Friendly Fire – Natalia Gutman, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

natalia-gutmanFriendly Fire – Natalia Gutman (above), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 27 January 2016

Welcome to Arcana’s new ‘alternative’ reviews slot! It is an ‘ask the audience’ feature – where I (Ben Hogwood) take a friend / colleague who doesn’t normally attend a classical concert and get them to review it in the bar afterwards. First up is Tony Winter, a young-at-heart 50-something from Watford, who shares his thoughts on a program of Schnittke (Pianissimo), Shostakovich (Cello Concerto no.2) and Bruckner (Symphony no.3 – original version)

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Arcana: How did you prepare for this concert?

Tony: Well I had a shave (d’oh! – Ed) No, I’ve been playing some recordings of the Shostakovich and a little bit of the Bruckner. Not the Schnittke, which was a bit of a surprise! I haven’t done an enormous amount of preparation.

What was your musical upbringing?

I had a brief encounter with the violin which I never really got on with – I didn’t get on with the teacher – and then when I was about 13 the guitar, but that was rock music. I played the guitar for years. When I retire it’s going to come out again! I played in a band called The Committee, but to be fair by the time they’d risen to fame they’d chucked me out!

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I love Bach, just because of the melodies. I think you can look at other people and say the orchestration is great but for me the genius is the melody. James Rhodes says ‘the immortal Bach’, which sums it up.

I’ve been playing a lot of David Bowie recently with his demise, I was a big fan of Bowie up to about the Let’s Dance era, and now suddenly I’ve been playing some of the later albums as I’ve been guilty of overlooking some of them. I don’t like it when it gets too commercial! But I think later on he was saying that he didn’t give a shit, which is an approach I’ve always liked.

The Outside album was described as ‘difficult and industrial’ but I think it’s great. I wonder in 200 years if people will be playing Bowie? He died at the same age as Shostakovich but who knows? Only time will tell. How many people were on stage tonight, over 100? I’m sure everyone would be using that if there weren’t cost implications to it!

I don’t know whether to say the Rolling Stones or Mozart for the third!

Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?

I’ve been to a few over the years – I’ve even started going to a few operas! Living close to the Watford Colosseum I’ve been going to concerts there as I’m a bit of a lazy bugger. I tend to go to any classical concerts they put on there. I’ve seen Beethoven’s 9th at Westminster Abbey, but that was a bit echoey!

James Rhodes sticks in the mind for his more modern presentation which particularly appealed to my kids. They’re learning the piano so that helped but it helped that he stood up and made a few jokes. I’m not saying everyone has to turn into a variety act but he judged it right. I like sitting at the front in an intimate gig, but coming here tonight though I think I should drag my sorry arse into London more as I don’t think you could fit that orchestra on the stage in Watford!

What did you think of the Schnittke?

I think I’d have to give it a few more listens. It did somewhat sound like they were tuning up for a while, and I’m not sure I liked the screeching of the flute over the top. Parts of it were interesting though, and when the violins came in quietly and slowly it almost sounded like a Jimi Hendrix track where he’s playing the guitar backwards. There were elements of it that appealed to me, and I will definitely investigate more. It didn’t grab me by the throat.

What about the Shostakovich?

I enjoyed that for a variety of reasons. Because I had prepared by having a few versions on in the background it had sunk in a bit, and then when you’re actually watching it live you’ve got to concentrate on it, and I thought Natalia Gutman was obviously really fantastic. It was an interesting piece and I really enjoyed it.

What about the Bruckner?

I did enjoy it but it was a different version to the one I’d been playing. It felt like it was building up to the end for a while! When I was listening to it at home I thought there were echoes of Beethoven in it, but listening to it tonight he was heavily influenced by Wagner and I could hear that. It wasn’t as melodic as some of the Beethoven symphonies, and I wasn’t overwhelmed by it.

I don’t think Bruckner will be one of my favourites, but then again, maybe I need to go back and listen to it! It was fantastic seeing an orchestra of that size, with ten double basses. As a bit of a hi-fi geek, you think that’s what it should sound like!

What about the environment and setting of the concert, and how it was promoted?

Well they didn’t get me down here, you did! I do feel strongly about this though because at the Watford Colosseum you go down there, and they’re absolutely fantastic, and the place is quarter full. You think why is this, as it’s fantastic value for money and there are as many people on stage as in the audience!

The Royal Festival Hall is very nice though and before the concert the youth musicians of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Foyle Future Firsts, were great. They were playing Shostakovich’s incidental music to Hamlet, and Vladimir Jurowski got up and talked about the piece and gave us loads of facts about it for ten minutes before they played. I was hugely impressed by that, it was really nice to see and the musicians were great. It was well worth the effort getting down here early!

Arcana’s brief thoughts on the concert:

A really rewarding evening which represented great value with a concert that lasted two and a half hours. The Schnittke, as Tony says, sounded a bit like an excerpt from a horror movie.

The Shostakovich was deeply considered by Natalia Gutman, who did not play with great volume but who managed to project her thoughts to a spellbound audience. She is one of the great surviving musicians from Shostakovich’s era, and it was a humbling experience to see her play – she may have missed one particularly crucial entry in the finale but her thoughts elsewhere were extremely profound.

Finally the Bruckner, a real tour de force – and a superb account from the orchestra and the brass in particular. This is one of Bruckner’s wildest symphonies, full of ideas that are not always controlled, and Jurowski projected the tension between instinct and adhering to symphonic form. The triumphant end was well-earned.

Under the surface – Bruckner: String Quintet and Quartet (Linn)

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Fitzwilliam String Quartet, James Boyd (viola)

Composer: Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

Nationality: Austrian

What did he write? Bruckner’s reputation is almost entirely built on his nine symphonies and three Masses, which form the bulk of his regularly performed repertoire. However there are also a number of exquisite motets for unaccompanied choir.

What are the works on this new recording? Bruckner wrote very little chamber music, but the two works recorded here are by far the most substantial. The String Quintet is an ambitious, substantial piece that could easily be imagined for string orchestra, while the recently discovered String Quartet represents another sizeable contribution to the form.

What is the music like? The Bruckner of the symphonies is only occasionally glimpsed here, for this is music to fill drawing rooms rather than cathedrals. The quintet especially fulfils its purpose with intimacy and depth of emotion, especially in the slow movement, where the Fitzwilliam Quartet and James Boyd really go up a level.

The outer movements are a little less successful, in this recording at least, for the textures are a little congested. However the String Quartet in C minor of 1862, discovered in 1950, justifies its case for a more permanent place in the quartet repertoire, as it is a substantial and memorable work. The third movement Scherzo has a distinctive theme while the outer movements are resilient and very well done here.

As a bonus, the Fitzwilliam and Boyd include an alternative version of the Intermezzo for the String Quintet, given a polished and elegant performance here.

What’s the verdict? This new Fitzwilliam Quartet disc makes a compelling case for the recently discovered work, but is not always on the money in the Quintet itself. The Intermezzo could have a little more humour in its theme, while the outer movements sound a little grainy in the recording.

Give this a try if you like… Brahms, Mendelssohn or Schubert

Listen

You can listen to excerpts from this new disc on the Linn Records website