Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Dead are Gone

Friday 22nd July
The bollard shrine outside the Royal Albert Hall has been removed. Death is not something to clutter up the pavements. The living queued last night to hear Britain's oldest orchestra, The Halle conducted by Sir Mark Elder.  It was founded in 1858 by the German pianist and conductor Charles Halle who moved to Manchester and stayed.

They began with Sibelius' Scenes Historiques Suite No2. The orchestra was chamber-sized, the strings and wind fitting the stage while a female timpanist stood alone on the third shelf up. She began the overture with a heavy pounding into the nervous energy of excited strings and ended it with a soft pattering which won etiquette-busting applause. The overture was part of a suite, silly. Harps began and horns ended the following love song. The strings' pizzicato was a gentle guitar in the finale.

There is no danger of an early clap in Sibelius' Symphony No7 as the movements are fused together.  The orchestra grew by a trombone section and switched timpanists. It was a bloke up there now. The music surged up a slow rising scale towards the trombones' heroic theme which filled the auditorium like a broadside. Elder worked the players as if he were pumping bellows. They have blossomed under his dedicated tutelage. Word gets round. The prommers were wedged upright into the arena.

The orchestra grew by a grand piano for Bartok's Piano Concerto No3, played by Andras Schiff who took charge with a wave of his hand, conducting himself in. The awkward lengths of the Magyar folk phrases made sense under his flapping mits and the modal harmony confirmed to the crowd that the people's art could be sublime. Birds filled the hall in the serene Adagio religioso, the woodwind marking out their territory in short bursts, while Schiff looked about him snatching at their fleeting calls with answers of his own from the keyboard. They flew and he pinged a high note like a counter bell while the tam-tam spread soundwaves at the climax with a single soft strike.

A line of twelve brass players filed on for Janacek's Sinfonietta. They sat on the top deck apart from the orchestra and stood to blow their flashing, sinew-stiffening fanfare. The strings responded with thrilled chatter, muted trombones growled like muzzled dogs, and the harp, which had been silent since the Sibelius opener, sprayed a shower of notes into the hall like stardust.

The line of brasses fanfare twice, sandwiching a brief symphony. In the Andante, forlorn in Elder's rolling arms, sad strings sang over the pure line of a tuba pedal. Bright, nimble orchestra trumpets brazened their own lop-sided reveille before the final Andante moved in with a silver javelin of flutes gashing the orchestra and an animated clarinettist rocked in her seat over Elder's propulsive con moto beat.     

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Long queues of prommers risking the rain indicate it's Rite of Spring Nite. The bassoonist of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (OPRF or backwards, like most French acronyms, for the English version: French Radio Philharmonic Orchestra FRPO) has no white rim on his funnel so he is difficult to spot getting nervous. He has to wait a long time for the post-interval fidgeting to stop, but his tone is cool and clear as he summons the dawn of the world. The Dances of the Young Girls is quick under Myung Whun Chung's direction. The conductor anticipates the beat, his slick gestures always a fraction ahead, like a bus drawing a cyclist along in its slipstream. The Abduction is savage - the Parisians' who rioted at the premiere in 1913 understood the music all too well. Stravinsky, like Freud, reveals uncomfortable primal instincts. The grinding depths of the Spring Rounds churn up the same murky urges and the roaring timps that bring in the wailing tutti are sweaty and muscular.

In Part Two,  the slow, tantalising Mystic Circles of Young Girls turns the atmosphere steamy. The Parisians know about this: the scandal of the Rite of Spring is their history. The Glorification of the Chosen One brings on the fiery struggles of bars with constantly changing tempi and flashing half-
beat syncopations across the page-long score. With the Evocation of the Ancestors it is a relief to return to homophony as the musicians agree to venerate the past in regular measures and vertical chords. The Ritual Action of the Ancestors which follows, dances coyly with a sensuous, snaking, coarse-toned cor anglais. In the Chosen One, Chung is a boxer beating the air with jabs and jerks as the thrashing races to its burst bubble conclusion and a lone woman getting a 'bravo!' in before the clappers. show their prolonged appreciation.   

