Thursday, 27 August 2015

A voice in the dark

A few months ago, I gave this introduction to a performance of Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet, given by my wife's quartet. If you are not familiar with the piece, try this from the Borodin Quartet.

Few artists have come to represent their own time and place as much Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet Union’s preeminent composer who, from the 1920s until his death in the 1970s, was Russia’s musical propagandist, conscience, provocateur and human voice.

From its earliest details, Shostakovich’s life was a tool of Soviet propaganda. Born in 1906, he is alleged to have witnessed Lenin’s return to Russia, from exile, in 1917. At 18, his precocious 1st Symphony was trumpeted around the world as a dazzling example of a new wave of Soviet artists. This new paradise of Communist Russia seemed, at first, a haven of artistic freedom: as long as what you said was ideologically sound, it didn’t really matter how you said it.

Like so many others, Shostakovich was lulled into a false sense of security, pushing the boundaries of the musical language until firmly bitten by the culturally and socially conservative crackdown of Joseph Stalin’s first years as leader of the Soviet Union. Art was no longer to test the limits; only artistic expression which the masses could easily understand, and which celebrated the greatness of the communist utopia, would do. In this new hell of rigid rules, denunciations and show trials, one misstep could mean death. Writers, artists, theatre and film directors, friends of Shostakovich, disappeared, swallowed by the human meat grinder of Stalin’s genocidal state. Footsteps in the hall; a knock at the door; a visit to the headquarters of the secret police: thousands were erased from life like this and not even their families would dare mention their names again.

Shostakovich’s brush with danger came in 1936, in the form of a damning newspaper review, ordered, it is believed, by Stalin himself. The state newspaper, Pravda, blasted his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, as “chaos instead of music”. The message was clear – adapt or die. The composer, eventually, offered his own amends for his past wrongs in the form of a Symphony. The symphony was his fifth and, like Beethoven’s, it rises from fierce darkness to a conclusion of blazing light. But little mattered more to Shostakovich than personal artistic integrity. Within the triumphant bombast of the Symphony’s finale, a kernel of defiance could be heard – a grin through gritted teeth. Shostakovich’s admirers heard this, the authorities did not, and the pattern was set for a new musical identity of outward conformity and inner resilience.

Little did he know, though, that in allowing for the possibility of contradictory meanings, Shostakovich would unleash a bitter battle to interpret his music. Some have tried to dismiss him as a propagandist hack; others find anti-communist barbs in every note; others still find a middle ground that celebrates him as a composer of hugely affecting and original music. Nowhere is this battleground of meaning more intensely fought than in the 8th String Quartet. Shostakovich began writing the piece during a visit to Dresden in 1960. The visit may have inspired the dedication “to the victims of fascism and war”, but clues in the very music itself point toward an altogether different interpretation.

After WW2, Shostakovich had begun using a four note phrase in his music: the notes D, E flat, C, B which, when said in the German manner, become D, Es, C, H – the first initial of his forename and the first three letters of his surname, in the German translation. The Eighth Quartet begins with exactly this phrase, confirming that this piece is not only about the victims of fascism and war; it is about himself. He then does something remarkable – he constructs a fugue with his own name. A fugue is among the most complex of musical forms – a way of layering a tune upon itself within a very rigid set of rules – and was precisely the kind of artistic complexity outlawed by the Soviet authorities. This isn’t only a daring and dangerous step on the part of the composer; it is a self-definition. “I am music”, Shostakovich seems to be saying here and, as if to prove the point, he offers a few quotations from past works, such as the opening bars of his 1st Symphony, followed by a resolute restatement of his name.

