London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, ★★★★★
If telling economy and quiet understatement are your preferred routes to aesthetic bliss it’s fair to say Mahler’s 3rd Symphony of 1902 will present a challenge. Even by his own standards it’s excessive. He piles up six movements, lasting more than 100 minutes, employing a huge orchestra, women’s chorus, a boy’s chorus and a mezzo-soprano soloist. At the beginning a funeral march gives way to what sounds like an uproarious week-end workers’ march. Later an unfathomably deep poem by Nietzsche is put cheek-by-jowl with a child-like prayer, in which boy trebles naively imitate bells.
And goodness doesn’t Mahler like to squeeze the maximum value from his ideas. There’s a wonderful moment in the 3rd movement where a gawky little Fiddler-on-the-Roof-style dance gives way to a nostalgic off-stage trumpet. It’s a lovely idea, but must it come round four times? And that last rapturous hymn-like movement; doesn’t it work too obviously on our feelings, veering away from the expected radiant conclusion towards distress again and again, so it can give us yet another ecstatic build-up?
If it’s the mark of a great performance of this symphony that it stills our misgivings and makes the repetitions seem endearing rather than annoying, then last night’s was a triumph. Conductor Sir Mark Elder was stepping in at the last minute for an indisposed Robin Ticciati, but there were none of the rough edges or hesitation that can mar performances with a last-minute change of command. Most conductors take the rough-shod opening march at a brisk pace, to generate the momentum needed to carry us through the 35-minute opening movement. Elder went the other way, making it feel unusually weighty and serious.The funeral march that followed seemed jet-black and drained of all hope. After this the quiet turn towards what eventually swells into a jolly parade came as a shaft of light. Though this was the longest performance of the movement I’ve ever heard it seemed to fly by, with an uproarious ending that actually prompted a whoop.
The most sheerly exquisite playing came in the second movement. The tenderly beautiful solos, (step forward the LPO’s recently appointed co-leader Alice Ivy-Pemberton) were the icing on the deliciously swaying slow-waltz cake. After that strange 3rd movement with the indulgently repeated off-stage trumpet solos (beautifully played, but we were not told by whom), came the still centre of the symphony, Nietzsche’s Midnight poem. It was wonderful partly because you could see each new thought in the poem prefigured in Alice Coote’s expressive face, before she sung it with spine-chilling quiet fervour.
Then, after the prayer and bell-clangs of the penultimate movement, rendered with dewy freshness by the London Philharmonic Choir and Trinity Boys Choir, came that hymn. After much soul-searching and turbulence we reached the moment when the trumpets bring the hymn back, quietly, at a perilously high altitude, to reassure us that all will be well. They did not let us down. The ending, when it came, seemed as vast as a starry night. IH
The LPO’s next concert at the Royal Festival Hall is on November 29 lpo.org.uk
Chineke! Orchestra: Armatrading & Tchaikovsky, Queen Elizabeth Hall ★★★★★
As the audience shuffled back into South Bank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall for the second half of Friday evening’s programme, Joan Armatrading lingered discreetly at one of the entrances to the auditorium. Having just witnessed the world premiere of her first classical composition – the appropriately titled Symphony No.1 – Radio 2 DJ Paul Gambaccini was among those who gathered to offer their praise. When I asked the pioneering singer-songwriter whether she had any thoughts to share about the occasion, she replied: “I’ll just say this. The orchestra were fantastic.”
Well, weren’t they just. Comprising 70 musicians, Chineke! Orchestra shimmied their way through a Friday night set featuring music from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries (from Tchaikovsky, Duke Ellington and Armatrading respectively) without dropping a note. The ensemble, founded in 2015 by artistic director Chi-chi Nwanoku as Europe’s first majority black and ethnically diverse orchestra, combined virtuosity with a kind of progressivism not always seen on the stages of leading concert halls.
That Joan Armatrading, an artist whose resplendent career spans 56 years, has managed to stride so confidently, and so fluently, into a hitherto unploughed field is remarkable. A three-time Grammy nominee, the 72-year-old is best known for her 70s and 80s hits Love and Affection, Down to Zero and Me Myself I. She was also the first British female singer-songwriter to achieve international success. But at the Southbank Centre, the vivid vignettes and notable lyrics that marble her 20 studio albums certainly cast no shadow over a piece that transcended reasonable expectations of a composer new to the terrain. And while it may be unrealistic to compare a piece completed only last year with Tchaikovsky’s deathless Symphony No.5 – which closed the show, some 135 years after its own premiere in St Petersburg – it is fair to say that Armatrading is anything but diminished in its company.
