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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: 

Would you like some minimalism with your breakfast? / LSO St Luke’s – 8 May 2011

9 May

Well today was an interesting morning. I don’t think I’ve ever woken up and left the house to go to an early morning concert (except for when I used to work at the Royal Albert Hall, when we had some freaky early starts at times). So the prospect of starting the day with a piece by Steve Reich was unusual to say the least!

Here’s the programme:

Steve Reich: Proverb / Theatre of Voices + Amadinda Percussion Group

Roger Marsh: Not a Soul but Ourselves / Theatre of Voices

David Lang: Little Match Girl Passion / Theatre of Voices (London Premiere)

Johann Johannsson: A set containing music from The Miners’ Hymns / Johann Johannsson ensemble

The opening piece by Reich was gloriously linear and aurally complex. Proverb does come out of the school of serial writing  and as with most US minimalist composers, he finds interest in sonorities and using repeats as the almost direct metaphor of a retinal afterimage turned into music. The feel of the piece is generally sombre but in a mellow, soothing mould, not surprising since Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes was his inspiration for the piece. That very quality made it a great opener to the concert. It was also remarkable that Reich himself was present at the upstairs control box looking rather happy, with the performance and the reception by the audience. I can only imagine how long this weekend must have been for him as this was part 4 of a 6 part weekend-long bender in his honour!

The piece by Roger Marsh was an interesting concoction back from 1977, setting of texts from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for two male  and two female voices, (which was commissioned by the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble, San Diego, while he was studying at University of California). An a capella / narrative piece that was using a conversational format between the female soloist and three person homophonous choir. Theatre of Voices did have the vibrancy required but somehow it was difficult to shed the very old fashioned fabric of the piece.

The third piece in the first half was for me a definite highlight. David Lang had a brief conversation with Nico Muhly about Little Match Girl Passion and he explained how he used Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion as the guiding light. He wilfully removed the references to Jesus, due to his Jewish faith, and substituted them with another victim, a literary one (the little match girl by Hans Christian Andersen). He also commented that when he went out, as an impressionable young man, and bought all of Reich’s albums he realised that he was a contemporary Christian composer (in essence making religious writing fair game for other modernist composers). The piece was commissioned by The Carnegie Hall and won him the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music the size of the space at St Luke’s just seemed perfect for it, as it is dominated by the sound of a bass drum, tubular bells and a glockenspiel marking each passage of the story.

The intimacy of the venue accentuated the drama and gave it an extra dimension. Passages of dense narration were interspersed with more luxuriant singing in a more neo-medieval form. The change of pace and at times breathless delivery were a great dramatic device that really moves forward the storytelling. One moment of reflection is afforded in part 9 (Have mercy, my God) where the singers are allowed to weave an intricate melody that creates a suitable moment for contemplation on the terrible fate of the heroine. And in true minimalist fashion it is at such a length that it reaches the end of the endurance of both singers and audience, creating a unique impetus for the completion of the Passion. The work may seem at first grim but he does highlight an alternative reality for the little girl, by pondering on her unification in glory with her beloved grandmother. And the piece concludes with essentially what is a universal end of one’s life next to the person they love. For the little girl that would be her grandmother for the audience/listener it could be dying next to their beloved partner in total peace and harmony with the world. A very interesting feeling of catharsis that I really did not expect. I’m hoping that his piece will be taken on by other ensembles as it is really worthy of many more performances.

After a brief interval of about 15 mins, we returned for Johann Johannsonn’s part of the concert. I have been a great fan of his since the release of his ibm1401 album. The completed film titled The Miners’ Hymns was premièred a couple of weeks ago at Tribeca Film Festival and will be released on DVD in the UK next month. And he presented selections from the soundtrack.

