London Philharmonic Orchestra/Soundstate/Southbank ★★★☆☆
In these (almost) post-pandemic times it’s natural for promoters to play safe as they try to coax audiences back into halls. So all praise to the Southbank Centre in London for daring to mount Soundstate, a lavish five-day festival of contemporary classical music. Judging by the full hall at last night’s opening concert from the LPO under Principal Conductor Edward Gardner the risk is well worth taking.
So it's a shame that the concert was such a strange hodge-podge, veering wildly from sublime to jokey Hollywood glamour to ice-cold abstraction. You could say that was simply being true to the bewildering variety of contemporary music. But doesn’t that variety place an even bigger obligation on programmers to do something essential which they seem to have given up on, ie create something coherent out of chaos?
As it was, we had to endure the repeated jolt of moving from one expressive world to another a million miles away. First came River Rouge Transformation, an orchestral portrait of the awe-inspiring industrial landscape created by the Ford Motor Company at its River Rouge Plant in Detroit. The composer Missy Mazzoli hails from the generation of younger American composers who have led minimalism into new directions, and her piece had a combination of ticking rhythms, massive plucked chords set athwart the beat and high chorales which fleetingly suggested the American Sublime. But it was indeed fleeting, and I was left wishing the piece had made good on its stated ambition.
The Piano Concerto “to an utterance” by Rebecca Saunders certainly lacked nothing in ambition. The solo part had a gestural wildness which often suggested the back-and-forth scampering of a caged animal, and it was despatched with an impressive mix of nimbleness and savagery by pianist Nicholas Hodges. Behind him a huge orchestra fortified with ear-shredding extra percussion including coiled springs echoed the piano’s frustrated hyperactivity. Ultimately the music led to stillness and a faint single note, suggesting the piano was finally on the brink of making the “utterance” which until that moment had eluded it. As an idea that seems potentially rich and full of pathos, but it was undercut by Saunders’s musical language. She only ever deals in glacial sounds which tickle the ear, and not that rich thing called music which touches the heart, so the human potential of her scenario was bound to remain out of reach.
By contrast Mason Bates’s Liquid Interface was all-too-human in its Hollywoodish evocation of water in all its form. Recordings of glaciers splitting mingled with dreamy minimalist patterns, brief evocations of Coplandesque pastoral and jazz (for the New Orleans floods) and finally a paradisal evocation of Lake Wannsee near Berlin. Much the most serious and coherent musical statement of the evening was the Sinfonia no 5 composed by African-American composer George Walker in his 94th year, performed by the LPO and Gardner with energising, balletic incisiveness. The Sinfonia may not be Walker’s most inspired utterance, but in its essential seriousness and musical coherence it left everything else behind. IH
Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau, Barbican ★★★★☆
To allow one singing superstar to command the stage in an evening of song is a straightforward proposition. To invite two at once is trickier. Each somehow has to relate to – and make space for – the other.
At Tuesday night’s duo recital at the Barbican, superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann and equally starry soprano Diana Damrau found a familiar way to manage the situation; they took on the roles of a pair of lovers, sometimes flirty, sometimes aggrieved, acting out little romantic encounters through the medium of more than three dozen Romantic songs by Schumann and Brahms. As Damrau explained before the recital began, it was a progression from darkness and turbulence to sunny contentment – an interesting reversal of the normal progression of Romantic song, where early hopes always give way to disappointment and heartbreak.
A Romantic song recital may be the last remaining corner of the Western world where gender stereotypes are still permittsable, and these two superstars appeared to embrace that fact. She was in voluminous gowns (dark for the first half, light for the second), he was encased in rigid tie and tails. She was all expressive hands and gestures, he was ramrod straight, except when he was insinuating something into Damrau’s ear during one of the flirty duets.
