Bardi Symphony Orchestra- Chiche, Johnston,Poster, Efland

As readers of this diary are no doubt aware, its principal aim is to ensure that the many eminent professional musicians who play in the city receive some acknowledgement of their efforts. On a personal level, as a consequence, since the diarist travels regularly to musical events in the other Midland cities and London , Leicester’s non- professional  music making scene has had to be rigorously ignored if one was not to suffer from overkill. So,when I was attracted to the prospect of hearing on a Sunday afternoon a Beethoven concerto that I had never heard in the concert hall, it was the first time for several years that I had been to a concert of a non- professional  orchestra and there was no thought about it being an entry in the diary. It was simply an opportunity to hear Marina Chiche, Guy Johnston and Tom Poster, three stalwarts of the Leicester Chamber Music scene, in an unfamiliar setting.

And it has to be said that that alone made the outing well worthwhile. Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is very much the Cinderella of his concertos and certainly it scales no heights. However, a country walk in the lowlands has its own delights and there are certainly many of those to be found in this work. I can dimly remember at university hearing a recording and finding myself humming the last movement theme for weeks afterwards. It is truly a Sunday afternoon occasion in which the unaffected pleasure of the making of music is the foremost aim and this came across here even in a concert hall setting. Leicester knows what fine musicians these artists are but what emerged in spades was the sheer delight they were feeling during this presumably rare opportunity to perform this music in public. Violinist and pianist spent most o their time with smiles on their faces. Guy Johnston looked a little more solemn but then he had the most taxing moments in the piece to play! With a spry accompaniment, the performance did justice to the work and I thought I had been right to come.

Indeed, after that and with the best will in the world, the prospect of a non- professional orchestra attempting to cope with Strauss’ heroic life made an alternative  prospect of early tea and scones quite beguiling. In particular, past experience had suggested such orchestras were usually strongest in the wind sections and least reliable in the strings. That this, if true, would be a severe problem in a work like Ein Heldenleben was obvious.

Well, I stayed and my fears could not have been more groundless. From the very first bars my face must have been a picture, with mouth wide open and eyes just about to pop out my head. Where was this sound coming from, this richly lustrous and splendidly vigorous attack? I grew up only knowing the dry acoustic of the original Royal Festival Hall and, with the exception of the Philharmonia, my memory suggests London orchestras of that time struggled to produce the sort of string sound one was listening to here in 2018 coming from a non- professional orchestra.

So within a few minutes I had switched from cautious optimism that most things would be   in place to the way one goes that extra distance and engages with the interpretative qualities of the performance. These seemed to me to be considerable. The work’s range of feeling was all there. It helped of course that the leader was Adam Summerhayes who was simply superb in what amounts to a mini violin concerto depicting the centre of the composer’s life ,his handful of a wife , a subject Strauss returned to in one or two other major works.  However, the summation of that episode is one of the most glorious themes Strauss ever wrote and it needs to burgeon into gold. This is exactly  what it did here, to glorious and moving effect. Conversely, Strauss’ skewering of the Beckmessers was delivered with piercing sound from woodwind and brass. True, there were the occasional moments when the wash of sound blurred but overall the performance did full justice to the outrageous vigour of Strauss’ vision. I have not heard Claus Efland conduct for a long time. He is clearly a conductor capable of galvanising players to go where his interpretation of work guides him. It resulted in a performance which yielded so much more than simple relieved satisfaction at an orchestra  having got through a complex piece of music without a train crash!

Lastly, I could not but compare this tone poem with Liszt’s Les Preludes performed last week in the DMH, see the previous entry to the Diary. In my opinion that music was bombast to the nth degree. During my lifetime that has been all too often the sniffy response to Ein Heldenleben, often from worthy people who think that the concert hall should be nearer to a church than a place of entertainment. Hopefully we can now see what a wonderfully vital work it is, written by one of the greatest masters of the orchestra there has ever been. In this performance I found myself prey to the full gamut of feelings about what life can be and no-one, but no-one, should be sniffing at that.

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The Philharmonia- Anush Hovhannisyan,Stuart Jackson , Christoph Altstaedt, May 8th 2018

In many ways it has been an outstanding season for the Philharmonia Residency with several concerts which have been truly memorable. Indeed, the penultimate one given by Esa -Pekka Salonen was in the celestial bracket. Therefore, clearly the final concert with its amalgam of young singers in operatic excerpts and short orchestral works was expected to be quite different and to showcase repertoire that rarely features in the orchestra’s concerts. This was an admirable aim.                       However, the enterprise was sadly subjected to cancellations. The proposed connection with Glyndebourne did not happen, the programme was changed as a result with Massenet disappearing and the vocal part of the programme became simply excerpts from La Traviata. Finally one of singers cried off.  Add to that the poor publicity which perhaps resulted in what looked like an audience significantly below the usual full or nearly full house, and it was surprising that it was not a complete disaster. However, in truth it was a concert that was not within reaching distance of giving the satisfaction usually experienced in this Residency and rather sadly finished the season without any real flourish.

Not that it was without pleasures. Indeed, the orchestra’s playing of the Prelude to La Traviata, one of the most sheerly beautiful beginnings of any opera, produced a sound far richer than is often possible with an orchestra buried in a theatre pit. Then there was the late substitute, the Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan who immediately established why she had made the final of the 2017 Cardiff Competition and had received some outstanding reviews for her performance as Violetta with the Scottish Opera. It was immediately clear that she has a voice of great power, agility and beauty. It was also obvious that she had performed the role on the stage in that with her movements and facial expressions she was able in less than ideal conditions, simply standing there in an evening dress, to convey the tragic poignancy of Violetta’s position.

The young British tenor Stuart Jackson also revealed a voice that has a fine ring to it and is used with considerable artistry. However, in this context he struggled to establish Alfredo as much of a dramatic foil to Violetta, not least perhaps because Verdi  declines to give the character the same rich complexity as his heroine. However, I felt the main culprit to be the format. This was an impossibly half hearted effort to deliver a great opera in potted form, with the protagonists simulating the unfolding tragedy by drifting on and off stage, occasionally having a cuddle and  with Violetta finally dying standing up supported by her lover. It was something and nothing which might not have been the case had what appeared to be the original intention of featuring  operatic highlights from two very different  composers been achieved.

After the interval there was even less focus to the proceedings. One had sympathy for the conductor Cristoph Altstaedt making his debut in Leicester having to breathe life into two shortish free standing orchestral works. Batonless, he clearly had control. In the opera there had been moments when the points made in the orchestra suggested a keen musical mind. The Prelude has already been mentioned but also of note were moments such as in the 2rd Act where violas and cellos produced a searing sound wonderfully apt to the unfolding tragic situation between Violetta and her lover.

However, in the Siegfried Idyll and Les Preludes he struggled to inject much character into the music. Not that there is much character in the first place in Liszt’s tone poem. Liszt was a kind man and befriended and supported Berlioz through the many disappointments of the latter’s life. On this occasion, though, I found myself thinking that he would have done well to have learnt something about orchestration from his French friend. I had often wondered why Liszt’s  tone poems are so rarely performed . The extraordinary bombast of certain passages in this work told me why. Romanticism, whether in music or in literature, certainly has more than its fair share of dreadful moments of inflation .  Here the programme told us that one theme represents the ‘insoluble puzzle of man’s existence’ to be followed by one that describes ‘Man after the battle for self awareness’, in this instance arguably a battle which the composer had most assuredly lost.

The Wagner is, of course, another matter but in the orchestral version of the Idyll there is something of the same inflationary problem . In the original it is a wonderfully loving musical poem to Cosima.  In the full orchestral version that quality can be difficult to convey and so it proved here. It seemed a well executed performance but not once for me did it convey the tenderness and love that lies at the centre of this beautiful work.  Perhaps the problem was again the format in that the short second half of the concert seemed simply a postscript to the main purpose of the evening.

So, in all honesty it was a rather unsatisfying end to a fine season. Happily, on paper it looks as if the next season should be of an equally high quality.

 

News

Before the Summer break there are still two musical events not to be missed in Leicester.

