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.

James McVinnie with Bedroom Community – Royal Festival Hall, 24 September

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Arcana has just completed an extremely interesting interview with the organist James McVinnie, who is due to give a concert on the Royal Festival Hall organ along with several of his Bedroom Community colleagues on 24 September.

Bedroom Community is the family-sized Icelandic label that specialises in music where classical and pop intersect, founded as it was by Valgeir Sigurðsson, Nico Muhly and Ben Frost in 2006.

Music by all three artists can be heard in McVinnie’s concert at the RFH tomorrow night, which will be given with singers and instrumentalists from the label. It will include the premiere of Median Organs, a new piece by The National’s Bryce Dessner, written for McVinnie himself…but not the organ.

“The great thing about how Bryce and Nico write,” says McVinnie, “is that they have written pieces without indication. That means you can sit down at the organ with the notes and you are in a sense the orchestrator, which is an interesting and artistically fulfilling piece of work. Bryce has not specified the registrations he wants, but knowing his music I can relate my choices to all of that.”

You can hear and download James McVinnie playing Nico Muhly’s The Revd Mustard his Installation Prelude, which he will also play in the Festival Hall concert, below:

 

The full interview with McVinnie, in which he talks about Bedroom Community, removing organ music from its religious stigma and the overriding influence of Bach, can be read on Arcana soon.

Maurizio Pollini plays Schumann and Chopin

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© Cosimo Filippini / DG

Maurizio Pollini at Royal Festival Hall, 18 March 2015.

A solo piano recital at the Royal Festival Hall is always a special event, and if you haven’t tried it yet I thoroughly recommend the experience.

The sense of occasion such an event brings is enhanced as the soloist is hemmed in on all sides by the audience, with some on the stage and in the choir stalls behind – which is where I found myself for my first ever encounter with Maurizio Pollini.

The Italian, now in his seventies, has an illustrious recording and concert-playing career behind him. Two of the composers central to his repertoire are Schumann and Chopin, who formed one half each of this recital.

We heard Schumann first, with the brief but poetic Arabesque. This is a wonderfully romantic piece with a wistful main theme. Pollini was a bit stern with it, leaning more on the two short contrasting sections rather than indulging the main tune.

We moved on to the substantial Kreisleriana, a group of eight fantasy pieces dedicated to Chopin and inspired by the character Kreisler, in the creations of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Here Schumann alternates turbulent minor-key creations with softer, poetic major key ones. In Pollini’s hands the faster numbers threatened to disappear in a whirl of notes, the rhythms occasionally blurred, but there were moments of pure insight in the slower second and fourth pieces especially. The final piece, which to me sounds like a bird flying around in an increasingly irregular circle, was perfectly poised, leaving the audience with a sense of mystery.

For the second half Pollini brought out one of his concert staples, Chopin’s 24 Preludes – written around the same time as Kreisleriana. In just under forty minutes Chopin navigates a piece in each key, cleverly structured so that he effectively follows a ‘circle of fifths’. (In technical terms this means he moves from C major, and its relative key A minor, through G major (and its relative E minor) and so on, until travelling full circle.

This performance felt like one whole piece of 24 sections, brilliantly delivered and suitably dramatic. The centrepiece of the collection, the Raindrop prelude (no.15), epitomised Pollini’s approach by being relatively quick – while the faster preludes became thunderbolts from the blue.

Ending to a hero’s reception, Pollini generously fed us three encores, beginning with the waterfall of notes that is the Etude in C minor, Op.10/12, then moving to the relative calm of the D flat major Nocturne, Op.27/2. Then, as a handsome bonus, we had the Scherzo no.3 in C# minor, with its triumphant, Brahmsian chorale theme. After some nasty words were written about Pollini in the Spectator lately, this was the perfect riposte!

You can hear the music Maurizio Pollini played on a Spotify podcast, available here