Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle (2)

Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35
Symphony No.7 in E [Edition by Leopold Nowak]

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 2 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This concert presented a conundrum. With so much music he conducts, and so well, to choose from, why should Simon Rattle alight on Bruckner – a composer for whom he clearly has little affinity for as yet. After all, not even the very greatest conductors do different composers with equal success and there is no dishonour in that. In the case of Bruckner, Bruno Walter once said that as a younger man he had little real empathy for Bruckner’s music and that only after a serious illness did the scales fall from his eyes and he finally understood it. One answer, maybe, is that Rattle is so in love with the sound that the Berlin Philharmonic produces, but the truth is that sound alone is not the main determining factor in the success or failure of a performance of Bruckner’s music.

Fortunately, in Szymanowski sound is paramount, at once flickering, iridescent and voluptuous. In this hot-house, highly-perfumed soundworld Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic thrive, bringing to it the ultimate in sophistication: the musical equivalent of a visit to the Orchid House at Kew Gardens. This is music that Rattle has long championed – he recorded the two violin concertos in Birmingham with Thomas Zehetmair – and on this occasion the excitement he generated communicated itself vividly.

The solo part is for the most part stratospheric with a hugely demanding cadenza, musically if not theatrically the work’s weakest moment, and Frank Peter Zimmermann played the work with total commitment and secure, sweet intonation. He does not have the largest tone but then neither, his recordings suggest, did Paul Kochánski, Szymanowski’s close friend and the violinist who was to have given the concerto’s first performance in St Petersburg had the political unrest leading up to the 1917 Revolution not put paid to that. There is an ecstatic quality to the solo part which some other soloists, notably Nikolaj Znaider, bring out more strongly, but where Zimmermann really scored was in that sense of complete unanimity of purpose between himself and the orchestra rarely encountered in concerto performances. The very ending with the violin slithering upwards and out of reach is akin to the Indian Rope Trick.

As an encore, Zimmermann played Bach (the Sarabande from the D minor Partita) wonderfully, with Rattle sitting in with the double basses to listen in rapt attention.

In the Bruckner symphony the actual playing was for the most part – a few lapses in the scherzo and finale aside – quite glorious. But the disappointment was acute. The main reason lay in Rattle’s perpetual micro-management. This was Bruckner that moved in half-bars, every detail relentlessly seized on and savoured, like an actor who feels the need to invest every single line, even the most banal, with the sort of emotional weight of Hamlet’s Soliloquy. Yet Bruckner’s music moves in much larger rhythmic groupings than Rattle allowed and – perish the thought – not every detail in the symphony is profound or of equal significance.

Continuity, melos (for want of a better word) and an underlying pulse were lacking as the outer movements, which constantly got bogged down in a thicket of detail; this made for a very long listen. There were compensations, the glorious dark-toned Adagio for one but even here the alternating ‘pastoral’ section was taken at such a funereal pace that it failed to provide the requisite contrast. Using Nowak’s edition meant that the questionable cymbal crash capped this movement’s climax; and here the player very nearly over-balanced in giving his all.

The bottom line is that Bruckner’s music does not need every bar to be spelled out and interpreted; it needs to be played directly and instinctively. At the symphony’s close Rattle held his hands aloft and there was a long silence, which is not always guaranteed at the Proms and very rare anywhere after a fortissimo. It says something for Rattle’s magnetism that it happened, but were we being manipulated even here?

Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle (1)

Symphony No.25 in G minor, K183
Noesis [London premiere]
Debussy orch. Colin Matthews
Four Preludes from Book II – La danse de Puck; Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest; Feuilles mortes; Feux d’artifice
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Simon Rattle’s and Berliner Philharmoniker’s appearances have now become a keenly-awaited, if not always artistically fulfilling, Proms fixture – but there can be little doubt that this showing was as interpretatively convincing as it was ingeniously programmed and impressively executed.

