Archive for the ‘London’ category

Kenneth Hamilton — Brahms Unwrapped

March 15, 2012

Great experience last night at Kings Place – part of the Brahms Unwrapped season – our good friend Kenneth Hamilton playing (and talking about) Brahms’s piano music.  His introductions were illuminating, informative, irreverent and witty as always, his playing quite phenomenally accurate, virtuosic and powerful:  showing us Brahms in a whole new light.

Ken started with the first movement of Brahms’s astoundingly accomplished Sonata No. 3 in F minor, written when he was only 20;  Ken convincingly argued that the movement must have started as some kind of composition exercise based on J S Bach’s ‘Weinen, Klagen’ (with Purcellian descending chromatic bass line) in the same key.  He told us that the ‘grand ending’ of the movement implied that the audience would be expected to clap;  we duly did, and he said he would have been somewhat put out if we hadn’t.

Then he introduced the rest of this huge sonata – unusually in five movements in all – explaining that the remaining four movements hung together and told a story;  the second movement is prefaced by lines from a poem about ‘two hearts in love united’ – Ken demonstrated the ‘heartbeat’ – and Brahms’s melody fits the words so as to be almost a ‘Lied’ setting;  then there’s a stormy Scherzo, then a little movement called ‘Rückblick’ (‘backward glance’),  a minor-key version of the ‘two hearts’ number as a funeral march – ‘either the beloved is dead or their love is dead’, he said;  Ken pointed out the triplet drumbeat motive so beloved of Verdi and Mahler, which he traces back to a Mendelssohn Song Without Words.  Then a stormy finale using the ‘F A E’ theme which occurs elsewhere in his and his friends’ works – standing for ‘Frei aber einsam’, free but alone.  So the 20-year-old Brahms is writing programme music – ‘but we all know Brahms doesn’t write programme music!’  We don’t know who the story is about, he said, but we can follow the ‘trajectory’ of the story – two hearts that beat as one, dissension, breakup, Brahms ultimately reconciled to being alone.  Story of his life!  (And in the 3rd Symphony the theme becomes ‘F A F’ – ‘Frei aber froh’ – free but happy:  the confirmed bachelor.)

After the interval, we heard the last things Brahms wrote – three touching organ chorales, transcribed by Busoni.  Then a little gavotte by Gluck, arranged by Brahms as an encore piece for Clara Schumann.  Ken (authentically) proceeded to improvise a modulatory passage into the key of the next and final piece, the Handel Variations.  Absolutely riveting performance, clearly characterising the 20 or so miniature ‘mood pieces’ of the variations – including a couple of ‘Hungarian dances’ and a musical box imitation (instructed to be played with the sustaining pedal held down so that the music jangled; and its clockwork runs down at the end!).  Finally a massive and magisterial fugue, with a certain degree of pianistic sleight-of-hand but some genuinely complicated counterpoint as well.  One began to view Brahms with a new respect (well, I did, at least).  Ken’s performance rose to such heights of power and energy that he literally almost knocked himself out on the piano lid at the end (‘You’d think I’d know where it was by now’, he said).

And a pretty encore to send us home smiling.

Amazing evening.  Congratulations to Ken – I haven’t done anything like justice to his constantly revelatory comments, nor to  his ability to speak, illustrate and play with not a note (of words or music) in front of him.   Thank you to Diana for getting us the tickets – wouldn’t have missed it for anything – and to Carol for joining us and being so appreciative.  And for the dear friends we met in the audience (you know who you are!).

Philharmonia/Salonen, Festival Hall – review | Music

September 27, 2011

“Kullervo Departs for War” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Not blowing my own trumpet, but it was nice to get a mention in Barry Millington’s Evening Standard review of Sibelius’s KULLERVO at the Festival Hall:

Philharmonia/Salonen, Festival Hall – review | Music.

Sorry about the legibility of the titles — disadvantage of PowerPoint if you are projecting on to a screen just below the lights shining on the orchestra and chorus (though the tech chaps did what they could to shutter the lamps off the screen).

Anyway, a riveting perfomance of a stunning (and far too rarely heard) work!

An interesting article on Kullervo here — with thanks to Phil Paine (from whom I have stolen the picture)

The BIG double reed day! – calling all oboes and bassoons

July 21, 2010

(…and contras!)

