We review the best classical concerts of the month
BBC Philharmonic at Bridgewater Hall ★★★☆☆
In his role as the BBC Philharmonic’s Composer in Association, Mark Simpson has kicked off with a frantically energetic three-movement Cello Concerto for his friend and one-time fellow BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, Leonard Elschenbroich.
The piece starts with eruptive, lavishly-scored orchestral ascents and high-flying, passionate cello responses, heroically delivered by Elschenbroich, none of which would be out of place in a Hollywood film-score. It continues with rhythmical pulsations underpinned by bongos and congas and punctuated by Stravinskian chordal shards. Rich harmonic substrata come to the surface especially in the later stages. As a seasoned, high-level performer himself – a BBC Young Musician winner as a clarinettist in 2006 – Simpson strives for ecstatic communication, on the way relishing rhetoric, and on occasion deliberately courting catastrophe.
Nothing wrong with any of that. The main problem is that the concerto is wildly over-scored. Much of the doubling and pretty much the entire orchestral piano part could be red-penned, along with a good deal of the solo writing. As it stands, the general sound and fury signify a good less than they might, while the promised tutti interludes are too short and too undifferentiated to make much impact. Even the central, initially slow movement soon suffers from hyper-activity. To be sure this is music of a richly talented composer rising 30, but it could do with a sharp shift of emphasis from frenetic gestures to solid themes.
Conductor Clemens Schuldt is only a few years older than Simpson, and he too is an enthusiastic communicator with a lot to learn. So too, in a way, was Richard Strauss when he wrote Death and Transfiguration, which bites off a good deal more than he was able to chew in his late twenties. Schuldt threw himself at the music, committing the common early-career sin of highlighting the already obvious, while letting balance look after itself.
The inadvertent theme of the concert was turning out to be young musicians who should know better (not counting the wholly innocent Elschenbroich). Except that when he composed his First Symphony, the teenage Shostakovich was even younger and most certainly did know better. The performance enjoyed mixed fortunes. The best came when Schuldt laid down the gauntlet with a super-charged second movement, which the BBC Philharmonic seized on with relish. Elsewhere he needed to downplay the podium antics and concentrate more on the prime directive of serving the orchestra and the music’s broad dramatic flow. DF
LSO/Rattle at the Barbican ★★★★☆
The London Symphony Orchestra's connection with the composer Helen Grime, established just over a decade ago when she wrote her first full orchestral piece for it, has deepened with the arrival of Simon Rattle as music director. His inaugural concert last September featured her Fanfares, the opening movement of a projected bigger work that has now materialised: entitled Woven Space, it brought the conductor and composer together again for this meticulously played world premiere.
Taking its name from a piece by the sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon, who works with natural materials, the new score may aspire to being something of a sound sculpture of "woven time", but it is a symphony in all but name. Structured in three movements and lasting around 25 minutes, it opens with a lively jostling of textures. When so many new works could do with trimming, it might be perverse to complain that the first movement seems too short, but its ideas feel ripe for further development. Perhaps Grime answers this need by returning to similar, glistening sounds in part of the middle movement and for much of the drivingly energetic finale.
Highly accomplished rather than truly distinctive, Woven Space reflects the state of so much new music in this country, and parts of the score even sound interchangeable with hundreds of other contemporary British works. Yet Grime has something authentic to say when she gets to the haunting central movement, with a sustained luminosity that is far from typical in modern British music.
The huge symphonic edifice of Mahler's Ninth often stands alone, but here it formed the second part of Rattle's programme. Conducting from memory, he took full charge right from the start of an unrushed opening movement; gathering up its hesitant first steps to recall what Bernstein described as the composer's "faltering heartbeat", Rattle was soon drawing magnificently saturated sound from his orchestra. Though the Ninth may represent Mahler's leavetaking – it was his last completed work – it is by no means backward-looking, and Rattle stressed the modernity of the first movement especially.
The players were vivid and virtuosic in the dance-inspired central movements, coarsening their tone where necessary in the galumphing country hop and finding all the biting sarcasm of the Rondo-Burleske. Rattle shirked nothing in the valedictory Adagio, coaxing out an emotional hymn to life through some of Mahler's most beautiful music and allowing it to dissolve into nothingness on the floating strings that have the last word. JA
Simon Rattle conducts the LSO in Mahler's Tenth on April 22: www.lso.co.uk
The Philharmonia Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall ★★★☆☆
First, all praise to the Philharmonia Orchestra for taking on what could well be the biggest and most ambitious concert premiere of the year. Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles (the Song of the Children of Stars), by eminent Korean composer Unsuk Chin, is a vast 40 minute meditation on mankind as a “child of stardust”, made of the same stuff as stars, but able to marvel at those same stars.
