...I heard performances wonderful not just in parts - like the second of Sir Si's Sibelius series concerts with the Berlin Phil, very much a curate's egg - but as a perfect whole, and - apart from the Philharmonic Octet Berlin without Rattle at the QEH on Friday night, consummate - in less expected places (pictured above, two of my star performers throughout the week, violinist Julia Hwang and pianist Dmitri Alexeev).
Personally, I think I'd have chosen the Alexander Ivashkin Memorial Concert on Thursday night, even had I not worked with Sasha and loved what I knew of him, over Rattle's last Sibelius concert at the Barbican and Salonen conducting Ravel at the Festival Hall. The reason? A very rare chance to hear Russian master pianist Alexeev in action. The last time I caught him was partnering Sasha in Prokofiev's Cello Sonata at beloved Noëlle Mann's memorial concert*, and before that with Sitkovetsky in the First Violin Sonata as part of the Prokofiev 2003 concert she organised at St John's Smith Square. Here are all three, at I know not what event.
Brahms's late piano pieces have been obsessing me recently; I've played Nicholas Angelich's set over several times. And I've never heard Op. 119, with its extraordinary mixture of the elegiac, the light-as-air and ultimately the heroic, live in concert. Alexeev did not disappoint in finding the connections between the four pieces, in ranging from introspective heartbreak to unusual pride and strength.
But this was a concert in which everything made some kind of deep mark or another. True, Alexeev made the Steinway sound like an altogether different instrument from the way Boris Berman played it (Berman pictured above on 12 February; young photographers Alice Andrewartha and Sergey Kryuchkov will have to forgive me for not disentangling which photo is whose). His Prokofiev Seventh Sonata was just too loud to start with. But I've rarely heard a more shatteringly powerful account of the great slow movement, moving from Schumann stylised to the tolling of bells and the keening of human grief. The other ultimate depth came from the framing of the concert by cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, starting with perfect privacy in Schnittke's Klingende Buchstaben based on some of the notes in Ivashkin's full first name of Alexander.
In discussing the programme with that wonderful pianist Danny Driver - who wowed us with fellow Goldsmiths pianist Andrew Zolinsky in two pieces from Shostakovich's Op. 6 Suite, as good a performance in its way as anything on the programme - I suggested that the only possible ending could be the 25-minute epilogue to Schnittke's ballet Peer Gynt arranged for cello, piano and tape, winding its way into infinity. Irina Schnittke was to have played the piano part. But Altstaedt found it too much to prepare in so short a time, and his ineffably simple but profound substitute, the Allemande and Sarabande from Bach's Fifth Cello Suite, led to at least two minutes' silence. Unfussy, infinitely private and of the essence, his playing led me to go home and try and find something comparable among my sets. Two I threw out on to the regifting pile as being so wide of what I now want in this music; only Yo-Yo Ma came close.
Another bonus in place of the Schnittke was the Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky's First String Quartet, played with introspective simplicity by the Goldner String Quartet (pictured above). But it was also vital to have students from Goldsmiths College involved. Mark Shanahan worked wonders on the Chamber Choir (he told me afterwards how, getting them to harmonise Bette Midler and really working on fullness of sound) in the big early-Rachmaninov liturgical setting Ever-vigilant Mother of God.
And the Goldsmiths Sinfonia (pictured above with Sasha's photo on the easel to the right) settled from a less than unanimous opening to cool style in Prokofiev's 'Classical' Symphony. Grandson Gabriel came up with a real winner, Outta Pulsor from his Suite for Cello Nonet, originally a multitrack work for one cellist, the fine player and film composer Peter Gregson who led this group (had a fascinating conversation with him later over supper about film music). This time Outta Pulsor was graced by nine players, some of them originally brought together by Sasha's wife Natalia Pavlutskaya, also a cellist and teacher (at Trinity, hence the name TrinityGold). Really distinctive melody, fascinatingly shaped textures around it. Below, some of the cellists with conductor Andrew Morley.
I love Natalia: she reminds me of everything that's best about the Russian character: the intense warmth and affection, the talent, the discipline. I was, as I said in the opening speech she'd asked me to give, very surprised and incredibly honoured when she asked me to be involved. I had no idea that she and Sasha apparently respected me, as of course I did him (I didn't know Natalia at all well when he was alive). But she welcomed me like a long-lost friend and invited me to the after-performance supper, too. Here we are being very genuinely affectionate at the pre-concert drinks - thanks to Alice for that. OK, so it's grimace and paunch from me, but it shows you the kind of person Natalia is, I hope.
An evening rich and wonderful beyond belief, still to be properly digested over the months to come.
Another exceptional person I adore is a younger mover and shaker. I met Ed Picton-Turbervill when he came up to me after a Salome talk I'd given at Covent Garden and asked me if I'd go and talk at his school. The results are recounted some way down this blog entry. Since then we've become, I hope, good friends, and here he is nearly at the end of his three years as an Organ Scholar at St John's College Cambridge.
Over five weeks ago J and I went up to Cambridge at his invitation to hear a late Epiphany spectacular in the chapel - the above pic of Ed by his college's famous bridge and the wing where he resides was taken on that visit. We returned on Valentine's Day to catch the last event of nine - all FREE - in the St John's Music Festival curated by EPT, who modestly appears nowhere in publicity or programmes to take the credit.
