Friday, 13 May 2016

PREVIEW: Prestigious Double Concerto Series with Tamsin Waley-Cohen – Forum Theatre, Malvern (Wednesday, 25 May 2016, at 19:45)

Selected by Birmingham’s Town Hall Symphony Hall as the British nomination for the prestigious European Concert Hall Organisation’s Rising Stars programme in the 2016/17 season, Tamsin has been described by The Times as a violinist “who held us rapt in daring and undaunted performances” and by The Guardian as a performer of “fearless intensity”.

Certainly not just once in a lifetime – but, nonetheless, remarkably infrequently – an artist crosses your path who completely redefines your definition of the possible. Such occurrences, therefore, rise easily to the surface of your mind, unbidden; and, in my case, can be counted on the fingers of one hand:

  • Maurizio Pollini playing Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces as an encore at the Edinburgh Festival…. These pieces suddenly emerged, butterfly-like, from their atonal cocoon, as the most beautiful ever written. (I was on the front row, trying not to cry. Having just learned to play them – yet not in any way like this… – it felt like the most personal of messages.)
  • My much-missed friend, Michael Rippon, shredding every sinew in his body (and mine) – stretching his Rembrandt-like features, and remarkably sonorous voice, to the limits (and possibly beyond) – projecting (the also much-missed) Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King with such savage, yet empathetic intensity, accompanied by the composer’s own group, The Fires of London. I had not known that music could be made to do this: to transcend the bounds of theatre and emotional evisceration. Never before or since has such a work hurt so much… – and yet delighted me with its commitment and originality.
  • Marin Alsop unleashing the full powers of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Elgar’s Second Symphony. I was sat behind the brass and percussion. The balance was therefore so very wrong. But, finally, finally, I knew that this was how this greatest of symphonies must be performed. (That I got a hug from Alsop, subsequently, for weeping from first bar to last, only reinforces the memory, of course. But she is the only conductor I know – apart from David – who personally thanks every single member of the orchestra, afterwards: wandering the stage with a smile and that sincere personal touch.)
  • Finally, of course, I have to mention David again… – but with the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra – digging hard and deep into the very heart of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony…

…the brass-less Largo, which “is the work’s emotional core” – “one of the most despairing pieces of music ever written, a memorial for Mother Russia and all those sent to the labour camps”…. I think it is as close to the surface, and as close as you can get, to reading Shostakovich’s true intent: his fear and agonized despondency – even his hatred….
     All I need write is that I closed my eyes; and let the music immerse me in the inevitable purity of sorrow; the inescapable sobs gently washing and wracking my face…. The pace was perfect; as were the dynamics. I will jump to the end, therefore, and just say that those concluding ethereal harmonics from the harp are tough enough – for both audience and orchestra – without the following building Blitzkrieg chord from the full forces of the brass, woodwind and timpani which set off that last, knife-twisting lurch toward death. Thankfully, Curtis paused.

There is one singular moment, though, missing from the above list. And it was transitory – not even any real sort of performance… – just a few glowing notes:

And then it gets really serious. We have a break – an opportunity to relax; or to stay on stage, and repeat those tricky bits. Also, Tamsin – tonight’s soloist in the Tchaikovsky; and OOTS Associate Artist – arrives; and brings yet another smile to the assembly of collegiate happiness; as well as the unique, stunning, soul-piercing sound of that 1721 ex-Fenyves Stradivarius violin, repeating phrases of the concerto as plangent, almost ferocious, warm-up exercises….

I have never been a massive fan of the solo violin repertoire. (My instrument is the piano: its repository of wonder therefore comes first; closely followed by the haunting tenors of bassoon and cello.)

Those pieces therein that I truly love betray more my adoration of their composers: Elgar’s under-appreciated, glistening sonata, and (in the composer’s own words) “awfully emotional” concerto; Bach’s sublime Concerto for Two Violins; and, of course, Vaughan Williams’ transcendental The Lark Ascending – although, until I first heard Tamsin play this with the Orchestra of the Swan, I have to admit to considering it a little trite – probably because of its massive popularity and outward beauty. (I am such a snob.)

There is, of course, so much more to this work than that sweet veneer: and The Guardian, with its depiction of Tamsin’s “fearless intensity”, is probably the key to unlocking it. For someone so young (from my grey-bearded perspective), her emotional maturity astonishes – as does her transparent technique. That she converted me (albeit with a little help from David and OOTS), also, to an enthusiast for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, is nothing short of miraculous!