  1. For those of us who like whole operas we have what has become the annual visit of the fine English Touring Opera to Curve to look forward to. They are offering the Marriage of Figaro on the 29th of this month and on the 30th Il Tabarro (The Cloak) and Gianni Schicchi from Puccini’s three one act operas that go to make up Il Trittico . Both evenings have received high praise from London critics.
  2. At the New Walk Museum on Saturday June 23rd at 7.30 the Leicester International Music Festival is mounting as in previous years a celebrity Piano Recital, given this year by the exciting Russian pianist Yefgeny Sudbin in a programme of Haydn, Chopin, Beethoven, Scriabin and Saint- Saens.

The Philharmonia- David Fray, Esa-Pekke Salonen, April 10th, 2018

There are concerts which are poor (mercifully very rare in Leicester), there are concerts which are mediocre, there are those which pass an hour or two pleasantly, and then there are those which are good or even very good , of which we seem in Leicester to have had more than our fair share this season. Then finally there are those which are revelatory , never to be forgotten experiences. Into that category came the concert given in DMH by the Philharmonia under its chief conductor Esa-Pekke Salonen, with, as soloist, David Fray. It was much anticipated, as the large audience showed, but for this listener at least the actuality transcended by a distance the expectation.

Perhaps the total package offered helped putting the mind into a receptive state, in that as Friend  there was the opportunity to attend a 90 minute rehearsal  and then came a conversation between John Florance and the conductor before the concert started. I found the rehearsal in itself rather moving. So often these peeps behind the scene frankly reveal very little . They often seem little more than run throughs. This was different. What came across, beyond the super efficiency in which conductor and orchestra used the time, was the palpable rapport and oneness of thought on the stage, no grandstanding at all. In the talk the conductor spoke of the Philharmonia with self evident affection ,remarking that other conductors he had spoken to also were obviously full of admiration about how it had preserved over the years, even with obviously great changes of personnel,  a culture that made it the most friendly of orchestras. I remembered also how the late Lorin Maazel once remarked on his 21st century return to conduct them regularly that he thought them to be quite the easiest orchestra in the world to conduct and that, back in the dark ages, Toscanini after his first rehearsal with them, is alleged to have said to Walter Legge, the founder of the orchestra, that a conductor who could not make fine music with his orchestra had no right to conduct. One could see both aspects in this rehearsal.

So perhaps by the time one had arrived at the actual concert one was in a super receptive mood. Whatever , one of the things that immediately struck home was something that has been often commented upon in regard to front rank British orchestras and that is the difference between what they deliver in rehearsal and what comes out in the actual concert, when the voltage seems of a different order. What I heard in rehearsal here seemed impressive enough, I thought, but it was as nothing compared with the vibrancy of sound in the concert itself. Some of that might be down to the acoustics, to having a full rather than an empty hall, but even that could not explain fully the difference between the two sounds.

That applied as much to the pianist David Fray in Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto.  In February last year, I found this artist rather underwhelming on his debut in the city but I did wonder at the time whether the piano he played upon was largely to blame. Well ,this time he played on DMH’s Fazioli and I can only report that the difference it appeared to make was startling. It could have been that the pianist prefers Beethoven to Schumann but somehow I doubt this since the qualities in his playing here would have served quite as well with the latter composer. There was in the performance a crystalline clarity and poetry which I found utterly beguiling, with subtle phrasing and a lovely range of colour. The ending of the slow movement  in its bareness of utterance was delivered as something utterly ethereal and the last movement had a lightness of tread and wit which was delightful . Just to remind us that it was Beethoven and not Mozart, the conductor employed a quite large body of strings and with the lengthy orchestral interventions in this work being  suitably dramatic and weighty , the whole performance displayed both sides of the coin to perfection.

