In concert – Leonidas Kavakos, Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson: Elgar Symphony no.3; Barber & Korngold

Leonidas Kavakos (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 27 February 2020

Barber First Essay Op.12 (1937)
Korngold Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1945)
Elgar, realized Anthony Payne Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.88 (1933; 1993-4)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credit (John Wilson) Sim Canetty-Clarke

It is good to see John Wilson taking up more concert engagements, so putting his talent at the service of symphonic repertoire. Tonight, he directed the Philharmonia in a programme that culminated with quite possibly the finest reading Elgar’s Third Symphony has yet received.

The relatively brief first half commenced with Barber’s First Essay, written in the wake of his soon-to-be ubiquitous Adagio and given a high-profile launch by Arturo Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic. Succinct to a fault, the sombre rumination of its initial section soon makes way for music of brittle aggression (such as Britten surely had in mind writing the Dies irae section of his Sinfonia da Requiem two years later), and reaches a short-lived climax with the return of the piece’s opening which itself subsides into musing expectation.

A timely revival, whereas Korngold’s Violin Concerto now seems almost too familiar since coming in from the cold some quarter-century ago. Leonidas Kavakos has become one of his staunchest advocates, but while his recent Proms account often verged towards the soporific, this evening saw much greater focus; not least an initial Moderato whose yearning melodies were rendered with real incisiveness, then a Romanze whose lush textures and diaphanous harmonies never risked becoming cloying. If the final Allegro was even more impressive, this was because what is ostensibly the weakest movement emerged on a par with those before – Kavakos pointing up its effervescence while keeping any indulgence in check on route to the heady return of its opening theme, in what is a coup de théâtre even by Korngold’s standards.

Wilson has already demonstrated his Vaughan Williams credentials, and is evidently no less at home in Elgar. Some 22 years on from its premiere and the Third Symphony, as realized by Anthony Payne, continues to fascinate and exasperate in equal measure – yet, while there can be no denying its conjectural status, what came over here was Wilson’s conviction as he steered a purposeful course through the opening movement – pulling together what can feel a prolix development then evincing similar grip and determination in the coda. What follows was ideally poised between scherzo and intermezzo, its balletic and song-like strains eliding seamlessly, while the Adagio has seldom sounded more potent in its wrenching dissonances and wan consolation as lead to a coda whose fragmented texture only emphasized its pathos.

On to the finale (Wilson rightly ensured minimal pause between movements) and while there was no lack of finesse in the shaping of its themes, Wilson made relative light of there being no concrete development section by bringing its nominally tentative variants into tensile and, above all, cumulative accord. This carried through into the coda – undoubtedly the best Payne which Elgar never wrote and whose spirit of reaching out towards whatever might lie beyond was palpably conveyed as the music receded, slowly but never disconsolately, toward silence.

At some 50 minutes this was as taut and incisive a reading as the piece can yet have received, but the essential rightness of Wilson’s approach could not be doubted. Payne himself looked mightily impressed, and one can only hope a recording with the Philharmonia is in the offing.

In concert – Christian Tetzlaff, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen: Weimar Berlin – Angels and Demons

Christian Tetzlaff, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 26 September 2019

Hindemith Rag Time (well-tempered) (1921)
J.S. Bach arr. Schoenberg Two Chorale Preludes: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele BWV654; Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist BWV667 (1925)
Berg Violin Concerto (1935)
Hindemith Mathis der Maler Symphony (1934)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This year the Philharmonia Orchestra have been exploring the music of Weimar Berlin as it was in the 1920s and 1930s, with fascinating results. Their most recent concert, subtitled Dreams and Demons, may have been relatively short, but it gave plenty of food for thought and the musical rewards were considerable.

A rather older composer who worked in Weimar made himself known throughout the concert, for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was quoted, refracted and alluded to in each of the four pieces on the programme. Firstly we heard the opening notes of the Prelude in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, part of an affectionate and brilliantly ‘worded’ joke by Hindemith, whose Ragtime started the concert with a swagger. Esa-Pekka Salonen clearly enjoyed its gruff humour, but found the touches of elegance beneath the surface too.

