PROM 52: Param Vir’s new commission, Sibelius, Bantock, Elgar

 

PROM 52, 21st August 2013, Royal Albert Hall, London

 

Param Vir, Sibelius, Bantock, Elgar, Lisa Batiasvili, violin, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, conductor. (CG)
Param Vir: Cave of the Luminous Mind (The Transcendent Journey of Milarepa) (2013) – BBC commission, world premiere.

Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op 47 (1903, revised 1905)

Granville Bantock: Celtic symphony, for string orchestra and harps (1940)

Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”) (1898-9)

 

Param Vir’s Cave of Luminous Mind is one of this year’s major Proms commissions. The work is dedicated to the late Jonathan Harvey, one of Vir’s teachers and a great source of inspiration. Tibetan Buddihism, as in Vir’s previous work, is central to the work’s origins and I can do no better than quote a paragraph of the composer’s own programme note: “My work is a tribute to Tibet’s rich spiritual tradition that has kept alive the unparalleled tenets of Buddhist teaching, most especially the meditational disciplines that lead to peacce and enlightenment, despite Tibet herself suffering most cruelly at the hands of an alien, occupying power since the 20th century.”

 

There are two contrasting movements. The first is slow and largely based on quiet clusters and string glissandi which unwind very slowly. Against these effects are pitted short, stark outbursts from various sections of the orchestra. Melodic fragments also appear  and disappear, Vir always displaying a keen ear for soft luminous colours. It’s imaginitively done and strangely beautiful. If I eventually grew restless, it was because I failed to detect connections between the many and various fragments and eventually the soft winding glissandi, nearly always present, palled somewhat; maybe I wasn’t in a sufficiently meditative frame of mind.

 

The second movement is a far more lively afair, as Vir expresses Tibetan meditational transormation. Again the orchestra sparkled with luminosity, and here there is writing for the orchestra of considerable virtuosity. I was periodically reminded of early period Stravinsky although the harmonic language is hardly comparible. As the movement progresses, things become increasingly dramatic and complex. At a particularly important point, all momentum ceases, and the cellos are given a longish melody which is taken up by the upper strings and in the final pages the whole orchestra bursts forth with increasingly entangled perrorations.

 

There is no doubting the skill and seriousness of this composer, and Vir has produced a work of great interest and drama. The thrills and spills from the orchestra are terribly impressive; there are also formiddable parts for the piano and harp and a gigantic percussion section. If I grew impatient with what I perceived as a certain lack of connection from episode to episode my feelings were not shared by all. My friend loved every minute of it and when I dared express a slightly negative view grew rather cross! – so I will listen again on iPlayer, and I suggest, dear reader, that you listen for yourself too.

 

The next item, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto,  also presented some difficulties. It’s a great favourite of mine, and I’m sorry to say this performance did not always do it for me. Lisa Batiashvili is a very confident and gifted player and, barring one or two excusable intonation fluffs, negotiated the first movement’s technical difficulties as if most didn’t exist. However this movement was curiously lacking in drama or sufficient depth of expression; partly this was due to her resistance to take her time over things generally – it all seemed quite breathless to me. Did the orchestra also feel as if on auto-pilot? Strange.

 

The second movement fared better, although once again I felt soloist and orchestra could have lingered a little more. In the final movement Batiashvili displayed her formiddable technique and seemed happiest here. Her encore was an arrangement of Tsintsadze’s “Lele;” a Georgian piece few would have known prior to the concert, but charming in its way.

 

The Celtic Symphony is one of several Bantock works to be performed at the Proms this year, following a lengthy period of almost total neglect. During his own lifetime, things were remarkably different and Bantock was regarded as one of Britain’s greatest composers, much admired by Elgar and Vaughan Williams among others. The late Vernon Handley was largely responsible for keeping the Bantock flame from bbeing totally extintuished, but despite ardent support from him and some other dedicated supporters, Bantock has remained a background figure, talked of in respectful terms but seldom played. His music is steeped in tradition in general, and the functional tonality of the late romantics in particular. Once Vaughan Williams, and then the likes of Britten and Tippett came on the scene, Bantock’s world became an unfashionable one, but now we can listen once again with fresh ears and it will be interesting to see if his music gains general support once more.

 

It would be thrilling to report that this almost forgotten man’s work reveals blazing genius, but the Celtic Symphony doesn’t quite support such a view. Bantock’s world is a quieter, more intimate place, where gentle melodies and sometimes mystical harmonies reside. The Celtic Symphony is beautifully written for his chosen string orchestra and – wait for it – six harps! We are in the dreamy landscapes of Scotland, but with dance-like rhythms and themes never far away. The mysterious atmospheres were beautifully presented by Oramo, the pianissimo strings perfectly balanced and oh, so breathtakingly quiet! When things livened up, the strings responded to Oramo with joyous vivacity and we were reminded of Sibelius’s more energetic moments or even Bartok’s flirtations with folk/dance music. The whole piece was really beautifully played, including the one area towards the end where the harps predominate. It’s all lovely – unpretentious and never “pushy,” and if you tire of the full-square phrases and, to twenty-first century ears, relatively unadventurous rhythms, then perhaps you can enjoy some quietitude and Scottish geniality?

 

I loved Oramo’s appraoch to the Enigma Variations too. This is a conductor determined to get to grips with British music, and how thankful we should be for that! There was nothing to object to in his choice of tempi for each variation – no major surprises, no distortions, no gimmics.  Moreover there was plenty to admire as the various soloists from the BBC SO took their turns. If I mention Richard Hosford’s clarinet solo in “Romanza,” and Norbert Blume’s viola solo in “Ysobel” I don’t mean to belittle the many other solo passages which caught my ear – all were excellent. If I didn’t burst into tears during “Nimrod” this time, it’s no matter – there were several other variations that brought a tightened brow – the whimsical “Dorabella” and “B.G.N” for instance. I would have preferred to hear more from the organ (yes MORE from the Albert Hall’s organ!) during the finale, where as my friend remarked, you hear Elgar returning home after visiting his friends, but never mind, Oramo still brought this work, and this concert, to a splendid conclusion.

 

Christopher Gunning

August 22, 2013 |

Ian Bostridge, Daniel Harding and the LSO honour Sir Colin Davis with Tippett, Britten and Elgar.

