Tag Archives: Beethoven

Another night of wonder / London Symphony Orchestra + Sir Colin Davis + Dame Mitsuko Uchida / Barbican Hall – 11 December 2011

12 Dec

Another night, another concert. But of course when that orchestra is the LSO and under the direction of Sir Colin Davis things are far from just routinely chugging along. The programme itself stretching from Haydn’s Symphony No 93 written in 1791 to Nielsen’s Symphony No3 written in 1911 via Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto has to be one thrilling ride through over one hundred years of European music. The orchestra managed to create three distinct soundworlds as befitting the range of moods and sensitivities of each composer. Proving that the orchestra hasn’t got an auto pilot like default sound but is flexible in reflection to the wide repertoire.

My joy at modern instrument orchestras playing Mozart and Haydn is not exactly secret. I totally hate period ensembles that have robbed the balls off these wonderful compositions and give them a half life on stage complete with crude horns. The LSO  under brisk but seated Davis gave us a focused sound that took in its stride the playfulness of Haydn’s writing and created an elegant edifice that never became self indulgent or academic. The teasing pizzicato playing connected it directly to the Nielsen, despite the huge differences in sonority. When he demanded Allegro, he got a dancing response from the players and when the Minuet arrived, the teasing exchanges between winds and strings made this a feast for the eyes and ears. The feeling in the auditorium was of celebration and the genuinely thunderous applause sealed the deal.

For the Nielsen Symphony the LSO gave us a much more dry sound, not as lyrical to start off with, almost giving a modernist very Nordic sound to the first movement. The soundscape was as expansive and beautiful as one would imagine an evening would be at a cold abandoned beach in Denmark. The pizzicato of the strings against the reedy and evocative sound of the piccolo created more environmental images in our heads. Sir Colin, surely drove the brass to play with emphatic pride but avoided at all costs Mahlerian hyperbole. The Andante Pastorale of the second movement did drive us more into the Danish countryside that was the formative influence in so much of Nielsen’s writing. The soprano (Lucy Hall) and the baritone (Marcus Farnsworth) were placed amongst the members of the orchestra, the tremolo of the strings providing a filigree backdrop for their vocalism. The closing movements were a triumphal mix of stillness and urgency. The finale was so rousing as to have a resounding and very loud bravo! echo even before Davis put his baton down. He was called back to the stage three times in a wave after wave of applause.

After the interval we were treated to a performance of utter sophistication and unapologetic beauty. Mitsuko Uchida does not need introductions when it comes to playing Beethoven or Mozart; she is a specialist per excellence and has been in demand for over 30 years. But despite her considerable pedigree I was totally thrown by the brilliance of her playing and the obvious rapport with Davis and the orchestra. When the three of them meet live, something very special happens, the chemistry is unmistakable.

Her playing over all was a perfectly judged balance of assertiveness and sweetness. She did not bash her instrument like a mad woman just to show she can play loudly, but she used the full range of colour it provided her with and indeed was not afraid to give Argerich like arpeggios at full tilt. Dressed in yellow gold trousers and top, with a transparent cornflower blue organza jacket, she obviously enjoyed listening to the warm elegiac sound of the LSO as the accompanied her, crossing her arms in approval while bobbing her head to the music.

She gave a unique sense of mystery to the first movement, almost as she knew a secret Beethoven whispered in her ear, but did not want to reveal it to us, but wanted us to keep on guessing. The Adagio had the fluency of one would expect, but with an almost vocal line…it would not have been out of place if she started singing alongside the very lyrical, attentive playing she gave us. Such was the sweet caress by her that when she introduced the opening theme for the third movement without a break, a few people around us jumped at the sudden change. Again the dialogue between orchestra and soloist was captivating. The warm and totally idiomatic sound of the orchestra created the perfect backdrop and contrasting material for all the variations on that one triumphant theme she played again and again. Every time with a new voice, every time with a new dialect. This was the summation of the careers of two great musicians and an orchestra at the top of their game, truly exceptional. When a lot of capital cities would have nothing more to boast on a Sunday evening,  than an episode of a reality TV show (and amusingly it was the final of the UK X Factor tonight) London can offer an almost sold our concert hall with an amazing cast of musicians playing from the heart.

The same programme is repeated on Tuesday 13th and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, if nothing else do tune in!

Some tweets from the evening

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Beethoven renaissance? / Gewandhaus Orchestra / Barbican Hall – 1 November 2011

3 Nov

There aren’t many orchestras in the world that can claim to have been around when Beethoven was composing his Symphonies, the Gewandhaus can and surely has one of the most enviable pedigrees in the business. Since its foundation in 1743 it has been a mainstay of orchestral playing in Europe alongside The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic orchestras. One goes to one of their concerts with high expectations, especially when they are playing two Beethoven symphonies in one evening!

