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Showing posts with label Béla Bartók. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Béla Bartók. Show all posts

Friday, 16 June 2017

In gross, does music resemble Schumann's Davidbündlertänze ?

A first response to Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Aldeburgh Festival recital

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2017 (19 to 26 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

16 June

A performance-night response to Pierre-Laurent Aimard's intricate and exact steps around the theme of dance, and how movements work together, at Snape Maltings during Aldeburgh Festival on Friday 16 June 2017 at 7.30 p.m.

Lest we need repeat other comments about PLA's programming and playing, here is the #UCFF review from Aldeburgh Festival in 2014

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

At Lunch 4 : 'The modes and moods of the human heart' ?

This is a review of Britten Sinfonia in At Lunch 4 on 12 April 2016

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

2 May

This is a review of At Lunch 4, given by Britten Sinfonia at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, on Tuesday 12 April 2016 at 1.00 p.m.

Programme :

1. Béla Bartók (1881-1945) ~ 44 Duos

2. Bryce Dessner (1976-) ~ El Chan

3. Robert Schumann (1810-1856) ~ Piano Quartet

Bartók ~ From 44 Duos (1931), BB104, a selection of five

These are duos for violin and viola, so we welcomed Thomas Gould and Clare Finnimore, respectively, to perform them (the – ever-ascending - position of each number in the whole work is given in parenthesis after the title) :

1. Pillow Dance (14)

2. Hungarian March I (17)

3. Sorrow (28)

4. Bagpipes (36)

5. Pizzicato (43)

Frankly, at this remove from the event (i.e. of the time of the review), one may be imagining that Thomas Gould (@ThomasGouldVLN) said a little – before or after these five items – about the pedadgogic aspect of Bartók’s collecting folk music in the field (recording, notating, etc.) (although there were political, musical, historical ones, too, of course) : hardly uniquely to Bartók, it seems as if these Duos partly serve as graded exercises, in order of difficulty.

Thus, (1) Pillow Dance, a study in rhythm and pattern, contrasted with an atmosphere of the lyrical (tinged with the drunken ?) in the first (2) Hungarian Dance of the whole set – and, at its end, it reminded us of the dance that had preceded it.

Not just numerically at the centre of these five Duos, played standing, was (3) Sorrow. Not unabated sorrow, however, but a weaving together of threnody with its transformation into music – in the persons of viola and violin – and with its emotional, linear and harmonic parts matched so as to sound as wedded.

Over a drone from Finnimore (on viola), we heard Gould’s violin dance in (4) Bagpipes – material used elsewhere by Bartók, in one of his major compositions ? Then the drone ended, and we had an energetic conclusion from the paired players (a form of dance ?). Last, in (5) Pizzicato, we necessarily had that string-effect, but it began in a ‘picked’ form from Finnimore, and with more of a strum from Gould.

Both reminded of the tone and sound of the String Quartets (a little of which we were yet to hear on the evening of Benjamin Grosvenor directs), but also of the banjo. We were to move to a sensation of liveliness balanced against a heavier (or sharper) sound in a number of variations, and, by the close, an interplay of lead instrument from Gould to Finnimore and back. Judged just right, as a curation that was to end here and which had been perfectly executed, this was an excellent start to the programme !

2. Dessner ~ El Chan (2016)

For the rest of At Lunch 4, Caroline Dearnley (cello), and Huw Watkins (piano), joined Finnimore and Gould in two works for piano quartet.

As this contemporary commission progressed (we had been told that El Chan was in seven movements, and principal pianist Huw Watkins (@WatkinsHuw) described it as a beautiful piece¹), its filmic quality came out, and a theory – shared by Tweet below – formed as to its scope and intent…

(I) Against a shimmer of an opening, a very violent pizzicato had been written for Caroline Dearnley – yet very soon, and almost at the other extreme, she brought out a ghostly cello tremolo, and Watkins reached inside the lid of the piano to play some bass-notes directly.

Again to the fore, Dearnley had flurries of notes, before passing back to the piano, and the start of an obsessively repetitive pattern. Slowly, it subsided to a quiet close, and then (II) an equally quiet opening from Watkins, which became a raindrop-like texture. The other players joined it, but in what seemed an uneasy tranquillity, with odd dissonances, to which they added.

As it broadened out, it seemed as though it might give space to some isolated sounds with violin, but instead it closed. Next (III), lively strokes from Clare Finnimore (viola) and Thomas Gould (violin) reminded of Philip Glass, before the sound grew to that of the quartet of players, and subsided - leaving us listening to the sweetness of Gould’s upper string(s), but ending quite hoarsely.

Next (IV), a violin-line that, in a jazzy and non-linear way, felt confused (or conflicted) against those of cello (Caroline Dearnley) and viola, and where – as in cinema – one experienced misdirections as to where the movement was heading. (V) After a minute pause (signalled by communication between Huw Watkins and Thomas Gould), what followed now sounded like John Adams, and felt to be the centre of the piece², with, seemingly, hints of Mexican dance-rhythms, and strongly bowed cello-strokes.

(VI) Piano mumbled (or grumbled ?) as – over a drone from cello and viola – Dessner carefully placed Gould’s violin-line. Soon, a tremolo on the cello passed to the viola, and then a fragmented line moved from Gould to Watkins, becoming an ostinato : we were to hear shimmers, and soft pizzicato tones from Finnimore and Gould. Near the end, there was a quiet period of rumination with a cross-melody, but we were to conclude with a few bars of peals and cascades.

