LIMF Summer Piano Recital: Pavel Kolesnikov, 15th June 2019

For those who read this and were sadly unable for various reasons to attend this extraordinary piano recital, put on by the Leicester International Festival, let me paint the scene. Early on in the week there seemed to be concern about the possible size of the audience but on the night they poured in to fill the hall and require the Museum staff urgently to bring in extra seating. Then, after all the kerfuffle, the lights faded until the audience was in a total darkness save for a beam lighting the piano stool.  Enter the pianist, the Russian Pavel  Kolesnikov, a young man of slight build who walked almost diffidently to the stage, smiled and bowed briefly, sat on the piano stool  and without any further ado simply started playing, with the clear intention as suggested from the programme that most of the music to be played was to be listened to without a break, thus making it an ongoing exploration of musical similarities and differences , all of it hopefully amounting in total to a musical statement of aspects of the human condition.

Well, to begin with I have to say that I was sceptical despite the thought that had gone into the presentation. In the opening work, Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 117 No.1 , I felt there was a tendency to try to invest each passing phrase with intense meaning, to make what I felt to be in essence the simple  loveliness  of a Lullaby carry the burden of being the opening statement of a profound  journey. Following on from that, the opening  movement of Beethoven’s early Sonata Op.7  had moments in which the ‘drama’ seemed to be accentuated so that the onward impetus of the movement was almost interrupted. It seemed all a bit of a rather self conscious attempt to make the music  fit the larger scheme of things.

And then something happened. In particular the last two movements of the Sonata simply took wing. It was as if the pianist had relaxed and was beginning to find the measure of the recently refurbished Museum  piano, and what one heard was astonishing. Here was for the first time in the evening unalloyed delight. There was a rippling treble, sometimes songlike, sometimes fleet of foot, a dramatic bass on occasions, all conveying perfectly the composer’s joy at discovering and revelling in the full extent of his genius. For the first time in the evening I felt artist and composer totally at one and that here sitting at the keyboard was a pianist of great talent

So I approached the long second half full of anticipation , an anticipation which was not disappointed. Indeed, what followed was for me an experience I suspect never to be forgotten. Partly the reason for this was that for 40 minutes or so in the darkness I listened, between the 2nd and 3rd of Brahms’ Intermezzi, given performances that penetrated to the heart of things, to a stream of the most wonderful music quite unknown to me. The range of sounds which the pianist conjured up in the five pieces of Louis Couperin , four of them arranged in a Suite ,was simply astonishing. Yes, this music was written for harpsichord and one suspected that these performances might horrify  the Baroque purists given the quite wonderful  richness emanating from the piano. Indeed one review of this artist’s recording of this repertoire was less than enthusiastic simply on this point.

Well, all I can say is that I was reminded of a great conductor’s deliberately incendiary description ,of course to be taken with a pinch of salt,  that the sound of the harpsichord reminded him of a skeleton rattling  in a cupboard.  (A famous harpsichordist, one has to say,  triumphantly gave the lie to this two years ago in Leicester.)  However,  I was also reminded of another quip from this same conductor’s merry wit in regard to a very famous Baroque composer whom he described as far too wedded ‘to counterpoint and Protestant counterpoint at that’. Well, all my reservations about what I can sometimes take to be the sternly baroque were swept away in these performances which had a most wonderful range of colour and which spoke with a remarkable directness to the 21st Century. This was music at times of deep almost romantic feeling and throughout of  a quite ravishing beauty in these arrangements .

Indeed, by the time we reached Tchaikovsky’s Five pieces I was, I think, in the gloom undergoing almost an out of body experience. In any case the dark made noting down anything out of the question. Hence any pretence of detailed appraisal foundered and I was simply swept away by the range of these supposed miniatures. I just surrendered to the pianist’s astonishing  playing.  Indeed, by the time we reached the resting point in Brahms’  final Intermezzo and the last notes died away I felt that I had had a musical experience that had not often been replicated . Perhaps it was the darkness which encouraged such thoughts. One could not but concentrate completely.

However, one thing was certain. Leicester had met in Pavel Kolesnikov a truly remarkable artist and hopefully one who will return before long. I can reveal  that he , as not a few  before him, was obviously delighted with everything about the venue so perhaps that wish will become reality not too far into the future.

