Friday, 31 January 2014

LSO Jansen Pappano Barbican 31 Jan 2014

Maxwell Davis: Fanfare: Her Majesty’s Welcome
Brahms: Violin Concerto
Walton: Symphony No. 1
London Symphony Orchestra
Janine Jansen, violin
Antonio Pappano, conductor

Antonio Pappano is only an occasional collaborator with the London Symphony, but he works well with the orchestra. He delivers plenty of fire and passion, and is often extreme with his tempos and rubato. The orchestra, by contrast, maintains an even style, following closely his often abrupt changes of tempo and mood, and without ever compromising their high technical standards of intonation, tone quality and ensemble. At its best, and that’s usually in the faster music, the result is a seamless unity between the dynamism from the podium and the more measured expertise of the players. Occasionally, the quieter music can seem laboured, but even then possible tensions come across more as constructive dialectic.
The concert opened with a fanfare from Peter Maxwell Davis, Her Majesty’s Welcome. Unlike his previous royalty-themed work, the sanity of the monarch was not addressed in any detail here. Instead, the work fulfilled a commission from the LSO for a collaborative project with the LSO On Track Young Musicians. This outreach project started life as part of London’s Olympic bid and involves East London school children in performances with the LSO players. Max provided the ideal work for the occasion, or rather the previous occasion, in 2012, when the Queen was present. The young wind players were arranged behind the orchestra and there were also two antiphonal brass choirs on the balcony. The brass and percussion sections of the LSO got things going with some martial snare drum followed by some regal, if densely voiced, chords from the trumpets and trombones. These dense harmonies were presumably designed to hide any wayward tuning from the young players, but, in fact, the harmonic side of the music was a source of continual interest, despite its density of sound. And the performance was a good one, the young woodwind players able to hold their own against the batteries of brass, and the ensemble well balanced throughout. An occasional piece, and a highly functional one too, but without any hint of condescension to the young players.
Janine Jansen is an ideal soloist for the Brahms Violin Concerto. Despite her slight frame, she has impressive power and projection behind her tone, and when the music calls for it she can make a real impact with heavy downbow accents. The motif that opens the first subject theme in the first movement theme has rarely sounded as incisive and as dramatic as it did this evening. But Brahms also calls for some intense lyricism, especially in the second subject, which she also delivers convincingly. Surprisingly, there were a few intonation problems early on in the first movement, a result perhaps of some very daring portamento. Jansen well deftly slide up to a note, teasing the audience as to when, or even if, it will arrive. Once or twice the results came out flat. But in general this was a technically proficient and impressively dramatic reading. Jansen often employs a hard, wiry tone in louder passages, but it is clearly a conscious decision rather than an affliction, as the rounder, mellower sounds she produces elsewhere demonstrate. The orchestral strings were on fine form. Jansen’s gritty first subject motif is soon repeated in the orchestra, and the violins were easily able to match her punchy rendition. The woodwinds were a little wayward at the start of the second movement, a result perhaps of Pappano’s very slow tempo and mannered phrasing, but all was redeemed from the soloist’s first entry. And the finale was a tour de force, snappy and dynamic, but also well controlled by soloist, conductor and orchestra alike.
The London Symphony and Walton 1 go back a long way. This was the orchestra that gave the famous incomplete performances of the work in the long interregnum while the composer worked out what to do about the finale. The piece is quite a workout for the players, and it’s an excellent showpiece to demonstrate the LSO’s fine form. Pappano’s approach is controversial in a couple of respects, particularly with regard to the quiet interludes in the first movement. He tends to slow these right down, and to phrase very pedantically with overt rubato. He also makes a very big thing out of the long build-ups, especially the one that leads into the recapitulation of the first movement. The intention is laudable, but most of this symphony doesn’t need that level of intervention: Walton himself has put all the crescendo in that the build-ups need through increasing harmonic density and orchestral voicing. The slow movement also felt over-shaped, with Pappano clearly intent on emphasising the  progression towards the more intense passages near the end. On the other hand, the scherzo and finale were just fantastic. The intensity and drive that Pappano brought to these movements was ideal, and was matched by the clean, precise, and always energetic playing of the orchestra.
There were so many great things in the orchestral playing here, it’s difficult to know where to begin. The horns and violas at the beginning, clear and focussed, but with delicacy too. Nigel Thomas seemed to have little difficulty with what must be one of the most demanding timpani parts in the repertoire. Philip Cobb’s trumpet solo at the end, floating across the orchestra with just a hint of brass band vibrato, was finer than on any recording I’ve heard. In fact, the coda to the last movement was spot on in every respect, and those gunshot staccatos that end were devastating in their power and their unquestionable finality. Despite some of Pappano’s indulgences earlier on, this was a fine and memorable performance of the greatest symphony the UK has yet produced.

