by Rachel Beaumont

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The one that was worth it: James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook at Wigmore Hall

James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook
Wigmore Hall
Stalls H1, £25
1 November 2020
Wigmore page

Programme
Purcell, O solitude, my sweetest choice
Schubert, Einsamkeit
Dove, Under Alter’d Skies
Barber, Hermit Songs

In buying a ticket for this programme I had to negotiate both covid guilt and baby guilt, my love for James Gilchrist strong enough even to resist the despairing cries of my husband as I negotiated a leave of absence for one last concert. Gilchrist did not disappoint – as, indeed, he never does. This, perhaps unlike any of the other concerts I’ve attended in this unhappy lockdown interlude, was worth it.

I remember vividly the first Gilchrist recital I attended, of Schubert lieder in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building in Oxford, what must be at least a decade ago. I’d already marvelled at his performances in Bach’s Passions but the intimacy of this recital seemed even more precious – the same loud, easy resonance, the same precise engagement with the text and above all the absolute clarity and certainty of communication that sadly, strangely, is rare.

That concert feels a long time ago, and, what with the assortment of guilt I brought with me to the Wigmore, I was aware I was placing much on Gilchrist’s shoulders. But while much since then has changed, Gilchrist, apparently, has not. He still stands humbly on the stage, his head a little bowed, as singing teachers tell you not to do. He still sings out with a sweet and warm tenor voice, a voice not of opera but of Bach and song; still astonishingly loud but so carefully balanced. And he still seems to turn the full intensity of his mind and body to communicating the music in the moment.

It gets my goat that almost never do you see a song recital where the singer is off book, but you get used to such things. On Gilchrist’s performance this evening the very idea that written music should ever be needed by a singer when they are singing to an audience seemed unthinkable. He knows the music totally, of course, but much more importantly he knows that his whole purpose as a singer is more than to vocalise, is to embody the character of the composer’s music, be it Purcell’s sweet anguish, Schubert’s solitude, Dove’s brittle misery or the mercurial expansiveness of Barber’s Hermit Songs, now insouciant, now elegiac. Gilchrist takes seriously his responsibility to manifest the music in a way almost never seen in recital. Gilchrist is the gold standard – enhanced, perhaps, here by having recorded the same programme this summer – but why don’t others try harder?

Dove would never be my favourite composer but the intensity of Gilchrist’s interpretation and performance invested the repetitive cells of his music with a kind of horror in Tennyson’s text that was almost unbearable. I felt uncomfortably pinned by a strength of reaction I would never have expected from a composer whose music often feels flimsy. It was a relief to retreat to the urbanity of Barber’s Hermit Songs – though once again Gilchrist’s perception and clarity illuminated depths of this familiar cycle. I should say a word for the accompaniment of Gilchrist’s regular collaborator Anna Tilbrook, which was sufficient and sensitive – but, as you can tell, Gilchrist’s singing held all of my attention.

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A brush with a strange man: Academy of St Martin in the Fields at Kings Place

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Beethoven and Mozart
Kings Place
unreserved, £24.50
22 October 2020
ASMF page

Programme
Beethoven Septet in E flat, Op.20
Mozart Horn Quintet in E-flat major, K. 407

Unaccountably I have never seen the Academy of St Martin in the Fields live. This gentle programme – solid music, solidly played, in a solidly sound acoustic – seemed a no-brainer, and in other circumstances it might have been. However, with the audience far more tightly packed in Kings Place than at the Wigmore and given the numbers in the news, I found myself worrying that to come had been the wrong decision. Sadly I find my primary souvenir of the evening is the shock of physical contact with a stranger as a young man made an early exit by brushing past me in the seat row, rather than anything musical.

