Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, plus the best of December's classical concerts

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra  - London Philharmonic Orchestra 
Vladimir Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra - London Philharmonic Orchestra

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★★

Against all the odds, orchestras just keep playing. Not just playing, but playing magnificently, as recent concerts from the Hallé and London Symphony Orchestra have proved. The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s penultimate concert of the year added something else; a lavish and imaginative programme, with three singers plus of all things a virtuoso accordionist. No sign of lockdown caution and economy there.

On the podium was Vladimir Jurowski, the orchestra’s Principal Conductor who next spring leaves the orchestra after thirteen years. In the early days he had a tendency to micro-manage the orchestra, which he did with such balletic grace one almost welcomed it, but these days his hand is lighter on the tiller. That was especially noticeable in the opening piece, the 5th Brandenburg Concerto by J.S. Bach. These wonderful concertos have been abandoned by “standard” orchestras, no doubt nervous of being compared to the “period” orchestras which specialise in them. That’s a shame as it does no favours to Bach to ghettoise him, and this performance from an LPO pared down to just eleven string players showed it has nothing to fear from the comparison. The three soloists all from the LPO’s own ranks played with a lovely sense of style, with just a touch of ornamentation in the slow movement.

From 18th-century grace to the sinister antics of Brett Dean’s Concerto for Accordion was a huge stylistic jolt, but an enjoyable one. Dean drew much of the music from the Player’s scene from his opera Hamlet, premiered in 2017 at Glyndebourne, where the on-stage accordionist alongside the actors’ company gave the scene a special dramatic colour. This was not the jolly accordion of café music but the modernist accordion of tiny, sinister sounds on the threshold of audibility, or glacial dense dissonances, or huge gruff bass sounds.

All these sounds were called on in this concerto, played with true theatrical flair by Polish virtuoso Bartosz Glowacki. Dean has a gift for turning theatrical gestures into real musical substance, and one could almost see the acted-out murder of Gonzago in one’s imagination, while savouring Dean’s brilliant orchestral imagination and harmonic spice.

The third piece continued the theatrical theme, and was the highlight of the lot. Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella, based on Italian Baroque music the composer found in a Neapolitan library, tells the story of a young lad about town whose various amours discover his treachery and plot their revenge. The plot barely registers without the dance, so one simply had to enjoy the sequence of arias and duets and trios about the pains of love and feminine wiles, interspersed with vivid dance numbers. That was easy in this performance which was surpassingly joyous and alive, the vocal trio of mezzo-soprano Angharad Lyddon tenor Sam Furness and bass Matthew Rose clearly enjoying the switchbacks from pathos to comedy. The fruity bassoons and plaintive oboes and stamping, surprisingly Russian solo violin (the superb Pieter Schoeman) were so vivid you could practically taste them. I don't think I've ever heard the piece played so well. As a pre-Christmas pick-me-up it could hardly have been bettered.

See this concert via Marquee TV at lpo.org.uk 

LSO, LSO St Luke’s/Online ★★★★★

Simon Rattle conducts the LSO and pianist Krystian Zimerman at LSO ST Luke's - Mark Allan
Simon Rattle conducts the LSO and pianist Krystian Zimerman at LSO ST Luke's - Mark Allan

Classical music has had a heart-breaking year, with thousands of cancelled performances. The few bright spots since March – the Wigmore Hall series, Snape Maltings weekends, the Liverpool Philharmonic and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Halle online seasons, the Southbank and Barbican concerts – have all seemed especially precious because we knew they happened against the odds. Amid all this, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, which should have been a highlight of the musical year, has turned out to be a sad non-event.

Now comes something guaranteed to raise the spirits and end the Beethoven anniversary year on a perfect high note: a recording of all five of his piano concertos, from star Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. They were due to perform the concertos live at the Barbican in London, but those concerts were cancelled when Tier 4 restrictions were introduced. Fortunately, plans for a recording on the back of the performances had already been hatched over months by Deutsche Grammophon, and the world’s grandest classical label wasn’t going to let a pandemic stand in its way. All five concertos were video-recorded at the LSO’s rehearsal and recording venue LSO St Lukes, and a sneak preview has been offered on DG’s website (if you hurry, you can still catch the Emperor concerto).

