Lunchtime Series 2016/17 Concert 4

Chroma 17th.Nov 2016

There are some concerts which look intriguing on paper and such a one was that given by the chamber group Chroma in the Lunchtime Series and centred entirely on music for the harp and strings. The Museum has in the past played host to the occasional Harp recital but a complete concert of ensemble pieces featuring the instrument was new to me.  So it has to be said was the music.  Indeed, Ravel’s wonderful  Introduction and Allegro and Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto are about the sum total of my concert experience of the harp in a concertante role.

Sadly, whilst grateful for the opportunity, I have to admit to the prospect having been more interesting than the reality. Despite there being clearly three fine musicians on the platform, the concert as a whole rarely sent the blood racing. Of course, one has to be wary about judging music on a first hearing but the fact remains that in all honesty much of it seemed to me perfectly easy on the ear  but also largely unmemorable.  Ibert’s Trio was, well, quintessential  Ibert, that is witty in places, relentlessly bouncy and smart but in the end, to my ears at least, largely predictable. His and, with the major exception of Poulenc, most of the music of Les Six sounds to me these days as stuck in a time warp. It’s like being trapped at a party in the company of a relentless Wit.

Clearly Henriette Renié’s Trio had different intentions. I had never come across her name before, never mind her music. Helen Sharp, the harpist, gave a rather sad description of the buttoned up nature of Renié’s day and of her life. The internet revealed the degree to which she was revered as a harp player and as someone who over a long life finishing in the 1950’s had had a great influence on the development of the instrument, and all this despite continual ill health. Her composition had its moments. The Andante was the most characterful movement in which the strings in particular had a theme that achieved some lyrical beauty. In the work as a whole, though, an individual voice seemed to emerge rarely and there appeared to be  much rather repetitive working out of what seemed to me often very short winded material.

That left Saint –Saëns’ Fantaisie for violin and harp, which rather ironically was the stand out work in the concert. I say ‘ironically’ because ,since being lionised in the last part of the 19c, until recently this composer’s music has been regarded by ‘serious’ concertgoers as facile. That view is perhaps changing  and in this work one could see why.  This was beautifully written music of  genuinely individual substance, not facile at all in fact unless by facile one means having  a seemingly effortless lyrical gift. In addition the range and shifts of colour constantly engaged the ear in this fine performance.

Finally, the success of this particular work in the concert raised another rather interesting issue. One wondered whether it was coincidental that it was written for one stringed instrument and harp. Elsewhere in the concert, the harp seemed often lost in the string sound. Indeed, at times the huge instrument might just as well not have been on the platform at all. One wondered whether one’s view of the Trios might been more positive  if the placing of the instruments on the platform had been different and hence the harp possibly more present. Putting the latter end on to the audience and in particular almost completely behind the violin and cello seemed to do the instrument no favours at all. Perhaps the truth is that it will always struggle to penetrate when pitted against the sound of more forthright instruments. It was possibly a straw in the wind that Renié apparently wrote her work with a piano part as an alternative to the harp.

 

 

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Philharmonia- The Lord Mayor’s Concert, November 11th 2016

Before the concert the Lord Mayor in a speech requested the audience to support his Appeal, which this year is for the Leicester Children’s Holiday Centre at Mablethorpe. During his short address, in which he also lavished praise on the difference the Philharmonia Orchestra had made to many aspects of music in the city, it occurred to me , particularly in an age in which it is popular, often  amongst people who have never raised a hand to help the community, to declare all politicians to be self serving incompetents, that the City Council deserves great praise for the way over 20 years they have steadfastly supported cultural events which serve not only the city but wider Leicestershire  as well.  Without that support, the city and its environs would be indeed a very much poorer place in which to live.

Now to musical matters and another concert and two more Leicester debuts, those of the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride and, as a conductor, the Spaniard Jaime Martin. The latter has been to the city before but in the role of one of the most eminent flautists of the present day. Now, though, he is carving out a career as a conductor and is attracting plaudits from orchestras world wide. Baiba Skride is no stranger to the Midlands, playing on a number of occasions in that city down the road where her fellow Latvian Andris Nelsons presided until recently.

