Showing posts with label 2009/10 Season. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2009/10 Season. Show all posts

Monday, 21 February 2011

The Berliner Philharmoniker kick off their residence with a chamber concert of Schoenberg and more

This major four concert residence by one of the world's top orchestras was always going to be a hot ticket, more or less selling out promptly after the tickets first went on sale way back in December 2009. To ease the cost of bringing them, the concerts have been split between three halls at two venues. Despite a programme that wasn't the most obviously bankable, featuring an obscure Mahler chamber work and two pieces by Schoenberg, there was still a lengthy queue of hopefuls awaiting any returns at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Inside, those who had secured a ticket included Mark Elder and Mitsuko Uchida (not to mention Simon Rattle, whose presence was only required on stage for the final work, though no doubt he didn't actually have to buy his ticket).

The first half featured a quartet drawn from the orchestra: Guy Braunstein and Christoph Streuli (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola) and Ludwig Quandt (cello). They began with Schubert's D703, all that remains or an uncompleted quartet. After a start that was perhaps not quite so assured as it might have been, they delivered a strong and intense reading. However, as is often the case with such fragments, it didn't entirely satisfy.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Hardenberger, Harding and HK Gruber round out my LSO season to perfection

Actually, the London Symphony Orchestra's 2009/10 season doesn't finish for another month, something that feels odd coming from Scotland, where everyone finished weeks ago.  Well, I say finished; the SCO, for example, is busily touring round all the bits of Scotland they never normally get to, and a very good thing too.  There are other things I'd go to if I could - Sunday's Adès concert, for instance - but I can't, so Thursday marked my final trip to the Barbican to hear them before next season kicks off.

Two things in particular drew me to the programme.  The first was Dvořák's 7th symphony.  I love Dvořák, and especially his symphonies, and they don't seem to crop up on the programme nearly as often as I would like (the New World excepted, which arguably suffers from the opposite problem).  The second was the presence of Håkan Hardenberger to play a trumpet concerto.  We always hear violin and piano concerti, but brass ones are much more of a rarity and, as a sometime brass player myself, they are therefore not to be missed when they do crop up.

The first things that spring to mind when one thinks of trumpet concerti are probably the likes of the Haydn, the Hummel or possibly the Neruda.  Hardenberger was taking on something much more ambitious: Aerial, composed for him and for the Proms in 1999 by HK Gruber.  Now, I've only come across Gruber once before, when he conducted the opening concert of the 2008 Edinburgh festival, which wasn't an unqualified success.  Composition, though, is quite another matter.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Rossini's Guillaume Tell, or You Think You Know Rossini? Think Again.

As I may have mentioned before, I am a bit of a Rossini fan, so when I discovered by chance that the Chelsea Opera Group was putting on a concert performance of his last opera, Guillaume Tell, I was there like a shot. It proved to be a surprising evening. I thought that I knew Rossini, but I was wrong.

Much of the programme was taken up with commentary on the strange fact that Tell proved to be Rossini's last opera even though he was then only 37. There remains disagreement about why he chose to retire, but what hearing the opera makes very clear is how unfortunate this was in musical terms. Tell is very far from being your typical knockabout Rossini with zipping, decorative arias, and choruses and ensembles dashing towards a breakneck conclusion. Yes, there are moments of this, the conclusion of the famous overture being one of them, but much of the rest is truly grand opera. So much so indeed that at times I almost thought I was about to be in the depths of the Escurial with Philip II, or crossing the rainbow bridge into Valhalla.

So far as I can tell the chorus and orchestra are amateurs and I'm afraid that in places it showed. There were a few too many cases of ropy tuning or the chorus getting out of sync with the band. The big problem, though, was a just perceptible lack of security. The overture is a good example of this. The end of the overture needs to ratchet up madly, you need to feel that sense of being driven. This is not to say the orchestra didn't get up a good head of steam but it just didn't quite have that ultimate Rossini sparkle and spring. During the interval I overheard another audience member commenting on the chorus, he obviously had some connection with the group, and was noting the loss of younger members to exams. Indeed the problem was reminiscent of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus – something of a lack of power against the orchestra in the climaxes, and some uncertainty in the fiddliest bits. A recruitment drive in the music schools would seem to be in order. Perhaps the fair thing to say is that this was a very creditable performance for an amateur group, but it just wanted that bit more zing, fire, and excitement.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Denève rounds out the 2009/10 RSNO season with an eclectic programme

