Sunday, 31 January 2016

Salzburg Mozartwoche (1): Melnikov/Camerata Salzburg/Langrée - Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Dutilleux, 30 January 2016

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Mozart – Symphony no.1 in E-flat major, KV 16
Mendelssohn, Piano Concerto no.1 in G minor, op.25
Dutilleux – Mystère de l’instant
Mozart – Symphony no.39 in E-flat major, KV 543

Alexander Melnikov (piano)
Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Louis Langrée (conductor)

This year’s Salzburg Mozartwoche has allotted a special place to Mendelssohn, present in three of the five concerts I have attended or will. The centenary of Henri Dutilleux’s birth was also celebrated in this concert from the Mozarteum Orchestra and Louis Langrée. His Mystère de l’instant (1986, revised 1989), for twenty-four strings, cimbalom, and percussion – a clear echo of Bartók, unsurprisingly given its status as a Sacher work – received what seemed to me an impressive performance. I have rarely proved responsive to Dutilleux’s music, rather to my disappointment, given the number of people I know who admire it greatly. This, however, proved an exception. In ten (very) short movements, we experienced a vividly pictorial, albeit not only pictorial, drama-in-miniature. Balances were well judged throughout, all of the solos (be they cimbalom, percussion, or string) well taken. Rhythms were not only precise, but propulsive. The appearance of the SACHER cipher in the tenth movement, ‘Métamorphoses’, inevitably put me in mind of another, slightly younger French composer, whose music I know much better.

Alexander Melnikov had joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto. It is not a work I feel wild about, yet I have heard more compelling performances than this, especially from the soloist. A turbulent opening to the first movement had promised well. If very fast indeed, pretty hard-driven, the score arguably suggests that. Melnikov’s approach, however, seemed curiously static, a series of episodes that did not lead anywhere. His tone was a strange mixture of grand, old-style Romanticism, and inconsequential skating across the keys. I should have preferred everyone to calm down a little, but it was the lack of direction from the soloist that especially troubled me. That said, Melnikov handled the transition to the second movement well, although his strange detachment soon again had the upper hand. The Salzburg cellos, however, sounded gorgeous. The finale was even more po-faced, at least so far as the pianist was concerned. He efficiently despatched everything, with considerable tonal variegation; I was never moved, though, in a performance that seemed serious in the wrong way.

No one would claim Mozart’s First Symphony to be a masterpiece, but by virtue of being his first symphony, it holds an undeniable interest for many of us. This was a less warm performance than Karl Böhm used to give, but anyone would surely have expected that. It pulsed with life, the highly contrasting figures of the first movement given their due. Langrée’s smiles suggested he was enjoying himself. The slow movement was well-shaped, its textures well-balanced. What it lacks above all is melodic genius, but that is no one’s fault. A joyful and ebullient performance of the finale brought this first item on the programme to an impressive close, the movement over in the twinkling of an eye.


Anyone, however, who did not consider Mozart’s final E-flat major Symphony to be a masterpiece would be well-advised to give up on music completely. The opening E-flat chords inevitably brought The Magic Flute to mind, although equally, the development thereafter reminded us this was a very different work. The first-movement exposition clearly grew out of the introduction. (That should, but alas does not, go without saying.) Langrée had a few rather irritating agogic touches (especially upon repetition), but nothing too grievous. For the most part, direction was clear, the concision of the development section truly a thing of wonder. The concluding bars did what they should: properly triumphant, thematically integrative, resounding with an inevitability that would surely have made Haydn proud. The slow movement was well-shaped, taken at a relatively swift tempo, the minor mode episodes making a strong impression. Langrée was sometimes prone to exaggerated tapering off of phrases, but I have heard far worse. A graceful yet vigorous minuet made a strong case for being taken one-to-a-bar. Orchestral detail was always finely etched. The trio flowed nicely, whilst offering proper relief. Langrée’s tempo for the finale sounded effortlessly right, allowing everything to slot into place (which is not, of course, to minimise the achievement of that happening). It was full of Haydnesque purpose, whilst, in its characterisation and sheer drama, never permitting us to forget that this was the composer of the Da Ponte operas. I could find no fault whatsoever in this delightful finale.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Bavouzet - Beethoven, 26 January 2016

St John’s, Smith Square

Piano Sonata no.30 in E major, op.109
Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)

A performance of Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas that was not in some way special would be a very peculiar thing indeed. That was not, I am pleased to say, the case in this instalment of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series, many of whose concerts have decamped across the river to St John’s Smith Square, whilst renovations take place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s way in general with these woks was perhaps the most brazenly modernistic, both in sound and often in interpretative strategy, I have heard. It seemed light-years distant from, say, Kempf, Gilels, or Schnabel, perhaps a little closer to Pollini, especially of old, but even in that case hardly similar. One might not always want to hear Beethoven like this, but there is no need to; I, for one, found the experience refreshing and, in the best sense, provocative.

It was the glistening tone that I noticed first in the E major Sonata, above all in the high treble. But the notes could also ‘dissolve’, Debussy-like, which I do not think was a reaction owed only or even principally to Bavouzet’s renown as an interpreter of that composer’s music. Especially during the Prestissimo second movement, the fractures of the music came very much to the fore, in as unsentimental a reading as one might imagine. There was, though, consolation to be heard in the finale, its theme certainly Gesangvoll, and almost Bachian in its dignity. A sense of proliferation, for me bringing Boulez to mind, but also of grander, perhaps more ‘Romantic’ style (Chopin?), characterised the first variation, whereas an almost pointillistic approach to the outer material of the second variation contrasted both with its predecessor and to echoes of the Liszt of similar times (the 1840s) in the second. There was continuing variety but also a strong, challenging impression of unity as the movement progressed, as if propelled by some centrifugal force (not, perhaps, entirely unlike Boulez’s conception of serialism). The counterpoint of the fifth variation struck me both by its concision and by something approaching the difficulty of the Missa solemnis. The return of the theme, dignified as before, perhaps inevitably had me think of the Goldberg Variations.

The opening theme of the A-flat Sonata initially seemed to signal a potential similarity to that of its predecessor, before going its very different way both in itself and its development. Bavouzet’s clarity and modernistic tone seemed to make this music strange once again. Icy fire characterised the Allegro molto. Again, there was no attempt to paper over the cracks; the cracks seemed almost to be the Adornian thing. There was real violence in the music’s contrasts, seemingly although perhaps not entirely unmediated. The opening of the third movement seemed to strain towards simplicity, without ever quite attaining it. There was great sadness to the arioso, without the pianist ever feeling any need to underline, let alone to milk, it. Then the fugue built up convincingly, perhaps in a little more conciliatory fashion than we had heard earlier in the sonata, although certainly not without harshness. The arioso’s return sounded all the more sad, even hopeless, yet hope was in a sense, although only in a sense, restored by the fugue in inversion. If that sounds enigmatic, then it was, which is surely as it should be. And yet, again just as it should, Beethoven’s profound humanity shone through the enigmas, even the fractures. Has there ever been a time when we need him more than now?

