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.

Steve Reich: London Sinfonietta at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

London Sinfonietta, Synergy Vocals, Micaela Haslam, Andrew Gourlay (conductor), Sound Intermedia

Royal Festival Hall, 12th February in 2019

Steve Reich

  • Clapping Music
  • Runner for Large Ensemble
  • Music for 18 Musicians

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? The good thing, in this case, being the minimalist music of Steve Reich. There are those music lovers for whom just a few minutes sets their teeth on edge I gather. Not me though. Repetition, repetition, repetition. That’s what I crave. Except that it isn’t really repetitive. It is just structured sound. Built on rhythm. Which evolves. As has Mr Reich’s music. Perfectly demonstrated in this programme.

SR composed Clapping Music in 1972 as an antidote to all the paraphernalia and kit that the Steve Reich Ensemble required to perform his major compositions at that time, (as witnessed by Music for 18 Musicians after the interval). Two performers and their hands. One part fixed, the other repeatedly moving from unison to one beat ahead then back again. Clever clogs. SR, and the two performers here, David Hockings and Tim Palmer. Looks easy? Try it with the help of the app. It isn’t.

Runner for Large Ensemble, of winds, percussion, pianos and strings, is a relatively recent work, from 2016, and comprises five sections played without a pause. The tempo remains broadly constant but note durations vary from sixteenths to eighths to a standard Ghanian bell pattern, (Ghana being the source of many of SR’s works), and then reversed. It ends in the wind section with pulses played for as long as the players can sustain. It is not a long work, 15 minutes or so, and has a little less melodic interest that much of what we might term “late period” Reich (though here’s hoping with having many more compositions to come). This is as close to High Baroque as minimalism gets. I loved it.

Though I could listen to SR’s music all day. As it now seems could half of London. Programmes of Reich and Glass’s music, at least the large scale works, now sell out and audiences are no longer comprised of solitary, rather dubious looking, fifty-something blokes (hello Tourist), but the hip and trendy creative twenty-somethings from East London.

I have blathered on before on this blog about Music for 18 Musicians so I’lll keep this short. This was a turning point for SR as pulse and rhythm of the works from the 1960’s and early 1970s (Piano Phase, Violin Phase, Drumming) was augmented by expanded ideas around structure and, especially, harmony, and electronic intervention was curtailed. The movement between chords is still restricted, but, over the piece, there are repeated cycles of 11 chords, each held for two “breaths” from the voices and wind section(clarinets) which the strings follow. The 4 pianos and the mallet instruments deliver a regular rhythmic pulse, and, as the chords are stretched out, small “pieces” in arch form are built on top to create harmony and changes in instrumentation. The effect is like early polyphonic voice compositions with a cantus firmus overlaid with instrumental “melismas”. The sections are divided by cues from the mettalophone who becomes a sort of director and the modulations within chords are marshalled by the bass clarinet. here Timothy Lines. (Andrew Gourlay only conducted Runner).

All clear. It takes a few listens to get the picture and even then it is easy to get lost in the apparent repetition but it helps to get the map in mind. Then the choreography of sound (and movement as percussionists shift position), the way the focus and texture of the sound shifts across the ensemble, becomes clearer, and moves beyond the “hypnotic wash”. Understanding the process reveals the beauty. At least that’s what I think. Synergy Vocals lead by Michaela Haslam are the world’s experts in Reich’s work and the London Sinfonietta has form in Reich too, and together they were, mostly faultless in delivering the seamless ebbe and flow of the music.

Peter Eotvos and the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (conductor), Iveta Apkalna (organ), László Fassang (Hammond organ)

Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2019

  • Arnold Schoenberg – Accompaniment to an Imaginary Film Scene, Op. 34
  • Bela Bartok – Dance Suite
  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
  • Peter Eotvos – Multiversum

A sort of panic purchase this. It is a bit of a faff to use credit for returned tickets at the South Bank. Forgot that a chunk of said credit was about to expire and had already booked most of the concerts I was keen to see. So a bit of fat finger fact finding on the phone ahead of a booked concert and this was the result. Which I promptly forgot about until it popped up in the diary. Still you can’t go wrong with a bit of Bartok and Stravinsky right, and the Eotvos piece (a UK premiere) look like a lark.

