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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

NEWS.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunchtime Series: Haffner Wind Ensemble- 30th November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Lunchtime Series: Trio Dali, 16th November 2017

The debut in Leicester of this high flying Trio almost didn’t happen. At the last moment their pianist fell ill but, as their violinist Jack Liebeck told the audience, they really did want to fulfil the engagement and, as their luck and our luck would have it, they managed to sign up for the trip the distinguished pianist Daniel Grimwood . Twenty four hours later, and ,we were assured, after intensive rehearsal, the newly constituted trio walked onto the platform of the New Walk Museum to perform.

And what performances they gave! I am fully persuaded that there are occasions when concerts given under less than ideal conditions result in performances that thrill in a way that those which are more considered and matured do not quite. Perhaps the adrenalin takes over. Whatever, these performances certainly did thrill this listener. Jack Liebeck is, of course, an established international soloist who has appeared in the city before, but the cellist Christian–Pierre La Marca was completely new to me and the pianist only known by reputation. Exploration of the internet suggests that that had been very much my loss and what happened in this concert re-inforced that feeling . Barely a moment went by without the trio as a whole or one or other of the ensemble  causing one to catch one’s breath with delight.

In the opening work , Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 43, there was perhaps some settling down. At times in live performance piano trios can create considerable problems of balance and here there were moments when the piano tended to over lay the two string instruments. However, the way in which from the beginning the latter so naturally leant into the phrases suggested real class. The opening movement of this joyous work had a great lift and bounce, the sudden change from the lyricism of the opening of the second movement into the dramatic  was memorable and the wit of the last movement was brilliantly effected. By this time it was as if the three had been playing together for years. Of all the great composers Haydn can be relied upon to deliver the feel good factor and that is exactly what was communicated here.

And then came Dvorak’s Dumky Piano Trio which for me has special memories. Decades ago there was a very moving serial on TV which charted the lives and deaths of a Jewish family during the Nazi period and in which the pervading accompanying music was a cello tune of infinite sadness. At the time I thought it to be music of Jewish origin.

Then, sometime later I heard this Trio for the first time and in the fourth movement immediately recognised where the tune came from. Of course, by that time the associations already formed were not to be dismissed from the mind and perhaps they shouldn’t be. The fact that the dumka is of Ukrainian origin possibly makes little difference. The choice of this music for the subject matter of the serial could be argued to be absolutely apt. Is it fanciful to feel in the work at times a sense of an Eastern European culture and its music soon to be lost? After all throughout Europe at this time there was an urgent recording of folk music for posterity before it disappeared for ever. In this work it is made all the more poignant by the way, together with many moments of elegiac sadness,  the joy and the vitality of that culture is so vividly communicated as well.

The work is also something of a riposte to the assumption that an episodic structure in music is inferior to that which displays symphonic argument. This performance made clear that the range of feeling, the subtlety of so much of the music in its colouring and in its dramatic contrasts, together with the sheer magic of this composer’s melodic gifts , all serve to keep the work constantly afloat and stamp it as one the greatest  in the chamber music repertoire. Indeed, during the performance I effectively gave up scribbling because I found myself literally overwhelmed by the felicities that I was noticing on the way. In the second movement, for instance, the cello melody of infinite poignancy was played to aching effect, the piano playing created at times a crystalline silver bell- like quality in the treble, the violin danced its way wonderfully through the polka section before all three combined to create a sound world of breathtaking beauty as the quiet of the opening returned. To this listener the exquisiteness of the sound produced almost stopped time in its tracks for an instance. After that I very wisely stuffed my pen into my pocket and surrendered utterly to the music. Words in this instance could simply not do justice to either the music or the playing, so why try, I thought.

Lunchtime Series- Amy Harman and Tom Poster, November 2nd 2017

There are some concerts which are particularly difficult to write about. On the one hand the listener has found little that pleases and yet is rather loth to rubbish the artists’ best efforts particularly since he/she might be simply suffering from a mild attack of dyspepsia. Anyone reading music critics know how often that can appear to be the case. On the other hand, one can be faced with a recital so fine that the enthusiastic adjectives flow in such quantity as to suggest that all critical faculties were in shut down during the concert.

