Several newspapers have recently carried reviews of a new book presented short biographies of 8 female composers (Beer 2016). It is certainly true that female composers have suffered from misogyny, and probably still do. But the situation is more subtle than it may appear at first. The discrimination may arise because composers such as Fanny Hensel (neé Mendelssohn) wrote mostly for small-scale, intimate forms, such as lieder and solo piano. Hensel wrote no operas or concertos or symphonies, as far as I know. Since the industrial revolution our society, one could argue, has favoured the grand and the grandiose, so anyone who writes only in small forms is ignored. This is true even of male composers: Hugo Wolf, who wrote art song, is unjustly overlooked, for instance. (This bias for the big and bombastic could also be a strongly male one.) Against this argument that composers need to go large or be ignored, one could cite the case of nineteenth century French composer Louise Farrenc (pictured), who wrote symphonies and full-length chamber works (indeed, very good ones), yet still was ignored by the musical establishment. Despite her music being as good as Schumann’s or Mendelssohn’s, she still is ignored. Even Beer does not, apparently, profile her.
Hensel’s brother, Felix, was a symphonist and composer of overtures who audibly honed his technical craft writing a dozen string symphonies for the pick-up orchestra his mother assembled for the family’s weekly salon concerts each Sunday afternoon in Berlin. Very few women composers have had such an advantage, which perhaps explains something of Felix Mendelssohn’s comparative abilities. But Fanny Mendelssohn certainly had access to this resource. What explains her failure to write for it? Was it some pressure in the family, or just in herself? Did their parents, perhaps unconsciously and subtly, expect Felix to write pieces for the family salons, but not expect Fanny to do so? Was it a matter of social and class expectations of gender roles which the family had internalised? Or was Fanny simply lacking in confidence? She once wrote a song to secretly communicate her love for the man who later became her husband at a time when her parents refused to allow the pair to meet or write letters, so it seems she could disobey the spirit of any explicit family imposition, if not the letter.
Or are we looking in the wrong place entirely here? The Mendelssohns’ father and his brothers were bankers. Felix’s father took him to Paris as a teenager to meet Cherubini explicitly to assess whether the boy had a future as a composer. It is easy to imagine that his father wanted him to follow in the family bank, so perhaps Felix had to fight to get to be a composer. It was not, perhaps, that the family discouraged Fanny in particular from a career as a composer but that both children were thus discouraged, but only Felix resisted this pressure. To be honest, however, Felix’s published letters do not reveal any such discouragement from their parents.
Anna Beer : Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Oneworld, London, auK.
Until this month, the best performance of the Messiah I ever heard was in 2011, an event I recorded here. I have now heard its equal.
This latest Messiah was performed on 19 December 2014 by The BBC Singers and the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, in an arrangement by Stian Aareskjold, under David Hill (conductor), with Fflur Wyn (soprano), Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), Samuel Boden (tenor) and Mark Stone (bass), in Temple Church, as part of Temple Winter Festival.
My heart sank when I first saw that the music had been arranged for wind-band, since groups of woodwinds, so often shrill and ineffectual, are not my favourite ensembles. But in fact this version turned out to be a wonderful arrangement and was realized in a thrilling performance. The secret, I think, was that the ensemble included a double bass and cello, some marvelous natural horns and three sackbuts, and, most spectacularly, saxophones. The solo for soprano sax in “O Thou That Tellest” played by Kristin Haagensen was just superb. That solo soared, as so did the saxes on “Surely He Hath Borne our Griefs and with His Stripes we are Healed”. A modern Briton, of course, cannot easily hear baroque music played by saxophones without thinking of Michael Nyman, and, just as with his great music, this was a truly sublime experience. The trombones in “He Trusted in God” were also inspired. Mr Aareskjold should be congratulated on this arrangement, and I hope it is soon recorded.
