Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Wolfgang Rihm at 60, London Sinfonietta, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 24 January 2012

Rihm: Ricercare – music in memoriam Luigi Nono
Rebecca Saunders: Quartet
Jorg Widmann: Dubairische Tanze
Rihm: Nach-Schrift
Rihm: Will Sound More Again

Wolfgang Rihm has packed a lot into his first 60 years. Both the quantity and the consistent quality of his music mark him out as one of today's greatest living composers. He certainly deserves the international tributes that will be marking his birthday year. He's not much of a traveller though, and it is rare for him to leave his native Karlseruhe, which may explain why he didn't join us this evening.
The concert was a bit of a mixed bag. The sheer scale of Rihm's output makes it difficult to frame any single concert as a survey. But the London Sinfonietta have done a good job over the years to introduce British audiences to his latest works. This evening's programme was in the same spirit, with four UK premieres from the man himself and two pieces from his most distinguished pupils, Rebecca Saunders and Jorg Widmann.
The Ricercare with which the concert opened is one of four pieces Rihm wrote in the wake of the death of Luigi Nono. At first appearances, the two composers would seem to share very little, but Rihm obviously thinks otherwise. This piece, for a bass-heavy ensemble including bass clarinet, contrabassoon and contrabass trombone, inhabits an aesthetic somewhere between those of the two composers. It takes the abrupt, impulsive gestures that Nono used to punctuate his serial textures, but tones them done to the more civilised level at which Rihm works. It progresses by fits and starts, often with silences between the gestures, more a Nono trait that one we might associate with Rihm. It's not his greatest work by any means, but it was certainly interesting to hear the composer in a more reflective mood than pervades his more famous scores.
Rebecca Saunders deserves far more exposure in her native country than she has so far received. She may have brought this relative neglect on herself though by adopting a thoroughly German aesthetic, one which fits very comfortably into a portrait concert for her former teacher. The title Quartet doesn't tell us much, apart perhaps to imply that relationships between four instruments are to be explored. She picks the unlikely combination of piano, double bass, accordion and bass clarinet. So, as in the first piece, the textures are decidedly bass-heavy. But Saunders has a trick up her sleeve – she understands the range of extended techniques that are available on the accordion (in this case a button bayan-type instrument), and she is able to continuously vary the textures through her imaginative writing for it. The combination of clarinet and accordion turns out to be productive, as does the combination of plucked bass and plucked piano strings. As the piece progresses, the piano becomes more civilised, settling into a repeated chord sequence, while the bass becomes more wayward, repeatedly detuning the strings to move closer and closer to unpitched noise. The piece went on five minutes longer than its material justified, but that's hardly unusual in new music.
A considerably less satisfying offering was made by Jorg Widmann, whose Dubairische Tanze was designed as a send up of the oom-pah music of his native Bavaria. So there was plenty of woodwind and brass melodies with over-the-top percussion, all made dissonant to make sure the audience was aware of the composer's self parody. It was awful, just awful. Embarrassingly unfunny and, unlike Saunders' score, which only overstayed its welcome by five minutes, this one seemed to go on for ever. Are the London Sinfonietta trying to sabotage Widmann's stratospheric international career? Or maybe they just want to demonstrate that all those stereotypes about the Germans and their sense of humour are actually true.
Looking round the hall at the interval, the audience was pretty meagre, especially considering the stature of the composer it was celebrating. One problem may have been overkill – the BBC SO put on a very good Rihm day a year or two ago at the Barbican, which may have satisfied the curiosity of most. And speaking of the Barbican, I hear that the Kronos Quartet were playing Black Angels there tonight, presumably swallowing up a considerable proportion of the new music audience. After 20 minutes of that Widmann score, I wished I'd gone to the Barbican myself.
Fortunately, the concert turned a corner in the second half. The last two works on the programme were both classic Rihm: pieces for chamber orchestra sized ensemble, each a part of one of his ongoing cycles, and each fabulously constructed. This is what the composer does best, works for medium sized ensemble, structured as a single movement, but otherwise inscrutable in terms of their internal form. Nach-Schrift was the best work on the programme by a wide margin. The piece is for ensemble and a pianist, who is described as a soloist although he really provides more of an obbligato over the top of the orchestral textures. And what fascinating textures they are! Ideas and harmonies constantly appear, some clearly new, some adapted from earlier music. But the sheer sense of life in this music, and its continuous invention, set it apart from the work of most composers writing today.
The performances this evening were all good, and the players managed to convey that sense of life and energy which is the composer's currency. Andrew Zolinsky was a proficient soloist/obbligatist in Nach-Schrift. Conductor Thierry Fischer is little known in the capital for his work with new music, but his clear, incisive baton technique is exactly what these scores need. There were a few small ensemble problems here and there, the two percussionists set at opposite sides of the stage in the first piece didn't always quite synch with the ensemble for instance, but in general the many technical challenges of these scores were well handled.
The last piece, Will Sound More Again, came as a surprise, as it showed us Rihm's rarely encountered lighter side. This too is a piece of small orchestra, which runs at a fairly continuous tempo for about 20 minutes. But there are all sorts of flourishes and light touches, from the bizarre saxophone duet at the beginning to the accordion being parodied by the percussion near the end. All of which goes to show, despite evidence to the contrary earlier on, that perhaps the Germans do have a sense of humour after all.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Endymion play Brahms at Kings Place 20 January 2012

