Friday, 25 May 2012

Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Mario Venzago, Kit Armstrong, Cadogan Hall, 25 May 2012


Weber: Der Freischutz Overture
Schumann: Piano Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony No.3
Berlin Symphony Orchestra (aka Konzerthausorchester Berlin), Kit Armstrong (piano), Mario Venzago (conductor)

Mario Venzago wants to have it both ways. He describes his interpretive approach as "post-H.I.P.", which means bringing a selection of insights from the period instrument movement to symphony orchestra performances. That's very fashionable these days, but it is at odds with his stage manner. Venzago wears tails, uses a very long baton, and conducts with an immaculate technique that died out in most parts a generation ago. That makes for a strange combination, but it works. He's a communicative conductor, but not one to take things to extremes. And for London audiences, accustomed as we are to young turks, trading almost exclusively on passion and excitement, his more measured, but no less musical, approach makes for a refreshing change.
That said, he's only a guest conductor with the Berlin Symphony, and some tensions were apparent from the start. The Freischutz Overture is a pretty high-octane opener, and it seemed the orchestra wanted to play it faster and louder than the conductor would permit. Fortunately, the result was a constructive tension, with everybody working on the same wavelength, and the orchestra giving the same energy and drama as they would in a more weighty performance, but without the extremes. There were a few rough patches, the transition from the introduction into the allegro was a bit scrappy, but on the whole this was a serviceable reading.
The young pianist Kit Armstrong was the soloist for the Schumann Concerto. His performance was promising in many ways, but his interpretation is not yet as accomplished or authoritative as this music needs. Armstrong has the notes under his fingers, although there were a few very obvious slips, and matched his dynamics and rubato skilfully to the phrase structure. But there was little spontaneity here, and some of his rubato devices bordered on affectation. He has a tendency to linger on the climax note of each phrase, just a little too long for it to feel natural. More significantly, it was clear throughout that Venzago was in charge of the tempos, especially in the transitions. Armstrong followed skilfully, but he should really have been leading. That said, the slow movement was wonderful, with Armstrong giving an unaffected and directly emotional account of the solo part. No doubt the rest will come together, and probably very soon indeed. He's still only 20 after all. And was that one of his own compositions he played for an encore? A nice touch.
But the best of the concert came after the interval, when the orchestra gave an excellent performance of the Eroica. Venzago's post-H.I.P. approach worked wonders here. The strings of the Berlin Symphony have impressive intonation and ensemble, so his insistence on minimal vibrato didn't phase them at all. His tempos felt fast, especially in the second and fourth movements, suggesting he was following, or at least acknowledging, Beethoven's controversial metronome marks. Again, this was a performance that eschewed extremes, especially of dynamics. But the orchestra made up for this with impressively characterful brass playing, and with a wide array of articulations from every section. So the punch chords at the opening were quieter than usual, but it didn't matter because the sheer attack on each of them was enough to launch the symphony.
Venzago did allow himself one extravagance. Each time Beethoven builds up to a thematic statement in the outer movements, Vanzago tried to create the effect of appearing out of nothing and building into a weighty tutti. There are quite a lot of these in the Eroica, so the surprise quickly wore off. But given the laudable discipline of the rest of the performance, these little outbursts didn't feel excessive.
The Berlin Symphony are only occasional visitors to these shores, but their music-making is considerably different to what we usually hear. In terms of technique, this orchestra is the equal of any in London. But their approach to the core German repertoire, at least under Venzago, is more restrained. There may be fewer fireworks here, but the results, especially in the Beethoven, can be just as compelling.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Classical Musicians - Just too damn professional?

