Lunchtime Series: Jessica Duchen, David Le Page, Viv McLean, February 22nd. 2018

Experience suggests that Juxtaposing language and music successfully in a recital setting can be tricky. I can recall only one instance when I have found it entirely overwhelming. It was in Cambridge in the 80’s when in the first part of the evening two actors read from letters written after WW1 between a mortally ill Lady Elgar and her husband , letters centring on the final flowering of the composer’s genius, in particular on the Piano Quintet, parts of which in the first part interweaved  music with the letters to magical effect. At that time I was hardly aware that Elgar had even written any chamber works, never mind masterpieces of a calibre that rivalled those of Schumann and Brahms. Therefore the effect can be imagined when in the second part this was followed by the complete work being played by the Medici and I think the pianist John Bingham.( If I am right, it is one of those rather remarkable coincidences that there is on the Internet a 2003 Guardian obituary of the pianist written by Jessica Duchen, the author in this recital.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly since then as a format it has struggled to replicate such a memory. Janice Galloway’s reading from her novel Clara about Schumann’s last years set against some of the music was successful but it also highlighted the problem of selecting prose gobbets from a whole, and very fine, novel which will stand side by side with musical moments of genius. Prose needs space to make an effect , music is invariably instant in its effect and I remember even in this concert there were moments when I wished the torrent of words would cease and the music would take over.

Poetry is of course close to music in effect but even here there can be problems of marrying the two forms . At another concert, works by two greats, Benjamin Britten and Ted Hughes, created a car crash in a rendering of some of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the former’s succinctly beautiful and at times witty work for solo oboe  was overwhelmed by an actor declaiming at full bore the English poet’s  highly dramatic interpretation of the Latin original.

And then lastly there was a performance of a string version of the Goldberg Variations with pieces of startlingly pretentious poetic prose for each variation, resulting not least in converting a work of considerable length into one which seemed to stretch to eternity. I have never been so close to the feeling of drowning and as I came up for air a colleague of a similar academic background to my own looked me in the face and eloquently raised his eyebrows. I will not repeat what he said.     So, in truth on what is a limited experience and with all these prejudices, I have to admit that I was not really looking forward to this particular Lunchtime event.

How pleasant to find then that I need not have had such dark thoughts. It was soon clear that some considerable thought had gone into choice of content and how to shape it.  It helped that there was here a story to tell and one about which this listener had no knowledge. After all the academics have spoken their wise words, it remains true that, like the children we once were, we continue to be delighted by being told a story. That is why the novel thrives as an art form and in this instance, I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of Jelly d’Aranyi  nor had I heard a performance of the Schumann Violin Concerto.  Hence I came to the material with no baggage and sat at the feet of the author.

And she told her tale well. The excerpts has clearly been chosen to give the audience their bearings and they were told with just enough panache to grip the attention but not too much so that one became acutely aware of listening to a ‘performance’. As far as one could tell from small bits taken out of the narrative structure of the novel , the liveliness of the central character’s personality emerges in the prose. At times the writing seemed blest with that priceless quality, wit. Instantly memorable was the portrait of Yehudi Menuhin’s father, angling to remove d’Aranyi as a competitor for the first performance. How moving also was the simplicity with which the audience was informed  of the death at the Somme of the violinist’s possible suitor. Here one entered the world of so many women in the 20’s and 30’s who were attached to men in the officer class, perhaps most poignantly created in Vera  Brittain’s Testament of Youth , she who lost fiancée, brother and two other male friends in the conflict .

Then, of course, there was the background of what was happening in Central Europe in the early 30’s. Here the music for me took over since in the time allowed the Nazis’ ludicrous belief that a lost Schumann Violin Concerto would help plug the gap left by their attempt to remove Mendelssohn from the repertoire was only lightly sketched. I learned that Ravel’s Tzigane was written for d’Aranyi and  listening to Le Page’s and McLean’s powerful performance the strain of melancholy to be found in Gypsy music poignantly brought to my mind at least that it was not only the Jews who were victims of the Final Solution. Previous to that a sizzling performance of Bartok’s Rumanian Dances, besides pointing to d’Aranyi’s close friendship with the composer, had underpinned the vitality of the musical culture from which she came and also of her own personality. At other instances the role of the music seemed primarily to give a sense of the range of her acquaintances. Certainly the contrast between Tzigane and Elgar’s Salut d’ amour made that point!