Chin has assembled a dozen poems that meditate on the vastness and mystery of the universe, by Henry Vaughan, Fernando Pessoa, Shelley, and others, and set them for a huge orchestra fortified with clangourous tuned percussion, an organ in its most apocalyptic mode, a mixed adult choir and a children’s choir. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen had clearly lavished enormous care and rehearsal time on this hugely different score, which may be why the preceding performances of the picturesque Battalia (Battle) by German Baroque composer Heinrich Biber and Beethoven’s Second Symphony were crisp but somewhat perfunctory.
The new work was certainly a long way from Chin’s early pieces - exquisite glittery assemblages with something of the wit and menace of her beloved teacher, the great Hungarian-born modernist György Ligeti. Admittedly it was touched with Chin’s familiar aural magic, flavoured with harp and tuned percussion and ethereal high strings. But it mainly consisted of vast harmonic seas, sometimes tranquil, sometimes turbid, and often sustained by the voices of the superb Philharmonia Voices and Trinity Boys Choir, who had to nail complex harmonies despite the swirl of sounds around them.
Sometimes the images from the poems and the musical imagery coincided beautifully, above all in the last movement, a setting of Giuseppe Ungaretti’s famously untranslatable one-line poem "M’illumino d’immenso". It means something like “I flood myself with the light of the immense”, but Chin’s use of luminously simple harmonies came much closer to its essence.
But that was a rare instance of clarity in a work which often sounded clotted and stylistically uncertain. There were moments that could have been lifted from one of Holst’s female-chorus pieces, and Messiaen and Janacek were also not far away. It didn’t help that we were given the texts line-by-line via surtitles, rather than printed in the programme notes, which made comprehension well-nigh impossible. In all it felt like glimpsing something grand through mist. In life, that’s sublime; in music it’s frustrating. IH
Igor Levit at Wigmore Hall, London ★★★☆☆
Igor Levit is the Atlas amongst the current crop of brilliant young pianists. The heavier the burden, the more he seems to relish it. He loves Bach in the titanic arrangements by Busoni, he loves Beethoven’s heaven-storming late works, and the craggiest and most dense of contemporary pieces.
The programme of last night’s concert was the perfect vehicle for him. It began with a brand-new piece from the living composer that Levit reveres more than any other - the American Frederic Rzewski. It was commissioned by Annette Morreau to celebrate Rzewki’s 80th birthday. Entitled Ages, it was an hour-long meditation on the way that we measure out time, in human ages, historical eras, and geological epochs. Rzewski is a composer and virtuoso pianist with an immensely wide musical reach. He loves stirring left-wing political song, he loves strict Baroque counterpoint, the barn-storming rhetoric of Liszt, the aloof deflating gestures of John Cage.
This piece clearly aspired to be a grand summa of all these creative concerns. The opening crash on the piano lid was followed by a series of immense slow quiet chords, which Levit made seem tiny and vast at once, like distant galaxies. Then followed a series of intriguing inventions, some full of contrapuntal complexity flashing by at speed, others angularly expressive, like Schoenberg in his expressionist phase. The shades of other composers peeped through the tumult: Bach, Shostakovich, Ravel. But Levit made everything seem maximally weighty, including the various bird-call whistles that he had to blow, and those toys that bleat like sheep when you turn them over.
Perhaps these Dada gestures were meant to be Rzewski’s humorous way of deflating his own seriousness, but Levit doesn’t do humour – he played these toys as solemnly as if he were playing a Bach fugue. It was discomfiting, as was the tendency of the piece to circle round on itself. Despite its exuberant inventiveness, it felt frustratingly less than the sum of its parts.
The other heaven-storming piece, the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony in the arrangement by Ronald Stevenson, was discomfiting in a different way. The agonised expressivity of this piece is stretched perilously thin even in its orchestral dress, and not even Igor Levit’s intensity could overcome the piano’s inability to sustain those long lines. Here was one burden that Atlas couldn’t shoulder. The best of the evening, in performance terms, came in the three Songs without Words by Mendelssohn. On Mendelssohn’s more human scale, Levit’s gift for shaping a phrase with exquisite grace finally flowered as it should.
