Philharmonia 20th Anniversary Concert DMH October 2016

The 1990’s saw some classical music initiatives in Leicester which to this day have had a very significant effect on the quality of the music making in the city. One of these initiatives led to the gradual embedding with no little struggle of the Leicester International Festival, which in time resulted in the New Walk Museum Lunchtime Concert Series attaining a similar stellar quality of chamber music  making.

And then, wonders of wonders, in 1996 one of the world’s great orchestras, The Philharmonia,  reached an agreement with the City Council to set up a residency in the city, giving each year a number of concerts, most of which would be the same as those performed in London.  Not only that, but the orchestra also committed itself to education projects in the city. The outward manifestation of these became in time the Orchestra Unwrapped scheme. The numbers involved have been quite stunning. Since 2011 the orchestra has given concerts to over 15,5000 Leicester school children between the ages of 7 and 11 and every adult that I have known who has gained entry to one of these concerts has come away both moved and astonished. So, the city and the orchestra have really something to celebrate and that was done in style at the opening concert of the 2016/ 2017 Season.

Not that everything went according to plan for this celebratory occasion. A famous veteran  Russian Conductor had to withdraw, to be replaced by a young British conductor, Ben Gernon. On the face of it some might have thought that hardly a quid pro quo. Alas, there always has been  the assumption amongst a number of concertgoers that great conductors are the product of aging, that the slower a conductor is to the podium, the finer the interpretation there will be on arrival.  As one of the grey hairs myself, I have become increasingly impatient with such condescension towards the young and fit.  Like everything in life, there is often loss as well as gain. Sometimes I have felt  that in regard conducting aged ‘wisdom’ can come at a price, with a loss of the voltage that goes with youth and discovery. Also, it is nonsense to assume that that which is exciting  and sprightly is superficial and that which is slow, sometimes bordering on the soporific, necessarily delves deep. In addition this orchestra’s track record for searching out young talent is second to none. They gave their present day chief conductor his first chance in London in the 1980’s and Leicester in recent times has heard a number of fine conducting debuts. On the evidence of this concert, Britain has yet another great emerging talent.

Firstly, though, one must take one’s hat off to the Armenian violinist, Sergey Khatchatryan, who gave a phenomenal performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. I remember sometime ago hearing with surprise a violinist suggesting that this concerto was to be avoided as it was the most draining in the repertoire. This performance certainly conveyed how unremitting are its demands, not least because this artist met all of those demands head on. The range of tone and dynamics he achieved was quite stunning. He has an extraordinarily rich tone in the lower registers and can spin the most magical of pianissimos and yet was rarely drowned by the orchestra when Sibelius seems to think he is writing his Symphony 2.5. One extraordinary moment was at the end of the slow movement when the violinist  looked for a moment like a boxer just about to throw in the towel, only the next minute to launch with rich vibrancy and drive into the final movement’s  opening  theme as if embarking freshly on a 100 metre sprint.

Perforce, up to the interval Gernon had played a relatively secondary role as accompanist and in a performance of Glazunov’s Valse de Concert. Even here, though, in what to this listener tends to remind one how much more memorably Johann Strauss handles the form, he shaped the detail with such musicality and elan as to make one almost forget such thoughts. In the Sibelius, he matched the soloist in the frequent and often dramatic moments when the orchestra takes centre stage, eliciting at times a wonderfully dark sound from the orchestra.

And that spilled over into Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. Curiously it is a long time since I have heard this war horse in the concert hall and this performance reminded me that a piece reaches war horse status for good reasons. When performed as it was here, it is a work that delivers a tremendous clout. But, of course, a performance needs to register also its frequent moments of beauty, even elegance, as in the third movement, and Gernon to my mind shaped that very finely . Indeed the whole performance gave the impression of clear vision and control. This was not a symphony bordering too often on excitable hysteria but one of tragic vision. So, when in the middle of the last movement Gernon let the horse loose, the gallop was absolutely irresistible, certainly when played, as here, by the strings in particular with hair raising attack. Hence the final peroration brought the performance to a spine tingling but finely gauged dramatic end. Throughout the orchestra seemed in fine form. One wondered at moments whether the woodwind section with a number of guest principals had quite its usual distinctive blend but overall ,particularly in the sumptuous strings, this seemed the  vintage Philharmonia the occasion demanded. Also, one very much hopes to hear more of Ben Gernon , perhaps this time in a programme of choice.