This was their third concert at the Barbican as part of their full cycle of Beethoven Symphonies as a promotion for their set released by Decca last week.  The recordings have been (as usually the case with Decca) overhyped and created pent up anticipation in the smallish orchestral loving circles.

When I was growing up the two complete Beethoven cycles I owned were the Karajan/Berlin Phil and the Sawallisch/Royal Concertgebouw. Those Symphonies seemed the pinnacle of orchestral accomplishment, they were big and bold. Surely as impressionable 12 year old I embraced the excitement and grandeur. This symphonic cycle is like no other, it shaped the very make up of symphony orchestras that we listen to today. And became the early war horse of nascent record companies trying to sell records for the gramophone. Intriguingly in you search for Beethoven Symphonies you get 2956 results in the database of back issues of Gramophone Magazine. So when a new set comes out, there is a long and hard discussion of the treatment of this Mount Parnassus of music making in minute detail. Chailly’s cycle has caused some disquiet as he has elected to use the original metronome values, away from most established performance practice that deems them too fast. So I chose to go to the concert that contained a mature work (No8) and his most prominent slow movement (the funereal march in No3). Would the speed ruin the atmosphere of the No3, would the sprightly No8 sparkle?

The audience reception was very warm at the start of the concert, with thunderous applause for the maestro. Being on the second row from the stage I was rather alarmed by the amount of patent leather on show, the players of the Gewandhaus do dress traditionally in dark grey tails or black ensembles for the ladies. A world away from most British orchestras, but then this is the oldest orchestra in the world, we’ll allow them to hold on to their old fashioned garb.

I was very happy to read about Chailly including contemporary compositions to their Beethoven programmes, after all they championed Beethoven’s compositions when they were only months old. So it was appropriate and it paid off, Colin Matthews’ Grand Barcarolle had affinities mainly to Symphony No3, when it came to the mood it portrayed. It had some exquisite string passages that enveloped us gently and made a great opener before the main event. The composer looked very moved and thankful to Chailly and the orchestra and I can imagine very few higher honours than having a composition played by these wonderful players.

Symphony No8 displayed in abundance the wonderful woody, centre heavy sound of the orchestra. They surely have an individual sound. Being used to great effect when floating between Beethoven’s intermingling themes and variations. The pomp and romp of the second movement was brought almost to an operatic finale, a truly exceptionally vibrant and alive reading. An interesting manifestation of the relationship between the Italian conductor, his fiery personality and the considerable heft of this historic orchestra. This symphony does give a great insight into Beethoven’s mature writing, with great attention to woodwind and seamless orchestration of the different incidents into a satisfying, uplifting whole. Listening to it one can feel his excitement for this amazing instrument (the orchestra) and using it’s chromatic and dynamic variation to bring light and shade into a coherent inspiring union. The feverish finale was exciting (especially if you weren’t looking at some bored and immobile people in the front row).  It built up the expectation for the second half.

Beethoven’s Eroica, is one my most favourite works, especially the deep sadness in the funereal march with its haunting horn led theme. So was slightly worried if the majesty and poise of the march would be preserved. The first movement indeed had a lot of brio and the string playing was open but not too overindulgent and glistening. When the second movement started the hushed beginning was fluid and had all the empathy and weightiness one would expect. Chailly’s conducting was trying to bring out the intricate detailing of all the ornamentation, bringing into sharp focus all the characteristic small conversations between orchestral sections that is so typical of Beethoven. I’m sure some people may find that very detail focused playing to be a distraction from the painful core of this movement, but I was won over and seemed like a great way to add more verve to this movement that can so easily sag into a mournful mess. The shaping and flow were electric, goose bump inducing to the max.

The next two movements were again beautifully played and I’d call them a ballet for my toes…which jumped around and tapped around my shoes in tune to the forward, energetic playing and the maestro’s own dance routines 😉 Surely not a dull moment during those movements and with a tight focus on the mood and overall structure. Have to say at times the brass seemed a bit too hot but that has to do more with the acoustic of the hall and my proximity to the stage.

Now I can’t finish this small report without mentioning the relationship between Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus. The orchestra was totally obedient, well rehearsed and clearly responding to Chailly’s exuberant, physical way of conducting. Every pizzicato note was clearly articulated by his baton and the players became an extension of the maestro. In many ways a very old fashioned way to conduct business but it really works. As Chailly has a much more fiery temperament than the orchestra, when they come together it’s a beguiling, verging on the intoxicating, combination.

