Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the Wigmore Hall review ***

Isabelle Faust (violin), Wies de Boevé (double bass), Lorenzo Coppola (clarinet), Javier Zafra (bassoon), Reinhold Friedrich (trumpet), Jörgen van Rijen (trombone), Raymond Curfs (drums), Dominique Horwitz (narrator)

Wigmore Hall, 23rd December 2019

  • Bartok – Solo Violin Sonata BB124
  • Stravinsky – The Soldier’s Tale

Curious confection this. Cut off from Russian royalties on the ballets, Stravinsky was short of a few bob whilst living in Switzerland during WWI, especially with first wife Katya poorly, so he teamed up with the similarly impecunious writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz to create L’Histoire du Soldat, a small scale music-theatrical work, to be “read, played and danced” which would be cheap to stage and could be toured anywhere. The boys turned to a Russian tale of a soldier who goes AWOL and, Faust style, sells his soul to the devil. Plenty of contemporary resonance, and a suitable format, for the gruelling post war years.

IS had yet to hear a note of the jazz music emerging from the US but, armed with a few sheets of music brought to him by Ernst Ansermet, he resolved to incorporate the new rhythmic style into the score and to reflect its sound in his choice of instrumentation with a combination of high and low pitches from each family: violin and double bass, clarinet and bassoon, trumpet and trombone as well as a wide range of percussion. It’s not that jazzy but is definitely a precursor to all the bouncy, syncopated grooves that IS was to serve up in the next decade. It doesn’t do too much by way of variation however, reprising a few key themes, and, this being my first sustained listen, is a bit same-y, even with the shifts in time signatures.

And the spoken parts, especially here where there was no dancer to distract, tend to dominate. Which gave a lot of leeway to Dominique Horwitz, who narrated, as well as taking on the roles of soldier and devil. Now M. Horwitz is apparently a bit of an expert when it comes to this piece, as well as in the likes of Brecht, Weill and Brel. And his day job as actor means he throws himself into the character of the soldier, marching and jogging on the spot, brooding over his keepsakes, rescuing a princess and having run-ins with Beelzebub in his various guises. Whilst the text here was in English and M. Horwitz can cary a speech I wish I had actually had the story in front of me as I didn’t really find a way into it. And maybe M. Horowitz could have toned down the funny voices.

Couldn’t fault the musician’s performances though. This, after all, was a crack team led by the amazing Isabelle Faust, as she showed again in her interpretation of Bela Bartok’s 1944 solo violin sonata. Written in the year before he died, ill and short of money, to a commission by Yehudi Menuhin, it isn’t, as you might have guessed, the easiest piece in the solo violin repertoire. Bartok and Menuhin took a bit of time to hit it off and YM was initially perturbed by the difficulty of the score, notably some fearsome double-stopping, but with familiarity and the implacability of BB when it came to any changes, eventually brought him round.

It kicks off with a Chaconne in homage to Bach’s writing fo solo violin, though here mediated through the prism of C20 modernism and BB’s beloved Hungarian folk tunes. The second movement is a thrillingly tricky fugue, with complex counterpoint, angular, jagged, with extreme dynamics, like the vey best of Bartok’s writing. The slow movement in contrast is serene, easy on the ear compared to what has gone before, before the rush of the Presto finale. Like most Bartok it takes a bit of listening too, and getting into the listening zone (when nothing else matters but the music) takes a bit longer than for my other favourite B’s, Bach, Beethoven and Britten. And just maybe it took Isabelle Faust just a little bit longer than normal to find her groove.

The Doric String Quartet at Wigmore Hall review ****

Doric String Quartet

Wigmore Hall, 22nd November 2019

Benjamin Britten – String Quartets No 1 in D Op 25, No 2 in C Op 36 and No 3 Op 94

All three Britten string quartets in one evening. Courtesy of the Doric String Quartet. Who have been working hard on this very repertoire, visible in their recent acclaimed recording. The Quartet has a long association with Britten’s music, having formed at Pro Corda in 1998, the school near Aldeburgh, and with Helene Grimaud playing on Britten’s very own viola.

Britten’s music can, I imagine, sound either too austere or too cautious for many listeners, depending on their musical taste. Too flashy, relying on surface effect, in thrall to musical form, and not generating real emotion. A bit too obvious, even too “perfect” maybe, though not immediately appealing. For me though this is his genius. The musical ideas are clear, but still present a challenge to those of us who don’t really understand music, even though they are not actually that challenging. In 1970s football parlance, one of those technical European midfielders, “good on the ball” but somehow suspect, lacking passion or “an engine”. But with performers who love and understand the music, and locate its centre and line, then there is feeling and passion aplenty. Easiest to find in the vocal and choral works and the operas but also abundant, for me at least, in the chamber music and, specifically, the three string quartets.

Which is where the Dorics step in. For there is no holding back here. They have a big, muscular sound which, whilst never obscuring the clarity of thought which is BB’s trademark, especially in the super sparse Third gives the quartets a punch and a drama that I haven’t encountered before. Less ascetic, more buoyant. Though never too extroverted, true I believe to BB’s intentions. Though with plenty of volume when required.

The First was completed in 1941, to a commission from Elizabeth Coolidge during Britten and Pears’s US sojourn, (though it is not actually the first quartet, BB having revived an early composition in the key of D, when just 17, late in life). It starts with a yearning sostenuto, missing Blighty perhaps, is followed by a swanky runaround Allegretto, a nocturnal Andante led by Alex Redington’s violin and ending with the sparkling harmonies of a rondo finale. Easy to place in the flash harry early years for BB.