Calling ALL double-reeders, of whatever age or standard… Come to the BIG DOUBLE REED DAY at the Guildhall School of Music in London on Sunday 10 October.  Looks loads of fun as well as very educational.

Tutors include Gordon Hunt, Martin Gatt, Gareth Hulse, Meryck Alexander, John Orford and loads more.

Go to the website http://www.bigdoublereed.com/about.php and click on all the links for more details and how to reserve your place.

See you there. maybe?

Meanwhile, have a happy summer!

Gerald Barry / Thomas Ades / LSO

June 8, 2010

Extraordinary concert at the Barbican on Sunday night (6 June) – Thomas Adès conducting the LSO.  First, his orchestral work …and all shall be well, inspired by the familiar mantric words of Julian of Norwich.  Superficially simple and tonal, with instruments doodling up and down scales – but strange smeary things were happening en route in a particularly Adès-ian way.  And a glittering final chord with a high major third floating on top – Aha!   Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, I thought to myself.  And I knew that if you had said this to Adès he would have replied ‘Any fool can hear that’.

I have not always been convinced by his music, but he certainly has immense gifts and a distinctive voice.

Then a major (over-long) pause for platform rearrangement – and the fun of watching a second Steinway come up in the magic Barbican lift.  Zoltán Kocsis played Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from 1926 – very bristly and percussive.  The featured timps and percussion were brought to the front of the stage (Kocsis’s idea or Adès’s?), thus enabling us to see every detail of Bartók’s demands for different sticks, different ways of hitting a suspended cymbal, and so on.  Just a pity that the lady playing tam-tam was hidden behind the piano and largely inaudible.

The performance was not quite successful:  because of the layout, woodwind and strings seemed somewhat muffled, and ensemble was very rocky at times (better in the morning rehearsal, I have to say).

After the interval, a little Adès showpiece – These premises are alarmed;  more lovely sounds, though as by now I was sitting in my ‘box’ it was hard to hear.

Then the UK premiere of Irish composer Gerald Barry’s one-act ‘opera’, La plus forte (The Stronger), a setting of a Strindberg play translated from Swedish into French (because it was originally commissioned by Radio France) and performed with English surtitles – which is where I came in.  Because of various complications I won’t go into here, I was sight-reading the score on no rehearsal, so things were a bit hairy for me.  But in fact Gerald Barry’s score is so clear and clean, and soprano Barbara Hannigan’s amazing singing is so direct and precise, that I had no difficulty following.  Phew!  She was extraordinary – every note, however stratospheric, exactly in place (even after unaccompanied silent bars!), immaculate French (she is Canadian), and apparently (I couldn’t see much from where I was) brilliantly subtle ‘acting’ in the role of the increasingly neurotic wife who gradually realises that her silent café companion has had an affair with her husband.  (And we loved her appropriately over-exuberant frock and hat.)

Gerald Barry’s music has flummoxed me in the past – I’ve tended to think ‘It will be all right when he’s put the expression marks in’;  very aggressive, few slurs, sometimes very loud, lots of unisons and sforzandos, much machine-like repetition.  But once I had got my ear in, the music was just right for this piece, conveying all levels of expression from calm to watchfulness to nervous tension, playfulness, hysteria, rage, and even belly-laugh humour at times.

And finally, three dances from Adès’s early opera Powder Her Face, full of the student exuberance of youth – plenty of pastiche and fun and games – but showing a composer already completely in control of his fertile imagination.  And, not incidentally, showing himself these days a conductor completely in control of his players (who were having a whale of a time).

What a great Prom programme the whole concert would make!  BBC please take note (if you haven’t already).

Diana’s comment was that the liberating, ear-opening thrill of the whole concert, and particularly the Barry, must have been equivalent to the effect on its first audience of , say, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique;  marvelling at sounds, colours, effects and all sorts of things that music could do that one would never have imagined to be possible.

As I said – an extraordinary concert.

photo of Barbara Hanningan (c) Marco Borggreve

Better late…

May 10, 2010

 In past years I have tried to chronicle the blooming of the Canary Bird Rose as a sign that spring is on the way (it’s generally one of the first to flower).  But this year it was very late indeed…

Unfortunately the one outside my front door has been pruned back so hard that there is no chance of it flowering at all this year;  but the big one in the middle of the Green was suddenly profusely in bloom when I got back from a long weekend away last Tuesday, 4 May.

