Sunday 30 September 2012

New classical releases for October

Here’s a selection of new classical releases for the month of October:

String music

Contemporary  music

Everything else

Tuesday 25 September 2012

John Cage meets Stewart Lee

John Cage:  Indeterminacy
Stewart Lee, Tania Chen, Steve Beresford, Alan Tomlinson
Battersea Arts Centre, September 23 2012

Stewart Lee, Tania Chen and Steve Beresford
Even now, a century after his birth, John Cage’s art feels brilliantly fresh. I say art, because although you’ll see him described as a composer, his exploration of sound was genuinely genre busting, exploding the idea of what music could be. While his European contemporaries were dryly dictating the terms of a new avant-garde order, Cage charted the outer limits of music with a wide eyed wonder, seeing all that was remarkable in the commonplace and the overlooked. And we’re still travelling in his wake, astounded that his big ideas could have been expressed quite so pithily.

While much of the archaeology of high modernism has been brushed aside, people flock to John Cage as to no other twentieth century experimentalist, revelling in the humour at the heart of his output. Cage’s works dare us to giggle, either in joy or disbelief. And so it seems natural that a comedian should have taken quite so strongly to Cage’s work; that’s just what stand-up Stewart Lee has done, locating Cage’s natural wit with his own laconic delivery for this touring event, caught by Devil’s Trill at Battersea Arts Centre.

Lee takes the role of the reader – originally performed by Cage – in Indeterminacy, a series of autobiographical one minute stories read at random to an accompaniment of improvised noise. Cage’s tales are expertly turned – sometimes funny, sometimes poignant and occasionally baffling – but their length determines the delivery, having to last one minute no matter how many words they contain. The composer’s friends and colleagues are brilliantly drawn: the almost chronically unimpressed David Tudor; the existential disappointment of Morton Feldman; the gnomic wisdom of Dr. Suzuki. They all sound great fun. Lee’s deadpan, almost bored style only heightens the comedy. The slow retort of mushroom expert Guy Nearing, on having his mistake picked up by the young Cage (“There are so many.....Latin names.....rolling around in my head.....that sometimes.....the wrong one comes out”) could have been written for Lee.

And then there are flashes of the philosophy of Cage’s world view. He recalls a juke box playing at a swimming pool: “I noticed that the music accompanied the swimmers, though they didn’t hear it”. And so the improvisations of Tania Chen and Steve Beresford, played mostly on musical toys, form an apparently random but often eerily synchronous counterpoint to the text. Sometimes they obscure it, rendering Lee’s commentary a different brand of noise.  

Before all of this, Beresford and Chen take to two pianos to improvise wildly. On this occasion, their first improvisation ranged widely and recalled two other great American mavericks - Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow; their second was a terser, frantic affair. Cage’s fascination for extending instrumental techniques is demonstrated by Alan Tomlinson, following the composer’s diverse instructions in the Solo for sliding trombone – only some of which involve the mouthpiece. Tomlinson raised hoots of delight from the Battersea audience as he barked through his instrument like an angry dog, and that’s what Cage-the-comic would have wanted.   

Sunday 16 September 2012

Italian pianist Colli takes the Leeds

Federico Colli, 2012 winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition
After a competition lasting two and a half weeks and a final split over two nights, Italian pianist Federico Colli has won the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition. His concerto choice for the final was Beethoven’s 5th in E flat, Op.73, the only concerto to be heard twice over the course of the two evenings. Swiss pianist Louis Schwizgebel took second place with his performance of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto. UK readers can catch up with both performances on BBC iPlayer (Final 1; Final 2; for one week only) while the prize winners’ gala concert is broadcast on Radio 3 today at 2PM. BBC TV is doing an NBC and delaying the start of their coverage until next weekend, and continuing it over the next six weeks.  

Thursday 13 September 2012

Leeds International Piano Competition is here again

Leeds Town Hall,  venue of the Leeds International Piano Competition's concerto finals

The Leeds International Piano Competition is here again. The preliminary rounds are done and dusted, and it’s on to the finals, taking place tomorrow and Saturday, and available live on BBC Radio 3. Tonight, there’s an introductory programme (Radio 3: 7.30PM); tomorrow’s first concerto final begins at 7.30PM, while Saturday’s starts at 6.30PM, with the announcement of the winner receiving a delayed broadcast at 11.55PM. Then on Sunday, it’s the prize winners’ gala recital at 2PM. Here’s who plays what in the concerto finals:

