Lunchtime Series:Carducci Quartet,7th March 2019

The penultimate concert of the 2018/19 Lunchtime Series saw the return to Leicester of the Carducci Quartet. For good reason they are a big favourite with the Museum audience. Not only are they musically an immensely talented group, one of the best of current quartets that I have heard, but they have one other priceless attribute in the performers’ art. They convey to the audience the joy of playing great music. Not for them the solemn countenance more suitable for prayer. Rather, even from the moment of clambering onto the platform, in countenance and body language they seem to be saying, ‘Hey, isn’t it marvellous that we are here and just about to play some marvellous music!’  Of course, if they were not musicians of the front rank such an approach would seem to  be mere posturing but fortunately they certainly have delivered  a riveting concert whenever I have heard them, a concert that often made one re-evaluate even long held personal opinion of musical works.

So it was here. A fortnight ago I had hoped to find at last some positive light thrown on Pierre Boulez’s music but, alas, I remain in the dark. Now I was faced by the first work on the programme being by Philip Glass, his Quartet No.5 , and my memory went back a number of years to being with my wife at a performance at the English National Opera of this composer’s opera Satyagraha, a work centred on Gandhi’s early life in South Africa. Now, the two of us had in our time been at performances of quite a few contemporary operas but here for the first time in our lives we left at the interval , unable to put up with what seemed to us the endless repetition of the almost static score and the utter portentousness of the libretto. We agreed that we no longer wished to be part of what seemed to us some kind of mass hypnosis. Later a London musician told me of one story that was going the rounds, that a violinist in the orchestra had gone sick because of the experience of having to play the same note for over 20 minutes. At least, I thought, the work to be played in this concert would be relatively short.

Well ,I finished almost wishing that it had been longer. Here there were moments of stasis. Emma Denton, the cellist, at one point did seem in danger of getting permanently stuck on one figure, though in keeping with the character of the Quartet, her expression suggested excitement at the experience. However, such thoughts were fleeting for the variations of material were usually quite apparent even when comparatively minute. Hence there was a feeling of organic growth which led to some moments of great beauty and even once or twice of grandeur. The juxtaposition towards the end of the work of a massive unison sound followed by a return to the quiet simplicity that characterised some other parts of the work was memorably dramatic .  Above all else ,on a  first hearing the sheer beauty of the sound world the Carducci summoned up was such that, as work faded at the end, I felt real disappointment that the piece was finishing. Perhaps it had after all induced a mild state of hypnosis. Whatever, I was glad I had had the experience.

The surprises, however, were not over. I’ve heard any number of performances of Dvorak’s Quartet Op.95 ‘American’ , most recently last year in Canterbury given by another very well known quartet. This very fine performance was in perhaps the main tradition of playing Dvorak, which can best be characterised as ‘don’t press too hard, let the melodies and the sound breathe and blossom’. All of this certainly happened in that performance. However, that approach can result in too much sugar coming to the surface in less good performances and perhaps explains the  great English composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s witty  remark that he thought Dvorak ‘a good second rate composer’.

As the Carducci launched into their interpretation, I couldn’t help but think their way of doing things was a sharp riposte to that comment. It perfectly illustrated how a masterpiece by definition offers many way s of interpretation. At first, I thought the opening movement to be a little too fast given the instruction allegro ma non troppo. However, the virtuosity of the playing ensured that it never felt scrambled , had real sinew and as a result achieved a rare joyous buoyancy and lift. Similarly the slow movement had a pure lyricism, far from the sentimentality into which it can descend if over egged and from then on in the final two movements we danced Czech style all the way to the end of the work.

Once in my youth I was with a very musical and then much better informed school friend at a Prom, in which this composer’s 8th Symphony had been performed. As we walked across Hyde Park, I was on cloud nine and innocently asked why that work was any the less worth listening to than, say, Beethoven’s Fifth. For a moment I thought my usually very mild friend was going strike me for having said something so outrageous. It was like speaking ill of God to him.  Well, too many decades afterwards, perhaps in a less exclusive musical climate, I thought after this vibrant performance that there was no reason to revise my view of a composer who brings in his best work such joy to human kind.

Talking of which, as a postscript and making the above point even more clearly, I had a memorable experience after the concert and the very well earned ovation had finished. In the audience was a sizeable party from a City school , Rushey Mead Academy. Since the front row of the party was sitting behind me I had had a short chat with several of the students before the concert. (Privately, I thought how the party had brought down the usual average age of the museum audience by some margin!). And then I forgot their existence beyond thinking how quiet they all were and that therefore they must have been hooked to some extent by what they were hearing. At the end I stood up, stretched my aching limbs and turned round to say farewell to the girls I had been talking to, only to find a weeping student being comforted by her friend. ‘Oh, dear,’ I thought, ‘did she hate it that much?’ I asked her what the matter was and she managed to say between sobs how wonderful the concert had been.  Well, I felt that I might have to get my own hankie out after so fine a testament to the power of music. I got a message through to the players about the effect they had had on at least one young person but I learnt later in any case that they met the school party after the rest of the audience had left. That gesture in itself after an exhausting programme just re-inforced to my mind what I had already written about this fine group of musicians and their approach to music making. It is to be hoped that we hear them again in the not too distant future.

