Archive for Thierry Fischer

Mozart and Strauss, and the End of Term

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on June 16, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday (Friday 15th June) was officially the last day of teaching term at Cardiff University. I think most of our students toddled off  some time ago when their last exams were finished,  so for us on the staff side the teaching term has fizzled out gradually rather than go out with a bang. Yesterday I met with a couple of next year’s project students to give them some background reading to do over the summer and that was that for another year of undergraduate teaching.

There was something of an “end-of-term” feeling too to last night’s concert at St David’s Hall, which was also broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; you can listen to it yourself by clicking on that second link. This was not only the last concert of the 2011/12 season by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but also  last concert at St David’s Hall to be conducted by Thierry Fischer, who has been principal conductor for the BBC NOW for the past six years. Next year Thomas Søndergård will take over.The concert turned out to be a fitting finale to the season and a fine farewell to Thierry Fischer.

The first item on the agenda was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 played by none other than the wonderful Angela Hewitt.  I wasn’t all that familiar with this piece beforehand, and was surprised to see such a large orchestra on stage before the start. Apparently  this work was the first time Mozart had used clarinets in a piano concerto, and the larger force than I’d normally have associated with a Mozart piece of this type gave the performance a much more opulent sound than I’d expected. It’s an interesting work, with a particularly fine Andante second movement which is both sombre and expansive sandwiched between two quicksilver Allegro movements, the last being a kind of rondo. Angela Hewitt played it with crisp elegance and perfect articulation. Some people find her playing a bit fussy and punctilious, and indeed there were times when I thought the performance could have had a bit more fire in it, but for my part it was a treat to get the chance to see a great artist in the flesh; she has an engaging presence on stage too, clearly enjoying the performance, and smiling from time to time in appreciation at the orchestral playing. We even got a nice little solo encore, which is quite unusual for a live broadcast from St David’s.

Then there was an interval so we could all check the football score, and guzzle a quick glass of overpriced wine before returning to hear the Alpine SymphonyOp. 64 by Richard Strauss. If the orchestra for Part 1 had been large by Mozartian standards, then this one was immense! Well over a hundred musicians, with a huge brass section (supplemented by many more standing off-stage and just visible to me through an open door), harps, percussion (including cow bells and a wind machine), and some unusual instruments including a Heckelphone (what the heck?…). Oh, and the fine organ in St David’s Hall got a full workout too.

Strictly speaking, this is not actually a symphony; it’s more of a tone poem. But Strauss was rather good at them and this one is a wonderful evocation of a day’s journey in the Bavarian Alps, from a resplendent dawn to a tranquil sunset, with summits to be scaled, thunderstorms to be endured, glaciers to be traversed, and so on. It’s certainly a very vivid piece of programmatic music.

As you might have inferred from huge band gathered on stage, this is a work that gets very loud, especially when the organist literally pulls out all the stops. What was especially fine about the performance was that, although the musicians of BBC NOW weren’t afraid to give it some welly whenever it was called for, their playing never became wild or ragged. I don’t know what it sounded like on the radio, but it was a thrilling experience to be in the hall.  I lost count of the number of towering crescendo passages, and just let the waves of wonderful noise wash over me. At times I could feel it through my feet too.

There were cheers at the end, and a standing ovation for Thierry Fischer not only for this performance but for his service to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.  And that brought the term and the season to a close; both start again in late September 2012. There are some cracking concerts in store in the next season in St David’s Hall.

Haydn and Mahler

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on April 21, 2012 by telescoper

Returning from my travels I thought it was a good plan to make the most of the many opportunities Cardiff presents for listening to live music by going to last night’s concert at St David’s Hall. In there’s a considerable flurry of activity in the music scene over the next few weeks so if I can find the time during the flurry of work that will happen simultaneously then I’ll probably be doing quite a lot of concert-going (and blogging). I’m particularly looking forward to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival which offers a much more daring selection of music than the rather conservative fare on offer at St David’s.

Anyway, last night’s concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales began with Symphony No. 104 (“London”) by Joseph Haydn, the last symphony he ever wrote. It’s very typically Haydn, beautifully crafted in a straightforward, middle-of-the-road kind of way. Under the direction of conductor Thierry Fischer the Orchestra gave a polished performance of what is a familiar favourite. Like the other Haydn symphonies I’ve heard (which isn’t all that many actually), I found it quite enjoyable but rather unadventurous. For all that I admire the way it fits together so beautifully, his music is a bit too “safe” for my liking. I found it all a bit trite, I’m afraid.

The audience was rather sparse for the Haydn, but after the interval it filled up with a lot of young people, presumably music students. A number of them had A4 pads at the ready, which made me conjecture that Mahler might be on the examination syllabus this year. In fact when I booked a ticket, most of the stalls area showed up as taken. As usual, however, most of the capacity was given to BBC employees rather than sold to the public. When I went to collect my ticket before the performance, there was a problem printing it out so I had to get someone to write one out by hand. When she started she asked “Are you with the BBC, or did you actually pay?” Often the recipients of this largesse don’t bother to turn up, which makes for flat atmosphere during the performance. It can’t be fun for the performers to see swathes of empty seats in front of them.

Anyway, as I said, after the interval the hall was much fuller, as was the stage as Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler requires a much larger orchestra than the Haydn piece, although not as large as some of Mahler’s other works. Symphony No. 4 is one of the most accessible of Mahler’s works, which is not to say that it’s particularly simple from a compositional point of view; its shifting tonality contrasts markedly with the static feel of the Haydn work we heard earlier. There’s also much less angst in this Symphony than you get with other Mahler symphonies. Although it has its tempestuous passages, the prevailing atmosphere is one of an almost childlike tenderness and there are moments of radiant beauty. Often in Mahler the light merely serves to make the shadows darker, but not in this piece. It’s wonderful.

I particularly enjoyed the restful 3rd movement, starting with cellos and plucked basses and gradually expanding to incorporate the entire orchestra, it slowly swings between sadness and consolation.The last movement, based on an extended setting of the Song Das himmlische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, depicting a child’s version of Paradise, beautifully sung last night by soprano Lisa Milne. It’s a far more satisfactory conclusion than most romantic symphonies from a structural point of view, as well as being a wonderful thing to listen to in itself.

Although both symphonies consist of four movements, the Mahler (58 mins) is almost exactly twice as long as the Haydn (29 mins). But that’s not the point. There’s just so much more going on in the Mahler, both inside the music and in its emotional impact. Haydn entertained me, but Mahler moves me. I could summarize the difference by suggesting that Haydn was a craftsman and Mahler was an artist.

Discuss.

Never mind the Brahms, hear the Adams.

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by telescoper

People keep telling me how wonderful the music of Johannes Brahms is and, although he’s never been a favourite of mine, I’ve always been willing to accept that this was basically down to my ignorance and that I should persevere.

Yesterday I had an opportunity to have another go at Brahms, in the form of a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at St David’s Hall which comprised two pieces completely new to me, one of which was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, featuring Lars Vogt. Not knowing anything about the piece beforehand, other than that quite a few people I know told me it was brilliant, I went with as few preconceptions as possible.

This is a much larger work than the typical piano concerto.  Spread over four meaty movements rather than the more usual three, it lasts about 45 minutes and in places it feels more like a symphony which happens to a have a piano part than a piano concerto per se. I think I was expecting something more overtly virtuosic too, and this work isn’t really like that, although it must be hard to play because it requires quite a lot of muscle from time to time. There are passages of great beauty, especially in the elegaic slow (3rd) movement, wherein there is a beautiful singing cello part, and in the swelling orchestral climaxes of the first two movements. The intricate and very artful last movement involves so many different themes coming in an playing off against each other that it’s difficult to keep track.

Conducted by Thierry Fischer, the Orchestra was a bit slow to get into the swing of it and I felt some of the playing early on was a bit flat where it is clearly supposed to be full of heroic grandeur. Perhaps this was partly because of the disappointing attendance – St David’s Hall couldn’t have been half full despite a price of only £20 for stalls seats.

Apart from the slightly disappointing opening, I enjoyed this first part of the concert. A lot, in fact. I certainly found the music impressive in its craftsmanship and vision. But if you ask me if it moved me, I’d have to say no. It left me a bit cold, I’m afraid. I guess Brahms doesn’t really speak my language. On the other hand, this is a piece which probably should be heard more than once to appreciate it fully, as it is rather a lot to take in one go. I’m keen to get a good recording of it so I can do that at home. I’d welcome recommendations through the comments box, in fact, as my personal jury is still out as far as Brahms is concerned.

The second half of the concert was quite a different matter. John Adams wrote  Harmonielehre in 1985, about a hundred years after Brahms composed his second Piano Concerto. The title is taken from a book on musical composition by Arnold Schoenberg. The link between this and the Brahms work is not as tenuous as you might imagine, however, as Schoenberg started his compositional career writing in a late romantic style not so far removed from Brahms. It was only later that he turned to atonalism and, eventually, serialism.

Although its harmonic structure is  complex, and some of the structures Adams uses are similar to those you might find in Schoenberg, at least relatively early on while he was still experimenting,  Harmonielehre is  not really an atonal work. In each sequence the music does hover around a  tonal centre although it times the music strains against its own centre of gravity.

And although he deploys some devices associated with minimalism – insistent, percussive repetition, recurrent motifs, a quasi-static chordal framework and very gradual development and transformation – this isn’t really a minimalist work either.

It’s the fact that it’s so hard to categorize this work that makes it so fascinating and exciting. Other passages seem to echo other composers, especially Gustav Mahler (who died in 1911, the same year that Schoenberg wrote the book Harmonielehre). It’s as if Adams decided to take the end of the romantic period as a starting point but map out a very different route from there to that pioneered by Schoenberg.

If all this sounds very academic then I’m doing a great disservice to the piece. It’s actually a complete blast to listen to, from start to finish. It begins in exhilirating fashion with a thunderous breakneck sequence like a rollercoaster ride that eventually dissolves into a lyrical string theme. The second movement is where the strong echoes of Mahler can be found – there’s also a passage where a solo trumpet plays a lonely theme over disjointed chords which reminded me greatly of Miles Davies and Gil Evans. The last movement is in perfect contrast – fully of energy and exuberance, it ends with thrilling waves of sound crashing and reforming and crashing again. Nothing short of ecstatic.

I went to this concert almost completely preoccupied with the question of whether I would “get” Brahms’ Piano Concerto, but after the finale of Harmonielehre I had almost forgotten Brahms entirely. You could easily tell which piece the musicians enjoyed most too, as there were broad grins and mutual applause all across the stage as they took their bows. This was especially true of the percussionists, who were outnumbered by their instruments – bells, marimbas, xylophones, drums, you name it, so had to run backwards and forwards whenever needed to man the barricades.

The audience loved it too. Bravo.

P.S. The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a future date.


Share/Bookmark