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be accessed online until 6 February 2014 at:

Thursday, 23 January 2014

BBC SO Volkov, Hodges, BBC Singers, Barbican 22 Jan 2013

Grisey: Mégalithes
Dufourt: On the Wings of the Morning
Boulez: Cummings ist der Dichter
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7
BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers
Ilan Volkov, conductor
Nicolas Hodges, piano

Even by BBCSO standards, Grisey’s Mégalithes is a whacky concert opener. The horn section sits around the front of the podium, facing away from the audience, and the rest of the brass section is distributed around the auditorium, providing antiphonal effects that bounce around front to back and left to right. It’s an early work, dating from 1969, when Grisey was still a student of Messiaen and the Paris Conservatoire. There’s no spectralism as such here, but all of the musical preoccupations that we now identify with that school are very much in evidence. Performance techniques are “extended” to say the least, and the pitch content of the music is the last of the composer’s concerns. Instead, he has the brass players create all manner of semi-pitched and unpitched effects with their instruments. But radical as the sounds are, the linear structure of the music is surprisingly conventional. The antiphony is clearly discernible, with a sound effect – slapping the mouthpiece to create a pop, say – proposed in one corner of the hall, then repeated in another corner with some slight elaboration added. And the music builds to climaxes through gradual crescendos and increasing weight of texture then ebbs back to a state of repose. Compared to the structural obscurity of Grisey’s mature work, this piece proceeds with the formal clarity of a Haydn sonata.
Next came the Dufourt concerto, and that was whackier still. Actually, concerto is the wrong word for this piece, which carries the title On the Wings of the Morning. It may be an extended work for piano solo and orchestra, but it continually resists all of the gestures and rhetoric that characterise the form. It’s a new piece, written in 2012 and this evening receiving its UK premiere, and it is very much in the spirit of the spectralist movement. In fact, Dufourt is responsible for the term “musique spectral”, although he seems more like a disciple of that movement’s leaders than a trend setter himself. The music here is all about inscrutably complex and gradually shifting textures. The large string section rarely settles on a stable pitch, instead moving around in tremolo glissando in a constantly shifting web of sound. The winds are all engaged in various extended performance techniques, at least as many as in the Grisey, although this time the resulting sounds are usually pitched. Against all this Nicolas Hodges pounds away at the piano keys. He’s usually half obscured by the orchestra, but that is clearly deliberate, and only occasionally rises to the surface with some emphatic fortissimo gesture, usually at the top of the keyboard. Despite the breadth of this work, the piano part is surprisingly sporadic, mostly consisting of short snatches of highly articulate music, each followed by a couple of seconds of silence before the next begins.
Against all the odds, the work seemed to have a nominal three movement structure, with a quiet, slow interlude between the vast, monolithic opening and closing sections. The performance seemed a little vulnerable here, as if the greater scrutiny the sparse textures afforded allowed us to hear the individual players wrestling with their obviously impossibly hard parts. No such problems for Nicolas Hodges though; he was his usual unflappable self, sitting attentively but relaxed at the piano, seemingly oblivious to the speed at which his hands were moving around the keyboard and the violent extremes of sound that they were producing. It’s a fascinating piece, and the colours and textures that make it up are endlessly engaging, but it could do with more imaginative structuring. The incessant tutti that makes up about the first half of the work clearly has much going on inside it in terms of gradual evolution of texture and harmonic colour, but when it subsides into the quiet central section, the music up to that point is remembered as just a barrage of sound, its details lost to all but the most attentive.
Cumming is der Dichter continued the French modernist theme. The BBC Singers joined a reduced BBC SO and demonstrated their unquestioned skill in this, their core repertoire. The sheer competency of the performers, combined with Volkov’s reluctance to push the more overt sections, made this a technically accomplished but slightly comfortable reading. On the regular occasions that Boulez whips up a storm (albeit usually a very brief one) in the instrumental parts, the drama seemed to be over before it had started. The BBC Singers didn’t benefit from being brought to the middle, rather than the back, of the stage. It meant they were deprived of the amplifying effect of the back wall, reducing both the volume and the detail of their contributions.
Why tack Beethoven Seven onto the end of a concert like this? If it was intended to get bums on seats then it failed. If, on the other hand, it was meant as a balm for our by then much bruised ears, then perhaps it did its job. This wasn’t a particularly distinguished performance - the symphony was no doubt at the bottom of the list of rehearsal priorities – but it was a lot of fun. Volkov hadn’t done much to unify the phrasing within or between sections, nor was the balance particularly impressive, but he was clearly enjoying himself. He had a big smile on his face throughout the first movement, and that feeling was infectious, spreading to all the players in the orchestra. It was all a bit rough around the edges, and there were one or two quite serious ensemble problems, especially between the strings and winds in the development of the first movement. It had redeeming features too, the incessant drive of the finale was impressive, and the symphony ended well (although the first two movements didn’t). A fun rendition, but even from the opening bars there was a feeling that the main substance of the evening was behind us, and that the Beethoven was not so much a grand conclusion to the performance as an undemanding epilogue.