Framing the concert with Mozart’s two G minor symphonies was as distinctive a way as any to mark the composer’s 250th-birthday year. Admittedly this performance of the ‘little G minor’ suggested an interpretation in progress – Rattle’s amalgam of ‘authentic’ procedure and expressive license not always cohering stylistically, especially in an Andante where phrasing often verged on the precious and a Minuet whose incisiveness did not quite accord with its leisurely trio (to which decoration was added). Yet the outer movements had no lack of either rhythmic energy or expressive impact, underlining that Mozart was as adept in appropriating stylistic models in his (relative) youth as he was at transcending them in his maturity.

Interesting that Rattle should recently have been criticised for ‘playing safe’ over the choice of living composers in his Berlin programmes. Certainly no one could accuse the 46-year-old Hanspeter Kyburz of pandering to an audience’s passive conceptions of what music – classical or otherwise – is there ‘to do’. Nor can there be any doubt as to the virtuosity with which he handles his extensive forces in Noesis (2001). Its title (‘Cognition’) may be derived from a concept by the early-twentieth-century German philosopher Edmund Husserl, but this veritable ‘concerto for orchestra’ evinces a gripping immediacy over its three parts. It moves from an impulsive if pointedly non-cumulative first section,through a central span whose skeletal rhythmic gestures are filled out texturally before erupting in a stream of dislocated outbursts, then to a rondo-like alternation of toccata and chorale ideas whose mounting energy is curtailed by a coda as clinching expressively as it seems inconclusive formally. Kyburz’s flair for sonority and texture is as sure as is his sense of musical progress, and the Berliners responded with alacrity in what was an assured and committed performance. On this basis at least, the state of contemporary music in Berlin appears to be heading in a decidedly positive direction.

Following the interval came four of Debussy’s piano preludes in orchestrations by Colin Matthews – a project intended to encompass all twenty-four such pieces which, though commissioned by the Hallé Orchestra and Mark Elder, has been championed by Rattle from the outset. The gentle whimsy of ‘La danse de Puck’ sounds as if conceived directly for orchestra, and though the simmering unrest of ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ and the scintillation of ‘Feux d’artifice’ lose some of their immediacy when realised – however skilfully – in orchestral terms, ‘Feuilles mortes’ takes on a succession of autumnal hues entirely in context. When as finely played as here, the completion of the task can only be keenly anticipated: ‘Debussy-Matthews’ perhaps even set to join ‘Elgar-Payne’ as a productive collaboration across eras.

And so to Mozart’s ‘great G minor’ symphony – in an account where the balance between ‘then’ and ‘now’, such as often eludes Rattle’s performances of the standard repertoire, was potently achieved. Above all, in an Andante whose questing harmonic language and insistent motivic gestures were as one in signalling the movement’s rapt intensity. Nor did the angularity of the Minuet conflict with the repose of its Trio; Rattle here ensuring an unbroken continuity of expression. If main themes in the outer movements could have been even more keenly inflected, this is not to imply a lack of dynamism or of Rattle’s conviction in making them cohere in themselves and as part of the symphonic whole. And, with orchestral balance as finely judged as can be expected when so inward a work is given in so expansive an acoustic, then this was as satisfying a performance as one is likely to encounter today.

The second-half repeat was not taken in the finale, or in the Andante for that matter, nor was there an encore – but given that the one is as redundant syntactically as the other is aesthetically, Rattle was vindicated on both counts. If he and the orchestra have indeed been going through a ‘rough patch’, it appears that the corner might now have been turned: at any rate, this is hardly a partnership running out of creative impetus.

Goode Mozart and Bělohlávek Bruckner

Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Symphony No.9 in D minor

Richard Goode (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek ‘s first Proms season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra has featured a wide range of music, with symphonic repertoire a notable feature – and, as one whose conducting of Mahler’s Ninth at last year’s Edinburgh International Festival (with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) won golden opinions, there was undoubted interest attached to his view on the final symphony by that twin pillar of late-Romantic symphonism, Bruckner (a performance repeated in Edinburgh on 1 September).

There could be few criticisms of the overall textural balance (aided by antiphonal violins) or the BBCSO’s eloquence of response in what was a humane and often-searching account of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. The main problem lay in Bělohlávek’s seeming uncertainty of how to pace the vast outer movements so that incidental detail can be absorbed into a cumulative overall momentum. Over-emphatic phrasing in the opening paragraph hardly grounded the first movement with the requisite conviction, and while formal follow-through in the second and third themes was relatively seamless, the ensuing development failed to climax with anything like the desperate intensity needed. Progress through the recapitulation was secure rather than eventful, and the coda duly capped the movement with powerful – if not ideally implacable – finality.

