Saturday, November 25, 2023

Pimchas Zukerman plays Elgar with Orchestra National de Lyon under Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider in ADDA Alicante

When writing reviews, the pressure to express opinion often leads to overstatement. It is a position. I usually try to avoid, and I do so by concentrating on the positive aspects of the object under review. I will do the same here.

To say that everyone went away happy from this evening of Elgar and Brahms would be an understatement. They had been treated to an outstanding performance by an outstanding violinist. They had also been delivered a going-away lollipop in the form of the ever-popular Nimrod variation from Elgar’s Enigma to round off the evening.

Pinchas Zukerman is now seventy-five years old. He has been making music in public for over five decades of his life, and if anything, he seems to get better with time. There are few pyrotechnics to see in his playing. But when the eyes are closed, the true force of expression becomes clear in all of its colours.

The Elgar Violin Concerto that started this evening was beautifully played. Its complexity of argument, where orchestra and soloist seem regularly to exchange roles and material, seems like an intellectual process at times, an intellectual process that is conducted purely via emotion. This Elgar concerto is a thoroughly modern piece, dressed in nineteenth century form, as evidenced by the unconventional techniques the soloist is directed to use. Brahms, and indeed Mendelssohn are here, but so is the idea that violinist and orchestra combine and compete in dissecting a musical argument. This is no simple showpiece for a soloist to fill with emptiness.

And the communication between artist and orchestra this evening between Pinchas Zukerman and the Lyon Orchestra was superb. The soloist even joined in with the first violins here and there to keep himself busy. His tone throughout was a joy to hear, as was his obvious understanding of the problematic score. Elgar was always a showman, but his lack of personal confidence always persuaded him to be retiring. He considered himself an outside, an underdog who was always trying to gain entry to an establishment that he felt shunned him. It is rather strange, contradictory even, given that his music is now seen as thoroughly “establishment”. Personally I hear this dichotomy in the music, as exemplified so often at the start of his pieces, which sound is if we are entering into the middle of a conversation that was already underway before we arrived. It’s as if the composer is apologising before he has said anything!

After the interval, the Lyon Orchestra played the Symphony No. 1 of Brahms. Its an orchestral standard, which, surely, most full-time professional orchestra have played many times, and can probably render convincingly from memory. It can be a challenge, not least for a member of the first violins who lost a string. She proceeded to play through the piece as if the problem did not exist. Remarkable and congratulations!

Personally, I dont have much to say about the Brahms Symphony, except that if it had been written in the age of recording technology, Johannes Brahms would have been labelled a plagiarist. History, however, might mark the influence of Beethoven in his music as “inspiration”. It was an inspiration, as we know, that caused the composer, great difficulty, and perhaps this symphony had to be written to unleash creativity that otherwise would have found no voice. 

Another great ADDA evening.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Jesús Reina, Pierre Bleuse and ADDA Alicante in Ravel, Strauss and Mozart

For the third time this season, Alicantes ADDA audience heard a major piece by Richard Strauss. The Violin Concerto is an early work, written when the young man was a teenager and still searching for a mature voice. As a consequence, it does remind one of Brahms, Mendelssohn here and there, amongst others.

But its overall conception is quite different. For a start, there is no obvious cadenza. Even at sixteen years of age, Richard Strauss was trying to write a concerto where soloist and orchestra were to combine to deliver an integrated musical experience. This was never conceived as a vehicle to allow a soloist merely to show off. And so it needs to be performed cooperatively, with the soloist always mindful of the orchestra’s contribution.

On this occasion, the soloist was Jesús Reina, a musician who devotes much of his time to playing chamber music in small ensembles. If anyone would be sympathetic to this need for integration, then, surely, he would be. The audience was not to be disappointed. He was so completely sympathetic to the orchestra’s role that he often turned during the time when he was not contributing to face the orchestra and actually listen to what they were playing. The result was a truly integrated work, with a musical argument coming to the fore. Pierre Bleuse’s direction also allowed the perfect balance to develop.

The concert had begun with the orchestral version of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Now this work is often played almost as if it were conceived as an eighteenth-century concerto grosso, rather than an homage to the form from the point of view of a twentieth century composer.

This performance crafted by Pierre Bleuse was different. The shape was still there, but the hard, staccato edges seem to be softened. The strings seem to be offering commentaries rather than statements. The result was a beautifully balanced, surprising and thoroughly post-impressionist, twentieth century piece. It paid homage to the past while saying something quite new. It is such a familiar piece, but what a surprise!

Mozarts G Minor Symphony occupied the second half of the concert. It is hard to find anything new to say about the work, but it is also a work that does not need novelty. It is so well crafted, so perfectly conceived, that it makes its own points every time it is played.

