06 September 2011

Exceptional Musical Experiences

Every so often you go to a concert expecting one thing and come away having experienced something altogether different. 

I remember a performance of Korngold's Sinfonietta given by the MPO under Matthias Bamert which did just that.  I quite liked the Korngold already, and enjoyed Bamert's own recording of it on Chandos (CHAN9317) with the BBC Philharmonic.  But the MPO had rebelled so much against Bamert's gentlemanly and restrained style of direction – he trusted them to behave and play like a mature orchestra, but they preferred to be treated like students with every nuance of their interpretation dictated by a tyrant – that almost out of spite they rarely played well for him.  (Not quite.  The MPO has always been utterly professional when it comes to performing to an audience and they could as easily give a bad performance as I could run a marathon – all 110 kilos of me.)  On top of that, Bamert found it difficult to unbend sufficiently to communicate with the Malaysian audience other than through his baton, and as they liked their conductors to turn round and speak over their heads, they, too, had little affection for him.  Yet on Saturday 16th February 2008 the MPO gave what was for me the performance of their lives when they performed it in the second half of one of the weirder concerts they have ever given.  Oh, those far-off days when MPO programming was adventurous!

 In the first half that difficult pianist, a man who blows hot and cold on the concert platform with alarming unpredictability, Alexander Melnikov gave simply horrible accounts of two Bach keyboard concertos.  As if to apologise for the eccentricities of the first half, when he came on stage for the Korngold Bamert spontaneously turned round and gave a charming talk to the audience about how Korngold had been just 14 when he wrote the Sinfonietta, and extolled with such obvious sincerity his admiration for such a young genius that the audience were prepared almost to worship the ground he stood on.  Sadly, not a word of Bamert's speech was audible to the players on stage, but when the performance came, Bamert pulled something out of the hat and drew something out of the ordinary from them.  For me, they played on that Saturday evening better than they ever had before or have done so since.  True, the players will not acknowledge this, largely because they find it difficult to shake off the memories of working with such great men as Lorin Maazel, and don't always realise when they are performing well in their own right.  Similarly the audience recalls the star singers and soloists and forget just how good the MPO can be in its own right. 

I went to that concert expecting something fairly ordinary and came away aghast at the sheer and unbridled brilliance of Bamert's vision and the astonishing heights of collective musicianship he drew from his players.  It stands as one of the dozen or so truly great concerts in my 50 years of concert-going.

Another one came along in Singapore last Sunday evening when, asked to review it by the Straits Times, I went to a chamber recital by local musicians in the unedifying surroundings of the Recital Studio at the Esplanade.  I'm not sure I would have gone unless I had to, not least because I'd already had a busy weekend of concerts (including the unwholesome Mozart concert from the SSO to which I referred in my previous post) and the programme itself did not attract me.  I don't really like the music of Ernest Bloch with its bursts of Jewish melancholy and awkward nods towards a very watered down avant-garde.  On top of that I have never found anything in the music of Amy Beach which has stuck in my consciousness sufficiently for me to remember it within a second of hearing it.  It turned out to be the very best concert I have yet attended in Singapore and the finest chamber performance I've heard in Asia.

For a start my preconceptions about the music turned out to be wholly wrong.  The Beach was opulent and lavishly Romantic, clearly wallowing in the sound world of César Franck, but with such powerful hints of Rachmaninov in the virtuoso piano writing that I began to wonder whether, perhaps, Rachmaninov had heard it before he set about writing his own music; certainly Beach could not have heard much Rachmaninov when she wrote her Piano Quintet.  A lovely work, and one which I will travel far to hear again.  I've already sent in the order for the only available recording of it – from Chandos (again) – but I suspect that the performance will come as a disappointment after what I heard on Sunday night.  But more of that later.

Bloch Piano Quintet No,1 - played by
LIlya Zilberstein, Alissa Margulis, Lucia Hall,
Nora Romanoff-Schwarzberg & Mark Drobinsky on EMI 607367-2

As for the Bloch First Piano Quintet, I knew it from having heard it during my student days at Cardiff played by the University Ensemble with the inimitable Martin Jones thundering through the piano part and the all-too-easily imitable Alfredo Wang peering over his first violin with his glass eye, countered by "Backward Jim" Broadbent, who was so chronically left-handed he had to have his violin reversed.  I hadn't much cared for it then, and my one recording of it, on the EMI box set of recordings made live at the Lugarno Festival in 2009, had certainly not endeared me to it.  Given the powerful, compelling and breathtakingly intense performance I heard in Singapore, I have to admit it now ranks as a huge favourite of mine.

What made this such a fantastic concert was, of course, the performances.  Lim Yan, playing on just about the most sumptuous-sounding piano I've yet heard in Singapore, immediately caught our attention with powerful, persuasive and brilliantly fluent handling of Beach's virtuoso writing for the instrument – I notice with some amusement that she took it on herself to play the piano at the work's 1907 première, obviously using it as a vehicle to demonstrate her own pianistic talents.  Very much cast into the supporting role, the quartet of Foo Say Ming, Lim Shue Churn, Chan Yoong-Han and Chan Wei Shing, nevertheless played with incredible delicacy and finesse.  And when it came to the Bloch, with its driving motor-rhythms, quarter tones, unusual pizzicato and bowing effects, they revealed a virtuosity every bit as magnificent as Lim's.  More than that, these were astute and highly sensitive chamber musicians, clearly utterly at ease with each other, and the intimacy and intuitive reactions they showed revealed that this is an ensemble of exceptional quality.  This is what chamber music is all about – it's just a shame we don't experience that often.

I would hope that I experience such marvels of music-making again in my lifetime; but not too often, such extreme experiences are best when they come only occasionally and totally out of the blue.

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting read, Marc. I wonder, when one encounters a particularly 'great concert', how much is due to the performance itself and how much to our individual level of receptiveness at the time. I'm sure most of us will have attended a concert when we've been so utterly engrossed that time ceased to exist whereas others quite obviously failed to connect at such a deep level.

    Did you perhaps notice the make of the piano Lim Yan was playing? Presumably a Steinway?

    All the best,