I Musicanti
 
Leon Bosch, conductor
Arensky – Tchaikovsky Variations
Tchaikovsky arr. Stephenson – Rococo Variations
Alexandra Harwood – Sinfonia Concertante ‘The Secret Ball’ (world premiere)
Shostakovich, arr Stasevich – Sinfonietta after the String Quartet No. 8

4th November 2017, St John’s Smith Square, London

 

On (almost) the eve of the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution, I Musicanti presented a programme which spanned the old and the new: music from Imperial, Tsarist Russia (Arensky and Tchaikovsky) to an elegy to post-Revolution, post-war Russia in Shostakovich’s searing String Quartet No. 8 (here arranged for string orchestra with timpani), and the world premiere of a new work written by a fifth great granddaughter of Catherine the Great, Alexandra Harwood.

Following on the success of their first series at St John’s Smith Square, I Musicanti’s latest series ‘Alexandra and the Russians’ showcases brand new works specially written for the ensemble by Alexandra Harwood alongside well-known pieces and lesser-known or neglected gems of repertoire. This is proving a very successful and satisfying “formula” for I Musicanti: the juxtaposition of old and new, familiar and lesser-known offers interesting comparisons and contrasts within programmes, and brings to the fore music which may otherwise have lain dormant and unheard (for example, Schubert’s Quartet in G D96 for flute, viola, cello and guitar, which was part of the May 2017 programme). The programmes are also just about right in terms of length, no more than 40 minutes maximum per half – an important consideration for those of us who have a longer train ride back to the leafy suburbs after a concert.

Perhaps the most significant facet of the success of the I Musicanti formula is the selection of musicians. The ensemble is flexible – sometimes a quartet, sometimes at septet, depending on the repertoire; on this occasion a small string orchestra, led by Fenella Humphreys. The musicians are hand-picked: as Leon Bosch, the driving force behind the ensemble, said to me after the first concert (which included Peter Donohoe on piano), “I can choose the best people to work with” – and this shows in the quality and commitment of performances and performers. This is not flashy, ego-driven playing, but really exceptional playing driven by common purpose and a shared love of the music.

The concert opened in Russia’s Imperial age with Arenksy’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, written as a tribute to the recently-deceased Tchaikovsky, and which begins, choral-like, with a motif which mimics the sound of male voices in a Russian Orthodox Choir, expressed in the dark sonorities of two cellos, violin and viola. A lyrical work with seven variations of differing tempi and moods, it was an affecting and genial start to the evening, elegantly presented by I Musicanti.

For Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, a work inspired by the composer’s love of Mozart, the ensemble was joined by South African cellist Peter Martens for a performance which combined understated virtuosity (the work contains some fiendish technical challenges for the cellist and few opportunities for the soloist to rest) with a delightful interplay between soloist and ensemble. This arrangement, by cellist and composer Allan Stephenson, restores the variations to their original order and assigns the original wind solos to the string principals (in this case Fenella Humphreys, violin, and Richard Harwood, cello, who both brought colour and verve to the music). Peter Martens’ tone was rich and colourful, balancing wit with seriousness to create a performance of great variety, character and warmth. This was the first performance of Allan Stephenson’s arrangement, the scoring for strings bringing a clarity to the music with no less texture or richness than the original.

After the interval, the world premiere of Alexandra Harwood’s Sinfonia Concertante: The Secret Ball, a work scored for string quintet surrounded by orchestra inspired by a story by Alekxander Afanas’ev (1826-71). A single movement takes the listener through a series of dances, opening with a grand, if slightly raunchy waltz followed by a polonaise, tango, polka, mazurka, tarantella, sarabande (using fragments of melodies from Corelli and Bach), minuet (with a fragment from Mozart), Bourree (Bach quoted again), Badinerie (Corelli), Galop and finally another waltz, the music fading away to nothing, as if the dancers are disappearing into the dawn. Alexandra is a noted composer of film music and the piece had, for me at least, a very visual quality with a clear narrative. In the lively, foot-tapping fragments of dance, one could easily picture the secret ball, dancers twirling on the dance-floor, while unspoken scenes and assignations perhaps took place in side rooms.

