Sunday, 21 August 2016

Chesterfield on Classical: Wagner's Clap

Devil’s Trill is delighted to post this guest blog by the veteran record producer and music critic Roger Chesterfield.

I sometimes wonder, what with Radio 3’s baffling disregard for the finer details of elite record collecting, who will sweat the small stuff when I’ve taken my stalls seat in the great concert hall in the sky. Reassurance is at hand in the form of the latest volume of Philip Philpott’s magisterial Matrix Numbers of the Lesser Known German Labels of the 1940s, which has, over the last few months, been a light at the end of the tunnel of interminable wet-weather walks with the dog. With bedraggled lab on the rug and my own fireside seat secured, a glass of Highland Park in my hand and the new MNLKGL40 (as it’s affectionately known) in my lap, the hours waltz by, the chimes of midnight barely registered among the close-typed dashes and digits lining some 1600 pages.

Perusing those lines dedicated to the much missed Bavarian imprint Schnappstein-Gimellphon, I happened upon the matrix numbers for the original release of Herrman Schnipelbrumpf’s 1947 hecklephone recital with pianist Wim Vomm, apparently much prized by hecklephiles. When released, Schnipelbrumpf’s recital covered some fourteen sides on 78rpm shellac record including – and here’s where it gets really fun – three sides given over entirely to applause. This is all the more curious given that the recital was entirely studio-recorded in Schnappstein-Gimellphon’s bespoke property, located deep in the mountains and powered entirely by hot air donated by patrons at the Salzburg Festival.

All this stirred some misremembered something deep within the Chesterfield brainvaults and I recalled a long discarded custom which was, at one time, encountered at Bayreuth in odd-numbered years, of giving a single clap some way into the second act of Dutchman, in tribute to a similar gesture once given by Wagner in 1880. Some wags carped that Wagner had simply been squashing a recalcitrant fly, but such was the strictness of observance of the custom among some Wagnerites that Deutsche Grammophon’s then-director, Ludwig Donkwurt, insisted the clap be included in Karl Bohm’s 1971 yellow-label traversal. Apparently, Gregory Peck was flown in from New York to do the honours and got it down in one take.

And then, with his customary lightness of touch, Philpott joined the dots which had been just out of focus to the poor old Chesterfield varifocals. It turns out that Donkwurt began his career at Schnappstein-Gimellphon (of course) and had adopted the practice of including applause at unusual moments in a variety of music. His belief in the “Wagner Clap” had resulted in a string of scholarly discoveries, including the revelation that Beethoven had insisted on applause after the exposition of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. Once at DG, Donkwurt had a special recorded-applause unit established and one Carlos Kleiber was so taken with the idea that he led nineteen rehearsals with the ensemble, before abandoning the project and declaring their clapping “too provincial”.

Happy to resist the many entreaties to “tweet” my thoughts to the Third Programme, I communicated all of this to the director of Radio 3 via e-mail, though it is with some dismay that I report the station’s most recent relay of the Kleiber 5th was accompanied by nothing of this remarkable scholarship. No doubt the Beeb’s subscription to MNLKGL40 lapsed long ago, and those fresh discoveries nestled amongst the matrix numbers will have to remain between the dog, the Highland Park, and myself.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Proms Away

“Is it that time already?” asked an astonished colleague when I pointed out the First Night of the 2016 Proms was upon us. From my own perspective, it’s always a time of year that brings a rush of good intentions – I will listen to more; I will attend more – as well as the usual moans about uninspiring programming from the usual quarters. And I always respond by pointing out the sheer range of music must surely be something to banish the easy cynicism of the terminally unimpressed. No, there aren’t  eighteen different obscure British symphonies, but like any large cultural event, the programmers can’t simply cater for the denizens of one particular online forum.

Just look at the opening weekend. A fairly standard opening concert, admittedly, with nothing (other than, perhaps, Sol Gabetta’s singing) to frighten the horses, but after that a Proms transfer for the ROH’s Boris Godunov (original version, no less) and an attempt at period Faure to round out the weekend. Just a few days in and already a lot to catch up on; it’s usually at this point that I realise I’m not going to live up to my good intentions…

Monday, 25 April 2016

Too Many Records

I used to write for International Record Review, a fine publication which sadly closed its doors more than a year ago. On the back page, they ran a monthly feature called Too Many Records, in which someone in the classical music world would reminisce about a life spent listening. One month, the editor asked if I'd contribute one, as she fancied having a reviewer fill the back page. The magazine folded one issue shy of my moment in the sun. I publish it here for posterity.

