John Lill in excellent form for the second concert of his Beethoven piano sonata cycle

‘The second concert of John Lill’s Beethoven piano sonata cycle saw this national treasure back in the form that has earned him his reputation. After a slightly disappointing first outing, it was refreshing to hear such commitment throughout a concert, even in the smaller Piano Sonatas (nos. 3, 6 and 10); never did these earlier works feel lesser than their sprawling companion,Piano Sonata no. 21 in C major, ‘Waldstein’ (so-called after its dedicatee). Relishing Beethoven’s unheard-of piano textures and colours, and with deeply nuanced expression, this was a performance in which every note sounded fresh and totally original, as if we were hearing these works for the first time.’

 

Read my whole review at Bachtrack here

The Brahmsian Orchestra at its best: Philharmonia Brahms cycle continues with Van Steen 13/10/13

‘The second concert of the Philharmonia’s Brahms cycle saw Brahms’ orchestra at its richest and most full-blooded. Alongside the burnished, glowing colours of the Haydn Variations were placed the autumnal glow of the Third Symphony and the Concerto for Violin and Cello, Brahms’ final orchestral work, with sibling soloists Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff. With an orchestra as marvellous as the Philharmonia, there is really precious little that can go wrong, even more so under the watchful eye of Jac van Steen, standing in for Andris Nelsons. Van Steen, reserved but authoritative in gesture, beamed for most of the concert, and an immaculately detailed – never clinical – sound from the orchestra reflected the loving care with which he approached some of Brahms’ most appealing music.’

Read the whole review at Bachtrack here.

Hannu Lintu and Hélène Grimaud open the Philharmonia’s Brahms cycle 10/10/13

‘It is often said of British orchestras that their sound lacks the visceral, characterful edge of their colleagues on the continent. Lost underneath the technical perfection necessitated by a packed concert schedule are, we are told, commitment and passion for the music, as well as idiosyncrasies; where one can apparently tell Vienna from Berlin in a heartbeat, the LSO and LPO may as well be interchangeable. Well, the Philharmonia and Hannu Lintu – last-minute replacement for an ill Andris Nelsons – roundly dispelled this myth in the first concert of their Brahms cycle, with two first works: the youthful and impetuous First Piano Concerto with Hélène Grimaud, and the hard-won First Symphony. Despite the sudden change of personnel, the orchestra hung on every flamboyant flick of Lintu’s wrist, and a total unity of purpose was obvious throughout, with some of the most irresistibly luscious string playing I’ve ever heard from a British orchestra.’

Read my whole review of this excellent concert for Bachtrack here.

The Appassionata opens John Lill’s Beethoven sonata cycle at Cadogan Hall, 7/10/13

‘The first of concert of John Lill’s Beethoven piano sonata cycle at Cadogan Hall saw a warhorse of the concert platform performing one of the great warhorses of the piano repertory. Alongside the concluding Op. 57 sonata – theAppassionata – we heard three lesser-known works, namely Op. 10 no. 3 in D, Op. 22 in B flat, and Op. 54 in F, presented in chronological order. Introducing Lill’s idiosyncratic programming, chosen, according to his prefatory note, to demonstrate in each concert something of the progression of Beethoven’s style, the earliest sonata came first and the Appassionata last, the latter paired with the practically unheard Op. 54 after the interval. Although a reasonable idea to ensure variety in each of a whopping eight concerts, such “big names last” programming often leads to a lack of focus in the earlier works on the programme, and the disparity in standard between first and second halves was rather disappointing, particularly from one who puts Beethoven first in his repertoire to such an extent as Lill.’

Read the whole review at Bachtrack here.

A lesson in orchestral technique from Orchestra Mozart and Haitink in their London debut, 1/10/13

‘It was only through a litany of roster changes that the Orchestra Mozart’s London debut at the Royal Festival Hall took place at all. Beginning with Claudio Abbado and Martha Argerich down to play Haydn and Mozart, a dual cancellation meant Bernard Haitink and Maria João Pires had to step in at what may as well have been the last minute. With them changed the programme, leaving us with an all-Beethoven concert contrasting the high drama of the second Leonore overture with the relatively unrestrained optimism of the Second Piano Concerto and the Fourth Symphony, both in B flat and with not a minor-key movement between them.’

Read the whole review at Bachtrack here.