Brahms: String Quintets 1&2, Clarinet Quintet

The clear, analytic acoustic at Kings Place ought to be ideal for unpicking the tightly-voiced counterpoint in Brahms' String Quintets. Sadly, this performance didn't have the precision or the detail to make the most of it. The First Quintet is in most need of help in this respect. All five instruments are playing virtually throughout, and Brahms often chooses textures where everything meets in the middle, with the violins in their lowest register and the cello playing high. Admittedly, it is difficult to know what to do with this music, but clarity of texture is clearly a virtue worth striving for, be it through varying the dynamics in the ensemble or exaggerating the phrasing.
But the biggest problem in this evening's performance was tuning. Every player was guilty of poor intonation moments at one point or another, but the main offender was the first violin. Perhaps she was just having a bad day and the tuning in the rest of the ensemble was suffering accordingly. Many of the first violin solos ran into trouble as they entered the upper register, and the first and second violins were often seriously out of tune with each other.
Balance was another issue, albeit a lesser one. The composer must share some blame for this, especially in his writing for the cello. Why does he only use one cello in this music when he has already learned from his Sextets that two cellos offer the ideal balance? Whatever the reason, he is clearly expecting the single cellist to do more work than any of her colleagues. That didn't happen, so the results were seriously viola-heavy.
The Second Quintet fared better. Compositionally, the work is more accomplished and thematically more interesting. More significantly though, it is also scored more imaginatively, with groups of players often dropping out to leave smaller ensembles. This led to marked improvements in both the intonation and the balance, and some of those crucial details at last started to shine through.
The Clarinet Quintet was better still, although problems still remained. Anthony Pay gave a surprisingly modest rendition of the clarinet part, often hiding the bell of his instrument between his knees, presumably to reduce the volume and brilliance of his tone. Most ensembles treat the work as a concertante setup, with the clarinet as soloist. But this evening the first violin remained the centre of attention, and the clarinet often blended frustratingly into the string textures. He too had tuning problems and spent much of the first movement fiddling with his mouthpiece to stop the instrument blowing sharp.
About half way through the second movement he finally achieved his aim, and the conclusion of the Clarinet Quintet was ultimately the most satisfying part of the concert. But the whole experience goes to show that the fine acoustic at Kings Place can be a mixed blessing. If the performance had taken place at, say the Purcell Room, the players would have gotten away with a lot more. But here every intonation problem was painfully obvious, and even with the best will in the world became very difficult to ignore.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Prokofiev LPO Jurowski Osborne Festival Hall 18 Jan 12

Prokofiev: Steven Osborne (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 18.1.12 (Gdn)
Prokofiev: Symphonic Song Op.57
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.5
Prokofiev: Symphony No.6 in E flat minor