Some pieces of music are really hard to perform, but audiences don't really care any more. Mendelssohn Symphonies are a killer for the woodwind, and don't even mention Schumann's Second to a violinist. These days, the standard of professional orchestras and choirs is high, almost uniformly so when it comes to technical matters. So the work that goes into reaching that level is taken as read. Conductors do their best to make us aware that their ensembles are fearless in the face of demanding music, but it always seems to fall on deaf ears.
Last Saturday, Mark Elder was on the radio taking about the two Ring Cycle instalments he has recently recorded with the Hallé. Almost everything he said was about the difficulty of the music, and about the collective psychology that the orchestra had adopted just to face these scores. But discussion of Wagner seems so alien when framed in these terms. Elder mentioned, as if it was a commonly-known fact, that Götterdämmerung is by far the hardest of the four operas to perform. That makes sense, but I'd never thought of it like that. You go along to a Wagner performance and you just assume that everybody involved is on top of the music. But take a look in the score – every single performer gets a real workout, and you can't say that about many operas.
At the other end of the classical world sits John Eliot Gardiner. (Although saying that, has anyone ever suggested Wagner to him?) He's currently on home turf with a new recording of the Bach Motets out this month. The cover image is of the high-wire artist, Philippe Petit. Gardiner is making the point that these works are extraordinarily difficult to sing. He writes in the liner that they make 'colossal demands on everyone who performs them.' But we'll have to take his word for it, because the (live) performance on the recording is immaculate. More to the point, the singers make it sound easy, which it evidently is not. However, comparison with some of the lesser recordings on the market soon brings those 'colossal demands' into sharp focus.
So what is the solution? It seems that conductors in particular will continue using every avenue available to emphasise the musical difficulties their ensembles face. The performers themselves, the singers and orchestral musicians, get too few opportunities to tell their side of the story. The curious result is that, even the musicians who make up the most venerable ensembles tend to find their individual contributions taken for granted. We need a bit more empathy all round, and we should take every chance we get to celebrate the fact that professional orchestras can play all the notes.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Amar Quartet plays Tchaikovsky, Kings Place 18 May 2012

Tchaikovsky: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3
Amar Quartet

'[Tchaikovsky's] chamber not held in high esteem...for various reasons: weakness of form, unbalanced texture, inconsistency, and a tendency to...grand dramatic gestures best designed for large musical forces.' Audience members reading this in the programme note prior to this evening's concert are unlikely to have had high expectations for what was to follow. I'd say the assessment is unfair; Tchaikovsky's chamber works may be uneven, but the genius that shines through in the ballets and symphonies is just as evident here. That said, the programme included works from both ends of the spectrum, the Third Quartet, a work as fine as any Tchaikovsky wrote, and the First, which, to put it mildly, is not.
The First Quartet can work, just listen to the Borodin Quartet's recording, but it really needs a helping hand. Tchaikovsky doesn't specify enough variety of tempo or dynamic in the outer movements, and unless these are supplied by the performers the result can sound like 'grand dramatic gestures best designed for large musical forces.' That, sadly, was the impression this performance gave, with continuous and oppressive tutti textures beating the audience into submission. This, combined with some seriously insecure passage work from the first violinist, only confirmed the programme note's ominous predictions.
Fortunately, the music making in the inner movements of this First Quartet, and throughout the Third, was of a consistently higher order. The reason why the First Quartet retains a toehold in the repertoire is its folksong-inspired second movement. This was played immaculately, and with a sensitivity that you wouldn't have thought the ensemble capable if you'd only heard the first movement. And the scherzo third movement had a real sense of energy and buoyancy, and again a unity of ensemble and purpose from the players that brought the music to life.
The Third Quartet was given a consistently inspired performance, and was far more enjoyable all round. But then, it is a much better piece, and the composer must share some of the responsibility for disappointing performances of the First. But the Third is both idiomatically written for string quartet and filled with invention and originality. The higher standard of performance may be due to greater familiarity on the part of the players, but if so, they were still able to keep it fresh. The one failing of this performance was a slight lack of muscle. Tchaikovsky's melodies here are angular and impassioned, and really need to feel the heel of the bow on the downbeats. The players here achieved the impassioned pathos, especially in the famous third movement, but the music lacked the sense of physical intensity that defines the work as Russian.
This was a rare visit to the UK by the Zurich-based Amar Quartet. They are apparently Hindemith specialists, which may explain why invitations from this most Hindemith-phobic of countries are so few. But they are a lively ensemble with a distinctively bright and attractive sound. Look out for them.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Janine Jansen performs Schoenberg and Schubert, Wigmore Hall 16 May 2012