In addition, the performance rocked, and often literally. I was sitting as close to the orchestra as I could possibly get, and even had the two baroque trumpeters between me and the orchestra for the second half – Stian Aareskjold and Torgeir Haara, who had played angelically from the organ loft in the first half. (They played from iPads controlled by foot pedals.) So I could see the movement of choir and players as they performed, and there was a distinct bounce in some of the numbers, particularly in “His Yoke is Easy”. Perhaps the presence of saxes played by jazz musicians, who (unlike most classical musicians) move in time to their playing, led to this. Mr Aareskjold is the son of a trumpeter and the grandson of a trombone player (the reverse of my own ancestry), and brass players are often crossover musicians. The Church acoustics were, as usual here, superb.
For the “Hallelujah” Chorus, only part of the audience stood. Until this performance, I had never heard of the action of standing being construed as showing support for monarchical systems of government, and, frankly, such an interpretation is ridiculous. One stands for the “Hallelujah” because it is a tradition to do so, even if a tradition started by a Hanoverian monarch. Like Karl Marx, I believe traditions are the collected errors of past generations. But, like Morton Feldman, I’ve realized in adulthood that errors are not necessarily always to be avoided.
The concert is available to listen until mid January 2015, via BBC Radio 3. The Ensemble hails from Halden, a town of just 30,000 people. It was nice that the people sitting near me also came from there, and had brought with them tourist brochures to entice us to visit the town. I took one, of course, as it gave to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.
And on the way out of the Middle Temple, in the offices of law-firm Gibson, Dunne & Crutcher in Temple Avenue, a late-working Friday evening team could be seen around a white board, making at least one observer envious of their camaraderie and collective efforts. How much fun it looked!
Two life-changing concerts this weekend, both including Finnish violin virtuoso, Pekka Kuusisto, and both in Folkestone as part of the annual Sacconi Quartet’s Chamber Music Festival. The first was a concert in St. Mary and St. Eanswythe’s Church that included the Sacconi Quartet and the Chamber Orchestra of the Royal College of Music. With PK, they performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and knowing they would was the main reason for my attendance. PK’s recording of Vivaldi is the most exciting and thrilling I know. But this live performance was on another plane entirely. Usually The Seasons are twee and effete and smugly complacent. PK’s recording is not that, but rather raw and rustic. (See my comments here.) The live performance, in contrast, was sharp and edgy, thrilling and exciting too but in a different way entirely to the recording. If Vivaldi is usually suburban Barnet gemütlichkeit, then the recording is from the wild places of Cornwall or the Hebrides, and this performance was from the mean streets of Toxteth or Mile End.
PK’s playing as always was superb. He has an amazing ability to mimic the breathy tone of a flute, producing a sound sublime, something I have heard him do before in very different work. Yet, at other times it was if he construed the violin as a percussion instrument, not hitting it with his hand but striking the strings in a multitude of carefully-calibrated ways with the bow. Later, in the pub after the second concert, he agreed that this notion of the percussive violin described his intention. Violinists often see the instrument as a sort of uncanny extension of themselves, and here was an extension that was brash, direct, and forceful – someone who is here to live out loud, in Zola’s great phrase. How different to the twee Vivaldi of most other performances I have seen.
In addition, PK treated the work as a modern work, interpreting it afresh – moving around the stage, for example, to confront directly the other players in the various duets and rounds, having face-offs at various times, and interacting physically and with immediacy in accord with the temper of each phase of the music. The other performers responded in kind to his enthusiasm. The acoustics in the church were excellent, so that everything could be heard well. This was certainly the best musical experience of my life, and I feel immensely privileged to have witnessed it.
The second concert followed straight afterwards, in the primary school across the street. We were party to a violin and electronics meditation on Bach’s Partita in D minor, by PK and Teemu Korpipaa. The movements of the Bach were played without modification by solo violin, and interleaved with duo improvisations on what we had just heard. This was also sublime, and had the effect of elongating and deepening the emotions invoked by the Bach, an annotation that added to the original. It was clear the two had worked together before, and so the annotations were profound and heartfelt.