Igor Levit’s next recital at the Wigmore Hall is on July 21. Tickets: 020 7935 2141
BBC National Orchestra of Wales at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff ★★★★☆
On 12 April, 1928, an orchestra with the modest-sounding title of the Western Studio Orchestra, a creation of the then-new BBC, gave its first ever concert in Cardiff. It soon became Wales’s national orchestra, taking top-class orchestral music to far-flung places in the nation, and nurturing several generations of Welsh composers.
Ninety years on, the orchestra now known as the BBC National Orchestra of Wales has been celebrating that proud history with a whole week of concerts. The last and most eye-catching of them featured three soloists, no less, and music by two Welsh composers, including the Three Welsh Songs by Huw Watkins.
Watkins is such an intuitively confident composer that he doesn’t mind letting his influences show. The first song (Watkins slyly didn’t tell us which melodies he chose) was a rumbustious swinging number, flung off with terrific brilliance by the players. As it subsided, the gentler outlines of All Through the Night appeared in ingenious counterpoint over the first tune, evoking the shade of Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody. But the deft way that the movement dematerialised at the end, and the pungent harmonies of the final movement, showed Watkins is definitely his own man.
It’s a shame, then, that some of that untrammelled energy didn’t rub off on the following performance of Mozart’s brilliant 22nd Piano Concerto. Given that the soloist was superb Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams, the performance couldn’t fail to be musically subtle in many ways. His own cadenza to the finale was full of surprises, including a reminiscence of the previous movement. The wind players offered eloquently turned solos, under the baton of conductor Grant Llewellyn. But the slow movement felt becalmed by its tempo, and overall the performance felt more precise than brilliant.
After the interval the orchestra was joined by one present and one ex-member of the BBC’s New Generation Artists scheme, the clarinetist Annelien Van Wauwe and violist Elvind Holtsmark Ringstad. Together they made the autumnal romantic dialogue of Max Bruch’s Double Concerto a thing of beauty. The most striking event of the evening was saved until last; the third symphony of Welsh composer William Mathias, who died tragically early in 1992 at the age of 57. The driving energy and chiselled economy of the outer movements were gripping, but the real heart of the piece was the central slow movement. This performance revealed it to be a powerful elegy, shot through with anxiety and mystery. IH
Hear this and all the other 90th birthday concerts by the BBC NOW on the iPlayer via the Radio 3 website www.bbc.co.uk/radio3
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at Queen Elizabeth Hall ★★★★☆
Before the start of this all-Mozart concert, Roger Norrington mused from the podium on recent changes in concert etiquette. “Why this deadly silence between movements?” he asked. “People used to clap all the time, even within movements. Audiences are part of the performance, they contribute. So please, feel free!” Behind me, a patron demurred. “What’s wrong with silence?” he growled.
So even before the first lordly wave of his hand, Sir Roger had put the cat among the pigeons. Nor was he content just to invite us to applaud; he insisted on it, spinning round on his conductor’s stool at the last chord of every movement, arms spread wide, wearing a face that said, “wasn’t that FAB?”. So of course we all applauded.
Some people find Norrington’s high jinks a bit much. But I was happy to be swept along by them – and to applaud – because the music-making was so technically superb, so joyous, and so full of expressive insight.
Norrington was abetted on this occasion by virtuoso horn player Roger Montgomery, who played Mozart’s first and fourth horn concertos using a natural horn contemporary to Mozart. rather than the more technologically evolved modern horns we are used to hearing today. Natural horns do not have valves, so it was fascinating to see how Montgomery coaxed forth the notes by pushing his hand further into the bell, or by pursing his lips.
As a result the horn sound changed colour from note to note in a way that at first was disconcerting, but soon became charming.
Alongside the concertos were two of Mozart’s symphonies, which were full of telling expressive details. The minuet of Symphony Nno. 33 was deliciously stately and slow, a welcome change to those fleet and fast performances one so often hears from “‘period”’ orchestras. Symphony Nno. 36, the “Linz”, was, if anything, even more joyous. Norrington didn’t exactly conduct so much as draw attention to interesting details – a rocketing-skywards figure here, a surprising offbeatoff-beat rhythm there.