There's a moment in the first episode of the classic sitcom Frasier where his father complains that nothing in the flat goes with anything else. It is, explains Frasier, a style called eclectic, the guiding principle of which being that so long as one selects items of sufficient quality they will work together. It could be argued that this philosophy also underpins some of Stéphane Denève's programme selections. It doesn't always work, such as when he was looking for bedfellows for the Faure requiem, but in the season finale, things came together nicely.

Indeed, the comparison with the Faure is the more apt since then the work that should have been last was placed first. Not so on Friday. Here, Denève started with the symphony, rightly realising that Janacek's Taras Bulba packed the bigger punch and belonged at the close. But, before that, he turned to the audience to speak. The audible groan from someone close by me suggests I'm not alone in not caring for this. And, yet, credit where it's due: this time he spoke both briefly and informatively. Audience statistics aside, he explained that the Elgar cello concerto and Taras Bulba were written at about the same time before pointing out that, despite being very different pieces, they, as he put it to much topical humour, worked together as a "musical coalition".

He didn't explain how Schumann's 4th symphony fit in, but did explain that, with themes running through it, it was almost a symphonic poem, or symphonic fantasy as Schumann had thought of calling it. Certainly Denève played it accordingly, barely pausing for any gap between the movements. I always feel Schumann does best when played with plenty of oomph and a good dose of romanticism, and certainly the reading had no want of energy. There was some good playing from the orchestra and a nice heavy finish.

Friday, 7 May 2010

There's Runnicles - Götterdämmerung in Berlin

In it's first three instalments, Gotz Friedrich's Ring delivered a fairly solid production. At the same time, Runnicles has confirmed that he is one of the leading Wagnerians today and drawn some pretty special playing from the orchestra - it was a nice touch when, after more than fifteen hours of music, Runnicles brought them all to the stage at the end.

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The final night began well with an effective staging of the Norns, something that can often drag. Red ropes criss-crossed the stage in front of the seated and blindfolded singers. They sang pretty well, though the first Norn, Liane Keegan, sounded a little underpowered. That said, a little too much smoke, a hallmark of this production, poured out when the curtain rose and, unfortunately, one of the ropes didn't snap as it should have.

It was change time again in the cast: Brunnhilde was, thankfully, back to Evelyn Herlitzius, though she was a little screechy to begin with and not always quite as precise as might have been liked. That said, her acting was superb and she was infinitely preferable to Janice Baird who we got in Siegfried. Gone too was the Siegfried of Stefan Vinke and in his place came Alfons Eberz. He benefitted from not having a cold, but could have had more power and was a less good actor. Still, as a pair, they had massively more chemistry.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Elts and the SCO play Ligeti, Tüür and Sibelius to a half empty Queen's Hall

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I wish Edinburgh audiences would be little more adventurous. True, the seats did fill up somewhat in the last five minutes before the concert started, avoiding a quite shocking level of attendance that I had thought might be occurring, but the hall still seemed a lot less than half full.

I myself had some doubts about attending. I've only been to one concert conducted by Olari Elts, in fact his first as principal guest conductor (actually, I think that may be incorrect, and it's possible I've also heard him in one of the Cl@six concerts). That was an all Sibelius programme, where he spoilt the 7th symphony by rushing it. However, this time Ligeti was on the billing too, as was a world premiere and, especially given the above paragraph, I'm always keen to support that. Not to mention it was a Saturday concert, which are usually much more convenient for me than the SCO's regular Thursday gigs. All in all, reason enough to give Mr Elts another shot.

