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.

Review: Amadeus Chamber Orchestra play Bach Keyboard Concertos

The Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio with their conductor Anna Duczmal-Mróz are a modest but proud bunch with a fierce attention to detail. They play a joint programme with the London Mozart Players in concerts this coming weekend in London and Edinburgh.

Their concert on Sunday 17 November in Poznan was an interesting highlight of my year. Efficient front of house procedures at AMU Concert Hall in Poznan, and generous uncluttered open spaces for audience members both inside and outside the auditorium, combined with a simple programme of four Bach keyboard concertos with ever more increasing numbers of pianos, made this concert fly by. These elements – distractions eliminated – increased attentive listening.

Dimitry Shishkin’s performance of BWV 1056 appeared sedate initially though retained a sense of elegance to it in the opening movement. The fortissimos combined with romantic textures from the strings sometimes made the first movement feel a little leaden.

The generous acoustic – billowy in rich textures, favouring detail in more pared-back orchestrations – did sometimes demand a faster pace to help keep moving things along.

An appreciation that the acoustic was an additional ‘performer’ in the mix really became apparent in BWV 1062 for two keyboards featuring Paweł Wakarecy and Lukas Geniušas.

With more piano in the mix, the balance was made right, the acoustic supporting the interplay between the two instruments and amplifying the antiphonal effects written into the two solo lines.

Though there were moments when it felt like ensemble and soloists were slightly running ahead during the second movement, there was tenderness and delicacy that rooted us in the approach taken for the concerto.

The challenge then for all on stage given the efficiency of the event and the works programme became ever more obvious as each successive concerto added another keyboard to the platform: orchestral players and soloists getting accustomed to an ever more expansive sound world as the concert went on.

By the third concerto – BWV 1064 – the balance was assured allowing space for joyous cascades across all three instruments in the first and third movements, with a thought-provoking darker more contemplative second movement sandwiched in between.

The question: are the three keyboards separate solo lines in their own right, or is the combination of the three one entire solo line? I’m still not entirely clear. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter.

The most striking change came about in the final concerto – BWV 1065. Three of the four soloists shifted position to a different keyboard, bringing about greater clarity, a more resounding demonstration of ensemble especially with the delicate endings to phrases, and the final movement a joyous cavalcade of textures. Considerable industry abounded, the strings creating a pleasing cushion of sound.

Review: Joby Burgess plays Alex Groves at CLF Art Cafe

Prominent exterior signage would help at Peckham’s CLF. The former cricket bat factory has such a range of office, event and creative spaces that go under the banner of the Bussey that an ill-thought out stride through the wrong entrance could result in disappointment.

After visits there to see Opera Story’s production of Dani Howard’s Robin Hood, and one or two other events I always assume the main spaces are accessed via the side entrance. But there is a door at the front – leading up two flights of stone stairs to an white washed adorned with bulky post-war speakers hinting at its industrial past. That’s the key space for me. I probably just need to make a mental note.

This detail is worth stating again (not least because my archive of blog posts is currently unavailable due to a malware attack). CLF’s interior sets the tone, long before a note has been played. And if you’ve had a fraught day full of busy-ness that tone is distinctively one of escapism. A life never lived because you never dared, now possible because it’s open, uncluttered, unfussy and welcoming.

Joby Burgess at CLF Art Cafe, November 2019

Percussionist Joby Burgess has a similar air. Cool, passionate, proud and excited. He retains the cool-kid-who-plays-the-drums-from school vibe, at the same time as speaking with knowledge, experience and love about every composer’s work he brings to life

Wizard-like creations of live sequences permeated this intimate gig showing Burgess as nimble, light-footed, and assertive, marshalling multiple forces to construct imaginative worlds impossible to ignore. Becca Dale’s work written for Burgess – fun, atmospheric, playful and sweet – did much to set the tone. Spirit and verve gently squeezed out from each tantalising melodic cell. Gabriel Prokofiev’s Fanta Bottle riff was riveting storytelling reminiscent of any GCSE music students composition class, Burgess delivering deft theatre and effortless self-deprecation.

Composer, producer and curator Alex Groves Curved Form was scored largely for tam tams – provided a more reflective piece of storytelling. Not so much chilling as gratifyingly dark. An ambient creation that satisfied my NLP weaknesses, healing the flesh-wounds of the day that had gone before it.