 

NEWS

 

Tues. 12th March –Leicester Music Society   7.30 Clarendon Park Congregational Church , Springfield Avenue, on the corner of  London Road.

Simon Lumby-    Secular then Sacred.My musical journey.

Simon reflects through music on his career as a distinguished musician and then as a priest.

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Lunchtime Series:Adam Walker, Alasdair Beatson,February 21st 2019

There have been some intriguing concerts this season in the Lunchtime Series but none more so than this one given by Adam Walker, one of the most eminent woodwind players of his generation and principal flautist of London Symphony Orchestra for the last ten years. His partner in this concert,  the pianist Alasdair Beatson, was a player new to me but one, certainly in this music, for whom the description used ‘partner ‘ was indeed apt. Much of the music featured demanded something far beyond simple support for the flute.

The concert was devoted entirely to French music which, as Adam Walker pointed out, was hardly surprising since it is an instrument which has featured large in Gallic composition. In addition, in the development of the instrument in the last 150 years and in playing styles France has figured prominently. More to the point the programme was for me, and possibly for many in the audience, a voyage of discovery since not a note of the music had I heard before.

For the most part it proved a delightful and rewarding journey. To begin with it was quickly apparent that we were in the presence of two formidable players. I could see very quickly in the opening Suite for Flute and Piano by Widor why, in reviews of the LSO, critics often feel the need to make comment regarding the orchestra’s principal flautist.  His playing in this concert revealed a huge dynamic range , a beguiling tone and an agility ,an almost gossamer touch (if that is the right word) which was astonishing . In addition, the pianist matched him moment for moment.

Which leaves the works to be commented upon. This too was revelatory. If Widor is remembered for anything, it is his Organ Symphony No.5 , or rather the last movement of same which features so often in wedding ceremonies. I once had to sit through the whole work and vowed not to let myself in for that experience ever again. Perhaps it is the 19c organ but the adjective flatulent came to mind. Nothing could have been further from the truth in regard this utterly charming and quite various work. It was delightfully tuneful, witty in places and coolly lyrical in the best French style, quite the work for the unseasonably spring -like weather outside.

It must have been this that put me in a mood to find Milhaud’s Sonatina for Flute and Piano equally enjoyable. Sometimes I find the supposed naughtiness and satire of Les Six rather wearing when heard in quantity but here the wit, the laughter and the drawing on music of the street was infectious, certainly when played like this. The performance also revealed a stratum of tenderness. And how both artists made the third movement fizz!

More surprises followed. We had Vocalise-etude by Messiaen which I would defy anyone in a blind listening session to have identified as by the composer. The piano part, here beautifully played, sounded just out of the Debussy songbook. But then one of the delightful features of  this composer was his ability to find inspiration in a multitude of things, most famously, of course, in bird song, hence the next piece Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird). I thought this wonderfully various and atmospheric and again given a performance outstanding in its virtuosity. The playing of the coda was simply extraordinary.

Lastly, we came to what I thought might be the tough nut of the programme, hoping against hope that it would be as revelatory as what had preceded it. My problem here I feared would be an opinion formed over the years of listening to music in the two centuries that I have lived in, an era in which much great music has been composed, music  that has successfully established itself with concert and opera goers . Contrastingly , Pierre Boulez,  the composer rather than the conductor, exemplified much that I disliked about the 20c music scene. He was undoubtedly a man of almost frightening  intellect who, as people of that sort sometimes do in all forms of art, decided there could only be one answer to a question, his, and in this case that the rule book must be totally discarded , that anything that might be popular was the wrong path and that like minded artists should retire to a laboratory to compose the music of the future, recognising that that would entail largely cutting loose from the concert and operatic public. Once apparently in a fit of rage he declared that he would be quite happy if all opera houses were razed to the ground. He at times also cut himself off from other composers who would have described  themselves as broadly modernist, for instance Stravinsky and his own teacher , Messiaen no less , because he found their latest work a betrayal of the principles of modernism.

Yet he was a paradox. In interview he came across as having great wit and he could apparently be both kind and thoughtful. My sole contact musically with him had prior to this concert had been snippets of his work broadcast, works which were constantly being re-written. Generally these made little more than a glacial impression. However, as a conductor I heard him in the concert hall and, surprisingly one might have thought, in the opera house. Here he made a very considerable impression. His interpretations had a stunning clarity ,though even here precision sometimes loomed greater than any joy there might have been in the score.

So the performance of Sonatine for flute and piano ,an early work from the 1940’s, was the first work by him which I had heard in the flesh.  I managed to make the rehearsal as well as the concert performance so I heard Boulez X2. Does that make a difference? Well perhaps but it hardly forms a firm base for critical comment. There were passages which suggested perhaps that the composer had yet to cut loose completely from some of the more engaging features of French music. Late in the work there was a passage for piano which sounded wonderful, like listening to running water. There were some notably dramatic moments (as the piano pounded away one wondered who would give in first, the instrument or pianist’s arms) and the ending had a rather striking dismissal from the flute. Also, for some reason the piece required four music stands onto which went a pile of loose material, all of which provided opportunity for laughter and suggested that the flautist should have brought a library assistant with him.