Well up to a point. As it turns out Multiversum was a thing to behold but the rest of the programme was less convincing.

What with his Blue Reiter and Expressionist mates, his own daubing and his atmospheric, serialist diddling, Schoenberg was a shoe-in for a film score commission but when it came in 1929, purist that he was, he turned it down and itself wrote this, for an “imaginary” film. It is made up of three moods, Threatening Danger, Fear and Catastrophe and is as dull as everything else I have heard by Schoenberg, whether it be late Romantic gushing, atonal, tonal, or twelve tone. Maybe one day I’ll get it but not so far.

I’ve said before that Bartok’s music is equally fascinating and baffling for me. The Dance Suite manages to be both at the same time. He was commissioned by the Budapest municipality to come up with something which could restore some pride in a Hungary battered by the WWI peace settlement. It’s six movements work as a kind of musical memento mori for the Hungary of history with folk dance music with distinct Hungarian, Romanian and Arabic characters. Like all of Bartok he doesn’t hang around ideas wise so just when you have got your head around one melody he is on to the next one. There are some punchy passages notably in the second Allegro molto (which seems to end with “The Hills Are Alive” !!), the proceeding Allegro vivace and the short, spooky Comodo. The Finale is a suite all by itself. Played the right way, as in the recording I have by the Chicago SO under Solti it is up there with the best of the Stravinsky ballets and Ravel’s most atmospheric works. Here it felt a bit underwhelming.

Things perked up with the Stravinsky, which I have always felt has an air of Shostakovich about it, despite the fact that IS thought DSCH was an appalling hack. The Symphony in Three Movements is really just three, admittedly brilliant and imaginative, movements, written at different times, which IS cobbled together. The Overture: Allegro is as exciting as anything he ever wrote with its motoric string march proceeded by a woodwind and piano scamper. IS was at the height of his fame in New York at the end of WWII and his ballet music was even sampled by Disney. This movement could have fallen straight out of The Rite of Spring albeit with a neo-classical lilt. The Andante: Interlude, L’istesso tempo is led by the harp and was originally intended for a film, The Song of Bernadette. It too has a balletic feel. The finale, Con Moto, was tacked on ahead of the 1945 premiere and comprises a lolloping march, woodwind burble and more keyboard accompaniment. I have heard more urgent and involving performances but Mr Eotvos drove the Philharmonia a little harder than in the prior two pieces to good effect.

Now the composer says the Multiversum was written to channel his interest in “string theory, gravitational waves and the relationships between multiple universes”. Uh oh. I have nothing about contemporary composers describing what prompted and inspired them, and programmatic music has a long history, but sometimes …….. Anyway there are certainly passages in Multiversum where Mr Eotvos goes a little bit B movie, sci-fi on our collective arses, (though thankfully no ondes martenot or electronica), but, cumulatively, across its 35 minutes it does leave a monumental impression. This is largely down to the innovative combination of pipe organ and Hammond organ and the way the orchestra, which is not vast, is placed and combined.

The 20 strong string section was positioned to the audience left, woodwinds to the right, with brass and percussion scattered through the back of the stage. The Hammond organ allows for various pulse-y, lengthened effects, while the main pipe organ, in step-wise motion, generates the throb that sits behind the soundscapes. Together they do say “cosmos” even if at times it was more film score than the mind being stuff of, say, Ligeti or Xenakis.

There are three movements, Expansion, Multiversum and Time and Space, with a kind of Bach-ian construction – Prelude, Toccata, Chorale- though I couldn’t work out much in the way of themes or ideas. There were though some undeniably impressive passages, with inventive harmonies and waves of repetition, and I would happily listen to the piece again, but the influences of Mr Eotvos’s Hungarian heritage, and years spent with Stockhausen and Boulez, were not immediately apparent. He seemed to be having a lot of fun though as did the two soloists and the PO. Iveta Apkalna, dressed in a long, Gothic frock coat, certainly added drama on the RFH’s mighty organ, (her own baby is the brand spanking new Klais organ in the Elbphilharmonie), and Laszlo Fassang showed why he has the market in “classical” Hammond organ sewn up.