Damrau was all feathery, yielding softness, singing in a fundamentally easy, light way on la punta della voce, “the edge of the voice” as the Italians say. With Kaufmann, on the other hand, the act of singing seemed to engage his entire body, and was never easy. It came across as a strenuous feat of “manly” fortitude, his tenor voice becoming ever darker and more baritone-like as he ascended to a high note.
In a long programme focused on just two composers and a constant to-and-fro of yearning and contentment or disappointment, there was the danger of a certain sameness creeping in, which this concert didn’t entirely avoid. But there were plenty of deep, luminous moments to remind us that these are indeed two great singers. In Brahms’s song Angklänge (Echoes), which uses dark colours to paint what should be a happy scene – a young woman embroidering her wedding dress – Damrau showed her light voice could stretch to foreboding and tragedy. Kaufmann, having impressed us with that dark-grained vocal instrument, on occasion surprised with a beautifully soft tone, as in Wir wandelten, Brahms’s evocation of two lovers walking side-by-side. And in Schumann’s meditation on nocturnal sadness Stille Tränen (Silent Tears), he conjured a truly heroic intensity.
In the second half, the emotional temperature was bound to dip, as the Romantics weren’t so keen on love requited. But there were enjoyable things such as the flirty duet Vergebliches Ständchen (Vain Serenade), which avoided archness by a hair’s breadth, and the cosily ecstatic final duet Weg der Liebe (Way of Love). Two singing stars may not be twice as good as one, but now and then it’s a treat well worth having. IH
Bach St John Passion, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, South Bank ★★★★☆
A performance of one of Bach’s Passions, his dramatic retellings of the Arrest, Trial and Crucifixion of Christ, is not something you stroll along to in a take-it-or-leave-it frame of mind. You feel obliged to adopt a keen serious attentiveness, and an openness to the numinous even if you’re actually a sceptic.
That attitude was richly rewarded at last night’s wonderful performance of the St John Passion by a terrific cast of soloists and the OAE. The tenor Mark Padmore directed as well as playing the storytelling role of the Evangelist, and his numerous little musical and dramatic touches showed the wisdom of someone who’s been performing this work for decades. Admittedly there was a downside to the lack of a conductor: the balance sometimes seemed awry, with the male singers dominating the female, and the chorus as a whole overshadowed by the orchestra. But in terms of intimacy and that special intensity that comes when a group of singers and players are responding to the smallest hint from each other, it paid huge dividends.
Padmore knows it takes the most modest gestures to bring the drama to life: signalling Christ’s loneliness by having him stand alone, and asking each singer to turn and listen to the solo instrument that accompanies them within the orchestra, as if they were companions in the telling of this stupendous story. The St. John Passion is the most grippingly dramatic of Bach’s Passions, and sometimes the sheer cruelty of the Trial Scene (“Crucify Him!” the chorus shouts again and again) can be overwhelming. Those choruses were tremendous here, but they didn’t blot out the little luminous episodes which often pass unnoticed, like the one where the Evangelist tells us the soldiers standing guard outside the High Priest’s house made a fire to keep themselves warm. The way Padmore told this detail made one actually feel the fire’s warmth, and in that moment the soldiers seemed human, rather than part of a cast of villains assaulting the Son of God.
There were many other glowing details, from all the soloists. Mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy made the words “It is finished” in her great aria seem as weighty as a tombstone, and yet soft. In her final aria soprano Mary Bevan spun a thin thread of sound that merged with the two accompanying soft-toned flutes — a perfect aural image of humility. The evening’s discovery for me was young tenor Laurence Kilsby, who made every detail tell in his anguished aria contemplating the tormented body of Christ. At the end, the chorus brought us gently down to earth with simple, almost homely hymns. It was comforting, as if the dreadful story we’d just witnessed had now passed into eternity.
RPO/Petrenko, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆
Founded by the flamboyant, eccentric and extraordinarily rich Sir Thomas Beecham 75 years ago, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is the great workhorse of the orchestral world. One week, you’ll find it playing music from computer games, the next a blockbuster movie programme, the week after that a “serious” concert such as this one. The orchestra has recently appointed a new music director: Vasily Petrenko, the energised and perpetually boyish Russian whose 15-year tenure at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra was a golden period in that orchestra’s history.
