” Bach but now he consumes with the zeal of the convert.

Now as it happens Bach himself was reproached by some in the 1720s and beyond for the theatricality of his Passion settings and the fact that he revised them on multiple occasions in later years partly reflected this as well as a more realistic approach to the logistics of the piece and to tighten it up musically. So those who might initially object to this Sellars/Rattle ritualised version as liturgically inappropriate or offensive are in “good” company. There will have been a time after all when staging the Passion in the concert hall rather than the Church will have provoked the ire of some.

Whilst there are some belting chorus parts and chorales in the SJP the thing that really strikes me is the starkness of the settings with minimal instrumental accompaniment to many of the arias and with much use of recitative, and not just from The Evangelist’s narration. A lot of the first two parts is told from the perspective of those around Christ, and, assuming this translation is accurate, the text is very immediate and shorn of ornamentation. JSB cleverly creates a symmetrical structure, centred on the chorale Durch dein Gefangnis, as Pilate seeks to release Jesus, either side of which is the same pattern of choruses, some fugal, solos and chorales but in reverse order. This creates a musical order and narrative structure which informs the “drama”. It is not, as Sir Simon observes in the programme, a very melodic piece even if it does have some very arresting, and surprisingly experimental, musical passages. In short, with these forces, six soloists, a choir of 32 and the OAE numbering 30, it very much has the feel of opera, putting aside its subject. It certainly has emotional clout.

So easy to see why Sir Simon and Peter Sellars long cherished the idea of staging it in this way, finally realised in 2014 in Berlin when Sir Simon was head honcho at the Berlin Phil. The soloists here, led by the very deliberate Mark Padmore, who is pretty much the go too Evangelist, and the superb Roderick Williams as a visibly suffering Jesus, as well as Camilla Tilling, Christine Rice, Andrew Staples and George Nigl, were on top form and all can act as well as sing and the chorus brought real drama to their turns. The fact that the latter four soloists take multiple “roles” creates a texture and an audience empathy that a straight concert hall performance can lack. Contemporary resonance abounds with George Nigl’s equivocating politician Pilate yielding to the “will of the people” and the blindfolding and torture of Christus under investigation.

OK so occasionally some of Mr Sellar’s choreographic tropes grated a little, the hand gestures, the just-so re-creations of classic Renaissance paintings, the singing from prone positions, the pauses to get everyone in the right place, and the sur-titles, whilst a necessary part of the staging, were a bit too curt at times, and, whilst I don’t know where to take the interval the second half, as is usual, is a bit long compared to the first. Overall though this definitely ticked the box for BUD and myself.

Mind you we are, contrary to all appearances a couple of avowed modernists where it comes to our dramatic preferences. And so, I am willing to bet, are the vast majority of punters. Two hours plus of Bach and the story of Christ’s death may not float the boat of many outside us classical music buffs but I doubt there could be a better way to spread the word. Which ultimately is why the old fella wrote this masterpiece in the first place.

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

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

Royal Festival Hall, 21st February 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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