Thursday, 31 March 2016

As thoughts and dreams and sighs, Wishes and tears…

Admittedly, my taste in music is broad (and, I would like to think, deep) – but, even so, occasionally (and only occasionally), I chance upon a concert so perfectly-programmed that I wonder if my thoughts have somehow leaked out into the stratosphere to be captured by some propitious musical genie (with snazzy multi-coloured socks, perhaps…). And then I remember that not only are the works themselves immaculate, and impeccably-aligned, but the performers are also from my happiest, most aspirational dreams. (It’s as if someone’s gifted me my own personal orchestra!)

So it was that I entered Malvern’s Forum Theatre, yesterday evening – and still in daylight… – with the most gormless grin plastered on my face. No, not Brahms, Elgar, or even Vaughan Williams; but, yes, congratulations to those of you who yelled out “Shostakovich”! In this case, his First Piano Concerto – and wait, it gets better… – performed by Peter Donohoe (above)! And bookended by my favourite Mozart symphony (No.29, K201) and piano concerto (No.12, K414) – both in the “golden, warm, and sunny” key of A major… 

This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one’s state of affairs; hope of seeing one’s beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.

…and I think all these properties could be said to be present – not only in the golden, warm, and sunny Orchestra of the Swan – but especially in the symphony, which opened the evening. (The concerto, I feel, is more meditative – an aspect that was beautifully illuminated by Donohoe: who appears to have such a gracious affinity with Mozart that the music always sounds fresh, yet considered, in his hands… – but more of that later!) Additionally, to my ears, in both works it sounds as if the young Wolfgang has found his wings – and is making sure that everyone knows he can fly!

Eric Blom, in Ralph Hill’s The Symphony, describes Symphony No.29 as “this slender but extremely appealing work of 1774” – but adds that it “takes the foremost place in one’s affections [because] the youthful musician took fire from his inspiration and wrote for his own satisfaction”.

It may be an early work for Mozart (he was eighteen): but its ingenious string writing, with its gossamer strokes, foreshadows the serenades of the late nineteenth century. Such accomplished orchestration is often superimposed – throughout the work – with characteristic (on some occasions, extremely) sustained notes in the oboes and horns (demonstrating the Orchestra of the Swan’s wind section’s magnificent collective lung capacity). But it is that glorious leaping, ascending first subject of the Allegro moderato that grabs your attention – sung so radiantly by OOTS’ skilful strings… – as well as the sudden, electrifying changes of dynamic and mood (especially in the first repeat) which follow. And, for once, the floating oboes (Victoria Brawn – page-turner par excellence… – and Louise Braithwaite) and insistent horns were perfectly balanced and transparent. (It can be so easy to overwhelm them with too many strings… – but never here.) Bliss!

Blom says of the following Andante that “Its peaceful atmosphere is that of a sunlit garden and its finely balanced shape suggests that the garden is one with trimmed hedges and symmetrical vistas.” The muted strings, here – with the, at first, timorous descant-like counter-melody in the first violins; and the building layers of oboe and horn – wandered through the greenery with plangent, sometimes whispered, delicacy; the second subject just as beautiful and affecting as the main theme of the Tchaikovsky that followed after the interval. Not one blade of grass was flexed or folded. David Curtis, conducting, needless to say – with occasional balletic sweeping gestures, subtle body language, and a marvellous range of encouraging facial expressions… – let the music breathe: with profound moments of gentle rubato. We bathed in the orchestra’s warmth; and all was well… – well, until the wind’s salute in the spine-tingling Coda. Not a rude awakening as such: but a fanfare to signal the following Minuetto was on its way.

Blom describes this as…

An extraordinarily vigorous and original movement. The octave unisons for the oboes and horns… at the end of each of the two parts of the main section are a daring innovation, and the immediate mocking imitation of it by the strings at the opening of the second part is irresistibly humorous.

Look out, Shostakovich, you have competition!