Things started off splendidly with Ligeti's Concerto Romanesc. I've yet to hear a piece by the composer that failed to impress me and this didn't prove to be the exception. Once again I was struck by how much variety Ligeti seems to have in his work. The piece opened with a slow, gentle and lyrical first movement which was both rather nice and unexpected. Thereafter it built to something akin to frenzy. There was some absolutely cracking playing from the orchestra and a visceral energy and excitement, not to mention some superb solo work from guest leader Alexander Janiczek (on a side note, it's been ages since I've seen Christopher George in the leader's seat). Most of all, though, it was tremendous fun - I must seek out a recording. The eagle-eyed would have spotted a door at the end of the balcony opening just before it started and someone peeking through. This transpired to be for the offstage horn. He was placed to good effect, even going downstairs for some portions, but the effect didn't quite have the magic Runnicles would bring.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Britten's War Requiem - Denève and the RSNO

The Usher Hall has played host to some historic concerts. One, particularly, springs to mind as I write this review. At the 1968 Edinburgh festival Giulini conducted the Philharmonia in a performance of Britten's War Requiem with the original soloists for whom the roles were written and with Britten himself directing the Melos Ensemble. By all accounts it was extraordinary (I know a few people who were there), certainly the similar recording, albeit with different soloist, made at the Albert Hall on BBC Legends is quite something.

There've been other performances since, including one with the RSNO led by one Donald Runnicles, at the 2000 Festival. This week it was the turn of Stephane Denève and the RSNO. Denève took a fairly slow view, running close to ninety minutes, but never feeling sluggish. He captured the drama of the climactic moments, but was also sensitive in the quieter ones.

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In an interesting move, he elected to conduct both the orchestra and the chamber ensemble, composed of orchestral principals and situated to the conductor's right. This didn't seem to cause any problems though, and the playing of all the forces was of a high standard, crisp and well co-ordinated. That said, having never heard it live before, I wonder if something extra might have been gained from such a division - certainly it was done on both recordings involving Britten that I'm aware of [note - I'm certain someone told me that someone else conducted the chamber ensemble on Britten's own Decca recording, but if so it isn't credited and I can find no reference, so my mind may be playing tricks on me].

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Belohlavek, Aimard and the Berliner Philharmoniker play Janacek, Schoenberg and Brahms at the Philharmonie

Visiting Germany, and Berlin in particular, has been great, not least because I've been able to tick so many items off my list of things I want to do some day. I've heard the Berliners play twice before, of course, once at the 2006 Edinburgh festival and once at the 2004 Proms, but seeing them on their home ground is something else.

The Philharmonie is an extraordinary building. Yellow and angular it, like so many others on the Berlin skyline, looks amazing. In fairness, it does look a little too yellow for my taste, but come 8pm and time for the concert to start and it takes on a much more pleasant golden hue.

They don't seem to go in for the British system of having a separate counter for ticket collection, with all the tickets already printed out ready to hand over, yet the wait wasn't long. Then, the tickets are checked by the ushers using a very hi-tech looking barcode scanner. Perhaps this will pave the way for a nice green solution which would allow me to use my iPhone screen as my ticket.

There are several nice installations in the foyer, made up of a series of coloured discs, which appear to be lit from behind. It is a veritable maze of staircases, yet they are so well signed that we found our seats with relative ease, if they were nowhere near where I had imagined them to be from the diagram when booking. The interior of the hall is roughly rectangular, if a somewhat deformed and angular rectangle, with the seats all grouped efficiently into blocks served by separate doors and staircases. It's also more or less a concert hall in the round, meaning that even some way back, you don't feel as far back as you do, say, at the back of the Usher Hall. The eagle-eyed will spot the surprisingly small cameras which move around by remote control to capture events for the digital concert hall.

Friday, 23 April 2010

There's Runnicles - all change for Siegfried in Berlin

Consistency in casting of CD Ring cycles is a well known problem (well, if you're a collector of such cycles it is). Take Solti - Wotan, Fricka, Mime, Faffner and Erda, to name but five, all change during the cycle. Karajan's cast is arguably even less consistent.

This problem is generally avoided with your live Bayreuth recordings, or live recordings generally. It was, therefore, something of a surprise when picking up the cast list last night (which is not free at Deutsche Oper, somewhere Covent Garden has an edge). For this third instalment there was a new Wotan, Brunnhilde, Mime and Faffner. Almost everyone, in other words. In the case of Wotan this was a blessing; in the case of Brunnhilde it was absolutely not.

