In performance: NSO with John Adams

American composer John Adams appeared on the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra last night, continuing a series of concerts at the Kennedy Center devoted to his music that began with Jennifer Koh’s recital on Sunday. Composers are possibly too close to their own work to know how to treat it objectively, as a conductor must, to obtain the best result. Yet a composer-led performance, precisely because of that subjectivity, can also tell you something unique about what the composer was thinking.

The Adams-on-Adams treatment was applied to “The Wound-Dresser,” a 1988 symphonic setting of Walt Whitman’s recollections of his service as a caregiver to wounded troops in the makeshift Civil War hospitals along Washington’s National Mall. It was not necessarily the work one most wanted to hear from Adams, not least because he also conducted it in a similar program with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. The piece can be powerful on first hearing, but after repeated listening its extended elegiac tone can become static. The orchestra played the pulsing chords elegantly, with electronic synthesizer touches recalling the timbre of a glass harmonica. Eric Owens lent a smooth, intense bass-baritone to the vocal part, supported by ghostly violin solos and anguished, disembodied cries from the solo trumpet that strained painfully into the stratosphere.

Read the full review in The Washington Post here.

Liszt: Orpheus; Ligeti: Violin Concerto; Bartok: Suite from The Wooden Prince

Renaud Capuçon; Berliner Philharmoniker/David Robertson

Philharmonie, Berlin, 9 May 2010

The first work on the programme was Liszt’s Orpheus. It was in Weimar, under contract as court Kapellmeister, that Liszt embarked on the composition of a new genre of orchestral music, the symphonic poem. This genre was to give full embodiment to the breadth of the composer’s aims, philosophical and poetic as well as music. But what at the time must have been vanguard has since settled comfortably into the category of easy-listening as far as classical music is concerned.

Appropriately enough the work opens with two harps acting as mimesis of the Greek poet’s lyre. Themes follow each other unevenly, signalling an extension of the sonata form towards something purely evocative, a searching by way of music for something only music can search for. As a concert-opener it’s perfect, not too long or demanding, lush on the ears. And here it was brought off well, Robertson measuring the work well in gradually bringing us to the crescendo at the work’s end.

This was followed by Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. A couple of years ago I saw this work performed by the London Sinfonietta along with its dedicatee and original soloist, Saschko Gawriloff. It was excellent then, but this performance by the Philharmoniker with the young Renaud Capuçon was if anything even better.

Read the full review in on musicalcriticism.com here.

Chiara String Quartet at Le Poisson Rouge

Just before the Chiara String Quartet played Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet on Wednesday evening at Le Poisson Rouge, the group’s first violinist, Rebecca Fischer, pointed out that the work was 101 years old. There was a sense of wonder in her tone — an unspoken subtext that seemed to ask, “Can you believe that people still hear this antique as harsh modernism?” Ms. Fischer added that for her, the movements are five “tiny landscapes.”

Read the full review in The New York Times here.

The Southbank Centre's Varese weekend

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965): the very name is a modernist shibboleth. No composer is more readily identifiable with the abolition of the syntax and vocabulary of past music; none more plausibly linked to the stereotype of “modern music” as noisy, unbridled, percussive dissonance, music as “organised sound” rather than melody and harmony. As if to emblematise his rupture with trad ition, he suffered (some say even contrived) the loss in a Berlin warehouse fire of nearly all his pre-1919 scores — music that is thought to relate (unsurprisingly enough) to that of the leading figures of the day, Debussy, for instance. Having by now left France to settle in New York, he was able to build on this tabula rasa an oeuvre that, though small, is like a monument to the uninhibitedness and pioneering spirit of the new world, to the human potential symbolised by both Americas.

Read the full review in The Times here.

Dvořák, Shostakovich, Brahms and fireworks from Bychkov, the LSO

Semyon Bychkov has already impressed me with his handling of last year’s revival of the Royal Opera House’s Don Carlos, so his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra was one of the concerts that jumped out at me when I was doing my last bit of booking back in December. Just as well.

He opened his programme with Dvořák’s Carnival Overture. While I’m a big fan of Dvořák, this isn’t a piece that’s ever especially grabbed me before and hence not one I know all that well. From the opening bars I began to wonder why. Bychkov unleashed the LSO in a phenomenal display of energy and precision. It made for a real party piece, full of orchestral fireworks, and an excellent curtain raiser.

After a brief pause while the piano was raised up through the floor (an always fun to watch quirk of the Barbican – much more interesting than just having it pushed on from the back of the stage), Denis Matsuev joined them for Shostakovich’s 2nd piano concerto. He proved every bit the match to Bychkov and the LSO. He maintained clarity through some rapid and intricate passages and found all the necessary weight without recourse to thumping the keyboard. Beneath him, Bychkov balanced his forces well, ensuring the pianist wasn’t overwhelmed by the comparatively large orchestra. And yet it wasn’t all fireworks – there was plenty of tenderness and beauty in the slow movement.

Read the full blog review here.

Review: Joanne Pearce Martin's Piano Spheres recital at Zipper Hall

The great Italian composer Luciano Berio once observed that “a musical work is never alone — it always has a big family to cope with, and it must be capable of living many lives.” That insight seemed to inform Joanne Pearce Martin’s extraordinary and elegiac Piano Spheres recital Tuesday at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall.

