Archive for St David’s Hall

Angela Hewitt at St David’s Hall – The Goldberg Variations

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2018 by telescoper

Angela Hewitt (picture credit: St David’s Hall website )

This afternoon I had the great pleasure of attending a solo piano concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff featuring star pianist Angela Hewitt (pictured above). The programme consisted of one work – but what a work! – the monumental Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

I’ve been looking forward to this concert for weeks, not only because it was a rare opportunity to hear Angela Hewitt play, but also because although it’s a very special piece to me I’ve never heard the entire work played live before today.

The fact that I love this work so much is probably connected with my love of Jazz. Although ostensibly totally different idioms, the basic idea of ‘theme and variation’ unites these forms. Not much is known about Bach’s approach to the composition of this particular work but it wouldn’t surprise me if he improvised at least some of the variations. Above all, though, it’s when those walking bass lines for the left hand appear (e.g. near the end of the Aria) that Bach really swings; I always imagine Percy Heath or Ray Brown accompanying those passages on the double bass.

The sense of anticipation for this concert probably explains why I arrived earlier than usual:

I have eight different versions of the Goldberg Variations on CD, including one by Angela Hewitt and the two extraordinary (and extraordinarily different) recordings by fellow Canadian Glenn Gould. If I had to pick my favourite, however,  it would probably be one by Andras Schiff, but I find much to enjoy in all of them. I think the great thing about Bach’s music is that it’s so beautifully constructed that it can be played in a huge variety of ways and still be exquisite.

I’ve heard some people describe Angela Hewitt’s way of playing Bach as ‘affected and punctilious’ and others ‘elegant and crisply articulated’. They’re probably all describing the same thing, but some people like it and some don’t, it’s just a matter of taste.

Recordings are not the same as a live experience, and today underlined to me just how much more I enjoy live concerts. The concert lasted about 80 minutes (without an interval) – there are 30 variations altogether – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience at St David’s with such rapt attention. For me the time went so quickly that I was quite startled when I heard the start of penultimate section (‘Quodlibet’) signalling that we were near the end. After the final note of the closing recapitulation of the opening Aria had subsided, the soloist kept her face down over the keyboard as if daring anyone to break the spell. Eventually she raised her head, smiled, and the applause began, followed by a standing ovation. The St David’s audience is usually rather reticent so that tells you how good this was. What better way can there be to spend a Sunday afternoon?

P.S. Angela Hewitt walked on and off stage with the aid of a metal crutch, suggesting some form of leg injury. On the unlikely event that she reads this, let me wish her a speedy recovery from whatever it is!

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Debussy, Mozart and Messiaen at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on March 25, 2018 by telescoper

The view from Tier 2 before the concert

After work (and a pint or two) on Friday evening I headed to St David’s Hall for a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 so you can listen to it on the iPlayer for a month.

Two of the four pieces on the programme were by Claude Debussy (abovel, to mark the centenary of his death which was 100 years ago today (on 25th March 1918).

The concert opened with Debussy’s Nocturnes and ended with La Mer , both works consisting of three movements for a large orchestra and showing the vivid chromaticism and lush orchestration that typifies so many of his compositions. The last movement of Nocturnes includes some wordless singing, which was performed beautifully by female singers from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

The second piece was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat Major K. 595, with soloist Steven Osborne. This, Mozart’s last piano concerto, is a nice piece, well played by both pianist and (pared-down) orchestra but I felt it was a rather incongruous choice for this programme. It was probably chosen because it is in some sense a valedictory piece, but all it did for me in this concert was emphasize how much the harmonic vocabulary of music expanded between Mozart and Debussy, and left me feeling that the Mozart piece was rather trite in comparison.

After the wine break we heard a piece that was completely new to me, Les Offrandes Oubliées by Olivier Messiaen, a wonderfully expressive piece with wildly contrasting moods, clearly influenced by Debussy but with a distinctive voice all its own. Messiaen is one composer I definitely wish I knew more about.

After the superb La Mer which ended the published programme, something very unusual happened for a classical concert in the UK: there was an encore by the orchestra in the form of a dance by Debussy orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

All in all, a very enjoyable evening and a fitting tribute to Claude Debussy, a composer who was both modernist and impressionist and whose influence on the development of music is incalculable.

