Sunday 30 January 2022

Jerusalem Quartet - Beethoven, 29 January 2022

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet no.1 in F major, op.18 no.1
String Quartet no.7 in F major, op.59 no.1
String Quartet no.12 in E-flat major, op.127

Alexander Pavolvsky, Sergei Bressler (violins)
Ori Kam (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)

We lost so much in 2020: above all, the lives of people across the world, more than 70,000 in this country alone. Even if the deaths were to stop right now—they will not—the trauma as well as the long-term physical consequences will haunt many of us for the rest of our lives. The social and cultural consequences seem likely in anything other than the longest term, notwithstanding hopes that may have been expressed, to be deeply negative too. As we try to rebuild our lives and our ways of living, stymied at all points by those wielding power over us, we continue to grieve the loss of Beethoven in his anniversary year. The world went deaf to his music, to all music, and stands only at the beginning of an eminently reversible process of recovery. Beethoven’s music has long been synonymous with hope. To begin 2022, then, with a series of his string quartets from so fine an ensemble as the Jerusalem Quartet offers hope, meaning, and the prospect of spiritual nourishment when still we need it most. 

All of that would be to no avail, of course, were the performances not illuminating. This first instalment suggested strongly that they would be. There is no one way to play Beethoven: what would be the point of choosing between Furtwängler and Klemperer, Pollini and Barenboim, the Busch Quartet and the Végh? We need not, should not, and in this case heard something creditably determined, however illusory the idea, to permit Beethoven’s music to take new directions, not for their own sake, but simply by virtue of particular musicians taking, being inspired by, and rejoicing in decisions they took, in a particular place in front of a particular audience at a particular time. We have no way of knowing what they might have done in 2020, or what they will do in 2027. More to the point, we had no interest. Beethoven, music-making, and music-listening were back—and, as violist Ori Kam said at the beginning, it was a wonderful thing to see the Wigmore Hall full once again. 

The first programme offered three quartets: one early, one middle-period, and one late, to my mind a better or at least more interesting idea than taking them in chronological order, not least since one cannot assume listeners will attend more than one concert. In this case, moreover, we heard the first (of those recognised as canonical), the first of the middle period, and the first of the late period. Conventional periodisation is only part of the story, of course, but what better way to hear how that might be deconstructed, or at least questioned, than by such a programming construction? 

The F major Quartet, op. 18 no.1, immediately set up a number of dialectical oppositions (and potential unities), always the best evidence that we have reached the territory of the Hegel of Music. Quizzical yet certain in its direction, open to possibility yet inevitable, urgent yet expansive, this first movement showed composer and performers alike flexing their muscles and simply delighting in music, both in general and in particular. (The audience seemed to do so too, for that matter.) The intensity of the opening of its development section set out a stall to develop, and to develop as Beethoven; the threat, though only the threat, of chaos both led inevitably to the moment of return and kept us on the edge of our seats. The ‘Adagio affetuoso ed appassionato’ had a sad tread rather than trudge, its pathos rooted in harmony and counterpoint rather than applied to them, its contours, melodic, harmonic, and emotional, authoritatively traced. Vibrato was varied, especially by violins, to highly expressive effect. There followed a true scherzo, airborne yet grounded, gruffly humorous yet serious of purpose. Cross-rhythms delighted in themselves and propelled its progress. The trio called all into question and confirmed it. Perhaps similarly, the finale gathered up a good few of the aforementioned threads and unpicked a few more. It is not an easy movement, but I wondered whether there might have been here a clearer sense of direction. Better an enigma, though, than any attempt to smooth its edges. It was full of winning surprises. 

With the advent of the first ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet, in the same key, mastery had long since been proved. ‘So now what?’ we were asked. Beethoven’s ease with the genre and the imperative to expand it played out with welcome humour, the tonal universe his oyster of exploration. Paradoxically perhaps, there was at times a greater Classicism here than earlier on, the first movement development’s counterpoint neither too effortful nor too effortless. Above all, once more, it developed. Moreover, the moment of return had an almost Mozartian rightness to it, though the joy of further development was to come. The second movement offered an absorbing, involving narrative, singular yet characteristic (not only of movements from a similar mould in Beethoven, but also of early Romantics such as Schubert and Mendelssohn). The temperature of clashes in motivic working out was entirely Beethoven’s own. And the players’ suavity of sign-off spoke of unmistakeable, unquestionably merited confidence. The slow movement’s richness of outpouring was grief-struck yet remarkably varied, the closer one listened. Eloquent, with no easy answers, it was the archetypal Beethovenian journey. Following a finely judged transition, the finale proffered transformation of mood that was yet rooted in what we had heard before. Sunny yet stormy, it restored or rather renewed that vital good humour. 

