Mining the torment of Shostakovich at the South Bank, plus the best of June’s classical concerts

Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall
Amusing tableaux: the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra slightly suppressed Shostakovich's ambiguity - Pete Woodhead

Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, South Bank  ★★★☆☆

The concert is dead, we’re often told. Or if not actually dead, then terminally stiff and unappealing to younger audiences. It needs to be turned into an experience, where your entire field of vision is filled with swirling movement and imagery that helps the music to speak.

Well, last night was certainly an “experience”.  The 16 string players of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, led by Finnish virtuoso Pekka Kuusisto, led us in a whirlwind tour of fragments Shostakovich’s music entitled DSCH – the initial letters of Shostakovich’s name, which the composer deliberately threaded through many of his pieces. We heard several of them, alongside many others played without pause, book-ended by his infinitely sad, broken Viola Sonata.

But the musicians didn’t just play—they became characters in a set of wordless mini-dramas, shrewdly directed by Mikkel Harder Munck-Hansen, which reflected the mood of the music and hinted at the composer’s tormented life under Stalinist tyranny. If we were hearing one of those cheerfully innocent works Shostakovich composed in his youth, we might see two violinists and an accordionist, seated under an orange spotlight, engaged in humorous banter through their instruments. If it was one of those pieces where bleak lyricism fights with terror, we might be faced with something very different: eight players seated in rows on small suitcases, as if on a train, while a projected forest landscape beyond the train windows sped by. Or if the mood was one of bitter, grimacing sarcasm, we might see the players gathered in seemingly threatening postures round a lone cellist.

Each scene had the startling vividness of a dream, thanks to Lars Egegaard Sørensen’s brilliantly coloured lighting, and the musicians moved with an easy grace and expressivity, while playing a sequence of 19 pieces all from memory. Much of the music had been shrewdly arranged for a string orchestra, plus an accordionist, which in Bjarke Mogensen’s wonderfully sensitive hands gave a touch of realism to the little scenes.

Despite having to double up as dancers and actors, the musicians played with intense concentration and expressivity. As a co-ordinated spectacle, it was beyond praise—but that was actually a problem. We were whirled along irresistibly from one fragment to the next, but much of the music the musicians played had a gravity and seriousness that demanded to be savoured in full. The most treasurable quality of Shostakovich’s music is its ambiguity, but these briskly amusing little tableaux didn’t allow that quality to shine through. It really didn’t help our appreciation of Shostakovich’s bitter 1st Cello Concerto to see the savage drum-thwacks played by a clown, striding across the stage unexpectedly. Yes it got a laugh, but whatever those drum-strokes mean it’s certainly not humour.

It was a relief, towards the end, to be given a piece of music in full: Shostakovich’s tragic 8th quartet in Rudolph Barshai’s arrangement for string orchestra. The restless stage business finally stopped, and we could simply enjoy a first-rate chamber orchestra doing what it does best. IH

Conductor Mark Wigglesworth (right) at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Take a bow: conductor Mark Wigglesworth (right) at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester - Chris Payne

BBC Philharmonic, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester ★★★★☆

The BBC Philharmonic along with the other four BBC Orchestras has been facing the prospect of damaging cuts, a prospect which has now thankfully receded. At Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall for its closing concert of the season, the BBC Philharmonic proved its worth not by being daring – which it often is – but by showing how performing a sensitively balanced programme of copper-bottomed masterpieces with understanding, feeling and refinement is as nourishing and valuable an enterprise as it ever was.

The masterpieces came from Wagner and Berlioz, but before we reached them the Philharmonic cast a spell over the hall with Un Sourire (A Smile), the last orchestral work of the great French modernist composer Olivier Messiaen. A slow, infinitely gentle hymn in the strings alternated with joyous twittering birdsong in the woodwind, until finally a brass chorale brought the piece to a glowing conclusion. In this performance under conductor Mark Wigglesworth the piece took on a mysterious innocence, not unlike the late works of Mozart in whose honour the piece was written.

