Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Brighton Festival - Lunchtime Concerts, Part 2

And so to catch up on some more of the Lunchtime concerts from the Brighton Festival.

Pianist Ashley Fripp (Thursday 17 May) began with a delightful performance of Haydn's Sonata in D major, Hob. XVII:D1.  He followed this with Liszt's Vier kleine Klavierstücke, a late set of miniatures, and not ones I previously knew.  They are less obviously showy than the more well known Liszt repertoire, and Fripp brought great sensitivity to their more introspective style.  The rest of the programme was given over to Rachmaninov - first of all the challenging Ten Preludes, Op. 23.  The 10 came some time after Rachmaninov's mammoth single Prelude in C sharp minor, and he followed these later with thirteen more to provide a complete set of all the major and minor keys.  Whilst some are less challenging than others to play, they all require great skill to bring out inner melodies and balance the dynamics, particularly when playing the set together.  Fripp managed this beautifully, a highlight for me being the contrast of the almost dance-like, dramatic third Prelude in D minor, followed by the exquisitely lyrical and romantic fourth Prelude in D major.  He ended his programme with the Humoresque from the Sept Morceaux de Salon, Op. 10 - lighter in style, but suitably effervescent to complete a very enjoyable performance.  

Next, cellist Tim Lowe was accompanied by pianist James Baillieu (Friday 18 May).  The meat of their programme was Brahms' F major Sonata, a passionate and dramatic piece, composed over twenty years after his first sonata for the instrument.  I really enjoyed Lowe's playing here, and Baillieu proved himself a very skilled partner too, as achieving the right balance, particularly in the dry acoustic of the Pavilion Theatre, is not straightforward at all.  Another new piece to me, Sibelius' Malinconia, Op. 20, preceded the Brahms - this was composed following the tragic death of the composer's infant daughter, and it is an intensely moving, even painful piece.  They topped and tailed the programme with two sets of variations - they began with Mendelssohn's rousing Variations Concertantes, and ended with the less well-known Variations on a theme by Rossini, composed by Martinu.  Both these works gave Lowe ample opportunity to demonstrate his technical command.  

The Eidos Trio, William Stafford (clarinet), Ilya Movchan (violin) and Konstantin Lapshin (piano) have been playing together since 2008, when they got together at the Royal College of Music.  They opened their concert (Sunday 20 May) with Milhaud's Suite, and technically their performance was spot on.  However, what concerned me here immediately was a lack of communication between the players.  There was barely a moment of eye contact between any of the three players, and there was certainly no real sense of fun - not even in the third movement, entitled 'Jeu'.  Unfortunately, this continued throughout their programme for me, and increasingly I felt frustrated by the fact that, despite their obvious skill and musicianship, the audience was not really being brought into their world through the performances.  This is particularly important in this less familiar, and somewhat challenging, repertoire, and was a great contrast to other musicians in this series who went out of their way to communicate with their audience.  However, there was still much to admire here.  The Trio by Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) was composed in 1996.  An opera composer predominantly, he was also the partner of Samuel Barber, and wrote the libretto for his opera, Vanessa.  The trio is an interesting piece, and again, there is humour in the music here too, which once again didn't come across.  However, in the more melodic moments, particularly for the clarinet in the final movement, there was some subtle playing here.  The Largo by Ives is quite a lyrical, nostalgic piece, yet still containing typically quirky Ivesian detail.  They completed their programme with the lively Khachaturian Trio, and finally here the Eidos Trio came alive.  Perhaps it was the folk-inspired melodies and rhythms, or maybe they were beginning to relax a little more, but here I began to feel they were actually enjoying themselves a bit, and consequently the audience responded accordingly.  So overall, strong musicians that need to work on performance communication for me.  

