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  • Julian Anderson, Delius and Elgar in a fascinating evening with the London Philharmonic » Christopher Gunning
    a busy city thoroughfare it develops into quite an infernal racket with various types of music popping up from here there and everywhere The last movement Hymns is far more lyrical at first but elements of the second movement return to interrupt and almost destroy Anderson s melodies Finally we are left with lapping string music which dies away with no resolution Advertised at seventeen minutes but actually lasting a good deal longer there was a lot to take in on a first hearing There is no doubting Anderson s amazing orchestral fluency as one highly effective section follows another I did worry that the textures in the second movement became so densely complicated and chaotic as to lose overall effect and it s fairly disturbing to see musicians scurrying around their instruments when you can t hear what they re playing I certainly lost the thread during this movement and began to do so again in the third Does Anderson always employ the most direct means to express his thoughts and ideas I m not so sure but I do need to hear the piece repeatedly to get to grips with it properly Ryan Wigglesworth and the LPO certainly appeared to cope with it brilliantly In the event it was Delius who was to bring us a little closer to heaven Sea Drift is frequently praised as Delius s finest work and yet along with most of his output one seldom hears it performed nowadays It emerged beautiful as ever in this sensitive performance with Roderick Williams and Sir Mark Elder obviously loving every nuance No less magical was the singing of the excellent London Philharmonic Choir It is not surprising that Sea Drift became so popular in Germany and Europe generally it is full of Wagnerian harmonic and melodic influences and when not being operatic in style has an intimacy not far removed from German Leider Walt Whitman s poetry provided the perfect vehicle for Delius s craft touching in it s portrayal of the lonely seagull who has lost his mate and simultaneously conveying the aching loneliness of bereavement that we all feel Don t ever think that Sea Drift doesn t have a human dimension If Delius was often more German than British the same could hardly be said of Elgar especially in his First Symphony despite the composer being a huge admirer of the Austrian German symphonic tradition and the works of Brahms in particular Few would argue that it doesn t contain some of his finest music and it achieved enormous success straight away with a hundred performances within the first year Imagine a concert composer of today being recognised in this way With its massive dimensions it takes a skilled and dedicated conductor to guide an orchestra through its complex narrative successfully Elder is as dedicated as any and gave a thoroughly well considered idiomatic and polished account with the noble gestures not overdone the intimate moments especially in the slow movement touchingly

    Original URL path: http://www.christopher-gunning.co.uk/2012/03/25/julian-anderson-delius-and-elgar-in-a-fascinating-evening-with-the-london-philharmonic/ (2016-02-16)
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  • Nico Muhly, the Britten Sinfonia, and friends at the Barbican. » Christopher Gunning
    colleagues whose thinking Muhly must be completely in sympathy with The first of these Missy Mazzoli found that studying with Louis Andriessen was life changing and has also been much influenced by Philip Glass Violent violent Sea is anything but violent for much of the time It makes much of two or more textures going on a once vibraphone and or marimba playing repetitive filigree passages with slow moving harmonies in the strings sometimes moving conventionally and sometimes not The strings also contribute active passages and the title does feel more and more appropriate it s a perfectly attractive and effective piece if not earth shattering With Pallet s Violin Concerto three separate influences are described in the programme note Bach the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya and Ligeti Unfortunately I found some of the material repeated over and over again in the manner of Philip Glass somewhat trivial although Pallet s textures for the strings and percussion are frequently interesting The second movement had more verve and the third movement with much use of quarter tones is presumably where the Ligeti influence comes to the fore for me this became a bit of a trial With the last movement we were back to minimalistic repetitions of rhythms and short figures Muhly s own Cello Concerto had more meat I enjoyed some of the contrasting textures Muhly uses pizzicato strings and quiet chordal motifs to great effect and there s good use of growling trombone snarls Sometimes I felt the orchestral parts to be more interesting than the solo part which wasn t always clearly audible although played with obvious involvement by Coates In the second movement Glass influenced repetitive passages are back to the fore Then it suddenly turns into something rather funereal and ends After the interval the lighting changed to a moody blue and the stage was completely rearranged no more Britten Sinfonia now it was the turn of Muhly and guests to sing some songs and play various pieces in an informal jam session This was really two concerts and strange as it may seem the disparate nature of parts one and two served to emphasise the differences rather than the commonality of two different types of music making So is Muhly the hottest composer on the planet If you say so yes the hall was choc a bloc and the audience was mostly 30 minus Incidentally it had also been full the night before for the LSO with Brahms Strauss and Mahler but I suppose we cannot call them hot But all that hype is it justified Muhly and friends are instantly likeable energetic enthusiastic refreshing and we should applaud the way they move easily between pop music and non pop In part 2 with his introductions at the piano Muhly also revealed himself to be quite an entertainer But here s the rub was there anything at all tonight that bowled me over with its startling originality or even strength of character Sadly no Steve

    Original URL path: http://www.christopher-gunning.co.uk/2012/03/20/nico-muhly-the-britten-sinfonia-and-friends-at-the-barbican/ (2016-02-16)
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  • Strauss, Mahler and Brahms at the Barbican with Maltman, Ticciati and the LSO. » Christopher Gunning