Which is why the Second Quartet composed just 4 years later, when BB was deep in Peter Grimes, is still so surprising to me. Commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death, BB’s beloved forebear, it kicks off with a full throated Allegro, owing much to Schubert in feel and Haydn in form. The terse Vivace which follows links this movement to the final, stunning Chacony. BB just loved this form, variously chaconne or passacaglia, but his one is a belter. Near 20 minutes long, it shifts its shape continuously and, in places, gets a bit weird. The Doric’s really got hold of it and gave it a good shake. Loved it.

Which in turn set up the Third. BB waiting 30 years before coming back to the form and was near the end by the time he started. Not quite as death suffused as DSCH’s final fifteenth quartet, but still pretty bleak. At least until the final Passacaglia movement. In a work that quotes liberally from the final opera Death in Venice, this movement, like its equivalent in the opera, suggests a peaceful farewell for the protagonist, whether Aschenbach or BB. Prior to that, in the oppositional two part Duets, the jarring Ostinato scherzo, the central poignant Solo cantilena for first violin and the scorching Burlesque which precedes the descriptive Recitative which introduces that Passacaglia, we hear some of BB’s best ever beats.

As good a performance of BB’s quartets as you are likely to hear and, a reminder of why they are up there with late Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok and Shostakovich as the best of the form.

Joanna MacGregor at the Wigmore Hall review ****

Joanna MacGregor (piano)

Wigmore Hall, 11th November 2019

Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

  • Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) – Le rappel des oiseaux
  • François Couperin (1668-1733) – Les fauvétes plaintives
  • Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) – Le merle noir
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau – La poule
  • Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) – On an Overgrown Path X. The barn owl has not flown away
  • Sir Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934) – Oockooing Bird
  • Hossein Alizâdeh (b. 1951) – Call of the Birds
  • Henry Purcell (c.1659-1695) – Ground in C minor ZD221
  • Philip Glass (b. 1937) – Koyaanisqatsi Prophecies
  • William Byrd (c.1540-1623) – My Ladye Nevells Booke First Pavane
  • Philip Glass – Trilogy Sonata Knee Play No. 4 from Einstein on the Beach
  • Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) – Ciacona in F minor

I am guessing Johanna McGregor started out interrogating her extensive repertoire for an hour of solo piano pieces connected with birds, then thought, sod it, why doubt I chuck some Purcell, Byrd and Glass into the mix and end with Pachelbel. Good call. This genuinely was a delight from start to finish. Not a single wasted note, even from the composer, Hossein Alizadeh, whose work I had never heard.

Whilst Ms MacGregor dips into the Romantic repertoire, notably Chopin, it is the C20 and Baroque (especially Bach) for which she is most well known. Suits me. If pushed I would say I preferred the Couperin to the Rameau when it came to the battle, though both are so elegant there was no hint of aggression, between the French Baroque masters. The Rameau comes from a suite and is comprised of two related halves. Same structure in the Couperin, which represents warblers, and the second Rameau, hens pecking away in a courtyard that Respighi went on to pinch.

It was the Messaien that enthralled me. This is the second piece from Le Petite esquisses d’oiseaux, and represents the humble blackbird. Bright chords offset its calls and movement in four changing sections. I need a recording. Let’s see what Santa brings.

The cry of the owl is a warning in Czech and other folklore and here its scary screech here precedes a fading chorale, all beefed up with Janacek’s arpeggios and ostinatos.

The Birtwistle was written when he was just 15 and shows he was already heading off into his own world, albeit here still framed in jolly Satie-ism, and maybe, though he had never heard him, Messaien himself.

Iranian musician Hossein Alizâdeh wrote his Call of the Birds for a lute-like instrument, the shurangiz, and a duduk, similar to an oboe. Ms MacGregor has created her own arrangement of its rhythmic drive. I liked it, like a Middle Eastern jig.

Purcell’s C minor ground is an exemplar of the form, the rising arpeggio of the bass line, seven bars long, in the left hand with a “catch” tune suject to variation in the right, before the bass dies. All over in three minutes like a perfect pop song. The Byrd, a Pavane from the divine Lady Nevell’s Book, one of the first written keyboard collections, is a similar structure, a ground with harmony on top, but way more ornamented. He really was a clever fellow and with a surname to match the theme of the first half.

The first Glass is the typical cycle with in a cycle oscillation of PG’s piano work but was originally scored for chamber ensemble and chorus, coming at the end of the art film by Godfrey Reggio that was a big mainstream hit. The five knee plays connect sections of Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, at five hours long, it needs some breaks, and originally was performed by violin and voices, (where it works better).

The gentle Pachelbel chaconne, a stepwise structure subject to 21 variations, was followed with a more upbeat encore, a Handel Passacaglia, that fitted the bill.

One hour, one instrument. So much to enjoy.

Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque: Vivaldi at the Wigmore Hall review *****

Rachel Podger (violin), Brecon Baroque, Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord), Daniele Caminiti (lute)

Wigmore Hall, 1st July 2019

Antonio Vivaldi

  • Sonata a4 al Santo Sepolcro RV130
  • Concerto in G minor for strings RV157
  • Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro RV169
  • Concerto in D for lute and strings RV93
  • Concerto in D Op 3, No 9 RV230 (arr. for harpsichord after JS Bach’s solo transcription BWV972)
  • The Four Seasons Op 8, Nos 1 to 4

The Tourist adores the sound that Rachel Podger makes in the Baroque violin repertoire and especially in Bach, Vivaldi and Biber. Moreover, and feel free to snigger at the back, but he still gets a thrill when a specialist like RP, or one of the Italian maestros like Giuliano Carmignola or Fabio Bondi, lets rip on the Four Seasons. You can stick all that turgid Romantic nonsense where the sun don’t shine. This is real music. And if you are too snooty in your choice of classical repertoire to agree then more fool you. The Tourist yields to no man when it comes to the outer reaches of early 80’s post punk funk (and, as we speak, has a bit of Stockhausen ringing in his ears), but that doesn’t stop him from wigging out to the perfect pop of Benny and Bjorn’s SOS come party time.

Ms P has a rich, dark tone which gets you right in the gut. Her interpretation with her regular chums Brecon Baroque is a little less Flash Harry than the Italian peers, (though they certainly don’t hold back in the fast movements in Summer and Winter), which pays huge dividends in the super slow Largos in Spring and Winter. This was still exhilarating when it needed to be though. As confirmed by the Tourist’s regular Baroque crony MSBD. Big grins all round. For if there is one thing that singles RP and this ensemble out, apart from their sparkling musicianship, then it is that they look like they are having a ball on the stage. Which infects the audience. Even at the somewhat staid Wigmore.

Before the Four Seasons we were treated to the Easter religious piece, the Sonata and Sinfonia “al Santo Sepolcro” which may have been written in Venice or Vienna when AV visited in the late 1720s to drum up business. The Sonata has a slow movement introduction which builds from a bass line through too an exchange between the solo violin line and full ensemble. The subsequent Allegro alternates between two complementary themes in classic AV fashion. The Sinfonia is similarly just two movements but here the home key is B minor and AV explores a couple of chromatic twists in the contrapuntal Adagio and then in the Allegro which zeroes in on one, sinuous theme. The two pieces were separated by RV157, one of the Concertos written of strings and continuo without soloist. There are 60 or so of these (RV109 to 169), some of which are named as Sinfonia, which seem to have straddled performance in both saved and secular spaces. This one has repetition, imitation, dazzling figuration and syncopation, the full monty of AV’s virtuosity. The step-wise slow movement is captivating and the finale, made up of repeated semiquaver rushes in the bass line and upper lines is terrific.

Sicilian, (so its in the blood), Daniele Caminiti stepped up from theorbo continuo to lute soloist for the RV93 concerto which was probably written by AV for one Count Wrtby during a sojourn in Vienna and for the smaller soprano lute rather that the standard Baroque instrument. It was conceived as a chamber piece, with accompaniment from two violins and continuo, with each of the three movements divided into two repeated halves. It has a more stately feel against which the treble lines of the lute are set, largely down to the exquisite central Largo. This was also part of the programme from funky mandolinist Avi Avital concept with the Venice Baroque Orchestra at the back end of last yea in this very Hall.

Op 3 no 9 is one of seven AV concertos that JS Bach transcribed for harpsichord in 1713/14 when he worked in the Weimar Court. He made small changes to the right hand part and more generous detailing in the left hand part to thicken up AV’s loose textures. From this and the original BB, and especially the Polish harpsichordist Marcin Swiatkiewicz, (who plays on RP’s sublime Rosary Sonatas recording), have devised a harpsichord concerto, a form that AV himself eschewed. Like everything else on this lovely evening this was a perfectly balanced ensemble performance, the soloist a lucid, but never shouty, voice alongside the rest of BB.

RP’s next outing in her residency at the Wigmore are a bunch of Bach concertos which I will miss followed by a Sunday morning slot of the Bach Sonata and Partita No 1 which I most assuredly won’t.

Mozart and Beethoven chamber music for winds at the Wigmore Hall review ****

Alexander Melnikov (piano), Alfredo Bernardini (oboe), Lorenzo Coppola (clarinet), Javier Zafra (bassoon), Teunis van der Zwart (horn)

Wigmore Hall, 31st March 2019

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Adagio in B minor K540
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Quintet in E flat for piano and winds K452
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Horn Sonata in F Op. 17
  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Quintet in E flat for piano and winds Op. 16

A wind supergroup. I’ll resist the temptation to make a puerile joke. Still that’s what was on stage on this evening at the Wigmore. To play a couple of chamber music classics from the, er, Classical period. Whilst Beethoven went on to bigger and better things the Op 16 Wind Quintet is a piece of beauty and not insignificant innovation which owes a lot to its Mozartian predecessor but, especially in this direct comparison. also markedly departs from it. As for Mozart’s K452, well Wolfgang himself, at the time, 1784, reckoned it was the best thing he had ever written and who are we to argue. The evening was rounded off with Mozart’s K540 Adagio for piano, one of the most most poignant pieces he ever wrote, and Beethoven’s (only) virtuoso Horn Sonata.

Alexander Melnikov is probably as good as it will ever get, (maybe even than DSCH himself who was a bit of a ragged pianist by all accounts), when it comes to Shostakovich’s mighty Preludes and Fugues and his partnership with Isabelle Faust in the Beethoven violin sonatas is something I would pay good money to hear live. Annoyingly his next visit to the Wigmore with Ms Faust, and Jean-Guihen Queyras on cello, to play the Beethoven piano trios clashes with an even bigger gig; Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent taking on the Bach B minor Mass. (I also see the the CVG are touring Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. Now that would be, to use the modern parlance, a thing). I am hoping to see Mr Melnikov accompanying American soprano Claron McFadden in December when they take on some tricksy modern vocal repertoire including some Cathy Berberian staples.