However, it seems odd, to say the least. Surely when putting together a cycle you book a cast all the way through. I know that isn't what Gergiev does, but he does the operas on consecutive nights rendering consistent casting impossible. With several days between Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, it is inexplicable.

Still, consistency aside (of which more anon), how did this third instalment turn out. As with the previous operas, Gotz Friedrich's production is generally strong; indeed, Siegfried is up with Rheingold in being the strongest of the cycle to date. The set for the forge looks the part (leaving aside that initially it does appear to be in a tent), though the backdrop conveying the forrest setting is perhaps a little cartoony. Burkhard Ulrich's Mime was superb, perfectly conveying the put upon and bullied smith. Stefan Vinke had plenty of force in the title role, though suffering from a cold his voice had a slightly odd tone. He was one of two singers for whom the management had craved our indulgence (neither we, nor the people sitting next to us, for whom German was their native tongue, caught the name of the other). He reforged the sword with great aplomb.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Where's Runnicles in Dresden - Fidelio at the Semperoper

When if first premiered in October 1989, Christine Mielitz's production of Fidelio must have caused quite a stir; it was also pretty brave. Doubtless this context lends an added impact to Beethoven's profoundly human drama of love and freedom triumphing over oppression.

Mielitz's relocates the action to a stark grey prison, often under florescent lighting, clearly meant to be in the former DDR. How must it have looked in the finale, the massed (and I mean absolutely massive, giving the most glorious sound imaginable) choir of prisoners and the east German people, coming together to sing celebrating the freedom of a political prisoner to an audience that would have included government dignitaries in the royal box. Similarly, as members of the crowd rushed forward to support Florestan. Indeed, on that first night, the cast then bravely stepped forward and read a statement calling for more freedom.

What, then, of getting to hear an opera in the Semperoper, actually the third opera house to bear that name - the first having been destroyed by fire, the second having been built by Semper's son in consultation with the original architect (over 1,000 letters between the two reside in a Zurich archive), the third built in the 1980s, a reconstruction of the second, which was destroyed during the second world war. The first thing that strikes one is the sound. The resident orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden are, of course, one of the finest orchestras in the world, as their visits to Edinburgh attest. Hearing opera performed with this uniquely rich orchestral sound is the sort of thing that should be on everyone's list of things to do before they die. Of course, the wonderfully resonant acoustic only adds to this. Indeed, on a tour of the house early in the day, we were informed that when the house was rebuilt the university volunteered to improve it, before realising they could not.

Monday, 19 April 2010

There's Runnicles - Die Walküre at Deutsche Oper

After last night's solid start, the second opera of Wagner's Der Ring opened even more strongly. From the outset the orchestral playing was wonderful, with a beautifully rich tone to the strings, especially in the love themes between Siegmund and Sieglinde. The brass fanfare that introduced Hunding (Reinhard Hagen, fresh from playing Fasolt) almost sounded as though the instruments had been placed offstage - given Runnicles' flair for this, it's entirely possible they were. The opening prelude, representing the storm in which Siegmund is caught, was vividly coloured in the orchestra. The major climaxes fired off the surges of emotion that the best Wagner does.

Vocally things were knocked up a notch too. Perhaps the outstanding performance of the evening came from Violeta Urmana, a favourite of mine who has previously appeared with Runnicles in a 2005 Edinburgh festival performance of the Verdi Requiem. She not only possesses a superb voice, which allowed Runnicles to turn the volume up without fear of drowning her, but she also delivered a wonderfully characterised performance. The voice was not simply power either, but had a wonderful tone to it and none of the excessive vibrato that I dislike.

It would, however, be a little unfair to single her out solely, for wonderful though she was, there were several other equally notable performances. Clifton Forbis was solid in the role of Siegmund. There were one or two moments when I feared for his voice, such as when he cursed his father as false and wondered where his promised sword might be, but it remained strong throughout the evening and his acting talents nicely complimented Urmana. He never wanted for passion, yet there was also tenderness. The beautiful act two scene with Brünnhilde was especially well realised (what a shame that that was the moment a mobile phone went off).