My only quarrel with this piece was the slow movement. Played at Norrington’s dancing pace, it certainly sounded graceful enough, but the interesting dark patches were skated over. But Norrington and the players relished the way the music’s phrases in the finale bounced from one instrumental group to to the next. The sheer energy of the music-making was irresistible. At the end as the applause rang out, Norrington applauded us back. IH
Academy of Ancient Music play Bach’s St John Passion at the Barbican ★★★★☆
At this time of year, performances of the Passions of JS Bach, those stupendous retellings of the story of Christ’s trial and Crucifixion, can be heard in concert halls and churches everywhere.
It seems almost invidious to pick one out for review, but this one of the more lean and dramatic St John Passion seemed especially enticing, if only because of James Gilchrist’s name among the soloists. He’s so familiar with the role of the Evangelist who tells the story that he now inhabits it to perfection – as this performance proved. He knows just how to switch from a tone of anger or distress to calm consolation, leaving just enough space between the two for us to breathe, but not so much that dramatic momentum is lost.
Another attraction was counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. He sang the final heart-broken aria Es ist vollbracht (It is Finished) with daring slowness, but with such perfect control of line that he carried it off. They and soprano Mary Bevan – wonderfully light and innocent in Ich folge dir (I follow you) – were the familiar faces among the soloists.
New to me was the American bass Cody Quattlebaum, who was a Christ out of central casting, with his flowing locks and sweetly dignified voice and demeanour. Another new name was Turkish tenor Ilker Arcayürek. He struggled with the jagged vocal leaps of Ach mein Sinn (Ah My Soul), but in Part 2 he recovered his poise and found the emotional heart of his aria contemplating Christ’s wounded frame.
Supporting all this was the wonderful Academy of Ancient Music, which fielded three superbly eloquent soloists in Mary Bevan’s lofty aria Zerfliess Mein Herz (Dissolve My Heart). And guiding everything with an impassioned and sensitive hand was conductor Rinaldo Minasi.
I didn’t warm to everything he did – some of the angry choruses in the Trial Scene were just too hurried – but his way of bending the tempo both to the meaning of the words and the natural ‘breathing’ rhythm of the music was exemplary. I’ve never heard the final chorus conducted more intelligently, or more movingly. IH
Evgeny Kissin at the Barbican ★★★★☆
Publicising this recital, the Barbican called Evgeny Kissin "the last of the keyboard lions", thereby invoking comparisons with the pianistic titans of the past. It is certainly true that Kissin, possessed of rare virtuosity, is a phenomenon among the current generation of pianists, and his stage persona is old-fashioned, too.
But though his playing has gained depth over the years, the former prodigy still often lacks the interpretative genius of the true lions of the keyboard: now in his late 40s, he seems more like an elusive pianistic leopard who will never quite change his spots.
Kissin certainly attacks his prey with utmost seriousness, but in the first half of this programme he made a bit of a meal of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata. One of the great peaks of the repertoire, it holds interpretative mysteries few manage to conquer, though initially Kissin sounded as if he had a plan; he brought an almost manic intensity and freedom to the rhetorical gestures of the opening.
The pull of Beethoven's "black key" of B minor was a reminder that this masterpiece is contemporaneous with Goya's Black Paintings – both Goya and Beethoven were about a century ahead of their time in anticipating modern art and music – but there was no bigger picture here, rather a dark mass of notes.
The sprung rhythms of the scherzo were tight under Kissin's fingers, and he produced thunderous power without making an ugly sound. Maybe Beethoven does actually call for defiance. The extreme inwardness of the long slow movement – Beethoven searching where no composer had gone before – found Kissin adrift, never quite drawing the listener in with enough hushed intensity. But he did supply teeming drive in the finale's tumultuous fugue, nothing if not a tour de force.
Where a sense of classical structure seemed to be missing from the Beethoven, in Rachmaninov there were times, surprisingly, where Kissin sounded too classically austere. In his selection of ten Preludes from both the Op. 23 and Op. 32 sets, the structure was of course always clear, but Kissin gave the music a hard edge where poetry was implied.
