Friday, 28 March 2014

Olivier Latry, Royal Festival Hall Organ, 27 February 2014

Floretz: Prélude from l’Enfant noir, Op. 17
Messiaen: L’ascension – 4 méditations symphoniques
Widor: Organ Symphony No. 5

Olivier Latry, organ
Royal Festival Hall, 27 February 2014

The Southbank Centre is showing off its newly refurbished Festival Hall organ in style with a series of concerts and recitals featuring some big names. Olivier Latry is perhaps the most celebrated organist among those participating in the festival. He is organist of Notre Dame, and an accomplished recitalist with a global following. He is particularly noted for his Messiaen, and the four movements from L’ascension were certainly the highlight of this programme. But he’s a versatile player, and although this was an all-French programme, it was a diverse one too, and showed off a good range of the renovated instrument’s capabilities.
The programme opened with an oddity, the Prelude from l’Enfant Noir by Jean-Louis Floretz, a Parisian organist who died in 2004. The prelude is part of an unfinished suite inspired by a novel by the French-African author Camara Laye. Apparently, Floretz studied ethnomusicology, but the ethnographic dimension of this seemed slightly suspect. A percussive, rhythmically complex accompaniment is presumably meant to represent African drumming. Over this we hear simple pentatonic melodies with more than a passing resemblance to various spirituals. Floretz studied with Messiaen, and like almost every French organ composer of his generation struggled to escape Messiaen’s overbearing influence, even here, where we are supposed to be transported far from Paris. It is a fun piece though, and a good concert opener. It also gave Latry a good opportunity to show off his nimble fingerwork, and the clarity he can draw, even at loud volumes, from appropriate register combinations.
Both the Messiaen and the Widor were performed from memory, quite a feat in itself, and an indication of Latry’s affinity with this music, which he had no trouble conveying, even on what must be an unfamiliar instrument to him. Everything came together in the Messiaen meditations, the precision of Latry’s touch, the appropriateness of his register combinations, and, most significantly of all, the sense of pace and precise timing with which he unfolded these works. In the first movement, long silences separate the individual phrases, and presumably these were included by Messiaen to accommodate the long decay time in a large church. Latry kept the gaps, which here were effectively silent in the dry acoustic of the Festival Hall, but paced the music well to accommodate them. Elsewhere, Messiaen’s textures are spiky and dissonant, but the clarity of Latry’s playing ensures equal clarity here. The last movement requires him to gradually build up the textures by gradually adding in registers, which he did with a canny ear for colour and timbral weight. A highly accomplished performance and one that left us wanting more from this composer.
Sadly, though, there was no more Messiaen on offer. In fact the programming of the second half was a matter of some contention. Latry came on to the stage before he played to explain that he had originally planned to perform Stravinsky’s four-hand piano arrangement of The Rite of Spring with his wife. But apparently the publisher had blocked the plan because they did not want this piano version played on the organ. Latry was clearly very annoyed about this and, rightly I think, described it as a very petty decision. He rubbed it in a bit by telling us that audiences in America, where the publisher in question has no jurisdiction, had enjoyed the Latrys’ version. He was valiant enough not to name the publisher, but I’m going to, it’s Boosey & Hawkes. So what are they up to? Perhaps they fear a deluge of unauthorised reorchestrations – for tuba quartet or whatever. Even so, the decision seemed heavy-handed in this case.
Instead we got Widor’s Fifth Symphony, and after his little tirade it was clear that Latry’s heart really wasn’t in it. The opening movement was scrappy, with Latry’s limbs not co-ordinating as they had previously. Much of the quiet music in the inner movements was uninspired, with pedestrian register choices and little rubato. The Toccata was good though, more nuanced than we usually hear, with Latry finding a spare finger or toe at many crucial points to make subtle but telling register changes. And despite this being a predominantly German organ, by tradition and design, Latry was able to produce some properly Gallic sounds for the Widor, mixing the lighter registers to create subtle and inviting colours and making full use of the swell pedals to shape phrases.
And to finish – an improvisation. Latry announced that the simple theme he was using was one that André Marchal had improvised on in 1954 at the inaugural concert of this instrument. It sounded to me like the theme to Inspector Gadget. The improvisation itself was a tour de force, episodic and with all the expected elements, a scherzo opening, a chorale prelude with the theme in the pedals, a Baroque fugato with four(ish) voices of counterpoint and a toccata ending. Quite a feat, and a proper workout for the organ too.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Gardiner Ibragimova LSO Barbican 23.3.14