Pierre Bleuse’s direction brought out every aspect of Mozarts score. It was serious, threatening, lyrical, playful, and always inventive. A real treat brought the evening to a close in the shape of Chabrier’s Habañera, a surprisingly subtle an interesting little piece. Another surprise!

Monday, November 13, 2023

Orchestra of the Royal Capital City of Krakow under Katarzyna Tomala-Jedynak in ADDA Alicante

Surprises come when least expected. On entering the ADDA auditorium, it was at least a shock to see so little of the stage occupied. So used have we become to seeing a platform crammed with seats and percussion hardware in preparation for a “big” work that the apparently scattered chairs and stands that awaited the arrival of a moderately size string orchestra was at least startling. And there was to be only one double bass!

Providing a perfect example of the phrase “less can be more”, the orchestra of the Royal Capital City of Krakow proceeded with a program that surprised and delighted the audience almost with every note.

We began with the Sinfonietta Number Three of Penderecki, a reworking for string orchestra of his String Quartet No. 3, subtitled “Pages from an unwritten diary”. The composer’s style, outside of his religious works, tends towards the episodic. Seemingly simple ideas come and go, and via abrupt transitions and apparent non-sequiturs, we are led around an idea that reworks itself, perhaps without reaching even musical finality, let alone a position of argument or comment. Celebrating Penderecki's 90th anniversary, this piece’s subtitle was apposite. What might have been written if this diary had been complete? The Sinfonietta Number Three is thus an example of what might have been, its apparent raw edges deliberately left unsmoothed.

There followed a performance of a thoroughly different kind of work. The Concerto for String Orchestra by Grazina Bacewicz is a masterpiece. She uses the string orchestra in a largely neo- classical manner, in a way that seems to alternate between the concerto grosso and sonata form. But there are also harmonies here that come from popular music, and all this is encased in a rhythmic drive that never lets the piece flag in its apparently relentless progress. It is succinct, tightly argued, and makes perfect sense in a surreal, unexpected way. Clearly, this is a piece that the orchestra plays often, and they clearly enjoy it every time.

The real surprise came after the interval with Mendelssohn’s Ninth String Symphony. The product of a mature mind aged about twelve, the piece is an astounding achievement. It is tightly structured and musically convincing. The surprise comes in the slow movement, which Katarzyna Tomala-Jedynak did not try to conduct.

Using just eight players, the movement begins with four violins in counterpoint. There follows a balancing section of two violas, cello and bass, before a conclusion, where the four violins are joined by the others in an octet. Treating this as chamber music and leaving the decisions to the players emphasized the whole program’s closeness to the chamber music experience. By the end, the communication that this engendered between performers and audience more than compensated for the lack of volume. The orchestra of the Royal Capital City of Krakow offered a short, but energetics dance movement as an encore.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Antonio Pappano, Yeol Eum Son and the London Symphony in Kendall, Liszt and Strauss in ADDA, Alicante

When it comes to star billing, in the world of so-called classical music, there is no bigger ticket than Antonio Pappano directing the London Symphony Orchestra. The maestro, who perhaps will forever remain linked to his day job for decades, as the musical director of Londons Royal Opera House, is to take up the role of Chief Conductor with the LSO next year. This concert, already performed this month in London in the Barbican Hall, albeit with a different soloist, marks the start of that cooperation. Alicante’s ADDA audience last night had the privilege of sharing its music.

The main work on the program was Richard Straus’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Its one of the composer’s early tone poems, and, perhaps uniquely in music, is not only based on a book, but on a work at philosophy, albeit presented as a fiction. Nietzsche’s ideas announced to the universe that there was no God. And thus human beings must develop a new way of relating to experience, a new way of relating to the world in order to live. It was the will that now asserted itself, not a faith.

Strauss’s tone poem opens with finale, a brass fanfare complete with organ that has become a pop classic. What follows is veritably an examination of the breadth of experience that a symphony orchestra can present. So vast is the range of sonorities wrapped within this half hour that often the listener has no idea where the sound is coming from. Split strings, soloists from the front desk, widely spaced harmonies for unlikely pairings, a double bassoon and a tuba competing for the bottom space, married to a complexity of orchestration that is sometimes almost bewildering, all this contributes to the effect of this remarkable work.

It is, however, fifty years since I last heard it in concert, and it might be fifty more before I attend again. For all its stunning sheen, there is also something lacking in its vision. Though Strauss insists on a programme of selected chapters from the book, too often I find alpine meadows, heroes, lions, dandy pranks, heraldic delusions, and even merry pranks surfacing. What is lacking, therefore, is an intellectual direction that justifies the title. It was Richard Strausss problem: the music he wrote is undeniably wonderful.