(VII) To long, ghostly cello-strokes, whose sound had a resemblance to that of a didgeridoo, was added the keening of the viola, and quiet contributions on piano : looking at Dearnley’s splayed left hand helped one to appreciate both what she was playing, and how she was playing it. When Gould at last entered, it was an augmentation of all that we heard, but, perhaps contrary to our expectations again, El Chan ended with cello (and a big smile from Caroline Dearnley – please see comments on the Schumann, below).

With any new commission, even from a composer with a pedigree such as - from the programme-notes - one gathers Bryce Dessner’s to be, one may be unsure what its future is : in his case, though, he has been running MusicNow (the music festival in Cincinnati that he founded) for ten years, for example, and so has additional recognition and musical impetus. As well, of course, as the skill as a composer, here evident to all³.

All that aside, Dessner constructed a set of changing moods in El Chan, which, he informed us (again, in the programme-notes), was a reaction to ‘a pool of water which has been the source of popular legends for many centuries’ [El Charco del Ingenio (near San Miguel, Mexico), which he visited in January 2016], after whose ‘guardian spirit’ the composition is named.

In this reviewer’s perception or interpretation, what this Tweeting says was also part of it :

3. Schumann ~ Piano Quartet in E Flat Major (1842), Op. 47

1. Sostenuto assai – Allegro ma non troppo

2. Scherzo : Molto vivace – Trio I – Trio II

3. Andante cantabile

4. Finale : Vivace

The Piano Quartet opens with (1) a chorale, whose use is in a Beethovenian vein, and we heard it as both spirited and thoughtful, before (in the Allegro ma non troppo) Schumann gets ‘into the swing’ of his own, distinct style.

To the movement, the Sinfonia players admirably brought a sense of being placed in relation to the composition, and we were treated to Caroline Dearnley’s luscious cello-tone, before a moment’s rallentando signalled that its close would be in a coda.

The (2) Scherzo was nimble and fleet of foot, flowing like quicksilver into the opening Trio section. Here, as in the connected and celebrated Piano Quintet in the same key (Opus 44), Schumann nervily keeps us alert. Throughout, one was aware of the close communication between the instrumentalists, and the poise that Schumann had them establish prior to employing pizzicato as a closing gesture.

At some level, we must have known that Schumann had set the scene for the gorgeous cello-writing that, here as elsewhere (and through how Caroline Dearnley played his melody-line), he was now to bring us in the (3) Andante cantabile. With it, as the attention moved to Thomas Gould, yearning (Sehnsucht ?) in the sweet-sounding tones of his violin.

Then – but softly, softly - into creating another chorale, whose utterly involving mood came to conjure – via Clare Finnimore on viola (and violin figurations) – the relaxed grandeur of eastern European cities and of the dance, quite gedachtvoll, but also gemütlich. At first, the cello stayed out, but then Dearnley came in, with light pizzicato, to complete the atmosphere. It was a wonder, because – in and through this writing (which might, in other, less-skilful hands, have felt like schmaltz) – we had such a fulness of true feeling.

To draw us into the (4) Finale, the tempo was straightaway Vivace - another facet of that carefree spirit of the Andante ! The joy was that, led by Gould (@ThomasGouldVLN), the musicians of Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) were as excited and enthused by the music as we were :

Infectiously so, in an act of co-creation (Zusammenhalt ?). As the section concluded, Caroline Dearnley gave one of her big smiles of pleasure at the material, and Schumann a fugato, which ended a performance that had easily shown that the Piano Quartet is the emotional equal of the Quintet.

Very enthusiastic applause summed up both the recital as a whole, and this lovely interpretation.

End-notes :

¹ Its world premiere had been given at the end of the previous week, at St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich (@thehallsnorwich), on Friday 8 April 2016, and this was only the second of three performances (the last was the following day, at Wigmore Hall (@wigmore_hall)).

² In Schumann’s Piano Quartet (as described in that part of the review), one feels to have reached this point in the movement marked Andante cantabile.

³ Likewise, in the ensembles and performers with whom Dessner works, including The Kronos Quaret (unbelievably coming to play locally, at Saffron Hall, within a fortnight : Saturday 14 May at 7.30 p.m.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 28 April 2016

A tour of Western musical styles ? : Britten Sinfonia with Benjamin Grosvenor Directs (uncorrected proof)

This is a review of Benjamin Grosvenor Directs Britten Sinfonia in Cambridge

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

28 April

This is a review of the first half (minus the encore)¹ of Benjamin Grosvenor Directs, with Britten Sinfonia led by Jacqueline Shave, at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge on Wednesday 27 April 2016 at 7.30 p.m.

Programme :

1. Béla Bartók (1881–1945) ~ Second movement from String Quartet No. 2

2. Elena Langer (1974-) ~ Story of an Impossible Love

3. Mozart (1756-1791) ~ Piano Concerto No. 27

1. Bartók ~ Allegro molto capriccioso from String Quartet No. 2 (1917)

The concert began with what one expects from these string-principals of Britten Sinfonia² (@BrittenSinfonia), music-making of a high and expressive order. Here, serving as an energizing prelude to what was to ensue in the works of Elena Langer (and then Mozart), it was much infused, at the outset, with very gypsy-style slurring and intonation.

Yet these mere words do not do justice to trying to describe the fresh tone-colours and nuances of this approach to Bartók, and, although he does bring that material / sound back, they were just part of the quartet’s accent-perfect playing. For – amongst other elements that constitute this compact movement’s make-up – we were also to hear :

* Some very spirited cello-lines from Caroline Dearnley

* Almost Bergian moments of pure hush

* What can only be characterized as pops and squeaks

* Initiated by Dearnley, the eerie hollowness in which the movement concludes, with its spidery or spiky notes

A very idiomatic, and natural, performance of this Bartók movement !

