Wednesday, 30 November 2011

LPO, Jurowski, Vogt play Pintscher, Beethoven and Bruckner RFH 30 November 2011

Loud complaints from the audience are becoming a regular feature of London Philharmonic concerts. A few weeks ago, their performance of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony was disrupted by an unsatisfied patron leaving during the Adagio and complaining as he went. He seems to have set a dangerous precedent, for no sooner had Matthias Pintscher's opening piece finished when a loud voice from the back of the hall shouted "What a load of rubbish."
As it happens, he was completely wrong. Towards Osiris is an excellent work, showing one of today's finest compositional talents at the very height of his powers. The work was commissioned as part of a series of new pieces designed to accompany Holst's Planet Suite. Pintscher and Holst both excel in orchestral colour, and while their respective aesthetics are otherwise quite distinct, it is a fascinating exercise listening for echoes of Holst's great work in Pintscher's textures.
The work in structured around short punchy tuttis in an otherwise gentle orchestral texture. Pintscher creates some wonderfully complex sounds without having to rely on too much harmonic or textural density. He is great at gravelly or grating noises, usually led by the percussion, but never limited to them. At one point the texture reduces to an extrovert, bordering on comical, trumpet solo. There is a levity about it you don't usually associate with German composers. But the skilled construction, and the innovation in every phrase, is certainly in line with the best of what that country can produce.
In terms of pianists, Lars Vogt is the best Germany can produce. His performance of the Emperor was filled with quintessentially German values. This was an efficient and directly communicative reading. Vogt is able to generate some real power at the keyboard, enough both to fill the Festival Hall and to compete with the LPO, who played the concerto with a full string section. That's unusual, Beethoven usually gets quasi-chamber orchestra treatment with just three or four desks to a part. But Jurowski was obviously confident that Vogt could hold his own. Jurowski and Vogt were clearly on the same wavelength here, both intent on producing a big boned and passionate, but always clean and carefully articulated performance. The whole thing seemed very modern. So why then the period trumpets and timps? They seemed an inconvenience at best, and added little to this otherwise thoroughly symphonic reading.
The LPO has been spotlighting Bruckner throughout the season. Full credit to them for that. He is a composer who we hear too little of in the UK, partly I think because every review of the Bruckner symphony performance in the British press goes on about how the music is long and boring. But the LPO are developing an impressive track record in Bruckner, and have recently performed his symphonies with some of today's leading Brucknerians including Eschenbach, Vanska, and of course Jurowski himself.
The First Symphony is a tall order for any conductor, and any performance is going to work better in some places than in others. Jurowski knows how far he can push this music. In the first movement, he rarely tries to build the climaxes up to what he could manage in the later symphonies. On the other hand, the finale does offer a few opportunities to really push the boat out, and he never lets any of those pass him by. One aspect of Jurowski's Bruckner that really distinguishes his readings is his ability to make every movement ending work. Bruckner often ends a movement by building up to a climax and then just breaking off. Its usually sudden, requiring the conductor to decide how to pace those final bars to give them the right feeling of conclusion. Somehow, Jurowski manages it every time, and in this symphony the first, third and fourth movements all pose his this problem, but he manages to make each of those codas work.
Jurowksi finds the most interesting music in the central movements, and these are what really made elevated the performance. The Adagio was lyrical and elegant, thanks in no small part to the LPO's fine string section. Their precise ensemble and sophisticated tone allowed the music to sound far more mature than it actually is. And then in the Scherzo, Jurowski really went to town with the punchy rhythms and drama from every corner of the orchestra. Special mention should go to the trombone section, whose throaty tones and incisive accents brilliantly underpinned the tuttis here.
The First Symphony is never going to win a regular place in the repertoire, but as this evening's performance demonstrated, it is far more than just a curiosity. And given that its performances are so few and far between, we should be thankful that this one was to such a high standard.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Mahler: The New Beethoven?

There seems to have been a glut of Beethoven symphonies in London over this last couple of weeks, what with the Gewandhaus cycle and then the John Eliot Gardiner concert on Wednesday. But didn't there used to be Beethoven concerts at level of regularity all the time?
I've a theory: Mahler is the new Beethoven. So period instrument orchestras come along in the 1980s, challenging the symphony orchestras' hegemony over Beethoven. By the late 90s, it has become deeply unfashionable, in London at least, to perform Beethoven on anything apart from supposedly 'authentic' instruments. So what do the big orchestras do? They find another Beethoven, but one who lived a hundred years later, giving them a head start of a couple of years before the period bands catch up.
If you've got an orchestra of 80-90, in makes sense to base your repertoire around a composer who actually wrote for those sorts of forces. One who will keep the percussion section busy and show off the volume the brass section are capable of.
It started with Mahler 2, which is definitely the Beethoven 9 of today. Since the 80s it has been the piece to open concert halls and to celebrate orchestras' anniversaries. It has therefore taken over many, although perhaps not all, of the Ninth's many functions. And Mahler 4 is the new Beethoven 6 – the cheery one. Mahler 5 the Eroica, the one that gets played for its slow movement. Mahler 6 the new Beethoven 5, fate and tragedy two sides of the same coin. And Mahler 7 is the new Beethoven 8, the strange one between two uncontested masterpieces that gets wheeled out now and then for curiosity’s sake.
In a way, it's bad luck for Shostakovich. He too wrote effective large-scale substitutes for the Beethoven symphonies. He was fulfilling that role very well until everything became Mahler about five years ago. None of these composers is seriously under-represented in the schedules these days, but lets hope that when the double Mahler anniversary is over we can get a bit more balance among these symphonic masters.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Gardiner conducts Beethoven QEH

Beethoven: Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 9.11.11 (Gdn)
Beethoven: Egmont Overture
Beethoven: Symphony No.4
Beethoven: Symphony No.7

