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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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