It’s clear that this piece, in five continuous movements, was an intensely personal project for the composer. After his return from East Germany, he wrote to a friend “When I die, it’s hardly likely that someone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself... The pseudo-tragedy of the quartet is so great that, while composing it, my tears flowed as abundantly as urine after downing half a dozen beers. On arrival home, I have tried playing it twice, and have again shed tears. This time not because of the pseudo-tragedy, but because of my own wonder at the marvellous unity of form.” One could be forgiven for balking slightly at the apparent self-pity of the composer, but Shostakovich knew better than anyone that there was nothing unique about his own personal tragedy. The Jewish folk theme blasted out in the frantic second movement can be connected to one of the composer’s perennial concerns: the suffering of others at the hands of others. Shostakovich was submerged deep within the tragedy of the twentieth century and, with his unique ability to express that tragedy, offered a memorial to the suffering of one individual out of countless millions, namely himself. That this piece, and many others, survived and are today celebrated and loved, offers hope that the individual can endure in the face of overwhelming odds. And, that his music remains enigmatic to the last, never meaning quite what it appears to mean, is a fitting reminder that the dark and violent times for which it was written can never fully be comprehended.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Stop it, James

Hopping channels last night, I stumbled across BBC2’s Artsnight, a 30 minute show dumped in the gaping hole in the schedule left by the Beeb’s bizarre decision a few years ago to jettison Newsnight Review in favour of a monthly arts roundup. Satirist Armando Iannucci took an intriguing look at the role and value of the arts in contemporary society, alighting at classical music, one of his own personal passions. He spoke to pianist James Rhodes about the allure of classical music and about the state of the art today. Unsurprisingly, Rhodes continued the narrative of alarm he’s been peddling for a while. Not without good reason, of course, as we should all be concerned about falling audiences and funding opportunities. But Rhodes seems to have defined himself in direct opposition to the orthodox, to the “scowling pianist” stuffed in a white shirt and tails, and he seemingly needs to attack and caricature the “opposition” in order to justify his own approach.

There is, of course, room for many approaches, and I’m as proud a wearer of jeans to the opera as anyone else who doesn’t believe your attire helps you hear any better. But when speaking, in the short interview in last night’s programme, about the business of classical music, he’s just plain wrong. Despite Rhodes’s claim a new multi-million pound concert hall “seems to be a condition” of Simon Rattle’s arrival at the head of the London Symphony Orchestra, Rattle and the LSO have said that no such condition is in place. He went on:

“Take that £400 million – that’s 4 [or] 5 years of the entire music education budget! We don’t need another hall, and everyone who bleats about “oh well, the acoustics at the barbican aren’t...” Come on! Really? You really care that much? It’s like... Stop it!”

He’s certainly right that this is an enormous amount of money in the face of a culture of underinvestment in music education, but yes, the acoustics at the Barbican are insufficient to showcase the brilliance of an orchestra like the LSO, and no, we are not wrong or somehow elitist for caring that much. Neither is Rattle wrong to care, on two fronts: he is used to getting the best from some of the most miraculously brilliant ensembles in the world and is quite right to ask for the best conditions in which to make music. Secondly, his track record in Birmingham shows how reinvigorating such a project can be: the building of Symphony Hall was a milestone in the city’s cultural history and is a multi-purpose venue, as any in London would surely be.

Anyone who’s ever sat in the cheap seats, at the back of the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican or in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall can confirm that our precious, wonderful art-form can seem pretty remote and uninvolving from up there. A concern for how our music sounds is not incompatible with a desire to see more switched on to its wondrous brilliance. There are many valid arguments for and against the project, which I’ve no intention of further rehearsing here, but when it comes to the tedious ad hominem attacks on those of us who value slightly different things, please, James, stop it.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Bychkov and OAE impress with Schubert in Basingstoke

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Bychkov
The Anvil, Basingstoke
5 April 2014

Semyon Bychkov
When Ludwig van Beethoven died, in 1827, 20,000 people lined the streets of Vienna to watch his funeral procession pass. Among them was the 30 year old Franz Schubert, an ardent admirer of his older colleague, but when he himself passed away, a year later, his death was little marked beyond his own circle of friends and family.  Beethoven’s fame was immediate and unprecedented; Schubert’s reputation grew slowly over many decades, thanks in part to the rediscovery of his epic final symphony, subtitled the ‘Great’, which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and eminent Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov placed alongside Beethoven’s Seventh for this Anvil performance.

