Thursday, 10 April 2014

Bruckner Ninth from the Concertgebouw Orchestra

Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1 (1800)
Bruckner Symphony No 9 (1896)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Mariss Jansons
Lars Vogt piano

Barbican Hall, London, 5 April 2014
The final concert of the Jansons/Concertgebouw Orchestra 3 day residency at the Barbican started with Beethoven's perennnially fresh First Piano Concerto.  At the piano was the thoughtful, refined and impish pianism of Lars Vogt.  As with the other nights the soloist was beyond reproach.  Vogt had particular fun projecting the Beethovenian humour in the first movement coda: teasing the audience with when it was going to end, and striving for maximum surprise when Beethoven throws out fortissimo chords after quiet interludes.  The Concertgebouw Orchestra were again attentive and cultured partners, with anything that the clarinet or oboe touched turning to musical gold.

And so the visit concluded with the last Bruckner symphony - the mighty, unfinished 9th.   What a composition this is and how very worthy a successor of that other D Minor work - the Beethoven Ninth Symphony.  The Barbican crowd was expectant– not least Jansons’ wife and the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s manager seated next to me.  

This was again a performance of exalted technical quality and Jansons’ usual attention to detail.  Speeds were brisk, and in the Scherzo there was some bizarre handling of tempo at the start which slowed up for the pounding bass notes, before regaining the original tempo as the first violins re-entered.  It was obviously prepared as such, but why?  The great Adagio developed to a massive climax and the final closing notes were wonderfully sustained by strings and brass.  What a sound the Concertgebouw Orchestra produce when on their game.

Mariss Jansons
This Bruckner residency never fell below the very high standards to be expected from the Jansons/Concertgebouw dream-team.  Jansons approach was beautifully crafted and detailed.  The sheer beauty of sound on offer will not be easily forgotten.  Ultimately that this was not a revelatory experience comes down to Jansons not being the most natural of Brucknerians.  Movements did not accumulate like they do at their best, tempi were a little too forced to allow maximum expression, and the structural sense was not as assured as that of a Skrowaczewski.   
Bruckner's gravestone

The applause at the end from the Barbican audience after the Bruckner was long and enthusiastic, but stopped short of a standing ovation.  Probably about right.   In the end it was the concerti that struck one as closer to ideal.  Thinking back over the three partnerships with Lars Vogt, Truls Mork and Frank Peter Zimmermann, I wouldn’t change a single aspect of any of them.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Haydn overshadows Bruckner

Haydn Cello Concerto in C (1765)
Bruckner Symphony No 7 (1883)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Mariss Jansons
Truls Mørk cello

Barbican Hall, London, 4 April 2014
The residency of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Barbican continued with the Bruckner Seventh Symphony.  Before that we were again treated to an immaculately presented classical concerto.  Tonight the Haydn C Major Cello Concerto.  Truls Mork was an ideal soloist, pure toned and elegant.  The easy rapport with the Dutch orchestra was again plain, and the whole performance projected a pleasing sense of joy in this delightful music.

With the Bruckner results were more uneven.  I had high hopes that the eloquence of the Concertgebouw strings would thrive in this most lyrical of Bruckner symphonies.  In the end, some of the shortcomings that were minor blots on the previous evening were now more troublesome.  The opening movement was rather brisk, and never allowed to breath naturally or achieve its full measure of grandeur.  Individual sections were carefully shaped but the whole never cohered.  By contrast, the great Adagio was thrilling, driven by the utterly glorious sound of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.  The strings were particularly impassioned and the famous climax (complete with triangle) was beautifully shaped.  Jansons again revealed himself unafraid of the pastoral interludes in the Scherzo which were lovingly done.  However the Finale never gained traction.  It is, of course, one of Bruckner's least successful movements, but the feeling that the wood had been lost for the trees was strong.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at home in the Concertgebouw main hall in Amsterdam.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Jansons' Bruckner residency at the Barbican

Mozart Violin Concerto in G major (1775)
Bruckner Symphony No 4 in E flat (1880)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Mariss Jansons
Frank Peter Zimmermann violin

Barbican Hall, London, 3 April 2014

Anton Bruckner
The great Mariss Jansons is best known for his interpretations of composers like Sibelius, Dvorak, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Beethoven.  However in recent years he has increased his attention for Austrian composer Anton Bruckner.  Was it his brush with death 18 years ago that triggered this, when he had a heart attack on the podium conducting La Boheme?  Whatever the case, this most spiritual of composers was front and centre for the 3 concert residency of Jansons and his Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at London's Barbican. Each night, the great symphonies 4, 7 and 9 were leavened by 3 classical concerti of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

Having Frank Peter Zimmerman, Jansons and this wonder-orchestra lavishing such attention on one of Mozart's lesser moments was certainly an indulgence.  But when the performance was so graceful, relaxed and poised, it came to seem a blessing rather than a waste.  Zimmerman was equally refined and intimate in his Bach encore.

