Philharmonia 15th. Feb. 2017- David Fray, Karl-Heinz Steffens

 

This concert had to offer the audience two potentially exciting Leicester debuts. Both pianist Daniel Fray and Karl-Heinz Steffens brought with them impressive credentials , particularly in  German music .  Fray has made a number of well received recordings of this repertoire and Steffens has by all account, after stepping in at the last moment for an indisposed conductor, immediately established a close rapport with the orchestra. So anticipation was high.

 

However, perhaps it was my heavy cold making me overly critical, but I felt the concert in one respect fell well short of what had been anticipated. Over the years there have been some fine performances of the Schumann Piano Concerto at DMH and time and again I have felt that this work is truly the most delightful of the Romantic piano concertos. Though it has bravura enough, it is almost always on the edge of light fantasy together with passages of meltingly beautiful  lyricism founded quite obviously in the composer’s love for his wife Clara , she who gave the first performance.

 

Alas, little of this emerged, for me at least. Right from the clarion opening which seemed almost peremptory rather than something like a joyous leap, textures were muddy instead of being airy and there seemed little shaping of phrases. In the conversation between orchestra and piano in the slow movement, the thought occurred that if this was intended to be the musical equivalent of  words between Robert and Clara, then the conversation was remarkably brusque. Divorce seemed on the cards. Coupled with a matter of fact finale, the experience was really rather dispiriting.

 

So much so was this the case that one had to wonder whether the imported piano was the villain. In truth it sounded a poor instrument indeed with a muddy bass and middle and a treble that  only delivered steel. Perhaps the conductor and orchestra felt the same because the accompaniment seemed for the most part very foursquare and dutiful rather than being in concert to deliver the pleasures to be found in the work. Perhaps things will come together better in London.

 

However, all was on a different plane in the purely orchestral items in the concert, which got off to a truly tremendous start with Mendelssohn’s dramatically splendid overture Ruy Blas. Many decades ago I had an LP ( or was it a 78?!) I think of Beecham doing this work and I thought then what a taut dramatic piece of music it was. It surprised me to find out from the programme that the composer suppressed it. This was the first time I’d heard it live and the conductor made a splendid case for it. It was clear that Steffens’ time as an eminent  clarinettist had given him a good idea of how through the conductor’s stick to make clear what he wants and perhaps it is not entirely fanciful to think that the lovely instrument he has deserted for the podium has made him want the orchestra to relish and mould the musical phrase and to sing.

 

That was what stood out in the performance of Brahms’ 3rd Symphony . Some years ago with this orchestra the late Sir Charles Mackerras gave a performance of this symphony that was bracing. It let the light in and had little inclination to indulge much Brahms’ sunset glows. I came away from that thinking that was the way to blows the cobwebs out of Johannes’ beard.  I do still think that is often necessary. Yet every now and again a conductor comes along, perhaps not much enamoured of modern practice, and breathes life into a more traditional means of delivering the music. Such a one was Nelsons and now Steffens joins that company.

 

He clearly had thought long and hard about this symphony and how to bring out its many beauties without mortally harming the structure by dallying and collapsing into brown syrup. Once or twice , in the second and third movements, things came close to stasis but such was the conductor’s control that the effect was of such moments being a daring determination to mine the contemplative moments in the score rather than skating over them by quickly pressing on. Also, the effect was enhanced when in contrast the many moments of drama were delivered with great power by an orchestra on top form. In a way then perhaps because the conductor had been at pains to register the lyricism and many of the inner stands of the symphony, the last movement made at times a spine-tingling effect with the brass in full hunting mode. So,  I went home happy!  

 

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Lunchtime Concerts: Mahan Esfahani 9th. February 2017

To be frank, I viewed the prospect of this recital with the greatest trepidation. Of all the works that have become established in the modern consciousness as the Everests of classical music, the Goldberg Variations has been for me the most problematic. I have two CDs of the work, in the last two decades I have heard at least four live performances and yet at best in a good mood I have reacted with moderate pleasure, whilst in a bad mood thinking the endless patterning of the variations ultimately just plain boring, at least to my ear and with my limited technical knowledge.