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Too much Bach: Mahan Esfahani at Wigmore Hall

Mahan Esfahani
Bach
Wigmore Hall
Balcony D17, £25
20 October 2020
Wigmore page

Programme
French Suite No. 2 in C minor BWV813
Prelude in A minor BWV922
Fugue in B minor BWV951
French Suite No. 3 in B minor BWV814
Suite in A minor BWV818a
French Suite No. 4 in E flat BWV815

I thought you could never have too much Bach, but it turns out I can, at least when played on the harpsichord by Mahan Esfahani. I unreasonably took against Esfahani, with his fussy playing and pompous little speeches of Bach geekery – he’s a Bach harpsichord geek, and what’s wrong with that? I think I was unfair in my expectations: I’ve heard so much about Esfahani that on this the first time of hearing him play I expected to be blown away by Schiff-level insight. Perhaps that would have been easier to yield had I been sitting closer to the stage; but from where I was in the balcony, this concert was an unexpected slog.

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Flow my tears: Dowland’s Lachrimae by Fretwork at Wigmore Hall

Fretwork and Elizabeth Kenny
Wigmore Hall
Balcony C18, £20
14 October 2020
Wigmore page

Programme
Dowland, The King of Denmark, his Galliard, The Right Honourable Robert, Earl of Essex, his Galliard, Sir John Langton his Pavan, Sir John Souch’s Galliard, Captain Piper his Galliard, Piper's Pavan, Mr Henry Noel his Galliard, Mr Giles Hoby his Galliard, Sir Henry Umpton's Funerall, Mrs Nichols Almand, Mr Nicholas Gryffith his Galliard, Fantasia in G for solo lute, Mr George Whitehead his Almand, Mr Bucton's Galliard, Semper Dowland semper dolens
Adrian Williams, Teares to Dreames
Dowland, Lachrimae

I think of myself as having had an early music phase but in more careful retrospection it might more accurately be described as a Dowland’s Lachrimae phase. As such it was sweet, sweet pleasure to indulge in Fretwork’s exquisite rendition, socially distanced to an invisible corner of the Wigmore’s balcony where I could sway, sigh and sob to my heart’s content.

Viols seem often to be regarded as the hair shirt of musical instruments but I don’t get it, at least not when played by Fretwork. There is an incredible length to the sound, a determined continuation that can nevertheless be gracefully shaped, that is not replicated by anything else. The viol choir of Fretwork is the perfect medium for the scrunchy ficta of Lachrimae enjoyed to maximum indulgence, the successive waves of tensions and releases mounting delicious intensity.

Those waves of Lachrimae, its meditative repetition and its length are part of its seduction, and the compendium works of the first half, though interesting and beautifully played, inevitably seem lesser. I enjoyed it as an assembled potpourri and certainly could not pull out one now for special praise – in fact, if anything the opposite, as in her solos guitarist Elizabeth Kenny did not quite seem in full command of all the notes. But then there are a lot of notes, and perhaps I forget how difficult the guitar is to play, lured by the clarion keening of the viols.

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Toil: Eric Lu plays Schubert at Wigmore Hall

Eric Lu
Wigmore Hall
Stalls E19, £20
10 October 2020
Wigmore page

Programme
Schubert, Allegretto in C minor D915 and Piano Sonata in A D959
Encore: Two pieces from Schumann’s Kinderszenen

It is churlish not to enjoy only the second concert after a seventh-month drought but, alas, I did not enjoy this Schubert recital by Eric Lu, a pianist strikingly youthful-looking even for a New Generation Artist. The fault lies partly with me: I know neither Schubert piece well and felt rather at sea within them. By contrast the Kinderszenen pieces quickened a magical character absent from the main programme. The peculiar conditions of this resuscitation also contributed: in the near-empty hall the Steinway sounded wretchedly both hard and muddy, so loud it was almost painful at my close vantage point but with none of the clarity that can make that proximity so thrilling. I think it would be too tall an order to expect Lu, evidently early in his career, to adjust this his first performance since March for the lack of audience – but in combination with his unedifying performance of the Schubert the result was an hour’s hard work.

