Friday, 20 December 2013

Platinum Consort OAE Christmas Oratorio Kings Place 19 December 2013

Bach: Christmas Oratorio: Parts I, III, V, VI
Platinum Consort, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Scott Inglis-Kidger, cond
Kings Place, London 19 December 2013

In a season dominated by Messiahs, spare a thought for the Christmas Oratorio. Were it not for Handel’s perennial singalong, Bach’s masterpiece would have far higher visibility on our Christmas programmes – and it certainly does on the continent. But this evening, the Platinum Consort and the OAE made an impressive effort to redress the balance. The results were festive, lively, imaginative, and, above all, joyous from beginning to end.
The Oxbridge chapel choir culture benefits the wider musical scene in this country in all sorts of subtle and indirect ways, but in recent years, a more direct channel for the talents they foster has been established, in the form of professional chamber choirs made up of their recent alumni. Platinum Consort is one such ensemble, established in Cambridge in 2004. When it comes to Bach, they’re competing with the best, and a few concessions need to be made for the performers’ age and level of experience. Even so, this is an impressive choir, one with a distinct identity and a clear passion for the music. The over-riding emotion in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is joy; it’s an exuberating an up-front work, and that’s exactly how these young singers presented it. The choruses that open the first and sixth parts demonstrated this perfectly. Sure, there were slight ensemble problems here, but any lack of unity in execution contrasted a firm unit of intent. The singing was clear, focussed and committed - there was never any suggestion that they were just going through the motions.
Working with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was a mixed blessing for the singers. The OAE fielded a small ensemble, two violins on each desk but otherwise one to a part, but even in these small numbers the players dominated, if not in volume, then in experience and stylistic authority. The theorbo in the continuo was a particularly nice touch, and it is a credit to the exceptional Kings Place acoustic that he could always be heard. There were plenty of other fine things to hear from the orchestra too. The obbligatos from flautist Lisa Beznosiuk and leader Margaret Faultless were ideal. The fruity bassoon (Andrew Watts) was a real treat. And the trumpet section was led by the unparalleled David Blackadder, who stole the show every time he picked up his instrument – but how could he not?
Conductor Scott Inglis-Kidger, a co-founder of the choir, seemed to be aware that he could take the orchestra’s high standard of performance as read, and so focussed most of his attentions on the choir. He led diligently, ensuring the music breathed with the singers and was always carefully shaped. There was plenty of emotion here, and occasionally too much, especially in the chorales, which often seemed over-milked.
Soloists were drawn from the choir, and many of the young singers proved to be remarkably talented. The role of the Evangelist was taken by Benjamin Clark, a tenor who is surely destined for greatness. He sings with all the authority that the role demands, his tone focussed but rich, his diction ideal, and his sensitivity to music’s stylistic demands beyond question. Most of the other singers got a recitative and aria, and there were no weak links. Countertenor Raffaelle Pè deserves a mention. He sings with a sophistication that belies his age, his performance filled with nuance and shading far in advance of any of his colleagues. But, as I understand it, he is already on the fast track to an operatic career, and so probably doesn’t need any further promotion from me. One other name to look out for, though, is Eloise Irving. Her soprano voice is at the other end of the spectrum, pure and clear, with remarkable versatility and agility. She had one or two intonation problems on the faster runs, but overall, her solos were among the most satisfying of the evening.
An impressive performance then, of Bach’s underperformed (or so it seems in London) masterpiece. The singers demonstrated impressive skills, both as an ensemble and as soloists. If they were outclassed by the orchestra, there’s no great shame in that, given that the OAE is one of the world’s great period instrument ensembles. In fact, the programme suggested that further collaborations are planned. If the result is further performances like this, that can only be a good thing.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

András Schiff, 48 Book 2, Wigmore Hall 18.12.13

Bach: Well tempered clavier book II
András Schiff, piano
Wigmore Hall 18 December 2013

András Schiff picked up the 48 more or less where he left off with the first book at the end of November. Now, as then, he gave a focussed but flowing account, balancing his habitually detached touch against the legato impulse in his voice leading. Extremes, both of tempo and dynamic, were avoided (as was the sustain pedal), and contrast between the movements was achieved through subtle gradations of touch and tone. This time, though, it didn’t all add up, at least in a significant minority of the movements. And, as it turned out, the (relative) failures proved far more revealing than the outright successes.

Schiff clearly takes risks in live performance: even just the atmosphere that his playing generates demonstrates that. And usually it all comes together, the gambles pay off, and balance is achieved between the independent and concurrent forces seemingly given free rein, until Bach’s cadential formulas intervene and bring everything back into line. On several occasions this evening, though, that didn’t quite happen, and suddenly all the workings in Schiff’s delicate equations were laid bare.
Structure, it turns out, is a subsidiary concern. That’s probably not such a surprise, as he usually seems to be living in the moment. A fugue, for example, will start out with a slow and deliberate statement of the theme, and then rapidly accelerate into the development. The ending eventually imposes order, as if by some external force. In some of the fugues this evening, the ending seemed almost arbitrary. Schiff was so involved in the counterpoint that it seemed he wanted to continue uninterrupted for another ten minutes, yet Bach was calling time after just two or three. That sense of over-arching unity, that held together the two-hour span of the First Book in November, was revealed here to be the result more of his continual concentration and focus than on any specific structuring of the music.