Chiaroscura Quartet- LIMF New Walk Museum October 2016

One of the reasons why live concert going is so intriguing is that expectations are sometimes not realised and also that not infrequently something quite unexpected and every bit as worthy of attention occurs in the place of those expectations. Such happened when, in a Mozart ,Schubert  programme played on gut strings, the Chiaroscuro Quartet made its debut in Leicester at the opening concert of the 2016/17 Museum Lunchtime Series. As it happened, another Quartet, , the Quattuor Mosaique, famed over many years also for favouring gut strings and historical bows, brought to a close the Leicester 2015/2016 season. Amongst other works they gave a performance of a Haydn quartet characterised by a gentle lyrical warmth but which to my taste occasionally underplayed the drama and vim of the work. So, given also that a few present day solo cellists choose to play on gut strings for the warm sound they give, I assumed this concert would be exhibit many of  the same characteristics.

This could not have been wider of the mark. An idea of what one was about to hear might have been had from the quartet’s name, a word describing a particular kind of painting which favours highly dramatic almost brutal contrasts of light and shade. And that is what in musical terms this concert delivered. Vibrato seemed rarely used, there was little lyrical warmth in the sound  (indeed its sharpness was a real shock to the system at the beginning), any romantic phrasing was in short supply, and all of this in two Viennese masterpieces, the first  of Mozart’s Haydn Quartets and Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet. On top of that, towards the end of the first movement of the latter, one was reminded why gut strings fell out of use. There was sharp ping as one of the violist’s strings broke and an interval ensued whilst repairs were made. One had to admire the sangfroid of the quartet and the ease with which Humpty Dumpty was put together again both as regards the string and then the performance.

All the above might suggest that the concert took a less than involving march through two classics of the repertoire. In fact, no such thing occured. Indeed, if nothing else it reminded one of the truth that great music is defined by the myriad of possibilities it offers both performer and listener and these performers offered this listener at least a number of revelatory moments. It was surprising how quickly one’s ear adapted to the sparer quartet sound and how the play between instruments had a clarity not always achieved in the balance of the conventional quartet . What was most compelling though was the range of dynamics. The playing at times achieved great dramatic shifts of sound. The violin sound inevitably was less dominating than usual but achieved intense pianissimos. Thus, in moments such as the dramatic trio in the second movement of the Mozart the addition of the full weight of the viola and cello produced a sound hugely greater than the ear had become accustomed to in the performance as a whole. That was also true in the Schubert in the occasional moments in the first and last movements when the composer’s despair almost takes over the music.

Indeed, the comparative lack of a beefy romantic fullness of violin sound and the rarity of overtly romantic phrasing created some very striking effects throughout. In the witty high spirited last movement of the Mozart, what can come across mainly as a chance for some virtuoso violin playing here produced what can only be described as a sense of light scurrying laughter which fitted perfectly the connection the programme note made with Mozartian comic opera. No doubt it was utterly fanciful but I thought it was almost as if one could hear  the composer’s delighted chuckling.

More seriously, time and again in the Schubert the playing  took one not, as can happen in some performances, into something bordering on Viennese schmaltz  but into an entirely different,  almost other worldly sound world that got to the very core of the stoic resignation that could be said to pervade this work.  In the first movement and in the Minuet the music at times took on an almost haunted quality and in the andante, by taking the movement at a good walking pace, the players’ refusal to indulge the famous melody gave it a blithe simplicity which contrasted painfully with so much of the music around it .

So , by the end I came out of the concert mindful of something Rob Cowan said recently when having a rousing argument with a fellow critic who was being ridiculously prescriptive about a particular performance. He recalled the story of Brahms telling players of a new piece of his that their performance was wonderful, and then adding that a recent but very different rendering of the same piece was wonderful as well! There’s wisdom.

 

News and Events.

 

October 11thThe opening meeting of the Leicester Music Society, renamed from the Leicester Recorded Music Society to reflect what has de facto been the nature of its talks for many years. Maggie Cotton (ex CBSO Percussionist) pays a return visit in a talk called The Red Light District. Should be interesting!   Visitors are very welcome and the proceedings  begin at 7.30 in the Congregational Church Hall (off London Rd), Springfield Rd. Entrance.

 

October 18thThe opening concert at DMH of this year’s Philharmonia Residency. Details at the end of the previous review. DMH 7.30.

 

October 20th. Lunchtime concert featuring those stalwarts of the Leicester scene, Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen in a programme of music for oboe, Cor anglais and piano. New Walk Museum 1.00