Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Angela Hewitt, Festival Hall, 29.3.11

Bach: Partita No.1 in Bb BWV825
Beethoven: Fifteen Variations and a Fugue on an Original Theme in E flat Op.35 (Eroica)
Handel: Suite No.8 in F minor for keyboard HWV433
Brahms: 25 Variations and Fuge on a theme by G F Handel Op.24

Angela Hewitt's demeanour seems at odds with the scale of a Festival Hall solo recital. She modestly takes the stage but is greeted with a rock star welcome, and her graceful relationship with the piano keyboard seems more appropriate to the drawing room than the concert hall. She is a professional, of course, so she is more than capable of living up to the star billing. She is also able to project right tot the back of the hall, while giving everybody present the feeling she is playing just for them.
The programme was well chosen to play to her strengths, particularly that combination she achieves of simplicity of style combined with depth of emotion. That comes across best in the fast contrapuntal music that looks mechanical on paper but which she can mould through infinitely subtle dynamic gradation. The Gigue from the Bach 1st Partita is a case in point, as is the finale of the Eroica Variations and just about everything in the Handel 8th Suite. The programme does two of the composers – Beethoven and Brahms – fewer favours, and they both have far better works to their names, although something tells me their reputations are unlikely to suffer.
For listeners like myself who automatically associate the Bach Partitas with the almost neurotic interpretations of Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt is a breath of fresh air. For Hewitt, the elegance of the music's surface is just as important as what lies beneath. That's not to say that there is no depth here, but rather that she doesn't need to introduce any angst into this music to give it its full emotional impact. Given the clarity of line that typifies her Bach, her playing style is often surprisingly legato. She often gives the impression that her brain is half a beat or so ahead of her hands by making it seem like she is rushing scale or sequence passages. It's all an illusion though; everything is exactly on the beat.
The artistic integrity of Hewitt's approach is demonstrated by the fact that nobody every questions her ambivalence to historical performance practice issues. Her Bach and Handel interpretations rely heavily on long hairpins, which in music written for the harpsichord is absurd. There is plenty of pedalling here too. And then in the Beethoven and Brahms, we are presented with dainty and elegant performances of music by composer/pianists who were anything but. None of this matters, of course, in fact, it only goes to strengthen her Bach. It is an unwritten rule that as a pianist you have to mould Bach's music into your own image, so the more liberties Hewitt takes the stronger her readings become.
Even so, her style is all about subtlety. In the Brahms and the Beethoven, you often get the feeling that the composers are relying on simple oppositions of dynamic or tempo between successive variations to articulate the form. But Hewitt won't let then off that lightly, and insists on continuity across longer spans. This allows her to build up to fairly dramatic climaxes, or wind down to wonderfully tranquil interludes, yet without resorting to extreme dynamics at either end of the spectrum.
She and her Fazioli piano make a great pairing. Where did the RFH get that piano ? I'm sure they usually have a Steinway. Perhaps she brought it with her. It's not as strident as the Steinway though, and it responds beautifully to her touch. Up till tonight, I'd only been familiar with Hewitt's work through recordings, but it is a real delight to watch her fingers literally dancing across the keys. And that playful touch, combined with the roundness of the piano's tone, adds up to a sound that both Beethoven and Brahms would probably have related to, a sound reminiscent of the more intimate voicings of Viennese pianos of the mid 19th century.
Great as Hewitt's Bach undoubtedly is, the real revelation of this recital for me was the Handel 8th Suite. Handel's Italian counterpoint is even more closely matched to Hewitt's style than Bach's more Gothic constructions. In the Handel, each of the melodic lines always has a light, melodic feel, and Hewitt is able to make each of them sing, even with three or four voices going on at once. This too is music that a pianist must mould in their own style, and as with the Bach, Hewitt uses every trick in the book: pedalling, gradual dynamic shifts, lingering cadential cadences. But it is done with such subtlety and taste that it is difficult to find fault.
A wonderful concert and a life affirming experience. Angela Hewitt is justly famous for her impressive catalogue of recordings, but live she is even better still.
Gavin Dixon

Friday, 25 March 2011

BRSO Uchida Jansons Beethoven Strauss

Beethoven, Strauss: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 25.3.11 (Gdn)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor Op.37
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben Op.40