This is about three weeks later than in 2008!

Meanwhile I have just walked through the Rose Garden in Greenwich Park (very chilly! — swathed in scarf and gloves);  not a bloom in sight, except for a pretty ‘wild’ rose and a bush of what I would have sworn was Canary Bird but they call Rosa Hibernica

The Orchestra of St Paul’s…

April 26, 2010

…at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, yesterday (Sunday 25 April 2010), conducted by Ben Palmer.

The concert began with the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, beginning with a riskily fast tempo for the ‘slow’ introduction – the spooky music for the arrival of the statue of the dead Commendatore at Don Giovanni’s supper table;  but Ben Palmer knew what he was doing, and it worked.  The ensuing Allegro was a bit of a scrabble, the strings not quite in tune yet, the trumpets and timpani drowning everything out at their entries in the echoey acoustic of St Paul’s.  (Solution?  Harder timp sticks?  Just mark all their dynamics down a bit?  Make each entry a very quick diminuendo from a fortepiano?  Shame, as the ‘straight’ natural trumpets made a great sound, as well as looking terrific.) 

And the Overture ended with an awkward and stylistically out-of-kilter concert ending (necessary because in the opera itself the Overture doesn’t ‘finish’ but segues into the first scene in a different key).  Nul points to whichever publisher perpetrated that one – there are much simpler solutions that work fine.

Next came the reason we were there – my niece Rosie Burton playing the Hummel Bassoon Concerto.  There is something of a shortage of decent bassoon concertos (well, if you don’t count the 36 or so by Vivaldi, and one that probably isn’t by Rossini); the teenage Mozart wrote one, which is famous because it is by Mozart but is really not up to much (though you wonder what the other half-dozen or so he is alleged to have written might have been like).  Weber wrote the greatest of all, in 1811;  and that’s about it, apart from a few modern ones.  No Beethoven, Brahms Dvořák or Elgar… And then there’s Johann Nepomuk Hummel. He was an interesting chap – student (and lodger) of Mozart, pupil of Haydn and Beethoven, wrote some fine (and very jolly) chamber music, including the wittiest Wind Octet ever written;  and he wrote his Grand Concerto for Bassoon in 1805.  It isn’t heard very often, because it is VERY difficult:  not only is there lots of whizzing about in semiquavers, but the writing is awkward and un-bassoony – double octaves, huge skips and ever-widening arpeggio patterns – so the piece is even harder than it sounds.

Rosie did a fantastic job, performing with note-perfect accuracy, style, polish and fun, and above all with a gorgeous sound:  warm, rich tone, smooth and nutty, and totally under control at all times.  I am very envious! – and very proud.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D – an ‘early’ work that isn’t heard as often as it should be or used to be. Ben Palmer once again went for broke in his daringly fast tempi, but they paid off.  And this time the stabs of trumpets and timpani were perfectly judged, providing Beethovenian ‘punctuation’ with point and clarity but never drowning the rest of the band. 

The gently lilting ‘slow’ movement was refreshing – special praise for Tom Hardy on bassoon, along with the other woodwind principals – though I would have preferred just a little more room to breathe for the bouncy cello theme:  the tempo is Larghetto, after all. 

Conversely, the Scherzo felt as if it could have done with being even quicker.  But it made its Beethovenian mark, especially the moment in the Trio when the unison strings say ‘We’re going to play in F sharp major now’ and the rest of the orchestra says ‘Oh no you’re not!’

The Finale was an absolute rocket, and brilliantly effective.  Occasionally it seemed to totter on the verge of rushing out of control, but never quite did.  Ben Palmer captured perfectly Beethoven’s shock tactics and rough wit in the handling of the opening ‘yah boo’ motive, and conversely the hushed moment in the Coda when pizzicato cellos and basses step down and down into new harmonic realms, ‘as if’, in the words of Sir George Grove quoted by my brother Tony in his programme note, ‘we had passed through a door and were in a new enchanted world’.