With the first movement of the C minor Sonata, we again seemed to look forward to Liszt, its opening downward leaps hinting perhaps at the later composer a semitone lower (and often in inversion). Likewise the ensuing dissonances, although with them it was perhaps the Liszt of old age, but a stone’s throw from Schoenberg. It was furious, without a doubt; equally, it was possessed of great integrity, if anything still more uncompromising in its modernity than what had passed before. I could not help but think that this was a performance Boulez would have admired. The clear-eyed opening statement of the second movement rendered me anything but clear-eyed. As the music progressed, there seemed an increasing sense that Beethoven was only just keeping things together. The strain was apparent; most important, it was moving. It seemed to me that Bavouzet had as complete an understanding as one could hope for as to how rhythm here is liberated by harmony. This was, I thought, a Beethoven performance of undeniable greatness: not different for the sake of it, but asserting its – and Beethoven’s – difference through a Pollini-like re-examination of the material. It shocked me but also made me smile, as absorbing as it was elevating. All Beethoven performances should, if only briefly, restore one’s faith in humanity; this one did. After which, the encore – surely something one would only risk here in very particular circumstances – was utterly apposite: Boulez’s Notations, nos 7-9.


Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Piemontesi - Mozart, 25 January 2016

Wigmore Hall

Fantasia in D minor, KV 397/385g
Piano Sonata in D major, KV 284/205b
Rondo in A minor, KV 511
Piano Sonata in A major, KV 331/300i

Francesco Piemontesi (piano)

Mozart will be 260 on 27 January. In seven days surrounding that birthday, I shall be attending no fewer than five concerts devoted to or including his music, both in London and in Salzburg. This Wigmore Hall recital from Francesco Piemontesi was the first; I shall end with another pianist, Radu Lupu, playing two of Mozart’s piano concertos. It was certainly an excellent beginning. There is, I think, nothing more difficult than to give an all-Mozart recital. Ten years ago, as part of a series of events I organised in Cambridge to commemorate the composer’s 250th birthday, I gave such a recital, having returned to performing Mozart in public after burning my fingers badly (albeit metaphorically!) as a teenager and swearing I should never do so again. I was delighted to have done so – reasonably, I thought, at the time – but I can think of no sterner task I have set myself and doubt that I shall ever do so again.

Piemontesi most certainly should; indeed, as part of the Wigmore Hall’s ‘Mozart Odyssey’, he will do so again here as soon as 13 July. This programme, intelligently constructed, and equally intelligently performed, satisfied from beginning to end. D minor led to D major, Don Giovanni-like in the first half, and A minor led to its tonic major in the second. The D minor Fantasia makes for a splendid opening piece. (I say that not only because I chose it to open that aforementioned Cambridge recital!) Far too often today, pianists seem inhibited in playing Mozart on modern pianos. The results are rarely as dreadful as so-called ‘historically-informed’ performances by modern orchestras, to which the only reasonable response can be: ‘What on earth is the point of trying to make modern instruments sound like their ancient counterparts? You will not entirely succeed, and if that is what you want, why not use the latter in the first place?’ The problem is inhibition rather than greyness and downright grotesquerie; at best, we end up with prettified, Meissen china, Mozart, drained of its passion. Such was not the case here, for Piemontesi gave a full-bloodedly Romantic performance. Anyone who doubts Mozart’s Romanticism doubts Mozart, or does not know him at all. Quite rightly, full use was made of the sustaining pedal, not least at the very opening, Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata seemingly only a stone’s throw away. Moreover the element of performance, perhaps recalling the composer’s improvisatory or quasi-improvisatory practice was equally apparent; it was not difficult at all to imagine the composer himself having played like this at the keyboard. Like an operatic scena, this rumbled, raged, above all sang. So much for Joseph Kerman’s assertion, oft-quoted thereafter, that it is ‘almost impossible to play Mozart emotionally on a modern piano without sounding vulgar’. To be fair, he said ‘almost’, but even so. Here, like the Overture to Don Giovanni, and with a similarly abrupt conclusion to the concert ending to that (the first piece I conducted, as it happens), we experienced the wonder of this quite un-Beethovenian yet nevertheless - as E.T.A. Hoffmann understood - quintessentially Romantic journey from darkness to light.

Mozart’s piano sonatas remain absurdly underestimated by many. The old idea of them as ‘teaching pieces’ – yes, of course, they work wonders as teaching pieces, but that is a beginning, not an end – has yet to be eradicated. They perhaps give up their secrets less readily than the concertos, but many of us have learned most of what we fancy we know by playing the solo piano works of Bach and Mozart. The so-called ‘Dürnitz Sonata’ followed, in a reading with which I really could not find fault at all. (Not, I hasten to add, that I was trying to do so!) The Allegro was crisp, commanding, at times orchestral – although Piemontesi knew very well the difference between a piano suggesting an orchestra and an orchestra itself. Often, as here, the former can accomplish deeds that the latter cannot. He knew when to yield, too, at least as important, whilst ultimately retaining a forward-looking (or forward-hearing) impetus; without that, sonata form is nothing, a formula rather than a form. The Rondeau en Polonaise paid its homage, as had the Fantasia, to earlier keyboard music; I thought, not least following the Aurora Orchestra’s recent concert with John Butt, of the Bach sons. Yet there was no doubt whose operatic voice was taking flight here too. In the finale, Piemontesi showed a proper understanding of Classical variation form, all too often – like these sonatas themselves – underestimated, as if the Diabelli Variations and the Goldbergs were the only possibilities here. One needs an intimate acquaintance, emotional yet subtle, stylistically sensitive yet vividly performative, to attend to the demands of characterisation and the greater whole. This performance satisfied on all those counts.

At first I was slightly nonplussed by Piemontesi’s way with the great A minor Rondo. (Is it the composer’s single greatest work for solo piano? At the very least, there is nothing beyond it.) Less overtly Romantic than the performance of the Fantasia though it might have been, it actually proved all the more forward-looking. That is partly a matter of the material and Mozart’s chromatic, contrapuntal development of it. But a relatively – and I stress relatively – ‘objective’ approach, without taking that to extremes, was able to point the way to its constructivism, its proximity to the Schoenberg of the 1920s. It is not that the performance was somehow ‘unemotional’, but that it made one listen to process, to craft, and permitted the highly volatile emotional material to speak for itself.

