London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican ★★★★☆
A 20th-century classic, a neglected masterwork from a century ago, and three new pieces vastly different in tone from each other: the LSO’s concert on Sunday night was admirably ambitious and nourishing. A harsh critic might say the orchestra actually bit off more than it could chew, in the available rehearsal time. The evening’s masterpiece, Bartok’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste needs to be spotless for its austere geometries to register, and here it wasn’t quite. The LSO was flying by the seat of its pants, although admittedly it is very good at flying by the seat of its pants.
Before that came D’un soir Triste, composed a century ago by the tragically short-lived Lili Boulanger. The title suggests a gently nostalgic, twilight mood but Boulanger was no maker of salon trifles, and in this performance an immense sorrow emanated from those deep strings, lamenting horns and keening oboes. Twice the undulations in this sea of sadness gathered energy for a climax — a hard thing to bring off without appearing circular but under the very sensitive, urgently moulding hands of conductor François-Xavier Roth the orchestra achieved it wonderfully.
As for the new pieces, two came from young composers who have benefited from the mentoring offered by the LSO’s Panufnik Composer’s Scheme. Symphonic Message: “Wach Auf!” by the 31-year-old Jonathan Woolgar was an ironic love-letter to Wagner, Mahler and those other romantic greats. In this engagingly fresh piece Woolgar seized on a single chord from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (a reference you’d only catch if you’d read the programme note) and immediately undercut it with a football whistle, sleazy trombones, and a jaunty little march. Later when a passage of exquisite sweetness intervened it seemed Woolgar was abandoning irony for heartfelt embrace, but the deflating cello-and-percussion crepitations at the end suggested this was not the case.
The other two pieces were at the opposite pole of straightforward musical pattern-making. Colin Matthews’s Mosaics was a set of 11 orchestral studies, each of which spun out a single idea for two minutes: a lop-sided rhythm, a hazy chorale, an opposition between two colours. The subtlety of the orchestral weave was fabulous, but sometimes it was hard to grasp the idea itself within the iridescent haze. Cassie Kinoshi’s Fanfares, performed by the LSO’s brass players from high up in the gallery were, by contrast, brilliantly clear and showed a razor-sharp feeling for the weight and direction of an idea. They demonstrated that even the most well-worn genre can be revived, and proved a fine palate-cleanser for an evening of multifarious delights. IH
The LSO’s public Panufnik Composers Workshops take place at LSO St Lukes on 31 May lso.co.uk
London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican ★★☆☆☆
When a premiere of a much-heralded new piece turns out to be stinker, the disappointment comes in waves. You start with high hopes, which soon sink to a baffled struggle to find any sense in the sounds. Eventually, you lose the will to even try, knowing that all things come to an end eventually. If it’s really bad, you even lose the will to live.
That was my experience on Wednesday night, at the UK premiere of the Third Piano Concerto by senior Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. It had many things going for it: a bankable star, in the shape of Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, a London Symphony Orchestra on swaggeringly good form under the alert baton of conductor François-Xavier Roth. And Lindberg’s musical material was not unattractive in itself.
There was a never-ending stream of Liszt-like virtuoso fusillades tossed off by Wang with her customary style, and in the orchestra a surge of rich harmonies which sometimes suggested Ravel, sometimes Messiaen, sometimes Gershwin. Until boredom set in, you could play “Spot the Almost-quotation”. Look, there goes Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto! And there’s Bartók’s Third! Here and there you could even spot a bit of Magnus Lindberg, in the way the Ravellian harmonies dissolved briefly into a modernist mist.
The problem was that none of this actually added up to anything. Here and there you could discern recurring ideas, especially the opening Bartók-like starkness, but these felt dutiful, more like signposts in the lava flow than anything really significant. What seized the ear was the constant stream of horn-and-cymbal-drenched climaxes, one of which brought the piece to an abrupt end that could have happened ten minutes earlier (or later).