Rachmaninov's haunting sonorities – whether evoking bells or the glitter of fresh snow – seldom achieved their full melancholic effect, but with his formidable technique the pianist appeared happier in the strutting heroics. Finally, there were Kissin's trademark encores: perhaps the Barbican was right, because here we saw something of a circus lion. JA
Les Arts Florissants at Wigmore Hall ★★★☆☆
Some vocal groups spread their net wide; Les Arts Florissants make a virtue of focus. Under Paul Agnew, their associate musical director, Paul Agnew, they’ve dedicated themselves to the secular songs by just one composer, Claudio Monteverdi, advancing through the eight books year by year. The results have been sublime.
The trouble with setting the bar so high is that when they slip under it, even by an inch or two, it can be a keen disappointment. That was my experience last night at the Wigmore Hall.
Moving a million miles away from Monteverdi and the French Baroque music, the group offered a hugely taxing programme of all four motets (unaccompanied sacred pieces) by J S Bach, one more that could well be by him, plus three other pieces by Bach’s predecessor at the church in Leipzig where he worked, and assorted Bach family members.
So, a different language, a different musical style, and a different climate of feeling, often anguished and penitential in tone, sometimes breaking through to joy at the thought of salvation. One thing this music has in common with Monteverdi’s is a tendency to highlight the important words, and the eight singers seized on these moments. In Jesu, mMeine Freude (Jesus my Joy) the text warns of the “‘thunder and lightning”’ of the sinful world, and in German those words really do crack and spit.
There were plenty of vivid moments like this that reminded us what this group is truly capable of. But there were a few of strain and wobbly intonation too, and bumpy passages where one voice projected through the overall sound like an uneven tooth. The problem lay in the peculiar nature of Bach’s music, which at times hardly seems like vocal music at all. Instead of long melodies it’s full of scurrying patterns, more apt for a violin or cello than a voice. Some groups can take this in their stride; these singers seemed discomfited by it. IH
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays Debussy at Milton Court ★★★★☆
Of the big Debussy commemorations marking the centenary of his death, none has seemed more fitting this this: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s marathon run through his piano music at Milton Court on Sunday, exactly one hundred years to the day since the composer died. Though not aiming to be a complete survey — Bavouzet has recorded the full Debussy output anyway — this triple-decker programme provided a magnificent overview of the long musical journey Debussy made in a relatively short number of years before cancer killed him, aged 55, as World War I drew towards its end.
Several of the early pieces from around 1890, which is where Bavouzet began his exploration, bear testimony to the influence of Russian music some two decades before the Ballets Russes revolutionised the Paris ballet scene. The Ballade Slave may be a conventional work, but Bavouzet found plenty to fascinate in its rippling textures — clear up to a point, but retaining a sense of mystery. The Tarantelle Styrienne had glittering power. Despite a very physical connection to the keyboard, Bavouzet’s playing was consistently poised; even as Debussy’s style changed, he showed how intensity and precision are the constant keys to its mastery.
Another obvious influence on Debussy is that of Chopin, not least in the collections of Preludes and Etudes composed by Debussy at the height of his powers. Other Chopinesque forms received a glance early on (a Ballade, a Nocturne and even a Mazurka), but Debussy’s own often enigmatic titles started to emerge too. Bavouzet projected the Arabesque No. 1 on gentle waves of sound, and supplied nonchalant virtuosity in the third of the Images oubliees. In his lively and illuminating chat from the stage, Bavouzet confessed to often finding Debussy hard to pin down, and even the climaxes difficult to identify — though that was not a problem in the extrovert brilliance of L’isle joyeuse.
Within a few years of all this, Debussy was writing modern music while never being a self-conscious modernist. Observing that “too much beauty might kill beauty”, Bavouzet filleted the first book of the Preludes as well as the Etudes, and played only the first series of Images, but gave us the complete second book of Preludes in order to show Debussy at his most concentrated. From the floating haze of Brouillards and the muscular Spanish flavour of La puerta del vino, he created an atmosphere of enchantment and quirkiness before celebrating the end of the journey with a Feux d’artifice that was aptly full of colour and fire. JA
The Barbican Presents series continues until July 20. barbican.org.uk
Changing Faces: Stravinsky's Journey at Royal Festival Hall ★★★☆☆
Two great 20th-century Psalm settings framed the London Philharmonic's latest Festival Hall concert, making interesting and unexpected connections. Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms was there as a key milestone in the orchestra's "Changing Faces: Stravinsky's Journey" series, and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms was there as part of everyone's celebrations of the Bernstein centenary. Both constructed in three movements, the works ought to have intersected neatly, but the programming was in some ways smarter than the execution.
