Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Wigmore Hall ★★★★★
You may have missed it, but Tuesday just past was St Cecilia’s Day, named after the Roman noblewoman who refused to marry a pagan because she preferred to “sing to God in her heart”, was martyred for her pains, and became the patron saint of music. During the revival of musical life that followed the ending of Puritanism in England, there was a brief but glorious flurry of pieces composed in her honour.
We too have suffered our own form of puritanism in recent years thanks to lockdowns, which reduced musical culture to a thin gruel of online and “socially distanced” concerts. Perhaps that’s why Tuesday night’s concert in St Cecilia’s honour from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra at the Wigmore Hall was greeted with such fervour by the packed audience. It felt like a symbolic act of reconnection to music, enacted through stunning performances of music by Handel and Purcell.
It began with one of those pieces composed in honour of the saint, Purcell’s Ode to St Cecilia’s Day. The orchestra’s director, Australian pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, launched the overture with just solo strings and bass, bringing in the luxurious sound of the full orchestra only for the repeat. It was one of innumerable subtle touches of colouration he encouraged from the orchestral players, who are truly a bunch of heroes. To pick out any names seems invidious, but I can’t resist mentioning oboists Ann-Kathrin Brüggemann and Josep Domènech, entwined in a delicious pastoral trio with bassoonist Eyal Streett at the beginning of Handel’s anthem “As pants the heart”.
The six singers all from the UK were no less fine, and if I had to pick out one sublime moment it would be tenor Hugo Hymas’s rendition of Beauty thou Scene of Love in Purcell’s Ode. The different emotional worlds of the two great composers – enchanted, mysterious, rhythmically quirky in Purcell, stately; apparently grander, but with its own dusky magic in the case of Handel – shone out beautifully.
This feast of music closed with Purcell’s Birthday Ode for the Duke of Gloucester, a shameless bit of toadying that nevertheless drew forth some inspired music. At the end, when Jaroslav Rouček’s beautifully moulded trumpet duetted triumphantly with soprano Grace Davidson, it really did seem as if the saint – to quote the poet Auden’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia – had come down to us here on earth, to “startle composing mortals with immortal fire”. IH
Hear this concert for 30 days via the BBC iPlayer
Chucho Valdés, London Jazz Festival, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★★
Cuban pianist, composer and band leader Chucho Valdés has undoubtedly earned his legendary status (along with numerous Grammys and other major awards) over several decades. As a teenage prodigy, he took over the famed Tropicana Club house band previously led by his father; in the 1970s, he founded the highly influential Latin jazz fusion outfit Irakere; as an elder statesman of the scene, he has continued to build on his prolific catalogue. On Sunday night, the 81-year-old star’s headline date formed part of the London Jazz Festival’s “Icons” strand, and the enthusiastic multi-generational audience reflected the expansive reach of his work.
As this tall gentleman ambled onstage without airs, carrying a book of sheet music under his arm, the crowd responded with thrilled whoops – though once he began playing, this excitable buzz became a warmly reverential hush. Within a few notes of his opening pieces, you were struck by Valdés’s extraordinary dexterity and flair for original melody at the keys, as well as his ability to elevate even the most familiar Gershwin standards into something fresh and beautifully unconstrained, deftly accompanied on bass, drums and percussion.
While this was enthralling, it was also really the warm-up to Valdés’s main event: a performance of his new big-band opus, La Creación, conceived in the midst of lockdown. Valdés has previously described this ambitious four-movement suite as “the accumulation of all my experiences and everything I’ve learned in music”, though at the Southbank his intro comprised a few genial words in Spanish – he gave full focus to the material and his supremely talented ensemble (including vocalists, brass, sax, further keys, and traditional double-headed bata drum).