The glorious, frenetic sounds of Chailly's Beethoven last week still rang in our ears as we entered the Queen Elizabeth Hall, anticipating a very different take on the same music. Gardiner was well aware of the coincidence, and in his usual freindly chat with the audience, assured us that the two of them aren't as different as we might have thought. His argument was that the lively, dancing textures that Chailly now draws from the Gewandhaus are only possible because of the influence of the period performance movement on mainstream orchestras. The 'two spheres' of orchestral playing, he concluded had converged, with all aesthetic dogmas overcome.
Had that speech preceded a performance of business-as-usual period Beethoven it would have seemed staggeringly arrogant, with Gardiner taking personal credit for a wholesale revision of Beethoven performance. But it was clear from these two symphonies that he also draws influence from modern instrument performance practice for his period instrument readings.
He's not the first to try to bridge the gap from the period instrument side, but he might just be the most successful. The OAE have tried it, but their approach is to hire conductors from mainstream orchestras, Zinman from Zurich and Jurowski from the LPO, in the hope that they can make the excitement and drama rub off on the period ensemble. That rarely works, because these instruments need specialist leadership. They need a conductor who knows about the particular tuning and balance problems they face.
Gardiner, of course, is just that man, and he has come up with a variety of strategies to make his Beethoven as muscular and as dramatic as (almost) anybody's. A small string section playing without vibrato is never going to manage the same quantity of sound as a symphony orchestra. But by getting them to use every millimetre of the bow, they can certainly compete. The accuracy of their intonation also helps beef up the sound. And by taking the quiet dynamics down almost to silence, the contrasts can be emphasised in just the same way as in Chailly's readings. The Italian maestro has been taking things very fast with his Beethoven symphonies recently, and Gardiner doesn't go any faster. So they are closely matched in tempo and in the precision of their orchestras.
The main difference comes in the phrasing and the note lengths. Gardiner is much stricter about both. He won't let any notes linger beyond their notated length, even at the ends of movements. And his phrases are always tightly structured, and sometimes feel clipped. That makes the fast tempos seem all the faster. It doesn't make the performance any more pedantic, but it certainly locates the symphonies squarely in the Classical rather than the Romantic era.
The concert got off to a shaky start with the Egmont Overture. It had all the darkness and drama you could want, but the orchestra struggled with a number of balance problems. The bottom end of the strings were almost inaudible when they took up the melody, and there were some very strange sounds coming from the trumpets and the front row of woodwinds.
Thankfully, all these problems (with the possible exception of the trumpets) were resolved by the time the Fourth Symphony began. Gardiner's gentlemanly demeanour was no obstacle to some real passion here. And the orchestra have obviously rehearsed the two symphonies hard, perhaps to the detriment of the overture.
Special mention should go to the horns, who are kept busy in both symphonies, and who make sure you could not mistake this for a modern instrument orchestra. There were some lovely fruity notes from them, and from the bassoons too. The fragile, plaintive sound of the clarinets was also a delight. And the early 19th century oboes, clearly distinct in their sound even from the baroque instruments we now associate with Bach, also served to specify the era of this music.
The ensemble of the string section was excellent. It meant that Gardiner could ramp up both the tempo and the volume to bring a real sense of drama to the two finales. The last movement of the Seventh was particularly energised. He set out (attacca from the scherzo) at quite a lick, and didn't let the pace drop once until the final chord. It was quite a ride, and I couldn't help thinking that he'd had beaten Chailly at his own game.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Eschenbach conducts LPO in Brahms and Bruckner RFH 2 November 2011

Brahms, Bruckner: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.11.11 (Gdn)
Brahms: Double Concerto
Bruckner: Symphony No.7

Nicola Benedetti isn't usually associated with the weighty German repertoire, but it suits her style. Her tone, this evening at least, was quite woody and at times nasal too. But it projected well and had all the gravitas that Brahms requires. Her passage work isn't flawless, but those tiny slips and inaccuracies have the effect of humanising the performance rather than detracting from Brahms' plan.
And precision did come into play in the interactions between the two soloists. They are well matched, and Leonard Elschenbroich has a similar woody tone and the same approach to vibrato – expansive in the fortissimos, mostly reserved elsewhere. The skilful interplay of the two soloists demonstrates just how intricate and accomplished Brahms' writing is here. It isn't easy balancing two solo instruments of such differing size and projection (few others have tried). And when you add in the huge orchestra it seems like a recipe for poor balance and stodgy, impenetrable textures. Respect to Brahms then, and respect to Benedetti, Elschenbroich and Eschenbach too, for keeping the work clear and buoyant throughout. It is a dark piece of course, and the sombre tone was duly acknowledged in every aspect of this performance. But the elegance and grace of the playing, particularly from the soloists, prevented it from ever collapsing under its own pretentions.
Given his patchy track record with Mahler, sceptical audience members could be forgiven for fearing the worst from his Bruckner 7 in the second half. I would have been in that camp myself if it hadn't been for his recording of Bruckner's 6th with the LPO that was released last year. That is a truly revelatory recording, and probably the best Bruckner I've every heard from a British orchestra. The 7th this evening was in the same league. With both performances, Eschenbach has shown himself to be a conductor who really understands where Bruckner is coming from. The architecture always comes first, and when a tutti climax, or even just a punch chord from the brass, is structurally significant, he always makes sure it is properly anticipated and presented with appropriate gravity.
Much of this 7th was taken very slowly, especially the first movement. That is a dangerous strategy, as there is always the risk that the long phrases will lose their coherency or that the often fragile tonal relationships will lose their sense of logic. Eschenbach's approach appears to be to walk the tightrope and trust the orchestra to stay with him to keep the whole thing together. It works magnificently, especially as the tempos, slow as they are, are always elastic, Eschenbach always allowing the phrases to breath. The slow tempi have the unexpected advantage of clarifying many of Bruckner's usually obscured contrapuntal textures. He needs the strings to be able to sustain the purity of their sound and to concentrate on the logic of those long phrases, and in every case they do him proud. Elsewhere in the orchestra, the timpanist Simon Carrington was on good form. He's somebody else who has to thing on the broadest possible scale with the long buildups and tempo changes. Excellent trumpets and trombones, who Eschenbach clearly instructed to play outside of their comfort zone at the climaxes. The only disappointment was the Wagner tuba section, who struggled to maintain their balance and tuning. That was a surprise, as London orchestras, including the LPO. usually seem to be able to field an impeccable Wagner tuba section.
It is good to hear that Eschenbach's Bruckner 6 recording with the LPO was not a fluke. He is clearly a Brucknerian to be reckoned with. This is one of a series of Bruckner symphonies that the LPO are performing under different conductors in the coming months. If the rest are up to this standard we are in for a real treat.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Chailly Gewandhaus Beethoven Barbican 1 November 2011

  Matthews, Beethoven: Gewandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 1.11.11 (Gdn)
Colin Matthews: Grand Barcarolle
Beethoven: Symphony no.8
Beethoven: Symphony no.3

Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra are one of the great musical collaborations of our time. That's hardly a contentious view, but working out exactly why their chemistry works is surprisingly tricky. There is definitely an element of contrast in the relationship between his passionate Italian approach and the orchestra's Germanic discipline. Chailly clearly exploits the virtuosity of the instrumentalists for his own interpretive ends. But there is obviously a deep mutual respect here, and a shared passion for the core Austro-German repertoire.
Chailly's interpretations are always radical, or at least unconventional. Perhaps the collaboration with the orchestra seems so close because the audience are continually being surprised by the interpretive decisions, while the players are always in on his ideas. And while Chailly likes to do things differently, he rarely takes the music to extremes. These performances were characterised by continuous intensity, and there were surprisingly few pianissimos or moments of respite of any sort. Sometimes that can feel excessive, especially when each movement is presented as a self-sufficient dramatic entity. But we hadn't come for background music, and Chailly ensured that every phrase was taken seriously, clearly articulated and allowed to sink in.
The orchestra's playing really is something special. There is a deep beauty to their every note, but it's not a ravishing beauty, rather an angular Teutonic beauty. The strings have astonishing unity of ensemble. They are able to play with that rich, chocolatey sound you only get in Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna. But they are also able to turn that off, switching instead to a big, strident tone or a more focussed, nasal sound. Among the woodwinds, the bassoons excelled in the 8th symphony, while the oboe soloist was star of the 3rd. All the players bar the strings are playing instruments that you hardly ever meet on this side of Europe, so their distinctive timbre is at least partly a product of their technology.
Grand Barcarolle by Colin Matthews is one of a series of works commissioned by Chailly to accompany the orchestra's Beethoven cycle. On one level, the commissioning project seems hopelessly outdated: composers expected to justify their presence on orchestral programmes by presenting creative responses to the core repertoire in the second half. That sort of postmodernism has been going on at least since Berio and Schnittke in the 1970s, and there really isn't much more to say. Colin Matthews' response to Beethoven is, by his own admission, closer to Mahler. And it doesn't even sound like a postmodern response to Mahler, it just sounds like Mahler. But it fitted well into this programme, because Chailly's Beethoven is, in many ways, deeply Mahlerian. Had Matthews' work preceded anybody else's Beethoven it wouldn't have worked at all. But here it fit beautifully. And given the ability of this orchestra to imbue late Romantic textures with depths of colour and emotion, it would seem a waste to write anything else for them.
In London, long the capital of period performance orchestral playing, Chailly's Beethoven seems almost reactionary. It is as if he is reclaiming Beethoven's scores from the period instrument brigade. It probably doesn't seem that way in Leipzig, but even mainstream London orchestras tend to pay some kind of lip service to the period performance conventions: reducing the string sections, using natural trumpets, minimal vibrato etc. Chailly makes a big thing of his loyalty to the what he finds in the score, particularly the dynamics, articulations and metronome marks. But the result seems more loyal to the spirit of the music than to the letter.
In the 8th Symphony it works a treat. He makes no excuses for the curious structure of the work and whips up a storm in every movement. When the first two movements each stop abruptly without warning or explanation, Chailly is happy to place the blame squarely at the composer's feet. And for the rest of the time he enjoys the moment. The first movement is a propulsive and dance-like as that of the 7th, while the finale has the gravitas and power of the 5th's conclusion. The 8th worked better than the 3rd, and the many interpretive problems that the 8th presents seem to inspire Chailly's interpretive ideas, with more exciting and more convincing results.
But the 3rd was great too. Those punch chords at the very opening were clean and decisive, and there were plenty of other places in the first movement when ideas like that could appear out of the texture, a surprise each time, even when you know they are coming. Chailly doesn't let the music just play itself, and his tempo interventions can be sudden and counter-intuitive. But they always fit into the logic of his interpretation, and needless to say they never take the orchestra by surprise. The funeral march was astonishingly intense, this is where the solo oboe came into his own. The scherzo suffered slightly from the intensity of the two movements that preceded it: a higher level of energy and intensity were required of it, and it only just managed. And the finale was great. It occasionally approached a Brucknerian intensity towards the end. That's the real advantage of this sort of modern instrument approach, that intensity at the climaxes. But you need an orchestra who can maintain the ensemble and tonal control, even at the end of an intense concert. Not a problem, of course, for the Gewandhaus.
The great thing about the Chailly/Gewandhaus partnership is that the standard of their musicmaking transcends any problems you might have about interpretive issues. Chailly does take liberties sometimes. Using the two sticks of the timpani together in the second movement of the Eroica for example. Is that in the score? I'm sure it's not. And the many abrupt tempo changes that, on the face of it, work against the logic of the music. But these musicians create their own logic. It's emotional and intense and its just as good as Beethoven's.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Markus Stenz, London Philharmonic, Lawrence Power: Mozart, Turnage, Strauss, RFH, 19 October 2011

Mozart: Symphony No.41
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Viola Concerto "On Opened Ground"
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra
Lawrence Power (viola), Markus Stenz (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, 19 October 2011

Markus Stenz must be one of the most versatile conductors on the international circuit. His visits to London are all too rare, but concert-goers in the capital are most likely to remember him for his stint as Principal Conductor of the London Sinfonietta in the mid 90s. He then left for foreign shores, making a name for himself in Australia at the helm of the Melbourne Symphony. Then came a few years of opera, at the top European houses. And now he conducts the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne, perhaps the ideal job for him, as it encompasses music from all periods, and also makes him the de facto conductor of the Cologne Opera, where the Gürzenich Orchestra are the house band.
All of which is great news for the Rhinelanders, but less so for London audiences, who have heard little from Stenz in the last decade, the period in which he has clearly come to an impressive artistic maturity. The programme for this evening's concert demonstrates that versatility remains the hallmark of his work, and the sheer quality of the results left us in no doubt that he has become a major talent in the years since he last made regular appearances here. The three pieces: Mozart, Turnage and Strauss, were all presented at the sort of standard you would expect of specialists in the Classical, Modern and Romantic repertoires respectively. But Stenz can do it all, and in each piece brings out the very best of this orchestra.
It is a joy to watch Stenz conduct Mozart. He doesn't use a baton here and only rarely gives a beat. Instead, he dances round the podium, energising the music and enthusing to the players his sense of the lightness and grace of the music. The results were magic. This Jupiter was wholly devoid of pedantry or Classical mannerism. It was nimble and elegant, always on the move, and with the weight of each chord and texture ideally balanced. Concentrating on the grace rather than the drama meant that the second movement became the heart of the work, and this is where it all came together. But the finale was good too – none of the excessive drama or histrionics that modern instrument performances can produce. Stenz made this last movement float along, but with a precise rhythmic structure that acknowledged the symphonic status of this, Mozart's final symphonic conclusion.
I'm a late convert to Mark-Anthony Turnage. All my previous experiences of his music had been of accomplished orchestral writing being frustratingly drowned out by a drum kit or over-amplified electric guitar. But Anna Nichole changed my mind, demonstrating (to me at least) that the diverse popular styles that he references can work in a classical context and not just get in the way. So it was welcome this evening to have a chance to re-visit one of his early scores, the viola concerto "On Opened Ground" from 2000/1. This is a more refined work than most of the pieces for which Turnage is famous. The popular idioms take a back seat, and instead he writes a work that sits comfortably into the English tradition. It owes a lot to Walton's Viola Concerto, but there is more to it than that. Walton on acid perhaps. A large orchestra is used, but sensitively and imaginatively. I was particularly impressed that Turnage's orchestration could stand up to comparison with the Mozart that preceded it. Lawrence Power is the ideal interpreter for this work. It was actually written for Yuri Bashmet, who I suspect would gave it a more guttural reading. But Turnage expects the viola to sing, and that is just what Power is good at. There is plenty of energy in his sound, and enough bass in the lower strings that you know he is not playing a violin. But he revels in the bluesy melodic lines that Turnage spins for the soloist, and sails above the orchestra, large as it is, without a problem. And the crass jazz interjections? Well, at one point the snare drum starts playing off-beats with brushes. Then, just as my heart was sinking, the piece ended. What a tease!
Also sprach Zarathustra is an excellent orchestral show-piece, but only if you have an excellent orchestra. Fortunately then, the LPO were on fine form, and delivered a performance that was as good as any in recent memory. Markus Stenz re-appeared after the interval a different man. Now conducting with a baton, giving a clear beat and driving the music. All of which is, of course, exactly what this score requires. The results were passionate and turbulent. The orchestra here was just magnificent; every section has a moment in the spotlight and each made the most of it. Special mentions should go to the flute and bassoon soloists, and the horn, trumpet and trombone sections. To take just one of many examples, those pianissimo chords from the trombones at the end. They need to be exactly in time and very carefully tuned, but they rarely are. In this performance they were exactly right, and with ideal tone colour and balance too. A perfect end to an excellent concert.