And so to Mahler’s First Symphony. I have long ago come to the conclusion that people’s opinions as to how this composer’s music should be performed tend to be sometimes quite stupidly definite and prescriptive.  Not so long ago in many quarters he was unmentionable as a composer. When at Oxford in the 50’s I was told by the organ scholar of my college that the Professor of Music had declared in his hearing that the only work of Mahler which would maintain a place in the repertory would be the Song of the Earth. A few years after this, in the 60’s, my wife and I had Mahler coming out of our ears. It was wonder after wonder and yet another argument then started raging as to how his music should be performed. Klemperer was then in London the high priest of Mahler performance since he had worked with the composer as a young man.  However, so had Bruno Walter who was still conducting at that time ( but very rarely in London)and clearly the two men had very different ideas about the master’s intentions. I remember a TV programme on which Klemperer appeared and in which he declared in regard to Mahler performance Walter to be a moralist whilst he said, with a gleam in his eye, that he was an amoralist. I took this to mean that he found Walter’s performances over indulgent. That was certainly not true of Klemperer’s interpretations  in which to a fault if my memory is accurate he presented a Mahler that was memorably sardonic , biting, rasping, rough at the edges.

Rather sadly, quite often savage polarisation of opinion remains to this day and has affected  on occasions critical  judgements of  Esa- Pekke Salonen’s performances of Mahler. I still shudder when I remember reading on a web site a New York critic’s review of a performance of his of a Mahler symphony, I think no.6,, a review  which, whilst praising the Philharmonia , dismissed the conductor’s interpretation as essentially ‘ unmusical’, a truly astounding comment to make of one of the most outstanding musicians of our age or indeed of  any age I have lived through.

For me that profound musicianship emerged in spades in this performance. It had a sovereign control which is so necessary in Mahler if the disparate elements that are so part of Mahler’s musical universe are not to fly apart bringing the structure tumbling down. Conversely , the problem can be that such control can make the music sound almost clinical ( I found Boulez’s  performances could tend to be like that ) but here never for a moment did I feel that the emotion and the drama were underplayed.  I shall never forget how in the DMH the awakening of nature seemed to come from the very deepest parts of the earth. The opening pianissimo bordered on silence. Freres Jacques  was wonderfully menacing, as was the outburst that heralds the start of the final movement. This had a truly colossal striking force, only for it to be topped if anything  by peroration at the symphony’s  end.

However, equally impressive were the quieter moments of the symphony . The wonderful thing it seemed to me was that the interpretation in the lovely but fleeting song like interludes in the last two movements avoided any suggestion of syrup. Given what happens in the rest of the symphony one certainly felt that the beauty was not entirely to be believed. The sardonic was never quite absent perhaps, yet at the same time tears were brought to the eyes that such a world could be thought to exist at all. Here the string playing wonderfully avoided any tendency to lushness, managing somehow to create a sound both warm and astoundingly  pure.

Overall, the orchestra was on the kind of form which leads this listener to think it a musical body with few rivals anywhere in the world and its conductor on the evidence of this night fit to be given a place in some Valhalla for great musicians. The audience I am pleased to say seemed to be of like mind!

Lunchtime Series: The Aronowitz Ensemble, 22nd March 2018

This season of Lunchtime Concerts at the Museum has been possibly the finest for many years both in quality of performance and in programmes which offer a wider range of works than can sometimes feature in Chamber Music Series. The arrival of the Aronowitz Ensemble to deliver the final concert of the season was hardly likely to do other than strengthen that impression. This ensemble has, in its variety of guises in response to change of repertoire, given some fine and intriguing concerts in Leicester in the past and this one was no exception .

The composition of the ensemble this time saw the return to Leicester of those stalwarts of our music scene, pianist Tom Poster and cellist Guy Johnston, in itself as near a copper bottomed assurance of stellar playing as it is possible to have. This time they brought with them the Dutch violist Simone van der Giessen of the Navarra Quartet and the British violinist Mathilde Milwidsky who has been receiving some fine notices recently as she embarks on her career. Thus, it was no surprise that what we got was playing of the highest order.

The concert began with the single completed movement of Schubert’s String Trio D471 and it could not have been more delightfully interpreted.  The players produced a rich sound which never cloyed into chocolate. Everything was light and airy. The phrasing sounded blissfully natural so that the blithe charm of much of the music came across fully. They also, though,  conveyed the moments  when it seemed, to me at least, that the  Schubertian world  of the last sublime works was waiting to surface and take his music far beyond charm.

