Beethoven 5 and 7 from Andrew Manze and the NDR Philharmonie

Beethoven isn’t my go-to composer. Never has been.

There’s nothing wrong per se about the man’s music. There is melody. There’s drama. In his symphonic works especially the textures in his orchestral writing are highly satisfying.

The problem is (or maybe it’s not a problem) I admire the creative achievement in the same way I admire a beautiful woman: I see it (her/them/they), I just don’t respond to it.

This odd position on Beethoven’s music (some would say contrary) is not fuelled by my usual resistance to hype of the kind we’re no doubt going to experience when Beethoven 250 gets into full swing this year. Sure, I’m curmudgeonly and despise following a herd of sheep. No. this is because there’s a hint of Beethoven leaving me cold.

But. This.

Tasty cover design; tasty typeface; brilliant music making.

Andrew Manze conducts Beethoven’s 7th symphony with the NDR Philharmonie in a release out last Friday. And it may possibly be a recording which helps me determine my ‘way in’ for appreciating Beethoven, if not actually responding to him emotionally.

Manze’s career is quite something. Back in the early days of my short-lived arts admin career, Manze was powerful force in the world of historically informed performance, in 1996 asssuming the associate directorship of the Academy of Ancient Music.

At that time there was an implicit assumption that this was the world Manze would continue to inhabit because of his in-depth knowledge, expertise and resulting reputation.

His appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the 2018/19 season threw light on a career I had overlooked. One which on closer inspection reveals a seamless and early transition from baroque to full-scale symphony orchestras in a relatively short space of time: 2006 working with the Helsingborg Symphony; 2008 with the Norwegian Radio Symphony; four seasons with the BBC Scottish; plus a whole host of guest spots with international bands to boot.

I think I can detect his historically informed roots in many of his subsequent symphony orchestra recordings. I hear a drier, tauter, earthier string sound thoroughout the first movement of his Beethoven 3 with Helsingborg. In fact, the strings in the second movement especially in the oh-so-quiet sections are a thing to behold – a kind of delicate precision that makes me think the idea of which can only have originated from those ‘authentic performance’ days.

And bringing out instrumental voices normally lost in the mush of a romantic sound can only be something that draws on his historically informed performance days (the opening movement of Brahms 1 on CPO from 2012 with Helsingborg features a bassoon line like I’ve never heard in Brahms’ epic symphony).

Whilst I’m not quite so enthused about his Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ with NDR from 2018, I do have this inkling that maybe the latest NDR release of Beethoven 7 is something great because of the way it echoes those same characteristics I hear in the Helsinborg Beethoven 3. If that really is the case, then its Manze who’s making that happen, because that’s the point of consistency.

There’s a starker string sound in the Beethoven 7 release, most evident in the opening of the second movement. Drier. Deader. Smoother. Everything has a chilling feel: not frightening; just something imperceptible; a question in search of answer.

And sticking with the second movement, there’s a committment to drawing out detailed articulation in the bass line. A mushier more romantically driven interpretation would gloss over those details, but here everything is given the necessary space for display.

At the same time, Manze’s speeds give the work fleet of foot. No one is languishing in tawdriness. The pulse keeps thing moving on. There is life, drive, tenacity and determination throughout.

And come the prompt final movement the all important detail that has driven things throughout is given its moment. Never has a grinding pseduo pedal-note bassline been quite so needed nor so gratifyingly experienced as 7’08” onwards. Props to the horn section whose taut articulation in the high register is something to behold. And at the time of writing I can’t quite put into words what I’m hearing at 6’32”, but I want to call on it whenever I’m in need of a bitter dispute, because with that kind of explosives in your armoury you’re bound to win the battle.

Does this recording make me love Beethoven? Does it make me think I might learn to love Beethoven? I’m not sure yet. But it does help me understand one way to appreciate his achievement: detail. There is so much detail to be heard in Beethoven’s music.

There are two bittersweet thoughts which emerge from that observation.

