The Lunchtime Series: The Kanneh-Mason Trio, December 14th. 2017

It occurred to me that the two December professional concerts in Leicester, one at DMH and one at the Museum, could have together been given the title’ The times they are a’changin.’ In the first, we had the young woman conductor Elim Chan directing a superb Philharmonia Concert. In the second three even younger musicians, all from the Kanneh-Mason family of Nottingham and playing as the Kanneh- Mason Piano Trio, gave truly astonishing performances of Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op.1 No.3 and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No.2.

Classical music has a long history of prodigies, occasionally two or more from the same family. However, as the sell out audience at the Museum bore witness to , never to the best of my knowledge has the classical music scene witnessed a more extraordinary story than the one which emerged after Sheku Kanneh- Mason won the 2016  BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and thus became the first black person to do so.  There followed a BBC documentary about his family  and their passion for classical music, in which it became clear that, though Sheku clearly seemed already capable of having a career on the international stage,  there were other major talents in the family, notably his elder sister, the pianist Isata,  and his elder brother, violinist Braimah, who together with Sheku constituted the Trio.

In a way then one should not have been surprised at the quality of the playing. Of course, the cello playing was a given but one of the finer things about these performances was that it was in perfect accord with the other two players. Then I remembered that one, the pianist Isata, had, as a very young and diminutive girl who at the time was almost dwarfed by the Steinway she was playing,  performed in the Museum a decade ago as one of four finalists of a young  pianist’s Competition held in Uppingham.  I remembered that , whilst three were obviously very good for their age, no such allowances needed to be made for her and afterwards a number in the audience prophesied great things. They were right. She is now, together with her equally talented violinist brother, at the Royal Academy of Music.

No surprise then that we were listening to individual music making of a high order. That said ,though, there was cause for surprise, not to say amazement. Perhaps it was down to long family bonding but the balance, the refinement of the sound, combined above all else with a sense of youthful pleasure at making music resulted in a concert which was very much something else. As I get older, I find that this precious quality found in very talented young performers is worth every bit as much as the supposed wisdom which comes with age. Indeed, increasingly I wonder whether in middle age some fine artists, so concerned have they become to deliver everything in the music, find it difficult to preserve the quality so vital in live performance, a sense of the simple spontaneous joy at the power of great music.

That joy was here very evident from the beginning of the Beethoven. One was immediately struck at times by the liquid tone of the piano and the sense of balance with the other two players. Not that the energy of much of this music was not thrillingly conveyed but what I particularly admired was the way it was being played as early and not middle Beethoven.  Here the performance was at times slightly at odds with the occasional programme note. For instance, in the latter the third movement was described as music which was ‘ tense and edgy’. What was conveyed in this performance was the sheer  high spirits of the music, very much the composer still under the influence of Haydn. I am all for being reminded that the young and even at times the old Beethoven could be as witty and as humorous as his mentor. Again in the last movement the Trio I felt found more variation of dynamics ,of mood, of light and shade than  the movement’s  ‘blunt energy’ referred to in the programme. Conversely , the second theme as played here emerged as rather more than a ‘relaxed interlude’, so delightful was the playing.  However, that said, the eruption towards the end of the movement was played with  an explosive force which did indeed look forward to revolutionary times.

So, it was no surprise that the Trio should prove able to handle the enormous range  of utterance within the  Shostakovich Trio. Here the cello was to the forefront more often and one could see in such moments as the terrifyingly weird cello sound at the opening of the piece and the part the instrument plays in the searing climax towards the end of the last movement just why firstly  Sheku  should have chosen  a Shostakovich  concerto for the BBC final and secondly why he should have won the competition. For a moment one wondered whether the ghost of Rostropovich was amongst us.

However, the work is not a concerto for cello. It covers a huge range of feeling but so often it is music that is raw on the nerves and the composer never flinches from leaving each instrumentalist fearsomely exposed at times. Suffice to say that the composer’s intentions were fearlessly communicated and this listener’s nerves at least were duly shredded. The bitter, sardonic moments in the score were conveyed with cracking force but as impressive was how in the third movement, for instance, the extended construction of the poignant passacaglia was effortlessly maintained. How interesting that Shostakovich and Britten, arguably the two greatest composers of the mid 20c. and who sometime after the composition of this work became close friends, should both have been drawn to this form quite separately.

