Thursday, 27 January 2011

Eötvös, Liszt, Zemlinsky: LPO, Jurowski

Eötvös, Liszt, Zemlinsky: Sue Thomas (flute), Nicholas Carpenter (clarinet), Alexander Markovich (piano), Melanie Diener (soprano), Thomas Hampson (baritone), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Festival Hall, London 26.01.1
Peter Eötvös: Shadows (UK premiere of orchestral version)
Liszt: Piano Concerto No.2
Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony
How strange to spend an evening at the Festival Hall and not hear a Mahler symphony. He was there in spirit though, as the guiding voice behind Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony, a work so intensely influenced by Das Lied von der Erde that it has no problems standing in as Mahler's 11th when the man has run out of repertoire.
Programming Zemlinsky as ersatz Mahler suggests an innovative approach to programming Mahler-themed concerts. In fact, the whole programme was very imaginative, and all the works on it, even the Liszt, are rarities. The danger is that coherency is achieved by highlighting the common failures of the works. There are no masterpieces here, which is just as well because any of these pieces would be instantly forgotten if they were programmed with a symphony by Beethoven, or even Mahler.
Vladimir Jurowski tends to get a hard time in the press whenever he programmes any new music, especially if it is from Eastern Europe. He obviously is not letting that phase him, and the concert opened with the UK première of the orchestral version of Peter Eötvös' Shadows. It is a concertante work for flute and clarinet. The stage is divided into symmetrical halves. Each half consists of a string section at the back, the soloist and a row of wind players in front with their backs to the audience. In the middle sit a snare drummer, a celesta and a timpanist. This central continuo group and the soloists have mics, and their sounds are projected through speakers so that they are linked variously to the two groups.
Got all that? The fact that this piece was written by a conductor who specialises in opera is clear from the reliance on spacial effects and musical dramaturgy. The piece is in a series of short movements, only some of which actually use the stage layout for antiphonal effects. It is a fascinating piece, but it never quite achieves anything substantial, which is partly because the individual movements are too short to really make the most of their constituent ideas. There is also a generic problem here; like Ligeti's concertante works, it sets up a dynamic where you expect virtuosity from the soloist supported by ensemble playing from the orchestra. There is little of any of that, but the various alternatives that are proposed are not really explored in depth either.
By following the Eötvös, Liszt's 2nd Piano Concerto also seemed like a very experimental work. And indeed it is. It is another piece that strains against generic conventions. And like the Eötvös, it always seems to be striving for some innovative alternative, but never quite reaches the solution it is looking for. Alexander Markovich gave a surprisingly analytical performance, as if he wanted to present the score warts and all, without making any excuses for its various anomalies. That’s not to say that there was no emotion, in fact the precision of the reading only served to highlight both the drama and the lyricism. But in general the pedalling was restrained and rubato was only applied in moderation. There were a few slips here and there, usually in the fast runs, but on the whole this was a convincing and engaging reading. For an encore, Markovish treated us to slapstick variations on, if I'm not mistaken, the Skater's Waltz. Bizarre.
Treating Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony as makeshift Mahler doesn't really do the score justice. There are many aspects of the work that Mahler would never think of. Both composers were also conductors, but it is interesting how much more leeway Zemlinsky gives the orchestral players. Perhaps the issue here is that unlike Mahler, Zemlinsky rarely conducted orchestras of the calibre of the Vienna or New York Philharmonics. But the way that Zemlinsky paces his unusual orchestral effects has an important bearing on their success in performance. The way that he layers the orchestral counterpoint in his tuttis is also unlike Mahler, not as sophisticated perhaps, but creating a different flavour of psychological angst.
The star of the symphony was Jurowski, who has this complex score down to a T. However, Thomas Hampson came a close second. One unfortunate legacy of Das Lied on the work is the tendency for the orchestra to drown out the soloists. Nobody really fought that in this performance, but it did mean that both soloists had often to sing at the very top of there dynamic ranges. And Hampson's velvety, luxurious tone is just as secure at that volume as it is in the mezzo forte. One or two of the songs are little low for him, but on the whole it was an excellent performance. Melanie Diener sang the solo part well, but was comprehensively outclassed by Hampson. She had all the notes though, and plenty of drama.
An evening of curiosities then, well performed, especially by the orchestra who, as usual, gave their best for Jurowski. A welcome break from Mahler too, although I see from the programme that the LPO's next meeting with him is only at the end of the week.
Gavin Dixon