However, even after a second hearing I fear in the main the musical material and its sound world made little real impact, despite the virtuosity of the performance. To my ear it was more an exercise than a compelling piece of music with personality.  The fact that this is an early work ( and  one should not make general judgments about a composer based on that), and given my very thin knowledge of his mature compositions, it is obvious I am not in a position to make any solidly based judgment about the composer.  However, when I think of work composed around this time such as Vaughan Williams 5th Symphony, Britten’s Song cycle The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (written after the composer gave with Menuhin a concert in Belsen concentration camp)and  a little earlier Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, again what struck me was compared with the overall deep humanity of these very different composers  just how largely cold was this musical world and I got to wondering how Boulez , a man who loomed so large in his time, will be viewed fifty years from now. Would his music be seen finally as mainstream or would it be regarded as at best an interesting cul de sac of musical history?

Of course, I and most of the audience at this concert will never know! However, if there is betting in the spirit world , my money I think will be on the second. Thinking it over after the concert I was reminded of the ending of Shelley’s great sonnet Ozymandias about  the ephemeral nature of power and reputation. In it a traveller stumbles on a ruined statue in the desert, on whose pedestal  he reads these words:

‘My name is Ozymandias king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing besides remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

After all that pondering, the last word must be to thank the performers for having produced a progamme so thought provoking and so wonderfully played. This is what concerts should be about and was given a deservedly mighty ovation . Do come again and perhaps bring more Boulez if there is anything suitable!

 

Lunchtime Series: Callum Smart, Richard Uttley,7th.February 2019

Every season it seems to have been the very admirable intention of the Lunchtime Series on at least one or two occasions to introduce young artists who are beginning to establish a considerable reputation for themselves and each time it has, almost without exception, rapidly become clear why the invitation had been made . This season we have been introduced to the pianist Clare Hammond and here she was followed by the violinist Callum Smart and pianist Richard Uttley playing as a duo. They did not disappoint and it rapidly became plain that they were first rate artists.

In the first work they played , Beethoven’s Violin Sonata Op 30, No.3 their combined sound was finely robust, both pianist and violinist delivering all of the energy and thrust of the opening movement . The violinist was clearly playing on a fine sounding instrument with a particularly rich bass and the pianist certainly brought out much of what the Museum piano is capable of, and one can say that with the memory over the years of the number of  great pianists who have played on this instrument. The duo’s  playing throughout  the first movement had an exhilarating vitality , and conveyed very much that even in this good humoured  work the composer’s characteristic ruggedness is still present.  The middle movement had some real eloquence, the violin sang and particularly memorable were some of the moments for the piano which emerged as music with real inwardness in this largely bright and cheerful work.

The last movement saw a return to the ebullience of the first and displayed very much the virtues noted there . Here the virtuosity of the players came fully to the fore. However, as at times in the first movement, perhaps slightly more lightness of touch might have succeeded in levitating things rather more, which in turn might have converted rough high spirits into wit. I have heard performances of this work which at times have been like watching a game with a shuttlecock, between  two players who are trying  to keep it in the air as long as possible. This performance was perhaps rather more earth bound than that.

There followed a performance of a late Schubert work, Fantasy in C for violin and piano.D934. Here I was at something of a disadvantage in that I had never heard this work before and first reactions are rarely very reliable. In general I am in thrall to this composer’s late works, welcoming eagerly what Schumann, when speaking in another context, described as the Schubertian  ‘heavenly length’. However, here the programme had informed one that at the first performance in Vienna the hall gradually emptied and my first reaction was to think how typical of the Viennese at their conservative worst. Alas, in the event I found the length to be rather less than celestial and even thought rather shockingly that I might have joined the exodus. I certainly was not inclined to blame the playing which seemed very much responsive to the composer’s world. There was real  warmth  and affection in sound and phrasing and moments of lyricism that suggested the composer at his unique best . However, perhaps when, as the programme suggested, it was one of works where the composer was accommodating his music to public taste, the result even in a Schubert may not have been that inspired.

What followed certainly was. The Argentinean composer Ginastera has hitherto been but a name to me, unlike his pupil Piazzolla. However, exactly 30 years ago on a working trip to Argentina  I had an unforgettable week- end riding on the Pampas and these memories came to the surface and perhaps made me highly susceptible to the wonderfully red-blooded music  of Pampeana No.1,Op 16 . Whatever, last month we had the Doric performing a Bartok quartet and the folk music element in that seemed replicated here to dramatic effect. It was performed with bravura passion and fittingly brought the concert to a rousing finish. We shall look forward to hearing these artists again.

 

Lunchtime Series: Piers Lane,24th.January 2019

The second concert of 2019 saw the very welcome return to Leicester of the distinguished pianist Piers Lane. Few artists have made a greater contribution in recent decades to the musical life of this land and to that of his own country, Australia. When one read the programme notes, one was left gasping at the range of his various musical activities, performances ,recording, associations with so many fellow artists, all of which spoke of a life of continuing enquiry, adventure and enjoyment. As he bounded onto the platform, this was immediately communicated to the audience. How pleased he was, he said, to be back in Leicester in this fine setting for music and the thing was you believed every word of what he said.