Can’t imagine anyone at the Barbican being left unmoved by some of that magic, despite any disagreements on the fast tempi. Who said those symphonies were the domain for grandiose statements by 80 year old conductors building a legacy. On Tuesday night those two works were played with commitment and freshness, despite the fact this is their fourth full cycle in the last few months. Now I’ll be chomping through the recorded set and see if their sound has been captured in all it’s fullness. It must be a great time for a new generation to fall in love with this orchestral staple. 

Tweets from the night: 

Downton Abbey hair and chewing gum / Leonidas Kavakos+ Emanuel Ax / Wigmore Hall – 26 October 2011

27 Oct

Last night’s recital of Beethoven Violin Sonatas by Leonidas Kavakos and Emanuel Ax was a wonderful combination of venue, repertoire and soloists. The only slightly odd thing about it was that due to being half term the very advanced in age audience was interspersed with school children that mum had taken out for self improvement. Which made for a different atmosphere metaphorically speaking but also literally, the pungent artificial smell of strawberry across the auditorium was difficult to ignore and it was unlike other Wigmore Hall recitals I have been to 😉

Clearly the programme was family friendly but then nothing the Wigmore programmes would rock the boat anyway! Which is part of its charm, it’s a traditional chamber/song venue and does that really well.

The obvious rapport between the two men was a good bond to make those Beethoven pieces come to life. Kavakos’ violin playing is very delicate and mellifluous, appropriate for a soloist playing a 1724 Stradivarius. Always a strange thing to remember with those mythical instruments that they actually pre date Beethoven’s pieces by at least 77 years. An extraordinary link to the past of the art form.

Ax’s at times heavily attacked staccati notes were a great counter balance to bring to the  warm comfortable experience a bit of edge. Those violin sonatas, like most chamber pieces seem too cosily proportioned for a ducal salon and can sound as boring and tired as anything if they are not given the right amount of attention. And that very scale of the Sonatas (mind you No10 is in much grander fashion that the first two on the programme) made the Wigmore the ideal venue, the acoustic would have been near to what the composer would have expected such a piece to be played in, intimate but not domestic.

I can only imagine what the impressions of the children around the auditorium must have been like, they surely can’t get near pop stars at such proximity but they can be at arm’s length of such accomplished musicians. Judging from the screams of the two girls behind me, they thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I have to agree with them. They absolutely deserved the heated applause, which they rewarded with the classic encore caper Sicilienne (composed possibly not by von Paradis, but as Ax himself said it doesn’t matter, it’s beautiful) which had a shimmering brilliance and a bubbling lustfulness as good and as engaging as anything that preceded it.

PS Somehow this feels rather appropriate to follow up with after the violin covers of the last few posts, but can assure you that was not properly planned…just a weird coincidence.  As a fun addition here’s a 1955 published account of bad new audience habits 😉 

Sylvie Guillem / 6.000 miles away / Sadler’s Wells – 06 July 2011

8 Jul

Every time I have to write about Sylvie Guillem I find it extremely difficult, how does one put in words the outcome of an evening with such a wonderful and sensory overload. How can I do justice to a true wonder of our times.

To experience Guillem live is to be part of something very special, a true fusion of art, spirituality and curiosity. My first ever live exposure to her art was at the Nureyev gala at The Royal Opera House back in 2003. She danced the pas des deux In the Middle Somewhat Elevated which was specially created for her while she was an etoile at the Paris Opera Ballet by William Forsythe. Last night it was almost a rekindling of those feelings and admiration that she generated almost a decade ago.

The programme was as follows:

The evening’s start, the new piece by Forsythe, Rearray was an interesting confection. The stage was set up in what it looked like a well-worn dance studio in shades of dark grey with a bar attached to the wall. Guillem and Le Riche did not use that back wall in any way, it seemed that Forsythe chose to carve the relationship of the two characters with the use of dramatic, lighting that subdivided the action and fragmented the narrative. The dim lighting which was the main phase of the scheme was highlighting the fast movement of the choreography and especially Guillem’s velvet smooth arm and hand gestures created shapes not unlike light pen drawings that Picasso made all the rage back in the 1940s. Almost 3d calligraphy and an exploration of the bodies of the two dancers intertwining and at times mirroring each other’s aerial shape making. The piece did not have too many lifts or too much body contact. The two dancers retold abstract episodes with the lights dimming and going off creating a buffer from one episode to another.