Bělohlávek took the scherzo at an impulsive tempo, though the eschewing of accented downbeats robbed this music of the ruthlessness it surely demands, and made for insufficient impact with the capricious trio section – though an unchanging tempo during the latter at least ensured there was no hint of sentimentality.

Ensemble thus far had been fallible in passing, but there was little to quibble with in the Adagio – in which Wagner tubas made the most of their discreet broadening of sonority. Interpretatively, however, the movement was no more than the sum of its intermittently fine parts, with the initial pages rather lacking in mystery and the often-tortuous formal progression smoothed out so that progress towards the fateful climactic dissonance felt almost too comfortable. It was a measure of Bělohlávek’s consistency that the coda sounded unusually convincing as the conclusion of the symphony’s torso – bringing a degree of repose that the work at this (unfinished) point should not be expected to provide.

Satisfying rather than inspirational Bruckner, then, and it was a similar story in the performance of Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto. Not that Richard Goode left much to be desired in what was a limpid and unaffected rendering of some of Mozart’s most felicitous keyboard writing, but Bělohlávek’s accompaniment – unfailingly attentive though it was – often verged on the precious. It was significant that the first movement cadenza had an emotional immediacy hitherto lacking, and the close of the Adagio was less a retreat into silence than an opening-out onto a far more plangent expressive plain. Humour in the finale was of a reserved kind, lacking the effervescence the music can yield when the performance – from an orchestral vantage – is less strait-laced. Bělohlávek may well have the hallmarks of a true Mozartean, but his conducting needs to be less inhibited than this.

Songs of Despair and Sorrow … Rothko Chapel

Songs of Despair and Sorrow
Four Songs for double chorus, Op.141
Rothko Chapel

Amy Freston (soprano)

BBC Singers

Nash Ensemble
Martyn Brabbins
Stephen Cleobury [Schumann]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Late-night proms have long yielded some of the most imaginative programmes. A choral concert with a difference, it opened with a welcome 80th-birthday tribute to György Kurtág. “Songs of Despair and Sorrow” was completed in 1996, after a more than fifteen-year gestation. These settings of Russian poets (all relatively short-lived, save for the indomitable Anna Akhmatova) embody some of the composer’s starkest, most plangent vocal writing – though to attribute this solely to the ill-fated lives of the actual poets is to overlook the implosive nature of Kurtág’s means of expression. Moreover, the instrumental ensemble – which features two harmoniums and four bayans (Russian accordions) alongside its complement of brass, strings and percussion – is less remarkable for its striking constitution than for the way in which it is drawn into the chorus as if a textural extension of what is being communicated. This quality was impressively borne out by this performance, in which the BBC Singers and the Nash Ensemble were effortlessly integrated, Martyn Brabbins ensuring the music’s rhythmic intricacy was evident throughout.

In the concert hall, as opposed to the recital room, Schumann has been less celebrated in the 150th year since his death than might have been expected. A good opportunity, then, to revive one of the most significant works of his large if uneven output for a cappella chorus. Although the “Four Songs” (1849) were written in the wake of Dresden’s involvement with the civil unrest that swept across Europe in 1848, Schumann’s settings are essentially philosophical reflections on the inner liberation towards which his thoughts often turned during his last years of creativity.

Interestingly, the two central choruses, to texts by the little-remembered Joseph Christian von Zediltz are the more affecting in their simpler but subtle expression than the over-wrought Rückert setting that opens the sequence, or that by Goethe which forms a fervently affirmative close; and one cannot help wondering whether Schumann almost missed the point of a text that does seem to embody a distinctly Goethian irony. Superbly directed by Stephen Cleobury, the settings effectiveness as choral music was yet never in doubt.

Although the Royal Albert Hall and the non-denominational chapel at the University of St Thomas in Houston may have little in common as architecture, the former proved an ideal acoustic in which to perform Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” (1971) – this composer’s most played major work, and an apt enrichment of the interaction between art, architecture and light – which, given that the piece was composed barely a year after Mark Rothko’s suicide, makes for a thoughtful (however incidental)commemoration.