Last night, I caught the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Sakari Oramo, with Olli Mustonen (piano) and Sergei Nakariakov (trumpet), at the Barbican, playing Tristan Murail’s Reflections/Reflets and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #1. The Murail work was in two parts, the first (Spleen) a response to Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, oozed sound colours slowly and langorously across the horizon, while the second (High Voltage) involved rapid-fire scales and runs. I liked the first part more than the second. The composer was in the audience.
In the Shostakovich, Nakariakov’s trumpet was superb. I have never heard the sad, muted solo of the second movement played so hauntingly: His tone there was breathtaking, and it was as if the sound was coming from another room, perhaps by some form of ventriloquism (a trumpet ventriloquy?). What came immediately to mind was the similarly sublime green-tinged, luminous moon of Arkhip Kuindzhi’s famous 1881 painting Moonlit Night on the Dniepr (pictured). In contrast, Mustonen’s piano playing was disappointing. His left hand was decidedly softer than the right for most of the piece. At first, I thought this may be an acoustic artefact of where I was sitting (at the front left, almost directly facing the pianist’s back), but when he deployed his left hand loudly I did hear it loudly. The issue is that for much of the work, Shostakovich was writing – as he does so often – in the style of a two-part invention, not a music-hall song with a cantabile solo with uninteresting accompaniment, so the two hands need to play equally loudly so that we hear the parts clearly.
The performance had another, more existential, problem: This concerto is one of the funniest works in the entire orchestral repertoire, and yet last night’s interpretation was intensely serious. Perhaps having in charge two Finns – a nation notoriously dour – overwhelmed the fun in the music. And, I think it would have been better had the pianist not had his back to the trumpeter. The entire work is a sharp-tongued dialogue between the two, particularly the duel at the end, and to hear what is meant to be fast-witted banter played so seriously was disappointing.
This week, I was lucky to catch the first half of a concert by Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto and pianist/composer Olli Mustonen at London’s Wigmore Hall. I heard them play Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A (Op. 30, #1) and Mustonen’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, which was a world premiere.
As always with PK, the playing was superb and full of energy. What he lacks in physical height, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm and pizzaz. He is an extraordinarily talented violinist, and I try not to miss opportunities to hear him play. (I have also heard him play piano, but the part was not a testing one.)
In the main, Beethoven’s violin sonatas do not impress me – our Ludwig couldn’t play the instrument nearly as well as he could play the piano, and this shows in his writing for the respective instruments. I view these sonatas as really being piano sonatas with violin commentaries. And, as so often with Beethoven, the music at some point comes to a stop, or nearly so, mid-way through the develoment section, like a clock winding down, and has to be re-started again. What underlying psychological thing is going on here, I wonder, that this happens so often in B’s music? After a while it becomes annoying, like a friend asking you the same unpleasant question every time you meet, and you want to avoid talking with that person.
Mustonen’s Sonata was superb. The programme notes warned us that he began as a composer of “Busonian neo-classicism”. I thought this piece was not at all neo-classical, but also certainly not in the category of up-town modernist complexity. The first part comprised an ever-present walking treble line of odd intervals by the violin, sequences of uneven lengths and different intervals not quite repeated exactly, with various waves of piano arising and decaying around this. The particular odd intervals – tritones, sevenths – brought immediately to my mind some music of Australian composer Larry Sitsky, who studied with Egon Petri (1881-1962), who in turn was a student of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). The emotional waves of this first part were very stark. Would I have thought of Sibelius and the forests of the North if I had not known the composer was Finnish? I don’t know.
The transition between the second and third parts was slow and beautiful, and very moving, and the effects PK produced were simply stunning. At one point, low trembling notes on the G string sounded like a breathy flute being played. And a series of repeated patterns combining trills and vibrata on different fingers of the left hand, was very impressive. Not at all clear how these effects were produced, but the independent but co-ordinated action of the left-hand fingers would have required long practice to achieve. Perhaps the effect was partly due to rapid changes of speed and pressure on the bow, also.