Busoni, Beethoven, Liszt, Mussorgsky; Paul Lewis, Sarratt Village Hall 28/9/13

  • Bach-Busoni: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland BWV 659
  • Beethoven: Piano Sonata op. 27 no. 1 in Eb
  • Bach-Busoni: Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 639
  • Liszt: Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort S.203; Unstern! sinistre, disastro S.208; Richard Wagner- Venezia S.201
  • Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

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The Sarratt Music Festival is a bit of an odd bird. A programme of two weekends of 2 concerts each with 5 days of children’s concerts in between, all in a sleepy part of rural Hertfordshire, does not sound the most conducive environment to great music-making. However, with appearances this year from the Hilliard Ensemble, the Budapest Café Orchestra, Leon McCawley (with LPO principal Peter Schoeman and principal horn and local David Pyatt), and none other than Paul Lewis, the Festival is an unexpected delight. Saturday’s concert saw Lewis in typically brilliant form in a programme juxtaposing the worlds of reality and ‘fantasy’, the prostrate humanity of Bach’s chorale preludes (as transcribed by Busoni) contrasted with the freewheeling structures of Beethoven’s two Quasi una Fantasia piano sonatas op. 27, the otherworldliness of late Liszt with the earthen vitality of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Lewis’s playing was, as ever, irreproachable. From the first note of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland his mastery of tone was obvious, Busoni’s transcriptions requiring, in general, the most expressive thumbs or fifth fingers of any music in the repertoire. The chorale melodies, though surrounded by heavy, solemn octaves and delicate outer parts, always sang through with human warmth. One can hardly match the range of colours possible on the organ, but Lewis came pretty close in finding an effortlessly expressive vocality of lines often shared awkwardly between hands.

However, it was what Lewis did apart from playing that bothered me. I don’t really mind that we occasionally call Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 27 no. 2 the ‘Moonlight’. Clearly, something in Ludwig Rellstab’s description of the first movement as like moonlight over Lake Lucerne struck a chord with the general public, and the sobriquet stuck. Of course, such ‘inauthentic’ titling is an apt target for the lofty chuckling of those who would really love to think they know better, and Lewis’s preamble, in which he asserted the piece ‘has nothing to do with moonlight’ to knowing harrumphs from the audience, seemed a shame, especially since his interpretation had quite a lot to do with it.

Say what you will about the title, but Rellstab’s Romantic image has influenced our understanding of the first movement for years, and if one is going to laugh it off as external to the music, one should at least have the consistency to play what’s written, to ‘get back to the music’. Lewis’s reading of the first movement was in a familiarly dirge-like 4, not in Beethoven’s written alla breve 2, and the march rhythms – it is, after all, a funeral march – were consequently indistinct. To be clear, this was beautiful, elegant playing, just as we had heard in op. 27 no. 1; my issue is that it sounded exactly the same as all the performances in which ‘Moonlight’ sits unchallenged in the programme. Andràs Schiff explains this in his Guardian lecture series*, and demonstrates how an ‘authentic’ interpretation might be crafted. Schiff may be forthright and more than a little dogmatic, but he is admirably consistent in the link from his thinking to his playing.

The Moonlight (take that, Paul Lewis!) also showed a problem with the Sarratt Music Festival’s commendable selection of performers: big names need proper instruments, and proper instruments need big halls. The full-length Steinway Lewis played on was far too large for Sarratt’s impressive but still provincial village hall, especially for a player who can project a gorgeous tone to the back of the biggest concert halls in the world. As such, the finale of the Moonlight, though absolutely thrilling and improvisatory in its deftness, was often unpleasantly loud, especially Beethoven’s clangorous punctuating chords.

So too in an otherwise exemplary Pictures, where by the end of the Great Gate of Kiev the constant hammering of much of Mussorgsky’s lumpen piano writing had come to feel a bit of an assault on the ears. This is through no fault of Lewis’s, of course, merely a misfortune of ambitious event planning. Indeed, though his reading was rather conventional, there was practically nothing to fault in it. Particularly effective were the contrasting sonorities of Catacombae, the cavernous underbelly of a city and the sorrow of the buried dead chillingly and effortlessly evoked by Lewis’s now muscular, now delicate performance. Despite an over-loud piano, this was really exciting stuff, and a long ovation afterwards drew Lewis back to the piano for some late Liszt, the Klavierstuck, a quiet, meditative, and short piece showcasing his intensely, achingly lyrical tone and effortlessly aristocratic style.

It was in fact the short pieces of late Liszt which were the highlight of the evening. Experimental in form to the point of formlessness, under the right fingers these are arresting works, with Richard Wagner – Venezia (inspired by the death of said Wagner) the only one approaching anything like grandeur. With visionary harmonies and a whispered, totally sincere profundity, these short pieces seemed to descend on the post-interval silence from another world, and the silence reigning at the end was a measure of the intense focus Lewis drew out of audience that, though occasionally chatty, was mostly reverential of such an obviously unimpeachable artist.

*Schiff’s lectures on the whole set of Beethoven sonatas are worth a listen for anyone wishing to learn a thing or two about these pieces, or at least to have something to be outraged about. Find the whole series here.