Characteristically slow-moving, the minutely-varied repetition of vocal harmonies and the sparing but exquisitely judged contributions of celesta and percussion – each aptly evoking the calm but implacable nature of the environs – ensure a meditative and spiritual experience like few others. At 29 minutes, the performance, under Brabbins, was long-breathed and unerringly sustained – with Amy Freston’s airy vocal contribution as finely attuned as were Richard Benjafield’s percussion contribution and Paul Silverthorne’s rapt viola playing, while the dynamic sensitivity of the BBC Singers readily evoked an acoustic entity that emerged and receded in time and space. A magical end to a rewarding concert.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Symphony No.2 [Performed in the Critical Edition prepared for The Charles Ives Society by Jonathan Elkus]
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28

Lang Lang (piano)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 30 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Pittsburgh Symphony should have been in the company of Sir Andrew Davis, the Orchestra’s Artistic Advisor. Illness (and surgery) forced Davis out of the first leg of the PSO’s European tour (Greece, Ireland, Wales, and the Proms) with Leonard Slatkin able to replace him for all the concerts with repertoire (including Bernstein, Brahms, Gershwin and Shostakovich) left as scheduled.

Charles Ives’s Second Symphony received its first performance in 1951 (by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, a premiere now preserved on CD – in a collection from the Philharmonic – and Bernstein recorded it twice more), nearly fifty years after its essential completion in 1902, though Ives (1874-1954) continued to ‘tinker’ with the score on and off for a good while thereafter. Indeed, the new edition prepared by Jonathan Elkus for The Charles Ives Society is said to correct over 1,000 errors.

It might well be the first symphony – and there have been few since – whose fabric is made up of quotations from disparate sources, such as American ‘traditional’ tunes, hymns, and the like, in addition to allusions to the European symphonic literature, especially Brahms, Wagner and the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Moreover, each of Ives’s five movements (the first and last two played without a break) was originally intended for other contexts.

The wonder is that all this disparity actually makes for a cogent musical experience and, in the final analysis, it can safely be described as a ‘Romantic’ symphony, infused as it is with the spirit of the late nineteenth-century, albeit with some characteristic Ivesian peculiarities as part of its ingredients.

Leonard Slatkin’s reading was a strong one, pulling all the various elements together and making a convincing whole, aided and abetted by confident orchestral playing.

In the opening movement, Slatkin kept things moving along, noting the Andante marking, much to the benefit of the music. Slower passages here and in the third movement were expressively shaped without unnecessary lingering. There were eloquent woodwind solos (from the flute and especially the oboe) and solo strings – the cello in particular – made a fine contribution. In that Adagio third movement, the gently nostalgic spirit of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony was evoked; this being completed a mere four years before Ives began his Second Symphony in 1897. In the vigorous second movement Allegro, Ives’s exuberant spirit was ideally captured, and the boisterous finale had all the energy one could wish for.

I’ve always felt that the final pages of the symphony were written later than the remainder, or at least extensively revised, since the drawing together of themes is more confidently handled than certain other passages which proceed it in this and previous movements. And as for the final ‘raspberry’ from the full orchestra (an eleven-note chord), this must surely have been added after the composer had gained a certain notoriety for provocative musical ideas and gestures.

In any event, Slatkin and his players brought the symphony to a rousing conclusion (trombones standing) with terrific gusto.

I suspect Lang Lang’s current interpretation of Chopin’s First Concerto (actually chronologically the second to be composed) will polarise opinion. A virtuoso concerto was given a virtuoso rendition, with bold bravura passages given tremendous heft, but what impressed most were the delicate pianissimos, sometimes on the very verge of audibility and impeccably executed. But whether technical finesse (which is undeniable) was placed at the service of the music itself or served merely to demonstrate the pianist’s prowess is more debatable.