    rises to immortality was perfectly judged with beautifully balanced quiet chords at the end So all well done and totally professional Could one have wanted even more drama commitment and a greater sense of propulsion periodically Perhaps Next it was Christopher Maltman s turn to give a heart rending account of Mahler s Kindertotenlieder When Mahler wrote these extraordinary and desperately sad songs he was a good deal older than Strauss in the previous work one can speculate as to whether he was prophesying the death of his own child a few years later or recalling the death of his brother many years previously probably both At any rate Mahler was obsessed with death a theme which was to permeate his work right to the end Maltman s reading was quietly bitter unforced and unsentimental That is not to suggest there was no beauty of tone we had that alright but it was never present for its own sake I found it terribly moving despite the performance being wrecked by the most dreadful racket for the first twenty seconds or so Why don t they remind people to turn off their phones and watch alarms at the Barbican as they do at the Festival hall Ticciati has won plaudits for his operatic conducting and it s not hard to see why He was the most sensitive accompanist carefully attentive to Maltman and he drew some lovely contributions from the LSO s wind players too Christine Pendrill Queen of the Cor Anglais excelled just as she always does and there were equally touching contributions from Gareth Davies Guillaume Deshayes and Chris Richards on the flute oboe and clarinet The balance between soloist and orchestra was exemplary and even in the stormy final song Maltman rose above the orchestra to telling effect And so to Brahms and his glorious Second Symphony I would so love to go into raptures about this but I m left feeling slightly iffy Why This is a fabulous orchestra the ensemble playing is nearly always bang on intonation likewise and each player is terrific in his or her own right And let s not get things out of perspective this performance was not in any way bad and my problem with it could probably be simply that things were not to my own taste It happens The horns were rather too loud at the start meaning that I didn t get that haunting mysterious feeling that I have often loved The same applied to the passages leading to the second main theme in the violins which also wasn t quite sunny enough Then Ticciati didn t repeat the exposition as marked by Brahms The first movement continued in an ever so slightly matter of fact way and there was no real sense of homecoming when we came to the recapitulation or adventure during the extraordinary coda The second movement lacked weight somehow and the third wasn t quite charming enough at the start or skittish enough later

    Original URL path: http://www.christopher-gunning.co.uk/2012/03/20/strauss-mahler-and-brahms-at-the-barbican-with-maltman-ticciati-and-the-lso/ (2016-02-16)
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  • Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducts Kurtág, Bartok, and Sibelius’s two last symphonies. » Christopher Gunning
    2006 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition with this work which has solo parts for the violin and viola with a very large orchestra The soloists tonight have been playing the work around the world since the first performance in 2003 and have also recorded it The programme note waffled about Mozart s Sinfonia Concertante and references to Wagner and Magyar music but if I was supposed to recognise any of these I m afraid I failed miserably In fact I found this work altogether perplexing the soloists are not soloists in the conventional sense and their contributions often seemed inconsequential or inaudible The music is also extremely discontinuous at worst it felt like a random series of sounds and gestures which although frequently interesting in themselves were largely disconnected There are welcome periods of greater energy and some violent outbursts too but overall this doesn t make for coherent let alone pleasant listening You may say there s absolutely nothing wrong in that in itself of course but there s a point at which incomprehension gets the better of me and I must admit to being pretty relieved when it was all over Awful to say this when the soloists conductor and orchestra have worked their socks off but maybe I ve spent too many hours trying hard to appreciate things I instinctively just don t like at all I certainly prefer my Kurtág in his more typically shorter more concise mode and I found myself asking yet again why the BBC favours so many contemporary composers from abroad rather than the host of home grown composers desperate for an airing It was brave to place the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies of Sibelius next door to one another These very different works could have benefitted from this one might have thought but in reality they did not Why Although each is short by major symphonic standards each is complete in itself and benefits from a period of reflection afterwards So we could wander off into the night with the magnificent 7th ringing in our ears but the more delicate and less overtly dramatic 6th suffered Technically these were both assured efficient performances I wouldn t argue with the tempi chosen for any part of the 6th but somehow the music refused to spring into life in the way it can and too much of it felt well efficient Despite some fine work from the BBC symphony Orchestra I found myself asking where was the poetry And although there was plenty of rhythmic verve in the scherzo and the last movement didn t things feel somewhat briskly mechanical rather than genuinely spirited And while I have come to love this symphony I also recognise that it s a special case needing specially sensitive treatment and programming placing it just before the interval would have worked better The 7th was far more successful Saraste maintained a tight grip on the formal shape managing all the difficult tempo changes brilliantly

    Original URL path: http://www.christopher-gunning.co.uk/2011/12/17/jukka-pekka-saraste-conducts-kurtag-bartok-and-sibeliuss-two-last-symphonies/ (2016-02-16)
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  • Two Views of Belshazzar’s Feast; Gerald Finley, Edward Gardner and the BBC symphony Orchestra charm and impress in Britten, Sibelius and Walton. » Christopher Gunning
