Thursday, 26 May 2011

LSO Uchida Davis Barbican 26 May 2011

Haydn, Beethoven, Nielsen: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 26.5.11
Haydn: Symphony No.99
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.2
Nielsen: Symphony No.6

Colin Davis has been conducting Haydn symphonies since long before anybody was taking the idea the idea of period performance seriously. Those (paradoxically) new ideas about how to perform the music stand in opposition to a long and vibrant tradition, which retains all its vitality under Davis' baton. He doesn't intervene too much in the flow of the music, his role is more to energise and inspire. And even though the string section is relatively large, the results are impressively nimble. Ensemble and tuning were occasional problems, especially in the strings. When Davis spurs them on to loud dynamics that are out of their comfort zone, both the tone and the coordination can suffer.
When it comes to working with soloists, there are distinct advantages to working with the very best. The ensemble problems in the strings continued into the opening tutti of the Beethoven concerto, but when Mitsuko Uchida entered everything changed. From then on the orchestra was note perfect, and the perfection continued after her departure to elevate the Nielsen performance considerably above the Haydn. Do we have Uchida to thank? Who knows, but her performance was certainly inspiring. I hadn't heard her perform much Beethoven before, and I had wondered if she would have the necessary weight for his strident textures. But Uchida has a knack of setting the agenda on her own terms. As soon as she began, it became clear that I had been asking all the wrong questions. Instead, the issue became whether Beethoven has the required subtly and sophistication for an Uchida performance. He does, of course, and her performance was as convincing as any. She makes impressive musical capital out of questioning Beethoven's certainties. In the first movement in particular, many of the piano phrases seem to be written as dogmatic statements. But Uchida presents them more as suggestions, as if to say "Is this what the piano should be doing here?" And of course it is, but as a listener you feel that your views have been taken on board, or at least your presence has been acknowledged. Her performance wasn't note-perfect by any means, there were a good deal of wrong notes, and she got seriously lost a few bars into the first movement cadenza. But none of that detracted from this incredible performance.
Even by Nielsen's own standards, his Sixth Symphony is an eccentric work. There is nothing you can take for granted here, with the form, the orchestration and the harmony continually taking unpredictable turns into the unknown. There is enough great writing, especially in the first movement to compensate for its many wanton eccentricities. Most of those eccentricities come in the inner movements, and the second in particular gives the uneasy impression that it is all a big joke at the listener's expense. Full credit though to Colin Davis for tackling this and Nielsen's other symphonies so late in his career. They all require clear and focussed musical direction, and they certainly get it. This Sixth in particular is a work that presents huge challenges to everybody on the podium and particularly the conductor. The players had obviously done their homework too, because the orchestral playing here was ideal – precise, coordinated and focussed, and without any trace of pedantry, nor, I should add, of resentment at the bizarre challenges to which they were being put, often for only obscure musical gains.
No doubt a recording of this performance of the Sixth Symphony will find its way onto the LSO Live label, and given the quality of the playing it could well turn out to be as good as any on the market. The concert is being repeated on 2 June (with Uchida playing Beethoven's First Concerto). That concert will be broadcast live on Radio 3. Do tune in, but don't worry if you're not in time to catch the Haydn.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

