Britten’s Spring Symphony from the LSO at the Barbican review ***

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LSO, LSO Chorus, Tiffin Choirs, Sir Simon Rattle, Philip Cobb (trumpet), Gabor Tarkovi (trumpet), Elizabeth Watts, (soprano) Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor)

Barbican Hall, 17th September 2018

  • Harrison Birtwhistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII
  • Gustav Holst – Egdon Heath
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage – Dispelling the Fears
  • Benjamin Britten – Spring Symphony

Now here was an object lesson in not doing one’s homework. Benjamin Britten’s music was my first introduction to the classical world and remains one of my all time fave composers, (mind you the list is pretty short). However, I am not persuaded by all of his work, including, I remembered just that tiniest bit too late, the Spring Symphony. So always check that the piece you think you are going to hear is exactly that at the time of booking and always, especially if it is a work of substance as here, listen to it before attending. Both rules ignored on this occasion in the most spectacularly cavalier fashion.

Still it was the LSO. Under the baton of Sir Simon with the LSO Chorus and the combined Tiffin Choirs, Girls’, Boys’ and Children’s. (BD sadly, saddled with tone deaf parents, was never a contender for the first of these crews). And, in the Spring Symphony, three excellent soloists, two of who I knew, Alice Coote and Elizabeth Watts, and one only by reputation, Allan Clayton. All the voices were superb, there are some tricky vocal pyrotechnics required in certain of the poetic settings, and the logistical challenges of getting everyone on stage (or just in front) were adroitly handled. At points the Barbican Hall stage was stuffed to the gills. Sir Simon really does need that bigger stage.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Russian emigre conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who had earlier sponsored BB’s breakthrough Peter Grimes. As so often, writing it took a lot out of BB, three years from start to finish, on and off. He originally intended to set Latin texts against a symphonic backdrop but, as was BB’s wont, he persuaded himself that English poetry would be bettered suited. When BB sets canonic English poetry on a smaller scale the results can be astonishing, Les Illuminations, the Serenade, the Nocturne, Phaedra and, I reckon, the Cantata misericordium. And obviously the War Requiem shows he was a dab hand with large scale forces. But the Spring Symphony doesn’t quite hang together IMHO, choruses and orchestra sometimes at odds with each other.

It is (just about) discernibly a symphonic structure, a la Mahler, the first part made up of five sections (Spenser, Nashe, Peele, Clare and Milton, with various ideas laid out, the second a slow movement with three settings (Herrick, Vaughan and Auden), the third a scherzo again with three poems (Barnfield, Peele and Blake) set to music and the rousing finale, setting Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Elizabethan paean to the month of May, London, to thee I do present. There is lots of invention, texture and tone throughout, BB avoids throwing the kitchen sink at everything, with many passages of light orchestration, and percussion, harp, certain woodwind and brass, especially trumpets, (a theme throughout the programme), all get a good look in. Since all the poems reference Spring, doh, there are plenty of Spring-ey tunes, but also some darker material; this was a message of hope in the aftermath of War but BB recognised not all was rosy in the European garden. It just isn’t an entirely satisfying whole for me.

Sir Simon has always been a dab hand with BB, even from his days with the CBSO, though this was at the more portentious end of his interpretative spectrum. Still everyone really does seem to be having fun at the LSO and the Chorus now that he as at the helm. So maybe I need to cheer up, raise my game and work a bit harder on this particular piece.

The concert opened with a new brass fanfare from Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, a gift to Sir Simon. It was, literally a blast, with a laugh at the end from the sole tuba. This was followed by an excellent reading of Holst’s Egdon Heath. I have always liked Old Gustav’s second most famous orchestral piece after you know what, (which the BBCSO is trotting out soon accompanied by Prof Brian Cox – interesting). That heady mix of Englishness, Ravellian orchestration and a hint of Eastern mysticism draws you in but it takes a conductor of Sir Simon’s insight to really persuade. It is a bit scary, even from the off, with the growling double basses, I for one wouldn’t want to go anywhere near Hardy’s heath based on this music. An elusive string melody is set alongside a sad processional in the brass and some meandering oboe. It never really lands anywhere despite the echoes of a dance, a simple stepwise, siciliano, and it can appear to go on a bit. Not here though.

