Tallis Scholars at St Johns Smith Square review ****

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The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (director)

St John’s Smith Square, 31st March 2018

Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)

  • Surrexit pastor bonus
  • Vidi speciosam
  • Magnificat for double choir
  • Missa pro defunctis Requiem

Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)

  • Tota pulchra es
  • Hei mihi, Domine

Alonso Lobo (1555 -1617)

  • Versa est in luctum

Having dipped a toe into Early and Renaissance vocal music the Tourist probably finds himself listening to more than the average man on the street to Christian devotional music and Latin texts. This despite him being an avowed atheist and useless at languages. There is next to no cognitive dissonance arising from this set of circumstance, however, but he can now see;

  1. how the C16 and earlier man/woman on the street might get taken in by all the mumbo-jumbo given the power and beauty of the music (and art) that the Church offered (remember there were precious little other aural or visual stimuli to be had – no Candy Crush or Instagram in those days) and,
  2. how pointless it was setting it in a language said man/woman couldn’t understand leaving the door open for the Reformation to shake up the Catholic Church.

It has taken a bit of time but the Tourist has finally discovered the work of one Tomas Luis de Victoria thanks to the influence of some wise teachers. Snapped up a 10 CD disc by Ensemble Plus Ultra, a Gramophone Award Winner, for a bargain £30 after facing off the Amazon machine. I will likely die before I ever really get to grips with this music, (as for so much else), but there will be so much pleasure in the journey. Ensemble Plus Ultra are another in the long line of British early music vocal ensembles who, I expect, will have been inspired by the original wave of scholars and performers from the 1960s and 1970s, including our director for this evening, Peter Phillips, one of the grandaddies of the whole movement.

Now TVic was a big noise in C17 Spain, and along with Palestrina, based in Rome, and Orlando di Lasso, born in Mons in present day Belgium, but who worked all over Europe, was a major force in the Counter-Reformation when the Catholic church bit back. TVic was a performer and, helpfully, a priest but thankfully for us focussed on churning out compositions rather than taking confessions. I gather a fair bit is known about him, he worked in Rome for a spell before Philip II of Spain, the most important bloke in the world then with Spain at the height of its power, gave him the job of Chaplain to his sister, the Dowager Empress Maria in Madrid. This was Spain’s artistic Golden Age and these composers were a proud part of it.

I defy you note to be immediately drawn in by TVic’s grooves. The music is much more direct and “churchy”, with more affective melodies, than some of his European peers and predecessors. He is the master of manipulating, dividing and receding choirs. The polyphony is less complex than, say, Palestrina with more homophony, (everyone belting out the same text), but he creates some surprising textures and dissonances and a lot of melodic contrasts. He wasn’t averse to a bit of word-painting even though he only ever wrote sacred music.

The Surrexit pastor bonus is an Easter motet which is typical of TVic’s style, set for six voices which he combines in all manner of ways in just 3 minutes. It kicks off with dramatic soprano and the higher registers swirl around the lower basses. The Vidi speciosam is similarly scored and uses a popular Old Testament setting, (which also formed the basis for a TVic Mass). It starts off in a fairly restrained way but gradually builds out so that at times it feels like the whole of Wembley Stadium is in the room. TVic churned out 18 versions of the Magnificat but this one, Primi Toni, for two four part choirs, is entirely polyphonic with no plainchant intervals, though it is easy to hear the chant it comes from. There are a fair few effects along the way.

Francisco Guerrero was born and died in Seville, and spent most of his working life in Spain, but when he did venture abroad he packed a lot in, what with being attacked by pirates twice when coming back from the Holy Land, and landing up in debtor’s prison. Unlike TVic he wrote secular pieces in addition to motets and masses, though he also kept it homophonic and had a flair for drama. The first motet here, Toto pulchra es, is drawn from the same source as the Vidi speciosam and is similarly an paean of praise to the Virgin Mary, who was guaranteed to work the church fellas up into a right lather at that time. The second piece, Hei mihi, Domine is rather different with sharp contrasts and syncopated rhythms conjuring up a more impassioned plea for mercy in this Matins for the Dead.

Alonso Lobo was Guerrero’s sidekick at Seville Cathedral and took over when the old boy went walkabout. This chart-topping motet, Versa est in luctum, was written for Philip II’s funeral, and it shows with full-on “oh woe is us” grief-stricken passages from the book of Job apparently. It is his best known number. He had a spell in Toledo, (a city everyone must go to once in their life), and, in his life, was rated equally with TVic and Palestrina.