RPO Beethoven Night Zukerman 11 May 2011

Beethoven: Pinchas Zukerman (violin and conductor), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, RFH, London, 11.5.11
Beethoven: Egmont Overture
Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony No.5
In all my years of concert going in London, this was the first time I had heard the RPO live. Bizarrely, I hadn't heard Beethoven 5 live either, although of course, I have enjoyed a long (and occasionally passionate) relationship with both the orchestra and the symphony on record.
RPO concerts, at least on the strength of this one experience, aren't like concerts by other London orchestras. The audience is older but more enthusiastic. Of course, with an all-Beethoven programme, what's not to like? They seemed to be equally passionate about Pinchas Zukerman, and both his conducting and his playing occasioned almost apoplectic applause.
So much for the audience, what was the performance like? To be honest, I didn't think much of it. Beethoven sits at the fault line of the standard repertoire; every earlier composer has been more or less appropriated by the period performance movement, while later composers are still firmly in the symphony orchestra repertoire. But both make equal claims to Beethoven. Mutual influence can make that advantageous for both parties, with the period instrument ensembles moving towards more dramatic performances and the symphony orchestras refining what they do with Beethoven's scores.
Not the RPO though, they are still performing Beethoven as if it where Mahler, with a huge string section, and everything played out in grand sweeping gestures. There are one or two advantages to this approach, Beethoven's orchestrations really benefit from the contributions of a double bass section of twelve players. But the playing of the whole orchestra lacked precision, and Beethoven's nimble rhythms were often bogged down just by the sheer weight of the ensemble.
The opening of Egmont was an indicator of what was ahead. The sinister chords of the opening passage were presented with all the corners rounded off. The rest of the overture was certainly weighty, but hardly incisive. The orchestra played with passion but lacked precision, not in their tuning, that was generally OK, but in their ensemble was approximate at best.
After the overture, the podium was quickly moved from the stage, and Zukerman returned with his violin to both play and conduct the Beethoven concerto. The concert was clearly all about Zukerman, his bio in the programme ran to three pages, about six times as much as most soloists or conductors usually get. While he is a relative newcomer to conducting, it is the violin he is best known for. Again, I wasn't particularly impressed with the results. Many concertos can be played fine with the soloist directing the ensemble, and I'm sure there is precedent with this one, but much is lost in the process. The orchestra really needs somebody to shape the phrases, especially in the slow movement, and without one they are reduced to mere backing. Zukerman performs the piece with a gritty, strident tone, which certainly competes with the volume of the orchestra but isn't very pretty. He delivers the phrases in an assertive and deliberate manner, his brow furrowed in concentration and his gaze fixed on the floor. True enough, Beethoven's concerto is one of the heavier in the violin's repertoire, but it needs some lightness and grace as well.
The finale fared better than the first two movements. Zukerman's muscular bowing worked to the benefit of the strong downbeats of the main theme, allowing him to clearly articulate its shape. And the orchestra responded well to his playing here, balancing the weight of these refrains with some real delicacy (at last!) in the quieter interludes.
Zukerman conducted Beethoven's Fifth from a score, which surprised me, especially as he seemed to know it well enough not to need the text. The performance was a mixed bag. To his credit, he didn't exaggerate any of the gestures in the outside movements, keeping the tempos steady and giving just enough dynamic contrast to articulate their structure. But both the opening movement and the finale suffered from some fatal longueurs, with the energy dropping to such and extent in the quieter passages that it often proved almost impossible to revive.
The inner movements worked better. There was an endearing gentleness about the second movement, with both the conductor and orchestra apparently content to allow the variations to gradually play out, one after the other. The third movement too was presented without undue histrionics. In fact, it went too far the other way, and could have done with more drama and punch.
But despite my own reservations, the audience again went wild at the end of the symphony. There are different Beethovens for different audiences I suppose, and Pinchas Zukerman delivers the kind of Beethoven that these listeners respond to. Even so, a little more precision, clarity and interpretive focus would go a long way, and I suspect make this a more satisfying experience for everybody involved.
Gavin Dixon

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Not All String Quartets Are The Same: An Interview With The Ligeti Quartet

The Ligeti Quartet are very rare breed, a young quartet who specialise in contemporary music. Gavin Dixon meets up with them to hear about getting to grips with the toughest music in the repertoire, performing at some unusual venues, and what to pick from the menu when you're eating Japanese.