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Brighton Festival 2012 - More concerts

Three evening concerts last week, interestingly all problematic in one way or another, although not without moments to enjoy too.
Credit: Keith Saunders
Firstly, the Jerusalem Quartet, with pianist Alexander Melnikov (Tuesday 8 May).  I have hesitated over writing about this concert, as I am still unsure of how the protests that disrupted it leave me feeling.  I have some sympathies with the cause of the pro-Palenstinian protesters, who not only staged a demonstration outside the concert, but also disrupted the concert itself on I think about six or seven occasions, with protesters shouting out and having to be removed from the concert hall.  However, I do wonder what they hoped to achieve by their protest.  I was at the concert by myself, which allowed me to easily eavesdrop on conversations of audience goers in the interval, and whilst clearly some were opposed to both the protesters' cause and their actions, a good number I heard were aware of and shared concerns about Israel's actions in Palestine, but were nonetheless angry about the protesters' targeting of the Jerusalem Quartet - so actually, support was lost rather than gained.  Also, their protest seems to be based on rather inaccurate information and assumptions - the argument seems to go that the Quartet are funded by the Israeli state (not true) and the players are members of the Israeli army, so therefore they represent the state, and as such, are a fair target for protest.  They did perform their legally required national service at 18 - but as musicians, not in combat divisions.  Since that time, two members have regularly performed with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the orchestra founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said to promote understanding and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.  Whatever your views on the issues, it does feel like there are surely more deserving targets for protest - it is rather an easy option, and I suspect counterproductive, to target these musicians in this way.

Credit: Marco Borggreve
In terms of the performances themselves, I have to confess to being too overly distracted by the tension and ill-feeling created by the protests to focus as much as I would have liked on the music (the protesters may see this as a success, but I don't).  However, the Jerusalem Quartet kept playing throughout, and their performances were full of conviction and energy - it's hard not to ascribe additional urgency to their playing given the circumstances, but there was a definite determination in both works performed.  The first half was given over to Schumann's Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47, and his Piano Quintet, also in E flat major, Op. 44 followed after the interval.  As an encore, they performed the second movement of the Piano Quartet, which had been particularly badly disrupted, once more.  I have always felt strongly about the power of music to bring people together, and to change hearts and minds.  On this occasion, however, I left feeling that despite the best efforts of the performers, the music had been suppressed by misguided and poorly targeted anger.  Probably the protesters left happy, but I doubt the Israeli regime is quaking in its boots as a result of their easy protest at what was essentially a provincial festival chamber music concert with an audience of two to three hundred.  Interestingly, they didn't target the Jerusalem Quartet's repeat concert the next night at the Wigmore Hall - presumably because, having protested there once already on a previous occasion, the Wigmore Hall security would be wise to them, and it would prove too difficult.  

Next this week, the English Chamber Choir (Friday 11 May), conducted by Guy Protheroe, performing the Te Deum by António Teixeira (1707 - after 1759).  They preceded this with a world premiere performance of Sub tuum praesidium by Ivan Moody (b.1964).  This relatively short, unaccompanied work began a little shakily in the large acoustic of St Bartholomew's Church in Brighton, but once the singers settled slightly, it came across effectively enough, the falling clusters of sound taking advantage of the warm acoustic.  I felt the piece needed more strength at the top from the sopranos, and it seemed slightly under-rehearsed, given the obvious challenges.  An interesting piece, nevertheless, and well suited to the acoustic.  Then came the Teixeira.  This is a long piece, using five separate choirs, and calling on eight soloists.  In fact, here the English Chamber Choir used four soloists (Julia Doyle, Siân Menna, Simon Wall and Philip Tebb, and then shared out the solo parts throughout the choir, so by the end of the piece, I think nearly every singer had had at least one solo bit.  Sadly, their performance was scuppered from the outset by a fundamental problem in staging.  I am surprised nobody from the festival or the church pointed out the flaw in raising the orchestra (which was relatively large for the size of choir) on staging.  This meant that throughout, the choir struggled to be heard, particularly when singing in smaller groups.  Even the soloists (other than the tenor, who was quite tall) struggled, as they were placed behind the orchestra too.  Also, the five 'choirs' were all placed close together, behind the orchestra, so the antiphonal effects between the choirs were also rather lost.  As it is quite a long work, this variety of effects is vital in maintaining interest.  A real shame, as there were clearly some good voices here, and the choir knew the work well.  Another one to hear again under different circumstances, I think.