The meat of the concert was TVic’s Mass written on the death of his beloved employer Dowager Empress Maria. There are a fair few TVic masses, and I have only just started to get to grips with them, but if you need somewhere to start this might be it. TVic had 16 voices at his disposal when writing the piece and he took full advantage with six parts. It is a Mass for the Dead, a Requiem, based on the ancient plainchant melody, which becomes an immense structure in TVic’s hands. He also throws in a Versa est in luctum a la the Lobo motet and a lesson, Taedet animam meam, to serve up a near 50 minute funeral celebration for that is how it feels in spite of the subject. Old Dowager Maria may have shuffled off this mortal coil but in the afterlife she had loads to look forward to based on this music.

Obviously the Tallis Scholars under PP were perfect. They create a big sound but you are always aware of where the music comes from and what its point is and there’s no fancy grandstanding. It is hard sometimes in these concerts not to give in completely to the wall of sound and float off, but the Scholars in tandem with the composers, especially TVic provide enough contrast and drama to bring you back inside the music, its structure and its story.

Carducci Quartet at St John’s Smith Square review ****

 

The Carducci Quartet

St John’s Smith Square, 23rd March 2018

This was the second time I had heard the Carduccis perform the first five Philip Glass string quartets, following their performance at Kings Place as part of the marvellous Minimalism Unwrapped year long festival in 2015. They are, along with the Smith Quartet, (whose recording I have), and the Kronos Quartet, the experts in these works. The First Quartet dates from 1966, the next four from 1983, 1985, 1989 and 1991 respectively. Glass has composed a further three quartets in recent years, including one a couple of months ago, as well as a couple of other works for this ensemble drawn from music for films. I need to hear them.

Mind you there are an awful lot of Philip Glass compositions that I have yet to hear. I suspect I won’t. No matter. You’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Of course that isn’t true but if you know your Glass you will know what I mean. I do find his chamber and piano music more intriguing than some of the larger scale works and, because I think the string quartet is the sine non qua of Western art music, these babies are my faves. There is more contrast, and therefore drama, than in the larger scale works though it is all relative.

The First Quartet was composed when Glass was in Paris studying under Nadia Boulanger, mixing with arty types and rejecting modernist composers, the likes of Xenakis, Boulez and Stockhausen, not because he couldn’t get on with their vibe but because he wanted to take a different course. He alighted on repetition and rhythm via Ravi Shankar and Indian classical music. Given that this was pretty much his first attempt at this new style it really is an impressive piece. There is still a degree of dissonance and apparent atonality which relates to modernism but the little cells of music in its two untitled movements, and the contrapuntal effects, are recognisably Glassian.

The Second Quartet, titled Company, was commissioned to accompany a monologue written by the master Samuel Beckett. The first and third, and second and fourth, movements are related and the soundworld is the classic harmonic progressions we know and, most of the time, love. The Third Quartet is drawn from the soundtrack that Glass composed for Paul Schrader’s film Mishima, about the eponymous Japanese novelist, though Glass had the quartet in mind throughout. There are six movements in total and they relate to the passages in the film, filmed in black and white, which flashback to Mishima’s childhood. They are varied in colour, playing with metrical accents and harmonic ideas.

The Fourth Quartet is a tribute to artist Brian Buczak and consists of three movements. This is a much more substantial piece than its predecessors and has pronounced elements of the Romantic referring, as it does, to the quartets of Schubert and Dvorak. The first movement moves away from familiar Glass territory into more complex polytonality, there is a yearning lyricism in the slower second movement and the third movement runs close to a chorale. This is surprisingly moving stuff.

The Fifth Quartet again titled Mishima also packs more of an emotional punch than you might expect from a cursory listen to Glass’s music. The very short first movement’s material appears again in the later four movements but we immediately know, with its pizzicato passages and long,melancholic phrases, that this is going to be a bit different. The second movement takes us back to more familiar Glass territory with triadic ostinatos for the lower strings, but even here the surface melodies reveal syncopations and unexpected shifts in phrasing. The pace hots ups a bit in the third movement, with a familiar motoric call and response, but the same elements recur before a shift into minor mode and the train slows down to a stop. The fourth movement starts slower, with a repeated swirl which accelerates, is subjected to some dissonant reworking, before slowing again. The last movement contains a much broader canvas of soaring lines and intricate figurations, interrupted by the slower themes from the first movement, before ending with a single pizzicato line. You would guess that this was “minimalist” but you might think it came from today’s generation and not from Glass himself.