Photo: Gianluca de Girolamo

When young professional musicians are difficult to track down, that's usually a good sign. The players of the Ligeti Quartet seem to be as busy as any, and it took a good few weeks before we found a time that we could all meet up for an interview. In the end, we decided on late-night meal at a Japanese restaurant after what sounded like a strenuous three-hour rehearsal.
They had been working on a new piece with the Columbian composer Camilo Andrés Méndez San Juan. It sounded like he had been working them hard, but by the end minds were starting to wander.
Richard Jones, the group's viola player tells me "Val [Welbanks the cellist] decided what she was going to have over the course of our rehearsal just now, she kept leaning across and saying "I'm definitely going to have soup". Then ten minutes later it was ginger chicken. Is it still ginger chicken?" And indeed it is. That sounds like a good recommendation so I order the same, udon noodles with ginger chicken. Delicious!
After some detailed discussion of the menu, the conversation turns to music. They are an unusual group; it is rare enough to find a string quartet that specialises in new music, but a young quartet who have their sights set on the most difficult of modern repertoire is all but unheard of. I ask how the group got together, and it turns out to be more complicated than expected. There were a few random meetings and shared gigs here and there, where the players got to know each other. The world of contemporary chamber music is, it seems, a small one, so like minded players are inevitably going to meet.
"Something that brought us together" Richard tells me "was the First String Quartet by Gabriel Prokofiev. He asked us to play it in Oxford. That was the first time we had worked solidly together towards something. That was about a year ago."
Gabriel Prokofiev (Sergei's grandson) is himself a bright young thing on the contemporary classical music circuit, and his music draws on all sorts of influences. His "NONCLASSICAL" club nights are the antithesis of the traditional chamber recital format. Playing in new and interesting settings is an integral part of what the Ligeti Quartet is all about, but his composition is at the more accessible end of the contemporary music spectrum. I ask if the style of his music has dictated the later course of the quartet's activities, and I'm certainly expecting the answer to be "No", given the name they have chosen for themselves.
"We don't want to be pigeon-holed" says Mandhira de Saram, who plays first violin. Val agrees "We don't want to be limited to playing one kind of music." But there is one kind of music that is definitely at the centre of what the do, the modernist repertoire that poses the most difficult technical challenges a chamber performer can face. And those challenges are clearly what get these players going.
"When we do something like the Gubaidulina Third quartet, we feel a real sense of achievement when we play that to an audience and they get something out of it." True enough, Gubaidulina's Third Quartet is a pretty full-on modernist work, but it's not the toughest piece they played, and it becomes clear listening to the discussion of the new piece they have been practising this evening that it is harder still.
However, all four players are keen to stress that their concerts are more than just a contest with the notes, and prospective audience members should be reassured to hear that difficult modernist works only make up one part of their stylistically diverse programmes.
Patrick Dawkins, the second violin player tells me "We want to involve audiences as much as possible and be accessible in everything we do. We don't want to play, for example, a concert of incredibly complex music just for the sake of it." So their repertoire stretches from the gritty modernists, via one or two more established 20th century names like Kodaly and Ravel, all the way to the minimalism of Reich and Glass.
That brings me round to the group's promising name. How, I ask, did they come to be known as the Ligeti Quartet?
None of the players is quite sure which of them came up with the idea, but the reason for it is clear. Richard says "We were unanimously enthusiastic about learning the Ligeti Quartets, so it seemed like a good name." They have already performed his early Andante and Allegretto (classic Ligeti, I'm told, as conservative as Communist Hungary required, but with premonitions of the distinctive style of his later years), and the First String Quartet is scheduled for the end of June.
So what about the Second Quartet? If ever there was a piece with a fearsome reputation it is this. The première of the work in the early 60s had to be repeatedly postponed because it took the players over a year to learn all the passages with artificial harmonics. This, I suspect, is the reason it hasn't yet made an appearance on this group's programmes. But no, I'm quite wrong, and questions about the Second Quartet don't phase them at all. They are learning the Ligeti quartets in chronological order, and will turn their attentions to the Second towards the end of the year.
That's not to say that they need the help of any composer to do what they do. Improvisation is becoming an increasingly important part of the Ligeti Quartet's activities. At one recent event, at the October Gallery near Russell Square, players from the quartet performed a series of free improvisations inspired by the paintings of Kenji Yoshida. Improvising in this sort of context is, I suggest, a very different activity from performing the works of contemporary composers.
"Not necessarily" says Val "it is about confidence and knowing that, even though one of us might start doing something different, the others can take up the new idea and then go with it."
"Improvising is not that different from normal quartet playing" according to Richard "When you are playing from music, there is a huge amount you do with it that is spontaneous, or that should be. You can't plan a lot of the things that end up happening, so I don't think it is a huge step to go towards improvising."
It turns out that improvisations based on paintings are just one of the ways in which the quartet work with other art forms. They have a concert coming up in September where the ceramicist Marisol Jacquemot will be presenting work inspired by their programme. Collaborations with singers and dancers are also planned, including the première of a new chamber opera at this year's Brighton Festival.
The relationship between visual arts and music brings us round to the question of performance venues. It is clear from the quartet's programme of upcoming events that they do not limit their activities to concert hall and traditional chamber concert settings.
Patrick tells me "The venue is really important, because that is something that can put people off contemporary music. You hear a lot of discussion about why contemporary art is so popular at the moment compared to contemporary music, and I'm sure it is to do with the setting. The concert hall can be an intimidating environment for many people."
Val takes up the theme "Contemporary music is like contemporary art in that how the audience takes it in depends a lot on the setting. You can have a fantastic piece of contemporary art outside and it will be really effective, but you put it in the sterile environment of a museum and it loses its effect. And the traditional concert setting can be much the same."
Audiences seeking a relaxed and friendly atmosphere to hear some new music are likely to find exactly that at the Red Hedgehog in Highgate where the quartet are about to take up a residency. The venue takes its name from Brahms' favourite coffee house, and the idea is to recreate the conviviality and artistic milieu of 19th century Vienna.
"It's a great little chamber music venue" Mandhira enthuses "very intimate. Works like Gubaidulina's Third Quartet and Camilo's piece are really intimate pieces, and it is nice to be able to play really pianissimo."
"And when everyone is so close" continues Richard "they can see the action and the interaction. With much contemporary music, like the Gubaidulina, it is all about the interaction between the players, so it is great when the audience can see that going on."
Clearly, the Reg Hedgehog is the ideal venue to hear the Ligeti Quaret. Their next concerts at the venue are scheduled for 15 May, 17 July and 25 September. Each event takes place on a Sunday afternoon, and lasts around an hour. To find out about these, and about the quartet's many other upcoming appearances, check out their website: