LSO play Ravel and Mussorgsky at the Barbican review ***

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London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Barbican Hall, 3rd June 2018

  • Ravel – Rapsodie Espagnole
  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 3
  • Mussorgsky arranged Ravel – Pictures at an Exhibition

It has been a few years since I have heard Pictures at an Exhibition live, and I have thoroughly enjoyed Mr Noseda’s way with Shostakovich and Beethoven recently, so I reasoned now was the time to reacquaint myself. Moreover Mr Bronfman’s account of the PC 4 last year, admittedly under the exacting eye and ear of Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian RSO, was pleasurable enough if not earth-shattering (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review *****). And I thought it right to risk another chapter in my ongoing love/hate relationship with Ravel.

The Rapsodie espagnole is a pastiche, of sorts, of Spanish music, in contrast to the rather more rooted offerings of the likes of de Falla, Albeniz and Granados, though Ravel is not the only French composer to have been seduced by all that sultry dance. Indeed when this was composed, in 1907, Maurice was immersed in all things Iberian what with his opera L’heure espagnole and the songs of the Vocalise-Etude. And his particular favourite was that familiar habanera rhythm – which turned into, amongst other things, the cha cha cha we now today. Mind you his mum was Spanish and he was born just over the border in the Pyrenees so it was in the genes/memes.

This was Ravel’s breakthrough orchestra piece and actually pretty much his only full force work that didn’t start in another form or from the piano. Whilst it isn’t based on any specific Spanish melodies there is no doubting where you are. Ravel, of course, was the master of musical and emotional coloration. Yet he doesn’t always surprise. When he does, for me mainly in the chamber, piano and piano concerto works, he can dazzle. When he doesn’t, often as not for me in the vocal works, he can be just a bit too diddly to no purpose. Not as diddly as Debussy who mostly really tries my patience, but still a triumph of style over substance.

Overall, given the material, this was reasonably enjoyable though I wouldn’t seek it out. There is a distinct descending four note ostinato motif that recurs through three of the four sections, with the Habanera being the exception. This helps it all hang together. The LSO was on top of the score, of course, but Mr Noseda’s reading felt a little forced, but not unpleasantly so, until the final Feria where the band cut loose.

This spilled over into the Beethoven where the quiet string theme that opens the C minor concerto shuffled into, rather than glided into, the room to set up the extended orchestral intro of the Allegro. Last time round in Beethoven I felt Mr Bronfman’s precise, delicate playing meant he got a bit bullied by the orchestra. I feared a repeat. As it turned out he was given enough room to breathe and the LSO, especially in the woodwind and lower strings, was on top form, with the Largo the standout. I have heard more convincing overall interpretations, and a bit more whoosh in the Rondo, but this was satisfying enough.

Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain, Vicious, Bonham, Curtis, Johnson, Buckley (x2), Cooke, Gaye, Coltrane, Parker, Parsons, Bolan, Tosh, Lynott, Nelson (PR). Some of my musical “heroes’ who died of unnatural causes, often with a fair bit more left to give, But if you want real rock’n’roll, nearly a century before any of these punters were doing their thing, then Modest Mussorgsky is your man. Obviously, like so many of the above, he was a f*cking idiot to waste his talent mashed up on booze, but, having chosen this course, and he did choose it seeking artistic freedom in this “bohemian life”, he got properly stuck in. Which meant he failed to complete vast swathes of work and didn’t get much beyond the piano and a bunch of songs and the completed opera Boris Godunov. He was a rubbish musician barely caring or knowing about structure or texture but boy could he capture a mood. and in BG he basically captures the essence of Russia.

Anyway there he is above in close up, in Repin’s famous portrait from 1881, which appeared in the marvellous Russia and the Arts collection at the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago. He looks a bit rough for sure. Worse still when you realise he was just 42 and died a few weeks later.

Easy to see what the colourist Ravel, as many others have done subsequently, was smitten with MM’s big ideas and couldn’t resist the temptation to smooth off the rough edges. The original piano suite of Pictures at an Exhibition was inspired by a posthumous retrospective of the work of artist Victor Hartmann, MMs mate who died aged 39. Mind you MM’s musical images, as you might expect, went way beyond whatever Hartmann envisioned, but the concept of the exhibition, with the repeated Promenade being us the viewer, holds the whole thing together and adds an ironic, detached air to the bombast. On the piano it doesn’t entirely work but in Ravel’s hands something magical emerges. Ravel used Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition of the piano original so a few changes were made but you get the feeling that MM would have been happy with the result even if he may not have known how Ravel got there.

