Tuesday 29 June 2010

Aldeburgh 2010 - Zehetmair and Aimard

Zehetmair and his quartet had already played a concert, but such is the nature of festivals that he returned for a recital with festival director Pierre-Laurent Aimard and a mix of old and modern music.  But before that came a piece by Pierre Boulez for solo piano, providing a nice link to the performance that was to follow later in the day.

I don't think I'd ever heard anything by Boulez in concert before and was pleasantly surprised by his Douze Notations pour piano.  They were a wonderful mix, varyingly playful, intellectual and angry.  Flavours of Messiaen could be detected here and there too.  Aimard played superbly and the piece culminated in a wonderful chord, held for almost an eternity on the sustain peddle.

Boulez was followed by Schoenberg and his Phantasy for violin and piano, op.47.  This proved a much more introvert piece and the piano part significantly blander, save for a rather nice section at the top end of the keyboard.  Zehetmair displayed all the technical skill that he had shown on Wednesday yet proved a little clinical.

The Schumann that followed, Sonata no.1 in A minor, was rather more successful.  I'm often not bowled over by Schumann, but when played with plenty of oomph, as Aimard and Zehetmair did, it can be most exhilarating.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Aldeburgh 2010 - John Eliot Gardiner and Bach's B minor Mass

There was a slight sense of deja vu at Friday's concert.  It was less than a year ago that I last heard John Eliot Gardiner play Bach; that was at the Edinburgh festival and then too he was performing with his Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.  Indeed, he was even wearing the same black shirt with the same bright green cuffs.

What was not the same, however, was the programme.  Then it had included some minor cantatas and some Handel; last night we were treated to one of the greatest choral works in the repertoire, the B minor mass.

The result was largely as one might expect from these forces.  Both playing and singing were of an extremely high standard, and it was often very beautiful as a result.  Soloists were drawn from the choir, so inevitably they were a little mixed, but never less than good and some, such as the bass towards the end of the Credo or the alto in the Angus Dei were really rather special.  What's more, thanks to the size of the Maltings, the problem several of them suffered in Edinburgh of getting lost in the vastness of the Usher Hall did not occur.  The instrumental solos from the orchestra were similarly fine and the chamber organ had a nice meaty sound to it.

The Kyrie, always tricky to bring off well, did feel rather stodgy but thereafter Gardiner found more energy and sparkle.  The Sanctus lacked the absolute energy and unstoppable momentum of the very best readings but the final Angus Dei was both beautiful and moving.

Friday 25 June 2010

Aldeburgh 2010 - Knussen and the Britten-Pears Orchestra play Benjamin, Knussen and Britten

For whatever reason, I haven't caught a huge amount of the festival's celebration of composer George Benjamin, who celebrates his 50th birthday this year.  However, the pair of works programmed for the Britten-Pears Orchestra concert were well chosen.  It began with Aimard playing his ten Piano Figures.  These were interesting, fun (the closing Whirling particularly) and more lyrical than I might have expected and Aimard played them well.  A nice start, then, but they mainly served as a prelude to the Dance Figures, for full orchestra, that followed.  There is not a one to one mapping of the pieces, the latter numbering just nine, with some new ones, but they provided a fascinating contrast.  It was rather like looking at the outline sketch followed by the full painting; yet it was as well the piano had been there before, because it added to the apprecation.  And, as with that experience, the painting was much more satisfying, not least for Benjamin's wonderful touch with orchestration.  As ever, though, with music one hears for the first time, especially modern compositions, one immediately wanted to hear it again.  The playing of the orchestra under Knussen was to a high standard, though a little too loud in Hammers.

Benjamin was followed by Knussen's single movement horn concerto, played by Richard Watkins, former principal horn of the Philharmonia.  The programme note talks about the nachtmusik feel of Mahler's 7th symphony, and there was a strong flavour of that present.  The solo part itself was highly demanding, which only makes Watkins' performance the more impressive since he didn't put a foot wrong - there was not the ghost of a cracked note.  My only reservation concerns the slightly abrupt way in which the work ended, almost mid-phrase.