The big surprise was Brünnhilde. Always a tough role to sing and to cast, at the best of times, and given none of us had heard of Evelyn Herlitzius, there was a question as to how well served we might be. We should not have doubted. True, she didn't have quite the out and out power of a Nilsson, and it was a lighter voice than some, but the drama of her act two entrance wanted for nothing, and no matter how high Runnicles cranked the orchestra, she soared above it. In a role that often feels very masculine, she provided a nicely feminine feel. She also acted well, giving a feisty performance.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

There's Runnicles - Das Rheingold at Deutsche Oper

There was a terrible moment, after I woke up on Thursday morning, when I wondered if I'd actually get to Berlin in time to see this production I'd been planning to attend for so many months. Actually, there'd been a good deal more than one such moment. As it turned out, though, not even a volcano suitably apocalyptic to feature somewhere in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, could stop me from attending (full story of my epic journey to follow in a separate post).

Getting from the hotel to the Opera proved easy, it even has it's own metro station. This is how it should be:

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Deutsche Oper is a modern house, and has a good clear acoustic. It's also cheap: our excellent stalls seats were less than half what they would have been at Covent Garden and the programme was a mere €4 (albeit of limited utility since Michel Thomas notwithstanding, my German is still rusty beyond belief). Surtitles were German only too, but I seem to know the piece sufficiently backwards that that didn't matter too much (and there were a surprising number of bits I could translate fine). Despite being off to one side, sightlines were still excellent.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Christian Zacharian and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play Schubert

Each year, one of the regular highlights of the SCO season is the visit of pianist Christian Zacharias. Not only is he a very fine player, but he is also increasingly known as a dab hand with the baton.

Typically he has played a concerto, or similar piece, with the orchestra. Thursday's programme was rather interesting because, and this is a first in my experience of this team (and, I think, the concert hall), Zacharias wasn't directing from the keyboard, rather he played a sonata in the first half and conducted a symphony in the second. Sufficiently unexpected that it took Sean Rafferty by surprise when he was doing an interview for In Tune, though one can't help think that a professional interviewer might have bothered to look at the concert programme that was being plugged before starting the interview. But I guess silly notions like that are why he does Radio 3 and I just write a blog. Interestingly, as Zacharias revealed in the interview, the format was the idea of the SCO.

He had chosen Schubert's D850 sonata. It's not one of the ones I feel I know especially well, and yet at the same time it felt very familiar and has a number of beautiful and memorable tunes. Overall Zacharias gave a fine performance. He brought a nice delicacy, yet this was tempered by his ability to effortlessly ratchet up the power and weight for the climaxes. It wasn't quite perfect, and there seemed to be a smattering of wrong notes, but amid the depth and colour he brought to the piece, they didn't really detract from a spellbinding performance.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Scottish Opera presents The Excursions of Mr Brouček

Well, actually, that's not quite true, Scottish Opera are this month presenting The Adventures of Mr Brouček. I'm not sure why this is - Excursions seems a more fitting title, and that's how I'll always refer to it. Still, let's not get caught up quibbling over how to translate the title.

This marks my first visit to Scottish Opera in quite some time. Partly it's because of some rather disappointing experiences since the Ring ruined them financially (I remember an especially bad Don Giovanni), partly it's because of programming less exciting than a rained out day at Wimbledon (in fairness it's hard to be too daring when you're only mounting four full productions in a season, though that's another rant), partly it's because of generally rather second rate casting which doesn't even seem to be compensated for by any evidence of the company meeting what should be one of its primary missions: nurturing young Scottish talent. It is exceptionally telling that Jonathan Mills has only used them to stage one production in his four years as festival director.

However, the chance to see Janáček's rarely performed tale of a man whose drunken fantasies take him first to the moon, then to the fifteenth century, was not to be passed up. As added incentive, this was a co-production with Opera North who have been doing very well of late and who, incidentally, manage to mount far more productions each year than Scottish Opera, despite not being a national company.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Rossini at the Royal, or, At Last, Thank God!, A Hit!

Regular readers will know that my reports on the Royal Opera this season have not been especially favourable. I am therefore delighted to be able to say that at least the main stage has got a real hit on its hands with this superb revival of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia. I have to confess to a rather moorish love of Rossini, if that's the word I want. If you are feeling low it is just such a tonic. Done properly, his music can be wonderfully, gloriously uplifting, and so it is in this revival.