It was a privilege to be in the presence of such superb music played by these two virtuosos.
Here is another review of the same concert, by an anonymous blogger. Following the review, the blogger cites PK’s recording of Vivalid’s Four Seasons, as “restrained”. I wonder if he or she was actually listening! We’ve had 60 years of elegant, effete and twee recordings of The Seasons, so we know what restrained with regard to this music means. PK’s treatment is rustic and earthy and full-blooded, as if the entire ensemble had been taken outside and roughed-up in the mud of the farmyard, and the complete opposite of restrained! A simply superb interpretation, original, fresh and compelling. Your milage certainly can vary, as people say.
Anthony Tommasini writes in the IHT on the trend to allow concert pianists to play from music, instead of playing recital solos and concertos from memory. A good thing too! While playing from memory is an impressive feat to watch, it certainly takes additional practice effort to achieve: I would rather good performers played more different music than that they played a smaller collection from memory.
I saw Angela Hewitt play the Bach 48 from memory in Cottonopolis a few years ago. At the first concert, a woman in the front row was reading from a miniature score. After the first few preludes and fugues, Ms Hewitt quietly asked the woman to put her score away, as the page turning was distracting. My guess is that the page-breaks were happening at places other than where Ms Hewitt had memorized. (As an aside, her performance was very good but her interpretations undermined by rubato. I prefer my Bach straight, not with flavoured mixers.)
Note: The hands shown are those of Szabo Daniel.
The Brass Band of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music is the only English-style brass band in an Australian tertiary music college, which says something about the impoverished musical taste of those who run Australian music education institutions. Because the brass are mostly little-used in orchestral music (relative to, say, the strings, who play all the time), orchestral brass players usually also play in other brand ensembles and bands, both for the practice and to build their stamina. So a distaste for brass band music is usually not something shared by orchestral brass players. And a good thing too, given the high calibre of the best brass bands.
With about 100 other people, I caught the QCM Brass Band last weekend, performing as part of the 21st Tyalgum Festival of Classical Music. The band was led by Peter Luff and Greg Aitken, both of the QCM. The festival began in this small and isolated mountain village after some performers had experienced the very good acoustics of the Tyalgum Literary Institute Hall, the main public hall in the town. The acoustics of the Hall are indeed excellent, although surely not of a design praised in modern architecture schools. The Hall, built in 1908, is a single rectangle, with side walls made of wooden planks, having many windows and doors. On one side is an enclosed verandah, open to the main room. The roof has a single pitch and is made of corrugated iron, and there is no ceiling – the iron reflects sound well, and the undulations would send it in all directions. Mostly, the band sat on the floor at the front beneath the stage, with only the percussion on the small stage, yet the sound in the middle of the room was clear, very full and very loud. The reverberation was noticeable but not overly long. Apart from rust (and thus the need for regular replacement), the only downside of corrugated iron roofs is that nothing else can be heard when it is raining.
Tyalgum lies under the calming shadow of Mount Warning, a mountain named by James Cook in 1770, and which is the first place on the Australian land-mass to see the sun each morning. We could see the close-by mountain from inside the hall. So it was fitting, then, that the walls were decorated with several paintings of the mountain. Oddly, though, all these images showed the mountain from the usual eastern vantage point, yet the village itself is on the western side. So what you saw on the walls did not match what you saw through the windows. (For that matter, the same wrong view of the mountain is on the Festival poster and web-page.)
The Band made very good use of the space. A fanfare by Ann Carr-Boyd was played before the concert from the upstairs front windows to people in the street. This fanfare was repeated inside at the start of the concert, with the composer present in the audience. Later, a piece by Gabrieli for three brass choirs was played with the choirs arranged around the hall: At the front, 5 players in SAT (Soprano, Alto, Tenor) instrumental combination, at the side under the enclosed verandah (ATB) and in the first-floor balcony at the back (SAT). This was superb use of space for surround sound, and stunning playing.