The Bruckner Fourth Symphony so strongly evokes  German romantic moments set in forests and valleys, one can understand why a descriptive programme circulated on its release referencing hunting scenes, knight processions, medieval worlds...  Its opening must be one of music's most famous - a distant horn sounding across the musical landscape.

But that start was not auspicious.  The first horn splitting several notes only bars in.  Was it the ultra-dry Barbican Hall that unsettled him?  Bruckner wanted his symphonies played in cathedrals with their long reverberations.  Acoustically, the Barbican is a kind of anti-Bruckner hall. Whatever the case, the orchestra seemed to be slightly tentative and adjusting to the sound of the hall in the first movement.  

With the second movement the sound changed entirely: more blended, filling the hall more naturally.  In this movement, the nocturnal funeral march, almost imperceptibly Jansons drew us in until something at once beautiful and disquieting was in control.  This was his genius to draw out not only the village-pastoral simplicity of the dance motifs (here truly enjoyed) but also the ghostly, spirit-inhabited underworld of the Austrian forests of legend.  

Jansons' Bruckner starts off on the human scale.  His best moments were frequently bringing out the simple, village delights.  But this Andante brought an authentic sense of unease.  Its pastoral spirituality encountered the numinous but also the unknown, malevolent spirits of the mythic forest world, where humans can be tempted and brought undone.  It was classic Jansons: drawing out and making plain the logic, beauty and power of the "lesser" internal moments of the big symphonies.

The Scherzo was then on the surface the world of hunting calls, but also carrying a disturbing quality.  Jansons was totally at ease in the contrasting trio; bucolic and exuberant.  His Bruckner is not "cosmic", gazing down from the planets.  He embraces the pastoral v spiritual contrasts in the music but also attempts to make their rhetorical register not too far apart.

The great struggle to find a conclusion which is the last movement then carried extra weight of meaning after the darker experiences of those internal movements.  And this was Bruckner, so all of the previous 60 minutes then emptied into the great final coda, here quite electrifying.  The whole unfolding darkly, as if (as Jansons said in a recent interview) “God was wagging his figure at the the world. He was saying ‘you better be careful, you will be penalised if you continue in that direction’”.   Here the orchestra sound was at its finest: eloquent, rounded, the woodwind and brass playing through the string sound.  These Bruckner codas are some of the finest music on earth, and this performance entirely worthy of it.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Skrowaczewski's Bruckner at 90

Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto 
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No.3 (vers. 1888-9, ed. Novak)

London Philharmonic Orchestra 
Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conductor 
Benjamin Beilman violin

Royal Festival Hall, London, 14 March 2014
Stanislaw Skrowaczewski

Like great wine, great conductors frequently reveal new layers of musicianship later in life.  Stanislaw Skrowaczewski turned 90 last year and has spent a lifetime learning his Bruckner; the last time I saw him conduct was 20 years ago and also in the Bruckner 3rd Symphony.  This was a memorable evening at the Festival Hall.

We were clearly in safe hands from the start of the Bruckner.  A composer as well as conductor, Skrowaczewski shaped phrases
with calm assurance.  His is an unhurried style, unafraid of that distinctively Brucknerian symphonic punctuation.  Neither does he overheat.  The Third was allowed to build logically without exaggerated dynamics and the heavy underlining that drive many a "super-cosmic" interpretation. 

The London Philharmonic were solid partners, albeit not anyone's first choice in this repertoire. The brass were strong but over-bright and the strings lacking that extra depth of strength and tone.  Indeed a glance towards the back decks of the violins revealed some timid bowing and heads buried in scores. 

Earlier, 24 year old Benjamin Beilman had thrown into relief Skrowaczewski's 90 years.  He gave a strong, direct and muscular reading of Mendelssohn's wonder concerto for violin.  He has real poise which communicated best in the Andante.  It was left to the conducter again here to draw out some luminous moments from the woodwind.  90 and going strong.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Kalinnikov shines again with the LPO

Balakirev Islamey (Oriental Fantasy)
Khachaturian Piano Concerto
Kalinnikov Symphony No. 1

Osmo Vänskä conductor
Marc-André Hamelin piano
London Philharmonic Orchestra

19 February 2014, Royal Festival Hall, London

The evening opened with the rather depressing sounds of Alfredo Casella’s arrangement for orchestra of Balakirev’s Islamey.  The original work is the piano show-piece par excellence and brims with rhythmic elan.  The Casella version smudged all the impact with minimal benefit from so-called “orchestral colour”.  The London Philharmonic were nowhere near drilled enough to save it.

No-one could accuse Marc-Andre Hamelin of lack of clarity.  His steely fingers and bright tonal palette dazzled in the Kachaturian Piano Concerto.  Hamelin of course knows no fears when it comes to the virtuoso concerto repertoire, whether established or obscure.  These days the Kachaturian concerto hovers somewhere between the two.  The intelligence of this performance could not alleviate its moments of bombast, nor the impression that Prokofiev might have somehow stolen the manuscript and inserted some of his own writing while Kachaturian wasn’t looking.  Somehow it did not convince.  And this may be partly because, for all his prodigious piano technique, Hamelin plays with a detached, “objective” virtuosity.