He then embarked on a programme of immense challenges of various sorts in which he had clearly thought about how interesting it might be to contrast various composers and their works in an immediate juxtaposition and to see what emerges. Hence, he began with a beautifully clear, poised performance of  Bach’s Prelude and Fugue  in F Sharp from Book 2 of the Well Tempered Clavier , which then morphed without interval into Chopin’s Impromptu No.2 and immediately then into his Nocturne in D Major . Was the point I wondered, besides giving the sense of someone playing for pleasure and also avoiding a break in concentration through not having to jump up and down to acknowledge applause,  to draw attention to the resemblances between two composers who, to put it mildly, are not usually much linked?

Later two memories surfaced. Firstly, the thing that I noted about a recital this pianist gave some years ago in the same venue was that he was certainly not one to overly linger. Then my mind also went back to a talk given to a city music society by an equally eminent pianist in which he reviewed the problems of performing Chopin and in which he singled out the invitation the composer can seem to make to some artists to display their own feelings at every turn by constantly ignoring the pulse of the music. I remember that he singled out the most famous Chopin exponent of my youth ,Arthur Rubinstein, as very rarely falling into that trap.

Clearly neither does Piers Lane. The juxtaposition of Chopin with Bach threw into outline even in the Nocturne the musical argument which emerged in a way that would be unlikely to happen in a swooning interpretation. If that was the aim, a relatively narrow range of dynamics helped. In the Nocturne a real pianissimo was held back until the very end of the piece and was all the more effective for that. Perhaps I was not entirely persuaded that there wasn’t a shade more delicacy and poetry to be found in the piece but the performance certainly held one’s attention.

From then on in this concert of fascinating juxtapositions it was an exhilarating gallop to the finish, featuring Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.2 and three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrushka,with a Mazurka in the mix. The first was given an enormously powerful performance, with immense energy in the first two movements and an overwhelming funeral march with a bass as black as black can be, all of this then to be followed by that extraordinary last movement, delivered here with a lightness and swiftness of touch which after the solemnity of the previous movement totally conveyed who knows what except that there is probably no greater surprise in music than when the movement abruptly finishes. And that even when you know it is coming to an end sometime soon!

There is nothing enigmatic about Petrushka nor was there in this performance which glittered and danced to perfection. I am not much of a fan of transcriptions. Often too much of the original is lost. Some years ago, though, the International Festival in the city finished with The Rite of Spring in a two piano arrangement ,like here the work of the composer, and I went away thinking it was as overwhelming as the orchestral version. The percussive qualities of the piano in particular lent an extraordinary power to the sound. So it was here, though perhaps something was lost in the more introspective scene in  Petrushka’s cell. However, the outer movements and in particular in The Shrovetide Fair the glitter and the dancing energy conveyed made for a hugely exhilarating ending to the concert, with playing of an order that left one in wonder how fingers could cope.

It was met with an ovation which demanded an encore, even though the pianist had already been generous with his time. It was at one with the thought behind the whole recital and its range that we got a short piece by Lyadov entitled The Music Box,which quickly ran down and ended the recital with a twinkle!

The Philharmonia:Laurent Ben Slimane, Martyn Brabbins, January 19th 2019

This evening’s music making was a superb start to the Residency in 2019 and there is much to write about! I suspect that it has been a long time, if ever, since Leicester hosted two world premieres in two concerts on one evening.. What was more the size and youth of the audiences to both concerts suggested that new music was becoming again to be seen as a natural part of the classical concert scene. In my youth concert going tended to be rather akin to visiting a museum, a place full of wonderful artefacts of the past. The extra buzz to be got from hearing music of one’s own time and sometimes never before performed and yet music that spoke to one immediately, all of that was relatively rare, not least because some composers of the time showed little interest in speaking to other than a small coterie. Two now acknowledged great 20c composers who featured in these concert  programmes , Vaughan Williams and Britten, disdained such an approach and yet found ways of musical speech both new, challenging and yet  immediately effective. In doing so they and others gave confidence to those that have followed. The corollary, though, which needs recognising  is that much new music will ,alas, prove worth listening to no more than once or, if one wishes to be reasonably sure, twice. One only has to look at 19c. programmes to see how much music of that era has disappeared for ever. T’was ever thus and always will be. Genius has always been in short supply in any one era.

And what of the two new works in these concerts ? The first appeared in a free concert sponsored by the Leicester Friends of the Philharmonia, a concert  designed to draw attention to the wealth of solo talent that lies within the ranks of this great orchestra. It was given by the orchestra’s lead cellist Timothy Walden, who demonstrated in a movement from Britten’s Cello Suite No.3 and the first of Bach’s Cello Suites what a fine artist he is, fully capable of meeting the virtuosic and interpretative demands of the music. One was going to hear much more of that in the string music for orchestra that was to follow in the main concert and was a salutary reminder of the individual level of artistry which produces the legendary sound of this orchestra’s string section. Yet it goes further than that, because there are composers within its ranks. As Timothy Walden’s introduction to the new work pointed out, it was written by the musician who sits just behind him in the cello section, by name Richard Birchall. He remarked wryly that he had better get the performance right.