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Outside the Royal Albert Hall, a street shrine has attached itself to a bollard. Sadly, the bouquets have decayed and been mistaken for a rubbish dump. Among the dead flowers and discarded takeaway cartons lies a poignant note addressed to Nemo: 'I will always remember you. The times you made me laugh and happy. I wish you can come back.' No other clues remain as to the departed's identity. Nemo is Latin for Nobody.

Inside the hall, BBC musicians perform the Glagolitic Mass by the Czech composer Janacek, a compatriot of the conductor Jiri Belohlavek. I think of Nemo when the chorus sings 'he shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead'. It gives the work a purpose.

On Sunday, I am present for the performance of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony. The opening statement is a pounding minor third like the Jaws motif. A leviathan is on the way. The monster choir of 600-plus singers ponders the ominous marches, the sunny folk themes, the thin, plaintive solo violin and the grinding full-score atonements for war of the first three movements, before singing, children's choirs first, the Te Deum. The unaccompanied stretches are magnificent particularly in the Judex crederis (We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge), which contains no other words, yet lasts more than a quarter of an hour. The choirs rub against each other in thrilling, organised dissonance. Their stands and sits are a little ragged and their ensemble sometimes imperfect, which robs the evening a little of impact, but the sound of massed humanity shakes me to the core with its fortissismo bel canto. By contrast the lone voice of soprano Susan Gritton from obscure parts of the hall is no less impressive in its soaring legato. I shall not forget the enormously vulgar appeal of six timpanists stationed around the hall belting their kettle drums in furious counter-rhythms before the vast choir's final pianissimo and incredibly touching plea, 'Non cunfundar' - let me never be confounded. 

Monday, 11 July 2011

Bastille Day Fireworks

To Wigmore Hall where the Brook Street Band have hitched their French Baroque programme to Bastille Day, decorating their literature with the tricolour. I add to the occasion by taking a French person. The four musicians perform with innocent virtuosity music from the court of Louis XV for whom the regicidal uprising was far in the future. The Ouverture of Jean-Marie Leclair’s Première Récreation Op6 is too eager in the dotted rhythms, which should tantalise, but deliciously exuberant thereafter. The two violinists, playing before a rustic backdrop painted on the harpsichord’s lid, echo each other’s courtly gestures, elegant sighing phrases and perfumed ornaments which would certainly have inflamed the guillotinistes. They touch the strings as lightly as a gay, waif-like courtier in the bourgeois three-time dances –  to move in which two-legged creatures must learn prescribed steps – which abound in hemiolas, the device which makes the waltz funky.

The string players sit out the next item, a slow dance, Rameau’s sad Entretien de Muses for harpsichord solo, played with a sense of impending sorrow by Carolyn Gilbey. Goddesses converse. The bass strings growl on the Alan Gotto copy of a 1711 Donzelague original. The gutter proletariat will soon rebel. A thoughtful mood descends on the Wigmore faithful. Art is changing. Leclair’s Sonata Op2 No8 is, perhaps for the first time, a genuine trio, with harpsichord and gamba no longer lumped together as ‘basso continuo’, but enjoying separate, individual parts.

The Ouverture to Couperin’s Huitième Concert again starts too swiftly but the fugal allegro is joy unbounded. The following movements are solo opportunities. Cellist and founder Tatty Theo plays the Loure with a liquid legato. The French companion tells me, with Republican candour, he finds the sound of ze ‘arpsichord too decadent, too eighteenth century and Leclair’s Sonata à deux violin sans basse is therefore his favourite item. Two sound like four with Leclair’s revolutionary double-stopping instructions so smoothly played.

Handel, who lives at Brook Street, looks on meanwhile from across the Channel. His Sonata Op5 No4 borrows French ideas which the Brook Street Band now deliver with the freshness and excitement of tourists on the Champs Elysees. Scales fizz along the fiddlers’ fingerboards in the Allegro, the cello sings out its revolving-door bass in the Passacaille while the others duck in and out like naughty children, and all four slip into the skipping six-eight of the gigue with the super-confident euphoria of newly freed prisoners. Vive la revolution! The Brook Street Band's records are available on the Avie label.

I give the French person a lift and in Oxford Street, we queue behind a red bus owned by the RATP Group, the French company which runs part of the Paris metro. We are as surprised as each other. 'What is British?' the French person asks. 'It seems, it didn't do much good, your winning Waterloo!' he says with impeccable grammar.