The plot is exceptionally silly, and takes three pages of the programme book to explain. Put succinctly an aging poet (Thomas Allen) is trying to find a plot for a new opera, and ends up focusing on the extremely coquettish Fiorilla (Aleksandra Kurzak) who is juggling at least three different men through the opera. Throw in a visiting Turk (one of Fiorilla's three lovers), and a band of gypsies and you just have an awful lot of fun basically.

The direction and the set support this too. The gypsies begin by stripping first a hiker and then a woman with a baby carriage down to their undergarments. Selim the Turk arrives in a magnificent boat (how wonderful actually to have a real boat, or a fair stab at one, on stage). Fiorilla seduces her victims in a gloriously garish apartment beneath a picture of Mount Versuvius, and the various protagonists all arrive for the Act I finale in cars or on Vespas, each mode of transport superbly in keeping with their various characters. The acting of the principles, particularly Fiorilla, her husband Don Geronio (Alessandro Corbelli), and Thomas Allen as the poet, is spot on throughout. Combined, the whole draws plenty of laughs and never fails to keep you interested.

A Brace of Janaceks - A Belated Where's Runnicles report from the London opera houses

ENO, Katya Kabanova

Beforehand we were warned that this production bore something of a resemblance to the dreadful Royal Opera House Tristan (which has inexplicably won the Olivier opera award). This is indeed so. The stage is pretty bare, and the main piece of set consists of a wall. But there all similarity ends. The wall (which never moved in Tristan) is versatile, opening up and closing down space on the vast Coliseum stage in accordance with the development of the narrative. More crucially, it is linked to consistently intelligent direction (from David Alden following on from his magnificent Jenufa) and some great acting all combining to make a very powerful evening in the opera house.

At its heart is a wonderful performance from Patricia Racette as Katya. She sang beautifully, and powerfully throughout, and successfully conveyed Katya's multifaceted character – ranging through submission, desire, despair. Above all, she met the key challenge of being able to commit suicide convincingly. The end of the opera has its Tosca moment, which failed miserably in the recent Royal Opera House revival (since unfortunately one could see the heroine walking unharmed off stage). Here Racette leaps off the back of the stage to be caught sharply in the light for one brief moment before vanishing. It was beautifully done.

As with the recent Jenufa, the supporting cast all do themselves proud, but particular mention must go to the young lovers. I had not up until now believed that Alfie Boe was anything much to write home about, but as with everybody else in this production he gives a fine singing and acting performance here. The character plays a crucial role in moving the narrative along and Boe carries it off superbly. Anna Grevelius, as Varvara, was similarly fine.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Britten-Pears Orchestra plays Beethoven and Haydn

In just over two months time I'll be paying my annual visit to the Aldeburgh festival (and for the third year running providing the most comprehensive written coverage of any media outlet - unless I have some unexpected competition). However, the easter weekend found me making an unexpectedly longer than planned stay trip south, and thus in the vicinity to make an early visit to the Maltings.

The Britten-Pears Orchestra is an interesting ensemble, featuring young artists, either conservatory students or recent graduates, selected through international audition and coming together four times a year. As something of a scratch ensemble, and relatively youthful, they can sometimes be a little rough about the edges, but their enthusiasm normally makes up for it, and it certainly did on Sunday. They were joined by conductor Antonello Manacorda, who helped found the superb Mahler Chamber Orchestra with Claudio Abbado.

The first half of the programme was filled with Beethoven's 4th symphony. Long underrated, perhaps as a result of being sandwiched between the Eroica and the fifth, it has always been one of my favourites. For me, however, Manacorda's approach didn't quite gel, seemingly unsure if he wanted to go down the historically informed or romantic routes. On the one hand there was the lack of vibrato (with the exception of one or two players) and the natural horns and trumpets (the former struggling a little with rather too many fluffed notes). Yet on the other hand he seemed to want to pull the score about a lot: he took the opening slowly, and often added emphasis, at times a little too much, sucking the flow out of the music. The quickly taken finale worked best.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Dvořák, Shostakovich, Brahms and fireworks from Bychkov, Matsuev and the LSO

Semyon Bychkov has already impressed me with his handling of last year's revival of the Royal Opera House's Don Carlos, so his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra was one of the concerts that jumped out at me when I was doing my last bit of booking back in December. Just as well.