With the possible exception of their colleagues in Cologne, the BRSO are the only radio orchestra in the world who can guarantee to fill a concert hall when they tour. Being a radio orchestra, every step of their history is available for public scrutiny through their copious recordings. But even by their high standards, their recent track record is extraordinary. Mariss Jansons is a conductor who now only works with the world's finest orchestras, but he is somehow able to raise even the highest standards. He is at home in the German orchestral system; the Bavarians give him plenty of rehearsal time but expect world class results. And they get them, time and time again.
But all this is a matter of public record, and UK audiences can find it out for themselves by purchasing any of the BRSO recordings that have recently been released on their own BR Klassik. label. Does hearing them in the flesh live up to the expectations those exceptional recordings create? The answer is a resounding yes. This is a seriously good orchestra, and Jansons is a conductor who will only tackle a work if he has a real vision for how he can make something special with it.
The high standard of the performance was helped by the choice of soloist, Mitsuko Uchida is a rare commodity on the London concert stage, so every appearance is to be savoured. On the face of it, Beethoven's Third Concerto would seem like an unusual choice for her. It's music associated with heavy-handed masculine performers, heroically battling against the forces of the orchestra. But Uchida demonstrates that it needn't be like that. She brings subtly and refinement to every phrase. Her playing has a wonderful coherence, with the melodic line creating a stream of consciousness, with the audience hanging on her every note. That allows her to bring out salient details without them interrupting the flow of the music, curious offbeat accents for example, or exchanges between the hands, where brief motifs at the top of the keyboard are mirrored at the bottom. She also has an amazing ability to take everything down to the quietest imaginable dynamics while still retaining the music's symphonic breadth. It wasn't a perfect performance by any means, there was a glaring wrong note towards the end of the slow movement, and she has a tendency to loose the last half octave or so of runs on the way up to thematic statements. But these are trivial details, and the performance as a whole was a revelation, achieving that mythical status in with the Classical repertoire or a performance that allows you to feel that you've never heard the music before.
By contrast, however well you play Ein Heldenleben it is always going to feel like it has baggage. It is a shame that Jansons chose this work for the orchestra's London visit, as its flabby structure is hardly the vehicle to demonstrate his mastery of large-scale form. Still, at least he didn't bring a Mahler symphony. But for all my reservations about the work, the performance itself was exemplary. The orchestra had already shown what they could do in the Beethoven, with some seriously tight ensemble and a sensitivity to stylistic concerns that brought them about as close as you can get to period performance on modern instruments. The Strauss benefited from all sorts of wonderful attributes that these players could bring. The string section doesn't quite have that chocolaty lushness of the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics, but their unity of ensemble is almost as good. The woodwind have some really distinctive colours, and the communication between Jansons and his woodwind soloists is something that conductors of London orchestras can only dream of. The low brass are powerful yet controlled, some nice calf-skin sounds from the timpani, and the quality of the horn section is out of this world.
Jansons took a fairly measured approach to the gargantuan score. He treated each of its six sections as if they were individual symphonic movements, each with its own character, tempo and internal logic. He had plenty of fireworks up his sleeve for the battle scene and the other tutti sections. But it was the quieter passages that made this performance really special, the places were he could show off the colours of his woodwinds, or where the communication within the orchestra could be demonstrated though, for example, the interplay of violins and tenor and bass tuba.
Those recent recordings don't lie, this is a world-class orchestra at the very top of their game. London audiences can't really complain about the quantity and standard of what they are presented on a regular basis, but even so, it would be nice to hear this ensemble more often than we do.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Messiaen Bruckner LSO Rattle 7 March 2011