Janine Jansen (violin), Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola), Maxim Rysanov (viola), Torleif Thedéen (cello), Jens Peter Maintz (cello)
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major

The Janine Jansen All-Stars are not like other chamber ensembles. In fact, they are hardly an ensemble at all. Everything they play is perfectly coordinated of course, but you rarely get the feeling that the group is working as a single entity. Instead, these revered soloists perform, for the most part, as soloists. Every phrase in every part is presented with emotion bordering on pathos, and nothing is treated as filler. Everything matters.
The benefits of this sort of approach are manifold, but there are plenty of problems too. Fortunately, the works chosen for this tour, Verklärte Nacht and Schubert's C Major Quintet, have both the quality and the complexity the group needs to show off its many strengths, both collective and individual. The Schoenberg comes off best – the piece is meaty enough to offer something substantial for all of these heavyweights to get their teeth into – but Schubert also benefits from the sheer quantity of musical talent on the stage.
The unity of ensemble and of intent between the players was clearly hard-won, and everything in this performance felt well rehearsed, even over rehearsed. Despite the multiplicity of interpretive angles from within the ensemble, a clear and singular musical vision was apparent throughout, and this presumably came from Jansen. Tempos and dynamics were often extreme, suggesting dictatorial decision making at the rehearsal stage rather than committee thinking. And clarity of texture was an over-riding concern throughout, a quality that benefited the Schoenberg more than it did the Schubert.
Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht is at least as well known in its orchestral arrangement, leading some performers of the sextet version to expand the textures and go for a large, all-embracing sound. Not so Jansen and her colleagues. Everything here was about the detail. There was plenty of expression too, but this was always balanced by a concern for exact intonation, tonal purity and musical architecture. The solo qualities of each of the players often worked to the benefit of Schoenberg's variegated textures. He often has three or four completely different textures going on at once, so having players on each part who can really keep those ideas separate and individual gives the music the sense of inner variety it regularly relies on.
For the whole of the first half, the players leant forward in their seats, the intensity of the music always reflected in their body language. When they returned after the interval, I was expecting to see some more relaxed postures, some sitting back and letting the music flow. But no, the Schubert turned out to be just as intense, and was presented with similarly furrowed brows. Tempos and dynamics were just as extreme as in the Schoenberg, but this time the results seemed more stilted and less in the spirit of the music itself. True enough, the quiet moments of both pieces, the opening of the Schoenberg for example, and the opening of Schubert's adagio, rely on stillness tinged with foreboding. But Schubert doesn't do things on the same scale. And while the tempos and dynamics were extreme, the vibrato and rubato were strictly controlled. In many ways, the Schubert was performed according to Classical-era performing conventions, but at any point the music was louder, quieter, faster or slower than almost any version on record.
Janine Jansen was billed as the star of this concert, but there weren't many occasions in the programme for her to show off her skills. The opening of Schubert's adagio was one. Here, the ensemble played the theme and accompaniment relatively straight, while Jansen performed the obbligato with a satisfyingly wide range of attacks and colours. Similarly with the main theme of the finale. Here Jansen was able to keep the main theme sounding rustic, but the detail with which she articulated the phrases, and even the individual notes, marked this out as the playing of an exceptional violinist.
If the Schoenberg succeeded better than the Schubert in this programme, it was mainly because Schubert's music doesn't respond as well to extremes. The coherency of the C Major Quintet was regularly tested by overly long pauses, unrelated tempos between sections, and extreme dynamic contrasts that prevented sections and phrases from relating to the passages around them. However, Schoenberg seems to respond well to this approach. The clarity that these players brought to Verklärte Nacht may have prevented it from sounding mysterious when it should have, let alone nocturnal, but the sheer quantity of musical interest that it revealed outweighed any reservations.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Gergiev conducts Stravinsky, LSO, Barbican 11 May 2012