 

PROM 51, 20h August 2013, Royal Albert Hall, London

 

Tippett, Britten, Elgar, Ian Bostridge, tenor, London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding, conductor.
Tippett: Fanfare no. 5 – Fanfare from The Mask of Time arr. M Bowen. (1986)
Tippett: Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938-9)
Britten:  Les Illuminations Op.18 (1939)

Elgar:  Symphony no 2 in Eb major Op 63(1909-11)

 

Tonight’s concert by the LSO was dedicated to the memory of Sir Colin Davis, who would have conducted it had he not died in April of this year. Roger Wright, in a programme tribute, wrote that Sir Colin would have included a symphony by Sibelius as well as the works by Britten and Tippett. Davis loved Sibelius but in the event we had Elgar’s 2nd Symphony instead, included because “it is a piece which contains farewell references; it is by a composer close to Colin’s heart and of whose music he was such a very fine interpreter.”

 

If you thought this programme was to be a “safe” celebration of British music from the early 20th Century, think again. All three composers in their different ways were affected by the politics of the period and this was one of several reasons why the evening proved to be so interesting and affecting.

 

For me the Tippett fanfare, performed with appropriate gusto by the LSO’s brass and percussion, managed to outstay its welcome even in its brief 5 minutes, but if it’s hardly top-drawer stuff, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra most certainly is. Its sprightly jazz-influenced rhythms knocked players aback in the 1940’s and it took a recording by the young Benjamin Britten for concert promoters and audiences to wake up to the fact that this is a highly original, brilliantly constructed, and wonderfully attractive piece. But this is not simply “easy listening” music. In 1939 Britain was about to be plunged into WW2, and it shows in the uneasy counterpoint between opposing forces, as well as the deeply expressive music in the central, slow movement.

 

Many of Tippett’s hallmarks are to be found here; the counterpoint stems from Baroque influences, the forms hark back to Beethoven, and of course those bluesy/jazzy melodic inflections which help give much of Tippett’s music its very personal flavour, are present too. That middle movement is particularly beautiful, and here Tippett’s love of folksong plays a role. If both Tippett and Britten were to react against the nostalgia of Vaughan Williams’s view of folk material, and find new ways of doing things, they both shared the senior master’s love of it.

 

In 2013, players no longer find any difficulty in tackling Tippett’s cross-rhythms, as was demonstrated by the strings of the LSO under Harding. The outer movements were lively and pointed, and the middle movement simply beautiful, with calmly expressive solos from Carmine Lauri (the leader) and Rebecca Gilliver (cello.) Overall, I loved the unforced way in which the piece was interpreted by the soloists and ensemble as a whole.

 

Britten was working on Les Illuminations at the same time as Tippett on his Double Concerto, and juxtaposing the two works demonstrated some of the radically different ways in which the two composers thought – as well as some similarities. Britten would always be the more “natural” of the two, composing at a rate of knots, and producing works with a flair for melody, texture, colour, and a genius for working in relatively small-scale forms which nevertheless pack a powerful emotional punch. No doubt some of the  turbulence of the settings is attributable to the imminent war; Britten, like Tippett, was to become a conscientious objector, and sought temporary refuge in the US, and how destabilising the times must have been to the young composer.

 

The nine main sections which make up Les Illuminations are settings of poems by Arthur Rimbaud, whose hallucinatory way of looking at things greatly appealed to Britten. The string writing is astonishingly fluent and varied for a composer in his mid-twenties, and the word setting already shows Britten in command of techniques which would see him through to the end of his life, even if he would always be happiest when setting the English language. How lucky we were to have the opportunity of hearing the remarkable Ian Bostridge let loose on this early and appealing work. Clear diction, perfect intonation, a vocal quality which simply melts your heart but is strong enough to carry to the farthest reaches of the Albert Hall – what more could you possibly want? One almost felt Bostridge to be a perfect synthesis of Rimbaud and Britten as he swooped and dived, yet gave us sensual cantabile lines when needed. I felt this to be a quite outstanding performance, with Harding and the LSO’s strings doing everything just perfectly. And yes, of course we thought of Colin Davis and all our other departed friends in the final “Départ.” So moving.

 

And so to the major work of the evening, and Elgar’s 2nd Symphony has never enjoyed the popularity of his 1st. One reason is pretty obvious; it doesn’t have a main theme of the sort that opens and closes the 1st.  Also, it doesn’t end triumphantly, and people were expecting that sort of thing from Elgar. No, this is the work of an older man – perhaps even, by now, if not disillusioned, then chastened and far more experienced, and undoubtedly worried by the political situation that would shortly lead to WW1. The second movement is among Elgar’s most heartfelt creations, but throughout this long, important work there are contrasts and conundrums. These sometimes rapid changes of mood are important in a performance; judging the constant ebbing and flowing becomes the crucial task of the conductor. It is the success or failure of this which makes performances stand out. Several, on record, have got it right. One may cite Boult, Andrew Davis, Barbirolli, Handley, and of course Sir Colin Davis, who performed the work memorably with the LSO relatively recently in 2010. Daniel Harding did well tonight – very well. His was a reading with plenty of vitality, but sensitivity too, with tempi generally slower than the composer’s own. This may have had a slightly dislocating effect in the first movement, which I must confess to being my least favourite of the symphony anyway, but elsewhere I found myself much in sympathy with his reading.

 

The slow movement was frequently exquisite, the 3rd romped along brilliantly and the strange, mysterious last movement flowed as it should and the all-important ending was beautifully quiet and uneasy. What a shame some clot in the audience felt it necessary to jump in with applause long, long before Harding had lowered his baton. The silence which Harding obviously sought, and should follow music of this intensity and meaning, was rudely destroyed.

 

I thought the LSO played magnificently. We all know this is a splendid orchestra with fine principals, but nevertheless performances can vary from excellent to stunning. Tonight it was stunning. They love playing for Harding, as well they should.

 

Christopher Gunning

 

 

 

 

August 21, 2013 |

The RPO impresses with superb performances of Stravinsky, Penderecki, Debussy and Ravel

PROM 44, 15h August 2013, Royal Albert Hall, London

Stravinsky, Penderecki, Debussy, Ravel, Arto Noras, cello, Leonard Elschenbroich, cello, Daniel Muller-Schott, cello, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, conductor.

Stravinski: Fireworks (1908, revised 1909)
Krzysztof Penderecki: Concerto Grosso (2000-2001)
Debussy:  La Mer (1903-5)

Ravel:  Daphnis et Chloé (1909-12) Suite no. 2.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays but one Prom every year, and this time it was their artistic director and principal conductor who led the proceedings. Charles Dutoit’s association with the orchestra goes back some fifty years. He is much loved by the players and one could expect extra special results; as you will see, we were not disappointed.

