Thursday 26 January 2023

Osborne/LPO/Gardner - Coleridge-Taylor, Tippett, and Elgar, 25 January 2023

Royal Festival Hall

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Solemn Prelude (London premiere)
Tippett: Piano Concerto
Elgar: Symphony no.1 in A-flat major, op.55

Steven Osborne (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Image: London Philharmonic Orchestra

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s B minor Solemn Prelude was written, at Elgar’s recommendation, for the Three Choirs Festival in 1899. It then went unperformed until a revival, likewise at Worcester Cathedral, for the same festival in 2021. It has now finally reached London, Coleridge-Taylor’s own city, in a fine performance from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Edward Gardner. Its opening, in melody, harmony, scoring, and indeed the LPO’s performance sounded rather Tchaikovskian: surely a case of influence, though at the same time not to be reduced to that. Indeed, it was Russian symphonism more generally that came to my mind, Borodin too, than say the ‘solemnity’ of Wagner or Bruckner, one progression’s passing resemblance to Parsifal notwithstanding. It certainly qualifies as solemn, though, albeit in an amiable sort of way: a thoroughly professional piece of writing, that merits performance, especially with string sheen and generally rounded orchestral tone such as was heard here. 

Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto followed: a welcome outing for a piece rarely heard, yet likewise worthy of revival. Gardner, the LPO, and soloist Steven Osborne took us immediately to an imaginary landscape, in an imaginary (quasi-dramatic) context. Its first movement sounded very much as if a scene from an opera without words, yet not necessarily without action. The Midsummer Marriage naturally came to mind, but it was a world of its own we heard, inviting and full of fantasy. The piano part is anything but easy, yet rarely if ever showy; this is not the conventional (post-)Romantic battle of piano against orchestra, and did not sound that way. One delighted instead in the scene painted, almost as much by woodwind and celesta as by the undeniably brilliant soloist, celesta and piano almost equals in the cadenza. The slow movement was equally well-shaped, playing out in a related yet different world, as if a scene that followed. It was darker, a notturno given with an apt air of mystery, even ritual. Bearing in mind Tippett’s inspiration for the work as a whole, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (which he heard Walter Gieseking rehearse), it was difficult not to think of Tovey’s evocation of Orpheus taming the Furies. The finale meanders at times, perhaps, but I doubt anyone minded much. It was sharp, bright, ultimately decisive—and it danced. 

The onward tread to the opening to Elgar’s First Symphony, hesitant then sure(r), ever imbued with ineffably Elgarian sadness and nobility, can be traced in many ways. Gardner’s way convinced, as did the response to it. A degree of Brahmsian sentiment could be perceived through a related yet different orchestral kaleidoscope; crucially, sentiment was never confused with sentimentality. Passages of hushed inwardness, especially in this first movement, combined with wounded swager to captivate and propel. If an occasional rough edge intruded, as with Tippett, it was nothing of importance. Far more important were liminal passages of an almost Straussian, yet more subtle phantasmagoria—and where they took us. The second movement’s opening material, somewhere between diabolical and furious, was followed by a lifting of clouds closer to the new vistas of Mahler than one might have expected. Music between these poles combined their tendencies as well as having them do battle: a matter of performance almost as much as of composition. A rich, even ripe Adagio was perhaps a little indulged for my, arguably also for Elgar’s, taste, yet it was difficult to resist the glorious LPO sound. Inflected by other material that yet did not deflect the music from its path, there remained much to admire here. Ghostly unease and lost recollections laid bare the compositional mastery of the finale. It was a turbulent journey, in search of a home that was perhaps never quite reached. The ‘cyclical’ qualities of Elgar’s writing were vividly communicated here by Gardner, bringing it closer to César Franck than often one hears. Was it ultimately a little hard-driven? Perhaps, but arguably it held to its own logic.

Saturday 14 January 2023

Bode/Levit - Schubert, 13 January 2023

Wigmore Hall

Die schöne Müllerin, D 785

Simon Bode (tenor)
Igor Levit (piano)

Die schöne Müllerin, Schubert’s first song-cycle, is two centuries old this year. As Frankie Perry points out in her illuminating programme note to this Wigmore Hall recital, it has ‘inevitably been heard and understood differently’ over that period; it was first performed in public in its entirety as late as 1856. Now, of course, it stands as a pillar of the song repertoire, if sometimes suffering a little by comparison with the later Winterreise. It need not, should not; it is a different work with different challenges and rewards. One might expect Igor Levit, whose re-examinations of, say, Beethoven piano sonatas, always founded in the text yet always offering something fresh, to have something interesting, powerful, and in some sense new to say about these songs. That he did, in just that vein. Likewise his established Lied-partner, tenor Simon Bode. Again, there was no sign of novelty for its own sake, but of considered, intelligent, highly dramatic performances that took wing in the heat and light of the moment. 