Fortunately the orchestra then offered some healing balm, in the form of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Some conductors like to emphasise the majestic calm of the music, and frankly after what we’d just heard a little calm wouldn’t have gone amiss. But Roth brought out a vein of joy and urgency in the music. In the slow movement he made the horns surge and subside, like the breeze of a summer day which briefly ruffles the corn but doesn’t disturb the sense of sun-drenched bliss. In the rustic dance of the third movement, you could picture the muddy boots of peasants in those stamping rhythms. By the time the beautifully placed final chord of the symphony arrived, the evening felt almost redeemed. IH
Hear this concert repeated at the Brighton Dome on May 26; brightonfestival.org
Igor Levit and Friends, Lucerne Piano Festival ★★★☆☆
The life of a top-rank classical pianist may be challenging but it has its own routines. Pieces must be learned, note by arduous note, and then brought to life on a tour where each night is exactly like the one before. So all credit to famed Russian-German pianist Igor Levit for trying to break the mould at his Piano Festival at Lucerne, Switzerland. Over four days, he brought together classical pianists, jazz pianists and improvisers in varying combinations, to see if some creative sparks would fly.
The final concert was the most daring. In each half a performance of a much-loved masterwork was periodically interrupted with improvised meditations on that same piece, by another pianist seated at a second Steinway grand. It’s a risky idea, because “masterworks” by their nature have a huge authoritative weightiness, so improvised commentary on them runs the risk of seeming lightweight.
It was, admittedly, less of a risk in the first half, because the masterwork (the lovely Waldszenen – Forest Scenes – by Robert Schumann) was a series of charming miniatures, which seemed to invite improvised musings. As each of Schumann’s little nature scenes (played with perfect reticent tenderness by Levit) died away, the improvising pianist Johanna Summer would seize on the final notes and send them soaring aloft in new, but still vaguely Schumann-esque patterns. It was extraordinary to see someone born in 1995 express herself so naturally in the musical language of the 1840s. Only once did Summer break into a gentle American-minimalist style, which worked surprisingly well.
So far so good, but the second half was less happy. It was centred around a performance of Beethoven’s darkly tragic Appassionata Sonata, interrupted at key moments by improvised musical commentary from that peerless jazz pianist Fred Hersch. The performance from young pianist Mert Yalniz was maximally stormy, and each time he paused in mid-bar one could almost see Hersch thinking, “How on earth do I follow that?”
Supremely intelligent musician that he is, Hersch managed to preserve the heroic outline of Beethoven’s piece, while lending a touch of his own louche harmonic world. But the stylistic mismatch felt awkward – as did the final, improvised “jam set” from all four pianists. Summer and Hersch had to carry the two classical pianists, who seemed bereft without their written notes. Breaking the mould is fine in principle, but bringing together two such profoundly different musical worlds will take longer than a weekend.
Fred Hersch appears at the Wigmore Hall on May 27; wigmore-hall.org.uk
Hélène Grimaud, Barbican Hall ★★★★☆
It’s a gift to a critic when the persona of a performing artist meshes seamlessly with the art; for example, the tragic depth of the pianist who’s experienced life-losses.
There’s a temptation to find a similar congruence in French pianist Hélène Grimaud, when one learns that she’s fascinated by wolves and actually runs a wolf-sanctuary in New York State. One looks for an untamed, wild beauty, and strength rather than finesse.
But Hélène Grimaud always confounds expectations, as we discovered at this Barbican recital. The opening movement of Beethoven’s 30th sonata seemed even more wayward and searching than this very wayward music normally sounds. But having started with diffidence she made the assertive return of the opening seem almost furious. In the final variation movement Beethoven’s heavenly melody unfolded with luxurious pauses over certain notes, as if lost in thought. I prefer an unaffected, simple warmth, but the air of remote inwardness she lent the music was certainly striking.
Then came two of Johannes Brahms’s late sets of piano pieces, sometimes turbulent, sometimes aching with regret, which the composer called “the cradle-songs of my sorrows”. Again Grimaud refused to let any of the pieces settle comfortably into a single mood. There were constant expressive hiccups in the rhythms, a disquieting pedal-induced haze, and a tiny suggestion of asynchrony between left and right hand. All this suggested unruly feelings that were only just being contained.