Stravinsky’s early work was much influenced by his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov and in 1908, when the younger composer finished the first score of “Fireworks” he sent it to his master for approval. However, it was returned unopened because Rimsky-Korsakov had died. I am sure he would have approved of it, with its dazzling orchestration and abundant wit, and nowadays its interest is in its foretastes of “The Firebird,” “ Petrouchka,” and “Le Chant du Rossignol” among other significant early works. If the performance tonight felt a little hesitant at first it soon gathered momentum during its brief four minutes, and by the end we had glimpses of the virtuosity this orchestra is certainly capable of.

There was now an irritatingly long break in the programme while the violins trooped off and the stage was rearranged to accommodate the three solo cellists featured in the next work.

“Mostly elegiac” was an overheard comment from a member of the audience talking about Penderecki’s “Concerto Grosso.” It’s a long time since the composer was dubbed an enfant terrible of the avant garde with his “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.” Penderecki’s style has undergone changes, and frequently embraces tonality; influences as diverse as Bruckner, Shostakovich, Brahms and Liszt have been absorbed, and the result is his own fusion of 19th and 20th Century idioms.

The Concerto Grosso sets the three cellos against a “normal” symphony orchestra, but the composer wisely uses the orchestra, for the most part, rather sparingly. Each of the three soloists has his own opportunities to rise above the orchestral textures, the individual lines being often highly expressive. At the outset, each cellist plays his own solo, and it is only after this that all three play together. A similar process is repeated towards the end. The piece subdivides into six sections played without a break, and it’s not all slow, even if the “mostly elegiac” impression is what one is left with. There are energetic dance-like sections, but there is an inevitability about the way their energy dissipates into thoughtful lyricism once more. Dutoit has championed this work, performing it far and wide, and clearly has the measure of it. Likewise the soloists were all terrific, all three expressing the music with intense passion and commitment.  The sounds are frequently beautiful, but I did feel there could have been a greater variety of texture overall. Nevertheless it seemed a faultless performance.

As chance would have it, I was in Eastbourne a couple of days ago where, ensconced with his pregnant mistress (soon to become his wife) in the Grand Hotel, Debussy completed “La Mer.”  Plenty of sea images were scudding through my mind, therefore, as the RPO feasted on this iconic impressionist masterpiece. Dutoit is never more at home than in this French music; his recordings with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal quickly became favourites in the 90′s, and are still reckoned to be among the best. Tonight he led the RPO through a performance in which every nuance was savoured, but never at the expense of the narrative flow. Dutoit is particularly alert to the dramatic qualities of the score, with constantly flexible tempi and gorgeously detailed colours. We heard the most superb pianissimos from the strings, sublimely sensitive solos from the woodwind, and bursts of ferocity and majesty when needed from the brass and percussion. I loved the way momentum was built up in the second movement, where one could not help seeing and hearing the waves pounding along and the wind in your face. And, in the third movement, things were as stormy as you could possibly want. There may be other, more measured and refined ways of doing “La Mer” but I defy anyone to bring off a more vivid and altogether salty performance; for me it was almost like hearing the piece for the first time, and I’ll not forget the experience in a hurry.

I  can’t help feeling a trifle short-changed when Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is performed without the choir. Also, I love much of music in part one of the ballet too, but had to be content with the 2nd Suite tonight, which Ravel himself prepared. Fortunately, Dutoit’s reading had all the same qualities he had brought to “La Mer.” The opening Daybreak scene was beautifully atmospheric with Dutoit emphasising the bird calls perhaps a little more strongly than usual. The long melodies were perfectly judged in the strings, and the whole section had just enough momentum to avoid sentimentality. Glorious!

Moving on, I delighted in John Anderson’s oboe solos, and then it was the turn of Emer McDonough to enchant us with her ravishing flute solo. The final Danse General was taken at a fast lick, but it didn’t feel rushed until, perhaps, the very end. It was superbly exciting, with tremendous rhythmic verve, and all in all, this was a terrific performance, and a fitting end to an unforgettable concert. The members of the RPO had played their socks off; it goes without saying that each department is of virtuoso standard, but what impresses most of all is the way in which the various sections work together to produce wonderfully blended sounds. On this showing, and with this conductor, it must be the match of any orchestra in the world.

Christopher Gunning

 

 

 

 

August 16, 2013 |

Jonathan Harvey’s Weltethos reaches London

Jonathan Harvey:  Samuel West (speaker), CBSO Chorus, London Voices, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Children’s Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Michael Seal (conductor), Edward Gardner (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.10.2012 (CG)

Jonathan Harvey: Weltethos

Humanity (Confucianism)

Golden Rule (Judaism)

Non-violence (Hinduism)

Justice (Islam)

Truth (Buddhism)

Partnership (Christianity)

Weltethos was first performed in October 2011 by Sir Simon Rattle and Simon Halsey conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and has already been performed by tonight’s forces in Symphony Hall, Birmingham as part of the opening of the 2012 Olympics. That performance was fully reported by my colleague, John Quinn, on June 23rd 2012, and there is thus no need for a detailed explanation of the background to the work here. (You can read John’s review here: http://www.seenandheard-international.com/2012/06/23/weltethos-far-from-festival-fare/)  In brief, Weltethos sets a text by the theologian Hans Küng, which seeks to draw together the common threads of the major religions, the central theme being that they have far more in common than not. There are six sections, each roughly 15 minutes in length, and the work thus plays for nearly 90 minutes. This makes it Harvey’s most ambitious work to date.

Given Harvey’s keenness for mystical and religious subjects, it is not difficult to see that the subject matter would appeal to him. And the result is a work which is frequently inspired and periodically extraordinarily beautiful. The forces are large, and include eight percussionists spread out behind the orchestra with just about every instrument imaginable. For the most part, Harvey uses his orchestra sensitively and colouristically, although there are passages of considerable force in the music too; Harvey’s ear is acute, and there are constantly well-judged textures and effects to marvel at. The orchestral influences are many and varied. Western contemporary music, of course, mingled with sounds reminiscent of the Middle and Far East, but electronics, present in many of Harvey’s works, are absent. Nevertheless some “electronic thinking” spills over in his use of eerie clusters and the way he uses the organ.

The choral writing is impressive. The choir is called upon not only to sing, but to whisper, shout, and produce other non-standard sounds, and the children’s choir completes each of the six sections  except the last, the idea being that the children represent the future while the main choir represents the present and past.

