Posted tagged ‘Bartok’

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

Vienna Philharmonic at the Proms

September 9, 2007

Once upon a time, orchestras from different countries – or even cities – had their own immediately identifiable characteristics:  London, Paris, Prague, Moscow…  These days, the Vienna Philharmonic is almost the last upholder of a regional tradition.  The clarinettist no longer has his reed tied on with string, and I couldn’t see whether the oboes were the Viennese ‘cotton-reel’ variety, but they still use rotary-valve trumpets and distinctive Viennese horns (even if they are made by Yamaha), and the double basses bow with an ‘underhand’ action (which is historically authentic, since double basses are technically members of the viol family, which bowed underhand, and the other string instruments belong to the upstart violin family.  End of history lesson).

I got excited to see 14 double basses and only 12 cellos listed in the programme;  here was living proof of the contention that Beethoven would have had more basses than cellos in his orchestra.  But alas, there were never more than eight basses on the platform at any one moment.
 
(‘Tradition’ has its bad aspects too.  Still ‘saucepan lid’ cymbals and poor percussion generally;  still very few women in the band, mostly tucked away on back desks;  and no named harpist in the programme, despite two on the platform – if you haven’t yet been accepted as a permanent member of the orchestra, you don’t get your name in the programme [unless you are ‘on trial’ at the State Opera] even if you have played with them for many years, like the hapless lady harpist in the 1970s.)

Anyway, it was a treat to hear the VPO at the Proms last week.  Silky strings, gorgeous brass, characterful woodwind;  impeccable tuning, immaculate phrasing, a suavity of music making based on 165 years of playing together… The combined pressures of the day job and a London Underground strike kept me away from Barenboim’s first Prom with the VPO last Monday, an echt-Viennese treat of Schubert and Bruckner.  The Bruckner (4th Symphony) sounded absolutely glorious on Radio 3.  I wish I had been there, but after Mahler 7 the night before I would not physically have been able to stand up for another 75-minute symphony! (more…)