After the interval, the programme was entirely given over to Britten.  It's interesting that, despite the well reported fact that artistic director Pierre-Laurent Aimard isn't a fan of Britten, 2010 has actually been a pretty good year for the composer.  Indeed, there were some years under Ades when much less of his music was on offer.  First up was Nocturne, following on nicely from the concerto.  The soloist, Robert Murray, was clear and well characterised, especially with the tings and meows in Midnight's bell goes ting, ting, ting.  However, even though his diction was solid, it still would have been nice to have the texts.  The orchestra was perhaps a little large for the work, but Knussen mostly kept them from overwhelming him and the playing was exceptional - the quality of the string tone in some of the chords in What is more gentle than a wind in the summer? was impressive, not to mention the beautiful wind solos from Laura Pou (flute) and Caroline Inderbitzin (clarinet).  The quality of the Britten-Pears Orchestra, by its very nature, is variable, but whether it was just a particularly fine intake or the presence of Oliver Knussen, a reliably good conductor, or more likely both, this was probably the best one I've heard.

Aldeburgh 2010 - The Tenor Man's Story (or, they don't make 'em like that anymore)

"They don't make documentaries like that anymore."

And more's the pity, for that was our universal reaction as we left Aldeburgh cinema yesterday following a screening of Barrie Gavin's 1985 documentary The Tenor Man's Story.  Modern documentaries often seem to have rules that you mustn't hold a shot for more than twenty seconds, can't have talking heads and must be full of dramatic reconstructions.

Gavin's work, on the other hand, was simplicity itself, consisting of Peter Pears telling his life story, for the most part directly to camera, in his own words.  It had been edited from a longer interview conducted by Donald Mitchell, but for the most part the actual questions were unheard and unneeded, with only the odd brief narration to link the material.

To be sure, it wasn't all to camera: there were many evocative shots of Aldeburgh, especially the waves lapping up on the beach, and the Red House, but these all seemed appropriate.  So too the historical photographs, for example one of the cricket team he played on, which appeared and were held for a good long time as he discussed them.  So too music, which was well and subtly chosen to illustrate the compositions he was talking about.

Aldeburgh 2010 - The Zehetmair Quartet play Schumann and Shostakovich

The Zehetmair Quartet is, in some respects, slightly odd to look at as they take the stage.  Not only did they play the first half without music, but from left to right the formation ran first violin, viola, cello and second violin.  Perhaps due to the lack of music, they were sitting in less of a semi-circle than usual, more two rows facing inwards at each other - almost as if the audience was incidental. The result felt rather introverted.

They played Schumann's first quartet, op.41.  Technically it was excellent and they played to a very high standard, though I didn't find them as compelling an ensemble as the Signum Quartet two days earlier.  However, this was probably more down to the music itself, which left me utterly cold.

After the interval it was another matter entirely as they played Shostakovich's 15th quartet, his final one, written very close to his death and as a result intensely dark and morbid.  Nominally in six movements, all marked adagio, it was played almost without break.  If the technical standard had been high in the first half it was nothing compared to the second as, during the intensely minimalist opening, chords grew out of extreme pianissimo.  There also seemed to be a fair degree of repetition further heightening the emotion - was this perhaps another link to the first section of Aimard's Collage-Montage.  The result was utterly compelling, if bleakly depressing.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Aldeburgh 2010 - Oelze sings Schumann, Debussy and Messiaen with Aimard

Tuesday's concert didn't get off to the most promising start for me.  Soprano Christiane Oelze seemed to have have a rather plain voice with a piercing vibrato at high volumes and some rather rough edges lower down.  Her diction was generally fine, but midline she often seemed to blur words together.  As such, her performances of Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben and Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis left me rather cold, despite Pierre-Laurent Aimard's delicate, sensitive and beautifully played accompaniment.  They were further not helped by the fact that something strange seemed to be happening to the notes on the piano when Aimard released the sustaining peddle.

