Friday, 29 November 2013

BBC SSO Volkov Takemitsu Ligeti RFH 28.11.13

Takemitsu: Green, Marginalia, I Hear the Water Dreaming
Ligeti: San Francisco Polyphony, Violin Concerto
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilya Gringolts (violin), Ilan Volkov (cond)

Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have long been a powerhouse combination for Modernist music. Some petty politics, now long forgotten (hopefully), led to his standing down from the top job with the orchestra in 2009, and he is now their Principal Guest Conductor. That has made concerts like this one rarer, which is a shame, because they are always worth catching. Volkov and the BBC SSO seem to revel in the sheer complexity of the music he presents them with. The chemistry between him and the players is ideal, and although he clearly rehearses and coordinates with discipline and rigour, they are still able to make the results sound spontaneous. Even more impressively, the orchestra plays this music like they mean it. Not so long ago, most symphony orchestras playing Modernist music did so with the attitude “We just play this, it’s not our fault how it sounds.” These days such performances are rare, and the engagement of rank and file players to the Modernist cause is due in no small part to the passion and commitment of conductors like Volkov.
The concert was devoted to Takemitsu and Ligeti, an indulgence that could only make sense in the context of a large-scale festival of 20th-century music. The works were well chosen, most on the borderline between the familiar and the obscure: Volkov was clearly keen to give some of the more neglected works by the two composers an airing. He was wise though to place Takemitsu first, as the Japanese composer’s contribution would have paled into insignificance if heard after the Ligeti, especially the latter’s Violin Concerto, the one undisputable masterpiece here.
The three Takemitsu works came from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and offered an outline of his stylistic development over those decades. Green, composed in 1967, finds the young composer in the process of reconciling his engagement with Japanese music with his love for Debussy. It’s a frustratingly short work – even at this early date his discourse is expansive – but the snapshot that this six minutes of music gives is a clear indicator of what was to come.
Of the three Takemitsu works, the most distinctive and the most accomplished was the 1976 Marginalia. Takemitsu is now committed to exploring the traditional music of his homeland, and more confident about referencing Debussy in his textures. The allusions to traditional Japanese instruments is particularly interesting, temple gongs from the percussion section and shakuhachis from the flutes. And how does Takemitsu get the two harps to sound like shamisens? Metallic objects against the strings must surely be the answer; a technique borrowed from Berio, but a sound that comes straight from the Japanese imperial court.
I Hear the Water Dreaming is a piece for flute and orchestra, the soloist here Adam Walker. His tone is sweet but focussed and his musical manner unimposing, which is ideal, as Takemitsu is never in the business of writing bravura concertos. Finely balanced orchestral textures helped this work to achieve its desired effect. Given the time and effort that the following Ligeti scores clearly required in rehearsal, it is difficult to tell how much attention the Takemitsu received. Volkov’s conducting style was quite stiff, and he seemed always to be focussing on the beat and on synchronising the parts. In fact, one or two entries sounded frayed, so perhaps he was right to keep the orchestra on a short leash.
Even by Ligeti’s standards San Francisco Polyphony is an intense experience. As the title suggests, the sheer amount of material that is presented simultaneously makes this a piece that you need to take in several different ways at once. In fact, the complexities stretch beyond the counterpoint and into the timbre and orchestration. The polyphony comes in waves and the more layered passages are interpolated by homophonic “refrains”. Here, the basic texture is a dry, brittle string sound, harmonically complex, and involving multiple harmonic effects. The large string section of the BBC SSO totally nailed these passages, and they were the key to the performance being as successful as it was. Few orchestras or conductors have the nerve to programme San Francisco Polyphony, such are the difficulties it poses, but Volkov and his BBC SSO players demonstrated this evening that they’ve got what it takes.
Ligeti’s Violin Concerto poses the additional problem of finding a soloist willing to take on what must be one the most demanding solo parts in the repertoire. In fact, many violinists have been willing to accept the challenge since the work was completed in 1993. As a result, the work has generated a diverse performance tradition over its 20 years in the repertoire, with some violinists stressing work’s Classical/Modernist austerity and others delving deeper into the Romanticism of its Hungarian folk roots. Ilya Gringolts is in the former category, but that’s not to say that his interpretation lacks colour or imagination. He’s got all the notes under his fingers, and that’s no mean feat in itself. But he’s more interested in the complex artificial harmonic passages of the outer movements than he is, say, in the folk song of the second. The orchestra again rose to the many challenges Ligeti posed. The small ensemble was arranged into two arcs around the soloist, the stings (tuned to a range of pitch standards and conventions) on the inside and the winds outside. The woodwinds really shone in the concerto. Flautist Rosemary Eliot has a rounder, warmer tone than Walker, the better to complement the gritty focus of the violin sound. Like her colleagues, she was also required to play other instruments, in her case the recorder and ocarina. The ocarina chorales in the second movement could have been more carefully tuned (seriously!), but the balance in the ocarina and recorder playing, which can’t have been easy for anybody, was very finely judged.
With this concert, The Rest is Noise has done its duty by Toru Takemitsu, an important if marginal figure in the history of 20th-century music, and one whose contribution was appropriately acknowledged through the half a concert he was devoted. Ligeti, on the other hand, would seem to deserve more, and even with the LPO’s Lontano a few weeks back and the Philharmonia’s 2001 live screening before that, it is easy to still feel that his towering influence has been neglected. In fact, he’s just one of many Modern masters who must vie for precious space in programmes as the festival progresses, and there are surely many figures, just as worthy and notable as him, who will get even less of the attention they deserve. Just goes to show – it was one hell of a century.

This performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on 18 January and 8 February 2014.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Bach Partitas András Schiff Wigmore Hall 26.11.13

After the solemn ritual of András Schiff's 48 Book 1 on Saturday, this evening's Bach Partita cycle seemed a more playful affair. The lighter textures allowed him to demonstrate better the fine nuances of his graceful technique. The freer structure gave him more space to pace and structure according to his own, very narrative approach. And the wider stylistic variety between the works, and between the movements, meant that contrasts between colours, textures and moods, all expertly conveyed, could be articulated at all levels of the music.
There were many similarities as well, of course. Like Saturday's two-hour marathon, this too was an incredible feat of stamina and technical precision. This time we got an interval, but the concert ran to almost three hours, and Schiff never dropped a beat. The interpretive insights of his performance are what sticks in the memory, so much so that it is easy to forget the sheer technical precision and keen artistic focus upon which they were all based. And again he performed everything from memory, and with a fluid, supple touch that made it look like the music was coming out of him as naturally as breathing. The interpretations he gives are distinctive and accomplished, but they're founded on a pianism that very few of his colleagues could even approach.
Schiff performed the Partitas in the order 5, 3, 1, 2, 4, 6. This gave a key structure similar to that of the 48 performance, with the key centre gradually rising through the works. Performing the Partitas in this order gives the key sequence: G, a, Bb, c, D, e. But, unlike on Saturday, the focus this evening was almost always on the movement at hand. Within the Partitas, the movements followed on closely from one to another, but this seemed intended more to highlight the contrast from one to the next than to create any sense of large-scale structure.
The faster dance movements found Schiff at his most playful. Here, the Übung aspect of the music really shone through, not in challenging his technique, of course, but rather in demonstrating its many facets. The hand crossing passages were delivered with real panache, but a sense of independence governed the relationship between the two, even when with the left hand on the left and the right hand on the right. Schiff finds both clarity and sophistication in every texture Bach presents. So simple, two-part passages are given with different colouring in each hand, for example a rich lyrical melody in the right over a pizzicato rhythmic bass in the left. But even when Schiff uses staccato articulation and louder dynamics to pick out bass lines or inner parts, the round, richness of his tone prevents anything from ever sounding harsh. The final movements of the First and Second Partitas, the first a Gigue, the second a Capriccio, were real highlights, and while both are well-known, Schiff was always able to inject an element of unpredictability into the music.
That, in no small part, was a result of his interesting rubato, a feature of almost every movement. Schiff seems to treat this music as a story to be told, with gradual tempo changes intensifying the mood as phrases develop, and sudden downward tempo shifts switching the mood from one phrase to the next. Many of the faster movements will begin at a brisk pace, and then, as the passage work and runs get underway, he will gradually increase the speed even further. For the listener, it feels like a dangerous game, but Schiff is always in control, and when a new statement of the theme or some countertheme comes in, he will suddenly drop the tempo and move to a cooler tone colour.
All this happens in the slow movements too, and it is here that Schiff's approach to tempo, timbre and articulation really pay off. The Aria and Air movements in these works are dominated by graceful and free melodies, all played out over skilfully constructed harmonies and bass lines. Schiff always allows the melody to lead, his tempos elastic but never capricious. Rubato shapes the lines, but he always avoids sentimentality. He accelerates into rising arcs, and pulls back into cadences. Yet nothing here is sentimental or predictable, and although continually changing, his tempos always relate to an underlying pace and an intuitive sense of proportion and structure: Exquisite beauty achieved through the perfect combination of freedom and form.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