The vast scale and difficulty of Schubert’s ‘Great’ Symphony (sometimes dubiously known as the Ninth) baffled those who saw the score in the first years after it was composed. Today, however, it’s now a central part of the repertoire and the OAE proved how totally modern orchestras are able to manage its hour-long duration. Bychkov chose his tempos carefully, making sure to sustain the piece’s remarkable, unbroken momentum, and the orchestra responded with beautifully refined and tireless playing that balanced their customary concern for historically-informed performance with richness of sound not always associated with period-instrument ensembles. So many of Schubert’s late masterpieces speak to us with a profound expressive power that seems barely believable from such a young man, and this symphony is no expectation – this is never truer than in the infinitely touching central section of the third movement, rendered with melting tenderness by orchestra and conductor.

Bychkov’s steadiness and certainty – such virtues in the Schubert – proved less well suited to Beethoven’s feisty Seventh Symphony, dubbed “the apotheosis of the dance” by Richard Wagner. Much of this music revolves obsessively around dance-infused rhythms and motifs, needing an excitable performance to truly bring it to life. Perhaps Bychkov hoped to retreat from the crazed power that can inhabit this piece and invest it with greater nobility, but in putting off the energetic vigour until the finale he missed the riotous unpredictability that courses through this music. He wanted for nothing from the orchestra, but the impression was of an approach better suited to one composer than the other. 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Sakari Oramo's inaugural concert with BBC Symphony

Sakari Oramo
Sakari Oramo’s inaugural concert as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave opportunities to explore existing preoccupations – theirs and his. Oramo – no stranger to the British music world after ten years at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – brought Mahler to the table, a composer with whom he’s had an affinity for some time. The Beeb, for their part, brought a substantial premiere by respected French composer Tristan Murail, affirming a commitment to contemporary music unparalleled among London’s symphony orchestras.

The title itself of Murail’s new piece, Reflections/Reflets, presages elements of the first of the piece’s two movements. Murail takes as his starting point Charles Baudelaire’s poem Spleen, not set vocally but rather painted in heavy orchestral sound. The poem’s bells are there, tolling grimly at the first part’s climax and the thick texture truly makes sonic sense of the opening line “When the low and heavy sky presses like a lid”. It’s the skewed tuning, though, that most clearly stems from that title – a cluster of wind instruments, just slightly off the pitching of the rest of the orchestra, distorts everything we hear, offering a cracked double image or a sullied reflection.

The second part, “High Voltage/Haute Tension”, darts of with a nervous energy not possible in the first. Pointed piano writing underlies much of the skittish but virtuosic orchestral writing, setting off waves of upward-reaching scales that couldn’t be further removed from the weighty import of the “Spleen” music. Murail intends these movements to be the first in a cycle of pieces, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra launched them with terrific power and commitment in this world premiere performance.

Something of the febrile energy of “High Voltage” was echoed in Shostakovich’s Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings of 1933 (sometimes dubbed Piano Concerto No.1), particularly so here with the hyper-detailed pianism of Olli Mustonen. I hadn’t seen Mustonen live before this concert, having encountered him only through his recordings, but in the event the visuals matched the eccentric intellectualism projected by his playing. Mustonen lets no phrase rise and fall smoothly, preferring to poke odd notes and send them out into the audience like barbs. His hands fly sometimes a foot from the keyboard, striking from a height and only increasing that sense of jaunty, jolting phrasing. It’s love-it-or-hate-it playing, sounding nothing like anyone else I’ve ever heard, but there’s something curiously disarming about it, as though Mustonen is dreaming his own quirky musical fantasy and allowing us to peek over his shoulder.

The obligato trumpet part was here taken by Russian star Sergei Nakariakov, whose quivering vibrato and silken tone were quite distinct from Mustonen’s angularity, but they shared a stingingly incisive rhythmic sense that made for a tremendously exciting finale. A little more tightness from the accompanying strings would have raised the performance even more, but with so much to intrigue and entertain, it seems churlish to complain. I can’t imagine that I’d want to listen to Mustonen’s wacky phrasing for too long, though.