As it happens Mr Melnikov’s fellow band members, all being experts in the HIP field, have close associations with the CVG, especially horn player Teunis van der Zwart. For this concert was unavowedly historically informed. Mr van der Zwart teaches in Holland, Javier Safra in Brussels, Lorenzo Coppola in Barcelona and Alfredo Bernardini in Salzburg, but they are all involved with top rank European period music ensembles and all studied in Holland as far as I can see, this being, with Belgium, the centre of the universe when it comes to HIP teaching and performance. The Tourist can never leave London but if he did that is probably where he would head.

AM set the scene with the Mozart Adagio, the only self-contained work by Mozart in the “melancholic” key of B minor, on his fortepiano. The initial phrases are pretty simple, and, on a fortepiano with its lack of sustain, it is a little underwhelming at first. But, as the second subject emerges, with the constant crossing of left had to right, things hot up and the fortepiano sound, with the twinklier higher notes and buzzy low notes, starts to properly emerge. In the development section Mozart piles up the pathos, first with an ascending harmonic sequence and then, descending, ending in a quick switch to B major, an unexpected twist after all that woe-is-me stuff. I don’t normally get too worked up by Mozart’s solo piano pieces, but this certainly did the trick. There is no doubt that, if you are used to hearing a piece on a modern piano, the fortepiano, with its distinct lack of oomph and narrow range, can be a disappointing alternative but with Mozart it works. My theory is that it turns “too many notes” into “just the right amount”, though to be fair this is not over-burdened with notes in the first place.

The rest of the ensemble then trooped on for the Mozart Quintet which again turned out to be a perfect illustration of why to makes sense to play music on the instruments it was designed for. Assuming the musicians are up to the task, which they were here. I doubt that this will ever become a favourite of mine, compared say to the late symphonies, some of the string quartets and the wind concertos and string/wind quintets, but this was very persuasive, highlighting the way in which WAM passed the phrases backwards and forwards between winds and keyboard, and, on these instruments, giving us a bit of rough to remove the complacent air that tends to creep into Mozart on modern instruments. The first movement starts off slow and the subsequent Allegro doesn’t get up to much, a gentle skip, but this allows the ear to get a taste for the sound, (I know, mixed metaphors), before the much more varied slow second movement where WAM takes us to some very interesting sounding places tonally led by clarinet and horn. This I liked. Just a hint of unease. The closing Rondo is much jollier, as the quickstep interplay between piano and wind becomes more elaborate.

Now the programme, (some excellent notes by Misha Donat), tells me that LvB wrote his horn sonata for one Giovanni Punto who was considered, in 1800, to be one of the greatest virtuoso soloists of the day. He was born Johann Wenzel Stich, in the service of one Count Wenzel Joseph von Thun, (reminding us that for most of human history even the ostensibly free were nothing of the sort), but, after learning his trade in Prague, Munich and Dresden, decided to skip away from his “employer” and take on a new identity to evade capture. I am guessing then that Count Thun wasn’t invited to the premiere of the piece where no less than LvB was the pianist.

The Allegro opening contains a number of remarkable innovations to show off Herr/Signore Punto’s technique, hand-stopping, (altering the pitch by sticking the hand in the bell end – quiet at the back please), a descent into the lowest of low chords in tandem with the keyboard, (the same pitch as a cello’s open C string – that buzzy, growly sound), and a passage of rapid arpeggios which I am guessing are beyond the capability of all but the best horn players. The middle movement is not some drawn out Largo, (that wouldn’t really work on the horn), but serves as an intro to the concluding Rondo and also highlights a dotted motif that permeates the whole sonata. LvB went on to utilise this structure, to greater effect, in later works, piano sonatas but also in the symphonies. One reason why Beethoven’s music, above all others, makes sense.

Whilst Mozart’s Quintet may have been an influence on Beethoven’s equivalent I am not sure, even with the help of the experts, that I can discern this in more than the general shape, notably the gentle, slow intro into the Allegro first movement and some of the more dramatic statements in the development. The horn comes out well in this movement and the keyboard gets the chance to show off one of those massive octave, (four and a half here), leaps that LvB was so beloved of. There is another one of those little repeated dotted rhythms here as well. The central rondo shape, marked cantabile – singsong to you and me – with theme and accompaniment, allows all four wind players to show off, with increasing ornamentation, leaving the piano to take the final turn. The actual Rondo finale has a bouncy quality stemming from its 6/8 “hunting” theme and, with its runs on the keyboard and rapid exchanges between the instruments, this could easily be mistaken for Wolfgang.

A fine programme then delivered by experts in their fields highlighting two of the finest pieces of chamber music ever written for these instruments. I would be very happy if they went on to record this programme. Over to you fellas.

Piano trio and percussion at the Wigmore Hall review ***

Sergey Khachatryan (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano), Colin Currie (percussion), Owen Gunnell (percussion), Sam Walton (percussion)

Wigmore Hall, 11th February 2019

  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Trio in D Op. 70 No. 1 ‘Ghost’
  • Arnold Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht Op. 4 (arr. Eduard Steuermann for piano trio)
  • Rolf Wallin – Realismos Mágicos
  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15 in A Op. 141 (arr. Victor Derevianko for piano trio and percussion)

OK so this didn’t quite go to plan. I was intrigued by the classical supergroup combination, the composers and the arrangements, but probably should have put a little more effort in to checking in advance whether I liked said arrangements. Always do your homework Tourist.

