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.

Shostakovich from the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy review ****

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Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), James Ehnes (violin)

Royal Festival Hall, 29th April 2018

Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, Op.77
  • Symphony no. 4 in C minor, Op.43

Apparently Vladimir Ashkenazy was at the premiere of the Fourth Symphony. In 1961, in Moscow, 25 years after it was written, DSCH having withdrawn it after Stalin metaphorically beat up him and his music in Pravda. How amazing is that. 57 years after that premiere a still sprightly 80 year old Mr Ashkenazy bounded up to the podium and delivered as committed a performance of the Fourth Symphony as you are likely to hear. Ably assisted by the massed forces of the Philharmonia, of which he is Conductor Laureate, let loose on a piece of the repertoire which is outside their normal C19 staples.

For those they don’y know it the Fourth is a curious beast. It contains plenty of recognisable DSCH tropes across its hour and a bit and its three “movements”, and is more Mahlerian in concept and execution, than the later symphonies. Indeed it shares the same key, C minor as the Resurrection, and a second movement akin to that symphony’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn third movement scherzo. Alas, if you were a Russian apparatchik in the 1930s it was bereft of the required redemptive triumphalism that Mahler delivered in his final movement. Mahler’s third was also an inspiration though it takes a knowing conductor to locate it.

It has a lot of bits and pieces, showing a resemblance to the modernism of DSCH’s early works, which he was supposed to have left behind. Idea after idea is introduced then discarded. Fun, but a little wearing, especially when compared to the long arcs of narrative in the later symphonies. You can see where all those polystylist Russian composers that followed DSCH, like Alfred Schnittke, got their ideas from. The shorter central movement is easier to read, with its nagging four note motif, but the opening fastish, and the closing slow/fast movement with its two massive codas are, to coin a phrase, all over the shop. DSCH is showing off, but it does get you to wondering where he might have gone if he hadn’t had to tread the line between undermining, and seeking the approval of, the capricious regime. Not saying that old Joe was good for Dmitry just that the ugly reality made him do more with less (ideas not instruments).

I have the well regarded recording by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra which doesn’t dilly-dally in either of the outer two movements which allows the ear, and brain, to discern a sonata-like structure amidst all the madcap invention. I don’t think Mr Ashkenazy was quite as bold with his tempi, so I don’t think it hung together quite as well as this recording, but this was still a performance to intrigue rather than confuse. Anyway you look at it though, these outer movements, clocking in just under half an hour each are going to have intervals of misunderstanding. Best then to admire the playing of the ton, literally, of members of the PO on stage, especially the woodwind, a match for the LPO in the DSCH symphonies, though the LPO has the benefit of Vladimir Jurowski’s increasingly brilliant readings.

So not the place to start if you don’t “get” Shostakovich. The popular First Violin Concerto certainly is though, especially with a soloist as assured as James Ehnes. The last time I heard Mr Ehnes was in a magical Messaien Quartet, alongside the Shostakovich Second Piano Trio at SJSS (Quatuor pour la fin du temps at St John’s Smith Square review *****). Mr Ehnes is a tall fellow, think Elrond to Mr Ashkenazy’s Bilbo Baggins, and it takes a seeming age for his bow to move across the strings given his very upright style. Looks can be deceiving though, as we all know, for, when Shostakovich asks the soloist to deliver in the lengthy cadenza between the third movement Passacaglia and Burlesca finale, he answered with aplomb. He was similarly convincing in the Passacaglia itself, one of DSCH’s genuinely “grand” inventions with its references to the Leningrad Symphony and the fate motif from Beethoven’s Fifth.

As with the Fourth Symphony there was a hiatus between the work’s completion in 1948 and first performance in 1955 (after Stalin’s death in 1953), by its dedicatee David Oistrakh with the Leningrad Philharmonic, a consequence of the Zhdanov decree. The piece is apparently Hamletian in scope, can’t see it myself, as well as symphonic in form, with a gentle, Elgarian Nocturne, preceding a “possessed” Scherzo (with the classic autobiographical DSCH motif, so common in later works, snuck in for the firs time), the aforementioned Passacaglia and the pumped up finale with glimpses of material from the other movements, including the folky dance of the Scherzo. Once again the PO woodwind shone.

So a fine evening presided over by a genuine grade A maestro. I am a big fan of Mr Ashkenazy piano playing, especially in Beethoven and Chopin, and even when it goes a bit off-piste. Unfortunately I never saw him play the piano live. I don’t suppose I ever will. Meanwhile this was more than adequate compensation.

 

Verdi Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall review ***

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Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Bach Choir

Royal Festival Hall, 13th April 2017

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko – Conductor
Maija Kovalevska – Soprano
Karen Cargill – Mezzo-Soprano
Saimir Pirgu – Tenor
Alexander Vinogradov – Bass
The Bach Choir

Verdi – Requiem

Right. Off to the RFH with BUD for a bit of Verdi Requiem action. I have heard performances of this Requiem in the very distant past but was curious to re-visit as part of the ongoing musical education and to find out if I was missing a trick with my wholesale rejection of the Verdian operatic canon.

Well I can safely say that the RPO under Mr Petrenko and the Bach Choir gave this a right going over. I guess that is the point of the Verdi Requiem but even so it was a sight to see and hear. The Dies Irae pinned us right back in our seats. Even if you profess no interest in classical music yo will have heard this a million times (check out the link below if you don’t believe me). And it is a rollicking good tune. And, to be fair, in other parts where the volume is cranked up to 11 like the Sanctus, it is hard not to be carried along. But this is undeniably an operatic piece masquerading as a Requiem, so for long stretches there are repeated “arias” with gushing, melodramatic orchestral support. I fear it is just not for me. Some of us like our music with the bones and muscle on show; some of us prefer to see it dolled up to the nines with frocks and wigs. For me Verdi, however hummable the tunes, is an arch exponent of the latter category. Still different strokes for different folks eh.

Verdi Requiem – Dies Irae

And we definitely enjoyed the racket the Bach Choir made and the performances of the soloists, notably the tenor and soprano. I have a couple of Mr Petrenko’s Shostakovich recordings with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra which are excellent, and there was, for me, a bit of Shostakovian backbone in the playing.

So lots to admire and plenty of learning but I think I know I can safely tuck Giuseppe, along with his mate Giacomo, back in the box marked not for me.