Monday, 29 April 2013

LSO/Gardiner (Barbican); LPO/Jurowski (RFH)

Both of these concerts featured works from the same concentrated chronological span: John Eliot Gardiner celebrated his 70th birthday at the Barbican  on Thursday conducting Stravinsky's Apollo (1928, rev 1947) and Oedipus Rex (1927); on Saturday Vladimir Jurowski presented an even more taxing programme with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall, consisting of Webern's Variations Op. 30 (1940), Berg's Lulu Suite (1934), Bartok's Music for String Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Martinu's Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani (1939). (Please excuse me, incidentally, for the lack of accents: I haven't worked out how to do these without the size, font or background colour of my text getting messed up--which is what happens when I cut and paste from anything.)

Between them they presented a fascinating prospectus of what sort of music was being produced within a space of less than 15 years, and while the LPO's concert was part of the Southbank Centre's year-long Rest is Noise festival, the LSO's concert could just as easily have been part of it too. Both concerts had the sort of conviction and quality that makes one despair that such marketing behemoths are necessary, and, although my attendance at the Southbank's festival has been unforgivably sporadic thus far--to say the least--I couldn't help thinking that this LPO concert must have been one of the best in the series. First, the programme contained three truly great works, plus one--the Martinu--that seemed to show that composer at his best. Second, Jurowski gave a brief but passionate and persuasive talk. He said the programme was among the most challenging for him to perform, introduced the four works and offered advice, in particular, on how the uninitiated should listen to the Webern: along the lines of don't try and analyse, just listen.

Jurowski's conducting seemed to do the analysis for us, and the piece came across with impressive clarity and precision, with the LPO's players on outstanding form for their Principal Conductor (a more nuanced comparative view, from Boulezian, can be read here). The Lulu-Suite was outstanding, too, the orchestral playing rich and febrile, the contributions from the brilliant Barbara Hannigan--who recent sang the whole of Berg's opera in Brussels--lyrically free and exciting and extreme. Her  wandering on to the platform in stilettos, silk dress and coat, languidly killing time before taking her position by the podium, was a nicely effective touch. Jurowski had announced a change in the order in the programme, so that the Bartok now preceded the Martinu, suggesting that despite the former's masterpiece status, the latter should still be able to hold its own. Some who left after the first clearly didn't share his view, but the Czech composer's work was performed with terrific commitment and elan by the LPO strings, joined by the excellent pianist Catherine Edwards. There was impressive corporate virtuosity in the Bartok, too, in a performance that buzzed with energy and drive.

The controlled, coolly elegant writing of Stravinsky's Apollo(n Musagète) had shown the LSO strings on no less virtuosic form a couple of days earlier, with the just-turned-70 Gardiner showing a decent amount of balletic flair on the podium himself. It's a lovely piece, and was played with a great deal of charm and flexibility. It was blown out of the water by the performance of Oedipus Rex, though, in a cleverly sort-of-staged performance which had the Monteverdi Choir's men in face paint and the excellent soloists--Jennifer Johnston (Jocasta), Stuart Skelton (Oedipus), Gidon Saks (Creon)--also strikingly made-up, popping up in spotlights stage right or centre. Fanny Ardant was as classy as one would expect as the narrator, and Alexander Ashworth and David Shipley stepped forward from the chorus to make highly impressive contributions as as the Messanger and Tiresias--with singers such as these in its ranks, it is no wonder that Gardiner's choir made such an impact. In fact, the whole thing was fiercely exciting and involving, and rarely have I thought the Barbican's bright acoustic was more suitable, emphasizing each sharp edge (one's tempted to to reach for the sculptural, granitic metaphors) of Stravinsky's score. There wasn't much room for subtleties, but that was fine by me. (It was broadcast on Radio 3, incidentally, and there's a couple more days to listen to it here

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Hough, BBCSO/Davis (Barbican); LSO/Farnes (Barbican)

These two Barbican concerts--one two days before the death was announced of Sir Colin Davis on Sunday, one two days afterwards--both had links with the conductor, the LSO's concert performance of The Turn of the Screw yesterday most obviously. It was to have been conducted by Davis, and the programme, poignantly, still talked optimistically of how he 'had been much looking forward to returning to the podium for these concerts, but unfortunately he suffered a setback recently and has had to delay his return'. Details were listed for concerts well into 2014, including  those he was to conduct: performances of The Creation in January; a programme of Panufnik and Dvorak in February. The last of these emphasized the fact that Davis, as Kathryn McDowell noted in a brief,  heartfelt speech on the Barbican stage, was constantly questing, learning new repertoire. If his repertoire at the Royal Opera has featured almost nothing by Mozart for the past 15 years (Haensel und Gretel in 2008 the only exception), that in the concert hall has been a lot more adventurous.