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard online until 29 January at:

Friday, 17 January 2014

BBC SO Bychkov Katia and Marielle Labèque 16 Jan 2014

Martinů: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Katia and Marielle Labèque
Barbican, London, 16 January 2014

The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays well for Semyon Bychkov. He’s a disciplined conductor and has an excellent baton technique, allowing him to unify this orchestra in a way that few others manage. He has an ear for detail, in balance and ensemble, but even more so in phrasing. Nothing is left to chance. That’s not to say his interpretations lack lyricism, or that he’s unwilling to give soloists space: he is, and the passages of relative freedom he allows the players complement the more emphatically led tuttis. In fact, Bychkov gets the very best out of every orchestra he conducts, but with the BBC SO there seems to be a special chemistry that works to everybody’s advantage. He currently holds the more-or-less honorary Günter Wand Conducting Chair with the orchestra, which sadly doesn’t guarantee as many London appearances as audiences here would like. But it’s currently his only official position (surprising, given his eminence) so perhaps we can look forward to a few more concerts with him in forthcoming seasons.
This evening’s concert opened with Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which was a family affair, as the soloists were the Labèque sisters, one of whom is married to Bychkov. The score is typical Martinů, all saturated orchestral textures and dense, scurrying piano writing. The first movement is particularly impressive, as it lands running, at a pretty hectic pace, and then maintains the momentum for its entire duration. Then there is a slow movement, dominated by woodwind solos and ensembles, and then the finale, which is a bit more rhythmically complex and involves a greater range of textures and tempos than the first. The BBC SO’s previous Chief Conductor, Jiři Bělohlávek, led the orchestra in a complete Martinů symphony cycle a few years ago and trained the players well in the composer’s unique style. Despite the density and complexity of his orchestration, Martinů always harks back to the sounds of Czech folk music. The players this evening really managed to project that sense of rustic simplicity through the dense layering of the music. The Labèque sisters gave a convincing account of the solo parts, all very emotive and mobile, with lots of writhing heads and swishing hair. I thought they could have hammered out the important rhythms and cross-rhythms a bit more though; Martinů obviously expects those to come through - though he doesn’t do much to help them in his orchestration. A bit more definition in the solo lines might have helped clarify the shape and direction of this often wayward and opaque music.
There was nothing wayward or opaque about the opening movement of the “Leningrad”, quite the opposite. Bychkov has something of a reputation as a Shostakovich interpreter, and this performance demonstrated exactly why. He’s also a Leningrader himself, which must make a difference. In this first movement everything came together. From the opening unison phrase it was clear that a great deal of time and effort had gone into getting the style and phrasing right. The notes were slightly detached and the phrasing slightly clipped, the better to delineate the shape of the line. Balances were ideal throughout this tricky movement, and the gradual climax through the invasion theme section was perfectly paced. The string sound was energetic, but had the dark quality required of the much of the music. Excellent woodwind solos, excellent snare drum too.
If the remainder of the symphony didn’t quite maintain the standard of excellence set by this first movement, it certainly came close. Some fatigue was evident in the later movements, and the players’ control of their tone colour, and of balance within sections, suffered a little. But it was still a great performance. Bychkov allowed the music of the middle movements some space to breathe, bringing some poetry to this otherwise austere context. Not too much though, and the discipline was always maintained. And in the finale, he was able to at least acknowledge the undertones of dissent and doubt, yet his tempos remained disciplined, always focussing the music towards its inevitably triumphant conclusion. And when it came, no doubts remained. Even at these loudest dynamics, the balance within the orchestra continued to be finely judged, as did the tone colours, especially from the blazing brass. A triumphant conclusion to a memorable concert.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard until 23rd Jan at: