Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Emerson Quartet QEH 27 February 2013

Emerson String Quartet. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 27 February 2013
Bartók: String Quartet No. 3
Janáček: String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters”
Berg: Lyric Suite

How to engage wider audiences with the knottier music of the 20th century? The Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre is using a range of new approaches, from talks and concert introductions to films and participatory events. But this evening’s concert demonstrated that the best way to give this music broad appeal is to present it in performances by the world’s greatest musicians. The Emerson Quartet has such a collective charisma that the music they play, whether it’s Beethoven or Berg, can’t fail to appeal. Their approach is refined with few displays of overt virtuosity. The difficulty of this music is clear, but the players’ ability to traverse it with apparent ease prevents the technical demands from ever becoming fetishised. That allows players and audience alike to focus instead on the sheer artistry of these three remarkable composers.
The Emersons have been playing together in their current formation for decades, and they’ve been playing these three works for almost as long. The unity of the group’s approach is extraordinary. They explore a wide range of timbres in these three quartets, but in any passage, the sound of each of the four instruments is closely matched. When Janáček passes his thematic material around the four players, it is almost impossible to hear where one player ends and the next begins. Their collective tone, although it varies as the works require, is based on a mellow, bronzed sound, rich in harmonics but also keenly focussed. Emotional expression is clearly the basis of their approach, and yet in this repertoire, which could easily be tipped towards its Romantic precursors by indulgent performers, their collective discipline and steady tempos always guarantee the full measure of each work’s modernity. There is a brutalist edge to Bartók’s primitive rhythms, a rare steadiness to the tempos in Janáček’s potentially folksy inner movements, and a focus on clarity of line in the Berg that demonstrates that, whatever it’s romantic subtext, this it is indeed radical music.
Concert programming for the Rest in Noise festival is based throughout on historical rather than purely musical concerns, and that has already generated a number of anomalies and gruesome mismatches. Not so this evening. The programme here focussed on works written in the mid-1920s, and the most important lesson we took away was that these few years produced some of the most original and influential works in the whole history of the medium. Connections and influences between the three composers were discussed in the programme (and in the overly long introduction to the concert), but such connections were difficult to hear. Instead, the programme demonstrated that, despite our preconceptions, Bartók has as much soul as Janáček, who in turn is just as radical as Berg, and that Berg wrote as idiomatically for the string quartet as either of his two contemporaries.
This concert was the last appearance by the Emerson Quartet in the UK with the lineup that has remained stable for 34 years. At the end of this season, cellist David Finckel will stand down, to be replaced by Paul Watkins. The Quartet performs standing, with Finckel seated at the centre and often seeming like the mastermind behind the whole operation, giving bowing cues and often setting the mood and energy level of the music with his very deliberate gestures. Watkins is, of course, a very fine cellist, and his introduction into a venerable American chamber ensemble is not without precedent (think of Daniel Hope with the Beaux Arts Trio). Nevertheless, he faces a formidable task integrating into this seamless and unified entity. Still, there’s no harm in a change, so let’s hope the Emersons return to the London stage sooner rather than later to show off their new recruit.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

We Must Always Keep Our Orthodox Roots: An Interview with Sir John Tavener

Sir John Tavener is big in Russia, and his take on Orthodox liturgical traditions is generating increasing interest among Russian audiences. Performances of his music there have so far been limited, but an all-Tavener concert has been arranged for 11 May in St Petersburg, part of the celebrations to mark “Bright Week” in the Orthodox calendar ( Ahead of the concert, I interviewed Tavener (by email) about his views on Russia and his relationship with Orthodoxy today. The interview will be appearing in Крещенские вечера (Epiphany Evenings), the journal for the concert season, so naturally it’s aimed at a Russian readership. Nevertheless, there is much here that will be of interest to Western readers. I was particularly interested in Tavener’s views on the increasingly political identity of the Orthodox Church in Russia and how this is threatening its moral authority. I wonder how that will go down with Russian readers...