Youthful impetuosity marked the piano introduction to the opening ‘Das Wandern’, a call to journey, Levit’s articulation startling whilst sounding right. Bode followed suit, likewise startling with such vivid communication of the words, a hallmark of his performance throughout. A surprising hush to the final stanza’s beginning, broadening to climax, was but one instance of illuminating detail that helped unlock the puzzle of what is perhaps the cycle’s principal challenge: how does one honour the strophic nature of its songs, as opposed either to attempted concealment or, perish the thought, veering into monotony? ‘Wohin?’ naturally went deeper, more obviously metaphysical in conception; yet, as with the rest of the cycle, nothing was laboured. This was not straining (and failing) to be Winterreise. Here, again, repetitions were never mere repetitions; the nixies beneath the brook’s surface will never quite sing the same way twice. 

Levit’s piano-playing, in its way as developmental as if this were a sonata, yet certainly not ‘abstract’, propelled music, verse, and yes, drama. Music seemed to give rise to words, as much as vice versa. In ‘Am Feierabend’, for instance, this might almost have been Schubert transcribed by Liszt: not that it did not sound like Schubert, nor that it was unduly romanticised; but rather, the introduction was so communicative that one felt little need for the voice. Until, that is, it entered, and one felt every need for it. In that song’s second stanza, Bode varied his tone with such quicksilver intelligence—colour, vibrato, and much else—that song and story sounded as if invented before our ears. 

There were certainly character and line to the whole. When we reached the central (so it seemed) ‘Pause’, brought to our consciousness with a deep sadness that again was never laboured, lightened by keen chiaroscuro in piano and voice, one felt all had led here—and it had. By the same token, all that had led there could never be determined in advance; there was no one size to fit all, just as every imploring ‘Dein its mein Herz’ in the butterflies of ‘Ungeduld’, whilst ever familiar, was never identical. That said, the closing line of the following ‘Morgengruss’, putting into words the care and sorrow that already are love’s hallmark, made its point: all had changed. 

For the sublimated, post-Mozartian pain one felt in the lines, vocal and instrumental, and harmonic progressions of ‘Tränenregen’ became very much our world: our journey, not simply a journey observed. When it went further, toward expressionist effect, if not expressionist means, in ‘Der Jäger’ and ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’, this had been prepared, fatally, though without stepping onto an inappropriate, proto-Winterreise stage. Was that, in the latter song, perhaps a hint of Sprechgesang? Perhaps, yet if so, just a hint; Schubert’s lyricism remained its guiding force. Anger spent, the desolation of ‘Die liebe Farbe’ was similarly consequent, the frightening eloquence of the piano’s left hand a dramatic masterclass in itself, only for fury to return at the close of the cleverly responding song in (metaphorical) mirror image, ‘Die böse Farbe’, green’s colour and all it signified transformed from love into hate. 

No wonder Bode’s wan tone and ultimately triumphant yet embittered irony in ‘Trockne Blumen’ so shocked; no wonder the final two songs so haunted, the resolution or completion of the brook’s lullaby hypnotically horrifying simply, or so it seemed, by being itself. Levit seemed already to be in the world of the late piano music, yet continued to play with all the delicacy of Mozart. Bode continued to resist any temptation to drag us into a world beyond Schubert, the lyricism of ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ all the more haunting for it. Both musicians proved outstanding guides not only to the journey, but to its landscape, physical and metaphysical. Heartbreaking.

Thursday 12 January 2023

Katya Kabanova, LSO/Rattle, 11 January 2023

Barbican Hall

Katěrina Kabanova – Amanda Majeski
Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanova (Kabanicha) – Katarina Dalayman
Varvara – Magdalena Kožená
Boris Grigorjevič – Simon O’Neill
Váňa Kudrjáš – Ladislav Elgr
Tichon Ivanyč Kabanov – Andrew Staples
Savël Prokofjevič Dikoj – Pavlo Hunka
Kuligin – Lukáš Zeman
Glaša, Fekluša – Claire Barnett-Jones

London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

Images: Mark Allan

Perhaps the most perfectly proportioned of Janáček’s operas, certainly one of the most emotionally and dramaturgically correct—which, in Janáček’s case, is saying quite something—Katya Kabanova has not wanted for recent performances in Britain. That is no cause for complaint, quite the contrary. That Janáček’s operas are still not at the heart of every major opera house’s repertory says nothing about the operas and, alas, a great deal about our houses and some of their audiences. Concert performances are less common: these are very much works for the stage. This current project from the London Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle to present a number of his operas in concert—I assume it is not all, though should be delighted if it were—is most welcome, not only for introducing new audiences to these fine operas, not only for affording the LSO (and Rattle) the chance to perform them, but also for giving us the opportunity to hear their orchestral writing in all its detail and power, such as might in part be lost when played in the pit.