Such a concert was the one given in the Lunchtime Series by Amy Harman, Bassoonist and Tom Poster, Pianist. One came out thinking that one had rarely had a musical lunch hour of such enchantment. To begin with, it was presented by the bassoonist in a finely droll and relaxed  manner so it was like having been dropped into a room where two friends were playing for their pleasure, as well as yours. Secondly, the bassoon was again revealed as a solo instrument capable of great beauty and range. Is there anything wittier in the orchestral palette?  Lastly, the programme itself introduced one to music that one suspects doesn’t get much of an outing.

Now, that can be a recipe for being invited to listen to that which is irredeemably second rate, or worse, where one can see only too clearly why it is rarely played. As questionable is that which is better known but needs transcribing to fit the instruments being played. Whilst that no doubt gives pleasure to the players, for the listener it can sometimes do little more than draw attention to the superiority of the original.

This duo, however,  triumphed on both counts. There was a transcription of a Mozart piece which was clearly based on what was almost certainly close to the composer’s intention,  and thoroughly delightful it was, full of characteristic wit so fitting to the bassoon’s capacity to burble. In prospect  more contentious was the transcription of three songs by Clara Schumann. Now perhaps it helped that I did not know the originals but with the badinage of the performers as to who had the best German, we were introduced into the world of romantic lieder and the voice of the bassoon did the rest. What a wonderfully creamy sound this artist can create and I was quite ready at the end to agree with her that the instrument is perhaps closest to replicating the human voice.

Elsewhere it was full steam ahead with quintessentially graceful, lyrical  and witty French music written for Bassoon and Piano. Saint-Saens’ music  is gradually clawing itself back into the basic repertoire and his late Sonata shows why. It was full of wit but also lyrical in an entirely unforced manner. He may have been a conservative of his time but at his best he certainly had a voice which was entirely his own. The 20c composer Dutilleux likewise ploughed a very distinct furrow with a much smaller output in a long life. Sarabande et Cortege , though written as a test piece, had all the characteristics of an artist of super refinement. Ravel, Poulenc and Debussy all came to mind at times. It was in passages where the last named was uppermost that one was able to relish Tom Poster’s  exquisite touch.

Nothing more to say, unqualified rapture!  Come back again soon.

The Philharmonia- Esther Yoo, Karl-Heinz Steffens. November 1st 2017

This concert represented the second appearance in Leicester of soloist and conductor. The young and highly rated violinist Esther Yoo was featured a few years ago playing a Mozart Concerto in a concert with Lorin Maazel . The conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens was here only last year, featuring a concert in the cycle of Brahms Symphonies which he has been doing recently with the orchestra. Then he conducted the Third Symphony. This time he gave us No.4. But more of that in a moment.

Firstly, I was wondering what would be my reaction to hearing the soloist for the second time in the DMH. I recall that I found her debut rather underwhelmimg and put it down to two factors. Mozart’s Violin Concertos in their apparent simplicity are not easy to bring off and at the time it did not seem that she had got much beyond the notes. Things were not helped by the conductor providing a super efficient accompaniment of little character. So, I was intrigued this time round as to whether that old warhorse, the Tchaikovsky concerto, would fare better.

Well, the answer was, yes and no. To begin with I had to get rid of my irritation at the umpteenth appearance of this concerto in the history of the residency, when there are so many fine violin concertos which rarely feature. However, I slapped that one on the head since the previous month we had been given the rarely played Dvorak concerto. Also one must recognise that there will be a number at any performance of the work who have never heard it live before. There were indeed a gratifying number in the audience on this occasion whose hair was not grey and they heard a performance which merited attention. Esther Yoo has a fine technique. The fast passage work often sparkled. The tone of her Stradivarius was lovely to listen to and she phrased the music sometimes to beguiling effect. This was not a barnstorming interpretation and parts of the work benefitted from that. One was reminded that the Tchaikovsky of the ballet music is never really far away in other forms.