He opened his programme with Dvořák's Carnival Overture. While I'm a big fan of Dvořák, this isn't a piece that's ever especially grabbed me before and hence not one I know all that well. From the opening bars I began to wonder why. Bychkov unleashed the LSO in a phenomenal display of energy and precision. It made for a real party piece, full of orchestral fireworks, and an excellent curtain raiser.

After a brief pause while the piano was raised up through the floor (an always fun to watch quirk of the Barbican - much more interesting than just having it pushed on from the back of the stage), Denis Matsuev joined them for Shostakovich's 2nd piano concerto. He proved every bit the match to Bychkov and the LSO. He maintained clarity through some rapid and intricate passages and found all the necessary weight without recourse to thumping the keyboard. Beneath him, Bychkov balanced his forces well, ensuring the pianist wasn't overwhelmed by the comparatively large orchestra. And yet it wasn't all fireworks - there was plenty of tenderness and beauty in the slow movement.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Promising on paper, but Kamu, Osborne and the SCO leave me cold

In theory, Okko Kamu's programme with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was perfect: my favourite Prokofiev symphony, a Mozart concerto and a Haydn symphony. Sadly, the evening left me completely cold.

Things got off to a disappointing start with Prokofiev's short but exciting first symphony. Kamu selected volumes that were altogether too great for the small venue. He was also rather clinical at a little too fast. True, the work's excitement does call for a swift tempo, but too swift and you lose something. The central movements lacked any of the wit and charm that make them special and were followed by a breakneck finale. There was some very good playing from the orchestra, but his choices meant it did nothing for me.

If the Prokofiev was disappointing, Mozart's final piano concerto, K595 in B-flat major, was puzzling. Kamu's overly heavy introduction might have been expected, nonetheless it was a shame. Like a sledgehammer to crack a nut, it sapped the beauty from the music. When Stephen Osborne entered, he was good without being great. He was, perhaps, a little heavier than ideal, lacking the poetry of the finest Mozartians, and may be better suited to repertoire such as the Britten and Tippett concerti with which he has recently excelled on disc. That's not to say he was without his moments: there were some nice touches, especially in the cadenzas.

The Scottish CHAMBER Orchestra subscriber concert

I've mentioned before that it's a pity there are only two chamber recitals as part of the official 2009/10 SCO season, which makes the annual subscriber concert all the more a treat. Tickets are free to all subscribers and supporters, and judging by turnout there's a healthy, if somewhat greying, number of both (the demographic seeming significantly more skewed in that direction than the average SCO concert).

It marked the introduction to Edinburgh of the Scottish Chamber Soloists, a wind and piano quartet formed by the orchestra's section principals and pianist Peter Mitchell for some concerts in Nassau. They began, however, with Beethoven's Trio for Flute, Bassoon and Piano, WoO 37. Like many of the 'without opus' works, it is very early Beethoven and it does feel it. It seemed often to be a series of duets, between either piano and bassoon or piano and flute, rather than the genuine conversation that marks out the greatest chamber music. Still, it provided a nice showcase for Alison Mitchell (flute) and Peter Whelan (bassoon) to display some beautiful playing. On the piano, Peter Mitchell (no relation) had a nice delicate touch, though didn't quite bring off the most intricate passages.

This was followed by a new work, written for and commissioned by the ensemble: Rory Boyle's Dance MacAber (a play on macabre). Alison Mitchell explained that they had wanted something with a Scottish feel and that Boyle had mixed Scottish dances with a sense of the macabre and fun. It didn't entirely work. The opening section was a bit too cluttered and the Scottish influences didn't feel very obvious. The slower central section was much more effective, with much clearer melodies and yet still being played with. The final section was again busier, but there was a nice wit to the ending. They played well, having been joined by Maximiliano Martin on clarinet, with Mitchell switching effortlessly between flute and piccolo.