Dispelling the Fears written by Mark-Antony Turnage in 1995 creates an atmosphere of urban, rather than rural, unease, led by the two trumpets of the LSO’s principal Philip Cobb and the Berlin Philhamonic’s Gabor Tarkovi. The two played pretty close together for much of the piece, creating some stunning harmonies, especially lower down the register, against the usual MAT cloth of Stravinsky, jazz, a whiff of blues, some earlyish Schoenberg. It is quite furtive, never really breaking out, with constant dissonance emerging from clashing semi-tones. There are a few passages of relative peace but mostly it prods and pokes. Like most of MAT’s work it really works though you are not always initially sure why.

So there we go. The LSO and Sir Simon once again showing off the Best of British. With the slight caveat that this may not actually be the best of the best British composer (with apologies to Purcell and Byrd).

My favourite classical concerts of 2017

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Right I know it is a bit late in the day but I wanted to make a list of the concerts I enjoyed most from last year. So everything that got a 5* review based on my entirely subjective criteria is ordered below. Top is Sir Simon and the LSO with their Stravinsky ballets. Like it was going to be anything else.

Anyway no preamble. No waffle. Barely any punctuation. Part record, part boast. Comments welcome.

  • LSO, Simon Rattle – Stravinsky, The Firebird (original ballet), Petrushka (1947 version), The Rite of Spring – Barbican Hall – 24th September
  • Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals – Reich Tehillim, Drumming – Royal Festival Hall – 5th May
  • Isabelle Faust, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Bernhard Forck – JS Bach Suite No 2 in A Minor BWV 1067a, Violin Concerto in E Major BWV 1042, Violin Concerto in A Minor BWV 1041, Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043, CPE Bach String Symphony in B Minor W 182/5 – Wigmore Hall – 29th June
  • Jack Quartet – Iannis Xenakis, Ergma for string quartet, Embellie for solo viola, Mikka ‘S’ for solo violin, Kottos for solo cello, Hunem-Iduhey for violin and cello, ST/4 –1, 080262 for string quartet – Wigmore Hall – 25th February
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Gerald Barry Chevaux de Frise, Beethoven Symphony No 3 in E Flat Major Eroica – Barbican Hall – 6th June 2017
  • Nederlands Kamerkoor,Peter Dijkstra – Sacred and Profane – Britten Hymn to St Cecilia, Gabriel Jackson Ave Regina caelorum, Berio Cries of London, Lars Johan Werle Orpheus, Canzone 126 di Francesca Petraraca, Britten Sacred and Profane – Cadogan Hall – 8th March
  • Tim Gill cello, Fali Pavri piano, Sound Intermedia – Webern 3 kleine Stücke, Op. 11, Messiaen ‘Louange à l’Éternite du Jesus Christ’ (‘Praise to the eternity of Jesus’) from Quartet for the End of Time, Henze Serenade for solo cello, Arvo Pärt Fratres, Xenakis Kottos for solo cello, Jonathan Harvey Ricercare una melodia for solo cello and electronics, Thomas Ades ‘L’eaux’ from Lieux retrouvés, Anna Clyne Paint Box for cello and tape, Harrison Birtwistle Wie Eine Fuga from Bogenstrich – Kings Place – 6th May
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Mark Stone – Gerald Barry Beethoven, Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1 and 2 – Barbican Hall – 2nd June
  • Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Howarth – Monteverdi Vespers 1610 – Barbican Hall – 23rd June
  • Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Murray Perahia – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Piano Concertos No 2 in B flat major and No 4 in G major – Barbican – 20th February
  • London Sinfonietta and students, Lucy Shaufer, Kings Place Choir – Luciano Berio, Lepi Yuro, E si fussi pisci, Duetti: Aldo, Naturale, Duetti: Various, Divertimento, Chamber Music, Sequenza II harp, Autre fois, Lied clarinet, Air, Berceuse for Gyorgy Kurtag, Sequenza I flute, Musica Leggera, O King – Kings Place – 4th November
  • Maurizio Pollini – Schoenberg 3 Pieces for piano, Op.11, 6 Little pieces for piano, Op.19, Beethoven, Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique), Piano Sonata in F sharp, Op.78 (à Thérèse), Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata) – RFH – 14th March
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Gerald Barry – Beethoven Septet Op 20, Piano Trio Op 70/2. Gerald Barry Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park – Milton Court Concert Hall – 30th May
  • Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Yefim Bronfman – Beethoven Piano Concerto No 4, Prokofiev Symphony No 5 – Barbican Hall – 24th November
  • Britten Sinfonia, Helen Grime – Purcell Fantasia upon one note, Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Colin Matthew, A Purcell Garland, Helen Grime Into the Faded Air, A Cold Spring, Knussen Cantata, Ades Court Studies from The Tempest, Britten Sinfonietta, Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks – Milton Court Hall – 20th September