This concert was broadcast live and can be heard online until 26 October at: 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leif Ove Andsnes, Jiří Bělohlávek, Barbican, 12 October 11

Rachmaninov, Bruckner: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 12.10.11 (Gdn)
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no.3
Bruckner: Symphony no.4

An inauspicious start, I'm afraid, to the BBC SO's winter season. The two works on the programme make an interesting coupling, similar in scale and both relying on their memorable opening phrases for their identity and continuing popularity. But neither was ideal for this evening's performers, and given the top quality performances of both that are regularly offered to London audiences, the deficiencies were glaring.
Leif Ove Andsnes has apparently just recorded Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto for the second time. He certainly has all the notes in is grasp, and the sheer control that he exerts on this virtuoso work marks him out as one of the great piano technicians of our time. But this evening the piece just didn't add up. The piano was regularly subsumed by the orchestra. It was difficult to tell exactly why this was. Among concert soloists, pianists are usually the first to complain about the dead acoustic of the Barbican Hall. But earlier this year I was here was for a Mozart concerto played by Mitsuko Uchida, one of the gentlest pianists on the circuit, and she managed to project her solo lines with no problems at all. Andsnes has not played the Barbican as often as she has, so perhaps he needs a little more time to accustom himself to the hall's acoustical deficiencies.
A more serious problem though, at least for me, was his dry, matter-of-fact approach to this, perhaps the most ebullient of Romantic piano concertos. His pedalling was on the stingy side, and while there was rubato in his phrasing, it felt unnatural and forced, as if he was only moving from his chosen tempos under duress.
The audience loved it though, and I shared their admiration for the sheer technical accomplishment of the performance. Perhaps this is a modern way of playing Rachmaninov, shorn of the excesses of previous generations. Andsnes certainly looked up-to-the-minute, with his sharp suit and slick haircut. But if this is what today's Rachmaninov sounds like, then I'm for the old-fashioned kind, and I suspect many others are too.
I had hoped that coming to Bělohlávek's Bruckner 4 this evening would compensate for having missed Abbado's Bruckner 5 last night, which by all accounts was as good as his VPO recording of the work: easily one of the finest Bruckner interpretations on disc. Sadly, it was not to be. Neither Bělohlávek nor the BBC SO are known for their Bruckner interpretations. There is no reason why Bruckner should be a specialist area, but his music does need to fit into an established, or at least long-standing tradition of performance. Tonight's performance of the 4th Symphony failed on many levels, although I'm bound to distinguish my subjective opinions on Bělohlávek's reading, which others may disagree with, from my more objective observations on the orchestral playing, which was shaky by anybody's standards.
Bělohlávek did at least present a coherent and thought-out reading of the work. He emphasises the flow of the music over atmosphere in the quiet passages or grandeur in the louder ones. That allows him to demonstrate the classical order of the music, the legacy of Haydn and Schubert that other conductors often miss. But atmosphere and grandeur are important too, and the solemnity of the music, especially in the first movement, is all to easily trivialised through fast tempos, cursory rubato and unsympathetic phrasing.
All this may have worked out if it wasn't for the ensemble problems in the orchestra. To their credit, every section played with an elegant tone (mostly), and met the stylistic demands the conductor made of them. But the ensemble in every section was problematic. The strings had numerous tuning issues. The woodwind struggled to play together and never reached any agreement on dynamics. Worst of all was the brass. A split in the second phrase of the horn solo at the opening was an omen of things to come. The horns and trumpets are regularly required to play in unison or hockets, and there wasn't a single instance where that actually worked. Bělohlávek obviously wanted them to turn it up to 11 for the development and coda climaxes of the first movement, but every time they overblew and the sound deteriorated.
Under-rehearsal may have been the problem. The difference between the opening of the scherzo and the Da Capo reprise was astonishing. It was as if the orchestra was sight reading the first time round, but performing it for real the second. In fact, this reprise in the Scherzo marked a change of fortunes for the performance as a whole, and the finale that followed was easily the best part of the concert. Given his understanding of Czech folk music, at least as it appears in orchestral music, it was surprising that Bělohlávek couldn't get the rustic feel of the Andante movement to work out. But similar passages in the finale were much better. The louder passages also benefited from better brass playing, although it still wasn't perfect.
On balance, it is probably just as well that I wasn't at the Festival Hall last night for Abbado's Bruckner 5; the comparison between that and this would probably have been too galling even to contemplate. However, I was at the Barbican in June for Haitink's Bruckner 4 with the LSO. That performance set the bar about as high as it will go. This one wasn't even close.
Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Manson Ensemble play Boulez

Boulez: Manson Ensemble, Rozenn Le Trionnaire and Elaine Ruby (clarinets), Susanna Malkki (conductor), QEH, London, 30.09.11 (Gdn)
Domaines (version for solo clarinet)
Domaines (version for clarinet and orchestra)
Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna

Does Pierre Boulez still matter? Can his avant-garde ideas be sustained without taking on the canonic status that would surely doom them? The Southbank Centre clearly thinks so, and they have very sensibly let the music speak for itself. The weekend dedicated to Boulez' music, of which this concert was the opening event, offers a retrospective of the great man's work. And while the pieces performed this evening are certainly old (everything was at least 30 years old) every note of it sounded as fresh and relevant as the day it was written.
But the progress of time does have a tangible role on Boulez' music, not least through his tendency (obsession?) for revising his works and presenting them in ever-new forms. The first half of the concert demonstrated this aspect of his artistic persona through two different versions of the same work – Domaines.
In fact, the differences outweighed the similarities, which if nothing else showed that, for Boulez, revision is just as much a creative act as composition. Domaines was originally written for solo clarinet, but later expanded into a version for clarinet and orchestra. There is some leeway in both versions for performers to chose the order in which sections are played, but even so, there was little sense here that like was being compared with like.
Two different student clarinettists, Rozenn Le Trionnaire and Elaine Ruby, performed the two versions of the works. Given the differences between the two versions, it would be uncharitable to compare their performances. Nevertheless, here goes: Elaine Ruby, who performed the orchestral version has the greater tone control, in fact a more elegant sound all round. But Rozenn Le Trionnaire gave the solo version more drama and more immediacy. Unlike her successor, she didn't quite hit every note with the ideal focus, but the combination of rawness and control that she brought to the work meant that she was able to transfix the audience, and without any need for orchestral backup.
Susanne Malkki has plenty of experience leading performances of Boulez' music. She is the principal conductor of Boulez' own orchestra, Ensemble Intercontemporain (who are playing over the weekend) and has presumably worked closely with the composer over the years. Her conducting technique certainly bears witness to a close association. Like Boulez, she conducts without a baton, giving small but clear gestures to the players without any theatrics. That's just what this music needs, and the young players from the Royal Academy of Music responded well.
This is demanding music for any ensemble, so to present it with student performers is a risky strategy to say the least. But on the whole it paid off. The Manson Ensemble clearly isn't in the same league as the ensembles who will follow them over the weekend, but they are close enough. Synchronisation can occasionally be a problem. Both of the orchestral works have moves from unsynchronised ensemble to rhythmic unisons. Once or twice the results were ragged, but on whole the performances were very impressive.
The second half was devoted to one of Boulez' greatest works, Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna. Like the orchestral version of Domaines, Ritual calls for a large ensemble physically divided into groups. Each of these groups is led by a percussionist, who maintains their speed while the separate groups move out of synchronisation. On paper, it sounds like an absolute nightmare for the players, but again the sheer concentration and professionalism of the young ensemble saw the performance through. Special mention should go to the percussionists for keeping the work together, usually while having to play a range of unusual instruments: tabla, slit drums and the like.
I hope the players enjoyed performing Boulez' music. For all the lip-service paid to it, we don't hear it often enough in London. This concert was very enjoyable, and a great way to start what promises to be a landmark festival. If it wins the music some advocates among younger generations of performers too, that can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