The Ragtime’s surge to the close in E flat minor blossomed with a cleverly executed join into the first of two Bach chorale prelude arrangements by Schoenberg. Here we wondered at his audacious orchestration, taking on what he saw as ‘the first twelve tone music’ and sharing it around the orchestra with typically inventive pointing towards the melodies. Timothy Walden’s cello probed elegantly at the inner melodic lines of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, while the exuberant close of Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geistdrew heralded the Hindemith work we were about to hear.

Berg’s Violin Concerto quotes from a Bach chorale, Es ist genug (It is enough) at the height of its remembrance of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler. Subtitled To the Memory of An Angel, the work traverses a wide range of emotions in its thought processes, from brief oases of calm to fraught periods of activity. The clarinets of the Philharmonia, in all ranges, were superb, whether in the lighter Ländler theme of the first movement or the solemn chorale itself, their imitation of a pipe organ ghostly and – when the solo violinist’s harmonics were in play – ethereal. This was because soloist Christian Tetzlaff (above) also brought a wide range of sounds to the piece, from the fragility of the opening strings of the start to the surging faster music where he took the music by the scruff of the neck. His was a technically brilliant yet musically sensitive performance, closely joined to Salonen’s deft work with the orchestra.

All the while this wonderful piece was heading for the final bars and the ultimate rest, the sort of chord you would want to go on forever as Berg’s orchestral colours mingle with the highest note the violin reaches in the whole piece. Together Teztlaff and Salonen ensured the pacing was ideal, helped considerably by the light and shade of the Philharmonia’s contribution.

After the interval came a regrettably rare chance to hear some Hindemith in the concert hall in the shape of the Mathis der Maler Symphony, a three-movement work drawn from the opera of the same name. This oft-maligned composer exerts a good deal of influence on the tonal music of the second half of the 20th century, more than he is credited for, and his own works are instantly recognisable. Nor, as Salonen and the Philharmonia illustrated, is there a lack of colour or personality in his orchestral writing.

This was a superb performance of a piece Salonen clearly holds close to his heart, having conducted it at the Proms and recorded it for Sony in 2004. The expectant hush from the strings at the start was magical, the effect like walking into a sacred building, and this was reinforced by a solemn intonation of a chorale from the trombones, those Bach influences coming quickly to the surface. Salonen’s slower tempo here worked well.

The silvery strings enjoyed the moments of confluence in Hindemith’s writing, with the added note chords allowed to breathe, but Salonen was not above letting the grittier parts of the music off the leash, pushing forward through the faster phrases. The Philharmonia woodwind and brass were superb, the bell-like clarity of their playing bolstered by deeper shades. With all these qualities noted, Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert) unfolded beautifully, with a grand sense of ceremony at the end, while in response Grablegung (Entombment) was initially thoughtful, its ruminative woodwind then replaced by a brass-dominated climax which Salonen controlled immaculately.

Most dramatic of all was Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony), with a ravishing tone from the Philharmonia strings at the outset. As it progressed the movement had a terrific cut and thrust, its tension released with impressive stature in the closing pages. Mathis der Maler is a wonderful score, one of Hindemith’s finest achievements – and by no means the only peak of his orchestral output. Here it put the seal on a fascinating and immensely rewarding concert, with superb musicianship throughout.

Further listening

You can hear the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including Salonen’s account of the Mathis der Maler symphony:

This playlist offers a broader view of Hindemith’s orchestral output, with the ballet suite Nobilissima Visione, the Concert Music for Strings and Brass and the vastly underrated piece for piano and orchestra The Four Temperaments:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Steve Hodges on the Philharmonia Orchestra playing John Adams

Arcana returns to the BBC Proms in the company of friends – and for our second visit this season we are dipping into one of the festival’s themes, the music of John Adams. Offering his thoughts was Steve Hodges (above)

Marianna Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Steve, what was your musical upbringing?