It ought to be hard to make Stravinsky's 1930 masterpiece boring, but the conductor Thierry Fischer (standing in at short notice for Andres Orozco-Estrada) projected little personality and the London Philharmonic Choir sounded unfocused. Though the pungent orchestral opening — Stravinsky dispenses altogether with the warm glow of violins, violas and clarinets — registered well, very soon the work's inexorable sweep went missing. The high woodwind fugue that opens the second movement meandered. Somehow Fischer seemed to confuse neo-classicism with disengagement, and the work's structural plates shifted without creating tension or a sense of ritualistic mysticism.
Things fared better in Bernstein. Fischer allowed himself to shape the music, not least in the opening movement where underneath the brashness there is room for nuance. The treble William Davies was fearlessly secure in the exposed writing of the middle movement and projected the Hebrew text hauntingly, and the full forces found the rapturous arc that brings the work to its close. Yet it was not a great night for the choir, which had the stage to itself for three canticles from Stravinsky's neo-classical phase. The chorus master Neville Creed's direction ensured a well-blended sound in the Credo, but elsewhere the music's aura was absent — especially in the Pater Noster, which needs a richer sound, and perhaps the original Church Slavonic text, to register ethereally.
Stravinsky's genius had blazed unequivocally, though, at the heart of the evening thanks to Patricia Kopatchinskaja's performance in the Violin Concerto. This extrovert soloist and the reserved conductor met on fruitful middle ground in a difficult work that all too easily derails in performance. Digging into the start with relish, Kopatchinskaja negotiated the shifting sands of the first of the middle Aria movements securely and brought intensity to the cantilena of the second Aria. The fiery finale found her duetting brilliantly with the orchestra's leader, Pieter Schoeman — a trick they repeated in an encore the free-spirited Kopatchinskaja offered in homage to Stravinsky. JA
The next concert in Changing Faces: Stravinsky's Journey is on April 11. www.lpo.org.uk/stravinsky
Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia, Festival Hall ★★★★☆
As the Soviet era retreats into history, the culture it spawned seems to fascinate us more and more. Capitalising on that fascination, the Philharmonia Orchestra has been surveying the music of that era in a series named Voices of Revolution, masterminded by revered pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy.
No one has more authority to undertake such a survey. Ashkenazy was born at the height of the Terror, and trained at an elite Soviet music school. He remembers the day Stalin died, and he remembers being hounded by KGB spooks after becoming famous at home and in the West. He understands the strange mixture of revolutionary fervour and nostalgia and fear that formed the music of that period.
In Thursday night’s concert, the third in the series, Ashkenazy visited the extreme ends of that emotional spectrum. It began with a three-minute portrayal of the heroic might of Soviet industrialisation, in the form of Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry. While the orchestra clanked, wheezed and hissed, the vaunting melody from the massed horns portrayed the triumph of Proletarian Man. Ashkenazy masterminded the din with gleeful relish. He has a mischievous quality that must have helped him to survive the horrors of that period, and which at the age of 80 is undimmed.
At the opposite extreme were the two pieces by Rheinhold Glière, a composer who managed to stay in Stalin’s good books by avoiding ideology entirely and writing music of unashamed romanticism. The writer of the programme note tried to dignify Glière’s silly Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra of 1943 by saying its first movement “captured a sombre wartime mood” while the finale “looks forward to better days ahead”. This is total bosh, as the brilliant and needle-sharp performance from soprano Ailish Tynan proved. It was pure sugary escapism, of a kind that even Hollywood might have found excessive.
Much the most rewarding piece of the evening was Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto. Under the sensitive hands of pianist Behzod Abduraimov, it took on an unusual delicate colouring, the virtuoso high jinks thrown off with balletic grace rather than ostentatious force. Ashkenazy, recognising a kindred spirit, coaxed playing of equal delicacy from the Philharmonia.