But there are problems. It was explained before the concert that there was no printed text as such, but a précis of the main ideas. This was because Harvey has dismembered the words, often breaking them down into syllables. Consequently it was quite impossible to hear words sung by the chorus, and this had a distancing effect for me. The texts given to Samuel West to speak were of course plainly audible and superbly delivered but quite desperately pedantic. And the texts given to the children are also decidedly wooden; “Children have a future – if we give up hatred and violence;” Really? You don’t say!

In the end, the pretentiousness of the fundamental idea proved too much to take, which is a dreadful shame because so much of the music is masterly. On one level “why do we fight when all religions have so much in common” has obvious appeal, and on another, it is merely a superficial statement of breathtaking naivety. Leaving all that aside, I would happily sit through another performance simply to revel in the orchestral and choral ideas; the clever use of a single-note repeated quaver pattern starting on a single oboe and migrating around the orchestra, the sudden explosion of the choir in the 2nd movement, the Messaien-like textures of the third movement, with it’s big orchestral climax and moans from the choir, the multiple glissandi in the 4th movement, the soft organ clusters in the 5th, and the almighty climax in the 6th, dissonant yet glorious.

The performance was terrific, from choirs and orchestra. I don’t suppose anyone could fault a thing. And make no mistake, this is a difficult work to perform; it’s complex stuff, demanding enormous precision from all concerned. The principal conductor, Edward Gardner, the sub-conductor Michael Seal, and Simon Halsey, who trained the choirs, are to be warmly congratulated, together with the marvellous CBSO and the fabulous choirs.

Christopher Gunning

 

 

October 8, 2012 |

Jurowski in a fascinating all-Russian evening with the London Philharmonic.

Shchedrin, Miaskovsky, Denisov, Rachmaninov: Tatiana Monogarova (soprano), Sergei Skorokhodov (tenor), Vladimir Chernov (baritone), London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 29.9.2012 (CG)

Rodion Shchedrin: Concerto for Orchestra No 2 “The Chimes” UK premiere

Miaskovsky: Silentium Op  9 (1911) UK premiere

Edison Denisov: Bells in the Fog (1988) UK premiere

Rachmaninov: The Bells – Choral Symphony Op 35 (1912-13)

What a fascinating programme; four very different Russian works, including three UK premieres, performed by a Russian conductor and three Russian soloists.

Jurowski is a refreshingly “no nonsense” conductor. He cuts a dashing figure as he bounds onto the platform with a shock of long black hair, turns to the orchestra, and guides his forces clearly in a thoroughly musicianly way. There’s a lot of sensitivity with no histrionics. The rapport between him and performers is evident from the word go; what you get is concentrated music-making of a high order.

The name Rodion Shchedrin is apt to arouse mixed reactions, but to many he is the leading composer of his post-Shostakovich generation. The Concerto for Orchestra no 2The Chimes made an impressive concert opener; I suppose you could describe it as an “effects” piece. It is certainly vivid and colourful, commencing with quiet string dissonances, and then continuing with brash clusters from the brass, woodwind chatters, some virtuoso timpani passages, and of course prominent use of chimes. Later in the piece there is some very flamboyant brass writing, superbly played by the LPO’s brass, and there’s a fair amount of energy and excitement in the faster orchestral passages too. It is often sinister and even scary, but the gunshot with which the work ends didn’t come off. I did feel the piece outstayed its welcome eventually but if it frequently felt influenced by Polish composers (Penderecki and Lutoslawski) it isn’t to say it doesn’t have its own special character. I personally would have welcomed some stronger material, though.

Nikolai Yakovlevich Miaskovski (1881-1950) taught Shchedrin as well as Kabalevsky, and Khatchaturian. The composer of twenty-seven symphonies and numerous chamber works, he was thought of as one of the three most important composers in the Soviet Union alongside Prokofiev and Shostakovich. After a period of neglect, at least in the West, his music is being revived. Silentium is an early work and is based on “Silence – a Fable” by Edgar Allan Poe and follows the text quite closely throughout; it is predominantly dark and brooding and stylistically owes far more to the nineteenth century than looking forward to the twentieth. Unfortunately, brevity may not have been one of Miaskovski’s stronger qualities, and I found the unremittingly doomy textures a little hard to take for nearly twenty-five minutes. However this reviewer was fascinated to hear a quote, repeated several times, from his own “Poirot” theme emerging in one or two spots – how very clever of Miaskovski to have hit on the same rising note pattern! Notwithstanding that, I could once again have done with some stronger thematic material overall, although Jurowski and the LPO did everything in their power to bring the work to life.

Edison Denisov’s Bells in the Fog was also too long for its own good. The title explains everything, really – bells (this time mostly tinkly bells mostly from the vibraphone, celesta, glockenspiel and tubular bells) interspersed with high clusters from the strings and woodwind.  Similar textures and patterns pervade the piece through nearly all of its sixteen minutes, except for some loud interruptions later on. What to say about it? I would have been happy with four or five minutes, but please not sixteen…

The best was yet to come!

“The Bells” Op. 35, came after the first and second symphonies of Rachmaninov, but before the third. It was his favourite work, is in four movements, and is composed for a large orchestra, choir, and three soloists; soprano, tenor and baritone. We are back in Edgar Allan Poe territory here, the text being “The Bells,” translated into Russian by Konstantin Balmont, a Russian poet.

Rachmaninov was staying in a flat that had belonged to Tchaikovsky when he wrote this wonderful music, and some of his predecessor’s influence seems to have rubbed off. Its emotions are strong, ranging from the angst-ridden to the sublime; you have to be a pretty miserable specimen not to be moved by it. When reviewing this same work once before I said “his use of the orchestra is brilliantly virtuosic, alive with brilliantly vivid colours, and always sure-footed. Rachmaninov’s extraordinary harmonic sense is here in abundance – glowingly chromatic, yet always with a firm sense of direction.” There’s no need to modify my view, except to add that tonight it was the choral writing which also needed special mention.

I loved every moment of this. Jurowski did too. His was a studied approach, obviously well rehearsed, with detailed loving care apparent throughout. The soloists were terrific; Sergei Skorokhodov (tenor), in the first movement, Sleigh bells, Tatiana Monogarova (soprano) in the second, Wedding Bells, and Vladimir Chernov (baritone), in the fourth movement, Funeral Bells. Monogarova in particular was simply spellbinding with her expressive lines soaring above choir and orchestra. You could almost forgive those members of the audience who clapped after her movement, but not quite – the spell was almost broken.