In the event the reputations they brought with them were shown to be more than justified. Indeed, I would say Baiba Skride’s performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto was one of the most  sheerly beautiful that I have heard. Not for her the big warm sound beloved of some performers, which in this concerto can result after a while in a kind of blowsiness,  producing a feeling  akin to having eaten a box of chocolates at one go. She on the other hand produced a radiantly pure silver sound and often refined that sound down to the quietest of quiet pianissimos. There were some unforgettable moments.  In the opening movement there was one such moment when time seemed to stop as one listened to the softest of blendings between soloist , woodwind and horns. The latter were on wonderful form throughout the evening.  Similar moments occurred in the slow movement and the gipsy material of the last movement skipped so lightly that the virtuosity was almost unnoticed. The whole performance was, with an ever attentive and lovingly shaped accompaniment, like seeing an old master stripped of its varnish and revealed in its primary colours.

In the rest of the programme the conductor also showed himself to be a fine musician, able to get a crack orchestra to play at the top of its form. I found it pleasing that Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, even though the composer declined to use it for the opera, went at a pace which reflected the drama instead of being presented as some deeply philosophic  pondering on humanity. The frisson of the trumpet  announcing the arrival of the Minister in the nick of time was finely conveyed and the outburst of joy at the end of the piece was suitably schnell.

After the interval the performance of Sibelius’ 5th Symphony seemed to take some time to get in the groove. It was being played well enough but it was coming across as rather matter of fact . The characteristic Sibelian atmosphere of brooding mystery and threatening  granite like power wasn’t being quite communicated, to this listener at least. However, with the introduction of the first of those wonderful swinging themes on the brass so characteristic of this symphony, something seemed to click and from then on the performance really gripped. There was heroic power  in the brass and the strings took on a dark intensity which sent shivers up the spine. Don’t go into the forest, was the message conveyed. In the slow movement the moments of cool and graceful beauty were finely conveyed  by the woodwind and the guest appearance of the retired Andy Smith ensured that the timpani’s role in the work’s  grandeur and drama was fully realised.

However, the standout moment for me was in the last movement and the return sotto voce of the scurrying theme for full strings with which the movement opens. It was truly amazing the extreme pianissimo achieved by such a body of players, and the way it almost disappeared  and then came back, building to one of most overwhelming  near endings in symphonic music, was unforgettable. I say ‘near endings’, since, of course, we have at the actual end those series of enigmatic, brusque chords, almost waiting to catch out the audience. The conductor during the pre –concert talk told of a performance given in Athens under Colin Davis some years ago, in which the pause after each chord brought premature applause until, by the real end, when applause was merited, there was none since none dared any longer to put their hands together. I am delighted to report that Leicester, it would appear, knows its Sibelius rather better than the cradle of Western Civilisation. Certainly Jaime Martin does and we should indeed look forward to his return.

 

Lunchtime Concerts 2016/2017 2 and 3

Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen 20th October 2016

After their triumphs in the Festival I looked forward with surprisingly modified rapture to the swift return to the city of those fine artists Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen for the second concert of the Lunchtime Series. This featured Bach, Rubbra and Schumann.

We all hear music differently and we all have preferences but, when referring to the two greatest of composers of the first part of the 18c. and declaring my preference for Handel, I have been in the past subject to withering glances. Of course, I realise that Bach is worshipped like few other composers by people whose judgements are to be mightily respected and as it happens I do enjoy many of the master’s works. However,I have come to realise that colour and direct human drama are often central to my enjoyment. In a way Bach is perfect but too often in performance I seem aware of the wonders of a world akin to mathematics, a world which I struggle to enter, of a great mind exploring all the possibilities of musical material. I remember Raymond Leppard , who long ago pioneered the revival of an interest in Baroque Opera,  once on television exploring a Bach work and at one moment  in his inimitably wry manner remarking that Bach being Bach could not leave well alone.