Following the interval, we heard op.127 in E-flat major. The sound of those E-flat chords announced something very different: not only tonal relief, though certainly the contrast was welcome, but also a different, if related, compositional world. The paradox and/or dialectic of the terse and the expansive, of Romanticism and (neo-)Classicism was immediately apparent in the first movement, ‘late’ pressure toward fragmentation likewise unmistakeable. Here, if one does not sense an enigma, an intellectual struggle, one is doing it wrong (or the performers are). We were in good hands, though. The variations of the second movement, still more so its theme, seemed to take their leave from the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ of the Missa solemnis. This was holy ground, without undue preciosity. The transformations of the third and fourth variations spoke as if directly from Beethoven to us: a little crotchety, as it were, yet with ineffably good-humoured eloquence; complex, yet with a mediated simplicity that enabled us to appreciate the wonders of that complexity. In that, they functioned as keys to unlock the form and meaning of the whole—and not only of this movement. The scherzando’s quizzical concision, possessed necessarily both of fragility of strength, prepared the way for a trio according the impression of turning material upside down and inside out, in a battle more overt yet allied. Webern would surely have understood. As, I think, would Schoenberg the unquestionably ‘late’ willpower exercised in the finale to make its material cohere. It was an intellectual effort, yes, undeniably so, but at least as much an emotional one. And what material, what will, what character this is. In a heterodox Haydn-cum-Bartók finale, Beethoven transcended both.

Prégardien/Teztalff/Vogts - Janáček, Schumann, and Brahms, 26 January 2022

Wigmore Hall

Janáček: Pohádka
Schumann: Two Ballads, op.122; Liederkreis, op.39
Brahms: Cello Sonata no.1 in E minor, op.38
Schumann: Dichterliebe, op.48

Tanja Tetzlaff (cello)
Isabelle Vogt (narrator)
Julian Prégardien (tenor)
Lars Vogt (piano)

Hasty programme reorganisation proved necessary when another musician, violinist Christian Tetzlaff, fell victim to the dread virus. An all-Schumann programme, including one of the piano trios, became a feast of Janáček, Schumann, and Brahms; if one regretted the loss of such careful, thoughtful planning, it would have been difficult to feel short-changed by so generous and resourceful a new programme. Janáček’s Pohádka, for cello and piano, made for a splendid intrada from Tania Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt. Tension and its increase were finely gauged in an account as lyrical as it was lively, quite without sentimentality. Composer’s and performers’ eloquence imparted an impression, as so often with Janáček, of heightened, even at times ecstatic, speech.

An absorbing account of Schumann’s rarely heard Two Ballads followed, Isabelle Vogt a gripping passionate narrator. It was easy to imagine her recounting these tales around a crackling winter fire, the second, ‘Die Flüchtlinge’ (Shelley, in translation), the more evidently musical a work, daemonic in a manner close to that of the young Brahms. Julian Prégardien then joined Lars Vogt for Schumann’s Liederkreis, op.39. It was instructive to hear the varying balance between singer and pianist, the latter sometimes holding back somewhat, so as to make his fuller presence, as in the second song, ‘Intermezzo’, felt in heightened fashion. In the opening ‘In der Fremde’, by contrast, it was Prégardien’s imploring lyricism that introduced, that set the scene and led us by the hand. There were many transformations of mood, even of persona, as for the elfin ‘Die Stille’, the aptly silver-toned ‘Mondnacht’, or the unsettling half-lights of ‘Zwielicht’, its colours, shadows, and patterns seemingly the bedrock of music, words, and their fusion. Prégardien and Vogt could be declamatory too, as in ‘Im Walde’. The ghostly stillness of ‘Auf einer Burg’ took us back to the storytelling of the op.122 Ballads: canny programming and performance. 

