Summer Gala Concert: The Carducci String Quartet, June 8th.2017

It never ceases to delight that there can be such wide differences in the way high class quartets interpret music and have such differing aims in relation to the sound that they strive to achieve. These thoughts rose to the surface whilst listening to the Carducci Quartet in the second Summer Gala Recital at the Museum. Two comparisons in particular came to mind.

A few years ago, Leicester was visited by a quartet from across the Atlantic who had over many years acquired a formidable reputation. One could see why. Without for the most part the players needing to look at one another, everything was honed to perfection, there was a finely sophisticated sound and much most delicate phrasing. And yet my wife, who had a nose for such things, declared at the interval that she had never seen such a bored looking group. The viola player she in particular singled out, saying that he looked as if he would rather be anywhere other than Leicester on that Sunday morning. Now, none of that was directly musical comment but it also accurately mirrored our feelings about the performances. One felt the quartet was playing on auto drive and the music had been almost manicured out of existence.

Compare that to the Carducci. Every time that I have seen them come before the audience they look as if they are truly delighted to be playing this music, at this time, in this place. Of course, that would be as nothing if they were not demonstrably such a very fine ensemble and here another more recent comparison came to mind. They started with an early Haydn Quartet, Op 20, No.4. Now, it so happened that last year a quartet famed for its performances on gut strings of Haydn quartets gave a concert in the city and very fine it was, delightfully phrased and light and fleet of step. It spoke of the composer’s roots in the Baroque.

This performance on the other hand was truly shocking in its announcement, even in this early opus number, of a composer breaking the baroque mould. It was astonishing how it made one completely change one’s expectations of the composer’s early efforts in this genre, with playing of such propulsion that it might almost have been Beethoven, if not, as the programme notes remarked, something beyond in the mid 19c. The Carducci clearly relished everything about it. Delicate it was clearly not intended to be nor was any attempt made at ‘authenticity’. This was dramatic and earthy music making, the players at times producing an extraordinarily warm and weighty resonance, entirely at one with the composer’s later London symphonies. There was real emotion in the slow movement variations and a huge gusto and humour in the last two movements that spoke of a great composer straining at the leash to escape the polite boundaries laid down by the 18c.Court.

And of course in the Beethoven Op. 18 No.4 that followed the theme was continued. Here ,whilst being alert to Beethoven’s occasionally wicked off beat humour, time and again the quartet’s sound was striking in its drama and weight. It was often almost like one was listening to a small orchestra. Indeed, by the interval I found myself wondering whether I had ever heard two early works by these composers delivered with such startling clout and so clearly speaking of revolution.

After the interval, the concert continued on it stratospheric course. The first item was a premiere of a work for Violin and Cello composed by a Wyggeston QE Sixth Form College student, Rebecca Burden. This was the result of the Quartet’s involvement in a LIMF education project for local A Level Music students. This had produced a number of works from which this one was singled out for performance. Before the concert I thought that indulgence was certainly going to be needed in the company the work was keeping. In fact, the facility of the music, its clear sense of structure and progression and above all its keen grasp of the range of colour this combination offers the composer made indulgence the last thing required. Indeed, as someone who spent a quite a proportion of his working life at the College and who had retired before the composer was even born, I shed a quiet tear of pride that the old place still functions so well! What with Benjamin’s Ashby’s premiered Quartet at the last Festival, there is certainly some compositional talent around Leicestershire at the moment. Good luck to both.

So to the last work of this fine concert, Shostakovich’s 2nd Quartet, written at the end of WW11. Now, I was not aware that I had ever heard this particular quartet, though in the past the Lindsays had featured the composer quite often in their Leicester series. Therefore, I made a point of fishing out my complete set of the quartets recorded by a Russian ensemble who took the composer’s name and recorded the set in the years immediately after the composer’s death.

I have to say that I was not much gripped at first. It seemed at times to be one of those works that musicologists loved to argue about, particularly delighting in revealing the codes that the composer had supposedly concealed in the music given his terrifying situation at the time with the Soviet authorities. The performance in its basically bleak greyness with bursts of loud dissonance did not for me inhabit a particularly interesting sound world.

Of course, to compare a recording to a live performance is always very questionable but all I can say is that the work appeared in this concert as something much more compelling and one could see why the Royal Philharmonic Society felt that the Carducci’s recording of the 15th Quartet was the outstanding chamber music disc of 2016. In this performance it was as if the work had had a blood transfusion. One certainly needed no code to grasp the anger, the desperation, as well as at times the beauty of the way in which grief is depicted. Russians do grief like no other race on the planet and here in the slow movement and at times in final movement, whose lovely tune clearly has a Russian Orthodox base, the power of feeling in the playing was overwhelming. The opening movement had tremendous drive with the anger at times palpable but it was in the third waltz like movement that I was most certain that I was hearing things for the first time. This in the CD booklet was described as ‘pensive’ in atmosphere and the Russians’ interpretation rather bore that out. In the Carducci’s performance what it became at times was a spectral world, about as far away from quiet thought as possible. It seemed almost the stuff of nightmares. All in all, this concert was for me a memorable musical experience, possibly the one that takes the palm in what has been a stellar series of concerts at the Museum this season.

Sadly, now we must shut down until the autumn when we convene at the Festival starting on Sept 21st.  and the globe starts spinning again. Have a good summer.

Summer Gala Recital- Martin James Bartlett. May 13th 2017

When I heard that the first of the two 2017 Summer Gala Concerts was to be given by the winner of the 2014 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, I was intrigued by the prospect. It seemed to me to be a highly praiseworthy initiative to provide an opportunity for Leicester to hear a talented young pianist towards the beginning of his career. However, in such a setting as this concert series, which for example has seen in the last three years concerts by Paul Lewis, Ronan O’Hora and Stephen Hough, it raised the question as to whether it would attract very many punters. In the event, I am pleased to say that there was a reasonably sized and enthusiastic audience.