First, the inherent pathos in the story of a man who couldn’t hear but scored so much detail in his manuscripts.

Second, the present day assumption pedalled by those who claim to champion classical music that newcomers will be frightened off by detail.

Here is a composer whose love of detail was arguably fuelled because of his impairment.

And yet we deny the thrill of his music to those who don’t know it because we condescend that newcomers won’t understand or appreciate that detail? Tsk.

Listen to Beethoven 5 and 7 from NDR Philharmonie and Andrew Manze on Spotify

London Chamber Orchestra with Oliver Zeffman

London Chamber Orchestra plays Waley-Cohen, Mozart and Sibelius at Cadogan Hall

Technically speaking, this isn’t a concert review. Some of the experience was hampered by my unpredictable and still hacking cough, meaning I needed to duck out of the concert temporarily. Never have I been forced to leave auditorium quite so soon after a much-anticipated Concerto performance began, nor received such a clear signal so swiftly to do so as I did from the curmudgeonly audience member sat beside me.

So I ended up spending 30 minutes listening to George Li play Mozart 23 via the Cadogan Hall foyer monitors, clear enough to hear some moments of mildly disappointing intonation from the woodwind in the second and third movements; denied the opportunity to languish in LCO’s efficient lush string sound. Li’s encore (I forget what it was – Chopin?) was spectacular, prompting those of us in the foyer to lean in, focus and take a much needed moment to pause and reflect. Electrifying stuff.

Once a number of Strepsils had been administered I rejoined my plus one Lorna at the back of the auditorium for the second half performance of Sibelius’ 3rd.

Neither of us had heard it before. For Lorna it was only the second or third time at a classical music concert.

The back seat of the stalls isn’t a bad place to listen. The balcony overhang creates a cosy feel but doesn’t affect the acoustic adversely. The LCO played with spirit, enviable precision, warmth and ebullience – it makes a massive difference to me to see musicians visibly enjoying what they’re playing. Great energy exuded from the stage creating three movements of wonder and delight. I was transfixed.

The second movement in particular had a tenderness about it that was both playful and maybe even flirtatious. The gentle syncopation gave things a flirtatious feel. Deft. Listening back to Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic, it is the gentler pace adopted by conductor Oliver Zeffman with the LCO this week that I respond to more immediately. There was lift and drive, but a genteel kind of pace that created an appealing whole.

Word too on Zeffman whose generous confident conducting style seemed to draw out key musical lines throughout the concert, empowering musicians to shine. Sometimes I wanted him to take his time walking onto the stage in order to establish a more assertive presence when facing the audience. But there is a charming enthusiasm and pride in his work and the band he conducts. A strong horn section drove the Sibelius forward in the moments it needed it.

Freya Waley-Cohen’s UK premiere of Changeling displayed some enviable melodic lines for bass clarinet and violin, spikey string sequences, and enticing atmospheric scenes full of mystery and portent. A busy week for Waley-Cohen too – present at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday and at Wigmore Hall for a premiere the following day.

London Chamber Orchestra are back at Cadogan Hall on 9 February and 25 March 2020. They appear at St John’s Smith Square on 6 May 2020. They are heartily recommended.

Brahms fills in the gaps

Two accidents today.

Accident one: thinking on my way to a meeting ‘I’ll listen to some music on my headphones on the way in.’

Then thinking, ‘What the f**k do I listen to? How do I avoid crying?’

And then for some apparent reason I cannot fathom right now, I end up selecting Brahms Piano Quintet in G minor.

The heart tightens. The eyes flicker. Simmering emotion threatens to bubble over. I realise I’m actually terrified of listening to any music.

Of course, I’m not terrified of the music. I’m terrified of the emotional response I’ll have.

This in a sense seems odd given that I’m ALL about exploring emotions. So much so that if I didn’t have the opportunity to explore my own emotions then I’d feel like I’d had nothing to say.

