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.


The Philharmonia Friends’ Concert January 15th 2017- Domingo Hindoyan and Michael Barenboim

The Philharmonia Residency opened 2017 with a concert featuring two artists new to the city, Domingo Hindoyan, the Venezuelan/ Swiss conductor, and the violinist Michael Barenboim. Both are centred in Germany but already have flourishing international careers and one can see why on the evidence of this concert.

It is a great pleasure to find the son of a famous father exhibiting a very individual musical personality, which on this limited evidence seemed to convey quiet confidence and a determination to seek out the centre of a piece of music. In his performance of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, it was immediately clear that there was going to be no attempt to emulate the big sound of some Russian virtuosi. The quiet lyrical opening to the concerto was very quiet indeed and the  movement’s brittle  middle section perhaps might be thought by some to have  lacked the last degree of panache. However, the advantage of this approach, the warmth of tone and the musicality of the phrasing, made one sharply aware of just how lyrically rich is much of the material of this concerto, both here and in the third movement. Often the violin truly sings. Even the brilliant Scherzo is not the composer at his most sarcastic and Barenboim extracted its wit and good humour in a way that more overtly virtuosic in your face performances do not always achieve. One finished by thinking, as the work drew to its quietly beautiful ending with violin followed by flute , that one had heard a performance which indicated a profound understanding of the concerto and one that revealed much of its heart.

The purely orchestral items in the concert made an equally positive impression. Indeed, the concert could not have got off to a more striking start than in the performance of Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman . How wonderful, I thought, to be back to the time when almost every concert began with a wake up call from a spanking overture. Here, in the body of the hall, its fine acoustic ensured that the strings and brass enveloped one in a veritable tempest of sound and by the end of it the only disappointment was that the opera was not to follow.( Writing of acoustics,  I gather the next Philharmonia concert ( Wed. February 15th) is being broadcast live by the BBC, perhaps London re-discovering after many decades that there is just up the railway line another Midlands concert hall acoustically superior to either of the main London venues.)

As to the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in the autumn of life it is so easy to play what I call ‘the Legendary Conductor Hand’ which starts with ‘Ah, but you should have heard Klemperer, Karajan and Uncle Tom Cobley and all’, with which all intelligent conversation stops. However, for me, and perhaps for some others in the hall, the problem is that there is a very recent memory, just five years ago, of Esa-Pekka Salonen giving with this his orchestra a performance of this very same symphony which was the equivalent of seeing some vintage car restored to its pristine original state. It had an unforgettably  brazen and fiery quality, often swift speeds and yet never seeming to lose the many  beauties of the score. I heard it twice, once in Leicester and later in Bonn. In the latter venue, after the last chord the whole audience as a body immediately rose to their feet and cheered. I had never experienced anything like it and a member of the orchestra remarked afterwards that it had never happened in his experience of German concerts, where audiences tend to be somewhat reserved.

So, even before the baton was raised to introduce the supposed ‘fate’ motif ( about which the programme delightfully brought to our attention Czerny’s belief that it  was stirred in the composer’s mind by the call of a small bird! ) , the conductor had a problem with at least one member of the audience. Yet, for all that, in its own terms this was a fine interpretation. Those terms  tended to be within the German tradition, in other words with sonorous brass , a weighty and warm body of strings, mostly mellifluous woodwind. Of course, since the 1950’s this orchestra in particular has a long tradition of delivering that sort of sound and it gave a fine eloquence to the interpretation. Early on I could have done with more of a frisson but the andante was both memorably beautiful in places and dramatic at other times. I would have preferred the scherzo to be slightly faster at first but clearly the conductor had taken the long view because the contrast with the wonderful passage for double basses and cellos was truly startling. In the novel Howard’s End occurs the most famous description in fiction of this movement of the symphony.  Forster at this point has the heroine thinking that it brought visions of goblins being banished by dancing elephants! All one can say is that these elephants were remarkably nimble on their feet.  I wondered whether that might perhaps be an interesting indication of just how orchestral standards have risen since the early part of the last century.