 

Twentieth Century Masters: LSO at the Barbican review ****

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London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, Isabelle Faust

Barbican Hall, 14th January 2018

  • Janacek – Overture: From the House of the Dead
  • Elliott Carter – Instances
  • Berg – Violin Concerto
  • Bartok – Concerto for Orchestra

Back to the Barbican for another round with Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO, though this was more familiar ground (for me) compared to the previous outing (Rameau to Mahler: LSO at the Barbican review ***) a few days earlier. And back to my more usual perch. Once again the Hall was pretty much full to the rafters, and, encouragingly, it looked liked a very youthful audience. (Or I am ageing more rapidly than I thought). Anyway, on the subject of age, the thread here was orchestral works written near the end of their lives by these four very different composers. All of which gave a chance for the whole orchestra to shine.

Now the main draw for me here was Isabelle Faust. I think she is probably the best current violinist in the world. Mind you, as is my wont, I have gone all hyperbolic in this claim with little evidence to back this up. So, more exactly, the best violinist I have heard in the past couple of years, based on recordings and her Bach outing last year at the Wigmore Hall (Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin at the Wigmore Hall review *****).

As it happens I saw a fine rendition of the Berg Violin Concerto performed by another favourite violinist in the elfin form of Patricia Kopatchinskaja last year at the RFH with the LPO under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. And I recently invested in the benchmark Levine/Mutter recording, (even though I am not entirely convinced by Ms Mutter). Now I am not going to pretend that listening to Berg comes easily to me, but even I can hear that there is a rich depth in his works from the combination of passion, intelligence, serial technique and romanticism, that rewards persistence. I rashly signed up for a performance of Wozzeck at the Frankfurt Oper a couple of years ago in German with German sub-titles (FYI I don’t speak German). Unforgivably I bought the cheapest ticket up in the gods. It is a wonderful auditorium but I could only see half the stage. That was still enough to be transfixed by an outstanding production. But most of all it meant I had no choice but to get lost in the score. Stunning. Add to this the Lulu in 2016 at the ENO directed by William Kentridge, which I confess was beyond me in parts, but was visually spectacular, and I am now well on the road to Bergian conversion. Mind you, what with his long(ish) musical education under Schoenberg, the proscription of his music under the Nazis and his early death, aged 50, after a bizarre insect biting incident, there isn’t too much composition to get your head around.

Now this Violin Concerto isn’t like others in the canon. It’s tricky for sure, and asks a lot of the soloist, but it isn’t showy. Orchestra and soloist have to mesh together. It is pretty much the last piece Berg wrote and is dedicated to the memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma (Mahler’s widow) and Walter Gropius (Bauhaus founder), who died from polio at 18. Apparently she was a captivating young woman in the manner of her mother.

The two movements are each split into two parts and with the waltz emerging from the material set out in the first movement, and the chorale emerging from the more rhythmic, almost cadenza, in the second movement. This the tempo is reversed in each. I can sort of pick out the established musical structures from within the twelve tone architecture but couldn’t tell you exactly what was going on. Suffice to say this is a dark, brooding, self-absorbed piece for the violinist and Ms Faust seemed to capture this utterly. She seemed lost in music, caught in a trap, to paraphrase Philly’s finest sisters, There are times when the whole edifice becomes just that bit self indulgent but this is where Sir SR’s insistence on picking out the orchestral instrumentation pays dividends. I hadn’t realised how detailed are the parts for harp, clarinet, viola, flute and trumpet were in this piece. I do now.

Which brings me to the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Now this is a piece written with the express intention of letting everyone in the band have a solo, like some prog-rock group in its 1970s pomp, It is an obvious, but still inspired, choice to present to an audience in a first season, and, I would hazard a guess, if you are engaged in a bit of musical team-building. I have Rattle’s first, (I think), stab at this when he was a younger at the CBSO, (though the bargain basement Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra version tops it). Anyway Sir Simon knows his way around it, and it brilliantly matches his predilection for coloration and deliberation.

I am not going to lie. It blew my socks off. There is just so much to listen to here. The first movement strings and brass, coming out of the undergrowth, with the woodwind, led by a solo oboe, getting their turn in the spotlight. The wonderful second movement scherzo with its contrasting intervals, an eerie disco. Next up an Elegia, exactly as it says, with the strings swirling around and up to be met by bold brass chords and a piccolo sticking its little nose in. The second scherzo quotes, mocks and, ultimately, compliments Shostakovich with tuba and harps getting involved, and the final movement works in classic Bartok folky stuff with a gallop to a rousing chorale at the conclusion.

