Mahan Esfahani at the Wigmore Hall review ****

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Mahan Esfahani

Wigmore Hall, 5th June 2017

  • Thomas Tomkins – Pavane in A Minor
  • Giles Farnaby – Woody-Cock
  • Henry Cowell – Set of Four
  • WF Bach – Sonata E Flat Major
  • Steve Reich (arr Esfahani) – Piano Phase

The harpsichord is certainly not my favourite instrument. (Electric guitar since you ask). More than happy listening to it tinkling away as continuo in the best of Baroque but less persuaded of its solo virtues. Yet in the spirit of adventure, with an appealing programme and with Mr Esfahani’s reputation as one of the best in the harpsichord business, this was worth a shot. (For those that don’t know £15 for these lunchtime recitals at the best chamber music venue in the world is a bargain so, if you work locally, get in).

Now a cursory glance at previous posts will show that I am a sucker for liking most of what I see. I like to think this is because I have a eye for the best that the London cultural world has to offer (within the self-imposed boundaries I have set). However, I know that the reality is somewhat different. I am simply far too polite to offend and anyway I am enjoy reminding myself just how discerning I am in my solitary little echo chamber. So you would be wise to ignore everything I say.

In this case though I took a bit of a punt on something and I was genuinely bowled over. I didn’t know it was possible to hear a harpsichord make these kinds of sounds. The two early pieces from Tomkins and Farnaby show, in astounding fashion, just what the bewigged musicians of the Jacobean and Tudor period where up to following the example set by the master William Byrd. Woody-Cock (no sniggering at the back please), the piece by Giles Farnaby, takes a simple Scottish folk tune and turns into a dazzling display of keyboard virtuosity –  the woodcock being a dowdy nondescript little brown fellow until he starts displaying when he turns into the Nureyev of the air. Anyway it was a real lesson in what the harpsichord can do.

As was the piece by Henry Cowell. The programme notes tell me that Mr Cowell set out to marry the musical structures of the Baroque golden age of the harpsichord with the tonal language of composition in the 1960s, and with more than a nod to the then voguish fascination with the gamelan and Balinese music. It was certainly fascinating with a wide range of colours that I had not thought possible on the harpsichord. Not sure if I would seek it out again but I am glad to have been given the opportunity to hear it. The WF Bach took us back to more familiar ground although this era, the galant, the bridge between Baroque and Classical, when all was lightness of touch, can still sometimes come across as a bit frou-frou. Not here to be fair as there was still enough of the Baroque rhythmic backbone and a few darker touches in the piece.

Finally Mr Esfahani took on Steve Reich’s piano phase which he has arranged for harpsichord. So on with the headphones and the tape machine, and off with the jacket, leaving him looking like the least cool DJ on the planet. As he himself freely admits this piece pulls in a new audience to hear the harpsichord – including me. My musical education has come on in leaps and bounds but this still was the main draw for me. The harpsichord creates avery different sound-world when compared to the piano. The slight delay of the tape recording, which is the signature of Reich’s technique, created sonorities which were closer to Reich’s percussive pieces that the piano version. It certainly seemed to forge a more repetitive structure than the versions I am more familiar with.

Overall then this was an excellent journey through the possibilities that are offered by the harpsichord and I will certainly look out for Mr Esfahani’s next visit to London.

Steve Reich’s Drumming and Tehillim at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

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The Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals

Royal Festival Hall, 5th May 2017

  • Steve Reich – Tehillim 1981
  • Steve Reich – Drumming 1971

There are a handful of sacred founding texts when it comes to the world of US minimalist music. Terry Riley’s In C certainly, John Adams’s Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Philip Glass’s Glassworks, early operas and Music in Twelve Parts and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Drumming. There are plenty of other works I would want to add from these, and other composers, to capture the full glory of the genre, and I have plenty more to explore, but, so far, my stand out favourite is Drumming.

And this performance from what is now Reich’s own favourite interpreter, Colin Currie, and his colleagues, was, jaw droppingly, brilliant.

Now I went along to the performance of Music in Twelve Parts at the Barbican Hall on 1st May. No review as I only managed the first six parts. No reflection on the music or the performance; only because I misjudged the timing so had to scoot off. It was a fine rendition of this seminal Glass work, although at times, it did end up in that one-dimensional cul-de-sac that Glass’s music can be prone to. The effect of layer upon layer of the tiny cells of music is obviously hypnotic and trance-like but, to me, still fascinating, as is hearing the shifts between “movements” within the parts. This is the most minimalist of minimalism to my ears – no narrative, no resolution, chords slowly emerging, taking repetition to its ultimate conclusion. And when it hits the points of apparent stasis despite all the instruments (and voice) feverishly playing it is mind-blowing. But sometimes, and this was the case here, if that apparent stasis is not perfectly delivered it can be a bit wearing.

