Lunchtime Series- Brodsky Quartet .October 19th 2017

I missed the previous visit of the world famous Brodsky Quartet to the Lunchtime Series. That was when the Series was in exile at Holy Trinity so I looked forward with keen anticipation to hearing them in the Museum and, for the first time as far as I was concerned, in the flesh.

It was an anticipation that proved to be amply justified. Over 45 years the quartet has built a reputation for having an enormous repertoire and being prepared to build innovative programmes. In this instance the audience was given an early Shostakovich Quartet ,No.4, and Mendelssohn’s rarely played Fugue for string quartet,  Op.81 No.4.  The concert ended with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge as a stand alone piece and not as the final movement of Quartet Op.130.

The Shostakovich Quartets has been for years one of the central calling cards of this Quartet. They have recorded two complete sets, the second one as recently as 2016. As regards the quartet which they played here , as was the case when the Carducci in the summer performed No. 2 , I cannot say that I remembered anything of the music even though I own a complete  recording of the canon. However, suffice it to say, like last summer, the experience was riveting. There is most obviously unforgettably searing pain at the centre of this music, which the Brodsky delivered at the several climaxes in the work with unforgettable power. Perhaps because three of them play standing up, the sound in this intimate space was at times more of a magnitude of a small orchestra than a quartet. In these circumstances one had to wonder how on earth the Soviet authorities could possibly have missed the composer’s raw anger and despair at the world he was forced to live in.

Perhaps the answer lay in another aspect of this performance in that it also found the many moments of poignancy and beauty in the music, particularly in the slow movement and most unforgettably in the final movement with its embracing of the world of Jewish music. With this music’s sense at times of deeply sad mourning  and conversely  the moments when for instance on one occasion the viola player not only played but seemed to  dance like some fiddler on the roof,  it brought  vividly to one’s imagination the horror of the Holocaust and the attempted complete destruction of a  vibrant musical culture.

Whether it was intended or not, the following of that with a piece by Mendelssohn, whose music the Nazis also attempted to extirpate from the Reich, reinforced such lines of thought, particularly since the work clearly paid homage to Bach with writing so characteristic of the composer’s capacity to create music of a unique grace. Such grace permeated the playing. This was a real find.

Then we were pitched without pause directly and dramatically into the Grosse Fuge. The contrast could have hardly been greater, from a composer who for the most part was content to work within the classic norms to one who, as the first violin of the Quartet reminded the audience, so stretched those norms at the end of his life as to be thought by some as ripe for the asylum. Nowhere was that more the case than in this work, about which even Beethoven himself had second thoughts as the final movement of a quartet. As a youth I heard it done for string orchestra under Klemperer (very dim memories of that ) and since then once or twice as the finale of Op. 130. I think this was the first time I have heard it detached and certainly when juxtaposed with another piece of music as here.

Was the juxtaposition successful? Well, for me only partly. Certainly it was a dramatic contrast in a performance that was spectacularly propulsive, coupled, as in the Shostakovich, with a weight of sound that did indeed haul up those dim memories of Klemperer. However, perhaps partly because of the contrasts with Mendelssohn/Bach, that so finely wrought and so lovely , perhaps partly because the impact of the Shostakovich was still with me, I have to admit that I found what I remembered as an extraordinary quarter of an hour’s music becoming ever so slightly wearisome with its emphatic repetition and in this case rather narrow dynamic range. What came over to me at times was music that indeed bordered on the manically obsessive particularly as the fugue careered on. At other times, so fragmentary did the music seem that I struggled to make out where it was going. So, I left not knowing quite what to make of the way things had finished. It did not, however, in anyway erase the many revelations that had preceded it in what overall was a very fine concert indeed.


Footnote: On reaching home I did what I rarely do, and sat down to listen to a CD performance of a work I had just heard live, in this case the Grosse Fuge. I rarely do this because I think it very questionable to compare the live with the recorded. However, all that can be said is that in this instance the work seemed on a second hearing and in this particular performance to have a wider dynamic range and a more varied mood than the one just heard live, all of which contributed to my making better sense of it.