(This concert was recorded by the BBC and will be broadcast on Radio 3 at 7pm on 1 February)

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

LPO Angelich Nézet-Séguin

Nicholas Angelich piano 
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conductor
Royal Festival Hall, London 19.01.11

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 (Emperor)
Mahler: Symphony No.5

I'm happy to report that there is little sign of Mahler fatigue at the London Philharmonic. It is only five days since they sat on the same stage and performed the Sixth Symphony, a work any compassionate orchestral management would follow with a three week break. But no, here they are with yet another of Mahler's monumental scores, the Fifth, and it's as if last Friday had never happened. Their audience clearly had an appetite for more as well, and like last Friday they again played to a full house.
Of course it is always easy to get bums on seats when there is a Beethoven concerto in the first half, and the Emperor is the most bankable of the lot. Nicholas Angelich is a larger than life pianist, both physically and in the breadth of his interpretation. He is not one for filigree details, and his focus in the Emperor was clearly on the architecture. The piece was paced like a Bruckner symphony, the paragraphs all strung between the mighty climaxes. 'Romantic' would be a polite way to describe Angelich's technique. All the large chords were hammered home, and the runs were all treated with virtuosic flair. The quiet passages were evenly paced, but not relished in quite the same way. In short, it was Beethoven played as Rachmaninov. There is no point in considering issues of authenticity here, instead the passion and the drama was expected to carry the day. It was an effective reading up to a point, although the lack of subtly in the dynamics and phrasing had the effect of making the whole thing slightly monotonous, and the excessive pedal saw off any possibility of nuance. I'm sure there is a place for this sort of Beethoven, although when I expressed that view to my neighbour in the interval, her response was 'Perhaps, but it is not here'.
The Mahler was given a much more satisfying performance. This was my first encounter with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, although I had heard plenty of hype about him when he appeared on the London scene a few years back, and I have to confess I was sceptical that he could live up to the billing. Well, I'm a convert: everything you've read – ok almost everything you've read – about him is true. He manages to combine the old-fashioned conducting virtues of detailed score study and clear baton technique with the fiery passion that characterises the many 30-something conductors who are doing the rounds at the moment. Just watching him conduct is an amazing experience. He really lives the music, and in the case of a Mahler symphony that means putting in an athletic performance. He seems to conduct with every available extremity: arms, head, body, you name it. But, crucially, he also gives a clear beat and never forgets a cue.
If there is a downside to this hyperactive lead from the podium, it is a slight tendency to over-control. The first two movements were given with an electric reading, and there was never a moment to linger. But there are occasions when a bit of lingering is called for. Mahler carefully prepares each of his cataclysmic climaxes, and usually follows each with a passage of post-apocalyptic calm. But each time, Nézet-Séguin begins to look ahead as soon as the climax has past. The valuable momentum and coherency is maintained, but at a cost.
The grand exception was the scherzo. Nézet-Séguin began it in typically frenetic fashion, conducting in three at a tempo that most conductors would be happy to lead in a one. So far so dictatorial. But then came the pizzicato passage, and it opened up a whole new facet to Nézet-Séguin's Mahler. At last he was living for the moment, giving pregnant pauses between the phrases, gradually accelerating into phrases, and shaping everything with a real warmth.
The Adagietto was similarly well-judged. It started briskly but that was only a passing fad, and he kept the tempos satisfyingly elastic throughout. This was another case of intestine control from the podium, but the fact the movement is scored for strings meant that he could treat the whole section as if it were a single instrument.
A rousing finale to finish the programme off. It came close to finishing the brass players off as well. They were the only section who showed any fatigue from their two Mahler symphonies is a week schedule. There were one or two splits, but they also often had a course tone and poor balance. You really can't blame them though, considering the punishing schedule. So what's next for them? The Franck Symphony in D minor on Sunday! Somebody should call the union.