This was followed by Brahms’ expansive Piano Quartet Op26. which was an experience that this listener is still rather struggling to come to terms with. Tom Poster remarked that this was a work which was one of the least performed of the composer’s early works and certainly I cannot remember having heard it either live or recorded. In addition he remarked that he would probably choose it for his desert island so the bar was set pretty high.

As I listened, a memory came into my head of when I was new to classical music. My mother and I sat ourselves in front of the radio to listen to what proved to be the last two concerts that Toscanini gave in London. He was performing all of Brahms’ symphonies, none of which I had heard before. In fact, the only Brahms I remember hearing was the famous tune from the First Symphony which introduced a BBC programme whose name was I think ‘These you have Loved’. It was a kind of Classic FM of its day . I must have thought that the whole symphonies were going to be like that for I declared grandly to Mama at the end that it was all very impressive but that I thought that Brahms didn’t write very many good tunes!

That memory has stayed with me as a warning of rushing to judgment on a first hearing particularly in regard to melody, hence no doubt it floating to the surface on this occasion. However, as I listened and after being assured by various sources that this was a genial and lyrical Brahms, I could not but think that the material of works like the Sextet Op 16 fitted that description a whole sight better. Indeed, the word ‘symphonic’ used in the programme seemed to me much nearer the mark, particularly in the very long and at times rather repetitive opening movement. The drama of  symphonic thought seemed to be uppermost in Brahms’ mind but for me only occasionally did the material of this thought seem in itself particularly memorable, at least on a first hearing. When, for example,  I heard the Sextet, itself rarely played, for the first time at an early Leicester Festival concert, I can remember being overwhelmed almost from the first note with the beauty and clear radiance of the writing.

Perhaps it is crabbed old age but that did not happen here, alas. In fact with Op 26 I found myself rather agreeing with the comment to be found in a CD Guide that the work presented problems both for audience and players. I wondered whether in regard the latter it was a reference at least in part to the difficulties of instrumental balance the work seems to create . It is well known that some have found Brahms’ quartet writing generally rather heavy and thick as it strains for symphonic weight and yet I have for example heard the Piano Quintet Op.34( i.e. a quintet with a full quartet of stringed instruments) a number of times live, and I cannot remember issues like that arising . Yet at times in this work the piano writing seemed near to overwhelming everything going on in the three stringed instruments. Indeed, the most memorable moment for me in the whole work was in the slow movement when the composer to ravishing effect reduced the sound to that simply of the violin and the cello.  To be sure there was much splendid playing throughout. The drama and energy of the work came across in the last two movements in particular and the attack was beyond praise but  at the end I was still in need of persuasion that this was one of Brahms’ most successful works. I very much fear that it would do little to alleviate the lonely misery of my desert island!  However, I promise to purchase a CD of it and then probably will find all the things that I missed first time round the block. Surprise is one of the pleasures of listening to good music.

I quite often finish by wishing all the players a swift return to Leicester and actually Tom Poster and Guy Johnston will be doing just that on May 13th. when they will be giving, together with Marina Chiche and the Bardi Orchestra, a performance at DMH of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. However, there is cause in the long term both for rejoicing and sadness. I hear that Guy is getting married this Spring and then going to America to a new job at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York State. I am sure all Leicester music lovers will wish him and his wife all good fortune and hope he will manage to return just occasionally to this side of the pond and in particular to our city.

 

NEWS

There are still in the next few months some toothsome musical delicacies in prospect. Firstly though nobody should miss the next Philharmonia Concert at DMH on April 10th with their chief conductor Esa-Pekke Salonen  at the helm. Featured is the pianist Daniel Fray playing Beethoven’s second concerto and then comes a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony. For me Salonen is one of the finest conductors I have ever heard, full stop. Like for instance Mahler, Strauss, Boulez, being a composer himself seems to enable him to go right to the centre of things in a score. The result usually is an extraordinary clarity especially when he has an instrument like the Philharmonia at the end of his stick.

Lunchtime Series: Matthew Trusler and Ashley Wass, March 8th.2018

It was some years since I had heard what I remembered as two fine artists, Matthew Trusler and Ashley Wass , so I was very much looking forward to hearing them again, this time as a duo. The programme looked to be a fascinating one, Beethoven in his sunniest of moods, Vaughan Williams at his most ecstatic and Prokofiev at his most engaging with his unique blend of the lyrical and the acerbic. In the event though, things did not turn out quite as expected.

