Christmas Oratorio, St John’s Smith Square ★★★☆☆
There are few venues in London better suited to Bach’s choral music than St John’s Smith Square, that masterpiece of English Baroque. It was built when Bach was at the height of his powers, and with its dark timbers and white-painted columns, it even recalls the visual tone of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Listening to the composer’s Christmas Oratorio there – one of two big events rounding off the annual Christmas Festival at St John’s – it was not hard to feel the same authentic sense of joyful solemnity that performances of Bach in Leipzig exude.
That was thanks above all to the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, singing with wonderful precision and attack. The joyfulness in this music came across because these students sang as if they really meant it, not least in the jubilation of the “Ehre sei Gott” (“Glory to God”) chorus, where their attention to detail and dynamic shading was all the more remarkable since they were singing from memory. Without scores getting in the way, they were free to project with fresh tone and a firmness that also underlined the solemn spirit that’s always so central to Bach.
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio actually consists of six self-contained cantatas relating to feast days from Christmas and Epiphany. Though each can be performed separately, they do convey a feeling of gathering richness, reinforced by the spectacular orchestration of Part VI. It is quite common to perform only selected parts of the work, and here the progression through Parts I to III was capped by Part VI, a fully satisfying sequence from which nothing felt missing.
Choir aside, this was in some ways a routine performance. No one truly stood out from the quartet of soloists – the soprano Katherine Watson, mezzo Helen Charlston, tenor Gwilym Bowen and bass-baritone Matthew Brook – though Charlston’s tangy tone lent distinction to her arias and Bowen delivered the recitatives with compelling, light-voiced urgency.
Stephen Layton was his reliable self, doing double duty as director of music at Trinity College and artistic director of St John’s seasonal festival. If his conducting offered no special insights into the music, the score was aptly illuminated by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Of course, almost no one ventures to perform Bach these days without period instruments, but there was nevertheless something special about hearing the OAE’s blazing Baroque trumpets and pungent oboes. Evoking shepherds’ piping, the pair of oboi da caccia in the Sinfonia conjured up a pastoral scene in the old-master tradition. JA
No further performances; more concerts at St John’s Smith Square: www.sjss.org.uk
London Contemporary Music Festival/Ambika 3 ★★★☆☆
For its penultimate night, the achingly left-field LCMF decided it was going to reinvent the orchestra, with a hugely ambitious programme including seven premieres. The focus was on exploring new ways for musicians to relate to each other, without a conductor, without music, and even – in the case Claudia Molitor's and Joseph Kohlmaier's “Die Gedanken sind Frei” (Thoughts are Free) - without instruments. Here the twenty or so musicians were armed only with their voices, plus a shovel and some stiff brushes. What they offered was a “happening,” in which they moved a pile of earth from one corner of the dark underground cavern of Ambika 3 to another, one shovelful at a time, singing a single random note as they went. Later in the concert they repeated the piece, by carrying it all back again.
It was hard to know what was being symbolised. The Myth of Sisyphus? The Dignity of Labour? Getting close to the soil? And yet it was curiously affecting, especially when – in the second performance – they burst into the old German socialist song “Die Gedanken Sind Frei”.
At the opposite pole were a couple of more conventional pieces with players in front of music stands playing notes, but these were actually the least interesting. Chaya Czernowin’s orchestral piece Day One: One the Face of the Deep seemed a paralysingly literal rendition of Day One of Creation, all grinding rocks and explosions, and the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc for ten cellos by pioneer black American composer Julius Eastman seemed ill-focused harmonically and over-extended.
Much more engaging were the pieces that used the considerable improvising and histrionic talents of the ensembles, including the newly-formed LCMF Orchestra, Apartment House, and An assembly. Elaine Mitchener’s witty and precise Breadthbreath was scored for improvising musicians who’d inveigled themselves amongst us in the dark, while our attention was elsewhere. One suddenly became aware of them, playing tiny sounds which gathered heft and shape, and then faded as the players packed up their instruments and left – a sort of “Haydn Farewell Symphony” for the 21st century.
Much more ambitious was Neil Luck’s multi-media spectacular Regretfully Yours, Ongoing. It was a satire on the way consumerism veils the messy realities of our fallible bodies and minds, climaxing in a parody of an “anthemic” song with a parodically obscure text, complete with Eric-Clapton-ish guitar and swooning strings. New music is rarely so entertaining, or so hard-hitting.
The London Contemporary Music Festival ends on 16 December at Ambika 3, Marylebone Road London
London Symphony Orchestra/Rattle, Barbican Hall, London EC2 ★★★★☆
There’s no doubt about it – the LSO and its star chief conductor Simon Rattle can certainly lay on a rattling good show. Thursday night’s concert was a riot of lusty folk melodies, sumptuous orchestral glitter, star pianists in spangled frocks, and jazzy excitement.