Talking of which, one small disappointment was the presence of just one double bass – who was, however, always rock solid and perfectly audible;  but even with a small orchestra one surely needs two or three basses, especially as Beethoven himself apparently preferred to have more basses than cellos. 

Nevertheless, this was the most exciting and compelling performance of Beethoven 2 I have heard in a long time, or possibly ever;  by this time the orchestra was perfectly in focus and in full steam, and Ben Palmer brought it to life and made sense of the piece in ways I had certainly never heard before.  Great concert.

more about the orchestra on their website: http://www.orchestraofstpauls.co.uk/

Cellulitis (what’s that?) — not mumps!

April 19, 2010

 

So… a week ago we arrive back in Wiltshire from Diana’s choir trip to Paris and Chartres, very happy and relaxed after a jolly and sunny long weekend.  Then, on Tuesday morning, I wake up with a thumping head, forehead hot and sore to the touch, and all the glands in my neck swollen.  Ooer.  Diana, bless her, wafts me up to London, rings the doctor’s surgery, and takes an executive decision that I am not going anywhere.  She rings my boss – who leaps in her car on holiday in Norfolk to whizz back and take over my evening work – and rings the people with whom I was due to be rehearsing.

The GP (not one of ‘my’ usual ones) makes a thorough investigation and is slightly puzzled but concludes the most likely diagnosis is mumps, perhaps exacerbated by Parisian sunburn.  Rare in an adult, but there you are – we’re too old to have had the MMR vaccine, and I can’t be sure if I did have the disease as a child (when I was quite small I had an odd swollen gland which the doctor thought might be ‘a mump’).  She sends me off with some antibiotics ‘just in case there is some infection’ and advises paracetamol to cool things down as necessary.  So I retire to bed, feeling sore, hot and woolly but over the next couple of days gradually feeling better. 

Judi (my boss at work), bless her, organises to cover all my work for at least a week, since mumps can be very contagious.  Similarly the people with whom I was due to play in a concert on Sunday decide that mumps is not a good thing to bring to an old people’s home so it’s better if I don’t play;  they manage to find someone else – not easy when you’re a trio!

All well and good.  By Thursday afternoon I am sitting downstairs doing paperwork and eating heartily;  all looks set fair for a speedy recovery.

Then, after a deep and peaceful night’s sleep, I wake on Friday with an odd sensation.  feeling my face, I discover that the whole left side of my forehead and top of my head have swollen up like the Elephant Man (it feels worse than it looks) and my left eyelid is drooping.  (Not surprisingly no one thought to take a photo at this juncture!) 

At 7 a.m. I am panicking.  Diana, bless her again, bundles me into some clothes and her car and whizzes me off to the Accident and Emergency Department at Lewisham Hospital.  By the time we arrive I am feeling something of a fraud as the swelling seems to be going down.  However, my case is taken totally seriously and I am put in a side room where I am thoroughly investigated, first by a bright young doctor named John for whom no praise can be too high, then by his equally bright and improbably glamorous young boss, then by a more senior doctor, and finally by a couple of lads from Dermatology (who shine a blue light in my armpits… don’t ask).

There is much muttering and shaking of heads.  The eventual consensus is that it probably not mumps but an infection under the skin, and I am put on an intravenous antibiotic drip (young Dr John having neatly inserted a tap – or ‘cannula’ – in my hand).  After more mutterings it is decided to move me into the main Lewisham Hospital, where I am installed in a side room in case it is mumps after all and I am infectious.  There I receive luxurious attention, blood pressure, pulse and temperature checks every couple of hours, and several more antibiotic shots into my arm.  The food is jolly good too. 

Diana is a tower of strength, forsaking her own cares and responsibilities to look after me at every step and pop home for pyjamas and toiletries, clothes, books and treats, and keep me entertained with reading and word games and her inimitable company.

At 5 pm an avuncular senior doctor comes to see me on his rounds.  We have a nice chat about opera and what I do for a living!  Not much the wiser about what might be wrong with me, though.  The consensus is that I need to have 48 hours of intravenous antibiotics to chase away the infection, whatever it is.  As it’s in my head and face, it’s vital to stamp it out before it can infect eyes, ears, brain or anywhere else on the body including testicles (ouch).

And so it goes on (more…)