East meets West in the music of Sir John Tavener. The composer holds a central position in British musical life, a fact recognised by his status as a Knight of the Realm. His music is regularly performed by British cathedral choirs, who work within a distinctively Anglican performance tradition. Yet Tavener looks Eastward for his inspirations, primarily to the music of the Russian Orthodox Church. His ability to present the musical traditions of Orthodoxy in a way that appeals to listeners from many cultures has led to an increasingly international audience for his music, including a significant following in Russia. Ahead of performances of his works in St. Petersburg this spring, I interviewed Sir John Tavener about his work, his relationship with Russian culture, and his thoughts on what his music has to say to Russian audiences.
An obvious connection to Russia in Tavener’s music is his use of the Russian language in many works. “I find Russian is a very musical language” Tavener tells me, “and it seems to produce a specific kind of Russianness in my music.” Many successful performances of his Russian-language works by English-speaking choirs have demonstrated that the language is not a problem for the singers. But what of the style? Do Russian choirs perform his music better? “A Russian choir sounds beautiful and brings something special to my music, and so does an English cathedral choir. So I must write a music that will sound beautiful in both, in their different ways.”
Choral traditions may be different in Britain and Russia, but Tavener is reluctant to generalise about how audiences in different countries respond. He focuses instead on individual listeners and their personal engagement with the traditions of the Church. “Tradition works differently in everyone. It is a mystery and so is music and so is God and I prefer to leave it like that.”
That belief in tradition as a core value is something Tavener shares with his friend Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. Knowing that the Prince takes a great interest in many forms of spirituality, I ask Tavener what the Prince’s views are on the Orthodox faith. Again, it comes down to the central role of tradition. “The Prince loves tradition – he feels very at home in the Orthodox Church – it is in his genes. When I first went in to an Orthodox Church I knew I had come home. I think he feels something similar.”
But tradition can be a complex issue in the creative arts: when working within a tradition, where does the tradition end and the composer’s personality begin? The Russian theorist and composer Vladimir Martynov has suggested that the predominance of liturgical traditions and religious themes in recent music signals “the end of the age of composers”. When music makes recourse to timeless values, as embodied in the traditions of liturgical music, Martynov believes, the composer’s personality, and even their identity, become irrelevant. When I put this idea to Sir John Tavener, he disagrees, saying that music should be both spiritual and personal.
“I think there is a colossal spiritual decline from Victoria to Schoenberg, but both, in their ways are great composers, and indeed deeply personal and bubbling with individual identity. And there is probably a decline from Mozart to Arvo Pärt. But again, both composers have a deep spirituality. If composers are any good they will be spiritual and individual.”
Tavener’s own spiritual journey has been closely linked with the Orthodox faith, ever since he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977. His relationship with the Church has become somewhat looser in recent years. When I ask his thoughts on the status of the Orthodox faith in the modern world, he expresses both concerns and hope.
“What worries me today are the aspects of Nationalism, prevalent in Orthodox countries. If it can lose this aspect I think it would make a much stronger impact on a world that is dilapidated and that has lost the precious language of ritual, signs and symbolism. If it hangs on to Nationalism it will remain as ineffectual and dilapidated as the secular culture.”
But Tavener’s relationship with Russia itself, with both the country and the people, seems wholly positive. “My visit to Moscow many years ago, to hear my Akhmatova Requiem with Gennady Rozhdestvensky was one of the most moving of my life. My great hope is that I may return before I depart this world. The country and landscape of Russia made a deep impression on me.” I put it to Tavener that his music is enjoying increasing popularity among Russian audiences. This doesn’t surprise him, and he puts it down to shared spiritual beliefs between himself the Russian people, and to a shared scepticism toward some developments in the West.
“I believe that Russians will have a strong affinity with my music. All Russians I have ever known have had an innate sense of the sacred, an innate sense of tradition, and my music has been fashioned by these things and the music of the Russian Orthodox Church. I also believe that Russians in general have no time for the intellectual musical ‘kitchens’ of Europe. My greatest dream is to hear my Universalist vigil The Veil of the Temple, sung in Russia as well as the Akathist of Thanksgiving and Resurrection.
“Universalist” is a term Tavener often uses to describe the spirituality of his more recent music. He has become increasingly interested in revealing the “basic truth” that religions share. When I ask Tavener to elaborate, with particular reference to The Veil of the Temple, it becomes clear that, even within this culturally diverse framework, both his music and his faith remain grounded in the traditions of the Orthodox Church.
“My seven hour vigil The Veil of the Temple is constructed like an Orthodox vigil, but within that structure it contains aspects of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and the primordial religion of the American Indians. It is my dream for this to be performed in a cathedral in Russia, just as it has been performed in Anglican Cathedrals in England. The way forward must now be Universalist, but we must always keep our Orthodox roots.”

