Sunday, 5 February 2017

Martha Argerich: supreme musician

Aram Khachaturian: Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia, Dance of the Gaditanian Maidens and Victory of Spartacus, Spartacus, Suite No.1 & 2.
Sergey Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.3
Dmitry Shostakovich: Symphony No.5 in D minor

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov, conductor
Martha Argerich, piano

Royal Festival Hall, London,
*****************

This spectacular concert offered Russia's pre-eminent orchestra playing a Shostakovich symphony which it premiered in 1937. If that was not enough, they were joined by the legendary Martha Argerich for the Prokofiev Third Concerto - a work which no-one on the planet plays better. 
Martha Argerich, then.  Photo: Priska Ketterer
Unlike some other ageing virtuosi, Argerich remains in magnificent shape.  Now in her 70s, her fingers retain their steel and how her hands flicker and flash over the keys.  Her musicianship can genuinely be described as a wonder - instinctive, in the moment, of the greatest sensitivity and alive to every nuance in the score and the musicians around her. 

Her Prokofiev is close to an ideal with its power, lyricism and subtlety.  One example can suffice: in the last moment after the orchestra blooms into a lush melody Prokofiev "steps on the throat of his own song" as the piano enters with a mysterious and pointedly sarcastic interlude.  What introspection and shades of colour Argerich provided here: mesmerising. 
Martha Argerich, now.  Photo: Neumeister

Such is Argerich's reputation for cancellations the packed Hall was cheering as she came on stage.  Famous pianists abounded in the audience,  Nikolai Lugansky and Stephen Kovacevich among them. At the end all were on their feet.  Taking her bows, and afterwards backstage, she seemed more relaxed than in years past.  We were treated to Liszt's arrangement of Schumann's song Widmung as an encore.  

After the interval, the St Petersburgh gave a powerful Shostakovich Fifth.  It was a broad interpretation from Temirkanov, lacking the last ounce of intensity from where I was sitting.  The pay off came in the third movement Largo which underlined the romantic underpinnings of this giant of 20th century music.  
Evgeny Mravinsky who conducted the premiere of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, together with the composer.
It was left to the encore to display the full glory of the St Petersburgh strings, the conclusion of Prokofiev's Cinderella ballet showing off a bottomless tonal depth to the sound.  Quite awesome and a fitting conclusion to a most memorable afternoon.
The St Petersburgh Philharmonic at home.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Jurowski keeps his nerve amidst uneven Fidelio

Beethoven : Fidelio (Semi-staged, with an English narration)
 
Anja Kampe, Leonore
Ben Johnson, Jaquino
Kristinn Sigmundsson, Rocco
Pavlo Hunka, Don Pizarro
Robert Dean Smith, Florestan
Ronan Collett, Don Fernando
Sofia Fomina, Woglinde

Simon Williams, narrator
Helen Ryan, narrator
Daniel Slater, director 

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor
London Philharmonic Orchestra
London Voices

21 January 2017, Royal Festival Hall, London
*****************

As ever with this opera, Beethoven's massive musical strength and belief in his message trumped all limitations.  The final choral frenzy fairly blazed with joy and hope as the London Voices lined up at the front with the soloists.

There was more than a little relief that we'd made it.  At the end of Act 1, the audience had witnessed an opera presented as a rehearsal with faux-relaxed soloists sprawled behind the orchestra and the director on stage giving instructions.  The orchestra was in civvies with Jurowski sitting on the floor as the auditorium filled up. The message seemed to be, these people are just like us. And indeed, the 1st Act is primarily domestic melodrama, with an underlying dramatic tension provided be Leonore's presence in disguise as a boy, searching for her husband. 

Vladimir Jurowski
More disturbingly, two narrators hovered, offering reflective commentary on the action and the character's psychological states.  It might have worked. After all Bach used a similar effect in the St Matthew Passion, and Fidelio has more than a passing resemblance to an oratorio.  Others have gone down this track before, notably I saw a spectacular Fidelio at the Proms with an Edward Said penned commentary.