It all began with the Russians, I think: first Tchaikovsky and then, sometime later, Rachmaninov. I must have been five or six – not too long after the advent of the CD – when I heard Kyung Wha Chung playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a Decca disc from my Dad’s modest collection of classical albums. Brahms, Beethoven, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were all near neighbours on those shelves – they were all old masters to me. But it was that Tchaikovsky that held me entranced. The ecstatic orchestral restatement of the first movement’s main theme sticks in my mind as a moment of musical joy.

A little later, piano lessons brought Bach, Schumann and Mozart, though still no musical ecstasy of the order glimpsed at age six. Not long after, a rare thing appeared in the small town in which I lived: a brand new concert hall. I remember my first visit well. An American orchestra brought Sabine Meyer, playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, along with what seemed to me an interminable Beethoven Symphony and, best of all, Stravinsky’s Firebird. The Russians, I concluded, were rather good at this classical music.

I poked at the piano and scratched away at the violin through my teenage years, though they brought more frustration than pleasure. And it might have all ended there for me and the Russians had I not, one evening while revising for an exam, picked up another disc from my Dad’s collection and pressed play. It was Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andre Previn. This was music that spoke a rich and yearning language of feelings that I scarcely knew existed (a response I’ve since discovered is not that uncommon in teenagers) and life became about finding the next fix of moody Russian romanticism.

Prokofiev followed (familiar to me from another album from my Dad’s collection – Lina Prokofiev narrating Peter and the Wolf) and then Shostakovich, who, since my Dad claimed to hate his music, fulfilled another teenage imperative. The good thing about Shostakovich, from the point of view of a collector just developing the habit, was that there were 15 symphonies and as many string quartets to find. Bernard Haitink’s Decca symphony cycle (the first complete set to be recorded in the west) became the prize, particularly as it featured dark and angular cover designs that weren’t far from the artwork emblazoned on the t-shirts proudly worn by my rock and metal loving friends.  Unfortunately, you couldn’t get a Shostakovich “hoody”; I had to make my own.

Visits to the record stores of central London helped my CD collection grow exponentially. You could, over the course of an afternoon, visit Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus, then HMV and Virgin on Oxford Street, and a host of independent stores nestled down side-streets. My love of the music-megastore (which are now, incidentally, all gone) was cured by a spell working in the classical department of one of the Oxford Street giants. Said company is now a shadow of its former worth, though even a decade ago, when I was in their employ, the writing was on the wall and head office’s weekly attempts at salvation amounted to little more than shifting around the deck chairs on the sinking liner.

Most of what George Orwell said about bookshops rings true for the record store. We certainly had our own collection of what Orwell called “not quite certifiable lunatics”, some with whom you could share a joke, some from whom you hid. Just like Orwell, I was once asked for a disc for which the enquirer was without the title or artist name, but which he assured me had a green cover. Best of all was the customer who asked if we had a disc of Bach playing his own music.

There were a few old hands on the staff from whom I learnt a lot. One could remember the glory days of the record industry, when one of the major labels flew the managers of the large stores to Berlin to meet Karajan. Another regaled us with tales of the days when record signings had people queuing round the block, be it for Pavarotti or for Bernstein, who apparently necked most of a bottle of gin in a single signing session. If I miss anything from those days, it’s the company of these hugely knowledgeable colleagues, and the unparalleled opportunity to be completely abreast of the new record releases.

If I linger over this period, it’s because access to cheap and plentiful records opened many musical doors. An inexpensive Ring cycle - Janowski’s Eurodisc recording; the first digital studio set - ignited a love a Wagner (I stood through the entire Barenboim Ring at the 2013 Proms, and if that’s not love I don’t know what is). The appearance of Brilliant Classics’ “Historic Russian Archives” relit a passion for Russian music and musicians, particularly for the playing of David Oistrakh, who still seems to me the most compelling of violinists. In the years that followed, working at one of the country’s top conservatoires, I got to know many fine musicians, not least the late Lydia Mordkovitch, who entertained me with stories of her studies with Oistrakh and first hand experiences with Shostakovich.