The nearest I have got to extended enjoyment live was with a performance by Joanna Macgregor at LIMF many years ago in which she provided an often witty title for each variation. This a) gave me a chart as to where I was and b) actually suggested that the work was centrally amusing and delightful, an uncomfortable concept perhaps for that rather frightening figure, the Bach purist. Other than that I’ve heard string transcriptions which seemed to me hardly to enhance the work and on one occasion a performance with interpolated readings of stream of consciousness babble which only succeeded in converting moderate boredom into something so extreme that, as the performance meandered on, one looked forward ever more longingly towards the exit doors.  Add to that the fact that over the years I have heard very few harpsichord recitals and have tended to agree with Sir Thomas Beecham’s comparison of the instrument ‘s sound to skeletons rattling around doing quite unmentionable things and it will be seen, despite the fact that I had read many positive things about this soloist, why  I hardly approached this recital with enthusiasm.

Well, wrong again! I quickly realised that there are harpsichords and harpsichords and that the one being played here was a remarkably beautiful specimen, both to look at and to listen to. On top of that was the quickly self evident fact that Mahan Esfahani’s reputation as a front rank artist was fully justified. Result: despite ingrown resistance to Goldberg and his variations, I found myself utterly wrapped up in what I was hearing and eagerly waiting for what was to come next, so much so that when Mr. Esfahani wryly expressed disappointment at the end of the concert that because of time restraints he was unable to play all the repeats, I swear that I would have stayed had he sat down at the key board to do just that. Instead, we had two delightful Scarlatti sonatas as short encores.

Why in particular I should have had , for me, these entirely novel feelings is more difficult to explain. Undoubtedly, it had something to do with the piece being played on the harpsichord, perhaps just this harpsichord. To begin with the scale of sound was completely different to that of a piano, quieter, more in keeping in this work perhaps with the performing space. There was an intimacy that drained the work of its potential portentousness and in its stead was conveyed the sense of a great composer intrigued and delighted in seeing how things would come out as he wove his patterns of sound around a ground plan.

Then there was the sound itself, in particular a treble that on occasions sounded almost like small bells. The ascending and descending runs of notes were often delivered at staggering velocity but the instrument and the player somehow managed to delineate for a split second each note. One seeks for words to describe the effect. Perhaps it might be likened to being the aural equivalent of fine sprays of water in which miraculously each droplet is for a split second registered on the eye. I have rarely heard anything more exhilarating. Add to that a beautifully clear bass with none of the potentially too overbearing weight of a pianoforte in this area and it was perhaps hardly surprising that the work seemed for once a continual delight. It also paradoxically allowed the moments of expressive depth and beauty like Variation 25 to be revealed naturally and not like some statement about the meaning of life.

All in all then, an engrossing experience and not to be easily forgotten. As so often in this season’s concerts, one hopes for a return of the artist in the not too distant future.

Lunchtime Concerts- Natalie Clein 26th.January 2017

A decade or so ago, a young cellist, who some years before that had been BBC Young Musician of the Year, joined the ensemble of the Leicester International Festival. Her name was Natalie Clein and to all who had ears it rapidly became clear that here was an outstanding artist. But it wasn’t just that. What made her a very special musician was the rapport she created with her audience, how she drew them in to share her own enthusiasms. She seemed to live music body and soul in a quite natural manner, unlike for instance the flamboyances of some, in which the performer becomes more important than the composer. Because of happy domestic events, for her Leicester audience at least she has been less in evidence recently so there was eager anticipation at the prospect of her return to play a concert devoted to two of Bach’s cello suites. Not a seat was to be had in the hall.

Yet the concert nearly did not happen. Prior to it, for a whole week she had been indisposed, that dread word that concert promoters use for someone being ill and not about to turn up. Seeing her before the concert, it was clear what an effort it was going to take to complete the hour of playing. Indeed , I felt in most circumstances the concert would undoubtedly have been cancelled but here very touchingly there was an absolute determination to fulfil the engagement.  For all that, and despite the programme being altered to one Bach Suite, the famous short Casals’ Song of the Birds and finishing with Britten’s Cello Suite No.3 , a programme I have to say which seemed to me every bit as demanding as the original, I really had serious worries whether she was going to be able to get to the end.