It was wonderful, but as the programme note-writer admitted, Prokofiev actually composed the concerto while living in Paris. It made one wonder whether Soviet-era composers flourished best when at a safe distance from the beloved Motherland. IH
The next concert in the Philharmonia’s Voices of Revolution series takes place on April 29. Tickets: 020 3879 9555
RLPO/Weilerstein, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool ★★★★☆
Since the days of Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia either side of 1970, all winners of the Leeds International Piano Competition have been keenly followed in the years after their success, accompanied by the less than helpful expectation that they might emulate the starry victors of yore. Now aged 27, Anna Tsybuleva was politely rather than rapturously acclaimed at her 2015 victory, and her appearances since then – at least in this country – have been received in similar tones. Her Schumann Concerto at the RLPO falls squarely into with this trend.
She is clearly a sensitive soul, more into shapely phrasing than brainless barnstorming. She knows how to float long, lyrical lines with a cushioned singing tone, and how to blend rippling passagework with the orchestra. So far, so good. But that’s only half the story Schumann requires a pianist to tell.
The first movement was here nothing if not “affectionate”, as requested in the score. Whether it was sufficiently Allegro is another matter. Certainly if you’re going to take it this spaciously, you’d better be able to fill the gaps with strong personality and imagination, and, while Tsybuleva’s manner was engaging at first, it soon proved predictable and short on fantasy: not ideally clear, either, in the cadenza.
Her slow movement was nothing if not intimate, at times to the point of mere insipidity, while some passages in the finale were not so much under-stated as simply under-nourished. Tsybuleva may well prove to be a fine artist in the making, but in concerto repertoire at least she could benefit from scaling up her musical intentions.
American conductor Joshua Weilerstein is only a few years older, but he evidently has a good deal more experience. Apart from shadowing his soloist attentively in the concerto, he brought with him a tasty aperitif, in the shape of two pieces from Bach’s Art of Fugue, resourcefully transcribed for nine-piece chamber ensemble by George Benjamin. If the first of these sounded just a touch scrambly, the second was spot-on in its refinement and delicacy.
In Mahler’s First Symphony a less than perfectly tuned first movement introduction was soon forgotten as idiomatic articulation, lusty straightforwardness, atmospheric colours and trenchant attack took over. Key players rose to the occasion in their exposed solos, and Weilerstein showed a sure sense of long-term trajectory as the finale wove its way towards its ultimate affirmation, demanding and receiving a standing ovation. DF
Birmingham Conservatoire Gala Concert ★★★★☆
The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire – one of Britain’s elite musical education institutions, with a history stretching back more than 150 years – has just acquired a striking new £57 million building. On Sunday night, it celebrated in fine style with a gala concert. Among the audience in the quietly elegant wood-panelled concert hall was Prince Edward, the conservatoire’s new patron, symbolising the institution’s recent acquisition of “royal” status. On the podium was Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla, the Lithuanian conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, who combines electric energy and grace in equal measure. In front of her was the conservatoire’s own symphony orchestra and chorus, all keyed up for the big event.
How to begin? With a new piece, of course, from the head of the conservatoire’s own composition department Joe Cutler. It’s a tricky assignment for a composer, to strike a note of celebration and new beginnings, while avoiding the clichés of the fanfare-and-drums curtain-raiser. Cutler pulled it off brilliantly with a piece entitled Elsewhereness, which meditated on the changing cityscape of Birmingham.
That sounds a serious topic, but Cutler has always had a gift for evoking serious things with a light touch. This one danced entrancingly on the spot, the strings and woodwind created a shimmering haze around an obstreperous rhythmic pulse that teased us by being almost regular but not quite. Round and round came the dance, each time intriguingly rescored, like an object seen from a different angle. Perhaps this was to symbolise the way the cityscape is constantly changing while always being more-or-less the same; perhaps the amusing ending where the piece collapsed into cobwebby sounds was an evocation of the way bits of modern cities decay entirely and go back to nature. But in the end, it was the intriguing musical argument that seized the attention.
After that bit of bracing wit, the evening became altogether softer on the ear. Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto showed the mettle not just of the soloist, conservatoire student Andrei Ivanov, but also the orchestra, who were no less sensitive and graceful than he. After the interval came the indulgently beautiful and indulgently long tone-poem In the Forest by Gražynitė-Tyla’s compatriot Mikalojus Čurlionis, accompanied by projections of the composer’s own hauntingly mystical paintings. Finally came the 2nd Suite from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, in which the choir and orchestra led us with total conviction from hushed sunrise with bird-song to wild Bacchanale. IH
Insula Orchestra, Barbican ★★★★☆
Among the many fascinating musical events to mark this year’s International Women’s Day was a concert given at the Barbican by the Insula Orchestra, a “period instrument” band based near Paris. The orchestra focused on just one composer, the remarkable 19th-century Parisian Louise Farrenc. She must have been doughty as well as talented, as she surmounted all the obstacles routinely placed in a musical woman’s way. She couldn’t study composition at the Conservatoire, so she studied privately, and later became the first female professor of piano there to achieve equal pay with her male colleagues.