The effect of Brahms’ epic chamber work (first heard up close in Verbier a few years ago – Thanks Kenny) is odd. It is as though the musical ideas expressed in both melody and harmonic progression taps into the emotions I’m feeling at the moment: the dominant ones. The music is triggering an emotional equalizer – an indicator of where I am at the present time.

Only what it ends up doing is shining a light on some unexpected emotions. A glimmer of reslience. A sense of hope. A determination to reframe sadness into something more positive. Something more manageable.

Why do we never talk about music like this? Surely, that would help in conveying its appeal? It’s addictive qualities? It’s not something that injects a feeling; it’s music that helps identify what’s going on. You don’t need to know about music to listen to it, you need to know about your own emotions. And the only person who’s going to know about them is you, no?

Accident two: paying for a glass of wine at the Barbican with my debit card.

Whilst scribbling I was listening to Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor played Renaud and Gautier Capucon, Nicholas Angelich, and Gerard Causse

Surprisingly unhelpful music

I did promise myself that I wouldn’t write about death or grief.

I promised myself I wouldn’t be superficial.

I would instead be bold, daring and independent. I would challenge convention. I would share something of myself.

After all, people respond to passion (even if they don’t realise it), and passion necessarily comes from the heart.

Here’s the surprising thing that has happened in the few short hours since the death of our delightfully boisterous adorable puss Cromarty: classical music suddenly needs to be kept at arms length.

In fact all music needs to be kept at arms length. It needs to be roped off with warning signs and the like. Music right now is of absolutely no use. It cannot Polyfilla in the gaps. All it can really do is shove you across your otherwise robust emotional borders.

I was running over the things I might consider (or wouldn’t consider) listening to to make sense, soothe, or shape this odd time. I had a long list of music I couldn’t listen to and precious little I wanted to.

Broadly speaking, anything in a major key seems frivolous and bound to provoke guilt; minor keys are likely to amplify the sense of dark emptiness. Avoid the overly romantic like the plague (now would not be the time for the slow movement of Rach 2 for example). The Curtain music from Purcell’s Timon of Athens is a definite no no with its constant oscillation between major and minor. Verklarte Nacht is too bleak. Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 too rich.

Music in these moments then suddenly presents itself like a object in the fast lane of the motorway guaranteed to cause a nasty road traffic accident: something to swerve or risk being floored by.

But what really surprises me is how in an instant like death any requiem mass – Mozart, Britten especially, Verdi (without any doubt), Faure and particularly Rutter – seems wholly unrepresentative of mood, thinking, or need. Suddenly, these works appear as theatrical settings, irrelevant, unhelpful, and overbearing.

I certainly didn’t expect the shell shock or the numbness of grief, even if I anticipated the event that preceded it. There is more coming down the line too. What has surprised is the way the connection with music has suddenly changed. Temporarily, I’m sure.

Classical music in modern life?

Two things dominated yesterday: the resurrection of the bloggers vs. ‘proper journalists’ debate, and the values that drive the Benedetti Foundation’s music sessions running in London this weekend.

I’m not going to link to the tweet that reignited the discussion about bloggers versus journos, nor mention the author. That’s not cricket or helpful. But quoting it is necessary.

Specialist classical music critics are proper journalists whose criticism we may not like but we grudgingly accept because they write well with education and experience. Self-appointed bloggers who publish criticism with no such background are a plague on our houses. Discuss.

The divisive message was oddly hurtful. Masking behind the guise of a discussion the underlying comment was clear: proper journos are the useful ones people should take notice of; the unpaid writers, influencers and commentators aren’t at all.

It read like a bit of an insult (though I did wonder I was making an assumption that it was referring to me and my considerably more active peers) – a sweeping dismissive statement which even when challenged appeared to achieve no more than the other party doubling-down on her original meanness.