However, the fact remains that it is one of the central romantic concertos for good reason. It requires heft and where I was sitting, halfway up the hall, the performance at times did not really deliver. Occasionally, it sounded more like Mendelssohn. Then, I remembered  that  a few months ago a music magazine reported on an experiment in which violins of various progeny,  modern and old, were played behind a screen and the listeners asked to say which they preferred.  Astonishingly, it was the modern instruments which were largely given the thumbs up, not the ancient Italian ones. In this case two friends I spoke with in the interval and who sit almost under the rostrum and hence were close to the soloist were more excited than I was by the playing.  Such are the vagaries of concert halls and instruments.

There was for me, though, another problem which persists with this concerto and that is how to make the music cohere and not sound stitched together. Here some of the phrasing almost brought the thing to a halt and one became only too aware of the string being used. So, I am afraid I have yet to be wholly convinced by this artist.

The same is certainly not true of the conductor.   Firstly, though, how good it was to hear a crackingly fine overture, Beethoven’s Egmont , starting a concert. Once such a start was a given. Alas, no longer, and as a friend has said to me, some of the finest music in the repertoire is as a result no longer heard live. This performance laid down more or less what kind of music making we were going to hear from Karl-Heinz Steffens . It was going to be in the Mid European tradition of weighty sound ,scrupulous phrasing , rich string playing and rather slow speeds. Perhaps in the overture there was something of a rather stately opening. However, as noted last year, this conductor keeps his powder dry and hence by contrast the swift tempo of the wonderful peroration made for as exciting a climax to the overture as I can remember. This was truly an emergence into light.

Again as I noted last year, i was surprised how much I enjoyed the way Steffens plays Brahms. In recent years the composer has been given a spring clean by a number of conductors, swifter speeds, less lingering over gorgeous string sound, greater clarity of texture, all of it an attempt to  avoid what they see as the appallingly comfortable and self satisfied air of more traditional performances. This bracing approach can do wonders for the composer and yet occasionally along comes an interpreter of the old school who reveals that there is a beauty in the music sometimes lost in this way  of doing things.

Steffen’s speeds were often on the slow side but such was the shaping and the care in keeping the textures clear in the inner parts that the beauty and originality of Brahms’ symphonic thinking  was finely conveyed. Not that slow speeds were absolutely the norm . In the third movement  the performance here was absolutely true to the composer’s intention of sweeping all before him . The triangle was splendid!  Then, in the extraordinary final movement no attempt at its beginning was made to gloss over the almost blunt, bluff way in which the building blocks are presented. However, yet again this conveyed an integrity which was absolutely absorbing and again had the result of making the final pages of the work overwhelmingly thrilling. The last piece of the jig saw was wonderfully put into place. Finally, it is worth saying that this kind of interpretation is very dependent on having a great orchestra on hand. The clarity but also the richness of the Philharmonia’s sound on the night was astounding, even by their standards.

Lunchtime Series- Brodsky Quartet .October 19th 2017

I missed the previous visit of the world famous Brodsky Quartet to the Lunchtime Series. That was when the Series was in exile at Holy Trinity so I looked forward with keen anticipation to hearing them in the Museum and, for the first time as far as I was concerned, in the flesh.

It was an anticipation that proved to be amply justified. Over 45 years the quartet has built a reputation for having an enormous repertoire and being prepared to build innovative programmes. In this instance the audience was given an early Shostakovich Quartet ,No.4, and Mendelssohn’s rarely played Fugue for string quartet,  Op.81 No.4.  The concert ended with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge as a stand alone piece and not as the final movement of Quartet Op.130.

The Shostakovich Quartets has been for years one of the central calling cards of this Quartet. They have recorded two complete sets, the second one as recently as 2016. As regards the quartet which they played here , as was the case when the Carducci in the summer performed No. 2 , I cannot say that I remembered anything of the music even though I own a complete  recording of the canon. However, suffice it to say, like last summer, the experience was riveting. There is most obviously unforgettably searing pain at the centre of this music, which the Brodsky delivered at the several climaxes in the work with unforgettable power. Perhaps because three of them play standing up, the sound in this intimate space was at times more of a magnitude of a small orchestra than a quartet. In these circumstances one had to wonder how on earth the Soviet authorities could possibly have missed the composer’s raw anger and despair at the world he was forced to live in.