    individually have firm structures which carry the listener along a troubled route for twenty minutes or so with only the last movement hinting at a degree of reluctant resolution The commissioners of the piece the Japanese Government were not yet at war with Britain or the US but rejected the piece because of its Christian connotations ironic then that it has emerged as one of the most substantial of Britten s works and the several other pieces simultaneously commissioned by the Japanese Edward Gardner and his forces were in total command the tempi felt just right and with the BBC SO continuing to be at the top of its game this made for a powerful committed and memorable performance its sounds are still haunting me now almost twenty four hours later Gerald Finley was the soloist in three virtually unknown songs by Sibelius which turned out to be delightful gems from the unmistakable hand of the master Come Away Death a setting of Shakespeare translated into Swedish has simple muted strings and is bleakness personified On a Balcony beside the Sea to a text by Viktor Rydberg has dark woodwinds and is imbued with a sense of isolation and desperation The Rapids Rider s Brides poem by August Ahlqvist Oksanen is larger in scale than the preceding two and hints strongly at the Sibelius of the early symphonies with its greater expansiveness and menacing brass the latter even reminding us of Karalia Finley was absolutely terrific his vocal beauty enhanced by clear enunciation of every word and Gardner was the most sensitive accompanist this was exquisite music making of almost chamber music intensity Gardner continued to impress as a Sibelian in the Finn s Belshazzar s Feast This music the very antithesis of the Walton to follow falls into four separate sections The first Oriental Procession is a grotesque march The second Solitude is a tiny but sweet miniature The third Nocturne gave Michael Cox an opportunity to display some ravishingly expressive flute playing and the fourth Khadra s Dance seductive and delicate reminded us what a fine clarinetist Chris Richards is Sibelius opted for a whimsical quasi Oriental view of Belshazzar as befitted pieces composed as incidental music for the play for which they were intended What a contrast then to Walton s monumental and exuberant cantata composed in his late twenties The gentlemen of the BBC Chorus got things off to a fine start with their opening declamation and the full chorus followed gently weaving their lines with wonderfully rich sonorities to be joined by Gerald Finley in his plaintive If I forget thee Once again combining noticeably fine diction with perfect intonation and sense of character he took command of the proceedings with his long recitative and then we were plunged into sheer brilliance as orgiastic and celebratory as you could want for the rest of the piece And you would have to be a real nitpicker to find any faults the BBC Symphony Chorus sang with

    Original URL path: http://www.christopher-gunning.co.uk/2011/12/11/two-views-of-belshazzars-feast-gerald-finley-edward-gardner-and-the-bbc-symphony-orchestra-charm-and-impress-in-britten-sibelius-and-walton/ (2016-02-16)
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  • Bĕlohlávek and the BBCSO in an all Czech programme – Janáček steals the show. » Christopher Gunning
    forms of his great idol Brahms into the more progressive area of Liszt who had already established the revolutionary idea of the tone poem This was a big and controversial departure for a man nearing the end of his life and the five tone poems composed between 1896 and 1897 contain some of the composer s most imaginative and colourful music The Golden Spinning Wheel is one of four based on the ballads of the Czech folklorist Karel Erben and contains elements of Bohemian folk music woven into a richly lyrical symphonic tapestry There was some really lovely woodwind playing from the orchestra Michael Cox s flute was especially poignant with Bĕlohlávek clearly revelling in every moment of it and bringing poise charm warmth and humanity to musicians and audience all too ready to involve themselves in some real music after the opening dud What a shame then that the conductor had savagely cut the music why Important elements of the story were lost and although this rarely heard piece may be quite an effort for an audience unfamiliar with it a few extra minutes certainly wouldn t have hurt Martinu followed the interval in the shape of the seldom performed Rhapsody Concerto with Maxim Rysanov the full toned soloist Composed in America in 1952 the work harks back to Martinu s homeland with some of the melodic material reminding us strongly of Bohemian folk music and Dvořák It is a predominantly sweetly lyrical work relatively uncomplicated harmonically and a far cry from Martinu s famous Double Concerto for Two String orchestras Piano and Timpani and other more dissonant works from the 30s back then Martinu was flirting with expressionism neo classicism and jazz but by now the composer was in his sixties weary and seriously homesick If melody is to the fore it does not mean that the music is dull rhythmically especially in the last movement Here Rysanov s technique came to the fore with some extremely impressive finger and bow work and the BBC SO responded with equally impressive vigour But the highlight was still to come With Taras Bulba we were on a different planet The bloodthirsty tale on which it is based tells of the Ukrainian warrior Taras Bulba and the attacks of the Poles Remarkable isn t it that at the time Janáček was a committed fan of everything Russian believing that his own country would be protected and freed by the indominatable Russians Whatever the rights and wrongs of Janáček s political views he certainly composed one of his most vivid masterpieces with Taras Bulba and this extraordinary music was given a stupendous performance tonight Janáček s orchestration is so intensely personal and so raw and ruggedly expressive there s absolutely nothing ordinary about it There was especially gorgeous playing from Alison Teale Cor Anglais Richard Simpson oboe and Stephen Bryant solo violin and the brass and percussion playing was as bright and incisive as you could possibly want A fabulous performance of

    Original URL path: http://www.christopher-gunning.co.uk/2011/11/12/belohlavek-and-the-bbcso-in-an-all-czech-programme-%e2%80%93-janacek-steals-the-show/ (2016-02-16)
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  • Concert Reviews » Christopher Gunning