However, I thought there might be another problem. Comparisons are of course odious but I wondered whether it would be difficult not to make such comparisons when the bar had been set so high in previous years. Was it realistic to expect performances at this stage of a career which would rival the level of piano playing we had become accustomed to in this series? The dilemma was made more acute by changes in the programme in which it became considerably more mainstream and challenging. In particular, the inclusion of Beethoven’s Sonata Op 31. No 3 coupled with the advertised Bach Partita made the first half of the concert very demanding indeed.

Well, it seemed to me that the only way forward, not least as a sign of respect for the artist, was to write absolutely as one found. In any case it rapidly became clear that Martin James Bartlett is a major talent. There was much to admire. Bach’s Partita No.2 came across often sparkling in its clarity and thrust. Also, I admired the way he declined any unfit expressiveness. However, therein lies the problem all pianists face when playing this composer on the piano, how within a narrow range to vary the dynamics, texture, and colour so that monotony does not set in as dance follows dance. I felt this artist did not fully avoid that result, but then I have to recognise that the line in Bach between boredom and delight is for me a narrow one!

I also had reservations about the performance of the Beethoven. Here it became clear that one was in presence of a virtuoso. This was a performance brimming with fire and drama. However, this was achieved perhaps rather at the expense of some of the more subtle features of this work. The dynamic range seemed to me rather narrow with heavy bass and loud treble . I have heard performances of this sonata which make a good case for it being one of the composer’s most joyous, witty, even quirky compositions, full of delightful wrong turnings and surprises. Here in the general urgency it came across without too much of a smile. The treble in particular hardly ever skipped, tripped, caressed or sang, even in the third movement. One wondered whether overall greater relaxation might not have reaped a richer harvest.

So, as we reached the interval I felt this was turning out to be one of those concerts in which there was much to admire but which for want of much individuality were rather unlikely to stick in the memory. And then out of the blue the pianist played an encore to the first half, a Liszt transcription of Schumann, which seemed an intimation that in the second half there might be something altogether of a different order and I spent the interval wondering whether possible nerves had disappeared and whether the Romantic and 20c. repertoire would show the artist in an altogether different light.

How true that proved to be! It was a warm evening and the pianist emerged for the second half without his jacket. To my mind nothing could have been more symbolic of the change in atmosphere. Here at last was a pianist intent upon sharing delights with his audience. The Museum piano began to sound like it can, warm and glowing. A beautifully rapt account of the most famous of Schubert’s Impromptus, played with disarming simplicity, was followed by, for me at least, a revelatory performance of Granados’s El amour y la Muerte from Goyescas. I have a CD of this by possibly the most famous Spanish pianist of the last century but, perhaps because of the quality of the recording, have never found its sound world immediately as attractive as some Spanish music can be. As a result I couldn’t see where the piece was going at times. Here everything seemed in place and the shading and shaping that the pianist achieved at times was ravishing. A friend remarked later that he felt Goya’s picture to be in front of him such was the effect of this performance. Alas, I could not recall the painting but it mattered little.

By now things felt to be well and truly on a roll . A grandly romantic rendering of Liszt’s Petrarch’s Sonnet No.104 was followed by Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.3. You could feel the pianist’s joy that at last he could display without inhibition his command of the keyboard in one of most outrageously virtuosic pieces ever composed for the piano, written by a young genius intent on shocking the musical world. The effect was duly stunning and provided an electric climax to the concert.

Except that it wasn’t the climax! That belonged to the encore, the last movement of another Prokofiev Sonata. Clearly by this time the pianist’s adrenalin must have been flowing at some prodigious rate. Suffice to say, it made for a concert which was mightily memorable after all.

 

 

News of Forthcoming Events

 

LIMF 2nd Gala Concert The Carducci String Quartet Thursday  June 8th

 

The Carducci String Quartet are no strangers to Leicester and time and again have shown themselves to one of the finest quartets playing today. They have put together an enticing programme of Haydn, Beethoven and Shostakovich. Also they have been part of an LIMF musical education project in the city and will play a piece written by a student currently at Wyggeston Queen Elizabeth 1st 6th Form College.

As usual the concert is at the Museum and starts at 7.30.

 

 

 

Budleigh Music Festival July 7th -12th

 

Marian Culhane a stalwart of the LIMF over the years who now lives in the West Country visited Leicester for the above concert and she tells me that many old friends are to be found at the above Festival. So, if you fancy a short break in the West Country, you will find all the details on the internet.

 

 

The Philharmonia- Gerhardt, Rouvali April 22nd 2017

Two or three years ago, there was a Philharmonia concert at DMH which featured a conductor quite new to me, a Finn by the name of Santuu-Matias Rouvali . When he almost danced his way onto the podium and waved at the audience, all the old prejudices associated with conductors of classical music rose to the surface. They are supposed to be at least middle aged, the older the better. This fellow looked hardly out of school. Instead of a studied stick technique, the baton carved out great arcs in the air and he actually seemed to be enjoying himself, as well he might having been handed one of the best orchestras in the world to conduct. In addition, he had the cheek to be playing one of the most blithe pieces of music in the repertoire, Bizet’s Symphony in C, which the great Sir Thomas Beecham had made his own with his unique ability to convert into the exquisite what some would think simply to be charming. Well, suffice it to say that the young man achieved precisely that and thus immediately put him onto my list of musicians worth listening to.

So, his return in an intriguing mainly English programme was much looked forward to. For other reasons it was a significant event since a fortnight before it had been announced that he, and another fine talent, the Czech Jakub Hrusa, had been appointed Principal Guest Conductors of the orchestra and this was his first concert in Leicester in that capacity.

In the event, right from the opening of Smetana’s Vltava the music making showed precisely why the appointment had been made. The woodwind music of the opening can just sound like a bit of woodwind twiddling before the famous tune emerges. Here in the DMH acoustic the conductor achieved a quite wonderful liquidness from the very start of the journey downstream. On the way the peasants danced , the water nymphs swam, the Rapids boiled to dramatic effect and the grandness of the river as it approached Prague had a fine majesty. In fact, the performance, instead of being merely a series of picturesque scenes, had an onward overall momentum which was highly impressive.

So far so good, but I wondered how the much more formidable challenge of Elgar’s great Cello Concerto would be met, performed by a German cellist and a Finnish conductor. Here again prejudice can get in the way. We used to complain that English music was not enough played abroad but could be very snooty about the results when foreigners actually took in on.