If I had to sum up the performance in two words – one for the soloist, one for the orchestra – they would be ‘ferocity’ and ‘balance’….
     Waley-Cohen brings both ferocious intelligence and emotion to the stage. The first movement, in particular, was one of great contrast: with both incredible power and gauze-like delicacy on display. In the Andante, she then demonstrated a lyrical sensibility second to none. Her communication with – and obvious admiration of – the orchestra came into its own, though, in the final Allegro vivacissimo. Her rapport with Curtis was also quite staggering….
     She is never afraid to play quietly: knowing that the orchestra’s large numbers are no indication of its transcendent accompanying subtlety. She is also willing to become an integral part of their limpid texture – an equal member – when necessary; and the joy she displayed – inbetween all that praiseworthy fireworks and tracery – when observing them at work, I believe demonstrates both generosity and a keen appreciation of their skills.
     Thus a work I had never really admired before now spoke volumes: its flow insinuating itself deep within me. This was a great, very special, utterly exceptional performance. And the rapturous reception said so much more than any of my words ever can.

One of the other violin pieces I am rapidly beginning to take to heart is – and you can, of course, blame this on the composer again – Vaughan Williams’ startling, Stravinskyesque, “oh-too-rarely-aired” Violin Concerto in D minor. This is the remaining half of the “only two pieces for the solo violin and orchestra [composed] during his lifetime… written in 1925 when Vaughan Williams was fifty-three years of age. While The Lark Ascending is frequently performed all over the world, the Violin Concerto in D Minor is little known in the repertoire and is rarely played today…” – which is incredibly disappointing (and not a little sad).

Unlike [the] concertos of Bartok and Prokofiev, the [concerto] is not a virtuosic piece, yet it gives us a chance to inhale a full scent of the twentieth century’s violin concerto repertoire. This exhaustive coverage of various styles from different periods is especially appealing….
     In many ways, [it] exemplifies a model of Vaughan Williams’ instrumental compositional style at a particular moment of the twentieth century. It is an eclectic work, a compactly-formed mixture of neo-classicism, folk-dance rhythms, and triadic harmony. As aptly articulated by James Day, “[Vaughan Williams] grafted of new stock on to old stems with an English musical language.”

I described Tamsin as “blasting superbly (and thoughtfully – if that’s not a contradiction in terms)” through this, on her superb recording with OOTS. And I’m confident you can expect the same at Malvern!

She will be finishing the evening with Mendelssohn’s famous Violin Concerto in E minor – the concert beginning with his Incidental Music to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – neither of which really needs an introduction or analysis from me! However, you can see Tamsin talking – with great delight – about the former on YouTube; and the following review, by Richard Bratby, gives a strong flavour of the intense quality (and, perhaps, epiphany) you will experience on the night:

When Tamsin Waley-Cohen came on to play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Curtis and the OOTS were at the top of their game: ardent, poetic, and keenly responsive to Waley-Cohen’s fantastical, gorgeously-coloured solo performance. Waley-Cohen doesn’t just produce a radiant, singing tone when letting the melody stream out – though she certainly did that, shaping Mendelssohn’s opening solo like a song without words, and inflecting it with little portamenti and tiny, natural touches of rubato.
     But she makes a gloriously warm and eloquent sound at the quietest dynamics, too. As the slow movement ended she seemed to weave golden tracery against the woodwind’s twilit chords. And throughout, she played as if she had something intimate and wholly sincere to communicate. It’s unreservedly good news that, as the OOTS’s Associate Artist, we’ll be hearing a lot more of Tamsin Waley-Cohen this season.

(Photographs by Patrick Allen)

Thursday, 5 May 2016

PREVIEW: A Scandinavian Serenade – Birmingham Town Hall (Wednesday, 11 May 2016, at 14:30)

Adapted from a review of the same programme at Stratford ArtsHouse (2 December 2015).

Billed as “a serenade with a Scandinavian flavour and a Shakespearean twist”, this is a concert which, on the surface, seems devoted to the warm sun of encroaching summer… – and yet isn’t afraid to probe what hides in the resultant shadows; or even stay outside when the clouds roll over and threaten to burst.