Conducted by Andrew Grams, this was no facsimile of orchestral music. There were no floods of sickly violins, thank you very much, and no sentimental melodies. Instead, the symphony was by turns dramatic, mischievous, tuneful, percussive, soothing and surprising. Its finale was a thing of wonder. Eschewing the temptations of a thundering climax, the final notes were played with deep and declarative certainty by half a dozen double-bassists. Elongated and strong, it sounded like a groundswell. “We trust we’ve made our point,” it, and they, seemed to say.
At this, Joan Armatrading got up from her seat and made her way to the stage. As the audience rose to their feet, this daughter of Birmingham, economical as ever, raised a hand as if to say, “Thanks, but no big deal”. OK, sure, but one wonders if perhaps the title of her latest endeavour might just be telling. In what would be a welcome addition to this wonderful new piece of music, Symphony No.1 suggests, at least, that there may be more to follow. IW
Symphony No.1 will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on 28th November
Hallé Orchestra/ Bridgewater Hall ★★★★☆
Beethoven and Rossini were the two giants who divided the early 19th century musical world between them. If you wanted frothy comedy Rossini was your man, if strenuous Enlightenment seriousness was more your taste you went to Beethoven. In this invigorating concert from the Hallé orchestra they were brought together, something you rarely see, and interestingly the polarities were reversed. Beethoven provided the comedy in his 2nd Symphony, which has a finale that actually mickey-mouses a slip on a banana skin. Rossini’s Stabat Mater provided the seriousness, based as it is on the 13th-century poem that pictures the weeping Mother of Christ at the foot of the Cross.
The sheer uproariousness of Beethoven’s symphony was perhaps a little muted in this performance led by Mark Elder, who is now in his final months as music director of the Hallé. But the gorgeous lyricism of the second movement and its moments of ballroom elegance shone out beautifully. This was not a fiercely driven performance, which was all to the good as it allowed the majestic scale of the piece to register seemingly without effort.
Massive though it is by the standards of the early 19th century, Beethoven’s symphony is only half the length of Rossini’s hour-long piece, the evening’s main event. While the Stabat Mater is deeply serious, you still recognise that razor-sharp sense of timing, with surprises cunningly placed for maximum effect, that made Rossini such a master of opera. It meant that often the huge Hallé chorus, the soloists and the orchestra had to tiptoe as one, with a hushed prayer whispered one syllable at a time, before bursting out in supplication. These moments were awe-inspiring in their power, thanks in large part to the Hallé chorus which was on electrifying form. Their outburst in the Inflammatus, reinforced by the brass of the Hallé, felt like the crack of doom.
Elder’s mastery of the Rossinian style was revealed in countless telling details, such as the way he accelerated the tempo towards the end of the Pro peccatis bass aria (sung with moving gravity by William Thomas) so as to create a thrilling tension for the following chorus. And he was alert to those moments when stern majesty has to melt into tender lyricism, relaxing the tempo just a touch at the moment in the 6th movement where the singers plead: “Do not be harsh toward me.”
Of the four soloists, tenor Enea Scala had the right bel canto elegance in his arias, but seemed vocally constricted. Contralto Claudia Huckle was the one who best caught the music’s sternness, in her Cavatina, while South African soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha embodied its heart-melting tenderness, especially in the 8th movement, when her softness was a foil to the chorus’s majesty. After all this emotional turmoil the ending returned us to the austere dignity of the opening, played with such perfect control that it was actually the most moving part of the evening.
Listen to this concert on BBC Radio 3 on December 5 or on iPlayer.
Charles Lloyd Ocean Trio, Barbican ★★★★☆
When the great Japanese artist Hokusai reached the age of 86, he wrote that he had finally reached a “partial understanding” of the world through his art, but still had far to go. When he reached 100 he would perhaps ascend to the divine.