The London Philharmonic Choir and London Symphony Chorus sang their hearts out too – I can’t imagine better. And throughout, the orchestral playing was just marvellous; if I single out Sue Bohling for her lovely Cor Anglais solo in the last movement, it doesn’t mean that all the other solos weren’t played with the same degree of musicality and expression.

It’s the very end of The Bells which particularly gets to me; the final modulation into the major is surely one of the great moments in all music. It would have been so easy for Rachmaninov to end on a dark note, but as the poem speaks of “the stillness beyond the grave,” we are at peace, perfect peace. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

Christopher Gunning

 

 

September 30, 2012 |

The LSO launches its 2012/13 London season with Szymanowski and Brahms

 Szymanowski, Brahms; Janine Jansen (violin), the London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), The Barbican Hall, London, 22.09.2012 (CG)

 Szymanowski: Symphony no 1 in F minor Op 15 (1906-7)

Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no 1 Op 35 (1916)

Brahms: Symphony no 1 in C minor Op 68 (1876)

 

 For its 2012/13 season, the London Symphony Orchestra under its principal conductor Valery Gergiev is embarking on programmes of Karol Szymanowski’s symphonies and other works, coupled with Brahms. This will be of tremendous interest to followers of Symanowski’s much neglected music; the composer has never been widely acknowledged as a major figure and remains chiefly known for his two violin concertos, the first of which we were to hear this evening.

 

The symphonies are rarer creatures, and it is plainly rather difficult to approach the first having already learned that the composer himself disliked it and never finished it. The twenty-four year old composer was desperately trying to develop his own technique in terms, especially, of counterpoint and had become particularly interested in the music of Max Reger; the result was not exactly successful, and Szymanowski withdrew it after only one performance in 1909. Only two movements remain; each is fiercely chromatic harmonically, heavily orchestrated, often bombastic, intense or even plain ugly. My friend described the experience of listening to it as “trapped in a washing machine” – there’s certainly an awful lot of churning! True there are some passages reminiscent of, say, Scriabin, and the post-Wagnerian harmony points towards later, more successful works but by and large this is a piece well worth forgetting except as a curiosity. I’m not sure if Gergiev and the LSO’s rugged, forceful performance of it did it too many favours, but they can hardly be blamed for the dense orchestration, plodding rhythms, forgettable material, and confused argument. Symanowski’s description of it as a “contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monster” was thus not wide of the mark!

 

What a relief, then, to hear Janine Jensen tackle the 1st Violin Concerto. Composed ten years later, Szymanowski had developed a far surer technique, and the concerto has many episodes of great beauty with plenty of opportunities for the soloist to weave and soar above the orchestra.  I could not fault Janine Jansen’s wonderfully sensitive interpretation of the solo part, which isn’t necessarily easy to get right. It is predominantly lyrical and frequently passionate, and of critical importance are genuinely flexible tempi; fortunately the collaboration of Jensen and Gergiev seemed well-nigh perfect. Only very occasionally did the richly colourful and rather full orchestration threaten to drown the soloist, and the LSO’s contributions were always supremely musical and enjoyable. A performance of this calibre almost disguises the fact that a good deal of this exotic, mystical music is rather too improvisatory in character, with its frequent reminders of major figures such as Scriabin, Debussy, or early Stravinsky. The long and lovely cadenza towards the end of the work, which was composed by Szymanowski’s friend Pawel Kochanski, was beautifully done.

 

For part two of the concert the territory was altogether different with the first Symphony of Brahms. I had wondered how Gergiev might tackle this; in the event it was a mostly rather strident reading, not short of volume in the over-warm Barbican environment. At the outset, the violins were virtually drowned by some enthusiastic timpani playing, and while you could say the strength of the reading of the first movement overall was a full-bodied red-bloodedness, I did miss some subtlety in the quieter sections.

 

There was some fine woodwind, horn and solo violin playing in the second movement, and some strongly intense romantic work from the strings, but the earlier worries about things being somehow too forceful remained. The third movement was too fast for my taste, becoming positively hectic in the trio section, but the final movement, played without a break, had just the right amounts of grandeur and expression, with the closing section becoming terrifically stirring.

 

A slightly patchy start to the season, then, and it will be fascinating to see how things develop later on.

 

 Christopher Gunning

 

 

September 23, 2012 |

PROM 61: Hymnus Paradisi and Elgar’s 1st Symphony; an emotional evening at the Proms.

Howells and Elgar: Miah Persson, soprano, Andrew Kennedy, tenor, BBC Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins, conductor. Royal Albert Hall, London, 29.8.2012 (CG)

 Herbert Howells: Hymnus Paradisi (1936-8, revised 1950)

Sir Edward Elgar: Symphony no 1 in Ab major, Op 55, (1907-8)

Has any father loved his son more than Herbert Howells? Michael Kendrick Howells died of polio in 1935 at the age of nine, leaving the composer distraught. It is the sort of devastating experience every parent fears, but occurs all too often; I personally now know three families who have had to deal with it, and the chances are, dear reader, that you will also know of similar tragedies.

How did Howells cope? This was a man who had previously led a relatively quiet, comfortable life teaching at the Royal College of Music (a position he held until 1979), adjudicating at music festivals, and occasionally composing. But from now on his life would be largely dedicated to the memory of his beloved son, and it was to be through music that he would express his sorrow and attempt some degree of resolution.

In the year after Michael’s death, Howells found it virtually impossible to compose at all, although he did produce a small unaccompanied Requiem in 1936. It was apparently his daughter Ursula who suggested that he might find some way of channeling his grief into music, and he embarked on tentative sketches for a large scale work with texts drawn from the Psalms, the Latin Mass, the burial service, and the Salisbury Diurnal, “Holy is the True Light.” A further spur occurred in 1937 when the composer, poet, and great friend of Howells died in a mental home. In 1938 the work was mostly completed, but Howells felt it so personal that he would not show it to anyone for another ten years. Eventually he revealed all to Dr Herbert Sumsion, the organist at Gloucester Cathedral, who in turn showed it to Gerald Finzi. The next cog in the wheel was none other than Vaughan Williams, who arranged for a performance at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 1950, and it was immediately successful.

The work has been extensively performed and recorded since, while perhaps never quite making it into the absolute topmost echelons of choral and orchestral music, as is demonstrated by the fact that tonight, in 2012, it received its very first performance at a Promenade concert. It is yet another demonstration of how many great British works have continued to be ignored by the BBC planners.