    is imbued for much of the time with an expressive late romantic melancholy If that is the overriding feeling of the first and third movements there is nevertheless optimism in this concerto too and the second scherzo movement is positively playful with a rhythmic vitality reminiscent of Walton while the last movement offers more relaxed and peaceful moods recalling music from the previous three and including several powerful outbursts from the orchestra and pyrotechnics from the soloist What fabulous music Without doubt this is one of his most inspired creations and in tonight s performance Tasmin Little s reading was spellbinding it is difficult to imagine a more sympathetic performance and the balance between soloist and the classically sized City of London Sinfonia worked particularly well Maw s opera Sophie s Choice provided the material for the next work an orchestral suite receiving its UK premiere His experiences in the world of opera were certainly not without pain His two previous operas One Man Show and The Rising of the Moon had been well received but had also involved him in hostilities in one form and another and he had distanced himself from the world of opera for some thirty years As he said it seemed to me that the whole opera world was a collection of ferocious egos to whom you were expected to surrender control of your work and then disappear Sophie s Choice was ten years in the making from start to finish and critics were divided some openly hostile It probably would not have reached the stage at all had it not been for the efforts of Simon Rattle who had a few years previously also insisted on recording Odyssey Maw s gargantuan symphonic work Once again this is Maw at his mature best with long melodies and directly tonal music rubbing shoulders with tortured dissonant stuff Maw s use of plain major and minor chords scored in much the same way as the Vaughan Williams of the Tallis Fantasia is particularly telling Much of the music in the Suite is taken from the orchestral interludes which link the dramatic scenes and provide an increasingly agonized commentary on them Under Stephen Layton s clear and energetic direction the City of London Sinfonia gave a committed performance of this disturbing yet often beautiful music The concert finished with two of Maw s choral pieces The first One Foot in Eden Still I Stand for unaccompanied choir displayed Maw s ability to write in the contrapuntal tradition of Stanford and other Anglican composers and the Holst Singers performed admirably despite some rather odd solo voices Then came Hymnus a more substantial work for chorus and orchestra which exhibits a more mellifluous style than one usually finds elsewhere Maw s intense desire to communicate with audiences to be of some practical use is well to the fore here in this beautifully crafted music which passes through shades of Britten Vaughan Williams and unexpectedly chromatic jazz harmony It wasn t always easy being Nicholas Maw It is so sad that he was taken from us at the nowadays too early age of 73 after suffering with dementia diabetes and heart failure He left us a huge treasure trove of music to perform and enjoy and I strongly suspect that in years to come he will quite possibly be revealed to have been one of the very greatest composers of his day Christopher Gunning Share on Tumblr October 31 2011 The BBC Symphony Orchestra launches its Sibelius symphony cycle Anu Komsi soprano BBC Symphony Orchestra Sakari Oramo conductor Barbican Hall London 28 10 2011 CG Bax Tintagel 1917 19 Kaija Saariaho Leino Songs UK premiere 2002 7 rev 2010 Sibelius Luonnotar Op 70 1910 13 Sibelius Symphony No 3 in C major Op 52 1904 7 This was the first of a series of concerts by the BBC Symphony Orchestra featuring the complete symphonies of Sibelius but the curtain raiser was Bax s Tintagel and I must say the warmth and opulence of Bax s orchestration was particularly welcome on this chilly October night Although in London s Barbican here we were at the seaside reveling in Bax s most popular piece with salt in the air and wind in our hair delighting in images of Tintagel s ruined castle and its associations with the Knights of the Round Table What a fine piece Tintagel is a quite wonderful tune steadily unfolding drama and a totally satisfying formal shape made of music which always develops in episodes one leading quite naturally to the next And if one had any doubts that a Finn would understand this peculiarly British piece they were assuaged completely It was a beautifully formed idiomatic performance by Sakari Oramo full of colour and with all the minute tempo variations demanded by the music I enjoyed it immensely Then we headed north Although now a resident of Paris Kaija Saariaho quite definitely retains Finnish roots and in her Leino Songs receiving their UK premiere paints bleak pictures redolent of her birthplace and its culture Leino 1878 1926 is one of Finland s most important writers and Saariaho has worked with his poetry before For her his language has an appealing combination of mystery melancholy intimacy and distance and if there s also something rather French about this piece it s in the quasi impressionistic orchestral tone colours she employs and the extreme fastidiousness which is a hallmark of her music generally And yet I come back to the word bleak but it s not a cold barren bleakness for this is very human music too with a warm heart beating within Indeed the second of the four songs is called The Heart and becomes wild and passionate contrasting with songs one three and four Looking at you Peace and Evening Prayer which are generally quieter and more meditative The vocal lines are expressive beautifully set against the orchestra and it s all tremendously imaginative The soprano Anu Komsi Nordically blond and bedecked in various shades of blue green is married to Sakari Oramo and the two have worked together a lot It shows their collaboration was supremely sensitive and the contribution by the BBC SO no less so A brief trip outside during the interval confirmed that the night was growing colder and so Sibelius s Luonnotar for soprano and orchestra seemed appropriate once safely inside once more This music is as Sibelian as it gets so many hallmarks are there The tremolo strings at the start fluttering woodwind timpani rolls and a massively stormy climax A warm heart in a cold scene is how a friend epitomised Sibelius and that s what you get here The vocal part amounts to a recitative like rendition of part of the Kalevala which is Finland s national epic poem it is extremely expressive but always very much to the point Sibelius rarely wasted notes and in this piece there are no exceptions to that principle Anu Komsi entered fully into the part and Oramo was also clearly totally in his element Incidentally Sibelius originally described this as a tone poem in 1906 so it must have developed into its ultimate form over time At any rate it was first performed in Gloucester in 1913 at the Three Choirs Festival which bearing in mind the nature of the piece struck me as quite extraordinary Finally more Sibelius in the shape of one of his least performed symphonies no 3 Coming after the first two with their rich romanticism and hefty tunes this one came as a shock it is relatively bare and smaller in its scale and orchestration What was Sibelius up to It seems clear now that he was at a crossroads he needed to develop the symphony as a form and in doing so needed to pare things down and investigate some earlier models Thus the first movement has even been compared to Beethoven s work and some have called this Sibelius s Classical symphony