Lastly, the performance of the melody of the Ghost Variations at the beginning and the end of the recital effectively and movingly gave a frame to the story, though not surprisingly the use of that melody in the concerto, particularly when played by violin and piano, could not quite convince that one had been witnessing a re-birth of the masterpiece so much wished for by Goebbels . Perhaps, it was better thus in that it reminded one how futile was the suppression of  Mendelssohn’s genius, a genius nowhere more in evidence than in his Violin Concerto.

So, it was an intriguing event, intriguing enough for me to put down a tenner for the novel.

 

Postscript.

I noticed that at the bottom of the programme appeared the following : For a review of the festival and other classical music events in Leicestershire please go to

Perhaps the empty gap that followed was evidence of the spirit world recognising a sceptic and attempting to impose its own form of censorship.

 

 

 

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The Lunchtime Series: Heath Quartet, 8th February,2018

The Heath Quartet brought to Leicester a reputation of having become in the last few years one of the most formidable quartets on the present day music scene, a reputation which this concert amply justified. I was not aware that they had adopted what, to judge by other visiting quartets over the last few seasons, seems to have become something of a fashion, that of the instrumentalists playing standing, with the exception, of course, of the cellist. Whatever one’s views of that, and like most decisions to do with the music sometimes there are losses as well as gains, one thing is certain. It highlights the qualities of the individual players of the ensemble and that in some cases in recent years has not been entirely to the advantage of the quartet.

It was emphatically not the case here, though. One could hear right from the beginning of the first work ,Haydn’s Op 74,No1 just why the Heath had acquired such a formidable reputation. Each player contributed to a wonderfully rich corporate tone and, no doubt as a direct result of their standing up, one could hear the parts and the individual musicianship with a sometimes startling clarity. This was clearly not courtly Haydn but a great questing composer always looking for ways in which to engage an audience’s attention and to disconcert by not always fulfilling classical expectation.

The quartet’s interpretation made no bones about this. From the opening movement there seemed to be a determination to make clear this was music pushing classical good manners to the limit. The range of dynamics was at times wide. The climaxes were very weighty indeed, some of the pianissimos quite gorgeous. The Andantino sang to fine lyrical effect and in the Minuet it was very clear that this was music for London and not the Esterhazy court. The energy with which the finale was dispatched was such that it reminded one just how close sometimes Haydn comes to his awkward protégée Beethoven. Again, the clarity which was brought about by the space between the players meant that the composer’s energy and inventiveness emerged into the brightest of lights.

So, all in all this was splendidly bold Haydn playing. However, was it perhaps rather too bold, I wondered? After all, Haydn’s wit comes from what seems to me to be basically an urbane, good humoured personality. If I want to be cheered, I go to Haydn’s London symphonies. He loved entertaining his London audience and this comes through on every page of those works but in his expansion of musical possibilities he makes sure he takes that audience with him. In this instance, I found the playing at times a touch too much in your face, a trifle too emphatic. Perhaps, I thought it was because of the strength of sound arising from the players standing up and I have to say that I rather feared what that might do to the second work on offer , Ravel’s String Quartet, which I imagined could well wilt having such a searchlight focussed upon it.

One need not have worried. This was one of the finest performances I have heard of this fascinating work, so much in some ways the essence of Gallic sensibility. Here the dynamic levels seemed entirely appropriate but with the added bonus that the building blocks of Ravel’s refined musical personality, perhaps again because of the physical separateness of the players, emerged with a clarity and at times a drama such as I cannot remember hearing so fully before in this work. Also present quite thrillingly were the unsettling undercurrents in the music, which were time and again memorably realised. In the slow movement the sounds created suggested to me nothing so much as a state in which the nerve ends are at full stretch. This music as played here went into a really rather weird and disturbing world. It was interesting to read in the programme that a Conservatoire Professor found the first movement ‘painful’ . Perhaps he was more right than he knew! Certainly of a piece was the way the Quartet played the final movement, here revealing just how dramatic and, to refer to Ravel’s instructions Vif et agité ,  how disconcerting the music can sound when played as it was here.

Altogether, a stimulating and challenging concert, indeed.

 

 

 

The Philharmonia- Evgeni Bozhanov, Juraj Valcuha, February 7th.2017

Over the past months, a number of reviews of the Philharmonia concerts at the Royal Festival Hall have suggested an orchestra in the peak of condition. Therefore, whatever the merits of this or the other interpretation, I had expected something rather special in the playing when they came visiting to Leicester this time. Even so, in the event I was not fully prepared for what I heard from them under the Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha, making a welcome return to Leicester. They began with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta ,long a favourite work of mine when I need cheering up, but hitherto never heard by me in a concert hall.