It was hard to discern the rationale behind the concert’s two-part form, with Eastern European folk-inspired music in the first half, and jazz-and-Latin-drenched music in the second. But it meant that our toes were tapping pretty much non-stop, which I suppose at the (nearly) festive season is rationale enough. Of the two folk-inspired pieces in the first half, Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs seemed most genuinely close to the soil. The melodies had the waywardness and salty tang of speech, qualities that shone out in this affectionate and full-blooded performance.
Bartók was a real folk-song collector, who actually got his shoes muddy. Polish composer Karol Szymanowski was never less than exquisitely turned out, and the folk melodies in his ballet Harnasie gave the impression of a man surveying folk song at a safe distance and larding them with orientalist orchestral shimmer. Still, the performers did the piece proud. The London Symphony Chorus was on fabulous lusty form, as was the Lithuanian tenor Edgardas Montvidas as the Polish “highlander” who loses his girl to the dashing brigand.
Szymanowski’s piece felt indulgently over-extended, despite the ecstatic performance, but it seemed disciplined and concise compared to the double piano concerto Nazareno by the cultishly popular Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. It had those star piano-playing Labèque sisters giving their all, plus lots of breathless syncopated mambo-style rhythms, as well as two Latin American-style percussion soloists, one in a rakish hat, plus blatant steals from the Fifties hit Tequila. But all this couldn’t save the piece from feeling oddly slack and unexciting, because the harmonic patterns were so clichéd and the forms of each movement so mushily predictable.
Bookending Golijov’s piece, as if to show up its indulgence, were two models of taut conciseness. Stravinsky’s tiny Ebony Concerto, played with delicious lounge-lizard charm by solo clarinettist Chris Richards and a big band drawn from the LSO, worked by understatement, never rising above a side-of-the-mouth drawl. Bernstein, being Bernstein, shouts at the top of his voice in his Preludes, Fugue and Riffs, also for big band. But what incredible invention and seat-of-the-pants excitement – all shown off to perfection in this fabulous performance. IH
Hear this concert on 18 December on BBC Radio 3, and for thirty days thereafter on the BBC iPlayer.
Solomon’s Knot, Milton Court Concert Hall ★★★★☆
This much-loved young Baroque group faced an especially tough challenge on Monday night. They were performing three works from the German Baroque, two almost unknown, one a well-known festive masterpiece by Bach, with the 10 singers (though not the 17 instrumentalists) performing everything from memory. There was no conductor to keep things together. And they were recording the concert for future CD release, so the smallest fluff would be caught by the microphone’s beady ear.
If they felt the pressure, it was revealed only in the extra-deep silence before each movement, the space between the players trembling with myriad eye contacts and co-ordinated in-breaths. But that’s par for the course for this group. They feel the music as one body.
That was one of the things that made this concert a joy. Another was the intelligently conceived programme, which put J S Bach’s well-known Magnificat, in the rarely heard original form he composed for Christmas day 1723, alongside pieces composed by his two predecessors as director of music at St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, also with Christmas or Advent connections. It showed how Bach was buoyed up by his great forebears, taking their language onto new heights.
The first piece, a setting of the Christmas text “Lift up your Heads, o ye Gates” by Johann Schelle, did seem a bit gauche and short-breathed here and there, but the performance made the gaucheness seem radiant and touching, the trumpets-and-drums interludes soft-grained and gentle rather than strident. Johann Kuhnau’s Magnificat was on a different level, with some ingenious word-painting and an aria for two altos for the verse “He hath put down the mighty” that had a delicious operatic suavity.
But it was in Bach’s Magnificat where the group’s wonderful rhythmic flexibility really told. Bach often forgot to give singers time to breathe during his endless melodic lines, but the super-sensitive players created the necessary opportunities, without upsetting the rhythmic flow. Not all the group’s bold rethinking of speeds came off – the rapid pace for Bach’s furious setting of “He hath put down the mighty” was exciting but maybe too much, but the slow meditative pace for the “lowly handmaiden” verse was a revelation. The singers were individually often a joy – bass Alex Ashworth’s duetting with bassoonist Inga Maria Klaucke in “For he that is mighty” is still resounding in my ear – but even more so collectively, as in the final Amen, where it seemed as if all ten were joined in a celestial dance. IH
Hear Solomon’s Knot perform Bach’s St John Passion at the Wigmore Hall, London W1 on 16 April. Tickets: 020 7935 2141
Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano, Barbican ★★★☆☆
As if things weren’t gloomy enough already, Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano darkened the auditorium and performed a recital of songs devoted to the tragedies and victims of war (a CD recording of the same programme was released earlier this year). This is their contribution to the Armistice 100 solemnities: I can’t say I found any of it uplifting, let alone easily enjoyable, but the thoughtful artistry and emotional commitment of both singer and pianist was impressive.