The Philharmonia Orchestra: Beethoven & Mahler

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on February 19, 2018 by telescoper

I spent yesterday afternoon at a very enjoyable concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a programme of music by Beethoven and Mahler given by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Principal Guest Conductor Jakub Hrůša. The picture above was taken about 10 minutes before the concert started, from my seat in Tier 1. Quite a few people arrived between then and the beginning of the performance, but there wasn’t a very big audience. St David’s Hall may have been less than half full but those who did come were treated to some fantastic playing.

The first half of the concert consisted of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (in C) with soloist Piotr Anderszewski. This work was actually composed after his Piano Concerto No. 2 but was published first. It consists of three movements, an expansive slow movement (marked Largo) sandwiched between two sprightly up-tempo movements, marked Allegro con brio and Rondo-Allegro Scherzando, respectively. I think the first part of the last movement, full of energy and wit, is the best part of this work and Anderszewski play it with genuine sparkle. His performance was very well received, and he rounded it off with a charming encore in the form of a piece for solo piano by Bartok.

After the wine break we returned to find the piano gone, and the orchestra greatly expanded for a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 , the fourth movement of which (the `Adagietto’) is probably Mahler’s best-known music (made famous by its use in Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice). This lovely movement is sometimes performed on its own – a practice Mahler himself encouraged – but I think it’s particularly powerful when heard in its proper context, embedded in a large orchestral work that lasts well over an hour.

Although nominally five movements, this work is really in three sections: the first section consists of the first two movements (the first starting with Trauermarsch (a funeral march), and the second a stormy and at times savage movement, punctuated with brief interludes of peace). The last section consists of the beautiful Adagietto 4th movement (played entirely on the strings) followed by an energetic and ultimately triumphant finale. In between there’s an extended Scherzo, which is (unusually for Mahler) rather light and cheerful. Roughly speaking this symphony follows a trajectory from darkness into light and, although it certainly doesn’t go in a straight line, and does start with a death march, this is undoubtedly one of Mahler’s cheerier works!

The Philharmonia Orchestra gave a very accomplished and passionate reading of this piece, with especially fine playing from the brass section (who have lot to do). The exuberant ending brought many members of the audience to their feet and rightly so, as it was a very fine performance – the best I’ve heard live of this work.

Messiah

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Music, Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 10, 2017 by telescoper

A performance of Handel‘s Messiah  at St David’s Hall  is always a pretty sure sign that the Christmas season is upon us, although the work itself was actually first performed at Easter and it’s by no means clear why it ended up almost universally regarded as a Christmas work . Messiah actually spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1) , the Passion of Christ (Part II, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.

Whatever the reason I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young. I went to a performance of Messiah (in the same venue) about this time last year but I relished the chance to hear it again last night.

As it turned out, the pairing of Cardiff Polyphonic Choir with baroque orchestra Réjouissance produced a very different performance from last year. The choir, numbering about sixty members, was in fine voice and the much smaller orchestra meant that the chorus really dominated the show.

Generally speaking I’m not a fan of period instrument performances. I can see the virtue of having a lighter instrumental touch in this case, and don’t have a problem with using forces of similar scale to those Handel would have used (e.g. two oboes, two cellos, one double bass, etc). I do not however understand why musicians insist on using outdated instruments. This is particularly true for the trumpets. Nobody will ever convince me that a baroque trumpet isn’t an inferior version of the modern instrument. All credit to the players for doing the best they could, but I really don’t see the point.

Anyway, that rant aside, I very much enjoyed the performance, especially the lovely singing by all four soloists and the choir, who were outstanding.
Now, I wonder where I’ll hear Messiah  next year?

The Leningrad Symphony

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , , , , , on November 24, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I went with a group of friends and colleagues to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for concert that I had been looking forward to for some time, featuring the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the baton of WNO’s Music Director Tomáš Hanus in a programme of music by Mahler and Shostakovich. It turned out to be no disappointment!

Before the interval the Orchestra was joined by young mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught for the song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen by Gustav Mahler, featuring settings of four poems written by the composer (though clearly influenced by other sources). The four pieces are of contrasting mood, with the second being the most upbeat and the third the most despairing (as well as the most operatic in style) and they were written in response to an unrequited passion. I thought Tara Erraught sang very beautifully indeed, bring out the emotional depths of this piece. Unusually for Mahler, the orchestra for this work was not excessively large, and a good balance with the solo voice was achieved that allowed the subtleties of both vocal and orchestral parts to be enjoyed to full effect.