The Ghost was a success, as you might expect from this glittering trio of soloists and because it is Beethoven, thus being immune to criticism. I find that this pivotal work can either be taken with a Classical tilt, building on the master Haydn, or with a more forceful attitude, presaging the muscular Beethoven still to come. (Remember LvB previous contributions to the piano trio form were the three that formed his Op 1) This trio opted for the former with sometimes glittering results. The Ghost owes its name to the supernatural melodies of its slow movement. Apparently LvB was working on a possible opera based on Macbeth which perhaps explains the mood. It is the light and shade of the Allegro first movement and the full sonata form of the Presto finale which also explain its popularity with performers, including our friends here, alongside its “Archduke” Op 70 cousin.

Verklarte Nacht seems to follow me around like a drunken dinner party guest who will not accept that it is time for beddy-byes. I hoped that this cut-down version of the string quartet, from Schoenberg groupie Edward Steuermann, with the piano talking four of the string lines and violin and cello flying solo concertante style, might dilute the syrupy sweetness of the original. Afraid not, despite the best efforts of our musicians. It still sounds like knock off Wagner to my ears. And that is not a good thing. There are apparently five sections and a coda. Search me.

The Rolf Wallins virtuoso marimba piece, Realismos Mágicos, was a chance for Colin Currie to show off, just because he can. And he did, in some style. It is inspired by 11 short stories from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, hence the title.

So to Shostakovich 15. The symphonic version is sparse,enigmatic, suffused with DSCH’s own mortality, which is percussion and string heavy. So in theory this arrangement, for piano trio and various tuned, (xylophone and glockenspiel), and untuned, percussion should have worked. Unfortunately it doesn’t. Shostakovich needs woodwind and brass like a sandwich needs cheese and pickle (chez Tourist). I can see why the arranger, pianist Victor Derevianko, thought this would make sense after playing it through, for the censors, on the keyboard in 1971, and why DSCH agreed to the idea. And, with these fine musicians, there were clearly going to be passages that convinced; in the first movement, where the percussion is used to set up the quirky, black comedy, symbolised by the William Tell extract, and the finale, where uncertainly builds to repeated climaxes before the clockwork countdown to unremarkable oblivion. Where it disappoints, compared to the orchestral original, is in the slow movement and scherzo. A crowded Wigmore stage also condensed the sound which the Hall’s acoustic couldn’t quite

Definitely then a “it’s not you, it’s me” evening. Or maybe a soon to be forgotten one night stand. Either way I am sorry.

My top ten concerts and opera of 2018

Just a list so I don’t forget.

1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – English National Opera – 4th March

Not quite a war-horse of a production but Robert Carsen’s version of Britten’s Shakespearean opera looks, sounds and, well, is just wonderful.

2. Ligeti in Wonderland – South Bank – 11th, 12th and 13th May

Gyorgy Ligeti. Now bitten and no longer shy. If there is one second half of the C20 “modernist” composer every classical music buff should embrace Ligeti is that man.

3. Beethoven Cycle and Gerard Barry – Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Barbican – 22nd and 24th May

This is how Beethoven should sound. Do not miss the last instalments in the cycle this May.

4. Isabelle Faust, Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord) – JS Bach
Sonatas and Partitas – Wigmore Hall and LSO St Luke’s – 9th April and 16th June

And this is how JSB should sound.

5. Opera – The Turn of the Screw – ENO – Open Air Theatre Regents Park – 29th June

Even the parakeets came in on cue in this magical, and disturbing, evening.

6. Greek – Grimeborn – The Kantanti Ensemble – Arcola Theatre – 13th August

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s breakthrough opera is still a thrill.

7. The Silver Tassie – BBCSO – Barbican Hall – 10th November

And this was a graphic reminder of why his mature masterpiece must be revived on an opera house stage.

8. BBC Prom 68 – Berlin Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko – Beethoven Symphony No 7 – Royal Albert Hall – 2nd September

Crikey. I only went for this. If Mr Petrenko keeps going on like this he might just become the greatest ever.

9. Brodsky Quartet – In Time of War – Kings Place – 18th November

A stunning Shostakovich 8th Quartet and then George Crumb’s jaw-dropping Black Angels.

10. Venice Baroque Orchestra, Avi Avital (mandolin) – Vivaldi (mostly) – Wigmore Hall – 22nd December

As rock’n’roll as the Wigmore is ever going to get.

Venice Baroque Orchestra and Avi Avital at Wigmore Hall review *****

Venice Baroque Orchestra, Avi Avital (mandolin)

Wigmore Hall, 22nd December 2018

  • Francesco Geminiani Concerto Grosso in D minor after Corelli’s ‘La Follia’ Op. 5 No. 12
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in D for lute and strings RV93
  • Vivaldi – Sinfonia in G RV146
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in A minor Op. 3 No. 6 RV356
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in D minor for strings RV127
  • Vivaldi – Mandolin Concerto in C RV425
  • Giovanni Paisiello – Mandolin Concerto in E flat
  • Vivaldi – Concerto in G minor for mandolin, strings and basso continuo ‘Summer’ from The Four Seasons RV315

Saturday before Christmas. Family loafing about in front of screens or head in a book. Not the Tourist though. Two plays down and on to hear one of the finest Baroque ensembles anywhere rock out with some kick-ass Vivaldi and a couple of his lesser known contemporaries. With one of the world’s finest mandolin player (mandolinist?), Israeli Avi Avital, as soloist.

