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.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Review: The Czech Philharmonic on tour

Freddy Kempf (photo: Neda Navaee)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
16 April 2013 – The Anvil, Basingstoke

It doesn’t get much more authentic than this: Czech music, exquisitely performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the Czech Republic’s finest conductor, Jiří Bělohlávek. They brought to The Anvil dances and tone-poems by Antonin Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, two great composers adept at capturing the spirit of their homeland in music. Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances show all his skill in writing for the orchestra, reaching out to folk tradition while remaining models of classical form. In them, he discovers radiant musical colours with his combinations of instruments and the Czech players brought them to life with astonishing commitment and delicacy. Bělohlávek chose the lively ninth and fifteenth Dances to top-and-tail the selection, sandwiching between them the gorgeous tenth Dance, sculpted with expressive finesse that suggested regret and resignation.
Dvořák’s uncomplicated miniatures might have seemed inconsequential next to the mighty, high-minded canvas of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto (the Emperor), but pianist Freddy Kempf (winner of the 1992 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition) was in the mood to extend the fun. His performance was exuberant and emphatic - a young man’s view of a piece that contains some of Beethoven’s most joyful and excitable music. If you didn’t know before-hand, you wouldn’t guess that the Concerto was composed in a war zone, but Beethoven risked death by staying at his desk to compose it while Napoleon’s troops fought around his Viennese home. If Kempf’s performance missed some of the tenderness and solemnity that can be found in the Concerto’s long first movement, he made up for it with his inexhaustible spontaneity, heard to best effect in the touching slow movement and beautifully supported by the orchestra. He rewarded the audience’s enthusiastic applause with more Beethoven (“if you insist”, he quipped): the slow movement of the Pathétique Piano Sonata, played with admirable simplicity.
The night really belonged to the Czechs, though, who concluded with three pieces from Smetana’s masterpiece, Ma Vlast (My Country). With Vltava, which celebrates the mighty Czech river, the orchestra’s string players plumbed the water’s depths and shimmering shallows. Quivering clarinet playing added tenderness to the dramatic tale of Šárka and the orchestra painted vivid pictures of the landscape in From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields. These players really hang on Bělohlávek’s every gesture, producing subtle nuances of phrasing that can only happen when every musician plays and breathes as one. A little more Smetana – The Dance of the Comedians from the opera The Bartered Bride – capped a brilliant concert. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
This review was written for the Basingstoke Gazette.

Monday 8 April 2013

Greenwich's International String Quartet Festival

The third Greenwich International String Quartet Festival gets going on Thursday 11th April and features prestigious visitors such as the Smith Quartet and Quatuor Mosaïques, as well as a range of events at London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire. Full details can be found at the festival's website.