After the interval the stage was much fuller as the orchestral forces required for the second work were much larger. Symphony No. 7 by Dmitri Shostakovich (“Leningrad”) is a piece that evokes particular memories for me as I first heard it about thirty years ago on the radio while sitting in a car that was driving through a torrential downpour in the middle of the night from Kansas City to Lawrence. The repeating theme and snare drum figures in the 1st Movement that represent the remorseless advance of the invading army had even more powerful affect when accompanied by the incessant driving rain. I’ve heard this piece on recordings and live broadcasts on many occasions since then, but have never heard it performed live until last night.

Shostakovich in a fireman’s uniform in Leningrad, 1941

What can I say about this work? Well, not much that hasn’t been said before. It was dedicated to the city of Leningrad where the composer lived, until he was evacuated during the siege,  and where he wrote most of the 7th Symphony. He served as a volunteer fireman in Leningrad during the early part of the Second World War (see above), having been turned down for military service owing to his poor eyesight. Leningrad was besieged by German forces for almost 900 days, from September 1941 until January 1944, and it’s impossible not to see the work in this historical context.

 

Though the four movements have themes – `War’, `Memories’, `My Native Field’ and `Victory’ – this is not really a programmatic piece. It does, however, succeed in invoking the terror and brutality of armed conflict in a manner that is so compelling that it’s almost overpowering. Many symphonies have as a theme some kind of struggle between light and dark, or between good and evil, but it always seemed to me that this work is not so much like that as it is a representation of a struggle simply for survival against annihilation. Even the end of the intense fourth movement, when the music finally resolves into the key of C Major, suggesting a kind of `victory’, echoes of the previous conflict persist, suggesting (to me) that this particular battle does not intend in any kind of triumph but in a sense of grim endurance that is more resignation than resolution.

Musicologists tend not to like this Symphony and its reputation dwindled in the West in the post-War period. Maybe it is true that it has defects when thought of as an exercise in composition, but fortunately I am not a professional critic so I am quite content to say that for me, personally, this work has an emotional impact like few others and it is one of my favourites in the whole symphonic repertoire. Last night the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera delivered an impassioned performance that confirmed everything I felt about this work but with the added dimensions that you can only get from a live performance.

From the immaculately controlled crescendo representing the advancing invaders that erupts into a nightmarish depiction of the ensuing battle right through to the last movement with its ending in resolution tempered in bitterness and regret, this performance had me gripped. The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera played as if their lives depended on it, and the climactic moments were authentically terrifying and, it goes without saying, wonderfully loud. Many congratulations to Tomáš Hanus for inspiring his musicians to such heights. He looked absolutely drained at the end, as he acknowledged the applause of a very appreciative audience in St David’s Hall.

It’s a shame that there were so many empty seats. That often seems to be the case when the music is relatively `modern’. The Cardiff audience does seem to have rather conservative tastes in that way. On the way out of the Hall after the performance all the comments I heard – and those afterwards on Twitter – were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. I feel privileged to have been among those present at this thrilling event.

UPDATE: I didn’t realise it was being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is now available on iPlayer here for you to share the experience!

St David’s Day at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2017 by telescoper

Just a quick post to mention that I celebrated St David’s Day yesterday by going, appropriately enough, to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a special concert by the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales with soloists Rebecca Evans (soprano), Joshua Mills (tenor) and the very youthful Charlie Lovell-Jones (violin). The scheduled conductor, Gareth Jones, was indisposed so his place was taken by Adrian Partington (the Artistic Director of the BBC National Chorus of Wales).

The programme was entirely Welsh in origin and had a strong emphasis on vocal music, including many pieces I had never heard before, including songs by: Meirion Williams, Dilys Elwyn Edwards, R.S. Hughes, Idris Lewis, Joseph Parry, Evan Thomas Davies, Haydn Morris and, of course, Ivor Novello. There were also some instrumental pieces, including a cracking performance by 17-year old Charlie Lovell-Jones, of the Allegro movement from Sarakiz by Karl Jenkins.

The concert ended with a singalong, led by the chorus and soloists, of traditional Welsh favourites such as Sosban Fach, Calon Lân, Myfanwy and Cwm Rhonnda either side of a rare foray into the English language for We’ll Keep A Welcome In The Hillsides.  I was surprised to discover that Calon Lân is only a little over a hundred years old. I thought it was much older than that, but it’s still a lovely song (or hymn, really, as that’s what it is).