Now should be the happy springtime of his new appointment, but Wednesday night’s concert was overshadowed by world events, as any concert will be that is led by a Russian. From the podium, Petrenko reminded us that he has Ukrainian and Russian parentage, and described the war as “one of the greatest moral failures and humanitarian disasters of our century”. What he didn’t say is that he has also suspended his directorship of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra in Moscow. To say and do these things takes real courage, as one can be sure they will be noted by the authorities in Russia.
Then it was time for the music, which was cunningly contrived to be linked thematically (there were pieces by Britten and Shostakovich, who first met in 1960 in the very hall we were sitting in) and also popular. Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is one of those pieces anyone over a certain age remembers fondly from their childhood. It feels somehow ubiquitous, but actually is quite rarely played. So it was a pleasure to hear this brilliant confection, although the very opening was the only mis-step of the evening.
Petrenko launched the famous melody by Purcell on which the piece is based at a ponderous pace as if to dignify it, which felt odd because it is after all only a modest little dance composed for a theatre production. But then, he and the piece sprang into life and the music fairly zipped along. Every player relished their moment in the sun during Britten’s masterly guided tour of the orchestra (all hail to those chirruping flutes), but the piece is also a masterclass in combining colours, a fact of which players and conductor were keenly aware. The combination of harp, violas and horns seemed as succulent as a rare beefsteak.
After the multi-coloured tapestry of Britten came the battleship grey of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. The soloist was Pablo Ferrández, a young Spanish cellist who collects prizes at international competitions the way a pullover collects burrs. Despite that commendable though potentially worrying sign, he turned out to be a player of not only amazing technique but also real personality.
The opening melody was perky and sinister at once, the long, lonely melody of the slow movement sounded as threatened and fragile as it should. At the opposite pole were those frenzied moments where the cello seems to be fleeing from a tormentor, which can sound ugly if pushed too hard, but in Ferrández’s hands never were.
Most taxing of all is the huge solo cadenza that links the third and final movements, which in this performance seemed to rise with agonising slowness from a black pit of loneliness. There was no warm daylight at the end of that rise, only the partial comfort of a sardonic puppet-dance, which soloist and orchestra flung off with a nicely-calibrated appearance of roughness.
After that, around 20 more players joined the orchestra for the final, ear-shattering magnificence of William Walton’s First Symphony. It’s hard not to be swept away by this music’s irresistible high-gloss, filmic rhetoric, but I’m often left wondering if there’s actually any substance underneath it all. Petrenko encouraged the players to shape the recurring filmic “hooks” and surging phrases with maximum fire and finesse, and the devil’s dance of the second movement really did sound malicious, as the composer requested.
In the slow movement, the solo melodies from cellist Richard Harwood and clarinetist Katherine Lacy, rapturously intertwined over Patrick King’s drowsy kettledrums, just about stilled my qualms. Walton’s symphony may not really be a masterpiece, but in a wonderful performance like this it seems such a brilliant imitation of one that you hardly mind. IH
After Dark, Sage Gateshead ★★★★☆
After Dark began at sunset and ended with a sunrise – and because this festival, organised by BBC Radio 3, fell on the Spring Equinox, that period of darkness was exactly twelve hours long. What better way to celebrate this mysterious turning point of the year than an all-night phantasmagoria of strange sounds surging from every cranny of the Gateshead’s riverside arts centre The Sage, some booming and hypnotic, others high and ethereal like angelic voices, still more infused with strange rustlings and hootings, like a nocturnal forest.