Stravinsky: Mass, Violin Concerto, The Firebird (complete ballet)

Stravinsky always sounds like Stravinsky, but that doesn't mean a concert dedicated to his music is in any danger of monotony. Gergiev's programme for this evening was brilliantly thought out. It worked in reverse chronology from 1948 to 1910. That meant a gradual increase in Romantic expression, from the austerity of the Mass, through the lively neoclassicism of the Violin Concerto to the perennial and fantastical Firebird. He could have taken the idea further, by starting with the Requiem Canticles perhaps, but the composer's musical evolution was amply demonstrated, and made all the clearer for this retrograde approach.
It is rare to hear Stravinsky's Mass performed by such a large choir, and the larger numbers must increase the potential problems of synchronisation. But the LSO Chorus were on top form this evening, giving sharp edges to all those austere and emphatic phrases. In fact, the balance worked well between the ten players and the 50/60ish singers. (That was another interesting progression through the programme, the gradual increase of instrumental forces from piece to piece.) Soloists were drawn from the choir, which was an excellent decision. Not only did the singers rise to the challenge, but they did so with all the modesty that the work requires, and that you couldn't imagine from professional soloists. Good playing from the small ensemble too, austere and rugged, but always lively and sensitive. Among the orchestral sections, the heroes of this evening were the trombones and bassoons. They were busy in every work, and fitted into the various styles magnificently.
The Stravinsky Violin Concerto is a work that seems to adapt to the individual merits of whichever violinist performs it. Leonidas Kavakos has a precise and focussed sound – essential in any Stravinsky – but what really makes his playing special is the rich, woody tone he produces, especially on the lower strings. Stravinsky highlights this fine sound by regularly coupling the soloist with the woodwind section, and when Kavakos is playing that's a match made in heaven. Having heard him in a number of Romantic concertos, I know he can make much more noise than he did this evening. But he toned it down to match Stravinsky's Classical orchestra and the balance was ideal. Just like the choir in the Mass, Kavakos gave a performance that balanced neoclassical reserve with nimble energy. Perhaps he seemed a little frustrated by the formality of the inner movements, but when we reached the finale in became clear that he'd been saving up his energies for this final lively dance. Gergiev loosened the reins a little here, and the synchronisation between soloist and orchestra sometimes went a little awry. The last chord was also out of kilter. But none of that really mattered as it was the vitality and sprightly rhythmic energy of what had gone before that stuck in the memory.
The Firebird is the only one of Stravinsky's ballets that is more often performed as a suite than in its complete form. As with almost everything the composer did, financial motivations should be suspecting in his decision to make a suite arrangement of the work. Or were there musical motivations too? It is true that, unlike Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, this ballet can have longueurs when heard in concert. Or at least, the more memorable sections are separated by long passages of what can only be described as mood music.
But if anybody can make a case for the concert performance of the entire ballet, it's Gergiev. He's in his element with early Stravinsky, and the performance he led this evening of the ballet was of the highest order. He knows that to make the piece work in concert, it needs to be paced – and there needs to be a symphonic relationship between the various sections in terms of tempos and dynamics. He also makes a point of not over-emphasising the more dramatic music, not slowing down in the build-ups, and never taking the quieter dynamics lower than they need to go. This, plus an intense feeling of concentration and focus from the podium, allowed the orchestra to maintain the atmosphere throughout the work. So no longueurs to speak of, and no day-dreaming about how much more interesting this would be with dancers. In fact, the atmosphere in the hall was electric, and you could see people in the audience sitting up in their seats in rapped attention every time a new section or theme was introduced.
Gergiev has pursued an increasingly diverse musical path in recent years, taking in music from a wide range of countries and eras. But he's at his best when he's conducting late 19th and early 20th century Russian repertoire. And, as this evening demonstrated, when it comes to Stravinsky – he's the daddy.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Jerusalem Quartet and Alexander Melnikov play Schumann, Wigmore Hall 9 May 2012