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Marin Alsop conducts Dvořák, Milhaud, Varèse, LPO RFH 20 Feb 2013

Dvořák, Milhaud, Varèse: Marin Alsop (cond), Ken Burton (cond), London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Adventist Chorale, Royal Festival Hall, London.
Three Spirituals
Dvořák: Symphony No. 9
Milhaud: La creation du Monde
Varèse: Amériques

The programme for this evening’s concert was a mess, and I blame Alex Ross. Its role in the Rest is Noise season is clear enough, but the Europeans-in-America theme was curated with a heavy hand. From a historical perspective, the choices of composers and works were obvious, but they sit well together. On top of that, the idea of beginning with real spirituals and then moving straight into Dvořák Nine meant that the whole programme had to be reversed, with the symphony in the first half and the curiosities in the second.
I’ve never subscribed to the view that African-American spirituals form the melodic and/or spiritual basis of the New World Symphony, so perhaps the first half of this concert was aimed at listeners like me. A gospel choir, the London Adventist Chorale, opened the concert, and their performance segued directly into the opening of the Dvořák. The congruence between the spirituals and the symphony was blatantly engineered by the inclusion of Going Home a setting of the cor anglais solo from Dvořák’s second movement in the form of a spiritual. But even that failed to make the case.
The choir was on top form, and their short performance was a highlight of the concert. With only twenty singers, they struggled to fill the hall with sound, but the sheer beauty of their tone ensured that everybody listened intently. They performed a simple, homophonic setting of Deep River, a jazzy Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and a setting of Going Home that even followed Dvořák’s harmonies and textures.
As the choir ended the orchestra began, but there was little continuity here. In fact the commitment of the singers, the precision of their ensemble and the elegance of their tone, were in stark contrast to the messy, incoherent orchestral playing that followed. Given the challenges of the second half, the majority of the rehearsal time was presumably given over to the Varèse. But did they even run the Dvořák? Considering the consistently high standards the London Philharmonic usually maintains, this was an amazingly sloppy performance. Alsop clearly has a vision for the symphony. She’s keen to drive the outer movements like it’s Beethoven Five, and both of the inner movements are about steady, insistent tempos. But she wholly failed to communicate any of this to the orchestra, and the result was leaden, incoherent playing, poor balance within the orchestra and a distinct lack of poise at almost every turn.
The second half opened with Milhaud’s La creation du Monde, a piece that requires a programme of this sort to justify its presence in an orchestral concert, but that acts as effective palate cleanser between the more substantial works. Milhaud seems to be taunting the orchestral players with all the jazzy licks he expects them to struggle with, but this time the joke was on him, as all the pseudo-jazz came off beautifully. Special mention should go to Andrew Barclay, whose nonchalant kit drumming succinctly set the tone.
The concert ended with a bang, or several rather, in the form of Varèses’s Amériques. As soon as it began it was clear where all the rehearsal time had gone. The London Philharmonic fielded about the largest band you’ll ever see in the Festival Hall, including an unprecedented 12 percussionists (that’s apart from the two timpanists) vying for elbow room at the back of the stage. This time, Alsop set the pace more carefully and paid much greater attention to the many details of the score. Balance within the ensemble was impressive, with those crucial woodwind textures shining through, even against the large brass section. Some of the quieter passages sagged, but the composer should take as much blame for this as the conductor. And the ending was fabulous, with Alsop managing to increase the volume and density of sound, even over the repeated extremes that make up most of the piece, to give the final page that extra impact. An impressive end, then, to a variable concert, one which struggled to make sense on its own terms, despite its pedantically themed programme. Let’s hope that later offerings in The Rest is Noise are more consistently inspired and make a better case for every work, not just the ones with the loudest bells and whistles.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