The title “Hymnus Paradisi” was apparently suggested by Sumsion and how appropriate it is. This almost unbearably emotional music searches for paradise and even finds it in several passages of ecstatic joy and beauty, but of course there cannot be complete resolution, not with a subject such as this. Howells composed his major work in an idiom that could be described as less modal than Vaughan Williams, and less chromatic than Delius, but nonetheless distinctively “English.” Unsurprisingly for a professor of composition and music theory, it is beautifully formed and imaginatively orchestrated, with parts for the soprano and tenor soloists and the choir expertly and sympathetically written.  This should not suggest that it is in any way “stuffy” or “academic;” far from it! The work glows with inspiration from start to finish, and if I say I had tears welling up throughout tonight’s performance, perhaps you’ll understand what I mean. There’s a quiet confidence in the way the music speaks for much of the time, which is not to say that it doesn’t erupt with rhythmic fire periodically, particularly in the Sanctus, where it’s almost as if the Walton of Belshazzar strides in! But it is the weaving of the soloist’s contributions with the choir that lingers, having led us along a journey to eternity, where souls meet in a halo of holy light.

Tonight we were allowed to appreciate the depth of the music in an unhurried, unfussy performance which got right to the heart of the piece; the work of the soloists was impressively sincere, and well projected without being forced, and the huge dynamic range of the choir was simply astonishing; breathtakingly quiet and overwhelmingly radiant by turns. Howells probably imagined the work being performed in cathedrals, but the Albert Hall turned out to be perhaps an even better venue. He didn’t want it to sound “churchy,” and the strange acoustics of the hall seemed to suit it ideally; the reverberation time (depending on where you sit!) is not as long as Gloucester or Worcester cathedrals, where the choral sound can be muddled and confused – tonight it was colossally impressive but clear. But, and it’s a small point this, is there something not quite right with the organ? The low pedal notes were accompanied by a strange rattling noise which suggested a defective pipe or something shaking in sympathy with the vibrations. It was mildly disconcerting. Martyn Brabbins, who very much impressed with his performance of Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony last year, was equally at home with this – I very much warm to his no-nonsense style of conducting, which is always crystal clear, and I admire his sense of tempo; everything seemed to flow just perfectly.

Throughout the concert I found myself thinking of another British conductor well known for championing the two works tonight – Vernon (“Tod”) Handley. He loved the Howells, partly because he suffered the loss of a child himself, and he loved Elgar’s First Symphony, which I saw him conduct on two occasions – I also have his recording, and it’s one I tend to compare others by. I suppose you could say that Handley followed in Boult’s footsteps in his Elgar, and Boult in Elgar’s own. Not all conductors fare so well. Held up by Karl Richter as the greatest symphony by a modern composer in 1908, this vast and splendid work needs rigorous control of tempo and mood to come off. In lesser hands it can ramble, although the construction is so continually ingenious that it certainly should not. Extraordinary, isn’t it, to think that at the first London performance the composer had to be brought on stage to receive the applause after the first movement, again after the second and third, and that the hall went completely barmy when it was all over! See? There was a time when contemporary composers were hugely popular!

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Brabbins acquitted themselves very well indeed, and I don’t mean that to sound like feint praise. The BBC SO is on top form and the performance was packed with conviction; quietly confident at the start, grand and noble for the return of the motto theme at the end, startlingly bright and rhythmically exciting in the scherzo, but beautifully hushed in the slow movement. And all through, I was convinced by Elgar’s symphonic argument, immensely detailed orchestration, and by the sheer beauty of the slower sections. I don’t know if this was the ultimate performance, but it was totally convincing and thoroughly enjoyable and I came away feeling I’d been at one of the best Proms of the season.

Christopher Gunning

 

August 30, 2012 |

ROM 54: An offering for the Queen, idyllic Delius, and shattering Shostakovich.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 9 for Orchestra and Brass Sextet (2011-2012)

Delius: Violin Concerto (1916)

Shostakovich: Symphony No 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953)

When I attend concerts, I’m interested in the reactions of other concert-goers. Bob, a former employee of GCHQ, wasn’t sure about the Maxwell Davies, was entranced by the Delius, and completely blown away by the Shostakovich. Mary, a lawyer, thought the Maxwell Davies was a load of rubbish, the Delius beautiful, and the Shostakovich absolutely terrific. Nic, a conductor, thought the Maxwell Davies great (he loves his stuff), the Delius a bit aimless, and the Shostakovich a really great piece. Greg, a record company man, hated the Maxwell Davies, found the Delius agreeably quaint, and the Shostakovich “one of the greatest symphonies, full stop.”

On the basis of this unscientific survey, then, five stars go to Shostakovich, three or four to Delius, and maybe two to Maxwell Davies. So what did I think? Read on…

Maxwell Davies’s 9th Symphony is dedicated to HM the Queen on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee. One can only wonder what she would make of it; it’s not exactly a cosy tribute to be enjoyed on a sunny Sunday afternoon relaxing on a sofa at Balmoral. He describes it as “tonal,” but you wouldn’t really notice a tonal structure in the traditional symphonic sense. He says he was inspired by the architecture of Italian churches, in which you find a central nave with several side chapels. Translated into this work, you have the main music, or orchestra, in the middle, with other stuff emanating from the sides.

Much of the music is violently angry and explosive. Into this are hurled contributions from brass groups mostly playing um-cha music; the effect is deeply ironic or plain silly, depending on your point of view. What we have is actually a protest against the UK’s escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan, so there’s orchestral chaos mingled with the aforementioned interjections from the brass groups, positioned to the right and left of the orchestra. The second main section of this continuous work is mainly quiet, with the brass instruments becoming more integrated into the general texture, although there are yet more angrily explosive sections to come too. The work has no triumphant ending as such; instead (to quote the composer) “all the diverse elements come together in a full throated imploration for peace, reconciliation, and a true democracy, even in quite difficult circumstances.”

Does the symphony come off? Well yes – but as you’ve gathered, it’s not an easy listen. I personally dislike the chaotic orchestral stuff, particularly in part one, which I found excessively muddled and confusing, especially in the Albert Hall, where you could frequently see musicians playing ferociously but hear not much more than a mish-mash with high woodwinds thrashing about. And yes I thought the brass contributions often daft. But the overall structure of the piece does work, and it’s a good deal more concise than some of the composer’s other symphonies. Vasily and the RLPO should be congratulated in giving a fantastically committed performance of this often technically difficult work; insofar as one could tell it was accurate and spirited when required or quietly sensitive.  The same forces gave the first performance earlier this year, and gave it a great deal of rehearsal time.