Jerusalem Quartet, Alexander Melnikov
Schumann: Piano Quartet in Eb Op.47
Schumann: Piano Quintet in Eb Op.44

They were clearly expecting trouble at the Wigmore Hall this evening. Patrons entered the building under the watchful eye of two security guards, and the number of uniformed staff patrolling the foyers inside was unusually high. The reason? Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have made it a tradition to disrupt performances by the Jerusalem Quartet. Their most high-profile hit was at this very venue last year, so the management had every reason to be cautious.
In the event, no disruptions occurred, which was just as well for all present, as the performance was to a very high standard indeed, and distractions would have been deeply frustrating. In fact, music-lovers on the south coast may have borne the brunt of the Wigmore's diligence. The quartet played in Brighton last night, and as the Wigmore was clearly on high alert, the protesters went there instead to make a nuisance of themselves.
To be fair to the Wigmore Hall, the extra security measures were very discrete. The security guards were all immaculately dressed, and the programme itself wasn't affected in the slightest. And what a programme it was! The Jerusalem Quartet are rightly famous for the intensity and focus of their interpretations, and Schumann's chamber music is the ideal vehicle for their considerable talents. Alexander Melnikov is another intense and passionate performer who plays any 19th century German music as if it had been written just for him.
But how does a piano soloist of such idiosyncratic distinction fit into a chamber ensemble? The answer on this occasion was – very well indeed. It turns out that the musical virtues that elevate the Jerusalem Quartet above most of the competition are very similar to those that make Melnikov such an individual at the keyboard. Both treat rubato as the rule rather than the exception. And both regularly go to dynamic extremes, but without letting the rhythmic precision or the measured phasing suffer in the process.
The Op.47 Quartet casts each of the players as individuals, only begrudgingly bringing them together for homogeneous tuttis. In other hands, the textures can seem bare, but the tonal weight of each of these players ensures a feeling of intensity in every phrase. It is clear that the three string players have spent hundreds of hours performing together, to the extent that they sound like the same musician, playing violin, viola and cello respectively. Melnikov is obviously at a disadvantage here, but he's on the same musical wavelength. His playing is big-boned, very physical and very legato. Schumann gives the players a hand by always carefully balancing the piano against the ensemble, and despite Melnikov's 'Russian' dynamics, he rarely dominated the textures.
There was great communication between Melnikov and the cellist, Kyril Zlotnikov, with the piano left hand synchronising skilfully with the cello's bass lines. That didn't always quite work though. In the slow movement of the Quartet, Melnikov got ahead of the strings, a problem that remained for a surprisingly long time. The string playing wasn't note perfect either. All of them had moments of insecure passage work and questionable tuning on individual notes. But these really were isolated incidents, and the sheer musicality of the performance more than compensated.
The more famous Op.44 Quintet sounded almost symphonic when performed with this level of physical intensity and dynamic extremes. There was nothing safe about this performance. In the development section of the first movement, Melnikov really took liberties with the tempos, at one point winding down the ostinato until it gradually reached a standstill, then kicking back in with the next phrase at tempo. Fortunately, the quartet was able to keep track, not limiting Melnikov's indulgences, but closely following every one.
The combination of extreme dynamics and thick legato briefly threatened the agility of the scherzo, which sounded a little muddy in the opening bars. But precise articulation of the phrases had the effect of delineating the music's structure and giving the movement the sense of direction it needed. And the finale was a triumph, the precision of the playing and the shared sense of musical purpose bringing everything together for a thrilling and fitting finale.
The concert formed part of a UK tour, promoting a new CD. It is no coincidence then, that the disc on sale in the foyer shared its programme with the concert itself. No doubt the players will have sorted out the small ensemble and tuning issues in the studio. And given the track record of both quartet and pianist, they are all supremely able to recreate the excitement of the recital hall on disc. So if the concert was designed to generate interest in the new CD, it worked – on me anyway. Although I haven't heard the disc myself, I'd say the chances are it is going to something special. Buy it.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