Isn’t Radio 3 supposed to be about classical music, you might ask? Well yes, but classical music is a quintessentially daylight form, whereas it’s the nocturnal sounds of the network’s late-night schedule which are increasingly in tune with the zeitgeist. This “immersive” form of music stands outside any genre. It’s made usually with electronic sounds, often with a hint of some enticingly distant culture, sometimes with a hypnotic beat, sometimes drifting along with no discernible pulse. You don’t listen to immersive music, so much as allow it to transport you to a different level of consciousness.
After Dark’s audience drifted back and forth between the Sage’s all-night bar and the various sets being performed in the three auditoria. Instead of the usual serried rows of seats in the main concert hall there were bean-bags, into which one could sink gratefully, beer in hand (or herbal tea in my case), while listening to the music.
It must be said Radio 3 assembled a very impressive line-up of artists within this strange twilight musical world: turntablists rubbed shoulders with saxophonists and makers of music using field recordings. So within the overall oceanic, immersive feeling there was some variety of tone. The electronic duo Darkstar felt suitably dark and threatening, whereas The Sleeping Forecast was a charmingly low-key, innocently repetitive musical background to a recitation of the shipping forecast, delivered live by Viji Alles. And there were moments when the evening edged towards “classical”, particularly in the set from the Royal Northern Sinfonia. This included an engaging double-bass concerto from American composer Missy Mazzoli, a fascinating essay in overlapping waves of string and harp sound from John Luther Adams, and Gavin Bryars’ now classic Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, based on the quavering recorded voice of a homeless man singing a hymn.
It was all intriguing in its way, and brilliantly stage-managed. There was even some welcome humour in the entertaining “poetry cabaret”, consisting of readings by mostly Newcastle-based poets. For me the evening’s most poignant moment came when famed electronic composer Christian Löffler presented his reworkings of famous Beethoven symphony recordings. Mingled with the electronic sounds were snatches of Beethoven’s symphonies, played by a string quartet on stage. These gave an invigorating jolt of lucidity, reminding us of the daylight world. At the festival’s close, as dawn inched up over the Tyne and sitar player Jasdeep Singh Degun played a morning raga to greet the new day, it was a relief to welcome that world back. IH
Highlights of the After Dark Festival will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 until March 27, live and on BBC Sounds
BBC Philharmonic/Davis, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester ★★★★★
Three weeks ago, the first of six concerts shared between the Halle Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s birth, offered two of his gentlest symphonies and a tenderly pastoral song-cycle. The second in the series was in many ways its polar opposite.
Dating from the time of the Sea Symphony, and sharing the visionary tone of its finale, Toward the Unknown Region is a fervent 12-minute setting of Walt Whitman verses. It has been said that the title could stand as a motto for Vaughan Williams’s life’s work, and while that may be a tough claim for any performance to live up to, the Hallé Choir and the BBC Philharmonic seemed determined to prove that it is no exaggeration. Tentative anticipation gradually gives way to fervent affirmation, at every stage under consummate artistic control. By comparison, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy – a near-contemporary with a similarly life-defining title – feels like a mere bogus exercise in self-serving grandiloquence.
The acoustic of the Bridgewater Hall is perfectly adapted to the resplendence of Vaughan Williams’s conclusion. Whether it suits the sparer textures of his Fourth Symphony is less obvious. This is by some distance the composer’s most abrasive score, and it needs clarity and bite above all. But if the ambience took some of the edge off the ferocity, there was still no lack of drive and energy in the playing. Sir Andrew Davis knows his Vaughan Williams as well as any conductor alive, and he steered the performance expertly around the many perils and pitfalls.
The composer himself repudiated attempts to explain away the acerbity of the Fourth Symphony in terms of the state of Europe under the rising dictatorships of the 1930s. But composers cannot dictate what audiences take away from their music, either at the time of composition or later. So if anyone was hearing pre-echoes of current atrocities in the Fourth Symphony’s lacerating violence, that was testimony to its broader message of embattled humanism. William Walton may have gone over the top when he called this ‘the greatest symphony since Beethoven’, but he was on safe ground in venturing the comparison.