Well, many foreigners are beginning to do precisely that and the results can be compelling. In this case, I thought it to be one of the most moving performances of the work I have heard. A friend of mine likes to divide solo cellists into the romantics and the aristocrats. The German Alban Gerhardt is clearly of the latter group. The playing rarely sought to emote and yet every sudden turn of feeling, of which there are many in this immensely subtle work, seemed to be caught unerringly. The scherzo had a tremendous fizz to it and yet the apparently effortless beauty of soloist’s tone invested the reflective moments throughout the work and particularly at its end with a poignant dignity which was the very quintessence of Elgar at his greatest. Miracles of miracles, the accompaniment too seemed utterly in accord with this vision. A performance to treasure.

Lastly came Holst’s planetary exploration, once again a work indelibly connected with great conductors of the generation of Sir Adrian Boult, who conducted the first performance and whose way with the work somehow seemed the gold standard against which all was to be judged. I remember, for instance, in his performances the very effective steady build up of tension in Mars, The Bringer of War.  Rouvali on the other hand went a different route, taking it at a real allegro and with the massed brass of the Philharmonia in thrilling form this seemed equally right. I have never heard a more convincing depiction of the horror of 20c. battle. Indeed in every movement , with the orchestra on scintillating form, Rouvali revealed himself as a master of musical characterisation. Time and again he hit the target. Particularly memorable for this elderly fellow was Saturn, The bringer of old age in which Holst’s chilling landscape was memorably evoked culminating in the terrible jangling climax, which communicates for me all the pain experienced by many with growing old, only for the movement to end with what might be taken as stoical acceptance. One could go on. Mercury was indeed virtuosic like quicksilver and the strings in the famous tune in Jupiter were richly warm without the patriotic pomp and circumstance of the hymn tune it became which was so far from Holst’s vision. Indeed, as in the Smetana’s dancing peasants, the conductor made much of the rollicking folk element in this movement. By the end, I thought that like the Elgar it was hard to remember a more convincing performance of a much played piece. One thing is sure. The Philharmonia’s rapport with this conductor is something to marvel at and one can see precisely why he was offered the post of Principal Guest Conductor. Next season’s first concert will feature Jakob Hrusa so Leicester will have a unique opportunity to compare these two new stars in the orchestra’s firmament.

 

Event in May

 

On Saturday May 13th at 7.30 p.m and at the New Walk Museum the young pianist Martin James Bartlett makes his Leicester debut. Though I have yet to hear him, I suspect this is a concert not to be missed. A past winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, he is now being spoken of as one of the most exciting players of his generation. Indeed, I gather a week after the concert he flies off to America to take part in the final of the prestigious Van Cliburn competition. Consequently, there has been some adjustment to the original programme with the inclusion of a Beethoven sonata.

English Touring Opera- April 12th and 13th 2017

To quote the aged Captain Vere as he looks back at the end of Britten’s great  opera Billy Budd, ‘long ago now, years ago, centuries ago’ I was teaching in a Kent Boys Grammar school. This establishment took great pride that each year since 1911 their main school dramatic offering had been a G and S production. Received opinion then amongst many of those who thought themselves musically knowledgeable was that these operettas were ,as someone dismissively  put it, ‘ music for the unmusical’ and my Kentish experiences seemed fully to confirm that opinion. Hearing little boys stumbling through the female parts, watching a ‘production’ where, since it was still in copyright, the head of PE followed to the letter the D’Oyle Carte book ( this basically consisted of the cast standing around in semi –circles), watching members of staff doing their comic bit to an audience which hugged itself with delight at anticipation of each well known gag, listening to the awful orchestral  playing, all of this was for me an utterly dismaying experience. Worst of all was what I thought to be the ridiculously prissy view of sex and the thoroughly deplorable satire of older women who supposedly had lost their charms. Relishing Offenbach and Johann Strauss, I thought G and S exemplified everything that was dreadful about upper and middle class ‘Englishness’, a view I held until long after the copyright had lapsed.

Then the English National Opera started to mount G and S productions which I found revelatory, wonderfully played and sung, showing Sullivan’s music to be quite the equal of any in the world of operetta, the comedy produced and played with flair and with an absolutely straight face (which, of course, is the essence of successful satire and comedy). Finally the advent of surtitles revealed fully the wonder of Gilbert’s lyrics, in the rich tradition of Victorian surrealism to be found in such as Lewis Carroll.

ETO’s production of Patience, a work I had never seen staged until now, was up there with the best of them. From beginning to end it was a complete delight, obviously achieved after enormous attention to detail by the production staff and placed in a charmingly apt set in what I take to be William Morris green. (I noted that the conductor like myself attended the same Oxford college as the famous man!) Time and again such things as the Victorian invention of a medieval world that existed only in the imagination were skewered in all their absurdity.

It was immediately clear that movement had featured much in rehearsal. Quite recently, when discussing another operatic production, a friend and I remarked how well modern singers move. The stand and deliver days are well and truly over. It was a delight,for example, simply to watch Bunthorne dance around the stage with his quill pen held aloft. Conversely the scene in which the military attempt to imitate the aesthetes was divinely riotous as one saw limbs being stretched into poses soldiers were not meant to adopt.

Best of all was the person at the centre of all this topsy turvy world, the often bewildered down to earth maiden, Patience herself. She achieved something very difficult. She communicated perfectly by her understated movements, so contrasted against the exaggerated posing of the people around her, that she was the only person with any grasp on reality. She reminded me, perhaps as she was intended to, of Alice, indeed in Wonderland. Possibly the best joke of the evening was this apparently quite slight girl effortlessly carrying aloft a milk churn whose weight was far too much for the flower maidens even to move, and culminating in her doing a bit of stage re-arrangement by hoicking a large garden ornament to the back of the stage. Another treasurable moment was poor Lady Jane’s attachment to a double bass, reflecting the orchestration during her lament over her loss of allure. Besides being incongruously very funny, it also somehow created sympathy for the poor woman in what can otherwise be seen as a rather cruel moment in the piece, despite the loveliness of the music.