2. Langer ~ Story of an Impossible Love (2016)

This new commission was receiving only its second public performance (with Norwich and London to come – at, respectively, St Andrew’s Hall on Friday 29 April, and Milton Court on Sunday 1 May). Very fleetingly, Elena Langer seemed to open in the same way as an established piece of repertoire, but so much so that one could not place the reference before it had gone :

In what sometimes came to resemble a Concerto Grosso in variation form, we initially experienced -alongside the prime role of the lead violin (Jacqueline Shave) - a strong element of woodwind, cutting through the strings : oboe, flute, bassoon, all very beautifully played.

Rather than attempting to find words to say everything about how the composition continued to make itself known through this performance, it seemed wiser to concentrate on considering its overall sweep in a few observations :

* Some pastiche of Stravinskyesque neoclassicism (not least in the use of the piccolo (played by flautist Ileana Ruhemann) ?)

* Hints of Debussy (and his orchestral style or tone)

* Sparingly effective use of dissonance, or of disruptive sound

One was nearing what one sensed was the end of the work when Jacqueline Shave provided a drone to mix with the woodwind players, especially with the pair of oboes, played by Melinda Maxwell and Emma Feilding, interwoven (or interlocked ?).

Then, in what appeared to be a coda, Shave’s playing was foregrounded in a way that was very reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, with flute and oboe notes audible, before we died away with just her to close.

Alongside these pastoral aspects to the piece, one finds oneself returning to Story of an Impossible Love, the generic title of the work, and a possible connection to what Klaus Beekman’s monograph on Marcel Duchamp says about the work usually known as The Large Glass [the Bride stripped bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923) ] : Let me remind you at this point that the Large Glass relates the story of an impossible love affair between a half-willing virgin and an anxious bachelor.

Be that as it may, Elena Langer was warmly welcomed to the stage at West Road, where she showed her appreciation to the ensemble, and to particular players, not least Jacqueline Shave.

3. Mozart (1756-1791) ~ Piano Concerto No. 27 in B Flat Major, K. 595

1. Allegro

2. Larghetto

3. Allegro

For various reasons, one had been a little hesitant what to expect from Benjamin Grosvenor with Mozart³, but the situations in which ‘home-grown’ artists receive acclaim do differ, as do solo piano recitals on Radio 3 (@BBCRadio3) - and the interpretative choices (or those of programme⁴) that are part of them – from directing a concerto from the keyboard…

If everyone came to a concert for a replica of exactly what he or she already knew about a composer’s world, the result might please them all without really challenging them : with this Piano Concerto, even if all who came on the night specifically wanted to hear Britten Sinfonia, it would have been difficult for them not to come with the preconceptions that arise from familiarity. Before, that is, the keyboard entry in the opening (1) Allegro, and the cadence of a pattern of notes in the strings that changed them, probably having us wonder at its syncopated nature :

Except that, when Grosvenor (@grosvenorpiano) had started playing, we now heard the mimicry of that string-gesture in his part, and we heard brought out (with flute and both oboes at the core) a fanfare in the orchestral writing (which are causes for delight that playing one’s usual CD, or a radio broadcast where the score is not imaginatively re-entered, may not give…).

Similarly, as the movement widened out, the element of ‘call and response’ between Ruhemann (on flute) and Grosvenor had a closeness and impromptu feel to it (which was to pervade the whole Concerto), and, before the close, there were further lovely touches from both Sarah Burnett (bassoon) and her.

In the first part of the (2) Larghetto, which Grosvenor had characterized as with a marking of grazioso, we may soon have sensed that this impression of ‘graciousness’ was not wholly a convention of the Classical era, and that, signalled in the restraint that he brought to his part (and despite very conservative orchestral flourishes), we were not far from being taken to sense the emotional centre of this composition.

It was to prove to give the lie to the oft-quoted assertion that Mozart disliked the flute (made in its context of a commission for Flute Concerti that, for all sorts of reasons, failed to interest him in his youthful days, as against what ended being his final Piano Concerto), with the attentiveness of the eye-contact between Ruhemann and Grosvenor now as patent as the artistry of their musical understanding and interaction.

After flurries of what, because of Mozart’s use of grace-notes, sound like impossible note-values, there was more of the mimicry between flute and piano, and then with oboe, too, in the final (3) Allegro.

In a cadenza, Mozart took the piano soloist into a minor key, and started modulating – with, perhaps, a feeling of a tease, here, as to whether the work of the Concerto might effectively be done at this point ? Instead, he led us to a tutti before bringing flute and bassoon back to the fore, and this is where the Tweeted comment Touching the simplicity beyond the ornate ? had been made in the review-notes :

As we heard another highly modulating cadenza, there was a sense that the mood or will behind the piece (although unacknowledged to itself ?) now stood ‘broken’, and that from here onwards a brave face would be put on it. In all of which, the hall was rapt, carried with Grosvenor both in it, and in and through a closing cadenza, to a firm, positive ending, greeted enthusiastically to close the first half. (Except that Grosvenor was persuaded to give a quiet encore, sadly not heard for having already exited.)


¹ An immense dislike of Richard Strauss (let alone Strauss ‘re-working’ Beethoven), conveniently coupled with the need to make a mercy dash to The Arts Picturehouse (@CamPicturehouse) and back, means that Metamorphosen had been but audible in part, and only via the speakers in the foyer.

² In Jacqueline Shave (first violin), Miranda Dale (second violin), Clare Finnimore (viola), and Caroline Dearnley (cello), we had the same accomplished players who opened a concert by the Sinfonia during a day devoted to the music of Louis #Andriessen (at Milton Court in The Barbican Centre). (One day, and not just at a Sinfonia At Lunch, it would be lovely to hear them give a full recital… !)