Whatever, this part of the symphony, leading up as it does to that extraordinary transition to the blazing opening of the last movement, was very finely done indeed and the performance as a whole drove on to a splendid feeling of triumphant release at the end. Indeed, looking back over the whole performance, I realised that one of its strengths had been the management of the many transitions, no doubt the result of time spent in careful rehearsal. One looks forward to hearing Domingo Hindoyan again.

First concert of 2017 at the Museum: Alexander Sitkovetsky and Wu Qian

January 12th 2017. A grim, cold January morning with snow threatened. As one trudged through Leicester and arrived at the Museum for the first 2017 concert in the Lunchtime Series only to find that, because of major building work, one needed an orienteering course just to get in, one had the occasional unworthy thought about whether it was all quite worth the effort. That was until the first note, after which such thoughts were completely banished.

Of course, one should not have had such thoughts in the first place. Anyone who has frequented the Festival and the Lunchtime Series over the years knows just how superb a violinist is Alexander Sitkovetsky . True, his partner Wu Qian, as far as I am aware, was new to the city, but it took very little time to discern that she was here not in some subsidiary accompanying role. This was a Duo in the real meaning of the word and of the very topmost quality.

Given the Arctic outside, De Falla’s Suite of Spanish Songs was a particularly happy choice with which to begin. It was a transcription of a vocal work which in the original immediately conjures up the unique sounds of the Spanish deep,  sometimes guttural , mezzo voice . However, the violin stood in remarkably well for the singer. Sitkovetsky’s wonderfully rich tone and range of colour time and again took one right to the Iberian centre of these pulsating songs and the piano of course had no difficulty in conveying the dance rhythms with great vivacity. However, perhaps the most memorable song of all was Lullaby , the quietest, least demonstrative of the selection. This was a thing of wonder as the two artists ever so gently conveyed the love of a mother for her child. Here one felt the purity of violin and piano tone almost made the transcription superior to the original.

Then we moved onto the major work of the concert, Schumann’s Violin Sonata Op. 120, composed as the signs of the composer’s final breakdown were beginning to show. For me this has always been a slightly problematic work, particularly in the outer movements, which in the determination of the composer to be dramatic and weighty can in an ordinary performance begin to sound endlessly repetitive. Whilst replaying recently a much praised CD of the 1980’s by two artists recognised as amongst the very finest of their generation, I found that even then my uncertainties did not entirely vanish.

And yet in this performance that is exactly what did occur. One is aware that one should be very cautious of comparing any recording with a live experience. The latter has the potential to be so much more involving. Distrust those critics who in those circumstances adopt a superior analytic tone. However, I did think that I detected in this performance good reason why the sense of repetitiveness was absent. Particularly in the last movement, the players seemed to manage through a number of subtle variations of tempo and tone to make each re-introduction of material seem a slight departure from what had gone before. Hence the movement had throughout the dramatic impetus which Schumann had in mind.

As for the poignant slow movement in which the composer finds again the blithe lyricism so much at the centre of his genius, it was played in a manner that brought tears to the eyes. During those few moments I found myself wondering whether there existed a more touching testament to the human spirit. How did someone on the verge of permanent mental collapse find their way to creating music so utterly and heartrendingly lovely? That one had these thoughts was a tribute indeed to the quality of these two players.




Coming Events in January


Tuesday January 17th.7.30 p.m:   The Philharmonia residency  at DMH.  The Venezuelan Conductor Domingo Hindoyanmakes his debut inLeicester, as does the violinist Michael Barenboim, son of Daniel. A programme of Wagner, Prokofiev and Beethoven.


Thursday January 26th. 1.00 p.m: Lunchtime Series at the Museum. The long awaited return to the city of cellist Natalie Clein. She will be playing two of Bach’s Cello Suites.