Of course, we do not know how Chopin played his own music, though there are reports of ladies swooning. Whilst there was no evidence of expiration on the part of members of this Proms audience, it was certainly captivated by Lang Lang’s playing and demeanour. There was good rapport between soloist, conductor and orchestra, though even the sensitive Slatkin was unable to do a lot with some of the blatant brass writing in the outer movements. But the central ‘Romanze’ was either beautifully expressive or intolerably narcissistic depending on your point of view. Soloist and conductor were at one in some places where, arguably, rubato was taken to extremes.

As an encore, Lang Lang played the closing section of Liszt’s C sharp minor Hungarian Rhapsody (as arranged by Horowitz) with indubitable panache, revelling in his own virtuosity. The audience loved it and, indeed, joined in!

Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel was given a performance in which the various episodes – the lively as well as the tender – were strongly characterised with, once again, some outstanding solo playing. In fact, Strauss’s score was revealed as a real orchestral ‘showpiece’, and was non the worse for it, even if one sensed moments where the brass threatened to overwhelm everything else.

For encores, the strings played ‘Touch her soft lips and part’ from Walton’s music for Olivier’s film of “Henry V” with restrained expression. Then the full ensemble offered Elgar’s ‘The Wild Bears’ from Elgar’s The Wand of Youth (Suite No.2), which was delivered rumbustiously by this splendid orchestra, the musicians clearly enjoying working with Leonard Slatkin. He was then straight off to Nashville to prepare for the opening of a new concert hall, while the PSO travelled to Germany to continue its tour, as planned, with Hans Graf.

Messages for the Queen of Sheba … Leningrad Symphony

Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba [London premiere]
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)

Orchestre National de France
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 29 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Although the Arena was well-filled, this concert sold disappointingly in the stalls and in the seats higher up. A shame, for this was one of the great Proms of the season.

Kurt Masur has had much more of a presence with Orchestre National in Paris than he has with the London Philharmonic in London. On the evidence of this concert, their partnership is in rude health, the players responsive to Masur’s ever-musical approach. Given that his tenure with the LPO will be over by next year’s Proms (Vladimir Jurowski is scheduled to take over as principal conductor at the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall, next June), presumably it will only be with the ONF that we may see him back at this Kensington address – and hopefully both will return.

Masur has previously conducted Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony in London – on his final tour with the New York Philharmonic and, in December 2004, with the LPO) – as ever, I was struck at his intensely musical way with this score in this wonderful performance; the famous, drum-ridden, opening movement not so much underplayed but sculpted so as not to negate the following three movements. Indeed, his view of the work builds to the final movement’s climactic peroration as the focal point of the whole work and such a view paid dividends. For anyone who believes that Shostakovich’s work is so completely entwined with its overtly political inspirations, this performance proved otherwise: it was a massive, but humane, musical testament and worked perfectly in purely musical terms. As such it was enormously satisfying, with orchestral playing to match: characterful woodwinds, full-bodied strings and firm brass – the extra players of the latter sitting antiphonally to the usual ensemble.

Before the interval was a work new to London (although Manchester had heard it in March, with the Hallé conducted by André de Ridder). Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba is an off-cut (totalling just over 15 minutes) from Hans Werner Henze’s most recent (and possibly final) opera, “L’Upupa und der triumph der sohnesliebe” (The Hoopoe and the Triumph of Filial Love) premièred in Salzburg in 2003 under Markus Stenz and assisted by de Ridder. Although the Queen of Sheba makes no appearance in Henze’s made-up tale with Eastern influences, the title of his five orchestral excerpts make reference to Solomon’s use of the Hoopoe to pass messages to her.

Fabulously orchestrated, Paul Griffiths’s programme note gave enough information as to how they fitted into the opera to make the otherwise obscure characters come alive. The first Allegro – with trombone solo and insistent timpani to end – comes from the fifth of the eleven tableaux with the hero Al Kasim having already captured the hoopoe, but here in argumentative mode. The second (from tableau 2) characterises the ‘baddies’ (the indolent brothers of Al Kasim) with two saxophones, while the third (tableau 9) brings the brothers together. Here there is an intricate string quartet texture that winds sinuously through the orchestral accompaniment, while the fourth section is much more vibrant, representing tableau 10 (Magic Chest) and opens a sonic Pandora’s box to assault the baddies – rather undone by a competing mobile phone on this occasion – while the father, Vizier, who had sent his sons out to find the hoopoe in the first place, ends the orchestral excerpts as he does the opera in tableau 11 (Twilight Hour), content with hoopoe in hand as Al Kasim rides off, the music calm and reflective.