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Philharmonia: Nicola Benedetti,Pablo Heras-Casado,June 1st.2019

There were times when this concert felt more like a celebrity event in which acolytes have come to worship at the shrine . The hall was jam packed and on cue at the end of the celebrity’s performance a number of the audience were on their feet almost before the last note had sounded. It was all too easy for the lip to curl with cynicism , particularly in a world in which it appears that many with zero talent can become celebrated for no apparent reason except their capacity for self publication. Indeed, I can remember when Nicola Benedetti first performed in Leicester not long after her winning the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year that in my hearing one or two in the audience reacted in this manner.

Well , a decade or so on, how wrong such reactions were shown to be. On Saturday evening it was clear that here was an artist whose rich talent has burgeoned into something really very special. She is rightly celebrated for the admirable energy and determination she has shown in engaging with the world outside the concert hall but of course it is based on the fact that she is a remarkable artist who is now recognised worldwide as at the top of her profession. In this instance for me she needed to be because I have to admit I groaned at the prospect of yet another performance of the Bruch Concerto. When one thinks of the riches of this particular area of the repertoire and the works which get very few airings because of the box office and since my personal view that this particular work is more solo violin with mostly an unmemorable accompaniment and just  the occasional bit of bombast thrown in for good measure, it is scarcely surprising that keen anticipation did not exactly describe my state of mind.

Well, after such a lead up, it is obvious what is now going to be said! I suppose it is one of the pleasures of live music that there is an infinite possibility of surprise. This time by the end of the performance I was even ready to revise my thoughts about the work.  The programme, read later, put me onto why my feelings might have undergone change when it remarked how much in love was the composer with the violin as an instrument. This performance underlined the truth of this.  Perhaps the key to its nature was that, whilst the Strad. on which the violinist played produced a stream of gorgeous sound when necessary, the artist in the performer maintained a purity of line and sound which was naturally eloquent without ever overtly drawing attention to the phrasing. There was not an ounce of sugar in the performance and the result was that I was aware, as perhaps never before, how simply beautiful was the melodic invention of the work. Of course, the last movement was delivered with all the necessary bravura. Indeed, under the conductor, about whom more later, I even found myself hearing things in the accompaniment which had hitherto passed me by. All in all then, celebrity or whatever, such pleasure did I feel at the end of it all that, had I been younger and more elastic , I might indeed have leapt to my feet with the others.

It would be quite wrong, though, to think that the concert was memorable solely for this performance.  It was also distinguished by the debut in Leicester of the Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, who comes from Granada. Before last year he was to me no more than a name who had appeared in recordings which covered a wide range of repertoire . Then last year  the Leicester Friends organised a coach trip to London for  a concert of  his of mainly French music, the final work of which was Debussy’s La Mer’ . It was a performance which announced as far as I was concerned the arrival of a major talent, so wonderfully colourful and dramatic was it.

This concert fully confirmed that first impression. The opening  piece played, Mendelssohn’s Overture ,The Hebrides, had us at sea again. Here the conductor’s ear for colour immediately came into prominence with a ravishingly warm orchestral sound in the lyrical opening of the work. For a moment or two I wondered whether we were a mite too near the Mediterranean for the bracing North Atlantic pictured  but the furies were awaiting their entry and when they came were as cold and stormy as could be wished. Indeed, at the end of this performance one felt that this was actually an early and very fine tone poem. What was also clear was how well the orchestra was playing for this eloquent conductor.

That became even more obvious in final work of the concert ,Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 . The orchestra are in the process of giving Leicester something of Tchaikovsky Festival  featuring his symphonies. Last month under Paavo Jarvi  they gave a stunning performance of The Pathetique and  in October the next season begins with the rather rarely performed but very splendid N.2 The Little Russian. In the pre-concert talk with John Florance the conductor and he got round to talking about the change that has taken place in regard this music, once so derided as self indulgent and unstructured by the supposedly knowledgeable for whom German music  was the gold standard, indeed almost the only standard. The interviewee spoke eloquently about the wonderful range of feeling and colour in this music and it was just what his performance conveyed. The long first movement has rarely felt so short so wonderful was the playing in the finely shaped reading. Overall the woodwind time and again caught the ear, in particular Robin O’Neill’s bassoon here and in the second movement Timothy Rundle’s oboe, but the orchestra were generally on world class form . The strings and brass at fortissimo were formidable and so was Antoine Sigue the timpanist. Indeed, on one occasion whether intentionally or not the latter for a moment obliterated the brass when both were at full throttle. However, besides such excitements what impressed the most was the conductor’s supreme ability to shape a phrase without calling a halt to the momentum of the music. And what riches emerged into the bright sunlight. For instance, I do not think that I have heard the Scherzo with its pizzicato strings played with quite such lightness of touch. All in all then it was a mightily impressive debut in the city and one looks forward to this conductor’s return in the next season.

