Saturday 23 March 2013

The genius of Lutosławski

Witold Lutosławski

The Philharmonia’s Woven Words series, celebrating the centenary of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, came to an end on Thursday with a concert that included the haunting nocturnal orchestral song Les espaces du sommeil and the ferocious Fourth Symphony:

“Even without its concentrated and compelling narrative of mounting violence, Lutosławski’s Fourth would be remarkable for the sounds it conjures: rippling harp motifs, impossibly rich string textures and molten brassy climaxes. But it grips with its anguished momentum, seeming surprisingly close to the stark and enigmatic concerns of Shostakovich more brutalised symphonies. Its pull was only strengthened by the Philharmonia’s effortless and dazzlingly colourful playing and the force of Salonen’s no-holds-barred conducting. How can this remarkable symphony be such a concert hall rarity?”

Friday 15 March 2013

Dudamel and Adams bring their Green Umbrella to London

Joseph Perira and Gustavo Dudamel (photo: Mark Allan for the Barbican)
Perhaps the unfamiliarity of the first programme of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s three night Barbican residency was too much for some – even with the world’s hottest conducting property on the podium, there were auditorium seats to spare – but in scheduling quite so much new music, the LA musicians and their music director Gustavo Dudamel demonstrated the kind of bravery few other world-class orchestras posses. This was a taste of the LA Phil’s Green Umbrella series of concerts, dedicated to new music and headed by John Adams. The orchestra’s New Music Group tackled three widely contrasting works with terrific assurance, bringing chilly London a tantalising slice of LA’s new music scene.

The programme featured music by Adams, the LA Phil principal timpanist Joseph Pereira and Korean composer Unsuk Chin. You can read my full review at Classical Source.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Alexander Kniazev plays Franck and Ysaye

Franck & Ysaÿe: Music for Cello and Piano
Alexander Kniazev (cello)
Plamena Mangova (piano)

Fuga Libera FUG587

The notes for Alexander Kniazev’s disc of borrowed music open with an incomprehensible justification for the practice of transcription. In truth, no argument is necessary: if these musicians wish to take music written for violin and play it on the cello, they are welcome. In practice, some transfer better than others, as demonstrated by this recital.

Kniazev is far from the first cellist to play César Franck’s evergreen Violin Sonata and, as a transcription, it works well. The long lyrical lines of the Sonata, composed for the young Eugène Ysaÿe in 1886, are rendered well on Kniazev’s instrument and there isn’t too much rapid fingerwork to get caught up in. Kniazev’s performance slows the opening Allegretto to a grandiose showcase of his remarkable sound, a torrent of extraordinarily rich legato tone redolent of the Oistrakh and Rostropovich. It really is something to behold - whenever the Sonata obliges, Kniazev opens the taps and that sound comes out. It results, however, in a monolithic performance, basking in the glory of these edifices but revealing disappointingly little of the music’s drama and narrative. Pianist Plamena Mangova often has to make do with unsympathetic tempos which disrupt the flow of Franck’s keyboard writing.

Franck’s song Nocturne of 1884 is successful without the words, but two pieces by Ysaÿe reveal the more problematic aspect of transcription. Both the Berceuse and the Poème élégiaque were composed for violin and orchestra, though both are more commonly encountered in versions for violin and piano. Ysaÿe’s often virtuosic writing pulls Kniazev away from his comfort zone and, in all honesty, the transcriptions sound uncomfortable. In addition, Ysaÿe music was often specifically composed around the possibilities of his own instrument. A funereal episode in the Poème élégiaque is a case in point: Ysaÿe asks the violin to detune the bottom string by a whole tone, producing an unexpected and unusually deep sound. This section lies well within the reach of the cello, and the effect is lost.

The disc is very clearly recorded, somewhat to the detriment of the impressionistic Berceuse. While I’ve no problem with musicians looking further afield for repertoire, I really wonder why Kniazev and Mangova chose to record two of Ysaÿe’s violin works, when both his Sérénade and Méditation for cello and piano have (to the best of a my knowledge) never been recorded. Then there’s a darkly intense Sonata for Solo Cello, which Kniazev might have excelled in. Maybe next time?

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Steve Reich's Radio Rewrite

Steve Reich
Few contemporary composers draw the kind of crowds that Steve Reich does, and his appearance with the London Sinfonietta yesterday at London’s Royal Festival Hall had been sold-out months ago. Tickets were so scarce that press comps couldn’t eventually be offered to those towards the bottom of the food chain (i.e. me), but the disappointment was quelled by Radio 3’s live broadcast, fronted by a clearly-excited Andrew MacGregor.

It began (as Reich concerts often do) with the composer’s 1972 piece Clapping Music, intended as a demonstration of music without conventional instruments. Reich took one of the two parts for last night’s performance of this early example of his ‘phase’ pieces. Another classic followed, with Mats Bergström dusting off Reich 1987 work Electric Counterpoint, originally written for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and consisting of overlaid tracks and a final part played live. In performance, I’ve found it an odd spectacle – one live musician playing one of twelve parts, seeming a little karaoke – but it works well on the radio, where the whole blends seamlessly with no visual distractions. It remains one of Reich’s loveliest creations.

A clutch of more recent pieces formed the bulk of the programme. 2x5 (2008) makes use of instruments more often associated with rock music – electric guitars, basses, drum kit – and marks a departure from Reich’s more conventional instrumental palette. It chugs along in typically Reichian fashion, but the twang of the guitars lends an unexpectedly homemade feel that becomes quite endearing. The headline work of the night was the premiere performance of Radio Rewrite, based in part of two songs by Radiohead (“Jigsaw Falling into Place” and “Everything in its Right Place”). The songs are barely recognisable, having been subsumed into Reich’s familiar language, but something of Radiohead’s distinctive harmony has clearly rubbed off, particularly in the slower sections. Finally, his Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet (2007) demonstrated his work for an unusually large combination of instruments, but couldn’t quell the feeling that too much of Reich’s music is cut from the same cloth.

Friday 1 March 2013

Baltic Nights with Britten Sinfonia

Alina Ibragimova (Photo: Sussie Ahlburg)

“Pēteris Vasks’s Violin Concerto “Distant Light” presses the button marked “spiritual angst” quite effectively, but for all its sincerity, feels hamstrung by the chunkiness of its transitions. Alina Ibragimova gave it the very best performance its composer can possibly have wished for (he was present and looked very pleased), directing the ensemble of strings while burrowing deep into its heartfelt expressive core with an unyielding intensity that marks her out as one of the world’s most powerfully persuasive violinists. It brought a large part of the audience to its feet but left me only intermittently touched. Ultimately, I’m unable to shake the feeling that Arvo Pärt does this sort of thing better.”