All of the Grieg pieces – the famous, ecstatic, opening Holberg Suite; the Watchman’s Song, from Macbeth; and his Two Elegiac Melodies – are sensationally full of life (replete with its ups and downs). Here is a composer who wrote a lot more wonderful (and sometimes darker) stuff than just his famed piano concerto; and it seems that the more intimate the setting, the greater his power. In other words: music perfectly suited to David and his merry band of minstrels (above, in rehearsal). Playing Grieg plays to their innate strengths… – so expect an inspiring, luminous, resonant clarity that only comes from such chamber-compactness: each line, each texture, audible; each dynamic, each measure, “tight and yare”.

Of all his pieces, here, I think The Last Spring – the second of the Two Elegiac Melodies – may be my favourite. As Christopher Morley – who will be taking part, with David, in the pre-concert discussion, What’s the Score? (at 13:30) – writes in the programme notes:

The poet see the winter snows melting, and nature burgeoning in the new season. But will this be the last spring he will ever see? In which case there is immense gratitude for the life he has lived, but a greater sadness for it passing.

There are some eerie, yet thrilling, icy sul ponticello moments (above), in the violins, at the centre of this, that – with unusual, long, drawn-out bowing – chill the heart. And, although officially a ‘miniature’, I believe the piece should be treated with the same reverence and import as any great slow movement of any great symphony. I find all of the Grieg beautiful (I used to spend whole days repeatedly playing his piano pieces and arrangements) – “movements that… range from the tender to the jaunty”, as David writes – and in many different ways: but this elegy is earth-shattering, tear-inducing, nails-dug-into-the-palms-of-your-hands grief writ large – especially when played by an ensemble with such power: both in sound, and in effect. Mesmerising, gripping, stuff. And all in slow-motion. (You may need to take an extra handkerchief with you!)

However, if you don’t already know it, I am sure that Sibelius’ Suite for Violin and String Orchestra in D minor will be the major revelation of the afternoon. Prior to hearing this for the first time, I must admit that I was not a fan of the composer: probably because my prejudiced (and somewhat superficial) impression (at least from the symphonies) was of someone who orchestrated in discrete chunks of sound – wodges of woodwind; blocks of brass; slabs of strings – without much layering, much interweaving. (Give me Nielsen’s bruising symphonies, any day!)

Scoring for strings, though, is an uncompromising (I was going to write ‘stringent’) art – with very little room for carelessness – everything is highly visible. Maybe it’s just my maturing love for smaller musical groupings: but Sibelius pulls it off neatly and superbly – this is so much less ‘lush’ than much of his other music. In fact, it’s a rare little capsule of rapture – as crisp and fresh as a newly-harvested iceberg lettuce!

It turns out that, although it was written in 1929 – “his last opus numbered work” – this supposedly “non consequential” piece wasn’t first performed until 1990 (and “not discovered until 25 years after the composer’s death”): so finding much information on it (apart from in the concert’s programme notes) is quite difficult. I did find this, however – which sums it up very nicely (almost)!

The Suite is in three movements…. Its gentle intent is proclaimed by the pastoral movement titles: Country Scenery; Evening in Spring; In the Summer. These are unassumingly warm mezzotints with a gentle inclination…. Little echoes of other works (often written later) do intrude. After the first two movements in which you can imagine a blend of Rakastava, The Lark Ascending and Finzi’s Introit comes a perpetuum mobile flying along like an ingratiating wasp…. The whole suite plays less than eight minutes.

Although I had the word ‘neoclassical’ on the tip of my tongue, my more detailed take on it is… First movement: ‘folksy’ – but in a good way…! The second ‘rhapsodic’ movement has echoes not only of Vaughan Williams; but, melodically, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro; with a tiny hint of Tippett (the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, perhaps) right at the very end. This is the only movement – in its central section – that actually reminds me (as in the quotation above) of Sibelius himself – but, for me, the violin concerto. The final Vivace movement looks incredibly virtuosic on paper – it features fantastic, energetic, elbow-knackering bowing – yet David Le Page, here the violin soloist (above), I am sure, will make it look oh-so simple, as per usual. Don’t expect that “wasp”, though – maybe a charming honey-bee, instead: enjoying a hot day in the glowing light of the late afternoon; flitting seamlessly; searching for the most perfect flowers! And, oh, that ending. Just as said bee finds nectar….