It is that this was a discussion generated by a member of the classical music fraternity aimed squarely at those that seek to celebrate the art form that cut so deep. And more personally (and this is a common trait with me) the idea that even when evidence is shown of an injured party, that the response is to ignore as though to convey to people like me are those who are to blame for this exchange in the first place. Meanness with an extra dollop of gleeful meanness. Classic passive aggression. There’s a lot of it about.

What’s important isn’t so much my feelings during the exchange with the singer, rather the stark contrast with the other experience of the day: visiting one of the London sessions of the Benedetti Foundation’s current music education project.

Thursday night’s press conference featuring Nicky Benedetti discussing the Foundation’s vision and activities had already succeeded in bringing a lump to my throat. I’m an emotional sort at the moment anyway, but the sound of Benedetti’s spirited and impassioned detailing of what the Foundation is committed to (embedding music education back into the curriculum by making the experience of making music as universal as possible and as diverse as possible in terms of age, ability, and class) was powerful. So too the demonstration given by one small group of primary school kids illustrating how a series of simple participatory exercises can introduce the principles of movement, ryhthm, and pitch in a relatively short space of time.

None of what we saw in this demonstration was new to me. I recall experiencing the same thing as a kid thirty odd years ago.

It also triggered memories too of wanting to train as a teacher after I completed my music degree so I could give some of that joy back. It wasn’t to be thanks to one faceless wonder at the Department for Education back in 1991 who deemed the sexual assault I suffered as evidence that I would be a threat to children. Little wonder I still to this day have an issue with injustice.

On a broader level what has changed between then and now is the systemic destruction of music’s reputation in the curriculum, deeming the likes of the Benedetti Foundation not a nice-to-have but a necessity.

“That’s enough to get me angry,” I blurt out to Benedetti during the Q&A after the press conference, “Do you experience that anger? And if so how do you channel that into the obvious good of the Foundation?”

I can’t remember the exact words Nicky Benedetti responded with. Shoot me. I’m obviously not a proper journalist. But it was something along the lines of an admission that the emotional experience was the same, but that the challenge was to channel that into a sense of motivation that served the purpose of the endeavour. Showing best practise rather acting from a place of anger, bitterness or resentment.

I have over the past few weeks been unexpectedly challenged with a lot of things. Some of those things have pushed me to revisit difficult memories of the past in order to understand something of the present. Other challenges have brought on the anticipation of grief and all the associated feelings associated with it. And then there are the phenomenally challenging conversations where emotion needs to be left behind in order to mine for information. Such fierce conversations (meant in the context of the book of the same name by the way) are in themselves incredibly demanding both in the moment and afterwards.

But what links all of those experiences with what Benedetti said during her press conference is this idea of having to keep an eye on the goal, and aligning our thinking, feelings and actions with both our core values and the end goal. I don’t always do that. But I’m inspired to try harder at that because of Bendetti’s vision.

And the point of explaining all of this is because of the stark contrast between the two exchanges had on the same day.

The first triggered negativity, fear, and defensiveness. It was aggressive, accusatory, and disrespectful.

The second revealed a greater sense of purpose underlining the responsibility we all have to meet the challenge we all experience to channel our darker thoughts into a positive force: to draw on passion, to look with kindness, and to share.

What I’m struck by is how an unequivocal sense of purpose as articulated in the Benedetti Foundation which is in itself something intended to go beyond classical music, has at its heart a value that goes beyond classical music too. But that the only reason I’ve learned of it this week is because of classical music.

That is the power of classical music in modern life: music whose exponents are able to convey a message of hope that transcends the art form itself.

Whilst penning this I listened to clarinettist Mark van de Wiel playing Joseph Phibbs and Mozart’s clarinet concertos with the Philharmonia and London Chamber Orchestra.

Be sure to listen to the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast featuring Nicola Benedetti and Foundation tutors Jo and Elsa Bradley.

How Stephen Hough and the Castalian Quartet touched the soul at Wigmore Hall

The quest to identify the music that helps create meaning for me in 2020 is now underway. Last nights Brahms Piano Quintet live from Wigmore Hall unexpectedly hit the spot.