However before I got there, an errand to run. Tracking down specified cosmetics for BD and LD courtesy of Father Christmas. From Selfridges. On the Saturday before Christmas. I thought everyone did their shopping on-line now. And that retailers where watching sales plummet as the Great British public collectively sh*ts itself ahead of the March madness. Or that we had reached peak stuff.

Apparently not. I was scared. I am not much of a bricks and mortars man even on a quiet Tuesday morning. This though was positively Dantean, Especially when I got to the specified concession to discover that every woman in London under the age of 25 had come to the purchasing party. In trying to track down the appropriate shade of eye shadow I was man-handled, or should that be woman-jostled, on multiple occasions. Sensing my fear a patient sales assistant took pity on me and, in an instance, she briskly completed my elementary task. For the briefest of moments I was overtaken by an excess of Christmas spirit smiling at all those around me. Seeing fear on the faces of the throng, as they sized up the scruffy, fat, ageing weirdo grinning inanely at them, I then realised it was time to scarper. Out I waddled, weaving between the happy shoppers, scuttling along Oxford Street, round the corner, through the phalanx of black Range Rovers, (if you cannot, will not or you are proscribed from using public transport why on earth do you need to be carted around in these malevolent gas guzzlers), until finally reaching the comparative calm of Wigmore Street. Tempted to let out a cry of Freedom!!! Braveheart style but the Tourist realises that might unsettle the real tourists.

Two lessons dear reader. Financialised, neo-liberal capitalism edges ever closer to eating itself in an orgy of debt-filled consumerism and the Scrooge-like greying Tourist is now happier in the company of the genteel Wigmore Hall audience that the massed ranks of the crazed hit-polloi on a retail mission.

Though it turns out that the Wigmore Hall denizens are less genteel that you might imagine. For when Avi Avital came on the crowd when apeshit. OK maybe I exaggerate but ladies, and gentlemen, of a certain age definitely came out in a hot flush. For he is a good looking boy as you can see from the above, tousled-haired, tall, dark, handsome and when he gets going on his mandolin, channeling his inner rock god, it was as if Jimmy Page was back on stage at Madison Square Gardens circa 1973. OK minus the lighting rigs, dry ice, Catherine wheels, hummingbird jacket and Boeing jet round the back. Oh and he was sat on a chair somewhat curtailing the head-bang. Still there is no doubt he is a captivating performer who justified the delirious (by classical music audience standards) reaction.

Now the remaining (discovered) mandolin repertoire in the Western classical tradition, or at least that which the modern punters will pay to hear, is a little thin on the ground. (Though it is not a problem found in folk, especially, bluegrass, music). Which, perforce, limits the number of professional players. The lute, the precursor of the mandolin family, has a long and proud history in Renaissance and Baroque music, but the mandolin didn’t really take off as a solo instrument until the middle of the C18 when, most likely, the Neapolitan Vinaccia family came up with the eight stringed (in two courses) baby we know today. With strings of steel so the little fella could be heard, and then some, above the orchestra. The world has countless things of beauty to be grateful for from Italy. Not least most Western musical instruments.

Cue a burst of activity from Vivaldi and other Italian Baroque giants for the mandolin. But not much else. Beethoven had a fondness for the instrument, Mozart slipped it into Don Giovanni and a few other notables since have smuggled it into their opus list. There was a notable revival in Italy led by Rafaelle Calace in the mid C20 and the instrument has a fair following in Japanese classical music, I guess because of the sound similarity with the koto. I also see that Ligeti found a place for it in Le grande macabre: mind you he found a place for just about everything in that extraordinary masterpiece

All this means that adapting works originally scored for other instruments is par for the mandolin course. As here with Mr Avital’s own arrangement of Summer from The Four Seasons. (AA preceded this with a little patter about how he confused “Summer” with “Winter” when he was a nipper. OK so it wasn’t full on scathing Bill Hicks but it was worth a chuckle especially when you have shared that confusion).

Now I am guessing, that is if you care at all, that you either fall into the camp that believes, like the Tourist, that Vivaldi was a genius able to weave magic from short, simple repetitive musical ideas, or that he was a flashy journeyman who wrote the same arpeggio-laden riffs over and over again. Well Bach was with me even if Stravinsky wasn’t. To get the best out of AV though you need a specialist band that knows its stuff. The Venice Baroque Orchestra, along with the Concerto Italiano, Europa Galanta and Il Giardino Armonico is that band. Founder harpsichordist Andrea Marcon may have taken a back seat now but this ensemble still contains some of the very best Baroque specialists in Italy and a couple of jokers in lutenist Ivano Zanenghi and leader here, violinist Gianpiero Zanocco.

The difference is their ability to created complex harmonies, expansive dynamics and varied tempi from the apparently simple notes on the pages. Whilst, especially in the basso continuo, but also in the ripeno, tirelessly banging out thumping motoric rhythms. Vivaldi, and his Italian Baroque chums, may have worked to the principle that less is more when it comes to the length of their works but even so there is no let up, for player or listener, when the burn kicks in. Try it if you don’t believe me. Find a bog standard Four Seasons from 30 years ago churned out at a chugging medium pace by a modern orchestra that was probably rehearsing some interminable Bruckner that very afternoon, and compare it with the VBO’s “period everything” Sony recording with Giuliano Carmignola on the fiddle. See what I mean? The latter will blow your socks off, the former will likely see you popping the kettle on.