Now I get why revivals of Glass operas can reliably pack out the ENO, terrific singing (especially choral), though not necessarily in an accessible language, a colourful production, a story, (though not much of one), but musically these are built up of big slabs of repetition. In contrast the string quartets never outstay their welcome and, in this particular case, you can see the best possible advocates perform them for not much more than a tenner, in the ever atmospheric SJSS. So it was a shame to see it less than half full.

So come on all you young’uns. If you can reclaim the opera house from us pensioner types you can do the same to the SJSS which, I have to admit, probably needs a dose of diverse blood.

 

 

 

Quatuor pour la fin du temps at St John’s Smith Square review *****

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Alban Gerhardt cello, James Ehnes violin, Jean Johnson clarinet, Steven Osborne piano

St John’s Smith Square, 14th November

  • Shostakovich – Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67,
  • Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

I don’t suppose Olivier Messiaen had any idea, when he composed his chamber masterpiece in such harrowing circumstances in 1941, just how “popular’ it would become. A packed St John’s Smith Square waited expectantly (I know, I know, it’s hardly Glastonbury on Saturday night but this is as excited as us classical buffs can get).

First up though Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2 which I think should get more regular airings. Like Messiaen’s Quartet, this was written during WWII, completed in 1944 and dedicated to DSCH’s friend Ivan Sollertinsky. DSCH saw it as a tribute both to the victims of the Holocaust and to those who died at Stalin’s behest. Four movements, a canonic first, a sardonic scherzo, a brooding Largo in the form of a Passacaglia which then returns in the finale after some dancier lines based on Jewish folk tunes. So all the usual DSCH material but here used with economy and with some striking dissonances that gets the point across. I have to say regular partners Alban Gerhardt (who is a Shostakovich whizz) and Steven Osborne really gelled with James Ehnes’s violin to give a properly dynamic and scary performance.

Messiaen was captured in 1940 with two friends, cellist Etienne Pasquier and clarinettist Henri Akoka, and eventually shipped off to Stalag VIII-A in Silesia. They met violinist Jean La Boulaire in this labour camp and Messiaen composed a trio for the three musicians. Cold and hunger left OM hallucinating and the devout Catholic took to writing another 7 movements to accompany this trio which became the Intermede for the Quartet. The whole is prefaced from the Revelation 10 which describes the descent of an angel. The first performance outside in the camp, in the middle of winter, on rickety instruments, must have been indescribably intense. Hard to repeat that but listening to this is always overwhelming wherever you sit on the devotional scale.

The first movement Liturgie de Cristal sees the piano and cello moving in isorhythm (don’t ask) with the clarinet and violin tweeting the bird song over the top. The following Vocalise is punctuated by a beautiful chanting theme. The third movement is the Abime des oiseaux, birds singing again, for solo clarinet with a painfully slow tempo at times. Then, after the Intermede, comes the extraordinarily beautiful meditation Louange a L’Eternite de Jesus for cello and piano. The Danse de la ureur which breaks the spell is exactly that though this could have been even angrier. The Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel harks back to the structure of the second movement before the final movement which echoes the fourth movement but now for violin and piano. The fade at the end is almost unbearable. Messiaen wanted to capture the infinite and pretty much succeeds. If you want to know the definition of “rapture” listen to this.

Jean Johnson is Steven Osborne’s wife so they knew what they were at. James Ehnes fitted into the two duos like a glove. A terrific evening. I suspect the four of them will give this another go somewhere.

If you have never heard the Quartet for the End of Time you must. If you think all modern classic music is unlistenable this will prove you wrong (though it isn’t actually that challenging anyway though it is a bit bonkers at times). If you don’t have an ounce of religious fervour don’t worry. This is simply, for the most part, one of the most beautifully moving pieces of music ever composed.

All you need is love as another quartet intoned.