This work provided a striking contrast to the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (in an arrangement for string orchestra and timpani by Abram Stasevich) which followed. Here was a work of great emotional power which takes Shostakovich’s motto theme DSCH as its starting point, the motto returning in various guises throughout. The timpani provide an underlying martial character to the work (said to be dedicated to “to the victims of fascism and the war”, but also perhaps dedicated to the composer himself who in July 1960 discovered he was suffering from a debilitating muscular weakness). This was a compelling, sombrely elegaic and tautly managed performance, and a fine close to what I feel was I Musicanti’s best concert so far in their residency at St John’s Smith Square. This concert also represented a debut of sorts for double bass player Leon Bosch as it was his first appearance in London on the conductor’s podium, a role he seems to relish.


Further I Musicanti dates at SJSS

Sunday 21 January 2018 at 3pm – music by Arensky, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere), and Tchaikovsky

Sunday 3 June 2018 at 3pm – music by Prokofiev, Smirnov, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere) and Glinka

Do go – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

 

Meet the Artist interview with Alexandra Harwood

Is it Chopin? Or Liszt? Or maybe Brahms? To the ingenue listener, Scriabin’s first piano sonata suggests all of these composers – Chopin’s long-spun lyricism, Liszt’s sweeping romanticism, Brahms’ plangent, orchestral textures, or maybe even Rachmaninov on a fantasy-frolic. But as Alexander Scriabin’s great friend, Leonid Sabaneyev said “he is not like Chopin. He is like Scriabin“.

Scriabin inhabits a distinctive, personal soundworld which is hard to define. It is the music of excess, ecstasy, tumult and passion. It is excessive, overripe, decadent, heavily perfumed, languorous and frenzied, lacking in structure and sometimes downright bizarre. The music of extremes, it is “hyper everything”, and as such it defies description or categorization. Its language is complex, often atonal and frequently almost impenetrable. For some listeners, and artists too, it is this “over-the-top-ness” that is off-putting; for others, myself included, it is this sense of excess and rapture that is so compelling. His personal life and outlook mirrored the excesses of his music: he was dissolute, he could be outrageous, he had high-falutin’ ideas of his own self-worth, and he believed music should be intimately connected to all of human experience. Perhaps this explains the breathless sensuality, the roaring passion and mystic spirituality of his music. All of human life is here, in all its ecstasy.

Scriabin was also a synaesthete, as I am, and it was his synaesthesia which initially drew me to his music.

…..he wrote and spoke of the colours of his music, of the constantly changing shapes that chords and rhythms and melodies could summon up, almost like a spiritualist at a séance. His scores bristle with detailed and evocative markings designed to help the performers imagine what the listeners see and feel.

– Gerard McBurney

The ten piano sonatas chart the course of Scriabin’s musical development more faithfully than any of his other music. The last sonatas hint at where his music was heading and offer a captivating glimpse into his adventures in atonality, while the early ones demonstrate his forays into late-nineteenth-century romanticism, the music of his compatriot Rachmaninov.

In presenting Scriabin’s ten piano sonatas in a single concert, British pianist Peter Donohoe amply demonstrated the variety of Scriabin’s writing for the piano – its rich textures, trembling filigree gestures, mystic perfumed harmonies, and ferocious virtuosity (Scriabin was a fine pianist himself). From the first youthful sonata, written a year after Scriabin left the Moscow Conservatoire and at a time when he was raging against a self-inflicted injury to his right hand, to the incense-laden mysticism of the ninth, the infamous “Black Mass”, Peter Donohoe plunged into the programme with relish. Never mind that there were still nine sonatas to go, the first was played with pulsating power and energy.

The programme was not presented entirely chronologically, and the middle section of the concert featured sonatas six, seven and eight, played in a single sequence without applause (as requested by the performer). At this point, one simply submitted to the music, to be drenched in myriad sounds and textures. Here Scriabin’s kaleidoscopic tonal palette, filigree figurations, perfumed sonorites and complex rhythms were magically brought to life by a pianist who totally “gets” this music. Hauntingly-lit piquant harmonies, ethereal accompaniments, jazz idioms, Peter Donohoe brought muscularity and featherlight delicacy to this ecstatic music.