After a prolonged ovation from the audience, these superbly talented young artists played as an encore  Coleridge-Taylor’s eloquently simple setting of ‘Deep River’, just to remind us perhaps that there has been a past and hopefully will be an expanding future for black classical musicians.

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The Philharmonia- Simon Trpceski, Elim Chan. December 2nd 2017

Once it was quite common to hear conductors when being interviewed referring to the ‘gentlemen of the orchestra’ , the reason being that half the human race was denied work in symphony orchestras for a number of what appeared even then to be utterly phony reasons. For instance, it was declared that a string section with women in it would not have the same power as one with only men! This kind of musical misogyny was I gather still present until comparatively recently in such antediluvian organisations as the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Philharmonia, however, did appoint women musicians quite early on, in the late 50’s or early 60’s. However, apparently all was not entirely sweetness and light. I remember my future wife pointing out to me at one concert that a very attractive young woman with flaming red hair had joined the string section since we had last heard the orchestra. Many years later I read in a history of the orchestra that about this time a new young woman string player in the orchestra had caught the eye of the aged but sometimes manic Klemperer. Whether it was the player my wife had noted history does not tell, though there were few if any others in the orchestra to choose from who quite fitted the anecdote. Whatever, it appears that the besotted conductor apparently demanded during one Edinburgh Festival that , instead of being booked into the best hotel in the city, he should be given a room in the hostel where the orchestra was billeted, backing up his demand with a threat to cancel the concerts if he didn’t get his way. Happily it seems he was eventually pacified and he agreed to remain where he had been put, in his hotel. Not surprisingly then in such a world the further step, that of a woman actually conducting a symphony orchestra, was thought the stuff of madness and so it has largely remained until quite recently. Perhaps only in the 21c has it been generally accepted that gender has nothing to do with the ability to flourish a baton effectively.

Such thoughts occurred when the ever so young looking and petite Elim Chan, in 2014 the first female winner of the prestigious Donatella Flick Conducting Competition and here a late substitute for the indisposed Urbanski ,literally ran onto the stage. It was perhaps only natural to wonder whether she would hack it when faced by this, one of the world’s greatest orchestras.

Well, hack it she did. From the very first downbeat, it was clear that here was someone who had very definite ideas about how things should go and  as importantly was able to get an orchestra to be absolutely with her on the musical journey. In Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture with eloquent hand movements she shaped everything with great clarity and much detail which sometimes is passed by here emerged into the light. There was perhaps sometimes a price to be paid in that occasionally the onward narrative and passionate impetus of the work was slightly lost in the desire to reveal the numerous beauties of the score on the way. However, refinement is on balance to be preferred to crash and bash and it was clear that here was a musician to be reckoned with.

Next she proved herself to be a sympathetic accompanist to what some might have thought a red blooded, others a brash performance of the same composer’s first Piano Concerto given by the Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski. I inclined to the first viewpoint. What I found particularly interesting and compelling was how different instruments can produce such different outcomes even in the most well known music. Here the pianist elected to play the DMH’s Fazioli , a piano lighter in sound than that produced by the ubiquitous heavyweight Steinways so popular on the circuit. In the past there have been times when the Fazioli has sounded too lightweight for the big 19c heavyweight concertos.  Here ,though, the pianist managed to ride the orchestra without trouble and and there were many compensations arising out of the piano’s clear crystalline tone . One was reminded how refreshing ,exhilarating  and unportentous this concerto can sound , absolutely bursting as it is with fresh ideas. There are enough of these in the first movement alone for a whole work. Also I had forgotten , besides the brilliance and the virtuosity, how many  magical moments there are and not just for the solo instrument. As ever the orchestra’s fine principal flautist Samuel Coles featured not just in this work but throughout the evening. There was, it is true, a touch of the showman about Trpceski but why not? I found his infectious enthusiasm to be in the end irresistible, particularly in such moments as the great melody at the end of the third movement which, played as it was here with such passion by both pianist and orchestra, made for a memorable climax to the work.