The Lord Mayor’s Concert October 7th 2017- The Philharmonia Orchestra- Hilary Hahn and Jacob Hrusa

Long, long ago, in 1952 when the Royal Festival Hall had just been opened, Toscanini came to London to give with the Philharmonia what turned out to be his last concerts in England. Predictably this was a such a welcome event in post war austerity Britain that the queue for tickets stretched right round the hall. Now, my father, unlike my mother, was not very musical and, nonplussed by finding he had a son who, as well as being a promising cricketer, was becoming dangerously  enthusiastic about classical music , not unkindly suggested that it was nonsense to think that one person standing in front of an orchestra could make much difference to an orchestra who could play the notes. Well, of course his superior adolescent son thought that this was just the sort of thing fathers would say and, in an age that worshipped  musical dictators, laughed at such heresy.

In our age in some ways I now have sympathy with my Dad’s view. I have come to detest the cult of the maestro which still persists in some parts of the globe on some occasions and thankfully most conductors now approach their job in a more collegiate fashion. This is a welcome change, though of course it is not entirely new. The great Sir Thomas Beecham, who actually thought himself as very much a leader, I remember saying on television that young conductors should remember that ‘the gentlemen(sic) of the orchestra know far more about music than they do’ and his credo was to get the best musicians together and, as he put it with tongue in cheek, to let them play. Indeed, you only have to listen to his discs to hear the unique music making that resulted.

These thoughts came about as a result of the Philharmonia’s opening concert of the 2017/ 2018 season at DMH. In it the famous American violinist Hilary Hahn made her debut in the city and the Czech conductor Jacob Hrusa made a very welcome return, but this time in his new role as one of the two Principal Guest Conductors of the orchestra. The concert of Czech music exuded the joy the soloist ,the conductor and the 80 or so musicians of the orchestra were experiencing at making music together.The conductor had said in the pre-concert talk that he in no way saw himself as someone who dictates. Whatever, the overall result in the first item in the programme ,the Dvorak Violin Concerto, was unalloyed pleasure. The work may not quite see the best of the composer , the first movement never seems to know quite where it is going, but once one reached the enchantment of the bridge into the second movement Dvorak’s melodic genius took over. Here Hahn spun a delectable web of sound. Following that, she and the conductor made sure that the final movement danced its way to an irresistible conclusion. The violinist’s unerring sense of phrasing and line, together with the gorgeous sound she produced, amply justified her reputation as one at the very finest violinists of the present time and as an artist determined to expand the repertoire of concertos beyond endless repetition of a few war-horses. (See next month’s concerto choice!)

However , for all that, particularly in a programme which featured the very rare opportunity to hear all six tone poems which go to make up Smetana’s Ma Vlast , one was also reminded , whatever the methods employed, of  the very significant difference the conductor can make to the way one hears a piece of music, especially when it requires  special advocacy. It is then that most obviously a great conductor is revealed. Two years ago, having heard Jacob Hrusa in Leicester in a truly memorable performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony and later in the same year his unforgettable  conducting  of the Glyndebourne production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream ,I thought him just that. This interpretation of the Smetana from the first note was not ever likely to bring a change to that view.

In fact, it seemed hardly an interpretation. It was as if one had been waiting all one’s life to hear Smetana’s music as it should be done. Years ago at DMH there was a performance by the Philharmonia with an American Conductor of at least four of the tone poems and I, together with a number of friends, thought that indeed Vltava was on that evidence the only one really to justify a place in the general repertoire. Yet here from the very beginning in Vysehhrad (The High Castle)  the marvellously rich brass sounds brought the world of chivalry vibrantly to life with a splendour that was at times overwhelming. One mentions the brass but in truth the orchestra as a whole was on the kind of form not to be surpassed I suspect by any orchestra on the planet.

In Vltava the scene painting at times was astonishing. I had noted in that Mahler performance this conductor’s capacity to get a string tone that was infinitely various. So, in this well known piece one heard the famous tune delivered with a bright joyousness and lift, quite different to it being laid on thickly by a trowel. Then in the passage depicting the water nymphs the sound changed to a thin thread of sparkling silver so that the scene was enchanting beyond words. If one was looking for heft, then one got it in the depiction of the Rapids which was a veritable tsunami of sound.

In Sarka, a tale worthy of the Bacchae in its depiction of a male bloodbath , the way the drama was ratcheted up to the dreadful conclusion was a textbook example of how to keep your powder dry until the moment arrives. Then in From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields the return to Czech folk scenery and dance reminded one of how in this music so many conductors use over- emphatic rubato. Here often the minutest expressiveness of phrasing was enough to make the music sail and sound utterly natural and utterly Czech.