Feldman’s King of Denmark – a whispered response to Stockhausen – continued the compelling listening experience but in comparative terms the material felt more a passive aggressive response to Stockhausen’s creative madness. In that way I’m not sure it worked quite so well in the running order – the other works shone brighter. Max de Wardener’s Winterreise infused exploration pushed us the edges of comfortable listening with anguished fragments of barely recognisable material and very loud drums. Some in the audience stuck their fingers in their ears.

Linda Buckley’s brilliant Discordia for sonic harp complete with rosin-coated gloves made for a mesmerising conclusion. This 2018 Barbican commission deserves more outings in evocative spaces after a recording has been released for streaming and download. An ambient-lover’s must-listen.

Alex Groves continues to show his creative and producer mettle with SOLO which combined with his gentle affability must surely project him and his work higher and higher. So too I hope for CLF Art Cafe which has over the past two years developed into a must-be-booked-at South London venue.

Review: Lambeth Wind Orchestra and saxophonist Rob Burton play Rhapsodies and Fantasias

A demanding programme of unfamiliar and invigorating works for wind orchestra including a cracking show piece from saxophonist Rob Burton.

“Why are you going to a concert given by amateurs?” asked the taxi driver on the way to Lambeth Wind Orchestra’s Saturday night concert this past weekend.

“Because they work hard and I’d like to hear the results,” I replied.

A far more succinct response would have been, “Why wouldn’t I?”

I was irritated by his rookie attempt at jocularity. It didn’t land well at all. When he then moved on to pissing and moaning about the borough where I lived I was keen for the journey to end (preferably at the sought-out destination) and for me and The OH to pile out.

What LWO does well is cultivating a community feel. This was the second concert of theirs I’d attended, the first where guests were greeted by conductor John Holland at the door. Don’t underestimate the dividend. If the conductor is welcoming you personally, then you’re going to have to be a cold-hearted bastard to end up not appreciating something in the hours that followed.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to look very hard. LWO players are an impressive bunch. Thirteen of the 52 players were ‘guest musicians’ meaning the core of the rich ensemble sound is powered by regular members. And when they play a chord as one complete ensemble the evocative sound of well-balanced wind band resonates across the chest, (for me) stirring happy memories of twenty-five years ago when I was at university conducting a wind orchestra.

It would be easy for an amateur band not to sound that way – one duff bit of tuning and everything jars, heads start to turn, and people start looking at their watches. But not so for LWO. Even at the point of tuning for performance its apparent that people listen, adjust and adapt. They pay close attention to Holland’s exacting and expressive beat – one of the reasons I imagine LWO secured Gold at the National Concert Band Festival last week.

The quality of the playing was most evident in Holland’s arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Daring. So much of the work depends on the textures of the strings. Dry mournful Sunday afternoons are best evoked by string players. That a quartet of players sat behind us played VW’s transcribed score with such warmth demonstrates not only vision on the part of the arranger, but an understanding of who in the band could realise the dream to greatest effect. The Thomas Tallis Fantasia is a demanding blow for a wind and brass player – endless extended sequences for (some) instruments right at the top of their range. But there were moments of intense emotion. The hideousness of the real world outside was momentarily put on hold. Exactly (I think) what VW intended. Quite some achievement for an amateur band playing in a concert hall at a school in which the composer taught.

Similarly impressive was Morton Gould’s epic Jericho – brimming with detail, dramatic perhaps momentarily piercing dynamic range – and Claude T.Smith’s blistering Alto Saxophone Fantasia. Soloist Rob Burton deftly delivered the punishing solo line with a warm round tone and gratifyingly unpretentious articulation. Sometimes swamped by the massed sound of the band in the opening material, his consistent musicianship made this an exhilerating discovery, the expansive and demanding cadenza in particular demonstrating how there’s much to discover from this remarkably mature instrumentalist.

Recommended recording of Claude T. Smith’s on Spotify from West Texas A&M Symphonic Band.

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Review: Matthew Whiteside’s ‘Entangled’

For someone who spent his formative years non-plussed by the prospect of All Hallow’s Eve and irritated by its commercialisation in the years that followed, even I’ve surprised myself in 2019 by my curiosity for this odd time of year.

I’m reading Dracula right now. Never read it before. I actively sought it out because I actively wanted to be disturbed. For context: I have a partner who’s go-to cultural experience is high-budget TV drama. Reading an actual book is the perfect foil for the tyranny of the 68 inch 4K screen that sits in the corner of our living room.