 

The Judas Passion at St John’s Smith Square review ***

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Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Nicholas McGegan, Brenden Gunnell, Roderick Williams, Mary Bevan, Choir of the OAE

St John’s Smith Square, 25th September 2017

The Judas Passion is a new work commissioned by the OAE and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra San Francisco, and was composed by Sally Beamish with a libretto by David Harsent. Now I had not heard any of Ms Beamish’s works before, though she is an eminent modern British composer, but this felt like an “event”, so I decided that my presence lurking in the back was required. The convenience of an hour long piece starting at 7pm was also an attraction.

Now new Passions to match the heights reached by JS Bach are few on the ground. Commissions of liturgal works are perforce limited and few composers are likely to have the desire or the belief to engage in such an exercise. Which is a shame because when they do, as with Penderecki’s St Luke Passion or, better still, Part’s Passio, it can bring forth transcendent music. And this from a committed atheist.

The Judas Passion was doubly interesting because of the way librettist David Harsent (a poet who has written libretto’s for Sir Harrison Birtwhistle’s major operas) chose to set out the Passion story. It is told from Judas’s perspective and shows him not as the customary dastardly villain but as a man who is chosen, and forgiven, by Christ to act as he did. The simple, but very affecting libretto, explores this idea with single parts for Judas (American tenor Brendan Gunnell), Jesus (baritone Roderick WIlliams) and Mary Magdalene (soprano Mary Bevan) who acts as a sort of narrator. The disciples create the chorus as well as a part for an interchangeable God/Devil to emphasise the duality of Judas’s motives.

All round the singing was very fine, but I was particularly struck by Mary Bevan who lent a melancholy to her lines which was fitting. She is playing the lead in Coraline, Mark-Antony Turnage’s new opera, which is on my to see list. The score is terse which fits the drama and largely taken at a moderate pace with a couple of more energetic episodes. The tone is deliberately Baroque (with harpsichord and lute alongside strings, flutes, natural horns and occasional trumpets) with many canonic and fugal nods to JS Bach and a barrage of more or less interesting percussive effects. The singers were lightly choreographed by stage director Peter Thomson (with not a lot of stage to play with) which definitely heightened the performance for me.

I am not sure how the score would stand up as a recording or in a large concert hall. However, as a chamber “opera”, redolent of Britten’s Church Parables, with costume and movement, I think it would be extremely effective. Words, music and action together tell an involving story, with a bold perspective which draws on more than just the Biblical gospels. A true Passion I suppose.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos at St John’s Smith Square review ****

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Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: The Brandenburgs

St John’s Smith Square, 2nd May 2017

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 1
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 6
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

JS Bach. Tick. Brandenburg Concertos. Tick. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Tick. St John’s Smith Square. Tick.

What’s not to like. Might as well just stop there. A superb period ensemble with some of Europe’s finest instrumental specialists playing a series of the finest works of the Baroque age.

However, there is always something new to be found in the Brandenburgs and so it was this evening. With excellent harpsichord (Steven Devine) and cello (Luise Buchberger) continuo lines and a bit of double bass action when required from Ceccelia Bruggemeyer, and with one instrument to each part, we could focus on the key contributions of individual players/instruments: in No 1 Huw Daniel on the violino piccolo (yep that’s a tiddly violin), Katharina Spreckelsen on flute and the two horns of Roger Montgomery and Nicholas Benz: in No 5 on the violin of Huw Daniel now standing in for Pavlo Beznosiuk, and its interplay with the flute of Lisa Beznosiuk  and the harpsichord cadenza of Steven Devine: in No 4 Huw Daniel’s violin again and the recorders of Rebecca Miles and Ian Wilson; and in No 6 the same violinist and recorder with the oboe again played by Katharina Spreckelsen and the F trumpet of David Blackadder (how on earth does he do that – its just a tube of old metal with holes in!!). Nos 3 and 6 are the all string affairs but in No 6, Simone Jandl and Max Mandel made a mighty racket on their violas.

Now I confess I can bounce between period (Pinnock, Hogwood) and modern recorded versions of the Brandenburgs (with a special fondness for Benjamin Britten’s conducting) but in concerts period is best (and pretty much the only option these days). And this was properly raw and thrilling. For those who have never heard a period horn, trumpet or recorder, get up close and embrace the vitality and skill. It is a tricky business making these things do what you want but when it all falls into place the energy is palpable. The quality of the instruments, the skill of the players and the depth of the scholarly advance over the last couple of decades means you are now really hearing all these scores as (probably) they were intended. If I had to pick out a couple of faves it would be No 6 with the aforementioned violas offset by the grumbling gambas and the violone (a little double bass) and the oboe/trumpet/recorder combo in No 2. .