There were some moments to treasure. The open side doors allowed a sudden breeze to blow away the music of the tenor trombone during the Vivaldi. As with any music from this period, intonation was difficult, particularly for the horn player, and at times for the two solo piccolo trumpets. With lots of fast-moving duo passages (the horn with one or other trombone) – very typical of Vivaldi – creating havoc for the three performers accompanying the soloists, it is perhaps not surprising that one trumpet soloist had a look of absolute astonishment on his face when the players ended the third movement together.
The pieces for the full ensemble were all well played, although perhaps more attention was needed to choreography of the percussionists. Some of the 5 people who were at one time or another on stage in the percussion section appeared unfamiliar with that part of the band.
The complete program was:
- Ann Carr-Boyd: Britannia Fanfare
- Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man
- Antonio Vivaldi: Double Trumpet Concerto (arranged for 2 piccolo trumpets, french horn, tenor and bass trombone)
- Leonard Bernstein: Excerpts from West Side Story
- Giovanni Gabrieli: Canzon Septimi Octavi Toni for 3 brass choirs
- Henry Purcell: The Fairy Queen
- Philip Sparke: Music of the Spheres.
Some of the same players were seen here.
The Great Egyptian Hall of Mansion House in the City of London was the venue last night for a concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under Edward Gardner. The first half saw a performance of Mendelssohn’s E minor violin Concerto by Alina Ibragimova, as well as a Rossini overture.
I discerned nothing Egyptian about the Great Hall. The decorations include various Greek statues, some in states of undress, large stained glass windows at each end of the room, and miscellaneous pottery. The hall is long and rectangular, two very tall stories high (with a gallery running around the upper story), with nine tall stone columns down each side, and all topped with cylindrical roof. Apparently, the building is 250 years old this year.
The performers were raised only slightly above the level of the audience, and sitting at one end of the rectangle. There were about 20 rows of seats of 20 seats each, all full, so the room had about 400 people present. The placement of the seats could have been much better than it was: staggering consecutive rows may not look as nice to eyes seeking symmetry, but it allows people not to be sitting directly behind one another, and thus gives the audience a better chance of seeing the performers. Likewise, allowing room between seats, rather than forcing all seats to touch their neighbours, allows for those of us with normal size bodies to sit beside each other. Only a small percentage of people – those who were at least 6’6″ and very thin – would have been comfortable with this placement of seats.
Its shape and dimensions mean the Hall probably has very good acoustics for opera, or oratorio, or trumpet concertos, where performers stand facing the audience, projecting sound outwards horizontally. Similarly, for piano concertos, at least when played on a grand piano with an open lid. When the orchestra played alone, the sound was loud, full and direct, and was quite clear even at the back. When the solo violinist began, however, her sound went up, not out, and disappeared into the ceiling, 60-odd-feet above us. Sadly, the result was perhaps the least satisfying performance of Mendelssohn’s concerto I have ever experienced. One could tell Ms Ibragimova was very good just by looking at her playing; one could not unfortunately confirm this by listening, as the sound of her instrument was so weak, overwhelmed in those passages where the orchestra played, and only ever a plaintive whisper when playing alone, like a small child trying to speak when surrounded by a party of loud-talking adults.
The third movement struck me as taken a tad too fast, with the orchestra panting to keep up with the violin. And playing original instruments always means risks, especially for those instruments which have experienced significant technological change these last two centuries. Thus, we should not be surprised that the horns entered this movement slightly sharp, since intonation was always (and always is) a problem for original horns. The technological changes of modern instruments were not introduced for no reason, a view lost on those riding the original instruments landau.