Stoker’s Gothic horror is a cracking read. Fast-paced storytelling. Evocative language. It’s taking me time to read (because I’m a slow-reader) because I discover to my great surprise that its a world I want to spend a little time in. That means extending Halloween beyond 31st October. A new tradition is forming itself now that GMT has been ushered in, followed by the various other habits and pastimes we all unwittingly indulge ourselves now that the night air descends after half-past four.

Such a long introduction for this review for Matthew Whiteside’s Entangled is if you haven’t listened to it already appropriate. Listening to it at this point in the year a few days after its general release, the horror and terror that exudes from Whiteside’s experimental writing sits well with what’s going on in my imagination. It is as though Entangled is the soundtrack for an extended Halloween, extended for those who are currently catching up on their youth.

And yet there’s a contradiction. The sleeve notes, the press release and the accompanying development blog suggest an entirely different creative impulse.

The title work Entangled is a three movement quartet showcasing the brilliant Aurea Quartet. The work is a creative response to the physical phenomenon of ‘entanglement’, a theory proposed by Einstein and proved by physicist John Stewart Bell in 2013 that states groups of particles influence each other, even if they are at a distance from each other in space. A paradox in science, apparently.

No, I can’t believe I’ve actually written that either. And to be completely honest, I didn’t write all of it. Some of that previous paragraph was contained in the press release. But really, why reinvent the wheel? Time is money.

My point is this. I’ve really enjoyed Entangled. Regardless of its intent, the creative impulse for the tracks on the album, or how I contextualise it as a listener, there remains a narrative arc to Whiteside’s creation that pulls me in. He creates something fresh without pushing me away. The sound doesn’t jar with what I’m experiencing at this time of year but enhances it.

This may not be what Matthew wants to hear, but Entangled is the perfect soundtrack for the Halloween newbie. The third movement Spinning from quartet no.4 of the same name is a blissful creation for the imagination. The second movement of the fifth quartet is a masterful creation too. Loved all of it.

Listen to the Aurea Quartet on Matthew Whiteside’s new album ‘Entangled’ on Spotify
There are development notes available to read on Matthew’s blog
here.

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Review: Opera Holland Park’s Into the Light

I’ve watched Opera Holland Park’s latest social action doc Into the Light a few times over the past few week in production, and when it went live on YouTube today.

I hear there are future plans for its wider release. Good. Well deserved. Because OHP top dog Michael Volpe’s exploration of the impact of opera on army and navy veterans captured during this years season is a thing to behold.

Lovable contributors, heartbreaking real-life stories, jeopardy, pathos and redemption, all underpinned by the music of Tchaikovsky.

Crafted with an eye to the art form Volpe so evidently adores, it’s a must-see 30 mins heralding the impact opera has on the curious and open-minded. If you’re a living breathing human being who hasn’t already seen this then you must. Touching stories, unfussy photography, and effortless advocacy.

Every time I see it it makes me cry (a lot). In that way it has a much-needed grounding effect at a point in time when the world appears to have gone completely mad.

Watch it on YouTube before the masses pile in on it. If you don’t reach for a tissue in the first thirteen minutes then you’re a cold-hearted bastard.

Review: Der Freischütz conducted by Laurence Equilbey featuring Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Johanni van Oostrum, and Chiara Skerath

An inventive thought-provoking production with captivating contributions from Johanni van Oostrum, the Insula Orchestra, and one or two illusionists.

Terrific orchestral playing in a generous acoustic that supported the period instrument Insula Orchestra   in the production of lean string sounds, and evocative woodwind textures. Possibly the best live theatrical pit sound I’ve heard in a long time. Conductor Laurence Equilbey is a passionate and efficient director, combining a clear beat with a dynamic expressive range. Her energy and precision can be heard in a range of orchestral textures, and contributed to a number of electrifying moments on stage. 

Soprano Johanni van Oostrum shone the brightest in amongst an impressive cast with her Act III Scene 2 Cavatine Und ob die Wolke sie verhulle, sending chills up the spine with a rounded tone, silky smooth legatos and gossamer octave leaps. Hers combined with the voice of Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Max, and the sometimes Mary Poppins-esque characterisation of Annchen by Chiara Skerath made for an exquisite first act trio Wie? Was? Ersatzen that didn’t quite muster the effort from the audience with the response it deserved. 

