Thursday, 31 October 2013

London Philharmonic, Michail Jurowski: Ligeti, Lutosławski, Schnittke. RFH 30 October 2013

Ligeti: Lontano
Lutosławski: Cello Concerto
Schnittke: Symphony No.1
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Johannes Moser (vc), Michail Jurowski (cond.), Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.10.13

Ligeti, Lutosławski, Schnittke – that’s not exactly a crowd-pleasing programme, and yet the gargantuan Festival Hall was almost full. How to explain the intense interest? Discount student tickets seem to have played a part, and then there’s the fabled “Rest is Noise Effect”, conferring mass appeal status on anything it touches. But whatever tricks were pulled to draw the audience, they liked what they got. This wasn’t an easy programme by any means, and seemed to get more intense as it went on, but the audience sat in rapt attention throughout, and conversations during the interval seemed to be about little other than the music of the first half.
The theme of the concert was “behind the Iron Curtain”, but thankfully the most clichéd programming choices were sidestepped. The concert began with Ligeti, but rather than Atmosphères, the usual choice from his 60s scores, we got the got instead Lontano, and from the sonorist school we got the Lutosławski Cello Concerto, were lazier programmers would automatically have turned to Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. And in the second half, Schnittke’s First Symphony, a work of some notoriety, and certainly of great historical significance, but a difficult listen by any standards.
This evening’s conductor, Michail Jurowski is the father of Vladimir, and a respected figure in his own right. He is physically frail, though, and his technique is based on economic gestures. He doesn’t project the sense of visceral energy that characterises his son’s performances, but his more measured  approach has its benefits too, his patience, combined with the high standard of orchestral playing, bringing clarity and poise to this often knotty music.
Ligeti’s Lontano was written in West Germany in 1967, ten years after the composer had defected from communist Hungary: very much music from in front of the Iron Curtain then. Still, it uses techniques and harmonies developed in Warsaw in the 50s (Schnittke uses them too in his First Symphony; he called them his “Polish Techniques”) so qualifies on a technicality. The music here is all chromatic clusters, intense and shimmering, even at the quietest dynamics. The performance really benefited from the quality of the LPO’s string tone, all dark, glowing colours that added an extra dimension to Ligeti’s inscrutable sounds. It was all a bit dry though, formulaic and even stilted at times. This isn’t the sort of music that benefits from rubato, but a bit more passion from the players for music’s admittedly introverted energy wouldn’t go amiss.
The Lutoslawkski Cello Concerto was a similar case. Cellist Johannes Moser has an approach to the work that works better in its individual moments than in its overall conception. He emphasises the distinctions between the basic material, the repeated notes and the continuous held textures, all of which he plays without drama and often without colour, and the wildly gesticulating outbursts, which he exaggerates, sometimes to the point of parody. His physical gestures don’t help either, gurning at the orchestra when their interjections cut him off, and big surprise faces to the audience when the music suddenly changes direction. Technically, the performance wasn’t bad, but the music’s gravity and pathos were brushed over in favour of gesture and effect.
As if to compensate, Jurowski took the exact opposite approach with Schnittke’s First Symphony. Although the basic harmonic language of the work is based on clusters and dense atonal harmonies (the “Polish Techniques”) the work is filled with quotations and allusions, usually to lighter music. In other hands, these can offer levity from the intellectual rigour. But Jurowski sees it differently. For him, context is all, and each of these allusions is given a sinister dimension through its placement in the narrative. The excellent orchestral playing helped him to make his point, the calculated precision of the woodwind ensembles, the dark colouring to each of the horn and trumpet solos. Even the improvised violin and piano duet in the second movement, usually presented as a lighthearted jazz break, was substituted with a passage from Schnittke’s worthy but equally serious First Violin Sonata.
The context in which the Symphony was presented helped to highlight many historically significant aspects of the work. The Ligeti and Lutosławski in the first half demonstrated the Modernist culture, even behind the Iron Curtain, that Schnittke was seeking to diversify with his postmodern tricks. Last Friday’s performance here of the Berio Sinfonia offered another instructive parallel. Schnittke did not know Berio’s work when he wrote his First Symphony, and the differences outweigh the similarities. Berio’s stylistic mashup is all about lightness and grace, to which the intrinsic humour is crucial. Jurowski tonight demonstrated that Schnittke had a different message to convey, not deeper necessarily, but certainly darker: the modern world as chaos with any notions of redemption, or even of order, fleeting and illusory. But there is room in this piece for levity too, and Jurowski could have presented a more comprehensive picture, not to mention a more audience-friendly one, for the sake of a few more laughs.