I reckon we won’t have seen the last of this piece, or of Bartok, from Sir Simon and the LSO and it can probably get even better from here. Hopefully too we will see him rework some of his other C20 repertoire. Some more Stravinsky for sure, but I’d loved to hear his latest takes on Britten’s music for orchestra and, please, some, no all, of the Nielsen symphonies.

Anyway the other two pieces in this concert were tried and trusted composers for Sir Simon, Janacek’s Overture From the House of the Dead didn’t quite get the pulse racing in the way the Bartok did, but still suggested what the LSO is heading towards. (I see the House of the Dead will see a new production at the Royal Opera House in the forthcoming season. That has contemporary relevance written all over it). Sir Simon has always championed Elliott Carter and I can see why. This was another of those short, but inventive, comedy pieces that Carter was turning out in his musically fecund 90s and even into his 100s, but it has a strangely, moving ending.

Can’t wait to see what the Scouse Gandalf will programme with his band for the forthcoming season. Hopefully not too much Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius please.

 

 

Rameau to Mahler: LSO at the Barbican review ***

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London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, Magdalena Kozena

Barbican Hall, 11th January 2017

  • Schubert – Symphony No 8 Unfinished
  • Mahler – Ruckert Lieder
  • Handel – Three Arias
  • Rameau – Les Boreades Suite

Now I admit I hummed and harred about this particular gig. I am as excited as the next person about the return of Sir SR to London to lead the mighty LSO, but also recognise that, as his musical taste and mine are not entirely congruent, I had better carpe diem where I can. When he does serve up a favourite, chances are it is going to be the dog’s proverbials, to wit the simply stunning triptych of Stravinsky ballets, a highlight of last year (Stravinsky from Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican review *****).

So eventually I took the plunge here, intrigued by the Baroque on offer, recognising that I need to do more work on Schubert and wanting to see whether Sir SR is as nice to his wife, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, on stage as he is to the LSO and everyone else. The Mahler Ruckert Lieder and the three showy Handel Arias, one from Agrippina and two from Ariodante, certainly meant the missus had to put a shift in, two frocks and an hour in total either side of the interval. The Rameau has been a staple party piece for the Berlin Philharmonic for years, and it seemed interesting to see what the LSO would make of it.

As it turned out this programme also piqued the interest of Mrs TFP, who is rightly suspicious of my Renaissance/Baroque and Contemporary leanings, but who was happy to come along for the ride here. The Germanic quotient was also sufficiently high for her.

So what did I learn. Well …. aaah … I still don’t think I am ever going to embrace Schubert. I assume Sir Simon and the LSO gave this a respectable work-out but it is still just doodling for me, without the rhythmic discipline of Beethoven and with too many strands. Even the finished bits sound unfinished to me. I am really sorry as I know there are a lot of Schubert groupies out there.

Now the Mahler took a bit of time to get going but songs 3,4 and 5 (in Rattle’s sequence) let loose all of that Mahlerian drama and suspense, with the growly stuff at the bottom, the sniff of folk tunes and the aching strings all deployed to great effect. Mrs TFP combed the text scrupulously for mistranslation and therefore snaffled up the stories. I didn’t understand a word of what Ms Kozena was saying and, given it is the usual Romantic, Love/Fate/Man/Artist tripe, (with one about a lime tree apparently), I didn’t really care, but at times the noise was ravishing. Unsurprisingly I guess soloist and band were well matched thanks to Sir SR, though I wonder if Ms Kozena may have topped these renditions in previous performances. No matter. This was concentrated Mahler which for me is a good thing.

On the subject of concentrated musical pleasure, I cannot believe I am the only one who prefers to take his Handel operas from the set lunch, and not the full tasting, menu. The music induces a nice warm glow, for sure, but they can go on a bit. So I thought a triple helping of well chosen arias would hit the spot. These three are undoubtedly showy, particularly the final Dopo notte, but it didn’t feel as if orchestra and soloist were entirely comfortable in parts, and, I was reminded that old George Fred, once his lady singers got up a head of steam, was apt to encourage them further with interminable repeats. Even so it left me grinning from ear to ear.

As did the Rameau suite. So this is apparently one of those all singing, all dancing (literally) extravaganzas that the French Baroque invented. It was Rameau’s last opera tragedie and boy did he chuck the kitchen sink at it judging by this suite. An everyday tale of windy Gods, the orchestral colour is dazzling, with state of the art technology to boot. I absolutely adored it, as did Sir SR and the LSO. Very funky.