Finally, on this Russian/ Shakespearean journey we were given excerpts from Prokofiev’s wonderful music for the Ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Here the conductor’s relish for detail in the scoring really paid off. Rarely have I been so aware of the marvels of this work’s orchestration. The weight of the orchestral sound, characteristically underpinned by bass brass, was astonishing. The death of Tybalt was quite shattering, as in a different way was the tenderness the conductor coaxed from the orchestra in the portrait of Juliet as a young girl and the poignant reprise for a moment in Juliet’s Funeral of the love music. This was a fine performance indeed, underlined by the orchestra, which had been on top form throughout, insisting that the conductor take a bow on her own. How well had she deserved it.

Lunchtime Series: Haffner Wind Ensemble- 30th November 2017

It was good to welcome back the Haffner Wind Ensemble. Even if, unless my memory is failing, it has been some time since this particular ensemble has played here, of course the individual members of the quintet are well known in this part of the world and hence were received as old friends. They have long ago established reputations as superb artists of the very first rank so one expected an hour’s superb playing in a programme both innovative and compelling. And that is what we got. I knew none of the works but each was clearly worth bringing into the light, which in such programmes is by no means always the case.

Firstly, the transcription for woodwind of Beethoven’s String Quintet Op.4, though Nicholas Daniel’s description of its tortuous history I am afraid lost me, in the event was recognisably by the Master’s hand, though at times it seemed derived much from Mozart or Haydn. None the worse for that. In particular one delighted at the crystal clarity of the ensemble’s playing in the outer movements, fully bringing out the composer’s wit. In the deification process that went on in the 19c the puckish Beethoven took a back seat, perhaps rather like Shakespeare’s rude humour becoming almost an embarrassment and resulting in the  expunging of such things as the Porter’s scene in ‘Macbeth’. It was splendid to be reminded just how much laughter was part of the composer’s palette.  Conversely the lovely flute playing in the andante and the drive of the third movement brought into focus a young composer intent on making a splash.

Secondly came Barber’s Summer Music. Barber is a composer clearly being re-evaluated as the avant garde fades into history. Glyndebourne is producing his opera ‘Vanessa ‘ next year and his Violin Concerto is close to becoming a repertory piece. His music seems to me at its best to tap into a rich lyrical seam such as is to be found in the famous vocal setting of Knoxville 1915 where nostalgia for childhood and past times creates in the music an overwhelmingly powerful effect. Summer Music seemed very much in the same vein and vividly portrayed at times the somnolence of a warm summer’s day and the feeling of well being. Something to be savoured, I feel.

Lastl,y we had 15 minutes of a witty set of variations by the 20c. French pianist and composer Jean-Michel Damase, very much in the tradition of music by the composers who called themselves Les Six. Some time ago I heard a concert devoted entirely to French 20c. musical wit and naughtiness and by the end of it felt it had long outstayed its welcome. Not so here. Played with huge panache it was a delightful and perfectly judged end to the concert. Once again the articulation and verve of the playing at times lifted one out of one’s seat.

Speaking of which, sitting as I do in the middle of the Gallery, at times I mildly cursed myself that I had forgotten the power and pungency of a wind ensemble sound in an intimate space and how astringent and piercing in climaxes the combined trebles of flute, oboe and clarinet could  sound close to. It only really mattered in the Barber where at times I had to force myself to imagine the languid atmosphere of the summer’s day referred to in the programme. Next time when the winds come I shall make a point of retreating to the back where I was told distance did indeed lend enchantment!

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.

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.

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!

The Leicester International Music Festival September 21st-23rd

After the musical desert that is largely Leicester during the summer months, how wonderful it is to return in September to the International Festival. Except that for a thirsty and famished soul who staggers into an oasis and is looking for sustenance, perhaps ideally it is better to start with water and the odd date rather than a box of the most wonderful chocolates.

The result was that I was minded to recall in a very different context the young Queen Victoria’s writing to Lord Melbourne her prime minister and telling him that she had found her wedding night ‘most gratifying and bewildering ‘. In truth this diarist found himself not a little bewildered at times in the five concerts, finding time and again that some opinion was formed only for, in a piece that followed, that firm reaction to be brought into question. Of course, that is what a festival ought to be about. It cannot be said enough times that there is no point to such an event if it does not play a proportion of music in different, sometimes surprising formats and  feature at least some works that are rarely heard.

However, it does make for difficulty in writing coherently about such a mixture , particularly when the senses have been bombarded by over 20 works. The problem was made more difficult by the juxtaposition of two great composers about whose music I have differing personal  preferences. I have always relished much of Schumann’s music.  Conversely my reaction to Bach’s immense oeuvre has been a good deal more equivocal and I certainly do not go misty eyed whenever his name is mentioned.

