Lunchtime Series: Trio Dali, 16th November 2017

The debut in Leicester of this high flying Trio almost didn’t happen. At the last moment their pianist fell ill but, as their violinist Jack Liebeck told the audience, they really did want to fulfil the engagement and, as their luck and our luck would have it, they managed to sign up for the trip the distinguished pianist Daniel Grimwood . Twenty four hours later, and ,we were assured, after intensive rehearsal, the newly constituted trio walked onto the platform of the New Walk Museum to perform.

And what performances they gave! I am fully persuaded that there are occasions when concerts given under less than ideal conditions result in performances that thrill in a way that those which are more considered and matured do not quite. Perhaps the adrenalin takes over. Whatever, these performances certainly did thrill this listener. Jack Liebeck is, of course, an established international soloist who has appeared in the city before, but the cellist Christian–Pierre La Marca was completely new to me and the pianist only known by reputation. Exploration of the internet suggests that that had been very much my loss and what happened in this concert re-inforced that feeling . Barely a moment went by without the trio as a whole or one or other of the ensemble  causing one to catch one’s breath with delight.

In the opening work , Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 43, there was perhaps some settling down. At times in live performance piano trios can create considerable problems of balance and here there were moments when the piano tended to over lay the two string instruments. However, the way in which from the beginning the latter so naturally leant into the phrases suggested real class. The opening movement of this joyous work had a great lift and bounce, the sudden change from the lyricism of the opening of the second movement into the dramatic  was memorable and the wit of the last movement was brilliantly effected. By this time it was as if the three had been playing together for years. Of all the great composers Haydn can be relied upon to deliver the feel good factor and that is exactly what was communicated here.

And then came Dvorak’s Dumky Piano Trio which for me has special memories. Decades ago there was a very moving serial on TV which charted the lives and deaths of a Jewish family during the Nazi period and in which the pervading accompanying music was a cello tune of infinite sadness. At the time I thought it to be music of Jewish origin.

Then, sometime later I heard this Trio for the first time and in the fourth movement immediately recognised where the tune came from. Of course, by that time the associations already formed were not to be dismissed from the mind and perhaps they shouldn’t be. The fact that the dumka is of Ukrainian origin possibly makes little difference. The choice of this music for the subject matter of the serial could be argued to be absolutely apt. Is it fanciful to feel in the work at times a sense of an Eastern European culture and its music soon to be lost? After all throughout Europe at this time there was an urgent recording of folk music for posterity before it disappeared for ever. In this work it is made all the more poignant by the way, together with many moments of elegiac sadness,  the joy and the vitality of that culture is so vividly communicated as well.

The work is also something of a riposte to the assumption that an episodic structure in music is inferior to that which displays symphonic argument. This performance made clear that the range of feeling, the subtlety of so much of the music in its colouring and in its dramatic contrasts, together with the sheer magic of this composer’s melodic gifts , all serve to keep the work constantly afloat and stamp it as one the greatest  in the chamber music repertoire. Indeed, during the performance I effectively gave up scribbling because I found myself literally overwhelmed by the felicities that I was noticing on the way. In the second movement, for instance, the cello melody of infinite poignancy was played to aching effect, the piano playing created at times a crystalline silver bell- like quality in the treble, the violin danced its way wonderfully through the polka section before all three combined to create a sound world of breathtaking beauty as the quiet of the opening returned. To this listener the exquisiteness of the sound produced almost stopped time in its tracks for an instance. After that I very wisely stuffed my pen into my pocket and surrendered utterly to the music. Words in this instance could simply not do justice to either the music or the playing, so why try, I thought.

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Lunchtime Series- Amy Harman and Tom Poster, November 2nd 2017

There are some concerts which are particularly difficult to write about. On the one hand the listener has found little that pleases and yet is rather loth to rubbish the artists’ best efforts particularly since he/she might be simply suffering from a mild attack of dyspepsia. Anyone reading music critics know how often that can appear to be the case. On the other hand, one can be faced with a recital so fine that the enthusiastic adjectives flow in such quantity as to suggest that all critical faculties were in shut down during the concert.

Such a concert was the one given in the Lunchtime Series by Amy Harman, Bassoonist and Tom Poster, Pianist. One came out thinking that one had rarely had a musical lunch hour of such enchantment. To begin with, it was presented by the bassoonist in a finely droll and relaxed  manner so it was like having been dropped into a room where two friends were playing for their pleasure, as well as yours. Secondly, the bassoon was again revealed as a solo instrument capable of great beauty and range. Is there anything wittier in the orchestral palette?  Lastly, the programme itself introduced one to music that one suspects doesn’t get much of an outing.

Now, that can be a recipe for being invited to listen to that which is irredeemably second rate, or worse, where one can see only too clearly why it is rarely played. As questionable is that which is better known but needs transcribing to fit the instruments being played. Whilst that no doubt gives pleasure to the players, for the listener it can sometimes do little more than draw attention to the superiority of the original.

This duo, however,  triumphed on both counts. There was a transcription of a Mozart piece which was clearly based on what was almost certainly close to the composer’s intention,  and thoroughly delightful it was, full of characteristic wit so fitting to the bassoon’s capacity to burble. In prospect  more contentious was the transcription of three songs by Clara Schumann. Now perhaps it helped that I did not know the originals but with the badinage of the performers as to who had the best German, we were introduced into the world of romantic lieder and the voice of the bassoon did the rest. What a wonderfully creamy sound this artist can create and I was quite ready at the end to agree with her that the instrument is perhaps closest to replicating the human voice.

