Posted tagged ‘Schubert’

English Chamber Orchestra at the Wigmore Hall, 3 November 2011

November 6, 2011

Lovely ECO chamber concert at the Wigmore Hall on Friday. First, out trot a pair of girls with curly hair and lacy black frocks, looking for all the world like long-lost sisters… They are Stephanie Gonley (violin, highly accomplished leader of the ECO) and Katya Apekisheva (young Russian pianist, prize-winner at the Leeds Piano Competition, evidently a rising star). We are treated to Schubert’s A minor Violin Sonatina (D385), a work of extraordinary depth and subtlety by a 19-year-old composer. Exceptionally, they played both repeats in the first movement (which Schubert obviously intends you to do). Plenty of fire, passion and introspection – the slow movement was heavenly. Stirring performance of a terrific piece.

Then came Mozart’s Horn Quintet, K407, in which the solo horn is accompanied unusually by a string quartet consisting of one violin, two violas and a cello. Soloist John Thurgood was his usual poker-faced but impeccable self, playing with great wit and aplomb and enjoying the musical company of his colleagues as much as they were enjoying his. (We wondered if cellist Caroline Dale had forgotten her black dress? The only player not in black – but the bluey one she wore was very pretty.)

After the interval, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet, in an exceptionally spirited (i.e. fast) and lively performance – all great fun. Caroline Dale and viola player Jonathan Barritt would catch each other’s eye and grin hugely at crucial duetting moments. Stephanie Gonley led gamely from the front. My only quibble concerned the platform layout – pianist Katya Apekisheva seemed to be stuck at the back in a world of her own (though she managed some eye contact with Stephanie, and the ensemble was well-nigh faultless). Is there not some way of positioning the string players around the piano so that everyone can see everyone else, and we can see still see them? (Remember that Gerard Hoffnung cartoon…??)

Underpinning the whole performance was the velvety sonorous double bass of Stephen Williams – another poker-faced player, but one who evidently takes great pleasure in his role. He plays a huge, impossibly gorgeous and subtly decorated instrument by Gaspar de Salo, dating from the 1580s – which I thought was before double basses had been invented. A bit of a puzzle. (Oh, all right – cue for lecture about the double bass being a member of the Renaissance viol family and thus having older parentage than the upstart modern violin/viola/cello…)

Smashing evening – thanks for the tickets, Pauline! And thanks to Caro for joining us and for your luxurious hospitality over the Berlioz Weekend (which is another story…)

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Philip Langridge CBE (1939-2010)

March 8, 2010

Another sad piece of news – the passing of Philip Langridge. A wonderful, intelligent English tenor, with a distinctive voice, great musicality and a huge range of repertoire (BBC Radio 3 marked his passing with ‘Comfort ye / Every valley’ from Handel’s Messiah – beautifully sung of course, and repertoire I had never associated with him before. How typical).

Probably my earliest memory of him is as Tom Rakewell in a student production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Cambridge, probably in 1969 or 70.  (The conductor was Antony Beaumont, director David Pountney, harpsichordist Mark Elder.)   Besides Philip’s voice, I remember his cream-and-brown ‘co-respondent’ shoes (it was a modern dress production).

All I ever want is to be true to the piece, the words and the character; to the whole thing, its meaning and so on. When we are true to what we do that is what makes great art. If you try and nudge it in a certain way to try and make it better for you or make you more famous then that’s boring. The public are not stupid and they may not have studied many hours what you are performing – some have, but many haven’t – but you can always tell when somebody means something and when they don’t.

Communication is also an important thing and if we do not communicate what we are doing – or what the music is doing – what is there left?
[from the interview referred to below]

Modest, unassuming, never a diva, always ready with a smile and a friendly word – Philip was one of music’s gentlemen.  I am proud to have worked with him at Glyndebourne, ENO and the Royal Opera. In the ground-breaking production of Janáček’s Osud at ENO he gave a harrowing performance as the composer Zivny, playing the tricky onstage piano part himself. With his wife Ann Murray he made a memorable double-act in Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict at ENO.

I treasure his recordings of Britten and Tippett and others, and memories of live performances including Schubert’s Winterreise at Blackheath Halls (with David Owen Norris). I also treasure the postcard he sent me from Aldeburgh (a watery watercolour scene with ‘Dawn’ from Britten’s Sea Interludes in a stave across the sky) in response to my congratulations on his CBE in 1994.