Well, if the effect was anything to go by, he certainly did do just that. The work was a Sonata for Cello in three movements written last year at the time of the centenary of the end of the Great War. Not surprisingly it came across as a work written by someone utterly aware of the possibilities of the cello. The music was excitingly various in its effect but on top of that, without being too literal, it managed particularly in the outer movements to convey possible links and responses to the catastrophe of that war.

The world premiere in the main concert was Geoffrey Gordon’s Prometheus, Concerto for Bass clarinet and Orchestra commissioned by the Philharmonia,  with Laurent Ben Slimane the bass clarinettist of the orchestra as soloist and conducted by Martyn Brabbins. To judge from the programme notes this was clearly a work grand in its intended scope, designed no less to be a description in four movements  of Kafka’s retelling of one of the more horrific of the Greek myths,  and there are plenty of those that qualify for such a description. In this case eagles feeding for eternity on Prometheus’s ever renewing liver one might say comes fairly high up the pecking order of horror!

At a first time listening, it was the opening two movements conveying the brutishness of this particular version of the legend which had some of the most memorable music . The programme wrote that melody is the touchstone in this composer’s output. Well, I hardly think one might expect that to be the case here but there were strikingly  jagged and relentless sounds whose colours  dramatically conveyed strife, rock and pain. The gradual conversion of Prometheus into rock was tellingly conveyed.

So far so good. Unfortunately then the work rather lost me. In a nutshell it seemed unable to maintain the tension in response to Kafka’s last two versions of the myth.  I detected little change in the aural landscape even though the text seemed to me to suggest totally different responses to the legend. As a result I fear my attention began to wander. The ending as the music ebbed away certainly did make an effect but overall I began to wonder whether the work could really be described as a concerto. Finely though it appeared to be played, the music given to the soloist rarely seemed memorable enough to shift the attention away from the orchestra.

The rest of the concert consisted of copper bottomed masterpieces, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro , Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Masterpieces they may be but I wondered whether it might be rather too much of a good thing when heard one after another in a concert, rather like gorging on chocolates. However, in the event it was a joyous and thoroughly illuminating experience in regard to the British, in this case the English, musical renaissance of the last century, how the composers in question took such distinct paths to greatness and yet created music quintessentially of their country. In the first work,  besides it starting a fashion amongst English composers for writing for strings in concertante , Elgar finds a sound that is wonderfully of the open air. Ken Russell’s short film for TV in the early 60’s of the work with the youthful Elgar riding his pony over the Malvern Hills to the soaring melody at the centre of the work was right on the button.

Then after the interval in the Fantasia Vaughan Williams re- created in music for the modern age,  as he was to do often later, a deeply spiritual Englishness which called on the first great age of English music ,that of the Tudors. I have heard this work so many times and yet every time and certainly here I gasp at the way the opening bars establish with utter simplicity a world of the spheres. Of course, the sound and substance of the piece does not come as if by magic. It is wonderfully crafted string writing but as in some of the best of this composer the music seems to penetrate far  beyond our own world as if it was always there just waiting to be found. I remember late in life the composer was awarded some medal by an American arts organisation which spoke of his music as being a benediction to the soul. Of course, his output is far more various than that suggests but it will do as a start to explain the composer’s genius.

Then at the end there was Britten’s again totally characteristic sound world in the Purcell Variations, a work which completely transcends its didactic purpose. Again it is a hugely different sound world to the other two works, clearly embracing some contemporary 20c. European trends, notably Mahler, but in the context of this concert, one was reminded how much of a wonderful orchestrator  was this great composer of  opera and song and how much he revered Purcell. Each variation came across as music ideally suited to the particular instrument and memorable in its own right, all of it coming together like in the Elgar in another great fugue which rightly is meant to strain every one of the players to create one of the most exciting and uplifting conclusions in all music, the return of the Purcell theme. Here the audience erupted at the end of what had been in the nature of a master class in the evolution of British music.

I have left last any mention of the conductor ,Martyn Brabbins. For years this conductor has been an indefatigable proponent of new music not only in this country but abroad as well. One has heard nothing over the years but high regard for him as a conductor of the front rank yet perhaps because of being so much on the move and perhaps rather rarely in London he’s not quite been given his due. Which is a pity because judging from my recent experiences of his conducting at the The Three Choirs Festival and at the English National Opera, of which he is now Music Director,and by the way critics have been falling over themselves with regard his latest recordings of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, he is in the very front rank of conductors. Judging by this concert he has the great gift of finding the appropriate pulse of the music and never letting anything sag and yet also finding often by the subtlest of reining in and moulding all the expressiveness one could wish for. My goodness, though, with an orchestra like the Philharmonia how he can get the sound to blaze and excite, how the Elgarian fugue carried all before it, likewise the sections that featured the brass and then the strings in unison in the Britten work. This was simply great music making.

Lunchtime Series: Doric String Quartet, 10th. January 2019

Two years ago the Doric Quartet gave a concert which will long stay in my memory. With regard to this concert one can only say that lightning did strike twice and to my mind it only supported what seems to be a widely held belief that this is one of the pre-eminent quartets on the present day concert scene. I can only repeat that they have what is for me is a central characteristic of a great quartet, the ability to produce a rich corporate sound at the same time as giving ample opportunity for the individual musical personalities of the players to bloom.