So, one should not perhaps attempt a birdseye view of the Festival at this moment. Better and more honest might be to write from the immediate impressions noted during each concert  and then see whether anything  worthwhile remains to be written.

 

Thursday Event 1

The show got on a road with a splendid performance of Reger’s transcription for Piano duet of Bach’s Brandenburg No. 3. Charles Owen and Katya Apekishiva have in recent years built a formidable reputation as a duo in four handed transcriptions and at the Festival one remembers Stravinsky’s, and last year, Holst ‘s orchestral scores being realised to startling effect  on the piano. Reger’s transcription, written for playing no doubt in the home when the original was unlikely to be heard much in performance, perhaps not surprisingly did not deliver quite such a clout. Despite the rhythmic elan of the playing and some delightful phrasing, the piano could only partially give the crucial lift and sense of spatial interplay to be had from the original string ensemble.

In Schumann’s Marchenbilder there was just a slight sense of artists feeling their way. The balance between piano and violist was not ideal in places. However, what was really noteworthy here was the introduction of the American Violist Richard O’Neill to an ensemble otherwise comprised of old friends . It was soon obvious that the ensemble had acquired another rare talent. His rich husky tone in the emotion of the last movement was truly memorable.

And then things fully came together in the Piano trio Op 80, in which violinist Giovanni Guzzo and Guy Johnston joined the concert’s pianist throughout, Katya Apekishiva, in a sparkling performance, full of drive and at times of impish humour in outer movements and lilting grace in the third movement. A lovely work.

 

 

 

 

Thursday Event 2

The evening concert began with Bach’s Partita for solo violin No.3.played with great panache. The variety of shading and vibrant depth of tone was memorable indeed from Guzzo.  Following it came one of my favourites, Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style for cello and piano, played by Johnston  and Owen, a piece full of memorable melody and very much asserting that depth can lie in simplicity. Much like a troubadour wandering into the Museum, the Festival’s Music Director Nicholas Daniel took over two of the pieces from the cello, to particularly fine effect in the second movement’s lovely melody.

The whole made something of a contrast with the Violin Sonata No.3 that followed, thought to have been lost for a century. This marked the welcome return of Marina Chiche, here in tandem with Owen. They made a passionate case for the Sonata but on a first hearing the jury remained out. It had occurred to me at times in the past that, when this composer was not at full throttle, in the search for dramatic and onward movement he could fall into huff and puff with much repetition and short winded gesture. The short lyrical intermezzo in contrast came across as a jewel amongst much that seemed paste.

After the interval there was another curiosity, Bach’s Cello Suite transcribed for viola. Now, it requires in the original a very fine performance of these suites to engage my attention fully so it was intriguing to find that O’Neill’s viola had me hooked. Was it perhaps because the instrument and the peerless playing made the dance basis of the music seem so much less effortful than on a cello? It was certainly extraordinary when with stamping foot the artist almost evoked the world of gypsy music. Certainly I had never before seen any connection to flamenco in Bach’s music. Extraordinary!

As was the performance of the Schumann’s third Piano Trio. Chiche, the indefatigable lone cellist of the ensemble Johnston and Owen seemed to find endless beauties and shifts of mood in this work. Again I was struck by the stream of memorable lyricism in Schumann’s best music but also the players brought out the humour and the occasional moments of weird almost other worldliness, which reminded one perhaps of where Elgar got some of his inspiration in his late chamber works.

 

Friday Event 3

This morning concert was a total delight. It started with Owen playing Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. Enough to say that for once I was utterly caught by the composer’s inventiveness, particularly in playing of this quality.

After that were featured works within the group entitled Fantasiestucke, published at various times in Schumann’s life and seeming to bring out the essence of his genius. Of course, some would have them as essentially episodic and therefore slight when set against more complex musical forms. Thankfully such academic snobbery when it comes to the Piano Trio Op 88 and Op .73 for  piano and clarinet, here transcribed for oboe and played with liquid  beauty by Nicholas Daniel, does not seem to bother most concertgoers, particularly when the music is so diverse as it is in these pieces.  Katya Apekisheva underlined all this in her fine performance of four pieces from Op12 for  Piano. Here her dynamic range was immense as she sought out the variety in the music. Particularly memorable was her pearl -like tone in the quieter moments of the pieces . Once or twice the pianissimos were breathtakingly soft.