Dorothea Röschmann
Majestic: soprano Dorothea Röschmann - Chris Payne

Then the majestic figure of great German soprano Dorothea Röschmann came on stage, for Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder, a setting of five poems by the composer’s lover Mathilde Wesendonck. The poetry is full of breathless evocations of the spirit realm which seem as dated as a Victorian boudoir, but in this performance one could actually believe in them. Röschmann has one of those thrilling voices that can dominate an orchestra even in pianissimo. At the end of the final song, as she sang of flowers sinking into the grave, it felt as if we too were being drawn down into delicious oblivion.

Wigglesworth ensured the orchestra in these songs sounded wonderfully rich and full-blooded in a properly Wagnerian way, without ever being overbearing. It was in the final piece, Berlioz’s Symphonies Fantastique, that they really came into their own. The piece is often played with a swaggering brio – which is fine, as it is a young man’s piece. But Wigglesworth treated it as a mature masterpiece. The Introduction, which sets us up for the story of the composer’s obsession with his lady-love, was played at an unusually slow pace, which gave it a huge yearning intensity. The Scene in the Country, with its melancholy shepherd’s pipe dialogue, seemed similarly vast. The March to the Scaffold was grand rather than brash. All this set us up perfectly for the final “Dream of a Sabbath Night”, which was as delirious as I’ve ever heard it. It’s a rare pleasure to hear a warhorse of the orchestral repertoire so thoroughly rejuvenated. IH

Hear this concert on BBC Radio 3 on July 3 and for 30 days on BBC Sounds

Curlew River, Aldeburgh Festival ★★★★★

The Aldeburgh Festival roams far and wide in its musical programming but, like a homing pigeon, constantly circles back to its roots in the music of Benjamin Britten, and in the flat, light-drenched landscape of coastal Suffolk that inspired him. Yesterday it presented his church parable Curlew River, a Christianised version of a Japanese tale, in Blythburgh Church. The glowing white walls caught in the evening sunlight and the carved wooden angels above cast a spell, even before a note had sounded.

The story of a Madwoman who encounters a Ferryman and a group of Travellers, and who learns from them the fate of her missing son that she’s searched for everywhere is simplicity itself, as was this excellent production by Deborah Warner. Christof Hetzer’s design centred on a rough wooden walkway, leading to a raised platform, which needed only a few props – a raised oar, two boys idly fishing – to suggest a ferry. Monks chanting a Latin prayer, sung by a chorus of Britten Pears Young Artists processed slowly to the platform, where by donning a simple tunic they were transformed into the Travellers. The Abbot played with warm-hearted dignity by Willard White entreated us to be ready for a miracle.

Curlew River at Aldeburgh Festival
Curlew River at Aldeburgh Festival - Britten Pears Arts

All this was austere and dignified, as one expects, but the drama itself was rougher and stonier than I’ve ever seen it. Ian Bostridge was superb as the Madwoman, clutching her soiled sleeping bag like any distressed homeless person, that well-known fluty tenor voice cracked with grief. The Ferryman, played by Duncan Rock, pulled the Madwoman onto the ferry with a shocking lack of sympathy, and the Travellers jeered at her strange story. To one side a group of Young Artist Programme instrumentalists incisively directed by Audrey Hyland shadowed the voices’ rise and fall in uncanny sounds of harp, high organ and sharp, sinister horn calls.

This pitiless harshness meant that when the miracle occurs, and the Madwoman finally hears the spirit voice of her dead son – beautifully sung by Matthew Jones – the effect was all the more moving. Compassion flooded the drama, just as the sunlight flooded the church.