The general mood of the piece was warm mainly generated by the clear familiarity of the two dancers, they both go back to their Paris Opera days being both hand-picked by Nureyev and showing a very particular brand of elegant step marking and physicality. Forsythe used very effectively Le Riche’s imposing physique and his equally powerful delivery is a perfect foil for Sylvie’s fluid delivery, almost a tree against an overflowing river. He accentuated the very sensitivity of Guillem’s dancing that is one of its more distinctive features. Against a less masculine partner she could have easily dominated with her gymnast proportions. She has mentioned in recent interviews that she asked Forsythe to not scale back his requirements but to try and stretch her capabilities. Surely most of the pacing is exhausting and makes her command the stage in her very unique way. Forsythe knows her well and Rearray lives in the mind, a day later it has grown more and more. One sour aspect for me was the music accompaniment (by David Morrow) a particular brand of post modern cacophony that contemporary choreographers seem to be perennially in love with. It wasn’t terribly inspired and I usually find a clash between a found piece of music with a new dance work is a great combination.

The second piece by Jiří Kylián (27’52”) was a much more hands on affair between the two dancers. With some extraordinary scenes of tense exchange between the two protagonists. With long lengths of grey rubber, pliable flooring material covering the dancers from time to time creating a separating layer was an interesting addition. The piece had an undercurrent of trauma and violence a true contrast to what came before. Aurelie Cayla removed her red flowing top after a terse exchange and lied immobile on the floor for the next few minutes allowing Kojiri to dance a triumphant solo. A disquieting middle point in the choreography where her exposed torso becomes a lifeless prop for relentless shaking and bending. It was arresting with its ferocious rhythms and Mahlerian musical themes weaving a spunky full-on narrative. Really appreciated at that point the brief interval to catch some fresh air and wonder what Mats Ek would do with one of his top muses!

Bye was a thirty minute solo for Guillem starting behind a projection screen (with a whimsical extreme close-up) she climbs up it trying to make it through to the stage. Almost a flashback from some extraordinary visual effects they employed for her last Sadler’s Wells outing two years ago with Eonnagata. This time round it was employed in a much more humorous way. She relished appearing in surely the most frumpy stage outfit any dancer would ever wear. A mustard coloured skirt with a purple patterned shirt, a green cardigan and a pair of pink pop socks (that she quickly removes alongside her shoes and dances barefoot). She seemed to be portraying a homely figure on stage with a rather cooky sense of joie de vivre…she made all too clear with three headstands where she created a Y shape and held with sheer excitement.

The piece had Sylvie’s signature high kicks and mesmerizing fluidity. The projections on the door-like opening continue throughout the work with some live video of her stretched on the floor, almost in a simulation of a full body photocopying process. Her in sync and out of sync movements on the screen both mirrored the action and frozen the narrative into a purely aesthetic product. When things turned “too pretty” a man appears on-screen that is clearly looking for her and followed by a sweet docile family dog (which caused a lot of laughter in the auditorium) which was followed by a huge family looking at her dancing. The humour and Guillem’s magnetic presence was clearly the core of the piece. Almost a glimpse of a more domestic Sylvie that lifts her everyday life with humorous posing and a few playful headstands? It was endearing and heartfelt, the kind of piece that hits one’s heart straight on. She was dancing to the Arietta from Beethoven’s last piano sonata Op.111 as played by Ivo Pogorelich. As a certain (wonderful) pianist said to me it was a very dull piece and he’s milking its dullness but this was exactly the right piece for the occasion. She elevated the pretty straight-laced music into an extraordinary conversation. The movement both following the sound but also adding meaning and tenderness.

All in all it was moving, it was intelligent, it was skilful. A great evening out with arguably the greatest ballerina of our times.

PS it was a rather funny audience on the night a mix of ex dancers, assorted musicians (including Stephen Hough on front row) a mother with her 10-year-old son and a biker in full leather gear that brought his helmet in the auditorium! Not the kind of audience one would see at the Coliseum or the Royal Opera House which got me thinking about how different dance audiences are to opera ones! One interesting extra thing was how the performance started, with the lights still on the curtain opened and Le Riche and Guillem stood immobile in the darkened stage quietly silencing the loud chatting audience an effective and engaging start to a memorable evening. I will be seeing it again in September, will make sure to add any more observations to this piece if need be.

2012 Update

Sylvie Guillem was awarded the Outstanding Female Performance (Modern) prize for 6.000 Miles Away at the The 12th (The Critics’ Circle) National Dance Awards in London on 23 January 2012. 

2013 Update

With the upcoming return of Guillem to Sadler’s Wells the Guardian has put online some filmed excerpts from 6.000 miles away.

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