La Creación’s multi-layered material digs deep and hits hard, taking inspiration from Santería spiritual rituals, West African roots, funk and blues. This wasn’t the first time that Valdés has explored his Yoruban heritage and faith through his work (there were distinct bonds with earlier work such as Irakere’s Misa Negra), but it did exude an exceptional presence and vivacity. Positioned to one side, Valdés fluidly underpinned the mesmerising grooves, while lively co-conductor Hilario Luis Durán Torres leapt up from his own keyboard to guide the players weaving through the animated rhythms and refrains.
In the hands of a less assured and affable artist, the concept might have felt portentous, but this experience proved both immensely sophisticated and joyously playful. It didn’t seem to matter that we were in a seated auditorium on a chilly London night, rather than at an altar or on a heaving Havana dancefloor; Valdés’s life-affirming Creation genuinely captivated you, and carried you beyond the here and now. AH
Chornobyldorf, Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music ★★★★★
Don’t allow the title of the Ukrainian work Chornobyldorf – the self-styled “archaeological opera” that opened the 45th Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival – to mislead you. This extraordinary cross-disciplinary show (which combines such elements as opera, folk music, heavy rock, contemporary dance, experimental film, performance art and religious ritual) is not, as its programme notes might imply, a piece of conventional storytelling about a group of human beings trying to salvage their civilisation after a cataclysmic nuclear disaster.
Rather, this highly original opera – the work of composers and librettists Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko – stands in an eastern European avant-garde tradition that eschews straightforward narrative. Like the pioneering “laboratory theatre” of the great Polish dramatist Jerzy Grotowski in the 1960s and the experimental genius of Russian companies Derevo and Akhe in the 21st century, this bold and imaginative production is concerned primarily with the emotional and psychological impact of the images and sounds that it makes.
The show’s initial imagery – of blackened trees and naked humans engaged in meaningful ceremony – points towards post-apocalyptic dystopia. The music – which is uncompromisingly discordant, like Bartók colliding with heavy metal band Metallica – increases the sense of humanity at a particularly precarious juncture.
What we are witnessing here is a human culture that has been violently broken from its moorings. As these people make their archaeological investigations of the religious, cultural and industrial remnants of their forebears, they mangle paganism with Christianity, ancient Greek mythology with the sacred music of Bach.
Grygoriv and Razumeiko are concerned, not with the grim realities of material survival in a post-apocalyptic world, but with the quest to survive in spiritual and cultural terms. Consequently, everything the characters do is imbued with a remarkable significance.
A male singer in black robes leads worshippers who carry metronomes as if they were religious artefacts. A group of naked figures sing from the kind of pagan shrine one imagines to have been erected by the Aztecs.
This excellently designed piece is constructed entirely of such images. Every scene – whether delivered from atop a large scaffold or in promenade – looks like an exquisite, animated Renaissance painting.
The song itself – from gorgeous vocal polyphony in the Ukrainian folk tradition to great operatic interjections – is beautifully executed throughout.
It might be tempting – given the current conflict – to connect this opera to Putin’s outrageous invasion of Ukraine (and, indeed, the performers bring out the flags of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Army as they take their bows). However, Chornobyldorf predates the invasion by more than a year.
In truth, so universal is its contemplation of human catastrophe that the piece speaks as powerfully to the dreadful conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and indeed to the frightening realities of climate change, as it does to the war in Ukraine itself.
The epitome of the eastern European avant-garde, the show is unlikely to be every British opera lover’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, its UK premiere was a formidable way to begin the Huddersfield festival. Mark Brown
The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival continues until November 27; tickets: hcmf.co.uk
Henry Threadgill’s Zooid and Anthony Braxton, Barbican Centre
More than fifty years ago a group of black jazz musicians in Chicago defied the riots and racism around them to form the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. They dreamed of a new music, utterly free yet purposeful, soaring way beyond the confines of jazz, and they drew on everything from Arnold Schoenberg to John Coltrane. Two of the era’s leading lights brought their latest ensembles to the Barbican stage on Sunday evening, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.