The Salzburg premiere is already issued on DVD (EuroArts 2053929), and with a staging in Italy having taken place, the first UK production of “L’Upupa und der triumph der sohnesliebe” is keenly anticipated, the appetite whetted by Masur’s wonderful performance of these intriguing orchestral extracts.

Crushing Twister

The Threepenny Opera – Mack the Knife
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny – Den wie man sich bettet
The Silverlake – Ballad of Caesar’s Death [sung in an English translation by Rory Bremner]
Rhapsody in Blue
Crushing Twister [BBC commission: world premiere]
Fancy Free

Pauline Malefane (mezzo-soprano)

Kevin Cole (piano)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Charles Hazlewood

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 28 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The concert was devised to exhibit the successful, sustained presence of the jazz idiom in works of a classical stamp. Charles Hazelwood introduced the pieces, making it quite clear why he had decided to include them in the concert. He was lucid in his explanations and forthright in his opinions. I, for one, was excited to hear a British orchestra that could cope with jazz modes and rhythms authoritatively and with experience.

Jacques Ibert’s Divertissement is witty, urbane, deft and skilful. It deserves more performances. Indeed, Ibert (1890-1962) is a neglected composer, “an independent spirit … but very much part of the musical heritage that made him one of the most truly French of French composers” (David Cox’s programme note). The BBC Concert Orchestra played his music splendidly, with elegance and verve.

Pauline Malefane is an ample South African lady with an ample and silken voice. She has had an operatic training. She sang ‘Mack the Knife’ in Xhosa (the language of her birth?), softly, as an aria that gained impressive strength and humanity, even if it lost its bite. The vocal sound swelled with accumulation, but never became in any way an operatic caricature. The BBCCO, meanwhile, gave her the jazz-related original backing. Malefane then sang an extract from ‘Mahagonny’ in German, with due regard for Bertolt Brecht’s bite and acerbity and Weill’s jazz-based dance rhythms. In an English translation by Rory Bremner, she then delivered a ‘Silverlake’ number with savage moral authority – in resounding, commanding and forbidding words, not unlike a satisfyingly modern version of Dame Clara Butt.

There are three versions of Rhapsody in Blue (at least two of them by Ferde Grofé, the arranger for Paul Whiteman who had commissioned Gershwin in 1924). We usually hear the last one, from 1942, post Gershwin’s death, which is rather overblown – an inflated imitation of Rachmaninov. At the Proms, we heard, I think, the second version, from 1926, with a jazz combo. The difference was extraordinary. I found myself listening to what could well be a masterpiece rather than a war-horse. Kevin Cole (who inserted an unfamiliar passage, by Gershwin but later dropped, into his long solo spot towards the end) together with Hazlewood and the BBCCO saw eye to eye and produced a lean, terse, energy-charged lyric with surge, flesh and teeth. The opening clarinet solo was riveting in its quirky and idiomatic launch. This performance made virtually every other I have heard sound tired, stultified and overburdened with classical respectability.

Crushing Twister by Dai Fujikura (a Japanese-British composer born in 1977 who now lives in London) proved a fascinating and complex 8 or so minutes – an exercise in turntable-ism (in terms that a DJ would recognise), the practice of very slight speeding up or slowing down of a musical performance. The orchestra is divided into three sections; the middle one plays the core composition, the original; those on either side play more lyrically or faster and more rhythmically. So we have different moods, different speeds and, also, different tunings for the percussion. On first hearing, the effect was incomprehensible but exhilarating.

In his spoken introduction, Charles Hazlewood made a vigorous case for Fancy Free as containing some of Leonard Bernstein’s best jazz-inspired music. He and the orchestra played vigorously enough, but I was not caught up in the score. This was a long and tiring afternoon. The concert had started some 20 minutes late (due to the earlier Proms Chamber Music recital over-running) and was extended by a further 20 minutes beyond its anticipated duration.