Mendelssohn: Overture Ruy Blas
Schumann: Violin Concerto
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 “Italian”
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Alina Ibragimova, violin
London Symphony Orchestra
Barbican, London, 23.3.14

Everybody was working well outside their comfort zones this evening: John Eliot Gardiner led a modern instrument band, the LSO performed in ‘historically informed’ mode, and Alina Ibragimova tried her hand at the Schumann, hardly core repertoire for any violinist. The sheer professionalism on display ensured that the technical side of the performance was rarely compromised, but there was a noticeable lack of ease or flow from the orchestra, and the resulting tension only occasionally raised the excitement levels.
Gardiner and the LSO are not complete strangers: they have worked together before, so both sides must know by now what to expect. Given the difference in interpretive traditions between this orchestra and his own ensembles, Gardiner was uncompromising in his approach. A set of old-fashioned cavalry timps was the only concession to period instrumentation from the orchestra, but Gardiner reduced the orchestra by about a third, and had the strings stand (they sat for the concerto). Vibrato was kept to a minimum, though not completely prohibited, and the orchestral playing in every work was characterised by hard accents and carefully manicured phrases.
Ruy Blas opened with austere brass fanfares, setting the tone for the whole concert. Despite the small orchestra, Gardiner drew a large forceful sound from the players, deliberate and unambiguous. The overture was well shaped, and built up well to its conclusion. And whatever privations Gardiner subjected his players to, their intonation and balance were never under threat. A strident opener, but conspicuously lacking in Mendelssohnian humour or levity.
Schumann’s Violin Concerto is a controversial work and a rarity on the concert platform. There is some great music here, but the weaknesses are all too clear. The structure manages to be simultaneously conventional to a fault and incoherent. The orchestral writing is often turgid and needlessly opaque. And the solo part is close to impossible, not for its virtuoso acrobatics so much as its indifference to the mechanics of the instrument.
So it needs all the help it can get, and adding into the equation a modern orchestra attempting to emulate period performance practice does it no favours at all. Many of the orchestral textures, particularly in the first movement, are complex to the point of utter obscurity, and sullen and grey in their colouring. Modern configuration string instruments playing without vibrato only exacerbate the problem. That said, the LSO strings can always be relied on to bring clarity and elegance, and the slow second movement, the concerto’s main redeeming feature, certainly had many moments of simple, unadulterated beauty.
Alina Ibragimova is no stranger to period practice herself, but chose, possibly to Gardiner’s chagrin, to perform on a modern configuration violin with plenty of vibrato. Although this concerto isn’t going to be the ideal match for any player, many aspects of her style fit it well. Much of the music is set in the instrument’s lower register, where Ibragimova’s viola-like tone is rich and satisfying. Her projection is also valuable here, especially as she is able to maintain the rich elegance of her tone even at the loudest dynamics. And then there is her technical proficiency; the sheer difficultly of this concerto really sets it apart, but Ibragimova found a convincing and highly musical way through all of its vicissitudes.
The tensions between Gardiner’s approach and the LSO’s sound became even more apparent in the Italian Symphony that made up the second half. Were this Gardiner’s own Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, his heavy accents, emphatically shaped phrases and fast tempos would all make sense. Gut strings and narrow bore winds give less tone, so a more agogic approach with more shaping of phrases is required. But the LSO, even with reduced forces, gives a big, sustained sound, on which many of these details feel like overkill.
In fact, the balance within the orchestra was very well managed, and it was clear that everyone was listening to each other. Although the violins (with seconds on the right) were reduced in number, the low strings remained well-staffed, and the six double basses gave a rich, warm basis to the textures.
Gardiner’s tempos were fast, but they usually are anyway for the outer movements of this symphony. The heavy accents and broad dynamic swells used to articulate the phrases made the opening movement seem all the faster. Some elegant playing from the woodwind soloists brought valuable lightness and elegance to the inner movements. The finale really was fast, by any standards, almost too fast for the LSO woodwind section – which is saying something. They managed to keep it together though, and Gardiner took his foot off the accelerator for the quieter interludes.
A journey of discovery then, particularly for the players. Gardiner is to be congratulated for sticking to his guns on matters of interpretation and for not giving the orchestra an easy time. The sheer versatility of the LSO is amply demonstrated by their ability to do what Gardiner asks, and without any serious compromise to their consistently high technical standards. But what about the audience? A collaboration like this ought to offer the best of both worlds, which it occasionally does, but much of the time it feels like neither one thing nor the other.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