It was a jolt, but a pleasurable one, to move to Snape Maltings concert hall for the sardonic cruelty of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. This set of 21 songs portraying the revenge of a love-stricken Pierrot has become a byword for shrieking expressionism, but in this performance from soprano Claire Booth and the Nash Ensemble it came across as delicately beautiful, wickedly amusing and above all sexy. IH

The Aldeburgh Festival continues until 23 June. Curlew River will be broadcast by BBC TV at a later date

Britten Sinfonia/1948 Festival Opening Night, Snape Maltings ★★★☆☆

Born in the ferment of creative renaissance that followed the end of the Second World War, the Aldeburgh Festival – along with other new initiatives that have lasted like the Edinburgh Festival and the BBC Third Programme – was a response to the increasing democratisation of classical music that had gathered pace during the war. The festival was conceived by composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, as an event in the Suffolk seaside town which provided the setting for Britten’s highly successful opera Peter Grimes, partly as a showcase for Britten’s own new music performed to his exacting high standards.

The first festival in 1948 launched with a programme that mixed the 18th and 20th century in Purcell, Handel, Britten and new music – a distinctive mix which reflected Britten’s and Pears’s musical tastes and differentiated Aldeburgh from the mainstream musical world of the time, still dominated by the 19th-century Beethoven-Brahms-Tchaikovsky axis.

So it was not just a nostalgic idea to reflect this opening concert in the festival’s current 75th anniversary season, but a demonstration of how continuously this festival has reinvented itself. It has had its bumpy moments, especially in the wake of Britten’s death in 1976, when it seemed to lack purpose and clear direction, but has flourished again in recent years under outstanding artistic leadership, most recently by Sir Roger Wright, who steps down after this festival.

There are paradoxes here, notably that with the flourishing development of Snape Maltings and its very fine concert hall on a wonderful site a few miles away from the seaside, Aldeburgh itself has become less significant in the festival – this programme was originally heard in the town’s church, where Britten’s choral cantata Saint Nicolas would have used the spaces of the church including its gallery. This was Britten’s first piece to include writing for amateur performers, and transferring it to the single large space of Snape involved some compromises, with the excellent Britten Pears Chorus (led by James Davy) taking over more of the choral writing originally intended for young school choirs, and leaving the choristers of St Edmundsbury Cathedral with tiny walk-on parts.

Conductor Jessica Cottis marshalled her expert players of the Britten Sinfonia very strongly, and Nick Pritchard was a vivid narrator of St Nicolas’s adventures, from the story of the pickled boys to storms at seas. The multi-movement piece is lovable but episodic and short-breathed, and in the absence of texts (except where we joined in two hymns), we missed much of the subtlety.

The new work of the anniversary evening was equally episodic: a 24-minute, five movement dreamlike concerto odyssey called Luck by Robin Haigh for trumpet (the brilliant and forceful Matilda Lloyd): dancing strings leading to a bluesy aria, a bouncy toccata, smoochy cellos, and brittle chords with dotted rhythms, all refracted through a distorting electronic-style haze. What on earth would Britten have made of it?

Ironically, against this adventurous background it was the old music of Purcell and Handel that fared less well, as performance styles in this repertory (as the festival has admirably shown elsewhere) have strode on in the 75 years since Britten and Pears were such fervent advocates for the music of England’s distant past. NK

Festival events to June 23.

Knussen Chamber Orchestra/Aldeburgh Festival ★★★★☆

Bless the Aldeburgh Festival, which cheerfully defies the general climate of gloom and pinched expectations. It flings great music at us, of all kinds, in generous handfuls. You barely have time to catch your breath after a concert and take a walk in the wind-swept reed-beds around Snape Maltings Concert Hall, before the next thrilling event comes along.

Yesterday there were a mere two concerts, but they were both astonishingly rich. The first came from the Paris-based Ensemble Diderot, which offered a feast of those French mid-18th century composers who married Italian sprightliness with French suavité and grace. In a less idiomatic performance one’s ear might have tired of the constantly drooping phrases and the twittering ornamental notes clustered around the melody like pearls. But these players knew just how to temper these very French things with the rhythmic fire and bite of the Italian style. The slow movement of Boismortier’s Cello Concerto, where the two violins of Johannes Prahmsoler and Roldán Bernabé cooed amorously over the archingly melodic cello melody of Gulrim Choi, provided the day’s most delicious moment.