Perhaps the answer lay in another aspect of this performance in that it also found the many moments of poignancy and beauty in the music, particularly in the slow movement and most unforgettably in the final movement with its embracing of the world of Jewish music. With this music’s sense at times of deeply sad mourning  and conversely  the moments when for instance on one occasion the viola player not only played but seemed to  dance like some fiddler on the roof,  it brought  vividly to one’s imagination the horror of the Holocaust and the attempted complete destruction of a  vibrant musical culture.

Whether it was intended or not, the following of that with a piece by Mendelssohn, whose music the Nazis also attempted to extirpate from the Reich, reinforced such lines of thought, particularly since the work clearly paid homage to Bach with writing so characteristic of the composer’s capacity to create music of a unique grace. Such grace permeated the playing. This was a real find.

Then we were pitched without pause directly and dramatically into the Grosse Fuge. The contrast could have hardly been greater, from a composer who for the most part was content to work within the classic norms to one who, as the first violin of the Quartet reminded the audience, so stretched those norms at the end of his life as to be thought by some as ripe for the asylum. Nowhere was that more the case than in this work, about which even Beethoven himself had second thoughts as the final movement of a quartet. As a youth I heard it done for string orchestra under Klemperer (very dim memories of that ) and since then once or twice as the finale of Op. 130. I think this was the first time I have heard it detached and certainly when juxtaposed with another piece of music as here.

Was the juxtaposition successful? Well, for me only partly. Certainly it was a dramatic contrast in a performance that was spectacularly propulsive, coupled, as in the Shostakovich, with a weight of sound that did indeed haul up those dim memories of Klemperer. However, perhaps partly because of the contrasts with Mendelssohn/Bach, that so finely wrought and so lovely , perhaps partly because the impact of the Shostakovich was still with me, I have to admit that I found what I remembered as an extraordinary quarter of an hour’s music becoming ever so slightly wearisome with its emphatic repetition and in this case rather narrow dynamic range. What came over to me at times was music that indeed bordered on the manically obsessive particularly as the fugue careered on. At other times, so fragmentary did the music seem that I struggled to make out where it was going. So, I left not knowing quite what to make of the way things had finished. It did not, however, in anyway erase the many revelations that had preceded it in what overall was a very fine concert indeed.

 

Footnote: On reaching home I did what I rarely do, and sat down to listen to a CD performance of a work I had just heard live, in this case the Grosse Fuge. I rarely do this because I think it very questionable to compare the live with the recorded. However, all that can be said is that in this instance the work seemed on a second hearing and in this particular performance to have a wider dynamic range and a more varied mood than the one just heard live, all of which contributed to my making better sense of it.

 

 

The Lord Mayor’s Concert October 7th 2017- The Philharmonia Orchestra- Hilary Hahn and Jacob Hrusa

Long, long ago, in 1952 when the Royal Festival Hall had just been opened, Toscanini came to London to give with the Philharmonia what turned out to be his last concerts in England. Predictably this was a such a welcome event in post war austerity Britain that the queue for tickets stretched right round the hall. Now, my father, unlike my mother, was not very musical and, nonplussed by finding he had a son who, as well as being a promising cricketer, was becoming dangerously  enthusiastic about classical music , not unkindly suggested that it was nonsense to think that one person standing in front of an orchestra could make much difference to an orchestra who could play the notes. Well, of course his superior adolescent son thought that this was just the sort of thing fathers would say and, in an age that worshipped  musical dictators, laughed at such heresy.

In our age in some ways I now have sympathy with my Dad’s view. I have come to detest the cult of the maestro which still persists in some parts of the globe on some occasions and thankfully most conductors now approach their job in a more collegiate fashion. This is a welcome change, though of course it is not entirely new. The great Sir Thomas Beecham, who actually thought himself as very much a leader, I remember saying on television that young conductors should remember that ‘the gentlemen(sic) of the orchestra know far more about music than they do’ and his credo was to get the best musicians together and, as he put it with tongue in cheek, to let them play. Indeed, you only have to listen to his discs to hear the unique music making that resulted.

