Beethoven Weekender at the Barbican review

Beethoven Weekender

“This could be the closest thing to heaven …. “. No not the Tears for Fears dirge from 2004 but one of the many fine singles from the vastly under-rated, and alas short-lived, Kane Gang from 1984. The KG, along with the magnificent Prefab Sprout, and the rather less remembered and post-punky Daintees, at least in my mind, were the apogee of the early 80s British pop/blue eyed soul bands hailing from the North East’s Kitchenware Records in the 1980s. Rich melodies, lush production, and often orchestration, skilled song-writing.. What has this got to do with Beethoven I hear you cry. Well nothing actually. It is just this was the song that popped into my head as I enjoyed a fine fry up for lunch courtesy of Fast Break on Day 1 of the Barbican Beethoven Weekender in early February. Plainly I was in a good mood.

Obviously the celebration of the 250th year since Beethoven’s birth has now been put on hold during these troubled times. (The Tourist had intended to take in Bonn on his Spring train break). Once again I apologise for rabbiting on about a classical music gig from many weeks ago when there is so much more of import going on around us. However I was able to attend a smattering of Beethoven programmes prior to the lockdown taking effect but frankly nothing came close to this offering from the Barbican. All the symphonies, courtesy of some of the UK’s finest orchestras based outside London, interspersed with other, well thought through and informative contributions featuring bits and pieces of LvB’s piano, quartet and violin chamber works, alongside some other, moreorless quirky, responses made up this excellent Festival. And all for just £45. That’s right. The greatest music ever written, (in the Western art canon at least), spread over two full days with change from a bullseye.

I was very taken with the exhibits, ear trumpets, the great man’s violin, the Warhol print, drawn from the Beethoven Haus collection in Bonn, with the Beethoven Bites contributions from various young composers and performers, many drawn from the ranks of the Guildhall School, and Matthew Herbert’s deconstruction/ reconstruction of the Ninth, especially Together, which takes 30 or so recordings of the third movement and plays them simultaneously to the same time frame. This shows how performance can differ, not just in tempo, but also in tuning, pitch, recording technique, dynamics.

Christopher Park’s readings of various of the Bagatelles at St Luke’s Old Street was surprisingly involving, despite the always interesting interruptions by Gerald McBurney reading eye witness accounts of LvB’s playing (and scheming). Daniel Sepec is the only musician (I think) entrusted with playing Beethoven’s own fiddle, and he was joined in Milton Court by Tobias Schabenberger (fortepiano), Taj Murray (violin) and Silke Avenhaus (piano) for extracts from early violin sonatas and the Kreutzer. The Beeb’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch paid tribute to George Bridgewater, the Afro-European musician who inspired LvB’s greatest sonata and was its original dedicatee. And the marvellous Carducci Quartet, in the Pit, were joined by uber-luvvie Simon Callow for intense extracts from various string quartets interspersed with letters from LvB, to family, to collaborators, and, of course, his Immortal Beloved. Now Mr Callow is rightly renowned for his ability to put us through the emotional wringer, but, from my perch very close to him, I can confirm the old boy shed a real tear or two. Terrific.

Still it’s the Symphonies that put the meat on the bones of this celebration and I can report that we were treated to performances of the highest quality, all brought together with enthusiastic wisdom from uber Beethoven fan-boy John Suchet. I won’t babble on about the works themselves or the detail of the performances. All I can say is that I need to get out, of London, more. Although, based on the stunning interpretation of the Fifth and Sixth from Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic *****, Liverpool’s (and Oslo’s) loss will be London’s gain when the young(ish) Russian comes permanently to the Royal Philharmonic. I expected much and wasn’t disappointed. If there is a better way to spend a Saturday morning then you had better tell me.

Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia **** (finally there is a connection with Newcastle) put everything and more into the Seventh and Eighth, and jst about edged Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Orchestra’s **** more thoughtful takes on the Second and Fourth. But this may reflect my preference for Seven and Eight in the pecking order. The programme notes certainly don’t imply that Ms Gražinytė-Tyla thought that she was in any way getting the short straw with Two and Four and the performances were testament to this. I think I am right in saying that she has shaken off you know what. A good reason to explore some of the good stuff the CBSO has posted up to take us through the coming weeks/months, including the documentary about their gifted musical director prodigy.

In fact the riches that the world’s orchestras have offered up in the past few weeks have to be seen and heard to be believed. The Concertgebouw probably takes the biscuit, I have started working my way through the Ivan Fischer Beethoven cycle, but take a look too at the offers from the Berlin Philharmonie, the LSO, the LPO, Wigmore Hall, the BRSO and, my favourite so far, the Monteverdi Orchestra and Choir. And, at this rate, no one will ever enter an opera house again. Just kidding but there is a lot to see for free right now. Though not for free as all us privileged types should be financially supporting our cultural institutions right now, as well, of course as those in the front line, and less fortunate than ourselves.

Anyway Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra *** were quite able to match the RCO in their performance of the Eroica, which got a little muddled in the development of the opening Allegro con brio and in some of the variations in the Finale, though their interpretation of the First more than passed muster. I have to say though that the least convincing interpretation in the cycle was the closing Ninth from the Halle Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder ***. Sopranos Elizabeth Watts and Sarah Castle were bulldozed a little, the balance between orchestra and chorus didn’t feel right and the tempi overall were too measured for me especially in the slow movement. Still it’s the Choral, it capped an amazing couple of days and I still went home happily humming the Ode to Joy.

Something to hang on to until this is all over.

PS. The programme notes to accompany the Weekender are excellent BTW. To the point essays on Beethoven’s various disappointments in life (family, love and deafness), his idealist politics, his cultural impact and some wham bam notes on the symphonies.

Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at St Luke’s Old St review *****

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Isabelle Faust (violin), Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord)

LSO St Luke’s Old St

JS Bach

  • Sonata no 3 for violin and harpsichord in E major BWV 1016
  • Partita no 2 for solo violin in D minor BWV 1004
  • Sonata no 1 for violin and harpsichord in B minor BWV 1014
  • Toccata for harpsichord in D minor BWV 913
  • Sonata no 6 for violin and harpsichord in G major BWV 1019

The second instalment in Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout’s rendition of the six JSB violin sonatas BMV 1014-1019 following on from the Wigmore Hall in April. (Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Wigmore Hall review ****). Once again they allowed themselves a solo each, but this time some more JSB, in keeping with the Bach Weekend theme, which also celebrated the 75th birthday of the venerable Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

This time I was joined by Bach groupie MSBD. Early start. 11am on a Saturday. I wish every day started this way though.

At times JSB is truly sublime. More so that any other composer. You might find it in the cantatas, others in the masses or passions, or maybe the keyboard, instrumental ensemble works or the cello suites. Not for one moment could I disagree with you but, for me, the apotheosis of JSB’s genius lies in the violin sonatas and partitas, solo and accompanied. Great art induces a state of rapture. Not the nonsense exclusive coach trip into the sky that some befuddled Christians cling on to, but the state of grace, individual or collective, that you can feel inside your whole being when dancing in a club, or breathless and motionless in the theatre, or when your ear sends pure sound to your brain at a concert or when you get lost in a painting. It doesn’t happen much, just as well as that might overwhelm, but it is part of what makes life worth living. I appreciate that this might be a terribly old-fashioned way to think about art but I dare you to tell me I am wrong.

Anyway it happened here. In the final movement of the Partita. The immense Ciaconna. Amongst Bach’s finest creations as the programme says. They’re not wrong. It gets me most times but here, OMG, Isabelle Faust, her violin, St Luke’s, my ears, my brain, the audience, and of course, old JSB all came together as one. This old buffer did his best to hold back a tear. It is so simple, just a basic four bar pattern, (apparently “the harmonisation of a descending tetrachord” – thanks again programme notes). But JSB is able to do so much with it including a huge mood shift about two thirds of the way in. This is when you might just believe that JSB reconciles himself to the early death of first wife Maria – he was to meet Anna just a year later.