Nothing less than top accolades will do, either, for Job: A Masque for Dancing, Vaughan Williams’s ballet of the late 1920s. The story-line is broadly faithful to the Biblical narrative. But the power of the music is transcendent, especially when as thrillingly played as it was here. The composer himself may have been no fan of servile religiosity, but he could certainly recognise an archetype when he saw it. Not only did he hit the bull’s-eye with such things as his representation of Job’s false comforters by a whining alto saxophone, but he knew exactly how to enshrine images of adversity, healing and benediction in terms that still speak volumes nearly a century later.
There are two people I wish could have heard this spiritually nourishing concert. One is the late Michael Kennedy, Vaughan Williams’ personally chosen biographer. How moved he would have been. The other is Richard Taruskin, American author of a fine multi-volume History of Western Music, who completely omitted Vaughan Williams from its pages, save for a muted half-apology for having done so. How repentant he should have been.
Emerson Quartet, Southbank Centre ★★★★☆
These are awkward times for anyone who thinks classical music should rise above the murk of worldly events and keep itself pure. They’ve revealed with stark clarity the truth that with some composers even to make the attempt seems indecent, an evasion of their music’s true core. Of no composer is that more true than Dimitri Shostakovich, whose entire life was overshadowed by Revolution, world war, and the constant pressure to conform that came with living under Soviet tyranny.
Last night, America’s most eminent string quartet the Emerson Quartet launched its cycle of all 15 of Shostakovich’s string quartets at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. More than any other part of his output Shostakovich’s quartets form a diary of his inner life, with a constant fluctuation of fear, protest, almost unutterable sorrow, and—just occasionally—jaunty high spirits. As the Emersons said in their prepared statement, performing these works, “which are revelatory if considered in their historical and political context, without mentioning the current war would seem tone deaf to us.” And mention it they did, condemning it in no uncertain terms, and praising the brave resistors of the aggression—on both sides.
Rather than mingling quartets from different periods—the usual procedure—the quartet has opted to play all 15 in chronological order, in five concerts. So last night’s concert could have felt somewhat thin, the record of a young composer’s first efforts in a difficult medium. In fact it was riveting from beginning to end, showing Shostakovich’s mastery was evident right from the first quartet, composed in 1938 when he was 32 and Stalin’s terror was in full swing.
As for the playing, I was afraid it might be weighed down by the smooth perfectionism that for me has made the Emerson’s performances less than a total joy in the past. But last night they played with startling emotional force, as if their lives depended on it. It took a while for the quartet to settle, with some uncertain tuning here and there, but they were always alert to Shostakovich’s emotional ambiguities. In the 2nd movement of the first quartet they caught that quintessential Shostakovich turn from severity to an almost-too-sweet quality, as if he’s glimpsed a happiness that can’t be found in this world.
One of the pleasures of these early quartets is Shostakovich’s delight in sheer musical invention, however oppressive the world around him, which the performers savoured in turn. They relished the dense knotted textures of the last movement of the 2nd quartet, and the gleeful pile-up of repeating patterns in the second movement of the 3rd. But tragedy was never far away. The third quartet was conceived as a memorial to the 2nd World War, with a last movement that according to Shostakovich asks “Why and for what?”, expressed with a strange exhausted bleakness which the players caught perfectly. At the end we all sat riveted, not daring to applaud. At that moment, the accusation that classical music is “irrelevant” seemed more absurd than ever. IH
Parts 2 & 3 of the Emerson Quartet’s complete Shostakovich cycle continues on March 17 and concludes on March 18 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall; www.southbankcentre.co.uk
Czech Philharmonic/Bychkov, Barbican ★★★★☆
Tuesday night’s concert from the Czech Philharmonic marked another milestone in the return of musical life to something like normality. It was the first international orchestra to appear at the Barbican since the pandemic began, and just to hear that central-European sound with its horn-drenched luxuriance and beautifully soft way of playing a chord together was heaven in itself.
