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.

Hagen Quartet at the Wigmore Hall review ****


Hagen Quartet

Wigmore Hall, 29th April 2017

Dmitry Shostakovich

  • String Quartet No. 3 in F major Op. 73
  • String Quartet No. 14 in F sharp major Op. 142
  • String Quartet No. 15 in E flat minor Op. 144

To paraphrase a great man about a great band “always different, always the same”. The same is true of DSCH (apart maybe from some of the very early experimental works). An Adagio will be ponderously slow. A Scherzo will be nuttily rapid – as close to heavy metal as it is possible to get in the world of popular classical music. There will be Russian folky tunes (hard to imagine a TV programme on C20 Russia which doesn’t have some DSCH in the background). There will be an ominous march like rhythm, screaming strings, some bizarre jokey interludes. There will be highbrow compositional structures mixed with lowbrow tunes. And there will be the endless search for clues about what he was really saying.

I love it but even I sometimes find myself focussing on the banal and the bombastic rather than the stirring and uplifting that is part and parcel of the Shostakovich experience, sometimes even in the same movement. His music seems to carry more of the personal and political, but this perhaps is a reflection of when and where he was writing, and his own gnomic utterances only served to fuel the interpretative fire. Even his own country wasn’t entirely sure whether to celebrate or condemn for much of his lifetime.

But he gets played. A lot. If you churn out this amount of music at this level of immediacy (no flirting with atonality here), with many more fans than haters ,then you are going to well represented in the concert hall – up there with Haydn and Beethoven when it comes to quartets. And if the 15 symphonies are the “public” works of his art then the 15 string quartets are the “private” offerings. So for once this concert was less a voyage of discovery for me and more an opportunity to try to evaluate what I was hearing. I have some recordings, complete Fitzwilliam and Emerson Quartet versions and assorted Borodin Quartet CDs.

I thoroughly enjoyed these Hagen Quartet interpretations. The only recording I have by them is a complete Mozart cycle; firstly, because it is string quartets, a format which I can easily digest, secondly, because it is Mozart and I know I must try harder with him and thirdly, because it was good value. But it will take a bit of time to get to the bottom of this. I understand that the HQ is made up of 2 brothers and a sister and a mate (at least I assume they are friends!), and that they have been playing together for over 30 years. So that presumably accounts for the extraordinary unison and power in the playing. As I have said there is nothing fancy dan about Dmitry’s melodies, rhythms or musical language so this lack of pussy-footing in the playing is exactly what I want to hear.

On the other hand this approach does mean that there is nothing between us and the music itself, which, when it is good, No 3 Op 73 and, in its own striking way, No 15 Op 144, it is very, very good, but when it is less compelling, No 14 Op 142, well then the doubts emerge.

No 3, along with the crowd pleasing No 8. is a work of great variation and drama, with a perky allegretto opening, a couple of the heavy metal scherzos I referred to above (I love it went a string quartet gets really loud so you feel as well as hear the sound), then the usual miserable adagio (a passacaglia here) and a final movement which contrasts the moods of the first and fourth and has a classic fade to nothing DSCH enigmatic ending.

No 15 on the other hand is made up of six slow movements. Yep you heard me, six of his most desolate (and moving) creations all in the key of E flat minor (the go-to morbid key). The piece is usually taken as his own memoriam as by then he had lung cancer, poliomyelitis in his limbs, his heart was giving up and he was still knocking back the vodka. I would always caution about programmatic readings of compositions but here you have no choice. Along with the other later works (notably the last couple of symphonies) it inspired the next generation of Soviet composers (some who had been taught by DSCH himself). And it is an amazingly powerful piece of music, though I will be honest, most of the allusion and symbolism goes over my head. Yet bizarrely it is not depressing, maybe cathartic, painful certainly, but not depressing.

BTW there is a reference in the programme to DSCH’s instructions to the Beethoven Quartet about how to play the first movement: “Play it so that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience starts leaving the hall from sheer boredom”. Listen and you will get the picture.

So finally No 14. I don’t get it. The other two are more “obvious” in their construction, so I am probably not up to the task of decoding No 14, but it is just a tricky listen. The first and last movements seems to meander about to no great purpose and the middle Adagio sometimes gets a bit too syrupy. No doubt those who dislike all of his music will point out that there isn’t much difference between this quartet and the other two but I can’t explain it. I just don’t like it as much.

Which brings me back to my opening remarks. 80% of DSCH listening is something to be proud of, 20% best kept in the bedroom. Mind you what do I know – after all I find myself increasingly enjoying the Sisters of Mercy when they shuffle on to the IPod. Now that really is something to be ashamed of.





Kopatchinskaja and Gabetta at the Wigmore Hall review ****


Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Sol Gabetta

Wigmore Hall, 27th April 2017

Iannis Xenakis – Dhipli zyia
Jörg Widmann – Extracts from 24 Duos for violin and cello
Maurice Ravel – Sonata for violin and cello
György Ligeti – Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg
Peter Eötvös – a Call
Zoltán Kodály – Duo for violin and cello Op. 7

So it may not be on a par with the level of adulation reserved for Radiohead at Glastonbury but when the well heeled, third agers at the Wigmore Hall fall for a performer you can feel it (albeit in the form of polite applause and a few bravos). And on this evening they had two to really fawn over.

Moldovan Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Argentinian Sol Gabetta (looks like it is obligatory to mention nationalities in reviews of classical concerts) might have stepped straight out of casting central when it comes to playing the uninhibited, young female violinist and cellist. The thing is though they are the real deal. Individually they are both captivating performers, together they are awesome. Whilst this was actually a less intimidating programme than it might have looked on paper, it was still anything but genteel. But it cleverly showed off both their individual virtuosity and their combined energy, notably in the Ravel sonata and the Widmann extracts.

It was the Xenakis, Widmann and Ligeti pieces that drew me into going and they did not disappoint. The Xenakis piece is very early (1951) from his first year studying with Messiaen before he shook it all up with Metastaseis and created his own distinct sound world. The piece is still tonal, based on Greek folk songs and owes a clear debt to Bartok. But the two movement duo is still thrilling. PK and SG then played 6 of the 24 Widmann duos. I was not familiar with these but I should be. Lots of invention and a wide dynamic which seemed to fit our two heroines perfectly. More Wildman than Widmann.

Then the Ravel sonata. Now I don’t know why but I went into this less than fussed about hearing it. I sort of tolerate Ravel’s orchestral music and quite like a bit of the piano pieces but this sonata had passed me by. What a chump. This was outstanding. One of the best pieces of music I have heard so far this year. Just goes to show that you should keep your mind open. It is much more dynamic and aggressive than the earlier Ravel works I have heard. There is a real battle between violinist and cellist, which eases up in the final movement, and again an echo of our pal Bela B.

After the interval the Ligeti was a short, sweet growling canon-like thing – terrific. I was less sure about the Eotvos solo violin piece written for PK but heavens can this woman play a fiddle. And I have to admit defeat on Kodaly. I have tried but I just can’t get anything out of his music. With Bartok, whilst I need to get my head in the right place I can be drawn in, but I find his mate Zoltan just too prickly.

Overall though (there was a bit of some Bachs and Scarlatti thrown in) this was a genuinely exciting evening of chamber music that got us silver hairs all of a lather. My list of individual performers I will seek out is not long – I am too new to the game – but it has just had two names added somewhere near the top.