SoundState Festival: LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor), Stewart McIlwham (piccolo), Colin Currie (percussion)

Royal Festival Hall, 16th January 2019

  • Arne Gieshoff – Burr
  • Anders Hillborg – Sound Atlas
  • Erkki-Sven Tuur – Piccolo Concerto (Solastalgia)
  • Louis Andriessen – Agamemnon
  • Helen Grime – Percussion Concerto

It is amazing what a little bit of knowledge, a dash of pretension and a fair amount of persistence can do. A few of years ago, like any right-minded, gregarious, gainfully employed individual, the Tourist wouldn’t have gone near a concert comprised solely of contemporary classical music. A minority pursuit for the culturally affected. Now I am wondering how many of the Southbank’s SoundState festival to attend. In the end I bottled it and only pitched up to this but there was plenty across this adventurous festival ,for the musically curious to get their teeth, and ears, into. Try it. What have you got to lose.

The draw here, aside from the always perky Marin Alsop on the podium and, of course, the LPO, was the Percussion Concerto from Helen Grime, written for master whacker Colin Currie, and the Louis Andriessen premiere. I also figured three Nordic composers, who I admit I had never heard of, couldn’t be a bad thing. (Though it turns out only one was actually from the region showing how little attention I was paying and the pitfalls of lazy ethnocentricity). And who would’t be tempted by a piccolo concerto.

Well it turned out that the Andriessen was as bold and brassy as expected, the Percussion Concerto will definitely require a revisit but the big surprise, for me if not the cognoscenti as he is already a big noise in their world, was Anders Hillborg’s Sound Atlas.

As Marin Alsop wryly observed her introductory interview with Arne Gieshoff was in danger of lasting longer than the piece itself. It was inspired by a wooden “burr” 3D puzzle, dates from 2014 and certainly had some spunk about it. There was an echo of Elliot Carter in the concentrated energy circling more stable “pedals”.

Estonian Erki-Sven Turr lives on an island in the Baltic Sea, (images of Nordic noir crime drama immediately pop into my head – a dull day and very windy,) and was prompted to write Solastalgia by the visible impact of climate change on his surroundings. Solastalgia is a time coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe the distress we feel when we see how the climate is changing the environment of our memory.

(Now my regular reader has probably divined that much agonising has left the Tourist in the Stoical camp, philosophically speaking. We humans will come and go, we are not special, we will have failed to hang around for very long in the scheme of things (despite thinking we are better than every other species) and the earth will get over the damage that our brash, selfish selves do. Still he can’t deny that it is pretty scary to watch how our infantile inability to defer gratification has left us f*cking up so much in my lifetime, with climate the obvious victim).

In Solastalgia the piccolo acts as the squeaky catalyst for much bigger shifts of texture and process across the orchestra.. E-S T describes his “vectorial” compositional style in the programme but I confess it is beyond me. As was frankly this work. Never mind, if you don’t try it you won’t ever know if you like it.

Sound World was commissioned by the LPO alongside the LA Phil, the NDR Elbphilharmonie and Goteborgs Symfoniker, and this was its world premiere. Now this was much more my style. Crystalline is the word used to describe its sound world and the first section, which makes sense giving the extensive use of string micro-tones and the eerie squeals of the glass harmonica, expertly played here by Philipp Marguerre. River of Glass, Vaporised Toy Pianos (!!!), Vortex and Hymn follow this first section and all accurately describe the mood and texture of the music. It is measured in tempo and there is enough relation to diatonic history to make it easy to digest. Ligeti sat on top of Romantic, Sibelian string drones.

Helen Grime, like the three composers mentioned above, had a few words to say ahead of her piece, again receiving its world premiere. For someone so talented she is remarkably modest. To be fair there wasn’t anything ground-breaking about the Concerto in terms of structure, with three movements played straight through, (Bright, Subdued/Lamenting and Fleet-footed/Mercurial), instrumentation or technique, but, if you have one of the best percussionists in the world, then you might as well turn up the virtuosity quotient, which she duly did. The outer movements were predominantly tuned percussion, marimba, glockenspiel and vibe, with the inner section largely tom-toms, bongos, cymbals and woodblocks. The best ideas came with the frenzied, semi-quaver rhythmic repetitions at the beginning and end, counterpointed with strings and with the interplay between soloist and orchestral percussion. The wobbling pitches of the middle section, like all “drum solos”, was remarkable more for CC’s skill than musical inspiration. Even so I was rapt, but then I always am by this musician. Given how excited he was it is remarkable he didn’t crash into anything as he bobbed from one side of the podium to the other.

Louis Andriessen’s Agamemnon was here also receiving its European premiere. The inspiration was The Iliad and LA helpfully lays out the Dramatic Personae to include homo-erotic warrior Achilles, defecting bird-watcher Kalchas, the hapless, wind sacrifice Iphigenia and best-served-cold vengeful wife Klytaimnestra, as well as the brutal Mycenaen king himself. I must admit to being a little suspicious of this conceit especially when I saw that LA had pimped up his orchestra with a couple of pianos, a sax, electric and bass guitar and a drum kit. Well, as is always the case with this veteran composer, I should not have worried. The characters do not appear in programmatic sequence, except at the end, when Kassandra, she of the prophecies, steps ups with text from Aeschylus, via Ted Hughes, and here voiced by woodwind Principal Sue Bohling. Instead the colour and tone of the various episodes in the 20 minute piece indicates the various mortals of the story. War and terror are audible, this is Greek tragedy after all, but there are softer, more lyrical passages, notably for oboe and sax. There isn’t too much of the LA post-minimalism with which I am more familiar, though there are echoes of ancient musical structures a la his classic De Staat, but there are jazz infections and syncopated percussion. A kind of post-modern tone poem/film score if you will.

It was a lot to take in but there was more than enough that warrants further examination and would be surprised if any of these pieces fail to get a further outing in years to come. The hall wasn’t full but it was busier than I have seen for many a more traditional programme. That perhaps speaks to the esteem in which Marin Alsop is held. Many a conductor talks a good game when it comes to new music: she, and the LPO, were prepared to put in the hard yards to make it happen. There were certainly four happy looking and grateful composers on stage.

The Swingling Sixties: the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, The Swingles, London Philharmonic Choir

Royal Festival Hall, 8th December 2018

  • Elizabeth Atherton – soprano
  • Maria Ostroukhova – mezzo-soprano
  • Sam Furness – tenor
  • Joel Williams – tenor
  • Theodore Platt – baritone
  • Joshua Bloom – bass
  • Stravinsky – Variations (Aldous Huxley in Memoriam)
  • Stravinsky – Threni
  • Stravinsky – Tango
  • Luciano Berio – Sinfonia

I cannot describe how excited I was about this concert, and not just because it represented the final instalment of the year long Changing Faces: Stravinsky’s Journey retrospective in which the London Philharmonic Orchestra (amongst others) has performed the vast majority of Stravinsky’s large scale orchestral and choral works, as well as many of the ballets at operas, at the South Bank. Here, in the final instalment, we were treated to a pair of his late “serial” works for orchestra, Variations, and for choir, Threni, as well as a few welcome surprises. Of course Stravinsky being Stravinsky this was not the miserable, astringent, intellectual fare of the Second Viennesers but an altogether more satisfying feast.

However the real reason for the Tourist’s frenzied anticipation, (OK maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration), was the performance of Berio’s masterpiece Sinfonia. The Tourist hopes to soldier on for a few more years yet and pack in a little more exploration and understanding, (though he feels he may have come close to mapping out the boundaries of what he “likes” and “dislikes”), but he is pretty sure that Sinfonia would be a shoe-in for his list of top ten greatest “classical” music works. Actually, just for fun and in festive spirit, here is the current state of play on that work in progress. In no particular order. Only one piece per composer. Oh and there are 14. Like I say a work in progress.

  • Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No 7
  • Isaac Albeniz – Iberia
  • Antonio Vivaldi – The Four Seasons
  • Arvo Part – Fratres
  • Johann Sebastian Bach – Sonatas and Partitas for Violin
  • Benjamin Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Etudes
  • Claudio Monteverdi – Vespers
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Symphony No 41
  • Steve Reich – Drumming
  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No 10
  • Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
  • William Byrd – Mass For 5 Voices

I’ll think you will agree there is nothing intimidating here and, if I say so myself, it contains a fair smattering of “popular” hits. Romantic composers are conspicuous by their absence and, for those of a certain age, in the words of Snap!, Rhythm is a Dancer here. Hopefully though you can see the Tourist is not the type to show off with the obscure or arcane. So, dear reader, if you are “new” to classical music, I say why not take the plunge with a few of these pumping beats.

