Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Hark, hark, I hear the minstrels play…

My lord, he is but even now gone hence;
Here was he merry, hearing of a song.
– William Shakespeare: As You Like It

I think ‘perturbation’ is the word I’m looking for – although maybe that’s a little strong…. However, out of five works at last night’s Orchestra of the Swan A Scandinavian Serenade concert at Stratford ArtsHouse, I knew one really, really well – the ecstatic opening Holberg Suite, by Grieg – two, just a tad: Grieg’s Watchman’s Song, after Macbeth and his Two Elegiac Melodies – one, not at all: Sibelius’ Suite for Violin and String Orchestra in D minor – oh: and the last one, I’d never really got on with. (In fact, I’d always considered it a bit trite; and listening to it like overdosing on a trifle of neatness. Not a good start….)

So, I was a little concerned. Has “this journey (nay, this pilgrimage) back to live music that I am on” hit the buffers already? Or will my new hearing aids – combined with a little light score-reading – put me back on the right track? (Sorry: my metaphors appear to be running out of steam….) Read on to discover the answer (and to see if I can put the awful railway puns to one siding…). These questions – and many others – will be answered in this very exciting episode of The Bard Goes to Town (and Listens to a Bit of Classical Music).

Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief?
That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?
– William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

In the end, I needn’t have worried. Of course…! A concert that, on the surface, seemed devoted to warm sun (I’m always wary of too much happiness) – and yet, in the end, wasn’t afraid to probe what hid in the resultant shadows (much more to my taste); or stay outside when it clouded over and threatened to rain (even better) – surely melted my concerns away.

However, after Saturday night’s “huge review for three huge performances” at Cheltenham Town Hall – which were still singing monumentally in my head as I arrived for the pre-concert chat… – I promise to try and cut down on the verbiage. (I think I’ve used most of it up, anyway.) So: let’s just say that all of the Grieg pieces were sensational and full of life (replete with its ups and downs…) – as you would expect – and demonstrated (yet again, for me) that here is a composer who wrote a lot more wonderful (and sometimes darker) stuff than just his famed piano concerto; and that, the more intimate the setting, the greater his power. In other words: music perfectly suited to David Curtis and his merry band of minstrels. (I do not think I have ever seen or heard any ensemble quite so happy, relaxed – and yet so deeply immersed – in their expert, collegiate, cohesive music-making.) Playing Grieg therefore plays to their innate strengths – inspiring a luminous, resonant clarity that only comes from such chamber-compactness: each line, each texture, audible; each dynamic, each measure, “tight and yare”.

Special mention, though, must go to their rendition of The Last Spring – the second of Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies:

The poet see the winter snows melting, and nature burgeoning in the new season. But will this be the last spring he will ever see? In which case there is immense gratitude for the life he has lived, but a greater sadness for it passing.
– Christopher Morley (programme notes)

As David Le Page, the orchestra’s leader, related before the concert: there are some eerie, yet thrilling, icy sul ponticello moments – with unusual long, drawn-out bowing – that chill the heart, at the centre of this. And, although officially a ‘miniature’, the piece was treated with the same reverence and import as any great slow movement of any great symphony. I found all of the Grieg beautiful (I used to spend whole days repeatedly playing his piano pieces and arrangements) – “movements that… range from the tender to the jaunty”, as Curtis writes – and in many different ways: but this elegy was earth-shattering, tear-inducing, nails-dug-into-the-palms-of-your-hands grief writ large; played by an ensemble that suddenly seemed so much larger than its twelve members – in sound, and in effect. Mesmerising, gripping, stuff. And all in slow-motion. Whew.

Here’s my fiddlestick, here’s that shall make you dance.
– William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

However, the Sibelius was the revelation of the night: probably because my prejudiced (and somewhat superficial) impression (at least from the symphonies) is of someone who orchestrated in discrete chunks of sound – wodges of woodwind; blocks of brass; slabs of strings – without much layering, much interweaving. (Give me Nielsen’s bruising symphonies, any day!)