Personally, I would say it was broad. It started with The Beatles, The Monkees and The Rolling Stones. I grew up through the 1970s and enjoyed glam, and Sparks, and Elton John. Then after meeting people who had some really broad taste, I lapped up everything through electronica, David Bowie and punk.

I’ve gone on from there really, and gone sideways as much as I possibly could. I like to reflect on music and on what was going on at the time, socially, and what it actually represents. I think that’s an important factor about music. I really enjoyed the punk ideals that said anybody could do it, it made a new wave of music that was enormously important. Just because people could make a record didn’t mean they necessarily should, because some of them were awful, but there was so much choice and so many good things in the 1980s. Since then we’ve been through house and drum ‘n’ bass as well. My classical representation is a bit smaller, but I enjoy what I enjoy!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Starting with an old one, The Beatles – that was through my father’s record collection, which was a great influence as a young person. I appreciated them as they were. Then The Human League, as a lot of the Sheffield music was important to me, because at the time I was fortunate to be dabbling in music myself. It really crossed over, and Manchester music was a reference as well – so I would put Ultravox! in there as well. Those were the things that mattered really.

Turning to the concert, what did you think of the Bach / Stravinsky?

I thought there were subtler things here, I was surprised at the quiet volume, there were not so many people on stage I suppose. I was fascinated by the people playing, and the movement between the sections. I was watching for the technical side as much as the musical side. It was a nice ‘warmer-upper’ for the rest of it.

What about the Ravel?

I was much more in to this, and felt reflections of 1960s TV in the music, there were flurries that I kind of recognised. I really liked it. For the singer to remember the words was good, and being able to follow along in the book was interesting. I liked the shape of the music.

And the John Adams?

There was much more to think about with that one! I think the first movement built up, and we had the pleasure of seeing the orchestra and the punctuation, the offset rhythms, the bouncing around of the parts. There was a lot more percussive use here and the intricacies of the first piece were astonishing. He was definitely testing the technical abilities of the musicians. The crescendo at the end was almost human madness in my mind, it was almost too much to bear. The build up at the end, it went from the crossrhythms going on that were clear and observed, you could feel the pulses, and then that broke down at the end and it was completely consuming. You almost wanted to put your hands over your head.

The second movement was really nice at the start, I really liked that one. Because I’ve worked with sequencing a lot you could feel the repetition, the softness of the play, again testing the musicians in a different way at the limits of musicality. The lightness of touch stood out, and it was mostly driven by the harps to start with, and that was the bass, the pulse that drove it along to start with. I liked the guitar in there, I hadn’t spotted him and wondered where that was coming from.

What I liked about it most was where he was getting the strings to crescendo, it was like reversing an attack, and it was going round and round in a really interesting way. It was powerful and really interesting to hear that executed. I enjoyed that one most of all for sure. The arpeggios on the strings were really good, it was so delicate and ambient in its way. Even though it was gentle it was really strong.

How did you find the Proms as an experience?

Very nice. The reverence for the music was striking, and full marks for the quality of what you saw. The audience were obviously there to enjoy it, and treated it with the respect it duly deserved. It was a beautiful environment to hear such things. I’m almost a little disappointed it was quieter at the beginning but I guess we should have stood closer at the start. After a while though, you tune your ears into it. Everybody shut up so that we could all hear.

Having said that, the volume at the end of was enormous! The variety of the use of the instruments, like bowing the percussive instruments in the last piece, that was a softer element. It wasn’t orchestral techno by any means but there was a lot of crossover. It really was a testing thing for the musicians, and it really resonated how much was being put on them.

Is there anything you would change about the experience?

I did browse the catalogue and felt it was something I would like to do. I don’t think there is anything I would particularly change about it, and I’d be inclined to come again. I heard a few things on the TV last week, and I think I shall be listening out for more!