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I can’t say how great it is to be back: Kaleidscope at Wigmore Hall

Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective and Matthew Rose
Wigmore Hall
Stalls F1, £20
30 September 2020
Wigmore page

Programme
Schubert, Adagio and Rondo concertante in F major
Glinka, Doubt
Borodin, The Pretty Girl No Longer Loves Me
Whitley, This is My Love Poem for You
Walker, Lyric for Strings
Barber, Dover Beach
Korngold, Piano Quintet
Rodgers, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’

There’s nothing like six and a half months of enforced silence to make you appreciate live performance. (I did already appreciate live performance, so, powers-that-be, if you’re listening, from that perspective the pandemic is shall-we-say de trop.) It is good, great, fantastic to be back, and remarkably un-weird even with the bizarre ticketing and entrance regimes, an audience at less than a tenth the hall’s capacity and the ubiquitous face coverings.

In fact, as the pandemic coincided with my entrance into motherhood, by far the strangest feelings for me were this first absence from my child, and the conjugation of a pre-child activity such as Wigmore-going with varied maternal feelings, including a portion of my brain trained baby-wards even in absentia, and a growing yearning from my breasts for an outlet of their creative juices.

But it’s worth saying again how great live performance is. I always knew it was better than listening to a recording and now I really know it. The vividness of the sound, its texture, its volume all brought me immediately to a state of teary excitement almost independent of the programme; had it been an evening of Glass I think I might have been just as terribly excited.

Fortunately it was not an evening of Glass, though Kaleidoscope’s programme nonetheless covered things that I would not usually classify as my cup of tea. This performance didn’t really challenge that classification – I enjoyed the Schubert well above and beyond everything else – but there was much I found interesting: particularly in the Borodin, with its tricksy major-minor melancholy, the Barber in its rambling oddness and the Korngold, the most substantial piece in the programme.

Korngold’s post-Strauss mid-century European romanticism I can find overbearing, and there was a quality of line missing from Kaleidoscope’s performance that I think might have helped make sense of the piece’s expansive emotionalism, particularly in the inner movements. But coming just before Korngold’s move to America and the ensuing influence he was to have on film music it’s undoubtedly an interesting piece, impressively mercurial and enjoyably sassy, particularly in the jibing finale.

Aside from a few passing hints elsewhere of that empty emotionalism I sensed in the Korngold, Kaleidoscope gave an admirable performance, well tuned, well expressed and well rehearsed. My heart swelled to see the familiar bear-like presence of Matthew Rose on stage, and live singing really, really beats recordings. But perhaps perturbed by the near-empty hall Rose didn’t quite gauge the volume needed correctly, over-singing to the point where his chamber accompanists were sometimes inaudible and occasionally damaging the integrity of his wonderful, distinctively reedy bass.

Of course, these quibbles are nothing besides the suffusing pleasure of seeing and hearing musicians right there in the same room – a precious experience to be protected. Thank you, Wigmore, for your great efforts to this end.

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Aimard surprise: George Benjamin and the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall

Sir George Benjamin: A Duet and a Dream
George Benjamin, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, James Hall and Philharmonia Orchestra
Royal Festival Hall
Stalls A24, £17.10
5 March 2020
Southbank page

Programme:
Knussen, Choral
Messiaen, ‘Le merle bleu’ from Catalogue d’oiseaux
Benjamin, Duet for piano and orchestra
Benjamin, Dream of the Song
Janáček, Sinfonietta

I felt a bit of a noob as I traipsed down to the empty front row of the Royal Festival Hall and acquired my seat in the middle of it. But the ticket was cheap(er) and I’ve never sat there before – and, at least, for the first half of the programme, it answered my desire from earlier in the evening to sit with my head inside the piano, here for Aimard’s as ever wondrous Messiaen. And for the second half I was able to retreat to the third row so that I wasn’t sitting right under singer James Hall’s nose. I’m not sure it’s an experience to be repeated for anything other than an exclusively Aimard show.