It’s with a certain nostalgic regret that I must admit that the appeal of owning a “complete” library of every recording imaginable has somewhat worn off, either because of the limitations of space or because of the realisation that working life offers so little time to listen to any of it. I still feel a thrill at discovering, nestled in the racks of a second-hand store’s music selection, that instalment of the Rozhdestvensky cycle of Shostakovich symphonies on Olympia which has so far eluded me. Yet, for me, technology has overtaken the record; I spend far more time listening to digital radio and online streaming services than to CDs or LPs. Mine must have been the last generation to discover music, bit by bit, through physical instalments you could hold in your hand. In an age when everything is available everywhere, all the time, where would you start? That really is too many records.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Norilsk: City at the edge of the world

Evidence of the vastness of the world is somehow comforting in a time of viral vacuity and superficial instant commentary on the planet’s least interesting people. So it was with glee that I read about a distant outpost of humanity about which I previously knew nothing. Norilsk is a place known to few but inhabited by hundreds of thousands, a city of such staggering remoteness that the details of the lives of its inhabitants seem scarcely believable.

Established in the Stalin era in northern reaches of Siberia, Norilsk is a city built around some of the richest mining deposits in the world. Nickel and other metals come from the ground in incredible quantities, but life in the city is life on the edge of the possible. Winter temperatures touch -50 Celsius; buses to industrial hubs travel in convoys of 25 for safety. You can’t reach this city by road. In winter (which is most of the time) you can’t reach it by boat either. Planes are the only option. Locals refer to the rest of Russia as “the mainland”. Then there’s the fact that gaining permission to visit is incredibly hard. One extreme-travel forum I read advised those hoping to go, who did not have perseverant contacts within the city, to forget it.

It’s one of a number of cities in Russia which represent a sort of unexplored frontier. Check out Yakutsk, Magadan and Dikson for other remote Russian outposts. I can’t imagine I’d enjoy living in any of these places, but I’m glad they’re there.

Photographer Elena Chernyshova talks about her startling images of Norilsk here:

Do you live in Norilsk, or have you visited? Tell us what it's like in the comments below.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Music and sunlight at Auschwitz

Memorial stones at Birkenau, a few steps from Crematorium III
I’m not sure what I expected from the weather at Auschwitz, but it isn’t this. Cloudless blue sky reaches across the huge space of Birkenau, falling behind the curtain of lofty birch trees at the camp’s western end that give the site its name. It’s beautiful and horrible all at once.

When I visited in 2015, frosty winds scoured the camp, which only seemed to add to the end-of-the-world feeling of the place. Some things, though, have a familiar effect this time round. The half-century old permanent exhibit at Auschwitz I (the smaller camp whose sign reads "Arbeit Macht Frei", or "Work Makes You Free") still seems to me to focus too heavily on process and numbers at a time when personal stories are favoured by educators everywhere, but there are signs of change. Block 27, which I didn’t see last time, features a much newer exhibit with moving (in all senses) projections of pre-war Jewish life. Upstairs is a chilling procession of camp-children’s drawings which begin in happy times – all smiling families and rural scenes – and end with images thoroughly infected with the everyday horror of Auschwitz life. One drawing that remains imprinted on my mind features a row of hanging corpses, like some macabre mobile, with a guard kicking the stool from beneath the feet of the final victim.

I have a chance this time to visit the bookshop, which reveals the admirable continuing efforts of the State Museum to shine the light of scholarship onto areas still offering fresh perspectives. For obvious reasons, I’m drawn to a recent publication by Helena Dunicz Niwińska called One of the Girls in the Band: The Memoirs of a Violinist from Birkenau. Helena only published these memoirs in 2014, at age 99, and given that she saw the camp through adult eyes (she was 28 when sent to Brikenau in 1943), her account of Auschwitz’s strictures and realities is a particularly direct and prosaic. There’s also the sense of a story being set straight: Helena refers to a few previous published accounts of musical life at Birkenau that fell short of real veracity.

Helena’s account also reveals an undimmed admiration for Alma Rosé, the niece of Gustav Mahler and director of the women’s orchestra (one of a number of ensembles at Birkenau). Rosé did not survive Auschwitz, succumbing to a sudden illness in April 1944, but Helena paints a portrait of a hugely accomplished musician for whom the highest musical standards in the most degrading conditions were a matter of dignity and survival. Rosé worked tirelessly on arrangements of music for the orchestra’s motley assortment of instruments (including lots of violins, mandolins and guitars, but few bass instruments), though much of that work is lost to time, living only in the memories of the few remaining witnesses to this ray of light in a hell on Earth.