And the music was rendered very finely indeed by cast and orchestra. Right from overture the feather lightness and buoyancy of the orchestral playing made it clear that conductor Anthony Burke was intent on showing why he thought this score of the early 1880’s to be the finest to have been written in this country since the time of Handel in the first half of the 18c. It was often wonderfully more champagne than roast beef and beer, though in the military moments there was plenty of the latter. The chorus singing was splendid throughout. Bradley Travis and Ross Ramgobin as the two poets displayed fine but sharply differentiated baritone voices. These two artists surely have a great future. Conversely Andrew Slater’s assumption of Colonel Calverley was that of an immensely experienced singer, never putting a foot wrong in what are, thanks to Gilbert,  some very tricky operatic moments.

There were some equally fine female voices in the cast. Valerie Reid as Lady Jane was in lovely voice for her moment of lament and a number of others could be mentioned. However, finally it was Lauren Zollezi in the title role who quite rightly drew the cheers. Her stage craft has already been mentioned, the way with minimum movement she could draw eyes to her but of course the voice was in the end the thing and here it was a delight, silvery and agile, beautifully phrased throughout. So all in all this was a real winner, the kind of thing which ETO regularly produces.

Mindful of their triumphant production of La Boheme a few years ago, I wondered whether Tosca ,their second offering this year, would be equally successful. Well, there were a number of riveting moments but also correspondingly aspects which missed their target by some margin. That this was so was certainly not down to the conductor nor to the singers in the roles of Tosca and Cavaradossi. It has over the years been a constant source of wonder how Michael Rosewell manages with small forces to produce the authentic Puccini sound. Occasionally, as at the end of Act 1, the orchestra couldn’t quite produce the flood of sound demanded but elsewhere I lost count of the moments where one heard orchestral felicities often lost in a more expansive setting.

Also, absolutely no allowances needed to be made for Paula Sides as Tosca. Was it my imagination that she looked remarkably like Callas? That also perhaps says something about the subtlety, power and beauty of her singing and acting. Time and again she seemed effortlessly alert to every turn in this character’s complex character, shading her voice where required to convey her vulnerability as well as being thrilling as the tigress. Her great Act 2 aria was completely of a piece with her assumption, conveying wonderfully a woman so bereft and defenceless as to bring tears to the eyes. At such moments, how can one believe that this opera was once described as a ‘shabby little shocker’? The penetration and completeness of this performance was somehow for me exemplified by the extraordinary and unforgettable way she ascended a steep ladder into the roof of the theatre, like a swift athlete making sure her pursuers would never catch her alive.

In many ways Alexander James Edwards as her lover matched her in ardour. His voice had the required Italianate ring and he was especially good in the opening act as he fenced with the woman he loved. In the final act he movingly played Cavaradossi as a broken man, at least sceptical about what Tosca was telling him. The supporting roles were also cast from strength. Aled Hall was a particularly spine chilling and malevolently watchful Spoletta as he went about Scarpia’s business.

All of this made two major failings in the production all the more of a pity. Over the years in which ETO has been visiting Leicester, I have admired the way Craig Smith has been an indefatigable part of their productions. I have never found his baritone particularly pleasing but he has always managed something of a dramatic presence on the stage and this year I note he is taking the role of Scarpia 25 times out of 31. That is devotion for you. Sadly, however, I found him quite miscast. Vocally his rather dry grey sound failed to find any of the black power mixed with velvet by which this the most feared man in Rome can most memorably be evoked. The great Scarpias can command and terrorise almost with the lift of an eyebrow. The first entry in Act 1 can establish that in a second. Here,alas, it suggested the character to be an almost manic figure who had somehow barged into the church. In Act 2, the more the singer was moved about the stage, the more there was a failure to find in the lovingly moulded musical phrase the snake like and sensual insinuation of a man in control, a man who enjoys playing with the victims on his hook.

The production contributed in no small measure to this problem. I was somewhat surprised to find that the designer was common to both productions, with the G and S so fit for purpose and Tosca so manifestly not. Only in last Act did the set achieve some sense of a particular space and that was by keeping the doomed couple downstage. Also, the upright girder at the back of the stage which Tosca ascended prior to her final plunge could perhaps have been seen fittingly as a guillotine . Elsewhere I could discern no meaningful symbolism in the stage picture of Meccano- like girders. In Act 1 the church altar, the focus of much of the action was only to be recognised by Angelotti picking up his clothing disguise from under a girder. Scarpia’s room was so divided by the set, there was so much disconcerting movement between the segments, that what should have been a concentration on the relentless turning of the screw was constantly interrupted. If that was not enough, each journey across the girders demanded a hop and a skip to navigate them. Nor was there any imaginative use of lighting. The one idea was to spotlight Tosca for her big aria, which really says it all.  I have enjoyed many so called ‘daring’ productions which have annoyed the conservative section of the operatic public but such productions have had one thing in common, the ability to translate the ‘concept’ into meaningful stage action. That too rarely happened here.

Never mind. Opera is a complex venture and one will never please all the people, all the time. Suffice to say that the visit as a whole reminded the Leicester public yet again what a force ETO is in the operatic life of this country. More power to its elbow.

 

Lunchtime Series 23rd March 2017- Doric Quartet

All good things come to an end. The return of the Doric Quartet to Leicester after an absence of some years was the last concert of the 2016/17 Lunchtime series. It proved to be a fitting finish to what has been a very high number of outstanding concerts. Indeed, I cannot remember a better season at the Museum.

In truth , though, before a note had been played there were obstacles to surmount and I found myself in a somewhat grumpy frame of mind. Not I think for the first time in the season a gremlin had been present at the printing of the programme. I am of course not referring to changes to the programme after the printing which, of course, happen. Also, I am only too aware how with advancing years proof reading becomes ever more of a fraught occupation. However, I really do think that LIMF might improve their act in this respect.

In this context I wondered whether there had also been an omission in the programme’s biography of the quartet which began with the rather startling comment that it is the ‘leading British string quartet of its generation.’ I wondered whether the phrase ‘one of the …’ had been left out by mistake. If it was as intended, it did seem to me a rather bold assertion, given the number of fine young or youngish British quartets that have appeared in Leicester in recent years, as well as being a claim rather likely to make one listen super critically.

