My favourite classical concerts of 2017


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


Colin Currie Group at Kings Place review ****


Colin Currie Group

Kings Place, 20th January 2018

Steve Reich

  • Music for Pieces of Wood
  • New York Counterpoint
  • Mallet Quartet
  • Drumming Part 1
  • Vermont Counterpoint
  • Quartet (2013)

So off to Kings Place for another immersion into the sound world of Steve Reich guided by his finest living advocates (probably), the Colin Currie Group. Having seen the CC Group perform Reich a couple of times in the past couple of years, (at the RFH), I consider myself something of a groupie. I was honoured this time to be accompanied by not one, but two, potential converts to the live, minimalist music cause in the shape of MSBD and MSBDB. And, to emphasise, you really do need to hear this live for the full effect.

I won’t bore you with another hagiography extolling the virtues of Mr Reich. Take a look here if you want that (Steve Reich’s Drumming and Tehillim at the Royal Festival Hall review *****). Suffice to say I urge anyone to give his music a whirl and see what you think. I won’t hold it against you if all that repetition sends you to sleep. Me, I am fascinated by it. Out of apparent rhythmic simplicity emerges music of shimmering and unsettling intensity.

On the subject of repetition in music I promised myself I would not use this blog to eulogise the now departed Mark E Smith. Let’s just say RIP. Hands down the most important creative force in my lifetime.

Anyway this gig kicked off with Music for Pieces of Wood written in 1973. Which is exactly that. Though these are not any old offcuts having been specially selected for their pitches, A, B, C, sharp D sharp and another D sharp an octave higher, and timbre. It is built entirely on patterns of beats and rests over three lengths 6/4, 4/4 then 3/4. That’s it. As so often with Mr Reich the apparent simplicity though belies its careful planning and the subtlety of outcome. There is no place to hide for the players here.

New York Counterpoint from 1985 sees a clarinettist, here Timothy Lines, pre-record ten different parts, including for bass clarinet, which is prominent in the last movement, against which he plays a final, eleventh line, live. Vermont Counterpoint from 1982, here performed by flautist Rowland Sutherland, employs a similar, though to my ear more complex, technique for flute, alto flute and piccolo, across 10 pre-recorded parts and one solo line using each instrument. In both cases, despite the discipline employed in terms of relationships of rhythm, tempo and meter, the effect is of often “melodic” and ambiguous counterpoint, with more than a whiff of Stravinsky’s neo-classical chamber works. Maybe at times in both pieces the solo line could have been brought forward a little “in the mix” but I was persuaded.

Mallet Quartet is a more recent piece from 2009 scored for two vibraphones and two five octave marimbas extending down to cello C apparently. Once again three movements, fast/slow/fast, with some fancy changes of mallets. The marimbas create the rhythmic backdrop linked by a canon structure in the fast movements, with the vibraphones providing the melodies, again largely in canon. In the slow movement it all gets pared back however, and the effect from the vibraphones is of a far more atonal world which I am not sure would be to everyone’s taste and is a fair way from “typical” Reich.

Back on track though with the iconic Drumming, or at least the first of the four movements. This is divided into four clear parts and is for four pairs of tuned bongos. (This makes me think once again of MES with his quip that The Fall was him and your granny on bongoes. Now if your granny could only play bongoes like this ……). Anyway this is quintessential Reich, building from one beat to twelve beats, alternated with rests, and then with the rests replaced with beats until the cycle is completed, and then reversed. This pattern is repeated in the other three movements with the different instruments, and it was a shame not to hear this (see review above), especially the spellbinding third movement with glockenspiels (and whistling !) and the thrilling final movement, where the whole lot gets chucked in. There is so much in the sound created that is it is impossible to believe the structure is so simple. This is Reich at his most hypnotic, made more so in this performance by the strobic effect of the movement of the sticks in the “fastest” passages. MSBD loved it so much he nodded off apparently – trust me that is a compliment. When Reich, (and other minimalist music), succeeds your mind and body can “drain away” leaving just the rhythm. Far out. Sorry for this hippy gibberish but it’s true.

Which brings me to Quartet from 2013. This piece, scored for two pianos and two percussion, which is the building block for many of Reich;s earlier works, shows what he is now up to. This is melodically much more complex than the previous works on show, with multiple key changes, breaks and pauses, frequent gentle dissonance, and shifts into new ideas. In fact more like most contemporary classical music. Fast/slow/fast once again, but the slow movement contains harmonic variety which you won’t find elsewhere in Reich’s compositions, though once or twice it veers towards doodling. Don’t worry, there is still rhythm at the core but this takes the players up a further notch in terms of level of concentration. Which is why is was written for, and dedicated to, this ensemble. I was much taken with it and will need to add it to the list of recordings of Reich’s music I need to lay my hands on. (I see there is one about to be released, And CCG are releasing their own recording of Drumming which will surely be a treat).

Loved it and so did the audience. Kings Place acoustic is terrific, warm and offering up waves of sound, so I doubt I will hear a better treatment of these works.

Next up CCG will play Reich;s Tehillim, based on psalms and reflecting his Jewish heritage, and which uses voices and wide instrumentation to drive melodic invention. Still Reich but this is more minimalism meets Baroque. Annoyingly the BBCSO also takes on Berio’s Sinfonia in this concert but I will be pandering to my new found fascination with Ligeti at the South Bank. Seems like the Barbican and the South Bank are going head to head in competition for the geeks.


Mahan Esfahani at the Wigmore Hall review ****


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 *****


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 ****


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.