The two premieres were both typical of a program filled with musical gestures and remembrances: Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Pavane in Memory of Steven Witser,” the principal trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who died last April at age 48, and Gernot Wolfgang’s “Theremin’s Journey” for Theremin, piano and electronica.

The pianist, in her ninth season as principal keyboardist for the Philharmonic, began by boldly digging into a bright-toned Fazioli piano in four selections from Stephen Hartke’s “Post-Modern Homages,” which included a pleasing riff on Satie. More impressive was Pearce Martin’s finely shaped reading of “Distances” (1988), Meyer Kupferman’s moody memorial to a friend.

Read the full blog posting in The Los Angeles Times here.

Zehetmair Quartet, Wigmore Hall, review

By Ivan Hewett

There are few string quartets I would bet I could spot in a blind test, but the Zehetmair Quartet is one. It’s not an ingratiating sound they make, but it is certainly hyper-alert, every phrase and every textural detail weighed and scrubbed clean of routine.

Combined with their appearance – all in black, with no music stands (the quartet plays from memory) – that sound tells you you’re in for something serious. That quality was especially vivid in Mozart’s slender G-major quartet, written when the composer was only 16. So much of its music consists of beautifully turned rococo clichés laid end to end, but they were so vividly characterised by the players that they seemed weighty and interesting.

After the Mozart came something genuinely dense, the 2nd quartet by the great Swiss oboist and composer Heinz Holliger.

Read the full review in The Telegraph here.

Listen to the 1st string quartet here:

Album: Morton Feldman, Trio (Mode)

Reviewed by Andy Gill

Written in the early Eighties, Trio was one of Morton Feldman‘s first long-form pieces employing a conventional chamber palette of violin, cello and piano. It involves neither epic musical narrative nor the tedium of process music, its 105 minutes instead built from his usual small-scale blocks of sound.

This latest interpretation by Aki Takahashi, Rohan de Saram and Marc Sabat is full of Feldman’s usual tropes – the constantly shifting meter, the favouring of decay over attack, the “crippled symmetry” of repetition (in some cases, the same few notes played more than 50 times in succession, with subtle variations of touch and timing) without the imposition of minimalist pulse, and the evaporation of timbres at their upper extremes – resulting in a typically focused, absorbing and meditative experience unlike any other.

Here is another Morton Feldman recording by Aki Takahashi:

More information about the trio recording here.

Wolfgang Rihm – reinventing the greats

With more than 400 works to his name, Wolfgang Rihm is among the most prolific living composers. The BBC Symphony Orchestra exposed us to a fraction of this oeuvre in the form of one of its Total Immersion Saturdays at the Barbican — his 58th birthday, as it happened. The previous evening, at LSO St Lukes, the Arditti Quartet had given a mainly Rihm programme as part of the same venture.

Rihm was present to attend the concerts and be interviewed in the Mozart Room by Ivan Hewett, an interesting exchange, marred only by aqueous amplification. He came over as a hugely genial figure, unassuming yet instinctively confident, insightful yet down-to-earth; an insatiable creator, who, though a great revisiter and recycler of scores (he once said: “Double bar lines at the end are really only vertically extended colons”) is free from fuss, from fidgety perfectionism.

He just keeps writing, and, rather as with Schubert, whom he resembles a touch, it is daunting to contemplate merely the physical labour of producing so many scores. The volume of his music, and a certain stylistic flexibility he allows himself, make it difficult, I find, to get a purchase on his achievement, to sum him up or even describe his manner, if he has one. I’ve heard numerous works by him over the years (right back to the early Almeida Festival staging of the opera Jakob Lenz), but would not readily think of his music, or other people’s, as “Rihmian” in the way that the adjective “Birt wistlean” repeatedly offers itself.

(…)

The first of two Rihm works played by the Ardittis, his single-span String Quartet No 5 — dis ingenuously subtitled “Ohne Titel”, as if quartets usually did have titles — sounded as though the most extreme aspects of Bartok’s quartet style — the crunching dissonances and pizzicati, the rebarbative continuity — had been taken to a new and unsuspected extreme.

Read the full article in The Times here.

Read a review from The Barbican in The Times here.

Nelson Freire: Chopin Nocturnes

From The Times:

Every concert pianist with ten fingers and thumbs should be playing Chopin this year. Already the record companies are busy marking the composer’s 200th birthday with reissues and new releases. Some companies are in direct competition; only a week separates the release of Decca’s new version of the Nocturnes, the form in which Chopin’s art is at its most poetic, and the rival account from EMI Classics. Decca’s artist is mature, verging on the veteran: the Brazilian Nelson Freire. EMI’s is the hot 27-year-old Chinese attraction Yundi Li — now known simply as Yundi after a change of management and record label.

Freire’s account, recorded in Liverpool in December, glories in a rich and full recording. We need a wide spectrum of sound to catch the variety of colours, densities and inflections conjured from his noble Steinway. “Suppleness before everything,” Chopin used to tell his students. Freire does his best to follow suit, often varying quickenings and hesitations with a magician’s touch. The magic proves especially useful in the slighter Nocturnes, such as Op 31 No 1 in B, where Freire’s lingering over decorative phrases significantly increases the music’s colour. Elsewhere, look out for some electrifying silver filigree (Op 27 No 2), lengthy reverberations on final notes and a level of poetic enchantment that might be a tad below true glory but still takes this music of sweet dreams and agitated melancholy through the night to victory.

(Decca)