In the second half, Dichterliebe opened not dissimilarly, Prégardien touching in the sincerity of his longing, Vogt etching the piano frame for the tenor’s ardent memories and intentions, leading inevitably to the breathlessness of ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne’. When, in the following, ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen she’, the protagonist was moved to declare, ‘Doch wenn du sprichst: Ich liebe dich!’ the moment’s infinitely touching nature was felt as such not least because it had been so well prepared. The piano postlude, of course, said just as much. There were sterner moments, for instance in the first stanza of ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’. The close of ‘Ich grolle nicht’ showed Prégardien unafraid not to sound beautiful, Heine’s serpent gnawing at his heart. Ghostly, well-nigh Mahlerian irony in ‘Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen’ and ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen’ was unmistakeable, as was an Innigkeit born of Schubert, yet ultimately quite different, in the intervening ‘Hör ich das Liedchen klingen’. The dangers of Schumann’s musico-poetic world, anything but Biedermeier, were not only apparent but experienced. As we reached the close in the mood swings of ‘Die alte, bösen Lieder’, we had learned much, properly chilled. We felt it had meant something—as, assuredly, did the encore, Schubert’s Schwanengesang ‘Ständchen’. 

In between the two song cycles, Tetzlaff and Vogt gave us Brahms’s First Cello Sonata. The first movement spoke, not entirely unlike Janáček had, with a rhetorical eloquence that confirmed Mendelssohn’s adage about music expressing things not too indefinite, but too definite, for words. Balance and direction were finely judged, so much so as rarely to be noticed in themselves. It was dark but with many shades, modernist as well as Romantic, travelling a finely constructed emotional arc. The second movement was captivating in its courtliness; it is marked, after all, ‘quasi menuetto’. It benefited from a delightful lyricism that knew not to push, not to exaggerate, which in turn contrasted with raw, passionate irascibility for the finale, abjuring cleanness where necessary for something more immediate, even primal. But it was a movement of many contrasts; that was only its opening. It could equally be subtle too. Most important, there were no easy answers.

Tuesday 25 January 2022

Total Immersion – Music for the End of Time, 23 January 2022

Barbican Hall, Milton Court Concert Hall

The Music of Terezín, dir. Simon Broughton

‘The Theresienstadt Orchestra’
Hans Krása: Overture for Small Orchestra
Pavel Haas: Study for String Orchestra
Erwin Schulhoff: Symphony no.5

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Alpesh Chauhan (conductor)

‘Songs in Time of Distress’
Viktor Ullmann: Two Hebrew Pieces for choir; Songs of Comfort for low voice and string trio
Gideon Klein: String Trio; Folk Songs for male chorus
Silvie Bodorova: Terezín Ghetto Requiem for baritone and strong quartet: ‘Lacrimosa’
Pavel Haas: String Quartet no.2: ‘Wild Night’
Dieter Gogg, arr. Iain Farrington: Als ob; Theresienstadt, der schönste Stadt der Welt
František Domažlický: Song without words for string quartet
Ullmann: Yiddish Songs for choir; Der Kaiser von Atlantis: ‘Komm Tod, du unser werter Gast’ (arr. Farrington)

Simon Wallfisch (baritone)
Guildhall School Musicians
BBC Singers
Nicholas Chalmers (conductor)

Ullmann: Der Kaiser von Atlantis, dir. Kenneth Richardson
Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Kaiser Overall – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Loudspeaker – Derrick Ballard
Soldier – Oliver Johnston
Harlekin – Robert Murray
Bubikopf – Soraya Mafi
Death – Henry Waddington
Drummer Girl – Hanna Hipp

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Josep Pons (conductor)
Guildhall School Musicians


Images: BBC/Mark Allan

Holocaust Memorial Day falls on 27 January, thus poignantly entwined—forever?—with the birthday of Mozart. Much could and doubtless should be said about that dialectical relationship, but let us leave that for another time, perhaps when I am once again able to travel to Salzburg and its Mozartwoche is once again able to take place. The BBC/Barbican annual Total Immersion day or weekend—this year a day—was, however, able to do so, offering much food for thought and contemplation. This year, we approached a commemoration that calls into question, many would say irrevocably denies, the possibility of historical ‘normalisation’, by way of music (mostly) from Nazi prison camps, above all the ghetto of Theresienstadt/Terezín. Simon Broughton’s 1993 documentary film offered an excellent introduction: informative, evocative, and, through its interviews with and performances from survivors, touching too. It is difficult to imagine the BBC making such a film now, but thank goodness it did then. 