Well, suffice it say that such a silly frame of mind on my part was soon blown away when the quartet started playing. In Mozart’s String Quartet K589, one of the three last quartets that he wrote, it soon became clear that one was listening to an utterly distinctive group. Many quartets seek warm homogeneity of sound which in its own way can be very impressive. However, the Doric reminded me of the approach of the Lindsays who in their heyday were frequent visitors to the city. Here there was an insistence of the separateness of the individual instruments, with sharp accents where required, resulting in the character of the music emerging with great clarity. There was also a very wide dynamic range at times which revealed this Mozart quartet , particularly in the Minuet, a movement which can sound very longwinded, as having a drama that fully justified the programme note’s declaration that this was Mozart looking forward to Beethoven.

All of this is not to say that beauty and eloquence was sacrificed on the altar of drama. Time and again and particularly in the slow movement, because of the clarity of the sound, one was super aware of how all four players could mould a phrase and, so crucial in Mozart, lift it to make it sing. So, by the time we reached Britten’s 3rd String Quartet the Doric had me in their grip.

And what a performance this was! With regard to this work I have to recognise that I can hardly write with any objectivity at all. To this day fifty years later I recall very clearly the impact that the composer’s passing had upon me. A great artist’s death when there might have been so much more to come is felt to be particularly cruel. From first hearing Peter Grimes in my youth I had looked forward with enormous anticipation to each new Britten work. And now there was to be nothing more. I think it was Hans Keller who remarked that it was like being alive with a Mozart and in the years after the composer’s death his reputation, with that of Shostakovich who died just before him as being together the two greatest composers of the mid 20c., seems to have been amply confirmed worldwide. However, what made it especially hard came home to me when I heard over the radio one of the first performances of this particular work, which at once felt like having the overwhelming qualities of a farewell and yet also still showing the capacity for the creation of amazing and unique sound worlds. In that respect it reminded me of feelings that Schubert’s last masterpieces, also written under sentence of death, create. How unbearably poignant are they and yet they are also a remarkable testament to the courage of the great artist in wishing to create great things right up to the end.

Hence, if there can be that much objectivity in responding to music, and as time goes by my doubts about that possibility multiply, I have to declare there is no such thing for me in regard this work. All I can say is that the Doric seemed to me to explore every possibility offered for amazing virtuosity in both of the opening two movements and to communicate the savage ironic edge of the Burlesque which surely is a tribute to Britten’s friend Shostakovich. Equally, though, the quartet was overwhelming in the creation of the out of body world of the third movement Solo , here the first violin was simply superb,  and in the final Passacaglia they played this farewell with heartfelt simplicity and poise, bringing off to perfection its quizzical ending. Its sense of being almost a question, so typical of Britten’s constancy in refusing to sink into the maudlin or sentimental, was felt indeed to be one last confirmation of his unique voice.

A prolonged silence followed, as if none of the capacity audience wished to return to the everyday world. When they did so at last, there was a hugely deserved ovation for the quartet and the Series had ended on the highest note possible.

 

Events in April

 

The Lunchtime Series may have ended but music in the city has not. Don’t miss the visit of English Touring Opera to Curve. They bring G and S’s Patience on April 12th and Puccini’s Tosca on April 13th. In their previous visits this company has shown how these days what amazing standards can be reached on tour. There are so many fine young singers around nowadays. Indeed two years ago I thought a production of The Magic Flute amongst the best I had ever seen and I have rarely if ever come away unsatisfied.

The last concert of this year’s Residency of the Philharmonia occurs on April 22nd in a programme of Smetana, Elgar and Holst. It is conducted by Santu-Mattias Rouvali, yet another Finn of great talent, and the fine cellist Albert Gerhardt plays the Elgar concerto. I am told there are not many tickets left so if you are interested ,hurry ,hurry.

Lastly, in May and June LIMF are putting on as usual two events, one a piano recital and one a quartet concert. I will return to these later. Tickets will soon be on sale and details can be found on the website or on flyers at the Museum.

 

 

 

 

Lunchtime Series 9th.March 2017- Kitty Whately, Julius Drake

It has long been one of the curiosities of the Leicester chamber music scene that the song recital has been something of a rarity amongst so many other delights. My experience suggests to me that this is largely down to money, arising out of the sad fact that such entertainment in Leicester risks having a somewhat smaller audience than other forms of intimate music making, even when the singer is world famous. For long I have puzzled over this. Why in a city with a fine choral tradition should a format which shows that finest of instruments, the human voice, at its most expressive not attract hordes of music lovers?

Perhaps, in truth there is something intimidating in the form’s fusion of poetry and music, demanding as it does an audience’s attention to both. In opera the stage action, the spectacle, helped to carry you forward even before the invention of surtitles. Indeed, nowadays the problem is that the latter just occasionally work against pleasure. There are a few operas where, when their libretti are exposed to the clear light of day, one finds oneself wishing that dusk would return!

However, that dusk cannot be acceptable in a song recital, where at its finest every line, even every syllable is meant to count. Of course, surtitles are rarely, if ever, an option in chamber music venues, even if, as some would argue, they were not thought to distract from the directness of communication with an audience which is at the very centre of this art form. Yet the pressure on the singer to convey and interpret detail with clarity is immense and even in this intimate setting in some of the greatest of songs the need for the singer and pianist to be true to the drama and to press it home inevitably causes words to become clouded in the pursuit of the musical line. In addition, when the words are not provided in the programme, perhaps for good reason to stop continual rustling of paper, when the song is in a foreign language unknown to most of the audience, it is perhaps not that surprising that some music lovers, even lovers of song, stay at home, preferring to listen to annotated recordings.

Of course, they are wrong and mercifully on this occasion many clearly thought they were since the gallery was well filled. As the fine recital given by Kitty Whately and Julius Drake showed triumphantly, the barriers can vanish and you find that there is no musical art form which can better communicate the very essence of human feeling. Once or twice, I must admit I struggled to grasp the moment since the words were in German or obscured in the force of the music. However, those of you who are alert to names will know that this singer has drama in her blood and by goodness it showed. When together with a pianist supreme in partnering singers, the results were predictably riveting.