LPO, Jurowski, Helmchen play Janacek, Dvorak, Suk, RFH 2 May 2012

Janacek (arr. Talich): Suite, The Cunning Little Vixen
Dvorak: Piano Concerto
Suk: Symphonic Poem, Ripening
London Philharmonic
Vladimir Jurowski conductor
Martin Helmchen piano

You couldn't accuse Vladimir Jurowski of taking an easy route through the Czech repertoire. The Cunning Little Vixen Suite, quirky and esoteric as it is, was undoubtedly the most audience-friendly work on this evening's programme. That was followed by Dvorak's fascinating, but long and involved, Piano Concerto, and Suk's equally intense and even more lengthy Ripening. The results were richly rewarding, but almost infinite resources of stamina were required from all concerned.
The London Philharmonic are going to know Janacek's Little Vixen very well by the end of the summer. Talich's suite from the opera opened this concert, they are performing extracts from the opera at a children's event next week, and then they are doing a run of the full opera at Glyndebourne. Naturally, the orchestra is equal to the many unusual challenges that Janacek sets. Jurowski is not as fluid as Mackerras, or even Rattle, with this music, but he has an equal interest in the strange textures that Janacek draws from the orchestra. Bringing the band up onto the stage gives the audience the chance to see the bizarre groupings that the composer brings together. It also makes the balance slightly less string-focussed than in the theatre. But the results remain as beguiling and as charmingly rustic as ever.
Dvorak's Piano Concerto is a difficult piece on every level. It shares much with the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms, including their faults. Like those great Germans, Dvorak puts down a wantonly unpianistic piano part, and then accompanies it with a symphony orchestra, who for the most part seem to be playing a symphony. But there is much to commend the piece, not least the slow movement, which contains many moments of supreme beauty. And the orchestration, while it is occasionally heavy, makes excellent use of the ensemble.
Martin Helmchen has made the concerto one of his calling cards in the few years that he has been on the international scene. Technically, he breezes through the piece, which considering the sheer quantity of notes in the piano part is a considerable achievement. He also has a very lyrical and romantic mode of expression, which allows the quieter music to really flow. But something is missing, and I think it is to do with the musical rhetoric behind the piece. Very often, Dvorak relies on a theatrical flourish from the pianist to make a structurally significant statement, such as the entrance of the second subject in the slow movement, or piano solo at the opening of the finale – taken straight out of Brahms' First Concerto. Helmchen's refinement and sophistication stand in the way of these grand gestures. Or perhaps it's just a volume issue, but for the size of the orchestra Dvorak sets him up against, he needs to hit those keys harder, especially in the finale.
When a piece has a name as unmemorable as Ripening, it's a fair bet that the music itself is also going to fade from the memory quite fast. This is one of Suk's symphonic poems that followed his more significant (and memorable) Asrael. Like its predecessor, it is a huge orchestral work, musically complex and intensely dramatic. Suk's approach to orchestration here seems to be to have every musician playing almost all of the time. Even the quiet coda involves the whole orchestra playing quietly. Nevertheless, the orchestration is always interesting, and a good performance like this one can bring out the continuous variety in these tutti textures. The bass trombone, for example, has a fabulous part, as does the tuba. And the orchestral piano is put to a variety of interesting uses. An offstage choir is brought in towards the end, as is a group of off-stage trumpets, but both are woefully underused, and it was hard to tell why they were there.
More clarity from the acoustic might have helped to bring out these details, but Jurowski and his forces did everything in their power to give this work its due. Like the pieces in the first half, it is not the sort of score that allows an orchestra to show off without having to work, but the preparation and the musical sensitivity here from everybody helped to bring this music to life. Do they deserve their obscurity? Perhaps, but they're worth hearing every once in a while, especially when performed to this standard.