If Oramo’s contribution has gone uncommented upon until now, it’s because the final item – Mahler’s First Symphony – was always going to be the test of his command and ability. He set down an admired recording with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra a couple of years ago and here proved that he has something fresh and engaging to say in what is very frequently trodden repertoire. I say fresh not so much in that his view is wholly original, but rather that his approach drew out all that is youthful and hopeful from this mighty work. His motions on the podium suggested strongly that flow and lyricism were priorities, bringing out this music’s roots in song (Mahler does, after all, make heavy reference to his earlier song cycle Leider eines fahrenden Gesellen). I’ve rarely heard the scherzo infused with such a vigorous sense of dance, or the first movement’s climactic explosion of light more awake and alert. Along the way, he was given many moments of fine playing from the orchestra – some crisp offstage brass, gutsy string playing and that double bass solo negotiated with poise. What was missing, perhaps, was a real sense of polish and refinement from the BBC SO. It sometimes seemed that Oramo was pushing for more dynamic contrast that he was receiving in return, and while there were never issues of ensemble, I missed the beauty of sound of which this orchestra is capable. As inaugural concerts go, though, this was a promising one – a strong sense here of a conductor with firm priorities and an orchestra capable of delivering what he asks.    

Monday, 30 September 2013

Berlioz in Basingstoke

28 September, 2013 – The Anvil, Basingstoke

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Pic by Clive Barda
Esa Pekka Salonen
The bustle of imperial Vienna, circa 1814, might seem a long way from modern-day Basingstoke, but it was a forceful slice of that city’s musical heritage that opened the Anvil’s 2013-14 International Concert Series. The Philharmonia Orchestra and their distinguished music director, Finish conductor and composer Esa Pekka Salonen, sailed through Beethoven’s beefy Namensfeier overture, a piece originally intended to sell the composer’s wares to the great and good of Europe. Monarchs, aristocrats and diplomats descended on the Austrian capital at the behest of the country’s Emperor, where they hoped to fix the continent-wide mess left by one Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven – ever the shrewd businessman – saw a golden opportunity to appeal to potential patrons, but in the end, he couldn’t finish this rousing orchestral piece in time, substituting some little known and little regarded crowd-pleasers in its place.  In truth, Namensfeier (‘feast day’ or ‘name day’) isn't one of Beethoven’s best, but orchestra and conductor made sure it packed a considerable punch.

Beside Beethoven’s stormy vision of Romanticism in music, Robert Schumann’s can seem Romanticism’s sensitive and delicate face. Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski, though, injected sparkle into Schumann’s sober Piano Concerto of 1845, pulling it away from the straight and narrow with ease. This is music that can sound a little prim; not so for Anderszewski, in whose hands Schumann’s understated piano writing ebbed and flowed. His compelling way with it was even enough to distract from the mistakes he scattered through the last movement, though a few of his extreme manipulations of tempo must have had the collective hearts of his conductor and orchestra missing a beat or two.

Whatever fleeting waywardness Anderszewski might have shown, though, was no match for the musical madness of Hector Berlioz, the wildly inventive French composer whose music was so radical that it had to wait a century before being properly appreciated. His Symphonie Fantastique is one great hallucinogenic musical trip – it imagines its own lovelorn composer’s attempted opium overdose and subsequent visions of masked balls, witches and executions. It also happens to be one of classical music’s most brilliant showpieces, giving the musicians of the Philharmonia ample chance to dazzle with their abilities. Their wind players brought tremendous elegance to Berlioz’s unique writing; their brass players drove his excesses home with terrific commitment. At the helm, Salonen moulded the hour-long Symphonie into a helter skelter of musical adventure, all luscious strings and thumping percussion. It utterly baffled its first audience in 1830; this one brought the house down.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Mixed fortunes at the BBC Proms

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski (Photo: Sheila Rock)
The combination of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and music director Vladimir Jurowski often promises something special, but in Prom 64 we were left waiting a while for it. Certainly, the concert got off to a pleasant start – I’m always eager to hear something from off the beaten track, and if Granville Bantock’s rarely heard 1902 tone poem The Witch of Atlas wore its debt to Tchaikovsky on its sleeve, it did so with considerable charm. It made an intriguing pairing with Sibelius’s mighty tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter, whose taut construction and vivid storytelling showed up the slack structure of the Bantock, but which received the less assured performance.

