Kensington Symphony Orchestra – 60th anniversary concert

Kiandra Howarth (soprano), Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo-soprano), Epiphoni ConsortPegasusVox CordisKensington Symphony Orchestra / Russell Keable

Barbican Hall, London, Monday 15 May 2017

Matthew Taylor Symphony no.4, Op. 54 [KSO commission: World premiere]

Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A near-capacity audience greeted this 60th anniversary concert by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and its principal conductor Russell Keable (below) – who, in a sign of continuity rare in the modern era, assumed that role from the orchestra’s founder Leslie Head over three decades ago.

Throughout its history, the KSO has been an advocate of British music past and present, and this evening was no exception in its witnessing the first performance of the Fourth Symphony by Matthew Taylor. Four years ago, the orchestra gave a memorable reading of his tone poem Storr and this new work was hardly less impressive. An in memoriam to composer and pianist John McCabe, and dedicated to his widow Monica, the 27-minute piece falls into three continuous movements. The first, pointedly marked Scherzo, maintains its initial energy across various changes of dynamics and texture (some evocative writing for woodwind and harp redolent of Tippett) then subsides from its impassioned climax to a central Adagio where strings take the foreground in music of textural richness and expressive warmth – both amply sustained here.

On first hearing, the Finale buffa was slightly less successful. Beginning at a rather jarring remove from what went before, its nonchalant humour (not a little reminiscent of Malcolm Arnold) sounded forced rather than provocative; its seeming lack of substance not bolstered by a deftly scored intermezzo-like episode which itself waylaid the denouement. This latter, though, was powerfully controlled up to a climax that recalled the work’s opening theme on the way to a close the more decisive for its succinctness; the music literally coming to a halt.

Make no mistake, this was a characterful and absorbing work from a born symphonist, and any reservations about the finale might well disperse in the light of further performances. Not that there was much to fault on this occasion, with Keable drawing a dedicated response from the KSO to reaffirm its status as the finest non-professional orchestra in London (arguably the UK). Taylor’s exacting yet always practicable writing also benefited from the immediacy of the Barbican acoustic, not least that for two timpanists which propelled the opening and close.

Certainly, the orchestra sounded more consistently at its best here than in Mahler’s Second Symphony which followed the interval. This is a work often pressed into service on notable occasions (memory recalls its inclusion in the first concert at Copenhagen’s Koncerthuset in 2009 after the premiere of Per Nørgård’s Seventh Symphony), on basis of its epic conception and overall impact. Qualities as were often in evidence here, not least an opening movement whose literalness did not prevent a pathos emerging out of the music’s heightened emotions.

Both the lilting Andante and sardonic scherzo were fluently if unexceptionally rendered, with Caitlin Hulcup giving a soulful rendition of the pivotal Urlicht setting. Keable then steered a secure course through the vast finale, giving its extremes of motion and expression room to unfold without risk of diffuseness. Kiandra Howarth made an appealing contribution, while the combined choruses saw the climactic setting of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode through to a blazing apotheosis. The KSO’s next 60 years were duly launched in no uncertain fashion.

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

Live: Convergence 2017 – Manuel Göttsching at the Barbican

Manuel Göttsching (above – guitars, electronics), Shags Chamberlain (keyboards, percussion), Oren Ambarchi (bass guitar, percussion, drums)

Barbican Hall, Thursday 23rd March, 2017

Göttsching E2-E4 (1984)

Ash Ra Tempel excerpts from Schwingungen and Seven Up (1972)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Now in its fourth year, Convergence is one of those inspirational festivals that bring together different art forms without laying down rules of boundary or art form. Because of that, artists who might not get ready exposure are brought to the fore – and hence gigs like this one can take place.

Manuel Göttsching originally released his E2-E4 album in 1984, but it surfaced in remastered form last year to great acclaim, making listeners of a certain age (your correspondent included!) misty-eyed and reverent about its influence on a generation of techno producers.

The music is relatively close to the Steve Reich school of thought in concept, that is it begins with a deceptively simple phrase that stays constant for an hour, but around it various musical events develop. By the end the root of the music remains but where there was once an airy synthesizer riff there is now a full bodied bass, primitive electronic drums and some dreamy guitar, all of which Göttsching took his time to introduce. Little wonder that this music became an inspiration for Balearic producers such as Sueno Latino.