As the pleasing programme note – by Christopher Morley – implies, this is hardly music to dance to, with its “less than courtly energy of Beethoven scherzos”; and yet there are hints of a Tchaikovskian waltz in the Trio. More originality – this time tinged with fun (and the smiles of a happy band)!

The final Allegro con spirito is well-known for its status as a “conductor’s nightmare, with its [oft-repeated] rushing upward unison scale beginning off the beat… this sky-rocket…”. However, Curtis had apparently not even glanced inside the programme’s pages: the violins were always perfectly, brightly, joyously synchronized! What stood out for me, instead, was the superb horn playing from Francesca Moore-Bridger and Craig Macdonald.

With its octave jump, the rising initial theme, here, takes us back to the first movement – one of the many signs of Mozart’s burgeoning maturity – which, as Blom states, “is used imitatively with great skill in the working out”. He then adds an aside to his description of “the very pretty second subject” that follows – which, I believe, sums up the whole symphony (if not the complete works…):

The word ‘pretty’, by the way, though it happens to be the right one here, should not be taken to confirm the far too widespread view that Mozart is the ‘dainty’ composer, not only of the popular fancy, but even of the imagination of many musicians, especially of the nineteenth century, who ought to have known better and seen deeper. He could achieve prettiness incomparably well simply because he could express anything whatever that came within the range of the technical resources and the aesthetic conceptions of his time.

…and I simply could not have put it better (although Donohoe certainly did, in the too-short pre-concert talk…). Read a Mozart score (including this one), and his genius leaps from the page – the effects he achieves with “only the normal small Salzburg orchestra of two oboes, two horns, and strings” are remarkable. His music may sound ‘pretty’ – but underneath the tranquil waters of the Avon, that swan is pedalling with all its might: a picture of effortless, exuberant perfection. And in its undoubted element.

Both the Shostakovich and Mozart concertos (the latter ending the concert) are known for including quotations from other composers (and, of course, in Shostakovich’s case, himself…). I think they also share a dark inner voice – already hinted at in the symphony’s inner movements. Whereas, there, it was the strings who butted in; here, in Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto, it is nearly always the trumpet – given emphatic, argumentative articulation by Hugh Davies (stupendously producing some of the greatest, almost jazz-club-like playing: akin, for me, to the legend that is Miles Davis…) – which supplies the interjections.

Years after he wrote the work, Shostakovich recalled that he had initially planned to write a concerto for trumpet and orchestra and then added the piano to make it a double concerto. As he continued writing, it became a piano concerto with a solo trumpet.

That sums the work up quite pithily – but does not go far enough in hinting at the mayhem that Shostakovich’s mastery somehow knits into a cohesive whole (and a jolly entertaining one, at that – if your idea of entertainment is as masochistic as mine… – although it must be fiendishly hard work for both soloist(s) and orchestra). For one thing: I am not convinced that the trumpeter has the same perspective as the pianist. Anyway…

The first movement, Allegro moderato, immediately wakes you from your Mozartian reveries: pulling you away swiftly and cruelly from those sunlit uplands; with Donohoe issuing a startling challenge of runs and a creepy, creeping, resonant bass motif (above). This develops into what I can only describe as ‘typical Shostakovich’ – a pointed Allegro vivace, with infrequent trumpet commentary. Although the strings, with Curtis’ precision guidance, try their hardest to calm things down, as the pace slows (marginally) to Allegretto – and just as it looks as if everyone is going to play nicely together, at the transformation to Allegro – Donohoe careers off expertly with yet more of that trademark, jagged sarcasm.

