Posted tagged ‘Stravinsky’

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

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

Reed Rage bassoon quartet

February 23, 2010

Definition: Reed Rage. An affliction commonly found in double reed players, especially bassoonists. Less serious than Reed Neurosis suffered by oboe players. It involves leaping up and down on reeds that don’t work or stabbing them into music stands…

 So… way back in October, we turned out to the wilds of Hampstead for a concert by REED RAGE, a brand new bassoon quartet which just happens to have my niece Rosie in it…

 More about them, and biographies of the four players (and their instruments), from their website – a very swish production which I suspect Tom had a hand in:

 http://www.reedrage.co.uk

 They are Rosie Burton, Alex Davidson, Llinos Owen and Tom Hardy.  The occasion was organised by Hugh Rosenbaum, who hovered over the proceedings like a benevolent but slightly anxious mother hen (and wrote a glowing review for Double Reed News afterwards! – Issue 89, Winter 2009, page 33).  The tiny room at Burgh House was packed to the rafters, and extra chairs had to be sent for to accommodate all the bassoonists, pupils, relations, friends and other interested parties who were eager to squeeze in.

The three girls are all alumnae of the Southbank Sinfonia, and Tom is a veteran of – well, lots of things.  Each of the four had a terrific, characterful sound, and as a quartet their blend, unanimity of attack, discipline and intonation were a joy.  Most of the contra duties fell to Tom, although Alex’s Big Bertha got a look in too.

The programme managed to avoid the usual bassoon quartet chestnuts (though it would have been nice to hear Alan Ridout’s Pigs played really well) and instead gave us wide-ranging repertoire, from Senaillé and Fucik to Prokofiev, Stravinsky and beyond, mostly in arrangements – the arrangers including Boris Turner (a.k.a. Rosie Burton), Graham Sheen, and Andrew Skirrow (who turned out to be an old chum of Tom’s).

The concert also included the European premiere of Dance of the Polar Bears by Gernot Wolfgang, enterprisingly commissioned by a consortium (including Hugh Rosenbaum) from this highly regarded Austrian-born composer, who currently lives in Los Angeles.

It was concentrated, jazzy and lots of fun – and very difficult (as I know from having taken part in the first UK read-through… but that’s another story).  Some of the audience thought it perhaps outstayed its welcome;  I was too busy listening to notice.

The programme concluded with The Lone Arranger by Philip R Buttall;  we were invited to count the number of quotations from familiar works that crept in along the way.  I’ve forgotten the answer…

But the highlight for me was probably Andrew Skirrow’s arrangement of The Poacher (which tickled Hugh Rosenbaum, as he had laid on Lincolnshire Poacher cheese for the interval – and very nice it was too). 

 Here is an audio clip, courtesy of Tom:

[click on the arrow — and wind the volume up to max…] 

The point of writing this review now – four months after the event – is that Reed Rage has unfortunately been in abeyance since Llinos was involved in a rather nasty car accident.  We’re glad to hear she has completely recovered, and wish her well;  meanwhile, Reed Rage are gearing up for another evening of delights – so watch (and listen to) this space…

 Thanks to Tom for the invitation to write this piece, and for the audio clip.  And to the Reed Rage website for the picture.

Sorry, chaps

November 1, 2008

So many wonderful things since I last wrote – pressure of work and other activities has prevented me blogging them, much as I wanted to.  So here is a list of what I should have written about, for your edification and delight…

Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra concert, Saturday 4 October – especially the Schumann Konzertstück for four horns, magisterially played by Richard Lewis, Jo Towler, Duncan Gwyther and Liz Kadir.  Wow.

Haydn’s Creation at the Korean Full Gospel Church in Raynes Park, Sunday 12 October – lots of fun, the Koreans charming and lovely, my contra bottom B flat much appreciated!

The English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, Wednesday 15 October – Tippett, Britten (Les Illuminations with stunning young soprano Mary Bevan), plus some works by Arab composers including the brilliant and hilarious Saxophone Concerto by Waleed Howrani – a perfect Last Night of the Proms piece?