Of course it s totally Sibelius even so The first movement needs bags of energy in performance and a strict control over the tempi of the various ingredients Oramo and the BBC SO got it right and there were some thrilling moments The second movement a kind of nocturne with a sort of rondo structure is even smaller in scale than the first it has no trumpets or trombones for instance so it s Sibelius pared down even more closely to the bone So far so good but in the last movement things always go awry for me there s something not quite right about the structure here and for me Sibelius arrives in the home key of C major far too early and then proceeds to bang on in it for far too long Oramo and the BBC SO did their very best with it but it didn t work not that anyone else in the audience might have been aware of it Oramo received exceptionally warm applause and the orchestra declined to take it the musicians preferring to clap the conductor they had obviously absolutely loved working with Christopher Gunning Share on Tumblr October 28 2011 The LSO celebrates Steve Reich at 75 Steve Reich percussion Neil Percy percussion Synergy Vocals London Symphony Orchestra Kristjan Järvi conductor Barbican Hall London 15 10 2011 CG Steve Reich Clapping Music 1972 The Four Sections 1987 Three Movements 1986 The Desert Music 1984 The Barbican Hall was packed The age range of the audience was noticeably wide teenagers to sexagenarians and a few beyond and that alone demonstrates the huge appeal of Steve Reich s music It s been like that since 1966 when Reich first formed his own ensemble and began performing the music that had grown from his extensive studies of Western music Hebrew chanting Jazz African drumming and Balinese Gamelan music He appeared at the beginning of the concert complete with signature cap gave a thumbs up to the orchestra and then performed his Clapping Music together with Neil Percy It is an engaging exercise in rhythm The two performers clap a 12 beat pattern one player then shifts the pattern by one quaver When it has been shifted 12 times the two players are again in unison and the piece ends It was the perfect introduction to Reich s musical thinking and appropriate preparation for the meatier items to follow Reich did not immediately take to the large forces of a symphony orchestra preferring to work with small groups and it s not difficult to see why Ultra precise rhythms tight ensemble work and crystal clear textures are central to his thinking and more readily achieved with fewer musicians When writing for orchestras Reich needed to rethink the conventional Western orchestra so in The Four Sections which came next in tonight s programme the strings are divided into two antiphonal groups separated by two pianists who also play some electronic devices The four sections of the title refer to the four movements of the piece each of which has its own tempo and features a particular section of the orchestra strings percussion wind and brass and lastly the full orchestra Similar devices are employed in Three Movements with the strings once again arranged antiphonally As they pass short fragments between one another in the opening movement Reich s notion that the music is like the changing light patterns created by clouds wafting across the sky is certainly evident The three movements are differentiated by tempo and mood changes the second has darker textures and the third is more jazzy These two works were well performed by Kristjan Järvi and the LSO even if a hypercritical listener would have ideally preferred even greater computer like precision But if Reich rethought the composition and performance of music it is also true that audiences have had to rethink how they listen Repetition albeit ever changing in subtle ways is a key even the key ingredient in this music and if you re not absolutely tuned in the lack of conventional drama and interest can lead to well frankly boredom As I glanced around the audience I saw quite a few slumped heads and it s to be expected this stuff has a hypnotic quality Or is there a more serious problem There is no doubting Reich s genius in formulating and developing his ideas and there s no doubting the sheer attractiveness of the music either but I did find myself asking more than once if the style of this music has run its course That s partly due to the fact that composers with lesser gifts have latched on to the superficial nature of it and duly churned out ream upon ream of computer generated riffs for TV and film scores to the point that we re sick and tired of it all but it s not the whole story Some of Reich s smaller pieces Different Trains especially or the opera The Cave seem to have far greater meaning than The Four Sections or Three Movements and it s curious that they were both composed after The Desert Music another crucially important work That minimalism the tag with which Reich along with John Adams and Philip Glass were quickly labelled had to develop was fairly obvious and Reich has come a long way since the early beginnings but these two works don t really seem to venture much beyond what was achieved in The Desert Music Perhaps it s not surprising that he has now returned to smaller groups in recent works Anyway things definitely bucked up in part two At around fifty minutes The Desert Music benefits enormously from having a faster rate of harmonic change and a formal shape basically A B C B A which really works There s far more tension and drama here and considerable variety in the orchestral palette All Reich s techniques are on display pulsating rhythms short imitative figures oscillating chords jazz derived harmony the lot More importantly Reich uses various texts by William Carlos Williams to suggest a combination of messages concerning our contemporary society questioning its morality and where it is going But why the desert in Desert Music Reich was deeply affected by both the Sinai and Alamagordo deserts the first for its historical importance in Jewish history and the second because it is where the US stores its nuclear weapons The performance was terrific Kristjan Järvi conducted with a firm beat and the LSO responded with the right degree of energy and with ever sensitive dynamics The vocal writing came off superbly well with the ten amplified voices of Vocal Synergy effectively balanced against the orchestra their parts often reminiscent of jazz orientated groups such as Singers Unlimited or Swingle Two perfectly in tune And when the composer reappeared he received a standing ovation apt recognition that Reich is one of a very few composers who has genuinely changed the course of music history Christopher Gunning Share on Tumblr October 15 2011 Maazel s Mahler cycle nears its close Philharmonia Orchestra Lorin Maazel conductor Royal Festival Hall