Messiaen, Bruckner: London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 7.3.1
Messiaen: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D minor
London audiences got a Brucey bonus this evening from Sir Simon Rattle. Having spent the last two weeks here on a residency with the Berlin Philharmonic, he stayed on for a one-off appearance with the LSO. And much as Rattle has moulded the Berlin ensemble to his own artistic aims over the last eleven years, so the Philharmonic has left its mark on him. His efforts to drag the ensemble into the 20th century (let alone the 21st) usually involve programming something fairly modern with one of the three Bs. So it was this evening with a first half of acerbic Messiaen tempered by some more digestible Bruckner after the interval.
Rattle is a big fan of Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum; I've heard him conduct it at least once before in London, and possibly even twice. I can't say I share his taste, but the logic behind programming it for this concert is reasonable enough. It is a work that shows off the skills of the LSO's famous woodwind, brass and percussion sections. It is also a good primer for Bruckner 9, sharing as they do a great deal of spiritual and theological (although not aesthetic) common ground. It was given an impressive reading this evening. Despite first appearances, the work is not devoid of sentiment and grace, and in the quieter passages, the woodwind solos in particular, Rattle sculpts the music and creates moments of real beauty. He is also conscious of the work's ritualistic dimension, and in many of the more dour movements he stood before the players, solemnly articulating the beat as if he were officiating at some divine observance.
If I've one complaint, and it is quite a prosaic one, it is that it was just too damned loud. The huge percussion section includes three tam tams, and while Messiaen no doubt encourages the maximum possible volume here, in the small space of the Barbican Hall, it's just too much.
I was hoping for a revelation with Rattle's Bruckner, as I've never been to a performance of a Bruckner symphony with a British conductor that was any good. Perhaps Rattle found himself up against similar prejudices when he first went to Berlin, and listening to this, I could well imagine him standing there all those years ago in front of the Philharmonic and realising that he would have to make his mark. I have my reservations about the interpretation he gave us this evening, but it was certainly distinctive, and there were a number of details where he was clearly making sure his presence was felt. In the first two movements, for example, he added accelerandos to the gradual crescendos in the build ups to climaxes. The result was that the climaxes where often very fast; exciting but hardly monumental. In the first movement, Rattle prioritises melodic continuity over architectural structuring. So there are no pauses between the phrases, but the phrases themselves, especially in the strings, are all elegantly shaped.
The orchestra played well, but not as well as they do for Gergiev. There were some surprising technical problems in the first few minutes. In the build up to the first climax, the wind got ahead of the strings by about half a beat, not something you'd expect from this orchestra. The brass playing was a mixed bag, and the trumpets in particular struggled to maintain the elegance of their tone at the louder dynamics. This could have been something to do with the fact that Philip Cobb, their young star player, was relegated to bumper. It was easy to share his frustration (which he did well to hide) as he sat there in silence listening to the less than impressive sounds coming from his more senior colleagues.
But as with the Messiaen, there were some surprising moments of intimacy in the Bruckner. Some of the quieter passages in the development of the first movement were brought down to a whisper, and the elegance of the string sound served Rattle's purposes well. That was also the saving grace of the Adagio, that feeling in the quieter passages that all the ritual and bombast had been left behind and the that the simple string or woodwind melodies could simply sing out without having to express the weight of their structural significance.
For all his communication with the orchestra, which was obviously intense and immediate, Rattle made sure that he remained the focus of this Bruckner. His interventions in the tempos deprived the work of some of its monumentality, but the pay-off, such as it was, was in the freshness and vitality he brought to some of the individual quieter passages.
Or perhaps I'm being too harsh. I think it is fair to say that, as a general rule, any live performance of Bruckner, like any live performance of Wagner, is destined to fall short of the ideal model you have of the work in your head – unless of course it is conducted by Bernard Haitink. Fortunately, then, the LSO has had the good sense to book Haitink for a performance of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony next month, and the Seventh in June. This evening wasn't bad, but those concerts promise Bruckner interpretation of a completely different order.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Dialogues des Carmelites GSMD

Dialogues des Carmélites: Students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Clive Timms (conductor), Silk Street Theatre, GSMD, London, 3.3.11

Marquis de la Force: Koji Terada
Le Chevalier: Charlie Mellor
Blanche: Anna Patalong
Thierry and Deuxième Commissaire: Matthew Wright
Madame de Croissy: Cátia Moreso
Mère Marie de l'Incarnation: Sylvie Bedouelle
Monsieur Javelinot and Le geôlier: Matthew Staff
Madame Lidoine: Sky Ingram
L'Aumônier: Alberto Sousa
Soeur Mathilde: Roisín Walsh
Premier Commissaire: Alexandros Tsilogiannis
Mère Jeanne: Sioned Gwen Davis

Conductor: Clive Timms
Director: Stephen Barlow
Designer: David Farley
Lighting Designer: Declan Randall
Video Designer: Chris Jackson