These thoughts came about as a result of the Philharmonia’s opening concert of the 2017/ 2018 season at DMH. In it the famous American violinist Hilary Hahn made her debut in the city and the Czech conductor Jacob Hrusa made a very welcome return, but this time in his new role as one of the two Principal Guest Conductors of the orchestra. The concert of Czech music exuded the joy the soloist ,the conductor and the 80 or so musicians of the orchestra were experiencing at making music together.The conductor had said in the pre-concert talk that he in no way saw himself as someone who dictates. Whatever, the overall result in the first item in the programme ,the Dvorak Violin Concerto, was unalloyed pleasure. The work may not quite see the best of the composer , the first movement never seems to know quite where it is going, but once one reached the enchantment of the bridge into the second movement Dvorak’s melodic genius took over. Here Hahn spun a delectable web of sound. Following that, she and the conductor made sure that the final movement danced its way to an irresistible conclusion. The violinist’s unerring sense of phrasing and line, together with the gorgeous sound she produced, amply justified her reputation as one at the very finest violinists of the present time and as an artist determined to expand the repertoire of concertos beyond endless repetition of a few war-horses. (See next month’s concerto choice!)

However , for all that, particularly in a programme which featured the very rare opportunity to hear all six tone poems which go to make up Smetana’s Ma Vlast , one was also reminded , whatever the methods employed, of  the very significant difference the conductor can make to the way one hears a piece of music, especially when it requires  special advocacy. It is then that most obviously a great conductor is revealed. Two years ago, having heard Jacob Hrusa in Leicester in a truly memorable performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony and later in the same year his unforgettable  conducting  of the Glyndebourne production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream ,I thought him just that. This interpretation of the Smetana from the first note was not ever likely to bring a change to that view.

In fact, it seemed hardly an interpretation. It was as if one had been waiting all one’s life to hear Smetana’s music as it should be done. Years ago at DMH there was a performance by the Philharmonia with an American Conductor of at least four of the tone poems and I, together with a number of friends, thought that indeed Vltava was on that evidence the only one really to justify a place in the general repertoire. Yet here from the very beginning in Vysehhrad (The High Castle)  the marvellously rich brass sounds brought the world of chivalry vibrantly to life with a splendour that was at times overwhelming. One mentions the brass but in truth the orchestra as a whole was on the kind of form not to be surpassed I suspect by any orchestra on the planet.

In Vltava the scene painting at times was astonishing. I had noted in that Mahler performance this conductor’s capacity to get a string tone that was infinitely various. So, in this well known piece one heard the famous tune delivered with a bright joyousness and lift, quite different to it being laid on thickly by a trowel. Then in the passage depicting the water nymphs the sound changed to a thin thread of sparkling silver so that the scene was enchanting beyond words. If one was looking for heft, then one got it in the depiction of the Rapids which was a veritable tsunami of sound.

In Sarka, a tale worthy of the Bacchae in its depiction of a male bloodbath , the way the drama was ratcheted up to the dreadful conclusion was a textbook example of how to keep your powder dry until the moment arrives. Then in From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields the return to Czech folk scenery and dance reminded one of how in this music so many conductors use over- emphatic rubato. Here often the minutest expressiveness of phrasing was enough to make the music sail and sound utterly natural and utterly Czech.

And one could go on and on voicing admiration for such music making. However, perhaps in the end a slight reality check is in order, and this has nothing to do with the performance. When it came to the last two tone poems, written some time after the first four, was it weariness in this listener after well over an hour’s music or did one suspect that Smetana’s inspiration was here of a lower order? However hard one tried  to keep oneself attentive, the constant re-iteration in Tabor of the Hussite hymn became at each re-appearance ever  less compelling, so much so that I have to admit that I missed the moment it finished and the last tone poem Blanik began!

So, in the end, despite the inspiring conducting and the inspired playing, I remain unconvinced that Ma Vlast as a whole is quite the masterpiece I thought I was indeed discovering during the first four tone poems. However, those on their own were quite enough to rate this concert as a revelatory experience which will stick in the mind for a long time.

 

Forthcoming Concert

 

Philharmonia DMH November 1st 7.30.

The return of the German conductor Karl Heinz Steffens, who gave a fine performance of Brahms’ 3rd Symphony last year. This time he conducts No4.  Also Esther Yoo plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

 

Lunchtime Series Museum November 2nd 1.00

Amy Harman Bassoon and Tom Poster Piano in what looks to be a fascinating hour’s music.