At this concert in the Barbican Hall, Göttsching performed in an incredibly modest manner, sitting in front of a laptop as though he were answering e-mails for at least half an hour, before standing with his guitar to deliver the crowning layer. The reality of course was very different, the stage dimly but effectively lit so that the audience could sit more or less in the dark, enjoying the music as it unfolded. Tapping the feet and fingers was an instinctive reaction, for this music has a great deal of energy, like a written out DJ set. It became a meditation for the mind but also a joyous ritual, the bright chords retaining their appeal even after an hour.

After the interval Göttsching emerged with drummer Oren Ambarchi and keyboard player Shags Chamberlain for company. Ariel Pink had been promised but was indisposed – but this was not a problem, as the trio set out to play excerpts from albums Göttsching had been involved with in the early 1970s as Ash Ra Tempel. These may well have worked better in the first half, but were nonetheless really well observed and open ended – so much so the improvisations were still going on when I sadly had to depart at 11:10.

The driving rhythms spoke of the Krautrock movement that was to take hold later in the 1970s, while some of the spacious textures and feedback also anticipated shoegaze and My Bloody Valentine. And yet there was the spirit of exploration that also incorporated contemporary classical compositions, with elements of the quieter side of Xenakis and Boulez, while also incorporating rich, added note harmonies of the likes of Thelonious Monk. There was a firm pitch centre, a point of reference at all times save for the last number, which found all three players on the same vibraphone initially. The music was difficult to pin down stylistically – so best just to sit back and enjoy!

It was an inspiring evening, providing some welcome respite and inspiration in the light of the awful events elsewhere in London earlier in the day. Those hung over the gig to some extent, but there was a sense that everybody was grateful to have their minds diverted and altered.

Musically there may not have been a great amount of melody, but inspiration came through texture, harmony and primitive drive – especially when Ambarchi drove the rhythm track forward in the second half. Göttsching himself was in fine form, and it was great to have an opportunity to appreciate and praise his influence on musical movements that have followed. Forty years on, his is a voice that still stands out.

For more information on Convergence, head to the festival festival website

Spotify

The Convergence 2017 playlist is below:

Tasmin Little, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Edward Gardner at the Barbican – Janáček, Smetana, Szymanowski & Eötvös

Ed Gardner
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (above) (photo © Benjamin Ealovega)

Barbican Hall, Saturday January 9, 2017

Janáček Jealousy

Smetana Ma vlast: Vltava; Šarka

Szymanowski Violin Concerto No.2 (soloist – Tasmin Little)

Eötvös The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies [UK premiere]

Janáček Taras Bulba

L-R Leoš Janáček (1854-1928); Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884); Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937); Péter Eötvös (b1944)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Edward Gardner returned to the BBC Symphony for this diverse if not wholly successful programme, which opened with the ultimate in terse curtain-raisers. Intended then abandoned as the overture to his opera Jenůfa, Janáček’s Jealousy (1895) has latterly enjoyed a peripheral place in the repertoire. Heard here in the late Charles Mackerras’s realization of the original version, it made for a vivid impression – not least when its alternation between strident brass gestures and eloquent string writing unerringly evokes Sibelius during much the same period.

Next came the second and third instalments from Smetana’s cycle of symphonic portraits, Ma vlast. The performance of Vltava (1874) was a disappointment – its constituent sections rather failing to cohere, with Gardner making little of the visceral ‘St John’s Rapids’ episode and the apotheosis doddering along at a jog-trot.

Šarka (1875) fared better – Gardner exerting a tight grip over its scenario of female retribution, with felicitous playing from solo clarinet and horn prior to the fateful close. In context, these pieces sounded curiously adrift, suggesting that a different selection (Šarka, then From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields maybe?) might have proved more effective. Even better to opt for one of those early ‘Gothenburg’ symphonic poems that are rarely revived, of which Wallenstein’s Camp would ideally have complemented the Janáček in the second half.

Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little

Time was when Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto (1933) existed in the shadow of its predecessor, but this last major work by the composer enjoys increasingly regular revival – its amalgam of luscious textures and folk-inflected harmonies underpinned by a formal cohesion where elements of sonata and rondo forms link hands over a powerful cadenza (by the initial soloist Paweł Kochánski) that Tasmin Little rendered with aplomb.Elsewhere her intonation occasionally faltered as she strove for parity against often dense orchestral writing, though a cumulative impact was rarely less than evident on the way to the affirmative closing pages.

After the interval, a welcome first hearing in the UK for a recent orchestral piece by Peter Eötvös. Written for the Basque National Orchestra, The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies (2012) utilizes not only the quirky rhythmical profile of that region’s traditional music but also its indigenous percussion – two cajóns situated near the front of the orchestra goading the music on with their distinctive timbre. The piece follows an eventful (and suspenseful) trajectory in which the imagery conveyed by the title is amply though subtly conveyed; the typically stratified textures making possible the luminous final stages then an ending which, not for the first time with this composer, suggests a possible continuation just out of reach.

Later Janáček fairly specializes in such oblique endings, and if Taras Bulba (1918) is not one of these, this rhapsody’s graphic yet by no means literal depiction of events related by Gogol leaves no doubt as to its composer’s identification with his subject. Gardner brought fervency then starkness to the respective deaths of Andriy and Ostap, and while the opening stages of the final section were a little temperate, the apotheosis had a glowing inevitability – though some fallible playing was a reminder of this music’s demands for all its relative familiarity.

BBC Symphony Orchestra & Semyon Bychkov – Beloved Friend: Tchaikovsky Project

semyon-bychkov

Richard Whitehouse on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov (above) in the second of their Tchaikovsky-themed concerts

Tchaikovsky Serenade for strings in C major, Op. 48 (1880)

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major, Op. 75 (1893)

Taneyev Overture: The Oresteia, Op.6 (1889)

Tchaikovsky Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876)

Kirill Gerstein (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov

Barbican Hall, London; Monday 24 October

The Beloved Friend series being curated by Semyon Bychkov provides a revealing overview of Tchaikovsky through some lesser performed works. Not the least of which is the Serenade for strings that, though its individual movements emerge frequently on radio, is not so often encountered in concert. Too short to occupy a second or even first half, it makes for a lengthy yet viable opening item when, as tonight, a full-sized string section is deployed with panache.

Bychkov ensured a fervent response in the first movement, its animated main sections framed by the rhetorical motto theme that ultimately returns as an apotheosis, then found suavity as well as elegance in the Waltz. Despite lack of inwardness, the Elegy yielded real clarity in its denser passages, while the Finale proceeded briskly yet characterfully to its resolute close.

kirill-gersteinNext followed a rare revival of the Third Piano Concerto, itself reworked from an abandoned symphony and what would doubtless have become a three-movement entity had Tchaikovsky completed its Andante and Finale to his satisfaction prior to his death (these latter, as realized posthumously by Taneyev, make an effective whole – as Alexander Markovich demonstrated in a Royal Festival Hall account eight years ago).

As a stand-alone piece, the Allegro brillante (best known in its ballet incarnation by George Balanchine) unfolds a quirky and characterful sonata design – its themes distinctive for their emotional restraint, with a stealthy interplay between piano and orchestra that Kirill Gerstein (above) audibly relished. Momentum faltered marginally after a scintillating cadenza, but the final pages strode onwards to a decisive if peremptory ending.

Overall, a convincing account of music which warrants greater exposure. Hopefully Gerstein will yet tackle this work’s three-movement incarnation: for now, he returned for a reading of Méditation – the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s Op. 72 collection – that oozed eloquence and poise.

More discussed than played in the West, Sergey Taneyev was as least as much a composer as pedagogue; a notable output of orchestral and chamber music capped by his ambitious opera The Oresteia. Beginning life as this latter’s introduction, the present overture expanded into an autonomous entity that surveys the opera’s dramatic content and is an eventful symphonic poem in its own right. Its complementary halves representing an archetypal ‘war and peace’ in dramatic as well as musical terms, the piece is harmonically questing and often texturally adventurous – not least in its extensive though never self-conscious writing for harps. Some 15 years after Taneyev last enjoyed a fair measure of exposure in London, Bychkov directed a fastidious performance to remind listeners that they are the poorer for this music’s neglect.