I bought this ticket on the basis of the Benjamin without even checking the programme, a dangerous habit in general but paying off here with a carefully constructed set. Out of very many things to enjoy the highlight was unquestionably the Messiaen: a small dose, if you like, and interestingly juxtaposed to Benjamin’s piano concerto to the advantage of each. Right up close I don’t doubt there are things you lose with solo piano – but the payoff is the intimacy of a recording combined with the immediacy of live performance. Aimard’s playing was blisteringly precise and beautifully coloured, a sensuous revelment in Messiaen’s many marvels.

Both Benjamins impressed, as usual, with the immaculacy of their construction, even if the Philharmonia’s performance was scrappy at times. Neither piece was known to me and both, unsurprisingly, warrant careful relistening. For a first impression of the piano concerto, my proximity probably didn’t give me a good idea of the intended balance; but I enjoyed what felt like its steadily growing, glowering malevolence, and am surprised to learn of its temporal distance from Lessons in Love and Violence given what felt like many resurfacings of ideas. For Dream I was almost distracted by countertenor Hall’s excellence to properly think my way through the piece, and I think it likes some thinking. I’ve heard of Hall but this is my first time listening in the flesh: I was mightily impressed at his diction, accuracy and the virility of his sound. I’d be interested to know how well it travelled to the back of the hall. He looked needlessly nervous, understandable with such a task before him but quite undeserved for the quality of his singing.

I usually find a Knussen piece a morsel of rare delight; while I enjoyed Choral a lot and certainly see its inspiration of a distant funeral cortège, it didn’t hold my attention as I would have expected – perhaps a victim of my not being able to see more than the shoes of most performers. Further to my shame, I think I may never have heard Janáček’s Sinfonietta live before. I’m not sure how I could have managed such a feat but I’m glad the omission has been rectified, without conscious decision. Perhaps primarily on the back of yesterday’s concert I heard a lot of Barry in the piece, lifted slightly on its gravitation to tonality but pleasingly persistent nonetheless. I’ve often found Janáček’s operas hard work but the Sinfonietta is a very cool piece.

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Another good deal: Music by Xenakis and Reimann at the Royal Festival Hall

Music by Xenakis and Reimann
Nicholas Hodges and members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Royal Festival Hall
Free
5 March 2020
Southbank page

Programme:
Xenakis, Evryali
Reimann, Piano Concerto no.2

Somehow the Philharmonia’s Music of Today programme and its handful of free concerts has until now passed me by. It seems a pretty good deal: interesting music, strong performers, free. The turnout was also pretty strong for a 6pm concert of relatively little known music, although we felt few in the grandness of the Royal Festival Hall.

Xenakis arouses strong passions in me but Evryali was unfamiliar – I clearly need to do more sofa research. The programme’s artistic director Unsuk Chin explained in a short introduction that the written music is specifically unplayable, which seems a nice way to acknowledge the necessity of interpretation in any written music. I don’t know yet how Hodges’s rendition compares to others', but on its own the density both of notes themselves and their directions of movement were thrilling. My only thought was whether this might be even more fun if you sat right up with your head almost in the piano – I wonder if the piece’s extravagance is a little tamed in the RFH, even with Hodges untiring effort.

Reimann is an acknowledged blind spot for me, but even so I am mightily surprised that this wonderful piece from 1972 is only now receiving its UK premiere. The piece's shape was a bit obscure, unlike in the Xenakis which even in its multiplicity has clearly defined proportions; but I attribute this obscurity more to my ignorance of Reimann than anything else. Instead my focus was predominantly on the charming variety of sound coaxed from the 19-part orchestra, and particularly the voice-leading between them. It’s all written with the utmost skill to create a seamlessly meshed web around the piano, ably directed by Roland Kluttig.