What followed made such worries ridiculous. From the very moment when the bow first met  the string one was treated to some of the most intense music making imaginable. One hears much about the transformative effect of great music. Well, here it was in front of one, not a trace of frailty. As readers of the Diary will know, I am not exactly a signed up member of the Bach Numero Uno club and yet the performance of the Cello Suite No.1  had an impetus which simply swept one along.  Constantly was one reminded, as one often is not in less overtly expressive readings, that dance is central to the Suites. Particularly memorable was the vigour of the Courante and of the final Gigue. This fervent performance had me pondering my own inconsistency of response  when reacting to live music-making . At a concert only a few months ago I found much to enjoy in Bach playing very different to this indeed! But then that is one of the delights of listening to an ephemeral live performance. In the  pleasure of the moment that can never be heard again objectivity tends to evaporate, and increasingly I feel that is as it should be.

Nothing better could have followed the Bach than Casals’ simple, quiet yearning for peace and justice in his homeland that was so out of his reach for the last forty years of his long life. Here the playing was of such intensity that one felt the audience being compelled to hold its breath almost throughout its two and a half minute length.

So we moved on to Britten’s Cello Suite No. 3 .  If one has to go on the number of recordings these Suites have received in recent years, they have made their way to the centre of the cello repertoire. One can see why.  Britten’s muse was very often aroused to greatness in composing for a particular performer, and nowhere more so than in the case of Rostropovich, just about the most astonishing cellist of the mid to late 20c. Throughout this work based on Russian material his virtuosity unlocked the composer’s imagination to create an astonishing range of sounds, from passages in which it is like listening to a Russian choir, to others where there is the most wonderful  sense of wit and fantasy, to sardonic moments as in the March, reminding one that Britten had in later life through Rostropovich struck up a friendship with Shostakovich. Miraculously all of these potentially disparate elements somehow are felt to be part of an ongoing exploration of the basic material, which push to the ultimate and almost beyond the cello’s possibilities as an instrument.  Finally, as it were, things seemed to come out into the open and merge in the achingly sad and beautiful Passacaglia, the final 10 minutes of the work. It was written when Britten was already seriously ill and played finally by the dedicatee only a year or so before the composer’s death. Such an impact did Natalie Clein’s performance have that one could easily understand why Rostropovich after the composer’s death in his grief could never bring himself to play this work again, a work he had described, when receiving it from the composer, as a ‘work of genius’. All one can say about the performance here is that it fully communicated in its range and power the truth of that judgment.

And as if this was not enough, the rapturous audience was given two encores, two little pieces by Kurtag in which notes are somehow held almost in suspension between silences, a kind of musical cleansing of the palette at the end of a fine meal. By which time we all knew why Leicester thinks Natalie Clein to be a very special musician and hopes she will come back again very soon.

The Philharmonia Friends’ Concert January 15th 2017- Domingo Hindoyan and Michael Barenboim

The Philharmonia Residency opened 2017 with a concert featuring two artists new to the city, Domingo Hindoyan, the Venezuelan/ Swiss conductor, and the violinist Michael Barenboim. Both are centred in Germany but already have flourishing international careers and one can see why on the evidence of this concert.

It is a great pleasure to find the son of a famous father exhibiting a very individual musical personality, which on this limited evidence seemed to convey quiet confidence and a determination to seek out the centre of a piece of music. In his performance of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, it was immediately clear that there was going to be no attempt to emulate the big sound of some Russian virtuosi. The quiet lyrical opening to the concerto was very quiet indeed and the  movement’s brittle  middle section perhaps might be thought by some to have  lacked the last degree of panache. However, the advantage of this approach, the warmth of tone and the musicality of the phrasing, made one sharply aware of just how lyrically rich is much of the material of this concerto, both here and in the third movement. Often the violin truly sings. Even the brilliant Scherzo is not the composer at his most sarcastic and Barenboim extracted its wit and good humour in a way that more overtly virtuosic in your face performances do not always achieve. One finished by thinking, as the work drew to its quietly beautiful ending with violin followed by flute , that one had heard a performance which indicated a profound understanding of the concerto and one that revealed much of its heart.

The purely orchestral items in the concert made an equally positive impression. Indeed, the concert could not have got off to a more striking start than in the performance of Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman . How wonderful, I thought, to be back to the time when almost every concert began with a wake up call from a spanking overture. Here, in the body of the hall, its fine acoustic ensured that the strings and brass enveloped one in a veritable tempest of sound and by the end of it the only disappointment was that the opera was not to follow.( Writing of acoustics,  I gather the next Philharmonia concert ( Wed. February 15th) is being broadcast live by the BBC, perhaps London re-discovering after many decades that there is just up the railway line another Midlands concert hall acoustically superior to either of the main London venues.)