The final scene of this production of the Carmélites is astonishing. I'll confess that I've only just come out of the performance, but the effect is overwhelming. It is very easy to mess up the execution scene, especially in a low budget production like this, and to assume that the music will do all the work. Well, there is none of that here, they gauge it just right. Without giving too much of the ending away, the guillotine is actually on the stage, which to my mind brings valuable immediacy to the conclusion (I'm in favour of the plastic baby in Jenůfa too) and the sisters are picked off one by one with spotlight beams.
That final scene is the saving grace of this production, and the other staging decisions add up to about an equal number of hits and misses. The work lends itself to student performance; dramatically it punches above its weight, and Poulenc prided himself on the singability of all the roles. Most of the scenes are set in a convent, and there is no point in trying to sex that up too much when you're on a tight budget.
The stage design here centres on a small, square piece of raked staging that can rotate to change the audience's perspective on the action. That works well enough, but it is framed by large baffles in the shape of shards of glass around a broken window (broken, of course by the revolutionaries). These move in an out as the action demands. Perhaps the idea is to create a sense of claustrophobia as they encroach. But they wobble and are quite noisy when they move. Worst of all, they make the convent look like the batcave, an impression the nuns' habits do little to dispel.
All of the major roles are taken by postgraduate students, and all are equal to the task, although only a few excel. The first act poses two casting problems for a young company; the Marquis (Blanche's father) and Madame de Croissy, the old prioress. Both Koji Terada and Cátia Moreso do their best to seem convincing in these senior roles, but both lack credibility. They both also struggle with some of the lower notes and with the occasional long phrases.
This isn't really an opera to stage if you have a strong male cast, so either the Guildhall is doing better for female singers these days or they've got a production of something like Billy Budd lined up for next season. Of the gentlemen, only Charlie Mellor as Le Chevalier (Blanche's brother) seemed underused. He has a fine tenor voice and a real stage presence. The character is quite wet really, but Mellor is able to create the necessary empathy make the part matter.
The nuns all have distinctive voices, which is just as well, as Poulenc does very little musically to distinguish them. Sylvie Bedouelle as Mère Marie has a decisive and focussed tone, not a pretty sound as such, but ideal for the part. Sophie Junker is destined for great things. She sings the role of Soeur Constance beautifully, with compassion and immediacy. I wonder, though, if she would be better off on the recital stage. Her musicality does not fit so easily with the dramatic pretence and I often wished she could just stand and sing to us.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Anna Patalong as Blanche. She has an astonishingly mature and sophisticated voice. It has richness and timbral complexity that puts all of her colleagues in the shade. She was as close to note perfect as any opera house could require. And she can really act. Remember the name.
Clive Timms conducted with the firm hand that this sort of performance requires, but maintained a sense of chanson flexibility throughout. The playing from the orchestra was a mixed affair. There were some serious ensemble problems in the first act, but most of the orchestra settled into it by the second. The only exception was the brass, who had a very bad night. Surely a major London music college can field a brass section that's better than this. Poulenc keeps them busy, true enough, but that's no excuse for the many splits and the unrepentant sins against intonation that not even the mother superior herself could find it in her heart to absolve.
But on the whole this was a great evening of opera. For those who tire of going to the same old venues to hear the same old singers, I'd heartily recommend a visit to the odd music college production to find out what the stars of tomorrow are up to. Not everything you will meet will be up to the highest standards the London stage has to offer, but some of these singers are clearly destined for great things. And if ever you see an opera billing that includes the name Anna Patalong, make sure you get a ticket.
Gavin Dixon

LSO Brunello Gergiev Shostakovich Mahler

Shostakovich, Mahler: Mario Brunello (cello), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 2.3.11 (GDn)

Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No.2

Mahler: Symphony No.9

Whichever way you look at it, Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto is a tough work. It is a long and involved, and most of it is in that inscrutable and attenuated style that typifies his last symphonies. It is a product of the Brezhniev era, and many Russians will tell you that to that to make any sense of the art of those times you have to have been there. I wasn't (thank God), which may explain why listening to the work felt more like a spectator sport than an involving musical experience.