Friday, 14 January 2011

LPO, Kavakos, Wildner: Szymanowski, Mahler

Szymanowski, Mahler: Leonidas Kavakos, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Johannes Wildner, Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.01.11
Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no.2
Mahler: Symphony No.6
Leonidas Kavakos violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Johannes Wildner conductor
According to the programme, Jaap van Zweden had intended to include the third hammer blow of fate in the finale of Mahler's Sixth Symphony. That may explain why he ended up 'indisposed' for the event (although flu was the official explanation), to be replaced by Johannes Wildner. And guess what, Wildner left it out! Well, there's no point in tempting the fates, especially when they've already struck once. To Wildner's credit, this was the only aspect of the concert that he played safe, and given that he was a last minute stand-in, he made an impressive job of putting his own stamp on the symphony.
But before that came Szymanowski's Second Violin Concerto, and how Wildner could pick up the baton and conduct that at a moment's notice I'll never know. It is a virtuoso piece for everybody, soloist, orchestra and conductor alike. In many ways, it is the ideal piece for Leonidas Kavakos. He is a player with a lot of sound. Or rather, he is a player who can project across a large orchestra without reducing the sophistication or the timbral variety of his sound. Szymanowski asks a lot of the soloist, there are jumps all around the instrument's range, extended passages of double stopping, instant changes of tempo and mood, and above all an orchestral part that almost always seems to be fighting against the violin. Kavakos handled all these challenges expertly, and produced a performance that could win round even the most sceptical of Szymanowski sceptics. The music flirts constantly with playing styles that evoke folk fiddling, and in less disciplined hands that could sound trite in the extreme. But Kavakos knows where to find the real music in this score, and he has an uncanny ability to make almost every phrase sound as compositionally proficient as Bartok. It's not, of course, but that's easy to forget when you're immersed in that warm rich string sound. And on one final note of praise, the intonation was perfect throughout, which given the long, extended passages of double stopping in strange registers is an astonishing achievement.
Although Jaap van Zweden was not there in body, his presence was felt in the programme for the evening, and the coupling of the Szymanowski Concerto with Mahler's Sixth Symphony was an inspired move. Both are based on lush, saturated textures from a huge orchestra, but the concerto is more modest in scope, providing the ideal warm up for the main event.
Quite how much time Wildner had had in front of the orchestra before the concert was difficult to say. His last minute substitution showed only in a few moments of uncertainty. The last few bars of the Szymanowski, for example, didn't quite have the punch that the score clearly intended, and there were a few moments in the inner movements of the symphony where the wind soloists were clearly expecting a change of tempo that didn't happen. But apart from that, the conductor really made the concert, and the symphony in particular, his own. The greatest strength of his interpretation was the relentless drive of the outer movements. The first movement was slightly faster than usual, and with slightly less rubato, making the whole experience appropriately harrowing. The scherzo came second, and achieved some impressive aggression though its switching mercilessly between the driving rhythms and the calm interludes. If I've one criticism of Wildner's reading, it is his lack of a middle ground between the two. The loud, insistent music in the outer movements was great, as were the calm interludes, but Mahler does write transitions between them, they usually only last a few bars, but Wildner steam rollered most of them in order to present the following section as a surprise. They are shock tactics basically, and after a while it loses its impact.
All was forgiven though in the finale, which was presented with all the intensity you could want. The orchestra excelled themselves here, ensuring clarity in every tutti texture, no matter how dense or heavily scored. Special mention should go to the soloists on: tuba, horn, cor anglais (in the third movement), and violin, all of whom excelled. I wasn't too impressed with the sound of the hammer blows, and perhaps the LPO's piece of staging was designed with the old Festival Hall acoustic in mind. The livelier, more resonant sound in the hall now really needs something with more punch.
An impressive evening though, and with an unlikely star at the podium. Last minute stand-ins are an all too regular occurrence for every orchestra, but to find a man at a few hours notice willing and able to conduct a programme like this, and to make such an impressive job of it, that's a very rare achievement indeed.
Gavin Dixon