And of course no St David’s Day celebration would be complete without a rousing rendition of the Welsh National Anthem  Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (Land of my Fathers). Here’s a photograph of the closing scene. Note that the two vocal soloists had changed into Welsh Rugby Union shirts for the singalong part!

Here’s a picture of the closing stages, courtesy of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales twitter account.

st-davids

Four of us from the Cardiff University School of Physics & Astronomy attended the concert and we’re all in the picture. Bonus points if you can identify us!

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

Posted in Music with tags , , , on January 23, 2017 by telescoper

“Darkness, turbulence and an unmistakable undertone of violence” –  what could be a more fitting way to spend a Friday evening in January 2017 than listening to the epic Sixth Symphony by Gustav Mahler. So apt is this work for the times we’re living through that it was performed on Thursday evening by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; you can catch that performance on the BBC iPlayer here. I’ve always preferred my music live rather than recorded, so I went to St David’s Hall on Friday to hear it performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Thomas Søndergård. This was recorded live, and will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Friday 27th January, and available thereafter on iPlayer so you can compare the two versions if you want to.

Before the main course, we heard the excellent BBC National Chorus of Wales singing four motets by another late Romantic composer, Anton Bruckner. The pieces chosen were all settings of latin religous texts: Locus Iste, Os Justi, Christus Factus Est, and Ave Maria. These are beautiful works, and interesting because of the many references they include to earlier musical forms, especially in the Os Justi which is in the Lydian mode, harking back to what at the time it was written (1879) was an obsolete church scale.

These four works last only about 15 minutes in total. That explains why the bar staff weren’t taking interval orders before the concert started – there simply wouldn’t have been enough time to put the drinks out before the first half finished. Fortunately, my seat was near the door of the auditorium so I was able to make a quick escape and get my usual glass of wine at the bar before most of the audience.

And then the Mahler. What can I say? It’s another huge symphony, in four movements lasting about eighty minutes, requiring a huge orchestra including tubas, bass trombones, harps and varied percussion including cowbells, a celesta, and of course the famous hammer..

I mentioned earlier on that I much prefer live concerts. One of the things that I remember vividly from last Friday was the sight of the huge wooden mallet that is used to deliver the “hammer blows of fate” in the final movement, which loomed ominously on stage in front of the percussion section throughout the performance. When it was finally deployed it came down with such force that it buckled the wooden box underneath, but even when it wasn’t being used it had a powerful stage presence. That’s one kind of experience you’ll never get from a recording.

The first movement of this Symphony (Allegro energico) is a battle between a strident march theme and a passionate romantic melody, though the conflict is interrupted by a lengthy passage of remarkable peace and tranquility. In Mahler’s original version of this work, the Scherzo movement (in which the two main themes return in an even more agitated struggle) came second, but on reflection he swapped it with the Andante, which is measured and reflective but still with an undertone of foreboding. I’m not sure if anyone ever performs the original ordering anymore, but out of curiosity I’d like to hear it performed that way. The tonality and thematic content of the Scherzo mean it is more closely related to the Allegro than the Andante, which has led some to argue that, despite what Mahler thought, it should be played second. I don’t think that follows necessarily, but it would be interesting to hear how it works.

The final movement is vast, intense, emotionally draining and absolutely wonderful. The mood changes continually from terror to euphoria, from triumph to tragedy and from optimism to despair. Many people I know dismiss Mahler’s music as “angst-ridden”. I don’t think you can describe all his compositions like that, but it’s fair to say that this symphony is bleak and ultimately nihilistic in its despair. The hammer blows of fate (three in the original composition, with one later removed by Mahler) signal the end of hope, but the end is a whimper rather than a bang. The music subsides into nothingness,  its light fading  into the “Dark Night of the Soul”.

It’s no surpise that this is often called the “Tragic Symphony”, but however bleak the message may seem, it’s always uplifting to experience the “artistic conquest of the terrible”. If civilization is to survive in a world filled with suffering and arbitrary cruelty, then we have to come to terms with reality, not shy away from it. Mahler is one composer who isn’t afraid to tell it the way it is.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales was on top form for this concert – with outstanding work by the brass section in particular – and were marshalled with great vision and a mastery of detail  by Thomas Søndergård. I’m sure I’ll remember this performance for a very long time.