But not with the half-baked philosophy of the text this time around, and the night's increasingly shambolic delivery by the narrators.  Was that the silliest thing I just heard on the Festival Hall stage, or did the actor just mess up her line? Pizzaro didn't get enough love as a child.  He was a forerunner of Stalin and Eichmann.  Even a random quote from Tertullian. 

Thankfully the splendid musical virtues of the evening could not be obscured, particularly in Act 2 when all on stage returned with more formal dress and presentation in keeping with the opera's turn to the serious.  Jurowski directed a taut and edgy Act 2 overture and turned up the heat even more for the finale.  Kristinn Sigmundsson's towering presence as Rocco was, more than usual, the fulcrum of the drama and Robert Dean Smith, stepping in at late notice, a subtle Florestan even if a bit tight of voice.

And there was Anja Kampe, the most committed of soloists.  Her every London appearance is a pleasure and her Leonore was unmissable, even if she occasionally strained at the top of her register.  She was every inch the hero of the opera.
Anja Kampe

This was the first concert in a Southbank series "Belief and Beyond Belief".  Jurowski wanted to start with a humanist masterpiece rather than an explicitly religious one.  He and director marked out Hope as the focus of the piece. Who could disagree, and we all need a bit of that in today's world. 

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Placido Domingo sings Nabucco

Verdi: Nabucco

Liudmyla Monastyrska, Abigaille
Jamie Barton, Fenena
Russell Thomas, Ismaele
Placido Domingo, Nabucco
Dmitry Belosselskiy, Zaccaria

James Levine, conductor
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus

7 January 2017,  The Metropolitan Opera New York, live cinema broadcast Curzon Wimbledon
***************
Placido Domingo as Nabucco
Placido Domingo has for some years now been taking on baritone roles after his tenor voice weakened.  Now in his 70s, the voice carries less burnished metal and heft, but Domingo's greatness has always rested on a charismatic and acting talent equal to his technical musical gifts.

He can most certainly still act and carry a stage, is quite wonderfully musical, and the voice too communicates with ease


Around him were more powerful, youthful voices, not least the impressive Liudmyla Monastyrska.   Though of quality they seemed a little cumbersome in comparison.  Or was that the Met Live close miking again, making almost everyone sound like a belter.

In the pit was James Levine, it would appear now wheelchair bound.  The commentary at interval stated Domingo and Levine had done over 1000 performances at the Met together.  As Levine had introduced Nabucco back into the Met's reportoire, it was a fitting choice.  The production was Met-lavish as we have come to expect, and critically the chorus was splendid throughout.  Their rendition of the famous slaves chorus more than justified its immediate repeat.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Musica Navideña in Salamanca

A Ceremony of Carols: Musica Navideña Medieval y Contemporanea

Veni, Veni Emmanuel
Angelus Ad Virginem
Orientis Partibus
Red Book of Montserrat (excerpts)
Benjamin Britten: A Ceremony of Carols

Polyphonic Choir, City Choir of Salamanca
Chamber Choir of the Municipal Music School, Salamanca
Director: Antonio Santos

San Esteban, Salamanca, 21 December 2016
********************

This was a well rehearsed and choreographed evening of some of the finest Christmas music, both medieval and 20th century.

Director Antonio Santos took full advantage of the magnificent setting of St Stephen's church in Salamanca, Spain.  The opening Veni, Veni Emmanuel, drifted to our ears from the entrance behind the audience.  There was nice play of acoustic space between the Polyphonic Choir and The Chamber Choir on the altar. Finally, the Britten opened with the Processional sung as the choir entered down the nave.  Just the kind of aural effect Britten himself created on disc in his classic recordings.

Choral honours clearly went to the Chamber Choir.  Both as soloists and as a group they projected their sound with great accuracy and character.  Mariam Matrem from the Red Book of Montserrat a particular highlight.  Such a cavernous acoustic inevitable resulted in a loss of focus at times, but This Little Babe was wonderfully controlled by both choirs, fully deserving its reprise as an encore to round off a richly satisfying concert.


San Esteban, Salamanca - masterpiece of 17th century plateresque architecture

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Bartoli cancels Barbican recital

Cecilia Bartoli was to have been performing at the Barbican this Friday in an all Handel evening.  However today it was annnounced this would be cancelled:
'We regret that Cecilia Bartoli is suffering from a very heavy cold, and is deeply sorry that she has to cancel this concert.'