Rattle certainly seemed to have conceived his reading with this in mind. It is doubtless fruitless to speculate, but I suspect some of the more extreme passages, whether with respect to dynamic contrast or tempo (at the slower end), would have been less so in the theatre. The LSO and an excellentcast responded in kind. Indeed, the glowing, dare I say Central European, tone of the opening bars promised—a promise finely delivered—a performance in which the orchestra was at least as much changed by its encounter with the score as vice versa. Doubtless, Rattle’s work with the Czech Philharmonic contributed to what we heard, but this was a Rattle rethinking at its best, nothing taken for granted, the fury of the later orchestral response again taking one by surprise, yet firmly in the spirit of composer and work. Where later I might have expected the full orchestra to sound a little cramped by the Barbican acoustic, that was not at all to be the case; in the absence of a new London concert hall, killed by Theresa May alongside so many of our hopes, conductor and orchestra have found new ways of living with it.


Climaxes were built and tended, singers included too—no one more so than Amanda Majeski in the title role. Her vocal line and all too clearly Katya’s hopes soared, preparing for a fall, when in the first act she sang to Varvara of her childhood imagination of angels flying heavenwards, continuing prophetically of the sin that threatened her. Likewise in the next act, when she resolved to see Boris and thus fully to set her tragedy in motion. A lack of stage business made such passages more conversational: perhaps neither for good nor ill, but rather just how it was. All the while, Rattle and the orchestra brought out telling detail without having it overwhelm greater line, musical and narrative. What intrigued me—I am not sure I can put my finger on why—was that this Katya seemed less saintly, more intent on pursuing her own happiness, more relatable perhaps, if less of a quasi-religious example. Given her fate, why after all should she present an example?


Much could be read from Majeski’s face too; as it could from that of Andrew Staples as her husband Tichon. He felt shame, as did his voice, yet still he did what his mother said. Katarina Dalayman’s Kabanicha was no mere caricature; if hardly sympathetic, perhaps she embodied a more comprehensible than usual desire for order in a community she saw threatened, rightly or wrongly, with breakdown. Her relationship with Pavlo Hunka’s sharply characterised Dikoj was likewise less caricatured than would often be the case, perhaps not merely a case of jaw-dropping hypocrisy. Simon O’Neill’s Boris was intelligently conceived, often ardent. There was likewise plenty of intelligence, and a wonderful animating spark, to Magdalena Kožená’s Varvara. She seemed veritably to brin Ladislav Elgr’s Kudrjáš to life, his second-act song delivered with verve and no little charm, Rattle splendidly highlighting the pizzicato accompaniment to help bring it to life. Claire Barnett-Jones and Lukáš Zeman both impressed in their smaller roles, making much of them in collaboration with their fellow artists. I look forward to hearing more from the latter, a new voice to me.


And yet, this was above all an orchestral drama. The poignancy of the brief, all-too-brief, Puccini-plus afterglow to the second act, eliciting a sadness quite different from anything one might hear in Puccini, offered another splendid, affecting example. Likewise, tellingly, the sheer strangeness of the early storm music of the third, especially from the LSO woodwind. If there were times, slightly to my surprise, when I found myself missing the completion of action that would have been achieved by a staged production—Janáček leaves much to that crucial pillar of operatic experience, knowing not only what to write but also what not to write—this was a compelling evening. If some listeners might have felt Rattle’s more spacious tempi went to far at times, for me they worked well in context. There seemed little doubt they had the assent of orchestra and cast alike.

Saturday 7 January 2023

Ferschtman - Bach, 5 and 6 January 2022

Wigmore Hall

Partita no.1 in B minor for solo violin, BWV 1002
Sonata no.1 in F minor for solo violin, BWV 1001
Sonata no.3 in C major for solo violin, BWV 1005

Partita no.3 in E major for solo violin, BWV 1006
Sonata no.2 in A minor for solo violin, BWV 1003
Partita no.2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004

Liza Ferschtman (violin)

George Enescu called them the Himalayas for violinists. At the same time, he played them throughout his life, a regular, almost daily foundation for his work. Perhaps that apparent contradiction—does even the most avid of Sherpas climb every day?—has something to tell us about Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, or at least about our own attitude, as performers and listeners, toward them. They offer simplicity and complexity, inwardness and heroism, modest integrity and an ultimate Bachian tour de force; like Everest, they are there. What better way, then, to start a musical year with the renewal of such exercise, spiritual, intellectual, and for violinist Liza Ferschtman, technical too? And what better message of renewal might there be to receive than to realise at the close that all, listening included, might have been done quite differently, that there is never, least of all in music such as this, one way? 

Ferschtman performed the works over two consecutive evenings: a wise decision, I think, though I have heard the Cello Suites (perhaps more immediately ‘approachable?) in a single night. First up was the B minor Partita. Ferschtman’s performance had much to commend itself to my ears from the outset, the Allemande light and airy, yet without a hint of the puritanism that alas too often accompanies such characteristics. Vibrato was varied, not absent. Dance character was present and felt, yet not a straitjacket/ Bach’s harmonic exploration was fundamental, as it were, to Ferschtman’s approach, which above all permitted the music to speak. She took her time, but to allow the music to breathe, not to be ‘slow’. The movement’s Double, like those throughout the Partita, took its leave from its predecessor, kinship and contrast at the heart of its performance; here, it often felt a little more inward, even introverted. A delicately ebullient Courante proved nicely shaded. The Sarabande’s dissonances revealed much, without exaggeration. And a rhythmically buoyant ‘Tempo di Borea’ and its Double imparted a proper sense of completion, quite rightly in a different sense from later-eighteenth- let alone nineteenth-century tonal journeys toward a finale. Perhaps, that said, I missed a little of what might yet bind the movements together, but this was early in my journey as listener too; the fault, if indeed fault there were, may have been mine. 

At any rate, the first movement of the G minor Sonata sounded more settled. (Perhaps I am more immediately comfortable with its sonata da chiesa structure.) Its tonality sounded more ‘modern’ too; that is, it certainly did not jettison an older sense of Affekt, but it was far from restricted to it. Ferschtman presented—or I heard—the Fuga almost as if a concerto movement in itself. It bore an intensity born within, matched to a richer tone than that heard in the preceding Partita. Repose in the Siciliana preceded a fine, more finale-like sense of release in the concluding ‘Presto’. 

Placing of the interval arguably heightened the sense of the C major Sonata opening with a movement quite unlike anything heard previously. The obstinacy of its construction, melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic, fascinated in a performance searchingly traced. That apparent contradiction between modesty and tour de force—resolved, at least in part, in Bach’s ultimate craftsmanship—was to be heard in the following Fuga, which blossomed and, yes, borrowing from the future, developed, Ferschtman our understanding, selfless guide. A lyrical, detailed, and again concerto-like ‘Largo’ led us to an ‘Allegro assai’ revealed as an exploratory duet with the self. There are many paths to the tour de force.

The second recital opened with the E major Partita, its bright tonality immediately announcing different mood and thought. (However much we imagine we hear this in the Well-tempered Clavier, and perhaps we do even on the piano, it is surely less ambiguous or at least fraught an idea on the violin.) Brilliant, translucent, and intelligently variegated, this performance’s excellent shaping was just the thing for our second instalment. Plaintive double-stopping enhanced the noble pathos of the Loure. An infectious ‘Gavotte en Rondeau’, dancing Menuetts, and sharply etched Bourrée and Gigue completed the set. 

The A minor was the last of the Sonatas to be heard. Ferschtman spun a compelling line in its opening ‘Grave’, its thread quite properly distinctive from any of those sampled before. There was swing to the fugue that followed: first as release, then as something to extend itself in a way that would surely have impressed, indeed inspired, Beethoven had he known it. Poise, dignity, and an underlying nervous energy that might have surprised yet was just the ticket characterised the ‘Andante’, every bit as absorbing in its way. The ‘Allegro’, duly substantial in conception, took us on quite a tonal journey, again questioning our historical ideas of final movements. 

And so we came to the D minor Partita, perhaps inevitably placed last. Its opening Allemande was finely centred, both with respect to intonation and to tonic harmony. A grittier Courante, a graceful, ruminative Sarabande, and a detailed, well-shaped Gigue, took us to the movement for which, on one level, we had surely all been waiting. The Chaconne was taken a little more swiftly than I had expected, yet immediately convinced. It was beholden to no particular ‘school’: neither vegan, nor in any meaningful sense ‘Romantic’. It danced and sang in equal measure, yet harmony was of at least equal importance—arguably still more so. Bach’s great imagination, heavenly and ever practical, embraced variety and unity so as seemingly to prefigure so much of the German (and not only German) music that would come for two centuries and more in its wake. Above all, Ferschtman’s performance invited me to listen, which invitation I gratefully accepted. This gripping performance of the Chaconne crowned, without sentimentality or complacency, two recitals that had indeed renewed and, it is to be hoped, prepared violinist and audience alike for the musical year to come.