Sunday 2 December 2007

A weekend of culture, Part I: Salonen and Sibelius at the Barbican

When I heard Salonen was bringing the LA Philharmonic to the Barbican, and for a series of Sibelius concerts no less, I wanted to attend. In part because I'm always keen to hear new readings of the composer, but also because Salonen is due to take over at the Philharmonia and so I wanted to size him up. Fortunately, then, one of the concerts fitted in neatly with my plans to jet down for Jansons' concert with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

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The programme offered us the first and third symphonies as well as a newish composition by Salonen's compatriot Kaija Saariaho called Quatre instants. Perhaps it doesn't help that Salonen's competition is tough. After all, not three months ago we heard the third symphony in a thrilling reading from Ades and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. But even allowing for this, the result was not much cop. From the opening bars this was too polite, though the playing was pretty fine. A fairly brisk pace, but the orchestra felt much to big for the work. There was little by way of drama. The rich textures of the orchestra were better suited to the second movement, but it was a little rushed. The finale was horribly polite: where was the flair, the drama, the sweep, the oomph, the anything! There were rather too many orchestral fluffs (from the winds at the start to the strings later on). The volume was remarkably constant, the kind of contrast that makes for a satisfying performance was wholly absent.

Things did not improve with Quatre instants. Salonen was joined by soprano Karita Mattila whose thin voice lacked any richness and possessed a painful vibrato at high volumes. Salonen continued his blandness, which was all the more impressive in this work, given just how much appeared to be going on in the score. The poetry, texts by Amin Maalouf, was as bland as the interpretation.

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Things picked up somewhat after the interval. Perhaps Salonen had been nervous as the composer was in the audience in the first half, or perhaps everyone involved had had their coffee. Perhaps they were simply tired from being on the road a while. That said, it was far from perfect, the start of the work was somewhat laboured. In the second movement, while he held pauses, he managed to do so without creating any real tension and he failed to get any interesting texture on the icy wind, string motif. The scherzo was taken too fast and played without sufficient bite. The finale was the best, rich and with a degree of sweep. Too quick in places, but towards the end he judged the tempo well and the last five minutes were pretty thrilling.

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He played some Ligetti as what was, quite frankly, a rather optimistic encore given the response.

Messiaen's tall tales: Peter Hill and the SCO Chamber Ensemble play the Quartet for the End of Time

It is rapidly becoming clear to me that the highlight of the SCO season is going to be these Sunday afternoon chamber concerts. For a start, they offer excellent value, where £12 buys you just an hour in the awful acoustic of St Cuthbert's church for a Cl@six concert, here it buys you a full couple of hours of glorious chamber music. The choice is a simple one.

This programme had been put together with an intelligence altogether absent from Elts' Invitation to Dance. Hill and the ensemble knew that you cannot possibly pair anything with the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (The Quartet for the End of Time, to those whose French is even more tenuous than mine). So instead of trying, or doing the obvious of not having anything (which still would have provided reasonable value), they chose instead to have Peter Hill give a talk. A noted Messiaen pianist, as anyone who has sampled his complete survey of the composer's piano music will be aware, he is also a scholar. According to the liner notes of his Messiaen recordings, he teaches at the University of Sheffield and has published books such as The Messiaen Companion, Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring and a biography of Messiaen with Nigel Simeone, not to mention making over 100 programme for the BBC.

These talents were on display as he gave us a brief history of Messiaen's life, illustrated musically at various points (including a few beautiful minutes of the composer improvising on the organ at the end of a church service as the congregation were meant to be leaving, as the applause attested they didn't, the music was interestingly unlike anything he wrote for the organ). Hill told us how Messiaen exaggerated the circumstances of the composition within a POW camp during world war two (to which all French soldiers seemed to have taken their musical instruments), the bizarre congregation of a pianist, clarinettist, violinist and cellist and the quartet that resulted. But the cello did not, as the composer liked to relate, have only 3 strings, nor was the premier outside to 5000 prisoners (as Hill remarked, a suspiciously biblical number from this most religious person), but rather in the camp's theatre to 400, many of whom were guards. He walked us through the movements, several of which had been written prior to meeting of the quartet. He was an engaging and informative speaker, and his Sheffield students are lucky.

After a brief interval he was joined by three of the SCO's finest: cellist David Watkin, clarinettist Maximiliano Martin and violinish Christopher George. All four gave a superb and utterly compelling reading, and showed just how well served with fine players the SCO really is. It's difficult to write more. I don't know the work all that well, and my one recording doesn't compare, suffice to say I'm now looking for another. If I had one reservation, it is that George doesn't quite shine in the chamber setting quite so brightly as the other three, he lacks the panache of both Watkin and Martin. But it is a small quibble with a moving performance.

Saturday 1 December 2007

SCO: Short-Changing Orchestra?

"I will be clear". A simple phrase, though if you believe The Economist's Charlemagne one which according to a guide written by British diplomats for interpreting their French counterparts means "I will be rude". And I suppose that's what I mean with this post. So, before I am, I should say who I'm being clear about: the comments I am about to make are not directed against the players of the SCO themselves, for whom I have great respect and admiration, but against the management of their orchestra, of whom I cannot say the same.

I've been to my share of poor concerts and worse in my time, but it is rarely the case that I genuinely feel short-changed. It was, to some extent, the case with Deborah Voigt's recent appearance at the Festival, as I said at the time, I feel it is something of a liberty to charge that kind of money for a voice that is so far past it. But it was at least interesting to have seen Mr Tilson Thomas, even if it is an experience I have no desire to repeat.

Much the same could be said of the SCO's Cl@six concerts. £12 seems increasingly to represent not much of a bargain. After all, it is half the length of a standard concert, in much less comfortable seats and with much worse sight lines (of course, if your are a student or a pension it is a better deal, but I am not, so they win no points from me on that score).

The idea was, as I remarked after the first one, a good one, having been first though of by Brian McMaster, former Festival director, who pioneered it with a superb series of the Beethoven symphonies from Mackerras and the SCO. However, as I noted then, it was not without its problems, and price was not the most significant. The reverberant venue of St Cuthbert's church was less than ideal for the 13 piece ensemble that played Mozart's Gran Partita, but when the full SCO took to what cannot reasonably be called the stage, it was intolerable.

I would like to review the performance itself, but that really isn't possible. The way the sound resonated the quality of the playing couldn't be judged since the musical lines were so unclear. Titled Invitation to Dance, we got Dvorak's Czech Suite, Kodaly's Dances of Galanta and Bartok's Romanian Dances, with Ligeti's Salon Dances from Old Hungary as an encore. The first thing to note is that this programming was a poor judgement on Elts' part. I have little love for him after his poor Sibelius, but less now. The genius of the McMaster 6pm (or 5.30 as his were) slot was that it was one work, to be appreciated in isolation. A beautifully played Beethoven 8th symphony, coming in well under half an hour, could be savoured and didn't feel like poor value for £10. This point seems to have escaped either Elts, the SCO management, or both. Elts' reading, to the extent it could be judged, in no way ever really came close to conjuring anything reminiscent of a dance.

I will be clear: had I known how bad the hall was, there is no way I would have bought tickets. I genuinely feel cheated and I am curious to know who was responsible for the decision to hold the concerts here. Either they had never heard the hall, in which case they were simply negligent, or they had and either didn't mind or didn't care, which shows either an incompetence or a contempt for the paying customer. I understand that if they wanted to use the west end it may have been this or nothing (as the Usher Hall is closed for refurbishment), but on that basis they should have chosen nothing. Or moved things to the Queen's Hall, which has one of the finest acoustics going.

All of which leaves me wondering what I'll do about the next few concerts. One is from the SCO chorus (which I will almost certainly attend). The hall's acoustic may, perhaps, be better suited to that, but also as I have a relative who sings with them. I may also go to the four seasons. I don't really like the work, but the violinist/director is Anthony Marwood who treated us to Ades's wonderful violin concerto recently.

It also makes me hope to high heaven that the people nearby who where chatting away about Elts (and implying there were in the know) were completely wrong in thinking that the SCO have him in mind for the music directorship. If they do, and they're reading this: for the love of God NO. Hire someone worthy of this fine orchestra. I refuse to believe it can be that hard to find someone who fits that criterion.

If the venue doesn't change next year, and this series repeats, I shall be saving myself £60 that could be better spent. I'd advise any discriminating listener to do the same.


Sing the characters in Sondheim's gem of a musical Marry me a Little. They're talking about sex, of course, but they could just as easily have been describing the pianism of Polina Leschenko. The former is preferable.

