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.