Scoring for strings, though, is an uncompromising (I was going to write ‘stringent’) art – with very little room for carelessness – everything is highly visible. Maybe it’s just my maturing love for smaller musical groupings: but Sibelius pulls it off neatly and superbly – this is so much less ‘lush’ than his other music that I’ve heard. In fact, it’s a rare little capsule of rapture – as crisp and fresh as a newly-harvested iceberg lettuce!

It turns out that, although it was written in 1929 – “his last opus numbered work” – this supposedly “non consequential” piece wasn’t first performed until 1990 (and “not discovered until 25 years after the composer’s death”): so finding much information on it (apart from last night’s programme notes) seems quite impossible. I did find this, however – which sums it up very nicely (almost)!

The Suite is in three movements…. Its gentle intent is proclaimed by the pastoral movement titles: Country Scenery; Evening in Spring; In the Summer. These are unassumingly warm mezzotints with a gentle inclination…. Little echoes of other works (often written later) do intrude. After the first two movements in which you can imagine a blend of Rakastava, The Lark Ascending and Finzi’s Introit comes a perpetuum mobile flying along like an ingratiating wasp…. The whole suite plays less than eight minutes.

Although I had the word ‘neoclassical’ on the tip of my tongue, my more detailed take on it was… First movement: ‘folksy’ – but in a good way; and definitely my kind of music! (I know!) The second ‘rhapsodic’ movement has echoes not only of Vaughan Williams; but, melodically, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro; with a tiny hint of Tippett (the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli) right at the very end. This is the only movement – in its central section – that actually reminded me (as in the quotation above) of Sibelius himself – but, for me, the violin concerto! The final Vivace movement looks incredibly virtuosic on paper – yet Le Page, here the violin soloist, made it look oh-so simple. Fantastic, energetic, elbow-knackering bowing; but with a beaming smile on his face throughout! This was no “wasp”, though. Taken at a slower pace than I had expected – which opened up the piece wonderfully, without losing one jot of momentum – this was the most charming honey-bee, instead: enjoying a hot day in the glowing light of the late afternoon; flitting seamlessly; searching for the most perfect flowers! (I had expected to blub at the second movement: but… well, just “but”….) And, wow, that ending. Just as the bee found nectar. (Gulp.)

Why this is not a more famous work, I have no clue. It will make me revisit my obviously-deluded opinion of Sibelius; and pay more attention to his more well-known works. But, even if this was the only thing he had written – and it is a very late piece – it should have left him listed with all the other great names of his era. Startlingly sublime. (Off to find a copy. Back in a mo….) You could almost say that it blew my socks off…

This is a merry ballad, but a very pretty one.
– William Shakespeare: A Winter’s Tale

And so to that last problematical piece: Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings. To digress (and avoid the subject), for a moment: Google informs me that a ‘serenade’ is “a piece of music sung or played in the open air, typically by a man at night under the window of his beloved”. To ‘serenade’ is to “entertain (someone) with a serenade”. And, against my will (somewhat), I have to report that I was truly “entertained” by what Curtis described as “intimate music for friends”.

Although usage of the word ‘serenade’ peaked in the 1940s (in English, anyway), I always think of the late nineteenth century as its golden age: with not only Dvořák (op.22; 1875), but Tchaikovsky (op.48; 1880) and Elgar (op.20; 1892), all rapidly producing melodious, welcoming (yet heartfelt) works for string orchestra – the apotheosis of Gemütlichkeit (bless you!) – which still form the foundations of its repertoire. (Add the 1884 Holberg Suite – opus 40 – into the mix: and there’s your proof!)

Yes, I admit it: as you can tell, I was won over… – although I was listening even harder than usual! And a later thorough read-through of the pages of the score revealed much more complexity and authority than I had initially assumed. Admittedly, this is not in any way a mature work: Dvořák wrote it when he was only 33, with a young family – and, supposedly, in less than a fortnight! (Gosh.) But it does contain the seeds of the greatness that was to follow.