As to the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in the autumn of life it is so easy to play what I call ‘the Legendary Conductor Hand’ which starts with ‘Ah, but you should have heard Klemperer, Karajan and Uncle Tom Cobley and all’, with which all intelligent conversation stops. However, for me, and perhaps for some others in the hall, the problem is that there is a very recent memory, just five years ago, of Esa-Pekka Salonen giving with this his orchestra a performance of this very same symphony which was the equivalent of seeing some vintage car restored to its pristine original state. It had an unforgettably  brazen and fiery quality, often swift speeds and yet never seeming to lose the many  beauties of the score. I heard it twice, once in Leicester and later in Bonn. In the latter venue, after the last chord the whole audience as a body immediately rose to their feet and cheered. I had never experienced anything like it and a member of the orchestra remarked afterwards that it had never happened in his experience of German concerts, where audiences tend to be somewhat reserved.

So, even before the baton was raised to introduce the supposed ‘fate’ motif ( about which the programme delightfully brought to our attention Czerny’s belief that it  was stirred in the composer’s mind by the call of a small bird! ) , the conductor had a problem with at least one member of the audience. Yet, for all that, in its own terms this was a fine interpretation. Those terms  tended to be within the German tradition, in other words with sonorous brass , a weighty and warm body of strings, mostly mellifluous woodwind. Of course, since the 1950’s this orchestra in particular has a long tradition of delivering that sort of sound and it gave a fine eloquence to the interpretation. Early on I could have done with more of a frisson but the andante was both memorably beautiful in places and dramatic at other times. I would have preferred the scherzo to be slightly faster at first but clearly the conductor had taken the long view because the contrast with the wonderful passage for double basses and cellos was truly startling. In the novel Howard’s End occurs the most famous description in fiction of this movement of the symphony.  Forster at this point has the heroine thinking that it brought visions of goblins being banished by dancing elephants! All one can say is that these elephants were remarkably nimble on their feet.  I wondered whether that might perhaps be an interesting indication of just how orchestral standards have risen since the early part of the last century.

Whatever, this part of the symphony, leading up as it does to that extraordinary transition to the blazing opening of the last movement, was very finely done indeed and the performance as a whole drove on to a splendid feeling of triumphant release at the end. Indeed, looking back over the whole performance, I realised that one of its strengths had been the management of the many transitions, no doubt the result of time spent in careful rehearsal. One looks forward to hearing Domingo Hindoyan again.

First concert of 2017 at the Museum: Alexander Sitkovetsky and Wu Qian

January 12th 2017. A grim, cold January morning with snow threatened. As one trudged through Leicester and arrived at the Museum for the first 2017 concert in the Lunchtime Series only to find that, because of major building work, one needed an orienteering course just to get in, one had the occasional unworthy thought about whether it was all quite worth the effort. That was until the first note, after which such thoughts were completely banished.

Of course, one should not have had such thoughts in the first place. Anyone who has frequented the Festival and the Lunchtime Series over the years knows just how superb a violinist is Alexander Sitkovetsky . True, his partner Wu Qian, as far as I am aware, was new to the city, but it took very little time to discern that she was here not in some subsidiary accompanying role. This was a Duo in the real meaning of the word and of the very topmost quality.

Given the Arctic outside, De Falla’s Suite of Spanish Songs was a particularly happy choice with which to begin. It was a transcription of a vocal work which in the original immediately conjures up the unique sounds of the Spanish deep,  sometimes guttural , mezzo voice . However, the violin stood in remarkably well for the singer. Sitkovetsky’s wonderfully rich tone and range of colour time and again took one right to the Iberian centre of these pulsating songs and the piano of course had no difficulty in conveying the dance rhythms with great vivacity. However, perhaps the most memorable song of all was Lullaby , the quietest, least demonstrative of the selection. This was a thing of wonder as the two artists ever so gently conveyed the love of a mother for her child. Here one felt the purity of violin and piano tone almost made the transcription superior to the original.