After the interval, though, everything changed.  They returned to the stage to perform Messiaen's Harawi - Chant d'amour et de mort.  In the first place it seemed a far better fit for Oelze's voice, and any of those rough edges were rarely noticeable.  She also found plenty of the drama and had fun with the phonic words.  It is a taxing cycle, to say the least, ranging from frenzy of Staircase retold, gestures of the sun, to sublime beauty elsewhere, to nonsense and wit, and lasting about an hour, yet she showed no signs of tiring.

Aimard proved himself an exceptional interpreter of Messiaen, especially with the birdsong motifs so common in the composer's work, nowhere more so than during Good morrow, green dove.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Aldeburgh 2010 - Leon Fleisher and the Signum Quartet

When the programme for this year's Aldeburgh festival was announced, the thing that had me most excited by far was the appearance, indeed multiple appearances, by American pianist Leon Fleisher.  He has had a remarkable life story.  In the late 50s and early 60s he was among the foremost concert pianists of his generation, making a number of outstanding recordings, many the result of an impressive partnership with Georg Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, including the Brahms and Beethoven concerti.  Sadly, in the mid 60s he lost the use of his right hand due to dystonia, which for the most part ended his career as a concert pianist, save for the performance of various works for left hand.

Flash forward several decades, and Botox injections gave him back the use of his right hand and in 2004 he recorded his first two handed album for four decades.  Now in his early 80s, his visit to Aldeburgh is both a coup and a real treat.

He had chosen a programme of Bach solo works followed by a Brahms quintet.  Bach is clearly important to Fleisher: his most recent solo recording, The Journey, is almost entirely Bach and his album Two Hands opens with two pieces, including Egon Petri's arrangement of BWV 208 Sheep May Safely Graze, and it was with this that he began the concert.  It's a beautiful work and one close to being a desert island disc for me.  Fleisher's approach to Bach on the piano is not the more mechanical one that I often find most effective, instead it is intensely poetic and richly coloured.  His reading was sublime.

Monday 21 June 2010

Aldeburgh 2010 in brief - Music and the Brain & Festival Directors III

You can easily do too much in a festival, case in point, today sees Where's Runnicles attending a documentary film double bill at Aldeburgh cinema, a piano and violin recital of music by Britten and Knussen, and then later this evening a concert from Leon Fleisher and the Signum Quartet at the Maltings.  As such, in a slight break with the Where's Runnicles house style of long and rambling, we're going to try something different: a brief review (well, three brief reviews, taken together it's not all that brief).


Ravel's Brain

The first of a double bill, and part of the Music and the Brain series that runs through this year's festival, no doubt inspired by Fleisher's residency (indeed, the one film of the festival that I really wanted to see, concerning his return to two handed performance, was last week), Ravel's Brain was both disappointing and a missed opportunity.  From the outset, and the deliberately wobbly and out of focus passage through a cloister, it was clear that director Larry Weinstein rather fancied himself as more than a maker of documentaries.  So it was that we were treated to having Ravel's doctor sing to us about his symptoms.  There was also a lot of reconstruction.  This is not necessarily so bad in and of itself, especially if there is no real footage, however there was something dishonest about the way Weinstein put it together.  Some scenes were in colour, but others in grainy black and white so it appeared as though it was genuine footage of the composer.  However, once the same actors appeared in the colour footage the game was up.  The problem is that doing that then made one question whether what appeared to be letters from his friends, or other narration, might not be made up too.

The sad part was that the question of what exactly had been wrong with Ravel was clearly a fascinating one (to which we will likely never have the full answer).  What is more, a lot of the actual interviews, both with people who knew Ravel and with two neurosurgeons, were fascinating.  There is clearly room for an excellent documentary here but unfortunately Ravel's Brain isn't it.

Aldeburgh 2010: Pierre-Laurent Aimard presents Collage-Montage

Collage-Montage is, in the words of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, artistic director of the Aldeburgh festival, and the evening's sole audible performer, "a game".  The key idea behind it is to put together works, miniatures, and find common themes.  Thirty-seven pieces in all, by twenty-three composers, grouped into five sections, on paper it represents a slightly daunting prospect.  At the same time, as enticing as the multiple course tasting menu of a fine restaurant.