The music was interspersed with engaging readings by Gerard McBurney, which illuminated the music and the man. These were accompanied by projections behind the piano, mostly grainy photographs of the composer and his friends, or abstract images which were supposed to suggest a synaesthete’s response to the music. For this synaesthete, it was rather awkward – and I suspect it may have been for Scriabin too: for him key of F was associated with deep red, while for me it is mauve, yet we were treated to blue during the first sonata (in F minor).

I was disappointed not to be able to stay for the final segment of the concert, but I have Peter’s recording of the complete Scriabin Piano Sonatas to enable me to complete this magnificent journey.

Stephen Hough, composer and pianist with The Prince Consort at Wigmore Hall, Friday 28th October 2016

An evening of music for piano and voice by pianist and polymath Stephen Hough, performed by The Prince Consort, with Hough himself playing in the second half, promised to be something intriguing and special, especially as the programme included the world premiere of Hough’s song cycle Dappled Things, dedicated to John Gilhooly, director of Wigmore Hall.

In setting poetry to music, Hough is working within a fine English song tradition that includes composers such as Purcell, Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Britten, and indeed there were fleeting musical glimpses of these composers within Hough’s works

Read my full review here

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(picture: The Economist)

“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

This quote from Mozart seems particularly apt for Steven Osborne’s concert at Milton Court which featured music by Morton Feldman and George Crumb, two radical American composers with a special interest in exploring the piano’s expressive qualities as much through the spaces between the notes as in the notes themselves. Eschewing melody as the main vehicle for expression in their music, both Feldman and Crumb offer the listener a special soundworld infused with simplicity and stillness. Osborne’s interest in stillness in music combined with his ability to produce magical kaleidoscopic shadings, as evidenced by his very fine performances and recording of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jèsus, make him the perfect performer for this programme.

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(Photo Benjamin Ealovega)

Silence in music, any music, is very important. Pauses and silences provide “punctuation marks” and create ebb and flow, just as in speech. Silences also create drama and set up expectations in the minds of the listener, while stillness and quietness in music allow the listener to be drawn in to create a special, sometimes very intense connection with the performer. In the pre-concert talk, Osborne talked of how, as a child, he liked to experiment at the piano to see how quietly he could play, fascinated by the tactile experience of producing very soft sounds. He described how the simplicity and stillness of Feldman’s music in particular – music which is sometimes merely a handful of notes or a few carefully chosen chords with no clear narrative nor organic development – allows the listener to engage with the music “in the moment”, with a mindfulness akin to meditation without the need to conceptualise nor admire it as an “art-object”.

Read my full review here

Meet the Artist……Steven Osborne

Mozart, Piano Sonata in B flat major, K570

Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 31 in A flat major, Op.110

Haydn, Piano Sonata in D major, Hob XVI:51

Schubert, Piano Sonata no. 20 in A major, D.959

Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 6th April 2016

Sir András Schiff is traversing the final three piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in concerts across America and Europe. Twelve sonatas in total are spread across three concerts which celebrate the sonata form, “one of the greatest inventions in Western music” (Schiff), a structure central to the oeuvres of all four composers and a means by which we can observe their development at key stages in their creative lives.

andras-schiff

The triptych of concerts also explores the notion of “late style”. In considering Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, lateness is relative, almost a philosophical construct. Haydn and Beethoven were long-lived (by the standards of their day), while Mozart and Schubert died young. But it is the intensity of their lives and creativity that matters here: for example, in the last year of his life, Schubert’s output was astonishing – the string quartets and Symphony in C major, the ‘Schwanengesang’ song cycle and many other works in addition to the three final piano sonatas.

Read my full review here

(photo: Fran Kaufman)

My final visit to Wigmore Hall this season (the hall is closed during August) was to hear one of my piano heroes, Canadian pianist and composer Marc-Andre Hamelin. Each of his London concerts I’ve attended has offered coruscating technical facility combined with musical insight and the impression of a thoughtful musician who is very connected to the music he plays. This is in part created through his economy of physical movement when he plays. There are no unnecessary gestures in Hamelin’s playing, no pianistic histrionics or flashy pyrotechnics (except in the music itself), and because he never gets in the way of the music, his performances are concentrated and intense.

This concert was no exception, its intensity made even greater by the inclusion of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, the “Funeral March”, with its third movement theme made so infamous by its associations with the deaths of Russian Communist leaders, and its extraordinary and ghostly finale.

Read my full review here