The programme for Friday evening's concert by the BBCSO--the orchestra of which he was chief conductor from 1967 until his appointment at Covent Garden in 1970--featured the music of a composer Davis championed passionately, Michael Tippett. And it was from Davis, the programme note told us, that the composer had borrowed a phrase to describe his own Fourth Symphony: as a 'birth to death' piece (a phrase Davis had used to describe Sibelius's Seventh Symphony). Tippett's fourth, incidentally, was composed for Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Georg Solti, who Davis succeeded at Covent Garden and whose scheduled Proms performance of the Verdi Requiem in 1997 was taken over by Davis when the older conductor died suddenly. (The performance was already due to be dedicated, at Solti's suggestion, to Princess Diana, then Solti himself died a matter of days later).

Anyway, enough with musical join-the-dots. On Friday, another Davis and another Sir--Andrew, this time--showed quite what a powerful, concentrated and fiercely committed composition the Tippett is: sometimes disturbing (not least in its featuring amplified breathing, here performed live), occasionally consoling, always burning with conviction. Jonathan Lloyd's Old Racket, here being given its world premiere at the start of the concert, was not really comparable (nor, I'm sure, would Lloyd want it to be). Written for strings (plus a string quartet, tuned a semi-tone sharp), it often seemed to toy playfully with the pastoral English string-orchestra idiom, undercutting lush textures with disorientating slides in and out 'of tune', exploring evocative ostinato figures and jarring tonal effects. I couldn't quite make up my mind on first hearing, but would like to hear it again--as well as its companion piece, New Balls (geddit?). We were on safer tonal ground with Brahms's First Piano Concerto, which followed, but there was nothing safe about the playing of Stephen Hough. As I've noted before, this pianist, the producer of many fine, library-recommendation recordings, is a different animal live. And his playing here was excitingly daring, most of all in a finale launched at breakneck speed. Davis and the orchestra backed him to the hilt in a performance that swept me along, but which had few of the refinements that had so distinguished the Vienna Philharmonic's account of the Second Concerto with Bronfman earlier in the week.

There was no shortage of refinement in yesterday evening's Turn of the Screw, though, the reduced LSO forces showing quite what a high-quality orchestra this is. Richard Farnes, too rare a visitor to London for those who don't get the chance to travel up to Opera North much, conducted with brilliant precision and dramatic pacing, and it was a real pleasure to hear (and see) Britten's ingenious scoring so clearly. With a fine cast of Andrew Kennedy (Prologue, Peter Quint), Sally Matthews (Governess), Michael Clayton-Jolly (Miles), Lucy Hall (Flora), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mrs Grose) and Katherine Broderick (Miss Jessel), this performance, the first of two this week, will form the basis for what is likely to be a competitive CD set when it appears on the LSO Live label. And, in the resolutely unatmospheric Barbican Hall, it did a pretty good job of creating just the right creepy, chilling atmosphere.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Vienna Philharmonic/Tilson Thomas (RFH)

This, I'm slightly ashamed to say, was the first concert I'd attended in the Southbank Centre's The Rest is Noise festival. I'm not sure it was the best one to start on, with the Vienna Philharmonic presenting on Tuesday a programme consisting largely of Brahms, while the main festival juggernaut has made its way well into the 20th century (the next batch of concerts appears under the rubric 'Art of Fear' and covers 1930-50). I suppose it's not the only time the great Austrian orchestra, which is more controversial than ever after the opening up of its Nazi-era records, has lagged a little behind.

