Reviewed: Maxim Vengerov and Itamar Golan; Nicholas Daniel and friends

Chamber of wonders.

Maxim Vengerov and Itamar Golan; Nicholas Daniel and friends
Barbican Hall; Wigmore Hall

London has five symphony orchestras, two opera houses and is a hub for visiting soloists from across the world. With so much bigbudget clamour it’s easy to overlook the still, small voice of chamber music. We’re lucky enough to have the Wigmore Hall – one of the finest intimate venues in Europe – with its daily roster of recitals, and the newer venue King’s Place is also carving out its own niche for the genre. This week’s concerts saw chamber music at its two extremes: a glitzy, headlining visit to the Barbican from the violinist Maxim Vengerov, and an evening of ensemble music-making from the oboist Nicholas Daniel and friends at the Wigmore.

Vengerov is appearing five times at the Barbican over the next 12 months as a part of a mini-residency, giving audiences the chance to get reacquainted with the virtuoso after his recent prolonged absence from the stage. Issues both physical and emotional have put his career on hold, and the Vengerov that has returned – focused as much on chamber repertoire as the big concertos – seems a noticeably different creature. The quality of the playing, however, is also a rather mixed bag.

In a performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata in London last year, he marshalled all the old colour and crispness. Yet in this concert his Sonata No 10 (with the pianist Itamar Golan, once again) was less persuasive. Vengerov beckoned us in with the most delicate of trilled flutters, a barely-start in keeping with the sonata’s flighty moods, but then seemed to lose his nerve. Intonation was wayward throughout and the passage-work of the Scherzo and the Presto often approximate. There was glorious weight from Golan in the Adagio, coaxing Vengerov to match him, endless melodic arabesque for arabesque, but by the end we were left with a performance painted on rather than carved-out.

Schubert’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major was more successful, with glossy, spacious passages of control releasing into flourishes that dared us to doubt him, but still lurking under the swagger was a faltering cross-current, only exposed in the intonation. At his best, there’s no doubting Vengerov as a technician but his taste can be a little more questionable. There will be those who will have relished his full-blooded take on César Franck’s Sonata in A, but I was left wondering what this brutish glamour had to do with the fey, corner-of-the-eye beauty that French 20th-century chamber music is all about, wondering what had happened to the aural simplicity of the astonishing canon that is the Allegretto.

But then Vengerov played Saint-Saëns and the superstar was back. The Havanaise and Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso are clearly old friends for the violinist, and their bold Spanish colours were poised at the junction of art-music and vulgarity, as they should be. But are these choreographed encores enough to hail a triumphant return? Not yet.

Over at the Wigmore, things were rather more low-key but with no scrimping on virtuosity. If you were assembling the chambermusic equivalent of a fantasy football team, chances are that the oboist Nicholas Daniel, the pianist Julius Drake and the violinist Jacqueline Shave would all be high on the list. Add the wonderful Caroline Dearnley on cello and Clare Finnimore on viola and you have a supergroup of serious heft. All principals or alumni of the Britten Oboe Quartet and the Britten Sinfonia (with the exception of Drake), the musicians’ long-performing relationship is the basis for a communicative energy that gives us a way in to even the inscrutable music of the contemporary British composer Helen Grime.

A first half of duo music for Drake and Daniel gave us Grime’s Three Miniatures for Oboe and Piano – enigmatic little fragments that took all of Daniel’s tonal control to characterise. Unearthly, high keening gives way to angry scuttlings, with Drake offering some small point of anchor to these outbursts. Grime’s Oboe Quartet gives more foothold to the listener. An exercise in textures, Daniel’s liquid-voiced oboe curved in relief against the strings, before dissolving into a haze of glissandi.

Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet was the centrepiece of a concert that roamed across three centuries of ensemble music. An early work, there’s more than a hint of the wistful pastoral that the mature composer would excise later on – relished by the performers here. Shave is a restless and physical presence in any group, and brought delicate shades to this perfectly poised performance; while Daniel’s oboe had just enough of the rough menace of Pan to keep us uneasy.

The amiable Mozart Oboe Quartet ended the evening with a change of gear. Shave’s expressive flexibility felt constrained by the confines of this music but Daniel – ever the chameleon – was at his virtuosic ease. In an evening of ensemble music, his was the unignorable, bravura talent that never quite assimilated, in the best possible way.

Violinist Maxim Vengerov during a session for BBC Radio 3.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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Frank Ocean’s stairways to heaven: how his new works explore faith and mental health

It’s hard to have faith in a world that is relentlessly traumatic.