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music – Philharmonia / Esa-Pekka Salonen

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices and Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 2 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

This year’s Proms celebration of John Adams‘ 70th birthday moved on to some Naïve and Sentimental Music. Not my label, but the composer’s own – and a misleading one at that. The title implies a sketchily composed, throwaway fragment, but what we actually get is something very substantial, longer than many symphonies. The construction of the three sections making up the piece illustrate the ease with which the music of Adams expands to fill such dimensions, not something you could always say about the music of like-minded ‘minimalists’, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Where others of his ilk tend to work in smaller melodic units, Adams thinks nothing of spinning out a long, intense melody over several minutes, hanging like a long telegraph wire above the sun-drenched plains. Such an image came to my head as we listened to the second movement of three, Mother of the Man, where the guitar of Huw Davies sounded rather like the early music of Pat Metheny in its deceptively lazy traversal. The strings held fast, creating the wide expanses of which Copland would surely have been proud. The treble textures were especially rich, but when the dynamic dropped to a barely audible whisper on the violins, members of the audience were subconsciously leaning forward to follow developments in the music.

It helped that the conductor was also the dedicatee of Adams’ sizeable score, Esa-Pekka Salonen taking delivery on behalf of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1999. Here he secured some outstanding playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, who responded to the virtuoso demands of the music with impressive rhythmic impetus, intense focus and characterful phrasing. When the music gathered itself several times in the first movement, Naïve and Sentimental Music, the pacing and rhythms felt just right, with especially good work from harpists Heidi Krutzen and Stephanie Beck, not to mention percussionists Antoine Siguré, Scott Lumsdaine, Peter Fry, Stephen Burke, Tim Gunnell and Karen Hutt.

Towards the solemn close of Mother of the Man it was the brass bringing deeper shades to the forefront of the picture with exquisitely held chords. As Chain to the Rhythm hurried along the intensity built steadily and inexorably until it became nerve-shredding, the piece thundering along with gongs, bass drum, cymbals and massive timpani strokes giving it a mountainous perspective. We ended through the altitude of the violins, these massive orchestral sounds now a huge echo. It was a moving finish to a piece that is clearly underrated in Adams’ canon. Salonen clearly believes in it, and this audience did too.

A curious (but very interesting) first half began with Stravinsky’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her, a recomposition made to accompany the world premiere of the latter composer’s Canticum Sacrum in St Marks, Venice in 1956. This was an oddity of economical orchestration and sung text from a reduced choir. There was some quite tart colouring in the manner of Stravinsky’s later style, and his additions to the music of Bach added extra spice to the harmonies at unexpected points. An intriguing but puzzling arrangement, and one that threw the softer textures of Ravel’s Shéhérazade into relief.

This was no doubt intentional, for we were privy to a wonderful performance from French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa (above). Shéhérazade is a magical song cycle when performed well, but here it transcended all expectations – in fact I don’t recall ever seeing a singer who gauged the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall with quite the accuracy of Crebassa. Her direct communication with the audience was reinforced by the elegance and understated strength of her vocal delivery, a truly beautiful tone that caressed Ravel’s lines with clear love and affection.

The first song, Asie, held an exquisite tension as the travelling scene unfolded, while La flûte enchantée, the instrument itself beautifully played by Samuel Coles, thrilled with its orchestral colours and heady textures. L’indifférent was a little more mischievous, and again the exquisite tones and textures were in full accord with the very best Ravel performances.

Crebassa is most definitely an artist for the future, and her blend and rapport with the Philharmonia was something to behold. The reverent string textures and typically pinpoint orchestration were viewed through Salonen’s technicolour lens, but the team brought something very special to Klingor’s text. If you get the chance to hear the broadcast, do so as soon as you can. You will hear one of the best young singers in classical music right now!

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Steve Hodges will give his verdict on the John Adams Prom. Coming shortly!

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Dean Francis on Bartok and Dvořák

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
dean-francisThis is the first in a new series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Dean Francis (above) gives his thoughts on Prom 25.

Alban Gerhardt (cello); Ildikó Komlósi (mezzo-soprano), John Relyea (bass), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Charles Dutoit

Dvořák Cello Concerto in B minor (1895)
Bartók Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Dean, what was your musical upbringing?