Then we moved onto the major work of the concert, Schumann’s Violin Sonata Op. 120, composed as the signs of the composer’s final breakdown were beginning to show. For me this has always been a slightly problematic work, particularly in the outer movements, which in the determination of the composer to be dramatic and weighty can in an ordinary performance begin to sound endlessly repetitive. Whilst replaying recently a much praised CD of the 1980’s by two artists recognised as amongst the very finest of their generation, I found that even then my uncertainties did not entirely vanish.

And yet in this performance that is exactly what did occur. One is aware that one should be very cautious of comparing any recording with a live experience. The latter has the potential to be so much more involving. Distrust those critics who in those circumstances adopt a superior analytic tone. However, I did think that I detected in this performance good reason why the sense of repetitiveness was absent. Particularly in the last movement, the players seemed to manage through a number of subtle variations of tempo and tone to make each re-introduction of material seem a slight departure from what had gone before. Hence the movement had throughout the dramatic impetus which Schumann had in mind.

As for the poignant slow movement in which the composer finds again the blithe lyricism so much at the centre of his genius, it was played in a manner that brought tears to the eyes. During those few moments I found myself wondering whether there existed a more touching testament to the human spirit. How did someone on the verge of permanent mental collapse find their way to creating music so utterly and heartrendingly lovely? That one had these thoughts was a tribute indeed to the quality of these two players.

 

 

 

Coming Events in January

 

Tuesday January 17th.7.30 p.m:   The Philharmonia residency  at DMH.  The Venezuelan Conductor Domingo Hindoyanmakes his debut inLeicester, as does the violinist Michael Barenboim, son of Daniel. A programme of Wagner, Prokofiev and Beethoven.

 

Thursday January 26th. 1.00 p.m: Lunchtime Series at the Museum. The long awaited return to the city of cellist Natalie Clein. She will be playing two of Bach’s Cello Suites.

 

 

Brass and Four Hands

The last three concerts of 2016 in the Lunchtime Series at the New Walk Museum had one thing in common; they were not of the usual chamber music instrumental formats. At the end of November, the harp was featured. In early December the audience was entertained by the Guildhall Elysium Brass Ensemble.

This ensemble was made up of five young instrumentalists, all presently studying at the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Immediately, in an opening Fanfare by Dukas they made their credentials plain. Some years ago, as Brass Bands seemed to be on the decline, there was much worry about the effect this might have on the standard of brass playing in British orchestras. Well ,if the standard of this group is anything to go by, there is little reason for such gloom. The playing of these young musicians had a confidence and vivacity which was utterly winning and which made the hour slide by very quickly.

This was quite an achievement in the circumstances since, for this listener at least, the pleasure brass groups give can swiftly pall, particularly in a small enclosed space. In such a space, one felt that it was difficult to convey a dynamic range much wider than the very loud to the less loud, down to the not so loud. Also, some of the music did not enthral. Ewald’s Brass Quintet at its most Russian had some character . The Adagio on a first hearing was the movement which caught my ear. Elsewhere, however, it seemed to me to be in the main a curiosity.

The same I fear could be said about the brass arrangement of Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. It is undoubtedly a feat to arrange such a piano piece for brass but  Samuel Johnson’s famous quip about dogs walking on two legs came irresistibly to mind, “ that it is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all.” In this instant the lovely Scottish lass of Debussy’s tender and  delicate vision became more akin to a matron digging potatoes.

However, other arrangements were much, much more successful. Tudor music in all its stateliness started the main part of the concert in grand style. Gerswhin’s A Foggy Day  was given a finely improvisatory and jazzy rendering and the wistful  quality of wartime A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square brought out all appropriate nostalgic goose bumps, at least for this elderly bloke. What a lovely melody and lyric this is. And then the concert finished with one of Malcolm Arnold’s wonderfully rumbustious arrangements of Sea Shanties for wind instruments. The programme suggested we were going to get three. The audience, one felt, would have quite happily listened to the other two such a splendid finale was it to a spirited concert.

A fortnight later as I listened to the concert given by the two pianists Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen, two memories came to mind. Firstly, I recalled the occasion when a few years ago they had brought a Leicester International Festival to a conclusion with Stravinsky’s own transcription for four hands  of The Rite of Spring , in  a performance so dynamic that one wondered whether the transcription wasn’t  superior in some ways to the orchestral version. This performance has since been committed to disc, to great acclaim. The second memory, however, was even more pertinent. It was of the Russian pianist Richter playing with Benjamin Britten one of Schubert’s pieces for two pianos, in which two of the greatest musicians of the 20c were taking delight in each other’s wonderful musicianship but above all else in the wonders of the music they were playing.