London Philharmonic, Skrowaczewski, Beilman, RFH 14 March 2014

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3 (1889 ed. Nowak)
Benjamin Beilman, violin
Stanisław Skrowaczewski, conductor
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Royal Festival Hall, London, 14 March 2014

An age difference of 65 years separated this evening’s soloist and conductor - and it showed. Following their performance of the Mendelssohn, the young violinist Benjamin Beilman skipped on and off the stage as he acknowledged the applause. Skrowaczewski followed him, at some distance behind, his walking resolute but impeded by a limp, his pace his own, unperturbed by the prospect of being lapped. It showed in the performances too. Beilman’s interpretation of the Mendelssohn was fresh and inquisitive, technically proficient, but often frustratingly safe. He engaged with the work’s expressive potential, but without fully realising it. The Bruckner that followed, by contrast, could hardly have been more consummate, a distinctive and personal interpretation that was clearly the result of a lifetime’s experience with the music.
Benjamin Beilman’s appearance with the London Philharmonic this evening was facilitated by a Music Masters Award, a scheme that offers high profile concert opportunities and mentorship for promising young performers. He is certainly a worthy recipient, a confident and technically proficient violinist who projects an effortless technical mastery and a distinctive personality that both belie his youth. He plays a Guarneri del Gesù (the 1735 ex-Mary Portman), and player and instrument make for a good combination, especially in the focussed, penetrating power that enables him to fill the hall with sound. It’s not a particularly pretty sound though, quite woody and sometimes a little hollow sounding, but it is carefully modulated and always engaging. His approach to the Mendelssohn is surprisingly strident, with expansive melodies and wide bow strokes. It makes for an unusual take on Mendelssohn’s usually intimate concerto, but the music doesn’t suffer for this most robust approach.
The lack of rubato is a greater problem. Beilman rarely takes risks with his tempos or phrasing, and he rarely gives the impression that he is in charge. As a result his solo lines often sound constrained, especially in the first movement. The performance got better as it went on though, the emotional reserve gave the slow movement a surprising elegance, and Beilman’s crisp and light articulation proved ideal for the scurrying finale. In general though this interpretation felt like a work in progress, technically proficient but not yet fully engaged with the soul of the music.
Skrowaczewski offered more with his Bruckner in the second half. Expectations ran high for this performance. His Bruckner cycle with the Saarbrucken RSO is one the true greats, but a live recording he made with the London Philharmonic a few years ago of the Seventh Symphony was even better, almost exactly the same interpretation as 25 years earlier, but performed by a clearly superior orchestra. This evening’s Third Symphony was in the same league; distinctive, often surprising, and utterly unique.
Many conductors give Bruckner’s Third everything they’ve got, huge dynamic contrasts, tempos that range from the frenetic to the static, and sensational climaxes that are all thundering timpani and blazing mariachi trumpets. Skrowaczewski is not in that game. His Bruckner is more considered, carefully balanced and always working within reasonable interpretive limits. He’s full of surprises though, often jerking the music into a different tempo or dynamic in just a few beats where others would labour a transition. His climaxes are loud, but always controlled, drawing excellent tonal control from the brass. Phrases are carefully shaped, but also flow naturally into each other: joined up musical thinking. But he’ll also make a point of cutting off sudden phrase endings, his left hand slowly raising and then shutting down the music with a decisive swoop. Movement endings are always definite but are never exaggerated. The ending of the first movement, a bit of a messy coda on Bruckner’s part, gradually builds up under Skrowaczewski’s baton, but he makes no effort to disguise the bitty and amorphous structure here, knowing that, despite its heterogeneous surface, Bruckner’s underlying cadential chord patterns will do the job. Similarly, the end of the work, where the opening theme returns in the major, is not presented as an earth-shattering apotheosis, but rather as a logical conclusion to the finale’s internal structure. But whatever restraint Skrowaczewski exerts, the results remain deeply emotive, the music’s religious depth communicated more through the sense of inevitability that he gives to its progression than to the otherworldliness of its climaxes.
Microphones were arrayed above the players throughout the concert, suggesting that this Bruckner performance will be joining the Seventh in the LPO Live catalogue. If and when it appears, buy without hesitation. 