In contrast this performance of Drumming was, I think, unbeatable. You see, for me, whilst this is still firmly minimalist in terms of the overall effect, the methods that Reich employs here add up to so much more. The use of phasing, where one musician takes a phrase and then others repeat the phrase but with changes to the tempo so that gradually they step out of sync, is Reich’s signature. In this piece however, there is greater alternation in the phrases of beats and rests, which creates much greater rhythmic drama. The three sections, before for the finale where everything comes together, offer a spine tingling variation in timbre and register, as the tuned bongo drums of the canonic first section (mostly obviously indebted to Reich’s visit to Ghana ahead of the composition), is followed by the marimbas and the three female voices, and then the shift to the very different world of the glockenspiels (augmented by the whistling !! and the shrill piccolo). Put all this together and you have a real musical narrative, which I think is in contrast say to the Glass piece above. And all this from just one repeated rhythm – that is its genius.

To make it really work you need an ensemble which is both experienced but also fearless. Like most larger scale minimalist works it requires immense concentration (though the repeats here were kept to a minimum which is wise I think) but to really let go all the musicians have to trust their colleagues. There is nowhere to hide (unlike large scale Romantic works say). There was nothing tentative here and that is what made this performance truly stand out. The same ensemble was superb this time last year with it Reich programme topped by Music for 18 Musicians but this surpassed that. The audience (which is getting bigger and more diverse I think for these works – brilliant stuff) was up on its feet immediately the piece concluded and deservedly so.

Tehillim which proceeded Drumming was also very well performed (especially the extraordinary singing of Synergy Vocals the experts in this field) but, as this is a newish addition to Colin Currie’ Reich repertoire, it was not as overwhelming. Here the combination of four female voices (singing Hebrew psalms) with the six percussion instruments and a small chamber orchestra means the melodic lines are more prevalent and the use of phasing here is more redolent of canons from Medieval Western music (readers will know that is a good thing in my book). The rhythmic drive of Reich’s percussion led pieces gives way to the illusion of harmony and counterpoint. This is why he is such a clever fellow.

Anyway I think you can tell that I loved it. Please seek out Drumming even if you hate “classical music” – the key recording is still Reich’s own. You won’t regret it. We have had a couple of good years for minimalist music in London, what with the various anniversaries of its leading lights, but I will keep my eyes peeled for future dates.

 

Bryars and Reich, LPO at the RFH review ****

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London Philharmonic Orchestra, Synergy Vocals, Sound Intermedia

Royal Festival Hall, 15th March 2017

Now it is a racing certainty that you will be familiar one way or another with the great minimalist composers of the second half of the C20 even if you don’t know it. The sound is ubiquitous in film, television and elsewhere. Driven by clear rhythms and patterns, with simple sonorities and slow harmonic progression, and with loads of repetition, this is a breeze for the punter (like me) born and bred in a pop/rock/soul paradigm.This is why it is justifiably quite “popular” and is bringing in a load of bearded youth into concert halls (a good thing with some minor exceptions).

From this base I have put some effort in and in the last couple of years have expanded exponentially into the minimalist world. The Minimalist series in 2015 at King Place was very helpful (big respect to Kings Place and the way they pull these series together) and I have seen a fair chunk of the major pieces performed in London since then and bought a lot of CDs to boot. So no expert but unlike many things I see I think I have a bit of a jump on most here.

But whisper this. There are times when the repetition can spill over into the plain dull. Fortunately this evening was not one of them.

Gavin Bryars “post-minimalism”, at least in the context of two of his most well known pieces played here, does ask a bit of the listener though to avoid falling into the dull trap. The “Sinking of the Titanic” takes some tape snippets and then sets a score based on what may have been played by the ship’s band as she went down. The lines are long, the harmonies shift slowly and it does go on a bit but overall the “underwater” effect and the varying of the instrumentation was enough to keep me going.

The second Bryars piece I have heard more often. This is Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. The tape loop of the tuneful tramp singing will burrow into your brain. However here the slow but palpable building up of the orchestration on top of this makes it easier to follow for a ninny like me. It reminds me a bit of another fave of minimalism for me, Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Remember all this is my impression, please don’t shout at me if musically this descriptions or comparisons are nonsense.

Then we had arguably Steve’s Reich’s most famous work, Music for 18 Musicians. I own a couple of recordings of this (how fancy is that) and have seen a few performances. This helps as I can now follow the joins (announced by the fella on the mettalaphone no less) so can hear each of the parts in a way I couldn’t at first. But with the rhythm provided by the percussion instruments (love it when the maracas come in – hard work for the players I guess to do that much shaking in one night), and the pianos I defy anyone listening to this not to be drawn in and get the “minimalist trance” thing kicking in.

I can’t put my finger on why but this was the best live performance I can remember of the piece or maybe familiarity is a virtue here. Or most likely the LPO musicians just had a blinder. Anyway I highly recommend anyone taken by this to delve further into this world.

For Steve Reich I recommend the Desert Music and Drumming on top of this pieces, for Philip Glass maybe Glassworks to start(there is an awful lot of Philip Glass music as I am finding out the hard way), for John Adams I think Shaker Loops and Short Ride in a Fast Machine and I would also put a shout in for Michael Nyman’s string quartets and film music. There are tons of compilations (look away now classical music cognoscenti) to get you going.  Oh and you need the grandaddy of them all In C by Terry Riley. I will deal with the “holy’ Minimalists and especially Arvo Part another day.

Anyway all up I genuinely think your life will be a lot better listening to some of this especially for you youngsters who are steeped in rhythm anyway. So get that YouTube working.