András Schiff Well-tempered Clavier Book 1 Wigmore Hall 23 Novemeber 2013

A sense of ritual pervaded András Schiff’s Bach performance last night. The audience, clearly expecting something transcendent, was already hushed and attentive long before he took the stage. When he did, he cut a slight and unprepossessing figure, and his stage manner was straightforward and unflamboyant: a brief bow and then straight to the bench. Yet he seemed to have an aura about him, of authority and experience, lending weight and significance to his every move, like the celebrant in some secular observance. Then he performed the First Book of the 48, in its entirety and from memory, pausing only briefly between each work and never breaking his concentration in the entire two-hour span. And the audience hung on his every note, as focussed on the music as he was, and, remarkably, almost as able to maintain the intense concentration required.
But despite the sense of reverence, from the audience for the pianist, and from the pianist for the work, there was nothing dull or dour about this performance. Schiff brought light and colour to every one of the short movements. His touch at the keyboard is lively and nimble, his small hands scurrying around the keys with lightness and grace. His articulation, while always varied, is based on a clean but flowing portato; the individual notes and lines presented with rare clarity, but never at the expense of the music’s flow or of the overall form. He studiously avoids the sustain pedal, allowing the articulation of his fingerwork all the more clarity and focus. And the sound he draws from the Wigmore Hall’s piano is clear yet warm, attractive but never so comfortable as to detract from the detail of the music.
Typically, Schiff will begin a movement with a straightforward statement of the opening idea, then very gradually allow it to open out into the passagework and counterpoint that is the main substance of most of these works. He often emphasises the main theme in the more involved contrapuntal textures with a combination of louder dynamics and more pointed articulation. Under lesser hands, this could sound excessively literal or even patronising to the audience, but Schiff’s aim is always for clarity and interpretive focus, and the hierarchies he presents in the voice-leading serve only to extend the distinctive presentation of the melodic lines in the simpler passages.
Tempos are often brisk, but never to the point of trivialising the music. Schiff often gives the feeling that five, or even ten, minutes of music form a single, arching paragraph, gradually becoming more emotionally involved as it goes on. But then he’ll snap the audience out of it with a brisk and bracing reading of the more energetic movements, the E-Minor Fugue for example, or the G-Minor Fugue – given a surprisingly lively reading here.
Presenting the whole book as a single, unbroken musical statement risks projecting ideas onto the music that it won’t support. But in fact, Bach’s music proves remarkably adept to this treatment, even if it is a long way he from what he himself envisaged. Stylistic variety between the successive preludes avoids monotony, while the greater similarities between the fugues maintains a consistency too. That old pop producer’s trick of keeping a song interesting by raising its last chorus by a semitone happens throughout the 48, with the tonal centre rising a semitone every other piece to ensure a perpetual sense of freshness.
But András Schiff deserves as much credit for that as Bach. In fact, his conception requires him to play down the contrast between successive works, but the result is more subtle interactions between them, as the memory of the contrapuntal intrigues of a previous movement are continually roused by those of the one you’re listening to. Schiff also works within a fairly narrow range of dynamics and articulations, preferring contrast through minute gradations rather than overt extremes. It is an approach that requires listeners to focus in on every detail he presents, and to maintain their concentration for very long periods. Fortunately, that is exactly the reception his performance got from the Wigmore Hall audience, which augers well for his subsequent appearances in this series, which could yet tax and challenge listeners even more, but also offer similarly satisfying rewards.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Ethical Sponsorship of Classical Music