Being young at heart, both Braxton and Threadgill like to surround themselves with younger players, and one of the pleasures of the evening was the reverence that could be felt emanating from each group for the gently guiding, white-haired figure at its centre. Beyond that they were very different. Braxton’s guiding influence on his Fusion Quartet was evident in his eager hand signals, which would send the music off in a new direction. His 70-minute uninterrupted set felt like a slow journey through a constantly varying landscape. At one moment Braxton’s high saxophone keening would be so closely intertwined with Susana Santos Silva’s high trumpet that it felt almost like one melody.
Meanwhile drummer Mariá Portugal would explore metallic sounds on cymbals, while bassist Carl Testa tested the possibilities of a tiny handful of notes. This might be followed by a moment of humour, or a luminous interlude of near-emptiness marked by single notes, like a desert in which a bird is the only moving thing. The only jarring element was the electronics, a crude element in a collective sound which was otherwise so enormously subtle.
Like Braxton’s musicians, the members of Henry Threadgill’s quintet Zooid (the name refers to a ‘colonial’ organism made of parts with different forms) had sheet music in front of them, and their music was also poised fascinatingly between fluid improvisation and purposeful form. But whereas Braxton’s set was a string of interconnected miniatures, Threadgill’s unfolded in long burgeoning waves. It was hard to work out how just how Christopher Hoffman’s urgent cello phrases related to the guitarist Liberty Ellman’s lyrical flourishes, and why these fused together so well with tuba player Jose Davila’s agile bass and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee’s quietly urgent patter. The compelling coherence of both sets, even while being totally unpredictable, was mysteriously appealing. The compelling coherence of both sets, even while being totally unpredictable, was mysteriously appealing. They proved that the ethos that fired these great musicians 50 years ago is as compelling and necessary as ever.
The EFG London Jazz Festival continues until 20 November. efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk
Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall ★★★★★
Some works of genius remain a puzzle no matter how many times you hear them. Schubert’s tremendous and much-loved set of songs Winterreise (A Winter’s Journey) is one of them. The singer has to impersonate some nameless man, about whom we learn absolutely nothing except that he’s been jilted. Instead of drowning his sorrows with his mates, or finding another woman who actually appreciates him, he decides to walk to his death in the snow, across twenty-four songs of increasingly deranged despair.
It’s actually a deeply implausible scenario, but in this riveting performance from the Austrian baritone Florian Boesch and Scottish pianist Malcolm Martineau it became an all-too-believable portrayal of male anger leading to mental breakdown. The woman had spurned him, so he was now going to take revenge not on her but on the universe, by spurning life and trudging stubbornly to his death.
By aestheticising the man, most performers make him sympathetic, someone who strikes fetchingly poetic attitudes of suffering. There was absolutely nothing fetching about Boesch’s traveller – in fact, he was distinctly unpleasant. There was a self-pitying curl to his lip in the opening song, and a suggestion of rubbing salt in his wounds just to sharpen the pain. And many of the songs rose to a fury of frustration and embitterment that was truly frightening.
Boesch displayed an astounding range of vocal colour, from an insinuating near-whisper to an agonised near shout that pressed on one’s ear-drums, and he pulled Schubert’s rhythms around mercilessly in his determination to express the traveller’s crazed state. Martineau was as daring as Boesch in disrupting the even tread of Schubert’s rhythms, so as to screw truly expressionist levels of emotional intensity from the music.
Just when the procession of despairing songs threatened to become just too relentless, Boesch would grant us a moment of beautiful vocal softness, as the traveller had a memory of happier times, or dreamed of how peaceful death would be. Finally, as the journey reached its end with the traveller listening to the organ-grinder grinding out his sad song, Boesch and Martineau achieved an unexpected and extraordinary other-worldly lightness. One got the sense that the traveller had at last thrown off anger and despair, because he’d finally found some empathy for another human being. The sense of enlightenment through suffering was palpable, and it made the harrowing emotional journey we’d just been through all the more meaningful. IH
Hear Florian Boesch at Dulwich College, London SE21, on Dec 13; songeasel.co.uk
Nobuyuki Tsujii, Queen Elizabeth Hall ★★★★☆
When he burst on to the musical scene 14 years ago, blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii was a media sensation, mobbed by teenage groupies after every concert. His playing was praised as “a miracle” and “a healing power” by critics not noted for going into raptures.