Finally, bass Matthew Rose, accompanied by pianist Malcolm Martineau, in the beautiful setting of the Music Room of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton (Sunday 13 May).  Matthew Rose has a fabulously powerful and rich voice, and he gave a commanding performance of Schubert (Schwanengesang and the Drei Gesänge D902) and Brahms (Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121).  However, I wonder if he is more comfortable performing in larger, less intimate settings.  From the moment he came onto stage, he seemed rather ill at ease, almost nervous, and backed himself up against the piano, gripping its edge throughout the performance - one almost had the curious sense he was backing away from the audience as if we were a threat.  His performance was largely directed at a point some distance behind the back wall of the Music Room - a technique more suited to the opera house.  So whilst there was definite power and import in places (for example, O Tod, wie bitter ist du in the Brahms, and Der Doppelgänger in Schwanengesang), I missed any sense of intimacy or mystery in the performance.  Interestingly, I have heard recitals in the nearby Corn Exchange, for example, where the opposite has been the case - perhaps his performance would have been better suited to a larger venue such as this.  Having said this, his command of the repertoire was evident. I would definitely like to hear him sing these works again in a different setting.

So overall, a week of performances that could have been so much more, for one reason or another.  

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Brighton Festival 2012 - Lunchtime Concerts, Part 1

Finally catching up on some of the first week of concerts in Brighton Festival.  The week began with me unfortunately having to miss a lunchtime concert (Saturday 5 May) of Jessica Grimes (clarinet) and Fiachra Garvey (piano) due to a rehearsal clash (see BREMF Consort of Voices concert below).  My partner went along instead, and despite some of the repertoire not being his cup of tea, he really enjoyed the concert, and was particularly impressed by the young duo's ability to communicate their obvious enthusiasm for the music, and their comfortable stage presence.  As a non musician, he also found her background explanations of the pieces performed helpful and insightful.  Grimes also performed the challenging Fantasie for solo clarinet by Jörg Widmann (you can see him perform the piece himself on YouTube).  Grimes described Widmann as one of her musical heroes, and she and Garvey both attended the concert the following day at Glyndebourne in which Widmann performed the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with the Hagen Quartet (see my review here).  

Then on Monday 7 May, another lunchtime concert - this time, Jayson Gillham on piano.  Another young performer, he also has great stage presence, with a natural ability to engage with the audience, again choosing to speak about the music too.  He performed Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata (No. 21 in C major, Op. 53), followed by four of Debussy's Études (numbers 6, 7, 8 & 11).  He concluded his programme with Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F minor.  Born in Australia, Gillham settled in the UK in 2007, and has a number of competition prizes to his name, as well as a well established concert performance career, and two CDs to his name.  His Waldstein was powerful and robust, the Debussy beautifully delicate, and the Chopin was appropriately bravura and full-blooded.  We were also treated to a short encore, which Jayson kindly informed me via Twitter was the Étude No. 10, Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer's Apprentice) by György Ligeti.  An impressive performance all round.

Tuesday 8 May - more lunchtime music from guitarist Michael Partington.  Born in Wales, he now lives in Seattle, and judging by his soft accent, he's been there a while.  Initially I feared the rather dead acoustic in the Pavilion Theatre would not favour the instrument, and I struggled to hear some of his sensitively quiet playing to start with.  However, I think in the end, this actually worked for him, in that I felt drawn in to listen more carefully to the intimacy and delicacy of the music.  Once again, we were given useful introductions and background notes on the music.  He began with a pleasant set of Variations, Op. 102 by Mauro Giuliani.  These were followed by his own arrangement of two Sonatas (K208 & K209) by Domenico Scarlatti.  As he explained, these keyboard sonatas fit remarkably well on the guitar, and his arrangements are fitting and effective.  Partington is also a great advocate of new music for the guitar, having commissioned and premiered many works.  He next performed Six Preludes by the Oregon based composer Bryan Johanson.  A great contrast to the rest of the programme, these showed a wide range of influences, as well as using some extended techniques on the instrument.  One, we were told beforehand, was even based around a Supremes song.  I spotted that it was the fourth, but couldn't identify the song - I heard him tell another audience member after, but didn't catch the title - so if you're out there, Michael... (update from the man himself - it was 'Keep Me Hanging On').  The highlight of his programme was the beautiful Tombeau sur la mort de M. le Comte de Logy.  Le Comte de Logy (or Jan Antonín Losy) was the 'Prince of the Lute' in his day, and Sylvius Leopold Weiss wrote this moving piece upon his death in 1721.  Interestingly, it uses one of the same 'extended' techniques we heard in the Johanson (string bending) to evoke wailing and grieving, and the rising scale towards the end depicts Le Comte's soul rising to heaven.  Despite a couple of memory lapses (I think), this was a touching performance, and made me want to seek this piece out again.  The programme ended in perhaps more familiar territory, with Tres Piezas Españolas by Joaquín Rodrigo.  