In the end, the result was both fascinating and enthralling.  Helped by his insightful spoken links (though at some moments they were not quite clearly audible), Aimard repeatedly found common ground you might not have expected and wove different compostions together in a manner that, at times, was almost seamless.

The opening section, Prelude elementaire, was based around pieces with repeating notes or groups of notes, from Ligeti's Musica Ricercata to Pierre Boulez's Notations.  Indeed, one of the many themes running through the evening was to connect many of the composers whose work is appearing elsewhere in festival.  What was remarkable, though, was the different ways in which the various composers approached a similar idea, and yet it wasn't always completely obvious where one piece ended and another began.

Saturday 19 June 2010

The Where's Runnicles Album of the Week - Regina Spektor's Begin to Hope

Last Saturday I was in HMV picking up a birthday present for someone. As I listened, the piped music was infuriatingly familiar, by which I mean that I recognised it but couldn't for the life of me place what it was or where I knew it from. A woman was singing and there was a piano. I could hear the refrain "I'm not the hero", but that was about it. Of course, a sensible person might, at this point, have asked the shop assistants what it was. Not me.

Instead, gifts bought, I went home and embarked on some intensive googling. Well, I say intensive, in point of fact I tracked the song down pretty swiftly: it turned out to be Hero by Regina Spektor and I knew it from the soundtrack to 500 Days of Summer (incidentally, I must at this point apologise to all those of you who aren't Spotify users and thus won't be able to access the links in this post - if anyone can point me out a similar US service on which I can set up links for those affected, let me know). Having listened to and enjoyed the song in full, I noticed that said soundtrack further benefitted from having an arguably even finer Spektor song in Us. This prompted me to put Spotify to good use and track down and listen to all the songs of hers that I could.

I was left with one overriding question: how on earth had it taken me so long to meet Spektor? Yesterday I tried to describe her to my brother: imagine, I suggested, a female Leonard Cohen, only with a prettier singing voice but not such a brilliant poet. I'm not sure that's a perfect description but I haven't come up with anything better. She also has no shortage of wit, has something endearingly quirky about her and comes across as extremely charismatic performer. Anyway, so much have I been listening to her this week that I felt a new segment was in order, that of Album of the Week. Actually, in choosing, I havered somewhat: Far is also a superb album, and in some ways an easier listen, but the strengths of the individual songs on Begin to Hope are such that it has to be the winner. I'm going to discuss a couple of these in an effort to explain just what I find so magical about Spektor.


Friday 18 June 2010

Peter Gregson's Terminal

At the end of last year I started one of those many blog posts that somehow never get finished.  The subject was the best discs of 2009, and while there were some very good ones (the Belcea Quartet's Schubert, for example), part of the reason it never got finished was that there just weren't all that many new discs last year which got me really excited.  How different 2010 has been.  We've been flooded with great releases: there have been three outstanding ones from Charles Mackerras alone, not to mention the LSO's new recording of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and we're only half way through the year (so I won't yet count Paul Lewis's superb Beethoven concerti recordings since we have to wait until July for them).

As a result, when I say Peter Gregson's Terminal is one of the finest discs I've heard this year, it may not put it in quite the most exclusive group imaginable, but it's a testament to its outstanding quality.


Some years ago I read a not very good book by Colin Forbes which was also called Terminal.  The two don't have much in common other than the fact that that opened with multiple definitions of the word and Gregson seems to have had multiple definitions in mind when picking his title.  As he writes, much of the music was conceived during long hours spent in airport terminals; at the same time, the first and last tracks are titled - and +, like the terminals on a battery.  Electricity is an apt theme, since this disc mixes cello with electric cello, both played one on top of the other and often subjected to delays or other electronic manipulation.  Gregson is keen to point out that this was done in complete takes, rather than adding a little bits here and there.  This has been a wise decision, as it ensures a more musical result.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Mackerras, Hytner and the OAE provide a sparkling Cosi Fan Tutte at Glyndebourne

Until this Friday, Cosi Fan Tutte was the only Mozart/Da Ponte opera I had never seen staged.  Actually, three years ago I had a near miss with this very production.  I dearly wanted to see it, but the dates didn't work and I wound up with the diabolical staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion instead.  Interestingly, that simultaneously deprived me of an early opportunity to hear Robin Ticciati in action, before his move to the SCO.