London 1 10 2011 CG Gustav Mahler Symphony no 9 1909 10 When Mahler died in May 1911 he left two major completed but unperformed works Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony The Tenth Symphony remained incomplete apart from two movements and sketches for the others Mahler s life is particularly well documented it was not short of dramatic incidents and tragedy One of his two children had died in 1907 his wife Alma Schindler had a long standing affair with the architect Walter Gropius he fell out with Vienna Court Opera of which he was director and was regularly subjected to anti Semitic abuse He had been diagnosed with a heart condition in 1907 but although advised to avoid strenuous exercise continued with extremely taxing concert tours conducting the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras His own music had been introduced little by little to mixed reception although with the massive Eighth Symphony he scored a particularly notable success in 1909 Mahler s indomitable spirit spurred him on against all manner of difficulties but it was inevitable that his life dramas would find their way into his music and never was this more the case than in his very last works Much has been made of his apparent obsession with death but while there are certainly passages in the Ninth Symphony where Mahler seems to be peering over the precipice there is hope too joy even It is crucial that all these elements be fully represented in performance and in the end it is perhaps Mahler s love of life which underpins everything without that intense love despair and frustration would mean nothing Maazel s view of the composer has been gaining some mixed responses during this current cycle When there have been criticisms reviewers have found his tempi to be slow and ponderous I however thought his performance of the Fifth Symphony in London superb The fact is there are dozens of interpretations which will work pleasing some and displeasing others People become obsessive and even make careers comparing versions by conductor x and conductor y and I read a reviewer s detailed take on no less than ten different recordings of the Ninth recently finishing up in knots So I go back to basics I listen to the marvel of Mahler in this extraordinary symphony and ask some simple questions Does this conductor understand what Mahler intended Does he have a firm grip on the complex structure of the score Does he guide the orchestra successfully through the emotional journey set out in the music And do the players respond in a way of which Mahler might approve The conductor Kurt Sanderling has been much in my mind recently not only because of his recent death but because some sixteen years ago I attended a performance of this same symphony in this same hall with this same orchestra and was duly reduced to mumbling wreck status Sanderling was eighty two and approaching the end of his long career and I thought then as I thought watching the eighty one year old Maazel tonight that there is almost bound to be something especially poignant about an old man s view of this music Sanderling gained universal respect as a conductor who spurned showmanship and strove valiantly to get to the very heart of the music Would I remember Maazel s performance in a similar way Things didn t start too well The tempo was leisurely as marked by Mahler but the gently rocking opening was thrown slightly off kilter by a French Horn that was beautifully played but a little too loud Things settled down thereafter and the extraordinary form of the first movement with its combination of themes and moods seemingly at odds with themselves made its full effect with the returning sighing motif always feeling threatened by the next altercation And what of the recurrent rhythm that according to Bernstein was supposed to represent Mahler s irregular heartbeat Yes it was there but not given undue prominence and anyway it is now reckoned that the composer s leaky heart valves would not necessarily cause an irregular beat Most importantly it was impossible not to feel that this was indeed the start of a long journey encompassing just about all that life has to offer serenity mingled with frustration torment and well let s not give away the end just yet And equally to the point the orchestral playing was terrific with some particularly fine and anguished work from the strings not outdone by the fabulous woodwind department with all solos magnificently done The second movement is another of the composer s unique creations and Maazel took things at deliberate tempi with the ländler sections feeling genuinely rustic and the ironic waltz sections full of wit What was going through Mahler s mind He seems to be looking back with a mixture of affection and ridicule and that s how the music struck me in this performance with some marvellous verve and wit emanating from all sections of the orchestra The third movement more or less a classic rondo structure displays among other things Mahler s love of J S Bach it is highly contrapuntal yet as is so frequently the case in this symphony there is a mocking undercurrent to the whole movement What is required here is energy and we had it particularly in the closing bars where the orchestra positively erupted Elsewhere there was amazing work again from the woodwind superb clarinets and in the penultimate section real angst from the strings given just enough spaciousness for their gloriously expressive role The strings mostly dominate the textures of the final movement and they set off with the most gloriously passionate tone I ve ever heard from a British orchestra or for that matter any orchestra anywhere Here Mahler is returning to the world of his 2nd and 3rd symphonies and also to his most recently completed work Das Lied von der Erde This is surely where Mahler contemplated his own death and although certainly tinged with regret it is not a death viewed with complete hopelessness Instead it looks forward to the possibility of peace after death Mahler was never devoutly religious and yet it has been remarked that he was never closer to God than during this movement I found the account tonight persuasive in every way it is really astonishing how the music reaches its two climaxes and then disintegrates little by little as if reluctant to bid farewell The last page containing fewer notes perhaps than any other symphony was not spoilt by a few unmuffled coughers in the audience who had been asked prior to the concert to stifle any unavoidable coughing There followed a long silence which is always a clear indication that this symphony and its performance had left its mark And I would gratefully have listened to the whole thing over again If Maazel s reading is not to everyone s taste so be it but I do not think anyone could be in any doubt that