Two of the three composers featured in the first of three concerts also featured in that film. Hans Krása and Pavel Haas were joined by Erwin Schulhoff, who met his end at another of the camps, Wülzburg in Bavaria. It was unclear why the concert was named ‘The Theresienstadt Orchestra’, since Schulhoff’s Fifth Symphony was not performed there, nor indeed anywhere else until 1965; but never mind. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Alpesh Chauhan gave sharp, committed performances of all three works, though the spiritual sense of a memorial seemed strangely absent. Krása’s Overture for Small Orchestra, the ensemble essentially a matter of what was available to him, was light, at times sardonic, almost a Central European response to French neoclassicism, with an especially virtuosic piano part. It was nothing adventurous, yet well crafted and performed, with a nice twist for its sign-off. Where Krása had offered an ensemble of many soloists, Haas gave us massed strings in a more substantial piece whose fugal writing and more general counterpoint brought us closer to contemporary Hindemith than to Haas’s teacher, Janáček. Lively cross rhythms perhaps suggested otherwise. During its relatively short span, it packed in a considerable amount of material and invention. There was moving fragility and resolve to its ultimate contrapuntal restoration. 

Schulhoff’s symphony opened with great promise, its first movement ominous, full of foreboding, as if the walls of his incarceration-to-come were already closing in. The tread of a march in slow motion, deliberate in both senses, seemed as though it might go on forever—then suddenly stopped, which I assumed to be the point. A slow movement somewhere between Franz Schmidt and Prokofiev, with some of the former’s post-Bruckner tendencies, and some of the latter’s harmonies, nonetheless looked at times to a different, darker, and perhaps more cinematic world. If it perhaps went on a bit long, many of us are used to forgiving that failing in other music. A furious and frenetic scherzo, its repeated frustration apparently imbued with definite, even fatal meaning, seemed still more intent on bearing witness to its time, courting comparisons with a contemporary piece such as Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani. This was a tremendous performance, driven in a good way, and above all brutal, in what came across as a forceful if not overtly complex work. Alas, its finale hovered on the edge of incompetence (as composition, rather than performance). Its opening intrigued, suggesting grim nobility to a chorale that might ultimately triumph or, knowingly going through the post-Mahlerian motions, not. It never quite hung together, though, more damagingly extending for what seemed an unmerited eternity. I could not help but wonder whether it would be better given as a three-movement work, omitting the finale entirely. 

The second concert, for which we crossed over the road to Milton Court, was perhaps the most successful of all. The brainchild of baritone Simon Wallfisch, who not only briefly sang but devised the programme and read from letters and diaries more properly to remember those who lost their lives, it offered not only a touching memorial but also a valuable conspectus of artistic production, performed by the BBC Singers, young instrumentalists from the Guildhall, and Nicholas Chalmers. What might not seem the most intrinsically interesting of choral music was transformed by our knowledge of its educative role at Theresienstadt, where education was prohibited but keeping children busy was not, singing falling into that category. And what one could learn by singing, as one of the readings reminded us. Here the determination to bear Jewish witness was one of the many things experienced, for instance through by Two Hebrew Pieces and Yiddish Songs by Viktor Ullmann. Gideon Klein’s String Trio, concise and almost shocking in its mastery, received a fine, comprehending performance, every bit as involving in more ‘purely’ musical terms as it was in remembrance. Cabaret was present too. An arrangement of the closing chorale from Ullmann’s Kaiser von Atlantis looked forward to the evening. But this finely planned selection was so much more than the sum of its parts. It is to be hoped that Wallfisch has opportunity to give it elsewhere.