I had to feel for pianist Anika Vavic, whose day this clearly was not. She seemed nervous and uncomfortable in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto from the off, and it was simply a relief that she reached the end, albeit loosing handfuls of notes along the way (including, bizarrely, the entire mini-coda to the second movement). Ultimately, though, keyboard-malfunction-of-the-night went to the organist in Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, who accidentally planted an almighty organ parp right in the beautiful string-led passage that follows the famous ‘sunrise’ opening. Otherwise, Jurowski’s conducting and the LPO’s luminous playing in the Strauss were the highlights of a variable evening, with particular brownie points going to the string section principals, who demonstrated what a fine collection the orchestra currently has.   

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Royal Albert Hall, sacred place

Lars Cleveman and John Tomlinson in Wagner's Parsifal (Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
Of all the transformations undergone by the Royal Albert Hall, the problematic home of the BBC Proms, that achieved for Sunday night’s epic performance of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal must rank among the most astounding. The first act of Parsifal – all two hours of it – opens up and up, revealing more and more splendour until the end, when the aged Gurnemanz rebukes the naive Parsifal for failing to understand all that he has seen. A pivotal moment in Act One is the move from the sacred forest of the opera’s opening to the hallowed heights of the castle of Monsalvat, home of the Holy Grail. Gurnemanz sings “here, time becomes space” (a fitting summation of the music’s power – the very first notes of Parsifal set us adrift in time and space by refusing to offer any meter), and Wagner’s “transformation music” describes the ascent to the holy castle and its towering, imposing interior. Once there, two choirs and a brass band, placed far above in the gallery, made for the most stunning rendering of the grail castle imaginable.

Mark Elder’s very slow tempo brought the performance to six hours, but the glowing playing he got from the Hallé as worth the price of admission alone. The long stand (after the Ring, though, it flew by) was rewarded less evenly by the evening’s singing, which ranged from the imposing (John Tomlinson living the role of Gurnemanz) to the anonymous (Lars Cleveman’s unimpressive Parsifal). The remarkable spacial effects will stay with me for a long time, but on balance I’m more in sympathy with Mark Valencia’s qualified praise than David Nice’s total admiration.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Devil's Trill at the BBC Proms

Joshua Bell performs with the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Joshua Bell at the BBC Proms (BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

I've been away for a while, doing non-musical things and must admit I've been neglecting you. I hope you’re still out there. Anyway, it’s been a busy few weeks at the BBC Proms and I've managed to cram 8 visits in so far. A few of them have been in my capacity as critic (and, as I don’t get paid, I’m as much a pro as those guys at the Indy on Sundy will soon be). If you’d like to catch up, I've reviewed Vilde Frang’s excellent Proms chamber recital, Joshua Bell’s appealing-but-not-entirely-comfortable Tchaikovsky Concerto with the National Youth Orchestra of the United States, and Daniel Hope’s rough and ready (emphasis on the rough) Prokofiev 2nd. There’s also been the small matter of the Barenboim Ring, of which I will say only this – one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Devil's Trill talks Shostakovich with the Pacifica Quartet

The Pacifica Quartet (photo: Anthony Parmalee)
It's almost four decades since the death of Dmitri Shostakovich - the Soviet Union's most celebrated and controversial composer - and, while academics continue to argue over his music's value, his stock continues to grow with audiences and musicians alike. The fifteen symphonies sell out concert halls; the cycle of fifteen strings quartets, composed between 1938 and 1974, are one of the great challenges of the repertoire. 2013 sees the release of the third volume of the Pacifica Quartet’s complete cycle of the fifteen quartet. Violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardssson, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos make up this ensemble, which hails from Chicago and has gained acclaim for recordings of undervalued repertoire, such as Elliott Carter's String Quartets. The first of two residencies at London’s Wigmore Hall, back in October 2011, coincided with the first release in their recorded cycle for Cedille Records; an auspicious start that heralds a complete recording of these works to place among the best.

“A thing that really surprised us about the cycle – we hadn't played them all until we took [the project] on two years ago – was just how interesting all of the quartets are”, Masumi Per Rostad, violist of the Pacifica Quartet, tells me when I meet him at Wigmore Hall's spacious greenroom. “It thought there would be at least one or two duds in there, from a performance perspective, but I think it's very similar to the Beethoven cycle in that regard, that they're all amazing pieces.”