Friday, 7 January 2011

Annettes DaschSalon

From this side of the channel, Germany seems like a country where musical culture is divided categorically between art and entertainment, the Ernst and the Unterhaltung. What then to make of 'Annettes DaschSalon'? Its a primetime chatshow, broadcast from Berlin, and hosted by one of the biggest names in German opera, the soprano Annette Dasch.
From the frustratingly short clips and trailers on the internet, the whole thing seems to be light as a feather. There are some crossover type slots, which usually involve Dasch singing with pop stars and often playing the guitar. But on the whole, the guest list is mainly classical: Thomas Quasthoff, the horn section of the Berlin Philharmonic, Juliane Banse, even Daniel Hope (whose German is more than sufficient for his appearance on the couch).
Judging by Dasch's opera commitments, this is strictly a part-time engagement. And anybody who heard her Elsa at Bayreuth last year (even just on the radio) will be keen that it stays that way – even by their standards she is phenomenal Wagnerian soprano.
Are their any lessons here for those trying to find a wider audience for opera in the UK? Sadly, I suspect not. There is a respect for classical music in Germany that just isn't matched in the UK, a sense of common ownership that stretches even to those who never listen to it. That's something the Berlin TV execs can always rely on, while the BBC continue to be forced to disguise their classical programming is something else.
Watch some highlights from the show here.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Alfred Schlee: music publisher as hero?

We usually think of music publishers as functionaries at best. They are facilitators rather than creators, and they occupy the one role in the creation of new music that is seemingly motivated by finance rather than art. All that is grossly unfair, of course, and role of music publishers in distributing and disseminating new music is all too easily overlooked.
Even so, the wartime activities of Alfred Schlee are truly extraordinary and deserve to be better known. Schlee found himself at the head of Universal Edition, Austria's leading new music publisher at the Anshluss in 1938. Difficult times for all concerned, but UE found themselves in deeper trouble than most, as the Nazis were in the process of banning a large section of the UE roster. Taking Milhaud and Krenek out of circulation was one thing, but banning performances of Mahler was really going to have an impact on the company's bottom line. Worse still, the Nazis wanted UE in German hands, so Goering personally oversaw its takeover by Schott and later Peters.
So what did Schlee do while all this was going on? Well, he didn't panic. He was a personal friend of the mayor of Vienna, who, while a member of the Nazi party, was also an Austrian nationalist. The mayor made sure that the Gestapo was kept at arm's length while Schlee did what he had to do. He began salting away all the company's entarten scores – which included large chunks of the output of Schoenberg and Weill – pretty much anywhere he could think of. Apparently the organs of village churches around Austria were filled with the manuscripts, as was Schlee's own house.
Then there was Webern. The ascetic composer did himself no favours in terms of the financial viability of his lifestyle, but Schlee ensured him an income throughout the war by employing him as an arranger and reader.
After the war, UE was re-established as an Austrian company, and then began the second heroic phase of Schlee's career. From the late 40s onwards, the company, under Schlee's directorship became a heaven for Soviet bloc composers who were having a hard time at home. So names like Ligeti, Kurtag, Schnittke and Denisov appeared on the international scene thanks largely to his single-handed support.
Alfred Schlee's name is known today mainly through the many works that were written in 1991 to mark his 90th birthday. The composers included Messiaen, Schnittke, Kurtag and Birtwistle – quite a line-up.
He was by all accounts a very private man. Pierre Boulez, another high-profile signing to UE, said "If you want to know something about him, you have to ask someone else." That privacy might explain why there is no photograph of him to be found on the internet. There is a good, if frustratingly brief, obituary here though:
There aren't many publishers in the history of music who would warrant the biography treatment, but Alfred Schlee is surely the exception.