And so, to the evening, where we saw a resourceful concert staging of Ullmann’s celebrated opera. It was haunted not only by the opening pageant of characters walking on stage, Death laying down a suitcase (of course), others picking up props from it, but later by a shocking interpolation of sound from without the camp: a sound of actual war, and then of crowds hailing Hitler (for whom, read the Emperor). But it was the early parody of Mahler, the ‘Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’, life both overflowing and fundamentally tragic, that hit home most strongly for me, fruitfully, fatally overshadowing what was to come. A fine cast, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Josep Pons, captured our attention and never let it wander. This is not Brecht-Weill; nor should it attempt to be. It breathed a sadder, more unmediated, yet undoubtedly sincere air: not a work one wishes to encounter often, but which one definitely should from time to time. Quite what Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was doing in this company, I do not know. Musicians from the Guildhall gave an impressive performance, especially so during its passages—movements—of slow ecstasy. A prison camp, whilst no fun, was not, however, a concentration camp. Messiaen’s compositional mastery seemed to accentuate the divide further, giving an unfortunate impression of climax upon the day’s towering (acknowledged) musical masterpiece. Audience whooping at the close only made matters worse. It was a pity, but we had heard—and learned—much of very different value before.

Saturday 22 January 2022

LPO/Canellakis - Boulanger, Wagner, and Scriabin, 22 January 2022

Royal Festival Hall

Lili Boulanger: D’un soir triste
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and ‘Liebestod’
Scriabin: Symphony no.4, op.54, ‘Poem of Ecstasy’

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Karina Canellakis (conductor)

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor Karina Canellakis, (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Disappointment was palpable when a pre-concert announcement informed us of a change to the programme. Ravel’s Left-Hand Piano Concerto would no longer be played, Cédric Tiberghien having been indisposed at very short notice. All of two hours, I learned later, had made it impossible to find a substitute or indeed to offer an alternative work, and the pianist was understandably frustrated by the experience. Wagner, initially slated to preface the Ravel, now came second, Lili Boulanger’s D’un soir triste moving to the first half. Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy remained last, but now with the second half to itself. It may not have been the programme anybody wanted, but it received an excellent, in many ways outstanding, set of performances from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Karina Canellakis. As ever right now, we gratefully made the best of a less than ideal situation. 

D’un soir triste proved something of a revelation to me. I do not think I had heard it before; if I had, it cannot have been in a performance as impressive as this. Its opening reminded me, perhaps oddly, of Puccini’s Il tabarro: above all in the marriage of particular, dark orchestral colouring to other aspects of Boulanger’s writing (harmony and rhythm). It was built otherwise, quite otherwise, although that impression returned at the end of a finely turned symphonic poem (both as work and performance). Debussyan and Wagnerian roots were unmistakeable, but only a small part of a more richly post-Romantic canvas. On occasion, I fancied there might even be a little of something more Expressionist, giving a piece such as Schreker’s Vorspiel zu einen Drama a run for its money. Although ardent, indeed passionate, this remained far from the hothouse. The abiding impression was clean yet dark, with a keen sense of narrative, propelled by excellent wind and later strong solos. There was decided unease too, evoked as much through timbre (pizzicato, for instance) as harmony. A powerful, yet ambiguous climax was just as well traced as its preparation and aftermath. Fascinating. 

The intensity of the opening to the Prelude to Act I of Tristan was welcome enough; still more so were Canellakis’s unerring pacing and the LPO’s depth of tone and, later, fine orchestral balance. There was unfussy variegation too: chiaroscuro that never drew attention to itself, never seemed present for its own sake. Again, Canellakis built the music to a splendid climax, its trumpets already presaging Scriabin. There was true Wagnerian melos here—and this from someone far from unexacting when it comes to Wagner. The so-called ‘Liebestod’ (properly ‘Isoldes Verklärung’) does not belong tonally with the Prelude, but an excellent performance such as this can allay such qualms. This was an alert, comprehending performance, which might perhaps have had greater breadth, but did not drag. Crucially, it glowed. On this evidence, Canellakis may turn out to be a Wagnerian to be reckoned with. The LPO’s recent experience with Wagner at Glyndebourne could not have been put to better use. 