I begged to be excused from that Saturday's St John's evensong as I was keen to sample King's, and sit in the choir pews there, which we did in style thanks to Research Fellow Hanna Weibye, loveliest of colleagues as dance critic on The Arts Desk. I also wanted to hear beloved Herbert Howells. But what I'd been told was right - King's can't match St John's for choral splendour. The men are far too loud for the boys and it can't be healthy for Stephen Cleobury to have been in place since 1982, with the contract running until (at least) 2019. Anyway, he beats rather than shapes, which was what impressed me so much about Andrew Nethsingha at St John's.
After the service. we found ourselves treated to rather fine illuminations outside King's, part of Cambridge's e-Luminate festival. Its website is a bit messy, so I gathered that the rainbow colours projected onto arches were the work of Jack Beccegato Zero.
but didn't find out who did the more dynamic work on the later ensemble to the north. It really has to be seen in action, but you get the idea here.
Everyone seems to hate the Victorian tower of St John's, but I'd rather it was there than not, and the illuminations did a good job on it.
The evening concert, which reflected the festival's theme of 'the old made new' both in its programme and by taking place in St John's Divinity School, Victorian Gothic recently restored to lavish effect, didn't start until 8pm. That gave us a problem that if we stayed for the second half, we'd miss the last convenient train back to London. So we only caught the first, and in a way I'm glad because it ended on such a high. Accomplished piano duo Marie-Noëlle Kendall
and Patrick Hemmerlé were giving two world premieres, starting with Robin Holloway's Soldered Schumann, an attempt to give new life to the Schumann Andante and Variations in B flat which he and Britten both regard(ed) as a noble failure. The Andante is itself lovely stuff, but Holloway's emendations struck me as rather ungainly doodlings, and you can call me arrogant or deluded if you like but his contribution really was the sort of thing I used to improvise on the piano in my better moments.
Would Holloway's Silvered Schubert be the same? I've had the privilege of finding out from the recording Ed sent me, but on the evening I was so bowled over by Hwang's performance of the original Fantaisie for Violin and Piano with ex Pembroke College Organ Scholar James Drinkwater that I knew nothing could actually surpass it.
Anyway, Hwang (pictured again above, good publicity shots) and Drinkwater made such a persuasive case for the Fantaisie that I wouldn't hear much said against it: she with her burning intensity and pitch-perfect technique, he with crystalline runs and supreme elegance. What's Holloway's beef with it?
...that nothing after the opening is worthy of it [this is the wraith-like violin theme against shimmering piano, not easily transcribed for two pianos, and so much is violinistic that its point in rearrangement is lost]. Especially the Variations, which dissipate rather than gather - above all in not providing a minor version [ie variation] to search the lovely Lied more deeply.
Well, the song itself ('Sei mir gegrüsst') certainly lives up to the opening in the lovely modulations taken here by the piano alone, and the variations preserve the lightness of the whole premise by some ethereal filigree (very difficult to make light of it, but these two did). Holloway's elaborations, in the recording I've listened to, are also pretty in a more music-boxy sort of way. But his gawky late-romantic interjections are not, and the minor-key variation he supplies disintegrates into doodlery. His extended 'Apotheosis' for the return of the opening sounds horrid to me, overdone with Lisztian-style tremolos.
The interjection of another song, 'Death and the Maiden', is cleverly combined with the rhythm of the finale, but it's too heavy and long-winded for the Fantaisie's airy premise. As for the material of the finale, which seems to me typical Schubert at his most penny-plain but very much himself, I don't find this 'harum-scarum' 'vapid' (Holloway's note again) and the transition to the song reprise has a marvellous key change- C to A flat - which I find again so typically Schubertian. All this is lost in Holloway's flummery and by the end you're screaming for it to stop (which probably means that I was, even listening to the recording). I don't find anything tiresome or overlong in the Schubert original (about 20 minutes to Holloway's inflated 35). I went home and marvelled at the recording by Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov. The first interpretation to be recorded, by Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin, remains one of the greatest: here it is.
Forgive all this length but I wanted to argue the case so that Ed can see I thought about it properly (I know he likes the Holloway much better than I do, and he should be proud of having hosted the world premieres). The main thing is that the evening featured two very good performances and one superlative one (the Fantaisie proper), and it made me engage with why the work isn't, in my opinion, deeply flawed.
Several wonders since then - Nielsen from Oramo, Sibelius from Runnicles in accord with the Inverness setting - but those will have to wait until the next instalment.
*Shin-ichi's remark below about Sasha's performance with Dmitri Alexeev at Noelle's memorial concert gave me courage to view the whole performance again on YouTube. There's an interesting story here in that I proposed playing at least part of the Prokofiev central movement within my introduction the other Thursday. I utterly respect Natalia's artistic integrity, reflecting and standing up for Sasha's, in that she said he felt he hadn't had enough time to prepare on that occasion. So we didn't play it in the concert.
Yet I'd like to take the liberty of putting up for the second time on this blog the Moderato - Andante dolce movement, because as I said the other Thursday, it seems to me to encapsulate both Sasha's wry humour in the outer portions and his generosity of spirit in the great, beautiful Prokofiev melody at the very centre.
Actually these two's performance also convinced me of what's 'inside' the finale too, and that follows on this time round. If you like what you hear, don't hesitate to watch the entire performance.