That was the atmosphere of this concert. Right from the very start in Poulenc’s Sonata, the clarity, the verve of the outer movements and the very Gallic quiet beauty of the slow movement, all was fully realised in a splendidly wake up start to the concert. However, it was in Debussy’s Petite Suite where one’s critical faculties told one that one was listening to something very special. This work had been heard in a summer concert in a performance that I had found frankly disappointing, so heavy handed did it seem. As always, one wondered whether, as an explanation for such dyspeptic feelings, you the listener might have had rather too much to eat. However, in truth the performance of this duo revealed all that I thought ought to have been there and wasn’t. Right from the beginning in the lovely En Beateau this performance had all the lightness of touch and charm the music requires. It was simply enchanting.

In contrast, in the last two pieces, Ravel’s own version of the Rapsodie Espagnole and a version of The Nutcracker Suite, perhaps at times in a not entirely convincing transcription, the virtuosity in combination of these two front rank artists was simply astonishing. The kaleidoscopic showers of notes particularly in the treble were unforgettable and yet the final feeling at the end of the concert was that one had been party to classical music’s equivalent of a jazz jam session, so spontaneous was everything made to feel. One felt it was a privilege to be at such an occasion and that it signed off 2016 in the most memorable fashion possible.

Two Pre-Christmas Gifts

Leicester Music Society Tues. 13th. December.

The distinguished baritone Stephen Varcoe delivers a talk on the music of Gerald Finzi. In his immense discography, the singer has made some memorable CD’s of the composer’s work so it should be an evening of great insight. Visitors are very welcome.  Clarendon Park Congregational  Church, Springfield Rd., off London Rd. 19.30

Lunchtime Concerts Thurs. 15th.December.

Katya Apekishiva  and Charles Owen play a programme of piano music written or arranged for 4 hands. In recent years this duo have given concerts and released recordings of this repertoire, all of which have been received with great acclaim. It should make a fine musical ending to 2016. New Walk Museum 13.00

 

The Philharmonia November 30th

The other night I was watching a TV programme about the terrifying power of electrical storms which trigger lightning. At times one felt that this concert conducted by Nicholas Collon was the musical equivalent of being struck by a bolt from the sky. If nothing else, it re-inforced the conductor’s reputation not least for insightful  programming of works both different and connected. Here we began with Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, proceeded to Ravel, the former’s short time teacher,  and finished with Walton’s First Symphony, itself influenced, amongst much else,  by things French.

It might be thought in this company that the VW’s piece was the odd man out yet in this performance it was so much more than a serene trip around the cathedral. It was true that the sense of space in the antiphonal moments between the two string orchestras was well realised. This can be difficult to render in the concert hall but the placing of the smaller body of strings to far stage left did give at moments the sense of infinite space. However, also wonderfully communicated were the moments of rich passion in the work. The orchestra’s leader Sarah Oates’ moment or two in the spotlight were especially memorable in this respect but the DMH acoustic gave the whole body of strings opportunities to glow and one gasped at the wonder of what the composer felt to be his new found powers of orchestration as a result of his time with Ravel. By the end of this performance I found myself thinking that no-one had composed anything more beautiful than this work.

Which made what sounds like the electric crack at the opening of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G all the more of a contrast. On the face of it, the brittle and witty jazziness of much of this work could hardly be more different to what had preceded it and, in his welcome return to Leicester, the Swiss  Francesco Piemontesi  gave such features their full due. In its light and beautifully clear tone the Fazioli piano was the ideal instrument for the work. The pianist in the slow movement  also ensured that the instrument conveyed the uniquely French kind of limpid beauty that  Ravel was inspired to create here. It was just rather a pity , when at the end of the movement in the sheerly lovely moment when the cor anglais takes over the melody  and the piano simply embellishes it, that Odette Cotton’s  fine playing was slightly recessed as a result of her being sat directly behind the piano lid. Hence,  the sense of a divine duo was rather lost in the body of the hall. Whatever, it was a fine performance and sent one out at the interval musically refreshed.

