Beethoven faces up to Matthews and wins with Oramo and the BBC SO

‘Sakari Oramo’s first season as Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is now well under way, and Wednesday night’s concert at the Barbican demonstrated his musical intelligence not only in performance but also in programming. A new work by Colin Matthews, Traces Remain, explores the relationship between harmony’s tonal past and its atonal present through a network of quotations; similarly, Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra finds a voice for the newly-chromatic valved horn, but one proudly indebted to the instrument’s outdoor, signalling history. Though it may seem an odd choice, Oramo never allowed Beethoven’s monumental third symphony, theEroica, to rest on its laurels. Rather, it was an Eroica for the modern day, saturated with the traces of the end result of Beethoven’s savage dissonances and rhythmic dislocations. Curiously, it was this latter work, rather than the new commission, that shone as the highlight of the programme. Too clever by half, Matthews’ myriad tonal quotations stalled rather than invigorated the music, and an appealingly individual compositional voice was all but lost under references that were all too explicit’

Read the whole review at Bachtrack here.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Josep Pons in Schreker and other 20th-century gems

‘How refreshing it was to see Franz Schreker’s name on a programme next to established classics by Schoenberg and Ravel! The Austrian composer’s 1918 opera Die Gezeichneten, the overture to which opened the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert with Josep Pons, has yet to be seen in the UK, and there is much unjustly neglected music to be heard amongst the Austrian’s oeuvre. Next to poignant elegies by Busoni and Ravel, as well as the latter’s erotically perfumed Shéhérazade (with Nora Gubisch) and Schoenberg’s early masterpiece the Chamber Symphony no. 1, the 20-minute overture was no mere trifle but an integral and major part of the evening. Such a shame, then, that its performance did not seem so careful and measured as that of several of the other works on the programme. Innovative programming showcasing the huge variety of sounds from the beginning of the 20th century – all these works were written within 20 years of each other – was let down by very mixed execution from Pons, however beautiful the BBC SO’s playing may have been.’

Read the whole review at Bachtrack here.

The symphony that is not one: Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette with Gergiev and the LSO 6/11/13

‘What is there to say about Hector Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette? A “dramatic symphony” in seven movements, featuring small and large choruses, and three soloists (two of whom sing for around five minutes each and one who sings for around 30), as well as a treasure trove of unusual instrumental combinations and sounds, it is safe to say this is something of an odd bird. Add to this a libretto by Émile Deschamps which not only misses out a great deal of Shakespeare’s drama but goes so far as to reorder it and even mentions the playwright by name, and it becomes apparent there’s something truly wacky afoot. And even that’s leaving out Berlioz’s frankly astonishing approach to melody and harmony. With echoes of Wagner, Brahms, and even Debussy scattered throughout, as well as a mind-bending reimagination of the Baroque “mad scene” for a new age, it is difficult to believe this piece was written in 1839.’

Read the rest of this review at Bachtrack.

Uncanny, surpassing Berlioz from Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican 31/10/13

‘A smattering of confused applause greeted gay rights activist Peter Tatchell to the Barbican Hall’s stage before the first instalment of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Berlioz cycle under Valery Gergiev. Stating that he did not wish to disrupt the performance, Tatchell made it clear he was there to protest Gergiev’s noted unwillingness to criticise Vladimir Putin’s record on human rights, particularly with regard to Russia recently prohibiting the dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors”. Such demonstrations are nothing new to Valery Gergiev, whose concerts over the last few months have frequently been the subject of such protests, often far more disruptive than Tatchell’s restrained effort. The security (and an irate principal trumpet) having removed Tatchell from the platform, an apparently untroubled Gergiev came to the platform and launched a seemingly possessed LSO into some of the most thrilling Berlioz one could ever hope to hear.’

Read the whole review at Bachtrack here. Very much looking forward to Roméo et Juliètte on Wednesday…

Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra bring their Barbican Brahms cycle to an end

‘I sat down to hear the last concert of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s Brahms cycle under Riccardo Chailly at the Barbican with high hopes. Having heard the hype, it seemed that the restrained autumnal shades of the Violin Concerto in D major(with superstar Leonidas Kavakos) and the sheer compositional majesty of theSymphony no. 4 in E minorhad the potential to be the high points of an already much-vaunted cycle. Chailly’s “radical return” to Brahms, as Decca are calling it, has been the subject of much scrutiny. An insistence on cutting through years of performance tradition to find an interpretation that Brahms himself might have understood – according to Chailly – has more than a whiff of the “authentic” performance movement about it, and it was along these lines that the Italian’s interpretations ran. With invariably brisk tempos and highly marked articulation, it was the control of a Norrington that Chailly exercised over his orchestra, and despite the audience’s cheers, I’m not sure it always worked, however impressive a display of Regiemusik it may have been.’

Read the whole review at Bachtrack here.

It was with a heavy heart that I wrote this review. having heard from a colleague that a friend described the Gewandhaus’s performance of the Second Symphony as ‘the best performance of the piece he’d ever heard or could imagine hearing’ I was expecting something rather better than what I heard. I take no pleasure in being as negative as I was, but a barnstorming LSO concert last night relieved my mood considerably; review for Bachtrack to follow…

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.

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.