Charles Lloyd would echo the sentiment. This great American saxophonist and composer, one time collaborator with BB King and Keith Jarrett, still searches for that elusive beautiful saxophone sound. He reads the sacred scriptures of India, eats only vegetarian food, and is constantly seeking out younger musicians to work with.
As part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, he appeared on stage with two relatively new collaborators, pianist Gerald Clayton and guitarist Marvin Sewell. Often the music-making of these spiritually inclined elder statesman of jazz begins with a deep drone, an evocation of the all-encompassing divine One. It’s become a cliché, but Lloyd sidestepped it with the gentlest melodic arabesque, which the other two soon commented on in equally diffident ways.
Jazz interaction often takes the form of calling-and-responding between players but soon one became aware something more mysterious was going on between these three. One felt the same idea surging up spontaneously in their minds, but emerging in three slightly different forms. The result was a delightful not-quite-togetherness, like a flock of birds where one bird and then another takes the lead.
In the midst of all this rhapsodising and swirling it seemed a half-forgotten jazz standard was trying to emerge. The vague outline became firmer as Clayton’s dramatic left-hand tumble came together with emphatic assertions on Lloyd’s saxophone and Sewell’s guitar. Suddenly there it was, bright and clear: Peace by Ornette Coleman, the great free-jazz saxophonist who was a mentor for Lloyd in the 1960s.
This pattern of momentary focus followed by dissipation and then a gathering of energy towards another gentle explosion was a feature of the following numbers, all of them Lloyd’s own compositions. There was a huge variety of mood and sound, with Lloyd also making lovely liquid sounds on the flute, and pungent ones on the Hungarian tárogató. Just once there was a hint of that “Spanish tinge” King Oliver said was essential to jazz, inspired perhaps by Sewell’s Spanish guitar.
It wasn’t all lofty and spiritual; there was a jaunty throw-away quality to the encore medley which actually drew a small ripple of laughter. I could have listened to them all night but all good things come to an end, and after Lloyd’s recitation from memory of a Hindu scripture, discreetly accompanied by the other two, the trio bid us goodnight.
It was instructive to compare them with the support act, a trio led by Sámi-Norwegian saxophonist Mette Henriette. We heard wispy little circlings on Johan Lindvall’s piano, insect-like scrubbings on Judith Hamann’s cello and wanly beautiful phrases from Henriette. It felt as if the spirit of jazz was on life-support; thank goodness Lloyd and his trio were on hand to restore it to rude health. IH
The EFG London Jazz Festival ends Nov 19 efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk Charles Lloyd’s Ocean is released on Blue Note Records
Jerusalem Quartet, JW3 ★★★★☆
When a promoter launches a new classical concert series, there’s always the question: should it be cleaved to the great masters or boldly strike out in new directions? JW3’s first series, curated by David Waterman, is firmly in the former category; it could have been presented unchanged a century ago.
But as this music-making and the packed eager audience at the Jewish arts centre in London proved, a season of old music can still seem vividly alive. On stage were the wonderful Jerusalem Quartet for a programme of copper-bottomed masterpieces by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Beethoven. The quartet had been the target of hecklers at a previous London concert, and given present circumstances probably would have suffered something similar last night, but JW3’s impressive security precautions kept potential troublemakers at bay.
Their concert was a reminder that sheer virtuosity – both individual and collective – is a delight in itself. The dry acoustic of JW3’s hall was a challenge for them in slow movements, but in fast movements like the will-of-the-wisp Trio of the Canzonetta in Mendelssohn’s 1st quartet they danced joyously on elfin feet. Thanks to the perfect balance and razor-sharp co-ordination some things shone with new clarity without having to be highlighted, like the witty way the two violins shared the melody with the cello in the Trio of Mozart’s 1st “Prussian” Quartet – so-called because the very taxing cello part was written for the King of Prussia (cellist Kyril Zlotnikov deserved his own crown, for the way he threw it off with such ease).
With such a firm basis of virtuosity and “togetherness” to build on, the quartet could risk some bold interpretations. In Beethoven’s 2nd Razumovsky quartet they made the pauses between the hesitant opening phrases seem huge, and the second “answering” phrase so tentative it almost disappeared. Later when the music became more assertive they emphasised the hectic repetitions and rising harmonic tension with such force they came right to the edge of coherence. The strange lop-sided rhythms of the Allegretto are often played in a dryly witty way but here they took on a strange heat, thanks to 1st violinist Alexander Pavlovsky’s hugely expressive playing. Never has this strange, anxious quartet seemed so radical.