Ryan Wigglesworth conducting the Knussen Chamber Orchestra
Ryan Wigglesworth conducting the Knussen Chamber Orchestra

The day’s second concert came from the Knussen Chamber Orchestra, made up of young players from the Royal Academy of Music alongside seasoned professionals. This was less sensuously alluring but had bigger expressive horizons. They were especially big in the case of Planet, an orchestral response to photographic images of galaxies and Planet Earth from the Master of the King’s Music Judith Weir, here being given its world premiere. There’s a stock musical response to these images: portentous, awe-inspiring grandeur, tinged with outer-space coldness. But Weir doesn’t do grand, portentous or cold. The three movements had a shining naivety, with bright chords superimposed over wood-wind flourishes, tinged occasionally with dark mystery. We know the heavenly bodies are vastly old, but in this delightful piece it seemed as if they are eternally young.

Guiding the 40 or so young and not-so-young players from the podium was Ryan Wigglesworth, a gifted musician who appeared as composer and pianist as well as conductor. He combined all three roles in Mozart’s 24th Piano Concerto, which he directed from the piano with fierce energy in the tragic minor-key moments, and pleasingly straightforward, flowing grace in the slow movement. He also contributed a brand-new cadenza (solo spot) in the first movement, which took the fierce melody and led it into regions of lonely, almost modernist harmonic cloudiness. It was more effective than his new Mozart-inspired solo piano piece Glasmelodien, which ranged from Messiaen-like cosmic vastness to the intimacies of Mozart’s famous piece for glass harmonica, but didn’t quite succeed in marrying them.

Finally Wigglesworth led the orchestra in Mozart’s sublime Jupiter symphony. Most conductors drive through the brusque opening gestures, but Wigglesworth stretched the pauses between them by an infinitesimal amount. This had the paradoxical effect of heightening the grandeur and humanising it at the same time. It was a shrewdly telling way to start, which the rest of the wonderful performance more than lived up to. IH

The Aldeburgh Festival continues until June 23;

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Barbican ★★★☆☆

Since taking the reins of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo “The Dude” Dudamel, the most famous alumnus of the globally renowned Venezuelan music education system El Sistema, has striven to embrace every aspect of his adopted city. It’s an admirable aim, which the orchestra naturally wants to show off when on tour. Which is why their first programme on Sunday night tried to satisfy at least four disparate aims: revel in the orchestra’s famous Hollywoodish pizzazz, honour a key moment in Los Angeles’s recent history, feature a new piece representing the city’s Latino community, and finally demonstrate its serious credentials in a classical masterwork – which also happens to be the most popular symphony ever, Dvořák’s New World.

María Dueñas and Gustavo Dudamel at the Barbican Hall
María Dueñas and Gustavo Dudamel at the Barbican Hall - Mark Allan

This strange mix explains why, despite guiltily enjoyable moments, it was short on real musical satisfaction. The opening Olympic Fanfare and Theme, composed by John Williams for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was of course brassily fabulous, in a way that sounded like the theme tune for one of Williams’s blockbuster film scores, but you couldn’t quite remember which.

By contrast, the new piece, a violin concerto subtitled Altar de cuerda (Altar of Strings), by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, was all rapt inwardness. It felt like a series of orchestral evocations of a sunbaked Mexican landscape where an atavistic spirituality flourishes, as much pagan as Christian. Into the frequent silences, the eloquent soloist María Dueñas would drop expressive solo cadenzas, which soared and twittered and drooped like an ecstatic religious celebrant speaking in tongues.

There were certainly striking atmospheric moments, like the beginning of the central slow movement when the wind players played a shimmering high sound on wine glasses. And here and there, the music almost became animated, when a momentary primitive dance rhythm surged up in strings or percussion. But the constant succession of wildly expressionist gestures from the violinist and mystical sounds from the orchestra eventually palled. I found myself longing for some real musical substance.

