Monday, 23 February 2015

Also in Rattle week...

...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.


Shin-ichi Numabe said...

Thank you very much for posting the precious article about the Alexander Ivashkin Memorial Concert at the QEH, which I could not attend. My friend Yumiko (now in Kaunas, a former student of Prof. Ivashkin) dared to visit London only for the concert. I am grateful to you for describing it in detail. Among stunning items on the programme, I especially envy Alexeev's very rare Brahms. The memory of Ivashkin-Alexeev's Prokofiev Sonata at the Noëlle Mann's Memorial Concert in 2010 is still so vivid that I cannot yet believe Sasha was gone.

David said...

Always so pleased to hear from you, Shin-ichi - the last time I met you and Yumiko together in person was, I think, at some Goldsmiths event in Deptford Town Hall, and Sasha was certainly there. Of course the wonderful bird-cakes you gave me are recorded for posterity, even if readers can't taste them.

I was also delighted to see Yumiko in the interval melee. We didn't speak for long enough - someone else came up and she'd vanished before we could finish our conversation. I'll drop her an email. She was also my student, though not for so long. I'm sorry the Russian Music degree course didn't last longer, and that Thursday, with its wealth of folk from Goldsmiths, made me long to return there.

It was a celebration indeed, with pauses for mourning and remembrance (the silence after Nicolas Altstaedt's Bach Sarabande was probably the longest I've ever heard, as it were, in a concert - Abbado's last Mahler Ninth included).

You might also like to read my colleague and Schnittke scholar Gavin Dixon's review on The Arts Desk, with a different selection of photographs from the event.

Sasha does still seem to be among us. I looked back on the comment he left when I remembered Noëlle here - 'such people never die'. True for him too, of course. So much music!

Susan Scheid said...

You leave me breathless, as you do so often, but in a happy way, offering so much love for and deep understanding of the music and musical occasions about which you write. I'm particularly pleased to be reminded of Ivashkin performing Prokofiev's Cello Sonata, which you'd noted in your memorial post to Ivashkin.

David said...

Thanks, Sue. Odd: when I first looked back, I didn't see it. But I realise I'd already embedded a YouTube clip. Have adjusted the text accordingly. As I now write, the bonus in this version is that the wonderful interpretation of the finale follows on.

Susan Scheid said...

This is an aside, though related to the idea of concert week: tonight, thanks to your prompt, I had my chance to see and hear Oramo conduct the New York Phil in Sibelius's Oceanides and Violin Concerto (Frank Peter Zimmerman, who was superb) and Brahms Symphony No. 2. One of the many things that struck me about the concert was that the Brahms seemed so much more "in conversation" with the Sibelius works than I would ever have anticipated. It was as if layers of varnish had been removed and I was hearing the Brahms for the very first time. From the first note of the concert to the last, everything sounded so fresh and full of light.

David said...

That's what I hoped for you, and I'm so pleased to hear it. We haven't had Oramo's Brahms yet in London. The freshest Brahms symphonies in concert I've heard have been Ashkenazy's 2, which made a lot of it sound like the most sublime ballet music, and Jurowski's 1.

There was a time when I avoided the big four because of their ubiquity, but now I hear more in them than I ever did before. 4, I think, is one of the ultimate tests of a great conductor - Haitink can still deliver on that.

Just listened to Alan Gilbert's Nielsen 5 and 6 with the New York Phil (I know you went to at least one in the series). Sophisticated, but lacking in any of the essential wildness.

Susan Scheid said...

On your comment on the Nielsen CD, as it happens, I was actually at the concert at which the CD was recorded and immediately fell in love with both symphonies, most of all the 6th. Of course, it was the first time I'd ever heard either of them, so I had no basis of comparison. Though it seems unlikely, I wonder whether the sound engineering might have taken the edge off the thrill of the live performance. I'll be interested to listen to the CD once it arrives.

David said...

No, I fear that Gilbert, for all his many qualities, lacks temperament. Certainly the performances are good enough to win allegiance to these extraordinary works - I'm beginning to think that the Sixth was one of the most influential symphonies of the 20th century, Shostakovich MUST have known it when he wrote his Fourth and Fifteenth - but playing many passages alongside Jarvi's or Rozhdestvensky's recordings, you can tell that the NYPO strings and woodwind lack the real bite and inner fire.

Susan Scheid said...

Interesting what you note about Shostakovich's 4 & 15 vis-a-vis Nielsen's 6th. I was certainly reminded of Shostakovich's 4th in listening to Nielsen's 6th. Must keep my eye out to see if anyone comes up with a solid connection. It sure makes sense to me.

Also, thanks for the info on other Nielsen recordings. I'll be interested to hear what my ears can pick up comparing the Jarvi, and, if I can get my hands on it, the Rozhdestvensky.

David said...

I can give two specific connections - the unaccompanied glock strokes at the beginning (four on D in the Nielsen, two on E in Shostakovich 15), and a flute figure in Nielsen's waltz-versus-uproar variations which turns up in the chain of dances (waltz and galops) in the finale of Shostakovich 4.

Sure Shostakovich deliberately meant to evoke Nielsen's symphonic the-end-is-near in his own, and probably the Stravinsky Oedipus 'Gloria' eruption into the dance sequence of the Fourth mirrors the threatening chaos in the Nielsen finale. No-one does this better than Rozhdestvensky.

Still, I'd like to see evidence that Shostakovich knew his Nielsen.

Are you really set on Gilbert's Nielsen or is it already ordered? There's also Oramo's cycle, which I KNOW will be more idiomatic though I haven't heard it yet.

Susan Scheid said...

Glad to have your specific references on the Shos-Nielsen, which I've saved for reference. The Gilbert CDs I ordered as soon as they were available-I'd want to have that CD anyway, as I was there. I have cued up Oramo on the 5th; will see if I can get his 6th.