Three of the more ghoulish songs from Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn proved the evening’s weakest element. Even in his maturity (his spindly frame, boyish demeanour and restless platform deportment belie his 54 years), Bostridge remains essentially a light lyric tenor with neither a secure top nor a rich lower register. This isn’t an instrument designed for music with such strong roots in a rough-edged folk idiom, and Bostridge was led to compensate for his lack of authentic vocal power by resort to a rather too fussily effortful range of colours, intonations and histrionic gestures, compounded by Pappano’s furiously energetic pianism. It all lacked spontaneity, directness, a flavour of the demotic.
Bostridge was on much safer ground with Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied, a cycle of six songs by the little-known Rudi Stephan, who died in 1915 on the Eastern Front at the age of 27. These are a find, perfumed with the decadent sensuality of pre-war Vienna, and Bostridge and Pappano relished all their sophisticated intricacies.
The first half ended with music by another young casualty of war – George Butterworth, who fell at the Somme in 1916. His cycle of A E Housman’s poems A Shropshire Lad is a pastoral affair much simpler than Rudi Stephan’s, but nothing in the entire recital gripped me more than its eerie dialogue between the living and dead, Is my team ploughing?, vividly dramatised by both singer and pianist.
After the interval came four Kurt Weill songs to texts by Walt Whitman associated with the American Civil War: these are short of the instant appeal of Weill’s Brecht settings. Finally, a further four songs from Britten’s late cycle Who are these children?, to verse by William Soutar. Works of bleak blood-stained lamentation, they make no concessions to facile charm. Bostridge and Pappano honoured all their intensity and reaped a half-minute of rapt silence at the conclusion. As an encore, Schubert’s Litanei, sung with exquisite legato, brought some balm of consolation. RC
Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Anne-Sophie Mutter at Usher Hall, Edinburgh ★★★★☆
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra appeared to have pulled off quite a coup by securing the services of two of the world’s most eminent musicians for a single concert: the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Polish composer/conductor Krzysztof Penderecki. In the end, however, for undisclosed “personal reasons”, Penderecki couldn’t make it for what would have been one of numerous worldwide celebrations of his 85th birthday. Well, as the 55-year-old Mutter quipped in an entertaining pre-concert interview, when you get past 50, you do tend to have off days.
Penderecki’s stand-in on the podium was, in fact, hardly a stand-in at all. Thomas Søndergård is the RSNO’s new Music Director, formalising his relationship with the orchestra after six years as Principal Guest Conductor. He clearly relished this opportunity to share the evening with such starry company.
Despite Penderecki’s absence, the advertised programme stayed the same. It was a bold decision for Mutter to show off her skills in the 40 intense minutes of uncompromisingly bleak introspection that make up Penderecki’s Second Violin Concerto, Metamorphosen. Unapologetically demanding on soloist, orchestra and listeners, it proved a rewarding, deeply cathartic experience for all involved – and was warmly appreciated by an Edinburgh audience renowned for its fussiness.
Mutter clearly knows the dark, troubled Concerto inside out; Penderecki wrote it for her in 1995 and she premiered it while her first husband, Detlef Wunderlich, was dying of cancer. Though it has its passages of flashy fireworks, it’s not an overly showy work, and Mutter played it as though reaching beyond the music to its underlying narrative: from the assertive heartbeats of its opening to the lamenting chorales slowly fading at its close.
Hers was a big-boned, confident account – distinguished by unshakeable self-belief – of what’s actually quite an episodic work, sometimes variable in its invention, and owing a distinct debt to Shostakovich, Bartók, and in certain passages, even Britten. The Concerto’s restrained apotheosis, following a fearsomely fiery cadenza from Mutter, made for compelling listening, with its shifting, elusive tonalities and seemingly inexorable journey to silence. The violinist delivered it with touching restraint and nobility.
Søndergård and the RSNO could hardly be expected to match Mutter’s deep personal knowledge of the Concerto, and there were moments where the ensemble went slightly awry, or where she pushed them on to greater urgency. But they gave a splendidly detailed, spirited account nonetheless, and one of utter conviction. It’s only a shame that Mutter’s encore – a breathless, breakneck Gigue from Bach’s D minor Partita – was driven rather than dancing and left a sour taste in the mouth.
Søndergård’s sense of telling detail was back on display after the interval in a very fine Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, as strongly defined and expertly articulated as you could have hoped. The conductor’s fastidious phrasing, right from the swelling string harmonies accompanying the clarinets’ opening statement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘fate’ theme, felt natural and inevitable. His clear-headed dissection of the Symphony’s constituent parts showed, paradoxically, how little there actually is to it – but how glorious Tchaikovsky’s invention is, all the same.
Søndergård’s slow movement was buoyant, brisk, even impetuous, with a fine horn solo from RSNO principal Christopher Gough, and there was terrific bounce and swagger to the closing perorations. An admirable warmth and trust has clearly developed between Søndergård and the RSNO players. His enthusiasm to lead the orchestra into more challenging, unfamiliar repertoire – even when serving as a stand-in – is further cause for applause. DK