The A major Sonata, KV 331, 300i, followed. Without underlining the fact, appearing again to let the music simply to ‘speak’, Piemontesi allowed one to appreciate the unusual qualities of a work that has not a single movement in sonata form, and which yet nevertheless feels very much as a sonata ‘should’. Again, the first movement variations displayed a fine balance between individual characterisation and longer-term planning. One almost did not notice the distinction of phrasing and touch – here, as elsewhere – because the pianist felt no need to draw attention to himself; however, on reflection, one knew that much had been done. The second movement Minuet and Trio were taken quite fast, but they did not sound unduly so; indeed, the Trio flowed like oil, to employ Mozart’s celebrated dictum. Piemontesi again showed, in the Rondo alla Turca, what the piano can actually accomplish better than an orchestra, whilst suggesting not only orchestral colours but also the spirit of an older instrument. We do not need a ‘percussion stop’, interesting though it might be occasionally to hear one; we need an intelligent performance, willing to use the means at our modern disposal.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Capuçon/LSO/Berg - Webern, Berg, and Strauss, 24 January 2016

Barbican Hall

Webern – Im Sommerwind
Berg – Violin Concerto
Strauss – Ein Heldenleben, op.40

Renaud Capuçon (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor) 

I enjoyed this concert very much, my only cavils being the Barbican acoustic – especially at climaxes: a new hall cannot come soon enough! – and a doubtless curmudgeonly wish to have heard some more characteristic Webern. I do not think for a minute that this was the case here, Im Sommerwind finding its natural home with Strauss, but I cannot help but wonder whether some performances of it and, to a certain extent, of the Passacaglia, op.1, happen because they enable orchestras or conductors to have played Webern without really having done so. It is fascinating to hear Webern’s ‘Idyll’, but mostly for the fact that it really does not sound anything like his mature œuvre. It seems to wishful thinking to claim to detect seeds of the future, whereas there is more of a case to be made with the Passacaglia. Its originality was revealed being quite contrary to that of later works; intriguingly, the more inept passages tend to be the more original, perhaps experiments from which he learned and which he thus never repeated. The LSO and François-Xavier Roth nevertheless relished it for what it is, producing a gloriously Straussian sound, highlighting indirectly that Webern could surely have never pursued this path, even if he had wished to do so. The sound of that extraordinary chord, though: it was worth coming to the concert for its sake alone.

From apprentice work to towering mature masterpiece, and in a reversal of preconceptions, from ‘late Romantic’ work and performance to something far more ‘modernist’: Berg’s Violin Concerto, for which Renaud Capuçon joined the orchestra. Capuçon and Roth seemed very much of a similar mind, offering a highly dramatic performance, in no sense hidebound to performing tradition. Under Roth’s direction, the opening – what splendidly characterful woodwind playing from the LSO! – conveyed a real sense of the post-Wozzeck laboratory. Berg is far more ‘difficult’ than he is often given credit for; as ever, we should do well not to confuse style and idea. Both conductor and orchestra offered great orchestral clarity; that enhances rather than detracts from the labyrinthine quality of Berg’s invention. Indeed, both soloist and conductor conveyed a very strong sense of the Wagnerian melos; our thread through the labyrinth. Capuçon selected from a commendably wide palette; he can paint in silver as well as gold, which heighted the impact of the full, truly glorious ‘Romantic’ tone when we heard it. Capuçon selected from a commendably wide palette; he can paint in silver as well as gold, which heighted the impact of the full, truly glorious ‘Romantic’ tone when we heard it. I loved Roth’s – and the LSO’s – way with the Mahlerian dance rhythms: ironic and yet affectionate. The ending of the Allegretto section and thus of the first part seems tricky to get right; all too often, it sounds over-emphatic, but not here. And the great contrast – how could it be otherwise? – with the Allegro opening of the second part was, above all, dramatically meaningful, the dazzling ferocity of Capuçon’s playing very much part of that. Indeed, I cannot recall hearing this music imbued with quite such urgency. Again, the orchestral dances were wonderfully apparent, although quite rightly, they seemed to have left Mahler behind: Lulu came to mind, even, dare I suggest it, Stravinsky. There was for me here an unabashed modernity that truly convinced and which made the appearance of Bach all the more moving and meaningful. It was not that the work lost what we might call its ‘nostalgia’, but that the performance both questioned and made sense of it.

Ein Heldenleben continued the path of the first half, both enjoyable and thought-provoking. I liked the way Roth did not wait for silence; he simply turned to the orchestra and began, almost as if clicking a switch, although there was certainly nothing mechanical about what followed. This is such a difficult piece to bring off, the rest of the work all too readily overshadowed by the opening; not for one moment did that seem to be the case here. Perhaps the seeds for that actually lay in Roth’s way with the opening, the ‘Hero’, who had swagger, to be sure, but plenty of light and shade too, also a flexibility which simply sounded right. The LSO was on splendid form throughout, heightening a growing conviction in my mind that both work and performance were essentially ‘about’ music and musical performance. Adversaries as piquant as one could hope for seemed to necessitate an almost Elgarian string consolation. Throughout, the orchestra could sound vividly pictorial, but never just that; under Roth’s leadership, it maintained an intense, ever-changing, and yet coherent sense of musical drama. Roman Simovic’s violin solos were not only technically and emotionally right. In themselves and in their orchestral context, they seemed to be telling a captivating story, even if it were a story one could not necessarily put into words, or which at the very least could not be exhausted by a programme. Just as Strauss’s operas are so often about opera, here the tone-poem seemed to be about tone-poetry.

The great orchestral-phantasmagorical passages sounded, despite the acoustic, to be judged well-nigh perfectly, Strauss’s materialism – this could never have been Webern’s way! – relished. (How we still far too often misunderstand Strauss, his æsthetics, and his æstheticism!) The battle seemed both to have a great deal at stake musically yet also to be a game, a game, I felt, we were intended to enjoy; there were no metaphysics. Roth’s shaping of the work convinced just as much as Daniel Barenboim’s very different London performance had last year, the appearance of Don Juan sounding as properly climactic as I think I have heard, highlighting the extraordinary originality of the music that follows. Whatever the non-redemptive force might be that is hymned at the end – surely, just as in Strauss's operas, it is music! – it spoke wisely, even if, arguably particularly if, we actually might believe in redemption. It was possessed of just the right sense of irony, quite without sentimentality, and thus had no need to shout its presence, nor to shout about itself.


Monday, 18 January 2016

Barenboim/Simón Bolívar SO/Dudamel - Brahms, 17 January 2016

Royal Festival Hall

Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.15
Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat major, op.83

Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel & Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall
© Southbank Centre / Belinda Lawley

Daniel Barenboim is no stranger to ambitious undertakings, little more of a stranger to realising them triumphantly. However, on this occasion – and what an occasion it should have been, marking the sixtieth anniversary of his London debut, here at the Royal Festival Hall – the results were distinctly mixed. A very fine performance indeed of Brahms’s D minor Piano Concerto – if you could take a host of wrong notes, which I could – was followed by an indifferent, meandering performance of its still more difficult successor. That I say so far as the soloist is concerned; despite odd, highly impressive, splashes of brilliance from the orchestra, it was not a performance to remember for the Simon Bólívar Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. Perhaps, though, it was a foolish undertaking. The First Concerto often ends up concluding concert programmes, so difficult would it be to find anything convincingly to follow it. In a way, the Second makes more sense than many would-be solutions, although one might argue that they would be better placed the other way around. I wonder, however, whether any pianist could reasonably be expected to perform both works convincingly in the same concert.