I’ve read some dismissive reviews about the stage direction and set design, drawing attention to the lack of shotguns in an opera about a shooting contest as being a creative failure. 

Seeing this year old production at its Paris premiere sat in the intimate art deco interior of Theatre des Champs-Elysees there was a sense that with the horrific events of recent terrorist atrocities still surprisingly fresh in the mind, that not seeing actual guns was a sensitive creative response. Whether this was an active choice when the production opened last year I’m not entirely clear. What the absence of guns resulted in however was a creative opportunity for the production, demanding more engagement on the part of the audience. The intent appeared to trigger (forgive the pun) the audience to use their imagination more, something that increased engagement. 

An array of illusions was deployed which met this dual aim of focusing audience attention on the hows and the whys. Sometimes the depiction of the magic bullets – white balls juggled, thrown and sometimes swung – distracted the eye, especially during Agathe’s Und ob die Wolke. 

At other times, the time spent perfecting slow motion movement whether powered independently or with a seemingly invisible wires really paid off, heightening the drama considerably. The conclusion to the Wolf’s Glen scene was a case in point when characters strained for Samiel’s fire only to fall back in the melee. So too when Agathe gets hit with the seventh bullet in the last scene – all very Keanu Reeves. Additionally, never has watching one dancer moving in slow motion accompanied by a cello solo on one note ever created so much tension. 

The use of dark light projected onto the stage created threatening shadows in the penultimate scene of Act 1 almost worked, although at times the movements didn’t quite tally up with the available ‘black space’ on stage. 

The use of figures projected onto gauze to create storytelling vignettes maintaining engagement during sequences of dramatic exposition, adding depth both to the storytelling and the perceived depth of the stage – a complex effect demanding continuity between pre-recorded and live performances. The depiction of a silvery sea complete with dry ice (or was it a hologram – I’m not quite sure) was a thing of directorial and design beauty. 

The best should really be left until last. The chorus provided a remarkable sound – a rich, sonorous and burnished colour that compensated for the grey uniformity in their near-totalitarian costumes. One other commentator have dismissed the chorus’ supposed lack of movement, though the simplicity of the lines complemented the stark stage design. There were some elegant movements in the final scene when Hermit and chorus moved in a collective slow motion. 

A concert performance of the production is staged at the Barbican on 4 November 2019.

Cast: Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Max), Johanni van Oostrum (Agatha), Chiara Skerath (Annchen), Vladimir Baykov (Kaspar), Christian Immler (Hermit), Thorsten Gruumbel (Kuno), Daniel Schumtzhard (Ottakar), Anas Seguin (Kilian), Clement Dazin (Samiel)

Recommended recording London Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus conducted by Colin Davis, featuring Christine Brewer, Sally Matthews and Simon O’Neil.

Reccomended Insula Orchestra recording Beethoven Emperor Concerto

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Review: Alexandra Dariescu and the Moscow Philharmonic play Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 2 and Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet

I was cutting things a little fine arriving in my seat panting and sweating just as the first chord of Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Romeo and Juliet sounded. By its inclusion – 5 minutes longer than the billed duration – my heart rate had reduced and my face and neck had dried off. Conductor Yuri Simonov took the work, even in its fast sections, at a surprisingly slow pace so that slow bits felt rather long and drawn out. Consequently, the the yearning and the emotional rushes never really felt convincing. It was as though Romeo’s heart wasn’t really in it and Juliet just felt relieved when it was all over.

Cadogan Hall’s acoustic is arguably the most demanding space to play in. There is nowhere to hide. Errors are then distracting. That’s not altogether a bad thing – it often means a deeper appreciation of what’s involved in a live performance is laid bare and it’s possible to notice when an ensemble has become used to the concert hall with its audience ensconced. So whilst there were some disappointing errors in intonation and ensemble in the woodwind in the first 10 minutes of the piece, that things were consolidated into a richer unified more passionate sound in the final section created something real with a story of eventual triumph. I just would have liked it a little faster.

My probable impatience with proceedings continued in the Rachmaninov. Dariescu is an assured performer – resilient, accommodating and strong. There’s lyricism in her right hand in all the places, and an enviable strength where the score demands. But there were times when it felt like Simonov was wanting to go at his pace and not hers. Some of the energy – that Hollywood verve and brio that I think exudes Rachmaninov’s movie-gold sound-world – petered out.