Elsewhere it was full steam ahead with quintessentially graceful, lyrical  and witty French music written for Bassoon and Piano. Saint-Saens’ music  is gradually clawing itself back into the basic repertoire and his late Sonata shows why. It was full of wit but also lyrical in an entirely unforced manner. He may have been a conservative of his time but at his best he certainly had a voice which was entirely his own. The 20c composer Dutilleux likewise ploughed a very distinct furrow with a much smaller output in a long life. Sarabande et Cortege , though written as a test piece, had all the characteristics of an artist of super refinement. Ravel, Poulenc and Debussy all came to mind at times. It was in passages where the last named was uppermost that one was able to relish Tom Poster’s  exquisite touch.

Nothing more to say, unqualified rapture!  Come back again soon.

The Philharmonia- Esther Yoo, Karl-Heinz Steffens. November 1st 2017

This concert represented the second appearance in Leicester of soloist and conductor. The young and highly rated violinist Esther Yoo was featured a few years ago playing a Mozart Concerto in a concert with Lorin Maazel . The conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens was here only last year, featuring a concert in the cycle of Brahms Symphonies which he has been doing recently with the orchestra. Then he conducted the Third Symphony. This time he gave us No.4. But more of that in a moment.

Firstly, I was wondering what would be my reaction to hearing the soloist for the second time in the DMH. I recall that I found her debut rather underwhelmimg and put it down to two factors. Mozart’s Violin Concertos in their apparent simplicity are not easy to bring off and at the time it did not seem that she had got much beyond the notes. Things were not helped by the conductor providing a super efficient accompaniment of little character. So, I was intrigued this time round as to whether that old warhorse, the Tchaikovsky concerto, would fare better.

Well, the answer was, yes and no. To begin with I had to get rid of my irritation at the umpteenth appearance of this concerto in the history of the residency, when there are so many fine violin concertos which rarely feature. However, I slapped that one on the head since the previous month we had been given the rarely played Dvorak concerto. Also one must recognise that there will be a number at any performance of the work who have never heard it live before. There were indeed a gratifying number in the audience on this occasion whose hair was not grey and they heard a performance which merited attention. Esther Yoo has a fine technique. The fast passage work often sparkled. The tone of her Stradivarius was lovely to listen to and she phrased the music sometimes to beguiling effect. This was not a barnstorming interpretation and parts of the work benefitted from that. One was reminded that the Tchaikovsky of the ballet music is never really far away in other forms.

However, the fact remains that it is one of the central romantic concertos for good reason. It requires heft and where I was sitting, halfway up the hall, the performance at times did not really deliver. Occasionally, it sounded more like Mendelssohn. Then, I remembered  that  a few months ago a music magazine reported on an experiment in which violins of various progeny,  modern and old, were played behind a screen and the listeners asked to say which they preferred.  Astonishingly, it was the modern instruments which were largely given the thumbs up, not the ancient Italian ones. In this case two friends I spoke with in the interval and who sit almost under the rostrum and hence were close to the soloist were more excited than I was by the playing.  Such are the vagaries of concert halls and instruments.

There was for me, though, another problem which persists with this concerto and that is how to make the music cohere and not sound stitched together. Here some of the phrasing almost brought the thing to a halt and one became only too aware of the string being used. So, I am afraid I have yet to be wholly convinced by this artist.

The same is certainly not true of the conductor.   Firstly, though, how good it was to hear a crackingly fine overture, Beethoven’s Egmont , starting a concert. Once such a start was a given. Alas, no longer, and as a friend has said to me, some of the finest music in the repertoire is as a result no longer heard live. This performance laid down more or less what kind of music making we were going to hear from Karl-Heinz Steffens . It was going to be in the Mid European tradition of weighty sound ,scrupulous phrasing , rich string playing and rather slow speeds. Perhaps in the overture there was something of a rather stately opening. However, as noted last year, this conductor keeps his powder dry and hence by contrast the swift tempo of the wonderful peroration made for as exciting a climax to the overture as I can remember. This was truly an emergence into light.

Again as I noted last year, i was surprised how much I enjoyed the way Steffens plays Brahms. In recent years the composer has been given a spring clean by a number of conductors, swifter speeds, less lingering over gorgeous string sound, greater clarity of texture, all of it an attempt to  avoid what they see as the appallingly comfortable and self satisfied air of more traditional performances. This bracing approach can do wonders for the composer and yet occasionally along comes an interpreter of the old school who reveals that there is a beauty in the music sometimes lost in this way  of doing things.

Steffen’s speeds were often on the slow side but such was the shaping and the care in keeping the textures clear in the inner parts that the beauty and originality of Brahms’ symphonic thinking  was finely conveyed. Not that slow speeds were absolutely the norm . In the third movement  the performance here was absolutely true to the composer’s intention of sweeping all before him . The triangle was splendid!  Then, in the extraordinary final movement no attempt at its beginning was made to gloss over the almost blunt, bluff way in which the building blocks are presented. However, yet again this conveyed an integrity which was absolutely absorbing and again had the result of making the final pages of the work overwhelmingly thrilling. The last piece of the jig saw was wonderfully put into place. Finally, it is worth saying that this kind of interpretation is very dependent on having a great orchestra on hand. The clarity but also the richness of the Philharmonia’s sound on the night was astounding, even by their standards.