I’m an inveterate botherer of tour guides, and as we wend our way through Birkenau, our expert guide Renata tells me about her friend Helena’s book. I admit to having bought it earlier in the day, given my interest in all things violin. “Well”, she says, “I have something for you”. At the end of the tour, Renata retrieves from her car one of a few remaining discs made recently featuring a reconstruction of music arranged by Alma and pieced together again from Helena’s memory. It’s Chopin’s Etude Op10/3. As a Pole, Chopin’s music was forbidden, but this piece was played only in rehearsal for the enjoyment of the musicians. Rosé’s instrumental ingenuity is here, in the careful use of violins and mandolins and the voice soaring above the bass-light texture. It must have seemed like a warm bath of memory and humanity to those who heard it, a momentary relief from fetid reality. And on this crisp sunny February afternoon, it’s another fleeting connection to the individuals who came to this place and, in most cases, did not leave.

Helena's book can be ordered from the Auschwitz bookstore. Their books are very reasonably priced and this volume is a sturdy hardback.

Update: A few days after I found that Helena is still with us, at age 101, the world learned that Samuel Willenberg, the last survivor of Treblinka Death Camp, had died, aged 92. Witnesses to this history diminish in number every day.  

Thursday, 27 August 2015

A voice in the dark

A few months ago, I gave this introduction to a performance of Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet, given by my wife's quartet. If you are not familiar with the piece, try this from the Borodin Quartet.

Few artists have come to represent their own time and place as much Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet Union’s preeminent composer who, from the 1920s until his death in the 1970s, was Russia’s musical propagandist, conscience, provocateur and human voice.

From its earliest details, Shostakovich’s life was a tool of Soviet propaganda. Born in 1906, he is alleged to have witnessed Lenin’s return to Russia, from exile, in 1917. At 18, his precocious 1st Symphony was trumpeted around the world as a dazzling example of a new wave of Soviet artists. This new paradise of Communist Russia seemed, at first, a haven of artistic freedom: as long as what you said was ideologically sound, it didn’t really matter how you said it.

Like so many others, Shostakovich was lulled into a false sense of security, pushing the boundaries of the musical language until firmly bitten by the culturally and socially conservative crackdown of Joseph Stalin’s first years as leader of the Soviet Union. Art was no longer to test the limits; only artistic expression which the masses could easily understand, and which celebrated the greatness of the communist utopia, would do. In this new hell of rigid rules, denunciations and show trials, one misstep could mean death. Writers, artists, theatre and film directors, friends of Shostakovich, disappeared, swallowed by the human meat grinder of Stalin’s genocidal state. Footsteps in the hall; a knock at the door; a visit to the headquarters of the secret police: thousands were erased from life like this and not even their families would dare mention their names again.

Shostakovich’s brush with danger came in 1936, in the form of a damning newspaper review, ordered, it is believed, by Stalin himself. The state newspaper, Pravda, blasted his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, as “chaos instead of music”. The message was clear – adapt or die. The composer, eventually, offered his own amends for his past wrongs in the form of a Symphony. The symphony was his fifth and, like Beethoven’s, it rises from fierce darkness to a conclusion of blazing light. But little mattered more to Shostakovich than personal artistic integrity. Within the triumphant bombast of the Symphony’s finale, a kernel of defiance could be heard – a grin through gritted teeth. Shostakovich’s admirers heard this, the authorities did not, and the pattern was set for a new musical identity of outward conformity and inner resilience.

Little did he know, though, that in allowing for the possibility of contradictory meanings, Shostakovich would unleash a bitter battle to interpret his music. Some have tried to dismiss him as a propagandist hack; others find anti-communist barbs in every note; others still find a middle ground that celebrates him as a composer of hugely affecting and original music. Nowhere is this battleground of meaning more intensely fought than in the 8th String Quartet. Shostakovich began writing the piece during a visit to Dresden in 1960. The visit may have inspired the dedication “to the victims of fascism and war”, but clues in the very music itself point toward an altogether different interpretation.