And how they bloomed in this instance! Clearly a single change of personnel since their last visit had not made an iota of difference to the characteristics of the quartet. In the opening work, Mozart’s first Prussian Quartet  No.21, the very first bars illustrated this. The way the first violin caressed the opening melody converted it into a thing of wonder, Mozart at his very finest. Later I wondered whether my reaction was a bad case of post Christmas pleasure that the concert season had resumed, but no, it wasn’t. Returning home I put on a recording of the work by a German quartet and I ceased to wonder why I had hitherto not rated these works as amongst Mozart’s most inspired. Set beside the penny plain recorded performance , this live performance found striking things at every turn in the music and this was achieved as if it was the most natural thing in the world. There were any number of  breathtaking moments throughout, a  range of expressive colour and dynamics , the exquisite playing of the music given at times to the cello in the middle movements, the way time and again the music was given time to breathe and finally the wit and virtuosity of the playing in the last movement. All  of this seemed to be obviously waiting  in the score to be realised . Conversely not once did the playing stray into that over expressiveness which can in Mozart feel as disappointing as its opposite.

From Mozart we were then catapulted into Bartok’s 5th Quartet as if the Doric wanted to give an exhibition of the raw power they had locked away. Certainly nothing could have shown that better than the opening movement whose explosive sound world at times conveyed some utterly unfettered almost manic universe of eastern European dance. If possible, that was topped by the final movement whose breathless continuity reminded me of nothing like as much as the finale to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, albeit rooted much more obviously in folk music. This was played with thrilling virtuosity.

Yet between these two movements , as the cellist John Myerscough pointed out ,in the other three movements at the core of the work, two slow movements framing a scherzo with more than little of wit in it, , there was so much of what has been called Bartok’s night music which creates a very different musical world, one that is weird and eerie and requires playing of the utmost delicacy. Here the players were quite brilliant in establishing the composer’s  world, often with little more than wisps of sound.

After this performance I was left pondering not for the first time as to why, of all the great 20c. composers, Bartok should have been seen as box office poison for so long. Of course, there is much violent discord at times in the music and certainly he does not fit easily into any Classic FM approach. However, the intensity of his musical voice rooted as it is in folk music and at the same time in classical form surely speaks ultimately with the same powerful visionary directness as in very different ways do, for example,  the musical  worlds of  Vaughan Williams and Janacek. Perhaps his time has come with audiences. Certainly on this occasion there was a sell out and the ovation  for the Doric’s astonishing performance seemed perhaps to suggest that it had.

Lunchtime Series: Charlston, Lodge- Campbell, Ogawa, 20th. December 2018

For those waiting for some penetrating comments on this concert, alas they will find a blank. Last weekend I spent in a local hospital not because I was in dire straits but at the invitation of the young doctor treating me who said that they could get on top of the infection much more quickly in hospital than if I went through the out patient route.

Coming out late Tuesday , I was still fragile enough not to feel able to come to the Museum for what I thought was one of the picks of the season. I had heard Helen Charleston at the Three Choirs and thought her yet another of the young singers in this country destined for stardom. The other two artists I had not heard but we in Leicester have learnt to know that those that appear in this Series in nearly all cases are superbly talented. The fact that the programme featured Handel at his most divine, a composer who goes to the root of the human condition in operas and oratorios most for several centuries largely forgotten but now central repertoire again, made it all the more galling that I could not be there. Enough to say that several insightful friends reported it was as fine a concert as one could hope to hear of this music and I am sure they are right.

So , all I can do is wish all who read this blog greetings of the season, particularly those who might otherwise have received Christmas Cards! Hopefully , normal transmission will be resumed very soon.

The Lunchtime Series: Goldner String Quartet,6th.December 2018

It was a great pleasure to welcome the Goldner String Quartet to Leicester for the first time. This Australian ensemble has built over 20 or more years an enviable reputation, enough so for them to record at regular intervals for the Record Company Hyperion. In this concert in which they played Shostakovich’s First Quartet and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet one could see why they have been held in high regard over the years.

To state the obvious the sound of quartets can vary hugely. Broadly speaking some place great emphasis on the individuality of each player rather than seeking an instantly recognisable corporate sound in which each player melts indivisibly into the whole, unless of course the music demands otherwise. For many this was and perhaps still is the Holy Grail . However , to judge by what has been heard in recent years in the Gallery perhaps the pendulum has swung towards favouring the former approach. Is this one of the aims I wonder of an increasing number of quartets playing standing up. For this listener at least that has the effect of spotlighting individual musicians, though not always to the benefit of the overall effect. And of course it is not either/ or but rather a spectrum.

The Goldner on first impressions, perhaps from having played together for so many years, have the prime aim of producing a finely integrated sound. The first violinist made a point of saying that Shostakovich’s First Quartet is very unlike what was to come later. Here it emerged as witty in an amiable rather than a sardonic way, with at times what was to be later a very uncharacteristically warm sound . There were few hard edges, though I wondered once or twice whether they might be found in the music should the interpretation be going in that direction. However, as played here it made a delightful entree to the main course.