Even in an era intent on ‘concerto and symphony’ programming, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini has never lacked for performances – this symphonic fantasia mingling drama with pathos to a heady degree even for this composer. Bychkov accordingly upped the ante in the tempestuous opening, then secured a suitably rapt response from woodwind and strings in the central section depicting Paolo and Francesca. Its balletic continuation drifted as is often the case, but the final pages portrayed the hapless lovers’ descent into hell with unerring ferocity.

Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast in Afternoon on 3, and available for 30 days thereafter via the Radio 3 website

In concert – Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra at the Barbican

ryan-wigglesworth

Picture (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Barnabás Kelemen (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (above)

Barbican Hall, London / Wednesday 2 March

This typically well-planned BBC Symphony Orchestra concert had a surprise or two in store. Bookending the quartet of works on display were two pieces by Stravinsky – the Agon ballet from 1957 and the Symphony of Psalms.

They provided a good illustration of how Stravinsky changed styles as a composer, and how in spite of that he retained a fascination with older polyphonic styles. Some of the sound worlds in Agon, a set of twelve tableaux for twelve dancers, frequently alighted on melodic figures or chords that felt ‘old’, holding dissonances and deliberately leaving chords unresolved.

Agon is viewed as the work where Stravinsky starts to take his leave from a more obviously tonal approach to composition. In this performance it was lean yet colourful, with excellent solos from leader Stephanie Gonley, mandolin player Nigel Woodhouse, harpist Sioned Williams and Christian Geldsetzer and Richard Alsop, the two BBC SO lead double bass players, who nailed their otherworldly harmonics on each appearance.

The Symphony of Psalms was more obviously outgoing but saved its greatest emotional impact for the quieter music, the closing pages of ‘Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum’ (‘Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord’) from the BBC Symphony Chorus given out with softly oscillating orchestral figures.

Stravinsky uses the lower end of the orchestra in this piece, with no violins or violas, adding extra percussive punch from two pianos – all aspects that Wigglesworth brought forward in a taut performance. Great credit should however go to chorus master Hilary Campbell, who was unfortunately not mentioned in the concert programme. She is clearly popular with the singers, and helped secure that extra degree of accuracy and emotional involvement. One of Stravinsky’s most cinematic scores, it was in this performance a powerful statement of affirmation.

Wigglesworth positioned his own Violin Concerto modestly after the interval – I say modestly as in its five years of existence the piece has already ramped up an impressive number of performances. On this evidence its status is well-deserved, for it is a tightly structured unit of no little tension, the soloist searching for his ultimate melody while the reduced, ‘classical’ orchestra try and find their ultimate tonality.

barnabas-kelemen

Soloist Barnabás Kelemen (above) was a macho presence, with a little too much testosterone at times when the violin was surging forward, but he balanced that with some incredibly sensitive playing at the quietest moments of the piece, where the audience strained on his every note. Both melody and tonality were resolved in moments that confirmed Wigglesworth as a composer of impressive style and instinct.

The one dud in the program was Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from the opera Peter Grimes, seen through the visual projections of Tal Rosner. This was a commission from four American orchestras in Britten’s centenary year 2013, with each interlude was set to the images of the city from which the commission came. For its UK premiere Rosner added a portrait of London to go with the other orchestral excerpt from the opera, the Passacaglia. This was centrally placed, keeping the order in which the scenes appear in the opera.

Although well played by the orchestra, the idea sadly fell flat on several levels. Although Britten spent time in America – and indeed began Peter Grimes there – the work’s roots are so entrenched in Suffolk that to suggest anything other than the Aldeburgh coastline through the music feels completely wrong. Rosner’s constructions were skilled, and had a few fine moments where close-up images of the Golden Gate Bridge rotated in technicolour.

Sunday Morning, with its bright building blocks of orchestral colour, was revealed to be a minimalist precursor of the music of John Adams through the clever constructions of its visuals. However despite Britten’s more universal appeal as a composer these days, Peter Grimes surely belongs wholeheartedly in Suffolk – and any suggestion to the contrary, however well intended, feels wrong.