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.

 

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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.