Counterpoint is one of the most interesting features of Schiff’s Bach. He often brings in new voices as if they’re from a completely different work. In some of the preludes, we’ll hear a running semiquaver line in the left hand, over which a new melodic idea is introduced in the right. But the tone, dynamic, and even tempo of the two will be completely separate. Then, by some undisclosed magic, they will swiftly but deftly merge them into a contrapuntal synthesis. Occasionally this evening that didn’t happen, and Schiff found himself playing in two different styles and at two different speeds. The only solution was to abandon both and abruptly switch to a new texture, often at the expense of a split-second hesitation. The effect was like listening to a recording and suddenly coming across a bad edit between takes.

Admittedly, these episodes were few, and in a performance that lasted almost three hours, the sheer quantity of perfectly executed music made them a marginal concern. But in Schiff’s traversal of the First Book, a greater consistency was maintained, allowing him to keep the secrets of his musical magic concealed. So what is different this time round? A charitable view might have it that Schiff is simply taking greater risks with this Second Book, a less charitable one that his punishing recital schedule this last month (he has been giving these Bach marathons in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin as well as London throughout December), is beginning to take its toll.

Or perhaps Schiff is saving his interpretive energies for the weekend. His next appearance will be at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday, a recital of the Diabelli and Goldberg variations organised to mark his 60th birthday. No doubt the temptation then will be to play it safe, but it’s unlikely Schiff will succumb. He’s a habitual risk-taker, so expect the unexpected.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ BBC SO Roth Barbican 15.12.13

Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ,
Karen Cargill (mez), Yann Beuron (ten), Marcus Farnsworth (bar), Christopher Purvis (bs), BBC SO and Chorus, Trinity Laban Chamber Choir, François-Xavier Roth (cond.), Barbican Hall, London 15.12.13

After the high-octane Berlioz performances from Gergiev and Salonen earlier in the year, this more measured reading from François-Xavier Roth came as a welcome relief. Patience and clarity are his primary virtues, and in this work they count for a lot. For all the pastoral grace of L’enfance du Christ, there is plenty of drama here, and Roth was able to bring that out too. But on the whole, this was an intimate and reflective reading; well sung, well played, and carefully balanced to bring out all the distinctive details of the work’s scoring and structure.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus fielded surprisingly large forces, filling the stage with players and singers. Neither the ensemble nor the balance suffered, and Roth employed the huge ensemble more to round out the warmth or the quieter passages than to up the dynamics in the few climaxes. The sound of the large string section performing the muted lyrical lines in the opening section was particularly attractive, and an early taste of what was to come in terms of finely controlled tone colour and balance
Roth and/or the BBC assembled a close to ideal line up of soloists, each bringing real character and a distinctive sound to their respective parts. Yann Beuron has a rich, clear voice, and the almost unique ability to fill the dull Barbican acoustic with his ringing tone. His performance was perhaps a little too emotive for the essentially expositionary role of the narrator, although it was better suited to the role of the Centurion. Christopher Purvis brought all the menace of his recent performance in Written on Skin to the part of Herod, giving an appropriately sinister reading without ever tipping over into unintentional comedy. His voice is particularly fine in the lower part of his range, and Berlioz seems to have written the part for just such a voice, setting all the most menacing lines lower down. Francophone listeners may take issue with some of his pronunciation, but from my monoglot(ish) perspective, I’ve not cause to complain.
As the new mum and dad, Karen Cargill and Marcus Farnsworth made an excellent pairing, the colour and weight of their voices balancing well. Cargill has a very heavy and always-on vibrato, which isn’t really to my taste, but is probably appropriate to the repertoire. In general, though, her voice is light and fresh, as is Farnsworth’s, bringing an ideal sense of youthfulness to two roles.
While Roth never goes to dramatic extremes, neither does he play it safe. In particular, he uses the very quietest passages of the score to take all the performers outside their comfort zone. Cargill’s first aria, towards the end of the first part, is accompanied by some complex textures in the strings and woodwind, yet everything is at a very low dynamic. Roth allowed her to sing as quietly as she liked, forcing the players to bring out their complex lines, yet at the very lowest dynamic. The results were fragile but secure, and exquisitely beautiful.
At the other end of the spectrum, Roth drew a wide range of textures and colours from the chorus. He made the very most of the Sheppard’s’ Farewell, emphasising all the dynamic swells and hard accents, but without ever exaggerating the effects or risking pedantry. And the chorus delivered magnificently, both here and in the polyphonic section at the start of the third part, their two major contributions. Choirmaster Stephen Jackson, who no-doubt drilled the singers well for this appearance, was not on-stage, but was at the back of the hall, on the upper balcony, directing the off-stage angelic choir. Our angels this afternoon were the Chamber Choir of Trinity Laban, who sang well, although this wasn’t music to challenge them. The placement of the choir was inspired: given the problems that this hall poses when it comes to positioning vocal ensembles, on- or off-stage, the distant yet clear sound that this placing created was surprisingly effective.
The Epilogue to the work was particularly well handled. The music here is quiet and gentle, and again Roth went to daring extremes, taking the dynamics down to create extraordinary delicate and subtle textures. Now Beuron was able to demonstrate another facet of his art, a focussed pianissimo, as clear and rich as his louder declamations at the start, and projecting just as well. An elegant and touching close to a moving performance, one very much to the credit of all involved.

This performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio and will be available to listen on demand until 22nd December 2013.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Sokhiev, Mullova, Kalagina, Philharmonia. RFH 12 December 13

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor
Mahler: Symphony No. 4
Viktoria Mullova (violin),
Anastasia Kalagina (soprano),
Tugan Sokhiev (cond.),
Philharmonia Orchesta,
Royal Festival Hall, London, 12.12.13

A game of two halves this: a Mendelssohn Violin Concerto wholly lacking in enthusiasm, commitment and...well, anything very much, followed by a Mahler Four of genuine insight and originality.
I’ve not heard Viktoria Mullova before, but her reputation precedes her, and it must surely be based on performances better than this one. There was nothing technically wrong with her performance, but for one of the great Romantic concertos it was curiously lacking in emotion. To her credit, Mullova projects an identity through her playing and ensures that what she does is always distinctive. Her programme bio tells us she’s a part-time HIPster, which may explain the strict economy she applies to her rubato. Her tone is always focussed, and projects the line well, but it rarely sings. And she has a different timbre in each register: a viola-like richness at the bottom, a more nasal sound in the middle, and a thin, reedy whine at the top. Delicacy is her key virtue in the Mendelssohn: nothing is ever laid on thick and melodic lines are suggested rather than stated emphatically. But it doesn’t add up to a coherent interpretation, and it almost always lacks warmth.
That’s not to say Mullova was the only culprit here. Conductor Tugan Sokhiev communicated poorly with her throughout, and straightjacketed the orchestra into an inflexible and angular reading that neither they nor Mullova ever sounded comfortable with. Occasionally, she would attempt to free up the tempo, in the coda to the first movement for example, where she made every effort to accel into the final cadence. But it was no good, she just got further and further ahead of the metronomic beat, Sokhiev always refusing to yield. Predictably, the orchestra lacked motivation here, and the textures in the ensemble were muddy and indistinct throughout the concerto. For all his rigour, Sokhiev also failed to make the work cohere, leading to many awkward transitions and tempo shifts.
Fortunately, the second half of the concert was a completely different story. Or rather, everything that Sokhiev had done in the first half to the detriment of the Mendelssohn – his austerity, brutally imposed tempo changes, and curious orchestral balances – came together in the Mahler to produce a meaningful and engaging interpretation. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is something of a virtuoso showpiece for the conductor, with all sorts of paradoxes to resolve on the hoof  (just look at the tempo change on the first page of the score). Sokhiev appeared throughout the concert as a conductor used to getting his way by heavy coercion, by dictatorship from the podium. This score benefits from that approach, because if the composer knows the music well and knows where he is going with it (Sokhiev clearly knows both), the problematic ambiguities of tempo and form that the work throws up can be overcome.
Sokhiev is clearly very interested in the details of Mahler’s orchestration, the held horn chords, for example, that often underpin woodwind ensembles, or the way that a violin line will be given an earthy and rustic-sounding conclusion by suddenly switching to the violas before the cadence. And the Philharmonia responded well to his analytical approach, bringing out all those colourful details, and without ever exaggerating them to the point of pedantry. The woodwinds yet again showed themselves to be the crowning glory of this orchestra, presenting all manner of intricacy and detail in both their ensembles and their solos.
Soprano Anastasia Kalagina is the ideal collaborator for Sokhiev’s Mahler. Her tone is narrow but focussed, clear and with only a very slight vibrato, and she always brings the lyrics to the fore. She gave the sort of performance that combined beautifully with the detail Sokhiev was drawing from the woodwinds behind her, both she and they presenting intimate but never pale colours, shaped through deeply expressive phrasing.
This still wasn’t an ideal performance though, and although they were not as evident, some of Sokhiev’s flaws in the Mendelssohn carried over into the Mahler. His tempos were often stiff (something Mahler himself considered fatal to performances of his music) and the orchestra often seemed to be hectored into compliance through emphatic cues and an unyielding baton technique. Also, Sokhiev had the same communication problems with Kalagina that he had previously had with Mullova, a reluctance to follow her phrasing and a reluctance to give her the space she needed to perform as a soloist. But in this work it is the conductor’s vision that matters, and Sokhiev clearly has one; an understanding of the symphony’s curious proportions and of the story that Mahler is trying to tell. With just a little more empathy for his colleagues, Sokhiev could have given a truly great performance of the score this evening, but even while jealously clutching the reins of power, he still produced a very fine one.