The concert, on Thursday 8th November, was an interesting one for me. The views of the Scottish press of the SCO's former chief conductor, Joseph Swensen are favourable, as is my impression from the one or two CDs I have heard, so I was curious to hear him in action. The start was not promising. They played a little known piece by Puccini called I Crisantemi. The programme describes it as a string quartet. However, since there were rather more than four players on the platform, one must assume some orchestration had gone on, but Svend Brown's programme note provided no illumination. Neither, for the most part did the piece which, while there was some nice enough playing, seemed justly obscure.

This was followed by the Chopin piano concerto. Or, rather, a brief pause as the chairs were moved about, during which the cellos decamped to the side stalls and chatted with one or two members of the audience. As the piano was moved closer, it occurred to me that the front row, while ideal in the Queen's Hall for chamber concerts, might yield less that ideal balance here. That was the least of my concerns. Leschensko is a thumper. No subtlety, but every note banged out. This may be to some tastes, but not mine and as a result the experience was fairly unbearable. Swensen's accompaniment was better, though he seemed to follow the example set by Fischer in mistakenly equating loudness with excitement.

The second half was an improvement: Schumann's 1st (spring) symphony. Swensen gave a dramatic and exciting reading, in many ways everything the concerto hadn't been. The playing was much sharper too. However, the middle movements were somewhat rushed, but perhaps that comes of being used to Bernstein's later recordings. He could have offered more contrast, both in tempo and more importantly in volume which was, most of the time, far, far too loud. Like many of the SCO's conductors this season, he seems to cope poorly with larger works in the small hall.

Swensen seemed to have garnered much enthusiastic praise for his years as the SCO's music director, but I have to say I wasn't blown away. A slightly odd conductor to watch, with a very angular style of movement, almost like a marionette at times and annoyingly reminiscent of Michael Tilson Thomas. To be sure, his (or indeed, any) guiding touch is missing from an orchestra that has had no music director since he left, but once again it is a disappointment that an orchestra with players of this calibre does not seem to attract conductors of the same level.

Two weeks later, and history was repeating itself. This time the conductor of the day was Diego Masson. Who? You might well ask. Well, you haven't missed much. He opened with Rossini's overture: The Silken Ladder. The orchestra's playing was not particularly sharp and there were rather too many fluffed notes (from the winds and horns particularly). His reading was not really light or playful as Rossini should be.

Then came Piotr Anderszewski to play Mozart's 21st Concerto (it was to have been the Schumann concerto, but having never performed it before he got cold feet at the last minute, in truth the substitution was a merciful one as the Mozart is briefer). Bang, bang! Again, from the first piano notes it was all downhill. Not only did he thump like anything, but there wasn't even any passion behind it, a performance that was horribly matter of fact in the way the notes followed one another. Overly romantic, for Mozart, and with conductor and soloist seeming not to be playing quite the same reading. The beautiful slow movement lacked any poetry. To make matters worse Anderszewski revealed an extremely annoying grunting, groaning, almost moaning, singing mannerism. The finale too was deeply unimpressive. One to be avoided, it is with horror, therefore, that I notice I have him again later in the season. One lesson seems to leap from this: the season ticket, which seemed a nice idea at the time, was a hideous mistake.

In the second half he brought us Stravinsky's Concerto in D. It was a competent reading, but devoid of the kind of electricity that Stravinsky really needs to shine. This was followed by Haydn's 88th symphony. Masson played too loudly and a reading that, like Fischer's Beethoven, felt a little rough around the edges. It lacked the sparkle, joy, humour and, well, anything that marks out great Haydn, stodgy and overly intellectual instead. So, if Masson is unknown to you, there is no hurry to rectify this (if rectify can indeed be said to be the correct term).

Sometime I feel we need a society to campaign against thumping pianists, to champion the likes of Kempff or Uchida. But even Paul Lewis, who plays the Hammerklavier with as much force and passion as I've heard, but who is capable of getting volume without thumping, a skill that is apparently beyond the reach of messrs Anderszewski and Leschenko. Pitty. Will the SCO please start engaging pianists who do not thump! It is, I suppose, some comfort that in a few months time the sublime Christian Zacharias will be paying a visit (if he was willing, and the orchestra had the sense, they would engage him as their music director).