LPO, Jurowski, RFH 21 September 2011

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: A Night on the Bare Mountain (vers. orig.)
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: In the village (Quasi fantasia) orch. Zimmermann
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: On the southern shore of the Crimea orch. Zimmermann
Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Stille und Umkehr (sketches for orchestra)
Alexander Raskatov: A white night's dream (Homage to Mussorgsky) for orchestra (World premiere)
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky: Songs and dances of death orch. Raskatov (UK premiere)

A cloud hangs over the London Philharmonic as they open their winter season. On 30 August, four players from the orchestra signed a letter to The Independent calling for a boycott of a Prom by the Israel Philharmonic, citing Israel’s use of the ensemble as a propaganda tool to divert attention from human rights abuses. Each indicated after their name that they were members of the LPO. That was enough to get them suspended for nine months. The orchestra's argument, a tenuous one to say the least, was that they had implied that their views were the views of the orchestra, simply by stating that they played for it. A nine month suspension is an unprecedented sanction in modern British orchestral history, and an over-reaction by any reasonable standards.
Protests against the LPO's decision have since erupted all over the classical music community and beyond. The management's reaction to the protests, sadly, has been silence. Many, myself included, had hoped that the start of the winter season would be a chance for the management to draw a line under the issue. Had they made an announcement today that they were going to reinstate the players with immediate effect, and with a full apology, then the season of concerts that they are about to embark on would not have been affected. Instead they have chosen to do nothing and to offer no further explanations beyond Tim Walker's (Chief Exec of the LPO) infamous and now much derided statement that 'music and politics don't mix'. In fact, given that the organisation is now widely seen as opposed to freedom of expression as a result of the affair, it is ironic that their only public action in the past week has been to close down the LPO facebook page, where a vigorous debate had been taking place about the suspensions. The policy appears to be to ignore the whole business and hope it goes away. It's not going to – both the Times and the Guardian recently ran articles supporting the musicians, and the public anger at the orchestra's intransigent position is growing by the day.
I wonder what the players think of the affair? In theory, they own the orchestra, and the managers run it on their behalf. So (in theory) the suspensions could only have happened with their consent, and they have the power to reverse the decision. They've all been told not to talk to the press, so the intricacies of this remain speculation. What I can say is that there wasn't a smile from anybody on the stage this evening. In fact this was the most miserable looking orchestra I have ever seen in my life. It wasn't the cheeriest of programmes of course, but even so.
And I wonder what Alexander Raskatov, this evening’s featured composer, makes of the management's stance. Given their obvious contempt for freedom of expression, it was disingenuous of the orchestra to include these lines about him in the programme: "Born and trained in Moscow during the years when the state was anxious to keep its composers in a straitjacket of orthodoxy, Raskatov has fully exploited the freedom that came with the fall of the USSR." That's the kind of dark irony you need to be Russian to fully appreciate. No statements as yet from him though about the situation, nor from Jurowski, another Russian who spent just about enough time in the Soviet Union to appreciate the value of freedom of speech.
The sheer normality of this evening's concert was its most galling feature. But then normal for the LPO is most other orchestra's idea of a step into the unknown. A concert dedicated to the morbid side of Mussorgsky's personality, while it seems to have chimed with the musicians' mood, is a very strange way to open a concert season.
The first work, A Night on Bare Mountain, was presented in its original version. It is good to hear that once in a while, but again, as the first work in a concert season? The logic, I think, is that it better prepares Raskatov's new work in the second half. Raskatov has clearly learnt much from Mussorgsky, and one common trait (or is it a bad habit) is their shared disinterest in logical structure. In a sense, Jurowski seemed to be justifying Raskatov's formal indulgences by demonstrating that Mussorgsky had done it before.
The rest of the programme was made up of a Zimmerman work and a Zimmerman Mussorgsky orchestration, followed by a Raskatov work and a Raskatov Mussorgsky orchestration. Zimmerman too seemed like canon-fodder, providing us with some conservative Mussorgsky orchestrations and a modest composition (not his best) in order to show off how much better Raskatov is at both these activities.
Anybody who heard Raskatov's opera "A Dog's Heart" at ENO last year will be wondering which direction his reputation in the UK will take. The opera was interesting, but the music was completely upstaged by the puppetry and theatrical design. The work presented tonight "A White Night's Dream" shares many of the virtues and many of the faults of the opera. Raskatov shows himself to be a master of orchestration in both. He also has a fabulously fluid sense of pace, one minute giving us long, flowing phrases, the next stopping everything short with a percussion crash every few seconds. The main problem with Raskatov's music, at least on the basis of these two works, is the suspicion that it lacks any substance, that it is all just sound effects. "A White Night's Dream" allayed those concerns a little, but it is clearly of apiece with the opera.
You couldn't mistake Raskatov's orchestration of "The Songs and Dances of Death" for Shostakovich's if you tried. Shostakovich, to my knowledge, doesn't use a drum kit, or electric guitars, or a gong suspended in a bucket of water...Some of these effects get in the way, but on the whole Raskatov makes reserved use of his huge orchestra. Baritone Sergei Leiferkus intones the songs in a way that only a Russian could. His lower register is fabulous, although his upper register and some of his quieter passages lack tonal control. And while Raskatov usually holds back for him, there are a good few places where the sheer quantity of the orchestration defeats him.
There have been many calls over the past week to boycott LPO events, and the calls are likely to increase over the coming days. For myself, I decided a better move this evening was to come to the concert and then make my views on the players' suspensions known in this review.
Was the concert itself worth scabbing for? Only just.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