That intensity, with wide vibrato and expressive “swoops” in the melody line, was actually a bit much in Mendelssohn’s quartet. He was a favourite composer of Victorian England, and the slow movement of his quartet is one of those hymn-like movements filled with a gently sweet piety, like a pre-Raphaelite stained-glass window. In this performance it felt more like a declaration of erotic passion. English reserve is definitely not this quartet’s style—but an infinitely soft, gentle tenderness certainly is, as they proved in their encore, the slow movement from Debussy’s quartet. It came as a balm in troubled times, which this new concert series at JW3 will surely be. IH
The next concert in the JW3 series takes place on 12 December jw3.org.uk
West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, Queen Elizabeth Hall ★★★★☆
On a day of protests in London, Saturday’s concert by the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble was highly symbolic. The chamber music sibling of the bridge-building orchestra founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, the Ensemble is similarly made up of Jewish and Arab musicians and represents the ultimate expression of listening to one’s neighbour. Unlike his father, the Ensemble’s leader Michael Barenboim is not given to speech-making; not a single political word was uttered from the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall – but nor was one needed.
Some in the audience may have come expecting political statements, just as some may have thought they were going to hear the full West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. But international orchestras seldom perform at the Southbank Centre these days, and the programme encouraged a different sort of listening. Indeed, it seemed true to the stated idea of the Ensemble – established four years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the orchestra’s founding – “to bring people from the countries of the Middle East together based on equality, and on a more individual level”.
Michael Barenboim switched from the violin to viola for two of the three miniatures by Elliott Carter (1908-2012) that punctuated the programme. Not only honouring the work of his father (who has largely stepped back from performance owing to ill health) with the orchestra, he was also celebrating his father’s championship of Carter and opened the concert with the solo viola piece Figment IV, written when the composer was 99. Spare and abstract, the music reminds us that the viola is one of the instruments most like the human voice — in this instance, a voice in the wilderness.
In Carter’s Au Quai for viola and bassoon, Barenboim was joined by Mor Biron for a performance of story-telling surrealism. In the Duettone for violin and cello, written when the composer was 101, Barenboim and Assif Binness brought lightness and imagination to music characterised by the cello’s high pizzicato.
Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 in B flat is also a “late” work — composed when he was 36, just two years before his death — and follows the Mozartian model of adding an extra viola to the string quartet. Its sunny spirit took flight in the hands of five smiling players, consummate musicians absolutely attuned to one another. The scherzo’s lightness and simplicity gave way to a hymn-like Adagio, sustained and shaded with infinite variety, then a fleet and stylish finale.
One of Beethoven’s early hits, his Septet in E flat revels in the distinctive sonorities that double bass and clarinet bring to its opening and the horn supplies further in — not least by leading the charge in the scherzo. The score’s roots in the tradition of Viennese serenades were reflected in the good-natured virtuosity of all the players.
The bittersweet third movement of Schubert’s Octet was the apt encore in a concert for which security had been visibly enhanced. In the event, the only interruption occurred early on when Barenboim needed to replace a string. The concert’s spirit of idealism made it the day’s most powerful demonstration of all. JA
Jazz Voice, Royal Festival Hall ★★★☆☆
What better way to launch the country’s most lavish jazz festival than a parade of eight jazz singers backed by a lavish jazz big band, fortified with those “singing strings” that add an extra sheen to a sentimental ballad?
That’s what we were offered at Jazz Voice, the opening event of the EFG London Jazz Festival at the Royal Festival Hall. After 15 years of these opening night spectaculars they’ve got the formula down to a T. Schmooze the audience with those singing strings, before the compère in a sparkly frock comes on to offer a brief biography of each singer. Then whisk each of them on for just one song until all eight have been heard – with the odd jazz instrumental to vary the sound. Then, after the interval, bring them all back for one more bite of the cherry, until the grand finale when everyone joins for a huge jazz or (more likely) rock anthem that has everyone swaying and cheering.
