Wednesday, 13 April 2016

And let us once again assail your ears…

Mozart’s way of reaching his listeners is to make use of faultless technical equipment. His is so smooth and natural a technique as to be very easily overlooked. In fact we are not intended to be made aware of it or to admire it for its own sake: it is merely the means to an end, and in the case of one so supremely gifted a perfectly convenient and untroublesome means, even where it involves appalling difficulties. No parade is ever made of skill or learning.

For the last two weeks I have suffered from (well, delighted in) a weirdly-fabricated earworm, concocted of joyful A major passages of Mozart randomly concatenated together. Thankfully (well, a little…), this has now faded – to be replaced by a more ordered (although more heavy-hearted) rendition of his music in G minor (with occasional interjections of G major and E‑flat major) – proof, if indeed such were needed, that, even as a seventeen-year-old, the young composer was producing some of the most memorable and perfectly-crafted melodies ever written. (That I find these repeated tunes palliative, rather than intrusive and irksome, is also a tribute to his genius.)

Unfortunately, in the process of sliding down the scale, I have also lost the sparkling, delicate phrasing of Peter Donohoe, and his “fluidity; apparent spontaneity; and yet great thought…”. There is impeccable compensation to be had, though, in the Orchestra of the Swan’s command of this music; their inhabitation of each note, each dynamic, each beautifully-rendered arc… – helped, of course, by David Curtis’ gentle authority, discernment, and innate sagacity (not to mention a revelatory solo performance of astounding radiance and intensity).

Anyone who has seen Amadeus will instantly recognize the syncopated opening Allegro con brio of Mozart’s Symphony No.25 (which, as well as this concert, also launched the film). In its contrast of subjects it is the very embodiment of ‘Sturm und Drang’; and to say it is unsettling – especially with its eerie interpolations (particularly after the repeat of the opening, but before the return of the first subject) – would be to mightily underplay its effect. (That it brought to mind the kingly ghost of Hamlet’s father – see below – I hope gives a flavour of the underlying menace.) As always, Mozart’s orchestration is a wonder (as are Curtis’ repeats – sometimes gaining in confidence; others, retreating with timidity…). For instance, there is a condensed conversation between the first and second violins at one point – before they unite in what, last night, felt like cries of Lear-like desperation – which, even in its briefness, seemed to encapsulate the very essence of the composer’s agitation. And, yet again, the oboes and horns were sensational in communicating this tension and angst.

The succeeding Andante, with its muted violins, offers no relief; and just piles on what I can only describe as ‘strangeness’. Now you realize why the two bassoonists – the plangent Philip Brookes and Maria Mealey – were perched at the back of the stage! They have been held in reserve to superimpose another layer of plaintiveness (in the way only this blessed and beautiful instrument can): with such mournful fortepiano sighs that you wonder how one so young could possibly have experienced such all-encompassing grief… – and then so ably communicated it. Without wallowing in such melancholy, Curtis took his time – and there was a crystalline pause, just before the second subject materialized, in which time stopped. (The man may bleed Shostakovich, but he breathes Mozart….) A smattering of triplets in the second violins added to this unease; and there was an extremely abridged, almost Tchaikovskian climax (again, see below), before the sadness resumed.

Ah, you say, looking at the programme: but there’s a Menuetto to follow – a little bit of light relief, there, surely? No. In this deeply-moving performance, the tension just kept on building: with ever more divergences of dynamic and texture. The central, keenly-orchestrated, wind-only Trio thus became funeral music of the most affecting kind (with a profundity I more associate with, say, Beethoven’s Drei Equali…). And even that section’s concluding ‘chortles’ (with stunning dynamic contrasts – of course!) sounded more like the cackles of a madman (or even the sarcastic demons in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius) than anything exultant.

The bassoons then (sadly) fade away for the final Allegro. This, to me, felt like a gathering storm. But it never really breaks. The syncopation of the first movement returns in the strings; and the turmoil, the tension, the unrest, never resolves. This is beauty – especially in the string writing and playing – of the most disquieting, challenging kind… – and yet the vibrant, limpid tenor of the orchestra soothed my soul.

However, the Mozart was a walk in the park on a warm summer’s day, compared to what followed (including “A funeral parade for a five-star general around Red Square,” according to Curtis)! If I had previously imagined the spectre of Old Hamlet, now he would solidify, pale and wan, before my eyes. (“’Tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart.”)

What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? By heaven I charge thee speak!