RCM Symphony Orchestra plays Lutosławski, QEH 6 Feb 13

Lutosławski, Debussy, Roussel: RCM Symphony Orchestra, Franck Ollu (cond), QEH, London, 6.2.13
Lutosławski: Jeux venetiens
Debussy: Nocturnes
Lutosławski: Symphony No. 3
Roussel: Bacchus and Ariane Suite No. 2

Sophisticated, urbane and founded on infinite subtleties of expression: everything about Lutosławski’s music suggests that it requires mature, experienced and world-wise performers to achieve its effect. This evening it got something different, a performance from the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra, some members of which were not even born when the composer died (doesn’t that make you feel old?). The ensemble handled the music’s technical demands well, and the more direct approach that the young players took to the music’s expressive side demonstrated that Lutosławski’s aesthetic is not as involved or esoteric as it may sometimes seem.
Jeux venetiens opened the concert, but it wasn’t the best way to start. The piece makes extensive use of Lutosławkski’s distinctive technique of “limited aleatorism”. Those passages proved something of a hurdle for the players. All the notes were there, but they had difficulty maintaining the evenness of the texture, and the balance between the instruments was often problematic. All of the solos were excellent, but for the time being, Lutosławski’s distinctive ensemble formations eluded them.
The orchestra gradually found its feet in the following work, Debussy’s Nocturnes. The links between Debussy’s orchestration and that of Lutosławski were everywhere apparent, with the big difference that the orchestra had little difficulty in achieving what Debussy desired. The strings were on great form, and throughout the second half as well, with near ideal intonation and a unity of ensemble that many professional orchestras struggle to achieve. The Debussy really came to life in the final movement “Sirènes”, for which a female choir from RCM was squeezed onto the stage between the strings and woodwinds. Some shaky intonation and ensemble from the winds in the earlier movements was ironed out for this last movement, and the sound quality from every section brought the piece to life.
But the best was yet to come. Lutosławski’s Third Symphony opened the second half, and was undoubtedly the high point of the concert. The performance was meticulously prepared, and every player was obviously on top of the notes. Unlike in Jeux venetiens, much of the music here is loud and often declamatory, and the orchestra was able to not only give those bold, direct statements, but also find the ideal contrast between those and the more introverted and finely textured passages. The score is something of a concerto for orchestra, regularly shining a spotlight on unexpected corners of the ensemble, and whoever the composer’s attention fell on, they always came up with the goods.
That said, the strings continued to have the upper hand over the winds. The brass in the opening fanfares was just a bit too raucous, and the woodwinds occasionally struggled to keep their intonation in place, although Lutosławski makes things very difficult for them by often writing very loud passages in unison. But the highlight of the evening was the central toccata of the symphony, a complex but highly ordered polyphonic episode for the strings. Again, the strings’ ensemble and intonation was ideal here, but they also achieved a unity of timbre too, not overly dark or heavy, but focussed and crystal clear through all those polyphonic lines.
This evening’s conductor, Franck Ollu, is a new music specialist, which is just as well given the programme. His conducting of Lutosławski’s a Battuta sections (which ironically he led senza Battuta) was very detailed, as if to guide the players through every potential problem in the music. This left him looking frustrated in the ad lib passages, as he had to essentially stand there and let them get on with it. This was particularly apparent in the symphony, in which the bar lines often stop right at the music’s climax, exactly where the conductor would want to intervene the most. Fortunately he was able to have full confidence in his players to continue exactly where he left off, and to take the music in the direction it needed to go.
The concert concluded with the second suite from Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane. There are Lutosławski connections here too, which just about justified the work’s presence on the programme. It posed few problems for the players, who gave a committed performance, although perhaps lacking a little in sensuality. But it wasn’t the right piece to end the concert, not after the excellent performance of the Third Symphony. The Roussel sounded pretty pedestrian in comparison, and I can’t have been the only person in the audience wishing the evening would end with some further utterance from the Polish master.