In Defence of the LPO Four

 The visit by the Israel Philharmonic to the Proms has raised passions, and sadly not just through the emotional power of their performance. The event itself was disrupted by protesters (were they the same protesters as at the Wigmore for the Jerusalem Quartet? Could a blacklist keep them out?) but was also preceded by a letter to The Independent newspaper calling for the cancellation of the concert as a form of "Cultural Boycott". Now four members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who were signatories to the letter, have been suspended from duties for nine months as a direct result.
Once again the world of classical music comes up against the political repercussions of its activities. As ever, those in charge appear to be in complete denial about the fact that what they do has any political dimension at all. Roger Wright, director of the Proms, refused to cancel the event on the grounds that the invitation was "purely musical", while Timothy Walker, chief executive of the LPO, concluded his statement on the suspensions by saying "music and politics do not mix".
The tragedy is that the actions of both men are defensible, but a meaningful defence would involve the acknowledgement that there is a political dimension to their activities. Nobody denies that when the West East Divan Orchestra comes to the Proms, or even the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, a strong and well-received political statement is being made.
But to get to the specifics of this case, the call for a boycott of the Israel Philharmonic is part of a wider Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Considering the anti-Zionist feeling in many parts of the world, the aims of this project seem dangerously vague. When specific arguments are expressed, they tend to concentrate on the links between cultural institutions and the Israeli military, and those links tend to be either tenuous or subtly concealed, depending on your point of view. Otherwise, the whole campaign seems aimed at the destruction of Israel. One undoubted political connotation to a tour by a national orchestra is that it supports that nation's right to existence and international recognition. And only Israel's most implacable enemies are going to complain about that.
Even so, the call for a boycott is well within the bounds of acceptable political debate in this country, so the fact that it has supporters in the classical music community should not come as too much of a shock. The LPO's complaint is that the four players, cellist Sue Sutherley and violinists Tom Eisner, Nancy Elan and Sarah Streatfeild, each stated their membership of the orchestra next to their signature on the letter. This, it was felt, gave the impression that their views were those of the orchestra. It is fair to say that the orchestra does have a case here, but not a watertight one. It is a commonly accepted convention that when a signatory to a published letter states an affiliation, they are speaking for their institution. But it is by no means universally held to be the case, and I suspect that legal responsibilities of libel would not transfer to the institution in question if that were the problem.
The issue of broader representation goes both ways. The implicit suggestion by the four players that they represent the views of their orchestra is no stronger than the implication by the BBC that they endorse Israel's policies through the invitation to the Proms of the country’s leading orchestra. The efforts by the LPO management to distance themselves from the views of these players has clearly been an over-reaction. They are obviously trying to appease somebody. It would be indiscreet to speculate as to who and why.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

John Cage Night QEH 13 September 2011

Radio Music for Eight Performers
Child of a Tree for solo percussion
Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Fontana Mix
String Quartet in Four Parts
Music for Eight 0'00"
(Photo: Rex Rystedt)
Six months in a Buddhist monastery is the kind of preparation you really need for an all-Cage concert. You must move beyond your desires, the desire for order, for structure, for logic...As you listen, the music infuses these Zen values in your mind, but if you've just come from work it really is in at the deep end.
That's where 4'33" comes in. It is a much-abused work, and I can't say I was looking forward to experiencing it again, that protracted, embarrassed silence were everybody tries to act grown up and not laugh. But this performance wasn't like that at all. The audience, who filled the QEH to capacity (how did Southbank Centre manage that?) were obviously in exactly the right mood for a John Cage experience. The piano version was performed, by Philip Thomas, who articulated the movement divisions but didn't go as far as to close the lid at the start of each. Instead he held his hands to the keyboard and concentrated intensely on them for the duration of each movement. It was the ideal start to the show, and the buzz in the audience afterwards was electric.
John Cage would probably hate me for writing this, but his music can be divided into two broad groups. There are the conceptual works, where some new idea really makes the piece stand out. And then there are those pieces, which are usually written for an indeterminate but large number of performers, and go on for about 20 minutes. You know from the start that there is going to be no development or progression here, and that the way it starts is pretty much the way it is going to continue until it stops. Cage wrote a lot of these, so it is fair that they make regular appearances in all-Cage programmes. This evening we got two, Concert for Piano and Orchestra (over the Fontana Mix) in the first half, and Music for Eight in the second. Perhaps I just wasn't in the zone, but neither did anything much for me.
But the rest of the programme made up for it. Radio Music for Eight Performers is a classic music theatre/happening conception. The performers each have a radio, which they move around through various MW frequencies, determined of course by the I Ching. The concrete structure of the QEH meant that they didn't actually find many stations, despite our being in the centre of London, but the interaction of interference noises made for excellent 'sound music'. A group of visual artists were invited to perform the work, and the fact that few of them seemed comfortable performing on the stage or taking applause added a valuable layer of surrealism to the proceedings.
Child of a Tree involves a table covered in plants, some living, some dead, and a percussionist charged with making sounds from them. I'd heard it before, played by Richard Benjafield, who did his best to create a musical performance, moving swiftly from one plant to the next and linking together, at least with his body language, each of the activities. This evening's performance, by Simon Limbrick was much more laid back and, it seemed to me, more in keeping with the exploratory nature of the piece. Each sound was heard in isolation, inviting the audience to savour it without worrying too much about the context or relevance.
String Quartet in Four Parts is a wonderful work. It is written in the kind of non-repetitive minimalism that would later find its fullest expression in the music of Morton Feldman. And as in Feldman, everything here is quiet, the notes are often presented in isolation, and everything has a sense of being very, very important. The performance had plenty of atmosphere, but there were problems with the details. This was the only work of the evening where synchronisation mattered, and it wasn't always quite right. Also, the restricted number of pitches means that intonation must be absolutely spot on, and when it's not it really stands out. In fairness, the problems were minimal, but obvious nonetheless.
In all though, the concert was a success, and the huge audience were certainly stimulated by the various musical and philosophical ideas they were presented. The event was the first in Southbank Centre's International Chamber Music Season 11/12, and if nothing else that demonstrates an admirable open-mindedness about what constitutes chamber music. It also ties in with an exhibition of Cage's paintings at the Hayward Gallery. That finishes at the end of the week (18th), so do go and see it if you get the 'chance'.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Tobacco Advertising and Classical Music

I'm always surprised when I find a full page advertisement for a tobacco company in a programme for a classical concert. It's just not the sort of thing that you find in popular culture any more. Legal restrictions these days mean that tobacco companies are denied visibility in most public forums. Plenty of people still smoke though, so presumably the companies have significant advertising budgets, which gets funnelled into the few remaining media outlets left open to them.
It should be said the sponsorship of classical music tends to be in promotion of the corporate identity of the tobacco company rather than its products. Also, there is only one tobacco company, to my knowledge at least, who sponsor classical music in the UK – British American Tobacco. They always take out a full page in the Glyndebourne programme though, and I'd imagine that doesn’t come cheap.
So what are we to make of this state of affairs? Should audiences protest on the grounds that these companies are evil? To be honest, I'd be more inclined to protest on those grounds against the Daily Mail ad that also makes an annual appearance in the Glyndebourne programme. And it could be worse, the Australian Chamber Orchestra accepts sponsorship from the BNP, although on closer investigation this turns out to be the name of an Australian investment bank, with no obvious connections to the British far right.
It seems churlish to deny classical music organisations this presumably lucrative funding source on admittedly tenuous ethical grounds. That's especially true of Glyndebourne, whose continued ability to balance the books in the absence of state subsidy is a minor miracle. What concerns me more is the fact that classical audiences are considered mature enough not to need Government protection from the evils of tobacco advertising. The implication is that there isn't a single person in the audience under the age of 16, or whatever the legal age for buying tobacco is these days. No doubt the BAT money is welcome in an orchestra's finance section, but it must feel like an admission of failure in the education department.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Alina Ibragimova, Quay Brothers, Wilton's Music Hall, 26 July 2011

Berio: Sequenza VIII
Bach: Ciaccona from Partita No.2
Bartok: Sonata for Solo Violin