³ Somehow, also, one had failed to engage with the meaning of the title ‘Benjamin Grosvenor Directs’, possibly through not mentally switching from Shave’s having directed the new work as leader, or having even construed that both were directing, but in different compositions.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

He’s the daddy ! : Colin Currie DJs at Saffron Hall (Part I)

This reviews Colin Currie Group’s all-Steve-Reich concert at Saffron Hall (Part I)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

23 June

This is Part I of a review of The Colin Currie Group’s all-Steve-Reich programme, with Synergy Vocals (in Part II), at Saffron Hall on Sunday 26 April at 7.30 p.m.

The review is in two Parts : Music for 18 Musicians (19741976) is here

Music for Pieces of Wood (1973)

The Colin Currie Group (@ColinCurrieGrp), led by Colin Currie (@colincurrieperc), opened the gig with a piece that echoed (though not literally) Saffron Hall’s (@SaffronHallSW’s) interior furnishing or appointment, Music for Pieces of Wood (1973).

By analogy, as each player joined in with a tock-tock sound, one felt that one could be listening to, and through, the line- and clause-breaks of John Milton’s verse in Paradise Lost, with its accentuated language of intonation : it was all there in these pitched instruments, and their cross-rhythms and overtones. (Colin Currie came in third, and there was a thudding, almost dully brutal quality to the timbre and pitch of his instrument, compared to those struck by his peers, and of whom we became less and less aware that they were beating different patterns.)

As we got used to the shape of the piece, we could hear the clear acclimatization of the fourth voice, and ourselves became acclimatized, as it began falling into rhythm (or step) with its neighbours, and speeding up its pace (this video may just confuse, but purports to let one visualize what happens with the various patterns). With all five players introduced and bedded in, and after a small crescendo (at 3 : 04 in the video), the iteration wound down, with beats dropping out, until we were back to the unceasing first two players.

Maybe we were just waiting, maybe expecting for Currie to join in again, but we could be more free this time around (if it was, exactly, another time around**), and just absorb the experience at times, feeling as though we were trotting with the percussionists, or as though it was the cream of the fringe-effects of Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds (composed the year before, in 1972).

At any rate, the effect was persuasive and impelling, one that must have been intense within the sound on stage. Its cessation, when the final iteration was through**, was met with a roar of approval.

Quartet (2009)

As the programme-notes told us, Quartet (2009) had been commissioned by the CC Group, but only first performed in 2014. They go on to quote Reich as calling it one of the more complex of his compositions.

It was the major work, in terms of length (but still as a balance to a bigger second half), but, as one might imagine, not a quartet in the sense of strings*** (although two instruments rely on them) :

Two concert grands, facing each other, and, likewise, two vibraphones, in a work marked Fast / Slow / Fast a form that, as Reich comments, is not only played without pause, but is also one familiar throughout history (from publishers Boosey & Hawkes web-page for the work).

Fast turned out not to be all that fast, in a movement that was joyous, but restrained, and where the players laid easily on the beat. It was distinguished by the gorgeous tone of the instruments, and the use of accents and rubato. At one point, very near the end, we were brought down in scale to a softness of some subtlety, and then up to a dynamic high, before a pause brought in a four-beat close.

The slow movement that succeeded it had the feeling of being at night, but not in any way like that of Béla Bartók’s famous movements with an ‘inner’ shadow, and rather by of Reich moving on from what went before, using open chords (as well as discords, later) to give the sense of introductory material. From there, it moved with delicacy, and with the sense of sounds precisely being placed in the air (fully as much by the score as by the playing).

The central part employed the resonant qualities of these forces, making use of a jazzy riff, spread-chords (which had a querulous, questioning tone to them), and what were nearly chimes (but without overplaying any notion of Night). On, though, we went, with further discord that led to full-throttle reverberation, but it proved to be words such as ‘rubato’ and ‘restraint’ that characterized the moment on which we ended.

There, strangely, more words, by the same amount again, for Slow than for Fast… And here, maybe reflecting that the second Fast built upon and ‘wrapped up’ up what it followed, some short comments :

The movement had a quality that seemed to be of assured urbanity, maybe evoking a city like New York. It, too, left chords in the air, again not quite chimes (because they were unresolved in the bass-notes of the piano), and, as it approached the intensity of its conclusion, one was keenly aware of all the methods of, and need for, clear and close communications between Colin Currie and the three others.

Part II of the review (Music for 18 Musicians (19741976)) is here


* Which, if one studies recorded performances, can be seen to be signalled by a nod (as is the moment of dissipation down to two musicians), as here (at 9 : 36). (Or one can see performers, unlike these or those of the Colin Currie Group, using non-cylindrical, actual and rough pieces of wood.)

** The programme-notes tell us that the time-signature tightens, each time, from 6 / 4, to 4 / 4, to 3 / 4, but maybe even the trained ear prefers to get lost in the changing impressions : as mentioned above, this video purports to let one visualize what happens with the various patterns...

*** Publishers Boosey & Hawkes' web-page for the work, giving Reich’s Composer’s Notes, has him observe : Quartet, when mentioned in the context of concert music, is generally assumed to mean string quartet.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IA)

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IA)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

14 October

What I am looking forward to in the Cambridge Classical Concert Series… (Part IA)

On Friday 17 October at 7.30, Cambridge Corn Exchange (@CambridgeCornEx) hosts the first in its annual Cambridge Classical Concert Series

Full details of the concert (and piece about the other two works) can be found here, but, during the second half, we have this one work, which has been known to me for decades (but I have never before tried to write about) :

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) : Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 [more than fifty years earlier, in 1877, but otherwise as with Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini : started in the summer, and first performed later that year – please see below]

We start, logically enough, with the genesis of his Symphony No. 2, at the end of the nineteenth century…

Brahms on holiday

According to the conductor Hermann Levi, Johannes Brahms began work on the symphony in the summer of 1877, when he was staying at Pörtschach [am Wörthersee]¹, and the work was ‘ready in his head’ by the end of September (with the first movement on paper).