It is true that there was much to admire in the performance of the ‘Spring Sonata’. There was a fine drive to the playing. In the outer movements there were many moments when the rhythm was precisely pointed. Performed with similar precision, the wit of the very short scherzo came across quite delightfully. However, this piece is one of those where the title attached to it surely does tell one something about the essence of the music. Much of the Sonata seems to reflect Beethoven at his most radiant, almost relaxed, and to this listener at least the duo were slightly less successful at conveying that aspect of the piece. It wasn’t exactly a hard driven performance but there were a number of moments where one felt that a more relaxed and expansive approach might have brought dividends, particularly in the slow movement. The dynamic range seemed, at least from the middle of the hall, rather narrow, very much in one’s face and the sound was often rich in the bass but slightly lacking in warmth at the top. Neither violin nor piano seemed very much inclined to really sing.

So, when one came to Vaughan Williams’ lark, one wondered what kind of ascent it would have, particularly since one could not see quite how the sense of space created in a concert hall with an orchestra could be replicated with just two instruments in a small intimate hall. Add to that the fact that at the opening of the work, as the musicians sought to establish an appropriate atmosphere, there were constant interruptions from within the audience and for a short time one really feared for the continuation of the concert. One cannot speak too highly about the forbearance of these artists in a very difficult situation as they persevered with the performance. Then, miraculously, the interruptions gradually ceased and, perhaps because of our being reminded that someone had been possibly suffering amongst us, everything really did take wing in a most remarkable manner. This was music making that seemed to touch the divine, in which the lack of an orchestra was as nothing and in which what had gone before was felt as nothing. After the ovation at the end , I thought once again of how extraordinary it is that this genius of a composer is still little known outside the English speaking world. There is a story about Andre Previn conducting the Tallis Fantasia in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic no less. It seems they were so impressed that one musician asked Previn whether the composer had written anything else. Previn , a droll man if ever there is one, is said to have answered “ Only nine symphonies.”

The rest of the concert was pure joy too. The duo clearly relished Prokofiev’s sardonic wit and flair. The pianist had some wonderful moments in the Court Dance which seemed to underline the pomposity of the dancers, the Winter Fairy glistened with icicles and at the end of the selection the Mazurka was played with such verve as to make us all, if the applause was to be believed, wonder at these players’ virtuosity. That was the supposed end to the concert but Matthew Trusler charmingly wondered whether we could spare another three minutes of our time to listen to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smiles’ from ‘Modern Times’. We could and we did. A perfect end.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Postscript.

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altogether, a stimulating and challenging concert, indeed.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lunchtime Series- James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook, January 25th.2018

In a world which through the invention of the social media has made hype or, as the 18c described it , puff ever more widespread, in which celebrity can be achieved at least for a moment by the truly witless and untalented , it is rather disconcerting to find that you feel yourself in danger of running out of superlatives. It makes one pause to wonder whether one has caught the contagion and that musicians only have to apply a finger to a key board, a bow to a string or for a wind instrument to be blown or a mouth to be opened for one to go weak at the knees. Such is my present dilemma in the regard the ongoing series of Lunchtime Concerts which have seemed to me with hardly an exception to be the best in my memory. I am, however, buoyed up by remembering a number of very wise people back in September thinking it likely to be so and that all that is happening is that for once a prophecy is actually fulfilling itself.

Certainly the recital given by James Gilchrist and Anna Tillbrook never looked on paper likely to break the pattern, nor did it in actuality. In what is perhaps the most demanding of musical forms, in which in the most intense manner it is demanded of both artists that they show pinpoint response not only to the note but also to the word, this was an exemplary lesson in what can be achieved in the form. The singer’s diction was clear so every word and phrase could be savoured ,though full marks to the organisation for providing the audience with texts just in case. James Gilchrist’s approach to the form is so different to my memories of the few recitals I attended in my youth when the singer came on the platform in evening dress, stood magisterially by the piano and at attention delivered the goods. More often now the singer both in voice and body tries to present the inherent drama which is so often present in the best of the genre. Occasionally this can be overdone and can distract from the music , but here it was perfectly gauged so that the audience could feel itself drawn into the centre of the musical journey inherent in all three works featured.