The excellent OAE programme (a numpty like me learns a lot from these which do not assume too much but neither are they patronising or just biographical) reminds us that these now ubiquitous works started as a speculative venture by JSB for a customer, the Margrave of Brandenburg (I would love to be a Margrave if  had to be a Continental European aristo), who never bothered to look at them. What a silly Margrave. The reason why the Brandenburgs are so popular and wonderful is because they have all the brilliant, diverse yet condensed musical ideas that JSB excelled at, but they also deliver the tunes and the visceral, show-offy excitement that the best of the Italian baroque supplies.

So I say if you are a newcomer to the classical world (this blog is aimed at you), ignore all those miseries who would have you listening to the endless droning on from the likes of Strauss, Mahler and Bruckner and get down instead with the funky muthas that are JSB and Vivaldi. And if you are anywhere near Manchester or Cheltenham they will be bringing this to you in the next few days.

 

 

Tenebrae and the Aurora Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square review ****

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Tenebrae and Aurora Orchestra: Bach and Faure

St John’s Smith Square, 12th April 2017

Tenebrae
Aurora Orchestra
Emma Walshe – Soprano
Stephen Kennedy – Baritone
Max Baillie – Violin
Nigel Short – Conductor

Bach – Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein BWV245
Bach – Partita No. 2 in D – Allemande BWV1004
Bach – Partita No. 2 in D – Courante BWV1004
Bach – Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV277i
Bach – Partita No. 2 in D – Sarabande BWV1004
Bach – Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt BWV277ii
Bach – Partita No. 2 in D – Gigue BWV1004
Bach – Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden BWV244
Bach – Ciaconna with chorale themes BWV1004
Fauré – Requiem (1893 version)

So I put a shift in for Holy Week with this, a Verdi Requiem and a Bach St John Passion. To be clear my interest is solely musical. I am afraid I am unlikely to shift from my firm atheistic position despite spending an inordinate amount of time now in churches, cathedrals and, occasionally, other places of worship, and also listening now to a disproportionate amount of music initially composed with a religious purpose.

So first off was this intriguing mix of Bach and Faure. I have seen the Aurora Orchestra a couple of times at Kings Place but this was the first time at SJSS. They are the band that plays key bits of the canon from memory which is a sight in itself. And this was the first time I have heard Tenebrae. Now I am a bit of a sucker for the atmosphere that SJSS conjures up, especially in the evening and with a bit of candlelight, as we had here. Sorry I know how shallow this sounds, but if you do chance upon something you like the sound of here, then I guarantee you won’t be let down by the acoustic or the surroundings. And you get a seat not a pew, vital for those of us at the elevated end of the posterior scale.

Anyway it took me a bit of time to adjust to the mix of the Bach Partita No 2 being interspersed with the Bach chorales, but once ears and head were there I was gripped. Now I cheerfully admit I have only just got going on the Bach discovery road. So the chorales on show here were new to me and, whilst I have a recording of the Partitas by Rachel Podger, I haven’t yet digested it. Anyway the thing is this Partita is a jolly affair based on dances and you get the usual Bach solo instrument thing of “how on earth is there so much going on when there is just one bloke/lady playing”. I am sure I have seen Max Baillie, the lead violinist for Aurora, do some solo work before, but I cannot remember what and where. Anyway he was fabulous. As was the Tenebrae choir with the chorales. Terrific stuff. Still no idea what I am listening too musically and the programme notes went right over my head but no matter. Have a quick peek here at one of the funkiest bits.

Bach Partita No 2 in D Minor BWV 1004 Giga

Now I will say this very quietly. I had never heard the Faure Requiem live before and don’t own a recording. Following this I get why people rave about it though it may not be entirely my cup of tea. There are some ravishing bits, the Kyrie, Offertoire and the In Paradisum ending (with the twiddly organ bit like an 80s synth band), and the lower register of the instrumentation is very appealing, but there’s a little bit of sweetness in the mix which is not for me. And I would probably prefer a slightly quicker run through than this performance offered. But all up I get it so don’t start shouting at me and I will get a recording asap. In fact the nice lady next to me at the concert pointed out that Tenebrae have recorded this very programme with the LSO and I spy a fairly priced offer from my friends at musicMagpie (along with dodax-online my choice of online retailer for CDs).

So all in all another winner.