This concert was broadcast live by BBC Radio 3 and it available to listen on demand until 6 November at: 

Monday, 28 October 2013

Martinů Quartet with Olga Vinokur (piano) Kings Place 27 October 2013

Martinů Quartet with Olga Vinokur (piano) Kings Place 27 October 2013
Mozart: Piano Quintet in G Minor K 478
Martinů: String Quartet No. 2
Taneyev: Piano Quintet

Mozart, Martinů, Taneyev: a satisfyingly diverse and unusual programme this evening from the Martinů Quartet and pianist Olga Vinokur. Yet none of the three composers are particularly obscure, so the fact that two of them hardly ever appear on chamber music programmes in this country is an indictment of the conservatism of our venues and ensembles. But the works were chosen well, each characteristic of the respective composer’s style, and the Martinů and Taneyev were well performed, making an excellent case for the live presentation of such unduly neglected works.
Neglected in the West that is. The Czech ensemble and Russian/American pianist come from performance cultures where Taneyev and Martinů are far from obscure, and their innate sensitivity to the musical styles of these two composers went a long way towards the success of the performances. The Mozart, however, was a different story. Nowhere in the standard repertoire is the stylistic division between East and West more apparent than in this composer’s work. Performers from Eastern Europe have no qualms about applying a Romantic mode of expression, with continuous legato blurring the lines, and dynamics that regularly go to extremes. The period performance movement has made little impression here, which is probably just as well, as the ideas it presents run in direct opposition to many of the underlying principles of this sort of interpretation. On its own terms, it was a technically proficient performance, and emotive too, but it really wasn’t to my taste, for which I’ll happily take the blame.
No such problems with the Martinů Second String Quartet though. Given that the ensemble is named after the composer, it is little surprise that their performance of his work is idiomatic in the extreme. It’s a great piece, infused with all sorts of folk material and, in the second movement, with the sounds of rustic, presumably Bohemian, hymnody. But all these elements are combined into a tightly-argued work governed by a keen sense of structural rigour. The music is not as acerbic as later Bartók, although it is clearly of a similar persuasion. The players have a tone that suits this music well, rich but with a slightly unfocussed quality: shades of the folk fiddle, which was clearly also at the back of Martinů’s mind, especially in the lively violin duet that opens the work. Throughout the piece, the ensemble is repeatedly reduced to bring out solos in the middle and lower texture, and each of the players shone when Martinů trained his spotlight on them.
The Taneyev Piano Quintet is another work that deserves far more attention than it gets in the West, and the performance this evening, while not perfect, showcased its many qualities. It is a large piece, in four substantial movements, each with a strong melodic identity and well-argued, if sometimes conventional, structure. Again, the Eastern European qualities of the players’ approach really benefitted the work. Pianist Olga Vinokur is clearly of the Russian school, giving definite attack to every note, and bringing out every line of Taneyev’s often complex counterpoint. But she’s not as heavy-handed as some of her compatriots, and when she reduces the dynamic for the more lyrical developmental sections, she always integrates well into the ensemble. There were one or two passages that didn’t quite come off: the pp high violins at the opening lacked the security of intonation this passage needs, the ebullient second movement scherzo was not as nimble as it might have been, and the very low tessitura of the final coda section challenged the ensemble’s intonation and balance. But on the whole this was a fine performance that did this unjustly neglected masterpiece proud. And if we were in any doubt about the significance and influence of Taneyev on the later course of Russian music, for an encore we heard the Intermezzo of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, clearly modelled on the Passacaglia movement of Taneyev’s. The Shostakovich was given a magnificent performance, sensitive, delicate and finely controlled. An ideal close to a fascinating and adventurous concert.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

São Paulo Symphony, Alsop, Swingle Singers, RFH 25 October 2013

Camargo Guarnieri: Symphony No. 4 “Brasilia”
Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Berio: Sinfonia
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, Swingle Singers