From the opening Purcell songs it was clear that we were listening to a mezzo voice of velvety beauty. However, I have been here a few times before particularly in the opera house where a voice new to one impresses with its loveliness, only after ten minutes or so for one to begin to wonder where the personality is and after twenty minutes to be thoroughly underwhelmed if not bored. Here two songs in Purcell’s Dido mode were predictably finely rendered but I relished particularly the singer’s cutting dispatch of There’s not a swain as evidence of real personality. That wit carried over to a song from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn , though here and in three of Schubert’s Faust songs featuring the unfortunate  Gretchen who gets her love life so badly wrong, I would have liked the text. Not that it mattered too much in the well known Gretchen at her Spinning- Wheel in which the power of the voice was thrilling, as was the range of the piano accompaniment.

Then it was back to words in English and two composers only known to me by name, Joseph Horowitz and Jonathan Dove. The first was represented by Lady Macbeth.A Scena which set to music three of the character’s speeches  tracing the formidable lady’s course to eternal perdition. As a literary fellow I was ready to be loftily indulgent. One doesn’t attempt one of the peaks of world literature without being severely at risk. Ms. Whately cleared the stage of music-stand and score,  clearly ready to do battle, and what a battle it was. The work was in a way straightforward but in this performance minute by minute seemed to hit on music that complemented the words well and both in body and voice the singer inhabited the increasing nightmare that is the character’s world. It was nothing less than a mini-opera of considerable power. Perhaps, the music served the words rather than making one see them anew as great music does to verse but it was still compelling stuff.

And so to Jonathan Dove. I had read laudatory reviews of some of his work but there was always about those reviews something slightly condescending concerning the approachability of the music. Clearly we still live in a post Schoenberg, Boulezian world in which musicologists and some critics cannot quite come to terms with a composer who is listenable to and engaging from the off. Perhaps they feel something to be wrong if music appeals widely!

Well, all I can say is that this music seemed to me to be of real substance. Settings on 18c.love poems entitled Five Am’rous Sighs were given music that powerfully depicted lust in all its guises. One particularly noted how fine was the writing for piano; this was no secondary voice.  It was also a constant delight to hear how the singer showed once again the range of her voice and her ability to find a sound world absolutely complementing the words.

If anything, that was even more evident in settings of three poems by the American poet Edna Millay Nights Not Spent Alone , no doubt in their time startling in their explicitness. Here the music was positively haunting in the way it created not only the passion of the verse but seemed to put it convincingly in an American setting. It appeared to have imbibed that vein of American music most memorably to be found in Copland and Barber and yet to have its own personality. The powerfully sensuous performance led one to hope that a recording would be made of it.

In conclusion, thanks are to Julius Drake for bringing to Leicester yet another fine youthful singer. Thanks are to her for putting together such a richly variegated programme and then performing it with such artistry. She is clearly already embarked on a fine career.

 

Lunchtime Concerts: 23rd.February 2017 Busch Trio

As I shuffled to this concert in the teeth of Storm Doris several thoughts occurred to me. One had little to do with music. I found myself wondering what the amiable and solid Auntie Doris of my childhood would have made of finding her name attached to a severe Atlantic gale. She would certainly have been dismissive of a Met Office who, true to modern hype, have started using for our kind of weather a naming system hitherto associated with catastrophic Caribbean cyclones. I also wondered with all the warnings how many good Leicester folk would venture out for this concert. True, I did see one other indefatigable elderly pensioner in the distance plodding his way to the Museum so I was at least assured that there were two of us showing the bulldog spirit to make up the audience at the concert, assuming, of course, that the performers had arrived safely.

Imagine then my pleasure on arrival at the Museum finding that it was business as usual. Clearly I had not sufficiently counted on the admirable streak of imperturbability in the Leicester character, not to mention the dislike of not getting what had been paid for! The Museum Gallery was full, the tempest was not to be heard and we awaited with eagerness the Leicester debut of the Busch Trio.

Apparently the violinist plays on an instrument once owned by Adolph Busch, hence the name of the Trio. It did occur to me that the group, made up of Dutch violinist Mathieu van Bellen, Israeli pianist Omri Epstein and his brother, cellist Ori Epstein, all three of them having received a crucial part of their musical training in the UK, was certainly aiming high by associating themselves with one of the most well known family names in 20c. music. Adolph was the founder of one of the most famous string quartets of all time and Fritz the first musical director of Glyndebourne, both setting standards as high as they go.

Well, we have heard a number of fine concerts this season and it was quickly clear that this group needed to fear nothing in comparison. The quality of the playing was of the very highest order. They have such a complete rapport that they appear able to react apparently by instinct to the music, which in the case of this concert often required sudden shifts of mood and texture. The basic sound was warmly beautiful but it never seemed an end in itself as it can be in some prestigious and ever so finely tuned ensembles. In such cases I can find myself yearning for the warmth to be dissipated sometimes. In their case where sharp attack and exhilaration was required, they could lift you off your seat. Conversely their pianissimo playing had one listening to the slightest thread of sound, sound which was yet perfectly formed.

The opening work, Suk’s Elegy for piano trio did not at once fully reveal the quality of the ensemble. One immediately noted the violin’s warm tone, the main theme was played with passion and the soft ending beautifully delivered. It was all thoroughly agreeable. However, the central melody did not really establish itself as very memorable and rather cruelly reminded me that the composer’s father-in-law, one Dvorak, did this kind of thing rather better. In truth, over the years what I have heard of Suk has never convinced me that he ever quite made the leap into greatness, particularly when put beside his contemporary Czech composer, Janacek.

The truth of this was apparent by what followed in this concert. Somehow Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio Op.50 ,written after Anton Rubinstein’s death and dedicated to his memory, had never registered on my radar. So, for me this was a very special occasion, hearing for the first time a major work of a great 19c. composer. Right from the beginning that greatness showed in a melody with all of Tchaikovsky’s unique fingerprints. One was also soon alert to the possible reasons for the work perhaps not receiving that number of performances. Its structure of two vast movements is hugely demanding on an ensemble’s capacity to hold things together. It is packed with such a variety of often memorable ideas that it must be difficult to avoid it sounding episodic. However, the Busch played it so that, while there were so many delightful moments, the first movement also had a tremendous sweep to it.