In the 20c Edmund Rubbra presents me with similar problems. At one point I bought a number of CD’s of his symphonies and chamber works and was at times impressed, but it passed. Something about the music’s intense seriousness made it pall and recently, whilst reading a CD booklet, the reason became clear to me. The composer went on record as seeing colour as a secondary feature of music and a dense highly wrought structure as crucial to significant achievement.  This for me results in a palette that is quite often beautiful but with too little dramatic variety.

And yet in this concert things turned out rather differently, not least because it showed how two great artists can transform the listening experience. Rubbra’s Oboe Sonata, perhaps because of the pre-eminence of the bright wood wind, sounded quite unlike anything else I had heard of his. It has something of the composer’s luminosity but also a clarity and bounce not always found in his music. The slow movement had a limpid quality and the last movement an ear catching vivacity. One wonders whether the well known sparkling personality of its dedicatee, Evelyn Rothwell, had something to do with the nature of this music.

Schumann’s Three Romances is the composer at his most intimate. No musician has given greater luminosity to the domestic life and in a  loving and affectionate performance both artists took one into the centre of that personal world.

And so to Bach, who book ended the concert with two sonatas. Here pleasure was complete. One was struck by the fact that , perhaps like Mozart, Bach is one of the composers most difficult to get right in the playing. Some performances concern themselves with lucid structure and finish up sounding like a metronome. Others import an alien expressiveness  which sounds and is false. Both artists here managed to find a middle way which was compelling. Charles Owen is an artist always seeking to be as true to the composer’s world as he can be and here he managed to combine a  clarity with inflections which gave the music a dancing vibrant life. Nicholas Daniel simply dazzled in his ability at times to send a phrase floating in the air like a feather without impeding the flow one bit. Quite astonishing.  I think I still prefer Handel  but..!

 

 

 

Lendvai String Trio November 3rd.2016

Not having come across this group before, I assumed that they would be playing in the Leicester Lunchtime series for the first time. Diligent research, however, revealed that two members were also part of the fine Aronovitz Ensemble and hence no strangers to the city at all. Another reason why String Trio groups are rarely household names was revealed by the cellist of the Trio , Marie Macleod, when she remarked that the form had never been very popular amongst eminent composers and hence the repertoire was limited. Interestingly she thought this might be because the form was more difficult to write for than the quartet and she suggested that one reason could be that with four instruments the harmonic base could be provided by three, leaving the fourth to do ear- catching things!

On the evidence of this concert she would seem to have a point in that only a great composer at full throttle would seem able to grab the attention. Now, Schubert is a great composer yet there really was little in his early String Trio to make you guess such to be the case. Much of the music seemed clearly designed for pleasant evenings with friends and in this perfectly well mannered music one could only occasionally guess what mighty stuff was to come. Once in the second movement there was a passage that broke through to much deeper things and the last movement had a blithe tune which had all the Schubertian fingerprints. The Lendvai Trio played it all   with great affection and style. However, it was in the Beethoven Opus 3 that their quality as an ensemble really shone through.

Here they were really splendid in the way in which they were ever alert to the mercurial qualities of this extraordinary work. I had forgotten just how extraordinary it was. Significant composers’ early works are often viewed as the precursors of the great things to come. Here Beethoven has already broken the mould of the Age of Enlightenment. Good manners are thrown out of the window. The work is full of challenging stops and then dartings off in completely unexpected directions.   Mischievousness, lyricism  and fierce energy  sit side by side. The Ledvai String Trio managed these challenges with great artistry. Time and again the range of the dynamics finely characterised the changes in atmosphere , their playing had great rhythmic impetus and where, as in the slow movement, they were required to sing out, the tonal blend was at times superbly rich. They had the complete measure of Beethoven’s early masterpiece.

 

Coming Events.

November 8th.  James Murray comes to talk to The Leicester Music Society about the German 19c. composer Albert Lortzing.  7.30 Clarendon Park Congregational Church, Springfield Road.

November 11th. The Philharmonia is in town with the Spaniard Jaime Martin, making his debut in the city as a conductor in a programme of Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. The fine Latvian violinist Balba Skride is the soloist in the Brahms concerto.  7.30 DMH

November 17thChroma will be playing French works for strings and harp. 1.00 The New Walk Museum.