Still, good things come to those who wait, and three years later Nicholas Hytner's production was getting a revival under the baton one of the finest Mozartians, Charles Mackerras.  Not only would I get to round out seeing the Da Ponte operas, but to have seen them all with him in the pit.  At the helm of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, with whom he has recently and successfully recorded the work for Chandos's Opera in English series, he delivered a musical treat.  They played beautifully, with plenty of sparkle and bounce.  Mackerras made good progress, and yet never did he make the music feel rushed.  The uniformed listener, with their eyes closed, would have been hard pushed to guess that the man in the pit will be 85 later this year.  And, as ever, he proved amongst the most sensitive accompanists you will find.

Amongst the cast there was not a weak link.  True, there was no breathtaking or astonishing singing either (with the possible exception of Sally Matthews as Fiordiligi whose long act two aria was especially sublime), it was just very good and solid all round.  Indeed, I can't think of the last thing I saw that had such a well rounded cast, where one wasn't thinking "yes, but if only X was a bit better it would be perfect".  Indeed, here Mackerras scored a major victory over the Chandos recording where Lesley Garret is somewhat past it and whose rather ugly singing as Despina provides some comedy but little more.  Anna Maria Panzarella proved it is possible to get every bit as much wit, if not more so, and still sing beautifully.

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.

Thursday 3 June 2010

The Glyndebourne Billy Budd: An Evening of True Operatic Greatness

When the Glyndebourne 2010 programme was announced I was not particularly excited.  I had recently seen the Covent Garden Rake's Progress, I do not like Hansel and Gretel or Macbeth.  One opera alone leapt out at me, a first Glyndebourne production of Britten's Billy Budd with Jacques Imbrailo in the title role, and directed by Michael Grandage.  Thanks to family backing, I am now buying my way into Associate Membership, so instead of the usual business of hoping for returns I was able to book my tickets in the members booking period.  Thankfully, there was no cause to regret this hefty financial investment.  This performance is one of the finest things I have seen in the opera house for some time, and I urge anybody who loves this too rarely performed masterpiece to snatch up a return and hasten down to Sussex.

Billy Budd was the first Britten opera I ever saw staged in an unforgettable ENO production featuring the late Philip Langridge as Vere, the late Richard Van Allan as Claggart and the fortunately still with us Thomas Allen as Budd.  Fortunately, Grandage's vision of the piece is equally effective.  He closes in the Glyndebourne stage with several semi-circular gantries.  The sea is all round us, but we never actually see it.  The men, including the impressively agile Imbrailo, scurry around them, hauling in ropes (an act which becomes horribly significant at the conclusion), scrambling up ladders, scrubbing down the deck.  The set also effectively portrays the fragile boundaries constructed between officers and men.  Grandage has a wonderful visual sense of the complete ensemble picture, creating vivid effects throughout, but nowhere more so than in the haunting tableau of Billy's execution.

This opera, more than many others, depends on having a really fine ensemble, and this Glyndebourne production does the work proud in that regard.  All the minor roles (Novice, Sailing Master, off-stage sailor) were finely taken.  Below decks, Alasdair Elliott (Red Whiskers), John Moore (Donald) and Jeremy White (Dansker) all gave beautifully judged performances.  Similarly, the trio of Vere's officers, Mr Redburn (Iain Paterson), Mr Flint (Matthew Rose) and Lieutenant Ratcliffe (Darren Jeffery).  The subdued trio in the trial scene was delivered so that every neatly dove-tailed little phrase was audible without recourse to the surtitles (indeed, the general standard of diction was high – ENO take note) and their plaintive appeal to Vere - “Sir, we need you as always” - was another powerful moment.