It was given its first performance on 30 December that year, in Vienna under Hans Richter. To a friend, Elisabet von Herzogenberg², he described the first performance in these terms :

The musicians play my new work with crêpe around their arms because it sounds so mournful. It will be printed on black-edged paper.

The reason being, so the story goes, that Brahms ‘amused himself by giving friends the impression that it was gloomy’. Likewise, he reportedly told his publisher Fritz Simrock that it was ‘so melancholy that you will not be able to hear it [sc. listen to it ?]’.

The Agent Apsley on holiday

Brahms came into my musical life in my mid-teenage years, jostling – just amongst the Bs – with Bach, Bartók, Beethoven for my attention (wasn’t quite ready for something of the proportions of Bruckner 6 then…).

All four Brahms symphonies (ranked in my head, usually, as 2 / 3 / 1 / 4 – or, sometimes, 3 / 2 / 1 / 4) were staples in my diet. Along with (because of pairing³ ?) his Tragic Overture (Tragische Ouvertüre), Op. 81, and Academic Festival Overture (Akademische Festouvertüre), Op. 80 (though I only now spot the contiguous Opus Numbers), and the piano concertos⁴.

So, when I was away with my parents, Symphony No. 2, or No. 3, might very well be in the car’s cassette-player – possibly as something of home when away ? At any rate, I was happy (even if not my family ?) to become very familiar with those affordable Classics for Pleasure recordings : The Hallé under James Loughran.

And, from the sleeve-notes, I had this received wisdom about Brahms and that joke (though, before conceiving this piece, I never troubled to relate it to what I think that this symphony sounds like)…

Back to the trickster

The typical photographic portraits of Brahms (of which that above is not one) do not encourage us to believe that, at the age of 44, he could have been a prankster. That said, appearance not infrequently belies the facts, e.g. with the eccentric looks and talented reality of George Bernard Shaw, so maybe this account of Brahms having played a joke on his friends is a misconception ?

First, though, we really need to see where this symphony fits with the others !

All four Brahms symphonies

No. 1 (in C Minor, Op. 68) – started in 1854 (or 1855), and at least fourteen years in the making (though Brahms said that it was twenty-one years)

No. 2 (in D Major, Op. 73) – 1877, Pörtschach¹

No. 3 (in F Major, Op. 90) – 1883, Wiesbaden

No. 4 (in E Minor, Op. 98) – 1884–1885, commenced in Mürzzuschlag (now in Austria, within north-east Styria)

The struggle to write that Symphony No. 1 (and an earlier one, in D Minor, subsumed in the Piano Concerto No. 1 in that key) ! Yet contrast it with the fluency with which, within six months or so each, Brahms was then able to write Nos 2 and 3 – what an immense gift it must have been for Brahms that No. 1 freed him from having been looked at as the beneficiary of what Beethoven left behind him...

(Perhaps it also freed Brahms from the heights of self-criticism that had him destroy so many earlier compositions ? Even if, however, the way in which he had intended to pay tribute to Beethoven, by overtly using thematic (and even rhythmic) material in the symphony, was held against him (as if he had plagiarized) – ‘Any fool can see that !’ is what he is said to have retorted to a friend who remarked on these affinities.)

That joke in context

Some commentators have seen this, second, symphony as ‘the most happy and serene’ of all four (and, hence, Brahms’ words as a jest). In any event, Symphony No. 1 had not been performed until 1876, and then we see Brahms – away from Vienna just the following year – start Symphony No. 2 and have it performed, all within the bounds of 1877. However, need that happy release, to be able to write symphonically with such comparative ease, mean that the symphony itself must be ‘happy and serene’, as claimed ?

My unchecked recollection is that the description is more accurate of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 (in F Major, Op. 90) than of this one. Here, the opening (and longest) movement, an Allegro non troppo, pitches minor and major keys against each other, and, despite a dance-like, motile quality to the writing, feels what Radio 3’s Sean Rafferty might characterize as triste :

For it commences with what I hear as a somewhat melancholy opening theme on the horns (which, inevitably in symphonic form, Brahms brings back several times) - albeit lightened by the flute, when it makes its second intervention during the opening bars. So also, in the supposed tellings of the ‘joke’ quoted above, the words ‘mournful’ and also ‘melancholy’ appeared (NB : though in translation from German).

When a sense of lightness first comes, it may not feel like the waltz that it comes to hint at, and – with the transparency of the strings and the overlay of flute-notes – maybe we place ourselves in an Alpine meadow ? How settled we are there depends on one’s perception of, and reaction to, the saw-tooth arpeggios, uncomfortable harmonies, and, in the lower strings, almost Jaws-like disquieting depths.

Quite apart from which, as the movement cycles around itself, there are, when flute and oboe are not spinning cheerful arabesques, the cascades of droplets of notes, which, at first, fall in separate streams, and lead us to the phlegmatic-sounding horns, with notes in and over from the flute : this passage, and what follows from it, feels little like ‘happy and serene’, but instead over-tired, anxious and presciently modern music for its time.

In the shorter second movement (marked Adagio non troppo), the horn-calls, which are part of feeling tristesse, are joined by the restrained, moody reediness of clarinets, oboes and bassoons. Despite the pleasure of and beauty in an elegiac, stately, even sinuous theme introduced at the beginning, under-currents of questioning, hesitation, and doubt are here :

They are in the contributions made by those instruments (along with low brass), even if amongst suggestions – as in the first movement – of brighter possibilities. For the movement has an ebb and flow to it, as of the tide raking back down the shore. At the end, after a pause, the main theme returns, now eerily well-nigh incantatory, with timpani and clarinets in their chalumeau register – further pauses punctuate a repeated, unresolved chord, before bringing in a blazing, but momentary concord to conclude.

The Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) opens with a small group of players, as if it were chamber music. We have flutes again, and, in stating the theme, there is yet more tonally ambiguous solo writing for principal oboe, before it gives way to lively, accented rhythms, passed around the strings (with the delicacy perhaps sounding a little like the ballet-music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), with whose career that of Brahms overlapped (1833–1897)).

Although, when the tutti come, they are radiant, the movement is also marked by its use of dissonance, with only a limited development section (befitting a Scherzo). When the first theme recurs finally, oboe and flute principals, who have been key players throughout, are to the fore and, in a very brief coda, contribute elements to the muted closing chord.

The closing movement is – and not wholly in comparison with all that has gone before – passionately triumphant. However, despite being an Allegro con spirito, it also is not exclusively so :

A sinuous quality has been noted already, and it is present in the way in which the main theme seems to weave in and out, in and out, as picked out quickly by the flute, before being given a full-throatedly exuberant treatment. One, however, that stalls, after bass-notes from the strings.

Before a second theme is introduced, we have brief contributions from clarinet (to serve whose needs Brahms was to bring himself out of retirement and write so spectacularly later on), horns, oboe and – with pizzicati – flute : amidst all these woodwind elements, we continue to have, absent the tutti, centres of passing tonal uncertainty, bird-like swoopings of the principal flute and oboe, and rallentandi, full of expansive Viennese grace.

When Brahms reaches unequivocally for the major, it is accompanied with swirling, ecstatic woodwind, and builds to crashing / churning moments of rhythmic intensity, which yet die back to woodwind and pizzicato upper strings. Thus, eased by those gracious slowings-down, we cycle around, until Brahms builds up to a bell-like closing statement of the theme, with tuba, trombones and trumpets, and in which there are excited rapidly and descending runs, yet fractionally held back by caesuræ. And even in the penultimate chords, there are subtle modulations – as if we might not, after all, make it to D Major…

Joke or no ?

Not meant to duck the issue (as I have now stated my opinion), but the answer to whether we think that Brahms was serious, or joking, largely now comes down to interpretation – if hearing the symphony were not, that is, already an interpretation : by an orchestra under the musical direction of a conductor.

On this occasion, of course, it is to be the RPO working under the baton of Fabien Gabel – and maybe they can help us, with subtle shifts on the night, do various things :

* Notice detail (those flute, oboe or horn parts ?)

* Hear the effect of different emphases

* React to variations in the tonal, textural, rhythmic, or emotional landscape

* Even the simple matter of a transition between movements : via YouTube (as I did, for this piece), watch Leonard Bernstein, with The Vienna Philharmonic, run the last two movements together, without a break…

Happy listening !


¹ Who was, amongst other things, a pianist, singer, composer, teacher, and music publisher, as well as the wife of an Austrian composer (Brahms, though he adopted Vienna, was German).

² A lakeside town, and established summer resort, in the far South of modern-day Austria.

³ And a few of his twenty-one Hungarian Dances – possibly the three that he orchestrated himself (and only another three of them were his original compositions)… ?

⁴ Though not the violin concerto – possibly because I had a practice of listening to the Tchaikovsky concerto every day without fail ?

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Patricia Kopatchinskaja directs

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4 March

A review of a concert given at West Road Concert Hall (@WestRoadCH), Cambridge, by Patricia Kopatchinskaja, directing Britten Sinfonia on Monday 3 March

From the pre-concert talk, where Patricia Kopatchinskaya (@PatKopViolin) was interviewed by the chief executive of Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia), David Butcher, it seemed that she might have curated this concert with the ensemble’s strings. Certainly, she was keen that we should hear the work by Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian (Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra No. 2, Four Serious Songs), and, when asked what he hoped that we would take away, that we should listen with the heart.

Brahms (1833–1897) (arr. Angerer (b. 1927))
In any case, as one would expect from a Sinfonia concert, sensitive programming was by no means the least part of the evening, which opened with a group of pieces (a selection from Brahms’ Choral Preludes, Op. 122 (from 1896), as arranged by Paul Angerer) that spoke with direct, condensed spirituality, but in a variety of moods. The first, O Gott, du frommer Gott, had a very full string sound, and it was only gradually that it became apparent that there was a presence of a voice amongst the texture because a few players, such as leader Thomas Gould, were actually holding their instruments and vocalizing – a very subtle and aetherial effect, which was used in one other of the preludes.

In Herzlich tut mich erfreuen, a prelude that opened with viola and cello, there was an impression of disembodied spirits swaying, whereas, in Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen, there was a more weighty feel, as of a force that is in a flow, but resisting it. With Mein Jesu, der du mich, the writing seemed fugal, but lighter in quality, until, that is, the final entry of the basses, which felt to be sounding the depths – a haunting number, which had a relatively sudden end. The final prelude, O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, alternated tutti with a small group of the principals, and had the air, if not the exact theme, of Bach’s St Matthew passion, closing with a heartfelt pianissimo, one of the Sinfonia’s specialities.

Tigran Mansurian (b. 1939)
The link with Brahms was that, in the form of his Four Serious Songs, he gave rise to Tigran Mansurian’s Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra No. 2 – their texts and spirit provided the genesis for a new work, from 2006, which opens with an Andante con moto and the use of harmonics in its introduction, and a slide-effect that resembled keening. In the solo part, where Kopatchinskaja was sometimes dramatically left as an extremely chromatic lone voice and with material that revolved around various types of scale and silence, she played with great expressiveness.