And then we had the second movement of no less than 12 variations on what seemed a tune so simple as to be felt hardly suited to such treatment. Such a thought was rapidly proved wrong. Indeed, the scope of the music was prodigious, ranging from on the one hand the witty to at the other extreme music of darkly passionate mourning. One moment the piano was sounding like a music box, and wonderfully played by the pianist here, the next moment there followed a waltz as only Tchaikovsky could write. Even when my heart might have sunk at the prospect of a fugue in Variation 8, particularly when the composer himself had apparently indicated it could be omitted(!), it was lifted by the energy and exhilaration of the playing. This was followed in Variation 9 by playing of great intensity from violin and cello in concert and so through lighter variations to Variation 12, a finale worthy of Tchaikovsky at his symphonic best. Here in the final return of the theme the trio managed a passionate sound of the darkest hue, before the music died away.

Great applause resulted in an encore of one movement from Dvorak’s Dumky Piano Trio and its soulful, slow melody brought a very fine concert indeed to an end. Storm Doris had been well and truly consigned to oblivion by the power of music.

 

Philharmonia 15th. Feb. 2017- David Fray, Karl-Heinz Steffens

 

This concert had to offer the audience two potentially exciting Leicester debuts. Both pianist Daniel Fray and Karl-Heinz Steffens brought with them impressive credentials , particularly in  German music .  Fray has made a number of well received recordings of this repertoire and Steffens has by all account, after stepping in at the last moment for an indisposed conductor, immediately established a close rapport with the orchestra. So anticipation was high.

 

However, perhaps it was my heavy cold making me overly critical, but I felt the concert in one respect fell well short of what had been anticipated. Over the years there have been some fine performances of the Schumann Piano Concerto at DMH and time and again I have felt that this work is truly the most delightful of the Romantic piano concertos. Though it has bravura enough, it is almost always on the edge of light fantasy together with passages of meltingly beautiful  lyricism founded quite obviously in the composer’s love for his wife Clara , she who gave the first performance.

 

Alas, little of this emerged, for me at least. Right from the clarion opening which seemed almost peremptory rather than something like a joyous leap, textures were muddy instead of being airy and there seemed little shaping of phrases. In the conversation between orchestra and piano in the slow movement, the thought occurred that if this was intended to be the musical equivalent of  words between Robert and Clara, then the conversation was remarkably brusque. Divorce seemed on the cards. Coupled with a matter of fact finale, the experience was really rather dispiriting.

 

So much so was this the case that one had to wonder whether the imported piano was the villain. In truth it sounded a poor instrument indeed with a muddy bass and middle and a treble that  only delivered steel. Perhaps the conductor and orchestra felt the same because the accompaniment seemed for the most part very foursquare and dutiful rather than being in concert to deliver the pleasures to be found in the work. Perhaps things will come together better in London.

 

However, all was on a different plane in the purely orchestral items in the concert, which got off to a truly tremendous start with Mendelssohn’s dramatically splendid overture Ruy Blas. Many decades ago I had an LP ( or was it a 78?!) I think of Beecham doing this work and I thought then what a taut dramatic piece of music it was. It surprised me to find out from the programme that the composer suppressed it. This was the first time I’d heard it live and the conductor made a splendid case for it. It was clear that Steffens’ time as an eminent  clarinettist had given him a good idea of how through the conductor’s stick to make clear what he wants and perhaps it is not entirely fanciful to think that the lovely instrument he has deserted for the podium has made him want the orchestra to relish and mould the musical phrase and to sing.

 

That was what stood out in the performance of Brahms’ 3rd Symphony . Some years ago with this orchestra the late Sir Charles Mackerras gave a performance of this symphony that was bracing. It let the light in and had little inclination to indulge much Brahms’ sunset glows. I came away from that thinking that was the way to blows the cobwebs out of Johannes’ beard.  I do still think that is often necessary. Yet every now and again a conductor comes along, perhaps not much enamoured of modern practice, and breathes life into a more traditional means of delivering the music. Such a one was Nelsons and now Steffens joins that company.

 

He clearly had thought long and hard about this symphony and how to bring out its many beauties without mortally harming the structure by dallying and collapsing into brown syrup. Once or twice , in the second and third movements, things came close to stasis but such was the conductor’s control that the effect was of such moments being a daring determination to mine the contemplative moments in the score rather than skating over them by quickly pressing on. Also, the effect was enhanced when in contrast the many moments of drama were delivered with great power by an orchestra on top form. In a way then perhaps because the conductor had been at pains to register the lyricism and many of the inner stands of the symphony, the last movement made at times a spine-tingling effect with the brass in full hunting mode. So,  I went home happy!  

 

Lunchtime Concerts: Mahan Esfahani 9th. February 2017

To be frank, I viewed the prospect of this recital with the greatest trepidation. Of all the works that have become established in the modern consciousness as the Everests of classical music, the Goldberg Variations has been for me the most problematic. I have two CDs of the work, in the last two decades I have heard at least four live performances and yet at best in a good mood I have reacted with moderate pleasure, whilst in a bad mood thinking the endless patterning of the variations ultimately just plain boring, at least to my ear and with my limited technical knowledge.

The nearest I have got to extended enjoyment live was with a performance by Joanna Macgregor at LIMF many years ago in which she provided an often witty title for each variation. This a) gave me a chart as to where I was and b) actually suggested that the work was centrally amusing and delightful, an uncomfortable concept perhaps for that rather frightening figure, the Bach purist. Other than that I’ve heard string transcriptions which seemed to me hardly to enhance the work and on one occasion a performance with interpolated readings of stream of consciousness babble which only succeeded in converting moderate boredom into something so extreme that, as the performance meandered on, one looked forward ever more longingly towards the exit doors.  Add to that the fact that over the years I have heard very few harpsichord recitals and have tended to agree with Sir Thomas Beecham’s comparison of the instrument ‘s sound to skeletons rattling around doing quite unmentionable things and it will be seen, despite the fact that I had read many positive things about this soloist, why  I hardly approached this recital with enthusiasm.