The playing of his ensemble was accompanied by semi abstracted coal mining footage, given a more graphic look by the use of a bright blue filter. It was a mix of pre recorded samples that were sequenced with a live string quartet and the composer playing the piano at particular moments. The score for the film has an elegiac tone with a march-like pacing but also has much more dreamy, softer passages. The finale was reinforced by a drum player who added an ever faster, more urgent pace to proceedings. Unfortunately due to the long length of the morning at St Luke’s about one third of the audience had departed by the end of his portion, which must have been disappointing for his troupe and Johannsson himself. The selections he played were very atmospheric, but in my view, not quite as transportive as his ibm1401. Which is a paradigm of extreme elegance, while elevating a kooky idea, creating a soundscape that is emotionally satisfying and full of aural glory. I’ll surely rent the film and see how his vividly paced score works with the movie.

This was surely quite an extraordinary way to start a Sunday and would recommend it to anyone…not just to hardcore minimalism fans (who tend to be a rather strait-laced male dominated slither of humanity).

Today is the day

21 Apr

A musically intense week continues with a hopefully amazing concert by Anne Sofie von Otter. After seeing Natalie Dessay the other night, von Otter is another long term favourite of mine. I can’t believe the last time our diaries synchronised was back at the Proms over 4-5 years ago! (missed out on her Terezín/Theresienstadt concert in 2009 clashed with my holidays). I have admired her for her working ethos and her wonderful performances  on record (how can you not adore her Ariodante or her Weill songs). A singer of true versatility and impeccable taste.

Here’s the programme to whet you appetite, I’ll do my best to write a review for you perusal ASAP!

Monteverdi
Sinfonia from ‘Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria’
Di misera regina from ‘Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria’
In questo basso mondo from ‘Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria’
Strozzi
Cantata: Che si può fare
Monteverdi
Sí dolce è’l tormento
Provenzale
Squarciato appena havea
Rossi
Mio ben, teco il tormento
Charpentier
Quel prix de mon amour from ‘Médée’
Weldon (attrib. Purcell)
Dry those eyes from ‘The Tempest’
Purcell
From silent shades
Handel
Where’er you walk from ‘Semele’
Passacaglia in G minor for violin and cello
Ogni vento from ‘Agrippina’

Here’s an interactive presentation of the shots from her curtain call: Click!

To the coast for some birthday Bach / Nick Van Bloss + English Chamber Orchestra – 17 April 2011

19 Apr

Programme

Bach Brandendurg Concerto No.3

Vivaldi “Spring” from the Four Seasons

Bach Piano Concerto in D major

Corelli Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.2

Bach Piano Concerto in F minor

Vivaldi Concerto for 4 Violins

English Chamber Orchestra 

Stephanie Gonley violin/director

Nick van Bloss piano

I have been hearing the critics making a lot of noise about Nick Van Bloss’s Goldberg Variations recording and to be given the chance to see him play live on my birthday it made it a wonderful treat.

Having done my rudimentary research on the Cliffs Pavilion I quite liked what I read. This was not to be my first ever visit to the venue but to the town itself.  On entry it all seemed rather friendly and surely less standoffish than the audience of John Smith’s Sq last week. Also an interesting range of ages, coming to a concert while it’s beautifully sunny outside and by the water has to be applauded!  As I sat down there was a mixture of excitement and fear, as I had purposefully avoided being exposed to Nick’s playing up to that stage, and since his two concerti were the star of the show, my brain was asking questions on what if I didn’t like his touch or thought his playing was too decorous and dull (like much of Bach tends to be, and the main reason I avoid him quite frequently).