The accompanied sonatas came close to their solo cousins. I have banged on before about just how expressive Isabelle Faust is when it comes Baroque violin. She’s pretty handy too when it comes to the rest of the canon. Listen to her recordings of the Beethoven, Bartok and Berg concertos if you don’t believe me. She can even persuade me with her historically-informed interpretations of that Mozart chap. But Bach is where she enters a different realm. She applies an astringent, almost abstract, rigour which just blows me away. And KB, who has a gentler conversation with his harpsichord, is the perfect accompanist. IF doesn’t muck it up with unnecessary and unwarranted vibrato, and both the left and right hand lines for KB are clear and not jangly. This leaves plenty of room for the sonatas to breathe and, in the superb space that is St Luke’s, with the sun streaming in from outside ….. well you can see where I’m coming from.

JSB continued to revisit and buff up the six sonatas throughout his life. Maybe that’s why the old boy perfected his art here. In the early decades of the C18 the trio texture was considered the compositional ideal for chamber music, creating a perfect synthesis of linear counterpoint, full-sounding harmony and cantabile melody, (thanks once more programme notes). Put this trio principle into the hands of the man who got closer to the ideal of perfect harmony than anyone else in the history of Western music, with the melodies driven by the finest of instruments the violin, then obvs it was going to work. JSB created trio works for flute, viola da gamba (which I like) and organ but they don’t come close.

Listen to No 1, BMW 1014. It kicks off with a 5 part texture with double stopping and a 3 part effect on the harpsichord. The two quick movements, (the first 5 sonatas stick to the old skool sonate di chiesa four movement set up with No 6 breaking free into 5 movements), have each of the three lines chipping in together, the perfect realisation of the trio principle with the third movement switching to violin and harpsichord right hand weaving around a left hand bass. No 3 BMW 1016 kicks off with a slow movement where both players can show off their skills, followed by a bouncy fugue, a powerful lament in C sharp minor before rounding off with an extraordinary gallop where the violinist can really show off. No 6 BMW 1019, is very different, with a central solo harpsichord movement flanked by two jolly giant Allegro opener/closers (real faves) and two slow, simple (-ish) shuffles in a kind of canonic form.

Other than the aforementioned divine Ciaconna the Partita No 2 consists of 4 dance movements, an Allemanda, a Corrente, a Sarabanda (which foreshadows the Ciaconna) and a Giga. We have Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Kothen’s Calvinism to thank for JSB’s discovery of all things boogie as he wasn’t confined to elaborate Church music in the Prince’s employment. (We also have the genius Antonio Vivaldi to thank for the twin graces of rhythm and repetition that underpin JSB’s unique ear for inventive sonority).

Other than the Sarabanda thsee dance movements are all monophonic in structure so easy to understand and have a dominant rhythm from which the violin goes off on ever more exciting harmonic excursions. It was a massive hit when first published and performed and remains so to this day. It really is very easy to see (and hear) why. You do not need to have any interest or understanding of classical music to get this. You just need ears and a pulse. So whatever your musical bag, I implore you to listen to it. IT WILL MAKE YOUR LIFE BETTER. I promise.

KB had a little less time to shine though not by much as he picked the most extensive of the six toccatas, BMW 910-916. The D minor 913 was composed when JSB was just 20 as he went AWOL from his job and walked the 450kms to Lubeck to hear Dieterich Buxtehude play. So next time you complain about how tricky it is to get to the Barbican think on JSB’s devotion. It opens with a typical Baroque improvisation, (typical for others that is), followed by a couple of JSB trademark fugues linked by a bridge which shifts tempo and ending with a tierce de Picardie, a major chord at the end of a minor key piece, which JSB was partial too. After the Partita and the first two sonatas this harpsichord piece shifted the mood before the final, jolliest, No 6 sonata. Smart programming and smart playing, (I only know these toccatas from the never surpassed Glen Gould on piano).