Perhaps significantly, the movement closed following a prominent rising scale, given that texts from Brahms’ original settings ranged from the Book of Ecclesiastes to the celebrated passages in the first letter to the Corinthians, which ends the greatest of these is love. It was followed by another movement marked Andante, but this time qualified by mosso agitato, which was evidenced in some tempestuous currents, which then died away and led to a hesitant solo. When the orchestra re-entered and combined with the lyricism of the solo part, it felt like a prayer. Tension then built dramatically, as a piano passage crescendoed, culminating in an abrupt gesture, after which what seemed like a pianissimo possibile was highly effective : the violin sounded like a pleading voice, and the writing again made use of a scale. Reminiscent of the words in the Book of Isaiah, a smoldering wick he will not quench, the movement closed like a faltering flame.

Next came an Allegro vivace, which had a vivid melody, but with interruptions, and then gave way to another version, this time with harmonics, before resuming. A piece of simple gestures, and again exploiting the quality of being very quiet. To conclude, a movement marked Con moto, molto semplice, which, although coming last, felt like the heart of the work in the form of a culmination, and started with a rocking theme, as of a lullaby, but leading to some very violent writing for the cello section. In the solo part, the material seemed very embellished, and the movement continued with outbursts, before drawing to a close in what seemed an organic way. Though not a work that was necessarily easy on a first hearing, it clearly spoke to the Cambridge audience, as mediated by Kopatchinskaja, and was well received.

Bartók (1881–1945)
In the final work of the first half, the Bartók Romanian Folk Dances from 1915, Kopatchinskaja did not exactly take liberties with what typical recordings do with them*, but she made them feel as a musician in the folk tradition might treat them, fitting the rendition / performance to the occasion, and alive to how it is being received. In the few minutes that the group of dances last, we ran a whole gamut from vigorous playing and slide-notes, performed with feeling, to a sense of restraint, coupled with squeaks and teasing from the soloist. There was also a gypsy strain to the solo violin early on, and, later, a very idiomatic quality to the violin, with the set of dances being brought to a close with immense energy and a strong sensation of joy, evidently conveyed to those present, to judge from the applause.

Janáček (1854–1928) (arr. Tognetti (b. 1965))
Returned from the interval, the audience was in the world of Janáček's String Quartet No. 1 from 1923 (nicknamed or subtitled The Kreutzer Sonata). (There was a fascinating note about the composer's struggle for recognition in the (ever useful) Sinfonia programme.) This time, however, it was the quartet as interpreted for string ensemble by Richard Tognetti. Without in any way disputing the choice of repertoire from a couple of seasons ago, this was, unlike Mahler’s of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor (alias Death and the Maiden), an arrangement that really added to one’s appreciation of the original, rather than merely having it writ large :

It felt unforced throughout, and not like those orchestrations that try to change the scale of a work. In the opening Adagio, the strings had a luminosity to them, striving, as the movement developed, to achieve serenity from a sense of anxiety. Then, in the first of three movements marked Con moto, a suspenseful atmosphere, where things felt sharp, and, although broken by an edgily sunny interlude, one that intensified. Under Kopatchinskaja, the Sinfonia played with immense delicacy and poise, with a delicious bass and a figure that kept repeating, as if unable not to.

The very familiar third movement, with its vivid change of tempi, communicated one central message amidst its reference to Beethoven’s sonata and sometimes wistful, sometimes agitated beauty, that of a gesture of trying to erase something – as of Lady Macbeth compulsively washing her hands, over and again. In the finale, with phrasing that felt like a bird trying to fly, despite some ensnarement, the musicality of Kopatchinskaja was supremely evident. Heightened tension in the pizzicato passages and a racing movement in the cello section seemed to lead inevitably to the turbulent close of this work, with what came across as a mood of resignation. All in all, a lovely way to hear this music, which has thankfully become better known in the last decade or so.

Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Finally, a youthful work from Mendelssohn for violin and strings, which Kopatchinskaja had told us that she likes better than his famous concerto. In three movements, it began with an Allegro, and we were soon brought to the tender heart of the theme. From there, the soloist was called upon to execute a series of runs, and then a moment of stasis, with a sustained note, became the springboard for yet more – the writing and playing were both virtuosic, and the latter brought freedom to the former, with Kopatchinskaja giving the impression of improvising cadenzas.

In that part of the concerto, Mendelssohn seemed to be enjoying himself with a recurrent motif, whereas, in the central Andante, he brought us an exquisitely beautiful theme, which Kopatchinskaja made soar and sway with ease – it seemed almost to have the sweetness of birdsong, with the Sinfonia’s ensemble sensitive to the mood, and the movement closed quiescently. With a lively dance tune in the Allegro finale, Kopatchinskaja and Mendelssohn’s sense of playfulness were in their element, and brought the programme to a triumphant finish.

Ligeti (1923–2006)
Not quite, though, for leader Thomas Gould and Kopatchinskaja gave a duo of Ligeti as an encore : the Ballade had the feeling of a Gaelic air, as against the boisterously spirited Danse, and were much appreciated as a closing gesture.

Judge for yourself : here is Hewitt's review...

All in all, a very pleasurable chance to hear this artist, and this Tweet may sum up many a reaction :

Asked what longer work she would bring if she came back, she had said that, depending on with whom else she was playing, she would choose :

* One of the Sonatas for Violin and Piano

* The Sonata for Solo Violin

* The Violin Concerto No. 2, or one of the Rhapsodies


* It had been quite clear from what she said in the pre-concert talk that she had been most reluctantly persuaded of the importance to developing her career of making CDs, which she had rebelled against because their unfree nature, as fixed in and for all time, which goes quite counter to her spirit of intuition and innovation.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Dangerous Mozart pleases audiences

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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23 October

The Academy of Ancient Music’s (@AAMorchestra’s) concert at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge (@WestRoadCH) fell into a half of early to mid-period Haydn (a concerto, then a symphony – Haydn was apparently unable to compose beyond 1802, but lived until 1809) and one of very early Mozart (symphony, concerto), opening in a stately Allegro moderato under violinist Alina Ibragimova’s direction in Haydn's Violin Concerto No. 1 in C Major Hob. VIIA : 1 (which the programme variously dates to (contents page) c. 1769 and (notes by Stephen Rose) the early 1760s).

Haydn, as with many a composer, sounds different when writing a concerto from a symphony, and this work reminded me of one of his Cello Concertos (No. 1 in C Major (Hob. VIIB : 1, which seems to be thought written between 1761 and 1765)) for its spacious character. At any rate, the notes tell us that Luigi Tomasini, leader of the orchestra at the Esterházy court, was the soloist for whom the concerto for violin was written, but it could have been written for Ibragimova, who made an imperious gesture in the opening phrase of her solo part, which then gave way to a sublime graciousness that pervaded the first movement.

In pieces from this period, we almost have, in sonata form, the same delight as in the da capo aria, of being reminded music from earlier on, and hearing it anew in its thematic context (although the programme notes tell me that this is more like a Baroque ritornello) : the effect was, at any rate, of somehow simultaneously slowing down and accelerating our sense of progression under Ibragimova’s direction, and she appeared not to be using written-out cadenzas, but gently meditating on the foregoing material.

In the slow movement, Ibragimova was given a full chance to demonstrate her singing string-tone, and the strings had a clockwork-like pizzicato, reminiscent of Vivaldi (those concertos), and brilliantly executed. Exploiting the purity of the upper register of her instrument, and using a lovely piano contrast, Haydn and she charmed us in this Adagio, and prepared us for the Presto finale, which, seemingly with a cognate theme to that of the first movement, had a pleasing sense of inevitability as it worked its way through to a sonorous close.

That same quality of togetherness, under the directorship from the violin of Pavlo Beznosiuk, marked the opening theme of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 in F Sharp Major, to which the account attaches that it was his protest on behalf of the court musicians at the prospect, in late 1772, of the court at Esterházy staying there beyond the usual October till December. There are momentary bars of repose from that theme’s demands, but they are only momentary, and they built up a sense of longing.

We were then brought, in the long Adagio, to what seemed the emotional heart of the piece, with its well-captured reflective mood seeming to evoke a place for cognition, and subtle horn tones that enhanced this impression. In the shorter Menuet and Trio, a falling four-note motif was evident, which again gave an emotional pull to the music, as it moved towards the finale, marked Presto – Adagio.

The sonority that marked the first tempo was gradually waning in that of the second, since, in pairs, the instrumentalists were leaving the stage (say, second horn with principal oboe), enacting what happened at the first performance, until just Tomasini and Haydn were left : Haydn has a reputation both for his sense of humour (his ‘Surprise’ symphony, for example, or that string quartet that always catches me out), and for having influence with his royal master, but one does not know what risk he had been taking. AAM took none, only prisoners for its sensitive playing.

After the interval, a work of teenage years by Mozart (from 1770), was paired with one of his later - but still early - violin concertos, proving that we are wrong to match one of these concerto works with a later symphony. Hearing the Symphony No. 1 in G Major was not just an educational exercise, but helped reveal the building-blocks from which, more seamlessly, the composer was to construct his more mature style, such as a four-note motif in which the next note went up, then back, then down.

Listening to the thought-out playing of these two movements, again under the direction of Beznosiuk, there were hints of what was to come in the concerto, with a gesture of a heavily accented note on the strings, and then repeated notes. It came across wonderfully as a different sound-world already from that of ‘Papa’ Haydn, though written at the same time as his works.

  • Alina Ibragimova : a mixture of total abandonment and total control that is in no way contradictory (The Times)

I thought that I knew Mozart’s co-called Turkish concerto, the Concerto for Violin No. 5 in A Major (1775, when Mozart was but 19, Haydn 43) but this interpretation caused me to experience it anew. After the preceding symphony, as I have said, I was better placed to spot the use of pairs of falling notes, noticing the structural elements, but finding how the music is much more than them, and it does not hurt to know that they are there.

At times bending towards the music-stand, and seeming usually to be in motion between the divided first and second violins, there was a physical feeling of freedom in Ibragimova and her flowing dress that matched her musical inventiveness, and the impression that the orchestra had really warmed to her leadership and performance. In the Adagio, an initial geniality of mood gave way to a sense of things becoming fluid, but, concurrently, of time standing still, as if the music were flowing directly from Mozart’s own bow.

In the Rondeau finale, she gave us ‘slapped’ notes in the strings that would not have been out of place in Bartók’s middle quartets (which, of course, she plays, but I do not know about techniques contemporary to Haydn), and a barbarity and a rawness of tone in the Turkish theme that made it feel fresh and new. In the true nature of such a movement, we also had a sense of play in not knowing where we were at an end, with its familiar unflashy ending, but the audience was in no doubt about how this piece was received :

Ibragimova came back for an encore, which I am told by AAM’s Michael Garvey, its chief executive, was the slow movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major (nicknamed ‘Le Matin’), which not only had a note of leave-taking about it, but also a phrase of wildly abundant expression from our soloist, only matched by the reception from those around me.

Garvey tells me that, after three performances in Italy, AAM is at a new venue for it in London, Milton Court Concert Hall, and then off for a fortnight to tour Australia. A good chance for many others to hear this nicely put-together programme !

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)