These performances have that ease and warmth that comes from great artists who don’t feel any need to be “original”, and who have the music absolutely in their bones. Which is not to say there aren’t strikingly original moments. My favourite comes in the comic finale of the Second Concerto, at a point where the jolly tune comes round for the final time. Zimerman and Rattle launch into the tune in a halting way, as if they’ve had a brief memory lapse. Mock bafflement was actually written on Rattle’s face, while Zimerman wore a naughty smile. It’s just the kind of broad slapstick Beethoven enjoyed.

At the other end of the expressive spectrum is the Third concerto, where Beethoven fights off the Mozartian concerto model he inherited and becomes fully himself. The piano’s stern opening phrase has rarely seemed so colossal and iron-grey as it does in Zimerman’s hands, not just because his sound is so huge. He also makes the pause between this and the quiet answering phrase seem immense.

This very acute feeling for the exact weight of a silence or a pause is something Rattle and Zimerman have in common, and you see it time and again in these recordings. That’s one factor that makes every moment feels maximally alive and alert; another is the way soloist and conductor seize every opportunity for dramatic contrast. The way Rattle tapers the very first phrase of the 1st concerto down to nothing, and then surges forward on the second already charges the music with electricity.

Zimerman tells us he adapted the piano’s mechanism to give a lighter, more “authentic” early-19th-century sound, and there’s certainly a lovely crystalline sound to the piano throughout, especially delightful in the silvery embellishments to the main melody of the Fourth Concerto’s first movement. Rattle pared down the number of stringed instruments to allow these delicate sounds to come through, and also to allow the LSO’s principal woodwind players to shine – which they certainly do. One can point to innumerable telling details like this, but it’s the way these details are wrapped in an overall sense of spontaneity and generosity that makes these recordings so treasurable. To describe a recording as “classic” before it’s even released may seem a tad premature, but it feels exactly right. IH

The stream of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto – the “Emperor” is available at dg-premium.com until 8pm on Dec 23. The video recording of the First Concerto is now available as a digital download from DG, and the other four are released on April 9

Messiah, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 ★★★☆☆

Not so much a case of Christmas coming early as ending early, the Royal Albert Hall’s already severely curtailed seasonal programme ground to a halt with this Messiah. Handel’s oratorio has been a fixture here every year since 1871 except 1940, and it very nearly went missing again in 2020. The venue’s usual programme of more than 30 Christmas concerts, reduced to 14 planned events this month, ended up consisting of just three performances of which Messiah was the last before the Tier 3 lockdown.

Yet no hall in the land is better suited to physical distancing or one-way flow, one reason why the decision to keep audiences away from the Proms this summer struck such a jarring note. Reducing capacity to 20 per cent, as the Albert Hall did at its Christmas concerts, still allows for 1,000 spectators. No gatherings are safer than staid classical concerts, but by shutting halls and theatres again the authorities are wreaking havoc with venues and cutting artists adrift.

Featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia Chorus, this Messiah was less old-fashioned than the presence of such forces might imply. A slimmed-down orchestra and 28-strong chorus were spaced out, with remarkably few ensemble problems, and the conductor Eduardo Strausser drew a clean sound. The choir was sprightly in the contrapuntal textures of “For unto us”, and things sagged only under the weight of all the piety in Part 2.

As the first of the soloists to sing, and fresh from his appearance last weekend on the Metropolitan Opera’s livestream with Bryn Terfel, the tenor Trystan Llŷr-Griffiths made a good impression with the sweet-toned elegance of his “Comfort ye”. Dingle Yandell’s bass sounded crisp yet needed fuller tone and firmer intonation. Most distinctive among the solo line-up was the mezzo Katie Bray, with metallic glint appropriate to “For He is like a refiner’s fire” and a keen sense of line, but the purity at the top of Francesca Chiejina’s seraphic soprano made all her contributions notable too.