The first movement of the D minor Concerto opened very promisingly in terms of both orchestral sound and Romantic flexibility. The Venezuelan strings sounded gorgeous; woodwind solos were well taken. Slowing for subsequent material – was this Barenboim’s own conception? – put me in mind of the soloist’s symphonic Brahms and Beethoven, very much in the line of Furtwängler, and convincingly so. Dudamel’s return to the initial tempo was arresting, vehement, again highly convincing. That was all before Barenboim had played a single note. His entry sounded a note of wonder: exploratory, extensive, very much a continuation of what had gone before. Now his ‘new’ piano sounded much more at home than it had during last year’s Schubert. (Perhaps it has ‘bedded in’; perhaps certain of what sounded like infelicities have been ironed out; perhaps we have become more accustomed to it; perhaps it simply sounds better when less of a fuss is being made, organ-bore-like, about the instrument itself.) It cut through, sang above the orchestra impressively indeed, although there were times when I thought the orchestra was being unduly repressed, or at least too much assigned to an ‘accompanying’ role. Better that, I suppose, than presenting bizarre ideas, but it was difficult to conclude that Dudamel was an especially convincing Brahmsian. That perhaps is a little unfair, however – in this, I am genuinely conflicted – given that the dialectical contrast of tempo at the start did seem to set up a framework for the movement as a whole. Whether that were Barenboim’s or Dudamel’s doing, who knows? In a sense, who cares? The other crucial frameworks, undeniably present, were harmonic and motivic. If ever there were a composer both Schenkerian and Schoenbergian, it must be Brahms; and if ever there were a musician capable of illuminating both sides, it must be Barenboim. Perhaps, however, what most impressed me was a reinstatement of this work as a concerto. That might sound odd; given the titanic conflict, how could anyone doubt it? Well, yes, but it can often sound more akin to a symphony; its symphonic stature remained, of course, but the old relationship between solo and ritornello sounded reinvigorated. There was much to enjoy at a more local level, too; at his best, Barenboim contrasted scampering play with heaven-storming Prometheanism. The moment of return – and here, I think, Dudamel must also receive some of the credit – sounded so climactic because it was so well-prepared. But it was half-lit piano passages thereafter which held the real key to the future: material splitting harmonically and vertically, dodecaphony already upon the horizon. The final peroration made its point with a degree of showmanship, but why not? This was, after all, a performance of a concerto.

The slow movement opened in sincere, songful fashion; I am tempted to call it Elgarian. At least before the solo entry, however, it lacked rhythmic tautness; Barenboim sounded considerably more in focus than the orchestra, some of whose solos were oddly non-committal, even feeble. Against that, there was some gloriously hushed playing to be heard from all quarters; more than once I thought of late Beethoven, and a real ‘Benedictus’ movement, arguably still more of the ‘Sanctus’ from the same Missa solemnis. Barenboim’s pianistic ecstasy above the long pedal-point later on was worth the price of admission alone. The movement was taken wonderfully slowly – and worked superbly well. After that, the rollicking ‘Hungarian’ contrast of the finale proved just the tonic: rhythmically sharp – save, sadly, for a few orchestral passages – and harmonically meaningful. It was Brahms’s compositional richness, many features of which we had heard before and now heard transformed, which truly guaranteed the finale as bringer of unity, not just of conclusion; but that also had to be communicated, which Barenboim at least did. There were a good few slips, which Beckmessers might have excoriated, but the sense of the movement was present, and that was more than good enough for me. Mere errors seemed as supremely irrelevant as they do in Cortot.  

They seemed more relevant, alas, after the interval: not because they were necessarily any more prevalent, but because the absolute security of harmonic rhythm which characterised Barenboim’s reading earlier seemed no longer to be present, above all in the first movement of the Second Concerto. Following a strangely vibrato-laden opening horn call, the soloist’s entry had promised much: duly incisive and seemingly imbued with what was to come, pregnant with motivic and harmonic possibility. That promise was to be fulfilled only intermittently. The orchestra in particular often sounded effortful, but there was feebleness in the piano part too at times. Individual passages, especially in the high treble and dark bass, sounded wonderful, but there was a significant lack of coherence. The scherzo was similar, opening with a renewed sense of purpose, soon undermined by a listless, soft-centred orchestra. A few apparently rhetorical caesuras in the piano part baffled me, as did excessive – which is really to say, curiously unmotivated – rubato. The trio section – I do not see why one should not call it that – was stronger, evincing unforced grandeur and genuine intimacy, although the fallibility of Barenboim’s pianism bothered me more, perhaps because of the lack of earlier coherence, than it had done during the First Concerto. The return to the opening scherzo material sounded reinvigorated, but soon the music felt unduly pulled around again, especially in the orchestra. The slow movement likewise rarely settled, despite some lovely moments. Those intimate whisperings of pianistic secrets later on were to be treasured; they would have been treasured still more, had it been clearer how we had reached them. More of the same, I am afraid, in the finale. It was characterful, but rubato often seemed excessive, even forced. Maybe this was less Barenboim’s piece than the first; maybe, however, as I suggested at the start, no one pianist, not even Daniel Barenboim, could be expected to perform both works convincingly in a single concert.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Aurora/Butt - JC Bach, Mozart, CPE Bach, and JS Bach, 16 January 2016

Hall One, Kings Place

JC Bach – Symphony no.6 in G minor, op.6 no.6
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.1 in F major, KV 37
CPE Bach – Symphony in D major, Wq 183/1 (H663)
JS Bach – Brandenburg Concerto no.1 in F major, BWV 1046
Mozart – Adagio and Fugue in C minor, KV 546
JS Bach – Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major, BWV 1048

Aurora Orchestra
John Butt (harpsichord/director)

With this very fine concert, the Aurora Orchestra launched a five-year series, in which all of Mozart’s piano concertos will be performed. I recall Pierre Boulez – a Mozartian to be reckoned with, Don Giovanni being one of the three operas he said he wished he had conducted, yet had not – suggesting the concertos as a linking theme for an orchestra within a season, and he had long previously begun a recorded version of that with his Domaine musical orchestra and Yvonne Loriod, never, alas, proceeding further than the fourth. (Do seek out the recording of the first four!) It is, one would have thought, quite an obvious idea, and yet has rarely been pursued. Increasingly, audiences – or at least the most reactionary elements within them, which, for some reason, more often than not prove triumphant – seem to prefer second- or third-rate scores which simply use large orchestras and sound rather like film music; perhaps they always did. This, then, is an undertaking to be applauded in principle; on the basis of this first instalment, it is certainly to be applauded in practice too. The orchestra thinks this might be the first time a single orchestra has done such a thing in a single venue; I know of no predecessor and should be interested to hear if there has been one.