Of course, much more than dramatic gesture is required to keep the attention. The quality of the voice and of the piano playing is paramount and in that respect at times this recital touched the sublime. James Gilchrist has a voice of outstanding purity and power with a capacity to maintain quality through a great range of dynamics. He also clearly responds to the possibilities of a poetic text with great insight. Anna Tillbrook would appear to have the same capacity if one is to judge from the way the piano sound time and again created the world of the words. For instance, it was she ( and of the course Britten)  who created quite magically at the very opening of the concert, as  Canticle 1 My Beloved is Mine began, the cool rippling effect of pebbles in a pure stream by which the poet  creates  the quality of his love.

There was so much to note in the recital. It occurred to me that this was possibly the first time that I had been at a concert devoted entirely to British Song . Better late than never. There are music settings of poetry that have emerged in the last hundred or so year which for the first time in two centuries or more  musically match the great Purcell.  I remember this singer some years ago in this gallery giving a great  performance of Britten’s song  cycle Winter Words and I have long been convinced that there has never been a greater setter of words to music than this composer anywhere or at anytime. This was shown in the Canticle sung here which created in seven minutes a range of feeling worthy of a whole opera.

However, there is much else in the musical renaissance of the last century and in one hour this recital managed to suggest that.  Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel’ perhaps does not quite feel as a song cycle a complete structure like Wintereisse but it is so wonderfully and stoically British! There’s  little of what seems to me sometimes the rather wearisome breast beating so beloved of some of the Romantic German poets which  Schubert often managed to convert into musical gold. Perhaps this refusal  to collapse in a heap  was made more obvious by having a tenor singing rather than a darker baritone. And yet the performance here did indeed remind one very powerfully  of the passing of time, most notably in Whither must I wander in which the sense of times gone by was delivered with almost unbearable poignancy, worthy of Wordsworth’s great poem The Ruined Cottage. Has there ever been a greater melody written?

And what of the meat in the sandwich, only the second performance of Jonathan Dove’s new song cycle Under Alter’d Skies set to seven poems from Tennyson’s huge In Memoriam , a response to the early death of a close friend ? Well, I first heard songs by this composer in last year’s Series of Lunchtime Concerts and was mightily impressed. That is even more so now after buying Kitty Whately’s CD of his songs for mezzo soprano and having heard this work. Here is a composer with an instinctive feel for words, able to work within a largely tonal pallet and yet create a very definite musical voice. Time and again both in the voice and in the piano he seemed here to hit the mark in putting the words to music, searching out in particular the subtle changes of mood unerringly. Also, the selection of the poems did seem to create the turmoil of the heart gradually coming to terms with grief so the work had shape.  First hearing suggests it most certainly deserves to be heard widely.  Hopefully it will be recorded by these artists and they will return again soon with another such thought provoking and finely performed concert.

Lunchtime Series: Laura van der Heijden, Petr Limonov -January11th. 2018

They say that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Well, when it comes to the two Lunchtime concerts that straddled the change of year from 2017 to 2018, it would appear that it can. In December we welcomed the outstanding winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, playing with his siblings in the Kanneh-Mason Trio. In January partnered by the pianist Petr Limonov came another cellist, Laura van der Heijden , the English born daughter of Dutch and Swiss parents and when 15 years of age the 2012 winner of the competition. The former for very good reasons has loomed large in the classical music world over the last year, the latter had until this concert escaped at least my attention. The reason was not hard to find in the programme. She has clearly, and no doubt very wisely, combined an education with a quietly burgeoning concert career. However, be in no doubt that on the evidence of this concert she belongs to what is becoming a royal line of native cellists who have been revealed by the BBC competition, two of whom ,Natalie Clein who won in 1994 and Guy Johnston in 2000, are very well known in Leicester.  In this concert she and Petr Limonov showed themselves both to be outstanding young artists.