In the Apple Music video stream for Endless, released to the world on Friday, Frank Ocean is building a stairway, step by step. As the album plays out through an enormous boombox, we watch the slow unfolding of a spiral staircase in real time. When it’s completed, it leads up out of shot, giving the impression that it could go on forever, that it, too, is endless. “When you see the video,” artist and collaborator Tom Sachs explains, “you see him building a stairway to heaven.”

It is slow, humble work – Sachs adds that the full art film of Ocean completing the staircase lasts over 140 hours – and it feels spiritual in its physicality: woodwork as a craft has been blessed with the whiff of holiness since the Bible told us Jesus was born into a carpenter’s family. Anupa Mistry writes in the FADER, “Ocean’s had a spiritually significant impact on our lives”, adding, “There are a lot of lessons that faith tries to impart – patience, justice, etc – and I think that, amidst the infinite scroll of our contemporary lives, Frank’s made a new virtue out of quiet.”

“I believe there’s heaven,” Ocean sang on his nostalgia, ULTRA mixtape back in 2011 – and it sounded like he was trying to convince himself of its existence as much his audience. “You must believe in something, something, something.” Five years later, many of the songs on Endless and Blonde, the two albums Frank Ocean released this weekend, are reaching towards a distant, ethereal state, even when hope seems futile. “I’m just a guy I’m not a god,” Ocean sings on Blonde’s final track. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a god but I’m not a god / If I was I don’t know which heaven would have me.”

Blonde’s “Solo” sees Ocean describe the trajectory of a drug-fuelled night out in detail set against a sparse, organ backdrop – from triumphant Jagger-esque dancing, through a moment of warmth with someone outside, to an inevitable comedown, where Ocean is left alone and depressed, “solo” and “so low”. As the high fades, the horror of the world encroaches: the police arrive to shut down the party, and we hear the occasional screech of a siren over the organ keys. The line “Stay away from highways / My eyes feel like them red lights,” feels like a warning. The spectre of police brutality hovers just out of view in this song, only fully entering on the later track “Solo (Reprise)”, when Andre 3000 admits he is “So low that I can admit / When I hear that another kid is shot by the po-po it ain’t an event / No more”.

It’s hard to have faith in a world that is relentlessly traumatic. The chorus of “Solo” explores how the everyday ordeal of living in a violent, racist society can lead to a retreat into the mind, be it via drug use, dreams or isolation.

It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire
Inhale, in hell there’s heaven
There’s a bull and a matador duelling in the sky
Inhale, in hell there’s heaven

Here, conflict permeates even the heavens themselves: the constellations (Taurus and Orion) are locked in an eternal battle. The only sanctuary is in the mind. We see the mind as a microcosm reflected in the use of words inside words (“inhale” contains “in hell”). Ocean offers his own variation on Milton’s line “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”, one that also touches on the devastating cycles of racial trauma, its impact on mental health, and self-medication that, when coupled with a racist prison system, see so many young black men with mental health issues imprisoned for minor drugs offences.

On Blonde, dreams and highs become a kind of heaven on earth. “Ivy” begins with the line, “I thought that I was dreaming,” and ends with the refrain, “I could dream all night”. “Pink + White” ultimately looks not towards a blushing, cloud-patterned sky, but the pink of flesh and the white of cocaine, as “glory from above”. “Nights” quips, “Rolling marijuana – that’s a cheap vacation”. Sex, drugs, and driving offer a tempting escape. But every escape is transient, and involves an eventual crashing back down to earth. “How come the ecstasy always depresses me so?” comes the refrain on Endless’s “Mine”. In the video for “Nikes”, we hear a deep, computer-manipulated voice insist over images of hedonism, “This is heaven on earth.” Later, we see a visual reference to the Heaven’s Gate cult, which saw 39 people commit suicide while wearing Nike Decades, shrouded in purple sheets. It’s not an overly optimistic moment.

But Blonde ultimately feels like a hopeful record. At a show in London in July 2013, Ocean projected pink and white clouds the length of the stage behind him, bearing the Jenny Holzer lyric, “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.” (Holzer references are peppered throughout this recent wave of Ocean’s work: he wears a top emblazoned with her “Truisms” in the “Nikes” video, which also appears in his zine, Boys Don’t Cry.)

Survival is a miracle in itself on this record. A verse on “Pink + White” contains the lyrics

If you could die and come back to life
Up for air from the swimming pool
You kneel down to the dry land
Kiss the Earth that birthed you
Gave you tools just to stay alive
And make it out when the sun is ruined

If the tools required just to stay alive are miraculous, life itself becomes more important than questions of afterlife. If you can find the freedom and joy in simply keeping going, then perhaps we can worry less about the unending staircases unravelling before us. “This is joy, this is summer,” Ocean sings on “Skyline To”. “Keep alive, stay alive.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.