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

Philharmonia/Salonen
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). 

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Review: The Budapest Festival Orchestra visits Basingstoke

Ivan Fischer, founder and music director of the BFO
Budapest Festival Orchestra
23 July 2013 - The Anvil, Basingstoke

I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the Budapest Festival Orchestra is the greatest ever to have visited Basingstoke. My eyes bulged when I read their name in the The Anvil's concert season brochure: in the years since the orchestra was founded by conductor Ivan Fischer, they've gained the kind of reputation that was once the preserve of the famous orchestras of Berlin and Vienna, trumping the latter by actually delivering the goods on any given day. And, my goodness, they delivered in Basingstoke, playing with all the jaw-dropping beauty and refinement for which they've become famous.

Not that they will have felt especially loved, mind you, after seeing acres of The Anvil's blue seats going spare. Those that turned out got a slice of Hungarian colour in the form of Ernő Dohnányi's Symphony Minutes (1933), which crackles with hyperactive invention and off-kilter harmonic imagination. It's something of a party piece for Fischer, who's still in charge three decades after the orchestra's first concert. 

The Budapest players then changed mode completely for a period-conscious performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with Imogen Cooper. Clear textures and old fashioned brass instruments ruled, and Cooper’s way with the piano part matched the orchestra’s delicately balanced playing. Cooper produced an astounding dynamic range from the keyboard and, while her mature approach was a little sober, she was adept at highlighting the young composer’s moments of cheeky iconoclasticism, underlining the point by opting for the longest and weirdest of Beethoven’s cadenzas. She paid tribute to her accompanists with Schubert’s Hungarian Melody, D817.  

Brahms spent years slaving away on a symphony that would live up to the example of Beethoven and, in the end, wrote four. The last is in some ways the culmination of the process - more concise and confident than its predecessors, yet more inclined towards tradgedy; scarcely ever can it have recieved a performance of more carefully sculpted beauty and total perfection than this. Nods towards period-instrument sensibilities were coupled with totally transparent ensemble, but no lack of georgous colour - the plunge down to an unexplectedly dark C major at the end of the slow movement, underpinned by the double basses, was just one such moment of impossibly rich tone. If there is any better ensemble in the world right now, I've not heard it.

But there was a problem, and he was holding the baton. Fischer's direction drew the best from an orchestra he's honed and coaxed for thirty years, but in place of flow, logic and an accumulation of emotional tension came a disjointed vision of episodic regard for each new wonder. Yes, the second movement's quieter passages were a marvel of quiet, loving playing and yes, the final movement's flute solo was infinitely touching, but instead of structure, Fischer presented a succession of passages, each characterised to perfection but without any cumulative impression of what the symphony might mean. It was a baffling experience: how could something so staggeringly beautiful be quite so boring?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Devil's Trill's Proms picks


 
Last week’s announcement of the programme for the 2013 BBC Proms season prompted excitement and befuddlement, in almost equal measure. “Why so much Wagner?”, “why so little Verdi?”, “who’s Granville Bantock?”, they asked. As usual, there’s something for everyone in this ever-expanding season of concerts, though Wagnerphobes (and I know a few of those) are going to want to give week 2 a miss.
 
The full listings are available to browse on the Proms website and the big brochure is out now in bookshops, complete with page after page of adverts for posh schools and (credit where it’s due) some very nice graphic design work. Newspapers and blogs have given a run-down of their Proms picks, so I thought I’d stick my oar in and tell you about the ten Proms to which I most look forward. 
 
The rocketing reputation of this young Norwegian violinist is rewarded with an appealing lunch-time concert. She also performs Bruch’s 1st Violin Concert in Prom 31.

A sizable premiere from the British composer, coupled with key twentieth century works by Britten and Lutosławski.
 
London hears a segement of Mittwoch aus ‘Licht’ for the first time, following the successful recent Birmingham production of the epic work.
 
If you only get to one of this year’s mammoth Wagner evenings, make it this one.
 
Although often bafflingly poorly attended, Oliver Knussen’s annual Prom is usually a feast of off-centre delights – this one features Tippet’s ebullient Second Symphony
 
Prom 35 – Jansons’s Mahler (August 9)
He’s been around Europe with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and now brings his other orchestra (the Bavarian Radio Symphony) for a pair of Proms performances.

If you like your Proms poorly attended, try this one. A chance to hear the most famous opera of one of Britain’s greatest composers.
 
Brilliant Georgian violinist Lisa Batishvili tackles the Sibelius Concerto, and Sakari Oramo conducts music by one of this season’s odder obsessions – Granville Bantock.
 
The Latvian violinist makes her Proms debut with Szymanowski’s radiant First Violin Concerto.
 
Yes, I’ve been hard on the Wieners in the past, but mixing Bach’s organ music and Bruckner’s mightiest symphony is outside-the-box programming .

...And many more besides. As usual, we’re spoiled for choice and how many you get to will depend on how much Promming punishment your legs will take. See you there.