That said, everybody involved in this performance went out of their way to foster empathy between the audience and the music. It was written for Rostropovich, whose name is repeatedly checked in the programme and whose playing is continuously evoked by the playing of soloist Mario Brunello. Like Rostropovich, Brunello is the kind of cellist who can evoke every possible sort of mood and colour from his instrument, and who can instantly establish a rapport with his audience by making everything look easy. It turns out that Brunello consulted Rostropovich at length about this work, and one the most interesting results was the suggestion of a narrative programme based on Gogol's story The Overcoat. Brunello outlines this idea in an essay in the programme, and to be honest he pushes his luck with the level of detail in the analogy. It is a useful handle though, especially given the work's length and wayward form.

Brunello put in a fine performance. It wasn't note perfect, and the first movement in particular suffered from a number of intonation slips. But the spirit of Slava shone through in the combination of graceful lyricism and decisive intonation. For Shostakovich sceptics (myself included), the saving grace of many of the composer's scores are the moments of levity where his self-awareness transforms the dark mood into sardonic irony. There are precious few of those in this score, but when they come, Brunello is sure to make the most of them.

The LSO where on top form throughout the evening, especially the woodwind, who had few moments of respite in either work. Shostakovich often expects loud and decisive gestures from them, and despite the seemingly impossible high dynamics, they retained their composure throughout. Some excellent percussion playing too. This work uses what must be among the largest percussion sections for any concerto, with many passages scored for just the soloist with percussion accompaniment. Or is it rather the soloist under siege from percussion attack? Whichever way, the sounds from the back of the stage where always clear and decisive, yet always precisely controlled.

Listening to late Mahler in the proximity of late Shostakovich illuminates the work of both composers, especially with Gergiev at the helm. Other conductors may emphasise the continuity in Mahler's Ninth Symphony, but Gergiev instead emphasises the uniqueness of each gesture and the various structural oddities that make this work unlike anything else the composer ever wrote. And like Shostakovich in his later years, the ailing Mahler takes the musical vocabulary of his earlier work but rearranges it into a completely new syntax where nothing quite adds up the way it used to.

Gergiev again takes the woodwind section to their limits here, cranking up the dynamics in their various solos and ensembles so that many of their entries seem to come out of nowhere to change the course of the music. In these times of Mahler saturation, it is reassuring to know that Gergiev can always do something new with these well-known scores. You don't expect any pussy-footing around the issue from him, you expect clear, decisive interpretations and plenty of energy. That's exactly what we got here, and as ever, the clear focussed sound of the LSO served his purposes magnificently.

Predictably perhaps, the inner movements benefited most from Gergiev's approach. His incessant driving tempos and dynamic extremes really accentuated the scherzo character of both, and there were many moments of divine inspiration. The opening of the second movement, for example, exploded on the scene with that thundering yet controlled power that is the trademark of Gergiev and his LSO forces. And just as importantly, they managed to maintain the concentration throughout the movement. The coda of the third movement was another Gergiev classic. Where other conductors (and very possibly the score itself) aim for a gradual build-up to the earth shattering cadence, Gergiev reaches that maximum intensity about two minutes before then maintains it right up to the last chord. Excessive perhaps, but utterly convincing.

Microphones were placed around the orchestra for the concert, and in the absence of any Radio 3 or Classic FM logos in the programme, I'm assuming that the Mahler performance is scheduled for inclusion in the LSO Live cycle of Mahler recordings that has been on the go for the last few years. The sheer visceral energy of this performance is going to make it the ideal Ninth for that cycle, and the lightning bolt that they will no-doubt put on the cover has never been so appropriate. However, the outer movements may prove controversial in the long run, because Gergiev ramps up the power there too. That isn't necessarily a problem as most of the music can take it. To see the symphony as two scherzos surrounded by two slow movements diminishes the paradoxical complexity of those outer movements. There is plenty of energy and power in both, and Gergiev makes sure we get every volt of it. I wasn't convinced by the very opening, which lacked the mystery and ambiance that other conductors can find there, but otherwise the approach worked very well. Thankfully, Gergiev had the good sense to pull back for the coda of the last movement, demonstrating that he can do the quiet and the atmospheric just as well when he wants to. Up till then, the evening had been dominated by the woodwind and brass, but in these last few minutes, the strings came into their own with some beautifully controlled pianissimo playing. A magical conclusion, but also a reminder of the delicacy that this orchestra is capable of, but which Gergiev rarely gives them the chance to demonstrate.