The playing of the LSO was utterly wonderful. The sound of this orchestra seems to be more integrated, more balanced than most. But when a solo voice is needed to stand out, stand out it does, and with elegance. The evening finished with an encore of an eastern European dance, which added almost a full stop to the open ending, perhaps a question mark, pianissimo pizzicato, of the tone poem.

Earlier, we heard Yeol Eum Son in Liszt’s Totentanz. “Tour de force” could equally have been its title, for it makes huge demands on the soloist. It seemed, however, that Yeol Eum Son hardly noticed, so complete was her control over Liszt’s taxing variations. It was a superb performance, appreciated by the audience to the extent that Yeol Eum Son offered some Moskovsky Sparks as an encore.

The evening had started with a work commissioned by the LSO from Hannah Kendall, a British composer, who seems to win competition prizes at will. Many of her works examine cross-cultural musical forms, and “Oh, flower of fire” was indeed related to cultural identity expressed through sound, and this identity’s search for a home. Scored for a large orchestra, the work rarely used tutti. There were long periods when all the strings were silent, and then, when they were called to play, only made passing phrasal comment.

But what this music was clearly about was the memory of West African music, as transplanted by slavery, the violent orchestral tutti, to the Caribbean. The doctored harps alongside percussion sounded like a kora being plucked in the marketplace. The violence of the orchestral interjections was surely calculated. And so, often at the limit of human hearing, surely implying the small voice of the oppressed, Hannah Kendall explored textures, sonorities and colours that were as surprising in 2023 as Richard Strauss’s surely were in 1896. In Hannah Kendall’s case, the philosophy was a more obvious part of the experience, perhaps because of the changes in human society, the rise of the individual, presaged by Nietzsches argument. Now we are more atomized.

At the end of the piece, Antonio Pappano actually conducted the audience. He clearly wanted silence to follow the last notes and an outstretched left arm with index finger extended kept everyone quiet for a good ten seconds.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Congyu Wang - 24 Oct Denia International Piano Festival



Congyu Wan's playing was explosive and at the same time tender. He has definitely thought about every phrase. But he does not over-shape or over-interpret. The emphasis is where it needs to be, the rubato is applied, but never overdone. The dynamics are wide, but never over-emphasised. He has a tendency with Chopin to slow the piano and accelerate the forte. In concert it works beautifully, but the approach might not get past a nit-picking reviewer on disc.

He chose to play the Chopin Nocturne and the Liszt Liebestraum together, deliberately holding off the applause at the end of the Chopin. The effect was to increase musical tension. The Denia audience was spellbound to silenece anyway! Quite memorable. The Earl Wild arrangement of the Vocalise transforms the melody into what sounds like another prelude to add to the Rachmaninov set. There’s a central section that is explosive. After that the Kreisler Libeslied sounds like a show-off piece, which is what it is, but the Rachmnaninov harmony saves it and, indeed, makes it interesting. The Gershwin preludes again sounded more pianistic than usual. Just a little research shows that Earl Wild reworked seven Gershwin Preludes – the usual performance does the three that Gershwin himself published under the title. These pieces were quite different. Highly pianistic and with recognisable melodies that kept poking through the notes. The overall effect was wonderful and simply put brought the house down.

After that, Congyu Wang then embarked on Gaspard de la Nuit. Now this is a challenge at the best of times. It is virtuosic in a way that perhaps only Ravel could write. It’s a style that is unique. It sounds literally like no-one else. But what demands he makes to mimic simplicity! One feels that Ravel always wanted to simplify, but the way his mind worked was just different from the rest of us. The pianistic elements don’t feel like decoration. They are essential elements in the music’s sense.

Congyu Wang’s playing was breath-taking. The emphasis here was in the contrasts. Slow-fast, quiet-loud, the contrasts seemed emphasised, but never mannered. Add to that the rhythmic tension that is always part of Ravel's thinking and the result is this masterpiece of the concert hall. He had really thought about the overall shape of the piece and that came across with clarity. Just what the rather strange mind of Maurice Ravel had in mind we will never know. What is clear is that the place he lived was not quite in this universe, such a transporting experience does his music offer - and this performance in particular.

And then, at the end of the programme, we heard Aldoraba de Garcioso. This is Ravel in “Spanish” mode and the audience will have been totally familiar with the musical phrases and harmonies that keep surfacing in this consciousness stream that is pure Ravel. The playing was again beyond brilliant, but always sympathetic, never spectacular just for effect. Congyu Wang is a true artist.

There followed three encores. Chopin, Debussy and more Chopin. The audience would have stayed for more, but after a programme like that at least one person involved deserved a rest.