After WW2, Shostakovich had begun using a four note phrase in his music: the notes D, E flat, C, B which, when said in the German manner, become D, Es, C, H – the first initial of his forename and the first three letters of his surname, in the German translation. The Eighth Quartet begins with exactly this phrase, confirming that this piece is not only about the victims of fascism and war; it is about himself. He then does something remarkable – he constructs a fugue with his own name. A fugue is among the most complex of musical forms – a way of layering a tune upon itself within a very rigid set of rules – and was precisely the kind of artistic complexity outlawed by the Soviet authorities. This isn’t only a daring and dangerous step on the part of the composer; it is a self-definition. “I am music”, Shostakovich seems to be saying here and, as if to prove the point, he offers a few quotations from past works, such as the opening bars of his 1st Symphony, followed by a resolute restatement of his name.

It’s clear that this piece, in five continuous movements, was an intensely personal project for the composer. After his return from East Germany, he wrote to a friend “When I die, it’s hardly likely that someone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself... The pseudo-tragedy of the quartet is so great that, while composing it, my tears flowed as abundantly as urine after downing half a dozen beers. On arrival home, I have tried playing it twice, and have again shed tears. This time not because of the pseudo-tragedy, but because of my own wonder at the marvellous unity of form.” One could be forgiven for balking slightly at the apparent self-pity of the composer, but Shostakovich knew better than anyone that there was nothing unique about his own personal tragedy. The Jewish folk theme blasted out in the frantic second movement can be connected to one of the composer’s perennial concerns: the suffering of others at the hands of others. Shostakovich was submerged deep within the tragedy of the twentieth century and, with his unique ability to express that tragedy, offered a memorial to the suffering of one individual out of countless millions, namely himself. That this piece, and many others, survived and are today celebrated and loved, offers hope that the individual can endure in the face of overwhelming odds. And, that his music remains enigmatic to the last, never meaning quite what it appears to mean, is a fitting reminder that the dark and violent times for which it was written can never fully be comprehended.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Stop it, James

Hopping channels last night, I stumbled across BBC2’s Artsnight, a 30 minute show dumped in the gaping hole in the schedule left by the Beeb’s bizarre decision a few years ago to jettison Newsnight Review in favour of a monthly arts roundup. Satirist Armando Iannucci took an intriguing look at the role and value of the arts in contemporary society, alighting at classical music, one of his own personal passions. He spoke to pianist James Rhodes about the allure of classical music and about the state of the art today. Unsurprisingly, Rhodes continued the narrative of alarm he’s been peddling for a while. Not without good reason, of course, as we should all be concerned about falling audiences and funding opportunities. But Rhodes seems to have defined himself in direct opposition to the orthodox, to the “scowling pianist” stuffed in a white shirt and tails, and he seemingly needs to attack and caricature the “opposition” in order to justify his own approach.

There is, of course, room for many approaches, and I’m as proud a wearer of jeans to the opera as anyone else who doesn’t believe your attire helps you hear any better. But when speaking, in the short interview in last night’s programme, about the business of classical music, he’s just plain wrong. Despite Rhodes’s claim a new multi-million pound concert hall “seems to be a condition” of Simon Rattle’s arrival at the head of the London Symphony Orchestra, Rattle and the LSO have said that no such condition is in place. He went on:

“Take that £400 million – that’s 4 [or] 5 years of the entire music education budget! We don’t need another hall, and everyone who bleats about “oh well, the acoustics at the barbican aren’t...” Come on! Really? You really care that much? It’s like... Stop it!”

He’s certainly right that this is an enormous amount of money in the face of a culture of underinvestment in music education, but yes, the acoustics at the Barbican are insufficient to showcase the brilliance of an orchestra like the LSO, and no, we are not wrong or somehow elitist for caring that much. Neither is Rattle wrong to care, on two fronts: he is used to getting the best from some of the most miraculously brilliant ensembles in the world and is quite right to ask for the best conditions in which to make music. Secondly, his track record in Birmingham shows how reinvigorating such a project can be: the building of Symphony Hall was a milestone in the city’s cultural history and is a multi-purpose venue, as any in London would surely be.