Friday 14th September, 7.30PM:

Louis Schwizgebel: Beethoven - Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
Jiayan Sun: Prokofiev - Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16
Jayson Gillham: Beethoven - Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73

Saturday 15th September, 6.30PM

Andrejs Osokins: Prokofiev - Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26
Federico Colli: Beethoven - Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73
Andrew Tyson: Rachmaninov - Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

All accompanied by Hallé, conducted by Sir Mark Elder

I’ve recently been told that the Radio 3 stream is available worldwide; maybe international readers could let us know if this is the case. Happy listening.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Prom 75 - Haitink supervises the Vienna Phil

Bernard Haitink (Photo: Jane Bown)

Is there any more infuriating an orchestra than the Vienna Philharmonic? They’re often cited as the world’s greatest orchestra and can produce a warm and lyrical sound unmatched by any other ensemble on the planet. But their quality seems to have an on/off switch, and their second appearance at the 2012 Proms showed the best and worst of their playing.

Bernard Haitink – a remarkable institution in his own right – conducted the VPO’s two Proms. I was only able to make it to the second, but was rewarded with what for me was always going to be a season highlight: This super –distinguished maestro leading the VPO in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Haitink is much loved, but his unfussy and rhythmically foursquare approach isn’t suited to all repertoire. The Alpine Symphony wouldn’t seem to be an obvious fit, given that so much of it benefits from an almost lurid overstatement of its descriptive qualities. Haitink has form in this music, though, having recorded it with the LSO (for their in house label), and, while this Proms performance was not the last word in the work, he made a strong case for treating Strauss’s 50 minute tone poem in symphonic terms.

What we got was a typically controlled and sustained arc that prioritised flow over detail. It necessarily sacrificed the initial thrill of Strauss’s ecstatic sunrise for an even greater climax at the top of the mountain, while trying to show a clear line throughout. The VPO answered his direction with radiant playing that maintained its warm lyrical intensity at a fortissimo full cry. They did quiet too: never have I heard the opening (and closing) brass statement sound so distant and perfectly balanced.

But it’s never plain sailing with the VPO, and as if to even out all that was miraculous and finely crafted, there were fluffs aplenty. It’s moments such as these that show what the VPO’s really up to: with heads buried in their parts, these musicians are following each other and not the conductor, and a bungled entry seems to sow confusion in the ranks. Their performance of Haydn’s 104th Symphony (the London) demonstrated their refusal to play together – precision is impossible like this, sacrificed instead for beauty of tone.

And then, as though to drive that point mercilessly home, they embarked on the obligatory Johann Strauss II encore (Voices of Spring/Frühlingsstimmen) with all the sloppy indifference of an amateur orchestra at the first rehearsal after the holidays. Haitink may as well not have been there – this was orchestral playing by committee – and he certainly should have known better. 

Monday 3 September 2012

The Australian Chamber Orchestra in London

Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra

A few weeks after I interviewed Richard Tognetti, director and leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, his band stopped off in London for a concert at Cadogan Hall as part of their European tour. I went along and wrote a review for Classical Source.

Sunday 2 September 2012

BBC Proms week 8: Rattle's brilliant Lutosławski

Witold Lutosławski on the podium

What a difference a day makes. Only the previous evening, I'd been feeling a little deflated at the too-perfect-by-half playing of the Berlin Philharmonic in a couple of French items, but after their second Prom (Prom 64) with chief conductor Simon Rattle, I positively floated out of the Royal Albert Hall. The difference? The Berliners did what they do best - Romantic German stuff - and Rattle did what he does best - weird twentieth century stuff.

Yefim Bronfman joined them for the biggest and best of Brahms's concertos, the Second Piano Concerto. His was a robust and confident performance, perhaps without the nobility of Emil Gilels or the vivid storytelling of Nelson Friere, but compelling none the less. And the Berliners were at home in Brahms's classicism, which seems only to gain from the orchestra's inherent refined weight.

But it was the orchestra's performance of Witold Lutosławski's Third Symphony that really sent me away with a grin on my face. It's hardly a concert hall regular, but the symphony is a forceful drama that communicates something urgent and belligerent (those punchy Es heard as a recurring motif). Rattle knew Lutosławski and has remained a champion of this highly distinctive composer, and in the Berlin Orchestra he has an ensemble able to deliver every glistening detail of this score. He also judged the mood in the hall just right, including an encore (Dvorak's Slavonic Dance in C, Op.72/7) after a piece that he would usually have given the last word.