Friday, 29 June 2012

Salonen conducts Philharmonia in Phibbs and Mahler RFH 28 June 2012

Joseph Phibbs: Rivers to the Sea
Mahler: Symphony no.2
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus
Kate Royal soprano
Monica Groop mezzo
Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor 

There can be few challenges for a composer more daunting than writing a companion piece to a Mahler symphony. Fortunately Joseph Phibbs has the measure of the task, and his new work, Rivers to the Sea, neither competes with Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, nor is it overwhelmed by the scale or impact of that monumental work.
The piece was commissioned to celebrate the 18th birthday of the Anvil concert hall in Basingstoke, where is received its premiere last week. It is no doubt easier to make an impression in that more intimate venue, but the work also has enough substance to make a mark in the Festival Hall too.
But the scale of the piece is deceptive. A large orchestra is kept busy for the best part of half an hour, yet the musical material it explores is slight. Phibbs takes a laudably disciplined approach to his task, devising a selection of colourful but straightforward ideas and allotting each a separate movement. The formal plan resembles a symphony – four movements arranged around a central interlude – but the actual music is anything but. There is little development here, and Phibbs instead presents each movement as what he calls a 'musical snapshot', drawing on specific sonorities and colours, and laying out each over the course of a four or five minute movement.
If this relationship between colour and form suggests Debussy, that's unlikely to be a coincidence. The mention of the sea in the work's title demonstrates how, like Debussy, Phibbs uses the idea of undulating waves as inspiration for his orchestral textures. The big difference is the (English?) reserve with which Phibbs applies the idea. Unlike Debussy, he always has his feet very securely on dry land and never gets carried away in the moment. And that small group of musical ideas, elaborated within clearly defined confines, creates a sense of discipline in the music that Debussy would be unlikely to recognise.
Other voices are also heard in the background. The work is dedicated to this evening's conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and there are traces here of Salonen's own music, particularly the minimalist pulsations from the double basses and the maximalist presto runs in the upper woodwind. A much stronger presence is Salonen's compatriot and hero Sibelius. The horn writing throughout the work harks back to Sibelius' symphonies, and Phibbs' reserved approach to his otherwise Romantic aesthetic suggests the economical discourse of Sibelius' late symphonies. There is also some Latin percussion in the mix, although this seemed intended more for colouration than rhythmic propulsion.
The piece received as fine a performance as any young composer could ask from the Philharmonia. There was little here to tax the orchestra, apart perhaps from the more complex textures of the final movement. Some great opportunities for the orchestra to show off its principle players though, and honourable mentions go to the clarinet, harp, tuba and xylophone soloists.
After two years of Mahler celebrations there is a very real danger of audience fatigue. That's never a problem for Salonen though. He knows how to keep even the most familiar music fresh, and led a performance of the Second Symphony that was an interpretation in every sense. The conductor writes in the programme that he sees the symphony as a journey from darkness to light, which was exactly how he presented the work. The focal point was the first choral entry towards the end of the finale. Everything up to this point seemed to build up to it, with fast tempos, unrelenting pace and a real sense of structural cohesion in the preceding movements. But once the choir had made their entry, Salonen considered redemption to have been achieved, and pulled back the tempos for an expansive but still intense conclusion.
His is a convincing approach, but much is lost in the race to the conclusion. In order to create that sense of structure and unity in the first movement, Salonen maintained fast and rigid tempos throughout. This had the frustrating effect of obscuring many of the details. Also, he rarely lingers in the moments of quiet before each of the many storms, over-riding the contrasts that Mahler sets up to heighten the impact of his climaxes.
The second movement made up for the lack of rubato in the first. Some elegant playing here from the strings, a welcome respite from the continuous intensity, which soon returned in the third. Excellent singing from Monica Groop in Urlicht. She was a late substitution, but gave an impressive performance, although her tuning went a little awry in the last minute or two of this fourth movement. Kate Royal was more operatic in her reading of the soprano part, with lots of passion and lots of vibrato. It didn't quite fit, although it may have done if she had been partnered by a similarly florid mezzo. The Philharmonia Chorus seemed small, at least for this work, but just about managed to dominate the orchestra when required.
Good playing from the orchestra in the Mahler. Salonen goes for emphatic articulation, especially from the strings, and they were able to provide exactly the punch he was looking for. It wasn't all ideal though, there were occasional tuning problems in the woodwind, and the off-stage brass had a pretty bad night of it. But on the whole this an engaging and convincing Mahler performance, and yet another reminder, if any were needed, that when Salonen is on the podium nothing will ever sound routine.