So another entertaining evening in the hands of Sir Simon, but also a reminder not to push the boat out too far in terms of repertoire I enjoy.

 

Stravinsky from Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican review *****

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London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle

Barbican Hall, 24th September 2017

  • Igor Stravinsky – The Firebird (original ballet)
  • Igor Stravinsky – Petrushka (1947 version)
  • Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

So here is is. The second coming. Sir Simon Rattle kicks off his tenure at the helm of the LSO. I missed the opening concert of British composers (annoying) and the Damnation of Faust (no interest) but this was always going to be a must see so I booked as soon as it opened.

Now it has been perfectly possible to see Sir Simon in London with the LSO, (for example, a Mahler 6 and the Ligeti Grande Macabre earlier this year), and other bands, (a Haydn Seasons and the late Mozart symphonies both with the OAE stick in the memory), but this was the first opportunity to gauge what will be possible for orchestra and conductor to achieve now they have quality together.

So it was an expectant mood in the hall as the Scouse Gandalf took to the podium (no need for scores – it is all in his head), after a few words with a clearly pleased as punch Lord Mayor. And then all hell broke loose. This was simply breathtaking. For long periods I was sitting stock still (and I am a terrible fidgeter) either open-mouthed in astonishment or grinning to myself like the proverbial cat from Cheshire.

Now I like the boy Stravinsky. And the more I get to grips with his compositions the more pleasure (and intellectual stimulation) I get. But it is hard to beat these three ballet scores.

Sir Simon chose to deliver the complete Firebird ballet. This means there is more of the still late Romantic colouration and chromaticism before we get to the Kashchei mad disco bits which presage The Rite of Spring. This means the debt to mentor Rimsky-Korsakov and the stench of Imperial Russia (give ’em fairy tales instead of food) hangs heavy in the air. Tchaikovsky and the rest of the Five are also on show. As usual Sir Simon was not interested in galloping through the first half of the exotic first tableau, to make sure every ounce of orchestral magic was received and understood by the audience. Which meant that by the time we got to the stunning apotheosis we were begging for release. Oooh. You just knew Igor, after this first lucky break, was going to take this to the next level.

Which is what he did. For Petrushka we got the 1947 streamlining though this is the standard nowadays. Here we start to get the big repeated rhythms and motifs which are what took the world of Western classical music by the scruff of the neck and turned it into a new direction. The late C19 structure is sort of still visible but in a kind of ironic way. The thrust towards Modernism and the age of machines is starting to take over though with rapid changes of direction, repetitions, major keys piled up and loads of banging tunes. And at the centre was the LSO’s own pianist master, Philip Moore.

A well earned break and we got to Sir Simon’s Rite of Spring. What a racket. In a brilliant way. The orchestra throughout was using every available inch of the Barbican stage with 60 odd strings on show and more brass than Yorkshire. And in the giant rhythmic climaxes they all got a look in. My ears were pounding and I was at the back of the circle. Heaven knows what it must have been like for the captives at the front of the stage. I have heard some marvellous Rite of Springs, (in my view, I cannot vouch for the ear of the professional), but this topped the lot. You can see why everyone got so enervated at the first performance in 1913. I was tempted to jump out of my seat at the end of Dance of the Earth and yell “go on my son”.

Now the LSO is top notch. We know that. Best in the world. Maybe. Best in my world. Definitely. But I have never heard them sound like this. Under Valery Gergiev, sometimes with interpretations that seem to be dialled in a couple of hours before a concert, they looked, and sounded, frustrated. Not here. They were having a blast. I have never seen an orchestra looking so happy. Every single section sounded faultless to me bar a couple of overly-enthusiastic brass fanfares. Yet is was the woodwind which stood out. And when the strings where belting out as one, like some giant single instrument, or capturing a pianissimo so quiet time was suspended, it just felt good to be alive.

So all in all a genuinely memorable evening. I cannot wait for the next from this marriage made in musical heaven. Unfortunately a fair slice of Sir Simon’s standard repertoire is not entirely to my taste but there should be enough from the C20 and contemporary commissions and from Classical masters. Indeed in January he will take the LSO back to the Baroque in part (Handel and Rameau) alongside Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder (with the lady wife singing – his, not mine) and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. There is also a very attractive C20 programme with Janacek, Carter, Berg’s Violin Concerto, with the marvellous Isabelle Faust, and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. And there is plenty of Mahler, as well as Tippet, Bernstein and Strauss for those attuned to that sort of thing. Bring it on.