And one could go on and on voicing admiration for such music making. However, perhaps in the end a slight reality check is in order, and this has nothing to do with the performance. When it came to the last two tone poems, written some time after the first four, was it weariness in this listener after well over an hour’s music or did one suspect that Smetana’s inspiration was here of a lower order? However hard one tried  to keep oneself attentive, the constant re-iteration in Tabor of the Hussite hymn became at each re-appearance ever  less compelling, so much so that I have to admit that I missed the moment it finished and the last tone poem Blanik began!

So, in the end, despite the inspiring conducting and the inspired playing, I remain unconvinced that Ma Vlast as a whole is quite the masterpiece I thought I was indeed discovering during the first four tone poems. However, those on their own were quite enough to rate this concert as a revelatory experience which will stick in the mind for a long time.


Forthcoming Concert


Philharmonia DMH November 1st 7.30.

The return of the German conductor Karl Heinz Steffens, who gave a fine performance of Brahms’ 3rd Symphony last year. This time he conducts No4.  Also Esther Yoo plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.


Lunchtime Series Museum November 2nd 1.00

Amy Harman Bassoon and Tom Poster Piano in what looks to be a fascinating hour’s music.



Craig Ogden -Lunchtime Series, 5th October 2017

The guitarist Craig Ogden has been quite a frequent visitor to the city. This year it fell to him to give the first concert of the 2017/2018 Lunchtime Series. He attracted a sell out audience and one was swiftly reminded why. He is a great performer in every sense. He makes a point of talking to his audience so that his concerts, particularly in the surroundings of the Museum Gallery, have an atmosphere peculiarly suited to the guitar, that of an intimate almost impromptu hour of music with friends.

Of course, it helps that he has a good line in wit, not exactly unknown in his fellow Aussies. I have heard on several occasions his remarks about the guitar as an instrument but each time in its variations of the moment it comes across as the player’s unrehearsed, spontaneous thoughts. He is rather like a magician who dares his audience to believe that something apparently impossible is about to be accomplished, in this case actually managing to play anything successfully on what is apparently an impossibly difficult instrument. Hence, when he conjures up the most extraordinary range of sounds from such a supposedly intractable piece of wood, the audience is very likely to find it a thing of wonder and magic.

And there were in truth many magical moments in the hour. In Bach’s first Lute Suite, there was firstly a quite wonderful buoyancy in the playing of the quicker movements. Here the various strands of the score came over with exquisite clarity and the ear was never confused. Even more to the point my ear heard any number of delightfully contrasting colours, not in itself something that is always to be found in Bach performances.  Stern piety is sometimes what comes across but not here. The music was fleet footed and really danced. Yet also in the slower more solemn movements the stateliness achieved was so graceful. Perhaps such an effect was the result of something that the artist had alluded to in regard to the sound of the instrument’s bass strings. Here their resonance was memorable.

In the arrangements of two Beatles’ song that followed was revealed the song like capacities of the instrument. There were some particularly beautiful sounds in Goren Sollscher’s arrangement of Here Comes the Sun. However, perhaps unsurprisingly it was in the  three Spanish Pieces, Andaluza by Granados and Torre Bermeja and Sevilla by Albeniz, that the guitar’s capacity to make you hear the unique timbre of such things  as the Spanish mezzo voice was most memorably realised, not to mention its ability to convey the rhythmic vitality of the Spanish dance as well.

Perhaps, it was because it was sandwiched between these extraordinarily atmospheric pieces that  Giuliani’s Grande Ouverture from the turn of the 18c and 19c seemed to this listener to have more virtuosity than substance. The programme associated him with such composers of the time as Hummel, Moschelles and Beethoven. Enough to say the piece certainly recalled the first two.

The delight of this concert was summed up by the way it ended. The performer remarked that he was mindful of the clock and had been told he must finish on the stroke of two. Therefore because he was determined to play a very special encore he said he would not go through the usual procedure of walking off and back on the stage, only in response to riotous applause for him to produce a little more music. In this instance he would nod twice to the applause whilst sitting and then play the encore. This turned out to be a delightful piece by Yvonne Bloor, a well known player and teacher of the classical guitar who lives in Leicester. It was such a graceful way in which to finish a concert and was duly rewarded with riotous applause. It was a concert which sets the bar high for the new season.



Forthcoming Events


In a fortnight’s time on 19th.October The Brodsky Quartet come to the Museum in the second concert.  Sadly, I shall be on holiday. Bad timing!