 

 

 

 

Friday Event 4

The prospect of another Reger transcription of a Bach work did not particularly enthuse.  It should have because in the event  it was an astonishing realisation for piano duet of the organ work Passacaglia in C minor, despite effects that no doubt would enrage those concerned by authenticity. True it seemed almost like Mussorgsky; the piano sounded for all the world like pealing bells on occasions. However, the grandeur in this tremendous performance was absolutely authentic.

It was followed by a performance of the cello suite No.4 which failed to take fire. I felt it was the one doubtful piece of programming in the Festival. It really must  have been truly daunting for Guy Johnston, the sole cellist in the ensemble,  indefatigable artist though he is, to find himself two thirds of the way up an exhausting climb and then faced by the North Wall of the Eiger.

I feared he was running out of oxygen but from some hidden reserves he found his fourth breath before the interval to take part in a performance of Schumann’s delightful 6 Studies in Canonic Form (What a dreadful title!)  in which the oboe in an adaptation for this concert brought into sharp relief such things as the humour and folk basis of the music.

In the interval oxygen was clearly administered to the cellist for miraculously he returned apparently refreshed to take part in an extraordinary performance of the Piano Quintet. But more of that later.

 

Saturday Event 5

And so to the last concert, which was a fitting end to such magnificent music making . It did not start especially well for me for I found Bach’s Partita No. 4 with all the repeats something of a trial. Even when performed with such panache by Charles Owen, I find myself in such music thinking about the intricate working of a wonderful clock and am rather repelled not to say bored by such perfection. It must be my literary and decidedly unmathematical turn of mind.

Yet later in the same concert it was about turn again, this time in the same composer’s Chaconne from Partita No.2. Here was a form which I understood, a form incidentally, with the Passacaglia, that inspired Britten to some of his finest music. In this instance the theme followed by a series of variations had a dramatic momentum which was unforgettable when performed with such eloquence by Chiche and Owen.

In between we had had a rather wonderful transcription by Colin Matthews for oboe and string trio of the Schumann Song  Mondnacht  and then a performance of Brahms’ Horn Trio in which Martin Owen joined the ensemble. This fine player’s gorgeously rich tone brought out the work’s range of mood and the player managed quite wonderfully to draw attention to the work’s constant interplay and shifts of mood . In the last movement one expected huntsman and hounds at anytime to  invade the Museum, such was vigour of the playing.

Then the Festival was brought to a close on another wave of fine music making with Schumann’s Piano quartet op 47, a rather neglected work beside the Quintet. On the evidence of this performance such neglect is very unjust. Its invention is of a high order and there are moments of sheer genius like the ending of the andante. A lengthy ovation quite rightly followed for all the players involved in the Festival.

 

 

 

 

Last word!

Every year it needs to be said what a debt is owed to all who organise and play in this event. It is in my experience every year a unique journey of concentrated and focussed music making and every year there is at least one never to be forgotten performance. This year that was the performance on the penultimate evening by Marina Chiche, Giovanni Guzzo , Richard O’Neill, Guy Johnston and Charles Owen of the Piano Quintet. This was without doubt one of the greatest chamber music performances I have ever heard and to judge from the cheers afterwards I was not alone in thinking that. It had overwhelming momentum. In particular the second movement’s wonderful  theme was played with such heartrending feeling and the outburst of anguish in the middle of the movement  delivered with such ferocity ( one thought that the viola in particular was about to combust !) that for this listener at least, and one suspects for many others, some of the most personal  moments of one’s life were brought achingly to mind. It had that intensity and eloquence. In such a performance Schumann’s genius was truly made manifest. Indeed ‘from darkness to light’ .

 

 

Dates for your Diary

Thurs. 5th October 1.00  New Walk Museum : Craig Ogden the great guitarist opens this season’s Lunchtime Series.

Sat. 7th. October 7.00 DMH:   Jacob Hrusa, the new guest conductor of the Philharmonia, conducts music from his homeland , the Dvorak Violin  Conc. with the great Hilary Hahn making her Leicester debut and then Smetana’s Ma Vlast in its complete form. ( Please note the earlier than usual start.)