Strauss: Burleske; Mahler, Symphony no. 6 in A Minor, LSO/Dausgaard/Douglas, 25/9/13

Wednesday night saw the LSO in, frankly, disappointing form. If the rumours are true, it seems Sir Simon Rattle will have a somewhat capricious bunch to contend with in 2017; I have heard the LSO play more together under Gergiev’s toothpick and possessed left hand than they did all evening under Dausgaard’s exemplary baton technique. Whatever the reason for this, the whole concert, particularly Mahler’s colossal Sixth Symphony, felt like a struggle between conductor and orchestra, with frequent ensemble lapses letting the LSO’s reputation down. The latter only occasionally took note of Dausgaard’s often unorthodox interpretive decisions, and the performance nearly fell apart due to miscommunication in the last movement. What’s more, at the end of the concert and after such a huge symphony, it took an effort to recall Barry Douglas’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Burleske we heard as the opener.

Programming Mahler symphonies can be tough. With the exception of the modestly-proportioned First and Fourth (at about 55 minutes each; this is Mahler, after all), the symphonies tend to run well over an hour, but often not quite enough that they satisfy the standard concert length of around 1 hour 40 minutes. What’s more, the impact of works so gloriously overscored, overemotional, and overlong is rather difficult to balance in a programme – by the end of the Sixth, especially, any prior work can tend to be forgotten. Best, I think, to head the other way; for instance, I once saw the Ninth prefaced to magical effect with Mozart’s G Major Violin Concerto. Intimate textures and delicate orchestration only emphasised Mahler’s self-aware grandiloquence, which reaches out through total musical decadence and even cliché to something far beyond. Whilst Mozart highlighted the magical excess of Mahler, Richard Strauss’s Burleske did not.

A 20-minute concerto for large orchestra and piano by a swaggeringly confident young Strauss, the Burleske felt rather too big for its boots under Douglas and Dausgaard. Tempi were stodgy and Douglas opted for a broadly lyrical approach swathed in pedal, which seems rather against the puckish spirit of the piece. Timpanist Nigel Thomas’s starring role was played to perfection, and his dialogue with the soloist was often genuinely entertaining. Although the LSO sounded fine, this performance lacked conviction, and there’s not quite enough in the piece to distract an audience from Mahler 6, particularly with the massive percussion section looming at the back of the Barbican Hall.

On this point, I must say that the hammerblows were perhaps the most disappointing parts of this performance. Two out of three of Mahler’s ‘blows of Fate’ are executed by a sledgehammer; what less musical and more interesting instrument could there be? However, instead of the usual practice of lifting the hammer over the head and letting it fall from there, the LSO’s percussionist first lifted it, but then in fact brought the hammer down and dropped the long end onto the box from about a foot above. The effect of this was twofold: first, we were disappointed that the swing was so anaemic, and the blow itself was a damp squib – aurally and dramatically, a letdown. Mahler’s hammer is pure theatre; it is probably in truth no louder than the other percussion, but the great fall produces such an impression on an audience that the hammer may as well be the only thing playing. To try and make it just another instrument makes it, well, just another instrument.

Perhaps it’s the horn player in me telling me to blame the conductor for everything, but I’m fairly sure this was Dausgaard’s caprice rather than percussion section intransigence, so tight was the control he attempted to exert elsewhere. His flexibility of tempo would have been really admirable if it had been married to a unified musical vision. This was a conductor who wanted to manage every nuance of expression, but often ideas would be overused, so that what was novel became merely predictable. Particularly notable for this were the scherzo and finale, where the return of transitional sections in new orchestrations and alignments did not bring a similar renewal of interpretation.

In Dausgaard’s defence, when he had control the results were often good; the slow middle section of the first movement – a depiction of ‘the last terrestrial sounds penetrating into the remote solitude of mountain peaks’ – was particularly fine, with breathtaking playing from principal horn Timothy Jones. The first movement in general showcased many good ideas, and Dausgaard’s flexible tempi were marvellously on display in the ravishing second theme. The opening march was taken, I believe, even a bit faster than Gergiev’s fleet-footed reading with the same orchestra, and quick tempi were the name of the game throughout, though they could also go further in the opposite direction than any other performance I have heard.

Such an approach, however, engenders risks, and the LSO seemed either unable (one suspects not) or unwilling (one suspects so) to work with Dausgaard’s dictatorial control of expression, ensemble issues plaguing the performance. Particularly glaring was a wrong percussion entry in the final movement, which took some worryingly blatant cuing from Dausgaard to correct. It’s rare to see the LSO nearly fall apart, but see it we did, and this was only the most egregious example. For whatever reason, the LSO was in a heads-down mood and the performance sounded like it; with ensemble issues clearly setting them on edge, this did not feel a committed performance and despite the ensuing silence, there was no spell to break come the symphony’s cataclysmic conclusion.