Energetic to the end, he could be seen leaping around the stage as Loge in Wagner’s Ring, or in more sedate (but vocally demanding) roles in Berg’s Lulu or Birtwistle’s The Minotaur.  Ever ready to learn new or unfamiliar music, at the age of 70 it seemed he would go on for ever.

Farewell, Philip.  And thank you for the music.

Deepest condolences to his wife Ann Murray, and his children including Anita and Stephen.

Obituary by Barry Millington here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/mar/07/philip-langridge-obituary

and a nice interview with Philip:

http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2009/jan-jun09/langridge_interview.htm

Erica Eloff at the Wigmore Hall

November 17, 2008

erica 

The South African soprano Erica Eloff first appeared on my radar as Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte at Garsington Opera last summer:  tall, poised, magnetic;  a fabulous voice, big, smooth and even;  a commanding presence, and acting which covered the range from comedy to tragedy, always with intensity and controlled emotion.  (And one of her teachers – as with so many rising sopranos, especially at Garsington – was my old chum Lillian Watson.)

So when I had the chance to hear Erica in a Kirckman Concert Society recital at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday, I knew I was in for a treat.

With the young and very impressive James Baillieu – also from South Africa – as her accompanist, she gave us a varied programme in a wide variety of languages, all sung with perfect diction and idiomatic pronunciation.

She began with some Schubert rarities in Italian, Vier Canzonen (D688), and continued in French with Fauré’s Poème d’un jour (three songs), Après un rêve and Fleur jetée, beautifully delivered and very touching.

So far she seemed accomplished if somewhat restrained, perhaps a little nervous (and not flattered by the awful overhead lighting;  Wigmore, can’t you manage something better than this?).  But with her next cycle of songs she was transformed:  Alleenstryd (Outcast:  the Lone Struggle) is a set of six enormously powerful songs in Afrikaans with a strong political message, composed  by Hendrik Hofmeyr (born 1957).  The music was muscular, occasionally thorny, and full of character (James Baillieu told us that the composer was one of his teachers, so the work had a personal significance for him too).  Singing in her own language, Erica Eloff finally came totally alive, bewitching us with a range of moods from despair and cynicism to flirtatiousness, nostalgia, anger and pride.  A tremendous achievement.  CD, please!

After the interval, another country, another language – Edvard Grieg’s six songs in German, Op. 48.  Grieg is such a glorious composer (and hardly given sufficient coverage in 2007, the centenary of his death);  these songs are among his loveliest and best known, and show Grieg’s unerring talent for setting a scene with the simplest of means, not to mention his gift for a great tune.  Again Erica Eloff held us captivated with her flawless singing, her wit and charm, and her alertness to every change of mood.

Finally, Rachmaninov’s Six Songs, Op. 38, gave us yet another language (Russian) and an even bigger range of moods and colours.  An ambitious choice, but one to which she rose impressively, her voice seamlessly beautiful and powerful from top to bottom of a big range.  At the end of the final song, ‘A-oo’, she held her expression of despair, puzzlement and sadness (‘But where are you? … I sing, I search, “A-oo”, I cry’) even throughout the long instrumental postlude.

A lovely little Afrikaans encore sent us away in high spirits, aware that we were witnessing the start of a great career.  Certainly a soprano to watch.  I can’t wait for her next stage appearance, nor her first CD, nor (dare we hope) a place as Miss South Africa at Cardiff Singer of the World?  She deserves it.

Thanks to Matthew Brailsford and the Kirckman Society, and my brother Tony, for the train of circumstances that led me to be part of this event!  And to Erica for her friendly post-concert greetings and glass of bubbly.  And to Diana for the photograph.

Prom: Gürzenich Orchestra, Mahler 5 etc.

August 23, 2008
Angelika Kirchschlager

Angelika Kirchschlager

After the previous night’s Prom – when Jiři Bělohlávek drew a lovely light, fluffy sound from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Dvořák’s bouncy and witty Slavonic Dances, and Janáček’s beautiful but maddeningly unfocused little-known early opera Osud – what a contrast yesterday to hear the rich glowing sound of the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne under Markus Stenz.