The evening was remarkable in another way. Before leading a performance of the piece that embodies the Czech national spirit like no other, Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast – “My Homeland” – the orchestra’s (Soviet-born) music director Semyon Bychkov turned to the audience to announce that the concert would be dedicated to the people of Ukraine. He added that we all have an identification with whatever land it was that brought us into this world, but also that “when people are suffering, the notes sound different.” The orchestra then played the Ukrainian national anthem, and everyone stood, unbidden.
It was a revealing moment, which showed the war is having unexpected effects well beyond Ukraine’s borders. Until three weeks ago, the national element in music was something musicians were keen to soft-pedal, for fear of being regarded as a nationalist. Now, it can be shouted from the roof-tops. And Bychkov was right. By some mysterious process of transference, one felt that Smetana’s evocation of the Bohemian countryside, the ruined castle that was once the seat of Czech kings, the warriors sleeping under the mountain who will rise when the nation is threatened, all spoke for Ukrainians in their hour of need. The notes did indeed sound different.
But as already mentioned, the orchestra can take part of the credit for that. The brass’s rendition of the Czech Hussite hymn in the fifth movement had an old-gold sound, so different from the sharp sound of an Anglo-Saxon orchestra, and when the massed violins took up the famous melody in the well-known movement portraying the river Vltava, they hardly needed to try to produce a lustrous, spun-silk sound. Bychkov didn’t urge them to milk the melody, in fact he gave it a quiet, almost reflective tone. Despite its unforgettable moments there are longueurs in Smetana’s evocation of his homeland which no performance ever quite overcomes, though Bychkov’s sensitively moulded performance came close.
Wonderful though this was, the palm for the evening’s most electrifying moment goes to Yuja Wang, the famed Chinese pianist who was the soloist in Rachmaninov’s early, brilliantly inspired but somewhat flawed First Piano Concerto. After the introductory fanfare comes a tumbling cataract of keyboard virtuosity, which she flung off with such vehemence I almost jumped out of my seat. That electric quality reappeared many times, but equally arresting was her way of accompanying Rachmaninov’s big romantic melodies in the violins, which she did with such caressing tenderness that it was she who seized our attention.
Just occasionally, Wang’s tempo threatened to race ahead of Bychkov’s. But overall this was a gripping performance of a piece which – as with Má vlast – can often seem less than the sum of its parts. IH
The Czech Philharmonic’s second concert in its Barbican residency takes place on March 16 at 7.30pm. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on May 5. The orchestra’s new recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is released on the Pentatone label on April 8
CBSO/Gražinytė-Tyla, Symphony Hall, Birmingham ★★★☆☆
Offering an all-Russian concert just at the moment when Russia has become an international pariah, as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra did on Wednesday day at Birmingham Symphony Hall, was not something that could pass without comment. Stephen Maddock, the orchestra’s chief executive, struck just the right tone when he dedicated the concert “in solidarity and friendship” to the people of Ukraine, and reminded us that however much we may abhor Russia’s actions its people should not be blamed, least of all Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, whose music we were about to hear.
The concert itself wasn’t always so sure-footed. The orchestra’s music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was on the podium, so one could be sure the works would all be viewed from interesting and perhaps surprising angles. The opening piece, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, certainly had an unusually sombre tone. The questing introduction felt positively oppressed, and the transition into the luscious cello melody representing the two lovers was so long-drawn-out and sensitively shaped that is almost overshadowed the melody itself – which when it came felt withdrawn and subdued more than intimate. The violent enmity between the lovers’ families came off much better, as did the final funeral cortège.
Then onto the stage came famed Moldovan violinist Patrica Kopatchinskaja, her wildly colourful dress, like a Miró painting, making the maximum contrast with Gražinytė-Tyla’s sober black. Kopatchinskaja is well-known for her free approach to the classics, which she fills with a gyspy-ish improvisatory spirit that entrances some and dismays others. Her rendition of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto didn’t play fast and loose with the notes, but she certainly played up the music’s huge gleeful balletic energy, acting out the leaping figures and sudden stops with her body and impish facial expressions as much as with her violin. Gražinytė-Tyla and the orchestra followed suit; I’ve never heard the buzzing bassoon trills and eructating tuba sound so vivid.