Some are of the opinion that the neglected works of famous composers remain so for good reason. Vladimir Jurowski has other ideas. The programme he has drawn up for this short Prokofiev festival is astonishing for the fact that almost every work in the eight or so concerts dedicated to the composer is real rarity. But his logic is impeccable. Prokofiev lived an interesting life in interesting times, and the works of his that are famous often owe their prestige to the events that inspired them. But that leaves some big gaps in the biography, gaps that these lesser-known works help to address.
If Prokofiev's later works tend to be neglected, the main reason must surely be their air of Soviet propaganda. But then, many earlier works are unfairly neglected too, and the overt Modernism of Prokofiev's 1920s Paris period can be just as off-putting as his more politically suspect later offerings. The programme this evening demonstrated just how complicated the situation in fact is. The two works in the first half, the Symphonic Song Op.57 and the Fifth Piano Concerto, are both transitional. Both were written in the early 30s, before Prokofiev had returned to the Soviet Union for good. But he was already preparing to do so and was writing music that would hopefully ingratiate him with the Russian people and the Soviet authorities alike.
Symphonic Song is musically flawed but is well worth hearing for the stylistic transition that the composer is attempting to affect. He is moving away from the fashionable Parisian Modernism that had occupied him for the previous decade and trying to align himself instead with the recent 'developments' further East. But the Modernism, particularly in the form of harsh, brass-led dissonance, refuses to go away. That may be why the structure of the work is so confused – it is never quite sure what sort of narrative and what level of resolution it is aiming for.
Jurowski presented the piece warts and all, and made no concessions to its problematic orchestration and form. That was a shame; with a little more patience and understanding from the podium it could have worked much better. The orchestral tuttis tend to be quite muddy, but there is obviously some interesting chord voicing going on here. Some small adjustments to the balance might have made Prokofiev's intentions clearer. Similarly, the transitions between disparate sections cried out for a more theatrical approach, for the new tempos and textures to be announced rather than just begun. But a better piece of music, even a better piece from Prokofiev, would have done all this without interpretive help, so blame should be laid squarely at the door of the composer.
The Fifth Piano Concerto is another curiosity. It works better, perhaps because of Prokofiev's ability always to write interesting music when it is for the piano. Steven Osborne is a game soloist, and a brave one to take on this rarity. He has real flair for Prokofiev's fireworks, for the glissandos and the fast staccato passages where every chord is huge but momentary. Osborne, like Jurowski, presents the music clearly and energetically, and never imposes excessive sentiment. Balance between the piano and orchestra was a slight problem, with Prokofiev often writing heavier orchestral accompaniments than the solo line can justify. But Jurowski had obviously put a lot of thought into addressing the problem. The string section was reduced, and woodwind soloists disappeared into the texture as soon as they were finished. A louder pianist would have helped, but would a louder pianist have given us the poised, insightful interpretation we got from Steven Osborne?
The excellent programme note (by Simon Morrison) mentions that Prokofiev often structured his music around the narrative 'darkness-conflict-achievement', raising the intriguing possibility that Jurowski had organised the concert's programme around a similar sequence. Certainly, of the three works, the symphony in the second half constituted the 'achievement'. For those, like me, who struggle to see any value in the music of Prokofiev's later years, the Sixth Symphony is a wakeup call. The composer's mastery, both of orchestration and of large-scale symphonic form, is evident throughout. And the orchestra were on top form, with the brass and percussion putting in particularly visceral performances. Jurowski articulated the shape and drama of the work with efficiency and passion. It might have been nice if he had done something to make the final chords sound less melodramatic, but as he had already demonstrated in the first half, he isn't in the business of making excuses for Prokofiev's music.

Friday, 13 January 2012

OAE: The Glory of Venice, QEH 13 Jan 2012

The Glory of Venice: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Julia Doyle (soprano), Daniel Auchincloss (tenor), Robert Howarth (director), Queen Elizabeth Hall
Music by Giovanni Gabrieli, Giovani B. Fontana, Claudio Monteverdi and Marini.