There aren't many venues like Wilton's Music Hall. It claims to be the oldest music hall in the world, and it is certainly showing its age. The place has been under slow, slow renovation for decades, but has managed to make a virtue out of its continuing dilapidated state. Fashionably deteriorated Victoriana is big in some East End circles, so it is unsurprising that it has a cult following. You don't see many classical concerts on the events listings though, and there are a couple of good reasons for that. The acoustic itself isn't bad. It is a small auditorium, too small to make most chamber music commercially viable. The high barrelled ceiling gives a warm but clean resonance. The biggest problem with the venue though is the Docklands Light Railway, which passes just a few meters from the hall, making the place rumble every few minutes as a train goes past.
But the moment Alina Ibragimova began playing all these concerns melted away. She really is an astonishing player. If you have heard any of her recordings, you won't need to take my word for that. She doesn't have a particularly round or powerful tone, but that's not what her playing is all about. Instead, she plays every phrase with immediacy and direct expression. She achieves an intimacy with the audience, as much in the loud passages as in the quiet ones, and as much in the Bartok and Berio as in the Bach. In this sense, the ambience of Wilton's is ideal for her art, and the chance to hear her playing from up close was very welcome indeed.
In his day, Berio was known as the friendly face of the avant garde. His music made no aesthetic compromises, yet somehow he always managed to get the audience on his side. That is a quality that he and Ibragimova share, and this rendition of Sequenza VIII was about the most welcoming and audience friendly of any Berio performance I've heard. It is clearly difficult music, and much of it rattles past at a terrifyingly fast pace. But Ibragimova was unfazed by its many technical demands, presenting the music in her trademark focussed tone, and with genuine feeling in every phrase.
The pivotal work in the programme was the Ciaccona from Bach's 2nd Partita. In fact, given the influence of this one movement on almost every solo violin work that was to follow it, you could argue that any solo violin recital revolves around the Ciaccona, whether it is on the programme or not. Its influence on Berio's work was clear, and Ibragimova played the two in a very similar spirit. The way she can evenly grade long crescendos, and then maintain the intensity of the climax, really sets her apart. It also means that she can easily structure the emotion and intensity of these long movements without losing any of her concentration on the details.
The collaboration with the Quay Brothers was restricted to the Bartok Sonata in the second half. Their film is relatively abstract, but revolves around the events of the Sonata's composition. Bartok, in exile in America and slowly dying of leukaemia, struggles to concentrate on the composition, while memories from his earlier life come flooding back. It is actually quite a modest offering, and the brothers are careful not to upstage the soloist. In truth, they couldn't upstage her if they tried. The video they produce is serviceable, but as in the first half it was the violin playing that really made this multimedia performance excel. Again, Ibragimova was able to find the humanity in the score, and to communicate directly through every phrase. The film worked on similar lines, although was perhaps a little less direct, providing visual support from a small pallete of ideas to complement the more varied and more complex musical offering.
The synchronisation of music and film was very impressive, and try as I might, I couldn't work out how they did it. Each of the four movements had an associated film, which began and ended at exactly the same time, and which often cut between shots in synch with the phrases. Ibragimova watched the screen throughout (she only needed the dots for the Berio), so presumably she played an active role in the synchronisation.
A quirky gig in a quirky venue then, but one that worked mainly because of the traditional musical virtues of the performer. Wilton's got a helping hand from its big brother up the road, the Barbican, in terms of organising and publicising this event. It is on for three consecutive nights, and it looks like it will get a full house each time. If you are reading this on Wednesday 27th, you've still got a chance to catch the last night this evening. If not, don't worry – Ibragimova is a regular guest at the Wigmore, and she sounds just as good without the gimmicks.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Chaushian and Sudbin: Wigmore Hall 21-7-2011

Borodin: Sonata for cello and piano in B minor
Prokofiev: Cello Sonata in C Op.119
Schnittke: Cello Sonata No.1
Rachmaninov: Vocalise
Alexander Chaushian - cello
Evgeny Sudbin - piano
Alexander Chaushian and Evgeny Sudbin work well together on the recital stage, but it is difficult to work out exactly why. There is often a tension between them that suggests two soloists trying to hog the limelight. But there are certain musical qualities they share. A focus on melody and line links there styles, and they are both able to maximise the expressive potential of the music while always keeping a close eye on the detail of the music.
An all Russian programme would seem to be ideal for them, but strangely, neither performer puts in a particularly Russian performance. Sudbin in particular moves beyond the stereotypes of Russian pianism by going easy on the keys and performing with a light cantabile legato whenever the music permits. Even so, he spends more time in front of orchestras than he does accompanying string soloists, and there were many occasions when he threatened to overpower the cello just through the sheer volume of his accompaniment. His thick legato is part of the problem; it means that the piano is always sounding, a continuous bed of harmony that the cello must overcome simply to be heard at all. Lifting the lid of the piano to its highest position did help matters either.
Nor indeed did Chaushian's narrow, introverted sound. He actually has a very appealing tone, and if it wasn't for the volume of his companion, he would have no trouble filling the generous acoustic of the Wigmore Hall. He can do the weighty, round sounds when he needs to, especially on the lower strings, but in general he prefers a more modest and more nasal tone. That constricted timbre makes his playing all the more melodic, focussing attention on the individual notes of the solo line.
Borodin's Cello Sonata is an early work, written when the composer was in his 20s. It is distinctively Borodin though, and wholly undeserving of its neglect. There are passages and phrases throughout the work that you'll recognise from his mature compositions. For example, many phrases build up to a climax, then ebb back with long descending sequences. And there is a theme in the first movement that sounds almost exactly like the second subject of his Second Symphony's first movement. Borodin never completed the sonata, and the third movement was left as sketches, which were pulled together into a performing version by musicologist Michel Goldstein in 1982. He did a good job, and the finale in is the most tightly structured movement of the work. The performance was about the best of the recital too. It was focussed and precise but elegant and characterful. If it wasn't for the work's obscurity it would be a great way to conclude the concert.
I've never quite understood the attraction of the Prokofiev Op.119 Cello Sonata. It is a long and rambling piece, and even the young Borodin could write a cello sonata with more formal logic. Many performers, I suspect, go out of there way to paper over the cracks. But not Chaushian and Sudbin, their approach is to present the work warts and all. perhaps devotees will thank them for it, but for me they ended up confirming my dim view of the piece.
I didn't think much of the Schnittke either. Now this is a piece that I am fond of, but I've heard far better performances than this one. Again, Chaushian and Sudbin went for a precise and controlled approach, with far more attention on the detail than the architecture. Chaushian didn't take up the composer's offer of liberation in the senza tempo sections at the beginning, playing everything to a precise beat. The second movement had more gymnastics, but didn't build up as it should. True enough, the movement looks episodic on paper, with the piano and cello alternating phrases. But it is a cumulative process, with each phrase building on the last, right up to the devastating climax, which this evening passed almost without notice.
The last movement was better. Here the composer writes a long post-climactic epilogue, which fits well with the precise and occasionally melancholic approach of these performers. The last page was a mess though. Like the climax to the second movement, this is one of the many passages in Schnittke's work were he relies on the sheer theatricality of the performers. If you just play the notes, as they did this evening, the ending just sounds arbitrary.
Fortunately then, the recital concluded with Rachmaninov's Vocalise, a work that really does play to the strengths of these performers. By avoiding the excesses of rubato (not to mention vibrato) that many players and singers indulge themselves, they bring out the inner beauty of this simple melody. And Rachmaninov's knows what he is doing with his piano accompaniment, giving Sudbin plenty of notes, but voicing the chords in such a way that there is no chance of him overpowering.
The Rachmaninov was almost like an encore, but it was followed by an actual encore, another short but melodically elegant work. The audience left debating about what it might have been. Something from the late 19th century probably, and probably from Russia too. My money is on Rimsky-Korsakov. Any advances?

