Thursday, 30 May 2013

Steven Osborne Vingt regards Queen Elizabeth Hall 29 May 13

Messiaen: Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus
Steven Osborne (piano)

Steven Osborne seemed destined to battle the odds with his performance of Vingt Regards this evening. The steely, clear tones of a Steinway D, in the deadening acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, is hardly the ideal setting for Messiaen’s perfumed devotions. As it turned out, this bright and focussed piano sound proved ideal for Osborne’s reading. Details of texture and harmony are at the heart of his interpretation, and by giving clarity to every chord and every phrase, he was able to demonstrate that there is far more to this music than Catholic mysticism, and that its emotional impact is as much a result of the innovative and finely-wrought piano textures as it is of the theological ideas that inspired it.
In the absence of a resonant acoustic, silences became all the more intense. Audience expectation ran high (no doubt because Osborne’s recording of this work is considered among the finest available) and when he came onto the stage and sat at the keyboard, it seemed that nobody breathed until he played his first chord. And the opening passages set the tone for the performance ahead: quiet and precisely voiced, crystalline and inscrutable. Under other hands, this opening movement can tend towards Impressionism, but Osborne stands further back from the emotion within the music. He lets the varied tone colours shape the phrases, and adds no more rubato than the score demands. This has the paradoxical effect of making the music sound all the more intimate and immediate: Osborne takes himself out of the equation, letting the audience commune directly with the composer. Messiaen himself poses question after question, with his irregular rhythms and unresolving harmonies, and rather than offering his own answers, Osborne leaves the music open for his listeners to decide for themselves. And when major chords and simple cadences appear from within the otherwise complex limited-transposition harmonies, Osborne never dwells on them, suggesting that any resolution they offer is only transient, and that the big questions still remain.
The louder music makes exceptional demands on the performer’s virtuosity. Osborne has the technical facility to deal with everything the Messiaen throws at him. The long crescendos are finely graded, and the climaxes have a volcanic intensity. Sudden dynamic changes are expertly timed to give each new idea a sense of inevitability: there was never any feeling here that either Messiaen or Osborne was simply out to shock.
Osborne’s unromantic reading is fully validated by the quiet movements. The composer’s message is conveyed here through the continual repetition of the elegant ideas, rather than through that elegance itself. These passages are presented with clarity of texture, and with the repetitions suggesting gentle insistence rather than pedantry. The approach works because Osborne also has a mastery of the music’s form and progression, which given the sheer scale of this work is perhaps the most impressive aspect of his reading. Messiaen often writes long, long crescendos and diminuendos over angular repeating figures. Osborne makes the dynamic changes, but also keeps the colour and character of the music constant throughout. And then when it returns, many movements later, it is exactly the same as we last heard it.
The heart of the performance was the penultimate movement, “I sleep but my heart keeps watch”. We hear a short chordal motif, repeated incessantly and interpolated by short scurrying figures at the top of the keyboard, and a tolling bass note at the bottom. An absolute silence separates each of these elements, not as a rhetorical gesture of phrasing, more as an ontological chasm between the unrelated sonic worlds. And the audience maintained that silence too, still held in rapt attention after around two hours of continuous listening. The last movement, “Gaze of the Church of Love”, is similarly diffuse, but much more intense. Here the main middle register idea is an obsessively repeating chord, while the contrasting idea in the upper register has now become bells. Osborne again maintained the high level of concentration, making each chord and chime a significant and poignant event. After the final flourish, a brief downward dive towards an earthy, deadened bass note, Osborne stood to receive the applause. He seemed shattered, hardly able to stand from the emotional exhaustion of the previous two and a quarter hours. Everybody in the audience knew exactly how he felt.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Juliane Banse Martin Helmchen Wigmore Hall 21 May 2013

Juliane Banse (soprano), Martin Helmchen (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 21.5.1
Wolf: Six Lieder to texts by Eduard Mörike, Mignon-Lieder
Schubert: Geheimnis, An Mignon, Kennst du das Land, Gasänge aus Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Sehnsucht, Der Einsame, Der König in Thule, Auf dem See, Bei dir allein!