It was really wide and varied. I grew up with my great grandparents, and they came over from Jamaica in the 1960s. I was heavily influenced by that, and was listening to blue beat and ska. In Jamaica the musical influences are really wide, so they’ll listen to a lot of country like Kenny Rogers or church-influenced stuff, Jamaican gospel and American gospel. I used to hear tapes with church services and things.

My grandparents listened to more reggae – Bob Marley, John Holt, Gregory Isaacs – but my mum was born here and went to school in West London, and she listened to stuff like Boy George and punk, Prince, The Cure, literally everything! My auntie was only a couple of years older than me and she would be listening to Bros and Mariah Carey!

My own personal influences were hip hop early on. I think my first concert was either Cypress Hill or The Beastie Boys, and the first record I bought was a Barrington Levy record, so I was all over the place really! Nowadays I think kids have a watered down view of music, it’s made specially for them. We used to listen to what our parents listened to, in my house at least – not the latest kiddie sound. There was no jumping about to stuff like Miley Cyrus, the stuff I’d listen to would be at family parties, dancing with adults.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Ice Cube. His music was descriptive of what was going on at the time in America, and it’s almost the polar opposite of the lyrical content of mainstream hip hop now. I guess his life is quite inspiring, starting in NWA and going on film. I grew up with the Predator and Lethal Injection albums at the time.

Going back to reggae I would say someone like Buju Banton, I listened to him a lot, and met him, before he went to prison. Another reason for liking him is his music is good, but if you listen to him talk about what was going on in the world, the politics of the time – living in the West you get a very different view of the politics because of the media.

Even in Jamaica, although it’s The West, you realise that people have got a lot more common sense than you might expect in relation to places perceived as ‘more learned’. They are closer to nature, doing more practical jobs and living off the land, so they have a different view of the world. You don’t get people getting bullshitted, people are smart and on the ball – and so he was telling me stuff about life and wisdom, and he was inspiring in his mindset and how driven and aware he was of whats going on politically.

More recently I would say Loco Dice, because I’ve had some good moments out with him DJing with good friends. His music has energy that brings people together, and that transmits itself in the music he plays. So that’s my three – but you could ask another time and I’d give you a different answer!

I think I tend to like music that has an energy and makes a connection with people. I get bogged down by dirge! I would always listen to something like the Arctic Monkeys over Katie Melua, say!

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

The school I went to had a lot of classical music. It was quite funny and we had a teacher who drank whisky at the primary school I went to! He would play the piano, and I think he used to like Holst. It was quite good, even though we didn’t appreciate it at the time. I think everybody at some point should be exposed to the music of the world, it helps, you know?

With real electronic music and some of the music they play now, it can dumb you down because you’re not exposed to real instruments.

Really I’ve taken it upon myself to go to things, I’m not really averse to any kind of music. If people have invested their time and craft, it will be worth seeing. It’s like sport, you know, you watch it at the Olympics because you know it’s the best of its kind. There is so much classical music in films you don’t realise it’s happening as well!

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I thought it would be more stuffy, but because it’s classical I would say you get an older demographic. That’s good in one way but it would be good for younger people to think it’s accessible. I think it’s a perception thing, and a shame really – it’s just music at the end of the day! There shouldn’t be that perceived snootiness. It was a really good experience though.

What did you like about it?

I like the emotion of the music. Some of the descriptive parts of moods and nature, like water and fire in the Bartók, that’s really good if a good composer can capture those moments.

What might you improve about the experience?

Not much really, but more how they can engage younger people so that it doesn’t become too stuffy.

What did you think of the Dvořák?

I liked that, especially the first movement. The second movement, it felt less interesting to my ear, but it was all really good. It reminded me a bit of a 1930s or 1940s Western, I can’t remember what. It wasn’t quite as good as the second piece!

What did you think of that, the Bartók?

I really liked the bits of impending doom, but it was also contrasted with light moments. When you’ve got a night where you’re reading the words it makes it very obvious what the composer is trying to do. It’s a like a piece of art with the audio describing the tour.

Would you go again?

Yeah, definitely. It would be a great place to take a date!

Verdict: SUCCESS

You can read Arcana’s review of the whole Prom here – and you can listen to it on the BBC iPlayer