First was the impact hearing Hough and the Castalian Quartet had on my ears.

Sure, there’ll be some I know who might consider a pretentious thing to say, but that view is just redolent of lack of practice actively engaging with live performance.

The sound refreshed my ears – similar to the experience of hearing straight after having your ears vacuumed out. In that way it reunited me with listening, bringing my listening alive, kickstarting the heart and nourishing the soul.

Here were human beings all collectively engaged in a battle of wits, a kind of fight to the death, and convening in a joyful concluding celebration. It was like a friend had burst through my office door, apologised for missing Christmas, and presented me with a gift as wide as his eager smile.

I’m reminded of a remark made by a colleague to me this week, berating me for referring to the ‘classical music world’ because it confers a sense of superiority. The coach in me would challenge that and ask whether that was an assumption, perception, or whether he had any evidence that I was actually conferring superiority.

The rub (which I will spell out to him when we next converse over wine) is that the thrill I experienced hearing what amounted to only 25 minutes of live music wasn’t to do with knowledge of the repertoire, or being a fan of Stephen Hough.

It was the effect the sound had on my soul. The physical sensation of hearing the sound (if you’re not at least aware of the principles of NLP then that sentence will appear like a contradiction). It was the way it triggered a sense of reassurance. How space in my mind had been momentarily reclaimed. And most importantly of all, how I reacted to it in the moment.

And that’s listening out for it not for the music but for the self. It’s about personal awareness. It’s about actively engaging in the experience of listening. And we can all do that in an instant, can’t we?

I’m not saying this is the way it needs to be listened to. Rather, this is one of the ways it can impact. And it’s softened the hard edges of the new year too. And its Brahms. And of course Brahms is just brilliant anyway.

Listen to the concert via Wigmore Hall’s Live Stream on YouTube

What role will music play in 2020?

Poking through the gaps in the steamed up bathroom windows, the new year presents itself. I’m struggling to make out what 2020 is offering.

Revellers wide smiles, and the midnight fireworks shrouded in smoke I saw on TV at midnight – contrived, meaningless, and wasteful – are a world away from what I see now.

This New Year morning is like no other. I am unable to locate the familiar sense of fresh start. Things are the same as they were 24 hours before as far as I can make out. No excitement, just a mild sense of dread.

Where does music fit in all of this? Can it lead me in a new direction? Should it compensate? Do I need it to articulate how I’m feeling, or challenge me to think or feel differently?

Or does the Vienna Phil from the Musikverein this morning point to how I might better seek music out in the short term?

My views on the New Years Day Concert have changed in recent year. The concert from the Musikverein is music as entertainment, it’s presentation distracting us with a musical reenactment of a nostalgic age none of us have experienced. All gilt edge and lavish blooms, surrounding an orchestra steadfastly refusing to install a diverse and inclusive workforce; a usually vocal passionate audience equally uninterested in clamouring for change.

Diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities are all well and good it seems, just as long as some of the traditions are kept firmly in place.

Was it ever thus?

Why should such an inconsistency be allowed to continue? Why is such an event made available to so very many without even the discussion being had? Or is it that social politics and classical music doesn’t mix?

I digress.

Unlike some other commentators who seek to position themselves alongside the ‘best’ concerts of 2019 (whatever that means), or right at the heart of the stories they think everyone should be thinking about in the coming year I, predictably, prefer to think of the year ahead from a personal perspective?

What role will music play in healing divisions? What recordings and live performances will engender a sense of hope? How will music guide us from the darkness we’ve experienced over the past few years? Where will it take us? What will that music be? Where will it be heard? How will the experience be transmitted?

Some of it will almost certainly be written by Beethoven (which I might add is a good thing because for some this year will be the year they ‘discover’ Beethoven. But what of the rest of the music of this year? What will help contribute to a collective experience?

Something to keep an eye on. Me, not you. You can decide on your own editorial strategy for the year ahead. This one’s mine.