Celebrity Recital at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 19 October – Emma Johnson, Julian Lloyd Webber, John Lill, surprisingly not a full house:  a treat of Beethoven and Brahms clarinet trios, the Weber Grand Duo Concertant, Julian playing two of his father’s pieces (with Andrew in the audience), and John Lill scorching our eyebrows off with the Chopin C minor Nocturne and the amazing Prokofiev Toccata

Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran at the Opera House, with Juan Diego Florez

Our very own Phoenix Orchestra concert (see previous post) on Thursday 23 October, especially the wonderful and inexhaustible Tom Poster in the Rachmaninov 3rd Piano Concerto

The Esbjerg Ensemble at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 26 October:  Nonet by Louise Farrenc, Poulenc’s Sextet for piano and wind (fantastic), the Schumann Piano Quintet (wonderful as ever).  Slightly dour Danish group, lifted to a higher plane by the tiny, sparky, beaming and incredibly accomplished pianist Marianna Shirinyan (who she??)

And the Brodsky Quartet at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 29 October – Beethoven Razumovsky No. 1 (what a wonderful piece), Tchaikovsky Quartet No. 1, and two little Stravinsky numbers (Concertino and Three Pieces) which were spellbinding.

Now I’m off to rehearse contra in Boléro (don’t ask)…

Normal service one of these days!

thanks for the picture, Diana…

more Proms — Messiaen, Varese

August 20, 2008

Still piling on the Proms — 14 so far I think. 

Disappointments:  Boulez conducting Janacek‘s Sinfonietta (careful, not exciting) and Glagolitic Mass (I am not at all convinced by the reconstructed ‘original’ version, which seemed muddy and diffuse.  Composers’ second thoughts are usually the right ones!). 

Highlights:  Barenboim‘s East-West Divan Orchestra (why did nobody explain their name in the programme?  It’s from a book of Goethe poems, I think) — I feared the worst from his VERY slow upbeat at the beginning of Brahms 4, but it was fine.  Great the way the players all lunge and sway about in a most un-English fashion!  Special praise for bassoonist Mor Biron, who was, I thought, the best of the solosts in Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante, then excellent in the Brahms, and finally wide awake and full of character in Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale at the late Prom — another highlight, thanks to Patrice Chéreau‘s craggy, louche, hilarious, touching and very French rendering of ALL the characters (and the Narrator). 

More highlights:  Jennifer Bate playing Messiaen on the mighty Albert Hall organ:  L’Apparition de l’église eternelle is a piece I have always loved (an early work), its ‘granitic’ columns of sound rising mysteriously from nothingness and then sinking back again, like an immense and slightly sinister science-fiction version of Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie.  Then La Nativité du seigneur in all its hour-long splendour, quite wonderful and with a shattering ‘Dieu Parmi Nous’ at the end.  Whoooo!

Last night — Tuesday 19 August — was a (very thinly attended) feast of live orchestra (BBC Scottish) plus electronics — more Messiaen (the late and pretty Concert à quatre), Varèse, and Jonathan Harvey (including an ambitious if over-long new work, Speakings, using the orchestra as a giant speech synthesiser:  interesting sounds, but I was put off by the inelegant ‘bending’ noises the players had to make — especially the oboe — which I know was the point of the piece but struck me as undignified…). 

Harvey’s electronic warhorse, Mortuos plango, vivos voco, featuring a bell and his choirboy son, was a knockout — the composer himself presiding, like a gently beaming silver-haired angel, at the sound desk.  But the highlight for me was Varèse’s Poème electronique — an amazing feat of technology for 1958, clever, imaginative, funny, and — at eight minutes long — not outstaying its welcome.

I’m certainly not complaining about any of ‘my’ Proms — a continuing feast of all kinds of music and such a privilege to be able to experience ‘live’.  Time for several more before I have to return to real life!

.

 

photo of Messiaen by Malcolm Crowthers (c)

Kensington Symphony Orchestra plays Martinu…

January 24, 2008

kso.jpg 

…and wins! – I was tempted to say.

(And a nice picture of Martinů on the cover of the programme!)

Back to my favourite crucible, Cadogan Hall, on Tuesday for an extraordinarily interesting concert by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra.