I have a sneaky feeling that Curtis is furtively attempting to perform an extended cycle of the complete works of Shostakovich – not in any particular order; and not within any specified time-limit… – especially as last night’s second spook emerged during the great composer’s awesome Hamlet suite, op.32a. Unlike his later, intensely serious, film‑score, op.116, this is a haunting more akin to Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice

Shostakovich, like many Russians, had an obsession with the character of Hamlet. In 1932, early in his career, he wrote incidental music for a notorious stage production which treated the play as a farcical comedy. Then, just over 30 years later, he was persuaded to write the music for a film of Hamlet directed by Grigori Kozintsev, again with satirical overtones. In effect, it made a covert attack on the Soviet system.

If it wasn’t for next week’s Immortal Shakespeare concert at Holy Trinity – featuring the first performance of the most beautiful cantata of the same name by Dobrinka Tabakova, the Orchestra of the Swan’s Resident Composer – I would have described this work’s performance as the apogee of the orchestra’s Shakespeare 400 season (commemorating the poor man’s death): such is its startling boldness and power.

It is a dilly: with its parodies of light music, its parodies of serious music, its parodies of even the Dies Irae chant, Shostakovich’s score sounds like nothing so much as Offenbach done up to date in Soviet Russia. By the time he composed the incidental music for Akimov’s Hamlet in 1932, Shostakovich was an old hand at turning out ironic farces: from his satirical opera The Nose (1928) through his music for the burlesque ballet The Age of Gold and his travesty of a music hall revue Conditionally Killed, Shostakovich knew just how to balance irony and sarcasm with popular music so as to make the most appealing possible mixture. That this mixture did not appeal to the Communist Party says more about its lack of humor then it does about Shostakovich’s music.

In the hands of Curtis, this was gripping, electrifying stuff: with incredibly dramatic playing from all quarters of the orchestra. No-one escapes the intense work-out this music requires – and all delivered impeccable dynamics, humour, poignancy, and precision. (I am struggling not to list every single member of the orchestra by name, here: but there were so many excellent solos, duets – and a cheekily-repeated, yet merited, lyrical string quartet section – that I do not want to leave anyone out.)

There were also shocks aplenty – particularly from the brass and multi-tasking percussionists – as well as snippets that simply ended.

There’s probably no need to concentrate, or elucidate, too much on the structure of Tchaikovsky’s rightly-famous Violin Concerto, which completed the concert – after a well-earned interval – except to say that is hard to believe…

…that in Tchaikovsky’s day the famous violinist Leopold Auer, for whom the work was written, pronounced certain passages unplayable, and even Adolph Brodksy, who gave the first performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, declared that the solo part taxed his technical skill to the utmost.

…especially watching Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s magnificent and insightful portrayal. As the publicity for the concert stated, “this [fiery] work is the perfect vehicle to display Tamsin’s extraordinary technical skill”; and this was a joyous demonstration of that rare combination of dexterity and sensibility.

If I had to sum up the performance in two words – one for the soloist, one for the orchestra – they would be ‘ferocity’ and ‘balance’. However, regular readers of my reviews will know that I never let myself be troubled by such ponderous limits – so let me explain.

Waley-Cohen brings both ferocious intelligence and emotion to the stage. The first movement, in particular, was one of great contrast: with both incredible power and gauze-like delicacy on display. In the Andante, she then demonstrated a lyrical sensibility second to none. Her communication with – and obvious admiration of – the orchestra came into its own, though, in the final Allegro vivacissimo. Her rapport with Curtis was also quite staggering.

Her maturity is never in doubt – hence my choice of that second word. She is never afraid to play quietly: knowing that the orchestra’s large numbers are no indication of its transcendent accompanying subtlety. She is also willing to become an integral part of their limpid texture – an equal member – when necessary; and the joy she displayed – inbetween all that praiseworthy fireworks and tracery – when observing them at work, I believe demonstrates both generosity and a keen appreciation of their skills.

Thus a work I had never really admired before now spoke volumes: its flow insinuating itself deep within me. This was a great, very special, utterly exceptional performance. And the rapturous reception said so much more than any of my words ever can.

Even then, though, the evening was not over: a short, soulful, introverted encore helped us – eventually – start drifting back to earth from the heavens we had inhabited. We could begin to breathe once more….

Yet again – as always with Curtis and the Orchestra of the Swan – this was a shrewdly-programmed concert: one with tragedy at its core. But, somehow, its overall effect was gloriously uplifting: probably because music of this quality is keenly felt and rare. We are therefore so lucky to have such inestimable talent within such easy reach.

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