© Eric Richmond
The final lunchtime concert in this first week was very special, and for this we moved over to the Corn Exchange - although the concert was surprisingly not sold out (a top name pianist, for just a tenner...).  He began with Debussy's Children's Corner.  Despite their deceptive simplicity, these miniatures are not straightforward, but are equally not great virtuosic showpieces either.  It was nice to hear such a great pianist performing these graceful and witty pieces with such subtlety of expression, and they provided the perfect opener, before the more challenging Processional by George Crumb (b. 1929).  One of Crumb's few piano pieces that doesn't involve extended effects or preparations, this piece nevertheless does use on particular effect rather well - chords are placed silently following heavily attacked chords above or below, creating a curious resonance.  In the larger, slightly barn-like acoustic of the Corn Exchange, this proved rather effective, although it may not have carried completely to the back of the hall.  The lion's share of the programme was then taken up with Ravel's Miroirs, a mammoth work of five impressionistic and highly evocative pieces, containing huge challenges for the pianist.  The arpeggios of the third piece, Une barque sur l'océan, was particularly beautifully performed here, the music rippling and flowing almost endlessly.  The concluding bells of La vallée des cloches perfectly concluded a captivating and uplifting oasis in the middle of a miserably rainy day!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Hagen Quartet with Jörg Widmann - Brighton Festival at Glyndebourne

Credit: Harald Hoffman
I was greatly looking forward to this concert, as the Brahms Clarinet Quintet is probably my favourite chamber music work of all. The concert began however with Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, Op. 130, with which I have to confess being less familiar. I felt the Hagen Quartet took a while to settle into the acoustic, with the balance not feeling quite right and a couple of surprising moments of intonation issues in the first movement. Once settled, however, the performance grew in intensity and drew the audience in, and by the protracted chorale variations of the third movement, I was captivated. Sadly, the performance was marred for me by a persistent snorer two seats away - throughout the whole quartet, pretty much. Thankfully (although somewhat surprisingly) the concert was only just over two thirds sold, and the staff were helpful in arranging alternative seats for the second half. 

© Marco Borggreve
Jörg Widmann joined for Brahms' Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, and now the concert took flight for me. The Adagio literally brought tears to my eyes, as did the final return of the opening music at the end of the finale - this is such a bitter-sweet circular conclusion to a profoundly moving work. Widmann's playing was exquisitely sensitive and warm, and the Hagens blended beautifully - the ensemble can be a challenge in this work, with the clarinet sounding like an add-on, but not here.   And first violinist, Lukas Hagen brought some beautifully expressive touches, almost sounding improvisatory at times, in the variations of the finale.  Overall, this was a great first concert in the Brighton Festival for me - and lots more to come!

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Leonid Sabaneev (1881-1968)

Leonid Sabaneev (1881-1968) is a new composer to me.  He began studying music at a young age at the Moscow Conservatory, but left to study physics and maths.  He did however return to music, but made a career as a music critic and writer, specialising in the composer Scriabin.  Wikipedia refers to a story of him writing a negative review of the first performance of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite, which had actually been cancelled.  According to the story,  Sabaneev had heard about the Suite from friends who had seen the score, and his review was based on this second hand information.  I haven't yet been able to find any corroboration for this on the internet, and would be interested to hear if anyone has any sources for this story.... His two works for piano trio have just been recorded by the German trio Ilona Then-Bergh (violin), Wen-Sinn Yang (cello) and Michael Schäfer (piano).  The Trio-Impromptu dates from 1907, and is a highly romantic and volatile work.  There is plenty of opportunity for all three instruments to show off, and the music swirls and surges from climax to climax, yet it ends surprisingly quitely, almost exhausted.  The second trio, named Sonata for piano, violin and cello, Op. 20 has the same swirling drama, but is a much darker, more tormented work.  It is certainly a striking piece, and the musicians here make a great case for the work.  A fascinating discovery.