Anyway back to the business in hand. Sinfonia was originally written for The Swingle Singers, the forerunner of this evening’s revamped ensemble and frankly the only group capable of doing it justice, but Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO still had a lot of work to do to pull this off. I have said before that Mr Jurowski, on his day and in the right repertoire, is as good as any conductor I have ever heard, including Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Colin Davies, Mariss Jansons, Georg Solti and John Eliot Gardiner. Any absentees you spot reflects the fact I either haven’t heard them or don’t like them. I have never heard Riccardo Chailly conduct but know I should and that Kirill Petrenko, based on the Beethoven 7 with the BPO at the Proms in September, plainly knows what he is about. F*ck me was that good.

When Mr Jurowski sets up shop permanently in Berlin in a couple of years it will be a blow to London. As will the departure of Esa-Pekka Salonen from the Philharmonia. I imagine there are plenty of people who couldn’t give a flying f*ck about the artistic leadership of London’s classical music ensembles and indeed the future direction of the South Bank but, trust me, culture, even when “highbrow”, really matters. I still have this uncomfortable feeling that olde England is now determined to plough on with making a right b*llocks of everything, from which our abiding advantage, our language, will not be sufficient to save us. We went down the toilet, geopolitically, for most of the Late Middle Ages until a few bright sparks in the C17 and beyond came up with the idea of combining capital, education and technology to travel round the world nicking land, stuff and people. We have been doing the same, that is falling back a little, for a few decades now. We still do many things well but only if we welcome innovation, capital and people. Thus changing who “we” are. Which “we” have always done. Cutting “ourselves” off is not, and has never been, an option.

Jesus what has got into me. Back to Vladimir and the LPO. He is a dab hand in just about anything Russian, and I include Stravinsky in that, but, over the past few years, he, and the orchestra have also sprung a fair few surprises. To which we can now add the Sinfonia. Berio composed the piece in 1968/69 to celebrate the 125th year of the New York Phil. Defiantly post-serial, (old Luciano had a few choice words to say about serial music even when embraced by Stravinsky), post-modern, (that being all the rage then as it still is now), forged in the white heat of the intellectual, and actual, revolutions of the late 1960s, (I realise this is not getting a bit w*anky), you might be forgiven for thinking that Sinfonia will be some arty-farty, hippy inflected guff that hasn’t aged well.

Especially when you start reading about its structure. Originally four movements, which Berio quickly expanded to five with a sort of coda that commented on the previous four, it begins with texts from Le cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked) from French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Yep that Claude Levi-Strauss. Up there with those other Gallic sorts like Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and Barthes, and worst still those dubious German types like the Frankfurt School, who we Brits are rightly suspicious of. Drinking wine, smoking odd cigarettes, carrying copies of Das Kapital, and, worst of all, thinking and talking all day. Still they, and their descendants, will never infect the stout yeomanry of the English shires with their clever dick mumbo jumbo once we get shot of “Europe”.

Now C L-S had a theory that myths were structured in “musical” form, following either a fugal or a sonata construction. Nope me neither. Anyway apparently there were exceptions to the rule for myths about the origins of water and this is what Berio alighted on for Movement I. Which I guess means it has no form. It is a kind of slow threnody punctuated by all manner of bangs and wallops with the eight amplified voices chiming in with the text. Near the end a piano gets a look in leading a percussive Bugs Bunny scramble. It is a bit nuts. C L-S was baffled by where LB was coming from. So don’t despair if you are too.

