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.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis