Saturday, 15 January 2011

Stand-Off at Purcell Room

Soloists must bare themselves to the audience and perform without the safety of the music stand. Crowds appreciate the danger, performances intensify, communication becomes more direct, phrasing is freed. Learning lines, after all, is only what actors do. And music is language, albeit of a heightened form. Dump your stands, all ye who would be kings.  

The Park Lane Group Concerts use the intimate modern cube of the Purcell Room at London’s South Bank Centre to present selected international performers to an audience of music writers, composers, impresarios, intellectuals, know-alls, eccentrics and fellow performers. The two artists who have made the biggest impact this week both have the courage to face these daunting judges without the security of the notes.

The first is the 22-year-old guitarist Manus Noble who perches on a piano stool and touches out the harmonics at the start of Bruce MacCombie’s Nightshade Rounds with nonchalant confidence. His playing acts like a potion and we are hooked. No sound comes from the mechanics of his technique, no scrapes and clicks from the activity of playing. We hear only the clean notes. He vibratoes through the frets and watches his own immaculate fingers scurrying like spiders across the strings.

With no music to collect, Noble doesn’t even leave the stage, barely shifts position except modestly to bow, before the world premiere of Darren Bloom’s THREE. Its three-time opening based on a three note motif, eventually expanding into a three-part work, sets the Bach-like tone. Having internalised the score, Noble becomes one with it, alone in his spotlight, absorbing the energy in the Hall. The birth of a new work produced in these sacred conditions is special and the acclaim here is immediate.

The interval interrupts, but it is the same handsome star who takes the stage again. He plays the mellow repeats and echoes of Philip Cashian’s Talvi and the deceptively casual rhythmic busker chords, jazz snaps, open strums and body taps of Ginastera’s Guitar Sonata Op47 which loves the instrument. On this evidence, Noble must be the next big name in classical guitar.

The second exciting new prospect to emerge is Alexander Soares, a London based pianist of extraordinary technical skill and phenomenal memory. The tolling ritornello chords in Martin Butler’s Funerailles have jubilant, summon-all resonance under his rigid fingers. He disappears to dab his brow, but returns immediately beaming to give the UK premiere of Indian composer Naresh Sohal’s Prayer. The first of two parts treads gently with a sad snatch of melody seemingly from the music hall song ‘Won’t you come home Bill Bailey’. A sense of longing attends his touch. The second calls for right-hand triplets of breathtaking speed over low left-hand pile-driving chords like wild and urgent supplications.

Soares’ great achievement however is his account of Henri Dutilleux’s Piano Sonata, written in 1947. He renders its charming Gallic tune in the Allegro with a shrugging bounce and cannot resist the jazz in its syncopations. Freed from the tyranny of the stand, he sniffs the theme in the air in the lyrical second movement Lied and dwells long, cuddling the juicy harmonies. In the last, he dazzles with a powerful statement of the choral and launches into mighty variations, bouncing on the upholstered seat. He slips a couple of times in the coda’s cascades and his final gestures could be grander, but the sense of having been on the most thrilling and exhaustive journey.

The pianist Jennifer Lee plays every piece from the score except, ironically, Judith Weir’s I’ve Turned the Page. She has a sprightly spontaneity in its high arpeggios. She looks up at the notes while leaning awkwardly on her left arm, like relaxing at the bar, to depress the keys at the start of Roxburgh’s Prelude and Toccata. She has an impressive technique that enables her to play at any volume with the same amount of hand movement. 

The recorder virtuoso Francesca Thompson also performs from behind a barrier of stands. Her big hit piece is Ned McGowan’s Workshop for Alto Recorder and Tape which features industrial wheezes, slams, door creaks and windscreen wipers against her cool, resigned blowing and it wins laughter from the PLG crowd, but the novelty in other pieces wears off with her hidden. She plays the Paetzold square bass, an odd contraption that looks and sounds put together by a four-year-old

Ensembles are not bound by the same criteria and there is only one group currently working where all the members are expected to perform by heart (the Zehetmair Quartet).  The Lakeside Piano Trio warms to Frank Bridge’s Piano Trio No2 so that its ending is as powerful as anything heard this week. They play Camden Reeves' Starlight Squid which is based on the plainchant Ave Maris Stella. The composer says he first heard this theme rendered by Peter Maxwell Davies in whose honour the picture of the costume journalist nude begins this blog. The St James Wind Quintet play Robin Holloway's Five Temperaments with colourful brilliance despite a slight horn burble. They give an entertaining performance of Giles Swayne's programmatic and humorous The Murder of Gonzago, a scene from Shakespeare's Hamlet, to end an unforgettable concert. 


Thursday, 13 January 2011

Comic Strip

I feel in good company as the baritone John Savournin starts to remove his clothes on the second night of the Park Lane Group (PLG) concerts. He is performing, with pianist James Young, Alison Bauld’s Where should Othello Go?, a setting of a speech from Act V of Shakespeare’s play. Desdemona is dead and Othello’s journey ended. Hence Savournin’s disrobing – though he stops after his bow-tie and short of his shirt. He wails Desdemona’s name for grief and the Purcell Room cools like a tomb.

Savournin is an exceptional talent. Though his voice is modest and just occasionally flat – his unaccompanied ‘Othello go’ misses the target of the ensuing piano note - he knows how to make a poem live. He brings out the deathly melancholy of the Edward Thomas sequence To the Borders of Sleep in world premiere settings by composer Philip Grange and enacts with impressive timing the comic boredom of the Lavinia Greenlaw cycle Slow Passage Low Prospect set by Richard Baker. Savournin is greatly helped by his collaborant pianist James Young whose hands are light or heavy as required.

Their tour de force is the finale Meet the Indefatigable John Taylor to a new score by  Young. Taylor was a contemporary of Shakespeare, a Thames ferryman and prolific wordsmith known as The Water Poet. He lived in Southwark’s Bankside , complained frequently of the arrogant actors, or ‘roaring boys’ who failed to tip him properly and left an amusing account of a boozy dinner party at which his neighbour, the playwright John Fletcher was present.  Young’s selection is of nonsense verse including three rhyming sonnets, lines ‘written in the Barbarian tongue dropt out of a Negroes pocket’ and an alphabetical list of ‘authors mentioned within this worke’ which Savournin intones like Rowan Atkinson taking the register.   

The stage swaps the baritone for the Fournier Piano Trio. They give the world premiere of Daniel Kidane’s Flux and Stasis  which seems to describe them as they sway vertiginously while nailed to their seats. Flux is easy, while stasis is a violin note with the steady, transfixing intensity of a dentist’s drill over the cellist’s almost motionless string tickling.

They are a sombre group, their deadpan faces giving away little emotion. They perform the world premiere of Timothy Salter’s Piano Trio and win two kisses and a handshake from the composer, beaming in contrast. He will have been thrilled by the colours produced by the fiddlers, their bows drawing eerie tone from below the bridge against the piano’s shadowing chords. In the elegiac second movement, they resemble a coven of witches slowly, rhythmically stirring the music in a cauldron.

In the earlier concert, the Idomeneo String Quartet bend low to their music stands like story-tellers round a fire and give a mostly engrossing performance of Simon Rowland-Jones’s String Quartet No3, though the waltz at its heart doesn’t quite flow as a waltz might. They balance it with Shostakovich’s Ninth in E flat Op117, whose own waltz they drill with hard pizzicato playing, like stilettos on the parquet, against a hard, whining cello and viola. Confrontation characterises their play. An aggressive Russian dance breaks out before the pent up anger of the second of two adagios and the jaunty, careless mood of the finale like an unsubtle strip-tease. 

The standard is very high this year and about to get higher.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

No Bull

I show up fully clothed at the Park Lane Group concerts, which are as old as I am, at the Purcell Room in London’s South Bank Centre. The twice-nightly shows at 6.15pm (one foregoes one’s tea) and 7.45pm run for a week and comprise the best mini-series in London. The performers are young and so is the music. Most of the composers are alive and some attend, bounding on to the stage to kiss, shake hands with or embrace their interpreters.

Cellophony, an octet of cellists, seven of them male, begin. They sit in an arc and the different woods of their bellies blend with the panelling. Their rich, muscular hum gives life to Adam Gorb’s Into the Light as air inflates a balloon. The concert, nay the whole series, lifts off and we float on the warm dissonance of resonant cluster chords. The last is a long-held ninth dedicated to the half-century of the composer who thanks each player personally.

This sound has a soul. The synchronised bowing actions of the players make of the group a single organism. The rhythms and jagged harmonies of Boulez’s Messagesquisse (for seven cellos – one disappears) create a strange mesmeric dance while opposite cellists balance in Richard Birchall’s playful Mirrors (the absentee returns, taking the soloist’s chair) which receives its world premiere. Birchall is both composer and founder-cellist. His witty work explores glissandi as pure as swannee whistles, oscillations and symmetrical patterns.

The virtue of song is the airing of poetry. Soprano Rhona McKail and pianist Yshani Perinpanayagam introduce us to verse by the Polish Nobel Prize-winning poetess Wislawa Szymborska set to music by Joe Cutler and beautifully translated by an unstated linguist. In Praise of Dreams is succinct and funny. The composer captures its dry humour in a modest, understated realisation, but in Nothing’s a Gift, he sends McKail to extremes, where her tone is thin, strained even, and less appealing. In Elegiac Conditions, the duo collaborate as equals when Perinpanayagam adds a spectral spoken part. McKail’s French is excellent in the Jean-Aubry poems, her German less so in Heine, both to unexpectedly contemporary music by Lord Berners. Her best singing is in the Thomas Hardy settings by Charlotte Bray. ‘She wore a new terra cotta dress’ she sings as the opening line of A Thunderstorm. She has one on herself. 

Their sets are broken by Spanish pianist Néstor Bayona Pifarré whose amazing touch is best demonstrated in Cristobal Halffter’s Cadencia which opens with 16 different ways of playing the same note with a single finger. He is like a masseur as he kneads the keyboard, now pounding, now caressing, now tickling, now combining with his foot in touching the string lightly with the damper pedal, emitting faint, shiny harmonics. In Simon Holt’s Tauromaquia he interprets the goring of a toreador in playing of bestial passion and violence. He dedicates the performance to the recent banning of bullfighting in Catalonia, a significant and historic event ignored by most newscasters. The PLG concerts have a feel for what is really important.    

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Costume Journalist Bares All

A Rome-based reader takes the trouble to send me a costume she believes to have been worn by John Cage and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. It arrives in a surprisingly small, light package and yet, as anyone who loves the music of these composers can see in the picture (right), it is a deceptively, elaborate skin-tight garment, the velvet is of transparently good quality and the stitching very fine, if not invisible, in some places. Indeed, it is so comfortable, one hardly notices one is wearing it.

My wife advises against wearing it to the European Chamber Music Academy (ECMA) concert at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday afternoon, however. She says it would be sure to divert attention from the performers, the Quatuor Zaide, who are very focused on Zemlinsky's Fourth Quartet of 1936, composed in response to the death of Alban Berg. Like the latter's Lyric Suite, it has six dance-like movements.

There is a momentary fumble as the slow opening chord finds its tonal centre, but once the first violin arrives, the work proceeds with solemn purpose. The players perform with a sense of ritual in their slow arms and faces as if praying. They are determined to impress; their bows are bold and the pizzicati in the Burleske flash like sparks. The effect is gripping. The Adagietto resumes the Praeludium's magical floating stillness while the Intermezzo is more furious than merely lively or belebt as the score directs. Perhaps this is a climax too soon as the cellist now plays alone the opening of the Theme and Variations and calms the crowd like a priestess. The instruments follow the tortuous logic of the twisted tune as it meanders round the parts and rise to heights of passion and absorption in the double fugue finale.

The four young females comprising the multiple prize-winning Quatuor Zaide are taught by Hatto Beyerle, founder-violist in 1960 of the Alban Berg and, in 2004, progenitor of the ECMA. The Academy, which has no base as such, operates as a perfecting school for already established student ensembles and the Wigmore series, paid for by a benefactor, is an opportunity to showcase the ECMA's work. Those who were there will not forget the name quickly.

'I don't teach interpretation,' says Beyerle, watching his protegees from a modest seat in the side-aisle. 'I'm not here to impose myself. The students are encouraged to see music as language and philosophy. What emerges are their own ideas.'  

The spell cast by the Quatuor Zaide is replaced by the joie-de-vivre of the Arcadia Quartet of Romania. They take the stage rather more heavily than the sylph-like Zaides. Their chairs creak. But the pudgy fingers of the first violin fly over the fingerboard with astonishing speed and lightness as he immaculately dispatches the triplets in the finale of Haydn's Emperor Quartet Op76 No3. The second violin matches him and, with knowing half-smiles, the pair vie for supremacy. This sense of fun begins in the first movement with the cellist's and violist's grinding hurdy-gurdy pedal notes supporting the jaunty theme.

The hall is contented, pliant and willing now to be charmed by the dainty grace-notes of the minuet or lulled by the tearful serenity of the slow movement theme. Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, one hears in one's head as its sad loyalty takes hold. It's the German national anthem with all its emotional baggage and it wells up like a haunting echo of past beauty and horror. Haydn's flattery of the Emperor doesn't lie, doesn't tell him his flabby, naked form is really apparelled in ermine. The theme is a true statement about the melancholy nature of kingship and the inexplicable love which subjects sometimes have for those who preside over states. 

I emerge thrilled by the concert and immediately write a note to The Strad magazine to see if they will buy a story on Beyerle's ECMA. Zaide played with the greater intensity, but Arcadia more joy. We are certain to hear more of both.

CD Review
Singers Fail to Act

Linn Records, Label of the Year at the Gramophone Awards 2010, sends me a new recording of Dr Thomas Arne’s two-hour, three-act opera Artaxerxes, given by The Classical Opera Company under Ian Page. It elucidates only in part how this particular show managed to command a London audience for nearly 60 years following its premiere at Covent Garden on 2 February 1762.

The plot is as preposterous as any. The sons and daughters of both an assassin and his royal victim are in love with each other. The murderer deflects blame by accusing his own offspring, which upsets all previous loyalties. The music is incomplete: few of the recitatives have survived, so Page composes plausible, safe but dull new ones to the extant texts. These are rather lumpy translations by Arne of Metastasio’s 1730 Italian original, set by everyone from Gluck to Hasse.

Most of the singers are too reliant on their excellent voices of conveying the drama. They stun with vocal prowess over Arne’s seemingly endless melodic invention – soprano Elizabeth Watts pings out the top Cs in the concluding air to Act I, Fly Soft Ideas - but they fail to feel the story, however ludicrous, and the recording drags until tenor Daniel Norman enters as the murderer’s sidekick with an ironic glint to his recit and a comic edge in his first air, When real joy we miss / Tis some degree of bliss (Arne’s doggerel at its worst). The girls wake up; Watts finds an angry snarl in Monster Away, soprano Rebecca Bottone assumes a breathless flightiness now buffeted by fast-moving events. Mezzo Caitlin Hulcup as the accused discovers dark pathos in Why is Death, a short aria typifying almost all those written for Act III in which an opening couplet culminates in a singer’s exciting long-held note. This seems to be Arne’s formula after ditching the old Baroque da capo aria as Gluck had advocated the previous year in his operatic reforms.

Counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie in the title role, meanwhile, has rare, resonant low notes, but never really persuades us that he is wrestling with his conscience. Tenor Andrew Staples as the regicide has a fine, sleepy legato, but is bereft of any sense of villainy. His part offers a plum chance to act evil, but he shuns it. It is the cast’s failure fully to inhabit their characters’ roles, which does for the recording. The number of settings alone accounts for this story’s popularity with audiences, but the cast here render it bland until too late. The band is rich with interest in its variety of wind, including early cooing clarinets, narrow-bore horns and trumpets bursting with impatience after waiting two hours for their entry. At least it ends with a roar.