They finally broke out in the climax of the recital, Busoni’s titanic transcription of Bach’s famous Chaconne for solo violin. The piece begins in a spirit of contained stony dignity and becomes more and more flamboyantly virtuoso. Grimaud’s imperious ribbons of scales flying to the top of the piano and her steely left-hand octaves were awe-inspiring, as was her ability to make the melody line audible through the tumult. The wolf-loving pianist was finally showing her teeth, and the crowd went wild.
But the two encores that followed were at the opposite pole of quiet simplicity — especially the Bagatelle by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, which was so moving that people were actually humming it as they left the hall. As for Grimaud she sauntered off-stage as elegantly as she had arrived, leaving behind a feeling of total enigma.
Hélène Grimaud’s recent recording of music by Silvestrov Silent Songs is released on DG
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆
Ah, those wonderful Budapesters – what a treat they hold in store, for classical music-lovers. It’s a pleasure just to run your eye down the list of evocative player names in the programme – Hungarian almost to a man and woman – and imagine the orchestra’s famously warm and characterful sound, so apt for summoning the lilt of a waltz (Budapest is as Viennese as Vienna, in that respect).
At Wednesday night’s concert, they did not disappoint. But this was not an evening of charming waltzes or fiery Hungarian csárdás. The one work on the programme was the immense, strange, death-haunted Symphony No 9 by Mahler, completed in 1909. Between the beautiful evocations of life’s sweet fullness, you’re suddenly overwhelmed by frightening visions of despair, in music that sounds like the Viennese modernism of the next generation. And in the final movement there are gaunt laments deep in the contrabassoon, supporting a single flute at a lonely lost altitude, which sound like a foretaste of Shostakovich’s music of the 1960s.
In this performance, these moments registered with unsettling vividness. The writhing entanglement of the violins in the first movement, the squeaking, parodic clarinets, the throaty solo viola (all hail violist Csaba Gálfi), the biting muted brass were as snarling as they needed to be. The conductor Iván Fischer even wound the snarling quality up several notches, by getting the brass players to mute their instruments half-way through a note, instead of at the beginning as marked. The change in sound was like an X-ray, revealing the skull beneath the face.
Subtleties such as this were a reminder of what an imaginative conductor Fischer is. However, what made this performance really treasurable is that the transitions from despair back to melting warmth were just as memorably shaped. The waltzing moments in the second movement were affectionate rather than sarcastic, and there was gallumphing humour in the way the opening country dance lurched tipsily into motion.
All this meant that the final withdrawal into utter stillness and peace wasn’t chilling, as it can sometimes be. The warmth that had pervaded the symphony up to that point still lingered in those endless, almost-extinguished sounds. It was almost all wonderful; my only quibble was with the parodic third movement. This felt too moderate in tempo to have the savage quality Mahler surely had in mind – until the last moment, when Fischer suddenly let rip, to thrilling effect. IH
No further performances
William Bracken/Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆
Courage, generosity and a touch of swagger are the qualities one looks for in a young artist. Those things have to be innate, whereas rough edges and ideas that don’t quite come off can always be smoothed or rethought later.
Not that I would want to say William Bracken is rough-edged. This 24 year-old pianist has just carried off the Guildhall Wigmore recital prize, awarded to a specially gifted student at the Guildhall School, and this winner’s recital showed he has courage and stamina and musicality in abundance. He came on stage with the same naturalness, neither overly modest nor mannered, that marked his playing. The programme was immense: four of Liszt’s musical mementos of Italy in Book Two of his Years of Pilgrimage, a wrist-breaking contemporary piece by Korean composer Unsuk Chin, Beethoven’s most toweringly difficult sonata, and to begin with the little-known but altogether wonderful Easter Sonata by Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the well-known Felix Mendelssohn.
