Friday, February 16, 2007

Orchestral Ecstasy, Concertgebuow, Barbican Hall

The Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under its conductor Mariss Jansons spent the weekend giving a Saturday evening of symphonies -Schubert 5, Bruckner 1 - and a Sunday afternoon of mainly French music (February 10 and 11). The evening concert was well played but nothing special, the Schubert over-accented (as if it were Beethoven) and the Bruckner lacking in the warmness of heart it needs if it is not to appear one of the composer's least impressive works. But the Sunday afternoon was something else, one of the best orchestral concerts I have had the luck to hear in a quarter-of-a-century. This was a concert to remember,, music-making of a brilliant, mind-blowing and heart-warming nature, to cherish with memories of the great conductors of the last sixty years that I have reviewed, to be put beside Bernstein, Stokowski, Furtwangler, Walter and Beecham, particularly Beecham because of the warmth, the instinctive feeling for the way the music should sound, for inducing a wonderful orchestra to play its best and reveal the very soul of the composers. Excuse the personal, but I had the feeling, of ecstasy nearly a dozen times.

What is that feeling? Something like an orgasm but an orgasm of the senses, not a sexual one, a feeling of self-transcendence that makes the body shudder and tingle, "Rarely, rarely cometh thou. spirit of delight" says Shelley. Well,, it cane on Sunday afternoon. In spades. First, the Roman Carnival Overture of Berlioz. The big climaxes were power driven but there were delicacies too, the rustle of those tiny cymbals round the edge of the tambourine as well as the brazen clash of the big cymbals. Oh. those trombones of the Concertgebouw, what a noble sound the trio of players make !'

The second item was La Mer of Debussy, begun in the Burgundian Hills and the orchestration, finish in the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne. The horns were magnificent, horns of elf land but also of heavenly pomp. The first flute of this Dutch band, would you believe it, comes from Wales, Emily Beynon, a player and a musician of rare calibre. The oboes were fine too, the bassoons the very best you could imagine. The first trumpet shone like the sun on the ocean, the harps like the glitter of spume. The divided cellos in the first movement sang like angels. And throughout the afternoon the little man from Latvia, Mariss Jansons controlled, but never bossed, he cajoled his men and women to play like possessed creatures. The end of Debussy's seascapes came with vast waves of sound surrounding that monumental last theme.

After the interval the orchestra slimmed down to a handful of players for Folk-Songs of Berio, songs from America, France, Armenia, Italy, Sardinia, the Auvergne and Azerbaijan. Clever, touching arrangements, some deep, some piquant, some with the gift to be simple. The singer was the conductor's fellow Rigan Elina Garanca, mezzo-soprano, tall, blond, elegant, powerful voice, but capable of subtlety. This was a connoisseur’s treat.

Some have tried to see pending disaster, civilisation's decline and general doom in Ravel's La Valse. It is more likely nothing of the sort. The composer just wanted to write a waltz and he did so, a waltz to end all waltzes, an enticing, seductive, glamorous, swaying waltz, the very apotheosis of the waltz, superbly orchestrated, a WOW of a waltz. Jansons and the Concertgebouw gave it everything they had which was plenty, nobody in the audience was underwhelmed.

The Ravel over, there was a mighty ovation broken by Jansons picking up his baton and launching into...surprise, surprise, the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, primal Italian passion, wild applause, some reached for their coats, many others stood and cheered. Jansons looked pleased but not valedictory. He picked up his baton and gave us another surprise; Hungarian this time, not Turkey (thank goodness) but a march, Berlioz’s grand razzmatazz which he spatchcocked into The Damnation of Faust. This again reminded me of Beecham, it was a favourite lollipop of his; both Jansons and Beecham treated it with panache and bravura, a brilliant and spine-tingling finish to a truly memorable concert.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Beethoven's Late Quartets

The squadron-leader replied: "I am going to spend my week-end leave with God and the late Beethoven string quartets." Music is the most intangible of the arts, unfolding in time, unlike paintings, which capture a moment in time for ever, or literature which can take its time to capture and elaborate a moment or an idea. Music cannot express an idea; it can (occasionally) imitate reality but more often it reflects mood or consciousness of an idea; that is, when it is not abstract. Mendelssohn once said that if you could explain a piece of music in words then it was no longer music. And Aaron Copland once wrote that his answer to the question "Is there a meaning to music?" would be "Yes". But to the question "Can you state in so many words what the meaning is ?" his answer would be "No".

So how could my squadron-leader and countless others equate Beethoven's late quartets with God ? My answer is 'listen to them and you might find the equation accurate'. Although before that might come another question: is it not really God in that equation? By most accounts, Beethoven was not an orthodox believer; but neither was he an atheist. It would seem that he believed in a Supreme Being. And it has been said that all composers of truly great music must have been similar believers, orthodox or unorthodox; many have testified to that.

Recently I spent a week listening to the last five Beethoven quartets. I was transported and feel that I have been in touch with some higher state of being. Those quartets are not easy listening or necessarily the most beautiful music ever - although there is beautiful music in them – but they are surely the most meaningful, and thought provoking music that exists. The thoughts are moods, consciousness of shapes and patterns that are totally satisfying, reactions that are subjective, maybe, but ones that induce feelings of spirituality.