Vasily Kalinnikov
But the evening took flight after the interval.  This was my first encounter with the First Symphony of Vasily Kalinnikov and what a very fine work it is.  Completed in the Crimea in 1896 when he was 30 , it was immediately picked up and performed in Kiev, Moscow, Vienna, Berlin and Paris. Sadly, Kalinnikov’s health was fragile and he died at age 35, leaving behind a reputation as one of the great unfulfilled talents of Russian music.

This reputation largely stands on the Symphony No. 1 which is a constant delight to the ear from start to finish. Vanska and the LPO made an excellent case for the work, which bursts with melody handled with grace and subtlety.  The opening of the Andante is musical magic, with a lightness and purity that took the breath away.  The freshness and youthful yearning of the symphony is enormously attractive. As if a Russian Schumann was at work.  But one who could orchestrate.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Luminous Mozart at Wimbledon Music Festival

Haydn String Quartet, Op. 20 No. 4
Mozart String Quartet No. 19 in C, K 465 "The Dissonance"
Beethoven String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127

Quatuor Mosaiques

18 November 2013, St John's, Spencer Hill, Wimbledon, UK

The programme was a balanced one of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  One of the pleasures this enabled was witnessing the increased independence of the viola and cello as the evening progressed.  The cello's fairly perfunctory contributions to the Haydn, blossomed into the eloquence of the Mozart.  In the Beethoven the viola came alive. 

The concert served to underline three things.  The first, was the marvellous balance between individuality and team-work of Quatuor Mosaiques.  The luminous tone of their instruments and the mellow brilliance of Eric Hobarth's first violin the icing on the cake.  Second, what a supreme masterpiece Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet is, overflowing with wit, beauty and emotional eloquence. Third, what a fine thing that the Wimbledon Music Festival, can present A-grade ensembles like this in attractive acoustics at reasonable prices.  Bravo to all concerned.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Barbican audience eavesdrop on LSO rehearsal

Berlioz Romeo and Juliet

Olga Borodina mezzo-soprano
Kenneth Tarver tenor
Evgeny Nikitin bass-baritone
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra

Valery Gergiev conductor

13 November 2013, Barbican Hall, London

Valery Gergiev is taking his London Symphony Orchestra for another dash through a chunk of repertoire.  This time it's Berlioz for the Gergievation, with over three nights reeling off concerts featuring Harold in Italy, Romeo et Juliette and the Symphonie Fantastique respectively.

Valery Gergiev
No, wait.  It's better than that.  Try this for an early November all-Berlioz schedule:
6th: Romeo and Juliet at London's Barbican
7th: The Damnation of Faust at Barbican
8th: Symphonie Fantastique at Brno, Czech Republic
9th: Symphonie Fantastique at St Poelten, Austria
10th: Symphonie Fantastique at Essen, Germany
11th: rest day (phew!)
12th: Harold in Italy at Barbican
13th: Romeo and Juliet again at Barbican
14th: Symphonie Fantastique at Barbican
15th: rest day
16th: Symphonie Fantastique in Paris
17th: Romeo and Juliet in Paris

Does this make for good music making?  Maybe by the time they get to Paris on the evidence of this performance.  I was trying them out with the second performance of Berlioz's magnificent Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican.  As is well known, Berlioz adored Shakespeare.  His response to Romeo and Juliet was as original as it was successful.  He called it a symphony and it is the central orchestral movements that carry the main weight fo protraying the play.  Feeling it pointless to try and set chunks of dialogue to music he framed the work in a vocal prologue and finale for chorus and two soloists.

Having recently heard Beethovenian Brahms now it was the turn to hear Berlioz under the Beethoven influence.  And what great writing this is.  Successive orchestral sections on the Capulet Ball, Balcony Scene, Queen Mab, Juliet's Funeral Convoy and finally Romeo at the Capulet's Tomb.

Olga Borodina
Olga Borodina left one wanting more of her luxury voice and Kenneth Tarver handled  his Queen Mab solo with an ideal feather-light touch.  Evgeny Nikitin by contrast sounded a little out of his comfort zone but the choruses were generally excellent.

With the stage draped in microphones for the planned disc from these concerts, was Gergiev's attitude to balance more thinking of the recording than the live performance?  At the gorgeous bursting forth as the small chorus describes the Balcony Scene in the Prologue, the orchestra completely swamped the voices.  A major failing for those of us in the hall, but easily fixed at the mixing desk later. 

What a curious evening's music making this was.  Gergiev's legendary grip only revealed itself in a riveting performance of Juliet's Funeral Convoy.  But for the most part it felt tentative; part final rehearsal, part public concert, part studio recording session.  How Chailly's recent super-prepared Brahms contrasted with this work-in-progress Berlioz.