The first movement showed off Bracken’s chief qualities - a singing tone in the right hand, and a tempo flexibility that brought out the music’s tenderness but without constraining its startling passion. This is absolutely not salon music. The transition in the final movement from the storm and distress of the Crucifixion to the nobility of the final chorale was beautifully handled. Only in the elfin Scherzo did Bracken’s touch seem a touch heavy and prosaic (strangely, he found that light-wrist touch later, in the dazzling sprays of musical glitter over deep bass notes in Unsuk Chin’s Étude no. 1).
The four pieces by Liszt brought out another of Bracken’s strengths: an ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, shown especially at the end of the Petrarch sonnet no 123, where he beautifully stage-managed the retreat of the music into a supernatural glow, representing Petrarch’s beloved gazing down on him from heaven.
Finally came Beethoven’s great Hammerklavier sonata. Here everything was admirably controlled, but perhaps a touch over-careful. The huge tragic slow movement seemed overly disturbed by surface detail, and took a while to find its epic breadth. But the titanic final fugue was as thrilling as I’ve ever heard it. The best moment came when Bracken lingered over a moment of harmonic mystery, which many pianists simply pass over. There’s clearly an alert mind and generous heart behind those steely fingers, which presage a good future for this gifted young pianist. IH
William Bracken appears in the Ribble Valley International Piano Week on July 15; williambracken.co.uk
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Tippett, Barbican ★★★★★
When a composer of genius is dogged by accusations of obscurity and technical ham-fistedness it creates a barrier to appreciation, even if the accusations are only half-true. It takes performances of real sympathy and insight to make their pieces soar.
On Friday night the BBC Symphony Orchestra achieved exactly that with two pieces by Michael Tippett, the composer who was Benjamin Britten’s great rival but whose reputation has dipped since his death in 1998. The first of them, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra of 1939, should have an ecstatic, dancing brightness, but those irregular rhythms can sound spiky and effortful in an average performance, as if Tippett’s efforts to take on jazz syncopation hadn’t yet settled. Under the wise, smiling direction of Andrew Davis, however, the string players of the BBC SO made everything glow with perfect naturalness. The dancing rhythms in the outer movements, the slow bluesy melody in the central movement, even the searching, anxious passages which surround that melody had an unusual radiance.
The bluesiness and irregular rhythms – now more anxious than joyous – came back in the evening’s main work, the oratorio A Child of Our Time. At its heart is a gripping true-life narrative about a Jewish refugee who murdered a Nazi official and unleashed a wave of anti-Jewish hate. Tippett turned this into a parable of the human tendency to foist its darkness onto an Other who must be cast out. There could hardly be a more timely theme, but by reducing the characters to universal figures (‘Boy’ and ‘Mother’) and swathing the story in psychological jargon, Tippett risked reducing the narrative to bloodless abstraction.
Fortunately four wonderful soloists were on hand to stave off that danger. Tenor Joshua Stewart made us feel the panic of the ‘Boy’ who must flee, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly offered words of warning and consolation as the Aunt, bass Ashley Riches, standing to one side of the story like the Evangelist in a Bach Passion (a reference Tippett intended) lamented in tones that seemed freighted with all the world’s sorrow. Most touching of all was South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza. Her soft, tender voice floated effortlessly over the massed choral and orchestral sound and went straight to the heart.
Behind the soloists the BBC Chorus was always thrillingly focused, whether impersonating the mob that screams “Burn down their houses!” or melting us in those sublime spirituals that Tippett inserts into the narrative. The BBC SO were also on wonderful form, making the little instrumental interludes such as the exquisite one for flutes and viola seem as nobly eloquent as the vocal numbers. Thanks to everyone on stage the piece triumphed over its own weaknesses, as it should. IH
No further performances
Philharmonia/Kochanovsky, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆
How things have changed regarding Russian music. A year ago, when it seemed Russian’s invasion of Ukraine might be over quickly, some orchestral and venue managers and cultural commentators seized the opportunity for moral grandstanding. They insisted all things Russian had to be cancelled, as if Glinka and Rachmaninov and Shostakovich somehow shared in the guilt of Vladimir Putin.