For this concert, John Butt joined the orchestra as harpsichord soloist and director. I hope it will not be the last such occasion, for the results made for a delightful and genuinely thought-provoking concert. The title he came up with was ‘Bach is the father, we are the children!’ It is, of course, a celebrated saying of Mozart’s, only referring to Emanuel rather than Sebastian. And so, the first piano concerto was framed by works from JC Bach, arguably the greatest compositional influence upon the boy – and not only the boy – Mozart, and his elder brother, Emanuel. That tragic, ultra-Bachian utterance, the C minor Adagio and Fugue, formed the centrepiece of the second half, framed by two of the Brandenburg Concertos: not, then, imputing direct influence, although there was certainly plenty of that during the 1780s from other works by JS Bach, but rather setting up a pleasing dialectical twist in which Mozart at some what take to be his most severe – I can hear why, but I am not entirely in agreement – with Bach at his sunniest, contrapuntal learning fundamental to both, yet undeniably more overt in Mozart’s case.

Johann Christian Bach, the ‘London Bach’, is buried just a few minutes’ walk away from Kings Place, in the churchyard of St Pancras, in a genuine pauper’s grave. Here he sprang instantly back to life, enriched by an excellent performance. The G minor Symphony, op.6 no.6 (not just op.6, as the programme had it), opened in alert, vigorous fashion, its first movement vividly alert to the composer’s rhetorical flourishes, without those substituting for phrasing, let alone a longer line. (That happens far too often in ‘period’ performances of eighteenth-century music: think of the often preposterous distortions of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, et al.) Sometimes, unreconstructed modernist that I am, I might have preferred more vibrato from the strings, but that was only a matter of degree, and is merely a personal observation. Confounding of preconceived ideas was a welcome aspect, for JC Bach is often thought of as amiable, ‘pre-Classical’, and so on; a work in which all three movements are in the minor mode, and a performance pursued with such vigour did the trick nicely. One heard, moreover, the importance of woodwind even in a string-based work: clearly prophetic for Mozart. The slow movement was also rhetorical in the best sense, poised between recitative and aria. This is highly inventive music, and so it sounded. The finale sounded, again, quite different in character, perhaps a little more ‘Baroque’ at its opening, yet flowering into something arguably more ‘Classical’ thereafter, with many points of contact with Mozart as symphonist in the 1770s. An astonishingly alert performance from the Aurora Orchestra, directed by Butt with great wisdom, lightly worn, concluded with a perfectly-judged throwaway ending.

The First Piano Concerto – perhaps we should refer to it here as a Keyboard Concerto, but who cares? – was performed on a French harpsichord rather than a German instrument; Butt assured us that the sound was very close in any case. It was for me a splendid opportunity to hear for the first time ‘in the flesh’ a work I have known for many years, since first, as an undergraduate, acquiring Daniel Barenboim’s recording of the complete concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra. (It is still, to my mind, the greatest ‘set’; although in a number of works, certainly not all of them, I might favour Barenboim’s later Berlin readings, he never re-recorded the very earliest works.) The orchestral sound was very different (leaving aside, of course, the solo instrument and its use as a continuo instrument). The Aurora players, unsurprisingly, sounded a little ‘earlier’, although in no way aggressively so, less sustained, perhaps less poignant, but full of rhetorical life. Interestingly, the harpsichord sometimes sounded more prominent as soloist than Barenboim’s piano, the orchestra tending, at least some of the time, to play itself down during solo passages. Again, the woodwind, connecting with the ‘London’ Bach performance, seemed prophetic of the later Mozart. Whilst the outer movements are Mozart’s reworkings of popular sonata movements by other composers – HF Raupach and Leontzi Honauer – it is now thought by some scholars that the slow movement is entirely Mozart’s own. (I might add: presumably with the help of a correction or two by Leopold.) Perhaps what most interested me upon hearing it again, after quite a few years, was that much of it, perhaps excepting the shift to the minor mode, sounded no more ‘characteristic’ – nor, for that matter, no less ‘characteristic’ – than its bedfellows; not that it was not delightful, of course. It was taken quite swiftly, largely to good effect: arguably still more so when one imagined the eleven-year-old himself performing it at the keyboard. The finale’s wonderful catchiness was captured to great effect. Above all, the joy of these fine musicians shone through. Butt’s own cadenza was harmonically quite adventurous, as if to signal the beginning of a tonal journey Mozart would pursue throughout this series of works.

CPE Bach’s D major Symphony, Wq 183/1, announced its show-stopping originality at the very outset.  The arresting, even bizarre, nature of the opening to the first movement – not just the tension of those repeated notes, but the undeniably peculiar tessitura – was swiftly contrasted, one might almost say neurotically, with woodwind balm, and so it would continue: not just throughout the movement, but throughout the symphony as a whole. The shifts of mood were brilliantly conceived and, so it seemed, relished. And somehow – something often missing in performances of these works – there seemed a degree of logic to the strange course followed. The increasing importance of the woodwind, superbly played, seemed again to point to Mozart, whilst also marking out Emanuel Bach as having a closer kinship to ‘French’ orchestral writing than many might suspect. Melodic grace in the slow movement was underpinned, paradoxically and uncomfortably, by unease beneath. If that sounds a little weird, the weirdness is intentional. A vivacious account of the finale, albeit with strange, compelling interruptions rounded off a fine performance.

The First Brandenburg Concerto received a well-nigh ideal performance, small forces suited to the small hall. (Not that I shall ever forsake Klemperer – nor, for that matter, the Busch Chamber Players.) The tempo of the first movement, and pretty much everything about it, simply sounded ‘right’. Balances and phrasing were such as to allow Bach’s miraculous balance of counterpoint and harmony to do its work, belying the complexity at work in the background. The Aurora players’ cultivation was seemingly matched by their joy in Bach’s invention. What beguiling oboe playing opened the second movement, answered in turn by violin, bassoon, and so on! Again, there was an ineffable ‘rightness’ to what we heard. The following Allegro went with an insouciant swing, although what learning lies behind it! It may be clichéd to say so, but ‘courtly’ was the first word that sprang to mind during the Menuet. And yes, swing persisted, a ‘courtly swing’. The first Trio was equally delightful, pure chamber music. Understated elegance characterised much of the Polacca, whilst the second Trio proved straightforwardly life-affirming. This was a performance that reminded me of why I first fell in love with these works, in the recordings by the ECO and Philip Ledger.