The strings will not be defeated: and try again, with an episode of deep introversion, low, low down. But that skulking bass figure, and its accompanying open theme, return; and…

…well, we’re suddenly thrown into the deep end of a transcendent, piercing beauty that, again, could only be by Shostakovich: almost a slow-motion mazurka – here, revealing Curtis’ increasingly deep immersion in such movements: expressed ethereally in the upper strings. Eventually, Donohoe joins in – reticently, almost, as if scared to intrude… – but the crystalline melody he conjures up just adds to the tension: especially when underwritten by a hint of “that skulking bass figure”, again, momentarily; before a simple tune and accompaniment. You know it can’t last for long…

…but, somehow, it does; and further evolves into supreme, Rachmaninoff-style gorgeousness. Of course, this is when the façade comes tumbling down! The man just can’t resist! And off we go again, Più mosso, with an intense, short burst of a cadenza, underlined with some heavy martial bass chords from Donohoe. The strings reciprocate… – and we are drawn back into the haunting world of the Fifth Symphony: “the brass-less Largo, which ‘is the work’s emotional core’ – ‘one of the most despairing pieces of music ever written, a memorial for Mother Russia and all those sent to the labour camps’.” Even the solo trumpet now sings muted and mournfully – sensational, plangent playing from Davies: well-deserving of Donohoe’s approbation and gratitude at the end… – before holding hands with the piano for a moment; which then leads us on, as the strings return for a heartbreaking descent into hell, whilst Donohoe soars almost imperceptibly heavenwards.

The Moderato third movement is really just a short skip and a step from being the introduction to the final Allegro con brio. As if to acknowledge where he left us – sobbing into our handkerchiefs – Shostakovich breaks us in gently with some twinkling work for Donohoe (and that remarkable, ineffable, deftness of touch). But the strings seem to want to pull the music back to that soul-shaking slow movement. And yet, you just know that the proprietary spikiness will return, eventually…

… and so Davies interjects yet again: with Donohoe trying to overwhelm any other instrument in hearing with massive torrents that build to what I can only describe as an almighty bunfight between the two soloists.

I’m not sure you could say that order is then restored, as such. It never is. It’s not a compromise, either; nor a handshake – more a licking of wounds – and yet, the piano reneges on whatever Machiavellian bargain was made, and again asserts its supremacy.

But Davies’ gleaming trumpet has a trick hidden up its valves – and all Donohoe can do is punctuate its swagger with one annoyed fortississimo chord: slamming the door and storming out. So cocky, now, is the trumpet, that it even sings a repeated burst of “I’m H‑A‑P‑P‑Y” (seriously); and the strings join in with the fun, before – of course! – Donohoe tries to barge back in. Unperturbed by this rudeness, everyone else just keeps going, before the trumpet finally gives in, widely opens the door, and in flies Donohoe, tails trailing, with the most manic, gathering, swinging storm of a cadenza. Gosh, that man can play! (Which may well be the understatement of the century.)

The trumpet’s return is impudence personified. Both soloists want to have the last word. And they do. And we cheer and stamp, and applaud: knowing that intense magic was worked – but not quite knowing how. (I’m beginning to think Curtis must have some Soviet blood in him.) Stupendous, on all counts! (And not a surprise – considering the immensely-skilled, interrogative punishment it received – that the piano needed a quick retune, afterwards.)

[Reading this back, I find that I am struggling to do both the work and the performance justice. Just take it from me that it was formidably astounding… – or, perhaps, astonishingly overwhelming… – and then mix those thoughts in with the rest of my underachieving prose….]

I don’t know about anyone-else: but I also required a retune after that. And maybe, then, to follow, a nice gentle massage…?

Call me a mushy romantic – “Tysoe: you’re a mushy romantic!” – and I shall be happy to agree. The Tchaikovsky Andante Cantabile that followed (an arrangement of the slow movement of his first string quartet – usually for cello and strings – and music now recommended for funerals, would you believe…?!) is just an outpouring of the purest beauty – and therefore ‘gets’ me every time. It speaks – nay, it sings – to me….

Some may consider it ‘sentimental’ – but, to me, it feels like a distillation of regret; albeit with a teensy smidgen of hope. It was the perfect antidote to the Shostakovich; and definitely massaged my soul.