Delius’s Violin Concerto has a real devotee in Proms favourite, Tasmin Little. She had not worked with Petrenko before, but the collaboration was inspired. The soloist negotiated the often tricky and richly expressive chromatic lines with great assurance, and the flexibility of tempo, so vital in this piece, made for a glorious performance, with seemingly every moment savoured. You would hardly believe this was the same orchestra that had just negotiated the Maxwell Davies; the woodwind transformed their tone and gave some beautifully lyrical solos, and the strings were deliciously warm without sinking into soppy sentimentality. Great musicianship, then, from all concerned. The work may be an acquired taste, and may ramble a little, but it’s encouraging to see Delius being programmed after a period of relative neglect, and I’d say four stars are about right, with five going to the performers.

Petrenko, a Russian, has an obvious affinity with Shostakovich, and now the same can be said of his Liverpool players, for they have recorded all the Shostakovich symphonies for Naxos. The recordings have won plaudits, and the combination of Petrenko and the RLPO is reckoned to be one of the most exciting in the orchestra’s history.

The 10th Symphony is widely regarded as one of Shostakovich’s deepest works; the long first movement broods as only this composer can, and needs firm control if it is not to sprawl. There could be nothing to complain about in Petrenko’s management of it, or the orchestra’s execution – there was a restlessness throughout, and the fortissimo outbursts were thrilling in the hall, with the RLPO producing a far fuller and more glamorous sound than the rather thin quality of the BBC’s broadcast would suggest for those listening at home. Nevertheless, the orchestra’s timbre was also notable for a particularly icy tone which suited the slow, meditative sections admirably. This was REAL Shostakovich, as Russian as could be.

There was fire and raw excitement in the second movement, reckoned by some to be an evocation of the brutal Stalin, who had recently died. But it has now emerged that a quite different force was at work in the third movement, for the composer had developed a romantic fascination for a young pupil, Elmira Nazirova, twenty years his junior. His own initials D-S-C-H appear frequently as a thematic element in the symphony and we now know that the horn motif, E-A-E-D-A, forms the musically available letters of Nazirova’s first name. When introduced, this motif, often feeling like a distant fanfare in earlier interpretations, felt positively poetic tonight. And then music reminiscent of the first movement returns, all the time questioning; is Shostakovich pondering on what might have come to pass had his romantic obsession not been unrequited? Who knows – so much in Shostakovich will remain a mystery. At any rate, the handling of this nervous, searching music was extraordinarily telling, Petrenko keeping up the icy tension in the quieter passages, but letting rip for the fortissimo section where the two motifs collide.

The last movement’s two main sections were appropriately dark and then brilliantly exciting. The movement’s considerable technical challenges were handled with panache by all concerned, and in the opening section there was fine work from the principal oboist and bassoonist. Of course the enigmas continue, even in the midst of the apparently ebullient music of part two; the music still poses questions, and there’s still a high degree of tension. D-S-C-H to the fore, but still not wholly triumphant, despite a first class offering from the timpanist. It’s powerful, shattering stuff.

This was a five star performance of a five star work – I’d hope all could agree on that! And Petrenko and the RLPO can go home knowing that they took part in one of the very best Proms of the season. Petrenko is a star, and we have simply wonderful orchestras in this country; all deserve our maximum support.

 

Christopher Gunning

 

 

August 24, 2012 |

PROM 42: Bartok and Prokofiev delight, Neuwirth challenges.

Prokofiev, Olga Neuwirth, Bartok: Laurence Power, viola, Philharmonia Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki, conductor. Royal Albert Hall, London, 13.8.2012 (CG)

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet – Suite no. 1, op 64a (1935-6)

Olga Neuwirth: Remnants of Songs…an Amphigory (2009) (UK premiere)

Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

The Finnish conductor Susanna Mällki has built a fine reputation for her performances of contemporary music, although her repertoire is far broader than this might suggest; she now appears regularly with many of the finest orchestras in Europe and the US in programmes ranging from Vivaldi to the very latest thing. Tonight we had two warhorses from the twentieth century and an example of the latest thing, all directed with no baton but plenty of vitality and complete assurance.

It is always such a pleasure to hear Prokofiev’s take on Shakespeare’s tale, produced during times of the composer’s personal and Stalin-induced difficulties. In the event, Prokofiev was able to come up with one of the most inspired and successful ballet scores of the twentieth century, bristling with his own brand of melody, quirky harmony, and luminous orchestration. It was ready-made for transposition into the concert hall, and Mällki wisely chose Prokofiev’s own first suite rather than other collections selected by conductors over the years, even though the seven sections do not appear in strict story order.

Some lovely playing from the orchestra, with outstanding woodwind solos, reminded us that the Philharmonia is one of London’s greatest treasures, with each of the seven sections given strongly characterful performances, energetic, bombastic and sensitive by turns, and all glistening with iced vodka.

Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s Remnants of Songs…an Amphigory, was more difficult. Difficult to play, especially for Laurence Power, the astonishing viola soloist who deserved an Olympian Gold Medal, and somewhat difficult to listen to. But then Neuwirth, who studied with Luigi Nono among others, writes music which is seldom about comfort.

Some of this music feels rather impenetrable – abrasive clusters, long passages of dissonant sustained chords, and the solo viola has a Herculean task a) to play the part and b) to make himself heard, although any issues regarding balance were far less evident when listening to the broadcast later, thanks to the BBC sound engineers. Some of the music is harsh and garish, but there are some softly shimmering textures and some lyrical passages for the soloist too. Much of the viola part consists of squeaks, squeals, scrapes, glissandi and harmonics, and it’s probable that just about every effect possible is in there somewhere. Neuwirth has, in the past, employed electronic sounds in her work, something she finds quite natural for a composer of the twenty-first century, and her instrumental writing displays a similar approach, with the use of extended techniques and effects being very much part and parcel of her approach to composition.

An amphigory is defined as “a meaningless or nonsensical piece of writing, especially one intended as a parody.” That last word, parody, is all-important in this piece, for onto it are superimposed quotations, or rather near-quotations, of….. well almost anything, it seems. Paul Griffiths, who wrote the programme note, talks of Mozart and The Rite of Spring; I did detect a snippet of Mozart but in any case you can’t fail to notice references to music from bygone ages when they come because they’re obviously in a completely different idiom to Neuwirth’s main style. She remarked that she is both haunted and obsessed by memory, and the strange mental processes which can disfigure memory – hence her predilection for quotations. I was reminded of T S Eliot’s use of literary quotations in “The Waste Land” and other poems; perhaps Neuwirth is in similar territory here?