In conclusion, a very fine and confident performance of the Mendelssohn concerto for everyone sitting in the first few rows. For the rest of us, a great performance of the orchestral part, since that is what we could mostly hear. The careers of artists are not enhanced by performances in halls with poor acoustics. The acoustics could be improved greatly with the installation of a suitable canopy over the orchestra – a curved ceiling to catch the violinist’s sound and bounce it back out and down toward the audience. In the meantime, memo to self: avoid performances of violin concertos in The Great Egyptian Hall of Mansion House.
I notice that Mendelssohn himself, despite his 95 public performances in Britain, does not seem to have ever played in this room (according to the list of his UK performances in Appendix B of Eatock 2009).
UPDATE (2012-08-20): Apparently the violin sound was fine from the double bass stand. And presumably the FT’s reviewer was seated near the front, given his praise for the room’s acoustics. The reviewer for The Arts Desk, in contrast, also had problems with the acoustics of the Hall and too thought the third movement of the concerto was taken too fast for the orchestra:
The Mansion House acoustic may be fine for annual speeches from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it is not a solo violin’s friend. . . . . .
We also suffered in the concerto’s finale from a mismatch between orchestra and soloist, which Gardner, for all his alert gestures, seemed powerless to prevent. Mercurial arabesques flew from Ibragimova’s fingers, with the orchestra always a fraction behind, panting to keep up like PC Plod. Maybe Ibragimova just wanted to get the concerto finished, for there were certainly signs here and there of a lack of interest in what Mendelssohn had to offer. Most violinists pounce on the finale’s playful opening arpeggios as a chance to wink and scintillate. Ibragimova left them uninflected. “Boring, boring,” she seemed to be saying; “Now, where’s my Roslavetz?” “
Colin T. Eatock : Mendelssohn and Victorian England. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.
Another superb concert in a London church with an Australian connection. This was the church of St Mary le Bow, on Cheapside, which hosts a bust of Captain Arthur Philip, first Governor of NSW, as well as a memorial to the 5488 members of the Royal Australian Air Force who died in Europe in WW II. The flag of the RAAF is hung alongside the memorial, near to the only other flag in the Church, that of the Order of Australia, the Australian Honours system. One wonders why the RAAF plaque is not in St Clements Danes, the home church of the Royal Air Force, and why the OA flag is in a London church rather than an Australian one. Perhaps Australian Governments are embarrassed that the national honours system is, like all else, legally a gift of the British Monarch.
The current church is Wren’s design, although rebuilt after bomb damage in WW II. It is almost exactly a square in shape, and the walls hardly decorated. Indeed, the Australian paraphernalia comprises almost all the decoration. The ceiling is very high, and the uncluttered stone walls and columns provide a good resonance – perhaps almost 2 seconds. In short, a perfect place for such a concert, with the trumpet standing in the organ loft at the back of the church. The organ is new (2010), by Kenneth Tickell and Company, and has strong French and South German influences.
The organist was Richard Hall, senior organ scholar at King’s College London, and the trumpeter, Robert Landen, a student at the Royal Academy. Their programme comprised:
- Jeremiah Clarke: Suite in D
- Giuseppe Torelli: Sonata in D
- JS Bach: Trio Sonata in E flat, BWV 525 (organ alone)
- Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988): Toccata on “Hanover” (organ alone)
- Petr Eben (1929-2007): Okna Windows for Trumpet and Organ
The playing was simply excellent, precisely together, extremely clear, and alive. The diversity of stops on the organ and the dynamics on both organ and trumpet were much varied, and seemingly prepared with intelligence and deliberation. Clarke’s suite includes his most famous melody and was perfect for this acoustic. The Leighton Toccata included a wonderful Mendelssohnian climb – a stretch of ever-increasing tension, with both rising pitch and volume, and then doubling back and again rising, again and again, all the time delaying resolution (as in the orchestral number that opens Elijah, or the rising wave of the Hebrides overture). Finally, parts of the Eben work reminded me of Jon Hassell’s moody and spiritual trumpet in albums such as Fascinoma (also recorded in a church).