All I need say is that Curtis and the OOTS strings played this simpler, warmer adaptation (not quite the one above…) – paced perfectly, with some agonizingly pure poignancy – as if their lives depended on it. (The solo from David Le Page, as always, was considered and touching: utterly representative of the rest of the orchestra.) This was controlled catharsis of the most ravishing kind. I felt truly cleansed….

The closing Mozart concerto never quite lets go of this more maudlin feeling – despite being in that “golden, warm, and sunny” key of A major… – not even, I feel, “in the genial rondo finale marked Allegretto”.

There is some wonderful orchestral writing before the piano is finally invited to join in. Donohoe seemed to be enjoying the rest, though: observing Curtis and the orchestra with a keen eye and matching smile – perhaps, wondering, like me, with only oboes and horns added to the core strings, how they were making such rich music! But his entry (above) was fabulous: as if he had just heard these wondrous themes for the first time; absorbed them; and was extemporizing on them. No-one plays Mozart like Donohoe: there is such fluidity; apparent spontaneity; and yet great thought (you know that every single note has been scrutinised and weighed-up with his well-developed wisdom and expertise). He honours the music with so much grace; so much meaning; that it is as if he has clothed himself deep within it.

He wears it lightly, though; and never grandstands. He is a truly collaborative performer (despite his justified quarrelsomeness in the Shostakovich) – especially with Curtis “at the front, waving his arms around” – and he and the orchestra’s members are genuine equals. Thus, even the first-movement cadenza was simply a demonstration of his wonderment at Mozart’s brilliance. No fireworks, as such – just clear illumination of genius.

His playing in the Andante – entering with one of Mozart’s most beautiful piano themes – was thoughtfully subdued. It flowed slowly, affectingly, out of his fingers… – although I thought I detected just a hint of menacing Shostakovich in the short cadenza… – all the way to that transcendent ending. (Do not doubt that this is Romanticism of the highest order – up there with both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.)

Even the final movement’s cadenza was ruminative – allowing Curtis to pause the orchestra, take deep breaths… before a final flourish from Donohoe; and a compact climb to the pinnacle of… – actually, I really don’t have the words for such… beauty. (Just let’s say that I could probably listen to Donohoe play Chopsticks on an endless loop – preferably accompanied with his and Curtis’s commentary – and still find it compelling.)

And then, just when I thought this was an evening that could not be improved upon, the gentle, generous soul that is Donohoe – who had thanked everyone on the stage several times, as is his wont, with modest graciousness… – spoke a few quiet words to the audience; entranced us, transported us, with an encore (Shostakovich – of course… – his Prelude and Fugue No.7 in A major (the great man tells me…)) that seemed to encapsulate all that had gone before….

And so it was that I departed Malvern’s Forum Theatre, yesterday evening – in darkness… – with the most gormless grin (still) plastered on my face; but with tears yet drying on my cheeks. My heart was full… – thanks to some of the most wonderful music and musicians. What else could one desire…?

Well, if, after all that – and my failure to praise it duly… – you’re looking for even more of OOTS’ patented, emotive yumminess: then, on Friday, go grab a copy of the CD, below…! (And, be warned: Donohoe and the orchestra also have a recording of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto out, hopefully later in the year; matched with yesterday’s recording of the First…! Watch this space!)

On Naxos’s new album of the English composer’s work, the Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan, under their music director David Curtis, perform arrangements of some of Ireland’s finest inspirations.
     The Downland Suite, arranged from its brass-band original by the composer himself, is in the best English pastoral tradition.
     The passionate Cello Sonata, written in the Twenties, when Ireland was in the throes of an affair with a much younger man, has been transcribed for cello and strings by [OOTS cellist] Matthew Forbes, and is brilliantly dispatched by cellist Raphael Wallfisch.
     If you didn’t know, you could think it was originally composed as a cello concerto.
     A really good introduction to Ireland’s art.
David Mellor: Daily Mail (26 March 2016)

More information here and here.

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