As the music making proceeded one thing began to emerge which was not obvious before the recital. With the exception of Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata I knew none of the works being performed but, having heard some of Schnittke’s and Webern’s other compositions, thought that the audience might be in for a testing hour. In fact, it emerged as a beautifully designed concert ,which in itself suggested the high musical intelligence of the designers. We were introduced to Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style ,humorous and ever alert to undermine musical expectations, expectations which were further confounded in Webern’s early Two Pieces for Cello and Piano which almost sounded like Elgar! This was followed by the ‘real’ Webern ,Op 11, which came across perhaps as the still centre of  the concert, where musical statement was stripped down to its barest essentials. Then we were shifted back in a piece by Lyadov to the kind of short work for cello late 19c. Romantic composers could toss off in their sleep, before finally being pitched into Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata Op.119 ‘s  teeming world of invention, in which the iconoclastic jostles with the romantic. It was a constantly intriguing journey. However, whilst it worked as part of a narrative musical pattern, I did wonder whether  we had in the context quite enough time to get fully attuned to Webern’s ultra cryptic utterances. In this setting did it perhaps rather invite a response of ‘So what?’, I wondered. In 2016 a performance in the Museum of music of similar aims if rather greater length, a quartet by the legendary contemporary composer Kurtag,  certainly did not invite such a response, love it or hate it.

As to the performances given by this duo, perhaps one might concentrate on the final work and for a change start by handing a bouquet to the pianist. There is sometimes an inclination to think that the pianist in a cello sonata is essentially an accompanist. Indeed, I have a CD of the Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata  issued by a major recording company not so many years ago in which the cover of the  CD is filled by a picture of the cellist with the name of the pianist consigned to the bottom corner, and this in a work written by one of the greatest pianists of all time who obviously had every intention of giving equal if not greater attention to the instrument. The same might apply to the Prokofiev Sonata written by another Russian virtuoso pianist.  To say that Petr Limonov rose to the challenge is an understatement. In the third movement there was a fine swagger to a passage that reminded one of such things as the March from the Love for Three Oranges. Throughout, the typically staccato passages in the work were delivered with a thrilling accuracy, edge and crispness. Yet what most impressed in this context were two other things , firstly the amount of shimmering crystalline sound conjured from the piano at its quieter moments and secondly that even with the piano lid fully up he never drowned the cello. That does occasionally happen when even the most experienced of artists play in this intimate space for the first time.

Not that one felt this too likely to happen to this cellist. Laura van der Heijden’s range of expressive tone and dynamics seemed to me simply breathtaking . In the early Webern and in the Lyadov the cello sang with a thrilling purity. This was warmth without any blowsiness and in the parts of the sonata where Prokofiev’s rich lyricism was to the fore we were back in the world of the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Yet she could also find so many other colours in the cello, astringency at times in the Schnittke and throughout where necessary a light and nimble fingering which made the cello sound almost skittish and dance- like.  This was cello playing worthy of being called aristocratic so entirely musical was it.

One last point. The hour and particularly the performance of the Prokofiev raised in my mind yet again the nature of musical genius. Long ago in my youth the world of music, led of course by academe, worshipped on the altar of strict sonata form and this composer was thought far too prolix for his own good. Yet, constantly and increasingly I have found pleasure and excitement in music which teems with ideas and colour even if, or perhaps because, it runs the very evident risk of spinning out of control. In another art form which I know rather more about that is one of the things that makes Shakespeare what he is. The great Dryden at the end of the 17thcentury answered the wise men of his time, who wished that  the dramatist had been born in their more polite, ordered and classical age, by simply stating that Shakespeare is the greatest of all dramatists because the whole world is in his plays. Perhaps after all we should trust the audience rather more as to what is worth listening to! Certainly this Duo produced a wonderfully invigorating hour’s entertainment and convinced me that at least I was right to follow my inclinations in regard Sergey Prokofiev.  I really do hope we shall hear these two fine musicians again soon in another programme as thought- provoking as this one.

 

 

NEWS.

 

The fine tenor James Gilchrist with pianist Anna Tilbrook returns at the next Lunchtime concert at 1.00 p.m on January 25th with a mouth- watering  programme of English song. Not to be missed.