The other name on the programme was Schoenberg, and the ostensible aim was to highlight 'Brahms the progressive', to borrow the title of Schoenberg's famous essay. 'Pure' Brahms, in the form of the second Piano Concerto, was bookended by Schoenberg influenced by Brahms (the 1943 Theme and Variations Op.43b, which Michael Tilson Thomas explained, in a brief intro, took Brahms's Haydn Variations as a model), and Brahms arranged by Schoenberg--the younger composer's orchestration of the G-minor Piano Quartet. 

It was an interesting programme, that's for sure, and one that helped to highlight the slippery nature of musical modernity. (It was a shame, though, that in a frankly embarrassing bit of blurb the Southbank Centre's Artistic Director, Judy Kelly, demonstrated that she has little or no understanding of such subtleties. One terrible sentence pays lip service to the orchestra's sexual politics in a dangling clause before implying, with a hopeless vagueness, that modernity is not only amorphous but also somehow inherently egalitarian:  'Late in admitting women to its ranks, it's fascinating to see the orchestra turn its attention to the modern world and the modern repertoire'. Such stuff really runs the risk of undermining the whole festival's intent, not to mention the Southbank's reputation as a flagship cultural institution).  

Schoenberg's Theme and Variations--Tilson Thomas told the uninitiated to expect a mixture between Schubert and Weill--though tautly composed and entirely devoid of unnecessary ornament or rhetoric, represents the composer in quasi-melodic mood. (The work was composed in California in 1943, initially for wind band, and then orchestrated for performance by the Boston Symphony). Here it was played with clean precision.

The concerto followed in a performance that did little to persuade one of the work's questionable modernist credentials. It's not long since I last heard Yefim Bronfman (a pianist who surely deserved a better adjective from Kelly than 'talented' in her blurb) in the work, with the Berlin Phil and Rattle at the 2012 Proms, but here his occasionally straight-laced playing found a far more interesting complement in the gorgeously characterized playing of the Vienna orchestra. The tuning in the winds, as it had been accompanying Murray Perahia at the Proms, was occasionally a little 'distinctive', but every solo was beautifully shaped, while the outstanding Tamás Varga provided a wonderfully lyrical cello solo in the Andante. Bronfman played the long game, an initially matter-of-fact approach increasingly melting into aching lyricism (again, in the Andante) and light-footed virtuosity (in the Allegretto grazioso finale).

Neither here nor in the arrangement of the quartet after the interval did Tilson Thomas really convey much by way of interpretative approach. Apparently happy enough to allow his players' musicianship free rein in the concerto and encourage lucid textures, he similarly seemed to pursue the middle ground after the interval. There, however, the orchestra--amplified to its full complement, including 16 first fiddles, not to mention a possibly unprecedented 8 women--didn't quite seem on his side. Their commitment seemed wavering, the necessary lightness in the Intermezzo proved elusive (its final bars, in particular, were a bit of a hash), and the wind tuning, again in the Intermezzo in particular, was now seriously suspect (had Schoenberg, I wondered on occasion, added some extra dissonant touches that I'd not remembered?). The martial episodes in the Andante con moto lacked bite and momentum; the opening Allegro never quite caught fire.

And what of the arrangement itself, made in 1937 and premiered by Klemperer and the LA Philharmonic? I seem to remember quite a few dismissive comments of it when Parvo Järvi brought it to the Proms in 2007, but I've always had a soft spot for it, having actually got to know Brahms's work in this guise first, as it was coupled with Simon Rattle's Bournemouth recording of Mahler's 10th (bought with the proceeds of an afternoon's lawn-mowing, I seem to remember).

At this performance Schoenberg's orchestration seemed more indulgent than I remember it (despite the problems, the playing, particularly of the horns and the soaring strings, was gloriously luxurious). And the orchestra pulled out all the stops in the alla Zingarese finale, where Schoenberg also starts piling on the un-Brahmsian touches: a xylophone, virtuosic trombone writing, intricate divisi strings. Suddenly this emphasizes less Brahms the progressive than Brahms the Dionysian. It's an effect that's already latent, of course, in the original quartet.

That effect is greatly amplified in the orchestral guise, though, the thumping syncopations, biting accents and rollocking oom-pahs suddenly becoming, it seems to me, a great deal more threatening--a vast orchestral machine suddenly possessed. And this orchestra played it with lascivious relish.

(Here's Järvi and his orchestra at the Proms, incidentally--I'm unable to embed the video)