Tickets are now on sale for that season which features amongst many goodies the appearances of the present Chief conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and his recently announced successor, another hugely gifted Finn well known to Leicester,  Santu-Matias Rouvali .

 

 

NEWS

 

Don’t miss what is effectively the end of the present season, the first appearance in Leicester of the hugely talented Russian Pianist, Pavel Kolesnikov on Saturday 15th.June at 7.30 in the New Walk Museum . The recital has in it Beethoven, Brahms, Couperin and Tchaikovsky. It should be a tremendous evening.

The Bardi:Katya Apekisheva, Claus Efland, 19th May 2019

There were three reasons that I found this concert irresistible. Firstly, it featured Katya Apekisheva, a very fine pianist who has over the years been a frequent visitor to Leicester but mostly as a chamber music recitalist. Here was a chance to enjoy her prodigious talents again but as a concerto soloist in a late work by Rachmaninoff which I had not heard live for many years.

Secondly, there was a performance of a Nielsen symphony in DMH which has been  hardly a frequent event.  ( I can recall only one performance in recent years, that by the Philharmonia and Paavo Jarvi of the first symphony). Following on from that, the third reason consisted of memories from the 1960’s when I and my soon to be wife were knocked sideways by the power of these symphonies, then enjoying an introduction to London  similar but, alas, not so long lasting, as the Mahler revolution. And then many years later  there was the young Rattle in Birmingham doing the complete cycle of the symphonies which re-inforced my feeling that this was one of the great symphonic  cycles of the 20th century, or for that matter any other century . Why, oh why, I wondered , had I missed the early parts of the Bardi Cycle?

Well, the answer to that was quite simple. I questioned whether a mainly amateur orchestra could possibly meet the colossal orchestral challenges of these works, particularly Symphonies 4 and 5. That was compounded by having a few months ago heard The Inextinguishable played by the LSO and Rattle in a performance which literally stunned a Barbican audience into silence for a moment or two so overwhelming was it.  Then, I remembered what a friend of acute musical intelligence had said to me about the quality of the Bardi  performances of this music. So, the only answer was to go and hear for myself.  The result of that was that I wished that I had taken notice much earlier to what he said.

Not that in the first piece played the concert seemed about to be particularly revelatory. True, it was a delight to be re-acquainted with Sibelius’ Karelia Suite which was one of the first records that I possessed as a youth and which these days, like a lot of music in Suite form, tends to be a rarity in the face of sterner musical expression. There was much in this performance which did justice to the work. Particularly notable was the rich sound that the strings managed to conjure up in Ballade, totally worthy of any professional ensemble. Similarly the nuanced phrasing and sound of the horns  at the beginning of the Intermezzo  were extremely impressive, particularly when playing from cold as it were and as a whole the performance certainly delivered the essence of the work, without perhaps achieving quite the swagger and bounce some of it ideally requires.

Then came Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini and here the music making moved onto a different level. The pianist and the orchestra delivered a performance that can only be described as scintillating. Indeed, I felt I had not heard a better or more exciting interpretation of the work.  It highlighted how the late works of this composer should sound compared to the more famous works he wrote before he went into exile. Compositions like The Symphonic Dances , after very tepid critical reviews when they first saw the light of day,  are now receiving  the attention they deserve, as music which set off in a different direction to the romantic sound world so associated with the composer. Of course, these Variations always received approval of sorts because of the gorgeous melody in a middle variation and for which there is often the tendency to wait impatiently for its arrival. This ignores elsewhere the wealth of wit , the passages in which brittle colours predominate and for which absolute clarity is required from the performers.  Of course, being Rachmaninoff , often the virtuosity demanded of the pianist is phenomenal. Anyone knowing the pianist on this occasion could guess that those demands would be met in spades and so they were. However, the many delightful moments in the more reflective parts of the work were also fully presented and one finished by wondering whether one had ever heard the clarity of the DMH instrument used to better effect. The performance had a truly pristine quality which revealed a glittering sound world quite unlike for instance what happens when the music is played on the ubiquitous Steinways which so tend to dominate our concert halls. It was overall a wonderfully  invigorating musical experience.