On Sunday night, the groupies were again out in force at Tsujii’s recital, though they’re probably nudging 30 now. The once-slender Tsujii is quite stocky these days, but in every other respect he’s still the smiling, somewhat gauche youth who captivates everyone. When you watch him take his seat at the piano and take the measure of the keyboard with his questing, intelligent hands, head flung back, and then without warning plunge into a virtuoso showpiece, it really does feel as if this grubby, tired world has been illuminated by something extraordinary.
Sceptics might suggest that both Tsujii’s adoring fans and those usually hardened critics have been seduced by the overall “miracle” and aren’t really listening to the music-making. But they would be wrong, because Tsujii’s playing is remarkable by any standards. He played an unashamedly popular programme, with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata alongside three of the lighter numbers from Liszt’s musical record of his journeys through Italy, followed by Ravel’s much-loved but very hackneyed Pavane pour une infante defunte and the almost as hackneyed Jeux d’eau.
Every piece showed an astounding delicacy and variety of touch, and real musical insight, apart from the opener. The first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata emerged with immaculate perfection, the undulating accompaniment nicely balanced against the melody – but that was all. The astonishing, visionary strangeness of Beethoven’s masterpiece passed Tsujii by.
The contrast between that and Liszt’s tenderly intimate Consolation no 2 and the pieces evoking Venice and Naples was striking. Here, the soul of the music really was drawn out, suggesting that Tsujii needs the stimulus of properly virtuoso piano music to set his imagination alight. The Gondolier’s Song had a lovely nostalgic swaying quality, and the final whirling tarantella built to an irresistibly wild as well as note-perfect finale.
After Jeux d’eau, which was poetically suggestive as well as vividly pictorial, Tsujii dazzled us with the jazz-flavoured fireworks of Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin’s Eight Concert Etudes. What with those and the very predictable encores including Debussy’s Clair de lune and Liszt’s La Campanella, the programme might, on paper, have looked too hackneyed to be taken seriously. But the seductive feeling Tsujii creates of utter immersion in an inner world meant that even these tired warhorses took on a power to charm. IH
LSO/André J Thomas, Barbican Hall, London EC2 ★★☆☆☆
It’s hard to think of a less likely leading man than a tuba, a musical monster of the deep, most at home when sad-clowning at the back of a brass band. So it was a sight to behold the principal tuba player of the London Symphony Orchestra, Ben Thomson, sat centre-stage, his body almost completely obscured by the instrument’s chaotic tangle of tubing, only his fingers visible skittering across the keys, bebopping feverishly up and down the vast range of this soulful beast. We were approaching the climax of the UK premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Tuba Concerto – hand on heart, the finest tuba concerto I’ve ever heard.
Loud, faintly sarcastic applause welcomed Thomson at the start, in the expectation that we were about to witness the musical equivalent of a fat man attempting a pirouette. More fool us. For this leviathan could not only sing as sweetly as any songbird, it could flirt and fly, fluttering its hippo eyelids, gliding through its melodies as gracefully and airily as Fred Astaire.
Thomson could even duet with himself, floating multiphonics over the top of his bass sound by humming while playing. Around him, Marsalis – noted jazzer and chief mobiliser of the bebop revival – set the orchestra off on a jaunty, jerky, heavily syncopated path. Expertly balanced by conductor William Long, the dissonant crunch and percussive funk of the Latin-inflected LSO acted as the perfect foil to the warm flow of the tuba.