This full-length evening, complete with interval, felt almost like a concert from the old, pre-Covid days. Though one might have hoped that social distancing would have scuppered the tiresome and peculiarly British tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus, habits die hard and most of the audience still got to its feet. Yet one silver living of the situation is that audiences have found a way of sitting for long spans without coughing. Hallelujah to that. JA


La Nativité, David Titterington/Timothy West, St John’s Smith Square ★★★★☆

Even before the latest lockdown signalled another closure of London concerts, the annual Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square (now in its 35th year) was taking precautions. Not only did this performance of Messiaen’s La Nativité de Seigneur play to an audience of no more than 20 (it was also streamed online), the aerosol count was low by Christmas standards since there was no jubilant singing: Messiaen’s big, meditative organ cycle on the birth of Christ dispenses with words.

That may be true of the work itself, but for his recital the organist David Titterington was joined by the actor Timothy West, who interspersed mystical texts and poems between some of Messiaen’s nine movements, drawing on authors from Prudentius to TS Eliot via George Herbert and John Milton, also adding Ninette de Valois’s moving “Said the child …”. Not so much nine lessons and carols as nine organ pieces and poetry, the concise evening did its best to disperse the gloom that is Christmas 2020.

How different it must have seemed 75 years ago this week, when just before Christmas 1945 Messiaen himself came to London to give only the second complete performance here of this work (at the now deconsecrated St Mark’s, North Audley St). Messiaen had composed La Nativité, his magnum opus at the time, only a few years before the war, and it was the first of his works in which he so comprehensively mixed the plainchant, birdsong and Indian music with which he would remain preoccupied.

Titterington’s performance found an ideal balance between rigour and mysticism, right from the suspended stillness of the opening movement, La Vierge et l’enfant. Though the neo-classical instrument at St John’s is far removed from the organ soundworld Messiaen knew, Titterington’s registrations evoked the music’s quintessential Frenchness but also pointed up its exoticism – whether in the swooping wings of Les Anges or, earlier, the hypnotic pastoral piping of Les Bergers.

But what really distinguished his playing was its feeling for the slowly shifting harmonic tension. Where it needed to, time stood still. Such a firmly anchored performance also allowed room for flexibility in the big central movements: the pedal scale in Le Verbe thundered down dramatically, and the ecstatic rejoicing of Les Enfants de Dieu was richly detailed. Rock solid right to the end, Titterington let the virtuosic final toccata, Dieu parmi nous, blaze toward an uninhibited apotheosis. JA


Hallé Orchestra, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester ★★★★☆

The Hallé Orchestra at the Bridgewater Hall - Bill Lam/Hallé
The Hallé Orchestra at the Bridgewater Hall - Bill Lam/Hallé

To see the Hallé Orchestra on Thursday night on the specially enlarged stage of Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, even if it was only on the screen of a PC, was a joy in itself. This was the first concert in the orchestra’s season of pre-recorded streamed events, after an eight-month absence. There were no fewer than 69 players, socially-distanced in a clever way that seemed pleasingly spacious rather than sadly atomised.

The lighting was nicely judged in its subtly coloured tint, as was the camerawork which offered a variety of views without being hyperactive. The performances were topped and tailed with interviews with the conductor Mark Elder, the composer of the evening’s opening “Fanfare for the Hallé” Huw Watkins, plus several players who were clearly moved to be making music once again in the place they call home, after so long away.

To complete the sense of happy rebirth, Elder cleverly chose two pieces that began darkly and then led us through a landscape of mingled shadow and sun before emerging into a golden C major glow. Before these two epic traversals, we had the bracing jolt of Watkins’s new fanfare.

You can imagine the brief he was given: we want a real fanfare but not clichéd, optimistic because we need cheering up, but not triumphant because after all we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. An impossible task, but Watkins is such an instinctively musical composer and humanely intelligent person that he pulled it off. The fanfare began with sharp, pinched sounds of muted trumpets dancing sinisterly over warm harmonies in lower brass. With startling speed, the music led to a dissonant, fist-shaking climax that simply stopped. It felt “too soon”, but in retrospect its abruptness seemed exactly right. The future is unknown; the only thing we know for sure is that we need courage to face it.

Then came the suite Wagner drew from his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a radiant comedy which ends in an affirmation of community and the power of art. However, the suite actually begins in a bitter mood, evoking the monologue on humanity’s “madness” sung by the central character, Hans Sachs. Elder coaxed playing of ripe spaciousness from the players, which the recording engineers caught perfectly; I’ve not heard a better sound in any streamed concert.