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Proms and their Discontents

The 2011 Proms got off to a typically noisy start at the weekend, with both the Glagolitic Mass and the Gothic Symphony making appearances over the course of the first few days. Opinions, from critics and web-savvy punters alike, have been copious, and discussion of the various merits of these performances and works, especially the Brian, have been dominating the classical music corners of the social media.
To my mind, that is just as it should be. The relationship between the BBC and the Proms has pluses and minuses for the festival, but the one thing that the Corporation is really good at is publicity. Staging large and rare works is part of this of course, it means there is something substantial, unusual, and hopefully worthwhile to tweet and facebook about. But what sort of responses should the Beeb be eliciting? Bob Shingleton makes an interesting point on his blog today, that twitter responses to live performances are always broadly positive and usually quite facile. Or, in his own words: "as Tweets Law states, if you give one hundred chimpanzees instruments, put them on a concert platform and broadcast the result, 95% of Twitter users will give the performance a rave review. Which means classical music must beware of programming for the Twitter audience."
Of course, the programming we are talking about, and the online responses to it, are only those of the opening weekend. There can be little doubt that the best point in a festival to put on the attention-grabbing concerts is at the beginning. If the result is that a large army of tweeps continues its commentary to cover the less sensationalist programmes further down the line, that can only be a good thing.
Another discontented voice heralding the start of the Proms-bashing season is that of Damien Thompson in the Telegraph. He has been charged by the paper to put across their traditional anti-Beeb and anti-subsidy views in the form of an article questioning the amount of licence fee money that goes into the festival. The views expressed are not new, and in the face of the extravagance of the Proms' opening weekend, it is likely that Thompson's article is going to find some sympathy, at least with Telegraph readers.
Just one last discontent to mention, Jessica Duchen, who writes on her blog today about the tendency for the Proms to programme "white elephants", as is amply demonstrated by the choice of the Gothic Symphony. Her point, and it is a fair one, is that the Proms has a tradition of unearthing neglected large-scale works, which tend to have the effect of demonstrating exactly why nobody else had been performing them in the first place. It's good the Proms can take these risks, she concludes, but "You need to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince."
My own biggest gripe with the Proms is the fact that they take place in the acoustical catastrophe that is the Albert Hall. Last year, there were a number of calls in the weeks leading up to the start of the Proms for the BBC to consider moving the event to a hall were the audience can actually hear what is going on. The Festival Hall seems to be the main contender here, although that acoustic isn't ideal either. There have been no such calls this year, which is a shame, because something needs to be done, and fast.
On the other hand, the Proms has a distinctive identity because of a range of factors, which on their own would each seem to hinder rather than help the festival. The BBC will never move the Proms to the RFH, because the Albert Hall has a capacity for immense audiences, and part of the justification for spending so much on, say, the Gothic Symphony, or appearances by the world's greatest orchestras towards the end of the season, is the sheer number of people who can experience these events live. (I say "experience" rather than "hear" – there is no point in pretending that an audience member in the gods of the Albert Hall is going to hear the Vienna Phil, for example, in the same way as they would at the Musikverein.)
Putting on works like the Gothic Symphony, Mahler 8, the Glagolitic Mass etc. has to be a central plank of the Proms offering, because large-scale choral performances is the one thing that the Albert Hall is good for. These are works that you are definitely going to hear from the back of the hall, the tuttis anyway. Bob Shingleton is right that there is a risk of appealing to the lowest critical denominator by appealing to the twitter response. But large-scale works, performed in huge halls to huge audiences is all about collective appreciation. Even when programming a work as obscure as the Gothic Symphony, the goal is mass appeal. And even if, as Jessica Duchen notes, the result is a series of white elephants, even the discussion and responses that these performances elicit justifies them to some extent.
Which is where the BBC and their deep pockets come into the equation. Clearly, you can't put on a performance of anything on this kind of scale without significant subsidy. The two obvious alternatives are to only perform small-scale works or to scrap the whole thing. Given what the Albert Hall acoustic does to chamber ensembles, I'd be inclined to the latter option. That in itself doesn't justify the BBC's profligacy, nor provide a meaningful defence against Damian Thompson's criticisms. However, the abysmal acoustic of the Albert Hall may offer one good reason why the BBC is the ideal organiser for an event like the Proms. The Corporation's sound engineers do wonders to make the broadcast sound from the Proms sound good. I understand that digital reverb is used, and under the circumstances that seems a sensible option. In previous years, I have on many occasions been to the Proms, sat at the back and heard nothing, then gone home to listen to the broadcast on Radio 3 to find out what I missed.
For all the pomp and circumstance of the Proms as live events, they only really do the performers and the music justice when heard at home. From that point of view, those in the hall are basically a studio audience. They are missing out on the full musical experience, but they are giving each of the events the atmosphere it needs with their famous enthusiasm. But the biggest winners, from a musical point of view, are the radio listeners and TV viewers. So why shouldn't they contribute to the costs via the licence fee?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

See a concert or hear a concert?

A few months ago, I read an interesting piece by the trombone scholar Trevor Herbert about the influence of recordings on an audience's experience of live music. Looking back, he pinpoints a date, sometime in the mid-1980s I think, when his students stopped talking about "Going to hear a concert" and started referring instead to "Going to see a concert". Herbert infers from this change that his students are taking less in, musically speaking, from the live event, and that the ubiquity of recorded sound had had the effect of diminishing the live experience.
I'll happily confess to using the construction "Going to see a concert", but reading Professor Herbert's views, I'm starting to wonder exactly what I mean by it. Certainly, I avoid saying that I am going to "hear" a concert simply because it sounds pedantic. And perhaps I'm making a subconscious distinction between the event, the performers and the works. I wouldn't say that I am going to see a symphony, nor would I say that I'm going to hear an opera, although in the case of Wagner that could well describe the experience I often have in mind.
Of course the technology has changed since the 1980s, and if anything, the influence of recorded sound on the experience of live music has become even more profound and complex. I think that Herbert's students had some justification in saying that they saw a concert, because the visual dimension was the main thing that recorded sound did not reproduce. And seeing a concert does not imply you are listening less intently. On the contrary, the relationship between the visual and aural dimensions of a live performance are closely linked and mutually beneficial.
This is exactly where the technology is catching up fastest. Today, you can "see" a concert on DVD, in a cinema, even presented in 3D. If you go to a cinema for a presentation of a concert, what verb describes your reception of it? The notion of "seeing" in this context seems so predominant because of the novelty. If and when cinema streaming of concerts becomes a norm of concert life, will the grammar revert? I doubt it.