The five late quartets were some of the last music Beethoven composed: Opus 127 in E flat, 130 in B flat, 131 in C sharp minor, 132 in A minor and 135 in F, all composed between 1823 and 1826. In 1827 Beethoven died of dropsy and pneumonia at the age of 56. 130 is the quartet that has two endings, the original finale being the (great) Grosse Fuge (although Beethoven later composed an alternative finale, an easy going one), 152 has the Holy Thanksgiving slow movement-hymn 'from a convalescent to the Deity’ (ah, ha. Deity!) whilst 135 has a lighter touch (cf. Verdi's old age opera Falstaff) except for the profound slow movement, and ends with question and answer 'must it be?’, 'it must be' spelt out in notes. As opposed to many of the symphonies, concertos and overtures which are somehow public works, the quartets tell of the composer's rich but often troubled inner life.

They are serious utterances but by no means devoid of humour and lightness, but they are instincts with the experience of a lifetime. By his fifties Beethoven was old before his time, weighed down with the crushing blow of his deafness and the various circumstances that stood in the way of the marriage that he so longed for. Perhaps too, the intensity, the high tension of writing the late quartets hastened his death. His inner sense of music was so acute that in his mind he heard everything that he put down on paper in such astonishing detail as to notation, gradations of volume, tempo, articulation and texture. His communication with the listener is complete: with a single phrase or two or three chords he can induce feelings of love, joy, morality, mysticism and a thousand nameless impressions that cannot be put into words.

Most of his first listeners and performers thought that Beethoven had gone off his head and that the late works were not performable. Certainly he strains his players to the limit and the music is often much in advance of its time. The Grosse Fuge is some of the wildest and most forceful music ever written yet its construction is cast in steel being continuous variations on four motives, every bar related thematically, an intellectual miracle yet shattering in its emotional effect. The music is rarely sensuous but full of masculine tenderness.

Occasionally we get a vision of a soul in anguish, as in the Cavatina of opus 150 (which Beethoven thought his deepest Adagio) in which the first violin sobs out his message. The whole quartet that he thought his finest was the C sharp minor opus 151 whose opening slow Fugue seems to attain a state of grace. These words are maybe futile but if you will try (or try again) the experience of listening to these quartets, you may understand what I am trying to say; they represent a perfect marriage of heart and mind, there is no padding but there are hints of the romantic age shortly to be born.

I listened to performances of the quartets made way back in the 1970's by the Vegh Quartet that are still acknowledged to be consistently the best. Also very fine are the Lindsay Quartet and more recently the Brodsky.

Doff your headgear gentlemen!

Recital rooms too often these days seem to be comfort stations. But the piano recital given by Stefan Cassomenos on 30 January in the salon of 22 Mansfield Street, home of Mr. and Mrs. Boas, was something else; alive, passionate, dramatic as well as technically perfect. We in the audience were bonded, stirred and shaken. At one point the pianist mopped the keys; perspiration no doubt. But it could have been blood, it was playing as if the pianist's life depended on it.

It was a welcome change that the Haydn Sonata was not the usual (marvellous, mind you) E flat but no.26 in A flat, unusual features being the slow movement that begins with the left hand only – unique in Haydn's output? - and one movement that seems to have a mordent in every bar. A red-frocked priest sitting nearby was heard to pronounce it a romantic reading; none the worse for that. Then followed Liszt's rarely heard amazing study in dynamic lugubricity, Funérailles. The pianist gave it dark sonorities and tremendous climaxes. Cassomenos is Greek born, Australian bred; the last time I heard him play, he was playing on the first desk of violins in a Melbourne Youth Orchestra (strings) in a tiny village called Crottens, 30 miles north of Toulon (he also composes and has just had his twenty-second birthday).

There followed Chopin’s B minor Scherzo. Schumann was baffled by a scherzo that did not live up to its definition "How are seriousness and gravity to be clothed, if jest is to go about in such dark-coloured garments?" Cassemenos turned down the lights even- further: recall that chorale passage interrupted by high up tinklings: this pianist made the chorale a launch-pad for the high-up tinklings which here became menacing shards of light. The Australian composer Gordon Kerry's Figured in the Drift of Stars, on a first hearing, seemed to lack continuity, various pianistic devices, less a drift than a meander towards the nearest billabong.

The evening ended with Prokofiev's Sonata No.6, a performance that evoked a reminiscence of the composer, “he never entered a room if he could smash a window to get in”. The ageing composer had lost his youthful looks by the time of World War II but his music recalled the blond youth who combined charismatic charm with a tendency to behave often like a bull in a china shop. The performance lacked nothing of the brutality of much of the work, its restless force, the balletic scherzo with touches of magic and orange fruitfulness, the tender corniness of the slow movement’s waltzing, and the stabbing grimness of the finale.

The recital took place in an elegant, Adam-ceilinged music room, played on a (I guess) six-foot-eight Steinway that had been recently tended and tweaked by the Hamburg master technician Ulrich Gerhard from the revered old firm. After Cassemenos's never reticent onslaught it may need a tuning. This was a prodigious London debut by a formidable talent; yes, he could have turned down the volume a bit, and just occasionally he hurried; otherwise I think that Joseph, Franz, Fredéric and Sergey (listening upstairs) would have been satisfied and nodded approval.