So there you have it. This will definitely be a top 10 2018 concert for me and I am pretty sure for MSBD, though I have lined up a few more for his delectation. And I wonder if, by the end of my musical education, I end up realising that no-one topped Bach. It is beginning to feel that way.

 

Venetian Baroque: Academy of Ancient Music at St Luke’s Old St review ****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (violin), Persephone Gibbs (violin), Sarah McMahon (cello), Alistair Ross (harpsichord), William Cater (theorbo)

LSO St Luke’s Old St, 15th June 2018

  • Dario Castello – Sonatas No 10 a 3 Book Two, No 1 a 2 Book One, Sonata No 1 for violin (Book Two), Sonata No 2 for violin (Book Two), Sonata No 12 a 3 (Book Two)
  • Tarquinio Merula – Ciaconna
  • Michelangelo Rossi – Toccata No 7 for harpsichord
  • Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger – Toccata and Ballo for theorbo
  • Francesco Tunrini – Sonata a 3 “il Corisino”

Venice in the early C17 was the hot place for music in the West. The Republic might have begun its long slow decline, having picked fights with the Ottoman Empire and the Vatican, amongst others, but there were plenty of punters who had made big bucks and were looking to spend it. It was certainly a big-time, sexy, funky, party town. Carnival was big business. Public opera, with that genius Claudio Monteverdi in the vanguard, was taking hold. New instrumental ensembles were being tried out. Exquisite brass was set alongside double and triple, or more, choirs in churches, following on from Gabrieli’s innovations in the previous century. (Even the guards telling the snaking hordes of tourists in St Mark’s Basilica to shut up sound musical thanks to the stunning acoustic). The best performers, composers and instrument makers gathered there.

This was the music members of the AAM sought to highlight in this BBC lunchtime concert, built around the sonatas of Dario Castello, which, to an extent, defined the form. He was born around 1590 and died around 1658, though his best known work comes from the 1620s. He was the leader of a wind ensemble, cornetts, sackbutts, shawns, bagpipes and so on, and might have had a job in St Mark’s. His two books of sonate concertate comprise 29 pieces, (five were played here), that alternate retro polyphonic sections with cutting edge, (by 1620s standards), expressive recitative, the stile concitato,  a la Monteverdi. Instruments are specified, including continuo, musicians are expected to be on their game. This simultaneous looking backwards and forwards is what makes this music fascinating if not entirely satisfying.

In addition to the Castello we had a chaconne, a simple bass riff with increasingly inventive variations, dead easy for the Baroque initiate to grasp, from one Tarquinio Merula, a harpsichord Toccata from Michelangelo Rossi, an unusual Toccata and Ballo for theorbo from Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger and a concluding trio sonata from Francesco Turini.

Merula never worked in Venice, (he had positions in Cremona and Bergamo)  but he knew the drill. He was an argumentative chap by reputation but he helped set the tone for the dance vibes of the later Baroque. Rossi came from Genoa, worked in Rome, wrote madrigals and operas, and, despite being a violinist, a book of 20 toccatas, which embrace some dramatic chromaticism and choppy tonality as here. Now you don’t often see a theorbo solo even if you are a paid up member of the Baroque club. The theorbo is that giant-sized lute that the player rests, like a loving parent, on his/her knee. GG Kasperger came to Rome by way of Vienna and was, in terms of theorbo virtuosity, the Charlie Mingus of his day. Turini was also born outside of Italy and published madrigals including some early instrumental sonatas.

I probably don’t need to tell you how very fine the members of the AAM were in this very rarely performed repertoire. Their excitement in exploring the, shall we say, backwaters, of the Venetian School was palpable. Bojan Cicic, as leader of the AAM, has appeared a few times before on this blog, as has Alistair Ross on the harpsichord. William Cater was as eloquent in his explanation of the theorbo piece as he was in its playing, but I was particularly taken by Persephone Gibbs’s playing in the second solo violin sonata of Castello. Great first name. Even better surname. And she leads a Baroque orchestra based in Devon. No relation though. She has talent after all.