Protests at orchestral concerts are becoming an increasingly familiar site for London’s concert-goers. So far, most protesters have managed to retain the sympathy of audiences by not disturbing the music itself, but most reactions have been in the middle ground between mild frustration and grudging support. The diversity of causes has been matched by the diversity of targets, with organisers, venues and artists all finding themselves in the firing line for their (usually only implicit) support of unpopular causes.
Support from the audience is clearly the primary aim of most protesters (with the exception of the more militant end of the pro-Palestinians, who seem intent on annoying everybody), yet disruption and dissent are intrinsic to the act of protest, and as these demonstrations get more civilised they seem to lose their power. Consider the protest last month against Shell at the São Paulo Symphony concert at the Festival Hall. The protesters had written a song, incorporating their cause into its lyrics, which they sang beautifully and then left the hall, to some applause from the audience, before the orchestra had even taken the stage. 
Everyone seemed to win with this protest. The campaign group, Shell Out Sounds, got their message across and the sympathetic portion of the audience was able to express its support. More surreal though, was the benefit brought to both Shell and the Southbank Centre. I, and I suspect many others, hadn’t noticed all the Shell logos all over the programme, such is their ubiquity, but I’m certainly aware of their financial involvement now. And the Southbank Centre was able to have it both ways, accepting the sponsorship while also giving a platform to those who protest it. Gillian Moore, the Head of Classical Music at the Southbank Centre, even congratulated the protesters on Facebook, a surreal situation indeed.
But perhaps the real reason why the management was so sanguine about the protest was the apparent impossibility of its aim. The protesters were part of an umbrella group campaigning for the disenfranchisement of Shell from all arts organisations, particularly Tate Modern. That in itself seems unlikely, given the huge sums that are no doubt involved, although the campaign certainly has some high-profile supporters. But such a move would imply an ethics-led approach to corporate sponsorship, an idea that’s unlikely to take off any time soon. 
You don’t need to be Vladimir Lenin to accept that ethics and capitalism make uneasy bedfellows. In the case of corporate sponsorship, the reasons why big companies fund arts organisations are usually quietly ignored, and for good reason. Oil companies, tobacco firms and tabloid newspapers regularly place their names in concert programmes, and there is rarely any meaningful text attached to tell us why they are doing so: image laundering is the name of the game. 
The arts organisations also have very competent image management professionals on-board, and the actual relationship between an orchestra, say, and a tobacco firm that sponsors it is always seen to be at arms-length. In fact, corporate sponsors allow considerable artistic freedom, at least compared to the private benefactors that keep American musical life afloat. The São Paulo/Shell case is an interesting one though. As the campaigners have shown, Shell has a poor environmental record in Brazil – so was their sponsorship of this high-profile concert by the country’s flagship orchestra coincidental?
The reality is that corporate sponsorship is here to stay. Those taking an extremely high moral position may consider all the money that comes through it to be dirty, but for the rest of us it’s a necessary evil. Protesters are right to seek the support of audiences; it’s their views that really matter. London is blessed with a particularly diverse concert-going population, making consensus on individual causes highly unlikely. So perhaps the SBC is onto something with its, at least post facto, support of civilised demonstrations. So why not put them in the programme, and charge for them separately? If nothing else, that might at least provide an ethical income stream.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Saving Schnittke for the Nation. But which one? And why?

My heart sank to read of a sale at Sotheby’s in London at the end of this month, at which will be auctioned, among other treasures, Schnittke’s working manuscripts for his Faust Cantata. My first reaction was that these must be priceless, but closer inspection reveals that they are likely to go for £20-30K. As yet very few of Schnittke’s sketches and working scores have been made available to researchers, and the now burgeoning field of Schnittke scholarship often finds itself speculating about issues of creative psychology that could probably be determined through access to existing documents. So to see this, like many other collections before it, change hands from one anonymous private collector to another is galling.
So what’s the solution? Should public libraries or national institutions rally (and spend) to bring these resources into the public domain? If we are to save Schnittke’s manuscripts for the nation, which nation should we save them for? Russia, perhaps, or Germany. This is, after all, one of Schnittke’s most “German” works, but it was written in Moscow. The way that Handel’s work is celebrated provides a model, with museums dedicated to his work in both Germany and Britain, the former at his birthplace in Halle, the latter at his Brook Street home in Mayfair. It could be argued that both countries are being very generous with their precious resources, given that the composer wrote in a predominantly Italian style, wherever he was based.
In the UK, the British Library is the great bastion of source materials: autographs, first editions and the like, and it has an excellent track record of collecting these materials with little concern for the specifically British interests that they might serve. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert are all well represented, along with Purcell and Elgar. But such collections are the exception rather than the rule, and it doesn’t take much digging into the provenance of these manuscripts before magnanimous private benefactors start appearing. The fact is that, however historically significant such documents are, the assumption of our culture is, and always has been, that they are private property, historical significance equating monetary value.
Private collectors have an important part to play, not least in preserving these historical artefacts for future generations, whatever their own motivations might be. No doubt the motivations to amass private collections of historically valuable documents are diverse. It is difficult to imagine anybody buying this collection for its aesthetic value; much of it seems to consist of pages of text typed on an old Soviet typewriter and then scribbled on in pencil. You wouldn’t want it on your wall.
But the private provenance of many valuable documents in publically accessible collections demonstrates that collectors often have posterity in mind. The most significant collection of Schnittke’s sketches and drafts to have surfaced in recent years is that now at the Juilliard School, part of their extensive manuscript collection. There are all sorts of treasures in there, and in fact, when the acquisition was announced, the Schnittke contingent didn’t even get a mention in the high profile press coverage, where the even more impressive Bach and Beethoven manuscripts took centre stage. The source that time round was Bruce Kovner, a hedge-fund billionaire who had apparently been buying up every significant musical manuscript to have appeared at auction for some years. Chances are there are other wealthy collectors out there keen to get their names attached to portions of major library collections, and with that a small place in musical history. Let’s hope the lucky buyer at Sotheby’s next week has something similar planned for their acquisitions.