But it kind of has a way of drawing you in. Berio saw a sinfonia in a very literal sense, from the ancient Greek, a “sounding together”. A layering of sound, instrumental and vocal, often cacophonous for sure but always individually textured. And most importantly searching for “a balance” which is what distinguishes it from the plink-plonk-fizz of much of the contemporary classical music that preceded it. Thus, in movement II, Berio takes one of his own chamber works O King, for five instruments and mezzo-soprano, and recasts it for the orchestra. It is a kind of lament based on two whole tone scales where the singers gradually build up the name of Martin Luther King. Instrumental and vocal whoops representing the vowels and consonants contrast with a shimmering orchestral backdrop.

All clear. On to Movement III then. “In ruling fliessener Bewegung”. In quiet flowing movement. The sub-title of the third movement scherzo of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. For this, cut-up and re-orchestrated, is what, famously, sits behind the movement. Alongside countless other snatches of classical music through history. Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Beethoven, Bach, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Hindemith, Strauss, Berlioz, Stockhausen, Boulez and many, many more. And, because I guess it seemed to need it, fragments of Beckett’s The Unnameable are also sung, spoken and stuttered, alongside, behind or over the top of the music. There is also a bit of Joyce, some graffiti quotes, even Berio’s own diary entries.

It is a quite extraordinary experience, unnerving, hilarious, annoying, enigmatic and occasionally sublime, a history of music threaded through what might be someone’s personal history. At first it appears to be a mess, a collage with no structure or pattern. But hang on. Didn’t that musical quotation seem to echo the Mahler? And why did that phrase, which made me laugh out loud, jump out? Once again you are drawn in, looking for something, “keeping going” as Berio would have it, whilst all around “civilisation” is threatened by the forces of repression.

I know, I know. Now I sound like a right dick. And yes, just maybe it is a little bit still of its time, But it is just such a jaw-droopingly extraordinary sound-world, so rich, so un-musical yet so musical., that this must be forgiven. Movement IV returns to the tonality of the second movement with a quotation, again from Mahler’s Resurrection, setting up the voices to wander off into another, choral, world. Had enough of quotation? Berio hasn’t, as Movement V then packs in the mother of self-referencing, meta “analysis” of everything that has gone before. Your ears and brain will be processing the aural information, and telling you things, even if you don’t know how and why it is happening.

Not for one single second of the whole work does any of this feel like hard work. Quite the opposite. There is tension and resolution. It is uplifting even as it is disturbing. And very funny even as it mystifies. And I can’t imagine a better performance than here. I am listening to the recommended recording as I write. The Orchestre National de France under Pierre Boulez with the New Swingle Singers (including founder Ward Swingle himself). The LPO and current Swingles sounded better. And that from somewhere in the back stalls of the Festival Hall. Maybe it was the excitement of it being live but any way up it was tremendous. In the third movement especially the lilt of the Mahler scherzo really was there throughout but it never obscured the other musical phrases. Seating the Swingles behind the first row of strings, though still forcefully amplified, ensured they were both integrated with, and punchily counter-pointed, to the LPO. How so much detail was conjured from so much confusion was, literally, uncanny. I gather there are times when Vladimir Jurowski’s excessive precision can annoy some punters. Not me. And definitely not here.

And a shout out to the sound engineers at work for the performance. I can’t find a reference in the programme. Well done though. Unlike the BBC who managed to nonce up the Radio 3 recording.

So you will have to find another performance but give it a whirl if you can. half an hour of your life that you will never get back. But in a good way. A really, really, really good way.

What about the Stravinsky? Well the appetiser, the Variations in memory of Aldous Huxley who died on the same day that JFK was assassinated, is a twelve note tone row which is subject to a series of eleven mechanical “variations”, inversion, retrograde, and the like, with each variation made up of twelve orchestral parts and each having twelve beats in a metre. It was IS’s last orchestral score. Apparently Huxley himself would have had no truck with such serial musing but, coming in at just five minutes, it was interesting at the time if thereafter, forgettable, apart maybe from the astonishing 12 violin variation – like having Xenakis in da house.