Scriabin’s Poem had many of the same virtues, albeit, quite rightly, with greater languor. Again, Canellakis offered a poised, clear account, as well balanced as it was well directed. She is evidently a conductor who has music flow without ever making the experience about her. One inevitably heard fragments of Tristan throughout, yet as a springboard, not a cage. In this work, journey and frustrations are surely more the thing than arrival. There was assuredly no doubting the sexual charge of its ebb and flow. Climaxes can hardly be subtle, nor is there much point in trying to make them so; they made their point in vivid, enjoyable fashion. To hear a full orchestra at something close to its best in so fine a performance was magnificent reward. As for the rest, one can but admire Wagner’s economy.

Saturday 15 January 2022

Bavouzet/Shishkin: Debussy, Liszt, Bartók, and Ravel, 13 January 2022

Wigmore Hall

Debussy, arr. Ravel and Kocsis: Nocturnes
Liszt: Concerto pathétique, S 258
Bartók, arr. Kocsis: Two Pictures, op.10
Ravel: La Valse

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Dmitry Shishkin (pianos).

A difficult choice, this: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Dmitry Shishkin in a fascinating programme of two-piano music at the Wigmore Hall, or Lise Davidsen and Leif Ove Andsnes in Grieg, Strauss, and Wagner at the Barbican. It is difficult to imagine those attending the latter having been disappointed; at any rate, having tossed a coin in favour of the former, I was not. 

First, we heard Debussy’s Nocturnes. I honestly would never have guessed the opening of ‘Nuages’ had not been written for two pianos, rather than transcribed by Ravel, had I not known: testament, surely, both to arrangement and performance. (I am not sure we need worry in this context about differences of meaning between ‘transcription’ and ‘arrangement’.) We heard a wonderful freedom within metre. Darkness of ambiguity seemed, if anything, enhanced by the sound of two Yamahas rather than orchestra. Dynamics, tempo, balance, shaping: all convinced and had one think they could not have been improved on. ‘Fêtes’ sounded more different from the original, more ‘transcribed’, but that was surely the nature of the material, rendered into piano monochrome. It was a sharp, lively performance, occasionally percussive, having me think at times of Bartók. ‘Sirènes’, which Ravel also transcribed but which he admitted to having found especially difficult, was here given in a transcription by Zoltán Kocsis. I did not realise this until afterwards, but I admit to having first found the arrangement sound closest to Ravel himself (so much for my ears!) and thereafter the most enigmatic of all, which is doubtless as it should have been. In performance, there was languor enough, though it always sounded directed. 

The genesis of what we heard from Debussy, Ravel, and Kocsis was not entirely straightforward. Essentially, Ravel transcribed ‘Sirènes’ first, to accompany the first two movements, as already transcribed by Raoul Bardac. Then, eight years later, Ravel added his own versions of ‘Nuages’ and ‘Fêtes’, whilst Kocsis’s ‘Sirènes’ dates from seven decades later. However, Liszt’s Concerto pathétique is arguably more complicated (not atypical, for a composer who tended to move on quickly, creating multiple versions, rather than chiselling away at a single work). At any rate, having passed through two solo piano workings of this material, the latter far closer to the two piano version than the first, Liszt rightly settled on two pianos as offering the superior medium for the concerto contrasts of this material. Such was clear from the grand, even grandiloquent, virtuosic opening dialogue; but it was also readily apparent in melting towards more tender sounds. The sheer weight of sound impressed at times, though even then it was never monolithic. Bavouzet and Shishkin imparted a strong sense that Liszt’s music might readily have been orchestrated, but also kept one happy that it had not. It sang too, as only Liszt can. If the roulades sometimes stand on the edge of absurdity when heard for two pianos, they were despatched with conviction, glitter, and crucially, heart. Sometimes, it was difficult to credit that there were only two pianists at work. From a pianistic standpoint, this was little short of stupendous, Liszt’s rhetoric harnessed and sublimated. 

Bartók himself arranged his Two Pictures, op.10, for solo piano. Kocsis extended the idea to two pianos. It was quite a revelation to hear: imaginative and faithful, above all pianistic. ‘In Full Flower’, the first picture, sounded, just as much as in orchestral guise, as though it were well on the way to Bluebeard’s Castle, in a performance of sad nobility. Both muscular and tender, often both, it did Bartók and Kocsis proud. ‘Village Dance’ was thrillingly responsive—and responsorial. This performance captured to a tee so many facets, melodic, harmonic, metrical, and more, of Bartók’s style and meaning. Lisztian and other inheritances were refracted, remoulded, even bent to new ends. ‘New wine demands new bottles,’ as Liszt once put it.