It made the music’s darkness seem like wisdom rather than despair, so when the move to the warm melody in the brass arrived it wasn’t a jolt, it was simply the other side of the same coin of clear-eyed realism. With the inevitability of a river making its way to the sea the music arrived at the big melody familiar from the opera’s overture, which glowed wonderfully. Everything was spacious and rounded; even the recurring “tum-tata-tum” rhythm felt soft, without even a hint of triumphalism.

Elder brought the same qualities to Brahms’s First Symphony, which was generous and humane without being self-consciously grand. The opening introduction was spacious and flowing rather than monumental, as was the big melody of the final movement, and this had the added advantage of giving Elder room to pull back the tempo back dramatically when the occasion was right. The performance was full of wise touches like this, made still more expressive by lovely solo playing from various principal players, notably oboist Stéphane Rancourt and leader Eva Thoraninsdottir.

Some would say that in aiming so single-mindedly at the music’s humane, lyrical core, Elder glossed over the truly wild moments in the Scherzo and the Finale. But that’s the thing about a musical performance; it can’t explore every last corner of a great piece, even when it’s as fine as this. There’s always more to be said. IH

To watch this concert, visit halle.co.uk


British composer Thomas Adès - Brian Voce
British composer Thomas Adès - Brian Voce

Heath Quartet, Wigmore Hall, review ★★★★☆

Nowhere has the agonising stop-go of cultural life been more poignantly revealed than at the Wigmore Hall. Back in June, we had the first broadcast concerts from the hall, with performers giving their all to an empty auditorium, apart from the lonely figure of the BBC presenter at a desk. Then, from mid-September, came a daily series of concerts, with real live audiences in decent numbers. You could almost believe things were getting back to normal.

Since the second lockdown began the hall has been down, but not out. It’s empty once more, but still broadcasting two or three weekly concerts on its website and YouTube channel. It takes a really fiery performance to make us forget that emptiness, and Monday night’s concert from Heath Quartet (standing in for two German-based performers unable to travel to the UK) was one such.

They offered us 65 minutes of brilliance and bravura, but to cleanse the palette they launched off with something tenderly simple. We heard a tentative single note, from which other notes peeled way to form a sustained, quiet hymn. This was the quiet opening of Memento, a memorial piece for the publisher David Hunter by Scotland’s best-known  composer, James MacMillan. He loves the Hebridean tradition of Gaelic psalm-singing, which is characterised by a raggedly ecstatic glow of sound made by dozens of voices all following their own tempo. MacMillan’s piece offered a restrained, luminous portrait of that rapt chaos, played here with reverent stillness by the quartet.

Then we were jerked abruptly into the fleeting, capering phantasmagoria that is Thomas Adès’s Arcadiana, written more than a quarter of a century ago when the composer was only 23. In seven short scenes, we were led through a melancholy Venetian lagoon, a splintered, hall-of-mirrors homage to Mozart’s Magic Flute, a Gothically distorted Tango, and most vivid of all a tender scene out of those French 17th-century paintings that show an outdoor party with a sad-eyed clown.

Just when we’d got used to the idea that Adès was going to hold everything at ironic arm’s length, he offered a movement where he came close to embracing something – a rich, somewhat Elgarian romanticism expressed through a hymn that was a very distant cousin of “Nimrod”. This brilliant, almost-moving parade was brought to life with insouciant ease by the quartet, who make a wonderfully tight-knit ensemble and yet shine out as individuals.

That quality was even more evident in the second quartet by Benjamin Britten, a piece which in its more solid, muscular way is just as brilliant as Adès’s. In fact some feel it’s a bit too clever for its own good, the first movement’s departure and return to the opening C major glow too artfully contrived, the huge variation movement at the end too elaborately symmetrical. But this performance swept away any caveats. The whole thing felt like one magnificently sustained arch, the accumulating energy of all the digressions and twists and turns gathered up and flung out in the huge final affirmation. IH

To hear this concert visit wigmore-hall.org.uk or the Hall’s YouTube channel