Why this is not a more famous work, I have no clue. It has made me revisit my obviously-deluded opinion of Sibelius; and pay more attention to his more well-known works. But, even if this was the only thing he had written – and it is a very late piece – it should have left him listed with all the other great names of his era. Startlingly sublime.

And so to the last – for me, once problematical – piece: Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings. Until I experienced this music performed by OOTS, I’d never really got on with it. In fact, I’d always considered the whole thing just a tad trite; and listening to it like overdosing on a trifle of neatness.

To digress (and avoid the subject) for a moment: Google informs me that a ‘serenade’ is “a piece of music sung or played in the open air, typically by a man at night under the window of his beloved”. To ‘serenade’ – as you will be, this afternoon… – is to “entertain (someone) with a serenade”. 

Although usage of the word ‘serenade’ peaked in the 1940s (in English, anyway), I always think of the late nineteenth century as its golden age: with not only Dvořák (op.22; 1875), but Tchaikovsky (op.48; 1880) and Elgar (op.20; 1892), all rapidly producing melodious, welcoming (yet heartfelt) works for string orchestra – the apotheosis of Gemütlichkeit – which still form the foundations of its repertoire. (Add the 1884 Holberg Suite, op.40, which launches the afternoon’s programme – into the mix: and there’s your proof!)

The OOTS performance, as you will have guessed, won me over… – although I was listening even harder than usual! A later thorough read-through of the pages of the score revealed much more complexity and authority than I had initially assumed. And, against my will (somewhat), I have to report that I was truly “entertained” by what David (Curtis, above) has described as “intimate music for friends”. Admittedly, this is not in any way a mature work: Dvořák wrote it when he was only 33, with a young family – and, supposedly, in less than a fortnight! But it does contain the seeds of the greatness that was to follow.

“One of his most idyllic works”, it contains some wonderful melodies, cleverly constructed harmonies and rhythms… – and yet, the reliance on an A‑B‑A structure for each movement does mean that I still find it a little episodic in nature.

The first movement (above) takes us back to the Grieg, emotionally (therefore forming wonderful, tuneful bookends for the afternoon) – with a most wonderful peak climbed effortlessly just before it ends. Although no fan of waltzes, the second movement – a little Chopin-like? – feels as if it advances in torrents of joy. (David’s “friends” have made time for each other – happy and relaxed in each other’s company: just like the orchestra.) And there is a moment in the central Trio where the violins play sul G, and the cellos build beneath them, which is eye-popping. (The advantage of such a small ensemble is the clarity of every single line; every single instrument.) The orchestration here is masterful: creating lucid structures from split parts; and building to something angry, rather than ecstatic (again, with subtle hints of Elgar).

The Scherzo that follows is reminiscent, again, fleetingly, of the Grieg – especially in its migration from light to dark (here come the thunderclouds): although the middle section is about as “playful” as the same movement in Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. There is also some wonderful, cross-threading counterpoint; along with a handful of wonderful, organic tempo changes; and the ppp at the end of the ritenuto is so quiet – watch out for David characteristically holding his finger to his lips… – you may well wonder if you are imagining it…. And then another beautiful ‘hold’, before the cellos resume with a quietly confident pizzicato figure. Charm with a capital ‘C’. Then moving into mixed periods of mournful cogitation and exultant joy; before an explosion as the movement ends. Hope is regained!

The following Larghetto carries with it an air of resignation – and is far too short, for me, as a slow movement. There are echoes of one of the waltz themes woven throughout: somehow amplifying the expressiveness of the main descending melody. As the pace gathers, though, it becomes characteristically Dvořák – his gift for melody (not unlike Brahms’) shining through. Here comes the sun again…! And yet the clouds return with the recapitulation of that falling cry, before yet another build; before fading to silence. Another hush; and a perfect harmonic in the first violins that should resonate almost beyond hearing.

The Finale: Allegro vivace rushes by in a tuneful blur. Suggestions of Bohemian folksong; touches of Elgar and maybe Tippett, again; but an urgency that hasn’t seemed present before. A warm hint in the cellos of the previous movement; and the orchestra comes together for some truly glorious music. Somehow, yet, there is a hesitation. The opening theme of the first movement returns, gently, urgently; but then confidence is renewed. And there is one perfectly-controlled last rush to the emphatic end (below). What a perfect finish!