Anyone who’s ever sat in the cheap seats, at the back of the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican or in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall can confirm that our precious, wonderful art-form can seem pretty remote and uninvolving from up there. A concern for how our music sounds is not incompatible with a desire to see more switched on to its wondrous brilliance. There are many valid arguments for and against the project, which I’ve no intention of further rehearsing here, but when it comes to the tedious ad hominem attacks on those of us who value slightly different things, please, James, stop it.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Bychkov and OAE impress with Schubert in Basingstoke

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Bychkov
The Anvil, Basingstoke
5 April 2014

Semyon Bychkov
When Ludwig van Beethoven died, in 1827, 20,000 people lined the streets of Vienna to watch his funeral procession pass. Among them was the 30 year old Franz Schubert, an ardent admirer of his older colleague, but when he himself passed away, a year later, his death was little marked beyond his own circle of friends and family.  Beethoven’s fame was immediate and unprecedented; Schubert’s reputation grew slowly over many decades, thanks in part to the rediscovery of his epic final symphony, subtitled the ‘Great’, which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and eminent Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov placed alongside Beethoven’s Seventh for this Anvil performance.

The vast scale and difficulty of Schubert’s ‘Great’ Symphony (sometimes dubiously known as the Ninth) baffled those who saw the score in the first years after it was composed. Today, however, it’s now a central part of the repertoire and the OAE proved how totally modern orchestras are able to manage its hour-long duration. Bychkov chose his tempos carefully, making sure to sustain the piece’s remarkable, unbroken momentum, and the orchestra responded with beautifully refined and tireless playing that balanced their customary concern for historically-informed performance with richness of sound not always associated with period-instrument ensembles. So many of Schubert’s late masterpieces speak to us with a profound expressive power that seems barely believable from such a young man, and this symphony is no expectation – this is never truer than in the infinitely touching central section of the third movement, rendered with melting tenderness by orchestra and conductor.

Bychkov’s steadiness and certainty – such virtues in the Schubert – proved less well suited to Beethoven’s feisty Seventh Symphony, dubbed “the apotheosis of the dance” by Richard Wagner. Much of this music revolves obsessively around dance-infused rhythms and motifs, needing an excitable performance to truly bring it to life. Perhaps Bychkov hoped to retreat from the crazed power that can inhabit this piece and invest it with greater nobility, but in putting off the energetic vigour until the finale he missed the riotous unpredictability that courses through this music. He wanted for nothing from the orchestra, but the impression was of an approach better suited to one composer than the other. 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Sakari Oramo's inaugural concert with BBC Symphony

Sakari Oramo
Sakari Oramo’s inaugural concert as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave opportunities to explore existing preoccupations – theirs and his. Oramo – no stranger to the British music world after ten years at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – brought Mahler to the table, a composer with whom he’s had an affinity for some time. The Beeb, for their part, brought a substantial premiere by respected French composer Tristan Murail, affirming a commitment to contemporary music unparalleled among London’s symphony orchestras.

The title itself of Murail’s new piece, Reflections/Reflets, presages elements of the first of the piece’s two movements. Murail takes as his starting point Charles Baudelaire’s poem Spleen, not set vocally but rather painted in heavy orchestral sound. The poem’s bells are there, tolling grimly at the first part’s climax and the thick texture truly makes sonic sense of the opening line “When the low and heavy sky presses like a lid”. It’s the skewed tuning, though, that most clearly stems from that title – a cluster of wind instruments, just slightly off the pitching of the rest of the orchestra, distorts everything we hear, offering a cracked double image or a sullied reflection.

The second part, “High Voltage/Haute Tension”, darts of with a nervous energy not possible in the first. Pointed piano writing underlies much of the skittish but virtuosic orchestral writing, setting off waves of upward-reaching scales that couldn’t be further removed from the weighty import of the “Spleen” music. Murail intends these movements to be the first in a cycle of pieces, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra launched them with terrific power and commitment in this world premiere performance.

Something of the febrile energy of “High Voltage” was echoed in Shostakovich’s Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings of 1933 (sometimes dubbed Piano Concerto No.1), particularly so here with the hyper-detailed pianism of Olli Mustonen. I hadn’t seen Mustonen live before this concert, having encountered him only through his recordings, but in the event the visuals matched the eccentric intellectualism projected by his playing. Mustonen lets no phrase rise and fall smoothly, preferring to poke odd notes and send them out into the audience like barbs. His hands fly sometimes a foot from the keyboard, striking from a height and only increasing that sense of jaunty, jolting phrasing. It’s love-it-or-hate-it playing, sounding nothing like anyone else I’ve ever heard, but there’s something curiously disarming about it, as though Mustonen is dreaming his own quirky musical fantasy and allowing us to peek over his shoulder.