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Barriers dropped: Gerald Barry and the BBC Singers at the Barbican

Music by Gerald Barry
BBC Singers
St Giles’ Cripplegate
Unreserved, £10
4 March 2020
Barbican page

Programme:
O Lord, how vain
The Coming of Winter
O Tannenbaum
Long Time
Schott & Sons, Mainz

This short programme of short a capella works by Gerald Barry interestingly demonstrates the variety of his muse – not something I’ve always found evident in his longer works. The programme as a whole and particularly the final work also made me realise that an implicit assumption I have, over the eternal irony of his music, may not be as accurate as I’ve thought. So in all a very valuable programme, and valiantly performed by the BBC Singers – though sadly not well attended.

The four first works in the programme span a period from 1995 to 2013 and each delighted me in one way or the other. O Lord, how vain, the earliest work in the programme, surprised off the bat with its commitment to textual clarity. The declamation of the 16th-century source text mingles with complex part writing (reminiscent of some of the writing for quartet in Alice’s Adventures Under Ground) and extensive tuneful, virtuoso whistling for the whole choir that generates a very pleasing effect.

Long Time shares a similar declaratory dedication. It sets the opening paragraphs of Proust around regeneratively inventive use of the C major scale: there is not a single non-diatonic note and yet the piece’s seven minutes feel full of invention. I feel I’m cheating slightly, as in a short interview with Barry himself before the performance he mentioned that the C major framework came naturally but seemed to allow a certain clarity the text’s stasis between sleep and non-sleep – but I buy it.

The two shortest pieces, The Coming of Winter and O Tannnenbaum, each touch on the mock anger – or what I’ve always thought of as mock anger – that’s a common thread through Barry. In different ways in their concise durations they call for a braying vocal strength on which the BBC Singers ably let rip.

But the piece that most made me most re-think was Schott & Sons, Mainz, which uses extracts from Beethoven’s letters to his publisher from the last years of his life. A wild bass solo, performed by Jimmy Holliday, has the brutal virtuosity familiar from Barry’s operas (again, it was nice to hear Barry talk in the performance of the divinity he found in vocal virtuosos), while the chorus writing has the complexity and flibbertigibbet enunciation of the other works on the programme. The text itself seems a gift to Barry’s humour, with its accidental references to Stockhausen and Darmstadt, and the opportunity to sing out Beethoven’s musical corrections to his errant publisher.

In the context of these jokes I was troubled at many points by the bass solo’s recourse to a throated shouting. Is this mockery of the deaf Beethoven? With the barrier of the perpetual irony that I assumed was in place there seemed no other explanation. But this can’t be right: why would you mock such an illness, such a person, especially if you’re as entranced by Beethoven as Barry? Thinking further I wondered that maybe part of my discomfort and assumption of irony is over a worry that Beethoven probably did shout. How frustrating, how cruel that must have been. This switch within me, combined with the final letters’ pleas for wine, set piteously, ragingly, matter-of-factly by Barry, achieved what few other works of his have for me: an emotional investment, and a troubled sadness.

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Less than the sum of its parts: Fidelio at the ROH

Fidelio
Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Balcony standing B70, £22
1 March 2020
ROH page

This new production of Fidelio has, on paper, a lot going for it. Conducted by Antonio Pappano, starring two of the most sought-after voices today in Lise Davidsen and Jonas Kaufmann, and the Royal Opera’s (I think sole?) contribution to the Beethoven anniversary, this is a hot-ticket event, no doubt about it. And yet, as in the last Pappano/Kaufmann collaboration of Il forza del destino, the result, for me, does not add up. Even though I really, really like Fidelio.

That starry casting is part of the problem. Hearing Davidsen in the first act reminded me of my first John Tomlinson experience, as Gurnemanz at ENO. Then as I now, I had been blithely enjoying the preceding singing – here exquisitely tasteful work by Amanda Forsythe as Marzelline and Robin Tritschler as Jaquino, his musicality in particular to die for – when on comes a force of nature that completely transforms the aural landscape. Davidsen is SO LOUD it is not true. She is louder than her co-stars combined, she is louder than the orchestra. It feels there no place she could be and not be heard. She has an existential loudness. As in my first experience of her at the Wigmore but for different reasons, the loudness is not always pleasant: probably because of her remarkable youth, the loudness sometimes comes at the expense of complete accuracy. But if anyone needed any more evidence that this is the voice that will define her generation, Davidsen provides it in Fidelio.