More Mozart!

Symphony No.34 in C, K338
Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491
La finta giardiniera – Vorrei punirti, indegno
Ch’io mi scordi di te, K505
Symphony No.38 in D, K504 (Prague)

Lars Vogt (piano)

Véronique Gens (soprano)

Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Ivor Bolton

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 28 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Can one have too much Mozart? Two full concerts on two consecutive nights is as good a test as any and the answer would seem to be that Mozart is fairly indestructible. It should be stated from the outset though that this second concert was on nothing like the same level as Herreweghe and his forces the night before. Of course, with Salzburg’s Mozartean connections, expectations were running high – too high, it turns out.

Why Mozart’s C major Symphony is one of the lesser known ones has long been a mystery to me. Because it’s without a nickname? (So is No.39, though, amongst many others.) Whatever the reason, it is a crying shame that this work does not get out more. It is also a crying shame this was not a better performance…

The first thing to strike the listener is the warmth of the Salzburg strings; the second the lack of precision ensemble. Indeed, ensemble problems were to blight the string contribution throughout this symphony. The slow movement seemed to indicate that the orchestra had not counted on the Royal Albert Hall’s cavernous acoustic – muddied textures abounded. Even the finale only tended towards the opera buffa without fully evoking it.

The German pianist Lars Vogt (coming armed with his own cadenza) gave an ultra-sensitive account of the C minor Piano Concerto. Here is a pianist unafraid of fining down his tone to the lowest pianissimo. Wind soloists excelled here, and Vogt’s cadenza flowed nicely, not departing hugely from Mozartian boundaries (a passage with left-hand trill acting as foundation for right-hand contrapuntal writing was effective). If only Vogt had not pecked at the staccato of the finale.

A nice touch after the interval – the orchestra members as they entered threw what looked like Mozartkügeln at the audience. Unfortunately the sweets did not reach the back of the stalls!

Véronique Gens was the main appeal of this concert. Her Donna Elvira on the Opus Arte DVD of “Don Giovanni” (OA 0921 D) was a delight, both musically and visually. The aria from “La finta gardiniera” found the orchestra supplemented by harpsichord continuo. Gens projected to perfection, identifying with the text to no small degree (a woman suspecting unfaithfulness on the part of her lover). Even better was the Concert Aria, in which Gens was joined by Vogt. If he was perhaps a touch too free rhythmically, it was not enough to upset the Gensian apple-cart. Gens sung with such tenderness, and was able to sustain a line in the most magical of fashions.

The final item was the ‘Prague’ Symphony, which emerged at least with less damage than No.34. The gentle, siciliano-like sway of the slow movement was appealing to begin with, although there was not sufficient magic to take away the impression that the movement was simply too long. As an encore was the Andante from the Cassation in C major – by Mozart!

A mixed experience, then, Gens the undisputed redeeming feature in a Prom that so often was mundane.

Leopold String Trio & Friends

Bach arr. Mozart [attributed]
Largo and Fugue in E flat [after BWV526]; Adagio and Fugue in G minor [after BWV883]
Colin Matthews
Luminoso – Oscuro – Scorrevole – Calmo [BBC commission of Luminoso & Scorrevole: world premieres]
Piano Quintet in E flat, Op.44

Leopold String Trio [Marianne Thorsen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) & Kate Gould (cello)]

Lawrence Power (viola) & Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)

Leopold String Trio with Benjamin Nabarro (violin) & Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 28 August, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Each of the Bach arrangements was preceded by an introduction written in a totally different style – both possibly by Mozart. The voices of the fugues had been distributed among the three string players in order to clarify the structure for 18th-century sensibilities. This was sometimes an awkward matter, such as when, say, there were four voices, not three. On the whole, the arrangements worked quite well, giving clarity to the fugal structure, but, in the end, sounding rather bitty and inconsequential. Certainly the parts were played with conviction and sonority – with the somewhat Romantic seriousness of the Emerson Quartet playing The Art of the Fugue.