Juliana Banse is a rare visitor to these shores, but her reputation precedes her. An impressive debut recording of concert arias made quite an impression when it was released here a few years ago, leading many, myself included, to follow her opera career in German houses with great interest. Her accompanist this evening is also an established recording artist who has made precious few appearances on the London stage. Martin Helmschen’s concerto recordings on PentaTone have garnered much well-deserved praise, and present him as a distinctive musician able to give convincing and personal perspectives on repertoire both mainstream and obscure. So expectations ran high.
Some of them were met and some of them were not, but the artistry and personality of both singer and pianist made this a memorable evening. The programme was standard Wigmore fare: well-known Wolf – Mörike songs and Mignon-Lieder, and slightly obscure Schubert – Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and Der König in Thule, among others. It’s all music that needs personality, emotion and high level of artistry, and on those criteria it all succeeded.
Banse, though, was not on top form. The occasional cough between songs suggested that she was bravely attempting to conceal some minor respiratory condition. That impression was also supported by occasional horse notes, poorly controlled crescendos and a shrill tone on many of the top notes. Were it not for the contrast between her performance this evening and those on her recordings, these defects may have gone unnoticed, but, good as this performance was, it did not show her at her best.
But these are technical issues only, and the artistry of her singing was not affected. Banse has a very aristocratic sound, old-fashioned in all the best senses. She has round, plummy vowels and is able to project well on almost any letter: the resonance she achieves on ‘m’s and ‘n’s is particularly impressive. Vibrato is reserved for the very ends of long notes at the ends of phrases, and a wide range of colours and tones is employed to give variety even within individual phrases.
The chosen repertoire gave Martin Helmchen many chances to shine. He is able to draw a rounder and warmer sound from the Wigmore Steinway than most can manage, and even when he reaches grand climaxes, the precision and evenness of his touch are never in doubt. He is as much a soloist as he is an accompanist in these works, which is exactly what Wolf and Schubert demand. He and Banse are happy to allow each other their rubato, with the two of them often moving in and out of synchronisation to good expressive effect.
Wolf proved the better music for Helmchen, while Banse was better suited to Schubert. The pianist’s warm tone and liberal expressive approach is more fin de siècle than it is Classical, while the aristocratic refinement of Banse’s singing sits better in the long 18th century. Her intonation was occasionally suspect, but this may have been down to the cold as well.
The concert ended on a high with Wolf’s Mignon-Lieder. The vocal line here is predominantly in the lower register, where Banse’s affliction mattered little. And despite her more reserved approach, the passionate and often pained lyricism was communicated well. Helmschen’s artistry was shown off to good effect by the virtuosic accompaniments, which almost became character pieces under his hands.
An interesting concert, then, and one that gave London audiences a rare and welcome chance to get to know the work of these two musicians. But it was frustrating too, as it was clear throughout that Banse is capable of so much more, but wasn’t able to deliver on the night.

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard online until 28 May:

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Sixteen Harry Christophers Kings Place 15 May 2013

Bach: Motet “Komm, Jesu, komm!”
Bach: Mass in G BWV 236
Bach: Motet: “Furchte dich nicht”
Bach: Mass in A BWV 234

The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (conductor), Kings Place, 15 May 2013

Bach’s Motets and smaller Masses are the odd ones out. Unlike his more numerous cantatas and his more famous passions, they do not help the listener to follow their structure through the alternation of arias and chorales. Nor do they fit easily into the forms of Protestant worship that characterise most of Bach’s other religious works. All of which makes programming them tricky. But Harry Christophers has come up with an effective format, a two-part concert in which each half begins with a Motet and is followed by a Mass. The choice of works on this evening’s programme fits the format particularly well, the Motet “Komm, Jesu, komm!” a bracing opener and the Mass in A a work with an appropriately monumental conclusion to end. And the differences between these two works and the other Motet, “Furchte dich nicht” and the other Mass, in G BWV 229, are sufficient to make for a satisfyingly diverse evening of music.
Hall One at Kings Place has a resonant venue but it’s hardly a church, and so a lot of this music can sound recontextualised simply by the acoustic. The hall affords the music a warmth, but never obscures the detail. In this context, The Sixteen sounds more like a group of soloists (which, of course, it is) than a homogeneous choir. The individual voices always come through, which both aids the counterpoint and instils a sense of humanity in the music, with the musical personality of each singer contributing something to the whole. Christophers fielded eight singers, divided into two choirs in the Motets and singing two to a part in the Masses. Given the calibre of vocal talent on display here, it was little surprise that both the choral singing and the vocal solos were all excellent. Many of the details that the exceptional acoustic allowed us to hear demonstrated just how fine the choral singing was. The top notes from the sopranos (Grace Davidson and Julia Doyle) for example, not a quality that Bach’s music usually shows off, were delicately placed and beautifully controlled in their timbre. Balance between the sections was always good, and diction was admirably clear throughout. The vocal solos in the Masses were also impressive. No weak links to speak of among the soloists, but the finest individual performance of the evening was from bass Ben Davies in the Domine Deus of the Mass in A. His voice is commanding without being overpowering. He has a distinctive tone and clear diction, and he is able to project admirably without exceeding the bounds of the Baroque aesthetic. Definitely a name to look out for.
Is it written in stone that the Orchestra of the Sixteen should be a period instrument band? Would the choir’s eminence in Renaissance repertoire be compromised if they were to be heard with modern instruments in Baroque and Classical music? I only ask because the orchestra this evening was not the equal of the choir. The instrumentalists played well as individuals (for the most part, there were a few ropey solos) but the group didn’t really gel as an ensemble. The wide range of timbres available to period instruments, especially the strings, requires a real unity of intent for the ensemble to cohere. I’d hesitate to call this group a scratch band, but they clearly don’t play together very often. Perhaps, under the circumstances, a modern instrument group would meet the challenges better – in the Masses that is, the continuo group (theorbo, chamber organ, violone and cello) was ideal in the Motets.
Christophers’ readings of these works balanced smooth legato flow with just enough accentuation to give the music shape. His tempos are generally fast, but never rigid, and the vocal phrases are always elegantly shaped. Christophers has a rare ability to make Bach’s music sound intuitive, and always more emotional than intellectual. The way he handles final cadences is particularly effective, slowing down at just the right moment in the cadential preparation so that the final chords seem at one with the preceding music, yet unquestionably conclusive.
This was a performance to a high standard, and as such invites comparison with the very best. Christophers’ approach to the Motets resembles Gardiners, but Gardiner has the upper hand in terms of the elegance, grace and precision of his (larger?) choir. On the other hand, Christophers seeks a more monumental sound with this music, more reverential and more flowing. The problems of intonation and ensemble in Christophers’ orchestra, although minor, are the difference between this and the superior orchestral accompaniments on Masaaki Suzuki’s recordings. But then, it’s always unfair to compare a live performance with a commercial recording. Leaflets in the foyer on the way out invited contributions towards a new commercial recording of this repertoire. One incentive to donate is that we will then be able to compare like with like. There is certainly a huge amount of musical potential in these readings, and Christophers has some original ideas that could make their recordings genuinely distinctive. If the orchestra gets the chance to sort out the problems with their ensemble between now and then, these could prove to be very fine recordings indeed.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble, Hall One, Kings Place, London 10.5.13

Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble, Hall One, Kings Place, London 10.5.13 (GDn)

Squelch, plop, huge swell out of nothing; the language of the Moog is already well-known to anybody with an interest, so doing something new with this retro technology is quite a challenge. Will Gregory’s approach is to assemble a group of about ten similarly enthusiastic Moogists to perform a mixed concert of new and old works. Gregory himself is an affable compere, and he mercifully spares us the details of the technology onstage, but from his brief introduction it consisted of about half a dozen Moogs of different designs, one or two other early keyboard synths and a bass guitar for good measure.
Hall One at Kings Place is a versatile space, but I’m not sure it was ideal for this concert. The whole point of the Moog is that it can project keyboard lines through the surrounding noises of a rock concert. Presenting the instrument in an acoustic that could easily accommodate the finer delicacies of a spinet, for example, made that quality irrelevant, and brought out a number of acoustical artefacts that did neither the hall nor the technology any favours. And the sheer number of these instruments on the stage laid bare their many practical problems: the sound of ten highly amplified Moogs tuning up simultaneously is pretty grim.
That said, the quasi-classical atmosphere of the setting was ideal for the repertoire. The first half consisted mainly of popular classics, each Moogified to within an inch of its life. The Moog’s ability to project individual lines made the Renaissance and Baroque selections effective. A Gabrieli Canzona was given fairly reverential treatment, although it was a shame the players didn’t explore the potential for antiphonal Moogs here. Then came Brandenburg Three, a fitting homage to Walter/Wendy Carlos, whose pioneering work had inspired the whole project. Doing the concerto complete was a risky strategy, but having Adrian Utley (of Portishead fame) jamming some crazy electronic noises over the Adagio second movement prevented it from becoming monotonous. One of the most interesting pieces in the first half was the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, with Utley playing the cello solo on his mini Moog over an all-Moog accompaniment. The instrument’s round diapason sounds and its wide dynamic range made it almost seem like an ondes martenot. Sadly, the idea was much better than the execution. Utley had his left hand on the gain throughout, but couldn’t quite get the dynamic swells to contour the phrases as precisely as the music needs.  The first half concluded with Bacharach’s South American Getaway, an ambitious piece given the rhythmic accuracy it needed to grove. It seems churlish to complain about issues of ensemble or passage work in a Moog concert, but the sheer number of keyboardists on the stage, often playing in rhythmic unison, did mean that the inevitable, if only occasional, finger slips often stood out.
Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble was founded seven years ago to premiere The Service of Tim Henman, to which the second half of this concert was devoted. I’m assuming the title is intended to sound quasi-liturgical, a reference perhaps to the reverence in which Henman was then held. He isn’t any more, of course, but a sense of nostalgia for the days of Henmania prevented this bizarre work from seeming passé. Henman appears in the work through a film of him on court. Individual shots of him serving, returning, jumping and running are slowed down to the point that the images often seem almost static. They are accompanied by music that is considerably more frenetic. After the various homages in the first half, the musicians return here to their home territory: hard-edged minimalism - did I mention that Graham Fitkin was among the players? – and trancy synth pop  of the kind that made Gregory famous as one half of Goldfrapp. Most of the music (for which no composition credit was given, but I’m guessing it was predominantly by Will Gregory) consisted of funky, squelchy riffs, often on loops, with the players overlaying melodies or repeated treble patterns.
The disjunction between sound and image induced a range of curious emotions. Watching Henman’s motions being satirised by the slow motion photography led occasionally to sympathy for him, a common response to his performances back in the day. And the fact that Henman had been chosen as the subject seemed calculated to increase the sense of English whimsy surrounding the whole piece. But in the quieter sections (movements?) there was a keen sense of poignancy about the music, often surprisingly understated and quite charming in its own way. But those were exceptional moments of calm in an otherwise loud and abrasive score. Interesting as the piece was, it went on far too long – but hey, that’s minimalism for you.