Thursday night’s all-Russian concert from the Philharmonia showed that sanity has now been restored. And thank goodness, because this immersion in the music of Russia’s Silver Age around the turn of the 20th century was utterly fascinating. At that time, all the old certainties had dissolved and poets and musicians were turning reality into glowing symbolist dreams.
We were engulfed in one of these visions at the outset, with Rachmaninov’s The Bells. Here Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem evoking the bells of sleigh-rides, war, weddings and funerals is translated musically into soaring vocal lines, silver celeste, clangorous brass and doleful tolling in massed strings. All this was rendered in lovely sombre-bright colours by the Philharmonia players, but the conducting by Stanislav Kochanovsky left a lot to be desired. His pacing of the final pages of the opening movement, Silver Sleigh Bells, was so awry that the final chord actually felt redundant, and for a conductor who works constantly in the opera house Kochanovsky was surprisingly uncaring for the three singers, allowing the orchestra to drown them more than once.
Nevertheless, the perfectly controlled, long-spun line of Armenian/British soprano Anush Hovhannisyan – much the best of the three – shone out beautifully, and the Philharmonia Chorus had that mystically intense quality the music needs. Then came Anton Lyadov’s From the Apocalypse – a title apt for much Russian music of this period – which was a strangely haunting mix of Wagnerian misty depths and ancient Russian chant.
Finally came the most wildly visionary orchestral piece of the entire period, Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus. It summons the idea of mankind exalted from material deadness to spiritual sublimity in music of ever-increasing ecstasy. This performance was augmented by a play of precisely timed coloured light on the orchestra, requested by Scriabin but normally omitted. To my surprise, it did lend an extra tinge of otherworldliness to the experience. But what really made the music soar were the vaunting solos from the Philharmonia’s principal trumpeter Christian Barraclough, which really could persuade you mankind is on the way to becoming god-like. Heady, dangerous stuff. IH
No further performances
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Karabits, Lighthouse, Poole ★★★★☆
Winning an audience’s trust so they’ll follow you into untested musical waters is a gift not every conductor has. Simon Rattle has it in spades, as he showed during his 18 years at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Vladimir Jurowski achieved remarkable things at the London Philharmonic. Now, it’s the Ukrainian Kirill Karabits who’s setting the pace at Bournemouth, with his explorations of Russian and Eastern European composers we hardly knew existed. And the hall is always packed.
Admittedly, Wednesday night’s unknown name, the Russian with Belgian roots Reinhold Glière, was hardly a challenging proposition. His work The Sirens from 1908 is one of those pieces of gorgeously pictorial orchestral wizardry that the French perfected and the Russians took up with enthusiasm – a fact shrewdly played on this concert, which also had two examples of the French variety.
When Glière’s piece launched off with tenebrous double-basses evoking depths, it seemed quintessentially French, but then it gathered pace and the harmonies took on that fairy-tale vividness familiar from Stravinsky’s Firebird. Karabits and the orchestra projected the change with fabulous vividness and intensity. How did a mere five double-basses manage to make such a sinister, wall-shaking rumble? The final moments, where whooping trumpets portrayed the Sirens carrying sailors to their doom, were irresistible.
There was another delicious calorie-filled helping of Glière after the interval, in the shape of his fragmentary single-movement violin concerto. This was more richly romantic than the Sirens, and came so close to Sibelius in the beautifully mournful slow melody the older composer could probably have sued.
The virtuoso finger-twisting double scales and heroic octaves were madly demanding, as were the sudden turns to plaintive, fragile expressivity. But nothing fazed the elegantly razor-thin soloist Stefan Jackiw – not even the total disintegration of his bow. He just grabbed the spare bow always kept ready by the orchestral leader and carried on without missing more than a beat.
As for the performance of Debussy’s La Mer, this wasn’t quite so successful. This is a piece painted mainly in deft watercolour dabs, and here the cymbal strokes and far-away trumpet and horn calls seemed a bit too heavily applied. But La Valse, Ravel’s evocation of the waltz’s sinister side, is a piece painted thought-out in full-blooded oils, and once again the sheer vividness of the playing was startling. The final whirl to oblivion was utterly thrilling. IH
Further BSO dates at bsolive.com