One last thing in regard the above. I was so impressed by the pianist having the score in front of her. It occurred to me to wonder why concert practice in the last century became locked into the virtue of playing entirely from memory and I remembered the story of Sir Adrian Boult, told to me by a friend who as a lad was present  at his rehearsal of a youth orchestra . When the great man was asked why he conducted from a score back came the reply, ‘ Because I can read one!’

And so to the climax of the concert, a performance of Nielsen’s mighty 5th Symphony. The previous evening, not having heard the symphony for some years, I played a disc of it being performed by a Finnish orchestra. I listened to the characteristics of the composer’s late style, huge outbursts of sound with strings playing in several sections at the top of the range and producing what I have come to think as the edginess of the sound produced by electrical discharges and which is so extraordinarily expressive of colossal energy. Then, there are the many passages that demand to be played at great speed. In addition, the whole orchestra needs to produce at times another characteristic Nielson sound which forever reminds me somehow of the outdoors and the openness of the Scandinavian sky. Lastly, in this particular symphony, there is the titanic battle between orchestra and side drum which, if not delivered with complete musical conviction, can teeter slightly on the brink of the crudely obvious. Could a largely amateur orchestra of the size of the Bardi, rather fewer in number I would think than that routinely fielded by a London orchestra in this music, really do justice to this work?

Well, they most certainly did. All the above was in this performance. Of course, there was occasionally the sense of strain. For instance, the LSO delivered the frantic start of the last movement of The Inextinguishable almost as if it was a walk in the park. However, that very sense of strain in its own way rather added to the delivery of the titanic things in the symphony and at the end one could only marvel at the hours of rehearsal which had obviously  gone into the delivery of something with this impact. This is music close to Claus Efland’s heart as was clear from his amusing address before the performance, even though there were moments when I thought him a little too intent on warning the audience of the perils ahead, notably about there being supposedly no tunes! There is no doubt, though, that he is a formidable conductor and interpreter of this music and the Bardi are very lucky to have his power to persuade and inspire musicians to play out of their skins. I look forward to the cycle being brought to a completion in the not too distant future.

 

 

The Philharmonia :Viktoria Mullova, Paavo Jarvi, May 12th 2019

This was for me one of the most thought provoking concerts I have attended in recent years. When originally announced it gave little suggestion that it would be so, the Egmont Overture and Tchaikovsky’s last symphony framing some  of Sibelius’ short  pieces for violin and a little Arvo Paart.  Of course,  when played by a legendary violinist  and  conducted by one of the extraordinarily  talented  Jarvi  family ,it suggested a Sunday afternoon of top class music making in which in the main well loved music could be re-visited after a satisfying Sunday lunch. In the event it could not have been more different to such an expectation.

The Sibelius disappeared to be replaced by an extra piece by Arvo Paart, Darf ich.., plus the advertised Passacaglia and the longest piece Fratres , receiving I presume their premiere in Leicester . A few grumbles were to be heard from those who judge concerts by the stop watch and who noticed that the concert had been shortened. However, to judge by the reception those unworthy thoughts were soon put to rest.

The three pieces were played together as a three movement work even though they were composed quite separately and I have to say they seemed wonderfully of a piece. It was music  that this listener found quite spell binding. It created with minimal means, strings with occasional percussive interventions, musical landscapes which often hinted at the world of the Orthodox Church ,which seemed sometimes to capture the tribulations of the 20c. visited upon the Baltic states, yet also mostly communicating an almost stoical contemplative calm. There was a sense that the music had a pinpoint precision , not a note too many or too few, which if converted into visual terms opened at times expansive and sometimes mysterious  landscapes. With minimal forces it was extraordinary the range of feeling the 20 mins of music opened up. It was music that was often of a rare beauty.