I wonder about the challenges of presenting these works together: might they present too little contrast over the course of a concert, particularly when it comes to the later quartets?  Not so, Masumi tells me: “I think that from nine through fourteen there's actually a lot of range of character and emotion. It's very easy to think of Shostakovich as bleak and desolate and Siberian and I think that the thing has surprised us about all the quartets is how much range there is.” 

And then there's the problem of extra-musical baggage attached to so much of Shostakovich's music. A great deal of argument about the music has focused on supposed hidden meanings, political messages and personal codes written into the scores. But are the players affected by these theories and hearsay?  “There's a difference when between when one person reads it somewhere versus when someone reads it and mention sit in a rehearsal. It does definitely affect us but it’s kind of a tenuous area to get into, also because so much of what he said is hard to take at face value.”  Masumi reminds me that the quartet are musicians, rather than musicologists, and recalls his experience of studying Beethoven as a student at New York's Juilliard School: “The only thing allowed into the classroom was the score for the string quartets, and you could not mention anything about the Heiligenstadt Testament or anything about deafness. It was just not allowed. It was just the score; I think that's ultimately what Shostakovich left for us – the score – and there are so many interesting stories... but at the end of the day it's us in the rehearsal room with the score.”

Although Shostakovich himself trained as a pianist, he had an acute understanding of writing for stringed instruments. “There's nothing in the quartets that is unplayable,” says Masumi. “Within your individual parts they're not crazily technically difficult but it requires a lot of ensemble technique. There's a lot of exposed intonation, a lot of Haydn-like exposed ensemble issues and I think that's probably for us the most challenging aspect; but he really knows what works.”

Shostakovich composed for some of the finest instrumentalists of his day and remained loyal to particular chamber ensembles for years. The Pacifica Quartet have, in turn, engaged extensively with contemporary composers, particularly when working with student composers at the University of Chicago. “There's nothing like sitting down with a composer and having them remind you that they’re human beings. As a student you’re working through your repertoire and you feel very disconnected from the composer and from the compositional process because you have this score that you get from a library or a bookstore and somehow there’s so many layers or steps in between you and that compositional process. The thing that has been in common with all the composers that we’ve worked with is that they really are human beings and they’re not so uptight. We’re not very often getting comments like ‘that wasn’t quite together’, but it’s more like ‘I was going for this sound world'.”

Working through new works with musicians can also give composers an understanding of what's technically possible, though this can have its pitfalls. “This is always dangerous territory because if you look at the history of performance and composition, pieces were always declared unplayable and then the next group of people come along and they can play them. You don’t want to be that guy that says ‘you know this is unplayable’, but you can say ‘maybe this is not the most idiomatic thing!'”
Recent works by Carter and Easley Blackwood have joined Shostakovich and Mendelssohn in the Pacifica Quartet's discography, but it would be a mistake to assume that merely the novelty of the new and unplayed was what attracted them to their more unusual repertoire. “We have a common idea that there’s great music and there’s less good music and it’s not defined so much by period or genre. It's just that there are pieces that speak to us when we play [them] and sometimes those are off the beaten path and very often they’re in the standard repertoire, so it’s kind of a really wide variety and mix just because we don’t really distinguish that way.”

Volume 3 of the Pacifica Quartet's Shostakovich String Quartety cycle is out now.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Violist justifies Cowell egg attack

Violist Natalie Holt has written about her “little act of protest”, a much-reported egg-throwing attack on pop music mega mogul SimonCowell during Saturday night’s live Britain’s Got Talent final. In a piece for The Guardian, Holt said that her stunt had been motivated by a belief thatCowell “has too much power and influence in the entertainment industry. I also just wanted to make him look a bit silly.” Holt plays with string quartet Raven, an ensemble occupying a position somewhere between the conventional string quartet and cross-over act Bond.

The makers of BGT were quick to scrub Youtube of footage of the incident, which featured Holt grinning while pelting Cowell with eggs. The Telegraph have managed to retain their footage (warning: contains naff cod-operatic singing).