The obligato trumpet part was here taken by Russian star Sergei Nakariakov, whose quivering vibrato and silken tone were quite distinct from Mustonen’s angularity, but they shared a stingingly incisive rhythmic sense that made for a tremendously exciting finale. A little more tightness from the accompanying strings would have raised the performance even more, but with so much to intrigue and entertain, it seems churlish to complain. I can’t imagine that I’d want to listen to Mustonen’s wacky phrasing for too long, though.

If Oramo’s contribution has gone uncommented upon until now, it’s because the final item – Mahler’s First Symphony – was always going to be the test of his command and ability. He set down an admired recording with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra a couple of years ago and here proved that he has something fresh and engaging to say in what is very frequently trodden repertoire. I say fresh not so much in that his view is wholly original, but rather that his approach drew out all that is youthful and hopeful from this mighty work. His motions on the podium suggested strongly that flow and lyricism were priorities, bringing out this music’s roots in song (Mahler does, after all, make heavy reference to his earlier song cycle Leider eines fahrenden Gesellen). I’ve rarely heard the scherzo infused with such a vigorous sense of dance, or the first movement’s climactic explosion of light more awake and alert. Along the way, he was given many moments of fine playing from the orchestra – some crisp offstage brass, gutsy string playing and that double bass solo negotiated with poise. What was missing, perhaps, was a real sense of polish and refinement from the BBC SO. It sometimes seemed that Oramo was pushing for more dynamic contrast that he was receiving in return, and while there were never issues of ensemble, I missed the beauty of sound of which this orchestra is capable. As inaugural concerts go, though, this was a promising one – a strong sense here of a conductor with firm priorities and an orchestra capable of delivering what he asks.    

Monday, 30 September 2013

Berlioz in Basingstoke

28 September, 2013 – The Anvil, Basingstoke

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Pic by Clive Barda
Esa Pekka Salonen
The bustle of imperial Vienna, circa 1814, might seem a long way from modern-day Basingstoke, but it was a forceful slice of that city’s musical heritage that opened the Anvil’s 2013-14 International Concert Series. The Philharmonia Orchestra and their distinguished music director, Finish conductor and composer Esa Pekka Salonen, sailed through Beethoven’s beefy Namensfeier overture, a piece originally intended to sell the composer’s wares to the great and good of Europe. Monarchs, aristocrats and diplomats descended on the Austrian capital at the behest of the country’s Emperor, where they hoped to fix the continent-wide mess left by one Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven – ever the shrewd businessman – saw a golden opportunity to appeal to potential patrons, but in the end, he couldn’t finish this rousing orchestral piece in time, substituting some little known and little regarded crowd-pleasers in its place.  In truth, Namensfeier (‘feast day’ or ‘name day’) isn't one of Beethoven’s best, but orchestra and conductor made sure it packed a considerable punch.

Beside Beethoven’s stormy vision of Romanticism in music, Robert Schumann’s can seem Romanticism’s sensitive and delicate face. Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski, though, injected sparkle into Schumann’s sober Piano Concerto of 1845, pulling it away from the straight and narrow with ease. This is music that can sound a little prim; not so for Anderszewski, in whose hands Schumann’s understated piano writing ebbed and flowed. His compelling way with it was even enough to distract from the mistakes he scattered through the last movement, though a few of his extreme manipulations of tempo must have had the collective hearts of his conductor and orchestra missing a beat or two.

Whatever fleeting waywardness Anderszewski might have shown, though, was no match for the musical madness of Hector Berlioz, the wildly inventive French composer whose music was so radical that it had to wait a century before being properly appreciated. His Symphonie Fantastique is one great hallucinogenic musical trip – it imagines its own lovelorn composer’s attempted opium overdose and subsequent visions of masked balls, witches and executions. It also happens to be one of classical music’s most brilliant showpieces, giving the musicians of the Philharmonia ample chance to dazzle with their abilities. Their wind players brought tremendous elegance to Berlioz’s unique writing; their brass players drove his excesses home with terrific commitment. At the helm, Salonen moulded the hour-long Symphonie into a helter skelter of musical adventure, all luscious strings and thumping percussion. It utterly baffled its first audience in 1830; this one brought the house down.