That such an impression was created was undoubtedly down to the quality of the playing of the Philharmonia but above all to the  ravishing sound of the soloist’s Stradivarius. Quite often in the past I have been sceptical of the aura surrounding such instruments, but not here. All one can surmise is that this great artist knew how to coax magic out of this particular violin. The opening of Fratres , one of the few moments of fireworks in the music, was stunning but so also was the way the ear was caressed by many of the more introspective moments in the music. This concert was unusual in that most of it had been performed in London on the day before rather than, as usual,  after the Leicester event ,the exception being that the Paart was substituted for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Much as I recognise the greatness of the latter (and we shall have the opportunity to gauge that again next season) , I would not for the world have swapped the programme  in this instance. One last point, the audience received the music with a great ovation yet the artist declined to give an encore. How right she was in this case not to risk removing too quickly the memory of the unique sounds of the work she had just played.

And what about the rest of the concert, did that feel more comfortable and hence less startling? Miraculously it didn’t because both the war horses received performances which were so searching that they challenged one to listen to them anew instead of letting much loved music wash over one. I only heard Paavo Jarvi live for the first time several years ago with the Philharmonia  and was instantly surprised by what I heard. Having read a few reviews in previous years of his recordings which seemed respectful  rather than excited, I was astonished to find how much drama and musical insight I thought there to be found in the live performances I was hearing and that the orchestra delivered their formidable best for him. Even so in this concert things seemed to attain the revelatory, rivalling the quality of concerts given by the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor.

From the outset it was to be noted that the conductor had firm ideas on orchestral layout for this repertoire, double basses stage left , cellos and violas central , first violins stage left as usual but the second violins stage right. The result was that in the Egmont the orchestra seemed to take on a remarkably dark, almost a shining black sound of infinite depth but also exceptional clarity at times. Memory can of course play tricks but I think I can recall the time in the late 50’s and in the sixties when Klemperer ruled London in this repertoire and how he absolutely eschewed the smooth warmth which had gradually become Karajan’s preference. His Beethoven was to a fault ruggedly  dramatic and he cared little for felicities of sound. The modern Philharmonia  seems to be able to deliver both to any conductor which asks for them and this performance seemed to me as fine a realisation of this wonderful overture as was possible. It was darkly dramatic and urgent but the detail was also phenomenal.

And then the wonders of the concert culminated in a performance of the Pathetique which a highly knowledgeable friend afterwards said to me he thought to be the best he had ever heard. I am not about to disagree. Before the concert some of the Leicester Friends had had a convivial lunch together during which one of the company remarked that someone he knew had been researching the circumstances of the composer’s death from drinking a glass of contaminated water a few days after the symphony’s first performance. Was it deliberate  and hence was this symphony in effect the most memorable suicide note in musical history?  It seems he came to the conclusion that actually there was little firm evidence to support the story.

However that might be,  Jarvi’s interpretation seemed in the first three movements to support that conclusion.  In the first movement, whilst giving full attention to the changes of mood and the drama therein, he never lingered too long. In the next two movements he had clearly not read the programme notes which declared the second movement Allegro con grazia to be a metaphor for the composer’s sense of isolation. Taken at a slightly faster speed than is sometimes the case, here it seemed absolutely to have the pleasure of the dance in mind. Equally the third movement , the March marked Allegro molto vivace ,was indeed tremendously alive and dramatic, brilliantly played  and certainly in no way foreboding

So, most of this seemed to bear out the scepticism about this symphony being the work of an artist at the end of his tether. And then ,were we the audience in for a shock! Jarvi had clearly planned that there should be no opportunity for the applause the March often solicits  before moving on and thus made the contrast with what was to follow immediate and truly appalling. One moment, as the brass nailed the climax of the March, one felt almost as one on the top of  a cliff, only the very next moment for the cliff to topple taking all with it down into the abyss.  Here the conductor and orchestra went for broke with playing of searing intensity particularly from the strings, so much so that at the end of the performance the conductor had no difficulty in maintaining a silence of a full minute before lowering his baton. For once that was not felt to be the rather stagy gesture it can be but indeed the only proper end to a masterful performance of a multi- facetted masterpiece.