The formula worked last night, sort of, but the singing strings of the EFG London Jazz Festival Orchestra were sometimes a little shaky, and there were some dull patches along the way. The history of jazz song (and soul and rock, which this opening event always embraces) is full of masterpieces, but we were treated to some distinctly below-par material. Vanessa Haynes has a terrific soul voice with an authentic bluesy growl, but her song Kiss Me On Daisy Lane was dispiritingly generic (she wanted to be kissed on Regent Street as well). Emeli Sandé emoted fiercely for the dubious line “everybody’s got scars from their various wars on the way to the stars” in her first song Scars, but try as she might she couldn’t rescue it.
With each singer having only two throws of the dice there was bound to be a competitive edge to the evening. It sometimes felt as if they were exaggerating their vocal mannerisms or the feeling of the song, to make sure they stood out from the crowd. Naomi Banks sang Confession in the strangest way, right at the back of the throat so one could hardly hear it. Haynes took Burt Bacharach’s lovely, wistful Alfie and tried to make it huge, against its nature.
Still there were some good things. Brendan Reilly got to the heart of his second song Who’s Loving You? and displayed an impressive soaring head tone along the way. China Moses, the evening’s American star, amused us with her raunchy song about dating apps, I Could Be Happy. Sandé redeemed herself with a terrific rendition of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, made famous by Nina Simone. For really powerful delivery with impeccable vocal control the evening’s highlight was Judi Jackson’s rendition of Black Coffee. But for that disillusioned, gently wry emotional intelligence that one treasures in the best jazz song, the palm went to Clarke Peters for his seasoned performance of Lush Life. A Jazz Voice indeed. IH
Hear this concert for 30 days on BBC iPlayer
Ezra Collective, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★
When artists make pronouncements from the stage during a gig, especially a delirious, get-up-and-dance gig like this one, you don’t expect profundity. Everyone wants a good time, and frankly they’ll cheer at anything. But when Femi Koleoso, drummer and leader of Mercury Award-winning band Ezra Collective talked about how “happiness is vulnerable” and repeated very insistently that “Joy is more powerful than happiness”, everyone shut up and listened. Something profound was being said, but what?
This gig, promoted by Pitchfork Festival, made Koleoso’s meaning clear. It offered what was certainly the most joyous two hours I’ve experienced since the last time I heard Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. True, we had quite a few moments of ordinary happiness, when the emotional temperature dropped and a guest singer strolled on to offer something soulful, as Nao and Emeli Sandé did with charm and grace.
Ezra Collective is meant to be a jazz collective after all, so there were a few moments when an improvisational riff broke through. Ife Ogunjobi’s trumpet occasionally soared high in a way both relaxed and ecstatic, not far from the great Cuban-American trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Joe Armon-Jones’s piano riffs, romping down the entire keyboard, also had a Cuban exuberance.
But these were only relaxed smiling moments, which any jazz lover who’d wandered into the gig by mistake could enjoy. Mostly the gig had a very different tone, which helped to explain why the Ezra Collective managed to break the mould at the Mercurys back in September. Every year, one or two jazz acts are nominated, everyone praises them to the skies – but then they fail. The reason Ezra Collective succeeded where others fell down is partly because the element of jazz improvisation isn’t that important. It’s a decorative flourish, added judiciously here and there, rather than being fundamental to the music.
Instead, these five players summoned a sense of something seriously joyful, sometimes with a hard topical edge given by guest rap artists including Kojey Radical, Loyle Carner and Jme. For most of the evening Ogunjobi and saxophonist James Mollison played sturdy melodies in unison at the front, while Koleoso and bass guitarist TJ (younger brother of Koleoso) powered them along from behind. You could call the melodies “anthemic”, and the crowd did indeed try to join in, though the edgy rhythms foxed them a bit. Though everyone smiled, the melodies didn’t – they had a serious, minor-mode feeling, a suggestion of energetic striving against obstacles which is worth more than enjoying good times. You could even call it religious – not such an implausible idea, given that Zara McFarlane did come on to sing “I have a God who Never Fails” at one point.