It might all be very familiar but it the right hands, and the LSO and Gianandrea were the right hands, it can still be thrilling. Bydio, Baba-Yage and the Great Gate of Kiev didn’t disappoint. Boom. If you are a classical virgin and want to find a way into live performance there is no better way. You won’t stay there as you move on, and you may end up thinking it is all a bit daft, but the hairs on the back of your neck will still stand on end whenever you return to it.

Rock’n’roll. Sort of.

 

 

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review *****

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Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Barbican Hall, 24th November 2017

  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 4
  • Prokofiev – Symphony No 5

Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony, Chicago Symphony. These are the orchestras usually held up as the world’s best. The smart money though also rates the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. I know that Mr Jansons has a way with Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich through recordings, but this was the first time I had ever seen him, or his principal orchestra, perform. That just shows what a berk I am, (I have discounted previous visits thanks to repertoire), though I suppose you could say this means I have much to look forward to. Anyway I was quite excited.

The thing is I still don’t know if I really like Prokofiev’s music. Sometimes I am really swept along by the wealth of ideas and colours. Sometimes I am baffled. A work in progress if you will. With the Beethoven however there was enough from the programme to commit. I am so glad I did. I don’t think I have ever heard a conductor who exerts so much control over the dynamics of an orchestra. Mr Jansons seems to have worked out every single detail and every one of the orchestra members knew what to do and when to do it. The lushiest of lush strings, the silkiest of silky woodwind,  the punchiest of punch brass and the most precise of precision percussion.

A bit too perfect. Maybe. I wouldn’t want to hear this sort of performance every day of the week but it worked for me in the Prokofiev. This was SP’s return to the symphonic form after a 15 year hiatus, and the first after his return to the Soviet Union. You could read it like a “celebration” of the Red Army’s victories over the German army, (it premiered in 1944), but it would seem to make as much sense as reading Shostakovich’s symphonies in the same way. It seems to me that it defies any programmatic intent. The first movement opens with a woodwind theme that gets bashed up by brass and percussion, followed by some string development and then a dissonant halt before the B flat major resolution. If this is an epic tale of overcoming the enemy it is a funny way of showing it. The scherzo which follows, with a tune SP nicked from his own Romeo and Juliet, (and which is the theme tune for a telly programme I can’t identify which irks me immensely), is one of those amazing ideas which SP seems to conjure up at will and which defines the word sardonic. Here though he plays with it, rather than discarding it too early and moving on, which is what normally annoys me. It ends with a trademark dissonance. The strings of the BRSO were bonkers fast by the end but still perfectly regimented. The Adagio kicks off with a proper stringy heart tugger then a funeral march before the finale opens with a gallop that gets pulled apart by percussion until a final, odd maybe-heroic conclusion.

It always seems to me that SP never seemed entirely comfortable with what he created and felt compelled to shake ideas back up as soon as they were realised. This is what makes it a bit too bitty for me. Yet in this performance I could hear a line through the movements and all that ADHD nervous intensity was calmed and channelled.

Same in the Beethoven, but because I know and get this, all was pleasure. Yefim Bronfman has a delicate touch for a big fella (like me), and pulled it out for the showy bits, but this was all about the orchestra which was so on the ball in this that it felt like it only lasted 5 minutes. I guess all that sitting around waiting for the soloist in the opening movement after his first tinkle meant the game was over before it started but this was definitely one of those performances where the diva did what they were told, even when they were in the box seat. A good thing. Mind you Mr Bronfman got plenty of opportunity to show his skills in his encore of Schumann’s pretty, if pointless, Arabeske.

The second movement Andante is one of my favourite Beethoven moments with the meek piano weaving its ethereal tune around the dramatic string interjection. And the final movement Rondo is, in turn, one of my favourite Beethoven fist pumpers, which surrounds an enchanting central diversion. Imagine hearing that for the first time. A joy.

Just like my first time with this orchestra. Mr Jansons, who works the podium energetically despite being near 75 and having a pacemaker, exudes enthusiasm and, I’ll warrant, pride in his achievement with this band. After the concert he was presented with a Gold Medal from the Royal Philharmonic Society. Only around 100 or so of these have been bestowed since inception in 1871, and only 1 or 2 are given out each year (mind you they were pretty generous in the first year). He joins the likes of Mitsuko Uchida, who presented it to him, and, in terms of living conductors, Dutoit, Pappano, Barenboim, Rattle, and the master IMHO, Haitink. Like I said, the smart money rates him.