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is availible to listen on demand until 5 July at:

Thursday, 14 June 2012

LSO, Pires, Haitink, Barbican 14 June 2012

Purcell, Mozart, Bruckner: London Symphony Orchestra, Maria Joao Pires (Piano), Bernard Haitink (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 14.6.12
Purcell arr. Stucky: Funeral Music for Queen Mary
Mozart Piano Concerto No.23
Bruckner Symphony no.7

If it ain't broke don't fix it – that's the LSO's approach to Bernard Haitink's annual visits. Every year he comes to London and gives three concerts in a week. Maria Joao Pires gives a Mozart piano concerto in the first half of each, and they usually conclude with a Bruckner symphony. Loyal audience members can be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu.
And it ain't broke. Even in his advancing years, Haitink remains a safe pair of hands in the core repertoire. Watching the slow physical decline of many conductors of his generation, and younger, can make concerts by senior maestri an uncomfortable experience. But Haitink is still going strong. It helps that he has always favoured slower tempi and efficient physical directions – the trademark Haitink approach has never relied on athletics. Tonight's concert had its flaws, but it was clear from every bar that we were in the presence of a conductor who continues to earn the top billing that he has commanded for so many decades.
The concert opened with something of a surprise, Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary, arranged for winds and percussion at Salonen's request by Steven Stucky in 1992. Given that most of us are familiar with the march mainly from modern instrument performances, the arranger's job would seem to be inconsequential. But Stucky adds in some surprises, some minimalist ostinato from the piano and harp and more percussion than the music can comfortably handle. The result feels a little sanitised, as if Purcell's austere chords have been arranged to fit into a Hollywood soundtrack, but their power remains. A great performance here from all the brass players, who relished the opportunities offered by an arrangement that really plays to their modern instruments' strengths.
Mozart's 23rd Piano Concerto earns its place in the repertoire through its seductive slow movement, and that was the highlight of Pires' performance. She affords the music its elegant and dignified simplicity without ever adding too much in the way of rubato or dynamics. The outer movements, and the finale in particular, contain a lot of trivial passage work, and it's not the pianist's fault that these failed to hold the attention. Pires has a soft touch, her attack on each note is decisive, it's just not very hard. This meant she sometimes risked being swamped by the orchestra, who played sensitively but could have done with a few less desks of strings.
Haitink's Bruckner 7 is a known quantity to London audiences, and there were no real surprises in his interpretation this evening. That didn't matter, because he really has the measure of the piece, and his handling of every phrase speaks of decades of valuable experience. As with the Mozart, the Adagio was the real gem here. Haitink took it relatively fast, which in combination with the well-sustained string tone allowed the overall structure of the movement to retain the foreground. Conversely, the Scherzo was on the slow side, but this allowed Haitink to highlight the stylistic distinction between the intense, dramatic music and the more rustic interludes.
In the finale, Haitink's articulation of the phrases and his build ups to the climaxes was textbook stuff. It seems so natural when he does it, yet the many failures in this music by his younger colleagues attest to the fact that real skill is needed.
The LSO strings were on top form, and their playing was a particular treat in the Bruckner. Not so the winds though. The woodwind and especially the brass struggled to get into the groove in the first 10 minutes or so of the symphony, and even when they did it never quite clicked. An essential ingredient of Haitink's Bruckner is turning the brass up to 11 in the finales, and while they provided the dynamics he was after, the tone quality suffered. That's unusual for this band, but then we are talking about very loud dynamics indeed, which combined with Haitink's famously slow tempos doesn't make things easy for the back row of the orchestra.
That was a shame. It took the shine off what should have been a transcendental finale. But there was plenty to relish in the earlier part of the concert. Next year, Haitink and Pires are back for Mozart's 17th and 21st Concertos and Bruckner's 9th. We know what we're getting and we know it will be good, just so long as the brass can keep it together in that scherzo.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Performer Biographies – What's the Point?

If you go to a classical concert, it's always a toss up whether to buy a programme. If you do, you can be sure of finding out all about the music. Orchestras take their programme notes seriously, find knowledgeable writers and give them plenty of space to discuss the works being played.
What you won't discover is anything of interest about the performers. Conductors and soloists usually get a single column, containing two or three paragraphs that tell you precisely nothing about them. You'll get a list of orchestras they've worked with and the names of some of the awards they've won. You might find out they play a Strad or a Guadagnini and, if you care, you'll be told the name of their agent.
If the concert you are attending is given by a leading London orchestra, few of the other ensembles the artists has worked with are likely to be as prestigious, making the long list of orchestra names wholly redundant. Worse still, the orchestra sitting on the stage is usually present on the list, taking that redundancy into the realm of farce.
In fairness, these bios do occasionally discuss the performer's formative years, when they picked the instrument up and who they studied with. But these details can seem curiously de-contextualised when we haven't been told the performer's age, nationality, musical interests, other interests...
Obviously, a programme biography should focus on a musician's professional activities. But here is an excellent opportunity to humanise the music, to show that the musicians are real people with diverse interests and lives away from the concert platform.
Take Semyon Bychkov. He's a fascinating conductor, but he visits the UK far too rarely for audiences to know much about him. So you pick up a programme, and it might, if you're very lucky, tell you that he studied under the great Ilya Musin, but then it might not. What it certainly won't tell you is that he lives in Paris, is married to Marielle Labèque and that his younger brother was the recently deceased Yakov Kreizberg. Interesting details I'd have thought, that help us position him in classical music's constellation of international stars.
Something about the performer's relationship with the music on the programme would also be welcome, even if it was ghost-written and only approved by their agent. Without that sort of connection between performer and programme, the bio just feels like a press release.
I'm sure that diplomacy and lengthy communication would be required between orchestras, soloists and agents if we were to be offered artist bios that actually told us something. But given the time, effort and money that orchestras are willing to put into the design of the programme books, and into the programme note texts, is it too much to ask for something of equal depth and interest on the musicians whose interpretations we have come to hear?