These are exciting times for fans of Renaissance music. As the OAE players demonstrated this evening, many of the eras more recalcitrant instruments have finally been tamed. It is now possible, provided you are in the company of a world-class ensemble like this one, to hear instruments like the tenor cornett and the dulcian played in tune, in time, and perfectly balanced with the rest of the ensemble. A few decades ago this would have seemed an impossible aspiration, and these kinds of instruments would have been excluded if at all possible, simply for the mess they would otherwise make of the performance.
But just because they are being played well, that doesn't mean they have lost their exotic air. The tone of the cornett is course but penetrating. In this evening’s concert, it was often used to double the soprano voice (of Julia Doyle). They're like chalk and cheese really, but the timbres complement each. The dulcian on the other hand may be beyond redemption. The instrument is an ancestor of the bassoon and is, if anything, even more uncouth than its successor. But again, having the chance to hear it played accurately gave a rare opportunity to asses its musical merits, slim as they turned out to be.
The concert was a celebration of the work of Giovanni Gabrieli, the Venetian master of the generation preceding Monteverdi. Gabrieli's date of birth is not known, so marking the anniversaries of his date of death, which is certain, seems all the more appropriate. This year is the 400th anniversary, and the OAE got in quick with their celebration, the year not yet two weeks old.
The programme contextualised Gabrieli's music by presenting it alongside that of his contemporaries. Curiously, none of his contemporaries, at least not the ones heard here, wrote the sort of music he did. Almost all of the Gabrieli works were large, predominantly instrumental Canzonas, while the intervening works, from composers like Fontana, Grandi and Marini, were more modest, chamber sized affairs. Gabrieli was clearly at the end of a line in Venetian music, with the following generation moving decisively from Renaissance polyphony to a more declamatory Baroque style. This was demonstrated with a later work from Monteverdi, which sounded like it was centuries younger. A sonata for three violins by Gabrieli was included to show that he was aware of this trend, but I wasn't convinced that he had any plans to change his ways.
The ensemble was made up of two singers, two cornetts, one tenor cornett, six sackbutts (astonishingly five of whom were female) and dulcian, with theorbo and chamber organ continuo. It would be inaccurate to describe the singers as soloists; they seemed rather to have an equal status to the instrumentalists. I don't know what the conventions at St Mark's were at the time, but the result tonight was a very instrument-heavy mix. There were one or two solos for the singers, and both acquitted themselves well. Tenor Daniel Auchincloss is a name to look out for. His voice has an agility and sweetness you would associate with a good countertenor, but there is richness there too, and plenty of power at the bottom. Soprano Julia Doyle has the right voice for this early repertoire, and she is able to maintain musical interest even in the absence of vibrato or extreme dynamics. She struggles a little with the top notes though, and having the cornetts double her does little to help because they struggle up there as well.
The continuo group of theorbo and chamber organ was modest but audible. Some excellent theorbo playing here actually, and it is great to get a chance to appreciate an instrument that is all too often seen but not heard. Directing from the organ, Robert Howarth was a jack of all trades. He spent most of the concert playing the bass with his left hand while conducting with his right. But he also doubled as the theorbo player's page turner when required.
Of all the performers this evening, it was the sackbutt players that impressed me most. I had been sceptical of the idea of hearing Gabrieli in the QEH, where the acoustic is dead even by concert hall standards, let alone in comparison to St Mark's Basilica. But it turned out to be a blessing, especially from the point of view of the sackbutts. None of the players had to overblow to make themselves heard, and at moderate dynamics, the instrument has a very pleasing tone indeed. If I've one criticism, it would be that the ensemble was a little top heavy, and there would have been scope to hear more bass sackbutt. The penultimate piece, La Zorzi, was written for, or at least played by, two cornetts and one bass sackbutt, but even here the bass line was virtually inaudible. Better balance though in the final number, Gabrieli's Exultet iam angelica turba, a celebratory motet for which all the musicians were enlisted. The balance here was ideal, as was the instrumentation, which I'm sure was interpretive to a certain extent. Here again the two vocalists took ensemble roles, balancing the vocal timbres with the more exotic instrumental sounds. The result was euphonious and satisfyingly complex, a timely reminder of why Gabrieli's music continues to be celebrated and performed, even 400 years after his death.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Florestan Trio Wigmore Hall 11 Jan 2012

Beethoven: Florestan Trio, Wigmore Hall, London 11.1.12 (GDn)
Beethoven: Piano Trio Op.11
Beethoven: Piano Trio Op.1 no.2
Beethoven: Piano Trio Op.70 no.2

Like all the great chamber ensembles, the Florestan Trio have achieved their spectacular results through many years of close collaboration. These three farewell concerts mark the end of 16 years together, and every minute of that stretch has informed and enriched the playing we heard this evening.
The group are as well known for their recordings as their live performances, and hearing them live it is easy to tell why the microphones like their sound. Anthony Marwood's violin defines the ensemble's textures and timbres. His sound is quite brash, a metallic and penetrating timbre. It was clear from every phrase he played this evening why he is now prioritising his solo work over chamber music commitments. His is a sound than can project over any ensemble and which easily fills the Wigmore Hall. But that's not to say he lacks subtlety, or that there is ever any balance problem within the ensemble.
Cellist Richard Lester matches Marwood both in sound quality and projection. They both have a penetrating metal string tone, but that never sounds grating or inappropriate. Rather, they both use it to make their lines all the more emphatic and clearly articulated. In terms of the ensemble within the group, the relationship between the violin and the cello is the most remarkable. The two early works in the programme, Opp.11 and 1 no.2, often call for the violin and cello in octaves. That can be tricky to pull off, but the ensemble and intonation between them was beyond reproach.
Susan Tomes also has an assertive approach. The balance between the three players is ideal, and Tomes, for her part, keeps up with the violin and cello by putting in more attack than you might expect. The Wigmore Hall acoustic does all the rest. It transforms those heavy accents into big, round piano textures and blends it with the other instruments, without blurring any of the details.
The early period works in the first half showed off the group's skills more than the Op.70 no.2 after the interval. I love the way that the players take the young composer's straightforward textures and find all the beauty they are capable of expressing, yet without adding anything or over-interpreting. Although the string sound is often metallic, and rubato is kept to a minimum, the performance here never risked austerity. The reading was Classical rather than Romantic, especially in the four-square phrasing and the focus on the music's structure. But there was plenty of vibrato here too, and the players never skimp on the incremental tempo changes when they are written in the score.
The Op.70 no.2 Trio is a very different work. The three players are much more independent of each other and the variety of textures is all the greater. While the Florestans are clearly capable of handling any technical challenge Beethoven might throw at them, they seemed more comfortable with the homophonic textures of the earlier works than the polyphonic ones here. And if there was one failing of the performances this evening, it was a lack of mystery. True, Classical era music, even middle or late period Beethoven, shouldn't need too much psychological intrigue. But most of the quieter passages were excessively literal and emphatic. The quiet opening of the Op.70 no.2 Trio was perfunctory at best, simply fulfilling its structural function rather than introducing the psychological complexities of what is to follow. The end of the first movement is meant to sign off with a whimsical flourish, but again the reading was too literal for Beethoven's humour to come through.
Fortunately, the last two movements redeemed all. In the Trio section of the third movement the players finally found the sense of mystery that the opening of the work had lacked. And the performance of the finale was ideal. Again, there are quiet and atmospheric episodes here, but by splicing them into lively and more assertive music, Beethoven gives the players the platform they need to perform both with panache.
This was the second of three farewell concerts from the Florestan Trio at the Wigmore Hall. Programme-wise it was perhaps the least exciting, or rather the least saleable. It is testament then to the reputation that the ensemble has established over its 16 years together that their wasn't an empty seat. And whatever reservations I may have had, the usually reserved Wigmore audience gave the players a thundering ovation.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

LPO4 case goes to Employment Tribunal

The first legal challenge to the suspension of four players by the London Philharmonic has apparently been instigated by violinist Sarah Streatfeild.
Streatfeild, along with three of her colleagues, Tom Eisner, Nancy Elan and Sue Sutherley, were all signatories to a published letter protesting the invitation of the Israel Philharmonic to the 2011 Proms. All four players named the LPO as their employer in the letter. The orchestra suspended the players for nine months, initially on the spurious grounds that for the LPO 'music and politics do not mix.' But chief executive Timothy Walker later admitted that the decision had been made as a direct result of pressure from individual donors, whose continuing favour presumably over-ruled any thoughts of loyalty to the orchestra's players at board level.
Sensing hostility to the decision from a significant proportion of its audience, the orchestra reduced the suspensions from nine months to six. Then, with gagging orders placed on the four players, and the orchestra's management hoping the incident would be forgotten, everything went quiet.
But an email I received this week suggests that at least one of the players plans to challenge the suspension in court. The message was from an anonymous source who claims to have connections with the legal world. He or she had heard that Sarah Streatfeild has hired the Bindmans law firm to represent her in an employment tribunal against the orchestra. The email also suggested that demands would include a full public apology and compensation for loss of earnings.
No doubt the orchestra took legal advice at the time of the suspensions, and Timothy Walker appeared confident in the legality of the move. Nevertheless, they will find Geoffrey Bindman a formidable opponent. He and his firm have an impressive track record, with clients ranging from Amnesty International to Private Eye. Geoffrey Bindman has already expressed his personal support for the players. A letter in their defence appeared in the Telegraph on 22 September 2011, and he was among its 117 signatories.