“One of his most idyllic works”, it contains some wonderful melodies, cleverly constructed harmonies and rhythms… – and yet, the reliance on an A‑B‑A structure for each movement does mean that I still find it a little episodic in nature. (Although Curtis smoothed out the joins with aplomb. He was obviously a skilled plasterer in a previous life!)

The first movement took me back to the Grieg, emotionally (therefore forming wonderful, tuneful bookends for the evening) – with a most wonderful peak climbed effortlessly just before it ended. Although no fan of waltzes, the second movement – a little Chopin-like? – felt as if it advanced in torrents of joy (and the first subject is what still echoes round my hollow head): and I felt Curtis’ handling and variation of the repeats (and final Da capo) was shrewd and subtle: with more rubato. (These “friends” have made time for each other – happy and relaxed in each other’s company.) And there was a moment in the central Trio where the violins played sul G, and the cellos built beneath them, which was eye-popping. (The advantage of such a small ensemble is the clarity of every single line; every single instrument.) The orchestration here is masterful: creating lucid structures from split parts; and building to something angry, rather than ecstatic (again, with little bits of Elgar in the light).

The Scherzo that followed reminded me, again, fleetingly, of the Grieg – especially in its migration from light to dark (here come the thunderclouds): although the middle section was about as “playful” as the same movement in Saturday’s Brahms. (Had conducting the Shostakovich Fifth at the weekend injected a little Soviet plangency, here?) There was also some wonderful, cross-threading counterpoint; along with a handful of wonderful, organic tempo changes; and the ppp at the end of the ritenuto was so quiet – as Curtis held his finger to his lips – I wondered if I was imagining it….

This was followed by typically exquisite, expressive playing from the two cellos – although my performer of the night has to be Stacey Watton on bass. Such a treat to see this instrument so loved – as well as its sound cherished by the conductor (who knows when each section needs eye-contact and direction; as well as when to leave well alone… – I could have sworn that he actually stopped moving at several times, tonight: these are relationships that are built on trust; mutual admiration; and knowledge of each individual’s super-capabilities – which is why it just plain works).

And then another beautiful ‘hold’ before the cellos resume with a quietly confident pizzicato figure. Charm with a capital ‘C’. Then moving into mixed periods of mournful cogitation and exultant joy; before an explosion as the movement ends. With some extremely deft handling, hope is regained!

The following Larghetto carried with it an air of resignation – and was far too short, for me, as a slow movement. (I do so love to be maudlin.) There are echoes of one of the waltz themes woven throughout: somehow amplifying the expressiveness of the main descending melody. I suspect that conducting the slow movement of the Shostakovich at the weekend has been good for the Curtis soul: and this was almost as piercing – just gentler; more caressing; less despairing. As the pace gathered, though, it became characteristically Dvořák – his gift for melody (not unlike Brahms’) shining through. Here comes the sun again!

And yet the clouds returned with the recapitulation of that falling cry, before yet another build; before fading to silence. Another touch of the lips; and a perfect harmonic in the first violins that resonated almost beyond hearing. (Take a breath.)

The Finale: Allegro vivace went by in a tuneful blur. Suggestions of Bohemian folksong; touches of Elgar and maybe Tippett, again; but an urgency that hadn’t seemed present, before. A hint in the cellos (so warm; so much concentration) of the previous movement; and the orchestra unified in some of its greatest, widest sound. So much joy; such writing of such high class… – and therefore perfectly suited to this wonderful group of wonderful musicians. Somehow, yet, there is a hesitation: the opening theme of the first movement returns, gently, urgently; but then confidence is renewed. And there is one perfectly-controlled last rush to the emphatic end. This felt highly therapeutic – and the audience responded in kind. What a perfect finish! I think I may have been converted….

Thou mak’st me merry; I am full of pleasure,
Let us be jocund.
– William Shakespeare: The Tempest

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