La Valse rumbles in a different yet no less ‘authentic’ way in its two-piano version. It was fascinating to hear that opening in the aural light of Bartók. Bavouzet and Shishkin conveyed with relish Ravel’s inflections of Viennese lilt, not necessarily as one would expect with an orchestra, but on their pianos’ own terms. Perhaps there was greater extremity here; there were certainly different sounds and implications. And what a feast, again, of pianism. As an encore, we heard Ravel’s early Sites auriculaires in two short movements. A slinky ‘Habanera’ prefaced a barnstorming ‘Entre cloches,’ its spatial qualities splendidly realised.

Tuesday 11 January 2022

LSO/Rattle - Anderson, Mahler, Rott, Webern, and Dvořák, 9 January 2022

Barbican Hall

Julian Anderson: Suite from Exiles
Mahler: ‘Blumine’ movement for Symphony no.1 in D major
Hans Rott: Symphony in E major: Scherzo
Webern: Six Orchestral Pieces, op.6
Dvořák: Symphony no.7 in D minor, op.70

Siobhan Stagg (soprano)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

Images: Mark Allan

Two or three weeks ago, it did not seem especially likely this concert would happen. It did—and very well it went too. To hear as large an orchestra as that fielded by the LSO here under Simon Rattle remains unusual during our current troubles. We now perhaps ascribe greater worth to every artistic and social occasion, all too well aware of general precarity. I certainly relished the sheer richness of orchestral sound, the unquestionable commitment from all on stage and (London Symphony Chorus) up in the balcony, and something close to a full house for an appreciative audience.

It seems that Julian Anderson’s Exiles has, one way or another, been a victim of the dread virus. Two of its five movements were given by the LSO and Rattle in September; here they were joined by ‘La République des Lettres’ for soprano and a cappella chorus, then impossible to perform. When the final two will come is unclear, yet on the basis of this ‘Suite’ and its reception, they will be eagerly awaited by many. The new movement—to the world, that is; all were new to me—pays tribute to the American diplomat Varian Fry who assisted many under threat from Nazism into exile. Here, several of them are named, from Bohislav Martinů via Darius and Madeleine Milhaud and Betsy Jolas to the Hungarian animal photographer Ylla (Camilla Koffler). That was the work of half the chorus, initially syllabic, though not in a ‘difficult’, Nono- or Lachenmann-like way. The other sang from Psalm 46: ‘God is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble…’. Dialogue between soprano Siobhan Stagg and choir added to the responsorial sense. If the writing were largely homophonic, there was a splendid, again psalm-like freedom to its metre, Rattle finely shaping an heroic performance from all.

First we had heard ‘le 3 mai’, Anderson’s setting of an e-mail from the Moroccan-French composer Ahmed Essyad to other composers from 3 May 2020, telling of his coronavirus isolation and nonetheless greeting them: ‘internal’ exile. The soprano I head first, followed by orchestral sounds that to me evoked a sense of electronic communication—latterly both bane and saviour of our lives. Anderson’s orchestration here and later proved typically ‘French’ in sonority, bells perhaps evoking an inheritance from Messiaen as well as Debussy and Ravel. The darker turn taken upon ‘Je vous embrasse tous,’ leading to climax at the end of the same line of the text, ‘sans covid’, repeated, would doubtless have moved irrespective of the words set; however, we heard it with them, and could hardly fail to think ‘if only’. The sign off ‘Ahmed’ returned us to the exile of electronic communication. 

‘Tsyion’, heard last, sets for chorus words from Psalm 137, the Jews in Babylonian exile, by those famous waters, and from Horatiu Rădalescu on that archetypal exile Ulysses, whilst the soprano sang other words above, from Rădalescu on ‘Exile’ itself. Stagg’s exultant melismata again provoked memories of Messiaen, but Anderson’s music throughout offered a compelling harmonic language and, more broadly, combination of that with melody, rhythm, and timbre never to be reduced to mere ‘influence’ or parallels. Solo horn at one point seemed to encapsulate the wistfulness of exile; there was more to it than that, though. Anderson’s fantastical imagination suggested to me opportunity and, at the close, through a mass of solo violins, a secularised chorus of birds. There is hope out there, as Essyad realised in contemplating a mountain he could not yet visit.