It was in Mozart’s C minor Adagio and Fugue – a favourite, far from incidentally, of Boulez – that I felt myself a little out of sympathy with the performing decisions: not that they were unjustifiable, and indeed in terms of that dialectical twist I mentioned earlier, they had their own justification. It was only here really that I felt the lack of a longer, more vocal line, ‘rhetoric’ perhaps coming too much to the foreground. Balanced against that, the constructivism of Mozart’s writing was laudably clear. It was very well played; I simply favour a more Schoenbergian reading of this complex, fascinating work.

The Third Brandenburg Concerto completed the programme. Its first movement was taken at a fast tempo, but there was still plenty of space for the music to breathe, to live. Again, sheer joy and musical delight pervaded the performance. In lieu of a small movement, Butt and Thomas Gould (the orchestra’s leader) performed with elegance a movement from the G major Violin Sonata, BWV 1019, ending on the right cadence. There was splendid swagger to the finale, offering what seemed to be certainty in accomplishment – perhaps, and if so, quite rightly, in performance as well as in the work itself.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30 p.m., and available on iPlayer for thirty days thereafter.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Ridout/Melos Sinfonia/Zeffman - Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, Clarke, and Haydn, 15 January 2016

Milton Court Concert Hall

Mendelssohn – Overture: The Hebrides, op.26
Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony no.1 in E major, op.9
Desmond Clarke – Void-Song (world premiere)
Haydn – Symphony no.88 in G major

Timothy Ridout (viola)
Melos Sinfonia
Oliver Zeffman (conductor)

Mendelssohn’s evergreen Hebrides Overture typically adventurous programme from the Melos Sinfonia under its artistic director, Oliver Zeffman. This was an impressive reading, although occasionally I felt the lack of a greater number of strings. Generally, however, a gorgeous orchestral sound was the order of the day. Zeffman directed with a fine sense of inevitability, everything in its place. Perhaps there were occasions when he might have driven a little less hard, especially during the recapitulation, but I think that is more a matter of personal taste than anything else. There was, throughout, great clarity to the orchestral textures, permitting Mendelssohn’s often astonishingly original instrumental combinations to shine through.

Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony is an extraordinarily difficult work to bring off, and was less entirely successful. There was much to admire: some splendid instrumental playing, again great clarity, and woodwind lines that seemed often to point their way to the apparently different world of Pierrot lunaire. During the ‘slow movement’, they sounded transmuted – which, in a sense, they are – into lines from late Brahms, almost cast adrift from tonal moorings, yet not quite. There was also a creditably strong sense of Lisztian transformation. Set against that, balance was often a problem. Likewise tempi – especially the very fast tempo set early on – were not always maintained. There were a few cases when the ensemble was not wholly together too.

Desmond Clarke’s Void-Song, a single-movement viola concerto, received a very convincing world premiere. Repeated or additive pulses, as the composer explained in his programme note, and stochastically generated fields of events offer contrasted compositional principles with which the work proceeds, both in contrast and in combination. A string-dominated orchestra offers considerable opportunity for interplay between soloist and ensemble; even at the opening, the way the music rises – quickly – from the lower strings seems to prefigure the appearance, albeit with very different material, of the soloist. The closing winding down is another immediately noticeable feature, whistling (literally) woodwind offering an intriguing effect in combination. Zeffman and his orchestra seemed very much on top of the score, as did the excellent soloist, Timothy Ridout. This was perhaps the finest performance of the evening, insofar as I could tell (!)

Haydn’s Symphony no.88 might perhaps have smiled a little more, but there was real rigour to the performance it received. Motivic integrity was very much the hallmark of the first movement, which it was good to hear in resolutely unsentimental fashion. I wondered, however, whether the interplay between first and second violins would have been heard to greater advantages, had they been split to the left and right of the conductor. The slow movement flowed nicely, ‘details’, if one may can call them that, well integrated into the longer line. It retained a welcome air of mystery, of discovery. The minuet and trio were taken one-to-a-bar, without losing necessary grandeur; the trio’s rusticity was especially delightful. However, the finale sounded a little too careful. It need not be taken ruinously fast; indeed, it should not, by definition. However, alongside a welcome sense of the sheer profusion of Haydn’s ideas, a little more abandon might not have gone amiss. It must, however, have been a devil of a programme to rehearse.


Friday, 15 January 2016

Watkins/BBC SO/Bychkov - Glanert, Haydn, and Brahms, 12 January 2016

Barbican Hall

Detlev Glanert – Brahms-Fantasie – ‘heliogravure’ for orchestra
Haydn – Cello Concerto no.1 in C major
Brahms – Symphony no.1 in C minor, op.68

Paul Watkins (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is fortunate indeed to have Semyon Bychkov as a regular collaborator; he holds the orchestra’s Günter Wand Conducting Chair. In this concert, we heard what a difference a great conductor makes to these players. The depth of string tone almost had one believe this was one of the great German orchestras, and that was not simply a matter of numbers.

One certainly heard that to good advantage in Detlev Glanert’s Brahms-Fantasie. The opening disintegration of Brahms augured well, perhaps echoing Henze’s Tristan. However, the rest meandered in drearily neo-Romantic fashion (the work rather than the performance), hovering somewhere between Shostakovich and Khatchaturian. A spot of sub- – very sub-! – Heldenleben battle-music sounded merely incongruous. This was not merely eclectic, but eclecticism with a vengeance – and, more to the point, without any apparent point. The performance seemed excellent, but I cannot imagine anyone wanting to hear the work again.

Haydn, then, was just the tonic we needed. Cultivated playing announced itself from the opening bars of his First Cello Concerto. A sensible tempo – God be thanked! – was adopted, Paul Watkins responding very much in kind. His playing as soloist was lively, characterful, full of joy in a melodious gift that almost approaches that of Mozart (although the music never really sounds ‘like’ his in what is, in every respect, a pre-Mozartian concerto). Thematic construction and development were, quite rightly, the thing. It was again an immense relief to have the aria-like slow movement not taken too fast. It flowed as it would have done from a great singer in a performance of surpassing elegance. The finale possessed many of the virtues of the first movement, including a well-chosen (of course, faster) tempo, which permitted the music to breathe. Excitement was musical rather than externally, artificially applied to it as in so many contemporary Haydn performances. Watkins’s virtuosity was not of the high-octane variety; it was full of musical life. As was that of the orchestra.