Cecilia Bartoli

Monday, 14 November 2016

Words to say how words fail

John Dowland (1563 - 1626)
Praeludium
All ye whom love or fortune hath betrayed
A fancy
Behold a wonder here
Come away, come sweet love;
Mrs Winter’s Jump
Time stands still
Fortune
My thoughts are winged with hopes
Say, love if ever thou didst find
I saw my Lady weep
Flow my tears
Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears
Shall I strive with words to move
The King of Denmark, his Galliard
Can she excuse my wrongs
In darkness let me dwell
XV. Semper Dowland semper dolens
Go, crystal tears
Come again! Sweet love doth now invite
Now, O now I needs must part

Iestyn Davies countertenor 
Thomas Dunford lute 
Colin Hurley speaker

Wigmore Hall, London, 10 November 2016
*************

A masterpiece of programming, Iestyn Davies devised a beautifully paced evening of John Dowland's 16th century melancholy.

Iestyn Davies
The leavening of the songs with solos for lute is commonplace enough, but here further contrast was added by Colin Hurley's recital of poetry, Dowland's letters and even an excerpt from Tolstoy's short story The Kreutzer Sonata.  Hurley strongly projected his texts, even if he seemed to ham up some of Dowland's uncertainty a little too much in the letters.

This all allowed each song to shine like the precious jewels they are, and also some beautiful melding of lute solo into song. Davies presented the evening as illustrating a man "seeking to find words to say how words fail".

Thomas Dunford
Dowland does remain something of a paradox.  Acknowledged as a master of his art in Elizabethan England, he was not taken on by the music-loving monarch.  His Catholicism for a Protestant court can't be the full explanation when this was also true of William Byrd.  As it was, he had to join the court of King Christian in Denmark before returning as court musician for James I.

Thomas Dunford's lute was unfailingly sensitive, remaining at the introspective end of the spectrum even in more courtly items such as the King of Denmark's Galliard.  Iestyn Davies was in fine voice, with strong tone through his range and wonderfully clear diction.  Almost impercetibly tension and emotion were built through the first half to set up ideally the final paring of Flow, my tears and Sorrow, stay.  
  
Alas I am condemned ever,
No hope, no help there doth remain,
But down, down, down, down I fall,
Down and arise I never shall.

Not a happy man.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Orlando Gibbons - English Renaissance master

Orlando Gibbons
Selection of Fantasies a 2, a 3, a 4 and a 6
Selection of In Nomines
The hunt’s up (Peascod time)
Pavan and galliard Lord Salisbury
The silver swanne
Pavan and galliard a 6
Go from my window
O Lord, in thy wrath rebuke me not
Hosanna to the Son of David 
  
Phantasm 
Laurence Dreyfus treble viol, director 
Emilia Benjamin treble viol 
Jonathan Manson treble viol 
Mikko Perkola tenor viol 
Markku Luolajan-Mikkola bass viol

Wigmore Hall, London, 24 October 2016
*****************

Orlando Gibbons was famously championed by eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.  For Gould, Gibbons and Wagner sat alongside eachother in their ability to make the spine tingle with "intensity and predictability".

Perhaps Beethoven and his late string quartets is the better comparison, for Gibbons had a genius for contrapuntal writing, wrote in an equivalent medium, and a consort of viols revealed itself to be as supple, fluid and beguiling as a string quartet.
Phantasm


Starting with two viols, more were added until we reached an impressive first half climax with Three Fantasias a 6.  With Phantasm as our guide, we were drawn into the counterpoint, moments of moonlit stasis, and the constantly shifting patterns of melody.

No-one ever said period instruments were good at staying in tune.  10 of the 100 minutes of music consisted of long tuning sessions between sets of pieces.   Thankfully even this could be enjoyed for the sheer beauty of sound these viols produced.

The introduction of more melody-led items such as The Silver Swanne towards the end demonstrated the more extrovert character of some of Gibbons' pieces.  But it was the extended ruminations of the Fantasias that stayed in the memory.  Distant reminders of the extraordinary achievement of English music in the Renaissance.