Nothing so far, though, had quite prepared one for the visceral impact of the Walton Symphony. To continue the metaphor, this was like being in the middle of the electrical storm. Later I wondered why I had not heard this great work in the concert hall for decades. Could it be more than simple co-incidence, I wondered? Certainly it makes huge demands on an orchestra and no doubt still, 80 years on, rehearsal time. It is not simply the staying power demanded of such sections as the brass but perhaps more importantly the utmost finesse which is required to deliver such things as the needle sharp shifts of rhythm and sudden and witty changes in direction, all this coupled with at the other extreme what became increasingly important in Walton’s music, the rich vein of the romantic , like Ravel never lush but coolly beautiful. Well, as one might expect of this great orchestra, the Philharmonia and Collon delivered all of this on the epic  journey.

At the end there was an extraordinary moment. Last month we heard Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony with its famous isolated chords of an ending which have been known to bring applause before the true end. Walton obviously thought that a good idea. The second movement has a false ending, almost Haydnesque. Then at the end Walton copies Sibelius, albeit with chords that are sharp cracks rather than anything mighty and weighty.  And then there was silence in the Hall! Given that the audience had not quite allowed the moment of reflection that the conductor was looking for at the ending of the Vaughan Williams, this was weird. For an awful moment, I thought Leicester was rejecting Walton. Then began below the characteristic stamping of feet followed by great applause and  I realised, in the last example of the extended metaphor, that perhaps most of the audience had felt as if they had been struck by lightning and for a moment were just simply stunned. A most memorable concert indeed.

Lunchtime Series 2016/17 Concert 4

Chroma 17th.Nov 2016

There are some concerts which look intriguing on paper and such a one was that given by the chamber group Chroma in the Lunchtime Series and centred entirely on music for the harp and strings. The Museum has in the past played host to the occasional Harp recital but a complete concert of ensemble pieces featuring the instrument was new to me.  So it has to be said was the music.  Indeed, Ravel’s wonderful  Introduction and Allegro and Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto are about the sum total of my concert experience of the harp in a concertante role.

Sadly, whilst grateful for the opportunity, I have to admit to the prospect having been more interesting than the reality. Despite there being clearly three fine musicians on the platform, the concert as a whole rarely sent the blood racing. Of course, one has to be wary about judging music on a first hearing but the fact remains that in all honesty much of it seemed to me perfectly easy on the ear  but also largely unmemorable.  Ibert’s Trio was, well, quintessential  Ibert, that is witty in places, relentlessly bouncy and smart but in the end, to my ears at least, largely predictable. His and, with the major exception of Poulenc, most of the music of Les Six sounds to me these days as stuck in a time warp. It’s like being trapped at a party in the company of a relentless Wit.

Clearly Henriette Renié’s Trio had different intentions. I had never come across her name before, never mind her music. Helen Sharp, the harpist, gave a rather sad description of the buttoned up nature of Renié’s day and of her life. The internet revealed the degree to which she was revered as a harp player and as someone who over a long life finishing in the 1950’s had had a great influence on the development of the instrument, and all this despite continual ill health. Her composition had its moments. The Andante was the most characterful movement in which the strings in particular had a theme that achieved some lyrical beauty. In the work as a whole, though, an individual voice seemed to emerge rarely and there appeared to be  much rather repetitive working out of what seemed to me often very short winded material.

That left Saint –Saëns’ Fantaisie for violin and harp, which rather ironically was the stand out work in the concert. I say ‘ironically’ because ,since being lionised in the last part of the 19c, until recently this composer’s music has been regarded by ‘serious’ concertgoers as facile. That view is perhaps changing  and in this work one could see why.  This was beautifully written music of  genuinely individual substance, not facile at all in fact unless by facile one means having  a seemingly effortless lyrical gift. In addition the range and shifts of colour constantly engaged the ear in this fine performance.

Finally, the success of this particular work in the concert raised another rather interesting issue. One wondered whether it was coincidental that it was written for one stringed instrument and harp. Elsewhere in the concert, the harp seemed often lost in the string sound. Indeed, at times the huge instrument might just as well not have been on the platform at all. One wondered whether one’s view of the Trios might been more positive  if the placing of the instruments on the platform had been different and hence the harp possibly more present. Putting the latter end on to the audience and in particular almost completely behind the violin and cello seemed to do the instrument no favours at all. Perhaps the truth is that it will always struggle to penetrate when pitted against the sound of more forthright instruments. It was possibly a straw in the wind that Renié apparently wrote her work with a piano part as an alternative to the harp.