his is a totally authoritative and committed interpretation and that the Philharmonia continues to be on absolutely top form and the match of any orchestra in the world Christopher Gunning Share on Tumblr October 1 2011 A rare performance of Kullervo in a concert dedicated to Kurt Sanderling Viktoria Mullova violin Monica Groop mezzo soprano Jukka Rasilainen bass baritone Orphei Drängar male chorus Philharmonia Orchestra Essa Pekka Salonen conductor Royal Festival Hall London 25 9 2011 Johannes Brahms Violin Concerto in D op 77 1878 Jean Sibelius Kullervo op 7 1892 Kullervo has always been considered something of an oddity In some respects it is Sibelius s choral symphony since movements three and five are settings of lines from the epic poem Kalevala in other respects it is a tone poem because the remaining movements chronicle parts of Kullervo s life Although the first performance in 1892 was enthusiastically received there were only four more performances in the composer s lifetime Sibelius withdrew it and towards the end of his life intended revising the whole work but in the event re orchestrated only the final section of the third movement in 1957 Kullervo had to wait until 1971 for its first recording by Paavo Bergland and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra The composer was a mere 27 it was another six years before he tackled his First Symphony Yet there is much in Kullervo to indicate where Sibelius was heading Characteristically short woodwind phrases passionate string melodies frequently in octaves clarinets swooping and diving strident hammer blow tutti chords plentiful atmospheric string tremolos and other effects solid hymn like brass passages long pedal notes with slowly increasing tension all these are here and much more besides It s a feast of dramatic orchestral colour One might find the text displayed by surtitles on this occasion a little pedantic but what is important here is that it is set with absolute conviction and Finnish conviction at that Sibelius was expressing intense pride in his native Finland by means of a text to which he was subsequently to return in the Finnish language at a time when the country was dominated by Russia and Swedish was the official language So the emergence of nationalist sentiment is crucially important in appreciating Kullervo the story of a mythological character with magical powers who falls from grace seduces a woman who turns out to be his sister and eventually commits suicide Essa Pekka Salonen is obviously on home territory with this score and it was impossible not to be carried along with the performance from beginning to end If he has occasionally been described as cool there was certainly no evidence of it here and this was an absolutely terrific performance the Philharmonia was faultless and the Orphei Drängar male chorus flown in from Sweden simply stunning Monica Groop and Jukka Rasilainen from Finland had to stand with nothing to do for long periods but when their moments came they too were well matched for their roles despite vocal writing that is perhaps not the strongest aspect of the score Rasilainen was particularly convincing in the moments of self hate when he bemoans the shame he has brought on his whole family to the accompaniment of some wonderfully Sibelian crashing chords Stirring stuff Prior to the main items on the agenda Salonen made a heartfelt tribute to Kurt Sanderling who was associated with the Philharmonia for many years He dedicated the concert to the great conductor describing Sanderling s performances as being the truth a sentiment which I heartily endorse it was in this very hall some years ago that Sanderling first opened my eyes and ears to Mahler s Ninth Symphony in one of the most memorable moving and thankfully unshowy performances I have ever experienced It was entirely fitting that Salonen and the Philharmonia treated us to an extra item Melisande s death from Sibelius s Pelleas and Melisande in which we admired the beautiful piannisimo of the muted strings Viktoria Mullova s reading of the Brahms concerto was absolutely note perfect and her tone was gloriously warm or bright by turns This was a consummately brilliant performance the Philharmonia complimenting the soloist with sympathy and some totally appropriate Germanic solidity If it didn t quite raise the roof I m not quite sure why not for all the right ingredients were there and I wouldn t like to give the impression this was less than highly enjoyable and in the slow movement touching And all in all this was a fabulous evening and a great start to the Philharmonia s new season Christopher Gunning Share on Tumblr September 25 2011 More Music for People at the Purcell room Morton Feldman James Weeks Andrew Hamilton Endymion EXAUDI James Weeks conductor Purcell Room London 21 09 2011 CG Morton Feldman Only 1947 James Weeks Inscription world premiere 1973 Morton Feldman Voices and Cello Andrew Hamilton Right and Wrong world premiere Morton Feldman Clarinet and String Quartet 1983 The second of two concerts given the heading Music for People by the excellent Endymion Ensemble and the terrific vocal group EXAUDI concentrated on works by the proudly American composer Morton Feldman 1926 1987 with two British works by younger British composers sandwiched between Feldman is considered to occupy an important place in American music and is often associated with John Cage in pioneering an approach to music that has little to do with music of the past He was one of the first to employ indeterminate techniques in which rhythms and or pitches are interpreted freely by the performers consequently some of his scores employ graphics rather than conventional notation systems He found inspiration among artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and the abstract expressionist painters in general while it was the music of Anton Webern which made a profound effect and set him on his revolutionary course Feldman s later music was fully notated and some works are extremely long we had samples of those tonight though not his String quartet no 2 which lasts for six hours To start the concert the delightful Juliet Fraser sang Only with a haunting tone and perfectly sure intonation This is a very short setting of the Rilke poem composed when Feldman was only 21 and is largely in the Dorian mode with some telling foreign notes Without a break we were thrust into James Weeks Inscription for two female and two male singers and string quartet It is a setting of a text by Fernando Pessoa all work is futile and futile is all work Weeks employs high register clusters to good effect and there is some fine writing for both singers and instrumentalists but unfortunately it rather outstays its welcome for those not fully attuned to music which hardly develops over a long