 

 

NEWS

 

There is another Sunday afternoon treat at DMH on May 19th at 3.00 p.m when the Bardi Orchestra are joined by a frequent visitor to Leicester, Katya Apekisheva, who will perform Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations, with the concert then continuing the Bardi’s fine survey of Nielsen’s Symphonies. This time, under their conductor Claus Efland, they will be playing perhaps the greatest of them ,No.5. The concert starts with Sibelius’s Karelia Suite.

The Philharmonia- Alina Pogostkina,Xian Zhang,March 29th. 2019

This ,the fourth concert in this season’s residency, welcomed two artists new to Leicester, the Chinese conductor Xian Zhang and the violinist Alina Pogostkina, who according to the programme was born in Russia but has lived most of her life in Germany. The latter was new to me but I had heard the conductor at the English National Opera in a performance of La Boheme and thought her mightily impressive , an impression borne out by this concert.

Since the residency began in 1996, the occasions when one has been seriously disappointed by soloists making their debuts in Leicester have been very few indeed and this certainly was not one of them. In Brahms’ Violin Concerto the soloist right from her very first entry signalled a dramatic presence, allied though to the sweetest of tones. Her phrasing was at times exquisite and, as it often is, the highlight was the Adagio , surely one of the loveliest of Brahms’ inspirations. In addition the woodwind playing here was something to be treasured. In the last movement the attack fully communicated the gypsy Hungarian source of the inspiration and throughout the conductor produced an attentive accompaniment, all of which brought great applause at the end.

However, in the face of such superior musicianship I was left wondering why the performance had not in the end had me on the edge of my seat. Perhaps I had niggling at my mind the knowledge that the orchestra had by all accounts an horrendous journey of many hours up from London and I could not help wondering whether they had had much rehearsal time for I found overall not quite an impression of unanimous purpose to the performance. I have increasingly over the years been impressed by the way Brahms’ orchestration  can with a lighter tread and often with a smaller orchestra let the light in and make his lyrical genius ,as in this concerto,  even more lovely and his dramatic moments bracing rather than portentous. Some years ago the late Sir Charles Mackerras gave a performance of the 3rd Symphony with this orchestra that achieved all this. Here the orchestra was large and the violin sometimes struggled to be heard, with the result that for me, particularly in the first movement,  the symphonic intentions of the work and its attendant drama tended to overshadow its lyricism. Perhaps that will not be the case by the time the interpretation reaches London on Sunday.

However, no such uncertainty attended the performance of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony  . Some people used to be rather snooty about aspects of this work, particularly the last movement . Since then on the evidence of its popularity with concert promoters the public has spoken and here all such nonsense was swept aside from the very beginning by the sheer intensity of the interpretation and the playing. These days the virtuosity required for realising such music no longer creates a problem, particularly for an orchestra of the Philharmonia’s pedigree and there was moment after moment  of the most extraordinary playing in this performance. The brass was by turns sardonic in the Allegretto  and richly thunderous in the final movement  and I lost count of the number of moments when the woodwind section delivered what were in essence solos to wonderful  effect . However, for me it was the strings that stood out even in such stellar playing. In the first movement and in the Largo with their long spun out melodies I don’t think I have ever heard such subtle gradations of colour achieved in a work not exactly noted for its wide palette. Over all this the conductor produced an interpretation of hugely impressive coherence and impetus.

One suspects that people have now ceased to care about the provenance of this work. It is troubling to have to admit that in a terrible way Stalin might have been right to have stopped the composer in his tracks, who then , as the programme suggested, sought an artistic re-birth after the furore of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It may well have resulted in the world losing a great operatic composer but the symphonies that were to follow are no mean substitute. And about the end of the symphony, why don’t those who wrote or write at length about the intentions of the peroration that finishes the symphony realise that it is in the nature of many masterpieces to be able to hold apparent contradictions in the hand at one time? Here in this performance I felt the weight and warmth of this orchestra’s brass made for a sense of artistic triumph rather that a sardonic subversion of Soviet expectations or even worse ,as has been suggested by  some, a craven bowing before the might of the state in music of dreadfully crass quality. The conductor clearly and quite rightly would have none of that and duly received a deservedly enormous ovation.