Well, expectations were more than fully realised. From the off the cello section dug into the sensuous opening theme with astonishing gipsy fire and so it continued. The woodwind sparkled , piccolo( Keith Bragg), flute (Samuel Coles) oboe (Tom Bloomfield) all had their moments in the sun. However, it was Mark van de Wiel (clarinet) who stole the limelight with passages which invited the player to sound as if it all was being played on the hoof and not from a score. Here and elsewhere  the conductor one guessed had a crucial role in encouraging these great instrumentalists to play as soloists, whilst keeping everything around them together. Decades ago, that was one of the things that marked out the great Sir Thomas Beecham from so many of his contemporaries and which gave as I remember all too well his performances such a sense of spontaneity . Of course, you need brilliant players to do that and the present day Philharmonia certainly has them. For instance, one listened with gasping admiration at the whole string section’s precision, unanimity and fullness  of tone, maintained sometimes at speeds which in any other context would have been thought bordering on the reckless.  It was simply breathtaking.

Also, having been in the RFH recently, the performance highlighted the wonderful acoustic of the DMH, rich yet also precise, something which the London concert hall struggles to deliver. All of this left me wondering why such a joyous work is not played more often. Perhaps it is thought too much of challenge, certainly as a first work in a programme. Also, perhaps it does become ever so slightly repetitive in the middle. However, the last few exhilarating pages on this occasion conclusively blew such thoughts away.

After the interval we had more from the same Hungarian stable, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, first performed in 1944, a year before his death. In the 1950’s this was the first ‘modern’ work I heard in the concert hall, with this orchestra, then less than a decade old and conducted by the then idol of London, Herbert von Karajan. At that time in my far distant youth I had heard mostly music by long dead Germans. I knew vaguely that there were still people alive writing music in the here and now but from hearsay they were writing stuff any sane person would not wish to listen to. Bartok’s name figured very prominently in that group so I was astonished to find that in this work at least it was clearly possible that modern composers were worth listening to.  As is the way of the world it was, of course , derided by a few who saw it as evidence of the composer’s retreat from modernism . Now ,of course, it is a masterpiece(!) and indeed it is, and can be seen in its sardonic wit, its dramatic changes of mood, in the range of its sonic world, and in  its  roots in folk music as quintessentially Bartok.

In this instance, it was given a performance which was masterly in managing those rapid shifts in mood. Some years ago, on his debut in Leicester, I thought Juraj Valcuha clearly a fine musician but on that occasion perhaps lacking that something special which really rivets the attention. That was certainly not the case here. This seemed music which he lived, relishing detail upon detail, whilst in no way losing the impetus to keep the work together. It can so easily become a series of moments which don’t quite coalesce but here time and again the fire at the centre of the work was memorably conveyed.

In the middle of this eastern European sandwich was Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, featuring a pianist new to Leicester, the Bulgarian Evgeni Bozhanov. His was a performance which had some fine qualities. Playing the DMH’s Fazioli seemed to enable him to present many features of the work with a clarity which often surprised this listener. Whereas perhaps a Steinway often bestows a bloom on a series of notes, here it was quite startling and refreshing at times the way even in fast passages each note had its own shape. This gave the performance almost a Mozartian poise which often seemed appropriate to the music.

However, there were losses as well. I think I remember Paul Lewis saying that, because it was such a bridge between the 18th. and 19c., this concerto presented for the interpreter the greatest problems of any of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. The programme pointed out that Beethoven had moved on from the forte piano to a more powerful instrument and that the concerto reflects its range. It was perhaps the forward looking features of the music that were not reflected fully in some moments of this performance. This was felt particularly in the lyrical slow movement which could have had more of a romantic richness and bloom.  Though there were cool beauties on the way, the warmth tended to come from the orchestral accompaniment. It might have been interesting to hear the performance on the RFH’s Steinway the following day to gauge how much, if any, of a difference it made to the interpretation. One can forget that, unless they are very wealthy and /or slightly dotty like the great 20c. Italian pianist Michelangeli  who allegedly travelled with four pianos, pianists unlike other instrumentalists very often have to play on unfamiliar instruments. Whatever, there was more than enough in this performance to look forward to hearing this artist again.