period and it became somewhat tiring Feldman s Voices and Cello with two female voices and a lone cello is one of Feldman s more static pieces employing clusters and chromatic movement delicate soft and strange it almost stops several times It was beautifully performed although in this and some other pieces one would have preferred a more spacial acoustic than the Purcell Room offers Andrew Hamilton s Right and Wrong was something of a blessed relief after so much quietly static music A setting of a text from The Untroubled Mind by Agnes Martin this is exciting dynamic music and complex in an effective way One admired not only the composer s considerable skill but also the extraordinary virtuosity of the Exaudi singers and Endymion players for whom this piece is a brilliant showcase Following the interval we were back in Feldman territory with his late Clarinet and String Quartet At over forty minutes this is one of his substantial works and it s also an exercise in maintaining a consistent atmosphere over a long span Devotees find enormous depths in this and other late works dissonant clusters and highly repetitive short phrases there is no melody as such continue ad infinitum and sympathetic souls lose themselves in the quietly hypnotic quality of it all I m afraid my reaction is slightly different For me this was close to torture and possibly the most tedious listening experience I have ever subjected myself to I counted the spotlights on the ceiling the planks of wood on the platform the number of seats per row praying that it would end I mused that it was the Ennaudi of serious music will someone please explain the success of Ennaudi and longed for something dramatic or at least interesting to happen Nevertheless no blame should be ascribed to the wonderfully sensitive clarinetist Mark van de Wiel or the lovely quartet from Endymion their devotion to the music was obvious and maintaining the required level of concentration and precision cannot be easy Is Feldman s music vitally important or no more than a curious backwater I know what I think but there remain plenty who would sharply disagree and at least Endymion and Exaudi should be congratulated on bringing his work to our attention again and perhaps even more importantly commissioning and performing the new works heard over these two concerts Christopher Gunning Share on Tumblr September 21 2011 Music for People at the Purcell room Arvo Pärt Joanna Bailie Philip Venables Endymion EXAUDI Simon Wall tenor James Weeks conductor Purcell Room London 18 09 2011 CG Arvo Pärt Fratres version for string quartet 1977 rearranged later Joanna Bailie Artificial Environment No 6 World premiere Arvo Pärt Wallfahrtslied Pilgrim s Song version for tenor baritone string quartet 1984 2001 Philip Venables numbers 76 80 Tristan und Isolde World premiere Arvo Pärt Summa version for string quartet 1977 1991 Arvo Pärt Stabat mater 1985 This was the first of two concerts by the enterprising Endymion Ensemble and the equally adventurous vocal group EXAUDI under the heading Music for People Why the title you may ask Is there music composed for non human animals For gods and angels yes but surely all composers write for people so the explanation has to be to do with the style of music performed here which in different ways conforms to the new simplicity promulgated by certain minimalists and the later works of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in particular although Pärt himself doesn t consider himself to be a minimalist and dislikes being labeled at all You either love or hate this approach to music but I ll come back to that later For now we only need to know that Pärt came to his later style of composing after using various contemporary styles and having grown dissatisfied with the complexity of them It is the absolute opposite of and a reaction against anything descended from Shoenberg s atonal or twelve note methods which had ruled the roost in most contemporary circles for so long and had alienated many music lovers The opening work Fratres is a case in point It exists in umpteen different versions for various ensembles perhaps the best known being one for string orchestra and structurally it consists of several episodes separated by a very simple repeating rhythmic leitmotif In tonight s version for string quartet the second violinist is required to play a perfect fifth drone throughout and after the opening leitmotif the other players weave their parts in harmonics These were not quite secure in tonight s performance but never mind things became far more confident as the piece progressed into more normal registers and the episodes became more expressive But you have to use words like expressive rather carefully The piece never changes dramatically but flows along at the same tempo with the same rate of movement It is sad modal and altogether bleak fans revel in its quiet peacefulness In Joanna Bailie s Artificial Environment No 6 the quartet was joined by two singers from EXAUDI and a prepared tape It was a little difficult to make sense of the somewhat pretentious programme note but we were prepared for motorway noises and birdsong and heard both very clearly the roar or drone of the former frequently dominating the proceedings A spoken text appeared and disappeared and notes from the tape were picked up by the two singers and the string quartet What we ended up with was a collage of effects separated by periods of silence effective in its way of creating a rather mesmeric sound picture but lacking a strong musical idea Pärt s Wallfahrtslied Pilgrim s Song is a setting for tenor or baritone and string quartet of Psalm 121 It s main oddity is that the Psalm is intoned on one of two notes while the quartet provides all the musical interest Endymion and Simon Wall performed beautifully and you either find enormous spirituality in the work or dare I say find it frankly somewhat boring after a while Numbers 76 80 Tristan und Isolde by Philip Venables began in a striking fashion with the quartet bashing out perfect fifths fortissimo as the piece develops the excellent EXAUDI singers spoke most of Simon Howard s strangely exciting if rather baffling poem There s genuine wit here and pathos and really terrifically flamboyant writing for the instrumentalists What a thrilling moment there was when the singers suddenly burst into song rather than the spoken word This composer is gaining a great reputation for original and sometimes quite brutally exhilarating music and it s well worth watching out for him Pärt s Summa was originally composed in 1978 as a setting for voices and organ of the Credo We believe in one God and later rearranged for string quartet stripped of its text Admirer s love the timelessness and mystery of the

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