Which was fine, up to a point. There is a naïve, atavistic side to Stravinsky (he once declared “my music is best understood by children and savage animals”) but he was enormously urbane and sophisticated as well, especially in this piece, and performers need to catch both aspects to bring the music to life. Here, one heard only the child and the beast.
In the final piece, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, things went back to sobriety and seriousness. One got the sense that Gražinytė-Tyla wanted to rescue this hackneyed heart-on-sleeve piece from any hint of vulgarity, so the heart was more often tucked under the sleeve, and our attention focused on interesting transitions rather than the big melodies. As always with this conductor there were illuminating moments, such as the unusually contrasting tempo for the central section of the slow movement, but overall the piece lacked the edge-of-the seat emotionalism it needs.
It was only in the encore piece, the very touching Melodiya by Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk (played, like the whole concert, under a prominently displayed Ukrainian flag) that one felt, finally, a simple heartfelt lyricism. It was a moment of warm expressiveness in an evening that until then had been distinctly cool. IH
Haydn Festival, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆
“The show must go on” may be a fine principle, but it can be hard to act on, as the Covid-related cancellation of numerous shows in recent weeks has proved. On Monday night, it was honoured in spectacular fashion at the Wigmore Hall, where three of the six performers in the opening concert of the hall’s Haydn Festival were kept away by a combination of positive tests and (in the case of singer Louise Alder) a sore throat. The remaining three – pianist András Schiff (whose brainchild the festival is), and two members of the Quatuor Mosaïques, violinist Erich Höbarth and cellist Christophe Coin – have had to think and rehearse fast to come up with substitute programmes.
In his introductory chat, Schiff told us the three had “scraped together” six of Haydn’s piano trios (ie works for piano, violin and cello) and some piano works to fill the six concerts, which amused everyone. But I suspect rescuing the festival wasn’t so hard for them. Schiff is so saturated in the music of the Viennese classics, he could probably play most of the music of that era from memory, and the same goes for the other two.
Adding to the feeling of immersion in the era was the beautiful modern copy of an 18th-century piano on the platform, which under Schiff’s hands made the most amazing variety of sounds. Often, it sounded aristocratically delicate and silvery, but Schiff loves the peasant, earthy side of Haydn, and at times he brought forth a deliberately uncouth, clattering din with pungent, buzzing bass notes.
Schiff seemed determined to strip Haydn of rococo prettiness, and there were times when he went a bit too far in that regard. He rattled off the E minor sonata with brusque precision, hammering away at the accompanying chordal patterns in the left hand, and banging out the last few notes with such unbending roughness it was actually funny.
Schiff loves the way Haydn can be deeply moving and absolutely aloof at the same time, a quality he revealed in the F minor variations, a piece Haydn composed while still mourning Mozart’s death. Many pianists soften the outlines of the melody, but Schiff actually sharpened them, so that it became a stiff, martial obsequy rather than a personal confession of grief – but no less moving for that.
Perhaps the most treasurable quality of Haydn is his sane, warm conviviality, a quality that shone out when Schiff was joined by Höbarth and Coin for two of the late, great piano trios. Höbarth played the slow movement melody of No 27 with a lovely, arching innocence, but the best moment came in the first movement, where Schiff marked a sudden shift to a new harmony with a dusky, intimate tone. Clatter and busy energy gave way to mystery, and Haydn the Aloof suddenly became Haydn the Romantic. It was the most profound and moving of the evening’s many enjoyable surprises. IH
András Schiff’s Haydn Festival continues daily at the Wigmore Hall until Saturday. Tuesday’s concert will be live-streamed from 8.00pm at the hall’s website: wigmore-hall.org.uk