This evening’s concert began with a protest, and very musical and well organised it was too. About five minutes before the start of the show, the audience sitting in the right wing of the choir stalls all stood up and began singing. Eventually a banner was unfurled, making clear that the protest was against Shell, who were sponsoring the event. The protesters sang well, they even included a verse in Portuguese (it might have been Spanish) for the benefit of our guests, and in the last verse they all filed out of the hall, creating a live fadeout effect as one by one they left. A twitter barrage after the event made clear that the singers were part of a campaign called “Shell out sounds”, campaigning against Shell’s sponsorship of the arts, “No sponsorship by oil companies in a time of climate change”. Does corporate sponsorship for a concert exacerbate climate change? I’d have thought flying a symphony orchestra from the other side of the world to perform would have a greater impact. However, there are plenty of peripheral issues involved, as the campaigners’ blog post on the event spells out:
Unfortunately for the partisans, the sheer quality of what followed soon consigned their protest to a dim and insignificant memory. The São Paulo Symphony was on top form, and presented a well-structured programme with all the jest and passion we’ve come to expect from touring South American ensembles, but also with musical standards that could match those of any of the world’s top orchestras. The programme covered three bases: Leonard Bernstein, whose leading advocate was conducting; Brazil, this is, after all, the country’s flagship orchestra; and the 1960s, the decade that The Rest is Noise festival is currently celebrating. More often than not, such competing demands result in a programme that looks like it was designed by committee, one that didn’t include any musicians. But the three works presented this evening, diverse as they were, did everything required of them, and each was given a spectacular reading.
Camargo Guarnieri’s Fourth Symphony is subtitled “Brasília”, after the country’s capital, inaugurated in 1960, just three years before the work’s composition. And its dedicated to Lenny: so there’s Brazil, the 1960s and Bernstein right there. The symphony is a big-boned lively piece, with plenty of syncopation in its well-proportioned themes. There is an endearing directness about the musical discourse: the orchestration, while skilful, is fairly two dimensional, with the families rarely divided up and all the colours kept separate. There isn’t much counterpoint to speak of, apart from in a short fugato section in the finale. More often the lower strings or brass will play an accompaniment on the beat while the violins or woodwind play a more syncopated melody. As a symphony, it could be accused of lacking substance, but it’s short and doesn’t outstay its welcome, making it an ideal concert opener.
Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story brought out the best in everybody, not least Marin Alsop, who was in her element. But her São Paulo players were keen to emphasise the sheer quantity of Latin American music here, especially the Cha-cha and Mambo movements, which were performed with a passion too rarely heard on the London concert stage. The performance was characterised by heady passion combined with excellent control of tonal colour and balance. The Mambo in particular shone, not only for the blaring mariachi trumpets, but also for the fact that the whole orchestra was clearly audible beneath them, and not a single detail of the instrumentation was lost. In an all-round excellent concert, the Bernstein performance stood out – performance wise – as the highlight of the evening.
Composition wise, the crown goes to Berio, whose Sinfonia represents the 60s spirit distilled into symphonic form. As such, it was the ideal work to programme in the 1960s segment of The Rest is Noise festival. The fact that neither the work, nor even its composer even get a mention in the book is one of its many unforgivable omissions, and not the only one that the Southbank Centre has made amends for in this year’s programming.
The Swingle Singers were in fine form, and all there vocal tricks were well projected by the amplification. Listening to the work on CD it is easy to overlook just how taxing this piece is for the vocalists, and while they all did well, none of them made it look easy. The orchestra was challenged too in places, and their pointillistic interjections it the “O King” movement weren’t quite up the precision that defined the first half. But the tuttis were all excellent, especially in the complex third movement and in the oppressive finale. Alsop did well to hold the third movement together, but she didn’t manage to give the vocalists the same amount of space as Boulez and Eötvös manage in their respective recordings. As a result, tenor Oliver Griffiths had often had to speak his lines faster than he seemed comfortable with, and spit out the accents to make sure they synchronised. So a little lacking in poise at its most taxing moments, but otherwise a fine performance.
The short running time of the programme suggested an encore was planned, and as it turned out, we were in for a real treat. The orchestra performed a lavish arrangement of James P. Johnson’s Victory Stride, complete with extended piano break, Dixieland clarinet solo and some great effects from the brass. But best of all, the Swingle Singers returned to the stage and scatted along in their own inimitable way. They were worked into the arrangement, so that there were question and answer effects between the violins (often standing) and the singers. The individual members also took a few solos, most memorably one of the basses, who did an improvised “trombone” solo, complete with actions. A fitting end to a fine concert, one that is likely to prove a highlight of The Rest is Noise festival, and indeed the entire season.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Gewandhaus Chailly Volodos Barbican 23 Oct 13

Gewandhaus, Chailly, Volodos, Barbican 23 Oct 13
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2, Symphony No. 2
Arcadi Volodos (piano), Riccardo Chailly (cond.), Gewandhausorchester