The Orchestra made a good start with the Bach Brandenburg Concerto N3 and Stefanie led Spring from the Four Seasons with undeniable passion (to the point that she lost a string in the process!). Then the grand appeared and I took a sharp intake of breath…and started over-analysing while the sound of Berenboim’s piano was whirling in my head.  In the D major concerto the opening movement was beautifully sculpted and surely living up to the Allegro demanded by the composer. I’ll attribute a couple of flaws to nerves but they were quickly forgotten due to the richness of the sound and the involved playing. Unlike the rather static and hollow sound that Barenboim gave us the other night, Nick Van Bloss’s playing was much more warm and emotional. When the Adagio of the second movement came, it was a true tour de force, delicate but alert, lyrical but not ornamental and above all it felt very personal. I’m afraid to say from that point on I felt more like a fan than a member of the audience trying to be overtly critical. The same kind of reaction Martha Argerich causes every time,  I really don’t care if all the notes are in the right place, as what you get from her is a search for truth and individuality that is lacking so much in the world of the piano virtuoso. The concerto concluded beautifully with the Allegro in a fiery very much forceful touch, a refreshing change from all the pianists that tend to treat Bach as a museum piece where the touch is uniform and the dynamics of the modern concert grand are not utilised. Nick used all the expressive power of the piano backed by its capabilities to provide a much harder sound than a harpsichord. The approach was very welcome and indeed was greeted by an extremely happy audience.

The second half and well lubricated with a G&T, we started with a vibrant rendition of the Corelli which was leading to the second Bach Concerto. It started with a beautiful display of prowess and great articulation of the individual phrases but at the same time with a great sense of control. But again for me the Largo was where his playing turned more delicate and emotional; I can’t imagine that anyone in the auditorium would fail to be touched by such wonderful playing and the obvious outpouring of emotion. The final movement again was a very lively take on the Presto with a freshness that made old Bach seem much more modern. The audience howled in appreciation which was well earned.

The show closed with the Vivaldi concerto and it was rather lovely, but we all knew that the concert had finished when the last bars of the Bach concerto had sounded.

I will surely be looking forward to hearing Nick again live soon and maybe even I’d love him to tackle some later repertoire from his monogrammed piano stool (here is a picture posted by the man himself! ). With his very powerful sound I can imagine what joys he can offer with some Rachmaninoff.  This was surely one of the greatest birthday presents I’ve ever received. And it was well worth the two hour drive to be there. Totally against all the dismayed reactions I got about going to Southend-on-Sea, I got the impression of a place very much alive in sharp contrast to other towns further down the South coast (Bexhill-on-Sea I’m pointing at you!).



Elizabeth Llewellyn – some impressions / St John’s Smith Square – 13 April 2011

14 Apr

Elizabeth Llewellyn, Soprano

Simon Lepper, Pianist

Programme

HANDEL

Alcina \ Ma quando tornerai

Rodelinda \ Se’il mio duol

MOZART

Le Nozze di Figaro \ E Susanna non vien!… Dove sono

WALTON \ A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table

The Lord Mayor’s Table

Glide gently

Wapping Old Stairs

Holy Thursday

The Contrast

Rhyme

– INTERVAL –

STRAUSS

Ständchen

All’ mein Gedanken

Du meines Herzens Krönelein

Nachtgang

Allerseelen

PUCCINI

La Bohème \ Mi chiamano Mimì

VERDI

Simon Boccanegra \ Come in quest’ora bruna

GOUNOD

Faust \ Ah! je ris de me voir

This was a very interesting evening, one of those nights one goes home feeling that something beautiful has started.

The programme was very ambitious, the first half almost felt something the young Joan Sutherland would have sung, while the second was more like a young Grace Bumbry! That kind of wide-ranging ambition is at once interesting but at the same time does not make an as satisfying live concert as it reads on paper.

The first half was marred for me by what seemed rather plodding piano playing for the two Handel numbers, and while her voice was bright and penetrating somehow it lacked the limpid quality the best Handel singers possess. It was well sung but not a natural fit. The Mozart aria was interesting but again it did not quite work in my view and it sounded a bit on the generic side. The Walton cycle was much more sympathetic to her voice and it brought out her charming stage persona with a distinct sense of humour.  When the interval arrived I was happy to be there and enjoying myself but somehow feeling a bit let down by the two first arias.

On the second half the Strauss songs were very vividly portrayed with a natural sense of drama and joy. Her accurate tone and phrasing were a real treat. This was followed by a truly masterful and heartfelt Mimi, clearly informed by her stage experience, she gave the fragility and the youthful attitude of the heroine in the most wonderful mezza voce with dazzling high passages. As I normally cannot be bothered with Puccini this was captivating and full of study and beauty. Her Verdi was again beautiful but I kept thinking that she was lacking the reserves of a more wide-ranging tessitura, her voice is extremely strong in its middle and upper registers while having a totally underdeveloped lower register, which in Verdian roles adds that extra bit of expression and depth.