The Threni however is an altogether more substantial affair, IS’s longest serial work, in three parts, each drawing on selected Latin verses from the Book of Lamentations, with the middle section by far the most substantial, It makes much use of sung Hebrew letters. There is no particular narrative, it not being intended for liturgy, and it wheels out a biggish orchestra, (including a sarrusophone and flugelhorn), six soloists and a hefty choir, though tutti are frugally used. It is serial in construction but, and this is where old Igor really shows his musical cunning, it doesn’t really sound like it. It is anchored in the more tonal elements of the twelve note row and regularly allows the dissonance to resolve in consonant highlights. The orchestral and choral textures are distinct and Stravinsky chucks in all manner of single tone chants and antiphonal exchanges such that, on occasion, it really does sound like the high polyphony of Tallis, Byrd and Palestrina, even if it plainly isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. It still has all the necessary austere, other-worldly “tunelessness” you might expect from a twelve tone choral work. It just isn’t ugly. Quite the reverse in many places. Full of drama and contrast. I am not saying you would want to chopping the veg or driving home for Christmas with this in the background, just that it is very different from what you might expect. It is not quite up to the neo-classical Symphony of Psalms from some 30 years earlier but is definitely up there with IS’s swan-song the Requiem Canticles.

IS drew inspiration from an earlier Lamentations of Jeremiah published in 1942 by Czech-Austrian composer Ernst Krenek which more explicitly used twelve tone technique combined with Renaissance modal counterpoint. (Don’t worry Krenek himself spent a couple of years aping Stravinsky’s neo-classicism before he became a disciple of Schoenberg). Whilst the first performance of Threni in Venice in 1958 went off well, the premiere in Paris a couple of months later was a right dog’s dinner with Stravinsky, who conducted, getting into a slanging match of recrimination with his bessie Robert Craft ,who was supposed to have prepared the orchestra, and Piere Boulez who drafted in the woefully under-rehearsed soloists. The chorus probably wasn’t best amused when presented with the original score which was, shall we say, scantily clad in the bar-line department. Mind you given the dynamic range that IS requests of the choir that might have been the least of their problems.

No such shenanigans with the LPO and Mr Jurowski who delivered a beautifully layered interpretation with the LPO chorus, split antiphonally, as persuasive as I had ever heard. In fact they made it look and sound easy which, as the paucity of live interpretations reminds us, it most certainly is not. I would point to Joshua Bloom and late replacement Sam Furness as the pick of the soloists, but then again then had more time to shine in the central passages.

Prior to the Sinfonia the Swingles served up a vocal arrangement of Stravinsky’s Tango, complete with beatbox, which I think improved on the orchestral and piano versions previously heard in this Series. And, after another a cappella treat in the form of the Piazzolla Libertango, the LPO encored with Stravinsky’s Circus Polka to send us on our way with a Yo Ho Ho.

Spare a thought though for Maxim Mikhailov the Russian bass, from a long line of Russian basses, who was booked for the Threni solo part and who sang in the Requiem Canticles here a few weeks ago. He died on 21st November. Seems like he was beaten up on a Moscow street. FFS.

Thomas Ades and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

Lutoslawski2

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Ades, Kirill Gerstein (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 26th September 2018

  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
  • Thomas Ades – In Seven Days (Concerto for piano and orchestra)
  • Witold Lutoslawski – Symphony No 3

Thomas Ades is a talented chap. As composer, conductor and performer he follows in the footsteps of some of the greats., and I for one think there is a lot more to come. Some of the most memorable classical music evenings I have enjoyed in the past few years have been graced by his presence.

So although his own piano concerto, and the Lutoslawski (there he is above), were pieces I knew only by reputation, this, the opening concert of the LPO 18/19 season, looked a good bet. And it certainly came up trumps. Mr Ades has a way with Stravinsky as you might expect, his own music was greatly enhanced by Kirill Gernstein as the soloist (of sorts), who showed his affinity with TA’s music in one of his mazurkas as encore, but it was actually the Lutoslawski symphony that turned out to be the highlight of the evening.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements marked another step in the ongoing Changing Faces retrospective of his music at the Sot Bank. It is trademark IS, sparkling brass, bubbling woodwind and pulsating strings, smoothed off spikiness if you will. Though for me the fact that the three movements were composed independently over time shows through, so it isn’t right at the top of his orchestral oeuvre. The Allegro overture first movement definitely has its moments, harking back to the early revolutionary ballet scores with prominent piano here played by John Alley. The second movement, marked Andante, is comprised of material originally intended for a film versions of the St Bernadette Soubirous, Our Lady of Lourdes, (she of the multiple visions and Catholic granny’s favourite) and has an innocent charm, with a couple of interruptions, and vocal harp line. The finale, con moto, is a lot more aggressive, reflecting its completion at the end of the war in 1945, with that motoric quality that inhabits IS’s music, at least until the final austere serial phase.