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Schoenberg Master and Pupil Jane Manning Kings Place 4.3.14

Zemlinsky: Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (1891)
Dallapiccola: Ciaccona, Intermezzo and Adagio (1946)
Nono: ¿Donde estás, hermano?
Schoenberg: Pierrot lunaire

Jane Manning (soprano); Benjamin Baker (violin); Rohan de Saram (cello); Susan Milan (flute/piccolo); David Campbell (clarinet/bass clarinet); Julian Jacobson (piano); Giora Bernstein (conductor); Alberto Portugheis (piano); Marie Jaermann (soprano); Seljan Nasibili (soprano); Katie Coventry (mezzo); Anna Migallos (alto)

Jane Manning gave her 100th performance of Pierrot lunaire this evening, an extraordinary achievement by any standards. She has been singing this incredible song cycle for almost 50 years, and her affinity with the work’s unique gestural language is evident in every phrase. She has that crazed cabaret Schtick down to a T, all those spat out guttural phrases, the un-nerving switches of colour and emotion, the phrases that begin melodically but then degenerate into buzzing nasal consonants.
Sadly, her singing voice isn’t what it what was – how could it be after 50 years? So we missed many of the specifically musical aspects of the solo part. Schoenberg often combines registral extremes with dynamic extremes, and it takes a younger and more supple voice than Manning’s to achieve those kinds of acrobatics. Her Sprechstimme often seems more Sprech than Schoenberg stipulates, and Manning often struggles with the smooth, gradual transitions from speaking to singing and back again.
But otherwise this was a fine performance. Singing is only one of many talents the work demands of its soloist, and in every other respect of Manning’s reading was a triumph. Her diction is excellent, and her timing - musical, dramatic, and comic – is second to none. The clear, immediate acoustic of Kings Place benefited her performance, ensuring clarity of both line and word, and compensating for some of the loss of tone. The ensemble didn’t play down for her benefit, but the subtly and shading of the instrumental performances gave her plenty of aural space in which to present her lines.
Pierrot was given in the second half of the concert and was definitely the highlight. The title of the event was “Schönberg: Master & Pupil” and the works in the first half were intended to provide context for this early masterpiece. So, works were presented by Zemlinsky – teacher and father-in-law, Nono – son-in-law, Gerhard – pupil, and Dallapiccola – no personal connection but No. 1 fan. Despite his pivotal status in 20th-century music, Schoenberg failed to provide a meaningful or apparent connection between any of these pieces, none of which (apart possibly from the Dallapiccola) came close to the quality of his own, and in every case the performances were found wanting.
The concert opened with Three Pieces for Cello composed by Alexander Zemlinsky in 1891. They’ve only recently been rediscovered, thanks to research by Raphael Wallfisch, so they don’t have much of a performance history. That isn’t reason enough to programme them here though, and they didn’t have much to add. If the intention was to demonstrate the conservatism of the musical world of Schoenberg’s youth, then the case was exaggerated through the use of student works that make Zemlinsky sound even more stylistically restricted than he was. The three short movements are pleasant enough, but these insecure and under-rehearsed performances from Rohan de Saram (who is surely capable of better things) and Alberto Portugheis did them no justice. De Saram then gave us Ciaccona, Intermezzo & Adagio by Luigi Dallapiccola, the one work in this first that earnt its keep. Dallapiccola, as was his wont, skilfully combines serial techniques with idiomatic and lyrical writing to impressively dramatic effect. But again, the performance was insecure and unfocussed in both intonation and tone production.
We then heard ¿Donde estás, hermano?,  a vocal quartet by Nono, performed here by four undergradates from the Royal College of Music. This piece seems to rely on approximate pitches, chosen to create transient dissonances and beat effects. The sense of approximation was apparent, but a bit more confidence would have helped. The first half ended with a performance of Gerhard’s Dances from Don Quixote given by Alberto Portugheis, who curated the event, but who (thankfully) was replaced at the piano by Julian Jacobson for the Schoenberg. The Gerhard was another interesting inclusion, with lots of folk material in the melodic lines seemingly locked in continuous tension with the more Schoenbergian harmonies beneath. As a result, Schoenberg’s influence on this music, while readily apparent, didn’t seem all that constructive. And, again, the performance was no better than adequate – enthusiastic and fluid, but technically insecure, even in the simplest passages.
Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire is always worth an outing, and even with her advancing years, Jane Manning’s interpretation is very fine. And acknowledging the work’s historical context in concert programming is a laudable aim too. But there has to be a better way to do it than this.