Expect the unexpected from Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester. When they tour, it is usually with core repertoire: Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler – Schumann at a push. But Chailly choses his composers carefully, always focussing on master orchestrators, whose subtle instrumental combinations he explores in depth. A Brahms symphony and concerto cycle might look, on paper, like a safe option, but Chailly ensures a surprise at every turn. He’s addicted to risks, sudden tempo shifts, strange balances, unexpected moments of clam. Not everything works – how could it? – but the result is a new view of Brahms: Classical and lean, but constantly engaging through the kaleidoscope of orchestral details that emerge.
Chailly took another risk in programming together the two most problematic works in the cycle, the rambling Second Piano Concerto with the Second Symphony, the least melodious and least loved of the four. Fortunately, the soloist chosen for the concerto was ideally matched to the work’s many challenges. Arcadi Volodos is a big man. He has the physical heft to put behind the keys for all those densely voiced passages. Despite its length and its heavy orchestration, the work also contains many tender passages, and he was able to excel here too, although seemingly despite himself. Whenever the dynamic dropped, Volodos would lean back from the keyboard and a pained expression would cross his face, as if the restraint caused him physical pain. But, loud or soft, his touch is always exquisite. In the quieter music, he has a tender lyricism, but also a real sense of tonal focus, expertly centring the tone of each note. In the louder music, he really came into his own. The first movement in particular is filled with dense, chordal piano figurations, and Volodos was able to both give these the power they required but also variegate the tone, bringing colour to the chords, and finding play of texture and timbre within the dense voicing. Chailly, of course, did far more than just accompany, and every tutti was sculpted and overtly phrased. Pianist and conductor were clearly in very close sympathy, and even the rapid interchanges between piano and orchestra were subject to Chailly’s unpredictable rubato. Rather than impose a sense of coherency that the work itself lacks, Volodos and Chailly instead treated each movement as a separate entity, each almost a self-contained tone poem. This worked best in the Andante third movement. Here Brahms temporarily puts his symphonic ambitions on hold, and the second half of the long movement is like a daydream, airy and nebulous with no clear progression or aim. But Volodos really made this into a virtue, creating a sense of stillness and rapt hush. And the capacity audience hung on his every note, transfixed by the magical atmosphere.
Chailly has had a long and productive relationship with the Gewandhaus, one that looks set to continue with a recently announced contract extension. The orchestra is the perfect vehicle for his musical ambitions: his interpretations are all about bringing out the salient details of the orchestration, and, while the orchestra functions well as a unified whole, its greatest strength lies in the identity and character of its individual sections. The strings sit on a solid foundation of basses and cellos, whose rich, warm and steady tone is the anchor of the Gewandhaus sound. The upper strings don’t have that velvety richness you’ll hear in Berlin and Vienna, but employ a more sinewy and focussed tone, ideal for Chailly’s attention to line and detail.
From the start of the Second Symphony it was clear that nothing was going to be taken for granted. The main theme of the first movement, on the cellos, was aggressively shaped, with the downbeat accents emphatically emphasised. To a fault? Well, perhaps, a little more cantabile might have helped here. From then on Chailly always seemed to be looking in the last place you’d expect, to the flutes during the second subject to bring out their (usually subsumed) counterpoint, even to the seconds (seated right) in homophonic textures where their contribution seemed of little interest. Then there were the sudden changes of tempo and texture between sections, disorientating in the short term, but in the long term clearly part of a logical plan. It was very impressive to hear the orchestra always snap to Chailly’s new tempo, colour and dynamic; these might seem like surprises to us, but clearly not to them. The tuttis were the most revelatory aspect of this performance; plenty of power here, and often real exhilaration. But Chailly and his players also manage to retain that focus on the details, even in the loudest and fastest passages. The finale began poorly, the trumpets to blame I think, but soon picked up. No autopilot here from Chailly, of course, and each of the interludes in the rondo structure signalled a brief visit to some distant sound world. But the coda was ideal: propulsive, focussed, and made all the more exhilarating for the details of the orchestration that shone through. And for an encore? Brahms of course, his Fifth Hungarian Dance. Here at last a work where Chailly’s radical tempos interventions were fully justified. And he didn’t hold back - or rather he did, at the end of every phrase. But as in the finale of the symphony, Chailly conjured a colourful and propulsive climax here, made all the more beguiling by the myriad orchestral details still shining through. Fabulous!