VIVALDI IS NOT BACKGROUND MUSIC AND SHOULD ON NO ACCOUNT BE PLAYED IN THE CAR. SLAP ON THE AFOREMENTIONED DISC. TURN IT UP VERRY LOUD. AND DANCE.

Giovanni Paisiello is primarily known for his operas including a setting of The Barber of Seville twenty odd years before Rossini seized his moment. He also banged out reams of scared music and a few keyboard concertos. His Mandolin Concerto was not signed but is generally accredited to him. AA really let fly here bouncing off his chair own a final flourish. Francesco Geminiani was one of the many Italian musicians who came to London in the first half of the C18 armed with an education from the master Corelli who served as the basis, with added string parts, for the Concerto grossi played here.

Vivaldi’s RV 425, the C major concerto written specifically for the mandolin, was probably the evening’s highlight. The strings, bar a few bars from the cello, play pizzicato throughout the final movement. Amazing. RV 93, pinched from the original lute, was another joy. RV 356, from L’estro armonico, was originally scored for violin so AA has substituted tremolos to replicate the long violin sustains. What a clever fellow. Of course this, as with the Winter, is always going to sound better on the violin but AA seems to me to make as good a case as is possible for his purloining.

Wonderful concert. Last entrant in my top 10 of the year. And as it turned out the highpoint before a somewhat fraught Christmas. Ho hum.

The Cardinal’s Musick at Wigmore Hall review ****

giovanni_pierluigi_da_palestrina

The Cardinal’s Musick, Andrew Carwood (director)

Wigmore Hall, 27th September 2018

  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – Motet Tu es Petrus, Missa Tu es Petrus, Gregorian Chant, Magnus Sanctus Paulus a 8
  • Giovanni Bassano – O Rex gloriae
  • Jacob Handl – Sanctus Bartholomeus
  • Thomas Crecquillon – Andreas Christi famulus
  • Tomás Luis De Victoria – Vidi speciosam
  • Francisco Guerrero – Virgo prudentissima
  • Sebastián de Vivanco – Magnificat octavi toni

More people should hand themselves over to the musicianship and scholarship of the best of British Renaissance vocal ensembles such as The Cardinal’s Musick or The Tallis Scholars or The Sixteen. Or, on those rarer occasions, when the best of their European cousins pop over. (Let us hope that isn’t made prohibitively difficult by the clusterf*ck that is Brexit though I suspect nothing would give greater pleasure to the never-happy social conservatives than watching us metropolitan liberals lose the opportunity to listen to such poncey, suspect singing).

Surely, it is impossible not to like complex polyphony sung by experts. Of course you could invest some time into learning about the composers of this ravishing music and the context in which it was created. As the canon of Renaissance music has expanded so too has our knowledge about those who created it, though biographical details are normally scant. Some vague-ish birth and death dates, a list of where they trained and what positions they held and what patrons they, (and by implication we), need to be grateful to. More often than not there is some detail in the careers of the most renowned of these men, (women got more of a look in in Medieval music and in the early Baroque, as we are now, thankfully, discovering), which marks them out as tricky in some way. Often over what they got paid. You would think the aristos and the Church would have been happy to pay up for art of this quality. Clearly not.

There are now a wealth of recordings of the (largely) French, Flemish, English, Italian and Spanish masters and the repertoire is still expanding. However, given the relatively limited number of performances and performers it is still likely that the casual listener/attendee, like yours truly, will encounter something new at every concert. The scholars and musicologists that lead the way still have plenty to play with I gather, so the sense of exploration and novelty that pervades Renaissance music performance, even though we are now well into the sixth decade of “rediscovery” since the first ensembles set out, isn’t about to end. I assume devoting your life to this sort of caper isn’t a way to make a lot of money but I hope that the economic ecosystem is robust enough to underpin such vocation.

You could also seek to understand when, why and how these pieces were performed. I guess having some sort of faith would be a good starting point for grasping the meaning of the religious works, but I also think it is perfectly possible for the irreligious to take something from the words and purposes of the texts. Even if all the rules of Christian liturgy and its founding myths remain a bit fuzzy you will certainly learn a lot about the political, religious and social contexts in which this works were created.

You might arm yourself too with as much knowledge as you can about the musical forms and structures which define this music. Sacred and secular, masses and motets, madrigals, modal and tonal, the way in which the vocal parts are put together, parody, imitation, suspensions, homophony, antiphony, plainsong, cantus firmus, dissonance, dyadic counterpoint. I can’t say I am there yet but some of the terminology is staring to fall into place. And remember folks the Tourist is, by virtue of a grotesquely painful singing voice, unable to perform, a source of eternal shame, and, by dint of what his music teacher at school was wont to call “tone deafness”, in a time before such educational derogation was outlawed, an utter inability to “read” notes on a page, only a consumer, and not a producer, of music. At the time I gloried in Mr Vaughan-Williams’, (I kid you not, but I am pretty sure he was no relation), disapproval. Now I really wish I had listened to him. Mind you I still take pride in being booted out of RE on a couple of occasions, for, and I swear this is no malleably manufactured memory, arguing with the teacher whose name I forget about the existence of God. Calling me a “long-haired jessy”, however apt, only served to fuel my nascent atheism I am afraid.