In Seven Days doesn’t muck about, taking as its inspiration the Creation. The religious one or maybe the real one. Hard to tell. It was originally performed alongside a video composition from TA’s then husband Tal Rosner. It certainly has a vivid, cinematic approach to go with the programme, think Ligeti in terms of mood if not structure. But it didn’t need any visual assistance. Tiny particles of sound combine, break-up, recombine, ever expanding as we move through the seven movements, out of Chaos through to Contemplation. It was originally scored for a smaller orchestra. Here TA had the freedom to really crank up the engine especially in percussion and brass. Eat your heart out Haydn and all the others who have also had a go at the greatest story ever told. God as scientist not mystic.

It is one of those fractal compositions, music made out of algorithms or rules, built on repetition, where the very small mimics the very large. Maths as music, or maybe the other way round. So it is in a state of constant flux but the thing with Ades is that he cleaves close enough to conventional tonality, and, the secret sauce (for me I now realise) that is rhythm, not to disappear out of sight into the impenetrable. I can’t say it all fell into place on this first hearing, but it “made sense” which is all I need to revisit. The more modern and contemporary classical music I encounter the clearer it is becoming to me what is needed to rule it in or out. I do seem to have a penchant for ever changing repetition in music with rhythm and harmony, not melody, as the hooks (as it were). Ades kicks off with extremes of pitch in the opening perpetuum mobile, (I know now these could be my favourite two words in Latin), led by strings. This breaks with a chorale and the piano kicks in leading the orchestra to further rising and falling repetitions, with some very snazzy percussion, to mark the second day. The third day is another variation starting in the bass and rising up before the glittering harmonies of day four. Days five and six are a linked fugue, sort of Bachian, with the piano appearing in the second. A calmer interlude and then back to the beginning.

Witold Lutoslawki’s third symphony is probably his most well known composition. WL’s first symphony came out in 1948 but he was, like any worthwhile composer behind the Iron Curtain, derided by the authorities for “formalism”, which as far as I can make out was anything that wasn’t rum-pum-pom patriotic. WL didn’t return to the symphony until 1965 by which time the world had changed politically and musically. He was a big fan of John Cage’s experiments in chance in music which he embraced as “aleatory counterpoint” in his work, including the second, and this, the third symphony. Never fear folks, it doesn’t mean some knotty, joyless, meandering. Just some passages where some of the orchestral players have a bit of fun as far as I could tell in this performance. (Actually what I have learnt about Cage, which isn’t much I fear, says to me he was a pretty jolly sort).

The original commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra came in 1972 but WL couldn’t find the format he wanted.  In 1981 he alighted on the toccata which sits at the centre of the piece. Another two years and the rest of the work was signed off and delivered. A short prologue precedes the first of the two main movements, the toccata which is divided into three parts, each getting progressively “faster” by stretching out the basic rhythms, and punctuated by slower “intermezzi”. Apparently the Beethovian opening, and oft returning, four note motto is comprised of E naturals. Good to know. Then comes a shorter, slower “movement”, a swirling theme with string offsets. The symphony ends with a rapid coda and tutti. It is played through and comes across as a building of momentum culminating in huge crescendoes which subside and then build again. There is certainly a cosmic dimension which echoes the Ades piece, and like In Seven Days it always stays the right side of the tonality gulf and features some breathtaking instrumentation.

I could imagine that the symphony, even with this structure marked out, could get fuzzy. Not in Mr Ades’s hands though. It is a big leap to compare this performance to his ongoing, and outstanding, Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican, but, because he doesn’t hang about tempo wise, and because he prizes textural clarity over pompous showiness, in both cases, the layers of music are revealed not muddled.

So a big evening marshalled by a big man. There was much to bind the music together in terms of ambition, structure and feel. It normally takes Vladimir Jurowski, and the right repertoire, to bring the very best out of the LPO. He wasn’t missed here.