This was a superb and inspiring performance, and a wonderful meditative excursion in the midst of a busy day. One hope these two performers could collaborate on a recording to allow us to relive this experience.
POSTCRIPT (2013-02-23): For a limited time, organist Richard Hall can also be heard here, in a recording of Choral Evensong in the Chapel of King’s College London.
This past week I attended a concert in the Cadogan Hall by the Moscow Soloists String Chamber Ensemble, led by violist Yuri Bashmet. The concert seems to have attracted many in London’s large Russian-speaking community, and there were idling limousines outside the Hall.
Although technically the playing was very proficient, the concert and the performance left me disappointed. First, everyone on stage was dressed entirely in black, even the soloists. Was this a convention of undertakers, I wondered? Second, almost nobody smiled, again not even many of the soloists. Why so glum? Third, a grand Steinway was used for the first concerto, and then remained stuck there on stage, like some silent, brooding animal. All the movements of furniture between pieces was done by several of the ensemble members, rather than by the Hall staff, and it is true that the piano was moved a few inches. But not out of the way, nor offstage. It therefore blocked the sound (and the view) of the ensemble, and meant that the sound we in the audience heard was not projected uniformly to us. Where I was sitting on the right-hand side of the hall I heard the two cellos and the lone double bass well, but not the violins, who were hidden by the piano. I regard this failure to move the piano out of the way as unprofessional, although who was to blame for it is not clear. Surely, the Hall staff should have moved it aside.
And the glumness! The first item played was Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor (BWV 1052) with soloist Ksenia Bashmet. Her playing was technically excellent, although not from memory. But the music was played with such po-faced seriousness, and without any apparent emotion. This concerto is one of the great humorous compositions of all time, perhaps the greatest before Shostakovich’s Piano and Trumpet Concerto. A few minutes with the score would tell you the composer was having fun as he wrote it, since it is filled with adornments and flourishes, completely unnecessary and joyful in the extreme, which feel exactly right under the fingers. This is music written by someone who really liked playing a keyboard. Moreover, the first movement has a rondo form, with the first theme returning and returning and returning, as if without end. There is even a solo cadenza, which would traditionally be placed near the end of the movement, which here comes in the middle; so even after we hear the cadenza, the movement still does not end. This is Bach having fun. But where was the fun or the joy from these performers? Perhaps the fact that Ms Bashmet was not playing the music from memory meant she had had not yet internalized the score sufficiently to allow herself to have free reign with its interpretation. This performance was not a patch on the last time I heard this concerto played – by Joanna MacGregor in Cottonopolis, a few years ago, whose physical joy at the music was evident from from the get-go.
Similarly, for Mendelssohn’s D Minor Violin Concerto, played by Alena Baeva. Again the playing here was technically excellent, although also not from memory. However, only in the third movement did we hear some emotion – at last, some passion and joy from the soloist in what is a very joyful movement. The earlier movements were played, in contrast, without great passion, although very well.
The two middle soloists in the first half, Dinara Alieva (soprano) and Alexander Buzlov (cello), did smile at us after their performances, but their chosen music was less intellectually enriching. Buzlov played a theme and variations by Rossini, something the audience seemed to like more than anything else they heard, but which I found superficial in comparison with the Bach or Mendelssohn. I did not stay for the second half, the concert already running too long.
Overall, I believe these performers were technically very proficient as musical performers, but not superb as communicators of musical ideas; sadly, they did not achieve their potential on this occasion, and seemed to lack any group spark or chemistry. Perhaps this was due to the presence of the brooding piano, obstructing complete interaction with the audience, or perhaps there were other reasons. Oddly, the ensemble did not tune up on stage at the start of the concert: I wonder if this explained the lack of social chemistry evident.
Here is a review of the concert by Hugo Shirley of The Telegraph, who likewise noticed an absence of passion.
The photo shows the Christmas Lights in Sloane Square, near to Cadogan Hall. Photographer: Javier Lopez Pena (a member of the Matherati).