Farrenc also had to contend with the insidious pressure on women to compose in a “feminine” way. Farrenc’s ambitions lay higher, as this concert proved. Before the main event, a handful of players from the orchestra played her piano trio in E flat major, an elegant but slight piece. Then came the Sextet in C minor for piano and wind instruments, which was on an altogether different plane.
There was an especially striking moment in the first movement when a descending bass took the harmony to unexpected regions. It felt like a series of doors being thrown open onto new territory, something only really good composers can manage. The players, all performing on “period” 19th-century instruments made a wonderful tangy sound, the pungency of the natural horn offsetting the veiled elegance of the piano.
That sound, rough and subtle at once, was a boon in Farrenc’s big G minor symphony of 1847, which we heard later in the main concert alongside Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. Like the chamber pieces, it was written in a strangely old-fashioned idiom, with echoes of early Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Weber. The romanticism of Berlioz seems to have passed her by. But it was full of engaging inventions, like the urgent irregular rhythms of the first movement, and the scurrying helter-skelter of the Scherzo. Most impressive was the finale, which negotiated a complex but persuasive path between minor key grandeur and major key radiance. It’s clearly a fine piece; all it needs now is to be heard, many times.
Compared with the complexity of Farrenc’s music, poised between romanticism and classicism, Beethoven’s concerto seemed straightforwardly optimistic. That was partly because his idiom is so much more familiar. But it was also due to the soloists, violinist Alexandra Conunova, cellist Natalie Clein and pianist Elisabeth Brauss, who gave the piece an unusually tender radiance. IH
CBSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham ★★★★★
This riveting concert highlighted the most unlikely alliance in contemporary music. One half of the alliance, Thomas Adès, is perhaps the most super-sophisticated and celebrated composer alive, as well as being a gifted conductor. The other, Irish composer Gerald Barry, is a musical naïf. He makes odd assemblages of bits and pieces, which blaze with riotous, galumphing energy.
The alliance is somewhat lopsided. Adès seizes any opportunity to conduct Barry’s music, and Barry appears on these occasions to take a bow. And so it was on Wednesday night, when Adès led a performance of the world premiere of Barry’s organ concerto. The brave and unflappable soloist was Thomas Trotter. He needed to be, as Barry’s piece asked him to fling off fistfuls of strutting ‘wrong notes’ patterns whose energy relied on perfect sharpness of execution. The same went for the orchestra, where Barry’s score cast a pitiless spotlight on certain soloists, particularly principle trumpeter Jonathan Holland. They acquitted themselves brilliantly, under Adès’s alert and eager baton.
In his programme note, Barry told us his piece was inspired by memories of snoozing in bed when he should have been playing the organ, and being woken by the angry sacristan. The odd bursts of quaint not-quite-right ecclesiastical harmony were perhaps a memory of hymns, the sudden ear-battering squalls a memory of the sacristan. We also heard the clicking of 21 metronomes and stealthy scales ascending to a region almost beyond hearing – bats in the belfy perhaps? It was riotously silly, occasionally moving, sometimes surreal/sinister, and never dull. The crowd loved it.
After that the gentle opening of Adès’s piece Polaris, inspired by the idea of sailors navigating by the stars seemed manicured in its tinkling perfection. But its slowly unwinding harmonies, pealing away from a central note in spirals, soon exerted an irresistible spell. As so often happens in Adès’s music, what started out as delicate soon became overwhelmingly grand, the giant striding basses and piercing trumpets the two axes around which the constellations wheeled.
As if that weren’t enough, Adès also led a wonderful performance of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem that brought out all the music’s weight of tragedy and protest and mourning. And in Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements he didn’t just conduct the thrilling off-beat stabs in the first movement, he embodied them. His stabbing left hand and lunging left shoulder were as eloquent as the music itself. IH
Hear Gerald Barry’s new Organ Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall on April 11. Tickets: 020 3879 9555