That said, there were some blissful gossamer string textures in the upper strings during the second movement. The Cadogan Hall acoustic also revealed some pleasing detail in the cello line and woodwind.

At times Simonov paid more attention to the strings than communicating with the soloist. In the second movement this projected Dariescu as a paradoxically lonely figure on stage. This emphasised the pathos of the second movement though I suspect that was by accident than design.

Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra play Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov and Britten at Cadogan Hall

A majestic sound in an acoustic that left absolutely no prisoners in a concert that sought to illustrate re-asserted cultural ties between Russia and the UK.

Down the road Members of Parliament participated in the most toxic of exchanges seen in the House of Commons in living memory.

The Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra completed their inaugural tour of Russia and the UK with a concert of music by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich. I wasn’t able to stay for the entire concert, managing instead to hear all but the concluding Hamlet suite by Shostakovich.

What I heard mostly hit the mark. Playing throughout amongst the strings was fierce – responsive dynamics, impressive attack and, at times, a sumptuous rich sound when the score demanded. Although it sometimes felt like there were too many strings for the venue’s acoustic, it was lovely to hear such a rich cello and bass section resonate on the Cadogan Hall platform. Woodwind packed a punch, sometimes felt a little under-powered in comparison (I’m assuming as a result of an imbalance between the sections in places). Some ruffled brass entries during the Britten and Rachmaninov did slightly detract attention.

Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

Sometimes thunderous, sometimes warm strings throughout. Impressive responsiveness, remarkable confidence, assertion and accuracy given that this is the concert opener. Sometimes it felt like the double basses dominated in the balance. Placing the ‘echo orchestra‘ on the balcony overlooking the orchestra was a deft piece of pragmatism, a nod to the 1910 premiere, and unexpectedly emphasised the chills I sometimes get from this highly reflective work. I wasn’t quite so moved by BSFO’s performance of this as I was the BBC Symphony’s during the BBC Proms this year, but there was nonetheless something really quite powerful about seeing a string section made up of majority Russian players performing music that so immediately and unequivocally evokes (for good or bad) such a strong emotions around national identity. A performance made more poignant given the events that were unfolding at the House of Commons a couple of miles away.

Conductor Jan Latham-Koenig introduces the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra in an interview recorded at the launch of the scheme in August 2019

Rachmaninov Paganini Variations

The Rachmaninov Variations on a Theme of Paganini had an uneasy feel to it as though orchestra and pianist (Pavel Kalesnikov) were operating under two slightly different speeds. This combined with Cadogan Hall’s remarkably clear acoustic meant more of the detail of the score and ensemble was laid bare – lots of verve and attack from the strings at the start though some of brass cues didn’t feel quite as ‘spot on’ as the score instructs or the acoustic demands.

Pavel Kolesnikov (Credit: Luke Toddfrey)

I found the often rapid pace Kalesnikov had adopted interesting, though at times I wanted him to pull back on the transitions into the next variation just so the present one could ‘land’. Things tightened up considerably at Variation 18 where the extended solo passage afforded the pianist the opportunity to assert a lead. From that moment the nervy-ness of the combined ensemble passed.

Britten’s Four Sea Interludes

I always think its a brave band who performs Britten’s Four Sea Interludes in London when the music has the potential of transporting me as I listen back to Aldeburgh. If I’m not transported (and I’m often not when I’m sitting in a London concert hall) I get a bit antsy.

Edward Fox, Jan Latham-Koenig, Freddie Fox and the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 25 September 2019 (Credit: Luke Toddfrey)

There were moments in this performance where I was interested in knowing how an extended stay in Aldeburgh over the summer months (or even better, during the winter) would have had on the expressiveness in the strings, say in interlude number three – Moonlight. This was an accurate reading throughout, but there were moments when I didn’t feel as though I was connecting with the emotion of the piece.

The ensemble better flute and upper strings in the first in Dawn detracted slightly from the intended effect. By contrast, Sunday Morning saw some fiercely tight playing, with chilling organ-like chords, and a silky sound from the cellos. The immense drama of Storm was reflected in the thunderous dynamics in turn illustrating the considerable stamina of the conservatoire musicians. A refreshing perspective was provided on the familiar suite of music with extracts from George Crabbe’s poem The Borough (that provided the inspiration for Britten in America to write Peter Grimes) read by Edward and Freddie Fox in between movements. Touching.

Picture credit: Luke Toddfrey

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