Kaufmann is many things, I thought to myself at the interval (i.e., before his first appearance), but loud is not one of them. Beautiful, yes. Dramatically nuanced, yes. Musically intelligent, very much so. Loud, no. And accordingly this star couple’s eventual reunion does not enable Kaufmann’s strengths to shine. I was reminded of Forza, where he and Anna Netrebko spent barely any time together. Is this a tactical rep decision between Kaufmann and Pappano? It might well be wise, but as otherwise Florestan has just the one aria Fidelio might give the game away too much. In ‘Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!’ Kaufmann certainly capitalises on the wonderful opportunities Beethoven gives, nourishing the long starting note with a breathtaking fragility and ache that was sublime. But that is one moment. With it came the now familiar finery of epic ticket prices, crashing websites, an audience of bigwigs, two philanthropists credited with supporting Kaufmann’s role and a grand ‘Fidelio celebration’. Even Kaufmann looked embarrassed. This was Davidsen’s show, but Kaufmann is still the commercial bait.

Tobias Kratzer’s new production caused me further confusion. The first half looks so similar to David McVicar’s prize Le nozze di Figaro for the Royal Opera that I almost wondered if Kratzer had been sent a DVD as part of instructions for how to avoid another Guillaume Tell incident. It’s all fine, I thought, and looks nice, and maybe this is what the people want – but is it not, well, a bit of a capitulation? I also worried over a piece of blocking where Marzelline discovers Leonore’s secret identity during one of her arias: this seemed a major intervention of something definitely not covered in the music for such a traditional production. So I confess my heart lifted as the curtain rose on the second act, revealing no dark prison at all but a brightly lit plastic rock with a Kaufmann chained to it and the chorus in modern funeral ware gathered round on chairs. ‘Ah ha’, I thought to myself, ‘something interesting is going on!’

But I’ll be damned if I can work it out. Massive, beautifully shot video of the chorus reacting to stuff are broadcast on the back wall, to… I don’t know. Help the audience know how to react? That can’t be it, but try as I might I can’t think what else it is for. Maybe it's to make us aware of the luxury of our surroundings and the plight of others less fortunate than ourselves. But if so it’s a very gentle, easily missed nudge. Otherwise, Kratzer continues with his intervention in Marzelline’s character: she apparently sounds the bugle, shoots Pizarro and leads the prisoners in an uprising. What a gal! And what weight does that carry when the whole opera is about Leonore’s heroism? I guess it’s to say that there are heroes everywhere, and that a true story is never about an individual. But again, that’s a guess with little corroborating evidence. Kratzer and his team were booed at the curtain call and even that I don’t understand (although to be fair I never understand booing). How could you feel strong enough to boo?

And lastly, I think Pappano might be my problem, too. As I say, I really, really like Fidelio. But this performance left me almost untouched. I have only a few specific criticisms. The chorus seem to have been encouraged to welly it in the second act and the result is impressive but harsh-sounding, quite unnecessary for this piece. The orchestra at a few points sounded strangely tentative, as though they weren’t quite sure where to come in. But otherwise everything seemed in place and well rehearsed, but with none of the accumulating musical weight that Fidelio usually amounts so magnificently. Maybe, for me, this is just not Pappano’s repertory.

Post scriptum
In this interesting Bachtrack article Kratzer explains: ‘The first act is an historical melodrama about love and personal fulfillment in post-revolutionary times. The second act is a political essay about the responsibility of the individual: a timeless appeal for empathy! My task as a director is therefore not to “solve” a problem, but rather to make the special structure of this opera visible to the audience – and try to make what might be considered a weakness of the piece a strength of its own.’ So it was my mistake to try to resolve the two halves. Perhaps that would have felt a more natural thing to do if I’d been able to see the width of the stage; as it was I was missing the right wall.

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