The final piece, Dvořák’s symphony, ought to have provided that, and to some degree it did. As you’d expect from this conductor, the performance was brilliantly stage-managed for maximum dramatic contrast. Sometimes this paid dividends, as in the central section of the final movement, where Dudamel built a terrific tension for the return of the big horn melody. Sometimes it seemed overdone; for example Dudamel pulled back the tempo for the gently folksy flute melody in the first movement so radically it seemed as if we were momentarily visiting some other piece.

There was some beautifully expressive solo playing, notably from cor anglais player Carolyn Hove and bassoonist Whitney Crockett, wonderful in the famous, deeply nostalgic melody of the slow movement. At the end, the Dude led his team in another toe-tapping slice of John Williams, this time the famous theme tune from Raiders of the Lost Ark, which drove the audience wild. They hadn’t given us much musical nourishment, but they certainly know how to charm. IH

See the LA Philharmonic and DeafWest Theatre in Beethoven’s Fidelio tonight at the Barbican;

Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé orchestra
Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé orchestra - Bill Lam

Hallé orchestra, Bridgewater Hall ★★★★★

“Any sort of marriage is tricky”, declared Sir Mark Elder from the podium at the end of his farewell concert in Manchester, as he looked back over 24 years of being married to the Hallé orchestra as its music director. “But we’ve always worked to achieve the absolute best we could do.” Anyone who’s followed the orchestra over that time, as I have, knows that “the best” this team has achieved has been as good as any team anywhere. The performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle, of numerous new works, and above all of British symphonies, have been among the peaks of music-making in these islands.

However the achievements Elder is clearly most proud of are the various youth choirs created to weave the orchestra into the life of the city. Two of them were right behind him as he spoke: the Hallé Youth and Children’s Choirs, alongside the main Hallé Choir. The body of singers was so big it actually spilled out of the choir stall into the adjoining rows. And what an incredible ear-drenching sound they made in Timotheus, Bacchus and Cecilia, the work composed especially for the occasion by Sir James MacMillan.

It’s a title you’d expect from Purcell or Handel rather than a living composer, and the piece did indeed feel like a 21st-century version of Handel’s grand “Ode to Saint Cecilia’s Day”, composed in 1739. Like Handel, MacMillan used verses by Dryden in praise of the saint, who enlarged music’s domain “with Nature’s mother-wit and arts unknown before.” MacMillan’s piece seemed to act out that idea, with ancient things such as the plainchant sung by the Children’s Choir set alongside grimly “modern” march rhythms, which evoked the destruction caused by war (all praise to those children for hitting MacMillan’s complex harmonies with such spell-binding accuracy). The final jubilant praise, with all three choirs joined by the orchestra, was overwhelming.

Then came Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, an apt choice as it’s the symphony of Mahler which maps the most heartening journey from grim despair to riotous jubilation. It was a journey that registered in our hearts and minds with force (more than a few audience members seemed a bit tearful) and not just because this was a special occasion. It was because the performance had that humane, spacious quality we’ve come to associate with this conductor, and this orchestra. The Scherzo of this symphony is often whipped into panic by conductors, but it doesn’t have to be. The famous Adagietto is often taken with almost agonised slowness, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s a way of making all this and the symphony’s three other movements flower naturally, without being forced.

That places a special responsibility on the players to make an especially beautiful, rich sound, so those relaxed tempos seem radiant and generous rather than merely slow. It was a challenge they rose to magnificently, both individually (all praise to principal trumpeter Gareth Small) and collectively. Bravo Hallé and Sir Mark; it’s been a wonderful almost quarter-century. IH

Sir Mark Elder gives farewell performances with the Hallé at the Aldeburgh Festival on 23 June  BBC Proms on 21 July  Edinburgh International Festival 17 August