Next up was the discarded ‘Blumine’ movement from Mahler’s First Symphony. There could be no doubting the composer via sentiment or language, nor the specific identity of the Mahler of that symphony, though in many ways it sounded, quite rightly, earlier still: late Romantic rather than modernist, even ‘late early Romantic, Mendelssohn as well as Wagner apparent, Mahler taking his leave from the world of Das klagende Lied. Rattle had Mahler’s song sung with simplicity, never audibly moulded as has seemed the case with much of his more recent Mahler. There was darkness, but only moments of darkness in a fine, unexaggerated performance. And what it was to hear both the excellent solo trumpet and a full LSO at the movement’s climax. This was truly affecting music-making, all the way to a magical final harp chord.


The scherzo from the E major symphony of Mahler’s friend Hans Rott received here an outstanding, spacious, altogether generous performance, whetting the appetite for what one must hope will one day be a performance of the whole work. One need not be starry-eyed about it, as some are, to recognise its music, anticipations of Mahler and all (any ass can see that…) as intrinsically worthy of listening. The LSO’s sound hovered, like Rott’s music, somewhere between Bruckner and Mahler, with a little Berlioz at times too, not least in its trippiness. A sort of deranged jollity with disquieting echoes fascinates; and if sureness of direction is not altogether Rott’s thing, his music’s sheer originality offered something quite compelling both as work and performance. 

With Webern’s op.6 Orchestral Pieces we are in different territory: one of the supreme masterpieces of twentieth-century orchestral music. Rattle and the LSO offered them as the repertoire pieces they demand to be: without apology and through intimate knowledge and understanding. Free choice might not lead one naturally to the 1928 revision, but its smaller forces doubtless enabled the work to be performed at all. Heard after that first half of Anderson, Mahler, and Rott, the first movement’s lyricism emerged all the lovelier and more longing. Rattle ensured here and throughout a balance that invited comparison with conductors such as Abbado and Boulez. In this narrative, crucially, every note counted for a multitude in so much other music. The second movement’s response sounded as inevitable as I can recall, in a vision less haunted than propelled by anger, fear, violence, and yes, wonder. Longing was intensified in the third piece, here sounding intriguingly close to Berg. The German Sehnsucht came to mind. Ominous tread and progress through the funeral march fourth encapsulated a Mahlerian world in itself. Music lay between the notes as well as in them, in a requiem of defiant hope whose roaring climax duly shattered. Heard in aftershock, the fifth seemed to say, stealing from the future of Webern’s teacher Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, that life must go on. It witnessed yet sparkled. And what expressive depth we heard in the closing ‘Langsam’ movement, each chord speaking as if it were a page or two at least of Mahler.


It is doubtless too easy to speak of performing Dvořák via Webern, but it was difficult, at least at times, not to hear it that way. An aural lens of motivic concision and well-nigh Schubertian melodic profusion did no harm at all to its opening ‘Allegro maestoso’. I was fascinated to hear the LSO strings sound more ‘old German’, akin to Daniel Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin, than I ever heard the Berlin Philharmonic under Rattle. It worked, in any case, as the LSO really dug into Dvořák’s score. A purposeful yet flexible account of this first movement was far from deaf to the beauties and meaning of detail, yet integrated them rather than having them stand out. Here, again, music lay between as well as in the notes. The slow movement was taken slowly, surely more than the ‘poco’ of the composer’s ‘Adagio’ marking; a somewhat Tchaikovskian performance nevertheless worked well on its own terms. Rattle loved it doubtless, but not, I think, too much. There were rhetorical underlinings, yet they worked to shape a musical drama. The scherzo flowed via, rather than despite, its engineered tensions, metrical and more. Its trio was, I felt, moulded a little too much. Likewise the finale: impassioned, yes, but not always clear where it was going. That said, Rattle’s conception of something akin to an enigmatic tone poem in its own right had much to be said for it. His remains a questing musical imagination, as seen in programming and heard in performance.