How much you enjoyed the concerto would have depended on your tolerance for the inevitable cringe of watching an orchestra jazz things up. Next to the night’s other UK premieres, however, the work almost felt sophisticated.
Joel Thompson’s To Awaken a Sleeper and Carlos Simon’s Portrait of a Queen were stock musical evocations of tart, overly on-the-nose texts about black suffering narrated in high theatrical style by Willard White and Eska, respectively. Had the composers come out on stage and shouted “Feel sad!”, “Now angry!”, “Now hopeful!’, it would have been hardly less subtle. That said, conductor André J Thomas got a big, generous sound from the LSO (someone needs to book him to conduct Berlioz or Puccini). And it was hard to resist the cumulative force of the sultry, slow-striding second movement of Simon’s infectious AMEN!.
But it was a night in which you would never have known the past 80 years of classical composition had ever happened. The idiom of all three composers lay barely a few inches from George Gershwin’s. There was a time when the LSO understood why you might want to diversify your composer pool. Engaging composers from alternative traditions and cultures was about carving out space for new sonic possibilities, about aesthetic diversity. Listen, for example, to the extraordinary, brooding Skies of America by free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, commissioned by the orchestra 50 years ago and shamefully never revived. It’s a far cry from Sunday night.
Marsalis, Thompson and Simon may all be African-American, but they all engage in numbingly regressive aesthetics. Today diversity is no longer about finding visionary new ways of making art, but about frit organisations reviving and entrenching safe old ones. The irony is that Scrutonite conservatives have nothing to fear from all this. Those who care about the avant-garde and the need to nurture original voices should be much more concerned. Igor Toronyi-Lalic
Concertgebouw/Daniel Harding, Barbican ★★★★★
Increasing diversity may be the long-term strategy to win new audiences for classical music, but in the meantime hard-pressed managers know there’s nothing like the “dream ticket” of a top-rank international orchestra and top-rank soloist to pull in the punters. It certainly worked its magic on Friday night, when the orchestra many judge to be the world’s finest, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from Amsterdam, was joined by Leonidas Kavakos, probably the most bankable violinist alive. Before the concert the packed foyers had that fever of excitement I haven’t felt since those far-off pre-Covid days.
The punters’ sky-high expectations were well rewarded, with a programme that admittedly scored zero for adventurousness: Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. For that very reason it was greeted with special rapture, as it felt like a defiant assertion of the value of sustaining a great tradition – something the Arts Council of England no longer believes in, judging by the funding decisions it made on Friday. When the orchestra under Daniel Harding eased almost diffidently into the gentle opening of Brahms’s concerto, you could already feel the power slumbering in the orchestra, which soon burst out. This mighty build-up led to Kavakos’s explosive entry, which had exactly the magnificent, tragically heroic quality one hopes for.
This reminded us of Kavakos’s superhuman strength of tone, but would he be equally responsive to the tender and intimate side of this many-sided work? Yes, came the answer, but in that regard he shared honours with the orchestra. Even when Kavakos was in full flight my attention was often seized by an expressive phrase in a bassoon or in the violas. Not even Kavakos can put the Concertgebouw in the shade. The fruity richness of the playing and Harding’s sensitive moulding of the tempos meant that details I’d never noticed – such as the moment when the music slips into the sensuously swaying world of Brahms’s Liebeslieder (Love Song) Waltzes – suddenly shone out.
As for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Harding led a performance of rich, easy-going amplitude that with a lesser orchestra could have seemed sluggish, but with this vintage Rolls-Royce seemed magnificently spacious. It meant that in the moments of peasant rumbustiousness, when the horns whooped and the violins romped, the contrast really made one sit up. My only caveat is that the innocently swaying final movement became so very relaxed towards the end I thought it might actually stop. But really, this was a magnificent evening. If you’re free tonight and can attend the Concertgebouw’s second concert, drop everything and go. IH
The Royal Concertgebouw is at the Barbican tonight at 7.30pm; barbican.org.uk
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