The Schubert that followed was given a superbly energetic performance. One noted on occasions how the quartet had a rich bottom to the sound, with the cello in particular giving the impetus quite often in the two outer movements. Indeed, the thrusting reading of the latter played with considerable virtuosity resulted in a large ovation at the end of the concert.

However, I was slightly less persuaded by the interpretations of in particular the Andante. Was there I wondered more scope for the violins to sing out and caress a phrase than on this occasion was sometimes in evidence? Indeed, throughout, I thought the balance rather inclined to the bass rather than the treble and I felt that I had heard interpretations which on occasions took flight in a way this one did not quite.

So, I enjoyed the concert but had some reservations. And then it came to me how much listening to music is dependant on many personal things quite unrelated to things musical. The previous evening Leicester’s concert hall had seen the Philharmonia give the Strauss concert of a life time and I suspect that I may have had some difficulty in adjusting quickly enough on the next morning to chamber music! Suffice to say, I would relish hearing the Goldner Quartet again , this time when I hope to be rather more keenly receptive.

 

The Philharmonia-Sophie Bevan,Santtu-Matias Rouvali, 5th December 2018

This was an astonishing concert. One composer evenings are fairly rare, for obvious reasons. To centre such a one around a huge work which has had in its time more than a few critics was even today an act of daring but, my goodness, how it came off. I remembered a comment about Strauss from an unlikely source, Benjamin Britten, a very different composer, in which he described him as ‘the old magician’and I don’t think I have ever thought that so vividly illustrated in the concert hall as on this evening.

The opening offering was perhaps not quite as magical as the rest of the concert. The orchestral pot pouri from Rosenkavalier that the conductor Rodzinski  compiled 30 or more years after the first performance of the opera has always seemed to me rather Technicolor, I’ve been inclined to think rather the MGM movie of the musical. However, on this occasion such was the ebullience of the performance under the Finnish conductor  Santtu-Matias Rouvali that I was very happy to swing along with it, much as I sometimes missed the frequently poignant beauty of the original. Who could resist the wit which was conveyed in this piece? It was enough to note the enjoyment with which the orchestra played it, (the front desk cellist had a broad smile on her face much of the time!) and one would have had to be an old curmudgeon indeed not to love the whole bag of tricks.

Something much deeper was to follow, though. Some years ago, Four Last Songs was performed at DMH by a distinguished German soprano and it was rather disappointing. Quite often she failed to penetrate the at times swelling orchestral accompaniment. One knew that Kirsten Flagstad was the first performer and no doubt the great Wagnerian singer had the range for the music but afterwards it became a daunting work to perform live for even those singers famed for their performances in Strauss’ operas. Recording is of course a different matter where balancing can do the trick.

Well, over the last few years Sophie Bevan is a singer who had made people sit up. Hers has always been a voice of delectable beauty and, having seen her a number of times in opera, it is clear that she has a quite superb dramatic sense. This year, though, I have had the good fortune to hear her twice, once in Britten’s Les Illuminations and then later in Handel’s Samson where she sang Delilah to such effect that one wondered how any man would exchange a life with her for bringing down God’s wrath and a temple on the Philistines. The voice seemed now to have attained startling amplitude without losing any of its creamy beauty. So, the prospect of hearing her in some of the loveliest and most moving music Strauss had written in a long life was mouth watering.

Of course, the prospect sometimes does not always turn into the reality. Well, it did here. One person after the concert said to me he thought it was the most telling performance of the work live that he had ever heard and I cannot but agree. The singer was up to every challenge but more to the point she palpably lived every moment of this valedictory music, being alert to every nuance and inflection of the words and at times in posture as well as in voice conveying the stillness at the centre of the work. Most of all, though, those heart stopping moments where the voice must soar effortlessly into the stratosphere were delivered with a beauty beyond words. Nobody was more in love with the soprano voice than Strauss and if proof was needed here it was.

What could follow that, one wondered. The answer was The Alpine Symphony in a performance of extraordinary power that revealed it as one of the composer’s greatest works. Right from the very beginning, when probably for the first time in the century of DMH 20 horns were secreted below the feet  of the audience, this listener felt he was on an immense journey in which all the feelings engendered by nature at its most varied inevitably mirrored human existence at its most lovely and its most frightening. Strauss was frequently denigrated as a mere orchestral painter. Here it was true that one gasped at times at the virtuosity of the orchestration but one also gasped at its beauty as well as its capacity to frighten and overwhelm. Just one passage will have to stand for many, where the climbers encounter first the chilling majesty of the glacier which morphs into an extraordinary interlude in which the climbers are lost and at each step the music somehow conveys the lack of balance and the desperation , all of it then to be swept away when at last the summit was achieved in music which surely can rarely have been surpassed at communicating heart stopping grandeur and wonder. I was reminded later on of Keats’ great sonnet On First looking into Chapman’s Homer when the poet compares his feelings of stunned discovery when first reading the translated Iliad to those when  Cortez saw  a vast ocean for the first time and

‘ star’d at the Pacific –and with all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise-

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Except of course that Strauss can hardly be silent but for a moment!