Brahms’s First Symphony opened in medias res; there was no doubting its tragic import, at least here. There was freshness too, similarly an allied Romantic intimacy, not least from the cellos (a nice link there, consciously or otherwise, with the Haydn). The exposition proper likewise exhibited a Schumannesque Romanticism one rarely hears here. This was, on the whole, quite a brisk account, but not unduly so, for Bychkov ensured impressive responsiveness to the composer’s twists and turns – which are many! It is surely as ‘difficult’ a work as the First String Quartet, although perhaps rather more ingratiating. I loved the archaisms from reedy woodwind, supported and/or modified by brass: very nineteenth-century Bach! Developmental struggle itself, though, was quite rightly more Beethovenian in character, if not necessarily sounding ‘like’ Beethoven. Consciously or otherwise, intervallic relationships signalled close kinship with Webern.  Melancholic lyricism, often cruelly foreshortened, was, however, entirely Brahms’s own.

The second movement was, again, quite swift, though not unreasonably so. There was no lack of involvement in any sense: emotional, motivic, rhythmic (those cross-rhythms!) Harmonic shifts told their own story: both in the moment and in the longer term. A beautifully-played violin solo from Giovanni Guzzo was not the least pleasure here. The third movement was warmer, more spring-like than autumnal, at least to begin with. Darker undercurrents were not ignored, but I wondered whether they might have been made more of; that, however, might not have been so consistent with Bychkov’s conception of the work. Again, the music was taken quickly, but flowing rather than being harried.

Darkness proper returned at the opening of the finale, thematic reminiscences darkening the mood further. That most difficult of transitions was well handled, trombones sounding splendid, as did the horns. And yet, it was difficult not to feel that something was missing: there was less at stake, so it sounded, than with a great account such as Furtwängler’s or, latterly, Barenboim’s. Moreover, a few gear changes were a little less subtle than they might have been. Here, and only here, the music did not sound more than the sum of its considerable parts. There was no doubting, however, the excellence of the playing Bychkov drew from the orchestra.

Appl/Ware - Schubert, 11 January 2016

Wigmore Hall
Seligkeit, D 433; An die Apfelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte, D 197; An den Mond, D 193; Nähe des Geliebten, D 162; Rastlose Liebe, D 138; Wandrers Nachtlied I, D 224; An den Mond, D 259; Der Musensohn, D 764; Ganymed, D 544; Meeres Stille, D 216; Erlkönig, D 328; Viola, D 786; Totengräberlied, D 44; Totengräbers Heimweh, D 842; Drang in die Ferne, D 770; Der Wanderer an den Mond, D 870; Abdenstern, D 806; Der Wanderer, D 489; Nachtstück, D 672

Benjamin Appl (bass-baritone)
Jonathan Ware (piano)

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger had been due to give a recital of Schubert Lieder this evening; both, alas, fell ill. No one, however, could have been disappointed by their replacements. I had heard Benjamin Appl just one week earlier in an excellent recital at this very venue; he and Jonathan Ware now stepped in to give us an all-Schubert programme at least as fine.

Seligkeit (in one translation, ‘bliss’) opened the proceedings – and so it sounded. Both Appl and Ware were on excellent form from the outset, both of their parts sounding good-natured, carefree (insofar as Schubert can be). The voice sounded beautiful of tone with that great degree of variegation I had noted in the previous recital; the piano part was lucidly, nimbly traced. There was dramatic variety – and unity – to be heard in An die Apfelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte. The transformation of third stanza – ‘Nach langer Trennung Küsse mit Engelkuss…’ – quite properly took one’s breath away, as did the transmuting of ardour into nostalgia in the fourth. Nocturnal mystery and, above all, musical and verbal sincerity marked out An den Mond.

There then followed a sequence of Goethe settings. Rastlose Liebe made a wonderfully honest impression: a review of it as performance might simply quote its text. Wandrers Nachtlied I benefited from a performance capturing perfectly its mixture of restlessness and the restful: like the Wanderer himself, one might say. Musical structure came to the fore in a delightful performance of another An den Mond, followed by a foot-tapping, ardent account of Der Musensohn. German is, of course, Appl’s native tongue, but the communicative skill he shows with it goes far beyond that. A seductive, charming, and alternately joyous Ganymed had more than a hint of Mozart to it. The contrast was stark in a heart-stopping account of the strange Meeres Stille: stillness that yet moved. The concluding Erlkönig had it all, even when compared with the previous month’s memory of Waltraud Meier. Dramatic characterisation was every bit as strong; how it made one long to hear and indeed to see Appl on stage. So was tragic momentum, for which Ware was, of course, equally responsible. It had this listener in tears – and I doubt I was the only one.

Viola was a very different sort of song with which to open the second half. Ware’s quietly arresting piano prelude compelled one to listen, his beautifully pellucid tone preparing the way for Appl’s equally beautiful – never, of course, just beautiful – tone. The strength of Appl’s narrative was such as to sustain, even to heighten, what in lesser hands might outstay its welcome (similarly the later Drang in die Ferne). This was as gripping in its own way as Erlkönig, and perhaps a rarer pleasure still. A charming, good-humoured Totengräberlied followed: very much a performance. Programming Totengräbers Heimweh thereafter was a nice touch; we heard a dark, almost Bachian account. The ‘rr’ in ‘scharre’ was delivered as surely only a German could. More important was the transfiguration experienced in the final stanza. Ware gave a wonderful impression of what I am tempted to call the quasi-Magyar tendencies in the tread of Der Wanderer an den Mond, which then blossomed, unusually for Schubert, into something lighter. Time seemed almost to stand still in Der Wanderer; one almost wished there were no ‘almost’. Nachtstück offered a satisfyingly dark conclusion, albeit quite properly a conclusion that was far from unrelievedly dark. A strong sense of contentment was just the thing.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Pelléas et Mélisande, LSO/Rattle, 10 January 2016

Barbican Hall

Mélisande – Magdalena Kožená
Pelléas – Christian Gerhaher
Golaud – Gerald Finley
Arkel – Franz-Josef Selig
Geneviève – Bernarda Fink
Doctor, Shepherd – Joshua Bloom

Peter Sellars (director)
Hans-Georg Lenhart (assistant director)
Ben Zamora (lighting)

London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

When, o when, will someone put Peter Sellars and his compendium of clichés out of our misery? His doubtless ‘well-meaning’ productions may have reached their nadir with ENO’s The Indian Queen; but we can nevertheless do without a Pelléas et Mélisande which exchanges metaphysics and textual subtlety for EastEnders-style melodrama. The plot really is not the thing here, and it certainly does not benefit from absurd exaggeration. Entirely ignoring the work, Sellars has Mélisande and Pelléas all over each other at an early stage; their kiss therefore counts for little. Arkel seems primarily to be a pervert who cannot keep his hands off his grandson’s wife. Many seem to be convulsed by trembling, indicating ailments about which I should rather not speculate; poor Mélisande’s death is more graphic than any semi-staging is likely ever to attempt again. For some reason, all of this takes place in an environment marked out by multi-coloured neon lights: how Debussyan! And yes, you have doubtless guessed: the lights eventually all go off.