The final item on the programme was the jewel song from Faust and while it was again very honest and immediate, it seemed to lack the thrilling trills that the style demands. Of course that opens the old can of worms about trills and how some singers naturally cannot accomplish them. Could Elizabeth trill like there’s no tomorrow with further tuition? I really do not know, but the lack of those all important trills spoiled a beautiful aria. (Listening to Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland sing it as I’m writing this make it all too clear)

All the above may seem like a mixed bag of a review/impressions. But I can honestly say that Elizabeth does posses a very warm stage presence and a really remarkable voice that can hopefully mature with a stronger lower register and find repertoire that fits and brings out the most attractive aspects of it. I can imagine her singing verismo with huge success and even Elena in I Vespri and I’m titillated at the possibility for any bel canto roles. This was a very interesting introduction for a new artist and hope it will be the springboard for a fruitful career.

It seemed that the concert was being recorded so looking forward to listening to it again in the future and maybe revising this quick appraisal.

Previn blues

20 Apr

Was really looking forward to seeing André Previn conduct the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican this coming Sunday (25 April 2010). But my hopes were
dashed after receiving an email from the LSO about a change of conductor and
programme.

I really wanted to see him conduct his own work, Sallie Chisum remembers Billy the Kid (1994) with Barbara Bonney (the original interpreter of the work) and of course Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. It is always interesting having the composer and the artist a work was written for coming together years later and performing it. I would have expected their Billy the Kid to have matured nicely and flow naturally and with emotion.

Instead we will have Barbara Bonney but she will be singing
Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Which is an exquisite piece, and one to which I always go back to the recording with Leontyne Price. Just hope the silly situation with the volcanic ash will not prevent her from coming to perform! It will be wonderful to be exposed to her sweeping voice and with a real vocal challenge like the Barber piece.
But it will be a missed opportunity to see her with Previn as I’m sure they would have had a wonderful time on stage. And also we get Dvorák’s Symphony No 9 – From the New World, which will not quite make up for the gap the Strauss is leaving behind, but should be perfectly enjoyable.

Unfortunately cancellations have dogged my concert bookings this year, as Helen Grimaud  cancelled her concert at the Festival Hall last month. But surely I will have to book for Previn’s next concert with the LSO but first, of course, I’ll wish him a quick
recovery.

Viktoria Mullova – Beethoven+Schubert and a close up experience

2 Oct

I had only seen Viktoria Mullova live once before during the 2003 Proms.She was surrounded by a full Symphony Orchestra and playing the wonderful Prokofiev concerto. With her very powerful, vigorous, energetic playing against a populous orchestra is almost like a primeval battle of the individual against a mass of people. And she surely stands up in that context. 

Last Sunday it was a different situation altogether. She was accompanied by her own Ensemble made up of friends.I really did not know what to expect, especially as I had the chance to be on the fourth row. Would it be too close to appreciate her sound, would it be intimate?

Till the lights went down I was quietly wondering in my head, especially when both pieces they performed were totally new to me.

The Beethoven was very classical in feel, restraint and very poised. Seeing Mullova interact with the other six members of the ensemble was lovely. They only exchanged cursory looks and they were clearly at ease with each other. From my viewpoint the oboist was looking at Victoria with a tender devotion that one would expect from a dear friend. 

After the heights of the Classical tradition, the Schubert Octet was a plunge in deep Romantic waters. Their performance became more fluid and much more in tune with the beautiful harmonic lines that Schubert used in the piece. Being so close to the ensemble it was incredibly intimate, it felt as if they were playing just for me. It had a wonderful communicative feel to it. A totally refreshing experience.

The Programme:

Ludwig Van Beethoven Septet in E flat,
Op.20
Franz Schubert Octet

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