Yes, I found this difficult. But look – this is a serious composer of great individuality gaining a considerable international following; she is best known in this country for her opera inspired by the David Lynch film ‘Lost Highway’ and two of her chamber works were played by musicians from the Royal Academy of Music earlier this evening; both of these explored extreme techniques, but always for dramatic purpose. Several works were showcased by the London Sinfonietta earlier this year. Tonight’s opus was first performed in Graz in 2009, and if it’s not to my personal liking, then so be it; Neuwirth always challenges, avoids the ordinary at all cost, and seldom permits relaxation. The audience was certainly attentive – although several I spoke to were totally perplexed…

The irrepressible Mällki returned after the interval for Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in a performance which I thought was pretty well perfect; perhaps the last movement was a little on the fast side, but otherwise I found much to relish. This was the Philharmonia at its best. What wonderful woodwind playing! Samuel Coles (principal flute), Chris Cowie (principal oboe), and Barnaby Robson (principal clarinet) must be singled out for their outstanding solo work. And the two bassoonists, Robin O’Neil and Michael Cole – weren’t they just fabulous in that second movement? As were the two trumpets – Christian Barraclough and Chris Avison.

There were plenty of other delights. The opening night music was as quietly atmospheric as you could want; a beautifully subdued atmosphere also pervaded the third movement. The orchestra “laughed” marvelously during the quotation from Shostakovich’s  Leningrad symphony, and the fifth was genuinely rousing; the big climaxes throughout the piece were always stirring. All in all, then, virtuoso music played by a virtuoso orchestra, and what fabulous music! Bartok’s great score, so continually well-judged orchestrally, entertaining, and full of melodic invention, was composed when he only had a little time left, and that’s hard to believe.

 

Christopher Gunning

 

 

August 14, 2012 |

PROM 34: Bychkov revels in Strauss, and the Labéques battle through Dubignon.

Schubert, Dubignon, Richard Strauss: Katia and Marielle Labéque, two pianos, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, London, 8.8.2012 (CG)

 

Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor “Unfinished.” (1822)

Richard Dubugnon: Battlefield Concerto (2011) UK Premiere

Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1897-1898)

The hot news is that Russian born conductor Semyon Bychkov has been appointed to a new position specially created for him by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Gunter Wand Conducting Chair has been chosen as Bychkov’s new title in recognition of the relationship the BBC Symphony Orchestra had with Wand when he was appointed Principal Guest conductor 30 years ago.

Bychkov and the orchestra already know each other well, and the new arrangement promises to be an exciting one. This evening we could look forward to a mixed programme spanning nearly two hundred years.

In the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall Schubert’s “Unfinished” began almost inaudibly; this was a shame because the opening cello and bass motif, and the restless string figures that follow it, form essential ingredients in the structure; it is essential to hear them! Resulting from this, the first woodwind entries felt a little too strong, but once things got underway we were on safer ground, and there was much to admire in the lyricism and drama of the movement. But there remained, overall, a tentative sense that did not help the musical flow. The same feeling of “holding back” characterised the second movement; again there was some beautiful playing from the woodwind, and this most perfect of Schubert’s creations affected us all over again with its touching simplicity and almost unbearable poignancy. Nevertheless some doubts remained; Bychkov’s sensitivity is commendable but does the music benefit from being quite as fragile as this?

The platform then needed radical re-organisation. The French/Swiss composer Richard Dubignon’s Battlefield Concerto, composed for tonight’s soloists, calls for an unusual orchestral layout, with the forces divided into two quite separate halves, although the overall instrumentation is that of a standard symphony orchestra with a few additions. One half, to the left, features high winds, and includes a bass guitar, the second, to the right, lower winds. Thus each pianist has her own orchestra; Dubignon’s idea is that the two pianists and their orchestras face each other and do battle.

The composer’s starting point was a painting by the 15th century Florentine artist, Paolo Uccello entitled “Battaglia di San Romano.” Insofar as it follows the events of a make-believe battle, Dubugnon’s piece is programmatic and theatrical, and Dubugnon’s notes help you follow the battle’s events without too much difficulty; without them the work might have felt too rambling.

Balcony trumpet players, left and right, sound calls. During the next twenty-five minutes the two pianists announce their individual themes and elaborate on them widely, never joining with the same material until the very end. There are cadenzas, parades, battles, a funeral, a triumphal march, a peaceful section of reconciliation and finally a feast.

The piano and orchestral writing is often florid, flashy and fearfully difficult, with elements of, perhaps, Messaien, Bartok, Ravel, jazz, rock – you name it. From that point of view it’s ideally suited to the Labéque sisters with their extraordinarily varied musical enthusiasms, and it’s highly entertaining in a fairly chaotic kind of way. The sisters tackled it with characteristic verve, with Bychkov, who is married to Marielle Labéque, marshalling his forces admirably. Hearing it a second time on BBC iPlayer, I made a lot more sense of the piece; ideas come and go continually, and the warlike nature of most of the music certainly comes across vividly, with more contemplative passages offering welcome relief. Whether the material really adds up I’m not so sure, and I will delve into it some more, but I worry that with so many influences clearly discernible the composer’s own personality is hard to pinpoint.

Ein Hldenleben, after the interval, was a real treat!

In an introductory talk on Radio 3, Bychkov reminded us that the proper translation of ein Heldenleben is “A Heroic Life,” and not just “A Hero’s Life;” thus the sentiment behind the piece could be said to be that every life is heroic to some extent. Strauss was not merely thinking of himself, then, and although there are obviously autobiographical aspects, perhaps he sought a bigger picture. At the age of 51, Strauss was entering a new period in his creative life; the twentieth century had not yet begun, and he was still to write Electra. Yet in ein Heldenleben Strauss looks forward to the new century, and one is struck by how much this work belongs to the 20th rather than the 19th with its huge orchestra, spectacular orchestration, daring harmonies, and operatic drama.

Bychkov was absolutely in his element here in a performance full of passion, excitement, and great beauty. The guest leader, Sergey Levitin, was well on top of the crucially important solo violin part portraying the composer’s wife, Pauline, complete in all her myriad complexities. The second battle of the evening was terrifying, with marvellous brass and percussion work, and the subsequent tutti passage, in which Strauss remembers some of his past works, absolutely enthralling. If there were one or two rough edges, they certainly did not detract one bit from a performance which carried us through all six main sections and was choc-a-bloc with flair. Glorious!

Christopher Gunning

August 9, 2012 |