All of the cast throw themselves into Sellars’s bizarre vision with admirable dedication. If it could work, they would have made it do so. One could hardly not respect their artistry, even when, as in Magdalena Kožená’s case, the artist seemed miscast. At her best, she showed up intriguing, twitching correspondences with Kundry. Her flagrantly sexual performance of ‘Mes long cheveux’, however much it adhered to Sellars’s apparent concept, could hardly convince, given the doubtless frustrating presence of the opera ‘itself’. Christian Gerhaher and Gerald Finley both gave ardent performances, Finley’s sadism as Golaud especially chilling; again, though, I could not help but think that, however beautifully he sang, Gerhaher was not ideally cast in the role, or at least in the production. His conception certainly seemed more Romantically poetic than that of Sellars; admittedly, it would be difficult not to be. Franz-Josef Selig gave a wonderfully compassionate performance vocally; what a pity he was saddled with such incongruous acts to perform on stage. Bernarda Fink and Joshua Bloom were both very impressive in their smaller roles too, as was the Yniold (not credited), quite the best I have seen and heard.

I was surprised, especially before the interval, by Simon Rattle’s conducting. There could be little doubting the excellence of the LSO’s performance, although I should have expected Rattle to draw at times softer playing from them. Yet Rattle, whose Debussy has in my experience always been very much Debussy to be reckoned with, too often left phrases hanging, seemingly reluctant to insist upon a longer, Wagnerian line. He certainly brought out Wagnerian echoes, as much of Tristan as of Parsifal, much to the score’s benefit; yet they did not always come together as tightly as they might; it was almost as if he wished to portray Debussy as negatively Wagnerian (that is, an heir to Nietzsche’s ‘greatest miniaturist’). Coherence was greater later on, although I could not really reconcile myself to the almost Puccini-like vulgarity of the climaxes. Surely if there is one thing Debussy avoids at almost any cost, it is playing to the gallery. Perhaps, though, Rattle was, not entirely unreasonably, offering an interpretation tailored to his director’s concept. His 2007 Pelléas for the Royal Opera was nothing like this at all. I hope we shall have chance to hear him – and indeed the LSO – in this opera again in better circumstances.
Rattle spoke movingly at the beginning of his esteem for Pierre Boulez, to whom the performance was dedicated.

ClapTON ensemble/Morphosis Ensemble - Castellarnau, Agnes, Saunders, Malondra, Watanabe, and Bagés, 9 January 2016

St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch

Carlos de Castellarnau – Natura Morta (2014, UK premiere)
Michelle Agnes – Vento Noroeste (2012/2015, UK premiere)
Mateu Malondra – Systematic Double Bind (2015, world premiere)
Rebecca Saunders – the under-side of green (1994)
Yukiko Watanabe – Mono-Dialogue III (2012, world premiere)
Joan Bagés i Rubi – Sobreimpresión (2009, UK premiere)

It is always an exciting prospect to hear a concert of entirely new music (new to me, at least, and much of it new to the world). For me, moreover, five of the six composers were new too. With no programme notes for a crutch, simply a list of composers and works, one has little idea what to expect. One might well gain a greater appreciation upon repeated listening, yet one might also wish one were able to hear the Ninth Symphony for the first time again: imagine! In many ways, it is difficult, almost impossible, to do so. A lack of faith in new music in many quarters has led some to take refuge in a remote pseudo-historicism, which knows little much history than our political masters. The alleged cure proves worse than the imaginary ailment: better, of course, to point to the fallacy via an encounter between London- and Barcelona-based ensembles.

Carlos de Castellarnau’s Natura Morta, for accordion (Josep Vila) and electronics (Joan Bagés) proved something of a performing tour de force: one could hardly but be impressed by Vila’s musicianship. The material seemed to incorporate, indeed truly to integrate, some more ‘popular’ elements, without descending to the level of the ‘folkish’. Repeated notes, long notes (perhaps with a touch of nostalgia?), something not so far removed from white noise, eventually fading away into nothingness: throughout there was a strong visual, physical element, but the sustenance came from an undeniable sense, both in work and performance, of musical line.

Michelle Agnes’s Vento Noroeste for bass clarinet (Alejandro Castillo), violin (Kamila Bydlowska), and cello (Mónica Mari), opens with harmonics, swiftly supplemented, followed by scurrying, whispering slides. (The clue, one assumes, lies in the title.) I thought a little of Debussy’s Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, not that the music in any sense sounded ‘like’ Debussy’s. There seemed to me a real sense of patient yet dramatic, even pictorial, development.

Mateu Malondra’s Systematic Double Bind followed, musicians as follows: voice (Josephine Stevenson), flute (Ilze Ikse), cello (Mónica Marí), and electronics (Bages). The vocal part had me think both of Berio (post-Berberian lightness) and Stockhausen (breathing and manipulation), but they might simply have been personal points of reference. The piece emerged almost as a mini-cantata, or scena. At one point, I felt an almost Romantic (though certainly not neo-Romantic) cast to the cello line. Instrumental combinations always intrigued; the sense, again, of dramatic ‘line’ was quite compelling.

Rebecca Saunders is, apparently a ClapTON ensemble favourite: an excellent choice and the composer with whose work I was a little familiar. the under-side of green, for violin (Bydlowska), clarinet (Castillo), and piano (Tomeu Moll) opens with an éclat that perhaps inevitably brought Boulez to mind. A sense of pinpoint precision within sonic (post-Webern?) drama offered ample opportunity, well taken, for brilliance in performance at combining of different instrumental registers. There was a very strong impression of musical procedures working themselves out, perhaps especially in an almost toytown-like section of piano writing.

Yukiko Watanabe’s Mono-Dialogue III is for ‘two flautists’ (here, Zinadra Kodrič and Ilze Ikse). As a piece of performance art, it certainly made its point, the two flautists having split the flute between them. I struggled to find a great deal more behind the extended techniques, but the fault may well have been mine.  

Joan Bagés i Rubi’s Sobreimpression was the final work performed. Flute (Kodrič), bass clarinet (Castillo), cello (Marí), Moll (piano), and electronics (Bagés) participated in a performance that certainly had its ‘performance art’ quality but seemed to go beyond that. A multi-media element was offered by initial numbers whirling around on screen; I do not know whether they had importance beyond that, but assumed that they offered a digital shuffling of the pack, the numbers finally settling upon corresponding to the ordering of sections of the music. (I may, of course, have had that entirely wrong!) It was, at any rate, theatrical. There was, moreover, more perhaps of an ‘ensemble’, less of a ‘chamber’ sound, although the boundaries are anything but absolute, and I found a real sense of sonic art-drama upon a first hearing. Highly assured writing seemed to attract equally assured performances. For what it is worth, if anything, the number sequence was 7563142.