At the end, when a bunch of south-London schoolkids and instrumentalists came on to join the Collective, another connotation of “joy” became clear – passing on the torch to the next generation. Perhaps at bottom that’s the true appeal of the Ezra Collective. In a musical world rife with commercialism and fake values, they embody something true and real. IH
Ezra Collective’s album ‘Where I’m Meant to Be’ is released on Partisan. Pitchfork Festival continues until Nov 13; pitchforkmusicfestival.co.uk
City of London Sinfonia, Queen Elizabeth Hall ★★★☆☆
As a theme to inspire an evening of life-affirming, superbly crafted art, the partnership between composer Benjamin Britten and poet Wystan Hugh Auden could hardly be bettered. It was richer than any other poet/composer collaboration in the 20th century, except possibly Brecht and Weill, and ranged over many genres. There were those radical collaborations for the spoken theatre we never get to see, such as The Ascent of F6. There are those wonderful John Grierson documentaries for which Auden wrote brilliant scripts and Britten the equally brilliant music, such as Night Mail. There’s also the Broadway musical Paul Bunyan and that radiant hymn to music, the Hymn to Saint Cecilia.
But above all, there are the wonderful songs, as central to English song as The Beatles or Purcell or John Dowland. It’s the heart of their collaboration, because it’s where you see in close-up that life-giving tension between Britten’s musical rhythm and Auden’s poetic rhythm.
So you’d think an evening from the City of London Sinfonia entitled Perfection, of a Kind: Britten vs Auden would have song at its core. In fact, all we got in that respect was a couple of cabaret songs, which seemed pretty meagre. And yet, despite the puzzling hole at its centre, the evening was actually hugely entertaining and illuminating. In front of the players were three actors: Alex Jennings, tall, buttoned-up and formal; Barrie Rutter, more vigorously demotic, and somewhat surprisingly for this most English of topics, the American actress Johnnie Fiori.
These three shared a cleverly contrived narrative of the relationship between the prudish, careful young Britten and the slightly older, brilliant but somewhat raffish Auden. We heard snippets of Alan Bennett’s play about the two, several letters back and forth (including the one where Auden advises Britten to move on from being the talented small boy whom everybody loves) and a wise essay by Frank Kermode published in the London Review of Books.
As for the music, it included the Simple Symphony and the Sinfonietta – two wonderful examples of Britten’s precocious genius, the former somewhat tentatively performed, the second brilliantly thrown off by the orchestra under Matthew Kofi Waldren. But their connection to the evening’s theme seemed tenuous.
The music for The Ascent to F6, scored for a “pit band” of pianos and percussion, was a real discovery, as it showed that Britten’s gift for creating atmosphere was already fully formed in 1937. A highlight was Night Mail, its breathlessly excited text rattled off with gusto by Rutter, the steam engine’s relentless acceleration evoked in the wheeze and clatter of the music.
The evening’s other highlights were those two songs. In conventional song recitals they can sound precious, but in these sassy renditions by three singing actors seemed surprisingly gutsy. It showed another side to Britten, the side that Auden spied but which Britten repressed. The talented small boy became the respectable Sage of Aldeburgh who – as the evening’s narrative made clear – eventually cut off the un-respectable Auden without even a backward glance. IH
No further performances
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Hoddinott Hall Cardiff ★★★☆☆
Thursday night’s concert was a vivid reminder of why the BBC’s regional orchestras are such a treasure, and why to lose them would be such a calamity. As well as keeping classical music alive, they nurture local talent, promote young composers, and explore areas of music that other orchestras might find too risky. And, because this was a BBC orchestra being recorded, the results can now be savoured anywhere on the globe.
Among the local talent spotlighted on the evening was young conductor Emilie Godden, who for 15 minutes stepped out of her usual role as orchestral violinist to lead – with decisiveness and vigour – a world premiere from young Welsh composer Sarah Lianne Lewis. Her impressive piece The Sky didn’t Fall was a rendering into music of her feelings about her father’s death, a moment of loss that as always was cruelly ignored by the world. The sky didn’t fall, people bustled about their business as usual. But for Lewis herself the world seemed changed – more painfully vivid, more touched with transience.
The numbness of loss was what emanated from the first rustlings in the strings and stammerings from the brass. Little fragments of melody appeared in solo cello and flute, and flickers of light in the harp. These things tried vainly to take wing as real melodies, before falling back into the increasingly agitated sound world, which grew to a dark climax. There was no comforting light at the end of this journey.