Their weird back-to-front programme – Mahler 5, some Schubert songs, Beethoven’s Overture Leonore No. 3 – turned out to be a re-creation of the first performance of the Mahler in 1904 (I hadn’t realised it had been written for this orchestra).  Plus – to bring us up to date – a chunk of Stockhausen, which succeeded in driving a lot of the audience away after the Mahler (rumour has it that it was scheduled to be a separate late-night Prom, but perhaps the Powers That Be had thought no one at all would have turned up).  As it was, the Albert Hall was respectably full but not bursting.

From the first tutti, the Mahler had an authentically ‘European’ sound:  big, colourful and full of character, supported on the cushion of those gorgeous strings – especially a phalanx of eight double basses across the back of the platform, where they became the beating heart of the orchestra, always supporting, always making their presence felt even in the softest pianissimo (and all bowing ‘underhand’ in Continental fashion).

Varieties of orchestral layout are a continuing fasciation;  the oddity of this one was that the brass were ‘back to front’, with the trumpets on the outside and the trombones and tuba nearest the middle.  This had the bonus of placing the tuba next to contrabassoon and double basses – good idea.  If I am not mistaken, the second violins sat opposite the firsts in the Mahler, but the violas went there for the Beethoven.  (The Stockhausen had a weirdly random layout, not explained in the programme).

‘A symphony must be like the world – it should embrace everything’, said Gustav Mahler:  it could be claimed that Mahler’s Fifth is the greatest of his symphonies, and one of the greatest of all symphonies (and I’m not just saying that because of its terrific contrabassoon part!).  The Gürzenich Orchestra gave it all they’d got, which was indeed plenty, although both the first trumpet (in his opening fanfare) and the first horn (in his solos in the huge Scherzo) were not entirely accident-free – though they improved once they had got over their opening wobbles.  Yet somehow, despite tremendously characterised and colourful wind playing, the sound remained slightly one-dimensional and the performance didn’t ever quite take off.  When Markus Stenz reached the final bombastic peroration, it didn’t seem to have earned its place in the scheme of things.  And heaven knows what he thought he was beating at the beginning of the (admirably unsentimental) Adagietto.

Stockhausen’s Punkte was a kind of smudged pointillist canvas (more…)

Mark Padmore sings Schubert

May 22, 2008

Mark Padmore (c) Marco BorggreveTwo magical evenings at the Wigmore Hall, thanks to a friend’s generosity (thank you, Paula)… Mark Padmore (tenor) sang Schubert’s two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin (‘The Fair Maid of the Mill’) and Winterreise (Winter Journey).

After fifty years of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, we are used to hearing our Schubert songs sung by a baritone, in low keys, with perhaps exaggerated ‘expression’ and rather muddy piano accompaniments (played on a clanky modern Steinway, of course, rather than Schubert’s very light Viennese pianos).  To hear them sung by a tenor is a revelation:  there is a lightness and airiness in the vocal lines, with top notes becoming true clarion high points in the drama, offset by Mark Padmore’s warm baritonal lower register (the vocal range of these songs, particularly in Winterreise, is enormous).  And the lighter texture of the accompaniments in higher keys is a breath of fresh air, even on the modern piano.

Mark Padmore is better known for his ‘early music’ – Rameau, Lully, Handel, and above all the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions.  So Schubert is a big step into the unknown for us, if not for him (in his illuminating programme notes he tells us that he has known and studied these cycles all his life).  His performances were masterly.  His stillness and concentration were most affecting, and frequently appropriate to the near-catatonia of Schubert’s first-person protagonists;  his range of expression was powerful and moving, the more so by being firmly controlled and never degenerating into ‘emoting’ or drawing attention to the singer instead of the song.

The cycles of poems themselves are extraordinary.  By the otherwise little-known Wilhelm Müller, they both depict the progress of a rejected lover towards his doom.  Schubert’s settings are perfectly matched (more…)

Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra, Sunday 13 January 2008

January 17, 2008

stmaryathill.jpg

Another concert, another nice old church…

The church of St-Mary-at-Hill, off Eastcheap in the City of London, is hidden away down a side alley, landlocked and invisible among other buildings (not to mention impenetrable – as they forgot to unbolt the doors until five minutes before the concert!).  Built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677, it lost its box pews and much of its beautiful woodwork in a disastrous fire in 1988, but has been magnificently restored, with a bright, clean and uncluttered interior.  Resonant yet intimate, it makes a lovely concert venue for a small orchestra (strings 9.8.6.6.2, for those who care about such things) and a small audience.

Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1966, and has been a guiding light of my life (and many other people’s lives) ever since.  In past decades I have been privileged to play with them on a number of occasions:  now chances are rare, apart from the annual phone call from Brynly which goes – ‘Jo, I’ve messed up my diary.  Can you do HCO for me on…?’  Sadly, because of my own crazy diary, the answer is nearly always ‘no’ (the last time I managed it was in 1999 – a great experience). 

The orchestra has worked with many distinguished conductors and soloists (an early revelation to me was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony conducted by a very young Andrew Davis), and on Sunday it was directed from the leader’s desk and/or solo position by Paul Barritt, who was evidently enjoying himself as much as they were, hot-foot from gigs in Belgium and Tring.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s ‘Fingal’s Cave’ Overture (The Hebrides) – sonorous, energetic, un-muddy and a delight (notwithstanding Paul Barritt’s cheeky viola joke in his introductory words).  I became aware of details I’d never heard before – always a good sign – such as the single oboe note that is held throughout the chugging harmonic sequence which may or may not, as Paul suggested, represent the sound of the paddle-wheel on Mendelssohn’s Hebridean ferry.

Then came Haydn’s all too rarely heard Sinfonia Concertante (more…)

The Brodsky Quartet and friends — ‘Close To You II’

November 28, 2007

brodskyweb.jpg‘Sex And The String Quartet’ is not a widely discussed topic.  However, one of the delights of experiencing chamber music live – as opposed to on record or on the radio – is the interaction between the players:  the vibes, the sparks, the knowing grins, the micro-dramas, the body language.

For example, the Wihan Quartet (see my previous post) consists of four men:  their work ethic seems to be ‘Come on, chaps – let’s roll up our sleeves and go for it’ (with immense musicality and sensitivity, of course).  Conversely, when I heard the Chilingirian Quartet play Dvořák all those years ago, the viola player was the lovely, pale (and pregnant) Louise Williams, and it was touching to observe the tremendously gallant way in which the other three (male) members of the quartet nurtured and cared for her (musically, I mean).

In the Brodsky Quartet, the female member is the cellist, Jacqueline Thomas.  Uniquely, the quartet plays standing up, except for the cellist (yes, I know – ‘you can’t get that under your chin’), so she sits, literally, on a pedestal, with the others standing around her.  The image that came to my mind was of an ice princess surrounded by adoring acolytes (not wishing to be sexist or ‘look-ist’, but Ms Thomas is a strikingly tall and elegant ash blonde – though with a nice twinkle).

To composer Martin Butler, however, the image that came to mind was slightly different:

‘I imagined the four standing players to be acting as sentries, standing guard, keeping watch over the seated cellist and patrolling their space – hence the title. Then a friend pointed me in the direction of the opening scene of Hamlet – with its sentries, its sinister and slightly surreal atmosphere, its ghost, its uncertainty and apprehensiveness – and the flavour of the piece was fixed.’

The resulting work, Sentinels (for the Brodsky Quartet plus an extra viola – tonight John Metcalfe) was arresting and powerful, more challenging than other works by Prof. Butler that I have heard.  Strong, clear, colourful, totally ‘thought through’ – very rewarding.  (if you’re reading this, Martin, I’m sorry not to have met you;  I’ve been listening to the Tin Pan Ballet CD continuously in the car for a month!  Brilliant.)

When you add extra players to a quartet, the number of possible interactions – musical and interpersonal – must multiply geometrically (xkcd must have something to say about this).  With the six players required for Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, you are more or less listening to a string orchestra.  I have never managed to warm to this late-Romantic-early-Schoenberg ultra-emotional piece, although I can see and hear its virtues (maybe, for me, it’s just because it isn’t by Richard Strauss).  The Brodskys and friends gave a glorious performance – rich, passionate, sonorous, nuanced – but it didn’t do it for me (nor for my companion).

Then, in the second half, Schubert’s String Quintet – that favourite of Desert Island Discs (and me, of course).  (more…)