 

 

Philharmonia- The Lord Mayor’s Concert, November 11th 2016

Before the concert the Lord Mayor in a speech requested the audience to support his Appeal, which this year is for the Leicester Children’s Holiday Centre at Mablethorpe. During his short address, in which he also lavished praise on the difference the Philharmonia Orchestra had made to many aspects of music in the city, it occurred to me , particularly in an age in which it is popular, often  amongst people who have never raised a hand to help the community, to declare all politicians to be self serving incompetents, that the City Council deserves great praise for the way over 20 years they have steadfastly supported cultural events which serve not only the city but wider Leicestershire  as well.  Without that support, the city and its environs would be indeed a very much poorer place in which to live.

Now to musical matters and another concert and two more Leicester debuts, those of the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride and, as a conductor, the Spaniard Jaime Martin. The latter has been to the city before but in the role of one of the most eminent flautists of the present day. Now, though, he is carving out a career as a conductor and is attracting plaudits from orchestras world wide. Baiba Skride is no stranger to the Midlands, playing on a number of occasions in that city down the road where her fellow Latvian Andris Nelsons presided until recently.

In the event the reputations they brought with them were shown to be more than justified. Indeed, I would say Baiba Skride’s performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto was one of the most  sheerly beautiful that I have heard. Not for her the big warm sound beloved of some performers, which in this concerto can result after a while in a kind of blowsiness,  producing a feeling  akin to having eaten a box of chocolates at one go. She on the other hand produced a radiantly pure silver sound and often refined that sound down to the quietest of quiet pianissimos. There were some unforgettable moments.  In the opening movement there was one such moment when time seemed to stop as one listened to the softest of blendings between soloist , woodwind and horns. The latter were on wonderful form throughout the evening.  Similar moments occurred in the slow movement and the gipsy material of the last movement skipped so lightly that the virtuosity was almost unnoticed. The whole performance was, with an ever attentive and lovingly shaped accompaniment, like seeing an old master stripped of its varnish and revealed in its primary colours.

In the rest of the programme the conductor also showed himself to be a fine musician, able to get a crack orchestra to play at the top of its form. I found it pleasing that Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, even though the composer declined to use it for the opera, went at a pace which reflected the drama instead of being presented as some deeply philosophic  pondering on humanity. The frisson of the trumpet  announcing the arrival of the Minister in the nick of time was finely conveyed and the outburst of joy at the end of the piece was suitably schnell.

After the interval the performance of Sibelius’ 5th Symphony seemed to take some time to get in the groove. It was being played well enough but it was coming across as rather matter of fact . The characteristic Sibelian atmosphere of brooding mystery and threatening  granite like power wasn’t being quite communicated, to this listener at least. However, with the introduction of the first of those wonderful swinging themes on the brass so characteristic of this symphony, something seemed to click and from then on the performance really gripped. There was heroic power  in the brass and the strings took on a dark intensity which sent shivers up the spine. Don’t go into the forest, was the message conveyed. In the slow movement the moments of cool and graceful beauty were finely conveyed  by the woodwind and the guest appearance of the retired Andy Smith ensured that the timpani’s role in the work’s  grandeur and drama was fully realised.

However, the standout moment for me was in the last movement and the return sotto voce of the scurrying theme for full strings with which the movement opens. It was truly amazing the extreme pianissimo achieved by such a body of players, and the way it almost disappeared  and then came back, building to one of most overwhelming  near endings in symphonic music, was unforgettable. I say ‘near endings’, since, of course, we have at the actual end those series of enigmatic, brusque chords, almost waiting to catch out the audience. The conductor during the pre –concert talk told of a performance given in Athens under Colin Davis some years ago, in which the pause after each chord brought premature applause until, by the real end, when applause was merited, there was none since none dared any longer to put their hands together. I am delighted to report that Leicester, it would appear, knows its Sibelius rather better than the cradle of Western Civilisation. Certainly Jaime Martin does and we should indeed look forward to his return.