Anyway, you could learn all you can about this glorious music. Or you could, as frankly I normally do, let it wash over, and through, you. You know the thing where you forget about everything but the now, mind empties, body relaxes, free of the grinding anxiety of what has happened or what might be about to happen? To get it you can, I suppose, teach yourself, or get some-one to teach you, some sort of mindfulness mumbo-jumbo. Or you could just listen to Palestrina or Victoria. I promise it will work. After all it was written for exactly that purpose. To lose yourself in devotion. So piggy-back off that and get yourself along to one of these concerts. Close your eyes and let the voices take over.

Here endeth the lesson.

 

Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Wigmore Hall review ****

H.I.F.Biber

Isabelle Faust (violin), Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord)

Wigmore Hall, 9th April 2018

  • JS Bach – Violin Sonatas 4, 5 and 2, BWV 1017, 1018 and 1015,
  • Johan Jacob Froberger Suite No 12 in C minor for harpsichord,
  • Biber – Violin Sonata No 5 in E minor, Mystery Sonatas Passacaglia in G minor “Guardian Angel”

JS Bach tick. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber tick. Not just the Passacaglia from the Mystery Sonatas, which seems to appear on every Baroque violinists concert programmes right now, but one from the “other” 1681 set of sonatas. And then this chap Froberger which also turned into a qualified tick. All from the violin of Isabelle Faust, always a resounding tick, and harpsichord of Kristian Bezuidenhout, likewise.

This partnership has recently recorded the Bach Violin sonatas using some top draw instruments and the reviews are very positive. On the strength of this performance I have bought the CD. I am also signed up, in tandem with MSBD, for the second instalment of the other sonatas at St Luke’s on 16th June. I see there are a few tickets left. Snap ’em up I say.

The first couple of minutes of the opening Sonata No 4 weren’t perfect, harpsichord right hand just a bit forceful compared to left and the violin, but balance was quickly achieved and from there on we, and they, never looked back. These works are not right at the top of the Bach instrumental pile, crowded out by the solo works and the concertos and suites, but, IMHO, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be. And this sublime partnership is making that case convincingly. Son CPE certainly thought they were amongst Dad’s best works, They are not revolutionary in structure adhering to the familiar baroque sonata di chiesa pattern of four slow-fast-slow-fast movements, but they are some of the first to have a fully written out keyboard part rather than a bassline with some indications of harmonies to be filled in above it. This means the right hand can match the melodies of the violin whilst the left hand trots out the bassline. This gives the texture of a trio sonata which is most clearly heard in No 4.

No 4 kicks off with a lilting siciliano, follows with a three line fugue, then an adagio with triplets in the keyboard right hand alongside a dotted violin rhythm, then another fugue with some syncopation and cross-rhythms. No 5 starts with a largo where the violin gradually adds melody to the three part invention of the keyboard, unrelated at first and then conjoined, like a cantata aria apparently. The fast movements are fugues again, the second slow movement, arpeggios from keyboard with double stopping accompaniment from violin. No 2 is strictly 3 part, beginning with another gentle dance imitating the contemporary ‘galant” manner, followed by another fugue which sandwiches some flashy violin, then a canon, then another fugue. Now I confess I am not entirely sure what all this means but once I have recording in hand, or ear, I will try to work it out. That is the fun of art music; you know you like it, you can then spend years working out why you do and what it is.

Now apparently our man Froberger was the leading keyboard composer of the mid C17, born in Stuttgart, and working for 20 years as an organists for the Hapsburg emperors in gilded Vienna, though like all these chaps he got about a bit. Free movement across Europe you see. His compositions unite the Italian, German and French traditions, the French broken style still be based on lute technique (and a bit dull to my ears). This is one of his suites based on dances grouped by key, here C. It begins with an allemande in the form of a lament, then cheers up a bit with gigue, courante and sarabande. Still can’t quite remember the differences but this passed the time pleasantly enough. Seems JJ Froberger was a bit of a noodle forbidding publication of his compositions in his lifetime. The right to be forgotten, though now he must be a wet dream for Baroque keyboard scholars.

In contrast the Biber sonata was, yet again, a revelation. This is part of a set of 8, published in 1681, and is a barnstormer with extreme upper register shrills, very fast runs and bonkers double stopping. The work is continuous starting with a fantasia-like intro, then into an exquisite set of variations over a ground bass, then a show off presto and ending with another beautiful set of variations. Maybe this fellow isn’t quite up there with JSB and Vivaldi but he is in the vicinity and it’s a mystery to me why he isn’t more popular. A CD of this set of sonatas has literally just dropped through the letter box. I’m on it.

Biber didn’t tour much, despite his astounding technique, preferring to publish his ground breaking works for violinists and let the punters work it out for themselves. I like the sound of that. He spent most of his working life in Salzburg, after doing a runner from an employer in Bohemia. I suspect you would be hard pressed to find a bar of chocolate with his mug on it in Salzburg though unlike you know who. He married well and his surviving kids were musically gifted. In addition to the violin pieces apparently he also wrote plenty of large scale sacred music, though I haven’t seen any being performed, maybe they are a bit too labour intensive. I will find out and let you know.

Needless to say Ms Faust’s rendition of this sonata was electric, in atmosphere not technology of course. Biber may have been ahead of his time, until the Italians overtook him, but he wasn’t that advanced. I really hope she programmes more of these solo violin pieces in future and that some promoters will be brave enough to let one of the sublime baroque violinists performing today to have a crack at the Mystery Sonatas in full.