I don’t think that any more words are needed about a concert that should stay for a long time in the memory.   

Lunchtime Series: Elysium Brass Ensemble, 22nd November 2018

The fourth concert of this winter’s Lunchtime Series featured the welcome return of the Elysium Brass Ensemble who made a very successful debut in Leicester in 2016,how successful was perhaps indicated this time round by the concert being a sell out.

The Ensemble have a number of things going for them. Firstly, they are splendid virtuoso players. Secondly, they convey the joys of youth. It used to be that in the world of classical music most players clearly would see it as part of their brief to maintain a stern demeanour which conveyed the seriousness of their profession. Never so much as a smile would crease their faces. Now it is much more common, at least in these concerts, for artists to see it as part of their remit to engage with their audience. This ensemble do that to perfection: their concerts seem almost like spontaneous events arranged for friends.

Their programme this time followed very much the pattern of the previous one. It was an eclectic mixture of music that ranged through the centuries as well as ringing the changes in mood. It started with a fanfare of the modern day and then slipped seamlessly into the 16th and 17th centuries with firstly Battle Suite by a composer unknown to me who rejoiced in the name of Scheidt. I did remember the suite though which was put together by that noted brass player of my generation, Phillip Jones of the brass ensemble of the same name. It sent shivers of delight in its grandness when I first heard it and it did here. It conveys something of the grace and grandeur of the Renaissance Courts of Europe which is particularly exemplified for us by the entertainments to be found in those of Elizabeth the First and James the First, the first Golden period of English music.

That mood was carried on in a performance of Gabrieli ‘s Canzone No.4. in which the three players attempted to copy in the Museum the sonic effect obtained in St.Mark’s Venice by brass instruments being played from separate galleries. Well, nobody, not even the players, expected that to work fully but it mattered little since the sound was stunning.

Then it was on to two works by composers of the late 19c. and early 20c. Firstly, the audience was given a second chance to sample the music of Victor Ewald who it appears was firstly a Russian civil engineer and secondly a musician. I had to be careful here since I remember being somewhat lukewarm about the brass quintet featured in the earlier concert and I wasn’t sure but that we might be getting a re-run.  I had made no note of the number of the work then being played so the chance of making a greater fool than usual of myself was clearly on the cards. However, I was assured by a man who did know that this was a different quintet, Number 3 ,and indeed the introduction made a point of suggesting that this was probably the best in the series. It certainly caught my attention much more, though curiously not in the slow movement which in the previous work played seemed to be the most memorable. Here what the programme described as the gently lyrical Andante I thought to be rather low in ear catching lyricism. No, it was the other three movements which had a freshness of invention. The Intermezzo in particular seemed music of high quality. There was here some superb trumpet playing in a devilish part of the movement but overall the work was thoroughly engaging.

Alas, I do wish I could say the same about the transcription of Ravel’s famous Pavane. It rather puzzles me why the Ensemble should be so keen to play transcriptions of French music of the beginning of the 20c when, in the case of the two major composers, it is music whose central concerns are of colour, fluid structures and subtle dynamics.  One realises that transcription is perforce the nature of the game for a brass ensemble but surely the capacity of the particular instrument or ensemble to deliver something of the world of the original should be artistically crucial in the choice. Last time it was Debussy ‘s Girl with the Flaxen Hair and I have to say I felt  that this time the treatment of Ravel’s beautiful piano piece which ten years later he made into the more famous orchestral version seemed to me equally unsuccessful. Both of the originals, particularly the latter scored for gentle horns, harp, woodwind and strings , may not be intended to evoke any dead Infanta but their sound world is nonetheless exquisite. In this transcription, perhaps inevitably given the nature of brass instruments en masse, that evaporated and it was as if someone engaged in a beautifully graceful and wistful slow dance had been asked to perform it in hobnail boots. Perhaps, it might not have been quite the case in a less intimate acoustic that did more to let the sound expand and soften.

Anyhow, that over ,the concert finished on a much more successful note for me with music that was thoroughly popular,upbeat and highly suitable. Soney Kompanek’s Killer Tango was indeed a killer, played with tremendous swing and sensuousness and Paul Nagle’s Jive for Five in which the Tuba Player was given an unusually prominent role to play made for a wonderfully lively ending to the programme.

Except that it didn’t end there for we had a return from the previous concert of a rather lovely transcription(!) about that famous bird that is heard singing in a notable London Square and once again one felt the Ensemble had given a Leicester audience a truly delightful concert. I hope they will return sooner rather than later.

 

News.

There are two concerts coming up which should not be missed.

Wed .December 5th 7.30 at DMH sees the Philharmonia under their principal guest conductor Rouvali playing Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite followed by his mighty Alpine Symphony. As if that was enough, Sophie Bevan is singing the Four Last Songs. Having heard her twice in recent months, all I can say is that she is a young singer in her prime. At the Festival I introduced her name to an American opera director. He went home to the USA and emailed me later saying that he had listened to one or two short recordings of hers.  His comment was that she was ‘terrific’.

Thurs.December 6th 1.00 has The Goldner Quartet coming to Leicester with a high reputation internationally. For details see the Leicester Festival website.