There was no comfort either in The Emilie Suite, a set of orchestral songs by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who died earlier this year. It was drawn from her 2008 opera about a French aristocrat who was the lover of Voltaire and became the first woman in France to publish a scientific paper. That would lead you to expect something blazingly confident, but the music’s mournful, aqueous sound-world and the inconsolable drooping melody lines spoke of promise unfulfilled, and – at the end – a resignation in the face of death. The words as sung by Emma Tring weren’t always ideally clear, but she caught beautifully the sense of yearning and loss in this extraordinarily beautiful piece.
After that, the military rat-a-tat and sharp-edged trumpet calls of Grace Williams’s Second Symphony of 1957 came as a very rude shock. Williams was a powerfully original composer, who soaked up influences from Viennese modernism as well as her teacher Vaughan Williams. The symphony’s storm and stress, embodied in its constant efforts to break free of a self-made harmonic prison, were projected with huge intensity by the orchestra under the evening’s main conductor Martyn Brabbins. He made space too for the moments of lyrical softness, but these were as rare as oases in the desert.
Overall, it was an evening of unrelieved dark seriousness, which wasn’t the best advertisement for the virtues of each individual piece. Seriousness is a very good thing, but audiences are human after all, and a little lightness and softness in the evening’s programme wouldn’t have gone amiss. IH
Hear this concert for 30 days on BBC iPlayer
City of Birmingham Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Birmingham ★★★★☆
The nights are drawing in, and the end of 2023 is not far off. So this concert from the CBSO was in all likelihood the last hurrah in the UK’s centenary celebrations for György Ligeti, as it included a performance of one his late great works, the Violin Concerto from 1992.
This wonderful, enigmatic Hungarian/Jewish composer survived Nazi death squads, out-manoeuvred the Communist thought police in Hungary, and later went on to become one of modern music’s great radicals. He created sounds that seemed closer to the glistening extra-terrestrial landscapes of electronic music than anything ever heard from an orchestra.
And yet his music is so very human, as this performance of the violin concerto reminded us. It was full of gleeful humour, jazzy syncopations and even a touch of Jewish klezma — a reference that passed me by, but in the interval the woman sitting behind me told me she spotted it.
All this aural magic danced by on light feet, thanks to wonderful playing from the orchestra under Nicholas Carter’s alert direction, and the intelligence and virtuosity of the soloist Carolin Widmann. The opening spider’s-web tracery of undulating sounds had a gauzy magic, and in the tranced high melody of the third movement time truly seemed to stand still, thanks to Widmann’s superb steely control (and the CBSO’s too—this piece is every bit as hard for them as it is for the soloist). She gave a tender glow to the folk-like melody in the second movement, and the soaring rhapsodic quality of her closing cadenza (solo spot) had us on the edge of our seats — until the tension was released with percussion thwacks and raspberries from the brass, which sent a ripple of laughter across Symphony Hall.
There was humour too in the piece which launched the evening, Haydn’s 96th Symphony, but whereas Ligeti’s humour was surreal and somewhat threatening, Haydn’s was more like an urbane smile — until the final movement, when the music’s comic haste was genuinely hilarious. Carter’s speeds in the fast movements were brisk but never forced, which allowed the players to respond with playing of genial warmth. The most affecting moment came in the Trio of the Menuetto, with playing of lovely bucolic innocence from the oboist. (It’s a shame they didn’t identify her in the online programme notes. Does the CBSO not think the players deserve a mention?)
Finally came Brahms’s Third Symphony, a piece whose solidity and seriousness is about as far from Ligeti’s aural shape-shifting as could be imagined. Again it was individual players who caught the ear, especially the far-away, nostalgic playing of the clarinettist in the slow movement. The performance wasn’t perfect. The occasional smudged transition or odd balance suggested the Ligeti concerto had taken the lion’s share of the rehearsal time. But Carter’s speeds were very well judged, and the whole symphony had a lithe, fierce energy which was exactly right for this most taut and concise of Brahms’s symphonies. IH
Hear the CBSO play Mozart, Sibelius, Aileen Sweeney and Mendelssohn on November 8; cbso.co.uk