Well, wrong again! I quickly realised that there are harpsichords and harpsichords and that the one being played here was a remarkably beautiful specimen, both to look at and to listen to. On top of that was the quickly self evident fact that Mahan Esfahani’s reputation as a front rank artist was fully justified. Result: despite ingrown resistance to Goldberg and his variations, I found myself utterly wrapped up in what I was hearing and eagerly waiting for what was to come next, so much so that when Mr. Esfahani wryly expressed disappointment at the end of the concert that because of time restraints he was unable to play all the repeats, I swear that I would have stayed had he sat down at the key board to do just that. Instead, we had two delightful Scarlatti sonatas as short encores.

Why in particular I should have had , for me, these entirely novel feelings is more difficult to explain. Undoubtedly, it had something to do with the piece being played on the harpsichord, perhaps just this harpsichord. To begin with the scale of sound was completely different to that of a piano, quieter, more in keeping in this work perhaps with the performing space. There was an intimacy that drained the work of its potential portentousness and in its stead was conveyed the sense of a great composer intrigued and delighted in seeing how things would come out as he wove his patterns of sound around a ground plan.

Then there was the sound itself, in particular a treble that on occasions sounded almost like small bells. The ascending and descending runs of notes were often delivered at staggering velocity but the instrument and the player somehow managed to delineate for a split second each note. One seeks for words to describe the effect. Perhaps it might be likened to being the aural equivalent of fine sprays of water in which miraculously each droplet is for a split second registered on the eye. I have rarely heard anything more exhilarating. Add to that a beautifully clear bass with none of the potentially too overbearing weight of a pianoforte in this area and it was perhaps hardly surprising that the work seemed for once a continual delight. It also paradoxically allowed the moments of expressive depth and beauty like Variation 25 to be revealed naturally and not like some statement about the meaning of life.

All in all then, an engrossing experience and not to be easily forgotten. As so often in this season’s concerts, one hopes for a return of the artist in the not too distant future.

Lunchtime Concerts- Natalie Clein 26th.January 2017

A decade or so ago, a young cellist, who some years before that had been BBC Young Musician of the Year, joined the ensemble of the Leicester International Festival. Her name was Natalie Clein and to all who had ears it rapidly became clear that here was an outstanding artist. But it wasn’t just that. What made her a very special musician was the rapport she created with her audience, how she drew them in to share her own enthusiasms. She seemed to live music body and soul in a quite natural manner, unlike for instance the flamboyances of some, in which the performer becomes more important than the composer. Because of happy domestic events, for her Leicester audience at least she has been less in evidence recently so there was eager anticipation at the prospect of her return to play a concert devoted to two of Bach’s cello suites. Not a seat was to be had in the hall.

Yet the concert nearly did not happen. Prior to it, for a whole week she had been indisposed, that dread word that concert promoters use for someone being ill and not about to turn up. Seeing her before the concert, it was clear what an effort it was going to take to complete the hour of playing. Indeed , I felt in most circumstances the concert would undoubtedly have been cancelled but here very touchingly there was an absolute determination to fulfil the engagement.  For all that, and despite the programme being altered to one Bach Suite, the famous short Casals’ Song of the Birds and finishing with Britten’s Cello Suite No.3 , a programme I have to say which seemed to me every bit as demanding as the original, I really had serious worries whether she was going to be able to get to the end.

What followed made such worries ridiculous. From the very moment when the bow first met  the string one was treated to some of the most intense music making imaginable. One hears much about the transformative effect of great music. Well, here it was in front of one, not a trace of frailty. As readers of the Diary will know, I am not exactly a signed up member of the Bach Numero Uno club and yet the performance of the Cello Suite No.1  had an impetus which simply swept one along.  Constantly was one reminded, as one often is not in less overtly expressive readings, that dance is central to the Suites. Particularly memorable was the vigour of the Courante and of the final Gigue. This fervent performance had me pondering my own inconsistency of response  when reacting to live music-making . At a concert only a few months ago I found much to enjoy in Bach playing very different to this indeed! But then that is one of the delights of listening to an ephemeral live performance. In the  pleasure of the moment that can never be heard again objectivity tends to evaporate, and increasingly I feel that is as it should be.

Nothing better could have followed the Bach than Casals’ simple, quiet yearning for peace and justice in his homeland that was so out of his reach for the last forty years of his long life. Here the playing was of such intensity that one felt the audience being compelled to hold its breath almost throughout its two and a half minute length.

So we moved on to Britten’s Cello Suite No. 3 .  If one has to go on the number of recordings these Suites have received in recent years, they have made their way to the centre of the cello repertoire. One can see why.  Britten’s muse was very often aroused to greatness in composing for a particular performer, and nowhere more so than in the case of Rostropovich, just about the most astonishing cellist of the mid to late 20c. Throughout this work based on Russian material his virtuosity unlocked the composer’s imagination to create an astonishing range of sounds, from passages in which it is like listening to a Russian choir, to others where there is the most wonderful  sense of wit and fantasy, to sardonic moments as in the March, reminding one that Britten had in later life through Rostropovich struck up a friendship with Shostakovich. Miraculously all of these potentially disparate elements somehow are felt to be part of an ongoing exploration of the basic material, which push to the ultimate and almost beyond the cello’s possibilities as an instrument.  Finally, as it were, things seemed to come out into the open and merge in the achingly sad and beautiful Passacaglia, the final 10 minutes of the work. It was written when Britten was already seriously ill and played finally by the dedicatee only a year or so before the composer’s death. Such an impact did Natalie Clein’s performance have that one could easily understand why Rostropovich after the composer’s death in his grief could never bring himself to play this work again, a work he had described, when receiving it from the composer, as a ‘work of genius’. All one can say about the performance here is that it fully communicated in its range and power the truth of that judgment.

And as if this was not enough, the rapturous audience was given two encores, two little pieces by Kurtag in which notes are somehow held almost in suspension between silences, a kind of musical cleansing of the palette at the end of a fine meal. By which time we all knew why Leicester thinks Natalie Clein to be a very special musician and hopes she will come back again very soon.