 

 

News

 

Tuesday April 9th.  Leicester Music Society- Clarendon Park Congregational Church Springfield Avenue  7.30

Laughter in Paradise- A talk with musical illustrations on the often under-rated importance of laughter and humour in great music.

Lunchtime Series-Michael Petrov,Erdem Misirlioglu, March 21st 2019

The final concert of the 2108/19 Lunchtime Series at the Museum maintained what have been the basic features of the concert series this year,introducing exciting talent sometimes new to Leicester in programmes which were full of innovation. Michael Petrov, cello, and Erdem Misirlioglu, pianist, presented an all French concert of the Poulenc Cello Sonata and a transcription  for cello of  Franck’s Violin Sonata.

The Poulenc received a tremendous performance. The cellist showed himself to be a player capable of producing a really big warm sound but most importantly also possessing  a wide range of dynamics and tone. In addition the pianist seemed to have the measure of the Museum Piano. Not everyone who plays in the museum is capable, for instance, of producing some of the exquisite soft playing that he managed. In concert both players delivered brilliantly the kaleidoscopic change of moods of the work, from the composer’s characteristic  brittle wit , to the vein of lyricism found in the Cavatina, to the occasional moments of musical rhetoric which interpose themselves briefly in the work. Above all the playing fully delivered the wit of the work and the virtuosity on display at times and particularly in the final movement was thrilling.

The Franck work was played with the same panache. Both players made it into something that was in a way extremely dramatic. One felt the context of the work in the composer’s life, this being one of those late flowerings in composers’ lives where they suddenly find a new and fresh voice. In this case it was a composer who had been for most of his life stuck in the organ loft and yet who suddenly produced in the last few years of his life a handful of works in the mainstream which have remained in the repertoire ever since.  The cello transcription of the violin sonata played here was made in the lifetime of Franck by his friend the cellist Jules Desart and apparently approved by the composer.

However, on the evidence of having heard it only once, I had doubts as to whether it was a very wise artistic judgement. Perhaps other factors played a part in the decision, something for an old friend or the simple desire to widen opportunities for the music to be heard. I also acknowledge that ,having lived half a lifetime with what I feel to be one of the finest chamber music recordings of all time, the sonata in its original form played by Kyung Wha Chung and Radu Lupu, made me somewhat biased against this version. If this composer had a failing it was to rather over egg the cake. His one symphony needs a fine conductor for it not to sound somewhat turgid. That world is entirely absent in the violin sonata. The two instruments are made to blend and to play off one another to, as the programme very perceptively said writing quite clearly about the original, often  radiant effect. Even in the second movement with its passionate moments the sound world is clarity itself and the violin often sings in the work to quite wonderful effect .

In this performance, and I suspect in any performance since there was no doubt here about the pristine qualities of these players, the change from violin to cello simply could not replicate the sound world of the original and to my mind turned the work quite seriously into something else and for me at least something rather less impressive. The cello colour was as one would expect from a fine player, warm and powerful, but, the cello being the cello, it could not soar like a violin and the tonal world of the work became as a consequence much darker. Occasionally the piano part reminded one of the colour of the original but I fear for me it was as if the sunlight of that original was being reduced to dusk. I had a picture of a late fine Victorian room , all dark brown furnishing and opulence, when I wanted to be sitting in a sun- lit conservatory.

Whatever, many in the audience clearly enjoyed the experience and I shall most certainly look forward to hearing this duo again.

 

 

News

Friday March 29th. Philharmonia 7.30 DMH

Xian Zhang returns after making an impressive debut in Leicester sometime ago to conduct Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony . In the first part another rising star in her debut in Leicester Alina Pogostkina plays the Brahms’ violin concerto .

John Florance will talking to the conductor at 6.15 in the Hall and at 7.00 in a venue to be announced the Residency programme for 2019/2020 will be announced with input from several members of the orchestra.

 

 

Lunchtime Series:Carducci Quartet,7th March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NEWS

 

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

Simon Lumby-    Secular then Sacred.My musical journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘My name is Ozymandias king of kings:

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

Nothing besides remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lunchtime Series: Piers Lane,24th.January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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