Colin Matthews wrote Oscuro and Calmo as a direct response to hearing Lawrence Power at a concert. The pieces explore the viola modestly and reticently. Calmo, in particular, has quiet, cool, reflective serenity. It stood well as the final section of this four-movement work for viola and piano – as a composer’s last word. The previous three pieces, including the BBC commissions, moved about agilely, but gave little sense of the darker sonority of which the instrument is capable, its silkiness or its potential for passion. Perhaps, on a first hearing, I picked up less than there was to find – but I did find that Calmo caught and held my attention to a degree that the other pieces did not.

There was also a surging, striking performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet, the Leopold String Trio joined by Benjamin Nabarro and Simon Crawford-Phillips. The playing was both clear and youthfully exuberant. The performing style was classical rather than romantic; befitting as Schumann had been studying Haydn’s chamber music intently before and during 1842. The first movement was often enthralling but also rather emptily repetitive – particularly when Kate Gould (through no fault of her own) found it her turn, yet again, to display Schumann’s lovely cello theme. A house-style prepared to make a slight concession to Romantic involvement and variation would have been more interesting.

The slow movement fared better. A starkly clear and steady beat showed it as rather more skilfully constructed. Its darkness was most impressive – likewise, the unexpected, lighter-toned variant towards the end. The scurrying agitation of the last two movements dominated and stirred. Simon Crawford-Phillips was an assured pianist of some sensitivity.

Mozart’s Requiem

Meistermusik [original version of Masonic Funeral Music, K477, reconstructed by P.A. Autexier]
Symphony No.39 in E flat, K543
Requiem, K626 [completed Süssmayr]

Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Ingeborg Danz (mezzo-soprano)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Alfred Reiter (bass)

Collegium Vocale Gent

Orchestre des Champs-Élysées
Philippe Herreweghe

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 27 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The announcement of a ‘First performance at the Proms’ of a work by Mozart is certainly not an everyday occurrence. In the event, some explanation is necessary – what Philippe Herreweghe and his forces presented to a packed Royal Albert Hall is in fact a version of the Masonic Funeral Music with male voices intoning the plainchant, ‘Replevit me amaritudinibus inebriavit me absinthio’ (Lamentations) instead of the more familiar instrumental forces. The use of ‘period’ instruments, especially an acidic oboe, emphasised the barren nature of the score, while the choir emphasised the feeling of concentrated ritual. The ray of light at the close offered some consolation before the more familiar territory of Symphony No.39.

If the first item on the programme focussed on death, the second was positively life-enhancing. Hard-stick timpani gave real point to the first movement’s Adagio introduction (possibly predictably rather fast-paced). Herreweghe seemed to revel in the explorations of the development section just as much as he did in the ultra-clean textures of the second movement Andante con moto. This slow movement was certainly not as comfortable as most. Ascending lines seemed restless, searching for something just out of reach – the world of “Don Giovanni” was remarkably close. This was the highlight of the reading. If there was any criticism for the balance overall, it was that the sound was rather bass-light. Another point of balance – the famous Trio found a first clarinettist effectively alone (the chalumeau burbling of the second one was all but inaudible).

The “Requiem” was given in the well-known Süssmayr completion. Any (rather strange) hints of jollity from the string figures at the outset were soon exorcised by the chorus’s dark entrance. In fact Collegium Vocale Gent was exemplary throughout this memorable performance. Perhaps most impressive was its superb control in pianissimo (heard at its zenith in a disembodied, “voca me cum benedictis” in the ‘Confutatis’). The other end of the dynamic scale (the ‘Dies irae’ and the ‘Rex tremendae’) found this reviewer pining after larger forces to furnish greater contrast between the extremes, especially on the word ‘Rex’.

The solo quartet was expertly chosen. Carolyn Sampson impressed as Semele at English National Opera in 2004, and she was scarcely less impressive here, very pure of voice. Ingeborg Danz revealed her velvety contralto especially in the ‘Recordare’ and the “Judex ergo” of the ‘Tuba mirum’. Alfred Reiter’s strong but not huge bass was fitting for his solo in the ‘Tuba mirum’, while Mark Padmore lived up to his excellent reputation (one slightly late entry notwithstanding).

Herreweghe paced the whole convincingly. Only his propensity for long breaks between what seemed like each and every section threatened to undermine the integrity of the whole.

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