The programme began with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments – a  wonderful and truly original piece, written in memoriam Claude Debussy.  On first hearing, the music appears to be constructed of dozens of little fragments, like a mosaic, before it hits the final chorale which was Stravinsky’s initial reaction to Debussy’s death in 1918;  I was familiar with the much-quoted analysis by Edward T Cone, who realised that each fragment is part of a set of parallel ongoing developments, so every time a particular turn of phrase or instrumental idea comes round again, it has evolved slightly from where it was the last time you heard it.  But the illuminating KSO programme note by Peter Nagle (one of the cellists in the orchestra:  here’s a link to his own blog on the concert) also points out links between the structure of the piece and the Russian Orthodox burial service.  So the work is more of a requiem for Debussy than we knew.

The KSO gave a rich and sonorous performance, firmly held together by Russell Keable’s conducting. From where I was sitting (in cheapskate seats right at the back under the balcony – actually very good, apart from an intrusive pulsating hum [in G]  – lots of bass coming up through the wooden floor!) it sounded terrific, with colouristic details I hadn’t heard before, particularly from trumpets and horns.  My overall reaction was ‘What an ear Stravinsky had!’  How could he have known that THAT combination of oboes, cor anglais and trumpets at that moment would produce THAT unique sound…?  I don’t know what Debussy would have made of it, but as a tribute from one supreme master of sonorities to another, it is a tremendous piece, and the performance was resonant (in all senses) and most impressive.

Then came Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto – the one that, uniquely, begins with the piano on its own.  Very beautiful, accurate and characterful solo playing by Leon McCawley, no less;  great orchestral playing, and I was particularly struck by the impeccable woodwind intonation in the first movement.  My only quibble was with the cadenza:  I don’t have a score, and I confess I don’t know the piece well enough to know whether this was Beethoven’s fault or the soloist’s, but it seemed to go on as long as the rest of the movement, far outstaying its welcome and (I regret to say) actually sending me to sleep!  The slow movement – ‘Orpheus placating the Furies’ according to Liszt – was rock-solid, the bouncing finale appropriately jolly.  Very fine.

Then, after the interval – the reason I had come:  Martinů’s Fantaisies Symphoniques (Symphony No. 6)(more…)

Phoenix concert (and also John Lill and The Soldier’s Tale)

December 6, 2007

Very quick one.  I wouldn’t normally write up a concert I was playing in (see previous post) – bad form, and difficult to tell what it’s like from inside – but various people have asked me to, so I will!

Phoenix Orchestra‘s leader Catherine Lindley was indisposed, and we were grateful to James Widden for stepping in at the last minute.

St Andrew’s, Holborn, perched on the end of Holborn Viaduct, is a very nice building to play in – yet another squareish 18th-century church like St Johns, Smith Square and St James, Piccadilly.  Very resonant, but flattering rather than muddying, as far as we could tell.  A small church, cosy enough to feel nicely full with an audience of mostly friends and relations.

No carpet to soak up the bassoon sound!  Hard black-and-white tiles instead (actually lino, though looking like marble).  The helpfully stepped floor made for good sight lines for us, and presumably ‘hearing lines’ for the audience as well.  The horns and brass sounded loud but not overpoweringly blarey.

The ‘rush-hour concert’ idea is a very good one.  Not too much sheer volume of stuff to slog through at rehearsals;  start at  6.30, in the pub by 8 (Ye Olde Mitre in Ely Place:  that’s another story…).

The Berlioz overture (Beatrice and Benedict, or ‘Bill and Ben’ as it’s known in the trade) went like a little rocket, Lev’s ‘safe’ opening tempo imperceptibly zizzing up until it was really exciting.  We were pretty precise, I’m glad to say, and it sounded to me as if there was some very nice woodwind playing going on, as well as crisp brass.

Then the Borodin ‘Steppes of Central Asia’, which was short and lovely – very atmospheric.  Smashing playing from Sue (flute) and Emma (cor anglais).

And finally (no interval), Dvořák’s 7th Symphony.   Speaking for myself, the ravages of the afternoon rehearsal eventually began to take their toll on lips and brain, but not until the last movement.  It’s a tremendous and underrated work (see my earlier comments) and we felt proud to be having a really good crack at it.

‘Crack’ being absolutely the wrong word for Duncan’s glorious horn solo in the slow moment – which he particularly asked me to mention here in contrast to his previous showing (again, see my earlier comments).

So – a great (short) evening, to which these comments don’t begin to do justice.

The same goes for two other recent musical experiences, which I didn’t write up on here (more…)